Excerpt

Suddenly You

Beer. Icy cold, preferably accompanied by a big, greasy burger. Oh, yeah. 

Harry Porter wound down the window on his 1972 HQ Monaro GTS and grinned into the resulting wind as he sped toward the pub. A vintage Midnight Oil song played on the radio and he tapped out the rhythm on the steering wheel, the burble of the V8 engine providing a bass beat.
It was Friday afternoon, it was summer, he’d just been paid, and half a dozen of his best mates were waiting at The Pier Hotel ten minutes up the road to kick off the weekend’s adventures. 
Life didn’t get much better. 
Whoever was in charge at the radio station seemed to be agree because Midnight Oil’s Power and The Passion was followed by Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. He was reaching for the volume to crank it even higher when he spotted the bright yellow car in the emergency stopping lane to the left of the highway, its hood pushed high in the universal signal that someone was shit out of luck. 
The mechanic in him automatically diagnosed the problem - in this weather, most likely something to do with the car’s cooling system - before returning his gaze to the road. Fortunately for him, being a mechanic wasn’t like being a doctor - he wasn’t obliged to stop for emergencies. Which was just as well, because he’d spend half his life riding to the rescue if that was the case. 
Something tickled at the back of his brain as he approached the car. He realised what it was as he sped past. He knew this car - at least, he knew its owner. He hadn’t seen her for nearly six months, but that was definitely her bright yellow hatchback, a fact that was confirmed when he looked in his rear vision mirror and saw Pippa White standing with her hands on her hips as she stared into the engine bay. 
He swerved into the unsealed emergency lane. He watched in the rear view mirror as Pippa turned to watch as his big black car reversed toward her. She was frowning, clearly trying to work out who was coming to her rescue. 
The worried expression dropped from her face when he exited his car. It was replaced with the wry, appreciative smile that he’d come to associate with her during the six months she’d dated his best mate, Steve. She pushed her heavy black framed glasses further up her nose and gave him a head to toe scan as he approached.
“You’re definitely not what I was expecting when I sent up a prayer for a guardian angel.” 
“Long time no see,” he said easily. 
Pippa’s smiled slipped a fraction and he knew that - like him - she was remembering the last time they’d seen each other. He’d come to the hospital to visit her after the birth of daughter, Alice, driven by god-knows-what stupid impulse. The most uncomfortable fifteen minutes of his life so far, hands down.  She recovered quickly, pushing her glasses up her nose again. 
“How have you been, Harry? How’s Hogwarts going? Cast any good spells lately?” 
The Harry Potter/Porter jokes had gotten old around the time Ms.Rowling had made her second billion, but Pippa was one of the few people he allowed to get away with them. They’d always got on well and, unlike most of Steve’s girlfriends, he’d regretted it when things had gone pear-shaped and she’d disappeared off the scene. She’d always had something interesting to say, and she’d always laughed at his jokes, even when they sucked. 
“Made some underwear disappear the other night, if that’s what you mean.” 
She laughed appreciatively. “Dirty dog.”
  “How about you? How are things?” 
“I’ve had better days, you know.” She shrugged, her dark, wavy hair brushing her shoulders. One side was pinned at her temple with a sparkly hair clip. Combined with her heavy glasses, it gave her an arty, slightly eccentric look that was only reinforced by her old-fashioned floral dress and time-worn tan oxfords. 
Not for the first time he wondered how she and Steve had ever hooked up. She was a million miles from the kind of tight-t-shirted, tight-jeaned women his mate usually went for, and Harry had always figured Steve wasn’t exactly her normal dating material, either. Which only made it even more problematic that they’d created a little girl between them. 
“How’s Alice?” he asked, glancing at the back seat.
The baby seat was empty, however.
“Mum’s visiting, so she’s got her for the day. I was supposed to be getting a few chores sorted, but Old Yeller had other ideas.” Her tone was heavy with irony as she gave her car a rueful glance.
“Let me guess - it overheated?”
“To be honest, I have no idea. One minute I was driving along, the next minute there was this bang and then steam and smoke was pouring out from under the hood...”
Harry frowned. Steam sounded right for overheating, but not smoke. He moved closer and braced a hand on the front of the car as he leaned over the engine bay. It only took him a moment to spot the oil dripping down the engine block and sprayed across the other engine components. 
“Looks like you’ve blown a head gasket.”  
Pippa joined him, peering in at the engine. “That’s bad, right?”
“It’s not great. It basically means that the engine is no longer sealed properly, so the oil that’s supposed to stop things from seizing up when they get hot leaks out.”
“Does that mean the engine is seized now?” She looked alarmed. 
“Not if you pulled over immediately.”
“I did. Straight away.”
“Then it’s probably okay. But the only way to know for sure is to crack the engine block open and take a look.”
“That sounds expensive. Am I right?” Her brown eyes were worried as she glanced at him for confirmation.
“It can be. Depends on parts, what they find when they get in there...”
She nodded, her gaze returning to the engine. “Right. Well, I guess me standing here swearing at it isn’t going to change any of that.”
He pulled out his phone. Since he couldn’t help her, the least he could do was organise a tow truck. 
“Who normally services the car for you?” he asked, ready to dial. He knew most of the workshops in this part of the Mornington Peninsula, as well as a number of the tow truck operators.
“Oh, um, I don’t know their name off the top of my head. A place down in Mornington.” She waved a hand vaguely.
“Sweet Motors? Beachside Workshop?” he suggested.  
She shook her head, her gaze sliding from his face back to the car. “I think I’ve got their card at home.”
“Do you want to get it towed to your place, then?”
She was already shaking her head. “Then I’d have to pay twice. I’ll just go home and sort it from there. But thanks for the thought.”
Her words were light but a frown creased her forehead. Harry hesitated, but there was something about the way she was trying to be so casual about what was clearly a major hassle that made him want to help out. Even though it really wasn’t his place, and even though they weren’t really friends any more. 
