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

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TWENTY-FIVE

 

 

I don’t speak to Bianca for the next few days. Every morning Martha comes to my room to help me dress and do my hair, but apart from lacing up the corset, which my clumsy fingers still fail to accomplish, I do everything else on my own. Martha is kind in a gruff way, but I still miss Elle. I also note with satisfaction that the new maid Lady Bradshaw employed isn’t half as competent. Now Bianca spends about twice her usual time getting dressed, which is saying something.

There still isn’t any talk of the ball—perhaps I’d better drop a hint when I meet Edward? Though it’s highly possible he’ll misunderstand and believe I am throwing myself at him. And I still haven’t found the fairy godmother. Galen told me that Adam Snyder was actually Lady Bradshaw’s gardener. Maybe there’s someone who might know Snyder.

“Martha?” I ask, when she comes up to stoke the fire in the evening. “Did we have a gardener whose name was Adam Snyder?”

“Mercy me!” Martha drops the poker and it falls on the grate with a loud clatter. “Where did you hear that name, Miss Katriona?”

I decide it’s better to omit Jimmy and Mrs. Thatcher. “I heard some people mentioning his name in the flower show. That he once worked for Mother.”

Martha looks apprehensive. “Did you hear anything unsavory about Adam Snyder?”

The way she says it instantly makes me suspect that something had gone between Snyder and Lady Bradshaw. I decide to risk it.

“Well, I did hear it was possible that a strong attraction existed.” I clutch her arm, pretending to be scared. “Oh Martha, please tell me nothing really happened between them!”

Martha quickly shakes her head. “Of course not. It was only infatuation and only on Adam’s side. Madam would never consider a lowly person like him. But it ain’t surprising that he’d do anything she asked. She was a fine looking girl twenty years ago, and she is fine looking still.”

I tap my fingers on the dresser. “I’m sure.”

“Even though she’s a looker, Madam hasn’t much luck in marriage. Her first husband lost his fortune just when he was stricken by typhoid fever. The bad news brought his early death, leaving her with you and Miss Bianca and no one to run the estate. You were but two years old at the time.”

“Estate?” I ask. Lady Bradshaw doesn’t have any trouble running the house by herself now.

“The estate up north in the county, of course. She had debts to pay, and your father left no will. It seemed the end of the world for us at that time. But then Earl Bradshaw came along. He got caught in a storm and we offered him shelter.”

“Just in time,” I say.

“Just in time,” Martha agrees. “The earl needed a mother for his daughter. She wanted the funds to live the life of a noble. It was a marriage of convenience for both of them.”

I nod. Having spent enough time in Athelia, I know that marriages are rarely love matches anyway. Prestige and position are way more important.

“So the earl brought her up to Ruby Red to get married, along with the girls—all three of you. On the way the carriage broke down; it’s fairly easy for a horse to be startled by some animal crossing the road in those remote areas. The earl hit his head on a rock and was dead by the time he reached the nearest village.”

“What happened to the earl’s daughter?” I can’t help asking. “Was she seriously injured?”

“N…no.” Martha clearly appears uncomfortable.

But I press on. “Technically she’s our stepsister, so why haven’t I seen her around?”

“She… drowned.” Martha looks at the floor. “When Madam brought her back to the estate, she got lost wandering in the grounds. There was a river off in a forest—I reckon she didn’t see it and her foot slipped and she went in.”

“What?” I turn my head abruptly and the brush gets tangled in my hair. “But she couldn’t be…” But Elle’s alive. Krev told me she was Cinderella. Unless he’s been lying to me—he does get a kick out of seeing me suffer—but would he stand by and let me continue suspecting the wrong girl all this time?

Martha nods. “I made a shroud for the poor thing. Adam dug the grave and the mistress ordered a bunch of flowers laid over the tomb. A sad affair for the girl to have died that young.”

We fall silent for a moment. Martha continues to brush through my hair. I am lost in thought. If what Martha told me was true, then Cinderella must have died long ago. Unless Elle actually was buried alive, possessed some superpower and was able to break out of her grave, like Uma Thurman did in Kill Bill.

Impossible. But if Cinderella is dead…how am I to solve the story?

Martha coughs. “Know why Miss Bianca ordered for Elle’s removal?”

I’m surprised at the sudden switch of the subject, but I’m rather glad of it. “Because she’s a heartless bi—person?”

“Well, I no be sayin’ the elder miss is considerate, but she does care if you are too close to a servant.”

“I don’t see why she should care.” Seriously, Bianca jealous of my friendship with Elle? Weird. She doesn’t swing that direction…does she?

“Have you noticed that Miss Bianca has very few friends? Female friends, not the hordes of besotted men that follow her round like puppies.”

I rack my brain. Bianca definitely has girls to pay calls to, but yeah, I guess I wouldn’t call Claire a friend. More like a rival. The girls view Bianca with awe and admiration, but I doubt she has anyone to call BFF.

