Home > Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(14)

Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(14)
Author: Lisa Kleypas

“It’s French porcelain. Kathleen says we’re supposed to pinch the handle between the thumb and forefinger.”

“What’s wrong with adult-sized cups?”

Unfortunately, the diversionary tactic didn’t budge Devon from his original subject. “I wasn’t the only one to notice the attraction between you and Lady Clare.”

“At the moment,” West said, “I’d be attracted to any available woman under the age of ninety. The spring breeding season hasn’t yet finished, and every creature on this estate has been happily fornicating for weeks. Except me. Do you know how long I’ve been celibate? Every morning I wake up in a state of medical crisis.”

“I should think an attractive young widow would be able to help with that,” Devon said, resuming his seat.

“You must still be half crocked from all the wine last night. There’s no possibility a woman like Lady Clare would take a serious interest in me. Nor would I want her to.”

Devon gave him an astute glance. “You think her too far above you?”

Fiddling with the teacup handle, West accidentally caught a fingertip in it. “I don’t think it. She is too far above me—morally, financially, socially, and any other ‘ly’ you can think of. Besides, as I’ve said many times before, I’m not the marrying kind.”

“If you’re trying to hang on to your carefree bachelor’s existence,” Devon said, “it died approximately two years ago. You might as well accept that and settle down.”

“I would show you the appropriate finger,” West muttered, “if it weren’t stuck in this baby handle.” He tugged at his imprisoned middle digit, trying to free it without snapping the teacup’s porcelain loop.

“If a woman like Lady Clare has even the slightest interest in you, you don’t slink away. You fall to your knees in gratitude.”

“For the first half of our lives,” West retorted, “you and I were at everyone’s mercy. Pushed, pulled, and manipulated by relations who made our lives pure misery. We were puppets on strings. I won’t live like that again.”

He would never forget those years of being desperately poor and powerless. He and Devon had been outsiders at boarding school, where the other boys had all seemed to know each other. They had all been to the right places, and made jokes he hadn’t understood, and he’d envied their ease with themselves and each other. He’d hated feeling different, always out of place. Devon had quickly learned how to adjust to his circumstances. West, on the other hand, had been angry, awkward, and chubby. His only defense had been to turn into a crass, sneering bully.

In time, West’s resentment had eased, and he’d learned to mask his rough edges with humor. After he’d come of age, a small but tidy annuity from a trust left by his parents had enabled him, finally, to live well, dress well. But the sense of not quite belonging was never far from the surface. In a way, it had helped him learn to navigate between the worlds of aristocrats, poor tenant farmers, servants, tradesmen, bankers, cobblers, and herdsmen. As an outsider, he could see their problems and needs more clearly. Belonging nowhere was almost like belonging everywhere. It had its limitations, however, especially when it came to women like Phoebe, Lady Clare.

“Taking a rich wife . . . a duke’s daughter . . . there would be strings. Golden chains. It would all have to be her way. Her decision would always be the last.” West tugged irritably at his trapped finger. “I’ll be damned if I dance to her tune, or her father’s.”

“We all have to dance to someone’s tune. The best you can hope for is to like the music.”

West scowled. “You never sound like more of an idiot than when you try to say something wise and pithy.”

“I’m not the one with his finger stuck in a teacup,” Devon pointed out. “Is there any other reason you won’t pursue her, besides the money? Because that one rings hollow.”

It wasn’t just the money. But West was too tired and surly to try to make his brother understand. “Just because you’ve given up all masculine pride,” he muttered, “doesn’t mean I have to do the same.”

“Do you know what kind of men are able to keep their masculine pride?” Devon asked. “Celibate ones. The rest of us don’t mind doing a little begging and appeasing, if it means not having to sleep alone.”

“If you’re finished—” West began, with an irritated gesture of his hand.

At that moment, the teacup came unstuck, flung itself off his finger, and went soaring through an open window. Both brothers stared blankly after the path of its flight. A few seconds later, they heard a crash of porcelain on a graveled pathway.

