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Authors: Wendy Soliman

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency

Compromising the Marquess

BOOK: Compromising the Marquess
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Compromising the Marquess
By Wendy Soliman

England, 1814

Leah Elliot sells secrets to survive. Donning boy’s clothes, she uncovers society scandals for a London gossip rag to support herself and her sister, who were left destitute after their father’s death. When she meets the dashing—and perhaps dangerous—Hal Forster, the Marquess of Denby, she learns he may be involved in treason. The rumor is too valuable not to sell, despite her attraction to him…

Hal does have a secret, but he’s no traitor: he’s a spy embroiled in a mystery, seeking the man who killed his contact in France. He sees the alluring woman behind Leah’s disguise at once but is intrigued enough to play along…until he realizes that she’s the source of the rumors interfering with his investigation and forcing him into an unwanted betrothal.

Now, Hal and Leah must work together to draw out the culprit and undo the damage caused by Leah’s gossip. Or will their passion only cause
more
scandal?

83,000 words

Dear Reader,

I love the month of December when it comes to releases at Carina Press. This is our third year of publishing our special holiday collections, and I’m fortunate to be the one to edit the collections. It’s become our tradition to do three separate anthologies and this year we chose to do contemporary romance, science-fiction romance and erotic contemporary romance collections.

Each of these three collections is amazing in its own right (not that I’m biased or anything), showcasing the talent of the contributing authors. In our contemporary romance collection,
Romancing the Holiday,
Jaci Burton wraps up her Kent Brothers trilogy with the story fans have been waiting for: it’s finally time to see Brody and Tori’s combustible attraction on page and cheer them to their happily-ever-after in
The Best Thing.
We’ll Be Home for Christmas
by HelenKay Dimon returns readers to Holloway, West Virginia, as she gives us Spence’s story. Lila is more than a match for the delicious Spence and sparks fly when they go toe-to-toe. Last, but certainly not least, is newcomer to the collection, Christi Barth, with her delightful friends-to-lovers novella
Ask Her at Christmas.
And if you haven’t already checked out Christi’s full-length novel,
Planning for Love,
now’s a great time to treat yourself to this funny, emotional, captivating book.

Heating up the pages, and I do mean heating up, are the three novellas in
Red Hot Holiday,
the erotic contemporary romance collection. If you’re looking for stories that are going to make what goes on under the mistletoe even more interesting, you’ll want to read this collection.
I Need You for Christmas
by Leah Braemel features a strong-willed, career-driven Mountie—and the sculptor who molds her to his will in the bedroom. In
Wish List
by K.A. Mitchell, Jonah discovers his lover, Evan, may be the one who can deliver the BDSM wishes on Jonah’s naughty list. And Anne Calhoun brings to the collection a stunningly powerful erotic romance that’s both deeply erotic and deeply emotional, with
Breath on Embers.

A Galactic Holiday
is the third of our holiday collections, showcasing three science-fiction romance novellas with incredible world building and incredible characters. In
How the Glitch Saved Christmas,
author Stacy Gail takes us to our future, with bod-mods, enhancements, tech, artificial intelligence…and a growing love between two rival detectives investigating the case of the...
appearing
gifts. Traveling off world, Anna Hackett’s
Winter Fusion
delivers a story that’s also of two rivals. Rival negotiators Brinn and Savan must come to an agreement on behalf of their respective planets during the cold of Yule, and amidst the danger of a force that wants to stop their negotiations.
Galileo’s Holiday
by Sasha Summers takes us into deep space. Riley’s tugger has just been destroyed, but will she still have reason to be thankful as her relationship with Leo gives her a future to look forward to?

In addition to these nine incredible holiday novellas, four fantastic novels release in December, each one the first book in a new seriesfrom the respective authors. For fans of Regency romance, Wendy Soliman kicks off her Forster series with
Compromising the Marquess,
in which the enterprising heroine supports her family by writing for a scandal sheet, placing her on a collision course with a marquess. In her steampunk romance
The League of Illusion: Legacy
, Vivi Anna begins a dangerous journey for three brothers. Each will find love while two brothers battle deception, jealousy and ruthless rivals to find and rescue the third.

Fan favorite Dana Marie Bell’s new series, The Nephilim, begins with
All for You.
He’s not just the guy next door, he’s the angel next door. And it’s just become his job to protect her—while trying not to fall in love, or into bed.

