Chapter One

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"I hereby decree the word spinster be stricken from all manner of speech." Anne Townsend waved her makeshift wand from her perch at the top of the Fairy Steps. She cleared her voice in her most royal manner. "Furthermore, the word shall be stricken from every document in my fair kingdom!" The small village of Beetham shimmered in the gold cast of the late autumn sun, completely unaffected by her pronouncement.

Typical. She threw the stick down the uneven stones she'd just climbed.

Plain, practical, boring Anne

Was too plain to catch a man.

If she caught the eye of one,

To her sister he would run.

The truth of the stupid childhood taunt stared back at her every blasted day. She was plain. She'd never attracted any man she deemed suitable. It wasn't as if she was being picky. He just had to be reasonably wealthy, reasonably handsome, reasonably witty, and not stupid.

Therein lay the difficulty. No man had met all the requirements. If he was handsome, he was either poor or witless. If he wasn't handsome, he had funds and was as old as the Fairy Steps.

It was of little matter. A modern woman made the best of things. Modern women didn't settle for some old shriveled-up man. And she would be a modern woman if it killed her.

Five years ago, the lure of magic in the Fairy Steps had stirred her romantic heart. A wish could fix anything: poverty, loneliness, and love. God, what a ninny she'd been.

The only thing that fixed poverty and loneliness was money.

Daily her sisters, Sophia and Juliet, whined about their lack of funds. They argued over stupid ribbons. They complained about their old, unfashionable dresses. Her sisters had no inkling of the trouble they were in.

They needed fuel for the approaching winter, food for larder, and coins to pay the two servants Anne couldn't do without. It took blunt. Blunt was what she needed more than anything.

If the confounded fairy showed up today, Anne wouldn't hesitate. She'd wish for the ready. Pots of it.

Anne closed her eyes and embraced the rare moment of peace. No arguing, whining, bickering, nagging, tormenting, or complaining. Just beautiful, glorious silence.

A cold gust of wind blew the tendrils of hair from her face and chased a shiver up her spine. Dried leaves rattled behind her as they skated across the rock. A twig snapped behind her.

Her eyes flew open. She wasn't alone.

Anne's heart pounded so hard she could hear it thumping in her ears. Hair lifted on the back of her neck. Anger warred with fear. Anger won.

She picked up a good-sized limb from the ground and gripped it with both hands. "Show yourself, coward."

"Speak your heart's desire, my lady." An odd, otherworldly voice filled the air. The breeze kicked up again.

Anne tightened her grip on the tree limb. She threw her shoulders back and stood taller. She wasn't going down without a fight.

"You climbed the steps properly and earned a wish, you have." The voice cackled.

She lowered her arm. Blast, this was nothing but a prank. Probably some child bribed by Sophia. She'd box the child's ears and send him on his way. She'd deal with her sister when she got home. "The joke is over. Come on out."

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