“Sometimes only Hope can get you through the storms.”
12:07AM, July 4th
Milli sagged after she parked the Wild Anemone Bakery delivery van. She was more tired than she had been in years. Since the weeks after first Charlie then Edgar had died. It wasn’t her body only that longed to collapse into nothingness, but her soul as well. She was just ready to give up but too many needed her to go on. The tiny life she was carrying for Mitch and Jackson needed her to stay strong. The vivacious life entrusted her by her late sister Marni needed her… Emily deserved a mother who loved her as her namesake had loved Milli, so Milli had decided she would go on without Mack. A snore drew her attention before her mind could wander again down the painful path of all her memories of Mack and her horrified nightmares about his death on the Pacific.
“Jackson… Jackson!” She repeated louder. “Jackson, we’re home.”
Jackson groaned and straightened in the passenger seat, “Home?” He blinked in the malaise of exhaustion.
“Just go to bed, we’ll unload and clean in the morning.” Milli mumbled. They were both running on eight hours of sleep in the last sixty plus hours.
The Blue Water Hidden Springs Resort had the two of them doing two major events in three days. The first was the Wallace-Hightower wedding. All secretly arranged by the billionaire resort developer for his unexpecting retired Olympian girlfriend. The whole soiree was based on a wedding plan put together by the bride’s late sister, fifteen years earlier. Milli couldn’t be happier for Camille and Kyle. Their tragic love story had a second chance punctuated by a fairytale wedding fifteen years late. The whole community shared their joy, especially when Camille announced that she was expecting.
The second event had been the resort’s grand opening. There were hundreds of staff and guests for the booked-up adventure resort. Milli’s mind wandered back to the immense tiered cakes covered with blue mirror glaze and the blue isomalt waterfalls and fountains that looked like Mack’s water features had been frozen in a moment in time. Milli wished Mack could have seen the cake that she still wasn’t sure how she had pulled off given the time constraints. The blue raspberry and white lemon marbled velvet cake carried the water theme into the moist layers. The flavor was exceptional according to Kyle’s resort event coordinator. There had been barely enough cupcakes left for Kyle and Camille’s cake-a-holic daughter and niece to take a few of the sweets home to the Ridgeline Ranch.
Milli realized she would need to make a delivery to the High School tomorrow, her mind reminded her that tomorrow was today. For the Fourth of July, the town festival committee was expecting a thousand cupcakes. Milli said a small prayer of thanks that they were already baked, their impulse hire of Laurette Miller as a favor to Jackson’s dad last week had been a godsend. Laurette could bake anything, in bulk, but the cupcakes still needed to be frosted.
“What?” she grumbled, the clock on the dash said 12:11 am and she realized she hadn’t moved since telling Jackson to wake up.
“I asked if you wanted to cuddle with Mitch and I tonight?” Jackson looked older than his 25 years in the light of the console. A few months and they would be the same age again, but she felt so much older than her age.
“No, I’m fine,” she yawned out the words.
“Freaked out, inconsolable, newly grieving, and exhausted?” Jackson yawned too.
“You sound like Willow and Gracie!” Milli complained but she reached over and squeezed Jackson’s arm to take the sting out of her tone. “I’ll be alright, Beanstalk, I still have you and Mitch and Emily.”
“And poppet,” Jackson reminded, calling the three-week-old fetus by the name Emily insisted on calling it. An endearment Emily learned from Great Aunt Elizabeth.
“And poppet,” Mille repeated softly as she turned off the engine. Softly she whispered, “Go to bed, Jacks. I love you.”
“We love you too, Milli.”
They both got out, but Milli paused to look up at the Anemone while Jackson trudge over to the cottage where he lived with Mitch and Emily.
Milli could feel the ghosts of the centuries old building watching her as she walked around to the front of the building and sat on the edge of one of the raised flowerbeds filled with her Great Aunt’s anemones. The bright flowers’ petals were closed for the night. The light from the westward wandering moon seemed to make the Wild Anemone glow magically.
Elizabeth’s words came back to her.
“I love you as if you were my daughter and I have given you the Anemone with its mythos. To shed tears and grieve over the loss of loved ones while you fold your fragile petals around your soul when the rain comes. To come out of the storm, open your heart to the sun and hope again. To love as freely as the wind moves… you are an anemone too, Milli. It isn’t just a place or a flower, it is who I was and who you are and who Emily will be; the fragile looking beauty that endures the worst storms.”
