Loving Evangeline by Linda Howard

  She didn’t respond to his gentle teasing. Instead her somber gaze remained locked on his face, trying to probe beneath that smooth, urbane sophistication. He was very cosmopolitan, beyond a doubt, but he used that slick surface as a shield to hide the real man, the man who had kissed her with such ruthless passion. There were many hidden layers to him, his motives complex and unfathomable. Yes, he was attracted to her, as she was to him. It would be foolish to deny her own participation, and Evie wasn’t a foolish woman. But she always had the feeling that he was studying her, manipulating her in some subtle manner. From the very first she had sensed his determination to force himself into her life, and he was doing exactly that with a calm force of will that refused to be denied. Whatever his motive, it was something that went beyond the physical.

  “I don’t have casual sex,” she said.

  He almost smiled. It was merely an expression in those pale eyes, rather than an actual movement of his mouth. “My dear, I promise you there wouldn’t be anything casual about it.” He paused. “Are you involved with someone else?”

  She shook her head. “No.”

  He wasn’t surprised that she had denied any involvement with Mercer. “Then we don’t have a problem, do we? You can’t say that you aren’t attracted to me, too.”

  She lifted her chin, and his pale eyes gleamed at that proud motion. “That velvet glove covers an iron fist, doesn’t it?” she commented neutrally. “No, I can’t say that I’m not attracted to you.”

  Her perception disturbed him, a reaction that he didn’t allow to surface. “I can be determined when I want something…or someone.”

  She made an abrupt motion, as if tiring of the verbal jousting. “I phrased it wrong. I don’t have affairs, either.”

  “A wise decision, but in this case too restrictive.” He approached her now, and she didn’t retreat. Gently he cupped her face with one long-fingered hand, his fingers stroking over the velvety texture of her cheek. God, she was lovely, not classically beautiful, but glowing with an intensely female seductiveness that made him think her name was very apt indeed. So must Eve have been, glorious in her nudity. No wonder Adam had been so easily led, a weakness he wouldn’t allow himself, though he intended to fully enjoy Evie’s sensuality. Her sweet, warm scent wafted up to him. “I won’t force you,” he murmured. “But I will have you.”

  “If you won’t use force, how do you intend to go about it?” she asked.

  His eyebrows lifted. “You think I should warn you?”


  “An interesting notion, but one I’m going to leave untried.” He rubbed his thumb over her lower lip. “For now, sweetheart, we’d better get back to the marina. You have a business to run, and I have a boat to get into a slip.”

  He let his hand drop as he spoke, and Evie turned from him with relief, as if she had been released from a force field. Her face tingled where he had touched her, and she remembered the electric sensation when he had put his hand on her breast. His boldness spoke of vast experience and self-confidence with women, something that put her at a disadvantage.

  They were both silent on the drive back to the marina. She was vaguely surprised to see how late it was, the sun dipping low even for these long summer days. The sultry heat hadn’t abated, though there was a hint of purple on the horizon that gave the promise of a cooling rain shower.

  Robert’s speedboat, a sleek, dark eighteen-footer, was still where he had left it, hitched to a black Jeep Renegade. Thank heavens it hadn’t been blocking the launch ramps, or Craig would have had a mess on his hands. She hurried into the marina office, and Craig looked up from the sports magazine he was reading. “Is everything okay?” he asked, getting to his feet. “The kids said that Jason nearly drowned.”

  “He has a concussion, but he’ll go home tomorrow,” she said.

  “Thanks for coming in. I’m sorry for wrecking your day.”

  “No problem,” he said cheerfully. He was seventeen, a tall, muscular, dark-haired kid who would be a senior when the new school year started. He had been working part-time for her for almost two years and was so steady that she had no qualms about leaving him in charge. “Say, what about that new boat outside?”

  “It’s mine,” Robert said, stepping inside. “I’ll be renting a slip here.” He held out his hand. “I’m Robert Cannon.”

  Craig took his hand with a firm grip. “Craig Foster. Glad to meet you, Mr. Cannon. You must be the guy who pulled Evie and Jason out of the water. The kids said it was a tall Yankee.”

