“I have just as many.”
“Yes, but I’m far more enthusiastic about mine.”
Devon couldn’t hold back a wry laugh.
No one could have foreseen that the two of them, from a far-flung branch of the Ravenels, would be the last in a lineage that could be traced back to the Norman Conquest. Unfortunately, Ravenels had always been too hot-blooded and impulsive. They yielded to every temptation, indulged in every sin, and scorned every virtue, with the result that they tended to die faster than they could reproduce.
Now there were only two left.
Although Devon and West were wellborn, they had never been part of the peerage, a world so rarefied that the highest levels were impermeable even for minor gentry. Devon knew little of the complex rules and rituals that distinguished aristocrats from the common masses. What he did know was that the Eversby estate was no windfall, but a trap. It could no longer generate enough income to sustain itself. It would devour the modest annual income from his trust, crush him, and then it would finish off his brother.
“Let the Ravenels come to an end,” Devon said. “We’re a bad lot and always have been. Who will care if the earldom goes extinct?”
“The servants and tenants might object to losing their incomes and homes,” West said dryly.
“They can all go hang. I’ll tell you how what’s to be done: First I’ll send Theo’s widow and sisters packing; they’re of no use to me.”
“Devon —” he heard his brother say uneasily.
“Then I’ll find a way to break the entailment, split the estate apart, and sell it piecemeal. If that’s not possible, I’ll strip the house of everything valuable, tear it down, and sell the stone —”
“Devon.” West gestured to the doorway, where a small, slim woman veiled in black stood at the threshold.
She was the daughter of Lord Carbery, an Irish peer who owned a stud farm in Glengarrif. She had been married to Theo only three days before he had died. Such tragedy coming on the heels of a customarily joyful event must have been a cruel shock. As one of the last few members of a dwindling family, Devon supposed he should have sent her a letter of sympathy when Theo’s accident had occurred. But somehow the thought had never translated into action, only stayed in his mind like a bit of lint caught on a coat lapel.
Perhaps Devon might have forced himself to send condolences if he hadn’t despised his cousin so much. Life had favored Theo in many ways, gifting him with wealth, privilege, and handsomeness. But instead of being grateful for his good fortune, Theo had always been smug and superior. A bully. Since Devon had never been able to overlook an insult or provocation, he had ended up brawling with Theo whenever they were together. It would have been a lie to say he was sorry that he would never see his cousin again.
As for Theo’s widow, she had no need of sympathy. She was young and childless, and she had a jointure, which would make it easy for her to marry again. Although she was reputed to be a beauty, it was impossible to judge; a heavy black veil obscured her in a mist of gloom. One thing was certain: After what she had just overheard, she must think Devon despicable.
He didn’t give a damn.
As Devon and West bowed, the widow responded with a perfunctory curtsy. “Welcome, my lord. And Mr. Ravenel. I will provide a list of the household inventory as soon as possible, so that you may loot and pillage in an organized fashion.” Her voice was refined, the cut-glass syllables frosted with dislike.
Devon watched alertly as she came farther into the room. Her figure was too slender for his taste, wandlike in the heft of mourning clothes. But there was something riveting about her controlled movement, a subtle volatility contained within stillness.
“My condolences for your loss,” he said.
“My congratulations for your gain.”
Devon frowned. “I assure you, I never wanted your husband’s title.”
“It’s true,” West said. “He complained about it all the way from London.”
Devon sent his brother a damning glance.
“The butler, Sims, will be available to show you the house and grounds at your leisure,” the widow said. “Since I am, as you remarked, of no use to you, I will retire to my room and begin to pack.”
“Lady Trenear,” Devon said curtly, “we seem to have started off on bad footing. I apologize if I’ve given offense.”
“No need to apologize, my lord. Such remarks are no less than what I expected of you.” She continued before Devon could reply. “May I ask how long you intend to stay at Eversby Priory?”
“Two nights, I expect. At dinner, perhaps you and I could discuss —”
“I’m afraid my sisters-in-law and I will not be able to dine with you. We are overset by grief, and shall take our meals separately.”
Ignoring him, she left the room without another word. Without even a curtsy.
Stunned and outraged, Devon stared at the empty doorway with narrowed eyes. Women never treated him with such contempt. He felt his temper threatening to break loose. How the hell could she hold him at fault for the situation when he’d had no choice in any of it?
“What did I do to deserve that?” he demanded.
West’s mouth twitched. “Aside from saying you were going to cast her out and destroy her home?”
“Never apologize to women. It only confirms that you were wrong, and incenses them further.”
Devon would be damned if he’d tolerate the insolence of a woman who should have been offering to help him, instead of heaping blame on his head. Widow or not, she was about to learn a much-needed lesson.