E-book Reissue
April 24, 2012
Avon
ASIN: B007HBHB9S



First Edition
October 2003
Dorchester
ISBN 0843951028

Dear St. Nicholas –

What we'd really like for Christmas this year is:

An Irish Estate
A Family
Mountains of Sugarplums
A Quiet Elopement
Someone to close down all the London clubs - (like White's)

OR

Marriage to a Man who is Honest, Loving, Sexy, Handsome and Titled.

But we know there aren't enough of those to go around... are there?

Respectfully,
Four English Ladies


This book was one of the first hard cover novels Dorchester put out. I was excited to be a part of it, especially when they asked Lisa Kleypas to write a story for the book. My contribution is a Regency romance and I had a lot of fun with it.


Chapter One

Prudence accepted the hack driver’s assistance to alight, paid him, then turned to stare at the front of Ballard’s. The building was clean and stately looking, with windows on every level. It looked like a home. No one seeing it would know that it was a gaming hell where men gambled away their lives and the lives of the family members they were suppose to love.

Prudence blew an irritated breath out as her conscience pricked her. She supposed calling it a gaming hell was not being quite fair. There were no Captain Sharpe’s here waiting to cheat the gamblers who frequented the establishment. This was, by all accounts, an honest concern. But it was not a private club either. Membership was not necessary to enter. However, it did only cater to better quality patrons. Proper decorum and a certain caliber of dress were required to enter, as well as to stay and gamble your life away.

Fingers tightening around the handle of her umbrella, Prudence scowled at the building, then glanced to the main door and the three men entering. Two men, she corrected herself. The third man appeared to be the doorman. He nodded, held the door for the other two, then closed it and settled in, arms crossed over his barrel-like chest, an intimidating expression on his face.

Prudence felt her heart sink. She very much suspected that the man was not going to let her enter. It may not be a private club, but that didn’t mean women were any more welcome. Except as servants, she thought now. Prudence had heard that Lord Stockton, the owner, had taken the innovative step of hiring female servants to serve the food and drink that allowed clients to stay longer and lose more money. But those were the only women welcome inside.

Nay, the man guarding the door would not be eager to allow her entry. Actually, Pru wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea herself, but it was the only way she could see to get to talk to her father and, hopefully, get her mother the one thing she really wanted for Christmas. Talking to him at home would have been easier, of course. Unfortunately, Edward Prescott had developed the inconvenient habit of leaving the house the moment he awoke each day, leaving her little opportunity to speak to him there. Perhaps that was why he did it though.

The hack she had hired to get her there began to pull away, the clip clop of the horses hooves drawing her from her thoughts.

Standing about staring up at the building like a scared ninny would not get this task done, she reprimanded herself. Action is what is needed! Straightening her shoulders, she forced her chin up and marched forward.

Prudence hadn’t really considered how she would get past the doorman jealously guarding Ballard’s entrance, but taking him by surprise seemed her best chance of getting past him. That being the case, she started out walking parallel to the building as if she meant to walk past it. She moved at a quick clip, as quickly as the slippery walk allowed. It had been unseasonably warm and had rained earlier, hence the reason she had her umbrella with her. But the temperature was dropping now that night had fallen and ice was forming, making walking treacherous.

She waited till the very last moment, then, when she was directly in front of the entrance, Prudence veered sharply to the right and straight for the doors. She nearly smiled on seeing that the man was distracted talking to a new arrival and that her path was clear. Tasting victory, she picked up her speed and barreled ahead. That speed almost saw her tumbling backward onto her fanny when the doorman suddenly got wind of her and stepped into her path. He was a solid wall of human flesh. Prudence crashed into him, the air rushing out of her with an “oomph”, then bounced backward, grabbing frantically for something, anything to keep her feet. She ended up with a handful of his shirt-front clutched in one hand, the other waving her closed umbrella rather wildly as she fought to regain her balance.

“Ain’t no women allowed.”

Prudence grimaced at that growled announcement as she found her footing. Releasing her hold on the man’s shirt-front, she took a step back, tipped her head up. Way up. The man was huge. Unnaturally tall, she decided as her neck began to complain at the distance it was being forced backward. Finally able to focus on his face, she forced her prettiest smile.

“Good evening.”

His already smallish eyes went even smaller now, signifying unpleasant suspicion in his bull-doggish face. “ Evening.”

