{11-Jan) The Wronged Princess – book i

Chapter 32

“Maman, what were you thinking? The queen could have you thrown in the gallows.”

“Oh, my dear, Pricilla.”

Pricilla would have been prone to laughter were the outcome not so alarming.

“That child shall be the death of me,” she spat. “Of us. All of my carefully laid plans.”

Pricilla watched her mother fan her face with the exaggerated dramatics of the jesters hired for a lavish evening designed for entertainment. She led Maman down the quiet corridor, still working to slow the pounding of her heart. It threatened to land on the imported rugs they walked upon. A bloody mess it would be, too.

Lord, if she had not awakened and…Why, it was almost as if she’d possessed some sort of insightful magical powers that had her checking Maman’s bed. When she’d discovered her missing—well, that did not take magical powers. It only took living with Maman for the last eighteen years. ’Twas only a matter of moments before Pricilla directed her through the door of a plush chamber. She led Maman to the bed and lowered herself into a nearby chair on wobbly legs.

Pricilla looked over at her mother. Maman was illuminated by silver moonlight streaming through sheer linings. She was a problem. Something dire was bound to happen if they did not find some way to stop her first. But how on earth could she and Essie keep watch on Maman’s day in and day out? And on the heels of the betrothal ball, ’twould be a miracle someone did not end up dead or worse.

Pricilla should have never shoved that silver baton in Cinderella’s hands, she thought morosely. She could have taken care of things quite nicely with that little stick. She propped her chin on a fist. Nothing or no one else came to mind. They were on their own.

“That despicable child led me astray,” Maman hissed.

“Shush, Maman, someone will hear,” Pricilla whispered desperately. She jumped up and adjusted the pillows before Maman could work herself into a frenzy. Pricilla stayed Maman with an arm as she attempted to rouse from the bed. It took strenuous effort.

“She is out to destroy me. Moi.” She flounced her large frame.

Pricilla flinched at the viciousness in her tone. Had Maman always been so monstrous? Pricilla pushed the question from mind, knowing answers in the reflection glass of herself would not glean such a pretty picture.

“Mayhap, you have one of your megrims, Maman. Where is your potion?” Pricilla used the moonbeam through the window to search the vanity.

An odd flicker tinged the atmosphere but it was gone in a flash. A quick glance through sheer drapes showed clear skies, the moon full. Strange.

Moving to the bedside table, Pricilla spotted the potion and a small glass. Funny, she thought she’d looked there. In a fit of sheer madness, it dawned on Pricilla what she must do. With shaking fingers she uncorked the potion. “Maman?” Pricilla asked softly.

Oui, dearest. My potion. I-I do seem to be having one of my megrims.”

Pricilla poured a measure into the glass. Then, lest she stop herself, poured another, then another… She placed the glass to Maman’s lips.

Maman drank hungrily.

“Sleep, Maman. Soon you’ll feel much better,” Pricilla said, softly. She pressed Maman back against the pillows, then brushed a lock of hair from her forehead.

Merci, darling.” Maman patted her cheek. “I have always favored you, you know, ma chère?” She whispered, a smile on her lips. Her eyes drifted shut.

Je suis desolée, Maman,” Pricilla choked out. Her voice sounded rough and raspy to her own ears. “The betrothal ball is on the morrow. You need your sleep, you know.” Pricilla grasped Maman’s hand and lowered herself onto the mattress, shocked and dry-eyed, appalled by her actions. “I love you.”

Maman would not be giving anyone trouble much longer.

Pricilla sat there for a long while.

{09-Jan) The Wronged Princess – book i

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.

{08-Jan) The Wronged Princess – book i

Chapter 31

Cinderella tried her best. She sank deeper in the coverlets pulled to her chin. It did little to dispel the chill in her grand chamber, though she was so tired. Sleep felt hours away.

