“Coming!” Cristian wiped his paint stained hands on a cloth and half-jogged to answer his door. The pretty brown-skinned woman staring back at him surprised him. “Um, hi. Did Evangeline send you here?”
She shook her head. “No, this is a personal visit. Do you mind if I come in?”
“It’s Dawn, right?” He asked as he stepped aside. “Come in. How can I help you?”
“I’m not sure if you can and I’m not sure if this is even the right thing to do.”
He remembered her smiling face from earlier that morning. Now, she looked unsure and hesitant. “Why did you come here?”
She sighed and gave him a half smile. “First I need to apologize for earlier today.”
“What did you do?”
“You don’t remember?”
He grabbed two chairs and set them in the middle of the floor. With his outstretched hand, he offered her a seat. After she sat, he did the same. “Actually, all I remember is how nice you were. I asked Evangeline if you were always so happy. Otherwise...”
She laughed. “Oh! Well, that’s good. That’s what I was apologizing for. I’m not usually star struck, but when you walked in, I was...it was just really nice to meet you in person. Evangeline worked so hard on your case and to see you in person—“
“Okay, stop.” He shook his head. “I understand. No apology necessary. Is that why you came over?”
He couldn’t help but wonder or hope that Evangeline sent her assistant on a fishing expedition. If Dawn needed to relay information back to the beautiful attorney, he was happy to oblige.
She reached inside her purse and pulled out an envelope. Her hand shook as she handed it to him. “It’s a baby.”
Cris smiled as he looked at the image of the infant. “I can see that.”
“Of course, you can. I’m sor—“
“Don’t apologize,” he said. “Just relax, take a deep breath and tell me what you want me to do.”
“That’s the problem. I don’t know.” She scooted her chair closer to his and gazed down at the photo. “When I came over here, I had the bright idea of asking you to paint a portrait of the baby from this photo. I was thinking of giving it to his father as a gift, but now, I’m not so sure about it. This could be the wrong thing to do. Sheesh. I’m never this indecisive.”
“The father must mean a lot to you,” Cris surmised.
“In a different life, I could have been John Michael’s mother, but this life had a different outcome.”
Cris became silent and listened to everything she wasn’t saying. Her body language could fill a set of encyclopedias. He wondered if the child’s father knew how much she still cared about him. “How did you get the photo?”
“Nikolas, John Michael’s father, sent it to me. He wanted me to see his son.”
Cris frowned. What a cruel bastard.
“No!” Dawn obviously read the look on his face. “He was happy. Nikolas and I keep in touch. He’s had a rotten year. When he got his son back, he wanted to share it with the world. I’m glad he considers me to still be a part of that.”
“Of his world.”
“If you want to know what I think...”
“I do. I need a male perspective on this in a big way.” She released a short laugh. “I don’t want Nikky to take it the wrong way, you know. I care about him, but I’m not trying to worm my way back into his life.”
“A portrait would be a nice, lasting gift to him and his son,” Cris said. “I’ll get started on it right away.”
“Thank you.” She glanced at her watch. “My lunch hour is almost up. Is it okay if I call you later about the cost or what have you?”
“Sure. My number is in the book.”
Cristian smiled as she hurried to the door. He had the strongest feeling that he’d just made a new friend.
- - -
“You’re working way too hard.” Kevin entered Rachel’s office amid chaos. People were running in and out and she was lost behind a stack of papers on her desk. “Don’t you know it’s lunch time?”
“Not when there’s a deadline.” She sat back and smiled at him. “What are you doing here?”
“Do I need a reason?”
A hint of a blush colored her caramel hued cheeks. “I don’t know. That sounds like a loaded question anyway.”
“I wanted to see you and it looks like I arrived just in time. Come on. We’re going to lunch.”
He took her hand and pulled her to her feet.
“I can’t go,” she argued. “This magazine is behind schedule. If we don’t get it to the printer by five pm, this month’s issue will be late and our advertisers and subscribers will want my head on a platter! I don’t know what Blair did before, but she left me with quite a mess.”
Kevin released her hand and shrugged off his jacket. “Let me help.”
“Rachel.” He laughed when she made a face. “Once upon a time, I owned this magazine. Let me help you.”
“I don’t know...”
Her hesitation floored him. Had things really ended so badly between them?
“All I’m offering is help.” He glanced at her desk and the trail of papers that led to the door. “From the look of it, you can use it.”
She sighed. “You’re taking my refusal personally.”
“What other way should I take it?”
“Look, Kevin, this is not about you.”
He nodded. “I know. This is about you accepting help. From me. My offer doesn’t come with strings. It’s not like I can’t help. I can.”
“I know you can.” A frown furrowed her brow. “I can’t let pride get in the way of what’s important. Okay, I accept your offer.”
“You won’t regret this,” he promised.
“I better not.”
- - -
Five pm arrived quickly. Evangeline still hadn’t gone through all her messages. Each hour, more calls came in. She became so tempted to hide behind voice mail. The influx of work was gratifying but left her little time to get her head on straight.
“I can stay,” Dawn said from the door. “I know you have dinner plans. Get out of here.”
“I’m not leaving you here alone to deal with this. I’ll just call Cristian and cancel. He’ll understand.”
“I doubt it. You worked through lunch. Give yourself a break. Have some fun for a change.”
