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Loving Evangeline (Chapter Seventeen)

Robert started to go after her, then stopped. Instead he swore and hit the countertop with his fist. He couldn't explain anything to her, not yet. Every instinct in his body screamed for him to stop her, but he forced himself to let her go. He stood rigidly, listening as the truck door slammed and the motor started. She didn't spin the wheels or anything like that; she simply backed out of the driveway and drove away without histrionics.

God! She had sold her house. The desperation of the action staggered him, and with sudden, blinding clarity he knew, beyond the faintest doubt, that she wasn't involved with Mercer in any way. A woman who could make money by espionage would never have sold her home to pay a debt. She had appeared to be leaving the marina and meeting with Mercer on the lake, but it must have been nothing more than damnable coincidence. Evie was totally innocent, and his machinations had cost her her home.

She wouldn't listen to anything he said right now, but after he had the espionage ring broken up and Mercer safely behind bars, he would force her to understand why he had threatened foreclosure on her loan. That he had suspected her of espionage was another rocky shoal he would have to navigate with care. He didn't imagine it would be easy to get back into her good graces, but in the end he would have her, because he didn't take no for an answer when he really wanted something. And he wanted Evie as he had never wanted anything or anyone else in his life.

He would have to make amends, of course, far beyond apologies and explanations. Evie was the least mercenary person he'd ever met, but she had a strong sense of justice, and an offer of reparation would strike a chord with her. He could buy her house from the new owners – they probably wouldn't be willing to sell at first, but he cynically suspected that doubling the price would change their minds – and present her with the deed, but he far preferred that she have a newer, bigger house. The simplest thing would be to deed over his own house to her. It meant nothing to him, he could buy a house anywhere he wanted, but Evie needed a base that was hers and hers alone. It would be a vacation home, a getaway when they needed a break from the hubbub of New York, a place for her to stay when she wanted to visit Becky.

He fished the damning fax out of the trash and read it. Three concise sentences, Felice at her most efficient. There was nothing more he could do about the loan; realizing that, she had deprioritized it and sent the information by fax so he could have it immediately but respond at his leisure, rather than calling and wasting both his time and hers. Felice was a genius at whittling precious seconds here and there so she would have more time to devote to the truly important matters. In this instance, however, her knack for superefficiency had worked against him and perhaps cost him Evie.

No. No matter what, he wouldn't let Evie go.

Evie drove automatically, holding herself together with desperate control. She tried to empty her mind, but it wasn't possible. How could she be so numb but hurt so much at the same time? She literally ached, as if she had been beaten, yet felt somehow divorced from her body. She had never felt as remote as she did now, or as cold and hollow. The heat of the sun washed over her, but it didn't touch her. Even her bones felt cold and empty.

Why? She hadn't asked him that and couldn't think of a reason that would matter. The why of it wasn't important. The hard fact was that he had sought her out for a reason that had nothing to do with love or even attraction, used the intimacy he had deliberately sought as a means to gather information that he wanted, and men turned that knowledge against her. How had he known about the loan in the first place? She supposed it was possible a credit report would have given him the information, but a far more likely explanation was that he had simply taken a look through the papers in her desk at home. There had been ample opportunity for him to do so; the very first time he had been in her house, she remembered, was when he had brought her home to change clothes after Jason had fallen in the water, and she had left him alone while she showered and changed.

She didn't know why he had targeted her marina, and she didn't care. She marked it down to simple avarice, the greedy impulse to take what belonged to others.

She hadn't known him at all.

She was still calm and dry-eyed when she reached her house. No – not her house any longer, but the Campbells'. Dazed, she unlocked the door and walked inside, looked at the familiar form and content of her home, and bolted for the bathroom. She hung over the toilet and vomited up the little coffee she had swallowed, but the dry, painful heaves continued long after her stomach was emptied.

When the spasms finally stopped, she slumped breathless to the floor. She had no idea how long she lay there, in a stupor of exhaustion and pain, but after a while she began to cry. She curled into a ball, tucking her legs up in an effort to make herself as small as possible, and shuddered with the violent, rasping sobs that tore through her. She cried until she made herself sick and vomited again.

