Home > Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(15)

Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(15)
Author: Lisa Kleypas

But what if he was wrong?

Justin charged across the room on his wooden hobbyhorse, made of a wooden stick with a carved horse head on one end and a little set of wheels on the other. “Gramps,” he asked, prancing and trotting around Phoebe’s father, Sebastian, who sat at a small table reading correspondence, “are you very graceful?”

The duke looked up from the letter in his hand. “Why do you ask, child?”

The wooden horse reared and turned in a tight circle. “Because everyone always talks about your grace. But why?”

Sebastian exchanged a laughing glance with Phoebe. “I believe you’re referring to the honorific,” he told Justin. “People call a nonroyal duke or duchess “Your Grace’ as a term of respect, not as a reference to personal qualities.” A reflective pause. “Although I do happen to be quite graceful.”

The child continued to dash about on the hobbyhorse.

Hearing the metal wheels knock against a table leg, Phoebe winced and said, “Justin, dear, do be careful.”

“It wasn’t me,” her son protested. “It was Splinter. He has too much energy. He’s hard to control.”

“Tell him if he doesn’t behave, you’ll have to stable him in a broom closet.”

“I can’t,” Justin said regretfully. “There are no holes in his ears for the words to go in.”

As Phoebe watched her son romp out of the room into the entrance hall, she said, “I hope Splinter doesn’t knock over a housemaid or overturn a vase.”

“Ravenel should be here soon.”

Phoebe nodded, picking restlessly at a bit of frayed upholstery on the arm of her chair.

Sebastian’s voice was soft and interested. “What’s troubling you, Redbird?”

“Oh . . .” Phoebe shrugged and smoothed the upholstery threads repeatedly. “For two years, I’ve let Edward Larson have free rein in managing the Clare Estate. Now I regret not having taken more of a hand in it. I have to start thinking like a businesswoman—which is about as natural to me as singing opera. I hope I’ll prove equal to the job.”

“Of course you will. You’re my daughter.”

She smiled at him, feeling reassured.

West Ravenel entered the room, dressed in a sack coat, well-worn trousers, and a collarless shirt. The leather boots on his feet were scuffed and scarred to a condition that no amount of polish could ever restore. The sight of him, big and handsome in the rough casual attire, caused a breath to stick in Phoebe’s throat.

That long, luxurious, strangely intimate dinner now seemed like a dream. She’d been so animated, so chatty—it must have been the wine. She remembered behaving foolishly. Laughing too much. She recalled telling Mr. Ravenel that she no longer took pleasure in eating, after which she’d proceeded to devour a twelve-course meal like a starving London cab horse. God, why hadn’t she behaved with her usual restraint? Why hadn’t she guarded her tongue?

Her face turned hot, the skin of her cheeks smarting.

“My lady,” he murmured, and bowed. He turned to her father. “Kingston.”

“Have you been working already?” Sebastian asked.

“No, I rode out to the east side to have a look at the quarry. We’re mining a rare deposit of hematite ore, and—” Mr. Ravenel paused as he caught sight of Justin ducking behind a settee with the hobbyhorse. Resting most of his weight on one leg in a relaxed stance, he said with feigned regret, “Someone’s let a horse into the house. What a nuisance. Once they’re inside, it’s impossible to get rid of them. I’ll have to tell the housekeeper to set out some traps and bait them with carrots.”

The wooden horse peeked out from behind the top edge of the settee and shook his head.

“Not carrots?” Mr. Ravenel asked, advancing stealthily toward the settee. “What about apples?”

Another shake.

“A lump of sugar?”

“Plum cakes,” came a small, muffled voice.

“Plum cakes,” Mr. Ravenel repeated in villainous satisfaction. “A horse’s greatest weakness. Soon he’ll be caught in my trap . . . and then . . .” He dove behind the settee, pouncing on Phoebe’s unseen son.

A shriek tore through the air, followed by a rush of boyish giggles and the sounds of rough-and-tumble play.

Uneasily Phoebe began to move forward to intervene. Justin wasn’t accustomed to interacting with adult males except for her father and brothers. But her father stopped her with a light touch on her arm, a slight smile on his face.

