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

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Next: FORTY-ONE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FORTY

 

 

I pound on the door of the cellar. I yell until my voice is hoarse. Nothing happens.

No one dares to let me out. I’ve no idea if Lady Bradshaw is aware I’m in the cellar, but since I’m forbidden from attending the ball, she won’t miss me.

I glance around the cellar. At least I won’t starve in here. I’m tempted to grab a bottle of wine, but it’ll do me no good to wind up drunk.

Instead, I pounce on the chunk of cheese and bread on the table and gnaw away. I can’t believe Van has betrayed me. Even if he’s gaga for Bianca, he’s practically broken the master-servant code when manhandling me. But come to think of it, I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve been bossing him around, making him drive me everywhere. Since Bianca wanted to learn more about Edward through my friendship with Henry, she was bound to ask Van when I barely gave her any information. And Van would do anything for Bianca, just like Adam Snyder would drown a child for Lady Bradshaw.

How much time has passed? If Bianca has already left, she’ll be well on her way to the palace now. I grit my teeth. Hope there’s a traffic jam.

Wishing I had a watch, I sit on the hard stone floor and bury my head in my arms. A heaviness settles on my chest. I’ve failed in epic proportions. Bianca will charm Edward with the spell, and he’ll announce at the ball that he plans to marry her. I’ll be stuck in Athelia forever. I’ll have to kneel before Bianca and call her Your Majesty. Worst of all, she’ll get Edward and I’ll be here to see them together.

Noooooooooo!

I spring up toward the door. I take off the pins in my hair and jam them in the lock. Even if I get out, Van and the other servants will certainly prevent me from escaping. But at least I’ll stand a better chance outside than behind this heavy door.

I fumble with the lock, but a pin slips through my fingers and drops on the floor. Frustrated, I pound a fist on the door.

“Girlie?”

“Krev!” Never have I been so glad to see him. I could even kiss his ugly face. “Get me out of here! Bianca took the magical gloves, and she’s going to use the spell on Edward!”

Krev looks impressed. “She stole the spell? Didn’t expect she’d pull one over on you.”

“Hey!” I glare. He wasn’t supposed to admire Bianca. “I don’t suppose the goblin king will be pleased if Bianca becomes queen.”

“I suppose not,” Krev admits. “And Morag will be mad if she learns how the peacock swooped in and carried off your fruits of labor.”

Just as he speaks, the lock explodes in a shower of dust and the door creaks open, revealing Meg smiling rather sheepishly.

“I meant to unlock the door, but…”

I step out and envelop her in a bear hug. “You did a great job.”

“How did you end up in there?” Krev asks curiously. “You gave us a shock when we came back and found your room empty.”

“Bianca stole the spell.” I tell her about Bianca locking me in and going off to the palace. Meg looks indignant.

“The nerve of your sister! We’ve got to stop her from getting the prince.”

I notice Van is curled up in a heap near the cellar door.

“The peacock threatened him,” Krev says. He lightly shoves Van in the back, but the only reaction from the traitor is a snore. “He got drunk one day and tried to kiss her.”

“He did?” I’m surprised that Bianca didn’t kill him—she looks quite capable of stabbing someone with one of her spiky heels. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Krev shrugs. “Didn’t have a chance to bring it up. Anyway, she’s been holding it over him ever since—if she files charges for assaulting an earl’s daughter, he could spend years behind bars.”

That explains why Van appeared regretful when shutting me in the cellar. I roll my eyes. “Is he under a spell?”

“I put him to sleep.” A pointy-eared creature appears in the air. Like Krev, she has wings on her back, but she’s much prettier and more graceful. “Along with the rest of the house.”

Holy crap. Long, flowing hair and a dress with irregular hems. It’s one of the fairies on the vase in Lord Mansfield’s house.

“Tillie insisted on coming back with me,” Meg explains. “She heard your story and wanted to help.”

“And me.” Another fairy appears. “I’ve got the carriage ready. My, you do have the strangest ideas, Meg. Making a carriage from a pumpkin and horses from mice? Lysander will have a laughing fit if he hears about this.”

I refrain from pointing out that Lysander already knows, though I can’t picture him in a laughing fit.

