A Winter Wedding at Mistletoe Gate Farm by Helen J Rolfe
Tilly hummed along to a Christmas playlist as she unboxed a glass vase ready to put on display in her shop, Tilly’s Bits ’n’ Pieces. She was glad to be tucked up inside away from the cold and even happier that the storms of the last few days had subsided to a drizzle and a wind that was so half-hearted it was hard to believe the weather had created such chaos in Heritage Cove.
Into the vessel she placed a white pillar candle and over it looped a wire ring decorated with artificial gypsophila. The look was elegant, classic, traditional. In fact, the look was everything that Tilly was not. She’d inherited her late grandma Shirley’s dress sense – not that Tilly dressed dowdily or in a style that was inappropriate for a woman of thirty, but rather she dressed in a way she’d describe as boho-chic. She favoured floaty fabrics, funky designs, and charity shops were her go-to for a clothes spree. On her latest spree she’d found the lime-green flared-sleeve top embellished with florals in red, bottle-green and amber – the same colour as her eyes – that she was wearing now teamed with flared jeans and brown suede ankle boots.
Tilly had been lucky enough to be privately educated, she’d excelled academically, but then she’d backed away from the career in law everyone had assumed she was well suited to. Ever since Tilly had turned down a place at university her decisions had been a source of conflict in her family, particularly with her dad, and Tilly still wasn’t sure he’d ever approve of her life choices even though he’d been the one to hand over the shop to her when it was passed down to him from Grandma Shirley. She liked to think it was a sign that deep down he respected her choices and was proud of her, as much as he wouldn’t admit it openly. And now, rather than spending her days hunched over black-and-white law texts at a desk, revising papers and putting together depositions or interpreting rules and regulations, Tilly was following a different path altogether, which had begun by studying textiles and working in soft-furnishings retail on a casual basis. Eventually those choices had led to her being here in the Cove, in the shop she’d loved even as a little girl.
As soon as Tilly had taken on the shop it was like she’d found her calling. What had once been a place to buy only candles and candle accessories became a place to find the odd piece of antique furniture, handmade cards, fashion jewellery and accessories. And having larger items gave the added benefit of hiding the peeling wallpaper, the same wall coverings that had been in the shop ever since Tilly could remember. There were no longer many rules when it came to what went in her shop. Tilly chose beautiful things that she thought customers would like and – so far – her method always worked. She even bought some larger items: a rocking chair in Tudor oak with spindles and slats and a plank seat, an ivory-painted chest of drawers, a Welsh dresser. And while each item waited for someone to fall in love with it, in turn it served a purpose in the shop as an extra place to display other pretty pieces – the velvet cushion embroidered with designs for the twelve days of Christmas sat on the rocking chair, the silk scarves in a variety of colours and patterns were tied on the handles of the chest of drawers, others folded on top, and a whole range of candles with unique fragrances were lined up along the Welsh dresser.
Tilly sighed as she placed the new candle holder onto a flat silver plate and positioned it on top of the cream table tucked into the bay-window area. The display here was set on a platform slightly raised from the rest of the shop and facing out onto The Street, the main road that ran through the pretty village of Heritage Cove on the east coast of England. From the local pub, the Heritage Tea Rooms and Tilly’s shop to the recently renovated bakery, the ice-creamery and the waffle shack, each and every business here in the Cove was cemented in village life as much as were its residents.
Tilly looked out at the four-foot snowman she put in situ every Christmas, set back enough to be under cover. Grandma Shirley had introduced him a long time ago and Tilly had carried on the tradition – although when she’d found him out from storage this year she’d needed to fix up his black felt hat, dust off his pink-dotted cheeks and sew one of the buttons back onto his body. She supposed that was what happened when he was kept in a bag for so long.
Moving gingerly to the other side of the bay window, she plucked the cloth from the back pocket of her jeans and dusted the walnut table, on top of which sat three owl ornaments that needed their heads wiping too. She picked up a glittery squirrel decoration that had fallen off the tree that stood proudly in the centre of the bay window and repositioned it on a branch thick enough to take its weight. The tree with all its twinkly lights was especially welcome on a day like today. It was cheer amongst the grey clouds and murkiness beyond.
