sobota, 15. júna 2013

Víkend s Lindou Poitevin - DEŇ 2 (Úryvok z knihy Gwynneth Ever After)


GWYNNETH EVER AFTER

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Chapter 1
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?”
“What?”
“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 mode in case you need me. Katie will be home sometime around two from the birthday party, so if you go to the park, make sure you’re home in time for her. I should be back 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 the windshield wipers, then reached to do the same to the headlights.
She dashed into the theater just 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 muffled clatter and her coat slid off her lap onto her feet.
Pausing, she closed her eyes and took a slow, deep breath. If she continued like this, she’d knock the theatre apart before the curtain rose. Or get 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 so that someone had swept the floor sometime in the last decade. She turned to retrieve her pencils and 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 take the pencils. A lighthearted comment about not getting out often enough on the tip of her tongue, but 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 theatre 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 her heightened color. 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. With the stage curtain descended and the lights brightening, 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 black hair pulled into a ponytail at the nape of his neck. 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 Theatre 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 theatre 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 initial lack of focus was painfully obvious. She sighed. At least it was a start, and she still had week 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 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, and 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, an assortment of charcoal pencils scattered a second time at their feet, and for a moment, she 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 did, with quick efficiency, and handed over the wayward drawing tools 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.

Chapter 2
Stepping out of the theater, Gareth Connor fished car keys from coat pocket. 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 been quite a novelty for him, actually, sitting beside a stranger who hadn’t tried to behave 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 knew he had no business having. He pulled out a pair of gloves as he rounded the corner of the theater into the parking lot, tugging them on as he reluctantly put the encounter out of mind. Because as intriguing as it 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 risk jinxing 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 only a handful of cars left in the lot. He inserted a key in the lock, then paused. A few spaces away, headlights gleamed from a car that held no occupant. The memory of spilled pencils and auburn hair returned. Another smile tugged.
What were the chances?
***
Gwyn saw the dying glow of headlights the instant she entered the parking lot. Her heart sank 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.
Folding her arms across the steering wheel, she rested her head against them. She pictured the overdue auto-club membership form on her desk at home, nestled in the to-do basket, which she decided she’d rename the too-late basket if she ever 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 it wouldn’t be cashed until after she’d made it to the bank tomorrow.
She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to think calmly through her options. Sandy always went out with the cast after a performance – and didn’t own a cell phone – so she’d be no help. Alex and Jamie, Kirsten’s parents, were away for the weekend…
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.
She bit her lip, loathe to admit her idiocy. “I left the lights on,” she said at last. “You wouldn’t happen to have any booster cables, would you?”
He shook his head. “I’m afraid not. I have a cell phone, though.”
She held up her own. “So do I, thanks.”
“Have you called a truck?”
“No. I’ll just catch a bus home and have my neighbor drive me over to collect the car tomorrow.” At least she had that much money with her. She hoped.
“Are you sure?”
“Positive.”
Yeah, right. Absolutely certain she wanted to spend the next three hours trying to travel the short distance across the Ottawa River to the Aylmer sector of Gatineau on the buses’ roundabout Sunday routes. Oh well, at least it would give her ample time to reflect on how much of a ditz this incredibly good-looking man must think she was.
She mustered a weak smile. “Thanks anyway.”
“You’re welcome. Goodnight.” He took a couple of steps away, then swung back to face her again. “You wouldn’t like to get a cup of coffee, would you?”
“I beg your pardon?” She stared at him. She knew she was being rude, but she couldn’t help it. She was too stunned to be polite.
“Coffee,” he repeated, the thread of amusement back again. “Hot, black…I’m sure you’ll recognize it when you see it.”
“I – I – ” Gwyn stammered. The bus, dinner for the kids…oh, heck, why not? What was another half hour added on to how late she’d already be? Even if he turned out not to be the real Gareth Connor, she’d have one heck of a tale to go along with Sandy’s gift. She took her keys out of the ignition, picked up her uncooperative shoulder bag, and exited the car.
“Coffee would be nice,” she said, and held out her hand to him. “I’m Gwyn Jacobs.”
“Gareth Connor,” he replied, accepting her handshake.
Gwyn’s heart gave a mighty thud, knocking most of the air from her lungs. All right, so women like her did sit beside famous actors in obscure Ottawa theatres. She collected herself, withdrew her hand, and said with what she considered remarkable aplomb, “I thought I recognized you.”
“I wasn’t sure if you did or not.”
“I think it was more a case of not believing my own eyes,” she said, her voice wry. “Canterbury Theatre in Ottawa is a little out of the way for you, I’d think.”
