The Worst Noel (A ‘Love in the Dales’ short story)

The Worst Noel (A ‘Love in the Dales’ short story)

‘The primary school got a real donkey for last year’s nativity,’ says Colin the Beaver Scout leader in The Perfect Fit. ‘It didn’t go so well.’

It really didn’t, and you can find out why in this free festive short story featuring characters from Mary Jayne Baker’s ‘Love in the Dales’ series. With Baby Jesus AWOL, will the show go on?

First published in Love Sunday magazine on 2nd December 2018.

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The Worst Noel (A ‘Love in the Dales’ short story)

All Reception class teacher Ebony Wren wants for Christmas is a hitch-free nativity play. But with a missing Baby Jesus, a chocolate-addicted Wise Man and an incontinent donkey called Raymond in the mix, fate is most definitely not on her side…

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‘Miss!’

Ebony ignored the hand waving in the air and ran to Harry Beeton, who was leaning against a palm tree sucking his wrist.

‘Harry, don’t. You won’t eat your dinner if you finish a whole…’ She glanced at his wrist. ‘…er, bracelet.’

‘Miss! Miss!’

‘Just a moment, Jade.’ She turned back to Harry. ‘And sweetheart, I know Smarties are very colourful, but would you ask Mum and Dad if they could use plastic decorations for your Wise Man costume next time? You get through so much jewellery this way.’

‘MISS!’ Jade was hopping from foot to foot in her little blue Mary dress.

‘Yes, Jade? Do you need the toilet?’

‘Not me, Miss. Raymond.’ She pointed at the donkey chewing placidly on his bale of hay. The suspicious, steaming pile behind him definitely wasn’t growing any roses.

‘Not again,’ Ebony muttered. ‘Mr Blackford! Shovel alert.’

Ash Blackford, music teacher and official wielder of the Nativity shovel, came rushing over.

‘Someone’s had his oats this morning,’ he said, patting Raymond on the neck. The donkey flashed him a self-satisfied look and wandered off to nibble Jackson White’s shepherd headdress, aka his nana’s best tea towel.

Ebony scanned the assorted animals, kings, angels and shepherds of Egglethwaite Primary’s Reception class. They’d been rehearsing for weeks, but now the day had arrived nothing was going right.

Their star guest, Raymond the donkey, was the biggest problem. He’d been the headteacher’s bright idea.

Mr Collingwood’s daughter worked at the local riding school, and the head had said how fun it would be, how it would bring the true meaning of Christmas alive, to have a real donkey. Raymond was terribly polite, Mr Collingwood had assured them, they’d been friends for years. Mild-mannered, fond of children. What he hadn’t mentioned was that Raymond either couldn’t or wouldn’t control his bowels. Ebony was pretty sure a stage full of poo wasn’t the true meaning of Christmas.

‘Well, we’re doomed,’ she whispered to Ash. ‘I swear school nativities were invented to be the ultimate humiliation for teachers.’

‘We’re not doomed. We’re just having a few teething troubles.’

‘Teething troubles? Ash, we’re performing the thing in half an hour.’

He shrugged. ‘Parents expect hiccups, it’s part of the charm.’

‘Do they expect the overpowering stench of manure?’

‘They will after this.’

‘Ok, gang,’ Ebony said, clapping her hands. ‘Are we ready to practise a bit more before mums and dads arrive?’

Jade’s hand shot up again. ‘Miss! I think I actually do need the toilet, actually.’

Ebony sighed. ‘Quick as you can.’

Ash took a seat at his piano. ‘Right. Let’s practise our song while we wait for Mary.’ He played them in and they launched into The First Noel.

Half the kids forgot the words. All of them forgot the tune. And one tuneless little voice soared over all the others.

‘Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel!’ it yelled. ‘Barney’s the king of Israel!’

Ash spun round, his face rigid with a long-suffering smile.

‘Tinuviel, is that you?’

‘Yep!’ said a ginger sheep with chocolate round its mouth.

‘Now you remember what we – have you been eating Smarties?’

‘Yep! Swapped Harry for a ’vengers sticker.’

Ebony looked at Harry and groaned. A small Incredible Hulk had appeared on his crown.

‘Take it off please,’ she said.

Harry’s bottom lip jutted out. ‘Don’t wanna.’

‘The Wise Men didn’t have Hulk on their crowns when they visited Baby Jesus, did they?’

‘Yeah they did.’

She put on her no-nonsense Miss face, and Harry reluctantly peeled off the sticker.

‘Now, Tinuviel,’ Ash said. ‘Let’s see if we can remember this time. Barney is not the king of Israel, ok?’

‘Why’s it say he is then?’ Tinuviel demanded. ‘Says it right in the song.’

Born is. Born is the king of Israel.’

‘But that’s wrong,’ Pip Donati-Finn, who was playing Gabriel, chimed in. ‘It should be “the king of Israel is born” or it’s wrong way round.’

‘It has to be to make the song rhyme.’

‘S’not allowed,’ the little angel muttered. ‘You can’t make things wrong just to rhyme them.’

‘Who’s Noel then?’ Tinuviel demanded. ‘Is he king of Israel?’

‘Noel isn’t a name.’ Ash’s eyelid had started to twitch. ‘It’s a word that means Christmas.’

‘’Tis so a name. I got a Uncle Noel.’

‘Well, it can sometimes be a name, yes, but –’

Tinuviel’s lip started to wobble.

‘So who’s king of Israel?’ she asked in a tremulous voice. ‘If it isn’t Barney or Noel, who is it?’

‘Jesus is,’ Ebony said.

‘I thought Jesus was king of heaven.’

‘He, er… he’s king of there too.’ Nobody had told Ebony when she’d trained for this job that answering deep theological questions would be part of the gig. ‘Where’s Jade?’

‘Doing a wee,’ Jackson said.

‘Still?’

Jackson giggled. ‘Must be a giant wee.’

Ebony turned to Ash. ‘I’d better check on her. Hold the fort.’

When she reached the toilets, muffled sobs were coming from a locked cubicle.

