Sweets and Santa
Christmas magic, mystery, and matchmaking.
Although my recipes are a perfect fit for the town Santa next door, without a budget for ads, I’m counting on word of mouth to drive business during my first Christmas as a bakery owner.
But as things around town start to disappear, it’s all people can talk about as they wait in line for the jolly old elf. Rumors swirl as residents speculate whodunnit. And when one of the missing items is revealed to be an engagement ring last seen in my shop, my reputation is thrown in jeopardy. To save it, I’ll have to crack this case wide open like the tops of my chocolate kringle cookies.
Will a bit of Christmas magic allow me to find the ring—along with the other stolen goods—and win over Heartwood Hollow with my festive treats? Or will my efforts for a sweet holiday season for all earn me a permanent place on the town’s naughty list?
Release date: November 12, 2020
Publisher: Paisley Press Books
Print pages: 160
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Sweets and Santa
The cottage appeared overnight as if by magic in Founder’s Park, the little postage stamp of a park next to my bakery. It was my second holiday season in Heartwood Hollow but the first with my bakery open. Last year at this time, I had only been in town a couple months and was renovating the space I’d leased to convert it from a florist to a bakery. Suncraft Bakery. My bakery. One that had been a dream of mine to open since childhood.
So although I’d seen Santa’s house last year, I didn’t get to experience the full magic of it day in and day out like I was about to. The arrival of the cottage signaled the true start of the holiday season in town with small events happening almost daily, culminating in Santa’s arrival the following weekend, complete with a town parade, carolers, and of course, food.
I couldn’t wait to experience it all.
The only thing that would have made the cottage more magical was some snow, but there was nothing in the forecast for the next several days despite temperatures being cold enough for it. The town would likely put down fake snow or truck in real stuff from farther upstate where the mountains already had plenty.
I couldn’t resist peeking inside the cottage before I unlocked the bakery. I was early anyway, the benefit of living in an apartment on Main Street a few hundred feet from where I worked. My team wasn’t due in for several more minutes, so I brought my face close to the glass, putting my hand up to try to block the minimal glare from the two streetlights bordering the park. Inside, I could just make out the plush wing-back chair where Santa would sit with kids climbing onto his lap to tell him they’d been good children this year and what they’d like to see under the tree. A fireplace stood a few feet away, fake most likely. It hadn’t been lit last year. There was a table with a small printer that would spit out photos of the kids and Santa, a free keepsake offered by the town, although parents could pay for more photos or larger print sizes. Next to the printer on the table sat a cute little gnome, its hat pulled down over its eyes. I wondered if whoever took the photos used it to get kids’ attention so they could snap the perfect picture.
Soon there would be a line out the cottage door. Hopefully many of the kids from that line would then find their way through the door to the bakery.
It was my favorite time of year for baking. I’d been playing with new recipes for a few weeks now, perfecting a holiday lineup. Peppermint cookies with crushed candy canes, cranberry orange cookies, gingerbread men, sugar cookies dipped in white chocolate then decorated to look like snow globes, and more. Today was the first time they’d be sold in the shop, and I couldn’t wait to get started. Ready to start the day, I headed to the back door of the bakery and unlocked it. I flipped on the light switch, taking in the kitchen I’d worked so hard to make mine. It only had three stations, but if this season went well enough, I’d be able to take on another baker.
As I set my bag in the drawer at my station, the door opened, revealing Gina and Bryan, my bakers. Gina had been with me since a few weeks after the bakery opened. Bryan came on mid-summer. I didn’t know much of their backstories yet, but they were both from here, although Gina had spent some time away. Bryan had come to me after it didn’t work out at one of the restaurants on Main Street. I’d been told he was a good worker but had butted heads with another cook. Each cook had believed they’d known better, and even though Bryan actually did know better, according to his former boss, the others on the staff had soured against Bryan, so he was the one to go. So far, I hadn’t seen any behavior like what had been described, but as I told both Bryan and Gina when they came here, this wasn’t just a job. It was a team and a family too.
“Morning, Joanie,” Bryan said, Gina echoing the same a little softer.
“Morning, you two. Did you see the cottage next to the shop? Things are about to get busy here, so I hope you are ready.”
“Absolutely,” Gina replied. “The busier the better.”
“So what are we working on today?” Bryan asked, taking off his coat and then sticking it in the closet.
“We have the usual muffins for the diner, and Libby is offering her first holiday tea and has asked for a bit of help with that, so we’re making cookies for her. Once we’re done with the regular shop offerings, cookies are all we are working on. They are going to be huge this week and all the way through Christmas.”
Bryan and Gina swapped spots at the closet. Gina tucked her hat into the sleeve of her coat before hanging it up. “Sounds good to me. I love a good Christmas cookie.”
I chuckled. “Oh, I’m not settling for good. They will be great cookies.” They had to be.
Gina nodded hard once, then returned to her worktable. She was on scone duty, while Bryan was doing the muffins. I had cupcakes. We didn’t go much beyond this for our regular daily menu, but for the holidays, I had an expanded order ahead menu that included pies, pastries, specialty cakes, and other holiday favorites like yule logs and even fruit cake. But the cookies were by far what would put us over the top.
Shortly before six, I loaded my bike with a muffin delivery for Olde Templeton and Double Aitch diners. My stops at Double Aitch were always quick and uncomplicated, but Olde Templeton had a chance of taking a while.
“I can’t believe you’re still makin’ deliveries on your bike,” Donna said when I walked into the tiny eatery. Olde Templeton was small but cozy with the typical diner vibe and a cup of hot coffee on the counter waiting for me. Its appearance meant Donna had something she wanted to tell me.
