Authors: Jenni James
“Oh?” She pretended to pout. “I did not want you to miss your food. All good women need to feed and care for their menfolk.” She turned on her heel and laughed as she walked back in the house.
“Do not forget that!” he called to the door as it slammed shut behind her.
She stood on the other side for a moment and seethed. Taking a deep breath, she reminded herself to remain calm when he came in. It would do neither of them any good to be so irate all the time. But honestly, how was she supposed to deal with such a boorish beast? Always needing to have the last word, always undermining her and believing she was something to be mocked and scorned.
One day, one day, Hansel Waithwrite, you are going to regret all your mockery. I may only be sixteen to your superior twenty, but I will clobber you. Wait and see!
HANSEL WASHED HIS HEAD, face, neck, and hands at the outside pump as he cleaned up before dinner. The sticky milk had begun to itch and mingle with the sweat in his shirt and hair. The water was so cool and refreshing. He glanced around the yard, and not seeing his father yet, he quickly unbuttoned the shirt and flung it off. Rinsing it in the cold water, he set it aside and leaned his whole torso under the tap and allowed it to cleanse the rest of the horrid stuff off him. Ahhh… this was bliss. There was nothing like cool water after a hot day’s work.
He pushed the handle of the pump down and then, picking up his shirt, he shook it for several seconds, allowing the cold water to spray every which way. He walked over to the line and hung the shirt up to dry before clutching one of the sheets Gretel had placed there earlier and wrapping it around his shoulders.
She would more than likely give him grief for ruining her clean laundry. He smirked and hoped it irritated her even more than he imagined as he stepped into the cottage.
Right on cue, Gretel looked up, her jaw dropping, a look of outrage on her face. But just before she was about to utter something, most likely scathing, he explained, “Sorry. I had to wear this—I hope you do not mind overly much. There was a mishap with a jug earlier and I simply could not walk in stinking of sour milk. So I did the only thing I could do—I took off the shirt and borrowed this for now.”
Her mouth closed and then opened again. Clutching a wooden spoon, she approached him. “Hansel, if you vex me into doing such silly things, you should not be surprised at the outcome, nor should you—”
“If you continue to act like a child,” he interrupted, “and allow your emotions to get the better of you when I am simply pointing out the facts of life, you should not be surprised when someone may need to compromise and use your clean sheets because of your juvenile actions.”
She inhaled a large breath, her face reddening to show she was becoming quite the incensed woman.
He raised an eyebrow and grinned. “Yes, Gretel? Is there something you wish to say?”
“Yes!” Bringing the spoon forward, she used it to beat the air and accentuate every word she spoke. “You are the rudest, cruelest, most vain nincompoop who ever lived! You have no decent thoughts for anyone but yourself! You believe that
are the only correct one on this earth and you simply do not care about the pain you cause someone else. You do not even begin to see what your own actions do to others. I will not take your bullying. I will not take your uncouth manners and rude ways. I will not take
! You, Hansel Waithwrite, will soon find yourself the loneliest man in the whole kingdom because there is not a girl or woman within sixty miles of this place who would have you!”
Oh, this was too rich. Little Miss Gretel just gave herself away. “Are you saying you have contemplated having me?”
“What?” She looked shocked.
“If you say you will not take me and no one else will, does not that reveal to me that you have thought of such things to begin with?”
She gasped. “Thought of taking you? Of having you? Of all the stupid—”
His grin deepened. “You should be careful what you reveal, for it could very well be turned against you.”
“Against me?” She walked closer, this time tapping him with the spoon. “I tell you what a brute you are and how harmful your words are and you construe this to mean that I dream of marrying you?” She shook her head. “Of all the futile things to believe of yourself. Fine. Fine, Hansel. Make whatever your brain wishes to make of my words. I am through speaking to you at all.”
“Finally! Peace at last!” He smiled.
“Give me back the sheet first!”
“I thought you were not speaking. Pity.”
