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Authors: Wendy Soliman

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

Compromising the Marquess (7 page)

BOOK: Compromising the Marquess
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“What makes you say that?”

“If you did, you would receive her when she calls here and set her mind at rest.”

“Then what would she do for entertainment? Trying to outwit me gives purpose to her days.”

“I had not thought of you as a coward but by hiding from her you force me to reconsider.”

His expression darkened and Leah wondered if she’d gone too far, all but calling a marquess a coward. Then he smiled. “I don’t suffer fools gladly, that’s all.”

“Then you think she is a fool to be concerned about the happenings at the Boar’s Head?”

He shrugged. “It’s a tavern, this is a seafaring town, and seamen must have somewhere to let off steam.”

“Even if they terrorise the locality?”

“Have you been terrorised, Miss Elliott?”

“No, but that doesn’t mean—”

“Leah, are you there?”

Leah hadn’t realised how closely Lord Denby was again standing. Their bodies were almost touching when her sister’s voice caused her to jump away from him and turn back towards the house. Hal faded away, almost as though he’d never been there. Leah ran her tongue across her lips and knew that he had. She could still taste the essence of him lingering and wondered what had almost happened. What
would
have happened, had Beth not appeared when she did.

“Oh, there you are.” Beth grasped Leah’s arm. “What are you doing out here all alone? I wondered what had become of you.”

“I just needed a little air. It was so hot in there.”

“I hope you’ve not been snooping,” Beth said severely.

No, I’ve done much worse than that. I crossed swords with a dangerous marquess, defying him to make me fall in love with him. I even allowed him to kiss me.

“Not at all.” Leah patted Beth’s hand and together they headed for the drawing room. “Is there still music?”

“Yes, Flick is going to play and she asked me to come and find you so that you could sing.”

“Oh no!” Leah glanced anxiously over her shoulder, hopeful that Lord Denby hadn’t overheard. She absolutely did not wish to sing in front of these people but, if she couldn’t avoid it, she would much prefer the marquess not to be in the audience. “I was hoping she’d forgotten about that.”

“Nonsense, Leah. You will outshine everyone.”

Leah shuddered. “I wish I shared your optimism.”

“It’s not like you to be nervous.” Beth wrinkled her brow. “Perhaps it’s the grand surroundings that have made you uneasy. However, it’s precisely the sort of setting that Mama would have wished you to display your talent in. Take comfort from that thought.”

“True, but even so—”

“Besides, Flick specifically asked for you and it would be impolite to decline.”

“I suppose so.” Leah sighed. “Come on then. Let’s get it over with.”

* * *

Hal remained in the shadows, waiting for the girls to regain the drawing room, belatedly thankful for the intrusion. He’d almost forgotten himself for a moment. Leah Elliott was a tantalizing little tease—the more so because she wasn’t trying to be—a compelling mix of intelligence and naïve curiosity. He wondered if she would rise to his challenge. If she did, perhaps he would finally discover why she felt the need to disguise herself as a lad and mix with the motley clientele at the Boar.

He walked to the edge of the terrace and whistled just once. His bosun appeared from the shadows.

“What’s the problem, Wright?”

“Some party tried to get in through the gates a while back.”

At last!
“Someone known to us?”

“Oh, aye. The blasted vicar and his wife.”

“Damn! You turned them away, I take it.”

“Course we did, but the woman was right put out about it. Said she needed to see you about something of the utmost urgency. I said you was entertaining and couldn’t be disturbed.”

“She’d have known that, of course.”

“Yes, she most likely wanted to worm her way in.”

“Nothing would surprise me.” Hal slapped his thigh. “Bloody interfering woman. I suppose I’ll have to see her next time she calls.” Especially since Leah had told him he was cowardly to avoid her. “It’s obvious that she’s not going to give up.”

“It might be best. Placate her somehow and she’ll leave us alone.”

“I doubt that.” Hal let rip with a few choice swear words. “Anything else unusual?”

“No, it’s quiet as the grave.”

“Good, well, stay alert. Something’s going to happen soon, I can feel it.”

“Let’s hope you’re right about that. The waiting’s starting to get to everyone.”

“Is our guest comfortable?”

“Yes, but bored. And frightened.”

“Frightened is good. It might just keep him alive.”

