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Loving Evangeline (Chapter Fifteen)

"Would you like to go fishing this morning?" Robert asked lazily, his voice even deeper than usual. "We've never been out in a boat together."

It was six-thirty. The heat wave was continuing, each day seeing temperatures in the high nineties, and it was supposed to reach the hundred mark for the next few days, at least. Even at that early hour, Evie could feel the heat pressing against the windows.

It was difficult to think. Robert had just finished making love to her, and her mind was still sluggish with a surfeit of pleasure. He had awakened her before dawn and prolonged their loving even more than usual. Her entire body still throbbed from his touch, the echoes of pleasure still resounding in her flesh. The sensation of having him inside her lingered, though he had withdrawn and moved to lie beside her. Her head was cradled on one muscled arm, while his other arm lay heavily across her lower abdomen. She would have liked nothing better than to snuggle against him and doze for a while, then wake to even more lovemaking. It was only when she was sleeping, or when Robert was making love to her, that she was able to forget what she was doing.

But the throb of pleasure was lessening, and a dull ache resumed its normal place in her chest. "I can't," she said. "I have some errands to run." Errands such as finding a place to live. Walter and Helene Campbell had jumped at the chance to buy her house. They had wanted it for years and had decided to pay cash for it and worry about the financing later, afraid she would change her mind if she had a chance to think about it. Evie had promised she would be out within two weeks.

She couldn't bring herself to tell Robert, at least, not yet. She was afraid he would feel pressured to ask her to live with him, when he seemed perfectly satisfied with things the way they were now. It was difficult to think of anyone pressuring Robert to do anything he didn't want to do, and he might not offer, but neither did she want him to think she was hinting that he should. It would be best to find an apartment or house for rent first, then tell him about it.

For that matter, she hadn't told Becky, either. She hadn't told anyone. She had made her decision, but hadn't managed to come to terms with it yet. Every time she thought about moving, tears burned in her eyes. She couldn't bear to go into the explanations and listen to the arguments.

She didn't let herself think about who was behind all these financial maneuverings. First she had to concentrate on saving the marina and finding a place to live. After that was settled, she would try to find out who had been doing this to her.

"What kind of errands?" Robert asked, nuzzling her ear. His hand stroked warmly over her stomach, then covered her left breast. Her nipple, still sensitized from the strong suckling he had subjected it to a short while ago, twinged with a sharp sensation and immediately puckered against his palm. Her breathing deepened. Rather than becoming less intense with familiarity, his sensual power over her body seemed to increase each time he took her.

"I have to pay a few bills and do some shopping," she lied, and wondered why he'd asked. He had no compunction about taking over every facet of her private life but seldom inquired about what she did when they weren't together.

"Why not put it off until tomorrow?" His nuzzling was growing a bit more purposeful, and she closed her eyes as pleasure began to warm throughout her body again.

"I can't," she repeated regretfully. He rolled her nipple between this thumb and forefinger, making it even harder. She caught her breath at the tug of desire, as if the nerves of her nipples were directly connected to those in her loins.

"Are you certain?" he murmured, pressing his open mouth against the rapid pulse at the base of her throat.

Going fishing didn't tempt her, at least not in this heat. Lying in bed with him all morning, though, was so tempting it took all of her willpower to resist. "I'm certain," she forced herself to say. "It has to be done today."

Another man might have turned surly at having his advances refused, but Robert only sighed as he rested his head once again on the pillow. "I suppose we should get up, then."

"I suppose." She turned into him, pressing her face against his chest. "Hold me, just for a minute."

His arms tightened around her, satisfyingly tight. "What's wrong?''

"Nothing," she whispered. "I just like for you to hold me."

She felt his muscles tense. Abruptly he rolled on top of her, his hair-roughened thighs pushing hers apart. Startled, she looked up into slitted green eyes, glittering beneath those heavy black lashes. She couldn't read his expression but sensed his tightly contained violence.

"What – " she began to ask.

He thrust heavily into her, the power of his penetration making her body arch and shudder. He had had her only a little while before, but he was as hard as if that had never happened, so hard that she felt bruised by the impact of his flesh against hers. She gasped and clutched his shoulders for support. Not since the first time he'd taken her had he moved so powerfully. A primal feminine fear beat upward on tiny wings and mingled with an equally primitive sense of excitement. He wasn't hurting her, but the threat was there, and the challenge was whether she could handle him in this dangerous mood, all raw, demanding masculinity.

