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The Christmas Cafe at Seashell Cove: The perfect laugh-out-loud Christmas romance by Karen Clarke (1)

Chapter One

‘Is that big enough for you?’

‘I’ve had bigger.’ The woman’s mouth curled down in disappointment. ‘Especially from that young guy who used to work here.’

‘How much bigger?’

‘He knew I liked a generous portion.’

I hovered the knife over a quarter of the chocolate cake. ‘Is that big enough for you?’

The customer considered it through spiky eyelashes, as if its dimensions were as crucial to her life as breathing. ‘I suppose that’ll do,’ she conceded.

I brought the knife down and began sawing, but instead of producing a neat wedge, the cake collapsed in on itself, buttercream oozing out of the middle and white chocolate shards shooting off the top.

‘You’ve got it upside down,’ the customer pointed out, her voice dripping sarcasm.

‘I’m not very good with knives.’ I flashed the blue plaster around my thumb, where blood had started to seep through. ‘You should see me with a spoon though!’

She gave me a revolted look – either squeamish, or hangry. Probably the latter. Being hungry was the only thing that made me angry.

‘Let me try again.’ I passed the back of my hand across my lightly perspiring brow, then turned the knife over and swiped the blade through the cake, but it didn’t resemble so much a slice as a heap of crumbs and frosting. I tried to stuff the buttercream back inside, and pressed some shards of chocolate into the frosting.

‘You’re not expecting me to eat that?’ The woman’s eyes almost vanished under the force of her frown. ‘I’ve been looking forward to my Monday morning cake all weekend.’

‘It still tastes delicious.’ I pushed my finger through a drift of squished-out buttercream then licked it off. ‘It’s yummy!’

‘Tilly, what the bleedin’ ’ell are you doin’?’ Gwen, the café manager, shot over and tackled the knife off me before lobbing it at the sink – probably breaking one of the health and safety rules she’d drummed into me earlier. ‘Ain’t you got other work you should be gettin’ on wiv?’

She waggled her head meaningfully in the direction of the café’s new extension, which I’d been overseeing for the past couple of months and was in charge of styling. Unfortunately, there’d been a leak from a burst pipe, which meant the floor had to dry out completely before the new floorboards could be laid and the rest of the work completed – which was proving stressful with only a week until Christmas Eve, when the café was hosting a party.

‘You know I can’t do anything at the moment,’ I said, watching her hack out a fat slice of cake and heft it onto a plate for the disgruntled customer, waving away her money. ‘On the arse,’ she said, casting me a dark look that suggested Maitland’s Café was on the brink of bankruptcy, thanks to me.

‘Gwen, you’re a superstar.’ The customer’s face transformed into an affectionate smile, despite Gwen’s stony demeanour, and she trotted happily to one of the empty tables and whipped out a paperback.

‘You were supposed to be coverin’ for me on me break, not scarin’ the customers away.’ Gwen’s narrowed gaze cased the café, which was empty apart from the woman, and a middle-aged couple at a table by the door, cradling cups of hot chocolate like baby birds. Both had beaming Santas on their matching Christmas sweaters.

‘There aren’t any customers to frighten away,’ I pointed out. There’d been a rush, which Gwen had managed single-handedly, but it had soon quietened down. Thankfully, since I was learning that being a waitress was not my forte.

Gwen clearly agreed. ‘Come back Tamsin, all is forgiven,’ she grumbled, clearing up the mess I’d made, scraping what was left of the cake into a Tupperware box. ‘Even Dom could slice a sponge, and ’e looked like ’e didn’t know ’is own name ’alf the bleedin’ time.’

Tamsin and Dom, the waiting staff, had left to go travelling after falling in love at the café over the summer, and their replacement – a timid man called Jerry, so scared of Gwen he flinched every time she looked at him – had come down with a cold, leaving the place short-staffed. The owners were away on a cruise – with my parents, as it happened – so it had felt natural to offer to help while I waited for work to recommence on the café’s new function room. Well… not natural, exactly. Working for a boss, being told what to do and keeping regular hours didn’t come naturally at all, but I was doing my best.

Which clearly wasn’t good enough for Gwen, who ran the café with an iron hand, and a glare that could curdle milk. ‘I’d be better orf on me own,’ she concluded. ‘You should stick to what you do best.’

She was either referring to my flair for interior design – which didn’t extend to a proper career (a word I was allergic to), or the guided walks I led along the coastal paths, but there weren’t many visitors to Seashell Cove in December, so my services there were redundant.

