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

Previous: THIRTY-ONE
Next: THIRTY-THREE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THIRTY-TWO

 

 

To go or not to go?

I weigh my options. Even though I pushed him away in the stairway, I’m pretty sure he still wants me. For Gods’ sake, he requested I open the ball with him. But if I refuse, might he send Bertram or even the duke to fetch me? Or even worse, would Edward come himself? Considering how crazy Bianca is about getting the prince, I definitely don’t want her discovering my friendship with Edward.

I’ll have to go. I’ve got to break it to him, gently, that I’m not interested. Maybe I could find someone to run away with when I accompany Poppy to Ruby Red; make it a double wedding. Yeah, like I could conjure up a husband in twenty-four hours. And even if I could, it still wouldn’t make Edward pay attention to Elle.

Van rolls his eyes when I tell him to drive to the palace.

“Why’re you going there?”

I pause. “I…I need to see the gardener,” I say. “He gave me some roses and I want to ask him for more.”

“Then just go to the gardening stores.”

I sigh. Obviously, he doesn’t relish the long drive to the palace. “If you can’t drive me, then I’ll be forced to hail a cab on the streets. Or I might even take the omnibus. Mother won’t be pleased if she learns I have to stoop so low.”

He glares, but settles on the seat and takes up his whip. “Hop on.”

When I arrive in the courtyard and step off the hansom, I’m almost immediately greeted by a young giant dressed in the palace guard uniform.

“Lady Kat,” Bertram grins, offering me a deep bow. “His Highness is waiting. Allow me to escort you.”

I follow him through the maze of the palace until we reach an ivy-covered wall that looks familiar. I’ve been here before.

Bertram knocks on the door in a series of uneven raps, like he’s using some code. I bet it’s one of Edward’s anti-social strategies.

The door swings open. Edward’s face lights up when his gaze meets mine—not obviously, he doesn’t even smile, but I swear there’s an extra glint in his eyes.

“Kat.” He steps aside to let me enter, and I go in. “Bertram, I appreciate your bringing her. I shall not have further need of your services.”

Bertram bows. “Yes, Your Highness. Always a pleasure to serve you.”

Edward closes the door. I gulp; it’s almost like being locked in the library with him. Still, my heart lightens when I behold his private garden. There are new patches of flowers and he has added a small fountain in the middle of the path.

Before I reach the bench where I sat last time, he places both hands on my shoulders, turning me to face him. “Bertram told me you were assaulted.” His intense gaze sweeps over me. “Have you suffered any injuries? I will summon our family physician if necessary.”

My heart flutters; I wish I could throw myself in his arms…I mean, run away from him. “Bertram came in time. As you can see for yourself, I’m all in one piece.”

“I’ve learned that the man who attacked you worked for Andrew McVean. I assume his losing his job was, to some degree, attributed to your factory report.”

“He’s the one I hit over the head with my umbrella.” I shrug, trying to make it seem less of a big deal. “So it’s no wonder he wanted retribution.”

He sets his jaw. “I’ll personally see that he’s brought to justice. Attacking a young woman in an open street…you’re right, Kat. The government has been nothing but a pack of fools.”

“Just a second.” I touch his arm. “I’m not speaking up for him; I saw how he abused the children. But I don’t want you letting your emotions override your actions. Don’t punish him more than he deserves. Besides, I also committed violence. I attacked Tolliver so I could interview the children. Shouldn’t I also be brought to justice?”

He shakes his head, visibly frustrated. “How can you be so passionate when you speak up for the children, but cool as a cucumber when it comes to yourself?”

Because I’m an awesome person who deserves a medal…not. I’m not that selfless. I’d love to see Tolliver behind bars. But that dark look on Edward’s face is kind of alarming. As if laws didn’t exist, he wouldn’t mind punishing Tolliver much more than the overseer actually deserves.

Impulsively, I touch his arm. “Edward, it’s okay. For me, passing the bill is a much bigger deal than punishing that man.”

His expression softens. “Actually, this reminds me why I sent you an urgent note. Besides ensuring you really are unharmed, I wished to inform you this: the eight-hour bill has passed its second reading this morning.”

My heart lightens. “But this doesn’t mean the bill is going to be established as law, does it? Is there a third reading?”

“There is,” he admits. “I’ve told you it is no small feat to lay down a new law, Kat. The bill will then be submitted for a third review, before my father can give the Royal Assent. However, I remain optimistic of the outcome. Today the bill passed with a ratio of 300 to 120. With such a landslide victory, we may safely assume that the third reading will not meet much difficulty.”

“Really? Those who benefit from the accumulated wealth also voted for the bill?”

“I managed to convince John Eliot, a conscientious factory owner who lives in a town just fifty miles away, to come down to the capital. Eliot argued that the reduction of hours in fact increases productivity, and having the younger workers educated means they will be more versatile in work. Henry brought in several physicians who swore that if the children were kept working like this, the population would dwindle. Not to mention that your report was quoted and passed around. The factory owner supporters had little with which to defend themselves. Before opening the session, I told them that this bill will be passed sooner or later, so they might as well give in with good grace.”

