Bitterness is as classic as Chanel.
Tonight I’m wearing it as armor under my black flowing silk chiffon gown. At any moment guests will start arriving for Baylor Medical’s annual gala—the hospital’s biggest fundraiser and the most ambitious PR/event planning project I’ve ever tackled. After ten months of intense preparation, I’m ready.
Nick should be celebrating the success of the evening with me, but I’m here alone after he tossed me aside for his first love like last year’s Christmas present. Tonight is my chance to prove to everyone that a failed relationship won’t keep me down.
It’s be hurt or be hardened, and I pick the latter.
I adjust my headset and glance around. The modern concrete building of the Dallas Museum of Art is bathed in jewel tones, complemented by the mosaic wall opposite the entrance. The Moroccan music playing in the sculpture garden drifts on the wind, carrying the scent of incense and fruit from the hookah lounge. Photographers flank the red carpet leading into the main atrium, and valets surround the rectangular drive in preparation.
As if on cue, a train of limos and luxury vehicles pulls up. A fluttering sensation ignites in my stomach. Gathering my bearings, I inhale a deep breath and say, “All right, everyone. Look sharp.”
My assistant’s voice crackles in my ear. “Margaret, the attendees are here.”
“No shit,” I mutter. I polish off a glass of Dom Pérignon, the taste light and crisp with a dry finish. Life should never be wasted on unremarkable champagne. Hiding the flute in a manicured bush, I click on the headset and ask, “Is everything finalized for the live auction and dinner?”
“Yes, Captain,” my assistant says, as though we’re some ridiculous crew at sea. “Can I take a breather now? My feet are killing me.” She’s a psychology major straight out of college with no experience or work ethic—she’s chronically late, frequently leaves early, and spends most of the day fighting with the coffee machine. Last week she barged into my office complaining about the workload and begging for an assistant, not even comprehending that she is the assistant. I only hired her because our mothers are tennis partners at the club and my mother demanded I do her a favor. Never again.
“Only if you’d rather be unemployed,” I say as a valet opens the first car door. To my shock, Dr. Greg Preston, Nick’s father, steps out.
I knew Dr. Preston would make an appearance this evening—he’s the head of cardiology at Baylor Medical—but I thought I could avoid him in the throng of the three hundred people attending the gala. Panic builds in my chest, my heart thumping an erratic rhythm. Cameras flash as he walks the red carpet, talking and shaking hands with the other benefit goers all dressed in their finest formal attire. His resemblance to Nick makes my stomach tighten—the tousled hair, the eyes so blue I could dive into them, the movie-star features.
Nick was supposed to be mine, I think, as resentment latches on to me, strengthening my suit of armor. When everyone else abandoned him—his family, his friends, his fiancée—during the darkest point in his life, it was me who picked him up off the floor and helped him rediscover his passion for songwriting. I saved him. I’m the one who deserved his trust, loyalty, devotion. Yet Nick chose Lillie, the girl who destroyed him when she ran off, only to return five years later to steal the man I had rightfully earned.
Dr. Preston turns in my direction, but I duck out of sight before he can see me. I sneak behind the receiving line of belly dancers greeting guests to the festivities and move past the check-in area overflowing with the event programs and promotional materials I’d spent months creating.
The atmosphere in the main atrium feels as warm and exotic as the spices in Marrakech. Luxurious silk fabrics in vivid shades of teal and purple are draped across the ceiling, the walls lit up to match. A Moorish tile pattern is projected onto the floor, while pierced iron lanterns adorn tallboy tables covered in linens the colors of precious gemstones. Servers in traditional dress, from fez-capped heads to feet in heelless leather slippers, offer mint tea mojitos and caramel-fig martinis to attendees when they enter the cocktail reception. Several people gasp as they scan the room, and I hear a woman comment that it feels as though she’s been whisked away on a flying carpet.
