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"Marry you?" Had Viscount Roxbury not been so excellent a horseman, he would have lost his seat. "Good God, Jynx!"
"Don't refuse me, Shannon!" his companion protested quickly. "At least not before you've listened to what I have to say! Consider it from the practical point of view--unless your affections have become fixed elsewhere?"
Lord Roxbury gazed down upon her with a fascinated expression, and admitted himself heart-whole.
"Excellent!" said Jynx, and edged her mount closer. No easy matter, this arrangement of matters matrimonial whilst riding on horseback in Hyde Park. "Or--the idea is not repugnant to your feelings, Shannon? I am shockingly forward, I suppose. But you won't mind that!"
The viscount did not. The viscount explained that, having known his companion for the past twenty-two years, which constituted the grand total of her time on this mortal sphere, he didn't find her brashness the least off-putting. Nor was he prey to any revulsion of feeling, though he did admit to considerable surprise. He begged that she continue.
"Well, as long as you haven't taken me in dislike!" Jynx nodded to Lady Jersey, and bowed to the Princess Lieven. "They say that one may meet the large portion of one's acquaintance in Hyde Park at this fashionable hour, which is why I do not make a point of appearing here at this time of day. It is such dull stuff! Since I've gone to all the trouble of putting on this ridiculous habit, the least I might be allowed is a gallop! But no, we must dawdle along at this tedious pace."
Lord Roxbury cast a practiced eye over his companion's severely cut habit, molded to her figure--and though there were many who claimed thatJynx was plain, none could deny that her figure was nothing short of remarkable--and came to rest with some bemusement upon the curled ostrich plume that adorned her small hat. He opened his mouth.
"I know!" sighed Jynx. "One does not gallop in the park. To do so would be the utmost impropriety. Nor does one share a residence with my Aunt Eulalia without being very well versed in propriety." She took a deep breath. "To say the truth, Shannon, my Aunt Eulalia is one of the reasons that I have decided to broach this matter with you."
The viscount elevated his appreciative gaze from his companion's lush figure to her piquant face. She was looking most uncharacteristically glum. "That old prattle-box!" he remarked inelegantly. "What's she said to you now?"
"It's not what she says." Jynx wrinkled her nose. "Although she claims I've frittered away my chances, and that I puff up my own consequence, and--oh! All sorts of similar things. Eulalia cannot like my 'unbecoming levity'."
"Fustian!" interrupted the viscount, rather violently.
"So it is!" agreed Jynx. "I do not take her seriously. But Aunt Eulalia seems determined to cut up my peace. I tell you, Shannon, I am quite worn to the bone! So I have decided that I must contract a marriage. Eulalia will not be able to pester me once I have settled in matrimony. And if she tries to do so, I shall deny her entrance to my home!"
"That's all well and good," interrupted the viscount, who was long familiar with his companion's unique methods of reasoning, "but why choose me? It's not as if you had a dearth of suitors, Jynx! At last count, you'd rejected two baronets, three earls, and a royal duke, and you'd left a marquess waiting at the altar. I never did understand that!"
"He was a great deal too ardent," Jynx replied simply. "The man positively exhausted me. And I didn't leave him at the altar, precisely. I withdrew from our engagement with the utmost propriety."
On Lord Roxbury's handsome face--and Lord Roxbury was uncommonly handsome, being blessed with reddish gold curls, green eyes, and features of an ascetic yet sensual cast--was an expression of the utmost fascination. "You would not expect ardor from me, then?"
"Certainly not!" Jynx looked horrified. "I do not expect to marry for love. I consider a reciprocation of passion both absurd and tiresome. I have decided that the best marriage is one based on mutual esteem. Certainly we esteem one another, Shannon! I even admit to a certain affection for you."
"You honor me!" murmured Lord Roxbury when she paused for breath.
"Pshaw!" Jynx said rudely. "You are a gentleman who possesses not one known vice, who has never been heard to utter a licentious word; I am a lady whose conduct has ever been irreproachable."
