Chapter Two – continued
Dawn found Abigail fully ensconced in the kitchens. Helene had only nodded when Abigail had shown up and said her sister advised her to stay out of Muriel’s way. She’d set Abigail in a far corner where she’d likely be overlooked, happily kneading dough for sweet buns for the afternoon tea.
The kitchen was humming with the quiet sounds of cooking and baking. Alexander, Diane, and Helene were softly padding around, stirring here, adding there. It was a well-choreographed dance they didn’t need her to be a part of, but they welcomed her all the same.
Abigail closed her eyes as she gently worked the dough. Her nostrils were full of the smell of sugar and almonds. She knew Alexander and Diane were hard at work making breakfast, and was glad she would not be sitting down with them. Helene had shoved a soft, buttery roll into her hands before gently guiding her to her corner.
Camille had woken Abigail an hour before to whisk her towards the kitchens, shoving Abigail as they heard Muriel heading in their direction. Camille had hurried off to meet their new stepmother and Abigail shuddered slightly as she remembered the few short words the two women had exchanged. Muriel was set on treating Camille as little more than a servant herself, the quiet, oft in hiding younger sister completely forgotten. Just as she liked. How Lawrence would take it when he returned and heard his daughters had been treated like servants, she didn’t know, but Muriel would be the one facing the music, so she didn’t particularly care at the moment.
All that mattered, right then and there, was the dough Helene was gently coaxing from her hands.
Abigail’s eyes snapped open. The short, matronly woman with the curly gray hair that was forever escaping her cap smiled as she yanked the rest of the dough from Abigail’s hands.
“That’s enough, dear,” Helene said. “The dough has been sufficiently kneaded and I have a task for you.”
Abigail wiped her hands on the apron tied around her waist and smiled. “Of course, Helene. What do you have for me to do?”
Helene turned and pointed to a small table set near the door to the grounds. The small window to the side still had its curtains closed, so Abigail could only see a slim, bent over figuring sitting at it, hands picking at something on a plate.
“Get to know your new sister,” Helene said softly, gently pushing Abigail forward.
Abigail dug in her feet as panic struck her heart. Certainly, Madeline was her sister, but she didn’t know the other woman well at all. Of course, that would be why Helene wanted her to sit with Madeline, but what would Abigail say? Talking was not her strong suit, and absolutely, completely, made her heart want to jump up and out of her throat.
“Oh, no, Helene, I couldn’t,” Abigail said, her eyes pleading. “Surely you must have other tasks for me to do. I could go to the market. Or take out the waste.”
Helene frowned, though her eyes softened. “Miss Abigail, wouldn’t your mother want you to show kindness and courtesy to your new sister?”
Abigail crossed her arms. “If my mother were to tell me this, I wouldn’t have a new sister to get to know.”
Helene dipped her head. “I understand, Miss Abigail, but, if I may overstep myself a little, I believe your mother raised you better.”
Abigail’s chest hurt with how tightly it squeezed the breath from her lungs. Her mother, the paragon of elegance and propriety, had taught her better. She had understood Abigail’s tendency to shy away from people, but her mother’s words always buzzed in her head.
“No matter what, Abigail, we are ladies, cousins to the king himself,” Genevieve would whisper in her ear. “It is our duty to act accordingly whether or not we wish it.”
Abigail squared her shoulders and silently walked over to her new sister. Behind her, she heard Helene’s skirts rustle as the woman moved away.
Madeline was bent over one of the icing slathered sweet buns Helene was famous for handing out to anyone who wandered into the kitchens. Her delicate fingers were picking at the warm, sweet yeasty bread, shredding it into pieces just large enough for a bird. Abigail didn’t see her new older sister eating any.
“Good morning,” Abigail said softly as she sat, turning her head to her right to where Madeline sat staring at the curtains.
Madeline started and the piece of sweet bun she’d been holding tumbled to the plate. “Oh. Abigail. I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were here.”
“What are you doing here?” Abigail asked, cringing slightly. As she’d told Helene, talking to people was far from her forte.
Madeline didn’t seem to notice, though. Her eyes had lowered and her fingers were back to picking at the bun. “Avoiding Mother. I heard her rise early and corner Camille. I didn’t hear you, though.”
Abigail shrugged and looked away. “Camille said I should come to the kitchens.”
“That was smart. Mother has Camille scrubbing the floors. Honestly, I didn’t think Camille would do it. After all, the two of you are royalty.”
