Marrying for Moneybyharemgirl©
Peterson's was a typical gentleman's club, several steps down from the more exclusive clubs such as White's, but several steps above the gambling hells and brothels that were so numerous in London. It boasted a comfortable lounge with leather chairs and small side tables where a gentleman could sit and read the newspaper while sipping a glass of fine spirits. There was also a dining parlor that offered decent food, certainly not the best to be had in the city, but served fresh and hot on demand. But the main advantage that Peterson's had over the other small clubs in London was its reputation as a place where a fair game of cards could be played if a man wanted to try his hand at games of chance.
Tucked away in the back, the gaming room held three round tables set slightly apart. Jeremy Bradley sat at the furthermost table, his back wedged into the corner, both literally and figuratively. Trying to appear calm, he surveyed his surroundings. The few lamps scattered about provided the only relief for the dimness of the room, each one throwing a faint circle of light onto the felt covered tables. The air was thick with smoke, and Jeremy watched as it wreathed around the heads of his opponents. The only sounds were murmurs of men placing their bets, cards being shuffled and dealt and the occasional groan of defeat or whoop of triumph.
Jeremy wasn't a novice at the gaming tables. At the age of twenty five, he had already passed through the youthful phase of gambling, having learned enough to play a respectable hand of cards. He had long ago outgrown the urge to prove himself at the tables, and he had only come here tonight out of dire need. Jeremy stole a glance at his pile of funds. He had had a few modest wins tonight, but his pile was gradually dwindling, and he was beginning to feel desperate. Jeremy held his breath for the cards to be dealt.
With baited breath, Jeremy picked up his cards and carefully fanned them in his hands. His heart was beating a bit faster in his chest as he looked at the three queens, an ace and a nine that he had been dealt. It certainly wasn't a spectacular hand, but with the poor luck he had been having, it was the best he had received so far this night. Jeremy studied his opponents from beneath his lashes. Lord Wiltshire, Lord Berkley and Lord Simmons were all arranging their hands with thoughtful expressions on their faces. Each of them was exceedingly wealthy, and Jeremy knew they could care less whether they won or lost tonight, so it was easy for them to maintain their composure. No help there.
Jeremy turned to his fourth opponent, Trevor Grayson, who lounged back in his chair, leisurely sampling a cheroot and waiting for the others to assess their cards. Jeremy was struck by the calm, slightly bored look on the American man's face, for he didn't appear to be concerned about the outcome of the game either. Jeremy heaved a mental sigh.
Lord Wiltshire was the first to break the silence. "I will wager one hundred pounds." He casually tossed the correct amount into the middle of the table and waited for the others to respond.
"Nothing here for me to work with," mumbled Berkley with a good natured grin as he tossed his cards face down on the table. "I'm out."
"I'm in," Grayson drawled, tossing in the correct amount, "and I will raise you one thousand more." He never wavered as he added the wad of money to the pile in the middle of the table.
Jeremy couldn't afford to bet such sums on a hand that might not win, and he wasn't sure how to proceed. It was well into the morning, and this would likely be his last chance to win the money he needed to get his family out of their dilemma. "I will call your bet," Jeremy finally murmured, carefully counting out the necessary bills from his modest pile.
"I'm afraid I'm out as well," Simmons sighed. Wiltshire emitted a long whistle as he looked again at his cards and the mound of money on the table. "Well, I am certainly not going to fold now." He added ten more bills and grinned at his remaining two opponents.
"How many cards would you like gentlemen?" Simmons asked with a questioning smile.
Wiltshire indicated that he wanted two cards. Grayson never even looked at his cards again. "I'll keep the cards I have."
Jeremy took a deep breath and tried to ignore his sweaty palms, as he stared hard at his cards. He discarded the nine and looked at Simmons, "I'll have one."
Simmons dealt him one more card, and settled back in his chair to watch the fun. Jeremy swallowed hard and peeked at his new card, another ace. Now, he could definitely feel his heart pounding, as he stared intently at his full house. He mentally smiled with relief, realizing that he finally had a hand that stood a good chance of winning.