I slid up onto the counter stool, placing the boxes of muffins next to the coffee mug. “It’s a bit cold, but the biking warms me up.” I took off my hat and gloves, then picked up the mug. “As does the coffee.” I’d never been much for black coffee, but with a bit of half and half—which also helped it cool down to a drinkable temperature—it wasn’t that bad. Especially on a cold morning like this.
Donna leaned against the counter, a stray brown and silver curl of hair falling in front of her face. She pushed it back behind her ear. “And what are you gonna do when it finally snows?”
“My station wagon is fully outfitted for any type of delivery.” I’d installed the extra straps and buckles all around the floor of the trunk to help keep boxes and cake boards in place. I had no doubt whatever I put in the back of my car would be secure back there.
“Could happen any day now according to my knee.” She grabbed her specials whiteboard from the wall, then popped the cap off a dry erase marker. “So what did you bring today?”
She scribbled furiously as I rattled off the six-flavor list, then as she was popping the lid back onto her marker said, “So I hear Heartwood Hollow is about to have another newly engaged couple, and I have it under good authority that this one is, once again, thanks to you.”
“Oh, really? Who?” I had a pretty good idea considering I’d only matched three couples in town so far, one of which still felt too new to be getting engaged. The other had been engaged since September.
“Well,” Donna began, and I sipped my coffee as she continued, “Walter told me that his wife, Martha, told him that Greta from the historical society saw Drew Craig at Baubles and Bangles lookin’ at rings. And when I asked his grandmother, she confirmed that he’d bought one. He’s such a nice boy, I’m glad Megan makes him so happy.”
“They’re a great couple.” Their match had been instantaneous upon their seeing one another, one of the fastest and strongest I’d ever felt.
“I think Tricia over at Baubles should start giving you commissions. One is a coincidence, might even argue that a second one is too, but I know you got Carl and Beth together earlier this summer too. They’d briefly been sweethearts in high school, but both of them have been gone a few years. Never thought I’d see the two of them together again.”
That must have explained the way their match vibrated through me when it struck. It was weak at first, thready but there. Beth had been hesitant when I said she should go for it. I wondered what had caused them to stop being high school sweethearts. It couldn’t have been too major for the match to still be present on both sides. It wasn’t remotely close to what I believed a broken match felt like.
“Well, I think they make a wonderful couple. I happened to be at the right place at the right time to give them a bit of a shove, that’s all.” A big shove.
Donna quirked an eyebrow at me. “People are already talking about you and how you should set up shop as a matchmaker in addition to your baking. Doesn’t help much that the kids at the high school are asking for your muffins before they go take tests, swearin’ they’re good luck. You ready for that? Finals are coming up.”
“Well, my muffins are good, but I don’t know about good luck.” I took another sip of my coffee, a chuckle playing at my lips.
Donna held up a hand. “Just telling you what I heard, but since the school year picked back up, I’ve had more requests for grilled muffins to go from students than I ever did. That’s why I had to increase my order with you, and I’ve not had a problem with getting rid of them all before lunch.”
I shrugged, grateful that was all the rumors about me said. I could handle being known as a matchmaker. People could accept that as me being good at setting others up. That was how it was in high school when I would convince friends to dance with one another or suggest to a guy that they should ask a particular girl to dance. The same happened at parties in college. Few people thought anything of it.
I wasn’t the first matchmaker in my family. My mom could do it too. She’d matched plenty of people through their love of books and at various programs held by the library where she worked. I’d grown up watching her do it, so it only made sense that I had picked up a few of her people skills. The tingling I felt was just some weird sensation I must have developed as a way to decide who should be with whom. Mom said she felt tingles too. Like mother, like daughter, right?
Donna rapped on the counter. “I should probably let you go. You must have a lot going on with the upcoming Christmas festivities.”
I took one last sip of my coffee, then pulled my wallet out of my purse. “Thanks, Donna. It was good to chat with you.”
She held up her hand. “You know I’m not gonna charge you for the coffee.”
Slipping the wallet back in my bag, I nodded. “Thanks again.” I stood up off the stool, then headed out the diner.
“Hello, Joanie,” Walter said as he and his best friend Paul passed me on their way into Olde Templeton. The two old men were regulars, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to run into them in the mornings, especially on days when Donna bribed me with coffee to stay and chat.
“Have a good one, fellas.” I gave them a small wave before walking around the side of the building where I stowed my bike and trailer to keep it out of the way and a little hidden from anyone passing by on Main Street.
I rode back to the bakery thinking about what Donna had said. Rumors were spreading through town about me. She wasn’t the first one to bring it up. Sarah, my shop assistant, had said as much a few times. It didn’t bother me so much. If people wanted to think my muffins were good luck, who was I to argue? I welcomed them if it meant more people would stop by the shop to buy things. Who wouldn’t want that?
Besides, the rumors could have been a lot worse.
They could have been about my biggest secret. The one thing I could do that made me different. It went way beyond matchmaking. I’d only ever told one friend about my ability and it ended the friendship I’d had since kindergarten. To this day, I didn’t think Ginny had ever told anyone what she knew, likely no one would believe her, but losing my closest friend as a young teen meant I’d probably never tell another soul about what I could do.
Living soul, anyway.
The ghosts only I could see had ways of figuring my ability out on their own, especially when they caught me off guard. There had been some surprises over the years, but they were few and far between. I’d been careful since moving to Heartwood Hollow, and for a place that was crawling with ghosts, I’d done a fairly good job of pretending they weren’t there. And they’d done the same for me.
I pulled into the parking lot behind the bakery, then secured my bike and trailer to a parking pylon close to the door.
Gina and Bryan were just finishing their last batches of breakfast goods as I walked back into the kitchen.
I clapped my hands. “Let’s make some cookies.”
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