One Real Man

By: Coleen Kwan



A knock sounded at her bedroom door. Her head jerked up. Owen. Come to throw her out, no doubt.

“Paige? Can I come in?”

At least he hadn’t barged in. Get it together, girl. Don’t show him any weakness.

She smoothed down her damp hair, straightened her rumpled T-shirt. “Come,” she called out.

He entered and stopped just a few paces in. He glanced around, curiosity plain in his expression. “Huh. Not too girlie in here.”

“You’ve never been in here?” she said.

“No.”

“Not even when you moved in?”

“No.”

“Who decided on this furniture?” She gestured around her.

“The interior decorator I hired. I didn’t have the time, so I left the decisions to her.”

The room wasn’t hers, but it was stylishly furnished, and the big, soft bed looked inviting, reminding her muscles of the grueling journey she’d endured that still wasn’t at an end. As she pulled her attention away from the bed, she caught Owen studying her with those unsettling green eyes of his.

His attention never wavered from her, and silence fell between them. He’d never been one for chitchat. As his scrutiny continued, she found herself growing antsy.

“Paige, are you in some sort of trouble?”

The unexpected gentleness of his tone cracked her facade like nothing else could. She’d braced herself for sarcasm or aloofness, but not this. Her chin quivered dangerously again. She sank her fingernails into the flesh of her palms, willing the lump in her throat to subside.

“Trouble? Me?” She forced a laugh. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Come on, quit trying to pull the wool over my eyes. You’ve sneaked back to your parents’ home without telling anyone. That’s not like you. Something’s happened, I can tell.”

She folded her arms. “You’ve never believed in beating around the bush, have you?”

He shrugged. “Okay, so I don’t have all the social niceties, but I do know something’s not right with you. Did your ex bleed you dry? Have you run out of money?”

She dug her nails into her arms as Owen’s bluntness drilled through her defenses. “I—I may be a little short at the moment, but—but it’s only temporary until I start working again.”

“You’ve got a new job lined up?”

Her fingers twined around a lock of hair. “Not…exactly…”

“You’re job hunting?” His expression grew puzzled. “I wouldn’t have thought there were many marketing jobs in this town.”

He knew her line of work; she hadn’t expected that. “I’ll be job hunting in Sydney, of course.” She twisted her hair tighter. “I just came here for a few weeks to rest and—and work on my CV…”

And to hide away. To lick her wounds in private. The truth was, she’d lost her mojo, that hard-fought, shiny confidence she projected to the outside world. In Sydney, she’d made a relative success of her chosen occupation. She’d worked for a top marketing firm and garnered a solid reputation. She valued her career, but at the moment she couldn’t face the fast-paced harbor city and the heaving pool of competition she’d once swum in. When that mortifying video had surfaced, she’d been so sickened and ashamed, she’d shut down her email and Facebook accounts. She hadn’t contacted any of her old Sydney friends—who knew which ones were genuine?—and she didn’t have the guts to face them. Not right now, not the way she was feeling.

Owen reached up and disentangled her fingers from her hair. “You’re going to give yourself a bald patch if you keep on torturing your hair like that.”

“Oh.” Her hand tingled from the brief contact with his fingers. Gripping her hands behind her back, she cleared her throat and forced herself to say matter-of-factly, “So, yes, I’m temporarily out of a job, but it’ll only be for a month or so. And I’ll be out of here as soon as I’ve called a taxi.”

“Where will you go?” He didn’t seem as relieved as she thought he’d be.

Her brain flashed through the possibilities. Since she’d moved to Sydney nine years ago, she’d only kept up with past friends from Burronga sporadically. Too infrequently to suddenly impose on them with her suitcases asking to stay the night. There was always Great-Aunt Lucinda… She shuddered. No, she couldn’t bear the lectures.

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