“You didn’t know him well enough to judge what he would have wanted,” Kathleen retorted. “And in any case, the rules can’t be set aside.”
“What if the rules don’t serve? What if they do more harm than good?”
“Just because you don’t understand or agree with something doesn’t mean that it lacks merit.”
“Agreed. But you can’t deny that some traditions were invented by idiots.”
“I don’t wish to discuss it,” Kathleen said, quickening her step.
“Dueling, for example,” Devon continued, easily keeping pace with her. “Human sacrifice. Taking multiple wives – I’m sure you’re sorry we’ve lost that tradition.”
“I suppose you’d have ten wives if you could.”
“I’d be sufficiently miserable with one. The other nine would be redundant.”
She shot him an incredulous glance. “My lord, I am a widow. Have you no understanding of appropriate conversation for a woman in my situation?”
Apparently not, judging by his expression.
“What does one discuss with widows?” he asked.
“No subject that could be considered sad, shocking, or inappropriately humorous.”
“That leaves me with nothing to say, then.”
“Thank God,” she said fervently, and he grinned.
Sinking his hands into the pockets of his trousers, he swept an intent gaze over their surroundings. “How many acres do the gardens cover?”
“And the glasshouses? What do they contain?”
“An orangery, a vinery, rooms for peaches, palms, ferns, and flowers… and this one is for orchids.” She opened the door of the first glasshouse, and Devon followed her inside.
They were suffused with the perfume of vanilla and citrus. Theo’s mother, Jane, had indulged her passion for the exotic blooms by cultivating rare orchids from all over the world. A year-round midsummer temperature was maintained in the orchid house by means of an adjacent boiler room.
As soon as they entered, Kathleen caught sight of Helen’s slender figure between the parallel rows. Ever since her mother, the countess, had passed away, Helen had taken it upon herself to care for the two hundred potted bromeliads. It was so difficult to discern what each troublesome plant required that only a select few of the gardening staff were allowed to help.
Seeing the visitors, Helen reached for the veil that draped down her back and began to pull it over her face.
“Don’t bother,” Kathleen told her dryly. “Lord Trenear has taken a position against mourning veils.”
Sensitive to the preferences of others, Helen left off the veil at once. She set aside a small kettle filled with water and came to the visitors. Although she didn’t possess the robust sunstruck prettiness of her younger sisters, Helen was compelling in her own way, like the cool glow of moonlight. Her skin was very fair, her hair the lightest shade of blond.
Kathleen found it interesting that although Lord and Lady Trenear had named all four of their children after figures of Greek mythology, Helen was the only one who had been given the name of a mortal.
“Forgive me for interrupting your task,” Devon said to Helen after they were introduced.
A hesitant smile emerged. “Not at all, my lord. I’m merely observing the orchids to make certain there is nothing they lack.”
“How can you tell what they lack?” Devon asked.
“I see the color of their leaves, or the condition of the petals. I look for signs of aphids or thrips, and I try to remember which varieties prefer moist soil and which ones like to be drier.”
“Will you show them to me?” Devon asked.
Helen nodded and led him along the rows, pointing out particular specimens. “This was all my mother’s collection. One of her favorites was Peristeria elata.” She showed him a plant with marble-white blossom. “The central part of the flower resembles a tiny dove, you see? And this one is Dendrobium aemulum. It’s called a feather orchid because of the petals.” With a flash of shy mischief, Helen glanced back at Kathleen and remarked, “My sister-in-law isn’t fond of orchids.”
“I despise them,” Kathleen said, wrinkling her nose. “Stingy, demanding flowers that take forever to bloom. And some of them smell like old boots or rancid meat.”
“Those aren’t my favorite,” Helen admitted. “But I hope to love them someday. Sometimes one must love something before it becomes lovable.”
“I disagree,” Kathleen said. “No matter how much you bring yourself to love that bulgy white one in the corner —”
“Dressleria,” Helen supplied helpfully.
“Yes. Even if you come to love it madly, it’s still going to smell like old boots.”
Helen smiled and continued to lead Devon along the row, explaining how the glasshouse temperature was maintained by means of an adjacent boiler room and a rainwater tank.
Noticing the speculative way Devon glanced down at Helen caused the hairs on the back of Kathleen’s neck to lift unpleasantly. He and his brother, West, seemed exactly like the amoral rakes in one of the old silver-fork novels. Charming on the outside, conniving and cruel on the inside. The sooner Kathleen could manage to remove the Ravenel sisters from the estate, the better.
She had already decided to use the annuity from her jointure to take all three girls away from Eversby Priory. It was not a large sum, but it would be enough to support them if it were supplemented with earnings from gentle occupations such as needlework. She would find a small cottage where they could all live together, or perhaps a set of rooms for lease in a private house.