"Hi, Antonio. Thank you for coming so quickly." Evangeline rose from behind her desk and greeted her good friend and former client with a brief hug.
"You sounded serious." His brows drew together in a frown. "Is something wrong?"
"Something's right, but it's not perfect." She moved to her sofa and sat.
His frown deepened. "I don't understand."
"Sit down." She patted the space beside her. After he sat, she said, "It's about Cristian. He's alive."
He drew in a large gulp of air. The energy around him suddenly charged the air. She wasn't surprised when he jumped to his feet.
"Where is he? How did you find him?"
"He's at Statesville Prison—"
"No." Antonio's expression darkened. "That man is not my brother."
"He is." She stood and moved to stand just inches from him. "I know it's hard to believe, but it's true. DNA proves it. He's really Cristian."
"How did you find out?"
"I found proof." She hesitated to tell him about John's involvement. The two men had been very good friends. Considering John's recent decisions, she believed he needed all the friends he could get. There had to be someone he'd listen to. "I've spoken to him several times. We're working to overturn his conviction."
"What the hell? Dammit, Evangeline! I don't understand. How can my brother be alive? Why didn't he tell me? I saw him right before he went to Statesville. He tried to kill me. Cristian would never do something like that."
"He wasn't himself then. Antonio, sit down. Please." To her surprise, he didn't argue. He joined her on the sofa and became quiet. In the silence, she continued, "We believe Carlo Hessler kidnapped him and manipulated his memories through drugs, torture and conditioning."
"You mean, Hessler brainwashed him."
She smiled, remembering how Cristian preferred the simple term. The Vegas were never one to mince words. "Yes, Hessler brainwashed Cristian."
"Why? What does Cristian mean to him?"
"He was a means to an end. Hessler's motivation is still a mystery. Right now, I'm focusing on reopening Cristian's case and having him heard in court."
"What did he say when you told him? I wish I could have been there with you."
Evangeline rubbed his shoulder. "I know, but you can be there now."
"I remember talking to him that last day. He was worried about his family finding out about the murder. Was he surprised when you told him?" His penetrating stare felt like he was searching her soul. "What did he say?"
She knew no better way than to just tell him. "Cristian already knew. He remembered everything the day he went to Statesville. The memories came back—"
"Before or after my visit?" His voice was hoarse with torment. "He knew when he saw me, didn't he? Why didn't he tell me? All this time, I thought... Mamí believes her son is dead. He should have told me!"
"He thought it was best for everyone."
A tear rolled down Antonio's cheek. "He was wrong."
"He's beginning to understand that now."
"I need to see him."
She gave him a faint smile. "I know. I'll make arrangements for you. Right now, he's still listed as John Doe without any family."
"That's a lie. He has a family." He wiped the tears from his face. "Have you told Natalie?"
"He doesn't want me to."
"She should know," Antonio said. "I'll talk to her—"
"Cristian was clear about not telling her."
"Do you agree with him?"
She sighed. Suddenly, she felt extremely tired. "It's not my call. My primary focus is getting him free."
They stood. She walked him to the door. "I know this is a lot to process at once. If you want me to talk to your mother..."
"I can do it." His arms closed around her in a tight hug. The embrace was warm, hard and long. "I can't thank you enough for this, Evangeline. Thank you."
His heartfelt gratitude brought tears to her eyes. "You're welcome."
- - -
The guard posted outside her office door instantly reawakened memories of that night. Kevin doubted he'd ever forget Evangeline's frantic phone call. The fear in her voice ignited a foreign sensation inside the pit of his gut. At first, he felt helpless. Then, white-hot anger consumed him. Regardless her client, she didn't deserve this. He resolved then and there to find the person responsible.
Kevin nodded to the policeman as he approached her door. He knocked once before poking his head inside the opening. She looked up from her mountain of paperwork with a tired smile.
"Hi, Kevin. I didn't know you were stopping by."
"Do you mind if I come in?"
She shook her head. "Of course not. What brings you here?"
"You," he said. "You're working too hard and too late."
"It's my job."
"It's break time." He moved behind her desk, took her hand and pulled her to her feet. "And it's time to go home."
"I can't. I have too much work to do—"
"The work will be here in the morning." He refused to allow any excuses. "Your eyes are tired. You need rest."
