Not all magic disappears at midnight.
On the home front in 1944, Kate Allen wants to do her part for the war effort. She’d prefer filling in for the window dressers at the department store where she works, but her mother keeps sending her on auditions for roles she never gets.
When relatives arrive from war-torn Poland with a mysterious steamer trunk and an even more mysterious story, Kate’s aunt, who is suffering from dementia, tries to convince Kate she is in line to be the next keeper of the wardrobe for Cinderella’s family—the real Cinderella.
If the family secret is true, this might be the most important role Kate has ever auditioned for. Will she get to the truth before the truth is forgotten?
CINDERELLA’S DRESS is a fairy tale set in the world of department store modeling and window design, spotlighting the importance of family and tradition in a world of constant change.
About the Author
Shonna Slayton finds inspiration in reading vintage diaries written by teens, who despite using different slang, sound a lot like teens today. While writing Cinderella's Dress she reflected on her days as a high-school senior in British Columbia when she convinced her supervisors at a sportswear store to let her design a few windowsit was glorious fun while it lasted. When not writing, Shonna enjoys amaretto lattes and spending time with her husband and children in Arizona.
Read an Excerpt
Spring 1944, New York City
Kate Allen, in proper hat and gloves, stared at the typed sign above the receptionist: There are no small parts; there are only small actors. Hmpf. Maybe in showbiz, but not in real life.
Beside her stood her mother, Mrs. Allen, recently promoted assistant to the manager of Women's Wear at Harmon-Craig Department Store. Her lips twisted while she examined the description of the movie role. "Girl Next Door. They don't even give you a name. Well, you don't need one. Once they see you on-screen, your future is decided."
The receptionist frowned and handed Mom a clipboard to sign. "Go ahead and take a seat. They'll call her in a few minutes."
Simply thinking about having her name called made Kate's stomach lurch. She'd never auditioned for a movie before. Sure, she'd gone on plenty of go-sees for modeling ever since her mother had decided Kate had something special. Her old modeling coach (before Mom fired her) assured them the nerves would go away with practice, but that wasn't happening. Neither were the jobs her mother expected. Aside from the department store fashion shows, they'd only landed one — a local shoe advertisement. Apparently, Kate's feet had talent.
After finding two empty seats, Kate sat beside a brunette wearing a flowered drawstring dress from Altman's. She smiled at the girl, who was too busy biting her fingernails to notice. Kate stared at her own hands, cleverly tucked into white kid gloves so she wouldn't be doing the same.
"Anything from Dad?" she asked, trying to cut off any advice before her mom started in.
"No," Mom answered distractedly as she rifled through her wood-framed handbag. "Our fashion show tomorrow has me scatterbrained. I've got so much to do in the next twenty-four hours." She looked up from her purse. "Well, you're the prettiest one here, that's for certain."
She said it too loudly, and the mother sitting across from them frowned. Oh boy. Kate looked out the window at the wiggling spring leaves on the Norway maples.
"It's the truth," Mom said in a softer voice, but again, too loud. She took out a cigarette.
Kate pulled at the pearls on her gloves while the sweat trickled between her shoulder blades. Sometimes Mom could be altogether embarrassing.
By the time Kate's name was finally called, her nerves were as tight as the girdle Mom made her wear.
"Sadie Young, Yvonne Whitehouse, Katherine Allen, Fran Marshall."
Fran Marshall? Kate sucked in a breath. Anyone but Fran. When Kate landed shoes, Fran landed a national baking soda campaign. She was all Mom talked about.
"Oh, look! There's Fran." Mother smiled and waved across the room to catch Fran's attention. "We were lucky to book her for the fashion show when we did."
Ignoring the exchange, Kate stood and smoothed her aqua-blue skirt, questioning every decision she had made that morning. From the gloves, to the skirt, to wearing her grandmother's antique amber necklace. Kate touched her throat where the necklace should have been. There was no hidden lump under the collar of her blouse. She felt the color drain from her face. Of all the things to lose.
The necklace wasn't supposed to leave the apartment. The only reason she wore it today was for courage. Babcia always knew the right things to say and do, and Kate thought the necklace might help steady her nerves.
While her mother was busy signaling Fran, Kate surreptitiously searched the floor, looking in between beige slingbacks, colorful Mary Janes, a peep-toe, and several wedges. If she didn't find it, Mom would kill her.
As she retraced her steps to the receptionist, she kept her gaze on the ground. It wasn't there. She made a move to go outside and check the street when Mother grabbed her by the shoulders.
"This way." She pushed Kate toward the other girls, hastily putting out her cigarette in a silver ashtray along the way.
"No mothers," the clipboard woman snapped. "Just the girls." She turned on her heel and led the group forward like a conga line.
Kate followed, eyes forward, waiting for Mom to spout off some insult in Polish, but the employee's stern expression must have made her sit back down.
Bright lights pointed at a platform up front where a scene had been set: a blue sofa with some flowered pillows and a blanket, a chair, a coffee table, and a rag rug. Three men sat in front of the stage at a table littered with papers, coffee cups, and three overflowing ashtrays. There was also a record player.
