Home > Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(8)

Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(8)
Lisa Kleypas

“Thank you, ma’am.”

Phoebe took Ivo’s arm and let him escort her from the room. As they proceeded to the grand central staircase, she glanced at his formal Eton suit, made with black serge trousers, a white waistcoat, and a black satin bow tie. “You’ve graduated to long trousers,” she exclaimed.

“A year early,” Ivo boasted.

“How did you talk Mother into it?”

“I told her a fellow has his pride, and as far as I was concerned, wearing short trousers is like going about with your pants at half-mast. Mother laughed so hard, she had to set down her teacup, and the next day the tailor came to measure me for a suit. Now the Hunt twins can’t make fun of my knees anymore.” The fourteen-year-old boys, Ashton and Augustus, were the youngest offspring of Mr. and Mrs. Simon Hunt, who had been close friend to the Challons since before Phoebe had been born.

“The twins made fun of you?” Phoebe asked in surprised concern. “But you’ve always been great friends with them.”

“Yes, that’s what fellows do. We call our friends names like ‘Spoony’ or ‘Knobby-knees.’ The better the friend, the worse the insult.”

“But why not be nice?”

“Because we’re boys.” Ivo shrugged as he saw her bewilderment. “You know how our brothers are. The telegram Raphael sent to Gabriel yesterday said, ‘Dear Brother, congratulations on your wedding. I’m sorry I won’t be there to warn your bride about what a useless arse-wedge you are. All my love, Raphael.’”

Phoebe couldn’t help laughing. “That sounds like him. Yes, I know how they like to taunt each other, though I’ve never understood why. I suppose my two boys will be the same. But I’m glad Henry wasn’t. I never heard him mock or tease anyone.”

“He was a nice man,” Ivo said reflectively. “Different. I miss him.”

Her hand tightened on his arm in an affectionate squeeze.

To Phoebe’s relief, the gathering in the drawing room turned to be far less intimidating than she’d expected. Her parents and Seraphina were there to keep her company, as were Lord and Lady Westcliff, whom she and her siblings had always called ‘Uncle Marcus’ and ‘Aunt Lillian.’

Lord Westcliff’s hunting estate, Stony Cross Park, was located in Hampshire, not far from Eversby Priory. The earl and his wife, who had originally been an American heiress from New York—had raised three sons and three daughters. Although Aunt Lillian had teasingly invited Phoebe to have her pick of any of her robust and handsome sons, Phoebe had answered—quite truthfully—that such a union would have felt positively incestuous. The Marsdens and the Challons had spent too many family holidays together and had known each other for too long for any romantic sparks to fly between their offspring.

The Marsdens’ oldest daughter, Merritt, was one of Phoebe’s closest friends. She had gone to Essex on several occasions to help when Henry was especially ill, caring for him with skill and good humor. In fact, Phoebe had trusted her more than she had Henry’s mother, Georgiana, whose nerves had rarely been up to the task of nursing an invalid.

“Darling Phoebe,” Merritt said, taking both of her hands, “how ravishing you are.”

Phoebe leaned close to kiss her cheek. “I feel ridiculous in this dress,” she murmured. “I can’t think why I ever had it made in this fabric.”

“Because I told you to,” Merritt said. “I helped you order your trousseau at the dressmaker’s remember? You objected to the fabric at first, but I told you, ‘No woman should be afraid to sparkle.’”

Phoebe chuckled ruefully. “No one will ever sparkle as fearlessly as you, Merritt.”

Lady Merritt Sterling was a vibrantly attractive woman with large, dark eyes, a wealth of lustrous sable hair, and a flawless porcelain complexion. Unlike her two sisters, she had inherited the shorter, stockier frame of the Marsden side instead of the slender build of her mother. Similarly, she had her father’s square-shaped face and determined jaw instead of her mother’s delicate oval one. However, Merritt possessed a charm so compelling that she eclipsed every other woman in the vicinity, no matter how beautiful.

Merritt focused on whomever she was talking to with a wealth of sincere interest, as if she or he were the only person in the world. She asked questions and listened without ever seeming to wait for her turn to talk. She was the guest everyone invited when they needed to blend a group of disparate personalities, just as a roux would bind soup or sauce into velvety smoothness.

It was no exaggeration to say that every man who met Merritt fell at least a little in love with her. When she had entered society, countless suitors had pursued her before she’d finally consented to marry Joshua Sterling, an American-born shipping magnate who had taken up residence in London.

Drawing a little apart from their families, Phoebe and Merritt stole a few minutes to speak privately. Eagerly Phoebe told her friend about the encounter with West Ravenel, the proposed farm tour, and the presumptuous comments he’d made.

“Poor Phoebe,” Merritt soothed. “Men do love to explain things.”

“It wasn’t explaining, it was a lecture.’”

“How bothersome. But one must allow new people room for error. It’s often a clumsy business, this making of friends.”

“I don’t want to become friends with him, I want to avoid him.”

