Milli woke up early. Emily was just stirring. She had begun to keep baker’s hours too. Milli carried Emily and her bottle next door to the Anemone. Mitch and Jackson had gone to their room very late, and Milli want to let them sleep in. She began making her breakfast doughs and her morning muffin batter base. Emily was babbling to Elizabeth, who was answering her in animated baby talk. It sounded so strange in her ancient voice, but it made Milli smile at the tiny bit of morning normalcy.
Elizabeth turned and hugged Milli. “Don’t worry about the boys, deary. They are already making up.... Thin old walls,” Elizabeth added when Milli’s brow had furrowed. Milli’s mouth formed an O.
Katy bounced into the kitchen, “I am so sorry about last night. I thought I was being funny, I didn’t realize... Gawd, that is so f*ed up. I want to be here, but I can’t stay. I have to be in for a 9 to 6 shift in Junction.”
Milli poured her a travel mug of coffee, adding the correct amount of sugar and no cream. “I made cranberry lemon muffins for you, they just came out. I’ll box them up.”
“How much do I owe you?” Katy asked, then held up her hands to block Milli’s ‘don’t make me slap you’ look.
“Just figure out where Gio Valtini is and put him back in jail,” Milli answered, putting the hot muffins in a box.
“The D.A. is just waiting to find him, and you got us in the right part of the country. Until I saw you, everyone thought he was still on the east coast. I’ll get him, and his cousin too.” Katy promised, she bent over and kissed Emily. “Bye princess, give your daddies fits.”
“Dadas?” Emily looked at her with large innocent eyes.
“Jacks is Dada, give him fits.” Katy encouraged mischief again.
Chuckling, the old innkeeper hugged Katy. “Take care of yourself, Kit Kat. Be careful, the Valtinis will try to kill you if they find out you’re chasing them off-duty.”
“I know, Auntie. But I never keep all my evidence in one place and there are always copies. I will catch them.” Katy promised. They waved at her as she pulled out into the darkness.
An hour later, Molly came down, followed by Bill. Milli had already filled the bakery cases with kolaches, muffins, and strudels, croissants and filled croissants. Teachers and students on the way to school stopped in. Bill sat in the corner, reading a paper with Emily. Mitch came down first. Emily who was holding herself up on her grandfather’s knee, squealed.
The toddler ran across the room toward him. Mitch almost fell down the stairs, rushing to get to the bottom before Emily did. Tripping, she fell forward into Mitch’s arms. Milli and Molly gasped in shock, relieved he saved Emily from face-planting on the stairs. Emily giggled and laughed, clapping as Mitch stood up with her.
“You did it, Princess! All the way across the room! Jacks, did you see our girl go?” Mitch beamed.
Jackson laughed as he hugged them both, “She’s going to be a sprinter like daddy.”
Emily tipped her head at him, “Jac-jac dahdah?”
Milli put her hand on Emily’s back. “That’s right, Emily. Jackson is daddy, and Mitch is...”
“Pops, Mitch is Pops,” Mitch interrupted. “Can you say, Pops?”
“Pop, pop, pop... Mish iz pop.” Emily chanted. “Dada! Pop! Mommy, mommy, dada-dah, dada. Mish Pop UP! UP!” Emily screeched happily as Mitch tossed her up in the air and caught her.
The door chimed and Milli turned to see who was coming in. Mack Beal and another man were standing there taking in the bakery. Milli started to say something in greeting, but Jackson spoke first.
“Mr. Hightower, what brings you to the mountains?”
The dark-haired man with Mack smiled at Jackson. “Hello Chef. I’m, um. I came to order a cake for a meeting I am having in two weeks.”
“Then you came to the right place, this bakery belongs to the only baker I know who can out-decorate me,” Jackson grinned. “Mr. Hightower, this is Chef Milli Haywood. She can make any flavor combination work, but she specializes in old fashioned velvet cakes.”
