"You look a million miles away. Mind if I join you?"
The rhythmic cadence of Cristian Vega's voice sent a quiver of awareness down Evangeline Williamson's spine. The reception for Michael and Marcie McBain's wedding throbbed with the many in attendance. Yet, Evangeline felt as if she and Cristian were all alone. When had the dynamic of their friendship change? Why was he suddenly making explanations about the women in his life, and why did she even care?
The sound of her name on his lips was like a piece of decadent chocolate melting on the tip of her tongue. Dammit! Why did she have to go there?
She tried to shake off the flashes of fantasy that came to mind and give him a calm response. "Hi, Cristian. Did you enjoy the wedding?"
"It was nice until the storm hit."
"I doubt if the newlyweds even noticed." Evangeline glanced across the room at Michael who subdued Marcie with a loud kiss. "I've never seen either of them look so happy."
"Weddings should be happy," Cristian said as he claimed the bar stool beside her. "You don't look happy. Is that work?" He pointed at the manila folder that rested on the bar beside her glass of champagne. "You're allowed some moments of fun and relaxation."
"I only have three weeks to stop Todd's execution. I can rest in twenty-one days."
"You're too hard on yourself," he said.
She rolled her eyes. "Is this when you threaten to toss me over your shoulder and carry me out of here?"
A sexy smile curved his mouth. "I'd like to, but you look so beautiful in that dress."
The compliment stunned her into silence. The air sizzled with mutual attraction. This couldn't be happening, she thought. He was Natalie's ex husband for goodness sakes! After everything that silly girl put her through, Evangeline would be a fool to fall for Cristian.
"Let me help."
"Excuse me?" Her eyes widened in surprise. "Help do what?"
"Prove Todd's innocence. Two heads are better than one. Let me help you."
She frowned. "You don't even believe he's innocent. You think he killed Margaret and their baby. Why would you want to help set him free?"
"Because you believe in him."
"So you've changed your mind?" She didn't believe that for a second. Cristian didn't seem the wishy washy type...unlike a certain detective she knew.
Cristian laughed softly. "Um, not exactly."
"I know what you're doing." She took a sip of champagne and stood. "Thanks, but no thanks."
"Evangeline, wait." He caught her hand as she reached for the folder.
"You think I need a babysitter. I don't. I can take care of myself."
"I know that and I'm not trying to be your babysitter. I want..." He paused to catch his breath. "I just want to help you. Why are you so afraid to let me?"
"Who said anything about fear?"
"Not only are your eyes beautiful, they also reveal a lot."
"Windows to my soul?" she asked.
He shrugged. "Something like that. You don't have to be afraid of me. I'll never hurt you."
"Cristian." She pulled her hand free. The folder slipped from her grasp. Her research scattered to the floor at their feet. "Dammit."
They both knelt to retrieve the papers. Cristian grabbed the Internet print out of Paige Miller and Spencer Truman's wedding announcement. His face darkened as he looked at the paper. Evangeline stuffed the rest of the documents inside the folder and stared at him.
"What is it?"
"I've seen this face before."
"Yeah," she said with a trace of sarcasm, "that's Spencer Truman. He's been in the news a lot."
"Not him," he said. "The guy behind him. I sketched this face a few days ago for a witness to a murder."
"McBain's father," Cristian said. "The witness described this face."
"That's David Vickers. He's Spencer's brother."
"He's also the person who killed McBain's father."
Evangeline took the print out from him. Her hand trembled as her fingers dug into the paper. Todd believed David knew something about Margaret's murder. Her calls to David had gone unanswered for days. This new piece of evidence could be a bargaining chip to save Todd's life, but how could she keep the truth from John? Should she?
"Maybe you should sit down," Cristian suggested, "and have some water."
"I don't want water. I have to go." She felt like a haze had fallen over her. Her first instinct screamed for her to run.
"Don't start that again."
"Listen." Wind rattled the windows. A loud clap of thunder made her stomach clench. "It's getting worse out there," he said. "If you leave, I'll run after you and we could both get hurt. Let's just stay here until the storm blows over."
