Home > Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(2)

Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(2)
Author: Lisa Kleypas

Nanny awoke from her light snooze with a start and began to gather odds and ends into her carpetbag. She took Stephen from Phoebe, who followed Justin as he bounded out.

“Justin . . .” Phoebe said uneasily, watching him dart through the mass of servants and family members like a hummingbird, chirping little hellos. She saw the familiar figures of Devon and Kathleen Ravenel—Lord and Lady Trenear—welcoming the arriving guests. There were her parents, and her younger sister Seraphina, their brother Ivo, and Pandora and Cassandra, and dozens of people she didn’t recognize. Everyone was laughing and talking, animated by excitement over the wedding. A shrinking feeling came over Phoebe at the thought of meeting strangers and making conversation. Sparkling repartee wasn’t even a possibility. If only she were still dressed in protective mourning, with a veil concealing her face.

In the periphery of her vision, she saw Justin trotting up the front steps unaccompanied. Aware of Nanny starting forward, Phoebe touched her arm lightly. “I’ll run after him,” she murmured.

“Yes, milady,” Nanny said, relieved.

Phoebe was actually glad Justin had wandered inside the house—it gave her an excuse to avoid the gauntlet of guests being received.

The entrance hall was busy, but it was calmer and quieter than outside. A man directed the tumult of activity, giving instructions to passing servants. His hair, a shade of brown so dark it could easily have been mistaken for black, gleamed like liquid as the light moved over it. The man listened closely to the housekeeper as she explained something about the arrangement of guest bedrooms. Simultaneously he tossed a key to an approaching under-butler, who caught it with a raised hand and dashed off on some errand. A hall boy carrying a tower of hatboxes stumbled, and the dark-haired man reached out to steady him. After adjusting the stack of boxes, he sent the boy on his way.

The man radiated a crisp masculine vitality that seized Phoebe’s attention. He was easily over six feet tall, with the athletic brawn and the sun-bronzed complexion of a man who spent a great deal of time outdoors. But he wore a well-tailored suit of clothes. How curious. Perhaps he was an estate manager?

Her thoughts were interrupted as she noticed her son had gone to investigate the elaborate wood carving on one side of the grand double staircase. She followed him quickly. “Justin, you mustn’t wander off without telling me or Nanny.”

“Look, Mama.”

Her gaze followed the direction of his small forefinger. She saw a carving of a little nest of mice at the base of the balustrades. It was a playful and unexpected touch amid the grandeur of the staircase. A smile spread across her face. “I like that.”

“Me too.”

As Justin crouched to stare at the carving more closely, a glass marble dropped out of his pocket and hit the inlaid parquet floor. Dismayed, Phoebe and Justin watched the little sphere roll away rapidly.

But its momentum was brought to an abrupt halt as the dark-haired man pinned it with the tip of his shoe in display of perfect timing. As he finished his conversation, he bent to pick up the marble. The housekeeper bustled away, and the man turned his attention to Phoebe and Justin.

His eyes were shockingly blue in that suntanned face, his brief smile a dazzling flash of white. He was very handsome, his features strong and even, with faint, pale whisks of laugh lines radiating from the outer corners of his eyes. He seemed like someone who would be irreverent and amusing, but there was also something shrewd about him, something a bit flinty. As if he’d had his share of experience in the world, and had few illusions left. Somehow that made him even more attractive.

He came to them without haste. A pleasant outdoors scent clung to him: sun and air, a dusty, sedgelike sweetness and a hint of smoke, as if he’d been standing near a peat fire. His eyes were the darkest blue she’d ever seen, the irises rimmed with black. It had been a long time since a man had looked at Phoebe like this, direct and interested, and the slightest bit flirty. The strangest feeling came over her, something that reminded her a little of the early days of her marriage to Henry . . . that shaky, embarrassing, inexplicable desire to press her body intimately against someone else’s. Until now, she’d never felt it for anyone but her husband, and never anything like this fire-and-ice jolt of awareness.

Feeling guilty and confused, Phoebe backed away a step, trying to pull Justin with her.

But Justin resisted, evidently feeling it had fallen to him to begin the introductions. “I’m Justin, Lord Clare,” he announced. “This is Mama. Papa isn’t here with us because he’s dead.”

