“Jennalyn.” Evan slipped his hand into hers and squeezed. “You’ve done an amazing job.”
“Thank you.” She smiled into Evan’s fun, green eyes that sparkled in his creaseless face.
“You deserve the thanks.” He grinned with the mischievousness that alerted her to a scheme she should be worried about.
He had become one of her favorite people as soon as they’d started working together. They shared a sense of humor as well as a dedication to success in their careers. Best of all Evan was perfectly safe. He had zero interest in a sexual relationship with her. Even if he hadn’t been gay she would have held him in the friend slot. She didn’t have time for romance.
Evan continued, needing no encouragement to divulge what he had planned. “There’s only one way I can show you how much we appreciate everything you’ve done to make this event perfect.”
She turned away from scanning the room and focused fully on Evan. The outer edge of her right eye squinched a little as she attempted to predict what her unpredictable friend would say. Her attempt to brace herself eked into her tone. “Evan.”
“I have someone I want you to meet.”
The two ominous notes of the Jaws score played in her head. She knew what was coming. The two dreaded notes were replaced with two dreaded words.
Yep. Just as she had expected. “Evan.”
She tried to warn him. They’d shared enough apple martinis for him to know she didn’t want to be set up. The family event-planning business had suffered too much while she had been taking care of Sabrina. With things finally on an upswing she couldn’t afford the distraction that came with a man.
Even if she had the time, the hanging grief of loss didn’t give her the heart. “Don’t think for a second that I want you to set me up.”
He cocked a hip with a fist lightly planted above the blinged-out belt he was never without. “Don’t you think I know that?”
“I would like to, but you’re being overly dramatic. That always gets me a little scared.”
“Try to introduce a friend to a potential client and she gets all suspicious.” Evan rolled his eyes as he grabbed her arm and propelled her through the crowded room. “Where’s the appreciation?”
“I have plenty of appreciation.” Relief flooded her. A personal referral was exactly what she could use, especially to the kind of client who could afford to attend a five-hundred-dollar-a-plate fundraiser. “Tell me about this potential client.”
“He’s the CMO of a local hospital and has wanted to plan a special series of events for some patients who are finally healthy enough to enjoy them.” Evan smiled and nodded to people they passed, all the while talking low enough that their conversation was almost private. “Until now he’s had to prioritize his focus on other things.”
“What kind of patients?”
“Kids.” Evan inclined his head toward a small group of people mingling near a bar table.
A handsome man and a pretty woman, maybe in her fifties, faced Jennalyn. Recognition settled uncomfortably. The man’s smile was pleasant. The woman she remembered from her visits to the Ronald McDonald House in Riley. Amanda loved the house that love built and all that it stood for. She lived for the pleasure of making sure families had what they needed while their children were in the hospital.
Amanda was a wonderful person, but neither she nor the man facing Jennalyn held themselves as if they considered themselves powerful. The man with his back to her did. After seeing the woman, Jennalyn knew who the man was from his perfectly trimmed hair to the way he stood with understated power.
Then he turned.
He wore a black suit. The matching tie had a single row of red dots made from silk thread. At six foot two he was taller than her by seven inches. Square jaw and high cheekbones, blonde hair with silvery eyes that smiled when he smiled, the man robbed her of breath.
Evan made the introductions, but Jennalyn heard nothing. She could only recall the times she had seen Ryland walking the halls of Riley Hospital for Children. He was an executive as dedicated to the comfort of the families of his patients as he was to the patients themselves. He was personable. So much so that he had been the one to offer warmth when her world went dark.
Jennalyn’s head tingled. The sensation was subtle at first. Then it grew until the entire surface beneath her skull became a tingling mass. The pressure of memories swamped her and had her resisting the urge to turn and flee.
“Jennalyn?” Evan’s questioning concern and the weight of his hand coming to rest at her waist pulled her from the morass. “I would like you to meet Ryland Davids, Brad from his PR department, and Amanda from Ronald McDonald House.”
Amanda smiled a smile that said she remembered Jennalyn and that she understood how painful this reunion could be. The sympathy had Jennalyn resisting the urge to crack her knuckles. It was that look that had kept her from returning to the hospital as a volunteer. Turning from it, she faced Ryland.
He stepped forward with a hand extended and a gentle smile that curved his mouth and crinkled the edges of his eyes. “Jennalyn.”
She flattened her palm over her chest where heat was spreading deeper. She’d seen him often, met him twice. The first meeting, she’d found him on the floor of the hospital library. In his expensive suit, in front of some amazing stained glass windows, he’d sat on the thick rug that covered a marble floor with his legs crisscrossed. He and Sabrina had broken away from their seemingly serious conversation.
He’d looked up at Jennalyn with the same gentle smile. It had stolen her breath then too.
In the water-themed banquet space, with her heart filling her throat, Jennalyn moved her hand into Ryland’s. An electric jolt shot up her arm and had her jerking free.
Rubbing the palm of her still-tingling hand with her thumb, she searched for her voice. When she managed to push words up her lump-filled throat, she was proud to hear that she sounded somewhat level.
“It’s… You look… You look good.” His guarded greeting suggested that he too remembered their last meeting and he found this reunion equally awkward.
The second and last time she’d met him… He’d sat across Sabrina’s bed holding one fragile hand while Jennalyn held the other. Then, after Sabrina had slipped off to join the angels, when Jennalyn wanted to curl herself around her sister, desperate to keep Sabrina’s body from turning cold, he’d rounded the bed and offered her comfort until long after the nursing staff had taken Sabrina away. Jennalyn could still hear her own grief echoing in that room.
Tears scalded Jennalyn’s eyes, but she wouldn’t let them fall. Her hands shook. The stress of the day, being back at the zoo, seeing Ryland and having the memories resurface all became too much. The strength she’d spent the last eleven months building up crumbled. Pinching her lips together, she held in a sob and backed away several steps. She couldn’t stay and not break.