illie Piedmont carefully transferred the batch of cookies she’d just made from the cooling rack to one of the wax paper–lined square metal cookie tins lined up on the counter. She always used this tin to take her cookies to the Christmas Cookie Exchange Club. She noted with satisfaction that the tin was still pristine. She’d gotten it almost fifty years ago when she was twenty-two, and it looked the same now as it did then. Well, not completely—there
a few nicks and scratches, but given the amount of time she was talking about, it looked pretty darn good, if she did say so herself.
Before closing the lid, Millie stood there and admired her creations. The cookies were beautiful and tasted even better. She was thrilled. She was more than thrilled. She was elated. She had spent weeks perfecting the recipe. She just knew she was going to win the
Baking for Life
contest with Millie’s Majestic Meltaways. She couldn’t believe the TV show was coming to Longely. Longely!
She couldn’t have imagined she was going to be on TV. She couldn’t have imagined she was going to meet Carl Baxter. He was so cute, with those dimples, and the way he had of calling everyone “dear,” and the cowlick that stood up on the back of his head. Just the thought of seeing him up close and personal made her blush. And she could hardly wait to watch Bernie’s and Libby’s faces when they tasted the Meltaways and tried to guess the secret ingredient. Millie smiled as she imagined the expressions on the faces of the other Christmas Cookie Exchange Club members when the winner was announced and it was her. Alma would pitch a fit, Sheila would make her sour pickle face, and Lillian would claim she was coming down with a migraine and would have to leave immediately.
Millie laughed out loud with delight as she imagined the resulting hullabaloo. But it was about time she was officially recognized as the best baker in Longely—long past time—because she was. There was no doubt about
. Ask anyone. In fact, she’d go further. She was one of the best bakers in all of Westchester County. No. Why be modest? She
the best. And now that fact was going to be recognized on national TV.
After all, Famous Amos had his day, so why shouldn’t she have hers? Better late than never was what she said. So what if she was eighty-two? Her age might even work to her advantage once she had done a little freshening up. Look at Betty White. She was certainly doing pretty well and she was older than that.
Millie decided that maybe she’d get the bags under her eyes removed, along with some of the flab under her jaw, which she could do if she had the money. And then she’d put the rest of the money in the bank, except for about ten thousand. She’d use that to buy her niece Amber a car—a nice used car. Heaven only knew, Amber deserved it, even if she did get herself up in those strange outfits she insisted on wearing. But Millie was willing to overlook that, because she was the only one of all her relatives who was nice to her.
Yes, indeedy. It was going to be a very good week. Millie was sure of it. She tested the lid to make certain it was on securely, then put the tin with the Millie’s Majestic Meltaways—MMMs, for short—on top of the tin with her cashew nut bars, which were also wonderful. They always disappeared immediately at any social gathering she took them to. Whenever people tasted them, they begged for the recipe, and she always gave it to them, with a few minor omissions.
That was because she didn’t want anyone making them while she was still alive. That wasn’t unreasonable, was it? Who knew? She might have to sell them to support herself someday. And speaking of keeping body and soul together, she just hoped she’d get to the run-through. She’d already told Amber she was nervous about getting there in one piece. She’d hoped her niece would take the hint and offer to drive her there. Unfortunately, Amber was holding down the fort at A Little Taste of Heaven while Bernie and Libby were helping set things up for the TV show at the Longely Community Center.
“You should have called me sooner,” Amber had chided when Millie had broached the subject. “Maybe I could have worked something out.”
And Millie would have if she’d gotten the call earlier instead of three hours ago. She told herself she was being silly, but the truth was the call had made her angry—furious, really—when she’d gotten it. It was only after she’d hung up that she’d gotten the heebie-jeebies.
