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  • Published: 2 August 2022
  • ISBN: 9781760899431
  • Imprint: Michael Joseph
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 352
  • RRP: $32.99

The Happiest Little Town



It wasn’t the happiest of beginnings. Tilly tried to pretend it would be okay, that somehow, miraculously, everything would turn out for the best, but the rain soon dampened her foolish hopes. The rain, the winding road that climbed into the mountains, twisting and curling like a snake, and the giant trees hanging over the bitumen, their leaves dripping, blocking out the sunlight. The gloom of it made her more wretched than ever. And disgustingly carsick.

She knew her mum wouldn’t have wanted this. Her mother would never have dreamed of sending her precious only child away from sunny Cairns, away from her circle of friends and her school where at least a couple of the teachers were cool. And her mum certainly wouldn’t have sent her to the boring old Tablelands where there was nothing but farmland and hardly any shops, and absolutely nowhere for kids to hang out.

Everyone knew the cafés up there only served tea and scones and were full of boring, wrinkly old folk. And it was always raining.

She might as well be heading for Mars. Actually, Mars would probably be way more interesting than a pathetic little nowhere town like Burralea.

Tears burned her eyes and threatened to spill, but she’d been crying for weeks now and she didn’t want Jed to see her crying again, although he deserved to feel bad. He should feel guilty as hell, seeing as he planned to dump her with some unknown woman and just abandon her.


Chapter One

Five days earlier . . .

For the first time in months, possibly years, Kate Sheridan was happy. Happy with an over-the-top joyousness that had her bounding out of bed every morning and looking forward to each new day.

Admittedly, her bubbling emotions were probably eighty percent excitement and twenty percent nervousness, but it was wonderful to feel alive and hopeful again. And it was all thanks to the van.

Amazing really, that a divorcee in her early fifties should feel so utterly thrilled about a second-hand, almost six-year-old former tradie van. But Kate had such wonderful plans for renovating her van’s interior, as evidenced by the layout designs crammed into her notebook, and the oodles of pictures saved to her Pinterest page.

Countless hours she’d spent in research, watching YouTube videos of the most gorgeous renos, reading books and blogs and listening to podcasts about the process. She’d had doubts, of course, huge doubts about her handywoman skills, but she’d been encouraged by the discovery that plenty of other women had managed this fanciful endeavour solo.

The messages about getting started were nearly always the same. Don’t be overwhelmed. Just take it slowly, step by step.

Already, Kate had taken the first of these steps, bravely stripping the van’s insides and having a side panel replaced with one that would allow her to sleep across the van rather than lengthways. And, having padded the walls with insulation, she’d begun the challenging task of lining them with tongue-and-groove timber.

This ambitious task was only half finished. Kate had needed to seal the timber first – two coats on either side – before hammering the panelling together with a rubber mallet, wood glue and patience.

The occasional bent board had proved a nightmare, but she’d learned to discard these, rather than agonise over getting them to fit, and she was already loving the transformation. A timber interior gave her little van an enchanting air of timeless charm.

She also had a host of exciting plans for overhead cupboards, racks and shelves. She’d even found a little triangle of ancient stained glass in a second-hand shop that she planned to incorporate into her design.

Although her project was still in its infancy, Kate allowed herself to dream about hitting the road and heading off . . . somewhere . . . anywhere . . .

Possibly because she’d lived in North Queensland for most of her life, she especially liked to picture herself in the wintry south, cosy in her beautiful, timber-lined van and sipping a mug of luscious hot chocolate as she gazed out at a stunning vista of sea and southern skies. Oh, the freedom!

Of course, Kate still faced a huge mountain of work ahead of her. Right now, the little garden shed that came with her rented cottage was stacked to the rafters with pieces of timber in every length and thickness, as well as finds from op shops. And that was without the carpenter’s tools, including jigsaw and a nail gun, both of which Kate actually knew how to use, thanks to a series of useful tutorials on YouTube.

Kate was determined to create the cutest outfit on four wheels. Then, she would set off on the adventure of a lifetime, the adventure she deserved.

Her spirits took a small dive, though, when she looked out her bedroom window to find her van shrouded in misty rain. Again. For the third morning in a row. If this weather kept up, which it probably would – this was autumn in the Atherton Tablelands, after all – she would have to erect a tarpaulin to work under.

Not a problem, Kate told herself as she swung out of bed, shoved her feet into slippers and pulled on her dressing gown, knotting the sash firmly to emphasise her determination. She couldn’t be put off by a little drizzle. After all, the farmers in these mountains spent their entire lives stomping around in mud and rain, and at least it was cool up here, which was a welcome change after the steaming heat and humidity of Cairns.

