Category Archives: Cinderella Series – book i

{20-Jan) The Wronged Princess – book i

The Real Epilogue

Three months later

“I must confess,” Thomasine said. “’Twas a call too close for my comfort. I thought my son was to perish right before my eyes.”

“Nonsense,” Faustine said. “I assure you, I had control of the situation entirely.”

“Mmm.” Thomasine turned to Arnald. “Dear boy, what a blessing you are to your sweet maman,” she said, accepting the fluted glass of champagne from her nephew. She dropped into a second chair Faustine had so generously conjured.

Oui, quite the dear,” Faustine agreed, pinching his cheek before snagging her own glass. Thomasine noticed her sister did not bother rising from her chair at all since he’d so conveniently leaned forward.

“Yes, quite,” Arnald agreed jerking his head. “However, I have a feeling my shortened life span is under consideration as we speak.”

“Nonsense,” Thomasine said.

“He is curious how the two of you managed to keep the fact that you are twins such a secret,” Arnald told them.

“And how, pray tell, did you manage that one, Darling?”

“I’m afraid he is not quite finished with the conversation as of yet. I shall have to avoid him for a time.”

“A not so difficult feat, I should think, with a new wife and all.” Thomasine sipped her wine, thoughtfully, eyes reflecting the sparkling bubbles. “Just think! Soon I shall have grandchildren. Oh, the thought.”

Faustine frowned, jealousy marring her delicate brow, before lifting narrowed eyes to Arnald.

“I suspect I should be going…uh…before I am…uh… missed,” he said quickly, backing to the door.

Oui. Perhaps you should,” Faustine said. Thomasine smiled as Faustine’s eyes remained focused on his hasty exit. “Who do you suppose I should set him up with, darling?”

“You know your powers do not allow you to force love, Sister dear.”

“Alas, I do know,” Faustine snapped. “But I can certainly entertain the possibility by throwing irresistible women in his path.” A petulant pout touched her lips.

“Did not Cinderella break your little magic stick by stepping on it?”

Oui. I managed an adhesive to piece it back together,” she said absently. “It works almost perfectly.”

“Almost?” Thomasine squeaked, appalled. “Mayhap, we should leave the young ones to find their own way, Faustine.”

“Perhaps,” she murmured. “More champagne, dear?”

S‘il vous plait.” Thomasine held out her glass.

With a quick flick of her repaired wand, the bubbly spilled over the tops of their flutes, along with their soft giggles.

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{19-Jan) The Wronged Princess – book i

Epilogue II

Prince gazed lovingly at his new bride while she laughed affectionately at Esmeralda and Pricilla. Her velvety brown eyes were full of mischief and happiness. The change in her was nothing short of miraculous, he thought, shaking his head in disbelief, though curious in slipping a lump of sugar in her pocket. But they had the rest of their lives for answers.

How marriage plans with Lady Esmeralda had gotten as far as they had, could only be described as astonishing. Trying the slipper on every maiden in the countryside had not been one of his better ideas, he conceded. In retrospect, however, he’d not only gained a warm and loving wife, but an exceptional Land Manager in Lady Pricilla with her pragmatic manner and skills. Her dry wit worked wonders in handling the diverse and multifarious tenants throughout Chalmers. Who could have known?

The havoc she wreaked over Arnald was just added benefit.

Lady Esmeralda proved a brilliant accountant, invaluable with her mathematics wizardry. Not to mention her weather changing abilities, should the need ever arise. A snort of laughter escaped him, drawing all three sisters, Arnald’s, and Alessandro de Lecce’s quick attention. Prince smothered his laugh behind a quick cough and offered a small apology.

In his travels and single-minded way, it had never occurred to him the glass slipper could or would fit someone other than his “mysterious princess.” He made a mental point to take the time think to through solutions more thoroughly in the future. The idea was preposterous that a shoe should only be made to measure one person in an entire kingdom.

After all, it was not like some transcendental fairy godmother had swooped in to swing her magic wand to make the shoe fit only one foot!

Ludicrous.

{18-Jan) The Wronged Princess – book i

Epilogue I

Cinderella caught the eye of her new husband and gave him a secret smile and a quick wink. He winked back. Happiness soared through her. She would never tire of looking at this charming man. He held her heart in the strongest of spells.

