Today I have a little treat for you (or, if you prefer, an unwanted, unwelcome hand-knitted jumper from granny that goes straight in the bin when she isn't looking!). Today, I am posting the first chapter of my novella in mine and Aimee Duffy's anthology, Once Upon A Twist. For those who don't know, mine is a twist on Cinderella, and features ugly sisters, pumpkins and glass slippers...
So, without further ado, here is the opening chapter of Glass Slippers & Combat Boots.
Buy Links: Amazon.com Amazon UK
Once Upon a Time, in a land far, far away…
From the floor of the cellar, Ella heard the echo of the loud rap on the front door but paid it no heed. Her chores for the morning were complete and all she wanted was to catch up on some sleep before her stepmother or one of her stepsisters forced another job upon her.
Pulling the thin sheets over her shoulders, she closed her eyes and let her mind drift away to James, the handsome stranger she had met in the woods only ten days before. He had brightened her life so much. Just thinking about him eased a little of the tightness in her chest.
Sleep was just about to claim her when the cellar door flew open and Ana hurried down the narrow stairs waving a sheet of creamy parchment in her hand.
“Do you see this, Cinders?” she asked, a self-satisfied smile lighting her face.
Ella stared at her, not attempting to hide her loathing. “I’m not blind.”
Ana’s smile dropped a fraction. Malevolence sparkled in her eyes. Looming over Ella, she waved the parchment in her face. “This, darling stepsister, is an invitation from the King. He is holding a ball to welcome his son’s return from war. Every eligible female in the land has been invited, and from us all, the returning Prince shall select a bride.”
As if Ella would be allowed to attend. Since her beloved father had been murdered the year before, her life had consisted of enslaved drudgery. His death had marked the start of a new chapter in her life, a chapter that would be better placed in a horror story than a fairy tale.
Her lack of hope was well placed.
Ana leaned over so her ugly face was mere inches from Ella’s, close enough for Ella to smell the rancidity of her stepsister’s breath. “Do you know why I am telling you about this, darling stepsister?”
Ella pursed her lips and gazed at the grey ceiling. She was sick to death of these ridiculous games her stepsister insisted on. “Let me guess – you and Izzy will be attending while I stay locked in this cellar? You’re here to rub my nose in it?”
“For a blonde, you’re not as dumb as you look.” Ana giggled, a sound that had the same effect as nails being run down a chalkboard. Spittle flew from her mouth, landing on Ella’s cheek. “Izzy, Mummy and I are all going to go to the Ball, while you, Cinderella, shall stay here and party with the rats and spiders. I just thought I would share our good news with you.”
Ignoring the sarcasm, Ana’s smile widened. “Don’t worry, we won’t let you miss any of the excitement.”
“Ooo, do I get to squeeze your spotty back before you leave?” As a result of her atrocious diet, Ana’s plump skin was marred with blackheads.
Ana’s foot struck Ella’s shoulder before she had time to wriggle away from the danger area. “That’s for your insubordination,” she hissed, her face contorting into a grimace Rumpelstiltskin would be proud of.
Before she left she aimed another kick in Ella’s side.
Ella didn’t even flinch, simply stared at her stepsister’s retreating back with eyes that revealed nothing. So what if her nonchalant stance only served to increase Ana’s fury? They might have control of her life but she would give them no more. It drove her step-family mad they could not break her outer shell.
“It’s all right boys, you can come out now, she’s gone,” she said to her pet rats, Itchy and Scratchy. It took a few minutes before they heaved their shaking bodies from their tiny hideaway and snuggled back under the blankets with her.
Of all the jobs Ella was forced to do, there was only one she enjoyed: collecting firewood from the forest that backed onto their large stone manor. Naturally, she made a big fuss of doing it, knowing her stepmother, Christell, took perverse pleasure forcing Ella to do anything she hated. Thus, Christell sent Ella into the forest more often than was strictly necessary.
Ana, Izzy and Christell would not set foot in the forest. Each was terrified of the talking bears who were rumoured to live in it, never mind the malevolent dwarves who were often spied trundling through with their axes and spears.
None of these creatures scared Ella. Beneath their gruff exteriors she found them, on the whole, kindly and much misunderstood. They just wanted to be left alone to live their lives in peace. Not that she would tell her step-family this. It was one of the many secrets she kept from them.