It was a long time before she climbed shakily to her feet. Her eyelids were swollen and sore, but she was calm, so calm and remote that she wondered if she would ever be able to feel anything again. God, she hoped not!

She stripped, dropping her clothes to the floor. She would throw them out later; she never wanted to see that skirt again, or any other garment she had worn that night. She was shivering as she climbed into the shower, where she stood for a long time, letting the hot water beat down on her, but the heat sluiced off her skin just like the water, none of it soaking in to thaw the bone-deep cold that shook her.

She would have stood there all day, paralyzed by the mind-numbing pain, but at last the hot water began to go and the chill forced her out. She wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed, close her eyes and forget, but that wasn't an option. She wouldn't forget. She would never forget. She could stay in the shower forever, but it wouldn't wash his touch off her flesh or his image out of her mind.

He had never wanted her at all. He had wanted the marina.

The marina. Her mind fastened on it with desperate gratitude. She still had the marina, had salvaged something from the ruin Robert Cannon had made of her life. No matter how much damage he had done, he hadn't won.

The habits of years took over as she moved slowly about, getting ready to go to work. After towel-drying her hair, she stood in front of the bathroom mirror to brush out the tangles and braid it. Her own face looked back at her, white and blank, her eyes dark, empty pools. Losing Matt had been devastating, but she had carried the knowledge of his love deep inside. This time she had nothing. The care Robert had shown her had been an illusion, carefully fostered to deceive her. The passion between them, at least on his part, had been nothing more than a combination of mere sex and his own labyrinthine plotting. The man could give lessons to Machiavelli.

He had destroyed the protective shield that had encased her for so many years. She had thought she couldn't bear any more pain, but now she was learning that her capacity for pain went far beyond imagination. She wouldn't die from it, after all; she would simply rebuild the shield, stronger than before, so that it could never be penetrated again. It would take time, but she had time; she had the rest of her life to remember Robert Cannon and how he had used her.

She hid her sore, swollen eyes behind a pair of sunglasses and carefully drove to the marina, not wanting to have an accident because she wasn't paying attention. She refused to die in a car accident and give Cannon the satisfaction of winning.

When she drove up to the marina, everything looked strangely normal. She sat in the truck, staring at it for a few seconds, bewildered by the sameness of it. So much had happened in such a short time that it seemed as if she had been gone for weeks, rather than overnight. No matter what, she still had this.

Robert prowled the house like a caged panther, enraged by the need to wait. Waiting was alien to him; his instinct was to make a cold, incisive decision and act on it. The knowledge of the pain Evie must be feeling, and what she must be thinking, ate at him like acid. He could make it up to her for the house, but could he heal the hurt? Every hour he was away from her, every hour that passed with her thinking he had betrayed her, would deepen the wound. Only the certainty that she would refuse to listen to him now kept him from going after her. When Mercer was in jail, when he had the proof of what he'd been doing and could tell her the why, then she would listen to him. She might slap his face, but she would listen.

It was almost three o'clock when the phone rang. "Mercer's moving early," his operative barked. "He panicked and called them from the office. No dead drop this time. He told them that he needed the money immediately. It's a live handoff, sir. We can catch the bastards red-handed!"

"Where is he now?"

"About halfway to Guntersville, the way he was driving. We have a tail on him. I'm on the way, but it'll take me another twenty-five minutes to get there."

"All right. Use the tracking device and get there as fast as you can. I'll go to the marina now and get ahead of him. He's never seen my boat, so he won't spot me."

"Be careful, sir. You'll be outnumbered until we can get there."

Robert smiled grimly as he hung up the phone. Everything he needed was in the boat: weapons, camera, binoculars and tape recorder. Mercer's ass was in a sling now.

He drove to the marina, ignoring the speed laws. He only hoped Evie wouldn't come out when she saw him and do something foolish like cause a scene. He didn't have time for it, and he sure as hell didn't want to attract any attention. He tried to imagine Evie causing a scene, but the idea was incongruous. No, she wouldn't do that; it wasn't her style at all. She would simply look through him as if he didn't exist. But when he reached the marina, he didn't take any chances. He went straight to the dock where his boat was moored, not even glancing at the office.

