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Loving Evangeline (Chapter Four)

Evie stuck her head out the door. "Jason!" she bellowed at her fourteen-year-old nephew. "Stop horsing around. Now!"

"Aw, okay," he grudgingly replied, and Evie pulled her head back inside, though she kept an eye on him, anyway. She adored the kid but never forgot that he was just a kid, with an attention span that leaped around like a flea and all the ungovernable energy and awkwardness that went with early adolescence. Her niece, Paige, was content to sit inside with her, in the air-conditioning, but a couple of Jason's buddies had come by, and now they were out on the docks, clowning around. Evie expected any or all of the boys to fall into the water at any time.

"They're so jerky," Paige said with all the disdain a thirteen-year-old could muster, which was plenty.

Evie smiled at her. "They'll improve with age."

"They'd better," Paige said ominously. She pulled her long, coltish legs up into the rocking chair and returned to the young-adult romance she was reading. She was a beautiful girl, Evie thought, studying the delicate lines of the young face, which still wore some of the innocence of childhood. Paige had dark hair, like her father, and a classic bone structure that would only improve with age. Jason was more outgoing than his sister, but then, Jason was more outgoing than just about everyone.

A boat idled into the marina and pulled up to the gas pumps. Evie went outside to take care of her customers, two young couples who had already spent too much time on the water, judging by their sunburns. After they had paid and left, she checked on Jason and his friends again, but for the time being they were ambling along one of the docks and refraining from any rough horseplay. Knowing teenage boys as she did, she didn't expect that state of affairs to last long.

The day was another scorcher. She glanced up at the white sun in the cloudless sky; no chance of rain to cool things off. Though she had been outside for only a few minutes, she could already feel her hair sticking to the back of her neck as she opened the door to the office and stepped inside. How could the boys stand even being outside in this heat, much less doing anything as strenuous as their energetic clowning around?

She paused as she entered, momentarily blinded by the transition from bright sunlight into relative dimness. Paige was chatting with someone, her eager tone unusual in a girl who was normally quiet except with family members. Evie could see a man standing in front of the counter, but it was another minute before her vision cleared enough for her to make out his lean height and the width of his shoulders. She still couldn't see his features clearly, but nevertheless a tiny alarm of recognition tingled through her, and she drew a controlled breath. "Mr. Cannon."

"Hello." His pale green gaze slipped downward, leisurely examined her legs, which were exposed today, because the heat had been so oppressive that she had worn shorts. The once-over made her feel uncomfortable, and she slipped behind the counter to ring up the gas sale and put the money in the cash drawer.

"What may I do for you?" she asked, without looking at him. She was aware of Paige watching them with open interest, alerted perhaps by the difference in Evie's manner from the way she usually treated customers.

He ignored the distance in her tone. "I've brought my boat." He paused. "You do still have an available slip?"

"Of course." Business was business, Evie thought. She opened a drawer and pulled out a rental agreement. "If you'll complete this, I'll show you to your slip. When you were here the other day, did you see any particular location that you'd like?"

He glanced down at the sheet in his hand. "No, any one of them will do," he absently replied as he rapidly read the agreement. It was straightforward and simple, stating the rental fee and outlining the rules. At the bottom of the sheet was a place for two signatures, his and hers. "Is there an extra copy?" he asked, the businessman in him balking at signing something without keeping a record of it.

She shrugged and pulled out an extra copy of the rental agreement, took the one he held from his hands and slipped a sheet of carbon paper between the two sheets. Briskly she stapled them together and handed them back to him. Controlling a smile, Robert swiftly filled out the form, giving his name and address and how long he intended to rent the slip. Then he signed at the bottom, returned the forms to her and pulled out his wallet. The small sign taped to the counter stated that the marina accepted all major credit cards, so he removed one and laid it on the counter. She still didn't look at him as she prepared a credit-card slip. Robert watched her with well-hidden greed. In the three days since he'd first met her, he had decided that she couldn't possibly have been as lovely as he had first thought or have such an impact on his senses. He had been wrong. From the moment he had entered the marina and watched her through the plate-glass window as she pumped gas, tension had twisted his guts until he could barely breathe. She was still as sleek and golden and sensual as a pagan goddess, and he wanted her.

