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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 had gone perhaps thirty or forty paces, trying to keep my nerves calm, trying to tell myself all would be well, when I heard the noise behind me. First the sound of footsteps. And then a laugh—a sinister, demonic laugh. The hair on the back of my neck stood up and gooseflesh rose on my arms. The ghost! The ghost had followed me into the passageway!

I whirled, holding the candle high, frantically searching the darkness behind me. But I could see nothing. The feeble rays of the candle reached only a few feet. Beyond them loomed terrifying blackness.

I stood frozen. Should I retrace my steps, go back to the portrait, and perhaps confront the ghost? Or should I seek refuge in the priest hole where the boys were playing?

I wanted nothing more than to be out of there, safe and secure, in the portrait gallery beyond the portal to the passageway. But to get there I must go through that awful blackness, risk meeting with the demonic laughter.

My knees began to tremble violently. I took one step back toward the portal. Another step. The laughter sounded again, beating against my eardrums in a mad cadence that made me want to scream and strike out at the elusive darkness.

With a sob, I whirled and fled toward the questionable safety of the priest hole and the children.

Moments later, completely out of breath, I pushed open the door and practically fell into the little room. An awful sight greeted me.

The priest hole was empty. Small and unfurnished as it was, it offered absolutely no hiding places. The boys just were not there.

I slammed the door shut, sagging against it while I fought to catch my breath. Could ghosts come through doors? The very outlandishness of the question startled me back to sensibility. Remember the footsteps. I had to remember that there were no ghosts.

The thought, however, offered little comfort. A real person, the old earl's murderer, for example, could be far more dangerous to me than any ghost.

I leaned all my weight against the door, but I was not a heavy woman. How could I keep someone out? Someone who wanted to get in, who wanted to get
me?

The candle trembling in my hand showed me nothing in the room that I could use to defend myself. Oh why had I come into this place? And where were the boys?

The thought of the children made new terror strike at my heart. Had whoever was out there taken the children? If they had been harmed I would never forgive myself.

What should I do? Should I open the door and confront whatever was out there? Should I go back down the passageway to the gallery? But what of the boys?

I couldn't think. I could hardly even breathe. I was feeling so weak I was afraid my knees would give way. I trembled violently. What was I to do?

And then I heard voices—cheerful laughing voices. The most wonderful sound in this dismal place. I straightened. And they were coming closer! I moved to one side and slowly opened the door.

I heaved a sigh of relief. The boys were coming down the passageway—Ned, with Captain at his heels, leading the way.

"Hester!" he cried. "What are you doing here?"

I pulled myself together, willed my voice to calmness. "I was looking for you. Your father has come home."

Ned paled, losing some of his bravado. "We'd better go back to the nursery then."

"Yes," I said. "And right away."

The boys were silent as we made our way back to the candle that marked the portal. I stared down at it, then at the blackness that extended behind it, blackness that led into other parts of the passageway. With shock I realized where they had been.

I faced the boys. "You went into the other passageways after I told you not to."

Ned frowned but he didn't hesitate. "Yes, Hester. But we heard someone there! And I had Captain so I knew no one could hurt us." The dog growled, as though reinforcing the boy's words.

For the moment I did not comment on their disregard of my rules. "Did you find anyone?"

The three shook their heads. "No," Ned said. "But the passageways go all over the castle." His face brightened. "Want to see?"

I shook my head. I had no desire to see any more of secret passageways.

"We were going out then," Paul said.

"But Captain wouldn't go," Peter continued.

Ned nodded emphatically. "He kept whining and whining. And going toward the priest hole." He smiled. "He must have known you were there."

"Perhaps." I wondered if the dog had indeed known I was in danger. I stooped to pat his head and mentally promised him a good big bone.

Then I straightened. We could waste no more time. "Listen carefully. You must get back to the nursery now." I fixed them with a cold eye. "We will talk later about this disobedience of yours."

