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.
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.”
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.
“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.
And that wish! The thoughts had tumbled out of his mouth before he’d had time to snatch them back. He’d watched Victoria ride away from him as fast as the path would let her and wished he could win her heart.
Hearts were earned and he had no idea how to go about it.
“Sir, if you would hand me the reins,” a stable boy stood below him.
Sir John looked around. He’d been so lost in thought he didn’t remember returning. He dismounted the horse and handed the boy the reins.
“You all right, sir?”
The grumble came out harsher than he intended. The boy shrugged and walked away leading the horse. John let his shoulders slump. Why was he still here in Beetham? Connells was handling the Jockey Club business. It seemed pointless to stay when Victoria was undecisive about her feelings for him.
Yet, he’d promised Connells that he’d stay until this business with Penwith was complete.
Penwith was like every other gentleman in the damned club, so why was Connells hesitating. He should approve the application so that they could all return to their respective lives.
John entered the house and handed his hat and gloves to a nearby footman. “Where is Matthews?”
“He’s in the library, sir. Shall I bring tea as well?”
“Please.” John opened the library door and stepped inside.
Anthony Matthews looked up from his ledger. “Where have you been?”
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I was at the Fairy Steps.”
Matthews set down his pen and grinned. “I didn’t take you for the type to seek out a view.”
The door opened again and the maid brought in a tea tray complete with biscuits and tarts. She set it down on the small table next to John.
He poured a cup and added three sugar cubes. He stirred the tea, the added a tart to the small plate.
Matthews leaned back in his chair and just watched with a self-serving smirk on his face.
“What?” he mumbled around the tart.
“You’ve got it bad.”
He wasn’t going to justify that truth with a lie, so he kept silent and shoved more of the tart into his mouth. Damn these were good.
“Miss Penwith called upon Juliet this morning to return a book she’d borrowed.”
“I saw her on the path.”
He shrugged. “The usual response.”
Matthews leaned forward. “You are horrible at romance, Townsend.”
“What man is good at it?”
Matthews shrugged. “It’s a learn-as-you-go kind of thing. Women want romance. They want to be wooed. We, gentlemen, need to figure it out.”
“How in the hell do you woo?”
“Not the way you are going about it.”
“What do you expect me to do? Write her poetry?”
“Not a bad start.”
John stared at him in horror. “Write poetry? Are you serious?”
“You need some romantic gestures. Big ones.”
It was going to take bigger bollocks than he had for him write a love poem. As for romantic gestures, he had no idea where to start. “I’ll figure it out.”
Hell, if Matthews could do it, so could he.
Matthews stood and poured himself a cup of tea, then leaned against his desk and sipped it. “How long are you planning to be in Beetham, Townsend?”
“As long as it takes to evaluate Martin Penwith for the Jockey Club.”
“You’ve been here a month. You’ve met the man socially and on the track. What more do you need?”
“Are you trying to get rid of me, Matthews?”
“Hell no. I’m trying to make you realize that this is a lost cause. The woman is indifferent.”
“She’s not indifferent all the time,” he muttered. “She’s flirted with me on occasion.”
Matthews leaned forward on the desk. “Here’s the situation. The Kendal race is in two weeks. You have two weeks, then you are going to give up.”
“I don’t want to give up.”
Matthews gave him an exasperated look. “Man, you’ve got to know when to quit. If she isn’t going to say yes in two weeks, it’s time to concede.. She doesn’t have to return your affections.”
“Or you can try working for it, John.” Juliet said from the door.
“She hates me.” Good God, now he was whining. He hardly knew himself these days.
“She doesn’t hate you. You confuse her.”
Matthews slapped his hand on the desk. “That’s a good thing, Townsend. Keep them confused then woo them.”
Juliet punched her husband in the arm. “Victoria Penwith has never been like other young ladies. She isn’t interested in fashion or gossip. She is somewhat of an anomaly in these parts. Gentlemen talk to her for advice on horses and their breeding practices, but none of them seem interested in her as a woman. In fact, I don’t think that any of the gentlemen in the district see her as a woman, but as one of their own. Except for Mr. Gordon. He’s rather keen on her.”
Sir John frowned. “Who is this Gordon fellow?”
“The local surgeon,” Matthews threw in. “Nice fellow.”
“Very handsome, too.” Juliet said.
Matthews turned to his wife. “You think he’s handsome?”
“Have you seen the way the young ladies act when he enters the room?”
“I think I’m a bit jealous, sweetheart.”
Juliet patted his cheek. “No need, my dear. He is like a flower in the garden to be admired.”
“Can we get back to the problem at hand? How does Miss Penwith feel about this gentleman?”
Juliet took the other chair in front of the desk and folded her hands. “She likes him well enough, I suppose. She doesn’t talk about him like she does you, John.”
“You mean that she sings his praises while she cuts me every time she sees me.”
“You irritate her.”
“There’s a romantic feeling!” John muttered. “She’d rather swat at me like a gnat. Let me go propose. Why not be honest, Juliet? She hates me.”
Juliet laughed. “Silly, if she hated you, she wouldn’t mention how irritating you are. She wouldn’t grumble about your attention to her.”
“Great, just what I want to hear.”
“You could work this to your advantage, Townsend, with some romantic gestures.” Matthews added. He smiled at his wife. “I’ve been telling him he needs to write poetry.”
“God no!” Juliet said. “That’s the last thing she’d want.”
“See? Even romantic gestures don’t work.”
“You are missing the point, brother dear. Women love romantic gestures as long as they aren’t the same tired, old gestures.. They need to be tailored to her character and desires. Flattery is wasted on her.”
John glared at his brother-in-law. “How did you figure this out with Juliet?”
“Dumb luck, my friend. Pure dump luck.”
“Then I don’t have a prayer.”
Juliet laughed. “I do have an idea, if you’d like to hear it.”
“Spend some time with me at the fair. We will seek out Miss Penwith. I know that she plans on entering that horse of hers in the race tomorrow.”
“I had planned on entering my own horse.”
Matthews laughed. “Good. Challenge her. Propose a friendly wager—”
“Tony! That would not be proper.”
“Pick something proper. Make her take notice of you.”
He pondered this. It could work. It might work. “This is wooing?”
“If you plan it right.”
“So, I’m supposed to let her win.”
Juliet shook her head. “She’ll do that all on her own and you’ll be there to grovel after she wins.”
Matthews slapped him on the back. “Don’t worry, Townsend. Groveling gets easier each time you do it.”