Home > Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(9)

Devil's Daughter (The Ravenels #5)(9)
Lisa Kleypas

Mr. Ravenel’s gaze flicked down to the place cards and back to her face. “I had nothing to do with the seating arrangements.”

“Obviously,” Phoebe replied crisply, her thoughts in turmoil. According to etiquette, a gentleman usually directed the majority of his attention and conversation to the lady on his left. She was going to have to talk to him for the entire meal.

As she cast a distracted glance around the room, she caught sight of Gabriel.

Seeing her dilemma, her brother began to mouth the words, Do you want me to—

Phoebe gave a quick little shake of her head. No, she would not make a scene the night before her brother’s wedding, even if she had to sit next to Lucifer himself—a seating arrangement she would have preferred to this one.

“Is something amiss?” came Lord Foxhall’s quiet voice near her left ear. She realized he was still waiting to seat her.

Gathering her wits, Phoebe replied with a forced smile. “No, Fox, everything is splendid.” She occupied the chair, arranging her skirts deftly.

Mr. Ravenel remained motionless, a frown tugging at the smooth space between his dark brows. “I’ll find someone to change places with me,” he said quietly.

“For heaven’s sake, just sit,” Phoebe whispered.

He occupied the chair cautiously, as if it might collapse beneath him at any moment. His wary gaze met hers. “I’m sorry for the way I behaved earlier.”

“It’s forgotten,” she said. “I’m sure we can manage to tolerate each other’s company for one meal.”

“I won’t say anything about farming. We can discuss other subjects. I have a vast and complex array of interests.”

“Such as?”

Mr. Ravenel considered that. “Never mind, I don’t have a vast array of interests. But I feel like the kind of man who does.”

Amused despite herself, Phoebe smiled reluctantly. “Aside from my children, I have no interests.”

“Thank God. I hate stimulating conversation. My mind isn’t deep enough to float a straw.”

Phoebe did enjoy a man with a sense of humor. Perhaps this dinner wouldn’t be as dreadful as she’d thought. “You’ll be glad to hear, then, that I haven’t read a book in months.”

“I haven’t gone to a classical music concert in years,” he said. “Too many moments of ‘clap here, not there.’ It makes me nervous.”

“I’m afraid we can’t discuss art, either. I find symbolism exhausting.”

“Then I assume you don’t like poetry.”

“No . . . unless it rhymes.”

“I happen to write poetry,” Ravenel said gravely.

Heaven help me, Phoebe thought, the momentary fun vanishing. Years ago, when she’d first entered society, it had seemed as if every young man she met at a ball or dinner was an amateur poet. They had insisted on quoting their own poems, filled with bombast about starlight and dewdrops and lost love, in the hopes of impressing her with how sensitive they were. Apparently, the fad had not ended yet.

“Do you?” she asked without enthusiasm, praying silently that he wouldn’t offer to recite any of it.

“Yes. Shall I recite a line or two?”

Repressing a sigh, Phoebe shaped her mouth into a polite curve. “By all means.”

“It’s from an unfinished work.” Looking solemn, Mr. Ravenel began, “There once was a young man named Bruce . . . whose trousers were always too loose.”

Phoebe willed herself not to encourage him by laughing. She heard a quiet cough of amusement behind her and deduced that one of the footmen had overheard.

“Mr. Ravenel,” she asked, “have you forgotten this is a formal dinner?”

His eyes glinted with mischief. “Help me with the next line.”

“Absolutely not.”

“I dare you.”

Phoebe ignored him, meticulously spreading her napkin over her lap.

“I double dare you,” he persisted.

“Really, you are the most . . . oh, very well.” Phoebe took a sip of water while mulling over words. After setting down the glass, she said, “One day he bent over, while picking a clover.”

Ravenel absently fingered the stem of an empty crystal goblet. After a moment, he said triumphantly, “. . . and a bee stung him on the caboose.”

Phoebe almost choked on a laugh. “Could we at least pretend to be dignified?” she begged.

“But it’s going to be such a long dinner.”

She looked up to find him smiling at her, easy and warm, and it sent a curious shiver through her, the kind that sometimes happened after she woke from a long sleep and stretched until her muscles trembled.

“Tell me about your children,” he said.

“What would you like to know?”

“Anything. How did you decide on their names?”

“Justin was named after my husband’s favorite uncle—a dear old bachelor who always brought him books when he was ill. My younger son, Stephen, was named after a character in an adventure novel Lord Clare and I read when we were children.”

“What was the title?”

“I can’t tell you; you’ll think it’s silly. It is silly. But we both loved it. We read it dozens of times. I had to send Henry my copy, after—”

After you stole his.

