Loving Evangeline by Linda Howard

He landed the plane and taxied it close to the vehicle. As he cut the engine, he could see the two lively little boys bouncing in the cargo area, and a rueful smile touched his eyes. He had missed the little hooligans. He wanted some of his own.

  As he crossed the pavement, Madelyn came to meet him, her lazy stroll fluid and provocative. “Thank God you’re here,” she said. “The imps of Satan have been driving me crazy since I told them you were coming. Did you know that when a one-year-old says Uncle Robert, it sounds remarkably like Ali Baba? I’ve heard it fifteen thousand times in the past hour, so I’m an expert.”

  “Dear God,” he murmured, looking past her to where the two imps of Satan were shrieking what was undoubtedly their version of his name.

  She went up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek and he hugged her to him. Something guarded inside him always relaxed when he set foot on the ranch. The sense of nature was much closer here, just as it had been in Alabama.

  Madelyn waited until after lunch before broaching the subject he knew had been eating her alive with curiosity. The boys had been put down for their afternoon naps, and he and Reese were sitting at the table, relaxing over coffee. Madelyn came back into the dining room, sat down and said, “All right, what’s wrong?”

  He gave her a wry smile. “I knew you couldn’t wait much longer. You’ve always been as curious as a cat.”

  “Agreed. Talk.”

  So he did. It felt strange. He couldn’t remember ever needing help before in deciding what to do. He concisely outlined the situation with Mercer, explaining Evie’s suspected involvement and the method he had used to force them into action. He described Evie, unaware of the aching hunger in his eyes as he did so. He told them everything—how Evie had sold her house to stop the foreclosure on the marina, how she had discovered that he was behind it all, and how Mercer had been caught. And how she had turned down his marriage proposal.

  He was aware that Madelyn had stiffened during his recital of events, but she was looking down at the table, and he couldn’t read her expression. When he finished, however, she lifted her head, and he was startled to see the molten fury in her eyes.

  “Are you that dense?” she shouted, jumping to her feet with a force that overturned her chair. “I don’t blame her for not marrying you! I wouldn’t have, either!” Infuriated, she stomped out of the dining room.

  Bemused, Robert turned to stare after her. “I didn’t know she could move that fast,” he murmured.

  Reese gave a startled shout of laughter. “I know. It took me by surprise the first time I made her lose her temper, too.”

  Robert turned back to his brother-in-law, a big, tough rancher as tall as himself, with dark hair and hazel-green eyes, coloring that he had passed on to his two sons.

  “What set her off?”

  “Probably the same thing that set her off when I was being that dense, too,” Reese explained, amusement in his eyes.

  “Would someone please explain it to me?” Robert asked with strained politeness. On the surface he was still in complete control, but inside he was dying by inches. He didn’t know what to do, and that had never happened to him before. He was at a complete loss.

  Reese leaned back in his chair, toying with the handle of his cup. “I almost lost Madelyn once,” he said abruptly, looking down. “She probably never told you, but she left me. She didn’t go far, just into town, but it might as well have been a million miles, the way I felt.”

  “When was this?” Robert asked, his eyes narrowing. He didn’t like knowing that Madelyn had had problems and hadn’t told him about them.

  “When she was pregnant with Ty. I tried everything I could think of to convince her to come back, but I was too stupid to give her the one reason that mattered.”

  Reese was going somewhere with this, Robert realized. He was a private man and not normally this talkative. “Which reason was that?”

  Reese lifted his gaze to meet Robert’s, and hazel-green eyes met ice-green ones, both stark with emotion.

  “It isn’t easy to give someone else that kind of power over you,” Reese said abruptly. “Hell, it wasn’t easy to even admit it to myself, and you’re twice as bad as I ever was. You’re a tough son of a bitch, more dangerous than you want people to know, so you keep it all under control. You’re used to controlling everything around you, but you can’t control this, can you? You probably don’t even know what it is. I practically had to be hit in the head before I saw the light. You love her, don’t you?”

