Happiness in Hallburg #4
November 21, 2023

Puppy Love and Christmas Joy

When Ella Hayden moves to Hallburg, Maryland, with her six-year-old daughter, Joy, Ella hopes to find a new job. She is excited to be in her cousin’s wedding and move into her apartment. But she doesn’t expect an encounter with her cousin’s old two-timing boyfriend, Tony Zanetti, or the job offer in his family’s restaurant.

Tony’s life has taken a turn for the worse with the loss of his finance job and his fiancée. He wants to help his mom make the family restaurant a viable operation, but he doesn’t want this gig long term. When Ella asks him to adopt a cute puppy in hopes that Joy will eventually love it, he agrees—in his efforts to be a better person.

As Tony and Ella interact, he fears falling for another woman too fast, and Ella is leery of his track record with women. Will Joy be able to bring Tony and her mom together with the help of a cute pup?

Chapter One

“Anthony Zanetti! What are you doing?”

Tony looked up from the chicken cutlets he was breading to see his mother’s frown. “Doing what you told me.”

Rosa Zanetti dragged a chicken cutlet through the breadcrumbs with a haphazard motion. “This is not what I showed you.”

Tony frowned in return. “Looks the same to me.”

“You need to make sure every inch of that chicken cutlet is covered in breadcrumbs.” Rosa patted the cutlet.

Tony sighed. “Okay.”

She poked a gloved finger into Tony’s chest. “You’d better get it right.”

For a fleeting moment, Tony thought of throwing the chicken cutlet in the trash and stomping out of the restaurant’s kitchen. But doing so would only prove to his mother that he was irresponsible, had no manners, and was a loser. He couldn’t have that.

How had his life ended up like this? Moving back home. Working in his mother’s restaurant. Trying to prove to his mother that he was a good son. He sighed again as he pushed the cutlet into the breadcrumbs and hoped he’d done it right this time.

He’d gotten a lot of stuff wrong. Could he ever make it right?

“I hope you remember you’re expected to help at the pet adoption tomorrow.” Rosa gave him a pointed look.

“Yes, I remember.” How could he forget Hallburg’s quarterly pet adoption when she reminded him at every turn?

“I hope you’ll say hi to Lesley for me.”

“I doubt she wants to talk to me.” What was his mother trying to do—make him more miserable than he already was? “Besides, will you be able to do without me here?”

“Sofia is coming to help me in the morning.”

“Why can’t she help you every day instead of me?”

“Tony, Tony, Tony.” Rosa pinched his cheek as if he were five years old. “You know I’m trying to teach you the restaurant business so you can carry on the family tradition, especially now that your father is gone—God rest his soul. You should be thankful for this place and the fact it gives you a job, since you don’t have that fancy finance job anymore.”

Another sore reminder. Would they haunt him at every turn? And then there was the family tradition. He’d wanted nothing to do with the family tradition. That was why he’d gotten a business degree and found work outside the restaurant. But his mother brought up the demise of his career whenever he complained about working here. The restaurant business wasn’t in his blood, but he doubted he could convince her.

Rosa waved a finger at him. “I expect to hear that you’ve spoken to Lesley. Such a wonderful girl. You tell her to come have a dinner on me.”

“Really, Ma? I think that’s the last thing she wants to do.”

“You tell her to bring her fiancé and the kids, too.” Rosa pressed her lips together, almost as if fighting back tears, as she stirred a pot on the stove. “You know you crushed my heart when you broke up with that sweet girl. She was like a daughter to me.”

Tony breaded another piece of chicken and used every bit of his willpower not to shout at his mother. He’d made some stupid decisions in the past few years. One of those was dumping Lesley for the woman who’d eventually dumped him. He’d made peace with his bad decision, or at least that was what he kept telling himself. His mother hadn’t made peace with his misguided decision. That was the problem.

“I know, Ma, but Lesley’s happy with someone new, and you need to accept that.”

“I’ve accepted it, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Ten years you were together. She was like family.” Rosa clanged the spoon down on the nearby counter. “At least you had the sense to get rid of that bimbo Jordan. She would’ve made a terrible wife.”

“Yeah, you don’t have to tell me again.” He should feel guilty for letting his mother think he’d been the one to end things with Jordan, but he didn’t. Would the truth eventually find its way to his mother’s ears? If it did, he’d probably never hear the end of it. Just like never hearing the end of how much his mom missed Lesley.

He loved his mom, but she could be overbearing in a devoted way. Devotion that nearly smothered him. Now that his dad was gone, Tony felt an obligation to do his mother’s bidding. He’d been living for himself and not thinking much of others. The loss of his job and his fiancée had made him examine his life, and he’d come up wanting in a big way.

Tony plopped another breaded cutlet onto the nearby plate. “Ma, just let me finish this without any more talk of Lesley or anything to do with my love life. I’m swearing off women for a while.”