“My dad owns the workshop in Mt Eliza Village. I could give Dad a ring. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind helping out with a tow.” Technically, this was true, since Mike Porter had always been a soft touch for someone in distress, but it didn’t mean Harry wouldn’t cop some grief for his impulsive offer. He could almost hear his Dad now: it’d be different if you actually worked for Village Motors, mate. Then you’d be within your rights to make offers on my behalf. 
The fact that he’d chosen to work for someone else once he’d finished his apprenticeship had always been a minor bone of contention between him and his father, although lately it had seemed to Harry as though there was more weight behind his father’s comments and jokey asides. Still, he was willing to wear the inevitable heat if it meant helping Pippa. 
“That’s really nice of you, but I don’t want to put anyone out. Besides, my car club offers free roadside assistance. I can call them from home and get everything sorted.”
“You won’t be putting anyone out. The workshop is five minutes up the road. It’s no big deal.”
Pippa shook her head, her expression determined. “Thanks, but I’ve got it covered.” She softened her rejection by touching his forearm briefly. “I really appreciate you stopping, though, Harry. A lot of other guys would have kept going.”
He frowned. The reality was, if she’d been one of Steve’s other exes, he would have simply blown past without a second thought. He wasn’t really sure why it was different with Pippa, except that he’d always liked her. And - maybe - because he felt a little sorry for her, given her situation and the way things had turned out. 
“Can I give you a lift home, then?” he heard himself offer. 
Even though every minute that ticked past was chewing up his weekend and putting off the moment when he had an ice cold glass of beer in his hand. 
“Thanks, but Mum can come get me.”
She tried to pull the hood stand from its notch on the side of the engine bay. Harry watched her struggle for a few seconds before leaning across her and pulling it loose. He got a whiff of hot engine oil and a rich vanilla scent that must be Pippa’s perfume as the hood fell shut with a dull thud. 
“Where are you living these days?” he asked. 
“Frankston South. Off Karrs Road.”
“Perfect. I’ll be driving right past on the way to the pub.”
She started to protest again but he walked around to the driver’s side of the hatchback and leaned in to grab her handbag from the passenger seat. 
“You need anything else before we lock it up?” he asked as he passed her the bag.
Her expression became rueful. “You’re not going to let this drop, are you?”
“Can’t be a knight in shining armor if the princess won’t get up on my horse.”
She scanned his face, almost as though she was looking for evidence of something. His sincerity, perhaps? Or maybe she was thinking more of his association with Steve. 
“It’s just a lift, Pippa.” 
Her expression lightened. “True. And I wouldn’t want to deprive you of the chance to play Sir Galahad.” 
“Especially since the urge only hits once every five years or so.”
She laughed, the sound loud and honest. “I bet. I’ve got some shopping in the back that should probably come home with me.”
He followed her to the rear of the car and grabbed the shopping bags.
“Thanks.” 
“All part of the service.”
“There’s a service? And here I was thinking I was getting special treatment.”
She was so dry he couldn’t help turning on the charm a little. He winked, deepened his voice a notch. 
“That’s part of the service, too.”
Pippa laughed again as they headed for his car. “My God, Harry. No wonder half the women in Frankston love to hate you.”
They were on familiar ground now - Pippa had always loved giving him a hard time about the “revolving door” to his bedroom. 
“You’ve been talking to the wrong women.” 
“Sure I have.” She gave him a look over her shoulder before opening the passenger door. 
Harry smiled. He hadn’t been so sure earlier, but he was glad he’d stopped now. It was good to see her again, and even better to help her out of a jam, even in a very minor way. 
Digging his keys from his pocket, he prepared himself for a challenging, entertaining five minutes. 


Pippa pressed a hand against her belly as Harry stowed her shopping in the back of his car. For some unknown reason, seeing him and talking to him again had made her nervous. 
A different kind of nervous, obviously, than the way she’d felt when his black car had swerved into the emergency lane so abruptly. The Nepean Highway was a public enough road that she hadn’t really been afraid for her personal safety, but she’d be lying if she said she hadn’t been a little concerned. And then her rescuer had unfolded himself from his car and she’d known she was in good hands. 
The car dipped as Harry slid into the driver’s seat. Pippa eyed his worn jeans and faded black T-shirt and tattooed arms and acknowledged the irony that someone who looked so fierce could make her feel so safe. 
At first glance, Harry looked exactly like the sort of man that should make a woman worry - the military-short hair, the honed power of his arms and shoulders, the sheer height and breadth of him. And then, of course, there were those tattoos. Inky black and unmissable, they marked him as an outlaw, someone who didn’t color between the lines. 
Not exactly your usual white knight material, yet she knew Harry well enough to know that he was a big softie underneath his fierce-looking exterior. A fun-loving, skirt-chasing, beer-swilling softie, true, but not an angry or violent or dangerous one.
“So, got a big weekend planned?” she asked as he started the car. 
“Always.” The smile he flashed her was confident, bordering on cocky.
“Fathers of Melbourne, lock up your daughters.”
“Fat lot of good that’ll do.”
Is was true. She’d seen Harry in action enough times to know that he didn’t have to go hunting for women. They came to him, flicking their teased blonde hair and sashaying their mini-skirted hips. Watching him charm them out of their underwear had always fascinated her - but then she’d long recognised that she had a self-destructive penchant for bad boys. Witness her six months with Steve, who was pretty much the blonde, blue eyed version of Harry - a teenage boy’s mind in a grown man’s body, all about fun and good times and no responsibility. 
As always, thoughts of Steve Lawson made her stomach tight, so she pushed them away. There was no point getting herself all bunged up over a situation she could do nothing to change. 
“Let me guess - you’re kicking off at The Pier. Then you’ll move on to the Grand or The Twenty First Century, and you’ll probably wind up back at Macca’s place playing pool in the garage till three in the morning,” she said. 
