Excerpt: If The Shoe Fits
Book 1: Once Upon A Romance Series
“Hey, lady, what’s your rush? You gonna turn into a pumpkin or somethin’?” the taxicab driver asked as he tucked the fare and tip in his top pocket.
Charlotte King chuckled as she slammed the car door shut. She dashed through the drenching rain.
With one finger curled tightly around the metal garment bag hook, Charlie jumped into several puddles. She rushed up the walkway and stairs to the massive oak door guarding the stony fortress she once called home.
Under the shelter of the overhang, she caught her breath in the chilly night air. With her free hand, she brushed back the wet tendrils of dark hair from her cheeks. Cool droplets of rain slithered down the back of her neck, making her shiver.
In spite of her soggy condition, a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth at the evening ahead. The mandatory attendance tonight seemed a small price to pay if it could somehow assist in getting one of her stepsisters married. “One down and one to go,” she whispered hopefully.
Her stepmother’s offer this morning was too good to refuse. Charlie would use her many marketing talents and people skills to promote her stepsisters to their prospective grooms. In exchange, her stepmother promised invigorating new interest in the family store.
The implication lay there, thick and heavy, between them. King’s Department Store, her late father’s beloved store, would benefit immensely in the end.
And the store needed it more than ever. Charlie’s heart had sunk after seeing the latest slumping quarterly sales reports in the managers’ meeting earlier in the day. The grim news hit especially hard; the store couldn’t keep this downward pace without someone suffering. Her stepmother had made it quite clear that layoffs were a foregone conclusion. How could they even think of getting rid of the faithful employees who had stuck with them for decades? They were like family to Charlie.
And, next on the chopping block would be the store itself. The holidays were just a few short months away. This season would make or break King’s. She swallowed hard. It was do or die.
Charlie shook her head, clearing her mind of the dark outcome. She had to fix this. So many people were counting on her. She couldn’t let them down. She had to perform to her stepmother’s liking tonight and get the woman, who was in charge of King’s and who controlled the purse strings, to release her stronghold on the store’s remodeling and marketing budgets. In her heart of hearts, Charlie knew it would take drastic revamping to lure customers back in the declining store. But she could do it. She would save her father’s store.
Visions of customers clamoring for their newest and finest goods and sales skyrocketing made Charlie giddy with anticipation.
In her bag she’d neatly tucked her sketchbook, pages filled with new layouts and future innovations to present to her stepmother in a private meeting after dinner this evening. Now, Charlie clutched it a little bit tighter; this could be the new beginning for King’s.
All her father’s dreams could come true. It was up to Charlie to make sure that happened. She’d promised him. It was a nine-year-old girl’s promise to her dying father.
A promise was a promise.
And she’d lived that desperate need to honor him for nearly twenty years now, lived and breathed the store and his dream.
“Now this,” she said softly. A part of it nagged at her. A marriage of convenience? Her stepsisters? Her parents had one, though. It had worked. They’d fallen deeply in love and were devoted to each other until the day her mother had died.
Love in a marriage of convenience could still happen, couldn’t it?
“If only I could get the stepmother married off, too.” A shudder went through her, at the cool breeze rushing over her damp body or the image of a man actually brave enough to marry her stepmother; Charlie couldn’t be sure which thought had caused that particular sensation.
She gave one last lingering look at her father’s house.
Yellow beams of light beckoned from the windows. The fortress, awash in warmth and cheer, appeared welcoming to all who needed refuge from this dark, rainy night. It hadn’t felt like her home since her father died. A pang of nostalgia rushed through her.
Charlotte cast that sad thought aside and focused on what lie ahead. Desperate times called for desperate measures. She’d live up to her part. Once the distraction of getting her eldest stepsister engaged was over, then all Charlie had to do was convince her stepmother that King’s Department Store, the once grand family business started by her late father, was worth saving even in these hard times.
“One good deed deserves another, right?”
Smiling, she knocked on the hard wood. Her cold knuckles ached at the rough contact. In the next instant, the huge door flew open.
“Dolly,” she cried, stepping into the foyer and dropping the heavy black bag. She hugged the short, round older woman who’d practically raised her. Curly, gray hair brushed her cheek as she embraced her friend and confidante. The hint of rose perfume and pressed face powder tickled her senses.
