Authors: Abby Clements
Tags: #General, #Fiction
First published in Great Britain in 2012 by Quercus
This ebook edition first published in 2012 by
55 Baker Street
7th Floor, South Block
Copyright © 2009 by Abby Clements
The moral right of Abby Clements to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Ebook ISBN 978 1 84866 239 1
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Saturday, 23 December, 4.15 p.m.
‘Welcome everyone, to this year’s Christmas Bake Off,’ Diana announced proudly, clutching the microphone in her hand and looking out towards the eager crowd. Her ice-blonde hair was tied back in a neat French braid, and she was wearing her brightest fuchsia lipstick for the occasion.
Rachel Murray took in the festive scene. At the front of the hall was a long table decked out with gold fabric, and heavily laden with the bake off entries – towering layer cakes, gingerbread, macaroons, edible Christmas wreaths and other delicious-looking treats. Beside it stood Diana: her formidable neighbour, and the head of Skipley village’s WI.
‘I’m delighted to be judging today,’ Diana continued, ‘alongside a man who I’m sure will need no introduction – please give a warm round of applause for Joe Carmichael from TV’s
Bake or Be Beaten
!’ She took a step back and held out the microphone for Joe.
‘Bit of all right, isn’t he?’ the elderly lady next to Rachel whispered, nudging her and giving a cheeky giggle.
Rachel smiled and said quietly, ‘Too short for me. He’s all yours.’
Joe Carmichael, running a hand through his glossy black hair, smiled knowingly and took a step forward.
‘Thank you, thank you, Diana,’ he said, giving his fellow judge a wink. ‘Well, I’m delighted to be here in the gorgeous Yorkshire Dales with you today, and I’m looking forward to tasting the entries. Looks like we have quite a feast in store.’
Joe gestured towards the cake table, and Rachel took a deep breath to calm her nerves. The air in the Village Hall was rich with the aromas of Christmas – ginger, spices and cinnamon blending with pine from the fairylit tree. Normally she’d be relaxed and enjoying the event, but this year was different – because there, right in the centre of the cloth-covered table, was the gingerbread house she’d made. Her first ever entry, ready to be judged.
Rachel turned to her teenage daughter Milly, and whispered, ‘It looks OK up there, doesn’t it, Mills?’
‘It looks great,’ Milly said, squeezing her hand reassuringly, her hazel eyes bright. ‘As good as anything on that baking show, I reckon. Doesn’t it, Grandma?’
‘Oh yes,’ Bea, Rachel’s mother-in-law added, with a smile. ‘I wouldn’t have given you my favourite recipe if I’d realized you’d outdo me like this.’
Rachel laughed, her nerves easing a little.
As Diana and Joe stepped forward to inspect the entries, the hall – bustling just a moment before – fell completely silent. Rachel glanced around and caught sight of Katie Jones, the young owner of the local cake shop. She was towards the back of the crowd, running an anxious hand over her dark hair, biting her lip and trying to see past some of the taller people. Rachel waved over, but Katie, distracted, didn’t seem to see her.
‘Our first entry,’ Joe Carmichael said, ‘and you don’t get more classic than this – mince pies.’ He took a bite of one and gave an approving nod. ‘You can’t beat these at Christmas, and the cranberry gives it a lovely twist. Glorious texture to the filling,’ he said.
‘Very tasty,’ Diana added hesitantly, ‘but I have to say I prefer the traditional recipe.’
Rachel had never won anything before, but, on hearing Diana’s words, she dared to hope. If the judges liked traditional baking, perhaps her gingerbread house was in with a chance?
‘The pastry just melts in the mouth,’ Joe said, lingering over his mouthful.
‘Yes. And now, this looks fabulous too,’ Diana said, moving on.
Rachel leaned forward to see which sweet treat they were looking at. They were just centimetres away from her gingerbread house. She clutched Milly’s hand tightly in anticipation and moved to get a better view, but it was a chocolatey-looking cake that Diana was taking a spoonful of.
