Antonio slammed the fresh bouquet of flowers on the counter and thrust

the little red and white sign into his mother's face. Two little

words, and the sign had set his blood boiling.

"What's this, mami?" Antonio said, shaking the sign.

Carlotta, who had looked so happy to see him limping into the diner

only seconds before, felt dread when she looked into her son's eyes.

She had raised him from when he was scant more than two years old.

Sometimes, though, she could see her brother's angry darkness throw

shadows over Antonio's face.

"I'm putting the diner up for sale," Carlotta said.

She turned her back to him, extinguishing the St. Jude candle she'd

had burning. A long curl of smoke twisted away from the candle's wick

into the thick, greasy atmosphere of the dining area. The room's

thermometer was broken, and the heater was working over time. The

kitchen staff had put the summer fans in two corners to create a cross

breeze, as the door was slightly ajar to let in slim drifts of winter

air, with a lemon wedge standing in for a doorstop.

"I can see that. The question is: why? Do you need money? And if

you need money, why didn't you just call me?" Antonio demanded.

Carlotta wanted to cry and throw her arms around her son, her nephew,

her blood. He was so earnest in his wish to protect her, but she

didn't want his money. Not this time.

"Is this for Christian's sake? Did you need to raise money for him?

What did he do now?" Antonio said, slapping the counter so hard it

made Carlotta jump.

The few patrons littered around the dining room stopped their chatter

to turn around for a moment. Carlotta, a deep blush rising up to her

tawny cheeks, pulled Antonio to the kitchen.

"Your brother hasn't done anything wrong. He's a good boy. He's

straightening out his life," Carlotta insisted in a hurried whisper.

"Then why?"

Carlotta shushed Antonio again. She put her hand to her forehead and

pushed back a few locks of her hair that were threatening to

completely cover her eyes.

"Mi hijo, this is nothing more than your mother getting older. I want

to retire and spend more time with my sons and my grandchildren."

Antonio sighed. His mother had gotten older, and he hadn't noticed.

She didn't walk as quickly as she once had, and her hand would go to

her hip more often now, whenever she poured someone a cup of coffee.

Kissing his mother on the cheeks, Antonio pulled her into his arms and

apologized.

"I did think of keeping it for my grandchildren's sake, but Jamie will

never want for anything between you and RJ," she said. "And

Christian's paintings have really taken off in Philadelphia, so his

family won't need anything."

"You're really proud of him, aren't you?" Antonio asked, smiling at

the light in her eyes.

Carlotta grabbed his chin playfully. "I'm proud of both my boys,' she said.

Antonio escorted Carlotta back into the dining room. She sat on the

stool nearest to the corner of the counter, while Antonio cut them a

slice of apple pie to share.

"You should be proud of me," Antonio said, his mouth savoring the

mélange of cinnamon and fresh apples and from-scratch crust his mother

had put together that morning. "I've been working to get someone off

the hook for a crime he did not commit, and it's paid off."

"Was he on death row?"

"Sort of," Antonio said, turning around to pick up the St. Jude

candle. "You know, I don't believe that much in the saints and the

whole religion thing, but if this guy hadn't been accused of murdering

his wife and if he hadn't run off to that mountain, we might not have

Evangeline back today."

Carlotta crossed herself. "Yes, we all thought she had gone on to a

better place," she said. "I know how happy you are she's back."

"I really am. I love her like I love Adrianna. Evangeline is like a

sister to me. She always tells me the truth about myself, you know,

and we can fight, and I don't have to worry that she's going to hold

grudges against me. She might pinch me, but I can take that," Antonio

said, almost laughing. "I even put up with McBain basically calling

me a Santi thug today for her sake."

"You know we don't discuss that man's name here," Carlotta said,

taking the half-empty dessert plate in her hand and walking around to

the other side of the counter.

She told Antonio to go take a seat and rest his leg. She tended to a

few customers who needed coffee or grilled cheese sandwiches or their

checks. A fury was building up inside of her, like scalding milk

boiling over a pot.

"I didn't mean to upset you, mami," Antonio said. "But with

Evangeline back, you know, I've decided to forgive McBain for

everything he's done. That's what I learned when she died that

people aren't here forever, so you've got to make peace with them

while they're around. When she came back, I took that to heart even

more."

Carlotta shook her head. "I will never forgive him for what he did to

Christian, and to us, letting us think all those months that he was

dead."

"Mami, that was Christian's decision," Antonio said.

"The boy was out of his right mind! He needed help, not prison! And

it's McBain's fault he stayed in there so long. And the way he

treated you during that whole time, when you had just found out you

were a Santi; he was horrible to you."

Antonio stood. "To be fair, I pushed everyone away that summer," he said.

"Do not make excuses for him. Everyone is always making excuses for

him," Carlotta said, gritting her teeth.