“Why, Miss Charlie, where have you been?” Dolly asked, pulling slightly away and holding her at arm’s length. “And dripping wet, too.” With a frown gathering between her usually sparkling blue eyes and shaking her head, she said, “You’ll catch your death like that.”
At the concern-laced chastisement, Charlie smiled widely, feeling loved. She shrugged. “I was being held hostage in a taxicab, of all places. When I got within a block, I hopped out and escaped down the street.”
Dolly chuckled. Closing the door, she bent to pick up the dropped bag. “Oh, you’re late. We’d better hurry up and get you changed. Did you bring the one I told you to?”
“Your favorite, just like you asked.”
“And the shoes?”
“The shoes, too.”
“That’s my Charlie.”
She nodded her head to the closed door of the formal living room. “Is the barracuda fuming?”
“Shush now, she’ll hear you.”
Charlie grinned. She’d been calling her stepmother Barracuda since the day her father brought his new bride home. The name couldn’t have been more perfect for the razor-sharp tongued woman who zeroed in on her foe with lethal precision and attacked. Charlie had seen it a thousand times, both in her personal and professional dealings with the woman.
An impish delight took hold as Charlie asked, “And has Prince Charming arrived?”
“He has. Been waiting on you for half an hour, too.”
“It’s not me he’s come to inspect for a bride.”
The older woman tucked her arm through the crook of Charlie’s elbow and steered her to the wide, elegant oak staircase. “If you ask me, them two stepsisters of yours in there can’t measure up to the dimple on your backside.”
“Why, Dolly, you’ve been looking again.”
That had her friend giggling like a schoolgirl. Charlie joined in as they raced up the stairs to the guest bedroom. On the way, Dolly gossiped shamelessly, “My, he is a fine looking one, though-”
Prince Charming, as the papers dubbed him, leaned his hand on the oak mantel above the fireplace, his back to the opulent gold parlor. Never in Alexander Royale’s life had he wished to burst out laughing as much as he did now. He’d overheard the feisty exchange between the maid and the last sister in the outer foyer.
Barracuda? How perfect to describe the older, stern-faced woman behind him. If it hadn’t been for her ongoing insistence, he’d have easily brushed off his grandfather’s suggestion of dinner with the all-female King family.
But marriage was the goal, wasn’t it? So here he was, searching for a wife to please his ailing grandparents. First the wedding and then the heir.
Under control, Alex straightened and slowly turned to the three seated women. He had to bite his inner cheek when he witnessed the same sour expression on all their faces. They’d heard.
Mrs. King, dressed in black from head to toe, smiled weakly at him. “More sherry, Mr. Royale? Francine will be happy to pour.”
The girl in question, blonde with blue eyes, perched on the edge of the sofa with one hand clasped lightly over the other in her lap. One corner of her mouth shifted upward as she pasted on a smile.
“No, thank you, Mrs. King, Francine.” The girl actually breathed a sigh of relief, which made Alex’s lips twitch.
He darted a glance in the other girl’s direction.
Seated beside her sister, she could have been her twin in dress alone. Matching knee-length, plain black dresses with long sleeves adorned their waif-thin bodies. However, the other one, Priscilla he recalled, had her auburn hair swept up and her green eyes lowered.
By all accounts, Alex figured the mother was trying to marry off the oldest sister. Neither one appealed to him in the slightest. In fact, this whole business of plucking a bride out of a lineup made him ill.
He longed for the evening to end. Glancing at the gold-faced mahogany grandfather clock across the room, he nearly groaned out loud. It would be hours before he could make his escape, he thought as he recalled the overheard conversation in the foyer a short while ago.
It seemed like long, drawn-out hours of stony silence peppered with polite acceptable society inquiries. In reality, thankfully for Alex, it was only twenty minutes before he heard the maid outside the parlor door.
“Now, honey, you go and be yourself.” Her cautionary tone held an unmistakable caring beneath it.
“I intend to.”
“No need to kowtow to Her Highness or her little entourage. They ain’t no better than you, you know? Never have been, never will be.”