‘Jade?’ Ebony said softly. ‘What’s wrong, my love?’

‘It weren’t my fault,’ Jade whispered.

‘What wasn’t your fault?’

‘I had him in the cloakroom. Someone must of took him.’

‘Who?’

‘Baby Jesus.’ The door opened to reveal Jade’s tear-stained face. ‘Someone went and pinched him.’

***

‘Everything ok?’ Ash asked.

‘Nope,’ Ebony said from behind a fixed grin. ‘I need to find Jesus.’

‘Have you tried that bloke with the sandwich boards outside Costa?’

‘I’m serious, Ash. Jade’s doll’s missing.’

‘So get another. There’ll be one in the storecupboard.’

‘She wants hers.’ Ebony cast a look at Jade, gloomily picking her nose by the manger. ‘If she doesn’t get it back, she says she won’t be Mary.’

It was all hands on deck as they combed the school. They looked all over the stage, behind the palm trees, under the straw. They looked in the cloakroom, the toilets, their classroom. But Jesus was nowhere to be found. By the time parents started arriving, Ebony was pleading with Jade to take the frizzy-haired, one-legged Tiny Tears Ash had dug up.

‘Won’t!’

‘Jade, please. Look, it’s a lovely doll.’ Ebony waggled it encouragingly.

‘That isn’t Jesus.’ Jade shot it a disgusted look. ‘It’s ugly. And it’s a girl.’

‘But sweetheart, we can’t find yours.’

‘Wooooon’t!’ Jade wailed.

Ebony almost felt like joining in with a good, long wail of her own.

As soon as the girl’s parents arrived, Ebony dragged them backstage to see if they could save the day. And much to Ebony’s relief, Jade’s mum was able to bribe her daughter into temporarily adopting Jesus’s one-legged understudy.

However, it was clear once the performance started that Jade was not a happy Mary. She bravely held back her tears while she and Joseph followed Raymond through the streets of Bethlehem. But when it came to her big scene, where she was supposed to pop little Jesus out of her dress and lay him gently in his manger, she yanked him out by his single leg, took one look at him and threw him to the floor before bursting into sobs.

The audience could tell Jesus wasn’t a fan of this kind of treatment from the way his head fell off and rolled under a palm tree.

Ebony cursed silently and dashed to the front of the stage.

‘I’m so sorry, folks. Give us five minutes and we’ll be back with the grand finale.’ She winced as Raymond deposited another steaming Christmas present on the stage. ‘And sorry about the smell.’

‘What’s up, Jade?’ Ebony whispered when they’d dropped the curtain.

‘He’s… not… my… baby,’ she sobbed. ‘He’s not mine and I don’t want him.’

‘We’ll find your baby after, I promise.’

‘Then it’ll be too late. Jesus’ll be born and he’ll be all wrong and it won’t be proper Christmas.’

Ash popped his head through the curtain. ‘Miss Wren, can I borrow you?’

With a helpless glance at the still sobbing Mary, Ebony followed him out.

He led her to the cloakroom, where rows of coats hung on pegs. A pair of feet was poking out under one of them.

Ash pulled the coat aside to reveal Harry in his king costume. Jade’s Baby Jesus was cradled in his arms, chocolate round both Harry’s mouth and the doll’s.

‘Harry?’ Ebony said.

He looked up, and his eyes widened.

‘Miss, I didn’t mean to,’ he stammered.

‘Didn’t mean to what?’

‘Only, my mummy, see, she’s going to have a baby. Maybe on Christmas, same as Jesus. I just lended him so’s I could practise minding babies, I never thought it’d be like pinching him.’

‘You mean you took Jade’s doll?’

‘I was going to give him back, honest,’ Harry said, lip trembling. ‘I thought he was prob’ly hungry, so I took him to give him some Smarties, and then Jade was crying and you was all looking for him…’

Ebony crouched down beside him.

‘And you were worried you’d get in trouble?’ she said gently.

He hung his head. ‘Yeah.’

She looked at the little boy, cuddling the doll with unconscious tenderness, and smiled.

‘It’s always better to tell the truth, you know. You won’t ever get into trouble for being kind.’

‘I made Jade cry. That’s not kind.’

‘She’ll stop crying when she gets her dolly back. Let’s clean his mouth and give him to her, and there’ll be no need to say where we found him.’

When Jesus had been restored to an ecstatic Jade, the curtain rose again.

The delight on Jade’s glowing face almost made her look like a real painting of the Madonna. A collective ‘awww’ went up from the audience when the beaming little girl was revealed, gently cradling her baby, and there was a round of applause as she laid him in his manger.

‘We made it, Ebs,’ Ash whispered. ‘It’s a Christmas miracle.’

‘Every time a bell rings, a teacher narrowly avoids a nervous breakdown. Go on, strike up the carol.’

And as The First Noel rang out through the school hall, one voice soared above all.

‘Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel. Barney’s the king of Israel!’

***

For more festive amateur dramatics, join Becky and Marcus as they attempt to revive the Egglethwaite Christmas pantomime in The Perfect Fit

The Perfect Fit is out today for Kindle

Publication day is here for The Perfect Fit, the second book in the Love in the Dales series. Get your copy now!

Blurb

‘A wonderful book with a great story and a sparky, unusual voice. I loved it!’ KATIE FFORDE

After years living in London, costume shop owner Becky Finn is trying to build a new life for herself and fiancé Cole in her old home of Egglethwaite, a sleepy village in the Yorkshire Dales.

Keen to raise funds for the struggling village hall she loved as a child, Becky soon finds herself at the head of a colourful group intent on resurrecting Egglethwaite’s Christmas pantomime. But, as she quickly discovers, there s more to panto than innuendo and slapped thighs.

As opening night grows closer, Becky starts to wonder if her embattled panto will ever make it to the stage and, with handsome co-star Marcus on the scene, if she s picked the right man for her after all.

