Fresh and down-to-earth in style, Australian author Lily Malone returns with a sparkling new ‘Chalk Hill’ romance that will appeal to all romance readers, from contemporary to rural romance. Perfect for readers who love Rachael Johns.
Child psychologist Taylor Woods needs a man. Flashy restaurateur Abel Honeychurch to be specific. Abe can help her get justice for her brother, Will. Taylor knows Abe, too, was scammed by the same woman who broke her brother’s heart and stole everything in his pockets.
But bringing a lying, cheating scammer to justice isn’t easy when all Abe wants to do is forget the whole sorry saga. He’s returned to his home town of Chalk Hill to lick his wounds and repay his debts, renovating his nanna’s house and opening the Chalk ‘n’ Cheese cafe.
He’s miserable. And it would be easier to stay miserable if everyone else around him wasn’t so darn cheerful. It’s wildflower season in Chalk Hill with a cafe full of upbeat bushwalkers, and it’s all Abe can do to remember to put sugar, not salt, in his customers’ cappuccinos. He definitely has no time for the mysterious red-headed guest who admires his cheesecake and adores his flat white.
Taylor’s mission to help her brother seems doomed – how will she gain the trust of a man whose every instinct tells him never to trust a woman again?
‘Warm, witty and fun … Lily Malone creates unforgettable characters. Chalk Hill is a small town you will never want to leave.’ Alissa Callen, bestselling Australian author
‘A touching, romantic, and thoroughly enjoyable read. Filled with engaging characters, Lily Malone’s refreshing style never fails to satisfy.’ Jennie Jones, bestselling Australian author
There was a new girl working reception at Izzy’s clinic and Taylor Woods pegged her as perfect for the job. Something about the girl’s shiny silver horse earrings gave her away.
She scanned the other occupants of the waiting room: a woman with a sausage dog, what were they called? Daschunds. A young girl and her mother, a bird in a cage on the floor between them.
‘Good morning,’ Silver Horse Earrings greeted Taylor, voice bouncing like a poodle told it’s time for a walk.
Taylor passed the leash to her other hand, trying not to breathe the cologne of eau de cat fur in case it made her sneeze. ‘Good morning. I’m looking for Izzy. Is she here?’
‘She’s out the back. She’s not in the best mood, though,’ Silver Horse Earrings confided, gesturing with a stream of red tinsel she’d been wrapping around a tiny fake Christmas tree.
‘Oh no, that’s no good. What’s happened?’
‘A golden retriever got hit by a car last night and the driver drove away.’ The girl drew out the last two words, lips curled tight and low. ‘Izzy was in here till two o’clock this morning trying to fix him up, but he didn’t make it.’
Poor Izzy. Even after eight years of running her small animal vet practice, with all the tears and failures that entailed, she’d be wrecked.
‘I’ll see if I can cheer her up,’ Taylor said, moving towards the door that led towards Izzy’s inner sanctum of consulting room, operating theatre, recovery cages and the outer kennels.
Silver Horse Earrings shuffled both the tinsel and her feet. ‘Should I let her know you’re coming? Are you a friend?’
Taylor pulled on her brightest smile and switched the leash to her left hand so she could hold out her right. ‘I’m sorry, I’m Taylor and, yes, I’m a friend. And you are?’
‘Hannah,’ the girl said, letting go of the tinsel to shake hands. ‘I’m the Saturday girl. Izzy’s teaching me a few things. I love animals.’
‘Then you’ll be perfect,’ Taylor said. ‘I won’t be long. Back in a minute. I just need to borrow a puppy.’
Taylor didn’t wait to explain because the sausage dog’s owner was getting twitchy, and the woman was about to demand to know why Taylor was being let through first when she’d been sitting there waiting longer.
Taylor pushed through the interlocking door, and through the short passage that opened into Izzy’s consulting area with its bright white light and whiter table, and suspicious wet patches that might have been water, but were probably dog pee on the bare floor.
Izzy wasn’t there, so Taylor kept moving.
‘Iz? You out here?’ She made the step down from the consulting room, and poked her head into the recovery room where Izzy kept animals that weren’t well enough to go home. Taylor heard a whump thump coming from a small wire-furred dog with a bucket on its head. Its wagging tail was the most energetic thing about it.
Izzy wasn’t there either, which meant unless she was having a bathroom break, she must be out the back. Taylor squeaked through another door, and stepped down another step.
There was Izzy standing in a fog of cigarette smoke. At least six dogs all barked at Taylor; some high-pitched yaps, others with the type of deep ringing base that would scare the sticky fingers off any would-be thief in the night.
Izzy inhaled hard, dropped the ciggie and crushed it under her shoe, wafting smoke away from her face. ‘Trust you, Woodsy. I haven’t had a smoke in bloody months and you’re the one who catches me out. It’s so unfair.’
