Loving Evangeline by Linda Howard


  He bent her backward over his arm, the position thrusting her breasts upward. Her shirt was pulled up to completely bare them, she realized, wondering when that had happened. She saw her nipples, as red as berries; then his mouth closed over one, and her eyes closed as her head fell back.

  He was going to take her right here, on the counter. She felt his determination, his own rampant desire. Panic surged through her, combating the heat that undermined her own will and common sense. He would take her here, where anyone could walk in and see them. He would take her without any thought for birth control. And she, besides risking her reputation and the chance of pregnancy, would lose the last bit of protection she retained for her heart.

  His mouth was tugging at her nipple, drawing strongly on it before moving to the other one. And his hands were working at the waistband of her jeans, unsnapping and unzipping.

  Desperately she wedged her arms between their bodies and stiffened them. “No,” she said. The word was hoarse, barely audible. “Robert, no! Stop it!”

  He froze, his muscled body taut as he held himself motionless for a long moment. Then, very slowly, he lifted his hands from her and moved back, one step, then two. His breathing was fast and audible.

  Evie couldn’t look at him as she slid from the counter and hastily fumbled her clothing back into presentable shape, fastening her bra, smoothing her shirt down, snapping and zipping her jeans. Her own breath was coming light and fast.

  “Don’t look so scared,” he said calmly. “I gave you my word that I’d stop, and I did.”

  No, the problem wasn’t with his willpower, she thought wildly, but with hers. Had they been anywhere else but in the marina, she didn’t know if she could have made herself say no.

  “Nothing to say?” he asked a moment later, when she remained silent.

  She cleared her throat. “Not yet.”

  “All right.” He still sounded far too calm and in control. “We’ll talk tomorrow. I’ll pick you up at seven o’clock.”

  “Seven,” she echoed as he left.

  Robert was on the secure mobile phone in the Jeep by the time he had pulled out of the marina’s parking lot. “Did you follow him from the time he left work?” he asked as soon as the phone was answered.

  “Yes, sir, we did. We saw your Jeep at the marina and pulled back.”

  “Damn. I was out in my boat. He rented a boat and met someone out on the lake, possibly Evie, because she left the marina in her boat, too. Was he carrying anything when he left work?”

  “Not that we could tell, but he could easily have had a disk in his coat pocket.”

  “He didn’t fish in his suit. Where did he change clothes?”

  “At his house. He was there for not quite five minutes, then came out carrying a tackle box and a fishing rod.”

  “If he had a disk at all, it would have been in the tackle box.”

  “Yes, sir. We didn’t have a chance to get to it.”

  “I know. It wasn’t your fault. First thing, though, I’m going to have a secure phone put in the boat. That way, if I’m out on the water, you can get in touch with me.”

  “Good idea. We went through his house again while we had the chance. Nothing.”

  “Damn. Okay, continue to watch him. And send someone out to Evie’s house tonight.”

  “The matter we discussed?”

  “Yes,” Robert replied. It was time for the pressure to begin.

  Chapter Nine

  The next morning was awful. Evie hadn’t slept well—had scarcely slept at all. She had set the alarm for four-thirty, and when it went off she had been asleep for less than two hours. Dreaming about Robert was one thing, but she had been wide-awake and hadn’t been able to get him out of her mind. Her thoughts had darted from the seething passion of his lovemaking, incomplete as it had been, to the unease she felt every time she thought of how he so skillfully manipulated people. She tried to analyze what he did and couldn’t find any time when he had been malicious, but that didn’t reassure her.

  Sometime after midnight, lying in the darkness and staring at the ceiling, she realized what it was that so bothered her. It was as if Robert allowed people to see and know only a part of him; the other part, probably the closest to being the real man, was standing back, inviolate, carefully watching and analyzing, gauging reactions, deciding which subtle pressures to apply to gain the results he wanted. Everyone was shut away from that inner man, the razor-sharp intelligence functioning almost like a computer, isolated in a sterile environment. What was most upsetting was to realize that this was how he wanted it, that he had deliberately fashioned that inner isolation and wasn’t about to invite anyone inside.

