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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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"So," he went on, "I shall repair to that chair over by the fire." His eyes searched my face. "If you have any more questions or if you wish to indicate conditions, something more than I have offered—"

I shook my head so violently that he smiled again. "Very well, I shall leave you to your decision making."

He got to his feet, and I should have been blind had I not seen that he was a fine figure of a man, broad-shouldered, lean-hipped, with the look of one who has led an active outdoor life, and yet as well dressed as even Beau Brummel could require.

The earl crossed the parlor to the fire, sank into a worn leather chair, and stretched his gleaming boots toward the grate.

A husband, I thought, trying to collect my rioting thoughts. How incredible! If I liked, I might have a husband—and not just any husband but a handsome, titled one, with a castle in Cornwall.

My practical nature asserted itself then and began to insist that I
think.
In spite of his having been friend to Jeremy, I knew very little of the earl. What kind of husband would he make? That first wife, that Royale, she had not thought him much of a husband. But then, she had not been much of a wife. I shivered in my chair though the room was warm. The earl had looked quite ferocious when he spoke of the footman. No wonder the two had left the country.

Why had she disliked her husband so? And how could she have forsaken her child? But there were no answers to such questions.

Enough speculation on the earl's first wife, I told myself. I would never know why she had done what she'd done, but her behavior and her reasons for it were not my problem. My problem was that I must decide if I wished to be his second wife.

I set myself to examining both sides of the question, a trick learned from Papa in his better days.

What had I to consider here? First, the place. Removal to Cornwall was of little moment to me. I had no desire for the amusements of high society or the excitement of life in the city. I had always loved the country and could be quite happy there. So
place
would go on the "Good" side of my mental ledger.

Second, there was the child Ned, who from what his father had said was in dire need of a woman's love. As always, a new child to work with made me feel an expectancy much like that of a hunter riding to hounds—or so I imagined since I did not ride. I had shared my brother's fascination for frogs and toads, snakes and field mice, but I drew the line at horses. Not even my beloved Jeremy could persuade me to trust one of those wild creatures whose mad runaway had left us both motherless. But I would not need to ride, so the horses could be forgotten. The boy, too, went on the "Good" side.

Third, there was the earl himself, a personable man, concerned for his son, kind to me. As good a man as any—if I had to wed a stranger.

And fourth— A blush rose to my cheeks and spread over my entire body as my mind finally allowed me to comprehend that my heart's desire, the secret longing of many years, was actually within my reach. If I married the earl, I might have a child of my own!

The thought brought fresh tears to my eyes, which, because he had considerately turned his back on me to afford me more privacy, the earl did not see.

A child of my own, a sweet babe to hold in my arms, to call me Mama. The picture was so enchanting I could almost see the child. Dark it would be, dark like its father—and me.

I looked down at my hands, clutching my tear-dampened handkerchief in my lap. Within the year those hands might hold my child. Not since Charles's death had I thought ... nor even dared to pray.... A little sob escaped my throat, a small sound scarcely louder than a twig crackling in the fire, yet the earl was on his feet, his face turned to me questioningly.

I swallowed, looking up at him. "I find, milord, that I have one more question."

"Of course," he said, advancing toward me. "Ask it."

I could not ask with him towering over me, so I got to my feet and stood trembling. “I..." I felt the blood rush to my face, but I must know before I could reach a decision. "This ... this marriage between us ... you did not say ..." I faltered to a halt. He waited, and finally I managed to go on. "You did not say if it was to be—be consummated."

His features hardened into a frown. "I'm sorry," he said gravely, "but I cannot agree to a marriage in name only."

Evidently he did not hear my sigh of relief, his somber expression did not lighten. "You see," he continued, "I find myself also in need of love and affection." He touched my cheek lightly, his fingers warm. "And I had hoped you might learn to give it to me."