‘Promise I won’t tell. Tough night, sweetie?’ Taylor said, wrapping her friend in a hug, inhaling smoke along with eau de puppy pee, cat fur and birdseed.
‘You can say that.’ Izzy gently pushed Taylor away from her. ‘What are you doing up and about at nine-thirty on a Saturday morning, anyway? And why do you have a leash with you? No, don’t tell me. The answer’s no already.’ Izzy held up her hand like a model in a traffic cop advert. Izzy had the longest, most graceful fingers and fingernails Taylor had ever seen. If she’d been a real cop and not a vet, all the perps would be lining up to get frisked.
‘Please, Iz. I need to borrow a puppy. I just need him for an hour. Puhleease?’
‘If you want a puppy, you can bloody well adopt one for real.’
This was where Taylor paid for all the times she’d borrowed one of Izzy’s rescue puppies for her therapy sessions. These were the puppies that got bought as birthday or Christmas presents, but grew too big or unruly, or barked and annoyed the neighbours, so they got strategically ‘left’ outside Izzy’s suburban clinic in the middle of the night.
Puppies were so good when it came to breaking the ice with children. So many times in Taylor’s experience, no matter how shy or sensitive the child, one lick from a puppy—a kiss pressed to warm fur—and they’d come right out of their shell.
‘Are you sure I can’t just borrow one, Iz?’
Izzy flung her arm towards the kennels lined neatly all along the rear of the block. ‘Look at all these guys. They all could use a break and a good home. That way you won’t have to come and ask me when you want to borrow a dog. You can pimp out your own.’
At least six pairs of eyes stared up at her, all pleading pick me, pick me, I don’t chew slippers.
‘They will so chew my slippers.’
‘You don’t own slippers. I’ve never seen you in a pair of slippers in my life. Designer faux fur boots don’t count,’ Izzy stated. ‘Come on, that’s the deal. You can take Bruno. He’s all vaccinated and ready to go. You love him like you love me, darling, and you’ll be fine.’
A puppy. Me with a puppy? Taylor’s fist clenched around the leash. ‘I don’t know what to do with a puppy. My place is hardly puppy-friendly.’
‘You’ve got the river on your doorstep and all those walk tracks. You’ve got no garden.’
‘I do so have a garden.’
‘Taylor, c’mon, you’ve got a rose bush and that’s in the front yard. A rose bush is a decoration, not a garden. Your backyard is lawn and a wide expanse of nothing else.’
‘He’ll dig holes in my lawn, and I like my wide expanse of nothing else.’
‘Keep him busy, keep him happy, buy him toys. He won’t dig too many holes and even if he does, who cares? You live on your own and he’ll make a great little guard dog. Gotta think about these things, crime’s a risin’. He’s a staffy kelpie cross and he won’t shed hair. He’s perfect. Friend for life.’
Taylor got a shivery feeling over her skin at the words shed hair. But she really needed a puppy or a kitten, and puppies didn’t make her sneeze, puppies usually returned when you called them and whatever she could get, puppy or kitten, she needed before ten.
‘Come on, Woodsy. That’s the deal. Take it or leave it, and hurry your butt about it, I’ve got to jerk off a daschund and find out if he’s shooting blanks.’
‘Good grief,’ Taylor said, shying away from that particular mental picture. ‘Who’d be you?’
Izzy stepped efficiently towards the cage second from the end on the right, pressed a combination on the lock, and released a wriggling, licking bundle of energy into her beautiful, graceful hands. Izzy held the puppy to her cheek and got licked for her trouble.
‘See? He’s bootiful. Here, Bruno, meet your new owner. She’s not as scary as she looks, once you get to know her.’
Izzy plonked the pup into Taylor’s hands. He tried to lick her too, but she ducked her chin out of harm’s way.
Bruno was a cutie, alright. Black with one white star-shaped patch on his chest, ears not quite sticking up and stumpy little tail that never said die. Taylor’s heart warmed to him, although she was worried about her timber floors.
‘I’ll show you how to keep his nails clipped. Don’t worry about your precious floors,’ Izzy said, with that look she’d perfected since university of I know you better than you know yourself. ‘Bring him back in a few months and I’ll de-sex him for you.’
‘Don’t listen to her, mate.’ Taylor covered the pup’s ears. He snuggled into her arms like he’d found a pillow. ‘Alright, Pupster, let’s go see if we can find you a better name than Bruno, hey?’
‘Woohoo,’ Izzy cried. ‘You have so cheered up my day.’
‘I told your new girl I could do that,’ Taylor said, a little darkly, as she followed Isabella Passmore through the vet clinic with the puppy in her arms.
* * *
‘Don’t pee on the seat,’ Taylor told the puppy sternly, because if they were going to make a go of this it was important she hold eye contact and get them off on the right foot. ‘Life has rules, Pupster. Don’t you go breaking them. I’ll let you out in a minute and you can pee all you like then.’
