A hot vet. A rebellious teenager. And meddling but well-meaning townsfolk. Vera gets more than she bargains for when she runs off to a new life in the country … A fresh and funny rural romance, perfect for readers of Alissa Callen and Rachael Johns.
Vera De Rossi no longer believes in love …
And thanks to her ex-boyfriend she’s also broke, jobless, and staring down the barrel of a court case that could land her in prison. Turning to her talent for baking, Vera opens a cafe in Hanrahan, a cosy tourist town in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains.
Josh Cody, once Hanrahan’s golden boy, escaped sixteen years ago with gossip hard on his heels and a pregnant girlfriend in tow. Now he’s back: a qualified veterinarian – and a single dad with a lot to prove. A new start and a grumpy teenage daughter … it’s a lot to juggle, and there’s no room in his life for further complications. But that’s before he walks into The Billy Button Cafe and meets its prickly owner …
Reeling from the past, Vera has no intention of being sidetracked by the hot vet with a killer smile. But fate has a way of tripping up our best intentions and between a stray cat and a busybody with a heart of gold, this is a town – a family – unlike any other. And, whether Vera wants it or not, is there anything a family won’t do to help one of its own?
‘The perfect feel-good blend of warmth, wit and small town charm. This debut will leave you smiling.’ Alissa Callen bestselling author of Snowy Mountains Daughter
The cat was back.
Vera stood, bin in hand, at the kitchen door of the old Federation building she’d just signed a lease on and met the cat’s stare with one of her own.
‘Scram,’ she said, as she tipped the rubbish she was carrying into the alley skip bin. She was too tired to put much heat into the word. The cat paused in a puddle of spring sunshine then settled into a brick of fur.
Excellent. She’d have no trouble at all running kitchen staff, a barista, and a team of waiters if this was how a stray cat responded to her commands.
She lowered the rubbish bin to the ground and took a second to ease the knots in her back. What had she been thinking? She knew nothing about running a café, particularly one in a small tourist town in the Snowy Mountains. All she knew was that she needed an income to pay for her aunt’s medical bills, and cooking was the only skill she had left.
A horn tooted from the street out front of the building and had her checking her watch. Ten o’clock, bang on time. She hurried back inside, stripped off her rubber gloves, and peered through the plate glass windows that formed two sides of her shopfront. A deliv-ery truck stood by the kerb, and two tradies were untying ropes and hauling drop cloths from the huge sign resting in its tray.
Vera felt a prickle of emotion deep in her stomach. It took a moment to recognise the prickle for what it was, it had been so long. She opened the front door and stood in the entryway as the last of the cloth was lifted, and her excitement grew from a prickle to a roar.
‘You want us to hang it now, love?’
Yes. Hell yes, she wanted them to hang it now. She may be about to make a monumental financial blunder; she may be unsure, and nervous, and sick with worry about whether her daft, outrageous idea was going to pay off, for her and her aunt. But by god, yes, she was ready.
‘Let’s do it,’ she said.
The two men reached into the truck’s deep tray and hauled.
She caught her breath as the sign came clear: glossy chocolate background, pale cream writing in a stylish font she’d agonised over. The border of wildflowers had come up so much better than she’d imagined, with the yellow billy buttons plump and cheerful, and the delicate stems of pink triggers providing some old-fashioned whimsy. The Billy Button Café, proprietor Vera De Rossi.
She pressed a hand to her heart. She felt a little wild herself.
A slow clap sounding from the park on the street’s far side dis-tracted her as she signed the delivery invoice.
‘Noice.’ The broad country accent drew her attention to a buff-looking guy on the denial side of fifty staring at her with his arms crossed.
He stepped onto the road. ‘I’m your eleven o’clock,’ he said, as he walked past her and into the dimly lit chaos that was currently the interior of the café. ‘Crikey. Lots to do, lucky I’m early.’
Vera felt a frown forming and willed it away. She was a café proprietor now—she needed to be friendly. ‘We’re not open yet, sir.’
He turned to her, offered her a hand to shake and a grin that was all manicured beard and charm. ‘Graeme Sharpe. I responded to your newspaper ad for café staff.’
Hell’s bells, where was her head? She was supposed to be a detail person, and she had totally forgotten she had an interview booked for later in the morning. ‘Of course. Sorry, I lost track of the time.’
