I kept my promise to Lori and called home as soon as I got to my room.
“Emma? Oh, Emma! George, come to the phone. Emma’s called!” The joy and relief in my mother’s voice increased my guilt.
I heard the extension click and then my father’s gruff hello. I pictured him in his recliner in front of the television. It was time for the 5 o’clock news, and he never missed it. My mother would naturally be at the phone in the kitchen. She was probably putting the finishing touches on dinner.
“Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad. I’m sorry it’s been so long.”
“Emma, we are so glad you called. Aren’t we, George? Lori said you’re working at the Cromwell House. Do you like it? What about school?”
“Let her answer one question at a time, woman.” I could always count on my dad to balance my mom’s eager inquiries.
“Yes, I started working for the Cromwells as a housekeeper several weeks ago. I like it. The family is a little odd, but they treat all the staff well. I’ll finish school, mom. I talked to my advisor, and he’s going to set me up with online classes so I can do them in the evenings after work. I will still graduate on time.”
“What happened with Adam?” My dad got the question out before my mom.
“He bailed on me.” I laughed bitterly. “Just like you said he would.”
“Honey, why didn’t you come home when that happened?”
A lump formed in my throat and I gulped it down before responding. “I thought you would be mad at me and not want me anymore.” Tears welled in my eyes, and I irritably brushed them away.
“We will always want you,” came my dad’s quiet response.
I couldn’t hold back anymore, and I began sobbing. My parents were quiet while I let it out. After a few minutes, I took a deep breath. “I love you. I’m sorry I made you worry.”
“All is forgiven. Now, tell us what else has been happening. Are you helping with the harvest party? We were thinking of skipping it this year. We aren’t in the mood for celebrations.” The tears I heard in my mother’s voice renewed my guilt.
“Yes, the head housekeeper, Esther, said we would begin getting ready this weekend. It sounds like it takes an entire week to make the magic happen.”
“And what sort of work do you do?” My dad directed the conversation further away from the emotions.
“I clean the downstairs, which isn’t hard right now since no one really uses the rooms. I also help Cook in the kitchen, take care of the houseplants, and sometimes help in the garden.”
“Good, you are learning the value of hard work.”
“George, she already learned that from you.” I could almost hear my mother’s eyes roll.
“Yes, well, she learned how to care for plants from you, Michelle.” A note of pride crept into my father’s voice. He wasn’t usually demonstrative, but I knew he was proud of my mom’s greenhouse. Almost everyone in town got their plants from her.
A sudden thought struck me. “Mom, have you ever sold African Queen trumpet lilies to the Cromwells?”
“African Queen… I don’t think so. Sometimes I get orders for bouquets. Last time they ordered several vining plants and bulbs for the outside flowerbeds. Why?”
“Oh, I am wondering where they got the flowers that are in the entryway. They are lovely specimens.”
“Not from me, dear. But if you find out, I’d love to know who my competition is.”
I chatted with my parents for a few more minutes and hung up, but not before my mom extracted a promise that I would visit them on my next day off.
“It will probably be after the harvest party,” I warned.
“That’s okay. We’ll see you soon.”
I headed to the kitchen for my dinner and met Esther in the hallway.
“Oh, good. There you are. Tomorrow morning, please report to my office as soon as you are finished helping Cook. Mr. Cromwell wants to meet you.” She swept away without waiting for my reply.
Great. I wonder if he’s as spooky as his wife, I thought as I entered the warm kitchen.
The next morning, I helped Cook prepare the breakfast trays for upstairs, ate a quick meal of oatmeal and toast, and then presented myself in Esther’s office.
“Let’s go.” Esther barely looked at me, which gave me the impression that appearances were not as crucial to Mr. Cromwell as they were to the lady of the house.
Once again, Esther led the way upstairs using the servants’ stair, and this time she knocked sharply on a door on the right of the corridor. A loud “Come in!” sounded, and Esther pushed open the door.
This room was as bright as Mrs. Cromwell’s, but the air was arid, and cacti and succulents seemed to be Mr. Cromwell’s preferred companions. I could see small, shallow pots of Echeverias and Silver Stars, Jade Plant and Aloe Vera filled larger planters. There was even what looked like Golden Barrel Cactus.