Wiltshire gave another low whistle of appreciation for his cards, but Jeremy wasn't too concerned, knowing that the older man liked to bluff. After all, for him it was just a game. Wiltshire casually tossed another ten bills onto the growing pile of money. "I'll bet another thousand pounds. How about you Grayson? Are you up for it?"
Grayson casually counted out the necessary wager plus an additional ten bills and tossed it into the untidy heap. "I will see your bet and raise you another thousand." He turned his assessing blue stare onto Jeremy and raised an indolent brow, his blue eyes piercing through the smoke. "Bradley?"
Jeremy swallowed hard, as he eyed his quickly dwindling pile of funds and the growing one in the middle of the table. If he could win this hand, he would have enough money to pay off their debt. However, if he lost, he wouldn't have enough left to try another hand. What did that matter, he asked himself. The money he had wasn't sufficient to get his family out of their desperate situation. Their only hope was for him to win tonight, and there was no way he would get another hand as good as the one he was holding now. He knew it was now or never. "Yes, I'm in. I will see your bet and raise you one thousand more." He counted out three thousand pounds and tossed it into the middle of the table, virtually depleting his small stack of funds.
Wiltshire broke into one of his maddeningly superior grins and added the necessary amount to his earlier bet. "I guess I am in as well. I'll call you, Bradley."
Jeremy turned expectantly to Grayson. The American was eyeing him speculatively, and Jeremy swallowed hard when the other man's eyes dipped to his stack of money. He wouldn't be able to stay in the game if Grayson raised his bet.
Finally, Grayson counted out ten more bills and added them to the center. "I'll call you as well. Let's see what you have Wiltshire."
Wiltshire laid his hand on the table, three tens, a jack and a four. Grayson frowned, his brows drawing together into a dark line. "That is pretty good, but not good enough, I am afraid." He spread his hand to reveal four Kings and a jack. "And what about you, Bradley? What are you holding?"
Jeremy felt his heart plummet to his toes, as he eyed the other man's hand. He spread his own cards on the table to show his full house, and his disappointment must have been evident on his face. "I am afraid my hand isn't good enough to beat four of a kind," he mumbled.
Something akin to sympathy flickered across Grayson's face, but it was gone almost before Jeremy noticed it. Jeremy watched bitterly as Grayson scooped up his winnings and added them to his already large pile of money. Lifting his chin a notch higher, Jeremy put on a brave face and gathered his own meager wealth as he rose proudly from the table. "Well, gentlemen, I am afraid you have done me in for this evening." He gave Grayson a slight bow and a tight smile. "It was a pleasure to meet you Mr. Grayson. Perhaps our paths will cross again some time."
Grayson eyed him with respect. He sensed that this young man had needed desperately to win, but he was behaving with dignity in the face of defeat. "I would consider it an honor sir." Jeremy nodded to the other players before turning to make his way out of the smoky den. During the long ride home, only one thought kept circling in his mind. How was he ever going to break the news to Leanna?
Leanna Bradley paced restlessly from the fireplace to the settee. She must have crossed the room at least a hundred times, and she was chewing her lip in nervous agitation. The clock on the mantle began to chime, and she nearly jumped out of her skin. Three o'clock! She took a deep breath to steady her racing heart. It wasn't necessarily a bad thing that Jeremy was out so late. It could indicate that he was having some success at the gaming tables. She sincerely hoped that was the case. A frown marred her forehead, as she thought once more about the chain of events that had landed them in their current plight.
It had been exactly three weeks before when she and her brother Jeremy had sat in their father's study, still reeling from the shock of their sire's sudden death. They had been summoned there to meet with Mr. Allen, their late father's attorney, for the reading of their father's will. Sitting side by side, their fingers clutched in mutual commiseration, they had listened as Mr. Allen had imparted his grim news.
Both Leanna and Jeremy knew that their father was having financial difficulties. That fact had been made painstakingly clear during the past several months, when they had been forced to let all but the cook and housekeeper go, since they could no longer afford to keep a full staff of servants. However, they had all pitched in to help in the running of the household, and their lack of wealth had not impinged too greatly on their lifestyle. While neither of them had been expecting a large inheritance, they had been shocked to learn that their father's estate was, in fact, entirely insolvent. Apparently, their father had owed a great deal of money, ten thousand pounds to be exact, to his business partner, Michael Billingsley. They were told they had one month to pay the debt in full or forfeit all of their father's meager holdings, including their family home.
