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Loving Evangeline (Chapter Eighteen)

Evie's absence left a great, gaping hole in his life. Robert had never before in his life missed a woman or let one assume enough importance to him that he was lonely without her, but that was the predicament he found himself in now. After her flat rejection of his marriage proposal, he'd returned to New York the next day and immediately taken up the threads of his business concerns, but the social whirl he had enjoyed before seemed simultaneously too frantic and too boring. He didn't want to attend the opera or the endless parade of dinner parties; he wanted to sit out on the deck in the warm, fragrant night, listening to the murmur of the river and enjoying the array of stars scattered across the black sky. He wanted to lie naked on the chaise with Evie, motionless, their bodies linked, until their very stillness was unbearably erotic and they both shattered with pleasure.

Sex had always been a controlled but extremely important part of his life, but now he found himself unresponsive to the lures cast his way. His sex drive hadn't abated; it was driving him crazy. But he didn't want the controlled pleasure he'd known before, his mind staying remote from his body. He hadn't been remote when he'd made love with Evie, and several times he hadn't been controlled, either. Having her naked under him, thrusting into her tight, unbelievably hot sheath, and feeling her turn into pure flame in his arms…

The carnal image brought him to full arousal, and he lunged to his feet to prowl restlessly around the apartment, swearing between his teeth with every step. Nothing else made him hard these days, but just the thought of Evie could do it. He wanted her, and her absence was like acid, eating away at his soul.

He still couldn't decide what had gone wrong. He sensed the answer, but it was an ethereal thing, always floating just beyond his comprehension. His inability to understand the problem was as frustrating, in its own way, as his hunger for Evie. He had always been able to grasp nuances, see clearly to the crux of any problem, with a speed that left others in the dust. Now it was as if his brain had failed him, and the thought infuriated him.

It wasn't the house. As much as that had hurt her, she had understood his explanation; he had seen that in her eyes. Balanced against national security, her house was nothing, and she had believed him when he'd told her that he'd never intended to go through with the foreclosure. It was a dreadful miscalculation on his part, and though it chafed that he had made such a mistake, Evie had made a move that no one could have anticipated. Mortgage the house, yes, but not sell it. He was still stunned by the solution she had chosen.

But she had forgiven him for that, had even forgiven him for suspecting that she might be a traitor.

Why in hell, then, had she refused to marry him? The expression in her eyes still haunted him, and he lay awake nights aching with the need to put the glow back into her face. His golden, radiant Evie had looked like… ashes.

She loved him. He knew that as surely as he knew his heart beat in his chest. And still she had turned him down. "Go away, Robert," she'd said, and the finality in her voice had stunned him. So he had gone away, and he felt as if, every day away from her, he died a little more.

Madelyn had called several times, and she was becoming insistent that he come to Montana for a visit. Knowing his sister as he did, he was ruefully aware that he had maybe two more days to get out there before she turned up on his doorstep, holding one toddler by the hand and the other balanced on her hip, a ruthless expression in those lazy gray eyes. She knew him well enough to sense that something was wrong, and she wouldn't rest until she knew what it was. Her determination had been a fearsome thing when she'd been a child, and it had gotten worse as she'd grown older.

Robert swore in frustration, then made a swift decision. Other than Evie, Madelyn was the most astute woman he knew. Maybe, as a woman, she could put her finger on the reason that was eluding him. He called Madelyn to let her know he was coming.

With the time difference, it was still early the next morning when his plane landed in Billings. The ranch was another hundred and twenty miles, and had its own airstrip, so he had long since developed the habit of renting a small plane and flying the rest of the way, rather than making the long drive. As he banked to align the Cessna with the runway, he saw Madelyn's four-wheel drive Explorer below; she was leaning against the hood, her long hair lifting in the breeze. The color of her hair was lighter and cooler than Evie's tawny-blond mane, but still his heart squeezed at the similarity.

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 destroy 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 knew, 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 practicality 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 comers 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?"

"Yes," she said, and splintered with joy. "Robert, yes!"

He bucked violently against her with his climax, flooding her with moisture and heat. Evie locked her legs around him and took him deep within, her senses whirling and fading, all consciousness gone except for the primal awareness of him inside her.

Some endless time later, she realized that she was on the bed and he was stretched out naked beside her. She hadn't fainted, but neither had she been aware of anything else but him. He hadn't released her during the entire time he had stripped both her and himself, struggling out of clothing while still keeping her in his grasp. She turned to snuggle closer, and the lure of his body, after the long deprivation, was too great. She found herself on top of him, wriggling to find the right contact and nestle his sex against the soft heat between her legs. He caught his breath, and she felt him begin to harden again.

"You might get started on that house full of kids sooner than you thought," she murmured, moving against him again in voluptuous delight. "I stopped taking the birth-control pills the day you left."

