To anyone else, Henry would have looked perfectly composed.
But not to his mother.
Not when he had inherited that mock composure from her, and suffered the same subtle signs that told the truth. He sat too still, said too little, and all emotion had been wiped from his features.
When Cinderella appeared, she could almost hear his breath catch in his throat. Her own had, as well. No one could ever accuse her of coddling her son. But she feared for his heart, no less than her daughter’s.
What if his interest in Cinderella was unrequited? She had watched him pine over Angie for half a year, but had never seen him suffer a heartbreak for as long as she had known him. She wasn’t prepared to see it, now.
When Cinderella dropped her things, and threw her arms about his neck, she felt relief wash over her.
Henry was so surprised by her reaction that for a moment, he did nothing. Then, his arms closed around her, and he held her, as she had never seen him hold another, before.
Ah, young love, she mused. She had not been much older than Cinderella when Henry’s father strolled into her philosophy class by accident – and a happy accident it was.
Henry bent to pick up what scarce belongings Cinderella had taken with her. Then taking her hand, he walked her to the car.
They climbed into the backseat together, talking happily; every so often trying to weave her into their conversation. They talked as though they had known each other all their lives.
As if Cindi had not just walked out of jail.
As if in a few months, she might not to be walking into a prison cell.
It had been weeks, since she last slept in a warm bed. And at least a week, since she found herself surrounded by friendly and familiar faces.
With the media hot on her heels, Samantha had insisted she remain at the hotel. Her home was still a crime scene, and her grandparents had suffered enough excitement to last them a lifetime. She would only bring more reporters to their door.
She saw them soon enough, from the fringes of the crowd, as they lowered her father into his grave. She had expected the sting of tears in her eyes, and hot wetness on her cheek. Instead, she found herself dry-eyed and staring, as they shoveled dirt onto his coffin.
Henry took her hand, but she had forgotten him for the moment. A lifetime of memories passed before her.
She remembered their camping trips in the woods: the look of pleasant surprise when she caught her first fish at five, and pitched her own tent at seven.
The proud look on his face when at eleven, she won the prize for science and math; and his pride when she drove her first car home at sixteen.
She remembered the sound of their mingled laughter ringing in the air, as he chased her in the woods: she atop Lightning, and him atop Bolt.
Both were safe and sound in her grandparents’ stables, now. The stables had been empty for fifteen years, and now the horses were all her grandparents had left of the family they had tended and cared for.
On the other side of the crowd, she could see his mother’s shoulder quaking, while his father held her. They had grown distant over the past few years, though neither would dare to leave the other. But grief had formed a new and tragic bond between them. Their only son: soon to be a memory.
“There is no greater tragedy than a parent outliving their son,” the priest declared.
Cinderella wanted to believe that was true, but she wondered if it were not a greater tragedy to be an orphan at barely eighteen years old. Would her entire life only be death and loss? Perhaps she was better suited to medicine than she previously thought.
“Come,” Samantha urged her. “The reporters are moving in. Not even at a funeral do these vultures have a shred of reverence or respect.” She signaled to Brad across the grave.
He moved towards her grandparents and pointed, and then they all returned to their cars, strategically parked across from each other, less than a block away.
“My poor sweet girl,” her grandmother sobbed against her chest; arms loosely hanging around her neck. “You’re too young for this, much too young.”
Cindi felt a coldness spread through her, such as she had never known. She had wept for her mother, though she had never met her. And she had wept twice as hard for her Abuela.
But her father would not have wanted her tears. He would have wanted her strength. And in any case, she couldn’t find even a drop to shed.
With Dr. Bell sleeping soundly beneath the earth, the town resumed its cry for blood.
Most blamed the stepmother, but many named her as the conspirator as well. The news bounced between stories of the evil stepmother, and the over-ambitious daughter who wanted an early inheritance.
“You shouldn’t watch that nonsense,” Samantha cautioned; turning off the TV in the middle of a news piece that especially tore Cindi’s reputation to pieces. She was the “ungrateful brat” who was “jealous” of her father’s new family.
“I’ve tried to get a moment alone with your stepmother,” Samantha confided. “I hoped to corner her and get a confession, but her lawyer is careful. He knows my reputation. I’ll have to get my confession in a cross-examination in court, on the stands.”
After a careful pause, Samantha said, “I truly want to give you the space to mourn and heal, but this murder trial… we can’t ignore it. We need to prepare.
“You’ve lived with this woman for a long time. Tell me about her. What are her tendencies and strengths? What does she love, and hate? What are her weaknesses? What makes her sad, or angry?”
“All the questions you ask come back to two things: her jealousy, and my mother,” Cindi replied.
Samantha settled onto the ottoman closest to her. “Then help me, Cindi. Help me get inside her head.”
The trial passed by in a blur.
She heard the words, but they washed over her like rain on a hard surface. She absorbed nothing, retained nothing. She had supplied Samantha with all she needed, and then withdrew into herself.
“Your Honor, Dr. Fostel is clearly harassing my client,” the lawyer had objected more than once.
But he had been overruled time and time again. The judge in town was an old gossip of sorts, and would not miss the chance to hear the juicy tidbits of the inner workings in such a prominent family.
“Do you recognize this woman?” Samantha had asked again, pointing to the projected image of Maria Bell, on her honeymoon – laughing in the breeze, with black ribbons in her hair.
As Samantha scrolled through the other pictures of Maria and Richard – sometimes sharing a kiss, sometimes staring lovingly into each other’s eyes – the old jealousy rose up in the widowed Mrs. Bell, like a legion of deranged demons.
