Fashionable, chic and stylish were words normally associated with Ryla Evans. She freely admitted that she loved shopping for clothes, shoes and purses. But she was a single mother, and had just left her corporate position to run her event-planning business fulltime, so Ryla rarely bought anything that wasn't on sale. Her stilettos had been her one extravagance. But Noel Carter had ruined that enjoyment, just as he'd ruined her hopes and dreams almost eight years ago.
Tonight he'd had the audacity to strut his tall, dark and too-gorgeous self into the banquet hall as if the party was all about him. Ryla had been smiling as she handed a business card to a potential client, when she noticed the commotion going on over by the bar. The guy was a top-notch Houston attorney, just like tonight's guest of honor, and he didn't look like the kind of man who spent his time worrying about how much things cost?her favorite kind of client. Nearby, her ex-man and former NBA superstar Noel Carter was holding court, slapping hands, grinning and taking numbers as if he was still a wonder worker on the basketball court. Even though Noel's short-lived NBA career had ended three years ago, he was still sniffing on fresh air. She wasn't surprised. The lead dog in the pack always got the fresh air.
Stepping away from her potential client, Ryla made her way to the kitchen on the other side of the large banquet hall to speak with the chef. "How's everything going, Chef Michael?"
"Everything is superb, Ryla. Now what are you doing in my kitchen? You know I don't like lookie-loos in my kitchen."
Don Michael was too temperamental when it came to his kitchen. That was the one thing about him that got on her last nerve. But her clients always had extremely satisfied expressions upon their faces once they savored Don Michael's hors d'oeuvres. And with six out of ten of her clients asking for the chef's recipes, Ryla lived with his temperaments. "I was just checking to see if you needed my help with anything?"
"What? You don't have enough to do so you need to scrounge for work in the kitchen." His hand motions shooed her away. "Go, see to your guests up front and let me attend to my kitchen."
Ryla wanted to object. After all, she was the event planner, she had hired Don Michael and if she wanted to hide out in his kitchen, he couldn't do one thing about it. But Chef Michael was known not only for his exquisite hors d'oeuvres. He had walked off numerous jobs screaming bloody murder for the smallest of infractions. And his contract allowed him to keep two-thirds of the negotiated price whether he acted like a fool or not. So, Ryla wasn't going to mess with him. "All right, I'll just go on back out and check on my client."
With her head lowered, Ryla walked back toward the party wondering how in the world she could slip out without being noticed by Mr. Alpha Dog himself. But all that pondering came to an end as she crashed into an immovable force. Ryla stepped back. "I'm so s-sorry," she stammered as she stared into the deep, sultry brown eyes of Noel Carter.
"No need to apologize. I was looking for you."
"Uh, looking for me? Wh-why?" she asked, although Ryla knew exactly why Noel was looking for her. It was the same reason she had been trying to avoid him.
"I've been trying to find you ever since I saw you at that wedding reception last month."
Ryla had been thrilled when her best friend, Danetta Harris, and her longtime business partner, Marshall Windham, finally came to terms with their feelings for one another and got married. What she hadn't been so thrilled about was the fact Noel, an ex that she hadn't seen since college and hadn't bothered to tell about her pregnancy before breaking things off, had attended the reception with Marshall's cousin.
Jaylen had been with Ryla at the reception, and when Ryla locked eyes with Noel, she could tell that he was doing mathematical equations in his head, putting two and two together. So, she'd snuck Jaylen out of the reception and driven home as fast as she could. It wasn't that she never planned to see Noel again. Since leaving him the day she'd found him lip-locked with man-stealing Cathy O'Dell, Ryla knew that she would have to tell him about Jaylen one day. But with each passing year, the news became harder and harder to deliver.
"Can we have a seat for a moment? I need to speak with you about something." Noel tried to guide Ryla over to a pair of chairs in a dark little corner of the room.
"Sure, Noel, but give me a minute. I need to check with Jonathan to see if he needs anything," Ryla said softly, in an attempt to keep her cool. She then walked back toward the front of the room where the party was in full gear. Jonathan Conrad was celebrating becoming a partner in his law firm. And if the drinks and well wishes that had been floating around the room were any indication, his friends were delighted for him. They may have been more delighted that the drinks were on Jonathan, but Ryla wouldn't tell her client that.
Tapping Jonathan on the shoulder, Ryla put on a happy face as she said, "Things seem to be going well."
"Oh, Ryla, there you are. My buddy Noel was looking for you a moment ago."
"I saw him," she answered and then got right back to business. "I just wanted to see if you needed anything."
Jonathan glanced around. "Nope, everything's moving smoothly. You weren't kidding about knowing how to throw a good party."
"It's my specialty." She looked over her shoulder to where Noel stood waiting for her to return. She then glanced at her watch as she turned back to Jonathan. "Look, if you don't need anything else, why don't I just get on out of here. I'll send a cleanup crew in about an hour and they'll clear everything out."
"That'll work. And hey, make sure you send a dozen or more of your business cards to my office. I'll hook you up with some more business."
"Thanks, Jonathan." Ryla backed away from her client, keeping an eye on Noel. She stood by the bar for a moment, pretending to be checking in with the bartender. The moment Noel took his eyes off her, Ryla quickly made her way to the side door. Once in the clear, she ran as if her life depended upon it.