She wished she had her mother’s car. Private investigating tip 101 was to use a car that didn’t stand out. White sedans like her mother’s were perfect. Bright red Holden Redlines with a spoiler, not so good.
Six times she’d borrowed her mum’s car and parked here on West Street Parade, or around the corner, since that first time she followed her brother a few weeks back.
This is what she knew.
3/36 West Street Parade was home to a curvaceous brunette Taylor knew only as Amanda, and Amanda’s daughter Keeley—a petite girl with brown hair like her mother’s—who chewed at her pigtails and liked playing with dolls on the front verandah.
If she believed her younger brother, Will, Amanda was the best thing to come into Will’s life since Santa gave him his first Batman outfit when he was five.
The problem was: she didn’t believe Will.
None of his friends or colleagues did.
Will had been a different guy for weeks. He’d been skipping appointments at work, to the point where his partner had phoned Taylor because he’d been worried. Skipping work wasn’t like Will. The Woods’ kids were the type who always got gold-star attendance records at school.
So Taylor asked Will about it, and that’s when things got really strange. Will—who’d always been an open book—clammed up.
Taylor smelled a rat. It took some time, but finally, she teased out the story of his whirlwind romance: how he’d met Amanda in a bar and sparks flew.
‘She’s got an abusive ex who’s in a biker gang. She doesn’t want me to talk about us yet in case he finds out. She says people won’t understand that we’re in love. She says nobody else would get that we’re soul mates.’
Bah humbug. Taylor made a face at the puppy, who yawned.
Her questions about what Amanda did for a job were met by a wave of Will’s hand and an infuriatingly vague: ‘she’s an entertainment manager.’
What does an entertainment manager do?
‘Jeez, Tayls, I don’t know. She entertains people. Takes them to fancy restaurants and gets tickets to concerts. Shows high profile company clients a good time.’
Bah humbug. Taylor made a face at the puppy, who yawned.
Alarm bells really started zinging when Will said he was considering helping Amanda with a deposit to buy a house. If she had a larger deposit, she wouldn’t have to pay mortgage insurance.
All Taylor’s objections along the lines of: ‘you haven’t known her very long, Will,’ or ‘don’t you think it’s a bit early to be getting involved financially?’ or ‘why doesn’t she go to a bank?’ fell on deaf ears.
Will didn’t want to listen. Will was in love. ‘She’s got a little girl called Keeley. She’s a great little kid. She calls me Uncle Will.’
That’s when Taylor googled private investigator stake-outs, juggled her appointments to give her some spare time in the afternoon, and sneakily followed Will home from work. That very first day Will’s car led her to 3/36 West Street Parade.
Something else Taylor knew: Will wasn’t the only man to visit 3/36.
There was a guy who drove a blue convertible Passat. Taylor had seen him tumble his long legs out of the low-slung car and stroll to the door. He dressed well—quite trendy really—good-looking with a hairstyle that didn’t move even when it was windy. Once he’d brought Amanda a bunch of flowers. Taylor remembered the flowers: gerberas, all bright, sunset-coloured and happy.
When another man visited—built like a bald brick with body ink—Keeley would drop her dolls no matter how engaged she’d been in her play, run to him and get swept up in a bear hug.
Taylor suspected brick ink man was Daddy, the one Will thought of as the ‘abusive ex’.
She checked her watch. Almost ten. If Amanda did what she’d done the last three Saturdays, Taylor had five minutes before the woman would take her daughter to play in the park at the end of the street.
‘Showtime, Pupster,’ Taylor said, clipping the leash to his vet clinic-issue collar. Time to find out a bit more about what was going on with Amanda and Will. If she could.
Taylor locked her vehicle.
She carried the pup to the park at the end of West Street Parade and sat on a bench, where the puppy promptly got his leash tangled around her legs. There was a little girl playing on the slide, climbing confidently through various rings and tube slides. Her mother was feeding shovels of something gloopy to a second child in a pram.
Taylor leaned low to unclip the pup’s collar so she could untangle the leash. Bruno promptly bounced towards the playground and the little girl. The mother glanced at Taylor, practised eyes assessing the dog for threat-factor.
‘Sorry,’ Taylor called, hurrying to bring Bruno back.
‘Look at the puppy, Mummy,’ the little girl said, backtracking from her climb up the ladder to kneel in the gritty grey sand on her pretty pink skirt to play with the pup, who rolled on his back.
‘Be gentle with him, Gracie, he’s only little,’ the mother called. Her posture had relaxed, and she was now openly glad that something had come along to distract her older child while she fed the younger one.
‘Is it okay if she plays with him?’ Taylor asked the mother. ‘It’s good to socialise him, the vet told me.’
‘It’s fine. She loves animals. Don’t you, Gracie?’
‘Yes,’ Grace declared.
Taylor stayed close, but she now had a chance to look around and her heart pumped faster as, coming around the lazy corner where West Street Parade met the park, Keeley walked a few metres in front of Amanda. Amanda had her eyes down, phone in hand.
