Tender Rebel Page 2

"The only way you'll get someone to put his heart into it, Malory, is if you cuckold some young Corinthian your size and force him to issue the challenge."

"With my luck, George," Malory shot back, "he'd call for pistols instead, and what fun is that?"

George Amherst laughed at the dry tone, for if not everyone knew that Anthony was unbeatable in the ring, they did know he was nonpareil on the dueling field. He was even known to quite nonchalantly ask his challengers on what luckless part of their anatomy they would like to receive their wound of honor, which naturally set the poor fellows trembling in their boots, if they weren't already.

As far as George knew, Anthony had never actually killed anyone in a duel, since nearly all his were fought over women, rake that he was, and he firmly believed there wasn't a woman born worth dying over—well, that was excluding those in his family, of course. Malory was devilish touchy about his family.

He might be a bachelor, confirmed positively, but with three older brothers with offspring aplenty, he didn't lack for nieces and nephews to dote on.

"Looking for competition, Tony? You should have sent your man round to find me. You know I'm always happy to oblige you."

George swung around sharply, disbelieving his ears at the sound of a voice he hadn't heard in more than ten years. And then his brows shot up incredulously, for he hadn't been mistaken. Standing in the doorway was James Malory, older certainly, but looking every bit as dangerous as he ever had ten years ago when he had been London's most notorious rakehell. Big, blond, and still handsome too, by God!

Incredible!

And then George swung back to see how Anthony was taking this unexpected appearance. The two brothers had been close before, being only a year apart in age and inclined toward the same interests, though James was assuredly the wilder of the two— at least he had been. But then James had disappeared, and for some reason or other that the family never spoke of, the other brothers had disowned him, Anthony included, and wouldn't even mention his name. As close as George was to Anthony all these years since, and he liked to think they were best friends, Anthony had never once confided what it was that James had done to be ousted from the family.

But to George's surprise, Anthony was showing no signs of his formidable temper. In fact, no emotion whatever crossed his handsome countenance for those in the hall to remark on. You had to know him well to recognize that gleam in his cobalt-blue eyes for what it was: pleasure, not fury.

And yet when he spoke, you'd have thought he was addressing his worst enemy. "James, what the bloody hell are you still doing in London? You were to sail this morning!"

James did no more than offer a bored shrug. "Change of plans, thanks to Jeremy's newfound stubbornness. Since he's met the rest of the family, he's become impossible to handle. I swear he's been taking lessons from Regan in manipulation, for he managed somehow or other to talk me into letting him finish his schooling here, though I'm deuced if I know exactly how he did it."

Anthony wanted to laugh at James' expression of bafflement at being outmaneuvered by a seventeen-year-old whelp who looked more Anthony's son than James', and he would have if James hadn't slipped the name Regan into his explanation. The name always rubbed Anthony on the raw, as it did Jason and Edward, their older brothers, and James knew it, which was why he used "Regan" instead of "Reggie," as the rest of the family called Regina Eden. But as far back as Anthony could remember, James had had to be different, going his own way and doing as he bloody well pleased, and to hell with the consequences.

As James had spoken, he had walked forward, casually slipping out of his coat to reveal the sort of

loose-sleeved shirt that he preferred when captaining theMaiden Anne. Since he gave every appearance of being about to oblige Anthony in the ring, Anthony refrained from taking him to task over his "Regan,"

which would have started their usual argument and likely jeopardized a little friendly sparring.

"Does this mean you'll be staying as well?" Anthony asked as James handed over his coat to George and accepted the gloves a grinning John Knighton helped him into.

"Only long enough to get the youngun settled and togged up, I think, at least for now. Though Connie has pointed out that the only reason we were willing to set ourselves down in the islands was to give Jeremy a home."

Anthony couldn't help laughing this time. "Two old sea dogs playing mother. God, I wish I could've seen it."

"I wouldn't talk, Tony," James said, unperturbed by the taunting. "You played mother yourself each summer for six years, didn't you?"

"Father," Anthony corrected. "Or more like big brother, which is neither here nor there. I'm surprised you didn't marry like Jason did, just to give Jeremy a mother. 'Course, with Conrad Sharp willing to help you raise the lad, I suppose you didn't think it necessary. ''

James leaped up into the ring. "That's my best friend you're disparaging."

Anthony bowed slightly. "Point taken. So who gets the dear boy while you and Connie are deciding whether to come home for good?"

James' right connected solidly with Anthony's mid-section just before he said, "You do."

While Anthony doubled over, absorbing the punch as well as the answer, the wagers began flying about the room. At last there was someone who looked as if he just might be able to beat the unbeatable Lord Malory. Malory was taller by a few inches, but the other bloke was brawnier, and looked quite capable of wiping the floor with anyone in the room, Malory included. And they were going to be privileged to see it. Only a few there realized these two were brothers.

As soon as Anthony was able to draw breath, he scowled at James for the surprise punch, but as to his revelation, he simply said, "Me? How'd I get so lucky?"

"You're the lad's choice. You're his bloody idol, don't you know—next to me, of course."

"Of course," Anthony replied and took James equally by surprise with an uppercut that staggered James back several paces. As James flexed his jaw, Anthony added, "I'll be glad to have him, as long as you realize I won't curtail my activities as I did for Reggie."

They circled each other now, both getting in another punch before James replied, "Don't expect you to, lad, when I didn't. It's different when you've got a boy underfoot. Hell and fire, he's been wenching since he was fourteen."

Anthony burst into laughter at that, unfortunately letting down his guard to receive a ringing blow to the side of his head. But he was quick enough to counteract with an upper to James' middle that lifted him a good five inches off the floor, amazingly done, since James was a good thirty pounds heavier in solid muscle.

Anthony stood back, allowing his brother a moment to catch his breath. When James glanced up, still bent over, he was grinning.

