Loving Evangeline by Linda Howard

  He had never been more content than he was at this moment. Evie probably didn’t know what was really going on with Mercer and was involved only peripherally; he would be able to protect her without much problem. He had taken her to bed, and now he knew what had lain beneath her mysterious sadness. He doubted that Evie would ever completely stop thinking about Matt, but that was okay now, because Matt Shaw’s ghost had been banished and she had emerged from her emotional deep freeze. She had said that she loved him, and he knew instinctively that she hadn’t been mouthing the words merely to rationalize their lovemaking. If she hadn’t already loved him, he would never have been able to seduce her.

  Some of the women who had come before had also told him that they loved him—most of them, in fact. The declarations had never elicited more from him than a rather tender pity for their vulnerability. Though he had liked and enjoyed all his lovers, none of them had ever managed to pierce his shell; he doubted any of them had even known the shell existed.

  Evie’s simple statement, though, had filled him with a satisfaction so fierce that his blood had thrummed through his veins. She hadn’t expected him to respond. Now that he thought about it, she expected less from him than anyone else ever had. It was a startling realization to a man accustomed to having people come to him with their problems, expecting him to make decisions that would affect thousands of workers and millions of dollars. Evie expected nothing. How was it, then, that she gave so much?

  He carried her into the bathroom and stood her on her feet, then unwrapped her from the sheet. The sight of her creamy golden flesh aroused him again, drew his hands to cup her breasts and feel the cool, silky weight of them. His thumbs rubbed across her nipples, making them tighten. Evie’s eyes were wide with alarm as she stared at him.

  His mouth quirked into a crooked smile. “Don’t look so worried,” he said as he bent down to press his lips to her forehead. “I’ll restrain myself until you’ve had time to heal. Get in the tub, sweetheart, while I put on the coffee. A bath will relieve some of the soreness.”

  “Good idea,” she said with absolute sincerity.

  He chuckled as he left her there. The feeling of contentment was even deeper. She was his.

  Chapter Thirteen

  How could experiencing such a night not leave an imprint on her face? Evie wondered as she got ready for work. After her leisurely soak in the soothing hot water and an equally leisurely breakfast, which Robert had cooked with the same easy competence with which he handled everything else, he had driven her home and reluctantly kissed her goodbye for the day, saying that he had some business to attend to in Huntsville but would try to get back before she closed the marina. If not, he would come to her house.

  She had forced herself to do the normal things, but she felt as if her entire life had been turned upside down, as if nothing were the same. She wasn’t the same. Robert had turned her into a woman who actively longed for his possession, despite the discomfort of her newly initiated body. She hadn’t known, hadn’t even suspected, that passion could be so savage and all-encompassing, that the pain would be as nothing before the need to link her body with his.

  She wanted him even more now than before. He had brought up the long-buried sensuality of her nature and made it his, so that she responded to the lightest touch of his hand. When she thought of him, her body throbbed with the need to wrap her legs around him and take him inside her, to cradle his heavy weight, accept and tame the driving need of his masculinity. The scent of his skin, warm and musky, aroused her. Her memory was filled now with details that she hadn’t known before, like the guttural growl of his words and the way his neck corded when he threw his head back in the arching frenzy of satisfaction.

  She stared at her face in the mirror as she swiftly braided her hair. Her eyes had shadows under them, but she didn’t look tired. She simply looked…like herself. If there was any change at all, it was in the expression in her eyes, as if there was a spark that had been missing before.

  But if her face was the same, her body bore the signs of his lovemaking. Her breasts were pink and slightly raw from contact with his beard stubble, her nipples so sensitive from his mouth that the soft fabric of her bra rasped them. There were several small bruises on her hips, where he had gripped her during his climax, and her thighs ached. She was sore enough that every step reminded her of his possession and awakened echoes of sensation that made her acutely aware of her body.

  It was much earlier than usual when she drove to the marina, but she needed the distraction to take her mind off Robert. If she was lucky, Sherry would bring Virgil by to spend the day with her.

  Craig was gassing up a boat when she arrived. When he had finished, he came in and rang up the sale, putting the money in the cash drawer. “How come you’re in so early? Have a nice time last night?”

  Her nerves jumped, but she managed a composed smile. “Yes, we did. We went to a private club for dinner and dancing. And I came in early…just because.”

  “That’s a good enough reason for me.” He brushed his dark hair out of his eyes and gave her an urchin’s grin. “I’m glad you’re going out with him. You deserve some fun, after the way you’ve worked to build up this place.”

  “Thanks for swapping shifts with me.”

  “You bet.”

  Another customer idled up to the docks, and Craig went out again. Evie picked up the morning mail and began sorting through it. The junk mail and sales papers went into the trash. The bills went to one side, to be juggled later. One letter was from a New York bank she’d never heard of, probably wanting her to apply for a credit card. She started to toss it without opening it, but on second thought decided to see what it was about. She picked up the penknife she used as a letter opener and slit the envelope.