Her fairy tale had come true.

Bits and pieces of conversation seeped into Cinderella’s spinning head. She listened absently as Essie and Cill bickered over George Berkley’s An Essay Toward A New Theory Of Vision. Apparently, it questioned the objectivity of perception. She shook her head, smiling, as they hotly debated how the perception by sight and distance, magnitude and situation of objects of—well, she was not quite certain. She tried to follow, as their voices escalated into an argument that considered the differences between sight and touch, and anything common between the two. ’Twas confusing at best.

Their closeness brought her nothing but joy.

Cinderella tossed two sugars into a cup of tea, no cream, for Essie, and handed it to her. Then poured Pricilla’s who drank hers black. Then deftly snuck one cube to Marcel in her pocket. He nipped her finger in appreciation.

How different her life might have turned out had Essie not had such a dainty foot. She marveled in silence at such a miracle. How lucky to find such two extraordinary sisters that may never have otherwise materialized.

Not to mention, the expanded-shoe wardrobe. Things really did happen for a reason.

{15-Jan) The Wronged Princess – book i

“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?”

{14-Jan) The Wronged Princess – book i

Escorted by the timid Manette, Cinderella awaited with barely suppressed panic alongside Pricilla and Essie. Just beyond closed doors of the ballroom, she tried to ignore the footmen’s curious gazes. Dual shiny brass handles separated insanity from unreality. Pricilla’s brutal honesty spelled practicality, she reminded herself. ’Twas their only hope.

“Breathe,” Pricilla hissed. “Whatever you do, hold your head high. ’Twill be our saving grace if we are to carry off this bout of lunacy.” She pierced Essie and Cinderella with a stern scowl.

Cinderella nodded and tried to absorb Pricilla’s fierce confidence. She lifted her head. Do or die, the time had come. Her wildest dream or starkest nightmare was about to unfold. She could only admire the tenacity Pricilla snapped to after her own dreadful confession.

“I said breathe, blast it. Both of you,” Pricilla commanded. “We’ll get through this. What are they going to do, put us in the dungeon?” A second later she frowned.

A hysterical laugh bubbled through Cinderella, knowing it was a probability in some monarchies. The perfect ending to a horrific fairy tale.

“You don’t think—” Essie started.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Ess. The prince is more in love with Cinderella than his mysterious princess. He’ll be groveling on bended knee before you and me.”

“What?” Cinderella said. “What do you mean Prince is—”

Strings, horns, wind instruments, and percussion pounded sounds of Mozart through the walls indicating a ball in full swing, cutting her off.

“Follow my lead,” Pricilla instructed. “Just remember what we planned.” Pricilla’s calm demeanor was amazing.

Esmeralda nodded. A lump constricted Cinderella’s throat. She had nothing. She felt like one of the statues in the gardens—Thanatos, Greek god of death, she decided as an odd detachment took hold of her. Her silence was taken as concurrence. Pricilla inclined her head—not unlike Queen Thomasine—to the waiting footmen.

The doors to the ballroom swung wide and the music tapered off to a slow death. There was naught for it now. Cinderella sent up a silent pray. Her shaking knees would likely send her barreling to the bottom of the grandiose staircase in a heap.

Pricilla stepped forward and paused. Red flags dropped signaling for attention. The two footmen framing the doors lowered their trumpets. The blast shushed the crowd and the herald bellowed. “Lady Pricilla.”

A grim determination squared Pricilla’s shoulders and she stepped through the doors to the top rung. Pricilla was the bravest soul Cinderella would ever know. Ever. Pricilla gasped and glanced over her shoulder. Surprise and fear filled her eyes.

Cinderella closed her eyes waiting for the barrage of accusations. Had they somehow been found out? Non. non, that did not make sense. She and Essie were the ones who’d traded gowns…and no one had seen them yet. Cinderella opened her eyes. Pricilla was moving down the stairs.

Muted oohs and ahs reached her with the staid footman’s return. Essie shot her one last look of encouragement then handed the footman their note per Pricilla instructions. Brows beetled, he read. He looked from her to Essie. Cinderella’s battle to stave off her apprehension was quickly losing ground. They could not pull off this feat.

