The Great Garden Heist (free short story)

The Great Garden Heist (free short story)

Mysterious disappearances are rocking the well-tended flowerbeds of Kettlewick. Could there be more to handsome newcomer Callum than meets the eye?

First published in the Sunday People‘s Love Sunday magazine on 8th April 2018.


Abby squinted through the peephole of her front door. Her elderly neighbour Mr Hunter beamed back, his head distorted to mammoth proportions by the glass.

‘Is everything ok, Mr Hunter?’ she asked when she’d opened up.

‘Fine, fine. Sorry to call so early. It’s about this business in the village.’ He glanced warily around the sleepy cul-de-sac. ‘The robberies,’ he mouthed.

‘Yes, I heard,’ Abby said. When you lived in a community like Kettlewick, average age of seventy-five and pension day the highlight of the social calendar, a spate of garden thefts was big news.

‘First Ethel Clutterbuck’s hardy perennials. Then Doreen’s prize sweet peas. Molly’s favourite gnome, the one in the Union Jack swimming trunks. And Sarah swears she saw a strange man making eyes at her busy lizzies.’

Abby suppressed a smile.

‘This modern world,’ she said, shaking her head soberly. ‘It’s come to something when old ladies have to start alarming their gnomes.’

‘Quite. That’s why I popped round. Young girl like you, all on your own… well, I thought these might prove useful.’

Mr Hunter reached into his pocket and yanked out a pair of huge white Y-fronts.

Abby blinked. ‘Wow.’

‘They’re mine,’ he told her proudly. ‘All washed and pressed.’

‘Do you mind if I ask why you’ve brought me your pants, Mr Hunter?’

He lowered his voice. ‘Police believe the thieves are deliberately targeting ladies who live alone. And it can only be a matter of time until they take the next step. Housebreaking!’

‘So… I should garrotte them with your undies?’

‘Hang them on your washing line. Then if they come for your begonias, they’ll think you’ve got a man about the house.’

Mr Hunter looked so pleased with this cunning plan of his, Abby didn’t have the heart to send him and his undercrackers packing.

‘Thank you,’ she said, taking the pants gingerly. ‘That’s… very thoughtful.’

‘You’re more than welcome, dear.’

He headed back next door, leaving Abby blinking at the baggy Y-fronts.

‘Not really your colour, are they?’ a deep voice observed. She looked up to see a young man with laughing eyes leaning against a removal van parked across the road.

Abby hastily stuffed the pants in the pocket of her dressing gown. ‘My neighbour. He, um… has these ideas.’

‘Racy neighbourhood. The best I’ve ever been offered is a cup of sugar.’

Her cheeks flamed. Something about the twinkle in the man’s dark eyes – not to mention the fact he’d just caught her in her dressing gown, manhandling an OAP’s tighty-whities – seemed to have brought on her blush reflex.

He came over and held out a hand.

‘Callum Beresford.’

‘Abby Samson,’ she said, shaking it. ‘So you’re this grandson Mrs Beresford loves to boast about. The landscape gardener, right?’

He smiled. ‘Shameless, isn’t she?’

Abby glanced at the removal van outside Number 35.

‘Your grandmother isn’t moving out, is she?’

‘No, I’m moving in,’ Callum said. ‘Nana’s been struggling a bit since my grandad passed away. She gets… confused. It was a choice between me coming to help out or a care home, so, here I am.’

Abby was impressed. Callum Beresford must have a pretty 50-carat heart beating underneath the roguish grin to drop his old life just like that.

‘Well, nice to meet you, Callum,’ she said. ‘Welcome to Kettlewick.’


‘Sal. Wait,’ Abby panted, clutching at a privet hedge.

Every muscle in her body was aflame. It was safe to say she wasn’t one of nature’s joggers.

‘Lightweight.’ Her friend Sal grinned. ‘I thought you wanted to get in shape.’

‘Not… this… badly,’ Abby gasped.

Sal laughed. ‘Go on, we’ll take a breather then.’

As Abby recovered and her breath returned, her hazy vision started to clear. They were on Wisteria Lane, the balmy air drenched with violets and pollen. Further down the road she could see a figure in one of the gardens, sidling furtively.

Suddenly she threw herself down behind the hedge, pulling Sal with her.

‘Ow! What did you do that for?’ Sal said, rubbing her arm.

‘It’s him!’ Abby hissed.

‘Him who?’

‘Callum Beresford. He  just moved in across the road.’

‘And we’re hiding from him because…?’

‘Just a feeling. Can you see what he’s up to?’

Sal peeped through the topiary.

‘You sly mare,’ she said, smirking at Abby. ‘So he’s what the fitness kick’s in aid of, is he?’

‘Never mind that. What’s he doing?’

‘Picking something up.’


‘Can’t see. He’s putting it under his coat… getting into a car…’

Abby heard the purr of an engine as Callum sped away.

‘So what was that all about?’ Sal asked as they stood up.

‘Not sure.’ Abby shot a worried look after the car. ‘But I’ve got a bad feeling.’


It was 2.15am and Abby was staring at her bedroom ceiling.

‘The man’s a landscape gardener,’ she muttered. ‘So why shouldn’t he be in a garden? Abby Samson, you’re ridiculous.’

But he’d taken something…

Oh, this was silly. Landscape gardening couldn’t be so badly paid that Callum needed to flog pilfered gnomes on the side.

Maybe he was some sort of garden-obsessed kleptomaniac. Once he clocked an unguarded clematis, he couldn’t help himself. He just had to –

Abby stopped. There was a shuffling sound coming from outside.