As she backed out of the narrow space and stepped onto the shop floor, Tilly almost collided with Lois, coming into the shop.
‘Sorry!’ Lois pushed the door closed behind her to shut out the cold. ‘I didn’t see you there, Tilly.’
Tilly dismissed her concern. The shop was beginning to feel the size of a doll’s house as she added more and more pieces to her collections, passion overtaking common sense some of the time, so this wasn’t the first time people had collided with one another. Tilly picked up the empty cardboard box she’d unpacked. ‘I’ll get rid of this; feel free to browse.’ Her tummy rumbled at the sight of what Lois had in one hand – a paper bag emblazoned with the name of the local bakery and surely containing something delicious judging by the smell. Owned by sisters Jade and Celeste, who lived in the cottage behind their business, The Twist and Turn Bakery never disappointed.
Lois set the paper bag and her handbag down on the stool near the counter. ‘Retail therapy is always a good thing,’ she grinned. ‘You get on, I’m happy to look around.’
Tilly narrowly avoided tripping over a basket of fabric cases she had on sale for those who used e-readers. Honestly, this place was simply far too small now she was stocking bigger items. Customers had to stay in single file along the aisles, of which there were two, and those were narrow enough. Tilly didn’t get too many breakages but that was only because she made a point of putting the more fragile items on shelves or on furniture pushed against the walls. In the centre of the shop there was a raised area but the whole place still felt cluttered no matter how often Tilly tidied or rearranged things. What she really needed was to do out the upstairs, which currently was nothing more than a few empty and neglected rooms, but that was only a dream right now, partly for financial reasons but also because she was risk-averse. She’d never wanted to prove right her dad’s claim that she was throwing away her future by going off to study textile design at a college rather than pursue the degree she’d applied for. She’d thought her parents would be pleased she wasn’t stopping her education just like that, that she would be studying alongside working in retail, but her dad, busy with his own work back then, had never really asked her much about it. And then Grandma Shirley had died and he’d handed the shop to Tilly and they’d never talked about that either. She knew they had a serious problem with communication, going in for pleasantries but never talking at a deeper level, but she’d long since given up trying to work out the way her parents’ minds worked. She’d taken on the shop, set up her new life and the family tensions had lessened enough that they could go through the motions when they saw one another, which she supposed was better than nothing.
Out the back, Tilly finished flattening the cardboard boxes, some of which she recycled, others she’d use as needed. Sometimes customers bought so much it was easier to assemble a box for their new belongings than pack them into a number of bags. By the time she returned to the shop front Lois had hold of a cute cushion covered in a hedgehog design and she was checking her hair in a small ornate dressing mirror to see that it was sitting in its usual obedient bob.
‘Just checking I don’t have hat hair,’ Lois explained. Her Irish accent hadn’t softened at all since she’d been reunited with Barney, the love of her life. She set the cushion on the counter by the till and found out her purse. ‘It’s dangerous coming in here – you have way too many gorgeous things. I could spend a fortune.’
Tilly handed Lois her receipt. ‘You’re welcome anytime and I do aim to please.’
Purchase made, Lois picked up the bag from the bakery. ‘Barney’s helping over at the florist today while they do their repairs in time to reopen for the Christmas demand so I took over his lunch and when he saw I’d included some treats for later on, he suggested I deliver one to you. It’s not too early for you, is it?’ She opened the bag to reveal mince pies dusted in icing sugar – the hole in the top, the irresistible sweet scent.
‘It’s never too early for a mince pie.’ Tilly smiled as Lois took out one for her and one for herself. And she looked at the clock for the first time in hours. ‘I’ve been crazy busy. A coachload of tourists en route to Cambridge decided the Cove would be a lovely place to stop and explore. They’re lucky the council cleared the storm debris first thing this morning or they’d never have been able to come through the village.’
The storms had shaken residents up as well as their properties. Tilly had been talking to her friend Harvey last night and he’d said he hadn’t ventured down to the cove itself yet because he wasn’t sure how safe it was to walk Winnie, his dog. Apparently he’d gone to the end of the track that ran parallel with the chapel and cemetery behind and had stood looking out at the sea, the waves white-crested and still rolling fiercely.
