Loving Evangeline (Chapter Fourteen)

Landon Mercer caught himself wearing a habitually worried expression whenever he glanced into a mirror. Nothing was going right, for no particular reason that he could tell. One day he had been feeling pretty damn good about himself and the way everything was going, and the next it all began to go to hell. It was just little things at first, like that bastard Cannon showing up and nearly giving him a heart attack, though it turned out that Cannon had been the least of his worries. The big boss's reputation had been vastly overstated; he was nothing more than another lazy playboy, born into money, without any real idea of what it was like to get out and hustle for what he had.

Sometimes, though, Cannon had a cold look in his eyes that was downright spooky, as if he could see right through flesh. Mercer wouldn't soon forget the panic he'd felt when Cannon had caught him in Shaw's Marina. For one terror-stricken minute, Mercer had thought he was caught, that they'd somehow managed to find out what he was doing. But all Cannon had seemed interested in was that he'd taken off from work for the afternoon, something he'd been careful not to do again. Of all the damn luck! There were plenty of marinas in Guntersville; why had Cannon picked Shaw's? It wasn't the biggest, or the best run. In fact, for him, its major attraction was that it was small, a bit out of the way and basically a one-horse outfit. Evie Shaw didn't have time to pay attention to everything going on around her.

Of course, once Cannon had seen Evie, it was understandable why he kept hanging around. Mercer had been trying for months to get her to go out with him, but she was as standoffish as she was stacked. He just didn't have enough money, he supposed; she had latched on to Cannon fast enough.

Of course, if things had worked out, he would have had enough money to interest her. He wasn't stupid. He hadn't blown the payoffs; he'd invested them. The ventures he'd picked had all seemed sound. He'd stayed away from the high-interest but volatile money markets and opted for slower but more secure returns. In a few years, he'd figured, he would have enough money invested to be on easy street.

But stocks that had looked good one day went sour the next, prices going on a steady slide as other investors dumped their shares. In one terrible week the tidy little nest egg he'd built up had decreased in value to less than half of what it had been before. He had sold out, taking a loss, and in a desperate move to recoup his money had invested it all in the money markets. The money market had promptly plummeted, almost wiping him out. He felt like King Midas in reverse; everything he touched turned to dross.

When he was contacted about another sale, he was so relieved that he almost thanked them for calling. If his bank account didn't get a cash transfusion soon, he wouldn't be able to make his car payment, or the payments on all his credit cards. Mercer was horrified at the thought of losing his beloved Mercedes. There were more expensive cars, and he intended to have them eventually, but the Mercedes was the first car he'd had that said he was somebody, a man on the way up. He couldn't bear to go back to being nothing.

Evie felt as if she had been split into two separate beings. Half of her was deliriously happy, overwhelmed by the intoxication of having Robert for a lover. She had never dreamed she could be so happy again, or feel so whole, but the great emptiness that had lurked in her heart for so long had been filled. Robert was both passionate and considerate, paying her so much attention that she felt as if she were the center of his universe. He never ignored her, never took anything about her for granted, always made her feel as if she were the most desirable woman he'd ever seen. Whenever they went out, his attention never wandered to other women, though she was well aware of other women looking at him.

She saw him every day, slept with him almost every night. As she became more at ease with her own body and the passion he aroused, their lovemaking became more leisurely, and even more intense, until sometimes she screamed with the force of it. He was a sophisticated lover, leading her into new positions, new variations, new sensations, and he was so skilled that he didn't make her feel awkward or ignorant. He made love to her almost every night. Only once, but that once was long and complete, leaving her sated and sleepy. Then, in the morning when they woke, they would make love again, silently, drifting in that half-awake state when dreams still shadow consciousness.

His mastery of her body was so complete that thoughts of him were always with her, lurking just under the surface, ready to come to the fore and bringing desire with them. She didn't know which she enjoyed most, the intense sessions at night or the dreamy ones of early morning. It was amazing how quickly her body had learned to crave sexual pleasure with him, so that, as the afternoon hours advanced, she would become jittery with anticipation and need. He knew it, surely. She could see him watching her, as if gauging her readiness. Sometimes she had a violent desire to pin him to the floor and have her way with him, but she always restrained herself, because the buildup of desire, though maddening, was equally delicious.

