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Page 4

“I think Beatrix will find someone when the time is right. And you’re trying to bend fate to your will, which never works.” He smoothed her hair back and kissed her forehead. “Relax. Let your sister follow her own path.”

“I’m not good at relaxing,” Amelia said, a rueful grin tugging at the corners of her mouth. “I’m far better at worrying.”

Cam slid a protective hand over the slight curve of her stomach. “I can’t allow that in your condition. Come upstairs with me, and I’ll see if I can help.”

“Thank you, but I don’t need a nap.”

“I wasn’t thinking about a nap.”

Meeting his gaze, Amelia saw the glint in his eyes, and her color rose. “In the middle of the day?” she asked faintly.

A soft laugh escaped him. He stood and pulled her up from the settee, and kept her hand in his. “By the time I’ve finished with you, hummingbird, you won’t remember what you were worried about.”

Chapter Three

Beatrix kept the young owl close to her body, stroking the sleek feathers of her back. She felt the nervous clench of the bird’s talons against the leather gauntlet. The owl was light, fragile, and yet filled with tensile strength. “It’s all right,” she said gently. “I’ll take care of you. I’ll have you well soon, so you can fly back to your family.”

“My sister is right, you know,” she said as she carried the owl toward the barn.

“I want to find a mate. But I’ve been through two seasons, and I’ve met a thousand men. And they’re all so languid and lifeless, and most of them spend their days in idle amusement, waiting for someone to die so they can inherit. They take pride in being sophisticated, which means they say the opposite of what they really mean, and then you’re supposed to praise them for being clever. Ha. At least when male owls come courting, they’ll bring food for you.”

The bird clicked quietly, her entire body vibrating.

“I agree,” Beatrix said. “One has to take the best of what’s offered.” A wistful smile touched her lips, and she curved her long fingers protectively around the stocky little body. “It’s just that I can’t help wishing to find someone who sees the world as I do. How silly and senseless all these rules are. Manners, corsets, gossip, asparagus forks . . . and heaven help me, polite conversation. If I can’t talk about something real, I’d rather not talk at all.”

She paused as the owl chattered at her. “What kind of man, you ask? I haven’t the least idea. I like the idea of marrying a Rom, but it’s awfully difficult to make them stay in one place. And I don’t want to roam the world. I like Hampshire. I’m quite territorial, actually.”

Entering the barn, a large limestone building, she made her way to the upper hayloft. It was a chall barn, built into a slope so that both the first and ground floors were accessible without the need for steps. Down below, there was central threshing floor, a row of cattle shippons, and built-in sheds for carts and implements.

Beatrix went to a corner of the hayloft, and settled the owl into a nest box.

“Here you are,” she said tenderly. “A dry, safe place for you to rest. In just a little while I’ll take my ferret Dodger to the granary, and we’ll catch dinner for you.”

Sunlight pressed through the slats of a louvered window, sending bright yellow stripes across the hayloft. Sitting by the nest box, Beatrix watched the owl preen herself. “Is there someone waiting for you?” she asked. “Someone who’s wondering where you’ve gone?”

Leaning her head back against the wall, Beatrix closed her eyes and inhaled the comforting incense of hay and cattle and barn-smells. “The problem is, I’m not going to find the man I want in a stuffy London drawing-room. I want . . .”

But she fell silent, unable to confess or describe the intense yearning she felt, the caged feeling that would only be released by someone whose force of will equaled her own. She wanted to be loved . . . to be overtaken, challenged, surprised. And she had found no one like her imaginary lover in the succession of passive town dandies she’d met during the season.

Picking up a stalk of hay, she nibbled thoughtfully at the tip, tasting its dry sweetness. “Is it possible that I’ve already met him but somehow overlooked him? I can’t imagine it. I’m sure he’s not the sort of man one could--”

“Miss Beatrix!” It was a young boy’s voice, coming from the open threshing area below. “Miss Beatrix, are you up there?”

Beatrix’s brows lifted. “Excuse me,” she told the owl, and went to peer over the edge of the hayloft. “Thomas,” she exclaimed upon seeing one of the servants, an eleven year-old hall boy named Thomas. He lived with his parents in the village and came to work at Ramsay house every day after attending school. A busy, bright-eyed child, Thomas was given tasks such as polishing boots or cutlery, or assisting the footmen in their work. “How are you?”

His round face was glum as he gazed up at her. “Awful, miss.”

“What is the matter?” Beatrix asked in concern.

“I’ve just come from seeing Fulloway’s traveling menagerie show in the village.

I should have saved my tuppence.”

Beatrix nodded, a frown pinching her forehead. The exhibition practices of such traveling menageries were criminal, in her opinion. Exotic animals such as tigers, lions and zebras were conveyed from town to town in so-called “beast wagons,” and displayed to the public, along with bands and jugglers and other entertainments. The animals always looked dispirited and maltreated, which filled Beatrix with outrage. It was inhuman to take an animal from the wild and confine it to a cage to be gawked at for the rest of its life.

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