A scream rises from the girl who was whining to her mother.
“Eeek! There’s a mouse! A big one!”
“Girlie!” Krev yells. “Now’s your chance!”
There’s no time to speculate how he found the mouse, but I’m grateful anyway. While the girls around me start screaming and jumping, I race toward the pillar and grab Edward’s arm.
“Kat?” he gasps.
“Just shut up and come with me,” I hiss.
He does not protest as I drag him away, with only one thing on my mind: get him away from Bianca. But since I’ve no idea of the palace’s layout—a thousand rooms are enough to make anyone get lost in—somehow I end up in this huge deserted hallway with a dead end. I grab the nearest knob, yank the door open, and shove him inside. I follow after him, shut the door and lean my back against it.
It’s pitch dark inside and smells like acid. My foot brushes against a bunch of stiff twigs—it seems to be a broom. Oh my God. We’ve ended up in a tiny storage room for cleaning supplies.
“Your Highness?” Bianca’s voice comes from the hallway.
Damn! I hope the mere sound of her voice is not going to work on him. It’s too dark to make out his expression, though I’m sure it’s pure shock now.
“What are you do…”
I put a hand over his mouth. “Listen,” I whisper. “Bianca got a spell from the fairies, which is supposed to work on you. Once she touches you with her glove, you’ll fall in love with her.”
His lips move beneath my palm; startled by the sensation, I pull away.
“Are you serious?” Fortunately he also keeps his voice low. “A spell? That she plans to use on me?”
“I’ll explain later how she got it, but yes. Once you’re mad for her, you’ll propose and announce to everyone she is your bride. That’s why I tried to get you away as soon as I could. Did you think I kidnapped you just for the fun of it?”
A low chuckle escapes him.
More footsteps echo outside. “Where did he go?” A servant’s voice. “Perhaps he went back to the ballroom?” Another says. “No…I’m sure he went down this way…”
“Damn,” I whisper. “Why can’t they just leave?”
“We could go out.”
Like I could risk it. What conclusion will the servants draw when I emerge from this tiny room with the prince?
I can almost feel his breath over my head; he is too close. I try to step aside and my foot catches a dustpan or something. I stumble, let out a tiny shriek, and next thing I know, his arms are around me, holding me upright.
For a second, we both freeze. Then I start to struggle, but he simply tightens his embrace. He bends his head—his lips brush my ear—a tingling sensation sweeps through me.
“Hush, love,” he whispers. “Unless you want to create a racket and let them find us in here?”
From the tone of his voice, he doesn’t seem to care if we’re caught. But I can’t risk being found. So I stop struggling, which gives him free rein to gather me closer to his chest. His lips skim my forehead, longingly, as though to imprint his mark on me, and then across my eyelids, making me hot and flushed and embarrassed.
“You…” I speak through my teeth. “You…you opportunist.”
“So I am,” he murmurs, his breath hot on my face. “Every time I try to draw you to me, you push me away. You can hardly be surprised that I’d use the current moment to my advantage.”
“But I told you the reason I can’t—”
Edward cuts me off, his mouth clamping firmly over mine. The kiss is demanding, desperate, full of passion. I want you, it says. Stop running away from me. I can’t push him away without making noise. And alarmingly, I don’t want to.
When he finally releases me, both of us are panting for air.
“Kat,” he says hoarsely, his breath ragged. “Even though you tell me you are from another world…I can’t imagine choosing anyone but you.”
My heart contracts. A lump forms in my throat. For a second, I want to say I’ll stay, but on the other hand, I can’t leave the family I’ve known for seventeen years in favor of someone I’ve known less than a year. They need me more than Edward does. I can’t abandon them like Dad did to us.
We stand in silence in the cramped dark room.
“I believe they’re all gone,” Edward says quietly.
I press my ear to the door. Unless someone is lying in ambush, we’re safe. Still, I make him promise not to step out until I ascertain there isn’t anyone in the hall.
