Gwynneth Ever after
an ever after romance
“…the ultimate Cinderella tale complete with toddlers, single parenthood, and paparazzi.” – Carolyn Crane, author of The Disillusionists
“……a beautifully compelling story…made me feel like I was coming home to old friends.” – Romantic Reads and Such
Winner of the 2015 Readers’ Favorite Honorable Mention!
Cinderella had it easy. Gwynneth Jacobs? Not so much. Raising three kids on her own while working full time isn’t exactly the life Gwynneth dreamed she’d have. But when her husband walked out, leaving her to pick up the pieces, Gwyn learned the hard way that there is no such thing as “happy ever after.” And that’s one lesson she’s not about to forget…until a chance encounter with Hollywood’s number-one heartthrob rocks her good intentions to their core. But as undeniable as her attraction to megastar Gareth Connor might be, Gwyn’s priorities lie solely with her three children. And there’s no way she’ll open up their lives to being hurt again. Gareth, however, has a way of getting what he wants, and he wants the whole fairy tale—starring one Gwynneth Jacobs. Will he be the prince to charm his way into Gwyn’s life? Or will Gwyn’s trust issues get in the way of her very own happy ever after?
READ AN EXCERPT
Gwyn Jacobs stuffed sketchpad and charcoal pencils into her shoulder bag, and then, satisfied she had everything she needed, she turned to her babysitter.
“There,” she said, pulling on black leather gloves. “I think I’m organized. Any questions?”
Her neighbor’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Kirsten, eyed the black bag. “Are you sure they’ll let you do that?”
“Sketch during the play. It just seems…I don’t know…rude, I guess.”
“I arranged for a private box.” Gwyn tucked a stray auburn curl behind her ear with one hand and waved away Kirsten’s concerns with the other. “Besides, even if the other seat happens to occupied, which isn’t likely on a Sunday, how distracting can a piece of paper and a pencil be?”
She slung the bag over her shoulder and, using her gloved fingers, ticked off a list of instructions. “Lunch is in the fridge, they can have fruit and cookies for a snack, and I’ll keep my cell phone on vibrate in case you need me. Oh, and Katie will be home sometime around two from the birthday party, so if you go to the park, you’ll need to be back in time for her. I should be home around four thirty.”
She called a final farewell to Maggie and Nicholas, parked in the adjacent living room in front of their favorite computer game, then pulled open the front door and stepped onto the porch. A gust of wind whipped her coat around her legs. Eyeing the gloomy November sky, she looked over her shoulder at Kristen.
“And make sure—”
“Raincoats,” Kristen said, making shooing motions. “They’ll wear them, I promise. Now stop worrying and go have fun!”
Gwyn stashed her shoulder bag behind the driver’s seat and checked her watch. Late, of course. When was she ever on time for anything? She sighed and slid in behind the steering wheel. Even if she hit every light green along the way, she’d be lucky to make it in time for the curtain.
A few fat raindrops spattered against the windshield and she muttered an imprecation under her breath. Great. First a long-winded conversation with a client, then a desperate sprint to the department store for a birthday gift for Katie to take to the party she’d forgotten, then a juice incident in the living room, and now rain. Everyone from the kids to the weather gods appeared to be conspiring against her last-ditch effort to get Sandy’s birthday present under way.
The rain fell faster, pinging against the car’s metal shell. With another sigh, she switched on first the windshield wipers and then the headlights.
She arrived at the theater and dashed in as the lobby lights flickered on and off in a warning to patrons to take their seats. An usher met her at the top of the sweeping staircase and guided her to a small, private box. He murmured to her to enjoy the show, then disappeared behind the crimson velvet drape that dropped across the doorway. In a tangle of coat, gloves, scarf, and bag, she plopped into a seat.
A sideways glance told her the other seat was occupied after all. Her heart sank a little. So much for the hope of not disturbing anyone else with her sketching, though given the day so far, she supposed she should have expected as much.
The house lights flickered again, prompting her to sort herself out. She tried to do so with as little fuss as possible but still managed to whack her seat companion on the knee with her bag—twice—before dropping her gloves at his feet. Then, when she dived down to retrieve the errant items, her pencils spilled onto the floor with a clatter and her coat slid off her lap onto her feet.
Pausing, Gwyn closed her eyes and took a slow, deep breath. If she continued like this, she’d knock apart the theater before the curtain rose. Or else get herself kicked out.
She opened her eyes again. With all the calm she could muster, she picked up her coat, stuffed gloves and scarf into one sleeve, and shoved the bundle under her seat, hoping to God as she did that the floor had been swept sometime in the last decade. Turning to retrieve her pencils, she blinked as they came into focus under her nose, held out to her by her neighbor.
“Are you always this organized?” a deep male voice asked, a faint accent—British?—and a definite thread of amusement running through it.
