After the night of the almost-kiss, Evangeline never returned to Cristian's studio. She gave a flimsy excuse about an onslaught of cases, but he didn't buy it for a minute. His chance to have a real woman after so many near misses slipped between his hands. So without his subject present, he finished her portrait, all the while having one huge regret.

I should have kissed her.

The thought returned to him as he stood outside her apartment. He considered sending the painting via messenger. The idea seemed weak. Lesser men hid like cowards. If his experience as a prisoner on that damn slave boat taught him one thing, he was no punk-ass coward.

He was just about to knock when the door suddenly swung open. Glossy black hair shook against her shoulders like tumultuous waves. Her doe-like brown eyes glittered with excitement until they connected with his. Then, a shield of wariness fell over her. She kept her hand on the doorknob as she stepped back.

"I wasn't expecting you."

He nodded. "I know. I considered calling, but I wasn't sure you'd answer."

"What do you want?"

He lifted the carefully wrapped painting from the wall. "May I bring this in? It's your portrait."

"I didn't expect you to finish," she stammered, pressing a hand to her chest.

"It was nearly done when you stopped coming. May I?"

"Yes." She stepped aside. After he entered, she closed the door. "Cristian, you didn't have to..."

Cristian glanced around the candlelit living room as he carried the painting to the center of the room. Soft music played from invisible speakers. A dinner set for two was spread out on a blanket on the floor. Obviously, Evangeline had plans for a romantic evening. He wished he was her guest of honor for the seductive interlude.

"Your mother said your father always wanted to see his daughter on canvas. I'd never stand between a father's dream for his child." He rested his hand on top of the painting. As a gift, he had it framed in dark cherrywood. "I can see you have plansó"

"Would you open it?" She clasped her hands together and moved to stand beside him. "Please?"

"Of course." He ripped into the paper that protected the portrait from the elements. He sensed her holding her breath until the last shred fell away. With one hand, he balanced the painting against a table. "What do you think?"

Her mouth dropped. For several long seconds, she stared at her image. Her hand reached out, but she didn't touch. "My God, Cristian, I don't know what to say."

"If you say you like it that will be enough."

"I like it." She smiled at him. "I like it a lot. Thank you."

He offered to hang the painting, but she declined. Not knowing what else to say, he headed toward the door and lingered. "I hope McBain knows how lucky he is."

"We're both very lucky."

He gave her a half smile. "If you say so."


He shook his head. "You don't have to say anything, Evangeline. I enjoyed getting to know you. I hope that one day we'll be friends."

"Me too."

The belief that she meant it made the loss of realizing his revenge a less bitter pill to swallow. Besides, when McBain messed things up, Cristian was more than ready to sweep Evangeline off her feet. Until then, he'd paint.

The End