Chapter 8

"I'm glad you decided to come with me today."

Layla accepted Adriana's warm hug. She didn't really know what made her accept the other woman's invitation. Since the cold reception from Viki, Layla had decided to focus on work and keep her mind off the Buchanan's personal business. Occasionally a stray thought about Kevin would drift in. She'd remember the touch of his hand on hers and the intent look in his brown eyes as he listened to her. In the midst of tragedy, they'd form a connection, but as the days grew, she wasn't sure if the bond had a real basis.

"Duke's been asking about you," Adriana continued as they reached his hospital door. "He made me promise to bring you. I didn't know what I'd say to him if you'd refused."

Layla frowned. "What does Rex say about the time you're spending with Duke?"

The other woman shrugged. "He understands that we're mourning our loss together. Kelly's memorial service is tomorrow. Duke won't be able to attend. Will you come with me?"

Layla sighed. Her friend's sadness was real, but attending Kelly's services felt hypocritical. She tolerated the woman, but they hadn't been friends. And how Kelly choose to spend her last moments sickened Layla. She had no intention of passing judgment. Yet, there was something amoral about having sex with your boyfriend's son inside a rectory. Layla had always believed that church grounds were sacred. Kelly and Duke's actions left a nasty residue on those who knew the truth.

"Of course, you don't have to come. Rex will probably come with me."

"If he doesn't, let me know." Layla chewed her bottom lip as she tried to find a good response. "Evangeline's flight may come in at any time. I told her I'd be available to pick her up."

"Okay. Just forget about it. I'll ask Rex again."

Adriana opened the door and they headed inside. Layla was immediately struck by how pale Duke looked and all the machines attached to him. The faint drone of beeps created a strange background music. She suddenly remembered how much she hated hospital rooms. A hospital room was the last place she saw her father alive.

"Layla." Duke smiled and held out his hand. "You came."

She took his hand. "I've been holding down the fort. We miss you at work. How are you feeling?"

His face tightened. He released her hand and looked away. "I've had better days."

"I'm sorry about Kelly."

"Me, too."

"Is there anything I can do? You have a stack of magazines and a bunch of plants. What about music? I can burn a CD of my favorite remixes?"

He shook his head. "I can't ask you to do that."

"I'm offering."

The door opened and Kevin walked in. His gaze quickly settled on Layla. She held her breath, waiting for his dismissal.

None came.

He marched straight to her and wrapped her in a tight hug. "How are you?" he asked as he slowly released her.

"I should be asking you that. You look a lot better."

He smiled. "Thank you. For everything. I'm glad you're here. I've been thinking about you and everything you said." He turned to look at Adriana. "Hi. I didn't see you standing there."

"I noticed," Adriana said. "I need to make a call. I'll be right back."

She quietly left the room but not before giving Layla a strange look. Duke's face registered the same expression. Layla headed toward the door.

"Don't go," Duke said. "Dad, could you leave us alone for a minute?"

Kevin frowned and looked uncertain. "Um, sure. If that's what you want." When he passed Layla, he touched her arm. "It really is good to see you again."

He left before she could form a response. Duke coughed and she turned. Judging by his expression, she wasn't sure if the cough was a physical necessity or a means to capture her attention. In the end, it didn't matter. She forced a blank expression on her face and moved to sit in the chair beside his bed.

"We were really worried about you."

"My dad said you prayed for me and that you stayed with him while he waited for me to come out of surgery."

"I wanted to make sure you were okay—"

"So that's why I've been here for days and this is first time you visited."

Frowning, she stared at her lap. "I was busy at work. The tornados made things crazy at BE and Capricorn had some minor damage—"

"Those are all excuses." He groaned as he shifted on the bed. "Tell me the truth, Layla. What's going on with you and my dad? While you were warning me about Kelly, were you two...?"

"No!" she bit out. Anger flashed inside her. One glance at his tired features and the rage quickly died. "No, Duke. Kevin is my boss."

"Most bosses don't hug their employees like that."

She shrugged. "The tornado... The storm brought a lot of madness."

"And a lot of changes." He frowned as he stared at the ceiling. "I should have listened to you about Kelly. I found her at the rectory and things got out of control."

"I know."

He stiffened. "What does that mean?"

"Kevin knows, too. We overheard the EMTs talking about how you were both naked and together."

Duke gave her a hard look. "My dad knows? He can't. He hasn't said anything. He's acting like everything is fine. He must hate me."

"He loves you."

"But why hasn't he said anything?"

"Maybe he's trying to forget."

His expression softened. He reached for her hand. "If he tries to forget with you, be careful."

"We're friends, Duke." She gently squeezed his hand. "That's all it is."

"Sometimes, that's just how it starts."

- - -

Weeks of fruitless searching finally produced a decent reward. Cristian paused outside the restaurant and peered inside the huge plate glass window. The man sitting at the center table bore a marked resemblance to Vickers.

Cristian glanced behind him before he went inside. He and Evangeline had decided to meet there for lunch and to discuss new strategy. He was only a few minutes early and knew that Evangeline would arrive soon. But what to do in the meantime? If he went inside, he chanced the possibility of spooking their prey and if he stayed outside too long, he risked getting roused by Bangkok's finest.

