Authors: Lynsay Sands
|All I Want|
|HarperCollins US (2001)|
Previously published in the print anthology
All Lady Prudence wants for Christmas is to keep her family out of the poorhouse. Easily done if her father would stop gambling away what little is left of their fortune. But when Pru arrives at London's most notorious gaming hell to haul her father home, she marches right into its wickedly handsome and utterly infuriating proprietor, Lord Stockton—who has no intention of letting a lady into his establishment. With that wicked man in her way, Pru knows she's going to need nothing short of a miracle to make her Christmas wish come true.
All I Want
doll just like the one in Werster’s window. That’s what I want for Christmas.”
Prudence smiled slightly at her sister’s words as the younger girl hugged their mother and kissed her good-night. Charlotte had been making her wishes known for weeks now, and Prudence and her mother had been working very hard at making a similar doll for her for most of that time. The doll itself was finished, though not completely satisfactorily. They were not professionals at the job, but they had done the best they could. Charlotte was a good girl, though; she would love it no matter its imperfections. Especially since they were making tiny little dresses for the doll that matched each of the girl’s own gowns. Prudence was positive the child would be pleased.
“Good night, Pru!”
She gave a grunt as her younger sister launched herself at
her, hugging her hard before spinning away to rush out of the room. Prudence watched the little whirlwind go with affection, then glanced at her mother, frowning when she saw the unhappiness on her mother’s face as she peered out the window.
“What would you like for Christmas, Mother?” she asked after a moment, hoping to distract her from whatever thoughts troubled her. Meg Prescott remained silent, so Prudence moved to her side to peer out and see what distracted her so.
Outside, two men stood on the front stoop arguing with Bentley. The last of their male retainers, the older man served as butler, valet, stablemaster, and anything else that was required. His wife, Alice, was their last female servant. The two did their best to keep the house running as smoothly as possible, but if things did not soon change, even they would have to be released. Prudence watched sadly as the older man doggedly shook his head and finally sent the two men on their way.
“Creditors,” she muttered with disgust as she watched them go, though who the disgust was for she couldn’t say. She could hardly blame anyone for attempting to get funds owed them. If her father would just—
“All I want for Christmas is for your father to stop his gambling before he sees us in debtor’s prison.”
Prudence glanced at her mother’s strained face. Apparently she had heard the question after all. Her gaze returned to the two men as they went through the front gate and pulled it closed with an angry clang. Creditors were starting to arrive at the door every day now. And there were a lot of them. Her father, of course, was never available. When he was home, he was sleeping off the drink from the night before. When he was awake, he wasn’t home but off drinking and gambling them closer to ruin. Bentley had
managed to turn away the creditors so far, but soon they would not be brushed off. Debtor’s prison was becoming a very real possibility. Why could her father not see what he was doing?
She glanced at her mother again and felt her heart tighten at the weary grief on her face. Things had been bad since Pru’s brother John had died in a carriage accident. He had belonged to the Four Horsemen’s club, where the sons of nobility went to race carriages they really didn’t have the skill to drive. He had died when his carriage lost a wheel and he’d been sent flying into a tree and broke his neck. That was when their father, Edward Prescott, had started to drink and gamble. He had taken the loss of his oldest child and only son poorly.
“That is all I want for Christmas,” her mother said now. “And I pray to God for it every day.”
For a moment Prudence felt sadness weigh her down; then she grimly straightened her shoulders. Her mother was of the old school, where a wife did not question her husband or his behavior. Prudence was of the firm belief that when the husband was destroying his family, someone needed to alert him to the matter. Besides, it had always been her opinion that God helped those who helped themselves. Which left it up to her to see if she could not help God wrap this Christmas wish up for her mother.
rudence 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 supposed 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 Sharpes 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 the desire 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 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 might not be a private club, but that didn’t mean women were any more welcome. Except as servants, she amended. Prudence had heard that Lord Stockton, the owner, had taken the innovative step of hiring female servants to serve the food and drink that persuaded 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. To be honest, Pru wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea herself. It certainly wouldn’t do her reputation any good. Not that there was much to worry about. She, her mother, and her whole family had already been as good as ruined—or would be the moment it was revealed the depths to which her father’s gambling had brought them.
It would be only a matter of time, she thought unhappily. The rumors and gossip were already beginning to flow. The difference in the way the
in general responded to the Prescott family was already notable. They were starting to distance themselves, not shunning the family openly yet—that would wait until the rumors and gossip were proven true—but invitations to balls had all but stopped and no one spoke to them at those they did attend. Pru supposed that was why her mother now prayed that her father would stop before they were in debtor’s prison and not before the family was ruined. It was too late for the latter.
