“My lord,” Kathleen interceded, “I would like to introduce Lady Cassandra and Lady Pandora.”
Devon studied the twins, who resembled a pair of unkempt woodland fairies. Cassandra was possibly the more beautiful of the two, with golden hair, large blue eyes, and a Cupid’s-bow mouth. Pandora, by contrast, was more slender and spare in form, with dark brown hair and a more angular face.
As the black spaniels danced and circled them, Pandora said to Devon, “I’ve never seen you before.”
“You have, actually,” he said. “At a family gathering in Norfolk. You were too young to remember.”
“Were you acquainted with Theo?” Cassandra asked.
“Did you like him?” she surprised him by asking.
“I’m afraid not,” he said. “We brawled on more than one occasion.”
“That’s what boys do,” Pandora said.
“Only bullies and lackwits,” Cassandra told her. Realizing she had inadvertently insulted Devon, she sent him an ingenuous glance. “Except for you, my lord.”
A relaxed grin crossed his mouth. “In my case, I’m afraid the description is not inaccurate.”
“The Ravenel temper,” Pandora said with a sage nod, and whispered theatrically, “we have it too.”
“Our older sister Helen is the only one who doesn’t,” Cassandra added.
“Nothing provokes her,” Pandora said. “We’ve tried ever so often, but it never works.”
“My lord,” Kathleen said to Devon, “shall we proceed to the glasshouses?”
“May we go with you?” Cassandra asked.
Kathleen shook her head. “No, dear, I think it best if the two of you went inside to tidy up and change your dresses.”
“It will be lovely to have someone new to dine with,” Pandora exclaimed. “Especially someone who has just come from town. I want to hear everything about London.”
Devon cast a questioning glance at Kathleen.
She answered the twins directly. “I have already explained to Lord Trenear that as we are in strict mourning, we shall dine separately.”
The statement was met with a flurry of protests. “But Kathleen, it’s been so dull without any visitors —”
“We’ll behave perfectly, I promise —”
“They’re our cousins!”
“What harm would it do?”
Kathleen felt a twinge of regret, knowing that the girls were eager for any kind of diversion. However, this was the man who intended to cast them out of the only home they had ever known. And his brother, Weston, from all appearances, was already half in his cups. A pair of rakes was unsuitable company for innocent girls, particularly when the girls themselves could not be trusted to conduct themselves with restraint. No good could come of it.
“I’m afraid not,” she said firmly. “We will allow the earl and his brother to dine in peace.”
“But Kathleen,” Cassandra pleaded, “we’ve had no amusement for so long.”
“Of course you haven’t,” Kathleen said, steeling herself against a stab of guilt. “People aren’t supposed to have amusements when they’re in mourning.”
The twins fell silent, glowering at her.
Devon broke the tension by asking Cassandra lightly, “Permission to go ashore, Captain?”
“Aye,” came the sullen reply, “you and the wench can leave by way of the plank.”
Kathleen frowned. “Kindly do not refer to me as a wench, Cassandra.”
“It’s better than ‘bilge rat,’” Pandora said in a surly tone. “Which is the term I would have used.”
After giving her a chiding glance, Kathleen returned to the graveled walk, with Devon by her side. “Well?” she asked after a moment. “Aren’t you going to criticize as well?”
“I can’t think of anything to add to ‘bilge rat.’”
Kathleen couldn’t hold back a rueful grin. “I will admit, it doesn’t seem fair to require a pair of high-spirited young women to endure another year of seclusion, when they’ve already gone through four. I’m not certain how to manage them. No one is.”
“They’ve never had a governess?”
“From what I understand, they’ve had several, none of whom lasted for more than a few months.”
“Is it so difficult to find an adequate one?”
“I suspect the governesses were all perfectly capable. The problem is teaching deportment to girls who have no motivation to learn it.”
“What about Lady Helen? Is she in need of similar instruction?”
“No, she’s had the benefit of tutors and separate lessons. And her nature is far gentler.”
They approached a row of four compartmented glasshouses that glittered in the late afternoon light. “If the girls wish to romp outdoors instead of sitting in a cheerless house,” Devon said, “I don’t see what harm it would do. In fact, what reason is there to hang black cloth over the windows? Why not take it down and let in the sun?”
Kathleen shook her head. “It would be scandalous to remove the mourning cloth so soon.”
“Hampshire is hardly at the extremity of civilization, my lord.”
“Still, who would object?”
“I would. I couldn’t dishonor Theo’s memory that way.”
“For God’s sake, he won’t know. It helps no one, including my late cousin, for an entire household to live in gloom. I can’t conceive that he would have wanted it.”