When Lloyd was released from the hospital, Molly drove him home without a word. Dropping him at his house on the Rocking M, she carried in his bag and a bakery box. He hobbled behind her on his crutches.
“What are those?” He asked eyeing the bakery box with the Wild Anemone Bakery label.
“Your favorite.” She ground out then Molly yelled at him. “How could you!?! You and Milli would be perfect! And you tell her to date Mack! What the heck, Lloyd? Tonia’s going to jail, she’s never coming back, you’re free.”
“Molly, I can’t be with Milli. I have too many issues and Mack is a great guy.” Lloyd felt miserable admitting it but he made himself say it, maybe if he could convince Molly, he could convince himself.
“You... you are so difficult!” Molly snapped. “Don’t forget to tell her thank you for the pecan tarts, you coward.” Molly picked up his cordless phone, dialed the number and threw it at him before slamming the door behind her.
“Wild Anemone Bakery... Can I help you?” Mitch’s voice almost made Lloyd groan.
“Mitch, it’s Lloyd McConnell, may I speak with Milli,” Lloyd asked politely.
“You had your chance, several of them as a matter of fact, and you blew it every time. Leave her alone, she happy with or without Mack. Oh, and when you hear the rumors that Milli is pregnant with my baby, that will be true too. We are having IVF done next month so Em can have a sibling. Goodbye, Lloyd.” Mitch hung up.
Grumbling, Lloyd called back, “Listen Mitch, I just wanted to tell Milli thank you before I...”
“I said good day, sir. By the way, your ex-wife is a professional prostitute and has been for at least five years, several of her clients use my car service.” Mitch hung up again.
When Lloyd dialed a third time a polite recording informed him that he had been blocked from calling the number he dialed. Lloyd was about ready to throw his phone when Sheriff Tanner knocked and came in without waiting as he was swearing about Mitch.
“Please tell me you weren’t calling Ms. Haywood’s bakery.” Tank had a disappointed look.
“I just called to say thank you for the sweets before I took Tiana to see Tim. I’m not stalking her.” Lloyd defended himself. Then men were silent for a few minutes.
“How are you doing, Lloyd?” Tank asked.
“I got myself shot, the Valtinis are dead no thanks to me, but at least Milli and Tiana are safe.” Lloyd answered in a self-recrimination. “Thank you for asking, now why did you stop by?”
“Because you’re my friend even if you aren’t my deputy right now...” Tank started.
“And?” Lloyd snapped, he knew deep inside he shouldn’t be taking out his anger at Mitch and his jealousy of Mack Beal successfully wooing Milli on his boss. He didn’t care he knew what was coming.
“I decided that I am going to suspend you for 30 days instead of 90. You acted recklessly taking Hightower and Green up the mountain with you and Benton. You got lucky that Wally was able to pull Hightower out and resuscitate him after they went over the Falls. You are very lucky that Milli refused to press stalking charges or I would be firing you.” Tank explained in a firm but calm tone.
“Don’t bother, consider my suspension to be my notice.” Lloyd’s words were harsh. “I can’t stay here. Not with Tim moving back and everything that has happened.”
“I won’t accept it.” Tank took a card out of his wallet and put it on the table, adding in a tired voice. “Lloyd, I have tried to help you for the last five years, but I think it is time you see someone. I think... No, I know you have PTSD... And you have it from more than just your time in the service. Get well and call me when you figure things out, your job will be waiting.” Tank walked out without another word.
Lloyd glared at the window at the Rocking M cattle grazing until he fell asleep. He thought about what Tim had asked of him. He needed a vacation and perhaps taking Tiana to visit his father in the south Pacific would give him the space he needed to clear his head. Lloyd felt he definitely needed some time away from Pagosa Cliffs
Picking up the phone, he called his cousin in the South Pacific.
“Morning, Tim Ballard, please. This is Lloyd McConnell… Yes, I’ll wait.” Lloyd waited.
“Is Tiana okay?” Tim asked without preamble.
“She’s fine. Stressed out, I… um… I talked to Bernie, he said Tiana could finish her classes online in light of recent events. And I need to get away,” Lloyd confessed.
