“For goodness’ sake!” her stepmother muttered. “We really don’t have time for this. Go on, girls, the carriage is waiting. I’ll just be a moment.”
The girl hesitated before setting her foot on the next step down, watching her sisters disappear, smirking.
“I’m waiting for an explanation,” her stepmother said.
The girl took two more steps down, cautiously because suddenly the too-big shoes seemed far more of a problem than they had when she had put them on in her room.
“I … that is …”
“Get down here at once and address me properly.”
She stumbled on the next step and had to grab the banister to steady herself.
Her stepmother stood with her hands folded in front of her. Waiting.
The girl arrived at the bottom of the staircase and dropped a slightly wobbly curtsey. Her beautiful blue skirt billowed out around her and she stroked it gently as she rose. Chin high, she said, “I’m ready to go to the ball, Madam.”
Her stepmother said nothing.
“I’ve finished all my work, you can check if you like. And I found this dress of my mother’s. I just had to adjust it a little. And—” She fumbled in her tiny evening bag. “I have an invitation.”
Her stepmother held out her hand for the thick white card with its gold edge. Holding it away from herself, she put her lorgnette to her eyes.
The girl shifted nervously in her unaccustomed shoes.
Her stepmother looked up. Her lorgnette fell to dangle at her side. “Oh dear,” she said, her voice dripping with sadness. “Someone at the palace has made a dreadful mistake, haven’t they? Poor you! Mistakes were bound to be made, amongst all the hundreds of invitations they were sending out. How could they know, never having come across you personally, that sending you an invitation would be … inappropriate?”
She picked up her lorgnette again and peered through it at the girl. “And really, my dear, you should have known better. Look at that dress! Why it’s twenty years out of date! And that, there, that looks like a moth hole!”
The girl focused on the strands of silver that ran through the cloth.
“Think of your dear sisters,” her stepmother was saying. “This is a big opportunity for them. They don’t want people to associate them with ... this…” She plucked at the girl’s skirt. “You really should think more about other people, child. How shaming it would be for them if you were by their side.”
The lorgnette fell again and her stepmother took her hand and turned it over. “And look,” she said, her voice full of pity. The girl’s calloused, chapped, hard-working palm lay on her stepmother’s soft, white manicured one. “You can hardly expect a prince to want to take this hand, can you? To be quite frank, my dear,” she whispered. “I think it might have been a good idea to take a bath too.”
Her stepmother dropped the girl’s hand and stepped away. “Now we all have a long night ahead of us. I suggest you have an early night, so you can be up and ready assist us all when we get home some time after midnight.” She looked down at the invitation in hand. “I think it’s probably best if we just forget this ever happened, don’t you?” She tore the invitation in two and held it out to the girl.
“Dispose of this, will you?”