Loving Evangeline by Linda Howard

  “How did your day go?” he murmured, opening the door for her to tell him about the problem with the bank loan.

  “It was as busy today as I’ve ever seen it,” she replied, leaning back in the circle of his arms. Her eyes were soft and sleepy. “How about yours?”

  “Tedious. I had some boring details to handle.” That was a lie. No detail was boring to him.

  “I wish you had been here today, I’d have put you to work. I think everyone who owns a boat was on the water today.” She glanced over his shoulder. “There’s another one,” she said as she slipped out his arms.

  This group didn’t need any gas but trooped inside in search of some snacks and cold drinks. They had the ruddiness of people who had been out in the sun and wind all day, and brought with them the coconut scent of sunscreen lotion. Once inside, they seemed reluctant to leave the air-conditioning and milled around looking at the fishing tackle. Evie didn’t try to hurry them, instead chatting pleasantly. They were two couples about her age, out for a day of relaxation on the lake. One of the women mentioned how nice it was to have a day away from the kids, and for a while the conversation centered on the antics of their children. When the group finally left, it was with friendly goodbyes.

  “Alone at last,” Robert said, glancing at his watch. “It’s closing time, anyway.”

  “Thank goodness.” Evie stretched and yawned, catching herself in midstretch with a wince that she quickly covered, but not quickly enough. He saw that slight hesitation. He would indeed have to exercise self-control.

  He helped her to close up, then sent her home while he stopped for takeout. They ate dinner together, then sat out on the deck in the cooling night, talking softly about routine things. But Evie soon became sleepy, a direct result of not sleeping much the night before. On her third yawn, Robert stood up and held out his hand. “That’s it, sleepyhead. Bedtime.”

  She put her hand in his and let him pull her to her feet. He led her to the bedroom and gently began undressing her.

  “Robert, wait,” she said uneasily, trying to draw away from him. “I can’t—”

  “I know,” he said, and kissed her forehead. “I told you I’d give you time to heal. I didn’t say anything about not sleeping together, but sleep is the operative word.”

  She relaxed into his arms again, and he finished the task of undressing both of them. It was too warm in the house for him to be comfortable, but when they were both naked and lying on the bed, the ceiling fan wafted a cooling breeze over them, and he began to get drowsy, anyway. They lay nestled spoon fashion, his hard thighs under her round bottom, one hand possessively covering a breast.

  He lay quietly. She was already asleep, her breathing slow and even. All his objections to staying in this house had faded when he had found that Evie had never truly been Matt’s wife. He would still have preferred being in his own house; the bed was much bigger, for one thing. But Evie would be more comfortable in her own home, and that was the most important thing. He had notified his people where he would be, just as he had notified them that Evie would be staying with him the night before.

  He had given her every opportunity to tell him about the bank loan, but she hadn’t said a word about it. Just as she had with the blown motor in her truck, she kept her trouble to herself rather than running to him for help or even emotional support. For someone who was so open and friendly, Evie was a very solitary person, accustomed to handling everything on her own. Though he would have had to turn her down if she’d asked for help, he wanted her to confide in him, to let him far enough into her life that he knew about the problems as well as the pleasures. When they were married, he would make damn certain he knew every time she stubbed her toe.

  Until that moment, he hadn’t let his plans for the future progress that far, but suddenly it seemed the thing to do. He had never wanted any other woman the way he wanted Evie, and he sincerely doubted that he ever would. After this mess was settled, he intended to keep her close by, which would mean taking her to New York with him. And he knew Evie. Though she had given herself to him, she was essentially a conventional soul. She would want the security of marriage; therefore, he would marry her. Other women had wanted marriage from him, but this was the first time in his life he’d been willing to give it. He couldn’t imagine ever becoming bored with Evie, which had always happened with other lovers. Even more, he couldn’t imagine letting any other man have the chance to marry her.

