Cinderella Rule #1
While life occasionally makes it appear otherwise, no one has control over your life . . . but you. Make decisions with care, because in the end, you have only yourself to blame for the outcome.
—Mercedes Browning, cofounder ~ Glass Slipper, Inc. Chapter One
Do not tell me you had Tugger stop me in the middle of play- ing midwife to a first-time mother because you’re stuck somewhere and need me to bail you out. Again.”
Darby Landon didn’t wait for a response, but tucked the cell phone under one arm so she could pull off her bicep-length rubber gloves, glaring at Tugger Jack, her ranch manager and all-around right hand. “I’ll deal with you later,” she told him as she squeezed by.
He shrugged and quickly ducked into the horse stall to take over where she’d left off. “Said it was a matter of life and death,” she heard him mutter as the stall door clicked shut. “Don’t pay me enough to listen to a woman cry.”
“I don’t pay me enough to have to put up with any of this,” Darby grumbled. She wiped the phone off on the tail of her overalls and shifted it back to her ear, as her baby sister continued her latest version of Rescue Me. Baby being the key word. Despite the fact that Pepper had recently turned twenty-three.
Darby stalked out of the barn and across the back stretch of grass to the farmhouse situated on the rise about twenty yards away. Of course, anyone who was old enough to vote and still went by her childhood nickname had serious issues anyway. Not that her only sister did anything as important as vote, unless it was a People magazine poll on the world’s sexiest bachelor.
Darby knocked her boots against the frame as her sister continued to whine in her ear, then pushed through the screen door to the back porch and went straight to the fridge she kept in the outside corner. That way she didn’t have to track barn crud into the house more often than she managed to anyway. To be fair, of course, if she’d stayed back East, she’d likely be a thirty-year-old, politically conscious, Town & Country subscribing BiBi or Dinky herself by now.
Okay, sure, technically speaking, Darby was a nickname, too. But the alternative had been so heinous—Darmilla Beatrice? Who did that to their own kid?—that certainly no one, save her father, the man who’d dredged up that horrific tidbit of Landon family ancestry, could blame her for sticking with her maternal grandfather’s alternative.
And, as nicknames went, at least Darby sounded like a real name. As opposed to a condiment. Or a lap dancer.
She popped the top on a can of soda and took a long gulp, then rolled it across her sweaty forehead, ignoring the resulting smear of grime, and used her sleeve to wipe off the wet left from the can. “You can’t keep doing stuff like this, Pepper,” she said, finally interrupting the steady chatter she’d let flow in one ear and out the other.
“But I didn’t do anything. I can’t help it if I’m needed elsewhere. It’s not like I’m asking you to come down here. I just need one teensy little favor. I’m sure Daddy won’t mind, as long as one of us shows up.”
Striving for a calm she definitely didn’t feel, Darby spoke slowly, through clenched teeth. “When Dad hears you’re not keeping your word—again—he’s going to have a cat. And a cow.” She broke off, swearing under her breath when she heard her sister’s first little sniffle. “You know, he’s this close to cutting you off permanently, and I don’t blame him. After the last stunt you pulled at the regatta in Monaco, he—”
“I know,” Pepper wailed. “But it wasn’t my fault the ropes got all tangled. I had no idea they were important. You gotta help me out, DarDar.”
“And half the reason you didn’t worry about literally running a million-dollar sailboat aground in a coral reef is because you knew Dad or I would bail you out. Well, he finally wised up. Maybe it’s time I did, too.”
“And if you value your trust fund, you’ll never—ever—call me DarDar again. It makes me feel like an extra on Star Wars.”
There was dead silence on the other end of the long-distance call, then a snuffle, a little hiccup. And, as always, Darby felt the burden of responsibility begin to creep in. Dammit. “You’ve got plenty of time to hightail it back home,” she said firmly. She wouldn’t cave. Not this time. “I’m sure there’s an airport within spitting distance of wherever you are.” Pepper wasn’t much for roughing it.
“But, Dar . . . there’s something else. Or should I say someone.”
“Isn’t there always?”
“But it’s different with Paolo, Dar, I swear—”
“Paolo?” Darby squeezed the bridge of her nose as the throbbing in her forehead increased. “Where the hell are you calling me from, anyway?”
