Read an Excerpt
Chin in hand, Devon Winters crumbled the last of her blueberry muffin with her fingers. Sunshine flooded the area around the sparkling blue pool where Louisa set up breakfast every morning at six- thirty, as long as weather permitted. And somehow, except for a few months of winter, weather almost always permitted. Devon figured her mother controlled Washington, D.C., weather just as she controlled everything else in her life. The skies dare not rain on Alise Stevens’s parade, or breakfast.
The one time Louisa defied her mother’s edict, thinking it might rain, and had set up breakfast in the morning room, was a day Devon preferred not to think about. Having learned a painful lesson years ago, Devon worked hard not to put her mother into that kind of frenzied fury. Unfortunately, Louisa discovered the hard way, too, but at least she hadn’t suffered the same punishment. Being screamed at was preferable to being locked in a dark closet.
“Devon, must you slump like a Neanderthal? By the time you graduate, you’ll be humpbacked.”
Without a glance at her mother, Devon automatically sat up straighter.
“Henry, don’t forget, dinner tomorrow night at the Tollivers’. Though I’d much rather not go. That embarrassing incident with their daughter makes it so awkward. But the Tollivers are one of the oldest families in D.C. society. It could be damaging if we don’t make an appearance.”
Henry Stevens bent his morning paper ever so slightly, and his thin face peered over the edge. “The incident you refer to was tragic, not embarrassing. Their daughter died of a drug overdose.”
Doing what she’d done for as long as Devon could remember, Alise ignored her husband’s comment. “Also, the fund- raising event for Senator Mallard is set for a week from Tuesday. I’ve told Louisa three times to make sure your new tuxedo is cleaned. I do hope she can remember. It seems the older she gets, the more forgetful she is. Perhaps we should consider getting new help.”
This time the paper came all the way down. Her stepfather rarely lost his temper, but Devon could tell an event was brewing. She held her breath.
“Louisa has been with me for years. Do not even think about letting her go. Do you understand?”
Alise waved a thin, elegant hand, not one bit intimidated by her husband’s anger. “Really, Henry. You act as though I meant to kill her. I simply believe that–” Henry turned his gaze to Devon. “Sweetheart, if you’re through with breakfast, why don’t you go get ready for school?”
Eager to miss the coming fireworks, Devon jumped to her feet. Unfortunately, Devon’s movements distracted Alise, calling attention to the daughter who never pleased her. Critical eyes skimmed over Devon’s body. “I noticed yesterday that your school uniform is getting too tight. You do realize that you’re not going to get a new one this year, don’t you?”
“Then I suggest you stop stuffing yourself like a pig at every meal, or you’ll soon look like one. Thankfully, your new school doesn’t require uniforms. They can get so expensive.” The muffin Devon had consumed turned to lead in her stomach. “What do you mean, my new school?”
Her mother raised an eyebrow. “Just that. Next year, you’ll be attending a boarding school in Boston.” The sound of Henry’s newspaper being crumpled barely penetrated her shocked mind. They were sending her away?
Her stepfather’s concerned face appeared in front of her. “We were going to tell you this weekend.” He shot a loathing glance at his wife, then turned back to Devon. “I think you’ll like it there. Meet new friends, see new places.”
Devon could only stare up at him as bewildered hurt trampled over her heart. Henry had always been her champion against her mother. Why was he going along with this? “You don’t want me anymore?”
Her mother huffed a loud, exasperated sigh. “Stop the dramatics, Devon. You’ll do what we tell you to do. Now, go get ready for school. If you’re late this morning, I won’t write an excuse for you. You can just spend time in detention.”
Henry pulled Devon to him in a hug, then released her and gave her one of his encouraging smiles. “We’ll talk about it this weekend, sugar. But I promise it’s not because I don’t want you here. I just think you’d really enjoy it. And they’re very excited you’re coming. I told them how smart you are and how you pick up languages so easily. The headmistress can’t wait to meet you. She’s going to design a curriculum especially for you, with all of your favorite things.”
