Loving Evangeline (Chapter Thirteen)

How could experiencing such a night not leave an imprint on her face? Evie wondered as she got ready for work. After her leisurely soak in the soothing hot water and an equally leisurely breakfast, which Robert had cooked with the same easy competence with which he handled everything else, he had driven her home and reluctantly kissed her goodbye for the day, saying that he had some business to attend to in Huntsville but would try to get back before she closed the marina. If not, he would come to her house.

She had forced herself to do the normal things, but she felt as if her entire life had been turned upside down, as if nothing were the same. She wasn't the same. Robert had turned her into a woman who actively longed for his possession, despite the discomfort of her newly initiated body. She hadn't known, hadn't even suspected, that passion could be so savage and all-encompassing, that the pain would be as nothing before the need to link her body with his.

She wanted him even more now than before. He had brought up the long-buried sensuality of her nature and made it his, so that she responded to the lightest touch of his hand. When she thought of him, her body throbbed with the need to wrap her legs around him and take him inside her, to cradle his heavy weight, accept and tame the driving need of his masculinity. The scent of his skin, warm and musky, aroused her. Her memory was filled now with details that she hadn't known before, like the guttural growl of his words and the way his neck corded when he threw his head back in the arching frenzy of satisfaction.

She stared at her face in the mirror as she swiftly braided her hair. Her eyes had shadows under them, but she didn't look tired. She simply looked… like herself. If there was any change at all, it was in the expression in her eyes, as if there was a spark that had been missing before.

But if her face was the same, her body bore the signs of his lovemaking. Her breasts were pink and slightly raw from contact with his beard stubble, her nipples so sensitive from his mouth that the soft fabric of her bra rasped them. There were several small bruises on her hips, where he had gripped her during his climax, and her thighs ached. She was sore enough that every step reminded her of his possession and awakened echoes of sensation that made her acutely aware of her body.

It was much earlier than usual when she drove to the marina, but she needed the distraction to take her mind off Robert. If she was lucky, Sherry would bring Virgil by to spend the day with her.

Craig was gassing up a boat when she arrived. When he had finished, he came in and rang up the sale, putting the money in the cash drawer. "How come you're in so early? Have a nice time last night?"

Her nerves jumped, but she managed a composed smile. "Yes, we did. We went to a private club for dinner and dancing. And I came in early… just because."

"That's a good enough reason for me." He brushed his dark hair out of his eyes and gave her an urchin's grin. "I'm glad you're going out with him. You deserve some fun, after the way you've worked to build up this place."

"Thanks for swapping shifts with me."

"You bet."

Another customer idled up to the docks, and Craig went out again. Evie picked up the morning mail and began sorting through it. The junk mail and sales papers went into the trash. The bills went to one side, to be juggled later. One letter was from a New York bank she'd never heard of, probably wanting her to apply for a credit card. She started to toss it without opening it, but on second thought decided to see what it was about. She picked up the penknife she used as a letter opener and slit the envelope.

Thirty seconds later, her brows knit in puzzlement, she let the single sheet of paper drop to the desk. Somehow this bank had gotten her confused with someone else, though she couldn't think how they had gotten her name on one of their files when she had never done business with them. The letter stated, in brisk terms, that due to a poor payment record they would be forced to foreclose on her loan unless it was paid in full within thirty days.

She would have ignored it except that the amount noted was the same as what she owed her bank for the loan against the marina. She knew that figure well, had struggled to get it down to that amount. Each payment brought it even lower. She didn't know how, but obviously her file had gotten into this other bank's computers, and they wanted her to pay fifteen thousand, two hundred and sixty-two dollars within thirty days.

Well, it was obviously something she would have to clear up before it got even more tangled. Evie called her bank, gave her name and asked for her loan officer, Tommy Fowler, who was also an old school friend.

The line clicked, and Tommy's voice said, "Hi, Evie. How're you doing?"

"Just fine. How are you and Karen doing, and the kids?"

"We're doing okay, though Karen says the kids are driving her crazy, and if school doesn't start soon she's going to get herself arrested, so she can have some peace and quiet."

Evie chuckled. The Fowler kids were known for their frenetic energy.

"What can I help you with today?'' Tommy asked.

"There's been a really strange mix-up, and I need to know how to straighten it out. I got a letter today from a bank in New York, asking for payment in full on a loan, and it's the same amount as the one I took out from you, on the marina."

