Book: The Ugly Stepsister (Unfinished Fairy Tales Book 1)

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ELEVEN

 

 

On the mornings I don’t have dancing lessons, I curl up in bed in a baggy chemise and lose myself in the books I get from The Bookworm. Since Elle doesn’t get much time off work, I offer to check up on Billy sometimes. But it isn’t just Billy that draws me to the bookstore. Mr. Wellesley, the owner, keeps a stack of current bestsellers on a table right outside the store, arranged in a way that’s actually quite similar to Barnes & Noble’s featured books. One can easily browse through the books, grab one, and head to the register to pay for it. Only here, the register is a huge book.

I had bought a book called The Mystery of Castle Eynsworth out of curiosity, and holy smokes! I couldn’t put it down. Now this is what I call a proper Gothic novel. Finished the book in two mornings—I even sneaked it to a picnic and tried to read it when no one was looking—and wanted to rush out and buy the sequel immediately, for the book just had to end on an evil cliffhanger that makes you shell out money for the next one.

On one afternoon while Bianca and Madam are away at a high tea, I ask Van to drive me to The Bookworm. I would prefer to take the omnibus (a huge horse-drawn carriage for public transport), but it’s always so packed and crowded that it’ll take too long flagging one down. The first and last time I tried using one was when my crinoline got caught in the doorway and the whalebone nearly cracked.

“Ah, so it’s the pretty little red-haired lass!” Mr. Wellesley says, giving me a roguish wink behind the counter. He’s at least fifty, with his wrinkles and graying hair, but he’s more flirtatious than the young men at socializing events. I guess age removes some inhibitions on propriety. “Lovely dress you have on today. It matches the color of your hair.”

“Good morning.” I smile and remove my bonnet. “Where is Billy?”

“He’s gone to buy me some new pens. They’re getting quite worn.” Mr. Wellesley comes out from behind the counter, dusting his hands on his green apron. “What can I do for you today, lassie? Some manual on how to attract the man of your dreams? Tell me, how many men have you bagged this season so far?”

He sounds just like Krev in human form.

“Have you got the sequel to The Mystery of Castle Eynsworth?” I choose to ignore his question.

“Ah, it won’t be out for another month, I reckon.” Mr. Wellesley shakes his head. “Rumor has it that the author had a row with her publisher on the royalties. Until they are settled, I doubt we’ll be seeing the sequel soon.”

“Damn.” If only the author had a website or newsletter. Another pesky inconvenience of this old-fashioned world.

Mr. Wellesley adjusts his spectacles. “Pretty strong language for a well-bred young lady, huh?” Then, when I fret that my tongue slipped again, he smiles and says, “But I like you just fine. You’re a lass with a good heart, and that’s all that matters.”

I blush. So often I receive a tongue-lashing from Lady Bradshaw and Pierre that it’s nice to be complimented.

“So how’s your progress with the Season?” Mr. Wellesley grins crookedly. He sure is persistent. “If no man has made you a proposal, I’ll round up a list of contacts and…”

The daylight is temporarily blocked when a tall young man enters the shop. He’s tall for sure, though his facial features remind me of a hobbit, with hair so curly that I doubt he ever needs a hairbrush.

Duke Henry, cousin of that infuriating Prince Edward. Crap, I hope he didn’t hear Mr. Wellesley speaking.

“Miss Katriona!” Henry exclaims, a grin spreading from ear to ear. “How are you this bright morning? So delightful to have a chance encounter with you.”

“Trying to survive the Season, Your Grace,” I answer with a sigh. “There’s so much to do, it wears me out.”

“Well, I cannot admit with candor that I enjoy attending huge events with hundreds of people either,” he says cheerfully. “Except for the cricket matches. I always wanted to be a cricket player, before I turned to medicine.”

“Why did you give up?” Being a royal cousin, he must have all resources on hand.

“Broke my arm once, and my strength never returned. Not enough for professional playing, anyway.” Henry runs his forefinger over a row of books, takes one out, and places it on the counter. “Where’s Billy?”

Mr. Wellesley repeats what he told me, then asks, “Want to add a copy of the Home Garden Journal? The newest issue just came out yesterday.”

“Wow, so you do gardening as well?” I say, impressed.

“No, it’s for Edward.”

“Him?” My jaw drops open. “I…can’t imagine that.”

Henry grins. “You’re not the first one. He has his own private garden that he rarely lets anyone enter.”

I picture the prince with a garden rake and can’t help giggling. No, it’s too plebeian. I really can’t imagine it. “By the way, how is Mrs. Thatcher? Elle says you’ve been up to see her every other day.”

“I’m pleased to report that she’s much improved,” Henry says, smiling down at me. “She is still frail and her recovery is gradual, but she is well enough to leave the bedside and get herself bread, water and oatmeal porridge.”

My heart soars. “I must tell Elle.”