Evie heard him drive up. She knew the sound of that Jeep as intimately as she knew her own heartbeat. She froze, trying to brace herself for the unbearable, but the seconds ticked past and the door didn't open. When she forced herself to turn and look out the window, she caught a glimpse of his tall, lean figure striding purposefully down the dock toward his boat. A minute later she heard the deep cough of the powerful motor, and the sleek black boat eased out of its slip. As soon as he was out of the Idle Speed Only zone, he shoved the throttle forward, and the nose of the boat rose like a rearing stallion as the craft shot over the water, gaining speed with every second.

She couldn't believe how much it hurt just to see him.

Landon Mercer walked in ten minutes later. Loathing rose in her throat, choking her, and it was all she could do to keep from screaming at him. Today, though, there was none of the slimy come-on attitude he thought was so irresistible; he was pale, his face strained. He was wearing slacks and a white dress shirt, the collar unbuttoned. Sweat beaded on his forehead and upper lip. He carried the same tackle box, but no rod and reel.

"Got a boat for me, Evie?" he asked, trying to smile, but it was little more than a grimace.

She chose a key and gave it to him. "Use the one on the end."

"Thanks. I'll pay you when I get back, okay?" He was already going out the door when he spoke.

Something in her snapped. It was a quiet snap, but suddenly she had had enough. Mercer was definitely up to no good, and today he hadn't even made the pretense of going fishing. The marina was all she had left, and if that bastard was dealing drugs and dragged her into it by using her boats, she might lose the marina after all.

Over her dead body.

It was too much, all the events of the day piling on top of her. She wasn't thinking when she strode out to the truck and retrieved her pistol from under the seat, then hurried to her own boat. If she had been thinking, she would have called the police or the water patrol, but none of that came to mind. Still reeling from shock, she could focus on only one thing – stopping Mercer.

Robert had positioned his boat where he could see Mercer leave the marina and fall in behind him without attracting his notice. The tracking device was working perfectly, the beeping increasing in speed as Mercer approached his position, then decreasing as the rental boat sped past. Not wanting to get too close and scare off the people Mercer was meeting, he started the motor and began idling forward, letting Mercer put more distance between them.

Another boat was coming up fast on the left, intersecting his path at a right angle. There was enough space that Robert didn't have to back off his speed, and he kept his eye on the diminishing dot on Mercer's boat. Then the other boat flashed across his line of vision, and he saw a long blond braid bouncing as the boat took the waves.

Evie! His heart leapt into his throat, almost choking him. Her appearance stunned him; then, suddenly, he knew. She was following Mercer! That was what she'd been doing all along. With that unsettling intuition of hers, she had known that Mercer was up to no good and had taken it upon herself to try to find out what it was. He even knew her reasoning: by using one of her boats, Mercer was involving her marina. Robert knew better than most to what lengths she would go to protect that place. She would give up her home, and she would risk her life.

Swearing savagely, he picked up the secure phone and punched in the number even as he pushed the throttle forward. "Evie is following Mercer," he snarled when the call was answered on half a ring. "She's on our side. Pass the word and make damn sure no one fires on her by mistake!"

His blood ran cold at the thought. None of his people would shoot at her, but what about the others?

* * * * *
Mercer was heading toward the islands again, as she had known he would. She kept about five hundred yards between them, enough distance that her presence wouldn't worry him, at least not yet. She would close the gap in a hurry when he reached the islands and slowed down.

The pistol lay in her lap. It was a long-barreled .45 caliber, very accurate, and she not only had a license to carry it, she knew how to use it. Whatever Mercer was doing, it was going to stop today.

There was another boat anchored between two of the smaller islands, two men inside it. Mercer didn't take his usual circuitous route around and through the islands, but headed straight toward the other boat. Grimly Evie increased her speed and followed.

Mercer pulled up alongside the other boat and immediately passed the tackle box over. Evie saw one of the men point to her as she neared, and Mercer turned to look. She wasn't wearing a hat or sunglasses, and though her hair was braided, she knew she was easily recognizable as a woman. But she didn't care if Mercer recognized her, because the time for stealth was past.

