The Judge called for a brief recess following Dr. Jamison's testimony. Evangeline tried to maintain a calm demeanor, but inside, her hopes soared. Maybe Judge Grant had heard enough. Maybe justice would prevail and Cristian would go home a free man. Evangeline crossed her fingers and said a quick prayer.
"Do you have any more witnesses?" Cristian asked.
Evangeline shook her head. "No, Dr. Jamison was the last person I had scheduled for today."
"What about me?" he asked.
Before Evangeline could answer, the bailiff ordered everyone to stand. The Judge returned and took her seat. The courtroom became quiet. Tension crackled inside the austere setting.
"Will the defendant please stand?"
Cristian and Evangeline stood. Her heart thudded wildly inside her chest. This is it, Evangeline thought. The Court had made a decision.
"After reviewing the testimony presented, I have no choice but to overturn the conviction against the man previously known as John Doe. Cristian Vega, you are free to go."
Pandemonium unleashed inside the courtroom. Carlotta and Antonio reached for Cristian. Evangeline stepped aside. Joy filled her from head to toe. This was the best part about her job, seeing the happiness it gave her clients when her hard work paid off.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Bo usher John toward the Judge's chambers. She sighed. As long as she lived, she'd never understand the choices John made. Having Natalie couldn't have been worth the price of his career or the life of another man. Maybe keeping Cristian's secret hidden had nothing to do with Natalie. Whatever the reason, Evangeline washed her hands of it. She refused to make herself responsible for her former lover's woes. Only he could face them and most likely, he'd do that alone.
Eventually, everyone filed from the courtroom until only Evangeline and Cristian remained. His soulful brown eyes gleamed with gratitude. Heat burned just below the surface, but Evangeline refused to acknowledge that. She wasn't ready to face what that meant.
"You did it," he said, giving her an appreciative smile. "I'm not even really surprised that you did."
"We had a strong case," she said. "Justice prevailed this time."
"And I have you to thank for it."
He pulled her in a bear hug against his body. The solid wall of his chest awakened her senses. She felt soft, feminine and cherished within the warmth of his embrace. Her arms closed around him, as she closed her eyes.
- - -
"This victory celebration is just as much yours as it is mine," Cristian said. He handed Evangeline a glass of champagne from the tray of Capricorn's many servers. So many things had changed since he left. His brother owning Capricorn was just a part of a long list. Cristian's head worked overtime to reconcile the differences. He supposed the biggest change of them all was Natalie. She no longer held claim to his heart. She never would again.
"No," Evangeline said. "This is all yours. What is the first thing on your list?"
"My list?" He cocked an eyebrow. "How did you know I had one?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. I just had a feeling."
"Well, right now, I plan to enjoy every day."
"I have a feeling your family will make sure of that."
He glanced at Carlotta, Antonio and little Jamie. The trio hadn't stopped grinning at him. He smiled in return. Their love meant everything to him. With his family in his corner, he believed in his future again.
"What's on your agenda, counselor?"
Evangeline shrugged. "I can't say. Bo is still looking into Hesser's henchmen, the ones who ran me off the road. I plan to press charges against them and investigate Hesser. Fresh charges are being brought against him, but I'm still a little worried about you."
"Don't be. I can take care of myself," he assured her. The police guard hovered nearby. "How long will Bo keep him around for you?"
"I haven't spoken to him about it. I'm pretty sure O'Reilly's days as my personal bodyguard are numbered. The Department can't spare the expense. I'll be okay."
"Yes, you will," Cristian said, "because when O'Reilly's done, I'm taking over."
She shook her head. "I can't let you do that. You need to get your life back in order. You can't do that worrying about me."
"If I know you're safe, I won't have to worry."
"I won't let you put your life on hold because of me," she said. "And that's the end of that."
She set her champagne glass on the counter and grabbed her purse. "My next big case is coming up. I'd better get started on it."
"Am I allowed to walk you to your car or is that off limits, too?"
"That's allowed." She smiled.
Several people stopped them before they reached the parking lot. Everyone congratulated them on their success. Cristian gave Evangeline all the credit. Until she walked into the visiting room, he'd resolved himself to a life behind bars. She made him see the error of his thoughts. He was glad that he listened to her. He had a feeling that the moment she entered his life, everything in his world had changed.
- - -
Although O'Reilly trailed her every step, Evangeline felt a hundred times safer with Cristian walking beside her. She tried to tell herself it was just her imagination, but the excuse seemed trite. Cristian's gentle, artistic nature housed a volatile passion. She sensed it with every glance and accidental touch. The possibility of what could happen if she put her guard down frightened her. When he offered to serve as her protector, she knew that would never work. She couldn't take the risk of getting hurt again.
"This is it," she said as they reached her car. "You saw me safely here. Now, please go inside and enjoy yourself. It's long overdue and you certainly deserve it."
"I wish you could stay longer." He took the keys from her hand and deftly unlocked her door.
"Maybe next time."
He released a faint chuckle. "Why do I get the feeling you're blowing me off?"
"She protests too passionately and too loudly." He grinned as he returned her keys. "It's okay. I understand. You're probably tired of me."
"Not hardly. I'm so happy for you, Cristian. I can't explain it, but presenting your case to the Court has been my most rewarding experience as an attorney." Heat flushed her cheeks. Her admission left her embarrassed. She pressed a hand to her face. "That sounded ridiculously lame, didn't it?"
"Not at all," he said quietly. The nearby streetlamp cast a warm glow on his handsome face, revealing the sincerity of his words. "I'm honored. I wish there was a way I could repay you for everything you've done."
"I don't want your money. I told you that. This case was pro bono."
"And I told you that was unacceptable," he countered. "We agreed to a painting, but that seems so inadequate for what you've done for me."
"That's because you don't know how much joy your artwork brings. I have one of your pieces hanging in my bedroom. I can't tell you how it inspires me every morning when I wake up and every night before I go to sleep."
"Maybe you could show it to me."
Suddenly the idea of Cristian Vega in her bedroom seemed dangerously appealing. Her breath caught in her throat and longing lodged in her soul. Intense heat flared in Cristian's brown eyes as if he was reading her thoughts. He settled his hand at her waist and pulled her to him. She leaned toward him like a moth to a flame. Alarm bells rang in her head. Caution warned her to stop, but his grip was too firm and his intent too exciting. Her eyes closed and her mouth parted in anticipation of his kiss.