“Not even then.”
What kind of woman would say such a thing, even if it were true? Devon gripped the front of the veil and began to hike it upward. “Hold still.” He pushed handfuls of the crepe back over the little headpiece that anchored it. “No, don’t pull away. The two of us are going to stand face-to-face and attempt a civilized conversation. Good God, you could rig a merchant ship with all this —”
Devon broke off as her face was uncovered. He found himself staring into a pair of amber eyes that tilted at the outer corners in a catlike slant. For a moment he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, while all his senses struggled to take her in.
He had never seen anything like her.
She was younger than he had expected, with a fair complexion and auburn hair that looked too heavy for its pins. A set of wide, pronounced cheekbones and a narrow jaw imparted an exquisite feline triangularity to her features. The curves of her lips were so full that even when she pressed them together tightly, as she was doing now, they still looked soft. Although she was not conventionally beautiful, she was so original that it rendered the question of beauty inconsequential.
Her mourning dress was slim and tightly fitted from the neck to the hips before flaring into a series of complex pleats. A man could only guess at the figure encased in all that boning and ruching and intricate stitching. Even her wrists and hands were obscured by black gloves. Aside from her face, the only visible skin was at her throat, where the front of her high collar parted with a U-shaped notch. He could see the vulnerable movement of her swallow. It looked so very soft, that private place, where a man might press his lips and feel the rhythm of her pulse.
He wanted to start there, kissing her throat, while he undressed her like an intricately wrapped gift until she was gasping and squirming beneath him. If she were any other woman, and they had found themselves in any other circumstances, Devon would have seduced her on the spot. Realizing that it would not do to stand there gaping a landed trout, he searched through his hot, disordered thoughts for some conventional remark, something coherent.
To his surprise, she was the first to break the silence. “My name is Kathleen.”
An Irish name. “Why do you have no accent?”
“I was sent to England as a child, to live with family friends in Leominster.”
A frown knit between her winged brows. “My parents were very much occupied with their horses. They spent several months of each year in Egypt to purchase Arabian bloodstock for their farm. I was… an inconvenience. Their friends Lord and Lady Berwick, who were also horse people, offered to take me in and raise me with their two daughters.”
“Do your parents still live in Ireland?”
“My mother has passed away, but my father is still there.” Her gaze turned distant, her thoughts chasing elsewhere. “He sent Asad to me as a wedding present.”
“Asad,” Devon repeated, puzzled.
Refocusing on him, Kathleen looked perturbed, color sweeping from her neck to her hairline.
Then Devon understood. “The horse that threw Theo,” he said quietly.
“It wasn’t Asad’s fault. He was so badly trained that my father bought him back from the man who had originally purchased him.”
“Why give a problem horse to you?”
“Lord Berwick often allowed me to help him train the young colts.”
Devon ran a deliberate glance over her fine-boned frame. “You’re no bigger than a sparrow.”
“One doesn’t use brute force to train an Arabian. They’re a sensitive breed – they require understanding and skill.”
Two things that Theo had lacked. How bloody stupid he had been to risk his neck and a valuable animal along with it.
“Did Theo do it on a lark?” Devon couldn’t resist asking. “Was he trying to show off?”
A glint of searing emotion appeared in those luminous eyes before it was quickly extinguished. “He was in a temper. He wouldn’t be dissuaded.”
That was a Ravenel for you.
If anyone had ever dared to contradict Theo, or refuse him anything, it had ignited an explosion. Perhaps Kathleen had thought she could manage him, or that time would mellow him. She couldn’t have known that a Ravenel’s temper usually outweighed any sense of self-preservation. Devon would have liked to consider himself above that sort of thing, but he had succumbed to it more than once in the past, throwing himself into the volcanic pit of consuming fury. It always felt glorious until one had to face the consequences.
Kathleen folded her arms tightly, each small, black-gloved hand forming a clamp around the opposite elbow. “Some people said I should have had Asad put down after the accident. But it would be cruel, and wrong, to punish him for something that wasn’t his fault.”
“Have you considered selling him?”
“I wouldn’t want to. But even if I did, I would have to retrain him first.”
Devon doubted the wisdom of allowing Kathleen anywhere near a horse that had just killed her husband, albeit inadvertently. And in all likelihood, she wouldn’t be able to stay at Eversby Priory long enough to make any progress with the Arabian.
However, now wasn’t the time to point that out.
“I’d like to see the grounds,” he said. “Will you walk with me?”
Looking perturbed, Kathleen retreated a half step. “I’ll arrange for the head gardener to show them to you.”
“I would prefer you.” Devon paused before asking deliberately, “You’re not afraid of me, are you?”