In a tiny voice, her sister said, “Brazil.”
“BRAZIL?” she shouted. No amount of nose-pinching was going to stave off this latest Pepper-induced migraine. Pinching her sister’s head off at the neck, maybe. “You said you were out of town, not off the damn continent.”
“Darby, you should see this place Paolo brought me to,” she gushed, switching effortlessly from tears to excitement and conveniently ignoring her sister’s tirade. A patented Pepper Landon trademark. “It’s huge, done totally in white marble, with fountains, an indoor pool—”
“I’m not big on hotels. You’re the five-star princess. I had enough room service to last me a lifetime before I hit first grade.” Even when they’d been at home, it had still felt like room service.
“It’s not a hotel. It’s his house,” Pepper bubbled.
Bubbles. Now there was a missed nickname opportunity, Darby thought, trying and failing to summon the patience that talking to Pepper required. “I really don’t have time for—”
“He’s a world famous soccer star.” Pepper lowered her voice. “Speaking of which, my God, Dar, you should see the man’s legs. Serious flex action, and hamstrings that could probably crack coconuts. And speaking of nuts, he’s amazingly well—”
“I get the picture,” Darby broke in, trying like hell not to visualize a Brazilian guy with brown stringy coconut balls hanging between his legs. Her sister’s love affairs were always of legendary propor-tions . . . as were the men she had them with. Of course, they usually lasted about as long as the standard hotel-sized bottle of shampoo. “And we both know you’ll be back home, heartbroken and depressed, in a matter of weeks. So why not save yourself the trauma and fly home now. That way you can fulfill your promise, and if this big deal goes well—and we both know this business partner of Dad’s doesn’t stand a chance with you playing stand-in escort—you might even get access to your trust fund again. Sometime before the next Ice Age, even.”
“You can afford to joke,” Pepper said petulantly. “You don’t care about anything but that stupid ranch of Grandpa’s.”
“It’s my ranch now. And you’re right. I don’t care about jet-setting hot spots, Dad’s money, or working my way through every international power-broker playboy in the Northern Hemisphere.”
“I’m in the Southern Hemisphere,” Pepper interjected grudgingly. “And Paolo’s not a playboy, he’s a professional athlete.”
“There’s a distinction,” Darby said dryly.
Pepper huffed. “You’re being unfair. I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important. I do everything for Daddy, and we both know how impossible he is. When was the last time you—”
“June fifteenth. Nineteen-ninety-nine. I showed up for your graduation. I’m due at least another decade or so before I have to descend into the snake pit of Washington power movers and shakers again.”
“For Christ’s sake, you make it sound like the Animal Kingdom or something.”
“Exactly. Watching the food chain in action is a perfect analogy. The powerful feasting on the weak.” Darby sighed as the silence spun out. “Listen, you know I’ve always wanted what was best for you. And I know it’s partly my fault for not pushing you to deal with things—”
“And I’ve told you a million times that you don’t have to play mommy to me anymore.”
Well, then, grow up, Darby wanted to tell her. And it didn’t mat- ter how often Pepper told her she didn’t need a mother figure. She did. Hell, they both probably did. Their real mother had died when Darby was eight and Pepper was barely out of the crib. Of course Darby felt responsible for her baby sister. It didn’t help matters any that at the age of eleven, Darby had basically run away from home—or away from their father, to be exact. A man who measured a person’s value by their net worth. In the case of his two daughters, that translated to parlaying the family name into brokering a decent merger—what other folks called marriage—to another, equally powerful family name.
On that scale, they’d both been dismal failures. Darby could care less, but Pepper had to deal with that reality—and him—on a daily basis.
“I know Dad isn’t the easiest man to live with,” Darby began, ignoring Pepper’s snort. “But you’ve managed to do what I never could have done. I wouldn’t last two minutes in that world. You’ve found a way to thrive in it.”
Another little sniff. “I do like the way I live. And the way I see it, Dad shouldn’t hold this kind of thing against me. Part of the reason I do these things is because of the way he raised me. I’m merely a product of my environment,” she announced with a pitiful sigh.
