The brand-new Cotswold romance from Anita Faulkner, author of A COLOURFUL COUNTRY ESCAPE. Cosy up for chilly winter nights, falling snow and heart-stopping romance - the perfect festive read!
'Cosy, charming and utterly captivating' HEIDI SWAIN
CAN GRETEL FIND THE RECIPE FOR THE PERFECT CHRISTMAS?
The Gingerbread Café is always full of Christmas magic. Come rain or shine (or even a July heatwave), there's always a hot chocolate bursting with cinnamon and marshmallows waiting for you. For introverted Gretel, it's been the perfect escape from 'real life'. The owner, Nell, is Gretel's last link to her late mum, and hiding out at the café feels so much safer than making new friends.
So when Nell suddenly passes, Gretel is left heartbroken. Then she discovers that Nell has left the café to her - but there's a catch. Gretel has to share the running of The Gingerbread Café with the least festive person ever: Nell's nephew, Lukas. Head chef at the local fancy restaurant, Lukas makes it clear he has no time for the café, Gretel or even Christmas itself, and Gretel's too busy struggling to save her burnt batches of gingerbread to work out why.
Gretel is determined to keep Christmas alive and make the café a success before Lukas hands the keys over to the scrooge-like developers. But she can't do it alone; besides an over friendly ferret and a waitress with a secret, the only person she has now is Lukas. Will it take a Christmas miracle to get the pair to finally see eye to eye, or could the ice already be melting?
Packed full of sugar and spice, The Gingerbread Café will tick all the wishes off your Christmas list this festive period. Perfect for fans of Heidi Swain, Jo Thomas and Bella Osborne.
'Don't miss this enchanting sparkly Christmas read . . . grab it as soon as you can and devour, along with a steaming mug of hot chocolate, marshmallows and a gingerbread cookie!' GEORGIA HILL
'A beautiful Christmas story full of love and festive magic' KATIE GINGER
'One of the most beautiful Christmas books I've ever read. Warm, lovely, homely, and filled with community spirit and festive joy in all the right places!' JAIMIE ADMANS
PRAISE FOR ANITA FAULKNER:
'Full of fun and colour' BELLA OSBORNE
'A heart-warming and uplifting romance!' HOLLY MARTIN
'Such a fun ride! Faulkner brings colour and humour to every line' PERNILLE HUGHES
'I absolutely adored this book. Fresh, funny and upbeat' KITTY WILSON
'Pure delight - I loved it!' NICOLA MAY
'Endlessly joy-lit. Bursting with character and warmth' CHRISTIE BARLOW
'A vibrant, charming book. Makes me quite want to take a colourful adventure of my own, especially after these rather beige past couple of years!' ISLA GORDON
Release date: October 27, 2022
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Print pages: 100000
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The Gingerbread Cafe
‘Angel Gabriel!’ Gretel yelped as her pet’s spiky little teeth found flesh. It was an occupational hazard of being maid to an albino ferret with a penchant for toes. Good job she’d never wanted to be a ballerina. But her little man was right: it was time to get up and stop sulking. It had been two weeks since Nell had died. The dear, stubborn thing hadn’t even mentioned the illness until she could no longer hide it. Terminal. Such a loaded word, but her friend wasn’t just off on her travels. She could only wish Nell’s soul had flown somewhere lovely.
Gretel blinked back a tear. At least there was no danger of her feeling this dreadful again. There were no more people to lose, and that was just fine. Really it was.
She jumped up on one leg, trying to gently wriggle Angel Gabriel off the end of the other. When she’d reclaimed her nibbled limb, she padded across her tiny maisonette to the kitchen in her reindeer onesie. Moving aside a small mountain of tissues, she plonked her half-eaten mid-morning snack on the worktop and exhaled. What she really craved was one of Nell’s gorgeously iced gingerbread people, all frilly and smiling, smelling sweetly of nutmeg. But like all of the loveliest things, they would live only in her memory now. She couldn’t even bake.
Gretel shook her head.
‘We must crack on,’ she announced to Angel Gabriel, who probably wasn’t even listening.
It wasn’t her thing to dwell on what she couldn’t do or didn’t have. What she could do was craft. So she should get dressed and get on with it. Creating stained-glass Christmas ornaments had seen her through the darkest of times; those creations were her light.
She picked up her iridescent glass fairy and smiled at her. Brigitte had become her favourite. She’d named her after her Austrian mother, who, like Nell, now hugged only in memories. Then there was dear little Rosa – for ever frozen in Gretel’s thoughts wearing pigtails and a hand-me-down Christmas jumper. A tightness clutched her throat. They said grief was a journey, but when would she be allowed to step away from the path?
