Go ahead and call me wicked. Or spoiled. Or cruel. Or any of the other names that have been slung my way. It doesn't matter anymore. Besides, if my heart really is as hard as they say, the words will roll off like raindrops off a stone anyway.
I suppose you are wondering if the rumors are true--if my stepsister really was treated like a servant and made to sleep next to the fireplace or if my sister and I actually sliced off our toes in an effort to fit our feet into that ridiculous glass slipper. You will no doubt be gratified to learn that every scandalous detail is true. Oh, you'll most likely feign a look of horror and shake your head while muttering something about that "poor, dear girl," but deep down you will be immensely satisfied. Such is the duplicity of human nature.
After all, we're all wearing masks in the end, aren't we?
Not Ella though. Nothing was ever an act with her, and I suppose that I hated her for it. Even after everything she went through, she was all sincerity, goodness, and innocence.Who can trust a girl like that?
When I was first informed that I would be gaining a stepsister, I was too enraged to care. It wasn't so much the fact that my mother was remarrying that horrified me as it was the thought of leaving our home in the city behind. Everyone and everything I knew was there: my few friends, my favorite hiding places, the bookshop on the edge of town with the eccentric owner who let me stay as long as I liked.
"I don't want to move to the stupid country!" I yelled, hurling a vase across the room where it shattered with a satisfying crash. "You can't make me! I don't care if you do marry that horrid man with the gimpy leg. I won't go!"
"Jocelin." I froze at the sound of my mother's voice. Its coldness leached the hot anger from my bones and made me shiver. I hated whenever that steely look crept into her eyes. It looked so unnatural with her otherwise perfectly composed features.
"Yes, mother," I said through gritted teeth. I knew what was coming.
"Go stand in front of the mirror."
I reluctantly did as she asked. My reflection stared back at me. I hardly recognized the red-faced, wild-haired girl glaring back at me with tear-filled blue eyes. I stiffened as my mother came up behind me. Her calculating gaze swept over my features in a quick assessment.
"Look at yourself," she said. "Is that the face of a beautiful girl? Is that the face of someone who aspires to grow into an elegant lady?"
I felt the last traces of lingering anger seep out of me as I stared at my blotchy, tear-stained face. Suddenly, I felt very tired. "No, mother."
She sighed and spun me towards her so that she could gaze straight into my eyes. Her expression softened for a moment, and she pressed me into an embrace. "Darling, you are perfectly lovely when you try. Why do you have to make everything so difficult? Don't you realize that everything I do is for your good?"
I had no answer for that.
After a moment, she let me go. The hardness had gone out of her eyes. I decided to risk a question.
"How is this for my good?" I asked, my tone guarded.
She sighed in exasperation. "Honestly, Jocelin. You're beginning to sound as thick as Georgina. Can't you see that already our resources are beginning to dwindle away? No respectable man will want to marry you when you come of age--and you, my beautiful, cunning darling, deserve the best. "
An odd mixture of gratitude and dismay filled my chest. Even though I was barely thirteen years old, I would be of marriageable age in three short years. It was wise to already be thinking of the future, and my mother had been planning mine since before I was born. "Thank you, mother."
I left her in the parlor and went upstairs to the room that I shared with my twelve-year-old sister, Georgina. I found her seated at her desk, struggling to unlock an old jewelry chest that she had lost the key to a few weeks ago. Whereas I had inherited my mother's cleverness and dark beauty, my poor sister was much more like our late father, a rather stupid, mousy man, God rest his soul. She looked up as I entered.
"What's the matter with you?" she asked. "Your face is all red and splotchy."
"I don't care," I said, even though I did. "And I don't care what she says, I don't want to move to the country."
Gigi straightened and eyed me with a superior air. "That is no excuse for throwing a tantrum," she said in a poor imitation of our mother. "Really, your behavior is quite disgraceful."
I rolled my eyes as I sat down in front of the vanity to make myself look presentable again. "Not nearly as disgraceful as being a pathetic, little doormat. You can't possibly be truly happy about leaving."
