Life in Little Leyton is never quiet, and when handsome developer Max and his bride-to-be Ellie, receive some sad news, he decides to whisk her away for a romantic break. The time away gives Ellie a new perspective, and she’s eager to get home to get on with planning their wedding.
But a devastating incident at the pub she runs, The Dog & Duck, puts everything in jeopardy. And, at their home Braithwaite Manor, tensions are heightened when Ellie’s future mother-in-law turns up with all her worldly belongings, much to Max’s sister Katy’s despair.
With Max preoccupied with problems at work, Ellie’s left literally holding the baby, while dealing with a seemingly endless list of dramas. And as Christmas approaches, Ellie begins to wonder if she’ll ever get her happily ever after…
Later that day, back at the manor, I found Max, Arthur and Katy sitting around the kitchen table, the doors of the conservatory wide open onto the stone paved patio that offered views of the sweeping lawns, running into the distance as far as the eye could see. The days were still warm and bright, but the faintest of breezes provided a cool autumnal edge, and the geraniums and blowsy petunias in the profusion of wood and stone planters were beginning to look a little straggly now.
After dinner, I would go round and deadhead the plants, which was my one small contribution to the upkeep of the extensive grounds. I found it reassuringly therapeutic, giving me a chance to snatch some alone time and to reflect on the events of the day. Luckily, Max had a small team of gardeners who helped him out around Braithwaite Manor, and it was their hard work that kept the gardens looking so plentiful. Of course, Max was head gardener and liked to get outside as much as his busy schedule would allow. He was never happier than when sitting upon his ride-on mower, his canvas hat perched on his head at a jaunty angle, whizzing across the lawns. Arthur was a keen gardener too, and was always ready with advice, even when it wasn’t needed. He’d had an allotment for years, growing an assortment of fruit and vegetables, until a spate of ill health had meant he’d no longer been able to manage. When he’d fallen ill, Arthur had come to us to recuperate, and the arrangement had worked so well that he’d never returned home. Braithwaite Manor was his home now, and he was part of our family. He’d also taken on the role of Chief Adviser for Vegetable and Fruit Production.
Max’s little sister, Katy, on the other hand, had no interest in gardening or the great outdoors, come to that. Spending the majority of her childhood growing up in Spain, she’d always told me how much she’d hated the heat, just one of the many reasons why she’d been desperate to come back to the UK to live. There’d been a big bust up with her mum, Rose, and her stepdad, Alan, and Katy had left under a cloud, coming to live with us for a while. Max had agreed to let Katy stay, and she was now happily settled in Little Leyton, attending college in town, working shifts at The Dog and Duck, back in touch with her biological father and in a steady relationship with her boyfriend, Ryan.
I pulled out a chair and sat down at the table to join them. Along with the four dogs, currently mooching beneath the table, this was our little melded family.
‘So, how did it go?’ Max placed a very welcome cup of tea in front of me. ‘What did they think to the news?’
‘What news?’ asked Katy, sitting up to attention, her curiosity immediately piqued.
‘Well… we were waiting to tell Veronica and Malc before making it common knowledge, but Ellie and I have set a date for the wedding. It’ll be on 20th December this year.’
‘Really!’ Katy jumped up from her seat, squealing. The dogs, alerted by her excitement, jumped up too, their tails wagging excitedly, and Flora darted between all our legs making us giggle with her antics.
‘Ah, that’s marvellous news,’ said Arthur, standing up to shake Max’s hand and giving me a hug. ‘If you’re half as happy as me and my Marge were, then you’ll have some magic years ahead. It’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? A happy family life.’
I squeezed Arthur even tighter and rested my head on his chest. I remembered Marge well. She was a kind hearted woman who welcomed all the village children into her home and in the summer months was happy for us to run wild around her playground of a garden. There would be home made cakes and biscuits, and fresh lemonade, and I would always come away with a bag of apples, or pears, a batch of scones or anything else that Marge might have whipped up that day. They never missed a birthday or Christmas, always sending a card and a small present. When Marge died, Arthur put on a brave front and carried on as best he could, but it was plain to see for anyone who knew him that he was struggling without the woman he loved at his side. That was the start of the deterioration in his health, I realised now. He hadn’t looked after himself properly, not eating or drinking, and had slowly declined to a point where he couldn’t manage on his own. Max and I were both so pleased and relieved when we were able to persuade him to come and live with us.
