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Loving Evangeline (Chapter Ten)

A woman couldn't have asked for a more perfect escort, she realized about halfway through the evening. For all his sophistication, or perhaps because of it, there was something very old-fashioned in the courtesy and protectiveness with which he treated her. Everything was arranged for her pleasure, her comfort, and she herself was old-fashioned enough, Southern enough, to accept it as the way things should be. Robert Cannon was courting her, so of course he should make certain she was pleased by the evening.

His attention was solely on her. He didn't eye other women, though she noticed other women watching him. He held her chair for her whenever she got up or sat down, poured wine for her and asked the maitre d' to turn up the thermostat when he noticed her shivering. It was a matter of his own presence that his request was instantly honored. Whenever they walked, his hand rested warmly on the small of her back in a protective, possessive touch.

In no time, he had put her at ease. It was only natural that she had been nervous about the evening; after all, she hadn't been on a date in twelve years, and there was a great deal of difference between eighteen and thirty. Back then a date had been a hamburger and a movie, or just getting together with a bunch of friends at the skating rink. She wasn't at all certain what one did on a date with a man who was used to the most cosmopolitan of entertainments.

As she watched his dark, lean face, she realized how truly sophisticated he was. He had brought her to a very nice restaurant in Huntsville, but she was well aware that it didn't compare to the sort of establishments available in New York or Paris or New

Orleans. Not by even a hint, though, did he indicate that the standards were less than those to which he was accustomed. Others, worldly but less sophisticated – and certainly less polite – would have subtly tried to impress by describing the truly good restaurants where they'd eaten. Not Robert. She doubted that he even thought of it, for he had the true sophisticate's knack of being at home in any surrounding. He didn't rate or compare; he simply enjoyed. He would have been as happy eating barbecue with his fingers as he was dining with gold flatware and blotting his mouth with a starched linen napkin.

Oh, God. Not only did he play with babies, he was totally comfortable in her world. Just one more thing to love.

He waved his fingers in front of her face. "You've been watching me and smiling for about five minutes," he said with amusement coloring his tone. "Ordinarily I'd be flattered, but somehow it makes me uneasy."

Her mouth quirked as she picked up her fork. "It shouldn't, because actually it was flattering. I was thinking how comfortable you are down here, despite how different things are."

He shrugged and said gently, "The differences are mostly good ones, though I admit I wasn't prepared for the heat. Somehow, ninety degrees in New York is different from ninety degrees here."

Her brows lifted delicately. "Ninety degrees isn't all that hot."

He chuckled and again wondered briefly at her ability to amuse him. It wasn't anything overt, just the subtle differences in her outlook and the way she phrased it. "That's the difference, one of attitude. Though, of course, it gets hotter than that occasionally, to a New Yorker ninety degrees is hot. To you, it's a nice day."

"Not exactly. Ninety degrees is hot to us, too. It's just that, compared to a hundred degrees, it isn't bad."

"Like I said, attitude." He sipped his wine. "I like New York for what it is. I like it down here for the same reason. In New York there's an air of excitement and energy, the opera and ballet and museums. Here, you have clean air, no overcrowding, no traffic jams. No one seems to hurry. People smile at strangers." His eyes lingered on her face, and when he continued his voice was a little deeper. "Though I admit I've been disappointed that I haven't heard you say 'y'all' at all. In fact, I've heard it very few times since I've been here."

She hid her smile. "Why would I say it to you? Y'all is plural. You're singular."

"Is it? That minor detail had escaped me."

"That you're singular?" She paused, aware that she was trespassing into his private life and that he might well shut down as he had that afternoon. "Have you ever been married?"

He sipped his wine again, and his eyes glittered at her over the rim of the glass. "No," he replied easily. "I was engaged once, when I was in college, but we both realized in time that getting married – particularly to each other – would have been a stupid thing to do."

"How old are you?"

"Thirty-six. To satisfy any other pertinent questions you may have, my sexual interest is exclusively in women. I've never done drugs, and I don't have any communicable diseases. My parents are dead, but I have a sister, Madelyn, who lives in Montana with her husband and two sons. There are a few distant cousins, but we don't keep in touch."

She regarded him calmly. He was totally relaxed, telling her that he didn't regard those details of his life as being particularly revealing. They were simply facts. She listened, though, because such minutiae made up the skeleton of his life. "Becky and I have relatives scattered all over the state," she said. "One of my uncles has a huge farm down around Montgomery, and every June we get together there for a family reunion. We aren't a close family, but we're friendly, and it's a way to stay in touch. If it wasn't for the reunion, Jason and Paige would never know Becky's side of the family, only their father's, so we make an effort to go every year."

"Your parents are dead?" He knew they were, for that had been in the supplementary report he had received.

