Someone to Care (Westcott #4)(3)

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-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 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.

“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.”

Mary Balogh's Books