With extra people in Meriweather Hall, there would be need for more food. She missed working in her kitchen in the vicarage, so she decided to join Mrs. Porter and her staff. That would keep both her hands and her mind busy.
Long tables filled the kitchen’s main room. Doors opened on both sides to the various pantries and stillrooms. Both hearths had fires blazing, and sweat popped out on Vera’s forehead.
She looked around in amazement. The kitchen was empty. Where were the maids who should be working in it?
As if in answer to her unspoken question, she heard giggles near the back door. She walked down a short corridor to discover the door was open. The kitchen maids were gathered inside and beyond the door. More laughter resounded along the passage.
Deeper voices came from beyond the door. She looked out a window. From the flirtatious sound of the maids, she had expected to see a man or two. Anger burst within her. All of Sir Nigel’s men loitered by the door, flirting with the maids. If they had finished their search in the woods, they should be looking elsewhere. Sir Nigel had told them to keep looking until they scoured every inch of Sanctuary Bay.
She opened her mouth to ask them why they had given up, but she did not get the chance. Mrs. Porter must have noticed the maids were missing, too. The cook stormed out of the kitchen. The maids scattered with apologies. Vera leaped out of the way as the cook shooed the men away by waving her apron at them.
Only then did the cook seem to notice Vera. “Miss Fenwick, can I do something for you?”
“I thought I could offer an extra pair of hands. I know you must be busy with all these people here today.”
“We should be busy.” She aimed a glower at the maids. “That is kind of you, Miss Fenwick, but you are a guest in this house, and it would not do for you to work with these lazy maids.” She raised her voice on the last three words, and the young women moved even more quickly.
“Mrs. Porter, I am not a fine lady. I am used to cooking and cleaning. Please let me help. I cannot sit and do nothing.”
The cook’s face softened into a sympathetic smile. “Of course, Miss Fenwick. What was I thinking? You are accustomed to full days like we are.” Pulling an apron off a nearby peg, she handed it to Vera. “Would you mind rolling out crusts for the meat pies we will be serving the searchers?”
“Thank you!” She gave Mrs. Porter a hug, then hurried to one of the tables while the startled cook looked after her with a widening smile.
Vera could not put her fears for her brother out of her mind, but she did not have to focus on them while she worked. The maids talked to her shyly, then with more friendliness. She appreciated their efforts to make her feel at home in their kitchen. When she whispered yet another prayer for her brother’s return and the searchers’ safety, murmurs of “Amen” came from around the table.
After the pies were in the oven, Vera offered to help with other tasks. It became apparent that she was hindering rather than helping Mrs. Porter, who did not have time to direct her. Also, the cook was frustrated at not being able to order her staff around as she usually did. More than once, Mrs. Porter had started to yell at a maid, then, glancing toward Vera, lowered her voice. Even though Vera would have liked to remain, she thanked the cook and left. She was halfway up the stairs when she heard Mrs. Porter loudly reprimanding a maid for ruining a dish by adding the wrong ingredients.
Vera walked toward the front of the house but paused when she heard the unmistakable sound of weeping. She turned down a hallway in time to hear someone cry out, “He was supposed to be back more than an hour ago!”
“Who?” she asked as she walked into the withdrawing room. She had avoided the elegant pale gold room with its damask draperies and thick carpets because she would never be comfortable sitting on the shimmering settees edged by tables with fine Meissen china sculptures on top.
“Edmund,” Lillian answered, trying to wipe away her tears with a sodden handkerchief.
“Edmund is missing, too?” She grasped the back of the closest chair before her legs failed her.
A gentle hand cupped her elbow and lowered her into the chair. She looked up at Lord Northbridge’s stern face, but saw the kindness in his eyes. Only then did she realize Jonathan was also there along with Lillian and the Meriweather women.
“What has happened?” she asked, forcing the words past the clump of unshed tears in her throat.
“Nothing may have happened,” Jonathan replied. “Meriweather simply is late returning from his search.”
“He may have found something interesting that delayed him,” Lord Northbridge added.
“But you don’t believe that.” She did not make it a question.