“We must return it,” Cinderella insisted. “Someone is bound to discover its disappearance.”
“I don’t want to return it. Not yet.”
Cinderella was surprised Pricilla did not stomp her foot like an errant child. The shiny stick had not so much as loosened from her tightly fisted fingers.
The three girls had hurried to Cinderella’s chamber with, as far as Cinderella could tell, no one the wiser. Their luck could not hold out much longer.
“Well, I want my turn with it,” Essie said.
At this rate, Fairy Godmother would never get her silver stick back.
“Someone is coming,” Pricilla hissed. She thrust the stick in Cinderella’s hand just as the door to the chamber burst open.
Cinderella dropped her arms to her side and managed to disguise the thin baton within the plush folds of her skirts.
“There you are, children.” Stepmama strode in, ignoring Cinderella. “I have begged an audience with Conte de Lecce and his son. We shall meet him within the hour.”
Pricilla scowled and Essie gasped, simultaneously.
Unnerving, Cinderella thought.
Stepmama’s narrowed eyes on Essie held a dangerous glint. “What is this, Esmeralda?”
“No…nothing, Maman,” Essie stammered.
“I did not think so.” Her smile appeared more a sneer with her jowls shaking so. It sent a terror of tingles over Cinderella’s skin.
She grazed Cinderella with a maliciousness that had her shrinking away. How quickly things had changed with Essie and Pricilla. Yet, not so with Stepmama, reminding Cinderella how tenuous her place. How was she to escape such hatred? This was the woman Papa had promised himself to for all eternity. What was it Cinderella did that so dismayed her? If she could but fix it, she would. She blinked back sudden tears.
“I suppose we have no choice but to include you.” Stepmama turned to Pricilla. “You must look your best.” She threw her arms wide. “I have grand plans for you, my darling.”
“Oui, Maman.” The contrite tone Pricilla offered Stepmama was in complete contrast to the sparkle of mischief in her eyes.
“Come along, then. You too, Esmeralda. The prince will be in attendance as well. We have much work to do.” She swung on her heel and bounded from the room like a large hound.
Pushing away the dampness, Cinderella’s sympathies followed Pricilla and Essie from the chamber as they had no choice but to trot after Stepmama like pedigreed puppies, leaving the door ajar in their wake.
Cinderella unclutched her skirts and glanced down. All sympathy flew out the window. She still held the baton Pricilla had thrust at her. Mayhap her luck had changed. The little stick pulsated with life. This was her only chance to return it. Nervous exhilaration pounded through her veins. She may not be what one could refer to as a free spirit, whether too prim and proper or timid like a mouse, she thought—not without disgust—but she was one to follow through, however dangerous the undertaking. She moved to the door and peeked down the hall.
Now, if she only knew where to find the deserted wing. She contemplated the baton in her hand for a moment then wrapped both hands tightly about the base. She closed her eyes and held it out.
Nothing happened for a moment—then her slippered feet set out on a path of their own volition. A strange sensation, indeed, when one’s mind was not in sync with one’s feet. She breathed deeply and maintained a vigil watch.
The little baton guided her through winding turns of cold dark passageways lit only by the glow emanating from the magical little stick. Short, oblong windows as perfectly spaced apart as the candled sconces in her own hallway had no coverings to protect the dank walls from the weather. A cool breeze passed through creating an eerie whistle effect that sent chills up her spine. Cobwebs danced like eerie ghosts in the dimness.
Cinderella’s feet showed no signs of slowing as the stick guided her on. Dust kicked up from her swishing skirts teasing her nostrils with a sneeze. Several long moments later dancing shadows of a flickering taper sent relief surging through her.
But the sound of deep voices froze her in her tracks.