“Please, call me Kyle. And I am actually familiar with Ms. Haywood’s cakes, they are impressive.” He glanced at Mack then back to them. “I know a fan of hers.”
She flashed Mack a brilliant smile, as she held out her hand. “Thank you, Kyle. It’s Milli. Please, tell me what you are thinking while we have a slice. Molly, can you get Mack a slice of Rhubarb pie, and what would you like, Kyle?”
“Maybe one of your red velvet.” Kyle sat at the table Milli indicated, with her, Jackson, and Mack.
While Milli listened as Kyle described the cake disasters he had before, she struggled not to laugh. In the end, it was decided that he would have a blue ombre cake with ombre layers and matching cupcakes sporting white chocolate cut-outs of the Blue Water Resorts Logos. When the cake was settled, Kyle told how Jackson had saved him from a disaster last New Year’s. Then he asked about Emily.
“My sister was Jackson and Mitch’s unofficial surrogate, she died when Emily was born, and I adopted her, we share custody,” Milli explained. “We’re one big, happy family.”
“Forgive me, Milli, but I’ve seen your decorating. Why aren’t you in New York or Vegas or someplace urban?” Kyle asked.
Milli was quiet for a moment. “Maybe someday I’ll move back to Vegas, but my home is here now, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
Milli watched the developer, Kyle Hightower, presenting the plan to build a wilderness adventure resort. It all seemed like something Milli would have loved except for one thing. Hidden Springs Resort would offer skiing and cross-country skiing, mountain biking and equestrian trails, a full-service spa, and hot springs pools with waterfalls and waterslides. Milli wondered if she could avoid the pools. The environmental studies and economic projections had Milli’s attentions. She noticed several people expressed concern about the natural hot water reservoir under the valley being overdrawn as happened in another town to the north.
As the meeting began winding down, Milli had one question that no one had asked so she raised her hand, identifying herself for the woman making a transcript of the meeting. “Milli Haywood, Wild Anemone Bakery. Mr. Hightower, many times when a larger company come into an area, they outsource employment and bring in goods and services from outside the community. Will you be giving the local established businesses preference as a way of supporting the local economy or bringing in things from out of area that are cheaper?”
Kyle eyed her curiously, “I always try to give local businesses preferences when it is feasible. I believe in investing in the communities where I build. Sometimes I can’t simply because a business isn’t equipped to meet the needs of a resort, but since Pagosa Cliffs already has several hotels and a public hot springs pool, I don’t believe this will be a problem for most of your local businesses. They will, for the most part, benefit from the year-round tourism increase and the revenue it brings. And I assure you, Ms. Haywood, your bakery will not suffer even if I bring in an outside caterer, the quality is simply too good.”
Milli tipped her head at him with a half-smirk and retorted, “Oh I assure you, Mr. Hightower, my bakery will be just fine with or without your resort’s business for the rest of my life.” Several people chuckled or laughed at her response. Her question sparked several more about how Mr. Hightower planned on including local businesses in his economic projections.
Lalani served the cake and cupcakes Milli made for the presentation, several people tasted it and gave her compliments on it. Mr. Hightower had seemed very happy with the design and the blue and white marble sample cake Milli had prepared when he stopped in two days ago. A specialized blue glaze made the Blue Water logo on the cake look as though it were made of water. Milli noticed that Doreen stayed behind to talk to Kyle, they seemed very intent until Tonya Ballard joined them. Tonia had this look in her eye that Milli knew all too well. It was the same look Marni would get when she saw a man she wanted; the look of a predator stalking prey. Milli shrugged to herself, not understanding Tonia’s desperate need to “have a man” in her life to support her.
