Tender Rebel Page 9

"The decision might be simple for you," she said to Frances rather defensively, "but I have other things to consider."

"Such as?"

"The time involved, for one. Being out of the city for three or four days is just going to delay—"

"Didn't you tell me Regina promised to invite your gentlemen as well?"

"That doesn't mean they'll go, Frances. The season's only just started. She's picked an off time to have a weekend party in the country."

"Silverley's in Hampshire, not days away. And besides, you also mentioned that she promised to speak to her husband and give you all the information he has on your gentlemen as soon as you get there. For that reason alone, I would think you would want to go-"

Logic, logic, how to refute it? "Who's to say he knows anything pertinent? It could turn out to be a complete waste of time."

"Then you can turn right around and be back in London the same evening."

"And leave you there?" Roslynn protested. "How would you get back?"

Frances shook her head. "I give up. You obviously don't want to go, so I won't either. We have a half-dozen other invitations for this weekend, so we'll—"

"Now don't be putting words in my mouth. I haven't said no yet."

"Well?"

Roslynn walked on, tossing her next words over her shoulder. "I still need to think on it."

She never should have brought up the party again to begin with, revealing her anxiety about it. She could almost hear the wheels spinning in Nettie's mind. Frances at least didn't have any idea what the trouble was. But Nettie knew her too well. And what could she tell Nettie when she got around to asking, and she would? More of the same excuses, even though Frances had just pointed out she really had none?

Hell's teeth! She was ready to wring her hands over this one. Everything logical said there was nothing to decide. She needed to go to Silverley if for no other reason than to get the information Regina would have for her. Also, she had only to ask herself, what if she didn't go, but all four of her "possibles" did?

Then she would be stuck in London accomplishing nothing, andthatwould be a pure waste of time.

On the other hand, and it was a great big other hand, there was a chance Anthony Malory might show up at Silverley for this party, and seeing him again was something Roslynn didn't want to risk, didn't dare risk. He was just too tempting by half. That silly, girlish reaction she had had to him yesterday in the park,

in broad daylight, even surrounded by others, proved it without a doubt.

She should have been more specific by asking Lady Eden if the one Malory she didn't want to see again would be there. But she hadn't wanted to give herself away. She had to be oh, so insouciant instead by asking if any Malorys would be there. So she deserved Regina's evasive "I never know when one or more of them will drop by. They know they're always welcome in my home, you see."

That was what she got for being so reticent, for pretending an indifference she was far from feeling. Now it was a matter of delaying her goal by several days or running into that rake again by chance.

There was really only one decision to make, so she might as well stop prevaricating over it. Another encounter with Anthony Malory was to be avoided at all costs. She had to accept the delay.

"Here we are, Ros. Dickens and Smith, my last stop for today," Frances said, then remonstrated, "You know, you're no fun at all to shop with. You could at least come in the shop, even if you don't want to buy anything."

Roslynn couldn't quite manage a smile in her present depression to tease Frances out of her disgruntlement. "I would if you hadn't picked such a hot day to drag me about. Going into the perfumers and the stocking warehouse was enough for me, thank you. I don't know how you could stand the bonnet warehouse and the silk mercers, but then I suppose you're used to it. But you forget we have a colder clime in Scotland. It's just too stuffy in these shops. At least there's a wee breeze out here, even if you can hardly notice it. Go on. I'll wait out here again with Nettie."

It didn't take Nettie but two seconds to start in on her once the door of the drapery shop had closed on Frances and Anne. "Now, lass, ye'll be telling me—"

"Och, Nettie, dinna be onto me now." Roslynn was quick to forestall her. "I'm in no mood to be picked apart, none a-tall."

Nettie was not one to let go easily. "Ye'll no' be denying ye've been acting mighty strange."

"I'm allowed, considering where we are and why and all I've got to be thinking about," Roslynn replied, her tone sharply defensive. "Did you think this business of selecting a husband would be easy work?

