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Authors: Nina Coombs Pykare

Tags: #regency Gothic Romance

The Haunting of Grey Cliffs (16 page)

BOOK: The Haunting of Grey Cliffs
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The boy disappeared around a sand dune, then from farther down the beach we heard his scream of terror. "Captain! No! Don't!"

The twins stared at each other with wide eyes, their faces fear-stricken.

"Help!" Ned screamed. "Help!"

The twins set off running. Gathering up my skirts, I scrambled after them, my heart pounding in my throat.

The sand seemed to conspire to impede my progress, to hold me back, but I struggled on. Once I tripped over a snarl of seaweed, falling to the wet sand on my hands and knees. I scrambled to my feet, grabbed up my sodden skirts and ran on.

Finally I came to a halt by a large mound of sand. The twins stood there, jabbering excitedly. I followed their gaze. God, no!

The dog was floundering in a pool of wet sand, sinking in it. And Ned was about to step into it, too!

"Quicksand!" Peter cried, tugging at my wet skirt.

"Stop Ned!" Paul begged.

"Ned! Wait!" My voice was hoarse. I was panting so I could hardly breathe.

But Ned ignored me. In another moment he, too, would be mired in the quicksand. "Stop!" I cried. "Stop!"

"We'll help," Peter yelled. "Lay down."

For a moment I thought the boy's mind had snapped. Paul tugged again at my skirt. "Won't sink so fast," he explained.

Peter hurried off across the sand, picking up a piece of driftwood as he went.

The dog had stopped making any noise. It struggled silently, its eyes on its master. In a few more minutes the sand would close over its shaggy black head.

"Come," Peter said, pulling at me. I followed him toward the others.

Ned lay flat in the wet sand, his agonized gaze on the dog, whose struggles were growing more feeble.

The twins dropped to the sand, inching forward. Peter pushed the driftwood before him. After what seemed like an eternity, he reached Ned.

"Captain!" the boy cried. "Please! Help him."

“I’ll get him," Peter said, inching forward again.

"He's mine," Ned cried, trying to follow.

Paul pulled him back down. "Peter knows how. He saved our dog."

"But Captain's mine," Ned cried. "I should—"

'Too many make the wood sink," Paul insisted, holding tight to Ned's jacket.

I watched, hardly daring to breathe while the boy inched slowly forward. The dog had ceased to struggle. Nothing but the tip of his muzzle remained above the surface.

Dear God,
I prayed.
Save the boy's dog. Let Peter get there in time.

Paul turned to Ned. "I have to follow Peter. You follow me. When I call, hold my ankles."

Ned nodded. "I will."

Peter was stretched across the quicksand, his feet at the very edge. Paul crept forward behind his brother. A chain! They meant to form a human chain to pull the dog to safety.
Oh God, help them.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, Peter reached the dog. "It's all right now," he said to the exhausted animal. Slowly and carefully, he worked the piece of wood under Captain, using it almost like a lever to break the suction of the sand.

Then he wrapped his arms around the animal, keeping its head on his shoulder. "Now," he cried. "Pull, but easy."

Paul took ahold of Peter's ankles and Ned took Paul's. Hastily I knelt and held Ned's. Slowly and carefully, our hearts in our throats, we eased backward across the wet sand, an inch at a time, until finally, triumphantly, Peter and the dog were safe on solid ground.

Ned scrambled over to them, tears running down his cheeks. "Captain! Oh Captain! You stupid dog!" He clasped the filthy animal in his arms.

Then, with a look that brought tears to my eyes, he turned to Peter. "He would have died. You saved him." He put a grimy arm around Peter's shoulders.

"We all saved him," Peter said.

"Couldn't anyone do it alone," Paul added.

The dog yipped weakly and licked Ned's face.

"I— Thank you," Ned mumbled.

His face told me that at last Ned had friends he valued. I turned away for a moment, dashing the tears from my eyes. "Well," I said when I turned back. "What an excursion this has been!"

The boys looked up from the dog, their eyes wide, their dirty faces split with grins.

"I think we should get back to the castle and clean up," I told them. "We'll have another outing soon."

Ned looked down at the dog in his arms. "Maybe we'll leave Captain at home."

