Bread and Promises: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story: Christmas Day

Photo by Jill Heyer on Unsplash

Hamish woke on Christmas morning sore in places he’d not realized he had muscles. Shoveling a Vermont storm wasn’t for the weak. He found Kate already in the kitchen, brewing coffee.

“We’ll keep bakers’ hours ’til we’re dead, won’t we?”

Kate chuckled and poured a dollop of heavy cream into her mug. “I imagine. Ewan says he was up late wrapping something, but I think he might have been working on a story. It’s kind of a miracle our schedules ever align.”

“He’s brilliant. Your place is brilliant. This whole month was exactly what I needed, even if I thought I was only staying a few days. Thank ye, Kate.” The Scot slipped out with a broad smile. “Happy Christmas.”

Kate came around the island and hugged him. “Merry Christmas, Hamish.” She gave his shoulders a squeeze, giving him a wry look when he winced. “I’m going to bake that lovely cinnamon ring you left proofing, then after breakfast we’ll head over to the Damselfly for the rest of the day.”

“Sounds perfect.” As perfect as it could be without Juliet.

Kate sipped her coffee, regarding him over the rim of the cup. “Did you hear from Juliet? How’s  Montreal?”

Hamish paused his pour. “Not a peep, but I didn’t have high hopes. Thing is, she’s been on her own since her parents died. This is her first family holiday. I canna expect her to be texting me when she’s reunited with her family at Christmas.”

A small smile played on Kate’s lips. “That was quick.”

“What?” Hamish inhaled the strong steam off his coffee. 

“You’re in love with her.” Kate’s voice softened. “The way you talk about her. It’s the same as it was when we were in Paris. With Fiona.”

“God, I miss her.” He put his face in his hands and scrubbed at his stubble. “I miss Fee, and I think about Juliet all the time. I’m going to miss her something fearsome.”

Kate wound an arm around his waist and laid her head on his shoulder. “Love sucks.”

***

Juliet woke to the smell of breakfast. Bacon, coffee, biscuits… her nose lead her down from the second floor room she’d been given for the night. In the kitchen, she found Nan and an older woman holding a snoozing baby in candy cane stripe pajamas.

“Merry Christmas.” Nan was balancing a bread basket and a platter of bacon on her way from the stove to the large farmhouse table that dominated one half of the room. “Juliet, this is my mother-in-law, Molly Fuller. Molly, this is Juliet Chen, Kate’s journalist friend.”

Juliet smiled and took the platter, following Nan to the table. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for letting me invade your family holiday.”

“Family’s a broad term around here,” Molly said. “The more the merrier.”

“Speaking of more,” Nan said, “Joss and his dad are out in the barn with our daughter. We’ll have breakfast once they come in. Can I get you coffee? Anything else?”

“I need to call my grandparents, and—” And talk to Hamish. That thought Juliet left to herself.

Nan gave her a knowing look. “Of course. You can take a mug, and feel free to use the parlor or your room.”

Her grandparents fussed over her on the phone, extracting firm promises to come for Twelfth Night, and her grandmother whispered, “Stephen Zhang is here. I couldn’t very well turn him away.”

“I’m sorry, Mémère. He sprang the whole thing on me, too. I should be there.”

Her grandmother’s voice dropped to a whisper. “No, duck. You shouldn’t. That young man is looking for a boring little wife, and I’m not letting him within a mile of you until his stops assuming he’s going to be part of this family.”

Juliet’s heart swelled. “Je t’aime, Mémère. Joyeux Noël.”

“I love you, too, sweet girl. Joyeux Noël.”

Now, to call Hamish and wish him a merry Christmas.

***

Halfway to the Damselfly Inn, Hamish realized he’d left his phone behind at Kate’s. Damned technology. He’d been looking forward to catching up with Juliet at some point during the day. She’d said the family did a big Christmas Eve celebration, followed by a midnight mass, but that by noon on Christmas day, everyone was napping, reading, or cheating at cards.

“What?” Kate turned back, two frown lines deepening between her brows.

“Ballocks. Was I muttering? I forgot my mobile at your place.”

Kate offered hers on her palm. “You can use mine.”

“If I actually knew her number…”

Hamish watched the snowy fields roll by, sun-kissed and glittering, with a pit of disappointment in his gut.

***

Juliet was pinned down under a sleeping baby in the parlor when the rest of the Christmas party arrived; everyone else was in the kitchen. Nan and Joss’s daughter bounced into the room, her voice chiming the list of guests.

“Aunty Kate and Uncle Ewan are here and Uncle Jack is here and Chloe and Anna are here and Uncle Bobby and Aunt Jane.”

The baby snuffled in his sleep, flexing his toes in their striped pajamas. “So many friends,” Juliet mused.

“And a new friend, but I don’t know his name.” She boinged out of the room, singing half the tune of Jingle Bells as she went.

Juliet’s heart leaped at the next voice she heard, melodic over a bass line of heavy tread in the hallway.

“Just through here then?”

