Devon snorted. “I never saw him demonstrate that particular skill. Perhaps I was always too busy dodging his fists to notice.”
“I think it’s safe to say that you and Theo didn’t bring out the best in each other.”
“No. We were too much alike in our faults.” Mockery edged his tone as he added, “And it seems I have none of his virtues.”
Kathleen remained silent, letting her gaze pass over a profusion of white hydrangea, geraniums, and tall stalks of red penstemon. Before her marriage, she had assumed that she knew all about Theo’s faults and virtues. During their six-month courtship and betrothal, they had attended dances and parties and had gone on carriage and horseback rides. Theo had been unfailingly charming. Although Kathleen had been warned about the infamous Ravenel temper by friends, she had been too infatuated to listen. Moreover, the constraints of courtship – chaperoned visits and limited outings – had kept her from understanding Theo’s true nature. Only too late had Kathleen learned a crucial fact of life: One could never truly know a man until one lived with him.
“Tell me about his sisters,” she heard Devon say. “There are three, as I recall. All unmarried?”
“Yes, my lord.”
The oldest Ravenel daughter, Helen, was one-and-twenty. The twins, Cassandra and Pandora, were nineteen. Neither Theo nor his father had made arrangements for the girls in their wills. It was no easy task for a blue-blooded young woman with no dowry to attract an appropriate suitor. And the new earl had no legal obligation to provide for them at all.
“Have any of the girls been out in society?” he asked.
Kathleen shook her head. “They’ve been in more or less constant mourning for four years. Their mother was the first to pass, and then the earl. This was their year to come out, but now…” Her voice faded.
Devon paused beside a flower bed, obliging her to stop beside him. “Three unmarried gentlewomen with no income and no dowries,” he said, “unfit for employment, and too elevated to marry commoners. And after spending years secluded in the country, they’re probably as dull as porridge.”
“They are not dull. As a matter of fact —”
She was interrupted by a high-pitched scream.
“Help! I’m being attacked by vicious beasts! Have pity, you savage mongrels!” The voice was young and female, pierced with convincing alarm.
Reacting instantly, Devon ran full-bore along the path and around the open gate of a walled garden. A girl in a black dress rolled on a patch of lawn bordered by flowers while a pair of black spaniels jumped on her repeatedly. Devon’s steps slowed as her screams broke into wild fits of giggling.
Reaching his side, Kathleen said breathlessly, “The twins – they’re only playing.”
“Bloody hell,” Devon muttered, coming to a halt. Dust swirled around his feet.
“Back, scurvy dogs,” Cassandra cried in a piratical brogue, feinting and parrying with a branch as if it were a sword. “Or I’ll carve up yer worthless hides and feed ye to the sharks!” She broke the branch in two by snapping it deftly over her knee. “Fetch, ye swabbers,” she told the dogs, flinging the pieces to the far side of the lawn.
The spaniels raced after the sticks with joyful barks.
Lifting herself to her elbows, the girl on the ground – Pandora – shaded her eyes with a bare hand as she saw the visitors. “Ahoy, landlubbers,” she called out cheerfully. Neither of the girls wore bonnets or gloves. The cuff of one of Pandora’s sleeves was missing, and a torn ruffle hung limply from the front of Cassandra’s skirt.
“Girls, where are your veils?” Kathleen asked in a chiding tone.
Pandora pushed a swath of hair away from her eyes. “I made mine into a fishing net, and we used Cassandra’s to wash berries.”
The twins were so dazzling in their long-limbed grace, with the sunlight dancing over their disheveled hair, that it seemed entirely reasonable to have named them for Greek goddesses. There was something lawless and cheerfully feral in their rosy-cheeked disarray.
Cassandra and Pandora had been kept away from the world for far too long. Privately Kathleen thought it a pity that Lord and Lady Trenear’s affection had centered almost exclusively on Theo, the only son, whose birth had secured the future for the family and the earldom. In their hopes of having a second heir, they had viewed the arrivals of three unwanted daughters as nothing less than unmitigated disasters. It had been easy for the disappointed parents to overlook Helen, who was quiet and obedient. The ungovernable twins had been left to their own devices.
Kathleen went to Pandora and helped her from the ground. Industriously she whacked at the scattering of leaves and grass on the girl’s skirts. “Dear, I did remind you this morning that we would have visitors today.” She brushed ineffectually at a scattering of dog hair. “I was rather hoping you might find some quiet occupation. Reading, for example —”
“We’ve read every single book in the library,” Pandora said. “Three times.”
Cassandra came to them with the yapping spaniels at her heels. “Are you the earl?” she asked Devon.
He bent to pet the dogs, and straightened to face her with a sober expression. “Yes. I’m sorry. There are no words to express how much I wish your brother were still alive.”
“Poor Theo,” Pandora said. “He was always doing reckless things, and nothing ever came of it. We all thought him invincible.”
Cassandra’s tone turned pensive as she added, “Theo thought so too.”