{28-Dec} The Wronged Princess ~ book i

“I believe I have now seen it all,” Arnald jeered.

Prince groaned before opening one eye. Arnald stood over him, hands at his hips. The smirk on his lips had Prince clenching a fist. “Is your hovering absolutely necessary?”

“Ha!” Arnald held out his hand, warding off any explanation Prince may have had inclined to offer. Which he did not. “Do not tell me. An attack of the vapors? Another swoon?”

Neither had occurred to Prince, and he stifled a surge of panic. “I should banish you to the dungeons. Feed you rations of molded bread and tepid water for the rest of your natural life.”

Arnald shot him a quick grin and stepped toward the table near his head. “Non. You know your blessed maman would never allow anything of the sort for her sister’s only child.”

That much was true. Arnald was difficult enough without encouragement from that quarter.

He sat up slowly. “I cannot seem to remember much of anything.” Well, nothing he was prepared to mention. Startling three attractive young women in his private sitting chamber did not bear mentioning. And how had they managed to get him to the settee? He was much too heavy. Mayhap they used the wind from Ernalda’s freakishly strong lashes.

“If I may be so bold—”

“Are you ever anything else?” he interrupted.

“—did you perhaps imbibe one too many, Cousin.”

“Imbibe?” Prince was ready to throttle him.

Arnald knelt down on one knee. “Your brandy snifter—” he said, picking up the base of the glass. He held it out in an open palm. “Broken.”

Dumbfounded, Prince repeated, “Broken?” He contemplated the smashed glass for a moment. His head did not seem to be pounding from the inside out. In fact, the last liquor he remembered feasting on was the small bit just before bed the night before. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, head in his hands. Something odd was going on. Instinct, whispered that his mother and her mysterious friend, Faustine, were, if not the entire cause, then certainly had some inkling behind the strange goings-on. He was sure of it. But what? “Call someone to clear up this mess. We have information to uncover. And I believe I know just where to begin.”

“Should we not be strategizing your kidnapping? The betrothal ball is but a few days, hence.”

He responded to Arnald’s sarcasm with a touch of his own. “Or mayhap a lynching,” he muttered.

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{25-Dec} The Wronged Princess ~ book i

Chapter 28

Cinderella snatched one arm and Essie the other as they dragged Pricilla into the first unlocked chamber they could find. Lucky for them, Pricilla’s amusement was so great it lessened her resistance.

“What?” Pricilla choked out, laughing so hard she bent at the waist. “I am just having a bit of fun.”

“You terrified that poor chambermaid out of her wits,” Essie accused.

“We shall never survive the aftermath,” Cinderella muttered. Her heart pounded furiously against her chest. She had to get that stick out of Pricilla’s hands, and soon, before she set the entire castle afire or turned everyone into chirping crickets.

“Where are we?” Pricilla asked, swiping tears from her eyes. Once she’d finally calmed enough to pose the question.

“Some poor unfortunate’s sitting room from the looks of it,” Essie said.

“Well, poor they are not, I would venture.” Cinderella cast a nervous glance round. Heavy brocaded drapes blocked out a good portion of the daylight but for a parted sliver. Heated coals smoldered in the hearth, and an empty brandy glass sat on a nearby table.

Cinderella had trouble believing Pricilla bore a single stint of remorse for her theft of the magic stick. In retrospect, it had mattered naught for Pricilla to steal the bread from Cinderella’s plate. She supposed that could not compare to a powerful silver baton.

Why, the two carried on as if Pricilla had not just whipped up a flock of butterflies scurrying round the palace, worthy of Essie’s batting eyes. Thousands of them: monarchs, tiger swallowtails, gossamers of every shape, size and color, all flitting about, covering every conceivable surface. Sending the servants into a horrific frenzy, with the betrothal ball just days away.

Cinderella had to admit, the situation would be outrageously comical, but for the consequences of their shenanigans. She, apparently, harbored enough terror for the three of them. “Do not touch a thing,” Cinderella hissed as Essie picked up the empty brandy glass and brought it to her nose.

Unfortunately, Cinderella’s stark command managed to trigger the opposite effect. Startled, the glass slipped from Essie’s finders. Thankfully, the elaborate rug padded the fall, and the glass rolled to a slow stop.