The fact that she was a woman, and alone, made them less cautious than they should have been. Mercer was standing, his feet braced against the gentle rocking of the boat. Confident that they hadn't been caught doing anything suspicious, he said something in a low tone to the two other men, then raised his voice to call to her. "Evie, is something wrong?"

She waved to allay any suspicions. She was still twenty yards away. She eased the throttle into neutral, knowing that the boat would continue nosing forward for several yards even without power. Then, very calmly, she lifted the pistol and pointed it at the man holding the tackle box.

"Don't make me nervous," she said. "Put the tackle box down."

The man hesitated, darting a petrified look at his partner, who was still behind the wheel of the boat. Mercer was frozen, staring at her and the huge pistol in her hand.

"Evie," he said, his voice shaking a little. "Listen, we'll cut you in. There's a hell of a lot of money – "

She ignored him. "I told you to put the box down," she said to the man who was holding it. Her mind still wasn't functioning clearly. All she could think was that if he dropped the tackle box into the river, the evidence would sink and there wouldn't be any way of proving what he was doing. She had no idea how she would manage to get three men and three different boats to the authorities, but there was a lot of boat traffic on the river this afternoon, and eventually someone would come over this way.

Another boat was coming up behind her already, way too fast. Mercer's attention switched to it, and a sick look spread over his face, but Evie didn't let her attention waver from the man holding the tackle box. A sleek black boat appeared in her peripheral vision, nosing up to the side of the boat holding the two men. Robert rose from the seat, holding the steering wheel steady with his knee as he leveled a pistol on the three men, his two-fisted grip holding the weapon dead level despite the rocking of the boat.

"Don't even twitch a muscle," he said, and the tone of his voice made Evie risk a quick glance at him. The facade of urbanity had fallen completely away, and he made no attempt now to disguise his true nature. The lethal pistol in his hand looked like a natural extension of his arm, as if he had handled weapons so often it was automatic to him now. His face was hard and set, and his eyes held the cold ferocity of a hunting panther.

The waves made by Robert's boat were washing the others closer together, inexorably sweeping Evie's boat forward to collide with them. "Look out," she warned sharply, dropping one hand to the throttle to put her motor into reverse, to counteract the force of the waves. The two other boats bumped together with staggering force, sending Mercer plunging into the river. The man holding the tackle box cursed and flailed his arms, fighting for balance, and dropped the box. It fell into the bottom of the boat. Robert's attention was splintered, and in that instant the driver of the boat reached beneath the console and pulled out his own weapon, firing as soon as he had it clear. Evie screamed, her heart stopping as she tried to bring her pistol around. Robert ducked to the side, and the bullet tore a long gouge out of the fiberglass hull. Going down on one knee, he fired once, and the driver fell back, screaming in pain.

The second man dived sideways into the rental boat. Mercer was clinging to the side, screaming in panic as the man hunched low in the boat and turned the ignition key. The motor coughed into life, and the boat leapt forward. Knowing she couldn't get a good shot at a moving target, especially with her own boat still rocking, Evie dropped the pistol and shoved the throttle back into forward gear. The two boats collided with a grinding force that splintered the fiberglass of both craft, her more powerful motor shoving her boat on top of the other. The impact tossed her out of the seat, and she hit the water with a force that knocked her senseless.

She recovered consciousness almost immediately but was dazed by the shock. She was underwater, the surface only a lighter shade of murky green. There was a great roaring in her ears, and a vibration that seemed to go straight through her. Boats, she thought dimly, and terror shot through her as she realized how much danger she was in. If the drivers couldn't see her, they might drive right over her, and the propeller would cut her to pieces.

She clawed desperately for the surface, kicking for all she was worth. Her head cleared the water, and she gulped in air, but there was a boat almost on top of her, and she threw herself to the side. Someone in the boat yelled, and she heard Robert's deep voice roaring, but she couldn't understand his words. Her ears were full of water, and dizziness made everything dim. If she passed out, she thought, she would drown. She blinked the water out of her eyes and saw the wreckage of the two boats, not five yards away. She struggled toward it and shakily hooked her arm over the side of the rental boat. It was very low in the water and would probably sink within half an hour, but for now it was afloat, and that was all that mattered.

