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

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.”

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 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.

Bread and Promises: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story: Juliet

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 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.”