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

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

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.”

“But she doesn’t want to?” Pandora asked sympathetically. “Because farming is so boring?”

West gave her a sardonic look. “How do you know if it’s boring? You’ve never done it.”

“I can tell by the books you read.” Turning to Kingston, Pandora explained, “They’re all about things like scientific butter making, or pig keeping, or smut. Now, who could possibly find smut interesting?”

“Not that kind of smut,” West said hastily, as he saw the duke’s brows lift.

“You’re referring to the multicellular fungi that afflicts grain crops, of course,” Kingston said blandly.

“There are all different kinds of smut,” Pandora said, warming to the subject. “Smut balls, loose smut, stinking smut—”

“Pandora,” West interrupted in an undertone, “for the love of mercy, stop saying that word in public.”

“Is it unladylike?” She heaved a sigh. “It must be. All the interesting words are.”

With a rueful smile, West returned his attention to the duke. “We were talking about Lady Clare’s lack of interest in estate farming.”

“I don’t believe the problem stems from a lack of interest,” Kingston said. “The issue is one of loyalty, not only to her husband, but also to Edward Larson, who offered support and solace at a difficult time. He gradually assumed responsibility for the estate as Henry’s illness worsened, and now . . . my daughter is reluctant to question his decisions.” After a reflective pause, he continued with a slight frown, “It was an oversight on my part not to anticipate she would need such skills.”

“Skills can be learned,” West said pragmatically. “I myself was prepared for a meaningless life of indolence and gluttony—which I was thoroughly enjoying, by the way—before my brother put me to work.”

Kingston’s eyes glinted with amusement. “I was told you were a bit of a hellion.”

West slid him a wary glance. “I suppose that came from my brother?”

“No,” the duke said idly. “Other sources.”

Damn. West recalled what Devon had said about the gaming club, Jenner’s, started by the duchess’s father and eventually landing in Kingston’s possession. Of all the clubs in London, Jenner’s had the deepest bank and the most select membership, which included royalty, nobility, members of Parliament, and men of fortune. An endless flow of gossip and information was passed upward from the croupiers, tellers, waiters, and night porters. Kingston had access to the private information of England’s most powerful individuals—their credit, their financial assets, their scandals, and even their health issues.

My God, the things he must know, West thought glumly. “Whatever unflattering rumors you’ve heard about me are probably true,” he said. “Except for the really vile and disgraceful ones: those are definitely true.”

The duke seemed amused. “Every man has his past indiscretions, Ravenel. It gives us all something interesting to discuss over port.” He offered Pandora his arm. “Come, both of you. I want to introduce you to some of my acquaintances.”

“Thank you, sir,” West said with a negative shake of his head, “but I’m—”

“You’re delighted by my invitation,” Kingston informed him gently, “as well as grateful for the honor of my interest. Come along, Ravenel, don’t be a hairpin.”

Reluctantly West closed his mouth and fell into step behind them.

Chapter 4

Fuming, Phoebe hauled her brother by the arm along a small hallway until she found an unoccupied room. It was sparsely furnished with no specific purpose, the kind of room one often found in very large, old houses. After dragging Gabriel inside, she closed the door and whirled to face him.

“What do you mean by volunteering me for a farm tour, you lunkhead?”

“I was helping you,” Gabriel said reasonably. “You need to learn about estate farming.”

Of all her siblings, Gabriel was the one to whom Phoebe had always felt closest. In his company, she could make petty or sarcastic remarks, or confess her foolish mistakes, knowing he would never judge her harshly. They knew each other’s faults and kept each other’s secrets.

Many people, if not most, would have been flabbergasted to learn that Gabriel had any faults at all. All they saw was the remarkable male beauty and cool self-control of a man so elegantly mannered that it never would have occurred to anyone to call him a lunkhead. However, Gabriel could sometimes be arrogant and manipulative. Beneath his charming exterior, there was a steely core that made him ideally suited to oversee the array of Challon properties and businesses. Once he decided what was best for someone, he took every opportunity to push and goad until he had his way.

Therefore, Phoebe occasionally found it necessary to push back. After all, it was an older sister’s responsibility to keep her younger brother from behaving like a domineering ass.

“You’d help more by minding your own business,” she told him curtly. “If I decide to learn more about farming, it certainly won’t be from him, of all people.”

Gabriel looked perplexed. “What do you mean, ‘him of all people’? You’ve never met Ravenel.”

“Good heavens,” Phoebe exclaimed, wrapping her arms tightly across her chest, “don’t you know who he is? You don’t remember? He’s the bully. Henry’s bully!”

Gabriel shook his head, giving her a mystified glance.

“At boarding school. The one who tormented him for almost two years.” As he continued to look blank, Phoebe said impatiently, “The one who put trick candles in his basket.”

“Oh.” Gabriel’s brow cleared. “I’d forgotten about that. He’s that one?”

“Yes.” She began to pace in a tight back-and-forth pattern. “The one who turned Henry’s childhood into a nightmare.”

“‘Nightmare’ might be putting it a bit strongly,” Gabriel commented, watching her.

“He called Henry names. He stole his food.”

“Henry couldn’t have eaten it anyway.”

“Don’t be facetious, Gabriel—this is very upsetting to me.” Phoebe’s feet wouldn’t stay still. “I read Henry’s letters to you. You know what he went through.”

“I know it better than you,” Gabriel said. “I went to boarding school. Not the same one as Henry’s, but every last one of them has its share of bullies and petty tyrants. It’s the reason our parents didn’t send me, or Raphael, until we were mature enough to handle ourselves.” He paused with an exasperated shake of his head. “Phoebe, stop ricocheting about like a billiards ball, and listen to me. I blame Henry’s parents for sending him away to boarding school when he was so obviously unsuited for it. He was a sensitive, physically frail boy with a fanciful nature. I can’t conceive of a worse place for him.”

“Henry’s father thought it would toughen him,” Phoebe said. “And his mother has all the backbone of a lob worm, which is why she agreed to send him back for a second year of hell. But the blame isn’t all theirs. West Ravenel is a brute who was never held to account for his actions.”

“What I’m trying to explain is that a boarding-school environment is Darwinian. Everyone bullies or is bullied, until the hierarchy is sorted out.”

“Did you bully anyone when you were at Harrow?” she asked pointedly.

“Of course not. But my situation was different. I was raised in a loving family. We lived in a house by the sea with our own private sand beach. We each had our own pony, for God’s sake. It was an embarrassingly perfect childhood, especially in contrast to the Ravenel brothers, who were the poor relations of their family. They were orphaned at a young age and sent to boarding school because no one wanted them.”

“Because they were mean little ruffians?” she suggested darkly.

“They had no parents, no family, no home, no money or possessions . . . what would you expect of boys in their situation?”

“I don’t care what caused Mr. Ravenel’s behavior. All that matters is that he hurt Henry.”

Gabriel frowned thoughtfully. “Unless there’s something I missed in those letters, Ravenel did nothing particularly vicious. Never bloodied Henry’s nose or thrashed him. It was more pranks and name-calling than anything else, wasn’t it?”

“Fear and humiliation can inflict far worse damage than fists.” Phoebe’s eyes stung, and a hard lump formed in her throat. “Why are you standing up for Mr. Ravenel and not my husband?”

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