"Yes, I want that filed as soon as possible. Thanks, Dawn. I'll see you back at the office." Evangeline closed her cell phone and met John's amused gaze. All around them the Angel Square Diner buzzed with the energy of the lunch crowd.
"I'm sorry about that," she said.
"Hey, I'm just lucky that you were able to meet me at all. It was touch and go at first."
A waitress came and took their orders. Evangeline used the ensuing silence to relax. Defending Jessica Buchanan-Santi in the Tico Santi murder investigation took a good deal of her time. The rest was spent with Cristian. She didn't know how it happened, but days passed without her and John crossing paths. He called several times to get this lunch date for them. And part of her felt his effort was long overdue.
She sighed. "This is nice."
He took her hand, lacing their fingers together. "I've missed you. You've never been this impossible to reach."
"What do you mean? I'm here now."
"I don't know. Something feels different." He lifted her hand and kissed the back. "How does your mom like Llanview?"
"She's settling in nicely. Retirement bored her. She's been spending a lot of time at the Love Community Center and helping with the after school programs. It's been wonderful having her around."
"I can't see her retired. She's filled with energy. I can see where you get it."
She smiled. "How's Michael? I saw Marcie on the Pat Ashley Show this morning and I noticed the absence of an engagement ring."
"They've decided to take things slowly." His brows drew together for a brief moment. "You know, I'm tired of talking about everyone else."
He nodded. "The Eagles are playing on Saturday. We could drive down after work on Friday, spend the night and return on Sunday. What do you think?"
"I'd love to--"
The waitress returned with his chicken salad and her club sandwich. She refilled their coffee and said, "I hope you'll enjoy your meal."
"Thanks," Evangeline said.
After the waitress left, John continued their conversation. "So, we're on for this weekend."
"Why not? It's just a couple of days. We'll come back early on Sunday."
"It sounds great, but I have so much to do right now. With the case and my mom…and other stuff."
He dropped his fork onto the plate and leaned back. His blue eyes flashed and his voice lowered. "This is about Natalie, isn't it?"
"What does she have to do with anything?"
Evangeline's appetite vanished. She worked through his friendship with Natalie and had set it aside. No, she hadn't told him about Cristian painting her portrait, but the topic hadn't come up. Whenever she thought to mention it, a little voice cautioned against doing so. She never questioned the voice or its reasons.
"The last time we were together, she called upset about Cristian. Don't act like you don't remember--"
"That was something I hadn't stored in my memory files. Look, I want to go with you."
"Then, let's do it."
"John, it's not that easy."
He stood and took the bill. "I remember when it used to be."
He pressed a quick kiss to her forehead and stormed off to pay for the lunch. The bell at the door rung. Cristian walked in. His eyes held hers for a moment before he glanced at John at the register. Subconsciously, she held her breath, waiting.
She half expected John to come back. He didn't. Instead, he headed toward the exit. For a moment, Cristian blocked his path. Then, the younger man walked to the counter, moving as if the last few seconds hadn't happened. Evangeline watched in awe. What the hell was going on?
A few minutes passed. She tried to eat, but the bread tasted like sawdust in her mouth. She tossed her napkin over the plate and closed her eyes. The interesting aroma of paint and spicy male after-shave assailed her senses. When she opened her eyes, she wasn't surprised to find Cristian there.
"Are you okay?" he asked, sliding into the seat John had vacated.
"I've had better days. You?"
"I can't complain." He lifted her napkin. "You didn't eat. I can have Mamí bring you something else…on the house."
She shook her head. "I lost my appetite. But thanks." Conversing with him outside his studio felt weird. Nervous excitement skittered through her. She inhaled a quick breath and glanced at her watch. "I'd better get back."
"You're handling Jessica's case. How is that going?" He stood with her.
"It's going. I can't say much more than that."
He nodded. "I understand. Are we still on tonight?"
Oh, God. Why did that sound like a date?
"Um… I don't know. I have so much work to do. I can't afford to get behind--"
"I know. You're busy and everything. I don't want to rush, but your mother is eager for the finished product. I'll call her and let her know there will be a slight delay--"
"No!" Evangeline touched his arm. The corded muscle beneath her fingertips jumped and pulsed. She snatched her hand back as if she'd been burned. A sharp intake of air was his only reaction. She stepped back. "Don't call her. She'll want to know why and what for. I may be a little late, but I'll be there."
"I don't want you to feel pressured." His voice sounded smooth and calming. "It's just a painting. I'm sure your mom will understand."
"You don't know her. She can be understanding, but for some reason, this portrait means a lot to her. If you don't mind my being late…"
He shook his head. "I don't mind. Later then."
They parted ways at the door. He went toward the kitchen and she left. She tried hard not to think about the last hour. Things between her and John had been perfect. Now, he was mad. Then, Cristian walked in, understanding and accommodating. His brown eyes bored into hers and he seemed to get everything she hadn't said. How was that?
Her mind betrayed her and worked on analyzing both situations. Too caught up in her thoughts, she bumped into someone.
"Excuse me." Collecting her bearings, she focused to make an eye to eye apology. "I'm sorry…Natalie."
"I saw you in the diner." The redhead jutted her chin toward the restaurant. "Why were you having lunch with Cristian?"
Months of unnecessary aggravation rose to the surface. The younger woman's rudeness and attitude struck a nerve. Normally, polite yet reserved, Evangeline responded with civility. Not so today.
"I wasn't," she said in a curt tone and walked away, leaving Natalie open mouthed and silent.
"That felt good," Evangeline murmured under her breath as she headed to her car. "Real good."