Authors: Nina Coombs Pykare
Tags: #regency Gothic Romance
When I had satisfied my hunger, I turned to him. "I am eager to meet Ned." I hesitated, my eyes searching his face.
"Please," Edward said, his dark face twisting into a frown, his voice caustic. "No more implorings on behalf of the motherless twins."
I still could not stop myself. "But …"
He raised a hand. "I understand your feeling for the motherless," he said. "But my major concern is Ned."
"The company of other children—" I dared.
"I know," he replied sardonically, "will be good for Ned."
I stared at him; could this possibly mean— He rightly interpreted my questioning look. "I have reconsidered my decision," he told me, his face severe.
"The twins may stay—for now."
"Thank you! Oh thank you!" I cried. "I knew you were a good man." I felt as though
had received the reprieve. And perhaps I had, for I wanted the father of my child to be—
He scowled. "Just be sure Ned isn't slighted."
This time I didn't take offense. "He won't be, I assure you. He won't be at all!"
* * * *
Moments later I stood outside the nursery door. "Hello," I cried, pushing it open and stepping in with a smile on my face. "How are you this morning?"
The boys were sitting at table, just finishing their porridge. They raised their heads, two fair, one dark. Edward's son was easily recognizable even without his difference in coloring from the twins. Ned's scowl was just like his father's.
"I am—Hester," I said, deciding to forego the rather spurious titles of mother and aunt. "I am here to take care of you. We're going to have great fun."
The twins grinned, evidently willing to give me a chance, but Ned's scowl deepened. "We don't want you here," he said. "Go home."
I was prepared for his hostility. "I am home," I said calmly. "I live here now."
Ned's face twisted. "You can't be my mother! She's gone."
I nodded. "I know. I don't want to be your mother." A slight lie, I thought, for the boy's sake. My heart had already gone out to him. "But I am your father's wife."
The twins looked at each other and murmured something I couldn't make out.
"It's not polite to whisper in company," I said. "Why don't you speak aloud?"
The boy did, but though the words consisted of recognizable sounds, they made no sense.
I laughed and clapped my hands. "I see," I cried. "You have your own private language. How grand!"
I glanced sideways at Ned. "I wish I had someone to share such a language with."
I saw the flicker of interest in the boy's eyes, but he masked it quickly and remained silent. "Oh well. Ned, I hear you have a dog. Where is he?"
"He's mine!" Ned said fiercely.
I pretended not to notice the fierceness. "Yes, I know. I just want to say hello to him. I love dogs."
Ned frowned. "He's not allowed up here."
"My goodness, that's too bad. What did he do?"
Ned's face turned crimson. "He didn't do anything. It was me. I put a snake in the last governess's bed."
"Really?" I pretended surprise. "And she didn't like it?"
Ned looked startled, as well he might. "'Course not. Girls are scared of snakes and stuff like that."
"Not me. I like snakes."
The boy stared at me and the twins looked at each other and snickered.
"Well," I said, turning toward the door.
just came in to say hello. We'll start lessons tomorrow. Today I want to explore the castle." I moved toward the door. "It would be more fun if I had someone to go with me, but I suppose you're all busy."
The twins looked at each other and without exchanging a word got to their feet.
Ned hesitated, then he rose too. "I'd better come along," he said. "This is a big castle, and dark. A stranger could get lost in here."
* * * *
The castle was big and dark. Gloomy, too, but having the twins along helped to enliven things. Their cheerful grins were like sunshine in the dim halls and their babbling language, though I couldn't understand it, was rather like the music of a brook.
The castle was laid out in a great square with rooms around each side facing out and a huge courtyard enclosed in the middle. It was gloomy because the windows, set in walls two feet thick, were small and narrow and so did not let in much light.
Ned served as guide, pointing out each room, many of which seemed empty. In one particularly dingy corridor he lowered his voice dramatically. "This castle has secret passageways. And a priest hole."
He turned wide eyes on me. "Do you know what a priest hole is?"
I shook my head. "No, tell me." Let the boy show off a little.
His chest seemed to expand. "Long time ago we were all Catholics. This bad king—" He hesitated, but I did not supply the king's name. "This king said we couldn't listen to priests anymore. We had to get rid of them."
He scowled. "But some people wouldn't. So they made secret rooms no one could find and they hid the priests there." He gave me a triumphant look. "And
why they're called priest holes."
I looked suitably impressed. "You're very good at history, Ned. Very good."
The beginning of a smile tugged at his mouth. Then he frowned. "Yes, we have a priest hole, but if you find the way to go in, don't go there by yourself. You could get lost and end up nothing but dry bones!"
The twins looked very impressed, and I have to admit that my voice had a slight quaver as I asked, "Have you found these passageways yet?" The thought of a child lost in there was chilling.
Ned shook his dark head. "Not yet. But I will."
