12 years later
Elliot answered the front door after the third knock and grinned as Freda shifted the wrapped bundles in her arms. “You didn’t have to bring those all the way over here,” he said, stepping aside to let her bring the items inside. “I could have easily picked them up when I headed into the village.”
“Well, this way you can escort me back and I can spend time with you.” Freda set the items on the foyer table and pushed a dark curl out of her face before tugging on the ends of her bodice to make it lie flat after the long walk. “These dresses are heavier than I thought. I’m starting to question Marigold’s fashion choices, though.”
“Marigold has been reading some of the popular fashion pamphlets from the capitol.”
Freda snorted. “Fashion for who? Ladies of the evening or mistresses of the rich? Anyway,” she turned to her friend, “let’s get going. There’s something I want to show you in town.”
Elliot grinned at her energy. She was practically bouncing on the balls of her feet. “Okay, okay.” He grabbed his coat from a nearby peg and slipped it on, straightening his collar with a slight tug. He darted a look up the stairs. There was no sign of his sisters or stepmother and, hearing nothing from any of the women’s rooms, grabbed a basket and offered his arm to Freda. She rested her hand in the crook of his arm and they left the house, closing the door softly behind them. They didn’t dare speak and risk the stepfamily hearing them so close to the house. It wasn’t until they were a few yards past the front gates that Freda spoke.
“It’s not fair that you have to sneak out of your own home.”
“Maybe not, but it’s easier than having them catch me and add on more work.” Elliot rested a hand on hers and squeezed. “Thank you for bringing the dresses up.”
“It’s no big deal. I haven’t seen you in town lately and wanted a visit.”
“Well, whatever the reason, I’m glad you came. A week is too long to be away from friends. Tell me what’s been happening. How is everyone?”
The walk into town passed with Freda’s recount of the past few weeks, including an incident regarding the baker’s cat, a bag of flour, and a very red faced carpenter. Their bubbling laughter grabbed the attention of a few shopkeepers and the merchants waved as the two walked by. Elliot had missed the sights and sounds of town life; the liveliness of everything happening at once. He felt more accepted and loved here.
“My goodness,” the local seamstress said, smiling as she saw the two friends draw close to her shop. “Young Elliot McKinley. It has been a while.”
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Webber. How are you today?”
“Just fine, my lad. Never better.” A sad smile crossed the lady’s face. Eliot was familiar with that expression. Most of the townsfolk had it when they saw him. They said he resembled more and more like his father with each day. But Mrs. Webber shook herself and the look was quickly banished. “Now, what’s brought you into town today?”
“A few errands, mostly. But it’s been too long, so I think I’ll just wander around for a bit with Freda. Do you mind sparing her for a little while?”
Mrs. Webber smiled knowingly as her eyes darted to their entwined arms. “You take all the time you two want.” She sighed wistfully. “Oh, to be young again.” With a wave, she wished them away with a “Have a nice day, dear”.
Freda snorted as Elliot led her down the road, their arms lazily linked together. “You know that the whole town thinks we’re a couple, don’t you? There’s a betting pool going on that says you’ll propose by the end of summer.”
“Is there?” Elliot laughed, shaking his head. “Amazing. A man and woman can’t just be friends?”
“Apparently they don’t think so.” Freda shrugged. “I don’t really care. I know you view me as a close sister and, no offense, but I don’t think I could ever kiss you like they want me to. Just…ew.” She cringed.
Elliot rolled his eyes. “Thank you so much for that.”
She chuckled and nudged his shoulder. “I didn’t mean it like that and you know it. Besides, I have good odds on you not proposing.” Elliot laughed with her. She slid her hand down to his and squeezed. “Come on. There’s something I want to show you.” He allowed her to pull him down the street. Freda loved surprises and he’d sorely missed her enthusiasm the last few weeks.
They stopped outside the baker’s shop and she turned to him with a grin.
“Close your eyes and wait here. No peeking.”
He raised an eyebrow but did as he was told. He could hear the bell ring over the door of the shop, then just the sound of the other shops and customers. He was sure he could find these sounds in any other town of the kingdom, but something made it seem like this town was the only one that could possibly be this alive. A child laughed somewhere down the road as a dog barked and a man haggled the price of fruit from across the street. A horse was getting a shoe fixed by the blacksmith while two women talked about the price of eggs. He couldn’t find these sounds at the house.
The bell rang again and he could smell warm pastry. “Open your eyes,” Freda said. He did so and stared at the two small chocolate muffins in her hands. “Surprise! Happy birthday, Elliot.” She shoved one into his hands.