  “I’m the guy,” Robert affirmed, amusement in his eyes.

  “Thought so. Want me to help you get the boat into a slip?”

  “I can do it,” Evie said. “I’ve taken enough time out of your day.”

  “You pay me for it,” Craig replied, grinning. “I might as well, since I’m already here. Mom won’t be expecting me back until supper, anyway.” He and Robert left, chatting companionably.

  Kids seemed to like Robert, Evie thought, watching them from the window. Even shy Paige had been at ease with him. He didn’t treat kids as equals—he was the adult, his was the authority—but at the same time he didn’t dismiss them. Authority and responsibility sat easily on those broad shoulders, she mused. He was obviously accustomed to command.

  For her own sake, her own protection, she had to hold him at bay, and she didn’t know if she could. Today, with a few kisses and frightening ease, he had shown her that he could arouse her beyond her own control. She could love him, and that was the most terrifying prospect of all. He was a strong man, in mind and soul as well as body, a man worthy of love. He would steal her heart if she weren’t careful, if she didn’t keep her guard up at all times.

  She turned away from the window. Twelve years ago, love had almost destroyed her, leaving only a forlorn heap of ashes from which she had laboriously rebuilt a controlled, protected life. She couldn’t do that again; she didn’t have the strength to once more live through that hell and emerge victorious. She had already lost too many people to believe that love, or life, lasted forever. She couldn’t do anything about the people she already loved, the ones already in her heart: her family, old Virgil, a very few close friends, but she hadn’t allowed anyone new to stake a claim on her emotions. She had already paid out too much in pain and had precious little reserve of spirit left. She had almost lost Jason today, and the pain had been overwhelming. Rebecca knew, had realized that if Evie hadn’t been able to find Jason, she would now be mourning a sister as well as a son. That was the real basis for her sister’s fury with Jason.

  And Evie knew that Robert Cannon planned to force his way into her life. He would be here for the summer, he’d said; he wouldn’t be looking for anything more than a pleasant affair, companionship during the long, lazy weeks. If she fell in love with him, that would make the affair sweeter. But at the end of summer he would go back to his real life, and Evie would have to continue here, with one more wound on a heart that had barely survived the last blow. Emotionally, she couldn’t afford him.

  There were always a hundred and one things to be doing around the marina, but suddenly she couldn’t think of a single one. She felt oddly disoriented, as if the world had been turned upside down. Maybe it had.

  She called the hospital and was put through to Jason’s room. Her sister answered the phone on the first ring. “He’s grouchy and has a throbbing headache,” Rebecca cheerfully announced when Evie asked his condition. “I have to wake him every couple of hours tonight, but if he does okay, then he can go home in the morning. Paul left just a few minutes ago to take Paige to his mother’s, then he’s coming back here. How about you? Nerves settled down yet?”

  “Not quite,” Evie said truthfully, though Jason’s close call wasn’t all that had unsettled her. “But I’m over the shakes.”

  “Are you at home, I hope?”

  “You know better than that.”

  “You should have taken it easy for the rest of the day,” Rebecca scolded
. “I had hopes that Mr. Cannon would take you in hand. He seems good at giving orders.”

  “World-class champion,” Evie agreed. “I’ll come by to see Jason after the marina closes. Do you want me to bring you anything? A pillow, a book, a hamburger?”

  “No, I don’t need anything. Don’t come here. Jason’s okay, and you need to go home and rest. I mean it, Evie.”

  “I’m okay, too,” Evie calmly replied. “And I want to see Jason, even if just for a few minutes—” She cried out in surprise as the phone was plucked from her hand. She whirled as Robert lifted the receiver to his ear.

  “Mrs. Wood? Robert Cannon. I’ll see that she goes straight home. Yes, she’s still a little wobbly.”

  “I am not,” Evie said, narrowing her eyes at him. He reached out and gently stroked her cheek. Deliberately she stepped back, out of his reach.

  “I’ll take care of her,” he firmly assured Rebecca, never moving his gaze from Evie’s face. “On second thought, I’ll take her out to dinner before I take her home. I think so, too. Goodbye.”

