Big thank to my precious beta-reader kleindog. Enjoy and thanks for your patience.
In the three weeks that Anna had been in Sankt-Peterburg, she had quickly become familiar with her new home and made friends among the household. Of course, the closest one to Anna still was her chamber-maid, Daria; both of the girls were of similar age. And there was also the good-hearted cook, Irina whom Anna took pleasure visiting regularly in the kitchen. She could always find some pretence for her visit. Her reason was simple: she just longed to set her eyes on the pots or secretly to plunge her hands into flour. The old cook did not mind; quite the opposite, she was very glad to have such a dear companion. She and Anna never tired of speaking enough about their common love of cooking art.
This particular day, the cook had her day off. Vladimir Ivanovich was a generous master. He was solicitous and gave his serfs regular free time for rest. His serfs were very grateful for such a generosity. The old cook, though, hardly took the advantage of her day off. Usually she went out for a short walk and returned in time to prepare supper for the young Baron.
That day, however, she hurried to tend to her ill cousin, and planned to stay with her until the following morning. She had no worries about the master´s comfort, knowing Anna could well fill her place should the need arise. The wise woman was well aware of Anna´s position but she also knew about her past. No-one had to tell her how things stood; Irina understood everything but kept her counsel to herself. The cook was always so touched by Anna´s hidden hunger for work. If she said but a word, the girl would promptly take an apron and willingly help her. Irina never asked the young woman, however; she had no wish to make trouble for herself or Anna.
When Vladimir and Anna returned from their regular afternoon stroll, dusk was falling upon Sankt-Peterburg. Anna rubbed her numb hands.
"It is cold. What about some hot tea, Vladimir?" she asked, still fully dressed in her outside clothing with her cap on her head.
"That is a wonderful idea. Would you make it? Irina is off today. She will not return before morning," Vladimir replied.
"Of course! Preparation of tea is the easiest thing. Come with me to the kitchen and help me heat up the stove."
"I see... Such a nice plan you have, don´t you? You chose the most comfortable part for yourself and leave the dirty work for me," Vladimir retorted as he made a face.
"Pardon me, but can you make tea, Vladimir Ivanovich? If so, please help yourself. I will watch."
"Hmmm... will you brew the tea on the stove?" Vladimir slyly avoided answering her for he did not want to confirm that she was correct in her presumption that he did not know how to make tea in the samovar*.
"Of course not, but a tea alone with not fill us up," Anna muttered reluctantly.
"I see. The Miss is hungry again," the Baron teased her. "Well, I understand perfectly. Let us go," he decided.
When they reached the kitchen, Anna took off her coat and immediately started to prepare the tea. With pleasure, Vladimir found that the stove was still warm. He would not have hard work to set the fire blazing again. It was good that Irina thought ahead to their comfort. The Baron put a few logs onto the fire. As he did so, he unobtrusively observed Anna, wondering if she had some other scheme afoot besides tea. Could he perhaps induce her to bake some delicious treat?
"I am ready. What more should I do, Miss Cook?" he asked innocently.
Anna gazed up at him in surprise. "I suppose I have heard wrong, Vladimir. You want to help me in the kitchen?" she asked in disbelief.
"Well, why not? I have been spending whole days teaching you Etiquette. Now, you could return the favour by teaching me something of your craft, am I right? Rich man today – beggar tomorrow. One does not know what might happen in the future, or when I might require such skills," the Baron mused.
"Do you want to learn how to bake a cake?" Anna asked him.
"We shall bake a cake? That is excellent!" Vladimir could not hide his enthusiasm.
"Baking is a woman's work, Baron," continued Anna, hoping she would discourage him from his intentions.
"So, you think that I, being a man, could not manage it?" asked the Baron.
"Oh, no. You are right," Anna replied quickly. "Let us try it." She agreed with the strange suggestion before Vladimir could give up. Just you wait, my dear Baron, she thought to herself. I´ll keel-haulyou and you will regret that you ever wanted to interfere in my kitchen and disturb my work.