“I am sorry to trouble you, sir, and I do realize that ladies are not generally allowed inside, however-”

“Never.”

“Never?” she asked warily.

“Ladies ain’t never allowed. Never ever.

“Never ever?” she repeated dully, then scowled. “Aye, but you see this is a somewhat urgent matter, so if you would-”

“What sort of an urgent matter?”

Prudence paused, her mouth still open and her mind blank. She really should have considered a handy lie with which to answer such a question, she realized with dismay as he began to nod his head knowingly.

“It ain’t real urgent, is it?”

“Oh- I- But-” Feeling panic set in as her chances of getting in dwindled, Prudence let her reticule drop to the ground between them. As one would expect, the doorman immediately bent to pick it up for her. That is when Prudence, quite without thinking about it, cracked her umbrella down hard over his big thick head. Much to her alarm, however, rather than bring down her intended victim, the umbrella snapped in half.

“Now, what’d ye go and do that for?” the man asked irritably, scowling at her as he straightened.

Prudence stared wide-eyed from him to her broken umbrella, quite overcome with shame and horror. She had never, never ever, used physical violence in her life. It only served her right that the first time she did, she broke her umbrella. Oh, this wasn’t working at all! She would never convince her father to quit his gaming. They would all be in debtor’s prison by Christmas, and would probably die there. She pictured her mother there, wasting away, her little sister’s youth and beauty fading, her own hopes of a husband and children dying a slow miserable death and, much to her horror, felt tears brim in her eyes.

“Oh now, don’t start in crying. That won’t work with me.”

Prudence heard the panic that belied the man’s words and that only made the tears come faster. When he moved closer and began clumsily patting her, she turned instinctively into the man’s chest and blubbered like a baby.

“Please stop now. I ain’t angry with ye. Ye didn’t even hurt me none, if that’s what you’re crying about.” When that simply made her cry harder, he began babbling desperately. “Ye can hit me again if ye like. I’ll let ye inside, I will. Just stop your crying and-”

Pru’s tears died abruptly. Her eyes shining with hope and gratitude, she peered up at the man. “You will?”

“Ah damn.” The man sighed unhappily. “You’re gonna see me out of a good job, aren’t ye?”

“Plunkett! What goes on here?”

Hands whipping quickly behind his back, the doorman stepped away from her and whirled guiltily to face the owner of that commanding voice.

Lord Stockton. Prudence recognized the man at once as she too turned to see him stepping down from his carriage. Everyone knew Lord Stockton. He was rather infamous. A member of the nobility who was accepted only reluctantly by the ton. If they could, Pru felt sure he would be given the cut direct and excluded from the more elite balls and soirees attended only by acceptable members of the ton. It wasn’t that the man wasn’t noble enough. His blood was bluer than the King’s, and his history could probably be traced farther back. Unfortunately, the man had committed that dreaded sin...he worked for a living. If one could call owning one of the most successful gambling establishments in London working for a living, she thought with irritation. It was his club that made him both undesirable as far as most of society was concerned, but also made it impossible to cut him out of it. The ton could hardly cut him and risk his calling in the many markers he had on the majority of them.

Prudence watched him approach now and silently cursed her luck. She was sure the doorman, Plunkett as Stockton had called him, had been about to let her slip inside. She was also quite sure that Stockton’s arrival would put an end to that likelihood. The blasted man, she thought now with annoyance. She had been so close!

Stephen approached slowly, his glanced narrowing first on his new doorman, then on the young woman the beefy man had been mauling just moment’s ago. The woman looked angry, but there was no missing the trace of tears on her face. As for the large man he had hired to replace his previous doorman, Plunkett stood with his hands hidden guiltily behind his back, a culpable expression on his face. He was also avoiding looking at the woman he had been man-handling just moment’s ago.

Pausing before the large man, Stephen snapped, “Explain yourself, Plunkett.”

The doorman’s round face squinched up in alarm, his eyes filling with panic. “I- She- You-” His gaze shot wildly from Stephen, to the woman, then to the door of the club before returning to Stephen’s steely expression. Finally, his shoulders slumped in defeat and he rumbled, “I knew this job was too good to keep.”

Much to Stephen’s amazement that seemed to upset the woman even more. A scowl covering her face, she turned on him. “You can not fire this poor man. He did absolutely nothing wrong.”

“He was mauling you just moments ago,” Stephen pointed out quietly.