  He didn’t regret the impending loss of freedom. He thought of dressing her in silk gowns and expensive jewelry, of settling her in the lap of luxury—his—so that she wouldn’t have to work seven days a week or worry about paying bills. She wouldn’t have to make do with a secondhand refrigerator or drive around in a beat-up old truck. She wouldn’t be so tired that dark smudges lay under her eyes. He would take her with him on his business trips, show her Paris and London and Rome, and they would take vacations on the ranch in Montana. Madelyn, he suspected, would gloat because he had finally been caught, but she would like Evie. Evie, despite that glowing sensuality, wasn’t the type of woman that other women disliked on sight. She was friendly and courteous and unselfconscious about her looks. He had seen a lot of women who were far more vain than Evie, and with a lot less reason.

  Within a month, perhaps even sooner, all of this would be behind them and they would be in New York. He fell asleep, thinking with pleasure of having her all to himself.

  As usual, Evie woke at dawn. Robert lay close beside her, his body heat bathing her in warmth, despite the fact that the sheet had been kicked completely off the bed. He had done that, she supposed, because he wasn’t accustomed to doing without air-conditioning. His arm was draped heavily across her hips, and his breath stirred the hair at the back of her neck.

  She had slept with him for two nights in a row now and wondered how she would be able to bear the desolation when he was no longer there.

  She turned within the circle of that enveloping arm and rose up on one elbow. He woke immediately. “Is anything wrong?” he asked, and just for a moment there was something feral and frightening in his eyes, and an instant tension in his muscles, as if he were poised to attack.

  Quickly she shook her head to reassure him. “No. I just wanted to see you.”

  He relaxed at her words, lying back on the pillows. His olive-toned skin was dark against the whiteness. His thick black hair was tousled, and his jaw darkened by a heavy stubble. She was entranced by his sheer, uncomplicated masculinity, not yet smoothed over with grooming and clothes that somewhat obscured his true nature. Lying there with his iron-hard body naked and relaxed, he looked like what he was, a warrior honed down and redefined by years of battle.

  She put her hand on his chest, and he lay quietly, watching her from beneath lowered lids but content to let her do as she wished. She didn’t whisper her love to him; she had already told him how she felt and didn’t intend to badger him about it. She concentrated, instead, on learning as much as she could about him. She had spent the first eighteen years of her life gathering memories about Matt, but she would have a much shorter time with Robert, and she didn’t want to waste a minute.

  She bent over him, her long hair trailing across his chest and shoulder as she planted a line of gentle kisses down his body. He smelled delicious in the morning, she thought, all warm and sleepy. The crispy curls of black hair on his chest invited her to rub her cheek against them, catlike. His nipples, tiny and brown, were almost hidden in the hair. She sought them out, tickled by the minute points that stood out when she rubbed her fingertip across them. Robert flexed restlessly on the sheet as desire tightened his muscles, then forced himself to relax again to better enjoy her attentions.

  “I wonder if that’s the same expression a pasha would have, lying back and letting his favorite concubine pleasure him,” she murmured.

  “Probably.” He put his hands on her head, fingers sliding beneath the heavy fall of hair to massage her scalp. “You do pleasure me, Evangeli

  She continued her dreamy exploration, down the furry ridged abdomen toward his hips and thighs, detouring around his early morning erection. Something high on the inside of his left thigh caught her eye, and she bent closer to examine the mark. The morning sunlight clearly revealed a stylized outline of an eagle, or perhaps a phoenix, with upswept wings. The tattoo was small, not even an inch in length, but so finely made that she could see the fierceness of the raptor.

  She was startled by the tattoo—not the design, but its very presence. Lightly she traced her finger over it, wondering why he had it. After all, Robert hardly seemed the type of man who would have a tattoo; he was too polished and sophisticated. But for all that sophistication, he wasn’t quite civilized, and the tattoo matched that part of him. This was perhaps the only overt signal he permitted himself that he was more than what he seemed.

  “How long have you had it?” she asked, looking up at him.