A shadow crept into her eyes. Even at thirteen years of age, I understood that Gigi's perpetual acquiescence to our mother was her way of trying to earn our mother's favor. It was no secret that I was her favorite child.
"Of course I don't want to leave," she said, turning to attack her jewelry box with a pen knife. "But what choice do we have?"
The answer was, of course, none, which is why we packed and ready to leave in less than two weeks. As the carriage rumbled past endless fields and shrubs, I closed my eyes and leaned my head against the edge of the window, effectively shutting out my new stepfather's voice as he extolled the virtues of country living, his estate, and his precious daughter.
I was tired, angry, and afraid. The night before I had done the unthinkable: Shortly after midnight I climbed out of my window and stealthily made my way to my favorite spot in the entire city, the bookshop at the edge of town. I didn't care that it was unladylike or potentially dangerous. I just wanted to say goodbye. Unfortunately, the place was locked and the shopkeeper deaf and unable to hear my tapping against the downstairs shop window.
"Jocelin!" my mother's voice cut through my reverie. "Wake up. We are almost there. I opened my eyes. From the fading light, I knew that I must have dozed off for several hours.
I shook myself awake, and reached up to make sure that my hair was not in disarray. I straightened my clothing and blinked the sleep from my eyes, angry at myself for the state in which I was arriving at our new home. As much as I hated the prospect of moving to a country estate, I wanted to make a good first impression. Someone needed to show these bumpkins the right way to live.
Without uttering a single word, my mother handed me a small mirror. After a few minor adjustments, I handed it back content with my appearance. My dark curls were meticulously coiled in the latest fashion, my stylish traveling gown relatively unwrinkled, and my hat perched at a smart angle. I was ready to meet my new fate.
The carriage ground to a halt in front of a large stone country house. Rows of servants lined the path from the carriage to the door. I raised an eyebrow in approval. We would have at least three times more servants here than we had back home. A joyous smile lit up my stepfather's face as he caught sight of someone in the distance. I turned involuntarily to see who it was, and a feeling of dread came over me.
Running towards us was a girl who looked to be about my age. Her bare feet pounded on the dusty road as her tangled blonde curls streamed behind her. She was beautiful in a way that reminded you of sunshine, blue skies, and wildflowers. She arrived breathless and red-faced, launching into her father's embrace without a moment's hesitation.
"Papa, you're back!" she said, laughing. "I've been watching the road for hours and hours."
He chuckled and set her down. "I told you that we wouldn't arrive until evening, Ella," he said, ruffling her hair. He turned around as if suddenly remembering that they were not alone.
My gaze flitted to my mother. While her face was a perfect mask of politeness, the tightening of her grip on her fan gave away her dislike for the little scene that had just unfolded in front of us. "Dearest, you have yet to introduce us to your charming little daughter," she said.
Ella giggled, "I'm not that little," she said. "I'm thirteen!"
My mother's smile didn't quite seem to reach her eyes. I knew that look. She was sizing up the competition. My competition. "I beg your pardon, Ella. Although to be fair, you are not behaving like a young lady thirteen ought to. Don't you agree?"
A puzzled look clouded the girl's bright hazel eyes. She looked at her father as if unsure how to respond.
"That's why we're so grateful for the three of you," he said, smoothing over the tension. "I expect you to make a little lady out of my Ella here. I can't have her traipsing all over the countryside like a woodland sprite for much longer."
Ella offered us a shy smile. "I'm pleased to meet you all," she said with a quaint little curtsy. "I look forward to getting to know you better."
"Likewise, I'm sure," I said as if reciting a lesson.
As we made our way towards the front door, Gigi leaned over to whisper. "Looks like mother's worried you'll have some competition for all of those rich old beaux," she said with a smug look on her face.
"What! That little country mouse?" I said, feigning shock and failing badly.
"Well, she thinks that 'little country mouse' prettier than you."
My heart sank to hear the words said aloud. "I know."