Chapter 03 – Secrets and Blackmail
Her father’s will apparently saved Cinderella’s life. Her heart warmed as she thought about her kind father, who, despite his kindness, was a shrewd merchant. The conditions of the will also explained why Lady Ingram never beat her harshly and still at least made sure she had the bare necessities for living. There was no way Lady Ingram would give up on trying to steal the funds from the trading company and the manor. She was most unwilling to see the estate revert back to the crown.
The topic in the parlor shifted as Lady Ingram explained to her daughters how she planned to use the estate’s maintenance funds to keep up their aristocratic appearance. Her scheme was simply to “borrow” more money from the estate and the struggling trading company to purchase new dresses and jewelry for the coming social season.
All three of the girls were now of marriageable age, and Lady Ingram had refrained from having Angela debut during the last season. This was to save money. Lady Ingram intended for both girls to debut at once. It was more efficient for husband hunting, or so the lady thought. Of course, she had no intention of allowing Cinderella to debut. No one would look at her girls if Cinderella, the rightful heiress of a once flourishing trading company and a beauty, were to stand next to them.
Lady Ingram’s plans continued. After the two girls were married, then Lady Ingram could sell the estate, deal with Cinderella, and move in with one of the two girls and their new husband.
“It’ll be a happily ever after!” cried Bertrise.
It’ll be a nightmare, thought Cinderella.
“Before we deal with Cinderella, we need to pry her secret out of her. How does she stay so pretty when she works all day long? She should look like the other servants did, and yet she still has nice skin and her hands haven’t been destroyed with all the washing and cleaning. She must have a secret magic spell!”
Angela, the eldest stepsister, had always been aware of Cinderella’s beauty and viewed her as a threat to any potential marriage. Angela was present at many tea parties where aristocratic matrons would ask her mother specifically about Cinderella’s engagement status. They would ask only about Cinderella despite Angela’s presence and impeccable manners. As time passed and this happened several times, a rising sense of crisis loomed in her heart, and she deeply desired Cinderella to disappear entirely from her life.
However, Cinderella didn’t have a magic spell. She wasn’t a witch; she didn’t have a magical fairy godmother. She just learned to make cosmetics and lotions from her mother at a young age.
She followed her mother’s skincare routine from an early age. Cinderella even accompanied her mother as she experimented with ingredients. Under her mother’s watchful eyes, Cinderella soon branched out to discover her own favorite combinations of scented herbs and tinctures good for skincare and cosmetics.
When they still had servants, Cinderella would gift them small packages of cosmetics in return for feedback and suggestions for improvement. But ever since her stepmother arrived, she had doubts about her stepmother’s sincerity, so she had hidden this particular skill from her new family members. And since the servants did not care for the stepfamily either, they did not enlighten the new ladies.
Her father, knowing it was an important memory between a young girl and her mother, also kept it a secret. As a result, the stepfamily had no idea Cinderella had a secret stash of homemade cosmetics which could rival any product on the market.
When her father died, Cinderella hid her mother’s book of recipes in the manor library. Lady Ingram believed young women should learn how to be pretty and attract a wealthy husband. A wealthy husband could support a woman for a lifetime. While the Lady didn’t directly forbid her daughters from entering the library and study rooms, she highly discouraged it. Lady Ingram said it led to unladylike thoughts. Cinderella often overheard her stepmother repeatedly lectured the girls on the idea that men didn’t like ladies who had their own opinions on anything other than fashion.
Thus, the library was the perfect spot to hide the recipe book written by Cinderella’s mother and herself. And for a while, it was safely hidden. But once the head of the household died and Lady Ingram continued to spend excessive amounts of money, the finances of the family became questionable. Cinderella noticed expensive artwork began to disappear from the house. Since her stepmother had no use for books, Cinderella knew it was only a matter of time before the woman sold off the entire library.
Cinderella managed to hide several rare books, including her mother’s cosmetics book, just one week prior to her mother inviting a bookstore owner over to the house to “peruse” their library. The man left with a carriage full of her father’s rarest books, and her stepmother had a sack of coins to spend on some new frivolity.