The scene took on a peculiar milieu, a strange ambience. She caught a small shrug before he delivered their message to the herald with nary a word or glance back. Cinderella tightened her hold on Essie’s hand and met her furiously blinking eyes. The slight updraft, unmistakable.

“Lady Esmeralda.” The herald’s bellow thundered throughout the hall, bounding off the wooden surfaces, seeming even louder.

The breath rushing from Essie matched her own. They’d made it through one more obstacle. Essie squeezed her hand then disappeared into oblivion leaving Cinderella standing alone with her fears.

And hope.

{13-Jan) The Wronged Princess – book i

“Are you trying to choke me?” Prince snapped at Arnald.

“It is unfortunate this cravat will not cooperate.”

“You act more nervous than I.” Prince would have laughed if he hadn’t thought he might swoon.

“Only because if you are not happy, I shall be the one to pay,” Arnald retorted. “What of your maman? Have you had your audience with her?”

Prince scowled. “Non. Her efforts to avoid me at every turn have certainly succeeded. What of you? Have you managed to gainsay yours?”

Non. I fear we may be stuck.”

Prince glanced over his shoulder to the ormolu clock over the hearth as a thought occurred to him. “How is it that I did not know my dear maman was a twin, do you suppose?” Prince turned on his cousin with narrowed eyes. “How is it that you did not know? After all, surely you knew your maman to be alive and well all these years.”

Arnald scowled back. “Yes, well. That is quite the feat they accomplished, is it not?” With a last flick of his wrist, Arnald stepped back. “That is the best knot I can wield.”

“I’m not sure it is your best,” Prince muttered. Arnald could have strangled him, after all. He supposed he should be thankful. “This is not over, Cousin.” He paused before adding, “I don’t suppose you arranged for my kidnapping?”

“Hardly. Securing your confirmation was difficult, if you recall.”

An odd flutter of air fanned across Prince’s lips, startling him in its intensity. Eyes closed, he tried to grasp the swift flash, but alas, it escaped. Instead, he pinched the bridge of his nose. Once Ezbeth strode through those ballroom doors, there would be naught they could do to elude the noose round their necks. Their fates would be sealed.

Funny, how he came to think of her as an accomplice in the effort to circumventing their looming connubial prison.

He prayed he would not be required to call her by name, he thought wincing. No one would remiss him for a glass of brandy. In fact, mayhap he should have two.

“Here,” Arnald barked, snapping him out of his doldrums. In his hand he held two small glasses filled with rich gold liquid.

“Perfect,” Prince praised under his breath. He was sunk.

{12-Jan) The Wronged Princess – book i

Chapter 33

They were almost out of time.

The evening of the betrothal ball had finally descended despite Essie’s determination to keep it at bay. Cinderella felt her pain. Her feelings grew worse when she considered her own deception. Correction: deceptions. Not only was she Prince’s “mysterious princess” but she had done the unthinkable in setting her lips against his. Without his consent.

She laid her fingers against her mouth as the memory surged through her. Then moved her shaking fingers moved to her temples. How was she to survive the culpability of such egregious action? How could she ever face Essie again? Or Prince?

The seamstress stood off to one side waiting to administer a final fitting for their gowns.

“Where is Stepmama?” Cinderella asked with a nervous quiet. “I’ve yet to see her today.”

“Neither have I,” Essie snapped. “I hope you are not complaining of the fact.” Essie spun to the timid Manette and flung her hands out to her perfectly coiffed hair. “Do something with this…this unmanageable mane.”

’Twould seem Cinderella was not the only one on edge. She eyed Essie warily. This was an Essie of old, barking at the shy girl. Manette fumbled forward spilling the contents from her hands onto the floor.

“Now, see what you have done, you little imbécile.” Essie’s eyes had every lit taper in the chamber flickering with fury.

“That’s enough, Essie,” Cinderella said. Her voice was soft, but strong, bringing Essie’s head up quickly. Cinderella dipped forward to help the poor girl gather the scattered pins.

