Home > Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(3)

Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(3)
Author: Lisa Kleypas

“There are far worse smells than a baby brother,” West told the boy. “Sometime during your visit, I’ll show you foulest-smelling thing on the estate home farm.”

“What is it?” Justin demanded in excitement.

West grinned at him. “You’ll have to wait to find out.”

Looking troubled, Lady Clare said, “You’re very kind, Mr. Ravenel, but we won’t hold you to that promise. I’m sure you’ll be quite busy. We wouldn’t wish to impose.”

More surprised than offended by the refusal, West replied slowly, “As you wish, my lady.”

Seeming relieved, she curtseyed gracefully and whisked her son away as if they were escaping something.

Baffled, West stared after her. This wasn’t the first time a highly respectable woman had given him the cold shoulder. But it was the first time it had ever stung.

Lady Clare must know about his reputation. His past had been rife with more episodes of debauchery and drunkenness than most men under the age of thirty could ever hope to claim. He could hardly blame Lady Clare for wanting to keep her impressionable child away from him. God knew he would never want to be responsible for ruining a fledgling human being.

Sighing inwardly, West resigned himself to keeping his mouth shut and avoiding Challons during the next few days. Which wouldn’t be easy, since the house was bloody full of them. After the newly wedded couple’s departure, the bridegroom’s family would stay on for at least three or four more days. The duke and duchess intended to take advantage of the opportunity to spend time with some old friends and acquaintances in Hampshire. There would be luncheons, dinners, excursions, parties and picnics, and long nights of parlor entertainments and conversation.

Naturally all this would have to take place at the beginning of summer, when the estate farms were in a ferment of activity. At least the work gave West a justifiable reason to spend most of his time away from the house. And as far from Lady Clare as possible.

“Why are you standing here dumbfloundering?” a female voice demanded.

Torn from his thoughts, West glanced down at his pretty dark-haired cousin, Lady Pandora Ravenel.

Pandora was an unconventional girl: impulsive, intelligent, and usually filled with more energy than she seemed able to manage. Of all three Ravenel sisters, she had been the least likely to marry the most eligible bachelor in England. However, it spoke well of Gabriel, Lord St. Vincent, that he was able to appreciate her. In fact, from all accounts, St. Vincent had gone head over heels for her.

“Is there something you’d like me to do?” West asked Pandora blandly.

“Yes, I want to introduce you to my fiancé, so you can tell me what you think of him.”

“Sweetheart, St. Vincent is the heir to a dukedom, with a large fortune at his disposal. I already find him wildly enchanting.”

“I saw you talking to his sister, Lady Clare, just now. She’s a widow. You should court her before someone else snaps her up.”

West’s mouth curled in a humorless smile at the suggestion. He might have an illustrious family name, but he had neither fortune nor lands of his own. Moreover, the shadow of his former life was inescapable. Here in Hampshire, he’d made a new start among people who didn’t give a rag for London society gossip. But to the Challons, he was a man of ruined character. A ne’er do well.

And Lady Claire was the ultimate prize: young, wealthy, beautiful, the widowed mother of an heir to a viscountcy and a landed estate. Every eligible man in England would pursue her.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “Courting sometimes has the unpleasant side effect of marriage.”

“But you’ve said before that you’d like to see the house filled with children.”

“Yes, other people’s children. Since my brother and his wife are ably supplying the world with more Ravenels, I’m off the hook.”

“Still, I think you should at least become acquainted with Phoebe.”

“Is that her name?” West asked with reluctant interest.

“Yes, after a cheerful little songbird that lives in the Americas.”

“The woman I just met,” West said, “is not a cheerful little songbird.”

“Lord St. Vincent says Phoebe is affectionate and even a bit flirtiddly by nature, but she still feels the loss of her husband very deeply.”

West tried his best to maintain an indifferent silence. In a moment, however, he couldn’t resist asking, “What did he die of?”

