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

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Next: NINETEEN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EIGHTEEN

 

 

Time stands still. Then an anguished yell—

“My hundred-pound shirt!”

McVean’s face is priceless. He stares, dumbfounded, at the alcohol running down his bulky front. Everyone is staring at me, horrified, like I’m nuts.

“Katriona.” Lady Bradshaw looks ready to murder me on spot. “Apologize this instant!”

I bite my lip. I don’t want to apologize, especially when he is the one who should be repentant, but I sense that there’s no point being obstinate.

“Soooorry, Mr. McVean,” I say slowly, my tone indicating anything but.

He is dabbing at his shirt with an enormous napkin that a servant got him. Dissatisfied with the result, he thrusts the napkin on a table and stalks off without a backward glance. To the men’s dressing room, probably.

I slink away as well. If I were a man, I’m pretty sure I’d be tossed out.

 

The very next morning when I go down to breakfast, Lady Bradshaw grabs my arm and pushes me into an armchair.

“Whatever possessed you last night?” she demands, her eyes full of fury. “What were you thinking, throwing your drink all over Andrew McVean? This is the most appalling, disgusting behavior I’ve ever had from you!”

“He’s a monster,” I grit my teeth. “He deserved what he got.”

That look on his face when the champagne splattered over his shirt—I can’t help giggling at the memory. Unfortunately, I’m only aggravating Lady Bradshaw further. She grabs my shoulders and gives me a hard, forceful shake. “Impudent girl! You have disgraced the family with your incredibly uncivilized behavior. I had expected repentance from you, but here you are as stubborn as a mule.” She summons one of the footmen. “Take her to her room and lock the door. You, young lady, are not going to leave the house until you promise not to make such a public disgrace of yourself again.”

I march up the stairs in stony silence.

Oh yeah, this is just as dramatic as a modern-day soap opera. The goblin king is probably loving the show.

 

For the next week, I am confined to my bedroom, only going down for meals and such. Lady Bradshaw has given orders that I am not to be let out, and that anyone who sees me leaving the house must either stop me or report to the household, or risk a substantial dent in that month’s salary. Elle is sorry for me; on one occasion she even musters the courage to ask Lady Bradshaw to relax the rules, but of course my “mother” doesn’t listen. Bianca gives Elle a stern lecture about how servants ought to be seen, not heard, and that she should be mindful of her duty and limit her visits to her family.

I’m fine with the arrangement, really, apart from the etiquette lessons that are increased to “drill some sense” into me. I am tired of the incessant social activity of the Season and worrying about how to complete the story, so staying in the house means I get to take a break.

One day the etiquette master is laid up with a cold. Yes! Once breakfast is over, I retire to the bedroom, kick off my shoes, strip down until I’m dressed only in my chemise and petticoat, and climb into bed with a new fat volume titled Lady Alexandra’s Secret. I spend the next hour in bed, snuggled up with the book, and just when I am beginning to reach the part where the secret is revealed, a knock comes on the door and Martha enters.

“You’ve an invitation to a party, miss,” she says, holding out a cream-colored envelope.

“But I’m grounded. Er…I’m not allowed to go out?”

Martha drops the envelope on the velvet bedspread. “Seems you’re allowed for this one.” Then she lowers her voice. “I can’t let you out, but if you want another book, some food…anything brought up, don’t you hesitate to let us know.”

I blink.

Martha presses a hand on my shoulder. “What you did to that factory man ain’t manners, but we’re glad you did it.” She winks, stokes the fireplace, and leaves.

I eye the envelope suspiciously, wondering what kind of spell it possesses to be an exception. Maybe it’s bewitched like my book. Maybe it contains a death threat.

The paper inside is as smooth as water, cool to touch, gilt-edged, and scented. On the top is the letterhead, an ornate drawing of roses entwining a sword. I saw this emblem when I went for the presentation and to seek Galen. It’s from the palace, the royal family.

The Duke of Somerset would like to request the pleasure of the company of Miss Katriona Bradshaw on Tuesday next at nine o’clock. A favorable reply is anticipated.

At first I’m stupefied—who the heck is the duke of Somerset? Then, recalling some conversations at the soirees and parties I’ve been to, I realize it’s Henry. Duke Henry.

 

“Katriona.” Bianca’s sharp gaze rakes over me the second I come down for lunch. “Did you really receive a personal invitation from the duke?”

