The relationship is threatened when Julia's doubts and insecurities overwhelm her, and the secret she's afraid to reveal creates a wedge between them. Will Julia choose the easy route, slipping back into her daily routine and living without love? Or will she find the courage to follow her heart and accept the love she deserves?
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"Always remember why you bake — a birthday, a new baby, a graduation. What we do in the bakery goes deeper than measuring or sifting or icing. Ultimately, we're celebrating people."
As a little girl, Julia Bentley believed there were ghosts living in the walls of her father's Cotswold bakery. She would enter the building with him in the pre-dawn hour, wide-eyed, clutching his strong hand and shuddering at the spooky noises and creaks. But Julia's father would sit her down on a stool and reassure her that the centuries-old building was simply waking up with stretches and yawns. Then he'd bring the bakery to life — ovens whirring, pans clanking, radio playing — and banish the ghosts. Comforted, Julia would watch as he rolled up his sleeves to prepare delicious treats for villagers who were still tucked snugly in their beds.
During the daylight hours, intoxicating scents of baked bread and sugary treats infused the Chilton Crosse bakery, which thrummed with the light chatter of customers and the clinking of eager utensils against plates. With that familiar hum of activity, young Julia could practically feel the building's heartbeat. Warm sunlight streamed in through the diamond-paned window behind her as she sat coloring at a corner table. She loved observing villagers and tourists chattering away, pausing their busy days to fill their bellies with comfort food provided by her father.
As an adult, Julia stopped believing there were ghosts in the walls. She'd learned to savor the dark, early mornings, which had become her favorite hours. Those empty, pitch-black moments were no longer scary or eerie. Instead, they were all hers — a solitary refuge. With the whole world asleep, she was the only person in existence.
This morning, in the peaceful hush of her four a.m. hour, Julia reached for Baker's Delight, the old cookbook she'd discovered the night before while clearing out the flat above the bakery. She hadn't had time to open the book until now, and she gasped softly as she flipped through it, noticing what was written in the margins. Her mother's flowery handwriting graced nearly every page. Among the grease stains and flour stains and who-knows-what-other-kinds-of-food stains stamped inside the yellowed pages, her mother had scribbled little notes about each recipe: "Use non-salted butter." "Add a dash more sugar." "Let rise for thirty minutes longer." Julia paused when she saw a dog-eared page and knew immediately which recipe she had to try first, the "Lip-Smackin' Apple Tart" with her mother's starred note: "Alton's favorite."
In the silence of the bakery's kitchen, Julia squinted at the page and reminded herself, begrudgingly, to use her new reading glasses. "Granny glasses," she'd dubbed them the first time she'd tried them out in front of a mirror. Cheap, half-rimmed, and plain — but at least they served their purpose. Her eyes had decided to betray her a couple of months ago, but it had taken her several weeks to give in. Finally, she'd purchased her first over-the-counter reading glasses at the chemist's last week while picking up her father's medicine. Julia was tired of the squinting, tired of the headaches, and tired of denying she was almost forty (in two days' time!) and that signs of aging were inevitable. It helped to remember that some people, like her own mother, hadn't been allowed the privilege of reaching a milestone like forty.
Hours later, as she walked toward her cottage, Julia balanced a white bakery box and cookbook on one arm and used her other hand to release her hair from its band. Usually, by the time the bakery opened, the top of Julia's head ached, courtesy of the bun she always wore to keep her shoulder-length sandy hair out of the way.
Brandy, the just-graduated-from-university student who minded the counter, and Miranda, Julia's assistant, had taken over the bakery a few minutes ago, giving Julia her usual break so she could tend to her father.
Rosebud Cottage stood only a hundred meters behind Storey Road, the high street containing the long row of shops in Chilton Crosse. Julia spent the majority of her days trekking back and forth between the bakery and cottage at odd hours — entering the bakery at four a.m., returning to the cottage to pick up her father midmorning, taking him back to the bakery, staying a few hours to help Miranda prep for the lunch crowd, and going back to the cottage for a quick nap if she could squeeze in the time. She ended her days by closing up shop and escorting her father to the cottage in the early evening. Wash, rinse, repeat. Six days a week.
This morning, as with nearly every morning, she heard the distinct sounds of a silky clarinet coming through an open cottage window. Even at ninety years old, her father could still play beautifully, except for an occasional squeak or pause while he took a breath or hunted for a note. She opened the creaky wooden gate and made her way up the stone path. They didn't have much of a garden to speak of, only a few shrubs and perennials. Julia didn't have time to tend flowers, and her father had never been the gardening type.
Inside, Julia headed for the kitchen. "Dad! I'm here!" The clarinet music halted long enough for her father to acknowledge her — "Good morning, love!" — then continued, picking up right where the song had left off.