"What a pair of dull dogs we sound," interrupted the viscount. "I feel obliged to point out that my greatest virtue is discretion, and that your exemplary conduct is due to nothing more worthy than an innate laziness. In short, my poppet, dissipation would require of you too much energy."
Jynx acknowledged the truth of this frank observation with a rueful and dimpled grin. "You own large properties in Hertfordshire, Suffolk, Berkshire and Norfolk, and are heir apparent to a great duchy and its vast estates beside; I am heiress to the vast Lennox fortune. You are society's spoilt darling; I am very much à la mode." She shrugged. "There you have it! A match that is in every way unexceptionable."
"And since I do not love you," observed the shrewd Lord Roxbury, "I will not enact you any tiresome emotional scenes. Still, you haven't convinced me why I should be eager to marry."
"I shouldn't have to! First of all, you need to get an heir." Jynx's tone was severe. "The rest should be apparent even to you." The viscount's bewildered expression indicated, however, that it was not. "I will be blunt! You are the most eligible bachelor in all of London, the natural cynosure of all women's eyes. Matchmaking mamas set traps for you; young ladies expire at your feet. It must all be very wearisome! Too, you stand in grave danger of gaining an exaggerated opinion of your own importance."
"I had not thought of the matter in that light." The viscount appeared to be greatly stricken. "Clearly, it is incumbent upon me to wed."
"I've taken you by surprise," Jynx said kindly. "You will wish to consider the matter." Generously allowing him an opportunity to do so, she urged her horse forward and paused to talk to this and that dignitary.
Hyde Park was thick with superbly mounted gentlemen, and ladies in elegantly appointed carriages, as well as a large representation of the Fashionably Impure. One did not move quickly through such a crush; one certainly did not proceed with any anonymity. Already Miss Jessamyn Lennox's prolonged conversation with Lord Roxbury had been noted, and commented upon; it had long been thought odd that Lord Roxbury, who might have been on the most intimate terms with any young lady--or for that matter any lady aged anywhere between the cradle and the grave--should enjoy such camaraderie with the phlegmatic Jessamyn. Miss Lennox was no belle idéale, for all her vast wealth. She lacked animation; and was of a disposition that her many friends called fainéante, and her enemies stolid.
Yet Jessamyn had not exaggerated when she claimed she was à la mode. Her debut had caused her Aunt Eulalia a hideous embarrassment, and Viscount Roxbury exquisite glee: when presented with gratifying attentions, Miss Lennox had reacted in an apathetic manner that left no doubt of rapidly approaching ennui; when offered profuse compliments, she had smiled and yawned. Only on such unsuitable topics as the shocking living conditions of the lower classes, and the even more shocking topic of emancipation for females, could Miss Lennox be roused to enthusiasm, and she had not been the least reluctant to make those opinions known. Eulalia had evidenced on several occasions a wish to sink through the floor; she had expressed, even more frequently, a conviction that Jessamyn would be pronounced a vulgarly outspoken bluestocking, and thereafter shunned.
Despite her aunt's dire prophecies, Jessamyn had not been branded an outcast, a fact amply attested to by her leisurely progress through the park--and a fact, suspected Lord Roxbury, which caused the detestable Eulalia considerable chagrin. Ladies called out to Jynx, gentlemen saluted her, and the regent himself was seen to pinch her cheek. Jynx was greatly sought after by fashionable hostesses who trusted the languorous Miss Lennox to enliven with her lazy and irreverent remarks fêtes and soirées that promised to be flat; and Jynx had yet to disappoint any one of them.
Shannon followed, indifferent to the furor that accompanied his own progress; Shannon's progress had been accompanied by great tumult since the day he was breeched. "Too, our interests march together," Jynx remarked, as he came up alongside of her. "Did I not accompany you to view the factories in Manchester, and the exhibition of the steam locomotives in Tyneside, even the atrocious trial last year of Leigh Hunt? Poor man! But he should have known better than to traduce Prinny. Ours would be a mariage de convenance, but I think we might deal well together. After all, we always have!"
