Loving Evangeline (Chapter Eight)
She tied off and leapt up onto the dock. "Did Virgil enjoy himself?" she asked as she stepped around Robert, heading toward the office. He wasn't the only one who had self-control. Right now she had other concerns besides dealing with his temper. She could hear the roar of a boat coming closer; that might or might not be Mercer, but she wasn't taking any more chances. When Mercer returned to the marina, she intended to be inside the office building, doing business as usual.
"Just a minute," Robert said, his tone clipped, and reached for her.
Evie evaded his grasp. "Later," she said, and hurried up the dock.
He was right behind her when she unlocked the door, but he didn't have a chance to say anything. Virgil had seen her boat and was slowly making his way across the lot. Robert eyed the old man's progress; he wouldn't have time to get any answers out of her before Virgil was there, so it would be better to wait, as she'd said, until later. Once more he controlled his anger and frustration, but the fury in him remained hot. If anything, he was becoming even angrier.
Virgil reached the doorway and gave a sigh of pleasure as the cool air-conditioning washed over him. "Got spoiled in my old age," he griped. "The heat didn't used to bother me none."
"No point in letting it bother you back then," Evie pointed out, smiling at him. "There wasn't any air-conditioning, so we all had to put up with it."
The old man eased into the rocking chair. "Spoiled," he repeated contentedly.
She went over to a vending machine and fed in the change for three soft drinks. She kept the machine's temperature set low enough to form ice crystals in the drinks, to the delight of her customers. She popped the tops off the bottles and thrust one into Robert's hands, then gave another to Virgil. The third she drank herself, turning up the bottle for a long, cold swallow of the crisp, biting liquid.
She saw Robert eye the hourglass bottle in his hand with a less-than-thrilled expression; then he, too, took a drink. His tastes were probably too sophisticated to run to soft drinks, she thought, but if he was going to live here for the summer, he should do as the natives did. One of the front lines of defense against the heat was to consume cola every day as coolant for the insides.
A boat was idling in past the wave breakers. A quick glance told Evie that it was the rental boat. Mercer had seen her, she knew, but she didn't think he had recognized her. Wearing the universal ball cap and sunglasses, with her hair tucked in, she could have been anyone. It was doubtful that he had even been able to tell she was a woman.
Robert hitched one hip onto the counter, a sockless, docksider-clad foot swinging as he nursed the soft drink. His expression didn't give anything away, but she had the strong impression that he was… waiting. Until they could talk? No. It was more immediate than that.
She watched Mercer tie up the boat and walk jauntily along the dock, tackle box in one hand and useless tackle in the other. Then the door opened and he breezed in, all ego and self-satisfaction. "Nothing today, doll," he said in his obnoxious, too-hearty manner. "Maybe I'd have better luck if you went along. What do you say?"
"I'm not much for fishing," she lied without compunction, causing Virgil to almost choke on his drink.
Robert's back, as he sat on the counter, had been half-turned toward Mercer. Now he shifted around to face the other man. "Hello, Landon," he said coolly. "I'd like to go fishing with you the next time you take the afternoon off."
Evie was startled to hear Robert call Mercer by his first name, and a mental alarm began clanging. How did Robert know the man?
But if she was startled, the effect on Mercer was electric. He froze in place, his face draining of color as he gaped at Robert. "M-Mr. Cannon," he shuttered. "I – uh, how – w-what are you doing here?"
The black slashes of Robert's eyebrows rose in that sardonic way of his. Mercer was totally aghast at having run into him, Evie saw, and the tension in her relaxed. Whatever the connection, Robert wasn't in league with Mercer, or the other man wouldn't have been so taken aback at his presence.
The most obvious answer to Mercer's question would have been that he kept his boat here; that wasn't, however, what Robert said. Instead he looked deliberately at Evie and said, "The place has a certain attraction."
She felt silly, but she couldn't stop the color from heating her face. Mercer looked even more aghast, for some reason.
