An Undeniable Passion Ch. 01byopels©
Liverpool, England, June 1798
Gregory Templeton sat looking at the cards in his hand and tried to maintain a neutral expression. Four of spades, five of clubs, six of hearts, seven of clubs, and eight of hearts; a straight. His heart began to pound and he prayed that the other men sitting at the table wouldn't notice the thin sheen of sweat that had broken out on his forehead. Finally, a winning hand. He had been playing for hours and was finally on the receiving end of some luck. However it may be too late do him much good. He barely had enough money to keep in the game, let alone raise the other players bets so that he could win a decent amount. He fingered the last two chips sitting in front of him and carelessly tossed them into the pile in the center of the table.
"I would raise you more but unfortunately that is the last of the money I brought with me tonight," he said jovially. It was in fact very close to the last of his money entirely. If he won this hand he would be back in the game. A couple more wins after that and he would be ahead. Just a couple more wins.
"If you require a small loan, it can be arranged," his host replied smoothly. Mr. Binton's poker games were legendary. The men often played for days on end and more often than not fortunes were won and lost during those long weekends. Gregory was determined that the next fortune to fall would not be his.
"If it's no trouble," he said lighting a cigar, trying to appear calm. In reality he felt anything but calm.
"Of course not," Binton replied. He motioned to the dealer who placed a stack of chips in front of him. "Will that be sufficient?" he asked.
Gregory stared at the chips and managed to reply, "Yes, yes that will do. Thank you."
He bet heavily, sure that his straight would win the round. Through the haze of cigar smoke, he studied the other six inscrutable faces around the table. No one was giving away a thing. He knew that a straight wasn't the best hand possible but he felt it was enough. This time it was just enough. This was his round.
Two of the other players folded, followed by a third. When it finally came time to show their cards, he revealed his straight with a flourish. Such displays were usually frowned upon but he just couldn't help himself. He was about to reach for the mound of money in the center of the table when Binton placed his cards on the table. The four queens flanked by a ten stared at him. He couldn't believe it. He had lost. The eyes of the queens on the cards seem to mock him. He stared with disbelief as Binton raked in the pile of chips.
He would just have to win the next hand, he thought. Just a couple of skillfully played hands, along with a touch of luck and he would be able to pay back Binton and have a tidy sum left over.
Several hours, many unlucky hands and two more loans later, reality hit him and he realized how dire his situation was. He broke out into a sweat and felt the blood drain from his face as he realized that his fortune was most surely lost.
Placing a hand on his shoulder Binton asked, "I say old chum, are you all right?"
Recovering and attempting what he hoped was a cool smile he replied, "Of course, of course. Too much smoke, I suppose. Please excuse me. I'm going to get some air, I'll rejoin the game in a few minutes." He rose and walked to the french doors leading to the terrace. Once outside he staggered to the railing, breathing in great gulps of the cold January air. How could he have lost so much? How could he have such rotten luck? He rested his elbows on the railing and put his face in his hands. He would win it all back. He raised his head and tilted his face to the starry night sky. Please, he prayed, let me win it back, please.
He looked down to the frost covered gardens below. The ball had ended hours ago. His daughter Virginia had danced the night away. She was eighteen and the light of his life. With her fiery red hair, peaches and cream complexion and just a light dusting of freckles across her nose she reminded him so much of her mother. It was a pity that Virginia hardly even remembered her. She had died of fever when Virginia was only five, but for tonight he was glad that she wasn't around to witness this disgraceful decline into bankruptcy.
Oh Virginia, he thought. I have to win the money back, I just have to. He couldn't go home and tell her that he had lost everything. He didn't even have enough to pay for the gown she had worn tonight. The bill for that was mixed in with the mounting pile sitting on the desk in his study.
He heard footsteps and looked up. Charles Thompson was walking towards him. He had evidently attended the ball as he was dressed in a very fine evening suit. The Thompson family owned the two largest cotton mills in Liverpool as well as a very successful tobacco importing business and was one of the wealthiest and most influential families in town. Charles was twenty four years old and the sole heir to his family's great fortune.
"Mr. Templeton, Charles Thompson. We met during the Christmas Ball that my family hosted a few weeks back," Charles said, his breath creating small silvery puffs in the night air.
"Yes, yes. Of course, I remember. Are you playing tonight?" he replied shaking the younger man's hand and gesturing towards the games going on inside.
"Yes, great fun isn't it? I've been having quite a good bit of luck. And you?"
