Also, I'm giving away a signed paperback copy for every ten kindle preorders I receive. All you have to do to enter is (1) preorder the book (2) forward the receipt to me at kendraeardnek(at)Gmail(dot)com and (3) have a U.S. address that I can ship it to.
Furthermore, if 100 preorders somehow happen, I will be sending an additional four people a signed set of all six books!
Now, on to what you came here for. The shiny first chapter that will tell you yessirree, you want this book on your kindle October 19th, no questions asked.
1 – Wherein Royal Guests are Too Good to be True
Once upon a time, in a land called Bookania, there lived a girl who was a servant in her own household. Her stepmother and stepsisters kept her busy the whole day long with cooking, cleaning, sewing, running errands … and pretty much anything else they could think of to occupy her time.
And so he was doing at the start of my story. Her stepsisters had made a disaster of the sitting room the night before, having had a party without their mother’s permission, but, of course, they’d not been punished for it. It was still the girl’s job to clean up after it, all on her own.
It wasn’t fair, but there was nothing that the girl could do about it. She could only keep her head down and work until the day she could break free. But, days like this, it felt like freedom would never come.
A pounding sounded at the door, interrupting her thoughts. Her breath caught. Should she answer? The knock came again, and she scrambled to her feet. She couldn’t know if anyone else had heard, and she was close enough to done with the cleaning. Perhaps she’d be punished later for the presumption, but, for a moment’s chance to pretend she was someone in her own house … it’d be worth it.
Author knew how rarely that happened.
A young man stood on the other side of the door, with a bright smile, golden hair, and a flourished bow.
“Is your mistress in?” he asked. “I’m afraid that the heat has gotten to the princess, and she begs the sanctuary of your roof for but a few minutes while she recovers.”
“The princess?” the girl repeated, blushing in fear of appearing ignorant. “What princess? Has Prince Edward finally…” She snapped her mouth shut. It wasn’t her place to comment on royal matters. It wasn’t even her place to answer this door.
“Princess Robin of Locksley,” the man clarified, looking a bit ashamed, himself. “I apologize for the confusion. She is visiting her cousin and doesn’t think that she can make it the rest of the way to the palace.”
He gave a conspiratorial grin.
The grin blinked and then dipped into a deep curtsey. “Let me go get my Stepmother.”
She heard a small gasp from the young man, his smile melting to surprise as she turned away. She gave it little mind as she hurried to find her Stepmother. Lady Aurane hated to be disturbed for any reason – and she was especially testy of late – but she’d want this chance to show off before royalty.
She steeled herself before knocking at the door to what had once been her father’s office.
“Cinderella!” came her stepmother’s shriek, as she opened the door. “Are you done cleaning yet? I swear, child, if you’re bothering me without finishing your chores, you will be punished for it!”
Ella swallowed down frustration at the hateful nickname that had clung to her just lie that had earned it. All she’d wanted was to stay warm in the winter!
“We have guests, Stepmother,” she answered, keeping her voice as calm and as confident as she could manage. “The Princess Robin is suffering in the heat on her way to visit her cousin and wishes to stay a moment under the sanctuary of our roof. I just thought you would want to know.”
The door flew open and there stood her stepmother – a tower of intimidation in her black widow’s silks.
“Did you let them in already?”
Ella quickly shook her head. “I…”
“Foolish girl!” Lady Aurane declared. “Well, no matter – I shall go invite her in myself. Go wake my daughters. It’s past noon, and they should be up by now.” She pushed past Ell and paused to preen before a mirror. “Well, hurry along! Don’t just stand there, gawking.”
Ella turned and rushed away. It would never do to make her stepmother angry.
It took every ounce of Meg’s concentration to neither burst into laughter at Robin’s performance, nor burst apart at the seams at he proximity to her sister. Dear little Elsie – Ella! Solomon had seen her, he’d said, and she gripped his hand tightly now, as they followed Robin into the house where Meg had been born and spent her childhood.
“Oh, I do thank you for your hospitality,” Robin gushed, as they entered the house. “And this is such a charming place! I’ve admired it often, whenever I’ve visited my uncle.”
“It is a fine house,” Lady Aurane agreed. “My second husband left it to me – ah, but even such a home is a pale substitute to having him here with me again. I hear that you’re newly married, Princess Robin. I do hope that you never have to face the pain of losing him. I’ve had to bury two husbands.” Here she paused for a dramatic sigh. “It never gets easier.”