“Um, I don’t want to appear ungrateful, but I have to hurry to the palace.”

“All that’s left is your outfit,” Meg says merrily. “There is no way you can go in that ugly mud-brown dress. Tillie, Lavinia, lend me a hand.”

The three fairies wave their wands. A cool mist settles over me. When the mist clears, something smooth and rich glides over my skin.

I rush into the sitting room and stand before the mirror. I gasp.

I’m wearing this elegant sky-blue gown with a skirt that ripples and flows like running water. It’s not as dazzling as Elle’s white wedding dress, but it fits me better. I’d look ridiculous in that sea of silk and lace, but this dress, in its pure simplicity, is born for me. I lift the hem, and gleaming silver shoes peek out. Miraculously, the heels are long and spiky, but my feet aren’t uncomfortable. Oh, the wonders of magic.

“There you are, dear.” Meg looks proud. “Now you may go to the palace.”

I start toward the stairs, but halt at the bannister. Elle isn’t here yet. A glance at the clock tells me it’s only half-past eight.

“What about Elle?”

“We’ll wait here for her,” Meg says. “Once she arrives, we’ll send her to the ball. That white dress shouldn’t go to waste. Especially when I spent so much time practicing.”

“Didn’t you say you have to stop your sister from using the spell di amor on the prince?” Tillie says shrilly.

“You have to hurry,” Lavinia adds. “It’ll take a longer time to get to the palace when there’s the ball today. The main road is congested.”

I nod, gather my skirts, and hurry to the carriage. The color’s on the orange side, but other than that, it looks just like the one you see in Disneyland.

A man dressed in a coachman’s uniform holds the door open for me. His wide cheekbones and flat nose resemble a cat’s face.

“The ball awaits, lady,” he purrs, his voice deep and sensual. Definitely transformed from a cat. I’m glad we didn’t follow the original story of using lizards.

I sink back into luxurious velvet cushions embroidered with golden thread. Then the door is shut, I hear the crackle of the whip, and we’re on our way to the palace.

“Ready, girlie?” Krev appears near the ceiling.

“You’re coming with me?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he grins. “Besides, I can locate the prince sooner.”

“That would be great,” I say gratefully. There’s got to be crowds of people attending the ball. It’ll help if Krev plays lookout for me.

I close my eyes and try to calm down by taking a deep breath. If I weren’t so stressed about Bianca taking the gloves, I might be able to enjoy myself. Because in the pumpkin coach and in my ball gown, I can’t help but feel like Cinderella.

 

During daytime the palace is pretty impressive, but at night it’s simply magical. A sea of yellow-gold windows glow from the castle walls. Fireworks explode in the velvety black sky. Distant sounds of the orchestra drift in the air.

The entrance is jam-packed with carriages and people. When we finally reach the gates, I hear a guard bark out, “Invitation?”

Crap. I totally forgot. I never needed an invitation to enter the palace before.

“I’m Lady Katriona Bradshaw,” I say, trying to act all haughty and proud, like Bianca. “My mother and sister have already arrived; I was delayed slightly. Please allow me join them.”

The man squints at me. “You don’t look like Lady Bianca.”

Oh no, not again.

“You idiot!” Another man speaks. “Don’t you realize who she is?”

Bertram appears, looking relieved. “There you are, Lady Kat! I was beginning to worry you wouldn’t show up in time for the opening dance.” He comes a bit closer and whistles. “That dress looks mighty good on you, if I may say. No wonder you were delayed.”

“Do you know where Edward is?” I say.

He shrugs. “As the host, he’ll be everywhere. Don’t worry, just look for the biggest group of unmarried women. Go and rescue him.” He chuckles and waves his arm. “Let her pass!”

I practically leap off the carriage when it stops. My sense of direction is lame, but I don’t have to worry tonight. All I have to do is follow the other guests.

Surprisingly, the route to the ball isn’t through the palace, but the gardens. I guess they couldn’t be bothered to open and close the doors. Beyond the border of the gardens is this huge courtyard. A wide spiral staircase leads from the courtyard to the brightly-lit castle above.

