Loving Evangeline by Linda Howard

  She still didn’t look at him as she prepared a credit-card slip. Robert watched her with well-hidden greed. In the three days since he’d first met her, he had decided that she couldn’t possibly have been as lovely as he had first thought or have such an impact on his senses. He had been wrong. From the moment he had entered the marina and watched her through the plate-glass window as she pumped gas, tension had twisted his guts until he could barely breathe. She was still as sleek and golden and sensual as a pagan goddess, and he wanted her.

  He had accomplished a lot in those three days. In addition to making the first chess move with Mercer, he had bought a boat, a car and a house on the river. It had taken two days for the dealership to rig the boat, but he had taken possession of the house faster than that, having moved in the afternoon before. The Realtor still hadn’t recovered from his blitzing style of decision making. But Robert wasn’t accustomed to being thwarted; in record time the utilities had been turned on, the paperwork completed, a cleaning service from Huntsville dragooned into giving the place a thorough cleaning, and new furniture both selected and delivered. He had also put another plan into progress, one that would force Evie Shaw and Landon Mercer into a trap.

  Silently Evie handed him the credit-card slip to sign. He scrawled his signature and returned it to her just as shouts from outside made her whirl.

  Robert glanced out the window and saw several teenage boys roughhousing on the docks. “Excuse me,” Evie said, and went over to open the door.

  “They’re going to get it now,” Paige piped up with obvious satisfaction, getting to her knees in the rocking chair.

  Just as Evie reached the door, Jason laughingly pushed one of his buddies, who immediately returned the shove, with interest. Jason had already turned away, and the motion propelled him forward; his sneakers skidded on a wet spot perilously close to the edge of the dock. His gangly arms began windmilling comically as he tried to reverse direction, but his feet shot out from under him and he flew into the air, over the water.


  He was too close to the dock. Evie saw it even as she raced through the door, her heart in her mouth. She heard the sickening crack as his head hit the edge of the dock. His thin body went limp in midair, and a half second later he hit the water, immediately slipping beneath the surface.

  One of the boys yelled, his young voice cracking. Evie caught only a glimpse of their bewildered, suddenly terrified faces as she fought her way through the thick, overheated air. The dock looked so far away, and she didn’t seem to be making any progress, even though she could feel her feet thudding on the wood. Frantically she searched the spot where Jason had gone under, but there was nothing, nothing….

  She hit the water in a long, flat dive, stroking strongly for where she had last seen him. She was dimly aware of a distant splashing, but she ignored it, all her attention on reaching Jason in time. Don’t let it be too late. Dear God, don’t let it be too late. She could still hear the sodden thunk of his head hitting the dock. He could already be dead, or paralyzed. No. Not Jason. She refused to lose him; she couldn’t lose him. She couldn’t go through that again.

  She took a deep breath and dived, pushing her way through the water, her desperately searching hands reaching out. Visibility in the river wasn’t good; she would have to locate him mostly by touch. She reached the muddy bottom and clawed her way along it. He had to be here! There was the dark pillar of the dock, telling her that she wasn’t too far away from where he had gone in.

  Her lungs began to ache, but she refused to surface. That would use precious seconds, seconds that Jason didn’t have.

  Maybe the wave motion had washed him under the dock.

  Fiercely she kicked, propelling herself into the darker water under the dock. Her groping hands swept the water in front of her. Nothing.

  Her lungs were burning. The need to inhale was almost impossible to resist. Grimly she fought the impulse as she forced her way down to feel along the bottom again.

  Something brushed her hand.

  She grabbed, and clutched fabric. Her other hand, groping blindly, caught an arm. Using the last of her strength, she tugged her limp burden out of the shadow of the docks and feebly kicked upward. Progress was frustratingly, agonizingly slow; her lungs were demanding air, her vision fading. Dear God, had she found Jason only to drown with him, because she lacked the strength to get them to the surface?

  Then strong hands caught her, gripping her ribs with bruising force, and she was propelled upward in a mighty rush. Her head broke the surface, and she inhaled convulsively, choking and gasping.

