Loving Evangeline (Chapter Seven)
He was in control of the seduction. His instincts in that part of the game were infallible. It might take him a few weeks of gentling, but Evie would end up in his bed. Not long after that, he would have this entire mess cleaned up; Mercer and Evie would be arrested, and he would go back to New York.
That was the problem, of course. He didn't want Evie in jail. He had been furious when he had come down here, determined to put both her and her lover away for a very long time. But that was before he had met her, before he had held her and tasted the heady sweetness of her. Before he had seen the underlying sadness in those golden brown eyes, and wondered if he would cause that expression to deepen. The thought made him uneasy.
Was she even guilty? At first he had been convinced that she was; now, even after such a short acquaintance, he was no longer certain. No criminal was untouched by his deeds. There was always a mark left behind, perhaps in a certain coldness in the eye, a lack of moral concern in certain matters. He hadn't been able to find any such mark in Evie. He had often thought that those who dealt in espionage, in the betrayal of their own country, were some of the coldest people ever born. They lacked the depth of emotion that others had. That lack of feeling wasn't evident in Evie; if anything, he would say that she felt far too much.
She hadn't hesitated at all in going into the river after Jason. That in itself wasn't unusual; any number of strangers would have done the same thing, much less a relative. But, knowing that every second counted, she had stayed down far too long herself in the effort to find the boy. He knew as surely as he knew the sun was in the sky that she would not have been able to make it back to the surface without his help… and that she had been willing to die rather than release Jason and save herself. Even now, the memory made his bones turn cold.
He had gone inside to work at the computer, but now he got up and restlessly walked out onto the deck, where the burning sun could dispel his sudden chill.
Only a person of deep emotion was capable of that kind of sacrifice.
He braced his hands on the top railing and stared out at the river. It wasn't green today, but rather a rich blue, reflecting the deep blue of the cloudless sky. There was little, if any, breeze, and the water's surface was calm. It lapped gently against the dock and the bank with a sound that tugged at something deep within him. All life had originated in the sea; perhaps it was an echo of that ancient time that made people respond so to water. But this river, peaceful as it was now, had almost taken Evie's life.
He shivered from another chill. He couldn't remember, he thought absently, when he had been so enraged… or so afraid. He had ruthlessly controlled both emotions, allowing no hint of them to surface, but they had roiled deep within him. It hadn't been an intellectual anger, but rather a gut-level rage at fate, at chance, which had seemed to be snatching Evie out of his grasp before he could… what? Have her indicted? He snorted mirthlessly at that idea. The thought hadn't entered his mind. No, he had been furious that he wouldn't be able to hold her, make love to her, that the endless stretch of his days wouldn't have her in them.
Was Evie the type of person who could betray her country? He was beginning to doubt his own information.
Indecision wasn't normally part of Robert's makeup, and he was impatient with himself now. He couldn't allow his doubts about Evie's guilt to alter his plans. If she was innocent, then she wouldn't be harmed. She would have some uncomfortable moments, she would be worried, but in the end he would take care of the situation, and she would be okay.
Thinking about her made him edgy. He glanced at his watch; it was a little after noon. She should be at the marina now, and he should already have heard from the tail that he had assigned to follow her every move.
Right on cue, the phone rang, and he stepped inside to pick it up.
"She went to Huntsville this morning," a quiet female voice reported. "Her destination was an office building. The elevator closed before I could get on it with her, so I don't know where she went. I waited, and she returned to the lobby after an hour and twenty-three minutes. She drove straight home, changed clothes and then went to the marina. Mercer was in his office at PowerNet the entire time, and they didn't talk on the phone. There was no contact between them at all."
"What kind of tenants are in the office building?"
"I made a list. There are two insurance firms, a real estate office, four medical doctors, four lawyers, three dentists, an office temp company and two computer programming firms."
Damn, Robert thought bleakly. Aloud he said, "Find out where she went. Concentrate first on the two programming firms."
He swore as he hung up. Why couldn't she have spent the morning shopping, or paying bills?