“Sounds pretty good, except Macca’s moved in with Sherry and the pool table went west.”
There was a disapproving note to Harry’s voice that wasn’t hard to interpret. He and Steve had never been shy about expressing their disgust with those of their mates who’d met the right woman and married and bowed out of their boys’ club. 
“Oh, dear. Another one bites the dust. Next thing you know you’ll be taking on a mortgage and buying golf clubs, too, Harry.” 
“When hell freezes over.”
He sounded so grimly determined she had to laugh. “How old are you?” 
“Thirty.”
“Getting up there.”
He shot her a look before taking a right hand turn off the highway. “You sound like my sister.”
“Relax. I’m only yanking your chain. I honestly can’t imagine you settling down. You and Steve like your lives too much the way they are to change them.”
She bit her tongue, but it was too late, she’d drawn attention to the elephant in the room. There was a short, tense silence. She was aware of Harry slanting a look at her but she kept her gaze front and centre. 
“For what it’s worth, for a while there I thought you had him on the ropes.”
“The question is, would I have wanted him once I got him?” Again, the words were out her mouth before she could stop them. She held up a hand immediately, signaling that she knew she’d stepped over the line. “Pretend I didn’t say that, okay? Strike it from the record.”
Harry was the last person she wanted to vent to about Steve. The absolute last.  
  “So is Alice walking and talking and stuff yet?” Harry asked after a small silence. 
“She’s six months old, Harry.” She shot him an exasperated look. Was he really so clueless? 
He raised his eyebrows in question, clearly wondering what he’d gotten wrong. Apparently he was that clueless. 
“Baby’s don’t generally start doing any of that until twelve months,” she explained.
“Right. So what does she do?”
“At the moment? Eat. Sleep. Cry. Poo. She’s just starting to crawl, too.”
“And that’s all going well, then?”
She had to laugh. He was trying. She had to give him points for that. 
“She poos like a champion. And no one can reach the high notes like Alice when she’s really cranky.” Her street was coming up and she gestured with her chin. “This is me.”
He turned into her street.
“The one with the broken letterbox,” she said, indicating the fifties brick veneer that she’d been renting since she found out she was pregnant.
Harry pulled into the driveway, his gaze running over the unkempt, overgrown garden and the faded sun awnings on the front of the house. She felt an uncomfortable tug of shame over how shabby it all was. Between work and University and looking after Alice, she could barely stay on top of the inside of the house, let alone the outside. And no way could she spare any money from her already tight weekly budget to pay someone to worry about it for her. 
She opened her mouth to explain some of the above, then shut it again without saying a word. She didn’t owe Harry an explanation. He was breezing through her life. In all likelihood, she wouldn’t run into him again for another six months, probably even longer. Which was the way it should be. 
“Thanks for the lift and the help with my car,” she said.
“Like I did anything to help with your car.”
“You destroyed my last vestiges of hope. Sometimes that’s very necessary.”
“Great. I’ll add that to my repertoire. ‘Crusher of hope’. Has a real ring to it.”
“Actually, it sounds like a heavy metal band.”
He laughed. She smiled and slid out of the car. 
“Have a good weekend, Harry, and a great Christmas.” It was only seven weeks away, after all, and it was unlikely she’d see him again before then.
“You, too, Pippa.”
She turned away, then spun back. “Nearly forgot my shopping.”  
“Right.” 
Before she could protest, Harry was out of the car.
“Don’t you even think about carrying my shopping to the door for me, Harry. You’ve done more than enough.” Plus she wasn’t used to being fussed over like this.
Harry brandished the key at her. “This is an old-school car. No auto trunk release.”
“Oh.” She could feel heat climbing into her cheeks and she attempted to cover by pushing her glasses back up the bridge of her nose. 
A small smile was playing around Harry’s mouth as he lifted her shopping out and set it on the lawn beside the driveway. 
“I’m leaving it here because I don’t want you having conniptions again.”
“Trust me, neither of us want that.”
He looked at her, his grey eyes direct and honest. “Look after yourself, okay?”
“I will. You, too. And keep dodging those bullets. The world wouldn’t be the same if you were domesticated.”
“I’ll do my best, don’t worry.”
He backed into the street. She raised her hand in farewell. He raised his hand in return, then he was gone, the sound of his engine fading into the distance. 
She headed for the house. Running into Harry had been the highlight of her day. Which was probably a sad indictment of how pitiful her life was, but what the hell. 
“Mum, I’m home,” she called as she let herself into the house.
“We’re out the back.”
Pippa dumped the shopping in the kitchen before following her mother’s voice to the sunroom that overlooked the rear garden. The carpet was a faded floral - probably original - the walls a grubby cream. Huge windows gobbled up the afternoon sun. Her mother was sitting on the Art Deco couch Pippa had rescued from the side of the road and reupholstered a few years ago, a crossword puzzle book open on her knees, while Alice lay on a quilt at her feet, apparently fascinated with one of her own small, pink toes. 
“I was starting to get a little worried,” her mother said as Pippa dropped a kiss onto her cheek. 
“Sorry. I had car trouble.”
The vague concern in her mother’s eyes became real worry. “Nothing too bad, I hope?”
“Nothing I can’t sort,” Pippa lied, because she knew if she didn’t the next words out of her mother’s mouth would be an offer to help pay for the repairs.
Julie White had retired from teaching three years ago and was on a limited, fixed income. Despite her financial limitations, she’d bent over backwards to help Pippa once she’d learned of her daughter’s pregnancy. Pippa had been doing her damnedest to stem the tide of her mother’s generosity in recent months - she point blank refused to be the reason her mother had to cut corners in her retirement - and little white lies like this were becoming more and more commonplace in their conversations. 
Still, Pippa figured it was better she tell a few porky pies now than her mother have to sell her small unit or car later on. 
As she’d hoped, the tight look left her mother’s face. “Oh, good. Because the last thing you need right now is car trouble.”