Hell's teeth! Sometimes I canna think for the worry of it!"

That managed to stir Nettie's sympathy. "Now, hinny, it'll be over afore ye—"

"Shh," Roslynn interrupted with a frown. "There it is again, Nettie. Do you feel it?"

"What?"

"That someone's watching us."

Nettie gave her a doubtful glance, not at all sure whether Roslynn was simply trying to get the subject off herself or if she was serious. But the girl was certainly intent on slowly perusing the street this way and that.

"If someoneiswatching us, it's no' us they be watching, but ye. An admirer, nae doubt."

Roslynn looked back at Nettie impatiently. "I know what it feels like to be looked at like that, and this is

not at all the same. I've felt it ever since we stood outside the bonnet warehouse waiting for Frances. I tried to ignore it, but the feeling persists."

"Well, then, it's nae doubt some pickpocket who's marked us, and no' surprising wi' all them jewels ye're wearing. Hold yer purse tightly, lass."

Roslynn sighed. "You're probably right. It'd be too soon for Geordie to have found me, wouldn't it? Still, I'd as soon wait in the carriage than out here in the open. Do you see our driver yet?"

Nettie stretched up on her toes. "Aye, about five shops down, but it appears he's stuck behind a wagon.

See him? We can walk, though, and get ye settled inside. Then I'll come back tae tell Lady Frances."

It wasn't that Roslynn was paranoid, but she had never felt such a strange feeling before. It was no doubt her imagination run wild, but just the same, there was no point in her standing outside the drapery shop when the carriage was now in sight. Still, she gave one more glance around her, but there were so many pedestrians on the walkway and vehicles in the street, it was impossible to notice any one person staring at her.

They started down the street but got no farther than twenty feet when an arm snaked around Roslynn's waist from behind, lifting her right off her feet. She didn't think to scream, yet it was almost a relief that her suspicions hadn't been wrong, and she was prepared. No panic, no fear—yet. She simply let the upper half of her body drop over the steely arm that held her, grabbed the edge of her skirt, and plucked the dirk out of her walking boot.

Nettie, meantime, let out a screech to warn the whole of London. She immediately charged the fellow before he moved one foot, swinging her reticule left and right, catching his ear, whipping around his face to flatten his nose. It also caught Roslynn's bonnet as she raised herself, knocking it forward over her eyes so she couldn't see. But her target was felt, cutting off her air as it was. She didn't need to see the beefy arm to take a chunk out of it.

The fellow howled and let go, and Roslynn found herself sitting flat on her backside in the middle of the walkway. She tipped her bonnet back in time to see Nettie still after the man, getting a few more swings at his head and shoulders before he leaped into a dilapidated old carriage and the driver took off, tearing into the horses with a vengeance.

It gave Roslynn the shivers to know that the carriage had been so close, that only a few more steps and she'd have been thrown into it. And everything had happened so fast. There were people standing around her, but all obviously too slow in their reactions to have helped. Only now did one of the grooms from their carriage come running up to offer his assistance—too late.

Nettie turned around, tugging down her spencer, which had come all askew in her attack against the footpad, unable to stop the triumphant smile that was now turning her lips up at the corners. Not even seeing Roslynn sprawled on the ground could lessen her moment of victory—until she saw the dirk still grasped in Roslynn's fist. But still,shehad made the blackguard run for his life, even if Roslynn had made sure she wasn't carried along with him. They had prevailed, and she was inordinately pleased.

So was Roslynn, come to that, even with her backside smarting. Gramp would have been proud of her for remaining calm and doing what she had to do without hesitation. She had drawn blood for the first time, but even now she didn't feel squeamish about it. What she felt was a good deal safer, knowing she really could take care of herself. Of course, she had been prepared. She might not always have that intuitive warning to put her on guard. And if more than just the one man had tried to grab her, that would

be a different story too. She didn't dare get cocky about this success.