I sigh, relieved. A lock of my hair falls across my forehead—damn, it’s all his fault for messing up my hair.
“Aren’t we going down to the ballroom?”
“You promised to open the dancing with me.” He taps me lightly on the forehead. “Come along, darling. Everyone is probably speculating what you and I are doing by now.”
Crap, he’s right. My face feels like going up in flames when I remember what we were doing in that tiny storage room.
“But what about Bianca?” I say. “What if she sneaks up on you? I can’t let her get you.”
Edward grins. “I’ll take care of it.” We proceed down the corridor until a servant appears. Edward hails him and tells him to find Bertram.
“Tell him to guard Bianca Bradshaw,” he says. “She is not to come within twenty feet of us. I wish to dance with my lady undisturbed.”
The servant glances at me curiously, then bows and hurries away.
When we return to the ballroom, all eyes are on us. Like we’re walking the red carpet at the Oscars. I wish I had the invisibility cloak Meg made for me. Next to me, Edward chuckles softly.
“Of course I am!” I try to pull my hand from his grasp, but he refuses to let go. “Every girl is staring daggers at me.”
He merely smiles and signals to the orchestra. A combination of violins, flutes, and clarinets hum through the air.
My heart hammers fast and hard as Edward leads me to the center of the ballroom. For all the talk of him disliking social events, he seems to be enjoying himself. The smile he wears has faded to a tiny enigmatic curve at his lips.
I tear my gaze away from his face and glance around. Lady Bradshaw looks petrified with shock—I’m sure if you gave her a push, she’d fall over. Poppy and Mr. Davenport are holding hands and smiling broadly. Mr. Wellesley gives us a lopsided grin and two thumbs-up. Bianca has her trademark ice-queen face, but her eyes are full of fury. If Bertram weren’t standing in front of her, his arm slightly stretched out as if to prevent a wild bull from charging, she might well try to kill me, ball or no ball.
And above on the balcony, the queen has left her seat on the throne and is leaning over the balustrade. I can’t see her expression clearly, but I’m pretty sure she’s looking at us.
I snap my attention back to Edward, who’s regarding me with a mixture of amusement and exasperation.
“Relax,” he takes my hand. “Considering what little time we have left together, why not forget about your mission—if only for a few minutes?”
His other arm slides over my waist and pulls me so close that I bump my nose on his chest. Even Pierre wouldn’t approve of such blatant intimacy. And in the middle of the ballroom, in front of hundreds of guests.
I send him a glare and tread on his foot in retaliation. He doesn’t seem to mind—he bends his head and whispers in my ear, “I love you.”
I go rigid with shock. It’s so sweet of him to say that, but so cruel as well. He’s making it doubly difficult for me to say goodbye.
But I’ve no chance to argue with him. The waltz has begun, and it takes all my concentration not to make a fool of myself on the dance floor. I step forward, back, twirl, lean back, keeping in beat with the music. Lucky for me, Edward’s a good leader. When I gradually get used to the pace and moves, the moment does have a surreal quality. Magical. A dance that I wish would last forever.
But the song has to end. There’s always an end.
As the music fades away, I notice the guests near the entrance are turning their heads and whispering among each other.
Through the open doors, the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen enters.
Cinderella has arrived.
And it’s just like the story. Partly due to her own beauty, and partly due to some charm the fairies must have cast on her, Elle commands the attention of everyone in the ballroom.
The snowy white ball gown Meg created is simply perfect for Elle, flowing around her in a glittering mist of diamonds and silk. A silver tiara sits on her golden hair, which is piled high on her head, allowing a generous view of her creamy skin from neck to collarbone. Her big blue eyes are wide with awe as she takes in the ballroom, her lips slightly parted. If I hadn’t seen the dress before, I wouldn’t recognize her. The ugly (not so ugly in the beginning) duckling has fully transformed into a swan.
