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Page 3

“Beatrix,” Amelia said, “before you go, might I have a word with you?”

“Yes, have I done something?” Beatrix gave her a cheerfully quizzical glance, her blue eyes nearly as round as the owl’s.

She was a striking girl of nineteen, not classically beautiful as Win and Poppy were, but she possessed a sweet, coltish grace and a winsome appeal that charmed everyone who met her. Most irresistible of all, she had a smile that flashed out of nowhere, textured with sly irreverence. Beatrix was radiant, open, and as curious as her pet ferret Dodger.

What kind of man would ever be right for Beatrix? A young one, perhaps.

Someone who would not crush her exuberant nature. But might Beatrix be better off with someone older? Someone who would curb her impulsiveness and protect her?

Ironically, during the two seasons that Beatrix and Poppy had spent in London, Beatrix had been infinitely more sought-after. And Beatrix couldn’t have cared less about finding someone to marry. Whereas poor Poppy, who wanted desperately to have her own family, had had very little success so far.

“I think it’s because Poppy becomes nervous around gentlemen, and she starts talking very fast,” Beatrix had confided to Amelia.

“But you don’t feel nervous around them?” Amelia had asked.

“Well, no. I merely ask questions to keep them talking, and they seem pleased with that.”

Bringing her mind to the present, Amelia smiled at her youngest sister, who was in her usual state of disarray. The hems of Beatrix’s skirts were muddy, and her dark brown hair was falling from its pins, and there was a smudge at the tip of her adorable nose.

“No, you haven’t done anything,” Amelia said. “I merely wanted to mention that much of the local gentry will be attending Win’s wedding next week.” A wry smile twisted her face as she added, “And it has been impressed on me by some well-meaning friends that there will be eligible gentlemen present.”

Beatrix’s expression was similar to the one she had worn when the live mice were mentioned. “Poppy can have them. She wants to get married much more than I do.”

“Yes, but . . . Bea . . . you’re of the appropriate age as well, and . . .” Amelia paused, searching earnestly for words. “What I’m asking is that you let yourself be open to the possibility of liking one of these gentlemen.”

“You want to marry me off?” Beatrix asked blankly.

“No, it’s not that . . . it’s only that I see how absorbed you are in your creatures. You’re intent on helping them and caring for them to the exclusion of all else. But the opportunities you have now won’t always be available. Most young women don’t have more than three seasons in London before they’re considered . . .”

“On the shelf?” Beatrix suggested.

The owl looked expectantly from Beatrix to Amelia, its round face mildly concerned.

Amelia grimaced. “I detest that expression. It makes an unmarried girl sound like a book no one’s reading.”

Beatrix shrugged. “I’d rather be on the shelf than marry any of the gentlemen I’ve met so far.” She looked genuinely contrite. “I’m sorry, Amelia. I know you’re giving me practical advice, as always. Truly, I’ve tried to like the gentlemen I’ve met, but none of them is very interesting or appealing.”

“Perhaps one of them has hidden qualities,” Amelia said, making room for Cam as he sat beside her. “I wonder, Bea, if you might try to view gentlemen with the same sympathetic interest that you have for animals? In some regards, they’re not all that different. What I mean is—” She broke off and scowled at Cam, who had dissolved into helpless laughter. “Oh, hush, you know what I’m trying to say!”

Beatrix was trying unsuccessfully to hide a grin. “I understand, Amelia. I promise that from now on, I’ll try to think of eligible gentlemen as an interesting new species.”

After her younger sister had left, Amelia buried her face in her hands. A groan escaped through her fingers. “What are we to do with her?”

Cam smiled and pulled her close. He spoke in a soothing tone not unlike the one he had used for the tawny owl. “Be at ease, monisha. No ordinary man will do for Beatrix. We’ll have to let him appear in his own time.”

“He’s taking too long.”

“Beatrix is only nineteen, love.”

“I know that. But she needs someone, Cam. Someone just for her. There’s a restlessness in her, a sense of aloneness . . . whatever it is, it makes her want to draw away from the family. She spends far too much time rambling alone in the wood. Even after Miss Mark’s etiquette instructions, Beatrix is still only half-civilized.”

Cam drew back to look at her, his gaze steady and thoughtful. “Having her marry the wrong person won’t solve the problem.”

“No, and I certainly don’t want that. It’s just that if the right man does come along, Beatrix will be so busy trimming alpaca hooves or rescuing orphaned badgers that she won’t notice him.”

Cam smiled. “She doesn’t have an alpaca.”

“Yet.” Amelia gave a rueful sigh. “I’m afraid this obsession with animals is Beatrix’s way of avoiding risk and pain. She’s never been quite the same since Mother and Father died. She was so young—I think losing them both so quickly affected her more than the rest of us.” Met with his silence, she gave him an anxious glance. “What do you think?”

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