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Seduced by His Touch

By:Tracy Anne Warren

Seduced by His Touch
Tracy Anne Warren

       Chapter 1





London, England

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."

Gauging Danvers, Jack had no trouble believing the threat.

"I cannot promise a lifetime of fidelity," Jack stated, hoping such an admission might dissuade the merchant.

Instead, Danvers shrugged. "What man can? Keep her pregnant and  contented, and seek your occasional comfort elsewhere. Discreetly, of  course. I understand you nobs are good at that. Having hush-hush affairs  outside the sanctity of marriage."                       
       
           


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Danvers was right. Most aristocratic marriages were based on  practicalities, such as the accumulation of wealth, land or social  position. Love, even liking, was a matter of scant consideration,  expected to be found with someone other than one's spouse.

In general, Jack considered himself a cynic. But perhaps there was more  of the romantic in him than he cared to admit, since he didn't fancy the  idea of wedding for money, or without affection. As for love … well, he  would leave such sentimental folderol to the poets. Perhaps that fellow  Lord Byron, who shared nothing in common with Jack and his family save a  name, might enjoy trying his hand at the subject.

"You do realize I am a third son and will never inherit anything of  significance, certainly not the title," Jack offered, feeling the noose  growing tighter around his neck by the second. "Your grandchildren will  never be more than ordinary misters and misses."

"Not ordinary at all. They'll be the nieces and nephews of a duke, and  for that they'll marry well when the time comes. In the meanwhile, my  girl will be a lady. Lady John Byron, sister-in-law to the Duke of  Clybourne-one of the most powerful men in the realm. I like the sound of  that, and she will, too, once you convince her to marry you."

"What do you mean? Convince?"

Danvers waved a dismissive hand. "Grace has these notions in her head,  but never mind that. She'll come around. All you've got to do is make  her fall in love with you. That and persuade her you return the  feeling."

"That might not be so simple."

The older man's face hardened. "Make it simple. You're good at seducing  women, so seduce her. Otherwise, there's a little matter of one hundred  thousand pounds outstanding. I presume, my lord, that you are not in  possession of such a sum."

No, by God, Jack had thought, silently grinding his teeth. I most certainly am not.

One hundred and twenty thousand pounds, plus his debt cleared. For that  kind of money, one might expect that Miss Grace Danvers would have  married long ago. Perhaps it was simply a matter of her father  protecting her from unscrupulous predators, but he sensed there was  more.

What if there's something amiss with her? he considered with a queasy  swallow. According to her father, she was five and twenty years of age.  No dewy-eyed ingénue but instead a woman full-grown, who was close to  earning a permanent place on the shelf.

But no matter Miss Danvers's potential faults, what real choice did he  have? If he didn't agree to marry her, he faced the unenviable option of  going to debtor's prison. Or worse, applying to his brother Edward for  the funds.

Frankly, he'd rather take his chances in Fleet!

"Oh, and one more thing," Danvers had warned. "Grace must never learn of  our arrangement. In fact, I'd advise against her even knowing you and I  have met. If she ever gets wind of the truth, well, the whole plan will  go up like a cannon blast. See you take care to remember that."

And so, here he now stood, caught firmly beneath the sword of Damocles.  He supposed there were worse things than marriage, although right now he  couldn't seem to think of any. Cade looks happy enough, Jack reasoned,  as his attention returned to the ceremony. Why wouldn't he though, when  he is marrying an angel?

His brother's bride, Meg, certainly looked the part, dressed all in  white, with her blond hair swept upward in soft waves beneath her lace  veil, her lake blue eyes aglow with unconcealed joy. Her love for Cade  was clear, as was her gentle sweetness and caring ways. Cade is a  fortunate man, he thought. I should be half so lucky.

"And now for the ring," the bishop intoned.

Jack waited, along with the nearly one hundred other guests gathered to  witness the marriage. Someone coughed, the sound echoing through the  church, followed by a faint rustling as people shifted in the pews.

Suddenly, he began to notice the stares, especially those of the rest of  the bridal party. Edward, who had given the bride away, furrowed his  dark brows from his front-row seat next to their mother. His sister  Mallory and the other bridesmaids started nodding and mouthing things at  him from the bride's side opposite, while his brother Drake nudged him  none too gently in the ribs. Even Cade and Meg turned their heads to see  what was the matter.

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