Evangeline powered on her laptop and silently counted to ten. By the time she reached eight, her mother's mouth was open.
"Are you sure you should do that?" Lisa stood over Evangeline, poised to snatch the computer away if need be.
"Mom, I'm fine. Checking e-mail isn't a danger to my health."
"Dr. Wolek was clear that you shouldn't over exert yourself and that includes work!"
"Between you and Kevin, I haven't had a chance to do any form of work. I called my office and my assistant wouldn't tell me anything. Which one of you threatened Dawn with bodily harm?" Evangeline asked.
Lisa lifted her shoulders in a noncommittal shrug.
Evangeline didn't buy her mother's innocent act, but decided to drop that subject in favor of something more personal and closer to home.
"Tell me about Layla."
Her mother froze. Her brown eyes turned glacial and her mouth thinned into a straight line. "There's nothing to tell."
"Is she really Daddy's daughter?"
"Dear God," Evangeline murmured under her breath. Clifton Williamson was Evangeline's first hero. She measured all men according to his standards and most came up short. How had she been so wrong about her father?
She sucked in a deep breath. "How long have you known?"
"He told me the day she was born," her mother said. "I guess it didn't seem real until he saw the baby for himself."
"How long ago was that?" Tears lodged in Evangeline's throat.
"Twenty-two years and six months," Lisa stated in a hoarse voice.
"You should have told me." Evangeline placed her laptop on the bed and stood. Cold prickled her flesh. She moved to the window. The rays from the sun failed to warm her. She wrapped her arms around herself. "She's known about me for years. I should have known about her, too! It wasn't fair, Mom. Why didn't someone tell me?"
"Because we didn't know how." Lisa gently squeezed Evangeline's shoulder. "You were the apple of Clifton's eye and you adored him. Always a Daddy's girl. As hurt as I was by his affair, I couldn't take that from you."
Evangeline blinked back tears. "And when he died?"
"I still couldn't do it."
Evangeline turned to acknowledge the pain in her mother's eyes. "Is that why you divorced?"
"One of the reasons." Lisa took Evangeline's hands. "That's why I didn't want you with John McBain. A man who can't or won't fully love you isn't a man worth having. Please tell me it's really over between you two."
- - -
"Wow." Duke's beaming smile made Layla's heart pound. "How long has it been?" he asked. "A year?"
"Closer to two," she said. Her wild phase came back to haunt her in many ways except for one. "A lot of time has passed. I'm surprised you remember me."
"You're not an easy woman to forget." His gaze softened as did his voice. "Damn near impossible. What have you been doing since then?"
"Oh, you know. This and that." Layla had no guilt about hedging. There were parts of her that were completely off limits.
"You weren't much of a talker."
She shrugged. "There wasn't much to talk about."
She looked away. This conversation was getting too personal. "Um…about Evangeline."
"Imagine that! You and Evangeline are sisters. You know, I almost see a resemblance. I'll let her know you're here."
"Actually, I need you to do something else for me." Kevin appeared in the doorway.
Layla didn't miss the animosity in the older man's eyes. Damn! She didn't have time for his Sir Galahad act. Too much was at stake.
"Dad," Duke said, "I didn't hear you come in. This is Layla. She's Evangeline's sister."
Kevin gave her a tight lipped smile that failed to reach his eyes. "Hello, Layla. I'm sure you won't mind if I have to borrow my son."
She opted for nonchalance. "Of course not."
"Excuse us," Duke said before following his father into the foyer.
The sudden solitude gave Layla time to think. No way in hell would Kevin Buchanan let her near Evangeline. The protective gleam in his eyes spoke volumes. Dammit! She had to catch Evangeline alone. Their talk couldn't stand any more delays.
"Whatever you're planning, forget about it." Kevin slipped back into the room as quietly as a panther.
Layla ached to scratch his eyes out. "I'm not planning anything."
She bristled from his accurate accusation.
"Evangeline is off limits and so is the rest of my family," he said. "You can show yourself out."
"Yeah, I'll leave." She headed toward the door. "But this isn't the last you've seen of me. You or your precious Evangeline."
- - -
Kevin watched Layla's dramatic exit as he pulled his cell phone out. His private investigator answered on the first ring.
"Mr. Buchanan, what can I do for you?" Ethan Bennett asked.
"Her name is Layla. She may use Williamson as a surname. Find out everything you can about her, and I do mean everything."
"I'm on it."
"Get back to me as soon as you can." Kevin flipped his phone closed and slid it back into his pocket.
He turned at the sound of John McBain's voice. Kevin frowned. "How did you get in?"
Kevin's jaw tightened. "What do you want?"
"I heard Evangeline's here." John's eyes narrowed. "I came to see her, not play twenty questions with you."
"I won't take long."
"It doesn't matter."
"What's your problem, Buchanan?"
"You," Kevin said through clenched teeth. "You're the problem. You waltz in here like she's waiting on the edge of her seat for you. Who do you think you are?"
"I care about Ev--"
"Hold it right there." Kevin's hands clenched into fists. "If hesitating when her life is at stake is how you show you care, she doesn't need you."
"I guess you know all about her needs," John sneered.
"Damn straight," Kevin said. "She needs a man who doesn't hesitate to put her first. She needs a real man who appreciates a real woman."
John's eyes flashed with anger. "I didn't have a choice."
"That's bullshit and you know it. You were with her for over a year. That should have counted for something." Kevin headed to the door. "Go back to your first choice. Evangeline will stay here with me, a man who'll choose her over everyone else every time."
John's mouth dropped open. "You're in love with her."
Kevin didn't respond. He didn't have to. Actions spoke louder than words, and McBain's treatment of Evangeline had already said more than enough.
Seconds ticked away. Finally, John left. Kevin ran a hand through his hair and moved to the sofa. Footsteps sounded on the marble floor. He sat up straight, wondering how much she heard.
"Is it true? Are you in love with me?"