‘Oh … ’ Diana said, pausing, and bending down to inspect the cake more closely. Joe Carmichael took a spoonful of a different entry and visibly winced when he tasted it. The judges pulled back in unison, glanced at each other, then stepped away from the table. They conferred in whispers.
‘Excuse us a moment,’ Diana mumbled apologetically into the microphone.
Rachel furrowed her brow. What could possibly be the delay? After a moment or two, the villagers in the crowd, growing restless, began muttering to one another as Joe Carmichael talked animatedly to his co-judge.
When Diana retook the microphone, a hush returned to the hall. ‘Sorry about that,’ she said, her voice a little strained. ‘It seems we have a problem.’
Joe Carmichael’s face had taken on an expression of irritation.
‘Well, I can hardly believe it,’ Diana said, with an awkward little cough, ‘but it seems we’re looking at a case of sabotage.’
Friday, 22 December, 6.30 p.m.
(The night before)
Katie Jones switched off her till and took one last look around the shop before closing up for the night. Business had been brisk today – she’d sold over a dozen boxes of her handmade mince pies, and the traditional Christmas cakes had been popular too. Skipley High Street was busier than she’d seen it in months, full of friendly locals snapping up last-minute festive essentials.
She thought back to the previous winter, when she’d only just moved to Skipley from nearby Leeds, and the shop she’d dreamed of opening had hardly any customers. To make matters worse, it had been her first Christmas on her own, after ten years with Matt. Twenty-nine, single again, and struggling to pay back her small business loan – she had wondered if she’d made a terrible mistake starting again in Skipley. But today, it was a different story.
Normally, at this point in the day, Katie took off her apron and headed home across the village. But today she pulled her long chestnut hair up into a practical ponytail and tightened her apron straps over her full-skirted indigo dress, ready to start baking again. She went over to the glass front door to bolt it, turning off the shop lights on the way.
As she reached the door, she caught sight of John approaching in paint-covered jeans and a dark jumper, a smile on his face. She reached for the handle and opened the door.
‘Time for one more customer?’ John asked, hopefully. ‘I know you’re closed, and it’s cheeky. But I was late closing up – and then the carol singers arrived at the shop …’
‘Come in,’ Katie said, feigning a sigh. In reality, her heart lifted – it was nice to see a friend, and fellow shop-owner, at the end of such a busy day. As John came in and rubbed his hands together to warm up, she reached behind the counter and got a couple of chocolate muffins. She slipped them into a paper bag and handed them over. ‘I know you like these.’
He handed her some coins, but she shook her head. ‘They’ll only go to waste otherwise. You’re welcome to them.’
‘Well,’ he shrugged and dropped the money in her charity tin instead. ‘I didn’t expect a freebie, but thank you.’
John took a bite of one of the muffins hungrily, and smiled. ‘Delicious. As always.’ As he ate, he glanced down at one of the glass-fronted cabinets Katie used to store her cakes in, and noticed something. The top hinge had broken, leaving the door at a slight angle. John opened and closed the cabinet door gently. ‘I can fix this for you, if you like.’
‘Are you sure?’ Katie said. ‘I’d appreciate that. Once the Christmas rush is over. Can’t really think beyond the bake off right now.’
‘Of course, how’s your cake coming along?’
‘Ask me tomorrow,’ Katie said, laughing. ‘I’m just about to start.’
‘Me too,’ John said hesitantly. ‘Well, good luck. Not that you’ll need it. See you tomorrow.’
‘See you then,’ Katie replied, as he walked out the door.
An hour later, Katie was in the kitchen at the back of her shop, taking her latest creation out of the oven. She inhaled the sweet, nutty scent of the pistachio layer. If this new recipe worked like she hoped it would, the chocolate, hazelnut and pistachio yule log was going to taste divine. She placed it carefully on a rack.
When the layer had cooled, she started to roll it up, adding chocolate filling as she went. To her horror, the pistachio section began to crack. Thick, ugly crevices– some parts were even breaking away. Her heart fluttered as she hurriedly double-checked the recipe.
Oh – Oh no
. She was supposed to roll the layer warm, not cool. She felt the stirrings of panic.
