When he quit a powerful secret society, Smith Donnell lost his fortuneand walked away from love. Beautiful heiress Arden Leigh deserved a man who could give her everything. Not a high-society outcast with nothing to his name and a bull's-eye on his back.
But when Arden's curiosity made her the society's new target, Smith had to protect herand win back her trust. Convincing Arden to let him back into her life would take a miracle. But Smith would do anything to keep her safe, even though he'd already sacrificed his heartand this time, the price might be his life.
About the Author
Evelyn began writing stories as soon as she was able to hold a fat pencil and spell out words. She's been at it ever since.
Fourth in a family of five children, Evelyn has lived in Virginia, Illinois, Arizona, Louisiana and finally Texas. She currently lives in Texas with her 17-year-old, one-eyed cat and her sweet-tempered cocker spaniel. She recently bought a house with a great yard, largely for the cocker spaniel, but she loves it, too.
In her alternate life, she teaches writing and literature at Tarrant County College in the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex.
Read an Excerpt
"Beauty is power; a smile is its sword." John Ray, English naturalist
Arden was so busy with her hostess duties that she didn't notice the small exodus until her guest of honor pointed it out.
"I can always tell I'm back in the South," drawled gubernatorial candidate Molly Johannes, "when certain menfolk head off to talk on their own."
Then Arden saw it and silently cursed herself. True, she'd had to monitor the needs of her guests, the caterers and the string quartet. That was why she hadn't bothered with an escort tonight. Her late stepmother had done such an excellent job with such functions, Arden didn't want to disappoint her memory. And true, men often drifted away to private conversation in their social circlea common holdover from the days of brandy and cigars. But Arden expected better than "common," especially from her father.
Her first thought was, Well, sugar. Sugar meaning something nastier.
But she simply smiled her Miss Dallas smile, complete with dimples, and covered for the men. "As long as they're talking about how to make you governor, Comptroller Johannes, I wouldn't hold their little rituals against them."
"Call me Molly, please! State Comptroller is a mouthful even for the state comptroller." The stocky, middle-aged woman shook her head with amusement. "I'm still not sure why an old boys' club like your daddy's is willing to support me, though I suspect you had something to do with it. But as long as they believe in my message, I'm willing to grant them as much time in their clubhouse as they want."
Arden laughed with her. But as soon as she got Molly talking to another guest, she took a moment to slip out back, into the shadowy August heat of her father's gardens. The clink of wineglasses and murmur of conversation faded like the brightly lit rooms as she let the French door swing shut behind herand glimpsed, just for a moment, a twinkling of light across the darkness.
She blinked. It had been years since Dallas County had seen many fireflies outside the botanical gardens. Highland Parka small, exclusive city surrounded by the larger sprawl of Dallashad plenty of landscaping and parks, and yet
The air-conditioned chill of indoors faded off her bare arms as Arden scanned the stone paths, the swimming pool, the magnolia and live-oak trees, all the way back to the estate's old well. The light didn't repeat.
She noted the steady glow from what had once been a guesthouse but now was her father's detached study. Shadows moved behind the shadesthe usual deserters from her soiree, no doubt. So she headed toward the detached den to sweetly bully her father and his friends back into their public responsibilities.
Which is when a dark-haired, dark-suited young man emerged from behind the trunk of the nearest oak. That alone startled her, even before she registered the huge hunting knife in his hands.
Really. A hunting knife paired with a Ralph Lauren suit.
Only the unreality of it explained how easily she folded her bare arms, cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. "So much for Daddy's top-notch security," she drawled in accusation. "Whatever do you think you're doing?"
The extra long serrated blade made her stomach go all knotty and sick. But breeding, and her former experience in pageants, gave her skill at hiding her feelings, especially around a man younger than her twenty-five years.
Also? Fear had nothing on her annoyance.
"You need to go back inside the house now," ordered the young man. He wore a small goatee and a had Yankee accent. Massachusetts, she recognized with an even greater flare of surprise. Unless she was mistaken, and roving bands of Bosto-nians had migrated down to the Lone Star State for a surprisingly well-dressed crime spree, this was one of her guests! But how had she not caught his name?
Now she did speak her mind. "You come to my party, drink my champagne, eat my hors d'oeuvres and now you threaten me? Why, that's just tacky."
"You think I'm joking?"
"My father and half of Texas society are just a scream away."
Menace twisted his mouth. "Like they'd hear you through closed doors."
"Oh " Arden smiled, deliberately showing dimples as she bared her perfect teeth at him. "They'll hear me."
