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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Christmas in London

A Novel

Anita Hughes

St. Martin's Griffin


Chapter One

LOUISA NUDGED OPEN THE INDUSTRIAL-SIZED oven and thought nothing smelled as wonderful as cinnamon and nutmeg nine days before Christmas. Everything about the bakery’s smooth wooden counters thrilled her: the buttery pie crusts waiting for crisp Granny Smith apple slices and scoops of whipped cream, the eggnog custard nestled in white cups, the cupcakes topped with cream cheese frosting and shaped liked Christmas trees. And she especially loved the croquembouche she had convinced Ellie, the bakery’s owner, to let her make on her own time.

She learned the recipe for croquembouche at a cooking course in Normandy and never forgot the cream-filled pastry puffs dipped in caramel and laced with spun sugar. She examined it now and thought the puffs were a little crooked and the cream may not be as rich as she used in Normandy, but when she popped one in her mouth she tasted vanilla and a crust so airy it was like a single fat snowflake drifting down from the sky.

That was one of the things people didn’t realize about being a pastry chef. It wasn’t just about baking a delicious cheesecake or whisking eggs and flour so a soufflé was firm and delicate at the same time. It was about exploring other cultures. She loved to make lamingtons from Australia with their gooey centers and coconut flakes and panettones from Italy topped with powdered sugar and citrus rinds and toffee pudding from England so thick it stuck to the roof of her mouth.

Her phone lit up with texts and she brushed aside a stray hair and picked it up. Her friends urged her to join them doing all the things twenty-something New Yorkers enjoyed a week before Christmas: ice-skating in Central Park or sipping champagne cobblers at the Monkey Bar or braving Christmas shoppers at Bloomingdale’s to pick out the perfect party dress.

But there was always the possibility of falling and spraining her wrist when she ice-skated and champagne gave her a headache and even though she loved Bloomingdale’s with its decorated Christmas tree and scents of expensive perfumes, she couldn’t afford a pair of silk stockings let alone a whole dress.

And besides, every extra hour she worked brought her closer to her goal. She had been saving for four years and by next Christmas she was determined to open her own restaurant specializing in homemade desserts. She’d already started scouting locations—roaming the trendy streets of Chelsea and venturing to the Upper West Side with its leafy sidewalks and elegant brownstones.

In the summer there would be blueberry tarts and upside-down cake with plums the color of lipstick and almond ice cream torte. And at the Christmas holidays! She would serve Baked Alaska and gingerbread trifle with cognac custard and sliced pears.

She stretched like a cat that had been sitting too long in front of the fire and noticed the rain drizzling on the pavement. If she had brought a proper raincoat she would almost look forward to the six blocks’ walk to her apartment.

She thought of all the things she planned to do when she got home: read the chapter on chocolate ganache in Gordon Ramsay’s new cookbook, try out a new recipe for key lime pie with limes she bought at the corner market, take a bath before her roommate prepared for a date and spent hours in the bathroom doing her hair and makeup.

Every day for the last week Louisa had staggered up the stairs to her apartment and unlocked the door. She’d flipped through the mail and brewed a cup of orange hibiscus tea. Then she’d lain down on her bed fully clothed just to close her eyes. Hours later she would wake with a crick in her neck and her jacket digging uncomfortably into her side.

A bell tinkled and Louisa realized she’d forgotten to lock the bakery door and change the sign to CLOSED. The kitchen door opened and a man of about thirty appeared. He wore a rain-splattered leather jacket and had short light-brown hair.

“I’m sorry, we’re closed.” She took the cinnamon rolls out of the oven and placed them on the island in the middle of the room.

“You’re not closed, actually.” He entered the kitchen. “The door of the bakery was unlocked and the red blinking sign said OPEN.”

“The sign is new and I always forget to unplug it,” Louisa said. “The cash register is empty and the desserts are put away. I’m afraid you’ll have to leave.”

“Are these cinnamon rolls any good?” He inspected the tray.

“I really couldn’t say,” she answered. “I just took them out of the oven.”

“They smell delicious.” He picked one up. “Do you mind if I try one?”

“You can’t just help yourself!” she protested, wiping her hands on her apron. “I spent hours baking them.”

The man inhaled deeply and took a small bite. He finished chewing and looked at Louisa.

“Excellent! Not too gooey and with just the right amount of sweetness,” he announced. “Possibly the best cinnamon roll I’ve ever tasted.”

“Do you think so?” she asked, suddenly happy despite herself. “I’ve been working on the recipe for ages. I use a secret ingredient I can’t tell anyone about. And the brown sugar has to have just the right amount of molasses.”

“Is that all there is?” He waved at the two trays of cinnamon rolls. “Or are there more in the oven?”

“That’s two dozen cinnamon rolls! It took me all afternoon.” She suddenly remembered that it was 7:00 p.m. and she’d been at the bakery since early morning.

“I’ll take the lot.” He picked up a tray. “Do you have any boxes? I can’t have them getting ruined in the rain.”

“Put that down!” she said hotly. “You can’t just waltz in here and help yourself to what’s on the counter.”

“I wasn’t going to help myself, I was going to pay you.” He reached into his pocket and took out a wallet. “How much are they?”

“They’re not for sale.” She shook her head.

