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

Previous: TWENTY-SEVEN
Next: TWENTY-NINE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TWENTY-EIGHT

 

 

“What are those papers?” Despite the lines on his face, Mr. Wellesley manages a grin. “Forged documents of the king’s? Or the first chapters of a sensational novel you’ve penned yourself?”

“Bingo. Well, your second guess is pretty close.” I lay my bundle on the counter. “I went to Andrew McVean’s cotton factory and interviewed the children working there. This is the result.”

Mr. Wellesley lets out a strangled noise from his throat. “You did what?”

Edward emerges from the passageway. I guess Henry is still besieged by girls his mother set up for him. The poor guy.

“We need more public attention, especially from those who aren’t afraid of offending the factory owners,” I say, enjoying the look of utter surprise on his face. “Since I can’t go throwing wine on McVean, I thought I’d take a more resourceful approach.”

“But lass,” Mr. Wellesley sputters, “how did you get the children to talk? Not to mention the overseer McVean employs to keep an eye on the workers.”

“So that’s what it’s called—an overseer? I knocked him out.” I wave my umbrella in a comic demonstration.

Both Mr. Wellesley and Edward stare at me like I’ve gone crazy. I don’t blame them. Perhaps I do look the part.

“You can’t knock a man out cold with an umbrella,” Mr. Wellesley protests.

“Guess I got lucky,” I say smugly. “Ask Angus at the factory—he was there when I whacked Tolliver over the head.”

Edward picks up my report; the only sane action at the moment. After he flips through a few pages, his jaw tightens.

Heavy footfalls creak on the stairs. Godfrey appears; his eyes narrow when I enter.

“How much longer will this take?” he demands. “We’ve been waiting.”

“My apologies for dallying,” Edward says. “But I assure you the wait has adequate cause. The lady here has brought most interesting news.”

Godfrey gives a derisive snort. “Highness, I won’t stop you if you want to leave with the lady. Clearly a lady’s company is more preferable.”

“My name is Katriona,” I interrupt, glaring at him and Edward. “Not ‘the lady.’ And I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t talk as if I were invisible.” I square my shoulders and lift my chin, like I’ve seen Elle do. I’m going to leave this world once I achieve the happy ending, so really, I’ve got nothing to lose.

Edward smiles—a slow, appreciative smile that makes me fidget.

Mr. Wellesley throws out his hands, clearly incapable of arguing anymore. “Well then, how about we all go downstairs and discuss what to do with the lass’s papers?”

Godfrey still looks surly, but then he stomps off with a resigned air. Edward indicates Mr. Wellesley and I should go first.

In the basement, the rest of the men I saw last time are gathered around a table. Unsurprisingly, they look bemused when I sail inside like I’m late for their meeting.

Mr. Wellesley clears his throat. “Gentlemen, this is Lady Katriona Bradshaw, the second daughter of the late Earl Bradshaw. No doubt some of you remember her, as she is a very special patron of mine. Today, she has brought us something that may aid our campaign.”

He goes on to describe how I broke into McVean’s factory and conducted the interviews. Of course they all look like I’m an alien (which actually isn’t that far-fetched), but probably out of respect for Mr. Wellesley and Edward, they aren’t as hostile as last time. But most still look incredulous, and frankly speaking, I can’t blame them. Even now I’m kind of in awe of what I did.

“A pack of lies,” a bearded man growls.

Edward lays my report in his hands. “Perhaps you’ll form a different opinion when you read this.”

The man reads a few lines in a disbelieving voice. When he finishes the interview with Una, one of the other men speaks.

“That girl is my niece,” he says quietly. “I was there at the hospital when she lost her fingers. This is the reason why I’m here.”

Silence falls.

“If you’re convinced that I’ve actually been there,” I say. “Can we get the story into print?”

Godfrey and the other men look at each other. Mr. Wellesley clears his throat.

“What’re you planning, lass?”

Geez, isn’t it obvious? “Have loads of copies printed, of course. The best thing we can do is circulate the story among as many people as possible. Spread the word far and wide. I can’t imagine anyone who can read and has a heart not supporting our cause.”

“I’ll contact the editor of Athelia Today and see if he can fit the story into the next issue,” Mr. Wellesley says. “I’ll also try a few magazines; I have connections with one of the staff on board.”

“And pamphlets,” I put in, suddenly inspired by the campaigning we did for class president. “Have a stack in the store, and drop off copies at other bookstores.”

“That’s it!” A man wearing a tweed cap slaps a hand on his knee. “We can distribute them as hand bills to pedestrians, just like Old Mallory advertising his whisky!”

“And not just bookstores,” Mr. Wellesley adds. “Perhaps restaurants and pubs will take them?”

“Pubs won’t be much use,” Una’s uncle speaks up. “Most of the patrons can’t read.”

“Pay someone who can draw,” Mr. Tweed-Cap says. “Stick the pictures on the walls. Or spread them in a corner that’s close to the traffic.”

We launch into a discussion on how to distribute the article I’ve written. The key is to make it easily accessible, in everything from newspapers and magazines to pamphlets. I suggest handing out pamphlets in the park, where most of the rich and titled stroll around for their morning ride. When Godfrey questions the cost, Edward simply folds his arms and tells him to send all bills to the palace.