“I know. How has little miss been while I was out?” 
Pippa sank to her knees to rest a hand on her daughter’s warm belly. Alice looked up at her with big blue eyes, her mouth working.
“Did you miss Mummy?”  
Alice beamed, both hands gripping Pippa’s wrist. 
“She’s been a little sweetie,” her mother said.
“That’s because she’s a shameless little con artist. Aren’t you, AliBear? Have you been charming your Grandma?” Pippa kissed her daughter’s cheek before pushing herself to her feet and focussing on her mother. “Are you staying for dinner?” 
“I can’t. Not if I want to make it home before midnight. I promised Mrs. Young that I’d drive her to bingo tomorrow and I don’t want to let her down.”
Her mother lived in Bendigo, a three hour drive north. Single since Pippa’s father died when Pippa was sixteen years old, she was heavily involved in her local community, volunteering at the local retirement village and a number of charity shops. 
Pippa did her best not to look relieved as she walked her mother out to her car and said her goodbyes. At least she didn’t have to put on a brave face for the rest of the evening - the only upside she could find to her situation right now. 
She waited until her mother’s car had turned the corner before walking slowly back into the house, Alice a heavy weight on her hip. She fed Alice, then made dinner for herself. With her daughter settled in her basinette, happily gurgling away, Pippa fired up her laptop and logged on to her bank account to work out how on earth she was going to get together enough money to have her car fixed. 
It was a depressing exercise. Despite months of scrimping and saving, she had just enough in the account to cover rent and utilities and food for the next month, but precious little contingency. Certainly nothing near the amount that Harry had implied she might need. 
She stared at the figures on the screen, elbows propped on the table, fingers digging into her temples as she wracked her brain. There had to be some way to find the money. 
She could ask for more shifts at the local art gallery where she worked, but that would mean bailing on classes at University and she had exams coming up... Plus she was already sailing close to the wind in the attendance department. The last thing she needed was to fail because she hadn’t put in the requisite number of hours in class. The whole point of doing her Diploma of Education was to enable her to escape this cycle of hand-to-mouth, one-day-at-a-time living by landing a decent paying job as a teacher. She was halfway through her Diploma, but all her hard work to date would be a complete write-off if she failed because of skipping class.
Of course, if she’d completed her teaching degree ten years ago when she’d graduated from her Bachelor of Arts degree, none of this would be an issue. She’d have a decent job, a good income, and Alice would living in a stable home. But she’d turned her nose up at teaching then, even though her mother had encouraged her to have “something to fall back on”. Pippa had been convinced that there was something else out there for her, something amazing and creative and exciting. She’d spent a decade looking for it, too, and had nothing to show for it except a woefully empty bank account and her beautiful, painfully precious daughter. 
A headache started behind her left eye and she willed away the panic fluttering in her chest. She might not be able to see it right now, but there was a solution to her problem. She just had to wait for it to reveal itself.
If Steve was even close to being a responsible adult, you wouldn’t have to think twice about calling a mechanic.
She hated the impotent, acidic burn she got in her stomach every time she thought about her ex. Hated how helpless it made her feel. How stupid. 
For six incredibly foolhardy months, she’d been infatuated with a real life version of Peter Pan. She’d laughed at his antics, been beguiled by his laid-back, take-things-as-they-come lifestyle and ignored the little voice in the back of her head telling her that nobody could live like that forever. Then she’d discovered she was pregnant and Steve had turned from a funny, irreverent larrikin into an angry, resentful asshole. Six months of laughs and good times and fun had gone up in smoke and Pippa had been left holding the baby. Literally. 
I don’t want this. I didn’t ask for it. I’ll give you the money to make it go away, but if you decide to keep it, it’s all on you. I don’t want anything to do with it. 
His words on that fateful day still burned bright in her memory. Even though she’d hoped his attitude would change once he’d gotten over the shock of her announcement, he hadn’t budged on his stance since. Which was why she’d been forced to go to Child Support Services to pursue him for support payments. She hadn’t wanted to, had tried everything in her power to work it out with him without it becoming official and complicated, but Steve had point-blank refused to even come to the table and she’d been left with no choice but to take steps to ensure Alice had what she needed. 
In theory, the law had supported her cause, but Steve had come in with the books for his house painting business and told the case-worker that he was barely staying afloat. Alice had been awarded a paltry $15 per week based on Steve’s hugely under-reported annual income. She’d listened with disbelief when her case-worker explained the outcome. She knew how Steve lived. He never denied himself anything, from holidays to Bali to a new truck to three hundred dollar sunglasses. But because he was self-employed, he was able to manipulate the figures to make it look as though he barely made ends meet and she’d walked away with nothing but disillusionment and the advice that she needed to file a ‘change of assessment’ request to empower the agency to go after Steve through tax and bank records. She’d done so - reluctantly - two months ago, and was still waiting to hear back. 
No surprises there. She had no doubt that Steve was doing everything in his power to avoid and delay and prevaricate. Meanwhile, she and Alice teetered on the brink of insolvency. 
Pippa rubbed her eyes. No matter how much she willed it to, the figure on the screen hadn’t suddenly grown an extra decimal point. She abandoned the computer and took Alice out of her basinette and lay on the floor with her baby resting on her belly. Alice pushed herself up on her arms and stared at her, eyes bright with curiosity, and as usual Pippa felt the bulk of her worries slip away as she looked into her daughter’s trusting face. 
This is what’s important. Only this. 
Everything else would take care of itself. University and the car and the bills... Things would work out. She’d make them work out. She might not be loaded, but she was thirty-one years old and she was resourceful and resilient. If she had to sic yet another Government agency on Steve, she would. If she had to somehow squeeze in some more shifts around her classes, she’d do that, too. Whatever it took. 
She cupped her hand over the back of her daughter’s silken head and pressed a kiss to her forehead.

