Excerpt: Waking Sleeping Beauty

Waking Sleeping Beauty by Laurie LeClair

Book 2: Once Upon A Romance Series

Book Two: Once Upon A Romance Series

Chapter One

“Wake up, will ya!”

Francine King bolted upright in the tiny enclosure. She blinked several times, trying to recall where she was. Looking down at the satin and lace dress with hundreds of tiny crystals sparkling under the lights, she landed back to earth with a dull thud. “Rico?”

“Of course, it’s me, silly. Who else would it be?”

She sighed with relief. “Sorry. I’m just jumpy.”

“And sleepy,” he muttered. “No rest for the new independent woman, now is there?”

“Did you get them?” She stood, sweeping layers of fabric in a neater array. “I’m decent. You can come in now.”

He shoved aside the curtain to the dressing room and produced the two-carat, tear-drop diamond earrings. “Voila!” He swung the sparkling pair under her nose. “Do I deliver or do I de–“He stopped in midstream, his mouth hanging open. “Shut up!”

Heat crawled into her cheeks. Pressing her hands to her face, she asked, “Is that a good shut up or a bad shut up?”

“O-M-G, you look fab-u-loicous, girl.” His eyes nearly popped out of his head.

“I take that as good.” She smiled now, fingering the delicate lace bodice on the wedding dress. “It’s not too much. Or should I say too little?” she asked, splaying her hand over the deep V neckline.

“You have bubbies.”

Another sweep of heat seared her cheeks. “You sound like that’s a question, not a statement.” Looking down, she noted the miraculous way the dress pushed her together to create a definite cleavage.

“Come out, come out. Let me see more.”

Poking her head out of the dressing room, she looked down the aisle. “Is the coast clear?”

“Everyone’s gone for the night or we wouldn’t be here, you know that.”

“No one followed you? No guards? No manager? You know she doesn’t like me.”

He sighed heavily. “Now who does?”

A stab of hurt lanced through her. “Rico!”

Pursing his lips together, he murmured, “It’s true.”

This time she was the one to sigh. She marched out of the cubicle, down the hallway and into the display room. Her so-called new friend didn’t mince words and she’d be forever grateful for that. But the truth did hurt. She stepped up onto the pedestal and gazed unseeingly into her reflection in the full-length mirror opposite her.

“Here, let me do the back up all the way,” he clucked, delicately handing over the precious jewelry. He tugged at the satin strings, pulling the wedding dress even tighter.

“I didn’t do anything…” she whispered, slipping on the earrings. “I’m not my mother. I’m not mean or vain or pushy–“

“Well…” He coughed a few times. “You can be pushy, but, like me, it’s for a good cause. You’re just trying to help out around the store.” He waved a hand. “Helping the salespeople with their customers. I swear some people don’t have a lick of common sense when dealing with the public.”

She forced herself to grin. “Not like us, right?” Being a hairdresser in King’s Department Store salon allowed Rico to judge the wisdom of his clients’ choices. He expressed his opinion on more than just hair and makeup and clothes. Nine times out of ten, he nailed it on the head.

And she, the stepdaughter to the late, great Charles King, enjoyed the breath of fresh air Rico brought to the legendary store. Taking a cue from him, she didn’t hold back on her suggestions for the brides who shopped there. After all, if anyone knew about weddings, she did. Francine lived and breathed weddings. She considered herself an amateur expert on the subject; she pored through bridal magazines and collected pictures in her three-ring wedding binder for decades now. Her heart skipped a beat at the thought of her dream wedding.

Only there were a few things wrong with the picture.

Even after all these years, she still couldn’t decide on a dress. She couldn’t have a perfect wedding without the perfect wedding dress, now could she?

She’d never be able to afford her picturesque day now that her mother had cut off her trust fund. How long would it take to save for the lavish affair? Two years? Three? More?

And last, but not least, she faced another, even larger, dilemma.

It was just too bad she’d never dated anyone in her entire life.

No groom. Now that could be a big sticking point.

“Francie, don’t slouch.” He smacked her lightly on her bottom.

She sucked in a breath and twirled to him.

“It was just a pat,” he soothed. “Pay attention. Now turn around and behave.”

Folding her arms over her chest, she asked, “Me?”

“Look, face it, you’re not Miss Popularity around here. That award goes to Charlie.”