"Oh," he mumbled. "Yeah, sure." With an effort, he regained a bit of control and managed a sickly smile. "It's getting late. I should be going. Call me when you're free, Mr. Cannon, and we'll get in that game of golf we talked about."
"Or some fishing," Robert suggested, his voice like silk.
"Uh… yeah. Yes, we'll do that. Anytime." Mercer tossed the boat keys onto the counter and hastily left.
"Wonder what set his britches on fire," Virgil mused.
"Perhaps it was his bad luck in taking an afternoon off from work to go fishing and running into his employer at the marina," Robert suggested, his eyes hooded.
Virgil leaned back in the rocker, wheezing with laughter. "Well, I'll be! He works for you, eh? Bet that ruined his fun for the day."
"I'm certain it did."
Evie stood motionless, absorbing all the nuances of the brief scene with Mercer, and also the silkiness of Robert's murmured reply. He had taken a great deal of pleasure in watching Mercer squirm. He had also made that remark about her being the reason for his presence for the same reason: to make Mercer squirm. After all, what man would feel comfortable to find out he had just come on to the boss's woman… in front of the boss? This was in addition to being caught playing hooky from work.
Mercer probably didn't realize it, but it had been plain to Evie that Robert disliked him. He had been perfectly cordial, but the dislike had been there, underlying every word. She was enormously relieved. For a horrible moment she had been afraid that Robert was involved with whatever crooked deal Mercer had going on, but Mercer's manner certainly hadn't been that of someone who had met a friend. She was worried, though, to find that Mercer worked for Robert. Just as she didn't want his dirty waves to touch the marina, she also didn't want him to somehow harm Robert.
She hadn't been successful in finding out any more about what Mercer was up to; he had idled a twisting path around several of the islands, finally stopping for a moment on the back side of one of the larger ones. She hadn't been able to see what, if anything, he was doing. If she had had a trolling motor, she would have been able to get much closer without him hearing her, but her boat wasn't equipped with one. Then Mercer had started his motor again and resumed his weaving in and out of the islands. She had watched him as best she could, but there was no way to keep him in sight all the time. When he had finally left the islands, it had taken all the speed her boat was capable of to outpace him and reach the marina far enough in advance that he wouldn't see her.
So she still had nothing but suspicion. While she was wondering whether or not to confide in Robert when she had nothing of substance to tell him, Virgil's great-granddaughter came in. This time she was carrying a wide-eyed, eleven-month-old girl on her hip, and was followed by two towheaded boys, ages four and six. "PawPaw, PawPaw," both boys yelled. They ran toward the rocking chair, climbing up on Virgil's lap with a naturalness that suggested they had been doing it all their lives.
"Well, how'd it go?" Virgil asked, gathering both small bodies against him. "Did the dentist give you a sucker?"
"Yep," said the oldest one, pulling a bright red lollipop from his pocket. "Mom says it's okay, because it's sugarless. You want it?" His expression said that he was disappointed by the sugarless state of the candy.
"It's tempting," Virgil allowed, "but you keep it." Evie smiled as she watched Virgil with his great-greatgrandchildren, then turned back to their mother. "Sherry, this is Robert Cannon. He and Virgil have been out running the river today. Robert, Virgil's great-granddaughter, Sherry Ferguson."
"Pleased to meet you," Sherry said with her friendly smile. She obviously remembered Robert from the first time he had come to the marina. She shifted the baby onto her other hip and held out her hand.
Robert reached to shake Sherry's hand, and the baby evidently thought he was reaching for her; with a gurgle of pleasure she released her grip on Sherry's blouse and lunged forward, both dimpled little arms outstretched. Sherry made a startled grab for the child, but Robert was faster, scooping the baby into his arms almost before she had left the safety of her mother's.
"Allison Rose!" Sherry gasped, staring at the baby. "I'm sorry," she apologized to Robert as she reached to retrieve her child. "I don't know what got into her. She's never gone to a stranger like that before."
Allison Rose wouldn't have any of it; she shrieked and turned away from her mother's hands, clinging to Robert's shirt with all her might.