I fork a huge piece of potato dipped in garlic-and-rosemary sauce and chew slowly, savoring each bite. By now, I’ve figured out the best way to respond to Bianca’s verbal attacks is to keep silent.

“I suppose the duke believed it was a polite thing to do,” Lady Bradshaw says. “You’d do well not to misbehave this time, do you hear me?”

“But why would he send us separate invitations? Clearly, he wants her to go, even after that atrocious public display.”

Lady Bradshaw leans forward, her eyes gleaming. “Katriona, how often have you conversed with the duke?”

Whoa. Just last night she was still giving me the Evil Eye and today she’s acting like I’m her favorite daughter. Of course. A daughter’s worth is determined by the men she attracts. The thought doesn’t sit well with me.

“Barely,” I say. Let them puzzle out the mystery of why Duke Henry would be interested in me. Actually, I’m kind of puzzled as well. According to Pierre’s definitions, we are merely acquaintances. I don’t even address him as Henry, just “Your Grace.” Surely there is no need for Henry to send an invitation that expressly conveys his desire for me to attend his dance. He can’t have suddenly taken an interest in me, not if it’s true when Krev described how frantic he was getting Elle out of the pond.

Bianca pins me with a stare, like she’s trying to figure out if I’m lying. But it’s true. I haven’t spoken to Henry that much. Elle has a lot more interaction with him—with Jimmy’s injury, Henry probably has gone over to her place every day. Oh God, how am I to stop them falling for each other? Right now the only thing that stands in the way is Elle’s lowly status as a servant. And who knows if Henry might overlook Elle’s humble beginnings…he definitely looks capable of it. Not to mention that Elle could be an earl’s daughter.

“Do I have to go?” I say. “Nine o’clock seems awfully late.”

Both of them look at me like I’m crazy.

“Refuse an invitation from the duke?” Lady Bradshaw’s voice is as shrill as a whistle. “Katriona Rosalind Bradshaw, are you out of your mind? You must never refuse an invitation from the royal family, especially when you have the good fortune to receive it.”

“She probably worries about her two left feet on the dance floor,” Bianca says nastily.

I’d love to stick my tongue out at her.

Lady Bradshaw puts her fork down with a decisive clink. “Although I’d rather not let you appear in the public so soon—apparently your punishment hasn’t been enough—one does not refuse an invitation from one of the royal family. Go you must, but make sure you behave yourself, or this time you’ll find yourself locked up in the cellar.”

Like Cinderella was in the fairy tale. But I’m just the ugly stepsister and have no godmother to save me. A rather effective threat, I admit.

 

“May I have the next dance, lady?”

“You may,” I respond automatically like an answering machine. First rule of ballroom etiquette: do not refuse a partner unless you have a prior engagement or are truly fatigued.

Lady Bradshaw’s idea of ensuring that I would behave with propriety was to create a list of ballroom etiquette that consisted of a hundred rules. She made me recite every rule before every meal, which was tiresome for me, but the servants found it entertaining.

“A refreshing change from saying the same old grace every time,” Martha whispered. I rolled my eyes.

Actually Pierre had taught me these rules earlier, but I never bothered to commit them to memory. Now, having recited them numerous times, the rules are etched in my mind like the carvings on the border of my mirror.

I sip on fruit punch, slowly, glad for another rule: dance only every other dance, as over-fatigue will follow from excessive dancing. Duke Henry’s house isn’t as fancy as I imagined—it’s nowhere near as huge as Lord Manfield’s, but the location is smack in the city center, only a short walk from the royal institute. I suspect that in order to attend the medical lectures, he chose convenience over comfort.

Still, it’s a reasonably spacious room with a select group of guests. I don’t know if it’s fortunate, but there are more men at the ball than women. I’m glad I’m spared the humiliation of being a wallflower, but on the other hand, I’m a fright when dancing. Most of Henry’s acquaintances look great in formal suits of black velvet and white silk shirts, and are also stiff and formal and polite—enough to make me nervous. I’ve trampled on quite a few toes. Well, at least I am adhering to another rule: let your manner in the ballroom be quiet, modest, and reserved.

Looking at the bright sparkling lights glinting from the chandelier above, I reflect on what to do with Elle when THE BALL is held. If I, with my daily dancing lessons, am reduced to a clumsy idiot at my first ball, Elle can’t do much better. She looked super nervous at the croquet party. Should I give her a crash course in dancing?