The largest secret she hugged to herself like a precious jewel.
When she left the house much later that afternoon, armed with a sack that required filling, she had to force her feet to walk hesitantly rather than skip along with glee as they wanted.
Following the footpath from the garden gate, she was soon in the forest, the thick trees camouflaging her from prying eyes.
“There you are!” A figure jumped down from a huge oak tree with a flourish, and landed upright before her, his arms stretched in a ta da fashion. James. The man who had turned her monstrous nightmares into such sweet dreams.
He gazed up at the position of the sun. “You’re late,” he said, before looking back at her, the twinkle in his green eyes belying his choice of words.
She shook her head. “You’re early.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out an apple. “This is for you.”
She mock-curtseyed. “Why, thank you kind sir.”
He bowed. “Mademoiselle, it is my pleasure.”
Ella could no longer contain the smile from exploding across her face. In the space of ten days she had gone from harvesting a supply of Belladonna to feeling as if her heart was pumping fizzy water through her veins.
Ignoring the apple she threw her arms around his neck and crushed her lips to his in a kiss that was every bit as thrilling as she remembered and dreamed of.
His free hand curled around the nape of her neck, his fingers threading through her hair, the feel of his warm skin on hers sending tingles bouncing down her spine.
He broke the kiss, rubbing his nose over her cheeks, raining kisses across her skin. “Ella, Ella, Ella,” he murmured, his deep words touching her core like a caress. “Would it be presumptuous to tell you I have missed you?”
“Only if it would be presumptuous to say I have been counting down the minutes until I could see you again.”
Laughing, he extricated himself from her hold and pressed the apple into her hand. “Here wench, you need to eat.”
“Call me that again and I’ll stuff the apple into your mouth whole,” she said, grinning widely before kissing him again.
“Sounds kinky.” James tugged at her hand and pulled her down to sit on the small clearing with him. “I do have other gifts,” he said, releasing her hand and opening the bag he’d had slung over his shoulder. With an enormous grin that turned his handsome face into a glory to behold, he produced a large slice of fruit cake, two chicken legs and a bunch of red grapes.
As she caught a whiff of the delicious cooked chicken, her belly rumbled. She pressed a hand to it. “Excuse me!” She laughed, almost giddy on the fumes from the feast before her.
“Eat,” he ordered in that commanding voice she guessed years of ordering troops about in the war had perfected. “We can talk when you have finished.”
“But I’m hungry for something else,” she said, the innocence in her tone a total contradiction to the message being thrown from her eyes. James’s refusal to do anything physical other than heavy petting was becoming an increasing source of agitation. Ella yearned for him. To hell with proprietary. He was the first man she had met in eighteen months. That he was handsome, charming and witty and turned her brain to mush was an added bonus. Her body sang like a canary for him.
He growled, helped himself to a chicken leg, brought it to his mouth and ripped the flesh off it. “Eat.”
Together they demolished the food. After eighteen months of stale bread and luke-warm water, all these delectable goodies were nearly too much to handle.
“That’s better,” he said, nodding with satisfaction as she licked her fingers. “Look at you. You’re skin and bone. You need fattening up.”
“Careful,” she winced. “You sound like that old hag who lives in Gingerbread Cottage.”
He laughed. “I thought those kids killed her.”
“For someone who’s been away for so long, you’re certainly up with the gossip.”
“I make it my business to keep in the loop.”
“Very wise.” She took a long swallow of the deliciously cold water from his flask.
Her shrunken belly full from so much wonderful food, Ella lay onto her back and gazed up at the cobalt sky.
Had there ever been such a perfect moment?
James lay on his side next to her and traced a finger along her bare arm. “There is something I need to ask you.”
“Does it involve making love?”
“In a roundabout way.”
“Not in a direct way?”
He rolled on top of her, his weight and movement stealing the breath from her lungs. He kissed her, hard, but before she could respond he broke away and stared at her with a solemnity she had never seen before. Stroking his fingers through her hair he rubbed his nose to hers and said, “Ella, I want to make love to you too, more than I have ever wanted to make love to anyone. But when we make love I want it to be right – I want us to be married. What I am trying to say is I love you. Will you marry me?”
“Oh, James,” she sighed, desperately trying to ignore the rush of joy that surged through her veins at his words. “Nothing would make me happier but I’m afraid that’s impossible.”