She should be offended, but she wasn’t. She smiled now. Her older stepsister was the heir apparent and had worked in the store for years, gaining the love and trust of the employees. Francie and her younger sister, Priscilla, had only joined King’s a few weeks ago when they’d abruptly walked out on their demanding, controlling mother. Her smile faded quickly at the thought of the woman who’d she’d never really known, but had listened to and blindly obeyed all these years.

“I know, Rico, it’s not that. They brand me with the same brush they use for my mother,” she choked out the last.

He shivered in revulsion. “No offense, but that woman gives me the willies. Just one look from her and she’d knock off her enemy. Thank God she’s greedy and sold off the store to your new brother-in-law.”

“At least Charlie and he saved the store from closing.”

“Ah, I hear it ain’t a sure thing.”

“What?!” Immersed in trying to stand on her own two feet, working long extra hours to just survive and keep a stern watch over her younger sister, Francie hadn’t the time to sit down with Charlie to discuss the store’s numbers.

“The holidays will either make or break the store.”

Her heart sunk. Fear slithered in, cold and dark. What in the world would her family do if the store closed? This was her stepfather’s dream. Charlie had kept it going with her brilliant ad campaigns lately. And she and Priscilla were not adept at anything, not even being a salesperson. They’d only gotten their jobs at the store thanks to Charlie and being family.

“Quit frowning. Look, all done up.” He stood back. “Lovely.”

Jerked back to the moment, Francie came to attention. She fingered her blonde bob into place, and then, not liking the look, pulled her hair up off her neck. “Better, don’t you think?”

“Much,” he agreed.

Suddenly, the lights flickered off and on and off and on again.

“Oh no, that’s the guards. The last warning for the employees.”

Rico jumped. “Oh my God, I’ve got to get the earrings back in the vault.”

“You took them from the vault?”

“I figured you could use some bling when you tried on the latest arrival.” He waved a hand at her designer wedding dress.

“But I thought you asked Charlie’s permission.”

He looked away. “Ah, I sorta, ah, didn’t.”

“Holy moly, Rico.” She yanked the earrings from her lobes as if they were on fire. Hurriedly, she wiped them on his sleeve. “Fingerprints,” she muttered. “Hold out your hands.” When he obeyed, she dropped them in his palms like they were hot potatoes. “Run, Rico!” She shoved him toward the door.

“But, I was just trying to help–” he cried, gone in a flash.

Francie sank down in a heap, the beautiful satin and lace material crumpling around her ankles and billowing up to her waist. The corset-like top dug into her ribs.

She groaned, dropping her head into her hands. “Please, let him put them back in time.”

Her mind swirled with the punishment if he didn’t. Not only would he suffer the consequences, but, no doubt, everyone would discover she was in on it, too. Rico would not take it lightly and would ultimately blab the truth about her involvement.

It would be one more thing the employees would hate her for and maybe even try to get rid of her and her pesky, inexperienced sister, Priscilla. She’d had a feeling they were just looking for an opportunity to show them in a bad light and toss them out the door.

She cringed inwardly at the knowledge that her sister and she probably deserved it, too. With no skills to speak of, they’d bumbled through more than one chance and brought more ire their way. Charlie had kept them on, comforting the other employees. King’s would give them a chance, just like King’s had given every hard working employee an opportunity to prove themselves. How many more chances could she get, though?

With a huge sigh, Francie forced herself up to her feet and back into the dressing room. The first tug on the binds that squished her together didn’t budge. “Huh?” She tried to snake one arm around her back and skimmed the tail end of the bow. “Why did he tie it like this?” Reaching over her back with the other hand, she attempted to grab the ties that way. Her fingers missed, not able to latch on. She wrestled with it for some time, turning and twisting, even rubbing her back against the wall to try to dislodge the knot.

Beads of sweat clung to her forehead. She dashed those away only to have more form as she contorted again. “Rico, what in the world did you do to me?” she asked between gritted teeth.

Finally, with her arms aching from the effort, she gave up. She needed help. Now she longed for the cell phone she couldn’t afford.

“I can do this,” she whispered her new mantra again.

Blowing out a breath and a strand of hair out of her vision, she set her jaw and lifted her chin, slowly exiting the dressing area. “Please let me find Rico before anyone else finds me.”

***

Marcus Goode strode across the marble floor of King’s Department Store. Stillness surrounded him. Looking up, he spotted a familiar face. “Bruno, my man, how have you been doing?”

He grasped the security guard’s hand and they clapped each other on the back.

“Mr. Marcus, you’re a sight for sore eyes. What’s it been? Ten years?”