Within a matter of minutes, their secure, protected existence had shattered around them, and they were faced with the prospect of becoming penniless, homeless paupers. Leanna shuddered as she thought about the implications that would entail.
At the age of nineteen, she had been on the verge of assuring her happy future, and the timing of these events could not have been worse. Leanna had been betrothed to a handsome and wealthy young man, Sir Edward Hatfield, but the scandal regarding her family's finances had resulted in him calling off their wedding. Edward had made it clear that he would be willing to bail her family out of trouble if she would consent to becoming his mistress, but Leanna had sent him away with her handprint burning his cheek and her refusal burning his ears. She would rather be homeless than to stoop to being someone's whore.
Leanna couldn't really claim to be broken hearted over the way things had ended. While she had been attracted to Edward, she was not in love with him. Now, Leanna wondered whether any man would want to marry her, but the gloomy thought of becoming a spinster was overshadowed by her more pressing worries. She and Jeremy had sold their mother's jewels, the few pieces of artwork they owned, and most of their belongings trying to raise enough money to pay off their debt. They had managed to come up with almost five thousand pounds. Jeremy had used the money to bargain with Mr. Billingsley, promising that if he would accept partial payment, Jeremy would pay him the remainder by the end of the year. However, Mr. Billingsley had scoffed at their offer, saying that he had waited long enough to collect on their father's debt, and he wanted his money right away. He gave them four weeks to come up with the full amount, or he would take possession of their home, leaving Leanna, Jeremy and his pregnant wife Christina homeless.
After trying everything else they could think of, they came up with the plan for Jeremy to try and win enough money for them to pay the debt. In his younger days, Jeremy had had some luck at cards, and they figured they had very little to lose by trying. Leanna thought she would pull her hair out wondering how he was faring. Just then, Jeremy walked through the door. She could tell by the dejected slump of his shoulders that he hadn't been successful, and she felt her knees nearly buckling beneath her. She took a deep, steadying breath and waited until he had closed the door behind him. "What happened?" she asked anxiously.
The look Jeremy gave her was wretched, and he reached to place an arm protectively over her shoulders. "I lost," he stated simply. He slumped down beside her on the settee. "I thought there was a chance at one point, but luck wasn't with me."
Leanna had carefully rehearsed what she would say in this instance. She had to do something to remove some of the burden of responsibility that unfairly rested on her brother's shoulders, and she patted his hand comfortingly. "Don't worry, Jeremy. Everything will be alright. Losing this house isn't the end of the world. With the money we raised, you should be able to buy a modest house and make a new start with Christina."
Jeremy was already shaking his head, and he released a deep sigh. "Leanna, you don't understand. I lost it all," he mumbled, ignoring her gasp of surprise. "I only have three hundred pounds left from the money we had, and we owe most of that to our other creditors. What's left will only be enough for room and board for a few weeks. What are we supposed to do afterwards?"
Leanna frowned in confusion. "You lost all the money?" she asked in a breathless whisper. When Jeremy nodded, the color drained out of her cheeks. "Perhaps you had better tell me exactly what happened."
Jeremy recounted the events of the evening, and after telling her about his final hand, he released a rueful sigh. "The thing that bothers me the most is that I should have known better than to play cards with Trevor Grayson. He has quite a reputation at the gaming tables, but like a fool, I thought I could best him."
"Who exactly is he? His name isn't familiar to me," she asked.
"You don't know him. He's an American. He owns a small shipping company, and he spends several months of the year in London, brokering very profitable deals from what I've heard. Apparently, his business is flourishing and he almost always wins at cards. It's just my rotten luck that he's still in London, since he said he would be sailing again in a few days. I should've known better than to go up against him tonight. I might have had a chance if he hadn't been in the game." Jeremy hung his head dejectedly.