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

Silently Evie handed him the credit-card slip to sign. He scrawled his signature and returned it to her just as shouts from outside made her whirl. Robert glanced out the window and saw several teenage boys roughhousing on the docks. "Excuse me," Evie said, and went over to open the door.

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

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

"Jason!"

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe the wave motion had washed him under the dock.

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

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

Something brushed her hand.

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

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

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

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

"I already have," Evie heard Paige say, the girl's voice wavery and thin.

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

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

"Let go of Jason. The boys are holding him, so he'll be okay. Do it now."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Thank God," Robert said quietly. "No paralysis."

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

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

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

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

"I'm here."

"Can I sit up?" he asked, beginning to be embarrassed by me attention.

"I don't know," she replied neutrally. "Can you?"

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

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

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

"Mom isn't the only one," Evie replied. "But we'll settle that between ourselves later."

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

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

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

"I'll drive you," he said, releasing her. "You'll need a way back."

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

"Of course you can," he said gently. "But you won't, because I'm driving you."

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

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

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

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

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

"It's a straight shift," she blurted unnecessarily as she buckled her own seat belt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"He will be. I promise."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I think it's called motherhood," Evie replied. "She began practicing on me at an early age."

"She's older, I presume."

"Five years."

"So you've always been 'baby sister' to her."

"I don't mind."

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

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

He allowed himself a slight smile. "I take care of my own." The words were a subtle threat – and a warning, if she were astute enough to hear it.

She didn't make the obvious retort, that she wasn't "his"; instead she withdrew, sinking back in her chair and staring straight ahead. Jason's close call had brought too many old memories to the surface, making it difficult for her to deal with anything just now, much less Robert Cannon. Right now, what she wanted most of all was to crawl into bed and pull the covers over her head, shutting out the world until she felt capable of facing it again. Maybe by the time night came, certainly by tomorrow, she would be all right. Then she would worry about the way he had taken over and about the gentle possessiveness that she couldn't fight. With Cannon, Evie was beginning to link gentleness with an implacable force of will that let nothing stand in his way. He would be tender and protective, but he would not be thwarted.

They sat in silence until Rebecca came out of the treatment room to rejoin them. "They're keeping him overnight," she said. "He has a slight concussion, a big shaved spot on the back of his head and ten stitches. He also won't say exactly what happened, other than mumbling that he fell. What's he trying to hide from me?"

Evie hesitated, trying to decide exactly what to tell Rebecca, and that gave Paige enough time to pipe up. "Scott and Jeff and

Patrick came by the marina, and they were all acting silly out on the docks. Aunt Evie yelled at Jason to settle down, but they didn't. Jason pushed Patrick, and Patrick pushed him back, and Jason slipped and fell, and hit his head on the dock, then went into the water. Aunt Evie went in after him, and she was under forever and ever, and Mr. Cannon tried to find both of them. Then Aunt Evie came up, and she had Jason, and Mr. Cannon pulled them to the dock. Jason wasn't breathing, Mom, and Aunt Evie nearly drowned, too. Mr. Cannon had to do that artificial breathing stuff on Jason, and then Jason started coughing and puking, and the paramedics came. I called 911," she finished in a rush.

Rebecca looked a bit bemused at this flood of words from her quiet child but heard the fear still lurking under the loquaciousness. She sat down beside Paige and hugged her. "You did exactly right," she praised, and Paige gave a little sigh of relief.

Rebecca examined Evie's pale, drawn face. "He's all right," she said reassuringly. "At least for now. As soon as he's recovered, I'm going to kill him. Better yet, I think I'll ground him for the rest of the summer. Then I'll kill him."

Evie managed a smile. "If he lives through all that, I want a turn at him."

"It's a deal. Now, I want you to go home and get out of those wet clothes. You look worse than Jason does."

The smile, this time, was easier. "Gee, thanks." But she knew that Rebecca's sharp eyes had seen below the surface and recognized the strain that she was under.

