We reach a small town late at night. It started raining a few hours ago, and the temperature has taken a steep dip. I pull my shawl around me, glad that Martha insisted I bring heavy clothing. Once we find an inn, Mr. Davenport escorts us off the carriage with a huge black umbrella.
“Remember the plan,” he tells us before we get off. “Miss Katriona and Poppy are my sisters who went to the city for the Season, but news about our mother, who has suddenly taken ill, forces us to return home.”
“How about me?” Bertram asks, pointing at his chest.
“Hired help,” Mr. Davenport says succinctly.
Bertram gives him an indignant glare.
“Your posture and manners simply don’t concur with a genteel family,” Mr. Davenport says calmly. “It’s best we say you were hired to protect us from thugs on the journey. Which isn’t far from the truth.”
Bertram’s scowl disappears, though he still seems a bit grumpy. I give him a pat on the arm and an encouraging smile.
We have dinner sent to our rooms. Poppy, perhaps affected by fatigue and the weather, returns to her pale, worried state. I miss her cheerfulness, though I’m unsure how to comfort her.
“Poppy,” I say tentatively. “You’ve barely touched your food. We still have a full day of traveling tomorrow. You’ll need strength for it.”
She stares at the table, unmoving. “Kat, I’m scared.”
Uh-oh. “Because of this? You’re uncertain of marrying Mr. Davenport?”
She takes a deep breath and looks at the fire in the hearth. “I can’t help thinking how Papa will react when he finds out. Maybe I should have waited until he arrived and tried to explain to him.” She sniffs and pulls out a handkerchief. “I’m such a dreadful daughter. You are willing to give up the prince for your family.”
“My situation is different,” I say quickly. “Lady Bradshaw isn’t threatening to make me marry my cousin.” Different world or not, I’d have run away as well. I can’t imagine marrying that close of kin. Ew. “Poppy Montgomery, do you love Mr. Davenport?”
“Yes,” she says staunchly. No hesitation at all. “Just…the eloping. I wish I could have married him properly, not run off like a coward.”
“As long as you’re certain of your attachment to Mr. Davenport, that you aren’t running away simply to avoid your father, I can’t see what you have to worry about,” I say. I put a hand on her wrist. “Listen, you can turn back if you want. It’s your choice. But as long as you’re certain that Mr. D is THE ONE, then don’t worry.”
“The one?” Poppy asks, drawing her brows together. “Is that a phrase from your world?”
I nod. “Or you can call him Mr. Right. You know, as opposed to being wrong.”
She giggles, and the tension dissolves between us.
“Oh Kat.” She gives me a playful nudge on the shoulder. “It’s easy to understand why the prince likes you. You’re so…different. Refreshing.”
I smile wryly. “That’s only because I’m from a different culture. I’m not a special snowflake.” She raises her eyebrows at this novel expression. “Any girl from my world who was cursed would act the same.”
Despite the fatigue from travelling, I spend a long time staring at the ceiling. I can’t help wondering how Edward is feeling now. If he loved me, he would have attempted to move on. He would have taken my advice and gone to Elle. I cringe at the thought of them together—no matter how gorgeous a couple they make—then curse myself for being selfish. You pushed Edward away, I remind myself. He needs to be with Cinderella so I can return home. I’m asking him to sacrifice his choice of bride. Yet I’m still reluctant to have him turning his attention to anyone.
Poppy looks more like herself the next day. She has dark circles under her eyes, but that’s the result of weariness. She smiles and even jokes at the watery porridge we have for breakfast. When she climbs into the carriage, she snuggles next to Mr. Davenport with a contented sigh. Thank God she has made up her mind now.
“We have a full day of traveling ahead if we want to reach Ruby Red by midnight,” Mr. Davenport says, looking at his pocket watch.
I grimace. That means at least twelve hours in the carriage, not to mention the time we have to stop for changing horses and getting food and water. I wish I had the secondhand tablet Mom got me for my last birthday.
True to character, after I count to the tenth cottage we’ve passed, Poppy speaks up.
“How long have you worked in the palace, Mr. Bertram?” she asks.
“Since I was clinging to my mother’s apron strings,” Bertram says cheerfully.
“Do you know His Highness well? Can you tell us more about him?” Poppy says, with a meaningful glance at me.
“Is this a cue for me to be jealous?” Mr. Davenport says with a chuckle. Poppy swats his arm playfully.
“I’m asking out of mere curiosity, of course. Don’t worry, sir. I won’t feed any stories of him wetting the bed to the broadsheets.”
Bertram chuckles. “Well, all I can say is if I had a sister, I won’t hesitate to let her marry Edward. If she could attract him in the first place, though. Mind you, he’s notoriously hard to please.”
Tell me about it. He’s disregarded Bianca, Claire, and who knows how many other gorgeous women. Even Lady Bradshaw had said that Duke Henry fell easily in and out of love. It’s amazing that Edward didn’t become a playboy. Even more amazing that he wants me.
“So apart from Kat, how many girls have succeeded in gaining his attention?” Poppy asks. I shoot her a glare, but she ignores me. With this unusual opportunity presented, she’s now a hound intent on the scent of a trail.
