Eve and Thom are getting married. Well, that’s what Eve had assumed would follow Thom’s proposal, but when presented with the opportunity of a dream wedding by the stunning Italian Amalfi Coast at a mere fraction of the cost, he makes it obvious he does not share her level of enthusiasm – perhaps because the wedding would be held on the property of a certain roguishly handsome Italian named Paulo, whose intentions towards Eve may have previously proven less than honourable?
Gianni has lived a life of excess, but now his health is failing and he is haunted by the misdeeds of his youth. Eve and Thom’s wedding presents him with the opportunity to return home to the property he had once shared with his ex-wife, Juliette, and their feckless son, Paolo, for the first time in many years. But though Gianni quickly realises that his love for Juliette is undiminished, will she ever find it within herself to forgive him for the wounds of the past?
Gianni wants nothing more than a better life for his son, but Paolo is following too closely in his father’s footsteps – successful restaurateur and businessmen, but ruthless in his lusty pursuit of the opposite sex. Can Gianni divert Paolo from the empty path he is in danger of treading before it is too late, and will his attempts to do so inadvertently draw him closer to Juliette? And is there a woman out there who can possibly inspire in Paolo a genuine desire to delve beyond only the superficial?
Meanwhile, Eve is of the belief she has left the thriving business that has become her true vocation, The Melbourne Community Café, in the safe hands of a small and responsible staff. But could one mistake cost her her livelihood once and for all?
It was a familiar, heavily accented drawl. Rather sexy really, if Eve was free to think so.
She brought the phone closer to her ear the better to hear Paolo above the hum of The Melbourne Community Cafe that she had opened in a trendy suburb in England’s northeast late the previous year; and gestured to her colleague, Bex, that she had to take this call. She threw a cheery wave at her chef as she was blasted by the heat from his kitchen on route to a back yard bereft of customers due to the unseasonably chilly July day. There were fears that summer might bypass Britain altogether that year, but after the busy morning Eve had had she was grateful for the feel of the cool, refreshing air on her flushed cheeks.
‘Paolo? How lovely to hear from you! How are you? How is your restaurant going?’
She’d first met Paolo back when she’d taken over the lease to his father’s Italian restaurant the previous year, thus enabling their move to larger premises on the more upmarket quayside close to the city centre. The pair had maintained friendly and sporadic contact ever since, despite her rather embarrassing rejection of his impromptu proposal at her café, in favour of pursuing a relationship with her best friend Emily’s younger brother, Thom. ‘Gotten over my cruel rejection of you yet?’ she teased.
‘Yes, yes, I am very well, thank you,’ replied Paolo dismissively. ‘And you will be pleased to hear that I have shared my erm, heart, with many a fine-looking woman since last I saw you. And guess what? Vista has just won its very first Michelin star – the first of many I expect.’
Eve could hear the pride in his voice, seasoned with more than a hint of his characteristic arrogance. ‘I’m pleased to hear it – I think. And congratulations, what an impressive achievement! Your parents must be very proud.’
‘Naturally. And what about you – is the cafe still going well?’
‘Very well, actually.’
In fact, they’d been pretty much snowed under since they’d first opened their doors eight months ago. Despite Eve’s initial reservations that the Geordie palate might not be ready to embrace something like this, it seemed the local appetite for nourishing Melbourne-style breakfasts and unbeatably Australian-quality coffee was immense. After a few months of breaking even she’d been able to start paying herself and her staff a living wage instead of in free food and goodwill which unfortunately didn’t pay one’s bills.
‘I knew it would be so,’ Paolo affirmed. ‘Did I not say it would be so? Yes, yes, I believe I did!’
Actually he’d been far too busy making passes at Eve to give her much in the way of constructive business advice, so he needn’t give himself too much credit.
‘And are you still with the handyman?’ Paolo derided. ‘Or was it the Aussie weakling who won your heart in the end?’
