The Hidden Springs resort was amazing, there were several dark blue tents connected together. They were very sheer like curtain lining, and with tables inside them it was almost like eating outside with only a thin veil between one and the mountain view. Fleetingly, she wondered if she would be able to see the starts through them or if Mack would be able to watch the wedding from heaven through them. Her heart clenched painfully, and she excused herself from Gilliam and Jackson, who had arrived with Mitch and Emily. Her heart cried out for him and before she realized where she was walking, Milli was standing next to the largest pool, staring at the waterfall Mack had designed. Mack had pulled her from the water in the very same spot. For a long moment, she considered throwing herself into the water. But she wasn’t alone in her body, and she couldn’t deprive Mitch of his child. Slowly, she turned and walked away from the place of her horrors.
“This is where he pulled you out,” Heith said quietly behind her.
Milli swallowed, “Yeah, how’s Chloe?”
“She said she was going to take a nap when she saw you and Gill putting out the butterflies.” Heith looked back toward the tents. “Don’t worry, the doctors changed her medication again and she is much better since the last time you saw her. Almost normal.”
“Normal?” Milli questioned as she followed a path away from the main pools. “Her normal was…”
Heith chuckled, “Maybe normal was the wrong word. She is less like she was and more like a normal person. She has actually quit drinking too.”
Walking around, Milli noticed every tree around the grounds was draped in lights. People were candle and flower floaters in the other pools which she gave a wide berth. The exterior solar lights were alternating blue and white. There were blue glass pebbles mixed with the river pebble of the paths. The whole place was as put together as any five-star hotel she had ever caked for.
“This place is amazing,” Milli said after they had been quiet for several minutes.
“Kyle’s brother Kent did good design work. This one was the first one in his book and the last Kyle built. Mack had a talent for making it look real, Kyle has the business and marketing brilliance to make it happen. Haven’t you seen it all before?” Heith asked.
“Not really, I was here it when it was muddy holes and snow-covered sludge, when I delivered pastries for the crews. After they put the pools in, I really didn’t walk around that much. The day Chloe pushed me in the pool was only the third time, I had managed to get that close. I… I wanted to s-see M-mack’s wa-water f-fall.” She couldn’t stop the stuttering that came before her sob.
Heith wrapped her in his arms and held her. She listened to his heart as they both took stilted breaths, fighting the whelming need to succumb to grief. “Milli, I am so sorry I was the one to tell you.”
“I’m glad you did, I’m sorry I got so depressed afterward,” Milli sighed.
“I don’t blame you, I got black out drunk that first night, Rand went to Vegas for three days, and Kyle almost cancelled the wedding. But we all knew, Mack wouldn’t want us to quit living. Since his son died, he never let a moment pass without appreciating it. He wouldn’t want you to suffer…”
“Milli, Jackson is looking for you,” Lloyd’s voice was tight as he interrupted. Seeing Milli in another man’s arms always felt like a punch in the gut, especially since he had returned from the South Pacific.
Milli stepped back, introducing the two ranchers as Grandpa Ben Wallace had taught her. “Heith, this is Lloyd McConnell of the Rocking M Ranch. Lloyd, this is Mack’s friend, Heith Rowling of the Bar R Ranch in Texas.”
“We’ve met,” Heith responded in a neutral tone as they shook hands. His gaze flicked to Lloyd’s uniform.
Milli glanced between them confused at their animosity. “Oh, okay… uh… I’m going to get back to the cake. Bye, Heith. See ya, Lloyd, don’t forget you owe me a dance.”
Lloyd smiled as Heith glowered. “Of course, darlin’, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
They watched Milli walking away then Heith turned to Lloyd, “So Deputy McConnell, is she the reason you told me to stay away from the Wild Anemone Bakery?”
Lloyd’s eyes darkened from espresso to obsidian, “Didn’t you say you were never returning to Pagosa Cliffs?”
“I have reasons to visit old friends now,” Heith answered then he turned and walked away leaving Lloyd to glare after him.
Guest were arriving in a steady flow. So many citizens from Pagosa cliffs and Pagosa county. There were many people from out of town, Milli didn’t know but a few she did. All of the locals stopped to chat with her and Jackson in their matching Wild Anemone white jackets, it was the only event Milli hadn’t worn her deep red since starting the bakery. She had ordered the white just for today, so nothing would ruin the aesthetic that Camille’s late sister had so carefully crafted. The cake and matching cupcakes were admired. Despite the no cellphones rule, many were taking pictures of the cake and reception tent, or of the pools, or the new lodge, with the promise not to share until after the wedding.
