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

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

A glow of errant tenderness softened the duke’s diamond-blue eyes as he looked at the boy. “How intriguing. I insist on coming along, then.”

Justin went to the duchess, locking his arms around her hips with the familiarity of a well-loved grandchild. “You can come too, Granny,” he said generously, hanging onto the complex draperies of her blue silk dress.

Her gentle hand, adorned only with a simple gold wedding band, smoothed his dark, ruffled hair. “Thank you, darling boy, but I would rather spend time with my old friends. In fact”—the duchess sent a quick, vibrant glance to her husband—“the Westcliffs have just arrived, and I haven’t seen Lillian for ages. Do you mind if I—”

“Go,” the duke said. “I know better than to stand between the two of you. Tell Westcliff I’ll be along in a moment.”

“I’ll take Ivo and Jack to the receiving room for lemonade,” Seraphina volunteered, and sent West a shy smile. “We’re parched after the journey from London.”

“So am I,” Phoebe murmured, beginning to follow her younger sister and the boys.

She stopped, however, her back straightening as she heard Lord St. Vincent remark to West, “My sister Phoebe will want to go on the farm tour. It’s fallen to her to maintain the Clare lands until Justin comes of age, and she has much to learn.”

Phoebe turned to St. Vincent with mingled surprise and annoyance. “As you’re well aware, brother, the Clare lands are already being managed by Edward Larson. I wouldn’t dream of insulting his expertise by interfering.”

“Sister,” St. Vincent replied dryly, “I’ve been to your estate. Larson’s a pleasant fellow, but his knowledge of farming hardly counts as ‘expertise.’”

West was fascinated to see a tidy of unruly pink sweep up Phoebe’s chest and throat. It was like watching a cameo come to life.

The brother and sister exchanged a hard stare, engaging in a wordless argument.

“Mr. Larson is my late husband’s cousin,” Phoebe said, still glaring at her brother, “and a great friend to me. He is managing the estate lands and tenants in the traditional manner, exactly as Lord Clare asked him to do. The tried-and-true methods have always served us well.”

“The problem with that—” West began, before he thought better of it. He broke off as Phoebe turned to give him an alert glance.

It felt like a collision, the way their gazes met.

“Yes?” Phoebe prompted.

Wishing he’d kept his mouth shut, West summoned a bland smile. “Nothing.”

“What were you going to say?” she persisted.

“I don’t want to overstep.”

“It’s not overstepping if I’m asking.” She was irritated and defensive now, her face turning even pinker. With that red hair, it was a riveting sight. “Do go on.”

“The problem with traditional farming,” West said, “is that it won’t work anymore.”

“It’s worked for two hundred years,” Phoebe pointed out, not incorrectly. “My husband was opposed to experimentation that might put the estate at risk, and so is Mr. Larson.”

“Farmers are experimental by nature. They’ve always looked for new ways to get the most they can from their fields.”

“Mr. Ravenel, with respect, what qualifications do you have to speak on the subject with such authority? Did you have farming experience before you came to Eversby Priory?”

“God, no,” West said without hesitation. “Before my brother inherited this estate, I’d never set so much as a foot on a farm. But when I started talking to the tenants, and learning about their situations, something quickly became clear. No matter how hard these people worked, they were going to be left behind. It’s a matter of simple mathematics. They can’t compete with cheap imported grain, especially now that international freight prices have dropped. On top of that, there are no young people left to do the backbreaking labor—they’re all heading north in search of factory jobs. The only solution is to modernize, or in five years—ten at most—the tenants will be gone, your country manor will have turned into a big white elephant, and you’ll be auctioning its contents to pay your tax bill.”

A frown knitted Phoebe’s forehead. “Edward Larson has a different view of the future.”

“While trying to live in the past?” West’s mouth twisted derisively. “I have yet to meet a man who can simultaneously look over his shoulder and see straight ahead.”

“You’re impertinent, Mr. Ravenel,” she said quietly.

