Authors: Jenni James
Pushing his chair back further, Hansel went to stand, but sat back down and said, “Why do you females always believe it will be so? As if those fairy stories know anything about life. The only real way a man or woman would fall in love at first sight is if they have been placed under a spell or enchantment of some sort.” He did stand up then. “If you wish to find yourself bamboozled by the first fool who hexed you to feel that way, suit yourself. I for one prefer a real relationship to an instant verve of awareness.”
She stood too. “You are all talk, Hansel, and you know it. I cannot wait for the day when you meet the woman of your dreams and she has you fall down upon your rear with folly over her.”
Collecting his plate and mug, he carried them to the water basin and then turned around to face her. “Gretel, you are sixteen—sixteen—and already you believe you understand the epitome of love and relationships. I find it deeply ironic that a girl who has never even comprehended her love for another is telling me—a man who has been in love this past year at least—how to go about doing it properly.”
Her hand halted in picking up Adale’s plate. She nearly dropped it. “You are in love? With whom?”
HANSEL SIGHED AND PUSHED himself off the basin. “A foolish girl who has no business capturing my heart, and that is all I will say on the subject.”
“Certainly you do not mean one of the village maidens?” she asked, amazed she had never heard him speak of such things.
“Of course she lives here in the village. Who else would it be?” He collected the rest of the dishes from the table and placed them in the basin for her.
Gretel was not certain she liked this conversation. Her mind sifted through several different girls, and she could not imagine him losing his heart to a one of them. “Are you positive you have quite fallen in love?”
He groaned as he walked over to the rocking chair and plopped down. “Yes, though it vexes me exceedingly that I have. I wish a thousand times a day I had not. It makes everything else dashed awkward for me.”
“Do I know her?” she asked as she wiped the table down with a wet cloth.
“Good heavens! I told you I will not speak of it anymore. So let us talk of something else.”
It was strange to feel her heart grow cold. Why would this upset her at all? She attempted a giggle and teasingly asked, “Oh, so I
“Gretel, please. Enough.”
“Fine. I will allow you your privacy. However, I believe what I enjoy most about this conversation is that you are upset by it.” She grinned, genuinely pleased.
“You would find it humorous.”
If only it was more humorous and not quite so disconcerting.
IT WAS BOUND TO happen—eventually, Father got married again. The wedding was a bit more lavish than one would have expected, but it was charming nonetheless. Gretel could tell instantly why he had fallen in love with the woman. Cora Childress was very beautiful. Her raven-colored hair contrasted strikingly against the light summer gown she wore, and her emerald eyes sparkled under long, thick lashes. She was a vision of loveliness.
And if Gretel found it odd that Cora had not come by to meet her and Hansel before the wedding, she did not mention it to Pa. Instead, she smiled and helped serve refreshments to the guests for the whole of the afternoon.
When Cora moved into the house that evening, things began to change drastically. Already the atmosphere in the place became heavier. It was soon discovered, even though she was beautiful, that Cora was cold and quick to judge before finding the reasoning behind things.
A few days after the wedding, she scolded Gretel severely. “What do you mean when you say you could not wash the dishes today? This house is a pigpen without them done! I will not have disorder around this kitchen. Do you understand?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Gretel bobbed a slight curtsy. “But I could not wash them—”
“Why?” Cora asked, her green eyes flashing fire as she approached the girl. “What excuse do you have for not listening and doing the task I gave unto you?”
“The pump is broken—it sprang a leak. Hansel is outside now looking at the thing, and he specifically asked that I not use the water at the moment.”
Cora folded her arms. “So you could not have fetched it from somewhere else?”
“The closest community well is two miles down the road.”
“Then I suggest you go immediately.”
Cora pulled her hand back and slapped Gretel. Hard. “Now!”
“There is no need to strike her,” Hansel said as he came into the cottage, wiping his hands upon his trousers. “The pump is fixed. She can simply collect the water as normal.”
