New York Times Bestseller
Oct 27, 2015, Avon
Devon Ravenel, London's most wickedly charming rake, has just inherited an earldom. But his powerful new rank in society comes with unwanted responsibilities . . . and more than a few surprises. His estate is saddled with debt, and the late earl's three innocent sisters are still occupying the house . . . along with Kathleen, Lady Trenear, a beautiful young widow whose sharp wit and determination are a match for Devon's own.
A clash of wills . . .
Kathleen knows better than to trust a ruthless scoundrel like Devon. But the fiery attraction between them is impossible to deny—and from the first moment Devon holds her in his arms, he vows to do whatever it takes to possess her. As Kathleen finds herself yielding to his skillfully erotic seduction, only one question remains:
Can she keep from surrendering her heart to the most dangerous man she's ever known?
Here Devon and his brother West have just begun the inspection of the family home, Eversby Priory, part of the holdings Devon has inherited after his cousin's untimely demise:
This was the first time either of them had ever set foot in Eversby Priory, the ancestral family domain built over the remains of a monastic residence and church. Although Devon had become ennobled shortly after his cousin’s death three months ago, he had waited as long as possible before facing the mountain of problems he now confronted.
So far he had seen only this room and the entrance hall, the two areas that were supposed to impress visitors the most. The rugs were worn, the furniture threadbare, the plaster wall moldings dingy and cracked. None of this boded well for the condition of the rest of the house.
“It needs refurbishing,” West admitted.
“It needs to be razed to the ground.”
“It’s not so bad—” West broke off with a yelp as his foot began to sink into a depression in the rug. He hopped away and stared at the bowl-shaped indentation. “What the deuce . . . ?”
Devon bent and lifted the corner of the rug to reveal a rotting hole in the flooring beneath. Shaking his head, he dropped the rug back into place and went to a window fitted with diamond-shaped panes. The lead came that joined the window glass was corroded, the hinges and fittings rusted.
“Why hasn’t that been repaired?” West asked.
“For want of money, obviously.”
“But how could that be? The estate comes with twenty thousand acres. All those tenants, the annual yields—”
“Estate farming is no longer profitable.”
Devon sent him a dark glance before returning his attention to the view. “Anywhere.”
The Hampshire scenery was green and bucolic, neatly divided by bottle-green hedgerows in bloom. However, somewhere beyond the cheerful huddles of thatched-roof cottages and the fertile tracts of chalk down and ancient woodland, thousands of miles of steel track were being laid out for an onslaught of locomotive engines and railcars. All across England, new factories and mill towns had begun to appear faster than hazel catkins in the spring. It had been Devon’s bad luck to inherit a title just as a tide of industry was sweeping away aristocratic traditions and entitled modes of living.
“How do you know?” his brother asked.
“Everyone knows, West. Grain prices have collapsed. When did you last read an issue of the Times? Have you paid no attention to the discussions at the club or the taverns?”
“Not when the subject was farming,” came West’s dour reply. He sat heavily, rubbing his temples. “I don’t like this. I thought we had agreed never to be serious about anything.”
“I’m trying. But death and poverty have a way of making everything seem rather less amusing.” Leaning his forehead against the windowpane, Devon said morosely, “I’ve always enjoyed a comfortable life without having to perform a single day of honest labor. Now I have responsibilities.” He said the word as if it were a profanity.
“I’ll help you think of ways to avoid them.” Rummaging in his coat, West pulled a silver flask from an inside pocket. He uncapped it and took a long swallow.
Devon’s brows lifted. “Isn’t it a bit early for that? You’ll be stewed by noon.”
“Yes, but it won’t happen unless I start now.” West tilted the flask again.
The habits of self-indulgence, Devon reflected with concern, were catching up with his younger brother. West was a tall and handsome man of four-and-twenty, with a wily intelligence that he preferred to use as seldom as possible. In the past year, an excess of strong drink had lent a ruddy cast to West’s cheeks, and softened his neck and waistline. Although Devon had made a point of never interfering in his brother’s affairs, he wondered if he should mention something about his swilling. No, West would only resent the unwanted advice.
