The Twelve Dates of Christmas - The Complete Novel by Jenny Bayliss




THE FIRST DATE OF CHRISTMAS


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Expectations and Deflations




            Kate Turner stepped gingerly on the crisp ice-dusted leaves and tried not to slip and land on her backside. She couldn’t see where she trod because of the large plastic containers in her arms. The sky was so blue it looked like a scene from a children’s picture book, and her breath plumed out in white clouds and rose up toward the pale winter sun.

            She leaned against the door of the Pear Tree Café and it yielded. A friendly tinkle of bells above her head heralded her arrival. The café was full and warm and noisy. The smell of fresh coffee was rich in the air. Condensation dribbled down the windows and clouded the view of the frosted world outside.

            A few people raised their heads from their cappuccinos and waved. Matt turned from the steaming black and silver coffee machine and grinned at her.

            “Thank God, he said, banging hot coffee grounds out of the portafilter and filling it back up with freshly ground coffee. “We ran out of caramel brownies this morning, I thought there was going to be a riot.”

            Matt’s hair was permanently unkempt and right now was standing on end like one of those trendy hair styling adverts; he had a habit of running his hands through it when he was stressed, which only made it worse. Some might call his unruly mop ginger, but he insisted it was strawberry blond.

            A voice from across the café called out:

            “Did I hear someone say brownies?”

            Matt cleared a space on the counter, and Kate put the boxes down with some relief. She could feel her cheeks burning red in the heat, and she unwound her scarf. Her newly straightened hair was already beginning to kink.

            “Over here,” she called. “Hot off the press.”

            There was a scraping of chairs as regulars clambered over sleeping dogs and Christmas shopping to claim chunks of Kate’s cakes.

            “I’ve brought some more mince pies, orange and chocolate chunk shortbread, and rocky road as well,” said Kate.

            “You’re a lifesaver,” said Matt. “Carla, can you come over here and take these cake orders, please.”

            He picked up a check pad and handed it to the young waitress, who was instantly encircled by a small crowd of sugar-deprived customers. Matt took up his post back at the coffee machine, and Kate sidled around the counter to perch on a stool next to the coffee grinder.

            “What can I get you?” he asked.

            Matt poured two shots of espresso into a wide-brimmed cup and added steamed milk; a flick of his wrist as the liquid reached the top made a caramel leaf pattern in the latte. He placed the cup on the counter behind him for Carla to deliver and began the next order.

            “Just a flat white, please,” Kate said as she slipped out of her coat and laid it across the back of a battered old sofa.

            “Wow,” said Matt. “You look . . . lovely. Where are you off to?”

            Kate brushed her hands self-consciously over the floral tea dress and pulled her cardigan closer around her.

            “Is it too much?” she asked.

            “Too much for what?”

            “You know,” said Kate conspiratorially. She leaned forward and whispered, “For the first date.”

            Recognition dawned on Matt’s face.