Whatever it took. 

Beer. Icy cold, preferably accompanied by a big, greasy burger. Oh, yeah. 

Harry Porter wound down the window on his 1972 HQ Monaro GTS and grinned into the resulting wind as he sped toward the pub. A vintage Midnight Oil song played on the radio and he tapped out the rhythm on the steering wheel, the burble of the V8 engine providing a bass beat.
It was Friday afternoon, it was summer, he’d just been paid, and half a dozen of his best mates were waiting at The Pier Hotel ten minutes up the road to kick off the weekend’s adventures. 
Life didn’t get much better. 
Whoever was in charge at the radio station seemed to be agree because Midnight Oil’s Power and The Passion was followed by Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. He was reaching for the volume to crank it even higher when he spotted the bright yellow car in the emergency stopping lane to the left of the highway, its hood pushed high in the universal signal that someone was shit out of luck. 
The mechanic in him automatically diagnosed the problem - in this weather, most likely something to do with the car’s cooling system - before returning his gaze to the road. Fortunately for him, being a mechanic wasn’t like being a doctor - he wasn’t obliged to stop for emergencies. Which was just as well, because he’d spend half his life riding to the rescue if that was the case. 
Something tickled at the back of his brain as he approached the car. He realised what it was as he sped past. He knew this car - at least, he knew its owner. He hadn’t seen her for nearly six months, but that was definitely her bright yellow hatchback, a fact that was confirmed when he looked in his rear vision mirror and saw Pippa White standing with her hands on her hips as she stared into the engine bay. 
He swerved into the unsealed emergency lane. He watched in the rear view mirror as Pippa turned to watch as his big black car reversed toward her. She was frowning, clearly trying to work out who was coming to her rescue. 
The worried expression dropped from her face when he exited his car. It was replaced with the wry, appreciative smile that he’d come to associate with her during the six months she’d dated his best mate, Steve. She pushed her heavy black framed glasses further up her nose and gave him a head to toe scan as he approached.
“You’re definitely not what I was expecting when I sent up a prayer for a guardian angel.” 
“Long time no see,” he said easily. 
Pippa’s smiled slipped a fraction and he knew that - like him - she was remembering the last time they’d seen each other. He’d come to the hospital to visit her after the birth of daughter, Alice, driven by god-knows-what stupid impulse. The most uncomfortable fifteen minutes of his life so far, hands down.  She recovered quickly, pushing her glasses up her nose again. 
“How have you been, Harry? How’s Hogwarts going? Cast any good spells lately?” 
The Harry Potter/Porter jokes had gotten old around the time Ms.Rowling had made her second billion, but Pippa was one of the few people he allowed to get away with them. They’d always got on well and, unlike most of Steve’s girlfriends, he’d regretted it when things had gone pear-shaped and she’d disappeared off the scene. She’d always had something interesting to say, and she’d always laughed at his jokes, even when they sucked. 
“Made some underwear disappear the other night, if that’s what you mean.” 
She laughed appreciatively. “Dirty dog.”
  “How about you? How are things?” 
“I’ve had better days, you know.” She shrugged, her dark, wavy hair brushing her shoulders. One side was pinned at her temple with a sparkly hair clip. Combined with her heavy glasses, it gave her an arty, slightly eccentric look that was only reinforced by her old-fashioned floral dress and time-worn tan oxfords. 
Not for the first time he wondered how she and Steve had ever hooked up. She was a million miles from the kind of tight-t-shirted, tight-jeaned women his mate usually went for, and Harry had always figured Steve wasn’t exactly her normal dating material, either. Which only made it even more problematic that they’d created a little girl between them. 
“How’s Alice?” he asked, glancing at the back seat.
The baby seat was empty, however.
“Mum’s visiting, so she’s got her for the day. I was supposed to be getting a few chores sorted, but Old Yeller had other ideas.” Her tone was heavy with irony as she gave her car a rueful glance.
“Let me guess - it overheated?”
“To be honest, I have no idea. One minute I was driving along, the next minute there was this bang and then steam and smoke was pouring out from under the hood...”
Harry frowned. Steam sounded right for overheating, but not smoke. He moved closer and braced a hand on the front of the car as he leaned over the engine bay. It only took him a moment to spot the oil dripping down the engine block and sprayed across the other engine components. 
“Looks like you’ve blown a head gasket.”  
Pippa joined him, peering in at the engine. “That’s bad, right?”
“It’s not great. It basically means that the engine is no longer sealed properly, so the oil that’s supposed to stop things from seizing up when they get hot leaks out.”
“Does that mean the engine is seized now?” She looked alarmed. 
“Not if you pulled over immediately.”
“I did. Straight away.”
“Then it’s probably okay. But the only way to know for sure is to crack the engine block open and take a look.”
“That sounds expensive. Am I right?” Her brown eyes were worried as she glanced at him for confirmation.
“It can be. Depends on parts, what they find when they get in there...”
She nodded, her gaze returning to the engine. “Right. Well, I guess me standing here swearing at it isn’t going to change any of that.”
He pulled out his phone. Since he couldn’t help her, the least he could do was organise a tow truck. 
“Who normally services the car for you?” he asked, ready to dial. He knew most of the workshops in this part of the Mornington Peninsula, as well as a number of the tow truck operators.
“Oh, um, I don’t know their name off the top of my head. A place down in Mornington.” She waved a hand vaguely.
“Sweet Motors? Beachside Workshop?” he suggested.  
She shook her head, her gaze sliding from his face back to the car. “I think I’ve got their card at home.”
“Do you want to get it towed to your place, then?”
She was already shaking her head. “Then I’d have to pay twice. I’ll just go home and sort it from there. But thanks for the thought.”
Her words were light but a frown creased her forehead. Harry hesitated, but there was something about the way she was trying to be so casual about what was clearly a major hassle that made him want to help out. Even though it really wasn’t his place, and even though they weren’t really friends any more. 