Ugh, not Mr Hunter’s Yorkie digging up her flowerbeds again. The little bugger was a dab paw at escapology. She got out of bed and tramped downstairs.

When she reached the kitchen, she stopped short. In the faint orange glow of a nearby lamppost she could see a shadowy figure, armed with trowel and fork, digging in her begonia patch.

The garden thief!

She unlocked the back door and flicked on the porch light.

The silhouette looked up at once. It rose and walked towards her.

Well, we all have to go some time, Abby reflected, feeling light-headed. Some go quietly in their sleep, others get hacked to bits with garden implements.

‘Aha!’ she yelled when the figure reached her, snatching up an old dishcloth. She held it up in front of her like a matador, which seemed to make sense at the time.

Only it wasn’t a dishcloth.

‘What’re you planning to do, smother me with them?’ Callum asked in an amused voice.

Slowly, she lowered Mr Hunter’s Y-fronts.

‘You!’ she hissed.


‘You’re the one who’s been preying on lone women’s shrubberies! Aren’t you?’ She raised the pants a little, feeling safer behind their broad expanse. ‘Mr Hunter said you’d be after my begonias.’

‘After your…’ Callum shook his head. ‘Abby, I swear, my intentions towards your begonias were entirely honourable.’

‘Yeah? I saw you on Wisteria Lane today.’ She gave Mr Hunter’s pants an accusing flap. ‘Sneaking something into your jacket.’

‘It wasn’t what it looked like, I promise. Look, can I come in?’ Callum glanced down. ‘And could you stop pointing those underpants at me in that threatening manner?’


Abby’s eyes were wide. ‘Your nana?’

‘It’s like she’s forgotten how things work,’ Callum said, morosely swirling his Horlicks. ‘Three times she’s been caught shoplifting.’

‘But I saw you take something.’

‘No, you saw me swap something.’ He sighed. ‘It started when Grandad died. He’d promised Nana her dream garden, but he passed away before he could finish it.’


‘…Nana’s finishing it. She sees something she wants, she takes it. Abby, she doesn’t realise it’s wrong.’

‘And you’ve been putting everything back.’

He nodded. ‘Then a quick trip to the garden centre, replace it before she notices.’

‘What were you swapping?’

‘Gnome mix-up. Mrs Callaghan got the lad in the Union Jack briefs belonging to Mrs Florizel.’ He shot her an anxious glance. ‘You won’t tell anyone, will you? About Nana?’

‘Course not.’ She looked up to meet his gaze. ‘I’m sorry I accused you, Callum.’

‘And threatened me with loaded pants.’

She smiled. ‘That too.’

‘You’re forgiven,’ he said, squeezing her shoulder. ‘I’d better go. Sorry about the scare, Abby.’


‘Abigail!’ Mrs Beresford said when she answered her door the next day. She was heavily made-up as always, in a flapperesque sequinned dress. ‘Dear girl! Come in at once and have a sherry.’

‘It’s a little early for me, Mrs B.’

‘Nonsense,’ she trilled. ‘It’s five o’clock somewhere.’

Overruling Abby’s objections, Mrs Beresford got them drinks. Abby claimed an armchair and sipped at the syrupy alcohol, feeling like Christmas.

‘So what brings you to see me?’ Mrs Beresford asked.

‘A present.’ Abby handed over the gift bag she was holding.

‘For me?’

Abby smiled. ‘I thought you’d appreciate him.’

Mrs Beresford peeked into the bag and squealed.

‘Handsome devil!’ she breathed, taking out the garden gnome in his red smoking jacket. ‘Oh, I must see how he looks with the others.’

Abby followed her out to the garden, where Callum was planting sweet peas. He wiped dirty hands on his jeans and joined them.

‘Callum, look what darling Abigail brought!’ Mrs Beresford held up her new gnome proudly.

‘How kind of darling Abigail,’ Callum said, smiling. ‘He’ll fit right in.’

He nodded to a cluster of garden gnomes around a little pond.

‘Go on, Nana, do the honours,’ he said, giving her a squeeze. His grandmother tottered happily off down the crazy paving.

It wasn’t what you’d call a tasteful garden. Gnomes and colourful ornaments abounded. Mismatched flowers in yellow, pink and blue socialised with joyous energy, but no real harmony. Yet it was obvious that to Mrs Beresford, her jolly, haphazard little garden was a slice of paradise.

‘So is this revenge then?’ Callum muttered to Abby.

‘It was supposed to be an apology.’

‘Seriously? Do you know the pain it gives a landscape gardener, all those gnomes?’ He smiled as he watched Mrs Beresford select a spot next to a coy Marilyn Monroe gnome for her new addition. ‘They make her happy though. Thank you.’

‘I really am sorry I accused you of shrub theft.’

‘And I’m sorry I interfered with your begonias.’ He turned to face her. ‘Let me make it up to you?’

As if reading their expressions, Mrs Beresford finished gnome-matchmaking and turned her attention to them.

‘Do you have lunch plans, Abigail?’ she called. ‘Callum’s taking me to the Black Heifer.’

‘Will you join us?’ Callum asked. ‘My treat? I do feel really bad about those begonias.’

Abby smiled. ‘I’d like that.’

He was looking at her keenly, dark eyes sparkling.

‘So would I,’ he said. ‘Very much.’

In her garden sanctuary, Mrs Beresford smiled.

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 the Sunday People‘s Love Sunday magazine on 2nd December 2018.


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…



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.


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.’


‘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.


‘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

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.