Chapter 10

"I don't have time for this." Evangeline grabbed her briefcase and moved to leave.

Todd caught her hand and stopped her from going very far. "Wait, don't run away."

"I'm not running away." The warmth of his touch surprised her. Her skin tingled like an electrical charge zipped through her. She tugged her hand free and shoved it inside her jacket pocket. "I'm trying to save Cristian's life."

"By rushing to have dinner with Kevin." He chuckled. "That doesn't add up. Not even for a smart woman like you. Trust me on this, Evangeline, Kevin is not the man you think he is."

"Kevin's my friend. You're my friend, too. Don't make me choose between you."

She spun on her heels and stormed down the courtroom aisle to the door. Todd called out to her just as she closed her hand around the doorknob.

"What if it comes down to that?" he asked.

She flipped her hair over her back as she looked over her shoulder at him. "It won't."

- - -

Half a dozen times, Evangeline considered canceling dinner with Kevin. The conversation with Todd wasn't the reason. Well, not entirely. She knew the animosity between uncle and nephew had nothing to do with her. Both men would jump on any reason to spit nails at each other. She just happened to be the current common denominator between the two. With everything happening in her professional life taking top precedence, she didn't have anything extra to prevent a war between Kevin and Todd.

"A penny for your thoughts," Kevin said. He poured more wine into her glass.

"Surely, my thoughts are worth more than that." Evangeline took a sip of wine. The robust flavor awakened her taste buds. She redirected her attention to the prime rib that covered a large section of her plate.

"Definitely, but I didn't want to overplay my hand." His brown-eyed gazed fixed her with an intent stare as she dug into her steak. "I was beginning to wonder if you were a vegan. I don't have to wonder anymore."

She finished chewing and swallowed. "Is that your not so subtle way of calling me a pig?"

"Who me?" A huge smile complimented his handsome face. "No, I'm enjoying this. You've been in la la land since we sat down. It's good to have you back with me."

She frowned. "I haven't been that distant."

"Not intentionally," he said. "Correcting the wrongs of our judicial system requires a lot of brain work. I thought dinner would help you unwind."

She placed her fork on the plate and leaned back against her chair. The background noise of the Palace's restaurant ceased to exist. Preparing Cristian's case consumed her thoughts, at least that's what she told herself. Kevin's view of her work habits forced her to accept that not all was true. The case was indeed important, but it was thoughts of Cristian, the man, that kept her up at night. She had no business thinking of him in any way other than professionally. Despite his denials, she knew he still loved his wife. She refused to allow herself to be second best to Natalie Buchanan Vega ever again.

"What now?" Kevin asked.

She frowned. "What?"

"You had the strangest look on your face. Do you want to talk about it? Is defending Cristian taking a huge toll on you? Maybe you should consider sharing the load with another attorney."

"I'm fine."

"You don't seem fine."

"That's because she's with you."

Todd's unexpected arrival made Evangeline want to scream. Not again!

"Todd, don't."

He ignored her warning. "What's your goal this time, Kevin? You broke Kelly down until she was kidnapping babies and popping pills. Now, she's in jail for stealing a baby she thought would save her marriage. What do you plan for Evangeline?"

"You know what, Todd, I'm sick of you and your jealousy—"

Todd laughed. Evangeline cringed from the sound.

"That's right," Kevin said. "You've always been jealous of me and my relationship with my mother."

"You're sick."

Kevin ignored Todd's accusation. "No, I'm finally seeing you for the twisted bastard you are. Get a life, Todd."

"How can you stand this pompous asshole?" Todd asked, looking at Evangeline. "You can do so much better."

"I asked you not to do this," she said.

"I don't want to see you make a mistake."

"The only mistake she'd make would be to listen to you!" Kevin rose from his chair. "Leave us alone before security kicks you out."

Todd's eyes flashed with fire. "I won't let you hurt her."

"She doesn't want you, Todd," Kevin said. "Leave now while you still have an ounce of dignity."

"Evangeline?"

She sighed. The sad note in Todd's voice toyed with her emotions. What did it all mean?

The answer eluded her and she was too drained to push herself for the truth. "Todd, please. Just go. We'll talk later."

He nodded once. "Yes, we will."

After he left, Kevin returned to his seat. They resumed their conversation, but the atmosphere had changed. Deep inside, she sensed that Kevin felt the shift, too.

- - -

After the disastrous dinner, Evangeline went home and spent the rest of the night preparing for the next session in court. Cristian warned her about staying up all night, worrying. His awareness of her habits surprised him. With his future at stake, he shouldn't have been concerned about her welfare. But he was. Whenever they met, she sensed him penetrating her on a deeper level. His questions about her and John weren't idle topics of conversation. For some strange reason, she truly believed he cared.

