As giant fluffy snowflakes fell, Milli helped a tired Elizabeth inside the Wild Anemone then she ran back out to get Emily. In the kitchenette of the small room that had been Elizabeth’s since she first came to the Anemone, Milli made a pot of hot water for tea. In the summer she lived in Cottage Two but with the winter ice and snow she felt, and Milli agreed, that is was safer for her to stay in her old rooms. The drive from Vegas had taken almost twelve hours with the stops for meals and due to road conditions. They had stayed three nights with the Harpers, visited Marni and Charlie, and celebrated Emily’s birthday with a bunch of Milli and Marni’s old friends. It was bittersweet. Milli was exhausted but knew that starting tomorrow, she would be dealing with the Thanksgiving rush alone. Jackson was spending the holiday week in Hawaii with his mother.
The last discussion they had weighed heavily on Milli’s mind on the drive home, as did the chance meeting with a Food Network Cake show producer. But the more Milli thought about it the more she wondered how much was coincidence, and how much was Mitch. He seemed determined to attach her to someone, even if it wasn’t Lloyd. Mitch had grumpily proclaimed that she had given Lloyd more than enough chances, time for someone new. He also pointed out it had been a year since her divorce and it was time for her to have a real date. So, very reluctantly, Milli agreed to lunch with the producer and she tried to forget about Lloyd McConnell.
Markus had offered Milli a slot in a New Year’s Eve-themed Outrageous Party Cake Special. The Sunday after Thanksgiving, she would be flying to New York City to bake and decorate a giant cake. Another baker had been arrested on a DUI and the Network execs had told Markus to find someone else, or else. If it went well, she could end up on the Valentine’s special to be filmed in January. It was her chance to put her brand out there, the only question was should she brand herself as ‘Velveteen Rabbit Couture Cakes’ which was the name Marni coined, or as Velvet Anemone Cakes, which was her reality now. Elizabeth wanted to go watch Milli film, but Milli worried about the effect of too much travel on the 105-year-old woman.
Emily and Elizabeth were settled for the night, but Milli found she couldn’t sleep. It was after midnight when she began going through the phone messages and order slips for the week. Her baking supply order would be arriving tomorrow early. She should start baking tonight, or begin designing the New Year’s Eve cake, but her mind kept coming back to Lloyd and something in Padre Guerre’s homily at yesterday morning’s mass. The old priest had said that people don’t walk through the valley of the shadow of death or sit at a table in the presence of their enemies forever but move past those dark places into a time of blessing. She wondered if he would ever let go of the dark things that made him so… so Lloyd.
Milli was tired of living in darkness, she wanted light. She wanted to love and to be loved. Standing alone in the unlit dining area of the Anemone, she looked up the street toward downtown. She didn’t know if Lloyd was working tonight. She didn’t understand why she cared so much about him, maybe it was because he was as broken as she was. Jackson wanted her to move back to Vegas after Elizabeth passed away, Milli wasn’t sure she could. Vegas just didn’t feel like home anymore and she didn’t tell him she couldn’t move back lest she run into Donnie Valtini. But if she stayed here, Lloyd would always be near. He was a fixture in the community, and she would see him often. It always seemed so easy with him until something she didn’t realize happened and he pushed her away, and that made each rejection hurt more.
Sitting on the step where they had shared their first real kiss, she wondered again what happened between that kiss and later the next morning when he had thrown the money for Molly’s cheesecake down on the counter, glaring at her like she had betrayed him. She hadn’t seen him again before her trip. On the drive home, Elizabeth had told Milli she didn’t want her tied to a place and pining after a man who didn’t love her. She said that she was fine with Milli leaving the Anemone after she was gone, but Milli didn’t know if she could. The Anemone had become home, it had replaced the home she grew up in with the Haywoods.
Milli was about to stand up when she saw Lloyd’s patrol SUV stop in front of the Anemone. She knew there was no way he could see her. She also knew he had to know she was home. So she waited, hopeful he would come to the door. A minute ticked by, then another, and another. Instead of parking and going to her door, he drove away with her hope for them. Milli rose and went to the window, kissed fingertips rested on the cold glass as tears ran down her face.
“Goodbye, Lloyd. I hope we can be friends again someday.”
The Wild Anemone Bakery was busy, dozens of orders for cakes, cupcakes, and pies were picked up. People were gearing up for the holidays. Lalani had agreed to work for Milli during the hours her children were in school. As Lalani locked the door at 4:30, Molly walked into the kitchen holding Emily. Milly was rapidly decorated cupcakes for an order to be picked up afterhours at 7pm.