Antonio limped over to the radio and turned it on to the salsa

station. He twisted a towel and playfully snapped it at his mother.

"Well, I can see where I get my temper from," he joked, trying to

distract her from anger. "Come on, mami. It's so hot in here, feels

like we should be dancing. I can manage, if you can manage."

Antonio felt guilty. He had just given McBain directions to

Christian's home outside Philadelphia. He was sure that news would

infuriate his mother even more because she believed in Christian so

whole-heartedly. But Antonio knew it would permanently break her

heart if Christian was the person trying to kill Evangeline. Antonio

had to be sure, and this way, McBain could tell him first so he could

break the news to his mother gently.

__________________________________________________________________________

Evangeline was mildly surprised that John let her drive his Firebird.

Sure, he was exhausted, but she expected more of a struggle from him.

She had prepared quite a few arguments to persuade him, but it only

took one. John could understand the logic of letting her drive for

safety's sake.

After she'd passed a dangerous curve on the highway, Evangeline

allowed her right hand to drop from the wheel to gently stroke John's

dark hair. He was sleeping. It always touched her deep inside that

he could only truly when he was with her.

"Even when I was a kid, I would wake up at three in the morning,

restless, knowing that there was somebody missing beside me. When I

met Caitlyn, I thought she was the one I had been missing all that

time," John had whispered to her one moonlit night on the roof of the

hotel. "But still, I couldn't rest, even as she lay beside me. It

was you I was waiting for. You gave me my first full night's sleep."

Evangeline smiled now to think of how Mary Barnes had found them in

her basement. They had been disassembled by her presence but

comforted by it at the same time. If she hadn't surprised them,

Evangeline and John may have had a conversation that they weren't

quite ready for in that moment. Evangeline's mother always told her

that words spoken too soon were more dangerous than any weapon mankind

had ever created, and many years later, Evangeline still believed her

mother's words like gospel.

John's eyes were fluttering. He was dreaming. Evangeline caressed

his face with the back of her hand. They were getting close to the

Bucks County farm where Christian lived with his family, where he

created his art, and where he possibly plotted her murder.

Evangeline couldn't believe Christian would have such animosity

towards her. They were kindred spirits to some extent both of them

having come back from the brink of death. Besides that, she'd never

done anything more to him than to love the man he hated.

"Maybe that's enough," she thought to herself, as she pulled the car

up the narrow dirt road that served as a driveway.

The main house was Colonial-style, with faded gray paint chipping off

of the sides. A rusted water can sat in front of the porch, where

there lived a wild patch of bright begonias. A couple of miles behind

the house and over to the right, there was a small, rehabilitated barn

painted a deep red, with a mural of a calm seascape on the side

facing the driveway.

A light was on in the barn, and Evangeline felt butterflies in her

stomach. This felt wrong, and even more so, questioning Christian in

his own space like this would only breed more hatred.

Evangeline thought for a split second that things might be better if

she went in alone. But then she realized that John would overreact if

he woke up and she wasn't there. Any progress she would have made

with Christian would have been obliterated in a millisecond. And, if

she was truthful with herself, Christian had been violent with her in

the past, something she'd never told John.

"Don't even think about it," John said, sitting up properly in his

seat and rubbing his eyes.

"What?"

"You know what. Going in there by yourself," he said, clearing his throat.

"Too late. I already thought it," she said. "And dismissed the idea.

Are you ready?"

McBain set the safety on his gun to the off position. "To get this

over with? You'd better believe it," he said.

"There's no guarantee that Christian is even involved in this,"

Evangeline said, her eyes wary of the gun.

"I should have started with him first," he said, opening his car door.

__________________________________________________________________________

Christian was painting a portrait of his daughter Marisol. He was

using bright pinks and yellows to capture the clanks and clinks of the

three-year-old's cotton candy personality. Then he heard the rumble

of a muscle car engine, and he knew there was trouble. It had been so

quiet for so long.

He had already opened one of the enormous barn doors by the time

McBain made it to his door. When he caught sight of a second shadow

behind the cop, he was surprised to see it was Evangeline. He smiled

before he caught himself. He'd heard about her disappearance and had

even contemplated going to her memorial, in spite of McBain's

guaranteed presence there. Christian had regretted the ways he'd hurt

her to try and get to her lover.

McBain entered the barn without even glancing in Christian's

direction. Evangeline waited for a nod from the painter. She and

Christian locked eyes for a moment -- two real survivors sharing

death-defying, universal secrets and regrets and chances for laughter

if either of them had provided a kind gesture at just the right time.

"Sorry to disturb you," Evangeline started.

"Are you trying to kill my wife?" McBain said, his heart thumping

against his chest.

Christian took hold of Evangeline's right hand. "I don't see a

wedding band on this finger," he said, her large engagement ring

sparkling in his eyes.

"Don't touch her," McBain said, pulling out his gun. "Don't ever touch her."