“Maybe more. I thought you’d be long gone by now.”

“Me? Hah! I love this place. Come on, Miss Charlie’s waiting for you.”

Bruno punched in the code for the executive elevator and ushered Marcus in when it arrived.

“Not coming up?”

“Nah, got rounds to do. Make sure no one’s lurking about. Then we can shut this baby up tight for the night.”

“Fifth floor, right?”

“Yes, sir, never changed that, but there’s been a whole lot of changes in the last few weeks. I hear you’re going to be another one.”

“Temporary change.” Marcus emphasized the first word.

“That’s what they all say.” Before the doors closed, Bruno said, “Now Marcus B. Goode, you hear?”

Marcus chuckled at the old joke. Alone now in the enclosed muted gold compartment, he shook his head. His mother had named him Marcus B. Goode as a lifelong reminder to be good. Most people never knew his middle name was just an initial. Luckily, he’d never had to cope with their reactions when they found out. But some of his old childhood friends, including Bruno, always knew and ribbed him about it.

It reminded him of how much he missed the people in his life. Just like when he saw his mother earlier today at the nursing facility. When had she gotten so old and so weak? Was it just since she’d broken her hip and been in rehabilitation to mend it?

Years ago, he’d struck out in business on his own. She’d had several husbands along the way and, for the most part, she’d been happy. But after each divorce, Marcus would return to clean up any messes, make certain she had a nice place to live, support her, and did what any only son would do and take care of her. After all, it was his duty.

He’d promised his late father. And he never broke his promise.

Even if that meant keeping secrets from his mother to protect her.

The doors dinged open and he came back to the present.

A tall, model-thin lady with a wide smile greeted him. In one arm, she cradled a clipboard. She stuck out her hand. “I’m Peg Newbury, your assistant.”

He returned the surprisingly firm handshake. “Peg, nice to meet you. I’m Marcus.”

“I know.”

That made him chuckle. She joined him. “Come on, Superstar, Charlie’s just finishing up and will meet us in your new office.”

“Temporary office,” he corrected.

Walking beside him down the corridor lined with conference rooms and offices, she leaned over and whispered, “Word is all this may be temporary if we don’t get our stuff together in the next few weeks. Sales are up now, but will they remain up now that Charlie’s easing back on her schedule because she’s expecting?”

“That’s why she called,” he murmured in agreement.

“Who better to yank us back into the stratosphere than Marcus Goode, well-respected, world-renown businessman who built an empire from one restaurant in little ol’ Dallas, Texas to dozens of restaurants and exclusive resorts in dozens of the most beautiful places on Earth?”

“Put like that, I shouldn’t have any problems, right?”

She winked at him. “None at all.”

Grinning, he noted that Peg would be a welcome respite to the buttoned-up businessmen he’d dealt with on a daily basis.

When they entered his new office with the black furniture and glass top desk, he stilled just inside the doorway. The enormity of what he was doing hit him then. He, Marcus Goode, would run King’s Department Store for the next twelve weeks to honor the late, great Charles King, the man who took him under his wing when he was just a boy and his mother worked as a saleswoman. He would repay the King family for all they had done for his family.

“Marcus,” Charlie cried out his name.

He turned just in time to see her rush to him and throw her arms around him. Hugging her back, he said, “It’s been too long, my friend.”

Pulling away, she said, “I’ve missed you, too. It’s no fun getting into trouble here without you beside me.”

Chuckling, he nodded. “Ah, the good old days.”

“The dirt some people still have on us.”

He recalled how years ago as kids they would poke their noses into every department, every little cubbyhole, and every nook and cranny. The things they used to see and hear astounded him to this day. “And we have on them,” he said quietly, maybe too quietly.

Her smile faded. She remembered.

He could never forget that day.

All of a sudden, his father had taken to picking up his mother from work. Only this day, he’d arrived early and hadn’t told anyone. Marcus and Charlie were playing in the corner of the storage room, killing time when a noise yanked them from their game of hide and seek. He looked up and discovered his father kissing another woman. Shock rooted his feet to the spot. But the loving words the woman and the man he’d respected all his life exchanged had crashed over him as if he’d been struck by a bolt of lightning.

Love? Forever? But he was supposed to love Marcus’ mom for the rest of his life.

