Once Upon a Christmas
"Merry Christmas to all and to all a goodnight!"
Evangeline Williamson laughed softly as the newly incumbent Governor Kevin Buchanan stepped from the podium. Beside her, John McBain's chuckle mingled with hers. He placed a tender kiss onto her cheek and hugged her close.
"He's taking it to heart, isn't he?"
"The tree lighting ceremony is serious business," she commented.
Despite the recent snowfall, many Llanview residents attended Angel Square's holiday festivities. After a whirlwind summer and questionable fall, Evangeline was more than willing to spend the winter with tidings of comfort and joy. For the first time in her life, she felt both with John. He accepted her, faults and all, without hesitation. Normally closed-mouthed, he opened up to her, admitting that he wanted and saw a future with her. The admission threatened to unhinge the few remaining doubts.
"Have you ever seen a Christmas tree that big?" John took her hand and they followed the crowd to the beautifully decorated tree. Kevin was just about to insert the plug.
"Not up close."
She craned her neck to see a huge golden star shining over them all. She sighed. The holidays always brought a sense of melancholy, but Christmas especially so. The Williamson household made a big deal out of Christmas. Her mother began the rituals on the Sunday following Thanksgiving. On cue, her father raided the attic for the boxes labeled, 'Christmas.' Evangeline and her mom sifted through tinsel, lights and bulbs to locate their individually marked stockings. Then, taking great care, they hung them on the mantel. After that, Christmas aromas like cinnamon and nutmeg filled their home. And later, she and her dad would search for the perfect tree.
John's hand moved to her waist and squeezed. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, Christmas memories, you know."
He nodded as if he understood completely. "We'll make new ones."
Postponements filled the following week. She and John made plans to find a tree and decorate it at her place. But work got in the way. Antonio Vega hired her to represent him in the case of Tico Santi's murder. For the first time in years, the judicial system worked overtime to guarantee a speedy trial. She tried numerous tactics to delay the proceedings. Gut instinct told her to move with caution. Since losing the Ace Buchanan custody case, Evangeline no longer wore blinders in the courtroom.
Finally, the week before Christmas arrived. Evangeline's body and soul demanded the pleasure she could only find in John's company. She rescued him from a late night of police procedure for a fun, relaxing time of pool, burgers and beer.
John held her hand as they entered Rodi's. Vibrant reds and greens adorned the eatery. A sense of goodwill and cheer leapt out everywhere she looked. They found an empty table adorned with boughs of holly near the jukebox. After he pulled out her chair, he lingered to place a long, juicy kiss onto her lips. Desire darkened his blue eyes as he pulled away. She loved seeing that look on his face.
He claimed a chair across from her and reached out to tease her fingers with tiny caresses. "I feel like I'm playing hooky. This is great and just what we need. We'll look for the tree afterward, okay?"
"I'd like that."
A waitress came and took their order. Evangeline watched the young woman head to the counter. Natalie intercepted the order and glanced at their table. Her face tightened and she disappeared into the kitchen.
"I don't understand her."
John glanced over his shoulder. "Understand who? Our waitress was cool."
"Not her." She met his eyes. "Natalie. She gave us the strangest look and then stormed away. I don't get that. Cristian's alive. She should be happy, but she's still looking at you like…"
"I can't help the way she looks at me," he said quietly. "You're the woman I want to be with. I'm running out of ways to tell you that."
"I know. It's just that…"
He frowned and gave her an odd look. "You're worried about her. Natalie isn't a threat to what we have. She never has been."
"I can't tell you how good it feels to hear that coming from your mouth."
He invited her to a game of pool. She lost miserably but enjoyed every second of it. Mistletoe hung over the jukebox and for every point he scored, John positioned Evangeline under the sprig. He claimed his reward in kisses. She realized that even when she lost, she won.
Soon, the waitress returned with their order. Both attacked their food with gusto. She couldn't remember enjoying herself more. Searching for the perfect tree would only add to the night's enjoyment.
Then his cell phone rang.
He pulled the phone from his pocket and let it rest on the palm of his hand. "I don't want to answer it."
She sat still, waiting. A string of burglaries had the LPD hopping. She knew that John had several leads and wanted to make an arrest by Christmas.
"You should. It could be the break you've been waiting for."
He stared at her for several seconds more. Then, he answered the call. When it was over, he gave her an apologetic look. "They hit the Love Center. I'm sorry, Evangeline."
She swallowed her disappointment. "It's okay."
"No, it isn't, but I'll make it up to you. I promise." He stood and moved to her. Bending forward, he placed a lingering kiss onto her mouth. "Onions taste good on you."
"Call me afterward."
"Of course," he said. "I'll take care of the check on the way out. Tomorrow, we'll get the tree."
Her appetite vanished as soon as he left. She asked the waitress for a to-go container. Maybe later that night, she'd want something. Surprise stunned her into momentary silence when Natalie returned with the styrofoam container and paper bag.
"Thanks," she said.
