The final book in the sweet and wholesome Christmas Letters series is Dear Miss Baker.
Enjoy this preview of the first chapter!
Breath held, Halston Baker used a pair of tweezers to set a marzipan cupcake inside her latest gingerbread creation. The fairy’s cottage, complete with colorful candy toadstools for a flowerbed, white chocolate lace for a walkway, and windows crafted of melted sugar, made her think of a hobbit’s home. She’d baked the base of the house in a bowl to give it a rounded shape, then added a domed roof with a curly chimney. The entire outside of the house was covered in frosting swirls with little pink and yellow rosebuds and budding deep green leaves.
Inside, she’d designed a scene of a fairy hosting a tea party, using mostly marzipan to create the furniture and food.
She picked up a tiny marzipan strawberry with the tweezers, ready to set it inside, when a loud crash from down the hall startled her. Thank goodness her hand wasn’t already inside the house, or she might have destroyed the whole thing as she’d jerked in reaction to the racket.
Quickly dropping the tweezers and the berry back on the plate with the fairy house props, Halston raced down the hallway and came to a stop outside the library in her aunt Tabby’s rambling old brick Victorian home.
Tabitha Earldean Devry Nelson hopped down from the step stool where she’d been teetering on one foot to reach a book on a high shelf, casting Halston a sheepish look.
More times than Halston could count, they’d had conversations about her aunt—who’d turned ninety-two last month—keeping both feet on the ground and leaving step stools and ladders for Halston.
However, Aunt Tabby was full of opinions and stubbornness. She refused to listen to the voice of reason unless it was her idea.
“What was that noise?” Halston asked, grateful it wasn’t her aunt who had fallen. She skirted the large mahogany desk that she was sure had been in the house since it was built in the late 1880s and glanced at half a dozen books scattered on the floor.
“I dropped those when I was trying to reach the copy of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. Just another inch and I would have had it.” Tabby scooped up the books and slammed them on a corner of the desk.
Halston might have jumped from the loud noise if she weren’t used to Tabby and the fact that she never did anything quietly or subdued. The woman was either sleeping or it was full steam ahead.
“Aunt Tabby, we’ve talked about this. Repeatedly. You can’t keep climbing up on things. What if you fall off and break a hip? It’ll be game over. We both know the last thing you want is to end up in a nursing home.”
“That’s why you’re here.” Her aunt gave her a smug smile as she plopped into the leather chair behind the desk, as though Halston were her insurance policy against ever leaving the home she’d lived in for decades.
“I have zero nursing skills, Aunt Tabs. If you require care, someone else will have to deliver it. You know that.”
“I do know that, but I also know you are quite capable, darling.” Tabby lifted her reading glasses from the desk and slid them up her nose. “Besides, I’ll likely drop dead some morning when my heart finally gives out, not because I fell off a stool.”
It wasn’t the first time her aunt had made that statement, and Halston knew it wouldn’t be the last. For a tiny woman, Tabby possessed a big personality. Halston tried not to grin as her aunt’s feet swung in the air from where she perched on the desk chair like a little girl who couldn’t quite reach the floor. The woman claimed to have been an even five feet in her younger days, but age had whittled her down a few inches.
Halston was grateful for her aunt, even if she drove her bonkers half the time. Tabby had opened her home without a word of question when Halston had been left with few other options five years ago.
She’d arrived broken and desperate, but she’d stayed because her aunt needed someone to keep an eye on her. Besides, Halston loved the huge kitchen full of windows and light that had been updated three years ago with every modern convenience.
The house was aging almost faster than Tabby could keep up with it although Halston encouraged her to try. In the time Halston had lived there, they’d had the wiring and the plumbing updated, renovated two of the four bathrooms, and remodeled half of the bedrooms. The next project on the horizon involved refinishing the hardwood floors in the entry, hallways, and parlor.
According to Tabby, they were the original floors with the original finish. Her aunt would know. Tabby had been eighteen when she’d married Norton Nelson, a man who had been forty-seven at the time. Her father had arranged the marriage and had not given Tabby a choice in the matter, or so was the tale of family lore.
