They told me there are never any good stepmothers. All of my friends said, “Haven’t you heard the stories? You’ll end up hating her eventually. That’s how it always goes.”
I dislike stories. Stories tell you how to be, and then it never occurs to anyone that you could ever behave any differently. People can only ever imagine one future.
For example, in stories, girls either clean or sew. In finishing school, which classes do you suppose were most popular? Stain Removal and Embroidery. Of course, Weaving and Improvised Dusting Tools gave them a run for their money. I was the only student in Household Economics. Since I already knew my sums, Master Basnage had to come up with 3 whole weeks of new material.
In stories, girls become princesses. None of my classmates became princesses, but they did clean and sew their way to lesser titles. I spent four years at Furnival’s Halle for Sounde Business Practices and would have graduated top of the class had any of the professors ever recognized my presence.
You see, in my experience, stories only tell you what you can’t do. I dislike stories. So when my friends all said, “Evie, there simply are no good stepmothers,” I said, “That’s your opinion.”
“Besides,” I said, “the kid is a saint. How hard could this be?”
Girls today are always waiting for a prince, but I’m never sure why. It’s the fairies who do all the work in the stories. They wave their magic wand, and the dewy-eyed ninnies can’t help but fall in love.
I can’t really say if there are any good stepmothers. But one thing I know for certain: There are absolutely, definitely no fairies.
I met Henry at a party. I like the idea of parties. I like looking nice. I like watching men imagine the length of my legs under a smock, a petticoat, a kirtle, and a gown. I like the idea of drinking wine and talking. In actuality, Lord, people are dull.
Despite its pretensions, Strachey-on-Stout wasn’t half as stratified as its residents wished. It was, and had been, a fully functioning small town that at some point in its history became the ideal spot for the titled and/or wealthy who weren’t important enough to receive adequate attention in the capitol. Thus, Lord Whitcomb, who was inordinately wealthy with no political sense, could throw an annual ball that drew everyone from the elite to the untitled widow of one of the kingdom’s leading entrepreneurs—that’s me, of course.
Henry found me against one of the manor’s oak-paneled walls, drinking wine and not talking. He was clearly nervous, terribly interested in the carvings on the panel above me and unable to make eye contact with me at all. He needed help, but I wasn’t in the mood to offer.
“Lord Whitcomb is certainly enamored of the pineapple motif,” he finally managed to stutter. It was true. Lord Whitcomb had succumbed to the current trend of turning every knob or slightly curved piece of paneling into a pineapple.
“It’s a terrible investment,” I said.
“Look at it. He’s taken a whittling knife to every piece of wood in his manor. At least when the fad was cherubs, one simply affixed them in places. When this craze runs its course, he’ll have to replace anything remotely round.”
“I’d never thought of it that way!”
“What’s fashionable makes a poor foundation for a luxury purchase. It won’t stay in style long enough to create any sort of return.”
“That makes such obvious sense when you think about it. I wonder why more of the wealthy don’t abide by it.”
I just laughed, a sharp, one-note “ha.”
“Has anyone ever told you that you have a wonderful voice?”
He liked to explore. He liked to walk through the woods, collecting oddly-shaped leaves and flowers he didn’t recognize. He’d dry them and press them and put them in a large blank book. He liked to watch clouds. I liked to watch him watching clouds. I made him go to the theater, and I think he preferred to watch me. He was friendly to absolutely everyone. I swear he’d even made friends with the geese by the lake.
The first time I met his daughter, she was on the front porch, her right hand gently turning a spinning wheel while her left fed wool onto a spindle. Birds chirped in the trees. My heart sank.
“Ellie!” he exclaimed as she ran to him and threw her arms around his neck. “Ella, I’d like you to meet Evelyn.”
“Hi,” I mustered. She was gorgeous. Her hair was so blonde it was almost white, and it would have run halfway down her back if it hadn’t been in a braid demurely piled on her head. Her blue eyes were as bright as the flowers in the garden, and her skin positively radiated light.
“It’s so nice to meet you! Father’s told me so much about you. I was helping Lucy with supper, Papa. I think it’s almost ready.” Cooking. Right up there with cleaning and sewing.
“She’s an angel,” I whispered. Maybe literally, I thought. Henry beamed.
“Oh, I have to tell you about the tree, Papa! I left a little dish of milk for the fairies, and they came!” she said as she led him into their modest little thatched cottage.
