Christmas at the Gingerbread Café

BOOK: Christmas at the Gingerbread Café
10.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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The icing on her Christmas cake!

Christmas is the season the Gingerbread Café was made for…but owner Lily couldn’t be feeling less merry if she tried. She’s spent another year dreaming of being whisked away on a sleigh-ride for two, but she’s facing festive season alone – again. And, just to give her
another
reason to feel anything other than candy-cane perky, a new shop across the road has opened… Not only is it selling baked goods, but the owner, with his seriously charming smile, has every girl in town swooning.

But Lily isn’t about to let her business crumble — the Gingerbread Café is the heart of the community, and she’s going to fight for it! This could be the Christmas that maybe, just maybe, all her dreams – even the
someone-to-decorate-the-Christmas-tree-with
ones – really do come true!

Christmas at the Gingerbread Café
Rebecca Raisin

www.CarinaUK.com

REBECCA RAISIN
is a true bibliophile. This love of books morphed into the desire to write them. She’s been widely published in various short-story anthologies, and in fiction magazines, and is now focusing on writing romance. The only downfall about writing about gorgeous men who have brains as well as brawn is falling in love with them — just as well they’re fictional. Rebecca aims to write characters you can see yourself being friends with. People with big hearts who care about relationships, and, most importantly, believe in true, once-in-a-lifetime love.

Thank you seems too simple a sentiment for the amount of support and encouragement that I’ve received from my writer friends. They are an inspiration to me, and my first port of call to celebrate or commiserate, and I feel blessed to have them in my life. I read their work, and am in awe of their talent.

Thank you Lisa Swallow, for everything. None of this would have happened without you. There’s nothing better than knowing you’re an email away to laugh, shout, or discuss hot guys with – purely for research! You’re the best. And your success spurs me on.

Julie Davies, I feel like I’ve known you forever. But maybe that’s the sign of an extraordinary writer. Feeling as though you’re connected because their words have touched you.

Thank you to the Carina UK team. Victoria, you’ve been amazing, and I felt immediately like we were on the same wavelength. I look forward to working with you on the next book!

EWG- The Word Cult; Laura, Jake, Lisa, Alyssa and Deb, I love you guys.

To Clare and Liz from Dymocks Ellenbrook – You are the sweetest girls, ever.

Ashley, thanks for coming home and not mentioning it when the house looks like it’s been burgled, and you have to make dinner because writing has taken precedence.

And Mum, you’re the best proof-reader I know, and very cheap (free) you drop everything and set to work. I love you. Rachel, all I have to do is ask, until our pesky twin ESP kicks in, and you’re there, thank you.

My extended family: Aunty Norma, Uncle Alex & Toni, Aunty Jen, Uncle Ronald, Jason & Liesel, Emma, Marg & Kim, Lisa Raisin, Tracy, Cathy, Sam, Tone, Joss, Jules, Jo bear, and Roz ( I’m claiming you) – thanks for all your Facebook messages, and ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ and your constant support. Pretty lucky to have my own cheer squad.

Lastly, William and Jaxson – You’re the reason I’m following my dreams. You guys have taught me so much about life, and love, and what truly counts. I love you, my precious (zombie) boys.

For Julie Davies

Chapter One

Amazing Grace
blares out from the speakers above me, and I cry, not delicate, pretty tears, but great big heaves that will puff up my eyes, like a blowfish. That song touches me, always has, always will. With one hand jammed well and truly up the turkey’s behind I sing those mellifluous words as if I’m preaching to a choir. Careful, so my tears don’t swamp the damn bird, I grab another handful of aromatic stuffing. My secret recipe: a mix of pork sausage, pecans, cranberries and crumbled corn bread. Punchy flavors that will seep into the flesh and make your heart sing. The song reaches its crescendo, and my tears turn into a fully-fledged blubber-fest. The doorbell jangles and I realize I can’t wipe my face with my messy hands. Frantic, I try and compose myself as best I can.

“Jesus Mother o’ Mary, ain’t no customers comin’ in here with this kinda carry-on! It’s been two years since that damn fool left you. When you gonna move on, my sweet cherry blossom?”

CeeCee. My only employee at the Gingerbread Café, a big, round, southern black woman, who tells it like it is. Older than me by a couple of decades, more like a second mother than anything. Bless her heart.

“Oh, yeah?” I retort. “How are you expecting me to move on? I still love the man.”

“He ain’t no man. A man wouldn’t never cheat on his wife. He’s a boy, playing at being a man.”

“You’re right there.” Still, it’s been two lonely years, and I ache for him. There’s no accounting for what the heart feels. I’m heading towards the pointy end of my twenties. By now, I should be raising babies like all the other girls in town, not baking gingerbread families in lieu of the real thing.

