Home > Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(7)

Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(7)
Lisa Kleypas

When they reached the nursery, Phoebe saw that a footman had already conveyed her children’s carriage box of clothes and supplies upstairs. The spacious room was filled with charming child-sized furniture, including a table and chairs and an upholstered settee. Two children napped on small cots, while Kathleen’s son Matthew slept soundly in his crib. A pair of white-aproned nursemaids came forward to meet Nanny Bracegirdle, smiling and whispering as they introduced themselves.

Kathleen showed Phoebe to an empty crib lined with soft embroidered bedding. “This is for Stephen,” she whispered.

“It’s perfect. If I were just a bit smaller, I might try to curl up in there myself.”

Kathleen smiled. “Why don’t I show you to your room, and you can nap in a proper bed?”

“That sounds like heaven.” Phoebe kissed and nuzzled Stephen’s warm, silky head before giving him to the nanny. She went to Justin, who was investigating a set of shelves filled with toys and books. He had taken interest in a toy theater with changeable backdrops and a box of painted cutout characters. “Will you like staying here, darling?” she asked softly, kneeling beside him.

“Oh, yes.”

“Nanny will be here with you. Tell her or one of the nursemaids if you want me, and I’ll come.”

“Yes, Mama.” Since he didn’t like giving kisses in front of strangers, Justin surreptitiously pressed his lips to the tip of his forefinger and held it out. Phoebe did the same and touched her fingertip to his. They exchanged a smile after the secret ritual. For an instant, the crescent shapes of his eyes and the little crinkle of his nose reminded her of Henry. But the wisp of memory didn’t come with the expected twinge of pain, only a trace of wistful fondness.

Phoebe left the nursery with Kathleen, and they went back down to the second floor.

“I remember how it felt to come out of mourning after losing my first husband,” Kathleen said. “For me, it was like leaving a dark room and going into the glare of daylight. Everything seemed too loud and fast.”

“Yes, that’s exactly how it feels.”

“Do whatever you like here, just as you would at home. You mustn’t feel obliged to take part in any activities that don’t appeal to you. We want very much for you to be comfortable and happy.”

“I’m sure I will be.”

They went down a second-floor hallway and reached a bedroom where Ernestine, her lady’s maid, was in the process of unpacking her trunks and boxes.

“I hope this room will do,” Katherine said. “It’s small, but it has its own dressing room and washroom, and a view of the formal gardens.”

“It’s lovely.” Phoebe looked over the room with pleasure. The walls were covered in French paper featuring a delicate vine pattern, with a fresh coat of white paint covering the trim and panel work.

“I’ll leave you, then, while you settle things to your liking. At six o’clock, we meet in the drawing room for sherry. Dinner is at eight. Formal dress, but after the newlyweds leave tomorrow, we’ll be easy and casual.”

After Kathleen had left, Phoebe watched Ernestine unearthing stacks of carefully folded linens and neat little parcels from an open trunk. Every pair of shoes had its own little plain-woven drawstring bag, and every pair of gloves had been tucked into a narrow pasteboard box.

“Ernestine,” she said, “you’re a marvel of organization.”

“Thank you, milady. It’s been so long since we’ve gone away from Heron’s Point, I’d almost forgotten how to pack.” Still kneeling by the trunk, the slim, dark-haired young woman looked up at her with a box of trimmings in hand, which had been removed from hats and caps to prevent them from being crushed. “Shall I air out your ecru dress while you nap?”

“Ecru?” Phoebe echoed with a slight frown.

“The silk one with flower trim.”

“Gracious, did you bring that one?” Phoebe had only a vague memory of the formal gown, which she’d had made and fitted in London before Henry had gone into his final decline. “I think I would feel more comfortable in my silver gray. I’m not quite ready for colors yet.”

“Ma’am, it’s ecru. No one would call that a color.”

“But the trimmings . . . aren’t they too bright?”

For answer, Ernestine pulled a garland of silk flowers from the box of trimmings and held them up for display. The silk peony and rose blossoms were tinted in delicate pastel shades.

“I suppose that will be all right, then,” Phoebe said, amused by the lady’s maid’s sardonic expression. Ernestine had made no secret of her wish for her mistress to be done with the subdued grays and lavenders of half mourning.

“It has been two years, milady,” the young woman pointed out. “All the books say that’s long enough.”

Phoebe removed her hat and set it on the nearby satinwood vanity table. “Do help me out of this travel dress, Ernestine. If I’m to make it through tonight without collapsing, I’ll need to lie down for a few minutes.”

“Aren’t you looking forward to the dinner?” the young woman dared to ask as she took Phoebe’s traveling jacket. “Many of your old friends will be there.”

“Yes and no. I want to see them, but I’m nervous. I’m afraid they’ll expect me to be the person I was.”

Ernestine paused in the midst of unfastening the buttons on the back of her dress. “Pardon, ma’am . . . but aren’t you still the same person?”

“I’m afraid not. My old self is gone.” A humorless smile tugged at her lips. “And the new one hasn’t turned up yet.”

Six o’clock.

Time to go down to the drawing room. A glass of sherry would be a welcome start to the evening, Phoebe thought, fiddling with the artfully draped folds of her dress. She needed something to steady her nerves.

“You look beautiful, ma’am,” Ernestine said, delighted with the results of her work. She had drawn Phoebe’s hair up into a coil of neatly pinned rolls and curls, winding a velvet ribbon around the base. A few loose curls had been allowed to dangle down the back of her head, which felt a bit strange: she wasn’t accustomed to leaving any loose pieces in her usual hairstyles. Ernestine had finished the arrangement by pinning a small, fresh pink rose on the right side of the coil.

The new coiffure was very flattering, but the formal gown had turned out to be far less inconspicuous than Phoebe had expected. It was the pale beige of unbleached linen or natural wool, but the silk had been infused with exceptionally fine metallic threads of gold and silver, giving the fabric a pearly luster. A garland of peonies, roses, and delicate green silk leaves trimmed the deeply scooped neckline, while another flower garland caught up the gossamer-thin silk and tulle layers of the skirts at one side.

Frowning at her pale, glimmering reflection in the long oval mirror, Phoebe experimentally covered her eyes with one hand, lifted it away, and repeated the motion a couple of times. “Oh God,” she murmured aloud. She was fairly certain that a quick glance at the dress gave a brief, startling impression of near-nudity, except for the flowers. “I have to change dresses, Ernestine. Fetch the silver gray.”

“But . . . but I haven’t aired or pressed it,” the lady’s maid said in bewilderment. “And this one is so pretty on you.”

“I didn’t remember the fabric shimmered like this. I can’t go downstairs looking like a Christmas tree ornament.”

“It’s not that shiny,” the girl protested. “Other ladies will be wearing dresses with beading and spangles, and their best diamond sets.” Seeing Phoebe’s expression, she heaved a sigh. “If you want the silver gray, ma’am, I’ll do my best to have it ready soon, but you’ll still go down late.”

Phoebe groaned at the thought. “Did you pack a shawl?”

“A black one. But you’ll roast if you try to cover yourself in that. And it would look odd—you would earn more attention that way than by going as you are.”

Before Phoebe could reply, there came a knock at the door. “Oh, galoshes,” she muttered. It was hardly a curse worthy of the situation, but she’d fallen into the habit of saying it when she was around her children, which was most of the time. She sped to the corner behind the door, while Ernestine went to see who it was.

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.”

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