Rachel, who was on the floor pulling on a pair of satin slippers, immediately looked up with a gasp. "You are not!" she cried. "I already told Meg to prepare that one for me next!"
"Don't listen to her."
The young maid nodded politely with her hands clasped before her back. Her head bobbed. "Yes, Miss Addie."
With her nose still raised, Addie paraded over to the boudoir and slipped two of her mother's long diamond earrings through her earlobes. They danced like teardrops at the side of each cheek, casting flickers of light across her face. Before the mirror, she admired herself without hesitation, pinching her cheeks and squinting her eyes and biting her lip to add color. But her composure faded as quickly as it'd come. She looked up, her eyes darting to Meg, and a look of pure malice slipped over her as she shrieked, "Meg! What are you doing? I told you to fetch me the necklace and gown! Don't stand around like a dimwitted fool! Hurry up!"
Meg didn't bother to apologize, for she knew the time spent would only anger Addie all the more. Instead, she scurried over to the vanity like a bright-eyed child, eager to do as she had been asked before another blow rang through.
As far as appearance went, most would agree that Margaret Ramsey could never be considered a beauty. Her hair was too thick, too wavy, too red. She wore it as any other maid of the day might, parted on the side and pulled back in a low bun. Her height was average for her eighteen years of life, as she stood at five feet and five inches, but she was slightly thinner than she might have wished; her breasts and hips had much to be desired regarding the form of a lady. Her face, as a rule, was said to be rather plain and her features were nothing more than ordinary. Although her eyes were large and framed by thick rows of eyelashes, they were too bland, too brown, to be considered handsome. Since infancy, she'd been brought to believe she was nothing more than a simple, forgotten maid. Because that's what she was. From her bun down to her boots. And, she thought, that was all she ever would be. A simple maid and nothing more.
Humble and quiet was she, for after years of working for strict employers she'd learned that in most situations, it's better to keep one's mouth shut. She hadn't any friends other than the women she worked with, most of whom were more than twenty years her senior, and her relations with men were enormously limited. She could not remember her father and she spoke very little with the footboys, butlers, and stable boys hired by her mistresses' family. Her outlook on marriage, therefore, was very hopeless. Although she dreamed, as all girls do, of a wonderful man who might sweep her off her feet, she never allowed herself to believe he might truly exist. It was foolish, she thought, to dream in what could never be.
Everyday she wore a very simple black dress with a white collar and apron, as she'd been directed. The bland garments were the only ones she'd been allowed to wear since childhood, a fact she accepted without sighs or complaint; after all, only ladies can dress themselves in beauty.
Her occupation at the Davis household had begun when she was just a girl. And her past, though it may sound quite tragic, left no great imprint on its unfortunate subject. When she was just a baby, her mother and father both died of a horrible disease. Whether it was scarlet fever or the pox or consumption, she didn't know. She knew nothing of them except that they were very poor and that their names were Harry and Mary Ramsey. Even those she thought were awfully plain. After their death, she'd been taken to an orphanage for several years but because she was so young, she could remember very little of her experience there. All she knew was that when she was seven, the orphanage had sold her to the Davis family to work as their maid. And she'd been there ever since.
For eleven years now, she'd worked as a maid for her mistresses Adeline and Rachel Davis, attending to all their personal needs and wants. She dressed them each morning, took care of them all day, kept their rooms clean, their dresses washed, their hair combed, their mouths fed. In its very essence, Meg's entire life was dedicated to the care and comfort of Miss Addie and Miss Rachel. And although she could think of no girls less deserving of such devotion, she tried never to let her abhorrence of them show through.
Rachel, at the age of seventeen, was tall and gangly. Although she tried desperately to be ladylike, she always seemed to walk about the house with the clumsiness of a baby giraffe, uncomfortable with her height and her long, twig-like legs. Her voice was scratchy and her face was spotted with pimples of red. Although her hair was a beautiful almond color, it hung in limp, stringy strands, and her eyes, though a beautiful blue, were usually dull and lifeless. It was an unfortunate fact, but she was really quite ugly, if truth be told. And looking at her fair sister, one could only pity poor Rachel all the more.