Even Edward is staring. I ignore the sourness rising in my chest and tell myself this is my cue to leave. It’s what I wanted all along, for the prince to fall in love with Cinderella. I start to back away, inch by inch, but before I can disappear unnoticed, his arm curls firmly around my waist, effectively preventing my escape.
Warmth tingles through my body—Edward hasn’t forgotten me, even though he was temporarily struck by Elle’s beauty. But on the other hand, I’m at a loss what to do now. I look around for Krev, but the goblin has disappeared. Or is just hiding from me. It’s too simple to duck behind those pillars and curtains.
And then an angry voice slices through the air.
“How dare you!” Lady Bradshaw hisses. She points an accusing finger at Elle. “Where did you steal that dress? How did you sneak inside the palace?”
She moves toward Elle as if to shake her, but Henry steps out and grabs Lady Bradshaw’s arm.
“Consider where you are,” he says, his tone courteous but unyielding. “You do not want to make a scene at the prince’s ball.”
Some anger melts from Lady Bradshaw, but she doesn’t move.
“She is my servant,” she snarls. “She has no right to be here.”
Murmurs of disbelief and amazement ripple through the guests.
“She has an invitation,” Henry says calmly. “There is no way she could have entered without it.”
Lady Bradshaw lifts her chin. “Do you dare deny it, Elle? You have worked at my house for ten years and this is how you repay me?”
That’s right, showing up at the ball and stealing her daughter’s chance in the limelight. Way to go, Elle. Fitting retribution for a woman who tried to have you drowned.
Elle darts a frightened glance at her former employer. She opens her mouth, but no sound comes out.
“Answer me,” Lady Bradshaw presses on. “A servant masquerading as a noble. Do you realize the enormity of the crime you have committed?”
“That’s enough,” I say sharply. If it gets around that Elle is a low-class working girl, I doubt the king and queen will approve Edward choosing her. Not to mention that he apparently has no intention of announcing Elle as his choice.
“She is no servant. This girl here is Elle Bradshaw, daughter of the late Earl Bradshaw by his first wife.”
I might as well have thrown a bomb. Instantly the guests are chattering and pointing and making noises of disbelief.
Elle makes her way to me. “Miss Katriona, what are you talking about?” she whispers. “Mamsie doesn’t even know who my true parents are.”
“Remember the day I came to the greenhouse?”
Her hand flies to her throat. “What you’ve been holding back from me…is this?”
“Katriona!” Lady Bradshaw bursts out. “Have your senses taken leave of you?”
I hold her angry gaze. Leaning forward, I pitch my voice low. “The child you gave orders to have drowned has survived.”
Blood drains from her face. For a moment she looks as vulnerable as a little girl.
“How did you…”
“That’s why she looks familiar!” a woman exclaims. Poppy’s mother, Lady Montgomery, pushes her way toward Elle and scrutinizes her closely. “Dear lord…isn’t she the spitting image of Olivia?”
“Who’s Olivia?” I say.
“The late earl’s first wife,” Edward says. “She visited the palace when I was still a boy. I barely remember her anymore, since she moved far away from the capital when she married Earl Bradshaw. Lady Montgomery is her younger sister.”
I drop my jaw. So that’s why Lady Montgomery seemed familiar. The shade of her honey-gold hair matches Elle’s exactly. It’s hard not to believe they’re related.
Edward strides forward. “This lady,” he indicates Elle, “has every right to be here. Any problem can be withheld until tomorrow. For now, let us not keep the other guests from enjoying the ball.” He raises his hand, and soon music fills the room.
Lady Montgomery leads Elle off the dance floor, Poppy and Sir Montgomery following closely behind. Wow. Looks like Poppy and Elle are cousins.
“Edward.” I manage to slip my hand out of his. “It’s about time that you asked her to dance.”
He stiffens and pins me with a probing stare, like he’s making sure I’m sincere.
“Is that what you really want?”
I don’t meet his eyes. “You promised.”
A dreadful silence hangs between us, thick and heavy.
