Read an Excerpt
Jodie Fletcher leaned across her desk and studied the earnest expression on Laurie Winston's face. Though beautiful and popular, Laurie was one of those high school seniors who actually thought more about others than she did about herself. Perhaps it was simply her upbringing, or maybe losing her mother at fifteen had turned Laurie into a more compassionate person. Whatever the explanation, Jodie tended to give more credence to Laurie's heartfelt pleas than she did to those of the teenager's self-absorbed classmates.
Okay, there was more to it than that, Jodie admitted to herself. She paid attention because Laurie was Trent Winston's daughter. A lifetime ago Jodie and Trent had been in a relationship that had been doomed from the start. She'd seen that, even if Trent hadn't.
Trent had ambitions to make it big in highend residential construction, and he'd needed a woman by his side who could help him make the climb to the top. Jodie hadn't been that woman. She'd had zero self-confidence after years of being the less-than-perfect daughter, the less-than-perfect student, the less-than-perfect younger sister. Back then, she hadn't considered herself an ideal match for anyone, despite Trent's obvious feelings for her.
In what might have been the most unselfish gesture of her life, she'd ended the relationship, setting Trent free to find someone better suited to help him build his empire than a woman still struggling to find herself. He'd fought for her for a while, but in the end he must have seen the wisdom in her decision because he'd finally stopped calling. A couple of years after the breakup, she'd read about his marriage to Megan Davis, the socialite daughter of multimillionaire Warren Davis, a gorgeous, delicate woman with all the right connections. Only then had Jodie truly moved on.
When she'd joined the staff at Rockingham High School last year, she'd been taken aback when she'd gone through the student records and discovered that Laurie Winston was Trent's daughter and that he'd been widowed for two years. Every time she encountered Laurie, she avidly looked for traces of Trent in Laurie's features. Obviously, though, Laurie had inherited her coloring and looks from her mother's side of the family. Jodie did see a tiny hint of Trent in Laurie's persistence and in the way she spoke so passionately when she cared about something, like now.
"There has to be something we can do, Ms. Fletcher," Laurie repeated. " There just has to be. It's not fair that so many kids miss the prom and all the other graduation activities just because they don't have anything to wear. It happens every year and it's wrong."
Jodie had often thought much the same thing at her old school in a neighboring district, but until this past summer she'd been at a loss as to what could be done. Now she actually had a few ideas, thanks to a friend she'd visited in Canada who was familiar with a program called Inside the Dream that provided clothing, accessories and everything else that was needed to kids who might otherwise have to miss those important senior-year events.
Longtime staff at Rockingham High School told Jodie that as the prom had become more elaborate and expensive, it was no longer within reach for many of the students. More and more young people pretended not to care that they were missing their senior prom. Girls with stars in their eyes, who'd been dreaming of that night ever since they'd started high school, suddenly claimed to have better things to do. The boys, rigid with pride, made their own plans for a guys' night out and swore it was better than any dumb old dance could ever be.
As a counselor, Jodie had seen the same unspoken heartbreak many times at her previous school, but she was curious about what had made Laurie aware of the dilemma faced by many of her classmates.
" Why is this so important to you?" she asked the teen.
With her pale complexion, there was no mistaking the blush that spread across Laurie's cheeks. She brushed a strand of silky blond hair back from her face. A diamond tennis bracelet winked on her wrist. "Actually it's because of Mike," she admitted. "You know Mike Brentwood, right?"
Since Rockingham High only had a few hundred students, Jodie knew most of them, at least by name. She knew Mike better than most. She nodded. "You and Mike have been dating for a while now, haven't you?"
" Since we were juniors," Laurie said.
"So you know his family?"
"Then you've known for some time that the expense of a big dance might be more than he could handle," Jodie suggested.
Mike was one of four kids being raised in a mostly affluent community by a struggling single mom who earned minimum wage. Money was always tight. Jodie knew more than she intended to share with Laurie. She'd already helped to get Mike's younger sisters and brother free school breakfasts and lunches because they were coming to school hungry too often. Mike had refused any similar help for himself, claiming he got to eat at his after-school job as a busboy at a local restaurant.