Thud, thud, thud. Angel Gabriel arrived at her feet, dragging a pair of crafting pliers in his mouth. She bent down to save her tool and give his snowy white fur a fuss. His warm, fluffy body always felt like a little bag of calm.
‘Thank you, small guy. You’re all I need, huh?’ He didn’t answer, but then he never did say much other than the occasional squeak. She didn’t take it personally. ‘Although a bit more space wouldn’t go amiss.’
Since Nell had passed, her life had suddenly felt so much smaller. Gretel generally steered clear of people, but Nell had been her lifeline, and she’d loved every squishable inch of her. Spreading herself out on one of Nell’s old wooden café tables to craft had become her life. She closed her eyes. The café had been shut since Nell had gone, but she could picture every detail. Its twinkling lights and sweet, spicy smells. Even that cantankerous jukebox. Would she ever get the chance to visit again? Or perhaps Nell’s lifework would be gobbled up and regurgitated into a faceless franchise, selling bitter coffee and factory-packed cakes.
Angel Gabriel tried to grab the pliers again. Gretel rolled her eyes. They didn’t say ferret meant thief for nothing.
‘You think I should commemorate Nell and the café with a glass ornament? I bet you’re missing them too.’
Strictly speaking, ferrets hadn’t been allowed in The Gingerbread Café – something about Environmental Health having a field day if he escaped into the kitchen. In fairness, he had form. But Nell had often turned a blind eye when Gretel snuck him in and left him sleeping under the table in her bag. He seemed to need company a lot more than Gretel did. She couldn’t pretend to understand much about ferrets, although she muddled through. This one had chosen her by looking particularly sorry for himself in an abandoned cardboard box on her way home from the café one blustery night. She’d brought him home and knitted him a fetching snowman jumper and the rest had been history. As much as Gretel tried hard to avoid becoming attached to living creatures, the odd one had the habit of sneaking in. She must keep a stricter eye on that.
Angel Gabriel sniffed his way over to the bags and boxes of craft equipment and handmade ornaments that flanked the room like sandbags. She sold the ornaments in her online shop, and Nell had been great at pushing them onto café customers too, when there’d been any. Maybe if Gretel was brave enough to face selling at markets, she could upgrade to a slightly less crummy home. But unlike her late mother, she wasn’t good with people. She got nervous.
‘We should make a start.’ Gretel climbed over ferret tunnels, empty tissue boxes and bits of discarded knitting projects to reach her crafting stuff. She gave her head a contemplative scratch before pulling open box lids and having a poke. ‘Pencil and paper … ?’
Like all good designers, she’d start with a sketch. She could see it already – the perfect stained-glass gingerbread house to remind her of Nell and her heart-warming café, though she had no idea where she’d display it in this shambles of a maisonette. When ideas came, they flowed quickly. She needed to get scribbling.
‘I’m seeing coloured lights around the door.’ She pointed to Angel Gabriel as though expecting him to find the pad and take notes. ‘And candy canes.’ Gretel remembered Nell’s trademark stripy apron with a pang. ‘A snow-topped roof.’ Was her ferret nodding now? Well, he did love to play in the snow. ‘And a Christmas tree!’
Angel Gabriel gave a small yelp and went to bury his face under a sofa cushion.
Gretel stood up and blinked. Although Nell used to keep the café festive all year long, having a real Christmas tree had been a once-a-year treat. She’d got her nephew to drag one in last year, even though he’d pulled a grumpy face and had sworn a lot. What kind of person didn’t love Christmas? No wonder he’d made her armpits clammy and her face all hot.
‘No Christmas tree,’ she confirmed to Angel Gabriel’s furry bottom. ‘Especially after a certain person nearly murdered my Christmas fairy with one.’
‘Ta-daaaaah!’ Gretel finally rescued her sketchpad and pencil from one of the boxes, which was quite a feat, considering how many there were. They’d surely been sneakily breeding.
Angel Gabriel popped his snowy head up, and apparently noticing Gretel’s tasty pencil, made a leap from the sofa onto the nearest box. Gretel gasped at the sound of tinkling glass beneath him.
‘People in glasshouses shouldn’t have ferrets.’ She scooped him off the box before it caved under his wriggling. That was one less job lot of glass snowmen to worry about.
Who could that be? Gretel narrowed her eyes at the potential intrusion. With a heaviness, she realised she ought to face it. She made her way through the maisonette jungle to the front door, depositing Angel Gabriel safely in his cage as she went. If she’d learned one thing about ferrets, it was that they liked to escape, and it was a Herculean task to find them.
