Bread and Promises: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story: Hamish

Photo by Jill Heyer on Unsplash

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?

She will.

She had.

“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 goo 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 as 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.

Bread and Promises: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story: Juliet

Photo by Jill Heyer on Unsplash

 Juliet looked up from the yellow-ware bowl where she was cutting cold butter into flour, lemon zest, and Earl Grey tea leaves, as Kate swirled through her own front door some twenty minutes later, flushed and glittering from the freshly falling snow.

“Juliet, I’m sorry I didn’t text you…” Kate draped her coat over a chair, slung her bag on an end table, and breezed up to the kitchen island with a wry smile. “And you haven’t missed me at all.”

Hamish perched at Juliet’s elbow coaching her through his gran’s scones. “You can’t overwork this stage. It’s not until you add the cream that it’s something to watch for. Go ahead and get that butter worked in until it’s like crumbly sand and pea sized butter-flour bits.”

“Scram, Munroe,” Kate said genially. “I’ve only got an hour before I need to leave again. Ewan and I have a thing in Burlington.”

“Milady.” Hamish bowed, then pinched some of Juliet’s floury mixture between his fingers. He gave Juliet and approving glance. “Perfect. Come back another time, and I’ll show you the rest.”

Juliet watched him jog upstairs. He had a restless kind of energy, like a puppy or a summer rainstorm, but he seemed gentle in the same way. He’d sensed both her discomfort and her fascination with his baking and given her something to do with her hands while they waited for their hostess. 

“He let me in,” she said.

“I’m sure he did,” Kate replied tartly. Her expression softened. “He’s dear to me. Did he explain who he is?”

“He only mentioned that you both studied pastry in Paris. And that he’s traveling.” She felt oddly protective of his admission that he’d had a personal crisis, though in all likelihood, Kate knew more about it than Juliet did.

Juliet washed her hands, offering the bowl to Kate. “I’m sure you know better than I do what to do with this.”

“Into the fridge,” Kate said, taking it to put away. “He’ll finish them, and I’ll make sure you get some of the end product.”

“How did your meeting go?” Juliet knew her time with Kate was limited; she switched tacks, making a mental note to ask Kate later about working in Paris. With Hamish.

Bread and Promises: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story: Hamish

Photo by Jill Heyer on Unsplash

A sullen drizzle rolled in on the heels of the recent snow, warming the air and turning the charming snow to wet, cold muck. It wasn’t unlike home.

Hamish gave Kate a token argument when she invited him to stay with her for the holiday. He’d be in the way. They were newlyweds (at which Kate had snorted—they’d been married four years). He’d turned up unannounced… But in the end, it felt good to land somewhere for a while.

Waking to an empty house on a Wednesday, he spent the morning by the fireplace with a hot mug of coffee and his laptop, but by the time his belly rumbled for lunch, he’d worked up a craving for fresh bread.

The bread might be ready for a late supper, and in the meantime, Kate had a well-stocked kitchen.

He was rummaging in Kate’s kitchen, pulling out a twelve quart tub and a scale, seeking out her bin of flour and warming the water, when a brisk knock surprised him. He dropped the copper bowl Kate used for salt, scattering fine grains across the marble counter. He absentmindedly tossed a pinch over his left shoulder to ward of a devil he didn’t believe in, and made his way to the door.

Standing on the porch, shaking rain from an umbrella that looked like a Tiffany lampshade, was the woman he’d knocked down on the street a few days before.

“Hello.” Just the sight of her made him smile. He couldn’t have said why any more than he could have explained with words how scone dough should feel. 

The woman stepped back, blinking. “What are you doing here?”

Unlike Kate’s effusive reception days before, this time the same question pierced his chest like an arrow. His smile cooled. 

“I’m a guest. They’re out at the moment.”

A small furrow formed between her perfectly shaped brows. “I’m sorry. That was rude. I’m Juliet. Chen. I’m supposed to meet Kate here…” She let the sentence slide away, only making Hamish more curious.

He’d never been one to hold a grudge, so he gallantly swung the door open to usher her inside.

“I’m early,” she said. “It didn’t occur to me that Kate might not be home.”

“I’ve no idea where they are. I slept in.” Hamish followed her, suddenly aware of his ratty sweatpants and faded t-shirt from Fiona’s former band.

Juliet hung her coat on a hook in the entryway before wiggling her feet out of black wellies. She kept her bag close, but Hamish realized she’d been to the house before. She knew Kate preferred no shoes in the house when the weather was bad.

“Can I make you a cup of coffee?” Hamish volunteered, suddenly wanting to improve her impression of him.

“I’d like that. Thank you.” Juliet set her bag on the floor next to a bar height chair at the marble-topped island, but didn’t sit. Instead she peered at the wet mass of flour and water in the bin. “What are you making?”

“Bread,” he said, scooping grounds into the filter basket. “I wanted it for lunch, but since I didna think to start it until just now, it’ll have to wait for supper.” He winced inwardly. The Scot was slipping out a bit. “D’you mind if I…” He gestured weakly at the bin.

“Oh, no. Please.”

The coffee maker began to gurgle, and Juliet took a tentative seat opposite him. Hamish filled a bowl with cool tap water and dunked his hand  before reaching in to mix the flour and warm water together.

Juliet regarded the wet paste in the bin with pursed lips. “You mix it by hand?”

