Fortune’s Wish

Book Cover: Fortune's Wish
Part of the Fortunes of Fate series:
  • Fortune's Wish

A Baronet, a Spinster, and a horse

When Sir John Townsend returns home to the small village of Beetham, he discovers the two loves of his life. One is a mare named Tychee, touted the fastest horse in England. The other is Miss Victoria Penwith, the owner of Tychee. After renewing their acquaintance, he now struggles to convince the lady—not the horse—that he needs her for more than her ability to breed winners.

Victoria Penwith, daughter of the owner of the famed Rosethorne Stables, would rather trust her horses than any man, especially Sir John. They come. They woo. They leave her at the altar. There is no way that she’ll fall into that trap again. She’d rather be a spinster. Not to mention that Sir John seems only interested in breeding his stallion to her mare. There’s quite enough breeding going on, thank you very much.

Sir John has never believed in mystical powers—but he’s desperate. It worked for his sisters—can magic work for him too? A fortune from the famed Madame Zeta gives him hope of winning Victoria’s heart. But will Victoria be able to let go of past hurts and trust in the enchantment of love?

Excerpt:

Chapter One

Beetham, Westmoreland
June, 1821

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If ever there was a time for magic, this would be it.
Sir John Townsend stood at the bottom of a set of rough, stone steps—the Fairy Steps— and pondered his fate, his future, his sanity.
It didn’t matter that two of his three sisters had sworn that the wish granted by the fairy at the top —if you successfully reached the top— had helped them find the perfect husbands. They were women, prone to flights of fancy and nonsense. Nonsense that had no effect on a man of the world, such as he.
He needed a wife and his horse needed a mare. It was as simple, as plain, as complicated as that.
The stallion had the easy path. Valiant was a combination of fast and long, just the right height and weight, just the right chestnut color, just short of perfection. All Valiant needed was a mare in heat and he was done.
Too bad it didn’t work that way for humans.
The perfect match for Valiant was here in Beetham and belonged to Martin Penwith of Rosethorne. Same chestnut color, same build, but with more stamina. Penwith’s horse had beaten nearly every racehorse on this side of England. Watching Tychee race was perfection. Watching Tychee handle the crowds with a calm demeanor was exactly what John was looking for.
Mr. Penwith’s daughter, Victoria, had managed to breed the perfect horse.
Mr. Penwith had managed to breed the perfect woman — for John.
He’d met her once when he was last in Beetham. Nice, rather pretty, and capable of carrying on a conversation about anything but fashion, the weather, or gossip. John liked her. A great deal. She’d been the only young lady that he thought he might be able to tolerate forever. Because marriage came with a life sentence and shackles, and he needed something besides a pretty face.
In the weeks he’d been in Beetham, he’d managed to try to court her, despite his lack of knowledge in the ways and means of courtship. Frankly, some days she seemed interested in him. Other days he believed she thought he was horse dung. Then there were the moments he was certain she thought he was the nasty bits of straw under the horse dung. John wasn’t sure what caused Victoria’s range of emotions where he was concerned.
He wished he was more like his horse. Breed and go.
But he wasn’t. He wanted a wife to warm the nights, children to fill the silence, and his house to become a home. Gah! He sounded like a woman!
What he really needed was a partner. Someone who knew horses better than he because he planned to raise the best carriage horses in England. Victoria, with her experience with breeding horses, could help him do that. If he could convince her to marry him. And convincing her to marry him was going to take magic, a great deal of magic.
His horse, a rather nice black tethered nearby, snorted.
“Keep your equine opinions to yourself.” He yelled at the horse.
He was dicked in the nob. Ready for Bedlam. Touched in the upper works.
He was climbing the Fairy Steps for a bloody wish to make a woman like him. Most men wouldn’t worry about it, but John’s reputation in Beetham wasn’t the best. There was also the fact that he was still rebuilding his estate out of dun territory. Magic might be the only way any woman would consent to marry him.
John placed a booted foot on the first step, then the next. He kept his arms down at his sides resisting the urge to steady himself. If he touched the sides, it was all for naught. He should know, this was the eighth time he’d tried it.
Thank God no one was there to witness his spiral into madness, especially his sisters.
He stepped up to a more uneven, narrower step, his balance faltered and his arm automatically lifted to catch himself, but he didn’t touch the stone.
From there the steps narrowed and grew more uneven. He wasn’t sure he was going to be able to fit. This was something he hadn’t considered. He wasn’t a heavy man, but he wasn’t lanky either. God forbid he became stuck in the stone and was found that way.
He pushed forward, carefully, fighting the urge to rush and just get it over with. Fairies and magic be damned. He felt like a proper fool.
Taking the steps as quickly as he could, focusing on the top rather than each step, he climbed the remaining ones and stood at the top. And waited. And waited. And waited.
Bloody hell? Where was the damn fairy? Wasn’t she supposed to pop out of thin air and say something. A simple what-is-your-wish-human would suffice.
But there was nothing.
A slight breeze brushed across his skin, cool against the sweat on his face. He glanced around. He had to admit that the view was spectacular. His sister, Juliet, had been right about that. The distant hills, the quaint village, and lush summer green of the trees stretched out before him. Birds chirped, trees swayed gently, and a peaceful quiet settled over him like a child’s blanket.
He sat on the top step, not ready to leave. He propped his arms on his knees and folded his hands. How foolish he’d been to come here seeking magic to make his life different. As if a wish would fix things like loneliness, regret. Or a struggling estate. Not to mention the affairs of the heart. Maybe all these things were out of the reach of fairies and mortal men.
Even forgiveness didn’t take away regret. He should know. He’d apologized enough times to his sister, Anne, for his treatment of her. Juliet as well. He’d been an ass for most of his life. Hell, his father had bred it into him. Yet he was determined to put the past behind him and be less of an ass. But not today.
He’d climbed these damn death trap steps and now he wanted his bloody wish.
“I wish—”
“Sir John?”
Victoria Penwith’s voice came from behind him. He jolted from shock. Good God, had she heard him speak? Had she witnessed the climb? Curses rang in his head like church bells. He quickly climbed to his feet and removed his hat as he turned to face the path that ran behind the steps. Miss Penwith sat upon a beautiful white horse. “I’m sorry, Miss Penwith. I didn’t see you there.”
She dismounted her horse and looped the reins over a nearby branch. “I’m rather surprised to find you here, Sir John.”
He stood there like a complete, mindless dunce as she smiled and moved towards him. Every word that was in his head, flew out of it with the speed of a racing horse. He couldn’t form a coherent sentence if his life depended upon it.
It was how he knew she was the one for him.
“I didn’t think magic fairy stories were your cup of tea.” Her voice had a teasing lilt to it that constantly made him want to smile like some silly sap.
“I thought I should see what the fuss is about. My sister raves about it.”
“The view is lovely. It’s one of my favorite spots in Beetham.”
“It’s nice.”
Bloody hell. Nice? That was all he could say? He needed to pay more attention to her words and less attention to her lips as they moved. She was wearing a dark blue riding habit this morning that outlined her figure entirely too well. Her bonnet had a jaunty feather in it to match. “How is your father?”
Inward groans echoed in his brain. First the scenery and now her father? His adeptness with conversation was sinking to the level of babbling idiot.
“He is very well, thank you.”
Awkward silence surrounded them. She kept glancing at his horse. Was that a hint? This woman was so difficult to read.
“Are you staying here long?” she asked.
“In Beetham?”
“At the steps.”
“Well I - uh - just climbed them so I was waiting for my wish.”
Miss Penwith threw her head back and laughed. God, he loved it when she laughed. He was a love-sick idiot.
“Sir John Townsend, renowned man of the world, wants a fairy wish?”
He could feel the heat climb up his face. Damn this woman. Damn him for not keeping his mouth shut. He shrugged and hoped it was casual. “I figured my sisters could do it. Why not me?”
She had that look on her face that screamed you-are-an-idiot. “Go ahead then. Wish.”
“It’s not like I can perform on demand, Miss Penwith.”
“I thought that’s what men like you did on a regular basis, Sir John.”
“Very naughty, Miss Penwith. I didn’t know you had it in you. I rather like it.”
It was her turn to blush. Her lips tightened into a thin line.
Victoria Penwith was a pretty girl, until you made her angry, then she was a gorgeous Amazon of a woman, except for the height. She was rather short. She barely reached his shoulder. He rather liked that he could easily tuck her against him.
“Have you ever climbed these death steps and received a wish, Miss Penwith? Did you have a go with a fairy?”
“Magic doesn’t exist. I would think a man like you would understand that.”
It was the bitterness in her voice, barely there, but deep seated that pulled at him. “Well, I don’t know. Shall we put it to the test? I have just climbed these damned things.”
Apprehension chased the sarcastic look from her face. “Don’t waste your wish on me, Sir John.”
She turned to leave and he gently caught her arm. She twitched ever so slightly beneath his light grip making him hope that the attraction was more mutual than she let on. He was never sure which Victoria was going to show up on any given day. There were times she welcomed his flirtations. Other times, like today, she was cautious.
“But I haven’t made my wish. I would like you to witness the event. If the fairy shows and grants my wish, then we’ll both know magic exists.”
She pulled her arm from his grasp. “Magic is for children, Sir John. I’m not a child.”
“Indeed, you are not. Still I would like you to bear witness.”
And, surprisingly, he wanted her to stay. Share this with him. It was rather surprising given the mortification he’d felt earlier when she found him. “Please, Miss Penwith.”
Her eyes darted to his and he hoped he looked sincere. He was sincere. She shook her head. “I - can’t, sir. I must get back to Rosethorne. My father is expecting me.”
“Then, by all means, you must return home.” He offered his arm and walked her to her horse then assisted her into the side saddle.
“Good day, Miss Penwith.”
“Do you know a Mr. Luke Connells, sir?”
Her question gave him pause. “I do. Why do you ask?”
He knew full well why she asked. Connells was in Beetham to report on the new favorite horse of the racing world, Tychee, and her owner, Martin Penwith. Connells was to evaluate Martin Penwith for membership in the Jockey Club.
“He has asked to see father this afternoon. I was just curious as to why?”
“Perhaps the Newcastle crowd has gotten wind of your luck with the horses, Miss Penwith.” It wasn’t a lie but it wasn’t exactly the truth. Penwith had been doing a great deal of bragging on his stables of late. Connells just wanted the truth.
“Will I see you at the fair for the race? I’ve brought one of my own to compete.” He couldn’t keep the desperation from his voice. This woman.
“Perhaps. Good day, Sir John.”
She turned her horse and led it down the narrow path through the woods towards her home. He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly until the disappointment eased. Trust him become enamored of a woman who couldn’t decide if she wanted him or not. Did other men have these troubles? Matthews didn’t seem to have trouble when he’d courted Juliet. Anne and her husband had had their share of misunderstandings, but they’d worked it out. Was it him who was doomed to set his sights on a woman who blew hot then cold?
“I wish there was some way to win Victoria’s heart and know she was mine.”
The words fell out of his mouth without thought into the silence of the surrounding woods. The unusual silence, he noticed. No birds. No insects, not even the rustle of the breeze in the leaves of the surrounding trees. Apprehension stilled his movements.
The air grew cooler as the wind picked up tugging at his coat tails. He shivered and looked around. The trees were still, yet he felt the cold breeze push against him. Hard.
What the bloody hell?
Bits of leaves and moss that had been on the ground around him at the edge of the steps spun around him in a whirlwind. He fought to keep his footing, trying to makes sense of it.
“Foolish human. You shall have your wish, though hearts are not easily won.”
The otherworldly voice broke into cracked laughter before disappearing like the wind around him.
What the hell just happened? He brushed off the bits of moss and leaves that had landed on his coat as the wind had whirled around him. That was it? Some voice and a bit of wind?
“Not really creative magic, if you ask me.” He muttered to himself as he replaced his hat.
A gust of wind knocked the hat to the ground and down the steps.
“Damn it! Stop that!” he shouted.
Yes, he was mad. Shouting at invisible, non-existent magical creatures.
He found the path that ran down the hill behind the stone steps and carefully made his way to where his hat had landed. He picked it up, removed the debris from it and replaced it on his head. Damn fairies. Unwinding the reins from the tree limb he’d used to tether the horse, he mounted and goaded the horse forward.
It had worked. Just as his sister had said that it would. John could barely believe it. He should have beat the bushes around the stones and located the voice. Someone had to be funning him. Yet he couldn’t prevent the little bit of hope that crept into his thoughts. Could magic touch Victoria’s heart and help him win her?
The stallion knew the way back to Matthews’ house and he let the horse just carry him there while his brain wrapped around the fact that he’d conversed with a fairy and wished for love like a romantic fool.
In the past three years his sisters had touted the magic of the steps. Hell, Anne and Juliet claimed that the fairies helped them find their husbands. He’d never believed it for a second. Fairies and magic were the stuff of children.
Well, he might as well be a believer now. There was no other explanation. Of course, he was pretty certain that magic couldn’t change someone’s feelings for another. That was not possible.
When Victoria Penwith had admitted that she didn’t believe in magic, he had silently agreed with her. There was no magic in his life. He had no one to blame but himself for all the shite that he’d been through the last few years.
Magic was a luxury the desperate could ill afford.
Yet the other-worldly voice cackling in humor had been there. He’d heard it. Damn it, he wished someone else had witnessed it as well. He might be embarrassed but at least he would know he hadn’t imagined it.