When Keeley saw Grace and the puppy, she started running. Amanda glanced up, took in Taylor, the puppy, the two kids, the other mother and the pram, and returned her attention to her phone.
She settled on a park bench. Her jeans were designer ripped, teamed with street sneakers, a fun-looking beige and white striped cardigan with a lace hem, over a white t-shirt with a lace trim above her (admittedly) very lovely set of boobs. Her hair hung loose beneath a chic hat, and dark sunglasses covered her eyes and a fair bit of her face.
Keeley beelined for Grace and the puppy, now in an ecstasy of wriggles, licks and little-girl cuddles.
‘What’s her name?’ Keeley asked, joining the first girl on her knees in the sand.
Taylor recognised a very slight lisp on the what’s that made it more whath and made a mental note: Keeley was confident enough to approach and talk to strangers, even though it was the puppy and the other little girl that helped with that and, of course, her mother wasn’t far away.
‘He’s a boy dog,’ Taylor said, checking again that Amanda’s attention remained on her phone. ‘He doesn’t have a name yet. Maybe you two girls can help me pick one? What do you think is a good name for a puppy?’
‘Sparkles,’ said the first little girl. ‘Sascha has a dog called Sparkles.’
‘Sparkles ithn’t a boy dog’s name,’ said Keeley.
What Taylor was about to do wasn’t in any text book, but she was working a theory: Taylor Woods’ theory of finding out if her brother was being scammed.
She started the line she’d rehearsed. ‘When I was a little girl, we had a dog we named after our Uncle. He was called Bruno. Do you girls have Uncles?’
‘I have Uncle Ian,’ Grace said.
‘Ian is a bit of a funny name for a dog,’ Taylor said, exaggerating her facial expressions, making both girls laugh. She stooped to their eye level, then to her knees, mirroring both little girls on their knees in the sand.
‘What about you? Did you have any Uncles? Would they make good dog names?’ Taylor directed her question to Keeley, making her voice as casual as she could, hoping it hid the knot in her throat.
Keeley flicked back a brown pigtail that had wandered over her shoulder. Her gaze met Taylor’s, brown eyes above a nose spattered with freckles.
‘Well, I have Uncle Will,’ she said, eyes sliding towards her mother.
Taylor’s pulse thrummed. It was proof Will had a special status with the little girl. But what about those other male visitors to the house? Where did they sit? Were there more Uncles? What about the guy with the gerberas and gelled hair?
‘Will is a good name, but I’m not sure it’s good for a puppy.’
‘I have Uncle Ross,’ Grace ventured.
‘Thath’s not a puppy name either,’ Keeley said, voice high-pitched with excitement, giggle running through it.
Assertive. And a little bossy.
‘We need more Uncles’ names …’ Taylor said, touching the side of her mouth, making a show of thinking. ‘Uncle Ian, Uncle Ross, Uncle Will …’
‘I have Uncle Abe,’ Keeley supplied.
Was Abe the name of the man in the blue Passat? That’s what Taylor really wanted to know. Was Abe around enough to be granted Uncle status, like Will? But what did that prove anyway? Abe could be the little girl’s real uncle for all Taylor knew.
‘Is Uncle Abe your mummy’s brother or your daddy’s brother?’ Taylor asked with half an eye on Amanda over at the park bench. She really was pushing the boundary now, not that Amanda would have noticed. Her eyes were on her phone.
‘I don’t know.’ Keeley frowned and dug a scoop of the gritty playground sand in one hand, throwing the sand to the ground. Nothing alarming about that either. At six, many children hadn’t connected the dots about aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews. ‘Uncle’ was just a name.
Suddenly, in the middle of the playground on a day that was bright blue and sunny and not sinister at all, Taylor was convinced she was being ridiculous. Her plan to pump Keeley for information about the men visiting 3/36 West Street Parade was ridiculous. Worst plan ever.
‘Gracie? Two-minute warning if you want to go for one more slide before we go …’ Grace’s mum said, smiling at Taylor, standing up and slotting food containers into compartments of the pram.
Grace stroked the puppy’s back and didn’t make a move for the slide.
‘I hads an Uncle Peter too, but he went to Heaven,’ Keeley said, keeping her voice low. ‘Is Peter a good name for a puppy?’
‘It’s not a bad name,’ Taylor said.
There were a lot of uncles in Keeley’s life. Did Keeley really mean Peter had died? Or was that a relationship that had gone sour for Amanda and she’d had to move Uncle Peter on?
‘We had a cat who went to Heaven,’ Grace added, as her mother came across to pick her daughter up from the sand and brush off her skirt. ‘We burieded him under a tree in our garden and his soul wented to Heaven.’
‘It’s sad when anything we love has to go to Heaven,’ Taylor said.
‘Mummy said not to be sad about Uncle Peter,’ Keeley offered.
