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Authors: Nina Coombs Pykare

Tags: #regency Gothic Romance

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BOOK: The Haunting of Grey Cliffs
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I pushed open the door to my room and slipped into its dimness. Breathing a sigh of relief at being safe, I turned.

And then I gasped. Standing in the door to his room, holding a candelabra, was Edward. "Where have you been?" he demanded gruffly.

"I went for a walk."

He raised an eyebrow. "In this weather?"

"Yes, Edward, in this weather." My usual calm spirits seemed to have forsaken me. My patience was exhausted. I was cold and wet—and angry. I took off my cloak and dropped it, a sodden mess, to the floor.

Edward came closer, setting the candelabra on the table. He reached for me.

"I missed—" he began. "God God, Hester! You're soaking wet!"

"I fell."

His fingers tightened on my arms. "Fell? How?"

Standing so close to him, still I could not suspect him. I moved into his arms. "A rider, a man, tried to run me down. The horse hit me and knocked me over."

"People should be more careful," Edward said. "And you, what were you doing on the road?"

"I was not on the road," I returned. "I was standing on the moor, just at the edge of the wood. And he rode right at me."

I felt Edward's body go tense. His arms tightened around me till I could hardly breathe. "Hester! My God! Were you hurt?"

"No, only frightened." I shivered, even there in the safety of his arms. "But it seemed like he meant to kill me." I gulped. "Oh, Edward, why should someone try to kill
me?"

My husband was silent for a moment, clasping me to him. "It can't be that," he said finally, his voice muffled in my hair. "It was probably some youngster, you know how they are. Looking to stir up some excitement. After all, he didn't come back. He didn't trample you."

Edward was right about that. And yet I knew that this had not been some young man's boyish prank. There had been about that horseman an air of deliberate, malicious intent.

But while I debated trying to explain this to my husband, he turned me around and undid my hooks. "Come," he said, leading me to the washstand. "Let's get some of that mud off you. And then we'll warm you up."

By the time Edward had finished washing me off and taken me into the great bed to warm me in the way most favored by husbands and wives, I had almost forgotten the horseman and my horrible experience. It was not until some time later, several days in fact, that I realized that Edward had never explained to me the reason for his cold behavior that fateful afternoon.

 

Chapter Eleven

 

The next day I came upon the twins in heated conversation. They were using their private language. Though unknown to them I had been able to piece together some of it, I was unable to make out what had so excited them.

Ned, playing ball with the dog in a corner of the nursery, seemed to have no interest in them at all. Until Paul slipped over to him and whispered something I couldn't hear.

Ned looked up, his face alight, and a sudden chill danced down my spine. I could think of only one thing that would excite the boy like that. The twins had found the secret passageway!

But if they had, they were not going to tell me.

"Can we go out to the stable?" Ned asked. "We like to play out there."

"Of course," I returned. Pretending ignorance, I watched them get their jackets and set out. But I knew quite well that their destination was not the stable. Moments later, I slipped out the door. Lingering in the shadows, I listened for the sound of their youthful voices.

To the right, I decided. I headed in that direction, the direction of the portrait gallery, carefully keeping to the shadows.

There was little need for me to take care, however. The boys were so excited with their find that they forgot to keep their voices down and never once looked behind them.

I kept to the shadows and drew closer. As I did I saw that the full-length portrait of the old earl had been swung out, away from the wall. Evidently it was set upon some kind of hinges. And beside it the excited boys peered into a black hole. I was right! They had found the entrance to the passageway!

I debated my next course of action. Should I slip away and pretend I knew nothing of the matter? Or should I accost them? The blackness of the hole decided me. I could not let them venture into such a dangerous place alone.

I stepped out of the shadows. "So," I said sternly. "This is how you obey the earl."

The twins dropped their gaze, lowering their heads submissively, but Ned faced me defiantly. "My father's not fair," he cried. "He brought me to live in this castle! I want to know all about it."