After a few hours of sleep, she woke up energized about the day. Deep in her soul, she felt Judge Grant would see Cristian's situation the way she did. She grabbed her notes and headed to court.

The initial court proceedings were quiet. Not so today. A swarm of press filled the building. Evangeline pushed through the journalists with a terse, "No comment." Bo met her at the end of the hall. He and O'Reilly escorted her inside. So far, the police had effectively kept the courtroom free of the news cameras and pestering news personnel. She patted Bo's shoulder as she set her briefcase on the defense table.

"Thanks. I didn't expect the attention."

"Todd ran an article in The Sun—"

"No!" Her mouth dropped open. "Why?"

"He wanted the scoop. Of course, it's mostly a speculation piece, but it was enough to get the vultures out and in a frenzy. I radioed O'Reilly about the media coming to your place. He said all was quiet there. I'm assigning another officer to you now that this case is receiving public attention. Hesser won't take this turn of events any better than he did you taking Cristian's case."

"I know." She ran a hand through her hair. "Have there been any leads on the men who tried to run me off the road?"

"We found their vehicles in a salvage yard."

"Was there anything to trace the connection back to Hesser?"

Bo shook his head. "The vehicles were torched. They removed the VINs. CSU is combing the charred remains for anything."

"Will you keep me updated?"

"Of course." Bo's cell phone rang and he stepped away to answer it.

Fear and anger knotted inside her. How dare Carlo Hesser think so little of her life? Who was he to decide anyone's fate? Rattled by her thoughts, she tore into her briefcase. Paper flew everywhere. Suddenly, Cristian was at her feet, picking everything up.

She stooped to help, but he waved her away.

"I got it," he said.

A guard hovered close behind him, but Cristian ignored the uniformed man. The second he walked into the courtroom, he noticed Evangeline. She seemed tense. Her hands shook and erratic emotions vibrated from her usual cool exterior. In another place and time, he'd reach out and soothe her with the touch of his hand. But not now. Not while he was a prisoner.

He righted her papers and placed them on the table. She gave him a tight smile.

"Thanks."

He nodded. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," she snapped.

He took her still trembling hands between his. "You're shaking like a leaf." Without considering the ramifications, he stroked the back of her hand with his thumb. Awareness charged the air. He swallowed hard, intent on ignoring the heat that warmed him from her soft flesh. "John's taking the stand today, isn't he?"

She jerked free and stiffly sat on her chair. "Yes, he does. Why don't you have a seat? The court room is starting to fill."

He glanced around. Sure enough, people had started to come inside. Antonio and their mother waved from the back. Lindsay stepped inside with RJ close behind her. More familiar faces entered. Yet, so far, Natalie was a no show.

He moved around Evangeline and claimed his chair. "Are you nervous about questioning McBain?"

"No," she said. "He needs to be accountable for his actions."

"He'll say that I told him not to tell anyone," Cristian said. "That's true. I didn't want my family to know."

"That doesn't excuse his actions," she said, her voice softening. "You were in an impossible situation. He took advantage of that."

A few minutes later, the bailiff ordered everyone to stand. Judge Grant entered and the court proceedings began again.

John took the stand without hesitation. His eyes held a steely glint. Cristian's chest tightened. He knew this would be hard for Evangeline. She was a strong woman, but McBain hurt her deeply. Questioning her former love about his duplicity in front of an avid crowd could be the hardest thing she ever faced. Cristian's heart swelled knowing that she undertook that heart-wrenching task to save his life.

"For the record, will you state your name and occupation?" Evangeline said.

"I'm Lieutenant John McBain, Chief of Detectives with the Llanview Police Department."

"Prior to joining the police department, where did you work?"

"I was a Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigations," John answered.

"So, would it be fair to say that you are an expert on the proper procedure for handling an investigation?"

John's mouth tightened. "Yes, you could say that."

"Is it a fact that the man we previously knew as John Doe is really Cristian Vega?"

"Yes, that's a fact. As you know, the DNA tests confirmed it."

"Tell us about the DNA tests," she said.

He stiffened. "What do you want to know?"

"How were the tests conducted?"

"Natalie Vega supplied me with a sample of her husband's DNA and you gave me a coffee cup that Carlotta Vega had used. You then gave both samples to an associate at the hospital who later confirmed that he," John said, pointing at Cristian, "is really Cristian Vega."

"Who received the results of that test?"

"I did."

"Did anyone else?" she asked.

He shook his head. "No, I was the only recipient."

"When did you get the results?"

"The day he was transported to Statesville Prison," John answered.

"Did you speak with anyone about the results?"

"I spoke to Cristian Vega. I told him that the DNA test revealed his true identity."

"Did you speak with anyone else?"

"No, I did not. He asked me not to."

