Tender Rebel Page 4

"Spare me the details."

"You wouldn't catch him going to a ball anyway, even for his favorite niece. But I'd love to. I even have the clothes for it. And I know how to dance, I really do. Connie taught me."

Anthony nearly choked on that one. "Did he? Who led, you or he?"

Jeremy grinned. "A little of both, but I've had practice with the wenches since, and they haven't complained."

Anthony wasn't about to ask what other forms of practice the lad had been at, for he could well imagine.

Too much association with his father's unsavory friends, obviously. Whatever was he going to do with such a charming scamp? But he would have to do something, for Jeremy was sadly lacking in the social graces, thanks to his father. A gentleman pirate—well, retired pirate—and a disreputable rake, yours truly-fine examples to choose from. Perhaps he ought to turn the lad over to his cousins when they returned to London and see if they could teach him the rudiments.

"I'm sure Reggie'll be delighted to dance with you, youngun, but callhera wench and she's libel to box your ears. And she knows you well enough now, so she'll be glad to have you for the evening. I understand she's rather fond of you."

"Aye, she took right to me the day we abducted her."

"Must you remind me of that? And it was only after she knew who you were that she took to you, dear boy. Good God, for James to go to so much trouble to even the score with the viscount, then to find Reggie had married him."

"Well, that changed everything."

"Of course it did. But he shouldn't have dragged you along in this quest for vengeance anyway.''

"It was a matter of honor."

"Ah, so you know about honor, do you?" Anthony said dryly. "Then there's hope for you, I suppose… if we can manage to remove 'wenches' from your vocabulary, that is."

Jeremy blushed slightly. It wasn't his fault he had spent the first years of his life in a tavern until his father discovered his existence and took him in hand. Connie, James' first mate and best friend, was always on him about his speech; now here was another one determined to correct him.

"Perhaps I'm not good enough to escort—"

"There you go taking what I say to heart again." Anthony shook his head at the boy. "Would I have suggested you escortmyfavorite niece if I didn't think you were capable?"

Jeremy was frowning now, but for a different reason. "I can't do it. Hell's bells, what was I even thinking of? Of course I can't. If it was anyone else— no, I just can't."

"What the devil are you mumbling about?"

Jeremy stared at him intently. "I can't take her to no ball if I'm to be her only protection. What if someone like you bothers her?"

"Like me?" Anthony wasn't sure whether he wanted to laugh or strangle the whelp.

"You know what I mean, Tony, someone who doesn't take well to a 'no' when he hears it. Not that I wouldn't gullet anyone who dared—"

"But who's to take a seventeen-year-old seriously?" Anthony finished with a scowl. "Damnation, I can't tolerate those bloody affairs! Never could, never will. But you're quite right. I suppose we'll have to compromise. You escort her, and I'll keep an eye on her, too. The Crandal ballroom fronts a garden, I believe, so I ought to manage it without actually making an appearance. That should satisfy even her overprotective husband. Does that suit you, young Galahad?"

"Aye, as long as I know you're there and can step in if she has any real trouble. But hell's bells, Tony, won't you be bored stuck out in the garden all night?"

"Assuredly, but I suppose I can suffer it for one evening. You don't know what the alternative is should I actually show up at one of these affairs, and don't ask. It's the bane of my life, but it's the life I choose, so I've no complaints."

And with that cryptic remark, Anthony left Jeremy to settle into his new quarters.

Chapter Five

"Well, m'dear, do you believe me now?" Frances whispered, coming up behind Roslynn, who stood in a circle of admirers, none of whom had left her alone since she arrived at this ball, the third such affair in as many days.

The question was innocent enough, if anyone had heard, but no one had. Though the eyes of the

gentlemen present returned continuously to Roslynn in her teal satin gown, their attention was momentarily engaged by a friendly argument about some race that was supposed to take place tomorrow.Shehad started the argument, which seemed the thing to do since it broke up the previous argument about who was to dance with her next She was quite tired of dancing, especially with Lord Bradley, who must have the biggest feet this side of the Scottish border.