She had become accustomed to containing her thoughts and emotions, guarding them behind a wall of reserve, but Robert drew her out. They had long, involved discussions about a wide variety of subjects. Sitting out on the deck at night, staring up at the stars, they would discuss astronomy and various theories, from the big bang to black holes, dark matter and the relativity of time. His intelligence and the scope of his interests were almost frightening. Without giving any indication of restlessness, his mind was always working, looking for new facts to absorb or arranging those he already had. They would trade sections of the newspaper, and debate politics and national events. They swapped childhood stories, she telling him about growing up with an older sister as bossy as Becky, he making her laugh with stories of his indomitable younger sister, Madelyn. He told her about the ranch in Montana, which he owned in partnership with Reese Duncan, Madelyn's husband, and about their two rowdy little boys.

The sense of closeness with Robert was at once seductive and terrifying. There was a powerful lure that drew her to him, creating an intimacy as much of the mind as of the body, so that she was no longer a solitary creature but half of a couple, her entire sense of being altering to include him. Sometimes, in the back of her mind, she wondered how she would survive if he were to leave – she had to think of it as if now, rather than when – and the thought of losing him made her almost sick with terror.

She couldn't let herself worry about that. Loving him now, in the present, demanded all her attention. She couldn't hold anything back; she was helpless to even try.

At the same time, the other part of her, the part that wasn't preoccupied with Robert, worried incessantly about the bank loan and the mortgage on the house. Tommy hadn't called her back. She had called the bank twice; the first time he said that permission simply hadn't come through yet, but he didn't think there was any problem and that she should just be patient. The second time she called, he was out of town.

She couldn't wait much longer. It had already been eleven days, leaving just nineteen until the loan had to be paid. If her bank couldn't give her a loan, she would have to find a bank that would, and if all banks moved so slowly, she could find herself running out of time. Just thinking of the possibility was enough to make her break out in a cold sweat.

She tried to think of other options, of some way to quickly raise the money in case the loan didn't go through fast enough. She could put her boat up for sale, but it wasn't worth even half the amount that she needed and might not sell in time, anyway. Asking Becky and Paul for a loan was out of the question; they had their own financial responsibilities, and supporting two teenagers was expensive.

She could sell the rental boats, which would raise enough money but deprive her of a surprisingly tidy bit of income. Of course, with the loan paid, and if she didn't have to take out another one, she would have much more available cash and would soon be able to acquire more boats for rent. The only problem with that was time – again. In her experience, people took their time buying boats. Boats, even in a town like Guntersville that was geared toward the river, weren't a necessity of life. People looked at them, thought about it, discussed it over the dinner table, checked and double-checked their finances. It was possible, but unlikely, that she would be able to sell enough of them to raise the money she needed in the time she had.

Of the limited options available to her, however, that was the best one. She put a sign that read Used Boats For Sale in front of the marina and posted other notices in the area tackle stores. Even if she sold only one, that would lower the amount of money she would need to borrow.

Robert noticed the sign immediately. He walked in late that afternoon, removed his sunglasses and pinned her with a pale, oddly intense look. "That sign out front – which boats are for sale?"

"The rental boats," she calmly replied and returned her attention to waiting on a customer. Once she had made the decision to sell the boats, she hadn't allowed herself any regrets.

He moved behind the counter and stood in front of the window with his hands in his pockets, looking out at the marina. As she had known he would, he waited until the customer had left before turning to ask, "Why are you selling them?"