The man eyed the clutter, and she followed his gaze as it moved about the room. The chairs were piled high in one corner, still wrapped in plastic. Tables needed legs attaching, copper urns and drooping ferns formed a pyramid in the middle of the floor. ‘Vera De Rossi,’ he said. ‘Proprietor. That’s you, I take it?’
‘Uh-huh. You run a café before, Vera?’
‘You serious about making this one work?’
Vera pursed her lips. Who was interviewing who, here? This Graeme guy wasn’t lacking in confidence. ‘I’m deadly serious about making The Billy Button work.’ Understatement of the year. If the café didn’t turn a profit, her Aunt Jill’s safe haven in the dementia ward at Connolly House would be gone before she’d had a chance to change into her slippers.
‘And food. You buying in from suppliers, or making your own?’ ‘Making it here. Cakes to eat in and take away, big breakfast menu, light lunch menu. Maybe dinner down the track. You know, my bank manager didn’t ask me this many questions.’
He smiled. ‘Just checking if you and I are going to be a good fit. If you’re interested in hiring the best barista north of Fitzroy, I’m your man. Only, I have to warn you, I do have experience in running cafés and I’m fussy, bossy and opinionated. But in a totally good way.’
She drew in a breath. Hiring a man with the razzle-dazzle of a talk-show host had not been what she’d envisaged, but she was here in Hanrahan to remake herself, wasn’t she? Rigid and fussy, that was the old Vera. This new Vera had to be flexible.
She could adapt. ‘Barista, you say.’
‘My lovely, I can make you a latte that would make an angel sing.’
She fought down a smile. ‘That’s quite a claim. Do people out-side of the city know how to make decent coffee?’
He threw his hands up in mock horror. ‘Such prejudice. Skinny flat whites, iced long blacks, affogatos—show me your machine, lady, and I’ll show you caffeine heaven.’
She grinned. ‘Sheath that indignation, Dundee. I believe you. Unfortunately, the espresso machine hasn’t arrived yet.’ She eyed him, wondering if he really would suit. Graeme the barista was clearly a small-town people person—she’d need that, because she sure as hell wasn’t any good with small towns. Or people. She could barely run her own messed-up life. ‘Do you have references?’
He winked. ‘All sorts. What skills are you needing referenced?’ ‘Coffee-making, obviously. But I’ll be needing more than a coffee that can—um—show me heaven. I need a front of house person. Like a maître’d of a restaurant. Someone who knows the customers’ names, keeps the peace when someone decides their skinny-soy-half-strength-with-a-quarter-sugar isn’t hot enough. Someone who can keep an eye on young staff and check the milk order when it arrives and balance the till. Who isn’t above giving the loos a quick swab when the waitstaff are slammed.’
‘Oh,’ he said, nodding his head. ‘You need a miracle worker. The answer, then, is yes. I can do all of that and more.’
Graeme sounded too good to be true. She frowned. This café was the only way she was going to be able to keep an income com-ing in if the worst happened and her lawyer couldn’t keep her out of prison. She couldn’t afford to not ask tough questions, not when so much was at stake. ‘If you’re such a hotshot, Graeme, how is it you’re out of work? And why are you burying your barista awe-someness in Hanrahan?’
He shrugged. ‘Love and lust, Vera.’
Did he just say—
He must have read her look of befuddlement, because he laughed.
‘I know, right? Who would have thought Hanrahan was such a hotbed of romance for middle-aged guys like me? I moved here to be closer to my partner Alex about a year ago, but it’s well past time I found myself some gainful employment. And Marigold—have you met her yet? Town busybody? Heart of gold and impervious to snubs?—well, she showed me your advertisement and said fate was giving me a gentle nudge.’
‘Fate?’ God, she hoped not. She was hoping the disastrous string of events which resulted in her placing the advert in the local paper had come to an end. She’d had quite enough of fate for the time being … especially as her own never seemed to arrive as gentle nudges. Her fate felt like it was being flung from a distance by a vengeful goblin.
Graeme smiled. ‘Marigold is a bit of a hippy. She throws words like fate and karma and mindfulness around like she’s throwing frisbees for a pet dog … I blame it on the yoga.’