COLLAPSE

The Art of Seduction

Book Cover: The Art of Seduction
Part of the The Kings of Industry series:
  • The Art of Seduction

He walked away from love


Michael Cannon, Marquis of Langston, has one regret: that he didn’t marry Beth Bishop, especially after they became lovers. Instead, he’d been a coward. He used his family as an excuse to walk away, breaking her heart and disappointing her family who expected them to marry. It was the biggest mistake of his life.  



Difficult circumstances and heart ache has changed her


After having her heart broken twice, by her lover and the death of her beloved father, spinster Beth Bishop works as a theatre set painter in between commissions in order to provide a living for her and her mother. Settled in East London and away from Society, Beth is determined to be taken seriously as an artist.



A chance meeting opens a door


A quest for recognition brings Beth into Michael’s life again reminding her of the passion they shared. But is his insistence to marry just guilt from past wrongs? Can he really love and accept the woman she is today? And can she trust in love again?

Published:
Publisher: Eileen Richards
Genres:
Excerpt:

Chapter One

Spring 1825

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“I’m sorry, miss, but we are unable to take your piece for the Royal Exhibition this year. I’m afraid it doesn’t meet our standards.”
Elizabeth Bishop, or Beth as her mother called her, tightened her grip on the canvas of what she considered her finest work to date. It was different from anything she’d done while her father was alive. The poor flower girl near the street where she now lived was there every day without fail. Beth had given the child a coin when she could, taking the wilted flowers from the child for her mother. The juxtaposition of the gray fog that never seemed to dissipate and the bright yellow and white of the girl’s flowers had called to Beth in a way that the proper landscapes most ladies learned to paint never did. There was hopelessness, but also hope in many of the faces she saw in the streets now, and she felt the need to capture them on canvas.
“You’ve not even seen it clearly.”
“I’m sorry, Miss—”
“Bishop.”
“Miss Bishop, I can tell you went to a great deal of effort to get here, but it was for naught.”
“It was my understanding that the Royal Exhibition was open to everyone.”
“Everyone with talent.” The small, pompous balding man in front of her raised his chin and crossed his arms. He glanced down at her old coat and dress that was at least two years out of style. She wasn’t shabby, but she wasn’t as well dressed as the other ladies and gentlemen waiting in the Royal Academy of Art.
Anger surged through her. Normally she would swallow the disdain of those who thought they were above her, but not today. Not here. “Your name, sir?”
“I hardly think that is necessary, miss. Now run along before I have someone remove you.”
Her breath quickened and her eyes narrowed. “I will have your name, sir. In all the years that I have been in this building, never have I been treated in such an infamous manner.”
“Mr. Connors, is there something wrong?”
Beth flinched as the dark, husky voice spoke softly behind her. Could this day get any worse? Seeing Michael Camden, the Marquis of Langston, was the last thing she needed. She should have never let Sally Morgan talk her into putting this painting in the Exhibition. She should be at the Drury Lane Theatre working on the new set designs, not chasing an impossible dream.
“Lord Langston, I did not see you there,” Mr. Connors said as he straightened.
“This woman thought to enter the Exhibition. I was just expressing that her work did not meet our standards.” Disdain dripped from his voice like water from his chin.
Lord Michael Langston brushed past her as he stepped to confront Mr. Connors. His scent of man and soap wafted in her direction, causing all manner of memories, including the one where he promised to marry her, then disappeared.
“Miss Bishop is Sir Charles Bishop’s daughter.”
The man blanched. “I’m sorry, Miss Bishop, I had no idea.”
“Why don’t you let me handle this, Connors? There are several other artists waiting to submit their work.”
As Mr. Connors walked away to insult some other artist, Beth straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin and prepared for battle. She was no longer that pathetic girl he’d known five years ago. She was an independent woman, now, capable of taking care of herself. She turned to face him.
“It has been a long time, Miss Bishop. How have you been?”
Damn him, he still looked the same as he had when he studied art with her father, except a bit more honed, seasoned. His dark blonde hair waved away from his long face. His blue eyes were kind, his mouth tilted up in a slight smile. He was lean and tall as he towered over her.
“I am quite well, my lord, as you see.”
An uncomfortable silence settled between them that seemed louder than the noisy crowds around them. Beth could feel herself preparing to explode. Years of hurt and anger churned inside of her, needing a way out. It could not be here, surrounded by so many. “If you will excuse me, I must go.”
He looked down at the painting she held in her hands. “I see you’ve brought a painting for the Exhibition. May I see it?”
“I see no point, sir.” Her grip tightened on the painting. “I’ve been informed that it’s not good enough.”
“Mr. Connors is rather exuberant in his quest for the very best selections for the show. Perhaps I’ll have a different opinion.”
“Mr. Connors made it very clear how he felt about my entry, my lord.” She didn’t even try to keep the disdain from her voice. “I doubt my circumstances will improve if I show the painting to you.” Beth took pleasure in his jaw tightening.
“Show me the painting, Miss Bishop.”
There would be no disobeying him when used his lordly voice. The man was in line to inherit a dukedom, the imperious tone came with his position in society. Reluctantly, Beth held out the painting for him.
Langston took the canvas from her and held it up, a frown on his face. Beth gripped her hands tightly together waiting for his comments, hating the swirling feeling in her stomach as if his opinion still mattered to her. It did not matter. She would not let it matter.
“Mr. Connors said it was accomplished.”
Langston just raised an eyebrow but did not comment.
Beth studied his face for any sign of criticism. She’d painted her soul on that canvas. She wanted to snatch it out of his hands, protect it, protect herself.
“This is very good, Miss Bishop. Better than your father, in my opinion.”
Surprise coursed through her. “Thank you, my lord.”
Lord Langston didn’t speak for a moment.
“You aren’t going to accept it either, are you?” Beth made to take the painting from him.
“I didn’t say that.” He gripped the painting. “Let me see what I can do. I know the president well.”
Her shoulders slumped. They would take the painting only because she was Charles Bishop’s daughter. Sir Charles Bishop, the royal portrait painter, until the palsy took his gift and left anger in its place.
She didn’t want to be included out of pity. The poor daughter of a great painter until he couldn’t hold the brush steady any longer. “Thank you, Lord Langston, but I don’t think that will be necessary.”
Beth took the painting from him and dipped a curtsy. “Good day, sir.”
Head held high she turned from the astonishment on Langston’s face, and made her way through the crowds. Her walking boots echoed on the marble floors of the entrance. She pushed through the door into the park where gravel crunched beneath her feet. She marched through the gate and onto the Strand, back straight, eyes forward, her lips clinched tight to keep the trembling at bay. Never let them see you cry. Never let them know you think you are less than they are. The words thrummed through her head.
But she was less. She worked for a living when most ladies her age were married with children. Her hands were rough from the solvents she used with her paints. Her clothes smelled of turpentine and spirits. She worked in a theatre creating the sets for the various performances to pay off her mother’s debts.
Beth made it around the corner of the building before the tears in her eyes welled over. She swiped at them as she walked the few blocks to Catherine Street where the theatre was located. She was luckier than most. She could earn her own way with her art. She was more independent than she had been as a young lady in society. Perhaps her friends now were not as well-heeled as in her old life, but they were good friends. Good people who had dreams and aspirations, same as she.
The walk from the Royal Academy was quick, just five minutes or so and Beth found herself at the back door of the theatre. The doorman let her in. “Good Morning, Miss Bishop.”
“Good Morning, Mr. Carter. How is your wife today?” Beth said with a smile. Mr. Carter had escorted her home near Red Lion Square when the hour grew late. It took him well out of his way, but he still did it. She appreciated the gesture and the stories of his wife and children. Gentlemen didn’t have to be dressed by the finest tailor on St. James Street or have a title to his name. Gentlemen existed everywhere.
“She’s doing right well, miss. You’ve been crying, miss. Is there anything I can do?”
Another reminder how lucky she was. Beth smiled at Mr. Carter. “No, I’m just disappointed that they didn’t take my painting.”
“Don’t worry, they will. You are a great artist and if those toffs can’t see that, then they’re blind.”
Beth felt tears well up in her eyes at his kind words. “Thank you, Mr. Carter.”
She entered the darkness of the theatre and made her way back to the large space behind the stage where the sets where worked on. The room was filled with an assortment of furniture, large canvas backdrops, and other assorted items used on the stage. She leaned the painting against the wall with some other old canvases. Dust danced in the light from the overhead windows. The room smelled of the soothing scents of wood, paint, and solvents.
This might not be the life she had planned for herself, but it was good. She was content. Removing her bonnet, coat, and gloves, she pulled on the stained coverall to protect her dress, then walked to the table and looked at the approved sketches she’d made for the next production, The Taming of The Shrew.
Beth turned as the door opened behind her. Sally Morgan strolled in with two glasses and a bottle. Beth smiled at her friend who was dressed to perfection in a rose silk gown. Sally was the epitome of an English lady, with pale skin, golden hair coifed in the latest style and large blue eyes. Had she been born of the quality, she’d have taken the ton by storm. Beth envied her confidence. Next to Sally, she was just a brown mouse of a woman.
“Thomas told me the painting was rejected. I brought port to drown our sorrows.” Sally set the bottle down and poured two glasses. “Now, tell me everything.” She pushed the glass into Beth’s hands.
Beth took a sip of port and savored the sweet warmth of the wine before she spoke. “I wasn’t good enough.”
“Says who?” Sally demanded, her hand on her hip. “I bet it was some little wart of a man who has the talent of a large bug.”
Beth laughed. “Thank you for that.”
“Just because my mother was a seamstress, doesn’t mean I don’t know good art when I see it.” Sally sat in one of the chairs against the wall. “I know you had your heart set on getting into the Royal Exhibition.”
“We don’t always get what we want in life.”
“Was it horrible? Returning to the Academy after so many years?”
Beth leaned against the table and sipped her port. “How could I have forgotten how snobbish people are? I think the man rejected the painting because my pelisse was out of style.”
Sally said nothing for a long moment. “There are times I forget you came from that world. That level of prejudice is normal for the rest of us.”
“Sally, I didn’t mean—”
Sally held up her hand. “I know you didn’t. You should be married now with children. You should be dancing at balls, walking in Hyde park with your husband, not working here.”
“I don’t regret leaving that part of my life behind. I was always on the fringe of the ton, never a diamond of the first water. I had no dowry and little else to recommend me. At least here I have purpose.”
Sally laughed. “Very few of us have anything to recommend us, but we make our way, don’t we?”
“That we do.”
“Did you see him?”
Beth didn’t pretend not to understand who Sally was talking about. They had very few secrets from each other. Sally’s friendship was Beth’s treasured possession. Sally had helped her survive the theatre world. She’d encouraged her to go after her dreams. “Lord Langston? Yes. I did.”
Sally leaned forward. “And?”
“And nothing.”
“How did he look?”
Beth smiled. “You know very well how he looked. His friend, Mr. St. Clair drags him to the theatre every time you are on stage.”
“I meant how did he look to you? I’m assuming he recognized you?”
“Of course, it’s only been five years and I’ve not changed that much. He looked every inch the Marquis that he is.”
“Mr. St. Clair says he’s to marry soon.”
Pain stabbed through Beth. She wasn’t surprised by this news. His position in society required that he treat their understanding as if it never happened, despite the small bit of hope she had that Langston was different. At Sarah’s gentle words, it fizzled a bit more. “As he should. He is to inherit a dukedom. He’ll need the usual heir and a spare.”
“Why didn’t he marry you?”
Beth set the glass down before she spilled it all over her work table. “His mother became ill and he left to be with her. We exchanged letters for a while, but then his letters stopped.”
“You were a lady, he should have married you.” Sally tossed back the remainder of her port. “I hate when men make promises to women then break them as if we do not matter.”
“Sally, it’s old history, and frankly, I’m quite content with my life now.”
“I am angry on your behalf. It had to have been painful to live through,” Sally said as she looked around the room. “Where is the painting?”
“Against the wall, there. Why?”
Sally walked over and picked up the painting. “Do you mind if I put it in my dressing room for a while?”
Beth narrowed her eyes at her friend. “To what purpose?”
Sally grinned as she tucked the painting under her arm. “Perhaps there is more than one way to get a painting into this year’s Royal Exhibition.”
Hope surged through her. “You’d do that for me?”
Sally approached and took Beth’s hand in hers and squeezed it. “What are friends for?”
Beth gripped Sally’s hand. “Thank you so much.”
“Enough of this emotional drivel. We both have work to do. I’ve lines to learn and you’ve sets to design. Make sure you make me look spectacular.”
Beth laughed. “That won’t be difficult.”