For ten miserable years, vibrant Tabby had endured marriage to the stodgy Norton, then he’d died of a stroke. Tabby had inherited the huge Victorian home that had been in Norton’s family for three generations. The house sat on twenty acres, most of which were covered in beautiful forested land. The location on a little hill felt private and secluded, especially with the wrought iron fence that went across the front of the property and along both the sides of the acreage. If someone wanted to sneak in, they’d have to hike around to the back of the property to do it, and with all the trees and undergrowth, that wasn’t a simple task.
Tabby had also inherited Norton’s various business enterprises which had included everything from investments in railroads and banks to ownership of bars, a bawdy house, and a gambling den. Tabby’s attorney had suggested she immediately liquidate. So, she had.
Money had never been anything Tabby needed, left wealthy after Norton’s passing. Companionship was an entirely different matter, though. Her four sisters had married and moved away when she’d still been in school, leaving Tabby, the youngest in the family, to fulfill her father’s wishes that one of them would marry not for love, but money.
Tabby had been a stunning beauty in her day, with soft blonde curls, big blue eyes, and a figure that looked like she could have been a pin-up girl. It wasn’t any wonder Norton Nelson had been eager to wed such a lovely young girl.
Halston was never certain if her aunt was pleased or disappointed the terrible marriage to Norton hadn’t produced any children. Tabby had refused to enter the state of matrimony a second time, so she’d remained alone in her sprawling house for almost fifty years before Halston arrived on her doorstep.
Once Tabby’s sisters had moved away, they’d vowed never to return, and they hadn’t, except for the funeral of their mother. From the stories Tabby had shared, their father had been a tyrant, and their mother a saint for having put up with him.
Now, the family was scattered across the country. Although Halston’s mother, Tabby’s great-niece, had grown up in Iowa, she’d come to Portland when she’d graduated from high school looking for work and met Halston’s father a week after arriving. They’d wed before two months had passed. A year later, Halston’s oldest brother, Brian, had been born, followed by Daniel, and then Steve. For reasons Halston never understood, her parents had waited ten years to have her. By the time she’d been in high school, all three of her brothers had married and moved away. She’d been out of school for only a month when her parents announced their plans to move to Florida, where Daniel and Steve both lived, to be closer to their grandchildren.
Halston had moved into an apartment she shared with two other girls, gotten a job working as a hostess at a restaurant, and made her own way.
She wasn’t close to any of her brothers or her parents. Truthfully, she’d always felt like an afterthought and sometimes an inconvenience to them all. It hadn’t bothered her as much as it probably should have when her parents had moved. Halston had been to Florida once to visit them, and that was enough.
Locally, though, she had two cousins, several times removed, with whom she got along well. Anytime she needed to travel for her work, they took turns checking on Tabby.
Halston smiled as she climbed up the step stool and returned the books to the shelf, then retrieved the one her aunt had been after. Tabby definitely kept Halston on her toes, but she was grateful every single day for her aunt.
Five years ago, she’d thought life couldn’t get any better, then the universe had served her an enormous serving of humble pie, and she’d had to start over. Thanks to Tabby offering Halston a safe place to regroup, she’d discovered her passion and set her life on a new course.
It seemed impossible, but Halston had become a gingerbread expert.
Tabby had been the one to encourage Halston to bake a gingerbread house not long after she’d moved in with her. Despondent and discouraged, Halston hadn’t had anything better to do, so she’d agreed to give it a try. Tabby had unearthed an old recipe card, yellowed with age, splattered with spills, and written in a feathery hand that had belonged to her grandmother.
The gingerbread Halston had baked that day had tasted great and filled the house with a wonderful holiday scent. More importantly, it had given her an outlet that fueled her creativity. She’d gone from making a few simple houses to recreating Tabby’s home. Then she’d started researching the history of gingerbread and made several pieces that garnered attention, and before she quite knew what had happened, she’d become one of the top gingerbread designers in the country.