ALSO AVAILABLE IN THE LOVE IN THE DALES SERIES: A Bicycle Made for Two (Book 1)

April events for A Bicycle Made for Two launch

April events for A Bicycle Made for Two launch

A Bicycle Made for Two is released in paperback on 5th April, and I’m going to be out and about shouting about it, with book signings in some beautiful locations around Yorkshire. I’d love to see you at any of the signings, and if you’re in the area, please do tune in to BBC Radio Leeds or BBC Radio York on 4th April to hear me rabbiting on about books, writing and everything in between.

April events

  • Wednesday 4th April from 1.15pm: interview, BBC Radio York
  • Thursday 5th April: publication day for A Bicycle Made for Two
  • Saturday 7th April from 2pm: book signing, The Book Corner, Piece Hall Yard, Halifax
  • Sunday 8th April, 12noon-3pm: book signing, Waterstone’s, The Wool Exchange, Bradford. Also, keep an eye out for my short story Lawn Order in the Sunday People‘s colour supplement!
  • Tuesday 10th April from 10.30am: interview, BBC Radio Leeds
  • Wednesday 11th April from 11am: book signing, WH Smith, Monk’s Cross, York
  • Saturday 21st April, 11am-12noon: book signing, White Rose Books, Thirsk

Secret project revealed! Miss Moonshine’s Emporium of Happy Endings

Secret project revealed! Miss Moonshine’s Emporium of Happy Endings

miss-moonshine-cover1So the secret project I’ve been working on recently has made it on to Amazon, which means I can finally tell people about it. Hooray!

It’s this beauty, an anthology of nine magical stories from a group of very talented ladies (plus me), all northern romance writers based in Yorkshire and Lancashire. The stories are as fab as they are eclectic, ranging from historicals set in the Regency and Edwardian eras to contemporaries. All are set around an enigmatic shopkeeper and her quirky shop in Haven Bridge (a fictionalised Hebden Bridge, where we meet a few times a year to consume cake and wine). Can’t wait till it goes on sale on 18th May!

You can read all about the project and how it came to be, plus drool over some photos of gorgeous Hebden Bridge, over on Helen Pollard’s blog. You can also preorder the book for just 99p on Amazon Kindle.

Sometimes what you need is right there waiting for you…

Miss Moonshine’s Wonderful Emporium has stood in the pretty Yorkshire town of Haven Bridge for as long as anyone can remember. With her ever-changing stock, Miss Moonshine has a rare gift for providing exactly what her customers need: a fire opal necklace that provides a glimpse of a different life; a novel whose phantom doodler casts a spell over the reader; a music box whose song links love affairs across the generations. One thing is for certain: after visiting Miss Moonshine’s quirky shop, life is never the same again…

Nine romantic novelists from Yorkshire and Lancashire, including best-selling and award-winning authors, have joined together to create this collection of uplifting stories guaranteed to warm your heart. This intriguing mix of historical and contemporary romances will make you laugh, cry, and believe in the happy-ever-after.

Runaway Bride is out today for Kindle!

Runaway Bride is out today for Kindle!

Publication day is here for Runaway Bride, a heartwarming tale of love, new beginnings and self-discovery. Get your copy now!

Blurb

Here comes the bride… but how long can she hide?

When Kitty Clayton flees her wedding with no money, no bank card and no phone, her life seems worryingly futureless. All she knows is, she’d rather sleep on the streets than go back home to cheating Ethan.

After picking her up hitch-hiking, widowed children’s author Jack Duffy takes Kitty under his wing, looking out for her until she gets back on her feet. And it’s not long before the two grow close…

But with Jack struggling to recover from the guilt he feels over his wife’s death and Kitty refusing to face up to the problems she’s running away from at home, will the two ever manage to share a happily ever after?

A Bicycle Made for Two is out today for Kindle!

bicycle-cover-webPublication day is here for A Bicycle Made for Two, the first of two Yorkshire-set romcoms featuring these characters under the series title Love in the Dales. Get your copy now!

Blurb

The first in a new romantic comedy series, Love in the Dales, set in a beautiful Yorkshire village.

Chock-full of colourful characters, bawdy wit and a bit of love and passion for good measure.

In a lost corner of the Yorkshire Dales, Lana Donati runs a medieval theme tourist trap restaurant with her brother. As a distraction to help them get over losing the father they loved dearly, and as a tribute to his passion for the beautiful area they live in, Lana hatches a plan to boost business for everyone by having the Grand Départ route pass through their village.

But this entails getting the small community to work together to convince the decision-makers that their beloved village is Tour material. Not an easy task when the people involved include Lana’s shy, unlucky-in-love brother Tom, the man-eating WI chair Yolanda, bickering spouses Gerry and Sue, arrogant celebrity Harper Brady, and Lana’s (attractive) arch-nemesis, former pro-cyclist turned bike shop owner, Stewart McLean, whose offbeat ideas might just cost them everything.

From the author of The Honey Trap and Meet Me at the Lighthouse, this is a rural romance for lovers of Fiona Gibson, Sue Moorcroft and Penny Parkes’ Larkford series.

A Bicycle Made for Two: first chapter

bicycle-cover-webA Bicycle Made for Two is due to be published by Mirror Books as an ebook on 5th February 2018, and in paperback on 5th April 2018.

Preorder the paperback on Amazon

Chapter 1

My Friday nights were not like other girls’, I reflected as I laced up the black leather corset.

Tom poked his head around the bedroom door just as I’d finished tucking in my cleavage.

‘You ready yet, wench? It’s been your shift for five minutes.’

I jumped. ‘God, learn to knock, can you? I could be starkers in here.’

‘Excellent, I’ve always said we need to try something different on the weekends. Funbags Friday, we’ll call it. Corner the lad market.’

‘Yeah, and you can explain to Dad why you’ve reinvented the place as a family Hooters bar.’

‘Look, hurry up. I need to take over in the kitchen so Deano can go for his break. He’ll play pop if we keep him waiting.’

‘Ok, ok, keep your jerkin on,’ I said, stuffing my dark brown curls inside the unattractive Mrs Tiggy-Winkle mop cap that went with my costume.

He wasn’t wrong. Ever since Dad had become too ill to keep up with cooking duties, it felt like we’d been dancing round our diva-ish new chef Deano. Dad said a temperament like that was the sign of true talent. Tom said it was the sign of an arse.

