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

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THIRTEEN

 

 

When I arrive at the palace, I ask Van to tell the entrance guards that Lady Katriona Bradshaw has an important matter to discuss with the head gardener. I thought I phrased myself quite well; I’m beginning to get the hang of Story-World-speak.

The clerk wasn’t kidding me about that Galen guy. I’m told that the head gardener is currently occupied and it is advisable that I leave a written message instead.

Dang. I’ve no idea how to convey my question. Then someone taps on the side of my hansom.

“Lady.”

It takes me a moment before I recollect where I’ve seen him. It’s the large, muscular man who drove Henry’s carriage on the day I first met the prince. I’m surprised that he is actually quite young—probably even younger than me. His cheeks are still round with baby fat, which contrasts bizarrely with his gorilla-like body. Right now he’s grinning at me like I’m a cute puppy.

“Pardon me, but you are…”

“Bertram, milady. I am His Highness’s personal equerry.” He puts a hand on his heart and bows. For a man built like a football player, his movement is surprisingly graceful. “His Highness is currently occupied, but he should be able to see you in a quarter hour.”

I tell him that I’m actually here to talk to the head gardener. His brow furrows at my request, but he asks me to step off the hansom and follow him.

We pass through the entrance gates, cross well-kept gardens, and make turns at a hedge or fountain until my head starts spinning and I ask Bertram to please slow down. Presently a row of greenhouses comes into sight. Bertram opens a door and steps aside, indicating that I should go first.

Inside, it is warm and humid. Rows and rows of potted plants line the long wooden tables. Bertram leads me to a stout middle-aged man with a bushy mustache and ruddy cheeks. His arms are quite thick—I guess it comes from his job. He does not look up when we approach; apparently he is deeply engaged in pruning a tomato plant, muttering incoherent words under his breath.

“Galen, a lady has come to see you,” Bertram announces. “Lady Katriona Bradshaw, the second daughter of the late Earl Bradshaw.”

It is then that he lifts his head and a quizzical look flashes across his face.

“What can I do for you, lady?” His lips are tightly compressed, his eyes narrowed. You’d think I was begging a miser to donate five bucks.

I take a deep breath. Here goes. “Pardon me, sir, but I would like to ask you if you’ve heard of a certain gardener who worked for my father. His name is Adam Snyder.”

Galen draws his brows together. “A gardener called Snyder who worked for the earl?”

“Yes.”

He drums his fingers on the table. “That name sounds familiar, but it’s a long time since I’ve heard it. Why do you wish to find him?”

I draw myself up to my full height. “That is a matter concerning myself and my family.”

He looks surly. “I am a busy man, lady, and if you can’t tell me your motives for finding this person, I am afraid I cannot help you.”

I’m biting my lip, racking my brain furiously for a suitable explanation, when the greenhouse door swings open. My mouth falls open at the sight of the prince carrying a large flowerpot. Bertram hovers a few paces away, looking pleased with himself.

When the prince sees me, he stops abruptly.

“Miss Katriona. To what do we owe the pleasure of your visit?”

Galen is still wearing that surly expression. Suddenly a brilliant idea hits me.

“Hey, can I talk to you for a sec?” It comes out too fast, and I muster a cough. “Er, do you have some time to spare? I would like to speak to you in private.”

He sets the flowerpot on the table. There’s dirt on his arms and face and hair—he looks nothing like the immaculately-dressed prince that day at the presentation. But it doesn’t make him less attractive. Sexiness simply oozes from him, especially when he has his cuffs folded back to the elbows and his shirt front gaping open, showing a sheen of sweat on his collarbone. He could be a male model—minus the flowerpot.

“By all means,” he says. “Galen, see that the new plants are brought in and cataloged. Have the pansy seeds arrived yet?”

Galen grunts and points to a sack on the table.

The prince nods, then turns toward me. “This way, Miss Katriona.”

I follow him out of the greenhouse, past rows of flowerbeds, past those maze-like hedges where he bandaged my foot. I banish the memory and ponder what I should say to him. My palms grow moist; I’m sure I’ll make a fool of myself in front of him again, but I have to do something if I want to return to my family.

He pauses briefly at a rhododendron bush. “Your mother and sister are somewhere in the palace?”

