Beth and I took a few minutes to outline a plan to help keep the temporary workers safe. It was only after we went our separate ways to finish the day’s work that I started to wonder who was telling me the truth: Beth or the lilies? The lilies seemed wary of Beth, which caused me to doubt her even more. Cook was friendly and so far has told me the truth about the Cromwells, but she did seem to be holding things back. I decided to cautiously approach both Joe and Cook.
As I picked green beans in the garden that afternoon, I hoped I would be able to talk to Joe without any of the other gardeners around. My chance came just as I was finishing the row. I stood up and stretched my back.
“All done?” A quiet voice came from behind me.
I whirled around. “Joe! You startled me. Yes, I’m finished with this row. Is there anything else you need help with?”
“Sorry, Emma. I forget that the soft soil doesn’t give me away like the cobblestones do.” Joe chuckled. “I think that’s good for today. You can take that basket up to Cook.” He started to turn to go.
“Wait, I have a question.” I bit my lip. “Um, do you take care of the lilies in the house at all?”
Joe smiled, his teeth white against his dark skin. “Sometimes I do. Usually, when we don’t have enough staff for the house. They seem quite happy with whichever housekeeper is on duty. Why? What have they been saying about me this time?”
I stared at him. “You… they…” I took a deep breath to collect my thoughts, but before I could try to continue, Joe laughed again.
“Yes, they talk to me. Odd, isn’t it? I thought I was going crazy the first time it happened. Now I don’t walk through the foyer without saying hello. The rest of the workers just think it’s a gardener thing, talking to the plants. They told me you talk to them, too, so I assumed they’ve talked back, the cheeky little things.”
I flashed him a relieved smile. “Yes, they talked to me for the first time a couple of weeks ago. They said…” I hesitated, then rushed on. “They said you’re much older than you look.”
“Did they now? And did they tell you anything else?” Joe took a step closer to me. I wanted to back up, but I would not let him think I was afraid.
“Well, they said I shouldn’t go upstairs or outside alone during harvest season. I’m not sure what that’s about.” I tried to make the last sentence sound flippant as if it was silly.
“They’re right about that, at least. How old do you think I am?”
“You have one of those ageless faces, I think. And the work you do keeps your body from stiffening up. It’s hard to say, and I’ve never been a good judge of age, but I think you’re around thirty.”
Joe’s ringing belly laugh took me by surprise, and I did take a step back.
“Emma, I wish I was only thirty! I will be sixty next month. But I appreciate knowing I’ve retained my youth.”
“What’s your secret?” I asked, forcing out a laugh to join him in his mirth.
His laughter stopped abruptly, and he peered at me. “What else have those chatty flowers been telling you?”
“Nothing, why? I just want to be able to look as fabulous as you do when I’m older.”
“You’re seventeen. You don’t have to worry about age yet.”
Joe turned away from me and headed towards the other end of the garden. I let him go this time. His reaction to my question worried me. I was beginning to think Beth was telling the truth after all.
I helped Cook prepare dinner and had my own, avoiding the tofu-like chunks this time. The next day was my day off, so after dinner I went to my room to call Lori. We made plans to meet up in the morning for shopping and lunch. I resolved to ask for her help to ensure the harvest festival’s temporary workers had someone to miss them.
After a morning of window shopping and catching up with Lori about her family and our mutual friends, we settled down for lunch at an outside table of Nirvana Cafe, our favorite place. We placed our order quickly, since we both ordered our usual favorites.
“Your parents asked me about you when they came into the store the other day,” Lori said after the waitress had left.
“How are they?” I was hungry for news from home.
“They miss you, Emma. You should go see them.”
“I can’t, yet. They must be so angry with me.” Tears threatened, so I took a big gulp of water and looked at the sky.
“No, they aren’t. They miss you,” she said again. “And they love you. You’re being silly and childish by staying away.” Her voice was gentle, but the rebuke stung.
“Okay. I’ll go see them as soon as I can.”
“Call them. Today.”
“Okay, okay! I will. I promise. But I need to ask you a favor.”
Lori sighed. “What now?”
Her long-suffering look made me laugh. “Don’t worry, I don’t want to move back in with you. I have a thing at work that I need help with, and I figured that since you know a lot of people, you were the best one to ask.”
We were interrupted by the waitress delivering our food. As soon as she was out of earshot, I told Lori all about the Cromwell’s horrible secret, leaving out the part of the talking lilies. I already sounded a little crazy without mentioning that.
“You know, last year there was that boy we met at the mall, remember? He said he was from out of town and came to work the harvest party. He was supposed to call me after the party but never did. I just thought he changed his mind about me. But now I wonder…” Lori’s voice trailed off in thought.
“I remember him. James, right? James…Millwright.”
“Yes, that’s him. I connected with him on Insta. Let me see something.” Lori pulled out her phone. After a few moments, she gasped and handed it to me. “He hasn’t posted anything since just before the harvest party last year! And look, he was really active before that.”
“Lori, we have to stop these people! Can you help me?”
“Of course. I even know what to do.”
After two hours, we had a plan. We gave the waitress a large tip when we finally left the cafe. When Lori drove me back to the manor gates, she made a point of getting out of the car to hug me. Charles had stepped out and unlocked the mandoor when he saw me. He stood there, patiently waiting for me to say my farewells.
“Don’t forget to call your mom. See you next week!” Lori called out, waving as she climbed back into her car.