Everyone began gathering in the tent as a video feed played on several screens. Milli choked on her laughter at Willow and Gracie taunting Kyle and Camille during his proposal, then Camille’s revelation that she was pregnant had everyone cheering. The service was short and sweet, the speeches were ranged from comedic to heartfelt.
Dinner was served with the swift efficiency of a practiced event staff that Kyle had brought in from several of his other resorts. Camille, in her floaty pale blue and butterfly dress, had hugged Milli, then Jackson, then Milli again. She and Kyle cut the cake taking their pieces back to their table while Milli and Jackson served all but the top tier, and all the cupcakes. Milli gave the top of the cake to Gracie and Willow with the promise not to eat it with their parents. It came with a voucher for a free cake exactly like in on their first anniversary.
As Milli wiped her tools and packed them, she looked out at all the happy couples dancing. Lloyd was dancing with Tiana. He glanced at her and smiled, Milli smiled back. She had never seen him so relaxed.
“Miss Milli, may I have a dance?” Sheriff Tanner asked. He looked dashing in a deep blue suit that made his eyes a deeper blue.
One glance over the cleared table, she nodded. “I’d be delighted, if you don’t mind dancing with the help.”
“I would be honored.” He chuckled.
They two-stepped around the dance floor.
“Tank, I’m sorry about Katie. It’s just…”
“Her dreams were bigger than Pagosa County and my dreams are here.”
“Yeah… She doesn’t understand why I don’t go back to Vegas now that Auntie is gone.” Milli admitted.
Tank shrugged, “I wish her all the best with the F.B.I.”
Easily stepping and turning clockwise and counterclockwise, they fell silent until almost the end.
“Lloyd was right, you are an easy partner,” Tank complimented then admitted, “Miss Milli, I got you out here under false circumstances.”
Milli’s brows furrowed. “What’s going on?”
“I need your help… Lloyd wants to come back, and I don’t think he should. I need him, he has skills and experience that none of my applicants have and ties to this community that makes him invaluable. But he’s a cop because of his great Uncle Ray and the legacy of the McConnell sheriffs. Did you know that six McConnells have been sheriff since Pagosa County was drawn?”
“Why are you telling me this?” Milli cocked her head as she finished her rotation.
“Because I need your help to talk him out of it. Lloyd has wanted to be number seven since he was a boy, but honestly, it isn’t what makes him happy,” Tank explained. “There are only two things that make him truly happy, and one of them is ranching.”
“I don’t see how I could help you,” Milli started.
“You can help because you’re number two. I know you just lost Mack and Lloyd is moving past having Tonia out of his world. But you are still friends, and in a year or two, things may change for the better for both of you.” Tank declared, Milli froze as the music faded. A salsa started, and Tank called over her shoulder. “McConnell, this is your kinda music, not mine. I’ll trade you partners.”
Tiana gigglingly took the tall sheriff’s proffered hand, whispering loudly, “We should get of the dance floor before they make us look like the left-footers we are.”
“I just might know where to get you and Tadpole some ice cream.” Tank offered chivalrously.
“Deal,” Tiana answered as Tank led her away.
Lloyd and Milli stood staring at each other for a few beats. Suddenly after what Tank had said, she wasn’t sure dancing with Lloyd was such a good idea. He held out his hand and she took it reluctantly. They began going through the steps. Neither speaking. The music lulled, and a tango began. As they danced, it felt natural. They didn’t notice the dance floor clearing around them or the glare of Heith Rowling sitting with his cousin Chloe. She watched the pair dancing and smirked at her cousin’s reaction.
Turning away, Chloe looked over to where Mitch was holding a sleeping Emily in a flower girl dress on his shoulder. She needed to make sure Heith brought her back here, so she could get Edgar’s daughter away from his exwife. Watching Chef Milli dancing with the tall deputy, they had perfect form as though they had danced together for hours and hours. They glided over the polished wood, reflecting their embrace. The long line of Lloyd’s body complimented Milli’s petite form and spinning movements. Chloe wondered what the dark and handsome Deputy McConnell was saying to Milli, her wide eyes showed surprise, but she never missed a step.
“They look well together, they must go dancing every week,” Chloe said smoothly. “but I can’t believe that deputy is putting the moves on her only two weeks after she lost Mack. Do the men in this town have no respect for the dead?”
“Apparently not,” Heith downed his whiskey, his watch beeped. He glanced at it and then her.
