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

Previous: EIGHTEEN
Next: TWENTY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NINETEEN

 

 

I fight to contain my emotions. I can’t deny that he’s gorgeous and nice, but obviously I can’t encourage him. The safest thing to do, I figure, is to change the topic.

“Do you have news about Adam Snyder?”

The glow in his eyes fades away. “We’re still looking,” he says grimly. “Galen has sent a letter to the country estate left by Earl Bradshaw, but it’ll take some time before we receive a reply.”

“Oh.” I look down, trying not to look disappointed. Too bad they don’t have email here.

“What I meant to ask you here about, actually, is the outburst you committed several days ago. Your—er—conflict with Andrew McVean.”

My hands ball into fists. “Are you here to lecture me about what a lady should not do?”

His eyes gleam—the corners of his mouth curve up—he thinks I’m a fool.

“It certainly wasn’t effective. Flinging wine over his clothes will only damage your reputation.”

I don’t care a damn about my reputation. The words threaten to spill from my mouth, but I manage to restrain myself.

“I didn’t intend to humiliate him,” I hiss. “Jimmy shouldn’t even be working there at the first place, and now he’s dying, and the asshole just acts like it’s normal! Anyone would have been angry.”

He raises his eyebrows. “Actually, it is normal. McVean’s reaction may appear cruel and callous to you, but child labor has been around for centuries.”

“Then it should be changed—scratch that, it should be forbidden,” I say hotly.

Edward sighs. “I’ll not admit you’re wrong; it is clear the children are suffering. And adults as well—more than twelve hours a day is bound to make anyone worn out. But remember, Kat, it’s the parents who freely let their children go to work. Without the money the children are bringing in, families might starve.”

“I…” I can’t sit still, so I stand up and pace in front of the fire. What he said isn’t entirely without merit. But the image of little Jimmy, his head wrapped in bandages and blood soaking his pillow, comes back to my mind.

“Consider this: if we have a child who is faced with begging on the streets, braving rain and snow, with no guarantee of coin, while the other option is working in a factory with a stable wage—which is more preferable?”

I stop pacing and stare at him, defiantly.

“I don’t care. If those are the only options an impoverished child can have, then I’d say your leadership sucks. I mean it’s terrible if you think it’s okay to allow children to work twelve hours a day, not to mention get killed.”

For a moment he looks stunned, then a chuckle escapes him. He rises slowly, keeping his eyes fixed on my face.

“You know, I could have you hanged for daring to speak to me so.”

“No you couldn’t. You told me yourself the monarchy has only an advisory role in government decisions. If you can’t even exert power in major stuff, how can you order my execution for just saying you’re incompetent? Or does this country allow a despot on the throne?” I say triumphantly. “Besides, it’s not the first time I’ve said it and I’m still standing here, alive and well.”

Now he laughs—a genuine, infectious laugh. I can’t help but grin as well.

“You know well I speak in jest,” he says. The laughter remains in his eyes, crinkling the corners. “But even if I did possess the power, I could never harm a lady as singular as you.”

His gaze leaves my face and roams over me, taking in my violet silk dress with its alarmingly low neckline. I had protested when Elle brought out the dress, but she told me it was the fashion. I tried to cover up with a golden pendant, but still, my cleavage is evident.

My cheeks heat up and my palms grow moist. Damn, now that my anger has dissipated, I’m again tongue-tied and awkward before a guy who could give Mr. Darcy a run for his money.

“So…” My voice comes out in a pathetic squeak. “So about McVean…”

“I plan to submit a bill to the parliament.” Edward sits down again. “I will request that a law be passed. It will stipulate that children under the age of twelve should not be allowed to work more than ten hours a day—”

“They shouldn’t be working at all!”

He holds up a hand. “I understand your concern, but the parliament has always been reluctant to change. If we introduce drastic measures, I guarantee there is no chance of success. But if we adjust the working conditions bit by bit, eventually we can reach the ideal situation you speak of.”

“Eight hours,” I say. I hate to admit he makes sense, but ten hours still sounds too nightmarish. Come on, we don’t even have ten hours of school, and everyone complains all the time.

His lip curls up, slowly. An amused gleam flashes in his eyes. “Why, Miss Katriona, are you bargaining with me?”

“Eight hours,” I repeat.

We stare at each other as though it’s a glaring match, until he coughs and extends his hand.

“Deal.”