“I beg your pardon. In any case, your tenants have been the lifeblood of the Clare estate for generations. You should at least learn enough about their situation to provide some oversight.”

“It’s not my place to supervise Mr. Larson.”

“Not your place?” West repeated incredulously. “Whose stakes are higher in all of this—his or yours? It’s your son’s inheritance, by God. If I were you, I’d have a hand in making the decisions.”

In the weighted silence that followed, West realized how presumptuous he’d been to lecture her in such a fashion. Looking away from her, he let out a taut sigh. “I warned you I’d overstep,” he muttered. “I apologize.”

“No,” Phoebe said curtly, surprising him. “I wanted your opinion. You’ve made some points worth considering.”

West’s head lifted, and he looked at her with unconcealed surprise. He’d fully expected her to give him a sharp set-down, or simply turn on her heel and walk off. Instead, Phoebe had set aside her pride long enough to listen to him, which few women of her rank would have done.

“Although next time you might try a gentler manner,” she said. “It usually helps criticism go down easier.”

Staring into her silver eyes was like drowning in moonlight. West found himself at a complete loss for words.

They were within arms’ reach of each other. How had that happened? Had he moved closer, or had she?

His voice was a husk of sound as he managed a reply. “Yes. I . . . I’ll be gentle next time.” That hadn’t sounded right. “Gentler. With you. Or . . . anyone.” None of that sounded right, either. “It wasn’t criticism,” he added. “Just helpful hints.” Christ. His thoughts were in a heap.

She was breathtaking up close, her skin reflecting light like the silk of butterfly wings. The lines of her throat and jaw were a precise framework for a mouth as full and rich as flowers in deep summer. Her fragrance was subtle and dry and alluring. She smelled like a clean, soft bed he would love to sink into. The thought made his pulse thump insistently . . . want . . . want . . . want . . . God, yes, he’d love to show her all his gentleness, browsing over that slender body with his hands and mouth until she was quivering and lifting to his touch—

Stop this, you sodding idiot.

He’d gone without a woman for too long. When was the last time? Possibly a year ago. Yes, in London. Good God, how could so much time have passed? After the summer haymaking, he would go to town for at least a fortnight. He would visit his club, have dinner with friends, see a decent play or two, and spend a few evenings in the arms of a willing woman who would make him forget all about red-haired young widows named after songbirds.

“You see, I have to keep my promises to my husband,” Phoebe said, sounding nearly as distracted as he felt. “I owe it to him.”

That rankled far more than it should have, jolting West out of the momentary trance. “You owe the benefit of your judgment to the people who depend on you,” he said in a low voice. “Your greater obligation is to the living, isn’t it?”

Phoebe’s brows rushed down.

She had taken that as a jab against Henry, and West couldn’t say for certain that he hadn’t meant it that way. It was absurd to insist the work of farming be done exactly as it had always been, without regard to what might happen in the future.

“Thank you for your helpful hints, Mr. Ravenel,” she said coolly, before turning to her brother. “My lord, I would like a word with you.” Her expression didn’t bode well for St. Vincent.

“Of course,” her brother replied, seeming not at all concerned about his imminent demise. “Pandora, love, if you don’t mind . . . ?”

“I’m fine,” Pandora told him airily. As soon as the pair departed, however, her smile vanished. “Is she going to hurt him?” she asked the duke. “He can’t have a black eye for the wedding.”

Kingston smiled. “I wouldn’t worry. Despite years of provocation from all three brothers, Phoebe has yet to resort to physical violence.”

“Why did Gabriel volunteer her for the farm tour in the first place?” Pandora asked. “Even for him, that was a bit high-handed.”

“It pertains to an ongoing quarrel,” the duke said dryly. “After Henry’s death, Phoebe was content to leave all the decisions to Edward Larson. Lately, however, Gabriel has been urging her to take a stronger hand in the management of the Clare lands—just as Mr. Ravenel advised a minute ago.”

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