Fortunately, neither the next day, nor the day after that, nor the day after that, the guards didn’t find Claire.
As time passed day by day, Claire found peace of mind in her ordinary life.
The memories of that day faded, and Claire opened the door to the Lemon House with a feeling of refreshment, as if she’d never picked up a necklace in the birch grove.
The bell on the door swayed and rang lightly.
Claire wiped down the display case while she hummed her and Isabelle’s favorite nursery rhyme that their mother often sang to them when they were children.
The savory scent of butter was wafting from the kitchen.
Were they baking scones today?
She was bending over cleaning a window.
When she straightened her back a woman, with brown hair like Claire’s, opened the door and came in.
Chestnut hair was the most common hair color throughout Kaliba.
Shadehill, located in the southwest of Kaliba, was no exception.
Claire liked that she had chestnut-colored hair that was ubiquitous and inconspicuous.
She smiled apologetically, and approached the woman.
“I’m sorry, but I’m still getting ready.
Could you come back later?”
The woman, who looked to be in her late twenties to early thirties, wore her hair in a neat updo.
“Do you think you could bake about five dozen cookies, and bring them to me by this afternoon?”
“Yes, I need them in a hurry.”
“I’m sorry, but we don’t carry cookies.”
“The Countess of Norton said she would take any amount.
She really likes the muffins here, so she said the cookies must be delicious too.”
Stunned, Claire asked.
“The Countess of Norton?”
“Yes, I’m Sally, the Countess’ maid.”
At the mention of the name Norton, Claire’s mind naturally flashed back to Clive Norton from earlier that week.
She thought he’d forgotten her, but it wasn’t so easy.
Since she hadn’t heard from him yet, she thought that the suspicions around her had been cleared, though she didn’t know why.
With a small sigh, Claire shook off unnecessary thoughts at this point.
“I’m begging you, please.”
“That’s not up to me, so can you wait a minute?”
“Do you mind if I go with you and explain to the boss?”
Claire led Sally into the kitchen.
Brenda was pulling raisin-filled scones out of the oven.
“Boss, we have a customer.”
Brenda turned her head.
With the back of her hand, she wiped the sweat from her brow that formed from the heat of the ovens.
She wondered what kind of customer would be willing to set foot in the kitchen.
“Hello, I’m Sally, the Countess of Norton’s maid.
We’re having some trouble with the oven at the manor, and I’d like to order some cookies in a hurry.”
“I know you don’t sell them, but my lady loves the desserts at the Lemon House.”
Brenda’s eyes flashed with confusion.
“The madam really wants to serve cookies that are made here for her tea party.
Could you do it? Please?”
Sally’s words cause Brenda to pause.
Sensing her hesitation, Sally quickly added.
“We need it right away, by this afternoon.
I’m really pressed for time, but she said she’d make do with whatever you can do.”
“I don’t know if I can make it in time.”
Brenda refused indirectly.
Although, she was curious how much time she was giving when she said they would take any number.
If Brenda hurried, she might be able to do it.
However, she was also worried that she might not be able to make it in time, and that would make her look like a fool.
“If you’re short-handed, I can send a few maids.”
Sally just brushed it off as if it wasn’t a big deal.
Brenda smiled wanly at the desperation in her voice.
“No, I don’t need maids.”
“Can you make me five different kinds from what you have available right now?”
“Five things… black tea, almonds, chocolate, cranberries, and vanilla… I guess I could do five things.”
As Brenda counted off the ingredients on her fingers, she gave a nod of approval.
“Please make sure you get there by 3:00 at the latest.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Sally left, then Brenda asked Drew to fetch black tea leaves, almonds, dried cranberries, and vanilla oil from the basement storage room.
“Do you want me to help?”
“No, Drew’s help is enough.
But I’m supposed to be making wheat bread for the church this time around.”
Where Brenda’s eye landed, there was row upon row of wheat bread she’d left to rise.
The church periodically ordered loaves of wheat bread from bakeries throughout Shadehill.
It was an act of charity, giving the bakeries work and feeding the hungry at the same time.
And today was the day that the Lemon House would be baking the wheat bread.
It was today of all days.
Of course, it was unlikely that the Chief Constable of Shadehill would be in the manor at such a leisurely hour, but Claire didn’t know what the life of a nobleman was like.
If she was unlucky, she might run into him.
She didn’t want to be questioned again.
However, there was no way she was going to be able to pull the wagon to the church.
…No, maybe she should learn how to pull the wagon now.
Claire’s mind raced, and she couldn’t help but say something she really didn’t want to say.
“I’ll help take care of the order to the Countess.”
Brenda said she’d be fine with just Drew, but as it turned out, she wasn’t.
