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Olivia James looked up from her shopping list with a smile for twelve-year-old Mallory Lang as, on a gust of cold air, she breezed into Tea on the Lea, the tea shop Olivia had been running for the last two years.
Mallory shook her long, blonde hair over her shoulders as she collapsed into one of the white wrought-iron chairs at a small, spindly table and shivered dramatically. “It’s freezing out there. Mum says it might snow.”
“A white Christmas? That would be lovely.” Olivia came around the counter to close the door a bit more firmly; it really was cold, and her little shop’s antiquated bow windows were not double-glazed. Although it was only a little past three, outside the sky was already turning to the colour of pewter and only a few brave souls were walking down Wychwood-on-Lea’s high street, heads tucked low against the chilly December wind.
“Have you got something for me to try?” Mallory asked with pseudo-nonchalance, still sometimes trying to play the cool kid even though Olivia knew her far too well for that. During the two years since she’d moved to Wychwood-on-Lea, she’d become good friends with Mallory’s mother, Harriet, as well as the other three residents of Willoughby Close, a courtyard of converted-stables cottages on the grounds of Willoughby Manor. Harriet and her neighbours Ellie, Ava, and Alice regularly came in to the shop for coffees and chat, and more often than not Olivia pulled up a chair and joined them.
It had been a lovely surprise to find unexpected friends in a village where a single woman pushing forty was considered a bona fide spinster, someone who should invest in a plaid wheelie bag and a tabby cat. Although now, thanks to her mum moving into retired housing two months ago, she was in possession of the latter—a massive, marmalade, and monstrous beast aptly named Dr Jekyll.
“Indeed I do have something for you to try,” Olivia told Mallory. “Another cupcake.” Since Mallory had started secondary school a little over a year ago, she’d been coming into the shop every so often and hanging out for an hour or so before heading home. She’d even started bringing friends along on occasion, so that Tea on the Lea was turning into Wychwood-on-Lea’s cool destination for tweens, not that they had many options.
Besides a couple of pubs and a charity shop, the village nestled next to the Lea River in England’s rolling Cotswolds had very few retail possibilities. Teenagers tended to hang about the village green or the skate park, looking vaguely menacing in their dark hoodies, phones practically pressed to their faces. Far better for them to be in here, scoffing scones and fizzy drinks, which Olivia now stocked in a chilling cabinet for expressly that purpose.
It had been a steep learning curve, taking over her mother’s tea shop six months ago, after having helped her out for a year and a half before that. Tina James was a fantastic baker and a not-so-good business owner, by her own cheerful admission. She simply hadn’t cared about money, never had, preferring to bake and chat, to listen and love, running the shop like her own kitchen, and relying on a double mortgage to keep her afloat.
Olivia had been working tirelessly, trying to boost the little shop’s custom as well as the services and goods it offered. Hence, the cupcakes, as well as the new website, the made-to-order wedding cake service, the venue-for-hire option, and the Mums’ Morning Out she offered once a week, with a box of toys in the corner, and a special two-for-one offer on muffins.
Now Olivia took out her latest creation, made early that morning, when the world had still been pitch black, the winter dawn hours in the offing, the little shop freezing as the pipes clanked and the heat slowly began to kick in.
“My cookies and cream cupcake,” she announced, and placed it in front of Mallory with a flourish. “Chocolate cake and vanilla buttercream icing, with cookie pieces on top,” she added. “Give me your honest opinion.”
Olivia stood back, her hands on her hips, as Mallory took a big bite. One of her more recent initiatives—only in the last few days, as a matter of fact—had been to start offering cupcakes—gorgeous, fluffy, decadent cakes the size of your fist, loaded up with icing and decorated to perfection, a step up from the scones and sponge cake she usually offered, and when placed in the shop’s front bow window in a tantalising display, hopefully enough to entice a passer-by into the shop—and to make a purchase or two.
“This is amazing,” Mallory gushed as she wiped a dab of icing from her upper lip. “The chocolate is so gooey and yummy.” She hesitated, and Olivia’s eyes narrowed.