“Nay. He was attempting to comfort me. I had-” She seemed to struggle briefly, her gaze dropping to the mangled item in her hand before she visibly brightened and held it up as if for proof. “My umbrella! I had broken it and was quite distressed and he, kind gentleman that he is, was attempting to offer assistance.” A cagey smile came to her face. “So, while I thank you for your effort to assist me. It is completely unnecessary. Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I should be on my way.”

Nodding to each of them, she started calmly forward, a pleasant smile on her face that died abruptly when Stephen caught her arm and drew her to a halt.

“My apologies, my lady. But your brief upset appears to have rattled your sense of direction.” He turned her firmly away from the door to Ballard’s, not surprised to see the vexation on her face as she found herself facing the street. For a moment, he thought she would go on about her business, but then she turned determinedly on him.

“I realize that ladies are not generally allowed inside-”

“Never ever,” Plunkett rumbled, shaking his head sadly.

The woman bent a brief, irritated glance on his doorman, then continued grimly, “However, this is a somewhat urgent matter and-”

“What sort of urgent matter?” Stephen asked.

“What sort?” she echoed, looking highly annoyed.

“Watch out for her umbrella,” Plunkett warned him in an undertone, drawing Stephen’s confused glance.

“Her umbrella?”

The giant nodded solemnly. “If she drops her reticule, watch out for her umbrella.”

“I will not drop my reticule,” the woman said through her teeth, making the man shrug.

“You did before.”

“That was purely accidental,” she told him firmly.

“Uh huh. And I suppose breaking your parasol over my head was an accident too,” the larger man said now. The accusation seemed to distress the woman further and she began to twist the broken parts of the umbrella in agitation.

“It was an accident. It slipped.” She was a poor liar Stephen decided, and nearly let the amusement building inside him escape on a laugh. The woman looked like she would like to hit his doorman again at that moment. She also looked vaguely familiar to him and he spent a moment searching his mind for where he knew her from, until his doorman continued on with his argument with the woman.

“It slipped?” Plunkett asked doubtfully. “And cracked in half over my head?”

“That is where it slipped to. It was an accident,” she insisted. But, in the pool of light from the lanterns on either side of the door of his establishment, her face appeared to be as red as a ripe cherry.

“Uh huh.” Plunkett nodded slowly. “Just like you’re getting inside is an urgent matter.”

“Well, it is an urgent matter.” she said firmly. Then, looking unhappy, added, “To me.”

Deciding he had heard all he cared to and that Plunkett could handle the situation well enough on his own, Stephen shook his head and turned to enter his place of business. He had barely taken a step in that direction, when the woman grasped his arm and tugged at it. Her expression, when he glanced impatiently back, was imploring.

“Please, Lord Stockton. I beg you. It really is important.”

Stephen hesitated briefly, then, wondering why even as he did it, turned back to face her. “What is this urgent matter?”

He was more irritated than surprised when she looked hesitant and glanced uncomfortably toward Plunkett then down at the freezing walk. Stephen opened his mouth to repeat the question, only to pause impatiently as a carriage pulled up behind his own, spilling several young dandies out onto the street. When they headed for the entrance to Ballard’s, he took the woman’s arm and urged her a little away from the door. “Now, why do you wish to get inside my place of business?”

“I need to speak to my father.”

Stephen blinked at that quiet announcement. “Your father is inside Ballard’s and you wish to speak to him?”

She nodded, her expression bleak.

“Why?”

“Why?”

“Why?” Stephen repeated firmly.

“My mother-”

When she hesitated again, he prompted, “Has she been injured? Fallen ill?”

The question seemed to startle her and she quickly shook her head. “Nay, she-” This time when she paused, he had the distinct impression she was mentally berating herself for not grasping at that excuse. Apparently deciding it was too late now, she said, “Nay. If you will recall, my brother died last year.”

“I am sorry for your loss,” Stephen said quietly, peering closely at the woman. Her words assured him that there was a reason she looked familiar. Apparently, he should know her. Unfortunately, he couldn’t quite place her name or title. It was quite hard to tell what she looked like, though, with that prim little hat she wore and the way she kept ducking her head.