  He was watching her with piercingly intent eyes. “Quite a while.”

  It was a very inexact answer, but she sensed that it was all she would get from him, at least for now. Slowly she leaned down and licked the tattoo, her tongue gently caressing the sign in his flesh that signaled the presence of the inner man.

  A low, rough sound vibrated in his throat, and his entire body tightened.

  “Do you want me?” she whispered, licking him again. She felt very warm, and slightly drunk with her feminine power. Desire was unfurling inside her, opening like a flower. Her breasts throbbed, and she rubbed them against his leg.

  He gave a strangled laugh, almost undone by her natural sensuality. “Look a few inches to your right and tell me what you think.”

  She did, turning her head with slow deliberation to survey the straining, pulsing length of his sex. “I believe you do.”

  “The sixty-four-thousand-dollar question is, how do you feel?”

  Evie gave him a slow, luminous smile of desire that promised him more than he thought he could survive. “I feel…willing,” she purred, crawling up the length of his body to lie on him as she wound her arms around his neck.

  His face was strained as he rolled, placing her beneath him. “I’ll be careful,” he promised in a rough whisper.

  She reached up to touch his beard-roughened cheek and opened her thighs to clasp them around him. Her heart was in her eyes as he began slowly, with almost agonizing care, to enter her. “I trust you,” she said, giving him her body as surely as she had given him her heart.

  Chapter Fourteen

  Landon Mercer caught himself wearing a habitually worried expression whenever he glanced into a mirror. Nothing was going right, for no particular reason that he could tell. One day he had been feeling pretty damn good about himself and the way everything was going, and the next it all began to go to hell. It was just little things at first, like that bastard Cannon showing up and nearly giving him a heart attack, though it turned out that Cannon had been the least of his worries. The big boss’s reputation had been vastly overstated; he was nothing more than another lazy playboy, born into money, without any real idea of what it was like to get out and hustle for what he had.

  Sometimes, though, Cannon had a cold look in his eyes that was downright spooky, as if he could see right through flesh. Mercer wouldn’t soon forget the panic he’d felt when Cannon had caught him in Shaw’s Marina. For one terror-stricken minute, Mercer had thought he was caught, that they’d somehow managed to find out what he was doing. But all Cannon had seemed interested in was that he’d taken off from work for the afternoon, something he’d been careful not to do again. Of all the damn luck! There were plenty of marinas in Guntersville; why had Cannon picked Shaw’s? It wasn’t the biggest, or the best run. In fact, for him, its major attraction was that it was small, a bit out of the way and basically a one-horse outfit. Evie Shaw didn’t have time to pay attention to everything going on around her.

  Of course, once Cannon had seen Evie, it was understandable why he kept hanging around. Mercer had been trying for months to get her to go out with him, but she was as standoffish as she was stacked. He just didn’t have enough money, he supposed; she had latched on to Cannon fast enough.

  Of course, if things had worked out, he would have had enough money to interest her. He wasn’t stupid. He hadn’t blown the payoffs; he’d invested them. The ventures he’d picked had all seemed sound. He’d stayed away from the high-interest but volatile money markets and opted for slower but more secure returns. In a few years, he’d figured, he would have enough money invested to be on easy street.

  But stocks that had looked good one day went sour the next, prices going on a steady slide as other investors dumped their shares. In one terrible week the tidy little nest egg he’d built up had decreased in value to less than half of what it had been before. He had sold out, taking a loss, and in a desperate move to recoup his money had invested it all in the money markets. The money market had promptly plummeted, almost wiping him out. He felt like King Midas in reverse; everything he touched turned to dross.

  When he was contacted about another sale, he was so relieved that he almost thanked them for calling. If his bank account didn’t get a cash transfusion soon, he wouldn’t be able to make his car payment, or the payments on all his credit cards. Mercer was horrified at the thought of losing his beloved Mercedes. There were more expensive cars, and he intended to have them eventually, but the Mercedes was the first car he’d had that said he was somebody, a man on the way up. He couldn’t bear to go back to being nothing.