Halston loved everything about it. Coming up with an idea. Creating a design. Baking the gingerbread. Turning it into a thing of art or beauty, or sometimes just plain whimsy, like the fairy cottage. She loved every step of the process, and she loved learning more and more about gingerbread and its fascinating history.
The fairy cottage was for a class she was teaching on Friday. The group of professional women who hired her worked in high-stress jobs and sought guest speakers with unique talents to lead classes at their monthly meetings.
Halston didn’t need to put as much work into the fairy cottage as she had, but she enjoyed every minute of it. Besides, it was important to her to do her best since the gingerbread house would be the centerpiece of her presentation.
As she thought about how many turns her life had taken since she’d graduated from high school, she felt fortunate and blessed. Somehow, she’d turned a hobby she adored into a career that she found satisfying, challenging, and fulfilling.
“Here’s your book, Aunt Tabby,” she said, setting the dusty copy of Mark Twain’s novel on the desk in front of her aunt. She made a mental note to have the housekeeper who came weekly to schedule time to clean the library before autumn arrived. As the days grew cooler, both Halston and her aunt enjoyed cozying up with a good book by the fire—a gas fireplace Halston had talked Tabby into having installed the first winter she’d lived there.
“Thank you, Bebe.” Her aunt clasped Halston’s hands between hers, then patted her arm. “You’re a good girl, darling.”
“Thank you, Aunt Tabby.” Halston almost asked what other thing her aunt had done she shouldn’t have since she was obviously buttering her up. Bebe was a nickname her aunt had given her when she’d been two days old and Tabby had seen her for the first time. Halston had no idea where it had come from, and if Tabby recalled why she’d blurted out the name then, she refused to share it now.
“I would like to eat dinner on the patio this evening.” Tabby glanced out the tall windows located to the side of the desk. They offered a wonderful view of the woods beyond the yard.
“Sure, Aunt Tabs. I was planning on serving salads for dinner, with the chicken you like, as well as grapes and cashews. How does that sound?”
“Delightful!” Tabby released Halston’s hands and used the edge of the desk to pull the chair forward. “I retrieved the mail earlier.”
“Auntie! You know I worry about you walking out to the mailbox.” Halston had begged Tabby not to make the trek to the mailbox, located down an incline at the end of the driveway. Going to the mailbox was fine, but Tabby huffed and puffed on the long walk back up to the house. Halston feared she’d one day go out and find her beloved, kooky aunt had perished halfway to the house with the mail clutched tightly in her hands.
“Pish posh, darling. I went there and back, and you didn’t even know I was gone. I shall continue to do so whether you like it or not.”
The statement was true, and it wouldn’t do Halston any good to argue with the woman. She sighed and picked up the stack of mail. A small box addressed to her rested on top of the pile.
Halston read the return address label and smiled. “I bet this is the mold I ordered.”
Tabby gave her an indulgent look as Halston used the silver letter opener to slice through the packing tape. “Another one, darling? How many do you have in your collection now?”
“This will make number twenty-three.”
Once Halston had decided gingerbread was her calling in life, she’d started collecting gingerbread molds. Her most prized mold was one she’d found at a flea market in Vermont. It was from the mid-1700s and featured a robed figure she liked to think was Saint Nicholas.
“Well, what does it look like, Bebe?”
Halston pulled away the bubble wrap and tissue paper to reveal a small circular mold with oak leaves and acorns. She planned to use it for a few fall classes she was scheduled to teach in early October.
“Isn’t it sweet, Aunt Tabby?” she held it out for her aunt to examine.
“It’s lovely, darling.” Tabby nodded with approval. “I believe there was another piece of mail for you.”
Halston sorted through the junk mail, tossing it into a box to be recycled, then handed her aunt the power bill. Although Halston had set up autopay for all the bills, Tabby still liked to keep track of every penny that was spent.
“The bill is down seventeen dollars and thirteen cents from last month,” Tabby commented, glancing over at Halston. “However, I imagine with the upcoming heat wave in the forecast we’ll use more power to keep the house cool.”