I spot my parents near the stage set up in front of the windows framed by beautiful Chihuly glass. My father looks regal in a tuxedo and my mother sparkles in a beaded couture gown, exuding confidence and feminine sophistication with impeccable posture. Her red hair, identical in color to mine, is styled in an elegant French twist, and diamonds are dripping off her neck. When my mother notices me, her megawatt smile disappears into a thin line and her eyes narrow, displeasure evident in her features. It’s an expression I’m all too familiar with given that I’m always on the receiving end of it, though she’s typically more conscientious than to show it in public for fear someone may see past her perfectly constructed persona. Knowing it’ll only make her more upset if I delay, I pull my shoulders back and go greet them. My mother embraces me in a hug, her nails digging into my shoulders.
“Margaret, sweetheart, you decided on a black dress. How lovely,” she says. To a bystander, her tone sounds smooth and inflectionless, as though she’s doling out a compliment rather than thinly veiled criticism.
My mother thinks black is too harsh for redheads and our fair skin. She prefers midnight blue or emerald green. To accent the gray in your eyes, she reminds me often. But tonight? Tonight is my time to shine, so I’ll wear whatever I want, even if I’ll be admonished for it later when we’re behind closed doors.
“Thank you,” I say with a grin so believable it could pass as an authentic Birkin handbag in Chinatown.
She tucks a loose strand of hair into my updo. “That’s better. I wouldn’t want you mistaken for a slob.” She raises an eyebrow, daring me to respond. When I don’t, she laughs, but there’s an edge to it. “Your father and I were just talking with the Westways. You remember their daughter Harper? I think she was three years behind you in school. She got engaged last night. Yale educated, investment banker, comes from a long line of politicians. The wedding will be next summer at his family’s estate in East Hampton.”
It’s her subtle way of reminding me that I’ve embarrassed her, marred her pristine reputation, for wasting years of my life on an inappropriate man who, despite his sterling upbringing and pedigree, abandoned his family legacy of medicine to pursue such a tasteless ambition as songwriting. No amount of success—monetary, awards, or otherwise—could change my mother’s impression of Nick. To her, he’d always be an indiscretion. That he then chose a waitress over me, thus subjecting our family to a fresh round of gossip and scrutiny, has only fueled her anger.
If only my mother could understand that I never expected Nick to be a lesson I had to learn, or that I would be the one left standing on the sidelines.
“Do let me know if they need an event coordinator,” I say, refusing to let her elicit a reaction from me, then turn toward my father and peck him on the cheek, careful not to leave a lipstick mark. “Daddy.”
“Hello, honey.” He brushes a kiss against my forehead in return. “The food so far has been delightful. Particularly these tasty little things,” he says, snatching a bacon-wrapped date off a passing tray.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Roger,” my mother chides.
He pops the date into his mouth, blithely ignoring her—something he excels at. There’s a reason he’s one of the best family law and divorce attorneys in Dallas—he spends the majority of his time at the office and away from home in order to avoid my mother. I’ve often wondered why they’re still married, or how they ever got engaged in the first place. If their current relationship is any indication, I imagine the whole thing was more of a business transaction my mother probably suggested—“It’s the next logical step in our courting,” she’d have said—than an over-the-top romantic gesture. Perhaps the reason my father stays with her is because he’s witnessed firsthand how vindictive and cruel people can be when it comes to dividing assets.
“I’ll have a box of dates delivered to your office,” I whisper to him with a conspiratorial wink. “I’ll even include some fig and pear pastilla for dessert.” He smiles and pats my shoulder.
“Margaret, your father and I were discussing tonight’s theme—Arabian Nights. Interesting choice,” my mother says. Her voice is breezy, but the underlying reprimand is obvious.
“Moroccan,” I correct.
“What’s that, sweetheart?”
“The theme is centered around Morocco,” I say, the fragrant aroma of turmeric and cinnamon heavy in the air.