"She's all right," Robert said, his wonderful deep voice now holding a soothing tone to calm both mother and daughter. One powerful hand steadied the baby's back as his eyes smiled at Sherry. "I've always had a way with women."
That was nothing less than the truth, Evie thought, her blood moving in a slow throb through her veins as she watched him cradle the baby as comfortably as if he had a dozen of his own. Was there anything the man couldn't do? Sherry was all but melting under that smiling look, and tiny Allison was in heaven.
Perched on his arm, Allison looked around with a beatific expression, as if she were a queen surveying her subjects. Robert bent his head to brush his nose against the soft blond curls and reflected that girls were different from boys even at this young age. He had rocked Madelyn's two boys when they were infants and played with them as toddlers, but they hadn't been quite as soft as the baby girl in his arms, and her scent was indefinably sweeter. He found himself enchanted by the tiny sandals on her feet and the ruffled sundress she wore. The feel of her chubby, dimpled arms clinging to him was strangely satisfying.
Oh God, Evie thought. Her chest was so tight she could barely breathe. She had to turn away to hide the shattered look in her eyes. Why couldn't he have been uncomfortable with babies? Why did he have to cradle Allison so tenderly and close his eyes with delight at her sweet baby scent? The emotion swelling in her was so overwhelming that she couldn't think, couldn't function.
For the rest of her life she would remember the exact moment when she fell in love with Robert Cannon.
She busied herself fiddling with papers, though she couldn't have said what those papers were. As if from a distance, she could hear Sherry asking about Virgil's excursion on the river, could hear the enthusiasm in Virgil's reply and Robert's comments. The calm, soothing tone was still there, she noticed. How could Sherry fail to be reassured about the safety of the outing when his utter placidity and self-confidence said that he had taken every care without appearing to fuss over Virgil's safety?
He did it deliberately, she realized as she listened to them talk. She felt oddly detached, not really hearing words, but rather the way things were said, the underlying emotion. Robert was a master at reading people, then using his voice and manner with uncanny accuracy to manipulate them into the response he desired. It was almost as if he were a puppeteer, pulling everyone's strings so subtly that they never noticed they were being directed by his will.
And if he manipulated them, then it followed that he manipulated her.
There was a dull roaring in her ears, as if she might faint. Evie flatly refused to do something that silly and concentrated on breathing deeply. As she sucked in the first breath, she discovered that it was the first time she had done so for some time, judging by the acute relief in her lungs. She had simply stopped breathing, probably about the time Robert had rubbed his face against Allison's curls. No wonder she had felt faint.
Emotionally she had been groping for solid ground, had felt her fingers finally brush against something to which she had thought she could hold. Now she felt as if that lifeline had been jerked away from her and she was lost again, swirling away. Had anything Robert said to her been the truth, or had every word been a subtle manipulation, designed to… what? Get her into his bed? Was the thrill, for him, in the chase? The problem was that he could just as easily be sincere. How was she to tell the difference?
The answer, she thought painfully, was that she couldn't. Only time would tell if she could depend on him, entrust her heart to him, and she doubted that the time was there. He'd said he was here for the rest of the summer, and summer was half-over. He would be here another six, maybe seven, weeks.
"Evie." Her name was spoken quietly, almost in her ear. She felt his heat against her back, smelled the fresh, clean sweat on his body. His hand touched her arm. "Sherry and Virgil are leaving."
She turned, summoning both a smile and self-control. No one else had noticed her preoccupation, she saw, but Robert had, another disturbing example of his acute perception. Allison had been enticed, with one of the red suckers as bait, back into Sherry's arms, where she was engrossed with turning the cellophane-wrapped candy around and around, trying to find access. Finally she simply popped it into her mouth, cellophane and all. Virgil was standing, and the boys were already at the door, shouting that they wanted a Blizzard before they went home, while Sherry insisted that she wasn't driving all the way to Boaz to get one, at which Virgil added that he wouldn't mind having a Blizzard, himself. That, of course, settled the issue.
