“I’M AFRAID THE ANSWER is no,” Devon, Lord Trenear, said, disgruntled to find himself having a brandy in his private study with Severin instead of lounging in bed with his wife.
“But you gave Helen to Winterborne,” Severin protested. “I can’t be a worse prospect than he was.”
Now that the wedding breakfast had concluded, the day had become relaxed and formless, the atmosphere easing like a pair of shoes that had been untied. Guests had dispersed in groups, some going out for walks or carriage drives, some enjoying lawn tennis or bowling, while others chose to rest in their rooms. Devon’s petite, red-haired wife, Kathleen, had whispered provocatively in his ear that he should come join her upstairs for a nap, an idea he’d agreed to with great enthusiasm.
On the way upstairs, however, Tom Severin had cornered him with a request to speak privately. Devon wasn’t at all surprised to learn what his friend wanted. He’d always suspected this would happen as soon as Severin, an avid collector of beautiful things, met Cassandra.
“I didn’t give Helen to Winterborne,” Devon said. “They both wanted to marry, and—” He broke off and sighed shortly. “No, that’s not entirely true.” Scowling, he wandered to the bank of glittering multipaned windows set in a deep wainscoted recess.
Two years ago, when Devon had unexpectedly inherited the earldom, he’d also become guardian to the three Ravenel sisters. His first thought had been to marry the sisters off as quickly as possible, ideally to wealthy men who would pay generously for the privilege. But as Devon had become acquainted with Helen, Pandora, and Cassandra, it had begun to sink in that they depended on him, and it was his job to look out for their interests.
“Severin,” he said carefully, “two years ago, I had the incredible arrogance to offer Helen’s hand in marriage to Rhys Winterborne as if she were an hors d’oeuvre on a tray.”
“Yes, I know. May I have one too?”
Devon ignored the question. “The point is, I shouldn’t have.” His mouth twisted in self-mockery. “It’s been impressed on me since then that women are actually thinking, feeling beings with hopes and dreams.”
“I can afford Cassandra’s hopes and dreams,” Severin said promptly. “All of them. I can afford hopes and dreams she hasn’t even thought of yet.”
Devon shook his head. “There’s much you don’t understand about Cassandra and her sisters. Their upbringing was … unusual.”
Severin looked at him alertly. “From what I’ve heard, they lived a sheltered existence in the country.”
“‘Sheltered’ is one word for it. More accurately, they were neglected. Confined to a rural country estate and virtually forgotten. What attention their parents did spare from pursuing their selfish pleasures was given exclusively to their only son, Theo. And even after he inherited the title, he didn’t bother to give any of the girls a Season.”
Pushing away from the desk, Devon went to an open cabinet built into a niche on the other side of the study. A few ornamental objects had been arranged on the display shelves: an antique jeweled snuffbox, a collection of framed miniature portraits, a marquetry cigar case … and a trio of tiny taxidermied goldcrests perched on a branch, encased in the airless isolation of a glass dome.
“There’s no object in the house,” Devon commented, regarding the glass dome, “that I hate as much as this one. According to the housekeeper, the earl always kept it in his study. Either he was amused by the symbolism, or he didn’t recognize it: I can’t decide which is more damning.”
Severin’s incisive gaze went from the decoration to Devon’s face. “Not everyone is as sentimental as you, Trenear,” he said dryly.
“I made a promise to myself: When Cassandra is happily married, I’m going to smash this.”
“Your wish is about to come true.”
“I said happily married.” Devon turned to set a shoulder against the cabinet, his arms folded across his chest. “After years of being rejected by the people who were supposed to love her, Cassandra needs closeness and attention. She needs affection, Tom.”
“I can do affection,” Severin protested.
Devon shook his head in exasperation. “You would eventually find her smothering—inconvenient—you’d grow cold to her, and then I’d have to kill you. And then I’d be obliged to revive you so West could have the satisfaction of killing you.” Devon paused, at a loss for how to convey how utterly wrong the pairing would be. “You know a score of beautiful women who would marry you on the spot if you asked. Any one of them would serve your purposes. Forget this one. Cassandra wants to marry for love.”
“What does love guarantee?” Severin scoffed. “How many cruelties have been committed in the name of love? For centuries, women have been abused and betrayed by the men who profess to love them. If you ask me, a woman would benefit far more from a diversified investment portfolio than love.”
Devon’s eyes narrowed. “I warn you, if you start talking circles around me, it’s going to end with a hard right cross to your chin. My wife expects me to join her upstairs for a nap.”
“How could a grown man sleep in the middle of the day? Why would you even want to?”
“I wasn’t planning to sleep,” Devon said curtly.
“Oh. Well, I would like to have my own wife to nap with. In fact, I’d like some good, hard napping on a regular basis.”
“Why don’t you take a mistress?”
“A mistress is a temporary solution to a long-term problem. A wife is more economical and convenient, and produces legitimate children, not bastards. Moreover, Cassandra would be the kind of wife I would actually want to sleep with.” As Severin read the refusal in Devon’s expression, he added quickly, “All I’m asking for is the chance to become acquainted. If she’s willing. Let me call on the family once or twice when you’re back in London. If it turns out she’d rather not see me, I’ll keep my distance.”
“Cassandra is free to exercise her own judgment. But I’ll advise her to the best of my ability—and my opinion isn’t going to change. This match would be a mistake for both of you.”
Severin regarded him with a faint frown of concern. “Does this have something to do with the lease agreement? Is that something I should apologize for?”
Devon was torn between laughing and delivering the aforementioned right cross. “Only you would have to ask that.”
He would never forget the hell of negotiating with Severin two years ago, over a lease deal that would allow Severin to build railway tracks over a corner of the estate land. Severin could think ten times faster than most people, and he remembered bloody everything. He loved to jab, duck, and dodge, all for the pure fun of keeping his opponent off balance. The mental exercise had exhausted and infuriated everyone, including the lawyers, and the most maddening part was the realization that Severin had been enjoying himself immensely.
Through sheer mulish stubbornness, Devon had managed to maintain his position and end up with a satisfactory deal. Only later had he discovered how perilously close he’d come to losing a fortune in mineral rights from his own property.