"Why do you care so much about what happens to me?" she asked softly. She feared his answer and her response to it. Why did the lines of friendship have to blur?
"Because I can't help myself."
That wasn't the answer she expected. The simple statement made everything so much more complex.
"I don't know what to say."
He gave her a half smile. "Who asked you to say anything? You can be yourself around me, Evangeline. I dig you just the way you are."
"No," she said, shaking her head. "You think I'm too wound up."
He laughed and a soft chuckle passed from her before she could stop it.
"After the storm passes, we can decide what to do about Vickers." Cristian set her folder back on the counter. "Until then, let's enjoy the champagne, the food and the music. Can we do that?"
Please God, don't let me regret this, she prayed. "Okay. We can try."
- - -
"This is absolutely none of my business," Layla Williamson muttered under her breath. "He's just my boss. If he wants to drink himself silly, it's his hangover. Not mine."
The words of warning lost meaning as Layla's footsteps brought her closer to Kevin Buchanan's perch at the bar. A bottle rested on the counter beside his half-empty glass. His face held a tortured look that cut straight to her soul.
Man, this is stupid, she thought as she moved the bottle away from him.
"Hey! That's mine!" Kevin blinked in her direction. "Layla? What are you doing? You want something to drink?"
"No. I think you've had enough for both of us." She sat beside him. "Your hangover will be a killer."
"So?" He raised his glass to his lips and swallowed.
"So, is it worth it?"
"What?" He rubbed a hand over his face. "Look, I appreciate all this, but I'm not in the mood for a lecture. Why don't you go find some guy who'll sweep you off your feet and dance your shoes off? I'll be fine."
"I could do that. There are quite a few guys here. Doctors, even. They're always a good catch, or so I hear."
Kevin nodded. "There ya go. Have fun."
"For some strange reason, I'd rather sit here with you."
"I didn't know you were a glutton for punishment."
"Being with you is not punishment."
He released a short, harsh laugh. "I know one woman in particular who'd disagree with you. Right about now, she's probably crying on my son's shoulder and telling him what a big asshole I am. And he's probably sucking it up. Drying her tears and agreeing with every word that comes from her painted mouth." He reached for the bottle.
She moved it further from his reach.
A scowl darkened his face. "Layla!"
"Kevin!" she screeched back.
The bartender came over. "Is everything okay here?"
"No, she won't let me drink. She took my bottle away. She thinks she's helping me. She's not," Kevin said. "I would ask for security, but I like her. She makes damn good coffee and she's smart as well as pretty. Dammit, Layla where were you two years ago?"
"In L.A.," she said, waving the bartender away. "You wouldn't have noticed me anyway."
"Yeah, I would have been an idiot then, too. I got some clarity tonight, though. Yes, I did. You wouldn't believe how wide my eyes opened."
"What happened?" she asked.
"Everything. The walls came tumbling down." His voice lowered to a harsh whisper. "What's your stake in all this, Layla? Why do you care? Is it Duke? Do you want to save him from himself?"
"Duke doesn't know what's important."
"I'd think you'd be all for the tragic love story. Oedipus in the flesh, lusting after his father's woman while she plays coy and unaware. Don't young girls like heartbreaking stories like that?"
He asked the question without malice. His heart quaked visibly on his sleeve. Layla felt his pain as if it were her own. She didn't understand the connection and refused to question it. She just wanted to help.
"Then, what do you like? You and Antonio didn't last very long."
"No, some things aren't meant to be."
He looked at her in surprise. "You're taking it well."
"I'm not the type who sits around pining over a man. I cut my losses and move on."
"Cut your losses, huh?" He gave her a faint smile. "Any drinking involved?"
"I'm not the drinking kind either."
"I could learn a lot from you, couldn't I?"
"I'm a pretty good teacher, but it's up to you."
Kevin pushed his glass away and shifted on his stool to face her fully. "School me, Layla. School me."