Home > Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(4)

Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(4)
Lisa Kleypas

“Are you still miffed about that? It wasn’t personal. It was business.”

Hardly anything was personal to Severin. Which begged the question of why the man was really here. It was possible he wanted to become acquainted with the well-heeled Challon family with future business dealings in mind. Or he could be trolling for a wife. Despite Severin’s staggering fortune and the fact that he owned majority shares in the London Ironstone railway company, he wasn’t welcome in upper-class circles. Most commoners weren’t, but Severin especially wasn’t. So far, he hadn’t found an aristocratic family that was sufficiently desperate to yield one of their wellborn daughters in matrimonial sacrifice. However, it was only a matter of time.

West scanned the gathering in the entrance hall, wondering what his older brother Devon made of Severin’s presence. As their gazes met, Devon sent him a grimly resigned smile. Might as well let the bastard stay, was his unspoken message. West responded with a short nod. Although he would have enjoyed throwing Severin out on his arse, no good would come of making a scene.

“I’ll need only the slightest excuse,” West told Severin, his expression deceptively pleasant, “to send you back to London in a turnip crate.”

The other man grinned. “Understood. Now if you’ll pardon me, I see our old friend Winterborne.”

After the railroad magnate had sauntered away, Pandora took West’s arm. “Let me introduce you to the Challons.”

West didn’t budge. “Later.”

Pandora gave him an imploring glance. “Oh, please don’t be stubborn, it will look odd if you don’t go to greet them.”

“Why? I’m not the host of this event, and Eversby Priory isn’t mine.”

“It’s partly yours.”

West smiled wryly. “Sweetheart, not one speck of dust in this place belongs to me. I’m a glorified estate manager, which I assure you the Challons will not find compelling.”

Pandora frowned. “Even so, you’re a Ravenel, and you have to meet them now because it will be awkward if you’re obliged to introduce yourself later while passing one of them in the hallway.”

She was right. West cursed beneath his breath and went with her, feeling ill at ease.

Breathlessly Pandora introduced him to the duke and duchess; their teenage daughter Seraphina; their youngest son, Ivo; and Lord St. Vincent. “You’ve already met Lady Clare and Justin, of course,” she finished.

West glanced at Phoebe, who had turned away on a pretext of brushing invisible lint from the back of her son’s jacket.

“We have one more brother, Raphael, who’s traveling in America on business,” Seraphina said. She had reddish-blond curls and the sweet-faced prettiness usually depicted on boxes of scented soap. “But he couldn’t return in time for the wedding.”

“That means I can have his cake,” said the handsome boy with deep red hair.

Seraphina shook her head and said drolly, “Ivo, Raphael would be so glad to know you’re managing to carry on in his absence.”

“Someone has to eat it,” Ivo pointed out.

Lord St. Vincent came forward to shake West’s hand. “Finally,” he said, “we meet the least seen and most often discussed Ravenel.”

“Has my reputation preceded me?” West asked. “That’s never good.”

St. Vincent smiled. “I’m afraid your family takes every opportunity to praise you behind your back.”

“I can’t fathom what they find to praise. I assure you, it’s all in their imagination.”

The Duke of Kingston spoke then, in a voice that sounded like expensive dry liquor. “Nearly doubling the estate’s annual yields is no figment of the imagination. According to your brother, you’ve made great strides in modernizing Eversby Priory.”

“When one starts at a medieval level, Your Grace, even a small improvement seems impressive.”

“Perhaps in a day or two, you might give me a tour of the estate farms and show me some of the new machinery and methods you’re using.”

Before West could reply, Justin broke in. “He’s going to take me on a tour, Gramps, to show me the smelliest thing on the farm.”

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—

Hot Novels
  • Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Chris
  • Fifty Shades Freed (Fifty Shades #3)
  • Never Too Far (Too Far Trilogy #2)
  • Fifty Shades Darker (Fifty Shades #2)
  • Library of Souls (Miss Peregrine‚Äôs Peculi
  • Fifty Shades of Grey (Fifty Shades #1)
  • Fallen Too Far (Too Far Trilogy #1)
  • Forever Too Far (Too Far Trilogy #3)
  • Ugly Love
  • Allegiant (Divergent #3)
  • Hold on Tight (Sea Breeze #8)
  • Bared to You (Crossfire #1)
  • The Destiny of Violet & Luke (The Coinc
  • Captivated by You (Crossfire #4)
  • Uprooted