‘Did they buy much?’ Lois ate her mince pie over a cupped hand.
‘Plenty, although I had to limit how many people came in here at once – I was terrified something might get broken.’ Her casual assistant Dessie, who did hours in the shop whenever Tilly needed, was spending the entire month of December with her gran and at first Tilly had thought managing this place completely solo would be fine but if this morning was anything to go by, she may have underestimated how difficult it was not having someone she could call on when custom swelled unexpectedly. Some days she could go along with a steady trickle of customers, as though they’d all pre-agreed when to go in and were forming a very orderly queue to do so, but on other days it was the complete opposite.
‘The tourists were in the tea rooms when I went past,’ Lois confirmed and as she lifted her mince pie to take another bite her diamond wedding band flashed when it caught the light. She’d only been married since the summer after rekindling her romance with Barney, local favourite and a man who’d been like family to Tilly. He’d been good friends with her grandma Shirley and ever since Tilly had come to take over the shop in the Cove he’d always been there for her without question. Barney was one of those people who immersed themselves in the community and that meant helping out whenever and wherever he was needed. And everyone loved him for it.
‘Etna would’ve been beside herself…in a good way, with all her tables filled, plenty of people to chat with.’
‘It certainly seemed that way when I went past. I waved through the window to her and the tables were chocka. I saw a group heading up to the waffle shack as well so Daniel will be just as busy.’
Talk turned to Tilly’s parents and their winter cruise. Since her dad had retired they’d been all about travelling and this time they were cramming lots in – France, Spain, Italy and Portugal.
‘I’d love some winter sun,’ Lois confessed. ‘You’d think I’d be used to rain, having lived in Ireland for so many years, but it can get me down sometimes.’
‘The storm here can’t have helped.’
Lois turned and looked to the front door. ‘You’d never know the glass had been smashed.’
‘The glazier did a brilliant job.’ A brilliant but expensive job it had been to repair the broken window after the storms. Businesses and homes in the village had hunkered down while the deluge did its best to wreak havoc, with winds well over fifty miles per hour hitting the small village and its surrounds and enough rain for a month falling in the space of forty-eight hours. Tilly’s neighbour had lost an entire garden fence, and the person who lived opposite her had a tree uprooted that narrowly avoided crashing right through the sitting-room window. The village chapel, which sat over the road from Tilly’s Bits ’n’ Pieces, stood strong as it had for so many years but the cemetery behind it was a total mess, with branches of trees hanging across headstones, offerings left by grieving visitors nowhere to be seen. Hazel, who owned and ran the local riding stables, had told of frightened horses; she’d burst into tears with the stress of it all when she’d met with friends in the pub last night. Zara from the local ice-creamery had left her tables and umbrellas out following a very mild start to the winter, with plenty of customers happy to buy her festive flavours in December and content to linger outside bundled up against the cold. The umbrellas had been completely wrecked, one of them found way past the bus stop on the bend. The local florist had had a smashed window at the back of the property, and although the tea rooms and bakery had stayed safe on this side of the street, Tilly’s shop had been the target of an enormous tree branch that came out of nowhere and crashed through the glass in the door.
‘Barney said your cottage was relatively unscathed.’ Lois brushed the crumbs from the counter and dropped them into the paper bag.
‘Thank goodness. I was lucky, by the sounds of it. Jade said they lost a chimney pot from the roof of their place and several slates from the roof of the bakery. My cottage fared well with only a bit of damage to the front fence.’ Tilly shrugged. ‘It was on its last legs anyway so it’s not the end of the world.’ She’d replace it with a small picket fence in the spring and paint it in a bright white. ‘What about your place?’
‘The house escaped damage. And the chickens are blissfully unaware anything was amiss. We locked them in the coop, made sure there was no garden debris nearby. Barney was so worried about them all, obsessed something was going to blow in from far away. Thankfully it didn’t. And we’re just grateful that when we agreed to take those chickens and keep them on our land we went for top-of-the-range everything.’ She began to smile. ‘I nicknamed their coop The Palace.’