"Is that so? Wonder what's going on. Do you have your account number handy?''

"Not with me, no. I'm at work, and all my bookkeeping is at home."

"That's okay, I'll pull it up under your name. Just a minute."

She could hear the tapping of computer keys as he hummed softly to himself. Then he stopped humming and silence reigned, stretching out for so long that Evie wondered if he'd left the room. Finally a few more keys were tapped, then more silence.

He fumbled with the receiver. "Evie, I – " Reluctance was heavy in his voice.

"What's wrong? What's happened?"

"There's a problem, all right, hon. A big one. Your loan was bought by that bank."

Evie's mind went blank. "What do you mean, bought?"

"I mean we sold off some of our loans. It's a common practice. Banks do it to reduce their debt load. Other financial institutions buy them to diversify their own debt load. According to the records, this transaction took place ten days ago."

"Ten days! Just ten days, and already they're demanding payment in full? Tommy, can they do that?"

"Not if you've fulfilled the terms of the loan. Have you… ah… were you late with the payment?"

She knew he must have her payment record there in front of him, showing that she had been late several times, though she had never fallen a full month behind and had always gotten back on schedule. "It's late now," she said numbly. "I had an unexpected expense, and it'll be next week before I can."

She heard him exhale heavily. "Then they're legally within their rights, though the normal procedure would be to make an effort at collecting the payment, rather than the full amount."

"What do I do?"

"Call them. It should be fairly easy to straighten out After all, you're a good risk. But be sure to follow up by letter, so you'll have a record in writing."

"Okay. Thanks for the advice, Tommy."

"You're welcome. I'm sorry about this, hon. It never would have happened if we'd still held the loan."

"I know. I'll see what I can do."

"Call me if there's anything I can do to help."

"Thanks," she said again and hung up.

Her heart was pounding as she dialed the number on the letterhead. An impersonal voice answered and nasally requested her business. Evie gave the name of the man who had signed the letter, and the connection was made before she could even say please.

The call was brief. Mr. Horowitz was as brisk as his letter had been and as impersonal as the operator. There was nothing he could do, nor did he sound interested in trying. The outstanding amount was due in full by the time limit set forth in the letter, or the loan would be foreclosed and the property forfeit.

Slowly she hung up and sat there staring out the window at the blindingly bright day. The lake was crowded with boaters, people laughing, having fun. The marina was busy, with owners cleaning their craft, others using her ramps to launch their boats, still others idling in for gas. If she didn't somehow come up with over fifteen thousand dollars within the next thirty days, she would lose it all.

She loved the marina. Because she and Matt had been playmates before they had become sweethearts, she had spent a lot of time here even as a child. She had spent hours playing on the docks, had grown up with the smell of the water in her nostrils. The rhythms of the marina were as much a part of her as her own heartbeat. She had helped Matt work here, and later, after his death, had taken over the lion's share of the work from his parents. When they had left the marina to her, she had channeled all her energy and efforts into making it prosperous, but it had been a labor of love. The marina, as much as her family, had given her a reason for going on when she had been doubtful that she wanted to even try.

This was her kingdom, her home, as much or more than the house in which she lived. She couldn't bear to lose it. Some way, any way, she would find the money to pay off the loan.

The most obvious solution was to borrow against the house. The amount of the debt would be the same, but it would be stretched out over a longer period of time, and that would actually lower the payments. She felt giddy for a moment as the shock and horror lifted from her shoulders. She would be in even better shape than before, with more free cash every month.

She called Tommy again and got the ball rolling. He agreed that a mortgage was the perfect solution. He would have to get an okay on the loan, but he didn't foresee any problems and promised to call her as soon as permission came through.

When she hung up, Evie sat with her head in her hands for a long moment. She felt as if she had just survived combat. She was shaky, but elated at her victory. If she had lost the marina… She couldn't let herself imagine it.

When she finally lifted her head and looked out the window, driven by a need to see her domain still safe and secure, still hers, her face broke into a smile. Business was good today. So good, in fact, that Craig desperately needed a hand and was probably wondering why she wasn't out there helping him. Evie bounded to her feet, energy restored, and rushed out to help him with the sudden glut of customers.

Robert arrived at the marina just after seven that evening. It had been busy all day, and she was on the dock selling gas and oil to yet another happy, sun-roasted boater. Alerted by a sensitivity to her lover's presence, Evie looked around and saw him standing just outside the door, watching her. She lifted her hand. "I'll be there in a few minutes."