I’m distracted from my heartbreak by CeeCee cackling like a witch. She puts her hands on her hips, which are hidden by the dense parka she wears, and doubles over. While she’s hooting and hollering, I stare, unsure of what’s so damn amusing. “Are you finished?” I ask, arching my eyebrows.

This starts her off again, and she’s leg slapping, cawing, the whole shebang.

“It’s just…” She looks at me, and wipes her weeping eyes. “You look a sight. Your hand shoved so far up the rear of that turkey, like you looking for the meaning of life, your boohooing, this sad old music. Golly.”

“This is your music, CeeCee. Your gospel CD.”

She colors. “I knew that. It’s truly beautiful, beautiful, it is.”

“Thought you might say that.” I grin back. CeeCee’s church is the most important thing in her life, aside from her family, and me.

“Where we up to?” she says, taking off her parka, which is dusted white from snow. Carefully, she shakes the flakes into the sink before hanging her jacket on the coat rack by the fire.

“I’m stuffing these birds, and hoping to God someone’s going to buy them. Where’s the rush? Two and a bit weeks before Christmas we’re usually run off our feet.”

CeeCee wraps an apron around her plump frame. “It’ll happen, Lil. Maybe everyone’s just starting a little later this year, is all.” She shrugs, and goes to the sink to wash her hands.

“I don’t remember it ever being this quiet. No catering booked at all over the holidays, aside from the few Christmas parties we’ve already done. Don’t you think that’s strange?”

“So, we push the café more, maybe write up the chalkboard with the fact you’re selling turkeys already stuffed.” This provokes another gale of laughter.

“This is going to be you in a minute—” I indicate to the bird “—so I don’t see what’s so darn amusing.”

“Give me that bowl, then.”

We put the stuffing mix between us and hum along to Christmas music while we work. We decorated the café almost a month ago now. Winter has set in. The grey skies are a backdrop for our flashing Christmas lights that adorn the windows. Outside, snow drifts down coating the window panes and it’s so cozy I want to snuggle by the fire and watch the world go by. Glimmering red and green baubles hang from the ceiling, and spin like disco balls each time a customer blows in. A real tree holds up the corner; the smell from the needles, earth and pine, seeps out beneath the shiny decorations.

In pride of place, sitting squarely in the bay window, is our gingerbread house. It’s four feet high, with red and white candy-cane pillars holding up the thatched roof. There’s a wide chimney, decorated with green and red jelly beans, ready for Santa to climb down. And the white chocolate front door has a wreath made from spun sugar. In the garden, marshmallow snowmen gaze cheerfully out from under their hats. If you look inside the star-shaped window, you can see a gingerbread family sitting beside a Christmas tree. The local children come in droves to ogle it, and CeeCee is always quick to invite them in for a cup of cocoa, out of the cold.

I opened up the Gingerbread Café a few years back, but the town of Ashford is only a blip on the map of Connecticut, so I run a catering business to make ends meet. We cater for any party, large or small, and open the café during the week to sell freshly made cakes, pies, and whatever CeeCee’s got a hankering for. But we specialize in anything ginger. Gingerbread men, cookies, beverages, you name it, we’ve made it. You can’t get any more comforting than a concoction of golden syrup, butter, and ginger baking in the oven in the shape of little bobble-headed people. The smell alone will transport you back to childhood.

CeeCee’s the best pie maker I’ve ever known. They sell out as quickly as we can make them. But pies alone won’t keep me afloat.

“So, you hear anything about that fine-looking thing, from over the road?” CeeCee asks.

“What fine thing?”

She rolls her eyes dramatically. “Damon, his name is. The one opening up the new shop, remember? You know who I mean. We went over there to peek just the other day.”

“I haven’t heard boo about him. And who cares, anyhow?”

“You sure as hell wouldn’t be bent over dead poultry, leaking from those big blue eyes of yours, if he was snuggled in your bed at night.”

I gasp and pretend to be outraged. “CeeCee! Maybe you could keep him warm—you ever think of that?”

“Oh, my. If I was your age, I’d be over there lickety-split. But I ain’t and he might be just the distraction you need.”

“Pfft. The only distraction I need is for that cash register to start opening and closing on account of it filling with cold hard cash.”

“You could fix up those blond curls of yours, maybe paint your nails. You ain’t got time to dilly-dally. Once the girls in town catch on, he’s gonna be snapped right up,” says CeeCee, clicking her fingers.

“They can have him. I still love Joel.”

CeeCee shakes her head and mumbles to herself. “That’s about the dumbest thing I ever heard. You know he’s moved on.”

