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CHAPTER ONE

“For the love of all things, Raelle!” Lady Capone barked at her daughter in her infamously nasally tone. “Suck it in!”

Her voice made a girl long to stuff shredded cotton balls in her ears. More than once, I’d wondered how her husband endured the sound of it. Especially… well, you know… in the bedroom. I could only imagine it was worse when she got, erm, excited.

I snickered at the thought and resumed scrubbing the filthy floor. For a family rich in wealth, manners, and education, they didn’t seem to care much for hygiene. Every day, I found myself here, scrubbing their stains out of the wood—stains left behind from their chamber pots. Guess cleanliness didn’t matter when you maintained a full staff of twenty maids and half as many handmaidens. Their privilege literally coated my hands. Gross, right?

“Mother!” Raelle choked.

I shot the girl a quick glance and bit back a laugh. Poor thing. She stood next to her bed, her knuckles white as she clutched one of the posts, her face as pale as her pristine sheets. Her mother stood behind her, yanking so hard on a series of silk ties that I felt my own diaphragm collapse in sympathy.

Corsets. The bane of every girl’s existence.

Which was why I refused to wear one. And no, it had nothing to do with the fact that I was poorer than a country mouse and couldn’t afford to buy one, let alone a fine gown to wear over it. Nor did it have anything to do with the fact that I was a lowly indentured servant—thanks to my stepfather—or that it was illegal for my kind to wear such finery.

Not at all.

We servants had to know our place, after all. And that was right here, on my hands and knees, scrub-a-dub-dubbing the esteemed lady’s urine out of the floor.

Ah, what a blessed life I lived.

Lady Capone released her death grip on the corset strings and bent over at the waist with a labored sigh. When she straightened, she dabbed at her sweaty brow before resuming her efforts. With fresh resolve and a gritted jaw, she snatched the abused ties back up and pulled until Raelle cried out and sucked in her so-called gut.

“For crying out loud,” Lady Capone muttered as she knotted the ties. “I’ll have to remind Cook to reduce the amount you’re fed until after the ball.”

Oof. Even I winced at that one. The ball was two months away.

“Mother,” Raelle wheezed, her lips practically bloodless. “I can’t breathe.”

“Good,” her mother snapped. “Perhaps that’ll keep you from sneaking treats in front of the prince. The less you eat, the more room you’ll have for air.”

Damn. That was cold. And a complete lie. Even I knew Lady Capone would simply keep tightening the corset strings. Other than her riches and jewels, the only thing the lady cared about was her daughter’s size. According to Lady Capone, thick-waisted girls did not secure husbands.

What a load of pig crap.

Raelle was hardly thick-waisted. But beyond that, happily married women came in all sizes. Well, married women did, anyway. I didn’t know many women who were happily married. Not here.

“Arilla, fetch the dress,” Lady Capone called, snapping her fingers in my general direction.

Ah, yes. The dress.

I’d been listening to Raelle’s mother wax poetic about this gown for months now. According to her, it’d once belonged to the queen. And being that she was such a close confident—or as she’d say, friend—of the royal family, she’d supposedly convinced the queen to let Raelle wear it to the ball.

I snorted quietly.

Please.

First, the royal family didn’t even know the Capone family existed. Second, I knew a knock-off gown when I saw one. The so-called diamonds that shimmered from afar were nothing more than baubles sewn into cheaply made fabric. There’d be no fooling anyone at the castle with this dress, no matter how much Lady Capone had spent on it—and she’d spent a lot. An exorbitant amount. More gold than I needed to pay off my—er, my stepfather’s—debt.  

It made me hate Lady Capone a little.

Okay, a lot. I hated her a lot. The whole family, really. To think they’d spent as much on a dress as I needed to buy my freedom really burned my biscuits. But that was the way of the rich and noble here in Valine. It wasn’t called The Golden City for nothing. Wealth was the only thing that mattered here. Those who had it prospered. Those who didn’t suffered.

 

Like me and my best friend Arabelle.

I’d been free once. Not that I remembered it. My stepfather had happily sold me into servitude to line his pockets. And when that money ran out, he’d started garnishing my wages to keep his estate afloat. Nice guy, huh?

“Arilla!” Lady Capone barked.

I jerked, my hands sloshing in the water bucket.

“Stop daydreaming and bring me Raelle’s gown. Now!”

“Yes, my lady,” I whispered.

I climbed to my feet and hurried toward the gown draped across Raelle’s cedar chest. I reached for the dress, then froze, my hands hovering above the material. I shot a glance back at the chamber pot and floor I’d just been cleaning, then stared at my filthy hands. If I cared for the family at all, I might have reminded them that my hands were currently not fit to touch the dress. As it stood, nah. These people were the worst of the worst. Privileged nobles who took great pleasure in looking down their noses at everyone else. Plus, I truly doubted Lady Capone would willingly wait while I first washed my hands.

I did, however, quickly wipe them on my already filthy skirt. Then I lifted the gown and hurried to Lady Capone. She snatched the dress from my hands with hardly a thanks.

“Now, this is a dress,” she murmured.

Raelle glanced over her shoulder, her brow dotted with sweat. I gave it five more minutes before the girl passed out from oxygen deprivation.

“Every boy in the kingdom will demand your hand when they see you in this.”