Fortunately, or unfortunately in Roslynn's case, she didn't need to ask Frances to explain her question.

Frances had asked it once too often in the last days, quite thrilled that she had been right about Roslynn's reception by thetonand Roslynn had been wrong. She was rubbing it in good, taking Roslynn's success personally, as if it were her own.

"I believe you." Roslynn sighed, hoping this would be the last time she would have to say it. "Honest to God, I do. But however am I to make a choice from so many?"

Frances pulled her back a few steps to admonish her. "You don'thaveto choose any of them. Heavens, you've only just begun the hunt. There are other eligibles you haven't met yet. You're not going to jump into this blindly, now are you?"

"No, no, of course not. I don't intend to marry acompletestranger. Well, he will be one to me in actuality, but I mean to learn everything I can about him first. I believe in knowing my quarry as well as possible to avoid mistakes."

"Quarry indeed." Frances rolled her eyes dramatically. "Is that how you're looking at this?"

Roslynn sighed again. "Oh, I don't know, Frances. It just seems so cold-blooded, no matter how you look at it, especially when no one I've met yet has tickled my interest even a wee bit. I'm going tobuy myself a husband. There's no nicer way of putting it. And it doesn't look as if I'm going to particularly like the fellow if this is all I have to choose from. But as long as he meets the other criteria—"

"Posh!" Frances admonished sternly. "You're giving up when you've only just begun the search. What's happened to depress you so?"

Roslynn grimaced. "They're all soyoung, Frances. Gilbert Tyrwhitt can't be more than twenty, and Neville Baldwin not much older. The earl is my age, and Lord Bradley is only a few years older, though heacts as if he should never have been let out of the schoolroom. Those other two are no better.

Damnation, they make me feel so ancient. But Gramp did warn me. He said I should look to an older man, but where are they? And if you tell me they're all married already, I think I'll scream."

Frances laughed. "Ros, you're just rushing it. There are a number of distinguished gentlemen here, widowers, and some confirmed bachelors who I'm sure will reconsider that status once they meet you.

But I'll no doubt have to point them out to you, because they're probably intimidated by these young bucks dancing attendance on you and feel the competition's too stiff. After all, you are a smashing success. If you want an older man, you'll have to give the poor fellow some encouragement, let him know that you're interested—well, you know what I mean."

"Hell's teeth, Frances, you don't have to blush. I've no problem with being forward if I have to. I'm even prepared to state my case and do the proposing myself. Now don't raise your eyebrows at me. You know I mean it, and I'll do it if I have to."

"You know very well you'd be too embarrassed to be that bold."

"Under normal circumstances, perhaps. But under these circumstances, I haven't much choice. I've no time to be wasting on a proper courtship, and certainly no time to be sitting around waiting for the right man to come along. So point out the more experienced eligibles, and I'll tell you which ones I want to be introduced to. I've quite had enough of these young bloods."

"So be it," Frances replied and looked casually about the room. "There, by the musicians, that tall one. I can't think of his name offhand, but I understand he's a widower with two children—no, three, I think it is. He must be forty-one or -two, and is a very likable sort from what I hear. Has a big estate up in Kent where the children are, but he prefers town life. Is he more what you had in mind?"

Roslynn grinned at Frances' inept attempt at sarcasm. "Oh, he's not bad, not bad a-tall. I like that silver at the temples. If I can't have love, I must insist on pleasant-looking, and he is, don't you think? Yes, he'll do for a start. Now who else?"

Frances gave her a disgusted look, for she certainly felt as ifshewere at a market selecting choice goods, even if Roslynn didn't. It was all so unsavory, the logical and businesslike way Ros was approaching this.