He stepped even nearer, so close that she could smell his aftershaveArmani Blackand count the teeth on his knife's serrated blade. Now would be an excellent time to scream, but he said, "Your research and prying have caused enough trouble already."
Which distracted her. Her research ? That could mean only one thing, and Arden's lips parted in amazement. Suddenly this strange intercession made weird sense. "You mean, it's true? There really is a secret society of powerful"
The knife, cold against her throat, confirmed her guess.
"If you're smart, you will never refer to such a thing again," Boston warned, making sure Arden could feel the toothy knife above her triple strand of evening diamonds. She tried very hard not to swallow. She could barely breathe. "You will go on behaving yourself, and hosting your little parties, and doing your little charity works. And if you're a good girl, and stay out of matters that don't involve you, perhaps"
Then he dropped.
That would be from the arc of an unexpected tree branch, ending in a sick crack against his head.
The knife landed beside Arden's perfectly pedicured foot. A brown-haired man sank to one knee, strangely like a courtier about to propose, to check Boston's pulse with one hand. Unconscious like that, Arden's attacker looked increasingly young.
Her rescuer kept the tree branch. He looked up, met her gazeand recognition stabbed through her. Arden knew that angle of brows over mischievous brown eyes, and the sullen-cowboy set to his jaw. She knew the toffee-brown hair by touch, as well as sight. She knew that easy, athletic body, although he'd once dressed far better than his current jeans and dark, long-sleeved teea suspicious fashion choice for August in Texas.
But it wasn't just recognition that made her feel even more unsteady than she had with a knife to her throat.
"Smith." The name of the man who'd broken her heart by dumping her without explanation. The man who'd simply vanished from her world.
The man she'd once thought she would marry.
No, what cut the deepest was her recognition, from how her pulse sped up and her breath caughtthat she wasn't nearly as over the bastard as she'd hoped.
Smith Donnell grinned as he rose to stand taller than her despite her heels, branch in one hand and Boston's knife safe in the other. "Hey, Arden," he greeted cheerfully, as if they'd just run into each other at the club. As if a stranger hadn't just threatened her. As if he had any right to be cordial! "How've you been?"
For a minute, Smith feared that Arden might faint. Or maybe she would attack him with balled fists and harder words. She'd always been a lot more of a firecracker than her poised, beauty-queen looks let onand she was gorgeous, especially in a green gown that matched her wide eyes, with that thick, Irish-black hair drawn off her slender neck, showing all that peaches-and-cream skin .
Smith forced himself to keep breathing. If he were a lesser man, he might have gone a little wobbly himself. And he'd known there was a possibility of seeing her tonight, although he hadn't intended to be seen.
She'd had no idea.
Instead of fainting or fists, Arden smiled that adorable, dimpled smile that had always put him on guard. She extended both hands, saw that his hands were busy with weaponry, and made do with an air kiss. "Smith Donnell, as I live and breathe! How long has it been, three years?"
Smith felt his own grin waver at her overestimation, as well as the hauntingly familiar magnolia scent of her. "Barely a year, to tell the truth."
She waved the idea away. "Time flies, doesn't it? I've been right as rain, thank you for asking. Likely you heard that my stepmother passed. That's been even harder on Daddy and Jeffyou remember my little brother?than on me. But what about you? You're looking "
Smith waited for her to put a polite-yet-pointed spin on that one. His life since the big defection at Mount Vernon had been embarrassingly hand-to-mouth. Not every powerful businessman in the world belonged to the Comitatus, of course. Just enough of them to keep the occasional "traitors" from getting references, credit or clean background checks.
Go figure. Secret societies sucked when it came to severance packages.
"Fit," she decided brightly, a euphemism if ever he'd heard one. "So whatever brought you into my daddy's backyard, where you ought not to be, just in time to play knight in shining armor against ?"
As if in an afterthought, she nudged the suited shoulder of her attacker with her strappy dress shoe. Her full lips pulled into an adorable pout of annoyance. He could spend all night just watching her pout. He used to deliberately provoke it.
"I believe his name's Lowell," Smith admitted. No wonder the Comitatus had wanted Donnell Security for their special crusade a year ago, with incompetents like this running around. Lowell had been just plain stupid, going straight for the threats but then again, the threatening and the posturing illustrated Smith's problem with the whole organization. "Though we haven't been formally introduced."
"And yet here you are. Maybe chivalry isn't dead." Her eyes danced at him. "Other than the you-hitting-him-from-behind part."
He shouldn't feel deflated at that. Their split should've cleared up any delusions she had about his never-steadfast honor. But Arden's easy poise still brought out his contrary side. "I would've challenged him to a duel, but I left my fencing foil with my tuxedo."
