"... that was the most terrible medicine," she was saying cheerfully.
"It worked," Merripen pointed out, bending to settle her carefully on the chaise.
"That doesn't mean I forgive you for bullying me into taking it."
"It was for your own good."
"You're a bully," Win repeated, smiling into his dark face.
"Yes, I know," Merripen murmured, tucking the lap blankets around her with extreme care.
Delighted by the improvement in her sister's condition, Amelia smiled. "He really is dreadful. But if he manages to persuade more villagers to help clean the house, you will have to forgive him, Win."
Win's blue eyes twinkled. She spoke to Amelia, while her gaze remained on Merripen. "I have every faith in his powers of persuasion."
Coming from anyone else, the words might have been construed as a piece of flirtation. But Amelia was fairly certain that Win had no awareness of Merripen as a man. To her he was a kindly older brother, nothing more.
The feelings on Merripen's side, however, were more ambiguous.
An inquisitive gray jackdaw flapped to the ground with a few tchacks, and made a tentative hop in Win's direction. "I'm sorry," she told the bird, "there's no food to share."
A new voice entered the conversation. "Yes there is!" It was Beatrix, carrying a breakfast tray containing a plate of toast and a mug of tea. Her curly dark hair had been pulled back into an untidy bunch, and she wore a white pinafore over her berry-colored dress.
The pinafore was too young a style for a girl of fifteen, Amelia thought. Beatrix was now at an age when she should be wearing her skirts to the floor. And a corset, heaven help her. But in the past year of turmoil, Amelia hadn't given much thought to her youngest sister's attire. She needed to take Beatrix and Poppy to a dressmaker, and have some new frocks made for them. Adding that to the long list of expenditures in her head, Amelia frowned.
"Here's your breakfast, Win," Beatrix said, settling the tray on her lap. "Are you feeling well enough to butter the
toast yourself, or shall I?"
"I will, thank you." Win moved her feet and gestured for Beatrix to sit at the other end of the chaise.
Beatrix obeyed promptly. "I'm going to read to you while you sit out here," she informed Win, reaching into one of the huge pockets of her pinafore. She withdrew a little book and dangled it tantalizingly. "This book was given to me by Philomena Parsons, my best friend in the entire world. She says it's a terrifying story filled with crimes and horrors and vengeful phantoms. Doesn't it sound lovely?"
"1 thought your best friend in the world was Edwina Huddersneld," Win said with a questioning lilt.
"Oh, no, that was weeks ago. Edwina and I don't even speak now." Snuggling comfortably in her corner, Beatrix gave her older sister a perplexed glance. "Win? You have the oddest look on your face. Is something the matter?"
Win had frozen in the act of lifting a teacup to her lips, her blue eyes round with alarm.
Following her sister's gaze, Amelia saw a small reptilian creature slithering up Beatrix's shoulder. A sharp cry escaped her lips, and she moved forward with her hands raised.
Beatrix glanced at her shoulder. "Oh, drat. You're supposed to stay in my pocket." She plucked the wriggling object from her shoulder and stroked him gently. "A spotted sand lizard," she said. "Isn't he adorable? I found him in my room last night."
Amelia lowered her hands and stared dumbly at her youngest sister.
"You've made a pet of him?" Win asked weakly. "Beatrix, dear, don't you think he would be happier in the forest where he belongs?"
Beatrix looked indignant. "With all those predators? Spot wouldn't last a minute."
Amelia found her voice. "He won't last a minute with me, either. Get rid of him, Bea, or I'm going to flatten him with the nearest heavy object I can find."
"You would murder my pet?"
"One doesn't murder lizards, Bea. One exterminates them." Exasperated, Amelia turned to Merripen. "Find some cleaning women in the village, Merripen. God knows how many other unwanted creatures are lurking in the house. Not counting Leo."
Merripen disappeared at once.
"Spot is the perfect pet," Beatrix argued. "He doesn't bite, and he's already house-trained."
"I draw the line at pets with scales."
Beatrix stared at her mutinously. "The sand lizard is a native species of Hampshire—which means Spot has more right to be here than we do."
"Nevertheless, we will not be cohabiting." Walking away before she said something she would regret later, Amelia wondered why, when there was so much to be done, Beatrix would be so troublesome. But a smile rose to her lips as she reflected that fifteen-year-old girls didn't choose to be troublesome. They simply were.
Lifting handfuls of her skirts to pull them away from her legs, Amelia bounded up the grand central staircase. Since they would not be receiving guests or paying calls, she had decided not to wear a corset that day. It was a wonderful feeling to breathe as deeply as she wished and move freely about the house.
Filled with determination, she pounded on Leo's door. '"Wake up, slugabed!"
A string of foul words filtered through the heavy oak panels.
Grinning, Amelia went into Poppy's room. She pulled the curtains open, releasing clouds of dust that caused her to sneeze. "Poppy, it's... achoo!... time to get out of bed."