They had moved deeper into the room, to where tape marks on the old floorboards marked where the new timber veneer counter would be installed, and she did a survey, wishing the hard work was done already. To her right, tall sash windows looked out over Pat-erson Street to the small park, and a soot-stained fireplace of dark brick soared from floor to ceiling.
To the left, more windows framed the view of lake and mountain that had driven the monthly rent up to a worryingly high amount.
This café was a gamble, and one she couldn’t afford to lose: if fate had truly brought Graeme to this moment of decision, des-peration had been what had brought her. She shouldn’t employ the first person she interviewed, no matter how sweet he seemed. She had a lot riding on this café, and so did her aunt.
She racked her brain for another employer-like question to ask. ‘Have you been out of work long? I’ll be needing someone who can put in a full working week. There’ll be some early starts, too.’
‘I know the drill, Vera. The thing is … I get a bit antsy when I have too much alone time. I’ve been building an extension on our house which has kept me flat strap, but I’m happier surrounded by a bit of bustle.’
Alone time. Sounded like bliss to her, and she was hoping for plenty of it herself now she’d moved to Hanrahan. She didn’t know anyone, and no-one knew her. She’d learned her lesson: getting involved brought nothing with it but hurt and betrayal, and she was so done with that. Her relationships from now on were going to involve her, her battered pile of recipe books, and the never-ending list of tasks she had to complete to get this café up and thriving.
She made a snap decision. Graeme didn’t look like a bad bet, and she needed a barista. A fun one with charm to spare was just icing on the cake. ‘Okay. Why don’t we say a four-week trial? I’ll pay above the going rates, but only just, because I’m pretty much broke. I’m hoping to open a week from today, and there’s plenty of work if you want to start sooner.’
Graeme held out his hand. ‘You’re making the right decision, boss.’
She grinned at him, because really, who wouldn’t? He was one hundred per cent adorable. And besides, she had a good feel-ing about this arrangement. Her new (and only) employee was like the fire to her hydrant, the dazzle to her drab. The more he kept the customers entertained, the more she could devote herself to her pots and pans in the privacy of the commercial kitchen out back.
‘When you say I can start sooner … I do have a few ideas.’ And so it began, she thought. Her café was no longer a one-woman dream. ‘Ideas? Like what?’
‘Are those bentwood chairs I see, tucked under all that plastic?’ ‘Yes. Mahogany stain. I was hoping for some club chairs in a cigar-coloured leather, but my bank manager was starting to look pale and sweaty whenever I asked if I could extend the overdraft.’
Graeme moved forward to lift the plastic and inspect the exposed wood.
‘Now, where’s the fun in getting it all perfect at once? These chairs will look lovely … old school, to suit the building. What’s the age of this place, Federation?’
‘Nineteen ten, according to the lease I signed.’
‘You’ll be wanting to capture a little of that charm, I expect. What are your other decoration plans?’
She felt a little rush of affection for this stranger who had, within the space of a few minutes, grasped the importance of getting The Billy Button Café right. This wasn’t some hole-in-the-wall take-away joint she was trying to create. She took a breath. ‘I’d love to talk over my plans if you have time. I had a graphic designer help me with the sign, but everything else’—she gestured to the clutter of stuff she’d dragged in or had delivered—‘is a collation of ideas I’ve been gathering in a scrapbook for years.’
‘Scrapbooking? Oh, goody.’ Graeme said it like he was a kid at a party who’d just spied the pile of party bags to be given out. ‘Can I see? Is it here?’
‘Er … sure. It’s in that box over there along with the paint rollers and drop cloths.’
She waited until he’d pulled it out and spread it open on one of the round, iron-footed tables she’d set up.
‘Oh my,’ he said. ‘Stylish but warm, I love it.’
She shrugged. ‘Look at this place. Those huge sash windows, the fireplace, the decorative swirls in the ceiling. Anything else would seem, I don’t know—’
She grinned. ‘I was going to say a wasted opportunity, but sure, let’s scale it up to sacrilege.’
Graeme gave a chuckle as he turned the page. ‘Girlfriend, scal-ing things up is my special skill. Oh … these deep green velvet banquettes, I love them. You could pop a corner banquette there, near the inner room.’ He spun on his heel. ‘Perhaps another by that window.’