"Oh yes, I've been rather lucky myself," he nervously lied.
Charles looked at him for a moment and then abruptly changing the subject he asked, "Were you surprised to have been invited to my family's ball at Christmas?"
Momentarily flustered by the unexpected question he said, "Why yes, as a matter of fact. I was a bit surprised to receive the invitation." The Thompson's Christmas Ball was one of the social events of the season, usually reserved for Liverpool's most elite citizens. Gregory was certainly well respected and was thought to be modestly wealthy but not one of the inner circle. "Why do you ask?"
"Your daughter was the reason I sent the invitation." He paused while lighting a cigar. "She has grown into quite a beauty." Before he could reply, Charles again changed the course of the conversation. "How much do you owe old Binton, Mr. Templeton?" he asked studying the glowing end of his cigar.
Trying to laugh off the question, he said lightly, "Oh not much, not much at all. I'll easily settle with him tomorrow."
Looking him in the eye, Charles said, "Settle with him tomorrow? I understand it's quite a tidy sum. Quite a tidy sum indeed." Noting the older man's perplexed look he continued. "I also understand that he is not the only one you owe money to, am I right?"
He leaned back against the railing and blew a plume of cigar smoke towards the cold stars shining down on them. "There are some rumors beginning to float about that you are unable to pay your debts. That you've gambled your fortune away and that you and your lovely daughter are penniless."
Gregory pulled out his handkerchief and nervously wiped his forehead. He was beginning to perspire despite the chilly air. Forcing a laugh he said, "Where have you heard such nonsense? Really, Mr. Thompson, you shouldn't pay attention to idle gossip."
Fixing his gaze again upon him, Charles said, "It is not gossip. I've been quietly checking on you for some time now. I know how much you owe the bank, and various shop keepers in town. I also know that you were barely able to pay your servants last month and that you are a week behind in their salaries this month."
"Why is this any of your concern?"
With another infuriating twist in the conversation Charles said, "Did you know that I twice asked your daughter to dance tonight?"
Bewildered Gregory replied, "She's a very good dancer, isn't she?"
"I wouldn't know," Charles said, his tone taking on a sharp edge. "She refused me both times and then avoided me for the remainder of the evening."
"I'm sure she was just tired when you asked her and she couldn't possibly have been avoiding you. Why would she do such a thing?"
"I don't think she likes me much." Charles took another step closer to Gregory. "Does Virginia know how much in debt you are?"
"No, of course not. She lives a very care-free life. I would never burden her with this."
"I could arrange to have many of those debts paid if you could persuade your lovely daughter to be a bit more friendly towards me."
He stared in shock at Charles, aghast at what he was suggesting.
"Come, come, not that friendly," Charles said with a laugh, reading the horrified expression on the older man's face. "I would like to call upon your daughter. Say, Saturday afternoon?" Without waiting for a response, he crossed to the french doors and rejoined the poker games.
The next morning Gregory sat grimly at the breakfast table waiting for Virginia to come down stairs. He had not slept at all and it was evident in his haggard appearance. He had changed his clothes but his disheveled hair, bleary eyes and drawn face made him look closer to seventy than just over fifty.
"My goodness Father. You must have had a late night. It looks as though you haven't even slept!" Virginia exclaimed good naturedly, giving her father a kiss on the cheek. Sitting down at the table she innocently asked, "How long did the card games go on?" Noting her father's surprised expression she continued, "Oh I know all about the gambling that goes on upstairs when you men retire to drink brandy and talk politics," she said with a mischievous smile. "So did you break the bank? Are you now the wealthiest man in town?" she teased.
She was pouring coffee and did not notice the distraught look in her father's eye as he replied with forced cheer, "Oh, I did all right." Hesitating slightly he continued, "I ran into Charles Thompson while taking some air on the terrace."
Virginia made a face, confirming Charles' thoughts about her opinion of him.
"Oh come, my dear. Charles is a fine young man. And comes from such a good family. And I do believe he finds you rather charming."
"Father, really. Did you know he followed me all last night at the ball? Pestering me to dance with him? It was most unseemly. I finally had to ask him to please leave me alone."
"Maybe you should give him another chance. He would make an excellent match for you," he continued hoping to convince her to change her mind.
"I do not intend to marry simply to make a good match. I intend to marry for love," she said brightly, placing a scone on her plate. "I want a husband who will love and adore me. Just like you loved and adored Mother."