Would she have to dance? If she still had the stick of Wrigley's her mom made her spit out, she would have swallowed it right then and there. No one had said anything about dancing.
The rest of the auditorium plunged into darkness that went on forever. Her whole school could be watching, and she wouldn't know it.
"All right, girls," said the man with wire-framed glasses. "One by one, go sit on the sofa. Tell us your full name, then say the line, 'I can't wait for the boys to come home.'"
A coed — from Barnard College, judging by her sweater — started them off. She sashayed over to the sofa and sat down, crossing her ankles. "Hi, I'm Sadie Luanne Young, and I can't wait for the boys to come home." Sadie Luanne Young beamed as she stepped back in line.
And Kate believed her. She probably couldn't wait for the boys to come home. Most likely, she was one of the girls down at the canteen dancing with the soldiers every night before they shipped out. She was perfect for the role. She'd lived it already.
Fran stepped into the living room scene next.
Kate clasped her hands together to keep them from shaking. Visions of past auditions flashed through her mind. She'd heard it from enough talent agents: "You're a beautiful gal, love the long lashes, can live with the brown locks. No poise. Take some classes." Why would today be any different? She should walk out now and find her necklace before someone else did. Why even go to the trouble —
The casting directors were looking at her. It was her turn. Wait. When did the other girl go?
Kate chewed her lower lip while making her way to the sofa. She picked up a pillow and hugged it when she sat down. "I'm Katherine Marie Allen," her voice edged out. Realizing the pillow might look like a shield, she put it back, rearranging it with the other pillows until it looked right.
She swallowed and spoke louder. "I can't wait for the boys to come home." She jumped up and folded the blanket, placing it just so on the back of the sofa. On her way past the chair, she angled it so it was easier to get by. The directors should have thought of that already.
Back in line, Kate stared somewhere over the casting directors' heads. Did I just rearrange their furniture? Josie's going to die when I tell her. Oh, please let this audition be over with soon.
The man with the glasses cleared his throat. "Next, girls, we'd like to see you jitterbug." He snapped his fingers twice, and a teen-age boy walked out to the center of the room. Oh no. The boy had been at the back of the room the whole time. He'd seen her moving the props around. As he drew closer, the other girls whispered eagerly to each other.
He was tall with flipped-back dark-brown hair, wearing blue jeans and a button-down shirt with the top button open and a white T-shirt underneath. Kate had no idea who he was, but based on the reactions of the older girls, they did.
He smiled at each of the hopefuls, and when he looked at Kate, her ears burned like the New York asphalt outside.
The man closest to the record player leaned over and switched it on. Out blasted the Andrews Sisters' "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy."
Kate smiled in relief. She'd danced a hundred times to this old song. It would be a cinch after all.
The boy grabbed Sadie's hand, and the two jitterbugged in front of the casting table. Working his way from girl to girl, he finally reached Kate. He grinned and held out his hand to her. "Care to dance?"
When Kate made eye contact, her stomach did a jitterbug of its own. She didn't expect his eyes to be so Frank Sinatra blue. Blue like the early-morning sky. She shyly ducked her chin, forgetting for a moment this was an audition.
Without warning, he yanked her in front of the three men and their clipboards and swung her around like she was a teen-age Shirley Temple. He pulled her close and whispered, "Relax, doll, you're doing swell."
His warm breath tickled her ear, and she leaned into him. Girl Next Door might be an okay role after all. She could help the war effort by increasing morale, and have fun at the same time. She put a little extra oomph into her next kick ... But before she knew it, she was flat on the floor, her elbow smacking into the wood with a painful pop. The poor boy let go of her hand as he stumbled to keep from falling on top of her.
Kate flinched. She couldn't have done worse if she'd tried. And all in front of Fran and that blue-eyed boy.
The music stopped, and the hush in the room stretched thin like the silence after an air raid drill. The boy lifted Kate to her feet. He shrugged, let go of her hand, and walked back into the darkness.
She kept her eyes glued to her saddle shoes. Her tailbone smarted, and her elbow felt like the skin had rubbed raw and started bleeding.
No one asked if she was okay. It took every bit of self-control she had to stay put and wait for the directors to finish their notes and say something. It didn't matter anyway. All she wanted now was to get out and find her missing necklace.
When Babcia had given her the family heirloom she had said, "You seem a little lost. Perhaps this will help you find your way." The necklace had come from Poland, and Babcia had given it to Kate during the days after Pearl Harbor was bombed but before she became so ill that speaking was the same as gasping for breath. What was a silly audition compared to a war?
The man in the middle spoke for the first time. He had a deep, leading-man-type voice. "Thank you, ladies. If we're interested in you, we'll be in touch."
Kate flew to the door, beating out the other girls. Quickly, she pulled off a glove and wiped at her tears before anyone could see them.
Mom stood on the other side of the door, a fresh cigarette in hand, and tried to get in the room. The assistant held up her hand like a stop sign. "They'll let you know if they want her to come back. We've got your phone number." She stepped around them and called for the next group of girls. "Margaret Tannenbalm ..."
