Authors: Nina Coombs Pykare
Tags: #regency Gothic Romance
I supposed she meant Edward. "I know," I replied, trying not to sound smug, trying not to look like the satisfied wife I felt. I was about to make some dull remark about the weather when Robert came in.
Cousin Julia took a look at his fashionable attire and tittered. "Going out tonight?" she asked with a knowing smile.
Robert shrugged. "A man has to have some diversion."
Uncle Phillip snorted. "So, that’s what they call it nowadays."
Smiling, Robert turned to me. At another time, under other conditions, perhaps I would have felt flattered, but at that time I only felt uneasy. I loved my husband—loved him deeply and with a passion I hadn't suspected I possessed—and to have another man, especially his brother, fawn over me, made me most uneasy.
However, Robert did not seem to perceive my distress and raised my hand to his lips. I barely kept myself from jerking it away. Was it Robert's touch that was distasteful? Or was it that now my flesh only wished for my husband's gentle caress?
I withdrew my fingers as soon as I decently could. "Good evening, Robert," I said. "How are you this evening?"
"Looking at a lovely lady always makes me delighted," he replied, with a false smile that reminded me of a naughty boy trying to smile his way out of some mischief.
I felt harsh words rising to my lips, but I bit them back. I was new here. It was not up to me to criticize Edward's brother.
Then my heart leaped. Edward,
Edward, had appeared in the doorway. He looked so strong, so handsome. My heart sang and my body began to flush with warmth.
"Good evening," he said, his gaze meeting mine, his voice husky. He crossed the room to stand by my side. His presence there made me feel happy, safe.
"Good evening, Edward." I hoped my voice didn't give me away. I didn't understand how it could have happened so quickly, but I knew that it had. I was besotted with my husband.
Robert gave me a startled glance and I perceived that I had not succeeded in hiding my secret. But I did not care. I loved my husband. And he loved me. Soon he would tell me so.
Uncle Phillip made an indelicate sound, glanced quickly at me, and smiled sheepishly. Cousin Julia tittered. "So you're going to dine with us tonight, Edward."
Edward gave her a dry look. "I believe that is my custom."
Robert smirked at me. "My dear brother
in custom," he said. "As you'll soon discover."
To my surprise Edward's face began to turn crimson. He appeared to struggle with his feelings for a moment, then he burst forth with, "That will be enough! Quite enough!"
But Robert would not be quieted. "Just a quirk of fate," he said with a sneer, "that’s all that kept me from being the earl. You were born first, that's all." He smiled and a shiver slithered down my backbone. "Another quirk is all it would take, a little accident, of one sort or another—and the earldom would be mine."
I gasped at such terrible effrontery, but no one even noticed. They were all staring at Robert.
Finally Cousin Julia tittered again, breaking the tension that hung so heavily in the room. "Don't mind him," she said with a knowing glance at me. "Robert's just mad 'cause he can't get his money till quarter day."
Robert glared at his brother. "But Edward refuses to give it to me."
Edward's face was still crimson, his jaw grimly taut. I reached out to touch his sleeve. His expression didn't lighten but when his gaze met mine, he swallowed several times and then said in a voice whose calmness belied the grimness of his face, "The terms of Robert's allowance are not mine. They are my father's terms. He made his wishes known—and I abide by them."
"Of course you do," Robert said. "Because you're a stickler after propriety."
Under the circumstances, I thought that barb extremely unfair. Robert must know what Edward's wife had done to him. How could he treat his brother so cruelly, how could he remind him of that disgraceful episode?
"You are right," Edward replied caustically. "I am. Of course, propriety has never been of much concern to you, so I suppose I cannot expect you to think of it. But I warn you."
He turned the full force of his frown on his brother. To his credit, Robert did not cringe. For a moment I wondered how I would have reacted had Edward turned such a scornful look on me. I decided I wished never to find out.
"I warn you," Edward repeated. 'There will be no more scandal around our name in this village. If you cause any scandal, any talk, you will find that even quarter day does not arrive for you."
Robert stiffened. "You wouldn't! You can't!"
Edward shrugged. "I would. And I can. And you had best believe me."
