“Thank you so much, sweetheart,” the woman said.
Sadie followed her into a large kitchen filled with the scents of baking. “No problem,” she replied, feeling her body relax almost instantly into an environment that held some familiarity for her. Being behind the scenes was much more her forte. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Stacks of prepared foods in boxes lined several feet of counters. Coolers ran the length of the wall beneath the windows. A glimpse into an open pantry showed shelves lined with dishes and glasses. “Are you doing all of this yourself?” Sadie asked.
“Bless your heart for asking,” the woman said, wiping her now empty hands on her apron before extending one toward Sadie. “I’m Marie, the Blackstones’ cook and housekeeper.” She glanced around at the organized chaos. “And while they know I can work miracles, no, they didn’t leave me to do this alone. But the girls who are helping me have taken a quick break.”
She shrugged her tiny shoulders, making her Kiss the Cook apron dance. “I thought we would have a bit of a lull, but I was obviously wrong. Normally Nolen would help, but he’s got his hands full, too. But those girls have been on their feet all day—they deserve to at least eat lunch sitting down.”
“And you don’t?” Sadie asked, but she knew exactly how this went. When an event was in full swing, you simply performed the most urgent task, then the next, and the next, until everyone was satisfied. But this event would go on for a few days, which could get grueling.
Reaching for an apron hanging nearby, Sadie draped it over her dark gray dress. “Just point me in the right direction.”
They chatted seamlessly for a good twenty minutes as they prepared and replaced platters. Sadie brushed aside Marie’s protests as she loaded the dishwasher. It needed doing, so she did it.
Until a six-foot-two hunk of dark charisma walked through the doorway. Sadie couldn’t help it—her every motion stopped, including her breath. Not too long, but long enough for Marie to notice.
Long enough to earn her a knowing grin from the older woman.
“So you’re still here,” Zach said.
If she hadn’t been glancing in his direction, Sadie wouldn’t have known he was speaking to her. She straightened. “Where else would I be?”
“When you disappeared, I assumed you went home without at least saying hi.”
Her heartbeat resumed, a little faster this time. For a moment, she’d thought he meant here as in Black Hills, not here as in Blackstone Manor. “No, I’m just trying to lend a hand.”
His dark gaze slid over to Marie. “She’s good at that, isn’t she?”
He approached the older woman and folded her carefully into his arms, as if she were too fragile to be in charge of an army’s worth of food. “I’m sorry, Marie.”
Tears prickled behind Sadie’s eyes as the older woman seemed to melt into him. She’d given Sadie, and probably everyone else, the impression that she was coping just fine, thank you very much. But one hug and the facade shattered. She didn’t cry, but the pain showed on her aging face nonetheless.
“I’d been with her since she was a baby,” Marie said.
“I know,” Zach murmured, so tender Sadie had to look away.
“The car accident was hard,” Marie went on. “But she was still here, still with us. Then the stroke...she’s really been gone since then, but it wasn’t real, you know.”
The words struck Sadie’s heart unexpectedly. There were times when her sister got so sick that she disappeared into unconsciousness for days. One time the doctors had to put her in a medically induced coma. But she always came back...there was always hope. Lily Blackstone had had none.
A rustle of fabric drew Sadie’s gaze once more. Marie had straightened and was smoothing down her apron. “I wish she could have been here to see all the boys come home.” She smiled at Zach, though it was a little shaky around the edges. “Your sister. Carter. This new young’un on the way. She would have loved all of it.”
Life. It had been all around Lily, but she’d been unaware. Amber was the same, in certain ways. Her life was a series of doctor visits, debilitating treatments, recuperating and quiet nights at home with her mom and sister.