Home > Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(10)

Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(10)
Author: Lisa Kleypas

“Good heavens, please don’t call him my Mr. Ravenel. What does he look like?”

“Dark haired, clean-shaven and quite sun-browned. Tall, with shoulders as broad as a plowman’s. At the moment he’s talking with a group of gentlemen, and—oh, my. He has a smile like a hot summer day.”

“That would be Mr. Ravenel,” Phoebe muttered.

“Well. I recall Henry describing him as pale and stout.” Merritt’s brows lifted slightly as she peeked over Phoebe’s shoulder once more. “Someone had a growth spurt.”

“Looks are irrelevant. It’s the inner man that counts.”

Laughter threaded through Merritt’s voice. “I suppose you’re right. But the inner Mr. Ravenel happens to be quite beautifully packaged.”

Phoebe bit back a grin. “And you, a married lady,” she whispered in mock scolding.

“Married ladies have eyes,” came Merritt’s demure reply, her face alive with mischief.

Chapter 6

As usual, the guests entered the dining room in order of precedence. Regardless of personal age or fortune, the first people in line were those whose title, or patent of nobility, was the oldest. That made Lord and Lady Westcliff the couple of highest rank, even though Phoebe’s father held a dukedom.

Accordingly, Devon, Lord Trenear, escorted Lady Westcliff, while Lord Westcliff escorted Kathleen. The rest of the guests followed in prearranged pairs. Phoebe was relieved to discover she would be accompanied by Westcliff’s oldest son, Lord Foxhall, whom she had known her entire life. He was a big, boldly handsome man in his twenties, an avid sportsman like his father. As the earl’s heir, he had been accorded a viscountcy, but he and Phoebe were far too familiar to stand on ceremony.

“Fox,” she exclaimed, a wide smile crossing her face.

“Cousin Phoebe.” He leaned down to kiss her cheek, his dark eyes snapping with lively humor. “It seems I’m your escort. Bad luck for you.”

“To me it’s very good luck—how could it be otherwise?”

“With all the eligible men present, you should be with one who doesn’t remember you as a little girl in pigtails, sliding down one of the banisters at Stony Cross Manor.”

Phoebe’s smile lingered even as she sighed wistfully and shook her head. “Oh, Fox. Those days are long gone, aren’t they?”

“You still have most of it ahead of you,” he said gently.

“None of us knows how much time we have.”

Foxhall offered his arm. “Then let’s eat, drink and be merry while we’re able.”

They made their way to the dining room, where the air was blossom scented and gilded with candlelight. The mammoth Jacobean table, with its legs and support rails carved like twisted rope, had been covered with pristine white linen. A row of broad silver baskets filled with billows of June roses rested on a long runner of frothy green maidenhair ferns. The walls had been lined with lush arrangements of palms, hydrangeas, azaleas and peonies, turning the room into an evening garden. Each place at the table had been set with glittering Irish crystal, Sèvres porcelain, and no fewer than twenty-four pieces of antique Georgian silver flatware per guest.

Long rows of footmen stood back at both sides of the room while the gentlemen seated the ladies. Lord Foxhall pulled out Phoebe’s chair, and she moved toward the table. But she froze as she saw the man who had just seated the lady to his right.

On the place card beside hers, a name had been written in elaborate calligraphy: Mr. Weston Ravenel.

Her stomach plummeted.

Mr. Ravenel turned toward her and hesitated, appearing no less surprised than she. He cut an impressive figure in formal evening clothes. The white shirt and necktie contrasted sharply with the amber glow of his skin, while the tailored black coat emphasized the stunning breadth of his shoulders.

The way he stared at her was too focused, too . . . something. She couldn’t decide what to do, only looked back at him helplessly, her insides strung with hot twinges and pangs.

Mr. Ravenel’s gaze flicked down to the place cards and back to her face. “I had nothing to do with the seating arrangements.”

“Obviously,” Phoebe replied crisply, her thoughts in turmoil. According to etiquette, a gentleman usually directed the majority of his attention and conversation to the lady on his left. She was going to have to talk to him for the entire meal.

As she cast a distracted glance around the room, she caught sight of Gabriel.