Roslynn accepted the groom's help in rising and calmly returned her dirk to her boot before dusting off her skirts. Nettie waved the anxious fellow back and the crowd too, with a few choice words about concern being unwelcome when coming so tardily. Huffily she gathered up the dropped packages, thrust them into the groom's hands, and grabbed Roslynn's arm, fairly dragging her on toward the carriage.

"I should've listened tae yer warning, lass. I will next time."

"Then you think it was Geordie's hirelings?"

Nettie took a moment to consider. "Truth is, it could've been, but I doubt it."

"What else, then?"

"Just look at ye, wearing those sapphires round yer neck like a beacon. They could've thought ye were the wife of some rich lord that'd pay a pretty piece tae be getting ye back."

"I suppose." They were both silent for a moment more, then Roslynn added unexpectedly, "I think I'll go to the Eden party after all. It won't hurt to leave London for a few days, just to be safe. If Geordie is here and watching, he'll think I'm onto him and fleeing again. And until then, I'll keep Frances' servants close to me when I go out."

"Aye, on that I'm in agreement. Ye need tae be more cautious than ye ha' been."

Chapter Ten

It had been a simple matter, escaping London on Brutus' back, two stalwart grooms flanking her.

Roslynn didn't bother with a disguise this time. If the town house was being watched, she wanted Geordie to be aware of her leave-taking, to see the hefty satchel of clothes she carried, to think she was fleeing London.

The subterfuge seemed unnecessary, however, when they were several miles away and it appeared no one followed behind them. The brilliant sunrise offered ample light by which to keep watch, but the roads were clogged mainly with fanners bringing their produce to market and with travelers coming to London for the weekend. Only one fancy coach was seen leaving town, and Roslynn left it so far behind it didn't matter whether it had been following her or not.

She had a pleasant breakfast while she waited in the inn where she had arranged to meet Frances, and when Frances showed up with nothing suspicious to report, Roslynn felt safe traveling the rest of the way to Hampshire in the Grenfell coach. Halfway there, she left one worry behind for another, but there was little she could do about this one except hope her concern was unfounded. In her favor was the likelihood that a man like Sir Anthony wouldn't care to leave the excitement of London for a small country gathering, and Lady Eden had confided that this party, planned for months in advance, would be attended mostly by her neighbors, country gentry like herself who generally avoided London during the

season.

It was early afternoon when they arrived, quite the first to do so, but then few others were planning on staying over, living as near as they did. Frances opted to nap the rest of the afternoon. Roslynn gave the excuse she would do the same, yet once she was alone in the room allotted to her, she plopped herself down in front of a window facing the front of the house and anxiously watched the drive. Every arriving carriage was noted, every alighting male passenger thoroughly scrutinized. She even kept a close watch on the comings and goings of the servants, making sure no male missed her notice.

When Nettie entered much later to help her mistress prepare for the evening, her patience was tried to the limit by Roslynn's fidgetiness and her constant running toward the window at the least sound of a new arrival. It was taking a good half hour just to complete Roslynn's coiffure.

"And just who is it ye Ye looking fer, I'd like tae be knowing, that ye canna sit still fer even two minutes?" Nettie finally demanded when Roslynn once again sat down at the dressing table in front of her.

"And who would I be watching for but my gentlemen?" Roslynn replied defensively. "Only Sir Artemus Shadwell has shown up so far."

"If the others are coming, they're coming. Yer watching fer them won't change it."

"I suppose," Roslynn was forced to concede, since her answer had been a lie to begin with.

The truth was, since meeting Anthony Malory, she had given very little thought to her four "possibles."

Thatwould have to change.

Fortunately for her peace of mind, the last noise she had leaped up to investigate appeared to be the last carriage to arrive. With no other sound from out front, Nettie was able to help her into the sky-blue gown of silk she had chosen for tonight, generously complemented by the Cameron sapphires around her neck and delicate wrists, and Roslynn was able to release some of her tension.

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