"My sister needs no encouragement in that regard," Amelia said. She gave Beatrix a meaningful look. "It's time to say farewell to Spot, dear."
"Yes, I know." Beatrix heaved a sigh and peered inside the loose cage of her fingers at her erstwhile pet. "I'll let him go now. I think Spot would rather live here than at the Ramsay estate."
"Who wouldn't? Go find a nice place for him, Bea. I'll wait for you here."
As her sister scampered off, Amelia turned and gazed at (he dim verge of the house, its outline melding into an ironstone wall set along the bluff overlooking the river.
"What are you doing?" Cam asked, approaching her.
"I'm taking a good last look at Stony Cross Manor, since this is the last time I'll ever see it."
He grinned. "I doubt that. The Westcliffs have welcomed back guests who have done far worse."
"Worse than setting wild creatures loose at the supper table? Dear heaven, they must be desperate for company."
"They have a great tolerance for eccentricity." He paused before adding, "What they don't take well, I'm afraid, is callousness."
The reference to her brother caused a delicate play of emotions on her face, humor fading to chagrin. "Leo was never callous before." She wrapped her arms tightly across her chest, as if she wanted to tie herself into a self-protective bundle. "It's only been in the past year that he's become so intolerable. He's not himself."
"Because he inherited the title?"
"No, that has nothing to do with it. It's because? Looking away from him, she swallowed hard. He heard a nervous tapping from a foot half concealed beneath her skirts. "Leo lost someone," she finally said. "The fever struck many people in the village, including a girl he … well, he was betrothed to her. Laura." The name seemed to stick in her throat. "She was my best friend, and Win's, too. A beautiful girl. She liked to draw and paint. She had a laugh that would make you laugh, too, just to hear it."
Amelia was silent for a moment, lost in her memories. "Laura was one of the first to fall ill," she said. "Leo stayed with her every possible moment. No one expected her to die … but it happened so quickly. After three days she was so feverish and weak you could barely feel her pulse. Finally she lost consciousness and died a few hours later in Leo's arms. He came home and collapsed, and we realized he had caught the fever. And then Win had it, too."
"But the rest of you didn't?"
Amelia shook her head. "I had already sent Beatrix and Poppy away. And for some reason, neither I nor Merripen were susceptible. He helped me nurse them both through it. Without his help, they would both have died. Merripen made a syrup with some kind of toxic plant?
"Deadly nightshade," Cam said. "Not easy to find."
"Yes." She gave him a curious glance. "How did you know? You learned it from your grandmother, I suppose.
He nodded. "The trick is to administer enough to counteract the poison in the blood, but not enough to kill the patient."
"Well, both of them came through it, thank God. But Win is quite fragile, as you can probably see, and Leo … now he cares for nothing and no one. Not even himself." Her foot resumed its nervous tapping. "I don't know how to help him. I understand how it feels to lose someone, but…" She shook her head helplessly.
"You're referring to Mr. Frost," he said.
Amelia gave him a sharp glance and flushed deeply. "How did you know? Did he say something? Was there gossip, or?
"No, nothing like that'. I saw it when you talked to him earlier."
Shaking her head, Amelia raised her hand to her heat-infused cheeks. "Dear heaven. Am I that easy to read?"
"Perhaps I'm one of the PhuriDae" he said, smiling at her. "A mystical Gypsy. Were you in love with him?"
"That's none of your concern," she said, a bit too quickly.
He watched her closely. "Why did he leave you?"
"How did you? She broke off and scowled as she understood what he was doing, throwing out provocative questions and gleaning the truth from her reactions. "Bother. All right, I'll tell you. He left me for another woman. A prettier, younger woman who happened to be his employer's daughter. It would have been a very advantageous marriage for him."
Amelia gave him a perplexed glance. "I assure you, it would have been an enormously advantageous?
"She couldn't possibly have been prettier than you."
Her eyes widened at the compliment. "Oh," she whispered.
Approaching her, Cam touched her vibrating foot with his own. The tapping stopped.
"A bad habit," Amelia said abashedly. "I can't seem to rid myself of it."
"A hummingbird will do that in spring. She hangs on the side of the nest and uses her other foot to tamp down the floor."
Her gaze chased around as if she couldn't decide where to look.
"Miss Hathaway." Cam spoke gently, while she fidgeted before him. He wanted to take her in his arms and hold her until she quieted. "Do I make you nervous?"
She brought herself to look up at him, her eyes harboring the blue-black glitter of a moonlit lake. "No," she said immediately. "No, of course you… yes. Yes, you do."
The vehement honesty of her answer surprised both of them. The night deepened—one of the torches had burned out—and the conversation devolved into something halting and broken and delicious, like pieces of barley sugar melting on the tongue.