Today’s prompt was to write our take on the Cinderella story. My friend also sent me an article about a court in India upholding a law that allows a husband to rape his wife. So, what happens when Prince Charming comes with violent strings attached? Content warning for violence against women (descriptions of the results and not the actual violence), domestic violence, and gendered slurs.
Another command performance at the mansion. These dinners grew more tedious as the years went on, but they were a small price to pay for ensuring her family was well fed and secure. Vivian assumed that Cindy’s husband did not cut them off to keep the newspapers from running a story of the destitute in-laws while the man in charge hosted lavish parties. Cindy certainly would have punished them for their treatment of her before her fairytale wedding.
Vivian swallowed her jealousy and her what-ifs as she knocked on the door. She pointed to the last minute adjustments her daughters needed to make in their clothes. Paparazzi got a few shots of them from over the bushes, and she mentally checked the last few seconds to ensure that none of the pictures would be vulgar. The rules were simple: come to dinner and do not embarrass the hand that fed them. Jason was at least a reasonable man.
The door opened, and Cindy acknowledged them without a smile. She was still in her robe, hand clutching it around her neck.
“Only by fifteen minutes. We can wait in the car, if you would like. There are only, I think, three cameras out there tonight.”
Cindy sighed and opened the door wider. They entered the foyer and turned right to go into the parlor.
“Jason will be down in a minute. No servants tonight; it will just be us.” She was halfway up the stairs by the time she finished speaking, and the three women sat down to wait for their hosts. Vivian mentally prepared herself. No servants meant that Cindy was going to order her and her daughters to do things. The house smelled of fresh bread and pork roast. They would earn that meal tonight.
Their hosts descended the stairs exactly fifteen minutes later. Cindy politely but pointedly said, “Vivian, join me in the kitchen.” Jason followed with, “Ladies, please join me in the dining room.” He offered his arm, which the two women raced take hold of, Lilah getting there first. He held up is left arm for Lacy.
Vivian walked behind Cindy into the kitchen in their silently understood hierarchy for the night. Peaking out from the the fabric of Cindy’s dress and barely hidden by the lace collar, she spied the blue and purple of new bruise. Vivian stared at it, and then casually asked, “Did you fall, dear?” Cindy turned around, eyes wide and unconsciously adjusting her dress to cover the mark before bringing her face back to neutral.
“Yes. Yesterday. I tripped over my own feet and fell into the doorknob.” A practiced laugh filled the air, which Vivian did not return.
“Do you often … fall?” The hostess opened her mouth to say something, decided against it, and went into the kitchen. They took the dishes one by one into the dining room. Added to main dish was asparagus and a risotto as well as a decadent cake for dessert.
The dinner, as expected, was filled with delicious food and painful small talk. Jason led the conversation, having always some story about his day or someone that worked for him to keep the room from becoming too silent. Vivian sat next to Cindy and counted the fading, yellow marks on her bare arms. Her skin nearly hid them. Nearly.
Jason’s story involved Cindy, and he reached to caress her face. Vivian’s daughters missed the tiny flinch under Cindy’s skin to her husband’s hand. They merely laughed where it was appropriate before gushing, again, over how delicious the food was.
“Yes. Cindy was going to cook for everyone tonight, but unfortunately she could not seem to find the time. Luckily, we have a talented cook on staff.”
“Yes. We are very lucky, dear. I promise I will cook for our next dinner together.”
Jason smiled and launched into his last story of the evening. Something having to do with one of investments. Vivian ordinarily would be hanging on every word, ensuring that their money was secure, but the words were far away.
The meal finished, and her daughters stood to help clear the table, their role in tonight’s charade. Vivian stood up and asked Cindy if she could help her with the dishes tonight. Four puzzled looks met her before Jason laughed that it was a wonderful idea.
It took six rounds between the kitchen and the dining room to clear everything up. When they set the third round down next to the sink and started back for the next, Vivian stated clearly, but softly, “If you need to leave, you can come home.” She did not wait for a response and left the kitchen. The two women said nothing as they finished cleaning the dishes, but Cindy watched her stepmother, wondering about this terrible woman.
Vivian began calling Cindy’s cell phone once a day, at the exact same time. The conversation was small talk, asking how things were, and it never lasted more than five minutes.
