Chapter 7

The faint scent of stale cigarette smoke and free-flowing booze hit Evangeline like a ton of bricks the moment she stepped foot inside the hotel. Only a few days had passed since the blow up with John, but it felt much longer. As her heels clacked on the linoleum floor, she suffered several hits of self-doubt. This showing of hesitation shook her nerves. She always trusted her judgment. What rattled her self-confidence now?

Unwilling to get to the heart of the answer, Evangeline pushed on and all too quickly found herself outside Apartment Number six. She knocked and waited. If he didn't answer, she'd go home and forget about it. Maybe they were already too far gone for this visit to make a difference.

A muffled curse sounded through the heavy wooden door. She listened closely and heard footsteps trudge across the hardwood. Seconds later, the door swung open. Bruised and battered, John glowered in the doorway. When his blue eyes connected with hers, he straightened. His chest puffed and Evangeline resisted the urge to chuckle at the slight indication of male pride.

He jutted his chin toward the gift basket cradled in her arms. "Is that for me?"

"It depends," she said, blurting the first thing that came to mind. The words came as a shock to her system. What did they mean? How juvenile had this become?

Something murky and unreadable crossed his eyes. He blinked and graced her with a half smile. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked that. Come in. Please."

She moved inside and set the basket on the coffee table. "It's mostly fresh ground coffee and dry soup mixes. I didn't know how badly you were hurt so--"

"I'm not." He moved forward. His hand briefly touched the small of her back. "Have a seat. Join me in coffee and soup."

"Sit down and I'll take care of it."

"Evangeline, I can do it."

"I know, but would it be so bad if I did?"

Their eyes locked. Time seemed to tick by at a snail's pace. Evangeline held her breath, waiting. Did he understand the necessity of give and take in a relationship? Why was the need for commitment instead of possession a foreign concept to him? They could be so good together. She'd never felt as right with anyone else as she did with John McBain. But there was always something tearing them apart. Were they strong enough to fight the outside forces or would it make more sense to give up now…before she got hurt?

He expelled a low breath. A low grunt sounded from his parted lips. He rubbed his midsection and slowly relaxed on the sofa. His blue eyes glowed with the promise of understanding. "No, it wouldn't. Thanks."

She dropped her coat and purse onto the chair. As she crossed behind him, she patted his shoulder. "See, that wasn't so bad after all."

---

Cristian lowered his hand into the bowl of ice water, leaned back against the chair's overstuffed cushions and closed his eyes. The clink of ice cubes lulled his senses in a strange way. His bruised and swollen knuckles made work impossible. The unexpected vacation gave him time to plot.

McBain had distress written all over him. Despite Evangeline's absence from Cris' studio, something was seriously amiss in her relationship with the detective. Cris chuckled at the thought. The former Fed was a pompous idiot. Basking in Natalie's pursuit while he had a gorgeous woman at home. Granted there was a time when Natalie's attention rocked Cris' world. But that part of his life was over. Now that he'd come through the worst kind of hell, he realized that a rocking world could not compare to a stable one. Whatever true love he and the feisty redhead shared died in October 2003. Hanging onto a dream sustained him during his captivity. But now that he was free, he realized the truth. Settling as second best wasn't his cup of java. He wanted and needed the whole thing.

Bells jingled, signaling that the front door had been opened. No doubt Antonio told Mamí about the fight. A half smile crossed his lips at the thought of his mother fussing over him. God, how he'd missed her and his brother while he was locked away on that awful ship.

"Cristian--"

That was not the voice of Carlotta Vega. His eyes opened. Damn!

"--I came as soon as I heard. Let me help."

"I don't want your help."

She moved to touch the cut on his forehead. He swatted her hand away and stood quickly. The bowl of water and ice cubes crashed to the floor. Cold water splashed everywhere. She grabbed a nearby towel and stooped to clean the mess.

"Natalie, leave it alone."

Color drained from her face. The flaming red locks made her appear sickly pale. Blue eyes flashed with fire. "Let me do this. Let me help."

"I don't want it," he said through gritted teeth.

"Can't we at least be friends?"

He shook his head. A sudden pain throbbed his temples. The ache was no residual affect from the scuffle with McBain. Her presence hurt more than it calmed.

"No. We can't." He tugged the towel from her hands and flung it onto the table. "There's nothing for you here. There's no reason for you to come back, so don't. You're not wanted."

"I don't believe you--"

"You should."

Triumph gleamed in her fleeting smile as she said, "You're lying. You and John fought today. I know it was because of me."

"Not from my point of view," he said quietly. "Look, I don't want to hurt you, but I don't want you here. You were clear about what was in your heart. So, I'll be clear about mine. Since my filing for divorce has left you confused, let me use words that you can understand. I don't love you anymore. It's over, Natalie. I don't want your friendship or anything else. I just want you gone."

He crossed to the door and opened it. "Leave the keys on the table and don't come back."

Picture Perfect | Chapter 8

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