"Do we really want to take aches and pains to bed tonight, Tony?"

Anthony's teeth flashed in accordance. "Not when something softer can be found, and I assure you, something softer can be found." He came forward to throw an arm around his brother's shoulder.

"Then you'll take the lad until school starts?"

"Love to, but good God, I can see I'll get a fair amount of ribbing from it. Anyone who looks at Jeremy will think he's mine."

"That's why he wants you." James grinned, flashing his own set of pearly whites. "He's got a devilish sense of humor. Now about tonight. I know a couple of wenches—"

"Wenches, indeed. You were a pirate too long, Captain Hawke. Now I know a couple of ladies…"

Chapter Three

"ButI don't understand, Ros," Lady Frances leaned forward to say. "Why would you want to tie yourself to a man when you don't have to? I mean, if you were already in love, that'd be different. But you're talking about marrying someone you haven't even met yet."

"Frances, if I hadn't promised, do you really think I'd do it?" Roslynn asked.

"Well, I should certainly hope not—but who's to know if you don't keep the promise? I mean, your grandfather's dead and—" Frances broke off at the look on her friend's face. "Forget I said that."

"I will."

"Oh, I just think it's such a shame!" Frances sighed with emphasis.

Lady Frances Grenfell was a striking woman by any standards. On the tiny side, she was not exactly beautiful but was, however, very handsome with her blond hair and dark brown eyes. At one time she had been the most cheerful, effervescent girl Roslynn had ever known, but that was before her disappointing marriage to Henry Grenfell seven years ago. Now she was demure, matronly even, yet she did still have her moments that could remind Roslynn of the happy girl she had once been.

"You're as independent now as anyone could ever ask to be," Frances continued determinedly. "With more money than you know what to do with, and not a soul to tell you what to do. It took me seven years and living with a man I didn't love for five of them to get to where you are now, and still I have a mother who nags if she hears of me doing the slightest thing she doesn't approve of. Even as a widow living alone with my son, I still have someone to answer to. But you, Roslynn, you have no one at all to

worry about, and yet you must give yourself over to some man who will delight in putting a harness on your freedom as Lord Henry did to me. And I know you don't want to do it. I know that very well."

"It doesn't matter what I want, Frances. It's what I have to do."

"But why?" Frances cried in exasperation. "That's what I want to know. And don't just say again because you promised your grandfather you would. Tell me why he made you make such a promise. If it was so important to him, he had ample time to have married you off himself."

"Well, as to that," Roslynn replied, "there was no one I wanted to marry. And Gramp wouldn't have forced me on someone I didn't want."

"In all these years? No one at all?"

"Och, I hate the way you sayall these years, Frances, I really do. Dinna remind me how difficult it's going to be for me."

Frances' brown eyes widened. "Difficult?" She nearly laughed. "Posh! If ever there was going to be anything so easy, it's getting you married. You'll have so many hopefuls, you won't know what to do with them all. And your age, m'dear, won't matter one little jot. Good God, don't you know how incredibly lovely you are? And if that weren't enough, you've got a fortune that would make a banker positively drool."

"I'm twenty-five years old, Frances!" Roslynn said in such a way that she might as well have said one hundred.

Frances grinned. "So am I, and I don't consider that ancient, thank you."

"It's different when you're a widow. You've been married. No one would think anything of you marrying again."

"No, they won't, because I never will."

Roslynn frowned at the interruption. "But thetonwill take one look at me on the marriage block next to all those young debutantes and laugh their heads off."

Frances smiled. "Honestly, Ros—"

"It's true. Hell's teeth, I'd laugh myself to see a twenty-five-year-old spinster making a fool of herself."

Roslynn snorted.

"Now stop it. I tell you—Iswearto you, your age won't matter."

Roslynn couldn't believe it, much as she wanted to. She hid it well, but she was very close to tears. This was the very reason she was so terrified of putting herself forward in search of a husband. She was going to make a fool of herself, and that was something she couldn't bear.

"They'll think something's terribly wrong with me because I didn't marry before now, Fran. You know they're bound to. It's human nature."

"They'll understand perfectly when they hear you've spent the past six years nursing your grandfather,

and they'll commend you for it. Now, not another word about your age. That is the least of your worries.

And you have quite managed to avoid answering my question, haven't you?"

Roslynn chuckled at the stern look on her friend's face, a warm, husky sound that was uniquely her own.

She and Nettie had arrived at the town house on South Audley Street late last night, so late that there had been no time for the two old friends to talk until this morning. And it was an old friendship, one that had survived twelve years with only one visit in the last ten, and that was when Frances had brought her son, Timmy, to the Highlands for a holiday four years ago.

Roslynn had other women friends in Scotland, but none as close as Frances, and none to whom she felt free to confide all her secrets. They had met when they were thirteen, when Gramp had carted her off to school in England to "ladify" her, since he swore she was turning into a wee hoyden with no sense a-tall of her station—which was certainly true, for all that, but not very fair as far as she was concerned at the time.

Roslynn had lasted two years at school before she was kicked out and carted back to Cameron Hall for

"incorrigible behavior." Gramp didn't scold. Fact was he had missed her too much and was glad to have her back. But he enticed one of the fine teachers away from the school to continue Roslynn's education, and there wasn't any mischief terrible enough to make Miss Beechham quit; Gramp was paying her too much.

But during those two years in England, Frances and Roslynn had been inseparable. And if she hadn't had her own coming out when she turned eighteen, she had shared Frances' through their letters. Through Frances, she knew what it was like to fall in love. Through Frances, she also knew what it was like to have a husband you didn't love. And although she never had any children of her own, there wasn't a single thing she didn't know about them, at least about a son, because Frances had shared every phase of Timmy's development with her.

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