‘Way ahead of you. A carpenter down at Cooma is whipping them up as we speak. Should be here in a day or two.’
‘Lighting? Please tell me these abominations are going.’
Vera looked up to the strips of fluorescent tubing lining the stained ceiling. ‘I’ve found some simple fixtures at a disposal store. Copper rods that bring the lights down low, a simple glass fitting that has an amber glow to it. If I had an endless budget I would have tried for some vintage fittings but …’
In time, Vera. Lightbulbs are an easy change. Who do you have in mind to do the painting? What is this current wall colour, any-way, apricot jam?’
She laughed. ‘I know, right? Hideous. You should see the kitchen, it’s like a tree frog exploded in there. I’m doing the painting. That’s today and tomorrow’s job, along with retiling the fireplace sur-rounds and waxing the floorboards. Once that’s done, I can start placing the furniture and have the counter delivered.’
Graeme walked over to the stack of tiles leaning against the dec-orative skirting board lining the room. ‘These are gorgeous.’
Yeah. They ought to be for the work she’d put into them. She’d found them advertised as a giveaway from a house renovation in Queanbeyan. Glossy, deep-green handmade tiles a century old that had enough of a ripple in the surface shine to give them whimsy. She’d spent an afternoon chipping them off an unwanted kitchen backsplash, breaking as many as she’d managed to save. They were magnificent—and so too would the fireplace be, if she could some-how get it to look like the pictures she’d gathered in her scrapbook, with her vintage tiles set subway style about the cast-iron firebox. The timber mantel was already perfect. Made from a blackened hardwood, she liked to imagine it had been polished by the people of Hanrahan for over a hundred years.
‘I should have enough for the fire surround,’ she said.
‘Does the chimney work?’
Hell, she hadn’t thought to ask the landlord. She’d been day- dreaming about serving mulled wine in front of a snug fire once autumn arrived in the mountains, and hadn’t given a thought to the state of the chimney. ‘I have no idea. I’ll add it to my list.’
Graeme made a hmm sound and continued inspecting the bits and pieces she’d assembled.
‘Maybe you could help me find a local florist, Graeme. I’m hop-ing to use local wildflowers as centrepieces on the tables. Fresh or preserved, I don’t mind.’
He grinned at her, a smile that was as wide as it was wicked. ‘Oh, have I got a florist for you, Vera.’
‘Um … thank you, I think.’
‘About these tiles. I can do the fireplace for you, if you’re willing to trust me with it.’
She’d disappeared into a daydream imagining The Billy Button Café beautifully dressed and ready to party, plump yellow wild-flowers adding a little sunshine to every table, but Graeme’s words pulled her back to the dusty drop-cloth reality.
‘Excuse me? Did you just offer to do a DIY project for my fit-out?’ He shrugged. ‘Sure. Why wouldn’t I?’
‘Um … because people aren’t usually that nice. Not where I moved from, anyway.’
Graeme gave her the full benefit of his megawatt smile. ‘You’re in Hanrahan now, Vera. Besides, I am one fussy renovator. If I’m going to be looking at that fireplace all day, I’m going to be needing some precision grout lines.’
‘Huh,’ she said. ‘I don’t like to boast, but I’ve watched three online tiling tutorials. I’m pretty much an expert now.’
Graeme grinned. ‘I think we’re gonna make a great team, boss. You got an apron hiding in that pyramid of stuff?’
Aprons she had. They were works of art, chocolate brown and piped with cream edging. There was no way in hell she was letting one of her new aprons anywhere near a DIY tiling project.
‘I can offer you a plastic garbage bag or a grease-stained old tea towel?’
‘Ew. Why don’t I pop home and get into my overalls. I’ll be back in an hour.’
She reached out and touched her new café manager on the arm. ‘Are you sure you want this, Graeme? Building something from the ground up like this? It’s going to be a lot of work.’
Graeme rested his hand over hers and turned to give the interior of her café one long look. ‘Girlfriend,’ he said, ‘this place is going to be a sensation.’
She hoped so. She really hoped so. She looked through the smudged glass windows, to where The Billy Button Café sign swung in a breeze curling up from the narrow northern arm of Lake Bogong, and squared her shoulders.
She couldn’t afford to let anything get in the way of this café being a hit.