’Twas a miracle she’d managed supper. The little bites of food she’d barely wielded on her fork somehow made it past her lips. But the fear of choking, or worse, was too great to struggle much more than one or two attempts at best. Even though she hadn’t really seen her, she knew Stepmama had kept a very close eye on her. Suddenly, Cinderella wanted nothing more than to be ensconced in her own little corner, in her own little chair, back in the cottage where her imagination let her be whatever she wanted. Invisible.

Enduring the painful supper had seemed infinitely preferable than what waited her beyond. Stepmama had plans, of that she was certain. Cinderella could not manage even one more swallow had Stepmama not been seated within her sights.

And when Pricilla leaned over, she thought she would die. “What did you do with the magic stick?” Pricilla demanded.

A nervous start jerked Cinderella. She caught Essie’s frown from across the massive table. It was obvious Essie did not comprehend their low tones.

“Well?” Pricilla whispered.

“I-it broke,” Cinderella whispered back, stammering.

“Broke!” Pricilla’s high pitched muffled squeal had Cinderella wincing and several heads shifting in their direction. The one bright spot were the flags of red spotting Pricilla’s cheeks.

Cinderella’s burned too. Pricilla shoveled a mouthful of food to hide her embarrassment, while Cinderella knew trying to eat would only draw more attention once she started to asphyxiate. She settled for a sip of water instead.

Pricilla lifted a glass to her lips to hide her mouth. “You knew I did not want to return that stick yet.”

Stubborn resolve set Cinderella’s jaw. “There was no choice. It wasn’t ours,” she snapped behind her own glass.

“How did you know who it belonged to?”

Cinderella had no answer for that, but found herself saved by Essie.


Cinderella’s head came up quickly. Essie cocked her head indicating the end of the table.

“Maman is watching,” Pricilla hissed. “We’ll speak later.”

The knots in Cinderella’s stomach clinched as new waves of qualms flummoxed her, bringing her back to the present. Perhaps she should just find the dungeons on her own, lock herself away in their depths. Or mayhap Pricilla and Essie would lend their assistance by stashing her there and throw away the key.

Non. She sighed and tugged the covers to her chin. She would be on her own this night, Stepmama had ensured that. In earlier days, hope might have lain with an appearance by Fairy Godmother but Cinderella’s fate had been sealed once she’d stepped on that silver baton.

Despair settled over her like the heavy blanket weighing her down. Essie would marry Prince. She blinked back weary tears. He would never know his mysterious princess stood feet away watching every sordid detail, she thought glumly. The thought made her so very tired.

Perhaps, she just needed to see things from a different perspective. Luck had been with her after supper. For now, here she laid, snuggled deep in her bed with nary a word from Stepmama, just a few side glances Cinderella had meekly endured. Of course, things had been tense and uncomfortable, but Cinderella was certain she’d been successful in hiding her anxiety.

’Twas a blessing, at least, Stepmama had not demanded a solitary audience with her. Cinderella would never have come out ahead in that clash. Squashed like a bug, she’d be.

She closed her eyes and focused on the silence in the chamber. The sheer hush would unnerve even the bravest of souls. She shuddered beneath the heavy covers. Everyone knew she was the least brave person in all the land. ’Twas her last thought as draining fatigue finally claimed her.

{07-Jan) The Wronged Princess – book i

Chapter 30

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.

{06-Jan) The Wronged Princess – book i

Cinderella hid in the shadows of the darkened corridor, praying her light colored frock would not draw the attention of Prince and his cousin.

But, alas, luck was not with her. At least not good luck. Prince strode from the chamber, Sir Arnald fast on his heels. Surprise lit Prince’s eyes when they landed on her. His slow smile ignited a pulsating fire through her veins.

The stick in her hand began vibrating with a thrumming energy, reverberating up her arm, making its way through her entire body. Before coherent thought rationed her brain, she held it out—freezing the two men quite immobile. Horrified and shocked by her actions she looked at the stick, dumbfounded, uncertain what she’d accomplished or why? Could she make them forget they’d seen her?

She raked a hungry gaze over Prince and a positively evil thought took hold. She could test the theory. She wished to touch him. Just once. Before the inevitability of his and Essie’s nuptials. Would he remember? Mortification, humiliation would dog her to her death and beyond. Not to mention the end of an untarnished reputation or the love-turn-hate of a sister.