She hesitated for a moment. She hadn't told him anything about her financial worries and didn't intend to do so now, for a variety of reasons. One was simply that she was reticent about personal problems, disinclined to broadcast her woes to the world. Another was that she was fiercely possessive about the marina, and she didn't want word to get around that it was on shaky financial ground. Yet another was that she didn't want Robert to think she was obliquely asking for a loan, and she would be distressed if he offered one. He was obviously wealthy, but she didn't want the issue of money to become a part of their relationship. If it did, would he ever be certain, in his own mind, that her attraction to him wasn't based on his wealth? Still another reason was that she didn't want anyone else to have a share, and thus a say-so, in the marina. Banks were one thing, individuals another. The marina was hers, the base on which she had rebuilt the ruins of her life. She simply couldn't give up any part of it.

So when she answered, she merely said, "They're getting old, less reliable. I need to buy newer ones."

Robert regarded her silently. He didn't know whether to hug her or shake her, and in fact he could do neither. It was obvious that she was trying to raise money by any means available, and he wanted to put his arms around her and tell her it would be all right. But his instinct to protect his own had to be stifled, at least for now. Despite his decision that she was largely innocent in Mercer's espionage dealings, the small chance that he was wrong about her wouldn't let him relent. Soon he would know for certain, one way or the other. But if she sold the rental boats, what means would Mercer use to deliver the goods? Every one of those rental boats was now equipped with tiny electronic bugs that would allow them to be tracked; if Mercer was forced to use some other boat, or even change his method of delivery entirely, Robert would lose his control of the situation.

On the plus side, he was certain Mercer would act soon. They had intercepted a very suspicious phone call, putting them on the alert. It didn't matter if Evie managed to sell a couple of boats, or even most of them, so long as she had one remaining when Mercer made his move. He would simply have to monitor the situation and step in to prevent a sale if it looked as if she would manage to unload all of them.

Aloud he asked, "Have you had any offers yet?"

She shook her head, a wry smile curving her mouth. "I just put the sign up this morning."

"Have you put an ad in any of the newspapers?"

"Not yet, but I will."

That might bring in more customers than he could block, he thought with a sigh. The easiest way would be to stop the ads from being printed; there weren't that many area newspapers. The phones both here and at her house were being monitored, so he would know which papers she called. Somehow he hadn't expected to have so much trouble keeping abreast of her maneuvers. Evie was a surprisingly resourceful woman.

Five days later, Evie rushed in from overseeing a delivery of gas to answer the phone. She pushed a wisp of hair out of her face as she lifted the receiver. "Shaw's Marina."

"Evie? This is Tommy Fowler."

As soon as she heard his voice, she knew. Slowly she sank down onto the stool, her legs so weak that she needed the support. "What's the verdict?" she asked, though she knew the answer.

He sighed. "I'm sorry, hon. The board of directors says we already have too many real-estate loans. They won't okay the mortgage."

Her lips felt numb. "It isn't your fault," she said. "Thanks, anyway."

"It isn't a lost cause. Just because we aren't making that type of loan right now doesn't mean other banks aren't."

"I know, but I have a deadline, and it's down to fourteen days. It's taken you longer than that to tell me no. How long would it take to process a loan at any other bank?"

"Well, we took longer than usual. I'm sorry as hell about it, Evie, but I had no idea the okay wouldn't go through. Go to another bank. Today, if possible. An appraiser will have to make an estimate of the house's value, but it's waterfront property and in good shape, so it's worth a lot more than the amount you want to mortgage. Getting an appraiser out there is what will take so much time, so get started as soon as you can."

"I will," she said. "Thanks, Tommy."

"Don't thank me," he said glumly. "I couldn't do anything. Bye, hon."

She sat there on the stool for a long time after she hung up the phone, trying to deal with her disappointment and sense of impending disaster. Though she had been worried, the worry had been manageable, because even though she had been making contingency plans, she had been certain the mortgage would go through.

She hadn't sold a single boat.

Time was of the essence, and she didn't have a lot of faith in getting a loan through any other bank. It was as if an evil genie was suddenly in control of things, inflicting her with malfunctioning machinery and uncooperative banks.

Still, she had to try. She couldn't give up and perhaps lose the marina from lack of effort. She wouldn't lose the marina. No matter what, she simply refused to let it go. If she couldn't get a mortgage, if she couldn't sell the boats, she had one other option. It was strictly last-resort, but it was there.

