The Secret Of The Lilies – Part 6

Discover the beginning! Read Part 1 here.


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. 

The Secret Of The Lilies – Part 5

Read The Secret Of The Lilies – Part 4.

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.

The Secret Of The Lilies – Part 4

Read The Secret Of The Lilies – Part 3.

“Cook, where are the children?” I asked as I placed sliced fruit on a tray. 

The morning sun streamed through the kitchen windows, warming the room even further despite the fall chill in the air. 

“Eh?” Came Cook’s muffled response. She backed out of the pantry, her arms laden with various ingredients. 

“The children,” I repeated. “Where are they? Don’t they go outside to play?”

She grunted as she deposited her loot on the counter then wiped her face with a corner of her apron. “They’re around. You will only see them if they want you to. The meeting with Madam must have gone well?” 

“Yes, I think so. She told Esther to schedule a meeting with Sir Cromwell.” 

“Good, I knew you’d be a fit!” 

I hesitated a moment before asking, “What does that mean, exactly?” 

Cook turned to me, an incredulous look on her round face. “Mean? Why, girl, it means you can be a permanent employee like me or Joe there.” She gestured toward the gardens. “What did you think it meant?” 

I shrugged and attempted a laugh. “I don’t know. I thought it meant I would start working upstairs.” 

“Ah, no, girl. Only Beth and Esther work upstairs. But when the Cromwells host their parties, Esther hires temporary help to set up, serve, and clean. Those people are only here for a week or so. You and me, though, and the rest of the staff here now, get to live here and have security in our jobs. Here, add this to that platter.” Cook handed me a jar of olives. 

“If you want to see the children, the best way is to be around the flowers and gardens,” Cook continued. “They like to hide in them.” 

“I need to water the downstairs plants again today. Maybe they will come visit?” I was hopeful. There was no evidence of the mysterious children, and I wanted to see them for myself. 

“Is that tray ready yet?” Beth asked as she walked into the kitchen. “Madam is becoming a bit peevish.” Wisps of curly blond hair escaped her bun, and she brushed them out of her eyes irritably. 

“Yes, just finished.” I handed her the tray of fruit, cheese, and olives.

“Esther said for you to do the plants then see if Joe needs any help in the garden. Fall means harvest season, which means we all take a turn,” Beth said. 

Oh, that’s perfect! More time in the garden means more chance of seeing the children, I thought. 

“Go on, girl. I can handle things here.” Cook waved me off. 

I gathered the watering can, a soft cloth, and the bottle of homemade plant food, then headed down the servants’ hall to the entryway. I didn’t mind the kitchen work or dusting the furniture and mopping the floors, but my favorite task was to care for the plants. I always loved growing things and found the garden and houseplants in the Cromwell House to be well-cared for and healthy. They were easy to maintain. 

“Hello, my beauties,” I greeted the lilies by the front door. “Let’s shine your leaves up today, shall we?” I spoke to them the way I always did and hoped they would talk back again. I had questions. 

I took the cloth and gently wiped the leaves, even though there wasn’t a spec of dust on them. “There, how does that feel?” 

“How do you feel?” The soft voices of the lilies responded. 

A little thrill went through me. They were talking to me again! “I’m okay, I think. Is there something I should know?” 

“It is harvest season. Everyone should be watchful. Do not go outside or upstairs alone.” 

“I’m not allowed upstairs without an invitation,” I replied. “But I am supposed to help in the garden today.” 

“Joe is nice. He might help you.” 

“Thanks for the warning.” 

“Shh! Beth is coming!” The lilies seemed to sway gently. 

“Oh, there you are. Are you almost finished? The plants in the dining room need attention, and Joe asked who was helping today. The green beans are extremely happy this year! There’s so many.” Beth wasn’t chatty around other staff, but as we shared a room, we’ve slowly gotten to know each other. She was a kind girl, prone to dramatic sighs over romantic novels, and loved to gossip. So far, though, the gossip was mostly from town instead of what I was most interested in. 

