Carissa Donahue stood at the floor-to-ceiling windows of Mayor Horton’s office, hoping to see Jacqueline Ramor cross the town square before she entered Sugar Maple Town Hall. Carissa needed more than a moment, though, to face the stylish-boyfriend-stealing-Judas Jackie. After all, even a decade hadn’t soothed the wounds of a friend’s betrayal.
Despite no sign of Judas below, Carissa remained at her perfect vantage point to see the town goings-on. That was probably why Mayor Horton always knew town business and why the mayor’s office had this prime spot. Carissa spotted one of her four childhood besties, Felicia, remove the last poinsettia from the foot of the Sugar Maple, Tennessee sign. Sensible Felicia, the negotiator of the group, placed the last of the over one hundred flowers that had decorated the town for the holidays on a cart. The cart squeaked, the sound echoing up to the third story window where Carissa stood, and the negotiator headed toward the courthouse for their meeting, undoubtedly to, well…negotiate a partnership of sorts.
Frost crusted the edges of glass near the faded white window molding. Carissa didn’t like the cold, sleet-covered, brown grass winter. Everyone saw January as the beginning. She saw it as an end.
The memories of dinner ten years ago threatened to darken her mood, but she pushed the anger and resentment away. January was a difficult enough month to face. The month she wished they could skip. The first month of the year meant the end of her busiest season, the end of holiday cheer, and the end of her relationship with the man she was supposed to grow old with.
Carissa glanced around the open square one last time for Judas Jackie, but there was no sign of her. It wouldn’t be long, though. The once Fabulous Five who ruled the halls of Sugar Maple High School would crowd begrudgingly into Ms. Horton’s county office to discuss the scheme to secure the town’s future.
The sound of laughter and greetings echoed up the stairs from the entryway, warning that the commotion of past friendship turned frenemy was approaching. Carissa rubbed her belly, attempting to free the knots twisting her insides.
There would be snide remarks with a smile and underhanded nudges to provoke arguments, but no one would fully engage in war. Not in front of their childhood mentor, and former teacher, Mayor Horton. Of course, she’d always be Ms. Horton to the five of them and a second mother to Carissa. Especially after taking her in when her parents left her behind.
The woman was a force of power but with a pleasing disposition and a model look to her. She was the only woman who had vibrant sliver hair that made her look young and lively instead of aged.
“Don’t look so glum and lost over there, sweet Carissa. We need your expertise. This is going to be an amazing opportunity, not only to revive the economy of the town, but to make your bakery explode with business year-round.” Ms. Horton’s soothing voice drew Carissa from her moment of self-pity. A place she only allowed herself to dwell in once a year, but even now she didn’t like visiting the empty space of loss and regrets.
“I’m not. I just think you’re overestimating me and this meeting. You and I both know how this will go.” Carissa didn’t need to explain. They both knew the proverbial lines that would be drawn in the office with Judas Jackie and Southern Belle Mary-Beth on one side, and Carissa and Sassy Stella on the other, with the negotiator Felicia firmly planted in the center.
Stella marched into the room with her tied-back, crow-colored hair sticking out in puffs around her ears. She joined Carissa on the far side as if an X marked her spot by Carissa’s side. She crossed her blue overall-clad arms as an armor against what was yet to come. She was Carissa’s Judas Jackie shield.
“Maybe she thinks this is a waste of time. Time we could be spending working and earning money to survive instead of fantasizing about some rich producer deciding to bless us with his all-mighty presence,” Stella said in her sassy tone with a thickened Latina accent she reserved for special combative opportunities.
“I have to agree with Stella. Not in the same words, mind you.” Carissa tucked her hair behind her ear and drew in a bitter breath. “It’s just that we all know that you concocted this plan not just to save the town but to bring us girls together. You succeeded in doing that. Jackie opened the dress store, so she’ll be staying, and Mary-Beth opened the coffee shop. Not to mention that Felicia’s plant nursery is doing well. See, you got all five of us back home.”
“Geographically you’re close, but fences haven’t been mended.” Ms. Horton tsked. “And all because of a stupid boy.”
