"Weíre just friends."
Evangeline threw up her hands in exasperation. How many times had she heard that tired refrain? The return of Christian Vega exacerbated her discontent with Johnís Ďjust friendsí stance with Natalie Vega. There was more to them than just friendship, and this connection they shared, whatever it was, needed to be addressed.
John took her arm as she attempted to move past him. "Hey, what is this about?" he asked.
She wrenched her arm free. "What do you think?" She could feel him watching her as she left the tree and crossed the room to the couch. The intensity of Johnís gaze had the ability to render her weak as a newborn kitten. Somehow, her legs managed to keep her body upright until she reached the sofa. Easing into the far corner of the chair, she tucked her legs beneath her bottom and summoned the will to meet his stare without drowning in the blue sea of his eyes.
"Evangeline," he said, stepping forward.
She shook her head and held out her hand, halting his movement. "You have got to stay over there." Having this discussion was already hard enough; she didnít need his touch and the intoxicating scent of his sinfully male cologne making a bad situation worse.
"Is this why you invited me over? Huh? To rehash this Natalie thing?" He combed his fingers through is raven locks before settling his hands on his lean, athletic hips. He wasnít happy, but neither was she. In fact, she was pretty pissed about the whole situation.
He expelled a long breath and absently adjusted an ornament decorating her super-size tree. "Look, Christmas is a couple of days away. Letís not argue. Weíve talked this Natalie thing to death."
"Weíve tried to talk about it, but we never get anywhere."
"What do you want me to say?"
"The truth works."
"Iím with you, Evangeline."
She nodded. "Yes, until the next SOS from Natalie."
"Are you jealous?"
"Jealous?" Evangeline laughed. Loud boisterous laughter tinged with the slightest bit of annoyance for his nerve to ask such a thing. "My, if I didnít know better, I would think you believed that."
"I shouldnít?" he asked.
"If this was about jealousy, there would be no conversation. I am in no way jealous of Natalie, but what I am is aware. Youíve always felt responsible for her because you blamed yourself for Christianís death, but Christianís not dead, John. She doesnít need you, but you seem to want to be needed by her. Iím tired of wondering why."
He rubbed his temples. "Sheís my friend, Evangeline. Is it a crime to have a female friend?"
"No, but it is a crime to unearth a grave without permission, and you did that for her. You could have lost your badge! Are you willing to risk your career for all of your friends?"
John tilted his head and smiled. "Under the right circumstances," he said, taking a step forward. "I would do it for you." Her stomach flip-flopped, and the lace of the bra beneath her silk shirt grew way too tight. Her mind was set, prepared for battle, but her fleshÖ Damn her body for its betrayal! His knuckles grazed her cheek. A sigh passed her lips. "I would do anything for you," he murmured.
His warm breath tickled her lips, beckoning them to part. By now her resolve had all but evaporated, but such was this cycle. Sheíd question him about Natalie; heíd skip around a response, then say the right thing to make her putty in his hands. If she didnít stop this, it would never end, and it had to end. Somehow finding the strength, she backed away before his lips could touch hers. She shook her head and met him with a gaze she hoped looked as determined as she felt. "No, John, not this time," she said.
His shoulders slumped. "What?"
"Making love with you wonít answer my questions."
"It should. We are so good together."
"Yes, we are, in bed. But what are we, John?"
"More than sex!" he snapped. Curious line wrinkled his forehead. "You do know that?"
"I donít know what I know. But what I would like to know is what our strings mean, and where your connection with Natalie fits into all of that. Those are the questions I need you to answer. And until you can answer them, I canítÖI wonít see you."
"Evanó" he began, his voice thick with emotion.
She cut him off with a shake of the head. "No. I mean it. I know you donít want to hurt me, and I donít want to be hurt, but Iím already hurting, John. I donít want to be hurt anymore."
Tears shined in his eyes. "Iím sorry, Evangeline. I never meant to hurt you. I justóI--" he stammered.
Oh, the tears. He was like a little boy when he cried. Wide-open and vulnerable. She wanted to reach out to him, to take him in her arms and say everything would be okay, but she couldnít. His pain caused her pain, and as much as she wanted to, she couldnít help him with this.
She walked to the door and pulled it open. "I know you didnít mean to hurt me, but it doesnít change that you did, and with things the way they are, you will continue to do so." Pressing her back against the ajar door, she made room for him to pass. The wreath pricked her in the back, but she would suffer in silence. She refused to budge until he left.
"Close the door, Evangeline," he said, wiping his eyes.
"Itís cold out, and carolers are going to hear you shouting."
"I donít care! You have got to go, John. I refuse to be one side of a triangle with you and Natalie. I donít want this, and I deserve better than this. When you know what it is you want, tell me, but I will not wait around twiddling my thumbs in the meantime."
