Authors: Evelyn Vaughn
Tags: #Romance, #Romantic Suspense
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….
It’s great to be back at Silhouette! One of the more intriguing parts of THE GRAIL KEEPERS books I wrote for the Silhouette Bombshell line was the modern secret society of powerful men. Now in THE BLADE KEEPERS, I get to explore a few of those men.
THE BLADE KEEPERS truly would not be possible without the encouragement and support from several important people. First and foremost, I have to thank the ladies of the Texas Read ’Ems group, who strongly encouraged me to pursue the idea of writing about exiled Comitatus members—and who regularly invite me out of my cave and into the world of book lovers and good food. Then there are my faithful critiquers, including Juliet Burns, Kayli and Toni, and my creative writing students at Tarrant County College, who help remind me every day to write for the love of writing. Finally, to my agent, Paige Wheeler of Folio, and my beloved editor Natashya Wilson, as well as Patience Smith and Mary Theresa Hussey, also of Silhouette Books; you have more faith in me than I sometimes do, and I have no words to convey my gratitude. But I’ll try “thank you.”
Books by Evelyn Vaughn
Silhouette Romantic Suspense
Knight in Blue Jeans
Her Kind of Trouble
believes in many magicks, particularly the magic of storytelling. She has written fiction since she could print words, first publishing a ghost story in a newspaper contest at the age of twelve. Since then, along with her books for Silhouette, she has written four historical romances and a handful of fantasy short stories, some under the name Yvonne Jocks. She loves movies and videos, and is an unapologetic TV addict, still trying to figure out both how to time travel and how to meet up with some of her favorite characters. Even as an English teacher at Tarrant County College SE, in Fort Worth, Texas, Evelyn believes in the magic of stories, movies, books and dreams. Luckily, her imaginary friends and her cats seem to get along.
Evelyn loves to talk about stories and characters, especially her own. Please write her at [email protected], or at P.O. Box 6, Euless, TX 76039. Or check out her Web site at www.evelynvaughn.homestead.com.
One year ago
voice broke the candlelit hush of the secret society’s underground lair. “Nope. I’m sticking with
The six suits across the ebony table from Smith Donnell tensed with outrage. His three friends, behind him, tensed with more familiar dismay.
“Just speaking for myself,” Smith added for their sake.
“And hardly even that,” noted his blond buddy, Mitch. “He’s kidding—Right, Smith? Ha, ha! Ha. Apologize to the nice society elders and we’ll just—”
“But bite me,” Smith continued. “This is beneath the Comitatus.”
“—commit social and financial suicide,” Mitch edited with resignation.
“How dare you?” began Phil Stuart, their overlord. Comi
tatus leaders were always Stuarts. The Bluetooth headset on one ear made the thirtysomething billionaire look out of place in this stone-lined vault beneath Mount Vernon.
“Dare?” Smith challenged now. “We’re an
ancient secret society!
We should be as daring as the knights we descended from, not make war on women.”
“Not all women,” clarified some guy with a French accent. “Only those who prove…problematic.”
Smith’s friend Trace said, “Oh. That makes it okay, then.”
Smith couldn’t tell if that was sarcasm or not. Trace was big, not witty.
“Since when do we worry about feminine empowerment?” Smith liked his women saucy—one special woman in particular. But he was understandably biased. “It doesn’t hurt us. To start acting like bullies, hiding cowardice behind—”
“Enough!” Stuart slammed his fist on the table, his face flushing to match his red hair. An unnamed society elder behind him—they didn’t wear name tags—growled.
“It won’t be enough, will it?” whispered Mitch mournfully.
“It never is,” Quinn, their fourth, whispered back. The men of Donnell Security had known each other since college. They understood Smith’s temper.
Smith folded his arms, scowling. “Didn’t the Comitatus once
the weak and the righteous? You act like we’re just another old boys’ network protecting our exclusivity. Our racial, financial and sexual…I mean…”
He shifted his weight, annoyed. “Our…” Way to ruin a good tirade.
“Chauvinistic?” suggested Quinn quietly, behind him. None of them were stupid—with the possible exception of Trace. But Quinn was the most intelligent.
“Yeah,” agreed Smith with a finger jab. “Chauvinistic exclusivity.”