And when Dr. Fostel dropped the truth so carefully concealed thus far, that the twins were not the biological children of the late Dr. Bell, the dam broke and the venom came rushing out.
It took two guards to restrain her by the time she was done. All while the court rose in uproar, with the judge crying for order, and a guard spitting blood.
Still, it was not until “Guilty,” was read by the jurors that Cindi returned to present reality. Samantha was so ecstatic, she almost picked Cindi up when she hugged her. Henry was by her side, as calm and supportive as ever.
Cindi only smiled at first, and then the realization hit, and the tears came. It was finally over. She was a free woman, and her reputation had been restored. She breathed easy on that account now.
What good was a doctor if people secretly feared she was a murderer?
Outside, the journalists who had heretofore dragged her name through the streets like a common harlot, now proclaimed they knew she was innocent all along. They wanted comments – something to put in their little papers, and broadcast to 40 inch TVs in Des-Amarillo.
Cindi gave them nothing, but encouraged Samantha to stay behind and fill their eyes and ears. It was distraction enough for her and Henry to jump inside the getaway car, with Brad at the wheel.
At the hotel, Brad shared the full state of her father’s affairs.
“I didn’t want to trouble you with it before,” he said, apologetically. “I knew this would feel like salt in the wound.”
She had never discussed money or inheritance with her father. She had no idea how much he owned, or spent, or how much the house was worth. Learning the sum now almost renewed cause for tears.
She had worried about paying for college without him, but found that all that had been provided for. She had a college fund that included tuition and living expenses for eight years of med school.
Her father had also left behind some debt that Brad cleared up, but even that left a year’s worth of a doctor’s salary in his bank account. The house was also hers, as were the two horses, and his car. He had left nothing to anyone else.
“I know you want nothing to do with the house, right now,” Brad said, “but if you let me, I could have everything cleaned up, and carefully stored.
“You could rent it to make some extra income. Before you leave school, you could use some of that money to renovate the house. You wouldn’t even recognize it.”
“My father’s an architect. He could help,” Henry chimed in.
Cindi nodded her consent to both. “I leave everything up to you, Brad. Dad trusted you, entirely; so I trust you, as well. If Mr. Fostel wouldn’t mind taking on the project, I would love to see what he could come up with.”
Samantha walked in then, almost out of breath. Her cheeks were flushed from excitement, and her curls lay in beautiful disarray from the struggle to make it through the crowd and home.
“Are we doing business instead of celebrating, already?” She clearly disapproved.
Cindi shared the news she had just received. “I was so worried about paying for college,” she admitted. “I thought maybe I would have to drop out, or pick one closer to home. But now…”
“What is it?” Samantha asked, sensing something was amiss.
“When my Dad sent me to Mexico this summer, I was really upset at first,” she said. “It was my last summer before college and he was sending me away. It didn’t make any sense.
“But once I jumped into that car and started driving… there was nothing like it. Being in Mexico made me want to see what else was out there. Maybe I could take a few semesters off to travel and get my head straight for school.”
Samantha and Brad heartily agreed, then one by one, they left the room. Him, to take a phone call; and her, to make one.
“You’re angry with me,” Cindi said to Henry after they had gone. She noted his silence, and the creasing of his brow.
He chuckled a little at that. “Actually, I’m a little upset I didn’t give myself more leeway when I blackmailed my mother.”
Cindi laughed at that.
Henry’s returned smile was sincere, but sad. “The truth is… I’m worried about you. I think you’ve had a hard time dealing with all this, with all eyes on you; and me and Mom always around.
“You need your space to grieve, I think. But I’m a little selfish and wish I could come with you.”
“You can catch up with me here and there,” she assured him. She then added with a laugh, “I’ll even make sure I stay in a hotel when you do, since we both know what a capable camper you are.”
“Am I ever going to live that one down?” he said with mock hurt.
“I think we’ve both had our turn at being the ‘damsel in distress’,” she replied, in earnest. “Thank you, Henry. I might be sitting in a prison cell tonight if it wasn’t for you and your mom.”
“We did our best,” he answered. “I’m just happy it worked out.” After a moment of silence had passed between them he said, “Cindi, I have a confession to make, actually.”
She sighed, deeply. “What did you do?”
He laughed. “Nothing too terrible. That night in the woods, one of your ribbons fell out of your hair. I found it in my tent when my parents collected my things. When Mom showed those pictures today, I realized it was your mother’s.”
“I thought it was lost! Do you have it with you?”
“No, I left it at Fostel Hall. I guess I didn’t want you to think I was weird or something, for keeping it.”
She looked relieved. “I lost the other one after I left you by the road, and that woman burned most of Mom’s things after I left that night.”
“I can have it sent to you if you want,” he offered.
“No, keep it until I come back. I guess you’ll have something to remember me by, for when Angie comes around.”
He chuckled at that. “Don’t worry about, Angie. She’s not my type, anymore.”
“And what is your type?”
“The kind that speaks Spanish and knows secret herbs, who can set a leg and pitch a tent… start a fire after the rain.”
Cindi seemed to consider this for a moment. “I have a cousin in Mexico who matches that exact description. You would like her. I can bring her with me when I come back.”
“Nice try,” Henry commended her, “but I already have exactly what I want, right here. You just make sure she comes back in one piece.”
- Read Cinderella & the Black Ribbon at Fostel Hall PT 1
- Read Cinderella & the Black Ribbon at Fostel Hall PT 2
- Read Cinderella & the Black Ribbon at Fostel Hall PT 3
- Read Cinderella & the Black Ribbon at Fostel Hall PT 4
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.