Layla looked around the Palace restaurant and admired the opulence setting. Her first and last time there had been for Evangeline's party. At that time, she hadn't cared too much about her surroundings. More important things pressed on her mind. Those things still took precedence over the meal and her company, but there was nothing she could do about that. At least not at that moment.
"A penny for your thoughts," Duke said as he poured more wine into her glass. His electric blue eyes danced in the candlelight. His smile was warm and welcoming.
"Just a penny?" she asked.
"I could offer more," he said, his tone teasing and light, "but maybe I should let you set the price."
Clay's voice and degrading offer suddenly came to mind. Humiliation left a bitter taste in her mouth. She cringed and looked away. Her father's brother still had an uncanny ability to make her feel totally worthless.
Duke reached across the table to cover her hand with his. "I didn't mean anything by that. I'm sorry if I offended you."
His touch sizzled, instantly reminding her of their one time fling in a hot, Texas dorm room. She was a flighty girl back then. Living life on the edge was second nature. She never imagined how being forced to slow down and become accountable would change her life.
"You didn't offend me. The words reminded me of my dear, sweet uncle."
"I wasn't sure if I should ask..." Duke spoke slowly as if he was pondering the weight of each word. "Your conversation didn't seem friendly. Was he threatening you?"
"He's all talk," she said with a shrug.
He shook his head. "I don't buy that. I saw the look in your eyes. In fact, it's still there. I know we don't know each other well, but you can talk to me. I'm a good listener."
"I don't want to burden you. It's not important."
"I don't believe you."
His blunt honesty surprised her. Her experience with men rarely involved truth. They looked at her and saw an illusion of the kind of woman they wanted her to be. She saw them as a means to an ends.
"How well do you know Evangeline?" The words escaped before she could stop them.
"She's brilliant and beautiful, too. My dad and Grandpa Asa are crazy about her."
"What about you?"
"Me?" His eyebrows rose as he pointed to his chest. "I'm not crazy about her not the way my dad is." He laughed softly. "My dad cares about her a lot. I like her because I think she'd be good for him and because she's a nice person. But I'm not interested in her. Not in that way."
Layla nodded once. "Oh."
His brows furrowed together in a crinkled line. "Why all the questions?"
"Has your father told you about me?"
Duke shook his head. "I got the feeling today that he didn't like us talking to each other, but he hasn't told me why. I love my dad, but he doesn't run my life. What are you afraid my dad said?"
"Evangeline and I are half sisters. She didn't know about me until the night of her big event. I was our father's dirty little secret."
"Oh. I—I didn't know."
"It's not something The Banner would run on the first page, is it?" Layla chuckled to take the sting out of her words. "Your dad thinks I came to Llanview to make trouble for Evangeline, but that's not true. I'm only here for one thing."
"To get to know your sister?"
"No," she said with a small shake of her head. "She has something I need, and for the life of me, I don't know how to ask her for it."
"Tell me. Maybe I can help."
She moved her wineglass to the side and captured Duke's full attention as she told him everything.
- - -
The morning sun shone brightly on the eastern horizon of the Buchanan estate. Evangeline wanted desperately to enjoy the view, but a huge, stately four-legged beast had her full attention.
Kevin reached over and squeezed her glove-covered hands. "Relax your grip. Miss Marple is the gentlest thoroughbred in the stable. I promise."
"I believe you." Evangeline sucked in a deep breath. Horseback riding had never been her thing. Give her a tennis racket or a pair of ballet slippers and she can amaze a crowd. Put her on a saddle and she was ready to hide behind the crowd.
"Would it help if I said we're almost there?"
"More than you'll ever know," she said in a breathless whisper.
"We're almost there."
"Are you humoring me?" She hated being afraid of anything. Strength had always been her ally. Even when that madman had her captive, she refused to knuckle under to fear. On this supposedly fun morning excursion, she was determined to remain strong.
"Not at all." Kevin released her hands to point at a tree a few feet away. "That's it. Do you think you can make it there?"
"Yes," she hissed through clenched teeth.
He laughed. Evangeline couldn't help but smile in return. "I'm not over reacting."
"No, you're not." His expression sobered. "You're doing a great job for a first timer. By the time I'd done with you, no one will know..."
"Know what, Buchanan?"
He gave her a wide grin that made her toes tingle. "I'm not about to incriminate myself, counselor."
He quickly slid from his horse, dropped the reins and moved to hers. "Whoa there, Miss Marple. Just relax. She'll get the hang of it."
Kevin placed his hands around Evangeline's waist and carefully lowered her to the ground. As if it was second nature, she wrapped her arms around his broad shoulders just as her feet touched the grass.
