Betrayal always offers the choice: Bitter or Better?
This story is all about choices. It is about overcoming versus succumbing. There are triggers: Abuse- Physical and Sexual, Violence, Gossip, Prejudice, Grief, Child-loss, and Infidelity.
A six-month pregnant Milli Haywood stood holding her sister’s baby, Emily. As the priest talked about grief and healing, about being better, not bitter. She tried to take his words to heart but she had been so betrayed. Father Guerre spoke about death, not as being an end but as a beginning of something better; Milli prayed it was true. Several people stood and told about how Marni had changed their lives, helped them, or just been their friend. Ramses’ wife Ginger held Emily while Milli spoke of her sister as her hero and best friend, flaws and all. It was the poignant truth but also a bitter lie, because Milli wasn’t sure how she felt about Marni now.
There was prayer and communion, then she placed Marni’s ashes in with their parents’ ashes in the crypts of Our Lady of the Angels Church. Milli kissed her fingertips and brushed them over Marni’s name, new and brightly etched, and did the same with her parents’ older slightly tarnished names. It was so hard to breathe, so hard to say goodbye as she whispered.
“I love you all and I miss you so much. I’ll never let Emily forget you, Marni. She will always know what a good sister you were and how much you loved us. I... I forgive you.”
Milli’s best friends, Jackson and Mitch, drove her and Emily home. Many of their friends were there after the wake. All that hadn’t known before, had been horrified to hear what had happened with the Rowling. The singular fact that they had sent Edgar’s mother’s personal assistant to give the Haywood sisters their divorce papers rather than face the sisters themselves, had Milli and Marni’s friends declaring them the worst kind of cowards in the most colorful of ways. A few even chose to believe the trauma of being abandoned in such a callous manner had caused Marni’s death from a heart attack, a complication from preeclampsia and a forgotten heart valve defect.
Everyone vowed to never speak of Marni’s pregnancy especially after Milli told them about the phone call and showed them the pictures of Edgar with his new girlfriend and Heath with his new fiancé. Social media proof they had moved on before their divorces from the Haywood sisters had even been finalized. Their friends were most outraged at Milli being called a gold digger and that Edgar had claimed she was a prostitute to Heath’s fiancée and their family. After the last person left, Milli went to dinner with Jackson, Mitch, and Jackson’s father before going back to Ramses’ house.
Early the next day, Ramses and Ginger hugged her goodbye after she buckled in Emily’s car seat and tucked Marni’s cat Punkin into her carrier. Her friends had helped her clean out the house and Mitch had rent a van for her. It was time to leave. It was time to start over. In the passenger seat, was a plain brown envelope containing copies of her and Marni’s divorce paperwork, Marni’s death certificate, and most important; Emily’s birth and adoption papers.
As Milli drove toward the rising sun, she thought about the adoption hearing that had made Emily hers forever and would hide her birth from prying eyes. The Nevada foster care system was so overloaded that the judge barely glanced at the petition after reading the letters from Milli, her former boss, the Haywood family lawyer, and hearing from the social worker who explained about Marni’s death and that Milli was the child’s only living relative in the state. The judge had signed the documents, told Milli welcome to parenthood and called the next docket.
Milli remembered her adoption had taken quite a bit longer, but Dr Emily Haywood was not to be dissuaded and what Emily wanted, Dr Charles Haywood gave her. Eight-year-old Marnianna had screamed happily when the judge finally granted the adoption, disrupting the court. She and Milli had cried joyfully and hugged until Charles had promised them ice cream to stop. He never could bear his daughters’ tears. Milli had grown up loved and cherished from that day on. It had been a good life until a carjacker killed their parents on Valentine’s night two years ago.
A flash caught her attention, the ring that was a replica of Edgar’s grandmother’s, glittered in the morning light. She slipped off her wedding ring and tossed it in the envelope too. Her marriage had not even made it to her first anniversary. It made her feel defeated and empty. The circumstances made her feel unwanted and unlovable, but most of all it made her feel bitter.
In the cold crisp air of the Colorado Rockies, Milli parked her rental van in front of the quaint Wild Anemone Bed and Breakfast. The Victorian-era hotel had been converted to a home for a few short years then back to accommodations for visitors to the local hot springs. Snow-covered flowerbeds filled the front yard. The place glowed warm and inviting in the early evening light. Aunt Elizabeth was standing on the porch with a pair of women. Two teen girls and two men, one older and one younger, were unloading the boxes from her moving pod into one of the cottages. Milli got out and carefully lifted Emily out of her carseat. The younger of the two women lifted the cat carrier out of the back. Inside, Aunt Elizabeth and her friend cooed over Emily, immediately taking her from Milli.
The younger lady smiled warmly, “Since the grammas are busy, I’ll introduce myself. I’m Camille Wallace. That’s my Gramma Dorine. My cousin Beau and Grandpa Ben are unloading with my girls, Willow and Gracie.”
“Milli Row... uh Haywood.”
Camille smiled sympathetically, “Sorry for your divorce and loss. My sister died giving me Willow. I know things are painful, but you’re not alone and if you ever need someone to talk to...”
Milli felt her chin tremble and tears start to burn for the hundredth time since she left Vegas. “Thank you, Camille.”
“So... let me show you what we got set up for you. Gramma Dorine and Ms. Elizabeth have had all of us working night and day to get this ready. Our school gets the whole week of Thanksgiving off and the girls may have gone a little crazy in the nursery.”