“It was because Elle was partial to you that Miss Bianca felt she was not getting the attention she used to have. And also with the duke sending you an individual invitation, she was bound to be jealous. She ain’t used to being out of the focus, that lady.”

“True.” Back in the carriage after Henry’s ball, Bianca had told me her lifelong mission to make the prince notice her. “That’s why she really wants Ed—I mean, the prince. Because he and the duke are probably the few wonders of the world who haven’t fallen for her.”

Martha dumps the hairbrush on the dresser. “That I believe is possible, miss. Say, you’ve changed a lot since you hit your head on the stairs. In a good way, I mean. Maybe I ought try pushing Miss Bianca down the stairs and see if it’ll make a change as well.”

She chuckles, pats my hair, and leaves the room.

 

After my conversation with Martha, I have trouble falling asleep. Cinderella is dead. But how does that explain Elle’s existence? Or maybe Elle is Cinderella, and Adam Snyder managed to smuggle her to Mrs. Thatcher. Yet Martha told me that Snyder was crazy about Lady Bradshaw, even if she was way out of his league. Besides, he was her servant. There’s no reason why he would disobey her. Oh, and also the fact that Martha actually saw the drowned corpse of the earl’s daughter. There’s no reason she would lie to me, so who is this dead child? Maybe the earl actually had two daughters?

My head kind of hurts from going round and round in circles. In the end, I admit defeat. If the fairy godmother is a dead end, perhaps I can instead focus on Elle and Edward. I start to formulate a new plan. After mulling it over for some time, I blow out the candles and snuggle under the blankets. Soon I drift into the land of slumber.

 

“Katriona, dear?”

After breakfast, Lady Bradshaw hails me. Goosebumps break out under my skin. I’d rather have her yell at me than call me “dear.” It sounds so unnatural, so fake.

I stop in the middle of going upstairs. “Yes?”

“Have you been to the bookstore recently?”

“No. Why?” She can’t have suddenly taken an interest in reading, can she? Usually the only thing she reads is the instructions on her perfume bottle.

“Then go and see if you can run into the duke again. Even if you don’t succeed, your value will still go up since he has favored your company.”

I roll my eyes. Now I fully understand the essay our English teacher made us read about female objectification. Lady Bradshaw’s description makes me feel exactly like a product on sale.

Still, a trip to the bookstore is better than a party or soiree. And besides, I can ask Billy how Elle is doing. I hope she has found a job.

“All right,” I say. “I’ll go. But I’m not sure if he’ll be there. He’s busy recently.”

“He must be working with His Highness to pass that trivial law,” Lady Bradshaw says, clucking her tongue. “I must look into the details and discover if there might be a means whereby Bianca may be involved.”

Good luck with that. Bianca doesn’t even have compassion for a maid who has worked here for years, so how will she help all those child laborers she has never seen?

 

When I arrive at the bookstore, I’m surprised to find that it’s closed. Has Mr. Wellesley taken a day off?

“Kat?”

I jump. Edward, again! Honestly, we’ve met coincidentally so many times that it feels like I’m in a badly written novel. Oh wait, I actually am.

Edward’s in a plain suit, like the one he wore when I first met him outside the doctor’s house, but this time he has a top hat on as well—the kind of hat a magician uses to pull out a rabbit. Add a cane, and he could be in a jazz dance performance.

“The hat doesn’t suit you.”

He gives me a sour look. “I’m trying to appear more inconspicuous.”

“Well, it has the opposite effect.” I can’t help giggling. “What are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same question.”

Just at that moment, the door opens a crack. Mr. Wellesley appears. His eyebrows lift and the corners of his mouth turn up.

“If you two want some privacy together, the pleasure gardens are that way.”

Both Edward and I flush. I’ve no idea what a pleasure garden is, but just the name itself is self-explanatory enough. He seems to be acting normally since our stairway collision. It was heartless of me, but I had to do it. He has to move on. No prince ends up with the ugly stepsister.

“I came here in Henry’s place,” Edward says, all business-like and professional-sounding.

“Was Henry supposed to be here?” I say. “Is it about the eight-hour bill?”

“Come in, both of you,” Mr. Wellesley says, opening the door a bit wider. “What has kept Henry? Does he have a lecture to attend?”

Edward lets me go in first, then shuts the door firmly behind him. “The duchess kept him.”

“Who?”

“Why, his mother, of course.” Edward turns to me. “And it is actually for the sake of your servant. Or should I say, former servant.”

I swallow and rub my elbows. “What has Elle done? Is she well?”

“I wager she isn’t the type of girl the duchess has in mind for Henry,” Mr. Wellesley says.

Edward leans against the counter. “When Henry found that she was fired, he offered her a job at his house. A job that consists of bringing him his afternoon tea. With pay equivalent to a housekeeper.”

I know enough of Athelia by now to understand that a housekeeper is the highest paid of female domestic workers.