“Hey Milli, I think Emily wants to see her mommy. Lalani is closing up.”
Milli leaned over and kissed, Emily on the head. “Thank you for keeping her and running the register. I wouldn’t make it without you and Lalani. You both are life savers.” The weeks since Garrett’s death had been hard on Molly, the only time she seemed almost happy was when she was helping Milli and playing with Emily.
“Ah kuuipo (sweetheart), you are the best to work with. I am happy to help you. Those cupcakes you make for our food truck are ono.” Lalani smiled.
’They’re not oh no!” Molly sounded disbelieving. “They’re wonderful.”
Lelani laughed, “Ono means delicious in Hawaiian.”
They were still laughing when Lalani and Molly left for the day.
Someone knocked as Milli was putting the last of her decorating tools away. All the orders for the Wednesday before Thanksgiving were tagged and she was set for tomorrow’s noon closing and trip back to Vegas for Thanksgiving with Bill and Mitch while Jackson was away. Milli was surprised to see Tonia, Millicent and Doreen at the door, she noticed how they all looked tense.
“What’s going on?” Milli demanded without preamble.
Doreen glanced at the others then spoke, “We need your help. You know the churches work together to support First Community’s pantry. We do Thanksgiving Baskets, parishioners buy a basket for themselves and one for a needy family, and some just donate both baskets. We order the food in bulk and assemble the baskets ourselves. But the order didn’t come, and it won’t.”
“Someone skimmed everything out of the account and the order was cancelled, we have so many people counting on those baskets.” Tonia explained. “I told Doreen and Millicent I thought you could help us. Whatever you need, we’ll find a way to pay for it later, but right now, we need your help. We need three kinds of pies; pumpkin, pecan, and fruit.”
Milli nodded, her mind already doing the math for the number of pies she could cook every hour and the supplies she had on hand. “That’s a lot of work.”
“She can’t do it, Tonia. She just got the cast off her arm, there is no way she can roll out that many pie crusts.” Millicent declared.
“I have a fondant rolling machine that can roll the crust, Ms. Millicent, and my arm may be weak, but I’ll manage,” Milli explained. “How many of each do you need and by when?”
Tonia smiled beautifully, breathing out in relief, “We need 226 pecan pies, 178 fruit pies and 402 pumpkin pies. But right now, we would be willing to take whatever you could make. We have 403 baskets to make to be picked up or delivered across 5 counties. Each basket is supposed to have 2 pies, but whatever you could do would be appreciated.”
Milli’s eyes narrowed in concentration. “That’s 806 pies, by when?”
“Tomorrow at noon?” Tonia sounded uncertain but hopeful.
“Not possible. ” Milli answered honestly.
Doreen frowned, “Just 403 and we can give vouchers or substitute, if we need too.”
“The most I can bake is 18-22 pies per hour and a half max, if I use both ovens at the bakery, and the one in my house. The different pies have different baking times and temperatures. Plus, the pies need to cool at least an hour before they are boxed. If I could start now I might be able to have all the pies done by late tomorrow night. However, I only have enough supplies to make about 40 or 45 pies total.” Milli frowned. “I can call in some favors and see about getting more supplies. But the supplies wouldn’t be delivered till mid-morning.”
“What if we got someone to bring the baking supplies here like the church members are bringing the other things for the baskets to First Community?” Doreen suggested.
“I have plenty of things Milli can use from the cafe, we can even cook part of the pies over there after we close tonight.” Millicent suggested.
“If you can handle assembling and baking the fruit pies. I can get the sheets of crust dough rolled. I have almost a thousand foil pie pans that we can use. I can get started right away, if someone can go pick up the extra supplies I need in Durango,” Milli announced.
“We’ll send someone.” Tonia agreed, “Thank you for helping us, Milli.”
The women talked for a few minutes more dividing up the work, while Milli called her wholesaler. The manager agreed to meet someone at the main warehouse in Durango after Milli explained their dilemma. Milli made an early supper and explained to her Auntie what was happening and how she was going to be baking all night, so Elizabeth decided to have Emily sleep in her little cottage rather than Milli’s or the Anemone because of the noise.