Cinderella stilled, breath stuck in her throat. Her pulse flailed wildly against the open palm she laid across her neck. Pricilla and Essie froze too. Not for long, however.

“Watch this,” Pricilla whispered, grinning. She extended the silver bar towards the glass, now laying on its side.

Cinderella watched, enthralled, in spite of her misgivings. The glass levitated from the floor and floated to mid-air, swaying precariously under Pricilla’s concentration.

Under her carefully guided journey, the glass was near complete to the table, a spectacular sight—until an adjoining door to the chamber burst open.

Pricilla and Essie’s gasps drowned Cinderella’s. Pricilla snatched her hand behind her back and the glass crashed against the edge. No graceful set down this time as it shattered in pieces when it hit the floor.

“Good afternoon, ladies. To what do I owe the pleasure?” Prince smirked from the doorjamb his arms folded across his chest.

Cinderella could not have moved had someone set her feet afire. He moved to the windows and whipped the drapes aside, flooding his features with late afternoon sun. The effect accentuated chiseled cheek bones and streaks of dirt over shirt open at the neck. His hair was plastered against his head in an unsightly, quite un-princely manner. He reeked of rich soil and fresh air. He was the most beautiful sight she’d ever laid eyes on. Her breath caught in her throat.

“Please tell me you had nothing to do with the mayhem thundering the halls?” Amusement colored his tone.

Heat that flamed Cinderella’s cheeks. Dear heavens, they were sunk. If Pricilla was able to keep the silver baton hidden, mayhap they could escape any real dire consequences. It took every ounce of restraint Cinderella could muster to not drop to her knees and beg for mercy.

She snuck a peek at Pricilla. But before Cinderella could screech out a warning, Pricilla whipped the cursed stick from behind and it slanted to the prince.

Her Prince. How could she!

Rendered immobile, Cinderella’s life flashed before her eyes in a series of dark stone dungeons equipped with a stretching rack, or worse—The Wheel. Administered by an evil, mustached-man armed with a leather strap to snap across her bare back. Essie’s cries would bounce off the dank walls she’d be manacled to. Rodents and other vile critters would pick over their broken bones. The pictured, so vivid, had her gasping for air.

Riveted and unmoving, except for a furious blinking that had the drapes fluttering with the shift in current, showed Essie suffered a similar vision.

Pricilla, however, was not to be deterred. Arm raised, she wore a vague smile on her lips. “My apologies, Sire,” she said softly. She flicked her wrist.

Prince—her wonderful, beloved, Prince—slumped to the floor like a lump of coal. “How dare you…how dare you…” the words choked from Cinderella in a chant, even as the shocking scene before her unfolded. Cinderella couldn’t seem to move. She wished herself dead.

Pricilla did not appear finished, She motioned the silver baton upward…lifting Prince in the process. Slowly, she guided his leaden body to the settee, arm shaking with her efforts. He dropped in an unceremonious heap on the settee.

“Don’t just stand there gaping like fish,” she hissed, startling Cinderella.

Cinderella jerked forward and wrapped her arms about his broad shoulders. Even deep breaths from Prince sent a surge of relief through her. She struggled to lay his back against the pillow while Essie struggled in shifting his booted legs over the arm rest at the other end.

“You’ve done it this time, Cill,” Essie accused, wheezing with exhaustion.

Cinderella barely registered Essie’s words when she found her cheek brushing his. The intimacy of the position shook her to her core. Heated breath from his parted lips on her skin created a brilliant charge in the air. She felt dizzy from the unexpected contact. Her fingers drifted to the hair felled over his brow.

If she dropped dead in this moment she would surely die a happy woman.

“Do hurry, Cinderella. We have no idea how long these efforts can be contained. This stick is unpredictable, at best.”

Cinderella snapped to, managing to arrange Prince as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. She resisted the urge to brush back a curling lock of hair from his forehead, and distanced herself at once.

“They are sure to hang us from the gallows,” Essie said, gulping for air.

Cinderella couldn’t have agreed more.

“There is the strangest current in the air,” Pricilla said. “I vow I did not do a thing.”

“Not much, you didn’t,” Essie muttered. “Quick, I believe he may be stirring.”

A statement that effectively sent them scrambling for the door.

