A Christmas Wedding in the Cotswolds – Lucy Coleman (Digital Sample)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read on for an exclusive extract from A Christmas Wedding in the Cotswolds by Lucy Coleman

June

Prologue

My name is Immi Tolliman. When I was fourteen years old, I moved to Lock Keeper’s Cottage in Aysbury to live with my grandfather, Ernest Tolliman. Having recently lost my dad, I was one angry and rebellious teen. And Granddad, known affectionately to everyone – including me – as Tollie, was also grieving.

Losing his son made him miss Grandma Nell even more. As time went on, I realised how disruptive my presence had been and that he’d put up with me out of sheer love for his, then wayward, granddaughter.

Eventually, an easy peace began to grow between us and over the years that has turned into admiration and mutual respect. We saw each other through the tough times and that is a special bond we feel blessed to share.

The highlight of the year for the little community of Aysbury, located in the picturesque Cotswolds, is without doubt the Santa Ahoy Christmas cruises run in aid of local charities. And this year is a special one indeed.

It’s the tenth anniversary of something that has turned a group of friends into family, inspired by my granddad. Tollie is Aysbury’s very own Santa Claus. With myself as the chief elf and two helpers, Jade and Jude, my fiancé Gray Adams as the handsome captain, and a wider team beavering away in the background, the cruises kick-start everyone’s Christmas.

The community is spread out over a wide area, but there is a small group of locals who live within walking distance of the Aysbury Junction Marina. The nature of a marina is that many of the boats moored there long-term have owners who appear infrequently throughout the year, however there are also a handful of permanent berths. Together with the families who run The Bullrush Inn and the Lockside Nurseries, there’s always a helping hand on offer.

Tollie, who was the manager of the marina for twenty-five years, has a theory that Aysbury is a collection of waifs and strays, and he’s proud to count himself amongst them. People have ended up here in desperate need of something. More often than not, without having a clue about what exactly that elusive something might be.

Perhaps it’s a sense of community, the feeling of belonging somewhere, especially if that’s never been true before, either because they don’t have close family, or they’ve struggled to conform. People stay because they feel they can at last put down roots.

‘Round pegs, square holes,’ as Tollie often says. ‘That’s why we fit together so well and make a crackin’ team. We’re all in the same boat.’

We’ve learnt to respect the fact that one’s past is not what defines you; the secrets people choose not to divulge are a private matter but whenever a problem arises there is always someone willing to listen. And it’s the choices people make as each new day dawns that matter.

Shortly after last Christmas, Tollie moved into my former home, a barn conversion known as The Retreat, which is in the garden of Lock Keeper’s Cottage. Gray and I are making Tollie’s dream come true to see the old cottage brought up to date and turned into a home of our own, but things are not going quite as smoothly as I’d hoped…

1

No, No, No, No, NO!

Leaning forward until my forehead is resting on the desktop in front of me, I let out an exasperated groan. My phone is still firmly grasped in my hand but, having read the message twice over, I can’t even bring myself to respond.

Hi Immi, bad news I’m afraid. Mains water pipe has fractured. Give me an hour to get things under control and then could you pop in? Tollie has a spare room, right?

The message is from Reggie, the foreman in charge of the building works at the cottage, and he’s obviously preparing me for the worst.

‘Oops, so sorry. Um… are you feeling all right?’

The sound of an unfamiliar voice forces me to pull myself together quickly and I sit up, pushing back my shoulders in a determined way. Opening the drawer alongside me, I throw the phone inside and shut it with a snap.

‘Yes. I’m fine. How can I help?’ My smile as I turn is half-hearted, but it’s the best I can do. A water problem at Lock Keeper’s Cottage feels like the final straw today and it’s only 11 a.m.

The kindly looking older man standing in front of me stares back hesitantly, looking as if he doesn’t know whether to stay or go. He shifts from one foot to the other, uneasily.

‘I’m… um, here to see Martin, but I’m a bit early, I’m afraid.’

