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Jared Westmoreland was having one hell of a morning.
It began with the message his mother had left on his answering machine last night, reminding him that his father's and his uncle's birthdays fell on Easter Sunday this year and requesting that he set an example for his five brothers by bringing a date to the huge dinner party she and his aunt Evelyn had planned.
His cousin Storm's recent wedding had made his mother, Sarah, take stock and realize that her six sons had yet to show serious interest in any woman. And of course, since he was the eldest, she felt he should be the first and had every intention of prodding him in the right direction. It didn't matter that he and his brothers were successful and enjoyed being single. She felt that the only way any of them could truly be happy was to find that special woman and tie the knot. The only one who wasn't experiencing the heat was his brother Spencer, whose fiancée Lynette, had died in a drowning accident three years ago.
Jared rose from his chair and walked over to the window. To add to the annoyance of his mother's call, he had arrived at work an hour later than usual because of traffic. And as if things couldn't get any worse, he had just received a phone call from entertainer Sylvester Brewster, who wanted to file for a divorcefrom wife number three. Sylvester was good for business, but it was hard to watch him involve himself in relationships that didn't last.
When Jared heard the buzzer sounding on his desk, he turned around and sighed heavily, wondering if the morning could get any worse. Crossing the room he picked up the phone. "Yes, Jeannie?"
"Mr. Westmoreland, your mother is on the line."
Jared shook his head. Yes, his morning could get worse. It just did. "Go ahead and put her through."
A few moments later after hearing the connection, he said. "Hi, Mom."
"Did you get my message, Jared?"
Jared raised his gaze to the ceiling before saying.
"Yes, I got it."
"Good. Then I'll be setting an extra plate out for dinner next Sunday."
Jared wanted to tell her in a nice, respectable way that if she set out the plate there was a strong chance it would sit there empty. But before he could get the words out, his mother quickly added, "Remember, you're the oldest and I expect you to set an example. Besides, you're not getting any younger."
She made it seem as if he was fifty-seven instead of thirty-seven. Besides, his mother knew how he felt about the institution of marriage. He was a divorce attorney for heaven's sake. He ended marriages, not put them together. He'd handled enough divorce cases to know that marriage wasn't all it was cracked up to be. People got married and then a lot of them eventually got divorced. It was a vicious cycle; one that made him money, but sickened him at the same time. Although there were long-lasting marriages in the Westmoreland family, he considered them exceptions and not the norm. It would be just his luck to have the first failed marriage in the family and he had no intention of becoming a statistic.
"Jared, are you listening?"
He sighed. When she used that tone, he had no other choice but to listen. "Yes, but has it occurred to you that Durango, Ian, Spencer, Quade, Reggie and I like being single?" he asked respectfully.
"And has it ever occurred to any of you that your father and I aren't getting any younger and we'd love to have grandchildren while we're still of sound mind to enjoy them?"
Jared shook his head. First, she was trying to shove marriage down their throats and now she was hinting at grandchildren. But he was smart enough to know that the last thing he needed was to butt heads with caring, stubborn Sarah Westmoreland. He would rather face an uncompromising judge in the courtroom than oppose his mother. It was an uphill battle that he just didn't have the energy for right now.
"I'll see what I can do," he finally said.
"Thanks, Son. That's all I ask."
"Really, Dana, I wish you would think about going with us."
Dana Rollins glanced up at Cybil Franklin, who stood in the middle of her office with a determined frown on her face. Cybil was Dana's best friend from high school and the primary reason she had relocated from Tennessee to Atlanta three years ago to take a position at Kessler Industries as a landscape architect.
"Thanks, Cybil, but I'm sure you've heard the saying that three's a crowd. I don't think going with you and Ben to North Carolina this weekend is a good idea."
Cybil rolled her eyes. "It's just a camping trip to the mountains. I feel awful knowing you'll be spending Easter alone."