"I've known from the beginning that it's tough for his family," Laurie said. "Last year we skipped prom. We talked about doing that again this year, and to be honest, I'd be okay with it, but I can tell Mike feels really, really bad about it, like he's letting me down or something. And then, when we were setting up the organizing committee, I was talking to a couple of girls in my class and they admitted they didn't have the money for dresses and getting their hair done and all that stuff, so I started asking around. There must be at least a dozen girls, probably more, who can't afford to do any of the things that the rest of us can. I didn't ask the boys, but I'll bet there's just as many of them who don't have extra cash. They shouldn't be left out, Ms. Fletcher. Like I said before, it's wrong."
Jodie nodded, impressed by her compassion. " Okay, then, if you've done all this research, I'm sure you have some thoughts about what needs to happen."
Laurie grinned. "Actually, that's why I came to you. You're in the business of fixing things. I only had one idea and basically it sucked."
Jodie laughed at her candid assessment. "What idea was that? "
"To cancel prom and do something different that everyone could afford." Laurie shrugged. "That didn't seem fair, either. In fact, I'd probably get run out of school for even suggesting it."
"You could be right," Jodie agreed. There were some traditions that no one wanted to tamper with. The prom was one of those rites of passage.
"So?" Laurie asked, that earnest expression back on her face. "Do you have any ideas?"
"Actually, I do," Jodie admitted. "But it's only a few months until prom. It would take a lot of work to pull off my plan in time, but I'm willing to give it a try if you'll agree to work with me."
"Tell me," Laurie said eagerly. "I'm sure I can get more people to help if it means everyone will be able to participate this year."
Jodie pulled up the Inside the Dream Web site on her computer and turned the screen so that Laurie could see it. "A friend I was visiting last summer told me about this organization," she explained. "They find donations of dresses, suits, tuxedos, shoes, you name it. Some tuxedo rental businesses donate gift certificates. The organizers get volunteer seamstresses to make alterations. They find hairstylists and makeup artists who can help out."
Laurie's eyes lit up. "That is so awesome. I'll bet we could do that here. A lot of moms give tons of business to the boutiques in the area. I'll bet they could persuade some of them to donate gowns. And there must be a lot of dads who buy or rent tuxedos all the time, too. They might be able to arrange for some rentals or give us their old tuxes."
"Some of your classmates might view getting a free gown or a tuxedo as charity," Jodie cautioned. "They still might not want to go to prom."
"But at least it'll be their choice, then. It won't be because it's impossible."
" What about tickets, Laurie?" Jodie asked. " Have you considered that? The cost of the tickets alone can be prohibitive for some of these students. Unless you're willing to cut costs dramatically and do a smaller event, all of the rest might not matter."
Laurie sat back. "Oh, my gosh, I hadn't even thought about that. We've barely started with all arrangements, but I already know how expensive the hotel and food are going to be. We tried to get good deals, but I don't see any way to cut those costs."
"Unless you did the prom here," Jodie suggested. " That's what lots of high schools do."
Laurie looked skeptical. "I could suggest it, I suppose, but I know the committee would hate it."
"Any other ideas, then?" Jodie asked.
Suddenly Laurie's expression brightened. "I remember some of the moms talking about a fund-raiser they were doing. They found businesses to underwrite a lot of the costs. Do you think we could do that, maybe have a program with ads in it? I'll bet if we explained that this was something kids were going to save and look at again and again and show their parents, too, a lot of stores would see it as good advertising. Then we could cut ticket prices. I think everyone should pay something, though, don't you?"
"I do," Jodie agreed. She had to admire Laurie's enthusiasm and her wisdom. "Okay, then, once you know your hotel and food costs, do a mock-up of the program and figure out possible ad sizes and costs. You could even pitch the hotel to see if they'd give you a bit of a break in return for a full-page ad. I'd suggest you have a separate committee to handle all this, since it's going to be time-consuming."
Laurie started scribbling notes like mad. "We have a committee meeting tomorrow. I'll bring this up then."
"And let's make a list of the donations and volunteers we'll need," Jodie suggested, reaching for her own pad and pen and starting to jot down notes.
"You're the best, Ms. Fletcher. This is going to be the best prom ever."
Not the best, Jodie thought, but if she could make a difference for just a few teens, give them memories she'd never had, it would be worth all the extra time she'd have to put in over the next few months. It would also give her a chance to spend some time with Trent's daughter and get to know her a little better. And maybe find out just what kind of man Trent had become.
