Originally I intended The Ugly Stepsister to be a standalone novel. But I loved the characters too much to let them go in one book--hence I wrote a companion novella titled Princess of Athelia, in which you'll get more of the hero/heroine's story : ) I have not set a publication date yet, but it definitely will be out this year.
“I simply fail to comprehend what Edward sees in you.”
I try to make my smile appear as sincere as I can manage. Lady Petunia, aka Her Most Honorable Duchess of Somerset, has called upon me for afternoon tea, and there’s no way I can refuse. We sit in a small pavilion in the palace gardens, sipping sweetened ice tea, while a gentle breeze waffles in the air. It should be peaceful, it should be delightful, but the atmosphere couldn't be more unbearable.
She’s Edward’s aunt, I tell myself. And Henry’s mother. And Elle’s future mother-in-law. So don’t antagonize her, no matter how much you feel like pelting her with macaroons.
“Perhaps you can ask him,” I offer in the sweetest tone I can muster.
“Those freckles!” The duchess holds up a monocle and peers at me closely as though I’m some insect under a microscope. “Really, child, have you not tried anything to remove those freckles? It is imperative that you look flawless on your wedding day.”
A pang hits me briefly. Wedding day. That will also be the day that I leave Edward. Although both of us have agreed NOT to talk about my departure, and I’ve told myself NOT to think of the inevitable, there are times when I can’t help wondering what it will be like when I’m gone. Will I disappear altogether? What about the old Katriona? Krev is missing these days, so I can’t ask him about it, and honestly speaking, part of me doesn’t even want to because I dread how he’ll answer.
“Of course,” I say lightly. “The idea of marrying with a freckled nose is simply unthinkable. I forgot there is a written rule that forbids the bride to be anything but absolutely perfect.”
She glares at me. “Your attitude could use some pruning, young lady. I need hardly remind you that flippancy is highly unattractive for a girl of your age.”
And yet this is why Edward fell in love with me, I am tempted to retort. I look down at my hands, itching to take out my pocket watch. Such a pity that they don’t have wrist watches in Athelia.
“I ought to have a word with Madame Dubois,” the duchess continues, still frowning. “Now that you are marrying into the royal family, you must learn to conduct yourself with propriety. Tell me, Katriona, is it true that you have offered to stand witness for Poppy Montgomery when she ran away to Ruby Red with a solicitor?”
Her words drip with contempt. Having considerable experience with such a condescending tone—thank you, Lady Bradshaw—I just nod and smile as though she’s asking what I had for breakfast.
“Good heavens!” The duchess spills tea from her cup. I grab a napkin and hand it to her. “So it is true that you supported a thoughtless, headstrong girl’s decision to be married without the blessing of her parents?”
“She does have her parents’ blessings. Mr. Davenport convinced her father that he is worthy of her, and they had a proper wedding at Sir Montgomery’s house.”
“She ought to have gained permission first,” the duchess says with a sniff. “Such willful disobedience! I am sure, Katriona Bradshaw, that now you are to become a member of the royal family, you will not engage nor encourage such scandalous behavior.”
It takes every ounce of restraint not to give her the finger. Emilie, my new maid, saves me from engaging in such scandalous behavior.
“A message for Her Highness.”
“Edward is finished with his business?” Usually, in the mornings, he has to stay in his room, drafting memorandums, writing letters to foreign ambassadors, reviewing pages and pages of documents akin to law school material that make me squint and yawn. I never knew a prince could be this busy.
“Madame Dubois wishes to see you.”
My heart falls. More lessons on deportment and etiquette. Just when I’m thinking I’ve had enough of lady lessons, I have princess lessons. I have to learn geography and history and even a second language. The life of a royal isn’t the way the fairy-tales paint it—at least, not in Athelia.
“Then she ought not be kept waiting,” the duchess says. “I hope that by the time you are engaged, you will have sufficiently improved.”
Seriously, with a mother who is worse than Lady Bradshaw, I wonder how Henry stayed a good kid. I rise and sink into a curtsy. No wobbling at all—I told Emilie I’d need to wear comfortable shoes or she’d be seeing bruises on my knees every day.
“I thank you for your company, Lady Catherine—um, Lady Petunia,” I say. Whoops. But I’ve never seen anyone more similar to Lady Catherine de Bourgh than the duchess.
* * *
When we reach the end of the corridor, Emilie takes a turn and goes down a flight of winding stairs. I’m still unfamiliar with the palace, but I do realize that we are not heading to the torture chamber… I mean, the schoolroom, where I have princess lessons.
“Emilie, is Madame Dubois really expecting me?”
“Of course she is,” Emilie says.
“Excuse me if I’m wrong, but I don’t really think we’re heading in the right direction.”
“Oh.” Emilie doesn’t even look back. “His Highness has ordered to have your lessons scheduled for an hour later.”
I knew it. Sure enough, once we reach the foot of the staircase, there is Bertram, grinning like a big puppy. He must be happy to see me… not. It’s Emilie. I have a sneaking suspicion that Edward arranged Emilie to be my lady-in-waiting because Bertram has a crush on her. Which is not to say that Emilie isn’t competent. She’s brisk and efficient and loyal, and unlike some of the older, more experienced servants, she never lets me feel that I’m not good enough for Edward. Just… she’s only seventeen but acts like she’s thirty—all matronly, bossy, and frightfully practical.
“Princess Kat,” Bertram exclaims. He glances at Emilie briefly before making me a magnificent bow. “May I escort you to the garden?”
“I know the way,” I say quickly. “I’ve been there a dozen times already. Why don’t you escort Emilie back to my suite?”
Bertram brightens. Emilie, however, doesn’t look too enthusiastic. She crosses her arms and deals me a glance that makes her look just like my kindergarten teacher. “Forgive me, but it would take about twenty minutes to get from here to His Highness’s garden even if with the shortcut. Since you have lost your way around the palace no less than twice a day, it’s far better that Bertram show the way. You won’t be doing him any favors if His Highness has to wait too long to see you.”
Damn—she owns me. I consider arguing that even if I become lost, there will be plenty of other servants to show me the way, but her words have struck a chord.
Bertram strides forward, an urgent look in his eyes. “Allow me take you there right away, Princess Kat.”
* * *
My heart beats faster when I approach that familiar door draped with ivy. No matter how many times I’ve visited Edward’s garden, I still get butterflies in my stomach, knowing that he is waiting for me. I take out the big golden key--he had a duplicate made for me the instant I moved in the palace--and insert it into the keyhole.
No sooner have I closed the door than a hand seizes my wrist and tugs me forward. A blur of royal colors flash in front of me, my chin is lifted, and then warm lips descend on mine—heated, passionate, filled with hunger, like a traveler finally discovering an oasis in the desert. Edward encircles me in his arms, melding my body against his, and I forget everything except trying to stay upright.
I gulp down a huge breath of air when he finally lets me go.