He had finally lived up to his brother Nathaniel’s low expectations of him.
Tony Matthews stared through the veil of newly budded leaves to the village of Beetham below. The cold stone of the Fairy Steps seeped into his bones from his perch at the top. Spring fought against the winter chill in the air in the faint green of the grass and the blooms of early flowers. New life.
God, how he wanted a new life, a different direction.
What seemed like a good idea at the time, in hindsight, was now a nightmare.
Usually, the rolling hills of the southern portion of this part of England soothed Tony’s soul unlike any other place. The restlessness inside him eased with each breath of the fresh clean air.
Not this time. This time he was trapped in his own stupid arrogance. This time he’d finally lived up to his father’s legacy.
He’d taken a man’s estate in a card game. A game he wasn’t even planning to play except for alcohol-fueled bluster and a dare from a friend. He’d played and lost a fortune, then played again and won an estate.
The man, Chelsworth, ended up being a neighbor of his brother’s home, the Lodge.
Honor and pride wouldn’t let Chelsworth back away from the bet. No, the man had signed away his estate and his livelihood to Tony. It was a matter of honor, even as Chelsworth’s hand shook while he penned his name.
Tony hadn’t wanted to take the estate. The alcoholic stupor had started to wear off with the realization that he’d stepped into his father’s shoes. Only this time on the winning side. Tony had sunk to the lowest depths of vile.
Nathaniel, was never going to forgive him. Hell, Tony would probably be thrown out of the family and left to his own devices. He had money. He had the reputation of a rake and a gambler, well-earned at this point.
But it wasn’t who Tony really was. His entire life was an act. One he didn’t want to maintain any longer, an act that was beginning to become a reality.
The fact that it had taken no effort to become this vile man scared the hell out of Tony. When he looked in the mirror, he didn’t know who he saw any more.
He wanted the house, but not this way. The estate must be in a bad way already, given the owner was willing to wager it in a card game. If it was making any living at all, Chelsworth would not have been at the tables.
Unless the man was sick with gambling. Tony knew that sickness existed. His sister-in-law’s brother was addicted to gambling, always pushing for that next win.
Tony could walk away from the games without looking back. He was sure of it, at least on most days.
His problem was infinitely more difficult. He needed a way to repair the mistakes he had made without alerting Nathaniel. Tony could not disappoint him again.
Nathaniel was a man of high regard in Beetham and in Town. His business prowess was legendary. Nathaniel had a lovely wife, a child, a house, and the respect of his peers. He had everything Tony wanted but hadn’t been able to achieve.
And now Tony had lived up to his brother’s greatest fear: He’d become their father.
Hence the trip to Beetham. Tony needed to convince Chelsworth that he meant to tear up the vowels. He would not take a man’s livelihood. He would not allow gambling to define him as a man.
Chelsworth had to be desperate. Tony could offer to buy the estate. He had wanted to invest in property. He wanted to do something with his life other than what he was doing: drinking and gambling.
He pulled in a breath of the clean fresh air of the country. He’d forgotten what clean air smelled like. He’d forgotten what the wild spaces of the Lake District felt like. Unconstrained. Open.
No more choking on the London air. No more buildings closing in on him as he walked narrow streets. No more gaming hells. No more lies. No more hiding.
Tony wanted what Nathaniel had: a life of honor and respect. Honor had been missing from his life for a very long time, if it had ever existed at all. The only respect Tony had gained had come from winning more than losing in the hells of London. He wanted more. He wanted Nathaniel’s respect.
Leaves danced as a cold wind whirled around him. A woman cackled in the distance.
Tony frowned and looked around for the origin of the voice. No one was there. The cackling grew louder as the leaves spiraled up around him, pulling at his coat, knocking his hat to the ground. He moved to catch it before it blew down the steps.
“What the hell?”
A twig snapped behind him. Tony turned to find Juliet Townsend tiptoeing past him at the edge of the woods, carefully avoiding making any noise.
She was dressed as a boy.
“Miss Juliet, up to your hoyden ways again, I see.” Tony crossed his arms.