“Yes, but it might also make him rash.”

Hal nodded. “I’ll see him tomorrow and try to reassure him.”

“Right you are, m’lord.”

Hal wandered towards the house, deep in thought about his problems. He felt frustrated, and not only because their enemy hadn’t yet struck. His difficulty was more fundamental than that. He couldn’t get Leah Elliott’s laughing eyes and guileless flirtation out of his head. Recalling the feel of her body beneath his hands, the softness of her breasts brushing against his chest as he moved in to kiss her, made him damned uncomfortable. What the dickens was wrong with him, getting into such a farrago about a chit of no consequence?

Aware that he’d neglected his guests for too long, even by his standards, he strode back into the drawing room and stopped dead in his tracks. Flick was at the piano, which was a relief. At least she played lighthearted pieces with flair and didn’t take herself too seriously. Only this time she was accompanying Leah Elliott, who was singing like an angel. “Say Ye Who Borrow” was a favourite of his. He enjoyed Mozart’s work, and opera in general, but had never heard this particular song rendered in such a pitch-perfect soprano before. The little minx had deceived him. She’d told him she didn’t play.

She hit a high note and held it as steadily as she held his gaze. Their eyes locked to the exclusion of everyone else in the room.

Love’s witching spell.

Was that what she was? A damned witch sent to deflect him from his duty? At that precise moment he neither knew nor cared, since she appeared to sing exclusively to him. Something inside him changed as she hit the final note and the room erupted into a frenzy of wild applause. Hal didn’t join in. He couldn’t seem to move, or to tear his eyes away from the vision in silver who received the congratulations of her audience with becoming modesty.

“Not joining in the applause, my lord?”

Hal swore beneath his breath. He hadn’t noticed Charlotte Bentley sidle up to him.

“I tend to agree with you. Mozart’s beautiful song makes a moderate voice sound exceptional. I’m glad you were not deceived by such a showy performance.”

“When I next hear someone with a moderate voice sing that song, then I shall be in a position to judge.”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“Miss Elliott’s voice is anything but unexceptional. Pray, excuse me.” Hal walked away. He had been determined not to approach Leah, but Charlotte Bentley’s spiteful tirade had just forced his hand.

“You were not entirely truthful,” he said to her when he finally got the opportunity for a brief word alone.

“I don’t believe you asked if I could sing, my lord.”

“Perhaps it’s not a cabin boy I require, after all, but a siren.”

“Didn’t such creatures lure sailors to the rocky coast with their enchanting music?”

Hal elevated a brow. “You know your Greek mythology.”

“Certainly I do. Unfortunately, however, I don’t possess a mermaid’s tail so will be of little use to you.”

He chuckled. “You underestimate yourself.”

“And you are neglecting your guests. Everyone’s looking at us.”

He didn’t give a damn about his guests. “With a voice such as yours, we can overlook your lack of aquatic qualities. Your singing alone would be enough to lure my enemies to their doom.”

“What possible enemies could you have now that we’re at peace with the French? Apart from Lady Bentley, perhaps, who’s currently glaring at you. Oh, and Mrs. Wilkinson, I suppose.”

He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed the back of it. “You have not heard the last of this, Peisinoe,” he said quietly.

“Peisinoe?” She frowned. “Oh, of course! Peisinoe was one of the sirens, was she not?”

She flashed a brief smile which Hal returned. Before he could say anything more to her, his attention was taken up by his other guests. Rob joined him when he was next alone.

“She has hidden talents,” he said mildly.

“She’s up to something. I caught her on the terrace, trying to snoop round the grounds.”

“Do you think she’s been sent to spy on us?”

“Damned if I know what to think.”

“I just got word that strangers have been in the Boar
asking questions.”

That got Hal’s attention. “What sort of strangers?”

“Two men trying to look like seamen but not quite able to pull it off. Asking about
The Celandine,
who owns her, if they needed crew.”

“So, they’ve turned their attention to the boat, have they?”

“They didn’t get anywhere near it.”

“Did they try to? Any strange wherries seen approaching?”

“Nothing of that nature. One of the men made use of Sally’s services, then spent as long again asking a lot of questions about you.”

“Ah, so I was right,” Hal said, rubbing his chin. “The hour is almost here.”

