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

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TWENTY-ONE

 

 

I put down the letter, letting it rest on my lap. He’s being really considerate, telling me I’m welcome in his house even when he’s absent. Perhaps seducing him won’t be as hard as I imagined?

“Is it from an admirer?” Elle asks. She has just cut a rose from the window. A small smile plays on her lips.

My first instinct is to say no, but hey, this is Duke Henry we’re talking about. A man that I’m planning to get away from Elle.

“It’s from Henry.” I wave the letter. “He has invited me to use his library whenever I want. Isn’t it generous of him? He knew I liked books, and he even showed me his collection when he sent me that personal invitation to his house party.”

Elle reaches for the brush, misses, and snatches it up on her second try.

“How nice of him,” she says quietly. “Mr. Henry has always shown nothing but kindness for us. I wish you the best of luck, miss.”

There’s no bitterness in her voice, but clearly she’s hurt. I feel awful—how could I deliberately rub salt in her wound?

“Elle, I don’t—” I stop myself and harden my heart. Think of Mom. Paige. I need to be ruthless if I want to return. I take a deep breath and say instead, “can you help me with the new dress I bought yesterday?”

Minutes later as I stand before the mirror, I find myself regretting my choice. It’s an off-the-shoulder dress with a neckline that dips so low, half of my boobs are showing. It wouldn’t look out of place at senior prom or even at a wedding in the real world, but it probably goes into the slut category in this old-fashioned world. It reminds me of the golden dress Belle wears in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, only a lot more revealing.

Even Bianca raises her eyebrows when I come down the staircase.

“Are you setting your sights on someone you met at the duke’s ball?”

“Maybe.” I lift my chin high, relishing the chance to be snotty toward her.

It doesn’t work, though.

“As long as your object is not the duke himself. He might fall easily in love, but a display of bare flesh is not enough.” Bianca adjusts a diamond pendant so that the jewel nestles in the hollow of her throat. I hear the sound of skirts rustling—Lady Bradshaw appears.

“It is uncertain if the prince will make an appearance,” she says, a note of anxiety in her voice. “I overheard Lady Mansfield mention that he has been recently occupied with the parliament. Moreover, since the flower show is attracting more and more visitors every year, he mayn’t show up.”

“Not to mention it will be difficult to find him in the crowds,” Bianca says, folding her arms. “Nevertheless, it is never a bad idea to be prepared.”

“Katriona!” Lady Bradshaw sweeps toward me, her eyes as round as saucers. “What’re you thinking of, going to the show in that scandalous outfit? Honestly, when I told you to prepare yourself for the marriage market, I implied you dress up to impress, not put your body on display!”

Heat creeps into my cheeks; I wrap my hands around my elbows and make a half-hearted effort to argue. “But you didn’t complain when I bought the dress.”

“I meant that it should be complemented with a shawl and brooch,” Lady Bradshaw snaps. She orders Elle to fetch the accessories. I slip the silken wrap around my shoulders, figuring that it might work better this way. If there’s the slightest chance that Edward is present, I don’t want him seeing me in this Belle dress. I’ll save the full effect for Henry’s place. I fully plan to take him up on his offer of visiting his library, though I won’t go until the evening, when he’s more likely to be home.

 

The flower show is amazing. It’s actually called the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition, but everyone simply calls it the flower show. I’ve been to Edward’s garden, but that was simply one beautifully-designed garden. The show is a combination of multiple gardens, some unusual, some of ingenious workmanship. It’s a mix of creative minds at work, each garden outdoing the next. There’s a garden that actually resembles the Japanese zen style I once saw on a postcard—mostly stones and low bushes and sand. Another has a display of cacti with paintings behind it to look like a desert. But not all are unusual-looking. There’s this wooden arch that attracts dozens of ladies murmuring with appreciation and children squealing with delight. Peonies and roses and lavender twisted into long ropes hang from the arch like a bright, colorful curtain. I’m tempted to take a picture, and then for the umpteenth time, I’m reminded that cameras don’t exist.

