Cinderella didn’t reply.
Marie crossed the short distance between them. She placed her hands on Cinderella’s shoulders and shook her. “Stop dreaming and wake up. Someday soon, you will have to take care of yourself and put your needs above the needs of your servants. You are running out of time! By staying here, you are only delaying the inevitable, or, worse—bringing personal ruin upon yourself!”
“Marie—,” Cinderella started.
“Don’t! Can’t you just…Couldn’t you….,” Marie’s face crumpled as she tried to keep from crying. She let go of Cinderella, only to hug her tight.
“Your dress, it’ll get ruined,” Cinderella said.
“I don’t care,” Marie muttered.
The two friends hugged until the tension left Marie, and she slumped into Cinderella’s shoulder. “Can’t you be selfish? You’re all I have left—I don’t want to lose you too,” Marie said, her voice fragile.
Cinderella patted Marie’s back. The takeover was difficult on Marie in a different way.
Marie was a Trieux Duke’s daughter, or she had been. Several years ago, she met and fell in love with Armel Raffin, her husband. He was wealthy, but he lacked a Trieux title and noble blood. Marie’s father forbad her from marrying him, but she did anyway.
So Marie’s father disowned her. He cut all ties with her, and her family acted as if she had died rather than married beneath her station.
When Trieux was invaded, all of Marie’s family was executed. No one was left, except for Marie—who had been spared because of the separation.
Marie had been furious with her father for refusing to acknowledge her marriage, but she was perhaps even more enraged with him for dying before they could make any sort of amends.
“I hate them,” Marie said, as if reading Cinderella’s mind. “I hate those Erlauf soldiers.”
“Unfortunately they are here, for better or for worse. And we are no longer citizens of Trieux, but citizens of Erlauf,” Cinderella said when Marie pulled away.
Marie sighed. “It is as you say. Could you stay home from the market for a few days?”
“I don’t know,” Cinderella said. “He knows I do not enter Werra on the days the market is closed,” Cinderella said.
“Try it,” Marie suggested. “He may forget about you in your absence and go plague another pretty girl.”
“Perhaps,” Cinderella said, grimacing as she studied Marie’s dress. It was ruined, pressed with the same filth on Cinderella’s work dress.
Marie paid the damage no mind. “It will work. You can see to the activities of Aveyron for a few days, and he will forget you. It is a winning solution.”
“Perhaps, but what if he sends inquires after me?”
“Inquiries can be ignored. Social interaction is the real danger. And surely this Colonel wouldn’t come to Aveyron to bother you.”
“You don’t think so?”
“Good heavens, no. Even an Erlauf rat couldn’t be that shameless.”
Marie was wrong. He was that shameless.
Cinderella was considering rugs with Jeanne when Gilbert delivered the news.
“Gilbert, wonderful timing. We could use your help. Which rug do you think we could get a better price for? The bear fur from Verglas or this velvet rug? The imported bear skin is rarer, but this velvet is awfully close to Erlauf burgundy,” Cinderella said, prodding the rug with her foot.
“You have a visitor, Mademoiselle,” Gilbert said.
“A visitor? One of the Trieux nobles?”
“Marie or one of her husband’s minions, then?”
Cinderella clasped her hands to her heart. “Not a tax collector?” she said in horror.
“No, Mademoiselle,” Gilbert hesitated. “It is an officer of the Erlauf Army.”
Cinderella felt as if a large rock had fallen into her stomach. She hadn’t been visited by an army officer before. It was either the Colonel or someone he dispatched on his behalf. “Mercy on my soul, he is a pushy thing,” Cinderella said. “Where is he?”
“I left him standing in the front hall with a footman,” Gilbert stiffly said. Apparently his good manners and delight in decorum did not extend to Erlauf houseguests, or he would have seen the Colonel to the least shabby sitting room.
“Thank you, Gilbert. Jeanne, may we resume this conversation later?”
“Of course, Mademoiselle,” Jeanne curtsied.
Cinderella left the shadowy library and made her way to the front hall.
The Colonel stood near the front entrance, admiring a vase of wildflowers.
“Colonel Friedrich, what brings you to Aveyron?” Cinderella said, briefly curtseying to the officer as he removed his attention from the flowers and turned to face her.
“Good afternoon, Cinderella. I am here for you, of course.”
“I beg your pardon, but I do not understand.”