I laced up the leather boots and stood to examine myself in the mirror.

Ugh.

‘All right, I’m ready. Come zip me.’

‘Hey, treat for you tonight,’ Tom said, grinning at me in the mirror as he fastened my skirt. ‘Mr Squeezy Sauce. Thought I’d save him for you, I knew you’d want to give him the star treatment.’

‘Harper Brady? He’s here?’

‘Yep. Can’t wait to tell Dad.’

I shook my head. ‘Not tonight, Tom. He’s not good at the moment.’

He frowned. ‘Bad afternoon?’

‘Yeah. Gerry’s sitting with him now.’

‘Ok, if you close up I’ll relieve Gerry after my shift.’ He patted my arm. ‘You take a night off Dad duty. You look jiggered.’

‘I am a bit. Thanks, bruv.’ I turned to face him. ‘So what do you think Brady’s doing here? I wouldn’t have thought he’d be caught dead in a place like this.’

Tom shrugged. ‘Maybe he fancied slumming it for a change. Hey, think we can get a signed photo to put behind the bar? It’d be great PR.’

I curled my lip. ‘You can ask if you want. You know I don’t groupie.’

‘Come on, you nearly wet yourself when that boyband bloke came in last year.’

I tilted my nose, trying to look superior. ‘That was different. He was childhood nostalgia. That band were massive when we were kids.’

‘Yeah, childhood nostalgia you wanted to hump.’

‘I did not. Shut up.’

‘Still. Harper Brady,’ Tom said, a faraway look in his eyes. ‘I bet he’s the biggest name we’ve had in.’

‘He certainly knocks that bloke from Last of the Summer Wine out of the water.’ I groaned. ‘God, I hope he doesn’t expect special treatment. Celebrity diners give me a pain. If he tries to order off the menu he can explain it to Deano himself, see how he likes the heavy end of a skillet.’

Still, as celeb customers went I had to admit Tom was right: this one was a pretty big deal. Oh, we got the occasional soap actor or washed-up pop star coming along to check us out – the quirky medieval theme restaurant with the pulled hog platters and spiced mead on tap, tucked away in a forgotten corner of the Yorkshire Dales. Then when they’d had a good laugh, off they buggered back to their usual highbrow dining establishments to tell people how hilariously ironic they were. We didn’t mind. A visit from a name was usually good for a few weeks’ spike in business.

But we’d never had a name as big as Harper Brady.

The family were well-known locally. Harper’s mum Sonia had made a mint back in the nineties when she’d patented a design for the upside-down squeezy ketchup bottle, and when she’d passed away, her only son had got it all. He’d lived it up as a jetsetting playboy for a while, then, not content with being a gentleman of leisure, he’d blown the lot on acting lessons in the hope he could make a name for himself in TV.

If there was any divine justice, that would’ve been the end of the story. A few acting tutors would be living the high life on the squeezy sauce millions and Harper Brady, spoilt trust fund kid extraordinaire, would be forced to get a proper nine-to-five like everyone else. But no. In the most irritating twist of fate ever, it turned out he was actually bloody good at acting. Now he was twice as rich and just as handsome, with a legion of adoring fans and a string of TV credits to his name.

I made a mental note to make him wait for his food.

Downstairs in the restaurant, I spotted Harper near the front of the queue. He was perfectly groomed as always, in a designer suit and tie – I mean, a waistcoat and everything, talk about overdressed – with his long flaxen hair stylishly gelled like he was the lost member of One Direction.

I couldn’t tell if the good-looking, slightly scruffy man he was chatting to was with him or if they’d just struck up a conversation. However, there were certainly eyebrows raising among the other waiting diners. He preened slightly when he clocked the looks of recognition directed towards him, all the while talking to his friend as if he hadn’t noticed a thing.

I screwed on my brightest customer smile for the middle-aged couple at the front of the queue.

‘Welcome to Here Be Flagons. Can I take the name you booked under please?’

‘It is, it’s him!’ the woman in the loud purple hat hissed to her husband. ‘It is, I know it.’

I hemmed loudly to command their attention. No response.

‘It’s nice when stars patronise these little local places, isn’t it?’ her husband whispered back.

I tried again. ‘It’s just, there’s rather a queue, so if you wouldn’t mind—’

‘Yes, yes, dear.’ The woman lowered her voice and leaned forward confidentially, enveloping me in a cloud of evening primrose. ‘I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but that’s Harper Brady behind us.’

‘Lovely. So if you could just give me the name your reservation’s under, I can get you to your table.’

The woman turned back to her husband. ‘I’m going to ask for a photo with him,’ she whispered.

‘Go on, go on,’ her husband said, nodding vigorously.

‘I will. I’m going to do it.’ The woman giggled. ‘Will I do it?’

‘Yes, do it!’ Her husband smiled at me. ‘I’m sure the young lady can wait.’

There were mutterings now as those waiting wondered what the hold-up was.

‘Well no, actually—’ I began, but the woman had already turned to face Harper.

‘Oh, Mr Brady, is it really you?’ she asked, her mouth forming an O of fake surprise. Harper looked round, annoyed at having his conversation interrupted.

‘No, it’s really Abe Froman, the sausage king of Chicago.’

The woman carried on beaming, failing to notice the sarcasm. ‘Me and my husband are such huge fans,’ she gushed. ‘We’ve seen everything you’ve ever been in. Everything, even back when no one had heard of you.’

Harper scowled. It was clear the suggestion there was ever a time he’d been less than megastar famous displeased him.

‘I don’t suppose you’d consider letting me take a photo of the two of us?’ the woman blundered on. ‘My friends will never believe me.’

‘A selfie?’ Harper curled his lip. ‘I couldn’t consent to anything so crass, I’m sorry.’

The woman’s face fell. ‘Perhaps… an autograph then?’

