“Perhaps he needs some time to recover after the death of his mother.”

A smile twisted the man’s mouth. “Just like a woman. You think a poor dumb brute’s got feelings, when Ollie’s only shirking. And considering what he eats, he’d better earn his keep!” He came to the dispirited creature, jabbing him with the bull hook. “Time to dance, Ollie. You’ll perform while the band plays, or I’ll make short work of you.”

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“May I speak to him?” Beatrix asked impulsively. “Just for a moment?”

“Speak to him?” The request earned an incredulous glance, and he viewed her as if she were a halfwit. “Who the blazes are you?”

“This is Miss Hathaway,” Thomas said, before Beatrix could hush him. “Animals love her—she can speak their language. Please let her talk to him, sir!”

The man began to laugh, shaking his head. “Speak elephant, do you?”

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“No, sir,” Beatrix said with dignity. “It’s only that I treat animals with kindness and respect. Most of them respond quite well to that. You might try it sometime.”

The quiet rebuke seemed to sail right over his head. “Go on, then. See if you can wheedle him into doing his job. And if your means don’t work, mine will.”

Beatrix nodded and lowered to the ground. “Ollie,” she said softly. “Poor Ollie. . . you must believe that I’m a friend.” Reaching her slender arm through the slats, she rested her hand on the ground, palm-up. “I know you don’t feel like eating, or dancing, or doing any of the things they want of you. I know your heart is broken. I lost my mother when I was young, too. And the truth is, you’ll never stop missing her.

But there are others who will love you. Who want to help you. And I’m one of them.”

As Beatrix spoke, an inquiring trunk crept toward her hand and touched her palm gently. She curved her fingers against the warm, rough skin. After a moment, Ollie held his trunk up to her face, seeking the scent of her breath. “I’ll help you,” she whispered. “Trust me. But for now, please get up and do as he asks.”

The elephant reached for the apple, picked it up, and tucked it into his mouth.

Chewing slowly, he lurched to a sitting position, his bottom legs splayed in the manner of a young child.

“He’s doing it,” Thomas said in gratified wonder.

The man with the bull hook let out a bark of surprised laughter.

It seemed none of them dared to speak, watching as Ollie got up one leg at a time. He faced Beatrix, standing as close as possible to the fence to view her with clear, heavily-lashed brown eyes. His trunk reached over the fence, and Beatrix extended her arm. Carefully he wrapped his trunk around her arm up to the elbow, a sort of elephant handshake.

“That’s enough,” the man declared, reasserting his dominance over the situation. “If you want to view the elephant, you can pay tuppence and go through the entrance along with the other visitors.”

“Not a word of thanks?” Thomas asked indignantly. “If it weren’t for Miss Hathaway—”

“That’s perfectly all right,” Beatrix interrupted, gently disentangling her arm from the elephant, trying desperately to ignore his stare of mournful appeal. “We have to go now. Goodbye, Ollie.”

For now, she added silently, and forced herself to walk away.

Chapter Four

A summer storm assailed Hampshire the night before Win and Merripen’s wedding, lashing Stony Cross with rain and high winds that damaged homes and brought down trees. Thankfully there were no reports of injury to any of the village residents, and the morning rose bright and clear.

Win awoke with the vague memory of Kev having left her some time after midnight, so as not to risk the bad luck of seeing his bride on the wedding morning. My superstitious Rom, she thought with a drowsy smile, curling her arms around the pillow he had used.

“Good morning, dear,” came Amelia’s cheerful voice.

“Good morning.” Win sat up and yawned. “It’s my wedding day! I thought it would never arrive.”

“Oh, it’s here,” Amelia said wryly, coming into the room. She was wearing a ruffled white dressing-robe and carrying a cup of tea. She gave the tea to Win and sat carefully on the edge of the mattress.

“Have you been up and about for long?” Win asked.

“Nearly a half-hour. And I have a great deal of news to report.”

Win’s fine brows lifted. “Are we having any of the bad luck that Kev was worried about?”

“To start with, Beatrix awoke with a head-cold, quite a snifter. I think she must have gone out to the barn during the storm to see if her owl was all right. She tracked in a cartload of mud and water, and the housekeeper is annoyed.”

“Poor Bea,” Win said in concern, lifting the tea cup to her lips.

“There’s more. The vicar sent a boy from the village this morning to tell us that a tree fell onto the room of the church and knocked part of it in. And the rain poured into the chancel and main sanctuary.”

“Oh no.” Win frowned. Perhaps Kev’s forebodings had been right, after all.

“Does that mean we’ll have to put the wedding off?”

“Were the bridegroom anyone other than Merripen, I would say yes. But he’s being stubborn. Cam and Leo are talking with him downstairs.”

They were both silent for a moment, listening intently.

“I don’t hear any shouting,” Win said.

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