He smiled and shrugged without giving a direct reply. “There’s a bistro across the street. Shall we?”
She held up her cell phone. “Give me two seconds to call my babysitter first. I need to let her know I’ll be late.”
Gareth Connor’s eyes flickered at the word babysitter, but he said nothing, merely moving a few steps off to wait for her.
Gwyn made a quick call to ask Kirsten to reheat yesterday’s leftover macaroni and cheese casserole for dinner – and to assure her she’d make it home sometime before the kids went to bed. Then, ending the connection, she took a deep breath and joined her coffee companion, the real live Gareth Connor, on the sidewalk.

Chapter 3
The warmth of the bistro wrapped around Gwyn the instant they stepped through the door, making her realize how cold the late afternoon had become. Shivering, she pulled her chin into her scarf. A few tables away, a waitress looked up, did a visible double-take, and nearly dropped a coffee cup into an equally startled customer’s lap. A murmur of excitement passed through the room.
Gwyn glanced sideways at Gareth, but he seemed oblivious to the sudden stir in the tiny restaurant.
“There’s a table over there,” he said, nodding toward the window.
His hand settled into the small of her back, guiding her through the bistro, past the whispers and stares marking their progress. At the table, she peeled off her gloves and tucked them into a pocket, then unbuttoned her coat. Gareth moved to slide it from her shoulders.
“Not yet, thanks,” she said. “I think I’ll warm up first.”
Gareth shed his own coat, hung it on the back of his chair and joined her at the table, which promptly shrank ten sizes. Facing her companion across the blue-and-white checked tablecloth, Gwyn tucked her hands into her lap and tried for a casual air.
When she couldn’t think of a single thing to say, however, she felt pretty sure her attempt failed miserably.
The silence at their table stretched. Just as it reached excruciating on the awkward scale, the waitress arrived with two cardboard menus and a steaming coffee pot.
“Just coffee for me, thanks,” Gwyn murmured.
“Are you sure?” Gareth asked. “If your kids are eating dinner without you…”
“I’m fine, thanks.” Far too many butterflies resided in her belly to allow the addition of food. Coffee alone could be a challenge.
The waitress took her time filling their cups and retrieving their menus. She made no effort to conceal her blatant appraisal of Gareth, excitement warring with disbelief in her eyes. Gwyn ducked her head to hide a smile. She knew exactly how the poor girl felt.
At last the waitress departed, still looking undecided about Gareth’s identity. Gwyn regarded her companion.
“Is it always like this when you go somewhere?”
Gareth shrugged. “Sometimes it’s worse,” he said. “You get used to it.”
Gwyn reached for the chrome-and-glass sugar dispenser and sprinkled a rough teaspoon’s worth into her coffee. She searched for a conversation topic.
“So, what in the world are you doing in Ottawa, Mr. Connor?”
Not overly clever as an opening, but better than another silence.
“Gareth,” he replied. “And I’m hiding.”
“Oh?” She smiled at the frank admission. “From anyone in particular?”
Gareth shook his head. “More like everyone in general. I have a cousin here, and when I needed a holiday, he suggested I visit him. Apparently you Canadians are very respectful of people’s privacy. Remarkably unobtrusive, he called you.”
“When we’re not hitting you with shoulder bags and dropping pencils at your feet, you mean.”
He chuckled, a rich, warm sound that blended well with the cozy bistro surroundings and made Gwyn’s breath hitch a little.
“Something like that,” he agreed.
“How long are you here for?”
“A week or two. I’m – ”  He hesitated, then shrugged. “It depends.”
“You picked a heck of a time of year to visit.”
Gareth stirred a teaspoon of sugar and some cream into his own coffee. “It’s not that bad, actually. You’re about three weeks closer to winter than we are at home, but otherwise the weather is similar.”
“You have the same indecisive weather gods? Lucky you.” Gwyn grimaced. “So far we’ve been scraping ice off the windshields one day and going without our jackets the next. But I shouldn’t complain too much. We might even have a green Christmas this year.”
“That’s a good thing?”
“It depends.”
“On?”
“On whether you’re speaking to my kids or the person who has to shovel the driveway.” She flashed him a grin. “If I had my way, it would snow on Christmas Eve and melt on Boxing Day. Although I suppose it could snow now,” she added thoughtfully, “if it would stick to the lawns and stay off the roads and sidewalks.”
Gareth laughed. “You don’t dream big, do you?”
“Me? Never.” She wrapped her hands around her own mug and lifted it to her lips, inhaling the pungent aroma then taking a sip. Hot and still faintly bitter, the dark liquid chased away the last of her chill. She set down the cup again and shrugged out of her coat.
