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Real Men Don't Quit

By:Coleen Kwan

Chapter One

Luke Maguire stumbled into the kitchen, tired and disoriented after waking up in an unfamiliar house. Coffee—he needed coffee. Even instant would do. He shuffled to the sink to fill the kettle. Early morning sunshine streamed through the window, making him wince. It couldn’t be more than six thirty.

Something small and pink flashed past the window outside, and he blinked. Was that a child? But whatever it was had already disappeared around the side of the house. He flicked off the tap and dashed to the big living room. Enormous glass sliding doors gave a sweeping view of the garden—and a small girl toddling determinedly across the lawn. Dressed in pink leopard-print pajamas with a toy rabbit clutched in one hand, she was definitely headed somewhere. Luke scanned the garden, and his body went cold.

The swimming pool. The kid was making straight for the damn swimming pool.

He leaped forward and grabbed the handle of the sliding door, but it didn’t budge. He rattled the latch frantically, but it refused to unlock. He banged furiously on the glass. The kid stopped and stared at him, a finger in her mouth.

“Little girl, don’t you move!”

Crap, why did he have to yell like that? He’d probably scare her off and make her run into the street before he could get ahold of her. But the kid didn’t seem put off by a strange guy banging and shouting at her. Solemn-faced, she popped the finger out of her mouth and pointed at the swimming pool as if to say, Oh, yeah?

“Goddamn it.”

He dashed out the living room to the front door, wrestled it open, and hurtled outside. Cold stone tiles met his bare feet, then dewy grass as he charged around the side of the house. The girl was still there, standing beneath a maple tree, as if waiting for him. She was quite a moppet with her fiery red curls and cheeky blue eyes, and seemed about three years old.

Luke forced himself to slow down to a saunter. “Hi there. How ya doing? I’m Luke.”

She mumbled something and hugged her stuffed toy closer. “Mr. Piggy.”

Huh? He didn’t look that seedy, did he? Slowly he hunkered down in front of her. “Who’s Mr. Piggy?”

She huffed in exasperation and waggled the forlorn toy rabbit in his face. “He is. Mr. Piggy wants to swim.” Once more, she pointed firmly at the swimming pool.

He glanced back at the pool in the far corner of the backyard. Thank God it was surrounded by solid fence, but this little cricket seemed to have determination in spades.

“Well, now. It’s a bit early for a swim, don’t you think? Maybe later.”

The girl puffed out her cheeks, big blue eyes scanning him with suspicion. He couldn’t blame her. Grownups were always saying “maybe later” when they really meant “no.”

He edged a little closer. “I promise you can come for a swim later.”

She pursed her small mouth. “Really?”

Her winsome expression had him grinning. This poppet was going to be quite the heartbreaker when she grew up.

“Really.” He nodded.

She crooked her little finger at him. “Pinkie promise?”

“Uhsure.” How could he resist such charm? He twined his pinkie around hers and pressed very gently. “Pinkie promise.”

That seemed to reassure her. Solemnly, she squeezed back.

“And what’s your name?” he asked.

“Chloe,” she answered after a moment’s hesitation.

“Okay, Chloe,” he said. “Now that I’ve sworn a solemn vow, let’s see about getting you home.” Standing, he kept hold of her hand, and Little Miss Moppet, apparently reassured with the sacred pinkie promise, curled her fingers around his, her baby digits making him feel like a giant.

They moved off across the garden. Last night, when he’d arrived just after midnight, he’d parked his Range Rover and neglected to shut the gates to the driveway. That must be how the girl had gotten in, because the rest of the property was fenced off. But where had she come from?

“Ow.” As they walked over rough gravel, Chloe stopped, wincing as she rubbed her bare foot against her calf.

He stooped to pick her up, and she didn’t murmur a protest. Instead, she curled one arm around his neck, thrusting her stuffed rabbit into his cheek. Mr. Piggy was threadbare and rather smelly, but Luke wasn’t bothered. It had been a while since he’d minded a youngster. Not that he missed it or anything; God, no. He’d done enough babysitting of his numerous nephews and nieces to last him a lifetime. And after the Jennifer episode, he was even more wary of anything to do with kids. No, soon as he got this Chloe home where she belonged, that would be the end of his involvement, pinkie promise notwithstanding.

