“I don’t think I can do this.”
Eleanor Castle stared at her image in the full-length mirror, the muted light from the gleaming chandelier reminding her that she didn’t belong here. The red sleeveless cocktail dress with the broad portrait collar was elegant on her. She’d lost close to twenty pounds since the last time she’d stood in this spot over fourteen years ago, and the dress fit her body like a glove. Cinching at her tiny waist, the flared skirt belled out in chiffon brilliance, giving her figure an hourglass shape. The result was a nod to Valentine’s Day, sexy while still being classy.
“You’re gonna be just fine,” Tiffany Jackson, a friend who worked downstairs in the cosmetic department of the famous Dallas flagship Castle Department Store, said to reassure her.
Tiffany fussed over the gleaming diamond necklace and matching teardrop earrings she’d borrowed from the jewelry department. “If you can get through tonight, we’ll have a real Valentine’s Day celebration in two weeks, on the real day.”
Eleanor couldn’t believe her bad timing. Her new position started on the same week Castle Department Store planned to begin its centennial celebration. The original Castle’s had opened two weeks before Valentine’s Day in 1918.
The theme for this year’s celebration was One Hundred Years of Elegance and Grace.
And once upon a time, she’d been part of that elegance and grace.
“But what if someone recognizes me?” Eleanor said, her gaze moving over the elegant chignon Tiffany had insisted on creating in spite of Eleanor’s unruly hair. The hairstyle showed off her newly highlighted blonde curls, while making her look like a princess from a fairy tale. Tiffany’s talent for doing a makeover was impressive, but had Eleanor changed enough to fool everyone? “I know I look different now, but—”
“Honey, hush,” Tiffany said, waving a hand in dismissal, her purple-lacquered fingernails sparkling. “I almost didn’t recognize you when you showed up on my doorstep a month ago. You’ve changed, Miss Eleanor Castle.”
“Shh,” Eleanor said, glancing around to make sure they were alone. It was necessary, however, since they were in a private dressing room on the top floor of the six-story building. “No one can know who I really am. Not yet, anyway. Only you and my father ever called me Ellie and he only called me that when my mother was alive. So out in the store and around others, I’m Ellie Sheridan.”
Her father had become more formal after his new wife came into their home.
Tiffany ran a hand over her inky braids, her burnished brown eyes as bright as the single solitaire she wore with her wedding band on her left ring finger. Eleanor’s childhood friend had married a good man and had four beautiful children, but Tiffany still enjoyed a good conspiracy and loved being in on a covert mission.
“Your secret is safe with me,” she said on a quiet note. “And Claude never tells any of our secrets, even though he could write a book on the goings-on around this place.”
That was true. If memory served Eleanor, the wise maintenance man played Santa each Christmas and handed out silly handmade heart-shaped cards each Valentine’s Day, and never said a bad thing about anyone. He remembered everyone’s birthday, and he knew who was out sick and usually made them homemade chicken soup. And he loved playing matchmaker, or at least he had when Eleanor used to roam around the store.
“I hope he’ll keep my secret,” Eleanor said. “Because I need you both to be my eyes and ears if I’m going to pull this off.”
She didn’t tell her dear friend she’d already set things in motion by hiring lawyers and doing tons of research online. She needed to build a compelling case against her stepmother. And possibly press charges against the ruthless woman who had taken over Castle’s and ruined Eleanor’s life years ago.
Tiffany finished with a flourish, touching up Eleanor’s cheeks with glittery blush. “You can start your job as head of security bright and early Monday morning, but tonight, you are my plus one for this Valentine’s Gala, so enjoy it and do all the spying you want. Castle’s is throwing a big party this year with this centennial celebration stuff. No one will recognize you because they’ll be too busy drinking champagne and eating those fancy appetizers the café whipped up.”
Eleanor turned from the mirror, the sweeping skirt of her dress making her feel special again. She’d felt that way long ago, when she’d been the princess of Castle Department Store, walking down the grand staircase with her parents holding her hands on either side, loving every minute of their annual Valentine’s Gala, which had always been held close to the big day—her birthday.