COLLAPSE

A Most Inconvenient Wish

Book Cover: A Most Inconvenient Wish
Part of the A Lady's Wish series:

THE BEST LAID PLANS COME FROM THE HEART…
 
Sophia Townsend has watched both of her sisters find love and settle into idyllic married lives. But raised to believe that her greatest purpose is to advance the family’s fortunes, Sophia has grander ambitions when it comes to choosing a husband. She’s never lacked for suitors, but now she finds herself running out of time. Her last and best hope is Lord Bateman—and she has only a few days to secure his proposal.

Ian McDonald has long been a friend of the Townsend family and has watched Sophia with amusement over the years. A Scot and sheep farmer, Ian has done well for himself, but holds little social standing. Yet just as he’s realized his love for Sophia, she has set her sights on another man. Nevertheless, Ian is determined to win her. He has a bold plan in mind, but when he and Sophia encounter one another at the legendary Fairy Steps, a most inconvenient wish is accidently made—and neither could possibly guess the happy outcome…

Published:
Publisher: Lyrical Press - Kensington
Editors:
Cover Artists:
Genres:
Excerpt:

At no time in her life did Sophia Townsend ever picture herself standing at the bottom of the blasted Fairy Steps with the need to make a wish. She put her hands on her hips and examined the uneven stone formations that towered before her. The steps were much steeper than she remembered. It was a good thing she’d worn her sturdiest boots for the task. She swatted at the stupid feathers on her new bonnet. The breeze kept blowing them into her face. Sophia pondered removing it for a moment but changed her mind. If she encountered someone from the village, it wouldn’t do to look like a total ragamuffin. She was already at risk of looking like a total fool for attempting to climb the Fairy Steps.
Situated off the lane to the Lodge, the home of her married sister, Anne, these stupid steps had been the bane of Sophia’s existence for four years. Both of her sisters swore that the magic of a fairy wish had helped them find their husbands. They were both happily married.

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And Sophia was not.
Sophia was no believer in love and happily ever after. She was not so nonsensical as to believe that a wish could have that much power, despite the happy marriages of her sisters. Marrying was what young ladies did. Young men pursued the church or the military if they were poor. Young ladies married. It would allow her to improve her status. She could have children, pin money for shopping, and her own servants. She could have a life in London Society, with parties and balls.
It was too bad marriage had to come with a husband.
Her looks had allowed her four Seasons in London, her favorite place. It had granted her a popularity she’d never have in Beetham. Sophia had enjoyed her popularity in Town. She’d danced most dances and was well received in Society. She had gentlemen callers equipped with gifts of flowers and sweets. She’d been on drives in Hyde Park. However, none of the calls ever ended in a proposal that she could agree to.
Society had labeled her cold, aloof, haughty. Why couldn’t they find another word for it? Unfortunately, being labeled such was like waving a red flag in front of the male population of London. Why did men have to try to kiss her in dark, close spaces? Those places terrified her.
It wasn’t their fault. Most of them were very nice gentlemen. She couldn’t help it that she was beautiful. Nor did she want to. Men seemed to think that if a woman was pretty, she gladly accepted the pawing, the groping, and the inappropriate comments. It was the price of being desired. Just like with the footman all those years ago, she knew exactly what they desired. She wasn’t going to allow it. Not ever again.
Until she’d been introduced to the Earl of Bateman.
To her delight, the earl had shown so much interest in Sophia while they were in Town. He’d danced every waltz with her and always took the supper dance. He sent flowers. He took her for strolls in the park, where they could be seen by everyone. But Bateman never pressed her for a kiss. He never pressed her for anything. He’d been the perfect gentleman. The gossips were full of tittle-tattle about his impending proposal, but no proposal materialized and the gossips eventually turned on Sophia, much to her dismay.
Sophia had not suffered the disdain of Society in the four years she’d been in London. She’d taken great pains to make sure that she was all that was proper. No whisper of scandal, nothing that would give anyone a moment’s concern until Lord Bateman didn’t propose. She didn’t like the snickers of laughter behind the fans of the other ladies at the balls. She hated the cuts by the very same people who had hung on her every word just a week earlier because she was on Bateman’s arm. Their cuts were like barbs in her skin.
She wanted to marry Lord Bateman. He treated her gently. He didn’t try to paw her or kiss her in the dark. He liked to sit and talk. He didn’t even seem to mind those long silences that were usually uncomfortable with other men. And so she found herself at the Fairy Steps. She would wish for Lord Bateman to propose to her. She would marry and have everything she wanted: pin money, several houses, and a life in London society on the arm of an earl. She would endure him until they had several children, and then he could happily find himself a mistress. She could tolerate the act at least enough times to get with child.
It was the perfect plan for the perfect life, the life Sophia dreamed of.
The alternative was not to be borne: to be left on the shelf, an old maid to be ridiculed. At twenty-six, Sophia felt as if she’d come to an impasse in her life. She either had to marry or be stuck in spinsterhood forever. Her popularity would shift as she aged. Already there were beautiful young ladies vying for the attentions of the gentlemen who usually had sought her out. Sophia had no intention of allowing Society to force her to the wallflower wall with the rest of the spinsters. She looked horrible in caps.
Desperate times called for daring measures. Sophia eyed the gray steps as they towered before her. Moss and leaves covered the uneven stones. The wind blew across the steps with a low whine. She almost laughed at the theatrics of it all: the gusting wind, the darkening sky heavy with rain, the distant rumble of thunder. The stage was set for something dramatic, like a scene from the Minerva novels her sisters were always reading.
The steps were wider at the bottom, growing narrow as they wound toward the top of the stones. Sophia chewed her bottom lip, wondering if her hips would fit through the opening at the top. She wasn’t nearly as thin as she used to be. Nor was she as thin as her sisters. She probably should have avoided eating so many of Cook’s delicious apple tarts in the few weeks since returning to Beetham.
A gust of wind pushed at her, urging her forward. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Sophia placed her foot on the first step, then the next. The stones were dry, but the moss made them more slippery. She crept up the steps slowly, making sure her feet were steady before continuing. Her hands clutched the peach muslin of her dress to hold it out of the way and to keep from grabbing the sides. The urge to do so was so strong.
The gray walls closed in around her as she went up the stairs and she felt a pang of panic in the pit of her stomach. She fought for control as her skirts dislodged bits of moss and leaves. Pebbles made a pinging sound as they fell down behind her. Sophia closed her eyes and tightened her hands as they clutched her dress to keep from reaching out to steady herself. She could not quit now. She would not quit.
One step was a bit higher than the last and her foot missed the edge. She wobbled and squealed.
“Woman, what are you doing?” A deep voice, tinged with a Scottish burr, broke through the fear that was threatening to take hold of her.
Sophia cringed. It was the one man she could not manage to avoid, the man who had become her severest critic when watching her make a cake of herself. Ian McDonald had a talent for finding her at the most inopportune times. There was no going back now. She was over halfway there. She took another step and tipped backward. She stiffened her legs to steady herself. “I’m climbing the steps. What does it look like I’m doing?”
“Trying to get yourself injured or worse is more like it.”
She glanced behind her and found him standing at the bottom, his dark hair wild from the wind, his arms crossed in front of his massive chest. His jaw was set. His blue eyes glared at her from beneath strong brows and above his crooked nose. As if a glare was enough to stop her. She smiled sweetly at him and turned back to her task
In the three years she’d known him, Mr. McDonald had taken great pleasure in teasing her. He drove her mad. She had no choice but to tolerate him. He was a good friend of the Matthewses and a frequent visitor in London and in Beetham. The son of a steward, he’d made a tidy fortune and was now accepted in Society, for the most part. Money seemed to fix everything.
Unfortunately, Mr. McDonald made her feel things she had no business feeling. She’d learned the painful lesson of falling in love with someone beneath her years ago. It was certainly not going to happen now.
“People have been climbing these steps for centuries. I’m sure it is perfectly safe.” She took another step and wobbled again. The stones were definitely getting more uneven. Sophia fought the urge to reach out and grasp the towering gray walls on either side of her for balance.
“Stay there. I’m coming to you,” he shouted.
Sophia took another step. There was no way she’d make a wish if Mr. McDonald caught up with her. She took another step, this time a bit faster in order to stay ahead of him.
“Sophia Townsend, stop now!”
“I’m fine, Mr. McDonald. I’m nearly there.” She placed her foot on another step, and then another, but her foot slipped. She swallowed a scream as stones slipped down the steps behind her.
“Damn it, woman, you’re determined to get us both killed.”
Better dead than stuck on a path that led to being alone for the rest of her life. Sophia put her foot firmly on the next step. Excitement quickened her pace. Just two more steps. She could do this. She could make her wish. She nimbly took the last two steps, finally reaching the top. “There! I did it.”
Mr. McDonald was breathing heavily as he raced up the steps to her. “I could shake you.” He bent over his hands on his thighs. “You could have broken your pretty neck.”
“I told you I could do it. Did you doubt me? Of course you did, you always do.” She was sick of being underestimated by him—by everyone.
He glared at her. “That is not what I meant.”
A cool wind rattled the limbs of the trees. It swirled around the skirts of her peach gown. Sophia shivered at the sudden change of temperature. “Do you feel that?”
Ian straightened. “In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a blasted storm approaching. Or are storm clouds necessary to encourage the fairies to come out?” His blue eyes were filled with humor, making it impossible for Sophia to stay angry with him. His teasing smile crinkled around those eyes. He really was quite handsome. He was also a nonbeliever.
Sophia wasn’t so sure. “The temperature of the air changed. You did not feel it?”
“Sophia, there are no fairies. No wishes. Just you and me on this stone rock.” Ian glanced up at the sky. “About to get drenched if we do not start walking back to the Lodge.”
Sophia looked at the sky and the dark clouds gathering on the horizon. “We have time. Do you have a wish?”
“I’ll not waste my time encouraging this silliness,” Ian said. “I’m a businessman. I don’t believe in fairy tales.”
“Why am I not surprised by your attitude? You spend too much time with your ledgers and numbers.”
“Don’t tell me you believe in this nonsense. I know you better than that.”
Sophia fought the urge to huff. He thought he knew her so very well. How wrong he was. She had wishes, dreams. Maybe they weren’t the same as her sisters, but they were hers. She closed her eyes, trying to put what she wanted into words. She had to get them just right.
“Please tell me you are not making a wish at this very moment.”
The disbelief in his voice pricked her temper. “I should wish that you be stuck with me forever. Think of the amount of torment I could rain down on you for a lifetime.” Sophia’s eyes flew open and she slapped her hand over her mouth.
The cold wind whirled around them both, pushing her into Ian. She reached out her hands and grasped his arms, trying to keep their bodies from touching.
“What is going on?” Ian demanded.
“No! Please no. I didn’t mean it.”
“That was the wish?” Ian threw his head back and laughed. “Be careful what you wish for, Sophia.”
“No! It’s not the wish. It cannot be the wish.” She tried to step away from him, but he grabbed her arm.
“Only you, Sophia Townsend, would make the wrong wish.”
Winds swirled around her skirts, causing them to brush against Ian’s buckskins, pushing her harder into his arms. She slipped on the uneven rocks. Ian grasped her arms to hold her steady. Sophia looked up into his blue eyes and felt the strangest sensation. She didn’t like it at all.