"Yes." The golden glow in her eyes dimmed. "Becky is the only immediate family I have. When Mom died, I lived with

Becky and Paul until Matt and I married." Her voice faltered, just a little, at the end.

"What about afterward?" he asked gently.

"Then I lived with Matt's parents." The words were soft, almost soundless. "Where I live now. It was their house. The marina was theirs, too. Matt was their only child, and when they died, they left everything to me."

Robert was pierced by another arrow of jealousy. She was still living in the house where Matt had grown up; there was no way she could walk into that house without being reminded of him at every turn. "Have you ever thought of moving? Of buying a more modern house?"

She shook her head. "Home is important to me. I lost my home when Mom died, and though Becky and Paul made me welcome, I was always aware that it was their home and not mine. Matt and I were going to live in a trailer, at first, but after he died I couldn't… Anyway, his parents asked me to live with them, and they needed me as much as I needed company. Maybe because they needed me, I felt comfortable there, more like it really was my own home. And now," she said simply, "it is."

He regarded her thoughtfully. He had never felt that sort of attachment for a place, never felt the tug of roots. There had been a large country estate in Connecticut, when he was growing up, but it had simply been the place where he lived. Now his penthouse served the same emotionless function. Evie wouldn't like it, though it was spacious and impeccably decorated. Still, he was comfortable there, and the security was excellent.

The restaurant featured a live band, and they were really very good. In keeping with the image of the place, they played old standards, meant for real dancing rather than solitary gyrations. He held out his hand to Evie. "Would you like to dance?"

A glowing smile touched her face as she placed her hand in his, but then she hesitated, and a look of uncertainty replaced the pleasure. "It's been so long," she said honestly, "that I don't know if I can."

"Trust me," he said, soothing her worries. "I won't let you come to grief. It's like riding a bicycle."

She went into his arms. She was stiff at first, but after several turns she relaxed and let the pleasure of the music and the movement sweep through her. Robert was an expert dancer, but then, she hadn't expected anything else. He held her closely enough that she felt secure, but not so close as to touch intimately. More of those exquisite manners, she thought.

As the music continued, she realized that he didn't have to be blatant. Dancing was its own seduction. There was the tender way he clasped her hand, the warm firmness of his other hand on her back. His breath brushed her hair; the clean scent of his skin teased her nostrils. This close, she could see the closely shaven stubble of his beard, dark against his olive skin. Occasionally her breasts brushed against his chest or arm, or their thighs slid together. It was stylized, unconsummated lovemaking, and she wasn't immune to it.

They left at midnight. During the forty-minute drive back to Guntersville, Evie sat silently beside him as he competently handled the black Renegade. They didn't speak until he pulled into her driveway and turned off the ignition, flooding the sudden darkness with silence. As their eyes adjusted, they could see the river stretching, soundless and glistening, behind her house.

"Tomorrow night?" he asked, turning toward her and draping one arm over the steering wheel.

She shook her head. "I can't. I haven't arranged for Craig to take over my shift, so he'll open the marina in the morning as usual. I wouldn't, anyway. That isn't the deal we made."

He sighed. "All right, we'll compromise. How about swapping shifts with him once a week? Would that be acceptable to your strange scruples? He works for you, rather than the other way around, you know."

"He's also a friend, and he does a lot of favors for me. I won't take advantage of him." The coolness in her voice told him that he had offended her.

He got out and walked around to open the door for her. As he lifted her to the ground, he said with a touch of whimsy, "Will you try to make a little time for me, anyway?"

"I'll talk to Craig about it," she replied noncommittally.

"Please."

She extracted her house key from her purse, and Robert deftly lifted it out of her fingers. He unlocked the door, reached inside to turn on a light, then stepped back. "Thank you," she said.

He delayed her with his hand on her arm as she started to go inside. "Good night, sweetheart," he murmured, and placed his mouth over hers.

The kiss was slow and warm and relatively undemanding. He didn't touch her, except for his hand on her arm and his lips moving over hers. Unconsciously she sighed with pleasure, opening her mouth to the warmth of his breath and the leisurely penetration of his tongue.

When he lifted his head, her breasts were tingling, her body was warm, and she was breathing faster than normal. It gratified her to notice that his breath, too, was a little rough. "I'll see you tomorrow," he said. Then he kissed her again and walked back to the Jeep.

She closed the door, locked it and leaned against it until she heard the sound of the Jeep fade in the distance. Her chest felt tight, her heart swollen and tender. She wanted to weep, and she wanted to sing.

Instead, she kicked off her shoes and walked into the kitchen to get a drink of water. Her left foot landed solidly in something wet and cold, and she jumped in alarm. Quickly she turned on the kitchen light and stared in dismay at the puddle around the bottom of the refrigerator. Even more ominously, there was no faint humming sound coming from the appliance. She jerked the door open, but no little light came on. The ulterior remained dark.