When Bianca appears at the entrance, several men zoom toward her as though they have installed a Bianca-radar on their heads. I try to slip away—Lady Bradshaw has her hawk-look on, which means she’s scanning the crowds for eligible young men. Luckily, a middle-aged lady wearing a hat full of flowers happens to wander by and call to her, “Aileen! Oh my goodness, has it been ten years since I saw you last?”

While Lady Bradshaw is occupied with her old friend, I pretend to be drawn to the curtain of flowers. Then I weave my way through the crowds like the snake in the PC game Nibbles. When I emerge from another end, Lady Bradshaw is nowhere to be seen.

Yes! I give myself a mental pat on the back. The last thing I need is more suitors breathing down my neck. Now I’m at liberty to explore the flower show at my own leisure.

For some time I wander through the show, admiring the displays while keeping an eye out for Henry and Edward.

“Five hundred pounds for a meager potted flower?” An enraged voice booms somewhere to my right. “I don’t care how rare it is, any price above a hundred is an outrageous sum for a plant. Even if the prince planted it himself!”

Andrew McVean. Urgh, I sure don’t want to run into him. I dart in the direction opposite his voice, down several moss-covered stone steps, past patches of flowers grown in large ball-like shapes, and reach a pavilion surrounded by several hedges trimmed into the shapes of cat-and-dog heads. I lean against a pillar of the pavilion, breathing heavily. My wrap is coming loose; I adjust it more securely round my shoulders. The place I’m in seems to be deserted at the moment, when a voice behind this giant green cat head breaks the silence and signifies I’m not alone.

“Please tell me you are not trifling with me.”

It’s Poppy!

I haven’t seen much of Poppy since Lord Mansfield’s dinner party. She tried to visit me, but Lady Bradshaw wouldn’t let her in, as I’m supposed to be grounded. I’m glad she hasn’t ostracized me from her companionship.

I edge toward the hedge and peek out. Sure enough, there’s Poppy with both her hands firmly clasped in Mr. Davenport’s, who suddenly pulls her close, and Poppy closes her eyes…

Snap. I step on some dried twigs on the grass.

Both of them jump apart as though electrified. I curse my clumsiness for the umpteenth time.

“Sorry!” I give Poppy an apologetic nod. “I didn’t know…anyway, don’t mind me. Please carry on.” And I lift my skirts slightly so I can hurry away faster.

Omigod, I can’t believe I just witnessed Poppy about to be kissed by her boyfriend! Or suitor, I guess. I just knew it—all that bantering and taunting between them have transformed into sexual attraction. They looked so cute together, standing behind those animal-shaped hedges. I am so going to demand all the details later

I resume my wandering in the gardens, keeping an eye out for McVean, Henry, and Edward. But all I run into are a few acquaintances I made at the Season parties. I receive a few polite nods, but nothing enthusiastic. Oh well, I guess they all see me as the girl who has no manners and no marriage prospects.

Suddenly I spot Galen carrying an earthenware tray toward a long table. On the tray sits a toy cottage covered entirely in shrubbery, ivy, and flowers. It’s kind of like a Christmas gingerbread house; just substitute floral adornments for the icing and candies.

I wonder if he has any news of Snyder? It’s taking so long that I’ve almost forgotten about it.

I move toward Galen, but someone gets to him first. Claire, along with a middle-aged woman that I recognize as her mother, both of them dressed in fabulous clothes and expensive jewelry. I hide a smile; Claire’s hat is exactly the same as Bianca’s. I guess they haven’t met yet, or she certainly wouldn’t be wearing it.

“Lovely house,” Lady Fremont says, nodding at Galen. “Not part of His Highness’s handiwork, I suppose?”

Galen has his trademark surly look on. “No.”

But Lady Fremont isn’t to be deterred. “I gather His Highness will not be joining us today?”

“No.”