Now all he had to do was to figure out where Leah Elliott fit in.

Chapter Seven

“Our aunt seemed intoxicated last night,” Beth said as the girls broke their fast in a leisurely fashion late the next morning. “I heard several people laughing about her behaviour behind her back.”

“She only has herself to blame for that.”

“Yes, but it didn’t reflect well upon us. Besides, I feel for our poor uncle. He doesn’t deserve such censure.”

“Then he should keep better control of his wife.”

“Perhaps, but he is so kindhearted that—”

They heard voices in the hall.

“Oh lord, that sounds like Mrs. Wilkinson,” Beth said. “I wonder what she wants.”

“Probably an account of last night’s proceedings. She will know that we were there, even if she pretends not to, and curiosity will get the better of her.”

Beth frowned. “Why would she pretend ignorance?”

“Because she doesn’t approve of our being there or, more likely, thinks she ought to have been invited too.” Leah shrugged. “Who can say?”

The door opened and Mrs. Wilkinson bustled past Meg, the light of battle gleaming from her faded eyes. “What a to-do,” she said indignantly. “I have never felt so slighted. I went to see the marquess last night and, of all things, was not permitted past the gates. What do you say to that?”

“We were there last night, Mrs. Wilkinson,” Beth said innocently. “We were invited to dinner with my uncle and aunt.”

“Really!” She glowered at Beth. “Whatever possessed him to invite you two and yet overlook my husband? Not that I would have agreed to—”

“I’m sure no slight was intended,” Leah said, struggling to keep her laughter in check.

“It was Lady Felicity who invited us,” Beth added.

“Ah, that would explain it.” Mrs. Wilkinson seemed appeased. “I daresay she needed to make up the numbers so that Miss Bentley could further her acquaintance with the marquess.”

Leah raised a brow, deliberately obtuse. “Her acquaintance?”

“It will be a good thing for the district as a whole when they marry.”

“They are actually engaged?” Beth asked.

“Oh, not formally.” Mrs. Wilkinson flapped a hand. “At least not yet, but it’s quite a settled thing by all accounts. I had it from Lady Bentley herself only last week.”

“Is it really,” Leah said politely.

“Absolutely. Miss Bentley is such a steady young lady. She will be a good influence on the marquess and recall him to his duties.”

“I daresay she will,” Leah agreed, wondering why the prospect of the union unsettled her quite so badly. She’d barely exchanged a dozen words with Miss Bentley the previous evening but she seemed perfectly amiable and entirely suited to the role of marchioness.

“His lordship having guests need not have prevented him from receiving me,” Mrs. Wilkinson said indignantly, setting her chin in a defiant line as she returned to the subject of her earlier grievance. “However, I am on my way to the Hall again now and will not leave until his lordship receives me.”

“Do you wish me to accompany you, Mrs. Wilkinson?” After the previous evening, when Leah had all but branded the marquess a coward for not confronting his nemesis, she was curious to see how he would handle the situation. Besides, there might be something said that would interest Mr. Morris’s readers.

“No, Miss Elliott.” Their formidable visitor shook her head decisively. “Miss Lewis will bear me company. What I have to say to his lordship is not for your innocent ears.”

Leah thought of her far-from-innocent encounter with the marquess on the terrace and suppressed a smile.

“Will you take a cup of hot chocolate with us, dear Mrs. Wilkinson?” Beth asked sweetly.

“I really shouldn’t.” Mrs. Wilkinson glanced at the remnants of the girls’ breakfast and hesitated. “My duty, you understand.”

Beth poured a generous serving of the steaming liquid into a large cup. “But you cannot confront the marquess without something to sustain you.”

“Oh, very well then. I don’t suppose a delay of a few minutes will signify.” She took the cup from Beth’s hand with a brief nod of thanks. “Are those muffins fresh?”

“Meg made them this morning.” Leah bit her lip to prevent a persistent giggle from escaping. “They’re still warm.”

“Then perhaps I’ll take just one.”

Mrs. Wilkinson consumed three muffins with remarkable speed, talking all the while about how she planned to get the better of the marquess. Finally replete, she wiped her fingers and, her corset creaking, levered herself to her feet.

“Good luck, ma’am,” Leah said, standing also. “I hope his lordship is at leisure to receive you.”