“My dad owns the workshop in Mt Eliza Village. I could give Dad a ring. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind helping out with a tow.” Technically, this was true, since Mike Porter had always been a soft touch for someone in distress, but it didn’t mean Harry wouldn’t cop some grief for his impulsive offer. He could almost hear his Dad now: it’d be different if you actually worked for Village Motors, mate. Then you’d be within your rights to make offers on my behalf. 
The fact that he’d chosen to work for someone else once he’d finished his apprenticeship had always been a minor bone of contention between him and his father, although lately it had seemed to Harry as though there was more weight behind his father’s comments and jokey asides. Still, he was willing to wear the inevitable heat if it meant helping Pippa. 
“That’s really nice of you, but I don’t want to put anyone out. Besides, my car club offers free roadside assistance. I can call them from home and get everything sorted.”
“You won’t be putting anyone out. The workshop is five minutes up the road. It’s no big deal.”
Pippa shook her head, her expression determined. “Thanks, but I’ve got it covered.” She softened her rejection by touching his forearm briefly. “I really appreciate you stopping, though, Harry. A lot of other guys would have kept going.”
He frowned. The reality was, if she’d been one of Steve’s other exes, he would have simply blown past without a second thought. He wasn’t really sure why it was different with Pippa, except that he’d always liked her. And - maybe - because he felt a little sorry for her, given her situation and the way things had turned out. 
“Can I give you a lift home, then?” he heard himself offer. 
Even though every minute that ticked past was chewing up his weekend and putting off the moment when he had an ice cold glass of beer in his hand. 
“Thanks, but Mum can come get me.”
She tried to pull the hood stand from its notch on the side of the engine bay. Harry watched her struggle for a few seconds before leaning across her and pulling it loose. He got a whiff of hot engine oil and a rich vanilla scent that must be Pippa’s perfume as the hood fell shut with a dull thud. 
“Where are you living these days?” he asked. 
“Frankston South. Off Karrs Road.”
“Perfect. I’ll be driving right past on the way to the pub.”
She started to protest again but he walked around to the driver’s side of the hatchback and leaned in to grab her handbag from the passenger seat. 
“You need anything else before we lock it up?” he asked as he passed her the bag.
Her expression became rueful. “You’re not going to let this drop, are you?”
“Can’t be a knight in shining armor if the princess won’t get up on my horse.”
She scanned his face, almost as though she was looking for evidence of something. His sincerity, perhaps? Or maybe she was thinking more of his association with Steve. 
“It’s just a lift, Pippa.” 
Her expression lightened. “True. And I wouldn’t want to deprive you of the chance to play Sir Galahad.” 
“Especially since the urge only hits once every five years or so.”
She laughed, the sound loud and honest. “I bet. I’ve got some shopping in the back that should probably come home with me.”
He followed her to the rear of the car and grabbed the shopping bags.
“Thanks.” 
“All part of the service.”
“There’s a service? And here I was thinking I was getting special treatment.”
She was so dry he couldn’t help turning on the charm a little. He winked, deepened his voice a notch. 
“That’s part of the service, too.”
Pippa laughed again as they headed for his car. “My God, Harry. No wonder half the women in Frankston love to hate you.”
They were on familiar ground now - Pippa had always loved giving him a hard time about the “revolving door” to his bedroom. 
“You’ve been talking to the wrong women.” 
“Sure I have.” She gave him a look over her shoulder before opening the passenger door. 
Harry smiled. He hadn’t been so sure earlier, but he was glad he’d stopped now. It was good to see her again, and even better to help her out of a jam, even in a very minor way. 
Digging his keys from his pocket, he prepared himself for a challenging, entertaining five minutes. 


Pippa pressed a hand against her belly as Harry stowed her shopping in the back of his car. For some unknown reason, seeing him and talking to him again had made her nervous. 
A different kind of nervous, obviously, than the way she’d felt when his black car had swerved into the emergency lane so abruptly. The Nepean Highway was a public enough road that she hadn’t really been afraid for her personal safety, but she’d be lying if she said she hadn’t been a little concerned. And then her rescuer had unfolded himself from his car and she’d known she was in good hands. 
The car dipped as Harry slid into the driver’s seat. Pippa eyed his worn jeans and faded black T-shirt and tattooed arms and acknowledged the irony that someone who looked so fierce could make her feel so safe. 
At first glance, Harry looked exactly like the sort of man that should make a woman worry - the military-short hair, the honed power of his arms and shoulders, the sheer height and breadth of him. And then, of course, there were those tattoos. Inky black and unmissable, they marked him as an outlaw, someone who didn’t color between the lines. 
Not exactly your usual white knight material, yet she knew Harry well enough to know that he was a big softie underneath his fierce-looking exterior. A fun-loving, skirt-chasing, beer-swilling softie, true, but not an angry or violent or dangerous one.
“So, got a big weekend planned?” she asked as he started the car. 
“Always.” The smile he flashed her was confident, bordering on cocky.
“Fathers of Melbourne, lock up your daughters.”
“Fat lot of good that’ll do.”
Is was true. She’d seen Harry in action enough times to know that he didn’t have to go hunting for women. They came to him, flicking their teased blonde hair and sashaying their mini-skirted hips. Watching him charm them out of their underwear had always fascinated her - but then she’d long recognised that she had a self-destructive penchant for bad boys. Witness her six months with Steve, who was pretty much the blonde, blue eyed version of Harry - a teenage boy’s mind in a grown man’s body, all about fun and good times and no responsibility. 
As always, thoughts of Steve Lawson made her stomach tight, so she pushed them away. There was no point getting herself all bunged up over a situation she could do nothing to change. 
“Let me guess - you’re kicking off at The Pier. Then you’ll move on to the Grand or The Twenty First Century, and you’ll probably wind up back at Macca’s place playing pool in the garage till three in the morning,” she said. 
