Real Men Don’t Break Hearts
a Real Men novel by Coleen Kwan
Ally Griffin is horrified to learn her new landlord is none other than the infuriating playboy Nate Hardy—the man whose wiles she just knows got her jilted at the altar six years ago. Add to it that her ex-fiancé Seth is showing up in her hometown of Burronga, Australia, to marry his beautiful new bride…for real this time. But the kicker? Everybody’s treating Ally as though she’s still heartbroken. She’s just fine, thank you very much, but could The Jilter have the decency not to hire her sister as his florist?
Nate Hardy is tired of his high-flying city career and bachelor lifestyle and is looking for something more real. The last thing he needs is to find himself undeniably attracted to Ally, the woman with whom he never saw eye-to-eye. But is he even capable of what Ally wants and deserves?
As Ally tries to pull her life out of the rut it’s fallen in, she doesn’t count on Nate stirring up her emotions. A short-term fling with the resident bad boy is practically irresistible, but only if she can guard her heart…
© 2012 Coleen Kwan
“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.”
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?”
“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.
At least someone around here was glad to see him, Nate thought. These days he didn’t come down to Burronga too often, but people here had long memories. Years ago he’d been evicted from this very bar for underage drinking, and later he’d been thrown out more than once for starting a brawl. No wonder the dour bartender had looked askance at him when he’d first entered the pub. Despite his slick city suit, Nate’s bad reputation lingered on him like a rotten egg smell.
Mr. Cummings returned to the table with two whiskies and offered one to Nate. “Here’s to my glorious retirement in sunny Queensland, where I plan to do a lot of fishing and not much else.” He raised his glass. “And to your canny investment in one of Burronga’s finest buildings.”
I wouldn’t go that far, Nate silently quipped. He was well aware that he was paying top dollar for the heritage-listed, nineteenth-century former post office. Burronga was a prosperous midsize town, situated between Sydney and Canberra, with a growing population. But a brand-new shopping mall on the outskirts of town had depressed the price of retail property, and he knew without a shadow of a doubt that Mr. Cummings would have lowered the price if Nate had bothered to haggle.
Mr. Cummings gulped his whisky in one swallow, smacked his lips, and set down the glass. “Now,” he announced in a voice that wouldn’t brook argument, “why don’t we wander over to the building, and I’ll introduce you to your soon-to-be tenant?”
“Sure.” Nate stood and re-buttoned his jacket. He had an hour or so to spare before heading for Robbie’s house. His house, he ought to say, since it had been his for almost a decade, but he still thought of it as Robbie’s, even though his older brother had been gone all these years.
On his frequent business trips to Canberra he sometimes checked the house en route. He never stayed more than a couple of hours, but this time the place needed a thorough inspection, and he planned to stay overnight. For some reason he’d felt reluctant to go directly there. He’d arrived in Burronga midday Friday, but instead of heading straight for the house, he’d cruised around the area for a while, ended up at the Red Possum to kill some time, and by mid-afternoon had bought himself an old post office.
Talk about stalling.
They left the pub and stepped into a mild spring afternoon. Nate’s new property stood a few hundred meters up the road, at the intersection of what had once been a main coach road. They passed the electronics store where years ago he’d been busted for shoplifting. He pushed ahead until the two-story former post office came into sight. The ground floor had been converted into a shop, while the upstairs was a small apartment.
“You’ll only be dealing with one tenant,” Mr. Cummings said to Nate. “She rents the store and the apartment above it. Lovely girl. Took over the gift shop after her grandmother couldn’t continue. They’ve been my tenants for ages, and the girl works so hard. Terribly hard. It’s not her fault she’s behind on the rent.”
Nate slowed down. “Excuse me? She owes you money?”
Mr. Cummings started to blush. “Oh, not very much, and she’s good for it, I’m sure. Not that any of this will affect you,” he hurried to assure Nate. “I’ll take care of it with her directly.”
Yeah, but that still meant she was a lousy tenant. Damn. He didn’t want to make a fresh start in Burronga by evicting longstanding renters. Everyone would just shake their heads and say, Well, what can you expect from Nate Hardy? He wasn’t going to fall into that trap, but neither could he support a charity case. If the store owner couldn’t pay her expenses, then she had no right to be in business.
“I’m sure we can work something out,” Nate said smoothly.
“Capital!” Mr. Cummings beamed at him again like Father Christmas.