"I'll see to her," Robert said, standing and urging Evie to her feet. She wanted to protest, she really did, but she was so tired, her nerves so strained, that it was too much effort. So she managed to say goodbye to Rebecca and Paige, and tell them to kiss Jason for her; then she gave in and let him usher her out of the building and across the parking lot to the truck. She had left the blanket behind, but the searing afternoon heat washed over her like a glow, and she shivered with delight.

Robert's arm tightened around her waist. "Are you still cold?"

"No, I'm fine," she murmured. "The heat feels good."

He opened the truck door and lifted her onto the seat. The strength in his hands and arms, the ease with which he picked her up, made her shiver again. She closed her eyes and let her head rest against the window, as much from a desire to shut him out as from an almost overpowering fatigue.

"You can't go to sleep," he said as he got in on the driver's side, amusement lacing his tone. "You have to give me directions to your house."

She forced herself to open her eyes and sit up, and gave him calm, coherent directions. It didn't take long to get anywhere in Guntersville, and less than fifteen minutes later he stopped the truck in her driveway. She rumbled with the door but was so clumsy that he was there before she managed it, opening it and supporting her with a firm hand under her elbow. She got out, reluctant to let him inside her house but accepting the inevitable. Best just to go shower and change as fast as she could, and get it over with.

He entered right behind her. "Have a seat," she invited automatically as she headed toward her bedroom. "I'll be out in about fifteen minutes."

"I'm still too wet to sit down," he said. "But take your time. I'll go out on the deck, if that's okay with you."

"Of course," she said, giving him a polite smile without really looking at him, and escaped into me privacy of her bedroom.

Robert eyed the closed door thoughtfully. She was so wary of him that she wouldn't even look at him if she could help it. It wasn't a response he was accustomed to from a woman, though God knew she had reason to be wary, given his assumption that she knew of his connection to PowerNet. She couldn't have acted any more guilty if he had caught her red-handed. He could opt for patience and let time disarm her, but he already had plans in motion that would force the issue, so he decided to allay her suspicions in another manner, by making a definite, concerted effort to seduce her. He had planned to seduce her, anyway; he would simply intensify the pressure.

He heard the shower start running. He couldn't have asked for a better opportunity to look around, and he took advantage of it.

The house was probably forty years old, he thought, but had been remodeled so the interior was open and more modern, with exposed beams and gleaming hardwood floors. She had a green thumb; indoor plants of all sizes occupied every available flat surface. He could see into the kitchen from where he stood in the living room, and beyond that was the deck, with double French doors opening onto it. A dock led from the deck down to a boathouse.

Her furnishings were neat and comfortable, but certainly not luxurious. Without haste, he went over to the big, old-fashioned rolltop desk and methodically searched it, unearthing nothing of any great interest, not that he had expected to find anything. It wasn't likely she would have been fool enough to leave him in the room with an unlocked desk if the desk contained anything incriminating. He looked through her bank statement but found no unusually large deposits, at least at this particular bank or on this particular statement.

There was a small, framed photograph on the desk. He picked it up and examined the two people pictured. Evie, definitely – a very young Evie, but already glowing with seductiveness. The boy, for he was nothing more than that, was probably her husband, dead now for twelve years. Robert studied the boy's face more closely, seeing laughter and happiness and yes, devotion. But had the boy any idea how to handle the sensual treasure that the girl in his arms represented? Of course not; what teenage boy would? Still, Robert felt an unexpected and unpleasant twinge of jealousy for this long-dead boy, for the riches that had so briefly been his. Evie had loved him, enough that she still wore his wedding ring after all these years.

He heard the shower shut off and replaced the photograph, then quietly walked out onto the deck. She had a nice place here, nothing extravagant, but cozy and homey. There was plenty of privacy, too, with no houses visible except for those on the far side of the lake. The water was very blue, reflecting both the green of the mountains and the deep blue bowl of the sky. The afternoon was slipping away, and the sun was lower now, but still white and searing. Soon it would begin to turn bronze, and the lush scents of the heavy greenery would grow stronger. By the time purple twilight brought a respite from the heat, the air would be redolent with honeysuckle and roses, pine and fresh-cut grass. Time was slower here; people didn't rush from one occupation to another. He had actually seen people sitting on their front porches, reading newspapers or shelling peas, occasionally waving to passersby. Of course, people from New York and other large cities would say that the locals here had nothing to rush to, but from what he'd seen they stayed busy enough; they just didn't get in any great hurry.