#
Ian clasped Sophia’s arms, steadying her, even as the wind picked up and shoved them closer together. “The rain is coming faster. We have to leave—now.”
Sophia lifted her head to the sky, stretching her neck. Even with the ridiculous frilly bonnet she was wearing, the soft pale skin of her neck tempted him. She always tempted him. For the years he’d known her, Sophia Townsend had danced into and out of his reach, teasing him like a cat with a piece of string.
“I’ve wished for the wrong thing. I’ve ruined everything.”
Sophia hung her head down, crestfallen, the feathers of her silly hat tickling his nose.
“Then it’s a good thing fairies and magic aren’t real.”
Sophia glanced up at him, her eyes doleful. “Do you not believe in anything?”
She bit her bottom lip. Every time she did that, he felt something tighten inside. He forced his gaze to glance at the darkening sky. “I’m sure even fairies believe in second chances. Restate your wish quickly. I’m not in the mood to be drenched in a cold rain.”
“I don’t think it works that way, but it can’t hurt.” Sophia’s thick lashes fell, covering her dark eyes. Her full lips moved with the words, but he couldn’t make them out. What could she be wishing for?
“There. Done,” she said. “For all the good it will do.”
Ian added another thing to the list of things Sophia blamed him for. The list seemed to grow longer every day. Thunder rumbled in the distance. They needed to get indoors. He held his hand out to Sophia. “Come, I’ll help you down the steps.”
Sophia jumped as another clap of thunder rumbled in the distance. “There is a faster way to the Lodge through the woods. I can show you.”
Ian followed her into the woods as they raced for the house, the wind at their heels. The ribbons of her bonnet whipped behind her, catching the breeze. Feathers bounced as she moved. He caught a glimpse of slim ankles as she lifted her dress to quicken her pace.
Sophia was different from her sisters in every way. She was curvy where Juliet was slight. She was petulant where Anne was calm. Ian didn’t know why he was attracted to her except that she was like a bright light on a cloudy day. He’d had more than his share of cloudy days in his life.
They stumbled upon the ruins of an old cottage on their rush to the Lodge. “Hurry. It’s starting to rain. You don’t want to ruin your bonnet,” he teased.
“Especially because I just purchased it.” She looked back at him, then up at the sky. Her eyes widened with alarm. She lifted the edge of her skirts a bit higher and took off running.
Ian looked back behind him. The sky was eerie shades of black, gray, and brown. He cursed beneath his breath. The temperature dropped as a gust of cold air threatened to remove his hat. He sprinted to catch Sophia, seizing her hand as he caught up to her.
Huge droplets of rain started to splatter his coat and hat as well as her thin dress. He turned toward the stables in the distance, dragging Sophia behind him. Thunder crashed and lightning flashed, filling the air with a chemical smell. The storm was close, almost overhead. They needed shelter—now.
She pulled on his hand. “The Lodge is that way, Mr. McDonald.”
“We won’t make the house in time.” Thunder roared, drowning out his words. He glanced back at Sophia, who looked terrified. He pulled her along as he raced toward an outbuilding.
Sophia stumbled and he grasped her waist as lightning crackled around them. She trembled against him, her face beneath that frilly bonnet white.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“I’m fine.” She tried to pull away from him, but he kept her close and rushed her toward the nearest outbuilding. Rain started coming down in sheets, soaking her dangling bonnet. Her dark hair hung in damp clumps around her face.
“We’ll take shelter here,” he shouted over the storm.
He yanked the door of the small building open and hauled her inside as lightning hit a tree just beyond where they had been standing. Sophia shrieked, covering her face. He tugged her deeper into the darkness of what appeared to be a shed and closed the door behind them. The air was stale and smelled of earth and damp. Gardening tools hung along one side of the wall. A workbench lined another wall. Bits of broken pottery were scattered on the earthen floor. One small window, so dirty he could barely see outside, offered a bit of light. The roof seemed sound and that was all that mattered.
Rain beat hard against the roof. The wind howled, shaking the small building with its force. “We should be safe here,” Ian whispered as he rubbed Sophia’s arms. Her skin was cold and she was shivering. He needed to get her warm. Ian pulled her into his arms, against his warmth, but she stiffened against him.
Sophia shoved out of his arms as if the thought of his touch sickened her. She crossed the door and tried to open it.
Damn stubborn woman. Ian moved to the door, ready to catch her if she ran out. “You cannot leave until the storm has passed.”
“I cannot stay here.” Her face was pale, her eyes wide. “You cannot make me stay.”
Thunder shook the walls and rattled the glass in the window. Lightning flashed within seconds of the crash. The storm was overhead and strengthening. He could hear limbs snapping in the wind and banging up against the walls. “Sophia, it’s not safe.”
Ian gently took her arm and pulled her away from the opening as a limb of the nearby tree crashed in front of the door on the other side of which she was standing.

COLLAPSE

An Honorable Wish

Book Cover: An Honorable Wish
Part of the A Lady's Wish series:

LOVE MAY BE THEIR GREATEST GAMBLE…
 
Tony Matthews spends his time in London’s most notorious gambling dens, frittering away his fortune. But when his latest victory leaves a man ruined, Tony knows he’s reached his lowest point. Determined to make amends, he returns home to his family’s country estate with plans to settle down and marry at last. And he hopes the lovely Juliet Townsend will help him—if only he can keep his disgrace a secret.

Juliet’s secret wish has always been for Tony to love her. The only bright spot in her dreadful London season was dancing with him—before he disappeared to the card rooms. Now, he’s returned, but has he truly changed? Or will gambling always be his mistress, even if she becomes his wife? And does Juliet dare risk her heart by finding out?...

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Publisher: Lyrical Press - Kensington
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Excerpt:

He had finally lived up to his brother Nathaniel’s low expectations of him.

Tony Matthews stared through the veil of newly budded leaves to the village of Beetham below. The cold stone of the Fairy Steps seeped into his bones from his perch at the top. Spring fought against the winter chill in the air in the faint green of the grass and the blooms of early flowers. New life.

God, how he wanted a new life, a different direction.

What seemed like a good idea at the time, in hindsight, was now a nightmare.

Usually, the rolling hills of the southern portion of this part of England soothed Tony’s soul unlike any other place. The restlessness inside him eased with each breath of the fresh clean air.

Not this time. This time he was trapped in his own stupid arrogance. This time he’d finally lived up to his father’s legacy.

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He’d taken a man’s estate in a card game. A game he wasn’t even planning to play except for alcohol-fueled bluster and a dare from a friend. He’d played and lost a fortune, then played again and won an estate.

The man, Chelsworth, ended up being a neighbor of his brother’s home, the Lodge.

Honor and pride wouldn’t let Chelsworth back away from the bet. No, the man had signed away his estate and his livelihood to Tony. It was a matter of honor, even as Chelsworth’s hand shook while he penned his name.

Tony hadn’t wanted to take the estate. The alcoholic stupor had started to wear off with the realization that he’d stepped into his father’s shoes. Only this time on the winning side. Tony had sunk to the lowest depths of vile.

Nathaniel, was never going to forgive him. Hell, Tony would probably be thrown out of the family and left to his own devices. He had money. He had the reputation of a rake and a gambler, well-earned at this point.

But it wasn’t who Tony really was. His entire life was an act. One he didn’t want to maintain any longer, an act that was beginning to become a reality.

The fact that it had taken no effort to become this vile man scared the hell out of Tony. When he looked in the mirror, he didn’t know who he saw any more.

He wanted the house, but not this way. The estate must be in a bad way already, given the owner was willing to wager it in a card game. If it was making any living at all, Chelsworth would not have been at the tables.

Unless the man was sick with gambling. Tony knew that sickness existed. His sister-in-law’s brother was addicted to gambling, always pushing for that next win.

Tony could walk away from the games without looking back. He was sure of it, at least on most days.

His problem was infinitely more difficult. He needed a way to repair the mistakes he had made without alerting Nathaniel. Tony could not disappoint him again.

