Can the Ladies’ Wagering Whist Society ensure that two business rivals close the deal?

Joshua Powell, Lord Wickford, enjoys being the dashing, popular and successful owner of Powell’s Club for Gentlemen. But when he is nearly killed while riding through the streets of London, he realizes that he needs to find a wife and beget an heir. Joshua knows that his intended wife needs to be a lady from a well-esteemed family. So why is he constantly distracted by his business adversary’s sparkling beauty, sharp tongue, and dazzling mind?

Gwendolyn Sherman is fascinated with numbers and with figuring out the most efficient way to run her father’s business. So her father makes her a deal: he would allow her to anonymously start her own business – a club for ladies – only if she would stay in London and find a titled husband. But those Regency lords all seem to want her only for her dowry. All, of course, except for her biggest competitor, the annoyingly attractive Viscount Wickford.

It will be up to the Ladies’ Wagering Whist Society to win their last trick, by setting Joshua straight on his priorities. After all, the ace of hearts trumps the king of clubs.

Chapter One

~April 4, 1808~

Gwendolyn Sherman riffled through her wardrobe. She had brought about ten dresses with her from Lancashire, and they were all quite serviceable, but that was it. They were serviceable. Knowing that her father was expecting her to make a splash when she entered society this Season, serviceable was not good enough.

   With a sigh, she closed the door to the cabinet. If she’d had her way, she would be back home in Lancashire going over the books or discussing how to improve efficiency in her father’s cloth factory. Her father, though, loved her deeply and had set his heart on her joining the ton. She didn’t even know if she could. If she would be accepted. But for her father, she would certainly try. And in order to even try, she needed a new wardrobe.

   Her coachman dropped her and her maid off at Madam DuBois’s shop on Bond Street. She had been reliably informed that was the shop to go to for the latest fashions and the finest needlework. The moment Gwendolyn stepped inside, she knew it was absolutely true. Standing near a table covered with bolts of material were none other than her two closest friends from school, Bel and Bee Kendrick—as of this past summer, Lady Conway and Lady St. Vincent.

   One of the twins glanced up at the sound of the bell ringing at the door and gave a screech. Within a moment, she had her arms thrown around Gwendolyn’s shoulders and was hugging the life out of her. Gwendolyn knew immediately that this was Bel—Bee would never behave so boldly.

   Gwendolyn could only laugh and hug her dearest friend. “I can’t believe you’re here!” she said, pulling away to see Bel’s shining, hazel eyes. Her bright red hair was done up in an impressively complicated coiffure, and her deep green calico gown made her cheeks look flushed and healthy.

   “You can’t believe I’m here! What are you doing in Town?” Bel asked.

  “I don’t care why you’re in Town,” her sister interrupted with a laugh as she came to give Gwendolyn a hug as well.       “I’m just so very happy to see you.” Bee looked as lovely as her sister only her hair was in a simple chignon, and her gown was a demure peach muslin.

   Gwendolyn laughed again, hardly wanted to let go of her friend’s hand she was so thrilled. “I’m happy to see you too.”

   “Cassia! Cassia! See who’s here! You will not believe it,” Bel said, rushing to toward the back of the shop. She pulled the third of Gwendolyn’s closest friends from behind a curtain, Cassia Benton. A seamstress was still buttoning the back of the girl’s dress, following along in an attempt to finish what she’d been doing. She finally gave up when Cassia gave a little gasp. “Gwendolyn!”

   Gwendolyn turned and engulfed Cassie in a big hug, squeezing her tight. “Oh, it’s so good to see you!” She pulled back and looked Cassie over from head to foot. “Something’s different.”

   She let go and walked around the girl, taking her in from all sides. “What…” Gwen snapped her fingers. “I know what it is. You’re not covered in dirt!” She grabbed Cassie’s hand and looked at her nails. “Clean!”

   In all their years together at school, Cassie had always been covered in dirt from all the time she spent digging in the garden. She’d been dismissed from dinner more than once because her nails hadn’t been perfectly cleaned.

   Cassie laughed and pulled her hand back from her friend. “It’s Cynthia’s fault. Can you believe? She forced me to bathe and clean under my nails?”

   “Oh, good,” Gwendolyn breathed a sigh of relief. “So, this is not normal? Please tell me it’s not.”

   With a giggle, Cassie shook her head. “I promise, it’s not! But you are looking fabulous as always.”

   Gwendolyn had always done her best to be well dressed at school for fear of being looked down upon by all the girls from noble families. There were too few girls like her, and she’d never wanted to seem out of place or give anyone the opportunity to think her any less than everyone else.

   “Oh, thank you, but actually I’m here to get a new wardrobe,” Gwendolyn said. But even as the words were out of her mouth, realization suddenly dawned on her. Cassie was here in London, clean, and with her sister. That could only mean one thing. “Don’t tell me… are you making your come-out this Season?”