“She knows already. She was tending to her mother when I arrived, trying to arrange things for her mother to take care of herself while her brothers are gone for the day.” Henry’s eyes soften. “I didn’t expect it, but although she looks as fragile as glass, she’s strong-willed at heart.”

“And bonny to look at,” Mr. Wellesley adds. “Even without the paint and ornaments, she’s still a pretty picture for the eye.”

Henry nods, his cheeks slightly pink. “I’d better be leaving, as there’s a lecture at the institute I should attend,” he says. “A good day to you, Miss Katriona.”

“Same here,” I say. Of all the noble young men I’ve met, he’s the most approachable. It’s easy to be friends with him. Whereas his cousin…

“Lassie?” Mr. Wellesley says, waving a hand before me. “Daydreaming of some desirable marriage partner?”

I roll my eyes. “Can you send me a message when the sequel comes out?”

His eyes glint behind his half-moon glasses. “With pleasure, my lady.”

 

Back in the hansom, I tell Van that our next destination is Mrs. Thatcher’s house. He squints. “You want to go there again?”

No doubt he thinks I’m nuts. If I were him, I’d think I was nuts too.

“Um…” I fish around for an excuse. “I left my emerald brooch at her place. And there’s this garden party I have to go to tomorrow afternoon, and I really need that brooch to set off my dress, so you see, I’ve got to fetch it today.”

Van scrubs a hand across his face and sighs. A look that is becoming familiar. “Get on.”

Now that Henry has told me of Mrs. Thatcher’s condition, it’s time to pay a visit.

 

To tell the truth, I’m not looking forward to meeting Mrs. Thatcher again. Or rather, I dread going back to that squalid, unsanitary environment. It makes me feel guilty for the comforts I have. But I have to go.

Half an hour later we reach Mrs. Thatcher’s rented house. I spring off the hansom without assistance (now I’ve gotten the hang of it, even with long skirts) and hurry to the entrance.

I knock twice before the door opens a crack and a bewildered face peers out. I recognize Mrs. Thatcher, but she was like, unconscious all the time I was there, so I’m a stranger to her. She still looks kind of weak: her skin is pale and her eyes have this hollow look, but at least she has both feet planted firmly on the ground.

“Good morning.” I nod and smile at her. “I’m Kat—Katriona Bradshaw. Elle may have mentioned my name to you?”

Mrs. Thatcher’s eyes grow wide. “Mercy me, so you are the younger miss! She told me you brought the doctor for me.”

“Oh, that wasn’t anything,” I say, embarrassed. “I only offered the assistance of our carriage.”

“Gods bless you, miss, for your timely aid. Don’t care much what happens to myself, but I have two young uns besides Elle, and it’s hard enough for ‘em. Praise the Lord my Billy found work at a better place.”

I smile, though privately I think it would be even better if Billy could go to school. “Can I come in for a second?”

“If you don’t mind our humble quarters; they’re too poor for a lady like you.” Mrs. Thatcher appears flustered. “Elle’s all right, ain’t she?”

Probably my serious expression has alarmed her. “Elle’s fine. I just want to ask you a few questions.”

The inside of the hut hasn’t changed much, but it looks much neater and tidier now. Henry must have issued strict orders to clean up the environment to ensure safety for Mrs. Thatcher’s health conditions. On the mattress is a pile of clothes with a pincushion and thimble, so it looks like she is well enough to engage in work. I sit gingerly on the only chair in the middle of the room.

“Tea, miss?” Mrs. Thatcher moves to a battered, worn-looking tin on a rickety wooden shelf.

“Thanks, but no. Please don’t trouble yourself; I’ll be going soon.”

Her hand drops to her side, and there’s a hint of relief in her face. I was kind of worried if I seemed rude, but honestly, for sanitary reasons I’m a bit concerned about drinking tea here. Plus, from conversing with Elle, I’ve learned it takes an awfully long time to boil water over a fire. They don’t have electric stoves in Athelia.

“Er…” I clear my throat and settle my hands on my knees. “I just want to ask…does Elle have a godmother?”

Mrs. Thatcher gives me the same baffled look as Martha’s. “None. None that I’ve heard of.”

Her eyes dart aside for a second when she says it.

“But you’re her mother. Shouldn’t you know if she has a godmother?”

She doesn’t answer. She simply twists her fingers on her threadbare apron. I hate myself for causing her discomfort, but I have a mission to accomplish. And if it means Elle can get a happily ever after, they’ll thank me later.

“Pardon me, Mrs. Thatcher, but is Elle really your daughter?” I lean forward and gaze at her, trying to imitate that intentness of the prince’s. His eyes are definitely unsettling. “Does she, by any chance, have parents elsewhere?”

Clink! The tin mug she’s holding crashes to the dirt floor. I move to pick it up, but she waves me away.

