Home > Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(10)

Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(10)
Lisa Kleypas

“You’d choose weak broth over spring vegetables?”

“I never have much appetite.”

“No, just listen: the cook sends for a basket of ripe vegetables from the kitchen gardens—leeks, carrots, young potatoes, vegetable marrow, tomatoes—and simmers them with fresh herbs. When it’s all soft, she purées the mixture until it’s like silk, and finishes it with heavy cream. It’s brought to the table in an earthenware dish and ladled over croutons fried in butter. You can taste the entire garden in every spoonful.”

Phoebe couldn’t help but enjoy his enthusiasm. “How do you know so much about the preparation?”

“I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the kitchen,” he admitted. “I like to know about the staff’s responsibilities and working conditions. And as far as I’m concerned, the most important work at Eversby Priory is keeping everyone on the estate healthy and well fed. No one can work well on an empty belly.”

“Does the cook mind having her territory invaded?”

“Not as long as I keep out of the way and don’t stick my fingers into bowls.”

She smiled. “You like food, don’t you?”

“No, I love food. Of all earthly pleasures, it’s my second favorite.”

“What’s your first favorite?”

“That’s not a subject fit for dinner.” After a pause, he offered innocently, “But I could tell you later.”

The rascal. This was flirtation at its stealthiest, a seemingly bland comment weighted with innuendo. Phoebe chose to ignore it, gluing her gaze to the menu card until the jumble of letters sorted themselves into words. “I see there’s a choice for the fish course: turbot with lobster sauce, or sole à la Normandie.” She paused. “I’m not familiar with the latter.”

Mr. Ravenel answered readily. “White sole filets marinated in cider, sautéed in butter, and covered with crème fraîche. It’s light, with a tang of apples.”

It had been a long time since Phoebe had thought of a meal as anything other than a perfunctory ritual. She had not only lost her appetite after Henry died, she’d also lost her sense of taste. Only a few things still had flavor. Strong tea, lemon, cinnamon.

“My husband never—” The urge to let down her guard with him was almost overpowering, even though it felt like a betrayal of Henry.

Mr. Ravenel regarded her patiently, his head slightly tilted.

“He couldn’t tolerate milk or cream, or red meat,” Phoebe continued haltingly. “We ate only the plainest dishes, everything boiled and unseasoned. Even then, he suffered terribly. He was so sweet and good-natured, he didn’t want me to forgo things I enjoyed just because he couldn’t have them. But how could I eat a pudding or drink a glass of wine in front of him? After living that way for years . . . with food as the adversary . . . I’m afraid I’ll never be able to eat for pleasure again.”

Immediately Phoebe realized how out of place such a confession was at a formal dinner. She lowered her gaze to the gleaming row of flatware in front of her, briefly tempted to stab herself with a salad fork. “Forgive me,” she said. “I’ve been out of society for so long, I’ve forgotten how to make polite small talk.”

“Polite small talk is wasted on me. I spend most of my time around farm animals.” Mr. Ravenel waited for her brief smile to fade before continuing. “Your husband must have been a man of great inner strength. If I’d been in his place, I wouldn’t have been sweet or good-natured. In fact, I’m not that way even when things are going well.”

The praise of Henry caused some of her buried animosity to melt. It was far easier to hate a person when he was a distant figure, a concept, than when he was a living, breathing reality.

Thinking over his last comment, Phoebe asked, “Do you have a temper, Mr. Ravenel?”

“Good God, haven’t you heard? Ravenels are powder kegs with quick-match fuses. It’s why there are so few males left in the family line: constant drinking and brawling don’t usually lend themselves to happy old age.”

“Is that what you do? Constantly drink and brawl?”

“I used to,” he admitted.

“Why did you stop?”

“Too much of anything is tiresome,” he said, and grinned at her. “Even pleasure-seeking.”

Chapter 7

As it turned out, the purée of spring vegetables exceeded Mr. Ravenel’s description. The soft reddish-orange emulsion really did taste like a garden. It was a bold, creamy harmony of astringent tomato, sweet carrots, potatoes, and greens, bound together in a lively snap of springtime. As Phoebe bit into a half-crisp, half-sodden crouton, she closed her eyes to savor it. God, it had been so long since she’d really tasted anything.

“I told you,” Mr. Ravenel said in satisfaction.

“Do you think your cook would share the recipe?”

“She would if I asked her to.”

“Will you?”

“What will you do for me in return?” he parried.

That surprised a laugh out of her. “How ungallant. What about chivalry? What about largesse?”

“I’m farmer, not a knight. Around here, it’s quid pro quo.”

The way he spoke to her had none of the deference and sympathy people usually accorded to widows. It felt like . . . flirtation. But she couldn’t be sure. It had been so long since anyone had flirted with her. Of course, he was the last man she would ever welcome that kind of attention from, except . . . it flustered her in an oddly pleasant way.

