'I would give my world to lift you up
I could change my life to better suit your mood…'
Rob Thomas' impassioned plea only added to the soothing atmosphere Evangeline consistently found in Cristian's studio. She relaxed her shoulders and her eyes drifted closed. The disagreement with John left her restless. Most of the day, her assistant graciously fielded all but the most important phone calls. In the back of her mind, Evangeline hoped to hear from John. Of course, that call never came.
At the least, he owed her an apology. How many times had she accepted a sudden change in plans that canceled dinners and events she'd arranged for them? She never complained or voiced disappointment. Or even placed blame. She'd taken everything in stride. Now, that it was his turn to experience the same, he behaved like a spoiled child.
Okay, maybe that analogy went too far, but still. Her brows drew together into a frown. What would it take for John to sacrifice a part of his world to lift her up or to make a few changes to better suit her mood? In the beginning, things were so much different. Everything flowed together perfectly. Perhaps, too perfectly. Had the earlier ease blinded her to the obvious roadblocks ahead?
Cristian's quiet interruption of her thoughts startled her. Evangeline jumped. Her eyes blinked open and to her chagrin, the heat of a blush crept up her neck.
"Relax," he said. He grabbed a damp towel he kept nearby. Wiping paint from his hands, he perched on a stool and gave her a killer smile. "Let's take a break.'
"After ten minutes?"
"Because…" A reasonable, logical answer didn't come fast enough. She was used to moving on a faster timetable. Creative-types adhered to a different set of rules. Asking him to adapt didn't seem right or fair.
"You're used to moving at super speed," he said knowingly. "You don't have to do that here."
She didn't respond. The delicious aroma of warming food overpowered the usual smell of paint. The low rumble from her stomach reminded her that she left most of her lunch on the plate. There had been no snacks since then, only coffee.
"Mamí's tamales are the best. Want some?"
He frowned. "Why not? Is it too spicy for you?"
She didn't miss the hint of challenge in his tone. "No, I happen to like spicy food and I love tamales."
"Good." He rose from the stool and tossed the towel onto a table. "It's settled. While you wash up, I'll fix our plates."
His take charge attitude left her speechless and held her still. The year away changed him from the Cristian she remembered. He exuded confidence. His eyes radiated determination and power. Muscles bulged and flexed beneath his form-fitting shirt and jeans. As he walked away, she noticed that he moved with athletic grace. A faint tremor touched her heart. She ignored it and left to wash her hands.
Cristian felt her eyes watching him. Somehow, he resisted the temptation to boldly face her scrutiny. Patience. The single word kept him in check. Everything in its due time.
After washing his hands, he spooned rice and the tamales onto their plates and set them on the table. The dinner for two was a spur of the moment decision. Whatever happened between her and McBain ruined her appetite. By now, he knew her well enough to accurately guess that food would be the last thing on her mind. When his mother offered to make dinner for him, he jumped at the invitation. Plans for an intimate dinner quickly came to mind. One corner of his mouth lifted into a half smile. So far, so good.
The scent of flowers mingled with the aroma of dinner. He turned and saw her standing in the doorway. She gave him a tentative smile.
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Just have a seat and enjoy yourself." He held out a chair and waited as she sat. Then, he moved to the fridge. "Drinks are limited. I have a couple of Coronas, milk, juice and water. Which would you like?"
"Whatever you're having is fine."
"Okay. Two milks coming up."
She laughed. The pleasant sound filled him with unexpected pleasure. Concerned that the feeling would reveal itself on his face, he kept his back to her while he poured their drinks. The task gave him time to compose himself.
"You surprise me," Evangeline said.
He frowned as he faced her. "How?"
She accepted the glass from his extended hand. For the briefest moment, their fingers touched. A sizzling sensation began at his fingertips and flowed through his veins. This time, he forced himself to hold her eyes. The truth was impossible to ignore. Whatever just happened between them she felt, too.
Her gaze cut to the steaming plate in front of her. Her shoulders lifted and fell in a casual shrug. "I don't know. I guess I made an assumption and I shouldn't have. I apologize."
"For what?" He slid onto the chair across from her. "Don't apologize. Everyone has made assumptions about someone. It's a part of human nature."
"I imagine you learned a lot about human nature while you were away."
He stiffened. He hated casual references to his year of captivity. Curiosity was a given. But that didn't mean he had to like it. "I learned more than anyone should ever have to know."
"I shouldn't have mentioned that. My foot is so far down my throat I'm terrified of what the portrait will look like."
"Don't be. It will be beautiful. How could it not?"
She murmured a thank you. Soon after, their conversation turned to safer things. During it all, Cris felt that significant progress had been made. The walls were breaking down around them.
"Where have you been?"
John sat on the easy chair adjacent to the sofa. On the coffee table sat the dozen roses he'd sent over. He found them outside the door. He brought them inside, and for the last couple of hours, he waited for Evangeline's return. In the meantime, he called her cell and spoke with her assistant. Neither supplied the answers he wanted. But, now she was home.
She dropped her keys onto the credenza and carefully set her laptop case onto the sofa. Her brown eyes simmered heat, but it wasn't the passionate kind. He hitched a quick breath, instinctively knowing he was in for it.
"Out. We didn't have plans tonight."
"No." He quickly stood. Inhaled another deep breath. Was that paint he smelled? Had she been with Cristian Vega? In the artist's studio? Alone?
"So, why the interrogation?" Folding her arms across her chest, she returned his stare. "I didn't know I wasn't allowed to come and go as I please."
"That's not what I meant."
"What did you mean because the way you're looking at me…" Her mouth tightened. "Look, John, if you have something to say just say it."
"I was worried about you. I called you and for maybe the third time in history, your cell phone was turned off. Your assistant didn't know where you were either. I almost called Nora--"
"And then what…an APB? I don't understand this conversation. I appreciate that you were worried about me, but I've been out late before. You've never thrown out the attitude you're throwing now. I want to know why."
He found it impossible to lessen the accusation from his tone. Natalie's words and now, Evangeline's late arrival irked him. Where the hell had she been? "Have you spoken to Cristian lately?"
"Unbelievable," she muttered. "Natalie strikes again."
"She has nothing to do with this, and you're avoiding my question."
"I'm not avoiding anything," she retorted. "Yes, I saw him after you walked out on me at the diner. He came over and we spoke. Later, your friend questioned me, and when I didn't give her the answer she wanted, she went running to you. Geez, is this high school or what?"
"She's still upset about the divorce--"
"Don't give me that," Evangeline said. "She wants you. Plain and simple. Seeing me talk to Cristian just gave her an excuse to go running to you. Again. I'm not blind and I don't know why you pretend to be."
"I'm with you," he said.
"I suppose I should be grateful."
He frowned. Her quick wit was one of the things he enjoyed about her. But the sarcasm…he'd never felt the full brunt of it before. And he didn't like it. "I didn't say that."
"No, you didn't. There are times when you don't say much and frankly… Look, I'm tired and I have a long day tomorrow. I don't want to fight with you about Natalie or anything else."
"Neither do I. I should go." He hesitated, hoping she would stop him.
Instead, she said, "Yeah."
"Fine." He stalked to the door. "The flowers are from me to you."
"Thanks." Her tone was void of any emotion.
He left. Standing outside in the cold, he wondered what the hell just happened.
["Smooth" lyrics by Rob Thomas from Santana's Supernatural CD.]