"This was another feel-good story from Tilly Tennant. It felt like diving in a book with long lost friends and with the warmth and cosiness emanating from the bakery you can't help but feel like you are 'at home' with this delightful story. "Krafti Reader
It’s time to get toasty by the fire with a glass of mulled wine and a slice of chocolate yule log sprinkled with a little romance. Welcome to Christmas at the Little Village Bakery.
Snow is falling in Honeybourne and Spencer is bringing home his American fiancée Tori for a traditional English Christmas with all the trimmings. But when his hippie mum and dad meet her high-maintenance parents, sparks of the wrong sort start to fly. Then Spencer bumps into his first love Jasmine and unexpected feelings come flooding back.
Millie is run off her feet with Christmas orders at the Little Village Bakery and new baby Oscar. Thank goodness her cousin Darcie is here to help her. Although she does seem to be rather flirty with Millie’s boyfriend Dylan.
Will Darcie ever find true love of her own? And is marrying Tori a terrible mistake for Spencer if his heart is with someone else?
A heartwarming Christmassy romantic comedy, perfect for fans of Carole Matthews and Milly Johnson.
Release date: September 16, 2016
Print pages: 322
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Christmas at the Little Village Bakery
It felt like the world had been muffled. Their breath rose in plumes into the air against a landscape that was white as far as the eye could see. Gentle feathers of snow fell silently, frosting their coats and hair.
Tori gripped Spencer’s hand tighter and he looked down at her with a broad grin as they trudged along the path that led to the Old Bakery, his unruly black hair peeking out from beneath a woolly hat and his startling blue eyes alive with humour. Her tiny frame was bundled up in a huge padded coat, and he could barely see her flame-red hair beneath the hat and scarf wrapped around it, but the perfect nose that turned up a little at the end, and the blue eyes set in a face that looked a good deal younger than her twenty-eight years, peeked out at him from the layers, and he couldn’t think of a time when she had looked lovelier.
As he drew in a lungful of frosty air, he was filled with joy to see the paths and fields of Honeybourne that meant they were home – at least, his home; though, in time, he hoped that it might become hers too. He had enjoyed his time in Colorado teaching on the exchange programme at a school in Boulder – aside from being the place where he had found Tori it was a beautiful part of the world – but he had been away for over a year, apart from the one brief visit in the spring for the opening of the Old Bakery, and a year was a long time to be parted from the place he felt rooted to.
‘I bet you didn’t expect to go from snow in Boulder to more snow here,’ he said.
‘You get snow in England too.’
‘Yeah, but usually at Easter, not Christmas,’ Spencer laughed. ‘One of the supreme ironies of all those songs about white Christmases is that in real life you don’t get a flake of the stuff until at least March.’
‘I can deal with snow. It’ll shake the jet lag off a bit.’
‘Maybe we should have had another snooze at home before venturing out to meet everyone,’ Spencer said thoughtfully. ‘I’m sure they would have understood if we’d put off the reunions until we were feeling right.’
‘Best way to deal with jet lag is to battle through it,’ Tori announced stoically. ‘When you’re exhausted, your body won’t care whether it thinks it’s bedtime or not.’
‘If you say so. And is the jet lag being shook off?’
‘Not really,’ Tori grinned. ‘I never said it was a foolproof plan.’
‘Maybe it’s the wrong sort of snow… How’s our English snow holding up against your American stuff?’
‘It’s a bit wet.’
‘Don’t you dare add anything to that about it being like the English people…’
‘I would never say that,’ Tori smiled. ‘I love the English people. One in particular I love more than anyone in the world…’
Spencer’s grin widened, and he gave her hand a squeeze. He’d waited so long to hear those words. ‘I love you too,’ he said.
She turned to him with an impish gleam in her eye. ‘Oh, did you think I meant you? I was talking about your friend, Millie, obviously. After all, anyone who can make chocolate cake like she does has to be worthy of my love.’