Harper lowered his voice. ‘Look, lady, I’m here to enjoy a quiet night with a few close friends. I don’t appreciate having my identity broadcast to all and sundry, and I appreciate still less having my conversation interrupted by fat menopausal hatstands. How about a little respect for my privacy?’ He lifted his voice so I could hear. ‘I don’t know why the staff here allow their customers to be badgered this way. Disgraceful.’

The woman sagged. ‘Sorry,’ she mumbled. ‘I didn’t think you’d mind.’

‘Well I do.’ Harper looked as if he might be incubating a few more choice insults to go with his hatstand line, and I came out from behind the desk to rescue the situation.

‘Follow me,’ I said firmly to the woman and her husband. ‘Never mind about the name.’ Looking hurt and bewildered, the two shuffled along behind me to an empty table, where I left them gazing with unseeing eyes at the wine list.

I beckoned to Jasmine, our pretty teenage waitress, and she came shimmying over. Somehow on her tiny, swaying hips, ‘medieval tavern wench’ looked pure catwalk.

‘Get them a free bottle of whatever they want, with our apologies,’ I muttered. ‘My dad’ll go spare if he hears about this.’

‘Right.’ Jasmine went to take the couple’s drink order, and I headed back behind my desk. The smile I summoned for Harper Brady was anything but warm, and possibly threateningly toothsome.

‘Welcome to Here Be Flagons. Can I take the name you booked under please?’

Harper acted as though he hadn’t heard, chatting away to the man with the rumpled sandy curls.

I leaned across the desk to give his shoulder an irritated tap. ‘There are people waiting, so if you can make it quick, sir—’

Harper turned to me with surprise. ‘I’m sorry, what?’

‘The name you booked under. I’ll need it to seat you.’

‘Seriously? You’re asking my name?’ He let out a short laugh, rolling his eyes at his friend, and leaned forward to let me get a closer look at his face. ‘How’s this, good enough?’

I stared impassively into his eyes. ‘Look, if you haven’t made a reservation I can’t let you in. We’re full tonight.’

‘You must be joking! I’ve been queueing quarter of an hour.’

I was enjoying myself now, doing my best nightclub-bouncer-with-a-dictator-complex. I folded my arms across my chest.

‘Sorry, mate. No reservation, no entry.’ After a second’s pause, I added, ‘More than my job’s worth.’

BAM. Have that, Harper Brady. I’d always wanted to say that.

‘Look, I don’t have time for this. I’m meeting my agent, I have to—’ He drew a deep breath and lowered his voice. ‘Come on, don’t pretend you don’t know who I am. You know my name.’

I kept my expression fixed. ‘I can promise you I don’t.’

He goggled. ‘You’re having me on. Haven’t you seen Stitch? The Chester Files?’ He reeled off a load more of his TV credits, but I remained inflexible.

‘No. What’re they, films?’

The way his mouth fell open was worth losing out on the PR value of a big-name diner. Next to him, the handsome friend’s mouth twitched at the corners.

‘Look, maybe I can sort this out before we both starve to death,’ the other man said.

He pushed Harper behind him and leaned one arm against the desk, letting the twitch at the corner of his lips spread into a warm smile. After hesitating a second, I returned it. Next to him, Harper almost reeled to see his friend’s charm working where his celebrity had failed.

‘We booked online,’ he said. ‘It’s under my friend here’s name.’

‘Which is?’

‘Tell her,’ he said to Harper.

‘Fine. Harper Brady,’ Harper said sulkily. He scrutinised my face for any sign the name meant something, but I let go of not a flicker.

‘Ok, yes, there’s a booking here for Brady,’ I said, scanning my reservation list. ‘Can I see some ID please? Sorry, but we are very busy. When there’s a lot of demand for tables I have to be extra cautious.’

Total bollocks, obviously, but I was having bags of fun.

‘God! What is this, the Ivy?’ Harper pulled out his wallet and shoved a driving licence in my direction. ‘You know, I’ll be making a complaint about this to your manager. Bloody ridiculous.’

‘For what, doing my job?’ For form’s sake I checked his ID and ticked him off the list.

‘For being deliberately rude and obstructive. Don’t think I’m joking.’

I saw him scanning my cleavage, jutting out in the nothing-to-the-imagination leather corset, while he told me off. He wasn’t above having a perve in his righteous anger then.

‘Come on, what’s his name, your manager? He’ll be receiving an email about your conduct.’ He sneered unpleasantly. ‘Have fun on the dole queue, love.’

‘It’s a her actually. Lana Donati.’

‘Right. And what’s yours?’

‘Lana Donati.’

His friend snorted, then quickly turned it into a cough. Harper grabbed his driving licence, shot me a last resentful glare and stormed off into the restaurant.

‘Bit hard on him, weren’t you?’ his friend said. ‘Not that it wasn’t hilarious.’

‘Couldn’t help myself. I heard what he said to that fan before.’

The man smiled. ‘So you do know who he is.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, smiling back. ‘But don’t let on, eh?’

He made a zipping motion across his lips. ‘Not a word.’

‘So what’s your connection to him?’ I scanned the athletic figure and broad chest. ‘Not his minder, are you?’

He laughed. ‘No, I’m his cousin, sadly.’ He held out a hand. ‘Stewart McLean.’

‘Oh, right,’ I said, shaking the hand absently. The name sounded vaguely familiar. ‘Family meal?’

‘Research date actually. Harper’s got a part as a cyclist. He’s been shadowing me the last few days.’

‘You cycle?’

‘Occasionally. Anyway, I get a consultant credit, so, you know, pretty cool.’ He glanced over his shoulder at the queue. ‘Oh. Sorry everyone, I’m holding you up.’

He stood to one side to let me deal with the other customers, but he didn’t go sit with his cousin. Actually, when I glanced over to Harper’s table I saw he’d been joined by someone else – a busty blonde woman in an almost invisible black dress who’d been seated by herself at the bar for the last half-hour. Charmless git that he was, the man didn’t seem to want for company.

When I’d dealt with the last pair’s reservation and Jasmine had taken them to their table, I turned to Stewart.

‘So. Sounds like you’re going to be a star,’ I said.

‘No autographs, please.’ He tossed his curls comically. ‘You really manage this place, Lana?’

