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Loving Evangeline (Chapter Six)

Evie slid two food-filled plates onto the table, one in front of Rebecca and the other in front of her own seat, then refilled their coffee cups. "Thanks." Rebecca sighed, picking up her fork. Her eyes were dark-circled after the long, sleepless night spent with Jason in the hospital.

Evie sat down. After making a doctor's appointment for the next day, she had called the hospital to check on Jason. He was fine, but Rebecca had some definitely frayed edges. Not only had she been awake all night to keep watch on him and wake him regularly, evidently Jason had become as fractious and ill-tempered as he'd been as a baby whenever he was ill. He had complained about everything, griping about being woken every hour, even though both the doctor and Rebecca had explained the reason for it. In short, his mother's wrath was about to come down hard on his sore head.

So Evie had gone up to the hospital to take care of the myriad details involved in releasing Jason. Then she'd followed them home, helped get the restless teenager settled, pushed Rebecca into a chair and set about making breakfast for them all. She knew her way around Rebecca's kitchen as well as she did her own, so the work went smoothly, and in no time at all they were digging into scrambled eggs, bacon and toast. Jason was enthroned on the couch with a tray on his lap and the television blaring.

The coffee revived Rebecca enough that her big-sister instincts kicked in. She gave Evie a shrewd look over the rim of her cup. "Where did you have dinner last night?"

"At the marina. Sandwiches," Evie clarified.

Rebecca sat back, looking disgruntled. "He said he would take you out to dinner, then make sure you got home okay."

"I didn't want to go out."

"Really," Rebecca grumbled, "I'd thought the man was made of stronger stuff than that."

If he'd been any stronger, Evie thought wryly, she would have slept in his bed last night. "I was too tired to go out, so he brought sandwiches there. It was kind of him to do everything he did yesterday."

"Especially hauling both you and my brat out of the river," Rebecca said judiciously as she demolished a slice of bacon. "I need to thank him again for you. I'm reserving judgment on the wisdom of saving Jason."

Evie chuckled at Rebecca's sardonic statement. A sharp turn of phrase was a family trait that she shared with her sister, and even Paige had been exhibiting it for some time now.

"However," Rebecca continued in the same tone, "I know a man on the hunt when I see one, so don't try to throw me off the subject by telling me how kind he was. Kindness was the last thing on his mind."

Evie looked down at her eggs. "I know."

"Are you going to give him a chance, or are you going to look straight through him, like all the others?"

"What others?" Evie asked, puzzled.

"See what I mean? They were invisible to you. You've never even noticed all the guys who would have liked to go out with you."

"No one's ever asked me out."

"Why would they, when you never notice them? But I'll bet Robert asked you out, didn't he?"

"No." He'd told her that she was going out to dinner with him, and he had told her that he intended to make love to her, but he'd never actually asked her out.

Rebecca looked disbelieving. "You're pulling my leg."

"I am not. But he'll probably ask the next time he comes to the marina, if that's any consolation to you."

"The real question," her sister said shrewdly, "is if you'll go with him."

"I don't know." Evie propped her elbows on the table, the coffee cup cradled in her palms as she sipped the hot liquid. "He excites me, Becky, but he scares me, too. I don't want to get involved with anyone, and I'm afraid I wouldn't be able to stop myself with him."

"This is bad?" asked her sister with some exasperation. "Honey, it's been twelve years. Maybe it's time you became interested in men again."

"Maybe," Evie said in qualified agreement, though privately she didn't think so at all. "But Robert Cannon isn't the safest choice I could make, not by a long shot. There's something about him… I don't know. I just get the feeling that he's coming on to me for another reason besides the obvious. There's a hidden agenda there somewhere. And he puts up a good front, but he's not a gentleman."

"Good. A gentleman would probably take you at your word and never bother you again, after a hundred or so refusals. I have to admit, though, he struck me as being both gentle and protective."

"Possessive," Evie corrected. "And ruthless." No, he wasn't a gentleman. That cold force of will in his green diamond eyes was the look of an adventurer with a predator's heart. A hollow look of fear entered her own eyes.

Rebecca leaned forward and touched Evie's arm. "I know," she said gently. And she did, because Rebecca had been there and seen it all. "I don't want to push you into doing something you'll regret, but you never know what's going to happen. If Robert Cannon is someone you could love, can you afford to pass up that chance?"

Evie sighed. Rebecca's arguments to the contrary, could she afford to take that chance? And was she going to have the choice?

To her relief, Robert wasn't at the marina when she arrived to relieve Craig. Huge, black-bellied clouds were threatening overhead, and a brisk, cool wind began to blow, signaling one of the tempestuous thunderstorms so common during summer. Both pleasure-boaters and fishermen began coming in off the lake, and for an hour she didn't have a moment's rest. Lightning forked downward over the mountains, a slash of white against the purplish black background. Thunder boomed, echoing over the water, and the storm broke with blinding sheets of rain blowing across the lake.