“Distant royalty,” Abigail corrected, “but, yes, Prince James was one of my childhood playmates. I don’t really see how Muriel will explain all of this to Father. Then again, Father has only ever been mildly interested in us. Mother never managed to give him a son, so he’s only interested in us in how far up he can get us married. The more royal blood, the better.”
Madeline’s head dropped a little more. “I’m afraid my mother is not too different.”
“So she is something of a gold digger.” The words tumbled from her mouth, as they usually did when she was alone and talking to herself. Except she wasn’t alone.
“No,” Madeline said, laughing softly and uncomfortably, her head bowed so she, hopefully, missed the red blush staining Abigail’s face. “She absolutely is. She wants to use her marriage to introduce me to someone like the Prince’s son.”
Abigail felt her eyebrows rise. “That’s bold.” She cocked her head to the side. “I don’t remember much of my time running around with Adrian and James, but I do remember girls fawning over them. I suppose they’re handsome in their own ways. What do you think of it?”
Madeline raised one shoulder in a shrug, her fingers still working away at the bun and her teeth nibbling at her lower lip. Abigail couldn’t help but notice all the nervous ticks her new sister had. How she would manage marrying into the royal family was beyond her.
“If I’m honest,” Madeline said softly, “you and your family are the closest I’ve ever been to royalty. I don’t really know how to behave.” Her fingers suddenly clenched around the poor hunk of bread, and Abigail winced at the waste. “Mother wants me to be presentable by the engagement ball.”
“Helene’s sweet buns are the best part of the day,” Abigail said, unable to lift her eyes from the wreckage on Madeline’s plate. “Maybe next time you can actually try a bite.”
Madeline blushed and immediately pulled her hands from the mangled bun. “Apologies, Abigail.”
Abigail shook her head. “I don’t do well in public, either.”
“Oh, it’s not that,” Madeline said softly. “I mean, Mother has always complained I’m a little too much on the shy side. I’m just terrified of being that close to royalty, of being forced into marriage.”
“Well,” Abigail said, perhaps a little too sharply, “no one is forced into marriage. James and the mermaid princess have met and both agreed to the marriage.”
Madeline flapped one hand, her eyes wide and finally lifting to meet Abigail’s. “Oh, no, that’s not what I meant! I know I couldn’t be forced, and neither could he, but, well, Mother can be very persuasive.” She bit her lip and lowered her eyes. “Mother was born into a merchant family and married into an even wealthier merchant family. But she’s always angled on mixing her blood with royal blood, meaning me. She had been resigned to always being little more than a wealthy merchant’s wife, but then my father died, and she smelled opportunity.”
Abigail’s lips pressed into a thin line. She couldn’t help thinking bitterly at how quickly Madeline’s mother had jumped.
Madeline’s head drooped a little more and she heaved a great sigh into the silence. “I know what you must be thinking. I mean, you lost your mother so recently. But I hope I can at least befriend my new sisters.”
“I did say I don’t do well in public, and that’s true. I’m terribly awkward around people I don’t know well. As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for Helene, I wouldn’t even be here talking to you.” Though calling it talking was probably being kind. She was certain she was botching the whole conversation.
Madeline looked up at her, her eyes earnest. “But do you think we could get to know each other well? Become friends maybe? Perhaps you could even teach me how to not humiliate myself at the ball?”
Abigail forced a smile. “I’ll share what I know. But, if you’re after Adrian, he was a bit of a cheeky boy when we were young. I imagine he’ll like you if you can give him a good laugh.”
Madeline tipped her head to one side. “At me or with me?”
Abigail shrugged. “Adrian will like you either way. He’s a bit indiscriminate. At least, he was back then. It’s probably been a good ten years since I last enjoyed his company.”
“You haven’t seen him since?”
“Since I was twelve? Only from a distance. His father took him back to Murant Holdings when he was fifteen. He comes back to the city only once in a while for periodic royal duties, but, as we’re so far down the line, we’re rarely in attendance ourselves.” She shook her head. “I couldn’t even tell you what he actually looks like, just what all the drawings say he does.”
“Oh,” Madeline said, her shoulders drooping a little. “I suppose he must have changed quite a bit since.”
Abigail shrugged, wondering how much longer this was going to go on for. “He’s grown up, at least. I don’t think I would be much help in winning him over, but I am intimately familiar with royal protocol.”
Madeline tentatively reached out and took one of Abigail’s hands. “Whatever you have to offer, I’ll be happy for.”
Madeline looked so grateful, it was all Abigail could do to not let her smile slip. People touching her was right up there with people talking to her.
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