Tim was quiet for a moment, then said, “Tiana’s passport is in Grandpa’s safe. I’ll have tickets waiting for you at DIA.”
“Can you make it Durango? I don’t think I can drive that far yet?” he hated admitting his weakness, “I was shot.”
“I know, T told me. Durango it is. When do you want to leave?” Tim asked.
“When do you want us there?” Lloyd asked in return.
Milli finished stocking the cases and, in a lull between customers, she carried Auntie Elizabeth’s morning lemon crème filled croissant and tea to her room. Her 106-year-old aunt was already up and in her chair napping. Milli smiled to herself as she set the tray down on the tv tray. Bending to give the only grandmother figure she had ever known a kiss on the cheek, Milli’s lips met cold flesh. She dropped to her knees seizing Elizabeth’s stiff hands.
“Auntie? Auntie... no... Auntie, no. Please don’t leave us... please...” she sobbed as she stared at the face that had shown her so much love.
Aunt Elizabeth looked like she was sleeping with a slight smile. Her head slightly to one side as if she had dozed off, in her hands was her beautiful red anemone hair broach. The one she was always putting in Milli’s hair. Milli took the ruby trinket and tucked it in her bun before she laid her head down on Elizabeth’s knees and cried like she had so many times in her twenty-four years. Elizabeth was with Marni and Charlie now, leaving Milli and Emily alone.
Milli didn’t know how long she sat there before Jackson found her. But she wouldn’t stand when he tried to move her, screaming at him to leave her alone. Mitch finally got her to let go of Elizabeth. The paramedics had given her a shot and Mitch had carried her back to her cottage after Sheriff Tanner had arrived. The whole town mourned the loss of Pagosa Cliffs oldest resident. The entire from yard of the Wild Anemone was filled with flowers and balloons and the front window of the bakery was covered with sympathy cards.
Milli walked into the Anemone carrying her Aunt Elizabeth’s urn. She paused to look at the picture Molly had hung on the wall. It was Auntie Elizabeth looking down at newborn Emily with a smile. A bittersweet tear ran down Milli’s cheek. Milli was now the mistress of the Wild Anemone. This was her home now. In six months would be her 25th birthday, and then she could launch Velvet Anemone Internet Cakery. Milli could be traveling and decorating anywhere in the world she wanted to but as she held Elizabeth’s ashes, she wondered if all the dreams she had dreamed with her sister mattered anymore. She had to think about Emily and about the baby she would be having for Emily. Jackson put his arms around her and hugged her from behind.
“You’re having doubts,” Jackson said with certainty.
“Yeah but not about what you think. I am certain I want to have a baby for you and Mitch, but how am I going to be able be a mom, run the bakery, and be a traveling cake artist by myself?” She doubted her ability to do it all alone.
“You won’t be alone. You don’t think you can do it, but you can. You don’t have to choose. You are a great artist,” Jackson declared.
“So are you,” Milli insisted but Jackson shook his head.
“No, not like you. Milli. I decorate cakes, but you have a gift of making beautiful cakes, they are more like art. And not just the outside, you have a way with flavors, with finding the flavor that feeds their soul. You make edible art that feeds people’s hearts. I won’t let you give it up. Mitch and I are going to find a house here. Mitch wants to open an offroad adventure company, I think he is getting tired of driving drunk socialites and businessmen around.”
Milli was quiet for a minute, then she pulled on Jackson’s arm. “Come on.”
On the third story, she looked around Room Number Four, “We’ll trade. You and Mitch get the cottage and I’ll move in up here. That way Emily and the baby will always have all of us, you and Mitch can have your own place, and we can be partners in the Bakery while Mitch plays Mr. Mom and goes jeeping or whatever they call it. It’s the perfect plan, Beanstalk.”
Jackson laughed, “Whatever you want, Trollina.”
One month later...
Spring was finally making its appearance in Pagosa Cliffs. Mack, Rand, and Kyle walked through the quaint streets of the older downtown district. Centuries old Victorian style houses stood side by side with newer structures. It was an eclectic mixture. Many had been converted to businesses, some were dual businesses and residences in one building. The Wild Anemone Breakfast and Bakery was one of many business/homes decked out for the Apple Blossom Festival. The town had many large community events starting in the late spring and running throughout the summer to draw tourist business after the long, cold winter. Kyle Hightower knew he had made the right choice building his resort here. This town wanted to thrive.