“A kind of wasting disease. The doctors could never agree on a diagnosis.” Pandora paused as she saw arriving guests funneling into the entrance hall. She tugged West toward the space beneath the grand staircase, her voice lowering as she continued. “Lord Clare was ill since the day he was born. He suffered dreadful stomach pains, fatigue, headaches, heart palpitations . . . he was intolerant to most kinds of food and could hardly keep anything down. They tried every possible treatment, but nothing helped.”

“Why would a duke’s daughter marry a lifelong invalid?” West asked, puzzled.

“It was a love match. Lord Clare and Phoebe were childhood sweethearts. At first he was reluctant to marry her, because he didn’t want to be a burden, but she persuaded him to make the most of the time they had. Isn’t that terribly romantic?”

“It makes no sense,” West said. “Are we certain she didn’t have to marry in haste?”

Pandora looked perplexed. “Do you mean . . .” She paused, trying to think of a polite phrase. “. . . they may have anticipated their vows?”

“That,” West said, “or her first child was sired by another man, who wasn’t available to wed.”

Pandora frowned. “Are you really that cynical?”

West grinned at her. “No, I’m much worse than this. You know that.”

Pandora moved her hand in pretend swat near his chin, as if administering a well-deserved reprimand. Deftly he caught her wrist, kissed the back of her hand, and released it.

So many guests had crowded into the entrance hall by then that West began to wonder if Eversby Priory could accommodate them all. The manor had more than one hundred bedrooms, not including servants’ quarters, but after decades of neglect, large sections were now either closed off or in the process of restoration.

“Who are all these people?” he asked. “They seem to be multiplying. I thought we’d limited the guest list to relations and close friends.”

“The Challons have many close friends,” Pandora said, a touch apologetically. “I’m sorry, I know you don’t like crowds.”

The remark surprised West, who was about to protest that he did like crowds, when it occurred to him that Pandora knew him only as he was now. In his former life, he’d enjoyed the company of strangers, and had lurched from one social event to another in search of constant entertainment. He’d loved the gossip, the flirtations, the endless flow of wine and noise that had kept his attention firmly fixed outward. But since he’d come to Eversby Priory, he’d become a stranger to that life.

Seeing a group of people entering the house, Pandora bounced a little on her heels. “Look, there are the Challons.” A mixture of wonder and unease colored her voice as she added, “My future in-laws.”

Sebastian, the Duke of Kingston, radiated the cool confidence of a man who had been born to privilege. Unlike most British peers, who were disappointingly average, Kingston was dashing and ungodly handsome, with the taut, slim physique of a man half his age. Known for his shrewd mind and caustic wit, he oversaw a labyrinthine financial empire that included, of all things, a gentleman’s gaming club. If his fellow noblemen expressed private distaste for the vulgarity of owning such an enterprise, none dared criticize him publicly. He was the holder of too many debts, the possessor of too many ruinous secrets. With a few words or strokes of a pen, Kingston could have reduced nearly any proud aristocratic scion to beggary.

Unexpectedly, rather sweetly, the duke seemed more than a little enamored of his own wife. One of his hands lingered idly at the small of her back, his enjoyment in touching her covert but unmistakable. One could hardly blame him. Evangeline, the duchess, was a spectacularly voluptuous woman with apricot-red hair, and merry blue eyes set in a lightly freckled complexion. She looked warm and radiant, as if she’d been steeped in a long autumn sunset.

“What do you think of Lord St. Vincent?” Pandora asked eagerly.

West’s gaze moved to a man who appeared to be a younger version of his sire, with bronze-gold hair that gleamed like new-minted coins. Princely handsome. A cross between Adonis and the Royal Coronation Coach.

With deliberate casualness, West said, “He’s not as tall as I expected.”

Pandora looked affronted. “He’s every bit as tall as you!”

“I’ll eat my hat if he’s an inch over four foot seven.” West clicked his tongue in a few disapproving tsk-tsks. “And still in short trousers.”

Half annoyed, half amused, Pandora gave him a little shove. “That’s his younger brother Ivo, who is eleven. The one next to him is my fiancé.”

“Aah. Well, I can see why you’d want to marry that one.”

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