The cottage was over a hundred years old, with low, beamed ceilings and cold stone floors — as rustic and quaint as every other cottage in this English village, Julia assumed. The kitchen stood at the back, small and unassuming, nothing like the bakery's kitchen. But it was still Julia's favorite room. She wasn't obligated to stand and bake for other people. Here, she could make a cup of tea, putter about, chuck some leftovers into the microwave, and keep things simple for herself and her dad.
She pulled her arms out of her fleece-lined jacket — April mornings still held a strong chill — threw it over a chair, then put the kettle on. Opening the box, she once again smelled that sweet-and-spicy apple scent and sliced her father a piece of the newly made tart. Earlier, she'd stolen a sliver fresh out of the oven to test it. Delicious! Plating the slice, Julia knew her father wouldn't eat all of it — his appetite wasn't what it used to be — but it was a habit she couldn't break, offering people generous portions.
She went to the cabinet and counted out her father's morning medications: blood pressure pills, vitamins, blood thinners, thyroid hormones, some of them to be repeated again at night. The list of necessary meds seemed to lengthen every year, but that was expected at his age.
Julia found a serving tray and added the tart slice, the medicine, a glass of water, and a fresh cup of tea with a hint of sugar. She wedged the cookbook under her arm and carried the tray through the hall to her father's bedroom.
"Good morning," she said with a tired-but-cheery smile. She couldn't wait to see his reaction to the tasty treat. The aspirin and long nap she craved could wait a little longer.
Alton Bentley laid down his clarinet and returned his daughter's smile. She set the tray carefully on the table.
"I have a special treat for you this morning." She always had to speak to her father in a volume one notch louder than usual to avoid having to repeat herself.
"Oh?" Her father's eyes widened.
Julia retrieved the cookbook from under her arm and flipped to the dog-eared page. "I was cleaning out the wardrobe in the upstairs flat last night, and I found this. It was Mum's."
She gave him the pair of glasses from his nightstand and patiently waited for him to fumble with them. When the glasses were firmly set on the bridge of his nose, she handed over the book.
The silver of his hair reflected in the lamp's light as he bent his head to examine the pages. Julia often marveled how a man his age could still have a nearly full head of hair. For a ninety-year-old, he looked at least twenty years younger, especially with his complexion, free of wrinkles except for a few creases around his mouth and eyes when he grinned. Whenever people asked his secret, he would always cite "a happy attitude and healthy living," adding that he had never smoked a cigarette in his whole life. He was especially proud of that fact.
He scanned the cookbook pages. "Mm. Yes. Mm-hmm." His expression softened. "This was your mother's." He tapped the page and looked up at Julia. "She special ordered it from a catalogue. Dormann's? Dorwell's? I remember it was in summer. During a blistering heat wave ..." Her father was forever padding his stories with seemingly pointless details. Julia always waited through them until he wandered back to his main point, which he sometimes never discovered. She suspected that sorting through the details helped to prod his mind along the right path to reach the pertinent information. "In any case, this was her first cookbook, and she read it like she might a holy book. I caught her studying it one night, just after we'd learned we'd inherited the bakery. We hadn't even made the decision to keep it yet. But I think your mum knew we would end up back in Chilton Crosse. So night after night, she would jot down notes in this cookbook, practically memorizing the recipes. She would sometimes experiment with ingredients in our little kitchen. She wanted to learn, all on her own, how to bake. No help from me." His gaze returned to the page. "Alton's favorite," he muttered. "I don't remember her making this, but I suppose she must have ..."
"Well, that's my second surprise." Julia proudly clasped the fork and raised it. "Apple Tart. Just for you."
Her father closed the book and exchanged it for the fork. "When did you —"
"This morning, first thing. I was eager to have a go. I followed Mum's suggestions in the margins — adding more brown sugar and a hint more vanilla."
Her father moved his attention to the tray and sectioned off the corner of the tart with his fork then brought it to his mouth. He chewed and nodded. "Delicious! Your mum was spot on. Thank you, love." His eyes turned misty behind his glasses. "I wish she could be here now, your mother. It seems the longer I'm without her, the more I miss her."
Julia wished she could feel the same. But she never knew her mother. Rose Bentley died in childbirth, right after having Julia, the "surprise" child her parents had later in life. All Julia ever knew of her mum were her father's pictures and memories.
"I know, Dad. I wasn't trying to make you sad."
"On the contrary!" He moved one finger to the corner of his eye to wipe a tear. "Anytime I think of your mum, it's a good memory. Always good. Thank you for the tart."
Julia transitioned into caretaking mode. "Now don't forget this pink pill." She pointed to it on the tray. Yesterday, she'd found it on the floor beside his chair. "It's an important one. I'll be back to check on you in a moment. Is there anything else you need?"
