Home > Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(9)

Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(9)
Author: Lisa Kleypas

After a brief murmured exchange, the lady’s maid opened the door a bit wider, and Phoebe’s brother Ivo stuck his head inside.

“Hullo, sis,” he said casually. “You look very nice in that gold dress.”

“It’s ecru.” At his perplexed look, she repeated, “Ecru.”

“God bless you,” Ivo said, and gave her a cheeky grin as he entered the room.

Phoebe lifted her gaze heavenward. “Why are you here, Ivo?”

“I’m going to escort you downstairs, so you don’t have to go alone.”

Phoebe was so moved, she couldn’t speak. She could only stare at the eleven-year-old boy, who was volunteering to take the place her husband would have assumed.

“It was Father’s idea,” Ivo continued, a touch bashfully. “I’m sorry I’m not as tall as the other ladies’ escorts, or even as tall as you. I’m really only half an escort. But that’s still better than nothing, isn’t it?” His expression turned uncertain as he saw that her eyes were watering.

After clearing her throat, Phoebe managed an unsteady reply. “At this moment, my gallant Ivo, you tower above every other gentleman here. I’m so very honored.”

He grinned and offered her his arm in a gesture she had seen him practice in the past with their father. “The honor is mine, sis.”

In that moment, Phoebe had the briefest intimation of what Ivo would be like as a full-grown man, confident and irresistibly charming.

“Wait,” she said. “I have to decide what to do about my dress.”

“Why do you have to do something about it?”

“It’s too . . . flagrant.”

Her brother cocked his head, his gaze traveling over the dress. “Is that one of Pandora’s words?”

“No, it’s a dictionary word. It means standing out like a sore thumb.”

“Sis. You and I are always flagrant.” Ivo pointed to his red hair. “When you have this, you have no choice but to be noticed. Go on and wear that dress. I like it, and Gabriel will like it that you look pretty for his wedding-eve dinner.”

A commanding speech, coming from a boy not yet twelve. Phoebe studied him with fond pride. “Very well, you’ve talked me into it,” she said reluctantly.

“Goodness me,” Ernestine exclaimed, sounding relieved.

Phoebe smiled at her. “Don’t wait up here for me, Ernestine—take some time for yourself, and have dinner in the servants’ hall with the others.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

Phoebe took Ivo’s arm and let him escort her from the room. As they proceeded to the grand central staircase, she glanced at his formal Eton suit, made with black serge trousers, a white waistcoat, and a black satin bow tie. “You’ve graduated to long trousers,” she exclaimed.

“A year early,” Ivo boasted.

“How did you talk Mother into it?”

“I told her a fellow has his pride, and as far as I was concerned, wearing short trousers is like going about with your pants at half-mast. Mother laughed so hard, she had to set down her teacup, and the next day the tailor came to measure me for a suit. Now the Hunt twins can’t make fun of my knees anymore.” The fourteen-year-old boys, Ashton and Augustus, were the youngest offspring of Mr. and Mrs. Simon Hunt, who had been close friend to the Challons since before Phoebe had been born.

“The twins made fun of you?” Phoebe asked in surprised concern. “But you’ve always been great friends with them.”

“Yes, that’s what fellows do. We call our friends names like ‘Spoony’ or ‘Knobby-knees.’ The better the friend, the worse the insult.”

“But why not be nice?”

“Because we’re boys.” Ivo shrugged as he saw her bewilderment. “You know how our brothers are. The telegram Raphael sent to Gabriel yesterday said, ‘Dear Brother, congratulations on your wedding. I’m sorry I won’t be there to warn your bride about what a useless arse-wedge you are. All my love, Raphael.’”

Phoebe couldn’t help laughing. “That sounds like him. Yes, I know how they like to taunt each other, though I’ve never understood why. I suppose my two boys will be the same. But I’m glad Henry wasn’t. I never heard him mock or tease anyone.”

“He was a nice man,” Ivo said reflectively. “Different. I miss him.”

Her hand tightened on his arm in an affectionate squeeze.

To Phoebe’s relief, the gathering in the drawing room turned to be far less intimidating than she’d expected. Her parents and Seraphina were there to keep her company, as were Lord and Lady Westcliff, whom she and her siblings had always called ‘Uncle Marcus’ and ‘Aunt Lillian.’