Her words sent a winter blast through Carissa. Ms. Horton never understood that her life had been shattered that day. Not from the boy but the betrayal of the friend who took him. That was a sin beyond what any love interest could do to her.
“I disagree.” Stella sat uncharacteristically straight with a Cheshire cat smile.
“Really?” Ms. Horton’s eyes-wide, mouth-open expression had to match Carissa’s own.
Stella shrugged. “Sure. The fence is as strong now as it was the day we met. Barbed wire strewn between white picket fences and roughhewn poles.”
She had a point. The first day of kindergarten Jackie had tried to braid Stella’s hair and ended up with finger paint down her white dress.
“You don’t give yourself enough credit.” Ms. Horton rounded her desk in her typical pencil skirt, button-up, and solid two-inch heels. “You aren’t so rough around the edges anymore.”
“I was thinking that was Jackie, but whatever.” Stella shrugged and studied the oil grease under her nails. Good thing Jackie wasn’t in the room to point out her flaws.
Ms. Horton patted Stella’s arm and then returned to her desk, sliding her glasses on and looking down at her laptop. “You’ll have to put your differences aside and work together when the Executive Production Supervisor arrives.”
“An executive what?” Stella asked in her best Knox-style tone, despite the fact she was born and raised in Sugar Maple.
Carissa wanted to laugh, but she stifled it at the sound of approaching heavy boot steps that had to be Felicia in her work galoshes. Sure enough, she appeared with Southern Belle Marry-Beth at her side, leaving only Judas to make her fashionably late entrance.
An uneasiness settled in the pit of Carissa’s stomach.
Stella cleared her throat as fast as Carissa cleared her grin. “It’s five minutes past. I have work to get back to, you know.”
Sensible Felicia sat in the cream-colored neutral zone chair she’d claimed since day one of planning this crazy scheme to save little Sugar Maple from bankruptcy. Perhaps growing up in a mixed-race household and learning to navigate the prejudice of an ill-educated network of small-town teens was what molded her into such an amazing peacekeeper. Her features were beyond exotic, but she had never learned to embrace her unique beauty.
“We’re only five minutes late. I had to close up shop, and I couldn’t throw my customer out. Believe it or not, you’re not the only one who has to work to earn a living around here,” Mary-Beth said in the sweetest southern tone while she toyed with her earring, which they all knew meant she was nervous. That was the problem with childhood friends turned enemies… There was way too much ammo you could shoot at each other in an argument.
“Wasn’t talking about you two,” Stella said in a less hostile tone than expected.
“Jacqueline will be here soon.” Ms. Horton pressed on with a hint of irritation in her voice. “As I was saying, we need to get organized before the show executive arrives.”
Carissa’s desire to escape this redundant and hopeless friend-forced meeting kicked up her irritation. “You mean more prepared than November 1st when we spent two days decorating the square with extra carved pumpkins to create the right scene for the production, or do you mean December 19th, when you had us painting pine trees with fake white snow and assembling nutcrackers in the sleet at two in the morning?”
Jacqueline sauntered into the room with a perfected aristocratic snicker. “Wow, look at Ms. Sweet, who never says an ill-word to anyone, channeling her inner Stella.”
Felicia shot up from the chair and stood between them. “Great, we’re all here now. Let’s get started.”
Ms. Horton cleared her throat. “I know we’ve had some setbacks, but this time will be different. In November they had a corporate restructuring, and in December they had to pull it because of taking on a special with Hallmark Movies.”
Jackie set her designer handbag down on Ms. Horton’s desk and posed with her hip out to one side and her nose in the air. “If you say January is a new year for new things, you’re going to send Carissa into a baking frenzy.”
Carissa rubbed a smudge of flour from her knuckle. She didn’t want Jackie to see she’d already visited Crazy Town baking today, because then she’d know the truth. Her boyfriend runaway move still hurt.
Mary-Beth fidgeted with one of her eight bracelets. The girl loved her jewelry. Somehow she could wear dozens of pieces and still look perfectly put together. “January isn’t so bad. It brings snow and hot chocolate.”
Carissa couldn’t hold it in any longer. “This is the month when everyone’s Christmas-spirt-covered lies turn to icing winter truths.”
