If Evangeline wanted to sneak in quietly, the ringing bell attached to the door signaled her arrival. Antonio and Carlotta practically pounced on her as she reached them at the counter. The expectant look on their faces reminded her again of the importance of her work. Unlike so many of her cases, her guards dropped. She truly cared what happened to Cristian Vega and desperately wanted his freedom almost more than she ever wanted anything in her life.
Except John's love.
She shuddered at that thought. No! The self-sufficient detective was not allowed to plague her mind. In order to get over him, she had to stop thinking about him. He simply wasn't worth the effort. He told her so many times he didn't deserve her. She was finally accepting the truth of that statement.
"Antonio told me," Carlotta said, taking a tight hold of Evangeline's hands. "Is it true? Is he really my son?"
Evangeline nodded. "It's true. He's Cristian."
"When can we see him?"
"That's why I'm here. I spoke to the clerk in the Judge's office. The Court has given me a court date to hear Cristian's side. I'm on my way to Statesville to tell Cris. I would love for you to join me."
"Really?" Carlotta asked.
"I thought we had to be on a special list," Antonio said. "Does this mean the Court recognizes him as Cristian now?"
"Not exactly," Evangeline said. "It means that they're open to the possibility which is a huge step in Cristian's favor. Are you able to leave with me now?"
"Lucia's here. She can watch the diner while I'm gone," Carlotta said. "I just need my purse and my coat."
The other woman headed to the back of the diner in a whirlwind of emotion. Evangeline smiled. The maternal instinct was a strong one.
"She didn't sleep last night," Antonio said softly. "She's running on adrenaline."
"I can imagine. How are you?"
"I can't explain it," he said. "I never imagined getting my brother back. And now... Thank you, Evangeline. You've given my family a gift."
The large helping of gratitude made her blush. "Thank me when he's free."
"He will be."
Carlotta returned before Evangeline could respond. The older woman bustled with restless energy. Antonio volunteered to drive and Evangeline didn't argue. Her police guard followed them in a squad car. As they settled inside Antonio's roomy SUV, he said, "Why do you have a guard? What's going on?"
She hesitated to tell them the truth. They were pent up enough about Cristian's return. How would they handle knowing that Carlo Hesser had threatened both their lives?
"Evangeline, what is it?" Carlotta asked. "Maybe Antonio can help."
"O'Reilly is a good cop. He never lets me out of his sight."
"I remember O'Reilly," Antonio said. "He worked SWAT. If Bo assigned him to you, it must be serious."
She sighed. They had a right to know the truth. They were Cristian's family. "It is serious. I was run off the road a few days ago."
"Dios mio!" Carlotta reached from the backseat to touch Evangeline's shoulder. "Are you okay?"
"I wasn't hurt. Kevin Buchanan's security team came to my rescue."
Antonio cocked an eyebrow. "Kevin?"
"I was trying to call Bo and got Kevin by mistake," Evangeline explained. "Everything happened so fast."
"Does Bo have any leads? I can hire someone to look into this. Hell, I can do it myself," Antonio volunteered.
"We have a lead."
"There hasn't been an arrest. If so, you wouldn't still have a police guard," Carlotta stated.
"No, the person who I believe is responsible is already in prison."
"Does this have anything to do with what happened to Cris?" Antonio asked. "Tell us the truth."
"I won't lie," she said. "Yes, Cristian warned me to be careful. Almost immediately, the attack happened."
"It was Carlo Hesser, wasn't it?" Antonio's gripped the steering wheel. "First he took Cristian and now, he's after you. Why?"
"He knows that I'm representing Cristian," she said. "He's probably afraid of being discovered. I should have thought of this before... You two need to hire protection."
"I can take care of both of us." He glanced in the rearview mirror at his mother. "Mamí, don't worry."
"What about Cristian?" Carlotta asked.
"Bo spoke to the warden and Cris has been moved to another section of Statesville. Hesser can't touch him now."
"I hope you're right about that."
Evangeline's thoughts echoed Carlotta's words. She had high hopes about Cristian Vega. His incarceration wasn't fair. Before, he had no one fighting for him. He was a man, alone. Now, he had his family onboard. He tried to pretend otherwise, but he longed for their support. His brown eyes lit up when she mentioned them. At that moment, she saw something she wanted to ignore, but couldn't. She saw the man he was and the man he could be. Both versions were awe inspiring.