{24-Dec} The Wronged Princess ~ book i

Chapter 27

“What do you mean you’ve misplaced your wand, Faustine? If this is another one of your little practical jokes, I’ll have you know, my sensibility level is knee-high, at best,” Thomasine ranted.

“Good heavens, Thomasine. What on earth could make you believe I would jest about such a thing? Why, the very idea of my wand in the wrong hands leaves me alarmed beyond comprehension.” She shuddered. “And, because the blasted thing has gone missing, I am stuck in this dust, rat-infested hole until we locate it.”

“What a horrid thing to say. My castle is not rat-infested.” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “But that is neither here nor there. You are right. It does not bear thinking of what consequences should emerge if the wrong person were to possess it. I best return, before someone wonders what has become of me. Give me a sign of some sort once you have located it.”

Thomasine swept from the room, leaving behind a flustered, frustrated Faustine. Disgust filled her. What more could go wrong?

Muted screams reached Faustine’s ears. “Well, that did not take long,” she muttered, darting for the door. One should not tempt fate in the manner of such a question, she chastised, hastily quitting the chamber.

{23-Dec} The Wronged Princess ~ book i

Hours moved swiftly into days, and Cinderella was amazed to find how natural her relationship with Pricilla and Essie progressed. To her astonishment, if her opinion differed from one of the others, then a word battle ensued before they were laughing it off. Her meek behavior, though not completely absolved, was moving to a thing of the past.

It was not perfect, of course. She was the first to realize there was much of the past to be forgiven, but for the first time since Papa’s death she felt a connection, as if the three of them became truly sisters. Most importantly, she was not destined to the isolated existence prevalent just days before. At least until Essie and Pricilla realized that she was the mysterious princess. She grimaced. Then they would hate her for sure.

And Prince? Would he resent her, as well, for deceiving him? Would his family?

She swallowed tears. ’Twas not the time to blubber like a fool.

Arm linked in Essie’s, Cinderella dragged Essie down the path toward the Eros pond. It might seem silly, but Cinderella found comfort in the statue’s presence, and she couldn’t traipse about along. The sun beat down on her new fashionable bonnet and droplets of perspiration gathered at her nape. They meandered along the path, awaiting Pricilla. “What is taking her so long?” Cinderella said

“What on earth?” Essie sputtered at the same time, spinning. Pricilla’s footsteps pounded down the path. “You sound like a herd of horses, Cill.”

Pricilla’s breath came in short stilted gasps as she pulled up, grabbing Essie’s arm, bent at the waist.

“You’d best take care, Pricilla, before you cause Stepmama an apoplectic seizure. Or yourself. What is that contraption you’re holding? And where in heaven’s name did you find it?”

It was a silver baton and Cinderella had a bad feeling. A very bad feeling.

“’Tis a stick, see?” She rose slowly, and held it out, turning it at various angles. “It’s the strangest thing.”

Deep foreboding spread through Cinderella. “What do you mean?” she whispered.

“It sort of quivers when I tilt it just so.” Pricilla demonstrated by grasping the slightly widened end.

“Mayhap it just looks like it quivers due to its sparkled and shiny exterior.” Essie scoffed.

But Cinderella eyed it warily. Sure enough, a small, yet discernible tremor emanated from the skinny stick jiggling in Pricilla’s fingertips.

“Quivers!” Essie snatched it from Pricilla’s hand. “Oh, my,” Essie breathed.

An odd shiver of apprehension snaked over Cinderella’s skin. “Where did it come from?”

“It sort of just rolled in front of me.” Pricilla shrugged. She shot a mischievous grin in their direction, and plucked it back from Essie. “It feels almost…alive.”

“Rolled in front of you where? “ Essie demanded.

“In the castle, silly,” she said rolling her eyes. Essie’s gaze was a fierce scrutiny and Pricilla huffed. Cinderella thought it a brilliant tactic. “Fine. I found it in a wing that may not be so inhabited,” Pricilla hedged.

“Not inhabited?” Cinderella squeaked. She could feel the panic closing her throat.

“Cill, you know we’re not supposed to explore that area!”

“Oh, please, Essie, who will know?” Pricilla narrowed her eyes on Essie. “Unless you take it upon yourself to say something, that is.”