Peter laughed. "I bet he won't chase any rabbits."

Paul laughed too. "For a long time."

For a moment I thought Ned would revert to his old behavior, but then he grinned. "If he starts chasing anything, we'll have to teach him different. We don't want to be fishing our dog out of quicksand all the time."

I saw the glance the twins exchanged, a look of almost pure joy. My own face must have been glowing with happiness. One of my prayers had been answered: Ned had found the friends he so badly needed. And the twins had found acceptance.

My hands tightened in the folds of my clammy skirt. Would my other prayers be answered? Would I one day hold my own child? I shivered, but not because my clothes were wet.
Would
I have a child of my own—or would my search for the old earl's murderer bring death and disaster to us all?

We reached the castle, a wet and bedraggled but thoroughly joyful little band. Up the great stairs we traipsed, past Hillyer's disapproving stare, dripping sand and water behind us.

When we reached the nursery, Betty raised a shocked hand to her lips. "Lord have mercy! You look like a bunch of drowned ghosts!"

She bustled about, ringing for hot water and towels. I left the boys, happily preparing to bathe, dog and all, and repaired to my room.

This latest misadventure, harrowing as it had been, had not lowered my spirits. It could not be laid at anyone's door, and it certainly had had a favorable outcome.

I stepped out of my sodden gown, preparing to wash off the grime of our adventure.

And then the hair on the back of my neck began to rise. Someone was watching me!

I turned, but the door to the hall was closed just as I had left it. A shiver raced over me. Who was watching me? And how?

A sound to my right made me whirl—and then relief washed over me. "Edward! How long have you been standing there?"

"Not long," he said, his eyes gone dark.

My heart throbbed in my throat, my hands went clammy. Had it been Edward's gaze I felt?

He crossed to my side. "Your excursion was rather a wet one," he said with a smile, running a finger across my bare shoulder.

As always my body responded to his touch. "Yes," I whispered, turning my face to his.

For a long moment he looked down into my eyes, his own so heated I felt almost scorched. And then without another word, he swung me up into his arms, wet underclothes and all, and carried me to the great bed.

Later, snug against his warm body, I told him what had transpired on the beach. His body stiffened and he clutched me tighter, but he did not grow angry. In fact, I thought I detected pride in his voice when he said, "They're good boys, the twins."

I snuggled against him, relishing this moment of emotional closeness. "It's good you gave them a home," I commented.

Edward actually chuckled. "Are you trying to tell me that I have been repaid for doing a good deed?"

"Perhaps," I said. "Who's to say for sure?"

"Who indeed?" he replied, pulling me into another embrace.

* * * *

We were none of us the worse for our contention with the quicksand. Thanks to Betty's efficiency, everyone, including the dog, was bathed and cossetted, fed hot milk and cakes, and quickly recovered.

It had been frightening, but I was sure Ned had learned from the experience. And since I had forbidden him to go alone on the moor and he had emphatically agreed not to do so, I felt fairly safe on that score.

For a few days the excitement of that afternoon drove most other thoughts from my mind. But as the boys suffered no ill effects and life at Grey Cliffs returned to what passed for normal, thoughts of the old earl began again to intrude into my consciousness. I did not want to think about the old man's death. By all accounts he had been an autocratic tyrant, feared and disliked by everyone except Robert, the son who was so like him. Certainly Edward and Uncle Phillip had little good to say of him. But whatever my feelings of disgust for the old man, he had been a human being. No one had the right to kill another human being.

But it certainly seemed that someone
had
killed him. Else why had the attacks been made on me?

The boys wanted me to explore the secret passageways with them, but some second sense, some premonition, kept me from assenting. However, since I did not like the idea of them being in the passageways alone, I instructed Betty to stay with them whenever they left the nursery. I knew they would not risk her knowing their secret.

The weather remained pleasant for a week after our excursion to the beach, and the boys, now real friends and companions, took to playing in the courtyard garden. I didn't fear their being there—all the attacks had been made on me. The children knew nothing and the attacker was aware of that.

