The sun light slanted through the windows and shone brilliantly on the table I was polishing. I had finished much of my chores in the kitchen and the laundry was being attended to by the hired girl. My step-mother didn't trust me with her fine clothes, it seemed. And yet she trusted me to cook for her. It was a strange arrangement, but everything about my life in this house had been strange since my father died. My step-mother and my step-sisters were all to happy to spend my inheritance.
My step-mother had an special outfit that she would dress me in every month, complete with a pair of silken gloves that hid my work roughened hands. We would go to the barrister and then the banker. I was forbidden from speaking. My presence was purely to show that I still lived and that my stipened was to continue to being paid. At one point the old barrister commented that I looked unwell. My shoulders still ached at the thought of the beating that I had gotten after that.
Caught up in these unpleasant thoughts, I almost missed my thin tormenter say in her nasally voice, "There is to be a second ball. It is in two nights from now. Shall we attend?" A part of me was filled with dread at the thought of dealing with the chaos of dressing my sisters and another part of me yearned to go to see all the fancy clothes. The idea of sipping the bubbly and exotic champagne, something that I didn't even dare to sneak a sip of when my step-mother had it in the house, made me smile. "What are you smiling about, simpleton?" the thin sister said.
"Probably at the thought of seeing you wedded," her mother said, "I am certain that a suitable bachelor will come calling soon. I had several ask me permission to court you last night." The taller sister gave a laugh and clapped her hands in childish delight. I inwardly suspected that my step-mother was lying. My step-sisters had spent most of the evening gossiping and making snide remarks that they thought were clever. I didn't think anyone would have found such behavior attractive, irregardless of how much money they pretended to have.
I knew their dirty secrets. Their fine jewels were actually made from glass and paste. They sold their fine gowns after wearing them. Somehow, their mother managed to make a tidy profit from doing so and was able to keep up the appearances of upper middle class wealth. The few pieces of fine jewelery that were actually mine from my dead mother were worn by my step-mother. Though the ring that my father had left me did not fit her properly, my step-mother wore it and told everyone stories about how my father had bequeathed it to her on his death bed. My step-mother caught me looking at the ring perched on her pinky finger and frowned.
She knew that I knew the real story about that ring. She was in the room when my father declared it was mine. The day that my father died, my step-mother took the ring and declared that I would have to earn the privilege of it. Then she fired the cook and much of the house staff. And I learned the hard way just what the servants did each day. Thinking on these things, my expression turned sorrowful and my step-mother lifted her chin slightly.
"Ella," she said, "Would you like to attend this ball?" My eyes widened. At the back of my mind, a part of me clapped its hands with delight. The rest of me shivered with dread. "Come now, child," she coaxed, putting on a saccharine smile, "Tell us. Do you wish to attend? I have three daughters I must see wedded, after all." Despite all my being insisting it was some sort of a trap, I nodded slightly, unable to find my voice. She nodded. "Very well," she said, "Finish your chores and you may go, if you have a suitable gown. I will not have you wearing those rags."