Copyright © 2012 Nikki Duncan
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
“That cake should have been here two hours ago.” Water danced around the glass surrounding Jennalyn James. Her voice ricocheted off the rounded walls of the dolphin dome. Trying to stay calm, and hoping it was the dome’s acoustics that made her sound less than in control, Jennalyn ran a soft rag over the fins of the sculpture in the center of the dome.
She wanted every surface to catch and reflect the blue, watery light to perfection. Who was she kidding? She wanted everything about the night to be perfect.
As she polished the bronze dolphin, two live dolphins drifted just outside the dome. Floating with grace, they watched her and the statue that danced on the tense tip of its tail. Did they view her as a mystery? Did they feel her anticipation? Or maybe—and it was an idea that sparked sadness—they recognized her.
With the idea of recognition came the memories of the times she’d stood in this exact spot with her sister. The zoo’s dome had been their favorite place in Indiana. Her heart became a ponderous burden in her chest. Her eyes burned as her mind traveled back to the last time she’d come to the zoo. It had been a day designed for pleasure. Three short hours later pleasure had turned to agony.
She and Sabrina had stood with their fingers interlocked. They had laughed and smiled while watching the dolphins dance and play. They’d seen the dolphin show so many times that they had recognized the pair as the youngest males. Their muscles rippled down their sides differently. The older of the two had a small scrape by his right fin. He had been Sabrina’s favorite from the moment she saw him. Later they’d decided it was because of his stubborn streak his trainers spoke of. Like the dolphin, Sabrina had been quite resolute in her approach to the world.
It had been a perfect day. The kind of day they had tried to have at least once a month. The kind of day Jennalyn would never know again.
“Are you there?”
The young man on the phone pulled Jennalyn back to the task at hand. Cake. She hadn’t received the cake. “Yes. How far away are they?”
“They were caught behind a wreck that closed down the highway,” the man said apologetically. “They’re currently on Meridian, about to turn onto Washington.”
“Great.” They had picked what was likely the busiest route available, but at least it was during the lull of the mid-afternoon.
“You’re in the Dolphin Adventure Gallery, correct?”
“Yes. Thank you.” Jennalyn checked her watch, recalculated her timeline for the afternoon, and then breathed a shaky sigh of relief. “Tell them to drive safely.”
The success of this event meant a great deal to the family business she’d taken over. With tonight and one or two more big events she would finally be able to make some needed upgrades for the business. Starting with a new van and an inventory expansion of event supplies. If things went very well she could hire a staff to handle the setup.
Exiting to the left of the dome she found a new issue needing resolution. The crew who’d come in with the rented chairs and tables were setting up small, short, round tables where the bar and reception would be. They would be okay if she were putting on a tea party for children. Adults would be standing at them though.
“No! Those are the wrong tables.”
A couple of heads popped up. She zeroed in on the potbellied man with his hair sticking out like he hadn’t brushed it in a few months. The clipboard in his hand was the only thing remotely authoritative about him.
He paused, stared at her for a beat and then resumed his setup. “They’re small rounds.”
“I asked for tall bar tables. Not—” she motioned to the tiny table sitting before her, “—these.”
“You asked for round tables.”
Jennalyn pointed to the fabric room divider she’d had constructed from a pale blue, gauzy fabric with shots of silver and white running through it. It suited the room perfectly and was much easier to move than the traditional room dividers. “Behind that curtain are where the round tables go. Large round tables. For dinner.”
She gestured to the part of the room where they currently stood. “Here is where I need tall bar tables for people to place their drinks or purses or whatever while they network. Standing.”
“They can pull chairs up to these just as easily,” the man argued.
“If we had ordered that many chairs and everyone was four feet tall, yes.” She stepped closer to the man with a tight smile pulling at her lips. She tried to employ the theory about catching more flies with honey, but something told her nothing was going to go over with this man without offending or angering him. “In the end, that is not what the client asked for.”
“You want us to load these up?”
The work crew stopped mid setup and darted glances between her and the portly man. Some of their faces would have been comical if she weren’t pushing the wire to get things in place before the event began. And she still needed to sneak away long enough to get herself ready.
“Yes, please. And in their place I would like the fifteen tall tables that are on the original order.”
“Listen, lady…” The man stepped forward.
“No.” She stepped forward. She hated when people addressed her that way. She hated when people addressed anyone with such disrespect and she wouldn’t let it pass. “Do you have children?”
“Have you ever brought them to this zoo for a day of fun?”
“Then you listen to me.” It took effort to not inject a bit of bite into her tone, but she pulled it off. “Tonight is a fundraiser for this zoo. The people attending are paying several hundred dollars to be here. They are the same people whose donations keep the entry costs low. Is it really so much to ask that they be able to stand with their drink rather than sit at kid-sized tables?”
The man’s eyes darted around, looking anywhere but directly at Jennalyn. He almost looked as if he would dig his toe into the patterned carpet. He didn’t. “I guess not.”
“Then I would really appreciate it if you would get these tables switched out for the tall ones we ordered.”
“Lady, do you know how many events we have going on right now? It’s nearly Thanksgiving and our staff is stretched pretty thin.”
“Proper verification of the orders would prevent avoidable mistakes, which would ease some of the burden on the staff. I emailed a confirmation list.”
“I would prefer there be no tables at all, but my client made a specific request. I passed that request on to your company.” She smiled, though she knew it held no warmth. “Should I find a new place for my business?”
“Excellent.” With that round won and with the man’s crew scurrying to pack up the tables, she offered a suggestion. “Perhaps if you call ahead, someone at the warehouse can load another truck with the correct tables. You could even pass them on the road.”
“Yes. That’s a good idea.”
After dealing with the tables, Jennalyn checked in with the bartenders setting up. Then she crossed to the back half of the room to place the reserved signs on the tables closest to the stage that had been set up to the left of the windows that looked into the dome. Two flautists would be playing throughout the night. One would be in the front half of the room and the other in the back.
They’d been in earlier to run through their songs and check their volumes to make sure they weren’t playing so loudly they hindered conversation, but also to be sure they could be heard throughout the space. They would each wear an earpiece that would allow them to communicate about which songs to play next and when to take a break.
When she’d been planning the event with Evan, the head of public relations for the zoo, they’d considered bringing in a more traditional band. In the end, they decided the flowing notes of a flute would blend more smoothly with the classy mood they wanted to evoke. They’d planned a light menu with pretty touches to keep the theme going.
Jennalyn knew better than to think she would eat anything once people began arriving, so after working her way through the light switches again, making sure the lighting effects they wanted were set up correctly, she headed out for a quick bite at one of the concession stands. In the private room Evan had appointed hers for the night, she changed from her T-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes to an elegant black dress and heels that would allow her to blend more smoothly with the attendees. She touched up her makeup and fluffed her newly short hair before heading back to the event space.
Two hours later, as she hovered on the outer edges of the crowd, making sure the wait staff saw to everyone’s needs and that nothing fell through the cracks, she nodded approvingly. The tables were correct and the cake, the amazing cake that should’ve been a crime to cut into, was in place. Like the sculpture in the dome, it was a masterpiece.
The four-foot dolphin, suspended mid-leap above gently rippling water, had people talking. No one cared about the mechanics of the clear wires extending from the frame that had been covered in fondant so it matched the room. They only cared about the beauty around them.
“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.