In Henry’s view, the worst of West Ravenel’s offenses had been stealing his copy of Stephen Armstrong: Treasure Hunter from a box of possessions beneath his bed at school. Although there had never been proof of the thief’s identity, Henry had remembered that Ravenel had previously mocked him when he’d seen him reading it. I know he’s the one, Henry had written. He’s probably done something awful with it. Dropped it down the privy. I’d be surprised if the nincompoop can even read.

“Someday when we’re big,” Phoebe had written in response, full of righteous vengeance, “we’ll go thrash him together and take it back from him.”

But now she was sitting next to him at dinner.

“—after he lost his copy,” she finished awkwardly. She watched as a footman poured wine into one of her glasses.

“How did he—” Mr. Ravenel began, and stopped with a frown. He moved in the chair, seeming uneasy, and began again. “When I was a boy, there was a book—” Another pause, and he tried to angle his body more toward hers.

“Mr. Ravenel,” Phoebe asked, puzzled, “are you quite all right?”

“Yes. It’s only—there’s a problem.” He scowled down at his trousers.

“A problem involving your lap?” she asked dryly.

He replied in an exasperated whisper. “As a matter of fact, yes.”

“Really.” Phoebe wasn’t certain whether to be amused or alarmed. “What is it?”

“The woman on my other side keeps putting her hand on my leg.”

Stealthily Phoebe leaned forward to peek around him at the culprit. “Isn’t that Lady Colwick?” she whispered. “The one whose mother, Lady Berwick, taught etiquette to Pandora and Cassandra?”

“Yes,” he said curtly. “It appears she neglected to teach it to her daughter.”

From what Phoebe understood, Dolly, Lady Colwick, had recently married a wealthy older man but was reportedly having affairs behind his back with her former suitors. In fact, it had been Dolly’s scandalous carryings-on that had resulted in an accidental meeting between Pandora and Gabriel in the first place.

Mr. Ravenel flinched irritably and reached beneath the table to push away the unseen, exploring hand.

Phoebe understood his dilemma. If a gentleman called attention to such outrageous behavior, he would be blamed for embarrassing the lady. Moreover, the lady could easily deny it, and people would be far more inclined to believe her.

All along the table, footmen filled glasses with water, wine, and iced champagne. Deciding to take advantage of the stir of activity, Phoebe said to Mr. Ravenel, “Lean forward, please.”

His brows lifted slightly, but he obeyed.

Reaching across the broad expanse of his back, Phoebe prodded Lady Colwick’s bare upper arm with her forefinger. The young woman gave her a mildly startled glance. She was very pretty, her dark hair pinned up in an ornate mass of shiny ringlets interwoven with ribbons and pearls. The brows over her heavy-lashed eyes had been carefully plucked into a pair of perfect thin crescents, like a china doll’s. A thick rope of pearls, weighted with diamond drops the size of Bristol cherries, glittered around her neck.

“My dear,” Phoebe said pleasantly, “I can’t help but notice that you keep trying to borrow Mr. Ravenel’s napkin. Do take this one.” She extended her own napkin to the young woman, who began to reach for it reflexively.

In the next instant, however, Lady Colwick snatched her hand back. “I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about.”

Phoebe wasn’t deceived. A guilty blush had infused the young woman’s cheeks, and the set of her rosebud lips had turned distinctly sullen. “Must I explain?” she asked very softly. “This gentleman does not enjoy being poked and pried like an oyster at Billingsgate Market while he tries to have his dinner. Kindly keep your hands to yourself.”

Lady Colwick’s eyes narrowed balefully. “We could have shared him,” she pointed out, and turned back to her plate with a disdainful sniff.

A muffled snort of laughter came from the row of footmen behind them.

Mr. Ravenel leaned back in his chair. Without turning, he gestured over his shoulder and murmured, “Jerome.”

One of the footmen approached and leaned down to him. “Sir?”

“Any more snickering,” Mr. Ravenel warned softly, “and tomorrow you’ll be demoted to hall boy.”

“Yes, sir.”

After the footman had withdrawn, Mr. Ravenel returned his attention to Phoebe. The little whisks of laugh-lines at the outer corners of his eyes had deepened. “Thank you for not sharing me.”

Her shoulders lifted in a slight shrug. “She was interfering with a perfectly unstimulating conversation. Someone had to stop her.”

His mouth curved in a slow grin.

Phoebe had never been so wholly aware of anyone as she was in that moment. Every nerve had come alive in response to his nearness. She was riveted by those eyes, the unrelieved blue of indigo ink. She was fascinated by the heavy beard grain visible beneath his close-shaven skin, and the snug fit of the crisp white collar over his muscled neck. Although one couldn’t excuse Lady Colwick’s behavior, it was certainly understandable. What must his leg have felt like? Probably very hard. Rock solid. The thought caused her to fidget on the chair.

What was the matter with her?

Tearing her gaze from him, she focused on the tiny engraved menu card between their place settings. “Beef consommé or purée of spring vegetables,” she read aloud. “I suppose I’ll have the consommé.”

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