Mr. Wellesley smirks. “The idiot.”

“Quite right. He made her the offer exactly when his mother came to visit. What happened, accordingly, is that the duchess had a violent row with Henry, accusing him of having no sense of pride and propriety. She demanded that Elle leave the house.”

“I don’t see why this is her business,” I say indignantly, then pause. Actually, if Elle had accepted Henry’s offer, they very likely would have ended up together. I actually owe the duchess one. “Well, er, she does have a reason to be concerned.”

Edward quirks an eyebrow. “And now she’s foisting tea with the Fremont girl on him.”

“Claire?” I say.

“I suppose.” Edward shrugs. “The duchess thought the lady would be a good match.”

Poor Claire. She was trying so hard to catch Edward’s attention at the croquet party, and he doesn’t even remember her name.

“So Elle is kicked out, but I’m sure she still owes Henry the medicine fees and such,” I muse. Eureka! This coincides perfectly with the plan I had come up with last night. “Edward, can I ask you a favor?”

“Now here’s your chance, lad,” Mr. Wellesley puts in. “If I were you, I’d demand at least a kiss in return. On the lips, mind you.”

Edward steals a glance at me; I look down on my feet. Really, I could wring Mr. Wellesley’s neck.

“Can you offer Elle a job?” I say. “It’s partly my fault that Elle got fired. I owe her at least a recommendation.” And I tell him about my dragging Elle off while Bianca was in the middle of preparing for a dinner party.

Mr. Wellesley snorts when I finish. “Hmm. I say you did right, lass. Don’t take it to heart. Elle would have preferred to see her brother one last time.”

Edward nods. “I shall see what I can do. Actually, Galen has been talking of hiring another assistant. There—” he pauses, “there will be a huge event coming up at the palace before autumn sets in. He will need the extra help.”

“But he hates women!” I exclaim.

“He may take a recommendation from you,” Edward says with a smile. “Since you defended me at the flower show, he has spoken highly of you.”

I can’t comprehend how a few words could have changed his opinion that fast, but anyway, with Elle working in the palace, it’ll be much easier for her and Edward to get to know each other. Maybe if I keep out of Edward’s sight and try to persuade Krev to perform some magic, he’ll shift his crush on me to Elle instead. Then the happy ending will be achieved and I won’t even need the fairy godmother!

A pang hits me when I picture Edward fixing that sexy, intense gaze of his on Elle. Get over it, Kat. You don’t belong here.

“Well, now that’s settled,” Mr. Wellesley says brightly to me, “perhaps His Highness can give me a report in Henry’s stead. Lass, if you haven’t anything specific in mind apart from your usual browsing, I suggest you visit another time.”

“Hey.” I’m stung. “I don’t see why I can’t stay.”

Edward takes a step toward me, his expression indicating he’s thinking of the appropriate words to persuade me to leave. When he moves, a newspaper displayed on a rack behind him arrests my attention. On the front page is a black-and-white photo depicting a young girl with a swelling belly. She is wearing a black cloak that is parted in the middle, showing a good chunk of naked flesh from neck to stomach. What’s more alarming is that her face looks eerily familiar.

Gross. Nausea sweeps over me, leaving a sour tang in my mouth. I brush past Edward and yank the newspaper off the shelf.

“Is that Molly?”

Edward frowns. “Who’s Molly?”

“A girl who works at McVean’s factory,” Mr. Wellesley says. “That’s her elder sister, Nell.”

“She doesn’t look much older,” I say, scrutinizing the small, haggard face. The caption below reads that she’s eleven years old and currently four months with child. I scan through the story that follows: Nell worked at the factory with Molly until one day she ran away and was seduced by an old man “dressed in the garb of a gentleman,” who invited her to his house. Although the police have tracked the man down, he was only sentenced to three months in jail for misdemeanor.

My throat burns and I feel like throwing up. There was this time a normal-looking guy, clean-shaven and neatly dressed, tried to lure Paige to his car with the promise of ice cream. If I hadn’t just arrived to pick her up—who knows what could have happened? She could have ended up like Molly’s sister.

“Kat.” Edward’s voice is laced with anxiety. “Kat, look at me.”

I raise my gaze to him. “Three months? You can’t be serious. That man should get a twenty-year sentence at the very least!”

“Lass, calm down,” Mr. Wellesley says, alarmed. “It is an unfortunate event, but current law states that a crime like this is convicted to imprisonment less than a year.”

“I understand your concern,” Edward says, lifting a hand toward me, but he drops it when I take a step backward. “But the law cannot be easily bent to what we will. There is a reason why every legislation we try to alter must undergo multiple reviews and readings.”

“Then you have been working on changing the law, haven’t you? Because if you don’t do something right away, I will.”

I turn on my heel and storm off, ignoring Edward’s call. I’m not in the mood to deal with them anymore. No matter what they say about the impropriety of a lady appearing in public, I’ll come up with a way to stop this insanity, this madness.

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