"And so despite this being grounds for further investigation into his case, you adhered to his wishes and didn't tell anyone? Not even your superior, Commissioner Bo Buchanan?"

John's jaw tightened. "No, I didn't tell anyone."

"What did you do with the test results?"

"You know what I did with them!" he snapped back at her.

Evangeline didn't flinch. "The Court doesn't know."

"You are instructed to answer the question," Judge Grant said.

"I...um..." John swallowed hard. "I filed the results in a box and placed the box inside my closet."

"Which closet?" Evangeline asked.

"The one at my apartment."

A wave of shock rippled through the courtroom. The judge slammed her gavel down several times until the room became quiet again.

"Was this standard procedure?"

"No."

Evangeline stepped back to the table and moved behind Cristian. She placed a hand on his shoulder. "That information could have prevented this man from serving a life sentence in prison. Why didn't you feel compel to tell the truth about his identity?"

"I don't know."

"Is it true that soon after Mr. Vega entered the prison you began a romantic relationship with Mr. Vega's wife?"

John's face turned bright red. "You have no right to go there! This is not about Natalie. You're angry with me. Don't bring her into this."

"This has absolutely nothing to do with me," Evangeline said. "I am not the person unjustly serving time because an officer of the law decided to hide evidence that could exonerate me inside his closet."

"Dammit, Evangeline—"

The judge slammed her gavel before John could say more. Evangeline held up her hands. "I have no further questions for this witness, your Honor."

"You may not," Judge Grant said, "but I do. I'll see you and the Commissioner in my chambers immediately following today's proceedings. Ms. Williamson, do you have anyone else to call?"

"Yes, your Honor. I'd like to call Dr. Brian Jamison to the stand."

John stormed from the stand and out the courtroom. Evangeline put the detective through it and Cristian enjoyed every moment of watching McBain squirm. But what toll did the interrogation take on Evangeline? He watched Evangeline gather her notes. Her eyes danced as she quickly scanned her list. On the outside, she presented the demeanor of a cool, calm professional. Inside, he wondered if her heart hurt. He wished he could be the person to soothe her pain.

"We're almost there," Evangeline whispered to him. "Are you okay?"

He nodded. "I'm fine."

She squeezed his hand. Anticipation pulsed between them. He wanted to say something, but the words wouldn't come. The moment passed. The psychiatrist took the stand and Cristian listened to the other man's responses to Evangeline's questions.

"You recently interviewed Mr. Vega, is that correct?"

"Yes, I did."

"What can you tell us about his current mental state?"

"He has been through a great deal during the last two years, but now, his mental capacity is excellent."

"What can you tell us about the past two years?"

"During our interview, he told me how he's had flashes of memory where he was held captive and where someone hypnotized him and manipulated his memories."

"Is the common term for that brainwashing?"

"Yes, that's the term used in popular culture," Dr. Jamison said.

"As an expert in the field of psychiatry, would you say that brainwashing is fact or fiction?"

"It is indeed fact. There are many documented studies where subjects have been placed in dire situations and forced to respond to triggers."

"What kind of triggers?" Evangeline asked.

"Triggers can be a word, a musical tone or a snap of fingers. I've read some cases where certain smells have triggered a response."

"Would you say that Mr. Vega experienced this form of control?"

"Yes, I would. He believed that Cristian Vega's memories were implanted inside his mind. This led him to be unsure of his true identity. When a trigger prompted him to attack his own brother, his suspicions were confirmed."

"His suspicion that he was not really Cristian Vega?"

Dr. Jamison nodded. "Yes, from what he knew about Cristian Vega, he knew the man would never try to take his own brother's life."

"Have you identified the trigger that controlled Mr. Vega?"

"Yes, it's a series of words spoken in a singsong cadence. The trigger no longer has any effect on Mr. Vega."

Evangeline frowned. "How can you be sure?"

"He and I tested it. Now, that Mr. Vega is aware of the trigger and the control it had over of him, he's been able to defeat its ability to control him."

"At the time the DNA results were revealed to Mr. Vega, do you believe Mr. Vega was in his right state of mind to keep those results a secret from his family?"

"Mr. Vega and I discussed his decision," the psychiatrist said, "and we talked about his state of mind at that time. At that point, he believed he had killed a person in cold blood and feared for the safety of his family. He also feared their rejection if they discovered the truth about what had happened to him. Everything had been raw and fresh. He was alone and didn't feel he could discuss the situation with those close to him. Since that time, he's had time to reflect on that moment. He believes, and I concur, that no, he was not in his right state of mind at that time."

"In your expert opinion, do you believe Mr. Vega poses a threat to society?"

Dr. Jamison shook his head. "No, I do not."

"Thank you, Dr. Jamison. I have no further questions."

Chapter 11

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