Evie added her voice to all the rowdy commotion, telling them goodbye, telling Virgil to take care. The boys raced out the door and headed toward the docks. Sherry stepped out and said, "Y'all get back here, now!" in a tone that stopped them in their tracks and brought them, pouting, back to her. It took another few minutes to get everyone settled in the station wagon, and through it all Evie was acutely aware of Robert standing very close behind her, his hand on the small of her back. Neither Sherry nor Virgil would have missed the body language, much less the touch, that stated his claim on her.
The silence after their departure was almost deafening. She closed the door and tried to slide past him, but his hands closed on her waist, and, with a dizzy whirl, she found herself plunked down on the counter with him standing between her legs to prevent her from getting down. She stared at the center of his chest, refusing to look up at him. She didn't want this, didn't want to confront him when she was still reeling from the jolting realization that she loved him and could trust him even less than she had thought.
"Damn it," he said very softly. Then, "Look at me."
"Because I don't want to talk to the top of your head."
"I can hear you just fine the way I am."
He hissed a curse just under his breath and caught her face between his hands, tilting it up. He was careful not to hurt her, but there was no resisting the easy strength of that grip. She tried to concentrate on his nose, but the pale green glitter of his eyes dominated his face, drawing her attention. There was no way not to see the cold fury there.
"Where did you go?"
The question was deceptively calm, almost idle. If she hadn't been able to see his eyes, if she hadn't been able to feel the roiling anger in him, she might have been fooled. "I had an errand to run."
"Ah." His hands tightened on her face. "Were you meeting Landon Mercer?" he asked abruptly. "Are you having an affair with him?"
She stared at him, stupefied. For several moments she was unable to formulate a single thought, her mind a total blank. How on earth had he managed to link her to Mercer? He had been gone when she had left, and she and Mercer had not come back at the same time. But she had left because of Mercer, even though she hadn't been with him. She could feel her cheeks heating and knew that she looked guilty, but she still couldn't seem to manage a coherent reply. Then the last question sank in, and she snapped, "No, I'm not having an affair with him! I detest the man!"
Robert's lips were thin. "Then why did you sneak off to meet with him?"
"I didn't sneak anywhere," she flared. "And I did not meet him!"
"But you closed the office in the middle of a busy day," he said relentlessly. "When you wouldn't close it a little early on a rainy afternoon when there weren't any customers at all."
"I told you, I had an errand."
"So you went in a boat?"
"I live on the water," she pointed out, light brown eyes glowing more golden by the second. "I can cross the lake faster than I can drive to my house. Sometimes, if the weather is good and I'm in the mood, I use the boat, anyway, rather than driving."
The dangerous look hadn't faded from his eyes. "Are you saying that you went home?"
Very deliberately she caught his wrists and removed his hands from her face. "I had an errand," she repeated. "I didn't meet Mercer. I'm not having an affair with him. And what in hell makes you think you have the right to interrogate me?" The last sentence was shouted as she tried to shove him away.
He didn't move, not an inch. "This," he said in a stifled tone, then moved forward as he bent his head to her.
She caught her breath at the heat of his mouth, the ravaging pressure. His movement had forced her thighs even wider, and he settled his hips in the notch. Evie quivered at the hard thrust of his sex against the vulnerable softness of her private body, alarmed by the contact even through several layers of cloth. The passion in him was as overwhelming as his anger had been, buffeting her, bending her under his will. His arms were painfully tight, and she tried to push him away once more, with the same result. "Stop it," he muttered against her mouth, and one arm dropped to encircle her bottom and pull her closer against him, rubbing her against the ridge beneath his jeans.
Unexpected, acute, the pleasure that shot through her loins made her cry out, the sound muffled by his lips. He repeated the motion, rocking his pelvis against her in a fury of jealousy and desire. The jolt was even stronger, and she arched in his arms, her hands lifting to cling to his shoulders. The transition from anger to desire was so swift that she couldn't control it, and the current of pleasure leaped within her. Every move he made increased the sensation, pushed her higher, as if she were being forced up a mountain and the purpose, once she reached the peak, was to hurl her over. The dizzying, panicked sensation was the same, and she clutched at him as the only anchor.
