Cinderella sucked in and squirmed through the crystal tunnel, grasping for the surface as if her life depended on it. Lacking the breath to form actual words, she forced a silent pep talk. Just a few more inches. The triumph will be worth the pain. Come on, Cindy. Burrow.
She pressed on, praying her head would burst from the darkness before her heart pinched out her throat. Don’t breathe in. Air is the enemy here. Her mind ran wild with visions of front page jabs, of her husband’s once-adoring face bowed in disgust, of all her admirers and endorsements turning away for somebody younger … tighter … less mentally cluttered.
If she couldn’t fit into the ball gown that ten years ago elevated her from cinders to chiffon, she needed no further proof that her fairy tale was coming to an end. She’d probably turn into a sitcom travesty. “Fallen Royals: Where Are They Now?”
Suck it in, Cindy. Just a few more—
The snap shot through her bones. She gasped. Her chest sprung out like a slashed canister of crescent rolls. The roar was unmistakable. But rather than whip up and lament the fact that her iconic ball gown had just torn open, Cinderella froze for so long and in such an awkward position that Time itself must have admired her steadfast denial. Alas, the inlaid clock on her mantel clicked forward.
“Crackling snapdragons!” she shrieked, releasing her contorted spine and twirling around to make sure she was alone. Cursing didn’t befit a queen—even one with four kids and an eponymous social metaphor based on her life.
Just when she thought the coast was clear, a tap sounded on the door, followed by the voice of her youngest attendant.
“Is everything all right in there, miss?” Delia’s words sailed clearly though the doors separating the royal apartments from the rest of the castle.
She sighed. Perhaps life in a castle was luxurious in other kingdoms, but Carpale was the star of Marestam in every way—its central location, its bustling streets, its financial prowess, its grand train station, and its iconic castle (which was supposed to prove Parliament and local monarchies could cohabit as well as coexist). Life here was crowded and far too exposed. She couldn’t even sneeze without someone showing up with a cart full of tissues.
“Can I get you something?” Delia repeated from the hall.
Cindy stifled a laugh and glared at the gilded doors. Could she request her pre-motherhood waistline back? Or the last ten years of her life? “I’m fine,” she said, taking a calming breath. “But would you mind getting some of that special tea Rapunzel sent over?”
“The metabolism tea? Of course,” Delia sang. “It’ll go great with some of those chocolate biscuits and—”
“Don’t you dare!” The words splattered over her lips like Rapunzel’s third martini on a Wednesday. She shuddered. “Sorry—I mean—just the tea, please.”
If Delia acknowledged the apology, Cindy didn’t hear it as she freed herself from five layers of chiffon, extricated her heel from the underlying web of tulle, and dove into a far more reasonable ensemble: a velour tracksuit with “Royalty” (a gift from her eldest daughter, Sophie, who had a matching set) spelled out in gemstones. Dropping into her favorite armchair with the grace of an out-of-practice acrobat, she sighed and gazed into the plaster sky overhead. She really needed to get a grip.
For as long as she could remember, Cindy had faced obstacles with the perfect combination of strength and grace. From losing both her parents by age twelve to becoming her stepmother’s maid, she neither caved in nor lashed out during tough times. Even back then, she didn’t see the point in throwing unsightly hissy fits or steamrolling over innocent bystanders simply because her life wasn’t going well. It seemed far more effective to conceal all but a pinhole of resentment, complete her assigned tasks with the expected degree of care, and escape to her crawlspace at the end of the day to quietly plot her escape. Cindy believed it was this attitude (much more defining, she hoped, than her marriage alone) that prompted the Marestam Mirror to name her Woman of the Year five times in the last decade.
Lately, however—ever since “The Big Three-O” had wriggled within striking range—her good nature had fallen a bit askew. It started when she noticed that the upper left crease of her smile stopped flattening when she let her lips fall back down. Her first wrinkle. Then, when Sophie was fiddling with her hair one afternoon, she plucked out a “white wire” that was somehow entwined with the rest of her golden strands. When Cindy relayed these mortifying events to her husband, Aaron simply laughed, kissed her forehead, and said he knew a great colorist on State Street.
Thus began a month of anti-wrinkle treatments, crash diets, every exercise class known to man, and a dangerous, slightly masochistic journey through the memory trunk she kept in the back of her closet. In it, she found old love notes from Aaron; four baby blankets; a letter of Regal condolence honoring her mother (penned long before she became the author’s daughter-in-law); her father’s passport (last stamped on Cindy’s twelfth birthday, a week before he died); and a list of things she’d vowed to do before thirty, scrawled on the back of her stepmother’s list of “Chores and Punishments.”