“I have fun.”
Dawn rolled her eyes.
“I resent that!” Evangeline laughed. “I’m too busy! You go have fun for both of us.”
“He didn’t ask me out to dinner,” her assistant coyly reminded her. “He asked you. Stop pretending like you’re not interested. Goodbye, Evangeline. I will lock up.”
“Not so fast.” Todd squeezed past Dawn to enter Evangeline’s office. “You can’t leave, yet. I need your help.”
“It’s late, Todd,” Evangeline said. “It’ll have to wait until tomorrow. Goodnight, Dawn. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“I tried.” Her assistant threw up her hands and shook her head.
“And I appreciate it.”
Dawn closed the door upon her exit and Evangeline gave Todd a hard look. “You’re still here.”
“I told you I need you.”
“It can’t be too urgent since you waited until the end of the business day.”
“We can discuss my needs over dinner,” he said. “Are you all packed and ready to go?”
“I can’t have dinner with you.”
He cocked his eyebrow. “Why not?”
“I have plans. I guess that never crossed your mind.”
He rubbed his jaw. “You’ll just have to cancel them.”
“Not this time.”
“Who’s the lucky guy? Don’t tell me McBain. He doesn’t deserve to breathe the same air as you. You’re too good for him. You’re smart enough to know this by now.”
She put her most urgent files inside her briefcase before snapping it shut. “You’re right. I am smart enough to know better. It’s not John.”
She grabbed her purse and keys. “Why is that any of your business? Oh, wait. It’s actually none of your business.”
“Someone has to look out for you.”
“Someone already does,” she said.
“Me.” She hurried to the door. “Come on. It’s time to go. Call me in the morning and we’ll talk.”
“I hope you don’t treat all your clients like this.”
“I don’t,” she said with a smile. “Just you.”
“Stop it,” he said, returning her smile. “You’re starting to make me feel special.”
- - -
“Don’t say it.”
“Saying anything hadn’t crossed my mind.”
Evangeline heard Cristian moving around her living room as she hurriedly changed clothes. He was waiting outside her door when she arrived. Other than greeting her with a gorgeous grin, he hadn’t said much. She knew a lecture about working too hard and too much was on the tip of his tongue.
“Why don’t you make yourself comfortable? I’ll be ready in a minute.”
“Take your time,” he said. “You rush too much.”
“I knew you wouldn’t let it go.”
“That’s all I’m saying.”
The deep, masculine chuckle that followed made her nerve endings tingle. Evangeline smiled as she tore off her business attire and changed into something casual. As she donned her favorite pair of low riding jeans and brown beaded top, she thought about the man waiting for her. Cristian definitely had a way about him. His brown eyes told her things she wasn’t ready to ask. From his facial expressions, she knew where his head was, and if she didn’t know, he willingly voiced his opinion. That ability alone made the man priceless.
So, why was she holding back?
How long would the past keep her bound? Her relationship with John was the first time she really allowed her emotions to cut loose. His inability to love her hurt more than she wanted to admit. During the prison riot, she had to face that her side of things wasn’t truly over. But now in the aftermath of all that chaos, where did she truly stand? And could she trust her heart to a man with ties to Natalie?
Bit by bit, her excitement at spending time with Cris faded. Was she a fool to respond to the spark in his eyes? What if she was only his consolation prize? Didn’t she deserve more than that?
“Evangeline!” He called from the other side of her bedroom door. “Do you need help?”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m coming. Hold on.”
She slid on a pair of boots and went to the door. To her surprise, he still stood there. His expressive face told her that he’d started to worry.
“What is it?” He took her hand. “Don’t chicken out.”
“Who’s chickening out?” she asked, while wondering how the mere touch of his hand filled her with hope. “I’m ready. I’m dressed.”
“That’s what your mouth is saying.” Continuing to hold her hand, he led her to the living room where they sat on her sofa. His hand remained strong and comforting on hers. “Why did you get all freaked out?”
“I’m not freaked out,” she denied. “Why are we sitting down? Aren’t you taking me out?”
“I’m not playing around here.”
The seriousness of the conversation unnerved her. She pulled her hand free. “I didn’t say you were.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“Just tell me the truth,” he said. “Do you think I’m here because I want to get back at Natalie?”
“Wow!” A rush of air pushed from her chest.
He frowned. “What? That’s it, isn’t it? I’m right.”
“I guess. Yeah, I wondered about that.”
“Remember when I thought you were helping me to get back at John?” he asked.
“This is different.”
“No,” he said with a faint smile. “It’s not. It’s just a flipside of the coin. You told me that you were there because of me. You couldn’t stand to see my life wasted. I believed you and I trusted you like I’ve never trusted anyone except family. Now, I’m asking you to do the same.”
He stood. “I know trust is earned and I know you’ve been through a lot. McBain’s a bastard for what he put you through. But I’m not him. Deep down, I think you already know that.”
He bent forward and placed a tender kiss on her cheek. Then, he headed to the door.
The turn of events startled her. She scrambled to her feet. “Where are you going?”
“What about dinner?”
“We can do it another time. When you’re sure about me and when you trust yourself. But don’t worry. This isn’t the last you’ll see of me.”
And just like that, he walked out the door. Evangeline dropped onto her sofa and thought about their conversation until the wee hours of the morning.