* * * *

After I saw the boys safely back in Betty's care, I returned to my room for another inspection of my person. I told myself it would not do to appear with cobwebs in my hair, but in reality I was simply loath to face Edward. I was afraid that he might sense, that he might read in my eyes, the suspicions of him that I could not entirely erase.

I loved him. I knew that. I loved him very much. But I would not be the first woman to be betrayed by her senses, to see in a man only what she wanted to see. I swallowed a sob and turned from the mirror. Edward could not be the killer. He simply could not.

I straightened my shoulders. When I saw him again, all my doubts about him would vanish. Then I would be sure once more.

I moved slowly down the great stairs, the silk of my new gown whispering against the stones. But the sound of it was soon drowned by other sounds. "What do you mean you don't know?" Edward was roaring.

"Milord—" For the first time I detected emotion in Hillyer's voice. 'The countess came in some minutes ago. She didn't inform me what she intended to do next."

"Find her!" Edward shouted. "Find her now!"

I swallowed over the lump in my throat and hurried toward them. "That won't be necessary," I called. "I am coming down now."

Edward and the butler stared up at me. Edward was clearly distraught, the butler obviously discomposed.

Edward bounded up the stairs toward me. "Hester! My God, where have you been?" He crushed me to him so tightly I could scarcely breathe.

"I went for a walk," I said, as calmly as I could. "And then I went to check on the children." Though it was not exactly a lie, still it stuck in my throat.

"When I couldn't find you—" Edward shuddered. "I thought—"

"What did you think?" Cousin Julia's words came out of the darkness behind me, startling me so that, tightly as Edward held me, I still jumped. Edward gathered me closer.

"Did you think your father's ghost had gotten her?" Cousin Julia asked, punctuating her words with a shrill titter.

I shivered. Why had Cousin Julia chosen that precise moment to mention the old earl's ghost? Had
she
been in the passageway, uttering that uncanny laughter?

Edward's face had gone white. I heard the hiss of his indrawn breath, felt his body stiffen as he fought to control his temper. Finally he was able to speak. "I do not believe in ghosts," he said, his voice cold. "As you well know."

I did not want any more of this baiting. "Come," I said, "let's go down to the library and have some tea. I am very thirsty."

Edward released me, but kept his arm tucked through mine. "Of course, my dear."

As we descended the stairs, I knew that I could not tell him about the shot that had been fired at me. Not then at least. Certainly not while Cousin Julia was hanging about like some fat leech ready to fasten upon him.

My doubts about him had not vanished and I was confused by my vague feelings of suspicion.

My thoughts distressed me so that by the time we had reached the library I really did need a cup of tea. What was making Edward act so strangely? Did he know something I did not?

Cousin Julia rang for Hillyer, then took her usual chair, closest to the fire.

When the butler appeared, Edward looked to me. "A pot of hot tea," I said.

Hillyer nodded. "Yes, milady."

"And a plate of tea cakes," Cousin Julia added shrilly. "A big plate."

Hillyer looked again to me and I nodded. The grim-faced butler knew that I was mistress of this place. It was a small victory, but sweet.

Unfortunately I did not have long to enjoy it. Robert and Uncle Phillip came in together. Uncle Phillip's carpet suppers slapping against the stone floor, his breeches as usual covered with dust. Considering the ill-assorted inhabitants of the castle, it was a good thing we had few callers. I swallowed a sigh. I could have used a good friend, a female confidante.

Cousin Julia, however, did not seem a good choice. I seriously doubted she could long keep any information private. And since she already found the old earl's death suspicious, she was sure to make much ado about these attempts on my life.
If
they were attempts. Perhaps the perpetrator had meant only to frighten me, to make me back off.

Round and round my thoughts circled. But always I was left with the same dilemma. Who could be doing these things?

"You're looking lovely tonight, Hester." Robert paused before me and was looking down, admiration in his eyes.

"Thank you," I replied, as civilly as I could. "It's the new gown, one of those Edward got me." I sent my husband a smile, but he was scowling. Certainly he could see that I had not invited his brother's attentions.

