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About the Author
Madeleine Leslay is an experienced actress and narrator who trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theater School and went on to receive her master's degree in musical theater from the Royal Academy of Music.
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Accidentally Compromising the Duke
By Stacy Reid, Alycia Tornetta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Stacy Reid
All rights reserved.
Pembington House, Wiltshire
The cold press of keys in Lady Adeline's palm, and the knowledge of why they had been so surreptitiously given, made her feel decidedly wicked, a state she was experiencing for the first time in her twenty-one years. Anticipation and nerves cascaded through her in equal measure at the notion of acting in a manner that was improper, potentially ruinous, and without any doubt, utterly scandalous.
Tonight she would decide her own future — an acknowledged extraordinary feat — and take a very bold step to ensure the gentleman she would marry was the man she deeply cared for and respected — Mr. James Atwood, and not the man who had attacked her, taking liberties he had no right to — the Earl of Vale.
"Thank you," Adel said softly to her dearest friend, Lady Evelyn — Evie to her close intimates. Adel was grateful she had someone assisting her in this escapade; surely her nerves would have deserted her if she acted alone.
Evie leaned in close. "Remember, I will arrange for mother to enter his chamber very soon."
Adel nodded. "How will you convince her to intrude on Mr. Atwood's privacy?"
"I urge you not to worry about the how. I know Mamma, and with a few whispers, I will make certain the chamber doors are opened at the opportune moment," Evie said, her voice trembling with excitement. Or mayhap it was trepidation?
Adel buried a groan, flicking an invisible piece of lint from her light green gloves. "This plan of ours smacks of recklessness."
An unladylike snort sounded. "Do you want to be the Countess of Vale?"
Not even if she was to be drawn and quartered. The earl was a repugnant reprobate, and a conceited ass. She would much prefer a quiet life in the country with a man she liked and respected, than the pomp and ceremony of being a countess to a man she loathed. Adel was in possession of two exquisite younger stepsisters whom she adored, who would benefit at their debuts, if Adel was a countess. Even with that added incentive, it was distressing to imagine a life as Lady Vale.
"No, I want to be Mrs. Atwood." Though Adel felt no shivering excitement at the prospect, there was a distinct appeal of being the lady of her own home. She'd no longer live by the capricious whim of her stepmother, and best of all, never have to endure another year of a failed season.
"Then let's dispense with the fear," Evie said with an encouraging smile.
Adel cared little for society's censure and opinions, being so far removed from the heart of the ton, spending most of the year in Somerset at her father's modest but well-kept manor. However, Mr. Atwood had remarked on more than one occasion, the value he placed on high society's opinion. "What if Mr. Atwood is outraged at my lack of propriety? When I suggested we elope, he adamantly and most earnestly refused."
Evie gripped her hand. "He wants to marry you, very much, and if you do not act, you will endure a lifetime of pain as the earl's wife. I would daresay you and Mr. Atwood will be the only love match of the season, and a few gossips should not prevent such a union. It is not as if you have any intention of making your permanent abode in London. From my experience gossip in the country is nonexistent. I implore you, though, to ensure you are not in a terrible state of dishabille. We want a bit of a stir, not a full blown scandal."
Adel scowled. "Now is not the time to use 'full blown' and 'scandal' in the same breath. And I have no intention of moving from the door. We only need a hint of impropriety to convince Papa, and I daresay the very notion of me being on the threshold of Mr. Atwood's chamber is enough. I am a bit anxious at how my actions will affect Helena's debut."
Evie plucked two glasses of champagne from a passing footman and handed Adel one. "Your sister is fourteen. She has two more years before facing the gauntlet of the marriage mart. Even if there is a slight stir, it would certainly be squashed by then. With her beauty, the beaux of the ton will be very agreeable and forgiving."
Adel sighed. "Very well. Onward with our plan."
Evie gave her an approving look, then with a wink, she darted away.
Adel turned toward the large potted palm to her left, and with the utmost secrecy, slipped the keys into the neckline at her bosom. There was no chance of them being jostled loose, for it was unlikely she would partake in any of the night's frivolities.
She strolled along the edge of the ballroom, humming softly to the lively music of the quadrille. She hadn't been asked to dance all evening, though she had worn the most lavish silken high-waisted gown she owned. Her underdress of palest blue silk had the bodice decorated with tiny forget-me-not flowers embroidered with seed pearls. The three rows of ruched ribbon showed beneath her simple white gauze overdress and she thought she looked particularly fine. She also wore her mother's pearls in her ears and around her throat, and had caught her hair in a loose chignon with a few loose tendrils cascading in a becoming manner down her neck. A few admiring glances had drifted her way, but none of the young men had made any overtures for even conversation.