The poor man looks so apologetic that I jump up, wondering what on earth he must think of my behaviour.

‘Oh, of course! Patrick Hirst, isn’t it?’ I hold out my hand in a welcoming gesture. ‘I’m Imogen Tolliman, but everyone calls me Immi. Please take a seat. Martin is running a little late, I’m afraid. I’ll organise us a cup of tea, or coffee?’

It’s the first time I’ve met Martin’s business adviser, who, according to him, has taken a huge weight off his shoulders over the past year.

‘Very nice to meet you at last, Immi. Martin talks about you all the time. I really don’t want to put you out. It looks like you’ve had some bad news.’

‘A fractured water main isn’t the best text to get on a Monday morning, but I’m sure my builders will be able to sort it out.’ It’s not the fix I’m worried about, but the cost.

Patrick wrinkles his brow. ‘Oh, dear. Now I understand. I’d be banging my head on the desk, too. If you’re sure I’m not interrupting you, a cup of tea would be most welcome, thanks.’

I leave him to take a seat and head into the Lockside Nurseries’ small kitchen. It’s quiet in the back offices this morning as the delivery vans are doing their rounds, and everyone else is either on the shop floor or working in the greenhouses. When I head back to my office, the sign on the door still makes me smile. The decision to take on the newly created full-time position of Assistant Manager, in January of this year, was a big step for me. I don’t regret giving up my other part-time job, working as Office Administrator for the manager of Aysbury Marina. Everyone around here refers to him as Fisher as his surname is so apt. I’m closer to him than most – I regard him as family. But with another local resident, Valerie Price, now sitting at my old desk, I know that I’ve left him in good hands.

Nudging open the door with my foot, I step back inside my office, but Patrick isn’t seated, he’s studying the notice board.

‘You start planning for Christmas early,’ he remarks, pointing to the string of glittery white snowflakes.

‘Yes, my granddad, Tollie, runs the Santa Ahoy cruises. It’s the tenth anniversary this year and we’re trying to raise enough money to build a children’s playground.’

I pass Patrick a mug of tea, which he takes gratefully as he eases himself down onto the spare chair alongside the desk.

‘Ah, I’ve heard something about that. Christmas has never been a big thing for my wife and I, um… soon-to-be ex-wife, that is; we always dine out on Christmas Day. Being just the two of us, it was easier,’ he replies, rather soberly.

I don’t quite know how to respond, as Christmas was always a magical time for me growing up and now, in adulthood, I keep that tradition going. Christmas isn’t just for children, it’s about surrounding yourself with the people you want to spend time with and it’s sad to think of the fun that Patrick and his wife missed out on over the years.

He looks as if he’s carrying a huge weight on his shoulders and his brow seems to be permanently furrowed. He’s a troubled man and I can’t help wondering what his story is.

‘The tea is perfect, thank you, Immi. Do you live locally?’

‘Yes. My fiancé, Gray, and I are renovating Lock Keeper’s Cottage. It’s the property set back from the towpath on the other side of the canal. This morning’s news could be rather inconvenient, to say the least.’

Patrick places his mug down on the desk, shaking his head.

‘I’m really sorry to hear that. It’s a major work in progress, then?’

I manage a genuine smile this time. ‘Yes. Gray works in London and I don’t relish the thought of telling him that we might have to move out, or, rather, back into our former home for a while.’

‘You’re lucky to have that option.’

‘It’s a barn conversion built in the garden of the cottage, but Tollie lives there now.’

Patrick laughs. ‘Ooh, tough one. You do get on with your granddad, I hope?’

‘Oh, Tollie is the best. He took me in after my dad died and he put up with me through my tantrums and angst when I was the teenager from hell.’

‘That can’t have been easy for either of you. You don’t get on with your mum?’ Patrick enquires, his voice full of empathy.

‘I lost contact with her early on in my life, but that’s a long story. Now there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. It just took me a while to realise how lucky I am.’

