Loving Evangeline by Linda Howard


  “God.” Abruptly he drew away, letting his head fall back as he drew in a deep breath. Her response had been hesitant at first, but then she had come alive in his arms, and he felt singed, as if he had been holding the sweetest of fires. His own response to her shook him with its violence. It was difficult to think of anything but taking her, and only their present location kept him from trying. “I’m the one calling a halt this time, sweetheart. We either have to stop or find a more private place.”

  She felt bereft, suddenly deprived of his touch. Her heart was pounding, and her skin felt as if it glowed with heat. Still, he was right. This wasn’t the place for making out like teenagers. “There isn’t a more private place,” she said as she reached out to turn the television from rock to a country video station. The music abruptly changed from rap to a hauntingly passionate love song, and that was even more jarring to her nerves. She punched the Off button, and in the sudden quiet the rain sounded heavier than before. She looked out the window at the gray curtain that veiled the lake, obscuring the far bank.

  “No one will be using their boats for the rest of the day,” Robert said. “Why don’t you close early and we’ll go to Huntsville for dinner.”

  She considered how his questions and suggestions sounded like statements and demands. Had no one before her ever said no to this man? “I can’t close early.”

  “The rain is supposed to last halfway through the night,” he said reasonably.

  “But that won’t stop people from coming in to buy tackle. Granted, there probably won’t be many, maybe not any, but the sign says that I’m open until eight.”

  And she would be, he thought, exasperated by the difficulty of courting a woman who refused to make time for him. He had certainly never had that problem before. In fact, he couldn’t say that he’d ever had a problem with a woman at all—until Evie. Getting close to her presented him with as many obstacles as a mine field. Ruefully he thought that if he was going to spend any time with her, most of it would obviously be here at the marina.

  Rather than become angry, which would only make her more obstinate, he said, “Could Craig swap shifts with you occasionally, if we give him advance notice?”

  A tiny smile lifted the corners of her mouth, telling him that he was learning. “I suppose he could. He’s generally accommodating.”

  “Tomorrow?”

  This time she almost laughed aloud. “I can’t tomorrow.” She had an appointment with her doctor at ten in the morning. Though she had told Robert that she didn’t want to sleep with him, he had said only that he would stop if she told him to. The “if” told her that she should be prudent, because his physical effect on her was potent. Of course, she wasn’t going to tell Robert that she was arranging birth control; he would consider it a green light to making love.

  He sighed. “The day after tomorrow?”

  “I’ll ask him.”

  “Thank you,” he said with faint irony.

  Robert received two phone calls the next morning. He was out on the deck, reading a sheaf of papers that Felice had faxed to him; it was remarkably easy, he’d found, to keep abreast of things by way of phone, computer and fax. The first call was from Madelyn. “How are things in Alabama?”

  “Hot,” he replied. He was wearing only gym shorts. The rain of the day before had made everything seem even more green and lush, the scents more intense, but it hadn’t done anything to ease the heat. If anything, the heat was worse. The morning sun burned on his bare chest and legs. Luckily, with his olive complexion, he didn’t have to worry about sunburn.

  “The weather is perfect here, about seventy-five degrees. Why don’t you fly up for the weekend?”

  “I can’t,” he said, and realized how much he sounded like Evie. “I don’t know how long I’ll be down here, but I can’t leave until everything is tied up.”

  “The invitation stands,” Madelyn said in her lazy drawl. A funny pang went through him as he realized how similar Madelyn’s accent was to Evie’s. “If you do happen to find a couple of days free, we’d love to see you.”

  “I’ll try to get up there before I go back to New York,” he promised.

  “Try really hard. We haven’t seen you since spring. Take care.”

  The phone rang again almost immediately. This time it was the man he had hired to keep watch on Landon Mercer. “He had a visitor last night. We followed the visitor when he left, and we’re working on identifying him. There hasn’t been anything of interest on the phones.”

