"Where are we?"
John bit back a smile at Evangeline's demanding tone. He expected surprise and a hint of doubt. When they rode past Angel Square, he felt her stare boring into him with a bunch of unanswered questions. He adjusted the volume on the radio and calmly asked about her trip. She responded but only with half interest. The rest of her was too busy wondering what was going on. He liked knowing that he threw her off balance. It certainly kept things interesting.
He opened the door wide and ushered her inside the foyer. A staircase ascended straight ahead and the kitchen was to the right. He guided her into the empty living room and promptly started a fire and lit candles. As she lingered in a stunned silence, he turned on the portable radio he left earlier and spread their picnic on a blanket.
"John?" she said. "Where are we? Whose place is this?"
His chest puffed. He extended his hand and drew her into his arms. "It's mine."
"Yours?" Her eyebrows shot up. "Are you serious? When? How? I go away for a few days… You never mentioned a thing."
"I looked at it before you left and had planned to ask your opinion, but then business suddenly called you away," he explained. "Several people wanted it but the realtor gave me first dibs. I know a deal when I see one so this is home now."
"Wow." She scanned the room. Her avid gaze seemed to miss nothing. "It's beautiful."
"You haven't seen upstairs," he said.
"I don't have to."
He laughed. "Well, you couldn't if you wanted to. Only the water is working. The other utilities will be turned on next week."
"So you're roughing it."
"Not exactly. I haven't completely moved out of my room."
Laughter bubbled from her. "No way. How long does it take? Geez, get out of there already."
"Excuse me?" He feigned offense. "What's wrong with my room?"
Shaking her head, she pulled free of his arms. "If you have to ask… You deserve a lot better than the Angel Square Hotel. Where's the restroom? I need to freshen up."
He pulled a flashlight from his pocket and turned it on. Its beam lit a path up the stairs to the guest toilet. He handed the light to her and she left. In her absence, he removed two bottles of beer from the ice chest and placed them on the floor. A mellow Jazz station drifted from the radio. John breathed a sigh of relief. Everything was perfect and with zero distractions. Just what they both needed.
Later after they'd eaten and she reclined comfortably within the circle of his arms, he found the courage to ask, "What did you mean that I deserve better? The Angel Square Hotel isn't sleazy. There's even a bell man. I didn't know you hated coming there and staying over."
She shifted in his arms to meet his eyes. "I never said I hated it. The place is where people stay either when they're on their way up or on their way down. At first, I couldn't understand why you stayed. You're not in either place. Then, I realized…"
She looked away for just a moment. "I realized that you didn't know and that until you knew, you wouldn't leave. You're right. The Hotel isn't sleazy and I certainly didn't hate coming there. I--I'd go wherever you are. It's just that… Well, the wallpaper was hanging from the ceiling!"
He laughed at the last outburst. She had a point. He never once considered ripping it off or resealing it. He just let it hang. Come to think of it, he let a lot of things hang. Dealing with personal stuff wasn't his strongest suit. After Caitlin died, he fell into a rut and was limited to tunnel vision. After nailing Haver, what exactly did he have left? Then, against his strongest wish to the contrary, Evangeline Williamson caught his attention and he couldn't shake her. Ignoring his attraction to her was impossible. Now, here they were. Buying a condo was one step. Did he have the cajones to make another one?
After the laughter faded, she returned to the soothing position with her head against his heart. "I'm sorry if I said something out of turn," she said softly. "You asked and diplomacy went out the window."
He stroked her hair. The long, silky strands wrapped around his hands as if they waited for his touch. He let the tresses slipped between his fingers again and again.
"You were fine. And like you said, I asked." He rubbed the bottom of his chin against the back of her head. "I'm glad you're back. I missed you while you were gone."
"Really?" she asked, sounding surprised.
His chest tightened. "Yes."
"I wasn't sure if you would. You've been busy with cases…the attempted art heist…the Santis…Antonio…"
None of that seemed important. He quietly asked, "Did you miss me?"
Seconds ticked by. Finally, when he thought he'd lose it from the exhaustion of waiting, she said, "Yes. Maybe more than I should. I wasn't sure what to expect when I came back. I didn't want to get my hopes up, but I wanted you to be at the airport. Then, seeing you there… God, it was like a dream coming true. I can't believe I'm saying this."
He couldn't either. Her admission scared him mostly because he echoed the sentiment. Aw, man. Had this thing between them ever been casual? Hell, they'd been deluding themselves the entire time.
"I guess I'm not surprised you're not saying anything--"
"No," he gently cut her off. "It's not what you think. I'm just…I'm just a little blown away."
"I shouldn't have said anything."
"No, Evangeline." He shifted them both until they were facing each other. The warm glow of red, orange and blue flames flickered and cast sensuous shadows over them. He took her hands between his, silently marveling at how easy and how right it felt to touch her. How he wanted the right to do so. That scared him, too. Moving forward had the potential of turning fantasy or his worse nightmare into reality. He had no desire to hurt either of them, but especially her. She'd already given him so much.
"It's okay that you said it. You've been so patient with me and… Man, this emotional stuff is hard." He released a short self-deprecating laugh. "I'm trying."
She gave him an encouraging smile. "I know. I don't want to push, but…"
"You want more," he answered. "It's been brewing and you can't ignore it. Right?"
"I don't ever want you to be afraid to talk to me," he said, saying the first thing that came to mind. "I guess that's why I bought this place. I've been wanting more yet too complacent to make the effort. Then, you went to San Francisco. I tried to be casual about it, but I nearly bit Bo's head off when he mentioned you. Your trip made me see what it would be like if you were gone. I didn't like it. What I'm saying is, I'd like to see what happens between us."
"No more 'no strings attached'?" she asked.
"Yeah." He nodded. "I'm coming with strings and a lot of stuff here. Lots of baggage."
"No one comes empty handed. It comes with the territory. I know, John, and as long as we're honest with each other we can sweat the small stuff."
He expelled an audible breath. "Now, that's settled. Kiss me, woman."
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