Oh, no. They verged on the edge of blows—again. “For the sake of heaven, both of you!” Cinderella snapped. “Do you hear yourselves? This constant bickering is…is embarrassing, not to mention annoying.” Two gaped expressions turned on Cinderella that had heat flooding her face. Eyes squeezed tight, she place both palms to her cheeks. “Oh…oh, I’m sorry.”

Silence filled the air, when finally Essie barked out a sharp laugh and threw her arms about her. “Oh, Cinde. We truly are sisters, now.”

Tears burned the back of her throat. Cinderella opened her eyes and caught Pricilla’s sheepish grin.

Oui.” Pricilla was concurring? “When one takes comfort in raising one’s voice to another, as you have, Cinde, it does appear the relationship has truly evolved.” To Cinderella’s complete and utter astonishment, Pricilla reached out and hugged her too, poking her in the side with the shiny stick.

“Umph,” Cinderella grunted. “Um, Pricilla, your new stick is poking me.”

“Oh, je suis désolée, sorry,” she said, standing back. “Interesting little thing, is it not?” She swished it through the air creating a soft whistle.

Blooms sprouted in a rainbow of colors. From the tips of the tree limbs, throughout the fields as far as the eye could see. The air fairly choked with the convergence of overbearing sickly fragrances.

That sick feeling of dread Cinderella experienced over her skin spread to a chill down her spine as she circled slowly circle gaping. Essie collapsed in a heap on the stone bench facing Eros, hand covering her open mouth.

Cinderella glanced over at Pricilla.

Her mouth hung open too, but her gaze was stuck on the silver baton in her hand. “What the—”

“Cill!” Essie snapped, coming to her senses. Cinderella could not take it in. Periwinkles, thistles, daisies, goldenrods, orange jewelweed. They sprouted everywhere with no end in sight. Kept sprouting, in fact. “Make it stop, Cill.”

“I…I don’t know how.”

Cinderella had never heard Pricilla panic—and she was the sensible one.

“Wave the blasted thing,” Essie commanded.

“Oh, of course.” She did. The flowers faded away, leaving behind the scented atmosphere, which appeared somewhat bland in the aftermath. Pricilla stood immobile appearing as stunned as Cinderella felt.

“What…what happened?” Pricilla’s voice trembled.

Cinderella had yet to find her own voice. She swallowed hard and could not seem to keep her eyes from the stick in Pricilla’s fingers. The thing positively exuded a shimmering effervescent glow.

“I do believe you stick is magic,” Essie said, awed.

Pricilla dropped down on the bench beside her. “I do believe you are right.”

Essie’s curiosity spilled forth. “How does it work?”

There would be no stopping her sisters now, Cinderella realized, and a certain terror gripped her.

“How the devil should I know?” Pricilla said softly. She was clearly still in shock. Bewilderment touching her tone.

“Try something else,” Essie said. Her shock had blazed past, straight through to excitement.

“I have no idea what I did in the first place.”

“We surely need to take it back,” Cinderella squeaked out.

“Do be serious, Cinde. Surely, you are not averse to a little fun?” Essie said, eyes riveted on the object. The blasted thing had her mesmerized.

Someone had to do something, Cinderella thought, panic rising. Oh, this was a nightmare. What if the stick belonged to—

“What did you do that for?” Essie cried. “Ow! My shoe is getting too snug.”

“Oh, Ess, I’m sorry. Truly, I am. I just had a fleeting thought that if your feet were the same size as mine and pointed the stick…Oh, Essie—” Pricilla gasped.

Cinderella felt almost sorry for Pricilla. Her horrified expression made clear her intention was not to make Essie’s foot less dainty. But, heavens, the size of her foot changed! That stick could only belong to one person, and they needed to return it. Without delay.

“Pricilla!” Cinderella said sternly. “Come. Now.” She spun on her heel without waiting for either of them. Newly embraced or not, she strode up the path, praying they’d have sense enough to follow; they had to return that stick.

“I will not return it. Not just yet,” Pricilla called after Cinderella. “If this thing can adjust the size of one’s foot, just imagine the other possibilities.”

Cinderella froze in her tracks. She’d never be able to stand up to the both of them. She would just have to confiscate the thing in secret and return it herself. If Fairy Godmother got wind of this…well, it was bad enough she’d lost her shoe, but to have stolen her magic stick? ’Twas inconceivable.