Milli glance over to where Elizabeth sat in a rocker holding Emily. Dorine smiled at them, “Go. This little angel will be just fine.”
Milli saw the girls and two men had begun taking things out of the van. They hurried through the snow to the small cottage that usually served as a seasonal rental. It was decorated in muted tones of butter and cream, Milli’s deep red floral furniture looked better than it ever had at her drab white rental. Punkin mewled and complained about being left in the carrier. Camille’s daughters begged with identical sapphire blue eyes to hold the neglected feline. Camille showed her around the small house while Punkin was lavished with attention. The bedroom was spartan, Milli needed to buy a new bed.
A really big guy who resembled Camille looked up from setting down a box labeled ‘clothes’. “Ma’am.”
“Beau, this is Milli Haywood, Ms.. Elizabeth’s niece. Can you bring in the bed and we’ll set up the bedroom?” Camille asked.
Milli turned about three shades of red, before she stammered, “I don’t have one. I need to go buy one.” They looked at her quietly as she blurted out, “My ex cheated on me in our bed. I couldn’t bear to keep it.”
Camille nodded solemnly, offering, “I’m afraid nothing will be open tomorrow but if you are brave enough to face Black Friday, I can take you to the city day after tomorrow.”
Milli smiled wanly. “Marni loved Black Friday, she didn’t sleep from midnight to midnight. She would drag me all over the place. She always had lists and... and...” Then her breath caught in her throat at the thought of never facing the crowds with her crazy shopaholic sister again.
Camille handed Milli a tissue before she realized she had tears running down her face. “My sister Willamina liked them too.”
“You women are insane.” Beau’s voice rumbled deep in his chest. “Ain’t no shoes worth all that craziness, now maybe a 72 inch flat screen, but that’s only if the Broncos are headed back to the Super Bowl...”
Milli and Camille burst out laughing at his statement.
“Where you at, Wally?” A tenor called from the living room.
“Back here, Tank.” Camille called out.
“Wally?” Milli was confused.
“Everyone calls me Coach Wally. I teach swim and dive classes and coach the school teams. That’s Tank Tanner, he’s our sheriff.”
Milli followed Camille into the living room and was introduced to a man that was anything but what she expected for a small town sheriff. He was, in two words, devastatingly handsome. Marni would have called dibs on him in a heartbeat. Milli had to remind her jaw to stay closed, but with the way he looked at Camille, she knew she would never have a chance. It was the way men had always looked at Marni. After a polite introduction, Milli busied herself in the kitchen putting things away. Beau leaned on the counter after setting down a box.
“That’s the last of it, darlin’.”
Milli just nodded.
“Sorry about your divorce, Ms. Elizabeth told Gramma the low down dirty coyote didn’t even have the balls to tell you in person, just sent his mom’s secretary. He was cheating on you too, that’s a shame. So you’re a baker?”
Small towns meant gossip or at least that’s what Milli had always been told. “Yes they did, yes he was, and yes I am,” she answered tightly. Her temper rising.
He held up his hands in a surrender motion, “Sorry to poke the bear.”
Milli sighed, she needed to remember she couldn’t be her normal snarky self here. “No, it’s fine. I just had a rough couple of weeks.”
He chuckled, “Rough? You got served with divorce papers the day your sister died and left you with a newborn. You had it even worse than Cam. If you need anything, or if that dog shows up here, you call the ranch. There’s a lot of places out there where a person can get eaten by the bears and I have no tolerance for men who treat pregnant women, or any women for that matter, so poorly.”
“My grandson has my agreement on that.” Grandpa Ben held out his hand to her. “Ben Wallace. I hear you make a mean red velvet? Dorine invited you and your aunt out to the ranch tomorrow for Thanksgiving dinner, I can’t wait to try it.” His hazel eyes swirled with the certainty that not only would they come, but that she would bake for him.
Milli nodded mutely, then watched the Wallaces leave her kitchen. Gracie or Willow popped their head in. “We’re going, Ms. Milli, see you tomorrow.”
“Welcome to Pagosa Cliffs,” Camille called out, followed by a chorus of welcomes, then in moments, Milli was alone in the little cottage. Looking at the clock, it felt later than it was, even with the time difference.
Milli picked up an unlabeled box and carried her unmentionables into her bedroom. If she ever got back to Vegas, she was going to kill Jackson and Mitch for sticking this box in. She flicked on the light across the hall. Aunt Elizabeth and Camille’s girls had set up a nursery for Emily. Flowers and butterflies were hand painted all around the room spreading out from a mountain surrounded meadow. It looked like a professional muralist had done it.
“Gracie does good work.”
Milli jumped at Elizabeth’s voice. “Sorry, it’s just so quiet here.”
“You need some place quiet, Milli. I am glad you came here.” Elizabeth laid a sleeping Emily in the crib and put her arm around her grand-niece. “It’s been a hard time for you, and so much has happened in the last twenty-one months. But Emily Anne always said you were strong. While you were in the kitchen, I had Sheriff Tank and Ben put a mattress in your room. Gracie and Willow dressed the mattress. I heard that you and Coach Wally are going to brave the Black Friday sales?”
Milli nodded, feeling too tired to talk, as Elizabeth led her back across the hall and tucked her in. She thought it must be the altitude making her so sleepy. Elizabeth sat beside her, running her old fingers through Milli’s tangle of curls until she fell asleep. The old woman talking randomly about all the people in Pagosa Cliffs Milli had yet to meet.