Eighteen-year-old Addie was considered to be one of the most beautiful girls in town; a fact she knew and relied upon often. Her golden blond hair hung in perfect ringlets, always pinned up with a bright ribbon and scented with lavender, framing her face in a celestial light. Flawless was her face, as well as the rest of her lovely, womanly figure. Her smile captivated many men, and each week she seemed to have a new suitor, calling upon her doorstep and bestowing her with gifts and flowers and kisses. But beauty, as the wise man knows, can be deceiving.
Lovely as she may be, Addie was known for her appearance as well as her temper. She was known to throw the biggest tantrums anyone had ever seen, and Meg could confirm this having spent many a day watching her. Addie believed she deserved everything she wanted, and she'd fight for it if necessary. Meg could remember the many evenings she'd spent cleaning up poor Mr. Davis's office after Addie had thrown one of her fits; she was known to get violent during these occurrences and would throw her father's papers and books as well as more valuable things like vases, dishes, and statuettes. Once she even smashed her little sister's favorite china doll. With a little persistence, Addie found a way to get everything she wanted. She wouldn't settle for anything less.
Mr. Davis, wealthy and respected as he may be, was the victim of Meg's constant pity. Like a child, he was pushed around and forced to do whatever his wife and daughters demanded of him. And besides that, there was also the unfortunate fact that each of the women towered at least a foot above the tiny man. Compared to Rachel, he looked like a dwarf, an elf, an infant. He spoke in a frightful little voice and, with very little effort, could be driven into anything. He would sell his soul to the devil if it would please his girls.
Mrs. Davis, like her daughters, was also very tall. She'd been handsome as a girl, Meg knew quite well, but age had added on wrinkles and some excess weight around her middle and the other vindictive additions that time bestows upon all its patrons, as they grow older. Her eyes lagged at the corners and her fingers were growing sharp, the whitish flesh stretching over her knuckles like a lax veil. Like Addie, she also had a temper that could inflame with the slightest provocation, though she made sure not to show it as often as her daughter did. Instead of her husband, Mrs. Davis ruled over the house and had long ago named herself the head of the family. She bossed around her poor husband as though he was her son, or, for that matter, her servant.
On this particular afternoon, Mr. and Mrs. Davis were off visiting friends, leaving Addie and Rachel alone, and quite free of restriction, in their enormous mansion. The two girls took full advantage of this opportunity, as you might imagine, and ran upstairs to the grand bedroom as soon as their parents had left.
They rushed into the their mother's closet like giggling children, their curls bouncing and their skirts bustled up around their waists, eager to try on all of Mrs. Davis's elaborate party dresses and jewelry. Addie took first choice, of course, and Rachel reluctantly received all the leftovers. In their petticoats, chemises, and corsets, they flounced about the boudoir and ordered Meg around with as little civility as ever. She followed all their directions with simple nods of the head, fixing their hair and buttoning up the gowns and clasping the necklaces in silence. In all the afternoon, the only words she'd spoken were "Yes, Miss Addie" and "Yes, Miss Rachel." Nothing more was necessary.
"Someday, this will all be mine," Addie declared. Now wearing the violet silk dress and necklace she'd requested, she sat down before the vanity and ran her fingers over the valuable riches of her mother's jewelry box. Rachel snorted.
"Not all of it. Some of it will go to me too, of course. You're not the only daughter in this family, you know."
"Yes, but I'm the only one worth anything. And besides," Addie smiled, "I'm mum and dad's favorite. It's a known fact, darling, you needn't try and deny it."
"It is not a fact! They love me just as much, if not more, than they do you! You're just a conceited snob who thinks she's the best gift the world ever received. It's ridiculous! You're no better than me so it's time you stopped acting like it. As mother always says, 'A lady never thinks greatly of herself. And even if she does, she shan't show it.'"
"If I think greatly of myself, it's only because I have a right to. God was very kind to me, I must say. Just as he was so neglectful of you."
"How dare you!" Rachel's voice rose in anger, pitching to the very ceiling of the great boudoir. "I ought to smack you for that!"