‘Why was that, sweetie?’ Taylor asked.
‘Because Uncle Peter was a tight-arsed prick.’
Taylor’s stomach flipped. Only years of professional practice helped her keep her face neutral.
Grace’s mother had no such qualms about staying neutral. Grace’s mother almost pulled her little girl’s arm off as she yanked her away.
10 months later
Either Ella had run from Begg & Robertson Real Estate all the way to the Chalk ’n’ Cheese Café, or Jake had been kissing Ella senseless and that put the pink in her cheeks.
Ella Davenport blew in the café door for the pool committee meeting that Wednesday afternoon like a sea breeze on the hottest summer day.
Abe Honeychurch wished he could bottle what Ella had. He’d stick it in the coffee. He’d drink a litre of it a day and see if it made him feel less like a grey cloud. He’d sell a mountain of the stuff.
He waved at Ella as she met his gaze and smiled hello.
An extraordinary meeting of the Chalk Hill & Districts Pool Committee this one, Irene Loveday told him, with eyebrows on full alert, when she’d waltzed in the front door eight and a half minutes ago, making the chime sing.
Irene waltzed most places these days, showing off her new non-dodgy knee.
Irene had been first to get there. Irene was always first to pool committee meetings—extraordinary or otherwise—a record she went to great lengths to keep intact.
‘Hi, ladies,’ Ella greeted the three women already seated at Table 1 in the front corner, the one with the best view of Cutters Creek and Chalk Hill Bridge.
That had used to be Nanna Irma’s sitting room before he and Jake finished the renovations to turn the house into a café over the winter and spring. Abe was glad now they’d never sold Nanna Irma’s house, even though he’d been all for it at the time.
It would have been selling Honeychurch history, and their heritage, Jake had that right. Renovations kept Nanna’s house in the family, and the café kept Abe in business. Even if it was a smaller business these days than the tapas bars he’d been used to.
Some of Abe’s earliest memories were of watching horse racing with Pop in that sitting room on Saturdays, lying on his stomach on the floorboards making pretend bets and adding to his pile of coins when Pop said his bet came good.
Funny how he never lost a cent when he was eight.
‘Latte, Ella?’ Abe called across to the woman his big brother loved. She would be his sister-in-law any day now. The entire town was waiting for the BIG ANNOUNCEMENT.
‘Yes, please.’ Ella shrugged off her coat and laid it on the back of the chair. Was she flushed from the running, the kissing or because he had the wood fire stoked too high? It was sunny outside but not warm. Spring in Chalk Hill was a fickle houseguest. She took forever to unpack her bags and settle in.
‘Sorry I’m late,’ Ella apologised to the others as she sat. ‘I had to show a house to some people who were heading back to Perth today and couldn’t wait.’
Abe’s money was still on kissing. Jake and Ella ate lunch in the War Memorial Garden Park most days, especially sunny spring days like this one, and, almost always, kissing ensued when they thought no one was watching.
There was a time he would have thought all the hiding such a waste. Just kiss the girl already. These days, he was glad to see Jake happy. Abe liked Ella. She was one of the good ones.
He finished frothing the milk for Ella’s latte, poured it into the freshly brewed coffee and carried the complimentary drink to her table. First coffee for the pool committee was always free at Chalk ’n’ Cheese.
Ella thanked him, but her concentration remained on Irene, who had The Agenda.
Irene always had The Agenda.
Honestly, the pool committee meetings cracked him up. These ladies were all so earnest about the new town pool. They pored over budgets, electricity bills, chlorine levels, session revenue, lesson times and attendance numbers with every bit as much fervour as he’d once checked the Saturday Racing Form Guide.
‘What’s on The Agenda today, Irene?’ Abe asked, as he opened the lid on a glass jar of choc-chip cookies.
Had to try to be hospitable.
Had to make a good show.
‘We’re looking at applications for the swimming instructor position.’ Irene put her hand in the mouth of the cookie jar before she snatched it away. ‘No, I must be strong. I’ve lost six kilos since I got this knee done and I’m not putting them all back on.’
‘Good for you,’ Abe said, passing the jar to Sally Huxtable. The scent of cookie and coffee warmed the air every bit as much as the glow from the fire.
Sally had no such qualms about taking a cookie.
Loraine McCormack took two.
‘I didn’t know the pool position was vacant. I thought you taught the swimming lessons, Ella,’ Abe said, pausing to consider the cookie jar, deciding bugger it, just one. The day a bloke couldn’t have one of his own cookies in his own café would be an even greyer day than all the others.
‘The way real estate has taken off since the news about the water ski park and the extension to Chalk Hill Bridge Road, I’m flat out. I don’t have any time for anything at the moment.’
‘You’ve done more than enough, Ella,’ Irene said. ‘You’re not like us old ducks who have nothing better to do than stick our oar in. You’ve got the town started with the swimming lessons like you said you would. Now we take it the next step.’