Merritt hesitated before replying. “No one could blame you, of course.”

“But you think it’s a mistake?”

“Darling, opinions are tiresome, especially mine.”

“Then you do think it’s a mistake.”

Merritt looked sympathetic. “Since your families are now aligned, you’ll cross paths with him in the future. It would be easier for all concerned, especially you, to keep things civil. Would it be so difficult for you to give Mr. Ravenel a second chance?”

Phoebe frowned and averted her gaze. “It would be,” she said. “For reasons I’d rather not explain.”

She hadn’t reminded Merritt that West Ravenel was the childhood bully Henry had hated. Somehow it didn’t seem right to smear a man’s reputation for things he’d done as a boy—it wouldn’t help anyone now.

But Merritt stunned her by asking, “Because of what happened at boarding school?”

Phoebe’s eyes widened. “You remember?”

“Yes, it was important to Henry. Even in adulthood, the memory of Mr. Ravenel was always a thorn in his side.” Merritt paused reflectively. “I think such events loom larger in our minds over time. I wonder if it was perhaps easier for Henry to focus on a human adversary instead of a disease.” She looked beyond Phoebe’s shoulder. “Don’t turn around,” she said, “but there’s a gentleman who keeps stealing glances at you from across the room. I’ve never seen him before. I wonder if he’s your Mr. Ravenel?”

“Good heavens, please don’t call him my Mr. Ravenel. What does he look like?”

“Dark haired, clean-shaven and quite sun-browned. Tall, with shoulders as broad as a plowman’s. At the moment he’s talking with a group of gentlemen, and—oh, my. He has a smile like a hot summer day.”

“That would be Mr. Ravenel,” Phoebe muttered.

“Well. I recall Henry describing him as pale and stout.” Merritt’s brows lifted slightly as she peeked over Phoebe’s shoulder once more. “Someone had a growth spurt.”

“Looks are irrelevant. It’s the inner man that counts.”

Laughter threaded through Merritt’s voice. “I suppose you’re right. But the inner Mr. Ravenel happens to be quite beautifully packaged.”

Phoebe bit back a grin. “And you, a married lady,” she whispered in mock scolding.

“Married ladies have eyes,” came Merritt’s demure reply, her face alive with mischief.

Chapter 6

As usual, the guests entered the dining room in order of precedence. Regardless of personal age or fortune, the first people in line were those whose title, or patent of nobility, was the oldest. That made Lord and Lady Westcliff the couple of highest rank, even though Phoebe’s father held a dukedom.

Accordingly, Devon, Lord Trenear, escorted Lady Westcliff, while Lord Westcliff escorted Kathleen. The rest of the guests followed in prearranged pairs. Phoebe was relieved to discover she would be accompanied by Westcliff’s oldest son, Lord Foxhall, whom she had known her entire life. He was a big, boldly handsome man in his twenties, an avid sportsman like his father. As the earl’s heir, he had been accorded a viscountcy, but he and Phoebe were far too familiar to stand on ceremony.

“Fox,” she exclaimed, a wide smile crossing her face.

“Cousin Phoebe.” He leaned down to kiss her cheek, his dark eyes snapping with lively humor. “It seems I’m your escort. Bad luck for you.”

“To me it’s very good luck—how could it be otherwise?”

“With all the eligible men present, you should be with one who doesn’t remember you as a little girl in pigtails, sliding down one of the banisters at Stony Cross Manor.”

Phoebe’s smile lingered even as she sighed wistfully and shook her head. “Oh, Fox. Those days are long gone, aren’t they?”

“You still have most of it ahead of you,” he said gently.

“None of us knows how much time we have.”

Foxhall offered his arm. “Then let’s eat, drink and be merry while we’re able.”

They made their way to the dining room, where the air was blossom scented and gilded with candlelight. The mammoth Jacobean table, with its legs and support rails carved like twisted rope, had been covered with pristine white linen. A row of broad silver baskets filled with billows of June roses rested on a long runner of frothy green maidenhair ferns. The walls had been lined with lush arrangements of palms, hydrangeas, azaleas and peonies, turning the room into an evening garden. Each place at the table had been set with glittering Irish crystal, Sèvres porcelain, and no fewer than twenty-four pieces of antique Georgian silver flatware per guest.

Long rows of footmen stood back at both sides of the room while the gentlemen seated the ladies. Lord Foxhall pulled out Phoebe’s chair, and she moved toward the table. But she froze as she saw the man who had just seated the lady to his right.

On the place card beside hers, a name had been written in elaborate calligraphy: Mr. Weston Ravenel.

Her stomach plummeted.

Mr. Ravenel turned toward her and hesitated, appearing no less surprised than she. He cut an impressive figure in formal evening clothes. The white shirt and necktie contrasted sharply with the amber glow of his skin, while the tailored black coat emphasized the stunning breadth of his shoulders.

The way he stared at her was too focused, too . . . something. She couldn’t decide what to do, only looked back at him helplessly, her insides strung with hot twinges and pangs.

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