Okay. Now that we’ve settled on an agreement, I move toward the door.

“Wait.”

I turn. “The door isn’t locked from the outside, is it?” Surely Henry’s original intention was only to keep others from entering the room.

“No. Henry wouldn’t dare,” he says. “Sit down, Kat. There is still a matter unresolved between us.” His voice is firm, commanding. Even though he tells me the monarchy doesn’t wield real power, I guess he’s still used to having his own way. Back in Oakleigh, Ashley just has to flutter her eyelashes at any boy and he’ll do her bidding.

Still, no way am I going to act like a sycophant. I give him a glare and move at snail’s pace toward him.

“That day at the Fremont party.” He drums his fingers on his knee. “Your behavior was most puzzling.”

Uh-oh. My heart begins to sink. I really don’t like that suspicious glint in his eyes.

“When your servant fell into the river, you asked me to pull her out, yet there were plenty of other men nearby. However, you chose to seek me out specifically. Why?”

“Um…” I don’t dare to look into his eyes. “Be…because I know you better?”

A gleam flashes in his eyes. “Even if I were your fiancé, it would still make better sense for you to simply hail another man, not one who was in the middle of a croquet game.”

My heart pounds. He really is a bigger flirt than he appears.

I bite my lip and try to recall that day on the croquet lawn. Obviously I can’t tell him about my scheme to set him up with Elle. But I’m lame with excuses, and he’s waiting, his eyes shrewd and piercing. I have to say something.

“Because I wanted to annoy Bianca,” I blurt out. “As you probably can tell, we’re not exactly the best of sisters. I…I was tired of her always getting what she wants, and there were so many men that were vying for her attention that day. I didn’t want her to add you to her list of lovesick swains.”

His eyebrows raise. “You harbor jealousy toward your sister?”

With sinking horror, I realize I might have given him the wrong idea. He might think I elbowed Bianca out of the way because I want him for myself.

Noooooooo!

“I…um…it’s not fun when everyone ignores you or wants to use you for getting closer to your sister,” I say, rubbing my palms against my gown. I wasn’t just referring to Bianca; I’m always used to being the less pretty, less popular sister. “Anyway,” I try to speak more normally, “when I saw her flirting with you, I wanted to butt in—I mean, create a diversion.”

He stares at me for a moment, perhaps trying to decipher if I am telling him the truth.

“What about her other suitors? Did you also discourage them from courting your sister?”

“No, in fact—” I put a hand on my mouth. This conversation is getting way out of hand. “Bianca doesn’t really care for them, but it’s different with you, so I tried to stop her…maybe I shouldn’t have, but I…um, I’m sorry?”

“No need to apologize, Kat.” He smiles—a genuine one that reaches his eyes. “You needn’t worry about your sister. I can assure you her attentions are quite unnecessary.”

I smile back, relieved. But it isn’t enough. I still need him to fall in love with Elle. Now he seems to like me, but if I make it clear that I’m not interested, he should get the hint and set his sight elsewhere. He’s the prince, he can have anyone he wants.

Though looking into his warm, espresso-brown eyes with flecks of gold, somehow I don’t want to.

 

When I stumble back to the ballroom, a bit breathless after my conversation with Edward, a servant comes up to me.

“Miss Katriona?” He makes a courtly bow. “Your sister awaits.”

Bianca is sitting in a corner in this luxurious red velvet armchair. Two young men are gathered around her, but I can read the words “Bugger-off!” emblazoned on her forehead. When I approach, she looks relieved, even delighted.

“At last you’ve returned,” she says in a reproachful tone. “I want to go home now. I’ve sprained my ankle.”

“Allow me assist you to your carriage, Miss Bradshaw,” one of the men quickly says.

“No, let me,” the other jumps in. “I shall fetch your cloak and wraps and accompany you to the door.”

“That will be unnecessary. My sister is here.” She stands up and grasps my elbow. “Give me your shoulder, Katriona. No, Mr. Rothschild, my injury isn’t serious at all. Please don’t trouble yourself. Mr. Lindsay, I suggest you return to the dance floor. There are several young ladies whose attention should not be ignored.”

As she leans forward, putting her weight on me, her long, cold fingers dig into my skin. As much as I dislike her, I tolerate it the best I can. Once we reach the carriage, Bianca climbs in with little difficulty; I suspect her sprained ankle was merely an excuse to leave early.