Nathaniel was a man of high regard in Beetham and in Town. His business prowess was legendary. Nathaniel had a lovely wife, a child, a house, and the respect of his peers. He had everything Tony wanted but hadn’t been able to achieve.

And now Tony had lived up to his brother’s greatest fear: He’d become their father.

Hence the trip to Beetham. Tony needed to convince Chelsworth that he meant to tear up the vowels. He would not take a man’s livelihood. He would not allow gambling to define him as a man.

Chelsworth had to be desperate. Tony could offer to buy the estate. He had wanted to invest in property. He wanted to do something with his life other than what he was doing: drinking and gambling.

He pulled in a breath of the clean fresh air of the country. He’d forgotten what clean air smelled like. He’d forgotten what the wild spaces of the Lake District felt like. Unconstrained. Open.

No more choking on the London air. No more buildings closing in on him as he walked narrow streets. No more gaming hells. No more lies. No more hiding.

Tony wanted what Nathaniel had: a life of honor and respect. Honor had been missing from his life for a very long time, if it had ever existed at all. The only respect Tony had gained had come from winning more than losing in the hells of London. He wanted more. He wanted Nathaniel’s respect.

Leaves danced as a cold wind whirled around him. A woman cackled in the distance.

Tony frowned and looked around for the origin of the voice. No one was there. The cackling grew louder as the leaves spiraled up around him, pulling at his coat, knocking his hat to the ground. He moved to catch it before it blew down the steps.

“What the hell?”

A twig snapped behind him. Tony turned to find Juliet Townsend tiptoeing past him at the edge of the woods, carefully avoiding making any noise.

She was dressed as a boy.

“Miss Juliet, up to your hoyden ways again, I see.” Tony crossed his arms.

Juliet huffed and kicked at the weeds beneath her feet in scuffed boots that seemed to flop about on her feet. She was covered in dirt. Her dark brown hair was tucked under an old hat that had been pulled down low over her face.

Tony raised one eyebrow. “Hiding from someone?”

Juliet turned and faced him, resigned at being discovered. “You weren’t supposed to see me or recognize me.”

“Why?” Tony moved closer. She was dressed in brown breeches that were a tad too tight around her hips. She had on a rough linen shirt and waistcoat. “From whom have you stolen that outfit? One of the grooms?”

No one was as stubborn as Juliet Townsend. She pushed her spectacles back on her face. “Aren’t you supposed to be in London?”

“I asked you first.”

She flounced toward him and plopped down at the edge of the steps. “If you must know, I’m helping a friend.”

“Dressed as a boy? Have you lost your senses?”

Juliet was different from her sisters. She wasn’t afraid to take up a cause and see it through. Tony sat next to her on the stone steps. “Who is this friend?”

She glowered at him. “You must swear not to tell a soul.”

“If your sister disapproves, it must be bad.”

She grinned. “What would be the point of it if it weren’t?”

“One day, Miss Juliet, your wild ways are going to get you into trouble.”

Juliet looked out across the trees. “You are probably right. My friend, Penelope Williams, and her family are tenants of the Horneswood estate nearby. Her father was in a terrible accident that left him disfigured. Anne would not approve of the friendship.”

“She is far beneath you, Miss Juliet.”

She glared at him. “I don’t care about that. Penelope is a dear, and I have found that I enjoy the work.”

“What do you know of farming?”

“A great deal more than you, I’d wager. I’ve read at least three books on the subject.”

“You have me there. The last time I read a tome on agriculture, I was having trouble falling asleep.”

“You are too wicked, Mr. Matthews. Horneswood’s land steward is threatening to have them evicted. They have nowhere else to go. Penelope and her brother may end up working in a factory in Lancaster, or worse.”

“There’s nothing wrong with factory work, Miss Juliet. It puts a roof over one’s head. It might be a better fate than the workhouse.”

“I knew you wouldn’t understand. I’d help them if I could, but Nathaniel won’t let me give them money from my settlement.” She stood and dusted off her pants, drawing Tony’s attention to her nicely rounded bottom.

Tony had no idea that breeches would look this good on a woman. Perhaps they should become the fashion. He pulled himself up and started down the stairs. “In this instance, I’d have to agree. Help them with food or support, but you’ll need your own funds for when you marry. Now, allow me to escort you home.”

She stared at the horse tethered at the bottom of the steps. “Thank you, no. I prefer to walk.”

“Don’t be a ninny. If we ride, we’ll be home in half the time.”

“I’m inappropriately dressed. If my sister sees me thus, I’ll not be allowed to call on Penelope again.” Juliet skirted around Tony toward the path through the woods.

“How do you plan on avoiding her? Sneaking in through the kitchens?”

Juliet smiled widely. “A splendid idea.”

“Miss Juliet, there is no way I’m allowing you to go through those woods unaccompanied.”

“I walk through these woods daily. I’m safe enough.”

“And if you’re seen? Word would reach Anne before you could even reach the kitchen door. Enough nonsense. I’ll see you home.”

She looked at the horse and shook her head. “He’s huge.”

“You’ve been around horses all your life.”

“If I must.” She stomped down the narrow stairs. He followed her down, enjoying the view of her hips swinging.

“If we are seen together, I’ll be in great peril of ruining my reputation.”

“If we are seen, you’ll be chastised for being so inappropriately attired and not because you are in my company. We are practically brother and sister.”

Tony almost ran into her as Juliet turned suddenly.

“Your brother is married to my sister. That does not make us family.”

Tony gripped Juliet’s arms to keep her from falling backward down the stairs. Her eyes were pools of dark chocolate as she stared up at him through the magnified lenses of her glasses.

“Please, sir, release me.”

“I wouldn’t want to have you take a tumble down the stairs. How shall I explain it to your sister?” He cleared his throat and released her.

Juliet continued down the steps, her hands finding purchase in the stone walls. She stumbled to a stop at the bottom. “I shall not get on that horse.”

“Why not?”

Juliet didn’t answer but started walking down the lane toward the lodge. Stubborn woman, thought Tony. He grabbed the reins of the horse and rushed to catch up with her. “It’s just about teatime; the horse can get us to the house faster.”

“The house is barely a mile away. Hardly worth troubling the horse, if you ask me.” She moved to the other side of the lane.

“You are afraid of the horse? I didn’t think you were afraid of anything.”

“Don’t be silly; everyone has fears.” Juliet walked faster, her loose boots making a clumping sound with each step. “We had no notice that you were coming home, Mr. Matthews.”

“The Season was over. I thought it time.”

“Beetham is a quiet village. Will you be able to bear being away from the gaming tables while you are here?” There was a sneer in her voice.

“You’d be surprised,” he mumbled.

Juliet looked up at him, a questioning look on her face. “Excuse me?”

“It’s of little matter.”

“We heard about your exploits in Town, Mr. Matthews,” Juliet continued.

“What have you heard?”

“That you prefer to spend more time in your clubs than you do at home.”

He slowed and his horse butted him with his head. “Easy, boy.” He rubbed the muzzle. “Juliet, you know better than to listen to gossip.”

She started walking again. “Take care that you don’t end up penniless like my brother.”

Tony winced. If the truth were made known, he would probably lose Juliet’s friendship as well.

Juliet’s face grew solemn. “Do you think there will come a time, Mr. Matthews, when you’ll grow tired of cards?”

“One never knows. It might be sooner than you think.”

#

Juliet evaluated his words. Could it be he was finally tired of the gaming hells? Her brother never seemed to tire of them. “What do you mean?”

“It’s of little consequence.” He looked back at the horse, a strange expression on his face.

In the three years she’d known Tony Matthews, she’d sensed that all wasn’t what it seemed with him. Certainly on the surface he was affable, fun, and carefree. But there were depths hinted at in quiet moments like these.

She was never able to crack the façade to see what really lay beneath. She suspected there was a great deal more to the man than the pieces he allowed others to see.

They rounded the bend and approached the park of the Lodge.

She touched his arm. “Mr. Matthews, the only expectations you need to live up to are your own. You do know that.”

Tony glanced down at her hand on his arm. An odd kind of warmth radiated up Juliet’s arm.

“Miss Juliet, thank you.” His voice was gruff.

“I shall see you at tea.”

Juliet sprinted around the house and snuck into the house through the kitchen door. She slipped off the too-large boots, leaving them by the door, and crept up the stairs in her stocking feet, avoiding the creaky stairs.

The clock in the hallway chimed the hour. Juliet moved more quickly down the darkened hallway to her room. She closed the door behind her and quickly changed into a suitable day dress, stashing the breeches and shirt in the bottom of her cupboard.

Juliet looked down at her hands, caked in dirt. Pouring water into a basin, she scrubbed, trying to remove most of the dirt from her fingernails.

There was a rap on her door. “Juliet? It’s time for tea.”

“Coming!” She scrubbed faster. Foolish of her not to wear gloves while digging in the dirt. She was going to have to get a proper pair if this kept up.

Juliet’s sister Sophia stepped into the room and closed the door behind her. “Did you know that Tony is here? Good heavens, what have you been up to? You are in no state for company, covered in dirt as you are.”

“Really, Sophia. It is not that bad.”

“Very well, but do something with your hair—it is a mess. And come down as quickly as you can.” Sophia closed the door behind her.

Juliet fussed with her hair. Tony Matthews never came home unless he had to, usually when he needed money from Nathaniel.

Juliet was well over her infatuation with Tony, though they remained friends. In the three years that Nathaniel and Anne had been married, she had worried for him. Gambling was a sickness that ruined greater men than Tony would ever be. It had ruined her brother. It had ruined his father. It was only a matter of time before it ruined Tony too.

COLLAPSE

An Unexpected Wish

Book Cover: An Unexpected Wish
Part of the A Lady's Wish series:

Love is in the air…

Anne Townsend doesn’t ask for much. Plain and poor, she’d settle for the funds to put food on the table. Making a wish on the fabled Fairy Steps is hardly a solid solution, but to see her two sisters taken care of, Anne’s willing to try anything. Yet when she finds herself suddenly surrounded with suitors, romance is now a possibility for the spinster everyone always ignored except with the one man who will never want her…

Nathaniel Matthews has no time for courting. As the eldest, he has his family’s lost fortune to rebuild, and his reckless brother to manage before he gambles his future away. Odd that Nathaniel can think of little but kissing bright-eyed Anne, who seems to be fighting off admirers from all sides. Is it the country air, or is Nathaniel ready to discover that love has a magic all its own?

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Chapter One

Anunexpectedwish_2“I hereby decree the word spinster be stricken from all manner of speech.” Anne Townsend waved her makeshift wand from her perch at the top of the Fairy Steps. She cleared her voice in her most royal manner. “Furthermore, the word shall be stricken from every document in my fair kingdom!” The small village of Beetham shimmered in the gold cast of the late autumn sun, completely unaffected by her pronouncement.

Typical. She threw the stick down the uneven stones she’d just climbed.

Plain, practical, boring Anne

Was too plain to catch a man.

If she caught the eye of one,

To her sister he would run.

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The truth of the stupid childhood taunt stared back at her every blasted day. She was plain. She’d never attracted any man she deemed suitable. It wasn’t as if she was being picky. He just had to be reasonably wealthy, reasonably handsome, reasonably witty, and not stupid.

