Chapter 9

A restless night did little to quell the adrenaline pumping in Evangeline's veins. Today was court day. Ever since she tried her first case, the excitement of standing before a judge and jury to defend her client fueled her senses. She tried to tell herself that was the reason for the tingling sensations that coursed through her. Sure, every time she closed her eyes last night, Cristian's handsome face came to mind. His fate rested in her abilities. Any spark of attraction that ignited in his presence had to be ignored. Only the law mattered.

The mini-mental lecture brought her objective back into focus. Maybe one day she and Cristian could pursue a friendship. Right now, she had to focus on his freedom.

She squared her shoulders and plastered a professional smile on her face. As she waited for the police guard to open the door into the secured conference room, she believed fully in her convictions. But all her beliefs flew out the window the second she walked through the door and saw Cristian in his crisp non-prison issue attire.

The black jacket and pants created an attractive contrast with the button down white shirt. A pair of shiny black wingtips completed the ensemble. His wavy brown hair was brushed from his face, revealing the depth of his piercing brown eyes. The carefully trimmed goatee accentuated the sensual curve of his mouth. A slight blush colored his cheeks as their gazes locked.

He gave her a slight smile as he smoothed the lapel on his jacket. "My mother wanted me to look good in court today. I told her it was too much, but she insisted."

"She was right. You look great."

His smile reached his eyes. "Thank you. So do you, but that's a given."

She accepted his compliment with a nod. If she didn't rein this in, they'd quickly get on the wrong track. "Um, we only have a few minutes before your appearance before the court. Are you ready?"

"Like my life depends on it," he said quietly. "They took the shackles off. I'm wearing regular clothes. It feels so close."

"We are." She set her briefcase on the table and sat. "Have a seat."

He glanced at the chair. "I'm too nervous to sit."

"I know that's why I asked you to do it. You need to be calm and not agitated when you appear before Judge Grant. She has a reputation."

"I heard the guards talking about her. They say we're going in on a wing and a prayer." He moved around the table until he stopped at the chair beside her. Then, he sat. "They don't know."

She frowned. "What don't they know?"

"How determined you are," he said. "At first, I thought you were in this to get John away from Natalie because you want him back."

"I told you this has nothing to do with him. You shouldn't have been convicted. You didn't deserve what happened to you."

"I killed a man—"

"You were under Carlo Hesser's control. You're not at fault for Tico Santi's death."

"Judge Grant may see things differently."

"We'll convince her otherwise."

Without thinking, Evangeline reached out and touched his hand. The warmth of his flesh rippled through her. She inhaled a sharp breath and his clean, masculine scent filled her senses. Nerve endings shot to life inside her. Dear God, how long had it been since she felt an electric charge like that? Kevin's attentions warmed her from head to toe, but a small moment with Cristian scorched her. She couldn't do this. This was wrong.

"Evangeline?" He turned his hand so that he had a gentle, firm grasp of her hand. "Even if the judge doesn't listen, I appreciate everything you've done. I have hope now and I never thought I'd feel that again."

"Everyone deserves a second chance," she murmured.

A knock sounded at the door. Evangeline pulled her hand free and stood. "Yes?"

The door opened and Cristian's guard appeared. "It's time."

"Thank you."

"This is it," Cristian said. "I'm ready."

Evangeline smiled. She grabbed her briefcase and preceded them into the courtroom. The room had a few spectators. Antonio, Carlotta and Adrianna sat together behind the defendant's table. She gave them a small nod. They looked concerned but hopeful.

As she reached the table, she noticed movement in the back of the room. Instinctively, she knew John had arrived. One day that sixth sense about him would fade. She anticipated that day's arrival. Bo moved past him and headed to the Vegas. She was close enough to hear their conversation but decided not to. When the Commissioner sat on the row behind them, she silently cheered his show of support.

Footsteps sounded behind Evangeline. Without turning around, she knew Cristian had been brought into the room. Then, Natalie arrived. The atmosphere of the room changed immediately. Evangeline turned her back to the younger woman and the rest of the spectators.

She and Cristian sat. He leaned toward her. "How much does she know?"

"You asked me not to tell her so I didn't. I don't know why she's here."

He glanced quickly over his shoulder. "She knows something."

She touched his shoulder until he turned around. "Whatever she knows isn't important. Don't lose focus."

"I won't. I'll deal with her later."

- - - Cristian listened in awe as Evangeline gave her opening statement. Her undefeated reputation spoke volumes about her legal prowess. Photos of Jamie had spilled from Antonio's wallet as he sang Evangeline's praises as an excellent attorney who helped him regain custody of his daughter. Cristian remembered a couple of Evangeline's high profile cases. Back then, he never imagined being in Mitch Laurence or Todd Manning's situation. It's funny how a person's life changed with one bad decision.

"The defense calls Commissioner Bo Buchanan as it's first witness."

