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Beer. Icy cold, preferably accompanied by a big, greasy burger. Oh, yeah.
Harry Porter rolled down the window of 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 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 higher when he spotted the bright yellow car in the emergency stopping lane to the left of the highway, its hood pushed up in the universal signal that someone was shit out of luck.
The mechanic in him automatically diagnosed the problemin this weather, most likely the car's cooling systembefore returning his gaze to the road. Fortunately, being a mechanic wasn't like being a doctor Harry 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 realized what it was as he sped past. He knew this carat least, he knew its owner. He hadn't seen her for nearly six months, but that was definitely her bright yellow hatchback, a fact he confirmed when he looked in his rear vision mirror and saw Pippa White standing with her hands on her hips staring into the engine bay.
He swerved into the unsealed emergency lane and glanced in the rearview mirror as Pippa turned to watch his big black car reverse toward her. She was frowning, clearly trying to work out who was coming to her rescue.
The worried expression vanished from her face when he exited his car. It was replaced with the wry, appreciative smile he'd come to associate with her during the six months she'd dated his best mate, Steve.
Pippa pushed her heavy black-framed glasses up her nose and scanned him head to toe 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 smile slipped a fraction and he knew thatlike himshe was remembering the last time they'd seen each other. Driven by god-knows-what stupid impulse, he had visited her at the hospital after the birth of her daughter, Alice. 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. A sparkly clip was pinned at one temple. Combined with her heavy glasses, it gave her an arty, slightly eccentric look that was reinforced by her old-fashioned floral dress and timeworn tan oxfords.
Not for the first time he wondered how she and Steve had ever hooked up. She was a million miles from the tight-T-shirted, tight-jeaned women his mate usually went for, and Harry had always figured Steve wasn't exactly Pippa's normal dating material, either. Which only made it more problematic that they'd created a little girl between them.
"How's Alice?" he asked, glancing at the backseat.
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 guessit 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 to lean over the engine bay. It took him only 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 at the engine. "That's bad, right?"
"It's not great. It basically means 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?" A worried expression filled her brown eyes.
"It can be. Depends on parts, what they find when they get in there."
She nodded. "Right. Well, I guess me standing here swearing at it won't change any of that."
Harry pulled out his phone. Since he couldn't help her, the least he could do was organize a tow truck.
"Who normally services the car?" 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 the name off the top of my head. A place down in Mornington." She waved a hand vaguely.
"Sweet Motors? Beachside Workshop?" he suggested.
Pippa shook her head, her gaze sliding from his face to the car. "I think I've got their card at home."
"Do you want to get it towed to your place, then?"
"No, 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 the frown creasing her forehead remained. 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 wasn't his place, and they weren't really friends anymore.
"My dad owns the workshop in Mount Eliza Village. I could give him 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 Harry had 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 seemed there was more weight behind his father's comments and jokey asides.
Still, Harry 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 up the road. It's no big deal."
Pippa's expression became determined. "Thanks, but I've got it covered." She softened her rejection by touching his forearm briefly. "I appreciate you stopping, 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 sure why it was different with Pippa, except he'd always liked her. Andmaybebecause 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 chewed up his weekend and delayed the moment when he had an ice-cold glass of beer in his hand.
"Thanks, but Mum can come get me."
Pippa 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 scentPippa's perfume most likelyas the hood shut with a dull thud.
"Where are you living these days?" he asked.
"Frankston South. Off Karrs Road."
"Perfect. I'm driving past on the way to the pub."
She started to protest again but he walked to the driver's side of the hatchback and leaned in to grab her handbag.
"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."
"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 come home with me."
He followed her to the trunk and grabbed the bags.
"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. "That's part of the service, too." He winked, deepened his voice a notch.
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 nowPippa 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 now he was glad he'd stopped. 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. For some unknown reason, seeing 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 been afraid for her personal safety, but she'd be lying if she said she hadn't been a little concerned. 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, faded black T-shirt and tattooed arms, acknowledging 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 worrythe military-short hair, the honed power of his arms and shoulders, the sheer height and breadth of him. And, of course, there were those tribal tattoos snaking around his arms. Inky-black and impossible to miss, 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 he was a big softie underneath his fierce exterior.
"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."
It was true. She'd seen Harry in action enough times to know he didn't have to go hunting for women. They came to him, flicking their teased blond hair and sashaying their miniskirted hips. Watching him charm them out of their underwear had fascinated herbut then she'd long recognized that she had a self-destructive penchant for bad boys. Witness her six months with Steve, who was the blond, blue-eyed version of Harrya 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 tightened her stomach, 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 guessyou're kicking off at the Pier. Then you'll move on to the Grand or the Twenty-First Century, and you'll wind up 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."
It wasn't hard to interpret the disapproving note in Harry's voice. He and Steve had never been shy about their disgust with their mates who'd met the right woman, 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?"
"Getting up there."
He shot her a look before taking a right 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. A short silence followed. Harry glanced at her but she kept her gaze front and center.
"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 of her mouth before she could stop them. She held up a hand immediately, signaling 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." Was he really so clueless?