Loving Evangeline (Chapter Sixteen)

W alter and Helene Campbell were in their mid-sixties, retired, comfortable but not wealthy. Evie's house was just what they wanted, well-built and maintained, but old enough and small enough that her asking price was much less than what they would have paid for a new house on the lakefront. They were both thrilled to the point of giddiness at their unexpected good fortune, for though they had asked several times if she would sell, they had long since given up hope that she would.

They arrived at the marina over half an hour early, their estate agent in tow and bearing a huge sheaf of papers. Having never bought or sold a house before, Evie was struck by the amount of paperwork it evidently required and amazed that the agent had managed to get it all prepared in less than a day.

There weren't sufficient chairs for everyone to sit down, so they stood grouped around the counter. The agent explained the purpose of each document as he presented it first for her signature, then the Campbells'. After an hour of dedicated document-signing, it was finished. Evie had sold her house, and the check was in her hand.

She managed a smile to send the joyous Campbells on their way, but as soon as the door had closed behind them, her smile collapsed. She closed her eyes and shuddered in an effort to control the grief that had been growing since she had made the phone call the day before. No matter that she had told herself it was just a house and she could live anywhere, it was her home, and she had just lost part of herself. No, not lost it – sold it.

But the marina was a more important part of her foundation, and the green cashier's check in her hand had just saved it.

She wiped the betraying moisture from her eyes and braced her shoulders. She called Burt and told him she had to go to the bank and would be back in about half an hour. "Okay," he said, as laconic as ever, when she asked him to watch for customers.

The transaction at the bank took very little time. The Campbells' cashier's check was deposited and a new cashier's check cut in the amount she owed on the loan. Tommy Fowler saw her standing at the counter and came out to speak to her, his eyes anxious.

"How're you doing, Evie?"

She heard the worry in his tone and managed a version of the same smile she had given the Campbells. "I'm okay. I have the money to pay the loan."

Relief flooded his face. "Great! That didn't take long. So another bank gave you the mortgage?"

"No, I sold my house."

The relief faded, and he stared at her, aghast. "Sold your house? But, Evie… God, why?"

She wasn't about to tell him, with the teller and other customers listening, that she suspected someone of blocking the mortgage. "It was something I'd been thinking about," she lied. "Now my bank account is healthy, the marina is out of debt and will turn a pure profit, and I can take my time looking for another house."

Varying expressions were flickering across Tommy's face like slides. The final one, a rather uneasy relief, was testament to his belief in her pragmatic lie. "I guess it's worked out, then," he said.

She kept her smile intact with an effort. "Yeah, I guess it has."

The teller handed the check over the counter to her, and she slipped it into the envelope. "I'm getting this mailed today," she said to Tommy. "Thanks for all you did."

"I didn't manage to do anything," he replied.

"Well, no, but you tried."

She left the bank and drove straight to the post office, where the precious envelope was dispatched by express mail. She felt a sense of finality. It was done; she had gotten past this. It hadn't been easy, but now she could move on.

Robert was waiting at the marina when she got back. "Where have you been?" he demanded, striding up as she slid out of the truck.

She blinked at the unguarded fierceness of his tone. Robert was seldom overt in his reactions, except in bed. "The bank and the post office. Why?"

He didn't answer but caught her shoulders in a hard grasp and pulled her to him. His mouth was heavy and hungry, demanding rather than seducing a response from her. Evie made a muffled sound of surprise, her hands lifting to rest against his chest, but she gave him what he wanted, her mouth opening to admit the thrust of his tongue, her lips shaping to the pressure of his.

Passion rose sharply between them, strong and heady. She hadn't recovered her balance after the difficult events of the day and she melted against him, drawn irresistibly to the whipcord strength of his body. Although a whirlwind was tossing the rest of her life about, he wasn't swayed but remained solidly on his feet and in control. Though she had bitterly resisted – and feared – coming to depend on him, his very presence now made her feel better. She was both aroused and comforted by the familiarity of his body, his warm animal scent, all the subtle details by which she knew her mate.

He drew back, hampered by the public nature of the parking lot. Inside wouldn't be much better, with people coming and going. He threaded his hands through her hair, tilting her face back so he could read every nuance of her expression. He must have been pleased by the drowning look of desire he saw there, for his fingers tightened on her scalp. "Not here, damn it. But as soon as I get you home…" He didn't have to finish the sentence. Raw lust was on his face and in his voice, violent and intense.