When she thought of all the precious items which had gone missing in the past few years, items which held memories of her parents, Cinderella reaffirmed her desire to take back her rightful inheritance.
Her mother’s cosmetics recipes would be the foundation on which she would rebuild her life and give her stepfamily their just desserts. After all, Cinderella knew from watching her stepfamily that aristocratic and noble women were willing to spend exorbitant amounts of money to look pretty.
Cinderella originally planned to wait until she came of age to reclaim the family property on the grounds of her stepmother’s financial mismanagement. However, with her stepfamily’s plans to invite noblemen of questionable morals to ruin her life, Cinderella decided to move up the timeline for her plans. She needed to meet with a few merchants who had longstanding friendships with her father.
Determined to move forward in her plans for financial freedom and revenge, Cinderella retreated down the hallway and then retraced her steps, making as much noise as she could to allow the scheming ladies stop their conversation. There was no sense in letting them know she had discovered their plots. They would only hasten their plans if she confronted them.
She silently bore with their complaints as she got them ready for bed. Cinderella was finally able to retreat to her small room in the servant quarters near the kitchen.
Finally alone, she pulled out the small incriminating journal and read through the entries. She intended to focus on entries which listed “Lady Ingram” as the client, but the first entry which caught her eye was her stepmother’s name when she still bore her maiden name.
A short while before Lady Ingram’s first marriage, the then-unmarried lady apparently contracted the owner of the journal to kill a commoner who worked as a servant for her house. Suspicious, Cinderella did some quick math and realized Angela, the “eldest daughter of the Baron,” might not have as much aristocratic blood as her stepmother claimed.
The second time the Lady’s name appeared in the journal was with a request to hurry along her already-ill mother-in-law’s death. The third request was for another commoner, this time an aide who worked for the Baron.
Cinderella counted months again and realized that her stepmother might have pulled the wool over the Baron’s eyes twice. For a lady who seemed to look down on commoners, Lady Ingram apparently thought they were good enough to sleep with.
Then came the entry requesting the Baron’s death, along with a notation that there were several visits to negotiate costs. An even smaller note indicated the owner of this journal was highly appreciative of this repeat customer who was willing to pay ever increasing amounts of money for each request.
Cinderella flipped through the rest of the journal and took mental notes when she ran across the names of merchants she’d heard of at her father’s knee. She intended to avoid contacting these merchants. Merchants who hired a hitman to dispose of rivals could not be trusted. Just as she was thinking about her father’s lessons on which companies and merchants to trust, she ran across his name near the bottom of the page.
Startled, she eagerly read the entry aloud.
“Contractor: Merchant Eliot Beaumont. Task: Confirm Lady Ingram’s criminal involvement in the death of Baron Ingram. Price: One Thousand Gold. Half paid up front. Business expenses to be reimbursed when task is complete.”
There were two additional notations below this entry.
The first, “Seek out previous client to confirm wishes.”
The second, “Could not reach previous client as new client is too guarded. Am being tracked by new client’s people. I may have to have a chat with this nosy client.”
Cinderella flipped the page to continue reading and was confronted with blank pages.
She sat there for a few minutes, contemplating the implications of these last notations, and how the journal made its way into the vanity. She now wondered if her father had been able to recover this journal and hid it in the vanity, or if her father’s demise was related to the “chat” the hitman wanted to have. But it didn’t make any sense for the hitman to willingly give up this piece of evidence to Lady Ingram.
But that was a puzzle for a later date. For now, the journal could serve as evidence should she be able to free herself from her stepfamily in a short period of time or as blackmail should it take longer. She might need the situation with the hitman to keep her stepfamily busy in order to counteract their plans to ruin her life.
And if her stepmother, who apparently had no hesitation when ordering the death of others, wanted Cinderella out of her life, well, Cinderella was prepared to fight back with all the dirty little tricks she’d learned over the years.