He stilled, his eyes clouding. “Are you promised to another?”
“No, nothing like that.”
His lips tightened. He rolled off her and sat up. “Do you not love me?”
“I do love you. More than I thought possible.”
“Then why will you not marry me?”
If only they had spent a bit more time talking and a little less kissing, she might have felt compelled to tell him sooner. As it was, she feared the truth could put him in mortal danger. If Christell discovered she had blabbed…
Yet, if she did not tell the truth he would only suspect the worst. Now that Ella had found him she did not want to lose him. “My stepmother has placed me under an enchantment.”
“What kind of enchantment?”
She looked up into his hypnotising green eyes. “The day after we buried my father, Christell burned all my personal possessions and moved me into the cellar. She then placed an enchantment around the cottage – I can’t leave by the front door and can only go within a three hundred foot boundary to the back of the house. And that, my darling, is why I can’t marry you. It is impossible for me to leave.”
He looked a little stunned. “What happens when you breech the barrier?”
“I get a shock that incapacitates me.”
His eyes widened. “Why would she do that?”
Ella shrugged. “Because she hates me. She’s always hated me.”
“That doesn’t make sense – if she hates you so much, why not cast you away?”
“Because I know too many secrets to be set free. Believe me, if I told half the things I know she would have her own spot at the hanging tree. She murdered my father – I can’t prove it but I know it was Christell who put the poisonous spider in his bed. If she could, she would kill me too but my fairy godmother put her own enchantment on me that stops Christell or my stepsisters from killing me. It doesn’t stop them beating me when the mood takes them, but it is impossible for them to decapitate me or remove a limb or stop my heart from beating.”
“Why doesn’t your fairy godmother break the enchantment?”
“Ha!” Ella rolled her eyes and heaved herself up. “I haven’t seen her since my father’s funeral. She’s elderly and very scatty.”
James’s easy-going smile had vanished. His brow had furrowed and he stared at her for long moments before speaking. “Christell’s taking an awful risk letting you into the forest every day.”
“Like most of the humans in this land, she avoids the forest.” She dragged a finger along his stubbly cheek, tracing the long scar that ran along it, a permanent reminder of the war he had been fighting in for King and Country. “But you are braver than most humans.”
Darkness clouded his eyes. “I wish you had told me before… Ella, we need to find a way to break the enchantment.”
“Until my fairy godmother shows up, there is no way. Christell’s magic is too powerful and personal for an unconnected sorcerer to break it.”
“It’s not safe for you here,” he bit out. “I wanted to marry you and take you as far away as I could. It’s not safe here for anyone.”
“Why, what’s the matter? How can we not be safe? The bears are harmless – honestly, that girl, Goldilocks, she was completely in the wrong. I know they scared her but how would you react if someone broke into your home and ate all your breakfast…?”
“It’s not the bears or the forest I’m worried about.” His deep voice had become sombre. “This was something I had planned on discussing with you at the right moment, but now I know you are physically trapped I realize I need to tell you now.”
“Tell me what?”
“Ella, that war I’ve been fighting in… do you know what we were fighting?”
She shook her head. “We were only told that Prince Charming and a hundred of his bravest Knights were joining the fight in a land far away.” Feeling a wave of affection burst through her, she ran a hand through his thick, cropped hair, so proud that James had been selected to join the noble cause.
“Did they tell you what we were fighting?”
“No. But then I don’t get told anything, not anymore. Everything I know is from eavesdropping on my stepfamily’s private conversations.”
“Would they be well-informed?”
“Nothing gets past Christell,” she said. “She’s a great one for wringing out people’s secrets. And Izzy, the youngest of my stepsisters, is very popular, especially with the boys.” She flashed him a wicked smile. “Before I was enslaved I remember hearing a rumour she’d had a key made for her chastity belt.”
For the briefest of moments his eyes sparkled before dimming again. “However much I would love to get into a discussion about chastity belts, now is not the time. The people we were fighting were not human in the strictest sense of the word.”
“What were they? Gnomes? Goblins? I remember hearing once that goblins were ferocious warriors.”
“We were fighting people,” he clarified, his eyes holding hers. “But they were not alive.”
Copyright © 2013 by Michelle Smart.
Please feel free to let me know what you think!
Take care all xxx