  “All right. Keep watching and listening. Has he spotted his tail yet?”

  “No, sir.”

  “Anything in his house?” Robert was briefly thankful that he was a civilian and didn’t have to follow the same tortuous rules and procedures that cops did, though it could have been sticky if his men had been caught breaking and entering. They hadn’t seized any evidence, merely looked for it. Information was power.

  “Clean as a whistle. Too clean. There’s not even a bank statement lying around. We found out that he has a safety deposit box, so he might keep his paperwork in it, but we haven’t been able to get into it yet. I’m working on getting a copy of his bank statement.”

  “Keep me informed,” Robert said, and hung up. In a few days Mercer would start feeling a slight squeeze. He wouldn’t think much of it at first, but soon it would become suffocating. Robert’s plans for Evie, both personal and financial, were moving along nicely, too.

  Chapter Seven

  Robert didn’t intend to see Evie at all that day. He was an expert strategist in the eternal battle between men and women; after his determined pursuit of her, she would be expecting him to either call or come to the marina, and the lack of any contact with him would knock her slightly off balance, further weakening her defenses. He had often thought that seduction was similar to chess, in that the one who could keep the other guessing was the one in control of the game.

  He was in control of the seduction. His instincts in that part of the game were infallible. It might take him a few weeks of gentling, but Evie would end up in his bed. Not long after that, he would have this entire mess cleaned up; Mercer and Evie would be arrested, and he would go back to New York.

  Damn.

  That was the problem, of course. He didn’t want Evie in jail. He had been furious when he had come down here, determined to put both her and her lover away for a very long time. But that was before he had met her, before he had held her and tasted the heady sweetness of her. Before he had seen the underlying sadness in those golden brown eyes, and wondered if he would cause that expression to deepen. The thought made him uneasy.

  Was she even guilty? At first he had been convinced that she was; now, even after such a short acquaintance, he was no longer certain. No criminal was untouched by his deeds. There was always a mark left behind, perhaps in a certain coldness in the eye, a lack of moral concern in certain matters. He hadn’t been able to find any such mark in Evie. He had often thought that those who dealt in espionage, in the betrayal of their own country, were some of the coldest people ever born. They lacked the depth of emotion that others had. That lack of feeling wasn’t evident in Evie; if anything, he would say that she felt far too much.

  She hadn’t hesitated at all in going into the river after Jason. That in itself wasn’t unusual; any number of strangers would have done the same thing, much less a relative. But, knowing that every second counted, she had stayed down far too long herself in the effort to find the boy. He knew as surely as he knew the sun was in the sky that she would not have been able to make it back to the surface without his help…and that she had been willing to die rather than release Jason and save herself. Even now, the memory made his bones turn cold.

  He had gone inside to work at the computer, but now he got up and restlessly walked out onto the deck, where the burning sun could dispel his sudden chill.

  Only a person of deep emotion was capable of that kind of sacrifice.

  He braced his hands on the top r
ailing and stared out at the river. It wasn’t green today, but rather a rich blue, reflecting the deep blue of the cloudless sky. There was little, if any, breeze, and the water’s surface was calm. It lapped gently against the dock and the bank with a sound that tugged at something deep within him. All life had originated in the sea; perhaps it was an echo of that ancient time that made people respond so to water. But this river, peaceful as it was now, had almost taken Evie’s life.

  He shivered from another chill. He couldn’t remember, he thought absently, when he had been so enraged…or so afraid. He had ruthlessly controlled both emotions, allowing no hint of them to surface, but they had roiled deep within him. It hadn’t been an intellectual anger, but rather a gut-level rage at fate, at chance, which had seemed to be snatching Evie out of his grasp before he could…what? Have her indicted? He snorted mirthlessly at that idea. The thought hadn’t entered his mind. No, he had been furious that he wouldn’t be able to hold her, make love to her, that the endless stretch of his days wouldn’t have her in them.