“Thank you. But you see, it hit my family hard. He was the only male and it was an accident...unexpected, so-” She hesitated, her head lowered, eyes fixed on the agitated movements of her hands. “My father took it poorly. He hasn’t really recovered. In fact, he is drinking heavily, you see, and gambling-”

“I am sorry that your father is not dealing well with his loss,” Stephen interrupted. He knew who she was now. The part about the accident a year ago and her father dealing with it by drinking and gambling had cleared up the matter in his mind. Her father was Lord Prescott, a regular at Ballard’s. The moment he had recalled the man, he had recognized his daughter. Lady Prudence Prescott. “But you have yet to explain this urgent matter that-”

“It is all she wants for Christmas!” Prudence blurted over his voice and Stephen frowned.

“Who?” Stephen asked with bewilderment.

“My mother. She has been just as distressed by John’s death, but is now troubled further by father’s behavior. He is gambling without restraint. The creditors have begun to visit daily and he is not even aware- Or if he is, he does not care. He insists on drowning himself in drink and-” She paused, taking in what Stephen knew was an uncomfortable and even slightly embarrassed expression on his face at hearing such personal details, then forged ahead determinedly, “Several days ago I asked my mother what she wanted for Christmas. Her reply was ‘For your father to stop drinking and gambling our lives away and come back to us before he lands us all in debtor’s prison.’ And I thought, well, the Good Lord helps those who help themselves, and if I could just make him see what he is doing to us all, if I could just make him see- But he will not stand still long enough for me to approach him on the matter. He is out the door the moment he awakes. He heads straight here to gamble and ...”

Her voice faded away and Stephen glanced reluctantly back. He really didn’t want to know all this about the Prescotts. He really didn’t wish to become involved in their problems and had let his gaze wander, his mind searching for a polite way to excuse himself from the woman. Now he turned to see her disheartened expression and felt guilt prick him. The man was gambling his family’s ‘lives away’ while they stood there in the cold winter air.

“Where is your carriage?” he asked abruptly, cursing himself for the stupid question when her hands tightened on her broken umbrella and she blushed furiously. He wasn’t at all surprised by her answer. But he did admire the proud way she raised her head and the dignified voice she used to give it.

“It was sold for the creditors.”

Nodding, he glanced toward his carriage, then took her arm and urged her toward it.

“What are you doing, my lord?” Prudence asked, sounding more startled than alarmed.

“I am having you taken home.” Stephen paused beside his closed conveyance to open the door. He then tried to hand her up into it, but she was having none of that. Digging her heels in, she turned on him, her eyebrows drawing together in displeasure.

“I have no wish to go home. I need to speak to my father. He-”

“He is a fully grown man. And he is your father. He knows what he is doing.”

“Nay,” she said quickly. “That is not so, if he knew the effect his gambling was having-”

“He would give it up and return home to sit by the fire singing Christmas carols as a good man should,” Stephen finished wearily, then glanced away from the stricken look on her face. After a moment of silence, he peered back, a sympathetic expression on his face. “Nothing you say shall stop him, you know. You cannot change his behavior. He must do that on his own.”

“I must at least try.”

Stephen’s mouth tightened at her determination. There would be no reasoning with her. She was desperate. “Then you shall have to try at home, Lady Prescott. Ballard’s is no place for a woman.”

“It is no place for a man either,” she replied quickly and he felt his guilt ease under annoyance.

His voice was much less sympathetic as he said, “Ladies are not allowed inside Ballard’s and you shall not be the exception. Now, in you get.”

This time when he tried to hand her into the carriage, she went. Reluctantly, but she went. He closed the door the moment she was inside, afraid she might change her mind, then asked for her address through the window. She gave her answer in such a low voice that he had to strain to hear it. Nodding, he tipped his hat the slightest bit in respect, then moved to give the address and his orders to his driver. A moment later, the carriage was away and Stephen was left to watch her pale face grow smaller as she peered out the window of the departing carriage. That image haunted him for the rest of the night as he oversaw his club, mingling, drinking and gambling with his guests.

Prudence sat on the expensive upholstery of Lord Stockton’s carriage seats, rage pulsing through her like a living thing. She was furious and frustrated, and knew exactly who to blame for it. One Stephen Ballard, Lord Stockton. He was the one who owned the club where her father was tossing their lives away. He was the one who wouldn’t let her in to speak to him and perhaps turn him from the destructive path that was ruining them all.

“So, ladies are not allowed in Ballard’s. No exceptions,” she said to herself grimly as the carriage rolled to a stop before her home. “Then I suppose I shall have to go as a man.”

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