“For heaven’s sake, Henry, stop coddling her. It’s the reason she needs to go away. You treat her like a baby. It’s time she grew up.”
Henry twisted his head around and snarled, “For God’s sake, Alise. She’s only thirteen years old. For once, please act like a real mother.”
Fear whipped through Devon at the expression on her mother’s face. Despite the hurt at being sent away, she couldn’t prevent her legs from backing up as she saw her mother rise.
“You bastard, I am her mother. I could easily have aborted her or given her up for adoption. Instead, I’ve given her a home, and what credit do I get? None.” Looking as though he wanted to sit down and cry with Devon, Henry straightened. Nudging her gently with his hand, he whispered, “Go on, sweetie. We’ll talk later.” Though tears flooded her eyes at her mother’s cruel words, self- preservation had her nodding in agreement. She whirled around, took a running step, and slammed into a hard body. Her head jerked up; all breath left her lungs.
“Whoa there, squirt. You okay?” Jordan Montgomery looked down at her. Though his mouth lifted in a small smile, the sympathy and anger in his beautiful dark brown eyes told her he’d heard every humiliating word her mother had hurled at her.
Mortification and extreme delight created an odd jumble of emotions inside her. She worked hard at showing only the delight. Unfortunately, the tears rolling down her face spoiled her act.
Gentle, masculine fingers wiped a tear off her cheek. “You know, in another couple of years, Henry will be beating the boys back with a stick.”
Even though a part of her knew he was only teasing, trying to make her feel better, the part that held her heart couldn’t resist a shiver. Jordan thought she would be beautiful someday. Suddenly her day seemed brighter.
“Jordan, how delightful.” Her mother stood right behind her, her voice lowered to a husky softness. “We didn’t know you were coming.”
Jordan’s deep voice rumbled over Devon’s head. “I’m on break from college, and thought I’d come by and say hello.”
“Well, we’re so pleased you did.”
Devon frowned at the odd, purring sound in her mother’s voice. Before she could wonder about it, fingers dug into her arm, pulling her away from Jordan. “I’m not going to tell you again. Get ready for school. Honestly, sometimes you are the most dense child.”
Knowing her mother would only further humiliate her, Devon moved away from Jordan. How she wished she could stay home and just stare at him. Being around him always made her happy.
With one last glance in his direction, she headed toward the door. Jordan’s deep voice stopped her. “Hey Dev, since I’m in town for a few days, how about a rematch on that chess game. Say tomorrow afternoon, around two?”
Life turned magnificently brighter. “You bet.” Beaming, Devon ran into the house. She had a date tomorrow with Jordan Montgomery. Nothing could be better than that. As she pulled on her snug uniform, she tried to forget her mother’s cruel words. She’d known for years that her mother hated her. Nothing she said should be a surprise. Devon also tried to ignore the extreme worry that she would be going away to school next year. Henry would never send her away without a good reason. This school must be one of the best, because despite her mother’s meanness, Henry would make sure she was all right. Her gray eyes stared sightlessly at the mirror as she scooped curly blond locks into a ponytail holder. How lucky she was that Henry had married her mother. Not only was he a wonderful father, he’d brought Jordan into her life. Jordan was Henry’s godson. His parents had died years ago, and though he lived with his grandmother in Virginia, he often came to visit Henry. Since he’d started college, she hadn’t seen him nearly as much. The rarity of his visits made them all the more precious.
Tall, dark, and dreamy were the only words to describe Jordan. He was always so nice to her, teasing her, making her laugh unlike anyone else. He played board games with her, told her jokes, and the last time he was here, she’d actually beat him in chess. She was definitely growing up. His comment today proved that. In a few years, she would be a woman.
He didn’t know it yet, mostly because it was years too soon. But one day, when she was grown up and beautiful, and their age difference no longer mattered, she intended to marry Jordan Montgomery.
He was her dream come true.