  What place could she hope to have in his life? He desired her; he would be perfectly willing to make her the center of his attention for a time, in order to gain what he wanted: a carnal relationship. But unless she could break through into that fiercely guarded inner core, she would never reach his emotions. He would be fine, but she would break her heart battering against his defenses.

  She, better than others, knew how important emotional barriers were. She had propped herself up with her own defenses for many years, until she had slowly healed to the point where she could stand on her own. How could she condemn him for staying within his own fortress? She didn’t know if she should even try to get inside.

  The thing was, she didn’t know if she had a choice any longer. For better or worse, this afternoon he had slipped through her defenses. Such a little thing: playing with a baby. But it was the little things, rather than the watershed events, on which love was built. She had softened toward him when he had saved her and Jason’s lives, but her heart had remained her own. Today she had fallen in love; it wasn’t something she could back away from and ignore. It might be impossible to breach Robert’s defenses and reach his heart, but she had to try.

  Finally she drifted into sleep, but the alarm too soon urged her out of bed. Heavy-eyed, she put on the coffee and showered while it was brewing. Then, as she absently munched on a bowl of cereal and poured in the caffeine, a dull cramp knotted her lower belly. “Damn it,” she muttered. Just what she needed; she was going out with Robert for the first time that night, and her period was starting. She had thought she had another couple of days before it was due. She made a mental note that in a few days she should begin taking the birth-control pills the doctor had just prescribed.

  Normally her period didn’t bother her, but the timing of this one, added to lack of sleep, made her cranky as she left the house in the predawn darkness and climbed into the truck.

  The sturdy pickup, usually so reliable despite its high mileage, made some unfamiliar noises as she drove along the dark, deserted side road. “Don’t you dare break down on me now,” she warned it. She was just getting on a firm financial footing; a major repair job right now was just what she didn’t need.

  She reached U.S. 431 and turned onto it. The truck shuddered and began making loud clanging noises. Startled, she slowed and swept the gauges with a quick glance. The temperature was fine, the oil—Oh God, the oil gauge was red-lining. She slammed on the brakes and started to veer toward the shoulder, and that was when the engine blew. There were more clanging and grinding noises, and smoke boiled up around the hood, obscuring her vision. She steered the truck off the highway, fighting the heavy wheel as, deprived of power, the vehicle lurched to a halt.

  Evie got out and stood looking at the smoking corpse as it pinged and rattled, the sounds of mechanical death. Her language was usually mild, but there were some occasions that called for swear words, and this was one of them. She used every curse word she had ever heard, stringing them together in rather innovative ways. That didn’t bring life back to the motor, and it didn’t make her bank account any healthier, but it relieved some of her frustration. When she ran out of new ways to say things, she stopped, took a deep breath and looked up and down the highway. Dawn was lightening the sky, and traffic was picking up; maybe someone she knew
would come by and she wouldn’t have to walk the full two miles to a pay phone. With a sigh she got the pistol out from under the truck seat, slipped it into her purse, then locked the truck—though obviously anyone who stole it would have to haul it away—and began walking.

  It was less than a minute when another pickup rolled to a stop beside her. She glanced around and saw the boat hitched up behind. Two men were in the truck, and the one on the passenger side rolled down his window. “Havin’ trouble?” Then he said, a bit uncertainly, “Miss Evie?”

  With relief she recognized Russ McElroy and Jim Haynes, two area fisherman whom she had known casually for several years. “Hi, Russ. Jim. The motor in my truck just blew.”

  Russ opened the door and hopped out. “Come on, we’ll give you a ride to the marina. You don’t need to be out by yourself like this. There’s too much meanness goin’ on these days.”

  Gratefully she climbed into the cab of the truck and slid to the middle of the seat. Russ got back in and closed the door, and Jim eased the rig onto the highway. “You got a good mechanic?” Jim asked.