He wanted to see her. He wanted to shake her until her teeth rattled. He wanted to whisk her away to some secluded place and keep her locked up there until he had this mess settled. He wanted to ride her until she wept with submission. The violence of all those longings was alien to him, but he couldn't deny it. She had definitely gotten under his skin in a way no other woman had ever done.
Temper and frustration merged, and with a muttered curse he gave in. After swiftly dressing, he left the house and climbed in the black Jeep. Damn it, he wanted to see her, so he would.
Virgil was visiting with Evie again that day. His knee was better, he said, and indeed, he was walking with less effort. The day had been fairly busy, with customers in and out on a regular basis, and Virgil had passed the time with several old friends and casual acquaintances.
She was busy ringing up a fisherman's purchase of gas, a soft drink and a pack of crackers when the door opened. Without looking, she knew Robert had entered. Her skin tingled, and she felt an instant of panic. She had hoped, foolishly, that she wouldn't see him that day, that her frazzled nerves would have a chance to recover somewhat before she actually went out with him the next night. On the other hand, she thought wryly, time and distance probably wouldn't help at all. Even if he wasn't there personally, he was in her mind, dominating both her thoughts and dreams.
Her customer taken care of, she allowed herself to look at him as he genially introduced himself to Virgil, who remembered him, of course. Very little got by that old man.
Robert was wearing jeans and a loose, white cotton shirt. A khaki baseball cap covered his black hair, and a pair of expensive sunglasses dangled from one hand. Her blood raced through her veins in excitement; even in such casual dress, there was something elegant and dangerous about him. The jeans were soft and faded with age, and he was as at home in them as he was in his silk shuts.
Then he was touching her on the arm, and it was like being burned with a tiny spark of electricity. "I'm going to take the boat out for a while, run the river and learn something about it"
So he wasn't going to be hanging around the marina all day. She was both relieved and disappointed. "Have you hired a guide?"
"No, but the river channel's marked, isn't it?"
"Yes, there shouldn't be any problem, unless you want to explore out of the channel. I'll give you a map."
"Okay." Thoughtfully Robert looked at Virgil. "Would you like to show me around the lake, Mr. Dodd? That is, if you don't have plans for the afternoon."
Virgil cackled, his faded eyes suddenly gleaming with enthusiasm. "Plans?" he snorted. "I'm ninety-three years old! Who in tarnation makes plans at my age? I could stop breathin' any minute now."
Amusement danced in Robert's eyes, making them look like pale green diamonds. "I'm willing to take the chance if you are, but I warn you, a corpse in the boat would be a real inconvenience."
Virgil hauled himself out of the rocking chair. "Tell you what, son. For the chance to park myself in a boat again, I'll try real hard not to put you to the trouble of havin' to call the coroner."
"It's a deal." Robert winked at Evie as he turned away.
Evie shook her head as she smiled at Virgil. She knew better than to try talking him out of going. Besides, he deserved to enjoy an hour or so on the river he loved, and she had faith that Robert would be as skillful at handling a boat as he was at everything else he did. How had he guessed, on such short acquaintance, that Virgil would dearly love getting out on the water again?
"Both of you be careful," she admonished. "Virgil, don't forget your cap."
"I won't, I won't," he said testily. "Think I'm fool enough to go out without somethin' on my head?"
"I'll bring the boat around to the dock," Robert said, and she was grateful to him for sparing Virgil the longer walk to the boat slip. He reached the door, stopped and came back to her. "I forgot something."
He cupped her chin in one hand, leaned down and calmly kissed her. It wasn't a passionate kiss; it was almost leisurely. Still, when he lifted his head, her heart was pounding and her thoughts scattered. "That," he murmured.
She heard Virgil's cracked laughter and became aware of the interested gazes of the two customers who were browsing among the hooks and spinner baits. Her cheeks burned with a blush, and she turned away to fiddle with some papers until she could regain her composure.