But then wasn't that really the way it was, only most women had a father or a guardian to handle the particulars, while they concerned themselves merely with the happy fantasies of love evermore, or in the unfortunate cases, love nevermore. Ros didn't have anyone to deal with the realities of marriage for her, so she had to make all the arrangements herself, including the financial settlements.

More in the spirit of the thing now since to fight it was so useless, Frances pointed out another gentleman, and another; after an hour, Roslynn had met them all and had narrowed down a new list of possibles, this one much more acceptable agewise. But the young blades still wouldn't leave her alone and insisted on dance after dance. Although her popularity relieved a good deal of her anxiety, a very great deal of it actually, it was becoming a bit of a nuisance too.

Having lived so long in seclusion with her grandfather and the servants known to her for most of her life, Roslynn had had very little traffic with gentlemen. The males of her acquaintance were used to her, and those she didn't know she very properly didn't take notice of. Unlike Nettie, who took in everything at a glance and was well aware of Roslynn's effect on the male gender, Roslynn was too circumspect when out and about to pay attention to what went on around her. It was not surprising that she had put so little store in her looks, which had never seemed very out-of-the-ordinary to her, and so much store in her age, which seemed inappropriate for her purpose, and had counted solely on her status as an heiress to win her a husband quickly.

She had assumed, given her advanced age in comparison with all the other girls out on their first season, that she would have to settle for the second or third sons with no prospects, or even a gambling rogue, a lord who was down and out and heavily mortgaged. And even if there would be a marriage contract that would leave the control of the bulk of her fortune in her hands, she would be generous. She could afford to be generous. She was so rich it was embarrassing.

But she had had to reevaluate her situation after the first party Frances took her to. She had quickly found that all sorts of gentlemen were interested in her, and the extent of her wealth wasn't even known yet. Of course, her gowns and jewels spoke for themselves, but really, that wealthy earl had already called on her at South Audley Street, and so had the obnoxious Lord Bradley. The older men on her new list were not paupers either, and all had seemed extremely flattered by her interest in them. But would they be willing to marry her? Well, that remained to be seen. Her priority now was to find out more about each of them. She wanted no nasty habits or surprises revealedaftershe was married.

What she was in need of at this point was a confidant and adviser, someone who had known these men for a number of years and could help her whittle down her list. Frances had simply been too sheltered and reclusive since her widowhood to be of any help in a thorough character analysis. She knew no men personally other than her late husband's friends, none of whom she would recommend for consideration.

The men she had introduced to Roslynn tonight were mere acquaintances about whom she had only the vaguest knowledge.

A good gossip might help, but that was so unreliable, and old gossip tended to be forgotten in lieu of new, so that wouldn't serve her purpose anyway. If only Roslynn had other friends in London, but Frances was her one and only.

It never occurred to either woman that Roslynn could hire someone to find out anything she wanted to know about her candidates. And even if it had occurred to them, they wouldn't know how to go about finding such a person. But then that would have been too simple, and Roslynn had expected from the beginning that this husband-hunting business would be difficult. She expected to agonize over it, simply because she knew she couldn't afford the time necessary to make a cautious decision.

At least she was making progress tonight, slow but helpful. Sir Artemus Shadwell, her silver-templed widower, had braved her pack of randy bucks, as she was beginning to think of them because of their overzealous pursuit, and stolen her away for a dance. Unfortunately, it wasn't a dance conducive to conversation, and the most she was able to learn from him was that with five children from his first marriage (och, but Frances was way off there!), he wasn't at all interested in starting a new family if he ever married again. How he could avoid it, she'd like to know, but so he said.

That was too bad, because if Roslynn was determined to get anything out of the husband she eventually decided on, it was children. That was the only thing about getting married she was looking forward to.

She wanted children, not many, but some, two or three or four, and that was definite. Nor was this something she could wait on either, not at her age. If she was going to have a family, it had to be started immediately. That would have to be understood. There would be no "Maybes" or "We'll sees" about it.

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