  “I have you,” a deep, calm voice said in her ear. “I have both of you. Just relax against me.”

  She could hardly do anything else. She was supported by an arm as unyielding as iron as he stroked the short distance to the dock. The boys were on their knees, reaching eager hands down toward him. “Just hold him,” she heard Cannon order. “Don’t try to pull him out of the water. Let me do it. And one of you go call 911.”

  “I already have,” Evie heard Paige say, the girl’s voice wavery and thin.

  “Good girl.” His tone changed to brisk command, the words close by her ear. “Evie. I want you to hang on to the edge of the dock. Can you do that?”

  She was still gasping, unable to talk, so she nodded.

  “Let go of Jason. The boys are holding him, so he’ll be okay. Do it now.”

  She obeyed, and he placed her hands on the edge of the dock. Grimly she clung to the wood as he heaved himself out of the water. She pushed her streaming hair out of her eyes with one hand as he knelt down and slipped both hands under Jason’s arms. “He might have a spinal-cord injury,” she croaked.

  “I know.” Robert’s face was grim. “But he isn’t breathing. If we don’t get him up here and do CPR, he won’t make it.”

  She swallowed hard and nodded again. As gently as possible, Robert lifted Jason out of the water, the muscles in his arms and shoulders cording under the wet shirt. Evie took one agonized look at Jason’s still, blue face, and then she hauled herself out of the water, using strength she hadn’t known she still possessed. She collapsed on the dock beside Jason, then struggled to her knees. “Jason!”

  Robert felt for a pulse in the boy’s neck and located a faint throb. Relieved, he said, “He has a heartbeat,” then bent over the sprawled, limp body, pinching the boy’s nostrils shut and using his other hand to press on his chin, forcing his mouth open. He placed his own mouth on the chill blue lips and carefully, forcefully, blew his breath outward. The thin chest rose. Robert lifted his mouth, and the air sighed out of the boy, his chest falling again.

  Evie reached out, then forced herself to draw back. She couldn’t do anything that Robert wasn’t already doing, and she was still so weak and shaky that she couldn’t do it nearly as well. She felt as if she were choking on her pain and desperation, on the overwhelming need to do something, anything. Her ears were buzzing. She would rather die herself than helplessly watch someone else she loved slowly die before her eyes.

  Robert repeated the process again and again, silently counting. Fiercely he focused on what he was doing, ignoring the terrified kids grouped around them, not letting himself think about Evie’s silence, her stillness. The kid’s chest was rising with each breath forced into him, meaning oxygen was getting into his lungs. His heart was beating; if he didn’t have a serious head or spinal injury, he should be okay, if he would just start breathing on his own. The seconds ticked by. One minute. Two. Then abruptly the boy’s chest heaved, and he began choking. Quickly Robert drew back.

  Jason suddenly convulsed, rolling to his side and knocking against Evie as he choked and gagged. She lurched sideways, off balance, unable to catch herself. Robert’s hand shot out across Jason to steady her, the lean fingers catching her arm and preventing her from going into the water a second time. With effortless strength, he dragged her across Jason’s legs, pulling her to him.

  Water streamed f
rom Jason’s nostrils and open mouth. He gulped and coughed again, then abruptly vomited up a quantity of river water.

  “Thank God,” Robert said quietly. “No paralysis.”

  “No.” Evie pulled loose from his grip. Tears burned her eyes as she crouched once again by Jason’s side. Gently she touched the boy, soothing him, and noticed that the back of his head was red with blood. “You’ll be okay, honey,” she murmured as she examined the cut. “Nothing that a few stitches won’t fix.” She glanced up and saw Paige’s white, tear-streaked face. “Paige, get a towel for me, please. And be careful! Don’t run.”

  Paige gulped and headed back toward the marina. She didn’t exactly run, but it was close.

  Jason’s coughing fit subsided, and he lay exhausted on his side, gulping in air. Evie stroked his arm, repeating that he was going to be all right.

  Paige returned with the towel, and gently Evie pressed it to the deep cut, stanching the flow of blood. “A-aunt Evie?” Jason croaked, his voice so hoarse it was almost soundless.

  “I’m here.”

