Someone to Care Page 3

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 coffeepot.

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 had inherited his father’s title and property after the latter’s death and then been disinherited in spectacular fashion when his illegitimacy was exposed. 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?

Across the two rooms, he saw her look 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. But as for today, are we going to stay for a while and watch some of the contests? We are in no big hurry, after all, are we?”

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