Desire flooded through her. She dug her nails into his muscular buttocks, pulling him deeper, arching her hips higher to take all of him. He grunted, his teeth clenched against the sound. Evie locked him to her, as fiercely female as he was dominatingly male, not only accepting his thrusts but demanding them. The sensation spiraled rapidly inside her, burning out of control, and she bit his shoulder. He cursed, the word low and hoarse, then slid his arms under her bottom to lift her even more tightly against him. All of his heavy weight bore her into the mattress as they strained together.

The sensation peaked, and Evie cried out as she shuddered wildly in the throes of pleasure. His hips hammered three more times; then he stiffened and began to shake as satisfaction took him, too. He ground his body against hers, as if he could meld their flesh.

The room slowly stopped spinning about her. She heard the twin rhythms of their panting breaths begin to calm. His heartbeat seemed to be thudding through her body, until it was in sync with her own. Their bodies were sealed together with sweat, heat rolling off them in waves.

Their first lovemaking of the morning had lasted an hour. This time, it hadn't taken even five minutes. The fury and speed of it, the raw power, left her even more exhausted than she'd been before.

What had aroused him so violently? After their first night Robert had been a slow, considerate lover, but he had just taken her like a marauder.

He was very heavy on top of her, making breathing difficult. She gasped, and he shifted his weight to the side. Pale green eyes opened, the expression still shuttered. His mouth had a ruthless line to it. "Stay with me today," he demanded.

Regret pierced her, sharp and poignant. "I can't," she said. "Not today."

For a split second something frightening flickered in his eyes, then was gone. "I tried," he said with rueful ease, rolling off her and sitting up. He stretched, rolling his shoulders and lifting his muscled arms over his head. Evie eyed his long, powerful back with pleasure and approval. The layered muscles were tight and hard, the deep hollow of his spine inviting kisses, or clutching hands. He was wide at the shoulders, his body tapering in a lean vee to his hips. She reached out and ran a lingering hand over the round curve of his buttocks, loving the cool resilience of his flesh.

He looked at her over his shoulder, and she saw a smile come into those green eyes. He leaned over to kiss her, his mouth lingering warmly for a moment; then with a yawn he was off the bed and heading toward the shower. She watched him until he closed the bathroom door behind him, drinking in his tall, naked body. She felt like smacking her lips, like a child drooling after a tasty treat. He was a fine figure of a man, all right. Sometimes, when she saw him sprawled naked and sleepy beside her, it was all she could do to keep from attacking him. She lay in bed for a while, listening to the shower run and entertaining a wicked, delicious fantasy in which he was tied to the bed and totally at her mercy.

But a glance at the clock told her that time was still ticking away. Sighing, she got out of bed and slipped into his shirt, then went to the kitchen to make coffee.

When she returned, he was just coming out of the bathroom, a towel draped around his neck but otherwise still completely naked. His skin was glowing from the shower, his black hair wet and slicked back.

"I put on the coffee," she said as she went to take her turn in the shower.

"I'll start breakfast. What do you want this morning?"

The thought of what she had to do that day killed her appetite. "I'm not hungry. I'll just have coffee."

But when she had showered and dressed, she went into the kitchen to find that he had his own ideas about what she was having for breakfast A bowl of cereal, as well as a glass of orange juice and the requested coffee, was sitting at her customary place at the table. "I'm really not hungry," she repeated, lifting the coffee cup and inhaling the fragrant steam before sipping.

"Just a few bites," he cajoled, taking his own place beside her. "You need to keep up your strength for tonight."

She gave him a heated, slumberous look, remembering her fantasy. "Why? Are you planning something special?"

"I suppose I am," he said consideringly. "It's special every time we make love."

Her heart swelled in her chest, making it impossible for her to speak. She simply looked at him, her golden brown eyes glowing.

He picked up the spoon and put it into her hand. "Eat. I've noticed you haven't been eating much while it's been so hot, and you're losing weight."

"Most people would consider that a good thing," she pointed out.

His black eyebrows lifted. "I happen to like your butt as round as it is now, and your breasts perfectly fit my hands. I don't want to sleep with a stick. Eat."

She laughed, amused by his description of her rear end, and dipped the spoon into the cereal. It was her favorite brand, of course; once he had seen the box in her cabinets, a box of the same cereal had taken up residence in his.

She managed to choke down a few bites, more than she wanted and not enough to satisfy him, which was a reasonable compromise. The cereal felt like a lump in her stomach.

Less than an hour later he kissed her goodbye at her door. "I'll see you tonight, sweetheart. Take care."

As she entered the house, she thought it a little odd for him to have added that last admonition. What on earth did he think she would be doing?

