Can the Ladies’ Wagering Whist Society help a young woman with a dark secret allow light and love into her heart?

Lydia Sheffield is always laughing, always joking, always charming, always surrounded by adoring gentlemen. She wants to enjoy the season, and not yield to Regency society’s expectation that she quickly marry and have children. She also has a secret lurking within her—one that will keep her from ever taking a risk on love.

Lord John Welles has a secret of his own, but Lydia has discovered it. She noticed what no one else did, that this attractive, upstanding gentleman is filching diamonds from unsuspecting ladies. Lydia extracts a price for her silence—a fake engagement to her for the season. John never expected to want to make the arrangement real, nor that Lydia would be so dead-set against it. There’s something she’s not telling him, and he’s determined to find out what it is.

Can John discover Lydia’s secret in time to save his heart from breaking? He’ll need to convince her to take a chance on love, on life… and on him.

It will take the Ladies’ Wagering Whist Society to help John win his diamond.

Chapter One

~May 10, 1806~

Lydia Sheffield grasped onto her friend Tina’s arm, certain that she had to be imagining things. “I’m sorry, but did you just see that?”

“See what?” Tina asked, following her line of sight.

“That man.” Lydia followed the man with her eyes across the crowded ballroom, trying to indicate who she was speaking about without outright pointing in his direction. “That man heading out the door, the one in the gray coat. He just stole two diamond pins from a lady’s hair!”

“What? You must be imagining things, Miss Sheffield,” said Lady Norman, Tina’s mother, with a little laugh. “No gentleman would steal pins from a lady’s hair!”

“No, I’m certain… Oh, he’s gone,” Lydia said, feeling strangely disappointed. She let go of Tina’s arm, but her heart was still pounding. She’d never actually witnessed a crime before.

“He must have just accidentally bumped into her,” Tina said.

“Yes,” Lydia said, not believing it for a second. “Perhaps it was that.” Truly, who would steal hairpins from a lady at a ball? No one could possibly be so brazen! Besides which, everyone here had been invited, and no member of the ton would be so desperate that they would resort to stealing. No, Tina was right. She had to have imagined it.

Lydia turned back to Tina and her mother. “Yes, you must be right.” She forced out a little laugh. “No one would steal hairpins from a lady at a ball.” She shook her head, trying to dispel the image from her mind’s eye.

“Perhaps you need some fresh air as much as I do,” Tina suggested.

“Oh, no. I’m fine. Truly,” Lydia said, giving another laugh. What she really wanted to do was follow the man and see where he went. But there was no way to do so politely. No, she was stuck right where she was.

“Well, then, if you don’t mind, I think I’m going to get step outside for a moment. If one more person insults me to my face, I’m not entirely certain I won’t actually scream,” Tina said, putting on a brave smile.

“Oh, dear!” her mother said, looking a little worried.

“It’s all right. I’m sure that a brief walk in the garden will make me feel better. If you’ll excuse me.” Tina gave them both a little curtsy and headed out the French doors to the garden.

Lydia had been doing her best to be a good friend to Tina Ayres when she’d imagined she’d seen the theft. Tina had just made her society debut that very evening and was having a hard time of it.

Lydia had been half-listening to Tina and her mother discuss how rude people could be when the man caught her eye. She’d been casually scanning the people crowding Lady Kershaw’s ballroom when she noticed the gentleman move in what almost looked like a furtive manner behind a group of ladies.

The women were probably discussing poor Tina, as every once in a while one of them stole a glance in her direction. It was what nearly everyone at the party was talking about after all. Before today, Tina had been known to a number of ladies of the ton merely as a modiste—granted, she was one who made beautiful, extremely flattering gowns, but this evening her father, the Earl of Ayres, had re-introduced her as his daughter. But for Lydia, it was the gentleman in the gray coat who’d held her attention.