Spencer bent to kiss her lightly on the lips. They were cold, but yielded and warmed beneath his own. ‘That’s exactly why I love you, chocolate cake or no. And you’re really getting the hang of the British sarcasm thing.’
‘I’m not sure that’s a compliment.’
‘Of course it is.’
Tori raised her eyebrows. The action was just about visible below the rim of her red and blue reindeer-motif bobble-hat. ‘Is that the British sarcasm thing?’
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘Then you’d better watch it, buster. We may not have sarcasm in Boulder but we do have fists.’
Spencer threw back his head and laughed. The sound echoed down the frozen lane. Then he scooped Tori into his arms and planted another kiss on her lips, this one more passionate than the last. ‘I really do love you, Tori Annabelle Dempsey.’
‘Hey…’ She smiled as she pulled away, catching her breath. ‘If you do that again we might not make it to the bakery.’
‘I’m sure they won’t mind if we’re late.’
‘That’s rude. Didn’t your parents teach you anything?’
‘You can ask them in a couple of days when they arrive back from Spain.’
Tori’s smile faded. ‘You think they’ll like me?’
‘Of course they’ll like you. Quite frankly, I don’t care anyway. I love you, and that’s the only thing that matters.’
‘You didn’t say that when you were stressing about meeting my parents.’
‘It just is. Your parents are… Well, let’s just say they take a lot more impressing than mine will. And fathers are always more protective of daughters, aren’t they?’
Spencer nodded as he set her on the path again.
‘I don’t buy it,’ Tori said. ‘Your parents will be just as tough to crack as mine were.’
‘Ah, so you do admit that your parents are tough!’
‘Maybe a little.’
Spencer grinned. But then it disappeared. It was bad enough that his parents were going to meet Tori and her parents for the first time, but his anxieties weren’t helped by the fact that Tori’s parents had met Spencer once before and made it quite clear they hated him. But he tried not to dwell on that. Tori had told him not to worry, and briefly explained that it was all to do with some guy named Hunter that they had earmarked as a potential husband for her. It wasn’t Spencer’s fault that he wasn’t Hunter, she’d told him, but in time they would get over that. Maybe he could salvage things over Christmas, when people were feeling a little more charitable and disposed to love their fellow men?
‘Maybe we should have done all this before we set a date for the wedding,’ he said. ‘What if our parents don’t like each other?’
‘Well, at least they won’t have to see much of each other as yours live in Spain and mine live in Colorado.’
‘That will certainly put paid to a life of weekend bridge tournaments.’
‘Never mind that, what if they hate each other and it ruins Christmas for everyone?’ Tori asked, anxiety creeping into her tone for the first time. ‘We can always “forget” to ask them to the wedding, but they’re already on their way for Christmas so there’s no saving that.’
‘My mum would never speak to me again if we didn’t ask them to the wedding and Dad always takes her side over everything.’
‘Neither would my mom but I’m still prepared to risk it if you are.’
Spencer tried to smile but he couldn’t. He wanted to believe it was just because his face was so cold. ‘I’m sure it will be fine.’
‘No, you’re not. You’re chewing your lip.’
He clamped his mouth shut and pulled her close. ‘This is our first Christmas together – at least officially – and I won’t let anyone spoil that, parents or otherwise.’
‘I know, I feel the same way. Maybe that’s why we’re both blowing this thing way out of proportion. I’m sure the folks will get along just fine…’ She reached up to kiss him.
‘You’re right,’ he smiled, glancing up at the sky. ‘We’d better get moving – I’m sure this snow is getting worse. And there is absolutely nobody else daft enough to be out in it, so we could freeze to death on this lane and nobody would find us until morning.’
‘Our passion would keep us warm.’
Spencer raised his eyebrows. ‘Is that an attempt at sarcasm again? Because if it’s not that’s the cheesiest thing I’ve ever heard!’
‘Of course,’ she grinned. ‘But I’d still be willing to test the theory.’
‘It would certainly make for an interesting find when someone stumbles across our frozen corpses.’
‘So you don’t want to stay out and make snow angels?’