I was sure we were done because I thought I would bolt. She didn’t look like him at all. He was awkward, with scruffy golden-brown hair and cheekbones that weren’t quite even. His face was long and hers was round, his smile a little crooked while hers was wide and perfect. She looked like her mother, his dead wife, who was probably, in fact, actually an angel.
I planned to follow them, but I found it difficult to leave the entryway. Then I felt a soft hand on my elbow.
“He’s been so happy since he met you. Thank you,” Ella said.
I can be much more cynical than everyone else, but it’s impossible to mistrust Ella. (Mostly because, as I later learned, she’s a terrible liar. Guile doesn’t pay off for her.) She knew just what to say, and she believed every word, and I fell for her completely.
That was not how Henry’s first meeting with my daughter went.
“I thought she would be home. I told her to be home,” I said halfway through the meal.
“Don’t worry about it. She’s young!”
“She’s rebellious. That child has it out for me.”
By the time my maid came home with her, we’d finished supper.
“Fanchon!” I cried.
“I’m fine, Mother!” she said as she attempted to push past me.
“Don’t you walk past me,” I said. “I told you to be home for supper. Where have you been?”
“Where have I been?” she asked, wide-eyed. “Regina and I were planning outfits for a fancy dress ball.” The maid nodded. “I don’t get what—”
“You are grounded for a week.”
“Fanchon, you can’t do this! You told me you would be home tonight, and then you weren’t! For all I knew, something had happened to you!”
“Mom, why is this suddenly a big deal? I’m always with my friends!”
“I reminded you last night. We were having supper tonight so you could meet Henry.”
“Oh! Was that this week? I thought it was next week!”
“See, she forgot! No harm done!” Henry said as he stepped up by my side.
“I’m so sorry! It’s nice to meet you. I’m Fanchon.” She shook Henry’s hand.
“We’re going to be late for the show,” I said, clenching my jaw as tightly as I could. Anyone could tell Fanchon was lying, but clearly Henry didn’t have much practice with obnoxious teenagers.
“So then I’m not grounded?”
“It was an honest mistake,” Henry said. I rolled my eyes.
“Three days,” I said. “Next time, tell me where you are.”
“I hate you!” she shouted as she stomped back to her bedroom. What else was new?
“Let’s go,” I said.
“She’s spirited,” Henry said when we’d left the house.
“She’s—” I started but was interrupted by a cry from the house.
“Mom!” Fanchon leaned out of the front window. “Mom, you’re too old to have more babies, right? So I don’t need to be worried?”
I suppose I should say a few words about Husband #1, or you’ll think Fanchon is all my fault.
Husband #1 was the only thing I got out of business school that my parents appreciated. We met when he beat me out for a consulting job. I was jobless, unmarried, and quickly realizing that both prospective husbands and prospective employers only saw what I couldn’t do. He was self-made and needed a wife who could work a crowd and wouldn’t squander the fortune that was coming. We were attractive. We oozed charm. I’d persuade potential clients to have supper with us, and my husband delivered the pitch. We could seal deals during famines, the pox, and barbarian invasions. I thought we were partners. I thought I was valued.
There are different kinds of needing, I realized a little too late. In fact, Husband #1 cared about two things in life: himself and his daughter. He had graduated first in his class, so he soon earned the obscene amounts of money needed to satisfy this adoration, and Fanchon quickly became spoiled.
In the beginning, we both gave Fan anything she wanted. We were new parents, and she was an adorable little lump of baby fat. I was the first to say no—probably because I have a limited tolerance for children, or maybe because I was home all day with her. I just felt she ought to put away her toys, eat her vegetables, and speak like a decent human being.
But Husband #1 read her stories and told her she was a princess and the fairies would find her a prince, and he let her skip the part where she cleaned and sewed her way to the top. If I tried to discipline her, he shouted at me. Pretty soon, Little Fan learned that Daddy always overruled Mommy. If Mom said no, Dad said yes. If she didn’t want to put away her dolls, Dad paid someone to do it for her. If she wanted to stay up another hour, Dad held her on his lap. She had about as much respect for me as he did.
I’m sure there was something I should have done differently. I don’t know what it was. Mothering never came naturally to me.
I didn’t cry when he died, when his heart just suddenly stopped. I hadn’t loved him in a very long time. Besides, I didn’t have time. Fanchon was thirteen. She screamed. I tried to calm her down, she hit me. I put my arms around her, I stroked her hair. She tried to bite me. She shut herself in her room, and when she finally came out, she stormed out of the house.
