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

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TWENTY-FOUR

 

 

Surprisingly, Bianca does not lash out when I return. I had fully expected an explosion of rage when I told her to do her own hair. But no, she just shoots me an icy, unfriendly glare at breakfast. I guess that since Lady Bradshaw found out about my friendship with the duke, my “stock” has gone up. I wonder what she’d say if she knew Edward nearly kissed me in the duke’s house. Would she believe me? Would she pin her hopes on me instead of Bianca?

“How is your relationship with the duke now?” Lady Bradshaw asks, taking a sip of coffee. “He lent you his carriage yesterday.”

I don’t answer. I’m not in the mood to be interrogated, not when I just witnessed a child die in front of my eyes.

“Katriona.” Lady Bradshaw narrows her eyes. “I asked you a question.”

I sigh. “Look, I don’t think it’s a good time now. He just failed to save a child’s life. He looked terrible when I left Elle’s place last night.”

“So he didn’t mention anything about the prince?” Bianca says.

Urgh. How could she mention Edward at a time like this?

“No.”

“Let us wait for a while,” Lady Bradshaw says. “Although we’ve lost our spy, Lady Mansfield tells me that the royal family should be announcing the ball soon. All they need is approval from the prince.”

“The ball?” I say. “It’s going to be held at last?”

“It could have been held earlier, if only the prince hadn’t been so occupied recently. He’s busy working on changing a law, I believe,” Lady Bradshaw says, looking annoyed. “By the way, where’s Elle? Hasn’t she returned yet?”

“She’s preparing for the funeral,” I say, my tone frigid. “Her brother just died.”

“How unfortunate,” Lady Bradshaw says, though she doesn’t look sympathetic at all. “I suppose, Bianca, you’ll have to use Martha instead.”

Bianca narrows her eyes. “This is the third time this month that she’s been absent when I needed her. Really, I can’t fathom why we should tolerate her behavior anymore. It’s inexcusable.”

“Third time this month?” Lady Bradshaw presses her lips together. “I must have a word with her.”

 

I don’t feel like going out today, so I tell Lady Bradshaw I’ll stay in my room and practice embroidery. That seems to please her so she lets me shut myself in my room. Of course I do nothing of the sort; I take up a newly released Gothic mystery and start to read.

Halfway through my book, there’s a poof and a cloud of smoke. Krev appears on the mantelpiece.

“So how’s it going between you and Eddie?”

I turn to the next page, pointedly ignoring him.

Krev spreads his wings and flies to my bed, landing on top of my book.

“I was planning to help you with the duke,” he says defensively. “But who knew that Eddie would show up instead? And I didn’t push you down the stairs, you lost your balance yourself. All I did was trip you when you tried to get up.”

In my mind flashes a scene of last evening, when I was sprawled on top of Edward, his chest warm and comforting. Even when my goal was to seduce the duke, I can’t help feeling relieved that it was Edward I crashed into. When he held me, his touch sending heat through me and his voice low and thrilling, I can’t deny that I enjoyed it.

“Whatever,” I grumble.

“The king was most impressed when I reported your latest…progress,” Krev says, giving me a wink. “But Morag threatened to kill me.”

“Why?”

“Because you pushed Eddie away when you saw me! Morag was furious that she missed a show. Next time I’ll just conceal myself behind the furniture.”

“There won’t be a next time,” I say, glaring.

Krev wags a finger. “Tsk, tsk, Miss Katriona. Your sister would have given an arm and leg to be in your shoes yesterday. Oh, and so would every girl in the kingdom.”

Yeah, I can’t deny that either. It’s such a weird and novel concept, me being able to attract a guy without even trying. And not just any guy—the most eligible bachelor in a kingdom. But then, maybe it isn’t that surprising. Because I am from the modern world, it’s natural that I’m not like other girls. It’s second nature to me that children shouldn’t work at all, that women should be allowed freedom to do anything they want. It isn’t because I’m special.

Not that it matters, anyway. Even though I’m gratified that I can attract a prince’s attention, it’s futile.

“Well, I suppose you’ll have to wait a long time,” I say, drawing my knees up to my chin. “Elle’s little brother is dead. Neither the prince nor his cousin will be interested in dating for now.”

Krev’s eyes bulge. “The kid died?”

I tell him briefly about yesterday evening. Krev chuckles when he learns I told Bianca to shut up and brush her own hair.

