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If the Shoe Fits by Rachel Lacey (1)

1

Elle Davenport tugged at the bodice of her ball gown where the ribbing poked into her skin. When she’d been a little girl dreaming about fairytale princesses, she’d had no idea the dresses would be so uncomfortable. Of course, real-life princesses probably had gowns made of super-soft silk, unlike Elle’s theme park knock-off.

She continued down the sidewalk, waving at a group of children waiting in line for popcorn, her skirt swooshing around her feet as she walked. The Florida sun blazed overhead, and she glanced at the clock tower to her left. Ten minutes until her break…

“Princess Ariana!” A little girl ran toward her, arms outstretched.

Elle knelt and gathered her in for a hug. “Hi there, sweetie. What’s your name?”

“Britney,” the girl told her. “You’re just as beautiful in real life, Princess Ariana.”

“Aw, thank you, Britney. That’s so sweet of you to say.” As hot and uncomfortable as she was, moments like this one made her job worthwhile. Dressing up as a theme park princess wasn’t at all what she’d planned to be doing at twenty-five, but it wasn’t the worst job she’d ever had either. She signed Britney’s autograph book and posed with her while the girl’s parents took several photos before the family continued on their way.

Elle greeted a few more guests and then headed up the steps of the welcome center, eager for fifteen minutes of air conditioning. She lifted her skirt to keep from tripping over it, smiling as she saw her gold Gucci sandals peeking out from beneath its red satin folds. Her dress might have been uncomfortable, but her shoes sure weren’t. Shoes were her one splurge, and this pair—with colorful flowers embroidered across the top strap—made her feel like a real princess.

She ducked down the hall to the employee break room and filled a cup of water from the cooler. As she took a grateful sip, her cell phone started ringing from inside her locker. She fumbled to open it, grabbing her phone from the depths of her purse. The number came up with a 212 area code which—thanks to that one year after high school when she’d decided to try her luck with acting—she remembered was a New York City exchange. Acting had been a bust, though, and she didn’t know anyone in New York City.

Still, something compelled her to press the phone to her ear instead of letting it go to voicemail. “Hello?”

“Am I speaking with Elle Davenport?” a female voice asked.

“Yes. Who’s this?” Elle smoothed her free hand over the perfectly coifed blonde wig she wore. She was a natural blonde, but Princess Ariana’s hairdo was intricate, and it just wasn’t practical to spend hours getting her hair done every morning before work.

“My name is Monica Jackson, and I’m the outreach coordinator at Modern Home and Gardens magazine.”

Modern Home and Gardens,” Elle repeated as her brain clicked up to speed because holy shit, memories of a wine-infused girls’ night danced behind her eyelids. That night, after a few bottles of wine and a lot of laughter, she and her friends had entered the most outrageous contest…

“That’s right,” Monica said. “You entered our Almost Royal contest, and I’m so pleased to tell you that, after careful consideration, you and your co-applicants Ruby Keller and Megan Perl have been chosen as our winners.”

“Wait—what?” Elle pressed a hand to her forehead. She never won stuff, and this…this was by far the biggest contest she’d ever entered.

“You won!” Monica repeated with a laugh. “If you accept, you’ll be moving into Rosemont Castle in Towering Pines, Virginia, for a period of six months, during which time you’ll have the opportunity to put the ideas you proposed in your entry essay into practice. I have to say, our team loved your ‘Fairy Tails’ concept where guests at the castle visit with adoptable animals during their stay.”

“Holy crap.” Elle sounded like she’d swallowed helium, and she didn’t even care. That last part had been Ruby’s idea—for guests to have the opportunity to meet and hopefully fall in love with their own furry Prince or Princess Charming while they stayed at Rosemont Castle. Elle had thought it a bit much, but if this was what had won the contest for them, she would never doubt her nerdy, rescue-pet-loving friend again.

“You’ll be compensated for your work, of course,” Monica said. “The owners of the castle—the Langdon family—have stipulated generous monthly salaries for you, and all business expenses will be covered. At the end of the six-month period, they will evaluate your work and decide whether to keep you on to manage the property for them. If your venture is profitable, there is potential for your position to become permanent.”