“Sounds pretty good, except Macca’s moved in with Sherry and the pool table went west.”
There was a disapproving note to Harry’s voice that wasn’t hard to interpret. He and Steve had never been shy about expressing their disgust with those of their mates who’d met the right woman and married and bowed out of their boys’ club. 
“Oh, dear. Another one bites the dust. Next thing you know you’ll be taking on a mortgage and buying golf clubs, too, Harry.” 
“When hell freezes over.”
He sounded so grimly determined she had to laugh. “How old are you?” 
“Thirty.”
“Getting up there.”
He shot her a look before taking a right hand turn off the highway. “You sound like my sister.”
“Relax. I’m only yanking your chain. I honestly can’t imagine you settling down. You and Steve like your lives too much the way they are to change them.”
She bit her tongue, but it was too late, she’d drawn attention to the elephant in the room. There was a short, tense silence. She was aware of Harry slanting a look at her but she kept her gaze front and centre. 
“For what it’s worth, for a while there I thought you had him on the ropes.”
“The question is, would I have wanted him once I got him?” Again, the words were out her mouth before she could stop them. She held up a hand immediately, signaling that she knew she’d stepped over the line. “Pretend I didn’t say that, okay? Strike it from the record.”
Harry was the last person she wanted to vent to about Steve. The absolute last.  
  “So is Alice walking and talking and stuff yet?” Harry asked after a small silence. 
“She’s six months old, Harry.” She shot him an exasperated look. Was he really so clueless? 
He raised his eyebrows in question, clearly wondering what he’d gotten wrong. Apparently he was that clueless. 
“Baby’s don’t generally start doing any of that until twelve months,” she explained.
“Right. So what does she do?”
“At the moment? Eat. Sleep. Cry. Poo. She’s just starting to crawl, too.”
“And that’s all going well, then?”
She had to laugh. He was trying. She had to give him points for that. 
“She poos like a champion. And no one can reach the high notes like Alice when she’s really cranky.” Her street was coming up and she gestured with her chin. “This is me.”
He turned into her street.
“The one with the broken letterbox,” she said, indicating the fifties brick veneer that she’d been renting since she found out she was pregnant.
Harry pulled into the driveway, his gaze running over the unkempt, overgrown garden and the faded sun awnings on the front of the house. She felt an uncomfortable tug of shame over how shabby it all was. Between work and University and looking after Alice, she could barely stay on top of the inside of the house, let alone the outside. And no way could she spare any money from her already tight weekly budget to pay someone to worry about it for her. 
She opened her mouth to explain some of the above, then shut it again without saying a word. She didn’t owe Harry an explanation. He was breezing through her life. In all likelihood, she wouldn’t run into him again for another six months, probably even longer. Which was the way it should be. 
“Thanks for the lift and the help with my car,” she said.
“Like I did anything to help with your car.”
“You destroyed my last vestiges of hope. Sometimes that’s very necessary.”
“Great. I’ll add that to my repertoire. ‘Crusher of hope’. Has a real ring to it.”
“Actually, it sounds like a heavy metal band.”
He laughed. She smiled and slid out of the car. 
“Have a good weekend, Harry, and a great Christmas.” It was only seven weeks away, after all, and it was unlikely she’d see him again before then.
“You, too, Pippa.”
She turned away, then spun back. “Nearly forgot my shopping.”  
“Right.” 
Before she could protest, Harry was out of the car.
“Don’t you even think about carrying my shopping to the door for me, Harry. You’ve done more than enough.” Plus she wasn’t used to being fussed over like this.
Harry brandished the key at her. “This is an old-school car. No auto trunk release.”
“Oh.” She could feel heat climbing into her cheeks and she attempted to cover by pushing her glasses back up the bridge of her nose. 
A small smile was playing around Harry’s mouth as he lifted her shopping out and set it on the lawn beside the driveway. 
“I’m leaving it here because I don’t want you having conniptions again.”
“Trust me, neither of us want that.”
He looked at her, his grey eyes direct and honest. “Look after yourself, okay?”
“I will. You, too. And keep dodging those bullets. The world wouldn’t be the same if you were domesticated.”
“I’ll do my best, don’t worry.”
He backed into the street. She raised her hand in farewell. He raised his hand in return, then he was gone, the sound of his engine fading into the distance. 
She headed for the house. Running into Harry had been the highlight of her day. Which was probably a sad indictment of how pitiful her life was, but what the hell. 
“Mum, I’m home,” she called as she let herself into the house.
“We’re out the back.”
Pippa dumped the shopping in the kitchen before following her mother’s voice to the sunroom that overlooked the rear garden. The carpet was a faded floral - probably original - the walls a grubby cream. Huge windows gobbled up the afternoon sun. Her mother was sitting on the Art Deco couch Pippa had rescued from the side of the road and reupholstered a few years ago, a crossword puzzle book open on her knees, while Alice lay on a quilt at her feet, apparently fascinated with one of her own small, pink toes. 
“I was starting to get a little worried,” her mother said as Pippa dropped a kiss onto her cheek. 
“Sorry. I had car trouble.”
The vague concern in her mother’s eyes became real worry. “Nothing too bad, I hope?”
“Nothing I can’t sort,” Pippa lied, because she knew if she didn’t the next words out of her mother’s mouth would be an offer to help pay for the repairs.
Julie White had retired from teaching three years ago and was on a limited, fixed income. Despite her financial limitations, she’d bent over backwards to help Pippa once she’d learned of her daughter’s pregnancy. Pippa had been doing her damnedest to stem the tide of her mother’s generosity in recent months - she point blank refused to be the reason her mother had to cut corners in her retirement - and little white lies like this were becoming more and more commonplace in their conversations. 
Still, Pippa figured it was better she tell a few porky pies now than her mother have to sell her small unit or car later on. 
As she’d hoped, the tight look left her mother’s face. “Oh, good. Because the last thing you need right now is car trouble.”