  Thirty seconds later, her brows knit in puzzlement, she let the single sheet of paper drop to the desk. Somehow this bank had gotten her confused with someone else, though she couldn’t think how they had gotten her name on one of their files when she had never done business with them. The letter stated, in brisk terms, that due to a poor payment record they would be forced to foreclose on her loan unless it was paid in full within thirty days.

  She would have ignored it except that the amount noted was the same as what she owed her bank for the loan against the marina. She knew that figure well, had struggled to get it down to that amount. Each payment brought it even lower. She didn’t know how, but obviously her file had gotten into this other bank’s computers, and they wanted her to pay fifteen thousand, two hundred and sixty-two dollars within thirty days.

  Well, it was obviously something she would have to clear up before it got even more tangled. Evie called her bank, gave her name and asked for her loan officer, Tommy Fowler, who was also an old school friend.

  The line clicked, and Tommy’s voice said, “Hi, Evie. How’re you doing?”

  “Just fine. How are you and Karen doing, and the kids?”

  “We’re doing okay, though Karen says the kids are driving her crazy, and if school doesn’t start soon she’s going to get herself arrested, so she can have some peace and quiet.”

  Evie chuckled. The Fowler kids were known for their frenetic energy.

  “What can I help you with today?” Tommy asked.

  “There’s been a really strange mix-up, and I need to know how to straighten it out. I got a letter today from a bank in New York, asking for payment in full on a loan, and it’s the same amount as the one I took out from you, on the marina.”

  “Is that so? Wonder what’s going on. Do you have your account number handy?”

  “Not with me, no. I’m at work, and all my bookkeeping is at home.”

  “That’s okay, I’ll pull it up under your name. Just a minute.”

  She could hear the tapping of computer keys as he hummed softly to himself. Then he stopped humming and silence reigned, stretching out for so long that Evie wondered if he’d left the room. Finally a few more keys were tapped, then more sil

  He fumbled with the receiver. “Evie, I—” Reluctance was heavy in his voice.

  “What’s wrong? What’s happened?”

  “There’s a problem, all right, hon. A big one. Your loan was bought by that bank.”

  Evie’s mind went blank. “What do you mean, bought?”

  “I mean we sold off some of our loans. It’s a common practice. Banks do it to reduce their debt load. Other financial institutions buy them to diversify their own debt load. According to the records, this transaction took place ten days ago.”

  “Ten days! Just ten days, and already they’re demanding payment in full? Tommy, can they do that?”

  “Not if you’ve fulfilled the terms of the loan. Have you…ah…were you late with the payment?”

  She knew he must have her payment record there in front of him, showing that she had been late several times, though she had never fallen a full month behind and had always gotten back on schedule. “It’s late now,” she said numbly. “I had an unexpected expense, and it’ll be next week before I can.”

  She heard him exhale heavily. “Then they’re legally within their rights, though the normal procedure would be to make an effort at collecting the payment, rather than the full amount.”

  “What do I do?”

  “Call them. It should be fairly easy to straighten out. After all, you’re a good risk. But be sure to follow up by letter, so you’ll have a record in writing.”

  “Okay. Thanks for the advice, Tommy.”

  “You’re welcome. I’m sorry about this, hon. It never would have happened if we’d still held the loan.”

  “I know. I’ll see what I can do.”

  “Call me if there’s anything I can do to help.”

  “Thanks,” she said again and hung up.

  Her heart was pounding as she dialed the number on the letterhead. An impersonal voice answered and nasally requested her business. Evie gave the name of the man who had signed the letter, and the connection was made before she could even say please.

  The call was brief. Mr. Borowitz was as brisk as his letter had been and as impersonal as the operator. There was nothing he could do, nor did he sound interested in trying. The outstanding amount was due in full by the time limit set forth in the letter, or the loan would be foreclosed and the property forfeit.

  Slowly she hung up and sat there staring out the window at the blindingly bright day. The lake was crowded with boaters, people laughing, having fun. The marina was busy, with owners cleaning their craft, others using her ramps to launch their boats, still others idling in for gas. If she didn’t somehow come up with over fifteen thousand dollars within the next thirty days, she would lose it all.

  She loved the marina. Because she and Matt had been playmates before they had become sweethearts, she had spent a lot of time here even as a child. She had spent hours playing on the docks, had grown up with the smell of the water in her nostrils. The rhythms of the marina were as much a part of her as her own heartbeat. She had helped Matt work here, and later, after his death, had taken over the lion’s share of the work from his parents. When they had left the marina to her, she had channeled all her energy and efforts into making it prosperous, but it had been a labor of love. The marina, as much as her family, had given her a reason for going on when she had been doubtful that she wanted to even try.

  This was her kingdom, her home, as much or more than the house in which she lived. She couldn’t bear to lose it. Some way, any way, she would find the money to pay off the loan.

  The most obvious solution was to borrow against the house. The amount of the debt would be the same, but it would be stretched out over a longer period of time, and that would actually lower the payments. She felt giddy for a moment as the shock and horror lifted from her shoulders. She would be in even better shape than before, with more free cash every month.

  She called Tommy again and got the ball rolling. He agreed that a mortgage was the perfect solution. He would have to get an okay on the loan, but he didn’t foresee any problems and promised to call her as soon as permission came through.