She picked out a bank with a good reputation and called to make an appointment with a loan officer for the next morning.

The heat was already intense the next day when she was getting ready. Despite the ceiling fans, her skin was damp with perspiration, making her clothes cling to her. Robert hadn't asked why her house was so hot, but the past three nights he had insisted on taking her to his home and bringing her back after breakfast. This morning she had showered at his house as she usually did, then asked him to bring her home earlier than usual because she had a business appointment at nine. He hadn't asked any questions about that, either.

She retrieved her copy of the deed from the fireproof security box under the bed and braced herself like a soldier going to war. If this bank wouldn't give her a loan, she wasn't going to waste any more time going to another one. Time was too short. She would rather be too hasty than take the chance of losing the marina.

She rolled the truck window down, and the wind blowing in her face cooled her as she drove to the bank. The heat was building every day, and soon it would be unbearable in the house if she didn't turn on the air-conditioning. She smiled grimly. She might as well turn it on; one way or the other, she would have the money to pay the power bill.

Her appointment was with a Mr. Waldrop, who turned out to be a stocky, sandy-haired man in his late forties. He gave her a strangely curious look as he led her into his small office. Evie took one of the two comfortable chairs arranged in front of the desk, and he settled into the big chair behind it.

"Now then, Mrs. Shaw, what can we do for you today?"

Concisely, Evie told him what she needed, then pulled the copy of the deed from her purse and placed it on his desk. He unfolded it and looked it over, pursing his lips as he read.

"It looks straightforward enough." He opened his desk and extracted a sheet of paper. "Fill out this financial statement, and we'll see what we can do."

Evie took the sheet of paper and went out to one of the small searing areas off the lobby. While she was answering the multitude of questions, her pen scratching across the paper, someone else came in to see Mr. Waldrop. She glanced up automatically, then realized she knew the newcomer, not an unusual occurrence in a small town like Guntersville. He was Kyle Brewster, a slightly shady businessman who owned a small discount store, dealing in seconds and salvage material. He was also known as a gambler and had been arrested once, several years back, when the back room of a pool hall had been raided on the information that an illegal game was being conducted there. Evie supposed that Kyle was fairly successful in his gambling; his style of living was considerably higher than the income from the discount store could provide.

The door to Mr. Waldrop's office was left open. She couldn't hear what Kyle was saying, only the indistinct drawl of his voice, but Mr. Waldrop's voice was more carrying. "I have the check right here," he was saying cheerfully. "Do you want to cash it, or deposit it into your account?"

Evie returned her attention to the form, feeling slightly heartened. If the bank would lend money to Kyle Brewster, she saw no reason why it wouldn't lend money to her. Her business was more profitable, and her character was certainly better.

Kyle left a few minutes later. When Evie completed the form, someone else had come in and was with Mr. Waldrop. She sat patiently, watching the hour hand on the clock inch to ten o'clock, then beyond. At ten-thirty, the other customer left and she carried the form in to Mr. Waldrop.

"Have a seat," he invited as he looked over the information she had provided. "I'll be back in a few minutes." He carried the form out with him.

Evie crossed her fingers, hoping the loan would be okayed that morning, pending an appraisal of the property. She would get the bank's appraiser out to the house if she had to call him ten times a day and hound him until he appeared.

More time ticked by. She shifted restlessly in the chair, wondering what was taking so long. But the bank seemed busy this morning, so perhaps the person Mr. Waldrop had taken the form to was also tied up, and Mr. Waldrop was having to wait.

Forty-five minutes later Mr. Waldrop returned to his office. He settled into his chair and tapped his fingertips together. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Shaw," he said with real regret. "We simply aren't making this type of loan right now. With the economy the way it is…"

Evie sat up straight. She could feel the blood draining from her face, leaving the skin tight. Enough was enough. "The economy is fine," she interrupted sharply. "The recession didn't hit down here the way it did in other parts of the country. And your bank is one of the strongest in the country. There was an article in one of the Birmingham papers just last week about this bank buying another one in Florida. What I want to know is why you would lend money to someone like Kyle Brewster, a known gambler with a police record, but you won't make a loan on a property worth five or six times that amount."