Virgil patted her on the arm. Though stooped under the weight of nine decades, he was still taller than she, and he grinned at her. "Heard tell that young feller made hisself useful the other day, when Becky's boy fell in."
She cleared her throat. "Yes. If he hadn't been there, Jason and I both would probably have drowned."
"Fast mover, is he?"
She found herself blushing again and waved Virgil off with shooing motions. Why on earth had Robert kissed her in public? She would never have thought that he was given to public displays of affection; there was something too contained about him. But he had certainly done just that!
She watched out the window as he idled the sleek black boat around to the dock, the powerful motor rumbling like thunder. The sunglasses were in place on the high-bridged nose, giving him a remote, lethal air. She had seen soldiers with that exact expression, and she wondered at it. With a start, she realized how little she knew about Robert Cannon. What did he do for a living? She knew he had to have some money to be able to afford that house, a new boat and the new Jeep. Where was he from? Did he have family, had he been married before, was he married now, did he have children? A chill went through her as she thought of all she didn't know about him.
And yet, in a way, she knew the man. He was cool and complicated, a private man who kept a subtle but permanent distance between himself and everyone else. The distance wasn't physical, God knows; he was the most physical, sensual man she'd ever met. Emotionally, though, he always held something back, keeping the inner man untouched. Probably most people thought of him as very controlled and unemotional; Evie agreed with the controlled part, but there was a ferocity lurking beneath the control that alarmed her even as it called to her own inner fire. He was ruthless, he was autocratic… and he had seen, almost at a glance, how much an old man would love to take a boat ride on his beloved river once more.
Her breath caught, and there was a pain in her chest. Panic filled her as she watched Virgil hobble out to the dock as Robert brought the boat alongside. Robert held out a strong hand, and Virgil gripped it and stepped aboard the craft. There was a wide smile on his face as he settled onto the seat. Robert handed him a life jacket, and obediently Virgil slipped it on, though Evie was fairly certain he'd never worn one before in his life.
The panic that almost suffocated her was comprised of equal parts terror and tenderness. She couldn't feel this much for him, not so soon. You had to know someone for that, and she had just been thinking how little she knew about him. She was fascinated by him, that was all. It was understandable. He was the first man in her life since Matt's death, twelve long, desolate years ago. He had brought passion alive in her again, with his skillful kisses and determined pursuit.
She had never felt so violently attracted to a man before.
With Matt… they had grown up together, they'd been in the same class in school, from first grade through graduation. She had known Matt as well as she knew herself; they'd been like two halves of a whole. The love had grown gradually between them, pure and steady, like a candle flame. Robert… Robert was an inferno, and the heat between them could leave her in ashes.
Robert and Virgil had been gone for over an hour when Landon Mercer strolled into the marina. "Hi, doll," he said jovially. "How's the prettiest woman in this part of the state?"
Evie's expression was impassive as she glanced at him. Unfortunately, business had slowed down and she was there alone. She always preferred to have company around when she had to deal with him. Of course, being alone meant that she would have the opportunity to follow him again. Her thoughts began to hum. "Hello, Mr. Mercer."
"Landon," he said, as he always did. He leaned against the counter in a negligent pose, one designed to show off his physique. Mercer was a good-looking man, she admitted, but he left her cold.
"Do you want to rent a boat today?" she asked, turning to check which ones were available, though she knew without looking. She had quickly discovered that the best way to deflect his attention was to appear oblivious to it.
"Sure do. It's been a while since I've done any fishing, so I decided to play hooky from work this afternoon." He laughed at his own pun.
Evie managed a polite smile. He had brought in a small tackle box and one rod and reel, the same rig he always carried. The same lure was tied to the line.
"Do you want any particular boat?"
"No, any of them will do." He leaned closer. "When I get back, why don't we go out to dinner tonight? Not anywhere here. We'll go someplace nice, maybe in Birmingham."
"Thanks, but I'm busy tonight," she replied, her tone conveying no interest at all. Unfortunately, he was so taken with his own charm that he was oblivious to her lack of response to him.