Phoebe was aware of a brilliant pink flush racing from her scalp down to her toes.

The man didn’t seem a bit flustered, only sank to his haunches to bring his face level with Justin’s. His low-pitched voice made Phoebe feel as if she were stretching across a deep feather mattress.

“I lost my father when I wasn’t much older than you,” he said to Justin.

“Oh, I didn’t lose mine,” came the child’s earnest reply. “I know exactly where he is. Heaven.”

The stranger smiled. “A pleasure to meet you, Lord Clare.” The two shook hands ceremoniously. He held the marble up to the light, viewing the tiny porcelain figure of a sheep embedded into the clear glass marble. “A fine piece,” he remarked, and handed it to Justin before standing up. “Do you play Ring Taw?”

“Oh, yes,” the boy replied. It was a common game in which players tried to knock each other’s marbles out of a circle.

“Double Castle?”

Looking intrigued, Justin shook his head. “I don’t know that one.”

“We’ll play a game or two during your visit, if Mama doesn’t object.” The man gave Phoebe a questioning glance.

Phoebe was mortified by her inability to speak. Her heartbeat was stampeding out of control.

“Mama isn’t used to talking to grown-ups,” Justin said. “She likes children better.”

“I’m very childlike,” the man said promptly. “Ask anyone around here.”

Phoebe found herself smiling up at him. “You’re the estate manager?” she asked.

“Most of the time. But there’s no job at this estate, scullery maid included, that I haven’t tried at least once, to gain at least some small understanding of it.”

Phoebe’s smile faded as a strange, terrible suspicion flickered through her mind.

“How long have you been employed here?” she asked cautiously.

“Since my brother inherited the title.” The stranger bowed before continuing. “Weston Ravenel . . . at your service.”

Chapter 2

West couldn’t stop staring at Lady Clare. He had the feeling if he reached out to touch her, he would come away with his fingers scorched. That hair, blazing from beneath a simple gray traveling bonnet . . . he’d never seen anything like it. Bird-of-paradise red, with glimmers of crimson dancing amid the pinned-up locks. Her skin was flawless ivory except for a tender spray of freckles sprinkled across her nose, like a finishing spice on some luxurious dessert.

She had the look of someone who had been nurtured: educated and well dressed. Someone who had always been lovingly sheltered. But there was a shadow in her gaze . . . the knowledge that there were some things no human being could be protected from.

God, those eyes . . . light gray, with striations like the rays of tiny stars.

When she smiled, West had felt a hot tug deep inside his chest. But immediately after he’d introduced himself, her winsome smile had faded, as if she’d just woken from a lovely dream into a far less pleasant reality.

Turning to her son, Lady Clare gently smoothed a cowlick at the crown of his dark head. “Justin, we have to rejoin the rest of the family.”

“But I’m going to play marbles with Mr. Ravenel,” the boy protested.

“Not with all the guests arriving,” she countered. “This poor gentleman has much to do. We’re going to settle in our rooms.”

Justin frowned. “Do I have to stay in the nursery? With the babies?”

“Darling, you’re four years old—”

“Almost five!”

Her lips quirked. There was a wealth of interest and empathy in the gaze she bent on her small son. “You may stay in my room, if you like,” she offered.

The child was appalled by the suggestion. “I can’t sleep in your room,” he said indignantly.

“Why not?”

“People might think we were married!”

West concentrated on a distant spot on the floor, struggling to hold back a laugh. When he was able, he took a steadying breath and risked a glance at Lady Clare. To his secret delight, she appeared to be considering the point as if it were entirely valid.

“I hadn’t thought of that,” she said. “I suppose it will have to be the nursery, then. Shall we go look for Nanny and Stephen?”

The boy heaved a sigh and reached up for her hand. Looking up at West, he explained, “Stephen is my baby brother. He can’t talk, and he smells like rotten turtles.”

“Not all the time,” Lady Clare protested.

Justin only shook his head, as if the point weren’t worth debating.

Charmed by the easy communication between the two, West couldn’t help comparing it to the stilted exchanges he’d had with his own mother, who had always seemed to regard her offspring as if they were someone else’s children who were bothering her.

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