"Cinder-ella!" her stepsister screeched from the top of the stairs. "Come up here at once!"
"What is it?" Ella Duvaux mumbled, too comfortable in her chair by the hearth to stir. If Claire wished to speak to her, she could come to the housekeeper's sitting room where her stepmother had relegated her once the housekeeper died.
After spending most of the day supervising the staff and balancing the household accounts, Ella had earned a rest. She wasn't budging.
"Cinderella," Claire said in exasperation, her trailing skirts swishing on the stone steps as she descended. "You must come to the solar. It is urgent."
Ella squeezed her thighs together, suppressing the slick arousal in her sex, and set her book down on her lap with an audible sigh. She'd just started the part where the dashing, honorable Amadis consummates his love with Oriana in one illicit night of passion. Her mind and body had been poised for an erotic flight through her imagination.
"What is it this time?" She rolled her head to the side, examining her plump sister's flushed face as she bustled through the open door. Claire had a penchant for the dramatic. "A tear in your stocking? A lost comb?" Her stepsisters were helpless, Claire more than Louise.
"Armand, the Duke of Perrin, intends to propose to Mama."
"What?" Ella jumped up, pressing her precious book to her chest, and spun to face her puffing sister. "Odette cannot marry before us." The thought of the Grand Duke seizing their dowries upon his marriage to Odette made her stomach ache. The tower house owned by her family for generations was her dowry, where happy childhood memories with her parents met her in every room. Losing it to the duke because he was entitled to all of his wife's property made her want to scream. "She promised she would not."
"When has Mama ever kept a promise?" Claire set her hands on her ample hips. "She is bored. Not only will marriage to the Grand Duke raise her station from widow of an earl to royalty, she will be privy to more gossip and amusements at the castle."
With a huff of impatience, Ella swept a wayward curl from her eyes with the back of her hand.
"Come, Ella. We must make ready. A messenger has informed us the Duke and Mama are making their way here from the castle."
The fire seemed to lose its warmth. Ella shivered. With a stepfather in the manor, she dared not laze around in her sheer shift covered only by a corset as she often did. If Odette married, life was going to be very different for them all.
From a peg near the hearth, she retrieved her morning gown and Claire helped to dress her, cinching and tying the faded blue material over her cherished bright yellow silk corset until Ella appeared somewhat presentable. The gown was old, too short, and so low in front she was quite exposed, showing cleavage down to the shadow of her nipples. When her stepmother saw all that sinful skin, she'd banish her to the attic, but there was nothing to be done about it now.
Hand in hand, Ella and Claire hurried down the long cold hall to meet Louise in the family's private quarters. Their sister paced in front of the roaring fire in a striking black and white striped silk gown, the tall black feather in her hair bobbing, the bells on her bracelets jingling.
"This is most inconsiderate," the tall dark-haired beauty exclaimed, tapping a rolled parchment against her gloved palm.
The serving maid appeared in the doorway. "Tea, mistresses?"
"No." Louise, the eldest, spoke for all of them. "Give us privacy."
"Very good, mademoiselles." She curtsied and closed the double doors behind her.
Louise slapped the parchment into Ella's hand. "The King is giving a ball for the Prince. The royal house claims it is time, at twenty-eight years of age, the Prince marries and provides an heir. Speculation is the royal coffers are low, and the extravagant Queen is seeking a bride with a large dowry for her son."
Ella unrolled the proclamation and scanned the lettering. "What does the prince have to do with your mother's nuptials?"
"The King has requested the Grand Duke not choose a bride until the Prince is settled. By all accounts, the King fears his handsome youngest brother will win the most desirable lady in the land, a prize he wishes to reserve for his son."
Your mother is no man's prize. Odette might be youthful, beautiful and rich, thanks to Ella's father, but she was also a shrew. Ella couldn't imagine any man enduring her tantrums and tyranny for long. Lord knew, once the honeymoon period passed, her father had traveled extensively to avoid Odette.
Louise pawed the wood floor with the tip of her shoe as though she were a high-tempered thoroughbred. "My spies at the palace report Mama is so eager to marry the Duke that she has offered to pay off the King's debts if the Prince will marry one of us."
"No!" Ella cried, horrified. "The Prince is an arrogant fop. His cock is likely as limp as his wrist."
With fear in her dark eyes, Louise sauntered over to the window and clutched the edge of the olive velvet drapes. "You know what Mama will do if we disobey her."
Odette would cast Ella out. She'd have to leave the estate and rely on her estranged Uncle Jules for support.
Claire began to sob. "She would send us to a convent. I would have to wear a... a robe!" She covered her face and dropped into a large leather backed chair near the fire, her embroidered peach silk skirts puffing around her, her large trumpet sleeves sliding down to her elbows. When neither of her sisters reacted to her dramatics, she dropped her hands and sniffed into a handkerchief she pulled from her drawstring bag. "You are the eldest, Louise. You must make the sacrifice."
"I will not," she cried, tossing her head. "I have found happiness with the palace stable marshal. He cares for me, loves me."
"Well, the Earl of Toussard loves me." Claire sat on the edge of her seat, her eyes defiant. "He is richer and far more handsome than your silly stable marshal -- or the Prince."
"But if you marry the Prince," Ella said in a tone meant to entice. "You would be queen someday. I am sure you could wrap him around your finger, Claire. Imagine the possibilities."
Eyes narrowing, the blonde beauty turned a sullen expression on Ella. "You are trying to trick me."
"I am merely saying you are well suited. Louise would be miserable dealing with pomp and circumstance. As for me..."
"But the Earl is so... manly. The Prince is..." Claire turned up her nose.
"A man. Give him what he wants -- whatever or whoever that may be -- and he will give you what you want."
"Surely you are mad, Ella," Louise said. "A future King Giles and Queen Claire? While they danced and drank champagne and hosted orgies, our enemies would slaughter us in our beds."
"Pardon me?" Claire exclaimed in a huff.
Louise linked arms with Ella. "You would make a fine queen. Prim and proper in public. Never outshining your husband. Well read. Smarter than either of us. You could be a real force behind the throne."
Ella slipped her arm free and put some space between them, backing up to a carved chest. "I have no interest in political intrigue. I do not want to live in a palace. My father promised me this estate. It is all I have left of my parents. I have everything I need right here."
"Everything except a protector."
Ella lifted her chin. "My Uncle Jules --"
Louise set her hands on her hips. "Cares not if you exist."
"We lost touch when my mother died," she said in her defense. "Even so, there is Lord Suth --"
"Who has ignored you since he discovered there is no money in your dowry." Louise waved any more excuses away. "You have no sweetheart. Unlike Claire and me, your heart will not break if you are forced to marry."
Ella winced. It did seem unfair to ask her stepsisters to give up their lovers in exchange for a milksop prince. Six years ago, she wouldn't have considered their feelings for a minute. They were horrible to her when they first came to live at the estate, but after her father died and their mother became more and more ill-tempered, the daughters had grown close. "Marrying someone without love, desire, or respect will break my heart."
"The Prince enjoys poetry," Louise said, picking up a slim book from a small square table, her tone pleading with Ella.
"Yes, you both like to read." Claire crinkled her nose in distaste. To her, reading implied sacred teachings that forbade pleasures of the flesh. Her stepsisters never picked up a volume unless it had scandalous drawings in it.
"A mutual interest in literature is hardly a basis for marriage. I want my husband to push me against a wall and kiss me until my toes curl."