Lord Roxbury did not point out that there was a vast difference between friendship and marriage; instead, he studied Miss Lennox. Even a lifelong acquaintance that possessed a great fondness for Jynx could not call her a beauty, or claim that she would ever be one. Her hazel eyes were much too large for the rest of her face, as was her mouth, on either side of which a dimple danced each time she smiled, which was frequently. Additionally, she possessed the Lennox nose in all its long and haughty arrogance, a forceful chin, and strongly marked brows. These latter attributes, in combination with her slumbrous eyes and generous mouth and masses of chestnut curls--which were worn habitually in an untidy chignon because their owner professed herself incapable of expending the effort to dress them properly--gave an effect both contradictory and whimsical. Then, mused the viscount, there was the rest of Jynx. But the sleepy eyes were, currently, fixed on his face.
"Too," she said, "you are used to having women throw themselves at you. The ladies fawn and the gentlemen are jealous. Poor Shannon! If you do not take care, you will earn a reputation as a philanderer--unjustified, naturally."
"Naturally," agreed the viscount, who was perfectly aware, as many people were not, that beneath his companion's placid exterior lay an extremely strong will. In some inexplicable manner, and with every outward evidence of complaisance, Jynx invariably succeeded in doing precisely as she pleased. "You honor me, poppet."
"Ah! Next you will tell me you're very much obliged." Gloomily, Jynx surveyed her friend, who was looking even more peerless than usual in a riding coat of green superfine, an exquisite waistcoat, leather breeches, and a pristine cravat. In fact, she decided, Lord Roxbury was, from his high-crowned hat to his gleaming top-boots, the epitome of manly pulchritude. "It is no more than I expected, I'll admit, that you should shatter my hopes. I suppose you don't wish to be tied up."
"Did I say so?" Lord Roxbury coolly acknowledged the presence of a lady who had been for some time trying to gain his attention. She wriggled her fingers at him and colored most becomingly. "Indeed, I have had a similar proposal in mind."
"But you did not plan to make it to me, I'll wager!" Jynx remarked shrewdly, regarding the simpering lady with some curiosity. The lady returned her interest with a look of keen dislike. "It occurs to me that your friendship has made me a great many enemies! I don't regard it, of course, any more than I regard the fact that, in the matter of looks, you cast me quite into the shade. You're a trifle too serious, and I'm a trifle too apathetic--but there! Obviously it won't answer the purpose, and I shall say no more of it!" She chuckled. "Still, I'll warrant you'll remember this day, for it can't be in the ordinary way for ladies to make you offers whilst riding in the park!"
"Not more than once a week," agreed Lord Roxbury.
"Coxcomb!" said Miss Lennox, appreciatively. And then she saw a young lady waving rather frantically, not at the handsome viscount, but at her. "The deuce!" she ejaculated, and touched her heel to her horse's flank. "Cristin!"
Lord Roxbury was rather astonished by her abrupt departure; young ladies, in Lord Roxbury's experience, were far more likely to attach themselves like limpets to his side. He gazed upon the phaeton toward which Miss Lennox advanced, with her usual serene forthrightness. In that phaeton sat a blond-haired and blue-eyed damsel, with a fetching little elf-shaped face; and beside her was an older woman of perhaps thirty-five, with black hair and lovely clear skin. Accompanying the phaeton was a dark-haired gentleman.
"The devil!" agreed Lord Roxbury, and in his own turn set forth. His progress was a great deal less leisurely than that of Miss Lennox; it caused various pedestrians to scramble hastily for safety, and horses to take umbrage, and every person within earshot to breathlessly await the explosion that, judging by Lord Roxbury's irate expression, was soon to come.