Leanna looked at Jeremy and was concerned to see that he looked at least five years older than he had just three weeks before. His usual exuberance and joy were gone, replaced by oppressive worry. She knew that he was right to be concerned, for he didn't have a chance to succeed in any business venture if he didn't have enough capital to get it started. She knew word was already spreading among members of polite society that they were nearly penniless, and rumors like that would make it hard for Jeremy to convince anyone to invest in his business. Leanna racked her brain trying to find some way to reassure her brother. A sudden idea struck her, and she stilled. There was only one possibility she could think of to get the money they needed, but she would have to look into it on her own. Jeremy would never approve.
Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and layed a comforting hand on Jeremy's slumped shoulder. "There's nothing else we can do tonight, dear. Try to get some rest, and we'll talk more tomorrow."
Jeremy squeezed his sister's shoulders and placed a tender kiss on her brow. "Good night, Leanna. Thank you for being so strong and brave through all of this. You deserve much better."
Leanna smiled and touched his cheek tenderly. "Don't worry. We'll get through this together. Now go on." She gave him a gentle push toward the stairs. When Jeremy was out of sight, Leanna slumped onto the settee and stared for a long time into the glowing coals. She shivered slightly and hugged herself to ward off the chill. Tomorrow she would speak to Trevor Grayson. He was the only person she knew who had enough money to help them. Maybe, just maybe she could convince him to loan them the funds they needed.
Trevor Grayson stood on the deck of his ship, the Sea Spirit, and watched his men as they scurried about, preparing for their departure the following day. They had been in port for several weeks, and he was anxious to get back to his native Virginia. Although he loved sailing, he was ready to get home again. By the time they made their crossing, it would almost be time for spring planting, and he wanted to be there to oversee the whole procedure.
A grim smile tugged at his lips. This was the first year for a long time that he was actually looking forward to being home. As it was, it had been almost two years since he had set foot on his beloved plantation, The Meadows. For the last six years, he had spent most of his time running his shipping business and cultivating trading partnerships in various ports. He knew he had avoided spending time at home because of the painful memories it evoked. However, he finally felt ready to face his past and move on. He wanted to settle down and start a family, and he was determined to work towards that goal.
He stood with legs spread wide apart and his hands clasped behind his back as he mused on the past. He had been only twenty years old when the civil war broke out in 1861, splitting America in two. Like almost all the young men of the South, he had rallied to the call and had gone off to fight for the cause. He had no way of knowing what a profound change the war would have on his own life.
Just one month before war was declared, Trevor had proposed to Eliza Taylor, the daughter of one of his neighbors, and she had enthusiastically accepted. She had been seventeen. They had known each other their entire lives, having grown up on adjacent plantations, and Trevor had been courting her for a year prior to his marriage proposal. Both of their families had been thrilled by the match, and they had all been looking forward to a Christmas wedding. However, the war had forced them to place their plans on hold.
Trevor and his younger brother Steven had ridden off to join the Confederate forces, pledging to return in a few weeks. After all, the loyal citizens of the Confederacy had been convinced that their speedy victory was virtually guaranteed. Instead, Trevor had spent the next two years, engaged in one battle after another. He had proven his courage and commitment repeatedly on the battlefield, and for a while, it had appeared as if the Confederacy might win.
The turning point for him had been during the battle of Vicksburg. Trevor had been wounded and captured, and it was during that battle that he got separated from Steven. Trevor spent the last two years of the war in a Yankee prison. There had been numerous times during those years when he wondered if he would ever have the chance to return home and claim Eliza as his wife. He would lie awake at night and envision her pale beauty, with her blonde hair and large expressive brown eyes. He longed to hold her and keep her safe from the horrors and deprivation of the war.
When the Confederacy finally collapsed and Lee surrendered, the prisoners were released to return to their homes. Trevor had joined the thousands of other defeated Confederate soldiers making their way back to their loved ones. The journey had been long and heartbreaking, as he passed countless plantations that were completely destroyed, all the inhabitants either killed or chased away. Entire regions had been devastated, with every home having been torched by invading union troops, and Trevor dreaded what he might find at home.