Nate studied the front of the shop. He’d passed it a thousand times before but had never gone in. The Giftorium, it said in delicate gold script across the glass. The store window held a tasteful arrangement of the kind of stuff he’d never think of buying. Wind chimes, leaded glass lampshades, embroidered cushions, painted pottery. Clutter, that was all he saw. Dust-collecting clutter.
“So who is she?” Nate moved toward the glass-paned front door. “My new tenant?”
Nate’s feet stuck to the pavement. A cold shock ran through him. “Ally Griffin?”
Mr. Cummings gave him a puzzled little frown. “You know her, then?”
“Y-yes,” he managed to choke out.
Ally Griffin. The last time he’d seen her was on her wedding day, when he’d had to tell her there wasn’t going to be a wedding after all. And now she was his new tenant? Oh, shit.
Ally leaned back in the chair and rubbed her throbbing temples. She hadn’t felt this pole-axed since…well, since she’d been left high and dry on her wedding day.
Tyler stood in front of her, incredulous. “You were supposed to marry Seth Bailey?” she demanded. “When? Why didn’t I know anything about it?”
“You must have heard about the wedding. I was the talk of the town for months.”
“It could have been after I left. What happened?”
Ally took a breath and crossed her arms. “Seth and I were together since we were fifteen. When we were nineteen, we wanted to get married. At least, I wanted to get married, and Seth said he wanted to get married, only it turned out he didn’t, because on our wedding day he never showed up at the church.”
“Wow.” Tyler let out a soft whistle. “He really did that? Just left you there waiting?”
“It’s like something out of a movie.”
With a deprecating laugh, Ally stood from the chair and bent to gather the fallen bars of soap. She wished she hadn’t needed to sit down to recover herself. She didn’t want to give Tyler the impression that she still cared about her aborted wedding day. Because she didn’t. It had happened six years ago, and she wasn’t a silly nineteen-year-old anymore.
“It’s not a movie, because I’m well and truly over Seth.” She rose to her feet with an armful of soap. “It’s just that you gave me a shock when you said he was getting married.”
Tyler’s silver bangles chimed as she rested her hand on her hip, her expression narrowing. “He’s got some nerve wanting to get married here in Burronga.”
Sure, that was a slap in the face—Seth brazenly planning to have his wedding here. Again.
“Did you ever speak to him afterward?” Tyler asked, obviously unable to hide her curiosity.
“On the phone, a day after the non-wedding. And then I saw him a few weeks later when we had to return gifts and separate all our stuff.” She paused, emotion ambushing her as she remembered the last stilted meeting with Seth. She’d wanted to scream at him, to vomit out all her rage and hurt, but he’d shifted around, avoiding her eye, mumbling apologies, and she hadn’t been able to focus her fury. Everyone assumed being jilted at the altar would be her worst memory of Seth, but it wasn’t. That last meeting, when she’d finally seen her years of hopes crushed under the heel of reality, had knocked her like nothing else had.
“He apologized for embarrassing me in front of all my friends and family, but he said he was too young to get married, that he only realized it on the morning of the wedding and didn’t know how to tell me, and then he panicked and ran out. Spent our wedding day holed up in a bar an hour from here.”
“What a jerk!” Tyler’s face screwed up in disgust.
“Yeah.” Ally drew in a deep breath, indignation filling her with strength. “But the biggest jerk was the guy who talked Seth out of marrying me. His cousin, Nate Hardy. He’s the real jerk.”
“Nate Hardy? Oh yeah, I’ve heard of him. Was a teenage delinquent, right? What’s he got to do with Seth?”
“Seth always had a bit of a hero worship thing going there.” Scowling, Ally began to stack the soap on the counter. “Don’t ask me why. Seth never got into trouble the way Nate did. But when Nate started making it big in Sydney, Seth idolized him even more. And Nate and I never got along.”
Her frown deepened as she remembered how Nate had always riled her back when she was dating Seth. He was handsome as sin and already making lots of money doing something in finance. By all accounts he led a hedonistic life in Sydney—fast cars, glamorous women, penthouse apartments—a life she thought was shallow, materialistic, unenviable. Each time they’d met, which was as little as possible if she could help it, he had a way of looking at her that told her he knew exactly what she was thinking, a look that made her all too aware of her shortcomings. In his brazen eyes she’d seen an unflattering reflection of herself—unsophisticated, fuddy-duddy, countrified—and no doubt Seth had started seeing her in that light, too.