Gretel inched open the front door and a gust of wind blew in. The glass decorations on her plastic Christmas tree shivered in protest. She never had visitors, which was probably just as well. There was barely enough room to swing a ferret as it was; not that she’d ever be so cruel.
‘This one needs to be signed for, miss, if you’ve got a moment.’
It was a young elf of a postman, waving a letter with his red-sleeved arm. She gulped. It looked kind of official. Had she paid that electricity bill? She made a mental note to turn the tree lights off and stop being so frivolous.
As she tried to scratch her signature onto the postman’s tiny screen with a plastic pen, she could sense him gawping over her shoulder.
‘You’re ready for Christmas early. We’re only two days past Halloween.’
Gretel pursed her lips. Who’d sent this cheeky guy? She wouldn’t get this kind of chat from her ordinary postwoman, who knew full well she kept the place like this all year round. And why not? She had her reasons.
But Gretel gave a faint smile and hoped that was the end of it. That was people for you. They rarely meant any harm, but it was simpler not to befriend them unless you had to. It invariably ended in awkwardness or feeling exceptionally sad. She handed back the screen and took the letter.
‘Mistletoe too. Who are you planning to kiss this year?’
‘No one!’ She hadn’t meant for it to come out like a bark. She muttered an apology.
The postman took a step back and held his hands up. ‘OK, miss. Just joking with you. Didn’t mean to hit a nerve.’
He hadn’t hit a nerve. Had he? She’d chosen this quieter life, after all. She looked at him, all Bambi eyes and bumfluff beard. He could only be about seventeen. When she was that age, she’d lost her mum and Rosa. Nearly a decade had hurtled past, and yet most days she still felt stranded in her late teens too. Most people mistook her for younger than her twenty-six years, although if she did insist on dressing like a reindeer …
She cleared her throat and found a faint smile. She wasn’t a natural with people, but she couldn’t stand to make any creature feel bad. She wasn’t the Grinch.
‘It’s fine,’ she told him. ‘I’m not offended. Anyway, the mistletoe’s made of glass. It just … lives there.’ It hung from the rickety light fitting and looked kind of sparkly when the lights were on. Not that it was her job to educate him on pretty decor.
And she didn’t need to explain why her life had no space for smooching under parasitic plants, even if they did look cute in winter. Tradition had it that you had to pick off one berry for every person you kissed. She had no time for sharing her berries.
‘Awesome,’ he replied, looking relieved that his runaway mouth hadn’t got him into trouble. ‘Hope Santa’s sent you something nice.’ He pointed to the envelope in Gretel’s hand.
Did nice things arrive by official-looking letter? It was no Christmas parcel with sweet little robin paper. Wouldn’t Santa have at least added a bow?
‘Merry Christmas,’ she wished him as she closed the door. It might have been a bit early, but you never could be sure when you’d see people again. If at all.
And you never could tell when the contents of a letter, hand-delivered by a red-coated elf with bum fluff, could change things for ever.
Condolences, et cetera. Really?
As much as Gretel had promised herself not to get too judgey before she’d even arrived at the mysterious meeting, she was not convinced she’d find much love for Mr Birdwhistle (Junior) and his funny formal lingo.
As she trotted the short distance to the café on that fresh November morning, she wondered for the one millionth time what this gathering was about. Why would Nell’s last wishes involve her? And who was this Mr L. Knight who’d been copied in on the solicitor’s letter? Would he be there too?
She reached Green Tree Lane and found herself stepping into the cobbled road to avoid an arm-in-arm couple. The quaint streets were beginning to get busier in the run-up to the Christmas shopping period, even if it never seemed to be as buzzing as years gone by. She realised she’d barely been out in the month or so since Nell had died. The sight of other humans made her want to shrink into her own skin a little at the best of times.
Oh, but Green Tree Lane. Though the day was chilly and the breeze nipped in through the hand-knitted stitches of her penguin jumper dress, in years gone by, this cosy street would have effortlessly warmed her heart. It used to be decked out for Christmas with red and green lights strung between the old-fashioned lamp posts and dotted through the trees like berries. The shop owners would fuzz up the panes of their casement windows with fake snow. And the trademark Christmas tree, which stood proudly in the centre of the pedestrianised street, would be resplendent in a blanket of twinkling silver lights. When did all of that slip away? Now all that remained were a few sorry lights on the tree.
Gretel noticed the pace of her furry snow boots slowing as she reached the front of The Gingerbread Café. She almost couldn’t bear to see it. The warm glow of Nell’s year-round festive lights used to radiate onto the street like the glimmer of toasty embers, but today Gretel didn’t even want to take her mittens off. Every inch of the Cotswold stone felt cold. Even the holly wreaths in the windows now looked like a sad tribute to times gone by, rather than an evergreen celebration of Gretel’s precious yuletide. Underneath the café’s name, the sign promised Festive Cheer All Through the Year. Where was that cheer now?