“But maybe it could use a few more cookie pieces on top? Not just for decoration, but you know, because, yum?”
“Yum. Okay.” Olivia nodded, smiling. She’d be lavish with the Oreos; why not? If you were going to treat yourself to a ginormous cupcake, best to make it—and the calories—worth your while. “And that’s why I need you to test them, Mallory.” She made a note to order more cookies along with everything else for her weekly shop on Sunday, after she visited her mum in her retirement flat in Witney.
“You know what you should do?” Mallory said, her words a bit garbled around another mouthful of cupcake. Olivia glanced up from her notepad, waiting for Mallory to swallow—and stop spraying crumbs. Her glance moved around the little shop, with its old oak counter, six tables crammed quite close together, the wrought-iron shelving unit bedecked with boxes of macaroons and vintage teacups for sale. Three weeks before Christmas and she needed to start decorating—both cakes and the shop.
She’d go all out for Christmas as she always did, with fairy lights and evergreen boughs, and red velvet bows to match her red velvet cupcakes. She was even thinking of running a mulled-wine-and-mince-pies evening this year, opening the shop at night, fairy lights twinkling among the holly. She could invite her friends, and if they invited their other friends, and Harriet did her usual trick of asking all the schools mums, it could be quite a nice crowd, and hopefully make a decent profit.
“Hmm? What is it that I should do?” she asked as Mallory swallowed the last bit of cupcake and shot a quick but longing glance at the Victorian cake stand on the counter, with two pieces of lemon drizzle and one of Victoria sponge left.
“You could do a promotion around the cupcakes!” she said, turning away from the cake stand to give Olivia the full force of her bright blue eyes and wide, engaging smile. “You have so many fab flavours—what was yesterday’s?”
“German chocolate.” With a dusting of coconut and a glacé cherry on top. Olivia had been quite proud of those, and had managed to sell five.
“And mint chocolate chip before that, and then lemon raspberry… Why don’t you make a different flavour every day? You could have the Twelve Days of Cupcakes!”
“The Twelve Days of Cupcakes…” Olivia mulled this over for a moment, intrigued. It would be fairly challenging to make a differently flavoured cupcake every day, but it could work if she only made a dozen…limited edition, if you like. And for the person who bought a cupcake on each day, she’d offer a free one at the end. Encourage repeat purchasing, or so the book she’d been reading like it held the answers to life, Fail-Safe Marketing for the Small Business, recommended. “That’s a good idea, Mallory,” she said finally. “I might just do it. I don’t think I’ve actually made twelve different flavours yet, though.”
“You can come up with others easy, I bet.” Mallory whipped out her phone with its sparkly, rhinestone-encrusted case, her thumbs flying over the screen. “Here you go…Nutella swirl cupcakes, yum…strawberry lemonade ones…cherry Coke…not sure about that one, actually. Sounds a bit revolting, but still. There are loads of others.”
She brandished the phone towards Olivia and she squinted—she was used to a rather larger font—and scrolled down the list. Cherry cheesecake…chocolate peanut butter…salted caramel…they all looked scrumptious. And weren’t cupcakes still a thing? She’d read about cupcake bakeries sprouting up all over the place, from New York to London to Tokyo. What if she made it her specialty? A Tea on the Lea cupcake. People would come to the village specifically to buy one. Perhaps she could get a write-up in Cotswold Life…
“They do look rather good,” she told Mallory. “I’ll have to try some of those out.”
“So you’ll do it?”
“I’ll certainly have a think.” It was a good idea, even if the prospect of adding another item to her to-do list, coming up with crazy confections each and every day, was a bit daunting. Already she had to wake up well before the crack of dawn to make several batches of muffins and scones as well as three cakes, which were her usual daily offerings in the shop.
She’d started baking the cupcakes on something of a whim, and while it was fun to do something different, between the pair of them, she and Mallory had eaten most of the cakes.