Miss Lennox, happily unaware of the pursuit, smiled upon the young lady who had so urgently beckoned her. "Cristin!" she said. "How nice to see you again! It has been a long time, has it not, since Mrs. Maybury's Academy?"
"Oh, it has!" breathed Cristin, in her pretty way. "How happy I am to have come upon you, Jynx! I have particularly wished to speak with you. But I must introduce you to my uncle and my aunt!"
"You must not, I think," said Lord Roxbury, who at that moment had caught up with his quarry and halted her progress by the simple expedient of grasping her reins. Jynx stared at him in astonishment. "Miss Lennox is engaged elsewhere." Without heed of Cristin's cry of distress, or the dark-haired lady's obvious indignation, or their companion's even more apparent amusement, he led Miss Lennox away.
"Heavens, Shannon!" said Jynx, who was possessed of a considerable fund of good humor and good nature. "What prompted that?" It was not an unreasonable query; Lord Roxbury was admittedly disdainful and superior, but she had never before known him to be deliberately rude.
"That," retorted Shannon, in the grip of strong emotion, "was none other than Adorée Blissington, and her rakehell brother, and I do not intend to have your acquaintance with them on my conscience. Believe me, Jynx, they are not at all the thing."
"Lady Bliss?" echoed Miss Lennox, craning her head to look back at the phaeton. An altercation appeared to be in progress: the black-haired lady was expostulating at some length to the gentleman, and the young lady appeared to be on the verge of tears.
"None other." Lord Roxbury attempted to regain his composure, a feat that was in no way aided by his companion's unladylike posture, which displayed to extremely effective advantage the perfect fit of her riding habit. "Do stop gawking, Jynx!"
Even this crude stricture she accepted with equanimity. "I wonder what Cristin does with them," she murmured, twisting her head from atop her shoulder to look thoughtfully at Shannon. "We were at school together, and Cristin is a good sort of girl. As silly as she is lovely, of course, but unexceptionable--if, that is, any Ashley can be considered unexceptionable, with their twin vices of gaming and improvidence." She looked wistful. "I might have found out, if you had not interfered."
"Interfered!" All things considered, Lord Roxbury was having a most trying afternoon. "I fancy the chit is the daughter of the oldest Ashley brother, who ran up a staggering number of debts and then--in true Ashley tradition--sat down and shot himself. We will speak no more of it, if you please! As much as mention Lady Bliss to your aunt, and Eulalia will demand my head on a platter. And so she should!"
"In a pig's whisker." Miss Lennox wore an unusual expression of intent and abstracted meditation. "Since when are you afraid of Aunt Eulalia?"
Never before had Lord Roxbury seen that look on his companion's tranquil face, and he did not care for it. "I'm not," he said brusquely. "But in this case Eulalia would have the right of it." Jynx shot him a glance that was almost quarrelsome. "Too," he added, in softer tones, "I would not care to have my wife associate with a lady who is a great deal less prudent than she should be."
Even Miss Lennox's legendary pose was not proof against this sally. Her sleepy eyes opened wide; her placidity was replaced by a look of sheer astonishment. "Your what?" said she.
"You expressed a wish to gallop," countered Lord Roxbury, uncomfortably aware of the speculative gazes that were fixed on them. "Since we have already disgraced ourselves, we might as well treat our audience to an exciting finale." And, he added silently, divert that audience's attention from the shocking fact that his dear friend Miss Lennox had come disastrously close to making the acquaintance of his current flirt.
"There may be hope for you yet, Shannon!" remarked Miss Lennox, rather enigmatically, and gathered up her reins.
Gallop they did, to the startled consternation of all who witnessed this reckless feat, and the on-dits flew after them like a swarm of angry bees. Some claimed that Lord Roxbury was responsible for the scandalous act, for it was well known that Miss Lennox was not one to willingly bestir herself to any arduous exercise; others averred that Miss Lennox herself had been the instigator, but declared that Lord Roxbury was at fault, for he had clearly ripped up at her, and his thundercloud demeanor had been sufficient to rouse the most somnolent of young ladies to flight. On one point only did all agree, that the pair had patently taken leave of their senses.