“Huh? No, they’ve gone shopping on High Street. Bianca needs a new pair of gloves—again.” I make it sound like she’s committing evil. You see, I’ve made up my mind to use every chance I have to deride Bianca in front of the prince. “As if the dozen pairs in her drawer aren’t enough.”

Surprise crosses his features. “Do you mean that you are here alone? Without a chaperone?”

“Why would I need one? I can get around perfectly on my own, thank you.”

His eyebrow twitches. Crap, I’ve probably done something wrong again. Something that a lady isn’t supposed to do in Athelia.

“I’m not actually alone,” I quickly say. “Van, our coachman, drove me. Besides, it’s not as if I’m heading toward a gambling house or someplace dangerous. I had something important to ask Galen, so I couldn’t be bothered with this chaperone thing.”

Still he regards me with a curious stare. A moment later, he turns and continues to walk. I’ve got to get back to the real world, fast. A country where a girl can’t go anywhere without a matron hovering around—it’ll drive me crazy.

Finally he stops in front of a large stone wall with ivy and honeysuckle crawling over it. He takes a key—a huge fancy golden key even bigger than my hand—and inserts it into a door in the wall. Add a chirping robin, and this could be the perfect set for a film adaptation of The Secret Garden.

“After you.” He steps aside. I don’t mind if he goes first, but hey, it’s kind of nice being treated like a lady sometimes. I could do without the endless rules of conduct, though.

Then I step inside the prettiest garden I have ever seen. To the right are neat rows of flowerbeds. I can’t recognize any of them except primroses and violets, but the colors are so pretty—rosebud pink, lemon yellow, baby blue. To the left is a latticework arbor with wind chimes and hanging baskets of lavender and starflowers, with an ornate stone bench placed right in the arbor. Stretching to the back is a row of apple trees; one of them has a swing with vines entwining the ropes. The air is thick with the combined fragrance from numerous flowers, and the warbling and chirping from birds in the trees make me feel like I’ve stepped into paradise.

“Wow,” is all I can say.

“Do you like it?” he says, smiling. “I planted it myself.”

I whirl around and face him. “You’re kidd—you can’t mean that. Don’t you have a country to run?”

“Not yet,” he says, brushing away an errant lock of hair that falls over his eyes. “Besides, the royal family currently only has advisory power. Even if my father were to issue an order, for example a tax raise, it must first gain approval from the votes of the parliament.”

Like Congress, I suppose. This is something of a surprise—I’m curious if the parliament will approve of the ball for the prince. Or maybe a ball doesn’t count. Imagine a group of solemn, stuffy members voting, “Raise your hand if you are in favor for a ball so that the prince may find a wife.”

The prince gestures to a beautifully carved wooden bench. “Have a seat.”

I’m more tempted to take the swing, but that seems kind of childish. I’ve got to appear serious and convincing if he’s going to grant my request. So I walk over to the bench and sit down, glad that I chose a no-frills dress. It’s such a pain-in-the-ass to sit on the crinoline during the theater and soirees. Literally.

A breeze comes up and several petals from the hanging baskets flutter down on my lap. I take a deep breath and revel in the tranquil atmosphere. This is so much better than the fuss and bustle of the Season.

“Did you really plant all these flowers and bushes and trees?”

“From the planning, trenching, planting, and watering…everything,” he says, a note of pride evident in his tone.

I still look incredulous.

Amazingly, he guesses what I was thinking.

“I want something to call my own, Miss Katriona. Growing up in this gilded cage, my life has been destined since I was born. Granted, it is a privilege rather than affliction, but still sometimes I wonder…” he looks at the swing, which sways ever so slightly in the wind. “There are times I would like to prove my worth with something unrelated to royal duties. Something unaided by my vast array of servants. By the way, did you know there are more than a thousand rooms in this palace?”

Startled by the abrupt question, I shake my head. God, the Empire State Building probably doesn’t have that many.

“So many rooms, but not a single one I am comfortable in,” he continues. “This garden is my sanctum, where I can seek temporary respite from all the chaos in my life.”

“I know,” I blurt out. “I mean, I don’t have any royal engagements, but all the socializing in the Season is driving me crazy. So my bedroom becomes my sanctum.” I describe to him the comfort of snuggling into bed with a nice fat volume from The Bookworm, a hot cup of cocoa on the low table, and a cheery fire blazing in the hearth.