Therein lay the difficulty. No man had met all the requirements. If he was handsome, he was either poor or witless. If he wasn’t handsome, he had funds and was as old as the Fairy Steps.

It was of little matter. A modern woman made the best of things. Modern women didn’t settle for some old shriveled-up man. And she would be a modern woman if it killed her.

Five years ago, the lure of magic in the Fairy Steps had stirred her romantic heart. A wish could fix anything: poverty, loneliness, and love. God, what a ninny she’d been.

The only thing that fixed poverty and loneliness was money.

Daily her sisters, Sophia and Juliet, whined about their lack of funds. They argued over stupid ribbons. They complained about their old, unfashionable dresses. Her sisters had no inkling of the trouble they were in.

They needed fuel for the approaching winter, food for larder, and coins to pay the two servants Anne couldn’t do without. It took blunt. Blunt was what she needed more than anything.

If the confounded fairy showed up today, Anne wouldn’t hesitate. She’d wish for the ready. Pots of it.

Anne closed her eyes and embraced the rare moment of peace. No arguing, whining, bickering, nagging, tormenting, or complaining. Just beautiful, glorious silence.

A cold gust of wind blew the tendrils of hair from her face and chased a shiver up her spine. Dried leaves rattled behind her as they skated across the rock. A twig snapped behind her.

Her eyes flew open. She wasn’t alone.

Anne’s heart pounded so hard she could hear it thumping in her ears. Hair lifted on the back of her neck. Anger warred with fear. Anger won.

She picked up a good-sized limb from the ground and gripped it with both hands. “Show yourself, coward.”

“Speak your heart’s desire, my lady.” An odd, otherworldly voice filled the air. The breeze kicked up again.

Anne tightened her grip on the tree limb. She threw her shoulders back and stood taller. She wasn’t going down without a fight.

“You climbed the steps properly and earned a wish, you have.” The voice cackled.

She lowered her arm. Blast, this was nothing but a prank. Probably some child bribed by Sophia. She’d box the child’s ears and send him on his way. She’d deal with her sister when she got home. “The joke is over. Come on out.”

“’Tis a magical place you’ve found, as well you know for the many times you’ve climbed these steps.” The crackling voice sounded old, not childlike.

“Enough!” Anne was sick to death of being the whipping boy.

A wizened, bent old woman with a twisted cane shuffled out of the trees at the foot of the stairs. “Always you must see to believe.”

“You must think me dicked in the nob, madam. There are no fairies.” Anne threw the limb into the bushes behind her. “Be gone now, and tell my sister Sophia to try harder next time.”

“How hasty and untrusting you young people are. Make your wish, child.”

Anne studied the old lady. She looked like one of the gypsies who came around at harvest time. How much coin had she bilked out of Sophia for this prank? “Fine. I wish you to be gone.”

The old woman cackled. “I should take you up on that, but your heart speaks differently. It speaks of struggle and loneliness.”

What did this woman know of her life? “I’m sick of this game. Good day, ma’am.” Anne turned toward the path.

“Wish for anything, my lady. Wish grandly.” A gleeful, wicked light gleamed in the old woman’s eyes. She lifted her cane and jabbed it toward Anne. “Little wishes are for little souls. They are not for the likes of you. Now wish. You are wasting my time.”

Well, rats, she might as well wish for something. It would shut the woman up, everyone would have their fun, and Anne could go home.

“Perhaps a prince? Grand properties? Great beauty?” the old woman teased.

Anne dropped her hands and glared at the old hag. “You are bamming me.”

“Anything is possible, miss.” The old lady cackled. “You’ll never know, if you don’t believe.”

Anne had the old woman now. She’d make the wish so impossible, so farfetched, that it couldn’t be fulfilled. No fairy magic could conjure love. Everyone knew that. The mad woman would look like a fool. “Very Well. I wish for a handsome man so rich that will be able to provide a Season in Town for my sisters. He must also be passionately in love with me.”

“Done!” the old lady crowed.

“You cannot be serious!” Anne turned to glower down at the old lady who had just taken the fun out of the game, but found no one there. “Well, rats, where did she go?”

Dried leaves danced where the old bat had stood. Maniacal laughter echoed in the wind. The old witch probably knew the game was up.

“How stupid do they think I am?” Perfect. Now she was talking to herself. Her sisters were going to drive her crazy. “Wishes, indeed.”

“Were you granted a wish? Or are you the fairy?” A deep male voice, filled with laughter, echoed up the stone steps.

So much for peace and tranquility. Suddenly the Fairy Steps were the most popular place in Beetham.

With a huff, Anne leaned over the edge of the steps. Her mouth fell open. At the foot of the steps, seated on a large black horse, was the most handsome man she’d ever seen. Gorgeous, dark wavy hair curled around his high collar. Blue eyes danced with laughter. A navy blue coat had been tailored just right to fit his broad shoulders. Tight-fitting buckskin breeches outlined muscular legs. Thank you, Providence, for buckskins, thought Anne.

She swallowed to ease the dryness in her throat. “Excuse me, sir, did you pass an old lady on your way up the path?”

He smiled and those crinkles appeared around his blue-blue eyes. Anne fought the urge to swoon. Seriously? No man made her swoon. She looked down at his face again and fought the urge to gape.

“Depends. Are you the wisher or the fairy?” The elegant tone of his voice echoed a bit against all that stone.

Anne was done with being the ball for the bat. It was outside of enough. She crossed her arms over her chest. “Sir, if you didn’t pass her, then just say so.”

His smile fell and he shook his head. “An unbeliever.”

“There is nothing wrong with being sensible.”

“You are right, of course. Perhaps the fairy will grant you a wish for some fun in your life.”

Good Lord, Anne hoped the fairy didn’t hear that statement. She’d probably take it on as a challenge. Sophia was forever accusing Anne of extracting all the fun out of life. “Who are you?”

She cursed her propensity to speak before thinking. His face grew hard at her rudeness. Anne pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders. Her embarrassment aside, no one came to Beetham without a reason for being here. It was ten days from London and so far off the main road, it rarely showed up on a map of the area.

“Nathaniel Matthews, at your service, ma’am.” He touched his hat.

Oh no, he definitely had a reason. Anne’s heart tripped in her chest. Her stomach clenched. He wasn’t here for pleasure. He was here to stop the engagement.

“You’re Lady Danford’s grandson.”

“Yes, ma’am. She is my maternal grandmother.”

His tone hit her like the cold November wind blowing off the steps. She shivered and wrapped her shawl a bit tighter around her.

“Why are you at the Fairy Steps?” She narrowed her eyes at him. “You’re lost.”

He had the grace to blush. “It’s been a while since I’ve been here.”

What man couldn’t find his way home? Men were supposed to be good at directions. It was probably more likely he was too busy to call on his grandmother. Did he not know how lucky he was to have her? “Take the path back to the lane. The Lodge is down farther, to the right.”

His dark eyes flashed. “Thank you, Miss—You didn’t tell me your name.” His tone, saber sharp, cut through her skin to the fear she buried deep. This was not a man to cross.

“Anne Townsend.” She dipped a curtsy.

“Thank you, Miss Townsend.” He tipped his hat again. “Perhaps we shall see each other again?”

“I’m sure we will, sir.” He reined in his horse and turned toward the lane. Anne watched him disappear into the woods. Blast. As if things couldn’t get any worse, she’d just angered the one man who could make or break the match that would save her family. She just couldn’t keep her mouth shut.

#

Nathaniel followed Miss Townsend’s directions and arrived at the Lodge in short order. His brain had a natural aversion to coming here. Too many bad memories.

The dark gray stone house looked like the set of a bad play filled with ghosts and tragedy. He could vouch for the tragedy. It was tragedy that brought him here the first time.

Too many images filled his head. The sound of a gun being fired. Pity on the face of the man who’d ruined his father so completely that a gunshot wound to the head was the only answer. The fear and uncertainty of what would happen to him and his brother. There was nothing he could have done to stop those events. He hated that he couldn’t avoid the memories, couldn’t move past them.

Lady Danford, his grandmother on his mother’s side, had brought Nathaniel and Tony to the Lodge. Yet, even her kindness couldn’t remove the pain of those awful years. Her husband had been knighted and had left her a comfortable sum when he passed. With no other heir, the house would be Nathaniel’s.

As much as he loved his grandmother, he hated what the house represented: his father’s weak mind and foolish decisions. Decisions that left Nathaniel and his brother to fend for themselves. Decisions made trying to keep up with the Ton. Decisions that left Nathaniel no choice but to sell the house in Sussex to pay his father’s debts and it still wasn’t enough.

Nathaniel wouldn’t be staying long.

“Sir, we were about to send a search party for you!” the footman said as he approached.

“Has my carriage arrived with my trunks?” Nathaniel dismounted and handed over the reins to the worried footman.

“Yes, sir,” the footman said as he led the horse away.

Damn, his ability to get lost was well known and once again affirmed by the servants. Nathaniel pulled down on his jacket and girded himself to enter the house. Though much of it had been completely redone, it hadn’t wiped away the images in his head. Like a hammer to his skull, they hit him hard as he entered.

He shoved the bad memories deep as he found his grandmother in her overdone, floral drawing room. Dust motes danced in the late afternoon sunlight that was streaming into the room. “I see you are holding court as usual, Grandmother.”

“There you are. I thought I was going to have to send someone after you.” Lady Danford’s tone was sharp, but her smile was warm. She reached out a hand to him.

Nathaniel clasped it and raised it to his lips. Her skin was cool and papery. “I thought you at death’s door from the sound of your letter.”

“You’re gone for nearly a year and treat me to impudence.” She sat back in her chair and pulled her coverlet about her legs. “Come kiss me and tell me why you have stayed away so long.”

He pressed a kiss to her papery cheek. “Beetham doesn’t have a port.”

Lady Danford laughed. “I’ve missed you, Son.”

He studied her for a long moment. The years had taken their toll. He’d lost his parents, but she’d lost her only son, and gained two grandsons to care for. He took a seat near her and crossed his legs. It was time to get to the point of his visit; the only reason he’d come back to Beetham.

“I take it I was summoned because my brother, Tony,is in some sort of trouble.” Nathaniel leaned back in his chair, his hands folding and unfolding. “I’ve paid his gambling debts from Cambridge.”

“He’s a young man. You remember what that’s like, don’t you?” She smoothed the coverlet over her legs.

Nathaniel winced. “I’m not that old.”

“Good heavens, your own father had more of a life than you do.” Her voice was sharp.

“Don’t compare me to him,” Nathaniel said rather sharply. Damn. Lady Danford watched him closely. “Forgive me, ma’am,” he muttered.

“Still haven’t let that go?” She shook her head. “Nathaniel, Son—”

He stood and paced to the window, staring out. “We aren’t discussing this.” The last thing he wanted was a discussion of his cowardly father.

“Our past always comes back to haunt us in one way or another.” Lady Danford’s voice was soft but firm. “At least until we deal with it and move on.”

Nathaniel let the comment pass. It was a reoccurring argument. “Has Tony been giving you any trouble during his visit?”

“No more than usual.” Lady Danford picked up her embroidery. “He’s infatuated with one of the local young ladies.”

“Next week it will be some other girl.” Tony changed women like most changed stockings. Nathaniel could hardly keep up. “You brought me this far from London because he’s involved with a local girl?”