And this month we’re thrilled to introduce debut author Alison Packard with her debut contemporary romance title,
Love in the Afternoon.
When I grabbed Alison’s book from the slush pile to put on my eReader for the weekend, I had no idea I was in for such an amazing story. Though I’m not one to watch soap operas, Alison sucked me into the world of soaps and made me fall in love with Kayla and Sean. Soap opera stars, maybe, but characters you root for, relate to and want to turn the pages faster for so you can see them fall in love, definitely. If you’re a fan of Shannon Stacey, Victoria Dahl and Jill Shalvis, be sure to give this new author a try.

I hope you find time to pamper yourself during the crazy holiday season. And if that pampering takes the form of a great Carina Press December release, even better!

We love to hear from readers, and you can email us your thoughts, comments and questions to
[email protected]
. You can also interact with Carina Press staff and authors on our blog, Twitter stream and Facebook fan page.

Happy reading!

~Angela James
Executive Editor, Carina Press

www.carinapress.com
www.twitter.com/carinapress
www.facebook.com/carinapress

Dedication

This one's for Rachel, with love

Acknowledgements

As always, my deepest thanks to my talented editor Deborah Nemeth for gently keeping me on the right path. Thanks also to the entire Carina team, who do a sterling job.

Chapter One

Summer 1814 in Southern England

“You’ve been away from the district for too long to appreciate the gravity of the situation, Lord Gabriel.” Mrs. Wilkinson, the vicar’s wife, screwed her features into an expression of extreme displeasure. “The ladies of the town daren’t walk the main street in broad daylight. They fear for their lives.” She paused to dramatically clutch her ample bosom. “Or worse.”

Gabriel blinked, understandably confused. “Worse?”

“Yes, much worse.” Mrs. Wilkinson settled her bulk more comfortably and glowered at him. “There, what do you have to say to that?”

“I can assure you, madam, that your fears are quite without foundation.” Gabriel spoke in a smoothly reassuring tone. “The marquess is well aware of the situation and fully intends to—”

Hal, the marquess under discussion, was observing this encounter in his formal library from a hiding spot in an adjoining secret passage. He didn’t discover what he fully intended to do since the formidable spokeswoman for this unwelcome group of visitors cut his brother Gabriel off with an impatient swipe of her hand.

“That’s all very well. We’ve had such assurances often enough from Lord Robert, and now from you—”

“But the marquess never does anything about it,” said Miss Lewis, the elderly owner of the draper’s establishment on the main street. “It’s as though our concerns are beneath his notice. It really won’t serve. It’s his responsibility to keep the village safe and prosperous. My business can’t survive if my customers are afraid to make their way to my door.”

“Quite so,” added another female voice.

“Where
is
the marquess?” Mrs. Wilkinson demanded to know.

Miss Lewis threw Gabriel a darkling glance. “Too ashamed to show himself, I shouldn’t wonder.”

Several heads nodded in agreement, setting bonnet ribbons dancing.

“Really, his neglect of his duties is not to be borne.”

Damn it, Gabe, you’ve allowed Mrs. Wilkinson to get fully into her stride. There’ll be no stopping her now.

“We look to him for guidance and leadership. Or at least we would if we could find him.”

As Gabriel, red-faced, struggled to exert himself, Hal shoved a hand over his mouth to avoid laughing aloud. Few people could handle Mrs. Wilkinson when she was in such a high dudgeon. Even he’d experienced difficulty on the few occasions when he’d been unable to avoid her, so young Gabe didn’t stand a chance. It was hilarious.

It was also deucedly inconvenient.

Gabriel ought to tell the old witch that she, at least, was in no danger from actual bodily harm. No one in the locality was quite that desperate. The same could be said for the three matrons accompanying her.

“I really couldn’t say,” Gabriel muttered, looking more uncomfortable by the minute.

I should bloody well think not.

“Your evasiveness does you no credit, Lord Gabriel.” Mrs. Wilkinson thumped the arm of her chair in an unladylike display of frustration. “We could all be murdered in our beds, our throats cut from ear to ear, whilst the marquess is off carousing about town, getting up to I know not what, and he wouldn’t care one jot.”

She has a point there
.

“I shall, of course, do my Christian duty and ask the vicar to pray for him, but even a man of God can’t work miracles when a soul is so very lost.” A squawk slipped past Hal’s lips. “What was that?” Mrs. Wilkinson asked, looking deeply suspiciously. “Is someone lurking back there?”

“Rats, most likely,” Gabe said.

“Rats! You have rats here at the Hall?” Mrs. Wilkinson looked scandalized at the mere prospect of any rodent having the temerity to take up residence at such an august establishment. She pulled her skirts more closely against her, as though expecting a rodent to run up her leg at any moment. Any creature foolhardy enough to attempt it would most likely be suffocated by the whalebones in her corsets. Hal could hear them creak each time she moved, even from within the depths of his hiding place. “Well, that just goes to show I’m in the right of it. If the marquess was here—”

“Which we were told he was,” Miss Lewis put in indignantly.

