You can't choose your family.
It was something her father had said once, after yet another to-be-politely-ignored letter from his brother, this one explaining an exciting new business venture expecting a hundredfold yield for the small price of a ten thousand pound initial investment.
Little Ella hadn't thought much of it at the time, but the words echoed through her head the day her father brought home his second wife. The new Lady Tremaine was a tall woman with sharp eyes, a Roman nose, and a regal bearing. Ella watched open-mouthed as she descended from the carriage with perfect grace, one hand lightly taking the proffered hand of Ella's father and the other subtly lifting the hem of her silk cordial skirt above the dust of the road. She would have continued staring in awe had Mrs. Wollens not given her a nudge from behind.
"Welcome to our home," said Ella, remembering to curtsy and offer a modest bouquet of wildflowers. Bright and cheery when she had picked them that morning, Ella now found herself worrying they'd lost their verve in the hot afternoon.
The great Lady paused, abandoning her inspection of the house and grounds to consider the small child before her. Ella found herself frozen to the spot, suddenly unable to summon her smile.
"Mmm," said the Lady, her lips tightening into a forced grimace. She looked Ella up and down, then nodded tersely before returning her attention to the house.
Released, Ella turned a searching gaze to her father. He winked at her, but quickly stopped her headlong rush into his arms with a stern look and a raised eyebrow. Cut short, but knowing that she wasn't in trouble, Ella put aside her questions and composed herself as her father turned back to the carriage door.
"Ladies," he said formally, once more offering his hand to the darkness within.
The first to emerge was Anastasia. She paused on the threshold, casting a long look around the yard before a push from behind hastened her descent. She yelped as she tumbled over the step, but Ella's father caught her with one strong arm mid-fall.
"Easy does it, pumpkin," he said, gently lowering her to the ground.
"I'm not a pumpkin!" she cried, wriggling out of his arms and running past Ella into the house after her mother.
Drizella, the pusher, came next. A few years older than her sister, Ella's first impression was all elbows and knees. Drizella clamored down with a pained expression on her face.
"Something smells funny," she said, wrinkling her nose.
"Ah, that's just fresh country air. No London smog here," said Ella's father.
"I expect I'll be allergic," replied Drizella somberly, sweeping ahead into the house as well.
Ella's father laughed and followed her in.
Ella watched him go with an odd feeling in her little chest, the ignored flowers in her sweaty hand definitely wilting now.
"Well, shall you go in with them or with me?" asked Mrs. Wollens, still behind her.
"With you, please," said Ella, turning and slipping her small hand into Mrs. Wollens' large calloused one. Together they made their way around the side of the house, through the kitchen garden gate, and into the kitchen.
Ella entered the dining room that evening to find her usual place next to her father occupied by her new stepmother. Her confusion must have shown on her face, because when she turned to her father, he made a comically wide-eyed and hopelessly bewildered face and she laughed at the silliness, forgetting her discomfort. Put at ease, she climbed into the last remaining chair and Mrs. Wollens entered with the soup. It was quiet as Ella's father and stepmother were served, but when Mrs. Wollens moved on to Anastasia, her father broke the silence.
"It is so good to finally have you all together," he began. "At last, my family is complete."
"Indeed, this is an exciting new era for us, isn't it, girls?" said Ella's new stepmother. "We shall all have to pull together to get off to the right start. In the morning, I shall go down to the village and begin making inquiries. Anastasia, don't be a pick-a-ninny."
Ella looked across the table at Anastasia's place to see the beginnings of a small soupy pile of the celery she had helped Mrs. Wollens chop that afternoon on the edge of her plate.
"But I don't like them," Anastasia pouted.
"Tomorrow morning?" continued Ella's father. "So soon? I thought we could take it easy for a few weeks, perhaps take a family picnic down to the creek tomorrow. After all, life moves more slowly in the country, and you ladies are only just getting acquainted."