The light feminine chuckle that followed left a warm trail in his chest. Alex stood, to prepare for the last sister’s entrance or to shake off that sensation – he couldn’t be too certain. Either way, he wanted the night to end.
The door clicked open. He found himself holding his breath.
“Shoot,” the younger voice cried. “My shoes-”
He caught a glimpse of the maid’s profile, waving a hand at the woman still out of his sight. “Scoot back up there and get them. I’ll hold the fort down by getting them to the dining room.”
Entering the elegant emerald green dining room, Alex calculated the number of hours remaining. He groaned inwardly at the stilted, forced conversation to come. He reminded himself he’d done this a hundred times before and he could do this again. But his jaw ached with the effort to keep a pleasant smile on his face.
“Ladies,” he began, ready to extol on the gleaming silver, sparkling Waterford crystal, gold-edged plates, and the overflowing flower centerpiece. He stopped short when he heard what he assumed was the footsteps of the last sister racing down the stairs.
Alex turned just in time to see a whirlwind of red slide across the marble floor. The force hit him square in the chest.
He let out a soft grunt.
Instinctively, he reached out to hold her, protect her much smaller body. But she pulled away, taking away the warmth he’d experienced. A tantalizing scent lingered. Brushing the rich chestnut, shoulder-length hair out of her eyes, she met his surprised gaze. “Oops!”
He smiled at her, holding back a bubble of laughter.
If possible, her caramel-colored eyes twinkled and her lips stretched even more.
Behind him, Mrs. King scolded her, “Really, Charlotte! Must you always make a scene?”
It wasn’t really a question. Charlie winked at him. “Of course, Stepmother, how else can I have any fun?”
“Yes, ma’am.” She seemed to answer automatically like replaying a preprogrammed response used many times in the past. Her smile never faded and the mischievous way she rolled her eyes had Alex suppressing another chuckle.
Charlie held out her hand to him. “Why, if it isn’t Prince Charming.”
That was the last thing Alex expected her to say.
Stunned for only a moment, he chuckled. He grasped her hand. He swore he heard a quick intake of breath from her at the contact. Soft, smooth skin with perfectly applied red nail polish, he noted. The touch sent a flood of warmth from his palm through his body. He never wanted to let go. “You, my lady, are the only one to dare say that to my face.”
He noted the red wrap dress hugging her curves and a glimpse of her long legs peeking through the mid-thigh slit. Then he realized she was in stockinged feet. She held a pair of strappy red high heels in her other hand.
“Charlie, is it?” He nodded to her shoes, asking, “May I help you with those?”
She giggled. As Charlie slipped on the left shoe, and then did the same to the right one, she said, “No thanks, I can do it myself, Prince Charming.”
“Well, if the shoe fits,” he teased her.
“Very clever. But that’s only if a girl wants to be a Cinderella.”
He laughed heartily. Charlie had clearly told him in no uncertain terms that she didn’t need a prince, much less a man, to rescue her from anything. A spark of admiration lit in him.
She was the first woman in years who didn’t see him as a great catch. How refreshing.
Mrs. King cleared her throat in obvious disapproval.
Turning to her family, Charlie nodded politely. “Stepmother, sisters.”
Reluctantly, he followed suit. He encountered the flash of anger directed her way.
“Charlotte, you are late.” Her stepmother’s pinched mouth barely moved. “Poor Francine and Priscilla have been entertaining our guest while you were lollygagging.”
“I’m sure they enjoyed every minute of having Mr. Royale to themselves, isn’t that right, girls?” She brushed the accusation away with what seemed like practiced ease.
In turn, each girl’s cheeks pinkened, making Alex think they looked much better now with some color.
Another throat sound came out. Another reprimand, Alex sensed. He turned back to help Charlie be seated. She’d already moved to her place on the other side of the table from him.
A stab of disappointment slashed through him. Surprised at it, he shook it off quickly, reminding himself how much he wanted to get this night over with.
“She was with Dexter again,” Priscilla whispered loudly, uttering her first full sentence since Alex had arrived.
“Dex,” Charlie corrected as she lifted her chin higher in defiance, but didn’t deny the accusation.
His chest tightened. Who was Dex? Remembering his manners, Alex assisted Francine, who’d been assigned a seat beside his.
“Thank you,” she murmured so softly that he’d thought it was just above a child’s whisper.
