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

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TWENTY-TWO

 

 

“Dead?” The lightness in my chest evaporates, replaced by coldness. “How can he be dead?”

Galen’s lip twitches. “He is a man, not an immortal. Adam Snyder died ten years ago in a pub brawl.”

My heart sinks. A dead end. “To think I’ve waited so long.”

“The reason we couldn’t locate Snyder earlier was because you gave us incorrect information.”

“Me? What did I say?”

“Snyder wasn’t Earl Bradshaw’s gardener,” Galen says succinctly. “He worked for your mother before she married the earl. The earl’s elderly butler replied to us and revealed that Snyder was in fact Lady Bradshaw’s gardener. Consequently, we had to direct a letter to her manor near Lochden.”

Lochden. From what I’ve learned of Story World, it’s this autonomous region north of Athelia, with its own culture and religion. One of Bianca’s suitors is actually from Lochden, with such a thick accent that I always request that he repeat himself. Bianca has spoken disparagingly of the poor guy, starting from his accent and ending with the declaration, “I’d never dream of marrying him and relocating to that barren land up north! Imagine taking a week-long journey traveling to the capital and back.”

Dang.

My mind’s still in a jumbled mess when I leave the flower show. Henry’s place is actually within walking distance, as both the arena and his house are centrally located. I ask Van to inform Bianca and Lady Bradshaw where I’m going, and I tell him I can always ask the duke to provide transport when I go home. He looks relieved that I’m not making him drive to Elle’s house or somewhere else a lady shouldn’t be going.

The butler, Thomas, is quite friendly when he greets me at the door.

“Ah, Miss Katriona, is it? My lord informs me that I might expect you. Such a pleasure to have you grace the house again.”

“Is Henry not in?”

Thomas shakes his head. “His schedule recently has been filled to the brim. However, he did inform us to have dinner prepared.”

“Oh good,” I say, though I’m still relieved that Henry isn’t home yet. “I didn’t mean to take advantage of his hospitality so quickly, but as the show is only round the corner, I couldn’t resist dropping by.”

“No worries, Miss Katriona, it’s always a pleasure to receive a lady in the house. Particularly one so young and charming.”

He gives me a wide smile that reaches his ears, takes my hat and coat, and offers me a choice of tea or coffee and biscuits. The butlers I’ve met at the Fremont and Mansfield houses were polite but so stiff and dry that they acted more like robots. I guess the character of the master reflects on his servants, though the same thing definitely can’t be said for Lady Bradshaw.

The library is larger than I remembered. I never had a chance to inspect it closely, since I was mostly talking to Edward last time. Now, free to explore the shelves, I wander down the aisles, running my hand over the spines and occasionally removing one or two from their places.

To be honest, Henry’s collection looks awfully boring. Most of the books have titles like Discourse on Philosophy of Mankind, or Theory of Knowledge. And judging from the pristine condition of those books, I doubt he’s reading them either. The only ones that look worn are those on medical studies.

Only one title catches my eye: A guide to towns and villages of Lochden. Lady Bradshaw’s country manor is near Lochden. I open up the book, which is like ninety percent text and ten percent black-and-white hand drawings. It couldn’t even be a coffee table book. One heading looks interesting: Ruby Red: the infamous village where a couple may marry without parental consent.

Ooh. I smell scandal.

Ruby Red lies just on the northern border, so that makes it the closest Lochden village to Athelia. In Athelia, a person under the age of twenty-one can’t get married without both parents present in the ceremony and at least three witnesses, so you need five people at minimum. But in Ruby Red, which still follows Lochden’s customs, a couple can marry freely with only one witness in addition to the priest, so a lot of Romeos and Juliets in Athelia have eloped to Ruby Red. Athelia has tried to make Ruby Red marriages illegal, but so far the only progress they’ve made is that the witness cannot be from the village unless he or she is a direct relative of the couple.

I chuckle. Perhaps, after the eight-hour bill is passed, Edward can direct his attention toward amending marriage laws. Then I close the book and return it to the shelf. A wild idea springs to mind: if only I could somehow fool Edward and Elle into running away to Ruby Red…

No. It’s simply impossible. Unless I club them in the head like primitive people and drag them off, bound and gagged, to the village.

I pace in front of the fireplace. It’s warm enough now that a roaring fire isn’t needed.

A tiny popping sound startles me. Krev sits cross-legged on the mantelpiece; his eyes widen when he sees me in my slut dress.

“By the name of Barthelius,” he makes a catcall that sounds surprisingly similar to a construction worker I ran into in Oakleigh, “that’s some outfit, girlie. Henry will have his eyes popping out.”

For some reason, the thought of Henry—kind, courteous, friendly Henry—seeing me with naked shoulders and my bosom nearly bursting from the bodice—makes me recoil inside. It’ll be so awkward, so embarrassing, so…urgh. I don’t know how I’m going to face him later, or if he’ll tell Edward.

No.

I can’t do this. I can’t seduce a guy this way—I don’t want to seduce anyone! I’ll find some other way—get Elle and Edward together again, locate the fairy godmother, just anything other than trying to make a pathetic fool of myself.