That must be the ballroom. That’s where the music is coming from.

“Krev,” I say in a loud whisper. “If you see Bianca anywhere, I don’t care if you trip her up or drop a spider on her—just make sure she stays away from Edward.”

Krev looks like I’ve handed him a birthday present.

“Can I throw a pie on her face?”

“Two. Or three. Be my guest.”

He looks pleased and zooms off. I scan the crowds for Edward, but despite what Bertram told me, it’s hard to find him. Even though an invitation is required, the palace is bursting with guests. It doesn’t help that the trees and hedges and bushes easily conceal people, and I have to stand on tiptoe to get a better view.

I’ll try the ballroom. Taking care not to trip over my gown, I start toward the staircase. To my surprise, a few admiring glances are cast my way. One man even stops and asks who I am, then proceeds to invite me dance the opening waltz with him.

“No, thanks,” I say, trying not to look impatient. I’ve got to find either Bianca or Edward. “I don’t plan on dancing.”

He scowls and walks off, muttering, “Thinks she’s only good enough for the prince.”

“You have it the wrong way,” a familiar voice says. “Only the prince is good enough for her.”

Mr. Wellesley, dressed in a formal suit and tie. If I hadn’t heard his voice, I wouldn’t have recognized him.

I can’t help but pause for a moment. “Mr. Wellesley! How are things going with you?”

“Keeping the shop busy running as usual,” he says, grinning. “Also discussing with more laborers about amending another law. But let’s not talk of work tonight! Would you favor me with a dance later, my bonny lassie?”

“I’d love to, but I can’t. Have you seen the prince?” Then, seeing the knowing grin on his face, I quickly say, “no, it’s not like that! I have something important to tell him.”

“Kat!” This time it’s Poppy. She’s beautiful in a lavender dress and golden earrings. Mr. Davenport stands behind her, smiling broadly. Also behind her—to my surprise—are Sir Montgomery and a pretty blonde woman who must be Poppy’s mother. There’s something familiar about Lady Montgomery, but I can’t figure out what it is. I’m pretty sure we were never introduced.

“Mrs. Davenport,” I grin. “So glad you made it back to the capital in time.”

“Did you just arrive?” Poppy asks, returning me a bright smile.

“Yes, I…”

Krev materializes in thin air. “Eddie’s in the ballroom. Bianca is near him.”

Damn!

“Sorry, I’ve got to go,” I gasp. “I—er—nature calls. I’ll see you later!”

Not caring if it’s appropriate for a lady to say she has to run to the bathroom, I give them an apologetic smile and run off. My heart feels like beating in my ears—I must stop Bianca!

I pound up the staircase, ignoring other guests who stare as I rush by. Pierre would cry if he saw me. A lady doesn’t race up the stairs like an overactive child.

I burst into the ballroom—or rather, ballrooms. The room I stand in stretches into another, with only a carved, gilded arch in the ceiling between the rooms. Heavy crimson curtains part to reveal tall windows two stories high. A huge chandelier that resembles a small boat hangs from the ceiling—it must hold hundreds of candles. I squeeze through the guests to the adjoining room, which has a balcony on the second floor. In the middle of the balcony is this huge double-wide crimson-gold throne; two people wearing crowns sit on the throne. My heart beats faster—they must be the king and queen.

Then my attention returns to Krev; he’s hovering near a marble pillar, pointing below.

Edward is conversing with Henry and some other well-dressed young men beside the pillar. Hordes of girls hover like vultures near them.

The girl nearest me makes an impatient noise.

“Why don’t they hurry up? The music has been playing for ages!”

“Shhh! The prince will dance, sooner or later,” a middle-aged woman hisses. “Wipe off that pout and smile your prettiest. You don’t want to look sour if His Highness glances your direction.”

Then I spot Bianca edging her way to the pillar. I don’t know how she does it—maybe she pokes her fan into anyone who stands in her way—but gradually she’s getting closer and closer to Edward. I wouldn’t put it past her to ask him to dance, and since he’s the host tonight, it’s unlikely he’d refuse.

Bianca adjusts the white gloves. One touch, and Edward would be under her spell.

I can’t let that happen.

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