A Winter Wedding at Mistletoe Gate Farm by Helen J Rolfe

Chapter Two




Mistletoe Gate Farm had been in the Doyle family since it was established in 1951 by Benjamin’s grandparents. And every December, business boomed.

This year was no different. Benjamin woke to the sound of a chainsaw cutting down another tree beyond his bedroom window at the front of the family’s stone-built house. The property was surrounded by a generous fifteen acres of land, most of which was filled with Norway spruce, Nordmann fir and Fraser fir trees. The land was accessed via a long driveway just wide enough for cars to pass either side provided they were going slowly, or via a pedestrian path marked out by the mistletoe gate that gave the farm its name. Not far from the house was a hexagonal shed, each of its Georgian-styled windows outlined with twinkly lights and sprigs of mistletoe now it was into December, and from there they sold fairy lights, decorations, pre-cut mistletoe, ready-made wreaths and rings of greenery that customers could buy and decorate themselves, as well as hot chocolates with marshmallows.

From his window Benjamin could just about see the field allocated as a parking area and cars were already arriving, people eager even at this early hour. He pulled on cargo trousers, a long-sleeved top and a thick fleece. He’d got used to living at home again after splitting up with his girlfriend, although living with your parents when you were in your early thirties, especially having moved out once, definitely felt like a step backwards. But it had its perks – the house was big enough that he had one side of it to himself, he was saving a heap of money with his parents refusing to accept much for board and lodgings, and it was so close to the village high street and therefore the pub that it took him less than twenty minutes to walk to work.

Benjamin had a long shift at The Copper Plough today. Thankfully he was in charge of a hardworking, efficient team of staff and so they’d manage to do the prep without him, meaning that by the time he got to the pub they’d already be organised and raring to go with the lunchtime rush. This morning he’d be starting his day helping out at the farm – there’d be work out in the fields to ensure the trees were at their best, there was helping customers locate their preferred variety within the height range they required, and with some customers preferring to take their own tree home rather than have it delivered, he’d help net trees and fix them onto car roofs in the generous parking area at Mistletoe Gate Farm.

Benjamin found a pair of thick socks and ran a hand through his hair – so much easier now it was short and without tangles. He’d begun to get the odd grey already but he’d always known it inevitable since his dad, Danny, was fully grey by the time he turned forty. He put the pillows on his bed back in position and tugged the end of the duvet so it was straight. He’d dreamt of Tilly last night, of her amber eyes as she smiled or laughed, the way her hair curled up at the ends as though she’d purposely made it go that way, although he suspected she hadn’t. He couldn’t imagine her spending much time in front of a mirror, not that she didn’t look good. Quite the opposite – she was pretty, and the warmth she had around people drew him to her as much as anything else. They’d been getting closer for a while but he hadn’t wanted to rush into anything new when he and Zoe had gone through an unpleasant breakup less than a year ago. And now, he and Tilly seemed to be solid friends and he’d hate to mess that up by moving too fast.

Benjamin headed downstairs. As tradition dictated, garlands already wound their way along banisters and newel posts on the staircase, there was already a sprig of mistletoe above the doorway going into the sitting room, one above the dining-room entrance, one as he went into the kitchen that was so big it actually served as kitchen, dining area and a place to relax on one of the two sofas or the leather armchair. It was an unusual set-up for a period farmhouse but this was his favourite room, a room that had always brought the family together. It held plenty of childhood memories, too – Christmases with his parents and his sister Charlotte, stockings hung above the fireplace in here rather than the one in the sitting room, their tree filling the space in the corner.

He noticed another sprig of mistletoe had been put up at the doors that led out onto the veranda. His mum had always liked to put mistletoe everywhere and when they were kids Benjamin and his sister had frequently caught their parents kissing beneath it whenever they could like a couple of newlyweds. Benjamin hadn’t seen them do that in a long time, though – certainly not this year. And no such luck for him. The only girl he wanted to kiss was Tilly and she wasn’t even in Heritage Cove right now.