"Tomorrow night, then. It's Saturday night. We can even go to Atlanta for some real fun, since we wouldn't have to be back for work."
"The marina's open seven days a week."
"Oh. Okay, we'll go to Birmingham."
"No, thank you, Mr. Mercer. I'm busy tomorrow night, too."
"C'mon, how busy can you be? Whatever it is, you can put it off."
Her teeth were on edge. She barely managed to be polite as she said, "I have a date tomorrow night."
"Now I'm jealous. Who's the lucky man?"
"No one you know." She took an ignition key from the peg-board and slid it across the counter to him. "There you go. Number five, the one at the end of the dock."
He took out his wallet and extracted a couple of twenties. "I'll have it back in two hours." He picked up the ignition key.
"Fine." She mustered a smile. "Have a good time. Hope you catch a lot."
"I never do, but it's fun to try," he said breezily as he picked up his tackle and went out the door.
Evie put the money into the cash drawer and locked it, all the while eyeing Mercer as he walked down the dock. He was looking around, studying the parking lot and the traffic on the street out front, as well as on the bisecting causeway.
Swiftly she picked up the phone and buzzed Burt in the maintenance building. He picked up just as Mercer was getting into the boat.
"Burt, I'm taking the boat out for a while," Evie said swiftly. "I'm locking the store, but keep an eye on the gas pumps while I'm gone."
"Sure," he said, as unquestioning as ever. Burt Mardis didn't have a curious bone in his body.
Mercer was idling away from the dock. Evie jammed a ball cap on her head, grabbed her sunglasses and hurried from the building. She locked the door behind her, then sprinted for her own boat.
He was beyond the wave breakers by the time she reached her boat, and she heard the roar as he opened up the throttle. She all but threw herself into the boat and turned the key in the ignition. The motor coughed to life with a satisfying roar. Her boat was faster than any of the rentals, but on the water, and at speed, it was difficult to distinguish one vessel from another.
She had to idle away from the marina, because a fast takeoff would make waves large enough to violently rock the boats in their slips, possibly damaging them. Swearing at every lost second, she waited until she was past the wave breakers before pushing the throttle forward. The motor roared, and the front end of the boat lifted in the air as the vessel shot forward. It planed off almost immediately, the nose dropping into the running position.
She scanned the water for Mercer; unfortunately, he had gained enough distance that she couldn't positively identify him, and there were three boats speeding away from her, small specks that bobbed slightly as they cut through the waves. Which one was Mercer? The sun wasn't far past its apex, and the glare turned the lake into a mirror. Hot air hit her, pulling tendrils of hair loose around her face. The scent of the river filled her head and lungs, and a quiet exultation spread through her. This was a part of her life that she loved – the wind in her face, the sense of speed, the feel of the boat as it glided over calm water and bumped over waves. Though there were other boats on the lake, and houses visible all along the shoreline, when she was speeding across the water it was like being alone with God. She would have been perfectly content, if only she knew what Mercer was up to.
After a minute one boat slowed and turned toward another marina. As she neared, she could tell that it held two passengers.
That left two. The throttle was full forward, and she was gaining on one, while the other, probably a speedy bass boat, was pulling away. Since her boat was faster than the rental, the one she was overtaking had to be Mercer. Cautiously she throttled back, enough to stay at a pace with him but not so close that he would see and identify her. Just about everyone on the water would be wearing a ball cap and sunglasses, and her hair was pulled back in a braid rather than flying loose, so she felt fairly confident that he wouldn't recognize her.
He was heading toward the same area, where there were a lot of small islands dotting the lake. She wouldn't be able to get very close, because once he cut his speed he would be able to hear other boats. Her best bet, she thought, was to stop some distance away and pretend to be fishing.
The boat ahead slowed and cut between two islands. Evie kept her speed steady and cruised on past. There was a distance of over two hundred yards between them, but she could tell that now he was idling closer to the bank of the island on the right.