I certainly do. There’s no one in this small town of ours that doesn’t know. He sure as hell made a mockery of me. Childhood sweethearts, until twenty-three months, four days and, oh, five hours ago. He’s made a mistake, and he’ll come back, I just know it. Money’s what caused it, or lack thereof. He’s gone, hightailed it out of town with some redheaded bimbo originally from Kentucky. She’s got more money than Donald Trump, and that’s why if you ask me. We lost our house after his car yard went belly up, and I nearly lost my business.

“Lookie here,” CeeCee says. “I think we’re about to get our first customer.”

The doorbell jangles, and in comes Walt, who sells furniture across the way.

“Morning, ladies.” He takes off his almost-threadbare earmuff hat. I’ve never seen Walt without the damn thing, but he won’t hear a word about it. It’s his lucky hat, he says. Folks round here have all sorts of quirks like that.

“Hey, Walt,” I say. “Sure is snowing out there.”

“That it is. Mulled-wine weather if you ask me.”

CeeCee washes her hands, and dries them on her apron. “We don’t have none of that, but I can fix you a steaming mug of gingerbread coffee, Walt. Surely will warm those hands o’ yours. How’d you like that?”

“Sounds mighty nice,” he says, edging closer to the fire. The logs crackle and spit, casting an orange glow over Walt’s ruddy face.

Chapter Two

CeeCee mixes molasses, ginger, and cinnamon and a dash of baking soda. She sets it aside while she pours freshly brewed coffee into a mug. “You want cream and sugar, Walt?”

“Why not?” Walt says amiably.

CeeCee adds the molasses mix to the coffee, and dollops fresh cream on top, sprinkling a dash of ground cloves to add a bit of spice. “Mmm hmm, that’s about the best-looking coffee I ever seen. I’m going to have to make me one now.”

“So, I guess I’m stuffing these birds by myself?” I say, smiling.

“You got that right.” She winks at me, and walks to the counter handing Walt the mug. He nods his thanks and drinks deeply, smacking his lips together after each gulp.

“What can I get for you?” CeeCee asks.

“Janey sent me in for a ham, and a turkey, not too big but not too little, neither.” He rubs his belly for emphasis.

“Sure thing,” CeeCee says. “How’s about one with Lil’s special stuffing? Janey won’t need to do a thing, ‘cept put it in the oven, and baste it a few times.”

“Yeah? Then maybe we’ll have a peaceful Christmas morning.”

“Doubt that,” CeeCee says. “If she can’t get all het up at her husband Christmas Day, it just ain’t Christmas.”

“You think?” Walt tilts his head, and smiles. “So, you girls still busy, what with the new guy, an’ all?”

I look sharply at Walt. “What do you mean?”

“I heard he’s selling turkeys and hams, just like you.”

“Say what!” CeeCee says, barely audible with her head pushed deep into the chest fridge. All I see is her denim-clad rump poking out.

“What, you don’t know?” Walt says and averts his eyes suddenly sheepish.

“But I thought he was a small goods shop?” My heart hammers — the last thing I need is more competition.

“Yeah, he is—what did you think small goods was?”

I sigh inwardly. “Well, small goods, with an emphasis on the small —”

CeeCee butts in. “Maybe a few cheeses, some o’ that fancy coffee. What, he gonna start making gingerbread houses too now, and pumpkin pies, and whatnot?” She places her hands on her hips, and is getting up a full head of steam. “That just ain’t how we do business round here.”

Walt scratches the back of his neck. “I thought you knew. He’s been advertising in the paper…”

I castigate myself for not being more observant, but I don’t want to make Walt feel any more uncomfortable than he already is.

“That’s OK, Walt. I might have a little chat with him, later on. CeeCee made a nice batch of apple pies yesterday. I’m going to give you one for Janey. You tell her we appreciate her custom, OK?”

CeeCee adds a pie to the box with Walt’s ham and turkey. “Nice big chunks of apple, too. You make sure you heat it up first, OK?”

He takes his wallet out and hands CeeCee some cash. “Thank you, girls. She surely will appreciate that.”

“You have a good Christmas, if we don’t see you before,” I say, nodding to him.

“Same goes for you. And thanks, I hope you sort it all out.”

“Don’t you even think of it,” CeeCee says.

We wait for Walt to leave, and I expel a pent-up breath. “Well, no wonder!” I pace the floor and silently curse my own stupidity.

CeeCee wrings her hands on a tea towel. “Lookie here, maybe he just don’t know. You should go on over there and tell him.”

“How can he not know? It’s a small town—any idiot can work it out. You think he’s going to start catering too?”

I walk to the window and stare out. There he is, waving like a fool. At me. I glare at him and stomp back to the bench. “He’s trying to make nice. Well, that won’t wash. I’m going over there to tell him what I think of him!”

CeeCee sighs. “Wait, don’t go over there and have a hissy fit. That ain’t gonna help matters.”

“He’s got no business stealing our customers. And I’m going to tell him that.”

