Happily ever after
When Gabe Vitali escapes to a fresh start in Crystal Point, Australia, the former physician isn't looking for a storybook ending. For the first time he's living in the moment. His new five-year plan does not include serious relationships. But he doesn't anticipate his unavoidable next-door neighbor and an undeniable attraction.
Bridal consultant Lauren Jakowski wants marriage. She's just sworn off love and sex! To avoid getting burned again, she's looking for safe and forever-after. But they're not Gabe's to givefor reasons he can't share with anyone, least of all this pretty complication.
Gabe and Lauren don't figure on a fairy tale. But fate has other plans .
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"You made a what?"
Lauren Jakowski shrugged her shoulders and bit down on her lower lip, musing whether she should repeat her words. But her two best friends' imploring looks won over.
"I made a vow," she said, and glanced at both Cassie and Mary-Jayne. "Of celibacy."
The other women snorted through the drinks they were sipping, sending liquid flying across the small poolside table. It was her brother's wedding, and once the bride and groom had cut the cake and shared their first dance, her bridesmaid's duties were officially over for the night. So she'd left the hotel ballroom and met her friends by the pool.
"Yeah, sure you did," Cassie said with a laugh, wiping her face.
"I did," Lauren insisted. "When my marriage ended."
"So you, like" Mary-Jayne mused slowly as her dark hair swayed in the breeze "made a commitment to never have sex again?"
"Exactly," she replied. "Not until I'm certain he's the right one."
"He being this dull and passionless individual you think you'll find so you can have your mediocre happily ever after?" Cassie asked, watching Lauren over the rim of her glass of soda.
She ignored how absurd it sounded. "Yes."
Cassie's brows came up. "And where are you going to find this Mr. Average?" she asked. "ReliableBores com?"
"Maybe," Lauren said, and pretended to drink some champagne.
"So no sex?" Mary-Jayne asked again. "Even though you caught the bouquet, look sensational in that dress and there are at least half a dozen single men at this wedding who would happily throw you over their shoulder, carry you off and give you the night of your life?"
"I'm not interested in anything casual," she reiterated.
Mary-Jayne's eyes widened. "Not even with"
"Not with anyone," she said firmly.
The original tall, dark and handsome
"I know what he is. And he's not on my radar."
Which was a great big lie. However, she wasn't about to admit that to her friends. Lauren stared at the flowers sitting in the center of the small table. She had caught the bouquet. But she didn't want some meaningless romp at her brother's wedding.
And she certainly didn't want it with Gabe Vitali.
In the past six months, she'd been within touching distance of the ridiculously good-looking American several times. And avoided him on every single occasion. He was exactly what she didn't want. But since he was her brother's friendand Crystal Point was a small townLauren accepted that she would be forced to see him every now and then.
"I like Gabe," Mary-Jayne said, and grinned. "He's kind of mysterious and sexy."
Lauren wrinkled her nose. "Trouble."
"But still sexy?" Cassie laughed gently. "Come on, admit it."
Lauren let out an exasperated sigh. "Okay, he's sexy. He's weak-at-the-knees sexy . He's handsome and hot and every time I see him I wonder what he looks like out of his clothes. I said I was celibate not comatose."
The two women laughed, and Lauren pushed aside the idea of Gabe Vitali naked.
"Still, you haven't had sex in over two years," Mary-Jayne, the more candid of the two women, reminded her. "That's a long time. Just because you got divorced doesn't mean you can't have sex."
Lauren shrugged. "Isn't there an old saying about not missing what you don't have?"
Mary-Jayne shook her head. "Please tell me you've at least kissed a guy since then?"
"No," she replied. "Nor do I intend to until I know he's exactly what I've been looking for."
"You mean, planning for," Cassie said, ever gentle. "You know, there's no neat order to falling in love."
"Who said anything about love?" Lauren pushed back her blond bangs.
Cassie's calm expression was unwavering. "Is that really what you want? A loveless relationship without passion and heat?"
Lauren shrugged. "Marriage doesn't have to be about sexual attraction. Or love."
She saw her friends' expressions, knew that even though they were both fiercely loyal and supported her unconditionally, they still thought her thinking madness. But she wasn't swayed. How could they really appreciate her feelings? Or understand what she wanted?
But she knew what she wanted. No lust, no crazy chemistry. No fairy-tale love.
"That's just grief talking," Cassie said quietly. "When a marriage breaks down, it's natural to"
"I'm not mourning my divorce," she insisted. No, definitely not. Because she knew exactly what mourning felt like. "I'm glad it's over. I shouldn't have married a man I hardly knew. I've tried being in love, I've tried being in lust and neither worked out. Believe it or not, for the first time in a long time, I actually know what I want."