He groaned inwardly, thinking this was the one they were trying to marry off to him. It was going to be a long night.
From across the table, Charlotte watched in approval. He was a gentleman, though society tutored, but nonetheless a mannered one. That would be something the Barracuda and Francine would appreciate. Score one for Alexander Royale, she thought.
He was a handsome devil though, better than any of the papers had ever been able to capture. Dark hair, dark eyes, tall, and muscular: she recalled the broad, solid chest she’d bumped into and the strong arms that instantly had wrapped around her. Heat, a sexy musky scent…and his hand, strong yet gentle…
She brushed her fingers against her palm, still tingling from his touch.
Her lips parted at the memory of being in his arms. A rush of warmth coursed through her body. She’d never been so affected by a man in her entire life, never mind one she’d just met and in less than ten seconds.
Reluctantly, she pulled herself out of her reverie. She had a mission to accomplish: Get Francine married, and then she could save King’s Department Store. She owed it to her late father to bring back his beloved store from the brink of demise.
Update and renovate, she’d often remind her stepmother when plunging sales reports littered Charlie’s desk at work. The store, and how to restore it to its former glory days, consumed her more and more these days.
But now, gazing into Alexander Royale’s laughing dark eyes, she felt a genuine pang of regret. What would it feel like to be in love just once?
Love and marriage weren’t in the cards for her, she reminded herself, not now when she could do so much for King’s Department Store. Maybe never. The store would always come first. She sighed heavily.
An hour later, she’d run out of things to champion her stepsister’s cause. Charlie desperately searched for something, anything else to point out to him. “Oh, I almost forgot. How silly of me. Francine takes piano lessons. I’m sure you’d love to play something for Mr. Royale after dinner, Francie, wouldn’t you?”
She noted how Alex quickly covered his mouth with his starched white napkin. To hide a smile or stump down a groan, she wondered mischievously. His narrowed, dark brown eyes met hers and she knew.
She was going to get hers. A shiver raced down her spine.
Halfway through the meal, Charlie’s heart warmed even more at all the praise Alex heaped on her friend.
“This is delicious, Dolly,” he complimented her for the fourth or fifth time. “Where in the world did you learn to cook like this?”
The cook, standing beside him, nudged his shoulder with her hand. “Aw, shucks, Mr. R. You keep sweet-talking me and I just may have to move in with you.”
“Be my guest. In fact, if you ever want a change, I’ll hire you and for twice as much as what the Kings are paying you.”
Mrs. King let out an exasperated breath. “Oh, please. She’s just doing what she’s being paid to do. Cook, clean…” She waved a hand to encompass the house.
“Kowtow,” Charlie interrupted.
The sisters gasped in unison. Her stepmother snapped her head around to stare directly at Charlie. The lethal, narrow-eyed gaze would have cut some men in two.
Charlie steeled herself, raising her eyebrows and said, “It’s true.”
Turning away, she caught Alex’s gleaming stare and a ghost of a smile. This time, he was the one to wink at her. Another rush of warmth raced through her.
What was he doing to her?
Charlie hated the drawing room or, at least, what the barracuda had done to it soon after her father had died. The now flowery, feminine room seemed far removed from the masculine room with rich, leather chairs, dark wood, and scent of cherry pipe tobacco that her father had favored. An ache of sorrow shot through her every time she entered this room and thought of the man she mourned for.
The sooner she could make her escape from here and go to the kitchen to be with Dolly the better for her, she thought, flinching at the sour notes Francine began to play.
Alex plotted the throttling of Charlie for suggesting this as he endured yet one more painful tune from Francine. He winced as she missed another note, but quickly pasted a smile on his face as Mrs. King looked his way.
Thinking of Charlie had him searching the room in earnest. The little devil snuck out!
Sitting across the table from her longtime friend, Charlie slid the spoonful of homemade cherry vanilla ice cream into her mouth. She moaned. “Heavenly.”
Dolly pointed her spoon at another container between them. “Try the chocolate one. I betcha it’s even better.”
“I doubt that.”
“Five bucks says I’m right.”
“Nobody bets against a sure thing, Dolly,” she said, knowing that her friend’s claims were most likely true. But she did take a dip and taste. Closing her eyes, she savored every drop.
