All I Want for Christmas
"You know there's something seriously wrong with the world when two great women like ourselves are alone on Christmas."
Evangeline Williamson felt her younger sister's words with every beat of her heart. Of course, she could argue that they didn't need a man to define them. They were strong, capable women. If certain men in Llanview weren't smart enough to realize it, the loss was theirs. After the break up with John, Evangeline realized the right man was far better than any man. When did Layla start believing the opposite? Their mother would be disappointed in both of them if she suspected that either of her daughters believed that lie.
"We're not alone," Evangeline said, reaching for boughs of holly to decorate the mantle above her roaring fireplace. "We have each other."
Layla rolled her eyes and sunk deeper into the sofa cushions. "You know what I mean."
"I know that we're better than that."
Evangeline stood back from the sofa to admire her handiwork. Her home was starting to look more festive. She always loved Christmas and the beautiful vibrant colors that marked the season. True, this year was nothing like the previous one. Wallowing in self-pity went against her strongest instincts. A Williamson woman was better than that. A whole helluva lot better.
"Many women have gotten themselves into trouble thinking that having a man on their arm would save them," Evangeline said. "It never works out that way. I'm going shopping for a tree. Want to come?"
Layla shook her head. "I'm not really in the mood. Have fun."
"I intend to."
Evangeline headed straight to the tree lot on the edge of town. Snow clouds hung low in the sky. She guessed that the first snowfall would come in during the night. Christmas didn't feel right without a natural, white blanket covering the ground. Even though Layla's melancholy sentiment threatened to cloak them both, Evangeline was determined to shake off the blues. A white Christmas would aid a lot in that endeavor.
A chilly wind blew from the east. She buttoned her coat to ward off the worst of it. Beside her, couples laughed and whispered as they clung to each other and hurried through the offering of trees. A tiny twinge of longing twisted a knot in her stomach. The small hint of regret whispered in her ears, reminding her that a lot had happened since the last Christmas.
God, what a difference a year made.
Last year, she and John were together. Their relationship had progressed slowly, but it had progressed. Hope at the thought of their future filled her heart. Sure, John was slow in opening up, but she felt so right with him. Giving him time seemed like the right thing to do.
What a fool she had been. Time hadn't been what he needed, and in the end, he wasn't what she needed.
Oh, but he could have been. And that's what she regretted most of all. He didn't even bother to try to save their relationship. Love wasn't in his vocabulary, and she wasn't sure if he understood the sentiment. Because if he did, he would have to be insane to justify what he kept from the woman who claimed his bed after Evangeline had the good sense to walk away.
"No," she whispered to herself. I won't go down that path to the past. Christmas is here, and Christ's birth is not about regrets. It's about hope and faith.
And Evangeline had an abundance of both.
* * *
Cristian Vega thought he'd already received everything he wanted for Christmas. After helping John subdue Carlo Hesser during the failed prison break attempt, the Governor bestowed Cristian with a full pardon. The conditions of Cristian's imprisonment and mental torture also aided the Governor in his decision. Cristian now walked the streets of Llanview a free man, but the sense of elation was bittersweet.
The family reunion with Antonio and Mamí was everything he dreaded and hoped. They were upset with his lack of faith in them. Had they known the whole truth they would have fought for his freedom. Fortunately, the Vegas were never one to dwell on the past. Once the initial shock wore off, his family received him with open arms. Their love for him could never be truly denied nor his for them. He breathed a sigh of relief every time he thought of his mother and his brother and their capacity for forgiveness. Too bad the same ability didn't extend to him, Natalie, and their failed marriage.