‘Actually I own it – well, my family does. My dad bought it when he emigrated from Italy and turned it into this place.’ I gestured round the candlelit room, plastered all over with mounted boars’ heads, replica halberds and painted coats of arms while Dad’s favourite CD, Harpsichord Renaissance, played on a loop in the background. It felt like a Chaucer lecturer’s drug-fuelled nightmare.

‘It’s original, I’ll give him that.’ Stewart followed my gaze, taking it all in. ‘Why the medieval theme though? I mean, not that the costume doesn’t suit you, but it’s a bit… well, Here Be Flagons? Yikes.’

‘You don’t need to tell me,’ I said, smiling. ‘Just his sense of humour, I suppose. Only my dad could build a business around a single pun.’

‘Is he working tonight?’ Stewart asked. ‘A pun-obsessed Italian with a medieval history fetish sounds like someone I need to meet.’

I flushed. ‘No, not tonight. He’s… not well.’

‘Ah, right. Maybe another time.’

‘No, I mean he’s really not well.’ I had no idea why I was telling him that, this stranger. The words just seemed to fall out of me. ‘Cancer, you know? Bastard cancer.’ I cast my eyes down. ‘Terminal.’

‘Oh God,’ Stewart said, a look of concern spreading over his features. ‘I’m so sorry, Lana.’

I shrugged. ‘Not your fault, is it?’

He looked puzzled. ‘Well, no. That’s just what people say. You know, when they…’

‘…when they don’t know what to say,’ I finished for him, smiling. ‘Sorry, didn’t mean to be rude. Years of inhaling soup fumes has sent my sense of humour careering into the surreal a bit. If I make you uncomfortable, feel free not to tip.’

His puzzled expression lifted into a smile. ‘No, I like you. You’re kind of weird and funny.’

‘Gee, thanks.’

‘Don’t be offended: attractive qualities in a tavern wench. They lend her that air of sophisticated unpredictability that always leaves you checking for your wallet.’

I laughed. ‘If that was a chat-up line, it needs work.’

‘It wasn’t.’

I blushed, wondering if I’d misjudged the flirting. ‘I know. Just a joke.’

‘This one’s going to be though. Fancy grabbing a drink sometime?’

The blush deepened, with a more pleasant sensation this time. ‘Er, yeah. That sounds nice.’

‘When are you free? Next week?’

‘Thursday’s good. That’s our quiet night so I can get off early.’

‘Pick you up at eight then?’

‘Yep, perfect.’

‘You know, for the first time tonight I’m glad I let Harper talk me into coming out.’ Stewart sighed theatrically. ‘Suppose I’d better join him, before Legs 11 over there smothers him to death. See you, Lana.’

Runaway Bride: first chapter

Runaway Bride is due to be published by HarperImpulse on 16th February 2018. Read the first chapter below.

Preorder on Kindle

Chapter 1

By the time I reached the main road, my lungs were sandpaper-dry. My hair whipped painfully around my face, and the heel of my left foot was bleeding.

It was one hell of a start to married life.

I’d been married, ooh, around three hours. I’d been running for the best part of the last one. Running with no aim or direction, no one in pursuit, but running like my immortal soul depended on it. Desperate to get as far as possible from Ethan and all the rest of them.

One foot in front of the other, Kitty. Eyes on the horizon. No turning back, no giving in… not this time.

Not this time.

But no matter how I fixed my eyes on the horizon, where the dusky satsuma sun had just started to sink behind the intimidating ridge of the fells, the hacking in my chest was bound to defeat me eventually. At last I slowed my sprint to a jog, then to a walk, and, when I couldn’t bear another second’s agony, I stopped.

I gripped the drystone wall that ran alongside the road in bleached knuckles, struggling for oxygen. Short, panting breaths surged painfully up through my windpipe. With my free hand, I clutched my stomach. I could feel bile rising up my gullet, the threat of another vomiting episode as anger and grief battled for mouthfuls of my sanity, but I willed it back. I needed to keep calm. I needed to keep focused. And above all, I needed to keep moving.

I slumped down onto the tarmac and allowed myself the indulgence of another round of angry, puzzled tears. Bewildered motorists stared at me as they whizzed by, but they didn’t stop. Well, why would they? They had their own affairs to see to.

There was a part of me that didn’t want to keep moving. That part of me wanted to curl up and die, right there by the side of the road. The throbbing in my gut, the images whirling in my brain, were almost enough to paralyse me. But deep inside, underneath the layers of taffeta and rage, some sort of survival instinct was fighting to make itself heard. Push on, it said. Get away, far away, and then there’ll be time to mourn.

I don’t think I’d been there long. I could’ve been wrong, it could’ve been hours; my head was spinning so much that time didn’t really seem to exist. But I think it was about ten minutes later when a sunshine-orange VW campervan, one of those cutesy-pie ’60s numbers with the bug front, pulled up beside me.

‘Are you all right there, lass?’ the driver asked, leaning out of his window to examine me.

Hastily I wiped my eyes.

‘Yeah. Sorry, I, um – my car got towed.’

The dark-haired man cocked an eyebrow. ‘What, your car got towed and they just left you here?’

There was the lilt of an Irish accent nestling among the deep, gentle tones. It sounded reassuring. Made me think of my nan.

‘Er, yeah,’ I said, wincing at the obvious lie.

Great start, Kitty. Keep it up.

The man didn’t look convinced, but he refrained from commenting. ‘Well I can’t just leave you here. You get a lot of boy racers down these side roads, you know. Where’re you going?’

‘Anywhere.’ I grimaced. ‘I mean, Wastwater. I’m going to Wastwater. To a… um… gala dinner.’ I glanced down at my fetching wellies, colour-coordinated with the off-the-shoulder green taffeta ballgown I was wearing. ‘For farmers.’

Gala dinner for farmers. Of course that’s where I was going. I mean, why wouldn’t I be? Oh, this just got better and better…

‘Are you a farmer?’ the man asked.

‘No. Just, er, trying to fit in.’