Seeing her dilemma, her brother began to mouth the words, Do you want me to—

Phoebe gave a quick little shake of her head. No, she would not make a scene the night before her brother’s wedding, even if she had to sit next to Lucifer himself—a seating arrangement she would have preferred to this one.

“Is something amiss?” came Lord Foxhall’s quiet voice near her left ear. She realized he was still waiting to seat her.

Gathering her wits, Phoebe replied with a forced smile. “No, Fox, everything is splendid.” She occupied the chair, arranging her skirts deftly.

Mr. Ravenel remained motionless, a frown tugging at the smooth space between his dark brows. “I’ll find someone to change places with me,” he said quietly.

“For heaven’s sake, just sit,” Phoebe whispered.

He occupied the chair cautiously, as if it might collapse beneath him at any moment. His wary gaze met hers. “I’m sorry for the way I behaved earlier.”

“It’s forgotten,” she said. “I’m sure we can manage to tolerate each other’s company for one meal.”

“I won’t say anything about farming. We can discuss other subjects. I have a vast and complex array of interests.”

“Such as?”

Mr. Ravenel considered that. “Never mind, I don’t have a vast array of interests. But I feel like the kind of man who does.”

Amused despite herself, Phoebe smiled reluctantly. “Aside from my children, I have no interests.”

“Thank God. I hate stimulating conversation. My mind isn’t deep enough to float a straw.”

Phoebe did enjoy a man with a sense of humor. Perhaps this dinner wouldn’t be as dreadful as she’d thought. “You’ll be glad to hear, then, that I haven’t read a book in months.”

“I haven’t gone to a classical music concert in years,” he said. “Too many moments of ‘clap here, not there.’ It makes me nervous.”

“I’m afraid we can’t discuss art, either. I find symbolism exhausting.”

“Then I assume you don’t like poetry.”

“No . . . unless it rhymes.”

“I happen to write poetry,” Ravenel said gravely.

Heaven help me, Phoebe thought, the momentary fun vanishing. Years ago, when she’d first entered society, it had seemed as if every young man she met at a ball or dinner was an amateur poet. They had insisted on quoting their own poems, filled with bombast about starlight and dewdrops and lost love, in the hopes of impressing her with how sensitive they were. Apparently, the fad had not ended yet.

“Do you?” she asked without enthusiasm, praying silently that he wouldn’t offer to recite any of it.

“Yes. Shall I recite a line or two?”

Repressing a sigh, Phoebe shaped her mouth into a polite curve. “By all means.”

“It’s from an unfinished work.” Looking solemn, Mr. Ravenel began, “There once was a young man named Bruce . . . whose trousers were always too loose.”

Phoebe willed herself not to encourage him by laughing. She heard a quiet cough of amusement behind her and deduced that one of the footmen had overheard.

“Mr. Ravenel,” she asked, “have you forgotten this is a formal dinner?”

His eyes glinted with mischief. “Help me with the next line.”

“Absolutely not.”

“I dare you.”

Phoebe ignored him, meticulously spreading her napkin over her lap.

“I double dare you,” he persisted.

“Really, you are the most . . . oh, very well.” Phoebe took a sip of water while mulling over words. After setting down the glass, she said, “One day he bent over, while picking a clover.”

Ravenel absently fingered the stem of an empty crystal goblet. After a moment, he said triumphantly, “. . . and a bee stung him on the caboose.”

Phoebe almost choked on a laugh. “Could we at least pretend to be dignified?” she begged.

“But it’s going to be such a long dinner.”

She looked up to find him smiling at her, easy and warm, and it sent a curious shiver through her, the kind that sometimes happened after she woke from a long sleep and stretched until her muscles trembled.

“Tell me about your children,” he said.

“What would you like to know?”

“Anything. How did you decide on their names?”

“Justin was named after my husband’s favorite uncle—a dear old bachelor who always brought him books when he was ill. My younger son, Stephen, was named after a character in an adventure novel Lord Clare and I read when we were children.”

“What was the title?”

“I can’t tell you; you’ll think it’s silly. It is silly. But we both loved it. We read it dozens of times. I had to send Henry my copy, after—”

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