The caller had tried to disguise her voice, but Millie had known who she was immediately. She should have given Millie more credit than that! How stupid did she think Millie was? And Millie had told her so in no certain terms, which was when she’d hung up. But Millie had called her back and given her another piece of her mind anyway. Pretending that she didn’t know what Millie was talking about! Really. Millie sniffed at the idea. Well, she’d show her a thing or two. Yes she would. Especially when she won the contest. If she thought she could discourage her and deprive her of her rightful due, she had another think coming.
Millie tapped her fingers on the table while she replayed the conversation in her mind. Maybe she
have told Amber about the phone call. No. She’d been right not to. She didn’t want Amber to worry. She also didn’t want Amber to think she was just some crazy old lady imagining things, which she wasn’t. She was as sharp now as she had been at eighteen. It’s just that the conversation was improbable if considered from the outside—especially if you were Amber’s age.
The problem was that Amber was too young to understand the lengths to which some people would go to get what they wanted. Amber thought she was sophisticated and wise in the ways of the world just because she dyed her hair those funny colors, but the truth of the matter was that she knew very little and could imagine even less. Millie looked at the clock on the kitchen wall. Time to get going. She went to the hall to get her coat. On the way, Millie passed the hall mirror and stopped to study her reflection.
Even if she said so herself, she had to admit that despite the sag under her chin and the bags under her eyes, she didn’t look half bad. For openers, her hair looked good—she’d just had it cut and colored yesterday. Unlike Pearl, she saw no reason to be gray if you didn’t have to be. And she was wearing her good black, flared knit skirt, the one that took ten pounds off her hips and thighs, and her paisley print blouse, which she’d gotten at Neiman Marcus when she’d been in Dallas for her cousin’s wedding ten years ago. You buy good and it stays good. That was the trick with shopping, Millie thought as the phone rang.
“Yes, I’m on my way,” she said into the receiver. Then she hung up.
Really, she thought as she gathered up her cookies, her handbag, her cell phone, and her keys. She didn’t need reminding about the time she had to be at the Longely Community Center. She was always on time, unlike some other members of the Christmas Cookie Exchange Club whom she could name. Mainly Pearl and Barbara and Teresa, who were always running at least half an hour late. It would be interesting to see if they showed up on time for the run-through.
Millie sniffed again as she thought about the earlier phone call she’d received. She had to admit it had certainly riled her up, which she guessed was the whole point. But now that she’d had three hours to think about it, she was just annoyed. Some people never learn, she decided as she locked the front door to her house, walked to the garage, and got into her 2009 black Buick Lucerne. She took a few minutes to settle herself in and move the pillow she sat on to the correct position.
Then she turned the ignition key. The vehicle started up with a satisfying roar, and she slowly and carefully began backing the large car out of her driveway. Her son couldn’t understand why she had needed a new car. In fact, he couldn’t understand why she had to drive at all. But what was she supposed to do? Stay cooped up in the house all day? Or move to one of those assisted-living communities?
Her son thought that was a great idea, and so did her daughter, for that matter. But she had told both of them that hell would freeze over before that happened. She had lived in her house for almost thirty-five years, and as far as she was concerned, she was planning on dying in it.
If her son and daughter wanted a house, let them buy one of their own, not go after hers. Millie’s breast heaved with indignation at the very idea. Not that they had asked. Oh, no. They’d just told her she should put the money from the sale in trust. But Millie knew that, despite what they said about having her best interests at heart, getting their hands on her house was what was behind their suggestion.
Okay. It was true. She
slowing down a bit. And her reflexes weren’t as fast as they used to be; neither was her night vision. But she compensated for that. She drove slowly and stuck to the roads she knew. In fact, she had driven them so often she could probably drive them blindfolded. And as for driving at night, she usually had one of her younger friends pick her up.
Millie thought about the drive back from the Longely Community Center as she coasted to a stop at Winton Street and Angora Avenue. Of course, it would be dark when she got out, since it was dusk now. Maybe she could ask Bernie and Libby to drive back to her house so that she could follow them. Millie was sure they wouldn’t mind. Despite their mother’s worries, they had grown up to become nice young ladies. Millie smiled as she concentrated on the road.
