Authors: Nina Coombs Pykare
Tags: #regency Gothic Romance
THE HAUNTING OF GREY CLIFF
Nina Coombs Pykare
I looked into the brooding eyes of the stranger, eyes set in a dark, handsome face. The thing he had just suggested was inconceivable, preposterous. The very idea quite took my breath away.
"Milord," I said, willing my voice to a steadiness I wished to feel and yet could not. "I cannot marry you, a man I have only just met, a total stranger."
Edward, Earl of Grey Cliffs, fixed me with those brooding eyes, eyes as black as pitch and revealing just as little. He sat across the small table from me in the private parlor of the inn where I had come in response to his message.
"I am not a total stranger, Miss Durant," he pointed out, his deep voice carrying the authority of a peer of the realm. "You will recall that I come to you with the recommendation of the marquis of Carolington."
This was true, in a rather roundabout fashion. Actually, the marquis had recommended
the earl. I had earned a reputation for dealing with boys, especially young scamps who delighted in driving off their governesses. The earl had such a son—Andrew by name—and the earl and I had spent the last hour discussing him and his problems. The boy did need me; I could tell that. And I was more than ready to undertake his education.
I had come to this interview prepared to be offered employment as a governess. But this! I had not come expecting a proposal of marriage!
"Milord," I protested, "there must be many ladies in London more appropriate to hold the position of your wife. I am only a governess."
The earl straightened in his chair. "I am well aware of your qualifications," he said, his voice stringent. "And as to the ladies of London—" His handsome face twisted into a harsh imitation of a smile I found more frightening than any frown. "The ladies of London hold no charm for me. I have no wish to ally myself with any—lady."
The last word was uttered with great bitterness. I was no stranger to pain and it was pain I recognized beneath the man's acrimonious tone. The personable lineaments of his face—and they were personable despite his obvious anger—did not hide a certain anguish.
Having always a heart easily affected by suffering, I felt some sympathy for the earl, but sympathy was very different from love. And I, when I had thought of marriage, had thought always of love.
I knew that many—perhaps most—ladies in that year of 1817 married not for love but for monetary reasons, but I was not the sort to think of money in relation to a man.
The earl was still regarding me, his dark eyes hooded, his handsome face now devoid of all expression. A frisson of fear slithered down my spine. Perhaps, I thought, dismissing the shiver, someone had trod on my grave. I could see no occasion for fear in this situation. The earl was an honorable man; the marquis had vouched for him.
"I understand that this has been somewhat of a jolt for you," the earl commented. "I am sorry for that. I had no intention of causing you distress."
He seemed to grow bigger as his eyes bore into mine, bigger and even more imposing. 'Take your time. Miss Durant. Ask any questions you wish."
Questions! I hesitated, smoothing at the skirt of my drab brown gown with nervous fingers. How was I to ascertain which question to ask the man first? And then I realized what I most needed to know.
"Milord." My voice squeaked slightly and I firmed my shoulders to show I was in control of myself. "Since you give me permission, I
ask. Why me? Why should
be chosen as the object of your matrimonial intentions?"
The earl smiled, sadly this time. He flicked a piece of lint from his well-fitting coat. "You are quite as intelligent as the marquis made you out to be," he declared. "And certainly I will tell you why I have chosen you. But first, relax a little, have some tea. And be assured I shall soon satisfy all your objections."
I did not see how that could be possible—my mind was such a riot of objections—but nervousness had dried out my mouth. So I took up my cup for a welcome sip of tea.
The earl leaned his elbows upon the table and looked me in the eye. "The marquis assured me you were the one to deal with Ned's unruliness and now that I have talked with you myself I am persuaded of it."
"I know how to deal with boys," I said, returning his look over the rim of my cup. "But I do not know how to deal with a proposal that I become a countess." Not that I should really consider such an outlandish suggestion, but the man had asked for a chance to present his case. Common courtesy dictated that I at least listen to him. "I know little about life in the ton."
"First," he said, "you may rest easy on that score. I do not intend that we shall go about in society."
I supposed he meant it at that moment, but I did not see how any lord would long wish to forego the joys of society. And when he returned to them, I didn't fancy being put down by the ladies of the ton. I was, in fact, well-born myself, but Jeremy's death in Spain— Jeremy, my dearly loved younger brother and Papa's only son—had so deranged Papa that he had lost all regard for the estate, an estate that would eventually go to a distant relative upon whom it was entailed.
I did not blame Papa that in his derangement he had also forgotten about me. I, too, had grieved deeply, but Papa died leaving me bereft of family and funds—so that in the end it was my love for Jeremy that proved my salvation from abject poverty. Because I had raised Jeremy from an infant I knew how to deal with boys. And because I knew how to deal with boys I was able to get employment as a governess.
The earl had picked up his teacup and was regarding me over the rim of it, and I realized that he must think he had answered my objections. I hastened to let him know otherwise. "But in future," I said, "you may well change your mind and wish to return to society."
The earl sighed, a sound of great distress. "I did not wish to bother you with all the sordid facts," he began.
There was anger in his tone, in his expression— anger and something more. "Milord," I interrupted, experiencing a tremor of trepidation. "You need not tell me—"
need," he said, setting his cup down on the table with a thump. "I have asked you to be my wife and you have every right to know the reputation of the man who has asked for your hand. My reputation is—in a word—quite bad."
"Bad?" I repeated, dismayed to hear the quaver in my voice.