‘I’m trying,’ I told her.

‘Very tryin’.’

‘Isn’t Cassie coming in later?’ Cassie was the owners’ daughter, and one of my best friends. ‘Unless Danny’s whisked her off somewhere?’ She’d mentioned her boyfriend was behaving oddly, as if he was up to something.

‘She’s still paintin’ that woman, ain’t she?’

‘Ah yes, I’d forgotten.’ Cassie, an artist, had been commissioned to paint a portrait of the Mayoress of Kingsbridge, who wanted to present it to her husband for Christmas. ‘Apparently, the woman keeps changing her mind about how she wants to be portrayed,’ I said. ‘Sexy but serious is the latest brief.’

Gwen snorted. ‘She should just paint a picture of an ’ippopotamus in a tutu,’ she said. ‘That would be close enough.’

‘Gwen! That’s not very… sisterly.’ I glanced pointedly at the combat trousers and steel toe-capped boots she was wearing with her navy Maitland’s fleece.

‘That woman refused plannin’ permission when me cousin wanted a stable in ’er back garden for ’er donkey…’ Gwen paused, her pebbly-gaze shooting past me. ‘Brace yourself.’

I turned to see four elderly women approaching the counter, tugging off assorted hats and scarves and unbuttoning their coats. Their faces lit up when they spotted Cake of the Day – a gooey, chocolate Yule log sprinkled with icing sugar to look like snow and decorated with a plump, sugar-paste robin.

‘Seashell Cove’s finest,’ one of them said, pointing a wonky, arthritic finger. ‘You won’t find better cake anywhere in Devon.’

‘Or sliced more badly,’ Gwen muttered, giving me side-eye. ‘Go on,’ she added, probably sensing my panic – a feeling I’d rarely experienced before stepping behind the counter. ‘I’ll manage the Golden Girls.’

My shoulders relaxed. Gratefully leaving her to it, I smiled at the women as I slipped past, but they didn’t notice, their attention focused on placing their orders with Gwen, seeming undaunted that her fists were bunched on the counter, as if she was about to vault over and wring their necks. Her unique customer service style was legendary, and part of the café’s attraction.

After pausing to tweak a couple of starfish decorations on the Christmas tree I’d helped Cassie put up at the weekend – styled in seaside colours to match the interior – I stepped through the plastic-covered archway into the extension, pausing briefly to breathe in my favourite aroma. While some people raved about newly baked bread, cut grass or clean laundry, the smell that tickled my senses the most was freshly sawn wood.

It almost seemed a shame to have plastered over the timber-framed walls, but I liked the smell of fresh plaster too. In fact, if it were possible to bottle the smell of a new-build, I’d wear it as perfume.

I stood for a moment and looked through the windows that stretched the length of one wall. From this angle the cove itself was less visible – unless you were out on the terrace – but the view was just as striking, even in winter, when the colours were muted, and the wind was gusting clouds above the swell of water.

I glanced around; picturing the empty room furnished with tables and chairs and filled with people, and experienced a thrill of anticipation. Since helping makeover the café the previous year, business had boomed to the point where customers were being turned away, and Gwen’s bright idea to build an extra space that would double as a function room for celebrations and parties had been greeted with enthusiasm.

It had made sense to do the work after the summer season, and there’d been a wait for planning permission, but now the race was on to finish the project in time for the party on Christmas Eve. The paint couldn’t go on the walls until the floorboards were down, and there was some electrical work to finish. Everyone was on standby until Ted, my floor man, deemed the floor dry enough to go ahead.

I squatted to double-check the paint colour – Sea Mist – and realised I was several tins short. They’d been delivered the previous day while I was out, chasing down some light fittings, and I’d forgotten to check the order when I got back.

‘Damn,’ I murmured, pulling out my phone. I blamed my preoccupation on Rufus. I’d been trying to decide whether or not to accompany him to his brother’s wedding at the weekend. We’d only been seeing each other for six weeks – my longest relationship to date – and it felt like it might be too soon. Did going to a wedding together scream Us next! or was it no different to attending a dinner party? I was more used to breaking up with men than going to social events with them, and I’d felt the conversation required a delicate touch. In the end, I’d invited Rufus to the café to talk about it over coffee, and maybe a slice of cake, and—

‘TILLY! LOVER-BOY’S ’ERE!’

Blowing out a sigh, I stood up and slipped my phone back into my pocket.

The paint – and everything else – would have to wait a bit longer.

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