Recalled to where she was, Evie cast a half-embarrassed look around and touched his hand as she slipped from his grasp. How many hours until they could go home? She didn't know if she could wait that long. Her body was throbbing.

The long afternoon was an exercise in self-control, and she wished the summer days weren't quite so long. She needed Robert, needed his driving presence within her, taking her into oblivion so she could forget everything but the almost narcotic pleasure of making love with him. She felt raw, her emotions sharp and too near the surface.

It was difficult, when she was finally able to close the marina that night, to hold to the schedule they had established. Robert wanted to take her straight to his house, but she resisted. "I don't want to leave my truck here overnight," she said. "You'd either have to bring me to pick it up in the morning or waste your morning hanging around so you could drive me to work."

"It wouldn't be a waste," he growled, his lean face taut, and she knew what he envisioned them doing to pass the time.

Temptation weakened her, but she shook her head again. "It would be so blatant, if my truck was still here and you brought me to work. Craig – "

"You're worried about Craig knowing that we sleep together?" he asked, amusement lighting his eyes. "He's seventeen, sweetheart, not seven."

"I know, but… this isn't New York. We're more conventional down here."

He was still smiling, but he gave in with good grace. "All right, protect his tender sensibilities, though I have to tell you that most teenage boys have the sensibility of a rhino in heat."

She laughed, and it felt good, her heart lightening. "Then let's just say that I wouldn't feel comfortable."

He kissed her forehead. "Then go home, sweetheart. I bought some fillets this afternoon, and I'll get them ready to grill before I pick you up."

"I have a better idea," she said. "You start grilling, and I'll drive over. That will save even more time."

He smiled again as he rubbed his thumb over her lower lip in a gentle caress. "You make me feel like a teenage rhino myself," he murmured, and she blushed.

Anticipation heated her blood as she drove home, preoccupying her so much that she showered and dressed without more than a twinge of sadness. Her heartbeat pounded in the rhythm of his name.

It was still hot, so hot that she couldn't bear the idea of encasing her legs in clothing, but she didn't want to wear shorts. She opted instead for a gauzy blue skirt and a sleeveless, scoop-necked chemise, with her breasts unconfined beneath. The floaty skirt was virtually transparent, clearly showing her legs, but allowed air to filter through the flimsy fabric and cool her skin. She would never have worn it out in public, but to Robert's house… yes, definitely.

He came to the door when he heard the truck in his driveway. His face tightened as he watched her walk toward him. "God," he muttered. As soon as she was inside, he slammed the door and caught her arm, pulling her rapidly down the hall to the bedroom.

"What about the steaks?" she cried, startled by his haste despite the pleasant frustration of the afternoon.

"Screw the steaks," he said bluntly, wrapping his arms around her and falling across the bed. His heavy weight crushed her into the mattress. With a quick motion he flipped the skirt to her waist and caught the waistband of her panties, tugging them down her legs. When her feet were free, he tossed her underwear aside and pulled her thighs apart, kneeling between them.

Evie laughed, the sound low and provocative. He hadn't even kissed her, and her entire body was throbbing. He was tearing at his belt buckle with impatient fingers, and she added her hands to the confusion, trying to find the tab of his zipper and pull it down. She could feel the hard, swollen ridge of his sex, pushing at his clothing. He granted as his length sprang free and lowered himself between her legs.

No matter how many times he took her, she always felt a small sense of surprise at his size and heat, and a flutter of uncertainty at the stretching sensation that followed the initial pressure as he sank deep within. She gasped, her entire body lifting to the impact. She was tender from the unbridled lovemaking of the morning, his thrusting sex rasping against inner tissues that were sensitive to the least touch. Intense pleasure rippled through her, tossing her unprepared into paroxysms of satisfaction. She cried out, her hands digging into his back as the shivery delight went on and on, past bearing, until she thought she would die if he didn't let the pleasure ebb. He was muttering hotly in her ear, sex words, the sound indistinct but the meaning clear.

