Tess shimmied into her silk navy dress, knowing it wasn’t quite as fancy or formal as some women would wear, but it would do. It was either this or the little black dress she’d had for almost a decade. Her life rarely called for formal wear. She checked the time and realized Nina would be arriving any minute. Trevor said he’d stop by to help as well. When William, her ex, bailed on taking the kids for the weekend, her friends that she’d made in divorce support group had stepped up.
The night was important to the hospital because it raised so much money every year, but for Tess, it was the only night of the year when she wasn’t taking care of anyone. She wasn’t a nurse or a mom. She was just a woman out for a good time. And with the kids home for the summer, she needed a real night off.
The doorbell chimed just as she slipped on her heels.
Opening her bedroom door, she heard the cacophony of her home. The boys fought over something in their room, and Zoe yelled from her position on the couch.
“Someone’s at the door!” Zoe called for the second time.
Walking past, she tapped her daughter’s head. “You could’ve answered it.”
“You always taught me not to open the door for strangers.”
Tess rolled her eyes. “Nina and Trevor aren’t strangers.”
“But they’re babysitters. As if I need one.”
She ignored Zoe and opened the door to see Nina standing on the porch with a huge smile.
“You look hot!” Nina told her.
“Eww,” Zoe called from the couch.
“You should be thrilled your mom can pull this off. This is your future,” Nina said and gave Tess a quick hug. She swept a hand down the length of Tess’s body. “This is amazing. Don’t listen to the cranky teenager.”
Nina narrowed her eyes. “But it needs something…” She pointed a finger at Tess’s neck and then rummaged in her overnight bag. A moment later, she held a sparkly necklace in her hand. “I know you don’t do much jewelry, so I brought this. It’ll look fabulous.”
“That’s so thoughtful, but I can’t wear that.”
“Yes, you can. Turn around.” She twirled her finger. “It looks incredible for an expensive fake.”
She had no idea when Nina had become so bossy. They’d been friends for years, but it had taken Nina months of coffee dates with the group of divorcees before she’d engaged in conversation. Now she was telling Tess what to do.
Tess lifted her hair to let Nina clasp the necklace. As it dropped into place in the deep V neckline of her dress, Tess touched the cool stones. Adding glitter made her feel a little like a princess.
As if reading her mind, Nina said, “Okay, Cinderella, let me see.”
The doorbell sounded again, and Billy and Andrew tore into the room screaming, “Trevor!”
It was like they had radar for finding a guy who was fun. They both ran to the door and fought over who would answer it. When they finally yanked it open, they launched themselves at Trevor.
“Hey, guys. Way to make me feel welcome,” Nina said.
The boys pulled Trevor into the living room. He looked like the Jolly Green Giant being tugged by munchkins.
“Wow,” Trevor said when he saw Tess.
She smiled. “I know that’s a compliment, but I can’t help but wonder what you think of me every other time I see you.”
“Aww, you’re always beautiful. But this…this is wow.”
“Gross,” Billy said. “That’s my mom.”
“I know. And she’s my friend. Don’t you know any girls at school who are pretty?”
“Yeah, but…” He looked at Tess with his whole face scrunched. “She’s Mom.”
“Yeah, I love you, too, buddy. Go to the kitchen and wash up. Pizza should be here soon.”
Andrew started to follow Billy, but he turned back and whispered, “I think Trevor’s right.” Then he took off to the kitchen.
Tess turned to Zoe. “In bed by ten thirty.”
“It’s the weekend.”
“You still need sleep, and you’re not staying in bed until noon. Chores tomorrow.”
“Gawd. Does it ever end?” Zoe shoved off the couch, tucking her phone in her pocket.
“Sure. As soon as you turn eighteen and move out.”
Zoe heaved that teenager sigh Tess despised and walked to the kitchen. Tess focused on not grinding her teeth, which would cause tension to build, which would lead to a migraine.
“Go. Get out of here. Have an amazing time,” Nina prompted.
