Tender Rebel Page 28

"Shut up, Knighton," Anthony snapped as he tore off his gloves.

"The hell I will," the older man shot back angrily. "I'd like to know where I'm going to find another bloke stupid enough to step into the ring with you. But I'll tell you this. I ain't even going to bother looking until you've bedded the wench and got it out of your system. Stay out of my ring until you do."

Anthony had laid men flat for less, but Knighton was a friend. He nearly laid him flat anyway for his bloody insight in calling it too close to the mark. He stood there, the urge overpowering. It was James'

voice, breaking into the haze of his rage, that checked him.

"Having trouble finding partners again, Tony?"

"Not if you're still willing to oblige me."

"Do I look like a fool?" James glanced down at his apparel in mock surprise. "And here I thought I was done up quite smartly today."

Anthony laughed, feeling some of his tension drain away. "As if you didn't think you could make short work of me."

"Well, of course I could. No doubt a-tall. Just don't want to."

Anthony snorted, started to remind James of the going-over Montieth had given him, even if James did come out the winner, but changed his mind. No point in putting it to the test when he had no quarrel with his brother.

"I get the impression you're following me, old man. Any particular reason?"

"As a matter of fact, I've a bone to pick—outside of the ring, of course."

Anthony jumped down, reaching for his coat. "Mind if we get out of here first?"

"Come on. I'll buy you a drink."

"Make it more than one and you're on."

The afternoon atmosphere in White's was quiet, soothing, a place to relax, read the dailies, conduct business, discuss politics, gossip, or get drunk, as Anthony contemplated doing, all without the disruptive presence of women, who were not allowed. The lunch crowd was gone, leaving only the regulars, who lived more at the club than at home. The dinner crowd and serious gamblers had yet to arrive, though there were a few games of whist in progress.

"Who kept up my membership all these years?" James asked as they took seats away from the bow window before which the fashionable set would soon be gathering.

"You mean you're still a member? And here I thought you were getting in as my guest."

"Very amusing, dear boy. But I know bloody well Jason and Eddie boy wouldn't have bothered."

Anthony frowned at being cornered. "So I'm a sentimental ass. It's only a few guineas a year, for God's sake. I just didn't want to see your name stricken from the list."

"Or you were certain I'd come back into the fold eventually?"

Anthony shrugged. "There was that, not to mention a bloody long waiting list to get in. Didn't want to see you deserting us for Brook's."

"Malory!" Anthony was hailed and descended upon by a red-cheeked fellow of his acquaintance.

"Stopped by your house yesterday, but Dobson said you were out. Wanted to clear up a little wager I have with Hilary. She saw this notice in the paper. You'll never believe it, Malory. It said you'd married.

'Course I knew it couldn't be you. Had to be some other chap, same name. I'm right, aren't I? Tell me it's a bloody coincidence."

Anthony's fingers tightened around his glass, but other than that, there was no inkling that he was bothered by the question. "It's a bloody coincidence," he replied.

"I knew it!" the fellow crowed. "Wait till I tell Hilary. The easiest five pounds I've won from her in a long time."

"Was that wise?" James asked as soon as red-cheeks drifted away. "Imagine the disagreements it's going to cause when he claims to have it from your own lips that you're not married. There'll be fights with those who know better."

"What the hell do I care?" Anthony snarled. "When I feel like I'm married, I'll admit I'm married."

James sat back, a small smile playing about his lips. "So the 'bemoanment' has begun, has it?"

"Oh, shut up." Anthony downed his drink and left to get another. He came back with a bottle. "I thought you had a bone to pick with me. Pick away. It seems to be becoming a habit."

James let the more interesting discovery pass for the moment. "Very well. Jeremy tells me Vauxhall was your idea, not his. If you'd wanted to be rid of us for the evening, why go through the lad?"

"Didn't you enjoy yourselves?"

"That's beside the point. I don't like being manipulated, Tony."

"But that's precisely why I sent the message to the lad." Anthony grinned. "You've admitted how hard it is for you to deny him anything, now that you've become such a doting parent."

"Bloody hell. You could have just asked me. Am I so insensitive that I can't appreciate that you might want to spend an evening alone with your new wife?"

"Come off it, James. You're about as sensitive as a dead tree. If I had asked you to leave last night, you'd have stayed just to see why I wanted you gone."

"Would I?" James' smile came grudgingly. "Yes, I suppose I would. I'd have envisioned you and the little Scot running about the house bare-ass na**d, and you'd never have been able to get rid of me. Wouldn't have missed that for the world. So what was it, actually, that you wanted privacy for?"

Anthony poured another drink. "It doesn't matter now. The evening didn't end as I had hoped."

"So thereistrouble in paradise?"

Anthony slammed the bottle down on the small table next to his chair, exploding. "You wouldn't believe what she's accused me of! Bedding that little twit of a barmaid we met the other night!"

"Careful, lad. I've fond memories of Margie."

"Then you did meet her later?"

"Did you doubt I would, a pretty piece like that? Though the little vixen in breeches would have done…

never mind." James poured himself another drink, disturbed by the regret he felt at losing that one. "Why didn't you just tell your lady I'd marked the girl for myself? I mean, we've shared women before, but there's something unsavory about sharing in the same day, don't you think?"

"True, but my dear wife wouldn't put any unsavory deed beyond my capabilities. And I resent being put in a position of having to explain that I've done nothing wrong. I shouldn't have to do that. A little trust wouldn't be amiss."

James sighed. "Tony, lad, you've a lot to learn about new brides."

"You've had one, have you, which makes you an expert?" Anthony sneered.

