The Cinderella Secret

Chapter 1

Six Years Ago – Ella Zhao

“Pick one,” hissed Sabine, her breath already heavy with alcohol.

Ella could feel her mother’s fingernails digging into the soft underside of her arm. The Mexican night was unseasonably hot for the end of the rainy season, and Ella felt herself sweating. Sabine dragged her along the line of fighters, each one in a Mexican wrestling mask and not much else. Ella stumbled on her high-heels. She had known the shoes were a mistake. But for one moment, staring into the mirror, the enormous silver-blue poofs of her skirt going out in every direction, her hair piled high above her Day of the Dead skull mask, she had dared to think that she might enjoy this party. Dared to dream of being a pretty, seventeen-year-old Cinderella. Dared to think that she didn’t need to be on guard. Ella had put on the shoes, costume, and mask, and gone out to her mother with a smile.

“Look at you!” her mother had exclaimed, circling her shark-like, kept at bay only by the enormous skirt of the Cinderella costume. “Don’t you look sweet?” Somehow Sabine had made sweet sound like an insult.

Ella had thought that would be the worst of it. Her mother’s Day of the Dead parties were legendary, and this year Sabine had married her favorite passions—costumes, sex, and illegal fighting. Ella had thought Sabine would be too distracted to focus on her. And Ella had been even more relieved to see that Sabine had dressed in a barely-there Egyptian goddess costume that somehow meshed well with the Day of the Dead skull masks she had commanded everyone to wear. As long as everyone was looking at Sabine, then they weren’t looking at Ella. For a few brief hours, Ella thought she would be free to simply enjoy herself. She had been wrong.

“Pick one,” said Sabine. Ella looked away from the fighters, but her mother grabbed her by the chin and forced Ella’s head back around. “Pick one,” she growled directly into Ella’s ear.

Some of the men were openly leering at her, but most of them were looking anywhere but at her. Only Number Nine was glaring at her mother with an intense hatred, which rivaled Ella’s own.

“You’re losing it tonight,” said her mother. “One way or another. Pick one or I will.”

Ella tried to pull away, but her mother dragged her back.

“Fredrico wants you because you’re pure and innocent.” Sabine hissed the words into her ear, sneering at the very concepts. “You think I don’t know what he likes? So we’re going to fix that. You pick one or I will.”

Ella looked down the line again. She knew which one her mother would pick—Dulce, the giant brute with the scar running down his chest and the tattoo of a Mexican god over his heart. She’d seen her mother going down on him at the previous fight night. Her mother had no investment in monogamy or faithfulness; what she had were simply investments. She owned people. She owned Ella. And she owned her current lover, Fredrico. Sabine could sleep with whoever she wanted, but the idea that Fredrico would want someone else—and Ella of all people—was unacceptable. Tonight, for the first time, her mother had caught Fredrico looking at Ella. It wasn’t the first time he’d looked, or the first time he’d tried to grope her—it was only the first time Sabine had caught him. And instead of being mad at Fredrico, Sabine had blamed Ella.

Sabine shook her hard. “Pick one.”

Ella was silent.

“Fine,” said Sabine, raising her hand.

“Number Nine,” Ella gasped.

Sabine shoved her at the wrestler and Ella teetered on her shoes and crashed into him. She was face first against his naked chest, her mouth dragging against the skin of his neck, her breasts rubbing against him. The only thing keeping her from feeling the size of his cup was her massive skirt. His arms folded around, held her upright, kept her from crashing down, holding her safe.

“There’s the room,” said Sabine, pointing to the guest bungalow. “Don’t come out until you’ve fucked her.”

The party noise picked up again and Ella could hear everyone dispersing, but what she was mostly aware of was the beat of her heart in counterpoint to his.

“It’s OK,” he whispered. “We’re just… going to go over here. It’s going to be OK.”

His accent was American. They’d been in Mexico too long—she hadn’t realized how much she missed American English. If she was honest, what she really missed was her father’s British accented English and his Chinese bedtime stories, but she tried to bury memories of her father. He was dead, and without him, she wasn’t going to be able to escape her mother or Mexico anytime soon. Number Nine half-carried her into the bungalow and sat her down on the bed. Then he squatted down in front of her, looking her in the eyes. His skin was pale and he smelled of soap and sandalwood. She wondered how old he was. His eyes behind the mask looked young.

“Hi, Cinderella,” he said, smiling at her in a way that made her think everything actually might be OK. His black mask only covered the top half of his face and had a purple number nine on the side. It made him look a little like Zorro. “Who can I call?” he asked.

“What?”

“To get you out of here. Who do I call? Parents? Mom? Dad?”

“Dad’s dead. And that was my mom,” said Ella.

He paused and his head kind of jerked like he was displeased with that information, but was biting his tongue around his opinion. “OK. Well, in that case, you will have to come with me. Do you need anything? We’ll go grab it from the house and then we’ll get the hell out. You can’t stay here.”

“Do you live in Mexico?” she asked.

“No, I live in the US. It’ll be OK. I have family there. And lawyers. You won’t have to come back to her.”

“I can’t go with you,” said Ella. “I’m not eighteen yet. Mom will call the police. If you get stopped at the border with an underage girl…”

“Fuck.” He rubbed his chin. “Um.”

“Also, she keeps my passport locked in the safe in her room.”

“There has to be someone you can go to,” he said.

“My uncle,” said Ella, nodding. She’d thought all of these thoughts before. “My father’s brother,” she clarified, in case Number Nine thought her entire family was like Sabine. “But he’s in Europe, and last time I checked, the ticket price was at least fifteen hundred dollars. That’s why she won’t let me have any money or my passport.”

He sat back on his heels as if thinking, then a smile quirked up the sides of his mouth.

“But the passport is in the bedroom,” he said.

“Yes,” agreed Ella. She felt stupid and slow and embarrassed. Embarrassed to have her problems laid bare before this total stranger. And even more embarrassed that he wanted to help. How bad did her life have to be when a complete stranger thought it was total shit?

“The bedroom that no one is in because everyone is out by the pool?”

Ella straightened her spine. “I have the combination,” she said. Then her shoulders dipped again. “I still don’t have any money.”

He grinned. “I’ve got an idea about that,” he said. “Give me a couple of minutes. I’ll be right back.”

Ella watched as he slipped out of the bungalow. She thought about getting up and leaving. She didn’t know Number Nine. How could she trust him? What would she do if he came back? What would she do if he didn’t?

She could leave.

But she didn’t.

She sat on the bed and waited for him to come back. She’d never waited for a boy before.

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