I smiled wanly. “Yeah. Now you know my secret.” I was soft. Weak. Shaw gave his cousin what she wanted no matter what it cost him. She was the last of his family here. His mom had moved on and started a new life without him. Beth should have been here for him. Like he had been there for her when she asked for the details behind Adam’s death. He needed her. For some reason this made me angry. It was as if Beth represented my parents. The rejection they had dealt me all my life. After their marriage ended, they really didn’t have room for me in their lives.
But Shaw told Beth the truth and tried to give her the closure she needed. That was him. He stuck to his principles and did what he thought was right in any situation whether it was easy for him or not. He pursued me even when I shoved him away. When any other girl out there would have been happy to fall into his arms, he kept coming after me.
I wanted to be more like that. Bold and courageous.
I wanted to live without fear.
I was scared. All the time. I realized that now. I’ve always been scared. My desperate quest for control, only picking guys I could twist around my finger and manipulate, never letting one in even if they wanted more from me. It was just me running. Hiding. And I didn’t want to run or hide anymore. I couldn’t do it. Not if I was going to ever become whole. Not if Shaw and I ever stood a chance.
I brushed my hand along his strong jaw, reveling in the scratchy end-of-day bristle. I thought about all he’d seen. All he had overcome. The dark things he had lived through and he was still here, unbroken. Still ready to embrace life.
Suddenly I wasn’t scared anymore. He gave me courage.
I knew what I had to do.
I WAS A LITTLE late to the rehearsal dinner. Parking on a Friday night was a bitch. I hovered in the threshold of the ballroom, eyeing the crowd. There were at least two hundred people in attendance. If this was just the rehearsal dinner, I couldn’t imagine how many guests would be at the wedding tomorrow. I guess if your dad was a senator, you could expect half of Congress.
I scanned the crowd, spotting Mom looking half her age in a canary blue cocktail dress. She wove through the tables, laughing and smiling, shaking hands and kissing cheeks. She was in her element.
Her face lit up when she spotted me. She rushed over to greet me, taking both my hands in her own. “My sweet girl! You’re here!” She made a great show of kissing each cheek, her gaze flitting around to see who was watching us. “You couldn’t have worn something with a little bit of color?”
I glanced down at my black dress rather helplessly. It was classy. V-necked with tiny straps gathered loosely at the shoulders. My two-toned black and camel half boots looked good with it. Pepper and Georgia at least had expressed admiration. I’d tried on a number of outfits for their approval before landing on this ensemble.
“Don!” Mom called my stepfather over.
He extricated himself from the small circle of men he’d been deep in conversation with and approached me.
“Emerson.” He hugged me. I endured the stiff embrace. It never felt natural or genuine. It was weird to consider that we were related. I was on friendlier terms with my dentist.
“Don,” I returned.
“Glad you could make it.”
“Of course she made it,” Mom inserted, her gaze flicking around again, clearly desperate that no one overhear and get the idea that we were anything less than the perfect family.
“Come.” Mom linked arms with me. “Let’s mingle.”
The next thirty minutes was a whirlwind of introductions. I pasted a smile on my face, but I felt like I was holding my breath. Waiting for the moment when I would come face-to-face with Justin and Melanie.
It was as if Mom was distracting me. I could see the wariness in her eyes every time she looked at me. Like I might spit pea soup or something when I finally saw Justin. I guess she hadn’t thought this far ahead when she begged me to attend.
The inevitable happened when Melanie spotted me. She went from glowing to radiant as she hurried across the room to hug me. “Emerson! You came! I wish I’d known. I would have seated you at the head table—”
I laughed weakly. “That’s okay. Besides.” I looked around at everyone milling in the room. “Is anyone even sitting?”
Her fingers clung to my arms. “True.” She glanced around. “Everyone seems like they’re having a good time.”
“Of course they are,” Mom gushed. “The food is delish.” As if to prove her point, she plucked a lobster canapé from a passing tray and bit into it with a groan. “The champagne is superb. The orchestra is lovely.” She gestured widely with her hand. “It’s the Four Seasons.”
I resisted rolling my eyes. Nothing like Mom patting herself on the back. I’m surprised she wasn’t wearing a flashing button that read WORLD’S BEST HOSTESS.
“Have you seen Justin yet? He’ll be so thrilled you made it.” She stood on her tiptoes and searched the crush. “Oh! There he is! Justin!” She waved him over.
I followed her gaze. My stepbrother looked up. Grinning, he made his way over to us. My stomach churned as I assessed him. He’d changed in five years. He was a little bit thicker. No longer a lanky twenty-year-old. His jaw was less defined, his face somewhat bloated looking.
His small blue eyes leveled on me. “Emerson.” He folded me into his arms and it felt . . . okay. Brotherly and natural. “So glad you’re here. Thank you.” He patted my back, his voice softer, for my ears alone, “Thank you so much for coming.”
“Thanks. I’m glad I came.” I looked from him to Mom to Melanie, and I meant it. It was a good thing. I’d conquered my fears.
Mom beamed and squeezed my hand. “I knew you would.”
“C’mon. I want to introduce you to my parents.” Melanie pulled me after her. Justin followed, a dutiful fiancé, still smiling and shaking his head indulgently.
Over the next hour I was plied with drink and food and introduced to almost all two hundred people in attendance. At least it felt that way. Melanie kept me close to her side. “I’m just really mad at you, you know.” She pouted at me.
I blinked. “Why?”
“Because you didn’t come around sooner. You should be in my wedding, only now it’s too late.”
“Oh.” I smiled, flattered even as I was relieved that I wasn’t. Coming here tonight was one thing. Actually being in the wedding party? No thanks. “That’s okay, really.”