"Of course not," James retorted. "But common sense would tell you it's got to be a very delicate time for a woman. She's feeling her way, adjusting. She's devilish insecure, nervous. Trust? Hah! First impressions are more likely to be the lasting ones. Stands to reason, don't it?"

"It stands to reason you don't know what the deuce you're talking about. When's the last time you even bumped elbows with a lady of quality? Captain Hawke's tastes lean toward a different sort entirely."

"Notentirely, lad. Leading a band of brigands does have its drawbacks, mainly in the lower class of establishments one is limited to frequenting. And acquired habits are hard to break. But my tastes, as you put it, are no different from yours. Duchess or whore, as long as she's comely and willing, she'll do. And it hasn't beenthatmany years that I can't remember the idiosyncrasies of the duchess. Besides, they're all the same in one respect, dear boy. Jealousy turns them into shrews."

"Jealousy?" Anthony said blankly.

"Well, good God, man, isn't that the problem?"

"I hadn't thought… well, now that you mention it, that could be why she's so unreasonable. She's so bloody angry, she won't even talk about it."

"So Knighton was right." James' chuckle turned into an outright laugh. "Where's your finesse gone, dear boy? You've had enough practice in these matters to know how to get around—"

"Look who's talking," Anthony cut in irritably. "The same man who got his shin kicked the other night.

Where was the Hawke's finesse—"

"Blister it, Tony," James growled. "If you keep bandying that name about, I'm going to end up with a rope around my neck yet. Hawke's dead. Kindly remember that."

Anthony's mood improved, now that his brother's had taken a turn for the worse. "Relax, old man.

These chaps wouldn't know a hawk from a Hawke. But point taken. Since you've gone to the trouble of killing him off, we may as well let him rest in peace. But you never said, you know. What happened to the rest of your brigands?"

"Some went their own way. Some formed an attachment for theMaiden Anne, even though she's changed her colors. They're landlocked only till we sail."

"And when, pray tell, will that be?"

"Relax, old man." James tossed the phrase back at him. "I'm having too much fun watching you make a mess of your life to leave just yet."

Chapter Thirty

Itwas five o'clock in the afternoon when George Amherst assisted the two Malory brothers out of the carriage in front of the brownstone-faced house on Piccadilly, and they did need assistance. George was smiling and had been ever since he came upon the two in White's and smoothed over the disturbance they'd caused. He couldn't help it. He'd never seen Anthony so foxed he didn't know if he was coming or going. And James, well, it was utterly comical to see this intimidating Malory laughing his head off over Anthony's condition when his own was anything but sober.

"She's not going to like this," James was saying as he hooked an arm around Anthony's shoulders, nearly unbalancing them both.

"Who?" Anthony demanded belligerently.

"Your wife."

"Wife?"

George grabbed Anthony as the brothers began to sway and steered them to the door. "Splendid!" He chuckled. "You nearly get yourself kicked out of White's for decking Billings when all he did was offer felicitations on your marriage, and here you can't remember you've got a wife."

George was still getting used to the idea himself. He had been rendered speechless when Anthony had come by his house yesterday morning to tell him personally, before he read about it in the papers.

"One laugh, George… one little chuckle…and I'll rearrange your nose for you," Anthony had told him with appalling sincerity. "I was out of my mind. That's the only excuse for it. So no congratulations, if you please. Condolences are more in order."

Then he had refused to say another word about it, not who she was or why he'd married her, nor a hint about why he was already regretting it. But George wasn't so sure he was actually regretting it, not when Anthony had dragged him off on a search for this cousin of hers who was some sort of danger to her.

The desire to protect her was obvious. The desire not to talk about her was equally as obvious. Most obvious was Anthony's anger, simmering just below the surface all day. George was bloody well relieved they hadn't found the chap Anthony was looking for. He would have hated to see the result if they had.

But a chance remark from James as George was hustling them out of White's put some perspective on the thing. "You've just found a temper to match your own, Tony. Can't say as it's a bad thing in a wife.

It'll keep you on your toes, if nothing else." And he had laughed, even when Anthony snarled back,

"When you get one of your own, brother, I hope she's as sweet as that little viper who kicked you instead of thanking you for your help the other night."

The door opened just as George was about to pound on it. A wooden-faced Dobson stood there, but the butler's expression relaxed into aggrieved surprise as James abandoned Anthony for a steadier handhold— Dobson.

"Where's Willis, dear fellow? I'm going to need help with my boots, I think."

That wasn't all he would need help with, George thought, grinning, as the skinny Dobson, saying nothing, tried to get the much larger man to the stairs. George was having trouble holding Anthony up as well.

"You'd better call some footmen, Dobson," George suggested.

"I'm afraid," Dobson puffed without looking back, "they're on errands for the mistress, my lord."

"Bloody hell." Anthony perked up, hearing that. "What's she doing dispatching—"

George poked him in the ribs to shut him up. The lady in question had come out of the parlor and stood with hands on h*ps and an unpleasant gleam in her hazel eyes, which moved over them all. George swallowed hard.Thiswas Anthony's wife? Gad, she was breathtaking—and furious.

"Beg pardon, Lady Malory," George offered hesitantly. "I found these two rather deep in their cups.

Thought it prudent to get them home to sleep it off."

"And who are you, sir?" Roslynn asked stonily.

George didn't get a chance to answer. Anthony, fixing his gaze on his wife, sneered, "Oh, come now, my dear, you must know old George. He's the very chap responsible for your distrust of the male gender."

George flushed hotly as her eyes narrowed with a distinct golden glow on him. "Blister it, Malory," he hissed, throwing Anthony's arm off his shoulder. "I'll leave you to the tender mercies of your wife. No more than you deserve after that crack." Not that he understood it, but that was no way to introduce one's best friend to one's wife.

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