“He’s driving me to distraction,” Lady Danford huffed. “He’s spouting that god-awful poetry he writes. All that education to write bad poetry.”

“A quality education,” Nathaniel quipped.

“You had the same, and you didn’t turn out that way,” she grumbled.

Thanks to his father’s propensity for gambling away every shilling they possessed, Nathaniel had been head of the family at sixteen. He had been forced to grow up fast and figure out how to rebuild the family fortunes. It left little time for poetry. “Who is the young lady?”

“Sophia Townsend. She is the prettiest girl in the county, until she opens her mouth.”

Nathaniel’s bark of laughter filled the room. “So I take it you don’t approve.”

“The girl is a twit.”

He fought the urge to chuckle further. “Townsend? Would she be related to Miss Anne Townsend?”

“Anne is her older sister.” Lady Danford eyed him speculatively. “How do you know Anne?”

“I happened upon her on my way here,” he said casually. He didn’t need another person making note of his inability to get from one place to another without getting lost.

“She gave you directions to get home, didn’t she?” Lady Danford cackled.

Nathaniel felt the heat rise in his face again. Hell, this was worse than when he was a child. “I did not get lost.”

His grandmother rolled her eyes. “Where did you find her, then?”

“At the Fairy Steps.” He flicked a string off his sleeve. Truth be told, he’d wanted to find the steps first, hoping for a moment of peace before going to the Lodge and facing his demons.

“She must be hiding from her sisters again.”

Good to know he wasn’t the only one who hid from his family. “What’s wrong with this chit that Tony is interested in, if her own sister hides from her?”

“I’ll let you decide when you meet her.” Lady Danford motioned for a footman. “Bring tea and wake Tony. A good dousing of cold water should do the trick.”

“He’s still abed?” Tony had obviously been spending too much time with gentlemen. “Things will be different when I get him to Town.”

“And you call Tony a dreamer.” Lady Danford’s tone was acerbic. “He’ll be out every night with the rest of the young bucks.”

Nathaniel sighed heavily. Tony’s spending habits were eating into the cushion Nathaniel had worked hard to build with his investments in the textile business. If Tony wasn’t going to contribute, he’d have to marry well. “What are this girl’s connections?”

“Her half brother inherited the title, but doesn’t support his sisters.” Lady Danford had a white-knuckled grip on her cane. “I have no patience for such a lack of responsibility.”

Nathaniel had no doubt she would use her cane on this missing brother if she could. “Who is he?” He’d been so distracted by his meeting with Miss Townsend that he hadn’t connected her to that Townsend family. Surely she wasn’t related to—

“He’s a baronet. Sir John Townsend. The family is very old.”

Nathaniel set down his teacup with a rattle. Hell, it couldn’t be. All the way up here?

“Mind the china, Son. I have no desire to replace it.”

What did he do to deserve the continuing irritation that was Sir John Townsend? Or his relations? Sir Walter, the elder Townsend, might as well have put the gun in his father’s hand  after winning ever shilling Nathaniel’s family had in a game. Sir Walter had died before Nathaniel could confront him with what he’d done. The son, Sir John was bent continuing the same path his father. Nathaniel couldn’t allow that to happen. He couldn’t let another man suffer what he’d seen his father suffer at the hands of Sir Walter.

And Tony’s marriage would join the Townsend family to their own. Over his dead body.

“Are you sure he’s not providing for his sisters?” Nathaniel didn’t know why he felt the need to try to salvage something of Townsend’s reputation. The man couldn’t be so bad as to not take care of his own family. But perhaps Townsend was following in his father’s ruthless footsteps.

“I’m unsure of the particulars, but Anne brought her sisters to Beetham five years ago with nothing but the clothes on their backs,” Lady Danford said. “God knows what would have happened if I’d turned them away. They lease the old game keeper’s cottage on the estate.”

His jaw tightened and hatred chewed at his stomach. “I only hope that it’s not too late to stop the engagement.”

“Had she a dowry, it would be a good match.” Lady Danford sipped her tea thoughtfully.

“Not to that family.” Nathaniel stood and paced the room. He flexed his hands, itching to punch something.

Lady Danford carefully set her teacup down. “I thought you let that go, Son.” She watched him closely, her face soft with understanding.

“Justice must be served.” His voice was hard.

“What justice? Your father took the cowardly way out. He killed himself.” Lady Danford’s tone was cold, emotionless.

“Townsend forced him to when he lost everything. For that there must be justice.”

“Oh, Nathaniel, what have you done?”

Nathaniel winced at the disappointment in her tone. The past ate at him like acid on skin. “I’ve given Sir John a taste of his own medicine. He is determined to repeat his father’s mistakes” He stared out through the window at the gardens. Devoid of leaves, it was as desolate as he.

A wrinkled hand tugged at his arm. “This is beneath you, Son.”

“I had to stop Sir John before he ruined another man.” Before he caused agood friend to shoot himself to escape his problems and leave a family destitute.  Nathaniel’s hands tightened into fists. “I’ll take Tony back to town with me. Distance will cure any emotion he feels for this young lady.”

Lady Danford sighed. “You can’t stay longer?”

He winced. “I only came because you implied an emergency. Besides, you’ll be in Town in a few months for the Season.”

“I’ve not decided yet.” Lady Danford shot him a meaningful look.

He looked back at her, startled by this sudden revelation. The London Season was Lady Danford’s favorite time. He always looked forward to having his grandmother at the town house in London. “You won’t miss a Season in London. You thrive on the gossip.”

“I’m getting too old and stiff for the long carriage ride, dear.”

Nathaniel watched his grandmother. She moved slowly. Her face was etched with deepening lines. Her shoulders had a slight stoop. He’d never thought of his grandmother as old until today. Panic clogged his throat and he had to clear it before he could speak. “Are you sick?”

Lady Danford laughed. “I’m just old, not sick.”

At that moment, Tony burst into the room. “Nathaniel! You’re here? Why?”

“Good to see you, as well. I’d say you look a bit worse for wear.” Nathaniel took in his brother’s wrinkled linen and lack of a coat. His hair was a mop of uncombed curls. At least he had shaved. “Didn’t bring your valet?”

“Still the stick, I see. I’m sorry I’m not up to your usual standards.” Tony slumped into a nearby chair and grinned. “Still, I make this look good.”

“I was hoping university was going to make you realize your place in the world,” he said dryly. “What have you been doing here at Beetham?”

“He didn’t get in until almost dawn,” Lady Danford grumbled. “Woke the staff trying to get into the house.”

“What is there to do at that hour in Beetham?” Nathaniel said.

“Shared a pint with the locals.” Tony ran his fingers through the tangle of his hair. “I repeat, what brings you here, dear brother? I know you didn’t come all this way just to see me.”

There was a bitterness in his tone that Nathaniel didn’t understand. “I’m not allowed to visit our grandmother?” Nathaniel raised an eyebrow.

“You never leave London.” Tony glared at his grandmother. “I suspect you told him about Sophia.”

“Yes, she did.”

Tony slouched lower in the chair. “I think I may have found my future wife. I’ve a mind to paint a picture of her.”

“Paint? You?”

“It has to be better than the poetry,” said Lady Danford.

Tony frowned. “It’s not that bad.”

Nathaniel laughed. “Why did you stop writing?” Tony had a tendency to flit from interest to interest, never staying too long. Currently he was supposed to be studying law.

“I couldn’t get anyone to publish it. “But Sophia inspires me. Such a beauty.”

“Let’s be honest here. Tony, your poetry is awful.” Lady Danford waved the maid over with the tea tray. “You need a focus for your life.”

Tony raised his chin defiantly. “I have a focus. Sophia and my art.”

Nathaniel sighed. Once again it was up to him to be the responsible one, the voice of reason. “And do you propose to support this woman with your art? Have you given any thought to her connections or fortune?”

“I don’t care what her connections are, nor that she lacks a fortune,” Tony said. “It’s not as if we need the money.”

“The lack of fortune is a material issue,” Nathaniel pointed out. “With your spending habits, we’ll be in the workhouse in no time.”

“I take it back. You’re a bigger snob than you are a stick,” Tony said. “You’ll have to increase my allowance after we marry. And provide the younger sister with a Season. I suppose the eldest is firmly on the shelf. You’ll probably have to provide for her as well.”

Nathaniel cocked an eyebrow at his brother. The man had it all planned. Except it was the vision of a boy, not a man. “Why would I do that?”

Tony looked puzzled that he should ask. “It would only be right given they have no other protection.”

“While it’s honorable that you wish to take care of these young women, do you think it wise to marry someone of such reduced circumstances?” Nathaniel fought to keep the edge of impatience out of his voice. His brother was acting like a child. “We were left nothing from our father. He had no entailed property. You must consider what income a bride will bring to the marriage.”

“You speak of dynastic marriage,” Tony said. “I would rather marry for love than live such a cold existence.”

“Poverty is a cold existence. Your young lady may not be suited for it. Unless you marry a fortune, there are few choices.”

“We aren’t poor.”

“Nor are we wealthy, though your brother’s investments and careful management have improved our circumstances,” Lady Danford said. “It’s time you did your part as well.”

“And doing my part is marrying someone for her fortune? Someone I don’t love?” Tony slammed his fist into the side of his chair. “That never made anyone in this family very happy.”

“Enough!” Lady Danford pulled herself up slowly from her chair with the aid of her cane. “Don’t assume that my marriage or that of your parents was less than it was. I loved my husband.”

Nathaniel studied the stubborn look on his brother’s face. “Tony, if you are serious about marrying this girl, then you have some decisions of your own to make. As of your birthday, your allowance will cease. Find a way to support your new family. Take your place with me in London. Practice law as you were trained to do.”

“Gentlemen do not work.” Tony jumped to his feet. “Nathaniel, be reasonable. Four months’ notice is not enough time.”

“All of us must attain adulthood at some point, Brother. Even you.” Nathaniel sipped his tea, ignoring the growing color in his brother’s face. “I suggest you think long and hard as to whether you can afford this young woman.”

“Grandmother—” Tony whined.

Lady Danford paused at the door. “Tony, I must agree with Nathaniel on this. The next move is yours.” The door closed behind her with a sharp bang.

Tony stared at the closed door. “She’s in a fine temper.”

Nathaniel shrugged. “With good reason, I think.” He had to know where they stood. “Have you proposed to Miss Sophia?”

“Not yet,” Tony mumbled.

Good. It would be a bit easier to extricate Tony if he hadn’t proposed. “But her family is expecting you to?”

“Of course.” Tony looked up. “This is madness. Why can’t I marry for love?”

“You can—just make sure she brings money to the marriage.”

Tony groaned and collapsed back in his chair. “I hate this.”

Anger bloomed as Nathaniel witnessed his brother’s petulant behavior. “You do realize who her father was, don’t you?”

Tony raised his head, his eyes cold. “I’m not an idiot. I don’t hold the children accountable for their parents’ mistakes.”

“Unlike me?” Nathaniel held his brother’s gaze for a long time, waiting for confirmation. While Nathaniel had borne the brunt of the stigma and cleanup after his father’s suicide, Tony had been protected from it all. He’d only been nine at the time, too young to remember the worst of it.

“I didn’t mean that.” Tony stood and started pacing in front of the fireplace. “I thought you’d be more supportive, especially given the nightmare that was our parents’ marriage.”