My mother waves me off, the diamond tennis bracelet on her wrist glinting in the light. “Same thing.”
“Arabia is in the Middle East. Morocco is in Africa. Different continents,” I say.
“Either way, we wondered if you’d considered its appropriateness for a hospital gala. Isn’t that right, Roger?” she says to my father. He’s staring at a group of people admiring their newly applied henna tattoos, not even pretending to listen.
I don’t bother to tell my mother that I selected the theme to separate the benefit from every other bland black-tie fundraising event so I could give people a night they’d remember. Once she’s cast judgment, any attempt at explaining is as futile as waiting for a Louis Vuitton sale.
“Roger,” my mother says again, touching his arm. “Explain to your daughter the importance of fulfilling client expectations.”
My father glances at her, then over at me, and shrugs. “In my experience, it is important to consider all sides of an issue before moving forward,” he says noncommittally, finishing off his scotch. After a lifetime of conversations with my mother, he’s built an entire arsenal of platitudes. It’s unfair how he gets stuck in the middle of us, how he often has to act as Switzerland in the battle between my mother and me. “When is dinner served? The small bites are great, but not nearly enough to hold me over.”
“Soon,” I say. “I hope you’re ready for an authentic feast.”
My mother opens her mouth with no doubt another jab, but I cut her off. “Speaking of which, I should go check on the meal. Please excuse me,” I say, striding away at a speed just shy of fleeing. Where did I put that flute of champagne? A server balancing a tray of mint tea mojitos brushes past me. I swipe a glass and take a few sips. The alcohol burns my throat, the hint of lime tart on my tongue.
While attendees mingle and nibble on lamb skewers and beef phyllo cigars, I ensure everything is still on schedule and running smoothly. So far no issues, apart from my mother’s condescending voice echoing in my head. The invite list is completely crossed off. It’s go time.
Not surprisingly, my assistant has vanished. I try reaching her through the headset, but all I get is silence. I find her in the sculpture garden smoking a hookah with a group of her friends from the country club whose parents paid for their tickets. Could she be more worthless? My expression must reflect my anger, because when she sees me, she stands so fast her knees bump the center table, nearly causing the hookah pipe to topple over.
“The last guests have arrived,” I say, sharp enough that the henna tattoo artist in the adjacent tent jumps in her seat. “Vacation’s over.”
She mumbles a sorry and quickly shoves her heels back on.
“I don’t want your apology. Just do your job. I need you with catering to make sure the food service is expedited properly. Can you handle that or are you as useless as your celebrity-prescribed diet?”
“Yes . . . I mean, no, I mean—I’ll take care of it.”
“Good.” As I turn away, I hear her mutter what sounds like bitch and slave driver. The rest of the group snickers. Tomorrow you can fire her.
I paste a smile on my face before returning to the atrium and motion the mistress of ceremonies, the Medical Center Foundation director, to start. She nods, adjusts the microphone on the podium, and calls for attention.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pleasure that I welcome you to ‘A Faraway Land,’ Baylor Medical’s annual gala, benefiting programs and services for the hospital. I’d like to express my sincere appreciation for your support and generosity, which help ensure our patients and their families have access to outstanding care and facilities. Thank you for being a part of this special event. Please enjoy your evening of enchantment.”
The audience applauds as cameras flash. The woman from Christie’s leading the live auction steps behind the podium and begins introducing the first item. People sink into plush velvet banquettes, cocktails in their diamond-adorned hands, ready to bid. As the prizes—the VIP luxury suite season tickets for the Dallas Cowboys; a long weekend of golf at the exclusive Shadow Creek in Las Vegas; a ten-day yacht cruise in the Caribbean—go quickly and expensively, I breathe easier. The paddle-lifting concludes as the final item, a magical three-week getaway to Morocco, sells for the price of a Lamborghini. My heart swells with pride. Between the auction and the donations, the gala raised more than two million dollars—nearly double last year’s amount.
