A prick in her arm from Marcel’s teeny claws and frantic mew startled Cinderella to a sitting potion. Disoriented and out of sorts she fought to still her pounding heart when she heard the creak of the door. “Essie?”
“Essie, indeed,” Stepmama cackled.
Terror ripped through Cinderella, rendering her immobile. Alas, it would seem her audience with Stepmama was inevitable.
Within the solemnity of the corridor, Stepmama hadn’t even bothered to lower her voice. Light from the flickering candle she held gave her robust face an eerie mask-like quality straight out of a horrifying medieval epic tale.
Stepmama edged closer to Cinderella’s frozen form until she towered above her. “You think you have managed quite a feat, have you not, my pretty? Turning Esmeralda from the bosom of her family.”
Cinderella’s response was an audible swallow. “I…I could never do that, Stepmama. Essie would never allow it.” If she could not save herself, mayhap she could prevent Essie from some hazardous misfortune.
“Essie!” she spat. “How I despise that shortened version of her name. But ’tis not the reason I seek to speak with you, my dear.” Stepmama set the candle on the bedside table.
Terror stuck in her throat, muting any response.
“I see how you have lured the affections of the Conte de Lecce’s son.”
The venom in her accusation tripped Cinderella into subtle action. “Non. Non. ’Tis not like that at all…” She shook her head sidling to the edge of the bed. But Stepmama would not be mollified.
“You little twit! You have never ceased to amaze me with your vile manipulative skills. You have turned my own daughter from me and you shall pay.” To Cinderella’s surprise, Stepmama sauntered away, her aim toward the dying fire in the hearth. “There is no one to save you now, is there, sweet?”
Oh, non. There wasn’t. Ceasing the opportunity, Cinderella slid down the side of the bed her feet hitting the ice cold floor. Mayhap, she could make it to the door.
’Twas too late.
Stepmama whipped around. Cinderella chose her only other recourse and dropped to her knees, diving beneath the bed.
“Auck!” she screamed. “You little sorcerer. Out with you, do you dare to disobey me?”
Cinderella thanked the heavens and the queen for her massive bed. Stepmama raised the bed skirt. Cinderella could not make out Stepmama’s features for the darkness, but they were etched in her mind. That fierce anger in bulging eyes, quivering chin and flush cheeks, veins protruding from pulsing temples. All forever ingrained.
“Come out, child.” Her voice took on a cajoling timbre, but Cinderella would be a fool to trust her. Freezing to death fared better than the alternative. “I only wish to talk, oui?”
The bed skirt dropped and complete darkness surrounded her, both comforting and disconcerting. She could not even make out the flickering light of the candle, only the rustling of Stepmama’s night rail touched her ears. Cinderella followed the noise about the chamber, praying Stepmama would give up and leave her be. Something scraped against the grate. Marcel’s nervous twitter did nothing to calm her. But at least she had his presence.
“Stay clear, my sweet.”
A scrape of metal tapped the hearth, and a foreboding of horrifying magnitude surged through her Cinderella. Before she had time to consider how deep Stepmama’s depraved malevolence went, the skirt on the bed flew up from the opposite side. Cinderella scurried across the floor barely missing the stroke of the fireplace poker. It snagged the edge of her nightgown, ripping the delicate fabric.
Stepmama brandished the poker beneath the bed like a broom. Marcel darted forward and nipped Stepmama’s forearm. She did not seem to notice.
“Come out, child. I am waiting.”
“Stepmama, non. Please,” she begged.
“There is no one to hear, my dear. You know ’tis worse if you fail to obey, non?” Another swipe of the poker missed her arm by mere inches.
If she came out now, Stepmama would likely kill her. “Why?” she sobbed. “Why do you hate me so?”
“Maman?” Pricilla’s voice echoed through the chamber, clearly startling Stepmama, the poker clattered to the floor. “What are you doing? Is there a mouse beneath the bed?”
“Oui, oui. Une souris!” Stepmama stood and let the bed skirt drop leaving Cinderella shrouded in gloom once more.
Cinderella stuffed a fist in her mouth to stifle her cries. Marcel’s tiny body moved close.
“I’ve come to check on Cinderella. But, alas, she is nowhere to be found, the ungrateful child.”
“Maman. You know you will catch your death if you are not careful.” Cinderella heard Pricilla’s tongue cluck as if she were the mother and not the other way around. “You know how sickly you can become. Let us worry not about her. We must get you back to your chamber, post haste.”
Cinderella drew Marcel in the palm of her hand. Comforting him; or was it he who comforted her? She listened as Pricilla helped Stepmama to her feet, cognizant of the shift in movement. Seconds later the door closed softly behind them. An ominous silence descended over the chamber.
Massive quakes racked her body, making it difficult to crawl from beneath the large bed. She set Marcel aside and with fingers frozen and stiff from the cold, she reached for the poker. A deep mar of streaked ash had it slipping from her hand, clanging to the floor as reality set in. Great waves of hiccupping sobs roared through her. “What did I do? Why does she hate me so?” she cried. “Oh, Papa. Would that you were here…”
“Cinde? Cinde.” Essie’s arms suddenly wrapped her shoulders. She hadn’t heard her come in. “Come, dear. You are freezing.”
She let Essie guide her to the bed and tuck the covers about her. The touch of a damp cloth smoothed her tears away. She was barely aware of Essie climbing in alongside her murmuring nonsensical words of comfort while chills of fear racked her body.
“Oh, Essie. I don’t understand,” she whispered, quivering beneath the covers. “Why does she hate me so? Why?”
There was no answer in the silence that followed, when she finally succumbed to a fitful slumber.