He’s a good listener but still I end up stuttering when I become aware of his gaze. Those eyes are so damn distracting.

“Apparently we share a similar sentiment,” he says, smiling. “A desire for a place to escape and dream in.”

“Where you can really be yourself,” I add, beginning to smile back, until I remember I had a mission. I flick the petals off my skirt and will myself to speak normally.

“Er…” I pause, wondering how much I should tell him. “I need your help.”

He leans forward, his lips curved up slightly in an encouraging manner. “Pray tell me.”

“Um, do you remember Elle, the girl with me that day? Whose mother is ill?”

The prince nods. “Henry has continued to visit her family.”

I take a deep breath. I’m uncertain if I’m doing the right thing, but I’m out of options.

“Well, this might sound really weird, but I believe Elle may be my stepsister.”

I look up. To his credit, he doesn’t drop his jaw or slap his knee—just a raise of the eyebrows. His gaze, intent as always, rests on my face. This time I don’t blush hotly or look away. I clasp my hands together and speak.

“I went to see her mother, and she told me Elle was adopted, brought to her by a man called Adam Snyder. I learned that Snyder is a gardener, so I asked around, and a clerk at the gardening stores said Galen might know him.”

My words tumble out in a rush.

The prince puts a finger on his chin and looks thoughtful.

“A few questions,” he finally says. “First, why would the mother tell you your servant is adopted? Was it of her own volition, or did you already have suspicions?”

“I…” I decide to stand by the explanation I gave Mrs. Thatcher. “There’s a portrait of my stepfather, the earl, who looks very much like Elle. The resemblance is striking.”

“Was the mother aware that the earl might be Elle’s father?”

“No, but her son, Jimmy, told me Snyder planted a bush near their house and he worked as a gardener. I guessed he might have been the earl’s gardener.”

“Hmm. Does Galen know of Snyder?”

“He says the name sounds familiar.” I unclench my fists on my lap. “Your gardener is reluctant to help and I can’t tell him about Elle. Do you think you can persuade him?”

“You don’t trust him to know about Elle, but you trust me.”

I blush and glance where the sunlight filters through the apple trees.

“If she really is my stepfather’s daughter, then she ought not be deprived of her real identity. She deserves a better life.”

“You care a lot for your maid,” the prince says slowly. “Quite unusual for a lady.”

“She’s a lovely girl,” I say. “She doesn’t deserve to be mistreated.”

Again he gives me that searching gaze. I try hard not to fidget. Is my behavior really that weird?

“I will ask Galen to inquire in his circle,” the prince says, leaning forward. I pinch the back of my hand, willing myself not to get lost in those gorgeous eyes and concentrate on what he’s saying. “I will inform you as soon as we locate any information regarding this gardener you speak of. It may also help to look up the directories of aristocratic families, but I doubt the heraldic records will contain information as remote as a family’s gardener. I will send you word as soon as I receive any news.”

My heart soars. I stand up and manage a wobbly curtsy. “Thank you, Your Highness.”

“Edward,” he says, also rising. “I believe we are past these formalities by now.”

Exactly what counts as beyond formalities? But I recall his willingness to blend in with the commoners when he accompanied Duke Henry, so I smile and stick out my hand. “In that case, you can call me Katriona. Actually, I prefer to go by Kat.”

He grasps my hand—his palm so large that my hand is engulfed in warmth. “I’m honored at the privilege of calling you by your pet name…Kat.”

Warmth rushes through me at the sound of my real name on his lips. I’m suddenly aware that I’m close enough that I can smell his scent—freshly turned soil and the fragrance of violets. And he still hasn’t released my hand, so I pull away as discreetly as I can manage.

“I’d better go. I…I can’t be out too long.”

“Indeed; you must be weary of the endless events in the Season,” he says, a sympathetic look in his eyes.

“Most of the time it’s dreadful, though there’s one thing that sounds fun.” I tell him briefly about the croquet party.

“At the Fremonts’ place?”

“Yes. It’ll be a change from all the eating and talking. Oh, and trying to stay awake during performances.”

He laughs, and my heart skips a beat. I give myself a mental punch and hasten to leave. Stop mooning over him like an idiot. He’s meant for Elle.

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Next: FOURTEEN