‘Good morning.’ His mum, Heather, was in the kitchen at the table eating a bowl of steaming-hot porridge. She’d done the same thing for as long as he could remember, always in the azure bowl from the Denby collection kept in the sideboard that housed the overspill from the kitchen. On top of the porridge, as usual, were slices of banana and a drizzle of honey the same colour as her bobbed hair with its long fringe that she hooked behind her ears. Her friends had often joked she couldn’t possibly be a farmer’s wife as she was far too glamorous despite her getting stuck in with all the jobs around the place that Danny and Benjamin did: planting seedlings and saplings and continuing their care, weeding, mowing – although she left the ride-on to Danny or Benjamin – cutting back brambles and mistletoe from along the track, shaping trees that didn’t attain the beautiful festive shape all by themselves.

Benjamin took a mug from the sideboard and set it beneath the spout on the coffee machine as his mum carried on reading the newspaper. Although it was usual for her to be quiet first thing in the morning, she seemed even more so lately. He pressed the pre-programmed button for his choice of coffee and waited for the grinding, the water, the creamy milk froth on top to finish before taking it over to the double doors that looked out over the veranda. From here he could see the fields stretching out beyond, the rows upon rows of fir trees standing to attention. In all the years he’d been alive he’d never grown tired of this view; it was spectacular.

The timber veranda that stretched along the back of the house and around the side provided shelter and character to the property and had little on it in the winter apart from a porch swing facing out to the fields and a side table. Even when it was freezing, he’d often sit out there bundled up in his jacket and let the cold blast his cheeks while he enjoyed a coffee, his fingers kept warm by holding the cup. He’d listen to the sounds of the farm going on around him – his dad calling out to someone about which trees were ready to be cut down, frustration from him when the netting machine played up again, his mum gathering up pieces of greenery, plucking berries and bringing a filled basket back to the house ready to seat herself at the big oak dining table and put together the festive wreaths they sold at the farm – but today he knew that if he sat on that porch swing he wouldn’t want to get up again. Christmas was a busy time here and at the pub and already he was looking forward to easing up a bit come the new year.

Once Benjamin had finished his coffee he turned to his mum. ‘I’m making poached eggs. Interested?’

‘Porridge will be enough for me, thank you.’ She smiled at him. ‘You’ll find spinach in the fridge if you’d like it…in the bottom drawer.’

He found the spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes too, and cooked himself a breakfast that would help his body prepare for the manual labour ahead.

When the family had bought the farm all those years ago it wasn’t actually a farm at all, it was land with a wooden gate that had a bit of mistletoe next to it. Benjamin’s grandparents had known all along that, once married, they wanted to raise a family right here in the Cove on this parcel of land, and that they wanted to start their own business selling Christmas trees. Benjamin’s grandad had already been growing a dozen trees every year as it was, cultivating them in his very small garden near a major city in England before selling them to friends, and so the idea was born. He’d continued to work in his job as a junior accountant and at the same time, thanks to a windfall from Benjamin’s grandmother’s family, had got the business going. When the Doyle family first opened up to sell Christmas trees they’d made the gate itself a big feature. They’d tended the mistletoe plants so that they grew well and surrounded the gate that marked the pedestrian access and the way the family and plenty of customers accessed the farm. The original gate had been repaired over the years and then replaced during the last decade but mistletoe carried on growing just as well around the new one as if it knew its place. In fact, sometimes it grew too well and the Doyles had to remember to keep up with cutting it back.

After a hearty breakfast Benjamin shrugged on an older coat that he wouldn’t mind getting dirty or damaged in amongst the trees and went out to ask his dad what was most needed this morning.

Danny trudged over from his position at the netting machine and handed Benjamin an axe. ‘We need more logs chopping, I’ve got a few orders to deliver this afternoon.’

‘Nothing like the hardest work for your son, eh?’

‘You could do the netting instead if you like.’

But Benjamin laughed. ‘You’re sixty-seven and I’ve no idea how you do it but if I want to be as agile as you are when I reach your age, I’ll need to take a leaf out of your book and get to work.’