Evangeline's eyes widened. "John, wait," she said, stepping in front

of Christian.

Time slowed down, and the air around Evangeline and Christian became

stilted. He saw McBain's pupils grow until the black almost obscured

the blue. Then he knew how Evangeline had saved his life.

"Whatever you think I did, McBain, I didn't do it," Christian said,

slowly walking back to his canvas.

His legs felt like jelly, and looking at the dimples in his daughter's

apple cheeks calmed him down. McBain was walking around the same few

inches of floor, the gun by his side, his finger still on the trigger.

"Evangeline, nobody told me you were back from the dead. Or were you

just hiding out from that guy?" Christian said, his voice shaking more

than he wanted it to.

"But the news of my return was in the papers, even the Philadelphia

Inquirer," Evangeline said, watching her McBain for his reaction.

"Yeah, well, I just got back from Paris. Didn't have time to look in

the papers," Christian said, touching up his daughter's eyes with some

dancing brown. "I've got the tickets, if you want to see them. I've

got the pictures of me and the Eiffel tower and the whole thing."

"I want to see them. I want to see everything," McBain said, sighing.

Just as Christian neared the door, Evangeline stopped him. "Wait, who

told you I was dead in the first place," she said. "Was it Antonio?"

Christian shook his head in the negative. "We don't talk anymore.

Mami told me," he said and walked out of the door.

McBain closed the distance between himself and Evangeline. He could

feel an ethereal haze coming over him again. He wanted so desperately

for her to be safe, but he was always costing her something -- this

time her life was at stake. He could always deposit her in the

Alcazar's care, though he loathed the idea, knowing that Alcazar would

always make sure her every need was met. He could go off somewhere

and take the trouble with him.

"Don't even think about it," she said.

He gave her a half-smile and squeezed her hand, unable to speak. The

old feelings that the universe was conspiring to take her away from

him were bleeding into his heart.

"I'm serious, John. We've been too much to get back to each other for

you to desert us now," she said.

McBain had been braced for some sort of attack, so when he heard the

loud blast outside the barn, he stood his ground. When he heard

Christian call his name, McBain stashed Evangeline behind a broken

down, olive-green tractor with flowers painted all over it and begged

her to stay there.

"I think it's almost over, but I need to be sure," he said.

__________________________________________________________________________

Christian kicked the would-be assassin, as he lay on the ground. He

had a 10-gauge rifle leveled at the hired thug, who'd already suffered

a blast to his side. By the time McBain had emerged from the barn,

Christian had nearly killed the man before any information was

extracted.

McBain kneeled before the killer. "Tell me who hired you," he said,

barely controlling his rage at the thought that this man had come to

take Evangeline away from him again.

"Talk now or forever hold your peace," Christian said, kicking the man

again. "And, if you think he's going to stop me, I wouldn't bet on

it. It's his fiancee you were trying to kill. I'll bury you so deep

in those back woods that wild dogs won't find you."

McBain grabbed the man by the collar. "Talk, you son of a bitch," he said.

Christian saw a flash of a tattoo on the inside of the man's wrist and

let his rifle drop to his side. "He's a Santi," he said.

McBain stood again and stepped back. He could see Christian trying to

work out the matter in his head. There had to be some excuse.

Evangeline stepped forward. Christian turned and McBain looked up,

keeping one eye on the dying assassin.

"Antonio is out of the life," Christian insisted.

Evangeline waved her hand. "Antonio would never hurt me. I know

that," she said.

The file that McBain had put away in his mind at the hospital, when

he'd seen Killian's attacker lying on the ground, jumped to the front

of his mind. It was a woman then, and it was a woman now.

McBain gestured for Evangeline to come with him. "We'll send the

locals for him," he said to a confused Christian. "I'm sorry. I'm

sorry for everything."

As they closed the heavy doors to the Firebird, both Evangeline and

McBain stared out into space, disbelieving what they both knew to be

true.

"This is going to kill Antonio," Evangeline said, her eyes slick with tears.

McBain sighed and started the car. "Well, he already thought it was

one member of his family," he said. "It was just the wrong one."

__________________________________________________________________________

Carlotta filled her electric teakettle with tap water. She was

waiting for a phone call. She wanted this all to be over finally.

Her kitchen chair creaked as she sat down. She had childhood pictures

of Antonio and Christian spread all over the table. Her boys would be

free soon.

She closed her eyes as tears spilled over the rims of them. She

clasped her hands together over her heart and prayed. She prayed for

God to forgive her for her sins, to not let those sins be visited upon

her boys. They had suffered enough. Each of them. At the hands of

John McBain. And now, she thought, looking at the clock, he should be

suffering more than anyone in the world. More than any man ever had

because his beloved Evangeline was gone.

"She's better off with the angels," Carlotta pleaded her case with

God, trying to convince herself. "She's better off without him."