With all of the fishermen who had put in at the marina safely off the water and the other boats snugly in their slips, Evie gladly retreated to the office where she could watch the storm from behind the protection of the thick, Plexiglas windows. She hadn't quite escaped all the rain, though, and she shivered as she rubbed a towel over her bare arms. The temperature had dropped twenty degrees in about ten minutes; the break from the heat was welcome, but the abrupt contrast was always chilling.

She loved the energy and drama of thunderstorms, and settled contentedly into her rocking chair to watch this one play out against the background of lake and mountains. Listening to the rain was unutterably soothing. Inevitably she became drowsy and got up to turn on the small television she kept to entertain Paige and Jason. A small logo at the bottom of the television screen announced "T'storm watch."

"I'm watching, I'm watching," she told the television, and returned to the rocking chair.

Eventually the violence of the storm dissipated, but the welcome rain continued, settling down to a steady soaker, the kind farmers loved. The marina was deserted, except for the mechanic, Burt Mardis, who was contentedly working on an outboard motor in the big metal building where he did all the repairs. She could see him occasionally through the open door as he moved back and forth. There wouldn't be any more business until the weather cleared, which it showed no signs of doing. At the top of the hour the local television meteorologist broke in on the normal programming to show the progression of the line of thunderstorms that were marching across the state, as well as the solid area of rain they had left behind, stretching all the way back into Mississippi. Rain was predicted well into the night, tapering off shortly before midnight.

It looked like a long, lazy afternoon ahead of her. She always kept a book there for such times and pulled it out now, but so much time had lapsed since she had started the thing that she didn't remember much about it, so she had to start over. Actually, this was the third time she had started over; she would have to carry it home if she ever hoped to finish it.

But she was already fighting drowsiness and after ten minutes she knew that reading was going to tip the scales in favor of sleep. Regretfully she put the book aside and looked around for some chores to do. Craig, however, had cleaned up that morning; the floors were freshly swept and mopped, the merchandise impeccably straight on the shelves or hanging on pegboard hooks.

She yawned and desperately turned the television channel to rock music videos. That should jar her awake.

When Robert walked in half an hour later, she was standing in front of the television, watching with a sort of amazed disbelief. Turning to him, she said in bemusement, "I wonder why bird-legged, sunken-chested musicians feel compelled to show their bodies to the audience?"

He was startled into a deep chuckle. He almost never laughed aloud, his amusement normally expressed, at most, by a twinkle in his eyes. This was twice, though, that Evie had charmed him into laughter. No one would ever suspect her of espionage, he thought suddenly, perhaps because of that very charm. It would be almost impossible for anyone who knew her at all to think ill of her. Even he, who was well aware of her activities, couldn't keep himself from wanting her with a violence that both angered him and made him uneasy, because he couldn't control it.

He pushed those thoughts away as he walked toward her. If he let himself think about it now he would become enraged all over again, and Evie was so astute that he might not be able to hide it from her. When he reached her, though, and encircled her with his arms, forgetting about the other was laughably easy.

She blinked up at him, startled. Automatically she put her hands against his chest in a defensive movement. "You said you were going to back off and give me time," she accused.

"I am," Robert replied, lifting her left hand and pressing his warm, open mouth to the tender flesh on the inside of her wrist. Her pulse fluttered and raced beneath his lips. The scent of her skin was fresh and elusively, lightly fragrant, teasing him far more than if she had dabbed herself with perfume, no matter how expensive. He touched the tip of his tongue to the delicate blue veins that traced just under her skin and felt the throb of her blood beneath his touch.

Evie trembled at the subtle caress, her knees weakening. He felt that betraying quiver and gathered her more firmly against him, then lightly bit the pad at the base of her thumb. She swallowed a gasp; dear God, she hadn't known that could be so erotic.

"Will you go out to dinner with me tonight?" he murmured as his lips traveled on to her palm. Again his tongue flicked out, tasting her. Her hand trembled at the sensation.

"No, I can't" The instinctive denial was out before she could stop it, the habits of a dozen years firmly ingrained. Stunned, she realized that she had wanted to accept, much as a moth yearned toward the flame.

"Do you have another date?"

"No. It – it's difficult." He had no idea how difficult. She took a deep breath. "I haven't dated since my husband died."

Robert lifted his head, a slight frown drawing the black wings of his eyebrows together. "What did you say?"

She flushed and tugged her hand free. She started to wipe her palm against her jeans but instead tightly closed her fingers to hold the feel of his kiss. "I haven't gone out with anyone since Matt died."

He was silent, digesting this information, weighing it for truth. It was difficult to believe of anyone, but especially of a woman who looked like Evie. It was possible, of course, that she wasn't having an affair with Mercer after all, but to have lived like a nun for twelve years just didn't seem feasible. Still, he wasn't about to infuriate her by suggesting she was a liar.

Instead he gently stroked the underside of her jaw with the back of one finger and was immediately absorbed with the velvety texture of her skin. "Why is that?" he murmured a bit absently. "I know all the men down here can't be blind."

She bit her lip. "It was my choice. I… wasn't interested, and it didn't seem fair to waste a man's time under those circumstances."

"Reasonable, for a while. But twelve years?"

