On my sixteenth birthday my father gave me a locket which contained a miniature of my mother, whom I had never known. It had been a breast-pin of his that he had sent to a jeweler to have done up fabulously. Encrusted with diamonds and aquamarines the color of water, it glimmered like a sea jewel in my hand, which it filled entirely. I caressed the locket lovingly and threw my arms around him.
"Just remember, my child, she is with you still. There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of her."
I met his eyes, which were misty. He spoke in a hushed whisper, and I knew intuitively that this was a secret time, words that my stepmother must never hear, nor must she know about this gift. It was not something that I needed other people to see. To keep this sweet secret locket was enough for me. As I pressed it against my breast I felt for a moment that my family circle was complete.
"I can feel her, father," I whispered, holding him close, as my heart warmed with a feeling like incandescent light.
"I see her, my darling, every time I look at you. Which reminds me that you are a woman now, and there is another matter we must discuss." He held me at arm's length.
I laughed, but his serious looks made me nervous.
"I have made an important provision for your future. At first you may be angry."
He did not have the chance to continue. I whirled around and stamped my foot, my back to my father, facing the well-manicured gardens below the balcony.
"You should not have done this," I said in a choked voice.
"You knew it must be done. Darling, I would never arrange a marriage for you that I did not think would work. You must trust me. It was something that your mother and I discussed. She was very fond of the idea."
"How can this be?" I demanded. "When she was well, I was a babe, and my prospective mate could not have been old enough to merit a fair assessment. Or was he? Would you see me married to-"
"An old man? Like me?" He chuckled. "He is older than you are, Cinderella, but not by more than a score. He comes from good stock, very good stock, and his parents are of excellent character. We knew he has been reared well, and as we predicted, his temperament is most complementary to your own." His eyes twinkled. "'Twould be a rare man to deserve my Cinderella."
"Well, then," I said haughtily, for though my father's smile melted my heart readily, I knew I must not let go of my growing independence as a young woman and bow easily to his wishes. "What is the name of this paragon?"
"I think, my dear, that it will be a time before I tell you. He would win you in his own way."
My face, and my hands clutching the balcony rail, colored at my father's words. The notion of being won by a man was foreign to me, but it stirred my heart. That a man was close at hand, and aware of me in this way, cut off my breath. "Then, he agrees to this cold contract?"
"Readily. I knew he would be pleased. He is a practical man, as well as a wealthy one, and desires an heir to continue his legacy."
My quick-bloomed tender feelings were wilted as though by a sudden, pelting rain. "Please, Father, don't say any more to me about this. I don't want to be cross with you on my birthday."
Just then the balcony door burst open. I turned in time to see my well-coiffed stepmother stride toward us. She was very tall, with dark hair made up in fashionable curls. She did not look at me at all, instead said to my father, "Will you not come inside? The girls are ready to have cake."
"That would be my cake," I said somewhat sourly, drawing her notice not at all.
"Come, my dear." I felt my father's steadying hand on my back, effectively staying my temper toward the three self-centered females who occupied our home. His presence, and the locket clutched in my fingers beneath my shawl, reminded me of the moment we had recently shared, when I had felt my mother between us, before he had spoiled everything by mentioning the terrible constriction he had put on my liberty.
It seemed very far away to me, and I put it out of my mind. I could not imagine my life being any different than it was, or that my father would let go of me soon. He needed me, I told myself.
My father was attentive to me as I served my birthday cake to my stepmother and stepsisters, in lieu of the maid, who was still attending nearby and fretting over the icing I dripped onto the carpet. I laughed merrily and passed the cake around, and many times I felt my father's affectionate grasp on my arm.
"Frederick," my stepmother said, jarring our merry laughter. "I have forgotten to fetch a bonnet from the milliner's, which I intend to wear to Cinderella's banquet tonight."
"Darling, but fortunately you have many lovely bonnets to wear."
"But I had this one made up specifically for this evening." Her scowl darkened the parlor's warm glow.
"Well, then, you must send Hughes after it."
"The milliner has not been paid. He requires one of us to settle the account. We cannot send that amount of money with Hughes."
"Regina." A warning flashed in his eyes.
She pleaded with him, looking suddenly heartbreakingly vulnerable. "Oh, Frederick, you would not send me out in this weather. You are a man. You are far more capable of braving the elements. Darling, I care for nothing more than looking well-turned out for you."
Her ploy had worked. I did not release my grasp on my father's arm before leaning close and whispering, "Another moment or two and the party will be broken up. And anyway, your gift to me renders this birthday the most wonderful of my life."
My stepmother gave me a withering look, as though she suspected me of conspiring against her. Indeed, to love my father, and feel the glow of his love, was a betrayal in her mind. She would never open her heart to me, because she could not accept that my father had loved before her, and that I was made in the image of that late wife.
My heart felt colder as I went to the window and saw the rain beginning to streak down the panes. As my father's carriage rolled from beneath the porte cochere, the storm broke, though he continued doggedly. My stepmother watched him at my side with eyes glassy with irritation and something else. Perhaps it was desperation.
A dreadful feeling came over me. I left the small party in the parlor and went to my room. I held my father's locket close to my heart and began to cry.