Staffers escort the guests to the Chilton Galleries for an authentic Moroccan feast served family style, save for dining on the floor and eating with their hands. Little bowls of olives, hummus, smoked eggplant, and harissa are scattered around the table to accompany flatbread. Red wine is poured into colorful tumblers, while platters arranged with roasted vegetables in flavorful marinades are passed around. I watch as faces transform with delight at the first bite of carrot and chickpea salad, and grin. Keeping the menu consistent with the theme was a risk, but it seems to have paid off. Soon the museum is filled with sounds of people sharing good food and conversation.
As the second course is served, a waiter taps my shoulder. “Excuse me, miss,” he says, shifting on his feet. “There’s a problem at table fifteen.”
Of course there is.
I follow him into an adjacent gallery, where Mr. Dugan—Dallas’s most successful car dealership owner—has wedged himself between two women, one on the verge of throwing a clay pot of basmati rice, the other gripping a fork, armed for combat. My earlier excitement fizzles. Shit. How did I put his wife of thirty years in the same vicinity as his thirty-year-old mistress? The tension in the room is thick, everyone transfixed by the scene.
“Let’s move this outside,” I say, approaching with caution. The women don’t hear me, each focused solely on the other.
“He bid on the trip for me, you saggy old hag. Do you really think he’d spend ten days in the Caribbean staring at you in a bikini?” the mistress hisses at Mrs. Dugan, slashing the fork in the air. Mr. Dugan grabs her wrists and pins them against him.
Mrs. Dugan’s mouth opens and closes like a fish, but no words come out. She looks at her husband, but he won’t meet her gaze.
“Ladies, please. This is neither the time nor the place.” I keep my voice calm but don’t dare intervene for fear of getting stabbed.
The mistress flings out a graphic comment about her favorite sexual position with Mr. Dugan, and the cord snaps. Mrs. Dugan hurls the clay pot at the mistress’s chest, nearly knocking her off her feet. The pot crashes to the ground and shatters. Basmati rice flies everywhere. Then, as if she were doing nothing more than brushing away a speck of lint, Mrs. Dugan adjusts the shawl on her shoulders and strolls away.
The air feels thin in the sudden silence. The mistress clutches her chest, rage burning hot in her eyes. Mr. Dugan stands frozen like an ice sculpture. A staffer rushes around me to wipe up the mess. Someone giggles and hiccups, and the fog around Mr. Dugan evaporates. He glares at me with a coldness that causes a prickle to run down my spine, then whispers to his mistress and guides her to the exit with his back straight and head held high, as if determined to ignore the awkward hush around him and the people gawking.
I don’t manage to be so collected—my heart is lodged in my throat and my stomach is tangled into knots—especially under the weight of my mother’s deprecating stare. I know she’ll say this entire scene is my fault, that I’m in charge so it’s my responsibility to have my finger on the pulse of our social circle’s ever-evolving spats.
Desperate to get the evening back on track, I instruct the waiters to immediately start serving the main course. Still, even as the guests enjoy steaming tagines of lamb chops with pomegranate molasses, roasted chicken with preserved lemons and olives, and couscous with raisins, almonds, and saffron, they continue to discuss and dissect what transpired. No doubt it’ll make the rounds in the next few days, ensuring this event will be the talk of the town, though not in the way I’d hoped. Still, if this is the worst thing to happen tonight, I’ll consider it a success. After all, when money, alcohol, and society mix, something is bound to go wrong. And the only thing worse than a scandalous event is one no one talks about.
The lights dim and the music rises, signaling it’s time for the real party to begin. After the last person leaves the galleries in search of the hookah tents and dance floor and I’m alone with only the servers and cleaning crew, my heart returns to my chest and the knots in my stomach loosen. The hard part is over. I survived.