“I swear upon the moon, Hansel, I will whack you with this ladle. Give me my clean sheet now and go find yourself something else to wear!”
He grabbed her raised arm and pulled her all the way up to him. She pushed against his chest and tried to kick him, but he quickly wrapped his leg around hers, holding her closer to him. “You will learn not to be such a shrew.”
“Me?” She yanked, but he held her fast.
“Gretel, I am only holding you here until you stop these mad thoughts of violence. I may be the bane of your existence, but I am not your enemy. And though neither of us prefers the company of the other overly much, I will not allow us to resort to abuse to achieve our most wanted desires.”
“The desire to thump you?”
“Yes. That is exactly what we will not do.” His eyes traced her worn features. He had not noticed before the worry lines forming upon her brow. Her full mouth was set in a firm line and her normally large eyes were sharp and slanted as she glared at him. Even filled with anger, she was a remarkably pretty young woman.
“There are days when I despise you, Hansel.”
He took a deep breath, the faint smell of lavender tickling his nose. “I know. But it is for the best.”
“Then let me go.”
“Do my words harm you?” he asked.
She looked away, and his gaze followed the long lashes as they caressed her cheek. “Does it matter?”
Yes, it does.
“I did not think I was hurting you.”
“You did not?” Her blue eyes met his.
“No. I believed you could handle all I threw at you.”
She pulled against his arm, and this time he let her go. “I can. Do not mind about such things. You do not hurt me—you will never hurt me. I simply do not care to take your words into account. They mean nothing to me.”
He nodded his head and shrugged off the sheet. Handing it to her, he said, “Here, ‘tis yours. You clearly need it more than I do.”
Nonplussed, she took the sheet from him. “Thank you,” she muttered, watching his mussed brown hair and strong back as he climbed the stairs to the attic room. Slowly she wrapped the cloth around her arms into a messy fold. What had just happened? She looked over to the empty stairs. Why did she feel so terrible now, as if it were she who was in the wrong and not him?
Gretel walked back outside and hung the sheet upon the line, then shook her head. What was she doing? In a great rush of action, she pulled the sheet down, as well as the other dry clothes hanging upon the line. She was happy to see Pa arrive with his cart and horse as she carried her load to the door. “You are back!” she called out to him.
“Yes.” He smiled across the way as he maneuvered the horse toward the stables. “Give me about five minutes or so and I will join you for supper. Is Hansel here as well?”
“Aye. He is changing at the moment.”
“Good. Good.” He clicked his tongue at the horse and began to pull the wooden cart into the stables. “I have much to share with you both. Be prepared for some wonderful news.” He grinned as the cart continued forward.
“What news? What has happened?” Gretel asked as she followed him.
The cart jolted to a halt. “You never can wait a few minutes, can you?”
“No. Never. Tell me, please.”
He jumped down, his eyes twinkling into hers. “Very well. I shall give you a hint, mainly because I am too excited to stop myself. Gretel, you are to have a mother! I am to be wed again.”
GRETEL DID NOT SAY a word to Hansel of Pa’s news. She herself was still processing it. To have a mother, a real mother? Now? Now would be the most perfect time to have an older woman in the house, someone who could teach her those last, final things she would need to know before she took a husband and became mistress of her own home.
But then again, what would it be like to have another woman preparing the meals and taking over the home duties? What would Gretel do? Would her stepmother like the way things were run? There would most likely be several new changes. Several.
It was an announcement that warranted nervousness, but excitement as well.
How wonderful to see her father happy and in love. What a great joy it would be for him to have such a woman in his life. If there were ever a man who deserved great joy, it was he.
Gretel smiled as the men pulled up their chairs and Hansel offered grace. So changes would need to be made, but what was living life if there were not changes?
She was so lost within her own thoughts as the trio began to partake of the food that she barely heard Father explain to Hansel the good news. However, when Hansel asked, “Who is she? Do we know her? What is her name?” Gretel looked up and met Hansel’s eyes.
