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

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Next: SIXTEEN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FIFTEEN

 

 

“What?” I crane my neck. “Is he already here somewhere?”

There’s a sound of rustling from the bushes.

“Looking for something?”

Prince Edward emerges from a gentle slope that’s near the bushes. He carries my ball, which is covered with dirt and grass. So that’s where it went. While I braved the bushes, the ball rolled downhill. No wonder I couldn’t find it.

“Kat,” he says, inclining his head and offering a grin. His eyes crinkle with amusement as he holds out the ball. “I assume this is yours?”

“Edward.” I manage an ungraceful curtsy. “Yes, that’s mine. Thank you.”

I take the ball, and for a second his fingers brush over mine. Electricity sizzles through me—something that feels like electricity anyway. I quickly cradle the ball and look away, my heart fluttering like a dove.

Krev is bouncing in the air, pantomiming a lovesick girl swooning. I make a face at him before turning back to Edward.

“Did you just arrive?”

“I was invited to tour the Fremont greenhouse.” He gives a wry grin. “Though I made their gardener swear to secrecy about my arrival.”

Oh. And I thought he was here for the croquet party. I don’t know why, but for a fleeting second, I feel disappointed.

Edward fishes a golden watch from his pocket and flips it open. He’s wearing a dark shirt with the first two buttonholes undone. Bits of dirt are smudged on his cuffs—evidence that he has been doing some gardening. “I should be leaving.”

No!

“Hang on—I mean, will you tarry a second? The first game is nearly over, but they’re going to play at least several rounds.” At least that is what Poppy told me. “Take my place; you can’t be worse than me.” Besides, his presence alone is enough. He can knock his ball into a tree and still be admired for it.

His lip curls. “You wish me to stay?”

Why does he have to phrase it like I’m one of his lovesick fans?

“My sister will kill me if you don’t,” I blurt out. Here’s another opportunity to badmouth Bianca so she won’t be in Elle’s way. “She’s crazy about you. She writes Queen Bianca all over her diaries. You can’t deprive her of the excellent opportunity to meet you.”

He doesn’t seem to hear me. Instead, he points at my hair. “You might want to take care of that first.”

First he catches me barefoot in the palace gardens, and now with my hair in a mess. Great.

Since there’s no way I can fix it on my own, I just tug on the ribbons until all my hair cascades down my back. I fumble for a brush, but I’ve nothing but a lacy handkerchief and a vial of perfume in my pocket. So I finger comb my hair hurriedly, smoothing out the snarls and tangles. My hair’s still wild and unruly, but at least I don’t look like an idiot with half of my hair hanging loose while the other half is perfectly coiffed.

I look up, only to find the prince staring at me. Something in his gaze makes my cheeks flame.

I grit my teeth and look away. “Just come along, okay?” Then I mouth instructions to Krev and race off toward the lawn, taking an indirect route and looking back only once to make sure that Edward is following. I don’t want it to look like I’m accompanying him, or Bianca will kill me.

A squeal rises up from the lawn, followed by a dozen more. It’s like a mega rock star has descended. If this were the modern world, I would expect most of the girls in the croquet party to surround Edward and beg for his autograph. I almost feel sorry for the prince as I return to the garden, trying to walk as slowly as possible. On a sudden idea, I unfasten my emerald brooch and slip it into my pocket. Time to carry out my nefarious plan.

When I approach the pavilion, both Claire and Bianca are absent. So are all the other women. Only a gray-haired old lady sits at the table, crocheting a dainty white baby dress. Claire had introduced her as Lady Gregory, an eccentric aunt of Lord Mansfield, who is another prominent member of the aristocracy. Lady Bradshaw once told Bianca that if she couldn’t catch the prince, Lord Mansfield’s nephew wouldn’t make a bad second choice.

“Would you like to sit down?” she says, patting the seat next to her.

“Um, no. I’ve got to find my maid, Elle.” I give her a description of Elle, and Lady Gregory nods. “That lovely young girl with honey-blonde hair? Over by the rose bushes, dearie.”