“What if I’m not strong enough?” Milli whispered her doubts aloud again.
Tears leaked from Milli’s eyes as she remembered the dream of Mack kissing the edge of her scar, had it really only been a month since they were sitting out here in this exact spot in the moonlight talking about Velvet Anemones Winery and Cakery, and their future together? A future he was willing to wait for so she could give Mitch and Jackson a sibling for Emily. The air seemed to become scarcer, like when Mitch had driven them all to the top of one of the fourteeners.
“Milli, what are you doing out here?” Lloyd McConnell’s voice was deep and gentle like he was talking to a wounded animal.
The sob she didn’t realized she was strangling on escaped loudly into the quiet night. He sat down quickly and pulled her against his chest, cradling her in his arms as she cried herself out, clinging to him the way she imagined Mack had clung to the Windflower before it sank.
As Lloyd held the most beautiful and broken soul he had ever known, he prayed for her and cursed himself for sending her into such unexpected heartache. He had sent her away, sent her to Mack because he felt he was too poisoned by his ex-wife and his own bitterness to be any good for her. So Milli had loved Mack the way Lloyd wished to be loved.
It was a moonlit night like tonight, on a beach thousands of miles away, that he realized he had made a grave mistake. He loved Milli more than he had ever loved anyone, even Tonia. His greatest fear was that, after losing Mack, Milli would have Mitch and Jackson’s baby and then take her own life. The grief she had endured in the first twenty-four years of her life was more than most people faced in a lifetime. He hoped being raised Catholic by the Haywoods after her adoption would be enough to keep her in this life so he would have a chance to prove his love and earn hers back.
Soon, Milli’s sobs eased and her breathing slowed until she was asleep. He lifted her tiny body easily to carry her back inside the Anemone, but the door was locked. Sighing, he wondered how she had locked herself out as he walked across the grass to the cottage. The toe of his boot rapped lightly then he waited. A long moment later, Milli’s bulldog answered.
“She fell asleep in the Anemone garden,” Lloyd explained calmly as Mitch took Milli from his arms.
Mitch eyed the deputy then said, “Wait here.” Before he carried her back toward the bedrooms.
Lloyd waited on the porch, looking at Emily’s outdoor toys scattered around the neatly manicured yard, then looked up when a shooting star caught his eye. He seemed to see more of those since Milli came into his life, or maybe he just noticed them now that he had something to wish for.
Mitch closed the door softly behind them. He held out s few papertowels to Lloyd. “She snotted up your shirt.”
Lloyd shrugged, “I have a spare in my patrol vehicle.” But he wiped at the smear of her grief.
“Why are you here, McConnell?” The shorter, retired chauffer and bodyguard stared at him with an inscrutable expression. Mitch stood on the porch looking deceptively relaxed and casual in his bare feet, tee shirt and boxers, but Lloyd knew that even with his Marine MP training he would be hard pressed to take Mitch down in a fight. And Mitch would happily put the hurt to him with minimum provocation after what Lloyd had done and said to Milli in the past. Things Lloyd deeply regretted. Lloyd knew he needed to earn Mitch’s forgiveness for the fool he had been.
“I drove by and saw her sitting alone. I wasn’t sure she was awake, so I stopped. The soiree at Hidden Springs ended at ten… Well, that’s when the fireworks went off.” Lloyd explained.
“And you just happened to drive by again, after you went by at 10:30?” Mitch’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“Yes.” Was Lloyd’s one-word answer then he turned to walk back to his patrol vehicle. “Goodnight, Mitchell.”
“McConnell, why are you willing to hold the woman you love as she grieves for the man she loves?” Mitch’s question was like a stab in back.
Lloyd turned his neck enough to speak over his shoulder. “Because I still love her, no matter what I said or how much distance I put between us… what I felt didn’t change. Whatever she needs, however much time… I am willing to give her, for as long as it takes.”
Mitch’s teeth grated against each other loudly, then he growled out, “If you hurt her again, I will kill you and they’ll never be able to prove it.”
Bowing his head for a moment, Lloyd responded, “And I’d let you.”
Then Deputy McConnell of the Pagosa County Sheriff’s Department walked by to his SUV drove away into the night.