A slight gasp sounded as Bo took the stand. In that short moment, Cris and Evangeline locked eyes. He frowned with a silent question. Was it Natalie? A quick nod of Evangeline's head provided his answer. His hands clinched together under the table. How could he have been so wrong about her?

"Commissioner Buchanan, who is the man sitting at the defense table?"

"Until recently, we believed he was John Doe, a man impersonating Cristian Vega."

"But you no longer believe that. Why?"

"DNA evidence proves that he is really Cristian Vega."

"In your expert opinion as an officer of the law, how does this reflect on his conviction?"

"At the time of his confession, he believed that he had been programmed to have Cristian Vega's memories. Under different circumstances, we would have investigated his identity and discovered the truth prior to his conviction."

"What circumstances are you referring to?" she asked.

"His confession changed everything. Once we had that on record, we had no cause to test his DNA or investigate what he claimed happened. In fact, he was emphatic about going through with the proceedings. He didn't want to pretend to be someone he wasn't."

"In hindsight, do you wish you had done things differently?"

Bo nodded. "As soon as I found out the truth—that he isn't John Doe but Cristian Vega and my niece's husband—I couldn't ignore it. What happened to Cristian was not fair. I hope now the judicial system will correct our previous mistake."

A loud cry came from the back of the room. Cris turned in his seat and saw a flash of flaming red hair disappear through the door. Natalie. A moment later, John McBain ran after her.

Judge Grant's gavel echoed loudly in the air. "Order in the court!"

The door closed behind their exit. Cris balled his hands into his fists. Rage burned inside him and he wasn't sure what infuriated him more. Natalie's reaction or John McBain running to her rescue.

"Damn you both to hell," he muttered under his breath.

The soft floral scent of Evangeline's perfume drifted straight toward him. He shifted in his seat. Immediately, his gaze locked on her brown eyes. Understanding reflected in her expressive orbs. But not pity. Never pity. Just from looking at her, the anger faded. The power of that moment was overwhelming.

- - -

Natalie's loud exit quickly ended that day's proceedings. The judge ordered everyone to return the following morning. Evangeline breathed a sigh of relief. Her next witness was John and she didn't want him to speak about Cristian's case after comforting the other man's wife just moments before. She spoke honestly when she told Cristian that she didn't want John back. The detective was not the man she thought he was. The John she loved was honorable. There was no honor in what he did with Cristian's DNA report and she intended to show that in court. Tomorrow.

Cristian's guard came to take him away. She tried to reassure him with a smile. The look on his face when Natalie ran out screamed bloody murder. Of course, his reaction was understandable, but that was not how she wanted the judge to see him. Cristian was a strong, courageous man who denied himself the love of his family in order to protect them. Honor vibrated from him in the way he spoke and carried himself. If only John McBain was half the man Cristian Vega was revealing himself to be.

"I'll see you tomorrow," he said quietly. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine. Why wouldn't I be?"

Cris looked away for a brief moment. "Mighty McBain ran after Natalie. He's always running after her." He paused a second as if he was considering his words. "I read the papers. I know about the Killing Club killer and how he tied you and Natalie to a stake. I know the decision John made."

She stiffened. She relieved the horror of her abduction and almost fiery death in nightmares at least once a week. A reminder now caught her unprepared. "That's over and done."

"Something like that is hard to forget."

"I'd rather not talk about it." She glanced at the guard. He looked ready to drag Cristian from the room. "Look, you have to go and I need to prepare for tomorrow. Try to get some rest. Tomorrow will be long and grueling."

"You too," he said. "I mean it, Evangeline. You've done the hard part. The Court is listening to us. Just relax. Promise me, you won't stay up all night worrying."

"I don't do that."

He smiled. "Liar." He briefly touched her hand and then the guard took him away.

"Evangeline Williamson, what on earth are you doing?"

She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head. "Todd Manning, why do you care?"

His soft chuckle encouraged her to meet the curious stare in his blue eyes. His mouth curved into a crooked smile. The cleared courtroom suddenly felt intimate. Evangeline quickly gathered her notes and files and stuffed them into her case.

"Slow down," Todd said. "You don't have to rush on my account."

"I'm not. I have work to do."

"I heard you were resurrecting the dead. I had to see it for myself. You should have told me. The Sun could have had an exclusive. I can see your beautiful face gracing the cover. We'd sell out in minutes."

She couldn't stop the blush from heating her cheeks, but she tried her best to play it off. "Look, if you're here to hassle me about Kevin, don't. We're having dinner together and nothing you say will change my mind."

Todd's crooked smile widened into a mischievous grin. "Wait until you hear what I have to say before you carve those words in stone. You know I'm not good when it comes to resisting a challenge."

Oh, boy, Evangeline thought, zeroing in on the dangerous glint in his eyes, what am I getting myself in to?

Chapter 10

7