"Oh, I believe you." Robert scowled. "And now, if you're through with your pious pronouncements, I'll be off to search for better company."
Edward did not rise to this bait. He seemed to have taken his temper in hand. "As you wish. Only remember what I have told you."
Robert shot his cuffs and ostentatiously admired the lace that edged them. Then he gave me that lazy, rakish grin and sauntered out without another word.
I looked at Edward. I was worried about my husband. Such anger couldn't be good for him. And with the taint of madness hanging over the family ... I tried to push such thoughts from my mind. Edward was a good man. He loved his son. He let his brother's bastards live in the castle. He was gentle to me.
I took my husband's hand. "Come," I said. "Let's have our dinner."
* * * *
But our dinner was not to be peaceful. We were barely into the first course when Cousin Julia looked up from her mountainously full plate and said, "I think Friday will be a good night."
"A good night for what?" I inquired.
"For our séance."
My fork almost fell from my suddenly numb fingers. "Séance?" I repeated, staring at her.
"Yes. Haven't you someone you wish to communicate with?"
My thoughts flew to Jeremy, my dear departed Jeremy. Though I knew such a wish was futile, how I wanted to speak to him. "No," I said. "No one." But I heard the longing in my voice.
Cousin Julia looked at me, her eyes wide. "There must be
Edward looked up from his plate. "Cousin Julia," he said sharply. 'That will be enough. If Hester says there is no one she wishes to speak to, then there is no one."
Cousin Julia nodded, but her beady little eyes gleamed, and I knew there was more she wished to say to me, only Edward's frowning presence prevented her.
"I don't know why you're so unbelieving," she whined. "Everyone knows that the spirits are about. We just need the right methods to contact them."
Uncle Phillip snorted and gave her his usual skeptical look. "The dead don't want the likes of you bothering them. The dead want to be left in peace."
For once Uncle Phillip made a good deal of sense. But Cousin Julia cast him a withering look. "I don't believe I've seen the devil lurking around any corners lately," she said with that irritating titter. "So it doesn't look like you've been all that successful at reaching him."
Uncle Phillip frowned. "Old Lucifer's a busy chap. He can't always be bothered to answer a summons."
Edward slammed down his goblet so hard that wine splashed out on the table. "That will be enough!" he declared. "If you can't discuss ordinary, normal events, then don't converse at all. I'm sick to death of this petty battle between the two of you. Just as I'm sick of the peculiar beliefs you try to foist on me."
I was sick of it all, too, but I was even more shaken by the vehemence of my husband's remarks. Edward's temper—the temper I had hoped did not often make itself known—seemed to be easily aroused, seemed almost to be waiting to be aroused. And that made me definitely uneasy.
But the rest of the meal passed in silence. Cousin Julia piled her plate high and emptied it—not once but three separate times. Uncle Phillip, too, ate heartily, though not the huge quantities Cousin Julia favored. Finally she pushed back her chair. "Excuse me," she murmured, darting a glance at Edward.
He nodded, his expression still grim.
Cousin Julia turned her gleaming eyes on me. "Would you care to walk with me a little?" she asked, her tone wheedling. Actually, I did not want to leave Edward's company. But Cousin Julia looked so woebegone, and the woman was alone in the world. She had no one except these relatives who barely tolerated her. So I, who was newly come to love and its joys, felt a wave of compassion roll over me.
"Yes, of course," I replied.
Cousin Julia smiled. "Shall we walk in the gallery?"
I had not yet been to the gallery so I nodded. She gathered her rose skirts about her like some huge pink ship about to set sail and started down the hall. I glanced at Edward, but he seemed intent on his food and did not respond to me.
Swallowing a sigh, I set out after Cousin Julia. I was much afraid I knew why she wanted me to walk with her, but perhaps I was wrong. "So," I said as we approached the gallery where the pictures of Edward's ancestors hung. "It's pleasant to walk after dinner, isn't it?"
Cousin Julia snorted. "I don't like walking," she said directly. "Never did. Never will. I just wanted a chance to talk to you." She wrinkled her nose. "Edward is so fierce about my work with the spirits." She sighed heavily. "I can't understand why he doesn't want to talk to his dear departed papa. I should think he'd be eager."