Eve rolled her eyes at his caustic sarcasm. Before Thom, James had been the greatest love of her life. She’d met him during her years living and working as a nurse in Australia, but their mutual inability to commit to living permanently in either England or Australia had sealed the fate of that particular relationship, resulting in her moving back home for good to start over again at the grand old age of thirty – at a time when most of her friends were either happily married or climbing the corporate ladder – or both! Last she’d seen on Facebook, James had gotten romantically involved with a petite blonde colleague of his with pneumatic breasts; and Eve had moved on to the extent that she was genuinely pleased for him and could wish him only the best.
She glanced down at her sparkling engagement ring and flushed with happiness all over again. It still felt so new she couldn’t stop looking at the ring or spinning it round her finger to admire the design and appreciate how nice it looked on her hand. No one had been more surprised than her when Thom had proposed after a whirlwind romance and a night of top nosh and pampering in a stunning stately home. At four years her junior Eve was anticipating that though she was ready to take such a big step, he might need more time to catch up, but she’d been pleasantly proven wrong.
‘Yes, I’m still with the handyman,’ she grinned, though her fiance was more than just a handyman – in her opinion he was a creative and accomplished craftsman. ‘We’re getting married actually.’ Well, at some point in the future they were – they’d yet to work out the finer details.
‘Married?’ The binding prospect of wedlock was clearly horrifying to Paolo, who only mere months ago was proposing the very same thing himself. Eve thanked God she’d had the sense to refuse him – though if good looks, business acumen and acreage had been the deciding factors she may have been tempted otherwise. ‘Congratulations! I think.’
‘Gee, thanks!’ Eve tapped her foot impatiently. ‘Is there a reason you called today, Paolo? Only the café’s rather busy, and I need to get back inside to help.’ She managed a small, close-knit staff of three – and at peak times one really felt the absence of the other.
‘Do I need a particular reason to call my good friend?’
‘No, I suppose not.’
‘Well yes, there is a reason – I am actually calling to ask you a favour. My father ees sick and I am too busy with the restaurant to give him the support he needs – he should not be working so hard at his age. I think he would be happier here, at home with his family, and with some fresh Italian sea air in his lungs.’
‘Gosh, Paolo, I’m so sorry to hear that. I do hope it’s nothing serious?’ Eve had warmed very much to Paolo’s father, Gianni, and grew concerned. After all, he smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish, but he was otherwise a very gregarious old soul.
‘I wondered if you could persuade him to take a short break and come stay with my mother and I here in Italy where he can be properly looked after.’
‘Your mother? Wouldn’t that be a little awkward?’ Eve didn’t know the finer details but was aware that Paolo’s parents had divorced many years ago, and that it had been acrimonious to say the least.
‘Pah – is all in the past,’ Paolo dismissed. ‘Infidelity ees practically a way of life here.’
Eve doubted that was strictly true and was grateful she hadn’t been tempted to accept his proposal even for a moment, if that was his true stance on marriage.
‘You and your fiancé would be most welcome to come visit us too,’ he continued persuasively. ‘I am sure a break would benefit you both greatly, and you will see ees very beautiful here. In the Summer we sometimes hold weddings on our property – my mother’s business – but only very small, intimate gatherings you understand.’ His emphasis of the word intimate was unashamedly flirtatious. ‘I’m sure she would be very happy to arrange something for you, at mite’s rites of course, and in return I would like you to bring my father to me.’
Eve bit her lip – she must admit the offer was tempting. She hadn’t taken a break since a trip to England a couple of years ago to fulfill bridesmaid duties at her best friend Emily’s wedding back when she was still living with James in Australia, and really, does a visit home even count? Since then she’d had her heart broken, moved back home for good, started up her own business, and fallen in love all over again. Running a cafe was mentally demanding not to mention hard, physical work – she was on her feet six days a week and sometimes she felt weary to her very bones. A week or two on the Amalfi coast sounded heavenly, she could picture it now – fine wines, hearty food, summer sun, and the Mediterranean Sea…
She had hoped to marry sooner rather than later, and now they were being offered a dream wedding at only a fraction of the cost! But somehow she didn’t think Thom would take too kindly to the idea of spending so much time with a former amour of hers – even if the amour had all been on Paolo’s side. And besides, who would run the café for her in her absence?
