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.