Tag Archives: Sweet Romance

{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.

“Pssst.”

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.

{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.

{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.

{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.