Darby laughed. It was that or rap the phone repeatedly against the wall. Or her forehead. “Yes, well, you might actually have a point. But we both know the best thing I can do to help you, is to stop bailing you out. Besides, it’s the end of foaling season. I can’t just waltz two thousand miles away and play stand-in for you. I’ve got horses to feed, stalls to muck—”
“And all three of Tugger’s grandsons coming to Montana for the whole summer to help you out.”
“Still,” Darby said flatly, stalwart to the very end, “I don’t have the polish, much less the stomach, to pull off the whole Washington hostess thing. I ride horses. You’re the one who rides senators.”
“Oh, har, har,” Pepper shot back, not remotely offended. “And Morton was a delegate to the House of Representatives, not a senator.”
“Which is exactly my point. I wouldn’t know a delegate from a horse’s ass.”
“Actually, they’re very similar,” Pepper said with a dry laugh. “Or in the case of Morton, an elephant’s ass. He’s a Republican,” Pepper clarified when Darby didn’t laugh. “Elephant and donkey?”
“Yeah, I get it, a real party animal.” Darby drew dirty circles on the table with the sweat from her soda can, wishing like hell she could just be mad at Pepper and not love her and worry about her all at the same time. “You’re the one who needs to get it. Even if I was willing—which I’m not—you really don’t want to be counting on me to keep this guy happy until Dad shows up. I’m good with animals, not people.”
“But I’m not relying solely on you. I mean, not entirely. I have help all lined up, in fact.” She said that last part brightly. Too brightly.
Darby propped open the screen door with her boot and stared unseeingly at the Big Belt Mountains that pitched up just beyond the boundaries of her land, an ominous feeling gathering in the pit of her stomach. “Meaning what, exactly? What have you done now?”
“Well . . .”
“Penelope Pernell Landon—”
“I’ll never call you DarDar again, I swear.”
Darby didn’t smile. “And I’ll use the hated full name again and again until you tell me what you’ve gotten me into now.”
There was a pause, then a slight clearing of throat, then, in a perky voice that would put even Reese Witherspoon to shame, she asked, “Did you see that feature article in People magazine? About that company that does makeovers? And I don’t mean just beauty makeovers, but, like, entire life makeovers. Glass Slipper, Incorporated?”
“Tell me I am not hearing what I think I’m hearing. I like movies as much as the next guy, probably more, given the social life—or lack of one—in Big Bend, Montana. But I don’t want to read about the people who act in them. You’re the one who cares who Ben Affleck is screwing, not me.”
“I know. You only care who your horses are screwing. It’s sad, Darby.” She sighed, deeply disappointed. “I guess I should be happy you know who Ben Affleck is.”
“Satellite dishes are a wonderful thing.”
“Well, you should keep up more. Ben and I might make an ex- cellent match. We both come from the East Coast, we both believe in having a good time.” She laughed. “And we both have a deep and abiding interest in his money.”
“Then phone Ben. Because I swear to God, Pepper, if you’ve—”
“Now don’t get your chaps in a knot,” she said, dropping the perky persona. “Just hear me out. Besides, it certainly wouldn’t hurt you any to do this. I’m actually doing you a favor when you think about it. In return for the one you’re doing for me,” she added hastily when Darby growled. “Think of it as a vacation. And a chance to improve your marriage options.”
“My what? Did you just say improve my marriage options? I’m not shopping for a goddamn husband.”
“I know you don’t like to talk about this, but the big three-oh has arrived, Dar. And with language like that, it’s no wonder they’re not exactly beating down your door. Or stall, as the case may be.”
“Very funny,” Darby said darkly. “This is not about me. This is your harebrained idea. Your problem. And I refuse to be the solution, but thanks for calling. Please let me know when you’ve found the mind you obviously lost somewhere in the Brazilian jungle.”
“Wait! Don’t hang up on me, Dar, please?” Pepper resorted to her little-girl wheedling voice, which went a lot further with men—any age, any tax bracket, didn’t matter—than it did with Darby. But it was effective enough to keep her from clicking the off button. “You know I wouldn’t ask if this wasn’t absolutely my last possible chance at happiness.”
“Okay, okay. I know I’ve been a bit fickle with men.” She sighed, deeply and with the kind of palpable emotion that could have made her a star on Broadway. “But he could be the one.”
“Pressing the off button.”