In the silence, West shot a narrow-eyed glance at his brother, who was trying so hard not to laugh that his facial muscles were twitching.

Finally, Devon managed to regain control of himself. “So glad your right hand is free again,” he said in a conversational tone. “Especially since it seems that for the foreseeable future, you’ll be making frequent use of it.”

The surprise of Pandora and Lord St. Vincent’s wedding day was that there were no surprises. Thanks to the meticulous planning done by Kathleen and the housekeeper, Mrs. Church, and the skill of the household staff, the ceremony and breakfast were impeccable. Even the weather had cooperated; the morning was dry and clear beneath a crystalline blue sky.

Pandora, who walked down the aisle of the estate chapel on Devon’s arm, was radiantly beautiful in a dress of white silk, the billowing skirts so intricately gathered and draped that no lace or ornamental trim had been necessary. She wore a coronet of fresh daisies and a veil of sheer tulle and carried a small bouquet of roses and daisies.

If West had any remaining doubts about St. Vincent’s true feelings for his bride, they were forever banished as he saw the man’s expression. St. Vincent stared at Pandora as if she were a miracle, his cool composure disrupted by a faint flush of emotion. When Pandora reached him and the veil was pushed back, St Vincent broke with etiquette by leaning down to press a tender kiss on her forehead.

“That part isn’t ’til later,” Pandora whispered to him, but it was loud enough that the people around them overheard, and a rustle of laughter swept through the crowd.

As the pastor began to speak, West glanced discreetly at the pew across the aisle, where the Challons were seated in a row. The duke whispered something in his wife’s ear that made her smile, before he brought her hand up to kiss the backs of her fingers.

Phoebe sat on the duchess’s other side, with Justin on her lap. The boy leaned back against the soft curves of his mother’s bosom, while he played with a small toy elephant made of leather. The elephant trotted up one of Phoebe’s arms. Gently she pushed the toy back down and tried to direct Justin’s attention to the ceremony. In a moment, however, the elephant crept stealthily up her arm again, past her elbow, up to her shoulder.

West watched with covert interest, expecting Phoebe to reprimand the child. Instead, she waited until the elephant had almost reached the joint of her neck. Turning her head, she bit it playfully, her white teeth closing on the little trunk. Justin snatched the elephant away with a giggle and subsided in her lap.

West was struck by how natural and affectionate their interaction was. Clearly this was not the usual upper-class arrangement in which a child was raised by the servants and seldom seen or heard by his mother. Phoebe’s sons meant everything to her. Any candidate for her next husband would have to be ideal father material: wholesome, respectable, and wise.

God knew that left him out of the running.

That life—of being Phoebe’s husband, father to her children—was ready-made for someone else. A man who deserved the right to live with her in intimacy and watch her nightly feminine rituals of bathing, slipping on a nightgown, brushing out her hair. He alone would take her to bed, make love to her, and hold her while she slept. Someone out there was destined for all of that.

Whoever he was, West hated the bastard.

Chapter 9

The morning after the wedding, Phoebe waited with her father and son in the front receiving room. Despite her reluctance, she had decided to go on the farm tour after all. There were few other options: it was still quite early, and the houseguests would all be sleeping for hours yet. She had tried to stay abed, but her brain was too restless, and it took more effort to keep her eyes closed than open.

The bed was comfortable but different from the one at home, the mattress stuffing a bit softer than she preferred.

Home . . . the word summoned thoughts of her family’s wide, airy, low-slung house by the sea, with arbors of pink roses over the courtyard entrance, and the holloway in the back leading down to the sandy beach. But soon she would have to start thinking of the Clare estate as home, even though when she returned, she would feel nearly as much of a stranger as she’d been on the day Henry had brought her there as his bride.

She was uneasy about the condition of the land and farms. According to Edward, who sent her quarterly reports on estate business, rental income and crop yields had gone down for the second straight year. And grain prices had fallen. He’d told her that even though the estate had hit a rough patch, everything would eventually go back to the way it had always been. These things were cyclical, he’d said.

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