“Why are you in such a hurry?” I ask. “It’s barely past midnight.”

She fires me a piercing gaze. I can feel the intensity even in the darkness.

“Don’t lie to me, Katriona,” she hisses. “First the duke sends us separate invitations, then he leads you out of the dining room. What is it between the two of you?”

I gulp. One thing I’m sure of—I can’t tell her about Edward. He clearly wished that no one would know he was at his cousin’s mansion. Besides, I can’t even imagine Bianca’s wrath if she learns I was alone with him.

“He wanted to show me his library,” I say. “It holds at least a thousand books. I thought it was most impressive. I wanted to stay and browse through his collection, so he just left me there and went back to join the guests.”

There. I thought I hadn’t done a bad job. I read somewhere that to make a lie convincing, you need to mix elements of truth into it.

“How does he know that you like reading?” Bianca says. “Reading those trashy novels has only been a recent habit of yours. Have you talked to him recently?”

“I…I met him at The Bookworm.” This is true, anyway. “He is friends with Mr. Wellesley, the bookshop owner.”

“So you bonded over books?” Her tone remains incredulous.

“Of course not. Obviously he is dazzled by my startlingly good looks.”

Bianca snorts. “You consider yourself pretty enough to attract the duke?” Her tone kind of reminds me of Krev, when he laughed at me for thinking I should be Cinderella.

A moment later, she grasps my wrist. “I don’t care what kind of relationship you have with the duke, but since he’s the closest friend to the prince, you can do something for me.”

Oh no. Something undesirable this way comes.

“Whenever you see Duke Henry, I want you to ask him everything about the prince. His schedule, his doings, and most importantly—if he has shown ANY interest toward a lady.”

“Didn’t Mother already plant a spy in the castle?”

Bianca crosses her arms and huffs. “The prince found out. Now the lad has been assigned to a summer resort miles away from the castle.”

Way to go, Edward. So that’s how you maintain your mysterious, aloof character to the public.

“But I barely see the duke. And even if I talk to him, it’s unlikely I can learn all you want about the prince.”

“If Henry bothered to send you an invitation, especially after that dreadful event with McVean, he must at least hold you in special regard.” Special regard? He was acting under the prince’s orders.

“Find out from him about the prince,” Bianca commands. I roll my eyes—she’s acting like she’s already queen. “Or I’ll tell Mother you’ve been using our hansom to visit the poor neighborhood, and taking Elle with you.”

This time I grasp her wrist. “You knew?”

She tosses her head. “Van told me you’ve been to the slums as well as that bookstore. Mother won’t be pleased to hear about it. Nor of the fact you let a servant ride in the hansom with you, as though you’re of the same rank!”

“It was an emergency,” I grit. “Elle’s mother was seriously ill, and then her little brother was injured—”

“That’s their business,” Bianca hisses. “What are you, a saint or a nun? You ought to be worrying about your marriage prospects! Two months into the Season and no one has showed an interest in you.”

“Mr. Lloyd did,” I mutter.

“He doesn’t count, he’s intolerable.”

My sympathies go out to Lloyd.

“And your prospects dropped further because of your stupid tantrum with McVean. If the duke hadn’t taken an interest in you, Mother would have been profoundly embarrassed. She could pack you off to our country estate with a governess until you learned how to behave.”

I shudder. Definitely don’t want that to happen. I’d be stuck in Athelia forever.

We are silent for a while. Only the clop-clopping of the horse’s hooves can be heard.

“Why are you so hung up—why must you aspire for the prince?” I ask.

“It has been a dream of mine, ever since I saw him when we were children,” Bianca says., her voice softening noticeably. I didn’t know she had it in her to speak tenderly. “Do you remember the picnic we had at the palace, when we were about ten?”

“No.” Of course I don’t.

She makes a disgusted noise. “You were busy stuffing yourself with jelly tarts at that time. Anyway, all the boys had their eyes on me, but only he didn’t stare. I vowed then and there I’d make him notice me.”

I roll my eyes. And to think I thought she had a fluffy anecdote to tell. She isn’t infatuated with Edward, she just can’t stand being ignored.

“And I know I can. I have a better chance than any girl in the kingdom.” Then her cold, hard tone returns. “Nothing will stand in my way of becoming queen, the queen of Athelia. And you will help me achieve it.”

Previous: EIGHTEEN
Next: TWENTY