"No, I'm set." He winked.
"I'll just put the book here." But before she could place it on his table, her father protested with a wave of his free hand.
"No, no. That book is yours. Your mum would want you to have it."
"Are you sure?"
"Julia Rose" — he sometimes called her by her middle name, her mum's name, when he wanted her full attention — "She would be delighted that you're using those recipes. Shame that they were tucked away for all these years. They were meant to be used. They were meant to be yours."
Julia tucked the book back under her arm, eager to try out more recipes her mother had tested all those years ago. What a treasure.
Half an hour later, after helping her father into his socks and shoes — he could still mostly dress himself, though sometimes his shirt buttons didn't match up — Julia helped ease her father into the front seat of her van. No sense in forcing him to walk the distance to the bakery, even though he insisted every single day that he could easily manage the journey. But her father got enough daily exercise when one of his mates, usually George Cartwright or Mac MacDonald, would offer to take him for a leisurely afternoon stroll along Storey Road. The village had a way of helping Julia look after her father without even being asked.
Julia pulled her van in front of the bakery's shop front, a charming honey-colored limestone that matched the rest of the shops, and helped her father out of the van. After a couple of grunts, he managed to straighten up and pat her arm.
They waddled over to the blue chair, where he sat most days to greet the customers and tourists. Eleven years ago, when he'd retired from the bakery and handed Julia the keys, he'd insisted on still being part of the shop's life. He couldn't possibly retire and stagnate in a cottage alone, day after day. This greeter job fit him — and the village — perfectly.
In colder seasons or wet weather, Julia moved her father's blue chair inside the bakery's front door, so he could continue his duties in a warm, dry place. But these mid-April days allowed her father to remain outdoors, so long as he wore a coat and hat.
Brandy met them, bringing out the usual plate of samples — bite-sized scones and teacakes — ready to be distributed to passers-by.
"All set?" Julia asked her father, handing him the plate then covering him up to the waist with a blanket she'd grabbed from the van.
He adjusted his cap with his free hand. "Ready for the day!" He turned on the charm for his first customer. "Hello there, young man," he told a little boy wandering up.
Julia left her father to it, parked the van behind the bakery, then entered the kitchen through the back door. Part Two of her day always involved baking more scones, her fastest sellers, and helping Miranda set up the lunch menu — creating the soup of the day and preparing the sandwich ingredients with the freshly baked bread from the morning shift.
Miranda, a round-faced woman in her early fifties, was a model employee — never complained, never got in Julia's way. She simply did her job cheerily and quietly in the corners of the kitchen. Half the time, Julia forgot Miranda was there, chopping, stirring, assembling, plating, and generally minding her own business. Julia knew next to nothing about Miranda's personal life, only that she was married with one child. Julia had attempted small talk a few times over the years, but Miranda always politely evaded the chitchat, so at some point, Julia had stopped trying.
This morning, Miranda was absent from the kitchen, but evidence of her labor remained: an enormous pot of potato soup simmering on the stove and the makings of sandwiches in a pile on the countertop. Likely, Miranda was helping Brandy out at the counter, something she often did during busy surges.
Julia set down her bag and peeked through the circle window on the swinging door that separated her cave — the kitchen — from the rest of the bakery.
In an almost-full house, with only a couple of empty tables, she recognized several of the customers. Holly Newbury and Mary Cartwright waited in line at the counter. Noelle and Adam Spencer sat with their new baby boy at a far table. Julia watched the baby giggle at a funny face his father made. Even Mac had stopped in for a coffee this morning.
Julia geared up to make more scones but remembered to take a couple of aspirin first. The beginnings of a headache could sometimes transform into a full-blown migraine if she wasn't careful. But before Julia could reach for her bag, she heard a knock at the swinging door. She peered at the window and didn't see a head or even the top of a head. Must be Brandy, needing something.
Julia called, "Come in," as she rifled through her bag.
Mrs. Pickering stood in the doorway, her foot holding the swinging door in place.
Julia abandoned the aspirin. "Oh. Hello."
Mrs. Pickering owned the grocers five shops down. She, more than anyone, had her fingertips firmly on the pulse of the village. Too firmly, sometimes. Mrs. Pickering knew everything about everyone, and over the years, people had learned that the best — or worst! — way to spread any sort of news about the village was to inform Mrs. Pickering about it first. Julia's own dealings with her over the years had been thankfully sparse. After she'd overheard Mrs. Pickering speculating and making judgments about Julia's single status years ago, Julia only made trips to the grocers when absolutely necessary.
Excerpted from "Savoring the Seasons"
Copyright © 2017 Traci Borum.
Excerpted by permission of Red Adept Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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