Sadly she dressed for work, so she wouldn't have to come back to the house before going to the marina. She wouldn't be braiding her hair in front of this mirror very many more times, she thought. After this afternoon, the house would no longer belong to her. Walter and Helene were getting a real estate agent, a friend of theirs, to handle the transaction immediately. They were supposed to bring all the paperwork to the marina this afternoon, along with a cashier's check in the specified amount. Evie was taking the deed to the property, the surveyor's report that she had had done when she inherited the house, as well as the certification of me title search that had also been done at that time. It was a measure of their trust in her that they were willing to forgo another title search, probably against their agent friend's advice.

She addressed an envelope to the bank in New York, stamped it and added it to her stack of papers. She would take the cashier's check immediately to her bank, deposit it and have another cashier's check made out in the amount of the outstanding loan against the marina. Then she would express-mail that check to New York, to Mr. Horowitz's attention. All her financial troubles would be over.

She wouldn't have her home any longer, but she could live anywhere, she told herself. The marina was more important, the means of her support. With it, she could someday buy another house. It wouldn't hold the memories this one did, but she would make it into a home.

She took a last look in the mirror. "Standing here won't get anything done," she said softly to herself and turned away.

She spent the morning driving around Guntersville. She had checked a few of the rental ads in the newspaper but didn't want to call them yet, preferring to see the houses and the neighborhoods before calling. She knew she was just stalling, despite the urgency of the situation, but somehow actually making contact was beyond her at the moment. She gave herself a stern talking-to, but it didn't help much. She didn't like any of the houses she saw.

It was almost noon when she came to a decision. She made an abrupt turn, causing a car behind her to squeal its tires and the irate driver to lean on the horn. Muttering an apology, she cut through a shopping-center parking lot and back onto the highway, but in the opposite direction.

The apartment complex she had chosen was new, less than two years old, incongruously known as the Chalet Apartments. She stopped the truck outside the office and went inside. Twenty minutes later she was the new resident of apartment 17, which consisted of a living room and combination dining room/kitchen downstairs, along with a tiny laundry area just big enough to hold a washer and dryer, and two bedrooms upstairs. There were no one-bedroom apartments available. She paid a deposit, collected two sets of keys and went back out to the truck.

It was done. She doubted she would be happy there, but at least she would have a roof over her head while she took her time looking for a house.

The cellular phone beeped, and Robert answered it as he threaded his way through the traffic on Gunter Avenue, the oneway street that bisected Guntersville's downtown area and also ran through a neighborhood of grand old houses that looked turn-of-the-century.

"I think she spotted me."

"What happened?" he asked in a clipped tone.

"First she just drove around, all over town. I had to hang back so I wouldn't be as easy to spot. She slowed down several times but didn't stop anywhere. Maybe she was looking for something. Then she got on the highway, going south toward Albertville. She was on the inside lane, I was on the outside. All of a sudden, without a turn signal, she whipped the truck into a parking lot and nearly got hit doing it I was in the wrong lane and couldn't follow her. By the time I got turned around, she'd vanished."

"Damn." Robert felt both tired and angry. Just when he'd been convinced of Evie's innocence, she was suddenly doing some very suspicious things. She was obviously worried about the marina, but there was something else on her mind, something she was trying to keep hidden. This morning, in bed, he had been seized by the urgent need to keep her with him all day, thereby preventing her from doing anything foolish. He wasn't used to women refusing any request he made, but Evie didn't appear to have any trouble doing it. She had said no with insulting ease.

Furious, he had even tried to seduce her into staying with him, only to lose his control, something he'd sworn wouldn't happen again. And afterward she'd still said no.

"I'll pick her up again when she comes to the marina," the man said in his ear. "I'm sorry, sir."

"It wasn't your fault No tail's perfect."

"No, sir, but I should have been more careful about letting her see me."

"Have two cars next time, so you can swap."

"Yes, sir."

Robert ended the call and replaced the receiver. It took all his self-control to keep from driving to the marina to wait for her so he could shake some sense into her as soon as he saw her. But he had to play this through to the end.

As mundane as it was, he had his own errand to run that day: grocery shopping. It wasn't something he normally did for himself, but it wasn't an onerous duty. Despite its strangeness, or perhaps because of it, he didn't mind doing it. Southerners imbued grocery shopping with the same casualness that characterized almost everything else they did. Shoppers ambled down the aisles, stopping to talk with chance-met acquaintances or to strike up conversations with strangers. The first time he had gone into the big grocery store, he had been amused by the thought that a New Yorker relaxed in the park with more energy than Southerners shopped. But when in Rome… He had learned to slow his own pace, to keep from smashing into old ladies who had stopped to pass the time of day.