Tess inhaled deeply and released the breath.
“Thanks. Thank you, too, Trevor. Don’t spoil the boys or let them stay up too late.”
“You mean no Walking Dead marathon fueled by greasy food and sugar? What the hell am I here for?”
Tess laughed. “You guys are awesome. I totally owe you.”
“I’ll stay until the boys are settled in bed and then head out,” he said. “Have a great time.”
Giving Nina another hug, she whispered, “My bed is made. Get comfortable there. I’m not sure when or if I’ll be home.”
“Stay out, have fun, get laid. We’ll be fine.”
She grabbed her clutch purse and shoved her lipstick and phone in beside two condoms. With her keys in hand, she rushed through the kitchen to give the kids a quick hug and kiss and a final warning to behave.
The pizza delivery guy pulled up as she walked toward her minivan. Nina stood in the doorway and waved her off. It was one night. They’d be fine. She knew it, but she still got a sinking feeling every time she left the kids. Mom guilt sucked.
When she went to work, she usually took the train, but traveling on the El in a party dress didn’t seem wise, so she drove into downtown Chicago. The city skyline was beautiful. At least that’s what she told herself as she fought with the cabs in the gridlock of the city.
By the time she turned the corner toward the Peninsula, she’d had enough. Even though it went against her nature, she forked over the exorbitant valet parking fee for the night. She didn’t care how many extra hours she’d have to work to make it up. Not having to drive around and look for parking was worth it.
She stepped from her mom-mobile and smiled at the valet, who was classy enough not to laugh at her and the picture she made—elegant dress, high heels, perfectly curled hair, climbing from a minivan that reeked of French fries. Yeah, she was ready for a drink.
Inside the lobby, she texted her friend and coworker Angie to let her know she’d arrived. They’d made plans to have a drink together and scope out the crowd. Their boss thought they were there solely to help fill the coffers for their department. Tess usually put in her hours for the hospital and then went to the hotel bar to find company for the remainder of her night. If nothing else, she might be able to talk Angie into hitting another hotel or club.
Miles Prescott sat on the edge of his bed, careful not to wrinkle his tuxedo. The mere thought of listening to his mother nag that he looked like he’d just rolled out of bed was enough to keep him neatly pressed. The St. Mark’s Hospital gala would be his third event this week. His second black-tie of the month.
Normally, he didn’t care about the fundraising and charity events he was expected to attend as the face of his family. While his siblings did the “real” work of running the family software company, he mostly dictated where they should send charitable contributions. But tonight, he was tired.
In fact, since his dad had died, this had begun to take its toll. When his father had been alive, Miles had been able to do his work in his office and at board meetings. His parents had been the face of the family. He’d attended only a handful of events. Now, the bulk of such affairs fell to him. And he hated it.
Of all the Prescotts, he was definitely the partygoer. Hell, everyone loved a good party. Except these weren’t parties. They were events. All polite conversation, shameless flirting with older women who always went home with their husbands, and superficial smiles with people he rarely wanted to see again.
Part of him would kill to go back to being in college. To drink beer at a party. To meet women who actually wanted to talk to him, not just to get a contribution.
Shoving off the bed, he smiled as he thought of what his mother’s reaction would be if he ordered a beer tonight. A knock let him know she was ready to go downstairs. At least with the gala being held at the Peninsula, he had an awesome view of the city and excellent food for the night. It was almost enough to make up for everything else.
Another sharp rap had him moving faster. He opened the door with an apology on his lips.
“What are you doing?” his mom asked before he had a chance to say anything.
“Getting ready. It’s a big suite. Long walk from one end to the other.” His sarcasm was lost on her.
“Are you ready?”
“Just about.” He looked at her for a moment. Something was off. Stella Prescott was always formal, but tonight she looked stiff. “What’s wrong?”
She swept into the room, lips pressed tightly. “It’s the gala. I thought I could do it.”
“What do you mean?”