“As you wish,” Edward says, his voice clipped.
Silently, I watch him approach Elle, who’s still surrounded by her new family. He makes a bow toward Elle, offers his arm, and leads her onto the dance floor. Poppy turns and shoots a questioning look at me. I smile and turn away. This is how things should be.
I make my way through the guests, who are gathering on the dance floor. A girl whispers to her friend that the prince has now deserted me for another. I only smile at her and continue walking. It is better this way—Elle’s beauty is so overwhelming that no one blames Edward for directing his attention toward her.
I don’t feel like watching them dance, nor am I inclined to talk to anyone, even though Mr. Wellesley is heading my way, sympathy etched over his face. All I want is to be left alone.
I wander farther into the palace and soon find myself on a balcony overlooking the gardens. I lean on the balustrade and look up. The moon is pale and luminous and round—my only companion in the night. A breeze comes up and ruffles my hair. Behind me, the sounds of music and chatter fade into the distance. This may be my last night in Athelia.
I don’t know how long I stand there, trying to console myself that I’m finally going home, when the familiar popping noise occurs.
“Hey girlie.” Krev bounces in midair. “Barthelius has been extremely impressed with you, but he still wants to see how you’re going to achieve happily-ever-after.”
“Go away, Krev.”
He settles on the balustrade. “You don’t look the least happy. Don’t feel like leaving Eddie?”
“All right, all right,” Krev huffs. “It’s almost midnight, I’m warning you. Remember you still need Eddie to propose to Cinderella before her gown disappears.”
“It’s nearly midnight?” I look up. There’s this huge moon-faced clock on the main tower, like the Big Ben I’ve seen on a postcard of London. The long hand of the clock is nearly reaching the short hand.
Damn! I didn’t expect it’d be midnight this soon. Meg’s magic will fade—what if it happens when Elle is still on the dance floor? I’ve got to get her out of here. Oh, and I hope that Edward has proposed. He’d better have.
I turn on my heel and run back to the ballroom. From the second-floor balcony, I search frantically for Elle. Her glittering white wedding dress should be easy to spot. But I can’t find her. Nor is Edward seen. Maybe they’ve gone outside into the gardens. Judging from Edward’s dislike of crowds, that is likely. I doubt he’d propose with everyone watching him.
I dash to the first floor, tear through the guests like I’m a cop running after a murderer, and out the open double doors, straight into the gardens. I hear gasps, meet puzzled glances, but of course I don’t bother with them. I’ve got to find Elle; I don’t know if Meg has explained to her she must leave at midnight.
Blades of grass, chilly and damp, nip on my right foot. Somehow in my frantic rush, I’ve lost my shoe. But there’s no time to search for it. I curse, take off my other shoe and stuff it in my pocket, then continue to run.
Past a row of tulips, I run into Poppy and Mr. Davenport.
“Have you seen Elle?” I blurt.
“She went home,” Poppy says, giving me a concerned look. “Kat, are you all right? Where are your shoes?”
“She went home already?”
“She says she’s expected by twelve. That the dress is borrowed and she has to return it by midnight.”
I gape. I can’t believe it, she actually paid attention to the fairy godmother’s warning. Unlike me. I know the story by heart and yet I’m still here, looking like an idiot.
The clock starts to strike.
I look down; the hem of my dress is changing color. I clamp a hand over my mouth to stifle a cry. I’ve got to leave, got to get home.
So I bolt. Poppy calls behind me, but I simply pick up my pace.
In the courtyard I look for my carriage. But after a frantic search, all I find is the pumpkin, shrunk back to its normal size. The coachmen and horses have transformed as well; in fact, the cat is chasing after the mice under the carriages.
No. Freaking. Way.
“Lady Kat!” Bertram’s yell echoes through the air. He sprints toward me and grabs my elbow. “His Highness has been looking for you.”
