Someone to Care
Marcel Lamarr, Marquess of Dorchester, was not at all pleased when his carriage turned abruptly into the yard of an undistinguished country inn on the edge of an undistinguished country village and rocked to a halt. He made his displeasure felt, not in words, but rather in a cold, steady gaze, his quizzing glass raised almost but not quite to his eye, when his coachman opened the door and peered apologetically within.
"One of the leaders has a shoe coming loose, my lord," he explained.
"You did not check when we stopped for a change of horses not an hour ago that all was in order?" his lordship asked. But he did not wait for an answer. "How long?"
His coachman glanced dubiously at the inn and the stables off to one side, from which no groom or ostler had yet emerged to rush eagerly to their aid. "Not long, my lord," he assured his employer.
"A firm and precise answer," his lordship said curtly, lowering his glass. "Shall we say one hour? And not a moment longer? We will step inside while we wait, André, and sample the quality of the ale served here." His tone suggested that he was not expecting to be impressed.
"A glass or two will not come amiss," his brother replied cheerfully. "It has been a dashed long time since breakfast. I never understand why you always have to make such an early start and then remain obstinately inside the carriage when the horses are being changed."
The quality of the ale was indeed not impressive, but the quantity could not be argued with. It was served in large tankards, which foamed over to leave wet rings on the table. Quantity was perhaps the inn's claim to fame. The landlord, unbidden, brought them fresh meat pasties, which filled the two plates and even hung over the edges. They had been cooked by his own good wife, he felt impelled to inform them, bowing and beaming as he did so, though his lordship gave him no encouragement beyond a cool, indifferent nod. The good woman apparently made the best meat pasties, and, indeed, the best pies of any and all descriptions, for twenty miles around, probably more, though the proud husband did not want to give the appearance of being boastful in the singing of his woman's praises. Their lordships must judge for themselves, though he had no doubt they would agree with him and perhaps even suggest that they were the finest in all England—possibly even in Wales and Scotland and Ireland too. He would not be at all surprised. Had their lordships ever traveled to those remote regions? He had heard—
They were rescued from having to listen to whatever it was he had heard, however, when the outer door beyond the taproom opened and a trio of people, followed almost immediately by steady stream of others, turned into the room. They were presumably villagers, all clad in their Sunday best though it was not Sunday, all cheerful and noisy in their greetings to the landlord and one another. All were as dry as the desert and as empty as a beggar's bowl in a famine—according to the loudest of them—and in need of sustenance in the form of ale and pasties, it being not far off noon and the day's festivities not due to begin for another hour or so yet. They fully expected to be stuffed for the rest of the day once the festivities did begin, of course but in the meanwhile....
But someone at that point—with a chorus of hasty agreement from everyone else—remembered to assure mine host that nothing would or could compare to his wife's cooking. That was why they were here.
Each of the new arrivals became quickly aware that there were two strangers in their midst. A few averted their eyes in some confusion and scurried off to sit at tables as far removed from theirs as the size of the room allowed. Others, somewhat bolder, nodded respectfully as they took their seats. One brave soul spoke up with the hope that their worships had come to enjoy the entertainments their humble village was to have on offer for the rest of the day. The room grew hushed as all attention was turned upon their worships in anticipation of their reply.
The Marquess of Dorchester, who neither knew the name of the village nor cared, looked about the dark, shabby taproom with disfavor and ignored everyone. It was possible he had not even heard the question or noticed the hush. His brother, more gregarious by nature, and more ready to be delighted by any novelty that presented itself, nodded amiably to the gathering in general and asked the inevitable question.
"And what entertainments would those be?" he asked.
It was all the encouragement those gathered there needed. They were about to celebrate the end of the harvest with contests in everything under the sun—singing, fiddle playing, dancing, arm wrestling, archery, wood-sawing to name a few. There were to be races for the children and pony rides and contests in needlework and cooking for the women. And displays of garden produce, of course, and prizes for the best. There was going to be something for everyone. And all sorts of booths with everything one could wish for upon which to spend one's money. Most of the garden produce and the women's items were to be sold or auctioned after the judging. There was to be a grand feast in the church hall in the late afternoon before general dancing in the evening. All the proceeds from the day were to go into the fund for the church roof.