Joe Carmichael would be there tomorrow.
Katie saw him more often on her TV than she saw any man in real life. Not only was he devastatingly attractive, he was also one of the best bakers in the business, and well-known for seeking out and promoting new baking talent. Rumour had it that he liked to scout at events like their village bake off – that was why he squeezed them into his busy schedule. Katie had been thinking about this event for months; it was her big opportunity to be spotted. If Joe liked her cake, who knew what doors might open for her? The yule log she’d envisioned was show-stopping, but the one in front of her was falling apart. She checked the time – she had to be realistic, there wasn’t time to start again. She would do the best with what she had.
She returned to the pistachio layer and continued rolling it, adding plenty of filling as she went, then turned the cooling rack around and looked at the edible log from a different angle. It didn’t look
bad, she realised with a wave of relief, and once it was covered in chocolate, you’d hardly notice the uneven bits. She took a sharp knife and cut off a thin sliver of the cake to taste.
The harmonious flavours danced on her tongue, and the crunch of tiny nut pieces gave it an addictive texture. Now, she thought, feeling a surge of fresh hope – that’s really not bad
Friday, 22 December, 11 p.m.
‘Everyone’s in bed, which helps,’ Rachel said to Bea on the kitchen phone. ‘You know how hard it is to get anything done with the kids around. Anyway, sleep well, and I’ll see you tomorrow.’ Once Bea had said goodbye, she hung up the receiver.
‘Mum, are you still baking?’ Milly asked, as she crept into the kitchen.
‘I’ve nearly finished,’ Rachel replied with smile, turning to face her daughter. In a purple dressing gown with bear-paw slippers, Milly looked younger than her fourteen years. ‘I was checking something with Grandma about the recipe. Anyway, I thought you were fast asleep up there.’
‘Not a chance,’ Milly replied huffily. She crossed the tiled kitchen floor to stand next to her mother. ‘Dad’s snoring really loudly.’
‘Oh dear, again?’ Rachel said, absent-mindedly tidying away some of the cooking implements she’d been using.
‘Yes. You’ve got flour in your hair, you know,’ Milly said, dusting the white powder from Rachel’s unruly blonde mop. As she did, Rachel took in her daughter’s face – Milly was beginning to look even more like Aiden as she grew into her teens. Her hair was dyed red now, but she had her father’s dark, brooding looks and hazel eyes.
‘Thanks,’ Rachel said, shaking out the last floury strands.
‘So, show me then,’ Milly said, motioning for her mum to move out of the way.
‘It’s not quite finished yet.’ Rachel reluctantly moved aside so that her daughter could see the gingerbread house on the counter.
‘Mum,’ Milly said with a smile, inspecting the cake. ‘Wow. You’ve put a lot of sweets on there.’
‘Do you think I’ve overdone it?’ Rachel said. ‘I just wanted to make it special. There’s going to be some strong competition, after all.’
‘Are you thinking of the cake Katie made last year?’
Rachel wrinkled her nose, and nodded. Last year Katie’s winning entry was a Christmassy sponge which, when cut open and viewed from the side, revealed the shape of a bright golden star. Some of the other entries had scored high on taste or on presentation, but Katie’s had trumped them on both fronts. ‘It was quite something, wasn’t it?’
Milly nodded. ‘Yes, but making cakes is her job.’
Rachel turned the cake board slightly away from her, and eyed her creation critically.‘Perhaps I did go a little over the top.’
‘Relax Mum, it looks good,’ Milly said, kindly. ‘You really want to win this, don’t you?’
‘Yes, I suppose I do,’ Rachel admitted with a shrug. ‘It’s strange. I’ve never really cared about winning anything before.’
‘Well, you look like you could do with a break. So before you overload that thing with jelly babies,’ Milly laughed, ‘how about a cup of hot chocolate?’
‘Yes,’ Rachel said, undoing her apron. ‘Good idea.’