Pardonnez-moi, s’il vous plaît, Manette.” Tears filled Essie’s eyes, wiping away the edge of Cinderella’s pique. She bent down to help as well.

Pricilla’s unusual docile manner during the entire exchange drew Cinderella’s attention. Manette poured a dress over Pricilla’s head of soft powder blue silk and trimmed scallops of embroidered silver. Tiny bows edged the trim. The effect was compelling, turning her gray eyes rich with color. It was her jittery fingers brushing over the soft silk that finally sunk in.

“What is it, Pricilla?” Cinderella knew Pricilla heard her, but did not acknowledge the question right away.

“No…nothing.”

’Twas nothing, all right. Cinderella rose and went to her, clasped her hand and squeezed. Pricilla’s eyes lifted, meeting Cinderella’s in the mirror. Nothing could have prepared Cinderella for the sight that met her. Troubled stormy depths reached out.

“Whatever troubles you, do not worry so.”

“Cill?” Essie appeared on her other side, took up her hand, and waited.

The sight of the three of them before the mirror was momentous. Somber, though the tone.

“I killed her.”

A chill of dread rippled up Cinderella’s spine. Striking like a coiled snake.

“Killed who, Cill?” Essie asked. Concern did not color Essie’s pitch.

“No! Don’t say it,” Cinderella hissed.

But Pricilla would not be reprieved. “Maman,” she whispered.

“Of course, you didn’t kill her.” Essie patted her hand. “We just want to kill her.” Essie dropped Cill’s hand. “Come. We must finish dressing for this outrageous farce.” A frown marred her brow, obviously remembering her current dilemma. She strode toward Manette, who held out an ivory cream silk, edged with the softest whispering of white velvet.

Cinderella did not move. She met Pricilla’s eyes in the glass and knew Pricilla spoke the truth.

Cinderella drew herself up and proclaimed in a soft yet fierce determination, “She killed herself. Do you understand me? She. Killed. Herself,” Cinderella did not know who she tried to convince, Pricilla or herself.

The grip she had on Pricilla was returned tenfold. A tense silence stretched between them.

Oui. She killed herself,” Pricilla whispered, nodding.

Cinderella watched her a moment longer willing her to remain calm. Pricilla’s words pounded through her with glimmer of hope that would have her baking in the depths of Hades. Could Stepmama truly be gone? What a horrid, morbid thing to think? But the relief was staggering.

Convinced by Pricilla’s slow calm intakes, Cinderella released her hand and moved off slowly toward Manette who now struggling to keep the wrinkles from a breathtaking emerald green silk. Cinderella glanced back over her shoulder to Pricilla. She still stood before the looking glass, her winsome spirit dampened. Guilt filled Cinderella. It should have been her coming to terms with such nefarious deeds. She owed Pricilla more than she could say.

Pricilla’s distress only added to her beauty. Her translucent skin and shimmering light blond hair made her appear so fragile. Then she seemed to pull herself up in one fell swoop, fussed over her appearance in the reflection glass a moment or two longer, before turning a pragmatic direct gaze on Essie.

Cinderella let out a long held breath.

Pricilla was back, for the moment, leastways. Though her confrontational blaze did not bode well.

Stomach pinched in apprehension, Cinderella found herself trying to edge her way out of Pricilla’s peripheral sight.

“Something is wrong,” Pricilla said, staring at Essie. “The white makes you look…I don’t know… Ess. Wan…pallid, colorless, sallow.” Pricilla flung her hand out as more adjectives escaped her. “That dress is all wrong for you.”

Cinderella flinched. “Um, Pricilla, I vow she gets your meaning.” Cinderella resisted brushing damp palms over her lovely green silk skirts. Oh, this was not good at all. Almost all traces of Pricilla’s apprehension had vanquished.

Essie’s pent up vexation, however, had met its end. “What is that supposed to mean?” she shrieked, “We have been trying these dresses a week past and you vow to say something, now?”

To Pricilla’s credit, she did appear chagrined. Cinderella rushed over and grasped Essie’s hand, darted Pricilla her harshest glare. Not that it could help Essie. The white did make her appear ashen and bloodless, but mayhap it had more to do with wrought nerves.

