“I drove my father’s Aston today,” I said, leading the conversation before it could go anywhere else. “He’s rather progressive about those kinds of things.”
“I see that.”
“Of course, he thinks I’m on a picnic with friends.”
“Would you care to ride in it later?”
“Miss Westcott, if you think that a ride in your motorcar will—”
“Chocolate, Miss Ellis?”
I pulled one with a caramel in the center from a handbag full of bribery.
“You’re a sly one, you are.” But she took it anyway. Between mouthfuls, she added, “He’s in the kitchen, taking a break.”
“I’m not as blind as your brother, no offense meant towards him, missy. I know it’s that McCarthy boy you’re here for.”
“No . . .”
She looked at me with exaggerated sternness, and I knew the pretense was over.
“Oh, Miss Ellis.” I released a resigned sigh.
“And I can’t say that I blame you. He’s a looker. Dreamy—is that what you girls call it? I just don’t want you to get your heart broken.”
“I won’t, I promise. I just couldn’t help myself.”
“Sure, now.” She leaned in, and I had to move closer to hear her. “I think he has until half past until he goes back out. You’d better get a move on.”
“Thank you.” I gave a grateful wink to my conspirator.
“One more thing, Miss Westcott.” She looked right and left in the empty hallway. I think she was enjoying this more than she would be inclined to admit.
“I hear he likes cricket.”
“Don’t all men?”
“And Miss Westcott—”
She pulled a tattered copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from her desk drawer. “I saw him with a copy of this last week. I brought mine from home. It doesn’t hurt to have a prop.”
“Miss Ellis, you are positively wicked!”
She sat up straight and raised her voice to a normal tone, feigning offense. “Now, Miss Westcott, I am not wicked. I am a God-fearing woman.”
“Well, genius, then.”
She beamed. “Yes. I like that. Just call me a genius. And name your firstborn for me.”
“I’m afraid your thinking is a bit overambitious. I have to talk to him first. Can you please show me the way to the kitchen?”
She pointed to her left, opposite the hall that led to Charles’s room. I had not been over here before, and I opened a few closet doors before I heard the cacophony of pans and dishes and found the right one.
The kitchen was rather ordinary, a different aesthetic from the public rooms. It contained all of the necessary things that I supposed a kitchen should. Two large ovens, double sinks, pots of various sizes. Its checkerboard floor made me wonder where the kings and pawns were hiding. The supper hour was over, and the dishes were being washed by a wrinkly skinned man in preparation for dinner later on. A white-aproned woman lingered over the stove, and I gathered by her generous profile that the food here was good. She barked at the man, who was finishing off the last of the drying.
“Hurry up. I need them potatoes peeled and the apples cored. Cobbler don’t just make itself.”
“Yes, Mrs. Smythe.”
“What are you doing here?”
It was not immediately apparent that the cook was talking to me. My attention had been stolen when I saw Kyle sitting at the far end of a long table, facing the windows with one knee pulled to his chest. He was balanced on the back two legs of his chair and had an open book propped against the table’s edge. I tightened my grip on the newly obtained copy of Sherlock Holmes and wished that I could absorb its contents through touch.
“I said, ‘What are you doing in my kitchen?’”
She was brandishing a wooden spoon, which looked as if it was intended for me. I took one step back, but was paralyzed beyond that.
“I’m—I’m just touring the facilities.”
“Well, there isn’t nothin’ here to see but me and Archie, and you’d best get on your way.”
I was surprised that Bootle Home employed such a wretchedly dispositioned person.
“She’s with me, Ethel.”
The voice came from the table, and I saw that Kyle was now observing us. I felt my cheeks warm and hoped he didn’t notice their glow.
“She’s here to find out how Charles is coming along with his plants.”
“Well, don’t you be talking business in my kitchen. That’s what the meeting rooms are for.”
“You’re right. It will be just this one time.”
He stood up and pulled out the chair opposite him. “Miss Westcott?”
I walked toward him, stunned into silence, my eyes never leaving Ethel and her culinary arsenal. She turned back to the butcher board counter as I passed, and I quickened my pace at the whack of a knife beheading some unfortunate parsnips.
I jumped when I felt a hand on my arm, but it was only Kyle, leading me to the table with an amused grin. “Don’t mind her,” he whispered. “She’s always like that before dinner. And supper. And breakfast, come to think of it. But she’s a pussycat the rest of the time.”
“At midnight, perhaps?” I offered.
“Yes. At the stroke of midnight, the spell is broken—”
“And she’s a cuddly little kitten—”
“Curled up before the fireplace like a ball of yarn.”
“Exactly. Thank you.” With that, I forgot all about her and was engulfed in the friendliest eyes I had ever seen.
“Nothing to it. She might have had your head on a platter for dinner, and we can’t have that, now, can we?”
“It is rather useful to have a head!”
“A perfectly reasonable expectation.” He smiled.
I took my place next to him and remembered the so-called reason for my visit. “So, how are Charles’s plants coming along?”
“Quite well, actually. Some of them have grown an inch or so since you were here.”
“And the caterpillar?”
“It’s in its chrysalis stage now.”