She stole a look through the window, eager to get a preview of what might await before the street’s clock struck eleven. But all she could see were … ghosts? No, wait. They were stark white dust sheets, covering the furniture like time was on hold. She took a deep breath and blew it out hard, knowing the simple process would help calm her. As she used her mitten to circle off the patch of her own steamy breath on the window, she strained to get a better look. The haunting apparitions were moving now, as a tall, thin man snatched them up and bundled them under one arm, contrasting against the black of his too-large suit.
‘Is there a Quickie Café around here, love? People need coffee.’
Gretel jumped, a hand flying to her chest. It was just the shopping couple, bundling in close to the window. Gretel inched away, keen for some space.
‘Erm. None of those around here. Sorry!’ And she hoped there never would be. It was her least favourite chain, and definitely not what her precious street was all about.
She stepped around them and knocked briskly on the door. Maybe she was overreacting. She just needed to get inside and take a deep breath of something familiar, even if nothing in her world would ever be quite the same again.
To her relief the door opened quickly and she stumbled inside. She pulled off her festive owl hat, strands of her pale blonde plait flying wildly.
‘Were those people bothering you, madam?’ The man with the dark suit began securing the door behind her.
‘No!’ Had she said that too quickly? ‘Not at all. They were just being … people.’
He turned to look at her, pushing his glasses back up his nose and squinting. She gave him a weak smile and hoped it would do. How could she explain there was generally nothing wrong with people? It was simply her knee-jerk reaction to avoid them, because when she let them get close it ended in sadness. Since losing Nell, who’d been the only non-relative she’d let wriggle in since for ever, her sensors were on high alert. If she let her guard down – even for a moment – she was terrified the temptation of kindness or company would lure her in.
As though the universe was trying to test her, the man extended a hand. ‘Birdwhistle Junior,’ he confirmed. ‘Pleased to make your acquaintance.’
Well, at least he hadn’t said et cetera. Feeling safe that this bird man wasn’t going to bowl her over with compassion, Gretel shoved her hat into her crochet bag and gave his hand a limp shake.
‘I was endeavouring to set things up to look …’ – he scratched his head, disturbing his feather-like hair – ‘inviting and atmospheric.’ It sounded like he was quoting something. ‘The deceased’s wishes.’ He gave a pleased nod.
The deceased. Was that why his language was so overly formal – because it was the easiest way to deal with death?
‘Her name was Nell.’ Gretel cleared her throat and put her bag down, grabbing hold of a box of matches on one of the uncovered tables and lighting a winter-spice-scented candle. She moved around the room doing the same on each table, the simple ritual bringing with it a wave of calm. She’d helped Nell set up on countless occasions. Useful talents like baking or working a till were beyond her, but she knew how to make things look pretty. She gulped back a sob, concentrating on the comforting flicker of each tiny flame as it danced to life.
Mr Birdwhistle hurried around sweeping dust sheets from tables, as though worried an anxious woman in charge of a matchbox had blazing disaster written all over her.
Just as Gretel finished her rounds with the last satisfying strike of a match, she heard a key in the door and the frustrated shaking of a lock. Was it usually so reluctant to let people in? Maybe it was taking a leaf out of her book. She tried to slow her quickening heartbeat with a few deep breaths. But Mr Birdwhistle was checking his watch and nodding. He didn’t seem alarmed.
When the door finally shoved open, it sent a draught through the room that extinguished every carefully lit candle. As she caught a clear eyeful of who had just stepped through it, her skin went equally cold.
So that was who Mr L. Knight was.
Although no shining armour today. Or ever, Gretel wouldn’t mind betting – unless the pristine white chef’s uniform she’d seen him wear counted. Nell’s nephew Lukas gave her a visual sweep with his stern grey eyes, raising an eyebrow as his gaze landed on her penguin jumper dress. Well, he could just get lost if he didn’t respect good knitwear. She blew rogue strands of her hair from her face and tried not to look like a flustered idiot.
‘Gretel.’ His voice was huskier than she’d remembered from that day he’d nearly knocked her head off with a Christmas tree. Was he feeling the sadness of this place too? Surely not, Mr Steely Stone-Face.
His voice seemed to bounce around the room, mixing with the echoes of what used to be. There was no toasty log fire today. No dancing fairy lights or gingery treats under glass cloches. Silence had taken over where tinkling tunes had once reigned, and no matter how deeply Gretel breathed, she couldn’t smell the sweet comfort of hot chocolate. How she longed for a cup to warm her heart right then. Was all of that now lost for good?