“That’s…that’s amazing.” Elle knew she should have something more eloquent to say, but her mind was tumbling in a million different directions. She, Megan, and Ruby were going to move into a castle, a real-life castle owned by relatives of the British royal family. She danced on the spot, her ball gown swirling around her ankles, and hey, at least she was dressed for the occasion. She choked back a laugh.

“Now we realize that a lot of people entered this contest with no real expectation of winning,” Monica continued. “To accept your prize, you’ll need to move to Virginia for a minimum of six months and live and work at Rosemont Castle, which will culminate in a spread in Modern Home and Gardens’ January issue detailing your time and work there. This is a big commitment, so we urge you to let us know as soon as possible if you’ll be unable to fulfill your obligations.”

It was true that Elle and her friends had entered the contest without expecting to win. Truthfully, she hadn’t given it a second thought since the night they’d sent in their essay. But there was no way she was passing up this opportunity, and she knew her friends would say the same thing. “Oh, we’re in. We are definitely in.”

And that was how, three weeks later, Elle found herself riding in a shiny black limousine through the Virginia countryside with her best friends. She pressed her nose against the glass like an excited child as the limo wound its way down the endless paved driveway leading to Rosemont Castle. Tall trees rose on either side of them, forming a green canopy overhead. After twenty-five years in Florida, she felt out of place here in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains. She might feel lost right now, but she hoped to find something wonderful at the end of this drive. Maybe even life-changing.

The stakes for today were impossibly high. She and her friends had quit their jobs and moved out of their apartments for this opportunity. What if they messed up and the Langdon family sent them packing? She sat up straighter in her seat. She’d just have to work extra hard during their time here to make sure that didn’t happen.

“I see something,” Megan said beside her.

“Where?” Elle peered through the window, her heart accelerating the way she wished the limo would, but it kept up its steady crawl along the winding driveway.

“All I see are trees,” Ruby said, keeping one hand firmly on the cat carrier in front of her.

“There!” Megan called, and sure enough, Elle caught a glimpse of a stone structure through the trees.

Rosemont Castle. This was really happening.

The limo rounded a bend, and the castle came into full view. It looked like something straight out of her childhood fairytales, with an elaborate façade built from stone bricks, a tall tower on one side, and a huge fountain splashing from the middle of the circular drive. There were lush gardens to the left and rolling hills as far as she could see, scattered with various outbuildings.

“It looks just like it did in the photographs,” Ruby said. “Except bigger.”

“Definitely bigger.” Even Megan sounded awestruck.

Elle pressed a hand to her chest. She’d always thought the expression was just a cliché, but right now she literally felt like she’d had her breath taken away. From her one-bedroom apartment in Orlando to this? Happiness bloomed inside her, as vibrant as the flowers lining the driveway.

According to their contact at the magazine, the castle’s owner, Alistair Langdon, the Earl of Highcastle aka an actual relative of the British Monarchy, had passed away recently. The rest of the Langdons lived in England, so Elle and her friends should have pretty much free rein over Rosemont Castle for the duration of their stay.

If they were successful in finding a way for the castle to pay for its own upkeep, the Langdon family had the option to keep Elle, Megan, and Ruby on site indefinitely as property managers, and that’s exactly what Elle was counting on. This was her fresh start in life—a fresh start of royal proportions.

Nothing was going to mess it up.

The limo pulled into the circular drive, slowing to a stop in front of the castle’s dramatic front steps. The driver came around and opened the door for them. Ruby got out first, a cat carrier in each hand. Megan followed, with Elle bringing up the rear.

She stepped out of the limo and stood staring up at the castle. It was even more impressive now than it had been from inside the limo, standing picturesque against the bright blue sky. The sound of water splashing into fountains reached her ears. The air was cool and fresh, impossibly fresh. She sucked in a deep breath, a wide smile spreading across her face.

An elderly man in a crisp black uniform and white gloves came down the front steps. “Good afternoon. You must be Miss Davenport, Miss Perl, and Miss Keller.” He spoke with a British accent, and if he was an actual English butler, Elle might faint on the spot.