Pricilla ignored Essie’s angry outburst and Cinderella’s meanest stare. Ha, ’twas the biggest jest around, besides. “I cannot be sure; but it’s just occurred to me, rationally speaking of course.”

“Of course,” Essie retorted.

Pricilla paid her no mind. “The white would look much better on Cinde with her dark coloring. And the green would work fabulously on you—match your eyes to perfection.”

Essie cast a critical gaze over Cinderella, Cinderella cringed. Essie’s nerves were not the only ones wrought. If the floor could swallow Cinderella up, she would be most grateful. She sent up a silent prayer to Fairy Godmother. As if anything could unbreak her magic stick. It was hopeless.

“I do so love that color,” Essie professed. “Mayhap I would not be so nervous if I did not feel so much like the sacrificial lamb on its way to the slaughter?”

An apt analogy, Cinderella professed inwardly.

Oui, they were right. But Cinderella—lips pressed tightly together—refused to comment, opting for another silent prayer of an open floor. She was small. All she needed was a minute crack to swallow her whole. She would never complain. The white dress was stunning and it did make Esmeralda’s pale skin look chalky. If Essie donned that green dress she had no doubt Prince would take one look at her and fall heedlessly in love.

Cinderella deserved this. Did she not steal a kiss from her sister’s betrothed without his knowing? Would this not serve as restitution for all time?

She gazed longingly at the ivory dress. It was hers. She wanted to slide it over her head one last time before being hauled away as the fraud she was. Fear had her trembling to the point of swooning.

Oh, what was she so afraid of? Stepmama was all but dead, she chided herself. Pricilla had confessed to her murder, though it was strange that the horns had not yet sounded. Mayhap she was not the only one thrilled about such a scenario and the poor wretched soul who happened upon her cold dead body had decided to keep mum.

Panic surged through Cinderella. Perhaps it was time. Non. It was past time. They deserved to know the truth, come what may. The opportunity had come to confess. She was the mysterious princess. Oh, blast it. Once she donned that white dress there would be no need to tell them anything. Everyone in the chamber would know the second it floated over her head, because she should be wearing it.

Perhaps, if she fainted.

Oh, she was the worst of cowards. No question.

But she wasn’t ready. Since Papa’s death, she’d been alienated, detested, disliked, and mistreated by both Essie and Pricilla. And now they had formed a … a sisterhood. The three of them. As likely a scenario one might never happen upon a second time.

Wasn’t that the perfect fairy tale?

But happy endings of this sort just were not possible. Stepsisters in any tale were the bane of the heroine’s very existence. But this new unspoken harmony ruined the story for that scenario. How could she bear to relinquish this new kinship? She actually liked…mayhap even loved them. They were true sisters no matter what Stepmama or the fairy tales of old would have one believe.

Even with Pricilla’s wary, critical, and somewhat outspoken characteristics they cared for one another—like real sisters. Certainly, the first barrier had been difficult, but now it felt solid and right. Pricilla would never have put herself between Stepmama and Cinderella, otherwise. The thought of hurting either of them pierced her heart like a flaming arrow.

“Well?” Essie asked. “Cinde?” Essie’s tentative tone indicated askance awaiting an answer.

Cinderella hesitated, opened her mouth to say—say what? But, Pricilla, with her typical impatience and matter-of-fact, no-nonsense, calm straightforwardness took care of the matter by plowing over any consideration either she or Essie might have. “Well, I do not see the problem.” She snapped her fingers at Kira, Manette’s assistant. “Vous, vite!

The poor thing tripped over her own feet, jumping to Pricilla’s command.

“The white shall be quite striking on you, Cinde, with your dark hair and eyes. Why do you hesitate? Quick, we are out of time.” Essie said, bustling to Pricilla’s commands as well. With a vengeance, Cinderella thought with a scowl. The stays down the back of Essie’s dress fell quickly apart.

Cinderella spun about, faced both of them. “I-I want you both to know—” she stopped. Her breath came rapidly. Her head swam with the rush of oxygen. She gulped for air. Her control teetered on a glass edge, ready to shatter. “These…past few days…have been…”

“Cinde, you are blabbering like a fool. Unhook her dress,” Essie told Manette.

