The covers had been drawn completely over Poppy's Head. "Not yet," came her muffled protest.
Sitting on the edge of the mattress, Amelia eased the covers away from her nineteen-year-old sister. Poppy was groggy and sleep-flushed, her cheek imprinted with a line left by a fold of the bedclothes. Her brown hair, a warmer, ruddier tint than Amelia's, was a wild mass of tangles.
"I hate morning," Poppy mumbled. "And I'm sure I don't like being awakened by someone who looks so bloody pleased about it."
"I'm sorry." Continuing to smile, Amelia stroked her sister's hair away from her face repeatedly.
"Mmmn." Poppy kept her eyes closed. "Mama used to do that. Feels nice."
"Does it?" Amelia laid her hand gently over the curve of Poppy's skull. "Dear, I'm going to walk to the village to ask Freddie's mother if we can hire him as our gardener."
"Isn't he a bit young?"
"Not in comparison to the other candidates for the position."
"We have no other candidates."
"Precisely." She went to Poppy's valise in the corner, and picked up the bonnet poised atop it. "May I borrow this? Mine still hasn't been repaired."
"Of course, but... you're going right now?"
"I won't be long. I'll cover the territory quickly."
"Would you like me to go with you?"
"Thank you, dear, but no. Dress yourself and have some breakfast—and keep a close watch on Win. She's in Beatrix's care at the moment."
"Oh." Poppy's eyes widened. "I'll hurry."
It was a pleasantly cool, nearly cloudless day, the southern climate far milder than London. Amelia walked briskly through a fruit orchard beyond the garden. The tree branches were weighted with large green apples. Fallen fruit had been half eaten by deer and other animals, and left to ferment and spoil.
Pausing to tug an apple from a low-hanging branch, Amelia polished it on her sleeve and took a bite. The flavor was intensely acidic.
A honeybee buzzed close by, and Amelia jerked back in alarm. She had always been terrified of bees. Although she had tried to reason herself out of her fear, she couldn't seem to control the panic that overcame her whenever one of the dratted beasts was in the vicinity.
Hurrying from the orchard, Amelia followed a sunken lane that led past a wet meadow. Despite the lateness of the season, heavy beds of watercress flourished everywhere. Known as "poor man's bread," the delicate pepper-flavored leaves were eaten in bunches by local villagers, and made into everything from soup to goose stuffing. She would gather some on her way back, she decided.
The shortest route to the village crossed through a corner of Lord Westcliff 's estate. As Amelia passed the invisible boundary between the Ramsay estate and Stony Cross Park, she could almost feel a change in the atmosphere. She walked on the outskirts of a rustling forest, too dense for daylight to penetrate the canopy. The land was luxurious, secretive, the ancient trees anchored deeply into dark and fertile ground. Removing her bonnet, Amelia held it by the brim and enjoyed the breeze against her face.
This had been Westcliff's land for generations. She wondered what kind of people the earl and his family were. Terribly proper and traditional, she guessed. It would not be welcome news that Ramsay House was now occupied by an ill-mannered, red-blooded lot like the Hathaways.
Finding a well-worn footpath that cut through the forest, she disrupted a pair of wheatears, who flapped away with indignant chirps. Life abounded everywhere, including butterflies of almost unnatural color and beetles as bright as sparks. Taking care to stay on the footpath, Amelia picked up her skirts to keep them from dragging through the leaf litter of the forest floor.
She emerged from a copse of hazel and oak into a broad dry field. It was empty. And ominously quiet. No voices, no cheep of finches, no drone of bees or rattle of grasshoppers. Something about it filled her with the instinctive tension that warned of an unknown threat. Cautiously she proceeded up the gentle rise of the meadow.
Reaching the brow of a stunted hill, Amelia paused in bewilderment at the sight of a towering contraption made of metal. It appeared to be a chute propped up on legs, tilted at a steep angle.
Her attention was caught by a minor commotion farther afield... two men emerging from behind a small wooden shelter... they were shouting and waving their arms at her.
Amelia instantly realized she had stumbled into danger, even before she saw the smoldering trail of sparks move, snakelike, along the ground toward the metal chute.
Although she didn't know much about explosive devices, she was aware that once a fuse had been lit, nothing could be done to stop it. Dropping to the sun-warmed grass, Amelia covered her head with her arms, having every expectation of being blown to bits. A few heartbeats passed, and she let out a startled cry as she felt a large, heavy body fall on hers... no, not fall, pounce. He covered her completely, his knees digging into the ground on either side of her as he made a shelter of his body.
At the same moment, a deafening explosion pierced the air, and there was a violent whoosh over their heads, and a shock went through the ground beneath them. Too stunned to move, Amelia tried to gather her wits. Her ears were filled with a high-pitched buzz.
Her companion remained motionless over her, breathing heavily in her hair. The air was sharp with smoke, but even so, Amelia was aware of a pleasant masculine scent, skin-salt and soap and an intimate spice she couldn't quite identify. The noise in her ears faded. Raising up on her elbows, feeling the solid wall of his chest against her back, she saw shirtsleeves rolled up over forearms cabled with muscle... and there was something else...