I had long ago divined that Robert was the sort who played up to anything in skirts. I did not let his behavior mean anything to me.

I kept smiling at Edward and ignoring his brother, and finally my husband smiled back.

Uncle Phillip plopped into a chair. "Could use some tea," he said. "It's dusty work I'm doing."

"Tea's coming," Cousin Julia announced before I could speak. She pulled herself erect in her chair. "Don't know why you toy with those dusty old books when summoning the spirits is so easy."

Uncle Phillip snorted and rolled his eyes. "How many times must I tell you, you silly old woman. I am not interested in spirits." His eyes twinkled. "It's the head man I want—the one with the power."

I cast a sidelong glance at Edward, but he was gazing into the fire, sipping his tea, his expression blank.

Robert took another chair and arranged himself in it in a studied way, stretching his long legs. I swallowed a sigh. Who did the man seek to impress here? Surely not Cousin Julia. But that left only me.

I put Robert's behavior down to the perennial habits of the predatory male and dismissed him from my mind. For the moment at least.

But Uncle Phillip and Cousin Julia were not so easily dismissed. I was thankful that the boys were still young, and consequently relegated to the nursery, because certainly these relatives of Edward's were not the best of examples. Exciting as they might appear to young minds, stories of ghosts and of summoning Lucifer were hardly the proper background in which to raise healthy children!

Incongruous as this assembly was, though, it was still difficult for me to believe that one of them had killed the old earl, actually taken a human life. And now that person was sitting there among us, as though nothing untoward had ever happened.

It was too difficult to think about and I let my mind slip away to the other subject that frequently filled it—the child I so badly wanted. There was still no sign of its conception and I didn't know whether to be sorry or glad. I wanted our child—I had ceased some time before to think of it as
mine—
but my suspicions of Edward had made me wonder if it was wise to have a child at this time. However, since Edward came often to my bed, and besotted as I was I could not refuse him, the matter seemed clearly out of my hands.

Edward put down his cup and got abruptly to his feet, startling Uncle Phillip and causing Cousin Julia to choke over her fifth tea cake. Edward turned to his brother, his expression so harsh I caught my breath in fear. "Come with me," he said brusquely to Robert. "We have matters to discuss."

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

Though we supposed it to be about his allowance, the rest of us did not learn what Edward discussed with Robert that fateful afternoon. No doubt Cousin Julia would not have been above listening at the door, but since I kept both her and Cousin Phillip engaged in conversation, she could not slip away to do so.

When Edward and I retired that evening, I did think about asking him if Robert had been causing more trouble. But my husband seemed moody and withdrawn and I did not want to risk another reprimand such as I had received that morning.

I had thought myself quite a strong woman, self-reliant and above womanish fears, but Edward's anger frightened me. I had no wish to evoke it, most particularly I had no wish to have it directed at me.

So I undressed silently, pulling on my nightdress with fingers that wanted to tremble. I climbed into the big bed and lay shivering. What would Edward do? He usually slept in my chamber, spending the entire night there whether he made love to me or not.

Sometimes, on the nights when he was silent and withdrawn, he did not reach for me, but just lay on his side of the huge bed. Sometimes, then, I swallowed my pride and inched close, close enough to feel the heat of his body. There was a kind of comfort for me in his physical closeness, even if he did not hold me.

But that night when I had about despaired of him touching me, he suddenly gathered me close. A sigh of relief shivered through me.

"Are you cold?" he asked.

"No, no. I am fine." And it was true. When Edward held me, I
was
fine.

"So how has Ned been behaving?" Edward asked.

"Well," I said. "He's been doing well." I schooled myself to calmness, reminding myself of my reasons for deceiving my husband, for not telling him what the boys had found. "I believe the dog is a good influence on him."

Edward sighed. "He's very fond of it." He paused, his hand settling familiarly on the curve of my waist. "And the twins? How are they?"

I knew it cost him effort to talk about his brother's bastard sons. Robert was a real thorn in his side.

BOOK: The Haunting of Grey Cliffs
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