“I know, I know… time for my medicine. I’m getting better, cousin. You did a wonderful job taking care of me. But I think you deserve some happiness now.” The music ended and Milli walked away from Lloyd, looking flushed and distressed. Chloe added, “Maybe you should check on her, I can imagine that she is in a fragile state after Mack’s death.”
Milli picked up a tote and walked out of the tent, shaking his head, Lloyd went the opposite direction.
“Chloe… Are you sure?”
She patted his hand. “Eddie’s dead, and I don’t think he loved her the way you do. What he put you through was wrong, He never should have charmed her and married her, if you had feelings for her. Go on.”
Heith kissed her cheek, “Thanks for understanding.”
“Goodnight, Heith.” She rose
“Goodnight, Chloe.” He headed in the direction Milli had gone.
The salsa left Milli breathless but then Lloyd lead her into the first slow movements of an Argentinian tango. They stepped and rotated, turned away, turned back and counter-rotated with practiced ease.
“I’ve missed this,” Lloyd murmured softly over the music.
“I only seem to tango with you,” Milli admitted, something in his chocolate ganache and caramel eyes changed and Milli looked away. “So, are you glad to be back on duty?”
“I start tonight, but Tank wants me to go part time for the rest of the summer to help Tim and Tiana get settled.” He didn’t sound happy about it. “We don’t have enough part-timers and with Vick going to college four days a week, he has been relying on the state patrol too much.”
“Are you saying that as a concerned citizen or as the future sheriff of Pagosa county?” She asked.
He held her against him for several extra beats. “I am saying it as a man who has spent the last two months reconsidering my life choices.” He let her turn away and back, spin and they began long striding steps again. “I was a fool, Milli. A fool to think I could let you go, a fool to have ever walked away in the first place. I can’t be your friend, I want too much more. I know you just lost Mack, that I sent you to him, that I hoped he would love you like I always wanted to but never felt I could.”
She spun and dipped in his arms, from her wide, wet eyes and quivering lips, he knew his words were hurting her.
“I was tainted, it wasn’t until I stood on a beach of sand as white and fine as any snow, that I realized it wasn’t Tonya that tainted me. My bitterness poisoned me, and I, in turn, poisoned you. I’m sorry I ever hurt you but I can’t let you go. I need you.”
“I w-won’t m-marry a cop ever,” Milli stammered as they walked the circle around each other.
Lloyd smiled as if expecting her response. “I will give you one year, Milli. Mourn Mack. Surrogate for Mitch and Jackson, but then I am coming for you. I am going to court you the way I should have from the start.”
“What about Tonia?” Milli whispered in a small voice barely heard over the last bars of the Tango.
“I realized I never loved her, I loved the illusion of her in my childhood dreams. But you… You, I love for your reality, from your generous heart to your most broken pieces. No, don’t look away. I want you to know my truth. For the next year, I will work and train my replacement then I am taking over the Rocking M. I promise I will be extra careful, I will always wear my vest, and that I won’t die on you, Milli. We are going to have a long happy life.”
They stood very still as the music faded into some pop song... Set Fire To The Rain by Adele played and suddenly all the heartache from Edgar and Mack rushed back. She wouldn't survive it again.
Shaking her head in tiny movements, she whispered, “No, Lloyd. I can’t… I can’t.”
She turned and walked away from him, stopping only long enough to grab the last of her tools before rushing out to her delivery van. In the solar lot lights, it looked more maroon than scarlet but the art nouveau portrait of Aunt Elizabeth reminded her of a dream she was sure wasn’t a dream. The ability to love doesn’t die with the one we love; Aunt Elizabeth had told her but Milli wished it did. And she wondered what it would feel like if she ever stopped missing Mack, she couldn’t imagine it. In her review mirror, she saw Heith looking after her as she drove away.
Lloyd pulled out, following Milli slowly down the long drive. She turned left toward town, he turned right to start his patrol route. He would drive past the Anemone later as he usually did. Someday, he’d call the centuries-old building home because he would never ask her to leave it.
As Lloyd looked up at the dark velvet of the night sky, the smile of the moon hung over head. Parked on the overlook that allowed him to see down the highway, he admired the moonlit view and the twinkling of the scattered vehicles. He had made up his mind and said prayer that it wasn’t too little too late, Tank was right. Lloyd wasn’t Ray and he shouldn’t live his life to end up like the old bachelor sheriff of Pagosa county, forever alone, pinning for his lost love.
Window down to welcome the cool air, he said aloud, “I’m sorry, Uncle Ray. There’s something I want more.” Then he wished on a falling star.
Coming soon, Anemones in the Wind.