"Oh no, not now," she moaned. What a time for the refrigerator to die! She simply couldn't afford to get it repaired now. She supposed she could buy a new one on credit, but she hated to add another payment to the monthly load. The refrigerator had been elderly, but why couldn't it have lasted another year? By then she would have paid off a couple of debts and had more ready cash. Another six months would have made a difference.

There was nothing, however, that she could do about the refrigerator at nearly one in the morning. She was drooping with fatigue, but she mopped up the water and put down towels to catch any additional leaks.

When she finally got into bed, she couldn't sleep. That part-time job she had thought about during the afternoon now looked like a necessity, rather than an option. Her lower abdomen was dully aching. The evening with Robert, about which she had been so nervous, had turned out to be the best part of the day.

At seven o'clock she was on the phone to Becky. While Becky was calling around to her friends, Evie began systematically calling in response to every Refrigerator For Sale ad in the paper. As she had suspected, even at that early hour there were a number of calls that weren't answered. One, which had seemed the most promising, had sold the refrigerator as soon as the ad appeared.

By nine o'clock, she and Becky had located a good refrigerator for sale. At a hundred dollars, it was more than she could readily afford, but considerably less than a new one would cost. Becky came to get her, and they drove out together to look at it.

"It's ten years old, so it probably has another five to seven years," the woman said cheerfully as she showed them into the kitchen. "There isn't anything wrong with it, but we're building a new house, and I wanted a big side-by-side refrigerator. We were getting one, anyway, but last week I found just what I wanted, on sale at that, so I didn't wait. As soon as I get this one sold, I can have the new one delivered."

"It's sold," Evie said.

"How are you going to get it home?" asked Becky practically. "Until your truck is fixed, you don't have any way to haul it" Having stated the problem, she set about trying to solve it, running down the list of everyone she knew who owned a pickup truck and might be available.

Evie's own list was formidable. After all, she knew a lot of fishermen. Half an hour later, Sonny, a friend who worked second shift and had his mornings free, was on his way.

Time was running short for Evie by the time they got the refrigerator to her house. She called Craig to let him know what was going on and that she might be a few minutes late. "No sweat," was his easygoing reply.

Sonny hooked up the ice maker while Evie and Becky hurriedly transferred what food had survived from the old refrigerator into the new one. The frozen stuff was okay, and since she hadn't opened the door, most of the food in the other compartment was still cool and salvageable. She threw away the eggs and milk, just to be on the safe side.

"Do you want me to haul off the old one?" Sonny asked.

"No, you need to go to work. Let's just push it out onto the deck, and I'll take care of getting rid of it when I get my truck back. Thanks, Sonny. I don't know what I'd have done without you today."

"Anytime," he said genially, and bent his muscles to the job of getting the old refrigerator outside.

After that was accomplished and Sonny had left, Becky grinned at her sister "I know you're in a hurry to get to the marina, so I'll call you tonight I can't wait to hear all the juicy details about your evening with Robert."

Evie blew a wisp of hair out of her face. "It was fine," she said, smiling because she knew the answer would disappoint Becky. "I was worried for nothing. He was a perfect gentleman all night long."

"Well, damn," muttered her once-protective big sister.

With Murphy's Law in full effect, when Evie arrived at the marina she found that the afternoon before had indeed brought Burt several repair jobs on boats that had to be done before he could get to her truck. Because the people who used the marina were her livelihood, she didn't protest the delay. Financially, it would be better for her if even more repair jobs came in. Enough of them would pay for fixing her truck.

Craig met her at the dock, took one look at her and said, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, "Boss, you need to stop all this carousing and get a good night's sleep."

"That bad, huh?"

"Not really. Dark circles are in this month."

"If one more thing tears up," she said direly, "I'm going to shoot it"

He put his brawny young arm around her shoulders. "Aw, everything will be okay. Chin up, boss. You're just tired. If you want to take a nap, I'll hang around for another couple of hours. I've got a date tonight, but I'm free this afternoon."

She smiled at him, touched by his offer. "No, I'm fine. You go on home, and I'll see about getting a morning job to help pay for all this stuff that's going kablooey."

"What stuff?" asked a deep voice behind them. She and Craig turned. A boat had been idling outside, and the noise had masked the sound of Robert's arrival. Unlike her, he looked well rested. His expression didn't give anything away, but she sensed that he didn't like Craig putting his arm around her.

"My refrigerator died last night," she replied. "I spent the morning locating a good used one and getting it home."

That seemed to give him pause, for some reason. Then he gave her a considering look and said, "You didn't get much sleep, did you?"

"A few hours. I'll sleep like a log tonight, though."

Craig said, "If you're sure you don't want me to stay for a while…?"