“Probably,” Halston said absently as she studied a thick envelope from one of the large resort properties in Las Vegas. Curious as to why they’d write to her, she slit open the envelope, pulled out a folded sheaf of papers, scanned the letter, and let out a whoop.
Startled by Halston’s reaction, Tabby reared back in the chair, almost upending it.
Halston grabbed the back of the chair to steady it, then kissed her aunt’s velvety cheek.
“What has happened, Bebe? I take it something both momentous and stupendous.”
“Yes to both, Auntie! Momentous and stupendous! I’ve been invited to present a life-sized gingerbread installation in Las Vegas for the holiday season. According to the letter, if I agree to the terms, they’ll expect me there no later than November first, and want me to stay through December fifteenth, after which time I will be free to return home. They’ll provide a suite with a kitchen for me to stay in, as well as meals at any restaurant on their property. They’ll pay for supplies and ingredients needed, and will have staff members on hand to assist in the set up. This is fantastic!”
Halston wanted to hop on the desk and do a victory dance. Instead, she settled for pacing back and forth beside it. She couldn’t believe this incredible opportunity had just fallen into her lap. A life-sized gingerbread village would take months of work and planning, but she readily welcomed the challenge. If she pulled it off, her reputation as a gingerbread expert, designer, and artist would be set for the foreseeable future.
“This is beyond amazing, Aunt Tabby. I need to start making plans right away and get this contract into the mail.” Halston stopped mid-stride at the stricken look on her aunt’s little face. “What is it, Auntie?”
“You’ll be gone for so long, and I’ll be all by myself for Thanksgiving.” Tabby’s chin quivered, like she was about to cry.
“No, Auntie, you won’t. I’ll call Gabe and Lydia. They’ll take turns checking on you, and one of them will invite you for Thanksgiving.” Halston sat on the edge of the desk and patted her aunt’s hand. Her distant cousins, offspring of Tabby’s oldest sister, would make sure Tabby was cared for while Halston was gone. “It will all be okay, just like it is every time I take a trip out of town.”
“But you’re usually only gone a week, maybe two at the most. This will be six weeks, Halston. Six whole weeks. Who’ll make sure the house is decorated and get our Christmas tree, and bake the treats we give to friends?”
“I’ll bake the treats ahead of time and put them in the freezer. I’ll make sure we have a live Christmas tree from Holly Crest Tree Farm, even if I have to bribe Jaylyn to have it delivered and set it up for you. If you’ll fork over a little of the money you’re hoarding, I’ll hire someone to decorate the house. I can even have them do it before I leave for Las Vegas.”
“Decorate for Christmas in October?” Tabby’s eyes widened, then she sat back in the chair and grinned. “Gabe will hate it, and Lydia will fuss and fuss about it. Let’s do it!”
Halston laughed and gave her aunt a hug, then sorted through the rest of the mail. An envelope addressed to her looked like it had gotten caught in the machinery at the post office. It was addressed to the apartment she’d been living in when her life had fallen apart, but the mail forward had expired years ago.
“How in the world do you suppose …” Her voice trailed off as she removed a card she’d seen five years ago. The background was blue, and on the front was a picture of a sad-faced basset hound with the words, “I’m sorry.”
Inside was a handwritten apology from the lunkheaded, clumsy, obtuse, ridiculous, infuriating cowboy who had ruined Halston’s life. One minute, she’d been on top of the world, and the next she’d been wallowing in … well, it was better not to think about that.
Halston’s fingers tightened on the card and envelope until it appeared she was trying to strangle them. “Where did this come from? I threw it away five years ago, Aunt Tabby.”
“Is that so? It must have fallen out of one of the books. Odd, isn’t it, how things get tucked into books,” Tabby said cryptically, then got up and scuttled out of the room.
Her aunt scuttled, scampered, and scurried when she’d done something she shouldn’t have or wanted to avoid answering questions.
Halston picked up the letter from the resort, and her gingerbread mold, and returned to the kitchen. She dug in the back of a cabinet for an old cast iron skillet, took it outside and set it on the grill, then burned the card and the envelope before her aunt could rescue them a second time.