“This one was always your father’s favorite. I didn’t make it last year…”
She didn’t finish the thought. Miles knew she hated admitting how lost she’d been when Dad had died. She was slowly coming back to herself. It was part of the reason why Miles kept agreeing to attend these things.
“It’ll be fine, Mom.” He walked across the room and gathered his wallet and key card. “Why did Dad like this one?”
Her face softened. “Because, like you, he hated formal high-society gatherings.”
Miles laughed and pointed at the tuxedo he wore.
“Well, let’s not get carried away, Miles. Of course, if you want to raise any real money, the event has to be black-tie, but this gala is open to so many more people. He loved talking to guests from all walks of life. Many of the hospital employees attend. Mostly, I think it’s an attempt to draw in more funds. They plead their case directly to benefactors.”
Interesting. If his dad had liked this event, maybe Miles’s night wouldn’t be a total loss. He found it funny his mother managed to think doctors were of a different class. He highly doubted the maintenance staff would be joining them for the evening.
He held out his arm for her to take. “Shall we?”
She looped her hand through his crooked elbow. “Keep in mind not all of the guests will be who you’re used to. Try not to comment on off-the-rack gowns and rented tuxedos. Not everyone is as privileged as we are.”
“First, have I ever embarrassed you by looking down on anyone?”
“Well, I didn’t mean that.”
“Yes, you did. And second, do you think I would be able to tell an off-the-rack dress from a designer one? I’m too busy imagining the dress on my floor to think about something like that.”
His joke had the desired effect. She lightly smacked his arm. “That is exactly the type of talk to which I’m referring. My friends find you simply scandalous.”
He led her to the elevator.
“While my peers know you are playing games, not all the women here will understand.”
His night was looking better by the minute. While it wasn’t a kegger, he might have the chance to actually enjoy himself.
The elevator arrived with a swish and a subtle ding. Inside, his mom rested her head against his shoulder as the doors closed. “Thank you for doing this, Miles. It means a lot to me.”
Moments like these were exactly the reason he continued to agree. He could fight his brother and sister about always being the one to go. They could just as easily make appearances, but he couldn’t fight his mom. He liked knowing she could lean on him.
Never one to show any kind of weakness for long, she straightened and put on her game face before they reached the ballroom.
Miles waded through the throngs of people to reach the bar. While his mother was content to sip champagne all night, he wanted something a little stronger. At least she’d been right about the crowd being different than the guests at the usual events they attended.
At the bar, he ordered a scotch, and while he waited, he eavesdropped on conversations happening behind him.
“Are you saying the work you do is more important than the cancer wing?”
“Of course not. We’re all working our ass—really hard to save lives every day.”
Hearing a woman nearly slip and swear at prospective donors made Miles turn to watch the interaction. The couple behind him he recognized. The Baldwins were generous but loved to make a recipient work for it.
Mrs. Baldwin reached out and laid a hand on the woman’s arm. “Really, dear. How do you do it without becoming severely depressed every day?”
The woman stood with her back to Miles, so he couldn’t see her face, but her voice carried clearly. “Many days break my heart. I work with sick babies. When a newborn is so small she can fit into the palm of my hand”—she held her hand out, palm up to demonstrate—“and I hold and care for that baby daily, nothing in the world feels as satisfying as the day I get to see her go home.”
Miles’s gaze followed the line of her arm from her hand to her shoulder. Her brown hair fell in waves down her back. The dress she wore hugged her but wasn’t tight. It also wasn’t too revealing, which sucked for him. He didn’t want to have to imagine her body. His eyes landed on the curve of her ass and down the length of her long legs, which were bare. The toned muscles made him ache to touch them.
Mr. Baldwin chimed in, “Why should we fund such a small department? Wouldn’t our money have a greater effect at a hospital like Lurie’s or even St. Jude’s, where children are their sole focus?”