Being trapped with her lover and enemies wielding loaded guns had been a major eye opener. The gunshot wound burned a hole in his side that rivaled in throbbing intensity with the break cracking his heart. When John came to him seeking permission to sleep with Natalie, rage seeped inside Cristian's veins. If bars hadn't separated them, Cristian would have thoroughly enjoyed beating John within an inch of the coldhearted bastard's life. What kind of man asked such a thing? Natalie was Cristian's wife! What gave John the right to flaunt what Cristian couldn't have? Resentment fueled Cris for a good long while. Even John's determination to save them from the wild spray of Carlo's bullets and evil plans failed to break through Cris' hatred. That was until Cris looked through the iron gates and locked eyes with his wife.
Seconds ticked by like hours. He willed himself to hold everything inside, but she unleashed hers. Her anger and hatred came through loud and clear. The coldness in her blue eyes fell many degrees below the freeze of the Llantano River. How could the woman who pledged her heart and soul to him regard him with heartless cruelty? Why couldn't she look at him and know the truth? Why didn't she recognize his touch, smell and taste? Why was it so easy for her to cast him aside?
All at once, those questions ricocheted through him. The blast from the gun knocked him to his feet and the pain froze him. Yet all the while, the questions continued. It was then that he slowly started to realize the truth. With ease that surprised him, he told John that once the smoke cleared and the time for reckoning came, he wouldn't fight Natalie's choice. If she wanted John McBain, Cristian promised to walk away. With the words falling from his mouth, Cristian came to terms with everything. In that Moment, his love for Natalie died. And it remained dead even after freedom came. A quick divorce proved to be the best remedy for both of them.
So now, just a few days from Christmas, Cristian found himself alone, but longing for something more and someone specific.
That afternoon he helped his mother decorate the diner with lights and boughs of holly. The colors were festive but seemed to be lacking. Even with Bing Cosby blaring from the speakers, the famous singer's well wishes for a white Christmas weren't enough. As his mother started serving dinner, the answer came to him. They needed a Christmas tree! He grabbed his coat, gloves and scarf. A short while later, he was moving through the best tree lot in Llanview.
The heady scent of pine and the promise of snow lifted his spirits. He found himself smiling at strangers and humming "O, Christmas Tree." As he reached the chorus about the tree's branches, the perfect tree came into view. He rushed toward it and reached for the trunk just as someone else tugged from the other side.
"I saw it first!"
Their words rushed out in unison. A frown replaced his ready smile. Without relinquishing his hold, he peered around the pine needles and straight into a pair of familiar chocolate brown eyes.
"Evangeline." Her name came out like a husky murmur. When her beautiful eyes widened, the rush of heat filled his cheeks. He shrugged off the telltale sign of embarrassment and fixed her with a smile. "This is a surprise."
"Hi, Cristian." She seemed to eagerly return his smile. "That it is. I've been thinking about you. I meant to call..."
"You still can." Still holding the tree, he moved around it until he stood inches from her. Inhaling, he enjoyed her sexy, sweet scent of cinnamon and jasmine. "There's still the matter of my bill."
"Don't worry about that. I told you beforeó"
"I always settle my debts," he said. "I owe you so much more than money."
"You don't owe me anything." Her eyes clouded as she briefly looked away. "No one should have to suffer what you did. I just wanted to help."
"You wanted more than that."
She stiffened. "I don't know what you mean."
Without considering the ramifications, he reached out. His gloved hand curved around hers. His thumb stroked her palm in small circles. Liquid heat scorched through him. Leather failed to protect him from the intimacy of taking hold of her.
"No, Evangeline," he said. "You got it wrong. The words coming out wrong didn't help. What I meant is that you cared and you believed in me when no one else did, including me. You wanted me to believe. I doubt if there's enough money in the world to repay that debt."
"I don't... You don't..." Her gaze softened. She smiled. "You've given me more than I realized until now." She released her hold on the pine. "You can have the tree."
"I'd rather you did. It's the best one here." Slowly, reluctantly, he let go of her hand. "I was getting it for the diner. You should have it in your home."
"There's just my sister and me. I'd feel better if more people could enjoy it. So, really, you take it. I'll find another one."
He cocked his head to the side. "You sure?"
"Yeah. I'm sure."