  Robert froze, and his eyes went blank with shock. Love? He’d never even thought the word. He wanted Evie, wanted to marry her, wanted to have children with her. God, he wanted all of that with a fierce passion that threatened to destory him if he didn’t get it. But everything in him rebelled at the thought of being in love. It would mean a terrible helplessness; he wouldn’t be able to hold himself apart from her, to keep uncompromised the basic invulnerability that was at the core of him. He was well aware of his true nature, knew the savage inside. He didn’t want to unleash that kind of raw passion, didn’t want anyone to even know it existed.

  But Evie knew, anyway, he realized, and felt another shock. She had seen through him right from the beginning. With that maddening intuition of hers, she sometimes went straight into his thoughts. He could shut everyone else out, but he had never been able to shut out Evie, and he had spent the entire time they were together trying to regain control over himself, over the situation, over her. She knew him for what he was, and she loved him, anyway.

  He swore, running a shaking hand over his face, blinding truth staring him in the eye. Evie wouldn’t have loved him if that savage intensity hadn’t been there. She had known real love with Matt, and lost it; only something incredibly powerful could take her beyond that. Loving Evangeline couldn’t be a civilized, controlled affair; she would want him heart and soul, nothing held back.

  The house hadn’t been the issue. Neither had suspecting her of a crime. He could offer her a hundred houses, all the power his wealth could bring, and none of that would tempt her. What she wanted was the one thing he hadn’t offered: his love.

  “It was that simple,” Reese said softly. “I told Maddie that I love her. More importantly, I admitted it to myself.”

  Robert was still stunned, still turned inward. “How do you know?” he murmured.

  Reese made a low, harsh sound. “Do you feel as if you can never get enough of her? Do you want to make love to her so much that the ache never quite leaves your gut? Do you want to protect her, carry her around on a satin cushion, give her everything in the world? Are you content just being with her, listening to her, smelling her, touching her hand? Do you feel as if someone’s torn your guts out, you miss her so much? When Maddie left me, it hurt so damn bad I could barely function. There was a big empty hole in me, and it ached so much I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat. The only thing that could make it better was seeing her. Is that the way it feels?”

  Robert’s green eyes were stark. “Like I’m bleeding to death inside.”

  “Yep, that’s love,” Reese said, shaking his head in sympathy.

  Robert got to his feet, his lean face setting in lines of determination. “Kiss Madelyn goodbye for me. Tell her I’ll call her.”

  “You can’t wait for morning?”

  “No,” Robert said as he took the stairs two at a time. He couldn’t wait another minute. He was on his way to Alabama.

  Evie didn’t like her new home. She felt hemmed in, though she had a corner apartment and neighbors on only one side. When she looked out the window, she saw another apartment building, rather than the river sweeping endlessly past. She could hear her neighbors through the thin walls, hear them arguing, hear their two small children whining and crying. They were out until all hours, children in tow, and came dragging the poor little tykes in at one or two in the morning. The commotion inevitably woke her, and she would lie in bed staring at the dark ceiling for hours.

  She could look for another place, she kne
w, but she couldn’t muster enough energy or interest to do it. She forced herself to go to the marina every day, and that was the limit of what she could do. She was going through the motions, but each day it took more and more effort, and soon she would collapse under the strain.

  She felt cold, and she couldn’t get warm. It was an internal cold, spreading out from the vast emptiness inside, and no amount of heat could get past it. Just thinking his name was like having a knife jabbed into her, shards of pain splintering in all directions, but she couldn’t get him out of her mind. A glimpse of black hair brought her head snapping around; a certain deep tone of voice made her heart stop for an instant—a precious instant—as uncontrollable joy shot through her and she thought, He’s back! But he never was, and the joy would turn to ashes, leaving her more desolate than before.

  The sun burned down, the heat wave continuing, but she couldn’t feel its heat or see its bright light. The world was colored in tones of cold gray.

