“Your voice is like velvet,” Henry said.
I laughed. More of a giggle, I reluctantly admit.
“Marry me,” he said, kneeling by the side of the bed.
“Of course,” I breathed, and he kissed me, and I held on like we were one person.
I felt the relief the next day. I had a safety net, and it was a happy one.
I looked over Henry’s finances and sent a few queries to Mr. Sherman. Within a few days, we were ready to tell the girls.
“Well, girls, your mother and I—I mean, well, Fanchon’s mother and I—Evelyn and I…” Henry sputtered. He kept clasping and unclasping his hands over his knee. Ella smiled patiently, but Fanchon gave an exaggerated eye roll. I decided to speed things up.
“We want to tell you that we’re getting married.”
“Yes! That’s it! That’s the news!”
Curiously, neither girl reacted. I’ll admit, I was expecting Fanchon to hit the roof, and I figured Ella would either smile weakly and cry later or squeal about weddings. If I were a gambler, I’d have lost a bundle. Unnerved by the silence, I went on with the speech I’d planned.
“Of course, neither of us would dream of replacing the parents you’ve lost. I know you miss your mother, Ella, and I’m certainly not her.”
“And I know you were close to your father, Fanchon, and probably don’t want a new one.”
“But it’s a hard world to go through alone,” I said. “And we think we could all take care of each other.”
“Are you girls all right with this?”
“Of course,” Ella said, her blue eyes starting to glisten. “I want you to be happy, Papa.”
“Whatever,” said Fanchon.
“Well, in that case…” Henry said cheerfully. I wasn’t convinced. I eyed Fan, wondering why she was saving the firestorm.
“We’re not planning much of a ceremony,” I said, “so we won’t need to busy ourselves with wedding plans. But first and foremost, Fan, you and I have to get ready to move.”
Fan stiffened. Ah, here it comes, I thought. Now she’d finally put all the pieces together.
“And Ella and I are happy to help pack crates! Aren’t we, sweetheart?” Ella nodded.
“What?” Fanchon bellowed, turning Ella’s hesitant smile into a quavering pout. “We’re moving? Why aren’t they moving? Our house is so much nicer! They ought to move in with us!”
“Well,” I said calmly, “theirs has an extra room, so you and Ella can each have your own room. In ours, you’d have to share.”
“She can sleep on the floor!”
Tears welled up in Ella’s eyes.
“I think not, Fan. The best option is to sell our house and move into Henry’s.”
“But you can’t sell the house!” Fan crowed, rising triumphantly from her seat. “It’s mine! It was Dad’s, so it’s mine! I knew you would try to steal my money!”
“Fanchon, sit down. I am doing nothing of the sort. The entire sale will go into your inheritance, which you will receive when you are eighteen. No one is being unfair to you. I understand this is a change you don’t want to make, but that doesn’t give you the right to be rude.” Fan sat down and smoldered. “I think you owe Ella and Henry an apology.”
“Sorry,” she practically spat.
“I forgive you, Fan,” Ella said. Fan rolled her eyes again.
“Well!” Henry said. “I guess that’s all the news. Just let us know when you start filling boxes, Evelyn!”
We all started to rise. Fanchon bounded to her feet and stomped away, shoving her chair to the side.
“Just wait until I’m eighteen,” she shouted back. “You’ll all be sorry when my fairy godmother finds me a prince!”
I am, ultimately, an optimist. For example, despite my previous failures, I still hadn’t given up on parenting. I thought I would have a better chance with Ella. Her father adored me, after all. He didn’t mind that I was an inch taller than he, or that I kept my greying hair short. And most importantly, he didn’t seem to care that I was better at running his business. Acceptance is the family style, I thought.
Ella spent most of her time on the front porch engaged in various crafts projects while a family of sparrows serenaded her from a hedge near the side of the house. The sparrows had adopted Ella, it seemed. I never quite figured out where they made their nest, but eventually I got used to their singing. Apparently, they came with the house. I think they appreciated the gifts Ella left for the fairies.
“What are you making, Ella?”
“It’s a quilt. I’m using the fabric from Fanchon’s and my worn-out dresses so nothing goes to waste. Fairies hate wastefulness.”
“It’s beautiful! You’re quite talented. You know, you could probably sell your wares in town.”
Her eyes widened in horror. “Oh no, Stepmother, I can’t do that! I just like making things for our home.”
“Why not? I’d be happy to help you set up a small business. You’d only need a bit of marketing.”
“It’s just…The girls in the stories never sell things. They give them away, to anyone in need. It would be cruel to sell things!”
She gave me an angelic smile and went back to making small hand movements whose purpose I couldn’t possibly discern. How had she gotten a whole blanket doing that?
The next time Lord Whitcomb held a party, the girls were old enough to attend. Ella would need me to introduce her to people, I thought.
“Had to get rid of all the pineapples, I see,” Henry said as we entered.
“I can’t tell what he’s replaced them with,” I said.
“Wolf motifs,” Fanchon said. “They’re all the rage. Just so you know, Mom, we’re the laughingstock of the county because we’re not up-to-date.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
While Fanchon searched the crowd for a reason to ditch us, Ella took the scene in. She’s probably scared, I thought.
