In true rom-com form, The Twelve Dates of Christmas is a fun, funny and delightful journey. It allows us to experience the highs and lows of the holiday season. And, if you're as much a fan of the BEST Christmas song ever, "Christmas Wrapping" by The Waitresses, then you'll understand the difficulties of dating as well as the rewards. As the song goes, "That Christmas magic's brought this tale to a very happy ending."
When it comes to relationships, thirty-four-year-old Kate Turner is ready to say "Bah, humbug." The sleepy town of Blexford, England, isn't exactly brimming with prospects, and anyway, Kate's found fulfillment in her career as a designer, and in her delicious side job baking for her old friend Matt's neighborhood café. But then her best friend signs her up for a dating agency that promises to help singles find love before the holidays. Twenty-three days until Christmas. Twelve dates with twelve different men. The odds must finally be in her favor . . . right?
Yet with each new date more disastrous than the one before--and the whole town keeping tabs on her misadventures--Kate must remind herself that sometimes love, like mistletoe, shows up where it's least expected. And maybe, just maybe, it's been right under her nose all along. . . .
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The First Date of Christmas
Kate Turner stepped gingerly on the crisp ice-dusted leaves and tried not to slip and land on her backside. She couldn't see where she trod because of the large plastic containers in her arms. The sky was so blue it looked like a scene from a children's picture book, and her breath plumed out in white clouds and rose up toward the pale winter sun.
She leaned against the door of the Pear Tree CafŽ and it yielded. A friendly tinkle of bells above her head heralded her arrival. The cafŽ was full and warm and noisy. The smell of fresh coffee was rich in the air. Condensation dribbled down the windows and clouded the view of the frosted world outside.
A few people raised their heads from their cappuccinos and waved. Matt turned from the steaming black and silver coffee machine and grinned at her.
"Thank God, he said, banging hot coffee grounds out of the portafilter and filling it back up with freshly ground coffee. "We ran out of caramel brownies this morning, I thought there was going to be a riot."
Matt's hair was permanently unkempt and right now was standing on end like one of those trendy hair styling adverts; he had a habit of running his hands through it when he was stressed, which only made it worse. Some might call his unruly mop ginger, but he insisted it was strawberry blond.
A voice from across the cafŽ called out:
"Did I hear someone say brownies?"
Matt cleared a space on the counter, and Kate put the boxes down with some relief. She could feel her cheeks burning red in the heat, and she unwound her scarf. Her newly straightened hair was already beginning to kink.
"Over here," she called. "Hot off the press."
There was a scraping of chairs as regulars clambered over sleeping dogs and Christmas shopping to claim chunks of Kate's cakes.
"I've brought some more mince pies, orange and chocolate chunk shortbread, and rocky road as well," said Kate.
"You're a lifesaver," said Matt. "Carla, can you come over here and take these cake orders, please."
He picked up a check pad and handed it to the young waitress, who was instantly encircled by a small crowd of sugar-deprived customers. Matt took up his post back at the coffee machine, and Kate sidled around the counter to perch on a stool next to the coffee grinder.
"What can I get you?" he asked.
Matt poured two shots of espresso into a wide-brimmed cup and added steamed milk; a flick of his wrist as the liquid reached the top made a caramel leaf pattern in the latte. He placed the cup on the counter behind him for Carla to deliver and began the next order.
"Just a flat white, please," Kate said as she slipped out of her coat and laid it across the back of a battered old sofa.
"Wow," said Matt. "You look . . . lovely. Where are you off to?"
Kate brushed her hands self-consciously over the floral tea dress and pulled her cardigan closer around her.
"Is it too much?" she asked.
"Too much for what?"
"You know," said Kate conspiratorially. She leaned forward and whispered, "For the first date."
Recognition dawned on Matt's face.
"Oh yes," he said. "I'd forgotten about that. Yes, it is too much, go home and put on baggy jeans and a turtleneck jumper."
Kate poked her tongue out at him.
"Well, well, well," said Matt. "The twelve shags of Christmas, eh?" He grinned and looked at her expectantly.
"Will you stop saying that," she hissed. "You know perfectly well it's the Twelve Dates of Christmas."
"That's not what they're saying on Facebook," said Matt, shaking his head in mock disapproval.
"Well, then you'd better get some classier Facebook friends," said Kate.