“Birthday,” he said slowly. He blinked. “I forgot.”
“You’ve been working too hard for that stepmother of yours. That’s why you have a good friend who knows when to spoil you on your special day.” Freda took a large bite of her muffin. “Don’t just stand there; eat up.”
Elliot sank his teeth into the fluffy pastry and groaned as the rich chocolate hit his tongue. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had something so sweet all to himself. He savored each bite and then licked his fingers clean of crumbs. “Thank you, Re. It means a lot.”
Freda nodded and grabbed his hand, having finished her muffin in a few bites. “And now you get to pick out a present for yourself.”
“Freda, I can’t let you-”
“Yes, you can and you will.” She pulled him down the street. “We’ve been friends for years and I will spoil you if I want to. Now stop acting like a child. You’re 20; it’s time to celebrate.”
Elliot sighed and shook his head. That was his friend; headstrong and determined. He followed her as she pulled him into at least five different shops. There wasn’t anything that really caught his eye, but he did enjoy time. He stopped to talk to the owners, received a few well wishes, bought what Stepmother had asked for, and then was pulled off to the next shop. Freda seemed determined to find him a present he would like, but the only one he needed was her being there with him. Of course, she refused to let that be his answer and tried even harder. Elliot could only chuckle in response.
Sadly, the town’s clock struck the hour and he knew his outing could not last. He’d have to be home soon to oversee dinner.
“You know,” Freda said slowly as Elliot walked her back to the dress shop, “I’ve saved up a bit of money. In a few months, I could have enough for a small shop in another town. Or even go into the city. We could leave and start over.”
“I know you don’t like me bringing it up. But Elliot,” she stopped and faced him, “you’re being so overworked and used by that woman that you forgot your own birthday. Do you always want to be under your stepmother’s thumb? To constantly have to bend to her will and do everything she says? You realize that she’s hurting you, right?”
Elliot frowned. “My father left my stepmother and stepsisters in my care. I can’t just leave them without anyone to-”
“I know you want to make your father proud, but you have to draw the line somewhere. How many times will you let them walk all over you before you say ‘enough’?”
Elliot couldn’t meet her eyes. He knew what Stepmother had done to him; manipulating and controlling him to do everything she wanted in the name of honoring his father’s final wish. But that didn’t mean he could just walk away from the small bit of family he had left. They needed him. One more than the other two, at least.
“I know you’re looking out for me,” he said. “I really appreciate it, I do. You’re my best friend and…if things were different, I might leave. But…”
Freda sighed and nodded. “I understand. I don’t like it, but I understand.” She squeezed his hand. “If you need me, you know where to find me. I’ll always be there for you.” She stood on her toes and kissed his cheek. “Happy birthday, Elliot.”
He returned the kiss and smiled. “I’ll see you later?” Freda smiled and walked into the shop to return to work, leaving Elliot to walk home alone in the slowly setting sun.
“Were you in the village?” Stepmother asked the moment he walked through the door. Over the years, her beauty had not faded, but it had become hard and unyielding. Sometimes almost calculating. Many times, Elliot found he could not look at her directly for fear she might discover something. He didn’t know what, but he wasn’t going to test the possibility.
“Did you get everything I asked for?”
Elliot tensed under her stare. “Yes, Stepmother.”
Her eyes narrowed slightly. “You were with that Freda girl, weren’t you?” Elliot nodded. “I hope you don’t plan on marrying her before your sisters have found husbands of good standing. Your duty is to this family first and foremost.” Her chin rose slightly. “You wouldn’t want to disappoint your father, would you?”
Elliot shook his head. Everything he did was for his father; to make him proud of the man Elliot could become. “We’re just friends.”
“Good,” Stepmother said, smiling slightly. “Now be a good boy and take those things up to the girls. Once you’ve done that, restock the firewood by the fireplace, organize dinner, and then change. A gentleman never arrives to dinner smelling of work and sweat.” She turned with a rustle of her skirts and settled herself into the parlor with some needlepoint.
Elliot climbed the stairs to his stepsisters’ rooms and knocked gently.
“Come in,” Lottie called.
He pushed the door open and stepped inside, holding out the basket of items he’d collected in town. Lottie looked up from her embroidery and her bright blue eyes sparkled for a moment as she saw him. “Hello, Elliot,” she said softly.
He smiled back. “I brought what you asked.”
