Someone to Care – Mary Balogh

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 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 eagerly rushing 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, André, 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 informed 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 a 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 the 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 the strangers 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 a 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 brokenhearted 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, I would hope,” André said, his frown deepening. “With the exception of the twins,” Marcel conceded with a slight shrug as the innkeeper arrived 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 children. 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 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 oblivious to Marcel’s inattention to their conversation. 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-inlaw 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 generations, 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 houseguests 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 hotheaded 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.

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