Hadn’t Cinderella and her sisters already stacked enough bad deeds against them? Oui! Enough to have them drawn and quartered several times over. But somehow in that moment she could not seem to care.

Was that so terrible?

Oui, it was, the prim, practical, timid voice in her head screamed even as she stepped toward him.

But one kiss, who would know besides she? Roaring silence filled the passageway. One more step found her in touching distance. Spicy soap assailed her senses, and before she could stop herself, Cinderella closed her eyes, tipped up on her toes and touched the corner of his mouth with her lips. Floating on air had nothing on such a daring adventure, touch of his lips. Heart pounding furiously, she lowered her heels, opened her eyes, and stepped back. There was a lovely firmness that contrasted with such velvet. She brought her fingers to her mouth.

Time suspended, holding her prisoner. She’d never acted so indecently. She stared at him as if he were Eros, come to life, yet he remained still as the statue, itself.

“Nicely handled, my dear.”

Startled, Cinderella jumped back, the stick clattering to the floor.

“Ah, there it is. I wondered where I’d misplaced it.”

Shamed burned through her. Her deplorable behavior fastened her in place.

“Oh, Fairy Godmother. I-I am, I—” Cinderella took another step back.

The distinct crack of wood had her gasping for air. Oh, no. No, no, no. She’d broken the magic stick. This could not be happening. Hands flew to her flamed cheeks. She waited for Prince to snap out of his frozen reverie. Denounce her very life. But not so much as a flicker of his eyelash fluttered. She dare not move. “Oh. I…I…” Her voice croaked in horror.

Fairy Godmother’s dainty palm came up to halt Cinderella mid-sentence. “Did you break it, do you think? My wand, dear? Thank the heavens you found the blasted thing. ’Twould not do for it to fall into nefarious hands.” She dipped forward and swiped two distinct pieces from the ground.

“Oh, my,” Cinderella whispered. She had definitely broken it. She was too stunned to cry. “I shall—shall—” An audible gulp was impossible to mask. Resigned, she squared her shoulders. ’Twas time to pay the piper. “I shall turn myself in, of course. ’Tis only fitting I should be locked up. The dungeon would be preferable to the gallows, however. Is it possible…you could recommend…I would be most grateful…I…I imagine there are friends in the dungeon. Or, mayhap, Marcel…I am friendly with mice, you see. They are not so terrible, you know. He…is not…so…”

“Cease your prattling, dear child. It is not as dire as all that. Worry naught. I shall handle matters from here. Do you think you can manage your way back?”

Cinderella did not think so, but she could not seem to form a coherent sentence to convey the fact.

“Run along, dear.”

“But, I need to tell Essie. He…she…they…” Cinderella flung out her hand unable to put sound to the word ‘betrothed.’

“Let us not mention this little incident further, hmm?”

“But—” She choked at Fairy Godmother’s stern gaze. “No…no, of course not.” She stammered while heat burned her face. She swung on her heel. Then stopped, and asked over her shoulder, “Prince? Sir Arnald?”

“Not to worry, child. These spells never last long. You handled things magnificently, if I must say.”

Pressing her luck was not an option. She ran for the cover of darkness—never mind the lack of ladylike etiquette, or the fact that she had no inclination, whatsoever, on how to find her way back. Or the many questions she’d had for her elusive Fairy Godmother, once she’d set eyes on her again.

Perhaps another time, she promised herself, and fled for safety.

{05-Jan) The Wronged Princess – book i

“I must protest this avenue of your investigation,” Arnald complained.

“If you are frightened, by all means, I will meet up with you later.” Prince was vastly amused by Arnald’s discomfort, and he took great delight in letting him see so.

“I am not afraid,” he growled.

But Arnald hesitated at the door of the chamber where Prince heard his mother conspiring with the mysterious Faustine. Prince sauntered in, using the taper he held to light two of the four sconces on the wall. “Much better,” he said, glancing around.

