(advent) November 30 – a prologue

Molly Barrett hummed to herself as she kneaded bread dough. There were four more loaves already rising in bread pans lined up on the stove, and five loaves in the oven. That would be enough bread for sandwiches for at least six days, provided Drew didn’t snitch a loaf for the Station. Maybe I’d better make at least two extra, she thought wryly, giving the loaf before her a final pat before she put it in the last loaf pan to rise. Just to make sure.


Or stop making such good bread. That sleepy thought made her smile at the large CrossCat that ambled into the kitchen. Although I’m not sure you’re capable of baking anything bad, unless you’re angry. He blinked up at her and then jumped up onto one of the stools that she kept pulled up to the island. Are you planning on getting angry any time soon?


“I don’t usually plan on getting angry,” Molly said, stretching her back and reaching almost absently for the copper tea kettle that lived perpetually on the back burner of the stove. “Tea?”


Please. Schrodinger yawned. I just woke up from a nap, after all.


“I noticed.” Molly chuckled. “Are you planning on sleeping the weekend away?”


It’s an option.


“If you’re offering tea, I’d love a cup,” said a new voice, as a tall young woman with windblown brown hair breezed in to the kitchen. “Something hot and black, and sweet, if possible.”


Molly grinned at her sister-in-law. “Nathan told you I just got a tea order in, didn’t he?”


“Actually, I heard it from Aunt Margie,” Corrine Barrett admitted. “And since the local grocery doesn’t carry the Nutcracker Sweet tea anymore-”


“Because they’re heathens,” Molly interrupted, going into the pantry for another mug, and the tea Corrine liked. She came back out and set up the three mugs: Corrine’s Nutcracker Sweet, Schrodinger’s Earl Grey (hot, just like his idol from Star Trek), and her own personal favorite, the Christmas blend from Twinings. Then she poured hot water in, and while the tea steeped, she got out a tray of the day’s bakery offerings: cranberry-orange scones with butter and orange marmalade.


Corrine hung up her coat and sank down onto another stool. “It’s bone-chilling out there,” she said. “Almost like last year, when Old Man Winter was around. The wind has a nasty bite to it.” She cocked her head at them. “I hope you guys have warm coats if you’re walking home.”


We do, Schrodinger told her. And hats and scarves, too.


“Good. You’ll need them.”


“Unless Drew stops by and picks us up,” Molly said. “He just bought the Range Rover, after all.”


“True.” Corrine sipped her tea, and then sighed. “So, I have news.”


Molly and Schrodinger both looked at her – the tone in her voice suggested it wasn’t good news, and that was worrying, especially now, heading into the Christmas season. “What’s wrong?”


“It’s Lily.” Corrine sighed again. “She’s decided that she doesn’t believe in Santa Claus this year, and as such, doesn’t really want to do much for Christmas.”


Molly and Schrodinger stared at her, stunned. Christmas was a huge deal in the Barrett family, not even taking into consideration the recent history. It was THE holiday in Carter’s Cove, too. “What?” Molly finally said. “After everything that’s happened…after two years ago, how could she decide this? I mean, she MET him!”


“I know.” Corrine shook her head. “I think it’s her new friend, Zoey Allard. She’s a lovely little girl, but she’s not from a CrossRoads town originally, and I don’t think she’s really experienced the magic yet. She and Lily are inseparable, and I’ll bet that’s where it’s coming from.”


“Well.” Molly picked up her tea and drank thoughtfully, processing this. She knew there were new people in town, but she hadn’t actually met the Allards yet. Peter Allard had taken over the Carter’s Cove Pharmacy when Mr. Irons had finally retired, bringing his family from somewhere south of here – Pennsylvania, she thought possibly. Not a CrossRoads town, although he had been born and raised in Portsmouth, which housed its own Gate. Then again, she’d heard that the bigger towns that housed Gate Stations, like Portsmouth and Boston, weren’t quite the same as Carter’s Cove.


Of course, nothing was the same as Carter’s Cove. She quite like the uniqueness of her little town on the Maine coast. “Well, we’ll have to see about that,” she said now, bringing herself back to the present. She set her tea mug down. “Because that won’t do.” Molly looked over at Corrine. “I don’t suppose Miss Lily’s rejection of Christmas included not making a list of what she’d like to see under the tree, did it?”


“And forgo the chance to get presents? Not likely!” Corrine handed Molly a list. “Here you go. Nathan and I have the dollhouse covered, so don’t get that. But everything else is fair game.” She grinned. “Just check with your mother first. You know she started shopping early.”