“You pledged loyalty to your overlord,” warned Stuart. “I, not you, decide the proper course for the Comitatus. Your job is to obey me.”
Smith could hear Mitch whispering, “Let it go, let it go, for the love of all things precious…”
is to defend the society that brought honor into my life. I won’t watch fearmongers destroy the greatness we once had.
“You pledged your
to me,” insisted Stuart, leaning across the table into Smith’s space. “Your fortune, your sacred honor.” Like their fathers before them, and their fathers’ fathers, blah blah blah.
“Nope.” Smith didn’t flinch. “I pledged myself to your uncle. He made a much better leader than you have. You? Kind of suck.”
The moment stretched, pregnant with
By challenging the succession, Smith had just finished himself with the society. That imagined rumbling noise was probably his fathers’ fathers spinning in their graves.
Was heresy really a killing offense in the Comitatus? Smith tensed, just in case. But he ran a booming business judging threats, and sure enough—
“Get out,” commanded Phil Stuart through his teeth.
“Gladly.” Smith turned and walked, trusting his friends to watch his back.
“Don’t take your knife,” warned their overlord as Smith approached the rack where all Comitatus members left their traditional weapons—showy, long-bladed knives—upon entering any ritual meeting place. The two men guarding it squared their shoulders in preparation for a fight. It might be fun, but…
“We used to use swords, you know,” Smith called over his shoulder as he passed, just to be contrary. “Back when our honor meant something!”
Assuming it ever really had.
The last thing he heard before the heavy doors shut behind him was a deep growl—and Phil Stuart asking his partners, “And where do
Hell. No matter what Mitch, Trace and Quinn chose, this had the makings of an awkward ride home. Smith jogged angrily up worn stone steps once trod by George Washington, freemasons and other Comitatus. High-tech security—a system Smith had updated himself—presented a stark contrast to the ancient setting, like the society itself. The modern Comitatus had infiltrated all levels of business and politics. It was a powerful and long-lived organization. Legend held that it had once been great.
Smith had believed in that greatness. But now…
He had barely reached the hidden garden exit behind the ornate tomb before Mitch caught up to him. Trace followed like an oversized shadow. Neither friend carried a ceremonial knife. They’d abdicated their positions, too.
Smith hated like hell to apologize, but…“I’m sorry.”
“About our fortunes?” demanded Trace as they walked, putting distance between themselves and any guards. They’d all just made some deadly enemies, after all, which explained Trace’s sneer. “Or just our lives and sacred honors?”
Smith looked from one friend to the other—and realized Quinn wouldn’t be following them.
“Your honor’s alive and kicking. You didn’t have to fall on your swords to prove it.”
“You mean, fall on our knives.” Mitch’s grin was even brighter than his hair. “Oh, well. Belonging to a secret cabal of ultimate power just isn’t what it used to be. I mean, even Trace would have drawn the line at hunting down women.”
Trace nodded in big, sullen agreement. Then he frowned. “Hey!”
And there they stood, waiting for Smith, suddenly their leader, to say what happened next. As if he had any idea,
Bad, bad things. They’d been born into this society. They’d taken oaths at the age of fifteen. And now…
“What say we get drunk?” he suggested, to their certain approval.
Drunk was the only way he would manage what he had to do next.
It was the only way to say goodbye to Arden Leigh.
“Beauty is power; a smile is its sword.” —John Ray, English naturalist
rden 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.”
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 circle—a 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 her—and 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 Park—a small, exclusive city surrounded by the larger sprawl of Dallas—had 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 guest-house but now was her father’s detached study. Shadows moved behind the shades—the 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 Bostonians had migrated down to the Lone Star State for a surprisingly well-dressed crime spree, this was one of her
But how had she not caught his name?
speak her mind. “You come to my party, drink my champagne, eat my hors d’oeuvres and now you
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 aftershave—Armani Black—and 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
That could mean only one thing, and Arden’s lips parted in amazement. Suddenly this strange intercession made weird sense. “You mean, it’s
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,
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 gaze—and 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 tee—a 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 caught—that 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 on—and 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
Jeff—you remember my little brother?—than on me. But what about
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
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
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 life—and 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
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…”
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
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.
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.