Bring it on?
John couldn't mistake the hint of challenge in Cristian's tone and stance. Defiance oozed from every pore of the younger man's body. Maybe, just maybe, John subconsciously egged him on. He hadn't heard Evangeline's voice or seen her beautiful eyes in days. Agony wasn't a stranger to him. Enduring it for many years had become second nature. But this loss sunk below the depths of that nagging torture. He ached for the lady lawyer more than he had a right to. And right then, an odd sensation gripped him, warning him that the abyss between him and Evangeline might not be organic but man-made.
His hands clenched at his sides. One last shred of common sense dug deep into his psyche. It held him in check, preventing his natural instincts from taking hold and knocking the shit out of the arrogant artist.
"'Bring it on?' That's an interesting choice of words."
Cris shrugged. The muscles in his shoulders and neck rolled and corded. His eyes flashed an unspoken dare. "Hey, you were eyeing me. To hell with your badge, McBain. You have something to say. Say it."
Don't take the bait.
John expelled a low breath. "I have nothing for you."
"You sure about that? I guess not," Cristian answered his own question. "You've already taken Natalie. What more do you want, right?"
"What happened with Natalie… Nothing happened with Natalie," he said through gritted teeth. "We're friends--"
"I'm talking about before I came back from the dead." A harsh laugh tore from Cris. "Forget about it. It's all water under the bridge now anyway. It's over. She can run after you all over town and you can pretend that you don't like the chase. But damn, if you're not the biggest idiot in Pennsylvania. Or maybe you're the smartest. On one hand you have a younger woman who idolizes you meanwhile there's a beautiful, successful woman in your bed. Evangeline--"
John's fist swung and connected with Cris' mouth faster than either man could blink. But that single successful blow was all it took for the pent-up guilt, animosity and suspicion to flare to life. Punches flew and connected. John endured the artist's gloved punches to his midsection and threw several of his own. Ragged breaths echoed loudly in his ears followed by the sound of flesh on flesh. Then, as if in a dream, they were pulled apart.
Sweat trickled down his brow and into his eyes. John blinked. His blurry vision cleared, revealing that Antonio had a death grip on his brother-cousin. John realized that someone held him in place. He glanced over his shoulder and met Kevin Buchanan's sarcastic smirk. Shrugging free, John nearly stumbled, but his pride moved in quickly and righted his footing.
"You can thank me later," Kevin wise-cracked before returning to his workout.
Antonio moved between the two men. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Don't look at me," Cris said. "McBain started it. And I was finishing it."
"What?" The single word cut from John's mouth like a knife.
"Nah, Antonio." John grabbed his towel and pressed it to his cut lip. "Forget about it. The kid isn't worth it."
"I got your kid right here, McBain--"
"Cristian!" Antonio turned on his brother. "What's wrong with you?"
"I told you, bro. It's not me." Cris sidestepped his brother to block John's path. "Anytime you want some more, you know where to find me."
"I'll keep that in mind."
- - -
"What are you doing here?"
Evangeline regarded her mother with a frown. She stepped back into her condo and allowed her mother entry. "I don't understand the question," she replied, watching as Yvonne flung off her cape and set her purse on the sofa. "I live here. Where else would I be?"
"Does Cristian Vega's studio mean anything to you?"
A tingling sensation began to assault Evangeline's temples. She closed and locked the front door and rested her head against the back of the door. "Mama, please."
"Or if you're not there sitting for the portrait that is by no stretch of the imagination cheap, you could be at Rodi's or The Palace or The Angel Square Hotel."
Evangeline released a deep, frustrated sigh. "You're referring to John, now."
"But instead of being with either man," her mother continued as if she hadn't spoken, "you're here, dressed in sweats and socks and looking like death warmed over. On second thought, I'm glad you're not with Cristian. I want him to paint the real Evangeline Williamson. This version is a pale, sad-hearted imitation. Will you tell me what's wrong?"
"It's nothing worth talking about." She trudged to her recliner and sunk into its soft cushions. "Would you like something to eat? There's some take-out in there somewhere. I think there's juice and water in the fridge, too."
Yvonne swept into the kitchen and returned with chips, cookies, a quart of ice cream and two spoons. She spread a tablecloth on the floor and made herself comfortable along the edges. Evangeline watched this all with a faint inkling of amusement. What in the world was her mother up to?
"Comfort foods are a soothing balm, but are not to be overused or you'll live to regret it." She waved for Evangeline to join her. "Come on. We can wash it all down with root beer floats at the end."
"Root beer floats? You remembered."
"It's not something I'm likely to forget."
"But there's no root beer in the kitchen."
"I'm not so feeble that I can't buy some at the store and bring it back."
Evangeline released a dejected laugh. "Mama, you don't have to do that."
"Who said anything about have to?" Her mother ripped open the bag of chips with flair that was all Yvonne Williamson. "Come on. Hurry up. The ice cream is melting."
Oddly soothed by the reference to her childhood, Evangeline found the urge to move. She slumped to the floor and sat across from her mother. The open bag of chips was promptly placed on her lap and she dug in without a second thought.
"Nora and I have junk food binges. We had one not too long ago after I nearly killed her during racquetball."
"So, this isn't new. You've been in this place before."
Evangeline nodded. "And I don't like it much."
"Well, you'll probably like what I have to say even less."
She groaned and reached for a cookie. "Go ahead. Shoot. It's not like I could stop you."
Her mother shrugged, but she didn't deny it. "John and Cristian exchanged licks today."
"What? Who told you that? How do you know?"
"I had a late supper with Viki and her son joined us. He told us that he and Antonio separated them. He said they fought like they wanted to kill each other. He assumed it was about Natalie and the divorce. But for some reason, I don't think it's as simple as that. Does John know that Cristian is painting your portrait?"
Evangeline crunched hard on a chip. "I don't know what John knows nor do I care."
"You don't mean that. Maybe you mean it right now, but maybe not tomorrow… Why didn't you tell John?"
"Because somehow, someway even the passing mention of the portrait being of me would lead it back to Natalie. And, Mama, I'm tired of her. Just the other day, she ran to John, insinuating something about Cris and me. She refuses to leave John alone. Anything--rain falling from the sky or a dog relieving itself at a hydrant--is an excuse for her to run to him. I don't want to deal with that anymore."
Yvonne reached out and took her hand. "You and John look like you have something very special. Don't let her immaturity and games ruin your relationship. Do you love John?"
"Before, I thought I could. Now, I don't know anymore." Sudden tears stung her eyes. "I don't know anything anymore."
"Oh, baby." Yvonne moved and pulled Evangeline into her arms. "Sweetheart, I'm so sorry. It will get better."
"Promise?" She sniffled and closed her eyes.
"I do…with all my heart."