"Oh, it's a nice thought, dear, but while life in the country may be slow, life in the city never stops, and we shall fall behind if we don't strive to keep up. I really must begin making arrangements for Drizella and Anastasia to continue their lessons as soon as possible." As she spoke, Lady Tremaine spooned up the celery bits and deposited them back into Anastasia's bowl. Anastasia scowled. Drizella stuck her tongue out at her sister, Anastasia quickly reciprocated, and Ella giggled when she heard Mrs. Wollens snort softly in surprised disbelief as she leaned down to serve Ella's portion. Lady Tremaine's eyes ignored her daughters, instead snapping up to the housekeeper, her mouth opening sharply, but Ella's father spoke first, heedless of the drama before him.
"Well, maybe I'll take the girls then, while you're in town. I'm sure they're eager to explore their new home."
"Mother, I'd like to come see the village with you tomorrow, may I?" asked Drizella eagerly, distracted from tormenting her sister.
"Me too! If Drizella's going, I want to go too!" said Anastasia, tugging on her mother's sleeve.
"Stop that Anastasia," said Lady Tremaine, brushing her hand away. "You won't catch flies with vinegar."
"I don't want to catch flies!" protested Anastasia, "I want to go with you and Drizella."
"You girls really want to go into town with your mother? It's nothing as grand as London, I assure you," said Ella's father.
"I know, but I still want to see it. Besides, we saw creeks and fields our whole way here," Drizella lamented.
Ella's father glanced to his new wife, who considered a moment before assenting.
"Very well. If you girls want to come, you may, provided you behave yourselves. But mind you, our focus will be on finding a suitable tutor, not visiting the dressmaker."
"Yes, Mother," said Drizella happily.
"And you, Ella, will you be guiding your new mother and sisters through town, or shall you stay here and keep an old codger company tomorrow?" asked Ella's father, at last turning his attention to her with a smile.
"I'll stay here with you, Papa," said Ella, heart rising at the prospect of a day alone with her father. "Maybe we can go on a picnic?"
"Oh darling, you do bring up an excellent point," said Ella's stepmother before her father could reply. "Won't you come with us to town? As it is our first time, a guide will be invaluable. We wouldn't want to find ourselves lost our first day here, and I'm sure you know all the right people we'll need to meet."
Ella's heart sank as her father smiled apologetically at her before answering her new stepmother.
"Of course, I'd be happy to show you around tomorrow. Ella, I promise you we'll have that picnic, just not tomorrow, alright?"
Ella nodded into her plate, and passed the rest of the meal in silence.
It was much later than usual by the time her father came to say good night, but he found Ella wide awake, hugging her favorite doll close to her chest and gazing out vacantly into the moonlight. She looked up as he entered.
"Hey Colonel," he said, sitting on the edge of the bed.
"Hi Papa," she said, nestling herself under his arm.
"How're the troops doing?" he asked.
"Good." He kissed the top of her head. "What do you think of your new mother and sisters?"
Ella's brow furrowed in thought before she answered.
"She didn't take my bouquet."
"Ah. Maybe she didn't see it. She's had a lot on her mind with the move."
"I guess. Mrs. Wollens put it in a jar on the kitchen sill for me."
"I'll be sure to go and admire it properly tomorrow then. Speaking of which, since I most shamefully must postpone our picnic, will you honor us with your company in town tomorrow? It'll be our first full family outing!"
Ella made a face.
"But there's nothing to do in town!"
Her father laughed.
"Sometimes it's not about what you're doing, it's about who you're doing it with. Besides, if you come with us you won't be underfoot of Mrs. Wollens and she might just have time to prepare a special treat for our return." He tried to wiggle his eyebrows enticingly, making Ella laugh.
"Okay, I'll come. But raspberry pie, not lemon meringue this time, okay?"
"Deal," said her father solemnly, extending a hand. Ella took it with equal solemnity and they shook on it.
"All right then. Now that's settled, into bed with you. We've got a big day tomorrow, and it's much too late for little girls to still be awake."
Ella untangled herself from her father's arms and crawled to pull back the covers at the head of the bed.
"Do you think Drizella and Anastasia like me?"
"I'm sure they will, darling, once you girls get to know each other. They'd be fools not to."
Ella snuggled deeper into the blankets, stifling a yawn as her father placed a kiss on her forehead.
"I'm glad you're back."
"Me too, darling. Me too. Good night now. Sweet dreams."
"Love you, Papa."
"Love you too, darling. Love you always."
His last sight as he closed the door behind him was of his daughter's peaceful slumbering smile.