“There’s no need to be nervous, Ella,” I said. “Come on, girls, I’ll introduce you to people.”
“Sir Kingsley!” I heard Fan say. “How delightful to see you again!”
I turned to see her slip her hand through the arm of a tall, darkly handsome young man whose eyes went straight to the ample bosom threatening to burst out of her gown.
“Her bodice was not that tight when we left,” I said. “Who is he? He’s too old for her.”
“Did you break the stallion you were telling me about?” Fanchon asked.
“Telling her about? They’ve talked before? Fanchon!”
I know she heard me, but she just batted her eyes as he said something masculine.
“I feel a little bit bad for the poor horse! Promise me you won’t hurt it!”
“Fanchon!” I tried again, but she just turned him away from me. Fan may not have paid attention to sewing or cleaning, but she had mastered the art of meaningless conversation, and that was a dangerous tool.
“No more than he needs it,” the young man said, and they sauntered over toward the drinks.
I must have looked ready to vent steam because Henry spoke up nervously. “I’ll go find out who he is.” He scurried off, leaving me with Ella.
I took a deep breath and turned brightly to Ella. “Well. There’s no reason we can’t enjoy ourselves! Shall I introduce you to my friends?”
“Oh, no, Stepmother, that’s really all right,” she said, her eyes darting around as she looked nervously at the crowds of people.
“Ella, you can’t just stand here!”
She shrugged and looked over toward where Fanchon had gone. I was filled with pity.
“Darling, there’s no reason to be nervous. You’re beautiful and sweet, and everyone will love you. Just be yourself! You don’t have to be like Fan to have people like you.”
She nodded, but made no real signs of action.
I put my hands on her shoulders. “Ella, I’m going to teach you my three steps to introductions. They’re not hard. One: shake hands firmly, not too strong, not too limp. Two: give a compliment. Three: ask a question. If they’re nice, they’ll ask you a question, and then you have a conversation. If they’re rude, they’ll just talk about themselves and you won’t have to say another word. All right? Let’s give it a try.”
I looked around the ballroom hoping to find someone gentle. When my eyes lit on Maribelle, hovering over the sweets with an air of indecisiveness, I put my arm firmly around Ella and steered her toward the pastries.
“Oh, hi, Evelyn! Don’t they all look so good? I can’t decide which to try!” She giggled, causing her overlarge gable hood to shake. I wasn’t surprised; Maribelle never made a decision for herself. She was a young housewife with seven children who were raised by nannies but all wore homemade clothing. Maribelle never gave anyone a gift she hadn’t made herself, and while she generally made me cringe, her preserves were fantastic. I figured in about fifteen years Ella would be her.
“Maribelle, I want you to meet my daughter Ella. Ella, this is Lady Frandsen.”
“Oh, you can call me Maribelle, Ella! It’s so nice to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you!”
Ella shook hands and smiled faintly.
I waited. “Maribelle, your gown is lovely,” I said finally. Ella just nodded.
“Oh, thank you! I made it myself!”
I gave Ella a chance to jump in on step three. No luck.
“Ella loves sewing!” I said. “She makes quilts and does the crossing stitch, and she does the little embroidery things with the hoops.”
“No, Stepmother, um, cross-stitch and embroidery are pretty much the same thing,” said a helpful little voice at my side, a little too loudly. She turned back to Maribelle. “Sometimes I use a hoop, but not with lacework, of course.”
“Of course!” Maribelle laughed. “Do you make clothes?”
“No, I’ve never tried. I’m not sure I’d be any good.”
“But you do all the stitching on the quilts so well! I’m sure you could do it,” I said.
“They’re different kinds of stitching, Stepmother. And the processes would be different.”
“Well, we’ll just have to have lessons! We’ll start with undergarments and work our way up!” Maribelle clapped her hands. “You should come too, Evelyn. Stepmother-stepdaughter bonding!”
“I don’t know if you would like it, Stepmother. You might get frustrated.”
And here I’d thought she was nervous.
“Oooh, yes. Evelyn doesn’t like it when she’s bad at things. We’d probably have to start you with a pillowcase.”
I just stared at them.
“Oh, excuse me! My husband’s waving at me. Bye!” Maribelle floated away.
“She was very nice,” Ella said. “I think that went well for my first introduction.”
I rolled my eyes and focused on the quickest way to get a drink.
“Who should I introduce myself to next?”
I don’t know, I thought. How about someone who washes her own windows? I’ve never been sure what you mix to keep them shiny and streak-free. (Is lemon juice involved?) You can exploit that. I snatched a glass of red wine off of the tray of a passing servant and took a large, unladylike drink.
“Why don’t you introduce yourself to one of those young noblemen?” In my defense, I regretted it as soon as I said it. There’s no need to be petty, Evelyn, I told myself.
To my surprise, Ella gave a long look over at a pair of young men jawing in a corner, chests puffed out experimentally.
“No,” she said finally. “I don’t think that’s how it’s supposed to go. They’re supposed to come introduce themselves to you. Because they think you’re beautiful, so they just have to talk to you.”