And then he shuddered, too, holding himself deep as the spasms took him. Afterward, he lay heavily on her, both of them breathing deeply in the exhausted aftermath. Drowsily she let her eyes drift shut, only to open them again as he suddenly chuckled, the small movement shaking them both. "Definitely like a teenager," he murmured, nuzzling the lobe of her ear before taking it between his teeth and gently biting it. "No matter how often I have you, I want you again almost as soon as I move off you. The only time I'm satisfied is when we're like this." He thrust lazily, their bodies still linked.

"Then let's stay like this." She ran her hands down his muscular back, feeling the heat of him through the fabric of his shirt. "Someone will find us in a couple of weeks."

He laughed and kissed her. "They'd probably think, wow, what a way to go, but I'd prefer both of us being warm and pliable. If I want to keep you that way, I suppose I'd better feed you, hadn't I?" He kissed her again and rolled away to sit up.

She stretched, replete, the afternoon's aching frustration relieved. Even the hollowness in her chest had faded, though by no means vanished. She had never had this before, she thought dimly, this bone-deep sense of connection. And she wouldn't have it now if Robert had been less ruthlessly determined to have his way.

They spent the next couple of hours grilling the steaks, then sitting out on the deck after they had eaten and cleaned the kitchen. The night was thick and warm, the temperature still in the high eighties. Robert stretched out on a chaise longue and pulled Evie down on top of him. There were no lights on in the house, and the concealing darkness was like a blanket. They lay there in the heavy, peaceful silence, with his hand slowly moving over her back. Slowly his caresses grew more purposeful, and Evie melted against him. Her chemise top was lifted off over her head and dropped to the deck. She hadn't put her underwear back on, so when his hand moved under the gauzy skirt, he touched only the bare flesh of her thighs and buttocks. He cupped the twin mounds in his hands and held her hard against him, nestling his arousal in the soft junction of her thighs.

"You have on too many clothes," she murmured, kissing the underside of his jaw.

"You, on the other hand, hardly have on any."

"Whose fault is that?" Her wandering mouth nibbled down his neck. "I was completely dressed when I arrived here."

"I wouldn't say that, sweetheart. Even if your nipples hadn't been sticking out like little berries, the delicious jiggle of your breasts when you walked made it obvious you weren't wearing anything under your top. And this thing," he continued lazily, grasping a handful of material, "doesn't qualify as a skirt." Tiring of her mouth being on his throat rather than his own mouth, he pulled her up for a long kiss, during which his own clothing was opened and removed. Sighing with pleasure, she lifted the skirt out of the way and settled over him, gasping a little as he slid inside her.

Then they lay quietly again, bodies linked, content with the sensation as it was. The lights of a night fisherman drifted by on the lake, but they were shielded by the darkness. Sometime later it became difficult to lie still. Hidden impulses twinged deep inside, inviting undulating movement. She resisted, but knew he was feeling the same compulsion. He was growing even harder, reaching deeper into her, and a fine tension invaded his muscles as he lay motionless beneath her.

She pressed her forehead hard against his jaw, fighting not to move. He throbbed inside her, and she moaned softly. Her inner muscles clenched in helpless delight on his invading length, then did so again, and her soft cries floated in the night air as the moment took her. In an effort to control his own reaction, Robert gripped her bottom hard, his teeth clenched against the almost overwhelming need to give in. He won, but sweat beaded on his forehead from the struggle.

When she stilled, he lifted her from him and bent her over the end of the chaise. He knelt behind her, his thighs cupping hers, and thrust heavily into her moist, relaxed sheath. She clung to the chaise, unable to stifle her moans of pleasure as his rhythmic motion increased in speed and power. He convulsed, flooding her with warmth, and lay heavily over her for a long time, while his breathing slowed and his heartbeat returned to normal.

Recovered, he gathered their scattered clothing and pushed it into her arms, then lifted her and carried her inside, to the big bed that awaited them.

They slept late the next morning, until after nine o'clock. She yawned and stretched like a sleepy cat, and Robert held her close, stroking her tangled hair away from her face. As usual, he had awakened her at dawn with silent, drowsy lovemaking; then they had both gone back to sleep.

With a quick kiss and a lingering pat on her bare bottom, he left the bed and headed toward his shower. Evie yawned again and got up herself. She slipped into his shirt as she went to the kitchen to make coffee. "Robert, you need an automatic timer on your coffeemaker," she muttered to herself as she scooped the coffee into the round filter. Not that they would ever remember to prepare the coffee and set the timer before they went to bed.

