"Give me one reason why not, and pray let it be a good one."

There was a pause.

"I am many a year older than you." He did not want to voice his real reasons.

"Nonsense! You don't look it."

"I am five-and-thirty. You could not be more than twenty."

"You silly man! You think I was fifteen when all—all that happened? I am five-and-twenty, thank you."

"I have never heard a woman speak of her increasing age with such satisfaction."

"Don't show your cheeky side with me, good sir."

"Only if you will not ask impossible things of me, Princess."

She whipped about, her brown curls seeming to glow burgundy in the dim light of the cottage. They reminded him of autumn leaves in a storm. Striding forward, she slammed her tea to the table next to his bare arm, and he felt searing pinpricks of the liquid leap reprovingly onto his skin. Startled, he jerked to his feet, nearly toppling his chair.

"I thought I had told you not to call me Princess."

He was taken quite far aback. This vehemence was not like her. Of course, he stayed very much in-character, and reverted to stuttering.

"I-I'm sorry, I—"

She lunged at him, stifling his inept mouth with her palm. He could not think for a moment but anything besides that hand; such a calloused, weary, tender hand. If he had had his way, and had ever had the nerve to act on his desires, that beautiful hand would never have known hardship.

Her harsh tone ripped him from his reverie. "It's been nearly five years. That is more than enough, far more than enough for you to have recovered from your—your misplaced sense of inferiority around me. Now," she continued, with the air of giving stern instructions to a schoolboy, "call me Cinderella."

Withdrawing her hand, Cinderella seemed to ground herself, and she held his gaze in a viselike one of her own. She was only a bit shorter than him, so he had not much with which to compensate physically for his total lack of willpower when dealing with her. The Baker could be strict with Jack, firm with Little Red, stubborn when bartering, but Cinderella . . . She got her way, every time.

He was doing his thinking, she could tell. Not that this was unusual behavior—she knew of course that it was in fact quite common for people to think (some more than others), but that's not what she meant. Her Baker, she had come to see, was a pondering, brooding sort of man. Hazel eyes deepening, fixing so intently on the object of their deliberations it seemed they were set to watch that object forever; a slight cock of the head, a furrow of the brow; his thin lips pursing so secretively, unsettlingly, that it made her feel she would die if she never discovered what was whirling 'round his mind, and yet that she would die if she ever did.

That look, such as she had never seen it before, at the moment ruled not just his features but the entirety of his being. He stood before her, such a small man but still broader than her, broad enough that when combined with the miles-reaching span of his warm, thinking presence, he was huge. He as good as enveloped her with his brilliance—his passion, his charm, his consideration, his cleverness. Those hazel eyes glowed a deeper brown than ever before in the modest ember-light, and looked straight through her, yet nailed her in place. Shivering with the sensation, and lacking a shawl, she wished he would hug her.

The Baker stepped forward. They were inches apart. She waited.

He opened his mouth, looked away for a moment, and then glanced back shyly at her, angling his body painfully away. "As you wish, Miss Cinderella."

This was enough to make her overturn the table, kick the embers across the floor, slap him across the face and drag him to the altar whilst delivering an ultimatum to be the ultimatum of all ultimatums. Instead, she looked at him for a very long time, and under her scrutiny he slipped back under that sad, fidgeting, endearing little shell which was like a security blanket to him. Finally, she said quietly, turning away, "That's the best you'll ever give me, isn't it?" It was more of a realization than a question, and as she left the kitchen to go to bed, she poured the last of the water in their kettle over the fire, leaving her love alone in the dark.


To be continued? Let me know.