Benjamin soon got into the task around the back of the largest shed that housed the tractor, lawnmowers and all the equipment they needed throughout the year. He split logs and it wasn’t long before a coat was too much despite the bracing chill and the frost that lingered on the tops of trees and the roof of the house. He stacked the logs at the side of the shed so they could be divided into batches and put a whole load in the bags already positioned on the back of his dad’s truck. Danny would still have plenty of room left for the trees so he could do all the deliveries in one go.

Benjamin set aside the axe and blew out his cheeks. It wasn’t as if he was a stranger to being on his feet all day but working on a farm was something else – no wonder neither of his parents showed their age when their daily routine was so physical. But, if he wasn’t careful, much more of this manual labour and he wouldn’t have the strength to lift a knife in the pub kitchen let alone race around on a double shift preparing and cooking and delivering customer orders.

He wandered over to the trees closest to where he was. These were the Nordmann firs in heights ranging from three to eleven feet. They were fatter at the bottom than some of the other varieties, with excellent needle retention. He reached out to touch the rounded needles of one and then another, and the one after that. Any of them could have a place in Tilly’s cottage – she’d be spoilt for choice. They’d all look spectacular with their dense foliage and deep, rich colour, and nothing beat that farm-fresh smell of citrusy pine that came with every tree. He wondered how she was getting on. She’d been flustered last night, unable to think straight when she’d got the call about the break-in at her parents’ house. She didn’t have the sturdiest of relationships with her mum and dad, by the sounds of it, and some people might have used that as a reason not to leap to attention in their hour of need, but not Tilly. She thought of others and put them first whenever she could. It was one of the things he loved and admired about her the most.

Danny had netted a tree and, with it over his shoulder, was heading towards the car park. He was fit, no doubt about that, but there wasn’t the usual festive spring in his step this year and Benjamin didn’t really know why. Usually, as soon as they hit December Danny would have a different Christmas hat on each day, his smile would never slip even when he wasn’t with a customer, he’d take every opportunity to talk at length with visitors, asking about their Christmas plans and listening to details Benjamin knew he couldn’t possibly be that interested in just to be polite and a part of it. He hadn’t been as attentive to his wife lately, either. Danny and Heather usually held hands when they were out walking, they snuggled up on the sofa even after a good thirty-five years of marriage. And those absent snatched kisses underneath the mistletoe this year kept playing on Benjamin’s mind.

He lifted a hand to wave to his dad, who was walking over to him after finishing off with the buyer. Maybe his parents were just busy. It wasn’t only the most wonderful time of the year – for the Doyles it was the craziest time of the year.

‘Cheers, son.’ Danny patted Benjamin on the shoulder. ‘It’s a tough job, I know.’

‘You look tired, Dad.’

‘It’s been a hectic few days.’ His breath came out cold. He took off his thermal work gloves. ‘The storm made such a mess.’

Benjamin had helped clear up debris to make the farm passable for visitors coming to select their tree – the last thing you wanted was someone tripping over an errant branch, or a child falling onto a sharp stick, or, worse, one of the trees falling on someone. The rows and rows of fir and spruce trees stood strong but it was always a worry and they were regularly checked, never more so than after a big storm that had the power to uproot even the sturdiest of species.

‘The logs are done. Anything else you want me to handle before I have a shower and go to work?’

‘No, we’re good from here and I appreciate you pitching in so much.’

‘Hey, family business, right?’ But he didn’t get much of a response and as his dad led the way around to a new bunch of awaiting customers, Benjamin asked, ‘Is there something I need to know? I mean, is there something going on?’

‘No, not at all. Why do you ask?’

It suddenly dawned on Benjamin that perhaps this was financial. ‘You would tell me if the business was in trouble, wouldn’t you?’ Maybe this was the year they’d realised they weren’t making the profits they used to. With a business such as this it was always a risk and Benjamin didn’t have a hand in the accounting side so he’d never know.

