Those words were the only ones Mark could muster in his mind at first. They’d been searching for so long. They’d tried this shoe on almost every girl in the kingdom but it seemed to be custom-made and every last one of them found it slightly too large or slightly too small or slightly too narrow. When the carriage had slowed to a stop in front of the last house on the outskirts of the kingdom, he’d thought he’d have to return to the King and his son empty-handed. He was sure the wedding plans already in progress would have to be canceled. Surely, the Prince could not have fallen in love over a few dances with someone from *this* house he thought. He knew the women who lived here, had known Lady Hillshire for many years, and he knew that she could never raise a child with the grace and poise and appeal the Prince had described to him.
Yet, here she was, the dreadful Priscilla, with the shoe perfectly fitting her foot.
Recovering his wits, Mark stood and bowed to the girl. “As decreed by His Royal Majesty the King, I hereby declare you, Miss Priscilla Bernadine Hillshire, to be the betrothed of His Highness the Prince. In accordance with the orders of the King, you are now to be escorted to the Palace, where in three days’ time you will be wed.”
The scream of delight sounded more like a banshee’s shriek to him as the girl leapt from the chair she was sitting in. She stumbled, having on two entirely different types of shoe, and fell in a flurry of richly colored fabric. As he helped her up from a heap on the floor, he wondered to himself how the prince could have possibly thought her graceful, or even attractive. Sure, she was beautiful enough. The blazing red hair she’d gotten from her mother’s third husband went well with her pale complexion and her emerald green eyes. She was born a McLeod and it was easily evident to anyone who knew that fact that she took after her father – a sturdy Scotsman with a good heart who met his end far too soon, thanks to Lady Amelia. Priscilla had most definitely inherited the Scottish features, and when paired with her mother’s deceivingly petite build those features created a girl who was certainly a sight to behold.
Until she opened her mouth.
She had the most unfortunate habit of whining every word she said through her little nose, a habit doubtlessly acquired from being the youngest of Amelia’s blood-related daughters and constantly having whatever she could whine for. Her voice grated on his ears and his nerves as she jabbered “can you believe its” to her mother and sister. Then she turned toward the stairs leading to the kitchens and cellar, and hollered at a pitch that made him want to faint just to escape it.
“Ella! Get your lazy ass up here and pack my bags!”
Ella? The girl was still living here? He thought that when Lord Hillshire had died, his young daughter had been sent away to a relative where she could live in peace and be brought up in a way that was proper for her station. He thought, surely, that her father had recognized the pure evil that his new wife was made of and sent his precious girl away so that she wouldn’t be corrupted by it. Curious, he kept his eyes on the stairs, only half listening to the shrill whine of Pricilla’s voice as she continued jabbering on to her mother.
After several minutes a quiet fell over the three women. He turned to see Amelia, plainly furious, staring at the same set of stairs. Clearly, Ella had not come when summoned by her stepsister and that did not sit well with the Lady. But why would that be so? Ella was the daughter of a highly esteemed Lord in His Majesty’s kingdom, a man His Majesty had trusted enough to set his home at the edge of the Kingdom as a defense against any who would invade. Since Joseph’s death, His Majesty had made sure to take care of the Hillshire family and estate, taking special care to know that his accounts keeper was sending them the gold and supplies they would need, even sending them extra staff from his own palace at harvest and festival times. Ella was the natural-born daughter of this man His Majesty clearly felt deep respect toward, even in death. So why would she even be subjected to the summons of her lesser stepsister?
Amelia motioned for a rather worried-looking maid standing in a nearby corner. “Go get that girl. Clearly, she has gone deaf. Be sure she knows that she will be punished for it.”
Mark stared in astonishment at the Lady. What had gone so terribly wrong in this house that the daughter of Sir Lord Hillshire could be retrieved and warned of punishment by a house maid?
Priscilla and her half-sister, Anastasia, continued to talk once more, but in quieter tones. Clearly, they knew that if they aggravated their mother at this moment even they would not be spared her wrath. He gestured to the page accompanying him and brought him a few steps away from the women.
“I don’t like this, she can’t possibly be the right girl.” He whispered “Go quickly, take a fresh horse from the stable and ride to the palace. Tell his Majesty that I must speak with him at once when we arrive, that I have concerns about what marrying this family into his will do to the kingdom.” The page nodded and scurried off, catching Amelia’s attention in the process.
“What is he doing?” she asked, one black eyebrow arched in disapproval.
“He is riding to the palace,” Mark answered easily “To tell the King that I have found the Prince’s bride.”
Amelia stared at him for a long minute, and he met her gaze evenly. She was like a wild dog, and he dared not show any fear lest she discover his lie and tear him to shreds. She was a conniving, charming woman who could convince anyone of anything and even without any evidence against him, she could surely turn the king and his court against him if she pleased.
The maid returned from the kitchen area, and Amelia’s attention was diverted to the girl following behind her, her plain grey gown covered in soot.
“I apologize, Lady,” the girl said, “Mary tells me that I was summoned but I did not hear it. I was cleaning one of the kitchen chimneys.”
Amelia appeared ready to question the girl, but cast a glance in Mark’s direction and instead turned away dismissively. “Bring Priscilla’s things down and have them packed on the emissary’s horses. Use a few of our carts if necessary. But change your gown first, and wash your hands. My daughter shouldn’t have to suffer with dirty things because you’re a cinder-girl.”