He straightened his shoulders. "Quite so. It happened in this wise. My first wife, Royale, was a beautiful woman, a very beautiful woman." He paused and a look of unutterable misery cast a pall across his features. "Unfortunately, her beauty was only skin deep."
I felt a slight flush climb to my cheeks. Though I knew myself far from ugly, I had never set up to be a beauty. My hair, though luxuriant when released from its governess's Spartan knot, was an ordinary brown, and my eyes an ordinary green.
Charles had thought me beautiful, or at least he'd said he had, but Charles had been dead these five years, killed in the same battle as Jeremy. That power-mad Frenchman, Napoleon Bonaparte, had taken from me both husband-to-be and brother—and a year later, from his grief, my father.
"My wife," the earl continued, "did not want a child and resented the removal from society that its impending arrival made necessary."
My hands commenced to tremble and hastily I returned my cup to its saucer. What sort of barbarous woman did not want her own child? Many a night, alone in my narrow governess's bed, I had mourned the children I would never have. Charles had been my first love and he had been my last—and when poverty forced me to become a governess I knew that I should never marry.
The earl had fallen into a reverie, a painful one from the look on his face. I waited some minutes and then I asked, "What happened, milord?"
He started and smiled at me grimly. "After the child was born, she retaliated by making me the laughingstock of London, cuckolding me with every man she could find. And then she ran off to the colonies—with a footman."
My shock must have registered on my face in spite of all my efforts to hide it.
"Yes," he said, his voice vibrating with fury. "With a footman! I stayed in the city." His face took on the look of granite, hewn to angular lines by time and adversity. "For two years I attended every social function to which I was invited, facing down every innuendo, every smirking matron, every prying fop." He frowned ferociously. "The talk died down finally and I found the so-called delights of the city no longer appealed to me. So a year ago I removed, as I told you, to my castle in Cornwall."
It was all rather confusing, but one thing was obvious—the earl was a proud man, this scandal had tried him sorely.
He gave me a strange speculative look. "If you require to be in the city," he said, leaning across the table toward me, "I could reconsider my decision."
"Oh no! Cornwall, Cornwall will be fine. That is—" I stammered on, not wanting him to construe my words as an acceptance of his proposal. "I do not care to live in London." My tongue seemed unable to obey my commands, or perhaps my thoughts were so jumbled they made little sense. I forced myself to take a deep breath. "Milord, please forgive me, I am all confused."
"How so?" he asked, his tone kindly.
"I cannot see why I must be your wife to care for—"
"The boy needs love," he interrupted harshly. "He adored his mother, though she had little time for him."
that is, I would love him," I insisted. "Marriage is not necessary for that."
He shook his head stubbornly. "I think it is. I want the boy to have someone steady, someone solid to hang on to."
Still I did not understand. "But he has you, milord. He has his father."
A shadow crossed his face. "True, but if we marry, he will also have you." He paused and his face darkened further. "If you accept my suit," he said, "I intend to name you in my will as the boy's guardian."
Again a premonition of danger shivered over me. "Milord, you talk like a man who may not—" I could not finish the sentence. To think of this great strong man at death's door was frightening. "Are you ill?"
"No, no. It is nothing like that." He affected a smile, but it did not reach his eyes, which remained black as a moonless midnight. "Life is chancy," he explained. "An accident while riding, a sudden swift illness . . . the boy has suffered much already. That’s why I want a mother for him, not a governess who may depart on any whim."
It seemed unkind to remind him that marriage had not prevented the boy's real mother from departing, so I remained silent.
It was almost as though the earl read my mind; he leaned toward me further still, his strong mouth twisting in a sardonic smile. "You are not at all like her," he said. "She was fair and blonde, with all the dazzle—and hardness—of diamonds, but you, you are softness, calm, the peace of midnight."
I did not feel at all peaceful, and for a brief moment I actually envied the unhappy creature who had run off and left her child. It was only for a moment and only because when he spoke of her a peculiar look of longing stole over the earl's saturnine features.
know that Cornwall is a lonely place, removed from much society," he continued. "But from what the marquis told me I thought that would not be amiss with you."
This was all madness, I thought, trying to control emotions as unruly as any I had ever contended with among my charges. How could I marry a stranger? How could he?
"You—you know only what the marquis told you of me," I went on, hesitantly, playing devil's advocate. "How can you wish to spend your life with me on such short acquaintance?"
"I know more about you than you think," he returned, his gaze never wavering. "I, too, served in Spain. I knew Jeremy—and Charles."
My heart almost leaped out of my throat. "You knew Jeremy? You knew my brother?"
He nodded, for the first time smiling warmly. "Many a bivouac your brother enlivened with his tales of snakes in your bed and toads in your dresser drawers, the numerous escapades of his mischievous youth."
"You knew Jeremy," I repeated, hardly able to comprehend it.
"He spoke of you always with great affection," the earl said, reaching across the little table to cover my hand with his. His fingers were warm, comforting, and to my surprise I did not resent the liberty he took in touching me.
For a long moment he remained with his hand over mine, then he withdrew it and to my consternation I experienced a sense of loss. It was because of Jeremy, I told myself briskly, because I was still missing Jeremy.
"Have you any more questions?" the earl inquired.
I shook my head, unable to speak over the lump in my throat, the lump that rose when I thought overmuch of Jeremy being gone.
"I realize I have given you a great deal to contemplate," the earl said. "Perhaps you would like some time to consider all this."
I nodded, reaching in my reticule for a handkerchief.