‘Of course I would.’

‘I can give you more for my board – you charge me next to nothing.’

‘This is your home, son.’ Danny stopped and raised his hand to indicate the scene before them, the laughter and merriment of people all around, some carrying trees, others just arriving and ready to make a selection. ‘And does it really look as though the business is in trouble?’

Benjamin had to admit that no, it really didn’t.

But as he set off towards the house he still had the niggling feeling his dad was keeping something from him.


At The Copper Plough Benjamin went out to the back, hung up his coat and took off his fleece, which definitely wouldn’t be needed in the kitchens that got too hot even in the winter. It could be minus ten outside and he’d still fling open the back door to go out for a break and would stand there without a coat, in his chef whites or an apron, and cool down.

‘Morning, Marnie,’ he greeted the youngest and most enthusiastic member of his team. Not that anyone slacked off, just that Marnie was usually the first to volunteer for extra hours whenever there was a chance. She was the one he pegged as most likely to go and run her own business one day. ‘Where are we up to?’ he asked.

Familiar with the briefing that came whenever someone else arrived at work, whether it be him or Billy or Henry, Marnie gave him the low-down – the fish she’d filleted, the meat she’d prepared and already rubbed with marinade, the sirloins that were ready for the steak Diane special today. She’d even ducked out to the convenience store to pick up a couple of extra cartons of double cream with the delivery coming late today. Steak Diane had been popular for the last week; it seemed word had got around, and it had certainly been the item of choice with the out-of-towners yesterday and the day before.

Benjamin had studied hospitality at college and enjoyed the entire course, but once he got to the food-service management and catering parts of the syllabus, including some work experience at a gastro pub for eight weeks, he knew he’d found what he wanted to do. He arranged some casual work at The Copper Plough as a glass collector, table clearer, general dogsbody and then as a kitchen hand until finally when the chef there approached retirement – which some said was a little overdue – he’d been waiting in the wings. Luckily for him the owners, Terry and Nola, had been thrilled someone local was interested. And since taking over the role as chef, Benjamin had transformed the basic menu from its run-of-the-mill chips with burgers, chips with chicken, fish and chips, and the fish curry that Melissa – but nobody else – had loved. Plenty of those choices were still there – they were pub favourites, after all – but with tweaks to lift them to another level. But the fish curry had had to go, and now Benjamin provided the pub’s clientele with good all-round choices, honouring the seasons as they fell and turned to the next.

Benjamin had grown up always knowing that there was a job for him at Mistletoe Gate Farm but for a long time he’d doubted he would ever want to take it on full time, with sole responsibility. His sister, Charlotte, had been thrilled – because she did want the farm. She currently lived in Dorset, where she was a business development manager, and ever since Benjamin’s admission one year that actually he wanted to pursue a career in food, Charlotte had been more than happy to step up, telling their parents she was very interested indeed. She’d seen her future at the farm, had always had a good eye for business and an ability to make solid decisions. And whenever she was home she asked all the questions – about the crops, about the financials, consumer behaviour – she joined in with the manual labour and was always on about what could be improved or altered to maximise the farm’s effectiveness as a business. It hadn’t taken long for their parents to realise Charlotte had inherited Danny’s sheer devotion to Mistletoe Gate Farm, whereas Benjamin’s strengths and passions lay firmly in the kitchen.

Benjamin had Marnie prepare the Diane sauce, starting with the chopping of mushrooms and garlic, while he set to making the beef-and-ale pies that were always popular in the pub. They took forty minutes to cook, another ten to cool, so he’d make eight now and have mixture and pastry on standby if any more orders came in. He prepared the pastry, careful not to overwork the dough, and rolled part of it out into thickish rounds. He lined eight individual pie tins, each with an overhang, and using the filling he’d made yesterday with beef, dark ale, onions, mushrooms and thyme as well as parsley and left in the fridge overnight, he used a slotted spoon to fill the pie cases. The secret of a great pie was pastry that could stand up to fillings and wouldn’t get soggy from the mixture yet would remain light enough to flake. He rolled out more of the pastry dough and assembled the tops, finishing with a brush of egg, before putting them into the oven. With twelve o’clock fast approaching, Terry had already come in and pinned the first order on its piece of notepaper to the service area where assembled dishes would be taken from kitchen to table.