A certain tenderness possessed me, perhaps because I was thinking of what he might give
me—
the child of my dreams. "I cannot promise you love," I said, my voice breaking. "But certainly I can give you affection. And when you are the father of my child—"

I saw recognition dawn in his eyes—and then a kind of cold bleakness gathering there. "I understand," he said, his voice gone chill. "You marry me so you may have a child of your own."

He took a step back, as though he no longer cared to be that near me. "I should have realized," he said, his tone acid. "Each woman has her price."

He made me sound so mercenary, so hard. "Milord—" I wanted to explain, but he cut me off with a sharp motion of his hand.

"Never mind. Miss Durant. At least it is a price I can pay." He gave me a severe look. "Just see that you have love enough left for Ned."

The sharpness of his tone shocked me into indignation. "Of course I shall! As I love God, I give you my solemn oath, I shall love and care for Ned as if he were my own flesh and blood."

The earl sighed, his expression unreadable, his eyes clouded. "I suppose I can ask for no more than that."

 

Chapter Two

 

And so the next morning the earl and I set forth for Cornwall. I was wearing my best blue silk, my hooded cloak that had seen better days, and my one and only bonnet. Staring down at the plain gold band on my finger, I was sore put not to imagine myself dreaming. But surely this was too much for any dream—to meet a man one day and wed him the next, setting out immediately for his castle and a son that I had never seen. It was foolhardy, this swift action I had taken. I knew it was foolhardy, and yet, settled beside my new husband in his fashionable carriage, with the lap robe tucked neatly over my knees, I did not even consider the reckless nature of my actions.

It was, perhaps, just as well, for had I had any presentiment of what the future was to bring me, I might well have beaten a hasty retreat and remained a spinster for the rest of my life.

But that morning as I watched the English countryside unfold before me in all its autumn splendor, I gave little thought to the icy frost of winter that was soon to follow or what, besides a new son, might await me in Cornwall.

The earl, now that he had achieved his purpose and acquired the mother he wished for his son, had lost a little of his sternness, and he left me to my own devices, not attempting to draw me into conversation but staring out the window as though he had much on his mind.

I appreciated his thoughtfulness, but after we had ridden some time I grew tired of my own company and turned to him. "Tell me, please, about my new— about Ned."

He nodded.
"He
was always a good child, as an infant happy and cheerful."

I liked the sound of that. I held that a child was born with a disposition that would be revealed in his character. If Ned's basic disposition tended to be cheerful, my task would be the easier. I did think of it as a task, but not in any pejorative fashion. My love for my charges had always run deep, and I believed Ned would soon hold his own place in my heart, a special place because he would be my son—and brother to the babe to come. Already, in that short space of time, the babe had become very real to me and occupied much of my thought.

"What does Ned like to do?" I asked the earl.

He smiled, I thought a trifle sadly. "These days he likes most to make mischief. He has driven away more governesses than I care to count, harassed them with any number of rascally tricks. So you can see why, when I ran into the marquis, I was about at my wits' end."

He patted my hand. "I cannot tell you how pleased I am that Ned will be in your hands."

I accepted the compliment with a nod. His touch made me feel strangely warm, but I disregarded that and continued with my questions. "Does Ned like the usual boy things?"

The earl wrinkled his dark forehead in thought. "Well, he likes to be outdoors, he likes the sea. We are close to the sea. He has a dog—Captain."

A peculiar change went over his face, almost as though he'd suffered some kind of pain. "The dog belonged to my father and when he—died—suddenly, the boy took the dog as his."

A dog was good, I thought. It might give me a way to reach the boy.

The earl sent me a penetrating look. "Ned loves horses, he rides on the moors whenever he can."

My heart rose up in my throat and the hands I held together in my lap trembled. I was not a fearful woman, but horses ... I had nightmares still of the dreadful rearing horses, the sound of their pounding hooves. Mama clutching me to her as the carriage careened madly down the road, then the awful sensation of flying through the air, and the horrifying stillness of Mama's form when I crept to where she lay.

I knew it was not the fault of the horses. They were frightened into the mad gallop—by what we never knew. But still I feared the beasts who were responsible for the death of my beloved mother.