Wrinkling her nose, Gwyn reached to accept the pencils from her seat companion. A lighthearted comment about not getting out often sat enough on the tip of her tongue, but it died there as she raised her eyes to the face beyond the hand. It couldn’t be. No way. A look-alike, maybe, but not the genuine article, because things like this just didn’t happen in real life.
Women like her simply didn’t sit down in a faded, yesteryear Ottawa theater and find themselves staring into the eyes of a Hollywood star.
She realized her companion waited for her response, one heavy black eyebrow raised. The lights began to dim. Snapping her mouth closed, she hoped against hope the encroaching dark would hide the blush scorching her cheeks. And then, because eloquence failed no matter how hard she tried, she fell back on automatic and very dull manners.
“Sorry,” she muttered, and subsided into her seat.
Sorry? She thought she had an honest-to-God, real-live famous actor in the seat next to her, and all she could find to say was sorry? Whatever happened to wow, you look just like Gareth Connor—or something even more straightforward, like aren’t you—? Heck, even if the man weren’t the actor himself, he was the spitting image…and he was sharing her box!
She missed the first act entirely.
When Gareth—or whoever he was—began applauding, she jumped in her seat and took a full ten seconds before following suit. Then, as the stage curtain descended and the lights brightened, she risked a sideways peek from under her lashes. The man slumped sideways in his seat, leaning against the armrest furthest from her and studying his program.
He wore a thick fisherman’s knit sweater, its snowy color accenting dark and undeniably familiar good looks. Her mouth went dry. She swallowed hard, then let her eyes take in other details.
Same trademark thick, wavy hair brushing his shoulders. Same high cheekbones. Same heavy eyebrows. Same mouth that thousands of women in the developed world fantasized about…
She gave herself a mental shake.
But definitely the wrong odds.
Gareth Connor lived, she presumed, either in Wales, his country of origin, or in Hollywood, where he made his films. The chances of his being in the Canterbury Theater in west-end Ottawa on a Sunday afternoon in November—and sharing her box, to top it off…
It simply wasn’t possible.
After what had to have been the longest intermission in all of history, and certainly the most awkward, uncomfortable silence Gwyn had ever experienced, the overhead lights dimmed again. Reminding herself she’d come to the theater for a reason other than adolescent gawking, she withdrew her sketchbook from her bag. Between school activities, Halloween costumes, and client deadlines, it had taken her the better part of a month to make time for this project in the first place. With Sandy’s birthday only a couple of weeks away, it had become a now-or-never kind of thing. So. She’d just ignore who’s-his-face next to her, pretend she was in complete control, and—
The curtain lifted. Focusing on the stage construction, she put pencil to paper and, by the glow of the exit sign over the curtained doorway, began to work.
It wasn’t easy. Every time the Gareth look-alike shifted in his seat, her heart gave an absurd little jump, and her pencil quite maddeningly followed suit. Halfway through the third act, however, she had a reasonable sketch of the stage, and her concentration had returned.
By the time the overhead lights came on at the end of the play, she was so absorbed in adding last-minute details that she’d quite forgotten about the man seated next to her. Right up until she heard his voice beside her ear.
“You’re very talented.”
Gwyn’s charcoal pencil tip skidded across the page. She swore under her breath.
Her seatmate did the same. “Damn. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” He picked up the eraser from the armrest and handed it to her.
“That’s all right. It’s repairable.” She scrubbed away the error and then held up the sketchpad. To her critical eye, her earlier lack of focus was painfully obvious. She sighed. At least it was a start, however, and she still had time to improve on it before taking it in for framing.
“I think it’s very good. But do you always come to plays so you can ignore the actors and draw pictures?” A glint of laughter in his dark eyes belied the seriousness of his voice.
Gwyn smiled back. “Only when I’ve sat through so many rehearsals I think I know everyone’s lines by heart. I helped with the set design.”
“And today you sketched it because—?”
“It’s a birthday present for my best friend. She wrote and directed the play—it’s her first. I wanted to do something for her as a keepsake, but for all the times I’ve sat here and stared at that blasted stage, do you think I could remember a single detail when I tried to do this at home?”
Her companion chuckled. “Well, it was worth the effort. I’m sure she’ll love it.”
“Thank you. Here, let me get my things out of your way.”
She reached down, only to have history—to her everlasting mortification—repeat itself. The bag tipped, and an assortment of charcoal pencils scattered for a second time at their feet. Gwyn sat, frozen. Then she ventured a peek at her neighbor.
“I don’t suppose you’ll believe me if I say that I’m not usually this clumsy, will you?”
He met her gaze with a solemnity that lost something in the twitching of his lips. “Not a chance,” he replied.
