Mrs Bletherow was castigating her poor companion again, oblivious to her audience.
Every group was different, and most groups had someone who was troublesome. Tad Berry could cheerfully handle the drunkards, the would-be Casanovas, the know-it-alls. But he hated bullies. His muscles burned with the effort it took to keep from rescuing the Bletherow hag’s drab shadow. Not his place. She was a free adult woman, and if she chose to stay with an employer who treated her so poorly, it was nothing to do with him.
His partner nudged him. “She don’t run out of steam, that one, eh?”
“Miss Thompson should tell her to go soak her head, Atame. Old crow.”
Tad and Atame had met them in Auckland two days ago, eight tourists seeking to view what Rotorua billed as the eighth wonder of the world. Tomorrow, they’d make their way to Te Wairoa, and the day after the locals would convey them to the Pink and White Terraces, dimpled with hot pools and cascading down their respective hillsides to a peaceful lake.
All through the boat trip to Tauranga and the coach journey to this Rotorua guest house, Mrs Bletherow had found fault with everything Miss Thompson did or failed to do. She had brought her employer the wrong book, failed to block out the sun, been too slow in the queue for food, put too much milk in Mrs Bletherow’s tea. Tad wouldn’t have blamed Miss Thompson for adding arsenic.
The withered wiry maid was as sour as her mistress, and attracted none of the old harridan’s contempt. She stood now at Mrs Bletherow’s elbow, nodding along with the woman’s complaints. “You knew we would be dining properly this evening. You deliberately packed the green gown in the large trunk. You must go and find it this instant, do you hear me?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Miss Thompson said.
“See that you are quick. Parrish shall attend me in my room, and I want my gown by the time I am washed.” Mrs Bletherow sailed up the stairs, Parrish scurrying along in her wake.
Tad unfolded himself from the wall as Miss Thompson approached, her rather fine hazel eyes downcast. She began apologising while she was still several paces away. “I am very sorry for the inconvenience, Mr Berry, but I need to ask you to offload another of Mrs Bletherow’s trunks.”
“Of course, Miss Thompson. If you tell me which one, I shall bring it up to her room.”
She looked up at that, her brows drawing slightly together. “I am not sure, Mr Berry. I know which one it should be in, but Parrish finished the packing. May I come with you?”
He nodded, though the stables were no place for a lady. And Miss Thompson was a lady, and of better birth than the Bletherow, unless he missed his guess. Which, come to think of it, might be part of the reason for her ill-treatment. Not that a bully needed a reason, beyond opportunity and a suitable victim.
They needed to unload half the luggage before uncovering the trunk Miss Thompson wanted, and then it proved to be the wrong one.
Tad brushed off Miss Thompson’s apologies. “No matter. We shall just try the others.” But the gown was not in the smaller trunk, any of the leather bags, or even the hat boxes. They had offloaded all Mrs Bletherow’s baggage and even the single trunk holding her own spare wardrobe and a second belonging to Parish, and Miss Thompson had unlocked and hunted through them all.
“If this is everything, Miss Thompson,” Tad said at last, “I fear the garment has been left behind at a previous stop.”
“Do you, Mr Berry?” Tad’s hands on the straps he was rebuckling stilled at the bitter undertones in the lady’s voice, and he looked up. They were working by lamplight, but he could see well enough. Blazing eyes, thinned lips, skin drained of colour but for two hectic spots of colour high on her cheeks. Miss Thompson was quietly furious. “Perhaps you are right. I apologise for putting you to all this trouble.”