She was only nine years old, but already she was a fierce and stubborn thing.
There wasn’t an order she wouldn’t question, or a point she wouldn’t argue. She had an opinion on everything from religion to oranges, and was as much in love with her books as her horse.
There were times he felt a pang of guilt eating a hole in his chest, when he remembered his first thoughts the morning she’d been born. The pregnancy had been a difficult one, and the doctors had warned Maria to make this her first and last. The labor had been no different.
While Maria sweated and screamed, he had fretted and chewed his nails. And when she held their baby up to him with tears of suffered pain and happiness in her eyes, he had wondered:
Why couldn’t it be a boy?
His name would end with this child, and he would never realize all the paternal dreams he had harbored for his hypothetical son. No catch in the backyard after dinner, or riding horses on the trails.
Who would he teach how to start a fire or pitch a tent? And what about med school? He had come from a long line of doctors, and had hoped to have a son to carry on the family tradition.
But Cindi had surprised him, and there wasn’t a day he didn’t wish Maria had lived to witness it for herself.
“I can’t believe you got me my own race horse!” she exclaimed.
“Retired race horse,” he told her. “Sit still in the saddle, and don’t go saying that to your Abuela.”
“How fast do you think he can go?” It was like she hadn’t heard a word he said. Before he could answer, she kicked her heels into the side of her horse, and they were off.
Richard cursed under his breath and went after her. Wind whipped at his face and sent his hair into a wild dance, stinging his eyes. He caught up with her at the base of the hill.
Lightning was grazing, and she had quite obviously fallen off, muddied her jeans, and was rubbing her left elbow.
“Are you alright?” he asked her, jumping down from Bolt. A quick check assured him she hadn’t broken anything, only bruised her elbows and ego.
“That was awesome,” she decided. “I like Lightning, Dad. Thanks for getting him.”
His mother-in-law was waiting outside when they returned. Richard went to stable the horses, while Cindi went to share the day’s adventures. Her grandmother listened with wide eyes, but waited until Richard walked in to deliver her usual lecture in English, then Spanish, and something in between.
“She’s a kid. Kids do dumb things. I’m sure she won’t do it again. Right Cindi?” He gave her the look.
She reacted immediately, putting on her practiced pout and sorry face. “Right, Dad. I’m sorry, Abuela. I’ll be more careful next time.”
Richard then whisked the old lady off to the kitchen to help with the cooking. As always Abuela tried to stop him. She needed the help, but she was also stubborn – as stubborn as Maria had been.
Arthritis and old age had put a tremor in her hands, and she was not as strong as she used to be. The thought that she might not be with them for much longer worried him. He loved the old woman. She had been as much a mother to him as she had been to Maria, and loved Cindi just as much as he did.
Without her, he wasn’t sure how he would balance fatherhood with his career – if at all. And another loss as heartbreaking as the loss of his young wife was more than he wanted to think about.
Over the next few months, Richard’s worst fears slowly crept into reality. Day by day, Abuela grew weaker. He took time off from work to care for her, and hired a live-in nurse for the days he could not.
But by the summer, she was confined to bed. By the end of summer, she was no longer with them.
Watching Cindi suffer the heartbreak of losing the only mother she knew made his own heartbreak twice as painful. In his darkest hours, he found consolations in the arms of the nurse. Before long, she was a live-in, but a nurse no longer.
By late fall, Richard cemented her role in the family with a ring and a small wedding. A year later, they welcomed twin girls into the world.
“It just wasn’t meant to be,” he told Cindi. They had hoped for boys together. “But maybe they’ll turn out like you. I’m sure they will.”
Instead, the two girls grew up to be much the opposite of their half sister. They fussed and fought, and even at three years old, demanded the absolute finest of everything. The thought of going riding or hiking appalled them.
“You always come back so smelly,” one twin told her at five. “Why don’t you stay home with us and play house?!”
Cindi was sixteen by then, and accustomed to remarks like this from her sisters. Their mother was no better.
After the twins, all affection for their father had gone out of her, and her true intentions had become apparent. She spent most of her time, spending. The house went to ruins, and a maid was hired.
That new maid then inspired jealousy. A compliment on dinner would often mean hours of heated arguments in the wee hours of the morning, long after the maid had gone.
In time, Richard spent less and less time at home, until he was hardly there at all. On Saturday mornings, he would whisk Cindi away for trips into the woods, just the two of them. Sometimes they were away for a few hours, and sometimes for the entire weekend.
That didn’t sit well with the stepmother either, who then accused him of playing favorites. “You never bring Lindsay and Amanda along with you!” she pointed out one day.
“They never want to come,” he reminded her, and then was out the door before she could hurl another assault of words his way.
As the year continued, the stepmother boiled and seethed. She became a rotten woman, tainted by selfishness and soured by her ambitions.
Greatest of all the obstacles that stood before her and her daughters was Cindi. And so she began to plot, and seethe, and plot some more.
To be Continued
By special request from Anne J, for her Invitation: write your own “Cinderella” story! writing prompt. If you haven’t tried it yet, I encourage you to give it a go. I had lots of fun working on this one.