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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.

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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.

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