He nodded and stepped inside, and she turned her attention back to her customer.

Robert watched her through the big window as he stepped behind the counter. He had been notified that she had received the letter and called the bank that he had arranged to buy her loan, and that, as instructed, they had been totally unwilling to cooperate on the matter. Glancing down, he saw the letter lying on top of the stack of mail, the single sheet of paper neatly folded and stuffed back into the envelope.

She had to be upset. He regretted the need for it, but he had decided to see the plan through. Though he was almost certain she didn't know exactly what Mercer was doing, that she was more of an unwitting accomplice than anything else, there was still the small chance that she was involved up to her pretty neck. Because of that, he couldn't relent in his financial pressure. If she was involved, she would be forced into another sale just to raise the money to pay the loan. If she wasn't involved, he would take care of her money problems just as soon as he had Mercer in jail. There were others, and he would get them, too. But Evie was his, one way or the other.

Since he had left her that morning, he had several times been struck with amazement that he wouldn't see her sent to jail, even if she was guilty. This was his country's security at stake, something he took very seriously indeed. He had risked his life more than once for the same principle. He had relished the adventure, but the underlying reason for taking those risks had been a simple, rock-solid love of country. If Evie had betrayed it, she deserved prison. But acknowledging that in no way changed his decision. He would protect her from prosecution.

The sunburned customer and his trio of friends, all young men in their early twenties, were obviously in no hurry to stop chatting with Evie. Robert scowled out the window, but he couldn't blame them. Only a dead man wouldn't respond to her curvy, glowing femininity.

He slipped the letter out of the envelope and unfolded it. There was no reason for doing so, except a meticulous attention to detail. He wanted to know exactly what it said. Swiftly he scanned the contents, satisfied with the way it had been handled. Then he read Evie's notes, hastily scribbled in the margin.

She had written down the name "Tommy Fowler," with a phone number beside it. Underneath she had written "mortgage house" and circled that

A smile tugged at his mouth. She was certainly a resourceful, common-sense woman. Relief welled up in him. If she was truly involved in stealing the NASA computer programs, she wouldn't be trying to mortgage her house to pay the loan; she would simply arrange another buy. In his experience, criminals didn't think of things like honest work to pay off debts; they were leeches, living off the effort of others, and would simply steal again.

Robert returned the letter to the envelope. More than ever, he regretted the need to play out what he had begun, but he never left anything to chance, certainly not in a matter this serious. He would have to squash any attempt to mortgage the house, of course. Evie would be worried sick, but he would make it up to her afterward.

He sat down on the high stool and watched her as she finally got rid of the four admiring young men. She was dressed much as she had been the first time he'd seen her, in jeans and a T-shirt with her tawny blond hair in a thick, loose braid. His reaction, too, was almost the same: he was poleaxed with lust. The only difference was that it was more intense now, and he hadn't thought that possible. But now he knew exactly how she looked naked, knew all the delectable textures and curves of her body, and the hot, tight clasp of being sheathed deep inside her. He shivered with desire, his burning gaze locked on her as she walked up the dock. He knew the sounds she made at the peak of pleasure, knew how she clung to him, the way her legs locked convulsively around him, and how her nipples hardened to tight little raspberries. He knew the taste of her, the scent, and wanted to have it again.

She came inside, glanced at him and froze in place. He saw the shudder of awareness that rippled over her as she sensed his arousal. God, was she even more attuned to him than she had been before? The thought was unsettling.

"Come here," he said softly, and she blindly walked into his arms.

He didn't rise from the stool but pulled her between his thighs. Her arms circled his shoulders as he bent his mouth to hers. He kissed her for a long time, so hungry for her that he couldn't be gentle. Evie moved against him, her hips rolling in a languorous, wanton manner that made his heart almost stop in his chest. Kissing her when her response was reluctant had been intoxicating enough; now that she was willing, her mouth clung to his in a way that made him forget about Mercer and the stolen computer programs, about the mess she was embroiled in, even where he was, everything but the hot joy of holding her.

But she would be too sore for any more lovemaking today, and reluctantly he eased away from her mouth, trailing kisses across her temple and the curve of her jaw. He would have to restrain himself for a while yet.

"How did your day go?" he murmured, opening the door for her to tell him about the problem with the bank loan.