“Yes, we are,” Megan replied with an eager smile, her brown hair blowing in the breeze.

“Welcome to Rosemont Castle,” he said briskly. “My name is Colin, and I’m the butler here. If you would like to follow me, I will show you in and have your luggage brought inside.”

“That sounds lovely,” Megan told him, still beaming.

Elle seemed to have lost her tongue. Her brain had gone fuzzy. A castle with a butler. How was this her real life? By now, the limo driver had lined up all their luggage on the asphalt beside them. She followed Megan and Ruby up the stone steps toward the castle’s entrance.

As she reached the top step, one of Ruby’s cat carriers bumped into her shin. Elle stumbled off balance, and her rhinestone-encrusted sandal (she’d worked very hard on her first-day-in-a-castle outfit, thank you very much!) slipped from her foot and tumbled down the steps behind her with a clatter.

Well, that was an embarrassing way to make an entrance.

She turned, uneven now in one kitten-heeled sandal and one bare foot. A man stood at the bottom of the steps, holding her sandal and staring up at her with piercing blue eyes. His black hair was almost long enough to reach his collar, thick and wavy. He wore a powder-blue polo shirt and khaki shorts, and hello, he was gorgeous. And he must think she was a total klutz. She swallowed hard.

He held up her shoe. “I believe this belongs to you?”

Theo Langdon climbed the steps to hand the pretty blonde her shoe. These must be the winners of the magazine contest, and as irritated as he was by the situation, he couldn’t help but admire the women on his front steps. They were all pretty, but he couldn’t tear his gaze away from the blonde.

Her hair tumbled over her shoulders in loose curls that were pinned back from her face on one side. She wore a light pink dress with thin straps that showed off her toned and tanned shoulders and a white belt that accentuated her waist. She wobbled as she bent to slide the runaway shoe back onto her foot, and he held out a hand to steady her. Her hand was warm and delicate in his.

She straightened to face him, her cheeks flushed nearly as pink as her dress. “Thank you. I’m Elle Davenport.”

“Theo Langdon.” He watched as her green eyes widened.

“Oh! You’re one of the Langdons.”

He nodded. “That’s right.”

“We’re so thrilled to be here, Mr. Langdon,” one of Elle’s friends said, extending her hand with a wide smile. “This is a dream come true for us.”

“You can call me Theo.” As the newly appointed Earl of Highcastle, they should technically address him as “my lord,” but he’d never been big on formalities, especially not here in America. And anyway, he was still coming to terms with the fact that the title no longer belonged to his grandfather. Alistair’s death had come as a shock to everyone, but especially to Theo.

“I’m Megan.” She gave his hand a firm shake. “And that’s Ruby.”

Ruby, whose glasses and tight bun reminded him of a younger version of his high school English teacher, gave him a shy nod. A cat carrier sat on either side of her, and two sets of feline eyes gleamed up at him from within them.

“Pleasure to meet you ladies,” he said. If they’d met under different circumstances, it really would be a pleasure. He would have enjoyed getting to know them—especially Elle—but right now, their presence was an unwanted complication. He very much needed to get Rosemont Castle sorted out and sold so that he could return to London before the end of the summer.

“We, ah, we were under the impression you lived in England,” Elle said, still watching him closely.

“Hoping to have the place to yourselves, were you?”

“Oh, no, not at all,” she stammered.

He fought a smile. “I do live in London, but I’ll be here for the time being while I wrap up my grandfather’s affairs.”

“Of course.”

“In fact, I was hoping to go over some business with you ladies, if you don’t mind?” He’d purposefully caught them on their way in so he could break his news before they’d had a chance to get attached to the castle.

“Okay.” Elle held him in her steady, green-eyed stare.

“I’ll just take a few minutes of your time, and then you can get settled in.” He motioned for them to follow him inside, but as he did so, his cell phone began to ring. He swiped it from his pocket and saw the number for the London office displayed on the screen. Reluctantly, he shifted gears. “Actually, I need to take this. Have Colin find me once you’re settled, and we’ll talk then.”

