Part 12

Deep inhale.

The delicious aroma of shrimp and sausage consumed the house. The sweet scent of onions and the unmistakable flavor of garlic joined in. Assorted herbs, spices and veggies completed the medley.

Mmm… Evangeline closed her eyes and sighed in anticipation. Overflowing file folders and a laptop waiting for her next command were ignored. Her mouth watered. Her stomach rumbled. And the rest of her just plain wanted.

Tingles zipped up her spine. Goosebumps cropped over her exposed arms and legs. Her sixth sense kicked in. The solitary pleasure of having someone cook for her was no longer a lone experience. She felt John's gaze and wasn't surprised to open her eyes and see him standing in the doorway to the living room, watching her.

"It smells good," she conceded. "So far, I'm impressed."

"Well, that's what I live for." Hunger smoldered in his eyes as he released a husky chuckle. "The dinner's on the table. I hope you like gumbo."

Gumbo? Eagerness and greed propelled her from the sofa. He stepped aside to follow her into the dining room. A picturesque setting paralyzed her. Vanilla scented candles she'd long forgot she owned flickered on the mahogany table. China inherited from her paternal grandmother lay on the table. Silverware. Linen napkins. Wine glasses, even. John raided her kitchen while she was completely unaware. She glanced over her shoulder at him.

He dipped his head. A brief smile touched his lips. He placed his hand at the small of her back. "Come on. It's getting cold."

*/*

"Where on earth did you learn to cook like that?" She cupped the glass of sparkling apple cider between her palms as she stared at John in amazement. "I stand corrected. You do have skills."

"Yeah," he said, raising his glass to his lips, "and not just in the kitchen."

The spicy flavor of his meal had nothing on the heat that instantly flared inside her. She shivered from its intensity. How in the world would she survive him invading her home? Already, he knew far too much about her. The quirks and walls that protected her from disgracing her father slipped in this man's presence. He made her want things that she had no business even speculating about.

"Are you ready for dessert?"

Her mouth dropped open. "You mean there's more?" She patted her full, flat stomach. "Nothing else will fit. Give me a couple of hours."

"I'm full, too." He stood and began to clear the dishes.

She reached out and touched his wrist. "Stop. You cooked. I'll do clean up."

"You haven't seen what I did to your kitchen." He laughed as she hopped from the chair. "We can straighten up together if you want."

After taking a look at the war zone that had once been her stainless steel, spotless kitchen, she agreed. They cleared the table and took the dishes to the kitchen. Working as a team, they scraped, rinsed and loaded the dishwasher. John washed the heavier pots and Evangeline dried. The ease of the partnership was comforting. Sexual tension permeated every glance and accidental touch. Yet despite that, they worked well together. At this point she shouldn't have been surprised, but she was.

"Do you cook like this often?"

"It's not worth it when you're cooking for one," he answered. "Caitlin and I cooked together. She had her specialties and I had mine."

His words triggered her curiosity. She wrung the dishtowel between her hands as she quietly said, "Caitlin sounded very special."

"She was." He drained the sink. A spray of water removed any residue. Once he was done, he took the towel from her and dried his hands.

Evangeline realized that his movements were natural, as if he hadn't a care in the world. During tense moments, he reacted quickly and with a purpose. But now, John seemed subdued and content. She wondered what brought him and his deceased fiancée together and how it felt to want to spend the rest of his life with her.

Propriety prevented her from voicing her thoughts. His personal life wasn't for her to question. He kept things close to his vest. She had no business even wondering about it.

"What is it?" He caught her wrist as she stepped away. "You were here and then you weren't."

She shrugged. His warm fingers scorched her flesh in such a light grip. She swallowed hard. "I was just thinking."

"About what?"

She glanced at their joined hands. Neither had moved away. The touch came as effortlessly as the rest of the evening. Why was it so hard for her to understand?

"Evangeline?" he prompted. His fingers lightly stroked the inside of her wrist.

"I…um…" Geez, it was hard to think with him touching her, but she refused to move away. He felt too damn good. "It was about love. What does being in love feel like? How do you know?"

"What?" He squeezed her hand once before he released her. "Of course, you've been in love."

Taken aback, she frowned. "Why would you say that?"

"I didn't…" He paused for a moment to stare. "I didn't mean to offend you. I just thought you had been. You're a beautiful woman. Smart. Confident. Intriguing. I can't believe… I mean, you and RJ were…"

"We were acquaintances who tried too hard to make it into something more." She moved to the kitchen table and sat. Her fingers played with the Pillsbury Doughboy salt and pepper shaker figurines. "Maybe he and I didn't try hard enough. But make no mistake, whatever that was…it wasn't about love."

He grabbed the chair on the other side of the table, turned it around and sat on it backwards. He folded his arms across the back and rested his chin on his forearm. "I still can't believe…you've never been in love."

"Well, believe it. It's true."

"And you want to know what it feels like," he stated.

Unable to speak, she simply nodded.

"It's like the best feeling you can imagine and the worst all rolled into one. But the good far outweighs the bad." He leaned forward, staring into her eyes. "You want to be with that person so much it's almost painful. You can't wait to see her again. Hear her laugh. See her smile. Hold her. Touch her. You want that person more than you've ever wanted anything else in your life, and you want to be the best man who ever lived. In fact, you strive for it with everything you have."

Her breath caught in her lungs. "Oh."

"Are you sure--"

The front buzzer interrupted John. The noise startled them. She looked at the clock on her microwave. It was well after nine.

"Are you expecting someone?" He stood, removed his gun from its holster and headed through the dining room to the living room.

"No," she said. She wrapped her arms around her waist. John's relaxed demeanor evaporated. He was all cop. Fear of the present situation returned. "Usually a messenger calls ahead. I don't know who it could be."

"Maybe RJ." John looked through the curtains.

"He and I are over."

"Never mind," he said. "I see a delivery car. I can't make out the words but I see flowers and balloons on the van. Let me handle it. Grab your cell and keys. Wait in the kitchen."

On wooden legs, she obeyed his orders and stalked to the kitchen. Over the rapid pounding of her heart and the quiet hush of the running dishwasher, she listened as John answered the door. In what seemed like an eternity, he called for her to come out.

He stood alone in the living room with a little brown teddy bear in the palms of his hands. He jutted a chin toward her. "From a happy client. I hope you don't mind. I read the card."

"No," she mumbled, distracted and confused. "That's fine. Let me see it."

He handed her the card and the gift. She read the note several times before the sensation of safety finally sunk in. Then, she released a loud breath and sunk onto the closest chair. John rushed to her side. His hand closed over her shoulder.

"You're okay."

She covered his hand with hers and hugged the adorable teddy bear to her chest. "Yeah. Thank you."

They remained that way until her trembles subsided. By then, the dishwasher had stopped and the idea of work refused to be realized. But their conversation about love lingered in her mind and in her heart.

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