If eternity passed by before she thought of Kutter Hayes again, it would be far too soon.
That evening, as she and her aunt sat on the patio, enjoying cool chicken salads with warm croissants, they watched a doe and fawn at the edge of the trees. They’d been coming around all summer, and Halston had named them Clarice and Rudy. Although her aunt discouraged making pets out of them, Halston dearly wanted to.
Despite Tabby’s protests, she’d tamed the cottontail rabbit that had taken up residence on the property. She’d named him Lucky although Tabby tended to call him Shoo. As in “shoo, get out of here.” Halston gladly fed the rabbit leaves of lettuce from their garden, along with carrots and anything else she thought he might enjoy.
If she didn’t think it would present a tripping hazard for her aunt, she would have loved to bring home a puppy, but Tabby wouldn’t even entertain the idea of a cat.
“Pets might be fine for some people, but I am not some people, darling,” her aunt said every time Halston broached the subject.
Halston thought a cat would keep her aunt company when she couldn’t be there, but she’d talked until she’d given herself a headache, on more than one occasion, trying to convince Tabby of that fact.
“Did you call Gabe and Lydia?” Tabby inquired, drawing Halston’s thoughts back to the moment and the pleasant evening on the patio.
Halston swallowed the bite in her mouth, dabbed her lips on a napkin, and nodded her head. “I did, Aunt Tabs. Lydia said they would love to have you join them for Thanksgiving. Gabe promised he’ll stop by on Tuesdays and Saturdays to check in with you. Lydia said she’ll drop in on Thursdays and Sundays. She invited you to join her family for church, if you’d like.”
“I’d prefer you take me to our church, but I suppose for six dreadful weeks, I can make do.”
Halston hid a smile behind her glass of lemonade as she took a drink. “I know it will be a sacrifice for you, Auntie, but it might be nice for you to visit a different congregation. Shake things up.”
Tabby gave her a long, disdainful look that somehow made it seem as though she was looking down her nose at her although Halston was a good eight inches taller. “You shake things up plenty for both of us, Bebe.”
Halston crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue, making her aunt laugh, as she’d known she would. “If you stop being a grumpy old bat, you can help me figure out what the buildings should look like in the gingerbread village I’m going to create in Las Vegas.”
“You should have a baker’s shop, and inside they could be making gingerbread.”
Halston smiled. “That’s a brilliant idea, Auntie.” She pulled her phone from the pocket of her shorts and began tapping in notes. “What else should I include?”
Hours later, after Tabby was tucked in for the night and Halston had settled against the pillows propped against the headboard of a century-old maple bed, she held a sketchpad on her knees, letting her thoughts tumble over her opportunities in Las Vegas. She worried about Tabby being alone while she was gone. Halston also pondered what purpose her aunt thought it might serve in unearthing the apology note she’d received from a dimwitted buffoon named Kutter Hayes five years ago.
One moment, Halston had been walking along at a county fair with her friends, and the next, she’d been face-down in an oozing puddle that smelled like a barnyard. Kutter had bumped into her, she’d taken a fall, and to add insult to injury, a llama had spit in her face.
In spite of the trauma of the experience, as she dripped mud and manure from head to toe, she recalled Kutter had been quite handsome, with a square jaw, wide smile, warm blue eyes, and a hint of brown hair peeking out from the brim of his straw cowboy hat.
He’d helped her to her feet, uttering apologies that seemed sincere, while Halston had worked to regain her balance. In what had seemed like a blink, things had gone from unimaginably bad to worse.
The pencil Halston held in her fingers snapped in two.
With a sigh, she set it and the sketchpad on the bedside table, turned out the light, and scooted down between the luxurious sheets.
As a vision of Kutter infiltrated her thoughts, she renewed her determination to never think of that cowboy again.
She had far more important things to focus on, like designing a life-sized gingerbread village that could endure two months of thousands of rowdy visitors walking in and around it.