After replacing the flask in his coat, West steepled his hands and regarded Devon over the tips of his fingers. “You need to acquire capital, and sire an heir. A rich wife would solve both problems.”
Devon blanched. “You know I’ll never marry.” He understood his limitations: He wasn’t meant to be a husband or father. The idea of repeating the travesty of his childhood, with himself in the role of the cruel and indifferent parent, made his skin crawl. “When I die,” he continued, “you’re next in line.”
“Do you actually believe I’ll outlive you?” West asked. “With all my vices?”
“I have just as many.”
“Yes, but I’m far more enthusiastic about mine.”
Devon couldn’t hold back a wry laugh.
No one could have foreseen that the two of them, from a far-flung branch of the Ravenels, would be the last in a lineage that could be traced back to the Norman Conquest. Unfortunately, Ravenels had always been too hot-blooded and impulsive. They yielded to every temptation, indulged in every sin, and scorned every virtue, with the result that they tended to die faster than they could reproduce.
Now there were only two left.
Although Devon and West were wellborn, they had never been part of the peerage, a world so rarefied that the highest levels were impermeable even for minor gentry. Devon knew little of the complex rules and rituals that distinguished aristocrats from the common masses. What he did know was that the Eversby estate was no windfall, but a trap. It could no longer generate enough income to sustain itself. It would devour the modest annual income from his trust, crush him, and then it would finish off his brother.
“Let the Ravenels come to an end,” Devon said. “We’re a bad lot and always have been. Who will care if the earldom goes extinct?”
“The servants and tenants might object to losing their incomes and homes,” West said dryly.
“They can all go hang. I’ll tell you what’s to be done: First I’ll send Theo’s widow and sisters packing; they’re of no use to me.”
“Devon—” he heard his brother say uneasily.
“Then I’ll find a way to break the entailment, split the estate apart, and sell it piecemeal. If that’s not possible, I’ll strip the house of everything valuable, tear it down, and sell the stone—”
“Devon.” West gestured to the doorway, where a small, slim woman veiled in black stood at the threshold.
She was the daughter of Lord Carbery, an Irish peer who owned a stud farm in Glengarrif. She had been married to Theo only three days before he had died. Such tragedy coming on the heels of a customarily joyful event must have been a cruel shock. As one of the last few members of a dwindling family, Devon supposed he should have sent her a letter of sympathy when Theo’s accident had occurred. But somehow the thought had never translated into action, only stayed in his mind like a bit of lint caught on a coat lapel.
Perhaps Devon might have forced himself to send condolences if he hadn’t despised his cousin so much. Life had favored Theo in many ways, gifting him with wealth, privilege, and handsomeness. But instead of being grateful for his good fortune, Theo had always been smug and superior. A bully. Since Devon had never been able to overlook an insult or provocation, he had ended up brawling with Theo whenever they were together. It would have been a lie to say he was sorry that he would never see his cousin again.
As for Theo’s widow, she had no need of sympathy. She was young and childless, and she had a jointure, which would make it easy for her to marry again. Although she was reputed to be a beauty, it was impossible to judge; a heavy black veil obscured her in a mist of gloom. One thing was certain: After what she had just overheard, she must think Devon despicable.
He didn’t give a damn.
As Devon and West bowed, the widow responded with a perfunctory curtsy. “Welcome, my lord. And Mr. Ravenel. I will provide a list of the household inventory as soon as possible, so that you may loot and pillage in an organized fashion.” Her voice was refined, the cut-glass syllables frosted with dislike.
Devon watched alertly as she came farther into the room. Her figure was too slender for his taste, wandlike in the heft of mourning clothes. But there was something riveting about her controlled movement, a subtle volatility contained within stillness.
