“Darling, you are pacing like a nervous cat. Whatever could be troubling you?”
As if Maman did not know. Prince was ready to howl at the moon. Her regal and calm manner only served to annoy him further.
“Come dear, the formal announcement shall be made soon and all will be well.” She patted his hand as if he were a toddler of two. His gaze flitted around the ballroom, the panic threatening to consume him.
He’d like to know how she managed to remain so composed. How anyone could remain so unruffled. He supposed it was too late to toss himself onto the jagged rocks off the cliff seen from her hidden alcove. Alas, the window was too high, regardless.
The usual pleasure Prince took in the strains of Mozart pulverized his reserve into the taut strings of a pianoforte. He’d suffered through several dances. Every effort it took Prince to maintain his placid mask. He wanted to see Cinderella. There was something about her that soothed him. The wish for silence overwhelmed him.
The music ground to a halt, a bow screeched across a single violin string, screaming its last agonizing note in perfect accord with his stilled breath.
Prince cursed the wish he’d been so suddenly granted. For with the silence came the end of the pursuit of his true love and the beginning of a new life with Ethelina…a life without his mysterious and beautiful princess. The room took on a curious opiate view. Where he saw ten candles now appeared at twenty. ’Twas not one pair of eyes each patron sported but quadruple that. By all that was divine, could the grounds not open up to save him?
Alas, non. As future king, his fate was sealed.
He drew himself up and moved to his place beside Maman, Papa and the monstrous Lady Roche, as was expected. What else could he do but prepare for the inevitable?
There was no turning back now. The ballroom’s dreamlike facet became reality, his destiny, even as the champagne he’d sipped furled in his belly. Flames in the hundreds of candles stretched into sharp points, the whispers poignant following the sudden hush.
The atmosphere leaden with heavy fragrance that threatened to suffocate him. But like their guests, his eyes moved to the doors at the top of the stairs, dread constricting his chest of breathable air. The doors swung open; the herald stepped forward.
“Lady Pricilla,” he bellowed.
Prince swallowed a large lump, his reprieve minimal. It was only a matter of time, non? He watched Pricilla push forward, head held high, prepared for battle. His eyes narrowed. In his short time with these sisters, he’d learned something from the three of them. And something was amiss. He would stake his life on it. Her transformation was breathtaking, he was forced to admit.
Her visible flinch had Prince wondering if she’d been suddenly burdened by Ershelda’s fluttering eye affliction, but she recovered quickly enough. But he would swear she was surprised by his presence—yet—on closer inspection her gaze went past him to her mother.
Odd. She descended, adopting a facade of detachment. She stepped forward, her hand outstretched. His lips brushed her fingers, and for once he was grateful for de Lecce’s attendance as he stepped forward and escorted her aside.
From his peripheral vision he caught Lady Roche frantically fanning herself, dabbing a proud tear. His own maman, wore a small frown.
In hindsight, he should have confirmed the kidnapping, or leastways, the choking from his cravat. Arnald’s remark may have been said in jest, but the trepidation Prince experienced was coming to culmination.
Cinderella was next. She would give him a smile of courage. Her soft dark eyes would offer consolation
Sparkles colored the air as they so often did when she was about. His lips tipped slightly, thinking of her thick dark hair that refused to hold a fashionable curl. Her theatrical delivery on the Eros and his personification of love when she wore the rags of a servant girl. He stuffed the hysterics that threatened to burst through. His thoughts were…traitorous. Why hadn’t he thought to try the glass shoe on Cinderella? His affection for her rivaled that of his mysterious princess. A mysterious princess who disappeared without a trace. Dark brown eyes filled his inner vision, merging with that of…non, non. ’Twas impossible.
Prince braced though fear clenched his insides and walls closed in. Rather than convincing himself of wedded bliss, he tried to focus on how entertaining the changing weather could be when or if his bride might have some hand in the phenomenon.
