Authors: Tracy Anne Warren
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight…
“My thanks for seeing me home,” Grace told Terrence Cooke…
A little over a week later, Grace made her way…
Three days later, Grace accompanied her aunt to Bath’s finest…
He won’t come.
Over the next two weeks, Lord Jack Byron gave Grace’s…
Over the next several days, Grace discovered that she need…
“Are you certain you don’t wish to remain a couple…
Jack flicked the reins, controlling his roan gelding as he…
The sank into an ocean of feathers and satiny dark…
Grace squinted against the light and raised a hand to…
“You have made me the happiest woman in England! Aunt…
The following afternoon, Grace tucked a hand against her hip…
With the date and location of the wedding decided, Grace…
When Aunt Jane had long ago described Braebourne as one…
Five evenings later, Grace hummed a little tune under her…
Jack groaned and rolled onto his back, the empty crystal…
Grace walked up the aisle on her father’s arm, so…
Jack was gone when she awakened the next morning.
For Grace, the next three weeks passed by with an…
“My apologies, gentlemen, but I’m afraid I cannot stay.” Jack…
Grace had thought herself busy in the weeks leading up…
The next morning Grace was no closer to making a…
Grace stood mute, her gaze fixed on the couple kissing…
A week later, he and Grace left London.
“Aghh!” Grace cried as she grabbed up the piece of…
Six weeks later, Jack was still there.
The next ten days passed in much the same way…
The garden shimmered with candlelight from dozens of sweetly scented…
“Do you need anything?” Jack asked from his seat in…
Early August 1809
early 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?
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,
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.
Abruptly Jack’s mind cleared. “Oh, the ring!”
Light laughter floated through the hall as he patted his pockets, disremembering in which one he’d placed the engraved gold band. His irreverent seventeen-year-old twin brothers, Leo and Lawrence, began to snicker from their places in the line of groomsmen.
Seconds later, Jack located the ring, his fingers brushing briefly against a note tucked next to it. Ignoring the missive, he extracted the jewelry. “Exactly where I left it,” he announced with a smile. “Thought I’d give everyone a little extra excitement.” With an apologetic glance at Cade, he handed over the ring. Cade, however, was far too ebullient to do more than shake his head with good humor and turn back to his bride.
As the vows proceeded, Jack couldn’t help but think of the note his fingers had brushed against, the paper suddenly burning a hole in his breast pocket.
If you want to see Grace, go to Hatchard’s this afternoon at four. She’ll be the tall one with red hair. Knowing my girl, she’ll most likely have on her spectacles. Don’t be late.Yours,
E. G. Danvers
A tall redhead with spectacles,
Jack groaned in his head.
At least it ought to make her easy to spot! Please God,
he prayed, as he watched his brother join his life with his new bride’s,
just don’t let her be a gorgon.
The sense of being watched prickled over Grace Lilah Danvers’s nerve endings as she stood in the stacks at Hatchard’s Bookshop. She swung her head around sharply but found no one there.
I am being silly,
she admonished herself, looking away.
After all, who could possibly be watching me?
Long ago, she’d resigned herself to the knowledge that she was not the sort of woman who received looks—at least not of the admiring variety. Although she had often been told that she had a pleasant—some might even say pretty—countenance, with lovely translucent skin and straight, white teeth, she was what the vernacular of the day called “a long Meg.”
Standing five feet ten inches tall in her stockings, she supposed they had good reason for applying the term. She towered over all the women of her acquaintance, and a great many of the men as well. To make matters worse, she wasn’t the delicate, ethereal sort with slight bones and a wispy shape. Instead she was what her father liked to call “sensibly built,” neither fat nor thin but “as robust and seaworthy as one of his fleet of shipping vessels.” Not that she was without her share of feminine curves, but thanks to the current fashion for empire-waisted gowns, that fact wasn’t always so easy to discern. Then, too, there was her need for reading spectacles, unfortunate but unavoidable.
Glancing around once more, she shook her head and resumed her inspection of the book in her hands. She turned a page and skimmed a passage or two, then carefully placed the volume back onto the shelf before selecting another.
As she did, she caught sight of a pair of shoes just visible in the aisle beyond. Men’s shoes. Startled despite her best intentions, she spun the opposite way and, in doing so, lost hold of her book. The leather-bound tome hit the waxed wooden floor with a resounding thud and skidded several feet distant.
At that same moment, another gentleman appeared around the corner, the book coming to a halt beside the toe of his neatly polished Hessians. Stopping, he bent to retrieve the wayward volume. He straightened, then strolled toward her.
“Yours, I presume?” he said in a deep, richly modulated voice that put her in mind of hot buttered rum on a cold winter day and the sensual luxury of lying amid warm silken sheets. Inwardly, she quivered. Her reply, whatever it might be, stuck like a stone in her throat; the incapacity only worsened when she lifted her gaze to his.
Bold and intelligent, his eyes shone like a set of imperial jewels, their shade an improbably pure blue that lay somewhere between sapphire and lapis lazuli. He was sinfully handsome, with a refined jaw, a long, straight nose and a mouth that seemed the very embodiment of temptation. His mahogany-dark hair was cut short, the severe style unable to tame a rebellious wave that lent the ends just the faintest hint of curl.
But most enticing of all was his height—his large, muscular, impressive height. She guessed he must be six feet three or four at least, his build broad and powerful enough to make even her feel small.
Drawing a shivery breath, she dropped her gaze to the floor.
What am I doing?
she chided herself.
Acting like some giddy schoolgirl, that’s what. Men like him are out of my reach. As distant to me as the stars. Men like him are also dangerous, and I would do well never to forget that fact