“I know. How has little miss been while I was out?” 
Pippa sank to her knees to rest a hand on her daughter’s warm belly. Alice looked up at her with big blue eyes, her mouth working.
“Did you miss Mummy?”  
Alice beamed, both hands gripping Pippa’s wrist. 
“She’s been a little sweetie,” her mother said.
“That’s because she’s a shameless little con artist. Aren’t you, AliBear? Have you been charming your Grandma?” Pippa kissed her daughter’s cheek before pushing herself to her feet and focussing on her mother. “Are you staying for dinner?” 
“I can’t. Not if I want to make it home before midnight. I promised Mrs. Young that I’d drive her to bingo tomorrow and I don’t want to let her down.”
Her mother lived in Bendigo, a three hour drive north. Single since Pippa’s father died when Pippa was sixteen years old, she was heavily involved in her local community, volunteering at the local retirement village and a number of charity shops. 
Pippa did her best not to look relieved as she walked her mother out to her car and said her goodbyes. At least she didn’t have to put on a brave face for the rest of the evening - the only upside she could find to her situation right now. 
She waited until her mother’s car had turned the corner before walking slowly back into the house, Alice a heavy weight on her hip. She fed Alice, then made dinner for herself. With her daughter settled in her basinette, happily gurgling away, Pippa fired up her laptop and logged on to her bank account to work out how on earth she was going to get together enough money to have her car fixed. 
It was a depressing exercise. Despite months of scrimping and saving, she had just enough in the account to cover rent and utilities and food for the next month, but precious little contingency. Certainly nothing near the amount that Harry had implied she might need. 
She stared at the figures on the screen, elbows propped on the table, fingers digging into her temples as she wracked her brain. There had to be some way to find the money. 
She could ask for more shifts at the local art gallery where she worked, but that would mean bailing on classes at University and she had exams coming up... Plus she was already sailing close to the wind in the attendance department. The last thing she needed was to fail because she hadn’t put in the requisite number of hours in class. The whole point of doing her Diploma of Education was to enable her to escape this cycle of hand-to-mouth, one-day-at-a-time living by landing a decent paying job as a teacher. She was halfway through her Diploma, but all her hard work to date would be a complete write-off if she failed because of skipping class.
Of course, if she’d completed her teaching degree ten years ago when she’d graduated from her Bachelor of Arts degree, none of this would be an issue. She’d have a decent job, a good income, and Alice would living in a stable home. But she’d turned her nose up at teaching then, even though her mother had encouraged her to have “something to fall back on”. Pippa had been convinced that there was something else out there for her, something amazing and creative and exciting. She’d spent a decade looking for it, too, and had nothing to show for it except a woefully empty bank account and her beautiful, painfully precious daughter. 
A headache started behind her left eye and she willed away the panic fluttering in her chest. She might not be able to see it right now, but there was a solution to her problem. She just had to wait for it to reveal itself.
If Steve was even close to being a responsible adult, you wouldn’t have to think twice about calling a mechanic.
She hated the impotent, acidic burn she got in her stomach every time she thought about her ex. Hated how helpless it made her feel. How stupid. 
For six incredibly foolhardy months, she’d been infatuated with a real life version of Peter Pan. She’d laughed at his antics, been beguiled by his laid-back, take-things-as-they-come lifestyle and ignored the little voice in the back of her head telling her that nobody could live like that forever. Then she’d discovered she was pregnant and Steve had turned from a funny, irreverent larrikin into an angry, resentful asshole. Six months of laughs and good times and fun had gone up in smoke and Pippa had been left holding the baby. Literally. 
I don’t want this. I didn’t ask for it. I’ll give you the money to make it go away, but if you decide to keep it, it’s all on you. I don’t want anything to do with it. 
His words on that fateful day still burned bright in her memory. Even though she’d hoped his attitude would change once he’d gotten over the shock of her announcement, he hadn’t budged on his stance since. Which was why she’d been forced to go to Child Support Services to pursue him for support payments. She hadn’t wanted to, had tried everything in her power to work it out with him without it becoming official and complicated, but Steve had point-blank refused to even come to the table and she’d been left with no choice but to take steps to ensure Alice had what she needed. 
In theory, the law had supported her cause, but Steve had come in with the books for his house painting business and told the case-worker that he was barely staying afloat. Alice had been awarded a paltry $15 per week based on Steve’s hugely under-reported annual income. She’d listened with disbelief when her case-worker explained the outcome. She knew how Steve lived. He never denied himself anything, from holidays to Bali to a new truck to three hundred dollar sunglasses. But because he was self-employed, he was able to manipulate the figures to make it look as though he barely made ends meet and she’d walked away with nothing but disillusionment and the advice that she needed to file a ‘change of assessment’ request to empower the agency to go after Steve through tax and bank records. She’d done so - reluctantly - two months ago, and was still waiting to hear back. 
No surprises there. She had no doubt that Steve was doing everything in his power to avoid and delay and prevaricate. Meanwhile, she and Alice teetered on the brink of insolvency. 
Pippa rubbed her eyes. No matter how much she willed it to, the figure on the screen hadn’t suddenly grown an extra decimal point. She abandoned the computer and took Alice out of her basinette and lay on the floor with her baby resting on her belly. Alice pushed herself up on her arms and stared at her, eyes bright with curiosity, and as usual Pippa felt the bulk of her worries slip away as she looked into her daughter’s trusting face. 
This is what’s important. Only this. 
Everything else would take care of itself. University and the car and the bills... Things would work out. She’d make them work out. She might not be loaded, but she was thirty-one years old and she was resourceful and resilient. If she had to sic yet another Government agency on Steve, she would. If she had to somehow squeeze in some more shifts around her classes, she’d do that, too. Whatever it took. 
She cupped her hand over the back of her daughter’s silken head and pressed a kiss to her forehead.
Whatever it took. 

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