“I’m going to talk to her,” he said grimly.
Lifting his feet onto the upholstered settee, West stretched out and arranged a pillow beneath his head. “Wake me when it’s over.”
Devon left the receiving room and followed the widow with long, ground-eating strides. He caught a glimpse of her at the end of the hallway, her dress and veil rippling as she sped away like a pirate ship at full sail.
“Wait,” he called after her. “I didn’t mean what I said earlier.”
“You did mean it.” She stopped and whirled to face Devon in an abrupt motion. “You intend to destroy the estate, and your family legacy, all for your own selfish purposes.”
He stopped in front of her, his hands gripped into fists. “Look here,” he said coldly, “the most I’ve ever had to manage is a terrace apartment, a cookmaid, a valet, and one horse. And now I’m expected to look after a foundering estate with more than two hundred tenant farms. I would think that merits some consideration. Even sympathy.”
“Poor you. How trying it must be, how inconvenient, for you to have to think about someone other than yourself.”
With that parting jab, she tried to leave. However, she had stopped near an arched niche in the wall, intended for the display of statuary or art objects on pedestals.
Devon had her now. Deliberately he braced his hands on either side of the recess, blocking her retreat. He heard her breath catch, and – although he wasn’t proud of it – he felt a bolt of satisfaction at having unnerved her.
“Let me pass,” she said.
He didn’t move, keeping her captive. “First tell me your name.”
“Why? I would never give you leave to use it.”
Exasperated, he studied her shrouded form. “Has it occurred to you that we have more to gain from mutual cooperation than hostility?”
“I’ve just lost my husband and my home. What precisely do I have to gain, my lord?”
“Perhaps you should find out before you decide to make an enemy of me.”
“You were the enemy before you ever set foot here.”
Devon found himself straining to see through the veil. “Must you wear that blasted head covering?” he asked irritably. “It’s like conversing with a lampshade.”
“It’s called a weeping veil, and yes, I must wear it in the presence of a visitor.”
“I’m not a visitor, I’m your cousin.”
“Only by marriage.”
As he contemplated her, Devon felt his temper begin to subside. How small she was, as fragile and quick as a sparrow. He gentled his tone. “Come, don’t be stubborn. There’s no need to wear the veil around me unless you’re literally weeping, in which case I would insist that you put it back down immediately. I can’t abide a woman crying.”
“Because you’re secretly soft-hearted?” she asked sarcastically.
A distant memory stung him, one he hadn’t allowed himself to think about in years. He tried to shake it off, but his mind stubbornly retained the image of himself as a boy of five or six, sitting at the closed door of his mother’s dressing room, agitated by the sounds of weeping on the other side. He didn’t know what had made her cry, but it had undoubtedly been a failed love affair, of which there had been many. His mother had been a renowned beauty who often fell in and out of love in a single night. His father, exhausted by her caprices and driven by his own demons, had rarely been at home. Devon remembered the suffocating helplessness of listening to her sob but not being able to reach her. He had settled for pushing handkerchiefs under the door, begging her to open it, asking repeatedly what was wrong.
“Dev, you’re sweet,” she had said through her sniffles. “All little boys are. But then you all grow up to be so selfish and cruel. You were born to break women’s hearts.”
“I won’t, Mummy,” he had cried in alarm. “I promise I won’t.”
He had heard a laughing sob, as if he’d said something foolish. “Of course you will, poppet. You’ll do it without even trying.”
The scene had been repeated on other occasions, but that was the one Devon remembered most clearly.
As it had turned out, his mother had been right. Or at least, he’d often been accused of breaking women’s hearts. But he had always made it clear that he had no intention of marrying. Even if he fell in love, he would never make that kind of promise to a woman. There was no reason for it, when any promise could be broken. Having experienced the pain that people who loved each other could inflict, he had no desire to do that to anyone.
His attention returned to the woman in front of him. “No, I’m not soft-hearted,” he said in answer to her question. “In my opinion, a woman’s tears are manipulative and even worse, unattractive.”
“You,” she said with certainty, “are the vilest man I have ever met.”
Devon was amused by the way she enunciated every word as if it had been shot from a bow. “How many men have you met?”
“Enough to recognize a wicked one when I see him.”
“I doubt you can see much of anything through this veil.” He reached out to finger the edge of the black gauze. “You can’t possibly like to wear it.”
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
“Because it hides your face when you cry,” he said rather than asked.
“I never cry.”
Taken aback, Devon wondered if he had heard her correctly. “You mean not since your husband’s accident?”