Cora pointed at Gretel. “Go, then! Get the water at once!”
Gretel scurried past Hansel. They shared a look before Hansel nodded his head to his stepmother and stepped outside.
“Does she hit you often?” he asked.
“Nay.” Gretel rubbed her cheek as she walked over to the pump and picked up the bucket.
“Something is not right with her. I do not like it,” Hansel said as he followed.
“Yes, but Pa is clearly in love.”
Hansel grunted. “I still do not like it.” He reached across and took the bucket from her. “Allow me.”
He pumped the lever up and down several times. “Gretel, if she becomes upset with you again, will you tell me, please?”
“She has a very controlling character. She must have things just so. It is not good.”
“Well, it is her home now.” Gretel touched his forearm. They stood side by side as the water sloshed down. “We should at least try to respect that.”
“Yes, but to harm you because she would not see reason does not make it right.”
“So you have said.” She chuckled. “I am fine, really. With you so worried about my safety, it does quite take away my own need to be concerned over such things.”
He set the full bucket upon the ground. When she shut off the pump, he turned and held her shoulders. “Gretel, listen to me. I will worry constantly for your safety. Always. Since the very first time I laid eyes upon you as a drowned waif, I have felt the need to watch over and protect you. I know I have not been the kindest—especially as of late—but I do care. Greatly. And I will not allow someone to use or abuse you. Remember, you are a princess.”
“No.” She shook her head.
“Yes. You are.”
“Hansel, I do not know that life anymore. I am nothing but a village maiden. I work in a cottage. My family is gone.”
“No, not my Gretel. You are in hiding—do not cast that knowledge aside. You will one day rule upon your throne. And you will do so honorably.”
She gasped, pulled away from him, and tersely whispered, “Shh! I will not. You upset me with this talk. I do not want that life or anything else grand and frightening. I want to be a girl and have a family like all my friends.”
He slipped his arm around her shoulder and tugged her farther from the house. “You cannot deny who you are, or what you were born to become. There is a great reason you were saved as you were. Do not just toss this fact away. You have a chance at creating a world that would help many, many more people than just simply a husband and children.”
“What of you? What do you wish to become?”
He chuckled, and his eyes met hers. “What am I destined for? Is that what you ask?”
“If you believe this silliness of me, then surely you were destined for wondrous things too.”
He laughed. “No, Gretel. My father was a farmer. It is all I will ever become. I will fell trees and fix leaky pumps and raise animals and harvest crops.”
Her heart clinched and twisted. Why could she not have such a life? “You will most likely make that village maiden you have your heart set upon very happy, then.”
A look of pain slashed across his features. “Not all of us can have what we want.”
“What do you mean?”
“Gretel!” Cora’s shrill voice interrupted them. “Why are you dallying out here? Get in this house and begin those dishes.” She stood by the door, her hand on her trim waist, the feminine pale pink gown she wore shimmering in the sunshine.
“Yes, ma’am,” Gretel curtsied and rushed to fetch the pail.
Hansel walked with her and picked up the full bucket before she could. Then without saying a word, he brushed past his stepmother and set the water upon the counter. Gretel came in with him into the kitchen. Her gaze locked with his for a moment as he said, “Remember what I told you.” Turning on his heel, he raised an eyebrow at his stepmother and brushed past her again as he walked outside.
“What were you speaking about?” Cora asked as she parted the curtain near the door to watch him walk away.
“Nothing of too much importance.” Gretel began to empty the dishes from the basin and plug it up tight.
“Nonsense.” Cora flicked the curtain closed. “I know you two believe this is your home, but I want you to consider something, young lady.” She walked over to Gretel. “I know you are not Adale’s real daughter. And though I cannot get rid of Hansel, do not believe for a moment that I will not toss you out the second it is convenient for me, for I will. I do not need insolence or slothfulness from you. You will earn your keep, or you will have no place to go.”