  I got through this before, she would think on those mornings when there didn’t seem to be any reason to get out of bed. I can do it again. But the fact was, doing it before had nearly killed her, and the depression that sucked all the spirit out of her was getting deeper every day. She didn’t know if she had the strength to fight it.

  Becky had gone ballistic when she found out Robert had left town. “He told me he was going to ask you to marry him,” she’d roared, so enraged her hair had practicallly been standing on end.

  “He did,” Evie had said listlessly. “I said no.” And she had refused to answer any more questions; she hadn’t even told Becky why she’d sold the house.

  Summer was coming to an end, burning itself out. It was almost time for school to start. The calendar said that fall was a month away, but the scent of it was in the air, crisp and fresh, without the redolent perfumes of summer. She was burning herself out, too, Evie thought, and didn’t much care.

  She went to bed as soon as it was dark, hoping to get a few hours’ sleep before her noisy neighbors came home. It was usually a useless effort. Whenever she stopped, she couldn’t keep the memories at bay; they swarmed at her from all the corners of her mind. Lying in bed, she would remember Robert’s warm presence beside her, feel his weight compressing the mattress, and the memory was so real that it was almost as if she could reach out and touch him. Her body throbbed, needing his touch, the exquisite relief of having him inside her. She would relive every time he had made love to her, and her breasts would grow heavy with desire.

  He was gone, but she wasn’t free of him.

  That night was no different; if anything, it was worse. She tossed about, trying to ignore the fever in her flesh and the misery in her heart. The T-shirt she wore rasped her aching nipples, tempting her to remove it, but she knew better. When she had tried to sleep nude, her skin had become even more sensitive.

  Someone banged on the door, startling her so much that she bolted upright in bed. She glanced at the clock. It was after ten.

  She got up and slipped on a robe. The banging came again, as thunderous as if someone was trying to beat down her door. She paused to turn on a lamp in the living room. “Who is it?”

  “Robert. Open the door, Evie.”

  She froze, her hand on the knob, all the blood draining from her face. For a moment she thought she would faint. “What do you want?” she managed, the words so low that she wasn’t sure he could hear them, but he did.

  “I want to talk to you. Open the door.”

  The deep, rich voice was the same, the tone as controlled as ever. She leaned her head against the door facing, wondering if she had the strength to send him away again. What remained to be said? Was he going to try to make her accept the house? She couldn’t live there; the memories of him were too strong.

  “Evangeline, open the door.”

  She fumbled with the lock and opened the door. He stepped in immediately, tall and overwhelming. She was swamped by her reactions as she fell back a pace. The scent of him was the same, the leashed vitality of his tall, lean body slamming against her like a blow. He closed the door and locked it, and when he turned back to her she saw that his black hair was tousled, and a dark shadow of beard covered his cheeks. His eyes were glittering like green fire as they fastened on her. He didn’t give the apartment a glance.

  “I’m only going to ask you once more,” he said abruptly. “Will you marry me?”

  Evie shuddered with the strain, but slowly shook her head. She could have married him before, when she’d thought he cared for her at least a little, but when she had realized he’d only been using her…No, she couldn’t do it.

  A muscle clenched in his jaw. She could feel the tension in him, like some great beast coiled to jump, and she took another step back. When he spoke, however, his voice was almost mild. “Why not?”

  The contrast of his voice to the energy she could feel pulsing in him was maddening. All the misery of the past weeks congealed inside her, and she felt herself splintering inside. “Why not?” she cried incredulously, her voice shaking. “My God, look at yourself! Nothing touches you, does it? You’d take everything I have to give, but you’d never let me inside where you really live, where I could reach the real man. You keep yourself behind a cold wall, and I’m tired of bruising myself against it!”

  His nostrils flared. “Do you love me?”

  “Is that what you came for?” Tears welled in her eyes, rolled slowly down her cheeks. “A sop to your ego? Yes, I love you. Now get out!”