‘Got any good candidates?’ Abe asked, offering Ella the cookie jar.
She waved it away. ‘Unfortunately, I have to report to the meeting that I have the sum total of zero applications received by the closing date.’
‘So we’re back to the drawing board,’ Sally sighed.
The other ladies nodded, crunched and sipped, except for Irene who stared at the cookie jar like a puppy denied a treat.
‘How many days is the job?’ Abe asked, and his gaze settled momentarily on the soft-looking redhead sitting outside on the verandah nursing a soy latte after her toasted chicken focaccia. A compact dog with a shiny black coat lay at her feet. Best behaved dog Abe had ever seen.
The woman had been here yesterday afternoon too. Walked up the street with her dog on a leash. She must be visiting a relative somewhere in town rather than passing through. Not much to keep people in Chalk Hill otherwise.
Maybe she planned on staying long enough to look for work?
Pity she didn’t look much like a swimmer.
‘Wednesdays and Saturday mornings to start, but that could grow, depending on the level of interest,’ Irene told him. ‘The school wants to start lessons next year in second term. That’ll grow the role.’
‘Do they have to be Olympic-level swimmers?’ Abe said, with a wink at Ella. ‘Will they be tested on their butterfly?’
‘I never made the Olympics,’ she said, and they all indulged her with smiles. It was Ella’s standard answer every time anyone made the Olympics comment. ‘And butterfly isn’t actually that hard, if you get taught to do it properly. I’ll teach you any day you’re willing, Abel.’
‘Knowing my luck, I’d drown,’ Abe said. ‘Who’d make your coffee then?’
Ella smiled as she sipped her latte, and Irene tapped her finger against the pages of The Agenda.
‘Leave you to it. Sing out if you want anything,’ Abe said.
He welcomed a new couple into the restaurant for lunch and settled them on the opposite side of the café on Table 3. They had a view of the street to Chalk Hill Bridge and they’d feel private from the pool committee ladies, and from another couple with a young baby, eating lunch at Table 7 nearer the service counter. The baby, a bundle in blue, had fallen asleep in his pram and the parents were making the most of what must be a blissful silence.
‘Can I get you anything else?’ Abe asked them, wondering if his smile looked as forced as it felt.
‘A piece of that chocolate orange cheesecake, please,’ the lady said. The bloke opted for a slice of Abe’s chocolate tart.
He cut slices for the customers, decorated the plates with a snow-drift of icing sugar and a fan-cut ripe strawberry, plus a dollop of cream to dress up the tart. He carried those out to the customers and then marked the desserts on their bill while he waited for a sign that the newer patrons were ready to order, and took that moment of relative calm to think about his day.
Abe, who’d always been too busy rushing through life, made himself take moments of reflection these days, and the quiet resilience of the café gave him the strength he needed to slow life down, take a breath and breathe it out.
Resilience. That was the word. Nanna Irma’s old home had been transformed into something new and vibrant when he and Jake had built Chalk ’n’ Cheese Café. It had invigorated him too for a while; given him something to get out of bed for when all he wanted to do was curl up in a ball and pull the quilt higher, higher.
In the old wood, the high ceilings, the rich depth of oiled floors, dado walls and so many years of life and love—it was all still there: history and life ran through this place. By simply taking a moment every day, Abe could listen to the old house and its message.
At least until the message got interrupted because he had to be nice to customers.
When he’d owned the tapas restaurants in the city, he hadn’t had to bother with front of house and there’d never been time for listening to the floorboards and walls. His restaurants had been all about drinks up!, order chef! ringing the bell so the wait staff could carry filled plates to the hordes. Those days had been about getting people in, getting them fed, taking their money, getting them out and then doing it all again with the next sitting.
Day after day. Night after night.
And it worked. The restaurants had made him a lot of money. Real money this time, not the piles of coins he’d won from betting on horses with Pop on Nanna’s living room floor.
Not that he had much to show for those years.
Abe shook off the angry blood that always wanted to boil when he thought about that woman, and did his best to lance the poison before it could fester.
Poison didn’t help him when he had to be pleasant.
Pulling his smile on, he strode across to see if they were ready to order at Table 3.
* * *
An hour later, the café was empty save for Ella and the redhead sitting outside with her dog. She must be getting cold. She’d pulled her coat around her shoulders. Lovely European-looking deep-green woollen coat. Designer.
Abe had been out to check if he could get her anything else. Another coffee, she’d said, voice sweet and smooth as his white chocolate tart.
Soy latte, double shot.
Abe wiped down Table 7, laid new cutlery and straightened the chrome chairs.
Ella, having waved goodbye to the other three pool committee members, came up to the service counter for a chat. She leaned her bottom on one of the jarrah bar stools lining the corner wall. People often sat there when they were snatching a baguette or sandwich for lunch on the run. Abe kept the day’s newspapers there and some tourist magazines, sometimes the odd picture book about the Great Southern region of Western Australia.