“Oh, he will be.” The stale aroma as Mrs. Wilkinson shook out her thick bombazine skirts made Leah want to sneeze. “I shall not take no for an answer.”

Their visitor finally took her leave and Leah and Beth resumed their chairs.

“I wonder why his lordship didn’t escort his intended into dinner last night,” Beth said. “Not that I blame him for preferring you, of course, but if he really is settled upon Miss Bentley, then you would think that—”

“It does seem rather odd.”

“All that speculation I heard seems to confirm it,” Beth said.

“From Lady Bentley?”

“Well, yes.”

“One must suppose that she would not spread the rumours if it were not true. Unless she hopes to push the marquess into declaring.” Leah giggled. “And what surer way of spreading a rumour is there, if not confiding in Mrs. Wilkinson?”

Beth bit her lower lip. “I see what you mean.”

“Did Lord Gabriel remark upon the possibility of the union?”

“No, he didn’t once mention it.”

Leah smiled at her sister. “Then what did you two talk about for all that time?”

“Oh, nothing of consequence.” A faint blush crept up Beth’s cheeks. “I think he realised I was a little overwhelmed by the splendour of the Hall and went out of his way to put me at my ease.”

“That was kind of him.”

“He also asked me a lot of questions about our family.”

Leah’s head shot up. “What sort of questions?”

“Just the usual. Why had we come to the district? Were our parents still alive? That sort of thing. He was very charming.”

“And why wouldn’t he be when he had you all to himself for the entire meal?”

“Leah!”

“Well, it’s true, darling.”

“You mustn’t read too much into his kindness.”

Leah grinned. “If you say so.”

“I do.” Beth bit her lip. “Remember that you promised not to write anything about the evening for Mr. Morris. If you did, it wouldn’t take his lordship long to realise who must have done it, and I wouldn’t have you—”

“Don’t worry, I shall keep my word.” Leah patted her sister’s shoulder, not bothering to add that she had made no such promise about rumours concerning his lordship’s coming nuptials. Were Mr. Morris to be the first to publish such a delicious
on dit
regarding the most eligible marquess in the whole country, then even he would be moved to generosity, especially if Leah intimated that she had been in the same room as the soon-to-be-betrothed couple for several hours. The money from such a fabulous scoop would be a welcome boost to their flagging resources.

“I’m very glad to hear you say so.”

“You look pale, Beth. Do you feel tired?”

“Yes, a little.” Beth rubbed her face between her hands. “I’m not accustomed to such late nights.”

Leah frowned. For Beth to make that admission, she must be feeling very low indeed. “Then you shall not lift a finger today.”

“I intend to sit quietly by the fire with a book.”

“Good girl.”

“What about you? Do you have plans?”

Meg came in with the latest edition of Mr. Morris’s newspaper. Leah picked it up and idly scanned the pages.

“Oh look,” she said. “Here’s my account of the mill.”

“Let me see.” Beth read it, grimacing at the violence the article portrayed. “You write so expressively. Our father would be proud of you.”

Leah winced. “Thank you, but I hardly think he would be proud of what Mr. Morris has become.”

“No, he would not. You know how they disagreed about that.” Beth sighed, simultaneously wagging a finger at her sister. “I wish you wouldn’t attend such savage events. This fight sounds quite brutal. You’re far too reckless when you think something might interest Mr. Morris and don’t spare a thought for your own safety.”

“Nothing will happen to me.”

“You can’t possibly know that. Just because we’re in the country, it doesn’t mean there are no dangers waiting to snare the unwary.”

Leah wondered if now was the time to tell her that she intended to join the marquess on his boat that evening. She also wondered when she had actually reached that decision.

“Beth,” she said, taking a deep breath. “I promised not to write about his lordship’s dinner party and I shall keep that promise. However, Mrs. Wilkinson is right about the Boar’s Head
.
There’s something amiss there and I believe the marquess is somehow involved.”

Beth raised a brow. “I didn’t know that you shared Mrs. Wilkinson’s opinion.”

“I didn’t know it myself until I attended that mill. I just got this feeling that something wasn’t quite right.”