“In January, probably,” Molly said, scanning the list. Mrs. Barrett took her grandma duties very seriously, especially since Lily was her only human grandchild. The honest fact was that Schrodinger and Jack were just as spoiled as Lily was, by both elder Barretts. “I’ll talk to Mom and Aunt Margie about this before I buy anything.”


Corrine drained her tea and got to her feet with a sigh. “I’d better get back. I left Nathan unattended, and that’s never a good thing.”


“Good lord, you’re brave,” Molly said, grinning. “I know my brother – who knows what trouble he could get into.”


Corrine laughed. “He’s watching TV with Lily. I figured I was safe.” She looked down at the tray of goodies, and Molly obligingly packaged up some of the scones. “Order me some tea when you next order?”


“Or you can take some now,” Molly said, going into the pantry and pulling out one of the boxes. “Since I ordered extra.”


“You’re a goddess.” Corrine hugged her, then pulled on her jacket. She paused at the door. “Do you really think you can help Lily and Zoey?”


“Let me think on it,” Molly told her. “I think we can change their minds. And have some fun doing it.”


Once Corrine was gone, she turned to Schrodinger, who had been very quiet throughout the conversation. He was staring down at his full teacup. Molly went over and gathered him into her arms. “What’s wrong, Schrodinger?”


He leaned against her. How can she not believe in Santa? His thought was quietly anguished. After everything she’s seen. After all the magic. How can she not believe?


“I think she’s just a little confused,” Molly said, snuggling him close and resting her cheek on his soft mottled fur. The CrossCat was the size of an ocelot, with the same spotted fur, but that was where the similarities ended. After all, how many ocelots were telepathic, and could walk the Roads like he could? “You know the truth. So does she. But it’s something that kids go through, and Lily’s hitting it now. I think we just need to remind her about the magic of Santa and Christmas, and show Zoey what a CrossRoads town really is.”


I hope so. Schrodinger disentangled himself from her arms and went out to the tea room. Molly watched him go, her heart constricting. He hadn’t even touched his tea. Then she stood back up, pulled the finished loaves of bread from the oven, put the new loaves in, and cleaned up the island. Schrodinger’s cup of tea went into a mug that she could warm up later – no sense wasting the tea, after all.


All the while, her mind raced. Lily was seven this year, a prime age for the “I don’t believe in Santa!” phase to hit. Even here, in the Cove, most kids went through a version of it, although it usually only lasted until they came into contact with the gentleman himself at CrossWinds Books, since Aunt Margie made a point to invite him in every year. Lily would no doubt be the same. It was Zoey who sounded like she might need some additional convincing. Which might be a bit harder.


Harder, but not impossible. Especially not here.


Molly filled up a thermal carafe with hot water and went out into the tea room to make sure everyone was taken care of. Margie Barrett had revamped her two-story building when her niece had graduated from Johnson and Wales and come home. Now, the bottom floor housed a gleaming kitchen with a large attached pantry, the main checkout area for the store, several rows of shelves full of books, and a modest tea room with six tables for two, a wood stove tucked into one corner, and some overstuffed arm chairs around the edges. On any given day, there were all sorts of people in here: reading, doing homework, making music, writing or doing crafts. CrossWinds Books was more than just a bookstore, after all. It was one of the town’s cultural hubs, and Molly loved that about it. It was one of the joys of working there.


As it was Thanksgiving weekend, there weren’t a ton of customers in the tea room, but there were a few regulars. Mr. Dorr and Mrs. Dorr were sitting at one of the tables, she knitting something soft and lavender while he read to her. Nearby, Sam and Brad, two of the local high school students, were working on something that involved a lot of maps and mutterings. Knowing the two of them, Molly knew it was either a school project, their next roleplaying campaign, or a combination of the two. And in one corner, Lee-Roy Johnson, the Cove’s newest artist, was going over what looked to be a portfolio of elaborate art involved skulls and various children’s toys, his notebook open next to him.


Mrs. Dorr looked up and called her over. “Molly, dear, is that hot water?”

“It is.” Molly grinned as she refilled their teapot. Then she looked at the table, put her hand in her apron pocket, concentrated, and pulled several more chamomile and lemon tea bags out. Sometimes, being a kitchen witch was pretty handy.


As she looked at the blanket Mrs. Dorr was knitting, she said, “So they know it’s a girl this time, do they?”


“Not just one girl,” Mrs. Dorr replied, her smile proud. “Three!”