Dual purpose: give a customer something to read, they didn’t hound him with small talk.
‘So how’s business?’ Ella asked.
‘Good,’ he said simply. ‘We’re on budget, so that’s all we can ask. Especially just starting up.’
‘You must be stoked.’
Must he? ‘Yeah. I could still do with more bums on seats but you get that. Once the weather warms up …’
‘Be wildflower season soon. I wasn’t here in time for the wildflower season last year. I missed it. Jake tells me it’s spectacular. He wants to take me and Sam walking in the Porongurups. We still haven’t been up that Granite Skywalk.’
‘Neither have I,’ Abe admitted. ‘I was outta Chalk Hill before they built that thing.’
‘Well, maybe you can come with us when we do it, then.’
‘Not sure how I’ll get away from this place, but if I can, you’re on.’
‘You need to get some help when it gets busier,’ Ella said.
‘I’m managing, aren’t I?’
A frown crossed Ella’s face, but it was gone just as fast. Her attention switched to the glass windows facing Chalk Hill Bridge Road, and the redhead sitting with her dog.
‘She’s been here a while. She was here when I got here,’ Ella said, head slightly to the side as she studied his customer.
‘Came in yesterday too.’
‘City girl,’ Ella commented.
‘Yep.’ Funny how easy it was to tell. The smallest thing could give a person away, like paying too much attention to kangaroos, or cows. In the redhead’s case, it was the way she flinched when the kookaburras laughed by the bridge. Not to mention her chic tan boots and that coat. They had city written all over them. Hell, the coat said Milan.
The dog lifted his head from his paws and stared into the restaurant. The woman mimicked the animal, looking in through the glass, but after a few seconds she returned her gaze to Chalk Hill Bridge.
‘She’s nice to look at,’ Ella said.
Abe had thought the same, as well as that she had nice boobs, a sweet voice and a lovely coat; didn’t look country, or like a swimming teacher, and she had a very well-behaved dog.
‘Don’t you think she’s pretty?’ Ella prompted when Abe said nothing.
He shrugged. ‘Sure. I like her coat.’
‘I like her hair,’ Ella commented a few beats later.
Abe added her hair to the list because he liked it too. It was short, shaped around her ears, with a longer fringe pushed to the left above her eye. It didn’t sound right to call it a pixie-cut, because the woman sure wasn’t pixie-ish and the cut was sophisticated. So was she. But she did have a pretty face, all soft curves, with understated make-up highlighting the swell of her cheekbones.
It looked like a face you could trust. Except, of course, you couldn’t.
You couldn’t trust anyone these days, not till you got to know them, and sometimes not even then. The world was full of scammers and liars, and women who’d sell their own child if it netted them enough cash.
* * *
Taylor Woods took a moment to freshen her lipstick and wondered how much longer she could get away with holding up the table. It was getting late and the restaurant was empty, except for the woman inside who wouldn’t leave. Abel would want to close up shop soon.
She glanced through the glass windows, but the woman was still there. Honestly, she was taking forever to fix up her bill.
Taylor’s gaze returned to the pretty bridge about fifty metres downhill from the café, the brown creek rushing under it. She could hear the water from here.
That was about all she could hear, which was a tad disconcerting. Where were the distant ambulance sirens, planes overhead, traffic, disgruntled drivers’ car horns?
It was her second night in the area and she hadn’t got used to the quiet. Just when the silent country lulled a girl into relaxing, those kookaburras would laugh out loud and she’d jump near out of her skin.
Taylor pulled her coat more tightly around her shoulders because not only was it too quiet, it was cold in the country too. She wished the customer in the restaurant would hurry up and leave because her courage was fading fast as the afternoon sunlight.
Then again, Abel Honeychurch was a good-looking guy. Taylor really couldn’t blame any woman for staying to chat. She shivered again. Especially when that chat could take place in a café that smelled of country cooking and polished timber, and had a roaring wood fire.
She’d chickened out yesterday. There’d been one moment where she’d had an opening. Abel had come out to collect her lunch cutlery, and he’d hunkered down on one knee to give Bruno a rub behind his ears, managing to find the exact spot Bruno loved. He’d complimented her on how well behaved Bruno was … said he was the best behaved dog he’d seen at his café.
Taylor had taken a deep breath, steeled herself to ask him about Amanda, and whether he’d been scammed by her too, and whether he’d known about William Woods, her brother … but then all she’d said was: ‘Could I have another double shot soy latte? Please.’
She’d spent last night in a cabin at the only dog-friendly caravan park in Mount Barker, kicking herself for being such a scaredy cat, and today—come what may—would be the day she’d broach the subject of Amanda. Today, she’d ask Abe if he could help her get justice against the woman who’d scammed her brother and ruined Will’s life.
How many other men had Amanda robbed?