Leaning back in the chair behind her desk, Dana smiled easily. "Hey, I'm a twenty-seven-year-old woman who can take care of herself. I'll be fine and I have no problem spending Easter alone." It will be just like every other year since Mom and Dad died.
None of the holidays were the same anymore since her parents had been killed in a car accident on their way to her college graduation five years earlier. Since she had no other family, their deaths had left her truly alone. She'd thought all that had changed when she met Luther. They began dating in early spring and after six months, he had asked her to marry him.
"It's times like these when I'm tempted to find Luther Cord and kill him," Cybil said angrily. "When I think of what he did to you, I get so mad."
Dana smiled softly, no longer able to muster up anger when she thought about Luther. He had paid her an unexpected visit last week to tell her that he was moving to California. He told her that his decision not to marry had nothing to do with her, that he'd come to terms with his sexual preference, and that in his own way he loved her, but not in the way a husband is supposed to love his wife. At first she had been shocked, but then she'd acknowledged that the signs had all been there. She couldn't, or hadn't wanted to see them. Dana hadn't told anyone about Luther's confession, not even Cybil.
Dana turned her attention back to her friend. "I told you that I'd be fine. It won't be the first or the last holiday that I spend alone."
"I know but I wish that"
"Cybil, let it go. You need to get out of here if you're meeting Ben for lunch," she said, trying to propel her out the door.
"Okay, but call me soon?"
As soon as Cybil left, Dana released a huge sigh.
Since her breakup with Luther, Dana put all of her time and energy into her job. Work wasn't a substitute for having a family and a personal life, but it did take her mind off her loneliness.
She glanced at the calendar on her desk. It was hard to believe next week was Easter already. Her parents would make every holiday special and even while in college she enjoyed going home during spring break to spend Easter with them. She remembered their last Easter together. They had gone to sunrise church service and later they had feasted on the delicious dinner her mother had prepared, not knowing it would be the last holiday meal they would share together.
She sighed deeply, not wanting to relinquish the memories just yet but knowing that she had to. Somehow she would get through another holiday without her parents. She had no other choice.
"What would you like to order, sir?"
Jared studied the huge menu posted on the wall behind the counter and made his decision. "Umm, give me a ham and cheese all the way on whole wheat, an order of French fries and a glass of sweetened tea."
"All right. Your order will be ready in a minute."
Jared nodded then glanced around. Usually he met clients for lunch at restaurants that served the finest cuisine; and at other times he would order in and eat lunch at his office. But he had decided to take advantage of how beautiful a day it was and walk the block from his office to the deli.
The place was crowded and he hoped that he would be able to find a seat by the time his lunch was ready. He was even willing to share a table or booth with someone if the person didn't have a problem with it.
As his eyes scanned the crowded restaurant, he tried to find someone sitting alone. Abruptly his gaze stopped on a familiar-looking woman at a booth, who was reading a book while leisurely munching on a French fry. A memory suddenly flared in his mind, jump-started his senses and instantly stirred heat within him.
It had been a month since she had stormed into his office, but he vividly recalled the impact she'd made on his male senses when she'd barged in that day. He felt blood race through his veins, reminding him that he'd been so busy at work, he hadn't been with a woman in over eight months.
He was accustomed to beautiful, gorgeous women, but there was something intrinsically special about Dana Rollins. He hadn't been this attracted to a woman since heaven knows when. Now it seemed he was making up for lost time.
"Sir, your order is ready."
Jared turned and took the tray loaded with his food from the man behind the counter. "Thanks." He then glanced back over at Dana Rollins and after making a quick decision, he crossed the room to where she sat.
She was so absorbed in her book that she didn't notice him standing next to her. She was leaning forward with both her elbows on the table while holding the book in front of her, so that the neckline of her blouse gapped open enough for him to get a generous glimpse of her cleavage. He liked what he sawfirm, full breasts.
Knowing he couldn't stand there and continue to ogle her, he cleared his throat. "Miss Rollins?"