As Jordan watched the young girl run into the house, his heart turned over. Poor kid. Hard to believe a sweet, sensitive girl like Devon belonged to the callous bitch standing in front of him, eating him with her eyes.
“I had hoped you’d come by, Jordan,” Henry said.
“Would you care for coffee?”
Jordan watched Henry’s expression and knew the man was well aware of why he’d come. Sitting down for a coffee chitchat wasn’t the reason. Especially with Henry’s amoral wife salivating beside him like a hungry piranha. “No thanks. I actually wanted to talk with you about a hunting trip I’m thinking of going on.”
Henry’s eyes flickered with knowledge, while Alise gave a huff of frustration. Jordan never changed his expression, but inside his mind he laughed. Though neither Henry nor Jordan was interested in hunting, they’d discovered long ago that this was one of the few things Alise wouldn’t want to stay around to hear. Alise was a strict vegetarian and reviled hunting. Hard as hell to believe that someone who looked as though she could eat her young actually hated killing.
She gave Jordan one last once- over. “You boys and your guns. I’ll leave you two alone.” As she passed him, she paused and ran a teasing finger down his forearm. “Stop in my study before you go. I’d love to hear how your school year is going.”
Forcing his face to remain impassive, Jordan didn’t bother to acknowledge the invitation. She knew there was no way in hell he’d get caught alone with her again. Once had been enough. Though he’d escaped before she could get her claws into him, he wasn’t stupid enough to give her another opportunity. He’d never committed violence against a woman, but Alise Stevens had come very close to receiving a punch in the face that day.
Seeing that he wasn’t going to answer, Alise blew out a soft, feminine sigh as she went into the house. Jordan blew out his own sigh, wanting to get the stench of the woman out of his system.
“Let’s go to my office.” Henry’s hard voice told Jordan he hadn’t missed Alise’s less than subtle advances. Knowing that eyes and ears were all over the house, years ago Henry had built a small, soundproof office. Once a day, he meticulously searched for bugs. Some might consider Henry’s paranoia odd. Since Jordan had known from an early age that Henry Stevens’s quiet, cool demeanor hid a powerful, intelligent man, privy to much of the country’s most secretive goings- on, he thought it more than appropriate.
The door closed behind them and Henry headed to his desk. For the first time ever, Jordan detected ner vous ness in the man. It confirmed what he’d greatly suspected. Henry knew about the visit Jordan had received from a mysterious stranger named Mr. Giles.
Jordan dropped into a chair across from Henry and stared hard at the man he’d known and trusted his entire life. “You want me to go first, or you want to go ahead and explain why I’m being recruited by a government agency only a handful of people know about?”
A small smile twitched at Henry’s lips. “I knew you’d suspect me, but actually I fought against the recruitment.”
Weary wisdom etched on his face, Henry said, “I’m your godfather, Jordan. I was at the hospital when you were born. Your parents were my best friends. If I’d had a more stable life when they were killed, I would have insisted you live with me instead of that cold witch who raised you. I care about you and want you to have a normal life. You accept their terms, normal won’t be in your vocabulary ever again.”
“You’re saying once I’m in, I can’t get out?”
“No, I’m saying once you’ve done what they want you to do, you won’t be able to live normally, even if you’re out. The job will change you, harden you. The compassion and humanity I see in you now might cease to exist.” Jordan had already accepted that. If he chose to work for the government in this capacity, he would become a different man. He remembered little about his parents. They’d died when he was six, but Henry had worked hard to keep them alive for him. Myra and Jeffrey Montgomery had devoted their entire lives to ser vice for their country. They had been true patriots. Could he do anything less?
Jordan couldn’t deny another reason. The opportunity for adventure was appealing. Hell, he was twenty- one years old. What guy wouldn’t be interested in traveling to exotic places, taking down evil men, and saving lives?
“Are you telling me I shouldn’t do it?”
“Not at all. I just want you to understand the risks.”
“If you didn’t recommend me, how’d my name come up?”