Anna smiled as she thought this. She did not want to give the Baron any reason to guess her real thoughts. In her mind, she already devised a plan. She would make this afternoon a lesson for Vladimir.
"So, your cooking assistant is ready to start, mademoiselle," said Vladimir merrily. In his mind, he added, You´ll catch it from me, my dear. You´ll see what I am capable of! Be sure you´ll having no further interest in household work anymore. I need a lady by my side, not another cook! He smiled at her as well in feigned innocence.
In the meantime Anna tied Irina´s apron about his waist. It sat close-fitting around his middle.
"What are you doing?" asked Vladimir in horror.
"Well, you cannot get your fine suit dirty, can you? You must have an apron," said Anna seriously.
"An apron – with roses?!" groaned the Baron. In his mind, he started to regret this silly idea.
But Anna challenged with calm voice, "Yes, an apron with roses. Irina has no other apron."
She gazed victoriously into his eyes. With difficulty, she kept her countenance; the Baron dressed in a flowery apron! Who would have guessed such a thing?
Aloud, she said, "Do not fear, it suits you very well!"
Vladimir let out a sigh and closed his eyes. He hoped that no-one from his household would see him in such a position.
"Peel it and cut!" These sharp words alarmed Vladimir from his reverie. His eyes flew open and lit on a heaping bowl of apples.
"What, peel? – I don´t know how," he hurriedly answered.
Anna made a face, but in no time gained control. "This way, like so," she explained while showing Vladimir the correct way to peel an apple (well).
"Aah, I see. I understand already," said Vladimir as he sliced the knife into the apple incorrectly, cutting it at a horribly wrong angle.
"Not so," Anna said in a slightly raised voice.
"Why, I´m doing it right, exactly as you have shown me," Vladimir opposed.
"Not at all, you are doing it wrong! Just watch me once more," Anna scolded.
Their game continued. While Anna gave Vladimir instructions, he misinterpreted as much as possible and performed his tasks incorrectly to tease Anna and hear her fuss. She had to redo every step Vladimir took, so the preparation of the cake took much more time than usual. When the cake was finally in the oven, Anna sank into a chair in exhaustion.
"Now, there is one thing left to do – clean the kitchen. It looks as if a snowstorm has fallen," Anna noted.
"What, me do more work?" Vladimir wondered.
"Of course, sweeping has ever been the pantryboy´s work," said Anna imperiously and pointedly she rested her legs on a nearby chair.
You gave me no choice, girl, thought Vladimir joyfully. You think it looks like a snowstorm now? Just you wait!
Unobserved by Anna, he took a handful of flour and wrapped it in the towel he still held in his hand. Spinning around, he took a deep breath and blew on the contents of the towel. In a moment, the air was full of flour.
Anna twinkled and choked, for she wasn´t prepared for such a thing. Quickly recovering, she ran to the shelf under the window. Grabbing a pocketful of groats from a sack, she hurried after Vladimir, pelting his with the grains.
They both returned to the play of their childhood while the kitchen changed into a snowy landscape.
Anna stopped to wipe the flour from her forehead, which was a fatal mistake. In no time, the Baron caught her so firmly that she had no chance to escape.
"I caught you!" he cried victoriously. "You won´t slip away from me this time."
Anna felt his strong embrace and gave up any thought of escape. She trembled but felt no fear. Quite the opposite; with courage, she looked into the eyes of her guardian.
"What will you do to me now?" she quizzed him.
"I demand the prize for a winner, of course," Vladimir responded.
"No, no! I don´t want to!" Anna begged as she recalled the bitter retributions demanded of her when she was a little girl.
Vladimir knew very well what she feared. "Do not worry, I will not tickle you. Our childhood is gone," he said with a mysterious expression on his face. He did not avert his eyes from his captive.
"So what comes now?" asked Anna, still trembling.
"This," he replied and kissed Anna tenderly. He only softly touched his lips to hers as he was afraid of harming her, but held her firmly round her waist.
Anna´s heart raced and she dropped her gaze. She no longer had the courage to look into Vladimir´s eyes.
I must be mad. Good Lord, how could I lose my control? Vladimir recoiled from his spontaneous act.