“You don’t have to say anything if it embarrasses His Highness,” I say, but my tone isn’t firm enough. To be honest, I’m kind of curious as well.
Bertram scratches his head. “Well now, I don’t suppose it’ll do much harm, ‘sides, I guess you have a right to know, now his eye is on you. The first was Isa, the gardener’s daughter—”
“Galen’s?” I blurt.
“Naw, Tim’s. He’s retired now, you won’t be able to find him. Anyway, she’s this quiet little thing, but a walking ensi—ency—”
“Encyclopedia,” Mr. Davenport supplies.
“Right you are, sir,” Bertram gives him a grateful smile. “Isa knows a whole bucket load about plants and gardening. She can rattle off which plant grows in which season, right off the top of her pretty little head. She was like this breath of fresh air in a sea of sophisticated ladies, so I ain’t surprised that Edward took a liking to her.”
“What happened later?” I ask. Surprisingly, I’m not as jealous as I should be of Edward’s first crush. Maybe it’s because she sounds like a normal person with flaws. “Why couldn’t she be with him? Is it because she’s a commoner?”
“Right you are, Lady Kat, but also she didn’t put up a strong enough fight for him. When Tim found out, he got really worried that his daughter would be swallowed up in court life, so he had a long talk with her. She admitted she’d rather have a peaceful life in the country, so once Tim found a suitable candidate, he had her married off. Reckon she has three children now.”
“Oh.” I can’t blame the girl, even though I’ve never met her. I doubt she’d survive being queen. Look at Princess Diana. “But how about Edward? Didn’t he try to convince her?”
“He did, but as I said, she was too meek and afraid to accept him. It ain’t easy being the future queen, I tell you. After she left, he moped around several days, but there was nothing he could do, even if he is the prince. A daughter always has to obey her father—”
Poppy sends me a guilty grin.
“—and she wasn’t spirited enough to stand up for herself. ‘Sides, I always thought it was more like an infatuation. Even if they married, there’d be no spark, they’d be treating each other merely with utter respect and propriety.” Bertram takes a swig from his water bottle. “Then came Lady Gwendolyn. She was a looker—one of the most beautiful women I’ve seen at court, and I’ve seen quite a few. But she’s more than that—she’s got brains. Could quote poetry and do sums and write fancy letters. Edward was impressed with her in the beginning, and everyone thought she’d make a brilliant queen, but turned out she was too hasty. Once Edward gave her a birthday gift, it went to her head. She started acting like she was the future queen, putting on airs and strutting round like she owned the ground.”
Poppy mouths to me: Bianca. I nod—this Lady Gwendolyn sounds more like Bianca’s sister than I do.
“When Edward caught her slapping a servant for spilling tea on her dress, that was the end of it. She acted horribly—threw a fit, went on her knees, wept buckets of tears, but he stood firm. He wouldn’t tolerate a person who treated the servants like dirt.”
“Very benign of him,” Mr. Davenport comments.
“It was his tutors, sir,” Bertram shrugs. “The king was adamant he learn from the best in school, instead of fostering him in a duke’s court. The tutors were to treat the prince like he was any commoner. If he dropped a pen or book, he had to pick it up himself. He shared his room with three others and even still makes his own bed. The queen wouldn’t have her son spoiled. His Grace, Duke Henry, attended lessons with him, and got interested in medicine.”
“So that’s why Henry became a doctor,” I murmur. This also explains why Edward easily supports my cause for the poor.
“Anyway, Isa and Lady Gwen were the only two girls His Highness was interested in. The queen got worried, but it ain’t easy for him to find someone when he hates socializing at court. But then you came along.” He nods at me, and I blush hotly. I should stop him talking, but words fail to come.
“First time he saw you, he was leth—lethar—”
“Lethargic?” Mr. Davenport supplies.
“Dash it, so that’s how you pronounce it. So I was saying, he was lethargic from attending a three-hour-long banquet. But when he saw you, a well-dressed lady, holding a servant’s arm like you were friends, I swear he came to life. And when you jammed your foot in the doorway, he snorted. And that’s when I said to myself, ‘That’s the one.’”
“Just a moment,” Poppy says. “How is it that the court rarely gossips about the prince’s love life?”
Bertram smirks. “His Highness has his ways to keep his affairs private, he got a lifetime’s experience. Now, if he were a lady’s man, they might dig up dirt on him, but the truth is he only had two girls before Lady Kat. Real rare for a man of twenty, and him a prince too.” Bertram slips me a knowing smirk. “‘Sides, Lady Kat called him a fool when they first met, so he wouldn’t want that getting talked about. But now she’s agreed to go to the ball with him, so it won’t be long till the wedding. Nothing will please me more than seeing His Highness finding the right woman. And so I’d do anything to protect Lady Kat, even if Edward didn’t already order me to.”
Silence falls between us. I squirm with discomfort; I look out of the window, not daring to meet Poppy’s eyes.
The more I know about Edward, the more I hate myself for letting him fall in love with me.