In the back of his mind, Marcus recalled the woman worked in the same department as his mother did. That’s when he felt his friend grab his arm and squeeze tightly. He looked at Charlie’s little face and saw the tear fall from the corner of her eye. He turned away from her hurt because he couldn’t even face his own at the time.

They sat huddled there long after the grown-ups had left.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“Not as much as I am.” His heart was breaking.

She swallowed hard. “I’ll never tell.”

He nodded, knowing she wouldn’t either. “Thanks.”

He came back to the moment with a crash. She never did tell. And for that, he was eternally grateful. It was part of the reason he agreed to temporarily take over King’s for her until she could find a permanent replacement. Lifelong friends who had each other’s back did things like that for each other.

“I’ll never be able to thank you enough for stepping in like this. You were the only one I trusted.”

“I’m glad I could help.” He’d rearranged a great deal, essentially handing over his business to his capable team, to be with his mom during her convalescence. He’d have had nothing to do for all these weeks if Charlie hadn’t called. “It’s not like I could just sit and twiddle my thumbs while Mom’s going through rehabilitation.”

“How’s your mom? I spoke to her a few days ago, but I don’t think she understood everything I said.”

“She has her good moments. She’s getting better.” Deep inside, he knew she struggled, not because of her hip, but because another man had broken her heart. Her boyfriend had dumped her just a day before she fell. Somehow she’d been so distracted over losing him that she didn’t pay attention to the step down and she landed heavily on her right hip. But the physical pain was less taxing to her than her heartache. The depression was far worse. His mother was in love with love.

He’d tried for years to cure her of it; however, he’d failed miserably.

But he’d held fast in his own life. He’d have nothing to do with love. It was a curse.

“Look, Marcus, it’s great to see you, and I wanted to fill you in before the manager’s meeting tomorrow morning. But I’m expecting an important phone call and can’t miss it. So why don’t you explore the store and see all the changes? I’ll catch up with you after my call and we can go over some things. How’s that sound?”

“Great,” he said with as much enthusiasm as he could muster. Maybe being here, reliving the past, wasn’t such a good idea after all. He’d made it a point to never look back and now he was being forced to face the demons of his past.

Raking up the ashes would only get him burnt again. He was already feeling the heat. How much more could he take?


Chapter Two

Francie stuck her head out of the wedding department. The dim lights in the store didn’t reveal anyone.

“Coast is clear,” she whispered. Carefully, she made her way through each department. “Rico, where are you?” she asked in a low voice. No response.

Her heart sank at the thought of having to go downstairs to the jewelry department. Someone was sure to see her in the big, white wedding dress. It wasn’t something she could easily explain away. Not this time.

Her body ached from carrying the heavy, crystal embossed, one-of-a-kind designer gown. “It weighs a ton,” she muttered, now realizing why brides often selected another dress to dance in at the reception.

“Note to self, when selecting your wedding dress consider the weight of it when trying to dance at your reception.” Under her breath, she muttered, “At least I didn’t try on the shoes yet.” The three-inch sparkly ones were still nestled in their box in the dressing room. “With my clothes. Ugh!”

Growing weary, Francie turned a corner and found herself in the linen department. The demo bed, piled with an assortment of pillows and the matching plush lilac duvet, looked enticing.

“I’ll just sit for a minute. Get my breath back. Find my bearings. Make a plan,” she promised herself. As she sank down, a sigh escaped her lips.

She hadn’t realized how tired she was. She’d been up since six in the morning and it was after nine at night. Her long double shifts were getting the best of her. If only Priscilla would come to work instead of go out and play, she thought, then she could cut back on some hours. But someone needed to pay the bills.

Another sigh escaped. Her feet throbbed. Gingerly, she shifted her position and swung her feet up to rest on the bed. “Think,” she begged her foggy brain, “how can I get out of this dress and stay out of hot water?”

The pillows were right there. She eased her head onto one. “Ah, nice, soft,” she murmured. The knotted stays stuck into her spine. She turned on her left side, slipping her clasped hands under her cheek.

In the back of her mind, Francie knew Rico wasn’t coming back for her. Had she even told him to? She didn’t remember now. Her concern focused on getting the earrings back in the vault without anyone discovering they’d been missing in the first place.

As her mind continued to whirl with thoughts, her tired body relaxed into the lush softness surrounding her. “Just another minute and I’ll get up,” she promised.

How would she get out of the expensive dress without damaging it or letting anyone else know? Maybe she could sleep there all night long and wait for Charlie. Her stepsister came in before seven. After all, the bed was much more comfortable than the couch she’d been sleeping on the last few weeks.