He heard Evie come to the open French door. "I'm ready," she said.

He turned and looked at her. Her newly washed hair was still wet, but she had braided it and pinned the braids up so they wouldn't get her shirt damp. She had exchanged the shorts for jeans, and had on a pink T-shirt that made her golden skin glow. But her cheeks were still a bit pale, and her expression was strained.

"You have a nice place," he said.

"Thanks. I inherited it from my in-laws."

Though he knew the answer, now was the time to ask for information; it would be odd if he didn't. "You're married?" he asked.

"Widowed." She turned and retreated into the house, and Robert followed her.

"Ah. I'm sorry. How long has it been?"

"Twelve years."

"I saw the picture on the desk. Is that your husband?"

"Yes, that's Matt." She stopped and looked toward the photograph, and an ineffable sadness darkened her eyes. "We were just kids." Then she seemed to gather herself and walked briskly to the door. "I need to get back to the marina."

"My house is about five miles from here," he said. "It won't take long for me to shower and change."

She carried a towel out to the truck and dried the seat before she got inside. She didn't even bother protesting his continued possession of her keys; it would be pointless, though she was now obviously calm enough to drive safely.

His clothes had dried enough that they were merely damp now, rather than dripping wet, but she knew they had to be uncomfortable. Hers certainly had been. Her conscience twinged. He had not only saved Jason's life but likely hers, as well, and had put himself to a great deal of trouble to see that she was taken care of. No matter how he alarmed her, she knew that she would never forget his quick actions or his cool decisiveness.

"Thank you," she said softly, staring straight ahead. "Jason and I probably wouldn't have made it without you."

"The likelihood was unnerving," he said, his tone cool and even. "You'd pushed yourself so far that you couldn't have gotten him out of the water. Didn't it occur to you to let go of him and come up for another breath?"

"No." The single word was flat. "I couldn't have done that" He glanced at her profile, saw the deepening strain in her expression and deftly changed the subject. "Will your sister really ground him for the rest of the summer?"

Evie was startled into a laugh, a rusty little sound that went right to his gut. "I'd say he'll be lucky if that's all she does. It isn't that he was fooling around, but that I'd already told him to stop and he disobeyed me."

"So he broke a cardinal rule?"

"Just about."

Robert intended to have a few words with the young man himself, about acting responsibly and the possible consequences of reckless actions, but he didn't mention it to Evie. She was obviously very protective of her niece and nephew, and though she couldn't say that it wasn't any of his business, she wouldn't like it. His conversation with Jason would be private.

When he stopped in the driveway of his new house, Evie looked around with interest. "This place has been on the market for almost a year," she said.

"Then I'm lucky no one beat me to it, aren't I?" He got out and walked around the truck to open the door for her. Though she hadn't waited for him to perform the service at the hospital, that had been an emergency; nor would she have waited when they had reached her house, if she had been able to get the door open in time. He'd had the strong impression then that she had wanted to bolt inside and lock him out. Now, however, she waited with the natural air of a queen, as if he were only doing what he should. She might be dressed in jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt, but that didn't lessen her femininity one whit; she expected that male act of servitude. Robert had always preferred to treat women with the small courtesies but hadn't insisted on them when his partner had protested. He was both amused and charmed by Evie's rather regal, very Southern attitude.

He mused about this subtle signal as he ushered her into the house. Though she was still very wary of him, obviously on some level her resistance had weakened. Anticipation tightened his muscles, but he deliberately resisted it. Now was not the time. Not quite yet.

"Make yourself at home while I shower," he invited, smiling faintly as he walked toward his bedroom, which was down the hallway to the right. He had no doubt that she would do exactly as he had done, take full advantage of the opportunity to do a quick search.