‘I’m British. We do tax returns, bad customer service, good tea and late trains. We do not do snow angels.’
Tori bent to scoop up a handful of snow. ‘Yeah?’ she giggled, ‘How about snowball fighting? Do you do that, Johnny English?’
‘Oh, we do that alright. Are you issuing a challenge, Uncle Sam?’
‘That’s Aunt Sam, if you don’t mind. And yes, I am!’
‘You do know I’m a specialist in what’s known in these parts as the White Death, don’t you?’
She narrowed her eyes. ‘What does that mean?’
‘It means this!’ Spencer scooped her up again and swung her into a snow bank before leaping on top of her and kissing her all over her face. She squealed and tried to push him off, laughing uncontrollably as she did.
‘Is this really the White Death?’
‘Well, I did moderate it a bit for you. I didn’t usually snog the boys at our school in the snow bank, but that’s because none of them were quite as hot as you.’
‘Spencer!’ Tori shrieked as he nuzzled his face into her neck and began to nibble her ears. ‘We’ll be late!’
‘It’s your fault – you issued the challenge!’
‘But you said you didn’t want to freeze to death!’ she giggled.
‘Ah, but we wouldn’t freeze that quickly…’
‘Ok! You win! I give up!’
They were still kissing when an amused voice interrupted. Spencer shot up to find his best friend, Dylan, wrapped in an enormous, down-filled coat, grinning at them.
‘Mr Johns! And Miss Dempsey! Just imagine if the children of Riversmeet Elementary School could see you now…’
‘Very funny, Dylan,’ Spencer said, hauling a blushing Tori to her feet and dusting the snow from her.
‘Not when you get pneumonia it won’t be. And I thought I’d had sex in some weird places.’
‘We weren’t having sex!’ Spencer replied indignantly.
‘It looked like you were about to,’ Dylan replied carelessly. ‘Not my business, of course, but it’s lucky I came along to spare your blushes.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘It means that Ruth Evans is about ten minutes behind me – I passed her on the way out to find you. She’d have had the time of her life spreading the news of that little peep show around the village. She’s so old now that any hint of sexual activity has to be had vicariously, and boy must she miss it – she’s obsessed with how much everyone else is getting.’
Spencer shot an alarmed glance at Tori, but she simply bit back a grin.
‘Remind me – who’s Ruth Evans?’ she asked.
‘You mean you don’t remember her from earlier in the year when we came to the bakery opening?’ said Spencer. ‘She grilled you mercilessly as soon as she found out we were dating. She’s the biggest busybody on the planet!’
‘Certainly the biggest gossip in Honeybourne,’ added Dylan.
Tori scrunched her nose up. ‘Oh!’ she said suddenly. ‘Not that little old lady who drank everyone under the table and then asked me the most personal list of questions ever.’
‘That sounds about right. Once met never forgotten.’
‘Well, if you want to avoid a repeat of that little conversation you’d better get moving right now,’ Dylan said, gesturing to the road behind him.
‘Right you are,’ Spencer said, glancing at Tori with some alarm. But then he relaxed into a grin, and turned to Dylan again, who was now grinning too. ‘It’s bloody good to see you!’ he cried, hugging his friend.
Dylan slapped him on the back, laughing. ‘Of course it is! How was the flight?’
‘Good,’ Spencer said. ‘We couldn’t sleep a wink last night, though, and it was so weird to be back in my old house after being away for so long. All the noises are wrong and the shadows are in the wrong places.’
‘Are you sure you’ve gone back to the right house?’ Dylan laughed as he hugged Tori and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
‘How come you’re out here anyway?’ Spencer asked. ‘I thought we agreed to come and meet you at the bakery.’
‘We did, but Millie got worried because you hadn’t arrived yet and sent me out to look for you. She thought you’d got stuck in the snow or something; you know how she frets about everyone. Turns out she was half right.’
‘We’d better hurry,’ Tori said, her expression suitably repentant now. ‘I’d hate to be the one to stress her out – you both have enough to worry about with baby Oscar.’
