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-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.