Juliet huffed and kicked at the weeds beneath her feet in scuffed boots that seemed to flop about on her feet. She was covered in dirt. Her dark brown hair was tucked under an old hat that had been pulled down low over her face.
Tony raised one eyebrow. “Hiding from someone?”
Juliet turned and faced him, resigned at being discovered. “You weren’t supposed to see me or recognize me.”
“Why?” Tony moved closer. She was dressed in brown breeches that were a tad too tight around her hips. She had on a rough linen shirt and waistcoat. “From whom have you stolen that outfit? One of the grooms?”
No one was as stubborn as Juliet Townsend. She pushed her spectacles back on her face. “Aren’t you supposed to be in London?”
“I asked you first.”
She flounced toward him and plopped down at the edge of the steps. “If you must know, I’m helping a friend.”
“Dressed as a boy? Have you lost your senses?”
Juliet was different from her sisters. She wasn’t afraid to take up a cause and see it through. Tony sat next to her on the stone steps. “Who is this friend?”
She glowered at him. “You must swear not to tell a soul.”
“If your sister disapproves, it must be bad.”
She grinned. “What would be the point of it if it weren’t?”
“One day, Miss Juliet, your wild ways are going to get you into trouble.”
Juliet looked out across the trees. “You are probably right. My friend, Penelope Williams, and her family are tenants of the Horneswood estate nearby. Her father was in a terrible accident that left him disfigured. Anne would not approve of the friendship.”
“She is far beneath you, Miss Juliet.”
She glared at him. “I don’t care about that. Penelope is a dear, and I have found that I enjoy the work.”
“What do you know of farming?”
“A great deal more than you, I’d wager. I’ve read at least three books on the subject.”
“You have me there. The last time I read a tome on agriculture, I was having trouble falling asleep.”
“You are too wicked, Mr. Matthews. Horneswood’s land steward is threatening to have them evicted. They have nowhere else to go. Penelope and her brother may end up working in a factory in Lancaster, or worse.”
“There’s nothing wrong with factory work, Miss Juliet. It puts a roof over one’s head. It might be a better fate than the workhouse.”
“I knew you wouldn’t understand. I’d help them if I could, but Nathaniel won’t let me give them money from my settlement.” She stood and dusted off her pants, drawing Tony’s attention to her nicely rounded bottom.
Tony had no idea that breeches would look this good on a woman. Perhaps they should become the fashion. He pulled himself up and started down the stairs. “In this instance, I’d have to agree. Help them with food or support, but you’ll need your own funds for when you marry. Now, allow me to escort you home.”
She stared at the horse tethered at the bottom of the steps. “Thank you, no. I prefer to walk.”
“Don’t be a ninny. If we ride, we’ll be home in half the time.”
“I’m inappropriately dressed. If my sister sees me thus, I’ll not be allowed to call on Penelope again.” Juliet skirted around Tony toward the path through the woods.
“How do you plan on avoiding her? Sneaking in through the kitchens?”
Juliet smiled widely. “A splendid idea.”
“Miss Juliet, there is no way I’m allowing you to go through those woods unaccompanied.”
“I walk through these woods daily. I’m safe enough.”
“And if you’re seen? Word would reach Anne before you could even reach the kitchen door. Enough nonsense. I’ll see you home.”
She looked at the horse and shook her head. “He’s huge.”
“You’ve been around horses all your life.”
“If I must.” She stomped down the narrow stairs. He followed her down, enjoying the view of her hips swinging.
“If we are seen together, I’ll be in great peril of ruining my reputation.”
“If we are seen, you’ll be chastised for being so inappropriately attired and not because you are in my company. We are practically brother and sister.”
Tony almost ran into her as Juliet turned suddenly.
“Your brother is married to my sister. That does not make us family.”
Tony gripped Juliet’s arms to keep her from falling backward down the stairs. Her eyes were pools of dark chocolate as she stared up at him through the magnified lenses of her glasses.
“Please, sir, release me.”