The Twelve Dates of Christmas was the brainchild of the Lightning Strikes dating website: twelve dates, in twelve different locations in the weeks leading up to Christmas. It wasn't cheap, but the choice of date venues was varied, and the more Kate had read about them, the more she had to admit that it might actually be fun.
It wasn't something she would normally have bothered with. Kate was not the kind of woman who needed a man, but equally she thought she might quite like one. Her last long-term relationship had fizzled out some time ago, and it was mostly down to laziness that she hadn't dated much since.
She supposed she had the opportunity to meet people when she was in the city, but that would mean having to go out and socialize after work, and really she just wanted to come home and eat pie in front of the telly. And as for meeting someone new in Blexford, people generally moved here to start a family or retire. There was a distinct lack of eligible bachelors buying up property in the sleepy village.
It was Laura, Kate's best friend, who had pushed the idea of signing up. Laura was head custodian of Blexford Manor, and the Lightning Strikes team had rented out function rooms at the manor for some of their dates. Laura had been relentless.
"It's perfect!" she said. "You don't need to lift a finger. You pick the activities you'd like to do and they'll put you with someone who matches your profile."
"It's not really my thing," Kate had protested. "And it's a lot of money."
"But once you've signed up, all your drinks and food are included," said Laura. "Twelve dates! And you don't even have to go out looking for them."
Kate had to admit that her regime of pajamas, toast, and telly by seven thirty every night was not conducive to establishing a satisfying sex life. And as much as she wanted to meet someone, she was a bit too happy in her own company. Kate had become her own best date.
"You can't have it both ways," said Laura. "You can't whinge about wanting to meet someone and then look down your nose at dating websites. This is the modern way!"
"How would you know, Mrs. Married with Children?" said Kate.
"I read Cosmo," said Laura. "Cosmo doesn't lie."
"Isn't there a catalog groom service? Maybe I could just order one in," said Kate. "Or is that another bastion of sexual inequality we have yet to conquer?"
Laura pushed the laptop forcefully toward Kate.
"Would you do it?" asked Kate.
Laura threw her arms in the air in exasperation.
"Yes!" she said. "God forbid, if Ben died, this is exactly how I would find a new man." She paused. "Although Ben has decreed that should he die before me, I'm to have him stuffed and placed in the bedroom, pointing at the bed," she went on. "He says any man who can still perform under those circumstances will be truly worthy of me."
Laura smiled dreamily. Kate shuddered.
"I'll have a think and get back to you on it," said Kate.
"The time is now," said Laura. "I have real concerns that if you don't change your ways, you'll slip into a cheese-and-crackers coma and I'll find you collapsed, with your face wedged in the pickle jar."
And that was how Kate found herself signed up, paid up, and now dressed up for the first of her Twelve Dates of Christmas.
"So is it a blind date?" asked Matt.
"Not exactly," said Kate, as she flicked through her phone. "They put us together with people whose profiles match our own and then they send us a photo so we know who we're looking for."
"So no need to wear a pink carnation in your lapel, then?" said Matt.
Kate screwed her face up at him.
"His name is Richard. He's something to do with hedge funds, though I never know what that actually means," said Kate. "He's a divorced, devoted father of two."
"How do you know he's devoted?" asked Matt.
"Because he said so in his profile," said Kate.
"Oh, well then it must be true," said Matt. "Come on then, show us a photo of Wonderman."
Kate flipped her phone around and showed Matt a picture of a smiling dark-haired man. He was clean-shaven and broad-shouldered and covered in mud as he stood in full rugby regalia, with a rugby ball under one arm.
"He looks like a murderer," he said.
"He does not."
"I bet he's got cauliflower ear," he said, squinting at the picture.
"Well, I don't care about that stuff," said Kate. "I just want to meet someone nice. Who's not a maniac. And who doesn't turn out to be a money launderer and/or a drug dealer."
"Your track record is terrible," said Matt.
"I prefer to think of it as atypically galvanizing," said Kate.
"That's just a fancy way of saying freakish and terror-inducing," Matt pointed out.
"It's been more interesting than yours."
"You didn't meet my wife," said Matt.
Kate laughed. Barely anyone than other than Evelyn had met Matt's ex-wife. His short-lived marriage was the stuff of Blexford legend: whispered stories abounded about his mysterious bride, everything from cult member to jewel thief to-somewhat unkindly-buried beneath the patio.