Hamish stopped short at the sight of her, his face lighting up like the tree he stood near. “Joss said to put these with the other gifts, but I don’t think I’m meant to put them all on that chair wi’ ye.”

“I’m a little stuck,” Juliet replied, keeping her voice level over the baby’s head. “Merry Christmas, Hamish.”

She was aware of the commotion of friends and family filling the kitchen, but the noise fell away as they grinned like fools, talking over one another.

“I thought you were in—”

“I didn’t know you’d be here—”

“You first,” Hamish said, setting down the stack of wrapped packages near the Christmas tree. 

“It’s a long story, but I delayed leaving for my grandparents’, and then got stuck at home because of the snow. Joss saw me in town and invited me out here to stay where it’s warm and there’s power, and I thought, ‘Why not?’”

“Why not, indeed.” Hamish dropped down gently on the arm of her chair, speaking in a low half-whisper. “Kate frog marched me. She’d no intention of leaving me on my own.”

He pressed his lips to hers, ever so gently, with the snoozing baby between them, and Juliet felt the hinges come off every door to her heart she’d closed. 

“Hamish?”

“Mmm?” He kissed Juliet again.

“Will you be my guest for the Chen’s Twelfth Night Masquerade?”

“I dinna know what a Twelfth Night Masquerade is, lass,” he said, clearly putting on a bit of his Scot for her, “but I wouldn’a miss it for the world.”

Bread and Promises: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story: Juliet

Photo by Jill Heyer on Unsplash

Père Noel brought the snow.

When Juliet woke to a fairytale of thick, sparkling white snow, and barely passable roads, that’s all she could think. There would be no Christmas in Canada, but neither would there be a reckoning with Stephen.

Père Noel had also brought a power outage. Making her way to the kitchen to boil water for cocoa, Juliet realized she’d left her phone unplugged all night. Much like her other appliances, it was dead. That wasn’t so bad, she could still email from her laptop. 

Which was in her travel bag, also uncharged.

Hamish would assume she was already in Montreal. He didn’t know she’d decided to delay her trip to avoid time with Stephen. At least he wouldn’t be worried if she couldn’t text him.

She had just enough juice in her computer to fire off a quick note to Pépère, letting him know she was safely marooned in Vermont, but would come north for Twelfth Night. The Chens’ Epiphany party was always a hoot, capping off the Christmas season with a Shakespeare-inspired masquerade and a secret gift exchange. 

With nothing beyond her cozy apartment, Juliet allowed herself the pleasure of Marian Muse’s bookshelves. There was magic in having a bookseller for a landlord. She picked up a volume of short fiction by a Vermont author, and lost herself in a world threaded together by related narratives, told in a voice like a modern-day Robert Frost.

Hours later, when the late afternoon light faded, Juliet put on her boots and coat. An almost supernatural quiet had settled over the village during the storm; even the muffled rumble of plows on Main Street couldn’t break the enchantment.

Two floors below, people were emerging from the houses on nearby Chapel Street, and a handful of brave folks in pickup trucks and four-wheel drive SUVs were making their way along the banked streets.

The frozen twilight, gilded by street lamps and frosted in the last swirling flakes of the storm, was so unlike anything Juliet had ever imagined. The homes and shops were dark, with a few generator- or candle-lit windows. She stood there in a kind of rapture, grinning like a fool with her legs going numb from the knee-to-hip deep snow just beyond the doorstep.

A truck slowed, the window rolling down. The chains on the tires left a crosshatched track in the still snowy road.

“Juliet!”

The driver was a friend of Kate’s; momentarily stunned by the marshmallow world at her feet, Juliet gawped at him.

“Do you have power yet?”

He was peering across the passenger seat of his truck cab in concern. Joss. The innkeeper’s—Nan’s—husband.

“No. Haven’t all day. How’s everything with you?”

“We’re toasty warm. Wood fire and a generator built for a nuclear bunker. I came into town to check on some folks.” Joss looked around at the dark village the back at Juliet. “We’ve got room at the inn. You’re welcome to spend Christmas with us if you’d like.”

She hesitated briefly. He was barely more than a stranger, despite Kate’s efforts. That said, he was offering her shelter—quite literally—from the storm, and if she could plug in her phone… Her greedy heart sang; she could talk to Hamish.

She wouldn’t be alone at Christmas. “I’d love to. Can you give me a minute?”

Her bags were, after all, already packed.

Bread and Promises: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story: Hamish

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The forecasters all missed the storm. No computer model revealed its true nature in advance. Hamish woke on Christmas Eve to a world of snow like he’d never seen. It drove in nearly horizontal sheets for hours, piling up in windblown dunes against the sturdy old farmhouse.

Kate bundled out to check on the chickens. Ewan made coffee and took his laptop to the window that overlooked the meadow; Hamish watched his friend’s husband’s fingers fly over the keyboard, wondering if he watching a bestseller in the works.

Writing thoughts inevitably conjured thoughts of Juliet. She’d returned from her trip to Bennington full to overflowing with good news and optimism. Though they’d studiously avoiding talk of the future, Hamish couldn’t help dreaming of a way to make it happen. 

