Chapter 13

As John McBain strode down the terrace steps into the Palace garden, Natalie Vega ducked behind a huge red rhododendron. He passed so close by she could have reached out and grabbed his sleeve. But this time she decided to keep her hands to herself. The ugly conversation they’d had in his office that afternoon had convinced her she’d need to step up her game if she was ever going to get him where she wanted him. Once it had been enough to want him in her bed. After the way he spoke to her today, she wanted him on his knees.

Spotting John from the dance floor, Natalie ditched Rex and followed him out to the terrace, exiting several doors down. She crept along in the damp grass until she was just below where he stood talking to Evangeline. John was such a low-talker she couldn’t hear what he was saying and Evangeline’s fluting tones got swallowed up in the sound of the party and the big band music pouring out of the open French doors. Natalie hitched up the hem of her seafoam green satin gown to keep it from getting soaked in the rising dew. Her golden sandals were already sinking into the damp earth. She glimpsed Evangeline’s hair and gown and wanted to puke at her perfection.

She watched as John and Evangeline pushed a narrow black case back and forth between them. Finally, John took the case. Evangeline turned and Natalie saw John take out a string of pearls and clasp them around her long neck. He stood behind her for a moment but Natalie was too far away to read his face. Then he bounded down the steps and brushed past where she was hiding in the bushes.

She was too busy watching John’s back disappear in the lowering darkness to notice what Evangeline was doing. Why was John bringing her presents? The snobby bitch had broken up with him. When was he going to get it through his head: he and Evangeline weren’t meant to be?

Even though he’d made her furious that afternoon, Natalie couldn’t get John out of her mind. Since she first laid eyes on him, Natalie had been intrigued by John McBain. He looked like the kind of bad boy she’d never managed to get close enough to in high school. Oh, sure, she’d dated her share of petty drug dealers, bullies, dropouts and guys in metal bands, but she’d never managed to snag anyone certifiably cool. The kind of guy who could backtalk the teachers and still get “A’s”. A guy who could hang with the kids in shop class and get invited to parties at houses with pools. A guy with the mix of menace, mercy and mystery she found so intoxicating.

She really thought she was happy with Cris, that he was it for her forever, but her head turned when the sexy FBI agent strolled into town and enticed her into working with him on a case. She was drawn in by his electric blue gaze and his deep voice. She loved the way he leaned into her, fixed her with those eyes and detailed his plans in a confidential pillow talk tone. And she liked feeling as if she was part of something important – bringing down a major criminal. As someone who had spent most of her life on the wrong side of the law, it made her feel important to be working alongside one of the good guys. And it wasn’t that Cris wasn’t good and good to her, or that he didn’t have the most slamming body in Llanview, but his sweetness had started to wear on her. John was a long-haired challenge in a leather jacket.

Growing up on the grift with Roxie and Rex, Natalie often found herself caught between being a pawn in Roxie’s schemes to con some sucker and being the closest thing to a grownup in the family. Early on Roxie taught her to lie, to steal, to cry on cue, to use her looks to get her way. And she liked getting over on the rich assholes who made the grave mistake of underestimating the Balsoms. She also learned how to fight when a mark got wise, how to manipulate a landlord, a school principal, a social worker. When one of Roxie’s games went pear-shaped, Natalie was the one who usually ended up running interference. She would be the one to comfort Rex when he woke up from a nightmare, the one to see that he had something to eat. She was the one who held Roxie’s head when she’d drank too much and got her to the free clinic when she was ailing. Raised by wolves, Natalie was also the one in charge of keeping the wolf from the door.

When everything went wrong in Vegas and Cris was killed, Natalie didn’t know which was worse: her grief over losing her husband or her guilt for wishing, even momentarily, that the way could be clear for her to be with John. She had a legitimate reason to hate him for costing her Cris and for a time she unloaded her fury on John every chance she got. But after a while, after she saw he would continue to take it, continue to hear her out and hold her and take care of her, she started to enjoy his guilty attention. Their shared pain over Cris’s death gave her a reason to turn to him. And when she found out about how a serial killer murdered John’s fiancé Caitlyn to get back at him, she felt that gave them even more in common.