‘Tell me about it,’ Dylan replied as they began to walk.
‘Still keeping you up at night?’ Spencer asked.
‘And some. Night, day… you name it, that boy is awake. The health visitor says to sleep when he sleeps. Easy enough if you’re a cat, but a human needs a bit more than ten minutes at a time – especially this human. Millie is like death warmed up. I don’t know what we’d have done with the bakery if Darcie hadn’t arrived to help. She really is a gift from the heavens.’
‘I can’t wait to meet her,’ Tori put in, ‘I’ve heard so much about this little dynamo of a girl.’
‘I’m not sure we can call her girl anymore,’ Dylan laughed. ‘She is actually twenty-two, she just looks about twelve. She works hard in the kitchens, though, the customers have all taken to her and she’s sensible – you can trust her with anything and know that she won’t cock it up. She came just to help with the baking at first, but she’s fast becoming indispensable in just about every other area, including helping with Oscar. She’s just brilliant and Millie loves her to bits.’
‘So it hasn’t been too much of a problem having her stay at your place?’ Spencer asked.
‘Not at all,’ Dylan replied. ‘It’s a shame we don’t have my old cottage across the way anymore but we’ve built a little annexe-type arrangement at the back of the bakery and she seems happy enough there. It’s got its own door, a wet room and it’s rent-free to boot – and you don’t get rent-free very often these days so I should think she would be.’
‘Is she coping ok with being so far from home?’ Spencer asked.
‘She seems to be. It’s probably not my place to say, but I think she was a bit relieved to get away. She doesn’t talk much about it but I don’t think she always sees eye to eye with her parents. Dad’s a bit of a loser – more interested in his pigeons than other people, and her mother’s a nervy type…’ Dylan rubbed his chin. ‘Come to think of it, Darcie can be a bit nervy too. I suppose that’s where she gets it from. I don’t think either of them have been parents of the year. Still, Millie being Millie took a real shine to Darcie growing up and took her under her wing – shopping trips and sleepovers and such – got her out of the house, you know? They were pretty close by all accounts and I think Darcie missed her a lot when she moved here.’
‘Is it her mum or dad who’s related to Millie?’ Spencer asked.
‘Jane, Darcie’s mum. She’s Millie’s mum’s sister.’
‘But the sisters are not alike?’
Dylan shrugged. ‘No idea. Sounds like Millie’s mum was a bit of a loose cannon too, but I only have stories to go by – she hasn’t been in touch with Millie for years. I don’t know what went on but she upped and left Millie’s dad when Millie was twenty-two and nobody knows where she is now, apart from a vague idea that she might be living somewhere around the Snowdonia area. Millie tried to find her at first but kept coming to dead ends, so maybe she just didn’t want to be found.’
‘The same age as Darcie is now,’ Spencer said thoughtfully. ‘You know, she’s never mentioned to me that her mother had taken off.’
‘Keeps it to herself – doesn’t want everyone thinking she’s bleating about it.’
‘It must be hard, knowing that she can’t let her know she has a grandson, too,’ Tori said.
‘I asked Millie if she wanted to try again, after Oscar was born,’ Dylan said. ‘I offered to help trace her. But she wants to leave things be.’
‘If that’s the way she copes then maybe it’s best we don’t say anything about it,’ Spencer replied.
‘It’s good that you’re looking out for her,’ Tori said. ‘And for Darcie too.’
‘Well, we try our best. You know Millie, she loves looking after people – would give Mother Teresa a run for her money – so she’s loving having Darcie around, though I’m not quite sure who needs who the most sometimes. Which reminds me… Millie says it’s a bit late in the afternoon for lunch, but she’ll put nibbles on and make a proper dinner later on this evening. That’s assuming you can both stay awake that long.’
‘Cheeky bastard!’ Spencer laughed. ‘We’re not that old and infirm yet!’
‘He meant we might be tired from the flight,’ Tori said.