Milli spent the next two hours baking the first batch of pumpkin pies and rolling crust sheets out as fast as she could with Doreen’s help. She was surprised when Camille showed up with Willow and Gracie to help. Milli showed them how to dress the pans with crust and cut out the circles for the top crust. Lloyd arrived with cases of pumpkin pie filling, eggs, shortening, and evaporated milk, and giant bags of flour and sugar. He silently unloaded it all, then asked what he could do to help. Milli had the distinct feeling he wanted to be anywhere but there, so she gave him the keys to her delivery van and asked him to take 190 pie shells and top crust to The Rose Cafe, along with all the fruit Milli had left. The Wallaces worked tirelessly making pie shells. By 2AM, almost 600 pie crust sat waiting for filling in Milli’s coolers and on every surface of her bakery, with nothing more they could help with, Milli sent them home. They weren’t gone 5 minutes, when Lloyd came back.
“Why did you send Wally and the girls home?” he demanded.
Milli looked at him tiredly, “Because we got all the crust made and there is nothing more they can do except a whole lot of waiting.” A timer beeped, “Excuse me.”
She headed over to her house. Lloyd followed, but Milli was too tired to argue so she ignored him. Saying nothing as she pulled 6 perfect large pecan pies from her oven, filling 6 more crust, placing baking rings around the pies and putting them back to bake. Setting her timer, she dropped it in one pocket of her apron, pulling a timer out of the other and looking at it.
“We have 20 minutes before I have to pull the next batch of pumpkin pies. Do you want a grilled ham and cheese?” She began pulling out the ingredients without waiting for an answer. Then she glanced up at him as he stared at her. “Sourdough or Rye?”
While Milli already taking things out of the refrigerator to cook for him, and Lloyd was at war with himself. He wanted to stay but she had chosen someone else and he didn’t want to get strung along again.
“Milli, I don’t think...” He started.
Milli interrupted in a slightly annoyed tone. “Look Lloyd, I am just offering you a sandwich because we have both have had a late night. We’re just friends, never were and never will be anything more, despite the rumors and that other thing. So, forgetting everything that happened between Blackbear and Halloween, I am asking just as your friend, do you want a sandwich? Because I’m starving, I have a long night of baking ahead of me and I need food. Company would be nice too, but if you still aren’t talking to me or allowed to talk to me anymore for reasons I don’t understand. That’s fine too.”
Lloyd’s jaw ticked slightly, he snapped, “I’m allowed to talk to you.”
“Good. Now, do you want sourdough or rye? Because I have seen you eat both.” Milli was already buttering sourdough bread.
“Sourdough, thank you.” He answered and sat quietly watching her putting the bread and meat for the sandwiches on a griddle. She was confusing him.
“So, how’s your grandmother and grandfather?” Milil asked conversationally. “Do you want grilled onions?” He knew she was just asking for him so he declined.
“No, thanks. Grandma Fern’s had a stomach bug that won’t go away so Grandpa’s taking some time off the practice. They are talking about taking a cruise over Christmas.” Lloyd said.
“Oh, I’m... I’m sorry to hear that.” Milli’s profile made a slight frown as she cooked.
He asked, “How is Molly really?”
Milli shrugged, answering as she flipped the sandwiches, “She has been keeping Emily and helping with the bakery. She acts cheerful but sometimes Lalani or I see her wipe away a tear or she locks herself in the bathroom for a while. We’re worried. Is she seeing anyone to help her deal with the grief?”
“I... I don’t really know, she won’t talk about Garrett or what happened. It is almost like she is pretending he isn’t gone or that he didn’t exist. I’m worried,” Lloyd confessed.
“I have a therapist in Durango, she’s really good and does phone appointments. If you want her number. She really helped me deal with Charlie and Marni’s deaths. I’ll talk to her about it again.” As she talked, Milli mixed up some thousand island dressing, and set the bowl on the raised ledge of the bar in front of Lloyd.
She set plates and a bowl of potato chips, on the counter, and made coffee. His was black while hers was creamy and flavored with honey and a drop of extract. She took the sandwiches straight from the griddle, slicing them expertly, two on his plate and one on hers. Sitting, she spooned some of the dressing on her plate, dipping her sandwich while talking idly about the things her therapist recommended to deal with grief. How the therapist didn’t think it was weird at all that she was leaving messages on Marni’s voice mail. And how on Emily’s birthday, Milli had finally been able to turn off Marni’s phone and say goodbye because she was not going to dwell on Marni’s death anymore. She was going to solely focus on Emily’s life. She glanced at the timer in her pocket.
Lloyd disagreed with her therapist’s approach. “But Marni did so much to hurt you, she slept with your husband.”
“Just wow. Come on, let’s go back next door. I have to pull the pumpkin pies in 4 minutes.” Milli ushered him out. She had a lot to say to him and they had a long night ahead of them.