She could only hope reigning terror did not befall them all in the interim. Streaks of silver and gold glitter fell gracefully from the sky.

{22-Dec} The Wronged Princess ~ book i

Chapter 26

 The next morning

Pressure bore down on Prince’s chest equivalent to that of an African elephant crushing his breast bone. The betrothal ball was but a mere sennight off and he was no closer to a solution than the moment the glass slipper slipped on Elma’s dainty foot. That name was just wrong.

He moved to the open window and placed a palm over his face, frustration miring panic. What if he couldn’t find a way out and really wound up married to a human advection motion detector? He lifted his head and stared out. Despite the sun rising over the horizon for what promised to be a beautiful day, his breakfast remained on a tray, cold and untouched.

A day of mending walls and tending tenant matters would go far in clearing his head. Deciding how to divert an impending wedding doomed for disaster without hurting an innocent young woman was difficult. The usual solution in these matters was the female crying off.

Prince was not fool enough to believe Lady Roche would allow either of her daughters any such thing. And, what of Cinderella? He was still unclear of her role in that strange little family. Mayhap he could ask Maman, if she could spare an audience. ’Twas looking less and less of a possibility. Still, if it saved a wedding with the wrong woman…

He let out a sigh. Non, Lady Roche’s consuming hatred of Cinderella stifled any union of that sort. And, short of sudden death he foresaw no graceful way from the situation.

Two hours later, Prince pounded his vexation on a fencing post, making great strides in his effort. “What am I to do about this betrothal ball?” Prince asked Arnald. He slammed the hammer on the post sending it deeper into the ground. Each whack sealed the debacle in which he found himself. He could feel moisture glistening off his body, his muscles rippling with each swing. He welcomed the unseasonably brutal sun.

“You could stage your own siege,” Arnald suggested. He hammered away at another post several feet over.

“’Tis obvious I cannot marry the chit,” Prince went on. The misery of a future with Earline threatened to unman him—a disaster of his own doing.

“Or your own kidnapping.”

“She is not so bad, I suppose. And her blinking does seem to have lost some of its velocity.” But to marry her when I love another? He couldn’t do it. There must be another solution. Ideally, he would have found his mysterious princess by this time, but each hour that passed pushed hope further from reach.

His lips tingled with an image of touching them to Cinderella’s hand. The unbidden thought was so unexpected he missed the post altogether with his next propulsion. He stumbled forward like a clumsy oxen. He swiped the sweat from his brow with a forearm.

“That is because you do not make her nervous any longer,” Arnald pointed out ruthlessly. “What about fainting again? That appeared to work well.”

Prince looked over his shoulder to Arnald. “Did you say something?”

{21-Dec} The Wronged Princess ~ book i

Chapter 25

 “Faustine, what the devil are you about?” Thomasine hissed. “I do not remember an agreement to stirring up the wind.”

“Such language, dear,” she sniffed. “And the wind is not my doing.”

“Of course, it is. Who else could it be?”

Thomasine glanced about for curious ears. She sat in a chair elevated on a platform, observing the festivities before swinging her gaze back to Faustine.

Faustine was postured through a break in the trees tapping her foot impatiently. One hand was fisted at her hip, the other waving in a precarious position. Her expression gave Thomasine pause. “Well, then…who…?” Thomasine’s question trailed as her eyes landed on the source and light dawned. “Ah, my apologies, Sister Dear. I, ah, see the problem. Alessandro has Cinderella’s hand yet again. Hmmm. It’s clear our Esmeralda harbors a longing for the Conte’s elder son.”

Faustine’s grunt sounded through the branches. “Where is the hag, dear?”

Thomasine’s gaze spanned the grounds, locating Lady Roche cornered by the Conte near the refreshment tent. “Being nicely detained at the moment. Your handiwork?”

“Well, I had my doubts it would work a second time, ma chère. I can only offer the suggestion by way of…” she waggled her hand. “I cannot force love. Hmmm. Somehow, I’ve misplaced by wand.”

“A shame that. Sweeping her from Chalmers—” A rousing cheer roared through the crowd.

“What is it, Thomasine?”

Thomasine cocked her head toward the archery targets. “It seems Esmeralda just scored a bull’s-eye on the archery target.”

