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Real Men Don't Break Hearts

By:Coleen Kwan

Chapter One

“I hope you enjoy the fudge. Please come again soon.”

Ally Griffin gave her best smile to the gray-haired retiree, knowing all too well the woman wouldn’t be back anytime soon. Neither would the rest of the bunch milling about her gift shop. Groups of retirees loved to flock to Burronga, especially as spring approached and the Southern Highlands burst into flower. They wandered in and out of Ally’s shop, fingering the hand-stitched quilts, carved wooden toys, or tooled leather purses, but they seldom bought more than a postcard or a bagful of sweets to munch on the bus back to Sydney or Canberra.

“You have such beautiful things here.” A mauve-haired lady wearing a Canberra Raiders scarf beamed at Ally.

Then why don’t you buy something? Ally nipped off the remark in her head. No point being snarky when these people couldn’t afford her pricey wares anyway. Maybe if she started stocking cheap coasters and beer koozies she’d make more money, but what would be the satisfaction in that? And besides, her nana would have a seizure at seeing her beloved gift shop so bastardized.

Still, every dollar helps, Ally thought as she waved good-bye to the last stragglers. Opening the till, she dolefully dropped in the final few coins, the worm of unease that had taken up residence in her belly a few months ago doing its heave and wiggle. She was behind on her rent two months now. Mr. Cummings, her mild-mannered landlord, was being very accommodating about it, but she couldn’t put him off forever, and neither did she want to. She needed to show everyone she could run a business. A year and a half ago, after her grandmother’s heart problems had forced an early retirement, Ally took over running The Giftorium. Her nana had worried she wouldn’t be able to cope, so she’d thrown all her energy into the business, working like a demon and sacrificing all her spare time, and she didn’t want to see her efforts go down the drain.

The doorbell jingled.

“Crap. I almost got trampled out there by a herd of squawking biddies.”

“Hey, Tyler.” Ally grinned as her friend hustled in, her auburn hair streaming behind her. “You just missed them in here.”

“I don’t suppose they bought any of my stuff?” Tyler cocked her head toward a glass cabinet stocked with intricately crafted jewelry.

“’Fraid not.” Tyler’s eye-catching necklaces and earrings were eclectic and exquisite, but just too expensive for retirees on a tight budget.

“Damn. I could use some extra cash.”

Ally sighed. “Couldn’t we all?” She picked up the second notice electricity bill she’d received that day, grimaced at the amount owed, and sighed again.

Tyler rested her elbow on the counter. “Hey, are you all right? You seem kinda down.”

Ally chewed on her lip, contemplating Tyler’s concerned expression. The two of them had both grown up in Burronga and had gone to the same school, yet they’d only been friends for about a year. Tyler had been part of the Goth set in high school, while conventional Ally had found all that black eyeliner, ghostly pallor, and raging angst intimidating. A year ago, five years after high school, when Tyler—minus her Goth alter ego—had come into Ally’s shop wanting to sell her jewelry on consignment, Ally barely recognized her. Tyler had moved back to Burronga with her little daughter, and she’d dropped the grungy look, though she still retained the rebellious attitude. They’d become friends, but Ally had yet to confide her financial problems.

Noting her friend’s concern, she decided to do so now. “I’m two months behind on rent,” she confessed. “I’ve talked to Mr. Cummings, and he agreed to give me an extension, but he wants to sell this building and retire to Queensland. If that happens I could be in deep trouble.”

“Hmm. Well, does he have any interested buyers?”

“Not yet, but it’s only a matter of time.”

“Damn. There must be some way out of this.” Tyler drummed her electric-blue nails on the counter for a while before her face brightened. “Well, hey, I might have some good news for you! Guess who’s getting married?”

Ally pulled a face. “I don’t know. You?”

“Like hell, me.” Tyler snorted. “No, Crystal Kerrigan’s daughter is getting married, right here in Burronga.”

“Oh. Okay.” Ally began to restack a pyramid of lavender soap, which the tourists had pawed through and left in an untidy heap. “Sorry if I’m not more enthusiastic about some minor celebrity’s wedding.” Crystal Kerrigan was the host of a popular TV talk show. She lived on a multi-million-dollar spread just outside Burronga, but as far as Ally knew she’d never once visited The Giftorium.