Taylor had tried for months to get Will to pursue Amanda for the money, go to the police—report Amanda as a scammer—and he wouldn’t do it. He was too embarrassed. Too worried about what it would do to his career. The only thing she’d been able to get Will to do was write a formal Letter of Demand.
‘You tell me how it looks if word gets out that William Woods, Financial Adviser, Chartered Accountant with a heap of fancy letters after his name, got scammed out of more than thirty thousand dollars? Hey, Tayls? You tell me how that looks? I’d be laughed out of Perth.’
Her brother had always been a happy kind of guy, the type of guy people knew they could count on. He was the guy who stopped to help someone change a flat tyre, the man who gave up his seat for the old lady on the bus.
Not anymore. All this year, Will had been broken.
At the heart of it, there was a big part of Will that wanted to give Amanda the benefit of the doubt. There was a bigger part of him that remembered how happy he’d been, and wanted to be happy again.
That was why Taylor stopped pressing him. That was why enlisting Abel Honeychurch’s help was Plan B.
A car chugged to a stop in the restaurant carpark and Taylor sighed. More customers, and the lady in the restaurant might as well be a structural timber the way she was holding up the service counter.
Taylor checked her watch. It was almost four. The drive into Mount Barker took the best part of half an hour and, at this rate, it looked like she and Bruno were in for another night in the dog-friendly park. She couldn’t broach the topic of Amanda and Will if she couldn’t get Abel on his own.
‘Whaddaya think, mate? Shall we make tracks?’ Taylor asked, and Bruno’s black ears pricked at the question in her voice. ‘I’ll go pay our bill. Stay there.’
The new customer, a blonde girl in her early twenties, put a spurt on when she saw Taylor get up from her chair, so it didn’t surprise her when the girl got through the doors and up to the service counter first.
Taylor trailed behind, reaching into her handbag for her purse.
‘Could I have a flat white and a regular latte to go, please?’ the new customer ordered.
Abel got busy with the coffee machine, making up the order, all efficient arms and smooth movement. The smell and noise of grinding beans filled the café.
Taylor noticed the other woman, the customer who’d been there most of the afternoon, appraising her quite openly from where she sat.
Taylor smiled tentatively, and the woman returned her smile.
‘Visiting friends down here, are you?’ the woman asked.
City-girl Taylor was a bit shocked to be addressed directly by a stranger in a café, and she glanced about to make sure the question was indeed meant for her. In the end, she touched her chest with a finger and checked: ‘Me?’
The woman nodded.
‘Um. No. I’m not visiting friends. I don’t know anyone here.’
‘Oh.’ The woman frowned. ‘Then where are you staying? Abe said you were here yesterday and there’s no accommodation in Chalk Hill. There will be soon.’ The woman tipped her chin to indicate to her right. ‘The house next door is going to be converted into a backpacker lodge and country cottages, but it’s not built yet.’
‘I’m staying in Mount Barker at the caravan park. The one that will let you have dogs.’
Abel put two coffees on the counter in front of the blonde customer and rang up the charges. The girl took the lids off, stirring sugars into the takeaway cups and then hunted through her shoulder bag as the cash drawer opened into Abe’s tummy with a rattle.
She put her shoulder bag on the counter and opened the bag wider, rummaging through it.
‘I’m so sorry. I think I must’ve left my purse in the car,’ the girl said, smiling. ‘I’ll take these to my friend and be right back with the money.’
Abel came out from behind the counter, smiling broadly in the navy and white striped apron that covered his clothes. ‘It’s okay. I’ll come out with you.’
‘Oh please, you don’t need to do that. I’m so embarrassed. I’ll only be a minute.’
‘It’s no trouble,’ he insisted.
‘It’s okay. Really, I’ll be right back.’
Abel replaced the lids on the two cups of coffee that the girl had now sweetened. He picked the cups up. ‘I’ll carry them for you.’
‘But you have other customers.’ She waved towards Taylor and the lady sitting on the bar stool near the counter.
‘They’re fine,’ Abel said, not looking at either of the other ladies, concentrating on the blonde.
‘I hate putting you out.’
He wasn’t having it. ‘It’s no trouble. Save you the trip.’
His words got more and more brisk, the sentences shorter, his smile tighter, and by the time he said ‘save you the trip’ he was pretty much marching in front of the girl, out the door, with the coffees gripped in each hand like truncheons.
Taylor and the friendly stranger watched the entire thing.
The door chimed behind them, leaving the two women alone in the café. Taylor leaned across the service counter and hooked her hand on the cash drawer, pushing it shut.
‘Sorry about that. It’s just Abe being Abe,’ the other woman said, letting out a sigh. The spark had gone from her eyes, and the set of her chin spoke of sad times and trouble.
What she couldn’t have known was that Taylor could take a pretty good stab at exactly what Abel’s trouble was, and what had caused it.
She’d seen Will go through the exact same thing.
Trust was such a bugger when it got broke.