Of all these bittersweet artifacts, it was the last piece that brought her to tears. This wasn’t because she’d come to terms with her mother’s death, or because she no longer missed hearing about her father’s overseas adventures. Nor was it because she still felt the stings of her stepmother’s curling iron. Rather, she fixated on the list because she knew how its teenage author would have considered her future self. Queen Cinderella, she would have thought, was not only a few breaths away from a casket, but also a complete and total bore.
Item One: Travel A LOT. Visit every realm in the world.
This had been her dream before she crashed Aaron’s marital ball (purely to spite her stepfamily) and fell idiotically in love with Carpale’s heir apparent. Aaron understood, bless his heart, and tried to ease the loss with two open tickets on a year-long honeymoon … but little Sophie slammed a wrench into that idea pretty fast. Instead of seeing the world, they’d skulked home when she was in the throes of first trimester nausea, and were quickly ushered onto her in-laws’ thrones. Since then, “the world” had come to mean a cluster of five crowded islands surrounded by ocean and bursting with monotony.
Item Two: Do something dangerous, daring, and scarier than sleeping in a cave full of bats.
Cindy had to chuckle over the youthful turn of phrase, then frown over its content. Walking into that ball wearing Ruby’s magical costume had been pretty intimidating. But scarier than a cave of bats? Not really. Then there was her shoeless sprint home after the spell wore off. Racing through the streets of downtown Carpale with bare feet was definitely painful … and sort of dangerous. But swarms of young women did it every weekend when the clubs let out. Her younger self had definitely envisioned something more monumental. Like skydiving, perhaps. Or spelunking.
Item Three: Create a breathtaking masterpiece.
Ahh. Her art phase. This obsession began when her father gave her an art book procured during his travels. For months, she fell asleep matching the masterpieces in each realm with the stamps in his passport. Soon, her bedroom was wallpapered three-layers deep with construction paper collages, paint-by-numbers, and drawings of every kind. Her shelves overflowed with chunks of clay that bore no resemblance to anything of this world. It was her first gallery and, as it turned out, her only. When her dad died, Cindy’s elder stepsister commandeered the room as her personal walk-in closet and used the artwork as a pedicure mat.
The list went on, but the song remained the same. Cindy didn’t know what bothered her more—the things on the list that she hadn’t done, or the things that were missing. Fall in love. Get married. Have babies too fast and far too often. Become the figurehead of all figureheads in a realm with a political identity crisis. She was blessed in ways so profound she couldn’t even have imagined them as a child. So why did this unfulfilled batch of adolescent daydreams make her feel so hollow?
“You truly are an inspiration,” a doe-eyed reporter told her just a few days earlier, during an interview about Cindy’s Rags-2-Riches Foundation. “Philanthropist extraordinaire. Mother to four adorable children. Champion of the people. Wife of the only man worth the stress of being Queen—at least according to my mother, who says all the others are bores, cheats, or egomaniacs. But never mind that. Aaron is true, and everyone can see how much he loves you. It’s really amazing.” Cindy had wanted to ask why Aaron loving her was so “amazing.” Because she’d been a nobody? Because he deserved better? Or did the reporter see the woman beneath the crown and realize that only someone that amazing—that unexpectedly sweet and loyal and honorable—could have convinced her to trade one form of servitude for another? Assuming the former, Cindy simply smiled and let the ambitious young writer keep her fairy tale notions for a little while longer.
But in truth, “Prince Charming” and Cinderella’s love story had fizzled down to goodbye kisses and goodnight pecks. They’d gone from idealistic lovebirds to frazzled figureheads forced to compartmentalize their lives just to make it through the days—the last 3,300 of which all blended into one. She tried to imagine, as his lips pressed into her forehead each morning, that he still saw her as the beautiful, impulsive mystery woman who slipped into his life a decade ago. But the evidence told her otherwise. Why else would he pour himself into a symbolic job that no other monarch took seriously? Why hadn’t they taken a single vacation alone since their honeymoon? Why was making love something they either prearranged or rushed through because their abstinence limit was three weeks and it was day twenty? Had they met today, she saw no way her prince would scour the kingdom looking for her. She was a paranoid, frustrated, exhausted woman who couldn’t even fit into a dress that had been magically fashioned for her body.
“At least you still fit,” Cindy muttered to the glass heels peeking out from her sweatpants. She slipped them off and hooked her knees over the arm of the chair. Her toes dangled over the heap of broken ball gown, slumped into the floor and begging for rescue. She scolded her children almost daily for sitting this way, but Cindy was an adult—an adult on a grapes-and-water diet who needed to find other means of indulgence.