My face must have gone quite white, for the earl leaned toward me and covered my trembling hand with his. "Do not concern yourself, Hester," he said. "You needn't ride. The boy has been going out by himself for some time."

I scarcely heard the second part of his speech because I saw in his eyes that he had divined my secret, that he somehow knew about my fear of horses. "How—" I began.

He put an arm around my shoulders and I did not dislike the sensation, indeed, I found it comforting. "Jeremy and I spent many long, lonely nights waiting in camp. He talked of you and his childhood, and I talked of Ned, then only an infant."

I was very happy that my husband had known Jeremy. My brother was still so fresh in my memory. Not like my fiancé, Charles, who had become a hazy figure to me, almost a make-believe knight. But then, I had not known him long before our engagement nor had much opportunity to know him after.

Ours had been a whirlwind courtship. Jeremy brought Charles home with him on leave, and when they left Charles and I had an understanding. Then I did not see him again.

But Jeremy had long been the center of my life, to my heart almost
my
child, for it was I who had raised him, though only four years his elder.

I looked up at the earl. There seemed to be a sort of comfort in the sable eyes so near my own. "You are very kind," I said.

To my amazement the earl laughed, a rough discordant sound. "Let us only hope you continue to think so," he murmured, his face averted.

I thought that a strange thing to say to a new bride, even one wed under the peculiar circumstances of our union, but I did not pursue the matter for I found myself suddenly quite exhausted.

We had been driving already for a long time and the strangeness of the day before's interview and the excitement of the morning's marriage now seemed to catch up with me. I yawned, covering my mouth with my hand.

"You are weary," he said. "Why don't you nap a little? You will find you may lean against me quite comfortably."

And, indeed, I was quite comfortable. As the carriage drew ever nearer Cornwall and the castle that was to be my home, I slept in the arms of a man who, the day before, had been an utter stranger to me. I slept and dreamt of my child—our child—smiling up at me from my lap.

When I woke sometime later and looked up into my husband's eyes, I felt strangely warm there in his arms and more than a little flustered. Then, as I realized that my hand lay quite familiarly on his hard-muscled thigh, I straightened in embarrassment and drew it back.

He did not comment, nor could I tell from his face if he had even noticed.

We talked more then, as acquaintances might, of the estate and the village near Grey Cliffs, of Ned's childhood pranks, and of the time my husband had spent in Spain and his talks with Jeremy.

And finally, just as dusk was falling. Grey Cliffs came into view. The earl had the driver stop the carriage so I might descend and look up at my new home.

My husband helped me down and I stood staring. I had expected a castle—he had told me a castle—but I had not expected this great fortress of grim, dark stone silhouetted against the somber sky. Situated on the top of the cliffs from which it took its name, the castle brooded like some great leviathan contemplating the extinction of mankind.

A single light shone from one window high up. The rest were dark, making the place look even eerier.

I quieted my pounding heart. The castle only looked so foreboding, I told myself, because the earl had been absent from it. Together we would make it a place of warmth, of happiness. We
would,
I told myself.

The road up to the castle twisted between stunted oaks, part of a wood that encompassed it on three sides. "The trees," I murmured. "Why are they so small, so twisted? They almost look like they are in torment."

My husband turned to me, his face grim. "The storms from the sea are fierce in winter. The trees are battered severely, but they manage to survive."

I glanced up at him. His jaw was set in a hard line. Was he thinking of the storms of scandal
he
had survived?

At that moment the wind picked up, buffeting my cloak, tugging at my clothes like a living thing, a malignant living thing. The wind was cold, but even colder was the dismal aspect of the castle that was to be my home.

The earl helped me back into the carriage and settled beside me. His face looked drawn and I wondered if he worried about Ned's reaction to a new mother. Impulsively I leaned toward him and, copying the gesture of comfort he had used earlier, I covered his hand with mine. "It will be all right," I assured him. "
I
know children. Ned will come round."

BOOK: The Haunting of Grey Cliffs
2.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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