“Who told you this?” Her voice cracks and she stares at me, her eyes seeming to take up half of her thin, haggard face.

Um…because I’ve read the story? I cross my arms and bite my lower lip, searching for an acceptable answer.

“Because…er…” The portrait gallery in the sitting room flashes through my mind. “We have a picture of my stepfather at home and there’s a, let’s say, an uncanny resemblance between Elle and him.”

Now she gasps. “My Elle? Daughter of an earl?”

“You don’t know who her real father is?”

Mrs. Thatcher shakes her head, slowly. An uncomfortable silence passes between us. I’m surprised that she isn’t aware that Elle might be Earl Bradshaw’s daughter, but then I realize if she knew, she could have tried to restore Elle’s real identity. Elle deserves better than being ordered about by Bianca and Lady Bradshaw.

“A friend of my husband brought Elle to us when she was still a baby. We were better off at that time. My husband worked in the mines and it paid well. But after he died, it was hard work for me raising the three of them.”

“So the friend didn’t mention where Elle came from?”

“It was many years ago.” Mrs. Thatcher puckers her forehead. “Let’s see…his name is Adam…Adam Snyder.”

Excitement bottles up in my chest. At least I have a clue now.

“Where does he live?”

“Not in the city.”

Oh no. How am I to find him?

Mrs. Thatcher rubs her hands together. “But I think…yes, I remember now. He has a daughter who works as a housemaid at a noble family’s. When he brought Elle, he mentioned visiting his daughter.”

“Great. So do you know which family it is?”

Mrs. Thatcher shakes her head sadly.

“Sorry miss, it’s too many years ago. Besides, the daughter is likely married by now. If she married, she would have left her employer.”

Oh great. With all the rotten luck I’ve been having lately, is this any surprise?

I fiddle with my bonnet, with a sudden urge to tear off the pink ribbons and roses on it.

A creaking sound comes from the door. It swings open, and a boy about ten staggers inside. He is as thin as a rod, his spindly legs are crooked, and his clothes are ragged and patched. His posture looks more fit for an old man of sixty.

“Jimmy!” Mrs. Thatcher hurries toward the boy and puts her arm around him. “Why’re you back so early? They didn’t fire you, did they?”

“Nah, an accident happened.” The boy shrugs. He tries to act like it’s no big deal, but I’m sure there’s a glimmer of fear in his eyes. “Mr. McVean gave us the day off while they fix the machines.” Then he spots me and a puzzled frown appears. “Who’s she?”

“Don’t stare like that, Jimmy, it’s rude.” Mrs. Thatcher places her hands on Jimmy’s shoulders and turns him to face me. “This is Miss Katriona. one of the ladies Elle works for.”

Jimmy’s eyes go wide. “You’re the lady who brought the doctor for Mamsie?”

“I just offered use of the hansom,” I say, focusing on the battered window. The way Mrs. Thatcher and Jimmy look at me, it’s like I’m Spiderman or Batman. “Um, Mrs. Thatcher, I had better be going. Are you certain there’s nothing more you can tell me about Adam Snyder?”

She shuts her eyes for a moment, her eyebrows pulled together, but finally shakes her head. “I wish I could help you, miss, but I can’t think of anything. It’s such a long time ago.”

I sigh. Even if I could Google him, there would probably be hundreds of results, with a name like Snyder.

 

On the way home, I take a glass vial of perfume from my reticule and spray myself liberally with bergamot-and-lemon oil. Last time I returned from Mrs. Thatcher’s place smelling like a sewer rat, Lady Bradshaw whipped out a handkerchief and asked where I had gone. I am never good at lying, so I only managed to say I fell in the mud. She quirked an eyebrow but luckily did not question me further. After my disastrous court presentation, my clumsiness is no longer a novelty.

I sniff my sleeve and make sure that the odor from the poor neighborhood has been tolerably suppressed. Then I disembark from the hansom and walk up to the house.

Nancy, the parlor maid, opens the front door. She points at the central table in the parlor, where the silver card tray is placed. Usually if there are callers, they will leave their cards on the tray, and Nancy will carry the tray to us. Ever since Bianca was presented, the tray appears in the drawing room at least twice a day.

“There’s a letter for you and Miss Bianca.”

A long flat envelope rests on top of the card tray. Filled with curiosity, I break the seal and open the envelope. A piece of snowy-white paper, folded carefully, slides out.

Miss Claire Fremont requests the pleasure of Miss Bradshaws’ company, on Thursday afternoon next, at 2 o’clock, to take part in some lawn croquet games, and would be happy to have Miss Bradshaws join the party.

Lawn croquet? A scene in Alice in Wonderland pops up in my head. The Queen of Hearts, swinging that flamingo like a golf club, and the stupid dormouse rolling and rolling over the grass…

I stifle a giggle. For the first time since the Season started, I’m actually looking forward to a social event.

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