Real Men Don't Break Hearts

By: Coleen Kwan

Book 1 in the Real Men series

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?”

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