I winced as I plunged the pan into the hot water. My hands felt raw from the heat and scrubbing, but there was still a stack of dishes next to the sink. The yeasty smell of freshly baked bread wafted towards me, but I ignored my grumbling stomach. I wouldn’t be given dinner until the dishes were done. I wasn’t sure I wanted to eat anyway.
“Haven’t you noticed? No one on the property is allowed to eat meat.” The voice of the Lillies came back to me.
I had noticed but thought it was due to the family being conscientious about natural resources or vegan. I snorted as I placed another stack of plates into the soapy water. Vegan? Ha!
The view from the window over the farmhouse-style sink was of the garden. I glanced up every now and then, hoping to catch a glimpse of Joe. As the head gardener, he was usually wandering the paths, making notes of what needed to be done, and supervising the other gardeners. I now knew that the garden provided almost all of the food for The Cromwell House’s inhabitants; only a few things were purchased from local farmers on occasion.
I looked out the window again, and Joe was coming down the path towards the house. He was a reedy-looking man, with salt-and-pepper hair that made him look distinguished despite the blue overalls and work boots that were the gardeners’ uniform. As he got closer, I studied his face. From a distance, his hair made him seem to be in his late forties or early fifties. But the skin around his eyes and mouth was unlined, free from wrinkles or laugh lines. His body possessed the lean strength that came from a physical job, yet there was no sign of stooped shoulders or aching knees. If I had to guess, I would say he was closer to thirty.
Joe looked directly at me and winked as he walked by the window. He was always friendly to me and never hesitated to help me pick the herbs and vegetables Cook wanted if he was available. But I cringed inwardly as I realized he caught me staring at him, studying him. I hoped he didn’t think I was being rude or, worse, flirting.
“Are you about finished, Emma?” Esther’s clipped tones broke into my thoughts.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied without turning.
“Good. When you are through, take your meal, then come find me. You are wanted upstairs.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said again.
I waited until I heard the head housekeeper’s heels clicking down the servant’s hall before heaving a deep breath.
“Well, girl, you must be doing well.” Cook’s voice was raspy from all the heat in the kitchen. “Esther doesn’t usually take new employees upstairs until they’ve been here at least six months.”
“So, that’s good?” I asked hesitantly.
“Of course, it’s good! Didn’t I just say so?” Cook huffed. “Are you through? Here’s your plate.” She plopped a dinner plate down on the side table where the staff took their meals. “Best hurry; you don’t want to keep Madam waiting.”
“What will happen? Do you know what she’ll ask me, I mean? I want to be prepared.” I sat and began eating the gorgeous salad.
“Well, let’s see.” Cook leaned an ample hip against the counter as she studied me. “Madam will ask how you are getting along, if you like it here, that sort of thing. She might ask about your family and friends. She’s very concerned about her employees’ happiness. Oh, and she’ll ask about your health. We don’t have insurance, but the Cromwells will pay for any illness or injuries, and they like to know we’re healthy to begin with.”
I hid my frown behind the napkin as I wiped my mouth. The trumpet lilies told me the Cromwells needed new housekeeping staff every few years as they were used up. They had used the word “drain,” as if the Cromwell family was sucking the life out of their staff. The questions about family and health seemed to fit in with that.
“You’ll meet Madam today, and then if she likes you, you will meet Sir sometime in the next week or so. The children will find you when they’re ready. They are very sheltered and shy,” Cook continued with her musing, oblivious to my concern. “Stand up straight, don’t mumble, and be polite. You’ll be okay.”
“Thank you, Cook,” I said. “I should go find Ms. Esther now.”
I stood and took my dish to the sink. Beth usually finished up the dishes in the evening since her shift started later than mine.
As I left the kitchen and followed the servant’s hall to the set of rooms reserved for full-time staff, I wondered how badly I actually needed this job. I still hadn’t tried to contact my parents, but Lori said they missed me. Should I resign and go home? But I was curious to see the Cromwell family in person. They rarely made public appearances and were usually surrounded by security when they did. No one in town knew what they looked like. Plus, according to the lilies, I had a few years before I would be used up.
I squared my shoulders and knocked lightly on Esther’s bedroom door. I could do this. One day, after I had met all the family, I would leave without warning and take their horrific deeds to the authorities.