Standing there in the sun-drenched kitchen, listening to the coffeemaker pop and hiss, she became aware that she felt strangely light, almost carefree. She hugged herself in an effort to contain the elusive feeling. She was happy, she thought with some surprise. Despite selling the house, she was happy. She had saved the marina, and she had Robert. Most of all, she had Robert

Her love for him quietly grew each time she was with him. He was such a complicated, controlled, private man; no matter how often he made love to her, he still kept that inner core of himself inviolate, not allowing her or anyone else inside. Knowing that had no effect on the way she felt about him. He hadn't opened his heart to her, but that in no way made him less worthy of love. He might never love her, she realized. But if this was all he could give a woman, then she would take it.

A ringing interrupted the quiet. It sounded like a telephone, but the phone mere in the kitchen definitely wasn't ringing, and this sound was muffled, as if it were in a different room. The line in Robert's office must be a different number, she realized. He was in the shower and wouldn't be able to hear it. It rang only once, though, and she realized that the answering machine there must have picked up the call.

She walked down the hall to the office and opened the door. The whirring sound of the fax machine greeted her. So it hadn't been a call, after all, but a fax.

The machine stopped whirring and lapsed into silence after having spat out only one sheet of paper. As she turned to go, her eye was caught by a name on the page, and curiously she turned back.

It was her name that had caught her attention.

The message was brief. "Mr. Horowitz just reported that a cashier's check from E. Shaw, in full payment of the outstanding amount, was delivered by express mail and received by him. His hands are tied. Further instructions?" The scrawled signature looked like "F. Koury."

Evie picked up the page and read it again. At first she was merely puzzled. Why would this F. Koury be telling Robert that she had paid the loan? And why would Mr. Horowitz be reporting it at all? Robert didn't even know about the loan, much less the threat of foreclosure.

Her mind stopped, along with her breathing. She hung there, paralyzed by a sickening realization. Robert knew all about it because he was the one who had been blocking her efforts to mortgage the house. He was also the reason why her loan had been bought, and why Mr. Horowitz had been so intractable in demanding full payment. He had been instructed to give her no cooperation at all, instructed by Robert Cannon. Her lover was her enemy.

Her chest was hurting. She gasped and resumed breathing, but the pain remained, a cold, heavy lump in her chest. The sense of betrayal was suffocating.

Obviously Robert was far wealthier and more powerful than she had imagined, to have this much influence, she thought with detached calm. She didn't know why he wanted her marina, but he obviously did. There were a lot of why's she couldn't comprehend, particularly right now. Maybe later, when she could think better, some of this would make sense.

Right now, all she could think was that Robert had tried to take over her marina and had cost her her home.

That distance she had sensed in him had been all too real. He hadn't committed his heart because, for him, it had all been business. Had he seduced her simply so he could stay close and keep tabs on what she was doing? Given what else he had done, that seemed to her like a reasonable assumption.

Her lips felt numb, and her legs moved like an automaton's as she left the office, carefully closing the door behind her. The damning fax was still in her hand as she returned to the kitchen.

The hopeless enormity of the situation overwhelmed her. How ironic that she had fallen in love with the man who was coolly trying to destroy her! Oh, she doubted he looked at it in such melodramatic terms, but then, he probably saw the whole thing as a successful business takeover, rather than a love affair.

She heard the shower cut off. With slow, achingly precise movements, she folded the fax and dropped it into the trash, then poured a cup of coffee. She desperately needed the caffeine, or anything, to bolster her. Her hands were shaking slightly as she lifted the cup to her lips.

She was standing in front of the window when Robert came into the kitchen a few moments later, wearing only a pair of jeans and still rubbing a towel across his chest. He stopped, his entire body clenching at the sight of her. God, she was breathtaking, with her mane of tawny gold hair loose and tousled. She was wearing only his shirt, and it was unbuttoned. There had never been another garment invented, he thought with a surge of desire, that looked better on a woman than a man's shirt. She was sipping coffee and looking out the window, lost in thought, her expression as calm and remote as a statue's.

He dropped the towel and went to her, sliding one arm around her as he took the cup and lifted it to his own lips. He imagined he could taste her on the rim, but then, his senses were so attuned to her that he could pick her out of a crowd blindfolded.