Then a disturbing thought rushed through her busy mind. There was a new temporary man taking over tomorrow. Would her stepsister be so involved with meetings with him that she wouldn’t walk the floor before the store opened as she usually did?

Francie could go to the guard station and get help. But they would tell.

Her cheeks grew warm. The things they’d say about her then. Everyone would know her secret. She’d never be able to sneak into the wedding dress department and try on the new arrivals again.

How could she ever find the perfect wedding dress then?

***

Marcus quietly walked through each department, noting the dramatic changes on the first floor and seeing the much-needed updates on the second. He lingered in the housewares department. The shiny, copper bottomed pots and pans caused him to smile as he recalled his early restaurant days, loving how he could create something out of a few ingredients.

One thing he’d gotten from his mother was her love of cooking. He picked up fast at her elbow and cooked her full meals by the age of seven. His father, a traveling salesman, was on the road so often it seemed like it was always Marcus and his mother while he grew up.

At the thought of his now deceased father and his betrayal, Marcus frowned and turned away from the housewares.

But it nagged at him, how his father scoffed at his interest in cooking. Marcus played in every sport imaginable and loved the competition and camaraderie. He loved football the most. But after blowing out his knee in college, Marcus had to find a career he was just as passionate about. The restaurant business was the perfect fit for him. He could cook, use his people and business skills, and make money at the same time.

And he did. The long hours he dedicated to his business brought him more recognition than he’d ever considered. He branched out to being a guest chef, with no formal training, to hotels, and then resorts. He’d find little gems, risk buying them, redo each one from top to bottom, and make them sparkle even more. It worked.

He smiled. Pride surged through him. He loved the process of taking something and building it up to its potential. Most times, even going beyond its potential.

Now he focused on the store. He’d done it before. He could do it here.

With more confidence than he’d felt since agreeing to the temporary position, Marcus strode down the wide store aisles. In his mind, he made mental notes on the changes he thought would bring King’s back into the limelight.

Going by the linens, he glanced at the displays. His eyes caught something odd. Turning back sharply, he stopped at the bed. “I’m seeing things,” he murmured. Blinking a few times, he realized the image stayed the same.

The woman slept soundly. He took in every detail of her, from her honey blonde hair to her bare shoulders on to the swell of her cleavage. The expensive wedding dress clung to her small waist and the slight curve of her hip. Her bare toes, the nails painted a delicate pink, peeked out from the bottom folds of fluffy fabric at the hem.

Marcus drew nearer. She was even more beautiful up close. The pale pink flush sweeping her cheeks and her perfect bow lips caused his heart to beat a little quicker. He swallowed hard.

She was saying something in her sleep. He couldn’t hear. Bending down on one knee beside her, he couldn’t stop himself from reaching out and brushing the soft blonde tendrils off her cheek.

“Tickles.” She giggled.

He chuckled, fascinated by this lovely creature.

Her perfume rose to him, subtle, yet alluring. He breathed in deeply. Heat rushed through his body.

Her rose-colored lips curved into a gentle smile. He focused on them, the full bottom one and the perfectly shaped bow of the top one. “What would it feel like to kiss you?” he whispered.

She mumbled something. He dipped his head closer to understand. “How do I get out of this dress?”

Marcus laughed. “I’ll help,” he offered as he leaned in to touch his lips against hers. The softness shouldn’t have surprised him, but it did. He lingered, tasting the sweet innocence he’d never experienced before. But it was her unexpected gasp and response that caused the blood to pulse in his veins.

She kissed him back, seeking and searching like a starving lover. He felt her hand flutter to his face. Her soft fingertips trailed over his jaw. Heat scorched his flesh where she touched. A coil knotted deep inside of him.

He wanted her. He wanted a strange woman dressed in a wedding dress and sleeping in the middle of King’s Department Store.

She stilled, drawing back. Coming awake, she asked, “You’re real?”

Marcus stared into the bluest eyes he’d ever seen. Her bewilderment shone. “Should I call you Sleeping Beauty?”

Before he knew what was happening, she shrieked and shoved him away. Not expecting it, he toppled to his side. She bolted from the bed and ran off into the dimly lit recesses of the store. The white ghost-like image burned in his mind.

Trying to steady his heartbeat, he wondered out loud, “What in the world just happened to me?”


Chapter Three

“Thanks, Peg.” Marcus ran his fingers through his hair, pacing the conference room.