It took every ounce of Meg’s fortitude to keep from rushing forward to strangle the woman. Fortitude, Solomon’s hold of her hand, and the bundle that she carried in the crook of her other arm. Peter was sleeping soundly – for once – and they were all determined to keep him that way. He’d been the complete opposite from his easygoing, easily-contented older sister, and Robin had remarked on multiple occasions how glad she was that there’d only been one of him.
Lady Aurane was a monster who had torn Meg’s family apart piece by piece. To hear her speak of grief…
Meg didn’t know how Robin could stand there and carry on a civil conversation with the woman. Especially after that jab at loss, given the events of a year before.
“I really don’t know what I’d do without Eric.” Robin shook her head with a controlled sigh. “My condolences for your loss – have you any children to console you?”
“Two daughters by my first husband,” Lady Aurane answered. “Bright, clever girls, both of them – and of marriageable age, too. With beauty like theirs, I’m sure they’ll secure only the most advantageous of marriages.”
“They … sound charming.” Robin glanced over her shoulder and sought Meg’s eye.
“I’ve already summoned them to meet you,” said Lady Aurane. “Perhaps you’ll wish to mention them to your cousin? I hear that Prince Edward has been remarkably stubborn when it comes to the married state…”
“Edward and I took a vow to not meddle in each other’s romantic affairs,” Robin admitted, as she sat down on a sofa that Lady Aurane indicated. “But, perhaps. Greta, can you bring me Peter?”
Meg rushed forward at Robin’s bidding and laid the bundle in her mistress’s arms. It then took every ounce of her forbearance to retreat again to Solomon’s side without slapping her stepmother. She wasn’t naturally a violent person, but there were things that one picked up when they lived with Robin for over ten years.
“Well, she’s a piece of work,” Solomon whispered in her ear. “What do you say we slip away and seek out your sister?”
Meg glanced up and nodded silently. She needed out of this room before she destroyed the plan completely.
If one asked her, the plan was entirely too complicated, but it’d been mostly Solomon’s idea, and who was she to argue with him? That crazy, amazing prince who’d inexplicably fallen in love with her, a mere servant.
Besides, his sister had not argued the plan, and Serendipity was very hard to please.
She led him through a door – if there was one good thing that she could say about her stepmother, it was that she was so obsessed with furthering her own political position that she usually failed to take note of those beneath her, and … that really wasn’t a compliment. Meg’s heart ached as she surveyed the hall they found themselves in – so achingly familiar and yet different, all at the same time.
“Are you okay?” Solomon gave her hand a squeeze.
“Just taking a moment to adjust.” Meg shook her head. “It’s been ten years, after all.”
“Imagine how I felt when we found Alion’s castle,” said Solomon. “It’s been a hundred years, after all. The place is in ruins!”
Meg managed a smile as she pulled him down the hall. “I haven’t a clue where Ella might be. I mean, I know what room used to be hers, but Lady Aurane has clearly done remodeling, and I doubt that she would let her keep such a choice accommodation – not when she has her own daughters to think of.” She sucked in a deep breath and shook her head.
“Well, she was dressed as a servant when I saw her,” Solomon admitted. “Wasn’t until she said ‘stepmother’ that I realized she was Ella. I don’t know if anyone has told you this, but she doesn’t look a thing like you.”
“Just wait until you meet Penny.”
And he would meet Penny. As much as her logic screamed for reality – she couldn’t let go of the hope that had sustained her for the last ten years. The hope that, even now, had brought her here, to the house of her childhood.
Judith and Editha were the worst of tempers if they thought were awakened before they’d had their proper allowance of twelve hours of beauty sleep. Not that they were shining examples of grace if they did, but at least Ella wasn’t a villain for waking them if they were allowed to rise on their own.
“I don’t see why it’s all-fire important that we meet Princess Robin,” Judith whined as Ella forced her into her best dress, a brilliant green that brought out her eyes.
“Yes, everyone knows that she’s strange,” Editha agreed, collapsed in her bed again since Ella could only focus on one at a time. “And then now she’s married with children, that means that she’s old and boring.”
“Your mother insists, and I only obey orders,” Ella answered. “I think she hopes that such a connection will put you within nobler circles – you know that she only wants the best of marriages for the two of you.”
“Mother doesn’t care a whit for what we think of the matter,” Judith protested.