When Natalie got to know John better, she wasn’t sure which made him hotter: his tattoos or his gun and badge. He was essentially good, but he understood badness. She loved the way he went crazy when she got into trouble. Unlike Cris, John seemed more at home with her ‘bad’ side and she loved how he was always ready to rescue her. She could see how he was turned on by drama and danger. So was she.

Ever since she’d been admitted – she still wasn’t completely ready to say ‘accepted’ -- into the Buchanan family and then married into the Vega family, she felt as if the wicked aspect of her personality had been on mute. Getting over was something she was really good at, but there was no relevant way to get over on the Buchanans or the Vegas: especially since Cris’s death, both families were ready to give her anything. When she was nasty and crazy to any of them, they looked at her with pity and bemusement. But John seemed to take her seriously: with him she could act out as much as she liked and he would take it.

After a while, she started to back off on the anger and she and John were able to relax and hang out, shooting pool, drinking beer, talking about growing up in AC. When they finally made it to the bedroom and she was just about to claim her prize, she looked into those eyes and saw there was nobody home. She confronted him on her suspicion that he was still hung up on Caitlyn – she’d found his Caitlyn shrine box in his dresser one day. When he couldn’t tell her she was wrong, she walked out on him, fully expecting him to toss his ghost love and give himself fully to her.

Then Evangeline Williamson happened.

Natalie hadn’t seen her coming. She’d been off toying with that loser Paul Cramer, waiting for John to miss her, when Miss Perfect moved in on her man. Even though she and John had never sealed their deal, as far as Natalie was concerned, John belonged to her. As Chris Rock would say, John was her “dick in a box” and she hadn’t been ready to break the glass. Before Natalie knew it, Evangeline had taken her little red hammer and smashed that glass.

Suddenly, everywhere Natalie looked, there were John and Evangeline making out like high school kids. In fact, Evangeline reminded Natalie of Melanie Blue, a gorgeous black girl who was head cheerleader, prom queen, salutatorian, student body vice president and the girlfriend of Vic Nathanson, the coolest white guy in class. Although Melanie was short and light where Evangeline was tall and dark, they were both the kind of girls everyone loved – despite their beauty and talent it was hard to hate them because they were so damn nice. But Natalie hated Melanie and she hated Evangeline. They were so fucking appropriate they made her sick.

Natalie had walked past John’s door at the Angel Square Hotel and heard the moans coming from Evangeline’s proper throat, the bed banging against the wall and worst of all, John laughing like a kid. Seeing the two of them growing closer, she’d felt her insides curdling from jealousy. She’d prayed to God to bring Cristian back – she’d never felt so alone. At least, not until God answered her prayers and sent a man who looked and sounded and smelled and felt just like Cristian. And even though she truly believed this was her beloved Cristian returned from the dead, she couldn’t get John out of her system. Then she started to know the hell of true loneliness: sleeping beside a miracle and craving a dream.

She was relieved when John told her that man wasn’t really Cristian: it gave her a good reason for not feeling what she was supposed to feel. When she screamed into that beautiful face that was so like Cristian’s, she felt good telling the imposter that she hoped he’d die in the electric chair. And although she could never admit it to anyone, she was gladder when he left for prison than she’d been when she’d thought he was Cris resurrected.

Since that day when she’d climbed out of John’s bed, she’d tried several times to get him to admit she was the one he really wanted. She knew if he gave it time, if he wasn’t distracted, he’d see they were right for each other. She’d had high hopes when she heard Evangeline had broken up with him after she’d walked in on their kiss. But John had been so cold with her since Evangeline ran out on him, she wasn’t sure what to do. It was getting harder and harder to maintain her belief that they were meant to be together. Then today…he’d never talked to her like that before. Oddly enough, she found it thrilling in a sick, sad way. But now, she wanted something different from John McBain: she wanted to make him suffer.

Afraid of what John might say if she followed him into the darkness, Natalie decided to return to the party. For a second, she thought she heard something like a big wind rushing through leafy trees, but she wasn’t sure of the source. She looked up and saw Evangeline wasn’t on the terrace anymore, so she headed up the stairs John had descended. When she reached the terrace, something glinted on the marble paving stones. She bent down and picked up a broken strand of pearls with a gold clasp.