I looked into Ned's reddening face and said calmly, "But he did not tell you about the priest hole." I was only guessing, but I believed I was right. Edward had made it plain that he wanted no one to search for the secret passageways. And knowing his son as he did, he would not have told him stories that would impel the boy to undertake such a search.

No, someone else had told Ned about the passageways and the priest hole and the dry bones. I bent down to look into the absolute darkness of the hole in the wall. It was so black in there, blacker than the blackest midnight. The air was stale, fetid. In spite of myself, I shuddered.

I straightened and drew back. "We cannot go in there without a light. It's impossible to see."

Grinning, Paul produced a handful of candles from his pockets. I held back a smile. One day soon Hillyer would be wondering what had happened to deplete his supply of candles.

Paul took one and scurried off to hold it to the candelabra at the end of the gallery. When he came back, he lit a candle for each of us.

"We must stay together," I said firmly. I knew Edward would disapprove of us doing this. But I also knew there was no way I could keep these excited boys from exploring their find. Since I could not stop them, and I could not let them go in there alone, I must go with them. This I told myself, preparing, as it were, the explanation I would give Ned's father.

The passageway was pitch black, the entrance a frightful darkness even in the gloomy gallery. The boys hung back, and I sensed fear mingled with their excitement. For myself, I felt more fear than anything else. But I took a step forward, into that black void. And immediately something struck, clung to my face.

It was only by biting down hard on my bottom lip that I stifled the scream that rose in my throat.

"Cobwebs," Ned said gleefully. "There's cobwebs all over in here."

I let my breath out in a sigh of relief. Holding my candle high, I saw that Ned was right. The passageway was festooned with cobwebs. We brushed them aside as we moved farther on.

Paul turned to pull the portrait shut behind us. As the gallery faded from our sight, I shivered. If we should get lost in this terrible place—

"Set the candle in front of the doorway out," I told Peter. "That way we can find our way back."

Peter did as I'd suggested and lit another candle. Then we moved on down the passageway, a silent band of explorers. After a few minutes, when nothing untoward happened, the boys began to regain their usual good spirits.

"I bet this leads to the priest hole," Ned said, satisfaction in his voice. "If we find that, we'll have a secret hiding place." He turned to me. "If Hester doesn't tell on us."

Until that moment, the possibility of keeping the boys' find a secret had not dawned on me. But I realized that Edward was going to blame me. No matter that I hadn't initiated this search. I had not stopped them from pursuing it. I had accompanied them. And where before I had merely
seen
Edward's temper—and it not directed at me—this time I was sure to bear the brunt of his rage.

Still, that was not sufficient reason to lie to my husband. "We shall see," I said to Ned. "By the way, I thought you were going to the stable."

Ned looked sheepish. "We were, after a bit. We want to look at the new horse Father got."

"A new horse," I repeated, more to keep the boy talking than anything else, since horses were hardly my favorite topic.

"Yes," Ned said. "A big one. Black as this old hole."

A cold hand seemed to clutch my heart. A black horse. The man that had almost run me down had ridden a black horse. And Edward had been away from the house when it happened. Could my husband, that I loved so much, have tried to kill me?

I stopped in the passageway, gasping for breath as the awful thought hit me. But why? Why would Edward—or anyone else—try to kill me?

And the answer came, the only answer possible. I knew something, something that pointed to the old earl's killer. Something that might unmask him. But what was it?

"Hester?" Ned was pulling at my sleeve anxiously. "Are you sick?"

"No. No, Ned. I'm all right. I just wanted to rest for a minute."

We pressed on then, and I made up my mind. For now at least, I would not tell Edward we'd found the passageway. It was not to escape his anger, but because I was afraid—afraid that the attack upon me at the edge of the wood might have come from the person I loved most in the world.

The passageway ran on for what seemed a very long time, finally ending in a little wooden door.

"I knew it!" Ned cried. "We found it—the priest hole!"

And indeed we had. The door opened with a slight creak and there beyond it was a dark dismal room. Poor priest, I thought, who must hide in such a hole. With no light and little air.

"Oh!" breathed the twins.