No woman had ever responded to him the way Evie did. She was pure fire in his arms, reveling in every thrust, tempting more from him. If he was gentle, she melted. If he was rough in his passion, she clung to him, clawed at him, her soaring desire feeding his own until they were both frenzied with need. He wanted her incessantly.

He smoothed his hand over the curve of her bottom, delighting in the silky texture of her flesh. "The shower's all yours, sweetheart."

"All right," she said automatically, but he had the impression she didn't really hear him. She was still looking out the window.

He tipped his head to see if he could tell what had her so interested. He saw only a wide expanse of lake, dotted with a few boats. "What are you looking at?"

"Nothing. Just the lake." She turned away from his embrace and left the kitchen.

Robert's brows briefly knit in puzzlement, but he was hungry, and breakfast took precedence at the moment. He had scarcely gotten the bacon started when Evie reappeared in the kitchen, fully dressed, and with her keys in her hand.

"A fax came in while you were in the shower," she said quietly.

He turned, going still at what he saw in her face – or rather, what he didn't see. She was pale and expressionless, her eyes empty. With a chill, he remembered how Becky had described the look in Evie's eyes after the accident and he knew it must have been something like this. She looked so terribly remote, as if she had somehow already left.

"Who was it from?" he asked, keeping his voice gentle while his mind raced, sorting through the possibilities, all of them damning. The worst-case scenario was if she was indeed working with Mercer and had found out that the trap was closing tight about them.

"An F. Koury."

"Ah." He nodded, concealing a sense of relief. "My secretary." Probably it had nothing to do with Mercer, then, but why was Evie looking so frozen?

"It's there in the trash, if you want to read it, but I can tell you what it said."

He leaned against the cabinet and crossed his arms, eyeing her carefully. "All right. Tell me."

"Mr. Horowitz notified your secretary that he'd received a cashier's check from E. Shaw for payment in full of the loan, and that his hands were tied. She asked for further instructions."

Robert's expression didn't change, but inwardly he was swearing viciously. Of all the things for Evie to stumble onto! It was less damaging, from a security standpoint, than anything connected with Mercer would have been, but a hell of a thing to try to explain to a lover. He'd never intended her to know about it. The pressure had been real, but he would never have let it go to foreclosure. He didn't rush into explanations but waited for her reaction so he could better gauge what to say to her. And how in hell had she managed to get the money to pay the loan?

"You're the reason I couldn't get a mortgage on my house," she said, her voice so strained it was almost soundless.

She'd put it together quickly, he thought. But then, from the beginning, she'd proven herself to be uncomfortably astute. "Yes," he said, disdaining to lie.

"You're behind the loan being sold to another bank in the first place."

He inclined his head and waited.

She was gripping the keys so tightly that her fingers were white. He noted that small giveaway of emotion held in check. She took several shallow breaths, then managed to speak again. "I want your boat gone from my marina by the end of the day. I'll refund the balance of the rent."

"No," he said gently, implacably. "I'm holding you to the agreement."

She didn't waste her breath on an argument she couldn't win. She had hoped he would have the decency to do as she asked, but given his ruthless streak, she hadn't really expected it.

"Then leave it there," she said, her voice as empty as her eyes. "But don't call me again, because I don't want to talk to you. Don't come by, because I don't want to see you."

Sharply he searched her expression, looking for a way to penetrate the wall she had thrown up between them. "You won't get rid of me that easily. I know you're angry, but – "

She laughed, but it was raw and hollow, not a sound of amusement. Robert winced. "Is that how you've decided to 'handle' me? I can see you watching me, trying to decide which angle to take to calm me down," she said. "You never just react, do you? You watch and weigh other people's reactions so you can manipulate them." She heard the strain in her voice and paused to regain control of it. "No, I'm not angry. Maybe in fifty years or so, it'll just be anger." She turned on her heel and started for the door.

"Evie!" His voice cracked like a whiplash, and despite herself, she stopped, shivering at the force of will he commanded. This wasn't the cool strategist speaking but the ruthless conqueror.

"How did you pay off the loan?" The words were still sharp.

Slowly she looked at him over her shoulder, her eyes dark and unguarded for a moment, stark with pain. "I sold my house," she said, and walked out.