  Evie felt as if she had been split into two separate beings. Half of her was deliriously happy, overwhelmed by the intoxication of having Robert for a lover. She had never dreamed she could be so happy again, or feel so whole, but the great emptiness that had lurked in her heart for so long had been filled. Robert was both passionate and considerate, paying her so much attention that she felt as if she were the center of his universe. He never ignored her, never took anything about her for granted, always made her feel as if she were the most desirable woman he’d ever seen. Whenever they went out, his attention never wandered to other women, though she was well aware of other women looking at him.

  She saw him every day, slept with him almost every night. As she became more at ease with her own body and the passion he aroused, their lovemaking became more leisurely, and even more intense, until sometimes she screamed with the force of it. He was a sophisticated lover, leading her into new positions, new variations, new sensations, and he was so skilled that he didn’t make her feel awkward or ignorant. He made love to her almost every night. Only once, but that once was long and complete, leaving her sated and sleepy. Then, in the morning when they woke, they would make love again, silently, drifting in that half-awake state when dreams still shadow consciousness.

  His mastery of her body was so complete that thoughts of him were always with her, lurking just under the surface, ready to come to the fore and bringing desire with them. She didn’t know which she enjoyed most, the intense sessions at night or the dreamy ones of early morning. It was amazing how quickly her body had learned to crave sexual pleasure with him, so that, as the afternoon hours advanced, she would become jittery with anticipation and need. He knew it, surely. She could see him watching her, as if gauging her readiness. Sometimes she had a violent desire to pin him to the floor and have her way with him, but she always restrained herself, because the buildup of desire, though maddening, was equally delicious.

  She had become accustomed to containing her thoughts and emotions, guarding them behind a wall of reserve, but Robert drew her out. They had long, involved discussions about a wide variety of subjects. Sitting out on the deck at night, staring up at the stars, they would discuss astronomy and various theories, from the big bang to black holes, dark matter and the relativity of time. His intelligence and the scope of his interests were almost frightening. Without giving any indication of restlessness, his mind was always working, looking for new facts to absorb or a
rranging those he already had. They would trade sections of the newspaper, and debate politics and national events. They swapped childhood stories, she telling him about growing up with an older sister as bossy as Becky, he making her laugh with stories of his indomitable younger sister, Madelyn. He told her about the ranch in Montana, which he owned in partnership with Reese Duncan, Madelyn’s husband, and about their two rowdy little boys.

  The sense of closeness with Robert was at once seductive and terrifying. There was a powerful lure that drew her to him, creating an intimacy as much of the mind as of the body, so that she was no longer a solitary creature but half of a couple, her entire sense of being altering to include him. Sometimes, in the back of her mind, she wondered how she would survive if he were to leave—she had to think of it as if now, rather than when—and the thought of losing him made her almost sick with terror.

  She couldn’t let herself worry about that. Loving him now, in the present, demanded all her attention. She couldn’t hold anything back; she was helpless to even try.

  At the same time, the other part of her, the part that wasn’t preoccupied with Robert, worried incessantly about the bank loan and the mortgage on the house. Tommy hadn’t called her back. She had called the bank twice; the first time he said that permission simply hadn’t come through yet, but he didn’t think there was any problem and that she should just be patient. The second time she called, he was out of town.

  She couldn’t wait much longer. It had already been eleven days, leaving just nineteen until the loan had to be paid. If her bank couldn’t give her a loan, she would have to find a bank that would, and if all banks moved so slowly, she could find herself running out of time. Just thinking of the possibility was enough to make her break out in a cold sweat.

  She tried to think of other options, of some way to quickly raise the money in case the loan didn’t go through fast enough. She could put her boat up for sale, but it wasn’t worth even half the amount that she needed and might not sell in time, anyway. Asking Becky and Paul for a loan was out of the question; they had their own financial responsibilities, and supporting two teenagers was expensive.

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