She quickly glanced up and recognized him. He watched her shimmering bronze lips tilt into a smile guaranteed to turn him on. "Mr. Westmoreland, it's good to see you again."
Her dimpled smile made him acutely aware of just how beautiful she was. "It's good seeing you again, too. It's rather crowded in here and I saw you sitting alone and wondered if perhaps I could join you?"
Her smile widened into a grin. "Yes, of course," she said, placing her book down on the table, making sure not to lose her spot.
"Thanks," he said, sliding into the seat across from her in the booth. "How have you been?"
Her lashes fluttered downward before sweeping up with her gaze to meet his. "I've been fine and have done what you suggested and moved on."
Jared nodded. "I'm glad to hear it, Miss Rollins."
Her smile widened. "Please call me Dana."
He chuckled. "Only if you call me Jared."
After saying grace, he took a sip of his drink then proceeded to put ketchup on his fries. He glanced her way and smiled. "So what are you reading?"
She took a sip of her drink then picked up the book and held it up. "A book of poems by Maya Angelou. She's a wonderful poet and I love reading her work. It can be so uplifting."
He nodded. He had read several of her poems himself. Dana met his gaze. "Do you read a lot, Jared?"
He shrugged broad shoulders under an expensive suit. "The only pleasure reading I have time for these days is my cousin's novels. He writes under the pen name Rock Mason."
Her eyes lit up and showed her surprise. "You're related to Rock Mason?"
Jared laughed. "Yes. His real name is Stone Westmoreland."
Dana smiled. "Wow. I've read all of his books. He's a gifted writer."
Jared chuckled. "I'll make sure I tell him you said that when I see him again. He and his wife, Madison, are in Texas visiting cousins we have there, but they'll be back for our fathers' birthdays next weekend."
"Your fathers' birthdays?"
He smiled. "Our fathers are fraternal twins and they turn sixty this year. Since their birthdays fall on Easter Sunday, our mothers are hosting one huge celebration."
"Sounds like all of you will have a wonderful time."
He chuckled. "We usually do when we all get together. The Westmoreland family is big. What about you? Are you from a large family?"
He watched sadness appear in her eyes. "I don't have any family. I was an only child and my parents were killed five years ago in an auto accident en route to my college graduation."
She met his gaze and saw the sincerity of his words. "Thank you. It was hard for me, but I got through it. Since my parents didn't have any siblings, and their parents are deceased, I don't have a family."
He watched as she caught her lower lip between her teeth as if to keep it from trembling with the remembered pain. "What are your plans for Easter Sunday?" he couldn't help but ask.
"I don't have any. I'll go to a sunrise service at church and will probably spend the rest of the day at home relaxing and reading."
He lifted an eyebrow. "What about dinner?"
She shrugged. "I'll pull out a microwave dinner and enjoy the day that way."
Jared tried shifting his attention back to his food but couldn't fully concentrate on what he was eating. Because of his large family, he had grown up loving the holidays and even looked forward to them, although lately his mother's interfering had tempered his anticipation.
An idea suddenly popped into Jared's head. His mother was expecting him to bring someone to dinner so why not Dana? When his mother and his aunt Evelyn got together, the two women cooked up a storm. That had to be better than a microwave dinner. "How would you like to join me for Easter dinner at my parents' home?" He could tell that his invitation surprised her.
"You're inviting me to dinner at your parents' place?"
She shook her head, as if still not understanding. "But, why? We barely know each other."
Jared knew he had to level with her. "It just so happens that you can help me out of a jam."
Dana lifted a brow. "What kind of jam?"
"My mother is obsessed. Lately, a number of my cousins have gotten married and since none of her six sons are rushing to follow suit, she's taken it upon herself to prod us along. I'm the oldest so I'm feeling the heat more than the others. She expects me to set an example by bringing someone to dinner. And since I recall you owe me a favor, I figured now's the time to collect."