Not for the first time, Devon wondered how Severin could be so perceptive about people and yet understand so damned little about them. “It wasn’t one of your finer moments,” he said sardonically.
Looking troubled, Severin stood and began to pace. “I don’t always think the way other people do,” he muttered. “Negotiations are a game to me.”
“I know,” Devon said. “You were no more likely to tip your hand during those negotiations than you would have during a round of poker. You always play to win—it’s why you’re so good at what you do. But it was far from a game to me. Two hundred tenant families live on this estate. We needed the income from that quarry to help ensure their survival. Without it, we might have gone into bankruptcy.”
Severin stopped at the fireplace mantel and reached up to rub the close-cropped hair at the nape of his neck. “I should have considered that the contract might mean something different to you than it did to me.”
Devon shrugged. “It’s not your place to worry about my tenants. They’re my responsibility.”
“It’s also not my place to harm the interests of a good friend.” Severin looked at him steadily. “I apologize for the way I acted that day.”
It was at moments like this that Devon realized how seldom Severin held his gaze, or anyone’s, for longer than a second. He seemed to ration his moments of connection as if they were somehow dangerous to him.
“Already forgiven,” Devon said simply.
But Severin seemed determined to continue. “I would have reverted the mineral rights back to you as soon as I realized it was endangering your estate. I’m not saying that because of my interest in Cassandra. I mean it.”
In the ten years of their acquaintance, Severin hadn’t apologized to Devon more than a half-dozen times. As Severin’s fortune and power had soared, his willingness to humble himself had declined proportionately.
Devon thought back to the night they’d met at an obscure London tavern. Earlier that day, West had appeared at the doorstep of Devon’s terrace apartment with the news that he’d just been expelled from Oxford for setting fire to his room. Simultaneously furious and worried, Devon had hauled his younger brother to the darkest corner of the tavern, where they had talked and argued over pitchers of ale.
Unexpectedly, a stranger had broken into the private conversation. “You should be congratulating him,” came a cool, assured voice from a nearby table, “not raking him over the coals.”
Devon had glanced over to a dark-haired fellow sitting at a table of jug-bitten buffoons who were all crooning a popular drinking song. The young man had been lanky and broomstick-thin, with high cheekbones and piercing eyes.
“Congratulating him for what?” Devon had snapped. “Two years of wasted tuition?”
“Better than four years of wasted tuition.” Deciding to abandon his companions, the man had dragged his chair to the Ravenels’ table without asking to be invited. “Here’s the truth no one wants to admit: At least eighty percent of what they teach at university is thoroughly useless. The remaining twenty percent is helpful if you’re studying a particular scientific or technological discipline. However, since your brother will obviously never be a doctor or mathematician, he’s just saved himself a great deal of time and money.”
West had stared at the stranger owlishly. “Either you have two different colored eyes,” he’d commented, “or I’m drunker than I thought.”
“Oh, you’re as drunk as a fiddler,” the man assured him pleasantly. “But yes, they’re two different colors: I have heterochromia.”
“Is it catching?” West had asked.
The stranger had grinned. “No, it was from a sock in the eye when I was twelve.”
The man had been Tom Severin, of course, who had voluntarily left the University of Cambridge out of disdain for having to take courses he had decided were irrelevant. He only cared to learn things that would help him make money. No one—least of all Tom—had doubted that he would someday become an extraordinarily successful businessman.
Whether he was successful as a human being, however, was still open to question.
There was something different about Severin today, Devon thought. A look of being stranded in some foreign place without a map. “How are you, Tom?” he asked with a touch of concern. “Why are you really here?”
Severin’s usual response would have been something flippant and amusing. Instead, he said distractedly, “I don’t know.”
“Is there a problem with one of your businesses?”
“No, no,” Severin said with a touch of impatience. “All that’s fine.”
“Your health, then?”
“No. It’s only that lately … I seem to want something I don’t have. But I don’t know what it is. And that’s impossible. I have everything.”
Devon bit back a wry smile. The conversation always became somewhat tortured whenever Severin, who was habitually detached from his emotions, tried to identify one of them. “Do you think it could be loneliness?” he suggested.
“No, it’s not that.” Severin looked pensive. “What do you call it when everything seems boring and pointless, and even the people you know well are like strangers?”
“Loneliness,” Devon said flatly.
“Damn it. That makes six.”
“Six what?” Devon asked in bewilderment.
“Feelings. I’ve never had more than five feelings, and they’re hard enough to manage as it is. I’ll be damned if I’ll add another.”
Shaking his head, Devon went to retrieve his glass of brandy. “I don’t want to know what your five feelings are,” he said. “I’m sure the answer would worry me.”
The conversation was interrupted by a discreet knock at the partially open study door.
“What is it?” Devon asked.
The estate’s elderly butler, Sims, came to stand just inside the threshold. His expression was as imperturbable as ever, but he was blinking at a faster rate than usual, and his elbows were pulled in tightly at his sides. Since Sims wouldn’t turn a hair even if a Viking horde were battering down the front door, these subtle signs indicated nothing less than catastrophe.
“I beg your pardon, my lord, but I find it necessary to inquire whether you might know Mr. Ravenel’s whereabouts.”
“He said something about plowing stubble on the turnip fields,” Devon said. “But I don’t know if he meant at the home farms or at a tenant leasehold.”
“With your permission, my lord, I shall dispatch a footman to find him. We need his counsel regarding a predicament in the kitchen.”
“What kind of predicament?”
“According to Cook, the kitchen boiler began to make a fearful clanging and knocking, approximately one hour ago. A metal part burst through the air as if it had been shot from a cannon.”
Devon’s eyes widened, and he let out a curse.
“Indeed, my lord,” Sims said.
Problems with a kitchen boiler were nothing to take lightly. Fatal explosions resulting from faulty installation or mishandling were routinely reported in the newspapers.
“Was anyone hurt?” Devon asked.