‘It is very exciting, but if you could both keep it under your hats for another few days. I haven’t mentioned it to the girls yet. I’ve invited Polly, Josie and Sasha round on Friday night for drinks and nibbles. I’ll tell them the news then, and ask if they’ll be my bridesmaids. I can’t wait to see their faces.’
‘Your secret is safe with me,’ said Arthur, tapping his nose. Katy glanced across at me, nodding her agreement before standing up and wandering over to Noel’s rocker, lifting him out.
‘Once we get back from our holidays it will be full steam ahead with the arrangements. When you think about it, it’s not that far away.’
‘When is it you’re going?’ asked Katy.
‘In a couple of weeks. It’s come round so quickly, and I’m already feeling nervous about leaving Noel behind, but Max seems to think it’s for the best.’ I cast him a questioning glance, hoping he might have had a change of heart on that front.
‘Look, Ellie, it’s up to you. I really don’t mind. And if you’re not going to be happy leaving him behind, then, of course, we must take him with us, but you need a break, and I think you’ll get more of a rest if it’s just the two of us. We’ll be able to completely relax, go for some nice long walks, have some lovely meals, get some good nights’ sleep, with proper lie-ins, and come back completely refreshed. Your mum and dad will be here to look after Noel and the dogs, so really there’s nothing to worry about.’
‘Good idea,’ said Arthur. ‘We’ll manage, won’t we, Katy?’
‘Yes, well, you certainly don’t need to worry about me! I don’t need looking after. In fact, I might go and stay with Ryan,’ she said airily, before handing Noel over to Max, and turning to waltz out of the kitchen, tension bristling off her shoulders.
‘Katy! I don’t think Max was suggesting you needed looking after for one moment.’
‘And you won’t be staying with Ryan, young lady. You’ll be staying here. To give Veronica and Malc a hand if they need it.’
Max’s tone was gruff, and I could see Katy’s hackles rise.
‘We were hoping you might help with looking after the dogs and with Noel,’ I offered. ‘You’re always so good with him when he’s cross and tired and doesn’t want to settle. It will make me feel so much better knowing you’re here with him.’
‘Really?’ She turned to me, her expression matching the sharpness of her tone. ‘So, you want me to help out when it suits you, but otherwise, you don’t want to know me.’
‘Katy! Don’t speak to Ellie like that! What’s got into you?’ Max’s brow furrowed, his puzzled expression mirroring my own confusion. Her face had lit up to hear our wedding news, but now it was as if she was having second thoughts about the whole idea. ‘Do you not want us to go on holiday – is that it?’
‘No, it’s not that at all!’ she said in frustration.
Max and I shared a glance and shrugged, none the wiser as to what had made Katy so angry.
‘Oh, come on, Katy,’ I tried to coax her. ‘I know you, and can tell when you’re upset. How can we do anything to put it right if you won’t tell us what it is?’
‘It’s you!’ she said, glaring at me, as though it were blindingly obvious. ‘You pretend that we’re best friends and everything, but it doesn’t mean a thing.’
I glanced across at Arthur, who was looking as perplexed as me.
‘That’s not true. Why would you even think that?’
‘Huh!’ She crossed her arms fiercely, her body held rigid.
If you’re looking for a little me time as Winter approaches, this is the perfect book to curl up with. I’ve already read other books in this series, but with sufficient backstory and character information provided, you can read this last book as a standalone.
This instalment of life at the Dog and Duck is full of family drama, and unexpected incidents and you meet familiar characters and new faces. The story portrays the dynamic flow of everyday life well, and this gives this lovely story an authentic edge.
It is pleasantly seasonal and rounds up the series perfectly.
Read this and enjoy and then put the other books in the series on your Christmas list.
I received a copy of this book from Aria Fiction via NetGalley in return for an honest review.
Jill lives with her husband, two children and an English Pointer named Amber in the Bedfordshire countryside. Her short stories have appeared in women’s magazines around the world as well as in charity anthologies. When she’s not writing, Jill loves spending time with family and friends, reading, films, musical theatre, walking, baking and eating cakes, and drinking wine.