‘Good name,’ Tilly grinned as Michael Bublé came on the Christmas playlist, making her really feel as though Christmas was fast approaching. She’d seen The Palace – it might house chickens but with its beautiful dark, strong timber, sections for egg collection, a run, sleeping quarters and a sturdy roof, it was like high-end real estate but for animals. She wasn’t surprised it had stood up to the storm and kept the chickens safe.
‘We weren’t so lucky with the barn,’ Lois added.
Tilly had a bad feeling about this. Her good friends Harvey and Melissa were due to get married in the barn in only a few weeks. ‘Oh no…Harvey and Melissa will be devastated.’ She’d always thought of the barn as being like the chicken coop – sturdy and not going anywhere. ‘What’s the damage?’
‘A tree smashed through the roof and the back wall, one of the main doors is badly damaged and the inside flooded with water. It’s not a pretty sight. Our first concern was the chickens but when we saw the barn after the storm had calmed down, we realised we hadn’t escaped quite as well as we’d thought.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me earlier? I feel terrible now – Barney was over here last night fretting about the glazier finishing up, he’s had the chickens to deal with, he’s over at the florist now, sending over baked treats for me. That man needs to worry about himself, too.’
‘He’s devastated. We had someone come out this morning to assess and quote on repairs but I don’t think we’ll even get materials in time.’
Tilly’s heart sank. ‘What does this mean for the wedding?’
‘Barney knows he has to tell Melissa and Harvey today that the wedding can’t be held in the barn. They’re going to have to find another venue. Barney is so upset he won’t be able to give them the wedding they deserve – you know how he is about those two.’
Tilly did. Both of them had been in Barney’s life since they were kids and they’d spent many happy days in the barn that sat adjacent to his home. They’d played there, hung out after school, and it had always seemed the natural choice for their wedding, even all those years ago when marriage had still been a long way off.
‘He’s waiting on one more phone call from a timber supplier as his last hope.’ Lois crossed her fingers on both hands. ‘For now, until he has to tell them, he’s trying to keep busy.’
Tilly had known Melissa and Harvey for years. They’d split up for a long while but had been together again for around eighteen months, their engagement and upcoming nuptials no surprise to anyone. Melissa had asked Tilly to be a bridesmaid at the wedding alongside her friend Tracy, who with her husband Guy owned and ran the Heritage Inn, the guesthouse that sat on the corner as you came into the Cove from one direction. Their dresses had been chosen and as well as being key members of the wedding party, their job as bridesmaids was to keep the bride happy – Tilly just didn’t know how they were going to do that in light of this terrible revelation.
‘Is there really no way the repairs can be done in time?’
Lois shrugged her shoulders. ‘We’ve made a lot of calls. The best person to do the work would’ve been Harvey, especially with it being so close to Christmas, but of course he has his own work – he’s flat out with loft refitting for his day job before he and Melissa get married and head off on honeymoon. And it’s not just the labour, it’s the materials. Barney has always used the supplier Harvey uses for maintenance of the barn but he can’t get a delivery date until after Christmas. Barney thinks we should offer to have the wedding at the house if they can’t find anywhere else.’ Lois looked at Tilly. ‘You know Melissa better than I do. Would she be incredibly disappointed?’ She swished her hand through the air to quash her words the moment they came out of her mouth. ‘Silly question, of course she will. I loved getting married in the barn and I didn’t grow up around here.’
‘The house could be just as special,’ Tilly assured her, this poor woman who would be feeling Barney’s pain as though it were her own. ‘And if Barney is there, that’s what will mean the most to Melissa and Harvey. Besides, it’s better than not getting married at all.’
‘Barney has already walked around the house talking about how we can decorate it – fairy lights, more than one Christmas tree, we could move the table and sofas to the sides of the room to make a dancefloor.’
Tilly had a thought. ‘What about the chapel?’
But Lois shook her head. ‘They’re hosting a visiting choir on the morning of the wedding and then the primary school is holding a nativity performance in the afternoon.’
The door swung open and in came a trio of women clucking noisily about gifts. Tilly helped one of them find a present for her granddaughter who was graduating at the end of the week. She showed her the necklaces on the jewellery tree near the till, pointing out a sterling-silver design with heart and mortarboard pendants on the same chain that the woman instantly fell in love with before moving over to peruse the hand-stitched cards as Tilly wrapped her purchase at the till.