Cindy was out in the garden, reading, when her butler approached her chair.
“Your stepmother is here.”
Cindy looked puzzled and set down her book.
“Show her in.”
Vivian held her head high as she sat next to Cindy, a worried question in her eyes.
“I left my phone upstairs. I am sorry, Vivian.”
“How are you?” Vivian checked her over with only her eyes.
“Fine. Can I get you something to drink?” Cindy motioned for the butler to come over.
“No. I was on my way to go buy a new a dress, and I thought I would stop by.” Cindy held up a hand to the butler.
“Thank you, but as you can see, everything is fine.”
“Yes. Well, I will be off then.” Vivian left as proud as she came.
The butler told Jason about the visit. He laughed that the old hag must be worried about her money. Between the dinner and the visit, they were probably going to be asked for something big. New house maybe. Cindy laughed lightly that that must be it.
Vivian wrapped her robe tighter as the knocking grew more impatient. She sauntered down the stairs and composed the scathing, life-destroying monologue for the person who would dare to make such noise at one o’clock in the morning. She waved her hand for her daughters to stay at the top of the stairs and then opened the door.
Jason stood there heaving and red-faced, shouting that he knew she was here.
“Who do you think, you stupid bitch? Cindy. Where is she?” He shoved his way inside. Vivian caught and hid her shock, composing herself again before he turned back to her.
“She is certainly not here.” Vivian’s face spoke of disgust.
“Where else would she go?”
“I assure you, I have no idea.” Jason stomped like a child through her house, opening and slamming doors and cabinets and throwing the clothes out of closets to look for his wife. Vivian followed him calmly. “There is no need to destroy my house to find a person who is not here.”
“This house is mine. I let you live here. And if I should change my mind -” His spit hit Vivian under her right eye. She dabbed it away with the embroidered handkerchief she had kept from her first marriage. “You know what? As long as my wife is not BACK IN MY HOUSE, I have changed my mind.” He slammed the closet door and the wood cracked by the handle.
“I cannot give you what I do not have, Jason.”
“Mama, the press …” Lilah points out the window, and Jason pales.
“Sit. I will get you a glass of water. You can calm down and then head home. Take our car out back and use the back roads. You can avoid the press.”
“I know how to avoid the press.” But Jason sat. Once he was calm and heading out the back door, he turned to Vivian and pushed his pointer finger right into her sternum.
Through gritted teeth, he hissed “I am cutting you off if Cindy isn’t back in my house before morning.” He slammed the door, and they heard the car start and sped away, followed a few minutes later by some surprised paparazzi.
Vivian listened until the sounds fade and then went to the basement. “Lacy, call your aunt.” When she returns, Cindy was with her, lip bleeding, eyes scared and crying stood. Her two daughters looked horrified. Vivian reached out and took the phone from Lacy. “My stepdaughter is coming to visit, and no one should be told. Cindy is a bit of a klutz.” Her sister promised call back with travel details as soon as she had them.
“You have to send her back, mother.” Lilah stared at Cindy’s lip.
“We won’t have anything if she doesn’t go back.” Lacy nodded.
Vivian used a gentle touch to Cindy’s back to lead her into the kitchen. She picked up her first aid kit from the mess on the floor and sat down to clean and butterfly-bandage the cut.
“I said no. We will not choose his money over your sister.” Cindy looked up at Vivian. Sister was never something she called her. “And if either of you say a word to anyone about this, I will cut you out. We need money, but we do not need his money.” Her voice drops to a near whisper. “I am always prepared for when things go south.”
She finished her lip and checked Cindy over, making sure to be gentle and tell her what she is doing before she touched her. When Cindy flinches, she stops and asks if she is okay. As she does this, Vivian explained that she will send Cindy to her sister, Mary, who has some experience taking care of people leaving their abusive husbands. She and her daughters will follow, but only once she is sure that Jason is not watching them and not going to follow them. Cindy, exhausted, made her way back to the basement.
“I will wake you up once Mary calls back.” Cindy thanked her, lost in a confusion of her own choices and her stepmother’s compassion, so absent in her childhood. Lilah and Lacy returned to their rooms, grumbling. Vivian sat, waiting with a cup of tea for Mary to call.