And she might have done so, for she was preparing her hand for the hit, but a knock at the door interrupted her. Both girls froze in their place, suddenly feeling very weighted in their heavy gowns and diamonds. They looked to the corridor and waited for a moment, hesitant. Another knock came and then, at once, they both jerked to their feet.
"Oh no!" Addie gasped. "That could be mum and dad! Quick, Rachel, we have to take off these gowns!"
"Be careful not to rip any of the seams! And place back all the jewelry exactly as you found it!"
With her hands twisted behind her back, trying to unbutton the dress, Addie's face flew up and she caught her maid standing idly in the corner. "Meg!" she cried. "Go answer the door! But if it's my parents, don't let them come upstairs! Mother will be furious if she sees us in her best dresses! Go, Meg! Now!"
Meg nodded, "Yes, Miss Addie," and walked quickly from the room.
Holding up her skirts and clutching at the banister, she ran down the steps of the grand staircase. Her face was white with worry and, in the back of her ear, she could still hear Addie and Rachel screeching upstairs. They only heightened her urgency. Her shoes clacked across the marble flooring of the entrance room, echoing through the house, and her hands flew up to her head, trying to make sure her hair was still in place. Once she reached the door, she took one deep breath before drawing it open.
An unfamiliar man stood before her. He was dressed well, she saw, in a navy jacket, white riding breeches, and shiny brown boots. The hat atop his head, navy wool, bore a great white feather and behind him, munching at grass, was a cotton-white horse. For a moment Meg wondered who he could be. But then, with a gasp, she saw that upon his breast there was an emblem: the letter J surrounded by flourishes and intricate threading. It was the symbol of the royal family, the Jeantettes, Meg knew instinctively. She suddenly felt very humbled.
The man smiled, "Hello, miss. Is Mrs. Davis at home?"
"No, sir," Meg said, bowing her head. "But her daughters, Miss Adeline and Miss Rachel are present."
"May I speak with them?"
"Of course. Mightn't you come in while I call them, sir?"
The man stepped inside. "Thank you, miss."
While he waited in the entrance room, gazing about himself in curiosity, Meg closed the door and walked back upstairs through the kitchen staircase, calling on her way to the kitchen maid, Fanny. "We've a guest," she said between breaths. "You might offer him a drink." Then, still clutching at her skirts, she scampered down the corridor to Mrs. Davis's closet.
"Miss Addie," she said quickly, curtsying, "there's a man downstairs that wishes to speak with you."
"With me?" The corners of Addie's lips turned upward in a calm, knowing smile.
"Yes. And Miss Rachel too."
"Oh." The smile fell. "Well alright then. Rachel, hurry up and get your dress on. We've a visitor. Help her, Meg."
"Yes, Miss Addie."
Once Meg had laced up Rachel's gown and Addie had straightened her curls, the two sisters walked back downstairs on the grand staircase while Meg, flustering, took the kitchen staircase again, keeping herself quite unseen. From the parlor beside the entrance room, she watched as greetings were exchanged between the man and her mistresses.
He bowed and then kissed each of their hands, speaking a name out of Meg's earshot. Once the girls were seated on a settee beside the window, the man stood before them with his hat in his hands, speaking the words he'd been ordered to come here and say.
"I'm sorry that I cannot stay long, Miss Adeline, Miss Rachel," he said. "But I must make haste for I have dozens of other homes that I must visit before the day is through. Please do excuse my urgency."
"Of course, sir," said Addie, speaking for both herself and her sister.
"Without any further ado, I shall inform you of the reason for my visit." The man paused for a moment, smiling softly. "You have both been cordially invited to attend a ball at the Royal Palace, hosted by our very own King Francis and Queen Eleanor."
Both girls gasped.
"Oh my!" said Rachel.
"What an honor!" exclaimed Addie.
"And there's more," the man continued. "This ball is being held for a special occasion. A very special occasion, indeed . . . The choosing of Prince Anthony's bride, future queen of our great nation."
The girls gasped again.
"All the young ladies attending have a chance of winning his heart and affections. Including both of you."
