Chapter 9

Evangeline stood by the door, shaking with rage as she listened to John walking down the marble hall, the elevator door opening and closing. At that moment, she wasn’t sure who she was more disgusted with: him for trying to trade on her desire in order to keep her hanging on or herself for nearly succumbing.

Unable to face the bloody mess in the master bathroom, she stalked into the guest bathroom, stripped and stepped into a hot shower. From the top of her head to the crevices between her toes, she scrubbed until John’s scent was replaced with lavender. Realizing she was running late, she tried the trick she’d worked out at Grace’s, running leave-in conditioner through her hair, skinning it back and twisting it into a know at the base of her neck. She had just started her makeup when she was overcome with a powerful sense of nausea. When she was done emptying her stomach into the toilet, she slowly rose, wiped her watering eyes, rinsed her mouth and brushed her teeth.

Raising her head from the sink, Evangeline stared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. She’d never been the sort to feel her nerves in her stomach. If anything, she was more prone to sleeplessness and headaches when she was under stress. She locked on her eyes in the mirror and a cold chill went through her as she realized the date.

* * * * *

Glancing at the clock in his car, John remembered he was due in Bo’s office in less than an hour. He pushed the speed limit and got back to Angel Square Hotel in 10 minutes. Relieved that Roxie hadn’t stirred from her lair, he bounded up the stairs and into his place.

He dashed through a hot shower and shampoo and six minutes later stood dripping and naked in front of his medicine cabinet mirror. He looked a sight. He’d managed to wash away the dried blood, but he’d have a swollen nose, split lip and black bruising under his eyes for a few days. There was no time to make sense of his overgrown beard so he took a deep breath and revved up his razor. It hurt a bit as he shaved the space between his nose and upper lip, but that was nothing compared to the sense of desolation he felt when Evangeline closed the door on him.

He knew he deserved to be kicked to the curb. Months earlier, in the midst of a fight, he’d been amazed when she’d blurted that she was falling in love with him. Then, on Valentine’s Day, she’d rocked him when she sang what was in her heart at an open mike at Rodi’s. Since that night, he’d started to feel her love creeping like a jasmine vine, taking root in the fortress around his heart, slowly pulling the bricks loose and blooming. He didn’t know where they were heading, he just kept hoping he could keep her standing by him another day. He’d avoided her questions and given her half answers for months. How could he tell her how much loving her scared him? Scared he’d lose her. Scared he wasn’t good enough for her. Scared she’d make him deal with the emotions he’d had in cold storage since Caitlyn died.

He ran his hand over his newly naked face. The beard wasn’t coming back until he found a way to redeem himself in Evangeline’s heart.

* * * * *

Evangeline balanced the box of John’s belongings on her hip as she let herself into his apartment that afternoon. When she was done with Antonio at the courthouse, she went home and worked her way from room to room, gathering John’s traces. She had to do it while she was still cold with anger. Just as on the day she ran out of town, she found a measure of solace in her mission.

She’d called Nora at the LPD to see if John was at his desk. “Can you keep him there for an hour?”

“Sure. I just saw Michael go into his office. I’ll ring your cell if I see him leaving the building. Take care.”

She set the box on his coffee table and looked around as if she was on a hurried shopping expedition. Nora had often marveled at her ability to narrow her field of vision so she only saw the strappy pink cocktail dresses or the dark bootcut jeans and not all the sweaters and skirts and coats in between.

She picked up the Louis Vuitton tote she left in the bathroom and dumped in the toiletries she kept there. She found her hairbrush, her toothbrush, her CDs, the novel she’d been reading. She pried a handful of panties from the packet of laundry he’d picked up at the dry cleaners and emptied the bureau drawer he’d set aside for her. She picked up the earrings she’d left on the nightstand and tucked them in her pocket. She paused before the framed picture next to his bed. It was a shot she’d taken on his birthday, the two of them lying on the bed, laughing up at the camera. Before the photo could take her back to that night, she set it down and headed for the door.

Evangeline looked at the key in the palm of her hand. John had given it to her a couple of weeks earlier and this was the first time she’d used it. Feeling herself growing misty, she tossed the key next to the box and shut the door behind her.

* * * * *

“Wooooooeeeee!” Michael McBain said with a smile as he grabbed his brother’s chin and inspected his face. “What happened here? A run-in with a perp? Or did Natalie lay one on you? And where’s the beard?”

John jerked away. “That’s not funny, Michael.” He shut his office door behind his brother and took a seat at his desk.

“Oh come on John. Lighten up. Oh yeah, I forgot: you’re constitutionally unable to lighten up. Except around Evangeline. How is my potential future sister-in-law?”

John fixed his younger brother with a chilling glare. “Oh come on John, spare me your Death Laser look. What’s going on?”

John swallowed hard before speaking. “Evangeline broke up with me.”

Michael popped up from his seat. “What? I leave town for a week and you manage to ruin the best thing you got going? What the hell did you do to her?”

“Not that it’s any of your business…”

Michael leaned forward and jabbed his pointer finger at John. “Don’t give me that. You’re my brother and Evangeline’s my friend. I know what a quality woman she is and I know what a messed up dope you are. What Did. You. Do?”

John hung his head. “She said she couldn’t take not knowing whether I loved her. She said she hated what being with me was doing to her.”

“John, you’ve been with Evangeline for nearly a year. Clearly you are into her. Why haven’t you told her what’s as plain as day: you love her.”

John stood and glanced at Michael, then turned to the window. “Mikey, those are words. I can’t put something like that out there. It should be enough for her to see that she’s the only woman I want.”

Michael took a deep breath and touched his brother’s shoulder. “John, she’s a woman. They need to hear the words. If you really want her in your life, you need to step up. Unless…unless you’re setting out to sabotage this.”

John turned and looked at Michael. “What do you mean ‘sabotage’?”

“I mean here you are on the verge of being all-out happy for the first time since, well, for the first time in a long, long time. And maybe that’s more sunshine than you can take, Heathcliff. How many times has Evangeline been on the verge of walking because you’ve shut down on her or you’ve been too caught up with Natalie and her drama? What was different this time – why did she finally sack your sorry hide?”

Hands on hips, John braced himself for Michael’s reaction to what was coming next. “She walked in on me and Natalie. Natalie was kissing me.”

“What the fuck!” Michael roared. “Case closed. You did set out to screw this up. And don’t tell me you just walked into Natalie’s lips. But John, why would you put a beautiful soul like Evangeline through something like this?”

John’s voice rose a few decibels. “Michael, it was an accident. Natalie grabbed me. I was trying to get away from her when Evangeline walked in. Before I could explain, she took off. She was missing for more than three days. The first chance I got to see her was this morning. Michael, I blew it.” Tears sprang to his eyes and he turned away. “The last thing I wanted to do was to hurt her.”

“Then you never should have let her get so close,” Michael said. “I don’t know what Natalie thinks she sees in you, but Evangeline is the real deal. Man, she loves -- or should I say, loved, you. You spent all these months reeling her in, keeping her from leaving and then you waste the whole thing?”

The brothers were silent for a moment. Michael walked over to where John stood by the window and took his face in his hands again. He sighed. “Let me get a look at you. Nose doesn’t appear to be broken. Shame. It might have been an improvement.”

Pulling away, John gave him a sidelong grin.

“So what did you do, Johnny? Get into a bar fight to ease the pain?”

“No. Nothing like that. I grabbed Evangeline. She clocked me.”

Michael sputtered with laughter. “Evangeline did this? Man, you gotta get this girl back.”

The smile faded from John’s face. “I know Mikey. From your mouth to God’s ears.”