‘No, I didn’t,’ Dylan fired back impishly. ‘You may not be old and boring yet, Tori, but this git certainly is! He’s pretending to be exciting to impress you, but you’ll soon find out.’ He dodged Spencer’s flailing arm as he tried to land a playful punch, laughing, and they continued on their way.
They were all in good spirits as they fought their way through ever increasing flurries and drifts that had built up along the buried hedgerows, bordering white fields and frozen waterways. Despite the fact that Tori and Spencer were quite wet, they were all laughing uncontrollably at one of Dylan’s racier jokes by the time they arrived at the Old Bakery. Or home, as Dylan called it. As he had warned, they briefly encountered Ruth Evans, Honeybourne’s own Olympic-standard gossip, who had been delighted to see Spencer home for the holidays, and with Tori in tow, but had then quickly tried her best to draw them into some speculative conversation about whether Colleen, the landlady of the Dog and Hare, had treated herself to a facelift or not. Dylan had tactfully excused them by explaining that Millie was waiting for them so they could start dinner.
‘Oh!’ Ruth had exclaimed, ‘I could have helped her with dinner! I bet she’s rushed off her feet as it is!’
Nobody was fooled for a second, even Tori who had met Ruth only once before. Not only would Ruth have helped to cook dinner, but she would have wanted to stay and eat it too. There were some gatherings that were sacred, and this was one of them. Millie, Dylan and Spencer had faced a world of troubles in the past and come through it all together, and friends didn’t get much closer than that.
As Dylan opened the front door, Millie looked up, her face bright with expectation, and broke into a huge smile as the blast of arctic air from outside brought with it Spencer, the friend who had been perhaps her biggest and most solid rock on her arrival in Honeybourne; a time when the fabric of her life had been in tatters. She couldn’t have looked more different from the woman he had met eighteen months before. Her dark hair was still sleek, but she wore it longer than the bob she used to have; she’d put on a few pounds with pregnancy, but it suited her. She still had an astonishing feline beauty, but now it was warmer and softer. Another girl stood next to her, a slightly shorter, less obviously beautiful copy, but pretty in her own way. Spencer had to assume that this was Millie’s cousin, Darcie – the family resemblance was so obvious. She held a baby in her arms and watched quietly as Millie let out a squeal of delight and threw herself at the newcomers.
‘Spencer!’ she cried, wrapping her arms around him and hugging him tight. He picked her up and swung her around, laughing. When he put her down, she went to Tori next and offered her a hug. It was a slightly more restrained version for someone she knew less well, but there was no mistaking the warmth in it just the same.
‘It’s so good to see you,’ she said, stepping back, her face split into a huge smile. ‘I can’t wait to hear all about how life is treating you in Colorado.’
‘I think you’ve seen almost everything on Facebook,’ said Spencer, smiling.
‘Well, you can tell me again over tea. I’ve made mince pies too.’
‘You’ve baked?’ Tori asked. ‘Wow, how have you had the time?’ She nodded her head to where the other girl was holding the baby. ‘Is this Oscar?’
‘Oh!’ Millie laughed, skipping over to take the child into her own arms. ‘Yes… Spencer, Tori – meet Oscar Hopkin-Smith!’ She kissed his head tenderly and smiled up at them with obvious pride.
‘He’s gorgeous!’ Tori crooned, stepping closer and peering down at him.
‘He must take after his mother then,’ Spencer said.
‘Oi!’ Dylan laughed. ‘He must take after both of us.’
‘Um… No, just Millie.’ Spencer grinned. ‘So, how old is he now?’
‘Two months. He’s still a bit tiny because he was a few weeks premature but he can’t half pack away the milk,’ Dylan said, with more than a little pride in his voice.
The baby gnawed on a fist as he stared up at the new faces. ‘He’s going to want feeding again soon,’ Millie commented to no one in particular. ‘I never knew that babies could eat so much.’
‘Well, he is Dylan’s after all,’ Spencer said. ‘I’m surprised he hasn’t asked you for a can of Heineken yet.’
‘I’m saving a special one for his first birthday,’ Dylan said.