  “Can I sit up?” he asked, beginning to be embarrassed by the attention.

  “I don’t know,” she replied neutrally. “Can you?”

  Slowly, cautiously, he eased himself into a sitting position, but he was weak, and Robert knelt down to support him, shifting so that one strong thigh was behind Jason’s back. “My head hurts,” Jason groaned.

  “I imagine so,” Robert said in a calm, almost genial voice. “You hit it on the edge of the dock.” Sirens wailed, swiftly coming closer. Jason’s eyes flickered as he realized a further fuss was going to be made.

  Gingerly he reached back and touched his head. Wincing, he let his hand fall to his side. “Mom’s going to be peed off,” he said glumly.

  “Mom isn’t the only one,” Evie replied. “But we’ll settle that between ourselves later.”

  He looked abashed. He tried to move away from Robert’s support but didn’t quite make it. Then the paramedics were there, hurrying down the dock, carrying their tackle boxes of medical equipment. Robert drew back and pulled Evie with him, giving the paramedics room to work. Paige sidled over and slipped her arms around Evie’s waist, burrowing close and hiding her face against Evie’s wet shirt in a child’s instinctive bid for reassurance. It was a simple thing for Robert to put his arms around both of them, and Evie was too tired, too numb, to resist. She stood docilely in his embrace. His strength enfolded her; his heat comforted her. He had saved Jason’s life, and maybe even her own, because she wasn’t certain she could have gotten Jason to the surface without his help. If so, she would simply have drowned with him rather than let him go and try to save her own life at the expense of his.

  Jason was quickly checked; then the paramedics began preparations to transport him to the hospital. “That cut will have to be stitched,” one of them said to Evie. “He probably has a concussion, too, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they keep him overnight, at least.”

  Evie stirred in Robert’s embrace. “I have to call Rebecca,” she said. “And I want to ride with him to the hospital.”

  “I’ll drive you,” he said, releasing her. “You’ll need a way back.”

  “Rebecca can bring me,” she said as she hurried to the office, Robert and Paige both following her inside. She reached for the phone, then halted, rubbing her forehead. “No, she’ll stay with Jason. Never mind. I can drive myself.”

  “Of course you can,” he said gently. “But you won’t, because I’m driving you.”

  She gave him a distracted look as she dialed her sister’s number. “That isn’t necessary—Becky. Listen, Jason slipped on the dock and cut his head. He’s going to be okay, but he needs stitches, and the paramedics are taking him to the hospital. They’re leaving now. I’ll meet you there. Yes, I’m bringing Paige with me. Okay. Bye.”

  She hung up, then lifted the receiver and dialed another number. “Craig, this is Evie. Can you take over the marina for a couple of hours? Jason’s had an accident, and I’m going with him to the hospital. No, he’ll be okay. Five minutes? Great. I’m leaving now.”

  Then, moving swiftly, she got her purse from under the counter and fished out her keys. Like lightning, Robert caught her hand and calmly removed the keys from her grasp. “You’re too shaky,” he said in a gentle, implacable tone. “You came close to drowning yourself. Don’t fight me on this, Evie.”

  It was obvious that she lacked the strength to physically fight him for the keys. Frustrated, she gave in rather than waste more time. “All right.”

  She drove a sturdy, serviceable four-wheel-drive pickup, handy for pulling boats up a launch ramp. Paige raced ahead to scramble inside, as if afraid she would be left behind if she didn’t beat them to the vehicle. Evie was only grateful that the child automatically slid to the middle of the seat, positioning herself between Evie and Robert and hastily buckling herself in.

  “It’s a straight shift,” she blurted unnecessarily as she buckled her own seat belt.

  He gave her a gentle smile as he started the engine. “I can manage.”

  Of course, he did more than manage. He shifted gears with the smooth expertise of someone who knew exactly what he was doing. Evie’s heart gave a little thump as she tried to imagine Robert Cannon being awkward at anything.