I laugh. “But I thought you only had an advisory role! You sound like you’re threatening them instead.”

Edward grins as well. “I wouldn’t have said so last time. Ever since you started alerting the middle class by publishing your interview with the children, public support has been swayed increasingly in our favor. Most of those holding seats in parliament were prepared to vote aye; what I did was only a push in the right direction.”

“Oh, I wish I could have witnessed that,” I say. If only this were the modern world, I might be able to watch the whole thing on Youtube. “But I guess women aren’t allowed in parliament?”

“You can make it your next goal,” he says, smiling. “Rest assured you have my support for equal rights for women.”

“Yes, but…” I stop. I’ll be gone then.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, his expression clouding. “Sometimes you are roused by some event, but then you make a conscious effort to restrain your excitement. There’s something weighing on your mind.” He waits, expecting me to confess why I am holding back from him.

But I can’t tell him why, so after a few excruciating seconds, I blurt, “Well, if you don’t have any more important stuff to tell me, I’d better go.”

“Wait,” he says quickly, moving slightly to block my way out. “What are you doing tomorrow?”

That look in his eyes—eager, expectant, full of anticipation—hits me with a pang of guilt. Tomorrow I’ll be gone with Poppy and Mr. Davenport to Ruby Red.

“If you have a few hours to spare,” he continues, taking a step toward me, “would you like to have tea with me tomorrow? With the weather being so nice recently, I can arrange for a table set up here. No one will disturb us.”

Are you asking me out on a date? It’s so sweet of him, and I really want to say yes, but…

“I can’t,” I squeeze out, avoiding his eyes. “Sorry, but I really can’t come.”

A pause.

“Kat,” he says slowly, “something is bothering you. Is it your sister again? I’ve told you that her efforts are quite wasted.”

“Uh…”

He advances another step toward me. “Then…have you found someone else? Does your mother already have a suitor in mind?”

Randall and Algernon McVean pop up in my head. I burst out laughing. “No! No, I mean yes, she did try to introduce me to Andrew McVean’s sons. McVean, for heaven’s sake. Do you seriously believe I’d be interested in any of them? Besides, Randall is crazy about Bianca. As everyone is.”

“Not me.”

He’s getting so close that I begin to panic.

“I…er…I’m taking a trip tomorrow. To Ruby Red. To help a friend, who’s eloping.”

That does the trick. He stops and stares like I’ve gone crazy.

“Katriona Bradshaw. Are you in earnest? Taking a week-long journey to Ruby Red, all for a friend?”

Well, mainly because I have to seek Elle’s fairy godmother. And give that Lysander guy Lady Gregory’s crochet heart. “She needs a witness to make it legal.” Briefly I explain to him Poppy’s situation. “So you see, with a father like that, she has to escape.”

“First you accompany your servant to find a doctor for her mother, then you pour wine over the nation’s biggest tycoon. You interviewed child laborers and published a report. And now you’re assisting your friend with her elopement?” He shakes his head. Admiration shines in his eyes, plain and evident. “Just when I am amazed at your latest effort, you manage to surprise me with another.”

Actually I’m just a geeky small-town girl who can’t—couldn’t—even speak to a hot guy without stammering. Were it not for the mission, I wouldn’t have done all the crazy things you listed.

“Things happen,” I say lamely.

“Still, this fails to explain your hesitation with me. Yes, Kat, don’t you deny it. I’ve been meaning to ask you why, but your mind was so focused on the child workers. So tell me,” he advances toward me like a tiger cornering its prey. “Tell me why you pushed me away. Twice, if my memory serves me correctly.”

“I…” I swallow hard. I back away until the stone wall bumps into my back, cold and hard. “Because I…”

Edward is so close that I can smell the cedar scent from his coat. He pins me with a gaze so intent that it’s a miracle I don’t evaporate on the spot. Warmth surrounds me as my skirts brush against his trousers. His hands settle on my waist in a possessive hold that prevents me from bolting.

“Katriona Bradshaw,” he breathes. “What will it take for you to realize I’m in love with you?”

This time he is determined not to give me any chance to escape. Once he’s confessed he loves me, the next thing I’m aware of is his lips pressed firmly on mine.

My brain shuts down.

 

I don’t know how long we stay there, wrapped in a full embrace, kissing like there’s no tomorrow. At first Edward is tentative, gentle. Then he tightens his grip and pulls me closer until I’m pressed flat against his body, feeling the hard panes of his broad chest. His kiss deepens, his mouth gets hot and demanding, and a shudder runs through me, turning my entire body into goo. If he weren’t holding me, I’d collapse.

Kat, you idiot. You knew he was attracted to you, but you didn’t try to stop him. Or you didn’t put up enough of a struggle—admit it, you like his attentions. And look where this got you. If you want to see Mom and Paige again, then say no to him. Come on, you can do this.

But I can’t think of anything except for the fiery heat between us. Only when he moves to my neck do I finally grasp a semblance of reality.

“Le…let me go.”

He doesn’t seem to hear me, and I can’t say I blame him. My voice comes out languid, slow, and breathless. Like I’m encouraging him instead.

So I do what I’ve seen on TV. I raise my thigh and knee him in the groin.