“See, I told you. Now pay up.”
Charlie chuckled, opening her eyes once again. “You’re a dream, my friend. You could make a fortune going into business with just your ice cream alone, never mind all your other concoctions.”
She noted the pink coloring Dolly’s cheeks. “Aw, shucks, honey.”
“At least you got a job offer from the prince.” She raised and lowered her brows a few times. “That could be mighty interesting.”
“You’re telling me! My, that man is gorgeous. And the way he looks at you–”
“No he doesn’t,” she interrupted quickly, her throat going dry.
“Yes, he does.”
“No–“She stopped herself short. The memory of his dark eyes on hers, his sexy smile, muscled arms wrapped around her… Her cheeks warmed. “Maybe,” she said softly.
Dolly snorted, but didn’t say another word.
The high, tinny notes from the piano reached Charlie’s conscious now. “It doesn’t matter. He’s Francine’s anyway.”
“If you say so,” Dolly said sourly, lifting an eyebrow as she stared meaningfully at her.
They both cringed at the next resounding note and heard the sisters’ raised voices.
“Trouble,” Dolly said, nodding to the other room as she dipped her spoon into some plain vanilla this time.
“Earplugs?” Charlie asked hopefully. “For two?”
“Sure thing. I got some. Need them in this house with them three harping and banging and who knows what else.” She stopped for a moment to listen to the two sisters fight about who was going to play next for Mr. Royale. “But the playing part might be all over for the night. Anyhow, you can have anything I’ve got, earplugs included. What’s mine is yours, always has been.”
“What’s mine is yours, too, you know that.” Charlie smiled widely at her friend. They’d had that pact for years now.
Dolly waved her spoon in the direction of the other room. “But did you have to go and share them three? That I coulda done without.”
“What? And let me keep all that pain and suffering to myself?”
They both laughed at that.
When they’d calmed down, Dolly said with a conspiratorial whisper, “But he’s a handsome one, ain’t he?”
“Oh, my yes.” Charlie nearly moaned out her approval.
“Not at all like them pictures of him you see in the papers. Even the ones with him at his island getaway. Much better looking, if you ask me.”
“And not as stuck-up as I’d thought.”
“Stuck-up?” Alexander Royale asked, standing with a shoulder against the doorframe, arms folded over that wide chest, and his feet crossed at the ankles.
Alex’s breath hitched as he stared at the woman across the room. Her tongue darted out to take a swipe of something from the corner of her mouth. He groaned. She had no idea what she did to a man. Maybe that was the fascination he had with her. He shook his head, trying to dislodge that little tidbit from his mind.
He pushed away from the door and walked toward them. “Ladies, for shame, hiding in here.” Then he smiled, saying, “And without telling me and trying to save me from that racket. I’m sure I’ve lost part of my hearing.”
The ladies giggled like schoolgirls, which just seemed to endear them to him even more. If he’d had his way, he’d have spent the entire evening in here with them.
“Mr. R., why don’t you grab a spoon and join us? Two drawers over there, you got it,” Dolly offered. “Pull up a chair and sit a spell.”
He smiled again as he shrugged off his jacket and tossed it on the nearby counter. Pulling out the chair, he turned it around. He straddled it. Taking off his cuff links, he rolled up his sleeves, and then loosened his tie. He looked at the three tall white containers lined in front of him. His mouth watered. “My, my, what do we have here?”
“Dolly’s homemade ice cream, at your service.” Charlie waved a hand with a flourish. “The best darn ice cream in town.”
Turning to her quickly, he gazed directly into her eyes. Soft, warm caramel, he thought. He could get lost in them. Mentally shaking himself, he arched an eyebrow. “The best, huh?”
“Ten bucks says it is.” He caught the wink she gave her friend.
“A betting woman.”
“Only on a sure thing.”
Rubbing his thumb and forefinger over his jaw, he said, “I don’t know. Dolly’s already proved she’s a great cook. Most men wouldn’t bet money against a sure thing.”
Dolly broke in, saying, “You could put up something other than money.”
“Dolly!” Charlie exclaimed.
The maid stared at her wide-eyed. “Not that, honey.”