With a soft sigh she directed her gaze to the dance floor, an ache building in her chest. When was the last time she had been asked to dance at a ball? Adel was fully cognizant of only being passably pretty without much distinction to recommend her for marriage. But surely the gentlemen of the ton could be courteous enough to dance with the young ladies without obvious partners.
She straightened her spine, refusing to dampen her spirits. By this time tomorrow, her engagement would be announced, and she would be free as much as it was possible to be unencumbered as a man's wife. She suppressed the uncharitable thought, for Mr. Atwood was a dear friend, and when they wed he would treat her with respect and gentle regard, not as property.
She lifted the champagne to her lips and sipped. She had been wondering if she should make Mr. Atwood privy to their plan. Evie had been adamant it be a secret in the event things went awry, but Adel wanted some reassurance from the man she intended to thoroughly compromise.
Nerves erupted in her stomach and her hands trembled. What if the resultant scandal was so vast, she was unable to return to society? And Mr. Atwood's ambitions of being a successful barrister were destroyed in the aftermath? And Helena was tarnished by association?
You are being a ninny. Only Lady Gladstone will know, Adel sternly reminded herself. The countess was very discreet. After all, she had already spied Evie in a shocking embrace with the scarred and aloof Marquess of Westfall, and none in society had been any the wiser. The countess had swept it under the rug, no doubt because of the man's dastardly reputation.
Adel mentally ticked off all the scandals of the past season.
Lady Sophie was seen kissing her father's valet. That young lady was now being welcomed back into the drawing rooms after only a few short months. Of course, she was now the Viscountess of Rayburn.
Lady Thornton had cuckolded her duke, and she was somehow still a powerful force in society.
Lord Brunel, it was whispered, had been seen with Miss Elizabeth, in a far worse situation than that which Adel had planned, and they were still widely admired and respected.
They also have much to recommend them.
She ignored her flutter of doubt and scanned the ballroom for the young man she was intending to secure. A man who had professed his admiration several times and desperately desired to wed her, despite her shortcomings. Adel stiffened when she espied Mr. Atwood bowing over Lady Daphne's hand, one of the season's reigning darlings. She was pursued in earnest because she had everything to recommend her. Her father, the Earl of Leicester, was well known in parliament and lauded for his reform speeches. Her dowry was rumored to be thirty thousand pounds, and added to the pot was Lady Daphne's fashionably blond beauty.
Mr. Atwood ran his fingers through his curly brown hair, a sheepish smile blooming at his lips. What was Lady Daphne saying to him? Adel frowned at his besotted mien. Had she been mistaken in his affections? Surely not. It was only last week he'd approached her by the lake bordering her father's property and informed her he would again ask for her hand. Not surprisingly, Papa had refused. He had a higher prospect in mind for her, than Mr. Atwood. Papa did not care this was Adel's fourth season and no titled gentleman thought to make her an offer.
Mr. Atwood was mild mannered and affable. He had never been the sort to ruffle feathers nor would he even dare stand toe to toe with her father and plead his case. The only time he seemed passionate was when he'd declared his love. A smile tugged at her mouth, and she willed him to glance in her direction.
His gaze was firmly stuck on Lady Daphne's pouting lips.
Adel flinched as the man whose clutches she was desperate to escape appeared on the landing above the staircase. What was he doing here? The annual Gladstone house party was considered one of the most exciting events of the season, but Evie had promised that her mother had not issued an invitation to the earl.
Adel's wrists tingled, and the fading bruises his punishing grip had left ached. Bile rose in her throat and she gulped the remainder of the champagne to wash away the unpleasant taste. Her father and stepmother had accepted an offer for her hand from the slimy toad. His presence was dangerous. What if he announced their engagement? Extricating herself from such a disaster would be impossible.
His gaze had unerringly found her. Not that it was much work, as she was one of three young ladies standing on the periphery of the room with their dance cards virtually empty. A pleased smile appeared on his face and her throat tightened. It would be a catastrophe if he singled her out. The bile she'd tried to banish resurfaced, and the crush of the ballroom she'd found exciting an hour ago was now suffocating. She remembered the nasty words Lord Vale had whispered against her lips as he forced her to kiss him. He had mockingly laughed when she had slapped him, saying he liked it rough sometimes. She'd been bewildered as to what it referred to, only knowing she had to be afraid. Adel had fled to her father despite Lord Vale's threat that she keep quiet. The bodice of her dress had been torn, her lips swollen — evidence of the earl's loss of control. She had expected her father to protect her, not give her to the man.
Panic attempted to freeze her limbs, but she scampered away as if she had not seen the earl. She scanned the ballroom for her father. He and her stepmother typically made a concentrated effort to ingratiate themselves with other lofty guests, and she could spy Lady Margaret's high purple turban with its peacock feathers making the rounds. But where was Papa? Adel had seen him leaving the card room earlier. He had slipped through the terrace windows. Surely he should have returned by now?