Cupcakes, she’d discovered, were more of an afternoon treat than a morning one, and most of her trade happened in the morning. So far she’d only sold a couple of cupcakes to some harried mums bribing their whingy children on the way back from the school run—yesterday, she recalled guiltily, she’d eaten three herself. They would have gone stale otherwise, and it had saved her from having to make a lonely supper for one.
“I’ll certainly think about it,” she promised again. “Why don’t you take a few back to your family? I’m sure William and Chloe would like one, not to mention your mum and dad.”
Olivia loaded four cupcakes into a white pastry box, with Tea on the Lea written on the front in curly, silver script. She’d bought a thousand of these boxes in the hopes of having the orders start to pour in, and, admittedly, because she’d got a discount by ordering so many, but right now they were cluttering up her much-needed pantry space and getting precious little use.
“Are you sure? Aren’t you going to sell them?”
Olivia shook her head. “Doubtful. It’s already getting dark and I’ll be lucky if I get a handful of customers for the rest of the day. Plus I made them this morning and they’ll go stale by tomorrow.” And if she gave them to Mallory, she wouldn’t eat them herself. Already comfortably round, she certainly didn’t need to start scoffing cupcakes—or three—on a daily basis.
“All right,” Mallory said, taking the box. “Thanks, Olivia. But that’s even more reason to do the cupcake thing, isn’t it—new ones every day since the old ones won’t keep.” She hoisted her backpack on one skinny shoulder, cocking her finger and thumb at Olivia in a trust-me gesture. “I’m telling you, this is it. Your big break. Will you give me a bonus if you make it big?”
“Unlimited cupcakes for life,” Olivia promised. “In whatever flavour you want.” Smiling, she watched Mallory flounce out, her phone out and thumbs working madly before the door had closed behind her.
Olivia had known Mallory for nearly two years and she couldn’t believe how grown-up she was becoming, half startling maturity, half sulky attitude. Harriet had her hands full, not just with Mallory, but with William, her ten-year-old brother, and Chloe, the family’s adorable but slightly spoiled seven-year-old. But then Harriet was one of those frighteningly organised women who didn’t seem fazed by anything—or at least she had been, until her life had fallen apart in spectacular style, and then come together again, better than before.
Olivia was happy her friend had found happiness with her husband again—in fact, all four of her friends at Willoughby Close had found their happily-ever-afters, and Olivia had had an admittedly small part to play in each of their stories, whether it was doling out cups of tea and generous slabs of cake, or simply providing a smiling face and a listening ear. Now Ellie and Oliver were married, as were Alice and Henry, and Ava and Jace.
Olivia had made all their wedding cakes, which had brought in a nice bit of business. Since Henry was the local lord of the manor, her cake had been something of a talked-about centrepiece. But wedding cake orders had dropped right off after the summer, and once again Olivia was trying to think of another way to make a go of her little tea shop. At least things were ticking over at the moment…if only just.
Olivia bustled around the shop, tidying up after Mallory and finishing her Christmas shopping list. Darkness was already starting to fall, nearly obscuring the steady trickle of mums and children now coming from the primary school at the top end of the high street. None of them stopped in the shop, and Olivia wasn’t surprised. Most mothers just wanted to get home at this point, and the wintry weather would put anyone off lingering in front of the display windows she spent hours trying to make look irresistibly delectable.
Olivia had known when she’d taken on her mum’s tea shop that it would be a challenging endeavour. Wychwood-on-Lea was a lovely village, but it was small, and Olivia had always understood that foot traffic alone wouldn’t keep the place afloat, something her mum had never seemed to accept. She’d been trying a lot of other strategies, and some had taken off a bit, but things were still tight, and at this point, she thought they might always be.
But that was okay. She sank onto a stool behind the wooden counter, propping her chin in her hands as twilight began to settle softly over the village, the buildings of mellow golden stone becoming shadowy in the darkness.
It was fine. She loved running the tea shop; she loved her friends; she loved Wychwood-on-Lea, its quaint cottages, the river burbling alongside, a soothing balm after the hectic busyness of her London life. Everything was good. Absolutely everything.
