Today's Reading

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.
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