Lord Westcliff’s hunting estate, Stony Cross Park, was located in Hampshire, not far from Eversby Priory. The earl and his wife, who had originally been an American heiress from New York—had raised three sons and three daughters. Although Aunt Lillian had teasingly invited Phoebe to have her pick of any of her robust and handsome sons, Phoebe had answered—quite truthfully—that such a union would have felt positively incestuous. The Marsdens and the Challons had spent too many family holidays together and had known each other for too long for any romantic sparks to fly between their offspring.

The Marsdens’ oldest daughter, Merritt, was one of Phoebe’s closest friends. She had gone to Essex on several occasions to help when Henry was especially ill, caring for him with skill and good humor. In fact, Phoebe had trusted her more than she had Henry’s mother, Georgiana, whose nerves had rarely been up to the task of nursing an invalid.

“Darling Phoebe,” Merritt said, taking both of her hands, “how ravishing you are.”

Phoebe leaned close to kiss her cheek. “I feel ridiculous in this dress,” she murmured. “I can’t think why I ever had it made in this fabric.”

“Because I told you to,” Merritt said. “I helped you order your trousseau at the dressmaker’s remember? You objected to the fabric at first, but I told you, ‘No woman should be afraid to sparkle.’”

Phoebe chuckled ruefully. “No one will ever sparkle as fearlessly as you, Merritt.”

Lady Merritt Sterling was a vibrantly attractive woman with large, dark eyes, a wealth of lustrous sable hair, and a flawless porcelain complexion. Unlike her two sisters, she had inherited the shorter, stockier frame of the Marsden side instead of the slender build of her mother. Similarly, she had her father’s square-shaped face and determined jaw instead of her mother’s delicate oval one. However, Merritt possessed a charm so compelling that she eclipsed every other woman in the vicinity, no matter how beautiful.

Merritt focused on whomever she was talking to with a wealth of sincere interest, as if she or he were the only person in the world. She asked questions and listened without ever seeming to wait for her turn to talk. She was the guest everyone invited when they needed to blend a group of disparate personalities, just as a roux would bind soup or sauce into velvety smoothness.

It was no exaggeration to say that every man who met Merritt fell at least a little in love with her. When she had entered society, countless suitors had pursued her before she’d finally consented to marry Joshua Sterling, an American-born shipping magnate who had taken up residence in London.

Drawing a little apart from their families, Phoebe and Merritt stole a few minutes to speak privately. Eagerly Phoebe told her friend about the encounter with West Ravenel, the proposed farm tour, and the presumptuous comments he’d made.

“Poor Phoebe,” Merritt soothed. “Men do love to explain things.”

“It wasn’t explaining, it was a lecture.’”

“How bothersome. But one must allow new people room for error. It’s often a clumsy business, this making of friends.”

“I don’t want to become friends with him, I want to avoid him.”

Merritt hesitated before replying. “No one could blame you, of course.”

“But you think it’s a mistake?”

“Darling, opinions are tiresome, especially mine.”

“Then you do think it’s a mistake.”

Merritt looked sympathetic. “Since your families are now aligned, you’ll cross paths with him in the future. It would be easier for all concerned, especially you, to keep things civil. Would it be so difficult for you to give Mr. Ravenel a second chance?”

Phoebe frowned and averted her gaze. “It would be,” she said. “For reasons I’d rather not explain.”

She hadn’t reminded Merritt that West Ravenel was the childhood bully Henry had hated. Somehow it didn’t seem right to smear a man’s reputation for things he’d done as a boy—it wouldn’t help anyone now.

But Merritt stunned her by asking, “Because of what happened at boarding school?”

Phoebe’s eyes widened. “You remember?”

“Yes, it was important to Henry. Even in adulthood, the memory of Mr. Ravenel was always a thorn in his side.” Merritt paused reflectively. “I think such events loom larger in our minds over time. I wonder if it was perhaps easier for Henry to focus on a human adversary instead of a disease.” She looked beyond Phoebe’s shoulder. “Don’t turn around,” she said, “but there’s a gentleman who keeps stealing glances at you from across the room. I’ve never seen him before. I wonder if he’s your Mr. Ravenel?”

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