"It was as busy today as I've ever seen it," she replied, leaning back in the circle of his arms. Her eyes were soft and sleepy. "How about yours?"

"Tedious. I had some boring details to handle." That was a lie. No detail was boring to him.

"I wish you had been here today, I'd have put you to work. I think everyone who owns a boat was on the water today." She glanced over his shoulder. "There's another one," she said as she slipped out his arms.

This group didn't need any gas but trooped inside in search of some snacks and cold drinks. They had the ruddiness of people who had been out in the sun and wind all day, and brought with them the coconut scent of sunscreen lotion. Once inside, they seemed reluctant to leave the air-conditioning and milled around looking at the fishing tackle. Evie didn't try to hurry them, instead chatting pleasantly. They were two couples about her age, out for a day of relaxation on the lake. One of the women mentioned how nice it was to have a day away from the kids, and for a while the conversation centered on the antics of their children. When the group finally left, it was with friendly goodbyes.

"Alone at last," Robert said, glancing at his watch. "It's closing time, anyway."

"Thank goodness." Evie stretched and yawned, catching herself in midstretch with a wince that she quickly covered, but not quickly enough. He saw that slight hesitation. He would indeed have to exercise self-control.

He helped her to close up, then sent her home while he stopped for takeout. They ate dinner together, then sat out on the deck in the cooling night, talking softly about routine things. But Evie soon became sleepy, a direct result of not sleeping much the night before. On her third yawn, Robert stood up and held out his hand. "That's it, sleepyhead. Bedtime."

She put her hand in his and let him pull her to her feet. He led her to the bedroom and gently began undressing her.

"Robert, wait," she said uneasily, trying to draw away from him. "I can't – "

"I know," he said, and kissed her forehead. "I told you I'd give you time to heal. I didn't say anything about not sleeping together, but sleep is the operative word."

She relaxed into his arms again, and he finished the task of undressing both of them. It was too warm in the house for him to be comfortable, but when they were both naked and lying on the bed, the ceiling fan wafted a cooling breeze over them, and he began to get drowsy, anyway. They lay nestled spoon fashion, his hard thighs under her round bottom, one hand possessively covering a breast.

He lay quietly. She was already asleep, her breathing slow and even. All his objections to staying in this house had faded when he had found that Evie had never truly been Matt's wife. He would still have preferred being in his own house; the bed was much bigger, for one thing. But Evie would be more comfortable in her own home, and that was the most important thing. He had notified his people where he would be, just as he had notified them that Evie would be staying with him the night before.

He had given her every opportunity to tell him about the bank loan, but she hadn't said a word about it Just as she had with the blown motor in her truck, she kept her trouble to herself rather than running to him for help or even emotional support. For someone who was so open and friendly, Evie was a very solitary person, accustomed to handling everything on her own. Though he would have had to turn her down if she'd asked for help, he wanted her to confide in him, to let him far enough into her life that he knew about the problems as well as the pleasures. When they were married, he would make damn certain he knew every time she stubbed her toe.

Until that moment, he hadn't let his plans for the future progress that far, but suddenly it seemed the thing to do. He had never wanted any other woman the way he wanted Evie, and he sincerely doubted that he ever would. After this mess was settled, he intended to keep her close by, which would mean taking her to New York with him. And he knew Evie. Though she had given herself to him, she was essentially a conventional soul. She would want the security of marriage; therefore, he would marry her. Other women had wanted marriage from him, but this was the first time in his life he'd been willing to give it. He couldn't imagine ever becoming bored with Evie, which had always happened with other lovers. Even more, he couldn't imagine letting any other man have the chance to marry her.

He didn't regret the impending loss of freedom. He thought of dressing her in silk gowns and expensive jewelry, of settling her in the lap of luxury – his – so that she wouldn't have to work seven days a week or worry about paying bills. She wouldn't have to make do with a secondhand refrigerator or drive around in a beat-up old truck. She wouldn't be so tired that dark smudges lay under her eyes. He would take her with him on his business trips, show her Paris and London and Rome, and they would take vacations on the ranch in Montana. Madelyn, he suspected, would gloat because he had finally been caught, but she would like Evie. Evie, despite that glowing sensuality, wasn't the type of woman that other women disliked on sight. She was friendly and courteous and unselfconscious about her looks. He had seen a lot of women who were far more vain than Evie, and with a lot less reason.

Within a month, perhaps even sooner, all of this would be behind them and they would be in New York. He fell asleep, thinking with pleasure of having her all to himself.