The church roof apparently leaked like a sieve whenever there was a good rain, and only five or six of the pews were safe to sit upon. They got mighty crowded on a wet day.
"Not that some of our younger folk complain too loud about the crowding," someone offered.
"Some of them pray all week for rain on Sunday," someone else added.
André Lamarr joined in the general guffaw that succeeded these witticisms. "Perhaps we will stay an hour or two to watch some of the contests," he said. "Log sawing, did you say? And arm wrestling? I might even try a bout myself."
All eyes turned upon his companion, who had neither spoken nor shown any spark of interest in all the supposedly irresistible delights the day held in store.
They offered a marked contrast to the beholder, these two brothers. There was a gap of almost thirteen years in their ages, but it was not just a contrast in years. Marcel Lamarr, Marquess of Dorchester, was tall, well-formed, impeccably elegant, and austerely handsome. His dark hair was silvering at the temples. His face was narrow, with high cheekbones and a somewhat hawkish nose and thin lips. His eyes were dark and hooded. He looked upon the world with cynical disdain, and the world looked back upon him—when it dared look at all—with something bordering upon fear. He had a reputation as a hard man, one who did not suffer fools gladly or at all. He also had a reputation for hard living and deep gambling among other vices. He was reputed to have left behind a string of broken-hearted mistresses and courtesans and hopeful widows during the course of his almost forty years. As for unmarried ladies and their ambitious mamas and hopeful papas, they had long ago given up hope of netting him. One quelling glance from those dark eyes of his could freeze even the most determined among them in their tracks. They consoled themselves by fanning the flames of the rumor that he lacked either a heart or a conscience, and he did nothing to disabuse them of such a notion.
André Lamarr, by contrast, was a personable young man, shorter, slightly broader, fairer of hair and complexion, and altogether more open and congenial of countenance than his brother. He liked people, and people generally liked him. He was always ready to be amused, and he was not always discriminating about where that amusement came from. At present he was charmed by these cheerful country folk and the simple pleasures they anticipated with such open delight. He would be perfectly happy to delay their journey by an hour or three—they had started out damnably early, after all. He glanced inquiringly at his brother and drew breath to speak. He was forestalled.
"No," his lordship said softly.
The attention of the masses had already been taken by a couple of new arrivals, who were greeted with a hearty exchange of pleasantries and comments upon the kindness the weather was showing them and a few lame flights of wit, which drew disproportionate shouts of merry laughter. Marcel could not imagine anything more shudderingly tedious than an afternoon spent at the insipid entertainment of a country fair, admiring large cabbages and crocheted doilies and watching troops of heavy-footed dancers prancing about the village green.
"Dash it all, Marc," André said, his eyebrows knitting into a frown. "I thought you were none too eager to get home."
"Nor am I," Marcel assured him. "Redcliffe Court is too full of persons for whom I feel very little fondness."
"With the exception of Bertrand and Estelle, surely," André said, his frown deepening.
"With the exception of the twins," Marcel conceded with a slight shrug as the innkeeper arrived at their table to refill their glasses. Once more they brimmed over with foam, which swamped the table around them. The man did not pause to wipe the table.
The twins. Those two were going to have to be dealt with when he arrived home. They were soon to turn eighteen. In the natural course of events Estelle would be making her come-out during the London Season next year and would be married to someone suitably eligible within a year or so after that while Bertrand would go up to Oxford, idle away three or four years there absorbing as little knowledge as possible, and then take up a career as a fashionable young man about town. In the natural course of events… There was, in fact, nothing natural about his twins. They were both almost morbidly serious-minded, perhaps even pious—perish the thought. Sometimes it was hard to believe he could have begotten them. But then he had not had a great deal to do with their upbringing, and doubtless that was where the problem lay.