‘You sound like a fighter, Immi, and I’m sure you’ll get through this.’ He tips his mug at me before taking a slurp. ‘You’re not the one getting married at Christmas, are you?’

‘I am.’

‘That’s brave, considering the snowstorms we had last year.’

‘Well, it was going to be a summer wedding,’ I reply, ‘but Gray composes music and he’s involved in recording a film score. It’s been all go, and what with the fundraising we’ve been doing, well, there aren’t enough hours in the day and we had to move the date.’

Poor man, he’s a good listener and I must sound like a real whinger, but stress is now affecting the way I react to every little drama that arises, which isn’t like me at all.

‘Hey, where’s that smile gone?’ Patrick asks, giving me a wink. His genial attempt to lift my mood works, and the corners of my mouth instantly curl upwards.

‘It’s kind of you to listen to me wittering on like this, Patrick. I must sound like a crazy woman,’ I reply, laughing.

‘There are moments when we all need to let stuff out, Immi, so don’t worry about it. It’s been happening to me a fair bit lately, too. It isn’t easy, but life goes on and somehow we manage to get through each little crisis.’

I catch a sudden movement out of the side of my eye, and the boss appears. Martin Williams is a good man to work for and he took me on as a Saturday helper at the tender age of sixteen. I had never touched a plant in my life at that point and he taught me everything I know. Understanding what happens out in the massive greenhouses really helps when you are the assistant manager, and now I run the office while Martin is out being the face of the company. He’s a real family man and has a kind heart, which is why I love working for him.

‘Oh, what I’d give for a cup of tea!’ Martin comments as he steps forward to shake Patrick’s hand. ‘Sincere apologies for keeping you waiting, Patrick. I got stuck in a long queue of cars crawling along behind a tractor.’

‘No problem at all. I was a bit early and it’s great to finally meet Immi. Especially after I’ve heard so much about her. I can now see why business is booming.’ Patrick glances at me, a hint of a smile easing his frown for a brief moment before his face settles back into serious mode.

‘Convincing Immi to work here full-time was the best move I ever made. She’s much more organised than I am when it comes to the paperwork, and things run without a hitch now. It’s because of her that I can get out there and make new contacts. Anyway, I suppose we’d better start crunching numbers then Patrick.’

He gives Martin a nod, then turns back to face me. ‘Thank you for the tea and the chat, Immi. Much appreciated. Hopefully, our paths will cross again before too long. With a bit of luck, the builders will get your problem sorted quickly.’

Martin screws up his face. ‘Oh, no. Not another delay!’ he declares.

‘Yep. Just another Monday morning blip to start off the week, and it sounds like Reggie is preparing me for the worst.’

‘Poor you,’ Martin replies sadly. ‘I’m here for the rest of the day, so if you need to make yourself scarce for a couple of hours, feel free, Immi. We’ll catch up later.’

‘Thanks, Martin, appreciated.’

As they head out of the office, I’m not sure what to do first. Jeez, I hope this week isn’t going to go downhill from here, as I’m not sure I have the stamina right now. Why do I always take on too much? You would think I’d have learnt my lesson by now.

My phone pings and it’s a message from my best friend, Sarah, at The Bullrush Inn.

Hi sweetie, any decisions yet on the final menu for the wedding buffet? xx

Sarah is right, of course, I do need to get my act together. Every time I sit down with the wedding folder something else crops up. I’m not usually so easily distracted, and the truth is that I need rescuing. Then an idea pops into my head. It’s time to reach out to someone capable of pulling this together for me, and I think I know just the person to ask.

* * *

‘Something must be up to see you on my doorstep at this time on a Monday. Come on in,’ Val says as she swings open the door to Byre Cottage.

It always smells nice in here. A mixture of freshly baked goodies and a fragrance. Often, it’s from the fresh flowers Val picks from the garden, but sometimes from the essential oils she uses in a small diffuser. Ziggy, Val’s beautiful Bengal cat, comes running out of the study and begins to wind herself around my feet. She has an entire conversation with me as I bend to stroke her, and I give her a miaow back. Ziggy begins purring and tilts her head to let me stroke her chin; she is such a character.