The smile on Jackie’s face drove her insides to pre-heat, but when Stella cracked her knuckles, Carissa knew she had to remain calm if for no other reason than to help Ms. Horton. She owed her that much after all she’d done when Carissa was younger, taking her in when her family transferred out of town so that she could remain with her four best friends in high school.
“You’re up first, Carissa.” Ms. Horton put her arm around Carissa and snugged her close.
“Me?” Her stomach rolled and fizzed and tightened.
“Why would she be up first?” Jackie’s snotty, slight-British-wannabe accent made the fizzing turn to a boil. “I mean, we all know that I should be the first spotlight segment on the new Knox Brevard project. I’m the only one with big city experience and corporate clients, and we all know I can keep a man interested.”
Stella sat forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “A man-stealing, failed wannabe New York fashionista—”
“Ladies, please. We’re getting off topic. The exec requested to meet with the bakers first.” Ms. Horton abandoned Carissa’s side so that she could keep the peace. The woman was either brave or crazy. When she had her mind set on something, though, she was like a dog with a prime rib bone wrapped in bacon and dipped in peanut butter.
“That doesn’t make any sense.” Carissa didn’t want to admit it aloud, but Jacqueline was the obvious choice for first up on the show. After all, that was the big start. The introduction episode that dove into an in-depth hour-long special about a specific business, the owner, and how it was the heart of the town. The one that launched mini-segments with only highlights of the other town stores in twenty-minutes or less. “You’d think they’d want to start with something more exciting and trending than a bakery.”
“Wait, you said bakers. As in plural,” Felicia said.
“Why yes… Remember, this is a competition. Renee Wilson and her girls are all competing, remember?” Ms. Horton strutted to the window as if to add tension to her words. “I’m sure that I can arrange for Tabitha to meet with Drew Lancaster first. Maybe you won’t even have to be bothered if she wins him over.”
Ms. Horton threw down the preschool anti-pretentious pact. The only thing that would reunite the Fabulous Five against a common enemy. Based on the sour expressions on the other faces in the room, Carissa wasn’t the only one who had caught on.
“Pulling out that card, are we?” Jackie asked, more of a rhetorical statement than an actual question.
“We need to convince him to start with someone else besides me.” Carissa shot Stella a pleading stare.
“Drew Lancaster insisted that we start with a bakery.” Ms. Horton picked up a pen, the gold one that all of the girls had chipped in for before they graduated high school. It was a promise to her that they would always remember what she’d taught them.
“Drew Lancaster? His name even sounds like a pompous jerk.” Stella grunted for extra emphasis. “If we can’t meet for five minutes, then how can we work together for five months?”
“Listen, I realize these corporate types need to be treated as if they’re everything in the world, so don’t worry about it. I’ll just send him to Tabitha,” Ms. Horton said in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Like a toddler still on a pacifier,” Stella muttered under her breath.
She protested too much, which meant she needed this more than she would admit. They all knew her business was struggling the most in recent years. And even after all this time, as much as Carissa held so much resentment toward Jackie, she still couldn’t let the rest of her childhood friends lose to their arch enemies. No way would she allow them to win this program. Maybe if she spoke to this exec, she could convince him to start with one of the other girls first…another of the Fabulous Five. “Fine, I’ll meet with the glorified party planner.” Carissa realized that Jackie had a point. She did sound more like Stella than herself today. Good, maybe it was time for Carissa to give up her sweet-doormat title. It was time to take a walk and cool off before she met with this Drew character, so she turned on her heels and smacked into something hard and large. She rubbed her nose free of sting and blinked up at a perfect stranger. Perfect height, perfect hair, perfect lips.
“You okay there?” His deep voice closed in around her.
Space. That’s what she needed. She moved away and took a breath. A breath of Ode de Mysterious with an undertone of trouble. After a moment, she managed to turn her January gloom into a friendly welcome. “Yes, I am now. Thank you. Sorry. Who are you?”
He quirked an attitude-changing grin at her. “I’m the pompous, glorified party planner, toddler, stuck-on-a-pacifier Drew Lancaster.”