‘I don’t know what else to suggest,’ she told Lois as she broke off pieces of sticky tape to secure the tissue paper. ‘I can’t hold it here. The tea rooms are way too small. The waffle shack is beautiful but not big enough either. There’s the pub? But no…couldn’t do that to Terry and Nola, not at such a busy time of year, although they’d probably oblige if asked.’
‘I’m wondering whether Melissa might choose Tumbleweed House.’
‘That could work.’ Tumbleweed House had been in Harvey’s family for years and although the rooms weren’t large, getting married at the home they now shared would certainly have a special appeal.
‘I think Barney will offer our place, then they’ll talk about Tumbleweed House,’ Lois concluded, pulling on her hat and gloves to brace herself for the cold. ‘Thanks, Tilly. I suspect Barney sent me in here as much for my sanity as to give you a sweet treat. I’m worrying, about him mostly, and of course that means he’s stressing about me.’ She began to laugh. ‘Life’s never simple. See you tonight at the tree-lighting ceremony?’
Tilly nodded and waved her off, and as the Christmas playlist continued she thought of her friends. She hoped they’d find somewhere perfect for their special day because they both deserved it so much.
The storms had been nasty enough to cause a lot of trouble throughout Heritage Cove and its surrounding villages, but almost as though they’d timed it the best they could, the winds and rain had subsided enough for the village tree to be transported from Mistletoe Gate Farm, which sat out past the pub, beyond the florist.
The tree, an impressive fifty-foot Norway spruce from the Doyle family’s farm, stood tall and proud now as onlookers huddled against one another or in groups clasping big cups filled with mulled wine from the cart that the pub had put out on the grass area especially for tonight. The village needed this, Tilly thought to herself as she took a sip of her wine and savoured the taste of traditional mulling spices. Everyone had been somewhat melancholy clearing up, sweeping footpaths, removing debris from gardens, booking in with tradesmen to do the jobs they couldn’t manage. But now, there wasn’t a downturned mouth to be seen.
When Tilly spotted Benjamin Doyle – son of Heather and Danny who owned Mistletoe Gate Farm, chef at the local pub and a friend she sometimes imagined being more than just that – her smile only widened further. Ever since the summer, she’d been convinced he was on the verge of asking her out. They’d flirted, they’d chatted long into the evenings when he came off shift in The Copper Plough, he’d walked her home more than once, but he didn’t seem any closer to moving beyond their friendship.
Benjamin held his cup aloft, his gentle soft-caramel eyes focusing solely on her. ‘Great minds think alike.’
‘Everyone knows your recipe is the best,’ she replied. Benjamin’s family recipe for mulled wine was used every year and never disappointed. Or perhaps Tilly was biased.
‘I’ll take that compliment.’ He tilted his head in acknowledgement of the praise. ‘It’s freezing tonight – I’m still getting used to not having the extra hair to keep warm.’ He patted a hand to the back of his neck. Benjamin’s hair had been tied back in a ponytail for years but a month ago he’d had it all cut off. Tilly had been in the pub the night of the local fundraiser, which collected over a thousand pounds from friends and punters eager to support a charity that used hair donations to make wigs for children and young people who had experienced hair loss.
‘Totally worth it,’ she beamed at him.
‘I don’t know why I kept it long, to be honest. It’s much easier to look after this way.’
And way sexier, she thought to herself. His hair was cut short at the back; she’d seen the clippers run gently from the nape of his neck upwards, stopping so it remained spiky at the top. And the cut suited the well-groomed designer stubble he favoured.
‘I think the whole village needed this tree-lighting tonight.’ The mulled wine had warmed her up already and as they gazed around at the swelling crowds Tilly could just about make out Daniel up at the Little Waffle Shack watching from the veranda, his arm around his girlfriend Lucy’s shoulders. She’d already seen that Barney and Lois were closer to the tree, but Tilly was glad she and Benjamin were both standing further back, in the shadows, as it was nice for it to be just him and her.
‘I almost came in to see you in the shop earlier today,’ he said.