“Do you do set design for a lot of plays at the theater?” Gareth asked, nodding out the window towards the building on the other side of the street.
“Not really – I just have trouble saying no to someone with a good story.” Gwyn picked up her mug again. “Sandy’s my best friend and I wanted to help out. The only people I know who actually frequent that place are the ones trying to have it preserved as a historical monument of some kind.”
“I take it you don’t think the theatre is worth preserving?”
She snorted. “Hardly. Don’t get me wrong, I love old buildings. My own house is over a hundred years old. But I don’t believe in saving a place just because it was built a specific number of years ago. The Canterbury was an eyesore when it went up, and it remains one now.”
“What about its architectural style?”
“Styles, plural. Whoever designed the place drew on about seven different ones that should never have been combined.”
“You wouldn’t by any chance be an architect, would you?”
“Am I that obvious? Sorry about that.” A sudden possibility occurred to her and she scrunched up her nose. “Crap. Let me guess. Your cousin is the head of the preservation committee and you’re in Ottawa to act as a spokesperson, aren’t you?”
Gareth shook his head, teeth gleaming against tanned skin. “You don’t have to apologize, and no, I’m not here for the sake of the building.”
“The play, then?” Gwyn raised a skeptical eyebrow. “I love Sandy dearly, and I’m thrilled her play ran as long as it did, but there’s no way you were there because of word-of-mouth.”
“Would you believe Sunday afternoon boredom? Sean – my cousin – is a cop. He’s on shift today and I got tired of looking at his apartment walls, so I went for a drive. When I saw the marquee, I decided to give it a try. I asked for a private box and ended up sitting beside you.”
“Where you were too busy picking up my pencils to be bored anymore.”
“Exactly.” Gareth’s dark eyes danced. “You were very entertaining.”
“I can imagine.” She took another swallow of coffee. “Has your cousin lived here long?”
“All his life, but he spent summers in Wales with my family until he started university. We’re the only boys in the family, and there’s about five years between us, so he’s always been more of a kid brother than a cousin.”
“That must have been nice for you.”
“Not when I was fourteen and he wanted to follow me everywhere, but I appreciated it once I grew up. What about you? Does your family live here?”
“My parents both died a few years ago. I have a sister down in the States and a brother who’s working in South America somewhere. We’re not what you’d call close.”
“That has to be tough for you, with kids of your own.”
“It has its moments,” she admitted, “but for the most part the kids and I manage pretty well. I have an amazing sitter, whom they love, and a great bunch of friends who help out when I need it.”
Leaning back in his chair, he raised his hands and locked them behind his head, his sweater pulling tight across his chest. Gwyn tried hard not to notice, but just how well-developed did pectorals have to be before they became visible under…?
“How many do you have? Kids, I mean, not friends.”
“Excuse me,” a voice interrupted, “but aren’t you Gareth Connor?”
Gwyn pulled her gaze from the chest she wasn’t staring at. The waitress had returned, blushing fiery red, shredding a paper napkin and gritting her teeth with fierce determination. Two other servers huddled open-mouthed by the cash register, watching the proceedings, and several restaurant patrons eavesdropped with no sign of embarrassment.
Gareth turned his attention to the young woman beside their table. “I am,” he said. “And you are – ?”
“St – St – Stephanie. Stephanie Williams. My friends call me Steff.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, Steff,” he said, his eyes crinkling at the corners.
Gwyn regarded Stephanie Williams with faint alarm. The poor girl looked like she might explode without any warning at all. Her knees actually buckled when Gareth reached to shake her hand.
The waitress shot her a quick look. “I don’t mean to interrupt or anything,” she stammered, “but would you – could I – ?”
She gave up trying to speak and shoved the napkin toward Gareth. He took the remains of what looked to have been worried half to death by a terrier and smoothed it out on the tabletop.
“Do you have a pen?” he asked.
After multiple tries, Stephanie plucked a pen from her apron pocket with shaking fingers. Gareth scrawled something across the tattered paper and then handed pen and napkin back to the waitress. The girl fled without so much as a thank you.
“Sorry about that,” he said, turning his attention back to Gwyn. “Where were we?”
“Does that happen often?” she asked, genuinely curious.
“Something else you get used to. You were going to tell me about your kids.”
“Pardon?”
“Your kids,” he reminded her. “How many do you have?”
“Oh. Three. Katie is seven, and Maggie and Nicholas are four.”
“Twins?” One dark eyebrow ascended.