‘I’m happy to help you out insofar as your father’s concerned,’ she replied carefully, ‘but the rest, well, I’ll have to think about it and get back to you. It would be very tricky to find someone to manage the café for me at such short notice.’
‘I understand, so please take your time! And thank you, Eve, I appreciate your help. My father is a proud and stubborn man as you know – he will not like to admit that he is struggling.’
‘I’ll see what I can do. Now, was there anything else?’ She hoped not, because she really needed to be getting back.
Paolo paused. ‘Yes – are you wearing those sexy tight black work pants of yours right now? Mmm…’
Eve could hear the grin in his voice alongside the hint of suggestion – he clearly still couldn’t help himself when an opportunity for flirtatious banter with a member of the opposite sex presented itself. ‘Goodbye, Paolo.’
‘Goodbye, bella Eve, dream of me tonight!’
It was late on a Saturday morning and already they were over-run with customers whose optimistic summer outings had been cut short in favour of hot drinks and hearty breakfasts to cheer their spirits and warm their bellies. The grey sky was threatening rain and the British summer looked set to be a washout. Right now Eve thought that a holiday on the Amalfi coast couldn’t be more appealing, and she was sure her half her customers would agree with her.
‘Who was that?’ Bex asked curiously when she had a moment, brushing her short, spiky fringe out of her face. Blue was the hair colour of choice this week – she’d dyed it so many colours now that Eve barely noticed any more.
Bex had been Eve’s closest friend and confidante when she’d lived in Melbourne. She’d gone travelling around Europe following a nasty break-up but had ended up cutting her trip short to proffer her barista skills and experience to Eve; assisting her with the initial set up of her cafe thus enabling her to provide Aussie-standard coffee to the northeast’s caffeine-hungry masses. Before Bex came along Eve’s coffee-making abilities had been seriously lacking and the cafe couldn’t possibly have survived without her skills and input. Soon after Bex had fallen in love with Harry, their handsome colleague with a complicated past, and decided to stay in Newcastle for good – or at least for as long as her UK visa would allow. Together the two couples rented out the little two-bed flat above the cafe that was donated to them after its sole inhabitant, a regular of theirs, moved in with their cantankerous but brilliant chef.
‘It was Paolo!’
‘Paolo?’ Bex was shocked. ‘I didn’t think he’d be in touch again after you humiliated him in front of half of Newcastle!’
‘I did not humiliate him!’ Eve protested. ‘He humiliated himself with his over-inflated ego – he didn’t think for one second anyone would dare turn him down. He doesn’t seem to have taken it too badly anyway – by the sounds of it he’s slept with half of Italy’s female population since then.’
‘Well of course that’s what he wants you to think, though admittedly where Paolo’s concerned it’s probably true. He’s not my type but he is a good looking guy and he can be very charming and persistent when he wants something.’
‘He’s offered Thom and I the opportunity to get married at his mother’s property in Italy this summer – on condition that I bring his father over to him. He’s sick apparently, and Paolo’s worried he’s been working too hard.’
‘Whoa!’ Bex’ eyes widened in surprise. ‘That’s quite an offer, but I don’t think Thom will be too keen on the idea, do you? It took you two so long to get together after he’d fended off all the competition that I doubt he’s going to risk letting you go again when he’s this close to getting you to the altar!’
‘Exactly,’ Eve nodded.
‘Then again, weddings don’t exactly come cheap and you’re fond of old Gianni, aren’t you? You could probably do with a holiday, and an Italian wedding would be amazing!’
‘If we were to marry there, our guests would all get a holiday too…’
‘Ooo – it has to be a yes, obviously, because I quite fancy a holiday – you’ve been working me too hard! I strongly suggest you work your magic on Thom when he gets home from work tonight.’