“My condolences for your loss,” he said.
“My congratulations for your gain.”
Devon frowned. “I assure you, I never wanted your husband’s title.”
“It’s true,” West said. “He complained about it all the way from London.”
Devon sent his brother a damning glance.
“The butler, Sims, will be available to show you the house and grounds at your leisure,” the widow said. “Since I am, as you remarked, of no use to you, I will retire to my room and begin to pack.”
“Lady Trenear,” Devon said curtly, “we seem to have started off on bad footing. I apologize if I’ve given offense.”
“No need to apologize, my lord. Such remarks are no less than what I expected of you.” She continued before Devon could reply. “May I ask how long you intend to stay at Eversby Priory?”
“Two nights, I expect. At dinner, perhaps you and I could discuss—”
“I’m afraid my sisters-in-law and I will not be able to dine with you. We are overset by grief, and shall take our meals separately.”
Ignoring him, she left the room without another word. Without even a curtsy.
Stunned and outraged, Devon stared at the empty doorway with narrowed eyes. Women never treated him with such contempt. He felt his temper threatening to break loose. How the hell could she hold him at fault for the situation when he’d had no choice in any of it?
“What did I do to deserve that?” he demanded.
West’s mouth twitched. “Aside from saying you were going to cast her out and destroy her home?”
“Never apologize to women. It only confirms that you were wrong, and incenses them further.”
Devon would be damned if he’d tolerate the insolence of a woman who should have been offering to help him, instead of heaping blame on his head. Widow or not, she was about to learn a much-needed lesson.
“I’m going to talk to her,” he said grimly.
Lifting his feet onto the upholstered settee, West stretched out and arranged a pillow beneath his head. “Wake me when it’s over.”
Devon left the receiving room and followed the widow with long, ground-eating strides. He caught a glimpse of her at the end of the hallway, her dress and veil rippling as she sped away like a pirate ship at full sail.
“Wait,” he called after her. “I didn’t mean what I said earlier.”
“You did mean it.” She stopped and whirled to face Devon in an abrupt motion. “You intend to destroy the estate, and your family legacy, all for your own selfish purposes.”
He stopped in front of her, his hands gripped into fists. “Look here,” he said coldly, “the most I’ve ever had to manage is a terrace apartment, a cookmaid, a valet, and one horse. And now I’m expected to look after a foundering estate with more than two hundred tenant farms. I would think that merits some consideration. Even sympathy.”
“Poor you. How trying it must be, how inconvenient, for you to have to think about someone other than yourself.”
With that parting jab, she tried to leave. However, she had stopped near an arched niche in the wall, intended for the display of statuary or art objects on pedestals.
Devon had her now. Deliberately he braced his hands on either side of the recess, blocking her retreat. He heard her breath catch, and—although he wasn’t proud of it—he felt a bolt of satisfaction at having unnerved her.
“Let me pass,” she said.
He didn’t move, keeping her captive. “First tell me your name.”
“Why? I would never give you leave to use it.”
Exasperated, he studied her shrouded form. “Has it occurred to you that we have more to gain from mutual cooperation than hostility?”
“I’ve just lost my husband and my home. What precisely do I have to gain, my lord?”
“Perhaps you should find out before you decide to make an enemy of me.”
“You were the enemy before you ever set foot here.”
Devon found himself straining to see through the veil.
“Must you wear that blasted head covering?” he asked irritably. “It’s like conversing with a lampshade.”
“It’s called a weeping veil, and yes, I must wear it in the presence of a visitor.”
“I’m not a visitor, I’m your cousin.”
“Only by marriage.”
As he contemplated her, Devon felt his temper begin to subside. How small she was, as fragile and quick as a sparrow. He gentled his tone. “Come, don’t be stubborn. There’s no need to wear the veil around me unless you’re literally weeping, in which case I would insist that you put it back down immediately. I can’t abide a woman crying.”
“Because you’re secretly soft-hearted?” she asked sarcastically.