“Esmeralda?” Faustine asked, clearly stunned. “I thought Pricilla was the expert with a deadly weapon.”

{18-Dec} The Wronged Princess ~ book i

At the perimeter of the west lawn, Prince observed the afternoon’s entertainments. He had yet to locate Cinderella and the other two. He’d grown accustomed to searching them out. Their carriage had yet to return from the garden outing. He, Arnald, and Alessandro had made their way back long before the others.

Prince’s reasons included limiting de Lecce’s access to Cinderella.

The servants were busy arranging targets for the upcoming archery bout and guests were beginning to meander their way in that direction. de Lecce emerged from the west doors followed his younger brother, Niccòlo.

The resemblance between the brothers was striking. Niccòlo’s tall frame, dark hair, and eyes would prove sound competition in the not so far future. Prince found himself very happy Niccòlo was much too young at ten and seven right now. He pushed away thoughts either de Lecce could pose a threat to the Prince of Chalmers. What an absurd notion.

Another ten minutes crept past before he spotted his quarries. All three of them. Prince set off down the path to meet their carriage, a quick smile touching his lips. The gray skies parted, teasing him with a sliver of blue sky.

The vision of Cinderella in a frock of soft cream trimmed with shimmering bronze ribbons had the heavens parting. If she was his bride he’d never allow her to wear brown again. No matter how rich the hue. She deserved rainbows, with the pot of gold at the base. He hauled himself up on the path stunned by such inappropriate thoughts.

These were dangerous, traitorous, but by God, they brandished him inside out. He spun, unable to face the girls suddenly. Truly, an act of cowardice. His attempt to withdraw fell short. He was too close to the carriage to retreat gracefully.

His eyes fell on Cinderella’s warmth. Her presence struck a subtle, yet elusive, chord that had his heart thumping wildly against his chest. Her lips tilted at the sight of him. She would not be such a hardship to marry.

“Sire.” Lady Pricilla startled him out of his reverie.

“Lady Pricilla, may I be of assistance?” Prince offered his arm. “Lady Esper—.” He hid a grimace, bowing low.

“Did you mean me? Lady Es…Lady Es. She narrowed her gaze on him.

Heat surged up his neck. “Lady Cinderella.” His voice dropped a fraction. The air came alive with an unexplained brilliance. His fingers tingled with sensations he had difficulty identifying; not unsimilar to ones he’d experienced the day they’d arrived.

He swung back quickly to Pricilla, clearing his throat. “I trust your outing was pleasant.” Maintaining a façade was decidedly awkward, something he’d never thought he’d have to do.

Clasping his hands at his lower back he escorted the trio toward the west lawn. From the corner of his eye he spied de Lecce’s determined gait bearing down on them, Niccòlo fast on his heels. Prince suppressed a grin at the picture of a not-so-far-in-the-future more mature Niccòlo giving de Lecce a legitimate run when it came to paying attendance to the ladies.

“We did indeed,” Lady Pricilla answered. She glanced over at the others. “It was most enlightening.” She was quite a picture when she held her head like that. Finding her an advantageous match should not be so difficult, he thought graciously.

There was a change in the three, some secret they seemed to share. Yet, he did not sense the urge of unrestrained laughter. More like an affable affection. No trace of their prior hostility lingered. Prince found himself charmed by their unexpected amiability. “How do you ladies fare at archery?”

“Fair, sir,” Lady Pricilla said. Her tone almost warm.

A snort resonated from the direction the others. And since he was almost certain Cinderella would never resort to such inarticulate sonority, it stood to reason the sound bounded from Esmeralda. He took a moment to savor the thrill in getting her name right, even if ’twas only in his thoughts.

Buon pomeriggio, onorevoli. May I present my fratello, Niccòlo?” Alessandro said with a tilt of his head. He was slightly out of breath.

Prince bit back a burst of laughter as Niccòlo clicked his heels together loudly, bowed. Oh, the very young.

“Charmed.” Esperalda beamed him a bright smile and short curtsy.

Please, Prince wanted to shout but managed to restrain. Nor did he roll his eyes.

Cinderella and Pricilla curtsied as well. Alessandro grasped Cinderella’s hand and placed it on his arm. Niccòlo followed suit with Pricilla leaving Prince no other option but to escort Emalia. A less than gentle breeze kicked up the air.

Perfect.