This winter had been particularly late running, a late snow had turned the first festival of the season, May Day, into an ice and snow sculpture event only two weeks ago. Just out of the hospital, the cold had hurt his leg, but today Kyle felt refreshed as they strolled through the town that would be his home until his daughters graduated school and went to college. The snow was gone except on the mountain peaks. The air was warm and the sun was shining. People were flocking in to enjoy the hot springs and the scenery.
The shops and homes were lined with apple themed booths selling every thing from soaps to honey, but the three men were headed to the Wild Anemone for sweets. The owner, Milli, had promised all the proceeds from the weekend’s sales would go to help rebuild the Blue Wings team funds. All she asked was a little help waiting tables and doing dishes. Kyle could see his girls in bright red tee-shirts and apple-print aprons. Grace was taking orders with a strawberry blonde toddler on her hip as Willow and Amy delivered plates and bowls of pastries or bussed tables. Milli bounced out of the door and down the steps with plates stacked up her arms.
“Who is that beautiful little creature?” Rand said in rich voice, they had known him long enough to know the tone meant ‘target acquired’. He had not yet met the baker.
Mack’s lips made an unhappy line as Kyle answered. “That’s Milli, the owner. Hands off, Rand. She’s a friend of Camille and she has agreed to sell pastries to the resort once it opens, and soon to make my wedding cake. That goes for you too, Mack. Do not screw this up.”
“Dibbs!” Mack said a moment ahead of Rand, grinning sheepishly as Rand expressed his disappointment colorfully.
Kyle just shook his head and chuckled. “You’re both fired.”
Laughing, they sat down at a table in the warm afternoon sun. Milli came to take their orders, her fluffy hair was held away from her face by a bandanna that matched her apron. She gave them a genuine smile.
“Hello again Mr. Hightower, Mr. Beal. For the festival specials, we have fresh apple cobbler with a crumb top, apple-strawberry crisp, or spiced apple cookies.”
Kyle smiled, “Milli, it’s just Kyle, and I’ll have the cobbler.”
“Fine, Kyle, it is. And your friend?” She eyed Rand with curiosity.
“This is Rand Green, he claims he works for me, kind of like Mack, but I fired them both again today.” Kyle said good naturedly.
Milli laughed and gave Rand a brilliant smile. “Nice to meet you, Rand. What would you like?”
“Dinner tomorrow night and your number, but I’ll take the apple strawberry crisp to start.” Rand grinned his handsomest, as Mack grumbled something under his breath.
Milli’s smile didn’t falter, but her pale jade eyes flashed the color of the green apples on her scarf and apron as they narrowed at him. “Hmmm... Crisp only for Mr. Rand. Um, is that short for something? Like Randy old dog or Randal can’t handle?”
Kyle barked a laugh as Mack almost fell over laughing at Rand’s shocked expression.
Milli gave them a smug smile and wink before pointing to Rand, “Stay.”
She sauntered into the house stopping to look back over her shoulder with a sly grin once.
“Ouch, she’s feisty, I like it,” Rand said when he recovered.
“Dude, she’s so far out of your league, you’d need your passport to date her.” Mack wipe amused tears from his eyes.
Kyle nodded, still chuckling, “Don’t do it, Rand. You have the worst track record with younger women and I need her to bake for the resort.”
Gracie walked by carrying Emily and gave her dad a kiss on the cheek as she poured them coffee before hurrying away with the giggling toddler.
Rand watched Milli coming back with two plates and a bowl. “There’s lots of bakers in the world,” he retorted, deliberately loud.
Those mesmerizing eyes flashed bright green again but she still smilled as she pointely ignored him.
“Your cobbler, Kyle. And Mack, just for you, I saved the last slice of apple rhubarb pie. Your new favorite, and much better than plain rhubarb pie.”
She held out a polished spoon to him, “I promise you’ll love it.”