“Beth, you just saw me in the kitchen and knew I was coming here. Did you forget?” I poured some water in each planter as I spoke. 

“No, but I wanted to talk to you without Cook.” Beth looked at the lilies. “And away from other prying ears. Come on, I need to dust the mantle in the dining room.” 

I followed Beth through the servant corridor and into the dining room. Here, the door from the hidden hallway opened behind a large portrait of Madam and Sir Cromwell. Hoyas, Spider Plants, and Pothos were in hanging planters by the glass double doors that led to the patio and on wooden stands next to the entryway from the drawing room. I noticed there weren’t any flowers. 

As I moved to dust the leaves and give the plants a little of the food, Beth wiped the mantle, but she seemed distracted. 

“Well?” I asked after a few minutes.

Beth started, then gave a nervous laugh. “I don’t know where to begin.” 

“Tell me, Beth. What is it?” 

She sighed then turned to face me. “It’s the harvest. The Cromwells always throw a party, and every time someone from the temporary staff ends up missing afterward.” 

“What? Do you think the Cromwells are doing something to them?” I was shocked and a bit relieved. Maybe I wouldn’t be part of the harvest after all. A twinge of guilt made me frown. I knew I shouldn’t be glad someone else would be hurt instead of me, but I couldn’t help it. 

“I know they are. We all know they are. The temps are almost always loners or on the outs with their families. Some of them are even runaways or people passing through, looking to make a few bucks before moving on. It’s not hard to make their disappearance look like a coincidence.” 

“How long has this been going on? Can we stop them?” 

“I’ve been here for three years, and Joe told me it happened before that. I was hoping you could help us stop it.” 

“Beth… What do the Cromwells do with the people they take?” I wasn’t sure I wanted to know, but I had to ask. The lilies weren’t very informative on the replenishment process. 

“That plant food?” Beth gestured to the jar in my hand. “The tofu-like cubes Cook uses instead of meat? That’s what they do with them.” 

I stared at the dark liquid in the jar. Bile rose in my throat, and I rushed to the glass doors and outside. Beth rubbed my back as I lost my breakfast in the grass.

“I had the same reaction when I found out. I don’t think Joe will help us, but Cook might. And Esther certainly won’t.”

“Wait, are you sure Joe won’t help us?” I crouched in the lawn, waiting for the nausea to pass.

“Yes, why?” Beth asked. 

“The lilies said…” I began. 

Beth grabbed my arm. “The lilies lie! Emma, you can’t listen to them! Anyway, we have to be sure that all the temps have family or friends who know where they are.” 

I heaved a deep breath as I straightened. “So that’s why Madam asked me about my family.” 

“Yes, it’s good you see your friend fairly often.” Beth gave me a sympathetic pat on the arm before turning back to the house. “Come on, we still have work to do. But if you can talk to Cook, feel her out a bit and see where she stands, that would be great. I don’t have many chances to talk to her.”

I thought of my friend Lori and all of her connections. She was great at networking and seemed to do it without thinking. As such, she knew a lot of people. “I think I know someone else who can help,” I said.

The Secret Of The Lilies – Part 3

Read The Secret Of The Lilies – Part 2.

Esther gave me the once over with her dark little eyes before proclaiming, “You’ll do. Follow me.” 

She brushed past me and moved to the stairwell at the end of the hall. Like the passageways that allow servants to move from one main room of the house to the other, the stairs led from the ground floor of public rooms to the second floor where the family lived. We emerged into another servants’ hallway and Esther led me to a door on the left. She knocked sharply and opened the door when she heard a voice on the other side call out, “Enter!” 

The room was filled with light. Large windows seemed to make up the entirety of one wall, and several skylights dotted the ceiling. Plants and flowers of all kinds sat on tables, hung in planters from the ceiling, and occupied large urns scattered around the room. The air was gently perfumed with their scent as well as something musky that reminded me of when I visited the zoo last summer. 

