Can't Help Falling

By: Kara Isaac

For Melody

World’s greatest sister, longest suffering reader, most honest critic, and loudest cheerleader. Thank you.





One

IT WAS LIKE BEING IN jail. But worse, because Emelia Mason had paid for it. Nonrefundable. Nontransferable. Not that she hated anyone on the planet enough to try transferring this epic disaster in online booking to them.

Emelia turned around, taking in the full three hundred sixty degrees of the small, dark, cold room. Her breath wafted in front of her. Inside. At four in the afternoon. The space was pretty much bare, save for a rickety desk, an ancient minifridge, a few hangers on a metal stand, and a bed. She suppressed a shudder at the sight of the sagging mattress in the corner. Even from a good six feet away, Emelia could tell it would light up like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree if a UV light ever came within a block of it.

Well, she’d wanted to reinvent herself. She’d certainly done that. Even if being one step up from homeless hadn’t exactly been in the game plan. Though, after what she’d done, it was about what she deserved.

Stupid, stupid. Emelia still had no idea how she’d managed to book three weeks at the euphemistically named Magnolia Manor, instead of the Magnolia Inn. A mistake she’d discovered when she’d shown up at the latter, only to be told they had no record of her. A review of her furiously waved booking confirmation revealed her error.

Emelia stretched her arms above her head and lifted herself onto her toes. Her fingers scraped the ceiling, dust brushing against their tips.

Brilliant. No doubt in a few minutes she’d be sneezing like Earth’s rotation depended on it.

“Do you need anything else?” The voice coming from behind her clearly said there was only one acceptable answer. Emelia turned around. She hadn’t realized the dour manager had stayed in the doorway. Was watching her with gray, beady eyes.

“No.” Emelia couldn’t bring herself to say thank you. She felt ill just thinking about how much she’d paid to stay in this hole. She had no job. Minimal savings. And when she’d come through the front door, its paint flaking, the greasy-haired woman who had opened it had taken one look at her and pointed at the NO REFUNDS, NO EXCEPTIONS sign that hung on the wall.

Emelia bit the inside of her cheek to stop the tears she could feel welling. It was a room. With a roof. There were worse things in life. That’s why she was here. Squaring her shoulders, she moved to the door and put her hand on the handle, clearly signaling her desire for the woman to leave her alone.

“I finish serving breakfast at eight on the dot.” Even the woman’s English accent was unappealing. Guttural and harsh.

If the room was any indication of the quality of the food, Emelia planned on never ever eating anything served under this roof for as long as she was stuck there. “Okay, thanks.”

The woman finally got the hint and shuffled off down the dim corridor decorated with peeling wallpaper and brown shag carpet that had probably been passé in the seventies.

Emelia had to put her shoulder into getting the door to close properly. The wood finally smashed into the swollen frame.

She dropped her purse on the decrepit desk. The scarred top was graffitied with years’ worth of contributions, most of which were R-rated. Emelia reached inside her bag for her gloves so she could strip the bed without risking contact with her skin. Tonight, she’d sleep in her clothes.

As she pulled out the leather set, a pale pink slip of paper fell out onto the desktop. Her stepmother’s cursive handwriting swirled up at her. An envelope had arrived the day Emelia had left for Oxford. She’d been foolish enough to hope it contained something useful, like cash. But no, all it held was pages of Carolina’s deluded social aspirations.

I really don’t understand your reluctance about Harry. All the benefits of royalty without the responsibility of the crown. And Kate would be your sister-in-law. Just imagine!

Emelia suppressed a shudder as she crumpled the lavender-scented note and tossed it at the trash can in the corner of the room. The pink ball hit the rim and bounced to the floor, rolling across the worn carpet.

No offense to the duchess, who, from all appearances, seemed like a thoroughly decent human being. But given the events that had resulted in Emelia’s transatlantic relocation, her stepmother’s obsession with getting a foot in the door of the House of Windsor was about as appealing as the contents of Emelia’s inherited minifridge. And she hadn’t even opened it yet.

She took a swig from her water bottle as she assessed the disconcerting situation she’d found herself in.

This wasn’t exactly the arrival at Oxford she’d imagined.