“Thanks.” I curtsy briefly and hurry off.

Before I reach Elle, I glance at the lawn. Only Poppy, Mr. Davenport, and a few others remain in the game.

“All right, Mr. Davenport,” Poppy calls, brandishing her mallet as though it’s a weapon. I hardly recognize her; she has transformed into a woman on the warpath. “Let’s see if you can beat this.” And she hits the ball in a powerful sweep, knocking Mr. Davenport’s ball into a ditch.

Wow. Not only has she advanced her own ball, but she has effectively crippled her opponent’s ball. I’m tempted to holler “Go Poppy!” and do a cheerleader dance.

But I’ve no time to dwell on the game. I find Elle and pretend to look frustrated.

“Elle, can you help me look for my emerald brooch? It seems to have fallen off while I went looking for my ball.”

“That emerald brooch Madam gave you on your birthday?”

It was a birthday present? “Um…yes.”

Elle looks as worried as though she lost the brooch. “Certainly, Miss Katriona. Where might you have misplaced it?”

I tilt my head and pretend to think. “I found my ball near the river. It could be somewhere on the bank.”

She bows her head and leaves.

I have an absurd desire to laugh—to think I am actually acting like an evil stepsister. A few minutes later, I think I hear a tiny splash.

Krev must have done his job. I head toward the river, and sure enough, there is Elle in the middle of the waters, coughing and spluttering. The river is shallow enough that it only reaches her shoulders. I mutter an apology and run back to the croquet lawn.

Edward is still surrounded by fawning women, all of them cooing or giggling or batting their eyelashes. Yeah, he is definitely the fairytale version of a rock star.

I halt in my tracks. I’ve gotten a lot bolder but I don’t have the courage to yell across the lawn. But if I don’t act fast, Elle will have hauled herself out of the river. All my painfully engineered efforts will be lost.

So I start toward the prince again. He must have sensed my approaching, because he looks up just when I am a few paces away. Bianca is leaning toward him, a coy smile playing on her lips, her generous bosom practically gleaming under the sun.

Without thinking, I stride over and elbow Bianca out of my way. She lets out a squawk that sounds so unlike her usual elegant self that I could have doubled up with laughter if I weren’t so desperate about getting the prince to notice Elle.

“My maid has fallen in the water! Quick, get her out in case she drowns!”

The prince raises his eyebrows—for a split second, I fear he might refuse.

“It’s Elle,” I add. My tone cannot be more desperate—though it’s more to do with him agreeing to rescue Elle, rather than for her safety. “Please help me; I don’t know how she slipped, but when I found her, she’d fallen in.”

The prince gives me a long, searching look. Then—thank God—he strides toward the river without another word. Too bad Elle isn’t wearing white; the servants’ dresses are always dark, due to the dirty work they do. But at least I hope the water has soaked her thoroughly so that her dress will cling to her body and accentuate her curves.

“Katriona, what’s the meaning of this?” Bianca shoots me a look mixed with anger and surprise.

I just shrug and follow the prince. My heart beats wildly; I just hope that my little maneuver will at least make the prince notice Elle. He has to.

When we reach the river, my jaw drops. A gasp escapes from Poppy as well.

Duke Henry is sloshing his way out of the river; in his arms he carries Elle, who is completely dripping wet. Edward stands on the bank, arms crossed.

Henry has rescued Elle from the waters. It should have been Edward!

Noooooooooo!

 

Damn. Of all the things that could have gone wrong…why did this have to happen? When did Duke Henry extract himself from his boring conversation with the professor and come across Elle in the river? Why did he have to be at the wrong place at the wrong time?

I pace in my room, seething with fury. I can’t forget that look on Elle’s face when he carried her—while she was clearly embarrassed, she didn’t put up as much of a struggle as she should have. I want to blame her, but I can’t. Henry had taken off his coat when he waded into the waters, and his white shirt clung to his body almost Darcy-like. I mean, Henry may have a hobbit’s face, but his body is well honed enough for an athlete. After all, he was a cricket player.