Esther grabbed my wrist as she bent into a deep curtsy, and I followed her example. 

“Ah, Esther. You brought her. Let me see.” The voice was refined and spoke in a tone just loud enough for us to hear. 

As we stood, I saw a woman standing in front of the wall of windows. I hadn’t noticed her before, which was odd considering she was tall, probably about six feet, with long dark hair that floated around her like a cape. She was dressed in a dark red gown made up of layers of gauzy material. As she stepped toward us, my eyes were drawn to her bare feet. They were delicate, for such a tall woman, and the toenails were painted black. 

“Madam Cromwell, this is our new housemaid, Emma Hamilton.” 

“Welcome to Cromwell House, Emma.” I couldn’t tell what color her eyes were due to the glare from the windows, but I felt them slide over me, judging me. 

“Thank you, Madame,” I managed to squeak out. 

“How do you like it here so far? Are you enjoying your duties?” 

“Yes, very much.” After Cook’s advice, I wanted to keep my answers short and to the point, but not rude. 

Madam Cromwell smiled, and I could see the glint of very white teeth. “Are you getting along with the rest of the staff?” 

“Yes, everyone is very kind.” Well, not Esther, but I wasn’t going to say that out loud. 

The mistress of the house chuckled, and for an instant I wondered if she could read my mind. “And your family? Are they happy you have found a position here?” 

I hesitated. If I told her the truth about my parents, it could make me an easy target for whatever they had planned for me. But if I lied, and if she could read minds… “I haven’t spoken to them in several months, but I see my friend Lori on my days off.” 

“I see. You look healthy enough. Are you eating well? Any underlying medical conditions we should be aware of? I know Esther already asked you this during the interview, but I like to hear for myself and help if I can.” 

“No, no problems. The food is wonderful, thank you. I’ve only been sick a few times since I was a kid.” 

Her tinkling laughter rang through the room. “Darling girl, you are still a kid. At least to me, anyway.”  She moved closer to me and reached out to take my hand. Her skin was cold despite the warmth from the evening sun streaming in the windows. “Do not hesitate to ask for anything you need, anything at all. While we do not encourage romantic relationships between our staff, we know it does happen since we are fairly isolated on our hill. If you need birth control or pain medicine, or even a new book to read, please just tell Esther. We want our employees to be happy as long as they are here.” 

Madam Cromwell gave my hand a gentle squeeze before moving away. “Do you have any questions for me, Emma?” 

“Why do you not eat meat?” I blurted it out before I could stop myself. Beside me, Esther gasped. 

“We do not question the ways of the Cromwells!” Esther’s face was furious. 

“No, no, that’s quite all right, Esther. She’s new to us.” Madam waved a hand to silence the head housekeeper. “We do not eat meat because all necessary sustenance can be obtained from plants. And plants are easier to keep than animals. We like to be mostly self-sufficient here, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. When humans die, they go back into the earth to feed the plants. It’s the simplest circle of life.” 

Humans. She said humans as if she wasn’t one. 

“Any other questions?” 

“No,” I almost whispered. 

“Good. Esther, set up a time for our Emma to meet my husband whenever his schedule allows. I’m sure he will be as enchanted as I am.” 

That was clearly a dismissal, and Esther and I both curtsied again before leaving through the servants’ door. 

In my room that night while Beth slept, I mulled over the meeting with Madam Cromwell. I tried to remember if I ever heard her first name and couldn’t. I was a little concerned with her use of the word “enchanted.” What did it mean that she was enchanted by me, and what would her husband think? Are these meetings with the heads of household designed to let them decide if they want to eat me or not? I thought of Madam’s explanation of the circle of life and shivered. 

The Secret Of The Lilies – Part 2

Read The Secret Of The Lilies – Part 1.

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.