Most people don't see past Brooke Anne Kressler's Jovial Janitors sweatshirt and old sneakers. But even janitors dream of being Cinderella at the ball, and for one night with executive Morgan Carmichael, Brooke Anne lives her fairy tale until Morgan's ex shows up at the party. Brooke Anne makes a hasty exit from the Christmas ball, leaving her dreamsand her shoesbehind.
Morgan may not know much about shoes, but he does know he can't stop thinking about Brooke Anne. So he decides to play Prince Charming and return her heels. But Brooke seems to have transformed from Cinderella into Scrooge overnight. It's going to take a lot more than a pair of shoes to convince her that at Christmas, anything is possibleeven happily ever after.
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Oh, the shoes were on sale now. The beautiful shoes with the three gold straps, the four-inch heel and not much else. The shoes that would showcase a flawless pedicure, the fine arch of her foot, and would set off an ivory lace gown to perfection.
Of course, to make an outfit like that work, she'd need the right kind of jewelry, Brooke Anne mused as she stared at the shoe display through the highend shop window. Nothing too bold Perhaps a simple diamond tennis bracelet and one-carat studs? Yes, that would lend just the right air of sophistication. Elegant, refined, classythat was how she wanted to appear.
Hmm. She'd get her hair styled in a dramatic up-do. Something extravagant and curly, to accentuate her gray eyes and high cheekbones. Something to give herself at least the illusion of height she so desperately needed. It was hard to look statuesque when you were five foot two.
But none of that would matter when she set foot on the dance floor. Her date would hold her tightly and twirl her around and around. Balancing on the balls of her feet, she'd maneuver in sync with him. She'd finally put all those dance lessons from long ago to good use, and her date would be impressed that she could actually waltz with ease. They'd glide through the motions, spinning, dipping, stepping together. Others would stay out of their way.
No, no one would be in the way they would have already moved aside to watch the incredible display of footwork, the vision of two bodies dancing in perfect harmony. They would stare at the woman in ivory lace, wearing the most beautiful, decadent shoes shoes that would probably only last one evening, they were so fragile and elegant-looking.
Brooke Anne tilted her head, lost in the fantasy. At the ball, she'd hold her head high and look down upon the rest of the people, who could only waltz by counting to themselves. She'd pity the guests who'd been reduced to asking acquaintances from work or distant cousins to accompany them. They would eye her jealously as her date gazed at her in complete admiration..
And she would simply smilenot a big grin, with teeth showing, but a small one playing at the corners of her mouth. The glint in her eye would tell observers how happy she was.
She'd be like a modern-day Mona Lisa. With blond hair and gray eyes, though. And short. She'd be a short Mona Lisa. But still graceful.
And she wouldn't have a care in the world because she'd be wearing the most spectacular shoes she'd ever seen. She'd feel like magic.
"May I help you?"
Brooke Anne stared at the slim, dignified-looking older man standing in the doorway of WJB Shoes. "Pardon?"
He pursed his lips, then spoke again. "Miss, do you need any help? I noticed that you've been looking in the window for a few minutes."
With a twinge of embarrassment, Brooke Anne turned toward the window again, catching her reflection staring back at her. She couldn't help seeing the humor in the situation. Here she was with no makeup, hair pulled back in a hurried ponytail, dressed in old jeans and a sweatshirt emblazoned with Jovial Janitor Service. And her shoes she was wearing old tennis shoes.
Not even designer ones in good leather, but discount-store bargain shoes. Blue-light special shoes. Ugly brown-andorange shoes that had nothing to recommend them except a very cheap price.
Quickly, she waved goodbye to the smartly dressed salesman and walked to the next door over. After running her security card through the slot, she made her way to the sixth floor. There she used her key to open the janitor's closet, and pulled out the cart, more than ready to get to work. Today she was subbing for Tomasina, her best friend, who regularly cleaned the building.
Tomasina's baby, Vanessa, was sick, so it fell to Brooke Anne to pick up the job on such short notice. It was what you did when you owned your own company, Brooke Anne was learning.