There was no traffic on it, which was why she always took it. The traffic patterns on the other roads were a little more complicated, but this was a straight shot to the Longely Community Center. There were only two lights and two steep blind curves, and she could slow down for those. With no one behind her, she didn’t have to worry about irritating anyone.
Much better to be safe. Slow and steady wins the race. Amber was always complaining about her maxims, but they were true, Millie thought as she reached up and adjusted the rearview mirror. People were in such a rush nowadays. Always trying to do five things at once, which meant they all turned out badly. It certainly wasn’t like that when she was young. People had time for things then, time to do them right.
Millie slowed down a little more and gripped the wheel more firmly while she checked the speedometer. After all, as she had told her son, she’d never been in an accident in her life, and she didn’t intend to start now.
Millie patted the cookie tins beside her and told them they were about to make her famous. Maybe she would take Carl Baxter a pie tomorrow after the taping. An apple pie. She made excellent ones, if she did say so herself. Or maybe one of her pumpkin pies, the one with the gingersnap crust. She slowed down a little more because the curve coming up could be tricky.
It was darker than Millie had anticipated, and she had to lean forward and squint in order to see where the road ended and the dirt began. It was tough for her because there were no streetlights and no moon to light her way. But after a moment she remembered to put her brights on. That helped, and she relaxed her grip on the steering wheel a little as she sped up. While her foot was on the gas pedal, she gave herself a pep talk, telling herself that she’d driven this route hundreds of times and it would never do for her to be late for the run-through.
Millie was thinking about what she was going to say to Carl Baxter when she spotted something big in the middle of the road. She squinted. She wasn’t certain, but it looked like a deer. Where had it come from? It certainly hadn’t been there two seconds ago. She honked. It didn’t move. Why wouldn’t it move? Millie wondered as her heart started thumping in her chest and she slammed on her brakes. The tires screeched, and while the Buick slowed down, it wasn’t slowing down fast enough.
It occurred to Millie that at this rate she was going to plow right into the dratted thing, so she did the only other thing she could do. She swerved to avoid it. As she turned the wheel, she could feel the car pulling to the left. She tried to straighten it out and failed. Then she heard a crunch as the tires left the tarmac and hit the dirt and gravel. She turned the wheel again, but it was too late. She was heading straight for the oak tree that had killed Sheila’s husband five years ago in that terrible automobile accident.
Millie felt a jarring sensation as the Buick hit the tree. The seat belt bit into her chest while the air bag inflated, hitting her in the jaw. She heard a hissing noise and felt a burning sensation, and then everything was quiet. The deer wasn’t in the road anymore. She thought she’d hit it, but maybe she hadn’t. If that was the case, she wondered where it had gone. Then she decided it had probably gone back into the woods as she glanced down at the seat beside her. Miraculously, the cookies were still in the tins. They’d slid off the seat, but hopefully they’d be okay. They had to be. Simply had to be, after all the work she’d put into them. She tried to unbuckle her seat belt, but she couldn’t.
The darn thing must have gotten stuck. She tried again. Nothing. Her heart raced even faster. She could feel it beating against her chest.
Okay, Millie, calm down,
she told herself.
Everything is going to be fine
. She took a deep breath. Then another one. When her breathing had returned to normal, she reached for her bag. A searing pain shot up her side.
I must have broken some ribs,
Millie thought as she gasped. “I can do this,” she said out loud as she reached out again. “I can and I will.” This time she managed to reach the bag with her fingertips and drag it toward her. The movement cost her, and she sat perfectly still for a moment until the pain receded. Then she dug around in her purse until she found her phone. The effort produced a cold sweat, and she had to sit still for another minute before she could proceed. Thank heavens for speed dial, Millie thought as she called Amber. She couldn’t believe that moving her fingers could cause such pain.