  “I thought I’d have Burt, the mechanic at the marina, take a look at it. He’s good with motors.”

  Jim nodded. “Yeah, I know Burt Mardis. He’s real good. But if he can’t get to it, there’s another guy, owns a shop just off Blount, who’s just as good. His name’s Roy Simms. Just look it up in the phone book, Simms’ Automotive Repair.”

  “Thanks, I’ll remember that.”

  Jim and Russ launched into a discussion of other good mechanics in the area, and soon they reached the marina. She thanked them, and Russ got out again to let her out. They probably hadn’t intended to put in at her marina, but since they were there they decided they might as well. As she unlocked the gate that blocked the launch ramp, Jim began to maneuver the truck so he could back the boat into the water. Next she unlocked the office and turned on the lights. Just as Jim and Russ were idling away from the dock, Burt drove up, and she went to tell him about the demise of her truck.

  It wasn’t long after dawn when the phone rang. Robert opened one eye and examined the golden rose of the sky as he reached for the receiver. “Yes.”

  “The truck didn’t make it into town. It blew just as she reached the highway. She caught a ride to the marina.”

  Robert sat up in bed. He could feel the fine hairs on the back of his neck prickling with mingled anger and alarm. “Damn it, she hitchhiked?”

  “Yeah, I was a little worried about that, so I followed to make certain she didn’t have any trouble. No problem. It was a couple of fishermen who picked her up. I guess she knew them.”

  That wasn’t much better. Guntersville wasn’t exactly a hotbed of crime, but anything could happen to a woman alone. Neither did it soothe him that she had been followed, that help was right behind if she’d needed it. The situation shouldn’t have arisen in the first place. “Why was the timing off?”

  “The hole in the oil line must have been bigger than West thought. Probably there’s a big oil puddle in her driveway. She would have seen it if it hadn’t still been dark when she left the house.”

  In a very calm, remote voice Robert said, “If anything had happened to her because of his mistake, I wouldn’t have liked it.”

  There was a pause on the other end of the line. Then, “I understand. It won’t happen again.”

  Having made his point, Robert didn’t belabor it. He moved on. “Be careful when you’re in the house tonight. I don’t want her to notice anything out of place.”

  “She won’t. I’ll see to it myself.”

  After hanging up the phone, Robert lay back down and hooked his hands behind his head as he watched the sun peek over the mountains. The day before had made him more uncertain than ever of Evie’s connection with Mercer. He was fairly certain she had rendezvoused with Mercer out on the water, but either she hadn’t told Mercer of his presence, or she had been unaware of his own connection with PowerNet. This appeared to be an efficient espionage ring, to have escaped notice and capture for as long as they had; given that, Evie should have known of him. At the very least, Mercer should have notified her of his presence. What reason could they have had for keeping her in the dark about his identity, unless her participation was very peripheral and no one had thought she needed to know?

  The other possibility was that Evie had indeed recognized his name, or been notified, but for reasons of her own had chosen not to pass on the information that he had leased a slip at her marina and appeared to have formed an intense personal interest in her.

  Either way, it followed that Evie wasn’t on good terms with the others in the espionage ring. On the one hand, it gave him a weakness he could exploit. On the other, her life could be in danger.

  Evie made arrangements to have a wrecker tow the truck to the marina. That accomplished, Burt stuck his head under the hood to begin the examination. Next he lay down on a dolly and rolled underneath for another view. When he emerged, he wasn’t optimistic about rebuilding the motor. “Too much damage,” he said. “You’d be better off just buying another motor.”

  She had been expecting that, and she had already been mentally juggling her finances. The payment on the bank loan for the marina would be late this month, and then she would have to put off other payments to make the one on the loan. She could get by without transportation for a few days by using the boat to go back and forth from home to the marina. If she absolutely needed to go somewhere, she could borrow Becky’s car, though she didn’t like to.

  “I’ll call around and try to find one,” she said. “Will you have time to put it in for me?”

  “Sure,” Burt said easily. “It’s a little slow right now, anyway.”