Milly directed her mum to an armchair, and put the kettle on. Rachel walked into the living room and sat next to the Christmas tree, tucking her feet up under her. She smiled at the decorations Milly and Zak had hung the week before. The tree was a little bottom-heavy – at five, Milly’s little brother Zak could only reach halfway up. But it didn’t matter – the green and red baubles contrasted prettily with the twinkling white lights and strings of silver beads. This year Milly was finally tall enough to put the gold star on the top herself.
‘Here you go, Mum,’ Milly said, handing Rachel a mug and sitting down on the sofa opposite. Rachel took the hot drink from her daughter gratefully, and thought again of the bake off. At fourteen, just like Milly, Rachel had had dreams and ambitions – she’d thought the world was there for the taking. But five years later, she was pregnant, and things changed. Was there still time to prove that she could be something more than a mum, just for once, even if only to herself? Tomorrow she’d find out.
Friday, 22 December, 11.30 p.m.
‘There,’ Bea said with satisfied sigh, as she looked at the cinnamon star biscuits on her kitchen table. Simple, but they would do nicely. She arranged them on a pretty plate and placed a sprig of holly in the middle.
Carols played out from the Roberts radio on the counter. It had been a perfect evening for baking. Wearing her favourite festive red cardigan, she’d calmly rolled out the dough, singing softly to herself and watching through her kitchen window as snow fell over the surrounding hills, sipping occasionally from a glass of sherry.
The cinnamon stars were a tradition in the Murray family, and making them was one of her favourite Christmas preparations. She rearranged the biscuits slightly on the plate. She was looking forward to the bake off, as she did every year. It was nice to have the whole Skipley community together, and to be part of it.
And of course, this recipe was her husband David’s favourite. She wasn’t one for breaking the mould – that was for the younger ladies to do. They’d been nattering about the bake off for weeks, getting inspiration off the telly – that Joe thingummijig they were all so excited about – and from those foodie blogs. But she preferred tried and tested recipes. Bea had her own handmade Christmas recipe book she used year after year, had done ever since Aiden was born. Did winning matter to her, at her age? Not a jot.
She turned off the radio, covered the plate loosely in tin foil to protect the biscuits, and put them to one side on the counter. Pulling her cardigan around her, she walked out of the kitchen, passing the family photos on the mantelpiece with a fond glance – David with their grandchildren, Rachel and her son Aiden on their wedding day.
In the stairwell the branch of a tree tapped lightly at the windowpane, the only sound on an otherwise silent night. Bea climbed the cottage stairs slowly, finally reaching her bedroom. Once she’d changed into her nightie, she got into bed and pulled the quilt up over her. Tonight, as every night, she looked over at her husband’s face, and touched it with a tender hand.
‘Goodnight, sweetheart,’ she said.
Then, looking away from the gold-framed photo, she laid her head on the pillow and drifted off to sleep, missing the feeling of his hand, the way it used to hold hers.
Saturday, 23 December, 7 a.m.
Bea heard a message buzz through on her mobile phone, and stirred awake. Switching on her lamp and fumbling for her reading glasses, she squinted to read the name of the sender: John. Rubbing her eyes, she put a pillow behind her and sat up to read his text. It was only just getting light outside, early even by her standards.
BEA, Hi… it’s John. I’m sorry, it’s early… but the bake off is today, I’ve got to open the shop soon, and my cake is a disaster. HELP?!
Bea smiled to herself. John, the owner of Skipley Hardware and a good friend of her son Aiden, had been so kind to her and David when they’d first moved to Skipley, helping out with DIY and giving them discounted supplies. As he’d worked in her cottage, they’d chatted, and she had developed quite a soft spot for him. She pressed the button to call him back.
‘Bea!’ John answered, almost immediately.
‘Baking emergency hotline here,’ Bea said.
‘Thank goodness. Sorry again, I know it’s the crack of dawn. But I’m really stuck with this recipe,’ John said, sounding panicked. ‘I’ve only half-finished it. I didn’t print out the second page, and now the internet’s down again … You see, I was planning to make these snowmen – ’
‘Don’t worry dear,’ Bea said, putting her feet into her chequered slippers. ‘You know I like a challenge. You put the kettle on and I’ll be round in twenty minutes.’