"I don't get it," Evangeline said, watching Kevin closely. All night, a secret smile played at the corners of his mouth. She tried to get him to spill, but he'd only shrug and his smile would deepen. "Why are we coming to the Palace?"
"To get a drink," he said. "I happen to know for a fact that they have the best stocked bar in Llanview."
He parked the car and moved with confidence to open her door. As if they'd practiced this for years, he took her hand and helped her from the car. The valet appeared, took Kevin's keys and gave him a claim ticket. The grip on her hand tightened for a brief moment as he smiled and said, "Shall we?"
"Why do I get the feeling that you're up to something?"
He laughed as they stepped inside. "Are you always so suspicious? Tonight is your night. I can't remember a better Woman of the Year ceremony or a person more worthy. The Banner will quote your speech word for word. I'll see to that myself."
The heat of a blush crept up her neck and flooded her cheeks. "You do flattery very well, Mr. Buchanan."
"I'm only telling the truth, Ms. Williamson."
As they neared the bar, he released her and pressed his hand to the small of her back. She expected them to head toward the small dark alcove of the bar. Instead, he steered her toward the restaurant.
"I thought we were getting a drink."
He smiled a mega-watt smile that made her knees quake. "All in due time. Let's see what they have in there."
He laughed. "Very funny. Come on."
A split second before they entered the restaurant, Evangeline inhaled a sharp breath. Obviously, he planned a surprise for her. She couldn't fathom what it could be.
Then, they were inside. Friends and family greeted her with a loud cheer.
"What in the world?" Sudden tears of joy filled her eyes. She tried to blink them away as she turned on Kevin. "You did this."
He beamed. "Guilty as charge."
"Why?" she asked. From the corner of her eye, she saw her mother, uncle and cousin approach. They had attended the Woman of Year ceremony. They were in on the surprise, too. The outpouring of love brought fresh tears to her eyes. A couple rolled down her cheek.
Kevin gently brushed the tears away. "Because you deserve this. I told you before. Tonight is yours."
"I don't know what to say."
"Don't say anything." His dark eyes stared at her as if there was no one else in the world. "Just enjoy yourself. I'll be right back with our drinks."
Before she could stop him, he was gone. Her mother swept her into a warm hug. Uncle Clay and her cousin Henry quickly followed suit. She returned their embraces and basked in their approval.
"I like him," her mother said.
"Who?" Evangeline asked, still feeling a little overwhelmed by the night and the surprise party.
"Kevin Buchanan," Uncle Clay said. "He has a lot going for him."
She pressed a hand to her temple. "Please, don't go there."
"Uncle Clay has a point," Henry said. "He had a limo waiting for us at the airport and would have booked us a suite upstairs if we didn't already have one."
"The party was all his idea. He said he wanted you to fully enjoy your night because you deserve it," her mother added. "I like a man who's not afraid to show his true intentions."
Evangeline frowned. "Mama, please."
Lisa looked at the other two men. "Would you excuse us for a moment?"
Uncle Clay looked ready to protest, but Henry grabbed his arm. "We'll be right over there."
After they left, Lisa pulled Evangeline onto the patio where they could have some privacy. "I didn't want to say this in front of them."
"I wish you wouldn't say anything at all."
Evangeline knew where her mother was going with this conversation. The run-in with John at her apartment and later at the ceremony had left her mother on the warpath. She regretted ever confiding to her mother about John's inability to say the three most important words in a committed relationship almost as much as she regretted John's inability.
"The way Kevin is treating you is the way a man is supposed to treat a woman," Lisa said without preamble. "He's attentive. My God, I don't think he's looked at anyone else all night. Every time I glanced at him, his eyes were on you."
"He's being nice. We're friends."
"There could be more."
Evangeline's mouth dropped. "Who says I want more? John and I broke up only a few days ago. Mama, I'm not ready for more. Kevin knows that and respects it. I wish you would. Please, don't fill Uncle Clay and Henry's heads with visions of matrimony with Buchanan Enterprises. Please."
"I won't," Lisa said. "I just want you to be happy."
"Then give me time to heal." Evangeline swallowed a deep breath. "I can't do this overnight. I know you don't approve of John, but I love him. Still."
"The first step to getting over him is wanting to," her mother said. "Here comes Kevin. I'll leave you alone."
She breezed past Kevin who looked from mother to daughter. "Are you okay?"
"Don't worry. She likes you. I'm not sure if she's fond of me right now."
He gave her a half smile. "Mothers usually love us no matter what. Here's your martini, dirty with three olives."
"Just the way I like it."
He pulled out a chair. After she sat, he moved onto a seat beside her. "It's a nice night to sit outside."
"You don't have to sugarcoat it," she said. "I appreciate this recovery time. My mother can be very persistent and extremely opinionated."
He reached out and patted her hand. "You look a little shell shocked. I probably should have warned you."
"Then it wouldn't have been a surprise." Her gaze was drawn to their hands. He hadn't removed his and she surprisingly didn't want him to. "I'm enjoying this. You make a good last minute escort."
"I aim to please," he said with a shrug.
"How did you know who to invite? Did you swipe my address book?"
"You have a great assistant. She was more than helpful." He lightly ran his thumb along the back of her hand. "I hope you don't mind my enlisting her help."
Tingles rippled through her from his tiny caresses. She ignored the immediate physical response. There was no way she was ready to move ahead this fast. He probably wasn't even aware of what he was doing. If she moved her hand, she'd look like an idiot.
"No, I just can't believe the effort." She chewed on an olive. "You did a lot in a short amount of time."
"I was strongly motivated." He leaned forward as if he wanted to say more, but then he grew still and stared. His eyes narrowed. "Do you know that girl?"
"Where?" She shifted to look over her shoulder. The subtle movement separated their hands. She immediately felt the loss of his touch. "Who?"
"The one in the black dress," he said. "She keeps looking out here. Should I invite her to join us?"
Evangeline admired the graceful ease that propelled Kevin through the crowd and straight to the young woman. The girl seemed surprised but relaxed as Kevin kept talking to her. As she turned and fully faced Evangeline, the young woman reminded Evangeline of someone but she couldn't remember exactly who.
After a swift maneuver through the crowd, Kevin brought the girl to their table. He hovered at the entryway. His presence was reassuring.
"Hi, I'm Evangeline Williamson." She smiled up at the stranger. "It's nice to meet you. What's your name?"
The young woman clutched the back of the chair. Her eyes were bright with unreadable emotions. "I'm Layla Williamson."
"Wow, imagine that," Evangeline said. "I wonder if we're related."
"We are," Layla said, her face evolving into a mask of smug satisfaction. "I'm the sister you never knew about. So, Woman of the Year, are you gonna welcome me to the family, or what?"