The younger woman didn't acknowledge Evangeline's gratitude. Instead, she simply stared. With her arms folded across her chest and her eyes blazing, Evangeline knew a dangerous storm was seconds from unleashing.
She sighed and set aside transferring her dinner. She returned Natalie's stare and asked, "What?"
"I saw the two of you playing pool and being all cozy. You have no idea, do you?"
"Why, Natalie? Why are you doing this?" Evangeline questioned. "Cristian is back. Anyone can see how much he loves you. You should be hap--"
"John didn't tell you about the kiss." Natalie cut in as if Evangeline hadn't spoken. "I wanted him to feel so I kissed him--"
A thousand alarms roared inside Evangeline's head. With great willpower, she methodically silenced each one. "So, what?"
"So, he didn't push me away and so this thing you have with him isn't as perfect as you want to believe. Sooner or later, it will come crashing down. You'll be left out in the cold," Natalie predicted. "Don't say I didn't warn you."
John tried for two days to reach Evangeline. It wasn't like her to ignore his phone calls. Dread spread through him. Something was wrong.
He stopped by her office. The firm was mostly dark. The partners, associates and support staff used the holidays as vacation time. He spoke to the temporary receptionist. She didn't know where Evangeline was or when she'd return.
Now, he was really worried.
He called Bo and requested personal leave time. The Deputy Commissioner honored his request no questions asked. John told Michael about his plans. His brother offered to tag along, but there were some things a man had to do alone.
He stopped at his room at the Angel Square Hotel to pack a bag. On the way to his car, Natalie stopped him. He hated the interruption but stood still to listen. All the while hoping she'd be quick and he could go find Evangeline.
"Are you going somewhere?"
"I have a gift for you. Will you be back before Christmas?"
He wasn't coming back without Evangeline.
"I don't know." He unlocked the trunk and tossed the bag inside. "You shouldn't have gotten me anything. This is the perfect time for you and Cristian to reconnect."
"He doesn't like our friendship."
John locked the trunk and moved to the driver door. "I'm not surprised. He blames me for what happened to him. I don't fault him for it."
He slid behind the wheel and was about to close the door when she grabbed the handle.
"I don't blame you."
He nodded once, neither accepting nor denying her statement. "Natalie, I have to go."
"Why? What are you running off to? I'm trying to talk to you."
"Talk to Cristian--"
"What does Cristian have to do with this?" Her voice carried a shrill tone. "You're mad at me about Evangeline. You're upset because I told her the truth. That's why you keep talking about Cristian."
An eerie calm settled over him. He gripped the car keys in his hand and fixed her with a hard stare. "What truth? What did you tell her?"
"You know." A faint smile played at the corners of her mouth. "I told her about the kiss."
He blinked, but she was still there, smiling at him. He couldn't believe his eyes or his ears. It was like Natalie Buchanan Vega was a different person and he didn't know her at all.
"I have to go."
He pushed her out of the way and slammed himself inside the car. She screamed his name, but he drove away. Shame and regret drowned out her agony. Once again, he was to blame. He should have foreseen this and prevented it from happening. Evangeline should have learned about the kiss from him and not Natalie. Given her concerns about the other woman no wonder she left. He had to make things right. He owed Evangeline an explanation and only hoped that she'd listen.
John remembered her mother's address from a late night conversation. He held Evangeline tightly within the circle of his arms. A heated lovemaking session exhausted him from head to toe, yet he couldn't release her. As he made the slow journey back down to earth, they discussed their favorite childhood games. He always stopped by the old neighborhood whenever he visited Atlantic City. She said her old home had been torn down to make way for condos and it was more than a little ironic that her mom had bought a condo on the other side of town.
While in the FBI, he'd been to Washington DC and learned the nation's capitol. Finding Yvonne Williamson wouldn't be a problem. Getting her to divulge Evangeline's whereabouts could be.
He arrived just as clouds rolled in. The newscasters predicted a huge snowfall. Maybe he'd get lucky. Regardless, he had chains in the truck. Like a Boy Scout, John McBain was always prepared.
The condominium complex wasn't what he expected. The buildings looked more like cute dollhouses instead of brownstones or concrete boxes. He parked his car in the spaces allotted for guests. As he shrugged into his heavy leather jacket, he glanced around. A familiar cream colored Lexus was a few spaces over. He moved quickly to investigate. The license plate read,
"Pennsylvania. DDY'S GRL." He released a sigh of relief. "Evangeline, I've found you."
Brisk steps and a cold gust of wind propelled him forward. He quickly located the right dollhouse and rang the doorbell.
A pretty, petite woman answered. Dimples flashed as she returned his curious stare. "May I help you?"
"Are you Yvonne Williamson?" He already knew the answer. The photos at Evangeline's place didn't do her mother justice. The older woman was just as beautiful as her daughter.
"I am." A brief pause followed. "You must be John McBain."
"Yes, ma'am. Is Evangeline here? I need to see her."