Back then, her parents always made a big deal about holidays. They’d celebrated Thanksgiving by volunteering so others would have a good meal, Christmas with an open house for customers and workers alike, and Memorial Day and the Fourth of July with fireworks. Any holiday was cause for celebration at Castle’s, and not just for sales or profits. Her parents had truly loved their employees like family. But Valentine’s Day had always been Eleanor’s favorite because her parents loved throwing this elaborate gala as a special birthday event for her, as well as an anniversary event for the store.
Charles and Vivian Castle had been known around Dallas/Ft Worth for their charitable donations and their generosity to employees. Lately, however, Castle Department Store had been slipping in those endeavors. Employee morale was down, and they’d lost some of their best people. Plus, customers were leaving unsavory comments and reviews on the website. At least funds from tonight’s big event would go to a local organization that helped place women back into the working world. But only because the head of the House of Lamon, who was at the center of this publicity, had demanded it.
Caron Castle, her stepmother, didn’t care about anyone but herself.
Which was why Eleanor Castle, the true heir to the Castle fortune, was back. Eleanor could live without the fortune, but she wouldn’t let her father’s legacy go down in flames simply because the woman in charge didn’t have a clue about managing a vast department store conglomerate. Besides this flagship store, there were several more stores located across the South. Her father, who’d always been at the helm, hadn’t been seen in public for months now. All the more reason for Eleanor to return, no matter the timing.
It was now or never. She had to discover what was wrong with her father, and she had to find a way to bring Caron Castle down from her high-and-mighty throne.
When Eleanor was fifteen, her mother had died. A year later, her grieving father had married the first gold digger to come along. And she’d brought two younger children with her and later talked Eleanor’s father into officially adopting them.
Shocked and confused, Eleanor had rebelled and acted out in every conceivable way for the next few years.
The princess had been relegated to the far tower. Her once-doting father had suddenly forgotten she existed, except for the times he called her into his office to lecture her on her rude behavior toward his new wife. So Eleanor Castle had gone off to college. Brokenhearted and devastated, she’d still managed to graduate with degrees in both business and criminal justice. She’d landed a job in security at a major retail store similar to Castles, but located in faraway Atlanta. Biding her time, she’d waited for an opening in the Atlanta Castle’s store in hope of getting a position here.
In all that time, her father had never reached out to her or responded to her letters or phone calls. She blamed Caron for that.
But now, Ellie Sheridan, aka Eleanor Castle, had come home to reclaim what rightly belonged to her. But it wasn’t about money or material things. No, Eleanor had a better reason for being back.
“What made you decide to come back now?” Tiffany asked, handing Eleanor her a pair of exquisite shimmering silver leather pumps. Eleanor’s friend had always been able to decipher her thoughts. “You’ve been gone for almost fourteen years.”
Eleanor slid one shoe on and moaned. “You know why. Let me enjoy this moment. I’ve been gone, and I’ve changed. At least I shed those college pounds.”
Her friend let out an unladylike snort. “You did more than lose a few pounds. You’re in great shape, and your hair is gorgeous. You’re not the same shy, mousy teenager who left here.”
“I’ve changed in other ways, too,” Eleanor said, remembering what a mess she’d been when she’d gone off to college. “I actually love pretty shoes now.”
“They’re Lamon’s,” Tiffany said with a grin and a fluttering of her hands. “Like walking on heaven. Louboutin and Manolo have nothing on Lamon.”
Eleanor took in a breath. “And so expensive I can’t even begin to keep them.” She knew because she’d splurged on shoes a few times, most of them hidden in her closet like secret trophies.
“They’re yours,” Tiffany said. “I do have an employee discount. Claude threw in a few bucks, too. Your welcome-home present.”
“I can’t,” Eleanor said. But she stood and stared at her feet before twirling and admiring the stunning shoes. “Well, they do look good with this dress.”