He pulled her away from the door and kicked it closed. He cupped her face. His eyes bore into hers. "Thereís no triangle, okay?"
"So, Iím imagining all this?"
She said not a word as she stared at him, unflinching.
He dropped his hands and turned away. "Ok ay, there is something."
"Finally," she murmured.
John turned with a jerk. "But itís not what you think. Itís nothing like you think."
"Then what is it? Tell me."
"Fear," he said, walking to the couch and sitting. "Iím afraid of losing you, Evangeline."
Afraid of losing her? She joined him on the couch. "I donít understand."
"You know, I donít think I really did, either. Not until just now." He slipped his hand over hers, threading their fingers. Evangeline tossed aside her no-touch policy, allowing him to keep her hand. Granting him this comfort she saw he needed.
"Iíve had so much loss in my life," he said. "Losing my father was hard and confusing, but losing CaitlinÖ The pain was so unbearable, I really wanted to die." His brows furrowed. "You know, when I think about it, I did die. For the longest time I was a rotting corpse, at least emotionally. I figured if I didnít get close to anybody, if I didnít care, I couldnít be hurt."
"It doesnít work like that," she said. "You said something earlier about a realization."
"Yes, my epiphany. When we got locked in that basement, I never for one moment thought what happened between us would have happened."
"Making love on a strangerís floor wasnít on my list, either."
"Iím not just talking about that. I mean this." He held up their joined hands. "You and me."
A breath lodged in her throat. Exactly what kind of epiphany did he have? She dived into his inviting eyes. Waiting for an explanation she refused to allow her own thoughts to entertain.
"There is a connection, between Natalie and me, but itís one anybody whoís lost a significant other has with someone else. Then, thereís the guilt I felt with my part in Natalie losing Christian in the first place. We tried to make something more of what we had, but it wasnít happening. I guess I felt I owed it to her to be in her life, but my heart just couldnít get with the program."
"Because of Caitlin."
"Thatís what I thought, but I was wrong. Guilt is a powerful emotion, Evangeline. If Natalie had Christian, she wouldnít need me to rescue her. I had to make up for taking him away. I felt that even more when I couldnít give her the part of me she wanted."
"Christianís been back for weeks now. Why are you still playing her hero?"
"To feed my fear." He sighed, long and deep. "You came into my life out of nowhere, and just as quickly, you became my life. I didnít get that with Natalie, but I did with you. And it went totally against my way of doing things. I was feeling again, and feeling is scary. With Natalie, I share loss, and thatís what I needed to remember. What I always forget whenever Iím near you."
"Whatówhat are you saying?"
"I love you, Evangeline. I love you more than I can ever say, and it scares the hell out of me. I donít want to lose you like I lost Caitlin. It would kill me."
He loves me. He actually said the words. "You wonít lose me, John."
"You canít say that. I wish you could, but you canít. The very idea of not having you in my life just... When you came back from San Francisco and you told me no strings wasnít working for you anymore, I knew I had to do something quick."
He got up and walked to the window. She followed. Carolers singing "Silent Night" could be heard in the distance. Patches of fresh-fallen snow glistened under the colorful lights decorating the shrubbery surrounding her home. It was a beautiful evening. Hearing John say he loved her made it unforgettable.
"Iím the worst kind of coward," he said with an ill-humored laugh as he continued to look out window. "I donít want to be with you, but I canít be without you. Natalie is my friend, and up until the moment I learned Christian was still alive, I knew she wanted more than friendship from me. I should have told you that, but I didnít because it didnít affect me. I didnít want more from her, but for you to wonder if I did..."
"Kept me at a distance," she added to his trailing words.
He turned to her and nodded. "Yep."
Now it made sense. "John." She trailed her hand alongside his jaw and down to his cheek. He held her hand to his face, pressing a kiss to her open palm. "Youíre right, I canít promise to not leave you like Caitlin did. No one can promise that. But I can promise to stay with you until those forces I canít control say otherwise. You might not believe this, but youíre not the only person in the world afraid of being hurt. Remembering old hurts wonít prevent you from getting new ones. You just said you loved me."
He slipped his arms around her waist and smiled. "I did, didnít I?"
Evangeline stepped into the circle of his arms. His hard, muscular body molded against hers. She could feel his heartbeat against her breast, and his growing desire against her thigh. "Uh-huh, you did," she answered with a grin, clasping her hands around his neck.
"And what?" she chirped.
He smirked. "You."
"I love you, too, John. I donít think I would have put myself in the position to spend the holidays without you, if I didnít love you. You know the saying, if you love something set it free." She brushed a whisper soft kiss to his lips. "Iím just glad it didnít take you too long to come back to me."
"This is still pretty scary, but itís a good kind of scary now. Weíre in this together, right?"
"Now and forever. Merry Christmas, John."