"She doesn't want to see you."
"Don't. I can read it on your face. Besides, I'm not the one you need to convince." She opened the door. "Come in. She's in the kitchen. Have a seat while I get her."
The wait lasted about thirty seconds. Evangeline came through the swinging doors with the force of a mighty lioness. Her beautiful eyes flashed fire. She stopped short in the middle of the room.
"You shouldn't have come here."
"I had to." He stood and went to her. She stepped back. Her retreat wounded him far more than he wanted to admit. "I'm sorry. I should have told you."
"You tied a string around my wrist. I thought that meant something to you. Obviously, it was nothing more than a ploy for you to have your cake and eat it, too."
"That's not true. I don't know exactly what Natalie told you, but that kiss meant nothing to me."
Pain flickered across her face. "I don't believe you."
"Natalie is a mixed up kid. I didn't want to see it. I guess it wasn't another responsibility I wanted to shoulder."
"Whatever's wrong with Natalie isn't your fault," she said quietly.
He nodded. "I know that now. The drive from Llanview gave me a lot of time to think. I handled everything wrong and I'm sorry."
She turned away. He wanted to follow but decided against it. The bonds of trust had been damaged if not broken. Only time could repair them. If he pushed too hard, she'd run away. He knew her well enough to know that if she ran again, he might not be able to catch her.
During the ensuing silence, he admired her mother's style. Joseph Williamson might have fueled his daughter's determination, but her mother definitely supplied the flair. The furnishings were upscale without appearing uncomfortable. Family pictures, mostly of Evangeline, decorated the walls. A baby grand piano stood parallel to a bay window. A pair of tiny pink ballet slippers stood on display inside a glass case. Intrigued, he walked over and carefully inspected the shoes.
"You wore these," he said in awe. "Your feet were that small."
"It's hard to believe." A small trace of humor lifted her voice. "Mama can't throw anything away."
"She loves you," he commented as he returned the family treasure to the piano. His eyes held hers as he said, "I love you, too."
Her eyes widened. He felt her gasp from across the room.
"John, don't say it if you don't mean it."
"I do." Taking measured steps, he crossed the room. This time, she didn't back away as he reached for her. "Almost losing you put a lot of things into perspective. I'm in love with you. When I said yesterday, today and tomorrow, I meant it. I don't want to imagine any day without you. The last few days were torture enough. I should have told you about Natalie kissing me. Leaving you in the dark, left us both wide open for interference."
"A football analogy?" Her eyebrows arched. "At a time like this?"
"She guessed I wouldn't say anything. I did that more to protect her than to protect myself. I know where I stand with you. I want you. You're like the air. I breathe you, Evangeline. Without you, I'm left gasping."
He slipped his hands into her hair, delighting in the silken locks whispering against the back of his hand. "Tell me what to do to make it up to you. How do I win back your trust?"
"Trust isn't a game token. It's earned."
"Tell me," he demanded.
"You have to trust me. If you had trusted me to tell me about the kiss in the first place, I wouldn't have to wonder what it meant to you."
"Natalie was a friend. Right now, I'm not sure about that anymore."
He shook his head. "Don't be. It's not your fault."
In a sudden move, she stepped forward. Her hands slid under his jacket, stroking and caressing the planes of his chest. "I missed touching you. I thought it was over."
"It won't be unless that's what you want."
"I want you. I want your love."
"You have it."
"I love you, John."
Too much time had passed since he last tasted her. Burning desire replaced coherent thought. His mouth claimed hers in a possessive, hungry kiss. She returned his passion with equal fervor. Heat scorched him from where their bodies touched. He ached to be one with her again.
"Oh, John," she moaned against his lips.
The ache roared like a mighty bear. He pulled away in an effort to control the feral beast.
"If we don't stop, your mom will kill me."
Evangeline pressed her hands to her mouth. "Oh, my! We're at my mother's place. I didn't realize… I got so… Oh, boy."
He laughed softly. "Me, too."
He took her hand and led her to the bay window. Snowflakes were just beginning to fall. If the meteorologists' predictions came true, a white blanket of snow would cover the capitol by morning. He moved behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. If he was getting snowed in, there was no place he'd rather be.
The kitchen door swung open. Her mother entered with a tray filled with desserts and eggnog. He offered to take the tray, but she ignored him.
"When I didn't hear glass breaking, I knew you'd settled things. Have some eggnog. I hope you're prepared to spend Christmas in DC, John McBain, because we want you to stay."
"I…um…my bag is in the trunk."
"You better go get it." Yvonne settled on the sofa and snagged a brownie from the tray. "And hurry up. Don't make my child wait a moment longer."
"No, ma'am, I won't. Not another second." He headed to the door. His hand closed around the doorknob. Before he began his errand, he turned to them and said, "This will be a very Merry Christmas."
Evangeline bestowed him with a breathtaking smile. "Yes, it will."
"Now, hurry up!" Yvonne added.
He laughed, but he didn't keep the women waiting for long.