Besides, she thought, as she spooned oatmeal into a saucepan, the rented cottage she’d found was a charming stopgap. Perched on a hillside a few kilometres out of Burralea, it offered gorgeous views of rolling green countryside. Bonus, it was cheap, and it wasn’t too far from the hardware store.

Anyway, Kate couldn’t have stayed in Cairns. It was just too horrible with everyone talking about her behind her back, and giving her pitying looks. She was sick of being poor Kate.

The entire city seemed to know the sordid details of her ex-husband’s fall from grace, including the fact that Stan had run away to Cambodia, where there was no extradition agreement with Australia, which meant he’d be almost impossible to extract. To add to the disgrace, Stan had taken off with his former business partner’s wife, plus far more than their fair share of the company’s profits.

This ghastly news had been front-page headlines in the Cairns Post, and splashed all over the internet, as well as being gossiped about on the local TV and radio stations.

Throughout the shameful debacle, Kate’s friends had been amazingly supportive, which was very sweet of them. Bringing her comfort food and buckets of wine, they’d even abandoned their own families as they’d sat with her, telling her not to listen to all the gossip. But although Kate had divorced Stan a good two years before this latest scandal erupted – and had believed she was well shot of him – she’d still had to face the stares in the supermarket, the whispers and shocked glances.

She’d grown tired of hanging onto a tight, brave smile, while thanking people for their sympathy, when all she’d really wanted to do was to angrily agree that yes, her ex was a lying cheat and a womanising conman. And yes, it was just appalling that one of Cairns’s most popular tourist operators had not only lost his wife to this prick, but had been so financially stripped that he’d been forced to sell his charter boats, leaving his tourist business in tatters.

The emotional turmoil of being linked via gossip to her infamous ex had been far, far worse than the divorce. It didn’t help that Kate had felt a fool all over again for having once loved this man. She’d lost count of the hours she’d lain awake until 4am, battling regrets for the choices she’d made, primarily the major life choice of marrying a charming guy with sparkling green eyes and an off-kilter moral compass.

She’d been quite certain she had to get away.

‘But why would you move to the Tablelands?’ her daughter Pippa had demanded over the phone when she’d heard Kate’s plans.

‘Why wouldn’t I?’ had been Kate’s immediate response. ‘It’s beautiful up here.’

‘But you don’t know anyone.’

That was the general idea. A clean slate. Freedom. Anonymity and starting over.

Already, Kate was loving the rural vibe – the fresh air and farmlands, not to mention the lakes and rainforests, and the slower-paced lifestyle. These days, instead of driving to a multi-storey car park and traipsing through a massive shopping complex, she bought almost all her fruit and veg from farmers’ markets, or from small individual shops with friendly staff always ready for a chat.

‘Can’t you move here to Townsville?’

‘You don’t need me in Townsville. You’ve got David. And your job and your friends.’

‘But what if we have a baby?’

This silenced Kate for a moment. ‘You’re not pregnant, are you, Pipps?’ She hoped she didn’t sound too unenthusiastic, as she imagined babysitting expectations interfering with her travel plans. Please, no. Pippa was only twenty-five after all, and she and David weren’t even married, although Kate was well aware that young people these days quite happily planned for parenthood with no thought of a wedding.

‘No,’ Pippa admitted. ‘I’m not pregnant. But David and I have been talking about it.’

‘Well, then.’ Kate was only a little ashamed of the wave of relief that washed over her. She loved both her daughters, of course she did, loved them fiercely. And it was for the girls’ sakes that she had stayed with selfish, sly Stan for all the years their daughters had lived at home, which on reflection had not been her smartest decision, but had seemed important at the time.

‘Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves,’ Kate said now. ‘I’ve found a rather sweet little cottage to rent. It’s not far from Burralea – and anyway, I’ve had enough of the heat in Cairns,’ she added as an extra excuse. ‘Working on the van is quite hard physical work and it’s so much cooler on the Tablelands. I’ll be able to get the refit done a lot faster.’

‘And then you’ll just take off.’ There was no missing the reproach in her daughter’s voice.

Well, yes. Kate understood that her van renovation and travel plans had come rather out of the blue for her daughters. It certainly wasn’t the sort of project that would have even remotely interested their father. Stan wouldn’t have had the patience. Which was possibly why Kate had embraced it with so much enthusiasm.

At least her younger daughter, Chelsea, was too busy getting on with her brilliant legal career in Brisbane – and her even more dazzling social life, by all reports – to worry too much about either of her parents.

‘I won’t be gone forever, love.’

Call her selfish, but now that she’d sold her house, paid out the mortgage and was doing up the van on a sensible budget, Kate was completely in love with her new, free and unencumbered status.

For the first time in a very long time, she was doing exactly what she wanted. And she was happy.

The Happiest Little Town Barbara Hannay

The uplifting new novel by the bestselling author of The Garden of Hopes and Dreams

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Buy now

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