“That’s because you wish it not to be.” Beth smiled. “I know your character, Leah. You long for something interesting to happen and when it doesn’t you aren’t above inventing it. I’m sorry that you’re bored, but—”

“You mustn’t say such things. I am
not
bored,” Leah said, crossing her fingers behind her back. “There’s plenty to occupy me here. However, I maintain that something strange is going on at the Boar.
Unless I miss my guess, that fight the other evening was an important one, the combatants well-known and guaranteed to draw a big crowd. So why would it take place in such a small village, unless the marquess used his influence to bring it here as cover for other activities?”

“Now you’re starting to intrigue me.” Beth smiled. “As soon as I’m well enough I shall accompany you to this tavern and form my own opinion.”

“It would probably be better if you didn’t.”

“Oh, why is that?” Beth raised an altogether too innocent brow. “I thought you said it was perfectly safe.”

Damnation, now was not the time for Beth to present rational arguments. “Be that as it may, the marquess has invited me, or should I say Leon, to join him on his ship this evening.”

Beth groaned. “He knows it was you?”

Leah lifted her shoulders. “Apparently.”

“Does he not wonder why you were disguised as a lad?”

“If he does, he didn’t demand an explanation.”

“You can’t possibly go!” Beth leapt to her feet and became very agitated. “Have you taken leave of your senses, even considering it?”

Leah helped her to resume her chair and then cuddled her. “You know very well that I must. To resist such an opportunity is quite beyond me.”

“But alone with the marquess?” Beth shook her head. “If he really is doing something underhand, he certainly won’t want you interfering.”

“If he is then he would hardly invite me to witness it.”

“Then why has he invited you? Dearest, consider. We’re not grand young ladies. Our Uncle Percy is a sweet gentleman but quite incapable of protecting you in such a situation.” Beth’s eyes grew very wide. “If the marquess intends to ravish you, you couldn’t complain, not when you’ve deliberately put yourself in that position.”

“He will not ravish me,” Leah said, patting Beth’s hand.
Unfortunately.

“You cannot possibly know that.”

“Actually, I can.” And somehow she did. “Whatever the marquess is up to, he is still a gentleman to his fingertips. Nothing will happen to me.”

Beth offered a halfhearted smile. “If you’ve quite made up your mind, I suppose I might as well save my breath. But be sure to let me have a full account tomorrow. I might as well enjoy your adventure vicariously.”

“You can be sure that I’ll tell you it all.”
Well, most of it.
“Now, get some rest. I’ll check on you later.”

Leah left her sister still looking uneasy and went to write an article for Mr. Morris about the marquess’s future bride.

* * *

Hal sprawled in his chair at the breakfast table, perusing the local newspaper. He barked a laugh when he read the account of the mill and passed it to Rob.

“Well, now we know,” he said.

“Know what?”

“Miss Elliott’s reason for being at the fight.”

Rob’s brows shot up. “You think she wrote this?”

“Who else?” Hal rubbed his jaw, unsure if he was more annoyed or amused by his discovery. “If you entertain doubts, take a closer look at the phraseology.”

Gabriel read the passage over Rob’s shoulder. “‘A brutally aggressive pugilistic display that caused the uncivilised mob—gentry and servant alike—to bay for blood.’”
He laughed. “I see your point. No man would describe a common-garden mill as brutal.”

“‘The combatants displayed to advantage,’”
added Rob, laughing also. “She obviously appreciates a naked male torso.”

Hal grunted, disturbed by that prospect of Miss Elliott’s appreciation being thus directed. “She must need the money. I’d been wondering about that.”

“About what?” Rob asked, looking up from his coddled eggs.

“She told me they lived in Wapping and that their parents are both dead. They’re now living in Sir Percy’s gatehouse, but on what?”

“Ah, I see what you mean. Perhaps the parents left them provided for.”

“Bethany told me that her father owned a printing press but died in an accident,” Gabriel remarked.

“Which would explain Leah’s knowledge of the written word.”

“It would also explain why she’s poking round the Boar,”
Rob said
.
“If the Wilkinson woman put it into her head that something’s amiss there, then presumably she’d want to know what it is, just in case she could profit from it.”

“You can hardly blame her for trying to support her sister.”

Hal waved aside Gabriel’s defence of the pretty younger sister. “No one’s blaming her for anything.”
Yet.

“So long as she doesn’t get anywhere near
The Celandine,
she can’t do any real harm,” Rob said.

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