At one time Benjamin had dreamt of opening up a restaurant at the farm and he still wouldn’t rule it out – something Charlotte would likely encourage and plan for if he so much as hinted at it – but for now the kitchens at The Copper Plough were his domain.


‘It’s nice to be on this side of the kitchen,’ Benjamin told Daniel after he’d placed an order for waffles just before nine o’clock. Daniel, Harvey’s younger brother by just a couple of years, owned and ran the Little Waffle Shack and with the village tree an even bigger draw card for the eatery, it was busy in here.

Melissa and Harvey had commandeered the biggest table in the joint and it looked as though they were consoling themselves about the alteration of wedding venue by demolishing two portions of waffles with chocolate sauce and cream if the remnants on their near-finished plates were anything to go by. A handsome couple – Melissa with her heart-shaped face, hazel eyes and auburn hair, Harvey at well over six foot like his brother, with dark hair and stubble on his jaw that was rarely pared back to clean-shaven – had been childhood sweethearts and it meant a lot to everyone in the Cove who knew them to see them getting married at long last.

‘Mind if I join you?’ Benjamin checked, but of course they didn’t mind at all, or at least Harvey didn’t. Melissa was making a call but ended it after Benjamin sat down.

‘She’s back tonight,’ Melissa told Harvey, putting her cutlery together on her plate so it would be picked up and taken away.

‘You talking about Tilly?’ Benjamin asked before turning to thank Daniel for the ultra-speedy service when his ginger-and-cinnamon waffles topped with a scoop of vanilla-bean ice-cream appeared. Funny how working around food dulled your appetite, yet the second you were out of the kitchens it came back with a vengeance. He unwrapped his cutlery from its serviette.

Harvey and Melissa had obviously been in touch with her. ‘I am, and she seems to have it all sorted,’ Melissa explained. ‘She called out a handyman to fix up the back door that had a bit of damage, a glazier for the glass panel and the smashed window, and a locksmith just in case the thief got hold of a spare key from anywhere.’

Benjamin finished his mouthful. ‘She’ll be anxious to get back to the shop – you know what she’s like.’

Melissa rested her chin on her clasped hands, smile in place. ‘I do know what she’s like.’

Benjamin chose to ignore the look she was giving him. ‘Christmas is her busiest time.’ It was kind of obvious but he didn’t really know what else to say when they were both looking at him registering his interest.

Melissa watched him carefully. ‘It’s a very busy time. I should know, I was in there all day.’

‘You were?’

‘Tilly asked Lois and Barney to help and they’d both leapt at the chance to do something, but it was so busy by mid-morning that Barney called me to come over. Lois was already flustered with the till and she was fretting that she wasn’t able to help customers and serve others at the same time. Neither of them had had a break by the time I got there so I sent them over to the tea rooms for sustenance and between the three of us we had a much better rest of the day after that.’

‘The shop was still standing when I walked past.’ Benjamin collected another piece of waffle onto his fork along with ice-cream that was fast melting. ‘You must’ve done something right.’

‘Tilly would do the same for any of us.’

‘You’re not wrong there.’ And when the focus seemed to be on him, Benjamin ventured, ‘Dare I ask you two about wedding plans?’

Harvey frowned. ‘You can ask but we haven’t sorted anything yet. Barney has offered his home but we really couldn’t expect that of him and Lois. They do well enough at their ages to hold the Wedding Dress Ball every year; a wedding is a big ask, and they’d have to shift furniture around without the barn to store it in. Neither of us would want to do that to them both. Lois has relatives from Ireland visiting over the Christmas period too, so we wouldn’t want to get in the way of that.’