Once, when she’d found herself unavoidably alone with Nate, he’d asked her why she was with Seth. His breathtaking insolence had made her flush with anger, and she’d retorted it was none of his damn business before stalking off. She hadn’t told Seth about his cousin’s meddling, didn’t want to lend any credence to Nate’s insufferable audacity, and besides, Seth had a huge blind spot where Nate was concerned.
“Seth didn’t have the guts to tell me to my face the wedding was off, so he sent Nate instead.” The soap wrappers crinkled under the pressure of her fingers. She’d been sitting in the vestry with her nana and sister, wondering where Seth was, worrying he’d had an accident, when Nate had walked in without knocking. He’d tried to sound sympathetic and angry at Seth, but deep down she knew he was gloating. He didn’t like her, and he didn’t believe in marriage. He wanted Seth to be free and easy just like him, and he’d succeeded. “Oh, Nate had no problem telling me. I was so mad at him, I slapped him across the face. Twice.”
“You did? Good for you.”
And then she’d dissolved into a wet puddle of tears and tulle, the final humiliation in front of Nate, who’d still managed to look triumphant despite the red marks on his cheeks left by her stinging hand.
“Nate didn’t care. He’s never cared. He treated this place like his personal garbage can, and he infected Seth with his poison.” After the failed wedding, Seth had gone to Sydney, where Nate had helped him get into stockbroking. Nate was responsible for a lot.
Tyler made a moue with her poppy red lips. “Hell, I’m sorry to be the bearer of such bad news.”
Ally’s spine stiffened. “Listen, I don’t want you treating me like a victim. I’m perfectly fine.”
“Oh, sure.” But Tyler didn’t look convinced.
“I mean it, Tyler. I don’t want you thinking I’m still hung up on Seth. I’m not.”
Her friend nodded vigorously. “I hear you loud and clear. Who wants to get hung up on a man? As far as I’m concerned, men are good for just one thing, and it ain’t killing spiders.”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
“Oh, you should.” Tyler tossed back her hair. “Take it from me, there’s no such thing as Mr. Perfect. Just a lot of Mr. Fun-for-nows.”
Ally frowned. She was single, too, but unlike Tyler, she did want to fall in love and marry the man of her dreams. “I’m not like you. I can’t make men keel over with lust.”
“How do you know when you’ve never tried?”
“Well, I guess I don’t, but right now I have more important things to worry about.”
“Okay. Well, you won’t hear a word about the wedding from me.” Tyler made a zipping motion across her mouth.
“Hey, I just told you not to treat me with kid gloves. I don’t like the idea of the wedding happening in my own backyard, but business is business, and I need the money.”
The Southern Highlands had always been a haven for the rich. A hundred years ago it had been wealthy merchants who carved out their pockets of English countryside in the Australian bush. Now, it was well-heeled bankers and advertising gurus who fancied a country estate complete with manor, stables, and tennis court. But just like a century ago, a strict divide separated the wealthy “haves” from the everyday “have-nots.”
Yet somehow Seth had managed to infiltrate the rarefied stratosphere: he was going to marry Paige Kerrigan. Who was this woman, anyway? Someone who rode horses, Ally decided. A tall, athletic woman with a carrying voice. Blond, probably, with pearls and diamonds and linen shirts that never creased. On her wedding day she would wear Vera Wang and Chanel No. 5. Where would they marry? At St. Bridget’s, where she had waited in vain for Seth?
An unexpected spasm rippled through her. She turned around, her hip jarring the counter, and the pile of soap slithered to the ground once more.
“Not again!” She dropped to her knees.
The shop door jingled. “Good afternoon, ladies.” Mr. Cummings’s florid voice floated over the top of Ally’s head.
“Hi, Mr. Cummings,” Ally said, still on all fours as she reached for a bar of soap lodged beneath a postcard stand. “I’ll be with you in a moment.”
“I’ve brought someone to meet you, Ally.”
As Ally struggled with the caught piece of soap, a pair of men’s shoes appeared in front of her. Crocodile, hand tooled, expensive. Definitely not Mr. Cummings’s shoes. They were attached to trousers—finest wool, elegantly tailored, citified. Still on her knees, Ally straightened her back and found herself eye level with a slim pair of hips and a thin leather belt cinched around a taut waistline. Her gaze flew upward, past the crisp cotton shirt, silk tie, flawless jacket, and finally clashed with a pair of simmering brandy eyes. Eyes she could never forget.
Nate Hardy. In Burronga. In her shop.
And here she was kneeling in front of him like a penitent, her face practically in his crotch.