‘I’m sorry to disturb you as I know it’s almost lunchtime, so it’s just a quick visit, I promise.’

Val looks over my shoulder fleetingly, as if she’s expecting someone.

‘I’m… um… sure that Fisher would forgive me if I was running a little late because of you,’ she responds, laughing. ‘Anyway, the cheese and olive scones I’m baking have only just gone into the oven.’

‘They smell delicious and if you take him one, he’ll forgive you anything. Anyway… I wanted to talk to you about wedding stuff.’

Val shuts the door behind me and ushers me through to the sitting room.

‘Have you eaten?’ she asks. ‘Can you stay for a quick lunch?’

‘Thanks, but regrettably it has to be a no. I’m on my way back to Lock Keeper’s Cottage as the water main has fractured.’

Val’s reaction is one of dismay. ‘Oh, Immi, I’m gutted for you. Just when it looked like the worst of the building work was behind you, that’s devastating news. Is there anything I can do to help?’

Without thinking, I let out a huge sigh and she indicates for me to take a seat on the sofa.

‘This wedding is beginning to feel like the final straw!’ I blurt out and then realise how awful that sounds. Val looks at me, shocked, her expression pained. ‘Oh, nothing’s wrong, please don’t think that. Gray and I are both fine and it’s all wonderful, still. But who has time to fuss over flowers and menu choices and…?’ I run out of steam, taking a moment to catch my breath.

‘Just tell me what you want doing and I’ll do it. You know that, Immi.’ Val’s voice is full of concern.

‘I need an official wedding planner, someone who can make sense of what still needs to be done to make it all happen.’

She smiles sympathetically, gently lowering herself down onto the sofa opposite me. ‘You want me to find someone for you?’ she enquires, gently.

‘Um. Not exactly. I was wondering whether you have time to take on the role.’

‘You’d trust me to do that? But I’ve never been involved in planning a wedding before,’ she replies. However, I can tell by the gleam in her eyes that she’s pleased I’m reaching out to her.

‘I’m desperate, Val. Everyone assumes a bride knows exactly what she wants, but I find it overwhelming. I don’t want to disappoint Gray, but I have no idea what I’m doing. I need someone I can rely upon to draw up a master plan, or this wedding is going to be a total disaster.’

‘The answer is yes, of course!’ she replies, with real enthusiasm. ‘It will be my pleasure.’

‘The problem is that I don’t even know where to start, Val, as I’m being pulled in so many different directions and that isn’t going to ease up any time soon. You know me, I’m not one to let things slide and if I do it means I’m losing my grip. With Gray away during the week, the only quality time we get is at the weekend. And I’m taking on more and more at work to ease the pressure on Martin. Plus having to liaise with the builders and being chief organiser and treasurer for the Santa Ahoy anniversary fund, I’m like a headless chicken. We’re halfway through the year and, as far as the wedding plans go, I’ve booked Aysbury village hall for the civil ceremony and the reception, with The Bullrush Inn doing the catering. But we don’t even have a menu or a guest list yet, and Sarah texted me again this morning to give me a nudge.’

I sink back onto the sofa, feeling deflated and demoralised.

‘Don’t you worry about a thing, Immi. Give me whatever lists you have and, if we can take an hour one evening to sit down and talk through your vision, I’ll get things moving.’

My chin wavers a little as I give her a look full of gratitude and relief.

‘Hey, don’t get upset. There are other people we can pull in to help once we have an action plan. But you will need to be on hand to make some firm decisions quite quickly. I’m sorry the original plan for a summer wedding hasn’t been doable because of Gray’s workload. I know you were both disappointed about that.’

I sit forward, shrugging my shoulders. ‘This is his big break, and I wasn’t about to make life difficult for him.’ I sigh wearily. ‘I wanted a simple service in a cornfield alongside the canal, with a small group of friends, and a big party for everyone in a marquee afterwards. The village hall is nice, but it’s not quite the same, is it?’

