I knocked on Mariah’s bedroom door. “Honey? You about ready?”
“Yes!” came her muffled reply. “At least, I hope so. You can come in.”
Holding my breath, I turned the knob and pushed the door open. Immediately, my breath caught and my eyes filled at the sight of my bonus daughter in her senior Prom dress. “Oh, Mariah,” I breathed. “You look so beautiful.”
She’d been looking at herself in the full-length mirror on her closet door, but now turned to face me. She wore a floor-length gown with spaghetti straps and a high slit in its flowing skirt. The sky-blue color made her azure eyes pop, and the simple diamond earrings I’d loaned her added a touch of sparkle. Her dark hair was loose and wavy, spilling over one shoulder. Around her neck she wore a delicate silver necklace that had been her mother’s.
A hesitant smile was on her lips. “Thanks. I’m still not sure about this makeup. I’m not used to wearing so much.”
“I know, but there will be so many pictures taken today and what looks a little overdone in real life looks perfect in photos. Oh my God, I can’t believe it,” I gushed, fighting tears. “You’re really going to the Prom.”
She rolled her eyes and laughed. “I hope so. Did my date show up yet?”
“Not yet, but he will. Your dad pacing the floor downstairs, getting ready to deliver the lecture.”
“Oh, Lord. Please no.” Mariah clasped her hands beneath her chin. “Don’t let him embarrass me with his Dad-slash-cop talk. We know the statistics. We’re not going to break any laws. We just want to have a good time.”
“I know, honey.” I couldn’t resist coming forward and smoothing a strand of flyaway hair. “I’ll do my best. But sometimes you just have to let your dad speak his mind. He’s a worrier.”
She sighed heavily. “I know. But I’m eighteen. Like, when does the overprotective act stop?”
Laughing, I shook my head. “Probably never.”
“Good grief. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I can’t wait to move out and have a little freedom to make a couple bad decisions.”
Mariah was heading off to East Lansing in the fall to attend Michigan State University. I couldn’t believe how time had flown—it seemed like just yesterday she’d been a fourth grader making construction-paper turkeys with Cole and me at her grandmother’s dining room table. And now, eight years later, here we were.
Cole and I married with two kids—a boy and a girl—in elementary school. Living in the house he bought when everything seemed so uncertain. Mariah graduating from high school in a couple weeks and heading off to college soon to study veterinary medicine. It was hard to imagine who’d miss her the most—her devoted dad, who’d always been wrapped around her finger? Me, who’d been so lucky to get to love her like a mother and help raise her all these years? Her seven-year-old sister Marabel, who thought she walked on water? Her six-year-old brother Roan, who still wanted to sleep in her bed every night?
My throat, already tight, closed up even more, my eyes burring again as I gently brushed a tiny piece of mascara off her cheek. “But I don’t think you’re going to make all that many bad decisions. You’re too smart for that.”
“Thanks.” She smiled, glancing down at her feet, swishing the hem of her dress aside to reveal silver high-heeled sandals. “Well, I guess I’m ready. Should we go down?”
I nodded, unable to speak. And when she turned to check her reflection one last time, I couldn’t resist putting my arms around her from behind. Careful not to mess up her hair, I gave her a gentle squeeze. “We are so proud of you,” I managed to whisper. “And I’m so excited for you to have the best time ever tonight. Is there anything you want to ask me?”
She sighed, since we’d already gone over the whole protect-yourself sex conversation a hundred times this week. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust Mariah and her boyfriend of six months, Alex Frankel, but I also knew how hormones could overwhelm common sense at that age. God knows I’d have jumped into bed with Cole when I was eighteen.
“No, Mom,” she assured me. “I’m good.”
“Okay. I’ll stop now.” But I grinned, because I’d never grow tired of hearing her call me Mom, which she’d started to do soon after Cole and I were engaged. It made her happy, she said. She knew I hadn’t given birth to her, and she still referred to Trisha as Mommy, but I was the mother figure present in her life day after day. I didn’t mind sharing the space with the woman who’d brought her into this world—in fact, I was honored.
“Okay, then. Let’s get your downstairs.”
I followed Mariah out of her bedroom, which had once been painted a daffodil yellow but was now a soft shade of lavender. With one hand on the banister, she glided down the stairs and stepped into the living room, where Cole turned from the window to watch her entrance.
I watched his go from stunned to proud to wistful, and knew he was probably seeing a toddler in a ball gown, a kindergartner in diamond earrings, a fourth grader in high-heeled shoes. I felt the the same.
“Wow,” he said, his blue eyes sweeping over her. “You look beautiful.”