"Ah, but you still have that sharp wit of yours, don't you?"
Her composure was starting to worry him, and he'd already been worried. Worried enough to come out of hiding when he saw her threatened. Worried enough to risk his entire erased existence and everything he was accomplishing with that invisibility.
"So, uh what did Lowell here mean about you doing research into secret societies?" He prayed his betrayal hadn't somehow involved her in this.
Rather than reassure him, she wrinkled her pixie nose in that teasing way that used to make his stomach flip. Still did. "Now if I told, it wouldn't be secret, would it? But look at me, chatting away. I really should call security and get back to my invited guests." Still, she couldn't be quite that rude; it all but went against her religion. "Why don't you come inside and have something to eat? Jeff's away at camp, but Daddy will be just thrilled to see you again."
Her ability to spout social lies the size of the Watergate cover-up still amazed him. "Haven't you got a hot date to get back to?"
"Three," she assured him, not missing a beat. He half believed her. "But you won't be in our way."
"Actually, sweetness," he said, satisfied at her almost-wince over the endearment, "you'd be doing me a favor if you didn't mention me being here at all." He pressed the branch into her hands. "Or, at least, don't tell anyone my name. I can't say why, just now, but "
She arched a perfect brow. "But I owe you?" They both knew that, with the way he'd dumped her, he would have to save her life several times before they were even. Still, she had the grace to pretend. "I never could say no to you, could I?"
"Actually, you could." He'd never worked so hard to catch a woman in his lifeand then he'd had to go and throw her back, right before he'd meant to seal the deal. Her perfection had been her only flaw. Of all the things he'd lost that night at Mount Vernon "You really do look fine, Arden Leigh. Always did."
For a moment, her facade faltered. Could that be lingering pain in her big, lash-shadowed eyes? Did she want to kiss him as badly as he did her? Could she be human for him, just once more? But the moment passed, and he suspected it was mere wishful thinking on his part.
Not to mention secrecy and all. Big society plans. Vengeance to be wrought and inner-circle VIPs to betray.
"Give me a count of twenty-five?" he asked, backing away a step. On what should not have been an afterthought, he wiped his prints off the ceremonial knife and flipped it sharply into the manicured lawn, well away from Lowell. When Arden hesitated, eyebrows lifted in challenge, he added, "Please?"
"One," Arden drawled obligingly. "Two "
Hell. Before he lost his nerve, he surged forward again.
Slid urgent fingers into her thick black hair.
Bent to her for a too-necessary kiss.
With a little sigh, she parted her glossy lips to him, warm and receptive and increasingly, gloriously, less poised. She was everything female, milk and magnolias and softness and beauty, and she'd once been his. For a long, blissful moment, life felt like it had before. Back when he'd had a prosperous future to offer, and a heritage to be proud of, and what he'd foolishly thought was honor.
Back when, amazingly enough, he'd had her. After a year without her, to have her so close, so his, felt
Oof! With a sharp jab of the branch into his ribs, Arden put an end to the kiss. Smith felt both relieved and shattered. She stared dazedly up at him, her gaze as raw and resentful as his felt, and he feared the coming accusations, didn't know how he could ever explain himself.
Instead, after regaining her composure with a single, shaky breath despite her hair now falling in messy loops to her bare shoulders, Arden said, "Eleven. Twelve."
Smith ran. It was a big yard. He'd barely vaulted the stone wall before he heard Arden's voice split the night. "Daddy!"
In the excitement that followed, Smith had no trouble meeting with Mitch and Trace, whom he'd been signaling with his penlight before Arden's attacker distracted him. As the local Comitatus leadership poured into the garden to Arden's cries, Smith and Mitch stole into the office they'd vacated.
"Niiice." Trace grinned from his position as guard outside. "She's still hot."
"Shut up." Smith punched a code into the security pad with the end of his penlight. The society's new security was top notch, but Smith was better. Mitch was already moving around Donaldson Leigh's dark, heavily furnished den, collecting the surveillance equipment that they'd hidden that afternoon under the cover of all the florists and caterers who'd swarmed the property in preparation for Arden's big night.
"Weird though these words feel leaving my mouth, Trace is right," Mitch admitted, even as he unscrewed a nearly invisible, key logger from Leigh's keyboard cable. "The whole thing had a kind of old-romance, Robin-Hood-and-Maid-Marian look to it."
"Except that this isn't a movie," Smith reminded him, still mulling over the guard's accusation. Your research and prying have caused enough trouble already. Arden should have been safe. What had he gotten her into? "Are you done?"