“No! Okay, okay, no more bullshit, I promise.” She blew out a sigh and finally gave up all the finagling and pretense. “Bottom-lining it, I have to be in two places at the same time, on opposite continents. We both know I can’t do that.”
“We both know you have plenty of time to fly home, handle this hostess job you promised Dad, and fly back to Paolo the Magnificently Coco-Nutted Soccer Boy.”
Pepper snickered before she could stop herself, but quickly rebounded. “You don’t understand. Paolo has a big match this weekend. He has to have me there.” A smug little smile came into her voice. “He says I’m his good-luck charm. He’s the goalkeeper and he hasn’t been scored on once since we’ve been together.”
“I assume you only mean by other soccer players.”
“Darby.” She sighed, then in a knowing tone, added, “But honest to God, Dar, he is an animal in bed. I mean, the way he can make me scream when he—”
“Way too much information here,” Darby cautioned. Not that she was a prude. Anyone who’d put stallions to stud as part of her daily routine couldn’t afford to be at all squeamish when it came to sexual anything. But this was her baby sister. And, okay, maybe a teeny tiny part of her was a teeny tiny bit jealous. Not of Paolo. She went more for the tall, blond and earnest, if not particularly bright type. They were more appreciative and less demanding that way. But the screaming? Well . . . it had been a while.
“It’s only a week,” Pepper cajoled. “And you get a spa vacation.”
“Spa vacation. You mean, makeover hell. I’ve been out here almost twenty years. It’s going to take a lot more than a new hairdo and pair of heels to make me believable as a Washington socialite. This guy I’m supposed to drag all over town and impress for Dad will take one look at me and be on the first plane back to his homeland.”
“Which is precisely why Glass Slipper is perfect. That’s exactly what they do. They can help get a person past whatever obstacles are in her way to getting what she wants. Whether it’s a new job, a new location, a new man, a new life—they’ll help give you the tools you need to succeed.”
“I’m already a success,” Darby stated, but she knew she was wavering. Not because she had even the remotest interest in being pampered, plucked, and waxed. She shuddered down to her DNA at the mere thought. One perk of working on a ranch was that shaving was optional. Horses didn’t care. And neither did Tugger. But Pepper actually sounded happy, excited, when for too long she’d sounded bored and restless.
Darby worried about her most during those times. She’d tried to steer her younger sister toward a career, charity work, anything that would give her the sense of self-fulfillment she so desperately needed. Pepper usually ended up letting men fill her, instead. And, in that respect, nothing had changed. But at least this time the guy wasn’t old enough to be her father. And he was wealthy enough, apparently, to support her sister’s tastes since Daddy had cut her off.
Pepper pressed her advantage. “It’s a week. And only three days of actual society stuff. There are only a few events scheduled that you have to schlep him to. It’s very important that you show him a good time—”
“Whoa, whoa, hang on right there.”
“Not that kind of good time.”
Darby wondered if her sister would draw the line there. Though even their dad wouldn’t expect his princess to go that far. Of course, if it did happen to go in that direction, and helped close the deal, Darby was sure her father would show his appreciation. With a new car, or something sparkly. Which was a big reason why Darby and her father didn’t get along. She didn’t show proper enthusiasm for the perks of being an offspring of the mighty Paul Landon III. She would have settled for a hug. He was more comfortable expressing his emotions with an American Express card.
“Dad needs this deal to go through. It’s important.”
Aren’t they all? Darby and her father had long ago agreed to disagree. Or, more realistically, she agreed to ignore him and he agreed to pretend he only had one daughter. “What’s it about?” she asked, hating herself for even asking. “The deal, I mean.”
There was a pause. “It’s all kind of complicated.”
Meaning Pepper probably didn’t know. “Wouldn’t it help to have something to talk to this potential business partner about?”
Pepper paused, then said, “Something to do with gemstones. From Africa, I think. Or maybe it was Australia. Or Asia.”
Darby visualized the unconcerned shrug that accompanied Pepper’s light laugh. “One of those A continents anyway,” Darby said dryly, then found herself shaking her head, smiling herself. Her sister was hopeless, but then, so was she when it came to denying her anything. “So this guy is African? Or Australian?”