“We’ll end up promised to some baron or something three times our age,” Editha added.
“I doubt that you’ll both marry the same baron,” Ella pointed out, fastening the last button and reaching for a cream sash to tie around Judith’s waist.
“Well, two barons, then.” Editha pressed the back of her hand to her forehead. “But they’ll both be old and ugly and that will be the end of all of our fun!”
“It’s your turn, Editha.” There was nothing more that Ella wanted to say on the subject, so she released Judith and retrieved an orange dress from the closet. “Judith, don’t crumple your dress or your mother will be livid.”
Ella really didn’t blame them for the way they were – how could they be otherwise with a mother like theirs? Lady Aurane spoiled them with one hand and condemned them with the other. Ella was glad that she only got one – and rather suspected that the contempt was the better end of the deal.
“Oh, you just wouldn’t understand, Cinderella,” Judith declared. “I bet that you won’t ever have to marry. You know what? I think I will crumple my dress – and tell mother that you did it.”
Of course, it was very hard to feel sorry for them when they pulled stunts like this.
“Princess Robin is cousin to our own Prince Edward,” Ella quickly pointed out. “And I hear that he’s young, handsome, and very single. Don’t you want to make the best impression.”
Editha snorted. “Like she would care about a crumpled skirt.”
“Perhaps, and perhaps not.” Ella forced a careless shrug. “But there’s only one Prince Edward, and do either of you wish to disadvantage yourselves? It might be your only opportunity to avoid marrying an old, ugly baron.”
Editha and Judith shared a glance, eyes suddenly alight. Nothing motivated these girls quicker than the thought of competing against each other.
“Why are you bothering with her?” Judith cried, running a hand through her tangles. “My hair is still a mess!”
Ella bit her lip and said nothing as she continued to button Editha’s dress. Her duties were to both sisters equally, no matter how possessive they both tried to be.
Buttons … buttons … more buttons…
“Oh, you grab a hairbrush and start brushing your own hair, if you’re so impatient,” Editha snarled. “You know that I can’t do these buttons on my own!”
Judith’s lip twisted nastily, displaying just how much she wished to inconvenience her sister, but she was interrupted by a knock at the door.
“Oh, who could be so disagreeable!” Judith declared, turning a stink-eye towards the door, as though it was the offender all on its own. “Answer that, Cinderella, and be quick about it!”
Glancing warily towards Editha, Ella scampered quickly to the door and slipped outside, careful to close the door again behind her to preserve the half-dressed dignity of her stepsisters.
“We meet again, Miss Ella,” he declared. “I must apologize – I rather suspect that we’re not where we’re supposed to be – but we heard the commotion and wondered what might be the matter.”
“We?” Ella repeated, and the word caught in her throat as her attention arrested on the dark-haired woman who accompanied the footman – a woman that Ella didn’t recognize, but something in her screamed familiarity.
“Ella…” the woman breathed, and Ella didn’t even have time to flinch before she was caught in a tight hug. A hug that she didn’t even think to fight, but melted into as the weight of loneliness drained out of her.
The woman drew back and took Ella’s face between her hands. “Look at you, Ella – all grown up! You’re the image of Mutti.”
“Meg!” Ella stifled her squeak of surprise. “What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to see you,” Meg answered. “And it’s Greta.” She winked. “We’re undercover.”
Ella quickly nodded. “Greta, right.” She glanced over her shoulders. “I’m trying to get Judith and Editha ready, but there’s two of them, and only one of me. Can you help me with their hair?”
Meg tilted her head to the side. “Well, I left my box in the carriage, but I can see what magic I can work.” She flexed her fingers unconsciously.
Meg was amazing with hair, thanks to a fair’s gift that they’d somehow managed to keep a secret from Lady Aurane. Ella wished that her own had bene half as useful.
“You’re my sister,” Meg declared. “Anything for you. Lead the way.”
The footman caught Meg’s hand and pressed a kiss to her knuckles. “Some courage before you plunge into the fray.”
Meg paused to stare at him with red-tinged cheeks, and then twisted around with a half-grin and a shake of her head. “Thank you.”
Ella didn’t know what to say, so pushed open the bedroom door and tugged Meg in after her.
“The princess sent her own maid, Greta, to do your hair,” she announced, gesturing to her sister.