Nathaniel sighed. “If her relations were anyone else, I might consider, but not this family.”

“It was a long time ago, Nathaniel.” Tony sat across from him. “Do you really blame Sophia and her sisters for their father’s sins?”

Nathaniel studied his brother for a long moment. How much should he tell him? He fought the urge to protect him, but decided against it. It was time for Tony to deal with the consequences of his choices. “Have you met Sir John, the brother?”

Tony shook his head.

At least he wasn’t moving in those circles–yet. “I caught him cheating at cards at White’s.”

“Does Grandmother know?”

“No one does.” Nor would they, if he had anything to do with it. “You certainly can pick them, Tony.”

“I had no idea!” Tony plopped back into his chair and draped one leg over the arm. “I still think you should meet the family. It will at least prove that the sins of the father have nothing to do with the children.”

Nathaniel sighed. “If you insist.” He had no doubt that the girls would be charming. He already liked Anne Townsend. Hell, even Sir John was charming when he wanted to be, but good manners did not imply scrupulous behavior. In his experience, good manners served more as a veneer for the unscrupulous to hide behind.

#

Anne walked briskly toward home as the wind picked up. She pulled her shawl around her and quickened her pace. The old lady she’d spotted at the steps must be from Beetham. Or perhaps the gypsies were back in the village, though they usually went south before now. It’d be easy enough to find out. Beetham was a thriving community of gossips. Someone would know who the old lady was.

She should be focusing on Nathaniel Matthews. Not because he was handsome as sin, but because of why he was here.

To keep his brother from marrying Sophia.

Instead, she was worrying about some old lady and fairies. But there were no fairies.

The air came alive with sound, causing Anne to jump. She looked around her to see Cecil Worth, the vicar, leaning against a tree, watching the path back to the cottage. She quickly stepped back out of his line of sight. Maybe he wouldn’t see her. Please God, don’t let him see her.

“Miss Townsend!”

Lovely. Could this day get any worse? “Mr. Worth.” She dipped a curtsy. “What brings you out this far?”

“I was hoping to find you, Miss Townsend. Miss Sophia said you walk this way most days.” He doffed his hat and bowed prettily. He was dressed in a blue coat that stretched across his girth.

“You came to see me? For what reason?” In the three years he had been the vicar of St. Michael’s, he’d never even noticed her before.

“Do I need a reason to visit a young lady?” He chuckled as he replaced his hat with a flourish. “My dear Miss Townsend, I have shocked you.”

“Sir, I—uh.” Shock was an understatement. While the man never missed a chance to speak with the lovely Sophia, he wasted no time on plain Anne Townsend. Being plain and poor had a dampening effect on most men’s ardor.

He moved closer to her and smiled. “I imagine you have come to expect only sermons from me.”

She took a step back, not liking the strange heat in his pale gray eyes or his scent. The man had apparently bathed in perfume. “You are the vicar, sir. Why would I expect anything else?”

He clutched dramatically at his chest. “Ah, you wound me, Miss Townsend.”

Anne forced a laugh at his comical expression. “Then I offer my apologies.”

“Apology accepted.” He offered her his arm.

Anne took it and fell into step beside him. “How is your mother, Mr. Worth?”

“She is quite well. I will tell her you asked after her.”

Mrs. Worth would probably give him a severe tongue-lashing for walking with Anne. Anne and her sisters were not rich enough for her precious son, despite having a baronet as a father.

“I wanted to speak with you privately before I spoke to my mother.” He paused, looking down at her hand on his arm. “Such a small hand for the burdens you carry.”

“Burdens?” Anne desperately needed him to get to the point. She had the beginning of a headache brought on by his cologne.

“You’ve taken care of your sisters for years, all on your own. Such a strength of character.” He stroked his hand over hers, caressing her skin.

Anne snatched her hand away and put some distance between them. She suddenly didn’t like that she was in these woods alone with Cecil Worth. She glanced around, hoping that perhaps someone else would also be walking in the woods this afternoon. But they were quite alone. Too alone. A frisson of fear coursed down her spine.

A twitter sounded in the trees around her. Was it the old lady? Please let it be the old lady. Anyone to keep her from being alone with the creepy vicar.

Mr. Worth shot her a pitying look that caused her temper to heat. “Have you heard from your brother?”

“My brother? No, I suppose he is still in London.”

“Being so connected to a baronet, I can’t imagine why you would abandon the position it offers you and your sisters. I imagine he worries about you all. Three young women quite unprotected.”

John, worry about them? As if that would happen. Anger bubbled up and out of Anne’s mouth before she could stop it. “Thank you for your concern, but this is none of your business.”

“I only meant that it would be better for you if you had stayed with your brother.”

“You’ve no idea what you’re talking about.” Anne started down the path toward the cottage.

“And to settle for being the companion of an elderly lady.” Cecil Worth’s voice echoed through the empty woods.

Anne turned and glared at him. “Lady Danford has been very generous. I feel privileged to be of assistance to her.”

“Still, your brother . . .” He let the thought trail off.

Enough was enough. “Mr. Worth, my half brother’s title doesn’t put food on the table or provide heat for winter, and, for that matter, neither does he.”

“I can see you still harbor anger toward him. As the vicar, I must urge you to forgive. He is your brother. Perhaps you may yet reconcile.”

“I harbor no hope of our stepbrother seeking reconciliation.” It would be a cold day before she let John enter their life again. She glared at Mr. Worth and noted the odd expression on his face. He looked like a fish. She stepped farther away from him as Mr. Worth beamed at her, his gray eyes half-lidded and a crooked smile on his over-full lips.

She fought the urge to grimace. “I beg you to not discuss the matter further. Thank you for accompanying me. It looks to rain soon. I’d best hurry home. Good day, sir.”

“But Miss Townsend—”

She ignored his cry and kept moving. Presumptuous man. How dare he cast judgment upon her and her sisters? They had no say in the decision. Leaning against a tree, she closed her eyes and still she could see his cloying, besotted face. “Fairy wishes indeed. Absurd.”

Anne entered the cottage from the back. She hung up her pelisse and removed her bonnet. If, by some bizarre chance, she had been granted the wish she hadn’t spoken, she needed to find a way to undo it before something even more horrid and humiliating happened. Lady Danford’s grandson and Mr. Worth were quite enough.

“Anne, you will never guess!” Sophia rushed into the kitchen, but stopped short at the sight of her sister. “What’s wrong with you? You’re as pale as a corpse! An unkempt corpse.”

“You’ve never seen a corpse, Sophia, unkempt or otherwise. Why do you ask?” She closed her eyes and tried to relax the scowl from her face.

“Your hair is tumbled, you are out of breath, and your expression is twisted more than usual.” Sophia glided farther into the room, looking perfect, as usual.

“Thank you, Sophia, for reminding me.” The comment flew out of her mouth before she could stop it. “If you have something to tell me, please do so.”

“We are invited to Lady Danford’s for supper and cards. But that isn’t the best news. The best news is that Tony’s brother is here!”

Anne bustled to the cabinet and placed cups out for tea. Just what she needed; another evening of men fawning over her sister. “Must we go?” She scooped tea into the pot.

“Of course we must go.” Sophia plopped down into one of the kitchen chairs. “I will need a new gown.”

Juliet huffed as she walked into the kitchen. “You had the last two new gowns, Sophia. I think it’s Anne’s turn.” Seeing Anne laboring alone to set the table for tea, while Sophia sat like a princess, Juliet tsked and plated the cake.

“Anne doesn’t need anything new. It’s not like she’ll attract notice.” Sophia toyed with one of her dark, glossy curls.

Anne paused, the lid of the teapot suspended in her hand, and tossed aloft a prayer for patience. On the best days, Sophia was trying. Having Mr. Matthews in the village would only make her even more intolerable.

“Really, Sophia. You don’t need to be cruel.” Juliet plunked the cake on the table and glared at her sister.

“Thank you, Juliet.” Anne poured hot water over the tea leaves and then returned the kettle to the stove. Sophia was working herself up into a fine temper.

“Well, I hope there will be some new people at the party.” Sophia waved her hand dismissively. “I want to consider my options before accepting Tony. Did you see the invitations, Anne?”

“I thought you already had an understanding with Mr. Matthews,” Anne said carefully. Her plans depended on Mr. Matthews coming up to scratch. If he didn’t, she was going to have to come up with another way to buy the fuel they needed for winter. That meant borrowing money from Lady Danford. There was no other way.

“Not yet,” Sophia said. “I do wish we could go to London for a Season. Then I could have the chance to marry a titled gentleman.”

“Don’t reach beyond your grasp. We have little to offer such a man,” Anne said sharply.

“We? You do not, but I have had no end of offers, even without a fortune. Why wouldn’t a titled gentleman want a pure, beautiful bride? Besides, the further I reach, the better I shall be able to take care of my sisters,” Sophia said confidently.

Too confidently, in Anne’s opinion. She rolled her eyes. This plan to marry off Sophia was getting more complex as the day went on.

“You have had no end of offers from the local gentry, Sophia,” Juliet snapped. “I thought you liked Tony.”

“I do like Tony,” Sophia said. “I just want to make sure he’s the right one. Anne, if you would only contact our brother, I’m sure he would invite us to London. I don’t know why you hate him so. What has he ever done to you?”

Anne clenched her teeth to keep the bitter truth behind them. Her sisters would never know the extent of their half brother’s perfidy, if she had anything to do with it. “We’ve not heard from him in five years,” she reminded them. She took a seat at the table across from Juliet and poured the tea. “We must go on without him.”

“But we can’t be seen by Lady Danford’s guests in these old rags,” Sophia whined.

“Since we will be meeting some of them for the first time, they won’t know these are our old dresses.” Anne passed a cup of tea to Juliet.

Sophia huffed. “Why must we be so poor? Our father was a baronet!”

“Be thankful that our mother left us a little to live on,” said Anne. That was something John couldn’t take from them no matter how he tried.

“Sophia, some things we must accept,” Juliet said, and pushed her old spectacles back on her face. “Besides, no one notices your dress.”

“Well, it isn’t fair.” Sophia pushed away her cup. “I think I’ll go see if I can make over a dress. I’ll take the lace off of your dress, Anne. And the flounce.”

“As you wish.” Anne waited until she heard Sophia’s steps on the wooden stairs. “You don’t have to defend me, Juliet.”

“She can be so hateful,” Juliet said. “As if her beauty entitles her to act like that.”

“Sophia will save this family if she marries well. She can be a bit overbearing, but she knows her duty.”

Juliet crossed her arms. “I don’t have to like it.”

Anne laughed. “Perhaps marriage will soften her up a bit.”

“That’s doubtful, isn’t it? I don’t want her to marry Tony. She’s not good enough for him.”

“I see.” Anne laughed at the blush that rose on her sister’s cheeks. “I’d wondered if you admired him.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

So that was how it was. Juliet was suffering through her first infatuation. Better that she learn now that Sophia would capture everyone’s attention. No matter what.

“Take care, Juliet. He has eyes for Sophia.” Anne patted Juliet’s hand.

“It doesn’t matter. He sees me as a child, not a grown woman of eighteen,” Juliet complained as she stood to clear the dishes.

“There will be other men like Mr. Matthews. I’m sure you’ll have your pick of gentlemen in the coming years. You’re every bit as pretty as Sophie, though I doubt she agrees.”

COLLAPSE