"I am tired, but..." She looked at the law books and briefs strewn over her desk. "Someone's depending on me."
"Yes, but even you need a break." He squeezed her hand. "Look, I'm willing to compromise. You can bring some of this stuff with you. I'll even carry your books."
She laughed. "You don't have to do that."
"I want to." To prove his point, he stacked everything into a neat pile. "Get your coat, purse and whatever else you need. You're coming with me."
With the police guard right behind them, Kevin took Evangeline to her apartment. He wanted to take her back to the mansion, but he knew she wouldn't go for that. An independent woman like Evangeline wanted to be strong and formidable at all times. Tonight, he planned to reintroduce her to her softer side.
"Okay," she said after he closed and locked her door. "You've brought me home. What's next on your agenda?"
He hid an embarrassed chuckle behind a hand to his mouth. "What makes you think I have an agenda?"
"That strange twinkle in your eyes." She folded her arms across her chest and regarded him behind narrowed eyes. "What gives?"
"Am I that transparent?"
"Not totally if that's any consolation." She shrugged out of her suit jacket and kicked off her heels. "I have a feeling you won't go quietly so make yourself at home. I'm taking a shower."
An image of her slender nude frame standing under a steamy downpour danced before his eyes. Heat flared inside him.
"Huh?" His brain existed in a distant fog. He shook himself out of it. Gradually.
"Are you okay? You weren't there for a minute."
He gave her a reassuring smile. "I'm back. Do what you need to relax. I'll be here when you come back."
"That's what I'm afraid of," she teased.
They shared a smile then she picked up her shoes and disappeared down the hallway. Alone at last, he set his plan into motion. By the time she returned, wearing a pair of form fitting jeans and a beaded tank top, everything was ready.
"Wow," he murmured under his breath. Not wanting to stare her into oblivion, he acquainted her to his plans for their night.
"I hope you like Chinese," he said.
"I love it."
"Good because it's due to arrive any minute now." He took her hand and pulled her to the sofa. "Until then, sit. Relax."
"Relax seems to be your favorite word tonight."
"It's not a bad word. It's a word that workaholics like you and I could use more of." Relaxing against the cushions, he turned toward her. "Is it working?"
"I don’t know." She brushed hair from her cheeks. "I must have been a wreck the other night."
"Why do you say that?"
"You're turning me into your pet project—"
"No, I'm taking care of a friend."
She stiffened. Her body shifted away from him. "I'm not an invalid. I can take care of myself."
"Yes, you can, but sometimes, it's nice to let someone else take over." When the spark of argument lit up her eyes, he quickly added, "I'm not trying to run your life. This is just two friends spending time together, enjoying each other's company."
"That's not all it is."
Surprise rippled through him. How did she know when he wasn't even sure? He tried to keep a blank expression on his face. "What do you mean?"
"You think I'm headed for a meltdown. I admit the attack frightened me, but I'm getting over that. It's over and done. In the past. My life will go back to normal." She looked down at her hands clenched together on her lap. "You don't have to keep watch over me like I'm two years old."
He reached out and covered her hands with his. "Evangeline, that's not what I'm doing. You don't have to analyze why I'm here. We'll never have to stand before a judge or jury just because we're having dinner and watching a couple of movies together."
Perfect eyebrows arched over her sparkling brown eyes. "Movies, too?"
He laughed and pulled two dvds from the pocket of his brown suede jacket that he'd draped over the back of the chair. "I couldn't decide between action adventure and romantic comedy, so I brought both."
She took the movies from him and read the cover. "So I have to choose between Queen Latifah and Steve Martin or Thandie Newton and Tom Cruise? Hmm... I don't know about this."
"We could watch them both?"
She smiled at his offer. "Let's start with the laughs and see where that takes us."
The food arrived soon after they made their decision. Time passed quickly as they ate, laughed and relaxed. Midway through MI:II , Evangeline started to droop. She seemed hesitant to go to bed. He didn't press the issue. Instead, he draped his arm along the back of the sofa and shifted deeper into the cushions. In time, she drifted toward him. Her long beautiful tresses fanned his shoulder as she rested her head there. Within seconds, he heard the even give and take of her breath.
This is what she needs, he thought.
He reached behind him for the afghan tossed over the back of the sofa. After draping it over them, he placed a soft kiss against her forehead. Eventually, he joined her in slumber.
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