Something very strange was going on, Hilda decided. She could not quite put her finger on the what, but ’twas there all the same. Her first inklings were prior to the picnic. She trailed the three girls to the parlor, studying Pricilla in particular. She was quite pleased with Pricilla’s soft rose gown. The maid had dressed her hair in fabulously high curls leaving wispy tendrils to frame her face. Hilda had to restrain from clapping her hands in glee.
Conte Alessandro de Lecce would be fighting for her favors this evening, and Hilda looked forward to guiding his efforts. With Esmeralda all but married off, ’twas downright miraculous the opportunity afforded for Pricilla. And Hilda had every intention of grappling the advantage. A mother had a duty to her children’s future, after all. Not to mention the side effect of securing one’s own. Olivier Roche had left her and her daughters destitute. She would not be so again.
Hilda pondered Cinderella through narrowed eyes. That child remained every bit the nuisance she had since the day Hilda had been forced to marry her murderous papa. Somehow, the chit managed to manipulate her way into the queen’s generous affections, no matter how erroneous. Short of death, there wasn’t much Hilda could do to alter that state.
Hmm, death. ’Twas a dilemma. But if Cinderella should somehow manage to get herself locked up somewhere with no one the wiser…well, that would be most convenient, would it not?
Hilda ushered her daughters through the door snagging Cinderella’s arm before she slipped by. One small squeeze to remind the child who was in charge. After all, she did seem to have difficulty remembering her place in the family hierarchy. Fear in Cinderella’s widened eyes assured Hilda’s point had been well and truly received.
The opportunity to back her threat with words was circumvented by Queen Thomasine’s pointed address.
“Lady Roche, would you care for sherry or claret this evening?” Queen Thomasine’s tone was mild, her gaze innocent.
Slowly, Hilda released her grip, clearing her throat. “Claret would make a divine diversion, Your Highness.” Hilda nudged Cinderella aside, preceding her into the drawing room. The child may have escaped censure this time but the night was young. Other opportunities would emerge.
Her eyes followed Cinderella’s gait to a settee before the windows where she lowered herself with an anomalous air. The frock she wore in a misty moss was downright infuriating. Hilda was not fooled in the least. The soft green should have made her appear washed out, but somehow managed the reverse. The soft tone enhanced her olive complexion, upstaging Esmeralda’s pale skin and flickering eyes.
If they were not more cautious, Prince might see fit to retract his promise to Esmeralda and take up with that hoyden. Non, he would dare no such a thing. The scandal would make him a laughingstock. He would lose all respect. Regardless, Hilda refused to any chances. She trusted no one.
“Merci,” Hilda said, accepting her claret from the servant’s tray. Her eyes narrowed on the Conte’s eldest son, maneuvering his way toward her errant stepchild. He lowered himself next to her—shamefully close. Why, the little vagrant was out to cull Pricilla’s prize. Heated rage roiled through her.
Her heart stepped into an erratic rhythm that had her wanting to clutch her chest, breaths coming short and rapid. With concerted effort Hilda calmed her agitated facilities with a steady inhale. Enough was enough. She vowed adamantly to achieve that one-on-one tête-à-tête this very eve.
She sauntered her way to the settee. The noble Conte de Lecce’s son stood quickly offering his place, heels clicking with his formal bow. “Ah, merci, young man.” With a pat of her hand, Hilda gave Cinderella a bright smile. Hilda’s pleasure grew tenfold at Cinderella’s undisguised blanch. “Cinderella, my dear, you look absolutely stunning,” she said.
Cinderella dropped her eyes to her lap with a soft, almost indistinguishable reply. “Merci, Stepmama.”
“Your daughter, she is lovely, no, Signora?” Alessandro smiled.
“Oui, your compliments are well received, Sir.” The erratic tempo soared once more through Hilda, leaving her almost faint.
Hilda glanced up quickly and caught a silent communiqué between Pricilla and Esmeralda. Mayhap she would have a word with Pricilla as well. As the favorite of her two girls, Pricilla could always be depended upon to further the family’s edicts. It would have to wait, however. The risk was too great to forestall Cinderella’s attendance with Alessandro de Lecce so close at hand with his unpredictable infatuation.