Henry snorted. “Hell, son, you don’t save a school bus load of kids from a deranged gunman and not hit somebody’s radar.”
Jordan shrugged, unwilling to discuss the event. He’d been seventeen years old and scared shitless. Kicking the gun out of the guy’s hand and jumping him had been instinct. His brain had been frozen with pure terror.
“That and the fact that you can speak seven languages fluently, already have a couple of black belts, and if I’m not mistaken, didn’t you win a science award last year for creating some kind of nontoxic explosive?”
Jordan shifted in his chair, uncomfortable with the amount of information people he didn’t know knew about him. Even allowing that most everything one did was up for public scrutiny, the knowledge that people had paid extra attention to him left him unsettled.
“What time frame did they give you?” Henry asked.
“Till the end of the semester.”
Henry’s grimace revealed his concern. “That’s only a few weeks away.”
Jordan nodded. “You say you didn’t want them to contact me. Does that mean you’re part of this agency?”
“Few people know everyone in the agency. I have knowledge of its existence and a few of the players. That’s it.”
Jordan stood. Henry had given him all the information he could. Now Jordan just needed to determine if he wanted to change his entire life. As a goal- oriented individual, he’d set several milestones for himself and achieved each one. Going undercover for an übersecretive agency hadn’t been one of them, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be flexible.
“Before you leave, I just wanted to thank you for your invitation to Devon tomorrow. God knows she doesn’t get a lot of happy days around here.”
“I heard Alise tell her about boarding school.”
Henry blew out a long sigh. The sadness in his eyes was testament to his love for his stepdaughter and disgust for her mother. “I should have seen that coming and told Devon days ago. I just hadn’t been able to come up with any words. I thought telling that sweet child I’m sending her away was going to kill me. Now that her mother’s dropped the bomb, I need to figure out a way to pick up the pieces and reassure her it’s not because I don’t want her here.”
“I thought most boarding schools had mile- long waiting lists. How’d you persuade them to take her so quickly?”
“Are you kidding? With her IQ and gift for languages, I had my pick of schools. Rossfield Academy had the best curriculum for the types of things Devon’s interested in.” His eyes brightened with affection and pride. “She’s an exceptional child.”
Jordan’s admiration for Henry had always been great, but when he’d met Alise a few months after their wedding, he’d been shocked, thinking the man had made the biggest mistake of his life. At the beginning, it was apparent that Henry was besotted with his beautiful and much younger wife. That hadn’t lasted long. What had grown and flourished was his love for his stepdaughter. Henry had blindly married Alise for her looks and sexual prowess, but stayed in the marriage for Devon.
“I guess it wouldn’t do much good to tell her that going away to school will get her away from her mother.” Henry shook his head. “I doubt that Devon maintains any illusions that Alise cares for her, but I can’t bear to tell her that’s the reason I want her to leave. If she doesn’t get out, though, Alise will destroy her. I’ve no doubt about that.”
“I’m sorry, Henry.”
“It’s not all bad. I married Alise, not seeing what she was, but I can’t regret the marriage. Even though Alise will never agree to let me adopt Devon legally, she’s been everything I could have wanted in a daughter.”
“When we’re together tomorrow, I’ll see what I can do to ease her fear.”
“Thank you, Jordan.”
“She’s like a little sister to me.” His mouth lifted in a grin. “I’m just glad as hell Alise isn’t my mother.”
Henry’s dry chuckle was filled with understanding. “I don’t blame you.”
Leaving Henry in his office, Jordan strode through the foyer, then out the door. He had no intention of getting caught by Alise. Hopefully when he came to see Devon tomorrow, he could escape her attentions.
Poor kid had a tough life ahead of her. Learning that she was being sent away to school had crushed her tender feelings. Tomorrow he would concentrate on boosting her ego and getting her excited about her new adventure. As for him, Jordan already knew the answer to his own quest for adventure. He would take on this new challenge. Making the world safer for kids like Devon was a more than worthy goal.