Still, it was one thing for her father to see them ruined, quite another for Prudence to throw her reputation away, which was what she was doing with this visit. But this was the only way she could think of to get to see her father. Talking to him at home would have been easier, of course, but Edward Prescott had developed the inconvenient habit of leaving the house the moment he awoke each day, leaving his daughter little opportunity to speak to him. Perhaps that was why he did it.
The hack she had hired to get her here 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 the task done, she reprimanded herself. Action was what was needed! Straightening her shoulders, she forced her chin up and marched forward.
Prudence hadn’t really considered how she would get past the doorman zealously guarding Ballard’s entrance, but taking him by surprise seemed her best chance. 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, which was why 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 upon 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 stepped into her path. He was a solid wall of human flesh,
and 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 shirtfront 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 the growled announcement as she found her footing. Releasing her hold on the man’s shirt, she took a step back, tipping 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.
His already smallish eyes went even smaller, signifying unpleasant suspicion in his bulldoggish face. “Evenin’.”
“I am sorry to trouble you, sir, and I do realize that ladies are not generally allowed inside. However—”
“Never?” she asked warily.
“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. 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 entrance dwindled, Prudence let her reticule drop to the ground between them. As one would expect, the doorman
bent to pick it up. Seeing the opportunity Prudence, quite without thinking, cracked her umbrella down hard over his big thick head. Much to her alarm, rather than bringing 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,
, used physical violence in her life. It only served her right that the first time she did, she’d broken her umbrella. Oh, this wasn’t working at all! She would never convince her father to quit his gambling and drinking. 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, she felt her eyes brimming with tears.
“Oh, now, don’t start 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 his 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, the doorman 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 him. “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 Prudence and whirled guiltily to face the owner of that commanding voice.
Stephen. Lord Stockton. Prudence recognized the man at once as she turned to see him stepping down from his carriage. Everyone knew Lord Stockton. The dashing man was rather infamous—a member of the nobility who was accepted only reluctantly by the ton. If they could, Pru felt sure society would have given him the cut direct and excluded him from the more elite balls and soirees. It wasn’t that the man wasn’t noble enough; his blood was almost 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. The
could hardly exclude him and risk his calling in the many markers he had on the majority of them.
Prudence watched the man approach 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 eyes narrowing first on his new doorman, then on the young lady the beefy employee had been mauling just moments before. 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.
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 his employer’s steely expression. Finally his shoulders slumped in defeat, 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 cannot 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 in proof. “My umbrella! I had broken it and was quite distressed. He, kind gentleman that he is, was attempting to offer assistance.” A cagey smile came to her face as she turned to the doorman and said, “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, the lady 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 his club, unsurprised to see the vexation on her face as she found herself facing the street. For a
moment he thought she would go about her business, but then she turned determinedly to face him.
“I realize that ladies are not generally allowed inside—”
,” Plunkett rumbled, shaking his head sadly. The woman bent a brief, irritated glance at the doorman, then continued, “However, this is a somewhat urgent matter and—”
“What sort of urgent matter?” Stephen asked.
“What sort?” she echoed, looking annoyed.
“Watch out for her umbrella,” Plunkett warned in an undertone, drawing Stephen’s confused glance.
The giant nodded solemnly. “If she drops her reticule, watch out for that 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 added. The accusation seemed to distress the woman further, and she began to twist the broken parts of her umbrella in agitation.
an accident. It slipped.” She was a poor liar, Stephen decided, and he nearly let the amusement building inside him escape in a laugh. The woman looked like she would like to hit his doorman again. She also looked vaguely familiar. He spent a moment searching his mind for where he knew her from while his doorman continued his argument with the woman.
“It slipped?” Plunkett said doubtfully. “And cracked in half over my head?”
“That is where it slipped to. It
an accident,” she insisted.
But in the pool of light from the lanterns on either side of the door, her face appeared to be as red as a ripe cherry.
“Uh-huh.” Plunkett nodded slowly. “Just like your getting inside is an urgent matter.”
an urgent matter,” she said firmly. Then, looking unhappy, she 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. 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 so, turned back to face her. “So 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, but paused impatiently as a carriage pulled up behind his own, spilling several young dandies out onto the street. As they headed for the entrance to Ballard’s, he took the woman’s arm and urged her away from the door. “Now, why do you wish to get inside my place of business?”