Mr. Waldrop flushed guiltily. A distressed look came into his eyes. "I can't discuss Mr. Brewster's business, Mrs. Shaw. I'm sorry. I don't make the decisions on whether or not to okay a loan."

"I realize that, Mr. Waldrop." She also realized something else, something so farfetched she could hardly believe it, but it was the only thing that made any sense. "I didn't have a chance of getting the loan, did I? Having me fill out that form was just for show. Someone is stepping in to block the loan, someone with a lot of influence, and I want to know who it is."

His flush turned even darker. "I'm sorry," he mumbled. "There's nothing I can tell you."

She stood and retrieved the deed from his desk. "No, I don't suppose you can. It would mean your job, wouldn't it? Goodbye, Mr. Waldrop."

She was almost dizzy with fury as she went out to the truck. The heat slammed into her like a blow, but she ignored it, just as she ignored the scorching heat of the truck's upholstery. She sat in the parking lot, tapping her finger against the steering wheel as she stared unblinkingly at the traffic streaming by on U.S. 431.

Someone wanted the marina. No one had made an offer to buy it, so that meant whoever it was knew she wasn't likely to sell. This mysterious someone was powerful enough, well-connected enough with the local bankers, to block her attempts to get a loan. Not only that, the original transfer of the loan from her bank to the New York bank had probably been arranged by this person, though she couldn't think of anyone she knew with that kind of power.

She couldn't think why anyone would want her little marina enough to go to such an extreme. Granted, she had made a lot of improvements in it, and business was better every year. When she paid off the outstanding debt, the marina would turn a healthy profit, but it wouldn't be the kind of money that would warrant such actions from her unknown enemy.

Why didn't matter, she thought with the stark clarity that comes in moments of crisis. Neither did who. The only thing that mattered was that she kept the marina.

There was one move she could make that wouldn't be blocked, because she wouldn't be the one obtaining the loan. She wouldn't breathe a word about this to anyone, not even Becky, until it was a done deal.

Numbly she started the truck and pulled out into traffic, then almost immediately pulled off again when she spotted a pay phone outside a convenience store. Her heart was thudding with slow, sickening power against her ribs. If she let herself think about it, she might not have the nerve to do it. If she waited until she got back home, she might look around at the dear, familiar surroundings and not be able to make the call. She had to do it now. It was a simple choice. If she lost the marina, she stood to lose everything, but if she sacrificed the house now, she would be able to keep the marina.

She slid out of the truck and walked to the pay phone. Her legs seemed to be functioning without any direction from her brain. There was no phone book. She called Information and got the number she wanted, then fed in another quarter and punched the required numbers. Turning her back on the traffic, she put her finger in her other ear to block out noise as she listened to the ringing on the other end of the line.

"Walter, this is Evie. Do you and Helene still want to buy my place on the river?"

"She stopped at a convenience store immediately after leaving the bank and made a call from a pay phone," the deep voice reported to Robert.

"Could you tell what number she called?"

"No, sir. Her position blocked the numbers from view."

"Could you hear anything she was saying?"

"No, sir. I'm sorry. She kept her back turned, and the traffic was noisy."

Robert rubbed his jaw. "Have you checked to see if it was the marina she called?"

"First thing. No such luck. She didn't call Mercer, either."

"Okay. It worries me, but there isn't anything we can do about it. Where is she now?"

"She drove straight home from the convenience store."

"Let me know if she makes any more calls."

"Yes, sir."

Robert hung up and stared thoughtfully out at the lake as he tried to imagine who she had called, and why. He didn't like the angry little suspicion that was growing. Had she called the unknown third party to whom Mercer had been selling the stolen computer programs? Was she involved up to her pretty little neck after all? He had backed her up against a financial wall, just to find out for certain, but he had a sudden cold, furious feeling that he wasn't going to like the results worth a damn.