West chuckled, not above the enjoyment of a malicious quip.
Totthill and Fogg, for their part, kept their gazes down.
Kathleen crossed the threshold and sent the door shuddering with a violent slam.
“Brother,” West said with mock chiding, “that was beneath you.”
“Nothing’s beneath me,” Devon replied, stone-faced. “You know that.”
For a long time after Totthill and Fogg had left, Devon remained at the desk and brooded. Opening an account book, he paged through it without absorbing anything. He was barely aware of the moment when West wandered out of the study, yawning and grumbling. Feeling strangled, Devon unknotted his necktie with a few impatient tugs and opened the front of his collar.
Christ, how he wanted to be back at his London terrace, where everything was well maintained and comfortable and familiar. If Theo were still the earl, and he were still merely the black sheep cousin, he would have gone for a morning ride on the Hyde Park bridle path, and afterward he might have enjoyed a good meal at his club. Later he would have met with friends to watch a boxing match or a horse race, attend the theater, and chase after lightskirts. No responsibility, nothing to worry about.
Nothing to lose.
The sky rumbled as if to underscore his sullen spirits. Devon cast a murderous glance at the window. Rain-tumbled air had pushed inland to settle over the downs, darkening the sky to vestment-black. It would be a ripper of a storm.
“My lord.” A timid rap at the doorjamb drew his attention.
Recognizing Helen, Devon rose to his feet. He tried to make his expression pleasant. “Lady Helen.”
“Forgive me for disturbing you.”
Helen entered the room cautiously. Her gaze swerved to the window before moving back to him. “Thank you, my lord. I came to tell you that with the storm moving in so fast, I would like to send out a footman to search for Kathleen.”
Devon frowned. He hadn’t been aware that Kathleen had left the house. “Where is she?”
“She has gone to visit the tenant farm on the other side of the hill. She took a basket of broth and elderberry wine to Mrs. Lufton, who is recovering from childbirth fever. I asked Kathleen if I could accompany her, but she insisted on walking alone. She said she needed the solitude.” Helen’s fingers wove together into a pale knot. “She should have returned by now, but the weather has come in so quickly that I fear she might be caught out in it.”
There was nothing in the world that Devon would love more than the sight of Kathleen rain-soaked and bedraggled. He had to restrain himself from rubbing his hands together in villainous glee.
“There’s no need to send a footman,” he said casually. “I’m certain that Lady Trenear will have the sense to stay at the tenant farm until the rain passes.”
“Yes, but the downs will have turned to mud.”
Better and better. Kathleen, wading through mud and clay. Devon fought to keep his expression grave, when inside all was joy and exploding Roman candles. He went to the window. No rain yet, but dark clouds seeped through the sky like ink on wet parchment. “We’ll wait a bit longer. She could return momentarily.”
Lightning bolts pierced the firmament, a trio of brilliant jagged streaks accompanied by a series of cracks that sounded like shattering glass.
Helen drew closer. “My lord, I am aware that you and my sister-in-law exchanged words earlier —”
“‘Exchanged words’ would imply that we had a civilized debate,” he said. “Had it lasted any longer, we would have torn each other to shreds.”
A frown corrugated her smooth brow. “You both find yourself in difficult circumstances. Sometimes that causes people to say things they don’t mean. However, if you and Kathleen could manage to set aside your differences —”
“Lady Helen —”
“Do call me cousin.”
“Cousin, you will avoid much future distress if you learn to see people as they really are, instead of as you wish them to be.”
Helen smiled faintly. “I already do.”
“If that were true, you would understand that Lady Trenear and I are correct in our assessments of each other. I am a scoundrel, and she is a heartless bitch who’s entirely capable of looking after herself.”
Helen’s eyes, the silvery-blue of moonstones, widened in concern. “My lord, I have come to know Kathleen very well in our shared grief over my brother’s passing —”
“I doubt she feels much grief,” Devon interrupted brusquely. “By her own admission, she hasn’t shed a single tear over your brother’s death.”
Helen blinked. “She told you that? But she didn’t explain why?”
Devon shook his head.
Looking perturbed, Helen said, “It isn’t my story to tell.”
Concealing an instant flare of curiosity, Devon shrugged casually. “Don’t concern yourself with it, then. My opinion of her won’t alter.”
As he had intended, the show of indifference pushed Helen into talking. “If it helps you to understand Kathleen a little better,” she said uncertainly, “perhaps I should explain something. Will you swear on your honor to keep it in confidence?”
“Of course,” Devon said readily. Having no honor, he never hesitated to promise something on it.
Helen went to one of the windows. Fissures of lightning crackled across the sky, illuminating her delicate features with a blue-white flash. “When I didn’t see Kathleen cry after Theo’s accident, I assumed it was because she preferred to keep her emotions private. People have different ways of grieving. But one evening as she and I sat in the parlor with needlework, I saw her prick her finger, and… she didn’t react. It was as if she hadn’t even felt it. She sat watching a drop of blood form, until I couldn’t bear it any longer. I wrapped her finger with a handkerchief, and asked what was the matter. She was ashamed and confused… she said she never cried, but she thought that she would have at least been able to shed some tears for Theo.”