  When she hung up, Evie sat with her head in her hands for a long moment. She felt as if she had just survived combat. She was shaky, but elated at her victory. If she had lost the marina…She couldn’t let herself imagine it.

  When she finally lifted her head and looked out the window, driven by a need to see her domain still safe and secure, still hers, her face broke into a smile. Business was good today. So good, in fact, that Craig desperately needed a hand and was probably wondering why she wasn’t out there helping him. Evie bounded to her feet, energy restored, and rushed out to help him with the sudden glut of customers.

  Robert arrived at the marina just after seven that evening. It had been busy all day, and she was on the dock selling gas and oil to yet another happy, sun-roasted boater. Alerted by a sensitivity to her lover’s presence, Evie looked around and saw him standing just outside the door, watching her. She lifted her hand. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

  He nodded and stepped inside, and she turned her attention back to her customer.

  Robert watched her through the big window as he stepped behind the counter. He had been notified that she had received the letter and called the bank that he had arranged to buy her loan, and that, as instructed, they had been totally unwilling to cooperate on the matter. Glancing down, he saw the letter lying on top of the stack of mail, the single sheet of paper neatly folded and stuffed back into the envelope.

  She had to be uspet. He regretted the need for it, but he had decided to see the plan through. Though he was almost certain she didn’t know exactly what Mercer was doing, that she was more of an unwitting accomplice than anything else, there was still the small chance that she was involved up to her pretty neck. Because of that, he couldn’t relent in his financial pressure. If she was involved, she would be forced into another sale just to raise the money to pay the loan. If she wasn’t involved, he would take care of her money problems just as soon as he had Mercer in jail. There were others, and he would get them, too. But Evie was his, one way or the other.

  Since he had left her that morning, he had several times been struck with amazement that he wouldn’t see her sent to jail, even if she was guilty. This was his country’s security at stake, something he took very seriously indeed. He had risked his life more than once for the same principle. He had relished the adventure, but the underlying reason for taking those risks had been a simple, rock-solid love of country. If Evie had betrayed it, she deserved prison. But acknowledging that in no way changed his decision. He would protect her from prosecution.

  The sunburned customer and his trio of friends, all young men in their early twenties, were obviously in no hurry to stop chatting with Evie. Robert scowled out the window, but he couldn’t blame them. Only a dead man wouldn’t respond to her curvy, glowing femininity.

  He slipped the letter out of the envelope and unfolded it. There was no reason for doing so, except a meticulous attention to detail. He wanted to know exactly what it said. Swiftly he scanned the contents, satisfied with the way it had been handled. Then he read Evie’s notes, hastily scribbled in the margin.

  She had written down the name “Tommy Fowler,” with a phone number beside it. Underneath she had written “mortgage house” and circled that.

  A smile tugged at his mouth. She was certainly a resourceful, common-sense woman. Relief welled up in him. If she was truly involved in stealing the NASA computer programs, she wouldn’t be trying to mortgage her house to pay the loan; she would simply arrange another buy. In his experience, criminals didn’t think of things like honest work to pay off debts; they were leeches, living off the effort of others, and would simply steal again.

  Robert returned the letter to the envelope. More than ever, he regretted the need to play out what he had begun, but he never left anything to chance, certainly not in a matter this serious. He would have to squash any attempt to mortgage
the house, of course. Evie would be worried sick, but he would make it up to her afterward.

  He sat down on the high stool and watched her as she finally got rid of the four admiring young men. She was dressed much as she had been the first time he’d seen her, in jeans and a T-shirt with her tawny blond hair in a thick, loose braid. His reaction, too, was almost the same: he was poleaxed with lust. The only difference was that it was more intense now, and he hadn’t thought that possible. But now he knew exactly how she looked naked, knew all the delectable textures and curves of her body, and the hot, tight clasp of being sheathed deep inside her. He shivered with desire, his burning gaze locked on her as she walked up the dock. He knew the sounds she made at the peak of pleasure, knew how she clung to him, the way her legs locked convulsively around him, and how her nipples hardened to tight little raspberries. He knew the taste of her, the scent, and wanted to have it again.

  She came inside, glanced at him and froze in place. He saw the shudder of awareness that rippled over her as she sensed his arousal. God, was she even more attuned to him than she had been before? The thought was unsettling.

  “Come here,” he said softly, and she blindly walked into his arms.

  He didn’t rise from the stool but pulled her between his thighs. Her arms circled his shoulders as he bent his mouth to hers. He kissed her for a long time, so hungry for her that he couldn’t be gentle. Evie moved against him, her hips rolling in a languorous, wanton manner that made his heart almost stop in his chest. Kissing her when her response was reluctant had been intoxicating enough; now that she was willing, her mouth clung to his in a way that made him forget about Mercer and the stolen computer programs, about the mess she was embroiled in, even where he was, everything but the hot joy of holding her.

  But she would be too sore for any more lovemaking today, and reluctantly he eased away from her mouth, trailing kisses across her temple and the curve of her jaw. He would have to restrain himself for a while yet.

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