“There are only two things that make him truly happy, and one of them is ranching.” Tank was telling her in the memory turned dream. He was talking about Lloyd.
“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.” Then the tall sheriff left her facing Lloyd.
They 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. 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…
Dawn broke clear and beautiful on the Fourth of July but Milli slept through it. Mitch got up with Emily. Jackson woke up an hour later and began frosting the community picnic cupcakes. By the time Milli woke up at 10AM, she was shocked that only a third were left. Picking up a piping bag, she helped Jackson and Laurette finish. The opening of the Hidden Springs Resort had brought hundreds of more tourist than usual to Pagosa Cliffs and Milli regretted not having the bakery open today but she just didn’t have the time or staff to do the events and have the shop open.
As Milli sat on the porch of the Wild Anemone Bakery, she waved at people who walked or drove past. Despite everything that had happened since she moved here the day before Thanksgiving after Marni’s death, she loved this town and its people. Seeing Gilliam Beal park, Milli made herself stay in her chair. Mack’s younger brother was his doppelganger in every way and seeing him every day for the last three days had felt like bitters and lemon rubbed into a cut. She knew she couldn’t hold her heartache against Gill; he was hurting just as much as she was.
“Good afternoon, Milli.” Gil sat on the top step and smiled up at her as Mack so often had. “What?” he asked at her sudden odd expression.
Milli shook her head, “You just look so much like Mack, he used to sit on the step so I wouldn’t have to look up at him all the time… Honestly, are you from a family of giants?”
Gill laughed. “Well, mom and dad were both over six feet tall. Mack was the short one in the family. He always complained about getting my jeans in his laundry when he came home because he was two inches shorter than me. He hated stepping on the legs.”
“Was it fun growing up with him as a big brother?” Milli asked curiously.
Gil nodded, “From the time mom died when I was three until dad remarried when I was six, Mack took care of me as much as my nannies did. The day he left for college was the hardest day of my life until…” Gil trailed off and Milli knew which day he was talking about. The day the Coast Guard called to say they couldn’t find Mack’s boat, the Windflower.
“That was the worst day of my life too,” Milli said softly.
“But Mack might still be out there, the Pacific is a big place and it’s only be a few weeks…” Gil tried to sound hopeful.
“Yes… only a few weeks…” Milli’s heart broke for them both as she whispered those words. She thought about the dream she had, about Mack coming into her room and kissing the edge of the scar her mother Divina had given her the night she tried to kill Milli and Bill Harper. She wanted to tell Gil, but she didn’t want to sound crazy.
“Mommy,” Emily squealed and ran over from Mitch and Jackson’s house, she was wearing an adorable toddler swimsuit covered in angelfish with a ruffled skirt. “I iz going to da pool with Pops.” She stopped and stared at Gilliam for a moment then planted her fists on her hips. “You iz nah Fuzzy bear!”
“Emily, don’t be rude to Mack’s brother.” Mitch corrected her as he picked her up. “Hey, Gil. Sorry. She isn’t used to Mack being gone.”
Gil stood up and smiled sadly. “It’s okay. I’m not used to it either.” He looked at Emily and held out his hand to shake hers. “I’d like to be your friend, Emily. Mack talked about you all the time. He said you were a princess.”
Emily suddenly acted shy and turned her face away burying it in Mitch’s shoulder. Milli gawked at her niece for a moment then turned to Gil. “I’m so sorry, she usually isn’t like this.”
“I was the same way when mom died, death is a weird thing for kids to deal with. Have fun swimming, I’ll see you around.” Gil seemed to slump as he walked away to his car.
“Doesn’t he know you’re aquaphobic?” Mitch asked after Gil drove off.
“I guess Mack never told him,” Milli sighed, then she looked at Emily who was peeking cautiously in the direction Gil’s rental went. “Emily, you should be nice to Gil, he misses Mack too.”
Emily’s shook her head hard enough to flip her braid. “He is not Fuzzy Bear. He is a liar.”
“Emily, Mack was his brother. They look alike, the way Willow and Gracie look alike. Would you be mean to Willow if Gracie died?” Milli demanded exasperatedly, then she realized Emily probably didn’t understand.
Emily folded her arms across her chest and tipped her head exactly the way Marni had when her mind was made up and stated again in a very firm tone. “He is not Fuzzy Bear. He is a liar.”