I don’t want to go to him. But I’m pretty sure I can’t get away when Bertram, a professionally trained palace guard, is now intent on dragging me off to Edward. Besides, my carriage is gone. Elle is gone. I can’t walk home barefoot, nor do I know the way. Perhaps it’s best that I find Edward and demand what on earth he is thinking.
As we start off, Bertram glances at me curiously. “Why are you wearing a different gown?”
I make some lame excuse about not getting the nice one dirty. When we near the maze, I spot Edward striding toward us. Relief spreads over his face when his gaze falls on me.
“Kat.” His gaze travels to my feet, and instantly he takes me by the shoulders and makes me sit down on a bench. Oh my God, this is the same bench where I met him on my disastrous presentation day.
“Why did you run away and leave your shoe behind?” He asks, removing his white silk cravat.
“I…I was looking for Elle.” Ask him, Kat. Ask him if he has proposed.
But the words stick to my throat when he kneels before me and cradles my right foot, which is bleeding from a sharp pebble.
“Henry offered to accompany her home.”
“What?” I attempt to get up, but his left hand clamps on my shoulder and holds me there.
“Stay still,” he growls, looking irritated. “Don’t you move until I finish bandaging your foot.”
I sink back on the bench. “So, um, did you….?”
He raises his face; his eyes are like dark, bottomless pools. “No.”
I should be mad. After all the trouble I went through to get Elle to the ball, after making him promise to let me return to my family, it turns out that all my efforts are wasted. Still, a traitorous sigh escapes me.
He quirks an eyebrow, slightly surprised. “Didn’t you tell me I had to marry her?”
“Yes, but I—” I look away. His gaze is amused, mixed with tenderness. My mouth goes dry and I focus on my lap. “You know why.”
“No.” His eyes glimmer. “Tell me why you’re glad I didn’t propose to Elle.”
“Because I love you, dammit!” The words burst from my lips. Screw the story, I can’t lie to myself anymore.
His entire face lights up as though sunshine just poured down on him. Still kneeling before me, he grabs my hands and pulls me close. Soft, warm lips meet mine.
“So long have I waited to hear you say it,” he says, his breath tickling my chin. “Now I can let you go.”
I swallow and try to keep the tears from spilling. It’s time for us to say farewell.
“Will you marry me, Kat?”
What? First he tells me he’s letting me go, and then he asks me to marry him?
He smiles wryly. “Do you think the happy ending can be achieved if Elle and I marry?”
I start to shake my head. Slowly, realization dawns on me. “But…if you and I…”
“Exactly. The only way for you to break the curse and return to your family, is to marry me. I have no feelings for Elle; only friendship exists between us. But with you,” he squeezes my hands, “I’d be the happiest man alive if you would consent to be my bride.”
Heat rushes to my face. “Then why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“In the beginning, I did consider marrying Elle. Without the happy ending, I could keep you here in Athelia.”
“So that day when you were in the greenhouse with Elle…you tried to flirt with her only because you didn’t want me to leave?”
He nods. “However, I relented. I decided I couldn’t let my selfishness prevent you from returning to your own family. Besides, I won’t stand in Henry’s way. The duchess may disapprove, but now that she knows Elle is actually the earl’s daughter, she will give her consent.”
A tear rolls down my cheek and plops on the back of my hand. Sweetness, sadness, bitterness, happiness…conflicted emotions rise within me. The irony! All along I’ve been so focused on the original story that I failed to see that the happy ending could be easily achieved by marrying the prince myself. But once we marry, I’ll have fulfilled my mission and must go back. Yet if I choose to stay, what kind of life will it be, both of us longing for each other but unable to marry? Not to mention that I can’t forget my own family.
Edward takes a silver shoe from his pocket and slips it on my bandaged foot. How did he find it? How did he know it belonged to me?
“Marry me, Kat,” he says, wiping my tears away with his thumb. “Say you’ll be mine.”
I can’t stop crying. I don’t deserve him, I truly don’t.
I throw my arms around his neck.
“Yes,” I sob. “Yes, I’ll marry you.”