She turned in the opposite direction, away from him. A barge was coming downriver, heavily loaded and settled deep into the water, pushing out a wave as it plowed forward. If she let the barge come between her and Mercer, it would block his activities for almost half a minute, plenty long enough for her to lose him. But if she moved inside the barge's path, it would put her closer to him than she wanted to be.
There was no help for it. She tucked her long braid inside her shirt to hide that identifying detail and turned the boat to angle back across the river ahead of the barge.
"Guntersville Lake's easy to learn," Virgil stated. " 'Course, I was fishin' the river back before the TVA built the dam, so I knowed the lay of the land before the water backed up and covered it. Not many of us around now remembers the way it used to be. River used to flood a lot. So Roosevelt's boys decided we needed us a dam, so there wouldn't be no more floods. Well, hell, 'course there ain't, 'cause now the land that flooded ever now an' then is permanently under water. The government calls it flood control. They throwed around words like eminent domain, but what they did is take people's land, turn them off their farms, and put a lot of good land under water."
"The TVA brought electricity to the Tennessee River Valley, didn't it?" Robert asked. He was holding the boat to around twenty miles an hour, not much more than idling speed to the powerful motor behind them, but the slow speed made conversation possible. They had to raise their voices, but they could hear each other.
Virgil snorted. "Sure it did. Glad to have it, too. But nobody ever thought the TVA built that dam to make our lives easier. Hell, we knew what was goin' on. It was the Depression, and Roosevelt would have built the second Tower of Babel to make jobs for folks, for all the good it did to the economy. It took the war to kick-start things again."
"Did you fight in the war?"
"Too old for that one." Virgil cackled with glee. "Imagine that! Over fifty years ago, they said I was too old! But I was in the first one. Lied about my age to get in. Not that they checked too close, 'cause they needed men could hit the broad side of a barn with a rifle slug. During the second one, I volunteered to help train the younger fellers with their rifles, but that was all stateside. Suited me. My wife weren't none too pleased with me, anyway, leavin' her to handle five young'uns on her own. She'd have been mad as hell if I'd gone overseas. Our oldest boy, John Edward, was seventeen when it all started, and he joined the navy.
It fretted her enough that he was gone. He made it back fine, though. Imagine that. The boy went through a war in the Pacific without a scratch, then come home and died two years later with the pneumonia. Life's got a lotta strange turns in it. Don't guess I'll see too many more of them, but then, I didn't plan on hangin' around this long to begin with."
The old man lapsed into silence, perhaps remembering all the people who had come and gone through his life. After a minute he roused himself. "Got a lot of creeks emptyin' into the lake. We passed Short Creek a ways back. This here's Town Creek."
Robert had studied maps of the lake, so when Virgil identified the creeks he was able to pinpoint their location. Since the river channel was marked, staying in safely deep water was no problem. It was when he ventured out of the river channel that Virgil's expertise came in handy, because he knew where it was shallow, where the hidden stump rows were lurking just under the surface, ready to tear the bottom out of a boat if the driver wasn't careful. For several more minutes, Virgil devoted himself to his appointed task, pointing out quirks of the lake.
Then he said, "I've lost a lot of folks over the years. My own mama and pa, of course, and all my brothers and sisters. There were sixteen of us, and I'm the only one left. Got a piss pot full of nieces and nephews, though, and all of their kids, and their kids' kids. My wife passed on in sixty-four. Lord, it don't seem like it's been that long. I've lost three of my own kids. Parents ought not to outlive their kids. It ain't right. And all my friends that I growed up with, they're long gone.
"Yep, I've had to bury many a loved one, so I get right protective of the ones I got left." Faded blue eyes were suddenly piercing as he turned them on Robert. "Evie's a special woman. She's had enough sorrow in her young life, so if you don't mean to do right by her, it would be a kindness if you'd leave her alone and haul your ass back up north."
Robert's face was impassive. "Evie's related to you?" he asked neutrally, ignoring Virgil's rather combative statement. He wasn't about to get into an argument with a ninety-three-year-old man.