Today, though, he wasn't in the mood to be amused. It went against his protective, controlling nature to leave Evie to hang herself with all the evidential rope he was feeding to both her and Mercer. He wanted to snatch her away from here, kidnap her if necessary. But if she were involved with Mercer, that would scare off the others and they might never be caught. Not knowing for certain, one way or the other, was driving him crazy with frustration.

Two more days. From the telephone calls they had intercepted, they knew that Mercer would transfer more stolen data the day after tomorrow. Evie hadn't been able to sell any of the rental boats, so that was one less problem for Robert. It didn't matter which boat Mercer took, since they were all wired. As a precaution, he had also had Evie's boat wired. In two days it would all be over except for the cleanup. In three days, if all went on schedule, he would be back in New York, and Evie would be with him.

He wouldn't need many groceries, just enough for three days, but he was completely out of coffee and almost out of food, and he didn't want to eat in restaurants for three days. He strode through the aisles of the grocery store, his expression remote as he planned the damage-control measures he would use. Operating with his usual efficiency, he was in and out of the store within fifteen minutes. As he walked out the automatic doors with a grocery bag in his arms, though, the woman just entering through the other set of doors stopped and stared at him.

"Robert."

He paused, immediately recognizing Evie's sister, Becky. Another shopper was exiting behind him, and he stepped out of the way. "Hello, Becky. How are you?" He smiled faintly. "And how's Jason? I haven't seem him at the marina again."

"Didn't Evie tell you? He can't come back to the marina for the rest of the summer. That's a real punishment to him," Becky said dryly. "The marina's one of his favorite places." She too, stepped away from the doors. "There's no sense standing here blocking traffic. I'll walk you to your car."

They strolled across the hot, sticky pavement. The heat was smothering, and sweat began to gather almost immediately on his skin. Wryly he waited, seeing Becky's determination plain on her face. The protective older sister wanted to have a heart-to-heart talk with him, to make certain he didn't hurt Evie.

They reached the Jeep, and he stored the groceries inside, leaving the door open so some of the heat inside could dissipate. He leaned against the vehicle and calmly eyed her. "You worried about Evie?" he prompted.

She flashed him a rueful look. "Am I that easy to read?"

"She mentioned that you're a bit protective," he murmured.

Becky laughed and pushed her hair out of her face. Her hair was darker than Evie's, but in that moment Robert saw a flash of resemblance, a similarity in expression and in the husky tone of their voices. "The big-sister syndrome," she said. "I didn't use to be this bad, only since – "

She stopped, and Robert felt his curiosity stir. "Since when?"

Becky didn't answer immediately, instead turning her gaze to the traffic on the highway. It was a delaying tactic, to give her time to think and organize her answer. He waited patiently.

"Are you serious about her?" she asked abruptly.

He wasn't accustomed to being interrogated about his intentions, serious or otherwise, but he quelled his surge of irritation. Becky was asking only out of concern for Evie, an emotion he shared. In a very level tone he said, "I intend to marry her."

Becky closed her eyes on a sigh of relief. "Thank God," she said.

"I didn't realize the state of our relationship was so critical," he said, still in that cool, dead-level tone.

Becky's eyes opened, and she gave him a considering look. "You can be very intimidating, can't you?"

He almost smiled. If he could, it obviously wasn't working on her. He'd never managed to intimidate Evie, either.

Becky sighed and looked again at the traffic. "I was worried. I didn't know how important Evie is to you, and… well, the success of your relationship is critical to her."

His curiosity became intense. "In what way?"

Becky didn't answer that directly, either. Instead she asked, "Has she told you about Matt?"

Robert's eyes glittered suddenly. "Probably more than even you know," he said, his voice deepening as he remembered the first time he'd made love to Evie.

"About how he died?"

Sweat trickled down his back, but suddenly nothing could have moved him from the scorching asphalt parking lot. "He died in a car accident, didn't he?" He couldn't remember if Evie had told him that, or if it had been in the report he'd requested on Matt Shaw.

"Yes, the day after they married." She paused, organizing her thoughts, and again she made what appeared to be a shift in topic. "Our father died when Evie was fifteen. I was twenty, already married, already about to be a mother. A year later our mother died. Can you understand the difference in the way losing our parents affected us?" she asked, her voice strained. "I loved them both dearly, but I had built my home with Paul. I had him, I had my son, I had an entire life away from my parents. But losing Daddy shook Evie's foundations, and then when Mother died… Evie didn't just lose Mother, she lost her home, too. She came to live with Paul and me, and we loved having her, but it wasn't the same for her. She was still just a kid, and she had lost the basis of her life."