  By the time Craig arrived to relieve her, it was all arranged. She had located an engine, and Burt would begin work putting it in as soon as it arrived. Depending on how much marina work came in, she might be driving home the next afternoon.

  In Evie’s experience, things didn’t generally work that well. She wouldn’t be surprised if Burt was suddenly flooded with a lot of boats needing attention.

  The trip across the lake was enjoyable, despite her worries. The water was green, the surrounding mountains a misty blue, and fat, fluffy clouds drifted lazily across the sky, offering an occasional brief respite from the blazing sun. Gulls wheeled lazily over the water, and an eagle soared high in the distance. It was the kind of day when being inside was almost intolerable.

  With that thought in mind, once she arrived home she put her financial worries on hold and got out the lawn mower to give her yard a trimming. She glared at the big black oil stain on the driveway where the truck had been parked. If it had been daylight when she’d left this morning, if she hadn’t swapped shifts with Craig, she would have seen the oil and not have driven the truck; the motor would still be intact, and the repair bill would be much smaller.

  Just simple bad timing.

  The yard work finished, she went inside to cool off and tackle the housework, which was minimal. By three o’clock she was back outside, sitting on the dock with her feet in the water and a sweat-dewed glass of ice tea beside her. Fretting about the truck wouldn’t accomplish anything. She would handle this just as she had handled every other money crisis that had arisen over the years, by strict economizing until all bills were paid. She couldn’t do anything more than that, since it wasn’t likely a good fairy would drop the money into her lap. Though there might be the possibility of taking a part-time job in the mornings at one of the fast-food restaurants serving breakfast. Forty dollars a week was a hundred and sixty dollars a month, enough to pay the power bill, with a little left over for the gas bill. But for now all she wanted was to sit on the dock with her feet in the water and gaze at the mountains, feeling contentment spread through her.

  That was how Robert found her. He came around the side of the house and paused when he saw her sitting on the weathered dock, her eyes closed, face lifted to the sun. The long, thick, golden brai
d had been pulled forward over one shoulder, revealing the enticing, delicate furrow of her nape. She was wearing faded denim shorts and a white chemise top, hardly a sophisticated outfit, but his pulse began to throb as he studied the graceful curve of her shoulders, the delectable roundness of her slender arms, the shapeliness of her legs. Her skin glowed with a warm, pale gold luminescence, like a succulent peach. His eyes, his entire body, burned as he stared at her. His mouth was literally watering, and he had to swallow. He had never felt such urgent lust for any other woman. What he wanted was to simply throw himself on her and have her right here, right now, without thought or finesse.

  She was unaware of his presence until the dock vibrated when he stepped onto it. There was no alarm in her eyes as she turned her head to see who had come visiting, only lazy curiosity followed by a warm look of welcome. Even the average five-year-old in a large city was more wary than the people around here, he thought as he sat down beside her and began taking off his shoes.

  “Hi,” she said, a sort of smiling serenity in that one word, which was drawled so that it took twice as long for her to say than it did for him.

  He found himself smiling back, actually smiling, his mouth curved into a tender line as his heart pounded inside his chest. He had wanted her from the moment he’d first seen her; he’d been, several times, unexpectedly charmed by her. Both reactions were acute at this moment, but even more, he was enchanted.

  He had whirled across countless dance floors with countless beautiful women in his arms, women who could afford to pamper themselves and wear the most expensive gowns and jewelry, women whom he had genuinely liked. He had made love to those women gently, slowly, in luxurious surroundings. He had taken women when the added fillip of danger made each encounter more intense. But never had he felt more enthralled than he was right now, sitting beside Evie on a weathered old dock, with a blazing afternoon sun, almost brutal in its clarity, bathing everything in pure light. Sweat trickled down his back and chest from the steamy heat, and his entire body pulsed with life. Even his fingertips throbbed. It took all of his formidable self-control to prevent himself from pushing her down on the dock and spreading her legs for his entry.

 
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