The merry jingle of bells on the shop door had Olivia lifting her head, and then quickly standing up as a man came into the shop, ducking his head underneath the stone lintel. He glanced around the empty space, wrought-iron chairs tucked into tables, everything tidied away.
“I’m sorry…are you still open?”
“Yes, absolutely,” Olivia said, widening her welcome smile. “Just a bit slow today… It’s so cold, I think everyone wants to get home.”
“Completely understandable.” He loosened the colourful Dr Who-like scarf from around his neck, glancing at the now rather empty glass display cases with an endearingly boyish interest.
He was, Olivia decided, a most interesting-looking man. Tall and lithe, at least six three, she’d say, and a bit gangly and awkward too, in a charming way. When he swung around to look at the display case in front of the counter, his elbow nearly knocked the cake stand but fortunately Olivia whisked it a few inches backwards before he made contact.
He glanced at it, startled, and then gave her a sheepish smile. “Sorry. I’m horribly clumsy. My mother despaired of me. I managed to break six of her Royal Doulton teacups in one go. Plus saucers.”
Olivia gave a little laugh. “And how did you manage that?”
“They were all on a tray and I knocked it with my elbow. Naturally. It was a bridge party, all the ladies of the neighbourhood. She was not pleased.”
“Oh, dear.” Olivia found she couldn’t quite look away from his glinting, grey-green eyes and wide, infectious smile. He had a dimple in one lean cheek, she noticed, which made him look boyish, although the streaks of grey in his dark, unruly hair, as well as the deepening crow’s feet by his eyes suggested someone close to her age of nearly forty.
“Anyway.” He glanced up from the display case, eyebrows raised. “What do you recommend?”
“Umm…I’m afraid there’s not much left. All the scones are gone, as well as the triple chocolate cake. It’s only lemon drizzle or Victoria sponge on offer now…” Her gaze fell on the last cookies and cream cupcake. “Or a cupcake, if you’d rather. I have one left.”
His face lit up, making her laugh at the exuberance of his expression. “One cupcake left? How perfectly serendipitous. What flavour is it?”
“Cookies and cream.” She fetched the cupcake from the plate behind her; she hadn’t put it back after wrapping up the others for Mallory.
“Now that is a work of art.” The man studied the cupcake as if it were the edible version of Michelangelo’s David. “Are those pieces of Oreo?”
She smiled, gratified by his compliment, because it sounded so sincere. He seemed like one of those rare people who was truly fascinated by life, always stopping to study or stare, marvelling at the mechanics of something simple. It was a gift, to look at life like that, and one Olivia didn’t think she had, although she was happy enough.
“So,” she said after a few seconds when the man was simply staring at the cupcake, marvelling. “Are you, ah, going to buy it?”
“Buy it?” His eyebrows rose once more, with comical drama. “Of course I’m going to buy it! How much?”
“Two pounds fifty.”
“You are grossly undercharging, then. Cupcakes the size of a small rodent go for nearly five pounds in London.”
“What an unappealing comparison,” Olivia returned with another laugh. “And this isn’t London, it’s the Cotswolds.”
“So you should really be charging six pounds.”
She laughed again, properly, and he grinned in return, and right then something in Olivia stirred to life, something that had been so dead and buried she’d forgotten it had even existed. But that tiny winkle of interest and yearning felt a bit like the poke of an electric cattle prod. Whoa. I’m alive. Here is a man.
And a man unlike any other she’d seen in Wychwood-on-Lea, which usually ran to golf-playing retirees and self-important City types, whose wives had dragged them out to experience so-called country living.
“Still, it’s two pounds fifty,” she said firmly. “I’m having a hard enough time selling them as it is.”
“Are you? But you’ve only one left.”
“I gave five away just now, and another one this morning.” When Ellie had come in for a coffee and a chat. She grimaced good-naturedly as she confessed, “And I ate one myself.”
“Which means you sold…?”
“Think of the profit you could have made! Two pounds fifty extra per cupcake… That’s…”
He frowned, and she supplied with a smile, “Ten pounds.”