   Cassie laughed. “I am. And you?”

   “Yes!” Gwendolyn said. “You two convinced me at your wedding that it absolutely had to be this year for me,” she told the twins.

   “I am so glad you listened to us!” Bel said.

   “But who is sponsoring you?” Bee asked.

   Gwendolyn gave a negligent shrug. “No one. I don’t need a sponsor, I’m sure.” In truth, she didn’t know anyone who could possibly ask.

   The twins looked at each other and then back at her with identical worried expressions on their faces. “You do, Gwendolyn. I know you think your wealth will open all doors to you—” Bel started.

   “And it might, but—” Bee interjected.

   “But you do need a sponsor. We would do so, but we’re still too young and not very well established ourselves,” Bel finished.

   “Maybe Cynthia…” Cassie started, turning toward her sister, Lady Sorrell, who had joined them.

   “I don’t know, Cassie. I’m going to have my hands full with you,” the lady said apologetically. “You understand, Gwendolyn?”

   “Of course! Don’t give it a second thought,” Gwendolyn said, with a wave of her hand, forcing her smile to stay firmly in place, despite the small prick of pain that was starting in her stomach.

   “Maybe our aunt who brought me out last Season can help,” Bel said.

   “Yes! She was expecting to have me to sponsor this Season, but since I was here last year—” Bee started.

   “And are now married,” Gwendolyn said, giving Bee’s arm a friendly squeeze.

   Bee’s smile broadened. “And am now married,” she agreed. “I’ll ask her.”

   “But I don’t want to inconvenience anyone, and I don’t even know your aunt.” If this conversation had been held with anyone other than her dearest, closest friends, she would have been mortified by now and probably running for the door.

   “Well, why don’t you come over tomorrow, and I’ll introduce you,” Bee said.

   “Do you think…?” Gwendolyn started to ask. The knot in her stomach grew.

   “I’m sure she wouldn’t mind at all. And if she’s not available, I wonder if Mrs… I mean, Duchess Bolton wouldn’t mind,” Lady Sorrell said. “She’s a good friend of mine and would probably love to sponsor a young lady such as yourself.”

   “A duchess?” Gwendolyn breathed. She couldn’t imagine being sponsored by a duchess.

   “She just recently became a duchess. Before that, she was plain old Mrs. Aldridge, widow, whose husband was a watchmaker,” Bel explained.

   “A watchmaker?” Gwendolyn turned to her friend with raised eyebrows. The knot eased a little.

   “Yes! So, maybe she would be the perfect person to sponsor you. That’s an excellent idea, Lady Sorrell,” Bee agreed.

   “Could I possibly meet her?” Gwendolyn asked hesitantly.

   “I would be happy to introduce you,” Lady Sorrell said.

   “Thank you.” She would not want to put the lady into an awkward situation of having to accept if she truly didn’t want the responsibility. In person, Gwendolyn was sure they could discuss it properly. More than anything, though, Gwendolyn wanted to change the topic. She turned to Cassie. “Have you finished choosing your gowns, Cassia, or are you just getting started?”

   “We’re just finishing, but we could probably stay and help you,” Cassie suggested.

   My goodness, but it was good to have friends! There was nothing worse than shopping alone. “I would like that above all else!”

~*~

   Joshua Powell, Viscount Wickford, reached out a hand to caress the blaze down the nose of the beautiful roan mare he’d just arranged to purchase. The horse, however, shied away from him, dancing backward as far as the rope being held by her handler would allow.

   “Now, now, it’s all right,” the man cooed to the frightened horse. He turned back to Joshua. “Just a little skittish, is all. Not used to bein’ in the city.”

   Joshua nodded and smiled. He’d come prepared to make friends should he find a horse to his liking. He pulled a sugar cube from his pocket and held it out on his open palm.

   The horse’s nostrils flared, scenting the treat. Every so gently, she lipped the goody from his hand as Joshua reached up and stroked her nose. “That’s a good girl. We’re going to become great friends,” he told her. He turned to her handler. “What is her name, again?”

   “Sally. Sally Forth.” He gave Joshua an approving nod.

   “Sally. An excellent name. We’ll get along just fine. I’ve got my saddle with my groom. I’ll send him over while I take care of the sale.”

   Just half an hour later, he mounted his new horse and gently led her out of Tattersall’s stables and onto the bustling street of Piccadilly with his phaeton being driven by his groom just behind. She was clearly nervous, but Joshua guided her with a firm hand.

   He’d just passed Green Park when a cart piled high with tree trunks passed him on his left. It was going much too fast, so Joshua slowed down and moved toward the center of the street to allow it to pass, hoping Sally wouldn’t spook. Unfortunately, just at that moment, a coach came barreling out of St. James to his right and tried to cut across Piccadilly, heading to Bond Street.

   Sally reared just as Joshua had turned his attention to the oncoming vehicle. With a shout, he lost his seat.

The 1808 Season