He pushed through the castle’s heavy wooden doors, connecting the call as he walked.

“Theo.” His uncle George Langdon’s voice boomed over the line. “Our board members have been asking after you. How long until you’re back in London?”

He started down the hall toward his office. “I hope to have everything wrapped up here in the next few weeks.”

“We’re counting on you, my boy.”

Theo understood his uncle’s meaning perfectly. The family had long scorned his grandfather’s decision to live primarily in America. They felt he’d neglected his duties as the Earl of Highcastle. Now that Theo had inherited the title, they expected him to step up in the ways his grandfather had not. “There are a few matters here that have to be dealt with, but I’ll be back in London as soon as possible.”

“Don’t forget about the Gardener charity event on the twentieth of June,” his uncle said.

“I’ll be there.”

Elle stepped inside the castle’s front doors and stopped there to take it all in. The foyer was two stories high, with vaulted ceilings and huge windows that let in lots of natural light. Polished marble floors glistened beneath her feet, and an ornate crystal chandelier twinkled overhead. To her left, a wooden staircase curved upward toward the second floor.

“You’ll find the available guest bedrooms up those stairs,” Colin told them. “The Langdons’ private quarters are in the rear of the castle and have been closed off. Once you have selected your rooms, I will have your luggage brought up.”

“Thank you,” Megan said as she began to climb the staircase.

A high-pitched wail echoed around the foyer as one of Ruby’s cats expressed his dismay at the long journey. “Just a few more minutes, Simon,” she said as she bent next to his carrier. “Let me pick out our room, and then you can come out of there.”

Elle jogged up the stairs after Megan and Ruby. “You guys, I feel like I’m on a movie set or something right now.”

“It’s surreal, all right,” Ruby said as they reached the top of the stairs. “Should we check out the rooms together before we decide?”

“Sounds like a plan to me.” Megan was already walking down the hallway ahead.

The first room they came to had a king-sized bed with a navy blue bedspread and an ornately-carved head and footboard that matched the rest of the furniture in the room. Megan twirled an imaginary skirt, batting her eyelashes like a cartoon princess as she danced her way across the room.

Ruby snorted with laughter.

“We should keep in mind which rooms would make the best guest rooms,” Elle said with a grin as she walked to the window and took in the sweeping views of the grounds below. A big part of their plan for Rosemont Castle involved opening some of its many bedrooms to guests looking for a “royal” vacation getaway.

“That’s right,” Ruby said with a nod as she surveyed the room. “Which means we should look for out-of-the-way rooms and save ones like this for our guests.”

“So this is a guest room. That was easy.” Megan led the way back into the hall.

They wandered up and down the hallways, familiarizing themselves with the twelve—yes, twelve—available bedrooms on the East and West wings of the castle. All were decorated with a classic touch, some in earth tones, others in brighter colors.

Elle ran her fingers over yet another intricately-carved headboard. “Do you think this is a Langdon piece?” In her research on the family, she’d learned that they owned Langdon Fine Furnishings, one of the top producers of handcrafted furniture in Europe. Its charitable division—the Langdon Family Foundation—provided furnishings and other household goods to families in need throughout the United Kingdom.

“It would make sense,” Ruby said. “Now that you mention it, I can’t imagine Alistair Langdon having anyone’s furniture in this house but his own.”

“It could be another selling point,” Elle said as she followed them out of the room. “If a guest likes something they see in their room, they can go home and order it for themselves.”

“I’m not so sure they can.” Ruby grasped the handle on a door at the end of the hall. “I think Langdon Fine Furnishings is only available in Europe. I wonder what’s through here?” She pushed it open, revealing yet another hallway containing three bedrooms. These rooms were smaller and overlooked the wooded area behind the castle.

“I think we’ve found our rooms,” Elle said as she peeked inside the first one, decorated a sunny yellow. It was bright and happy and easily her favorite room that they’d seen so far.

“They’re perfect,” Megan agreed as she walked into the bedroom next door. It had a brightly-colored quilt striped with shades of red and burgundy, soft pink walls, and an oversized window with sheer curtains.

