Can the Ladies of the Wagering Whist Society help an impoverished modiste win the hand of a sought-after Duke?

Tina Rowan is beautiful, talented—and wants nothing more than to be free of her past. The illegitimate daughter of a baroness, she is being blackmailed by her own foster-father. She must rely on her flair for designing dresses to earn enough to pay him off. Starting a business dressing the ladies of Regency society isn’t easy for a nobody. But Tina has three aces up her sleeve—her own amazing talent, her well-connected biological mother, and the helpful (if meddlesome) support of the Ladies’ Wagering Whist Society.

The handsome, arrogant Duke of Warwick has grown up schooled in the “proper” way for a nobleman to behave. Rule number one: do not fraternize with people of the lower classes. But when he has to introduce his beloved sister to society, he finds himself completely reliant on the beguiling woman he’s hired as his sister’s modiste. To his astonishment, he finds himself opening up to her and enjoying her company far, far too much.

When Tina discovers the true man behind the ducal title, her heart might very well be lost. But can the duke set aside his façade and allow himself to love the only woman who could possibly make him happy?

It will take the combined efforts of the Ladies’ Wagering Whist Society to see this difficult hand well played.

Prologue

March 1, 1806

Tina Rowan could barely breathe. Her legs trembled with every step forward.

Her father wanted to have a word with her.

How many bruises would she come away with this time?

Most of the time, she managed to stay out of sight. Out of sight, out of mind. Throughout her childhood, she’d kept in his good graces, merely by keeping out of the house as much as possible. At first, it had been tutoring with the vicar, who’d been kind enough to not only teach her but allowed her to spend hours in his library reading everything she could. He’d understood her need to stay away from her father and had abetted her in every way possible.

When Mr. Rowan had apprenticed her to the local seamstress, she’d spent her days and sometimes well into the night sewing. He’d been happy because she was earning money, and every penny she earned made him richer.

But now… Now, she wondered, what more did he want from her?

“Sit down,” he said, by way of greeting when she walked into his bedchamber.

She did so immediately, sitting on the edge of his bed—the only place for her to sit.

He paced for a moment before stopping directly in front of her. He smiled.

Tina felt a cold bead of sweat roll down her back between her shoulder blades.

“Congratulations, my dear,” he said, holding the unnatural smile on his face. “You are to be married.”

“What?” she breathed. She’d not heard a word of this—not a whisper from anyone in the household. Had they not known? Or, she supposed, it was simply that they didn’t care. One would have thought that growing up in a household would have endeared her to this family that raised her, but no, they’d only felt contempt for her and hadn’t once felt the need to hide it.  She thought her foster-mother held some affection for her. Her four foster-siblings had made it abundantly clear throughout her life that they felt nothing for the illegitimate child who’d been thrust on them.

“You’ll be marrying Caleb,” he said, naming his eldest son

“But…” She stopped. She didn’t dare argue, or could she? It was merely a question of how badly he’d beat her if she did. But surely there had to be a way out of this. She couldn’t, wouldn’t marry her foster-brother. He was cut from the same cloth as her father.

He was not a nice man.

“When you marry him, your monthly allowance will go to him,” her father said, the smile fading from his lips.

Oh. So that’s what this was. He wanted to keep her allowance—the money her biological mother paid for her upkeep.

“You just want to keep the money in the family,” Tina said to confirm her suspicions.

He stared at her neither confirming or denying it.

“But if I marry Caleb, he’ll get the money, not you,” she pointed out needlessly, but she was thinking this through, looking for a way out. “What if I could ensure you continued receiving the money?”

She would do anything, anything at all to keep from marrying her brute of a brother.

Her father narrowed his eyes. “And just how would you do that?”

“I could… I could work and—”

“You do work, but you are twenty years old. Lady Norman expects you to marry. If you do, it’s going to be to Caleb.”

“Lady Norman has said that she wants me to get married?” Tina asked. Her biological mother hadn’t said anything to her when they’d met just the week before at the seamstress’s shop. Tina had made Lady Norman three gowns. She’d been very happy with them, and very happy that Tina had made and designed them. But not a word about marriage had been spoken.

“She hasn’t,” her father conceded, “but it’s just a matter of time. You’re twenty!”

“Perhaps I can forestall her…” Tina suggested.

“You need to marry. You will marry Caleb. End of discussion!” Her father turned to leave. He wasn’t a man of many words, and he was not used to being argued with.

“What if I earned even more money? What if I… I went to London and worked? I could send you the same amount Lady Norman has been paying you… perhaps with an additional ten percent,” Tina said quickly before he left the room.

He stopped.

Slowly he turned back. “And how do you propose to do that? She pays me a good sum.”

“I could work as a journey-woman. A seamstress. I’ve learned a lot in the two years since I’ve been apprenticed to Mrs. Little.”

“You wouldn’t earn that much as a seamstress.” He shook his head. “No, you’ll marry Caleb.”

“I could if I weren’t just a seamstress. I-I design dresses too. I could become a-a modiste. To the noblewomen. To the ladies of London Society,” she said, pulling straws out of thin air.

It was true that she had been designing dresses for a little while. Mrs. Werthing, the vicar’s wife had always allowed Tina to look through her fashion magazines, so she knew something what of the current trends were in London.

“Lady Norman was very happy with the dresses I made for her last week and I’ve made dresses for quite a few others who’ve all admired my work,” she added for good measure. “Lady Norman paid five guineas for each dress I made her.”

Her father narrowed his eyes at her at the mention of the money.

“If I make enough dresses, I could afford to pay you,” she said.

“Twenty percent.”

“Twenty? What? No! I still need to be able to live and living in London is expensive. Ten.” She couldn’t believe she was arguing with this man. Her boldness surprised her.

“Caleb will be happy to take you to wife.”

“Fifteen. It is all I can afford.” To be honest, she had no idea how much she could afford, but it sounded reasonable.

“How will you get started? You’ll need a patron,” he pointed out.

“Lady Norman will help me, I’m sure.”

He nodded. “Fifteen plus what she already pays me. You have two months to start paying. If I don’t get my money on time, I’ll tell the newspapers the truth about you, you little bastard, and who your mother is too.” With that he walked out of the room.

Tina’s jaw dropped. He would let the world know the truth? That would destroy both her and Lady Norman. She would have no choice but to marry Caleb—she couldn’t imagine that anyone else would have her.

And he only gave her two months! No one could get a business started and profitable in two months! It would take an absolute miracle!

Not only that, but she hadn’t yet asked her biological mother if she would actually help her. She could only pray that Lady Norman would. Otherwise, she was going to have a lifetime of black eyes and tip-toeing around an angry husband.

The 1806 Season