GRETEL MADE HER WAY up to her cozy yellow room and sat down on the small wooden bench Pa had built for her on her twelfth birthday, wrapping the yellow-and-white afghan tightly around her shoulders. She could handle doing the chores—it was what she was used to doing anyway. She could handle the chatter and the organization and even the constant demands. The woman wanted to change so many things in the house, so many things she believed needed to be just so. She sighed. It was good to see her father happy and anxious to do all Cora requested—though she did request so very much.
However, Gretel simply could not abide her snide comments.
She tucked her knees to her chest and leaned up against the side of the bench, looking across the room out the small window. It faced the branches of the pretty oak tree on the east side of the home. How she loved that tree. Memories of climbing all over it with Hansel cascaded through her mind. She smiled until harsher, more recent memories took their place.
She took a deep breath and tried to push through the pain of Cora’s abuse. There were too many instances. Any time her stepmother could find fault with her, she would.
“That color does not suit your complexion.”
“You washed those dishes all wrong. Could you not be taught properly because of your idiocy?”
“If I spoke with such a voice, I would never say a word to anyone for fear of disgusting them.”
“This food cannot be edible. Make it again!”
“Your face and figure are barely passable for one of your age. Oh, well—I guess every village must have a child on the repulsive side so they can celebrate the difference between real beauty and plainness.”
“Your disposition is not fooling anyone. You may appear sweet, but the thoughts that roam through your mind can be seen fully upon your features.”
“How can Adale and Hansel tolerate having someone so dimwitted and useless in their house for all these years? You clearly should have looked for a new home ages ago.”
It would be different if Cora had said these things in front of the men, but she never did. They were meant only for Gretel’s ears. She wiped at a few errant tears and took another deep breath. It had just been a few days, and yet she was not sure she could last much longer in such a home as this.
Her shoulders shook. What would she do? Where would she go? It was obvious Cora despised her.
She rested her head upon her knees. Mayhap Cora was right. Perhaps she did not belong here. She did not belong anywhere. For a time, it felt as though everything was going well in her life, but now—now it was all wrong. However, it was good Cora pointed out her flaws. She needed to see what to improve upon. She needed to see what others truly thought of her.
Ashamed, her face reddened and she brushed a few more tears from her eyes. No wonder Hansel could barely speak to her without arguing. No wonder everything seemed so difficult. It was her—she was the cause of the awfulness.
If only she were better and could please her new stepmother—maybe then all would be right. She had never felt so alone in this family before—so, so unwanted.
Suddenly, there was a knock on her door. “Can I come in?” Hansel asked through the worn wood.
“Just a moment,” she replied as she dropped the afghan and dashed the silly tears from her cheeks. Pinching them to help even out the blotchiness and restore color, she pasted on a smile and opened the door. “What do you need?” Gretel stepped back to let him in.
“Close the door,” he whispered. He walked to the little bench where she had been sitting, placing the blanket on her bed. He sat down and waited until she clicked the lock before stating, “I need to tell you something.”
“Why up here?”
“They have just retired to their room, so I feel it is the safest time to speak.”
“Very well. What is it?” She perched herself on the bed next to him.
Turning toward her, he said earnestly, “I think Cora is planning something.”
“I do not understand. What could she be planning?”
“I found an item within her bag this evening. As I came up to my rooms to change, I saw her reticule upon the table in the hallway. I know I should not have peeked, but I did. And I am disturbed greatly by what I found.” He paused and ran his fingers through his hair.
“Here. The best way to tell you is to show you.” He lifted his shirt and reached into his waistband, pulling out a small vial.
“What is that?”
“I have no idea. But it was so very curious, and since it was found within her things, I have been thinking and thinking about it. I believe she is an imposter, a fraud of some sort. She came so very quickly into our lives, and now it would seem as if everything is changing at a rapid pace. And Father has shown no signs—absolutely none—that any of this is wrong. It is as if he has ceased to exist all together and is now only there to do her bidding.”