She looked genuinely perplexed and I felt the time had come to declare myself. "Cousin Julia, Edward does not believe he
talk to his papa. Neither do I. In fact," I looked at her sternly, "it seems to me that trying to talk to the dead borders on sacrilege."
Cousin Julia's mouth rounded into a protesting 0. "Indeed, it doesn't. Why, some of the best people talk to the dead! I assure you, it's quite the thing to do."
She was so confident, so sure of herself and her beliefs, that I felt my convictions shaken. But only slightly. Much as I might wish to speak to Jeremy once more, I could not wish for a world in which the souls of the departed must hover around the earth, hoping for a chance to speak to those left behind.
Jeremy was gone. I could not bring him back—but I wanted him to be at peace. I would remember that.
'This is the old earl's wife." Cousin Julia paused before a painting. "A beautiful woman, but out of her element here in this gloomy place."
I looked at the portrait. Edward's mother had indeed been a beautiful woman, with that warm golden beauty that seems to light a room. My heart skipped a beat. What was it Edward had said about Royale? That she was all sparkle and light. Like his mother, it seemed—at least superficially.
I sighed and moved on. I would never be fair, never have that warm golden glow that turned men's heads, that made them long to possess such ethereal beauty.
"And this is the old earl."
I stopped, rooted in place. The picture of Edward's father needed no introduction. The resemblance was uncanny, so much so that I almost expected the man in the portrait to speak to me in Edward's deep tones.
I studied the picture closely and, as I did, I detected some differences. The man in the portrait had dark eyes like Edward's, but they were even colder, even harder than my husband's. I could not imagine those eyes warming with love, or even passion, though Edward had said his father was a man who much enjoyed the company of women.
The portrait seemed to hold my eyes. I knew Cousin Julia was staring at me, but I could not turn and meet her gaze.
"He was quite a man," she said, her voice full of more emotion than I had yet heard in it. "He had his faults, of course." She sniffled. "But he would never, never have taken his own life. I knew the man, knew him from childhood." Her voice turned grim. "He never ever gave up anything that was his. Not anything. He would not voluntarily give up his life."
Standing there, mesmerized by the eyes of the man in the portrait, I felt Cousin Julia was right. This hard, determined man had possessed great power. He had possessed power and he had reveled in it. He would not lightly have given it up.
I swallowed my sigh. In my bones I feared she was right. The former earl had not met death by his own hand. Someone had murdered him! And that someone was most probably still living in the castle.
* * * *
Cousin Julia and I concluded our walk. I did not allow her to manipulate me into attending her séance. I knew Edward would disapprove of such a thing, but that was not the whole of it. I did not approve myself and so I saw no reason to go against my husband's expressed wishes.
We retired to my chamber early. He held me close for a moment, kissed me lightly, and said, "Good night, Hester." Then he was gone, through the adjoining door into his room.
room turned suddenly cold. I shivered and poked up the fire, but it did no good. I was chilled through and through, but not because of the cold. It was disappointment that made my flesh go clammy. Disappointment—and fear.
I didn't know exactly what I feared. But after I summoned Betty to help me prepare for bed, I sat before the dressing table, brushing my hair and wishing that I could be fair and sparkling, even hard as diamonds, if that was what my husband wanted.
But I knew I could not. Though I could be raised to ire when the fate of innocent children was involved, mine was a quiet nature, and, as he had said, peaceful. At least generally.
Feeling anything but peaceful, I threw down the brush and climbed into the big bed. But I left some candles burning. I wished for no more visits from clammy-handed ghosts.
Then I lay, staring up into the gloom, while my mind raced madly. If someone had murdered the old earl—and it certainly appeared that someone had—then why did they do it? What did they hope to profit from it?
In my mind I considered the inhabitants of the castle. Cousin Julia's penchant for spirits was unsettling, but she had seemed to feel genuine grief that the old earl was gone. And I did not see how she could have overcome the man or moved his body so as to hang from the chandelier.