Ellie Browne, landlady of The Dog & Duck, is looking forward to a relaxing Christmas Day before the arrival of her and her partner Max’s baby in the New Year. But with a snowstorm brewing outside, it seems that things might not go quite to plan.
After the dramatic events of the holiday season, Ellie settles into her new life at Max’s huge country mansion Braithwaite Manor, juggling work and family as best she can. When she’s asked to help organise a summer wedding for one of her best friends it’s only natural that her mind turns to her own, non-existent, wedding plans!
But with Max decidedly lukewarm on the subject and other family complications threatening to disrupt life further, Ellie fears there’ll never be wedding bells at the Dog & Duck after all.
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There was a lull in the proceedings as Josie and Gemma collected the dirty crockery from our places, as the excitement of Polly and George’s engagement spread around the room. I shifted in my chair, my bottom uncomfortable against the hard wooden seat, my bump keeping me a distance from the table. I held my hands to my stomach trying to soothe the aching and twinging. I’d promised myself I’d take it easy on the food front, but how could I when it was all so tempting and delicious, and we still had Christmas pudding and mince pies to go yet. I could hardly refuse when Betty Masters from the tea shop on the High Street had made them specially for me for today. Maybe just a small portion with a dollop of cream. After all, it was Christmas and I was as huge as a barrage balloon as it was, a small wodge of Christmas pudding wasn’t going to make that much difference.
‘You see, it’s as simple as that.’ Max shuffled his chair up closer to mine and rested his arm around my shoulder. The citrusy and woody notes of his aftershave, one of the presents I’d given him this morning, wafted beneath my nose.
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
‘Polly and George getting married. It’s great news, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. And so unexpected. I’m thrilled for them both. They’re so good together and Polly deserves some happiness at last.’
Max’s gaze held mine, and I noticed the almost imperceptible shake of his head. Was that exasperation I saw in his eyes? I cringed, knowing what was coming next.
‘Ah, so you’re not against marriage as an institution then? It’s just marriage to me that you don’t like the idea of?’
‘Please Max, don’t be like that?’ His red paper hat was perched on his head at a jaunty angle, there was a smile on his lips and a glint in his eye, but beneath his cheery exterior, I detected a sharp edge to his questions.
‘Like what? I’ve asked you three times to marry me now and you’ve knocked me back on every occasion. I still don’t understand why. We love each other. We’re having a baby together. Why wouldn’t we get married?’
It was a simple enough question when he put it like that, but the answer wasn’t so straightforward. Well, not to me it wasn’t.
‘Polly and George don’t seem to have had any hesitation in deciding they want to spend the rest of their lives together,’ he went on, raising an eyebrow at me, making me feel like the worst girlfriend ever. ‘They’ve been together less time than we have. Maybe you’re not certain I’m the right man for you, after all.’ There was that smile again, to soften the accusation in his words.
‘Stop it.’ I grabbed his arm and shook it playfully. ‘You know how much you mean to me. And we can’t compare ourselves with Polly and George. It’s different and… Ow!’ My thoughts and words were interrupted by a gripping pain in my lower back, my stomach tightening into a firm hard ball. I looked down at my bump accusingly.
‘Are you all right?’ Max’s voice lowered.
‘It’s fine. Just a twinge, I think.’
‘Hmmm, are you sure? You’ve had quite a few twinges today, haven’t you?’ His brow furrowed, a look of concern on his features. ‘Mind you, you know you can’t have this baby today.’ He took hold of my hand. ‘We’d never get you to the hospital in this weather. We wouldn’t even get back to the manor. The lanes are impassable. We’ll have to stay here tonight.’
‘Do you think?’ I said, relieved that the pain had subsided a little and even more relieved that we’d moved off the thorny topic of weddings.
‘Yes, it’s not worth chancing it. Certainly not in your condition. Hopefully by tomorrow the thaw will have begun. Hey, it’s not that bad, is it?’ he asked, seeing my face drop.
‘No, it’s just that I’ve offered the spare room to our visitor. I didn’t think.’ I gestured in the direction of the stranger who’d turned up on our doorstep and who was now deep in conversation with Eric and Ethan, seemingly having made himself very much at home.
‘Don’t worry, we’ll sort something out.’
That was Max all over. For every problem there was a solution. Nothing to worry about. I liked that about him. His magnanimity, his generosity of spirt. The way he cared and looked out for people. Me especially. It was a surprise even to me that I hadn’t bitten his hand off at his offer of marriage, but there was a small part of me that held back, as if guarding my heart from the damage I knew he could inflict.
Jill Steeples lives in a small market town in Bedfordshire with her husband and two children. When she’s not writing, she enjoys reading, walking, baking cakes, eating them and drinking wine.
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