I bundle my apron, fling it on a table, and march out of the shop. The cold air stings my skin, and I rue the fact I didn’t put my jacket on. Damon sees me coming, and smiles; his big brown puppy-dog eyes look kindly at me, but that doesn’t stop me for a minute. He’s a shark. A charlatan. And I’m going to tell him so.

He walks out to the stoop of his shop. “Hey,” he says, sweet as pie. “I was going to come over and introduce myself this afternoon.”

“Who do you think you are?” I stuff my hands into the pockets of my jeans, and resist the urge to stamp my foot.

“Sorry?” His forehead creases, adding to his rugged good looks. He sure can play the innocent, all right.

“You think you can just move into town and steal my customers? Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing!” The street comes alive as shoppers stop to watch. This’ll be spread round town before I’m even done talking.

He looks truly bamboozled, but I know it’s an act. I’ve seen plenty of men like him. He’s dressed like some kind of cowboy, tight denim jeans that hug in all the right places, a red checker shirt, unbuttoned one too many buttons, exposing his chest. This infuriates me. Good looks like that, he’s going to be popular and I’m going to suffer for it. I can see the ladies of this town, frocking up, smearing all kinds of gloop on their faces, while they parade around his shop, pretending to be interested in whatever it is he’s selling.

“I’m really not following, ah, Miss…” He rubs a hand through his sandy blond hair, which is too darn long for a man.

“Name’s Lily, and you don’t fool me, mister. Not for a minute.”

“What are you talking about now? What have I done?” He grins; he actually
grins
.

“You’ve been selling turkeys. And Christmas hams! God only knows what else. You’re using your looks to get the ladies in this town to spend their hard-earned money in your shop, and putting me out of business in the meantime.”

“My looks?”

It’s all I can do not to huff. “So, you’ve got nothing to say for yourself?”

He kicks the slushy ice on the pavement, as if he’s trying to formulate some kind of lie.

“I’m sorry if I caused you this…upset. But I own a shop, and I sell all kinds of things for Christmas. I never thought it would affect you. Surely, there’s enough room for both of us?”

“No, there darn well isn’t! And I’m going to make sure you’re not open long enough to find out, anyway.” I spin on my heel and head back to the shop.

He calls out behind me, “I’m starting up cooking classes, Miss Lily. You want to book in to one?”

That stops me in my tracks. Shivering from the elements, I turn back, hovering in the middle of the road. “You what?”

He smirks at me, and for a moment I see my future — an empty shop. There’s no way the ladies of this town will be able to resist him.

“I said, I’m starting cooking classes. You want to come to one?”

“Are you
trying
to bankrupt me?”

He rubs his chin, and widens those big brown eyes of his. “No. I’m just trying to earn a living.”

My eyes are blazing, but I try to smile and act more confident than I feel. “You go on and do that, then. We’ll see who is still in business by the new year.”

Cars honk at me blocking their way. With their headlights trained on me I suddenly feel under the spotlight. I race back inside the shop, my hands shaking as if I’ve got the DTs.

“You gonna catch your death going outside like that!” CeeCee says. “Go warm up by the fire. Look at you, so white I’m gonna call you Casper.”

I’m so worked up, I haven’t realized I’m covered in snowflakes. My teeth chatter, as if they’re holding a one-way conversation. I rush towards the grate, my hands outstretched to the flames.

“So? What’d he say?” CeeCee frowns, and massages her temples.

I rub my hands together, and turn my back to the fire. “You’re not going to believe it. He’s going to start cooking classes!”

CeeCee’s face relaxes and she laughs. “That boy
know
he good-lookin’.”

“Do you think it’ll affect us?”

“Not likely, but who knows? I think we need to have some kinda sale up in here.”

We look towards the window and gaze across. His shop is filled with customers. “Would you look at that?” I point to a small itty-bitty woman. “Rosaleen’s over there, and in her church clothes.” I knew this would get to CeeCee.

“I don’t believe it. Church clothes on a Wednesday.”

Before I know it, CeeCee is out front. “Hey, Rosaleen, shouldn’t you be supporting members of your congregation?” she hollers over.

Rosaleen looks at us, her face pinched. “He is a part of our congregation. I already asked him.”

CeeCee shakes her head and tuts, before walking back inside. “Dressed up like that, trying to impress him, at her age, no less.” She harrumphs. “Right, sugar plum. What we gonna discount? Most o’ those folk so tight they squeak. If we offer cut-price goods, they’ll be back over here with their tail between their legs.”

“Good idea. I’ll get the blackboard, and we can write it up and face it directly towards his shop.”

We giggle like schoolgirls, and I smile. We’ll win, I know it. We have to. There aren’t enough customers in this town for both of us.

BOOK: Christmas at the Gingerbread Café
10.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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