I have to get out. Fast, before Henry returns. I rush out the door and take the narrow staircase Henry brought me up last time, which leads directly into the hallway.

“Girlie!” Krev shouts. “Where are you going?”

I quicken my pace; maybe if I hurry, I can make it back to the flower show. Henry won’t even have to know I’m here. It occurs to me that my wrap is still in the library, and no way can I return home dressed in this ridiculously low-cut gown. But I’ve already gone down a step—I halt abruptly.

Wrong move. My stupid body didn’t keep up with my brain. I make a wild grab at the railing, miss it, and pitch forward.

For a split second a heartening thought flashes through me: I’m going to black out and wake up in the modern world.

Not.

I crash on the landing in the middle of the staircase. Someone curses; the carpet couldn’t be this warm. From the dim lamp nestled in the crevice on the wall, I make out a familiar face, staring back at me in utter amazement.

“Kat?”

“Edward?”

I freeze. Then I struggle to get up, but some invisible force holds me down. I look up and notice Krev dancing in the air and grinning like a madman.

Damn. I’ll put my hands round his neck when we’re back. I struggle again, but my ankle is tangled in my dress, which is tangled with his foot. My useless effort results in my collapsing against his chest with a resounding thud.

“I’m so sorry,” I gasp. “Can you sit up? There are way too many folds and ruffles in this stupid dress.”

“Kat.” His voice sounds strained, baffled, but he doesn’t move. “Tell me why you’re wearing a scandalous dress in my cousin’s house.”

Um, because I intended to seduce him? “Er…I had a wrap on but I took it off, because…because it was too hot…” I trail off, my cheeks on fire. My explanation only seems to paint a worse picture.

“Will you get up already?” I snap. “I want to go home.”

His eyes gleam in an evil Dark Lord fashion. “Not until you explain why you’re here.”

I conjure up the deadliest glare I can give him. I try again—slowly this time—but then a hand presses into the small of my back, preventing me from moving an inch further. Even if Krev stops tormenting me, Edward has no such intentions.

“Someone might see us,” I hiss. “Aren’t you concerned about stuff like propriety?”

His hand doesn’t move. In fact, it seems to exert more pressure.

I sigh. “Fine. Your cousin told me I could visit his library even when he’s absent. I was at the flower show earlier, and since his place was so near, I decided to take up his offer and come here.”

“Did you have your wrap on when you were at the flower show?”

“Of course I did!” I wish I’d never agreed to Krev’s stupid seduction suggestion. Nothing ever goes well with me, and when I attempt to do something, I always end up making things worse.

“Good.” He looks visibly relieved. “Galen told me you came to my defense when Lady Fremont spoke poorly of me.”

I look away, embarrassed. “It wasn’t worth mentioning. I just couldn’t agree with her viewpoint.”

“That I’m ornamental?” He sounds subtly amused. “And I thought you were the only girl in the kingdom who didn’t care for my looks.”

“I’d be hypocritical if I claimed not to notice.”

“So you do find me attractive.”

I blush hotly. He’s flirting again. I’ve got to put a stop to it.

“Look, I don’t know if I explained myself well enough, but if you don’t get up this instant, I’m going to punch your nose. I promise you that isn’t going to be attractive.”

He laughs—a deep, rich, goddamn sexy laugh that rumbles through his chest and sends vibrations through my body. Reluctantly, I find myself smiling with him.

Slowly he raises himself, with one hand braced on the floor while his other hand stays on my back, steadying me. When both of us are sitting upright, he reaches out and touches the rose pinned to the back of my head. By some miracle, it didn’t tumble off when I fell down the stairs.

“Is this from my garden?”

“Yeah,” I say, my heart pounding hard. “It’s too big though.”

“It becomes you.”

I meet his gaze and for a second, time seems to freeze. His hand comes to rest on my cheek, smoothing back wisps of hair from my face, tucking a longer lock behind my ear. Despite the heat radiating from his fingers, I shiver from his touch. All of a sudden I’m aware that I’m sitting on his lap, shoulders naked, my skirts tangled in his trousers, my hands splayed against his chest, his face only inches from mine.

Danger alert. Mesmerized by his gaze and touch, I am frozen on the spot. In the corner of my eye, I glimpse Krev floating above, a wide grin plastered over his face. He looks like a reporter who has just walked in on a celebrity cheating on his wife.

I shove the prince away and get to my feet. Somehow I manage it with one hand gripping the railing and my other smoothing out my skirt. I dart a lightning-fast glance at him; his expression is blank, impassive. If he’s hurt that I pulled away, he doesn’t let it show.

“Well.” I clear my throat. “I’d better go and get my wrap.” I turn away, but then a weight presses on my shoulders.

“Keep this on until you’re decent,” the prince says, his tone firm, commanding. “I have no intention of anyone running into you and seeing you like this.”

I doubt wearing his coat is much of a solution, but I don’t bother to argue. My head is still dizzy; my thoughts a mess. Edward was going to kiss me! But he shouldn’t, for Gods’ sake, I’m the ugly stepsister! The prince does NOT fall for the stepsister. It’s so WRONG. How am I ever going to return to the modern world?

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Next: TWENTY-THREE