An endless round of toasts began, to the happiness and prosperity of bride and groom, the well-being of the families about to be joined, the queen, the host and hostess, the clergyman, the ladies, and so forth. Glasses were repeatedly replenished with fine old wines, the empty soup bowls were withdrawn, and tiny plates of chilled ripe melon slices were set out.

Each course was more delectable than the last. Phoebe would have thought nothing could have surpassed the efforts of the French cook at Heron’s Point, but this was some of the most delicious fare she’d ever had. Her bread plate was frequently replenished with piping-hot milk rolls and doughy slivers of stottie cake, served with thick curls of salted butter. The footmen brought out perfectly broiled game hens, the skin crisp and delicately heat-blistered . . . fried veal cutlets puddled in cognac sauce . . . slices of vegetable terrine studded with tiny boiled quail eggs. Brilliantly colorful salads were topped with dried flakes of smoked ham or paper-thin slices of pungent black truffle. Roasted joints of beef and lamb were presented and carved beside the table, the tender meat sliced thinly and served with drippings thickened into gravy.

As Phoebe sampled one offering after another, in the company of her husband’s lifelong enemy, she enjoyed herself immensely. West Ravenel was worldly and wickedly funny, making audacious comments that managed to stay just within the margins of respectability. His relaxed interest seemed to wrap gently around her. The conversation was easy, pleasurable, like an unfurling bolt of velvet. She couldn’t remember the last time she had talked like this, her tongue going on like a mill-clapper. Nor could she remember consuming this much food in one sitting in years.

“What courses are left?” she asked as palate-clearing sorbet was brought out in miniature crystal cups.

“Just cheese, and then dessert.”

“I can’t even manage this sorbet.”

Mr. Ravenel shook his head slowly, regarding her with somber disappointment. “What a featherweight. You’re going to let this dinner defeat you?”

She sputtered with a helpless laugh. “It’s not a sporting event.”

“Some meals are a fight to the finish. You’re so close to victory—for God’s sake, don’t give up.”

“I’ll try,” she said doubtfully. “I do hate to waste food.”

“Nothing will be wasted. The left-over scraps will go either to the compost heap or the pigs’ trough.”

“How many pigs do you keep?”

“Two dozen. A few of the tenant families also keep pigs. I’ve been trying to convince our smallholders—especially those with less productive land—to farm more livestock instead of corn. But they’re reluctant. They consider raising stock—especially pigs—a step down from growing crops.”

“I don’t see why—” Phoebe began, but she was interrupted by Pandora’s cheerful voice.

“Cousin West, are you talking about pigs? Have you told Lady Clare about Hamlet?”

Obligingly Mr. Ravenel launched into an anecdote of the time he’d visited a tenant farmer and rescued a runt piglet from being culled. Soon the attention of the entire table turned to him.

He was a gifted storyteller, drolly casting the piglet as a waif from a Dickens novel. After having rescued the newborn creature, he related, it had occurred to him that someone had to take care of it. Accordingly, he had brought it back to Eversby Priory and given it to Pandora and Cassandra. Over the objections of the rest of the family and the servants, the twins had adopted the piglet as a household pet.

As the creature grew older and considerably larger, Mr. Ravenel had been blamed for the multitude of problems it had caused.

“To make matters worse,” Pandora added, “we weren’t aware until it was too late that the pig should have been ‘altered’ while still in infancy. Sadly, he became too smelloquent to live inside.”

“Lady Trenear threatened to kill me every time she saw the pig trotting through the house with the dogs,” Mr. Ravenel said. “I didn’t dare turn my back to her for months.”

“I did try to push him down the stairs once or twice,” Kathleen admitted with a perfectly straight face, “but he was too large for me to gain sufficient leverage.”

“You also made colorful threats involving the fireplace poker,” Mr. Ravenel reminded her.

“No,” Kathleen retorted, “that was the housekeeper.”

The story continued its descent into farce as Mr. Winterborne volunteered that he’d stayed at Eversby Priory while recovering from eye injuries and hadn’t been told about the pig. “I heard it from my sickbed, and assumed it was another dog.”

“A dog?” Lord Trenear repeated from the head of the table, staring at his friend quizzically. “Did it sound like a dog to you?”

“Aye, with breathing problems.”

The group dissolved in hilarity.

Smiling, Phoebe glanced at Mr. Ravenel and found his gaze on her. A curious and inexplicable spell of intimacy seemed to have settled over them. Swiftly he turned his attention to an unused fruit knife near his plate, picking it up in one hand, scraping his thumb across the blade to test its sharpness.

Phoebe’s breath caught with concern. “No, don’t,” she said softly.

He smiled crookedly and set aside the knife. “A force of habit. Forgive my manners.”

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