“Those hospitals are phenomenal, of course. But not every family can or will go to either of those places. Yes, St. Mark’s is small, but we do amazing things in our tiny department. Our families come to us for help. We’re close to home for them. They have extended family nearby for support. They don’t have to disrupt the lives of their other children in order to save the newest member of the family. At St. Mark’s, we care for the entire family, not just sick children.”
“Are you sure you’re a nurse, Theresa?” Mr. Baldwin asked.
“Absolutely. Why do you ask?”
“You talk like someone who has a lot of experience reaching into deep pockets and wringing them for all they’re worth.”
She chuckled, and the low sound shot straight through Miles. The bartender set his scotch at his elbow, but Miles was afraid to turn away. He wanted to see the woman who had caught Carter Baldwin’s attention.
“I assure you, I work the floor every week. The only fundraising I do is attend this gala every year.”
“If you’re half as good at being a nurse as you are at talking about how good the hospital is, you should be running the gala.”
Another gentle laugh. “Thank you for the high praise, Mr. Baldwin, but I love my job. I’m not looking to run anything. It was very nice to meet you.”
Baldwin sipped his drink and nodded at her. “I’m sure we’ll be meeting again.”
She shook his hand, and Miles leaned forward, hoping she’d turn enough for him to see her face. As she moved, her long brown waves fell back from her shoulder, and Miles leaned to the side to see her. Then she turned completely around and faced him. Her eyes widened when she caught him staring at her. She inched her left eyebrow up a fraction as if to ask for an explanation, but she smiled.
“Can I help you?”
For a moment, Miles was dumbstruck. She was beautiful, with creamy skin sprinkled with freckles. But it was the smile that got him.
“Busted.” He stepped forward with a hand extended. “Hi, I’m Miles Prescott. I’m sorry. I was eavesdropping on your conversation with the Baldwins.”
“Why not join in?”
“I was intrigued by any woman who could capture Carter Baldwin’s attention like that, but I prefer my conversations one-on-one.”
She shook his hand. “So, you know the Baldwins?”
He nodded. “They’re good friends with my parents.” He released her hand. “Can I get you a drink…Theresa, was it?”
She nodded. “I’d love some champagne. Thank you.”
Instead of stepping back to the bar, he waved a waiter over, snagged a glass from the tray, and handed it to her. She raised the glass, and Miles watched her lips settle on the edge as she sipped. Her head tilted back a little, allowing him to watch her throat work.
“So, tell me your secret. How did you captivate Mr. Baldwin so easily?”
She lifted a shoulder. “He asked what I do for a living. Personally, I don’t think it’s all that captivating.”
“You might not think so, but I’ve been to functions with Baldwin, and I’ve been in board meetings with him. If he spares you more than a passing glance, you’ve caught him. Not an easy thing to do.”
“Board meetings, huh? So what do you do, Mr. Prescott?”
He flinched. “Miles, please. I’m a numbers man.”
“Not really. I help my family’s business allocate funds.” He retrieved his scotch from the edge of the bar and sipped.
“Well, now that is interesting.”
“It’s not like I save the lives of premature babies.”
“No, but you’re the man who can make my job easier. It seems as though you’re the person I should’ve been using all my charm on instead of Mr. Baldwin.” She took another drink of her champagne with a smile.
“I’m pretty sure that’s unnecessary, but I would love to hear more about your work. Do you have a seat saved for dinner?”
“Are you asking if I’m here with a date?”
“A little.” She finished her champagne.
“Does that mean you won’t tell me?”
“I’m alone, except for my friend Angie.”
“Excellent. Then the two of you can join me at my table.”
She pursed her lips. “We’ll see.” She reached past him and set her empty glass on the bar. “Pleasure to meet you, Miles. I’m off to mingle.”
Miles knocked back the rest of his drink and stared at Theresa retreating through the crowd. She walked with confidence and the alluring sway of her hips wasn’t lost on him. As she stopped to speak with various people, he kept an eye on her.
His gut told him that spending dinner with Theresa would be an excellent way to pass the night.