No matter what difficulties they might face, anything would be better than leaving three helpless girls to Devon Ravenel’s mercy.
Later in the evening, Devon and West had dinner in the dilapidated splendor of the dining room. The meal was of far better quality than they had expected, consisting of cold cucumber soup, roast pheasant dressed with oranges, and puddings rolled in sweetened bread crumbs.
“I made the house steward unlock the cellar so I could browse over the wine collection,” West remarked. “It’s gloriously well provisioned. Among the spoils, there are at least ten varieties of imported champagne, twenty cabernets, at least that many of bordeaux, and a large quantity of French brandy.”
“Perhaps if I drink enough of it,” Devon said, “I won’t notice the house falling down around our ears.”
“There are no obvious signs of weakness in the foundation. No walls out of plumb, for example, nor any visible cracks in the exterior stone that I’ve seen so far.”
Devon glanced at him with mild surprise. “For a man who’s seldom more than half sober, you’ve noticed a great deal.”
“Have I?” West looked perturbed. “Forgive me – I seem to have become accidentally lucid.” He reached for his wineglass. “Eversby Priory is one of the finest sporting estates in England. Perhaps we should shoot grouse tomorrow.”
“Splendid,” Devon said. “I would enjoy beginning the day with killing something.”
“Afterward we’ll meet with the estate agent and solicitor, and find out what’s to be done with this place.” West glanced at him expectantly. “You haven’t yet told me what happened this afternoon while you were out walking with Lady Trenear.”
Devon shrugged irritably. “Nothing happened.”
After introducing him to Helen, Kathleen had been abrupt and cool for the rest of the tour through the glasshouses. When they parted company, she had worn the relieved air of someone who had concluded an unpleasant duty.
“Did she wear the veil the entire time?” West asked.
“What does she look like?”
Devon shot him a derisive glance. “Why does that matter?”
“I’m curious. Theo had his pick of women – he wouldn’t have wed an ugly one.”
Devon turned his attention to his wineglass, swirling the vintage until it glittered like black rubies. There seemed no way to accurately describe Kathleen. He could say that her hair was red and that her eyes were golden-brown and tip-tilted like a cat’s. He could describe her fair skin and the rosy undertone that rose to the surface like a winter sunrise. The way she moved, her supple athletic grace constrained by laces and stays and layers. But none of that explained the fascination she held for him… the sense that somehow she had the power to unlock some altogether new feeling inside him, if only she cared to try.
“If one were to measure strictly by appearance,” Devon said, “she’s pleasing enough to bed, I suppose. But she has the temperament of a baited badger. I’m going to boot her from the estate as soon as possible.”
“What of Theo’s sisters? What will become of them?”
“Lady Helen is suited for employment as a governess, perhaps. Except that no married woman in possession of her wits would ever hire a girl that pretty.”
Devon gave him a forbidding glance. “Stay away from her, West. Far away. Don’t seek her out, don’t speak to her, don’t even look at her. The same goes for the twins.”
“They’re innocent girls.”
West gave him a caustic glance. “Are they such fragile flowers that they couldn’t tolerate a few minutes of my company?”
“‘Fragile’ is not the word I would use. The twins have spent years scampering about the estate like a pair of foxes. They’re unworldly and more than a little wild. God knows what’s to be done with them.”
“I pity them, if they’re sent out into the world without a man’s protection.”
“That’s not my concern.” Devon reached for the carafe of wine and refilled his glass, trying not to think of what would become of them. The world wasn’t kind to innocent young women. “They were Theo’s responsibility. Not mine.”
“I believe this is the part in the play,” West mused, “when a noble hero would appear to save the day, rescue the damsels, and set everything to rights.”
Devon rubbed the corners of his eyes with the pads of his thumb and forefinger. “The truth is, West, I couldn’t salvage this damned estate, or save the damsels, even if I wanted to. I’ve never been a hero, nor do I have any wish to be.”
“… in light ofthe late earl’s failure to provide legitimate male issue,” the family solicitor droned the next morning, “according to the legal rule of perpetuities, which renders the devise of entail void for remoteness, the settlement has expired.”
As an expectant silence filled the study, Devon looked up from a pile of leases, deeds, and account books. He was meeting with the estate agent and solicitor, respectively Mr. Totthill and Mr. Fogg, neither of whom appeared to be a day under ninety.
“What does that mean?” Devon asked.
“The estate is yours to do with as you please, my lord,” Fogg said, adjusting his pince-nez to regard him owlishly. “At present, you are not bound by entail.”
Devon’s gaze shot to West, who was lounging in the corner. They exchanged relieved glances. Thank God. He could sell the estate in parts or in its entirety, pay off the debt, and go on his way with no further obligation.