A distant memory stung him, one he hadn’t allowed himself to think about in years. He tried to shake it off, but his mind stubbornly retained the image of himself as a boy of five or six, sitting at the closed door of his mother’s dressing room, agitated by the sounds of weeping on the other side. He didn’t know what had made her cry, but it had undoubtedly been a failed love affair, of which there had been many. His mother had been a renowned beauty who often fell in and out of love in a single night. His father, exhausted by her caprices and driven by his own demons, had rarely been at home. Devon remembered the suffocating helplessness of listening to her sob but not being able to reach her. He had settled for pushing handkerchiefs under the door, begging her to open it, asking repeatedly what was wrong.
“Dev, you’re sweet,” she had said through her sniffles. “All little boys are. But then you all grow up to be so selfish and cruel. You were born to break women’s hearts.”
“I won’t, Mummy,” he had cried in alarm. “I promise I won’t.”
He had heard a laughing sob, as if he’d said something foolish. “Of course you will, poppet. You’ll do it without even trying.”
The scene had been repeated on other occasions, but that was the one Devon remembered most clearly.
As it had turned out, his mother had been right. Or at least, he’d often been accused of breaking women’s hearts. But he had always made it clear that he had no intention of marrying. Even if he fell in love, he would never make that kind of promise to a woman. There was no reason for it, when any promise could be broken. Having experienced the pain that people who loved each other could inflict, he had no desire to do that to anyone.
His attention returned to the woman in front of him. “No, I’m not soft-hearted,” he said in answer to her question. “In my opinion, a woman’s tears are manipulative and even worse, unattractive.”
“You,” she said with certainty, “are the vilest man I have ever met.”
Devon was amused by the way she enunciated every word as if it had been shot from a bow. “How many men have you met?”
“Enough to recognize a wicked one when I see him.”
“I doubt you can see much of anything through this veil.” He reached out to finger the edge of the black gauze. “You can’t possibly like to wear it.”
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
“Because it hides your face when you cry,” he said rather than asked.
“I never cry.”
Taken aback, Devon wondered if he had heard her correctly. “You mean not since your husband’s accident?”
“Not even then.”
What kind of woman would say such a thing, even if it were true? Devon gripped the front of the veil and began to hike it upward. “Hold still.” He pushed handfuls of the crepe back over the little headpiece that anchored it. “No, don’t pull away. The two of us are going to stand face-to- face and attempt a civilized conversation. Good God, you could rig a merchant ship with all this—”
Devon broke off as her face was uncovered. He found himself staring into a pair of amber eyes that tilted at the outer corners in a catlike slant. For a moment he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, while all his senses struggled to take her in.
He had never seen anything like her.
She was younger than he had expected, with a fair complexion and auburn hair that looked too heavy for its pins. A set of wide, pronounced cheekbones and a narrow jaw imparted an exquisite feline triangularity to her features. The curves of her lips were so full that even when she pressed them together tightly, as she was doing now, they still looked soft. Although she was not conventionally beautiful, she was so original that it rendered the question of beauty inconsequential.
Her mourning dress was slim and tightly fitted from the neck to the hips before flaring into a series of complex pleats. A man could only guess at the figure encased in all that boning and ruching and intricate stitching. Even her wrists and hands were obscured by black gloves. Aside from her face, the only visible skin was at her throat, where the front of her high collar parted with a U-shaped notch. He could see the vulnerable movement of her swallow. It looked so very soft, that private place, where a man might press his lips and feel the rhythm of her pulse.
He wanted to start there, kissing her throat, while he undressed her like an intricately wrapped gift until she was gasping and squirming beneath him. If she were any other woman, and they had found themselves in any other circumstances, Devon would have seduced her on the spot.
. . . Where to buy
A Kirkus Reviews "Best Romance of 2015 Book"
KIRKUS REVIEW (starred)
A gratifying series starter from a not-to-be-missed romance author.
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