Lukas ran a hand through his stylishly slate-grey hair and she watched as it resettled itself on roots that were as dark as his stubbly beard. Not that she was studying his face. She shook her head and wiped her clammy hands on her woolly dress.
Lukas looked down at the patch of floor he was standing on. ‘It can only be about a year since …’ His voice trailed off.
‘Since you nearly impaled me on this very spot.’ She winced. This was why she should stay safely tucked up in her maisonette and only ever speak to ferrets. ‘I mean, with a Christmas tree.’ Oh brilliant. That was unquestionably worse.
‘The whole season is a waste of good trees.’ He batted angrily at a dusty length of tinsel which had become partially unstuck from the ceiling and was wafting dangerously close to his face. Dust motes teased the air around him.
Gretel opened her mouth to protest about his season-bashing, but thankfully Mr Birdwhistle stepped forward, pulled down the unruly tinsel and shook Lukas’s hand.
While the other two introduced themselves, Gretel thought back to the day of the near impaling. Nell had been a friend of her mother’s, so Gretel had known her since she was a girl. Nell had definitely mentioned Lukas before, somewhat adoringly, and Gretel must have seen him in passing. But that day last Christmas was the first time Gretel could recall really seeing him.
She dared a glance at the two talking men. Did Lukas’s eyes keep darting back to her? She could have sworn he was scowling at her poor, defenceless penguins. Mean old festive-bird-hater.
Yes, that was why Lukas Knight unnerved her. It was those flinty stares and his disconcerting animosity towards the one and only season where Gretel wanted to exist. That kind of attitude just wasn’t normal.
At last, the solicitor settled them both down at one of the café tables, wrestling the tinsel under one of the dust sheets as though its presence might cause a fight. Gretel scraped her chair as far away from Lukas as she politely could. She had no desire to be choked by his spicy aftershave and abrasive words.
‘So, you two are already … acquainted?’ Mr Birdwhistle looked over the top of his specs at them.
‘No, we’re not,’ Lukas said firmly, clearly put out by the unnecessary emphasis. Well, good. She was glad he didn’t want to be acquainted either.
Gretel and Mr Birdwhistle jumped as the old-fashioned jukebox spluttered to life and spat out the words ‘Laaaaaast Christmas’.
‘I’m sure I didn’t switch that thing on.’ The solicitor twitched his head around.
‘That machine needs to go. The wiring has always been faulty, like it’s stuck in a bloody time warp.’ Lukas’s jaw was tight.
What was wrong with a familiar festive tune? If he wasn’t so scary, she’d have shot him a look. Although she had to admit it was spooky how the jukebox often chose songs that were oddly close to the mark. Not that anybody had been giving away any hearts last Christmas. Hers was safely padlocked, thanks all the same, George Michael.
‘Look, why are we here? Don’t you know I’m busy?’
Gretel could hear Lukas tapping his foot under the table like he needed to rush off and sauté some shallots, or whatever fancy chef people did.
‘I know you’re in charge of administering the estate, but presumably you don’t need to gather us here for some grand will reading,’ Lukas continued.
‘Quite,’ Mr Birdwhistle replied, shaking his papers as though not appreciating having the wind knocked out of his bird wings. ‘But it was the deceased’s wishes …’
‘Nell. Her name was Nell.’
For once, Gretel didn’t feel the urge to roll her eyes at Lukas’s words.
The solicitor gave a small sigh. ‘Apologies, Mr Knight. Your Aunt Nell. It was her wish that we give you both a few weeks’ space after her passing and then gather you here to break the fortuitous news.’
Why would you need to break news if it was fortuitous? Surely breaking was something you reserved for bad things. Gretel screwed up her nose.
‘Eleanor …’ The solicitor cleared his throat. ‘Nell wanted you to receive the message simultaneously.’ If he shuffled his papers any more, Gretel might be pushed to jump up and snatch them off him. It was doing nothing for her nerves. ‘You’re to inherit The Gingerbread Café together, with the flat above too, of course. As joint owners. Congratulations, Mr and Mrs … erm, Mr Knight and Miss …’
‘Rosenhart?’ Gretel added, unsurely. Did he really mean her?
‘Indeed.’ Mr Birdwhistle nodded, looking as pleased as if he were handing over the premises out of the goodness of his own heart. ‘Exemplary news, wouldn’t you agree?’ His head pecked the air in both of their directions.
Lukas swivelled his body around to look at her, his expression somewhere between confusion and mild annoyance. She. . .
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