Since their heart to heart on Halloween, Tonia had been polite but stayed more with her group of friends or ‘hens’, as Elizabeth called them. Rumors were rife with speculation that the three-time divorcee had one or more secret lovers, and that there was a boyfriend out there somewhere. She always looked impeccable, and to Milli it seemed as if she had lost weight. Milli knew a woman of Tonia’s age, had to look extra desirable to draw clients from younger, prettier ‘working’ women. She had never told a soul, not even Elizabeth, about Tonia’s side job.
As Milli chatted with a few other business owners, she discovered they all held a worry that Milli didn’t have. Last summer’s wildfire had been devastating to the local economy, that relied on tourist dollars, by coming at the end of summer and burning through the fall. A half-dozen shops that had closed for the winter had let their leases lapse or just sold out. Pagosa Cliffs was struggling. Some feared that the new resort would cause a profit loss in the long run and put them out of business. It was a possible outcome of every small business venture in these troubled economic times. Others argued that allowing the resort to be built was the only way to preserve the town’s stability and future. None of them knew Milli could run her bakery for as long as she wanted on her inheritance regardless of profits, only Elizabeth, Camille, and Lloyd knew she would was an heiress on her next birthday.
Milli excused herself when her text messages chimed.
“Sorry I’m not there to taste the cake.” It was Mack.
Milli felt a slight giddy rush. Since the day Mr. Hightower ordered the cake for today’s presentation, Mack had called or texted her every other day. Smirking, she took a picture of the cake and sent it to him with the caption: “Mmmmm cake! Better than pie. XD”
Her phone rang, and she almost laughed as she walked to a quiet spot near the window.
“You are a cruel woman,” Mack sounded tired.
“I know. What time is it there?” Milli asked.
“Almost 4AM. Can I take you to dinner when I get back?”
“Sure, but no dessert.” Her tone was disgusted.
He chuckled. “Just because yours is better.” Their one date had been fun, but the restaurant choice had been regrettable. VE-RY Regrettable.
Milli made a grumpy sound in her throat. “I wouldn’t feed that alleged cheesecake to my cat.”
Mack chuckled tiredly, “It wasn’t that bad.” After Milli snorted derisively, Mack added, “Okay fine, cake lady, I’d like to place an order. A cheesecake for me and red velvet for my girl.”
“Your girl? Do I know this lucky girl?” Milli hid her surprise with amused curiosity.
“Maybe. She is a sweetheart and has the most beautiful jade eyes and cutest freckles,” he flirted.
She grinned as she responded, “I think I know her. How about I surprise you with something she likes? When do you want it?”
“I’ll eat anything you bake, little mermaid. Can I pick up my cake on Valentine’s when we go to dinner?”
Milli’s breath caught. A real Valentine’s date was something she had never had and wouldn’t have this year.
Mack misunderstood her silence, “Too soon?”
“Oh, uh, no. But I’m working, then leaving for Vegas for a few days. The school has a big dance and romantic boardwalk carnival. I have double duty. Cupcakes for the dance refreshments and a cookie booth for the dive team.” Milli stared out at the window at the snow-covered mountains, regretting her commitments.
“The dive team? But you’re afraid of water!” He couldn’t hide his surprise.
She found herself smiling at his confusion. “My friend, Coach Wally, has two girls on the team. They are amazing, I’ve watched videos of their dives. They could go to the Olympics. The team needs funds to go to the Nationals in April. I donate a lot of cookies and cupcakes for them. Gracie and Willow are so talented, I wish I was brave enough to go watch them just once.”
There was silence then Mack said with reverence, “Milli, you’re the most amazing women I have ever met.”
Milli blushed furiously, she was so glad he wasn’t there to see her. “I have to go, Mack. Call me when you get in. Bye.” She hung up before he answered.
Turning, she almost ran into Kyle Hightower. He was smiling broadly. “So, are you going out for another terrible dinner with my project manager?”
“I doubt he can find another restaurant as bad as the last.”
Kyle laughed, Milli admired how his smile reached his eyes. His sapphire eye color reminded her of someone, but she wasn’t sure who. He was very handsome, and she almost felt sorry for him and that Tonia had picked him to try to gain his affection because she was so needy.
