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.”
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.”
“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.