‘None of my business,’ he said generously. ‘Come on, hop in. I’m heading to the Lakes anyway, I’ll drop you off.’

I hesitated. I’d never hitchhiked before and I couldn’t suppress a feeling of danger – stranger danger, that fear that’s bred into you in your schooldays. Don’t get into cars with strange men, Kitty. Don’t let them give you sweets and just say no when they ask if you want to get into their van to see their puppies. This guy could be anyone, couldn’t he? Offering me a lift – what was in it for him?

I could hear my mum’s voice in the back of my mind. Never trust a boy who offers you a favour, angel. Men always expect to get paid…

But Mum wasn’t here, and this man looked friendly enough to me. He was handsome in a scruffy sort of way, with jet-black hair that curled onto his neck, long stubble and dark brown eyes. I think in the end, though, it was the smile, a lopsided, open grin, that convinced me I could trust him. That, and the fact I was seriously out of options.

The instinct driving me now was to get as far from home as possible, and I was desperate enough to take some serious risks, even with my own self – at least, whatever of it I still had left to give a damn about. A large chunk of me was some miles away back in Elden, my home town in the Yorkshire Dales, lying in a blackened, smoking puddle at Ethan’s feet. Getting into a car with a stranger didn’t feel like nearly the scariest thing I’d had to deal with today.

‘Thanks,’ I mumbled, walking round to the passenger side and climbing in.

‘Jack Duffy,’ the man said, holding out his hand to me.

I wondered for a second whether to give a fake name, but decided against it. I might be on the run, but I wasn’t exactly James Bond. Who, come to think of it, was a bit shit when it came to cover stories, giving out his real name so often he’d actually managed to make it a catchphrase.

‘Clayton. Kitty Clayton,’ I said in true Bond style, shaking Jack’s hand.

‘I like it. Very… alliterative.’

‘Er, thanks.’

‘Got a bit of a secret identity vibe,’ he said. ‘Not a superhero, are you?’

‘Maybe. But if I tell you I’ll have to kill you.’

Not the world’s most original joke, but the best I could manage in my current state. Anyway, it got a laugh.

‘So would that be short for anything?’ he asked.

‘No. It’s usually for Catherine, but my mum just liked Kitty.’

I started when I heard a little bark. Glancing over my shoulder, I caught sight of a tubby yellow mongrel curled in a dog bed, eyeing me with suspicion.

‘Oh, and this is Sandy,’ Jack said. ‘Don’t mind dogs, do you?’

‘No, I love them.’ I squinted at the tubby dog. ‘Er, he certainly looks well-fed.’

‘She. And it wasn’t the diet that caused the belly, it was the randy Jack Russell back in Settle.’

‘What, you mean she’s—’

‘Yeah. Less than a month to go now, I’m reckoning. Looks about ready to pop, doesn’t she?’ He turned the ignition key and the engine phutted into life. ‘Right, now we’re all friends, let’s get going.’

So he really had asked me back to his van to see his puppies… hmm. Still, in a way it was sort of comforting. A man who travelled with a pregnant dog couldn’t be too dodgy, could he? Maybe that was the logic of desperation but all the same, I relaxed slightly.

I could see him eyeing me curiously in the rear-view mirror as he drove, taking in my streaky mascara, my ballgown, my big green wellies.

‘You look like you don’t want to talk about it,’ he said at last.

‘God, I really don’t.’

‘Okay so. Then I won’t ask.’

I shot him a relieved smile. ‘Thanks.’

‘We’ll have to have some small talk though,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid the charge for this particular taxi service is scintillating conversation.’

‘Not sure I can pull off scintillating today. I can just about manage to form words, I think.’

‘Want to tell me why you’re going to Wastwater?’ he asked. ‘I mean, really? Hate to break it to you, but the dress codes for farmers’ dinners don’t tend to include wellies, whatever stereotypes might suggest.’

I examined Jack in the mirror. His expression was relaxed and careless, as if he’d be equally comfortable whether I chose to open up or not. He certainly had an easy face to trust.

There didn’t seem any harm in sharing my immediate plan with him, I eventually decided. I was heading for someone I knew I could depend on; someone who’d put me up until I’d sorted out my unholy mess of a life.

‘Okay, if you really want to know, I’m going to visit my aunty,’ I said. ‘She’s got a cottage in Wasdale Head.’

He glanced at the ballgown. ‘Must be a posh family.’

‘Yeah. She’s big on dressing for dinner.’

‘Muddy too, is it?’ he asked, eyeing my boots.

‘Something like that.’

We were on dangerous ground again. I tried to push the conversation back towards him. I just needed to kill a bit of time…

‘So, er, what do you do?’ I asked, the ultimate fallback conversation starter.

‘Human trafficker. I scour the highways for lone women and sell them into sex slavery. You?’

I laughed – the first real, genuine laugh I’d managed all day.

‘Serial killer,’ I said, matching my deadpan tone to his. ‘I lure men into laybys then hack them to bits. Although that’s really more of a hobby.’

He nodded soberly. ‘Always good to keep yourself busy. What do you do the rest of the time?’

‘I’m a project editor for this publishing company my stepsister Laurel runs, Whitestone Press.’

At least, I had been until about an hour ago. I think I’d effectively handed in my resignation when I’d decided to do a runner. My current occupation, if I was asked to fill in a form, probably amounted to ‘bum’.

‘What type of thing?’ Jack asked.

‘Travel guides. You know, things to see, restaurant reviews, handy phrases, all that.’

‘Sounds interesting. I suppose you get to travel quite a bit?’

I shook my head. ‘Someone else does. Then they write it up for me to edit and do the photo research.’

‘Still, must be fun. Bit of armchair travelling.’

I let out a little snort.

‘What?’ he said.

‘You know what I dreamt last week?’

‘Was it about a hunky Irishman with a devastating smile and abs you could grill a steak on?’

So we were doing a bit of social flirting now, were we? Okay…

‘It was actually. I love Aidan Turner.’

‘Funny,’ he said, eyes fixed on the road. ‘Turner can bite me.’

