“The devil knows why my life should be ruined,” Devon Ravenel said grimly, “all because a cousin I never liked fell from a horse.”
“Theo didn’t fall, precisely,” his younger brother, Weston, replied. “He was thrown.”
“Obviously the horse found him as insufferable as I did.” Devon paced around the receiving room in restless, abbreviated strides. “If Theo hadn’t already broken his damned neck, I’d like to go and break it for him.”
West sent him a glance of exasperated amusement. “How can you complain when you’ve just inherited an earldom that confers an estate in Hampshire, lands in Norfolk, a house in London —”
“All entailed. Forgive my lack of enthusiasm for land and properties that I’ll never own and can’t sell.”
“You may be able to break the entailment, depending on how it was settled. If so, you could sell everything and be done with it.”
“God willing.” Devon glanced at a bloom of mold in the corner with disgust. “No one could reasonably expect me to live here. The place is a shambles.”
This was the first time either of them had ever set foot in Eversby Priory, the ancestral family domain built over the remains of a monastic residence and church. Although Devon had become ennobled shortly after his cousin’s death three months ago, he had waited as long as possible before facing the mountain of problems he now confronted.
So far he had seen only this room and the entrance hall, the two areas that were supposed to impress visitors the most. The rugs were worn, the furniture threadbare, the plaster wall moldings dingy and cracked. None of this boded well for the condition of the rest of the house.
“It needs refurbishing,” West admitted.
“It needs to be razed to the ground.”
“It’s not so bad —” West broke off with a yelp as his foot began to sink into a depression in the rug. He hopped away and stared at the bowl-shaped indentation. “What the deuce…?”
Devon bent and lifted the corner of the rug to reveal a rotting hole in the flooring beneath. Shaking his head, he dropped the rug back into place and went to a window fitted with diamond-shaped panes. The lead came that joined the window glass was corroded, the hinges and fittings rusted.
“Why hasn’t that been repaired?” West asked.
“For want of money, obviously.”
“But how could that be? The estate comes with twenty thousand acres. All those tenants, the annual yields —”
“Estate farming is no longer profitable.”
Devon sent him a dark glance before returning his attention to the view. “Anywhere.”
The Hampshire scenery was green and bucolic, neatly divided by bottle-green hedgerows in bloom. However, somewhere beyond the cheerful huddles of thatched-roof cottages and the fertile tracts of chalk down and ancient woodland, thousands of miles of steel track were being laid out for an onslaught of locomotive engines and railcars. All across England, new factories and mill towns had begun to appear faster than hazel catkins in the spring. It had been Devon’s bad luck to inherit a title just as a tide of industry was sweeping away aristocratic traditions and entitled modes of living.
“How do you know?” his brother asked.
“Everyone knows, West. Grain prices have collapsed. When did you last read an issue of the Times? Have you paid no attention to the discussions at the club or the taverns?”
“Not when the subject was farming,” came West’s dour reply. He sat heavily, rubbing his temples. “I don’t like this. I thought we had agreed never to be serious about anything.”
“I’m trying. But death and poverty have a way of making everything seem rather less amusing.” Leaning his forehead against the windowpane, Devon said morosely, “I’ve always enjoyed a comfortable life without having to perform a single day of honest labor. Now I have responsibilities.” He said the word as if it were a profanity.
“I’ll help you think of ways to avoid them.” Rummaging in his coat, West pulled a silver flask from an inside pocket. He uncapped it and took a long swallow.
Devon’s brows lifted. “Isn’t it a bit early for that? You’ll be stewed by noon.”
“Yes, but it won’t happen unless I start now.” West tilted the flask again.
The habits of self-indulgence, Devon reflected with concern, were catching up with his younger brother. West was a tall and handsome man of four-and-twenty, with a wily intelligence that he preferred to use as seldom as possible. In the past year, an excess of strong drink had lent a ruddy cast to West’s cheeks, and softened his neck and waistline. Although Devon had made a point of never interfering in his brother’s affairs, he wondered if he should mention something about his swilling. No, West would only resent the unwanted advice.
After replacing the flask in his coat, West steepled his hands and regarded Devon over the tips of his fingers. “You need to acquire capital, and sire an heir. A rich wife would solve both problems.”
Devon blanched. “You know I’ll never marry.” He understood his limitations: He wasn’t meant to be a husband or father. The idea of repeating the travesty of his childhood, with himself in the role of the cruel and indifferent parent, made his skin crawl. “When I die,” he continued, “you’re next in line.”
“Do you actually believe I’ll outlive you?” West asked. “With all my vices?”