To celebrate the paperback release of A Gingerbread Café Christmas my lovely publishers have made the first eBook Christmas at the Gingerbread Café FREE for ten days in the UK!
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Read an Excerpt here and get your festive season started!
Amazing Grace blares out from the speakers above me, and I cry, not delicate, pretty tears, but great big heaves that will puff up my eyes, like a blowfish. That song touches me, always has, always will. With one hand jammed well and truly up the turkey’s behind I sing those mellifluous words as if I’m preaching to a choir. Careful, so my tears don’t swamp the damn bird, I grab another handful of aromatic stuffing. My secret recipe: a mix of pork sausage, pecans, cranberries and crumbled corn bread. Punchy flavors that will seep into the flesh and make your heart sing.
The song reaches its crescendo, and my tears turn into a fully-fledged blubber-fest. The doorbell jangles and I realize I can’t wipe my face with my messy hands. Frantic, I try and compose myself as best I can.
“Jesus Mother o’ Mary, ain’t no customers comin’ in here with this kinda carry-on! It’s been two years since that damn fool left you. When you gonna move on, my sweet cherry blossom?”
CeeCee. My only employee at the Gingerbread Café, a big, round, southern black woman, who tells it like it is. Older than me by a couple of decades, more like a second mother than anything. Bless her heart.
“Oh, yeah?” I retort. “How are you expecting me to move on? I still love the man.”
“He ain’t no man. A man wouldn’t never cheat on his wife. He’s a boy, playing at being a man.”
“You’re right there.” Still, it’s been two lonely years, and I ache for him. There’s no accounting for what the heart feels. I’m heading towards the pointy end of my twenties. By now, I should be raising babies like all the other girls in town, not baking gingerbread families in lieu of the real thing. I’m distracted from my heartbreak by CeeCee cackling like a witch. She puts her hands on her hips, which are hidden by the dense parka she wears, and doubles over. While she’s hooting and hollering, I stare, unsure of what’s so damn amusing.
“Are you finished?” I ask, arching my eyebrows. This starts her off again, and she’s leg slapping, cawing, the whole shebang.
“It’s just…” She looks at me, and wipes her weeping eyes. “You look a sight. Your hand shoved so far up the rear of that turkey, like you looking for the meaning of life, your boohooing, this sad old music. Golly.”
“This is your music, CeeCee. Your gospel CD.” She colors.
“I knew that. It’s truly beautiful, beautiful, it is.”
“Thought you might say that.” I grin back. CeeCee’s church is the most important thing in her life, aside from her family, and me.
“Where we up to?” she says, taking off her parka, which is dusted white from snow. Carefully, she shakes the flakes into the sink before hanging her jacket on the coat rack by the fire.
“I’m stuffing these birds, and hoping to God someone’s going to buy them. Where’s the rush? Two and a bit weeks before Christmas we’re usually run off our feet.” CeeCee wraps an apron around her plump frame.
“It’ll happen, Lil. Maybe everyone’s just starting a little later this year, is all.” She shrugs, and goes to the sink to wash her hands.
“I don’t remember it ever being this quiet. No catering booked at all over the holidays, aside from the few Christmas parties we’ve already done. Don’t you think that’s strange?”
“So, we push the café more, maybe write up the chalkboard with the fact you’re selling turkeys already stuffed.” This provokes another gale of laughter.
“This is going to be you in a minute—” I indicate to the bird “—so I don’t see what’s so darn amusing.”
“Give me that bowl, then.” We put the stuffing mix between us and hum along to Christmas music while we work. We decorated the café almost a month ago now. Winter has set in. The grey skies are a backdrop for our flashing Christmas lights that adorn the windows. Outside, snow drifts down coating the window panes and it’s so cozy I want to snuggle by the fire and watch the world go by. Glimmering red and green baubles hang from the ceiling, and spin like disco balls each time a customer blows in.
A real tree holds up the corner; the smell from the needles, earth and pine, seeps out beneath the shiny decorations. In pride of place, sitting squarely in the bay window, is our gingerbread house. It’s four feet high, with red and white candy-cane pillars holding up the thatched roof. There’s a wide chimney, decorated with green and red jelly beans, ready for Santa to climb down. And the white chocolate front door has a wreath made from spun sugar. In the garden, marshmallow snowmen gaze cheerfully out from under their hats. If you look inside the star-shaped window, you can see a gingerbread family sitting beside a Christmas tree. The local children come in droves to ogle it, and CeeCee is always quick to invite them in for a cup of cocoa, out of the cold.
I opened up the Gingerbread Café a few years back, but the town of Ashford is only a blip on the map of Connecticut, so I run a catering business to make ends meet. We cater for any party, large or small, and open the café during the week to sell freshly made cakes, pies, and whatever CeeCee’s got a hankering for. But we specialize in anything ginger. Gingerbread men, cookies, beverages, you name it, we’ve made it. You can’t get any more comforting than a concoction of golden syrup, butter, and ginger baking in the oven in the shape of little bobble-headed people. The smell alone will transport you back to childhood. CeeCee’s the best pie maker I’ve ever known. They sell out as quickly as we can make them. But pies alone won’t keep me afloat.
“So, you hear anything about that fine-looking thing, from over the road?” CeeCee asks.
“What fine thing?”
She rolls her eyes dramatically. “Damon, his name is. The one opening up the new shop, remember? You know who I mean. We went over there to peek just the other day.”
“I haven’t heard boo about him. And who cares, anyhow?”
“You sure as hell wouldn’t be bent over dead poultry, leaking from those big blue eyes of yours, if he was snuggled in your bed at night.”
I gasp and pretend to be outraged. “CeeCee! Maybe you could keep him warm—you ever think of that?”
“Oh, my. If I was your age, I’d be over there lickety-split. But I ain’t and he might be just the distraction you need.”
“Pfft. The only distraction I need is for that cash register to start opening and closing on account of it filling with cold hard cash.”
“You could fix up those blond curls of yours, maybe paint your nails. You ain’t got time to dilly-dally. Once the girls in town catch on, he’s gonna be snapped right up,” says CeeCee, clicking her fingers.
“They can have him. I still love Joel.” CeeCee shakes her head and mumbles to herself.
“That’s about the dumbest thing I ever heard. You know he’s moved on.” I certainly do. There’s no one in this small town of ours that doesn’t know. He sure as hell made a mockery of me. Childhood sweethearts, until twenty-three months, four days and, oh, five hours ago. He’s made a mistake, and he’ll come back, I just know it. Money’s what caused it, or lack thereof. He’s gone, hightailed it out of town with some redheaded bimbo originally from Kentucky. She’s got more money than Donald Trump, and that’s why if you ask me. We lost our house after his car yard went belly up, and I nearly lost my business.
“Lookie here,” CeeCee says. “I think we’re about to get our first customer.” The doorbell jangles, and in comes Walt, who sells furniture across the way.
“Morning, ladies.” He takes off his almost-threadbare earmuff hat. I’ve never seen Walt without the damn thing, but he won’t hear a word about it. It’s his lucky hat, he says. Folks round here have all sorts of quirks like that.
“Hey, Walt,” I say. “Sure is snowing out there.”
“That it is. Mulled-wine weather if you ask me.” CeeCee washes her hands, and dries them on her apron.
“We don’t have none of that, but I can fix you a steaming mug of gingerbread coffee, Walt. Surely will warm those hands o’ yours. How’d you like that?”
“Sounds mighty nice,” he says, edging closer to the fire. The logs crackle and spit, casting an orange glow over Walt’s ruddy face.