Restlessly she tried to pull away from him, but he stilled the movement, tightening the arm that remained around her. They were pressed firmly together from waist to knees, his muscled thighs hard and warm against hers. A man's strength was wonderful, she thought, inviting a woman to relax against him. Until Robert had taken her in his arms, she hadn't realized how very much she needed to be held. But not by just any man; only by him. In that moment Evie knew for certain that she had lost the battle. There was no use trying to evade him; not only would he refuse to let her get away with it, but she didn't want to get away with it, not any longer. For better or worse, and with dizzying speed, she had gotten herself involved with Robert Cannon. Dear God, she didn't know if she had the strength to do this, but she knew she had to try.

She didn't try to explain those twelve years. Instead she said, to his chest, "All right. I'll go out with you. Now what?"

"For starters, you could raise your head."

Slowly she did, mentally bracing herself as she met his crystalline eyes. She had expected to see amusement in them, but it was triumph glittering there rather than mirth. She shivered, more from sudden alarm than from the coolness brought by the steady rain.

"Cold?" he asked softly, rubbing his warm hands up the length of her arms.

"No. Afraid," she admitted, with painful candor. "Of you, of getting involved with you." Her eyes were deep and mysterious with shadows as she looked up at this man who had so inexplicably forced himself into her life. If he insisted on establishing some kind of romantic relationship with her, he should know up front how she felt about a few things. "I'm not good at games,

Robert. Don't kiss me unless it's for real. Don't come around unless you mean to stay."

"Do you mean marriage?" he asked coolly, his expressive eyebrows lifting.

Her cheeks burned at his tone. Of course it was ridiculous to think of marriage; that wasn't at all what she had meant. At least, not the legality of marriage, the institution itself. Mentally she shied from the notion, unable to even think of it. "Of course not! I never want to get married again. But the stability, the emotional security, what I had with Matt… well, I won't settle for anything less than that, so if you're looking for a summer affair, I'm not your woman."

His mouth twisted as an unreadable expression crossed his face. "Oh, but you are. You just haven't admitted it to yourself yet."

She shivered again, but her gaze didn't waver. "I want emotional commitment. Under those terms, if you're still willing to get involved with me, I'll go out with you. I'm not comfortable with you, but I expect that will change as we get to know each other. And I don't want to sleep with you. That would just be too risky." He probably thought she meant physically, but for her the emotional risk was by far more dangerous.

He studied her face for a long moment before saying calmly, "All right, we'll take our time and get to know each other. But I do want to make love with you, and I'm not going to take a vow of chastity." He cupped her face in his hands, and the glitter in his eyes became more pronounced as his head began to slowly descend. "All you have to do to stop me, at any time," he whispered as his mouth touched hers, "is say no."

Her breath sighed out of her, as soft as a night breeze. The freedom to enjoy him was glorious; it felt as if she had long been frozen and was now thawing, growing warm with life again. For the first time her mouth opened welcomingly beneath his, and he took it with a calm mastery that liquefied her bones. He could give lessons in kissing, she thought hazily. His tongue probed and stroked, enticing her into a like response, so that their tongues touched and curled and petted. It was surprisingly sweet, and totally erotic.

It seemed as if he kissed her like that for a long time, simply holding her face between his palms, her body still pressed full against his. The play of his lips and tongue was both lulling and arousing. Her anxiety faded even as warmth slowly spread through her breasts and loins, making her feel as soft as butter. Her left hand was closed around his right wrist, but her right hand was leisurely stroking his back, feeling the firm, hard layers of muscle, the hollow of his spine, instinctively learning some of the details of how he was made.

The television played on unnoticed. No one came to the door on this rainy day; they stood alone in the office, oblivious to the music and the steady patter of the rain, hearing only each other's breathing and the soft, unconscious sounds of pleasure. Like a morning glory opening its shy face to the sun, Evie slowly bloomed in his arms, her golden sensuality growing in confidence. He was painfully aroused but held himself under strict control, ignoring his own condition so that she didn't feel pressured. She felt… safe, free to relax, and let herself feel the new sensations, explore the limits of her own desire. It was very different from the way it had been with Matt. She had been a girl then, and now she was a woman, with a woman's deeper and richer passion.

Though he had kissed her before, she had been distracted by the dangerous desire she felt for this man. Now, having given in, she could concentrate on the little details. She reveled in his taste, as the coolness of his lips rapidly became warm, then hard and hot. She measured the broadness of his shoulders, her palms smoothing over the curve of the joint and feeling the hardness of his solid bones covered by pads of muscle. She touched his hair, feeling it thick and silky and cool, warmer underneath, where it lay close to his skull. She felt the rasp of his five o'clock stubble against her cheeks. She inhaled the clean, musky scent of his maleness, a faint odor of soap, the fresh smell of rain on his clothes and skin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Tomorrow?"

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

He sighed. "The day after tomorrow?"

"I'll ask him."

"Thank you," he said with faint irony.

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

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

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

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

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

"I'll try to get up there before I go back to New York," he promised.

"Try really hard. We haven't seen you since spring. Take care."

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

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

"No, sir."

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

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

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

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