Her eyes latched onto the embroidery thread poking up over the side of the basket. She rose from her seat, crossing the room to take the thread with her thin fingers, her smile turning into a grateful grin before returning to her corner. Marigold ignored her sister and ran her calculating green gaze over him much like her mother did. Once she was finished with her scan, she returned to the pamphlet she was reading.
“Put it over there and leave.” Her hand waved toward a table by the French doors. He set the basket down and studied his stepsisters. Marigold was just like her mother in her ambition to catch a wealthy and powerful husband, constantly belittling anyone who didn’t serve a part in her grand plans. With her mother’s cunning ways, there was little doubt that Marigold could snag any man she wanted, and God help the poor man she set her sights on.
Lottie, however, was interested in very few things outside of her embroidery or music. If she ever tried to find a husband on her own, Elliot thought she might find herself with a humble merchant or someone who would indulge her simple needs. Stepmother was not the most encouraging of Lottie’s skill at embroidery. She would have wished Lottie had inherited more of her ambition or cunning ways like Marigold had. But Lottie was a simple person, though compliant under her mother’s hold, and so Stepmother focused more of her hopes of a good husband on Marigold, who was more than willing to do anything to rise up the social ladder.
Elliot left the girls’ room without a word, softly closing the door behind him before he traveled outside to the woodpile. He gripped the axe and swung it down onto a log, splitting it as easy as his father had once done. He smiled at the thought. Over the years, he’d gained muscle and stamina from the chores around the house. He supposed he was just as strong as his father had been. His smile faded. Had it really been twelve years since his passing? At times, it felt like he’d just lost him. Other times, like it had been centuries. The pain would never fade, but he could still keep the memory alive. Elliot tightened his grip on the axe. Whether Freda liked it or not, taking care of his stepmother and stepsisters was how he could do that. He brought the axe down on the next log, once again splitting it in two.
With enough wood chopped and stacked in the places that needed it, Elliot retired to his room to clean up for dinner. Stepmother kept one servant around to make dinner and do laundry, though they were never seen. The other servants had been dismissed to save money, despite the handsome income the family received from renting their fields to the local farmers. Dinner was a silent affair on his part, conversation mostly dominated by Marigold’s opinions on the people in the village and what she thought of her new dress. Stepmother sat proudly, listening to her daughter’s prattle while Lottie ate in silence next to Elliot. The end of their meal couldn’t come fast enough, in his opinion. Marigold and Stepmother left once they were finished, but Lottie hesitated in standing.
Once the other two women were out of the room, she turned to Elliot, holding out a folded white handkerchief. He stared at it for a moment, confused, but accepted it nonetheless. Lottie gave him a wide and genuine smile, one he hadn’t seen in quite some time. “Happy birthday, Elliot.” With that said, she turned and hurried after her sister and mother.
Elliot ran his thumb over the fabric. It was of fine quality. He unfolded it and smiled softly. His initials were delicately stitched into the corner, surrounded by a flourishing blue boarder from the thread he’d gotten from town that day. Lottie had tremendous talent. He was honored she would use it to make him something so grand. He carefully folded the handkerchief and tucked it safely away. At least one of the Steps cared for him.
After his father’s funeral, Stepmother had quickly put a barrier between him and her daughters. Marigold had hardly cared, but Lottie had been hesitant. She and Elliot had just started to become friends but there was little a young girl could do against her mother’s wishes. So the two had become distant. But, every once in a while, there was a look or a gift that said their friendship was not completely gone. And she was the only solid reason he didn’t leave; who would care for Lottie if he weren’t there?
Princess Thea was braiding her hair for bed when her brother stormed into her bedroom and flopped down onto the mattress, glaring up at the canopy as if it had personally offended his honor. She looked at him in the reflection of her mirror, a small amused smile tugging at her lips. Did he realize his sword was sticking at an odd angle?
“What is bothering you tonight, brother dear?”
Prince Caelen sighed. “Mother.”
Thea nodded and turned in her seat to watch him. “You know she’s only doing what she thinks is best for us and the kingdom.”
“But a marriage ball? Really? Why now?”
“I thought you liked parties.”
“Not when the purpose is to marry us off to the first eligible person that comes along.” Caelen groaned. “I don’t want to get married. I’m too young.”
“I agree.” Caelen tilted his head back to look at his sister who winked. “No one wants to marry a five year old man.”
The prince rolled onto his stomach and crossed his arms in front of him, raising his upper body up slightly. “Well what about you? Do you want to get married to a complete stranger?”