Rosa huffed. “Maybe that’s a good idea. More time for you to learn the restaurant business.”

Tony resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He would have to learn to live with his mother’s constant wish that he’d learn the family business. As he ruminated, a knock sounded on the back door.

“That’s probably the bread delivery.” Rosa peeled off her gloves and scurried to the door.

Tony frowned but continued to make more breaded cutlets. Hopefully, a lot of people would be ordering chicken parm today. He couldn’t fathom why his mother loved this.

A squeal pierced the air, and Tony rushed to the back door. “Mom, what’s the matter?”

“Tony, look who’s here.” Rosa’s faced beamed. “It’s Lesley.”

Tony’s stomach sank. He tried to smile, but the sight of his old girlfriend made him want to run in the other direction. He took a calming breath. He had to learn to live with the decisions he’d made. Lesley was no longer in his life. She’d moved on and found a new love. He was happy for her, but the realization that she was marrying someone else still carried a little hurt. Hurt he had brought on himself.

“Hi, Lesley. Nice to see you. I hope everything’s going well.” He hoped the smile he pasted on his face disguised his real feelings.

Lesley gave him a lopsided smile. “I didn’t know you were working in the restaurant now.”

He nodded, his heart sad for the way he’d treated her. “Ma has recruited me. She’s trying to make me into a cook, but I’m a below-average student.”

Rosa shook her head as she glanced between Tony and Lesley. She waved a hand at him. “He’s just saying that because he doesn’t think he’s cut out for the restaurant business. I’m trying to show him that isn’t so.”

Lesley eyed him, sympathy painting her gaze. “If anyone can teach him how to cook, it’ll be you, Rosa.”

His mother beamed. “Thank you. So glad you found your way here. I was just saying to Tony that he should tell you to come by for dinner on the house.”

“That’s so sweet of you, but I actually stopped by to see if you could take on a catering job at the last minute.”

“What’s the occasion?”

“Our wedding reception.” Lesley grimaced. “Our caterer has a family emergency that will take her out of town.”

“Of course I can do it.” Rosa clasped her hands in front of her, then leaned over and hugged Lesley. “You’re like a daughter to me. I’ll help you however I can.”

Lesley stepped out of Rosa’s embrace. “Thank you. Thank you. I was so worried that you might not have time.”

“I can make time for you. Let’s sit at a table out front, where we can discuss what you have in mind.” Rosa motioned to the door leading to the front.

Lesley nodded and shot Tony an apologetic look as she followed his mother through the door. Tony stood there dumbfounded. His mother was planning to cater Lesley’s wedding reception. Was there any chance that wouldn’t involve him? Could he stand to see Lesley in another man’s arms, smiling and laughing and sharing a kiss?

As the door between the kitchen and the main dining area swung closed, another knock sounded. This time it must be the bread delivery. Tony headed to the back door and opened it.

“Hey, Tony. I didn’t expect to see you here.” Frank, from the bakery, shoved a stack of large black plastic bins into Tony’s arms.

“Mom recruited me.”

“Hey, you treat your mother right!”

“She wouldn’t let me treat her any other way.” Tony chuckled. “Let me set these down, and I’ll get your payment.”

Frank waved a hand at Tony. “No need. Your ma has an account. We settle up once a month. Here’s today’s invoice.”

“Great.” Tony took the piece of paper and glanced at the amount. He hated to think what the restaurant owed the bakery each month. Maybe there was a cheaper bakery they could use. He would discuss it with his mom.

Moments later Rosa and Lesley came back into the kitchen as his mother waved a piece of paper in her hand. “Got the menu set for the reception. I’m so looking forward to this.”

Lesley hugged Rosa. “You’re a lifesaver. Thanks so much.”

Rosa placed a hand over her heart. “It’s my pleasure to help you out. I’m so glad you asked.”

Lesley nodded and smiled, then looked Tony’s way. “I’m glad you’re giving your mother a hand with the restaurant.”

“Glad I’m available to help her.” Tony wasn’t sure that was the truth though. “Hey, Lesley, could I talk to you for a minute?”

Lesley glanced at her phone. “A minute. I need to meet my cousin who’s just moving to town. She’s going to take over the lease for my apartment when I move out.”

“Nice that you have someone to do that.” Tony glanced back at his mother. “Ma, I’m going to walk Lesley to her car. I’ll be back in a few.”

“Go right ahead. I’ll be here waiting with more work.” Rosa chuckled.

Tony opened the door for Lesley and stepped into the cold November air. He should’ve grabbed his jacket, but this wouldn’t take long. Besides, Lesley was in a hurry. “Thanks for thinking of my mom. She was just saying how much she missed having you around.”

“I miss her, too.”

“Don’t hesitate to visit her. She would like that.”

“I’ll try, but my life has gotten really busy in a good way.”

“I know, but Ma meant it when she said you should bring your family by for a meal. On that note, I want to apologize for the way I treated you. I did a lot of dumb stuff in the past year. I hope you can forgive me.” They reached Lesley’s car, and Tony reached over to open the door for her.