Esther didn’t need to grab my arm this time as I automatically sank into a deep curtsy.
“Oh, no, my dear. We don’t have the ceremony here. That is my wife’s rule. Stand up straight, let me look at you.” Mr. Cromwell’s voice was a deep, smooth baritone. It reminded me of an actor in some of the old movies my mom liked to watch.
I stood and met the steady gaze of the lord of the house. Mr. Cromwell’s eyes were similar to Joe’s deep golden brown ones. They seemed to have a bit of a green glint in them, though. He smiled, and I couldn’t help but smile back.
“You don’t have to tell me, I know. My wife is the scary one. Don’t worry, I won’t tell her.”
I gave a small giggle but stopped when I heard Esther clear her throat. “Thank you, sir.”
“She does all the important things around here.” He gestured vaguely towards the windows. “I, however, am the life of the party. And, since the harvest party is next week, I wanted to be sure to meet you beforehand. We can’t afford any mistakes at such an important event. You seem observant, though, and I heard you fulfill your duties without complaint. Do you like pumpkins?”
“I… uh…” His sudden question startled me. “I suppose so. I like pumpkin pie and carving jack o’lanterns.”
“Good. That’s part of the festival. Did Esther tell you the rules?”
“Not yet, sir,” Esther quickly interjected.
“Ah, I see. Well, Emma, the rules are simple. The staff is required to help prepare for the party. Cleaning, cooking, decorations, that sort of thing. But at the party, the temporary staff fills the roles of serving and cleaning up, and you all are expected to enjoy yourselves as our guests.”
I felt my mouth open in surprise but quickly shut it. “Thank you, sir.”
“Oh, stop with that ‘sir’ nonsense. I haven’t been able to break Esther of the habit, but I won’t have you start. You can call me Jacob. Or Mr. Cromwell, if that’s too informal for you. Now, go on. I’m sure you have your chores to do still.”
“Yes, s… Mr. Cromwell. It was nice to meet you.” I smiled. I actually liked Mr. Cromwell and found it hard to believe he was involved in some nefarious plot involving the disappearance of temporary workers.
“It was good to meet you, too, Emma. I’m sure you’ll be with us for a very long time.”
I followed Esther out into the hallway and back downstairs.
“Well, you have now met both the mistress and master of Cromwell House. It’s safe to say you have a permanent position here now. Congratulations.” Ether used the same voice to congratulate me as she did when issuing orders. I wondered if she even had a heart.
I pictured her wearing a tin hat and carrying an oil can and couldn’t contain my giggle. Esther gave me a stern look. “Go about your business now.” She turned and went back into her office, shutting the door firmly behind her.
I consulted the schedule on my phone even though I already knew the routine by now. The Cromwell’s Household Management was an app created specifically for the Cromwells. Esther changed our duties if she noticed something that needed to be done. Sure enough, “Houseplants” was in bold lettering on my list for today. It was time those lilies gave me a straight answer.
I avoided looking at the jars of plant food as I took the watering can from the kitchen shelf. I filled it with water from the side sink and headed to the entryway. Before pushing open the door leading from the servants’ hall to the foyer, I took a deep breath and gathered my thoughts.
“Hello, lovelies,” I greeted the lilies. I knew by now that they would be more chatty if I praised them. They were vain creatures, but I suppose gorgeous flowers had a right to be. “Here is a nice cool drink of water for you. Your leaves still look shiny from the dusting last week.”
“Thank you, Emma,” their strange combined voices chorused. “Have you talked to Joe?”
“Why, yes, you fabulous things, I have. And do you know what he told me?”
“What?” The lilies sounded eager.
“Nothing. Joe seemed angry that I was asking questions, and he left. Why did you tell me he would help me?”
“Because he is nice and he likes us.”
A suspicious thought formed, and I hoped I was wrong. “Do you mean he will help me or help you?”
“Both of us. You are our friend, too.”
“Yes, we’re friends,” I muttered.
I moved through the other rooms, watering and pruning the rest of the plants, but my thoughts wandered. What if the lilies didn’t tell me the truth from the beginning? Joe genuinely cared for the lilies, but he also didn’t like that I was asking questions. I realized I wasn’t any closer to finding answers. At least if Lori came through, there wouldn’t be any mysterious disappearances at this harvest party.