Edward continued to be pleasant to me. Sometimes my conscience pricked me at the thought that I was deceiving him, that I had not told him about the boys' discovery of the passageway. But things had been so pleasant between us. His spells of moodiness and withdrawal seemed briefer, his tenderness with me more pronounced. I hesitated to spoil the good feeling that existed between us.

And so I went on, trying to ignore the danger that stalked me, trying desperately to find some other explanations for the so-called "accidents." I still had not told Edward about the pistol shot. Nor about waking up in the great stallion's stall.

That was what frightened me the most in those dark moments before dawn when I lay, wide-eyed and terrified, unable to sleep. Not the memory of being in the stall, for thanks to Ned I was no longer afraid of horses. My fright came because only two people living knew of my feeling about horses. And one of them was a boy, too young and too small to have dragged me to the stable, even supposing that he had been able to knock me out.

But Edward—Edward who'd learned of my fear from Jeremy. Edward who touched me so tenderly, held me so closely—

When I got that far in my nightly examinations, I could go no further. I rolled toward the husband sleeping beside me. Close against his warm back, I refused to think ill of him. And finally I slept.

Such disregard of the facts was foolish, but I was a young woman, newly in love. And I was besotted with my husband, waiting for his smile, his touch, like any green schoolroom girl waits for the man of her dreams. In some way I knew that, but I was powerless to change it.

And so things continued. Perhaps they would have gone on that way indefinitely, but then the dog dug up the box.

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

About a week after our excursion, Ned and the twins came hurrying into the nursery. "Look, Hester!" Ned cried. "Captain dug this up!"

He extended a tin box, dented and dirty.

"He kept whining," Peter said.

"We were playing in the courtyard," Paul added.

Ned waved the box. "And then he dug this up. What do you think's in it?" he asked, handing it to me.

"I don't know." I looked down at the box. It wasn't heavy. How had the dog known to find it? My heart skipped a beat. Had it belonged to the old earl?

Ned pressed closer. "We didn't open it," he said. "We brought it right to you."

I smiled at them. "That was very wise. I doubt that it's something important, though. People seldom bury important things in the garden."

Ned's face fell. "We thought it might be buried treasure."

I smiled at the childish wish, but I could not keep my mind from racing. People
did
on occasion bury important things. Could the old earl have left some information, something to lead to his killer?

I tried the box but it would not open.

"Needs a key," Peter said.

"Or something to break the lock," Paul contributed.

Betty, who had trailed in after the boys, grinned. "I hear tell a hairpin's most as good as a key for opening locks."

I hesitated, but the temptation was strong. I might be holding the answer to everything right there in my hands. "Well—"

Betty pulled a hairpin from her tumbled hair and offered it to me. The boys waited, faces filled with excitement. I could not help myself. I took the hairpin from Betty's outstretched hand.

It took but a few moments, wiggling the pin a little, and the lid of the box sprang open. The boys moved at the same instant, jostling each other as they peered eagerly into the box.

"Papers," Peter said in disgust.

"Just papers," Paul echoed.

"No treasure?" Ned said. "I thought there'd be treasure."

"It's just an old box," I said. "Perhaps your father buried it when he was a boy."

I kept my expression calm, my voice even. The boys must not guess the excitement I was feeling.

"Can we have it?" Ned asked.

I hesitated only a moment. "Of course. I'll just take the papers." I lifted them out, some faded letters.

The boys took the box and went off to a corner, where they began making up stories of buried boxes full of treasure.

With a glance at Betty, I set off for my chamber. Once there I locked the door and sank trembling into a chair.

My fingers shook as I eased the first letter open. It was so old die ink had faded, but I could still make the writing out.

The letter was addressed to the old earl and was—I soon discovered—a love letter. Evidently it was written by a young woman, someone the earl had once possessed. She wrote with such longing of their times together, of the joy of her love for him and her pain when she could no longer be with him. Tears filled my eyes as I read about this young woman's shattering hurt when the man no longer wanted her.

I blinked and turned to the last page. And blinked again. Julia. The signature said Julia!

Hurriedly I took out the other letters. They were all the same—protestations of love for the man, pleas to be taken back into his affections. And evidently all to no avail.

BOOK: The Haunting of Grey Cliffs
11.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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