Gregory felt his heart breaking. How dearly he wished he could assure his daughter that she could do that. How he wished he had not been such a fool and lost everything. "Maybe if you got to know Mr. Thompson better."
"I have no intention of seeing Mr. Thompson again."
"Unfortunately that is not possible. He is coming to visit on Saturday afternoon."
"Well, thank you for the advance notice. I will endeavor to be unavailable to assist you in entertaining him."
"He is coming specifically to see you my dear. You must be here."
"To see me?" Virginia asked. "You don't mean that he is coming to call on me?" The implication that this could be a romantic visit in any way horrified her. "Really, Father. Can we not cancel? Send a card saying that I have a fever and should not receive visitors until after the weekend."
"You will not be so rude, young lady. Mr. Thompson is one of the most eligible bachelors in this town and you will be charming and attentive when he comes to call on you. Is that clear?" Gregory said sternly.
Startled by her father's tone she quietly responded "Yes, sir." She suddenly was no longer hungry for breakfast and quickly excused herself from the table.
He put his head in his hands and silently chastised himself again for forcing this upon on her. Charles isn't such a bad chap, he thought. She will like him. He can be very charming when he wants to be and he will want to be on Saturday.
The next day Virginia had lunch with her best friend Violet Adams. Violet was a vivacious girl with a mischievous and daring streak that caused Virginia no end of worry. Also eighteen, she was a raven haired beauty with dark blue eyes and a voluptuous figure.
"Ginny, that ball the other night was the best one so far. I had such fun. What did you think?" Violet asked.
"It was an exquisite party, but that awful Charles Thompson kept following me all night, pestering me to dance with him. He almost ruined my evening."
"I rather think he fancies you," Violet said with a sly smile.
"Actually, you're right, he does," she replied matter of factly.
Surprised by her friend's uncharacteristic egotism, Violet regarded her with raised eyebrows.
"Vi, can you believe it? Mr. Thompson actually sought my father out at his poker game that night and asked if he could call on me," Virginia stated indignantly.
Violet's eyes grew wider. "Asked if he could call on you? What did your father say?" she asked eagerly.
"He said yes!" she replied angrily. "Without even asking me first. When I refused, he actually ordered me to entertain him when he comes on Saturday."
"Oh my, how tedious. You have spend Saturday afternoon entertaining one of the wealthiest young men in town. A young man who is smitten with you. How incredibly tiresome," Violet said with mock sympathy.
Virginia replied, "I don't care for Mr. Thompson at all. He's weak and whiny and so bland looking. Those pale gray eyes that just blend into the rest of his face and thin blond hair that make his ponytail look so scraggly. And such a weak chin. He doesn't seem very manly at all and when I look at him I don't feel a thing. I want love and romance. I want to be swept off my feet by love at first sight. I want to melt whenever I see him. And that most certainly doesn't happen with Charles Thompson."
"Maybe when it's just the two of you he'll appeal to you more. I'm sure he can be most charming if he wants to be," Violet said hopefully.
"Hmmmm...I suppose so. Still, I wonder why father is so eager about this. He kept going on about what a wonderful match it would be for me. He's never mentioned anything about suitors before."
"Well, you are eighteen. Maybe he feels that it's time you had some suitors. You must start thinking about your future."
"That's easy for you to say. Men fall in love with you all the time. I'm sure you had several marriage proposals that night alone."
"I had several proposals all right. But they weren't for marriage," Violet replied with a wink and a wicked smile.
"Violet Adams! You didn't!" Virginia was horrified knowing exactly what kind of proposals Violet was referring to.
"Of course not! Did I leave the ball for even one minute? I was either with you or dancing. I didn't even go out on the terrace for a breath of fresh air, let alone go sneaking off into the library or billiards room with some man. Although I was tempted. That handsome fellow visiting from London was very charming," Violet said dreamily.
Rolling her eyes, Virginia replied, "Oh Vi, what am I going to do with you?"
"You're going to go shopping for bonnets with me after we finish lunch. I saw a most darling one in a shop. And I saw a most exquisite one for you, all green velvet."
"I'll go with you, but I don't think I shall buy one for myself. Father has actually given me an allowance and told me I must learn to manage my own money. He says I must learn if I'm to know how to run a household once I marry."
"Hmmm...it does seem as though he is preparing you for marriage. It's probably a good thing. I should do the same, although it's most unlikely that I will. It seems awfully tiresome, having to count one's pennies." She made a face, and then brightened, "You can at least try it on. It'll be fun."