"Which is?" Mary-Jayne prompted, still grinning.
Lauren smiled at her friend. "Which is an honest, uncomplicated relationship with someone I can talk to . Someone I can laugh with have children with grow old with. You know, the usual things. Someone who's a friend. A companion. And not with a man who looks as though he was made to pose for an underwear ad on one of those highway billboards."
"Like Gabe?" Mary-Jayne suggested playfully, and drank some champagne. "Okay, I get it. You want short, chubby and bald not tall, dark and handsome. But in the meantime, how about we all get back to the ballroom and find some totally complicated man to dance with?"
"Not me," Cassie said, and touched her four-month-pregnant belly. Her boyfriend was a soldier currently on tour in the Middle East. "But I'll happily watch from the sidelines."
Lauren shook her head. "I think I'll stay out here for a while. You two go on ahead."
Her friends took another couple of minutes to leave, and when she was alone, Lauren snatched up the colorful bouquet, stood and walked the ten feet toward the edge of the pool. Solitude crept over her skin, and she sighed. Weddings always made her melancholy. Which was unfortunate, since she owned the most successful bridal store in Bellandale. Weddings were her life. Some days, though, she thought that to be the most absurd irony.
Of course, she was pleased for her brother. Cameron deserved every bit of happiness with his new bride, Grace Preston. And the ceremony had been beautiful and romantic. But she had a hollow spot in her chest that ached with a heavy kind of sadness. Many of the guests now inside the big hotel ballroom had witnessed her union to James Wallace in similar style three years earlier. And most knew how it had ended. Tonight, more than ever before, Lauren's sadness was amplified by her embarrassment at being on the receiving end of countless pitying looks and sympathetic greetings.
She took a deep breath and exhaled with a shudder. Somehow, her dreams for the future had been lost. But two years on, and with so many tears shed, she was stronger. And ready to start again. Only this time, Lauren would do it right. She wouldn't rush into marriage after a three-month whirlwind romance. And she definitely wouldn't be swept off her feet. This time, her feet were staying firmly on the ground.
Lauren swallowed hard, smoothed the mint-green chiffon gown over her hips and turned on her heels.
And was unexpectedly confronted with Gabe Vitali.
Stretched out on a sun lounger, tie askew and with his black hair ruffled as if he'd been running his hand through it, he looked so gorgeous, she literally gasped for breath. He was extraordinarily handsome, like one of those old-time movie stars. His glittering, blue-eyed gaze swept over her, and a tiny smile creased the corners of his mouth.
And she knew immediately.
Every humiliating word. Heat raced up and smacked her cheeks. Great.
Of course, she had no logical reason to dislike him other than the fact he was good-looking and sexy and made her insides flip-flop. But it was enough to keep her from allowing her fantasies to take over. She gripped the bouquet tighter and planted her free hand on her hip in a faux impression of control, and spoke. "Whatever you might have thought you heard, I assure you I wasn't"
"How are the knees?" he asked as he sprang up.
He was tall, around six-two, with broad shoulders and a long-legged frame. And he looked way too good in a suit. Resentment burned through her when she realized he was referring to her earlier confession.
"Fine," she replied, dying of embarrassment inside.
He came around the lounger, hands thrust into his pockets. "You're sure about that?"
Lauren glared at him. "Positive," she snapped, mortified. She wanted to flee, but quickly realized she'd have to squeeze herself in between him and the sun lounger if she wanted to make a getaway. "I think I'll return to the ballroom now, if you don't mind."
His mouth curled at the edges. "You know, just because someone knows your vulnerabilities, it doesn't necessarily make him your enemy."
Lauren's skin heated. "Vulnerabilities? " She sucked in a sharp breath. "I don't quite know what you mean by that, but if you're insinuating that I'm vulnerable because I haven't Because I Well, because it's been a while since I was you know " Her words trailed off as mortification clung to every pore. Then she got annoyed as a quick cover-up. "Let's get this straight. I'm not the least bit vulnerable. Not to you or to anyone like you."
He grinned. "Whoa. Are you always so prickly?"
Prickly? She wasn't prickly. She was even tempered and friendly and downright nice.
She glared at him. "Do you always eavesdrop on private conversations?"
"I was simply relaxing on a pool lounger," he replied smoothly, his accent so delicious, it wound up her spine like liquid silk. "And I was here before you, remember? The fact you spoke about your sex life so openly is really no one's fault but your own." One brow rose. "And although it was entertaining, there's no need to take your frustration out on"
"I am not frustrated," she snapped, figuring he was probably referring to her being sexually starved in some misguided, macho way. Broad shoulders, blue eyes and nice voice aside, he was a jerk. "I just don't want to talk about it anymore. What I'd like is to forget this conversation ever happened."