Trent Winston shrugged out of his tuxedo jacket, jerked off the annoying bow tie he'd struggled with earlier, and then went to work on the studs in the overly starched shirt.
"I am never, ever going to another black-tie event," he declared to the empty room as he tossed the offending garments onto his king-size bed. To lend emphasis to the statement, he entered his walk-in closet and pulled out two more custom-tailored tuxedos and threw them onto the bed as well.
He looked up to see his daughter in the doorway, staring at him with a bewildered expression.
"What are you doing?" Laurie asked, her gaze on the discarded formal wear.
"I've just made a decision," he announced. "I have attended my last black-tie event."
To his surprise, she didn't seem the least bit upset. For years she'd loved to sit quietly and watch while he and her mother got ready for all of the fancy charity auctions, dinners and dances that Megan insisted they attend if his company was to grow. Megan had considered these extravagant bashes to be an investment in their future. Laurie had always acted as if her parents were leading some elaborate fairy-tale existencethe dark-haired prince taking his blond princess off to the ball.
Since Megan's death, he'd continued to pay the exorbitant prices for these mostly boring functions out of habit, but the reality was that Winston Construction no longer needed the same exposure that it had in its early days. He'd been custom-building luxury homes in the far western suburbs of northern Virginia for more than a dozen years now. His reputation was solid, and word-of-mouth gave him more opportunities than he could ever accept without sacrificing his hands-on approach which included overseeing every detail from framing the house to installing the kitchen cabinets. These days he could just as easily write a check and satisfy the company's commitment to various charities. It would leave his nights free to spend time with his daughter, who was growing up too darn fast.
Tonight she was wearing wrinkled pajamas that to his eye didn't look all that different from the casual pants and tank tops she wore to the mall, though these pants did have some kind of kitty design she probably wouldn't be caught dead wearing out in public. With her face scrubbed clean of makeup, he was able to forget for a moment that she was seventeen, almost an adult. It always caught him off guard when he realized that next year she'd be away at college. Right now, she still looked like his little girl.
"Okay, what's on your mind?" he asked, expecting the lecture Megan would have given him about the importance of networking. In some ways, Laurie was her mother's daughter, savvy about getting ahead. She'd already chosen her college majorinvestment banking. In other ways, she'd inherited his down-to-earth attitude and total lack of pretensions.
"What are you going to do with those tuxes?" she asked, surprising him.
" Give them to a thrift shop, I suppose. Why?"
"Can I have them? "
He stared at her blankly. " Why would you want three tuxedos?"
She grinned. "Prom's coming up, and yesterday Ms. Fletcher and I came up with this totally awesome idea to make sure that everybody gets to go. Did you know there are kids at school who stay home every year because they can't afford the tickets or the clothes?"
" I had no idea," he said. "And frankly, I'm a little surprised that it matters so much to you."
"Dad, you know why," she said impatiently. "Mike."
The single word was enough to have him grinding his teeth. Mike Brentwood was a good kid. He was polite, hard-working and seemed smart enough, but Trent thought Laurie was way too young to be so serious about a boy. Any boy.
Every time he tried to broach the subject, though, she looked at him as if he'd just arrived from Mars and was speaking some incomprehensible language. Or worse, as if he were some prejudiced jerk who hated the kid for being poor. Trent hadn't always had money. He knew what it was to struggle to make ends meet. He also knew that a serious relationship could be a distraction that a kid like Mike didn't need. He wasn't just thinking of his daughter, he told himself nobly. He was also thinking of Mike and his future.
He decided now was not the time to rehash that particular sore subject.
"If Mike needs to borrow a tuxedo, all you have to do is ask," he told Laurie.
"You're missing the point, Dad. He's not the only one. And Mike would never accept charity from you. He'd be totally humiliated."
Trent could understand that. To be honest, he would have felt the same way at eighteen. Borrowing clothes from his girlfriend's dad would have been too embarrassing. He'd had a toughenough time swallowing his pride as an adult and letting Megan's father back him when he'd started up his business. Even though the deal had been handled in a totally businesslike fashion and he'd paid back every dime of that money with interest, it had put their relationship on an uneven footing from the beginning. He doubted they'd have had any contact at all now if it weren't for Laurie. Warren Davis adored his granddaughter as he had his own daughter. Trent would never get in the way of that bond, especially with Megan gone.
He sat down on the edge of his bed and patted a place beside him. " Tell me about this plan of yours."