I pictured how terrified Henry was, and how smoothly Husband #1 took my hand as I hurried down the capitol’s cobblestones.
“Where do you see yourself in ten years, Ella?”
She blushed a little. “I want to marry a prince. Everyone does, I know. But it would be just like the stories.”
“You know, where the girl’s mother dies and she’s all alone, but then her fairy godmother comes and gives her a magic dress and magic shoes and a magic carriage and then she marries the prince.”
“That godmother’s a busy woman. Do you have a fairy—do you have a godmother?”
“I don’t know.” Ella frowned. “But she’ll be there when I need her. I’m not really worried. I just have to wait for her. That’s how the stories always go.”
“Well. I suppose if young men are going to sweep you off your feet, you don’t want your parents hanging around.”
Ella laughed. “They might be scared of you, Stepmother. You should probably find Papa. He’s all by himself somewhere.”
I stood with my mouth open for a moment as my mind finally caught up. She isn’t nervous, she just doesn’t want your help. “I don’t want to leave you by yourself…”
“I’ll be fine.”
So I left and found Henry, and we stood centrally, with both daughters in sight. The thing about waiting, I wanted to say, was that you couldn’t control who would show up.
I tried parenting with Fanchon too. Heavens knew the world didn’t want a woman to control her own fate. But you didn’t have to let it take advantage of you, if you had knowledge and willpower. She had the willpower. She just needed the knowledge.
Despite my own experiences, I’d tried to send her to finishing school. For the discipline, at least. Her father had refused, and when he died I couldn’t afford it, but I’d paid for tutors over the years, desperately trying to put an education into her head. None of them were ever sure whether she was inept or just lazy, but I thought I’d have a chance with business. After all, between her father and me, she ought to have been an economic genius.
“Fanchon, it’s time for you to learn about the world. You’ll be eighteen in a few years, and I should teach you what I know.”
“I know what sex is, Mom.”
“I’m talking about economics, Fan. Let’s start with the supply and demand principle.”
“Henry! Where’s Henry? Someone tell Henry she’s gone barmy!”
“Fanchon! When you’re eighteen you will inherit your father’s business, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll drive it into the ground! You have to be responsible—”
“Fine!” She plopped into a chair.
“How do you think a company like your father’s sets prices?”
“I imagine father set them as high as he wanted. That’s how he was amazingly rich.”
“Not quite. You see, the higher the price, the less people want to buy.”
“Well then that’s their problem, isn’t it?”
“But if no one buys your product, you don’t make any money. So it’s your problem too.”
Fan stared at me blankly. Fanchon had her father’s deep black hair and ghostly pale complexion. She would be pretty if she wasn’t constantly sneering. Where Ella radiated love, Fan exuded hatred. They were almost opposites, except they both achieved that same vacant stare.
“Let’s think about this,” I tried. “Imagine you have a stock of one hundred.”
“One hundred what?”
“Like Ella makes? Then I will make no money because no one will buy those things.”
“Well, we haven’t done the consumer research. So let’s pretend people will buy them.”
“But they won’t.”
“Fine. Pretend you have 100 bales of wool.”
“This is stupid.”
“You can sell ten percent of your stock for five sovereigns each, or sixty percent of your stock for one sovereign each. Which price scheme makes you the most profit?”
“How am I supposed to know something like that? Aren’t you supposed to be teaching me?”
“You can do this, Fan. Start with the percent. It’s out of one hundred, so I’ve made it pretty simple.”
“So I’m stupid then because I can’t answer your little question. Thanks, Mom.”
“No, I’m sorry, Fan, of course that isn’t what I meant. I just thought you knew how to do this. I told your tutor to teach you your sums and a few more advanced topics, like percent.”
“That was years ago. Why would I remember that? I’m never going to use it. Real women aren’t like you, Mom. When my prince shows up, he’s not going to care if I can do percent!”
“Evie, no board of directors is going to let Fanchon do that much damage,” Henry said.
“They’ll use her. They’ll lie to her, manipulate her, and buy her vote while they gradually edge her out!”
“So we’ll find her a husband.”
I’d avoided this topic. Of course I could find Fan a husband, even if he wasn’t a prince, but I didn’t want her to need one. There were too many men like her father, and not enough like Henry.
“He’ll do the same thing! He’ll assume control, take over the company, and leave her. Fanchon is my daughter, and I love her, but if we’re perfectly honest, she is not pleasant!” I paced up and down the bedroom, barely keeping my voice at a sort of screeching whisper. Henry put his hands on my shoulders and sat me at the vanity.
“First of all, we don’t know that’s what would happen. Think of all the unpleasant married women we know!”
“Her father didn’t think. He didn’t think about actually protecting her,” I said.
Henry held my hands. “And isn’t that why we’re here? Fanchon’s got to make her own mistakes. And when she does, she can come back to us. We’ll be here for her.”
“She’s bound to learn some common sense before we’re dead, right?” I sniffled.
“Has to.” He kissed me on the forehead.
“Thank you. Really, thank you, for taking both of us…”
“You worry too much. Now, I need your advice on a potential acquisition…”