“Indeed. His carriage was observed passing through the village just this morning and so we didn’t lose a moment coming up to see him. We thought nothing of the inconvenience, even if it is a full five miles.”

“But once again he’s disappeared,” Mrs. Mullet said in an aggrieved tone.

“Absolutely.” Mrs. Wilkinson nodded vigorously. Hal was surprised that she didn’t put her eye out with the feather on her bonnet since it came perilously close to impaling her each time she moved her head. “However, as I was saying, if the marquess was here more often to attend to his property, then rodents certainly wouldn’t inhabit the wainscoting.”

“No more would they abound in the Boar’s Head,” Miss Lewis said severely. “And I am not referring to the four-footed variety.”

“I’m not sure what you expect me to say about the village.” Gabriel’s measured tone warned Hal that even his easygoing brother had reached the end of his tether. “I can however reassure you about the activities at the Boar’s Head
.
My brother keeps a very close eye on the business conducted there.”
Well, that’s true enough.
“You must understand that when men have been at sea for a long time, they can be a little wild when they reach dry land, but that doesn’t mean that they would—”

Mrs. Wilkinson sniffed. “Wild you call it. I could supply a more apt description, but such language is not for the ears of the innocent.” She cast a glance over her shoulder before returning her attention to Gabe. “However, I’m persuaded that you comprehend my meaning.”

“The men are merely letting off steam.” Gabriel ploughed on valiantly over Mrs. Wilkinson’s interruption. “However, they know better than to accost anyone who resides in the village. Or anyone at all, for that matter.”

“How can you be so sure, young man?”

“Have you heard of anyone actually being assaulted?”

Well said, Gabriel.

“Not precisely, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. Or that it won’t in the future.”

“You are all quite safe.”

Unquestionable.
Hal was bored. “Come on, Gabe,” he muttered. “How difficult can it be to rid yourself of four tiresome women with more time on their hands than common sense?”

Mrs. Wilkinson shifted in her chair, clearly not ready to let matters rest. “Have you considered the welfare of the Misses Elliott?”

Who the devil are the Misses Elliott?

Mrs. Wilkinson obligingly pointed behind her, which was when Hal noticed that another female occupied his study. He moved his eye closer to his spyhole and craned his neck to get a closer look at the creature in question. She was a great deal younger that her companions, probably no more than twenty. She sat ramrod straight in a chair placed as far away from the rest of her entourage as she could politely situate herself. He’d also bet half his fortune that she found the situation almost as diverting as he did.

He looked at her with a little more interest. Her body was enveloped in a grey cloak, and an ugly straw bonnet hid most of her face from his view. Even so, Hal thought he could detect lively, dancing eyes beneath its brim and full, plump lips that couldn’t quite conceal her amusement.

“Miss Leah Elliott and her sister are living in Sir Percy’s gatehouse, quite alone and unprotected.” Mrs. Wilkinson tutted. “Really, I said to my husband that it’s not right, but he’s too kindhearted to take Sir Percy to task and—”

“Pray, don’t distress yourself on our behalf, ma’am.” Miss Elliott’s voice, pitched low, was firm yet easy on the ear, especially after half an hour of Mrs. Wilkinson’s strident lecturing. “Sir Percy is my uncle and he has made Bethany and me entirely comfortable. Besides, we are not alone. We have our servants and shall be here for just a few months.”

“The younger Miss Elliott is of a delicate disposition. Her physician has recommended sea air and exercise, but she can hardly partake freely of both if she’s molested each time she steps outside her door.”

“Has your sister been molested, Miss Elliott?” Gabriel asked.

“No, nothing of that nature has occurred, I’m happy to say.”

“Not yet at any rate,” Mrs. Wilkinson said, scowling in Gabe’s direction. “However, I myself was in the village only yesterday and saw a very rough sort of person looking at the young ladies in a most inappropriate manner. Had I not chased him away with my stick, I dread to think what might have happened.”

“I’m sure Miss Elliott and her sister are much obliged to you,” Gabriel said, looking as though he too was struggling not to laugh.

“Indeed we are.”

“That’s as may be, but we still have not discussed the quite disgraceful behaviour at the Boar’s Head. Good heavens, there is drunkenness, debauchery, fistfights and all manner of unchristian activities going on in that place. The most unsavoury characters come and go at all hours, without the slightest thought for the disturbance they cause to the residents of the village.”

“What nature of comings and goings are you referring to, Mrs. Wilkinson?”