The boat that had almost hit her was idling closer. Two men were in it, dressed in jeans and T-shirts. The driver brought the boat around sideways to her, and the other man leaned out, his arm outstretched to her. The sunlight glinted off a badge pinned to the waistband of his jeans. Evie released the rental boat and swam the few feet to the other craft. The man caught her arms, and she was hauled out of the water and into the boat.

She sank down onto the floor. The man knelt beside her. His voice was anxious. "Are you all right, Mrs. Shaw?"

She was panting from exertion, gulping air in huge quantities, so she merely nodded. She wasn't hurt, just dazed from the impact, so dazed that it was a minute before she could wonder how he knew her name.

"She's okay!" she heard him yell.

Gradually her confusion faded, and things began to sort themselves out. She remained quietly in the bottom of the boat, propped against one of the seats, and watched as the two men in the water were hauled out and roughly handcuffed, and the man Robert had shot was given medical aid. Though pale and hunched over, he was still upright and conscious, so Evie assumed he would live.

Four more boats had arrived, each of them carrying a team of two men, and all of those men wore badges, either pinned to their jeans or hung around their necks. She heard one of them briskly identify himself to Mercer as FBI and assumed that they all were.

Other boats who had seen the commotion on the water were approaching but stopped at a short distance when they noticed the badges. "Y'all need any help with those boats?" one fisherman called. "We can keep 'em afloat and haul 'em to a marina, if you want."

She saw one agent glance at Robert, as if for permission, then say, "Thanks, we'd appreciate your help." Several of the fishermen idled forward and added their boats to the snarl.

Evie resisted the urge to look at Robert, though she could feel his hard, glittering gaze on her several times. For the rest of her life she would remember the cold terror she'd felt when that man had shot at him and she had thought she would have to watch another man she loved die in front of her. The devastation she'd been feeling all day, bad as it was, paled in comparison to that horror. Robert didn't want her, had used her, but at least he was alive. Reaction was setting in, and fine tremors were starting to ripple through her body.

The mopping-up seemed to take forever, so long that her sopping clothes began to dry, as stiff as cardboard from the river water. The wounded man was placed in another boat and taken for further medical attention, with two agents in attendance. Mercer and the other man were taken away next, both of them handcuffed. There was a lot of maneuvering around the two wrecked boats as the salvaging continued. Gathering her strength, she took control of the boat she was in, while the driver added his efforts to the job. Finally, though, it all seemed to be winding down. Robert brought his boat alongside the one Evie was handling.

"Are you all right?" he asked sharply.

She didn't look at him. "I'm fine."

He raised his voice. "Lee, get this boat. I'm taking Evie back to the marina."

Immediately the agent clambered back into the boat, and Evie relinquished her place behind the wheel. She didn't want to go anywhere with Robert, however, and looked around for anyone else she knew.

"Get in the boat," he said, his voice steely, and rather than make a fool of herself, she did. There was no way to avoid him, if he was determined to force the issue. If he wanted to discuss private matters, then she would prefer that they were private when he did.

Nothing was said on the ride back to the marina. The black boat moved like oiled silk over the choppy waves, but still every small bump jolted her head. She closed her eyes, trying to contain the nausea rising in her throat.

As Robert throttled down to enter the marina, he glanced over at her and swore as he took in her closed eyes and pale, strained face. "Damn it, you are hurt!"

Immediately she opened her eyes and stared resolutely ahead. "It's just reaction."

Coming down off an adrenaline high could leave a person feeling weak and sick, so he accepted the explanation for now but made a mental note to keep an eye on her for a while.

He idled the boat into his slip, and Evie climbed onto the dock before he could get out and assist her. True daughter of the river that she was, she automatically tied the lines to the hooks set in the wood, the habits of a lifetime taking precedence over her emotions. The boat secured, she turned without a word and headed toward the office.

Burt was behind the counter when she entered, and a look of intense relief crossed his lined face, followed by surprise and then concern when he saw her condition. It went against his grain to ask personal questions, so the words came reluctantly out of his throat, as if he were forcing them. "Did the boat flip? Are you all right?"