“Scandinavian, actually. Swedish, I think. His name is Stefan Bjornsen; he’s coming in from Amsterdam. Dad was supposed to fly in, schmooze him at all the regular haunts while they talked business, and close the deal. But he got hung up with a deal in Belgium. Or Brussels.”
“Some B country?”
Pepper didn’t take the bait. She was too close to closing her own deal. And Pepper was nothing if not focused when it came to getting what she wanted. Darby absently wondered what her sister could have accomplished if she’d dedicated herself to following in their father’s capitalistic footsteps. Given her people skills, she could be ruling the free world by the time she turned thirty.
“All Dad needs is for someone to play hostess until he can fly in and take over. Stefan is flying into Reagan next Thursday at one. I booked you on a flight into Dulles, arriving Saturday afternoon. I know it’s not as close to home as flying into D.C., but it was the only direct flight I could get out of Bozeman and I know how you are about—”
Darby groaned. “God, I hadn’t even thought about—”
“There will be a car from Glass Slipper waiting at the main terminal,” Pepper rushed on. “You’ll be with them through Thursday morning. Then you can pick up Stefan and get settled in at the house. I’ve already alerted the staff, so everything will be ready.”
“You’ve thought of everything,” Darby murmured, still not quite believing she was actually going to go through with this. Twenty minutes ago she’d been shoulder-deep up a mare’s birth canal. And perfectly content with her life. Now? She thought about what she was going to face and knew she’d feel a lot scuzzier after twenty minutes back in Washington than she would later tonight, when her newest foal finally came into the world.
“There’s a charity event Thursday night, then the rest of the weekend is easy. You’re expected on Friday at the annual Belmont Stakes party at Four Stones. Daddy’s supposed to fly in Sunday and meet you out there by midday. You can cut out then. All in all, you’ll only be gone a week. It’s a breeze, really.”
Darby was only half-listening. It had been so long since she’d had to fly—since 1999 to be exact—that she’d forgotten all about how much she hated everything there was about it. The very idea of stepping foot in a plane, much less living back under her father’s roof—no matter the duration or that he wasn’t there—dredged up emotions she wasn’t prepared to deal with. “You’re asking a lot more of me than a week of my time, you know that,” she said quietly.
To her sister’s credit, she responded with dead earnestness. “I know.” She paused, then said, “I know I lean on you way too much. And I know you worry about me. But, honestly, DarDar, I’m going to be okay. I know it doesn’t sound like it now, but I’m really going to turn things around. You’ll see.” She laughed lightly. “It’s funny, how different we are, but you know, we’re both where we want to be. Me, in D.C., dealing with Dad, and you handling the ranch. Sometimes it’s hard to believe we came from the same two parents. Mom was probably more like you, seeing as she came from that life.”
Darby supposed Pepper was right. Their mother hadn’t been born to the silver spoon like Dad had. Nor had the former Laurel Stockton been all that pretentious about the lifestyle she’d been sucked into when the great Paul Landon III had shocked everyone by falling in love with his guide during a Montana riding-and-fishing expedition. By a very young age, Darby figured out that her mother was the only real thing in a world filled with phonies and hidden agendas. At least, it always felt that way to her. Her mother was the only one who understood how out of place Darby felt, with her tomboy tendencies. She’d tried to help her understand that being different wasn’t such a bad thing. And provided that all-important barrier between Darby and her father, who didn’t understand any of that, despite marrying her mother.
She’d felt completely abandoned after her mother’s death, which came only a precious few months after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her dad had climbed into a cocoon of grief. He didn’t even try to understand her. No one did. Except Grandpa Stockton. Griev- ing himself, he’d reached out to the one real reminder he had of his only child—the grandchild who was so like her. He offered a home and hearth unlike Darby had ever known. Best of all, it was far away from the unending parade of nannies, private lessons, and strict lectures on decorum and expected performance.
But, even at age eleven, leaving Pepper behind hadn’t been easy. In fact, it was the hardest thing she’d ever done. It had been a matter of survival for her then, but as she’d grown up, she’d been determined to be there for her sister the way Mom had been there for her, and should have been there for both of them.
“I am changing, Darby. I know you don’t see that yet, but I am. I hate it when you and Dad are both mad at me.” She sighed, then with absolute sincerity, said, “I swear, Darby, this is the last time.”