She nodded and ran a finger around the rim of her coffee cup. That would make the poor guy wonder what he’d got himself into. First she was a klutz, and now she was a klutz with three young children. He had to be regretting the coffee invitation in a major way by now.
“They must keep you busy.”
“And then some,” she agreed. She glanced at her watch. The waitress’ intrusion had jarred her back to reality. As nice as this interlude had been…well, all good fantasies had to come to an end. She may as well put the poor man out of his misery, and at the same time catch an early enough bus to get home by the bedtime hour she’d promised Kirsten.
“I should get going, Mr. Con– ”
“Gareth,” he reminded her. He made no move to leave.
“Gareth,” she repeated, managing with great effort not to stumble over the name. She slid her coat up onto her shoulders and began pulling on one of her gloves. “I’m sure you have other plans, and I – ”
“Actually, I don’t.”
Gwyn’s movements faltered. She’d just given the man the easiest out he could ask for. Surely he recognized that. She finished tugging her glove over her fingers and peeked up through her lashes at him.
Gareth regarded her. “Forgive my bluntness, but are you married?”
“M-mar – no, I’m not.” She shook her head, trying to keep pace with the conversation’s sudden change in direction.
“Then have dinner with me.”
The glove slid from suddenly nerveless fingers and her mind ground to a standstill. She stared at him, incapable of response. Gareth’s mouth twitched and humor lit his dark gaze.
“Well? Is that a yes or a no?”
“It’s an ‘I’m stunned,’” Gwyn replied honestly. Coffee was one thing, but dinner?
He tipped back his head and laughed, drawing the admiring gazes of the waitresses and several other women in the bistro. “You are refreshingly blunt, Gwyn Jacobs. What is Gwyn short for, anyway? Gwyneth? Gwyndolyn? Guinevere?”
“Gwynneth,” she said. “With two n’s.”
“It suits you. Now, Gwynneth with two n’s, why are you stunned?” He sat forward, folded his arms, and leaned on the table.
She frowned. “Why do you want to have dinner with me?”
He raised an eyebrow. “The usual reasons. I enjoy your company.”
“You don’t know me well enough to enjoy my company,” she pointed out.
“Then I’d like to get to know you better.”
“Mr. – Gar – ” She stopped, drew a steadying breath, and continued. “Gareth, I’m a thirty-five-year-old mother of three – which, incidentally, is enough to make most men run screaming – and you could choose just about any woman in this city. Why me?”
Gareth considered her question for a minute before he spoke. “Because I’m not most men. And you’re not just any woman.”
Temptation was great. No, it was enormous.
But so was reality.
“Thank you, but I have to get home to my kids.” Be strong, Gwyn, it’s for the better.
“Tomorrow night, then.” He rested his chin in one hand and grinned coaxingly. “Sean starts nightshift and I’ll be bored out of my skull by myself. Won’t you take pity on a stranger in your town, Gwynneth with two n’s?”
She twisted her fingers in her lap, her ungloved hand clinging to the gloved one for dear life. Lord, and she’d thought the man potent in his movie roles. His lethally charming onscreen presence had nothing on the real thing.
“I thought you came here to hide from people,” she reminded him.
“I’ll settle for keeping a low profile. Well?”
“I can’t tomorrow night. The kids have Jiu Jitsu practice.”
“When do they finish?”
“Six. But I have a deadline – ”
“Work tonight, while you’re not having dinner with me.”
She couldn’t help laughing. “You’re very persistent, did you know that?”
“Mm. My mother calls it stubborn. I like persistent better. Well? Do we have a date?”
A date. The very word sent a quiver through her belly. She didn’t date, she reminded herself. She even had an entire list of reasons for not doing so. Unfortunately, her stalled brain couldn’t recall any of them at this particular moment. She tried to think of something – anything – that would make a plausible excuse. She looked into lazy dark eyes. Thank you very much, Gareth, she coached herself, but…
“We have a date.”
“Good. Come on, I’ll run you home.”
“You don’t have to do that, I’m fine with the bus…” Gwyn’s voice trailed off as Gareth rose and came around to pull out her chair and retrieve her fallen glove.
“I gave in on the dinner thing, now it’s your turn to be gracious,” he said easily.
Still in a state of shock at her treacherous acceptance of a date, it wasn’t until she was seated in his car and he’d slid in beside her that she suddenly frowned.
“Wait a minute, you didn’t give in on the dinner thing. I did.”
“I wondered when you’d catch that.” Gareth turned the key in the ignition and put the car into gear. He glanced over his shoulder to check for traffic, then slanted her a quick smile as he pulled away from the curb. “If it’s any consolation, though, you were very gracious.”

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