  As he hung up, Evie said in a cold voice, “I despise being treated as if I’m a helpless idiot.”

  “Hardly that,” he murmured.

  She didn’t relent. “I suppose you thought that I would feel safe and protected, to have you take over and make my decisions for me. I don’t. I feel insulted.”

  Robert lifted an inquisitive brow, hiding his true reaction. He had indeed hoped to provoke exactly that response from her and felt an uneasy surprise that she had so easily gone straight to the truth of the matter. She was proving to be uncomfortably astute. “What I think,” he said carefully, “is that you were in more danger than you want your sister to know, and that you’re still shaky. If you go to the hospital again, you’ll have to put up a front to keep from scaring both her and Jason, and that will put even more strain on you.”

  “What I think,” she replied, standing with her fists clenched at her sides, “is that I’m in far more danger from you than I ever was from the water.” Her golden brown eyes were cool and unwaveringly level.

  Again he felt a twinge of discomfort at her insight. Still, he was certain he could soften her stand, and his tone turned gently cajoling. “Even if I offer you a truce for tonight? No kisses, not even any hand-holding. Just dinner, then I’ll see you safely home, and you can get a good night’s rest.”

  “No, thank you. I won’t have dinner with you, and I can get home by myself.”

  He gave her a considering look. “In that case, the offer of a truce is null and void.”

  His tone was so calm that she listened to it first, rather than to the actual words. She hesitated only a split second, but that was enough for him to have her in his arms again, and again she felt overcome by his steely, deceptive strength. His body was unyielding, his grip careful but unbreakable. The male muskiness of his clean, warm skin made her head swim. She had the dizzy impression that his mouth was lowering to hers and quickly ducked her head to rest it against his chest. It was disconcerting to hear a quiet chuckle over her head.

  “Such a cowardly act, from one who isn’t,” he murmured, the words rich with amusement. “But I don’t mind simply holding you. It has its own compensations.”

  She was a coward, though, Evie thought. She was terrified of him, not in a physical way, but emotional fear was just as weighty a burden to carry. She was handling him all wrong; he wouldn’t be accustomed to rejection, so every time she turned him down it made him just that much more determined to have his way. If she had played up to him from the beginning, gushed over him, he would have been bored and left her alone. Hindsight, though, despite its acuity, was depressingly useless.

  His hand moved soothingly over her back, subtly urging her closer. It was so easy to let him take more of her weight, so easy to give in to the strain and fatigue she had been successfully fighting until now. She resisted the urge to put her arms around him, to feel the heated vibrancy of his body under her hands, but she could hear the strong, steady thumping of his heartbeat beneath her ear, feel the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed, and that was enough to work its own seduction. The forces of life were strong in him, luring women to that intense strength. She was no different from all those countless, nameless others.

  “Robert,” she whispered. “Don’t.” A cowardly, shameless, useless plea.

  That hand stroked up to her shoulder blades, rubbed the sensitive tendons that ran from her neck to her shoulders, massaged her tender nape. “Evie,” he whispered in return. “Don’t what?” He continued without waiting for a reply. “Is Evie your real name, or is it a nickname for Eve? Or possibly Evelyn? No matter, it suits you.”

  Her eyes drifted shut as his warmth and strength continued to work their black magic on her nerves, her will. Oh God, it would be so foolishly easy just to give in to him. His skill was nothing short of diabolical. “Neither. It’s short for Evangeline.”

  “Ah.” The short sigh was one of approval. He truly hadn’t known her full name; none of the reports he had seen had called her anything except Evie. “Evangeline. Feminine, spiritual, sensual…sad.”

  Evie didn’t respond outwardly to that analysis of her name, but the last word shook her. Sad…yes. So sad that for several long, bleak years she couldn’t have said if the sun ever shone or not, because with her heart she had seen only gray. She could see the sunshine now; the relentless current of life as a whole had swept her out of the darkness, but there was never a day when she didn’t realize how closely the shadows lurked. They were always there, a permanent counterpoint to life. If there was light, there had to be darkness; joy was balanced by pain, intimacy by loneliness. No one sailed through life untouched.