Mack took a bite then groaned, “OMIGAWD, you’re right, it is my new favorite pie.”
“This is amazing, Milli,” Kyle said between bites.
“Hey, where’s mine? Rand demanded crossly.
Smirking beautifully, Milli turned slowly with the white bowl still resting in the palm of her hand. She pulled a sharpie out of her apron and uncapped it with her teeth.
“It’s R-A-N-D, right?” She asked around the cap as she wrote on the bowl.
Kyle lowered his fork back to his plate, hand over his mouth to keep from choking as he tried to swallow instead of laugh. Milli peeked around the upheld bowl at Rand as she continued to draw.
“I think that’s a fair resemblance,” Milli stated after spearing the cap with the marker.
Setting the bowl down in front of Rand with the lettering facing Kyle and Mack. She tapped Rand’s hand with a spoon when he reached for the bowl. Her eyes held his intently as she waved the spoon back and forth in a negative manner. Mack and Kyle were laughing so hard they were struggling to breathe.
“Nuh uh, Mr. Randy Rand. First, you taste my crisp and then you will tell me about these other bakers.” She filled a spoon with the perfect proportion of crispy baked topping and fruit.
“Open,” she demanded.
Rand opened his mouth obediently with a slight smirk and was rewarded with the taste of his childhood. His whole demeanor changed as he chewed. “Ohhhgawd,” he groaned, “This is as good as my granny’s.”
She patted his head, “Good boy. Keep the bowl for your dinner tomorrow night.”
Guffawing, Mack fell out of his chair almost taking Kyle with him.
Reaching down she pulled Mack up as she winked at Kyle,” See you Wednesday, Mr. Hightower. See you around, Mr. Beal.”
Rand turned the bowl around as he chewed another bite and almost spit it out as she walked away.“Rand’s Kibble” was written in a bubbly curved script with a little drawing of a dog face next to it. Taking a third bite, he decided the apple-strawberry crisp was best ‘kibble’ he had ever tasted, better than his granny’s.
“I think I’ve found the next Mrs. Randall Green, boss.” He announced.
Mack shook his head as he brushed himself off and sat back down to eat, “Dude, I already called dibs.”
They talked about the progress on the resort as they ate. Willow carried over the ticket and Rand paid after writing a note on it. She glanced at her dad then rolled her eyes when he nodded for her to go ahead and take it. She was giggling when she came back out from getting the change from Milli. She presented it to Rand with a bow before she picked up Mack and Kyle’s plates. She tucked Rand’s bowl in a white bakery bag with the Wild Anemone logo on it. His hand dropped the change into the donation jar on the table while he read, then his face twisted into an amused scowl. It was like his cheeks didn’t know whether to frown or laugh.
“Fine, dibs it is.” Rand growled at Mack. Kyle and Mack glanced at each other then leaned down to look at the paper Rand laid on the table.
In Rand’s scratch pointy writing it said;
“Still need your number and a place for dinner tomorrow night.”
In Milli’s looping script, she answered,
“I labeled your bowl for your dinner at home tomorrow night.
My number is in the business pages under ‘NONE YA’” Smiley face.
Mack and Kyle lost it again, but Rand stood up with as much dignity as he could muster, leaving the bowl in the bag, “Let’s go, I need a glass of hard cider from the brewery for my aching ego.
Mack tapped Willow’s arm as he followed Kyle and Rand, “Save Rand’s bowl for me, I’ll pick it up later.” Willow looked confused but nodded.
Milli watched them go. “What did he say?” she asked Willow,.
“He said to save Rand’s bowl he’d be back for it later. “Looking after the men, Milli smiled with a smug smirky little quirk to her lips. “Thanks, Willow.”
Later that evening, Mack returned to the Anemone. Milli was stacking dishes when he came in the Kitchen door.
“Did your friend figure out we trolled him?” Milli asked turning and leaning against the counter.
“Not yet,” Mack laughed as he hugged her. “You did amazing.” He kissed her temple.
“Well, I am the queen of the trolls.” She looked up at him with shining eyes.
“Yes, you are. The most beautiful troll in the world,” he murmured before he kissed her.