“You look like a princess,” said Marabel, from where she was kneeling on the couch by the window. She’d been watching for Mariah’s boyfriend Alex Frankel for hours, ever hopeful he might pull up in a horse and carriage instead of his dad’s Cadillac.
“She does,” I agreed, moving around Mariah to go stand at Cole’s side.
Roan scampered in from the kitchen with Buddy and Ginger, our second rescue dog, on his heels. “Where are you going, Riah?” he asked his big sister.
She patted his blond head. “To the Prom. It’s a dance.”
“It’s like a ball,” Marabel put in, her eyes peeled out the window. “Right, Mom?”
I smiled. “Kind of.”
“He’s here!” Marabel jumped down from the couch and bolted for the door, throwing it open well before Alex had a chance to park the car and approach the front door. By the time the poor kid was coming up the porch steps, a clear plastic container holding a wrist corsage in his hands, he had an audience in the doorway of five humans and two dogs.
“Hi, Alex,” I called, smiling at him in his tux. “You look great.”
The handsome sandy-haired teenager gave us all a boyish, dimpled grin. “Thanks.”
“Hey,” Mariah said shyly, stepping ahead of us onto the porch.
“Hey.” Reaching the top step, Alex stopped short at the sight of Mariah, his jaw dropping, his cheeks coloring. “You look amazing.”
“Thanks. So do you.”
They stood there staring at each other awkwardly for a full ten seconds. “Oh! This is for you.” Alex opened the plastic container and held out the corsage.
“Thanks.” She slipped it onto her wrist with his help, and I sighed, leaning against Cole.
Then she glanced over at me, her face a little worried. “Mom, do we have the”—she patted her chest.
“Oh! The boutonniere! Yes, it’s in the fridge. I’ll grab it.” Hurrying back to the kitchen, I retrieved the little container in which the single white rose was nestled against emerald green tissue paper.
Back on the porch, I pulled it out and handed it to Mariah, who struggled to pin it to Alex’s lapel. Again, she looked at me, her eyes pleading for a little help.
“Here,” I said, coming to her rescue. “These can be tricky.” When they were all flower’d up, I suggested we move onto the lawn for some photos.
“Okay, but not a million of them,” Mariah warned, letting Alex take her arm and help her down the steps into the sunshine. “We’re meeting everyone over at Leigh’s in fifteen minutes.”
“Just a few, I promise,” I said, tugging my phone from my back pocket. It was a gorgeous Saturday in May, just enough sun, temperature in the high sixties, a slight breeze.
Right then, a white pickup pulled up at the curb and we all watched as Griffin, Blair, and their two kids jumped out.
“Oh my goodness, look at you!” Blair squealed, her hands flying to her cheeks at the sight of Mariah and Alex. “I’m going to cry!”
Mariah sent me a look over her shoulder. “Really?”
“I’m sorry, they wanted to see you off and I couldn’t say no,” I said, laughing as I scooted around them to wave at the Dempseys.
Mariah groaned dramatically. “Fine. You all get five minutes, and then we’re going.”
“Deal,” I told her.
We greeted Blair, Griffin, and their two boys, seven-year-old Henry and five-year-old Beau, who immediately started running around with Roan and the dogs. “Come over here by the magnolia tree,” I told the Prom couple. “We’ll get a few and then send you on your way.”
They gamely obliged, and we took a ton of photos of them—side by side, posed as if they were dancing, fake-pinning the boutonniere and slipping on the corsage again. We also took some of Mariah with Cole and me, and Blair had to wipe her eyes again.
“Jeez, what are you going to do when she gets married?” Griffin muttered.
“Bawl my eyes out, what else?” Blair replied.
“Same,” I said. “I can’t even think about it.”
Ten minutes later, Cole and I stood hand in hand as we watched Alex carefully back out of the driveway.
“You okay?” I asked, squeezing his hand. “You’ve been very quiet.”
“I’m fine. He’s a good kid.”
“And I gave him a little man-to-man talking-to when Mariah went inside to grab her purse.”
I laughed. “Uh oh.”
“It was nothing bad. He shook my hand afterward and promised to be safe tonight. He said his father had given him the exact same talk.” He put his arm around me as we moved into the back yard, where Griffin was playing with the kids and dogs, and Blair was scrolling through photos she’d just taken on her phone.
“Well, good,” I said, a sense of peace and contentment washing over me. “I’ve got a good feeling. I think everything is going to be be just fine.”
“I think you’re right,” I he said, planting a kiss on my temple. “But I might need you to distract me from my worrying tonight, if that’s okay.”
I wrapped my arms around his waist. “That happens to be my favorite Saturday night activity, Officer Mitchell.”
His laugh warmed me all over. “Good.”