Read Escape for Christmas Online

Authors: Ruth Saberton

Tags: #Romantic Comedy

Escape for Christmas

Escape for Christmas

 

by

 

Ruth Saberton

 

 

 

Chapter 1

“And that’s to be the last book! We haven’t any more in stock I’m afraid, folks. We’ve totally sold out!”

The manager of the Truro branch of BookWorld had an expression on his face that hovered somewhere between absolute joy and total disbelief. Only two hours earlier, fuelled by a caramel macchiato and aided by two of his keener Saturday staff, he’d lugged one hundred and fifty hardback books down from the stockroom and to the front of the store, where they’d been piled hopefully on a table placed slap in line with the doorway. Ordering such a large amount of expensive hardback copies in these uneasy days of eBooks and Amazon domination was something of a gamble, but he’d had a hunch about this one and his hunches tended to be worth trusting. At half past eleven on this sunny winter’s morning the manager was very happy indeed that he’d had faith in this one.

Today’s book signing was a huge success by any standards, even for a Saturday in the run-up to Christmas. Such days were always busy, with the pretty cathedral town packed with happy Christmas shoppers, the car parks full by ten a.m. and an air of anticipation keeping the Cornish cold at bay. On Lemon Quay a mini Christmas market did a roaring trade. The coffee shops were crammed with shoppers enjoying gingerbread lattes and mince pies while they got the circulation back into their fingers after lugging carrier bags all around the town; meanwhile, the traditional horse bus, complete with coachman in full Victorian garb, was giving its passengers a leisurely tour of the main streets. Strains of carols drifted on the cold air as the cathedral choir rehearsed for the big day, valiantly competing with the usual Christmas anthems emanating from the shops. Outside the bookstore the pavements were three deep in pedestrians, all wrapped fatly in their winter coats and scarves, and determined to shop until the daylight started to fade and the sun slipped behind the cathedral’s spire.

Yes, the book trade was always good on a brisk December Saturday, what with people browsing the shelves for a novel or Jamie Oliver’s latest offering – but this morning’s activity had been something else entirely. From the minute the cathedral clock had chimed nine and the doors had been unlocked, the store had been rammed. Under normal circumstances, authors sat at their tables, pens clutched in trembling hands and adrift on the sea of carpet while shoppers took the longest route around the shop to avoid making eye contact. When customers did find themselves near the book-signing desk, they generally felt obliged to talk and to buy a novel they’d never really wanted in the first place. Sometimes a savvy author – one who’d read up on marketing or whose agent was switched on – would bring sweets or postcards to tempt the shy book shoppers with goodies. Even so, the queue was never more than a few interested folk or some family and friends recruited to create a buzz. Today, though, it was a very different story. The queue for the signing had even snaked outside into the street, the customers seeming more than happy to stand in the frosty air, hands wrapped around hot drinks from the bookstore’s coffee shop, and wait their turn. Inside, the tills were ringing as joyously as the cathedral bells and the entire bookshop was bustling with excitement. As the last customer made her way to the cashier, thrilled with the signed book in her hands, the manager only wished that he’d ordered twice as many.

I should have listened to my daughter, the manager thought ruefully as he apologised to all the disappointed people who’d been unable to buy a signed copy. Sixteen-year-old girls tended to have their fingers on the pulse of the zeitgeist, and this was certainly true of his daughter: when Melanie had heard that Angel and Gemma from
Bread and Butlers
were signing the show’s Christmas cookbook in his store, she’d almost popped. He’d been amazed she’d heard of them; One Direction was generally more his daughter’s thing than cooking. “Come on, Dad, get with the programme,” she’d teased, rolling her eyes. This wasn’t a lame cooking show!
Bread and Butlers
was a reality show and everybody watched it. It was the best thing on the telly; Cal was hot, Laurence was even hotter and Angel had the best clothes ever! The bookshop manager had listened in a rather bemused fashion. These days it was almost as though his daughter communicated in a foreign language. Mel’s speech was peppered with gangsta slang and text talk: it was all
LOL
this and
lush
the other – as well as his personal worst,
CBA
, which was usually used in reference to homework
.
Still, once his ears had tuned in to teen speak, he’d managed to gather a few facts and felt even older than his forty-eight years.

These sparkly red and green books that he’d ordered in for the Christmas run-up – which were glossy, satisfyingly fat to hold and crammed full of pictures of glamorous people – accompanied a TV show called
Bread and Butlers
, which apparently was huge. While he’d listened to his eager daughter, the manager had realised that he’d fallen into the popular-culture void between
Newsnight
and
Big Brother.
A quick trip to Google soon revealed this show to be a brilliant cross between
Downton Abbey
and
The Only Way is Essex
, featuring a group of people working together to save a crumbling stately home in Devon. From what he could gather it was a curious mixture of aristocrats, footballers, models and hunky young builders who spent a very unnecessary amount of time walking around with their shirts off like lost members of the Chippendales. There was romance, drama, cooking, posh totty, rows, an ex-Premier League footballer (of whom even a bookish chap like himself had heard), a lively Irish family and even a glamour model or two thrown into the mix. It appeared that the British telly-viewing public simply couldn’t get enough of it. The manager had Sky-Plussed a couple of episodes himself; within ten minutes the clever narrative hooks had reeled him in like a square-eyed fish. By the time the final credits had rolled he’d been desperate to find out if Viscount Laurence really had hidden the family diamonds from the bank manager, and whether his eccentric mother was having a fling with a toy-boy builder.