"I am going to have to exert myself with them," he added.
"They are not likely to give you any trouble," André assured him. "They are a credit to Jane and Charles."
Marcel did not reply. For that was precisely the trouble. Jane Morrow was his late wife's elder sister—straitlaced and humorless and managing in her ways. Adeline, who had been a careless, fun-loving girl, had detested her. He still thought of his late wife as a girl, for she had died at the age of twenty-two when the twins were barely a year old. Jane and her husband had stepped dutifully into the breach to take care of the children while Marcel fled as though the hounds of hell were at his heels and as though he could outpace his grief and guilt and responsibilities. Actually, he had more or less succeeded with that last. His children had grown up with their aunt and uncle and older cousins, albeit at his home. He had seen them twice a year since their mother's death, almost always for fairly short spans of time. That home had borne too many bad memories. One memory, actually, but that one was very bad indeed. Fortunately, that home in Sussex had been abandoned and leased out after he inherited the title. They all now lived at Redcliffe Court in Northamptonshire.
"Which I am not," André continued with a rueful grin after taking a long pull at his glass and wiping froth off his upper lip with the back of his hand, "Not that anyone would expect me to be a credit to Jane and Charles, it is true. But I am not much of a credit to you either, am I, Marc?"
Marcel did not reply. It would not have been easy to do even if he had wanted to. The noise in the taproom was deafening. Everyone was trying to speak over everyone else, and it seemed that every second utterance was hilarious enough to be deserving of a prolonged burst of merriment. It was time to be on their way. Surely his coachman had had sufficient time to secure one loose shoe on one leg of one horse. He had probably done it in five minutes and was enjoying a tankard of ale of his own.
Beyond the open door of the taproom, Marcel could see that someone else had arrived. A woman. A lady, in fact. Undoubtedly a lady, though surprisingly she seemed to be alone. She was standing at the desk out in the hallway, looking down at the register the innkeeper was turning in her direction. She was well formed and elegant, though not young, at a guess. His eyes rested upon her with indifference until she half turned her head as though something at the main doors had taken her attention and he saw her face in profile. Beautiful. Though definitely not young. And…familiar? He looked more intently, but she had turned back to the desk to write in the register before stooping to pick up a bag and turning in the direction of the staircase. She was soon lost to view.
"Not that you are much of a credit to yourself sometimes," André said, apparently continuing with the same theme.
Marcel fixed his brother with a cool gaze. "I would remind you that my affairs are none of your concern," he said.
His brother added to the general din by throwing back his head and laughing. "An apt choice of words, Marc," he said.
"But still not your concern," Marcel told him.
"Oh, it may yet be," André said, "if a certain husband and his brothers and brothers-in-law and other assorted relatives and neighbors should happen to be in pursuit and burst in upon us."
They were coming from Somerset, where they had spent a few weeks at a house party hosted by a mutual acquaintance. Marcel had alleviated his boredom by flirting with a neighbor of his host who was a frequent visitor to the house, though he had stopped well short of any sexual intimacy with her. He had kissed the back of her hand once in full view of at least twenty other guests and once when they were alone on the terrace beyond the drawing room. He had a reputation for ruthless and heartless womanizing, but he did make a point of not encouraging married ladies, and she was married. Someone, however—he suspected it was the lady herself—had told some highly embellished tale to the husband, and that worthy had chosen to take umbrage. All his male relatives to the third and fourth generation, not to mention his neighbors and several local dignitaries, had taken collective umbrage too, and soon it had been rumored that half the county was out for the blood of the lecherous Marquess of Dorchester. A challenge to a duel was not out of the question, ridiculous as it had seemed. Indeed, André and three of the other male house guests had offered their services as his second.