"Good." He caressed her bottom and hip, urging her closer to him. "I don't want to hurt you," he said even as he slipped inside her.

She heard the worry in his voice and knew that he was uneasy with releasing all the force he'd kept contained for so long. She kissed him and bit his lip as his subtle movements made her nerve endings riot with pleasure. "You can't hurt me by loving me," she said.

His eyes glittered in the faint light coming from the lamp in the living room. "That's good," he murmured. "Because God knows I do."

Epilogue

Evie heard the elevator arrive and crouched down beside the tiny, adorable creature who was clinging unsteadily to the chair in the entrance hall. "There's Daddy," she whispered, and watched her daughter's big eyes go round with delight. She barely restrained herself from gathering the baby into her arms; sometimes the surge of love was so strong that she thought she would burst from the force of it.

The elevator doors slid open, and Robert stepped out, an indescribable light flaring in his pale green eyes as he saw them waiting for him. With a joyous gurgle, the baby let go of the chair and hurled herself toward him, every toddling step teetering on the edge of disaster. Robert turned absolutely white, dropped his briefcase with a thud, and went down on one knee to swoop her into his arms. "My God," he said, shocked. "She's walking!"

"For a couple of hours now," Evie said, smiling as Angel caught her father's silk tie in one tiny, chubby hand and began babbling at him. "It makes my heart stop every time she lurches across the floor."

"She's too young to walk. She's only seven months old." Aghast, he stared down at the small head, covered with downy dark hair, that butted against his chest. He had been just as aghast when she had started crawling at five months. If he could, Robert would have kept his darling offspring as a babe in arms for the first five years of her life. She, however, was blissfully oblivious of his panic at her daring.

Still holding the baby, he hugged Evie close for a long kiss, one that quickly grew heated despite his squirming burden, who tried to poke her fingers between their mouths. They had named her Jennifer Angelina, intending to call her Jenna, but instead she had been Angel from the day she'd been born. She was angelic only when she was asleep, however; during waking hours, she had the fearless spirit of a daredevil.

Evie clung to his mouth for a long time, her hand clenching his hair to hold him in place. She had been waiting all day for him to come home, feeling shivery and excited and a little frightened.

"You were right," she murmured.

He lifted his head, and the green eyes gleamed. "I was, huh?"

She laughed and pinched him. "You knew you were." They had decided to have another baby as soon as possible. Both pregnancy and delivery had been easy for her, and though they had decided that two children would fill the house they were building just fine, they had both wanted to have them close together.

Three weeks ago, they had spent the night locked together, lost in the passion that hadn't faded during the sixteen months of their marriage. When they had awakened at dawn, for their ritual of morning love, Robert had looked down at her with his sleepy green eyes barely open and said, "We made a baby last night."

She had thought so, too, her instincts certain even before the early pregnancy test she'd taken just that morning had confirmed it Already it was as if she could feel that hot, tiny weight in her womb, pulsing with life.

She leaned her head against his broad shoulder, remembering the sheer terror she'd felt when she had realized that she was pregnant the first time. Taking a chance on loving Robert had required all her courage, but now there was to be someone else to love, someone who was part of her, part of Robert. She would have no defense against this new little person, and she had thought she would shatter from the fear. But Robert had known how she was feeling, had seen the raw fear in her eyes and hadn't left her side all day. He had called Felice and announced that he wouldn't be in, cancel everything, and had spent the day holding Evie on his lap or making love to her. His solution, she thought wryly, had been to overwhelm her with what had gotten her in that condition to begin with; the tactic had been amazingly successful.

Angel was trying to throw herself bodily out of his arms. Sighing, he released Evie to bend down and set the baby on her chubby feet. As soon as he released her, she was off like a wobbly rocket. Evie went back into his arms, but they both kept a weather eye on their precocious daughter as she began investigating a fascinating crack in the hardwood floor.

Evie rested her head on his chest, reassured by the strong, steady thump of his heart beneath her ear. Far from losing himself in his work and demanding that she structure her time around him, as he'd said he would, Robert had instead ruthlessly reorganized his office schedule so he could spend every available moment with her and Angel. She had known that he was a man of alarming intensity, but instead of being frightened when he focused it on her, she had bloomed. Robert wasn't a man who loved lightly; when he loved, it was with every fiber of his being.

His hand moved to Evie's belly and pressed in gentle reassurance. "Are you all right?" he asked softly.

She lifted her head and gave him a luminous smile. His love had renewed her strength, banished the shadows. "I've never been better."

Robert kissed her, savoring her sweet taste and the familiar, delicious tension of desire that quivered in their bodies. "I love you, Evangeline," he said, gathering her close to him. Loving her was the most joyous, satisfying thing he'd ever done. She demanded everything from him and gave him all of herself, and sometimes he was staggered by the richness of the bond between them. He'd been right; loving Evangeline took everything he had, heart and soul.

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