Kate was in the happy position of having two best friends: Laura had been a stalwart, a constant in Kate's life that neither distance nor brimful calendars could hamper. Her friendship with Matt had evolved rather differently; he had been her childhood best friend, her bte noire, and then her best friend again. There was a time when Kate had vowed she'd never step foot in the cafŽ, let alone be baking for it.
"I've got to go," said Kate. "I'm meeting Richard on the bench on the green and we're walking up to the manor together."
Kate hopped down off the stool and slipped her coat back on, wrapping her scarf twice around her neck. She called her good-byes to the Pear Tree regulars, who waved back, their mouths full of cake.
"Have fun!" called Matt above the noise. He began to sing loudly: "On the first date of Shagmas . . ." Kate turned back and poked her tongue out at him.
"Hey!" he shouted, as she pulled the door open and let in a waft of spiky cold air.
Kate looked back, her eyes narrowed as she waited for another sarcastic comment.
"Catch," he called, and threw over one of the tartan blankets they kept for weather-hardened customers who liked to sit outside. "That bench will be freezing."
"Thanks," said Kate; she caught the blanket and stepped out into the cold.
"I don't want you getting piles!" Matt shouted after her. Kate shook her head, smiling, and walked across the white-tipped grass to the bench.
The green was a small patch of land in the middle of Blexford Village, around which sat the cafŽ, the DukeÕs Head pub, and a small but princely stocked corner shop run by the ever-busy Evelyn, all surrounded by trees and cottages.
Kate stretched the blanket out. She laid one half on the bench and the other across her lap and waited. A large fir tree liberally strewn with fairy lights stood proudly in the center of the green, and several smaller sets of lights hung from brackets above shop windows. Even the trees that were mere skeletons of their summer selves were dripping in lights.
A bright red Santa hat had been placed atop the wooden sign that pointed in the direction of Blexford Manor, and it was in that direction that a steady stream of cars and cabs now headed. Kate guessed they were going to the first of the Twelve Dates; Blexford didn't usually get much through traffic. A couple of Range Rovers struggled with the narrow road, and more than one car pulled over near the corner shop to check their satnavs.
Kate felt glad she'd come back here to live. At first she'd missed city life, but now she felt she had the best of both worlds. She worked on her fabric designs at her kitchen table, looking out onto the long garden and the vegetable patch beyond. And when they were ready for printing she took the train up to her London office and soaked in the bustle of the city.
It hadn't been an easy decision to pull up stakes and move back to Blexford, but when her mother ran off to Spain with Gerry, the estate agent who was supposed to be helping her parents downsize for their retirement, her father, Mac, was distraught.
It was a shock to everyone; one minute they were looking at cozy cottages and the next her mum had dropped everything and disappeared off to Spain.
For some reason Kate had assumed her mum would calm down as she got older, learn to appreciate the gem she had in Mac. But age hampered neither her mother's ambition nor her libido.
It was Matt who'd called Kate to alert her to Mac's deteriorating mental health. He'd popped round to the house and found Mac slumped across the table, drunk, an empty bottle of whiskey next to him.
That phone call was the first time she and Matt had spoken in nearly ten years. They'd had a monumental bust-up at university and severed all contact thereafter. Her father's illness forced a tenuous contact, whereby they communicated over text and occasional phone calls to discuss her dad's progress. But these were cold, overly polite exchanges.
During those first few months Matt kept an eye on Mac during the week and Kate came down on the weekends. It was easy enough to avoid each other. But it soon became clear that Mac's pain ran deeper than melancholy. Eventually Kate felt she needed to be with him more than just Friday night to Sunday. That was four years ago.
Luckily her colleagues at Liberty were very understanding; she could Skype for meetings and email photographs of mood boards and new designs straight to the office.
Laura had been delighted to have Kate back in Blexford, especially since she had just discovered she was pregnant with Mina.
It had always been Laura's intention to move back to Blexford after university. Laura had been in love with Blexford Manor since she was a child. She was a history nut. She'd gotten a part-time job there as soon as she was old enough, and the lord and lady of the manor had all but promised her a job after university.
Neither Kate nor Matt, on the other hand, had ever intended to move back to the sleepy village of their childhood. But life has a way of tipping the seemingly unimaginable on its head.
A robin flew down and perched on the armrest of the bench. It looked at her expectantly with onyx eyes, its head moving jerkily as though powered by clockwork.