Marcel had written to Redcliffe Court to give notice of his intention to return home within the week and had left the house party before all the foolishness could descend into downright farce. He had no desire whatsoever either to kill a hot-headed farmer who neglected his wife or to allow himself to be killed. And he did not care the snap of two fingers if his departure was interpreted as cowardice.
He had been planning to go home anyway, even though home was full of people who had never been invited to take up residence there—or perhaps because of that fact. He had inherited the title from his uncle less than two years ago and with it Redcliffe Court. He had inherited its residents too—the marchioness, his widowed aunt, and her daughter and the daughter's husband with their youngest daughter. The three elder ones had already married and—mercifully—flown the nest with their husbands. Since he had little interest in making his home at Redcliffe, Marcel had not deemed it important to suggest that they remove to the dower house, which had been built at some time in the past for just this sort of situation. Now Jane and Charles Morrow were there too with their son and daughter, both of whom were adults but neither of whom had shown any sign of launching out into a life independent of their parents. The twins were at Redcliffe, too, of course, since it was now rightfully their home.
One big, happy family.
"What is my concern," Marcel said into a slight lull in the noise level after the landlord had distributed steaming pasties from a giant platter and everyone had tucked in, "is your debts, André."
"Yes, I thought we would get to those," his brother said with a resigned sigh. "I would have had them paid off long before now if I had not had a run of bad luck at the tables just before we left for the country. I will come about, though, never fear. I always do. You know that. You always come about. If my creditors have the sheer impudence to come after you again, just ignore 'em. I always do."
"I have heard that debtors' prison is not the most comfortable of residences," Marcel said.
"Oh, I say, Marc. That was uncalled for." His brother sounded both shocked and indignant. "You surely do not expect me to appear in company dressed in rags and wearing scuffed boots, do you? I would be a reproach to you if I patronized an inferior tailor or bootmaker. Or, worse, none at all. I really cannot be faulted on those bills. As for the gaming, what is a fellow supposed to do for amusement? Read improving books at his fireside each night? Besides, it is a family failing, you must confess. Annemarie is forever living beyond her means and then dropping a whole quarter's allowance at the tables."
"Our sister," Marcel said, "has been the concern of William Cornish for the past eight or nine years." Though that did not stop her from begging the occasional loan when she had been more than usually extravagant or unlucky and quailed at the prospect of confessing all to her sober-minded husband. "He knew what he was getting into when he married her."
"She tells me he never scolds and never threatens her with debtors' prison," André said. "Extend me a loan, if you will be so good, Marc. Just enough to cover the gaming debts and perhaps a bit extra to get the more pressing of my creditors off my back, damn their eyes. I will pay back every penny. With interest," he added magnanimously.
The lady had reappeared. The door from the taproom into the dining room was also open, and Marcel could see her seating herself at a table in there, the room's sole occupant as far as he could see. She was facing him, though there was the width of two rooms and many persons between them. And by God, he really did know her. The marble goddess, whom he had once upon a time tried his damnedest to turn to flesh and blood—with no success whatsoever. Well, almost none. She had been married at the time, of course, but he had tried flirting with her nevertheless. He was an accomplished flirt and rarely failed when he set his mind to a conquest. He had begun to think that she might possibly be interested, but then she had told him to go away. Just that, in those exact words.
Go away, Mr. Lamarr, she had said.And he had gone, his pride badly bruised. For a while he had feared that his heart had been too, but he had been mistaken. His heart had already been stone cold dead.
Now, all these years later, she had fallen a long way from the pedestal of pride from which she had ruled her world then. And she was no longer young. But she was still beautiful, by God. The Countess of Riverdale. No, not that. She was no longer the countess, or even the dowager countess. He did not know what she called herself now. Mrs. Westcott? She was not that either. Mrs. Somebody Else? He could take a look at the inn register, he supposed. If he was sufficiently interested, that was.