Benjamin and everyone else in Heritage Cove knew what Barney meant to Melissa and Harvey. They’d both spent their childhoods hanging out in the barn – Harvey because his home life was less than good with a father who showed no love and so the barn had become a hideaway for him, Melissa because she simply enjoyed herself and the freedom she had there. And when Melissa’s parents died Barney had become a father figure to her too.

‘I don’t want Barney to feel any pressure from us,’ Melissa went on, ‘so we need to stop feeling sorry for ourselves. I’ve made enquiries at the hall in the next village, a chapel less than ten miles away.’ She held up her phone as though it might ring with news at any second. ‘I’m waiting to hear.’

Benjamin hated to say it but this close to Christmas that phone wasn’t likely to ring.

‘The other option is our place, Tumbleweed House,’ said Harvey. ‘Not ideal and neither of us wanted to get married at home, especially because there isn’t a room big enough to host it. And outdoors we don’t have anything under cover unless we put up a marquee.’

Melissa leaned her head briefly onto Harvey’s shoulder. Then, straightening up, she met Benjamin’s gaze. ‘By rights we should both be panicking just about now, but we’re holding it together.’

‘You are, I admire that.’ Waffles devoured, appetite satiated, he put his cutlery together and took Daniel up on the offer of coffee, as did Melissa and Harvey. Daniel and Etna had agreed that the waffle shack wouldn’t sell coffee or hot beverages when it first opened this time last year. At Etna’s tea rooms she had a fancy coffee machine and didn’t want this place stealing her customers, but over time she’d soon realised she still had her locals, that there was room in the Cove for the both of them as well as the bakery and the pub. And Etna was no stranger in here, either. She’d even begun to request a pot of tea with sweet waffles for herself. Benjamin and Tilly had laughed once, saying that was probably the reason Etna had allowed the serving of hot drinks here – to satisfy her own cravings.

‘Tracy even floated the idea of using the Heritage Inn,’ Melissa told Benjamin, ‘but, again, it’s too much to ask of someone. She and Guy have a full house as it is.’

‘We’re pleased everyone is trying to help us,’ said Harvey. ‘It’s a good reminder of why we live here in the Cove – it’s for the people as much as the village itself.’

Benjamin felt the same way.

When Melissa’s phone buzzed with an incoming message she snatched it up and he wondered whether he was about to be proved wrong, whether a venue could be scored at the very last minute.

She looked up at both of them after she’d read her message and must’ve realised what was going through their heads. ‘Just Tilly,’ she explained. ‘She just got home to her cottage and had a message from Barney telling her that it had taken three of us, but that takings were up and the shop was in one piece. She wanted to pass on her thanks.’

Benjamin leapt in as Melissa began bashing out a reply. ‘Could you tell her I’ll be around at the farm in the morning if she wants to come and choose her tree?’

Melissa’s gaze flicked up. ‘She needs you to hold her hand?’ No matter what she had going on, Melissa was always at the ready with a teasing quip. They’d known each other a long time and although she’d been away from the Cove for years, since she’d returned it hadn’t been at all difficult to fall back into their easy way together.

‘Of course not, but I said I’d help. I’m being kind.’

‘You most certainly are.’ She finished the text and sent it Tilly’s way.

He stirred the coffee set in front of him and looked up to see Melissa still grinning. At least he’d managed to cheer her up a bit and get rid of the worried look on her face for now. ‘You’re watching me,’ he said.

‘I’m not.’

‘You were,’ Harvey butted in, sipping his own coffee.

‘OK, I was. But only because I’m wondering whether you’re ever going to ask her out.’

Benjamin pulled a face as if to deny it, but what was the point? ‘You know I want to?’

‘Yes,’ she said.

‘Does everyone know?’

‘Of course they do,’ said Harvey. ‘So, what’s the hold-up? Tell her how you feel…life’s too short to mess around.’ He shared a look with his bride-to-be, an acknowledgement of the years they’d spent apart when they should’ve been together.

Benjamin had to wonder whether Tilly really was the only person who didn’t know how he felt, because everyone else seemed to.