  She saw his powerful muscles tense, saw his eyes flare with something savage. Her heart leapt, and too late she saw the danger. She turned to run, but Robert grabbed her, whirling her to face him. Confused, Evie thought at first it was one of his carefully gauged actions, designed to impress upon her how serious he was, but then she saw his eyes. The pupils were contracted to tiny black points, the irises huge and glittering like pale fire. His face was tight and pale, except for two spots of color high on the blades of his cheekbones. Not even Robert, she thought dazedly, could control those physical reactions.

  His hands tightened on her waist until his fingers dug painfully into her soft flesh, a grip that she knew would leave bruises. “You’re right,” he said almost soundlessly. “I’ve never wanted anyone to get close to me. I’ve never wanted to care this much for anyone, to let you or anyone else have this kind of power over me.” His lips drew back over his teeth, and he was breathing hard. “Shut you out? My God, I’ve tried to, but I can’t. You want the real man, sweetheart? All right, I’m yours. I love you so much it’s tearing me apart. But there’s a flip side to it,” he continued harshly. “I’ll give you more than I’ve ever given any other human being, but by God, I’ll take more, too. You don’t get to pick and choose which qualities you like the best. It’s a package deal. You get all the bad with the good, and I warn you now, I’m not a gentleman.”

  “No,” she whispered, “you’re not.” She hung in his grip, her eyes fastened on his face, seeing the sheen of sweat on his forehead and the ferocity of his expression. Her heart thundered at what he had just said, her mind reeling with joy. He loved her? She almost couldn’t take it in, couldn’t believe he’d actually said it. She stared up into those fiery eyes, too dazed to say anything else.

  “I’m jealous,” he muttered, still in that tone of stifled violence. “I don’t want you even looking at another man, and if any fool tries to come on to you, he’ll be lucky if I only break his arm.” He shook her with enough force to make her teeth snap together. “I want you all the time, and now, damn it, I’ll take you. I’ll be on you so often, four and five times a day, that you’ll forget what it’s like not to have me inside you. No more being a gentleman and restricting myself to twice a day.”

  Her golden brown eyes widened. “No,” she said faintly. “I wouldn’t want you to restrict yourself.” There were no controls on him now; she could feel the passion surging through him, a wild and savage force that caught her up in its tide and swept
her along with him.

  “I’ll want you at my beck and call. I can’t ignore the business, so I’ll expect you to fit your schedule around mine, to be available whenever I’m home.” As he talked, he moved her backward and roughly pushed her against the wall. His hands tugged at her panties, stripping them down her legs. He leaned against her, his heavy weight pinning her to the wall as he tore his pants open. She gave a brief, incoherent prayer of thanks that her neighbors were gone, then clung to his shoulders as he hooked one arm under her bottom and lifted her. Her heart pounding, her blood rushing through her veins on a giddy tide of joy, she parted her thighs, and he shoved himself between them. His penetration was fast and rough. She bit back a cry and buried her face against his neck. She could feel his own heartbeat thudding against her breast.

  They were both motionless, overwhelmed by the stunning relief and pleasure of their bodies being joined once more, she trying to adjust to the hard fullness of him, he groaning at the tightness of her inner clasp on his sex. Then, still caught in the savage exaltation of emotional freedom, he drove mercilessly into her.

  “I don’t want to wear a condom,” he said fiercely, his breath hot against her ear. “I don’t want you to take birth-control pills. I don’t want you to act like my semen is some hostile marauder that you have to protect yourself against. I want to give it to you. I want you to want it. I want you to have my babies. I want a house full of kids.” With each word he thrust, pushing himself deeper and deeper into her.

  She moaned, shuddering around him with the force of her pleasure. “Yes.” She had unleashed a monster of passion, a total dictator, but she could meet his power with her own. This was the real man, the one who made her feel alive again, who sent heat throbbing through every cell of her body. She wasn’t cold any longer, but radiant with vibrant life.

  “I want marriage.” His teeth were ground together, and a drop of sweat ran down his temple. “I want you tied to me—legally, financially, every way I can devise. I want you to take my name, Evangeline, do you understand?”

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