Virgil snorted. "Not by blood. But I've knowed her all her life, watched her grow up, and there's not a finer woman in this town. Now, I watch television, so I know times have changed from when I was young enough to court a woman. Back then we had enough respect for womenfolk not to do nothing to cause them harm. But, like I said, times have changed. I know young folks now get serious about things without tyin' the knot proper, and that ain't what I'm talkin' about. Thing is, if you're just lookin' for a good tune, then find some other woman. Evie ain't like that."
Robert had to struggle with several conflicting emotions. Foremost was his cold, instinctive anger at Virgil's scolding interference. In neither his business nor his personal life was he accustomed to being taken to task. Right after that, though, was amusement. He was thirty-six and, moreover, an extremely wealthy man who wielded a great deal of power in both financial and political circles. He almost smiled at Virgil lumping him in with "young folks."
What took most of his attention, though, was this second warning that Evie wasn't a good-time girl. Evie herself had issued the first warning: Don't kiss me unless it's for real. After Virgil's little speech, the underlying meaning of those warnings was clear, though the reason wasn't
"I don't usually discuss my relationships," he finally said in a faintly distant tone, just enough to signal his displeasure. "But my interest in Evie isn't casual." In any way. "What did you mean, she's had enough sorrow in her life?" Because that had been the basis of the talk: Don't hurt her.
"I mean, life ain't been easy on her. Grief comes to everybody, if they live long enough. Some folks, though, it hits harder than others. Losin' Matt the way she did, the day after they got married… well, it changed her. There ain't no sunshine in her eyes now, the way there used to be. She never looked at another man since Matt died, until you. So don't disappoint her, is what I'm sayin'."
Robert was knocked off balance by the surge of jealousy that seared through him. Jealousy? He'd never been jealous in his life, especially where a woman was concerned. Either his women were faithful to him or the relationship ended. Period. How could he be jealous of a boy who had been dead for a dozen years? But Evie still wore Matt Shaw's wedding ring on her finger and had evidently remained faithful to him even after all this time. Forget Mercer; that had obviously been an error. An understandable one, but still an error. He was both glad that she wasn't involved with Mercer, at least on that level, and furious that she was determined to waste herself on a memory. I don't want to sleep with you, she'd said. She was still trying to be faithful to a dead husband.
"What kind of person was Matt?" he asked. He didn't want to know, didn't want to talk about the boy, but he felt compelled to find out.
"He was a fine boy. Would have been a good man, if he'd had the chance. Good-natured, honest. Kindhearted, too. Can't say that about too many folks, but Matt didn't have a mean bone in his body. He never dated anybody but Evie, and it was the same with her. They planned to marry each other from the time they started high school together. Never saw two kids love each other the way they did. It was a shame that they didn't have no more time together than what they had. She didn't even have his child to keep part of him alive. Damn shame. She needed somthing to live for, back then."
Robert had had enough. He couldn't listen to much more about how wonderful Matt Shaw had been, and how much Evie had loved him, without losing his temper. He couldn't remember the last time he had lost control, but mere was a deep-seated fury in him now that was surging forward. He didn't try to analyze his anger; he simply and ruthlessly contained it, shoving it down as he turned the boat downriver and headed back toward the marina. He eased the throttle forward so the noise would make conversation impossible.
Fifteen minutes later they were idling up to the docks. At the sound of the motor, a man wearing grease-covered coveralls came out of the maintenance building and walked out on the dock. He nodded a greeting to Robert and said to Virgil, "Come in outta the sun and keep me company for a while. Evie closed the office and took her boat out for a while." As he talked, he extended a muscular arm to steady Virgil as he climbed out of the boat onto the dock.
"When was this?" Robert asked sharply.
The mechanic shrugged. "An hour, maybe. I didn't pay no attention to the time."
She had refused to close the marina early one rainy late afternoon, when there had been no customers, but now she had closed it not long after lunch on a beautiful, sunny, busy day. Robert's eyes narrowed. He looked at the parking lot. He knew the make, model and color of Mercer's car, and there it sat
Damn her. She had left to meet with the traitorous bastard.