“I wouldn’t want to have you take a tumble down the stairs. How shall I explain it to your sister?” He cleared his throat and released her.
Juliet continued down the steps, her hands finding purchase in the stone walls. She stumbled to a stop at the bottom. “I shall not get on that horse.”
Juliet didn’t answer but started walking down the lane toward the lodge. Stubborn woman, thought Tony. He grabbed the reins of the horse and rushed to catch up with her. “It’s just about teatime; the horse can get us to the house faster.”
“The house is barely a mile away. Hardly worth troubling the horse, if you ask me.” She moved to the other side of the lane.
“You are afraid of the horse? I didn’t think you were afraid of anything.”
“Don’t be silly; everyone has fears.” Juliet walked faster, her loose boots making a clumping sound with each step. “We had no notice that you were coming home, Mr. Matthews.”
“The Season was over. I thought it time.”
“Beetham is a quiet village. Will you be able to bear being away from the gaming tables while you are here?” There was a sneer in her voice.
“You’d be surprised,” he mumbled.
Juliet looked up at him, a questioning look on her face. “Excuse me?”
“It’s of little matter.”
“We heard about your exploits in Town, Mr. Matthews,” Juliet continued.
“What have you heard?”
“That you prefer to spend more time in your clubs than you do at home.”
He slowed and his horse butted him with his head. “Easy, boy.” He rubbed the muzzle. “Juliet, you know better than to listen to gossip.”
She started walking again. “Take care that you don’t end up penniless like my brother.”
Tony winced. If the truth were made known, he would probably lose Juliet’s friendship as well.
Juliet’s face grew solemn. “Do you think there will come a time, Mr. Matthews, when you’ll grow tired of cards?”
“One never knows. It might be sooner than you think.”
Juliet evaluated his words. Could it be he was finally tired of the gaming hells? Her brother never seemed to tire of them. “What do you mean?”
“It’s of little consequence.” He looked back at the horse, a strange expression on his face.
In the three years she’d known Tony Matthews, she’d sensed that all wasn’t what it seemed with him. Certainly on the surface he was affable, fun, and carefree. But there were depths hinted at in quiet moments like these.
She was never able to crack the façade to see what really lay beneath. She suspected there was a great deal more to the man than the pieces he allowed others to see.
They rounded the bend and approached the park of the Lodge.
She touched his arm. “Mr. Matthews, the only expectations you need to live up to are your own. You do know that.”
Tony glanced down at her hand on his arm. An odd kind of warmth radiated up Juliet’s arm.
“Miss Juliet, thank you.” His voice was gruff.
“I shall see you at tea.”
Juliet sprinted around the house and snuck into the house through the kitchen door. She slipped off the too-large boots, leaving them by the door, and crept up the stairs in her stocking feet, avoiding the creaky stairs.
The clock in the hallway chimed the hour. Juliet moved more quickly down the darkened hallway to her room. She closed the door behind her and quickly changed into a suitable day dress, stashing the breeches and shirt in the bottom of her cupboard.
Juliet looked down at her hands, caked in dirt. Pouring water into a basin, she scrubbed, trying to remove most of the dirt from her fingernails.
There was a rap on her door. “Juliet? It’s time for tea.”
“Coming!” She scrubbed faster. Foolish of her not to wear gloves while digging in the dirt. She was going to have to get a proper pair if this kept up.
Juliet’s sister Sophia stepped into the room and closed the door behind her. “Did you know that Tony is here? Good heavens, what have you been up to? You are in no state for company, covered in dirt as you are.”
“Really, Sophia. It is not that bad.”
“Very well, but do something with your hair—it is a mess. And come down as quickly as you can.” Sophia closed the door behind her.
Juliet fussed with her hair. Tony Matthews never came home unless he had to, usually when he needed money from Nathaniel.
Juliet was well over her infatuation with Tony, though they remained friends. In the three years that Nathaniel and Anne had been married, she had worried for him. Gambling was a sickness that ruined greater men than Tony would ever be. It had ruined her brother. It had ruined his father. It was only a matter of time before it ruined Tony too.