  Was Evie the type of person who could betray her country? He was beginning to doubt his own information.

  Indecision wasn’t normally part of Robert’s makeup, and he was impatient with himself now. He couldn’t allow his doubts about Evie’s guilt to alter his plans. If she was innocent, then she wouldn’t be harmed. She would have some uncomfortable moments, she would be worried, but in the end he would take care of the situation, and she would be okay.

  Thinking about her made him edgy. He glanced at his watch; it was a little after noon. She should be at the marina now, and he should already have heard from the tail that he had assigned to follow her every move.

  Right on cue, the phone rang, and he stepped inside to pick it up.

  “She went to Huntsville this morning,” a quiet female voice reported. “Her destination was an office building. The elevator closed before I could get on it with her, so I don’t know where she went. I waited, and she returned to the lobby after an hour and twenty-three minutes. She drove straight home, changed clothes and then went to the marina. Mercer was in his office at PowerNet the entire time, and they didn’t talk on the phone. There was no contact between them at all.”

  “What kind of tenants are in the office building?”

  “I made a list. There are two insurance firms, a real estate office, four medical doctors, four lawyers, three dentists, an office temp company and two computer programming firms.”

  Damn, Robert thought bleakly. Aloud he said, “Find out where she went. Concentrate first on the two programming firms.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  He swore as he hung up. Why couldn’t she have spent the morning shopping, or paying bills?

  He wanted to see her. He wanted to shake her until her teeth rattled. He wanted to whisk her away to some secluded place and keep her locked up there until he had this mess settled. He wanted to ride her until she wept with submission. The violence of all those longings was alien to him, but he couldn’t deny it. She had definitely gotten under his skin in a way no other woman had ever done.

  Temper and frustration merged, and with a muttered curse he gave in. After swiftly dressing, he left the house and climbed in the black Jeep. Damn it, he wanted to see her, so he would.

  Virgil was visiting with Evie again that day. His knee was better, he said, and indeed, he was walking with less effort. The day had been fairly busy, with customers in and out on a regular basis, and Virgil had passed the time with several old friends and casual acquaintances.

  She was busy ringing up a fisherman’s purchase of gas, a soft drink and a pack of crackers when the door opened. Without looking, she knew Robert had entered. Her skin tingled, and she felt an instant of panic. She had hoped, foolishly, that she wouldn’t see him that day, that her frazzled nerves would have a chance to recover somewhat before she actually went out with him the next night. On the other hand, she thought wryly, time and distance probably wouldn’t help at all. Even if he wasn’t there personally, he was in her mind, dominating both her thoughts and dreams.

  Her customer taken care of, she allowed herself to look at him as he genially introduced himself to Virgil, who remembered him, of course. Very little got by that old man.

  Robert was wearing jeans and a loose, white cotton shirt. A khaki baseball cap covered his black hair, and a pair of expensive sunglasses dangled from one hand. Her blood raced through her veins in excitement; even in such casual dress, there was something elegant and dangerous about him. The jeans were soft and faded with age, and he was as at home in them as he was in his silk shirts.

  Then he was touching her on the arm, and it was like being burned with a tiny spark of electricity. “I’m going to take the boat out for a while, run the river and learn something about it.”

  So he wasn’t going to be hanging around the marina all day. She was both relieved and disappointed. “Have you hired a guide?”

  “No, but the river channel’s marked, isn’t it?”

  “Yes, there shouldn’t be any problem, unless you want to explore out of the channel. I’ll give you a map.”

  “Okay.” Thoughtfully Robert looked at Virgil. “Would you like to show me around the lake, Mr. Dodd? That is, if you don’t have plans for the afternoon.”

  Virgil cackled, his faded eyes suddenly gleaming with enthusiasm. “Plans?” he snorted. “I’m ninety-three years old! Who in tarnation makes plans at my age? I could stop breathin’ any minute now.”