“Please tell Jeff and Lee-Ann congratulations from me!” Molly said. Mrs. Dorr’s son and daughter-in-law were famous for the fire kittens they raised – the magical creatures were very hard to breed, and triplets were almost unheard of. This was a momentous event indeed. “When are they due?”


“In February, of course,” Mr. Dorr said. “When it’s cold and wet.”


Mrs. Dorr smiled at her husband. “That’s a good thing, Steve. Do you remember how hot the last delivery room was?”


“Very true,” he agreed, reaching for a new teabag.


Mrs. Dorr set aside her knitting and laid a hand on Molly’s arm, gesturing slightly with her chin towards Schrodinger, who was lying in his bed next to the wood stove, his head on his paws, eyes staring off into the distance. “Is everything okay?”


“He’s having a crisis of faith,” Molly said, and told them about Lily and her new friend, and their lack of belief in Santa. “So now he’s worried about how this will play out.”


“Ah.” Mr. Dorr nodded. “And I assume you are taking steps to remedy the situation?”


Molly smiled. “Of course.”


“Good. Let us know if we can help in any way.” This was not a little thing – between the two of them, the Dorrs knew just about everyone in the entire area, not just the Cove.


“Thank you,” she said. Then she looked over their table again. “Is there anything else I can get you folks right now?”


“What sandwiches are you offering today?” Mr. Dorr asked. “The bread smells wonderful.”


The tea room had recently started offering sandwiches, as Molly had started experimenting with bread. The menu changed daily and was, like everything else she served, entirely up to what she felt like making. “Toasted cheddar and apple, cranberry chicken salad, or ham and cheese. The bread today is a multi-grain, multi-seed variety,” she said. “What would you like?”


They both ordered the cheddar and apple, and Molly nodded. She did a fast circuit of the tea room, topping off the other teapots, and taking another sandwich order from Lee, who asked if he could buy a loaf of bread as well. “It smells amazing,” he told her.


“I think I could do that,” Molly told him. “Would you like it sliced?”


“You are an angel,” Lee said. “An absolute angel, to keep me from being a starving artist.”


She laughed and went back into the kitchen, where she assembled the sandwiches and heated the grill pan. Aunt Margie had offered to get her a panini grill for the store, but Molly had shook her head. “The cast iron is way better, and we don’t do enough in the way of customers to warrant it,” she’d said, and it was true. Sometimes, having a limit of how many people could be in her cafe was nice.


The cast iron pan covered two of the burners on her industrial stove, and it took four sandwiches. Looking up at the clock, she added an extra ham and cheese sandwich to the pan, knowing Drew would be along soon enough. Then she sliced up a loaf for Lee and wrapped it up in plastic wrap, and slid it into a bag.


As the sandwiches cooked, she checked the other loaves to see how cool they were. Not quite cool enough to put away yet. But soon. She delivered the sandwiches and sliced bread, then came back into the kitchen and put the last sandwich on a plate.


Just then, she heard the front door open and grinned.


“How did you know?” Drew McIntyre demanded, coming into the kitchen and shedding his coat. “I’m starving.”


Molly grinned and offered the plate. “I’m a kitchen witch, remember? And I looked at the schedule this morning when we were at the Station.”


“Ah-hah!” He came around the island and claimed the sandwich, but only after he stole a kiss. Not that Molly resisted all that much, truth be told. She loved his kisses.


“Tea?” she said, when they came up for air. At his nod, she went and got his mug. “Caffeinated or no?”


“No,” he said. “I don’t have to go back until tomorrow.”


Dropping a tea ball full of peppermint tea into the mug, Molly brought it out and filled it up with hot water, then added more water to the copper kettle. “Good thing I put the crock pot on, then,” she teased. “Otherwise, you’d go hungry.”


“Dating you? Starvation is the least of my worries.”


Molly laughed. “How’s things at the Station?”


“Busy.” Drew shrugged. “It’s Christmas in the Cove. What else would it be?”


The mention of Christmas dampened her spirits a bit, and she glanced out the door at Schrodinger, who hadn’t even gotten up to join them. Drew followed her gaze.


“What’s up?” he asked. “Everything okay with Schrodinger?”


Molly told him what had happened, and as he ate, Drew pondered. “You know it’s a phase, right?” he said finally.


“Yes, but I don’t think Schrodinger believes me,” Molly said, pulling out the saran wrap and starting to package up the bread.


“So what are you thinking?”


She smiled at him and said, “I think that there are certain people that owe us a few favors, and I think that it’s time to call them in.”


“I love it when you plot.” Drew picked up his cup of tea. “What do you need me to do?”




What could Molly be planning??? Tune in tomorrow and find out!

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