I allow myself one more moment of solitude before I rejoin the guests back in the main atrium. My mother intercepts me as I enter, pulling me off to the side by the fleshy part of my arm. Pain shoots into my fingers and tears sting my eyes. I remember during my sixth-grade cotillion dance when I removed my white gloves because my hands broke out in a rash, my mother dragged me out of the ballroom away from the other attendees, squeezing the skin so hard the bruise took weeks to fade, and scolded me until my eyes were bloodshot and snot ran down my nose. Since then I’ve learned it’s better to swallow the pain and the scolding.
“You sat Mrs. Dugan at the same table as her husband’s mistress?” she hisses. “How could you be so incompetent? These are our family’s friends and your father’s colleagues!”
I don’t respond. Answering will only prolong the torture.
A belly dancer takes position in the center of the floor, and a hush falls over the room. The music changes, and the dancer’s hips begin to sway. My mother tsks in disapproval even as guests create a large circle around her, clapping in rhythm with her movements.
“The whole gala has been a disaster. First the theme. Then your inability to handle something as basic as a seating chart. Now this?” she continues, gesturing to the performance. “And the menu! Did you even consider people’s food sensitivities? The foundation committee trusted you to plan an elegant affair, but all you’ve managed to do is embarrass yourself and this family.” She glances over her shoulder, scanning for nosy eavesdroppers. “You’ve been slow to understand this, so let me spell it out for you, Margaret. You’re only as meaningful and valuable as others perceive you to be. And tonight no one envies me my daughter. An experience I expect not to repeat in the future—” She breaks off, ordering me through clenched teeth to smile as the newly appointed Junior League president approaches us. I rub the tender spot on my arm where I know a bruise is already blossoming.
The League president greets my mother and faces me, kissing my cheeks. The scent of caramel-fig martinis is heavy on her breath. “Margaret, you outdid yourself! What a memorable event. Truly spectacular.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“Nancy, you and Roger must be so proud,” she says to my mother. “This night is going to be all anyone talks about.”
My mother loops an arm around mine, the megawatt smile ever present, and pinches the soft skin above my elbow. I bite my tongue to prevent myself from wincing. “Of course. We’re proud of everything Margaret does.”
A coldness rushes through me, as if I’ve been doused with ice water. At thirty-two and a professional businesswoman, I shouldn’t feel such crushing disappointment at her words. After all, my mother hasn’t been proud of me since I was a little girl, before I could form my own opinions and dreams. Still, I’d hoped this time would be different, that she would recognize how important this night is to me, how hard I’ve worked even if it isn’t the event she would’ve planned. How idealistic and foolish of me to assume I could ever be good enough.
The League president starts to speak as my earpiece crackles. “Margaret, we’ve got a man out here trying to reach one of the guests inside. He’s insisting on entering the gala, but he’s not on the list. Can you come talk to him?”
I sigh. It never ends. Why security can’t turn away some party crasher is beyond me. I click on the mouthpiece. “I’ll be right there.” Wiggling out of my mother’s grip, I walk away without a good-bye or second glance. Later she’ll reprimand me for my rude behavior, but I don’t care.
Weaving through the crowd, I step outside and come face-to-face with Nick.
Margaret Stokes is bitter. And not in the robust fine wine or tangy dark chocolate kind of way. She just got dumped, is fed up with her job as a glorified party-planner for the rich, and can’t possibly listen to one more veiled insult from her impossible-to-please mother. So she retreats to the comfort of her grandmother’s ramshackle bed and breakfast, where the wide open vineyards are filled with surprises, from the shockingly delicious wine to the aggravating yet oh-so-tempting man who makes it.
Ryan Camden’s easy approach to life encourages Margaret to loosen up and have a little fun, despite her better judgment. She resists the urge to micromanage every detail, embracing the welcome distractions of her surroundings and letting their relationship unfold at a natural rhythm. But when a health scare forces Grammy J to give up the B&B, Margaret begins to wonder if Ryan really is the man he promises—and whether the problems she tried so hard to escape ever really went away.
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