  He was subtly rocking her with his body, a barely perceptible swaying that nevertheless urged her deeper and deeper into his embrace. He was aroused again; there was no mistaking that. She thought she should move away, but somehow in the past few minutes that had ceased to be an option. She was so tired, and the gentle motion of his body was soothing, like the swaying of a boat at anchor. The ancient rhythms were difficult to resist, linked as they were to instincts aeons beyond her control.

  After several minutes he murmured, “Are you going to sleep?”

  “I could,” she replied, not opening her eyes. Beyond the danger, there was deep comfort in his embrace.

  “It’s almost six-thirty. Under the circumstances, I’m sure your customers would understand if you closed a little early.”

  “An hour and a half isn’t a ‘little’ early. No, I’ll stay until eight, as usual.”

  “Then so will I.” He stifled his surge of annoyance. He himself let very few things interfere with his work—in actuality, only Madelyn and her family—but he didn’t like the idea of Evie pushing herself into exhaustion at the marina.

  “It isn’t necessary.”

  “I rather believe it is,” he replied thoughtfully.

  “I still won’t go out to dinner with you.”

  “Fair enough. I’ll bring dinner to you. Do you have any preferences?”

  She shook her head. “I’m not very hungry. I was going to have a sandwich when I got home.”

  “Leave it all to me.”

  She said against his chest, “You take charge very naturally. I suppose this is normal behavior for you.”

  “I’m decisive, yes.”

  “Don’t forget autocratic.”

  “I’m sure you’ll remind me if I forget.”

  She heard the undertone of amusement in his voice. Damn him, why couldn’t he be nasty in his bullying, rather than relentlessly, gently cosseting? She never allowed herself to rely on anyone, though Rebecca had been trying to take care of her for years, but Robert simply ignored her resistance.

  “I realize I’m rushing you,” he murmured into her hair. “Today is only the second time we’ve met. I’ll back off, sweetheart, and give you time to get to know me better and feel more comfortable around me. Okay?”

head moved up and down. She didn’t want to agree to have anything to do with him, but right now she would grasp at any offer to cool down the situation. He had knocked her off balance, and she still hadn’t regained it. Yes, she needed time, a lot of it.

  Robert cupped her chin in his hand and forced her to lift her head away from the shelter of his chest. His pale green eyes were glittering with intensity. “But I won’t go away,” he warned.

  Evie slept heavily that night, exhausted by the stress of the day. When she woke at dawn at the far-off roar of an early fisherman’s outboard motor, she didn’t rise immediately as was her habit but lay watching the pearly light spread across the sky.

  For twelve years she had kept herself safe inside her carefully constructed fortress, but Robert was storming the walls. Had stormed them, if she was honest with herself. He was already in the inner court, though he hadn’t yet managed to breach the defenses of the keep. Since Matt’s death, she hadn’t really seen any man, but Robert had forced her to see him. She was attracted to him, mentally as well as physically; it was only with effort that she had kept her emotions still safely locked away. She didn’t want to love him and knew she risked doing exactly that if she continued to see him.

  But she would see him, time and again. He had warned her—or was it a promise?—that he wasn’t going to leave her alone, and he wasn’t a man who could be easily distracted from his purpose.

  He would kiss her, hold her, caress her. Eventually, she knew, all of her caution would vanish under the sheer force of physical desire, and she wouldn’t be able to stop him—or herself.

  She closed her eyes and relived the way he had kissed her the afternoon before, the way he had tasted, the calm expertise with which he had deepened the kiss. She thought of his lean fingers on her breast, and her nipples throbbed. For the first time since Matt, she wondered about making love in relation to herself. She thought of the feel of Robert’s hard weight pressing down on her, of his hands and mouth moving over her bare skin, of his muscled thighs spreading hers apart as he positioned himself to take her. The appeal of her fantasy was strong enough to make her entire body clench with desire. Yes, she wanted him, as much as she feared the pain he would leave behind when he walked out of her life.

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