“Mama.” Claire lays a hand on her mother’s arm. “His Highness is currently too busy to attend the show. Papa says he’s trying to pass a new law.”

“Which has been rejected,” Lady Fremont says, her tone reeking of disapproval. “It is in point of fact that his attempt is hardly necessary. A man of his position is entitled to a life of leisurely pursuits. He could have been here, cutting the ribbon before the show.”

“I’m sure His Highness would have liked to be here,” Claire says hastily. “It’s only that he currently is more concerned with the welfare of the people.”

“Of course, my dear,” Lady Fremont quickly says. “What he’s doing is perfectly commendable. But he could simply be organizing a charity event or making a donation. Such as charging tickets for the show today and donating the proceedings to the orphanage. The rich can do a good turn and the poor will receive support. This way, it would be easier for him to gain the people’s affection, and with considerably less effort.”

Galen places the cottage on the table along with several other topiaries: a cathedral, a bell tower, a fountain, and a monument. “It’s not my place to tell the prince how to occupy himself. Best bring it up to him yourself, ma’am.”

“Certainly I will,” Lady Fremont says quickly. “The only minor problem is: how should we find him? Are you aware of his schedule?”

Aha. Like Lady Bradshaw, Lady Fremont is also desperate to learn where Edward usually is. I doubt Galen knows, or even if he does, I think he’ll most likely respond with “It isn’t my place to inform others of the prince’s schedule.” I guess if Lady Fremont were in our world, she’d make a good paparazzi.

“Or do you know of someone who might be familiar with the prince’s schedule—other than his cousin?”

She sure is persistent.

“Lady Fremont,” I say, stepping forward. “Excuse me for interrupting, but I can’t help disagreeing with what you said earlier.”

“Who are you?” Lady Fremont says, looking annoyed. “Oh—you’re Bianca’s sister. How lovely to meet you again. Have you been enjoying yourself? Claire, why don’t you take a stroll with her and see if you can run into Bianca as well?”

Clearly she wishes me to disappear.

“If you truly believe that Ed—His Highness is doing a good deed, then you needn’t suggest he make a donation,” I say, choosing to ignore her suggestion. “Charity is a nice gesture, but it only offers temporary relief. But if he can change the law, the benefits for the poor will last longer.”

Now they gape at me, all three of them.

If they knew me in real life, it wouldn’t be that surprising. I should know. Although we’re not at poverty level, Mom often complains that she’d rather get a pay raise than the occasional bonus.

Lady Fremont gives a tinkling laugh. “True, but His Highness can trust the matter to the parliament. There is no need for him to oversee everything.”

“Are you implying he only needs to be ornamental?” I say indignantly. “Have you thought that he’s perfectly at liberty to do nothing, but he’s willing to give up his leisure to work hard at improving his subjects’ lives instead? Frankly speaking, I doubt His Highness would like to be regarded as a useless pretty boy.”

Galen snorts. Claire glowers. Lady Fremont stares.

“You possess a most peculiar opinion, I must say,” she says at last. “Claire, I believe it’s time we see the floral clock. It’s nearly three o’clock, and they say there’s a special surprise every three hours.”

I watch her walk away with her daughter. Claire turns just slightly to send me a suspicious look. Maybe now she thinks I’m also competition for Edward, but strangely, I don’t mind. Before, I’ve been invisible, insignificant, like Bianca is the only Bradshaw daughter that exists. Now at least she’ll remember my name. I’ll no longer simply be Bianca’s worthless younger sister.

Galen adjusts the position of the floral cottage, dusts his hands, then turns to me.

“What can I do for you, lady?” His voice is still gruff, but the hostility has disappeared.

“Have you found Snyder?” I ask eagerly.

He knits his brows. “I was going to let His Highness tell you, but since you’re asking me now, the answer is yes.”

My chest lightens. “Where is he? Is he still in the country?”

“He’s dead.”

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Next: TWENTY-TWO