"I'm sure you would."
Lauren wanted a big hole to open up and suck her in. When one didn't appear, she took a deep breath. "So we have a deal. I'll ignore you, and you can ignore me. That way we never have to speak to each other again."
"Since this is the first time we have actually spoken," he said, his gaze deep enough to get lost in. "I don't think it will be a hardship."
He was right. They'd never spoken. She'd made sure of it. Whenever he was close, she'd always managed to make a quick getaway. Lauren sniffed her dislike, determined to ignore the fact that the most gorgeous man she'd ever met probably thought she was stark raving mad. And she would have done exactly that. Except she turned her heel too quickly, got caught between the tiles, and seconds later, she was tumbling in a cartwheel of arms and legs and landed into the pool, bouquet flying, humiliation complete.
The shock of hitting the water was quickly interrupted when a pair of strong hands grasped one arm, then another. In seconds, she was lifted up and over the edge of the pool and set right on her feet.
He still held her, and had his hands intimately positioned on her shoulders.
She should have been cold through to her bones. But she wasn't. She was hot. All over. Her saturated dress clung to every dip and curve, her once carefully styled hair was now draping down her neck and her blood burned through her veins like a grass fire.
"Steady," he said softly, holding her so close she could see the tiny pulse in his jaw.
Lauren tried to speak, tried to move, tried to do something, anything, other than shake in his arms and stare up into his handsome face. But she failed. Spectacularly. It was he who eventually stepped back. When he finally released her, Lauren's knees wobbled and she sucked in a long breath to regain her composure. Of which she suddenly had none. He looked at her, over her, slowly and provocatively and with just enough male admiration to make her cheeks flame. She glanced down and shuddered. The sheer, wet fabric hugged her body like a second skin and left nothing to the imagination.
She moved her lips. "I should.I think I should."
"Yes," he said quietly when her words trailed. "You probably should."
Lauren shifted her feet and managed one step backward, then another. Water dripped down her arms and legs, and she glanced around for a towel or something else to cover herself. When she couldn't find anything suitable, she looked back at him and noticed he still watched her. Something passed between them, a kind of heady, intense awareness that rang off warning bells in her head and should have galvanized her wobbly knees into action. But she couldn't move.
Seconds later, he shrugged out of his jacket and quickly draped it around her shoulders. The warmth from the coat and his nearness enveloped her like a protective cloak, and Lauren expelled a long sigh. She didn't want to feel that. Didn't want to think that. She only wanted to escape.
"Thank you," she whispered. "I appreciate"
"Forget it," he said, cutting her off. "You should get out of those wet clothes before you catch a cold," he said, and then stepped back.
Lauren nodded, turned carefully and rushed from the pool area, water and humiliation snapping at her heels.
One week later Gabe pulled the for-sale peg from the ground, stuck the sign in the crook of his arm and headed across the front yard. The low-set, open-plan brick-and-tile home was big and required a much-needed renovation. But he'd bought the house for a reasonable price, and it seemed as good a place as any to settle down.
And he was happy in Crystal Point. The oceanfront town was small and friendly, and the beaches and surf reminded him of home. He missed California, but he enjoyed the peacefulness of the small Australian town he now called home instead. He'd rented a place in the nearby city of Bellandale for the past few months, but he liked the seaside town much better. Bellandale, with its sixty thousand residents, was not as populated as Huntington Beach, Orange County, where he'd lived most of his life. But it was busy enough to make him crave the solitude and quiet of Crystal Point. Plus, he was close to the beach and his new job.
He liked the job, too. Managing the Crystal Point Surf Club & Community Center kept him occupied, and on the weekends, he volunteered as a lifeguard. The beach was busy and well maintained, and so far he'd only had to administer first aid for dehydration and a couple of jellyfish stings. Nothing life threatening. Nothing he couldn't handle. Nothing that made him dwell on all he'd given up.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
ONCE UPON A BRIDE by author Helen Lacey is a Harlequin Special Edition series release for September 2014. Gabe Vitali escaped from his troubled past to a small town in Australia but was he ready for commitment? Lauren Jakowski is ready for marriage. And she shares an attraction for Gabe, but would Gabe be the one to give her happy ever after? After all he is incapable of happy ever afters, isn’t he? ONCE UPON A BRIDE is a heartwarming tale of two opposites falling for each other. I loved the drama among all the shimmering emotions as well as revisiting Crystal Point. Author Helen Lacey has a way with words which is incomparable. Recommended for all lovers of romance.