Lesley looked at him with surprise, then averted her gaze. “Yeah. Well, things worked out for the best.”

“I’m happy for you and Alex. I wanted you to know that.”

“Thanks. I appreciate it. Best wishes for your new adventure in the restaurant business.”

“Thanks. I’ll need it. Ma wants to make me into a chef, and that isn’t going to happen. I have to convince her that she needs to hire someone who’s already trained in the culinary arts.” Tony stepped away from the car as Lesley slipped into the driver’s seat.

He stood there and watched her drive away. He was happy she’d found a new love. She deserved that, but he couldn’t help the sadness that seeped into his thoughts. He’d left her for someone else, and he was suffering the consequences. As soon as her car was out of sight, he hurried back inside.

Rosa stood there with her hands on her hips. “Did you apologize to her?”

“Yeah, Ma. I did. Now let’s not bring it up again.”

“Okay, I’ll try.”

Tony stared her. “Now I have a question for you.”


“How are you planning to run the restaurant and do this catering gig at the same time?”

“We’ll figure it out.” Rosa placed the paper in a clip attached to a board at the back of the kitchen. “Now let’s get back to work.”

“I think you should’ve figured it out before you accepted the job.”

“How could I turn down our sweet Lesley?” Rosa frowned. “Besides, we could use the extra money.”

“Speaking of money, I had no idea you were spending this kind of money on bread.” Tony handed her the invoice. “Have you thought of finding a cheaper bakery?”

“No. There’s no better bread in the county.”

“Would people even notice if you didn’t have the best bread in the county?”

“I give my customers the best.” Rosa busied herself at the stove. “Besides, I have an arrangement for payment that I wouldn’t get somewhere else, since I’ve been a longtime customer.”

Tony narrowed his gaze as he stepped beside his mother. “What kind of arrangement is that?”

Rosa didn’t meet his gaze as she turned back to the stove.

“Ma, what’s going on here?” Tony stepped up beside his mother.

“Just the way we’ve always done it.”

Tony turned sideways in order to catch his mother’s eye. “You’re keeping something from me. If you expect me to be part of this operation, I need to know what’s going on.”

Rosa set her spoon on the spoon holder next to the stove as she faced him. “Finances have been tight. You know the restaurant business has been difficult the past few years. We’re just now getting back to our normal traffic. But we’ll pull through.”

“How bad is it, Ma? Be honest.”

Rosa sighed. “I’ll let you look at the books.”

“I’d like that.” Tony followed his mother to the small office just off the kitchen.

She pulled a ledger from a drawer and slapped it on the desk. “All yours.”

Tony opened the ledger and studied the numbers, then looked up. “This isn’t good. When were you going to tell me?”

Worry tinted his mother’s face. “I was hoping I didn’t have to. I thought we could make up the difference in a few months. We’ve been busy in the last few weeks.”

“True, but costs are going up.” Tony tapped a line on the open page. “Right here. Bread costs from last year compared with your invoice today.”

“What do you suggest I do?” Rosa picked up the book and held it to her chest, as if doing so could protect her from the bad news it contained. “I don’t want to close the restaurant. It’s my life. It’s a family legacy. I couldn’t let it go on my watch.”

Tony put an arm around her shoulders. “Ma, I’m going to help you however I can to keep this place running.”

“But I thought you hated it.”

Tony let out a halfhearted laugh. “I do. But I love you, so I’ll do what I can to make you happy.”

Rosa set the ledger down and pulled Tony into her embrace. “Thank you. I love you, too.”

Tony rested his chin on the top of his mother’s head as he thought about what he’d just promised. Even though she was sixty-five, she looked much younger with her coal-black hair, provided by her longtime hairdresser. She shouldn’t be worrying about how to keep this place open. His diminutive mother should be thinking about retirement.

How could he make this place profitable again? Was it an impossible task?

He extricated himself from his mother’s embrace and looked her in the eye. “You have to let me take charge of the finances, make me the manager instead of trying to make me into a chef, which I’m not. Hire someone who knows what they’re doing to help you in the kitchen.”

“But how can I afford to do that?”

“We’ll find a way.” Tony thought of the nest egg he’d accumulated during his finance days. He could loan her the money to tide her over until the restaurant turned a profit, but he’d keep that to himself. He was sure his mother would refuse his offer.

“For today I’m still going to make you into a chef.” Rosa turned back to the stove. “We’ve got to get busy. We have lots of reservations for tonight, not to mention the walk-ins. Please finish that chicken.”

Tony saluted, then washed his hands and put on another set of disposal gloves. A year ago he’d had a successful finance career, a beautiful fiancée, and a bright future. Now he had no real job, no fiancée, and no idea where his future lay. Except in a family restaurant deeply in the red and an old girlfriend who plagued his thoughts.

What else could go wrong with his life?

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