Finally, I get tired of pacing. I sit by the window and gaze outside. There isn’t anything to see except for the lights winking out of the townhouses across the street, but at least the air is fresh and cool, making it easier to figure out what to do next.

I put my chin on my hands. Elle will NOT fall for Henry. She might be a wimp, but she isn’t stupid. She must know that there’s no way she can marry Henry. Unless Adam Snyder is found and proves that she really is Earl Bradshaw’s daughter.

“Dreaming of the prince, girlie?”

“Krev!”

He appears on the window sill, an annoying grin plastered on his stupid face.

“So the plan has backfired, eh?”

I have a mad urge to throw the seashell on the mantelpiece at him. Even though Duke Henry’s rescuing Elle wasn’t Krev’s fault, he has no business looking so gleeful about it.

“I did as you said,” Krev continues, his grin growing wider. “But that dashing cousin of the prince just happened to notice Elle, even from half a mile away. In fact, he was heading in her direction before she fell.”

“He was? Oh crap.” I slam a fist on the window sill. “Do you think he fancies Elle?”

Krev lets out a cackle of laughter. “As if it isn’t obvious, girlie! That look on his face when he rushed into the river—he might as well have forgotten the water only came up to her shoulders.”

“It’s just an infatuation,” I insist. “Elle is a perfect damsel-in-distress. He can’t seriously mean to court her; she’s only a servant.”

“A servant you’re trying to set up with dear Eddie.”

“Don’t call him that!”

By this time, Krev is lying on his back, clutching his stomach, doubled up with mirth. “I told the king about your latest effort, and he was laughing his head off and saying your progress is more entertaining than 21st century soaps, what with the prince falling for you instead and Elle attracting his cousin.”

“That’s not how it’s supposed to work!” I clench my fists. “He isn’t supposed to pay attention to the stepsister. It’s all wrong.”

“Too late.” Krev lets out a witch-like cackle. “He was looking at you like you were his favorite dessert when you let down your hair.”

This time I can’t take it anymore. I snatch him up and toss him into the street below. Taken by surprise, he yells and plummets a few feet before he collects his wits and stops in midair.

Then I slam the window shut. Of course he could magick himself back in if he wanted to, but I guess he’s had enough as well, because he doesn’t appear again. I haul myself to bed and try my best to fall asleep.

 

Elle is unusually quiet when she comes to help me dress in the morning. I should be sorry for making her fall into the river, but I’m not. I know it’s not her fault, but I’m mad that she messed things up. I tried so hard to get Edward to notice her.

When she laces me up in the back, I snap. “Loosen it up. Are you trying to squeeze all the oxygen out of me?”

She flinches as though I’ve struck her face.

“Sorry, miss,” she whispers.

A pang of guilt hits me briefly. I keep silent for a moment, but I have to ask her about Henry.

“Has the duke visited often at your house?”

A dull flush creeps over her face. “Sometimes. He says he needs to check up on Mamsie.”

“Do you like him?” As soon as the question is spoken, I wish I had bitten my tongue. How could I be so blunt?

Now she turns scarlet. Her hand trembles as she brushes my hair. She doesn’t even have to answer; it’s that obvious.

“It doesn’t matter what I feel,” she says quietly, her head bowed. “I know well my station in society.”

And then I stare down at my feet, wishing I hadn’t said anything at all. What a mess. I can’t tell Elle to stay away from Henry but try to develop feelings for Edward instead.

All I can do now is wait until there’s news from Galen. I need the fairy godmother. Desperately.

However, long before Adam Snyder is found, a disaster takes my mind off finishing the story and returning home.

That day, when Elle leaves me, still in low spirits, I go downstairs for my drawing lesson. I’m sketching this boring bowl of fruit, wishing I could just curl up in my room with the latest novel from The Bookworm, when Elle rushes in.

Her face is deathly pale, white as a ghost.

“Mr. Wellesley sent a message. Jimmy got his head crushed by a moving machine in the factory.”

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