“Got to report this to the king as well,” he smirks. “There’s a thing you have in the twenty-first century—a video recorder made as small as your thumb? By the law of Barthelius, I sure wish I had one.”

I snort. “It wouldn’t work. First, I’d throw it out the window. Second, it would run out of batteries and there are no batteries here. Third, I doubt your king has a video player or even knows how to use one.”

Krev throws his head back and his laughter fills the room.

“Are you sure only I can hear you?” I say. “I swear the walls are vibrating.”

“Absolutely. The king put a strict binding spell on me. I can do a little magic, like helping you push the maid in the river and tripping you up when you knocked Eddie over, but he won’t allow the storybook characters to know I exist.”

“But what if…hypothetically speaking…what if I tell them about you?”

To my surprise, he grins. “Good luck making them believe you.”

Damn, he’s right.

 

In the evening I wait for Elle to bring the jug of water for my nightly rinse and wash. She usually is punctual, entering my room around half-past eight. But after the clock on the mantelpiece strikes nine and still no sign of the maid, I fling a wrap over my long silken nightgown and open the door.

Downstairs in the parlor, Lady Bradshaw’s stern voice can be heard.

“Here’s the wages up to this month. Now get out of my sight.”

Elle is hunched over two well-worn bags, dressed in a coat and boots.

“Mayn’t I bid goodbye to Miss Katriona?”

“She isn’t your friend, she is your mistress. Was your mistress. There’s no need for you to talk to her.”

“But I wanted to thank her for—”

“Haven’t you brought enough trouble for us? Van, remove her from my house this instant.”

“Stop!” I call, hurrying downstairs. Coldness stabs my feet as I tread on the stone floor. “Why are you firing her? What has she done?”

Lady Bradshaw folds her arms. “Katriona, return to your room this instant! You should never appear in your nightgown downstairs.”

I don’t move. “What has Elle done? She’s always been kind and obedient.”

“Obedient?” Lady Bradshaw hisses. For a moment, I can see how much Bianca resembles her in flesh and spirit. I wonder how much Katriona Bradshaw resembled her before I came to inhabit her body. “She abandoned your sister right in the middle of dressing her hair, when she was clearly aware there was an important dinner party to attend. Such willful disobedience is not to be tolerated.”

“She disobeyed Bianca because I told her to,” I say. “Because her brother was dying. You can’t be that heartless, to deprive her of the last chance to see her brother alive.”

For a second Lady Bradshaw looks taken aback. Then she snarls, “If it had been just that one time, I could have overlooked it. But she sneaked back to her family on several accounts. She had the nerve to ride in our carriage—a servant! Lords above, if any of our acquaintances knew, I would die of mortification. I cannot allow this to continue. She must leave.”

I am about to argue that I was the one who allowed her to cross the boundaries, when Elle shakes her head. “It’s all right, miss,” she says quietly. “I was prepared to leave. I’ve neglected my duties too much.”

“But none of this is your fault,” I argue. Seriously, isn’t there a law that protects the working rights of a servant? I can foresee Edward having to introduce another new law as soon as he passes the one for child labor.

“Since Jimmy died, I’d rather go home and stay with Mamsie for a bit,” Elle says. “Billy is with Mr. Wellesley, so I only need to take care of Mamsie.”

“But without a job, how are you going take care of your mother?”

“I’ll look for another job soon. There’s always a shortage of hired help,” Elle says. “Don’t worry, miss. We’ll manage.”

She squares her shoulders and lifts her chin. There’s a steely resolve in her eyes that tells me it’s no use stopping her.

Elle curtsies to Lady Bradshaw. “I thank you, Madam, for taking me into your service when I was still a child. I wish you and Miss Bianca all the best.”

On an impulse, I step forward and give her a hug. Lady Bradshaw lets out a gasp of shock.

“Katriona! How could you!”

I ignore her. “Good luck, Elle. I’ll miss having you around.”

Her arms tighten around me. “Thank you, miss. You’ve been most generous and kind, and I’m sure your kindness will lead you to a brilliant match.”

Elle steps away and picks up her bags. She smiles and gives me a wave. She just lost her job, yet she doesn’t look crushed in the slightest. She looks strong and resilient and beautiful—totally different from the meek little servant girl I’m used to. If only Henry—I mean, Edward, could see her now.

“Goodbye.”

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