Two questions in a row from Burt? She needed to mark this date on her calendar. "I'm all right, just a little shaken up," she said, wondering how many more times that day she would have to say those words. "The boat's wrecked, though. Some guys are bringing it in."

Robert opened the door behind her, and Burt's expression went full cycle, back to relief. "I'll get back to the shop, then. How long do you reckon it'll take 'em to get the boat here?"

"About an hour," Robert answered for her. "They'll have to idle in." He went to the soft-drink machine and fed in quarters, then pushed the button. With a clatter, the bottle rolled down into the slot, and he deftly popped off the top.

"Well, don't make no difference. I reckon I'll stay until they get here." Burt left the unnatural surroundings of the office and headed back to where he felt most comfortable, leaving the oily smell of grease behind.

Evie walked behind the counter and sat down, wanting to put something between herself and Robert. It didn't work, of course; he knew all the moves, all the stratagems. He came behind the counter, too, and propped himself against it with his long legs outstretched and crossed at the ankle.

He held out the Coke. "Drink this. You're a little shocky and need the sugar."

He was probably right. She shrugged and took the bottle, remembering another time when she'd been fished out of the water, and how he had insisted she drink very sweet coffee. The last thing she wanted to do was faint at his feet, so she tilted the bottle and drank.

He watched until he was satisfied that she was going to follow his orders, then said, "Mercer was manager of my computer programming firm in Huntsville. We've been working on programs for the space station, as well as other things, and the programs are classified. They began turning up where they shouldn't. We figured out that Mercer was the one who was stealing them, but we hadn't managed to catch him at it, so we didn't have any proof."

"So that's what was in the tackle box," she said, startled. "Not dope. Computer disks."

His dark eyebrows rose. "You thought he was a drug dealer?"

"That seemed as plausible as anything. You can't sneak up on anyone in the middle of the river. He must have been weighting the package and dropping it in a shallow spot between the islands, and the others were picking it up later."

"Exactly. But if you thought he was a drug dealer," he said, his voice going dangerously smooth, "why in hell did you follow him today?"

"The federal seizure law," she replied simply. "He was in my boat. I could have lost everything. At the very least, he could have given the marina a bad reputation and driven away business."

And she would do anything to protect the marina, he thought furiously, including sell her house. Of course she hadn't balked at following a man she suspected of being a drug dealer! She had been armed, but his blood ran cold at the thought of what could have happened. She had been outnumbered three to one. In all honesty, however, she had had the situation under control until the waves from his boat had washed them all together.

"You could have killed yourself, deliberately ramming the boat like that."

"There wasn't much speed involved," she said. "And my boat was bigger. I was more afraid of the gas tanks exploding, but they're in the rear, so I figured they'd be okay."

She hadn't had time to consider all that, he thought; her reaction had been instantaneous and had nearly given him a heart attack. But a lifetime spent around boats had given her the knowledge needed to make such a judgment call. She hadn't known that reinforcements were almost there, she had simply seen that one of them was about to escape, and she had stopped him. Robert didn't know if she was courageous or foolhardy or both.

She still hadn't so much as glanced at him, and he knew he had his work cut out for him. Carefully choosing his words, he said, "I've been working with the FBI and some of my own surveillance people to set a trap for Mercer. I soured some deals he had made, put some financial pressure on him, to force him to make a move."

It didn't take more explanation than that. Watching her face, he saw her sort through the implications and the nuances of what he had just said, and he knew the exact moment when she realized he had also suspected her. A blank shield descended over her features. "Just like you did with me," she murmured. "You thought I was working with him, because he was using my boats, and because I'd been following him, trying to find out what he was doing."

"It didn't take me long to decide that if you were involved at all, you probably didn't realize what was going on. But you kept doing suspicious things, just enough that I didn't dare relax my pressure on you."

"What sort of suspicious things?" she asked, a note of disbelief entering her flat tone.

"Leaving the marina in the middle of the day to follow him. The day before yesterday, when you left the bank, you immediately stopped at a pay phone and made a call that we couldn't monitor. Yesterday you led the guy following you all over Guntersville, then ditched him by making an abrupt turn across traffic, and we weren't able to find you again until you came to work."