"Indeed?" Addie asked. Her head was already lost in dreamland, Meg could see, dreaming of a life as the queen of Worthington, married to the handsome King Anthony. Rachel, similarly dazed, couldn't say a word. Her mouth had fallen open only slightly, pouted in a circle.
"Rightly so, Miss Davis," the man answered with another smile. "I believe this invitation gives you all the details you'll need." He handed over a small envelope, sealed with the royal crest. "And although I fear I'm leaving you in a shock, I really cannot stay any longer. I must be going. But it has been an honor to meet you and I hope you both will be able to bless us with your presence at the joyous occasion. It would be a pity if the prince didn't have the chance to meet such striking potential suitors."
"Thank you very much, sir," said Addie. "We'll be sure to come."
The sisters stood and showed the man to the door, where they said a very quick share of partings. As he gracefully mounted his horse, tipped his hat at the two young ladies, and began to ride down the lane toward the gates that surrounded the Davis Estate, Addie and Rachel stood at the door and waved him farewell.
But as soon as he was well out of sight, just a dot along the horizon, they lost themselves in giddiness once more. Grabbing hands, they began to jump and down in a crooked circle and shouted in unison, "I'm going to be the queen! I'm going to be the queen!"
Their joy, however, was short-lived. Addie suddenly pulled away with a look of pure disgust and wiped her hands on her skirts.
"You're going to be the queen? Over my dead body," she said, still grimacing. But then, all at once, her disgust erupted into giggles. She looked at Rachel, so tall and so spotted, and her laughter grew louder. "You actually think Prince Anthony would choose you over me? Good heavens, he'd have to be blind."
"Well he'd have to be deaf to marry you!" Rachel spat back. "Otherwise, I don't know how he could bear to listen to your constant gloating."
"Rachel! How dare you!" Addie gasped. "I ought to . . ."
But before she could continue, Meg rushed between them and said quickly and quietly, "Miss Addie? Miss Rachel? Your parents are home."
While Meg ran back upstairs to return a pair of earrings to Mrs. Davis's boudoir, Addie having forgotten to take them out before, the sisters headed back inside to meet their parents in the parlor. As soon as she'd returned downstairs, she headed over to the parlor to peek inside, eager to see how Mrs. Davis had taken the marvelous news of the royal messenger and the prince's ball and the invitation too.
Addie and Rachel were each holding one of their mother's arms, telling her the whole story with squeals and sighs mixed between their words. Mrs. Davis's face glowed and her eyes lit brighter with each passing sentence.
"Oh my," she breathed finally, barely able to stop her daughters long enough to speak. "There is so much to do and so little time to do it in."
The girls nodded and waited expectantly to hear what she would say next.
"Meg!" called Mrs. Davis. "Meg!" Her voice lowered and she gave a sigh. "My God, where is that worthless girl?"
Straightening her apron and fixing her hair again, Meg hurried into the parlor and curtsied. "Yes, Mrs. Davis?"
With a nasty grin spreading across her face, Mrs. Davis ordered, "Meg, go upstairs and prepare several bags for the girls and I. But before you do, run down to the stables and tell the that little messenger boy, Fritz, or whatever his name is, to ride into town and ask for a dressmaker to come over immediately. Preferably, we'd like Mrs. Pinkens herself, but if she's not available just have her assistant come."
"Yes, Mrs. Davis," Meg nodded, hurrying off to do as she'd been asked.
As she left the parlor, she heard Addie ask happily, "Are we getting new dresses?"
"Oh yes, my dear," Mrs. Davis replied. "You'll have to get a new dress if you want to attract the attention of the prince."
For the rest of the afternoon, Meg packed bag after bag with dresses, shoes, jewels, and undergarments. And then all evening, she sat writing measurements for Mrs. Pinkens. It was really quite a tiring and depressing night, considering that Meg wouldn't be the one meeting the prince or going to the magnificent ball she was preparing so rigorously for. But despite that, it was still a bit exciting to think that she'd be able to leave the Davis's Estate for once in her life. After seven days of torturous preparation, Meg would travel with Mrs. Davis, Addie, and Rachel to the Royal Palace. She couldn't wait for the day to arrive.