The door opened and the sound of clinking porcelain indicated Delia had arrived with her miracle diet tea.
“Thanks,” Cindy said, still staring at the ceiling. “I’d offer you some, but I’ve been told it tastes like hay. And you don’t need to lose any weight.”
“Neither do you,” said a deep voice certainly not belonging to Delia.
Cindy practically flipped off the chair but somehow landed on her feet. Aaron stood there offering a silver tray and a childish grin. She glanced at the heap of fabric on the ground and scuttled away from the crime scene.
“I thought you were Delia,” she said, the words spilling out too fast. “What are you doing here?” Then, the maternal panic. “What’s wrong?”
Aaron laughed as he placed the tray down and came over. The sunlight bounced off his crystal blue eyes and lit the ends of his chopped sandy hair. Having four kids hadn’t taken away any of his looks. She could still see the prince in him. “Well it’s lovely to see you, too,” he said. “Why does something have to be wrong? Can’t a guy just swing home to see his beautiful wife?” He stepped back, feigning concern. “Or should I have made an appointment?”
She pulled him back, too happy to point out that she wasn’t actually supposed to be home right now. She was supposed to be overseeing a Rags-2-Riches adoption ceremony, but it had been postponed at the last minute. Someone must have told him.
“It’s just rare to see you between 9 a.m. and sunset,” she said. “What happened? Did we finally achieve world peace or something?
“Ha. Not even close. There’s—”
Seeing a rare chance to play, she poked his sternum and flicked his tie up towards his nose. “Did the public run out of things to complain about?”
Aaron furrowed his brow and shook his head.
“Did Parliament finally stop bickering and sit down for a meditation session?”
His laugh bounced off the walls. “Yeah right. That’ll be the day. Two staplers have already been flung across the meeting hall and Angus is talking about extending his term limits again.”
“Ha,” she replied, not at all interested. Elected officials did nothing but posture, spin webs, and make more work for her husband. Hate was a strong word, but it might apply to her feelings for them.
Aaron frowned and twirled her hair around his finger. Cindy wanted this to make her heart flutter, but now it only seemed to weigh it down. “I just stopped by to grab something,” he said. “And don’t make me feel so guilty. It’s not like you’re sitting here twiddling your thumbs. How come you’re not off opening a soup kitchen this morning or surprise inspecting a foster home or doing one of those … those classes of yours before the … the girls … come out…”
Aaron trailed off. Classes before the girls come out? Was he having some sort of stroke? Cindy cocked her head in confusion and then followed his gaze down. In her haste to change out of that dress, she’d forgotten to put a camisole on under her hoodie—and then she’d forgotten to zip it up. Right now, it was advertising a part of her that Aaron hadn’t seen in, umm, twelve days. She could smell his skin as he nudged closer. Sweet, like sugar cookies. Ah, there was that flutter.
“My morning meeting got pushed to this afternoon,” she explained, “so I—”
“So you decided to play dress-up?”
She glanced at the discarded dress—or what was left of it—and leaned into him. She didn’t want to get into the details—how she wanted to reprise the dress for her thirtieth and what it would mean, mentally, if it didn’t fit. “I decided to do some reminiscing. But since you’re here, maybe we can reminisce together?” She slipped his top button open without him noticing. It gave her a little thrill. “You remember that dress, right?”
Aaron tipped his chin and gave her a look that made her melt into his arms. “Of course I remember. No man in the kingdom could forget how you looked walking into the ball wearing that dress. A bullet to the heart couldn’t have made me fall any faster.”
She traced the second button on his shirt and tried to ignore the word “looked,” past tense. She pulled back with a sly smile. “Do you know how long it’s been since we’ve been alone together in the daylight? I have an idea! Let’s both play hooky and take a jaunt across the river. We can do something adventurous. Make some new memories.” Like skydiving, she added silently.
Aaron’s face flushed as he took her hands in his, brought them up to his lips, and then lowered them. He sighed. “Babe, I love you so much. You have no idea how much I’d love to do that with you right now. But they’re waiting for me downstairs.”
Everything slipped a few inches—not in a gooey, melty sort of way. She zipped up her shirt.
“Hey, don’t be mad. I’ll have more time this weekend. I promise.”
She slumped back. This weekend was jammed with the kids’ recitals and swim meets and the dedication of some statue in midtown. When they finally found any time alone, they’d be exhausted. “What is it you came up here to get?”
His eyes shifted to the right. “Just some papers. I’ll grab them and leave you to reminiscing.”
