Chapter 9

"Hi, John."

He stiffened at the obvious seductive tone. Vega was right and John hated to admit it. Even to himself. She wanted him and as much as John tried to pretend otherwise nothing would change the truth.

"Natalie, now isn't a good time." He turned from the window to see her still standing in the door to his office. "I have a stack of unsolved cases..."

"I know. I just came to see how you're doing." She flashed him a smile and sauntered fully into his office, pausing a moment to close the door. A greasy paperback swung in her hand at her hip. "I figured you were here working when you should be at home resting. I heard about the fight. I'm sorry about Cristian."

"You don't have to be," he said. "We didn't fight about you."

Confusion flickered across her face. A frown creased her brow. "That's what he said."

"He told you the truth." John pulled out his chair and sat. "Now, if you don't mind, I have work to do."

"I brought you dinner."

"I don't want it."

"I'll just leave it. You may want it later."

She placed the bag inches from his hand. The aroma of greasy fries and a burger wafted toward him. Usually, the smell made his stomach rumble with hunger. This time, his stomach clenched. His throat tightened. He really wasn't in the mood for this.

He stood, grabbed the bag and forced it back into her hand. "Take it with you."

"John—"

"Look, Natalie, I'm trying real hard here, but you won't give me an inch."

Her mouth opened and closed several times. "I don't know what you mean."

"Bringing me food and stopping by unannounced...you can't do that."

"But we're friends," she said. "Friends do things for each other."

He nodded toward the bag now clenched in her hand. "That has nothing to do with friendship and you know it."

"I care about you—"

"You don't even know me," he said. "You have an idea of me."

"I know that we come from the same place. We've shared things that no one else can understand. Pain and sadness that comes from deep within."

"Your pain and sadness should have ended the day Cristian returned." He hitched a sharp breath. "Look, Natalie, our friendship is important to me, but you're taking it too far."

"You care about me, John," she said. "I don't know why you deny it. You fought Cristian because of me!"

"No," he said, holding onto his temper and patience with a short thread. "It had absolutely nothing to do with you. Your name was mentioned, but we fought about... Never mind. It's none of your business."

"Why can't you just admit it?" She reached out to touch his face. He caught her hand.

"Because there's nothing more to admit. If anyone should bring me food or check on me, it's Evangeline. She's the woman in my life. Not you."

"Then, where is she?" Natalie jutted her chin in defiance. "She's not here. I know exactly where she is. She's with Cristian."

The conviction in her eyes almost convinced him, but he didn’t want to consider it. Evangeline wouldn't cheat on him. But the way Cris came after him made John wonder. What exactly was their relationship and why hadn't Evangeline mentioned the other man to him? She kicked him out of her apartment the last time John questioned her about Vega. What was she hiding?

As he pondered the questions, the sudden quiet in the room got to him. He glanced at Natalie. Triumph gleamed brightly in her blue eyes. The sight sickened him. How could she gloat while insinuating that his girlfriend had someone else? He couldn't stand to be in her presence a moment longer.

He stormed to the door and swung it open. "Good night, Natalie."

"There's still something between us," she said, as she paused at the door. "Sooner or later, you'll have to face it."

---

"When do I get to see it?"

Evangeline relaxed from the pose to stretch and shake off the stiffness. Upon her arrival, they went straight into the sitting. Cristian didn't rush her, but she sensed urgency coming from him. At her question, he looked up and smiled. The pure gesture astounded her at its sweet innocence. He really was a very attractive man.

He looked from the canvas to her. "It's not ready, yet."

"Give me a break!" She complained with a laugh. "You've been saying that for weeks. How long does it take?"

"Masterpieces take time," he responded in a no nonsense tone. "When I'm finished, you'll be glad we didn't rush."

"What do you mean 'we'? You're doing all the work."

"Sitting still can't be easy." He set aside his brushes and quickly washed his hands. In a sexy display of athletic grace, he moved behind her. "You keep rubbing your neck. Let me see what I can do."

She jumped at the touch of his hands on her shoulders. "Cristian, I—"

"Ssh," he murmured at her ear. "Just relax. It's impossible to focus with a crick in your neck. I'll get rid of it in no time."

Blood pulsed like fire through her veins. The calluses on his palms and fingers gently kneaded her flesh, making her weak. Her knees wobbled. She swallowed hard to steady herself. "I can put a heating pad on it."

"Why go to all that trouble when you have me?"

She released a nervous chuckle. "I didn't know this was a part of the job description."

"It's a perk," he said, sliding his hands to the curve of her neck and shoulder.

Hypnotized by his touch, she closed her eyes. She never dreamed his hands would feel so warm, so gentle. A soft sigh escaped. The heat of his body seemed to envelope her.

"See," he whispered, "it's getting better already." His warm breath fanned her cheek. "This isn't so bad, is it, Evangeline?"

Lulled into a state of complacency, she simply nodded.

"Your skin is so soft. I hope I can show that in the portrait." He lifted her hair from her neck. His thumb pressed into her nape in slow, steady circles. "The shine in your hair and the light in your eyes... You're a work of art. So beautiful, so vibrant."

Ignoring the warning bells, Evangeline found herself strangely flattered by his words. The weight of his hands left her. She felt his heat shift. When she opened her eyes, she was surprised to find him standing in front of her. The hungry look in his eyes scorched her. Excitement lingered in the air. She pressed her hand to her chest to catch her breath.

For a moment, she thought he would kiss her. He moistened his lips and gazed at her through heavy lidded eyes. Then, the moment passed. He returned to the canvas and picked up a brush. "We'd better get back to work."

"Sure." She returned to her pose and tried to pretend the last few seconds hadn't happened. But she couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if Cristian Vega had acted on his first impulse.

Picture Perfect | Chapter 10

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