‘I bet that’s not even a joke,’ Spencer replied.
It was then that everyone seemed to remember the sixth person in the room.
‘Oh, I’m so sorry, Darcie!’ Millie said, turning to her. ‘I’m so used to everyone knowing who you are in Honeybourne now that I totally forgot you three haven’t met before. Spencer and Tori, this is my cousin, Darcie.’
Darcie put up her hand in a tiny wave, a nervous smile twitching around her mouth. ‘Hello…’
‘The famous Darcie!’ Spencer smiled. ‘We’ve heard so much about you, it’s good to finally meet you in the flesh.’
Darcie turned to Millie with a questioning glance.
‘All good,’ Tori reassured her.
‘In fact, all quite saintly,’ said Spencer.
Dylan strode over and slung an arm around the girl’s shoulder. ‘She’s our angel, aren’t you, Darcie?’
In that instant, Spencer saw it. He’d spent enough years wearing that look of longing that he would have recognised it anywhere. Darcie looked up at Dylan, and it was obvious that she was hopelessly in love with him. Spencer’s own smile faded, but as Millie watched the friendly affection the father of her child offered her younger cousin, she seemed unconcerned. Spencer wished he could feel the same, but he had been friends with Dylan Smith for too long to be able to ignore his past. Dylan looked like a loving partner and doting father, happy with a steady life in a rural bakery, but he was still Dylan. Millie and he were perfect, so good for each other… but Spencer wondered whether Dylan was aware of Darcie’s obvious adoration and if he’d ever be tempted to take advantage of it. He believed that Dylan had changed since Millie had come into his life, but tiny doubts were inevitable when you knew Dylan like Spencer did. What if all it took was an argument, a day when Oscar was being particularly difficult, when perhaps Millie wasn’t feeling quite as amorous as he was… What then?
He tried to shake the thought. He was being unfair to his oldest friend, who looked as happy and contented as he had ever seen him. Love changed people, and nobody knew that better than Spencer.
As Millie busied herself making coffee, Tori took a seat alongside Spencer and took a moment to appraise the bakery. She had seen it before, of course, but only briefly when they had come along to the grand opening – the first and only other time she had visited Spencer’s village. After that they had gone immediately on a very exciting whistle-stop tour of UK landmarks – a time she remembered fondly as involving lots of castle ruins, quaint towns with unpronounceable names, rain, teashops, and sex. She had been taken by surprise with his marriage proposal on the day of the bakery opening, despite saying yes, but during the whirlwind of a vacation that followed, she knew she had made the right choice. Spencer was special, not like the jocks and arrogant go-getters her parents had always done their best to push her in the paths of, and he couldn’t be more different from their particular favourite – Hunter Ford. Ugh! How could they even think that she would be attracted to a man like Hunter for one second? And yet they had been unerringly obsessed by the idea of her marrying him for the last five or so years and it was clearly the reason they were determined to hate Spencer, no matter how they might deny it. Hunter Ford might have been on his way to becoming District Attorney, and he might have been handsome in a very obvious way, but he was pompous, boring and self-absorbed. In contrast, Spencer was thoughtful, intelligent, cultured and humble, with the kindest heart of anyone she had ever met. And as much as she loved her parents, and had always strived to please them in all other things, in this case she had defied them. It didn’t matter that she and Spencer would never live in a five-storey house or send their kids to private school, only that she would have a life she loved with him.
The décor of the bakery had worn into itself a little since her first visit – contrived shabby chic had become real shabby chic; the pastel-painted tables and chairs bore the signs of wear with the odd chip and scuff, and the tablecloths were soft with repeated washing, but the place looked more homely for it. The wooden counter gleamed, a sign that it was polished rigorously on a daily basis, the glass cases displaying the baked goods were spotless and there was a warm, welcoming sweetness to the air. A part of Tori longed for a home like this herself and she could see that Millie and Dylan loved running their little rural business. Perhaps she could find tranquillity and cosiness like this in the wilds of Colorado, even if. . .
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