Eve groaned. She was not at all convinced she could convince him – they’d only just gotten engaged and hadn’t quite worked out what would come next. ‘That’s what I’m worried about. That, and what on earth I would do about the cafe.’
Her small staff was composed of some of her closest friends – if she entrusted the cafe to the care of either one of them she’d be forced to forfeit having them as guests to her special day. There was no-one else who could step in and sometimes they struggled to keep things afloat as they were – they really couldn’t afford to be even just one man down.
‘Well, we can’t be expected to work every day of the year now, can we?’ Bex reassured her. ‘I’m sure our customers would understand if you shut up shop for a few days just as a one-off. In fact I think they’d be really happy for you.’
As Eve regarded her bustling cafe and the queue of customers snaking to the door she wasn’t quite so sure.
‘No, no and no!’ Frustration marred Thom’s handsome features, his reddening cheeks contrasting with his fair, sandy hair.
It was later that evening and Eve had tried every trick in her repertoire to convince him they should go to Italy together but he was having none of it. She’d begged, pleaded, seduced, flattered, and even cooked him his favourite meal but it was no use; his mind was made up. She was running out of options short of outright feminine manipulation, which in her view should only be utilised as a last resort – if at all.
‘Oh come on, Thom.’ She leaned forwards seductively across the small dining table for two that only just slotted into their flat’s narrow galley kitchen. ‘We’re trying to save up for a deposit on a place of our own – wouldn’t that be so much easier with the expense of a wedding mostly taken care of? The lease on this place runs out in less than a year – how amazing would it be to move straight from here into our very own house? If we don’t take this opportunity it could be years before we can afford it! And we’re not getting any younger – we’ve talked about starting a family fairly soon. If nothing else we both deserve a holiday – I’ve worked non-stop for over a year getting the cafe into gear, and you haven’t taken a break either within that time.’ She wasn’t afraid to use every argument that came to mind. ‘We’re being offered the chance to holiday somewhere idyllic, to marry somewhere most people can only dream of, and all whilst doing a good turn for old Gianni in the process – I really am worried about him, you know.’
Thom’s cerulean-blue eyes darkened with frustration, and Eve could sense she was walking that fine line between cute, wheedling girlfriend and nagging, pushy girlfriend. If she didn’t stop here she risked casting quite the shadow over their evening if not their entire weekend and she really didn’t want to do that – he’d end up even less likely to change his mind!
‘Eve…’ he warned. ‘We’ve only just gotten engaged! And Paolo fancies the bloomin’ knickers off you!’
‘But Paolo knows we’d be going over there to get married – I’m pretty sure even he would realise that’s hardly the best time to start a fling.’
Thom glared at her.
‘Ok, ok, I’ll leave it there. But it really does make a lot of sense for us to go.’ Eve risked a final appeal to the logic-centre of the male brain. ‘Rather than just writing it off as a no-go, can you do me a favour and at least think about it?’
Thom sighed. ‘If it’ll keep you quiet and we can get on with this fine dinner you’ve made me before it goes stone cold, then yes, I’ll think about it.’ He grinned sexily and the mounting tension between them instantly dissipated.
‘Promise?’ she asked.
‘If this bolognese tastes as good as it looks then yes, I promise. Can we drop it now, please?’
It seemed she had won the battle – but would she win the war? ‘Yes,’ she smiled, clinking her glass of red wine against his before heartily tucking in to her pasta, a small smile playing about her lips – bolognese would surely taste so much better in its native country!
When eventually they slipped into bed and Thom had drifted off to a light snore and Eve lay enveloped in his arms pressed against the hard and comforting warmth of his body; she couldn’t help but imagine herself walking towards him in a flowing white wedding dress, her bridesmaids in blush trailing behind her to a backdrop of flowers and mountains, and sea the same deep shade of blue as Thom’s eyes.