- - -
Cristian watched Evangeline slip out the door. She tried to leave without being noticed, but that was impossible. She was unlike any woman he'd ever known. Her determination to fight for him without wanting anything in return reminded him of a heavenly creature. Pure goodness and light. Was there such a thing in human form?
"An angel," he murmured under his breath.
"Yes, she is," his mother agreed. "Evangeline's name suits her. When Antonio told me, I was scared to believe, but here we are...a family again. A miracle."
"You should have told us the truth," Antonio said. "You didn't have to live the year alone."
Cris ran a hand over his face. "I couldn't stand to look at myself in the mirror. After everything I'd done, I didn't see the point of telling you—"
"The point?" Antonio leapt from his chair. "Point? Your life has nothing to do with points! We love you, Cristian."
He looked down at the steel table that separated him from his mother and brother. "I killed a man. I couldn't see either of you loving me after that. I lost all hope."
"You must have been in a dark and lonely place."
Cris gave his mother a faint smile. "I was, but then Evangeline came and everything changed."
"She's amazing," Antonio said. "She fought hard for Jamie and me."
"She's a good woman," Carlotta agreed.
"I won't argue with you," Cristian said unable to stop the full smile that claimed his mouth. "I don't have a dime to offer her but she doesn't want money. You know what she wants? A painting. She wants me to paint something for her when I'm released."
"It will be a masterpiece," his mother said.
"I'll do my best."
Antonio returned to his chair and sat. The intense look on his face warned Cristian that the conversation was about to take a different turn. Cris's back became rigid. Wherever this was headed, he wouldn't like it.
"What?" he asked.
"Natalie," Antonio said. "Don't you think your wife should know you're alive?"
"She doesn't care about me," Cristian said. "She's happier believing I'm dead."
"And when your conviction is overturned, what then? You can't come back to Llanview as John Doe. We won't let you."
"I'll cross that bridge when I come to it."
"But Cristian, she's your wife."
He shook his head. "In name only, not in her heart where it counts. She's given her heart to John McBain. That's why she didn't recognize me when I came back. She didn't want to. We're not the same people who took vows together. She doesn't want me, and I don't want her."
- - -
While waiting in the lobby of Statesville Prison, Evangeline noticed the people who entered and exited the main doors. They wore their hearts on their sleeves. The pain of leaving loved ones behind the cold, steel bars shone vividly on their faces. She was beginning to understand their sorrow. She felt a twinge of it every time she and Cristian parted ways.
The owner of the hoarse, raspy voice was unmistakable. Sudden anger rippled through Evangeline. After everything he'd done, John had no right to come there.
"What are you doing here?"
"I need to talk to Cristian," he said.
She arched an eyebrow. "Again? He told me about your other visit...when you asked for permission to sleep with his wife. Damn you, John, how could you?"
His mouth tightened. "It's not what you think."
"It's worse than I'd want to imagine," she said softly. "So, what good news are you bringing him this time? Antonio and Carlotta are inside with him. They don't know about your involvement. At least, not yet."
John looked at her in surprise. "Are you threatening me?"
"You know me better than that, but I'm realizing that I never knew you at all."
"Evangeline, don't. You don't understand the situation. I asked him what he wanted and he didn't want anyone to know the truth. What was I supposed to do? I gave him the option. He chose to be dead to everyone. It was Cristian's choice."
"It wasn't his choice for you to lie to my face. You made that decision all on your own." She couldn't stand to look at him a moment longer. She stood and turned her back on him. The concrete landscape provided a better view anyway. "So, why are you here?"
"You won't like it..."
"I'm used to that from you. Why, John?"
His footsteps shuffled across the floor, bringing him closer to her. "Natalie. I want to know if she knows."
"Good grief," she muttered under her breath. "Everything always goes back to her. What would she do if you weren't there to rescue her?"
"She's been through a lot."
"Haven't we all." Evangeline moved to the clerk's desk. "When the Vegas come out, could you tell them I'm waiting for them outside? Thanks."
She shook her head without turning around. "My days of waiting for you are over, John. Good luck."