He’d come to Vermont on a whim—hungry for an old friend’s humor and care, not to fall in love with a woman equally as untethered to hearth and kin.

The ghost of Fiona’s laugher teased him mercilessly. You’re done for now, love

Five hours in, the snow let up from a gale to a steady fall like an old Christmas movie, fat flakes tumbled to the ground.

“There’s at least three feet out there,” Kate reported on her second return from the chicken coop. “I hope it stops in time to get to the Damselfly tomorrow.”

Hamish watched the news reports for snow totals in Montreal, thinking of Juliet, cozy and safe with her grandparents’ and uncle’s family. Missing her—and sorry for himself that they wouldn’t have this one Christmas to remember when they went their separate ways.

By evening the snow stopped. He’d wrapped the gifts he’d procured for Kate and Ewan, and there were loaves of crusty bread and rows of buttery croissants proofing in Kate’s proof box. Wherever he landed next, Hamish would miss her miniature restaurant kitchen nestled in the rolling hills and farmland of the Champlain Valley. 

Hamish went out with Kate and Ewan to help with shoveling and blowing snow. Three feet felt more like five when they hit the drifts, and Kate took pictures of them standing against the bulwarks of shoveled snow that lined the driveway. Despite the deep shadows thrown by the driveway flood lamps, he saw something in his own face he knew had been missing for a long time.

A touch of joy.

After a long shower, he texted their trio of sweaty, snowy faces to Juliet. Cradling a dram of whiskey,  Hamish contemplated the endless starlit sea of snow that stretched to a horizon of fir forest. When no little bubble announced her forthcoming reply, he left the view for Kate’s squashy couch.

He woke, hours later, to a cold room and a silent mobile.

Bread and Promises: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story: Juliet

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Juliet practically floated out of her meeting with the editor of Bennington Magazine. It was the second of the day, the second Christmas present the gods of writing had seen fit to bestow. She’d driven two hours south from Thornton, soothing her anxiety with vistas of snow covered fir trees and icy mountain lakes, first to meet up with a octogenarian painter in Bennington, an alum of Bennington College, who’d worn entrepreneurial and political hats for nearly sixty years. 

Juliet wondered what Kate Pease would be like in her eighties. Fascinating, that much was certain.

The painter agreed to a profile in the summer, going so far as to offer Juliet the use of a cabin on her property for the duration of her stay.

Juliet wondered what Vermont would be like without Hamish in it, for by then he’d have moved on to a new adventure. Lonelier, of that she was sure.

At her second meeting, she’d pitched her profile of the painter, and gotten an introduction to the editor at a university press. The last of the students were flooding off campus as she got into her car and turned back northward.

She and Hamish had danced around their immediate futures, choosing instead to explore Thornton together as though they were any couple at Christmas. Stolen kisses under the kissing ball in the Rexall Pharmacy, late dinners over candlelight or in front of Netflix in her apartment, and oh… the baking.

He brought her treats every time they were together, which was sweet, but he’d also taught her how to make dark brown, floury boules and golden, slashed baguettes. Between Kate and Hamish, she’d gone from a woman who made three dishes well, and otherwise cooked boxed pasta and scrambled eggs, to a halfway decent baker who could even make a few simple frosting flowers.

Juliet wondered if the smell of yeast would ever not bring Hamish’s gentle, teasing hands to mind. 

There was still heat in her cheeks when her phone jangled over the car’s speakers. She connected the call from the steering wheel without looking at the screen.

“Jules!”

Stephen. “This is unexpected.”

“I know, but I had to call to find out where you’d like to have dinner on the 26th.”

“What?” She gripped the wheel hard, wondering what he thought he was doing.

Stephen charged on before she could ask. “I called Madame Chen and asked—since this is your first Christmas without your parents and you’d be lonely—if I might join the family in Montreal. You know Christmas isn’t much of a thing in my family, so I won’t be missed at home. I thought your family might like to meet me, too.”

“You called Mémère?” She could feel her lips flapping open like a drowning fish. “You invited yourself to Christmas?”

“Isn’t it perfect?” Stephen breezed on. “And I’d very much like to take you to dinner the night after Christmas.”

A lead ball dropped in her belly. That delicate “very much” carried far too much weight.

“Stephen, I’m not sure—”

“Think about it, then. I grabbed a flight to Montreal, so you’ll be able to pick me up on your way to your grandparents’. We’ll talk then.”

He was gone before the torrent of words could fully form, so she shrieked them into the empty car as it sped up Route 7: of course I’ll be lonely! But they’re my family! And I hate being called Jules!

And you’re not Hamish.

She pounded the steering wheel, blinking back tears. He’d single-handedly ruined her holiday. It was going to come down to a confrontation. Stephen refused to hear what he didn’t want to hear, and he wasn’t going to like what she had to say.

Bread and Promises: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story: Juliet

Photo by Jill Heyer on Unsplash

It’s an actual sleigh.

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.”