Hamish should have been anticipating the ambush, but Kate was a professional. She sidled up to him while he was tending to the rye starter he was growing for her, handing him a mug of strong, sweet coffee and a eggnog muffin.
“Her parents died. She’s a little lost right now—and planning to move on after the new year. Tread lightly there.”
He blinked at her, arranging his face in what he hoped was a bland expression. “I’m sure I don’t know who you mean.”
Kate leaned her elbows on the counter, her eyebrow lifting along with one corner of her half smile. “After all these years, the tips of your ears still go red when you’re not being entirely truthful.”
“I know, Kate. She told me.” Over a very nice bottle of French dessert wine at a restaurant near the river, their table for two had been near the fireplace. They’d kissed in the frozen front garden, under a street lamp, Hamish feeling for all the world like he’d stumbled through a wardrobe.
“I like her.” Kate knocked her coffee back like whiskey. “She only got here a few weeks ago, and I know she’ll be gone by the end of the month, but she’s made a place for herself here in her own way. Maybe it’s the journalist in her, but she has an incredible sense of how people work.”
Juliet had made a place for herself in his heart, as well. “Maybe that’s why I like her, too.”
“You’re a bit of a heartbreaker, Munroe.”
“Pot and kettle, Katherine.” He drew her name out in a mangled French accent.
“Yes, but I’m not the one who’s still having conversations with my dead wife while I think no one is listening.” She hugged him hard, then pulled away to cradle his face between her palms. “And before I forget, we’re having Christmas at the Damselfly, and of course we told Nan and Joss you were coming, too.”
He raised his mug to her as she retreated upstairs. “I wouldn’t miss it.”
It wasn’t as though he’d be spending it with Juliet, though he’d asked. As it turned out, her father’s family lived outside Montreal, which was only a few hours away, and she’d promised to make the trip for the family’s Christmas Eve celebration. She wouldn’t be home until the following evening.
Juliet hadn’t really known what to expect until Hamish took her hand and they walked up from the parking lot at West’s Christmas Tree and Maple Farm. Just past what a sign declared to be the sugar house, a long, forest green and gold sleigh, with benches like a hay ride wagon, was hitched to a pair of massive draft horses.
“There are bells.” She heard her own breathless wonder in her voice. “Like in the song.”
“Aye.” Hamish was grinning like a fool at the sleigh.
“Evening, folks.” A tall, handsome man in a red and black houndstooth wool jacket met them in the clearing. “I’m Sterling West. Welcome to the farm.” He gestured to a table spread with insulated travel mugs and a pile of thick tartan blankets. “I’ll check you in, then you can help yourself to hot cocoa and a blanket before you find a seat.”
Juliet looked around in wonder. The cold was so deep she felt she could reach out and touch it; the snow reflected the moonlight just the way Clement Moore described it, “a luster of midday.” The horses stamped and blew, shaking the bells on their harnesses.
A gentle-faced woman with a halo of curls peeking out of her winter hat pointed out two sets of mugs. “The ones on the left are for grown-ups only. I’ll need to see some ID if you’re so inclined.”
Juliet glanced at Hamish, whose gaze flicked happily at the adult hot chocolate. In silent accord, they produced their identification.
The woman grinned at Hamish’s passport. “Scotland!”
“Excellent!” Sterling replied.
“We’re keeping an informal tally of countries we see represented here this winter,” the woman explained. “I’m Ivy. What’s your favorite Christmas song?”
“Star of Wonder—”
“It Came Upon A Midnight Clear—”
Their answers tumbled over one another. Ivy laughed, noting the titles on a clipboard near the blankets. “Go get comfy. We’re off in a few.”
They were two of eight, plus Ivy, who rode with the guests while Sterling rode with the driver. The horses drew the sleigh into the woods, and a hush settled over the group. The endless sky dotted with stars hung over the black canopy of forest, letting the darkness close around them. Only a pair of lanterns lit the cart path they followed. When they plunged out of the thick trees and into a broad meadow, the moonlight was blinding.
Juliet snuggled against Hamish, tucking their blankets in around their shoulders and laps. She cradled her mug, listening to the crisp fall of horseshoes and the shushing of the runners on the icy snow—the sleigh ride had music of its own.
Ivy began to speak, telling a story about a woodcutter in a stormswept forest, a lost traveler, and miraculous lights in the fir trees. Juliet could picture it all, and when Ivy’s story segued into Silent Night, she sang along without worrying about her singing voice.
Hamish had a warm baritone and sang without reserve, his accent adding extra charm to the carol. The whole group sang as the sleigh sailed along, Ivy leading them seamlessly through the list of songs on her clipboard.