His reaction made me smile. If I’d tried that joke on Ethan, it would’ve been a three-day sulk at least.

‘So what did you really dream?’ Jack asked.

‘I dreamt I was in Iceland – the country, I mean, not the supermarket.’ My eyes clouded. ‘God, Jack, it was so vivid. The geysers, the glaciers, the lakes so dark they’re almost black. I could practically smell the herring.’

‘So?’

‘So, it just reminded me I’ve never been to Iceland. I read about all these beautiful places and I look at hundreds of pictures, but I never get to actually experience them. The most exotic trip I’ve ever been on was two weeks at a resort in Alicante three years ago.’

He looked puzzled. ‘So go, there’s nothing stopping you. Get off your backside and do it, girl.’

‘How? The thing about publishing – it’s interesting enough but it’s not that well-paid. Two weeks in Alicante every once in a while is about my limit.’

And then there was Ethan, who’d never wanted to go anywhere but a sunny beach with bars that showed the footie and hotels where there was always a full English on the breakfast table. The chances of getting him on a backpacking holiday to somewhere like Iceland had been exactly nil.

I mentally slapped myself. Thinking about Ethan was going to have me in tears again. I needed to hold it together, at least until I got to Aunty Julia’s.

‘So do you live in the Lakes?’ I asked Jack.

‘Yeah, when I feel like it. I live everywhere.’ He gestured round the van. ‘This is it for me. Home.’

‘You’re kidding! You can’t live in this tiny van all the time?’

‘Yep, me and Sandy. That’s the way we like it, life without fences.’

‘Bloody hell. You’re not part sardine, are you?’

He laughed. ‘Away with you, it’s not that small. Anyway, it’s just somewhere to sleep. We like to be off exploring.’

‘How did it happen? Is it a hippy thing?’

He didn’t answer. Just looked sober for a moment.

‘Sorry,’ I said, staring sheepishly into my lap. It felt like I’d crossed a line, although I was puzzled about where it had been. ‘None of my business.’

‘That’s okay.’ Jack forced a smile. ‘Tell you what. If I ever see you again, I’ll tell you all about it.’

PRESS RELEASE: Yorkshire’s historic Tour inspires novel

bicycle-cover-webThe Grand Départ in 2014 was a triumph for Yorkshire, drawing an audience of millions and capturing a unique moment in the county’s history. It has inspired creative works from paintings to sculptures, graffiti art to chalk hill figures, and now it has inspired a new romantic comedy novel.

Bingley author Lisa Firth, who writes as Mary Jayne Baker, says: “I wanted to write a story that wasn’t really about the Départ as a sporting event so much as it was about people’s response to it – that quintessentially Yorkshire character encapsulated in the yellow bikes, the dyed sheep, the knitted bunting. It was such a proud moment.”

The novel, A Bicycle Made for Two, is set in the fictional village of Egglethwaite in the Aire Valley. Spotting an opportunity to drum up business for her struggling medieval theme restaurant, and as a memorial to her beloved late father, heroine Lana hatches a plan to lure the Tour route through Egglethwaite. She enlists the help of a colourful cast of villagers, including pro cyclist turned bike shop owner Stewart McLean, whose offbeat ideas might just end up costing them everything.

While the village is fictional, its environs may well ring a few bells. “Several landmarks in my little patch of the West Riding have inspired locations in the book,” says Lisa. “Druids’ Altar, on the St Ives Estate near Bingley, and Hewenden Viaduct and Reservoir in Cullingworth, are likely to be instantly recognisable to those who know them.”

Lisa was educated at Bingley Grammar School before studying English Literature at Durham University, graduating in 2003. She has published two romcoms to date, both with HarperImpulse (part of HarperCollins Publishers). A third HarperImpulse title, Runaway Bride, is due to be published as an ebook on 16th February.

A Bicycle Made for Two is the first of two titles set in Egglethwaite with the series title Love in the Dales, under a new contract for Mirror Books (part of the Trinity Mirror group). Lisa is one of the first authors to sign with the publisher’s brand-new fiction list, in a deal negotiated by agent Laura Longrigg at MBA Literary Agents.

A Bicycle Made for Two will be published as an ebook on 1st February and in paperback on 5th April.

www.maryjaynebaker.co.uk | @MaryJayneBaker | www.facebook.com/maryjaynewrites

Description

In a lost corner of the Yorkshire Dales, Lana Donati runs a medieval theme restaurant with her brother. As a distraction to help them get over losing the father they loved dearly, and as a tribute to his passion for the beautiful area they live in, Lana hatches a plan to boost business for everyone by having the Grand Départ route pass through their village.

This entails getting the small community to work together to convince the decision-makers that their beloved village is Tour material. Not an easy task when the people involved include Lana’s shy, unlucky-in-love brother Tom, the man-eating WI chair Yolanda, bickering spouses Gerry and Sue, arrogant celebrity Harper Brady, and Lana’s (attractive) arch-nemesis, former pro cyclist turned bike shop owner Stewart McLean, whose offbeat ideas might just cost them everything.

From the author of The Honey Trap and Meet Me at the Lighthouse, a rural romance for lovers of Fiona Gibson, Sue Moorcroft and Penny Parkes’ Larkford series.

COVER REVEAL: Runaway Bride

The beautiful cover of my next book with my publisher HarperImpulse, Runaway Bride, has been revealed today! The book will be released for Kindle on 16th February 2018 – the perfect read for Valentine’s season. You can preorder on Amazon here.

A heart-warming novel about love and new beginnings, this is the perfect book for spring!

Here comes the bride… but how long can she hide?

When Kitty Clayton flees her wedding with no money, no bank card and no phone, her life seems worryingly futureless. All she knows is, she’d rather sleep on the streets than go back home to cheating Ethan.

After picking her up hitch-hiking, widowed children’s author Jack Duffy takes Kitty under his wing, looking out for her until she gets back on her feet. And it’s not long before the two grow close…

But with Jack struggling to recover from the guilt he feels over his wife’s death and Kitty refusing to face up to the problems she’s running away from at home, will the two ever manage to share a happily ever after?