Alex bit the inside of his cheek. The two of them could be a comedy team. That was it, he thought; they made him laugh. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d laughed as much in a week, never mind just one evening.
“Ten bucks it is then.” He pulled out a ten to lay it down on the table.
“Two fives, please,” Charlie said.
He frowned, but took out the two fives instead.
“Deal is, all three have to be the best. If they are you get ten bucks. And if not…” He let the last hang in the air as he stared at her parted lips. “A kiss.”
“From Dolly,” she said with a smile and raised eyebrow.
He took the bait and gave some back. He glanced from Charlie to the maid and back again. “Both of you.”
Dolly whooped at that one. “Dagnabbit, I wish I wasn’t such a good cook.”
Alex chuckled. “Remember, never bet against a sure thing.”
A few minutes later, after having tasted all three, he savored the rich flavors melting on his tongue. “No doubt about it, you’ve won, hands down.”
Charlie clapped. She picked up the money. Splitting it, she gave her friend half. “Here’s the money I owe you from my bet.”
Surprised, Alex asked, “What? You bet against her?”
“Yeah, but I got my money back,” Charlie said, waving a five in front of him.
He laughed and the two ladies soon followed suit.
Charlie grabbed a nearby napkin and leaned toward him. “Here, let me.”
As she raised her hand to his mouth, he clasped her wrist. She stilled. He heard the catch in her breath. The delicate silky skin beneath his fingers had him yearning to touch more. The vein he lightly pressed changed its rhythm from a slow, steady beat to a rapid-fire tempo.
Gazing at her face, he watched her eyes darken, her cheeks pinken, and her full rosy lips part. Her breath came in soft pants. Something tightened in his middle. An ache rushed through him.
The moment seemed frozen for him. Silence stretched. He felt his own skin heat. Blood throbbed through his veins. His quickening heartbeat drummed in his chest.
Recalling what she’d been about to do, Alex licked the corner of his mouth. She sucked in a breath, dropping her gaze there. He watched in awe at her heavy-lidded stare, the slight flare to her nostrils, and the flush creeping over her cheeks. Another ache, low and deep, shot through him.
From behind him, he heard someone clearing her throat rather loudly and repeatedly.
Coming out of his trance, he said, “Ah, Mrs. King…” There was unmistakable regret in his voice.
He slid his fingers from Charlie’s wrist to her palm. She released the napkin she held. Skin met skin. Alex couldn’t ignore the tingle traveling through him. He bent and placed a gentle kiss on the back of her hand. Her fingers tightened slightly. Reluctantly, he let her go. He rose.
Straightening the chair, he then moved to Dolly and kissed the back of her hand. “Ladies,” he said softly as he turned to Charlie, “it’s been memorable.” With a slight bow of his head, he turned to face the rest of the pack.
Alex snatched up his jacket from the counter and crossed the room. “Mrs. King, I’ll be in touch.” As he rolled down his sleeves, he turned to the sisters and nodded. “Girls.”
“But… but…” Mrs. King stammered, following on his heels as he found his way to the foyer. “When will you call?” He was sure she sounded desperate even to her own ears.
At the door, he turned to her as he shrugged on his jacket. Tall and proud, she seemed in complete control. However, looking closer, he noted how she rubbed her fingers together and how she couldn’t quite disguise the way her eyes clouded with anxiety.
“Tomorrow. First thing. I’ll meet you at your office at King’s.” With that, he left quickly.
The cool air hit Alex the minute he stepped out of the house. At the bottom of the stairs, he halted, raising his face to the soft, misty rain. He smiled.
“Sir?” his driver asked from the curb as he held an umbrella in one hand and pulled the car door open with the other.
“Edward,” he said jubilantly, and then raced down the walkway to the car. “It’s a wonderful evening, isn’t it?”
The older man tipped his black cap. His smile lit up his wizened face. “Yes, sir, it appears it is.”
Once in the back seat, Alex grabbed for the car phone. As he waited several rings, Edward pulled the car out into the street.
“Hello,” came a sleepy male voice.
“Granddad, it’s Alex.”
“Alex! Is everything all right, son?”
Alex laughed out loud. “Granddad, I found her.”
He found her, but would she want him and a marriage of convenience?