Everything the woman had said confirmed what Devon had told her earlier.
Why hadn’t Theo explained anything to her about the estate’s financial troubles? He had told Kathleen that the house had been neglected because no one had wanted to change his late mother’s decorations. He had promised that Kathleen would be in charge of ordering silk damask and French paper for the walls, new velvet curtains, fresh plasterwork and paint, new carpets and furniture. They would make the stables beautiful, he had told her, and install the latest equipment for the horses.
Theo had spun a fairy story, and it had been so appealing that she had chosen to believe it. But none of it had been true. He had known that she would eventually find out that they couldn’t begin to afford any of what he’d promised. How had he expected her to react?
She would never know the answer. Theo was gone, and their marriage had ended before it had even begun. The only choice was to forget the past and set her life on a new course.
But first she had to face the uncomfortable truth that she had hadn’t been fair to Devon. He was an arrogant cad, to be certain, but he had every right to decide the fate of Eversby Priory. It was his now. She had spoken out of turn and behaved like a shrew, and for that she would have to apologize, even knowing that he would throw every word back in her face.
Glumly Kathleen trudged across the spongy turf. Water seeped through seams and welts of her shoes, soaking into her stockings. Soon her widow’s veil, which she had folded back to hang behind her, was sodden and heavy. The smell of aniline, used in the dye for mourning clothes, was especially pungent when wet. She should have changed the indoor headpiece to a bonnet instead of dashing out impulsively. It seemed she was no better than the twins; a fine example she had set, running about like a madwoman.
She jumped as lightning split the angry sky. Her heart began to thump, and she grabbed up handfuls of her skirts to run faster across the field. The ground had softened, causing her heels to sink deep with each step. Rain came down in violent whooshes, bending the stems of blue scabious and knapweed until bright flower heads were lodged into the grass. The clay soil beyond the field would turn to mud by the time she reached it.
Another lightning bolt struck, the sound so explosive that Kathleen flinched and covered her ears. Realizing she had dropped her shawl, she turned to look for it, shielding her eyes with one hand. The limp mass of wool lay on the ground, several yards away. “Bother,” she exclaimed, heading back to retrieve it.
She stopped with a low cry as a massive dark blur hurtled toward her, too fast to evade. Instinctively she turned and covered her head with her arms. Deafened by the sound of thunder mingled with the roar of the pulse in her ears, she waited, shivering, for whatever would happen. When it seemed that no immediate disaster had befallen her, she straightened and swiped at her wet face with her sleeve.
A huge shape loomed beside her… a man mounted on a sturdy black dray. It was Devon, she realized in bewilderment. She couldn’t say a word to save her life. He wasn’t dressed for riding – he wasn’t even wearing gloves. More perplexing still, he was wearing a stableman’s low-crowned felt hat, as if he had borrowed it while departing in haste.
“Lady Helen asked me to fetch you,” Devon called out, his face unfathomable. “You can either ride back with me, or we’ll stand here and argue in a lightning storm until we’re both flambéed. Personally I’d prefer the latter – it would be better than reading the rest of those account ledgers.”
Kathleen stared at him with stunned confusion.
In practical terms, it was possible to ride double with Devon back to the estate. The dray, broad-built and calm-tempered, would be more than equal to the task. But as she tried to imagine it, their bodies touching… his arms around her…
No. She couldn’t bear being that close to any man. Her flesh crawled at the thought.
“I… I can’t ride with you.” Although she tried to sound decisive, her voice was wavering and plaintive. Rain streamed down her face, rivulets trickling into her mouth.
Devon’s lips parted as if he were about to deliver a scathing reply. As his gaze traveled over her drenched form, however, his expression softened. “Then you take the horse, and I’ll walk back.”
Dumbstruck by the offer, Kathleen could only stare at him. “No,” she eventually managed to say. “But… thank you. Please, you must return to the house.”
“We’ll both walk,” he said impatiently, “or we’ll both ride. But I won’t leave you.”
“I’ll be perfectly —”
She broke off and flinched at a bone-rattling peal of thunder.
“Let me take you home.” Devon’s tone was pragmatic, as if they were standing in a parlor instead of a violent late-summer storm. Had he said it in an overbearing manner, Kathleen might have been able to refuse him. But somehow he’d guessed that softening his approach was the best way to undermine her.
The dray bobbed its head and pawed the ground with one hoof.
She would have to ride back with him, she realized in despair. There was no alternative. Wrapping her arms around herself, she said anxiously, “F-first I have something to say to you.”
Devon’s brows lifted, his face cold.
“I…” She swallowed hard, and the words came out in a rush. “What I said in the study earlier was unkind, and untrue, and I’m s-sorry for it. It was very wrong of me. I shall make that very clear to Mr. Totthill and Mr. Fogg. And your brother.”
His expression changed, one corner of his mouth curling upward in the hint of a smile that sent her heartbeat into chaos. “You needn’t bother mentioning it to them. All three will be calling me far worse before all is said and done.”