As usual, Evie woke at dawn. Robert lay close beside her, his body heat bathing her in warmth, despite the fact that the sheet had been kicked completely off the bed. He had done that, she supposed, because he wasn't accustomed to doing without air-conditioning. His arm was draped heavily across her hips, and his breath stirred the hair at the back of her neck.

She had slept with him for two nights in a row now and wondered how she would be able to bear the desolation when he was no longer there.

She turned within the circle of that enveloping arm and rose up on one elbow. He woke immediately. "Is anything wrong?" he asked, and just for a moment there was something feral and frightening in his eyes, and an instant tension in his muscles, as if he were poised to attack.

Quickly she shook her head to reassure him. "No. I just wanted to see you."

He relaxed at her words, lying back on the pillows. His olive-toned skin was dark against the whiteness. His thick black hair was tousled, and his jaw darkened by a heavy stubble. She was entranced by his sheer, uncomplicated masculinity, not yet smoothed over with grooming and clothes that somewhat obscured his true nature. Lying there with his iron-hard body naked and relaxed, he looked like what he was, a warrior honed down and redefined by years of battle.

She put her hand on his chest, and he lay quietly, watching her from beneath lowered lids but content to let her do as she wished. She didn't whisper her love to him; she had already told him how she felt and didn't intend to badger him about it. She concentrated, instead, on learning as much as she could about him. She had spent the first eighteen years of her life gathering memories about Matt, but she would have a much shorter time with Robert, and she didn't want to waste a minute.

She bent over him, her long hair trailing across his chest and shoulder as she planted a line of gentle kisses down his body. He smelled delicious in the morning, she thought, all warm and sleepy. The crispy curls of black hair on his chest invited her to rub her cheek against them, catlike. His nipples, tiny and brown, were almost hidden in the hair. She sought them out, tickled by the minute points that stood out when she rubbed her fingertip across them. Robert flexed restlessly on the sheet as desire tightened his muscles, then forced himself to relax again to better enjoy her attentions.

"I wonder if that's the same expression a pasha would have, lying back and letting his favorite concubine pleasure him," she murmured.

"Probably." He put his hands on her head, fingers sliding beneath the heavy fall of hair to massage her scalp. "You do pleasure me, Evangeline."

She continued her dreamy exploration, down the furry ridged abdomen toward his hips and thighs, detouring around his early morning erection. Something high on the inside of his left thigh caught her eye, and she bent closer to examine the mark. The morning sunlight clearly revealed a stylized outline of an eagle, or perhaps a phoenix, with upswept wings. The tattoo was small, not even an inch in length, but so finely made that she could see the fierceness of the raptor.

She was startled by the tattoo – not the design, but its very presence. Lightly she traced her finger over it, wondering why he had it. After all, Robert hardly seemed the type of man who would have a tattoo; he was too polished and sophisticated. But for all that sophistication, he wasn't quite civilized, and the tattoo matched that part of him. This was perhaps the only overt signal he permitted himself that he was more than what he seemed.

"How long have you had it?" she asked, looking up at him.

He was watching her with piercingly intent eyes. "Quite a while."

It was a very inexact answer, but she sensed that it was all she would get from him, at least for now. Slowly she leaned down and licked the tattoo, her tongue gently caressing the sign in his flesh that signaled the presence of the inner man.

A low, rough sound vibrated in his throat, and his entire body tightened.

"Do you want me?" she whispered, licking him again. She felt very warm, and slightly drunk with her feminine power. Desire was unfurling inside her, opening like a flower. Her breasts throbbed, and she rubbed them against his leg.

He gave a strangled laugh, almost undone by her natural sensuality. "Look a few inches to your right and tell me what you think."

She did, turning her head with slow deliberation to survey the straining, pulsing length of his sex. "I believe you do."

"The sixty-four-thousand-dollar question is, how do you feel?"

Evie gave him a slow, luminous smile of desire that promised him more than he thought he could survive. "I feel… willing." she purred, crawling up the length of his body to lie on him as she wound her arms around his neck.

His face was strained as he rolled, placing her beneath him. "I'll be careful," he promised in a rough whisper.

She reached up to touch his beard-roughened cheek and opened her thighs to clasp them around him. Her heart was in her eyes as he began slowly, with almost agonizing care, to enter her. "I trust you," she said, giving him her body as surely as she had given him her heart.