He winked at her, saving her from his personal philosophy on artisanal baking. “Saves on dishes. So, what brings you to Kate and Ewan’s house?”

“What brings you to Kate and Ewan’s house?” She brought her fingers to her lips with a tiny gasp, as though her blunt question surprised even her.

“Fair enough.” He rinsed his hand and wrapped a shower cap over the bin. “I studied baking in Paris wi’ Kate. I’m having a bit of a personal crisis of late, so I left Edinburgh to travel the world. I was fresh out of a student rideshare from New Brunswick when I crashed into you the other day.”

He’d avoided looking at her face while he confessed his wandering, but now he looked up from his work, rinsing out the bowl and drying his hands. She blushed a hothouse rose color, high on her wide cheekbones.

“I’m writing about Kate… I’m a journalist. I—” Her eyes widened, and Hamish was certain he saw tears glisten there before she mastered herself.

“Dinna fash, Juliet.” He put on the Scot, sounding for all he was worth like something from Outlander, sending her a reassuring grin. He knew the cure for tears. “The coffee’s ready, and I’ve a sudden notion to make scones.”

Bread and Promises: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story: Juliet

Photo by Jill Heyer on Unsplash

Of all the things Juliet Chen anticipated finding in Thornton, Vermont, a clumsy Highlander was the last.

So what if he’d had a truly adorable dimple? A girl just didn’t run into a red-headed Scotsman in a snowy village four weeks before Christmas. That nonsense was for the Hallmark Channel. 

She collected her ham and gruyere croissant and a hot half-caff with steamed coconut milk, checking her phone make sure she was going to be on time for her interview.

A gust of wintry air tossed fine droplets of spray from the waterfall into her face as she walked. Juliet shivered, wondering what on earth had possessed her to travel to Vermont in December. 

Katherine Pease, whose cookbook and memoir project with her novelist husband had rocketed the small town party chef into foodie celebrity, had possessed her—in a way. An ambitious, talented, charismatic woman in what was still a male-dominated profession. A small town girl who exuded urban confidence.

When Kate—she’d insisted on being called Kate—had agreed to be one of her monthlong profiles, Juliet hadn’t considered the changeable fury of winter in the northeast.

Twelve months, twelve deep profiles of women entrepreneurs—she was betting on finding a commonality that would be her hook. She wanted to pitch this piece to a heavy hitter. It was a tremendous gamble, but she had nothing to lose but the inheritance she wished she didn’t have. Even so, she had two sorority sisters in Miami who were developing fair trade channels for Caribbean artisans and growers. 

She could be drinking mojitos in the sand with Harley and Trina instead of falling victim to a distracted man with ginger scruff and sad eyes.

Eyes like the surface of a deep lake on a clear day. Blue and steady, with a touch of melancholy.

Where had that thought come from?

The cold was addling her brain.

Bread and Promises: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story: Hamish

Photo by Jill Heyer on Unsplash

“It’s no’ the Highlands, but it’ll do.” Hamish Munroe laid his Scots accent on thick for the college student who’d driven him down from St. John’s to Thornton, Vermont. 

In truth, the snow dusted village, set into a vast glacial valley between two old mountain ranges and a long, glittering expanse of lake, took his breath away. He’d teased Kate Pease about going back to America after the delights of Paris, clearly his head had been full of flour dust and French women.

Now he understood what pulled her home.

His ride dropped him just outside Kate’s bakery. Backpack slung over his shoulder and relishing the look of surprise he’d get from his old friend, he barreled straight into a woman turning the corner, sending both of them crashing to the sidewalk. 

“Sorry, lass. I didna see ye there.” Hamish hadn’t yet turned off the Scot, and the words rumbled out of him like a bad Sean Connery impression. He hauled himself to standing and offered the woman his hand, along with the more modest burr that was his everyday accent. “Are you okay?”

Without missing a beat, she took his hand and pulled herself to standing, dusting road salt off slim denim-clad legs. “I’ll be fine. Thank you.”

Hamish shouldered his bag again and grabbed the door handle, gesturing to let the woman though while he took a moment to appreciate her. She was petite—enough so that he could picture tucking her under his chin, and to his chagrin, he topped out at five-foot-eleven—with dark deep-set eyes and a warm complexion. He’d noted a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose and cheekbones. She wore her reddish-brown hair in a fringed shag, revealed when she pulled off her pompomed hat and shook it loose.

Fiona had rocked a platinum-dyed shag. Her Debbie Harry Hair, she’d called it.

The woman nodded to him as she passed, approaching the bakery’s counter with gaze already fixed on the menu board above.

Hamish shook off memories of Fee and her devotion to New Wave. 

Looking around, he felt Kate’s presence as strongly as he had when they’d shared a tiny workspace in a Paris pastry shop. From the fuchsia awnings to the gleaming counters and coolers, it was sophisticated and welcoming, perfectly at home in this Vermont hamlet. 

Just like its owner, he mused, as the woman herself pushed through a swinging door. Her gaze skimmed over him as she called out to her staff, but he caught a hitch in her stride—a happy one, he hoped.

Kate wheeled, her nose wrinkling slightly as she focused on him. “Hamish?”

“The one and only.” He made it halfway through a courtly bow before she launched herself into his arms, squeezing tight. 

“What are you doing here?” She pulled back to kiss him on each cheek, a French custom they’d adopted while living there. Her gleeful expression dimmed. “I’m so sorry about your wife.”

To be continued…