Robert stood silently, all his attention on this insight into Evie's past life. She didn't talk about her childhood much, he realized. They had talked about a lot of things, sitting on the deck at night with all the lights off and the starry sky spread like a quilt overhead, but it was as if Evie had closed a mental door on her life before Matt's death.

"But she had Matt," Becky said softly. "He was a great kid. We'd known him all his life, and I can't remember when they hadn't been inseparable, first as buddies, then as sweethearts. They were the same age, but even as young as he was, when Daddy died, Matt was right there beside Evie. He was there with her when Mother died. I think he was her one constant, the only person other than me who had been there for as long as she could remember. But I had my own family, and Evie had Matt. He put a smile back in her eyes, and because she had him, she weathered the loss of our parents. I remember what she was like back then, a giggling teenager as rowdy as Jason is now, and full of mischief."

"I can't picture Evie as rowdy," he commented, because Becky's voice had become strained, and he wanted to give her a moment to compose herself. "There's something so solemn about her."

"Yes, there is," Becky agreed. "Now."

The jealousy he thought he had banished swelled to life again. "Because of Matt's death."

Becky nodded. "She was in the car with him." Tears welled in her eyes. "For the rest of my life, I'll carry two pictures of Evie in my mind. One is of her on her wedding day. She was so young and beautiful – so glowing – that it hurt to look at her. Matt couldn't take his eyes off her. The next time I saw her, she was in a hospital bed, lying mere like a broken doll, her eyes so empty that – " She stopped, shuddering.

"They had spent me night in Montgomery and were going on to Panama City the next morning. It was raining. It was Sunday, and they were in a rural area. There wasn't much traffic. A dog ran out into the highway, and they hit it, and Matt lost control of the car. The car left the road and rolled at least twice, then came to a stop, on its right side, in a stand of trees. Evie was pinned on the bottom. Matt was hanging in his seat belt above her. She couldn't get out, couldn't get to him, and he b-bled to death in front of her, his blood dripping down on her. He was conscious, she said." Furiously Becky dashed the tears from her cheeks. "No one saw the car for a long time, what with the rain and the trees blocking the view. He knew he was dying. He told her he loved her. He told her goodbye. He'd been dead for over an hour before anyone saw the car and came to help."

Robert turned to stone, his eyes burning as he pictured, far too clearly, what a young girl had gone through that rainy Sunday. Then he reached out automatically and took Becky in his arms, holding her head against his shoulder while she wept.

"I'm sorry," she finally managed, lifting her head and wiping her eyes yet again. "It's just that, when I let myself think about it, it tears my heart out all over again."

"Yes," he said. Still holding her with one arm, he fished his handkerchief out of his pocket and gently wiped her face.

"She's never let herself love anyone else," she said fiercely. "Do you understand? She hasn't risked letting anyone else get close to her. She's stuck with the people she already loved, before the accident – Paul and me, Jason and Paige, and a few, very few, special friends, but no one else. If you hadn't pulled her and Jason out of the river, she would have drowned rather than let him go, because she couldn't have stood to lose anyone else she loves. She's been so… so solitary, keeping everyone a safe distance from her heart."

"Until me," he said.

Becky nodded and managed a wavery little smile. "Until you. I didn't know whether to be glad or terrified, so I've been both. I want her to have what I've got, a husband I love, kids I love, a family that will give her a reason to go on living when someone else dies." She saw the sudden flare in Robert's eyes and said quickly, "No, she never said anything about suicide, not even right after Matt died. That isn't what I meant. She recovered from her injuries – both legs were broken, some ribs, and she had a concussion – and did exactly what the doctors told her, but you could see that she wasn't interested. For years, life for her was just going through the motions, and every day was an effort. It took a long time, but finally she found a sort of peace. Evie's incredibly strong. In her place, I don't know if I could have managed it."

Robert kissed Becky's forehead, touched and pleased by this fiercely competent woman's concern for her sister. He would, he realized, like having her for a sister-in-law. "You can put down your shield and sword, and rest," he said gently. "I'll take care of her now."

"You'd better," Becky said, her fierceness not one bit abated. "Because she's already paid too much for loving people. God only knows where she found the courage to love you. I've been terrified that you didn't care about her, because if you waltzed out of here at the end of the summer, it might well destroy her."

Robert's eyes glittered. "When I waltz out of here," he said, "I'm taking her with me."

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