"You do not believe me," André said, sounding aggrieved. "I know I did not repay you the last time. Or the time before, if I am going to be perfectly honest, though I would not have lost such a vast sum at the races if the horse I bet on had not run lame out of the starting gate. He was as sure a thing as there ever was, Marc. You would have bet a bundle on him yourself if you had been there. It was just dashed rotten luck. But this time I will definitely repay you. I have a tip on a sure thing coming up next month. A real sure thing this time," he added when he saw his brother's skeptically raised eyebrow. "You ought to take a look at the horse yourself."
Hers was a face that had suffered, Marcel thought, and was strangely more beautiful as a result. Not that he was interested in suffering women. Or women who must be close to forty or even past it, for all he knew. She was taking a look around, first at the presumably empty dining room and then through the door at the noisy crowd gathered in the taproom. Her eyes alit upon him for a moment, passed onward, and then returned. She looked directly at him for a second, perhaps two, and then turned sharply away as the innkeeper appeared at her elbow with the coffee pot.
She had both seen him and recognized him. If he was not mistaken—he did not raise his quizzing glass to observe more closely—there was a flush of color in her cheeks.
"I hate it," André said, "when you give me the silent treatment, Marc. It is dashed unfair, you know. You of all people."
"Me of all people?" Marcel turned his attention to his brother, who squirmed under his gaze.
"Well, you are not exactly a saint, are you?" he said. "Never have been. Throughout my boyhood I listened to tales of your extravagance and womanizing and reckless exploits. You were my idol, Marc. I did not expect that you would stand in judgment when I do only what you have always done."
André was twenty-seven, their sister two years older. They all had the same mother, but there had been an eleven-year span during which no live child had been born to her. And then, when she had given up hope of adding to her family, along had come first Annemarie and then André.
"Someone was careless in allowing such unsavory gossip to reach the ears of children," Marcel said. "And to make it sound like something that ought to be emulated."
"Not so young either," André said. "We used to listen at doors. Don't all children? Annemarie adored you too. She still does. I have no idea why she married Cornish. Every time he moves he is obscured by a cloud of dust."
"Dear me," Marcel said. "Not literally, I hope."
"Oh, I say," André said, suddenly distracted. "There is Miss Kingsley. I wonder what she is doing here."
Marcel followed the line of his gaze—toward the dining room. Kingsley. Miss Kingsley. But she had never been married, except bigamously for twenty years or so to the Earl of Riverdale. He wondered if she had known. Probably not, though. Undoubtedly not, in fact. Her son, who had inherited his father's title and property after the latter's death had been disinherited in spectacular fashion when his illegitimacy was exposed, and her daughters had been disinherited too and cast out of society like lepers. Had not one of them been betrothed and dropped like a hot potato? She looked up and directly at him this time before looking away, though not hurriedly.
She was aware of him, then. Not just as someone she had recognized. She was aware of him. He was almost certain of it, just as he had been all those years ago, though her final words to him had seemed to belie that impression. Go away, Mr. Lamarr.
"Well," André said cheerfully, picking up his tankard and draining its contents, "you can come and visit me in debtors' prison, Marc. Bring some clean linen when you come, will you? And take the soiled away with you to be laundered and deloused. Are we going to stay for a while and watch some of the contests? We are in no big hurry, after all, are we?"
"Your debts will be paid," Marcel said. "All of them. As you know very well, André." He did not add that the debt to him would also be forgiven. That went without saying, but his brother must be left with some pride.
"I am much obliged to you," André said. "I will pay you back within the month, Marc. Depend upon it. At least you are unlikely ever to have a similar problem with Bertrand. Or Estelle."
Quite right. Perhaps it was illogical to half wish that he would.
"But then," André added with a laugh, "they would not have been brought up to idolize you or emulate you, would they? If there is one person more dusty than William Cornish, it is Jane Morrow. And Charles. A well-matched couple, those two. Are we staying?"
Marcel did not answer immediately. He was looking at the former Countess of Riverdale, whom he could not quite think of as Miss Kingsley. She was eating, though he did not think that was one of the landlady's famous but somewhat over-hearty meat pasties on her plate. And she was glancing up to look straight at him again, a sandwich suspended a short distance from her mouth. She half frowned, and he cocked one eyebrow before she looked away once more.