"What a place!" Ned cried. "A great hiding hole!"

At first I was minded to forbid the boys the place. But I took my candle and made a circuit of the little room. It took very little time, since it was more hole than actual room. And I saw that there was no way they could be hurt here. There were no windows to fall out of. And with walls and floor of cold, bare stone, nothing to be set afire. The passageway led straight to the place. There was no way to get lost.

I turned to face them. "I know you will want to play here."

Three youthful faces looked to me with mingled hope and despair.

"I will allow it," I said finally.

The twins hugged each other and Ned actually hugged me.

"But there are some rules to observe," I went on.

"Oh, we will," said the twins together.

"Me, too," Ned cried.

"First, no one must come in here alone." They all nodded. "Second, you must always leave a candle at the portrait door."

"Of course."

"And third, you must not follow the passageway in the other direction."

They nodded in unison. I breathed a sigh of relief. "I will not tell anyone about this place," I said.
"If
you obey the rules. If you do not—"

"We will!" Ned hastened to say. "Oh, we will. Hester—" The boy looked at me and his face twisted as though he were undergoing some inner struggle. "I—I'm glad you came here," he said finally.

I smiled. "So am I," I said. And, though my heart was troubled by the things I'd discovered, I meant it. I was glad to be at Grey Cliffs. I was also afraid.

* * * *

It was several days later that I found myself alone with Ned. Betty had taken the twins off to the village to see some old friends. I sat by the nursery fire, a book in my lap, and Ned played on the hearth with the dog.

"You really like dogs, don't you?" I said.

Ned nodded. "And horses." He looked up, his eyes shining. "They run so fast! It's  wonder— Hester, what is it? What's wrong?"

In spite of myself I had let my face betray me. The mention of horses not only recalled my mother's fatal accident but also the incident on the moor. "I—I'm all right," I said.

Ned frowned. "You looked so scared." He thought for a moment. "Hester, are you afraid of horses?"

I thought about lying, but the boy would discover my secret eventually. Perhaps my telling him would engender some trust. "Yes," I said. "I am. Very much afraid."

"But, Hester, horses are so marvelous. So big and fast and—"

"One ran away with our carriage," I explained, "when I was younger than you. And my mother was killed."

Ned left the dog and came to put his arms around me. "I'm sorry. I bet you miss her."

"I do," I agreed. "Very much." I returned his hug. "As you must miss your mother."

The boy stiffened. "I don't—" Then he crumpled. "I miss her a lot," he said. "But I'm not supposed to talk about her."

"You can talk to me," I said. "About anything."

He sniffled. "I don't miss her so much since you came. You treat me nicer than she did." He drew back and looked me in the eye. "Hester, you don't have to be afraid of horses. They don't hurt you on purpose."

Something in the boy's face told me that people had hurt him. And he thought it was done on purpose.

"The thing is," Ned went on. "They get afraid, too, horses do, so then you have to move slowly. Let's go out to the stables. I'll show you and—"

"We'll see," I said hastily. I didn't want to go to the stables. I didn't want to see the new black horse, or any horse for that matter.

"I'd be—"

The twins appeared in the doorway, with Betty behind them. Ned gave me a conspiratorial look. "Just remember," he said and went back to the dog.

And I did remember. I knew Ned had given me good advice, but I did not follow it. I had too much else on my mind to consider my fear of horses pressing. And that was another mistake.

 

Chapter Twelve

 

The days continued to pass. The boys kept their discovery of the passageway a secret, even from Betty. I was pleased by that because I didn't see how the little maid could keep such word to herself. The servants were already very superstitious, whispering about seeing the ghost of the old earl and casting fearful looks over their shoulders wherever they went. If it were known, talk of such a passageway would spread rapidly and sooner or later Edward would hear of it.

I did not want that to happen. Things between us had been quite good. Since the day the horseman had attacked me on the moor, Edward had been most attentive. It was true that sometimes he was quiet, moody, even withdrawn. But he was never angry—at least not with me.

BOOK: The Haunting of Grey Cliffs
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