“Sure thing, Boss.” She stopped at the doorway. “Nervous? Don’t be. Their bark is worse than their bite. You know what most managers are like. It’s like babysitting adults. Nod, look concerned, and tell them you’ll look into it. All they want is someone to listen.”

He stilled, taking in her advice. “You’re brilliant,” he said with a smile.

“Of course I am,” she said cheekily, and then exited the room.

That made him chuckle. His days at King’s would not be dull, he figured, especially with Peg as his assistant. He liked her sunny disposition and take-charge style already. But, she’d been wrong about the nerves. He was confident his first managers’ meeting about a meddlesome employee would go well. No, it was the memory of the mystery woman that had kept him up all night with questions swimming in his head. Who was she? Was she even real?

The kiss, that was real, he noted, still feeling the soft sweetness of her lips. Something stirred inside his chest. He tried brushing it away, like a pesky fly. But it stayed and heat swirled whenever he re-lived that moment, which he’d had on replay all night long.

Hearing the growing voices just outside the conference room door, Marcus mentally shook himself out of the dreamlike state he’d fallen into again. He smiled at the thought, remembering how he’d asked her if she was Sleeping Beauty.

“There you go again, thinking about her,” he muttered under his breath as the first of the managers came through the door.

Within ten minutes, the room was filled. A quiet buzz of conversation and anticipation charged the atmosphere. Marcus had greeted each one at the door and now was in a friendly exchange with the men’s department manager about how football season was going.

He looked at his watch, frowning. It was two minutes to nine and Charlie hadn’t shown up yet. That was not like her at all. If she was handing over the reins today, then she would have come in and briefed him sooner. And last night, she’d sent Bruno, the guard, to track him down and let him know something had come up and she couldn’t meet with Marcus after all.

She did leave him the reports and her notes, which he studied for hours, something to take his mind off the mystery lady.

Ah, there I go again. Everything comes back to thoughts of her. He shook his head, wondering how a brief encounter could have rattled him so deeply.

***

Francie’s jaw dropped. She closed her mouth, and then gulped hard. “Charlie, are you telling me the managers are meeting to discuss me?”

Her stepsister, pale and shaky, nodded solemnly.

“Me?” she squeaked. “They didn’t find out about last night, did they?” Beads of perspiration dotted her forehead.

Charlie shook her head. “No. I didn’t tell anyone I found you.”

She groaned, feeling the sting of heat on her cheeks. “I’m sorry.” Thank goodness she’d run away from that gorgeous man who’d kissed her and finally ran into Charlie, who didn’t probe too much into the reason she was wearing a fifteen thousand dollar wedding dress, running through the store. It was Charlie who’d helped her out of the stays and returned the exquisite garment to its proper place.

“Francie…” She seemed to gasp for breath. “I think I’m going to be sick again.” She rushed out of the room and Francie dashed after her into the executive bathroom.

“Morning sickness again,” Charlie said hoarsely when she finally came out of the stall.

Francine grabbed a bunch of paper towels, gave some to her stepsister and wet the others to hold against the back of Charlie’s neck as she rinsed out her mouth. “Poor thing,” she murmured, a stab of guilt slicing through her at how selfish she’d been, not realizing Charlie was ill.

“Francie, I didn’t tell you, but last night I fainted.”

“You never faint…oh, the baby. When? Here?”

Straightened from the sink, she shook her head. “Home. Alex barely caught me in time. Of course, he called the doctor right away. He ordered me to bed rest for the next two weeks at the very least. No work.”

“Of course. That’s the best thing for you. You hired someone to come in and take over temporarily.” Dawning hit. “Well, for crying out loud, what are you doing here now? You should be home.”

”I had to warn you.”

Francie brushed back a few stray hairs from her stepsister’s cool, pale face. “Thanks. I’ll be fine.” She didn’t believe it, but she had to reassure Charlie.

“It’s just not you. Priscilla, too, is in danger of being fired.”

Her stepsister’s eyes were filled with worry. Francie knew Charlie felt responsible for them, trying to teach them to be independent since they left the sheltered life of rich daughters to the scary world of self-sufficiency.

“We’re big girls. We’ll figure it out.” In the back of her mind, Francie had no clue on how she could do that for herself, never mind her younger sister. “I know you’ve covered for us these last few weeks and I’m grateful.” Did she sound calm enough? Her insides were churning. How in the world would she find another job when she had no experience?