“It’s not Crystal who’s getting married. It’s her daughter, Paige. She’s in PR, does the occasional piece on her mother’s program about the social scene in Sydney. You’ve seen her, haven’t you?”

“No, I don’t watch much TV. But what does this have to do with me?”

“The wedding will be covered by all the best women’s magazines. It’s going to be a huge bash. Hundreds of people invited.” Tyler leaned across the counter and grabbed Ally’s hand. “Hundreds of people all loaded like the Kerrigans, wandering around Burronga looking for ways to unload their fat wallets. It’s got to be good for business.”

“Ah.” Ally glanced up, her interest finally piqued. “Yeah, that sounds great, but it won’t happen for quite a while, right?”

“Nuh-uh. Wedding’s in four weeks.”

“That soon? Seems like pretty short notice, especially for a big, fancy wedding. Where’d you hear about it, anyway?”

“My aunt’s the Kerrigans’ housekeeper, remember? She got it all from Crystal Kerrigan herself. If you ask me, sounds like the daughter’s pregnant, and they need to get married in a hurry.”

The stack of soap collapsed under Ally’s hands. Clumsily she began to rebuild it. “So who’s the groom?” she hurriedly asked. “Some hotshot from Sydney?”

“A Sydney stockbroker, but apparently he grew up here in Burronga, too. Name’s Seth Bailey.”

“Seth Bailey?”

Ally’s hands spasmed, and several soap bars shot off the counter. Tyler jumped back as one thudded into her leg. “Seth Bailey?” Every muscle in Ally’s body quivered. “Seth Bailey is going to marry Crystal Kerrigan’s daughter?”

“Ye-ah…”

“Right here in Burronga?” Blood pounded in Ally’s head.

“Uh-huh…” Tyler backed away.

“In four weeks?” A frightening ache pulsed against Ally’s temples. It felt as though her skull might burst.

“Uh, Ally, you look like you’re going to pop a blood vessel.” Tyler put her hands up, eyes wide with consternation. “What’s the problem?”

Ally pressed her palm against her heaving stomach. She thought she was going to be sick. “Oh, no problem. No problem at all. Or maybe…just a teeny tiny problem.” She sank into the ladder-back chair beside the counter. “Six years ago, I was supposed to marry Seth Bailey. Until his damn cousin Nate convinced him to jilt me at the altar.”



“Nate, you’ve made me a very happy man today.” Mr. Cummings’s egg-smooth head bobbed toward Nate Hardy as he reached across the table to shake hands on the deal. “I always knew you weren’t afraid of making a quick decision.”

Nate inclined his head. “In my line of work, quick decisions are the norm.”

As an investment manager, his quick decisions could make or break hundreds of thousands of dollars for his clients. He’d ridden to meteoric success on his nerves of steel, yet the deal he’d just struck with Mr. Cummings made him more nervous than any other in his career. Was he doing the right thing? Not the act of buying Mr. Cummings’s property—for his own private reasons he’d always wanted to do something for the man, and even if he took a loss on it, by no means would it wipe him out—but what it signified. Quitting Sydney. Moving back to Burronga. Turning his back on his high-powered job and instead, reviving an old, not very profitable business. He’d done his math, made his plans, mulled it over for months, but buying Mr. Cummings’s property on a whim today was a concrete sign to the wavering side of himself that he meant it.

“I’ll contact my lawyer to exchange contracts as soon as possible,” Mr. Cummings said, still grinning like he couldn’t believe his luck.

Well, the old man was lucky. Who would have thought he’d sell his investment property to a bloke having a drink in the Red Possum? He probably thought Nate would renege on the deal when he had a moment to reconsider, hence the rush to exchange contracts.

“Of course,” Nate assured him. “But you don’t have to worry. We shook on it, and my word is my bond.”

“Capital! Shall we have another round to celebrate?” Mr. Cummings heaved himself out of his seat and waddled over to the bar on the other side of the room, his tartan suit stretched tight around his hips. He started talking to the bartender, gesturing toward Nate with a big grin split across his moon-shaped face.

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