"It doesn't matter," Amelia said, striving to sound calm. "There's no time to wait. You and I are calling tomorrow, whether or not it's a proper day."
"Shall I go too?" Beatrix asked.
"No," Amelia and Poppy answered simultaneously. They were both thinking the same thing—that Beatrix might not be able to control herself during another visit.
"Thank you." Beatrix seemed relieved. "Although I'm sorry you have to undo my wrongs. I should be punished somehow. Perhaps I should confess and apologize?
"We'll resort to that if we're caught," Amelia said. "First let's try covering it up."
"Do we have to tell Leo or Win or Merripen?" Beatrix asked sheepishly.
"No," Amelia murmured, gathering her close and pressing her lips to her sister's unruly dark curls. "We'll keep this between the three of us. Poppy and I will take care of everything, dear."
"All right. Thank you." Beatrix relaxed and nestled against her with a sigh. "I only hope you can do it without getting caught."
"Of course we can," Poppy said brightly. "Don't you worry for one moment."
"Problem solved," Amelia added.
And above Beatrix's head, Amelia and Poppy looked at each other in shared panic.
"I don't know why Beatrix does these things," Poppy said the next morning, as Amelia held the ribbons of the barouche. They were on their way to Stony Cross Manor, with the stolen objects secreted in the pockets of their best day gowns.
"I'm certain she doesn't mean to," Amelia replied, her forehead furrowed with worry. "If it was intentional, Beatrix would steal things she truly wanted, like hair ribbons or gloves or candy, and she wouldn't confess afterward." She sighed. "It seems to happen when there's been a significant change in her life. When Mother and Father died, and when Leo and Win fell ill… and now, when we've uprooted ourselves and moved to Hampshire. We'll just smooth this over as best we can, and try to ensure that Beatrix is in a calm and serene atmosphere."
"There is no such thing as 'calm and serene' in our household," Poppy said glumly. "Oh, Amelia, why must our family be so odd?"
"We're not odd."
Poppy batted her hands in a dismissive gesture. "Odd people never think they're odd."
"I'm perfectly ordinary," Amelia protested.
Amelia glanced at her in surprise. "Why in heaven's name would you say 'ha' to that?"
"You try to manage everything and everyone. And you don't trust anyone outside the family. You're like a porcupine. No one can get past the quills."
"Well, I like that," Amelia said indignantly. "Being compared to a large prickly rodent, when I've decided to spend the rest of my entire life looking after the family?
"No one's asked that of you."
"Someone has to do it. And I'm the oldest Hathaway."
"Leo's the oldest."
"I'm the oldest sober Hathaway."
"That still doesn't mean you have to martyr yourself."
"I'm not a martyr, I'm merely being responsible. And you're ungrateful!"
"Would you prefer gratitude or a husband? Personally, I'd take the husband."
"I don't want a husband."
They bickered all the way to Stony Cross Manor. By the time they arrived, they were both cross and surly. However, as a footman came to assist them out, they pasted false smiles on their faces and linked tense arms as they walked to the front door.
They waited in the entrance hall as the butler went to announce their arrival. To Amelia's vast relief, he showed them to the parlor and informed them that Lady Westcliff would be with them directly.
Venturing farther into the airy parlor, with its vases of fresh flowers, and satinwood furniture and light blue silk upholstery, and the cheerful blaze in the white marble fireplace, Poppy exclaimed, "Oh, it's so pretty in here, and it smells so lovely, and look how the windows sparkle!"
Amelia was silent, but she couldn't help agreeing. Seeing this immaculate parlor, so far removed from the dust and squalor of Ramsay House, made her feel guilty and sullen.
"Don't take off your bonnet," she said as Poppy untied her ribbons. "You're supposed to leave it on during a formal call."
"Only in town," Poppy argued. "In the country, etiquette is more relaxed. And I hardly think Lady Westcliff would mind."
A woman's voice came from the doorway. "Mind what?" It was Lady Westcliff, her slender form clad in a pink gown, her dark hair gathered at the back of her head in shining curls. Her smile was wrought of mischief and easy charm. She held hands with a dark-haired toddler in a blue dress, a miniature version of herself with big round eyes the color of gingerbread.
"My lady …" Amelia and Poppy both bowed. Deciding to be frank, Amelia said, "Lady Westcliff, we were just debating whether or not we should remove our bonnets."
"Good God, don't bother with formality," Lady Westcliff exclaimed, coming in with the child. "Off with the bonnets, by all means. And do call me Lillian. This is my daughter, Merritt. She and I are having a bit of playtime before her morning nap."
"I hope we're not interrupting? Poppy began apologetically.
"Not at all. If you can tolerate our romping during your visit, we're more than happy to have you, I've sent for tea." Before long they were all chatting easily. Merritt quickly lost all vestige of shyness and showed them her favorite doll named Annie, and a collection of pebbles and leaves from her pocket. Lady Westcliff—Lillian—was an openly affectionate and playful mother, showing no compunction about kneeling on the floor to look for fallen pebbles beneath the table.