Evie stood in the middle of the living room after he had gone, too tense to "make herself at home." She looked around, trying to distract herself. The house was sprawling and modern, one story of brick and redwood, easily three times the size of her own. A huge rock fireplace dominated the left wall, the chimney soaring upward to the cathedral ceiling. Twin white ceiling fans stirred a gentle breeze. The furniture was chic but comfortable-looking, sized to fit a man of his height.

The living room was separated from the dining room by a waist-high planter in which luxurious ferns flourished. Huge double windows revealed a deck, furnished with comfortable chairs, an umbrella table and even more plants. Hesitantly she walked into the dining room for a better view. The kitchen opened up to the right, an immaculate oasis gleaming with the most modem appliances available. Even the coffeemaker looked as if the user would need a degree in engineering to work the thing. There was a breakfast nook on the far side of the kitchen, occupied by a smallish table with a white ceramic tile top. She could see him sitting there in the mornings, reading a newspaper and drinking coffee. Double French doors, far more ornate and stylish than her own, led from the breakfast nook onto the deck. She would have liked to explore further but felt too constrained here on his territory. Instead she retreated to the living room once more.

Robert took his time showering and dressing. Let her look around all she wanted; the fact that she wouldn't find anything alarming would help allay her suspicions. She would begin to relax, which was exactly what he wanted.

A lot of men, maybe most of them, would have made a move while they had been at her house; she had been more off-balance, vulnerable. He had even had the opportunity, had he chosen to take it, of walking in on her while she was unclothed. But he had elected to wait, knowing she would be more at ease now that the most provocative and dangerous circumstances were past. He hadn't made a pass at her then, so she wouldn't be expecting him to do so now. And since she wouldn't be mentally prepared to handle an advance, her response would be honest, unguarded.

Finally he stopped dawdling and returned to the living room. To his surprise, she was still standing almost exactly where he had left her, and little of the strain had faded from her face. She turned to watch him. Her lovely golden brown eyes were still dark with some inner distress that went far deeper than the episode with Jason, traumatic as that had been.

Robert paused while still several feet from her, studying those somber eyes. Then he simply moved forward with a graceful speed that gave her no time to evade him, and took her in his arms. He heard her instinctive intake of breath, saw the alarm widening her eyes as she lifted her head to protest, a protest that was smothered when his mouth covered hers.

She jerked in his arms, and he gently controlled the action, pulling her even more firmly against him. He took care not to hurt her but deepened the insistent pressure of his mouth until he felt her own mouth yield and open. The sweetness of her lips sent an electrical thrill along his nerves, tightening his muscles and swelling his sex. He took her mouth with his tongue, holding her still for the imitative sexual possession, repeating the motion again and again, until she shivered and softened in his arms, her lips beginning to cling to his.

Her tentative response made his head swim, and to his surprise he had to struggle to maintain his control. But she felt perfect in his arms, damn her, all those soft, luscious curves molding to the hard, muscled planes of his body. Her mouth was sweeter than any he had ever tasted before, and the simple act of kissing her was arousing him to an unbelievable degree.

He didn't want to stop. He hadn't planned to do more than kiss her, but he hadn't expected the intensity of his own response. His mouth crushed fiercely down on hers, demanding even more. He heard the soft, helpless sound she made in her throat; then her arms lifted around his neck, and she pressed full length against him. Pure, primitive male triumph roared through him at this evidence of her own arousal. He could feel her breasts, round and firm, the nipples hard against his chest, and he slipped his hand under her shirt to cup one of them, his thumb rubbing across the peaked nipple through the thin lace of her bra. Her body arched, her hips pressing hard against his… and then suddenly she was fighting, panicked, trying to squirm free.

He let her go, though every cell in his body was screaming for more. "Easy," he managed to say, but the word was low and rough and his breath was uneven. He tried for a more controlled reassurance. "I won't hurt you, sweetheart."

Evie had backed away from him, her face pale but her lips swollen and red from his kisses. She forced herself to stop retreating, to stand her ground and face him. The sensual pull of his masculinity was almost overwhelming, tempting her to go back into those arms, to yield to that fierce domination. She felt a sense of doom; he was far more dangerous to her than she had first suspected.

"Yes, you will," she whispered. Her teeth were chattering. "Why are you doing this? What do you want from me?"

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