Seduced by His TouchBy: Tracy Anne Warren
Early August 1809
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony…”
Lord John Byron—or “Jack” as he was known to his family and friends—fought the urge to give a good, hard tug to his starched, white cravat. Ever since he’d walked into St. George’s Church this morning and taken his place at the altar, his breath had grown increasingly shallow, his throat constricting, as though an invisible hand were squeezing in a vise grip.
His reaction might have been understandable except for one small fact—he was only the best man!
But just watching his brother, Cade, take the irrevocable, final step into matrimonial bondage was enough to send Jack’s usually cool composure straight to the devil. That and the realization that in a few months’ time—if matters progressed as they seemed likely to—he would be following in his brother’s footsteps.
Blast, Jack cursed in his head, barely aware of the continuing ceremony, I’ve gotten myself into a real fix this time. If only he’d never gone to that accursed gambling hell last Wednesday night. If only he hadn’t sat down across the gaming table with that unremarkable-looking, middle-aged Cit and the lure of his irresistibly deep pockets.
The play had gone well at first—Jack winning enough hands to slowly and steadily build his earnings, just as he’d expected. The assumption that he was an excellent player was no idle boast; he’d spent enough years supplementing his meager inheritance by working the card tables to know he possessed more than average skill. And unlike many of his fellow aristocrats, who were willing to bet entire fortunes on a single hand, he never took wild risks. He was always careful, playing with premeditated calculation and a healthy respect for the odds.
Until last week, that is.
He remembered relaxing back in his chair, certain he owned the game. After all, he had an unbeatable hand. There was only one card that could best it, one card that stood between him and a hundred thousand pounds! The chance of the other man having it was astronomical. Studying the rich Cit on the other side of the baize-covered table, he’d waited, eager to experience the thrill and satisfaction of becoming a very wealthy man himself. With that kind of money, he’d found himself thinking, he would never have to gamble again.
Then the merchant had revealed his cards and sent Jack’s world reeling.
Ironic, he mused now, as the ceremony droned on, that a red jack was the cause of my downfall. One wicked little card that had stabbed him through the heart and given his opponent a once-in-a-lifetime win.
And now that opponent wanted his pound of flesh—only not in cash but in trade. All Jack had to do was marry the merchant’s spinster daughter and his debt would be erased. In exchange for the sacrifice of his freedom and his happiness, he could be as rich as he’d dreamed.
“I’m not an unreasonable man,” the Cit, Ezra Danvers, told him during their private meeting two days later. “I want my Gracie well-cared for, which is why she’ll come to you with her dowry intact. Sixty thousand pounds. I’ll kick in another sixty when the ring is on her finger and the marriage consummated. I want grandchildren, mind you. Aristocratic grandchildren, who will move with kings and princes, and who will never know what it is to be shunned by your kind of Society.”
“Why me?” Jack ground out when he could manage the question. “Why not a titled peer? Surely there must be one willing to take your daughter to wife.”
“Probably so, but I don’t want some damned fortune hunter. I won’t have her abused.”
“What makes you think I will treat her well?”
The other man raised a grizzled brow and stared at Jack over his large beak of a nose, his eyes shrewd with intelligence. “Oh, I know a great deal about you, my lord. You have a way with the ladies, and although you don’t stay long with any of them, you’re never cruel when you leave. You’ll see to it my girl’s pleasured in bed and treated with the proper respect. If you don’t, of course, I’ll have your head.”