“Well,” she said, hesitating for the first time. “I’m not sure I’d care to detail the particulars. Such things are not for Miss Elliott’s delicate ears.”

Miss Elliott sat a little straighter, if that was possible, now taking a lively interest in the conversation. It appeared as though she’d very much like to know what iniquities the patrons of the Boar’s Head were guilty of committing.

“Well then, I can’t—”

The door burst open and Hal’s sister Felicity whirled into the room, all sprigged muslin, bouncing cream curls and a dazzling smile. Gabriel looked highly relieved, as well he might. Mrs. Wilkinson had more than met her match now.

“Gabriel, there you are. I’ve been looking for you all over. Oh,” Flick added, appearing to see his visitors for the first time. “Pray excuse me, I did not realise you were engaged.”
Of course you didn’t.
“How are you, Mrs. Wilkinson?” she asked with a disarming smile—the one that had always got her out of trouble with their parents and even appeared to appease this old battle-axe. “I trust you have fully recovered from the head cold that prevented you from attending the little party we put on at the orphanage last week?”

“Thank you, yes, Lady Felicity, I am quite well again, only to be overset by—”

“Oh, hello.” Flick, of course, wasn’t listening. She had a happy knack of hearing only that which interested her, but she was so charming that few people took offence at her incivility. She was now smiling at Miss Elliott. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Felicity Forster.” She dipped a brief curtsey. “How do you do.”

Miss Elliott stood and curtsied also. She was a full head taller than Hal’s diminutive sister. A lock of quite the reddest hair he’d ever seen had escaped that dreadful bonnet. Presumably she had a whole batch of freckles across her nose to go with it. Her cloak fell away as she took Felicity’s outstretched hand, revealing a serviceable worsted gown in deep blue. There was nothing remarkable about her, other than that flaming hair and those dancing eyes, but she held Hal’s interest because she appeared to have a little backbone, albeit a rigidly upright one.

“Good morning, Lady Felicity,” she said in that melodious voice of hers. “I am Leah Elliott.”

“Then you must be Sir Percy’s niece. He told us you would be coming to stay. How lovely to meet you.” Typically, Flick linked her arm through Miss Elliott’s as though she had known her for her entire life. “You and I must be of a similar age,” she said boldly.

“I am one-and-twenty.”

“Then you are just one year ahead of me.” Felicity sighed. “Oh, how I wish I was of age. Then my three dreadful brothers wouldn’t try to govern every move I make.”

Gabriel made a scoffing sound at the back of his throat, echoing Hal’s own thoughts. The day had yet to dawn when any of them could make Flick do something she didn’t wish to.

“I’m sure they only have your best interests at heart.”

“Well, I’m not sure of any such thing,” she said with a toss of her curls. “Such a fuss they make over the slightest little thing.”

“You are fortunate to have relatives who care so much about your welfare.”

“That’s easy for you to say.” Flick clapped a hand over her month. “Listen to me, talking without thinking. Hal will have it that it’s my biggest fault. I tend to forget myself, you see, and my tongue runs away with me.”

Leah smiled. “Think nothing of it.”

“You have lost your dear mama and papa, is it not so, Miss Elliott, and are now quite alone in the world, but for your uncle, Sir Percy?”

“Yes, but my sister and I are reconciled to our loss. It was several years ago now.”

“Even so.” Flick appeared to notice that the other ladies had stopped talking amongst themselves and were following the girls’ conversation with avid interest. “However, I long to get to know you and your sister. It will be delightful to have girls closer to my own age in the locality. May I call upon you?”

Hal expected that such a request, coming from a lady of Flick’s status, would overwhelm Miss Elliott. Once again she surprised him with her calm civility.

“We’d be honoured,” she said simply.

“Good, and you must both come to dinner here as soon as it can be arranged.”

“Well, I’m not sure if—”

“Nonsense, I insist. She must come, must she not, Gabriel?”

Gabe inclined his head. “We’d be delighted to see you and your sister as soon as Flick can make the arrangements.”

Oh, Lord.
Hal expelled a long breath, all out of patience with his impulsive sister. The last thing he wanted was two church mice at his table, too frightened to open their mouths. They’d probably be unaware which fork to use, how to pass a dish of peas, which side to place their bread.

“Good, well, that’s settled then.” Gabriel stood up but it was a moment or two before Mrs. Wilkinson followed his example.

“Be sure to advise the marquess of our concerns, young man,” she said, wagging a finger beneath Gabriel’s nose. “Otherwise, it won’t be me that calls next time, but my husband.” She pulled herself up to her full insubstantial height. “There, what do you say to that?”

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