He came to a quick decision. After texting Evangeline's cell phone, he stepped inside. Handling Vickers would be helluva lot easier than the local police.

Cristian bypassed the host and headed straight for the bar. From his position, he had a great view of David. If the other man tried to make a run for it, he wouldn't get very far.

A moment later, he received a text message from Evangeline.

Can he see you?

No.

Where are you?

In the back by the bar. He keeps watching the ladies' room.

I'll go straight there. –E.

Cristian sensed Evangeline the moment she walked into the restaurant. Many nights of sharing a bed and holding her in his arms had his senses tuned to her as if he'd known her forever. He forced himself not to watch her. Getting Vickers was the key to her case. Cristian would do anything humanly possible to help her reach her goal.

- - -

Evangeline shielded her face with her hair as she hurried past David's table and ducked into the ladies' room. Cristian was right. The way David watched the restroom was definite cause for concern. She couldn't wait to find whatever or whoever piqued his interest inside.

All the stalls were empty except the first one. Evangeline kept one eye on the person's feet as she quickly texted Cris.

I'm in.

Be careful.

She smiled. She could almost see the stern look on his face. His chocolate brown eyes would darken and his jaw would set. Normally, she'd find the attributes overbearing but she couldn't deny that his determination to protect her was unbelievably sexy.

The nights in his arms were explosive and waking the next morning... How could a man with his physical strength caress her with such tenderness and reverence? She felt precious...and loved?

Her stomach clenched at that thought. Why did everything have to come back to that four letter word? Hadn't she learned anything? Her failed relationship with John should have cured her forever. But whenever she looked into Cristian's eyes a spark ignited and that spark's name was hope.

The sound of a flushing toilet freed Evangeline of her thoughts. She tucked her emotions away as efficiently as she tucked her cell phone into her pants pocket. Standing in the dark corner near the paper towel receptacle, she waited.

A moment later, the stall door opened. A white woman with wavy auburn stepped out. The tall, lanky woman moved to the sink. She paused to brush her hair from her cheek and that's when Evangeline got a good look at her profile.

"It can't be," she whispered under her breath.

The woman jumped and looked in Evangeline's direction. "Is someone there?"

Entranced by the impossible, Evangeline left her dark corner. She walked straight to the woman and said, "Margaret Cochran. You're alive."

- - -

Convincing Margaret to come back to their hotel room was a lot easier than convincing David. Cristian didn't hesitate to use brute force to help David realize that what Evangeline requested wasn't out of the ordinary. With his mouth twisted and his face red, David grumbled the brisk walk to the hotel. Cristian admired how Evangeline handled Margaret. The obviously undead woman seemed relieved to talk to someone other than the smart-ass con man.

"Sit," Cristian told David.

The two women followed. Evangeline locked the door and asked Margaret to relax a moment. Cristian recognized the tense look on Evangeline's face. She was dangerously close to a breaking point. He kept an eye on Vickers as he moved to her side.

"Are you okay?"

"You're always asking me that," she said through gritted teeth.

"Because I worry about you."

"You must think I'm a basketcase."

He frowned. "No, I think you're tough as nails. You're a tiger, but even tigers need to stop and assess the situation."

"She's alive, Cris! Alive! They're this close to executing Todd and the victim isn't even dead!" She pulled out her cell phone. "I have to talk to the governor. He has no choice but to stop the execution now."

"I'll keep an eye on them."

Cristian headed back to Vickers and Margaret. The con man was muttering under his breath about escape. Margaret had a wild look in her eyes, making her fair skin appear ashen. She gave Cris a hard look.

"What are you two planning to do with me?"

"You have to go back with us to Llanview," he said. "I thought you understood that. Evangeline explained it to you."

"This is my home. I don't know anything about that place."

"They can't make you go if you don't want to!" David piped in.

"Shut up, Vickers," Cristian warned. He squeezed his hand into a fist as a silent warning. David took the hint and closed his mouth.

"He's right," Margaret said. "You can't make me go."

"A man is on death row for killing you," he explained. "You don't really have a choice in the matter. You're going back with us."

"A man? What man? I don't know anything about a man! I don't know anything. I have rights—"

"So does Todd Manning." Cris inhaled a sharp breath. "I can't believe I'm saying this... Manning is days from getting a lethal injection for a crime that never happened. Doesn't that bother you? Don't you feel just a little compelled to make that right?"

"Of course, I don't want anyone to die," she said with a shrug, "but what makes you think I'm the person he's accused of k-killing?"

"You are her," Evangeline said. Her eyes flashed dangerously.

Cristian didn't like that look. "What's wrong?"

"The governor wouldn't take my call. He refused to listen to anything I have to say."

Cris frowned. "Can he do that?"

"He did. It doesn't matter if he has the right to or not." She ran a hand through her hair as she started to pace. "I'll call Bo and see if he can do anything, but in the meantime, we have to get out of here. We have to go now."

As Cristian grabbed their luggage, he heard Vickers ask, "What about me? You don't need me. Let me stay here."

"I took an oath, David," Evangeline said. "I can't leave you here. You have to come with us."

"What will happen to me then?"

"I don't know."

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