“Of course they’re for sale,” he countered. “This is a bakery. You didn’t make twenty-four cinnamon rolls to eat before bed.”

“They’re not for sale now. They’re for the morning,” she clarified. “They’re our most popular item the week before Christmas. People love them with a cup of coffee or hot chocolate.”

“I need them now.” He riffled through his wallet. “Will one hundred dollars be enough? I can’t imagine you charge more than six dollars a cinnamon roll even if this is the East Village.”

“One hundred dollars for twenty-four cinnamon rolls!” Louisa gasped.

Ellie had asked Louisa what they should charge and Louisa suggested three dollars apiece. She was terrible at pricing her own desserts. It was a tug-of-war between being grateful people liked them enough to pay for them and wanting Ellie to make a profit. “I’m sorry, you can’t have them. I’m not the owner and I’m not allowed to sell the products after hours. I’d be happy to hold them for you when we open tomorrow morning, if you’d like to come back then.”

“Two hundred dollars, then.” He handed her two hundred-dollar bills. “And an extra fifty if you find me a box.”

“That’s very generous, but then I wouldn’t have any left for the morning rush hour,” she explained. “We have to sell cinnamon rolls the week before Christmas. It’s our most requested item.”

“You have other pastries. They can buy Danish or croissants,” he suggested.

“Any other time of the year perhaps, but not now.” She shook her head. “People allow an extra fifteen minutes to get to work just so they can pick up a cinnamon roll. It’s the high point of their day.”

“Have you heard of the cooking show Baking with Bianca?” he asked. “We’re filming a Christmas special in a brownstone nearby and there was a small fire in the kitchen. The snowball cupcakes look like they were roasted over a campfire and the fig crumble bars are burnt to a crisp. There isn’t time to bake anything else and the other bakeries are closed. I need something for Bianca to hold in front of the camera.”

“It’s the most watched cooking show in New York.” She nodded. “At first I was a little put off by Bianca’s lipstick. How could you taste your own desserts without getting bright-red lipstick all over the spoon? But I’ve tried some of the recipes and the steamed gingerbread pudding is delicious.”

“Bianca wears waterproof lipstick, it wouldn’t come off during a monsoon,” he murmured.

Louisa noticed that the man’s eyes were blue and there was an ink smudge on his cheek. His cheeks were smooth and when he smiled crinkles formed around his mouth.

“I’m sorry, they’re not mine to sell,” she insisted. “Ellie, the owner, is at The Nutcracker with her daughter, Chloe, and I can’t interrupt her. You can try again tomorrow.”

“I’ve got a stylist and a lighting guy and a camera operator who will report this to the union if we go a minute overtime,” he pleaded. “And think of the viewers. They’re going to tune in to learn how to bake something special for Santa Claus or bring the perfect Christmas gift to Aunt Mary in the hospital and be disappointed.”

Christmas was Louisa’s favorite time of year because people were so nice to each other. All month the spirit of doing the right thing was intoxicating. People jostled to give up their seat on the subway and when she walked down Fifth Avenue she heard the sound of coins dropping into Salvation Army cans. She wanted to help him, and in exchange Bianca could mention the bakery on the show. It would be wonderful publicity and Ellie would be thrilled.

“I have an idea,” she suggested. “What if Bianca says on air that the bakery is one of her favorite spots in Manhattan? Ellie would get free publicity and you would get your cinnamon rolls.” She paused. “I will have to come in early and make more, but I don’t mind. I’ll do anything to help the bakery succeed.”

“You’re a lifesaver,” he said and kissed her on the cheek. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that but you’ve made me so happy.” He stepped back and grinned. “My job is to make everything on the set run smoothly and Bianca was roaming around like a lion with an injured paw. Even our producer, Kate, couldn’t placate her. Kate is usually as soothing as a warm brandy before bed.”

“That sounds perfect right about now,” she said with a sigh. “I arrived so early this morning the homeless man was still asleep. Every evening I give him a stack of blankets and every morning when he wakes up he returns them.”

“You give a homeless man blankets?” He stopped. “Doesn’t that encourage him to hang around? I’m sure your customers don’t want to see him when they’re ordering their morning cappuccino.”

“No one sees him, he sleeps in the covered alley in the back. Even Ellie doesn’t know he comes,” she said. “The shelters are so crowded, sometimes it’s hard to get a blanket at all. I give him a cup of leftover coffee and blankets I keep in the storeroom.” She paused. “No one knows, please don’t say anything.”

“My lips are sealed. I have to go, or I’ll be fired and looking for a handout.” He picked up the trays. “I’m Noah, it’s a pleasure doing business with you.”

“I’m Louisa.” She nodded. “I hope it all works out.”

He walked to the door and turned around. “You’ve saved my job, I don’t know how to thank you.”

Louisa watched Noah cross the street and thought she shouldn’t have said yes. Now she’d have to be back at the bakery at 5:00 a.m. Her shoes would barely have time to dry and she wouldn’t be able to wash her hair before work. But it was too late now. The cinnamon rolls were gone and she had to get home before the soft rain became a downpour.

She closed the front door and studied the white Christmas tree decorated with gumdrops and peppermints in the bakery window. The red sign still flashed OPEN and she laughed. She unlocked the door and unplugged it. Then she covered her head with her hands and hurried down the street.

Copyright © 2017 by Anita Hughes