“Thank you for bringing down the apples,” Liz said, handing a cup of tea to Carol. “I’ll put some up for pie filling this evening.”

Carol looked around the immaculate kitchen of the cottage. “You’ve managed a great shine in here. I don’t know how you found the energy.”

“I like to keep busy,” Liz said. She looked shyly at Carol. “I don’t suppose you know of anyone that would like a cleaner, you know, a few hours here and there? I could use the money.”

“I could at the moment!” Carol said. “The house is full of weird people who make a mess. It’s a big house that needs a lot of keeping up as it is. Normally I decorate the house for Halloween, but I haven’t been able to turn around. If they’re not raiding the kitchen, they’re rummaging in cupboards or tracking in dirt – and I never know what I’m going to find in the living room the next morning! The dirty dishes keep piling up, and the laundry is getting beyond me. Any help would be amazing. I’ll sort out the wages with Richard, but I’m sure that he’ll be generous. He knows what I’m suffering. I keep looking up and finding one of them standing over me and just staring sorrowfully at me. And eat! I can’t seem to cook enough.”

“I can cook some stuff down here and bring it up,” offered Liz. “I could make a few dozen cupcakes and biscuits, and perhaps a fruit cake. That will fill them up.”

“Nothing fills them up,” Carol said bitterly. “I’ll bring some ingredients down – don’t argue! I’ve bought in bulk, so it may as well get used up here as well as at Darke Manor. I’ll have a word with Richard…” She trailed off as the front door slammed.

“Paul went out with Theo,” Liz whispered. “It sounds like they got a little lost.”

Carol winced as she heard Paul bellowing. “What do you mean, you hadn’t used a map like that? I thought you said you could read a map.”

Theo was quieter but entirely fed up. “It’s obvious. You look at a map, you see where things are, you follow the directions. It’s not hard.”

“But we still got lost! Paul yelled, throwing open the door to the kitchen as he turned to look at Theo behind him. “And you didn’t recognise the warning for damp ground.” He pulled his muddy t-shirt off. “Liz is going to have a fit trying to wash this.”

“All the moor is damp ground,” Theo argued as he trailed into the kitchen. “That’s what the moor is. It’s full of peat and bogs.”

Paul turned around to see Carol sitting with Liz in the kitchen. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realise that Liz had someone here.”

Carol allowed herself to enjoy the sight of Paul without a shirt. The hours of working out and clean eating had paid off. He looked amazing. He also looked muddy. “What happened?” She tore her eyes away from him to glance at Theo who was equally muddy, though nowhere near as well built.

Liz jumped to her feet, turning her eyes away from Paul and blushing wildly. “I’ll get a couple of dressing gowns. If you get changed, I can get the clothes washed and dried.” She fled from the kitchen.

Paul looked coolly back at Carol. “There is supposed to be an ancient monument on the moors,” he said. “We were looking for it.”

Theo looked nervously at Paul’s broad back. “There’s supposed to be a stone circle, but we couldn’t find it.”

“We’ll have to spend some more time with the maps before we try again,” Paul said. “What a way to spend a Saturday.”

“But it’s bound to be…” Theo hesitated under Carol’s interested stare. “It’s very historical.”

Liz scurried back, her face turned carefully away from Paul’s bare chest. “I’ve brought down your bathrobe,” she said, pushing the plain black robe at Paul. “And I found this at the back of the cupboard.” She pushed a faded hotel bathrobe at Theo. “If you get undressed I’ll get the clothes washed and dried, and I’ll make something to eat.”

Theo’s face lit up. “Really?”

Liz smiled. “I’ve got a casserole ready to go, and an apple crumble.”

“You are a star!” Theo said.

“You can have the downstairs shower room,” Paul said. “I’ll take a shower upstairs.” He pushed Theo out of the kitchen.

Liz and Carol looked at the mud tracked through. Liz shrugged. “I may as well wait until it’s dry and then brush it out,” she said. “The carpet is worn to a thread, so I don’t want to try scrubbing.” She pulled a casserole from the fridge and slid it into the oven. “Will you stay for dinner?”

Carol shook her head. “I’ve got to feed the crowd up at Darke Manor,” she said.

The kitchen door opened and Richard strode in. “Carol, I’ve been thinking.”

“I hope you’re thinking of giving me a pay rise and paying Liz here to help me in the house,” Carol said. “It’s bedlam.”

Richard looked at Liz. “Are you willing to come as an assistant and a day worker?” he asked. “Obviously I’ll pay a decent rate, but it would probably only be two or three times a week once things have settled down.”

“I hope that I can give satisfaction,” Liz said.

“That’s sorted then. Ask Carol about hours, log your time and let me have the bill. Where’s Paul?” Richard looked around, but his mind was obviously elsewhere.

“He and Theo are in separate showers,” Carol said. “They got lost on the moor.”

“They’re lucky that they got home safe,” Richard said. “It can be tricky up there. Excuse me, I want to check something.”

Carol watched him wander down to the paper room and take a quick look around before unlocking the door and going in. “Well, that was easier than I thought,” she said. “If you could come in Monday morning, we’ll take it from there.”

Liz pulled out a bowl and a bag of flour before getting butter from the fridge. “Perhaps we could meet tomorrow afternoon, after church, and make some lists,” she suggested.

Carol watched Liz as she quickly brought together an apple crumble, rich with spices and full of flavourful promise. “That’s a great idea. But perhaps down here, as it gets complicated up at the manor.” She watched Richard come out of the paper room, carefully locking the door behind him. His face looked a little paler than usual.

“Carol, I think you should stay down here from tonight,” Richard said.

“What?” Carol stared at him.

Richard tapped the small, leather-bound book in his hand absentmindedly and looked around. “I think you should stay down here. I think it will be less stressful for you. I’ll help you pack some clothes. I’m sure that Liz will be glad of the company.”

“But this is Paul’s home,” Carol said. “I can’t just invite myself here.”

“I think you really should,” Richard said, frowning. “Paul will be happy to have you. It will be a lot better, just for a very short while.”

“What’s happened?” Carol asked.

“It’s complicated,” Richard said. “Just worry about the housekeeping.” He turned to Liz. “If you are looking for extra work, Mike can always use an extra paw. He has some bed and breakfast places over near Haworth and he is always glad of reliable staff.”

“Extra paw?” Liz said.

“Yes, it’s a very stable werewolf pack. I know brownies aren’t exactly comfortable with werewolves, but Mike is a good leader and I know that he’s desperate for the help. He’ll pay well, of course, and make sure that you’re safe.”

Liz went white. “I’m not called Brown. I’m called Liz Green, I mean Queen, I mean…” She stared at Richard for a long minute and then fled the kitchen.

Carol picked up the crumble mixture and spread it over the apple base. “She’s a brownie? Well, that makes sense. She is an incredible housekeeper.”

Richard frowned. “I didn’t think that she’d take it like that,” he said. “Perhaps you should have a word.”

“Are you serious about me staying here?” Carol asked.

Richard nodded. “I’ll need to explain a lot to you later, but I’m short of time right now. I’ll pick you up in an hour and you can get packed.” He caught hold of Carol’s arm. “And until I say otherwise, don’t go out after dark. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t be alone outside. And always, always carry your phone and call me at the first hint of trouble.” He tapped the leather bound book again. “Things are getting complicated.”

You can read the story from the beginning here, Under Dark Hills

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