“Yes, they sure do,” Tiffany said, clapping her hands. “I have to get downstairs. Monday, you can go back to being Plain Jane Eleanor. Your words, not mine—for the record. But tonight, you can be the princess at the ball. You’ll even get to rub shoulders with none other than Nico Lamon himself.”
Eleanor let out a snort. “Nico Lamon is a playboy who inherited a well-established Italian fashion house. He runs in circles that are so out of my league he won’t even bat an eye toward me. I doubt the man will notice me since I only saw him once when I was a teenager when he was here with his parents. We were supposed to be forced together in publicity photos, but I got shoved aside so my stepsiblings could have the limelight. I never even got to introduce myself.”
Because somehow, she’d managed to accidentally lock herself in her room. Eleanor had tried to call down for help, but no one answered the house phone. She’d banged on the door, hoping someone would come by. No one did.
Her bedroom door had never jammed like that before.
Memories of that awkward time when she’d missed a chance to see Nico at an afternoon tea assaulted her. Eleanor remembered Caron had fussed at her, saying her dress was too tight, her skin too pimply. Mortified, though she liked the rich blue dress she’d picked out and she only had one tiny pimple, Eleanor had stiffened her spine after Caron left her room. Her parents had taught her manners.
She had decided to hold her head high and ignore Caron’s taunts. Whether Nico noticed her or not, she hadn’t cared. She’d show her face and stand tall.
But she never had that chance.
She’d stood at her bedroom window, watching as his parents and their entourage loaded up in the limousine to leave.
And there he’d been, standing in the drive below.
Nico had looked like a cover model for GQ. Dark wavy hair and even darker midnight eyes. Perfect teeth and skin.
She’d looked down.
He’d glanced up.
Their gazes had held for a brief breath or two.
But then, he was gone.
Eleanor hated that even now, she still had a crush on the man. She’d dated and tried to find love, but her heart wasn’t in it. She’d locked it up in a secret place. The boy she’d once had a crush on was now a man—an attractive thirty-five-year-old—and since he was in her castle, her treacherous heart was trying to escape.
“He’s going to be too busy trying to find the perfect woman to wear those perfect Valentine’s shoes he designed just for tonight to look at anyone like me, anyway.” Shrugging, she added, “And from what I read in the tabloids, I’m not his type. He dates supermodels and movie stars.”
“Well, you can still flirt with the man,” Tiffany suggested with a wag of her finger. “I gotta get going. Caron will be on the war path if the employees aren’t in their positions when we open the doors to those rich patrons who paid a pretty penny to be here.”
“What if she recognizes me?” Eleanor asked, doubt coloring her words. Why she was nervous now, after she’d watched, waited, and worked so hard until the perfect opportunity came along, baffled her. She couldn’t lose confidence in her plan.
Tiffany giggled. “Caron? No way. I barely recognized you. Besides, she’ll be occupied with what she does best—bossing everyone around and making sure she’s the center of attention. She has no idea who you are. Your paperwork went to HR, and she signed off on it without even reading it. She won’t bother with you when you start working here. She’s just worried about the rash of shoplifters we’ve had lately. Worried enough to fire our head of security and put out feelers for the best of the best. And you, my dear, have the best qualifications out of everyone who applied for the job.”
“I did get my new position fair and square, as Ellie Sheridan,” Eleanor said, proud of that. “Not like some people who are in charge around here.”
Her stepmother and two stepsiblings came to mind. They were on salary, but from what Eleanor had heard, they didn’t work at Castle’s that much.
Tiffany grinned before heading for the secret side door that only a few employees knew about. They also didn’t know about the now-empty apartment up here, but Eleanor planned to explore that when she had a chance.
“When we get home tonight,” her friend said on a dramatic whirl, “I want the whole story of what you’ve been up to all these years, you hear me?”
“I left for all the wrong reasons,” Eleanor replied, grit in each word. “But I have only one reason to return to Castle’s. My father needs me.”
End of Excerpt