* * *
Evangeline walked away on shaky feet. Pulsating energy skyrocketed through her the instant he touched her hand. How sensual heat like that burned through two pairs of leather gloves was a mystery ripe for Sherlock Holmes. She inhaled a quick breath to calm her senses, but that proved to be a mistake. Somehow, his scent wrapped around her and aromas of pine trees and Cristian Vega blended together like a heady aphrodisiac. Her footsteps quickened. Heavier ones thudded behind her.
In a couple of steps, Cristian stood beside her. "Let me help."
She stammered for a reply. "What about your tree?"
"I asked the guy to hold it for me." He gave her a smile that heated the cold December evening. "Come on. With both of us looking, it won't take long."
An attorney with an affinity for quick retorts should have had a response better than, "Okay."
With a quick nod, he fell into step beside her. "What size are you looking for?"
"Not too big and not too small. I guess that's never helpful."
"It's not bad," he said. "How big is your doorway?"
She gestured with her arms. "About this wide. It's about half a foot higher than you."
They searched for a half hour. Conversation came easy. So did laughter. Chatting with Cristian made her realize that she hadn't laughed in months. He made her smile without halfway trying. Being with him made her want to forget the past and start over again. A few lingering gazes left her believing that he felt the same.
"This is it." He stopped in front of a medium-sized tree with beautifully displayed branches. "What do you think?"
She stepped close and lightly fingered the pine needles. The tree's scent was pleasant and reminded her of Christmases past. Maybe it would remind Layla, too. "I like it."
"You have a good eye, Mr. Vega."
"I'm beginning to think so."
Cristian waved the lot owner over. Evangeline paid for the tree. Cristian insisted on helping her tie it on top of her SUV and helping her unload it at her place. When they arrived at her apartment, she found Layla gone. Cristian's virile presence turned her cozy home into an intimate setting. She couldn't exactly pinpoint when things changed. Maybe it'd been brewing underneath the surface from the beginning.
"Are these your decorations?" He pulled back the flaps of the cardboard box taking up the space between the fireplace and the coffee table. "You have nice ornaments. Look at this one. A glass angel. It looks like an antique."
"It is. It's been in the family for almost a century."
He carefully raised the ornament to the light. The young angel with the brown skin and curly brown hair looked like a sweet gift from heaven. Evangeline felt so honored when her grandmother gave the heirloom to her one Christmas. She looked forward to one day passing it on to her child.
"The design is beautiful and the attention to detail is magnificent." He smiled as he handed it back to her. "Seeing something like that reminds me why I'm an artist."
She placed the ornament inside its case and set it aside to hang last. "I love your work. I have one of your paintings in my bedroom. Once I rearrange the living room, I'll bring it in here."
"I didn't know you were a patron." He dipped in a slight bow. "Thank you."
"You're welcome, and thank you again for helping me. Now that it's here, I hope my sister will remember the reason for the season."
"It's a beautiful tree. She'll see it and forget the rest. Maybe in time, my brother's eyes will open. Mine did."
His first reference to Natalie left a sour taste in Evangeline's mouth. She tried not to think about the other woman. Christmas was a time for pleasant things. Evangeline had had enough of the other.
He edged closer to the door and stopped. "Do you have plans for tonight?"
Oh, boy, this is it. Her breath quickened in anticipation. Was she ready for this?
"Working on a case and maybe decorating the tree. Why?"
"Would you like to join me at the diner? Help me with the tree and maybe have a mug of cider? Mamí makes the best I've ever tasted."
Evangeline frowned. "I don't know. Your mother wasn't too happy with me the last time I saw her."
"She understands now." He extended his hand toward her. "Come with me. I promise I won't let her bite."
Like a moth to a flame, she accepted his invitation and took his hand. This touch was just as exciting as the one at the tree lot. Heaven help her, but this could be the start of something magical.
The best Christmas gifts always came from the unexpected surprises.2