“That’s it for now,” Mr. Wellesley finally says. “Is there anything you won’t do, lass? Next thing you’ll be wearing breeches and going into the army.”

I grin. Oh, the things you don’t know. I wonder what he’d say if I told him I’ve been wearing pants and shorts for years.

Godfrey gives me a long, hard look. Then he shakes his head. “Well done, lady.”

“Thanks.”

“Real plucky, I mean. For a lady.”

I do my best not to roll my eyes.

“Well now, we’d better get to work,” Mr. Wellesley says in a no-nonsense tone. “Lad, isn’t it time you got back? Didn’t you mention there was a state dinner you had to attend?”

Edward doesn’t look happy about the dinner, but he nods. “I’ll escort Kat outside.” At first I’m confused why he takes it for granted I should leave with him, but I don’t argue. I want to ask him about Elle, and frankly speaking, I’m feeling pretty tired as well. Right now I just want to crawl into bed.

Mr. Wellesley gives him a thumb up and a wink. “Good luck.”

Edward’s hand closes over my elbow when we’re back upstairs. I bump against a stack of leather-bound volumes and stoop to pick up a few that fell on the floor.

“Kat,” he says quietly. An undercurrent in his tone makes me look up; his eyes are blazing. Feeling slightly alarmed, I move away till my back presses against a bookshelf.

“Have you no consideration for your safety? Running off to the cotton factory by yourself to interview the children?”

I wasn’t alone, I want to argue. Krev would have saved me if I were in danger. But I can’t tell him that.

“The risk was worth it.” I stare back at him, determined that prince or not, he isn’t going to make me cower.

“No it isn’t.” His voice is harsh. “You may have succeeded this time by a stroke of luck, but I will not allow you to put yourself at risk again. Is that clear?”

“Oh right,” I scoff. His tone makes it sound like he’s my guardian. “And what brilliant plan did you come up with when the bill was rejected? What did you figure out to acquire more petition signatures?”

“Your safety is my priority.”

“Those children’s safety is mine.”

We engage in a glaring contest until he sighs and runs a hand through his hair. “Promise me, Kat. If you ever hatch a dangerous plot like that again, you will take Bertram along.”

But Bertram is his equerry; normally I can’t—shouldn’t—have the authority to order him around. However, judging from Edward’s firm, unwavering tone, I decide not to question him.

“All right.”

He smiles, obviously relieved. Before I can ask him about Elle, he steps closer and rests a hand on the bookshelf behind me, half trapping me with his body. Danger signals beep in my head, but my feet are glued to the spot.

“The palace will throw a ball in a month,” he says. “We will be sending out the invitations next week.”

About time.

“That’s…that’s wonderful,” I say, feeling my chest lighten. At least this is going according to plan. “I can’t wait to see what a ball in the palace will be like.”

“Good,” he smiles. One of his smiles that can melt ice cream. “Will you do me the honor of being my partner at the ball?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Dance with me, Kat. I request you save the opening waltz for me. And the next dance, if you’d like.”

Adrenaline tingles through my body. This can’t be happening. The prince, inviting me to the ball. It should be Elle.

“Are you sure you want to risk it?” I say. Maybe I can scare him out of dancing. “I fell on my butt before the queen. I’d probably trip on my feet again and take you down with me.”

His lip curls. “I wouldn’t mind. Besides, I could catch you in time.”

“I…” I swallow. A hundred reasons run through my head, reasons I should refuse him. Every girl there will kill me, for one thing. But I can’t—don’t want to. I don’t want to get on his bad side. And I want to dance with him in that glittering ballroom with crystal chandeliers and painted ceilings and silken tapestries.

“One condition,” I finally say. “Save a dance for Elle as well.”

“Elle?” he frowns.

“Yes, my former maid that I asked you to offer employment. How’s she doing, by the way?”

“I’ve assigned her to work in the greenhouse with Galen. She seems content with the job so far.”

“I’m glad to hear she’s settling in okay,” I say. “Promise me you’ll check up on her often. Once you get to know her, you’ll find she’s a really sweet girl, and if she dresses up she’ll make heads turn.”

Edward nods, but his expression remains nonchalant. Better not overdo the Elle-praising, or he’ll get suspicious.

“Anyway, I know she’d love to come to the ball, and I want her to have a good time.”

“Certainly, if that is what you wish,” he says.

He agreed! Yes!

“Thank you.” I smile up at him—big mistake. His eyes darken, just like that day on the staircase in Henry’s house. Slowly, he lowers his head…

EMERGENCY ALERT!

“Gosh, look at the time!” I pull out my pocket watch and flash it before him like a shield. “Didn’t Mr. Wellesley say you have to attend a dinner? Let’s go! I don’t want to be blamed if you’re late.”

I don’t dare look him in the eye or wait for his answer. I slip past him and make a beeline for the door, my heart heavy and my head aching. I should have refused his invitation to the ball. It’s obvious that he has this growing attraction toward me. But how can I explain I can’t accept him?

Previous: TWENTY-SEVEN
Next: TWENTY-NINE