I planned the funeral, I sorted his belongings, and I called for the solicitor. He arrived the day after the funeral.
“Ma’am, my condolences for your loss.”
I sighed. “Thank you, Mr. Sherman. Please have a seat. Would you like something to drink?” He shook his head. I shrugged and poured a glass of wine for myself.
“I have looked over the contents of your late husband’s will,” he began hesitantly.
“It is quite clear. He left everything to your daughter.”
Everything seemed to freeze as the solicitor’s words sunk in. I felt panic welling up, so I closed my eyes and took a long, slow drink. Now I wanted to scream. I even wanted to cry, I was so angry. I was his wife, and I’d been faithful. I’d been trapped for fifteen years because if I’d ever left him, I’d have been destitute. Our whole marriage, he’d known he controlled me, and he wanted it to be clear that he still did. I took a deep breath and tried to exhale my anger, letting my mind race with solutions.
“Fanchon is only thirteen. She can’t run her father’s business.”
“No. Your husband appointed a board of directors to run the company until Fanchon comes of age.”
“She gets her seat on the board.”
I sunk my nails into the cushions of the sofa. “Surely she must get an allowance.”
“Yes…Your husband appointed me overseer of Fanchon’s monthly allowance.”
I took in the solicitor with a glance—the laces on his cuffs were tied in symmetrical bows, and he nervously ran his hands over the meticulously drawn boxes on his sheaf of forms. This was my one true edge over Husband #1: I knew how to read the people he considered trifles.
“Of course,” I said, shaking my head in disgust. “He would assume you had nothing better to do.”
“I am a busy man…”
“I’m sure you must be! He was like this with everyone. Always assumed serving him was the most important thing you had to do that day.”
“I met your husband on a few occasions, ma’am,” Sherman said, looking nervously at me through his spectacles.
“I’m sure he was impressive.”
“He was, quite. So much so the rest of us didn’t really seem to merit.”
“None of us did.”
Mr. Sherman paused. I waited patiently.
“Evelyn, it is in my best interest to see this will executed fully, meaning I wish to see your daughter inherit her father’s fortune. So if Fanchon’s guardian were unable to care for her, I would be interested in doing something about that. After all, Fanchon shouldn’t be expected to care for her guardian, quite the opposite. Anyway, it seems to me within my rights to transfer Fanchon’s allowance to her physical guardian. Until she turns eighteen, of course.”
“If it would put your mind at ease, Mr. Sherman…”
“It would, I think.” He shuffled through his papers and found something appropriate for me to sign.
“One more question, Mr. Sherman. What happens to her inheritance if Fan gets married?”
“Oh!” Mr. Sherman looked puzzled, as though he couldn’t fathom why a person would ask such a question. “Her husband would take control of her finances. Probably the board seat as well. It’s hard to imagine a woman running a company like that, isn’t it?”
I smiled wryly and negotiated my allowance. If I’d had this dowry, Husband #1 would have stolen it from me before the honeymoon was over, and in this world, even I couldn’t have stopped him. I wasn’t going to let that happen to Fan, so I had to prepare her to go it alone.
Fan and I ate supper in our usual silence the next evening.
“Fan, if you want to talk about anything…”
I paused, at a complete loss for how to speak with her. “I’ve spoken with the solicitor. Your father left everything to you. When you’re eighteen, you’ll inherit everything, even a seat on the board of directors.”
“So I’ll be rich?”
“And you’ll help run your father’s company. You’ll have to learn how to make wise business decisions.”
“Whatever. I get the money when I’m eighteen?”
“And until then you’ll try to steal it from me?”
“Of course not!”
Fanchon shrugged. I took a deep breath. She was grieving.
“What do you see yourself doing in the future, Fan?”
“I’m going to marry a prince, just like in the stories.”
“Which stories are those?”
“You know, where the girl’s dad dies and everyone’s mean to her but a nice fairy comes and helps her marry a prince.”
“Well, I’m not a fairy, but I’ll do my best…” I said uncharacteristically cheerfully.
“Sometimes I think you’re not my real mom.”
“I’m really sure I am,” I said slowly.
“Someone could have switched the babies when you were asleep.”
“Fan…you’re my daughter.”
She shrugged again and didn’t say another word the entire meal. That’s when I realized she’d cut me off. Fanchon wouldn’t spare an allowance for her dear mother. It was a terrifying thought, having to go back into the world all alone. As much as I hate to admit it, I needed help.