Dozens of pretty heads turned to watch them walk out. Kate tried not to look at Fran, knowing she'd have that self-satisfied smirk on her face. But when Kate walked by, Fran tilted her head in a tough-break-when-your-mother-embarrasses-you kind of way.
Kate responded with a small smile. Maybe Fran had a heart after all. Maybe they'd seen each other at enough auditions that they could be friendly.
Then Fran laughed.
Kate's half smile fell. Why couldn't Fran act like a decent human for once?
Outside, Kate tilted her head back, begging the wind to cool the sweat along her forehead. Worst audition of them all. Movies ought to be rationed like butter and sugar.
She pulled off the other glove and tucked it into her pocket while she scanned the sidewalk looking for her necklace.
"Well? How did it go? I had my ear pressed against the door, but I couldn't hear a darn thing." Mom walked briskly to the bus stop.
Kate quickened her steps to keep up, eyes focused on every piece of litter. "I wasn't what they wanted." Not in a million years, not when they had girls like Miss Sadie Luanne Young from Barnard College who looked and moved like Judy Garland. She could probably sing like her, too.
"Why not? You're perfect for film." Mom grabbed Kate's chin. "Look at your skin. Not a blemish on it."
Kate pulled away. "Do I have to go back to school?" "Of course."
The bus arrived, and her mother handed her a nickel and waved good-bye. With no will to climb to the top deck, Kate collapsed onto the first open seat. The man in front of her opened a newspaper. The headline read: Surprise Attack Nets Mile Gains in Central Italy.
Finally, some good news! With Dad in Italy, she'd take any gains for the Allies.
On impulse, Kate pulled the cord to ring the next stop. She got off the bus and took another one going in the opposite direction — home. Maybe Babcia's amber necklace fell off in the hallway and was sitting there right now waiting for her.
Despite searching every dingy corner of the apartment building, from the street entrance to her bedroom, Kate didn't find her necklace. Later that night, she was brooding over how to tell Mom when there was a soft knock from the hallway.
"Was that the door?" asked her brother, Floyd. He was sitting at the kitchen table poring over the latest troop movements reported in the paper while she was washing the dishes.
Another knock, this one a little louder.
"Who could it be at this time of night?" asked Mom.
Kate and Floyd exchanged worried glances. Unexpected knocks during wartime often meant telegrams bearing unwanted news.
Would there be news of Dad? Everyone looked expectantly at Kate.
"Aren't you going to get it?" asked Floyd. "Probably Josie, anyway."
Kate sighed. "Why do I always have to get the door?" It wouldn't be Josie, because her older sister was visiting. If it was a telegram, she didn't want to be the one to get the news first. She flung open the door with more force than she meant to.
In the hallway stood a very old, very tired-looking couple. The wind created by the door seemed enough to knock the thin pair over. The bearded, gray-haired man held a felt fedora in hand, his wispy hair falling gently back into place. He took a protective step in front of the woman and a banged-up steamer trunk at their feet.
The frail woman leaned around the man and smiled. A red kerchief tied back her white hair, and she wore a full, though terribly faded, dirndl peasant skirt. "Hello, dziecko," she said in a quiet voice. "Is your mama home?"
That accent! It was like hearing Grandmother's voice after all these years. Kate smiled warmly and stepped out of the way as Mom came up behind her.
"How may I help you?" she asked.
The man's eyes crinkled, making him look hopeful. "We looking for Katja Petrov." His voice was deep and crackly.
"My mama? And you are?"
Their shoulders relaxed and the woman let out a tiny sigh. "We came a long way," she said. "Adalbert and Elsie Oberlin. From Poland. Your great-uncle and -aunt."
Mom let out a gasp, and she covered her mouth with her hand. At the same time, Elsie came forward in greeting, kissing one cheek, then the other, and back to the first.
Poland. No wonder they looked like they hadn't seen a meal in months. Life magazine had a spread showing the harsh conditions in the country where the war started. The images had burned into Kate when she saw them.
Adalbert took Mother's hand and kissed it.
Then Floyd reached out, pushing Kate behind him, and firmly shook Adalbert's hand. "How did you get here?" he asked, sounding astonished. "Not across the Atlantic ..."
"A ship leaves from India." Adalbert glanced down the hallway. "We landed in the California, and then went to the refugee camp in Mexico. May we come in?"
"Yes, yes, of course." Mom opened the door wide to allow the couple through. She wrung her hands. There was no light in her polite smile. In fact, her expression looked as hard as the manikins in the windows of Harmon-Craig department store.
As they labored to bring in the awkward trunk, Floyd stepped forward to help, but the man stood in his way, as if protecting the trunk. "Is fine. I bring it."
Curiosity piqued, Kate focused her attention on the steamer trunk. It was built of ancient wood bound by two leather straps. A faded coat of arms was painted on the lid. The same coat of arms that was on the box for her missing amber necklace. The background was a red shield divided into three areas. One with a white eagle, another a horseman, and the third a crown. The white eagle was from Poland's crest. She recognized it from the one she recently pasted into her scrapbook of Polish things.
Excerpted from "Cinderella's Dress"
Copyright © 2014 Shonna Slayton.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.