Oh, heavens, she was hyperventilating. The chamber air swirled over them in a thick fog. She fanned her cheeks with her hands. It was too gauche to ask Essie for a bit of breeze, she supposed. Manette circled behind and tripped the hooks with a blast of irritating speed and proficiency.

Non! She must confess. Cinderella flexed her fingers and forced another deep breath. “These have been the best days in my life since Papa died,” she said in a rush. Tears blurred her eyes, clogged her throat. The green silk slid down and Kira clasped her hand, helping her over the sea of emerald folds.

Essie ran over and threw her arms around Cinderella. “Oh, Cinde, I’ll wear the white if it distresses you so. Please. Please do not cry. There have been enough tears, non?”

Cinderella returned her hug with a fierce intensity. “It’s not that,” she muffled against her shoulder. She straightened and set herself apart, and nodded to Manette.

The rich green silks cascaded over Essie’s body. Cinderella watched Essie’s reflection in the mirror with a sad smile. Yet, a sudden thrill rumbled through Cinderella. Essie would look her most stunning when they entered the ballroom.

Oui, it was time.

While Essie’s attention was absorbed in donning the green dress, Kira slid the glorious white masses over Cinderella’s head before. Tingling, shimmering particles touched the atmosphere.

As her head came through the wide neck, she caught Pricilla’s suspicious narrowed gaze, sweeping in to astonishment as the final transformation settled around Cinderella. The heap of cream fabric in the softest Chinese silk fell around her slight body. And as each fastener, stay by stay, molded her form, she wished for…for what?

The shimmers in the air morphed to a phosphorescence glow that could only be described as magical. Cinderella’s body prickled with chill bumps, making her feel both light-headed and dizzy. Panicked. She glanced about the chamber for a crack in the floor.

Pricilla’s quick sharp gasp brought Essie’s head around sharply. Her gaze shot straight to Pricilla’s focus—Cinderella. Silence deafened her, well, except for the blood pounding furiously through. Heat flaming her cheeks, Cinderella turned to the mirror in a slow thick motion. She met Pricilla’s accusing and Essie’s confused gazes in the glass.

Je suis désolée. I’m sorry, I-I could not find a way—this must appear. Non. I-I should have told you.” Tears streamed down her cheeks. But a sudden moment of resilience gripped her. Cinderella threw her shoulders back, tilted her head up, spun and looked at Essie. “I love him, you know. Me.

“But…but how?” Essie whispered. “How did you do it? You were at the ball. You are the mysterious princess.”

Cinderella slid to the floor on knees that no longer supported her. She covered her mouth with trembling fingers and closed her eyes against the hate and ridicule she would see in their expressions. A deathlike hush settled over the chamber. She gathered her courage and lifted her eyes to face their wrath.

But it wasn’t anger that met her. Essie’s mouth hung open, and Pricilla studied her with an intense practicality.

“I h-had a fairy godmother,” she stammered. “She did it to me.”

“A fairy godmother?” Pricilla echoed in disbelief.

“She did not do everything. You look—beautiful,” Essie choked out. “They are going to know. The minute we walk into that ballroom, they are all going to know. We cannot hide it!” Essie was stunned. But then a light lit her steady unblinking eyes. “That’s right; they are all going to know! How could I possibly marry Prince now?” Her relief would have been comical any other moment.

“Essie, quick. Help her up. She’ll muss the dress. Though, I must say with that crown on her head and those hoops surrounding her. She appears like a castle in the center of her own fortress poking out of puffy white clouds.”

“I want a crown,” Essie muttered rushing over.

“Crown?” Cinderella squeaked. Her fingers snaked up to her hair which had miraculously righted itself high above her head. Indeed a jeweled band wrapped her hair.

Pricilla tugged one arm, Essie the other, pulling Cinderella unceremoniously from the floor. The reprieve flooding her was severe enough to cause the lightheaded sensations that surely created more sparkles in the air. She hoped she would not faint; ’twas no time for such theatrics.

When she had her legs, and was certain they would hold, Cinderella met Essie’s eyes. Stark relief from Essie sparked with a glint of mischief, and they both turned to Pricilla.

“What should we do?” they demanded.