‘You did?’ She looked up at him. This was it. He was going to ask her out at long last. She was relieved she’d had a chance to go back to her cottage and freshen up, to put on some lip gloss and mascara, to spritz her perfume.
‘I still need a gift for Mum and I’ve no idea what to get her this year.’
Tilly’s heart sank. ‘Right, well, whenever you’re ready.’
He seemed oblivious he’d made her hopes soar and then been the one to cause them to drop from a great height. They both turned and watched the crowds gathering by the tree; it was almost time for the lights to be switched on.
‘Your family does us proud every year,’ said Tilly.
Even beneath his thick jacket she could see his chest swell with pride. He had his own career – as chef at The Copper Plough he’d transformed the menu more than once – but he still helped out a lot at the farm, the family business that held a sentimental significance for him as it likely always would. It was the same for her with the shop: there was rarely a day that went by when she didn’t have a recollection of her grandma or consider what Shirley would think of any changes Tilly made, the stock she now kept on sale. It made her strive to keep improving the shop, too, as though her grandma was watching over it and all of Tilly’s hard work could meet with her approval.
‘Do you have a tree for your cottage yet?’ he asked her.
‘I need to sort that, don’t I?’ She’d already seen his mum, Heather, handing out business cards for Mistletoe Gate Farm to people who might not be from around here but may well be interested in picking up a real tree this season.
‘We’re open at nine tomorrow morning; stop by and I’ll help you choose one. I’ll even carry it back to your cottage for you – how does that sound?’
It sounded pretty perfect to Tilly. If only. ‘I have the shop.’
‘Couldn’t Dessie watch it for you?’
‘She’s away with family.’
‘I’ll do it,’ came a voice from beside them.
Hand clasped against her heart, Tilly smiled at Lois. ‘You gave me a fright. You were down nearer the tree a minute ago – you sneaked up on me.’ She gave Lois a kiss on the cheek, then leaned over to kiss Barney, who’d positioned himself the other side of Benjamin.
‘Better view from right back here,’ Barney concluded.
And when Barney told her about the barn and how hard it had been to tell Melissa and Harvey today, Tilly made a mental note to text Melissa later and tell her she was thinking of them both and to offer her help if it was needed. Casting her eyes around she couldn’t see either of them right now as the crowds swelled.
‘Choosing a tree cannot be rushed,’ Lois insisted, turning the subject back to Tilly, ‘and your shop is busy – I saw that today for myself. I’ve helped you out before, so just remind me about the till and the card machine and I’ll come in for an hour or two.’ Another thing Barney and Lois had in common was that despite both being in their seventies, neither of them showed the slightest sign of slowing down.
Benjamin whistled between his teeth. ‘I reckon once we let her loose at the farm she’ll spend way more than an hour choosing her tree.’
Tilly reddened. Good job it was dark and nobody could see. It wasn’t that she was embarrassed about spending forever choosing the perfect tree from Mistletoe Gate Farm last year but she was uncomfortable that he could remember it – and by the way he was looking at her now, he wasn’t thinking of her like any other customer but as someone he wanted to share more than a friendship with.
It was last winter when Tilly had started to feel attracted to Benjamin, not that she’d let on to anyone because he’d been with his girlfriend then and so Tilly had pushed her feelings aside. But in the summer, after he’d been single again for a while, she’d got the impression he liked her too.
‘If you’re sure, Lois, then that would be brilliant,’ said Tilly. ‘Once the village tree is up it always feels weird not to have one at home. I grabbed one for the shop last week but the one for home takes longer to select.’
‘You want to get one before all the good ones go,’ Barney advised.
‘I’ll have you know they’re all good.’ Benjamin turned to face Tilly. ‘So, will I see you in the morning?’
She told him that he would just as Danny’s voice boomed out from beside the tree through a microphone that he held in his hand to be heard above the crowds who gathered on the grass area beyond the village bus stop on the bend that led out of Heritage Cove. The tree lighting was about to happen and onlookers counted down from ten.