Being a cleaning lady was not the most glamorous career in the world, but the hours were flexible and the conditions goodif you were the type who didn't mind working at night and by yourself.
Brooke Anne filled a bucket with warm water, slipped on her gloves and then checked the itemized list that she'd printed out before she left her apartment. On Thursday nights, Jovial Janitors tackled the Royal Hotels corporate headquarters, a fairly small hotel chain that was known for its customer service and careful attention to details. At least that was what it said on their framed mission statement in the lobby.
Glancing at the clock, Brooke Anne noticed that things were pretty quiet for 7:00 p.m. The Royal Hotel employees seemed to work late in cycles. Some days there were people there until ten or eleven. Other times the place was nearly empty by six. She figured this must be one of those nights.
Matter-of-factly, she began her routine, vacuuming empty offices and removing trash with practiced grace. She cleaned the east-wing bathrooms and then made her way toward the opposite side of the building, stopping at the conference room to do the scheduled dusting.
Brooke Anne hummed an old Frank Sinatra tune to herself; it'd been playing in the lobby and had stuck itself on Replay in her brain.
Retrieving a fresh rag from the cart, she was brought up short by a man in a dark suit and violet-colored silk tie glaring at the phone console, the receiver stuck to his ear. She glanced at him, unsure whether to continue dusting or leave immediately.
Different executives had different views on her presence. Some treated her much as they would a floor lamp, ignoring her completely; others felt obligated to make chitchat. Some people just smiled their hellos and then either waved her off or motioned her in. This man didn't even seem to realize she was in the room.
Since she'd already dusted two chairs, Brooke Anne decided to quietly finish her task. She looked at the man again. He was scowling, obviously unimpressed with whoever was on the other end of the phone. "I know that," he said sharply. "Tell me something I don't."
Brooke Anne wiped down the chairs as quickly as she could, eager to get out of the room before he turned his crankiness on her.
"Listen, I don't care what you think ." He paused. "Are you out of your mind? It's on Saturday night. I need someone to be there with me." He paused again, then clenched his pencil in a death grip. "Listen, Sheri, blow it off. Get someone to cover for you."
Things sounded as if they were heating up. Brooke Anne cleared her throat, waited to be acknowledged.
But the guy just went on. "I think it's a pretty easy decision. It should be." And then he looked up and caught her gaze.
Brooke Anne waited for a signal. Should she stay or should she go? Finally, he nodded impatiently, his hand making a cleaning motion as he did so. Ahstay there and get the job done.
"Well, I've got to tell you, I really don't appreciate you pulling this on me, and I'm going to remember it Fine I know that Fine. Bye." He slammed down the phone and grumbled something under his breath that Brooke Anne was glad she couldn't understand.
She took a breath of her own and continued to make her way down the table. Now she was a mere two yards away from him. The Suit.
He studied her carefully, watched her work, then seemed vaguely embarrassed. "Hey," he said, "I'm sorry you had to hear that."
"No problem, sir. I'll be done in a few minutes."
His eyebrows rose in a look of surprise. Had he expected her not to be capable of stringing two sentences together? "Sure.. whatever."
She lifted her head again. He was sprawled across chair number eighteen, still watching her intently with his khaki-colored eyes as if he'd never seen anyone dust a set of conference chairs before. "That was my girlfriend. Ex-girlfriend." With an impatient gesture, he corrected himself again. "Actually, we've been broken up for a while but we're trying out the 'just friends' thing. She's canceling on me for Saturday night."
Why was it that some people thought of janitors as substitute shrinks? Because he was obviously waiting for a reply, Brooke Anne said, "I'm sorry."
"Yeah, me, too. Now I don't have a date for our company Christmas party."
She moved to chair number fourteen. Dusted the armrests, then ran her cloth along the back. "What are you going to do?" she asked, since he seemed to be looking for conversation.
He raked his hands through his short hair. Unable to help it, she stared at him, analyzing each feature. His hair was a true mix of colorsnot quite blond, not quite brownmaking Brooke Anne wish it was daylight, so she could see what it would do in the sun. He had a ruddy complexion and a firm jaw. A tender mouth. He looked like someone she would want to know.