Mr. Ravenel rose from behind the settee, disheveled and rumpled. “Pardon,” he said with an air of mild concern, “but do I have something on my coat?” He twisted and turned to look over his shoulder, revealing Justin, who clung to his back like a monkey, short legs clamped around his lean waist.

Phoebe was both puzzled and disarmed to see her son playing so easily with a virtual stranger. She couldn’t help but compare it to his interactions with Edward Larson, who was not the kind to indulge in spontaneous romping.

“Shall we be off?” Mr. Ravenel asked her father.

“I’m coming too,” Phoebe said. “If you have no objections.”

Mr. Ravenel’s expression was unfathomable. “It would be a pleasure, my lady.”

“Justin,” Sebastian said, “come walk with me. We’ll let Mr. Ravenel escort Mama.”

Phoebe shot a vexed glance at her father, who pretended not to notice.

Mr. Ravenel crouched low for Justin to wriggle down from his back and came to Phoebe.

She was vaguely aware of her father saying something about taking Justin outside.

Mr. Ravenel’s quiet voice cut through the kettledrum clamor of her heartbeat. “I hope you haven’t been coerced into this.”

“No . . . I want to come.”

A husky laugh rustled across her senses. “Said with all the enthusiasm of a sheep in the middle of its first shearing.”

Seeing that his expression was friendly rather than mocking, Phoebe relaxed slightly. “I’m embarrassed for you to discover how little I know about any of this,” she admitted. “You’ll think badly of me. You’ll think it was willful ignorance.”

Mr. Ravenel was silent for a moment. When he replied, his tone was very gentle.

She blinked in surprise as she felt him touch her chin, angling her face upward. His fingers were dry and warm, textured like sandpaper and silk. The sensation carried and throbbed all through her. Two of his knuckles rested against the front of her throat with gossamer-light pressure. She stared up into his dark blue eyes, while a mysterious awareness brooded between them.

“You had an invalid husband and a young son to raise,” he said gently. “You had your hands full. Did you think I wouldn’t understand that?”

Phoebe was sure he could feel the movement of her swallow before his touch was slowly withdrawn. “Thank you,” she managed to say.

“For what?” He offered his arm, and she took it, her fingers curling over the sleeve of his unlined linen coat.

“For not criticizing, after I just gave you the perfect opportunity.”

“A man with my history? I may be a scoundrel, but I’m not a hypocrite.”

“You’re very hard on yourself. What did you do in the past that was so unforgivable?”

They left the house and began on a wide gravel path that led behind the manor. “Nothing stands out in particular,” he replied. “Only years of common-run debauchery.”

“But you’ve changed your ways, haven’t you?”

A sardonic smile crossed his face. “On the surface.”

The day was warming fast, the air weighted with the sweetness of clover and grass and pasture scents. A dunnock fluted notes from its perch in an ancient hedge, while robins called from the treetops.

Her father and Justin had already gone far ahead, veering off the path to investigate the row of four glasshouses beyond the formal gardens. In the distance, a set of farm buildings loomed over rows of stockyards and sheds.

Phoebe tried to think of what a businesswoman might ask. “Your approach to land management . . . the modern methods, the machinery . . . Edward Larson told me it was called ‘high farming.’ He says it stands for high expenses and high risk, and some of the landowners who’ve tried it have been ruined.”

“Many have been,” Mr. Ravenel surprised her by admitting. “Mostly because they took foolish risks or made improvements that didn’t need to be made. But that’s not what high farming is about. It’s about scientific methods and common sense.”

“Mr. Larson says the tried-and-true traditions are all a gentleman farmer needs to know. He says science should be kept apart from nature.”

Mr. Ravenel stopped in his tracks, obliging Phoebe to turn and face him. His lips parted as if he were about to say something blistering, then closed, and opened again. Eventually he asked, “May I speak plainly, or do I have to be polite?”

“I prefer politeness.”

“All right. Your estate is being managed by a damned idiot.”

“That’s the polite version?” Phoebe asked, mildly startled.

“To begin with, science isn’t something separate from nature. Science is how nature works. Second, a ‘gentleman farmer’ isn’t a farmer. If you have to preface your occupation with ‘gentleman,’ it’s a hobby. Third—”

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