“They don’t hate you, honey, but–“

“I’m my mother’s daughter, so I’m branded, for life.” She sighed, recalling the suspicious looks other employees shot her way; their distance, the way they stopped talking when she approached them, knowing they were most likely talking about her or Prissy; the cool, almost frigid, atmosphere when she went to the break room for lunch. All but Peg and Rico. At least she had them.

“Just be yourself. You love helping people. The employees might not like you now, but the customers love you. Do you know how many times I’ve heard you were a lifesaver when it came to some bridezilla or momzilla of the bride? You just didn’t make a sale, you saved dozens, and you were more like a wedding personal shopper for them.”

“I’m sure it was more of a complaint than a compliment.” Francie chewed on her bottom lip.

“‘Fraid so,” Charlie admitted. “You’re in jewelry, so the employees in the other departments didn’t like when you found exactly what was needed in their departments and they didn’t.”

“I’m infringing on their territory? Is that it?”

She nodded.

“Like my mother made them feel?”

“Exactly. Now you understand.”

“I’ve been stepping on toes,” she said, wincing. “And Priscilla is testing their patience.” It wasn’t a question; her younger sister was testing hers, also. How many times could Francie cover her shift? How many times could Priscilla blow off work and go have fun without a care in the world? “But they like her,” she acknowledged with a sting of envy.

“She doesn’t challenge their power.”

“And I do.” She sighed heavily.

Charlie swayed. Francie reached out to steady her. “I was hoping I could stay for the meeting at least.”

“No, don’t you dare risk it. Come on, I’ll help you gather your things and get you home.”

She winced as they made it into her office to find Alex waiting there. “I think Dolly called the brigades.”

“Thankfully she did,” he commented drily about Charlie’s longtime confidante and the family’s cook.

Francie greeted her brother-in-law, chuckling inwardly that her mother had wanted her to marry this man. He was all the things in a man a mother would want for her daughter, but not her. His charm and worldly powerful air just intimidated Francie. But he and Charlie were the perfect pair for each other. Her stepsister had softened some of his hard edges.

“She’s stubborn. Just like Daddy,” Francie said.

“So I’ve been warned,” he muttered, helping Charlie with her coat and handing her her purse.

“Not that you ever saw it for yourself,” Charlie said with a smile in her voice.

He grinned. “Not at all, wife.”

Before she and Alex departed, Charlie halted in front of Francie. Her eyes were filled with dread. “I tried. I don’t know if it did any good.”

“It has this far. Thank you for that.”

“Francie,” she said with a stern edge in her voice, “you’re a King–“

She shook her head. “Not really.”

“The heck you aren’t. Our daddy loved you. When he adopted you, he made you his daughter. You are a King. Fight for what you want. Fight like a King.”

Tears stung the backs of Francie’s eyes. She hugged her stepsister close. “Thank you,” she whispered.

Letting her go was difficult. Her ally. Her champion. But Francie treasured the fierce declaration. You are a King. “And darn it, I’m going to fight like a King.”

Now if only she could convince her shaky legs, sweaty palms, and flip-flopping heart.

***

After fifteen minutes of waiting, Marcus started the meeting. “Welcome everyone. I apologize for the delay. We’re still waiting on an employee–“

“Francine King,” the chic, older woman to his left, the wedding dress department manager, said with obvious disapproval.

“Yes,” he agreed, noting the looks exchanged among the managers, some with a trace of disdain they quickly covered up when they realized he’d seen them. He continued, “Also, I’ve just been informed that Charlie won’t be able to attend. Due to her condition, her doctor has put her on bed rest.” He nodded to Peg seated to his right for relaying the information.

There were murmurs of concern and he addressed them. “The doctor’s taking precautions. I’m sure you all realize how much hard work and time she’s put into the store over the last few weeks. She wants it to be successful and she hired me to help carry on her vision until she can find a permanent replacement. I know that you and I can make King’s even more of a success and sustain that success for Charlie and for the late Charles King.”

There was a smattering of applause.

“Now then–“

The door burst open.

Marcus jerked his head up to find himself staring at the mystery lady. His heart stopped, and then it beat in overdrive.

Gasping for breath, she swept her honey blonde hair away from her forehead. “Sorry I’m late.” Her smile was forced and he could see the corner of her lip tremble with the effort. Her gaze encompassed the stony room and landed on him. “You!” she cried.

Her cornflower blue eyes made him swallow hard. “You’re Francine King?”


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