The ball slammed into the wall with the force of a jet plane. Evangeline inhaled a deep breath that did little to calm her. Hunkering low, she waited for the next ball to come in her vicinity. Beside her, Nora crumpled to the sweat slick floor.
"I can't take any more," Nora said through pants. "If you care about me at all, you'll end this vicious game."
Evangeline moved to stand over her exhausted friend. Sweat trickled down her forehead and into her eyes. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. Damp tendrils clung to her cheeks and neck. Damn. She'd just gotten her hair pressed two days ago. Rescheduling another appointment required fancy footwork. Sharon's Salon and Spa had an extensive clientele and was always booked. Maybe she could call in a favor or two.
"Damn, damn, damn."
Nora flinched dramatically. "What's wrong now?"
"My hair…my life…everything."
"Help me up."
Evangeline took Nora's hand and pulled her into a standing position. The effort and ball breaking racquetball game took its toll on both women. Their ragged breathing echoed in the boxed room. Eventually, the even breaths returned. Yet, Evangeline still saw red. She stooped for the ball. Nora swiped it faster than Evangeline could blink.
"One more game."
Her friend refused. "Nope. We've had enough. Okay, maybe you haven't, but I have. Don't forget. I have a son who needs me. Another game would kill me."
"I need to hit something! Anything!" Restless energy burned inside Evangeline. Recent events created a volcanic reaction inside her. She never lost control. Self-possession was her strongest ally. Over the last few days, the trait vanished and left her with seething frustration. Why didn't she see this one coming?
"I know several things you can hit," Nora said. "The first is the shower."
"Ha, ha. Very funny."
"I try. Come on. Let's go."
Thirty minutes later Evangeline smoothed her hair into a ponytail and entered Rodi's with Nora like a woman in total control. But Nora did promise something about smacking some balls around on the pool table. Evangeline bypassed the dining area and headed straight for the cue sticks.
Nora caught her arm. "Not so fast, Minnesota Fats. First, we eat."
They settled at a semi-secluded table near the jukebox. Nora ordered for both of them. After the waitress left, Nora touched Evangeline's hand. "Out with it."
"I don't know what I'm doing anymore. I shouldn't have agreed to go out today. I'm sorry about that racquetball game. I nearly killed you."
"Me?" Nora pointed to her chest, an incredulous expression on her face. "I'm a tough broad. I can handle anything, but you… You're running yourself ragged. We can talk about it. Is it John or Jessica's case?"
"The case isn't easy, but I understand it. I know how to defend Jessica and I'm confident in my abilities. But John is an enigma."
"Isn't that what makes him so appealing? Appealing? Sexy, dammit. I mean sexy. The dark, brooding male is what intrigues us women. We want to analyze and dig deep beneath their layers until we uncover every little nuance that makes them tick." Nora arched an eyebrow. "Right?"
"The sad thing is you're right. At least in the beginning…he intrigued me. Our similarities and differences fascinated me. We're both driven by ghosts and determined to prove ourselves. Mistakes weren't an option. But right now, I'm thinking that our getting involved was a huge mistake."
"That's fear talking."
The waitress returned with a large order of chili cheese fries and two beers. Evangeline watched as Nora indulged in a couple of fries. She wished for her friend's appetite. When Nora suggested Rodi's, Evangeline had been all set to drown her problems in an overabundance of greasy food and a mug of ice cold beer. That was before her stomach started churning. She slumped into the chair and turned inward. A moment later, she mumbled, "Maybe I am a little afraid. This isn't going the way I planned."
"Relationships rarely do," Nora said softly. "What happened?"
"He wanted me to drop everything and go to an Eagles game with him. Normally, I would have done it, but I'm in the early stages of preparing for Jessica's case. I will only dump so much on my paralegal. It's not Dawn's responsibility to put this together."
Nora nodded as she snagged another fry. "Go on."
"Anyway, he wasn't happy about it and stormed off. Later, I came home to find him in my living room demanding to know where I was and whom I was with. I had an RJ flashback with that one and basically told him to get out."
"Do you regret it?"
"I regret this chasm between us," she said emphasizing with spread hands, "but not anything I said. He can't have his cake and eat it, too. Oh, yeah. Natalie's name came up. I swear, her involvement in our lives makes no sense to me. She should be hanging out with people her own age like Jennifer, Michael and Marcie. Every time I blink she's sniffing behind John. I'm not dealing with that anymore."
"You shouldn't have to. John should have clarified the boundaries with her."
Evangeline nodded. "I agree!" Slightly invigorated, she reached for a cheese-drenched fry. Her taste buds flared to life with the first bite. She ate one and reached for another. "She's sneaky, vindictive and immature. I don't know how he can't see it."
"Oh, God," Nora groaned. "I'm scared to ask what she's done now, so I won't. Is it possible that he likes the attention?"
Evangeline stopped mid-chew. She swallowed hard and wiped her fingers on a napkin. A sweeping sensation of melancholy replaced the frustration and slow boiling anger.
"What did I say?" Nora quickly asked. "Whatever it is, I'm probably wrong."
"No, I don't think so," Evangeline said. "You nailed it; what I hadn't wanted to face."
Nora's brows crinkled into a frown. "And that is?"
"That being with me isn't enough for John, and if that's the case, it may be time for me to move on."
- - -
Cristian hadn't seen Evangeline for a few days. She canceled their sessions and asked him to reschedule. The tension in her voice appealed to his protective instincts. He wanted to do anything he could to quell her anxiety. Agreeing to whatever she wanted seemed to be the best solution. She thanked him profusely and he hadn't heard from her since. A few times, he worked on the portrait, applying little touches here and there. If he expected the work to comfort him, he was sadly mistaken. Staring into his depiction of her dazzling doe-like eyes made him long to see the real thing. Her dancing brown orbs caused him a few sleepless nights. He anticipated running into her. But until that happened, he desperately needed to work off some steam.
He met Antonio at the gym. They hit the weights hard and parted ways at the punching bag. As his sparring partner laced his gloves, Cristian felt eyes boring into the back of his head. He turned and met John McBain's glare head on.
The former Fed looked ready for a fight. With a fighter's swagger, he approached Cris. Cristian swallowed a smile. This was what he'd been waiting for. McBain's accusations, fears and inadequacies rolled into one ball of fire. And Cris was more than ready for it.
"Bring it on."