“Of course not. But we’re royalty. This is expected of us.”
“I can’t believe you’re taking this so calmly. Our mother just announced a ball to introduce us to suitors and you’re completely ok with being promenaded out in front of them like a piece of meat?”
Thea raised an amused eyebrow. “I thought it was supposed to be the princess who wails dramatically about the injustice of their position.” Caelen glowered at her and then dropped face first onto the mattress. Thea sighed and joined her brother on the bed, tucking her feet under her and running her fingers through his messy curls. He’d probably been sulking since their mother had made the announcement and had rubbed the lotion out of his hair with frustration. The locks were no longer swept back from his face but sticking up in random directions. “I know it’s not ideal, but just go to the ball, dance with a few girls to make Mother happy, and pretend to have a good time. Just because there will be suitors there doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy ourselves a bit. It’s not as if we are expected to pick a future spouse that very night.” Her brother continued to lay face down, letting her finger comb his hair into some semblance of order. “I promise it won’t be as bad as you think. You might even have a little bit of fun.”
Caelen turned his head and looked up at her. “I don’t know how you can stay so positive and reasonable.”
“Someone has to balance out your childish behavior,” she said with a teasing smile. “I do have 18 years of practice under my belt, you know.” Honestly, how did it end up that the younger sibling was more mature? Thea scratched a spot behind Caelen’s ear and he sighed, relaxing into the comforter. “I was thinking of ordering a new dress for the ball,” she said, changing the subject. “What do you suggest?”
“You look good in blue,” Caelen mumbled through the fabric.
“But I always wear blue. Maybe I should go with red or maybe green?”
Caelen shook his head. “You’ll attract too much attention with red. You’ll have men all over you and I’ll have to beat them back. A soft green would work better and it would match your eyes.” He shrugged. “Just my opinion.”
Thea hummed. “Well, you’ve never been wrong before. A green gown will do nicely. Do you think I could have time with Madam Vivian tomorrow to design it?”
“She’s still in Lendon, looking over some sort of new cloth they’ve developed. It’s supposed to be easier to work with and breathes better than some of the other fabric they’ve been providing us. From what she’s written in her letters, they’re being a bit stubborn over trade talks. She doesn’t expect to be back for a few more weeks.” He paused and then slowly lifted his head off the bed. Thea watched him think for a moment, his eyebrows slightly turned down and his eyes focusing on nothing as he processed his thoughts. “There might someone who can make the dress, though.”
“Are they close by?” Thea continued the smooth down her brother’s hair. Could it never stay down without lotion? Maybe he should try some sort of wax, but supplies were slow in arriving as long as the trade talks dragged on with the Pelopo kingdom. They pulled this stunt every time the trade deals needed to be revisited, going into unnecessary detail about anything and everything in the attempt of wearing down the other delegates’ patience. Thea had more than enough to spare, though, and even met them at their own game by providing unnecessary documents she insisted they look over in their entirety by the next day’s meeting. If they wanted to play games, she’d give them something to play.
“I believe she’s in the next town,” Caelen said, bringing Thea back to the moment at hand. “A Mrs. Webber who used to work with Madam Vivian long ago. I remember Madam talking about her a few times. A skilled lady, it seemed.”
Thea smiled at her brother’s improved mood. Anything having to do with fashion or fabrics always managed to cheer him up. It was too bad he was a prince or he would have made a wonderful tailor. “Then I shall send her a message tomorrow and ask her to come to the palace,” Thea said as her brother finally smiled. “Feel better?”
Caelen swung his legs over the bed and nodded. “I’m still not happy, but I’m better.”
Thea nodded and gently pressed her shoulder against his. “Things will be fine. It’s just one ball and I’ll be there if you need me.”
The prince smiled down at her. “I’ll hold you to that.” He straightened his shoulders and stood, smoothing out his jacket and adjusting his sword. “I’ll see you in the morning, then. Goodnight, Thea.”
“Goodnight, Caelen.” She watched him leave her room in a better mood than when he’d entered. She wasn’t thrilled with the idea of having to stand before everyone and know that they were looking at her as a potential wife. Most of them would be seeing her throne, anyway; marry the princess and become a prince with the possibility of ruling the kingdom. She would have liked to find a man to love and with whom she could spend her life with; like Mother and Father. But she’d realized a long time ago that things didn’t always go the way you wanted them to and you either had to adapt or get pulled under.
Thea crawled under her covers and blew the candles out. She hoped this Mrs. Webber was as skilled as her brother believed her to be.