  Amusement danced in Robert’s eyes, making them look like pale green diamonds. “I’m willing to take the chance if you are, but I warn you, a corpse in the boat would be a real inconvenience.”

  Virgil hauled himself out of the rocking chair. “Tell you what, son. For the chance to park myself in a boat again, I’ll try real hard not to put you to the trouble of havin’ to call the coroner.”

  “It’s a deal.” Robert winked at Evie as he turned away.

  Evie shook her head as she smiled at Virgil. She knew better than to try talking him out of going. Besides, he deserved to enjoy an hour or so on the river he loved, and she had faith that Robert would be as skillful at handling a boat as he was at everything else he did. How had he guessed, on such short acquaintance, that Virgil would dearly love getting out on the water again?

  “Both of you be careful,” she admonished. “Virgil, don’t forget your cap.”

  “I won’t, I won’t,” he said testily. “Think I’m fool enough to go out without somethin’ on my head?”

  “I’ll bring the boat around to the dock,” Robert said, and she was grateful to him for sparing Virgil the longer walk to the boat slip. He reached the door, stopped and came back to her. “I forgot something.”

  “What?”

  He cupped her chin in one hand, leaned down and calmly kissed her. It wasn’t a passionate kiss; it was almost leisurely. Still, when he lifted his head, her heart was pounding and her thoughts scattered. “That,” he murmured.

  She heard Virgil’s cracked laughter and became aware of the interested gazes of the two customers who were browsing among the hooks and spinner baits. Her cheeks burned with a blush, and she turned away to fiddle with some papers until she could regain her composure.

  Virgil patted her on the arm. Though stooped under the weight of nine decades, he was still taller than she, and he grinned at her. “Heard tell that young feller made hisself useful the other day, when Becky’s boy fell in.”

  She cleared her throat. “Yes. If he hadn’t been there, Jason and I both would probably have drowned.”

  “Fast mover, is he?”

  She found herself blushing again and waved Virgil off with shooing motions. Why on earth had Robert kissed her in public? She would never have thought that he was given to public displays of affection; there was something too contained about him. But he had certainly done just that!

  She watched out the window as he idled the sleek black boat around to the dock, the powerful motor rumbling like thund
er. The sunglasses were in place on the high-bridged nose, giving him a remote, lethal air. She had seen soldiers with that exact expression, and she wondered at it. With a start, she realized how little she knew about Robert Cannon. What did he do for a living? She knew he had to have some money to be able to afford that house, a new boat and the new Jeep. Where was he from? Did he have family, had he been married before, was he married now, did he have children? A chill went through her as she thought of all she didn’t know about him.

  And yet, in a way, she knew the man. He was cool and complicated, a private man who kept a subtle but permanent distance between himself and everyone else. The distance wasn’t physical, God knows; he was the most physical, sensual man she’d ever met. Emotionally, though, he always held something back, keeping the inner man untouched. Probably most people thought of him as very controlled and unemotional; Evie agreed with the controlled part, but there was a ferocity lurking beneath the control that alarmed her even as it called to her own inner fire. He was ruthless, he was autocratic…and he had seen, almost at a glance, how much an old man would love to take a boat ride on his beloved river once more.

  Her breath caught, and there was a pain in her chest. Panic filled her as she watched Virgil hobble out to the dock as Robert brought the boat alongside. Robert held out a strong hand, and Virgil gripped it and stepped aboard the craft. There was a wide smile on his face as he settled onto the seat. Robert handed him a life jacket, and obediently Virgil slipped it on, though Evie was fairly certain he’d never worn one before in his life.

  The panic that almost suffocated her was comprised of equal parts terror and tenderness. She couldn’t feel this much for him, not so soon. You had to know someone for that, and she had just been thinking how little she knew about him. She was fascinated by him, that was all. It was understandable. He was the first man in her life since Matt’s death, twelve long, desolate years ago. He had brought passion alive in her again, with his skillful kisses and determined pursuit.

 
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