Unlikely. The thought echoed in my head, and I had to bite my bottom lip to keep from speaking it aloud. Lady Capone wouldn’t appreciate a servant’s opinion. I was lower than the dirt—and other matter—that I scrubbed from her floor. Besides, I did relish the thought of Raelle embarrassing herself at the ball. There truly was no better revenge than seeing her fail to secure a fortuitous marriage. Maybe that made me catty, but I didn’t care.

Raelle was hardly a saint. Yes, her mother manipulated and controlled her, but like mother, like daughter. When removed from her mother’s influence, Raelle became little more than a petulant and arrogant mule. One equally as stubborn too. I knew from experience that one could gauge another’s true personality based on how they treated their servants.

Lady Capone began dressing her daughter and I nearly burst out laughing when the skirt lodged against Raelle’s hips and wouldn’t budge. Her mother’s expression was priceless. Anger warred with frustration and exasperation.

“Well, we’ll just have to reduce you to two meals a day,” Lady Capone announced without a hint of remorse.

“Mother!” Raelle gasped.

Sympathy lessened my hate for her, and I stepped back, wincing in compassion. I was a plebian maid whose stepfather locked her in the basement with the rats and cockroaches, but even I received three meals a day.

Lady Capone muttered something rude, then gripped both sides of the dress and wrenched it over her daughter’s hips. The sound of popping stitches stole my breath. Raelle’s mother didn’t relent though. With mottled cheeks, she pulled and pulled until finally the skirt settled over Raelle’s hips. When it came time to close the bodice, Raelle clutched the bed frame posts, one in each hand, with all her might. Her mother yanked the laces closed and stood back with an appraising eye.

Raelle released her death grip and straightened with a wince.

“There. You look exquisite,” Lady Capone crooned.

I stared at Raelle and pressed my lips together. Exquisite wasn’t the word I would have used. Ridiculous? Unsightly? Downright uncomfortable? All would work in this instance. She looked as though she’d been wrapped in strips of stiff linen, in a hideous mauve color that did nothing to compliment her mustard-yellow hair and pale skin. Not to mention, the dress weighed a ton. I couldn’t imagine how she would walk in such a monstrosity, let alone dance.

“Or you will, once you lose a few pounds,” her mother added.

Disappointment flashed across Raelle’s face.

Pretending not to have seen it, Lady Capone turned and scoured her daughter’s room. “Where are those shoes I acquired for you?”

“Mother…” Raelle whined. “They’re horribly uncomfortable. Must I wear them?”

Uncomfortable didn’t begin to describe those shoes. When I’d first laid eyes on them, I’d thought them breathtaking. Glass heels. What a marvelous concept. But then Raelle had slipped them on and I’d caught the agonizing twist of her lips and tears pooling in her eyes. No man was worth such torture.

“Stop sniveling,” Lady Capone snapped. “It’s for one night. And we women do what we must to attract the attention of a suitor. Think of the sight you’ll make, gliding down those steps into the ballroom.”

Falling, more like. And snapping her pretty neck. I could see it now. All the noble houses gasping in delighted horror as one of their own plummeted to their death within the royal palace. The stories they’d tell about the foolish girl who’d dared to wear glass slippers.

“The prince himself won’t be able to keep his eyes off you,” Lady Capone continued.

She found the shoes hidden away in Raelle’s wardrobe, then handed them to her daughter with a look that brooked no room for argument.

Raelle steeled herself before slipping them on, her height rising by two inches.

“Yes,” her mother said, offering her stamp of approval. “Perfect.”

“Perfectly horrid,” I muttered under my breath.

Lady Capone whirled around, her shrewd gaze narrowing on me. She marched toward me and peered down her birdlike nose, her thin lips pressing into a grim line. “What was that Arilla?”

Heat scoured my cheeks. I hadn’t meant to say that out loud. “Nothing, my lady. I said she looks beautiful.”

Her focus sharpened and her wicked mouth turned downward into a hateful sneer. Her beady eyes swept past me, and with a cluck of her tongue, she stormed toward my bucket. When her gaze landed on the chamber pot, all the heat drained from my face.

“You dared to touch Raelle’s dress with your filthy hands?”

My heart leapt into my throat. “My lady, I—”

“I will not abide by such carelessness, Arilla.” She faced me with a terrifying glare. “I’m docking you a day’s pay as reparation. You’ll receive no gold today.”

Horror seized me, and it took every ounce of restraint I possessed to keep my head. But garnishing my wages was bad enough. I didn’t need to add a lashing to the punishment.

Damn the stars, I should have washed my hands first. But I’d let my pride and ego get in the way. And now I had to pay the price.

One my stepfather would take out on my hide.

Lady Capone held my stare as though challenging me to say something I’d regret.

Instead, I swallowed my pride, having learned my lesson, and nodded. “Yes, my lady.”

“Good. Now, back to work.”

My jaw tightened as I repeated, “Yes, my lady.”

Then I dropped to my knees and resumed scrubbing, all the while wondering what I’d tell my stepfather tonight when I returned home with no gold to show for my day’s work.

 

I couldn’t see the future, but I had a feeling Raelle wouldn’t be the only one going without a meal tonight.

Comments (2)
Guest
Feb 11

you have captured my interest.

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Guest
Jan 28

I can't wait for the next chapter! This is going to be so good!!!

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