Ruby crossed the hall and opened another door. It revealed a spiral stone staircase which led to both upper and lower floors. Eyebrows raised, Ruby gave Elle and Megan a look as she started up. Elle grinned as she hurried after her. About halfway up the stairs, Elle peeked out one of the windows and gasped. “You guys, we’re in the tower!”

“You’re right.” Ruby picked up the pace, hurrying toward the doorway at the top of the stairs. She opened it, revealing a rounded bedroom inside. The room was bright with off-white walls and a cushioned ledge running around its perimeter, making one never-ending reading nook in front of the oversized windows. A day bed sat along the far wall, with white-painted wrought iron rails and a bedspread decorated with colorful butterflies. “Dibs,” Ruby said, as a smile spread slowly across her face.

“What? No fair!” Megan walked to the window. “Holy crap, the view is amazing.”

“I need more space because I’ll have Simon and Oliver in the room with me.”

“Can you believe her?” Megan asked Elle with an amused grin. “She wants a bigger room because of her cats.”

Elle held her hands out in front of herself. “I want the yellow bedroom downstairs, so this is totally between you guys.”

“Please?” Ruby asked with a sweet smile.

“Oh, fine,” Megan acquiesced. “That daybed is too small for me anyway. I’d rather have the bigger bed downstairs.”

“You’re the best.” Ruby gave her a quick hug. “I’m going to get the cats set up in here and then we can finish exploring.”

Elle walked back down the stairs to get a closer look at her new room. She swept her hand across the soft bedspread and walked to the window. Her room overlooked the rolling hills and thick woods of the Appalachian Mountains, and this view might be even more enchanting than the picturesque gardens visible from the front of the castle. Once they were all settled in, she wanted to go exploring in those woods too.

A plush chair sat by the window, and Elle could already imagine herself curled up there with a book and maybe a little dog in her lap. After a half dozen false starts since she made the decision to pursue acting instead of college, she finally, finally felt like she was headed in the right direction with her life.

“Ready to go exploring?” Ruby said from the doorway.

Megan appeared beside her. “I know I am.”

“So ready.” Elle followed them downstairs.

Colin was waiting for them, and they let him know which bedrooms they’d picked out. With that taken care of, they headed for the front door, laughing and chatting excitedly, eager to explore the castle’s grounds.

The heavy front door opened before they’d reached it, and Theo Langdon stood silhouetted against the late afternoon sun. It filtered through his dark hair, giving him a sort of golden aura, and Elle’s heart skittered in her chest. Okay, so the man was seriously hot, and he spoke with just a hint of a British accent that was ridiculously sexy.

But he was also her landlord, and yeah…not going there. She’d ruined enough things in her life already. No way was she going to risk the best thing that had ever happened to her by lusting after a man who was practically her boss.

“Could I have a moment?” he asked, addressing the three of them. Maybe it was Elle’s imagination, but his gaze seemed to linger a moment longer on her.

Her cheeks grew warm. “Of course.”

He led the way down the hall. Elle followed, surreptitiously glancing into every room they passed. She saw a lounge with plush seating and a baby grand piano and caught a glimpse of a library that was absolutely to-die-for before Theo led them into what appeared to be his office, motioning them toward a circular wooden table just large enough for the four of them.

Once Elle, Ruby, and Megan had followed him in, he shut the door behind them. “I have some business to discuss with you ladies.”

Elle sat in the chair across from him. “Should I get my laptop?”

“That won’t be necessary,” he said.

Ruby and Megan settled into the two remaining seats at the table.

“We’d love to go over the details of our business plan with you,” Megan said, her brown eyes sparkling. “We’ve done a lot of planning since finding out we won the contest, and we have some really exciting ideas for bringing income into the castle.”

“That’s not exactly what I brought you in here to discuss,” Theo said, and something in his tone made Elle sit up straighter in her seat.

“As you know, my grandfather passed away recently,” Theo said. “He built this castle fifty years ago when he fell in love with my grandmother, Rose. She was an American, and they lived here pretty much full time. Now that they’re both gone, the family has decided that it would be in our best interest to sell Rosemont Castle.”

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