Val chews her lip, deep in thought. ‘And Gray definitely doesn’t want to slip it back another six months to next summer? There’s so much going on and you’re carrying a lot on your shoulders, Immi.’

‘I know. But all we really want is a quiet little wedding, with close friends and neighbours. Gray feels guilty that I insisted on pushing back the date to take the pressure off him, but I’m totally in love with the idea of a Christmas wedding. After all, we did get engaged at Christmas and it is my favourite time of the year.’ That makes us both burst out laughing.

‘You did!’ Val says, grinning at me. ‘It wasn’t quite the romantic occasion you’d hoped for, though, was it?’

‘That’s precisely why I need your help. My perfect plans went awry, didn’t they? But,’ I hold up my ring finger, proudly displaying Grandma’s engagement ring, ‘we pulled it off. A wedding, though, is an entirely different thing and I’m floundering. I want it to be a memory Gray and I will cherish forever, but at this rate it’s going nowhere.’

‘Have you at least thought about a wedding dress?’

I stare back at her miserably and Val sucks in a deep breath, shaking her head. ‘Oh, Immi. We need to sort the basics as quickly as possible and then it’s a case of attending to the finer details. I’ll do some surfing online as there will be websites with lots of handy tips and checklists.’

‘That would be amazing, Val. I can’t thank you enough for coming to my rescue.’

‘I’m excited to be involved,’ she replies, sounding a little emotional. ‘I’ll give Rona a call, too, as we can’t leave out Gray’s mum. I think she’ll be thrilled to be a part of it. What if the three of us meet up one evening this week to start the ball rolling?’

‘Perfect, just let me know what works for you two and I’ll bring along the wedding folder. There isn’t a lot in there, I’m afraid, but the upside is that it won’t take long to bring you up to speed.’ I give her a sheepish look, but Val’s smile doesn’t waver.

‘Well, that will make things easier. Once I’ve spoken with Rona, I’ll text you. Right, off you go and don’t give it another thought. Just focus on whatever’s gone wrong today down at Lock Keeper’s Cottage.’

We stand and I give her a grateful hug.

‘Thank you for coming to my rescue. I know it sounds awful, as my wedding should be the main priority, but Tollie and the whole crew have worked so hard to make this tenth anniversary mean something. So many people are involved, and the money is coming in, but we have a long way to go with the fundraising if we’re to meet our target. I really need to focus on it as there is still so much to be done to make it all happen.’

‘I know, Immi, there’s no need to explain. Just know that everyone appreciates what you’re doing. Don’t forget to rely more heavily on other members of the committee, though. You’re shouldering way too much and there’s no shame in delegating.’

A meaningful look passes between us. Tollie is eighty-seven years young and he’s still spritely, but one thing life has taught both myself and Val is never to take anything for granted. We both know that’s why I want to make sure everything goes smoothly.

‘Well, you’re a real star and Gray will be relieved to hear help is on hand.’

‘It’s quiet when Gray isn’t around,’ she muses. ‘You must miss his constant tapping as a tune runs through his head, and the habit he has of humming when he’s thinking is so endearing.’

‘Oh, I do and it’s one of the things I love about him, his passion for music. However, it’s catching, and I often end up having the same little tune stuck inside my head, too. It can be very distracting at times. Anyway, I must go. I’m just about to break the news to Tollie that, unless there’s a quick fix for this latest problem, Gray and I could well be knocking on his door and hoping he’ll take pity on us.’

Val’s eyes widen. ‘Oh dear. It’s not the best start to your week.’

‘No, but it’s not all bad news this morning, is it? Thanks to you.’ The sense of relief I’m feeling is enough to lift my spirits and fortify me for what lies ahead.

***

We hope you enjoyed this extract. To read more, purchase the full novel here: https://amzn.to/3zS58ez