He curses—his grip loosens, but he’s still holding me in his arms.

Now. If you don’t break free now, you never will.

I shove him, hard, and once he falls back, I edge past him and scurry toward the other end of the garden.

“Kat…” his expression is pained, full of disbelief.

“You’re mad.” I am surprised my voice is steady. “I’ll forgive you if you promise not to mention what just happened.”

He is silent for a moment.

“I take it that I am rejected,” he says slowly. “Fool I am to believe that my status could be an advantage. I should have known that of all people, you are the one who is least concerned, nay, might even dislike the fact that I am the prince.”

“It isn’t that,” I blurt.

“Then give me a reason why you will not give me a chance.” The pained look returns to his eyes. “Is there someone else? You aren’t in love with Henry, are you?”

“No! Of course not.” It’s so ridiculous that I laugh. I rub my hands on my gown. “I…oh dammit! Look, I’ll tell you the truth, but you won’t believe it.”

“Out with it.” He uses his imperial tone. A tone that will brook no argument.

So I tell him the whole story. I tell him I don’t belong in his country, that I have somehow mysteriously ended up in Katriona Bradshaw’s body, and my real name is Katherine Wilson.

He listens in complete silence. Occasionally there are flashes of incredulity in his eyes, and he looks like he wants to ask a few questions, but he doesn’t speak until I’m done.

“Impossible.”

“Told you so,” I mutter. “You don’t believe me.”

“I don’t want to believe you,” he says harshly. “Of all the reasons you could have given me, this is beyond my wildest expectations. That you have come to inhabit Lady Bradshaw’s younger daughter’s body. That you are from a world completely different from mine. A world where carriages run on gasoline, lamps fueled by electricity, and cameras made smaller than your hand. I doubt even the scientists at the royal academy could fathom a world like yours.”

I clasp my hands together. Of course he’d find my story incredible. I suppose I should be relieved he hasn’t called me a lunatic and ordered to have me taken to an asylum.

“Do you remember the first time we met?” I say.

A soft smile spreads over his face. “Would that I could forget.”

“Henry was surprised that I recognized iodine. But that’s not unusual in my world. Girls are given the same opportunity in education. At school, I have to take chemistry, physics, and math, as well as history and literature. I don’t need to learn how to pour tea or perform the court curtsy.”

“Which is why you lost your balance during your presentation?”

I make a face at him. “Thanks for reminding me.”

“This explains things.” He rubs his temple. “Your peculiar phrases, your support for public welfare, your belief that classes should be abolished. It explains why you, a lady of privilege, have gotten such strange notions.”

“I’m not that special,” I quickly say. “Seriously, you’re giving me more credit than I deserve. The only reason I’m different from other girls is because of my upbringing. If my best friend had ripped up that book and come here instead of me, you would have been intrigued with and fallen in love with her instead.”

“That I can’t be certain of. Even if every girl in your world thinks in similar terms, I doubt everyone would have the courage to conduct the interviews and hand out pamphlets. And throw wine over insolent factory owners.”

We laugh, but only briefly. He crosses his arms and gives me a twisted smile. “Therefore, according to your explanation, I must marry your maid servant?”

“Stepsister,” I say. “At least I think she is. Even though Martha says the earl’s daughter is dead, it has been confirmed that Adam Snyder worked for my mother, and he was the one who brought Elle to Mrs. Thatcher. I’ve got to find evidence that Elle is really Earl Bradshaw’s daughter, and also seek out her godmother.”

He looks down at the ground. I have the sudden urge to go and put my arms around him, but I can’t. If he kisses me again, I’m not sure I’ll have the strength or will to stop him this time.

“So…” I struggle to continue. “That’s it. Nothing you did is wrong. It’s all me.”

He doesn’t answer. I have never known silence could be so painful.

“You could stay,” he says softly. “You don’t have to break the curse.”

“I can’t.” I hear the crack in my voice. “I have my family back in Oakleigh. My mother and Paige—I can’t cut them off. I must return to the modern world. Please, listen to me. Marry Elle; she’ll be the perfect bride. In time, in years, you will forget about me.”

He passes a hand over his eyes. His voice is low, but not low enough that I cannot hear him. “As if that were possible.”

“Please.” I blink away the tears that are welling up in my eyes. “If you really like me, then you have to let me return to my family.”

Then he locks his gaze on mine, and I could cry. Anything, anything, to wipe off that horribly dejected look on his face.

“I understand the necessity of your leaving,” he says, though every word seems to be forced through his teeth. “It would be selfish to hinder you. But I must know one thing. Have you ever truly loved me?”

Tell him no. It’ll be easier for him to forget.

A tear rolls down my cheek. “Yes,” I whisper. “I…I keep telling myself I shouldn’t fall for you, but I can’t help it.”

Relief floods his face. “Good.” He catches me in his arms, pulls me against his chest and rests his chin on my head. For a moment, I’m living in paradise. I breathe in his scent and cling to his back, listening to the water running from the nearby fountain and birds chirping in leafy branches.

Then he kisses me, a hard, desperate kiss on the lips, and pushes me toward the door.

“Go.”

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Next: THIRTY-THREE