But he had no time for his own concerns. He must do something to comfort the girl he had put out of the countenance who was standing so closely to him.
"Forgive me, Anna. I did not want to insult you," he whispered as he released her from his embrace. He expected that Anna would run out of the kitchen. But it was not so. The Baron took a deep breath. Finally, the young lady came to herself and with her gaze still on the floor, responded.
"You did not harm me. Just..." She faltered, as she did not know what to say.
Vladimir instinctively pulled Anna into his embrace once more, and stroked her hair. When his hand reached her chin, he carefully turned her face up to his. Anna could read a silent question in his eyes.
"I have never…no one has yet..." she said in whisper, unable to finish her sentence.
She blushed and dropped her eyes from his, ashamed of her feelings.
"No other man has kissed you before now?" Vladimir inquired gently. Anna only made a slight nod. The baron slowly smiled and a strong wave of excitement coursed through his body. Still stroking her hair, he whispered,
"You have no cause to be ashamed. I am the one who should be."
"Why?" said Anna softly, finally daring to look into Vladimir´s eyes.
"It was unfair of me. If I had known it was your first time –"
"You would not have done so? Anna interrupted him sadly.
Vladimir sensed her disappointment and, again, he felt ashamed. She liked it, he thought.
Pressing his cheek against her hair, he whispered,"If I had known it was the first time-" but his words trailed off. What he wanted to say seemed silly, and he was suddenly not able to speak any more. He felt puzzled. A sudden passion weakened his mind completely, for he was so near her lips—for just a moment, there seemed no turning back, and he kissed her.
Anna did not resist. To the contrary,, she surrendered to the Baron´s tender kisses, and her surrender increased his desire even more. He had become accustomed to living alone, but now every cell of his body burned and longed for love, even if it should be for the last time in his life.
With reluctance, Vladimir parted from her sweet lips and smiled in apology. Anna felt weak as if her knees would give out from under her, but she no longer feared to look into the Baron´s eyes. She wanted to say something, but Vladimir put his finger to her lips in an attempt to silence her. He could not resist touching her lips for one last time, although his finger barely grazed them.
Anna seemed so changed to him, as if she were a stranger. He feared losing his countenance in the face of her devotion and trust. He smiled in puzzlement and stepped away, folding his hands behind his back.
As the silence stretched out between them, Anna finally spoke. "I suppose the cake is finished. Let me take it from the oven."
She wanted to step to the oven, but her legs were unsteady. Seeing this, Vladimir held her gently back and helped her to sit at the table.
"I will do it," he said simply.
Anna had no strength to oppose him. She only hoped Vladimir would not burn himself. But there was no need for concern, for the Baron acted very carefully. He took the cake out of the oven, put it on the tray, and, seeing Anna´s nod, said with satisfaction, "Done. Let us go to the library and enjoy it."
Although Anna was torpid and silent, she smiled for the rest of the evening. Both young people were lost in their thoughts, remembering what had just passed, but they hardly said a word.
Vladimir observed Anna when he thought she did not see, almost regretting that he had awoken the woman within her. He was afraid that he had lost the high-spirited girl of whom he had become fond so many years ago and whom he had found only recently.
Time passed by as the cake was half-eaten and the wine disappeared from the bottle on the table. Vladimir was going to toad wood to the fire when he happened to glance at Anna. The young woman, overwhelmed by tiredness or the wine, had fallen asleep.
Vladimir put the log gently on the floor and approached the arm-chair where Anna sat curled up like a kitten. With fatherly feelings, he lifted the girl into his embrace and carried her into her chambers. Placing her gently on her bed, he covered her with a quilt.
Anna murmured something quietly, opened her eyes for a second, and closed them again.
The Baron once more saw the small girl with broken knees in front of him. He stroked her hair tenderly, touched her forehead with his lips, and silently left the room.
The short walk back to the library caused the Baron to grow sober. Congratulation, Baron Korf, he thought. Now, you must marry her.
* A samovar is a metal container traditionally used to heat and boil water; in Russia, it is used mainly for tea preparation.