It had never been like this with Matt, she thought dimly. Their youthful passion had been shy, untutored, sweet but hesitant. Robert was a man who knew exactly what he was doing.
Though he hadn't touched them, her breasts were throbbing, the nipples tightly drawn and aching. She arched again, a soft, frantic sound in her throat as she tried to ease the ache by rubbing them against his chest. He knew, and whispered, "Easy," just as his hand closed over one firm, jutting mound.
She whimpered at the heat, the delicious pressure. She knew she should stop him, but putting an end to this ecstasy was the last thing she wanted to do. Her body was pliant, voluptuous with need, glowing with heat. He put his hand under her shirt and deftly opened the front snap of her bra. The cups slid apart, and then his fingers were on her naked flesh. He stroked the satin curves, then circled the tight nipples until she writhed in an agony of unfulfillment. "Is this what you want?" he murmured, and lightly pinched the distended tips. She moaned as a river of heat ran through her, gathering moisture to deposit between her thighs.
He bent her backward over his arm, the position thrusting her breasts upward. Her shirt was pulled up to completely bare them, she realized, wondering when that had happened. She saw her nipples, as red as berries; then his mouth closed over one, and her eyes closed as her head fell back.
He was going to take her right here, on the counter. She felt his determination, his own rampant desire. Panic surged through her, combating the heat that undermined her own will and common sense. He would take her here, where anyone could walk in and see them. He would take her without any thought for birth control. And she, besides risking her reputation and the chance of pregnancy, would lose the last bit of protection she retained for her heart.
His mouth was tugging at her nipple, drawing strongly on it before moving to the other one. And his hands were working at the waistband of her jeans, unsnapping and unzipping.
Desperately she wedged her arms between their bodies and stiffened them. "No," she said. The word was hoarse, barely audible. "Robert, no! Stop it!"
He froze, his muscled body taut as he held himself motionless for a long moment. Then, very slowly, he lifted his hands from her and moved back, one step, then two. His breathing was fast and audible.
Evie couldn't look at him as she slid from the counter and hastily fumbled her clothing back into presentable shape, fastening her bra, smoothing her shirt down, snapping and zipping her jeans. Her own breath was coming light and fast.
"Don't look so scared," he said calmly. "I gave you my word that I'd stop, and I did."
No, the problem wasn't with his willpower, she thought wildly, but with hers. Had they been anywhere else but in the marina, she didn't know if she could have made herself say no.
"Nothing to say?" he asked a moment later, when she remained silent.
She cleared her throat. "Not yet."
"All right" He still sounded far too calm and in control. "We'll talk tomorrow. I'll pick you up at seven o'clock."
"Seven," she echoed as he left.
Robert was on the secure mobile phone in the Jeep by the time he had pulled out of the marina's parking lot. "Did you follow him from the time he left work?" he asked as soon as the phone was answered.
"Yes, sir, we did. We saw your Jeep at the marina and pulled back."
"Damn. I was out in my boat. He rented a boat and met someone out on the lake, possibly Evie, because she left the marina in her boat, too. Was he carrying anything when he left work?"
"Not that we could tell, but he could easily have had a disk in his coat pocket."
"He didn't fish in his suit. Where did he change clothes?"
"At his house. He was there for not quite five minutes, then came out carrying a tackle box and a fishing rod."
"If he had a disk at all, it would have been in the tackle box."
"Yes, sir. We didn't have a chance to get to it."
"I know. It wasn't your fault. First thing, though, I'm going to have a secure phone put in the boat. That way, if I'm out on the water, you can get in touch with me."
"Good idea. We went through his house again while we had the chance. Nothing."
"Damn. Okay, continue to watch him. And send someone out to Evie's house tonight."
"The matter we discussed?"
"Yes," Robert replied. It was time for the pressure to begin.