If so, the miscreants had derived great enjoyment from their temporary insanity. Lord Roxbury drew rein, and led Miss Lennox into a leafy copse. She adjusted her hat, which had slid so far forward that the ostrich plume tickled her nose, and regarded him. Lord Roxbury gazed upon her flushed countenance and heaving breast and smiled.
"If you meant to distract me," remarked Miss Lennox, who had long professed herself immune to the most glorious of masculine smiles, another attribute that Lord Roxbury undoubtedly possessed, "it did not serve."
"You did not enjoy your gallop?" interrupted the viscount, as he placed his hands around her slender waist and helped her to dismount. "I made sure you would."
"It was glorious." Jynx did not remark upon the fact that his hands still clasped her waist. "Aunt Eulalia will have recourse to her vinaigrette when she learns of it. I wish that she might have a spasm."
"You need not," offered Lord Roxbury, noting the delightful way in which her lovely hair escaped from beneath her hat, "give further consideration to your Aunt Eulalia."
"Oh?" Jynx raised her sleepy eyes to his face. "Shannon, you can't truly wish to marry me?"
"That's a damned silly question," retorted the viscount, roughly. He had just, upon such close inspection, been visited by a sudden suspicion that though Miss Lennox might be no great beauty, she was possibly a great deal more. "I shall marry you with the greatest pleasure on earth, poppet."
"Oh," said Miss Lennox, rather doubtfully.
Barely in the nick of time, Lord Roxbury recalled the fate of a former suitor who had courted this young lady too ardently, and released her hastily. "As you so concisely pointed out, we may expect to rub along together very comfortably."
"So I did," Jynx uttered serenely. "I suppose I exhibited a shocking lack of conduct. Aunt Eulalia is forever saying that I have no delicacy of feeling. You will be accustomed to ladies who are a great deal more skilled in the casting out of lures."
"True." The viscount thought of the notorious Lady Bliss. "You may have noted that I didn't offer any of them marriage. What's this, poppet? Have you already repented of your choice? If you mean to cry off, do it now. I shan't be left waiting at the altar!" He squelched an impulse to sweep his newly acquired fiancée summarily into a passionate embrace. "Have you decided that we shouldn't be comfortable?"
"Not at all," protested Jynx, with every evidence of sincerity. "I have no wish to cry off. Nor would I leave you at the altar, Shannon! It would be a very shabby way in which to treat a friend."
Lord Roxbury was greatly moved by this declaration, but he contented himself with dropping a chaste salute on the tip of the haughty Lennox nose. "Then the next thing is for me to speak to Sir Malcolm," he said cheerfully. "I suppose he'll consider my suit."
"I know he will." Miss Lennox toyed idly with her riding whip. "Papa professed himself very agreeable when I broached the matter to him."
"He did?" There was a distinctly abstracted expression in Lord Roxbury's green eyes. "You did?"
"Naturally." Jynx was intent on her own train of thought "You don't think I'd marry without papa's consent? Tell me, Shannon, why did you decide to marry me?"
"There is," the viscount pointed out, apologetically and with no little curiosity, "the matter of an heir."
"Ah!" To complete his bewitchment, she blushed. "There is one more matter that remains to be discussed."
Thus ended his hopes. No reason, now, to wonder how he was to arouse warmer affections in a young lady who had professed herself so adverse to romance. "Do you know, poppet," Lord Roxbury remarked ruefully, "I rather thought that there might be?"
Miss Lennox grimaced, flicked her riding crop against her booted leg, then raised her lazy eyes once more to the viscount's handsome face. "Dear, dear Shannon," she murmured. "I trust you will not insist on tight-lacing?"
Tight-lacing?" echoed the befuddled viscount.
"Corsets," explained Miss Lennox, succinctly. "I abhor the things.