Dana met Cybil’s concerned gaze. “Yes, I fell in love with him. I didn’t mean for it to happen, but it did. I love Jared with all my heart and I don’t have any regrets about it.”
Cybil crossed the room to stand in front of Dana. “All right. Now what?”
Dana looked away, to glance back out the window. “Now we’ve come to the end of our road. Tonight we end things and tomorrow I go back to being an unengaged woman.”
Pain settled deep in Dana’s heart. How could she go back to the solitary life she’d known after being with Jared for the past six weeks? Not only with Jared, but with all the Westmorelands. For a little while, they had filled a need in her she hadn’t realized existed—a need to belong to a family. It was going to be hard going back to being alone again.
“Ben and I are going to the Amelia Islands in the morning to attend the tennis tournament. Come with us.”
Dana gave Cybil a reassuring smile. “I’ll be fine. I will survive.” She chuckled. “It won’t be my first broken engagement,” she said teasingly.
“But it will be the one that really mattered—pretense or not.”
Dana nodded. “Yes, it will be the one that mattered.”
“And will you be ready for the questions on Monday? The speculations? The gossip?”
On a long sigh Dana ran her hand through her hair. No, she wouldn’t be ready for any of that but she would deal with it. She gave a wry smile. “I’m ready for whatever comes my way, Cybil.”
But she knew the moment she’d said the words that they were a lie.
“Why do I get the feeling that you’re not in a good mood tonight?”
Jared gave his cousin Storm a crooked smile and lifted the glass of punch to his lips, took a sip and then asked. “I don’t know. Why do you?”
A chuckle escaped Storm’s lips. “I’ve often heard if you want a straight answer, then don’t ask an attorney a question.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that one, too,” Jared said, giving his cousin a wink and taking another sip of his punch. He glanced around, seeing all the people who had shown up to celebrate Thorn and Tara’s first wedding anniversary. Even after a year, the thought of Thorn being married was still hard to get used to. Jared never thought there was a woman alive who was brave enough to put up with the surly Thorn Westmoreland. Evidently he’d been wrong. Tara seemed to be handling his prickly cousin very well and it didn’t take much to see how in love they were.
Storm’s marriage six months ago had been another surprise, and Jared couldn’t help but dwell on all the changes that had taken place in Storm’s life since then. The man who had once been Atlanta’s most sought-after bachelor, who had been known as The Perfect Storm to multitudes of women, the man who swore he would never, ever marry was now a happily married man with a wife and twins on the way.
“What happened?” Jared asked. He suddenly needed answers and he’d force them out of Storm if necessary.
Storm raised a dark brow. “What do you mean what happened?”
“With you and this marriage thing. You swore you would never fall in love but you did and I want to know what happened.”
A huge smile stretched Storm’s lips. “Since you’re engaged to be married yourself, I don’t understand the need for this cross-examination. But just in case for some reason the verdict’s still out, or you’re attempting to find logic in all of this, the answer is simple. Love happened. I met a woman who I couldn’t live without. At first I thought it was strictly physical since there was such a strong attraction between us, but then I discovered there was more to it than just being intimate. I enjoyed being with her, going places with her, seeing her smile and sharing my thoughts with her. And she was different from any woman I’d ever known.”
Storm chuckled before continuing. “It took me a while to rationalize the depth of my feelings but when I did, I knew just what I wanted and who I wanted. And I also knew what I could lose if I didn’t accept the truth and act on those feelings. I needed Jayla in my life, as part of my life, just as much as I needed to breathe.”
Jared’s troubled gaze met Storm’s. “You were vulnerable.”
Storm shook his head. “That’s a subjective viewpoint, Jared, but also a wrong one. I was in love. I was so deeply entrenched in the throes of it that there was no way I could walk away. Jayla has added meaning to my life in ways I didn’t think possible. But then from what I can tell, Dana has done the same for you. It shows every time the two of you are together. I’ve never seen you this attentive to any woman. For the past ten minutes you’ve been standing here getting agitated as you wait for her to return from touring the house with Tara. You love her, man. I thought I had it bad, but you have it worse. Hell, you’re in worse shape than Thorn was and he hadn’t known he was in love with Tara until it was almost too late.”
Jared took another sip of his drink. He wondered what his cousin would say if he were to tell him he was wrong, that he wasn’t in love with Dana, and that the entire engagement had been nothing but a sham.
Whatever he was about to say died on his lips the moment Dana walked through the patio doors with Tara. Tara and Thorn had had the house built and had moved into it a few months ago. It was a beautiful structure located in the outskirts of town on land that had been in the Westmoreland family for generations.
“Well, there’s your lady, Jared. And if you’re as smart as I know you are, whatever doubt that’s beginning to form in your mind will soon vanish. Dana is a treasure worth having and if I were you I’d go a step further than just putting a ring on her finger. I’d make her officially mine as soon as I could.”
“And what about the risk?”
Storm’s eyes came swiftly to his. “What risk?”
Storm shook his head. “You’ve been handling way too many divorce cases, Jared. When you’re in love, you don’t think of failure, you only think of success and prosperity. Life is full of risks. Each time I leave the station and head out to fight a fire there’s a risk. You don’t dwell on the what-ifs, and you have to believe that some risks are definitely worth taking. You have to believe in forever. And with that,” Storm said, setting down his glass on the table beside him, “I think I’ll go find my wife and give her a huge kiss.”
Jared lifted his forehead. “Why?
Storm gave him a smart-ass grin. “No particular reason. Just because.”
Jared watched as Storm walked away before switching his attention back to Dana. She met his gaze and smiled. He smiled back then sighed deeply as he thought of how right things seemed at that moment. From the first, Dana had blended well with his family. And when she stood in a group with his female cousins, as she was doing now, she seemed so much a part of the Westmorelands. It seemed perfectly right for her to be here with them and with him.
As he continued to hold her gaze he suddenly knew that everything Storm had said was true. As much as he wanted to deny it and had denied it, the truth was now crystal clear. He was in love. He wanted and needed Dana in his life.
He wanted forever.
How many times in the last six weeks had he reminded himself that their engagement was nothing but pretense? That no matter how much he enjoyed being with her, the time would come for it to end, and for him to go back to playing the field with flashy women who weren’t looking for commitment? All the while knowing that his life would become empty without Dana in it.
How many times had he longed to keep things the way they were, but convinced himself that he didn’t want or need a woman in his life? That he had seen the ugly side of marriage too much to take the risks for himself? But Storm was right. Some risks were worth taking.
The thought of Dana with someone else, sharing what they had shared was unacceptable. When they had entered into this pretense, he’d had no intention of letting his guard down around her. But he had. And she had eased her way into his heart as easily as anything he’d ever seen. He’d tried to put up resistance, had told himself countless times what he’d felt for her was nothing but lust. However, he knew just as sure as he was standing here that what he felt for her was love of the richest kind and if he was completely honest, he could even admit he had probably fallen in love with her the moment she’d stormed into his office. From that day on, he had wanted her with a passion unlike anything he’d ever felt before.
He wondered what Dana wanted. Was there a chance that she had feelings for him? Could she love him? There was only one way to find out. If she loved him, too, it would definitely make things a lot easier, and if she didn’t, then he would just have to take the same advice he’d given Sylvester earlier that day. He would beg if he had to, because he had no intention of letting Dana go. Whether it was using reason or resorting to seduction, he would do what he had to do to win Dana’s heart forever.
Dana didn’t have to ask Jared if he wanted to come in when he took her home that night. She wanted him to and hoped that he would. Tonight was their last night together and she wanted one more lasting memory. Besides, she needed to give him back his ring.