“The princess’s time is not to be wasted,” Meg announced, the German accent falling from her voice. “If you wish to meet her, then you need to cooperate and not dally. You—” she pointed to Judith. “You look like you’re ready. Come here and let me see if I can make any form of order out of that tangled pile of string that you seem to call hair.”
Judith’s mouth fell open, but she said nothing as she hastened to sit down before the vanity table. Meg immediately stepped up, picked up the hairbrush, and attacked.
Ella bit her lip to keep from laughing to Editha to finish with her buttons. She could appreciate Meg’s abuse later, in privacy. Right now, she had to protect her own skin.
Oh, but she just couldn’t believe that her sister stood in this very room. All the years that Ella had been alone at the mercy of her stepmother and stepsisters – to have her real sister standing there, and it was too good to be true. If she blinked for even a moment, would Meg disappear.
With her sister’s help, Editha and Judith were soon presentable, and they hurried off without so much as a “thank you,” leaving Meg and Ella to each other.
Ella picked up the discarded nightdresses and hugged them to her chest as she regarded her sister. Meg fidgeted the hairbrush, clearly just as nervous.
“We don’t have long,” Meg admitted, the German returning to her voice. “Robin promised to give us as much time as possible, but we’ve already used a lot of it. How have you been, Ella? Have you seen any of the money that I’ve sent back to you?”
Ella bit her lip and shook her head. “Lady Aurane keeps it with the claim that it’s her fee for supporting me, but I still only get leftovers and am forced into the role of a servant – says that as the daughter of a mere merchant, that’s all I’m good for. What about you? Has your princess treated you well?”
A self-conscious grin played on Meg’s lips. “Robin … Robin is not your typical princess.” She shrugged.
“Oh?” Ella frowned as she surveyed her sister’s rosy cheeks and plump figure. “Well, you look all right, at any rate. They don’t starve you.”
She hugged the nightgown closer, as though that could her own too-thin form.
“Robin adopted me,” Meg admitted. “I mean, nothing official, and I’m still her servant, but she sees me as a friend and a sister – she didn’t have a lot of friends growing up, and I wasn’t in a position to judge her. I’ve told her all about you. And Penny. She can’t wait to meet you.”
“Oh.” Ella could smack herself for how stupid she sounded. “I’m glad that you’ve been happy.”
“A day hasn’t passed that I haven’t thought of you. And Penny.” Meg set down the brush and rushed forward to place her hands on Ella’s shoulders. “You’re eighteen now – I can get you out of here. We have a plan.”
A knock interrupted the moment, and Ella ducked out of her sister’s hold to get the door. It proved to be the footman, once again, but he wasn’t smiling this time. Instead, he shook his head in apology.
“I’m sorry to cut this reunion short, but Robin’s drawn things out as long as possible. Meg, we’re leaving now.”
Meg gave a heavy sigh as she stepped past Ella to take the man’s arm. “Of course.” She glanced back and stared Ella in the eye. “I will be back, I promise. You’re not alone anymore.”
“It’s been a pleasure to meet you, Ella,” the footman declared, a grin creeping back onto his face – it was clearly his natural state.
“Oh!” Meg gave a small gasp, glanced up at him, and then back at Ella. “I completely forgot to introduce you to my fiancé. This is Solomon. He—” She blushed again, and her voice dropped. “He’s the lost prince of Alion.”
Ella’s eyes widened. “Really?”
“Yes, I finally woke up, and when I met the lovely creature that is your sister, of course I fell head over heels for her and couldn’t rest until I’d won her as my own.” He gave a small bow and a wink. “Keep heart, Ella. They called my mother Cinderella, too, and she became a queen.”
Meg glanced up at him again, and then tore herself from his arm to envelop Ella in another hug. “I’m so sorry that I couldn’t be here to protect you … I’ve missed so much!”
Ella couldn’t speak, and so released a small squeak instead.
“You still have your shoes, don’t you?” Meg asked, in a breathless whisper.
Ella nodded. “They’re hidden, and Lady Aurane has never found them.”
“Good.” Meg reluctantly pulled back, but still just stood there, staring at Ella longingly.
Solomon put his hand on her shoulder. “I really hate to do this, but we have to go, Meg. Lady Aurane is probably already wondering why we’re taking so long.”
Meg woodenly nodded and reluctantly returned to his arm and allowed him to lead her away. Ella just stood there, desperately trying to hold herself together as she watched them go.
And then she ran to the kitchen, tucked herself under her single blanket, and cried.