Home > Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(11)

Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(11)
Author: Lisa Kleypas

After you stole his.

In Henry’s view, the worst of West Ravenel’s offenses had been stealing his copy of Stephen Armstrong: Treasure Hunter from a box of possessions beneath his bed at school. Although there had never been proof of the thief’s identity, Henry had remembered that Ravenel had previously mocked him when he’d seen him reading it. I know he’s the one, Henry had written. He’s probably done something awful with it. Dropped it down the privy. I’d be surprised if the nincompoop can even read.

“Someday when we’re big,” Phoebe had written in response, full of righteous vengeance, “we’ll go thrash him together and take it back from him.”

But now she was sitting next to him at dinner.

“—after he lost his copy,” she finished awkwardly. She watched as a footman poured wine into one of her glasses.

“How did he—” Mr. Ravenel began, and stopped with a frown. He moved in the chair, seeming uneasy, and began again. “When I was a boy, there was a book—” Another pause, and he tried to angle his body more toward hers.

“Mr. Ravenel,” Phoebe asked, puzzled, “are you quite all right?”

“Yes. It’s only—there’s a problem.” He scowled down at his trousers.

“A problem involving your lap?” she asked dryly.

He replied in an exasperated whisper. “As a matter of fact, yes.”

“Really.” Phoebe wasn’t certain whether to be amused or alarmed. “What is it?”

“The woman on my other side keeps putting her hand on my leg.”

Stealthily Phoebe leaned forward to peek around him at the culprit. “Isn’t that Lady Colwick?” she whispered. “The one whose mother, Lady Berwick, taught etiquette to Pandora and Cassandra?”

“Yes,” he said curtly. “It appears she neglected to teach it to her daughter.”

From what Phoebe understood, Dolly, Lady Colwick, had recently married a wealthy older man but was reportedly having affairs behind his back with her former suitors. In fact, it had been Dolly’s scandalous carryings-on that had resulted in an accidental meeting between Pandora and Gabriel in the first place.

Mr. Ravenel flinched irritably and reached beneath the table to push away the unseen, exploring hand.

Phoebe understood his dilemma. If a gentleman called attention to such outrageous behavior, he would be blamed for embarrassing the lady. Moreover, the lady could easily deny it, and people would be far more inclined to believe her.

All along the table, footmen filled glasses with water, wine, and iced champagne. Deciding to take advantage of the stir of activity, Phoebe said to Mr. Ravenel, “Lean forward, please.”

His brows lifted slightly, but he obeyed.

Reaching across the broad expanse of his back, Phoebe prodded Lady Colwick’s bare upper arm with her forefinger. The young woman gave her a mildly startled glance. She was very pretty, her dark hair pinned up in an ornate mass of shiny ringlets interwoven with ribbons and pearls. The brows over her heavy-lashed eyes had been carefully plucked into a pair of perfect thin crescents, like a china doll’s. A thick rope of pearls, weighted with diamond drops the size of Bristol cherries, glittered around her neck.

“My dear,” Phoebe said pleasantly, “I can’t help but notice that you keep trying to borrow Mr. Ravenel’s napkin. Do take this one.” She extended her own napkin to the young woman, who began to reach for it reflexively.

In the next instant, however, Lady Colwick snatched her hand back. “I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about.”

Phoebe wasn’t deceived. A guilty blush had infused the young woman’s cheeks, and the set of her rosebud lips had turned distinctly sullen. “Must I explain?” she asked very softly. “This gentleman does not enjoy being poked and pried like an oyster at Billingsgate Market while he tries to have his dinner. Kindly keep your hands to yourself.”

Lady Colwick’s eyes narrowed balefully. “We could have shared him,” she pointed out, and turned back to her plate with a disdainful sniff.

A muffled snort of laughter came from the row of footmen behind them.

Mr. Ravenel leaned back in his chair. Without turning, he gestured over his shoulder and murmured, “Jerome.”

One of the footmen approached and leaned down to him. “Sir?”

“Any more snickering,” Mr. Ravenel warned softly, “and tomorrow you’ll be demoted to hall boy.”

“Yes, sir.”