Their father wiped his mouth with his napkin and leaned back in his chair, a sign that he was about to divulge something cautiously. “Well, I am not sure if you know who she is,” he said at first. “I believe neither of you have met her. But she is simply lovely, j ust a wonderful woman.”
Hansel’s brow furrowed and he cleared his throat as he reached for a slice of cheese. “I am very happy you found her. How did you meet?”
Pa was vague as he waved his hand. “Oh, you know, here and there.”
“Where is here?” asked Gretel.
Surprisingly, Father slammed his napkin upon the uneaten portion of his food and pushed his chair back from the table. “I do not need you two questioning me. You can be thankful I found someone so lovely to wed.”
“I—I am thankful,” Gretel rushed to explain. “Forgive us if it came out critically. We are merely curious.”
“She is right, Father. We meant no harm; we only wish to celebrate with you and so ask very simple questions, as would anyone. We are delighted you have found happiness.”
Adale rose. “No, no. You badger information from me that is none of your business! I have had enough of this conversation.”
Gretel and Hansel exchanged glances. Their father had never shown this type of behavior before. It was almost as if he were a new person altogether.
Hansel stood, pushing his chair. “I am sorry you feel that way.”
feel that way. And there is no reason for either of you to judge me or stick your noses into places they do not belong. I am a grown man. If I choose to marry someone, it is my own decision.”
“Yes, Pa,” Gretel answered as she also stood. “We wish you every happiness. And I for one am anxious to meet her.”
Adale harrumphed before walking away from the table and slamming his bedroom door.
Slowly Hansel and Gretel sat down.
“What was that about?” she asked.
“I do not know. I am not certain what caused his temper to flare up like that.”
“It is not like him at all.”
“No, for Father is not normally a man who acts as though he is hiding something. Usually, he is quite honest in all his dealings.”
“Except when it comes to speaking to people of me.” She grinned.
“Yes, well, there is that. Except when it comes to you.” He glanced toward the closed door. “You do not suppose something off happened to him, do you?” His voice was lowered.
“Yes, perhaps something not quite on the up-and-up. Something he would wish to hide from us.”
“But were we asking anything we should not have asked?”
“Then what could be the cause of such behavior?”
Hansel shrugged. “Perhaps it is her. Perhaps he is embarrassed to tell us what he knows of her, and so he storms out of the room blaming us for our busybody ways when in fact, he is feeling decidedly picked upon because of the guilt he is already feeling within his own heart.”
Gretel took a bite of her pie as she contemplated what he had said. Finally she asked, “Do you feel there is something wrong with the woman?”
“What do you mean?” he asked around a mouthful of cheese.
“I do not know.” She chewed slowly on another bite. “There is something about this whole dealing that seems decidedly odd. Have you heard Father mention anything about remarriage before today?”
“No. Have you?”
“I do not believe so, though he has mentioned being lonely from time to time.”
“Where do you presume he found a woman? Clearly he has been courting her secretly for some time or he would have never proposed to marry her.”
“’Tis funny he never mentioned her before now, do you not think?”
“I do.” He placed his fork down and wiped his mouth on his napkin. “You do not deduce they have only just met today?” he asked before shaking his head. “Nay, Pa would never do anything so unwise.”
Gretel popped a carrot in her mouth and chewed. “I wonder if that might not be the case. A sort of love-at-first-sight occurrence, which could explain his reasons for not wanting to share the details. He is too amazed by them himself.”
Hansel laughed. “You have been reading those silly fairy stories again, have you not?”
“They are not silly.”
He rolled his eyes. “Love at first sight. As if such nonsense ever happens.”
“I believe it is possible. Why would it not be?”
“No.” He shook his head and sat back in his chair, folding his arms. “You are wrong. To fall in love with someone takes years of knowing them, of watching them, of slowly but surely apprehending you cannot live without them and if you tried, your world would never be the same again.”
“What a bunch of rabbit’s fluff. I look for the day when I will find my true love, w hen I watch him walking toward me and know—just know—he is the one.” She sighed and grinned.