He pecked her forehead and ducked into the bedroom. Cindy shimmied to the window. Outside, the trees had finally started blooming in Capitol Park, adding some much-needed color to Carpale’s cement and asphalt landscape.
“Got it,” Aaron announced, emerging with a manila envelope shoved beneath his arm. He stopped by for one more kiss, this time on the lips. Cinderella pressed her palm against his chest. When he let go, the room looked a little fuzzy.
Aaron looked at the carpet before answering. “I don’t think so. We’re supposed to pass the budget in a few weeks and two kingdoms haven’t even submitted proposals yet.”
“Regian, but Hunter’s council says it’s coming. And Braddax, as usual.” He shrugged. “Maybe you can remind Belle it’s that time of year again. You know, the only time of year Donner has to do anything?”
“All right,” she said. “Now you better get going before my other husband arrives. He enjoys spending time with me.”
Aaron scrunched his mouth up and flashed a smile his eyes didn’t back up. “I’m sorry, babe. I love you. I promise things will calm down soon.” He disappeared behind the door without waiting for her reply.
Alone again, Cindy clutched her teacup with both hands. Things were busy, she thought while raising the batch of diet tea to her lips, but they were plenty calm. That was the problem.
“Ugck!” she spat the moment the liquid hit her tongue. She’d encountered less vile brews cleaning toilets for her stepmother’s bulimic friends. “Screw this. I was probably too skinny back then anyway.”
“That’s what I said, you diva,” a voice called back as Cindy jumped and fumbled with the cup. “It’s not like you can’t afford a new dress.”
Cindy whipped around and stared at the media screen over the fireplace. Rather than seeing the news, or her own reflection (heaven forbid), she saw a heart-shaped face with a choppy chestnut bob and a crafty smile.
“Rapunzel! What the heck!”
The woman on the screen shrugged. “What? You gave me the bypass code.”
“For emergencies! Geez. Use the regular number first or call my cell phone. What if I was naked?”
Rapunzel’s head shook, revealing a layer of bright pink hair beneath the brown. “First, I tried your cell; it’s off. Second, I can’t predict you getting naked in your living room.”
Cindy’s hands flew to her hips. “It’s not like I—” She stopped and remembered what had almost happened with Aaron. She’d have to change that bypass code pronto. “The kids are at school.”
“Whatever. It’s not like you have anything I’ve never seen before anyway. We’ve got the same equipment.”
Cindy snorted and ground her foot into the carpet. “Yeah right. My equipment’s not even in the same league as yours.”
“What are you, fifteen years old?” Cindy watched Rapunzel roll her eyes and then shake the irritation away. “Remind me to finish yelling at you for that later. Right now we’ve got bigger problems. Like an em-er-gen-cy.”
“An emergency?” Cindy repeated, happy to abandon her own troubles for a moment. “Are you okay?”
Rapunzel fingered a line of beads that looked like turquoise boulders weighing down her neck. Even under duress, she looked confident, spunky, strong … everything Cindy wanted to be if she could just stop over-analyzing for a second. Whereas she could take hours to decide between a white or ivory belt, Rapunzel changed her whole look—brunette girl-next-door, redheaded glam goddess, hipster with a black and purple shag—at least once a week. She was a starlet chameleon, and proud of it.
“Oh, I’m fine,” Rapunzel answered with a sigh. “Just wish I could say the same for my ears. All this crying is—”
“What?” Cindy’s interest was fully piqued. “Who’s crying?”
“Belle,” Rapunzel huffed, as if the question was just as jarring. “It turns out the Mirror wasn’t embellishing Donner’s escapades.”
“What do you mean?”
Rapunzel sucked in her cheeks. “Belle found lace panties and a whole bunch of fetish stuff—at least what she considers fetish stuff—in his special secret room.”
Special secret room? A crushing feeling settled over her. Cindy always worried that Donner was too wild for monogamy, but Belle always insisted he was tame behind closed doors. “What’s she going to do?”
“She’s staying with me for now. He kicked her out.”
Tea splashed into the air and landed in an orange puddle at Cindy’s feet. “Kicked her out? He cheated and kicked her out? But she’s a queen! You can’t just toss out a queen unless—” Cindy’s jaw clamped shut. It had been nearly a century since one of Marestam’s sitting monarchs stooped to divorce. Frigid apathy and murder, perhaps, but not divorce. If that happened, Belle would lose everything. Donner was the one with the royal blood.
“Cin, I don’t know what he’s planning. Just get over here now. The media hasn’t broken anything yet, but I know they’re on it and she’ll be mortified when they do. I’ll call Penny and you handle Dawn. We’re gonna need the whole gang for this.”
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