Susan Mallery

The Sparkling One

The first book in the Marcelli Sisters of Pleasure Road series, 2003

To Christine Flynn,

a brilliant writer and wonderful friend,

who one day happened to mention she was

making a wedding dress…by hand…and thus

inspired the entire trilogy.


“You kiss it.”

“No, you kiss it!”

Eight-year-old Katie Marcelli glanced from her seven-year-old twin sisters to the small green frog perched on a log in front of them. Summer sunlight shone through the trees, creating patterns on the grass and the log that made her think of fairies dancing in the breeze.

“Mommy said kissing a frog meant becoming a princess,” Francesca said, sounding doubtful. “I don’t want to be a princess that bad.”

Brenna pushed back the cardboard tiara Katie had carefully cut out, then covered with glue and glitter. “Boys are stupid and so are frogs. And princes.” She crossed her arms over her tattered lace-and-tulle dress-up costume and scowled.

Katie didn’t like boys all that much, but princes were different. Princes rode white horses and carried girls off to beautiful castles, where they got to eat ice cream any time they wanted and never had to write thank-you notes.

But Francesca had a point. Was all that really worth kissing a frog?

“How do we know it’s a magical frog?” she asked.

“In the book the frog had a little crown on its head. I don’t think this one used to be a prince at all,” Francesca told her.

Katie crouched down until she was eye level with the frog. It regarded her with big eyes, but didn’t jump away.

Francesca was right-there wasn’t any crown. No twinkling lights filled the air. But they’d never seen a frog here before-not in their special place.

She glanced around at the ring of trees and the soft, springy grass. Here she and her sisters pretended to be everything from elegant travelers taking a boat to a mysterious new land, to Cinderella, to mermaids. Sometimes their games were so elaborate they went on for days and Katie helped their Grammy M make special costumes. Today they were dressed to be fairy princesses. They’d just been deciding who was going to be kidnapped by the evil Dark Duke, when they’d spotted the frog.

“What if it’s magic and it wants to be sure we believe?” Katie asked.

Brenna rolled her eyes. “Then kiss it and find out. If it’s not magic, you’ll get warts all over your face and have to stay in your room because you’ll be so ugly.”

Not a happy outcome, Katie thought. But she really wanted to find a handsome prince and fall in love. She wanted a big wedding, with lots of lace and flowers and a sky full of stars.

“I believe you’re a prince in disguise,” she whispered to the frog. “I’m going to kiss you and then wait every night for you to come find me. You’ll be my one true love, and we’ll live happily ever after.”

She sucked in a deep breath for courage, leaned close, and pressed her lips against the frog’s small face. It croaked and hopped away.

Brenna laughed while Francesca tried to hide a smile. Katie wasn’t discouraged. When she’d kissed the frog, she felt…something. Like a tingle. Or a promise.

“You’ll see,” she told her sisters. “One day my prince is going to come for me. He’s going to want only me, and you’ll be sorry you didn’t kiss the frog, too.”

Francesca looked wistful, but Brenna shook her head. “You’ll be waiting until you’re old, because no prince is gonna show up.”

“You’re wrong. He will and I’ll be right here.”

Katie did wait. Every night for the next three years, she stood at her window and watched the sky, waiting for her prince to ride up on his white stallion and whisk her away.

In time she forgot about the frog, the kiss, and her beliefs, which was a good thing, because twenty years later there had been a lot more frogs, but not a single prince.


Katie Marcelli knew that with the right staff, she could organize the world. But as good help was hard to find, she contented herself with smaller projects, such as organizing closets, parties, and seminars. She owned her own business, made a decent living, and had a five-year business plan that would make a Fortune 500 CEO weep with envy. She was tough, confident, in charge.

On the outside.

On the inside her nerves were currently playing baseball in her stomach, and someone had just hit a foul ball down the third base line. She pressed a hand to her midsection and knew that fourth cup of coffee she’d gulped in her car was about to turn to acid. She was tense, wired, and pacing in high heels that might make her ankles look as slender as a gazelle’s but also threatened her future ability to walk without a limp.

Oh, please, oh, please let me say just the right thing, she thought as she paused in front of a large window overlooking Century City and Beverly Hills. Opportunities like this didn’t come along every day. She’d wanted to take her company to the next level, and this job was going to make it happen. All she had to do was be…sparkling.

The word made her smile. Ah, yes. She was “the Sparkling One.” Bright, bubbly, like fine champagne that had-

“Ms. Marcelli? Mr. Stryker will see you now.”

Katie turned toward a well-dressed fifty-something woman who held open a thick door and motioned for her to enter.

Katie stepped from the nicely carpeted hallway into sink-to-your-ankles plushness in an office the size of Rhode Island. A corner office, with floor-to-ceiling windows, sleek yet traditional furniture, a massive pair of leather sofas on the walls opposite the windows, and an elegantly dressed man good-looking enough to grace one of the billboards that lined Sunset Boulevard.

Zach Stryker, one of only three senior partners in the largest family law firm in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, and the youngest partner. He had a reputation for being tough, unflinching, and a hell of a negotiator. Oh, and

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