Adel pretended she did not see Lord Vale fighting the crush to reach her. With quickened steps she followed the path her father had taken. There were several guests on the terrace, laughing and chatting. She ignored them and spun to the hot house in the distance. He was a secret botanist and instinctively she knew to where he had escaped.
Oh, Papa. How she wished he would not bend so easily to the demands of his wife. Never would Adel believe it was her father's wish to rub shoulders with the finest of the bon ton. When her mother had been alive they had been so happy. Life had been wonderful, and they had lived in Somerset, rarely traveling to London or Bath. Her father had remarried only a year after Adel's mother died, and everything had changed.
Do not dwell in the past, Adel, look to the future.
The gardens and the grounds were well lit by gas lamps and she hastened to the hot house, stepping carefully along the cobbled trail. She slipped in through the entrance, her heart squeezing when she spied him with a magnifying glass, peering at some plant. "Father," she said softly.
He lowered the glass and faced her. For a wonderful second, pleasure suffused his face, before he became guarded. With a pointed glare behind her, he spoke, "Why have you traveled this far without a chaperone? Where is your mother?"
Stepmother. She bit back the instinctive rebuttal. "It is a short journey here, and I urgently needed to speak with you, Papa." She moved farther inside. "Lord Vale arrived a few minutes ago and I —"
"Excellent," her father said, with a wide smile. "I must go and greet him. Come along, I am certain he will want a few dances with you."
"No!" She gritted her teeth. "Though I miss the pleasure of dancing, I cannot consent to —"
A heavy sigh filled the air. "You are to wed the earl, Adel. He has secured an invitation to Lady Gladstone's house party solely to court you. It shows me how much he esteems you and wishes to secure your affections."
"Have you gone mad?" she demanded faintly. Surely her father couldn't be so cruel? He knew of Lord Vale's licentious character, of the atrocious way he had behaved toward her. "He attacked me, Papa." She winced at the pleading note in her voice. Squaring her shoulders, she lifted her chin and stepped forward. "I cannot marry a man who has so little regard for my welfare. He left bruises on my arms. He is a despicable cad."
Her father, Sir Archibald Hays, glared at her. "You will accord the earl the respect that is indeed due to him, young lady."
How could he have forgotten her tears and fright? It still lived with her, though days had passed. "Papa ... Lord Vale attacked me." It was not that she desired her father to do something frightful like challenge the earl to a duel, but she expected some outrage on her behalf. She expected him to protect her, and his stance now shattered the naive belief she'd held onto that she was the most important person in his world. Her stepmother now had that honor, and as a viscount's daughter, Lady Margaret's wish was to see their family's meager social connections strengthened. It seems Adel's father was willing to sacrifice his daughter's happiness to please his wife.
His face flushed in what might have been discomfort, before scrunching into a frown. "Pish ... Passion ... you are very beautiful, Adel, you look very much like your mother." For a second his features softened and regret gleamed in his gaze. Then he cleared his throat and continued, "It is expected that as your intended, Lord Vale may have gotten a bit carried away. I visited his estate yesterday before traveling down and he explained to me, apologized for his slight indiscretion. I accepted his generous offer for your hand."
Slight indiscretion? "You are trivializing my pain."
He gently placed the magnifying glass on the table. "You are twenty-one, Adel. This is your fourth outing, our coffers are nigh empty and we cannot afford another season for you. The earl is making amends for his actions by offering marriage. I only want what is best for you, my dear."
She stepped forward, searching his face. "My happiness would be in marrying a man that esteems me ... much like you did Mamma. Mr. Atwood has been my friend and our neighbor for years. He has offer —"
"Papa, please. If you would meet with him again, you would see what a kind, sensitive, and amiable gentleman he is —"
"Mr. Atwood's only prospect is a distant baronetcy with little income to support a family. When you marry Lord Vale, you will be a countess," he said forcefully.
Adel was too stunned to point out that he was only a baronet. In desperation she gripped his fingers. "Papa, if you do not agree on Mr. Atwood. At least give me a few more months to secure another suitor. If I've no offer by the year end I will ... I will marry your choice." She almost choked on the words.
"You had a late coming out because of your mother's passing. I regret that deeply for I feel with her guidance you would have garnered an attractive offer. You've attended three seasons and no man wants you with the small dowry I can provide. Five hundred pounds is not enough to tempt any man."
She flinched and released his arm. She heard what he had not said. Her dark, unfashionable hair, too-rounded hips and bosom did not tempt a man, either, nor the fact that she could read and write in several languages, and cipher.
"You are not to partake in any dances with Mr. Atwood or partner him in any of the parlor and outdoor games. Lord Vale will announce at tomorrow's ball the news of your engagement, and it would not do for his fiancée to make a hash of things by being silly with another man."
Excerpted from Accidentally Compromising the Duke by Stacy Reid, Alycia Tornetta. Copyright © 2016 Stacy Reid. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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