As the crowds reached zero in their countdown colour burst from the foot of the tree all the way to the top. Squeals of excitement accompanied a round of applause and seasonal cheer spread at the sight of the tree that had been quite a feat to get into position this year. The ground had had to be cleared of storm debris with everyone from Mistletoe Gate Farm mucking in, Benjamin too, and on her way to the shop this morning Tilly had seen the tree laid out along the length of the trailer, a cherry picker waiting in the wings for Benjamin’s dad and anyone else he worked with who had no problem with heights to do the honours, as they did every year, and deck out the festive beauty with hundreds and hundreds of baubles, decorations and lights.
When someone walked past with waffles Barney told Lois they’d better get up there quickly before the masses had the same idea. He led the way but Lois hung back for a moment. ‘He needed this tonight,’ she assured Benjamin before reconfirming she’d be at the shop half an hour before it opened in the morning so Tilly could go and choose her tree.
After they’d carried on up to the shack Benjamin was confused. ‘Why did Barney in particular need this tonight?’ he asked Tilly. ‘Has something upset him?’
‘You haven’t heard?’ When he shook his head she elaborated, explaining the damage to the barn, the predicament about the wedding. ‘I haven’t seen Melissa and Harvey tonight, have you?’
‘No, but if they found out this afternoon then no doubt they’ll be in panic mode trying to sort out an alternative venue. The path of true love, eh…’ His eyes held hers and her stomach clenched. ‘I’d better get to the pub, there’ll be plenty of hungry people to feed tonight. I’ll see you tomorrow.’
But before she could reply her phone rang. ‘Sorry, I’d better get that – I’m expecting a call from a supplier about delivery in the morning and if they change the time, I’ll have to tell Lois.’ She picked up the call from the unrecognised number and soon realised it wasn’t a supplier at all. ‘Mum? Is that you?’ She put a finger in her ear – she could barely hear – and she turned her back on the crowds and moved to the very edge of the field as though it might make some difference.
‘Mum, speak up,’ she urged again. ‘What did you say?’ But she could already tell it wasn’t good news, and so could Benjamin because he was no longer looking at the tree to give her some privacy, he was watching her and her mounting distress.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asked the minute she ended the call.
‘The police contacted my parents. Their house was broken into. The neighbours called the police when they noticed a curtain billowing from a smashed window at the back of the house – which would’ve been the kitchen.’ Her words continued to spill out. ‘I need to get up to Nottingham. Mum’s fretting that the house is wide open. I’ll need to arrange repairs, go through their things and attempt to itemise what’s missing.’ She put a hand to her forehead. ‘This is the last thing I need. I’ll have to go tonight, get it done as soon as possible.’ But then she looked at the near-empty cup of mulled wine in her hand. ‘I’ve been drinking. I can’t go. And I have the shop – how can I leave Lois to manage it for a day or more? And I can’t close, I –’
Benjamin took hold of her shoulders. ‘First, breathe.’
She looked down and could barely make out the blades of grass amidst the muddy soil beneath their feet, so dark was the sky surrounding them. ‘There’s another coachload of tourists due through tomorrow afternoon. It would be good for business.’ And it would top up the all-important cash reserves, especially since she’d had to call the emergency glazier.
‘Let’s go and get you some waffles,’ he insisted, leading her towards the shack. ‘For the shock. And why don’t you ask Lois about the shop? She’s offered to help in the morning; perhaps Barney could step in too and between them they could handle it for the day.’
‘It’s a big ask.’ She was so distressed she barely registered Benjamin’s arm around her shoulders, she had no chance to savour being tucked against his chest and the feel of his voice vibrating against her hair as they reached the waffle shack. ‘And with everything Barney has on his plate at the moment, I don’t know if I can do it to them.’
‘I think it’ll make Barney feel like he’s helping in some way,’ Benjamin assured her as they stepped onto the veranda and opened the door, the sweet aroma snaking out to grab them. ‘It’ll take his mind off the barn and Melissa’s wedding plans.’
A thought occurred to her. ‘I was going to choose my tree in the morning.’
‘Plenty of trees, Tilly. You stop by in a few days, any time.’ He had hold of her upper shoulders again as though it was the only way to get through to her.
But now she had to stop thinking about Benjamin and the way he looked at her, the way she wanted to stay near him and move closer into his arms. She had to ask Lois and Barney for an enormous favour.
And tomorrow she had to drive up to Nottingham and assess the damage.