"I'm sure. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Okay." He took off, whistling. Robert turned to watch him go, a tall, well-built boy who gave the promise of being an outstanding man.

"You don't have any reason to be jealous of Craig," Evie said coolly as she brushed by him, heading toward the office and the promise of air-conditioning.

Robert's eyebrows climbed as he followed her. When they were inside, he murmured, "I don't recall saying anything."

"You didn't, but it was plain what you were thinking."

He was taken aback. God, her perception was expanding into mind reading. He didn't like the feeling of transparency.

"I've known Craig since he was a child. There's absolutely nothing sexual in our relationship."

"Maybe not from your perspective," he said calmly, "but I was a teenage boy once myself."

"I don't want to hear about raging hormones. If all you can do is criticize, then leave. I'm too tired to deal with it right now."

"So you are." He took her in his arms and tucked her head into the hollow of his shoulder. With one hand he stroked her sun-warmed hair, which was restricted into its usual braid. The night before, she had worn it in an elegant twist. One day soon – or rather, one night – he was going to see it down and spread across his pillow.

Gently he swayed, rocking her. The support of his hard, warm body was so delicious that Evie felt her eyes drifting shut. When she realized that she actually was dozing off, she forced herself to lift her head and step away. "Enough of that or I'll be asleep in your arms."

"You'll sleep there eventually," he said. "But in different surroundings."

Her heart gave a great thump. What he so effortlessly did to her simply wasn't fair. Unbidden, she thought of the one night she had slept in Matt's arms, the sweetness that had so shortly been overlaid with bitterness and regret when his life had ended me next day. Sleeping with Robert wouldn't be anything like that long-ago night…

He saw the sadness darken her eyes again, and he felt like swearing savagely. Every time he thought he was making progress, he slammed into Matt Shaw's ghost, standing like an ethereal wall between Evie and any other man. As unlikely – as damned ridiculous – as it seemed, he couldn't doubt that she'd been entirely chaste during her widowhood. Her connection with Landon Mercer, whatever else it was, certainly wasn't physical.

Her relationship with him, on the other hand, certainly would be.

"Did you come by for any particular reason?" she asked.

"Just to see you for a moment. Would you like to get a quick bite to eat tonight before you go home?"

"I don't think so. I'm so tired I just want to go home and get some sleep."

"All right." Gently he touched her cheek. "I'll see you tomorrow, then. Take care going across the lake tonight."

"I will. The days are so long, I'll be home before it gets dark."

"Take care, anyway." He leaned over and kissed her, then left.

As soon as he was out of her sight, his black brows pulled together in a frown. Last night's ploy hadn't worked all that well because of something he simply hadn't considered, and he was impatient with himself. He'd been born into money and had made even more, so the option of buying a second-hand refrigerator hadn't occurred to him. He had no idea what she'd paid for it, but he assumed that it was considerably less than a new one, even the cheapest model, would have cost. Though a little more financial pressure had been brought to bear on her, it hadn't been as much as he'd planned.

Mercer was beginning to find the financial waters a little choppy these days, too. It wasn't anything for him to worry about… yet. Soon he would find himself in a pinch with a growing need for ready cash. The next time he made a move, Robert would be ready for him. The net was slowly closing.

He estimated another two weeks, three at the most. He could make things move faster, but he was oddly reluctant to bring everything to a close just yet. If Mercer tried to make another sale, of course he would have to act, but until then, he intended to use the time to complete Evie's seduction.

That was, if he could keep her mind off her dead husband. Robert's jealous fury was banked, but glowing hotly under the restraint. It was ironic that he, of all people, should be jealous. It wasn't an emotion that he'd ever felt before, and he'd been coolly contemptuous of those who allowed someone to become that important to them. But he had never wanted a woman so violently, nor found himself up against such a formidable rival. That, too, was a new experience for him. If a woman had been interested in another man, he had simply moved on, on the theory that battling for her affections was too much trouble and complicated what was, for him, a fairly simple issue.

But then he'd met Evangeline. Her name whispered through his mind, as musical and elegant as the wind sighing in the trees. Evangeline. A poetic name, associated with undying love.

He couldn't accept that she was Matt Shaw's forever, that he might never have her.

Damn it, what was this appeal that teenage boys had for her? He had wanted to punch Craig in the jaw for daring to touch her, but his own sense of fair play had restrained him. Craig looked to be as strong as a young ox, but Robert knew his own capabilities. He could easily have killed the boy without meaning to.

Because Matt had died so young, was Evie's taste forever frozen at that age? The idea was distasteful. He was disgusted with himself for even thinking it. He had no basis for the ugly speculation; he knew very well that there was nothing sexual between Evie and Craig. It was his own jealousy that had spurred the thought.

He had to have her. Soon.

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