"I am staying," he said on a sudden impulse. "You are not, however. You may take the carriage."
"Eh?" André said inelegantly.
"I am staying," Marcel repeated. "You are not."
She was not wearing her bonnet and there was no other outdoor garment in sight. He could not see her bag beside her. She had signed the register—he had seen her do it—surely proof that she was staying, though why on earth she had chosen this particular inn in this particular village he could not imagine. Carriage trouble? Or why she was alone. Surely she had not fallen on such hard times that she could not afford servants. It was hardly likely she had come for the express purpose of participating in the harvest celebrations. He might soon be kicking himself from here to eternity, though, if she was not staying. Or if she repeated her famous reproof and sent him away.
But since when had he lacked confidence in himself, especially when it came to women? Not since Lady Riverdale herself, surely, and that must be fifteen years or more ago.
"Miss Kingsley," André said suddenly and with a clicking of his fingers and great indignation. He looked from his brother to her and back again. "Marc! Surely you are not…"
Marcel turned a cold gaze upon his brother, eyebrows raised, and the sentence was not completed. "You may take the carriage," he said again. "Indeed, you will take it. When you reach Redcliffe Court, you will inform Jane and Charles and anyone else who may be interested that I will arrive when I arrive."
"What sort of message is that?" André asked. "Charles will turn purple in the face and Jane's lips will disappear, and one of them is sure to say it is just like you. And Bertrand and Estelle will be disappointed."
Marcel doubted it. Did he wish André was right? For a moment he hesitated, but only for a moment. He had done nothing to earn their disappointment, and it was a bit late now to think of yearning for it.
"You hate this sort of country entertainment," Andre said. "Really this is too bad of you, Marc. I am the one who suggested staying awhile. And I left that house party before I intended to in order to give you my company just when I was making some progress with the redhead."
"Did I ask for your company?" Marcel asked, his quizzing glass in his hand.
"Oh, I say. Next time I will know better," his brother told him. "I might as well go on my way, then. I always know when arguing with you is useless, Marc, which is most of the time. Or all the time. I hope she intends to be back on the road within the half hour. I hope she will have nothing to do with you. I hope she spits in your eye."
"Do you?" Marcel asked softly.
"Marc," his brother said. "She is old."
Marcel raised his eyebrows. "But so am I, brother," he said. "Forty on my next birthday, which is lamentably close. Positively decrepit."
"It is different for a man," his brother said, "and you very well know it. Good Lord, Marc."
He left a few minutes later, striding off without a backward glance and only a cursory wave of the hand for the villager who asked redundantly if he was leaving. Marcel did not accompany him out to the inn yard. He heard his carriage leave five minutes or so after that. He was stranded here, then. That was more than a bit foolish of him. The crowd was eyeing him uncertainly and then began to disperse, the platter of meat pasties having been reduced to a few crumbs and the festivities beyond the inn doors apparently being imminent. The former countess was drinking her coffee. Soon there were a mere half dozen villagers left in the taproom, and none of them occupied the tables between him and her. He gazed steadily at her, and she looked back once over the rim of her cup and held his gaze for a few moments.
Marcel got to his feet, strolled out into the hallway, turned the register to observe that yes, she had indeed signed it for a one-night stay as Miss Kingsley, and then strolled to the outside door to glance out. He crossed to the dining room and entered it by the hallway door. She looked up as he closed the door behind him and then set her cup down carefully in its saucer, her eyes on what she was doing. Her hair, swept back and upward into an elegant chignon, was still the color of honey. Unless his advanced age had dimmed his excellent eyesight, there was not a single strand of gray there yet. Or any lines on her face or sagging of chin. Or of bosom.
"You told me to go away," he said. "But that was fifteen years or so ago. Was there a time limit?"
© Mary Balogh