Baking wheat bread for the church and the cookies on the Countess’ whim, the ovens were in constant need of wood.
Between fetching wood and checking the temperature of the ovens, Drew was busy rolling out flour, beating eggs, and kneading dough.
They also had to cool the baked wheat bread, and load it onto the wagon.
In between trips to the store, Claire found work in the kitchen.
She washed used crockery, took baked cookies out of the oven to cool, and helped Drew move loaves of wheat bread.
As the hours passed, the three of them grew increasingly sweaty.
It was unfortunate, but it was necessary to keep busy in the heat of the ovens.
In the few moments where they were waiting for all the dough to be done, for the cookies to be baked just right in the oven.
They gobbled up a salad with tomatoes for a late lunch.
Normally, they would have had a cup of tea after the meal, but today they couldn’t afford it.
Drew left for church in the wagon loaded with wheat bread, while Brenda and Claire carefully stacked the cookies in the basket so they wouldn’t crumble.
Ugh, the clock was ticking.
Claire locked eyes with Brenda, then left the Lemon House without a moment to say goodbye.
“I’ll be back!”
Claire hurried her steps, the bell jingled as the door closed behind her.
She was so busy and preoccupied that she forgot about Clive for a while.
However, as she headed out of town and into the birch grove, her thoughts naturally turned to the necklace she’d found in these woods.
Then, her thoughts turned to Clive.
Oh no, that necklace belonged to Grandmother Caitlyn Norton.
Claire was still dumbfounded by the realization.
Luckily, she couldn’t afford to let that feeling linger.
The soles of her feet were throbbing as she walked, almost ran, to make it in time.
The birch grove, that had once been so breathtakingly beautiful, was a mere memory.
However, the memory of being suspected as a thief quickly sank below the surface of her aching body.
She was out of breath, but she had no time to rest…, no.
If she passed out, she wouldn’t be able to deliver the cookies safely, then her boss would think she’d snuck off with them.
They might go, and ask Isabelle about it.
Even the Countess of Norton might send someone to harass her sister to get the cookies back.
So, this was for Isabelle’s sake.
Claire made a nonsensical excuse, bent over and stood with her palms on her knees, breathing heavily.
It wasn’t long now.
Just a few more steps and she’d be out of these woods and in sight of the Count’s manor.
She wiped the sweat from her forehead with her sleeve, but it only made her sleeve damp.
After roughly catching her breath, Claire trudged on.
She didn’t know why.
She couldn’t pick up the pace anymore.
Her legs were tired.
Claire mechanically raised, and lowered her legs.
When she finally reached the Count’s mansion, she found Sally standing nervously in front of the servant’s entrance.
No, she spotted Claire and came running toward her.
“Oh my goodness! Claire, are you okay? You’re so red and sweaty.”
“It’s okay, please take these.”
Sally accepted the basket of cookies as she studied Claire’s complexion.
Claire felt her hands lighten, and she felt liberated.
“You’ll pay for them later when you come to the Lemon House, right?”
“Yes, I’ll return this basket to you then, too.
Thank you very much.”
Sally set the basket on the ground for a moment, and pulled a handkerchief from her pocket.
She wiped Claire’s forehead and cheeks with the handkerchief.
Although the cloth was of lower quality, it was clean and embroidered with yellow birds.
They had just met today, but the way she gently wiped away the sweat was affectionate.
Claire clutched at the gentle hand.
“Can I wash it, and give it back to you later?”
“It’s okay, it’s just a handkerchief.
I’ll wash it quickly.”
“I’m sure I’ll be sweating a lot on the way back to…”
She realized that wiping with her sleeve had its limits.
“I’ll lend it to you, then.”
Ah, the countess will be waiting, and I’ve taken up too much of your time.”
Sally suddenly realized she didn’t have time for this, and picked up the basket.
“You worked really hard today, thank you.”
I will go too.”
Having completed her mission, Claire waved goodbye with a sense of relief.
Her steps were slow and laborious as she walked away from the count’s estate.
Still, the way back was good because her hands were light.
Leaning her back against a birch tree that felt like nothing more than a feature, she took out Sally’s handkerchief and wiped her forehead, cheeks, and nape.
Claire’s brow furrowed slightly.
Her body was damp and reeked of sweat from the heat of the ovens.
She wished she could wash her face, but that’s something she couldn’t hope for in the forest.
As she rose to her feet after a brief, honeyed rest, she heard the sound of hooves on the other side of the path that cut through the forest.
There was also the sound of carriage wheels rolling over the ground.
The end of the road is the Count of Norton’s estate, so it was clear that’s where they were going.
A member of the Count’s family? Or a guest? Nobility?
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