Juliet’s cheeks stung with the cold, but the peppermint schnapps in her cocoa warmed her—though maybe not as much as Hamish’s solid presence at her side.
When they disembarked, Hamish held her waist as she jumped down, and she landed in the circle of his arms. He pressed a kiss to her lips. “That was magic, lass. I’ll never forget it.”
Hamish picked his way across Kate’s yard with a bowl of kitchen scraps in hand. His feet swam in Ewan’s boots, borrowed from the boot tray by the back door.
Chickens. Kate Pease keeping chickens. It boggled the mind. He had to admit the eggs were fantastic. He opened the chain link gate and stepped inside the large fenced in enclosure. The hens’ prison yard was adorned with hanging bouquets of fresh herbs from Kate’s greenhouse and arranged with branches and logs for her flock to explore. Per Kate’s instruction, he tipped the bowl’s contents in the center of the pen and backed away as the birds rushed the treats.
What did you do in Vermont, love? his mother would ask.
Fed chickens. Took a beautiful woman on a sleigh ride.
He’d made an olive and rosemary focaccia to work through his nerves, wrapping up half of it along with Juliet’s scones. The floral displays in town looked lovely, but he didn’t like to begin in a way he didn’t mean to go on. He was a man who brought a woman baked goods.
And he did mean to go on, if Juliet was game. He’d talked it through with Fiona’s memory, on a long walk through Kate and Ewan’s woods, taking the mild afternoon sunshine and rollicking winter stream as a sign of approval.
He parked outside the book store and reached for his phone to let Juliet know he was outside. She met him at the front door, looking like a page from a winter fashion magazine.
“I’m almost ready. Do you want to come in while I lace up my boots?”
Hamish held out the foil wrapped packages from Kate’s kitchen. “I brought you some bread and your scones.”
She took the packets and pressed her nose to the foil, inhaling deeply. There was a sparkle in her eyes when she looked back at him.
“Should they go in the fridge?” Juliet set the bread and scones on the counter to pull on snow boots with a soft fringe of faux fur peeking out. “I’m sure I can make some room.”
“No. They’ll keep on the counter just fine.”
She straightened and gave a little twirl, wobbling as she came to a stop. “Will I be warm enough?”
Hamish reached out to steady her, catching her hands in his. “I think so.”
The moment froze for him, a tableau: Still Life With Besotted Male. Juliet was laughing from her near spill, her fingers warm in his palms. Her lips parted, ever so slightly, and the pulse under his jaw skipped.
“Shall we?” He didn’t release her hands yet, only too late realizing he wasn’t asking if it was time to leave.
Juliet withdrew her hands, but slowly, letting the parting linger between them. Her answering gaze was unflinching. “I think so.”
Her mother would have been appalled. Nice young ladies didn’t drop hints the size of hot air balloons. Good girls didn’t suggest romantic outings with scruffy Scotsmen who were barely more than strangers.
Juliet and Hamish were swallowed up in the crowds applauding the newly lit tree, and Hamish was absorbed into Kate Pease’s circle of friends. He’d sought her out with his eyes, but there were no more private conversations.
Afterward, Juliet had made her way to the cozy apartment over the book store, feeling that while her mother wouldn’t have approved of her methods, her father would have liked Hamish straight away.
She flipped open her laptop to read the emails she knew were waiting. The one from Harley she saved, savoring the idea of warm Florida sunshine. The other one she opened despite the revulsion even the name conjured.
Her mother had liked Stephen Zhang.
Hope you’re at least trying out skiing. I definitely want to hit the slopes with you at Mimi’s wedding. That gives you three months. If you’re still out there in the middle of nowhere in January, maybe we can meet up slopeside. It’d be great to spend some time alone together.
“I don’t like to be called Jules.” She growled at the screen. “And meeting up slopeside sounds cold and expensive.”
Stephen was the spoiled only son of a family her mother had grown up with. He was handsome (Trina said he looked like a preppy Jay Chou) and successful; he was also arrogant and boring as hell.
“I don’t want to learn to ski!” She bit her lip, regretting the outburst. It was late, and Thornton went to bed early.
Juliet didn’t know how to convince him that the claim he assumed on her affection had never existed. Her mother had hoped for a match; Stephen liked the idea of having her on his arm. He’d said as much once, that her mixed heritage—he’d said it delicately to emphasize it, a verbal tic of his—made a striking visual when they were together.
Her father voiced concerns at her mother’s relentless matchmaking; it always ended in the same argument. Juliet never imagined there would come a day when she’d miss their bickering, but without the discord, there would never be the laughter when Pierre Chen put on old records and crooned love songs until Ying Yue forgave him.