After the footman had withdrawn, Mr. Ravenel returned his attention to Phoebe. The little whisks of laugh-lines at the outer corners of his eyes had deepened. “Thank you for not sharing me.”

Her shoulders lifted in a slight shrug. “She was interfering with a perfectly unstimulating conversation. Someone had to stop her.”

His mouth curved in a slow grin.

Phoebe had never been so wholly aware of anyone as she was in that moment. Every nerve had come alive in response to his nearness. She was riveted by those eyes, the unrelieved blue of indigo ink. She was fascinated by the heavy beard grain visible beneath his close-shaven skin, and the snug fit of the crisp white collar over his muscled neck. Although one couldn’t excuse Lady Colwick’s behavior, it was certainly understandable. What must his leg have felt like? Probably very hard. Rock solid. The thought caused her to fidget on the chair.

What was the matter with her?

Tearing her gaze from him, she focused on the tiny engraved menu card between their place settings. “Beef consommé or purée of spring vegetables,” she read aloud. “I suppose I’ll have the consommé.”

“You’d choose weak broth over spring vegetables?”

“I never have much appetite.”

“No, just listen: the cook sends for a basket of ripe vegetables from the kitchen gardens—leeks, carrots, young potatoes, vegetable marrow, tomatoes—and simmers them with fresh herbs. When it’s all soft, she purées the mixture until it’s like silk, and finishes it with heavy cream. It’s brought to the table in an earthenware dish and ladled over croutons fried in butter. You can taste the entire garden in every spoonful.”

Phoebe couldn’t help but enjoy his enthusiasm. “How do you know so much about the preparation?”

“I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the kitchen,” he admitted. “I like to know about the staff’s responsibilities and working conditions. And as far as I’m concerned, the most important work at Eversby Priory is keeping everyone on the estate healthy and well fed. No one can work well on an empty belly.”

“Does the cook mind having her territory invaded?”

“Not as long as I keep out of the way and don’t stick my fingers into bowls.”

She smiled. “You like food, don’t you?”

“No, I love food. Of all earthly pleasures, it’s my second favorite.”

“What’s your first favorite?”

“That’s not a subject fit for dinner.” After a pause, he offered innocently, “But I could tell you later.”

The rascal. This was flirtation at its stealthiest, a seemingly bland comment weighted with innuendo. Phoebe chose to ignore it, gluing her gaze to the menu card until the jumble of letters sorted themselves into words. “I see there’s a choice for the fish course: turbot with lobster sauce, or sole à la Normandie.” She paused. “I’m not familiar with the latter.”

Mr. Ravenel answered readily. “White sole filets marinated in cider, sautéed in butter, and covered with crème fraîche. It’s light, with a tang of apples.”

It had been a long time since Phoebe had thought of a meal as anything other than a perfunctory ritual. She had not only lost her appetite after Henry died, she’d also lost her sense of taste. Only a few things still had flavor. Strong tea, lemon, cinnamon.

“My husband never—” The urge to let down her guard with him was almost overpowering, even though it felt like a betrayal of Henry.

Mr. Ravenel regarded her patiently, his head slightly tilted.

“He couldn’t tolerate milk or cream, or red meat,” Phoebe continued haltingly. “We ate only the plainest dishes, everything boiled and unseasoned. Even then, he suffered terribly. He was so sweet and good-natured, he didn’t want me to forgo things I enjoyed just because he couldn’t have them. But how could I eat a pudding or drink a glass of wine in front of him? After living that way for years . . . with food as the adversary . . . I’m afraid I’ll never be able to eat for pleasure again.”

Immediately Phoebe realized how out of place such a confession was at a formal dinner. She lowered her gaze to the gleaming row of flatware in front of her, briefly tempted to stab herself with a salad fork. “Forgive me,” she said. “I’ve been out of society for so long, I’ve forgotten how to make polite small talk.”

“Polite small talk is wasted on me. I spend most of my time around farm animals.” Mr. Ravenel waited for her brief smile to fade before continuing. “Your husband must have been a man of great inner strength. If I’d been in his place, I wouldn’t have been sweet or good-natured. In fact, I’m not that way even when things are going well.”

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