FORTY

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Nope . . . Nope . . . Nope. . . The word repeated over and over in Virginia's head, accompanied by the scratching sounds made by the shuffling hangers. Not that there was much to choose from in her closet. Dresses weren't suitable for housework, and she certainly didn't need them for the job. The ones she did own were older than Janine, but not yet old enough to be back in style.

Why had she let Walt talk her into this?

She pictured herself at her desk, poring over Jack's file for what seemed like the millionth time, and the invitation floating down in front of her. THE POLICEMEN'S ANNUAL BALL, it read. She raised her head. Walt's smile was infectious, mischievous . . . and a little too gung ho.

"You know I don't go to these things, Walt," she remembered saying.

He'd started in on the convincing—how it was being held on Cap's birthday and they'd managed to talk him into going, were hoping to get a big turnout, and had booked a few tables together. When she told him she'd think about it, Walt had tucked his chin and stared out under his brows while adding, "He's retiring soon . . ."

He needn't have played the guilt card. True, these events weren't normally worth the hassle of arranging babysitting, but for Cap she would do anything.

Okay, so it wasn't all Walt's fault. And it was nice that Paul had agreed to go, saying he would meet her there. He'd like this kind of thing, especially if single women were around. He was still living on base, not having much luck finding a decent apartment to sublet for the short period of time he'd be in town.

Pushing aside another reject, she stopped at the little black number she'd always liked. Too bad the stain on the front had never come out. With a groan she moved on, picking up the tempo, wondering why she hadn't done this earlier or gone—

The Spinelli dress made its appearance from the back corner she had relegated it to. As she lifted it out and twirled it on its hanger, sadness weighed her down. Not wanting to revisit the whole what-went-wrong question again, she ignored the memories and muttered, "Might as well use it rather than have it rot in the closet."

She did her own makeup and left her hair loose. The dress still impressed and she marveled at how well it fit, accentuating all the right places. She turned to and fro, the crystal beads catching the light like tiny diamonds, and smiled at her reflection. Maybe I'll meet somebody interesting tonight. She laughed at the foreign thought.

She arrived at the ball by six o'clock, surprised to see how crowded it was. It had been years since she'd been to one, but she didn't remember it ever being this popular. A number of the male guests were wearing their dress uniforms in lieu of a suit. Thank God it wasn't a requirement.

After checking in, she was handed a badge-shaped sticker for a name tag. She placed it on her upper arm like a tattoo, not wanting to chance any sticky residue on the dress. Entering the dining area, she looked for her assigned table. According to the small map she'd been given, there were sixty choices spread around the room, each adorned with a white tablecloth, flowered centerpiece, and a number held up by an imitation nightstick. Her table was easy to spot—the only one with balloons tethered and floating above it.

Her party took up four tables bordering the dance floor that was laid out in front of a large stage. The turnout was pretty good—at least half of their station was there. She took her time going around, getting reacquainted with dates and spouses, being introduced to those she had not met before. She gave Captain Beal a birthday kiss on the cheek and smiled at the bashful "now, now" he muttered under his breath—receiving special attention was not in his comfort zone.

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