The weather on the night of the Thornton Tree Lighting made the possibility of angels easy to believe. The temperature had snapped cold again, and a brisk squall left a powdered sugar dusting of snow to cover the hardpacked slush. The village was garlanded in fir boughs and ribbon, and the sky wore stars like diamonds.
Hamish followed obediently as Kate dragged him from Ewan’s truck to a cluster of people near the bandstand. He knew the innkeeper by name. Nan had been Kate’s best friend since school, and the subject of many wine-fueled conversations in Paris about Hamish’s then-single status.
You’d love her. She’s pretty and funny and sweet… and you’d have so much fun in America.
I’m sure I would, but my heart’s back in Scotland.
What if Fiona doesn’t wait for you?
“Hamish! It’s been a long time.” Kate’s brother Jack reached for his hand. They’d met when Jack visited Kate in Paris. “Kate told me about your wife. I’m very sorry.”
“Thank you. I miss her.” Hamish mustered a smile, shoring himself up against memories. He was fishing around for small talk topics when the high school choir took their places near the sizable live blue spruce that waited for its big moment.
Kate called over his shoulder, waving. “Juliet, over here!”
Hamish turned, and Juliet Chen was making her way through the crowd, once again wearing the pompom hat. Tonight, she wore thick mittens that matched, and a long down coat. Her expression reminded Hamish of a rabbit caught in a headlight.
Kate caught Juliet by the arm. “You remember Nan and Joss, and my brother? This is Anneliese. Her daughter is around here somewhere… and Hamish.”
He could sympathize. He’d already forgotten Nan’s husband’s name, and there were parents and neighbors gathered five deep around the tree.
He leaned down. “It’s like being dropped into a loud Normal Rockwell painting, isn’t it?”
The choir led off with Let It Snow, and Juliet glanced up at him, her lips curving. “It really is. I’m staying just over there, in an AirBnB over the book shop, and the owner insisted I not miss the festivities tonight. I thought, ‘When in Rome,’ but—”
“You didn’t count on the Kate Pease Social Engine?”
“Exactly.” She wrapped her arms around her chest and tucked her hands into her armpits. “Or the cold. How did the scones come out?”
He wanted to wrap his arms around her to ward off the cold, but he was pretty sure he didn’t rate as hugging material just yet. “Perfect. I wrapped some up and put them in the freezer for your next visit.”
“Tuesday,” she said matter-of-factly. “Kate’s going to teach me to pipe roses.”
Juliet had said she was a journalist. If she was looking to get to the heart of Kate Pease, learning from her was the ideal strategy. Juliet chafed her mittened hands together.
“There seems to be a hot chocolate booth.” He gestured across the common to where the Thornton Union High School Booster Club was selling baked goods and warm drinks. He squinted to bring the hand-lettered menu into focus. “And mulled cider. Can I offer you something?”
Juliet glanced at the knot of humans huddled together, all bound by friendship and history. “I’ll come with you.”
He secured two styrofoam mugs of lukewarm cider with cinnamon sticks, and they drifted to the edge of the crowd. “I grew up in a town like this, but I’ve no’ been back for Christmas in a long time.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this. Christmas in Phoenix looks a lot different.”
Her voice went husky at the mention of Arizona; Hamish wondered what she’d left there. He knew the sound of longing.
“No snowy tree lightings?”
“Nope. We just hang the ornaments on cactuses.” She deadpanned, blinking at him over the rim of her cup.
The belly laugh burst out of him, along with a kind of lightness he hadn’t felt since before Fee… Her ghost touched his cheek and the laughter dried up. “My wife loved Christmas. She’d have done that.”
“How long ago did you lose her?” Juliet’s voice was soft.
Hamish studied his cider. “Two years now.”
She touched his arm. “I’m sorry.”
“Thank you.” He cleared his throat. “I woke up three months ago with thirty extra pounds on my gut, a beard I didn’t like, and nothing in my diary for the foreseeable future. I packed up our—my flat, and left.”
“You’ve been traveling that long?”
He’d been lost in one place for more than a year. At least traveling meant the hope of a destination. “I’ll know when it’s time to do more than stay for a visit. Or I’ll end up back at home.”
Juliet didn’t offer platitudes. He liked her for it. They stood in companionable quiet, listening to the carols for a few moments. “I’ve always wanted to go on a sleigh ride. The old-fashioned kind with blankets and bells and snow. There’s a Christmas tree farm near here that does them.”
A barely recognizable pulse thrummed under Hamish’s skin. He hoped he still remembered how to ask a woman on a proper date.
“Would you like to come with me on a sleigh ride, Juliet?”
Juliet smiled, well and truly, for the first time since they’d met, and he could have sworn he heard Fiona’s laugh in the wind. Look what you’ve gotten yourself into, you great oaf.