Bianca waltzes past with some young man I don’t recognize. She seems to be darting glances around the room, her attention barely on her partner. I suppose she’s curious if Edward will be present.

About an hour later, I’m hungry enough to eat a horse. My partner offers to accompany me, but I decline. It has been difficult enough trying to dance on high heels and carry on a conversation with him. I want a moment to be alone. So I enter the refreshment room and help myself to sliced chicken, cucumber sandwiches, unsweetened biscuits, and a gelatin dessert that tastes of almonds and milk—the butler tells me it’s called a blancmange. When I reach for a cup of iced tea, a few young men near me recoil, as if I plan to dash the liquid over their pristine white shirts.

Whatever. I don’t regret for one second what I did to McVean, even if it costs me my reputation. I am just finishing my second glass when Henry appears.

“Miss Katriona,” he bows and smiles affably. “I hope you are enjoying yourself this evening.”

“Thank you.” I return his smile. “If you hadn’t sent the invitations separately, my mother might not have allowed me to come.”

“Ah, it was just a precaution. Have you been enjoying yourself?”

“As long as I can get through a dance without stepping on my partner’s toes, I’m happy enough.”

He glances around the room. “Perhaps you’d like a brief respite? Mr. Wellesley informs me you are a voracious reader. I could show you my library.”

I hold on to my empty goblet. “But you’re the host. You should be down here with the guests.”

“It won’t be for a minute,” he says, putting a hand on my elbow. “Trust me, any book lover will be delighted by my collection.”

I get the sense that he wants to talk to me in private—please, please don’t let it be Elle. He guides me to the hallway, which is now deserted, then up a narrow staircase.

“Your Grace,” I begin. “About Jimmy…are you still treating him? Is he doing all right?”

He squeezes his eyes shut for a second. “I’m doing the best I can, but considering his weak constitution…even if he heals physically, he will have lost his mental faculties.”

“Like a vegetable?”

Henry frowns. “I beg your pardon?”

“I mean he’ll be like a hollow shell, having no knowledge of who he is?”

“Yes.”

A chill runs down my spine. We fall silent. The only sounds that can be heard are the soft thuds of our shoes on the carpeted stairway.

At last we reach the top—my guess is the third or fourth floor. Henry leads me to a door, unlocks it, and pushes it open. To my surprise, the inside is already well lit—a fire crackles in the hearth, a lighted chandelier swings from the ceiling, and kerosene lamps glow from brackets on the bookshelves.

It is indeed a great library, cozily furnished, but suspicion grows within me. A man is seated on one of the sofas surrounding the fireplace, and rises when we enter.

“Edward.” I stare at him for a second, then turn toward Henry. “So that’s the reason you brought me here.”

He bows. “My apologies, lady, but my cousin requested a meeting. You have nothing to worry about; he only wishes to talk to you undisturbed.” He glances over at the prince. “I should return to the guests. Don’t bother letting me know when you leave—the dance will not likely end till two in the morning.”

He closes the door. There is the sound of the key turning in the lock.

“Have a seat,” Edward says, then his voice softens. “Kat, there is no reason to fear me. As Henry says, I merely want to speak to you. Alone.”

“Um…” I’m not afraid, but being locked in with him is kind of unsettling. “Okay.”

A puzzled look flits across his eyes. “You were saying…?”

“Oh, um, it means ‘very well.’ Just an expression I picked up from the streets.”

I sit down tentatively on a sofa placed sideways to the one he occupies, so I can look at the shelves rather than staring at his face.

“Are you having a good time dancing?” Edward says, his voice gentle yet warm. I guess he’s trying to make me relax.

“Sure I am,” I grin. “But my partners aren’t.”

“Pray explain.”

“I keep stepping on their toes. Which isn’t painful for me, but for them—” I raise my feet slightly, so my spiky heels poke out.

He smiles, and for a moment I just stare at him like an idiot. Really, it’s unfair for someone to be that good-looking and a prince.

“I shall be happy to teach you sometime,” he offers. “I don’t dance a lot, but Mother has made sure I am competent. Would you like to practice in my garden? No one will disturb us there, so you don’t have to worry about any toe-treading.”

That’s when I snap my jaw shut. Dangerous grounds, Kat. This has gone beyond courtesy and friendship. He just invited you to practice ballroom dancing in his private garden.

God, how did I get tangled up in such a mess?

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Next: NINETEEN