Before his thoughts ran to more worrisome matters, his future bride waltzed through the doors, head also high, eyes unblinking. The sense of something awry barely pervaded him. She looked lovely ensconced in scores of deep emerald silks, threaded with shimmering gold. The green enhanced the brilliance of her copper locks, coiled in an elaborate coiffure. She was stunning. She trained her gaze on him as if daring him to shake her composure, meeting his eyes in belligerent splendor. A soft, knowing smile touched her lips on her slow descent.
Prince froze, locked in place, confusion rippling through him.
Where was Cinderella? Had they said her name? He scanned the perimeter of the crowd. Arnald cast him a disgusted glance and stepped up to take Lady Esmeralda’s arm. The grateful look she gave Arnald should have infuriated Prince. Instead, he found himself vaguely aware of a noise resembling the snorting huff of a bull, sounding somewhere behind—one that had seen the red cape and was not so amused. The only thing missing was the stomp of its front hoof prior to its deadly gorge.
Silence filled the great hall. The herald emerged, snagging his abrupt attention. The odd tingle in the air that Prince now referred to as the “fainting possibility tingle” hovered in the ambiance.
Staunch horns blared in the marked stillness. A wave of expectant drama swept the room. Prince himself was ensnared just as sure and as fervent as the mass of onlookers. The ballroom took on a sharpness Prince had not experienced since the night he’d danced in the arms of one beloved mysterious princess. The air fairly cackled in tension. Candlelight bounced from wood waxed and shined to a radiant brilliance. Not even a rustling of skirts sounded. The trumpets pealed in call of royal splendor and the crowd waited in anticipation of the last pronouncement.
The herald shuffled to the forefront. He clicked his heels and fell into a deep respectful bow. “Lady Cinderella,” he declared. Prince thought his heart had bound from his torso to hit the wood floor.
Startled by the reverberation, his hand flew to his chest. Non. The thud was there—erratic, beating fiercely. He spun, and was surprised to find a bevy of servants scurrying over to assist Lady Roche. She lay flat on her round and full-bodied face. He pushed away the twinge of guilt, and relief, that it was not he who had succumbed to the dead drop swoon.
A vibrating hush fell over the room. His ears rung in the silence and the sense of swimming through molasses blasted him full force. He looked up.
Were his eyes playing tricks? It was her. His mysterious princess. But the herald said Lady Cinderella? Glitter filled the air.
Rich dark hair, just as he remembered, amassed in artistic magnificence encircled by a tiara of blinking diamonds sat atop her head. Mounds of full ivory skirts and petticoats fanned soft silk behind her in an elaborate train as she made the slowest foray down the highest of grand balustrades known to man.
Fear met his eyes as she began her descent, but he recognized something new. Steeled determination registered in the tilt of her chin, in the glint of her focus. Shimmering sparkles that saturated the air, dissipated, as if a veil were slowly being lifted. For weeks he’d been seeing through a fog-filled vision.
Elation swept through him. He’d found his love.
Satin gloves covered her arms left a small portion of exposed skin. His fingers itched with the want of touch. He stepped forth, and a slight change altered her demeanor from fear to uncertainty.
His eyes feasted on the solitary teardrop diamond resting at the base of her throat. Her pulse beat in an irregular rhythm—the only sign of her terror. The swim through molasses fell away shifting his gait into a predatory glide. He dare not take his eyes from her. She would surely disappear. His gaze drifted down to her feet. She raised her dress so as not to trip with each methodical step in dainty glass slippers.
How could he not have known Cinderella was his lost love? The last of the Arnald’s words seeped in the consciousness of his mind: Mayhap she’s hidden right beneath your nose, Cousin. His gaze moved to the beauty of her face. The only thing missing in her appearance were the cinders on her cheeks. A tremulous smile tilted her lips. He lunged into a run.
No one would disappear this eve. Not this time, he vowed. He met her eyes and saw relief. Her smile turned knowing. She was on a mission and he was her goal.
He stepped up as she stepped down, one blissful step at a time until he had her wrapped in his arms, never to escape again. Let the gossips say what they will.
He’d found his mysterious princess.
Prince touched his lips to hers in a fated seal. But not before she whispered with sound confidence, “What were you thinking, my prince—trying my slipper on every maiden in the kingdom?”