Darby laughed, trying to ignore the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. “That is so not true.”
Pepper laughed, too, then sighed. “Probably not. But I want it to be. And I know I owe you big. Bigger for this than anything ever,” she added hurriedly when Darby snorted. “Anywhere, anytime, I swear it, you name it and if I can do it, it’ll get done.”
Darby couldn’t possibly imagine ever collecting on that debt. Not because she wasn’t willing to put Pepper to the test. It would probably do her a world of good if she did. It was just that, looking out back at the paddocks, indoor and outdoor rings, she couldn’t possibly envision her sister doing anything particularly helpful, much less anything else actually work-related. Getting dirt beneath her nails was as foreign a concept to Pepper as painting her nails was to Darby.
But she couldn’t resist torturing her just a little. After all, it was probably the only amusement she’d get out of the deal. “Great. I’ll be sure to call you come next foaling season.”
It was almost worth the whole thing to hear her sister audibly choke, then force herself to say, “Sure. Just, ah, let me know.”
“I just might,” Darby warned, liking the idea of her sister getting far more than dirt beneath her nails.
So, she had three whole days to get everything settled, then make the trip East. She only had one question. Okay, she had a ton of questions, but only one that Pepper could answer. “Who’s funding this little Glass Slipper escapade?”
“Paolo,” Pepper said. Then, with a little laugh, added, “He considers it an investment in his team’s chances for the playoffs.” Then she heard a man’s deep voice in the background, sexy and cajoling. Then her sister’s stifled squeal, the muffled sound of the phone being covered, then Pepper’s breathless, “I have to go. Thanks, Darby!”
Darby shook her head, but couldn’t help smiling. Pepper was very likely smiling, too, and would be for some time if that deep voice held the kind of promise Darby thought it did. She sighed in envy. “And they said sporting victories couldn’t be bought.”
Darby fought to maintain that smile as she headed back to the stables, to finish bringing that new foal into the world . . . and to talk with Tugger about her upcoming absence.
Any ability to smile was long gone by the time she exited the plane, white-knuckled and pasty-faced, some three days and five hours later. She more than hated flying. She despised it. Had forgotten just how much she despised it until the plane had pulled away from the earth . . . and her guts had pulled away from the rest of her insides and twisted into a knot. She had wished the worst South American disease known to mankind on her sister as she’d upchucked horrible airline food into a paper bag at thirty thousand feet. After all, it was only fair.
“Vacation, my ass,” she grumbled under her breath, ignoring the wide berth her fellow passengers were giving her as they were corralled into the midfield terminal transport. So she’d been a little vocal when they’d hit the turbulence. Surely everyone got a little loud when they got nervous. Didn’t they?
She exited the crowded car into the main terminal, crunching peppermint Lifesavers, but still feeling shaky and clammy. She wanted a bathroom. She needed to splash water on her face. Brush her teeth. Again. She’d spent the entire flight sweaty and chilled by turns. Between putting her head between her knees and burying it under a too-small airline pillow, the braided rope of hair hanging down her back probably looked like an entire flock of birds had made their home in it. God only knows what the rest of her looked like.
She was itchy, grouchy, rumpled, and restless from being boxed up in an aluminum tube for five hours. And sick to death of the taste of peppermint. She needed fresh, unpressurized air. Wide-open spaces. She hated crowds. And, goddamn, could they stuff any more people into this airport? How did people deal with this on a daily basis? Rush hours, smoggy air, banging elbows just to walk down the street.
She collided with more people in the five minutes it took her to navigate her way to Baggage Claim than she’d bumped into in the past year and a half at home. If she hadn’t already sworn to walk all the way back to Montana rather than ever set foot inside an airplane again, she’d have hopped on the next plane to Brazil and personally kicked her sister’s sorry, soccer-humping ass all the way to Washington.
So the very last thing she needed to see, the capper on a very long day, and the one thing guaranteed to make her feel every yucky inch of herself . . . was the man wearing a crisp black-and-white driver’s uniform, standing with a sign bearing her last name in one hand.
And a glass slipper in the other.
Excerpted from The Cinderella Rules by Donna Kauffman. Copyright © 2003 by Donna Kauffman. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.