“Which is not to be sneezed at.”
They smiled at each other, rather foolishly, or at least Olivia felt foolish. The banter had been witty and fun, but now that they had fallen silent, the man looked suddenly earnest and serious and she…she didn’t know how she looked. Or felt.
“It must be hard running a tea shop in a village this size. Do you have much help?”
“No, it’s just me.” Which, for some ridiculous reason, nearly brought a wretched lump to her throat. How bizarre. “But it’s fine,” she said quickly. “It’s all fine. You’re right, though, Wychwood-on-Lea is a small place. Not as much foot traffic as I’d like, but I try to make up for it in other ways. Still, it’s all good.”
The man nodded slowly, in a way that made Olivia think he didn’t believe her, which was exasperating because she was telling the truth. It was all good. Definitely.
“So the cupcake. Would you like it in a box?”
“You have boxes?” He sounded delighted, making Olivia smile again, and she went to fetch one of her many boxes.
“Tea on the Lea,” he read off the front with satisfaction. “Very clever.”
“Well, at least it rhymes. But I didn’t come up with it. My mother did.”
“It was her shop originally, but I took it over six months ago.”
“So has this shop been in your family for ages? Should there be a sign over the door, ‘Established in 1854’ or something? ‘Purveyors of Tea to the Queen’?”
She laughed and shook her head. “Sadly we have not supplied the Queen with anything. And my mum started the shop ten years ago, after she retired. It was always a dream of hers, to own a little shop like this.”
“Kudos to her for following her dreams.”
“And is it your dream as well?”
Goodness, this was getting rather personal. “It’s become my dream,” Olivia said firmly. “I love baking, and I’m happy here.” Which, for some reason, made it sound as if she wasn’t. As if she had to convince herself, which she didn’t. “Anyway.” Olivia took a length of silver ribbon she usually saved for her wedding cake orders and wrapped it around the box, tying it with an elegant bow. “There you are. That will be two pounds fifty.”
“Why don’t you charge me five pounds?” the man suggested as he handed over his debit card. “Really, I insist. It’s practically a crime otherwise.”
“Two pounds fifty,” Olivia repeated firmly. “But if you come back again, I might have upped the prices by then.”
“I certainly hope so. Do you make cupcakes every day?”
Olivia thought of Mallory’s idea. “Actually, I’m running a promotion,” she said a bit recklessly. “The Twelve Days of Cupcakes. A different flavour of cupcake every day in the run-up to Christmas…and if you buy one on each of the twelve days, you get a free one at the end. But you have to come every day.” For some reason her heart had started beating fast as she said all this. She gazed at him, eyebrows raised. “What do you think?”
“That’s an absolutely cracking idea. Simply cracking.” He grinned. “Count me in.”
Olivia’s heart flipped over. She was being ridiculous, of course. She didn’t even know this man and he was, it had to be said, a tiny bit on the eccentric side, with his enthusiastic manner, his endless scarf. But still. There went her heart. She reached for the card reader, unable to keep from glancing at the name on the debit card as she pushed it into the reader. Simon Blacklock. What a perfectly appropriate name—like something she’d read in an Austen or Brontë novel. Very Wuthering Heights-ish.
In some ways Simon Blacklock seemed like someone from another century, with his friendly, open face, his interest in everything, even his battered tweed jacket and winding scarf. He was decidedly old-fashioned, and Olivia liked that about him.
“Put your PIN in please,” she said, and pushed the reader towards him, averting her eyes while he pressed the numbers on the keypad.
He pushed it back towards her with a smile, and Olivia gave him his card back. She had a strange, almost panicky sense not to let him simply walk out the door, out of her life.
“Enjoy your cupcake,” she blurted a little too fast. “And see you…again?” She cringed a little inwardly at how hopeful and eager she sounded.
“Yes, definitely.” He hoisted the box. “I can’t wait to try out some more flavours.” And with one last whimsical smile, he was gone, the bells jingling as he shut the door behind him.
End of Excerpt