Now he smiled to himself. No wonder today’s book signing had been such a success. Mel was right: he did need to “get with the programme”! Everyone wanted a piece of these reality stars, especially since one of them was a bona fide Cornish maid from Bodmin. The Cornish loved their own – and the author of the book, with her cheerful freckled face, ample curves and warm West Country accent, was undoubtedly one of them. He made a mental note to order another big delivery and play this angle up for all it was worth…

Gemma Pengelley, she of the freckled face and curves that were just about kept under control if she ignored all the creamy lattes and slices of thickly iced Christmas cake, put down her pen and flexed her fingers. Ouch. They were really cramped. She guessed this was unsurprising, seeing as she hadn’t stopped writing messages and signing her name for over two hours. When Gemma closed her eyes briefly, her scrawling signature was imposed on her retinas. Her brain was hurting from trying to come up with endless original messages. She wished she’d had longer to chat to all the people who’d taken the time to trek into Truro and see her. In Cornwall this was often easier said than done, given that public transport was erratic. Although buses were rumoured to run from some of the outlying villages, in reality they were spotted less than the mythical Morgawr, the county’s very own sea serpent.

As she wiggled her aching fingers and tried hard to ignore the smell of cinnamon buns that was drifting down from the first-floor coffee shop, Gemma couldn’t help thinking that life was very weird indeed. Here she was sitting at a table with a giant cardboard cut-out of herself on one side (couldn’t they have Photoshopped it a bit thinner?) and a viscountess on the other, and signing a cookery book that contained her own favourite recipes. This whole experience had felt even more dreamlike when her old English teacher had shuffled forward in the queue to have his copy signed. Apart from the fact that Gemma had fancied Mr Fuller like crazy when she was fifteen (and even as a twenty-nine-year-old still turned redder than Santa’s hat when she spoke to him), she felt a total fraud signing a book for somebody who knew she couldn’t spell and wouldn’t recognise a complex sentence if one bit her on the bum.

But, then again, life for Gemma Pengelley had taken on a rather unreal quality lately, and she wasn’t always certain that she liked this feeling…

“Come on, Gem! Wake up! We’re done!” Her best friend and new addition to the aristocracy, Angel Elliott (otherwise known as Lady Kenniston), nudged her with a bony elbow. Her big blue eyes bright with excitement, Angel added: “Now the real fun begins! Let’s go shopping!”

“Angel! Ssh!” Gemma glanced around the shop, mortified in case her friend’s tactless comment had been overheard by somebody who had just given up an entire Saturday morning to meet them, but the crowds were thinning now that it was lunchtime. The shoppers were all making their way to the smart little bistros and cafés that had sprung up in Truro over the past few years. The city had certainly changed a bit since Gemma and her school pals had spent many happy Saturdays rummaging through the bargain bin in Tammy Girl
and eking out a Whopper in Burger King
.
Now it was all White Stuff
and trendy Seasalt
clothing, and skinny fries with moules at a chic pavement café on Lemon Quay for lunch – diners cheating the Cornish winter by basking beneath a patio heater.

At the thought of food Gemma’s stomach rumbled loudly, and she grimaced. She always seemed to be hungry lately. In fact, skip lately. She was always hungry, full stop. Gemma guessed her passion for food was good news for a girl who earned her living running a baking business and writing recipe books, but it did make keeping the weight off bloody hard work. She’d lost quite a bit when she and Cal, her ex-footballer partner, had first moved to Kenniston to set up their business, but almost a year and a half on Gemma had noticed that her waistbands were getting a little snug again. She blamed Cal, whose bread and buns really were to die for, as well as her own dreadful habit of sampling whatever latest cake she was creating. Writing the book hadn’t helped either. She must have put on a pound for every page! Thank God she’d stepped back from appearing on the show, Gemma thought. Apart from discovering that she actually didn’t enjoy the attention fame brought with it, the old saying that television added ten pounds in weight was an understatement. There was no way Gemma wanted to be on national TV with all her fat bits on display. No way at all. She’d rather drown herself in a latte. A skinny one, obviously.

“Hungry, babe?” Angel, who seemed to live on a diet of fresh air and adrenalin, threw Gemma a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry we didn’t stop for breakfast. Let’s go and get something now and have a mooch round the shops.” She glanced down at the watch on her slender wrist, something hugely expensive that Laurence had dug out of the rapidly emptying Elliott vault, and laughed, holding her arm up. “Typical Elliott family watch. I forgot it doesn’t work – a bit like the rest of them! I haven’t a clue what the time is but I’m sure it’s time we got some grub.”

Gemma looked at her own far more modest Baby-G. It was a present from Cal and she treasured it because it was one of the few things he’d bought her. Paying his monster tax bill and getting solvent had been his prime focus since he’d signed up for
Bread and Butlers
. He must be getting nearer the goal though: the business was thriving and even her own cake-making branch of it was turning a healthy profit. Maybe they’d soon be able to devote themselves to this one hundred percent and step right away from the television side of things.

“Earth to Gemma?” teased Angel. “The time?”

“Sorry! Sorry! It’s almost noon.”

“Great, that gives us bags of time,” said Angel, shoving her Montblanc pen into an LV tote. “We’re not due to film until seven, so I reckon we’ve got a couple of hours to enjoy Truro before we have to head back to Devon. Let’s go and grab some lunch.”

Flustered, Gemma returned her attention to the present. God, she kept doing this lately, drifting off into little daydreams and fantasies about the ideal life for her and Cal. One minute she was mixing the ingredients for a cake and the next she was miles away – maybe in a cottage surrounded by children with Cal’s golden ringlets and her snub nose, or perhaps with Cal down on one knee and asking her the one question she was longing to hear. Gemma shook her head. She couldn’t dwell on these thoughts; they only made her increasingly frustrated and impatient to move on with their lives. Like Cal had said only yesterday, she really needed to concentrate on the present, which right now meant packing away her things, saying goodbye to the bookshop staff and signing a couple more autographs for latecomers.

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