Evie laughed, but the sound was bitter and disbelieving. "All that! It's amazing how a suspicious mind can see suspicious actions everywhere. When the mortgage was turned down a second time, I realized there had to be someone behind it, someone who was blocking the loans. I couldn't lose the marina. The only thing left to do was sell the house, and I knew if I didn't make the call right then, I'd lose my nerve. So I stopped at the first pay phone I came to and called some people who have tried several times to buy the house, to see if they were still interested. They were so interested that they decided to pay me immediately rather than take a chance that I'd change my mind.

"Yesterday," she said softly, "I was looking for a place to live. But I knew I was just dithering, and that the longer I put it off, the worse it would be. So I made a quick turn, drove to an apartment complex and rented an apartment."

Yes, he thought, watching her colorless face. A quick, sharp pain was better than endless agony. Innocent actions based on desperate decisions.

She shrugged. "I thought you wanted the marina. I couldn't figure out why. It means a lot to me, but if you were looking for a business investment, there are bigger, more profitable ones around. Instead, you thought I was a traitor, and what better way to keep tabs on me than to start a bogus relationship and push it until we were practically living together?"

This was the tricky part, he thought. "It wasn't bogus."

"The moon isn't round, either," she replied, and turned to look out the windows at her kingdom, saved at such cost to herself.

"I wasn't going to go through with the foreclosure," he said. "It was just a means of pressure. Even if you'd been guilty, I'd already decided to prevent them from prosecuting you."

"How kind of you," she murmured.

He uncrossed his ankles and left the support of the counter, moving until he was directly in front of her. He put his hands on her shoulders, warmly squeezing. "I know you're hurt and angry, but until Mercer was caught, I didn't dare ease up on the pressure."

"I understand."

"Do you? Thank God," he said, closing his eyes in relief.

She shrugged, her shoulders moving under his hands. "National security is more important than hurt feelings. You couldn't have done anything else."

The flat note was still in her voice. He opened his eyes and saw that he hadn't cleared all the hurdles. The issue of the house was still between them.

"I'm sorry about your house," he said gently. "I would never have let you sell it if I'd known that was what you were planning." He cupped her cheek with one hand, feeling the warm silkiness of her skin under his fingers. "I can't get your house back, but I can give you mine. I'm having the deed made over in your name."

She stiffened and jerked her face away from his hand. "No, thank you," she said coldly, standing up and turning to stare out the window, her back to him.

Of course she had jumped to the wrong conclusion, he thought, annoyed with himself that he had brought up the house before settling the other issue. "It isn't charity," he said in a soothing tone, putting his hand on the nape of her neck and gently rubbing the tense muscles he found there. "It isn't even much of a gesture, come to that, since it will be staying in the family. Evie, sweetheart, will you marry me? I know you love it here, but we can compromise. I won't take you completely away from your family. We can use the house for vacations. We'll come down every summer for a long vacation, and of course we'll visit several times during the year."

She pulled away from him and turned to face him. If she had been white before, she was deathly pale now. Her golden brown eyes were flat and lusterless, and with a chill he remembered how Becky had said she'd looked after Matt had died. What he saw in Evie's eyes was an emotional wasteland, and it froze him to the bone.

"Just like everything else, your compromises are heavily in your favor," she said, a rawness in her voice that made him flinch. "I have a better one than that. Why don't you stay in New York, and I'll stay here, and that way we'll both be a lot happier."

"Evie…" He paused, forced himself to take a deep breath and reached for control. She was wildly off balance, of course, with everything that had happened today. She loved him, and he had hurt her. Somehow he had to convince her to trust him again.

"No!" she said violently. "Don't try to decide how you're going to manipulate me into doing what you want. You're too intelligent for your own good, and too damn subtle. Nothing really reaches you, does it?" She spread her hands far apart and gestured. "You're over here, and everyone else is way over here, and never the twain shall meet. Nobody and nothing gets close to you. You're willing to marry me, but nothing would change. You'd still keep yourself closed off, watching from the distance and pulling strings to make all the puppets do what you want What I had with Matt was real, a relationship with a person instead of a facade! What makes you think I'd settle for what you're offering?" She stopped, shuddering, and it was a moment before she could speak again. "Go away, Robert."

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