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