“I didn’t think so.” She started to lean over, but a hand on her arm stopped her. Her heart skipped two full beats.
“Maybe I should do the honors.”
He gathered the pencils with quick efficiency and handed them over once again. Then he waited for her to replace everything in her bag, refusing her offer to move out of his way so he could leave.
“I think we’ll get everything sealed up where it can’t escape first,” he said.
When she had her drawing tools packed and the zipper done up on her bag, he retrieved her coat, removed her gloves and scarf, and shook everything out. Gwyn slid her arms into the lined, navy-blue wool garment he held for her.
“Thank you,” she said. “For your patience as well as your help. I hope I didn’t distract you too much.”
Her seat companion opened his mouth as though to say something, paused, and smiled. “It was for a good cause. I hope your friend likes her gift.”
With a smile and a brief incline of his head, he stepped through the velvet curtains into the hallway beyond and disappeared. Gwyn stared after him, still wondering, shoulders tingling from the touch of warm, strong hands as he’d settled her coat into place.
Gareth Connor fished the car keys from his coat pocket as he stepped out of the theater and into the cold Canadian November. That had been quite the experience in there—rather like tangling with a small tornado, albeit far more pleasant. Shaking his head at his own lingering smile, he turned up the collar on his wool coat and skirted a puddle on the sidewalk.
He’d almost introduced himself, but after her initial start of recognition, she’d seemed content to withdraw into her own little world. It had actually been quite a novelty for him, sitting beside a stranger who hadn’t behaved as if they were best friends. His smile turned rueful. For that reason alone, he should have introduced himself. A woman who didn’t fall all over him was downright refreshing.
And a woman who didn’t fall all over him and who looked as good as she had…
He’d ended up ignoring much of the play in favor of watching her work, barely visible in the dim light of their shared box. Her hair had fascinated him. A wild tangle of spirals that she’d tried—and failed—to tame with a clip. Until the full set of house lights had come on at the end of the play, he’d had to guess at its auburn color. He’d been strangely satisfied to find his guess accurate. Not because he was right, but because auburn suited her so well. Rich, untamed auburn.
And blue eyes. Laughing blue eyes that crinkled at the corners when she wrinkled her nose at her finished sketch.
And skin the color of—
A sudden, icy blast of wind sliced through thoughts he had no business having. Rounding the corner of the theater to the parking lot, he pulled out a pair of gloves and tugged them on, putting the woman out of his mind. As intriguing as the encounter might have been, he had other concerns right now.
A raindrop splashed onto his cheek and he put up his hand to wipe it away. God, what a time of year to be visiting this part of Canada. Trust Catherine to move all the way across the Atlantic to this. Sometimes he wondered if her choice hadn’t been just a little bit spiteful…
He shrugged off the thought. None of that mattered anymore. He was here now, they were both adults, and he had too much at stake to start analyzing motives or leveling accusations. Far, far too much at stake.
Very soon, they would talk, he and his ex. They would talk, and they would settle this once and for all. And then…then he would see. Just as he wouldn’t analyze motives, neither would he jinx the outcome with too many expectations.
Patience, Connor. You’ve waited this long, you can last a few more days.
Long strides brought him to a blue sedan, one of a handful of cars left in the lot. He inserted a key in the lock, then paused. A few spaces away, headlights glowed faintly from a car that held no occupant. His mind returned to spilled pencils and auburn hair. Another smile tugged.
What were the chances?
Gwyn had seen her car’s dying headlights the instant she entered the parking lot. Her heart dropped to her rapidly chilling toes. Oh, no. No, no, no.
She couldn’t have.
But she had, and the faint click when she twisted the key in the ignition, unaccompanied by even the tiniest turn of the engine, confirmed it. She groaned, swore vehemently, and groaned again. Her breath fogged in the chill.
She folded her arms across the steering wheel and rested her head against them. She pictured the overdue auto-club membership form nestled in the ‘to-do’ basket on her desk at home. A groan escaped her. Maybe she’d rename the receptacle the ‘too-late’ basket when she got home. If she got home.
And it was a big if.
With significant payments from three clients sitting in the same too late basket, she’d temporarily maxed out her credit card and bottomed out her checking account. A tow truck to give her a boost would cost a fortune that didn’t exist in an obtainable form just now. Ditto a cab to take her home.
Heck, she’d even arranged to pay Kirsten with a check, on condition that her babysitter not cash it until after Gwyn made it to the bank tomorrow.
She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to think calmly through her options. Sandy always went out for drinks with the cast after a performance, and she didn’t own a cell phone, so she’d be no help. Alex and Elaine, Kirsten’s parents, were away for the weekend, and—
A tap on her window made her turn her head. She stared in disbelief at her former seatmate. His mouth tipped upward at one corner and he motioned for her to roll down the window.
“Problems?” he asked.