  She forced herself to watch the road, rather than him, as she gave directions to the hospital. She didn’t want to look at him, didn’t want to feel that primal pull deep inside her. He was dripping wet, of course, his black hair plastered to his head and his white silk shirt clinging to his muscled torso like a second skin. His leanness was deceptive; the wet shirt revealed the width of his shoulders and chest, and the smooth, steely muscles of his abdomen and back. She thought the image of him, the outline of his body, was probably branded on her mind for all eternity, as was everything else that had happened in the last fifteen minutes. Only fifteen minutes? It felt like a lifetime.

  He drove fast, pulling into the hospital parking lot right behind the ambulance. The hospital was small but new, and he couldn’t fault the staff’s response. Jason was whisked into an examining room before Evie could reach his side to speak to him.

  Firmly Robert took her arm and ushered both her and Paige to seats in the waiting area. “Sit here,” he said, and though his voice was mild, that implacable tone was in it again. “I’ll get coffee for us. How about you, sweetheart?” he asked Paige. “Do you want a soft drink?”

  Dumbly Paige nodded, then shook her head. “May I have coffee, too, Aunt Evie?” she whispered. “I’m cold. Or maybe hot chocolate.”

  Evie nodded her agreement, and Robert strode to the vending machines. She put her arm around Paige and gathered her close, knowing that the girl had suffered a shock at seeing her brother almost die. “Don’t worry, honey. Jason will be home by tomorrow, probably, griping about his headache and driving you up the wall.”

  Paige sniffed back tears. “I know. I’ll get mad at him then, but right now I just want him to be okay.”

  “He will be. I promise.”

  Robert returned with three cups, one filled with hot chocolate and the other two with coffee. Evie and Paige took theirs from him, and he settled into the chair on Evie’s other side. When she sipped the hot brew, she found that he had liberally dosed it with sugar. She glanced at him and found him watching her, gauging her reaction. “Drink it,” he said softly. “You’re a little shocky, too.”

  Because he was right, she obeyed without argument, folding her cold fingers around the cup in an effort to warm them. Her wet clothes were uncomfortably chilly here in the air-conditioned hospital, and she barely restrained a shiver. He should be cold, too, she thought, but knew that he wasn’t. His arm touched hers, and she felt heat radiating through his wet clothing.

  As slight as it was, he felt the shiver that raced through her. “I’ll get a blanket for you,” he said, rising to his feet.

  She watched him approach the desk and speak to the nurse. He was court
eous, restrained, but in about thirty seconds he was returning with a blanket in his hands. He had an air of natural command, she thought. One look into those icy green eyes and people scurried to do his bidding.

  He bent over her to tuck the blanket around her, and she let him. Just as he finished, the emergency room doors swung open and her sister, Rebecca, hurried inside, looking tense and scared. Seeing Evie and Paige, she changed her direction to join them. “What’s happening?” she demanded.

  “He’s in the treatment room now,” Robert answered for Evie, his deep voice as soothing as when he’d talked to Paige. “He’ll have a few stitches in the back of his head, and a bad headache. They’ll probably keep him overnight, but his injuries are relatively minor.”

  Rebecca turned her shrewd brown eyes on him and bluntly demanded, “Who are you?”

  “This is Robert Cannon,” Evie said, making an effort to appear calm as she made the introductions. “He dragged both Jason and me out of the water. Mr. Cannon, this is my sister, Rebecca Wood.”

  Rebecca took in Robert’s wet clothes, then looked at Evie, seeing the strain on her sister’s pale face. “I’ll see about Jason first,” she said in her usual decisive manner. “Then I want to know exactly what happened.” She turned and marched toward a nurse, identified herself and was directed to the treatment room where Jason was located.

  Robert sat down beside Evie. “What branch of the military was your sister in?” he asked, provoking a nervous giggle from Paige.

  “I think it’s called motherhood,” Evie replied. “She began practicing on me at an early age.”

  “She’s older, I presume.”

  “Five years.”

  “So you’ve always been ‘baby sister’ to her.”

  “I don’t mind.”

  “I’m sure you don’t. Drink your coffee,” he admonished, lifting the cup himself and holding it to her lips.

  Evie drank, then gave him a wry glance. “You aren’t bad at the mother-hen routine yourself.”

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