He was incredibly handsome in a rather ordinary way. He was of average height with dark blond hair. His clothing was completely ordinary, nothing spectacular, or particularly memorable. It was true that his face was handsome and his physique on the athletic side, but other than that he was completely forgettable. Lydia had just been trying to figure out what it was about him that captured her attention, when she’d seen him pluck the pin from one of the older ladies.

Lydia studied the woman’s complicated coiffure. It was a maze of braids and curls all held together by a dozen or so diamond hair pins. Had the man—could she call him a gentleman?—pulled a pin from the lady’s hair?

“I can’t help but wonder who that gentleman was, though,” Lydia said to Lady Norman after Tina left.

“Maybe I know him. What did he look like,?” her friend asked, even though she was still watching her daughter’s retreating back. Lady Norman was always so helpful and more than willing to step in as a sort of chaperone to Lydia since her father usually made himself scarce the moment they walked into any party.

Lydia pictured the gentleman in her mind. “He was tall but not very tall. Brown, maybe dark blond hair. He wore a dark gray coat and black waistcoat with gray embroidery. Quite elegant, actually, in a very understated way.”

Lady Norman turned back to Lydia. “I don’t believe I’ve seen the gentleman.”

“Oh, well. It’s all right. I’m sure I’ll see him again.”

“One always does,” Lady Norman agreed.

It was less than a quarter of an hour later when Lydia did spy the gentleman again, and oddly enough, he was once again lurking among the ladies. How was it that they didn’t notice him, Lydia wondered.

This time she was on her own, so she wound her way through the crowded ballroom, doing her best to keep an eye on the man. It wasn’t easy and she did, in fact, lose sight of him when she was waylaid by Mrs. Aldridge. The lady was a member of the Ladies’ Wagering Whist Society along with Lady Norman and herself.

Mrs. Aldridge looked quite fetching in a gown of deep pink with matching rubies circling her throat, wrists, and hanging from her ears. Lydia, never one to pass up such an opportunity, complimented her on her attire.

“Thank you, but why are you not dancing, Miss Sheffield?” Mrs. Aldridge asked in a good-natured scold.

Lydia gave the woman a wink. “I’m just on my way around the ballroom in the hopes of enticing a particular gentleman to ask me,” she said with a giggle before continuing on her way.

The older woman burst out laughing but quickly stifled herself when heads turned her way.

Sadly, when Lydia turned back to where her quarry had been, the man had disappeared once again.

Lydia harrumphed to herself. This was definitely the most elusive gentleman she’d ever seen. She was just about to turn back toward Mrs. Aldridge when there was a small commotion among the ladies by whom he’d been loitering.

“I was certain I had it on when I went into the lady’s retiring room,” said one rather rotund woman in a dove gray silk dress.

“Perhaps it fell off when you washed your hands?” one of her companions asked.

“But I didn’t…er, yes, perhaps that is the case. I’ll just go back and see if anyone has found it,” she said, turning slightly pink.

Lydia stepped up to the lady’s friend and asked, “Is everything all right, my lady?”

“Oh yes, Lady Fostler has just misplaced her bracelet.” The woman raised a lorgnette to her eyes and peered at Lydia. “Have we met?”

“Yes, the Duchess of Kendall introduced us at Lady Bradmore’s ball a few weeks ago,” she said, lying straight through her teeth but knowing no woman would ever deny knowledge of an introduction by a duchess. “I’m Lydia Sheffield. My father is Lord Daniel Sheffield,”

As expected the woman nodded slowly as she lowered her eyepiece. “Oh, yes, of course, Miss Sheffield. How lovely to see you again this evening.”

“And you, my lady. I do hope that Lady Fostler finds her bracelet,” Lydia said.

“As do I. It was apparently given to her by her husband for her birthday only last year. A beautiful diamond confection,” the lady said.

“Oh, dear,” Lydia tsked sadly. That gentleman in the gray coat… He wouldn’t have… he couldn’t have… Lydia shook her head. No! It would simply be too outrageous if he had stolen a bracelet right off a woman’s wrist.

But Lydia was more determined than ever to discover the identity of the man.

The 1806 Season