“The cake is excellent. You won’t have to worry about your bakery, in fact I want to talk to you about doing the wedding and event cakes for all my resorts and maybe providing the morning pastries for Hidden Springs, if you think you need the business.” Kyle inquired, he had admitted to his crew that he could easily get fat on the Wild Anemone Bakery’s sweets.
“I’ll let you in on a secret, Kyle, I don’t bake because I need to, I bake because I want to. I only asked what I did because I want to be sure that the resort doesn’t bring in a bunch of outside chain businesses that would put my friends out of business and ruin the feel of our town. ”
“I assure you Milli, I now have a very vested interest in keeping Pagosa Cliffs a good place to live.” Kyle promised.
He seemed sincere, so she nodded, hoping he meant what he said.
Milli carried another tray of cookies to the table she had set up, Molly had the idea to wrap some of the cookies impaled with wooden skewers and decorated with sprigs of raffia and sell them as cookie bouquets. Milli was surprised when someone reached around her with a bouquet of lilies and poppies. She leaned back against Mack’s chest, his cologne was like a drug.
“Awww thank you.” She said happily.
“I missed you. And I couldn’t wait for our date when you get back.” Mack sounded husky as he leaned over her shoulder.
She turned and grinned at him. “They are beautiful, but I don’t have any water for them.”
Mack unzipped his carry-on and pulled out a vase and a bottle of water. “I wouldn’t be much of a project manager if I didn’t come prepared.” His phone chimed, and he scowled at it. “My ride is getting impatient. Call me tomorrow… or tonight if you get lonely.”
After smelling the flowers, Milli gave him a beautiful smile. “I might just do that, Mr. Beal. Bye.”
“Goodnight, Ms. Haywood.”
Somehow Milli managed not to giggle as he walked away. She put the water and flowers in the beautiful ruby glass vase. She felt special and she liked it.
“What are those?” Demanded an excited pair of voices at the same time. Gracie and Willow Wallace were standing there in very different dresses admiring the flowers.
“Ohh, there’s a card!” Gracie exclaimed.
“Gimme!” Willow demanded.
“No! I saw it first!” Gracie snapped at her sister, then read aloud, “To the most beautiful mermaid in the world.”
They both looked confused, but Milli laughed.
Willow grabbed the card and examined it closely. “It isn’t signed. Ohhhhh, Ms. Milli has a secret admirer.”
“How nice for Ms. Milli. Girls, your grandmother is looking for you.” Lloyd’s voice was emotionless.
“Hello, Lloyd. Are you working tonight?” Milli asked pleasantly, eyeing his duty shirt. They were supposed to dance together later for the school dance contest fund raiser.
“I was.” He eyed the flowers. “So, who are those from?”
Milli didn’t like his tone and decided to poke the bear. “A mutual friend. Do you want to buy a cookie or cookie bouquet? It’s for the Blue Wings. No special green ones, I’m afraid, just plain sugar cookies.”
Lloyd gave her such a grumpy look that she laughed out loud, before asking, “I was going to ask you if we were to dance later, but if you are still mad about stealing your grandmother’s cookies...”
Lloyd sighed as if frustrated. “Why do you have to be so difficult? Not everything is amusing.”
“Not everything is an act of war. Don’t be so grumpy, Deputy Humpy.” Milli whispered the last two words, then teased, “Aww such an unhappy face, have a cookie. On the house… not the greenhouse.” She winked at him and turned to offer cookies to Superintendent Bernard Patrick. “Hi Bernie, would you like to support the Blue Wings’ trip to Nationals?”
“Yes, I would, Ms. Haywood. So, what do we have today?”
“We have Bohemian Valentine Sugar cookies; singles, and bouquets of three or six.” Milli explained. She tried not to giggle as Lloyd stalked away without saying goodbye, but he did take the cookie she had offered.