The chamber was not large by any means. A chair with worn fabric in one corner and beside it a heavy square table. There were no candles or other objects to identify the recent occupants but for the unsettled grime. Only the damning evidence of Maman’s voice in his head from the prior day.

Waves crashing below sounded through a window that was much too high to peer from.

“What are you looking for, Cousin?” Arnald’s barely concealed sarcasm rebounded.

“Ah, I see you recovered from your weak constitution” Prince said, dryly.

Weak constitution.” Arnald’s indignation had Prince unable to hold back a burst of laughter. Arnald’s eyes focused on something behind Prince, standing the hair at his nape on end. “Bonjour, Madame,” Arnald smiled.

Prince spun quickly shocked to see his mother.

“Oh, dear,” she muttered softly.


She cleared her throat with a delicate cough. “It appears your maman failed to mention a twin, I see.”

Twin?” he choked out. “But—” Of course, she was a twin. At first glance, they looked exactly the same but for the elaborately fashioned hair built high on her stately head. They had the same dark eyes and upturned noses and slight builds. He would hazard the only discernible difference, upon closer examination, was a tiny mole on his aunt’s left cheek. Though his mother would not have been caught dead in a frock of such frilly, pink nonsense. He leaned closer. “Are those diamonds, threaded throughout your gown, Madame?”

“Ahem…” She inclined her head, identically to his mother. “Mais oui, mon cher. I must say,” she said. “You are the spitting image of your papa. I am quite proud of you.”


“Are you unwell, dear?” She furrowed her brows. “You keep repeating me. It could be a sickness of the mind, you know.”

Prince could hardly comprehend the thread of conversation at the sight of an aunt long thought dead. It was no secret Arnald was his cousin, but how could Maman keep a twin sister a secret. And why? Oh, were they past time for a chat.

“Maman, I believe you have left my cousin thoroughly speechless. A remarkable feat, actually.” Arnald’s humor had bounded back in full force.

Prince recovered himself with an effort and narrowed his eyes on the tiny woman before him. “Does my maman know you are about, Tante?”

Oui,” she responded with a wave of her hand. “We are quite close, you know.”

Close? He strived for a measured breath. It was obvious he needed to keep his wits about him. This, of course, had to be the mysterious Faustine. His mother’s sister. His aunt.

“So you and my darling, conniving, Maman have been manipulating the recent events of my life,” he said. The more he considered “recent” events, the more perfect sense it made, and the more incensed he became. He struggled for composure, however. “I wonder what conclusions you have come to, Tante. I would be most curious to hear.”

“Oh, my. I do believe you are angry, oui?” she twittered.

“Angry, Madame?”

“Now, my dear, you would not dare to threaten such a dainty creature? A woman this small in stature, mind, could not hope to create so much as a bustle of concern.” Arnald laughed. He stood with folded arms across his chest and shoulder against the doorframe. His lofty wit was annoying and did not help in restoring Prince’s usually collected attitude.

“Humph. You are telling me, because she is so small, she could not cause havoc?” Prince dare not take his eyes from the woman before him who begun a pace about the room. He had the distinct feeling she might evaporate into thin air. A handy trick these women were able to execute at the snap of a finger.

“That is neither here nor there, Nephew.”

Prince drew his fiercest scowl. “You dare to taunt me, Madame? I am the future king.”

“And I am your elder, you shall address me with respect.” She actually snapped at him. “Now, dear, you must let your confidence guide you.”

Confidence? Guide him? “I feel the most sudden urge to meet with my own maman,” he muttered.

Oui, oui. I suppose you must.” She plopped down in the one chair, planted an elbow on the table and rested her chin in her palm.

Arnald moved to her and went down on bended knee. He clasped her small hand in his. “What is it, Maman? You are distressed, non?”

“Dear boy.” A tender touch to his head had Prince compelled to look away. “Naught that with which you could help.” She pulled her hand away. “Be gone, both of you. We shall speak soon enough.”

{04-Jan) The Wronged Princess – book i

Chapter 29

 “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.

All clear.

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.