Chapter 1

The sequins on my black cocktail dress sparkled in the mirror as I worked some gel into my wavy mop of hair to tame it and bring out the strawberry highlights in the blonde. I fingered the crepe-satin, knee-length skirt and marveled once again that I’d not only found a party dress that flattered my three-month post-pregnant body, but also accentuated my moderate bosom. For once, I actually looked forward to the annual New Year’s Eve party my husband’s financial firm insisted on holding.

As I entered the bedroom to tell Marc I was ready, a scream ripped through the house.

I ran towards the living room only a few steps behind Marc. His half-knotted tie dangled around his neck.

Leah sat ramrod straight in the recliner and held Sophie at arm’s length in front of her. “Take her, Mom. She’s puking all over.” In spite of the pre-teen attitude, I couldn’t blame her. Thick yellowish-white liquid dripped from her chin and hair.

With her round face, so much like her daddy’s, Sophie looked so tiny and defenseless. Even her frown was cute, but the moment I plucked her from her sister’s awkward hold, she let out another stream of regurgitated formula. In an instant, she transformed into a miniature version of the demon-possessed child in The Exorcist.

“That’s so gross.” Leah wiped her chin on the cuff of her sweater.

Sophie let out a pitiful wail, and her tiny fists punched at the air. I held her out in front of me and dashed towards the bathroom. “Leah, go clean up,” I called over my shoulder. “Then I need you to take Sophie.”

I situated myself on the lip of the bathtub, stripped Sophie’s outfit off, then rinsed her with a washcloth. What was taking Leah so long? I had to get out of this dress and find something else to wear before the babysitter arrived.

Leah stalked into the bathroom a few minutes later in fresh clothes from head to toe. A haze of jasmine perfume followed her, which threatened to upset my own stomach. After instructing her to dress Sophie, I raced into the master bathroom.

I examined the damage to my black cocktail dress. A wide, whitish swath flowed down the front of my dress, and tiny spots splattered across my skirt. Why, oh why, had Sophie’s digestive system chosen tonight to revolt against her formula?

I gripped the edge of the countertop as panic squeezed my stomach. This couldn’t be happening. Not now. Not tonight. Like it or not, I had to be at the party. Marc needed me.

I wiggled out of the dress and dashed for my closet. I had to find something else to wear. Dressed only in a slip and bra, I shifted through the clothes, looking for the dress I’d worn to last year’s New Year’s Eve party. Hoping against hope that I’d dropped enough of my pregnancy weight to squeeze into it, I tried it on.

“Tried” was the right word. The zipper wouldn’t close over my hips, much less my waist. I sucked in my tummy and gave one last tug. The silk gave way and a rip appeared along one side of the zipper.

I couldn’t hold back a sob. Now what? Sophie had ruined the only dress I owned that fit me right now—probably beyond repair. I pulled the torn dress off and threw it to the floor. My hands shook as I pushed hangers across the bar to view my church dresses. Why had I been so stubborn and insisted that I’d be able to fit back in my dresses in a few months like I did with the other kids? Why hadn’t I taken into consideration that it had been six years since my last pregnancy and I was almost forty, with a slowing metabolism to prove it.

One by one, I pulled the dresses off the rod and held them against me. The chocolate I craved during the pregnancy had seemed like such a necessity at the time. Now I stared at what those delectable treats had become on my hips and stomach and fumed against every candy manufacturer I could think of and each store that displayed candy and junk food near their registers.

My gaze wandered to the pants with elastic waistbands that I’d combined with sweaters to create my church wardrobe for the last three months. No way they’d be acceptable at the financial firm’s social extravaganza of the year.

I emerged from the closet with a short, black bolero jacket—the only thing nice enough that actually fit—then steeled myself to face the ruined cocktail dress again. Back in the bathroom, I spread it out on the countertop and carefully dabbed off the creamy goop.

By the time Marc poked his head in, holding Sophie against his chest, I had given up on reducing the stains any more and was blow-drying the dress. He’d taken off the jacket of his tux and a burp rag now decorated his shoulder instead. “Leah and I wiped up the mess on the chair. Are you about ready?”

I turned off the blow dryer, swallow the urge to ask if it looked like I was even remotely ready, and held up the dress. That would be answer enough without me sticking my foot in my mouth. “It’s never going to come out, and I can’t fit in my old one.” I bit the inside of my lip and fought to hold back tears.

Marc pulled me into a one-armed embrace and held me for a few long moments. With my head in the hollow of his shoulder, his warm hand against my bare back seemed to lend me some of his strength.

“Couldn’t I miss this one party? After all, Sophie’s sick…” I rubbed her cheek and stared into her bright blue eyes, so like my own.

“You know as well as I do that she’s reacting to the formula like Leah and Chase did.” Marc gave me a squeeze, then stepped back and looked me in the eyes. “Crystal, I know you don’t like these social functions, but I’ve got a real shot at making partner this year.”

The moment I gazed into his soft, chocolate brown eyes—almost as dark as his hair—I knew I’d give in. Not only because his caring glance still made my heart leap for joy after thirteen years of marriage, but because he needed me.

“According to talk around the office,” he continued, “the partners are impressed with my work record, but this is the only opportunity I’ve got to impress them on a personal level.”

I sniffed back my tears, embarrassed that he had to remind me of the party’s importance. I heaved a deep sigh and leaned my forehead against his shoulder opposite Sophie, who reached out and tugged on my hair.

He gave me a peck on the cheek. “I promise we won’t stay long after the dinner. How’s that?”

I let out a long sigh, then nodded. I could do this. It would make a big difference for the whole family when he became a partner in the firm. I could do my part to help make it happen and show what a supportive wife he had.

“That’s the spirit.” Marc gave me another quick kiss, then glanced at his watch. “The sitter should be here any minute. I’ll go give the kids the rundown before she gets here.”

I brushed the wispy blonde curls from Sophie’s forehead and gave her a gentle kiss. “You’ll be a good girl, won’t you?” She wiggled in Marc’s arm and her head nodded as if she agreed.

I squirmed into the still damp dress and slid the bolero jacket on, then examined myself in the mirror. The fabric of the jacket didn’t match the dress, but it was the same color, and more importantly, it covered the stubborn stain at the neck—all but one miniscule point.

Had it really been only a half an hour ago that I’d stood before this same mirror admiring the sparkle of the sequins on the dress? Now all I noticed were the speckled stains across the front of the skirt and the quarter-sized stain at the neck, barely covered by the jacket. Surely they drew my eyes only because I knew they were there. Maybe no one else would notice.

I fixed my hair again, then dabbed on an extra measure of my favorite perfume to cover any remaining smell from the formula. But as I touched up my lipstick, the jacket shifted and uncovered the stain. Who was I kidding? Wearing a stain-riddled dress to the firm’s social event of the year was an invitation to ridicule.