Brooke Anne's eyes fell to his silk tie again and she firmly reminded herself that she was wearing dollar-store shoes and a sweatshirt with a big mop on it. They had absolutely nothing in common. But.. what if they did?
He answered her then. "I don't know. I wouldn't care except that it's kind of expected, you know?"
She stared at him blankly.
"I mean, everyone's going to be there, showing off their trophy wives and perfect marriages," Mr. Executive explained. "Dinner's always a sit-down affair, assigned seats. Now I'm going to have an empty chair beside me. It's going to be obvious I don't have a date."
His problems seemed so trite, so simple. He was worried about a vacant seat next to him? Didn't those types of worries disappear sometime around junior high?
She shrugged. "Couldn't you just say your girlfrienduh, ex-girlfriendcouldn't make it?"
"Not with this crowd. Nobody can't make it. Everybody who gets an invitation comes. I know a guy who missed his mother's seventy-fifth birthday extravaganza to come to this thing. Guys skip their daughters' dance recitals."
Sounded to her as though everyone had their priorities confused. Brooke Anne started on chair fifteen. "Don't you have a sister or someone you could take?"
His eyes brightened for a moment, then dimmed. "Nope. My sister, Caroline, flew to south Florida for the weekend, to get a break from the cold. She left this morning."
Brooke Anne almost slapped her palm against her head. Of course. Caroline was vacationing for the weekend. To escape the weather. Why hadn't Brooke Anne thought of that? Instead she tried for a small, tight smile.
"That's too bad."
The man rapped his fingers on the table, watching her wipe down the legs of a chair. He had the grace to look embarrassed. "Sorry. I guess I sound like an idiot. It's just that these stupid dinners are almost like a grown-up show-and-tell. It'll be my first opportunity to spend some time with the new CEO the board hired, and I didn't want anything to go wrong."
Understanding dawned. She felt the same way about family get-togethersespecially since the Russell fiasco. "You don't sound like an idiot," she murmured. And surprised herself when she realized she was telling the truth.
He smiled at that, and it completely transformed his face. The worry lines around his eyes vanished, and the most appealing dimple appeared in his left cheek. Not a big one, just a little mark that she hadn't expected. He really was striking.
"Maybe you could go with your administrative assistant or something," she suggested.
"Nah she's married, and almost old enough to be my mother."
"What I need is someone to look good, not make a scene and be able to dance."
"Yeah. The president has a real thing for ballroom dancing. He and his wife are actually in one of those dancing clubsthey meet every Friday night and practice."
She thought of her own Friday nights, usually spent nursing a hot tea and soaking a sore pair of feet. Who knew people in this world had time for such stuff?
Mr. Too-Handsome-in-a-Gray-Suit smiled again. "You'd be surprised to hear about the number of our employees who've been attending the Jim Langley Dance Studio on the sly. You'd think that the president was getting a kickback."
"What kind of dancing?"
"Mr. Brownlee favors waltzing, the fox-trot and swing."
"Do you know all those?"
"Enough not to embarrass myself too badly on the dance floor. Sheri and I went to eight lessons back in October. We do all right. Besides, no one wants to look too good when the Brownlees get on the floor, anyway." He gazed at her for a minute, then bent over and laid his head in his hands. "So, Miss, uh Jovial Janitor, who can I findwho'll look good in a ball gown and knows how to danceby tomorrow night?"
"I'm sure you'll find someone."
He scowled again, though that dimple spoiled the effect. "Come on, nobody knows how to rhumba except people in this office."
"Um.I can dance," she stated, then glanced at him, horrified that she'd actually said the words aloud. Why had she done that?
His head popped up. "What?"
"Um, I know how to do all that stuff. You know, waltz and everything." When he continued to stare at her as if she'd grown horns, she expanded. "Just to let you know that maybe more people can rhumba than you might think."
He tilted his head. Narrowed his eyes. All at once he seemed to be seeing someone behind the Jovial Janitor sweatshirt. "You may be right about that."