"Why do I get the feeling this is exactly where you want me?"
He shrugged. "Probably because you're a very astute woman. Or maybe I'm a man with obvious intentions."
As soon as the words touched the air, Kevin's mouth claimed hers. His tongue parted her lips in exquisite, sensual precision. Blood pumped wildly in her veins as his hands dipped low to cup her backside and bring her front in contact with his hardening arousal. Low growls came from deep within him. In a rhythm as old as time, their hips shuddered in unison. When the kiss ended, she gasped for air and hungered for more.
"How's that?" he asked in a husky voice.
Words escaped her as she pressed the back of her hand to her still tingling mouth. "I have no further questions."
"I'm not moving too fast." His words were a statement as well as an inquiry. "After everything you've been through..."
"I'm healing." She smiled. "You don't have to worry about rushing me. It's not something you would do."
"I wouldn't intentionally set out to, but... I don't want to hurt you."
"Not wanting to is half the battle." He took her hand and she let him lead her to the base of the large oak tree. "What do you have planned for me out here?"
"Hold that thought." He jogged back to their grazing horses. He grabbed a blanket and a basket before hurrying back to her. "Breakfast in the morning sunshine." He spread the blanket on the ground and set the basket in the middle. "We have everything. Fruit, coffee, juice... What's your pleasure?" he asked as they sat.
She tugged off her gloves. "Surprise me."
He removed his gloves and dove into the basket. As he pulled out the containers of food, she peeked inside each one.
"Strawberries. Whipped cream. Chocolate syrup," she said. "I've never had breakfast quite like this before."
"There's a first time for everything, darling." He leaned forward to kiss the tip of her nose. "Sometimes, it's good to break free of the same old routine, you know?"
She smiled. "You have an answer for everything."
"On my good days." He poured steaming coffee into two mugs. "I hope you like it with a hint of amaretto liqueur."
"Sounds delicious." She took a mug from him and then took his hand. The white bandage covered his palm. An instant reminder of what he'd endured to save her life. "Does it hurt much?"
She gave him a stern look. "Kevin."
"Evangeline," he said her name with heavy, sensual overtones.
She shivered from head to toe.
"Don't change the subject," she warned. "I'm so sorry you were hurt."
"Not half as sorry as I am about what happened to you. I shouldn't have let you walk off alone. You were upset. I should have come with you."
She shook her head. "It's not your fault."
He traced the line of her jaw with his fingertips. "It's not yours either. Thank God we found you."
"I do. All the time."
"Bo says they're getting closer to finding that maniac. Sooner or later, he'll slip up. I won't let him get away with what he did to you."
"Not just me. Your sister, too. He hurt Natalie, too."
Kevin frowned. "I know my sister well enough to know that she's not completely innocent in all this. She entered our family as if we owed her something and she's worked overtime to collect on that bill ever since."
"Do you ever wonder what her life was like?" Even though she asked about Natalie, Evangeline's thoughts were on Layla.
"She lived with Roxy. She's not the most stable person in the word, but it's obvious she loves Natalie. No one's childhood is idyllic. It's just a fact of life."
"I had a great childhood...at least I thought I did." He pulled her into the circle of his arms and she rested against his chest as she spoke. "When I look back now, I can see small hints that I was too unaware to notice. Daddy's indiscretion hurt Mom, but she toughed it out until I graduated from high school. I wanted to believe they were happy and in love. I can see now that they were only going through the motions."
"They wanted to give you the perfect life," he said. "Sometimes, I wonder if I made the right decision about Duke. Lee Ann and I were so young when we had him. Both kids. I couldn't see myself putting my life on hold for anyone. When I look at him, I feel guilty because I'm not the reason he's the man he is today. I should have taken a more active role."
"Duke loves you and you love him."
"Yes. He's a good son."
"I don't know what to do about Layla," she said in the following silence. "A part of me wants to get to know her. Another part resents her like crazy. But she's innocent in all this."
"Do you really believe that?"
"She's not responsible for our father's choices."
Kevin tightened his arms around her. "I can't shake the feeling that she wants something from you."
"Maybe all she wants is to get to know me. It couldn't have been easy knowing about me while knowing that I was clueless. I can't imagine how that made her feel."
"Promise me one thing," he said quietly.
"What?" She tilted her head to read his eyes.
"You'll wait a few days before contacting her. I don't want you to get anywhere near her without knowing all the facts."
She frowned. "You're having her investigated."
"Yes and I'll know something soon." He paused a moment before adding, "Are you mad?"
"I know I should be," she said, "but I trust you."