"Welcome back, stranger." Cristian paused in setting up his brushes and paints as he watched Evangeline enter his studio. She moved with self-assurance. Wavy ebony tresses brushed her shoulders, framing her flawless honey brown skin to perfection. Her hips swayed to her own unique rhythm. The sexy strut of Evangeline Williamson completely mesmerized him.
"It hasn't been that long." A rosy tint colored her mocha cheeks. "Has it? I'm sorry, Cristian, but I've been busy with Jessica's case."
"No need for apologies." He shrugged off her excuses. "It's good to see you again. I've missed you."
Her steps faltered. "You did?" Then, she released a soft chuckle. "I bet you say that to all your clients."
He shook his head. "I've never said that to anyone." He reached for her hand and led her to his favorite chair. After she sat, he perched on a stool near her feet. "Before we begin, relax. I get the feeling you're rushing again. When you walk through the door, you leave the rest of the world outside. We want the real Evangeline on the canvas and not a fašade."
"So, you think I'm fake?"
"No." He smiled to soften his explanation. "Like the rest of us, you show one face to the world while your truer self remains hidden."
"Everybody does that."
"It protects us from getting hurt," he said.
She nodded once, but didn't immediately respond. He wondered if he said too much. The fall-out would have to come. After the altercation with John and the subsequent visit from Natalie, Cristian's tolerance for bullshit hit an all-time low. Evangeline's surprise return resurrected feelings he believed dead. Sure, he was physically attracted to her. What heterosexual male wouldn't be? She was beautiful. Primal desire now burned into something else. He had missed her. He anticipated their time together in his studio. Simply sharing space with her had meaning. A woman who didn't play games was refreshing. Her honesty was a rarity. The more he grasped her personality, the more he wanted to be near her.
"Is that why you and John fought?" she asked quietly. "Did your mask slip and your true self revealed itself?"
"I don't want to talk about McBain."
"You're still in love with Natalie."
He almost laughed. "That fight had nothing to do with Natalie. He didn't tell you?"
"I didn't ask."
His eyebrows lifted in surprise. "Oh."
"Oh?" Indignation colored her tone. "Is that it? You won't tell me either."
"It depends." A slow smile played at his mouth. He watched in fascination as her eyes danced at the challenge. She lit up like a Christmas tree right before his eyes, glowing and beautiful.
"Whether or not you really want to know."
Her brows drew together for a brief moment. Indecision registered on her face. Cris observed the play of emotions and wondered if she'd rise to the bait.
"I hope I won't regret this," she murmured. In a stronger voice, she said, "I want to know. Tell me."
"Demanding," he said, unable to resist the impulse to tease her. "The truth is we fought about you."
"Me?" She glanced away. "Why me? Was it about the portrait?"
"The portrait never came up."
"Natalie is playing games with his head and he's too stupid to realize it. Meanwhile, he has you. A woman most men wait their entire lives to meet. I told him he was a fool to play with a child when he has a real woman. God knows, I wouldn't do it."
"You said all of that to him. Cristian, why would you do that? I don't understand."
"You're a smart woman. You'll figure it out." He rose and moved to the canvas. As he flipped over the cover, he said, "It's getting late. We should get started."