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

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

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.”

Folding her arms across her chest, Pandora let out a long sigh. “Yes. But why does he want to marry me?”

West took her by the shoulders and turned her to face him. “Why wouldn’t he?” he asked, his voice gentling with concern.

“Because I’m not the sort of girl everyone expected him to marry.”

“You’re what he wants, or he wouldn’t be here. What is there to fret about?”

Pandora shrugged uneasily. “I don’t really deserve him,” she confessed.

“How splendid for you.”

“Why is that splendid?”

“There’s nothing better than having something you don’t deserve. Just say to yourself, ‘Hooray for me, I’m so very lucky. Not only do I have the biggest piece of cake, it’s a corner piece with a sugar-paste flower on top, and everyone else is sick with envy.’”

A slow grin spread across Pandora’s face. After a moment, she said in an experimental undertone, “Hooray for me.”

Glancing over her head, West saw someone approach—someone he had not expected to see on this occasion—and a breath of annoyed disbelief escaped him. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to start off your wedding festivities with a small murder, Pandora. Don’t worry, it will be over quickly, and then we’ll go back to celebrating.”

Chapter 3

“Who are you going to do away with?” Pandora sounded more interested than alarmed.

“Tom Severin,” West said grimly.

She turned to follow his gaze, as the lean, dark figure approached. “But you’re one of his close friends, aren’t you?”

“None of Severin’s friends are what I would call close. Generally, we all try to keep out of stabbing distance.”

It would be difficult to find a man still on the early side of his thirties who had acquired wealth and power at the speed that Tom Severin had. He’d started as a mechanical engineer designing engines, then progressed to railway bridges, and had eventually built his own railway line, all with the apparent ease of a boy playing leapfrog. Severin could be generous, mischievous, and considerate, but his better qualities were unanchored by anything resembling a conscience.

Severin bowed as he reached them.

Pandora curtsied in return.

West leveled a cold stare at him.

Severin wasn’t handsome in comparison to the Challons—of course, what man would be?—nor was he handsome by strictly conventional standards. But there was something about him that women seemed to like. West was damned if he knew what it was. Severin’s face was lean and angular, his build lanky and almost rawboned, his complexion librarian pale. His eyes were an unevenly distributed mixture of blue and green, so that in strong lighting they appeared to be two entirely different colors.

“London was boring,” Severin said, as if that explained his presence.

“I feel quite sure you’re not on the guest list,” West said acidly.

“Oh, I never need invitations,” came Severin’s matter-of-fact reply. “I go wherever I want. I’m owed favors by so many people, no one would dare ask me to leave.”

“I would dare,” West said. “In fact, I can tell you exactly where to go.”

Before West could continue, Severin turned quickly to Pandora. “You’re the bride-to-be. I can tell by sparkle in your eyes. An honor to be here, delighted, felicitations, et cetera. What would you like for a wedding present?”

Despite Lady Berwick’s rigorous instruction in etiquette, the question caused Pandora’s propriety to collapse like a pricked balloon. “How much are you going to spend?” she asked.

Severin laughed, delighting in the innocently crass question. “Ask for something big,” he said. “I’m very rich.”

“She needs nothing,” West said curtly. “Especially from you.” Glancing down at Pandora, he added, “Mr. Severin’s gifts always come with strings. And the strings are attached to rabid badgers.”

Leaning closer to Pandora, Severin said in a conspiratorial aside, “Everyone likes my presents. I’ll surprise you with something later.”

She smiled. “I don’t need any gifts, Mr. Severin, but you’re welcome to stay for my wedding.” Seeing West’s reaction, she protested, “He’s come all the way from London.”

“Where are we going to put him?” West asked. “Eversby Priory is packed full. Every room that’s slightly more comfortable than a cell in Newgate has been taken.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t stay here,” Severin assured him. “You know how I am about these ancient houses. Eversby Priory is charming, of course, but I prefer the modern conveniences. I’ll be staying in my private train carriage, at the quarry railway halt on your property.”

“How appropriate,” West remarked sourly, “in light of the fact that you tried to steal the mineral rights to that quarry, even knowing it would leave the Ravenels financially destitute.”

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