Not so fast, Noel thought as he watched Ryla make her escape. She had played this running game on him last month, when he'd seen her and that little girl at the reception. But Noel wasn't about to let her get away tonight without providing some answers. He took his keys out his pocket and followed her out of the side door. Noel glanced around the parking lot, but didn't see Ryla anywhere. Standing next to his midnight-black Cadillac Escalade, he surveyed his surroundings. Then suddenly he saw a little red BMW pulling out of the parking lot as if the devil himself was after it.
Without pause, Noel swiftly jumped in his car and pursued the BMW. It looked like a car Ryla would drive?cute and compact. He kept a distance far enough behind to not alert her to the fact that he was in hot pursuit. Aside from the previous month, he hadn't seen Ryla Evans in almost eight years. Parts of him thought he should turn around and stop chasing after the only woman who'd ever managed to get close enough to break his heart. But he couldn't let her out of his sight now. Not when she had some explaining to do. Who was the little girl that had been with Ryla last month? And why had she called Ryla Mama?
He'd always wondered why Ryla had dropped out of college and dropped him as if he'd meant nothing to her. They'd made promises of love to each other and had promised to spend the rest of their lives together. All he'd asked Ryla to do was to wait until he graduated college and began his NBA career.
Late into the night, they had lain in each other's arms planning their lives together. Noel thought that Ryla had been happy with him. Noel had been happy?meeting Ryla had changed him. He had decided early on that he wasn't going to settle down with one woman until he was about thirty. He would then find a woman to marry who could give him a few kids. That very thought brought him back to the little girl he'd seen with Ryla. Had she been the reason Ryla'd left him?
He didn't have much time to ponder this, as Ryla pulled up to a brown-and-white duplex and jumped out of the car, carrying her shoes in her hand. "What in the world?" Noel said as he watched a barefooted Ryla make her way to the front door of one of the duplex houses, while stumbling on a few rocks as if she'd spent her night drinking rather than hosting a celebratory party.
Smiling to himself, Noel got out of his car and followed Ryla's path. As he passed by her BMW, he caught a glimpse of the rust, dents and dings and realized that the car had to be at least a decade old. He lifted his hand to knock on her front door, and it swung open. She now had on a pair of pink tennis shoes with sparkly shoestrings, but was still holding one of the shoes she had worn tonight in her hand.
Her eyes popped out of her head as she was obviously shocked to see him standing there on her porch. She lifted the shoe in her hand and screamed at him, "You ruined my Jimmy Choos."
"What are you talking about?" Noel was totally caught off guard by Ryla screaming at him, when he was the one who had to act like a stalker to get a moment with her.
"Get out of my way. I think I have some superglue in my glove compartment." She shoved by him and stomped down her two-step porch.
Noel walked into the small duplex, sat down on the couch and got comfortable as if his name was on the deed. After fumbling around in her glove compartment, Ryla came back into the house, mumbling about hard-earned money.
"Are you all right?" Noel asked as he watched her struggle with the tube of superglue.
"Do I look all right?"
Noel stood, took the superglue out of her hands and opened it. He handed it back to her and then sat down again. "Why on earth do you keep superglue in your car?"
"I don't have the newest model car, if you haven't noticed." She shrugged. "Sometimes I have to glue things back in place."
"Why are you out buying Jimmy Choos if you can't afford to get a new car?"
"Hey, I saved for months to get these shoes. And I choose not to get a new car, because I'm putting the money into my new business?if it's any of your business." Ryla sat down and began to glue her shoe back together, as she asked, "And anyway, do you know that it's against the law to stalk a person."
"If I'm a stalker, then you must be crazy, because you left your front door wide open so I could walk in."
"Why did you follow me home? Isn't it obvious that I don't want to talk to you?"
Noel leaned back against the cushion of the couch. "Oh, it was obvious. But I've been trying to find you ever since I saw you at that wedding last month, because I definitely want to talk to you."
"Why don't you just talk to your little girlfriend? The two of you seemed to be having a good time."
"Marla is not my girlfriend, as you put it. She and I are friends and I simply escorted her to her cousin's wedding. But that has nothing to do with what I need to speak with you about," Noel said pointedly.
Ryla kept her head down, continuing to press the heel to the base of the shoe.
He could tell that she was trying to avoid eye contact with him. That was all right with Noel, because as long as she wasn't looking at him, he was able to stare at her. And Noel liked what he saw?aside from the shoulder-length hair, Ryla hadn't changed in the past eight years. She was still beauty queen fine to him. He wanted to go to her, put his arms around her and remind her of their sweet yesterdays. But he wasn't here for that. "You don't want to know why I've been trying to find you?"
Ryla lifted her head. But she still didn't make eye contact. "I'm sure you're going to tell me."
"First I'd like for you to tell me something."
"What?" she asked, with suspicion lacing her words.
"Where's the little girl I saw you with last month?"
She placed her shoe and the glue on the coffee table as she nervously fidgeted with her hands, trying to remove the excess glue and stall for as long as possible. When she noticed that Noel seemed perfectly comfortable sitting on her couch waiting for an answer, she said, "She's not here."
"Where is she?"
"Why do you want to know?"
Getting irritated by their unproductive conversation, Noel shifted in his seat. "Since that question is too hard for you, let me ask another."
She nodded, giving him the go-ahead.
"Did you leave me when we were in college because you were pregnant with another man's baby?"