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. 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.