He walked out onto the footpath and stopped to peer up and down the road. He wasn’t familiar with this neighborhood. They were on the outskirts of Burronga, a midsize country town in the Southern Highlands, halfway between Sydney and Canberra. It was about an hour’s drive from his hometown, Goulburn, where he’d been until yesterday, when the growing mental pressure had suddenly reached a crushing point and he’d thrown his things into his car and fled. Like a thief in the night. Like his own dad.

Hell, that comparison soured his stomach. He wasn’t anything like his dad. As soon as this moppet was taken care of, he’d call one of his sisters and tell her where he was.

“Which way is home, Chloe?” he asked. The blocks along the winding road were large allotments, and most of the houses were old-fashioned cottages sitting in rambling, country-style gardens. In contrast, the place he’d just spent the night in was severely modern, its sharp architectural lines matched by the geometrically landscaped grounds.

Little Miss Moppet sucked her finger, then pointed confidently to the left. “That way!”

“Okay then.” He hitched her more firmly on his hip.

“Chloe!” A scream rang out, scattering the birds in a nearby tree.

Luke looked up. A woman was running along the footpath toward them, barefoot, her flaming, long hair streaming behind like a red banner, her eyes blazing ice, her face white, her red lips drawn back in a snarl. She looked like an avenging angel about to smite him. His heart skipped a beat and involuntarily he took a few steps back, his arms tightening around the little girl.

The avenging angel kept on coming. Semiclothed in purple lace briefs, cut high, and a matching camisole that barely contained her breasts, she was all voluptuous curves, endless long legs, and red-gold hair. Luke sucked in a breath. Whoa, this was one sexy angel. Could she really be this girl’s mother?

The woman reached out and grabbed Chloe from him. “Where have you been?”

Her voice vibrated with panic and disbelief, and as she brushed his arm, he felt the tremble in her body.

Unperturbed, Chloe patted the woman’s cheek. “Hi, Mumma.”

“Uh, she’s perfectly fine—” Luke began, then stopped as the woman whirled on him.

“Who the devil are you?” Fierce cobalt eyes crackled like thunderbolts. “And what the hell are you doing with my daughter?”

Luke held up his hands. “Hey, I was just—”

“What? You were just what? About to lure her into your car?” Her hair seemed to vibrate with hostility as she thrust her chin toward him. “Is that what you do? Prowl around the neighborhood waiting for unsuspecting kiddies? Well, if you come anywhere near here again I’m calling the cops.”

What the hell? Hot indignation hammered the inside of his skull. “Lady, I don’t know what you’re on, but you should be thanking me. If it weren’t for me, something horrible could have happened to your kid.”

Her eyes widened, the angry crackle in them altering as a pink flush stole across her cheeks. “Horrible?”

He drew in a breath, about to explain, when Chloe interrupted. “Mumma, I gotta do a wee-wee.”

The woman ran a shaky hand over her daughter’s mop of curls. “Oh, sure, baby,” she said in a completely different tone. “Let’s get home right now.” Without sparing Luke another glance, she hurried away.

Scowling, Luke stared after her, his blood pressure still thumping, hands fisted on his hips. The woman’s long, smooth legs flashed as she motored away, the purple lace panties accentuating the rounded curves of her firm butt. He couldn’t help staring after her. There wasn’t an ounce of flirtation in her walk—quite the opposite, in fact—but she had him riveted.

Damn his stupid male hormones.

Luke blew out the air in his lungs. Some way to start his morning. His heart sank as he saw the woman disappearing down the driveway right next to his. A stout wooden fence divided the two properties, and her house was hidden behind a tangle of overgrown shrubs. Shoot. These were his neighbors: Little Miss Moppet and Crazy Lady. Crazy Sexy Lady. Crazy Sexy Rude-as-hell Lady. Who did she think she was, accusing him of being some kind of abductor? She was the one at fault. She was the one who’d let her daughter wander out. She was the one who should be trembling in her boots, not him.

Dammit, he wasn’t going to let her get away with it. What kind of stupid rumors would she spread if he let her? Rumors could so quickly spiral out of control. Just look how all the innuendos over his messy breakup with Jennifer had landed in those trashy gossip magazines.

Admittedly, he had to wear some of the blame for the acrimonious split. He should have noticed the hints she’d dropped, so when she started buying bridal magazines and asking his opinion of private schools, it wouldn’t have come as such a shock to realize what she wanted of him. What he couldn’t give to her or to any woman, as much as it hurt him to shatter her dreams.