I felt it too soon to ask the boy for any promises concerning his safety and, besides, he sounded already warned by some adult. Those dire words about dry bones sounded more like Uncle Phillip than Ned's father. I could not imagine Cousin Julia considering bones of any value. It was the spirit she wished to contact. So she might find such passageways full of such possibilities.
"How very exciting!" I cried. "This must be a fun place to live."
All three of them stared at me. Then one of the twins said, "Too dark" and the other said, "Too gloomy." I was relieved to know they also spoke English.
Ned snorted, his facing turning rosy at these insults to his home. "It’s a castle. Castles are supposed to be dark and gloomy!"
Another piece of information gleaned from his elders, I thought.
When we had come full circle back to the nursery, Ned paused. "You're really married to my father?"
I braced myself for another fierce outburst. But instead he said, "And you really like snakes?"
think they're fascinating creatures."
He frowned. "Then you won't be mad that I left one in your desk drawer."
"In the schoolroom?"
He nodded, obviously not daring to believe what he was hearing.
I smiled at him. "No, I'm not mad. What a lovely gift." I looked at the other boys. "Maybe we can make it a home in the nursery."
The twins' mouths gaped open. Ned looked stunned, then he rallied. "I don't ... I don't think my father would like that. Besides, the snake might want to go home."
My heart leaped with joy at this evidence of the boy's concern for a dumb creature, even while I sighed at the echo of the boy's own longing for a secure home. "That’s true," I agreed. "Perhaps we should just say hello to him and then take him outside, so he can go home."
Ned nodded. "I only brought him up here because I miss Captain."
I nodded, but I knew better. The boy had meant to drive me off as he had the others. And he undoubtedly had some other tricks left.
"I think I'll speak to your father about Captain," I mused. "The dog must miss you."
I saw the boy's lip quiver, but his voice was strong. "Yeah, I guess he does."
* * * *
When I returned to the main part of the castle, I was much heartened. I was sure Ned was a normal boy, somewhat overset by his mother's desertion, but some love should straighten him out. The twins didn't seem to present a problem. They, too, were in need of love, but not so badly as Ned. After all, they had each other.
My husband, I was told, had departed on estate business, and since it was time for the noon meal I took myself to the dining room—a great gloomy cavern with a vast table in the middle. Numerous candles in rows of candelabras along the walls could not relieve the gloom. I must speak to my husband, I thought, and see if we might take our meals in the breakfast room, which at least got some sun.
I moved toward the sideboard. My morning excursion had sharpened an appetite that was always healthy.
I had filled my plate and chosen a seat at one end of the great table when Cousin Julia came in. This morning she had not powdered her hair, which appeared to be almost orange, and she was wearing a gown of deep, deep red. The sight was rather hard on the eyes.
"So, there you are," she said. "Isn't this room marvelous? I can just feel the spirits hovering."
She piled a plate so full of food that I wondered she could carry it. Then she came to sit beside me. I could have wished for a little time to myself, time to consider what I had discovered about my new charges and to plan for the future, but short of repairing to my room I didn't know how to get it.
"You should feel his presence," Cousin Julia said round a mouthful of food. "That's
The food in my mouth turned to straw and I swallowed hastily, mumbling, "Whose?"
"The late earl. 'Twas a terrible thing."
"Death is always difficult to handle," I agreed, wondering if Cousin Julia ever spoke about more cheerful subjects.
"Oh, it wasn't his death," she said, cramming half a muffin in her mouth. "Manner of it."
I paused, my fork halfway to my mouth, my lunch forgotten. "I'm afraid I don't understand."
Her eyes grew round, her expression pitying. "You mean Edward didn't tell you?"
"He told me his father is dead."
Cousin Julia shook her head. "He didn't tell you!"
I was fast losing patience with this sort of thing. "Cousin Julia, if there is something you think I should know, will
please tell me?"
"The earl, the late earl, he didn't just die. He ... he was found hanging from his chandelier. By his cravat."
I clamped my mouth shut tight to keep the food I had already eaten from escaping from my stomach. "He ... he killed himself?"
"That's what the magistrate said."
There was something about Cousin Julia's tone of voice, about the way she looked at me that told me there was more.
"But there's some people hereabouts that don't believe it."
"You mean—" A cold hand seemed to grip my throat, making it difficult for me to breathe.
Cousin Julia stared at me. "I mean there's some that think the old earl was murdered!"
"Murdered!" I could scarcely credit my ears. "But wouldn't the magistrate—"
Cousin Julia snorted, spraying the table with muffin crumbs in a most disgusting way. "Our magistrate's an old fool. Couldn't find his coat if he took it off."
So much for law and order, I thought. "But if there was a murder," I said, "wouldn't there be evidence?"
"Maybe. Unless the murderer covered it up." Cousin Julia gulped down some tea and looked me in the eye. "But let me ask you this—if it wasn't murder, then why is the old earl haunting the place?"
My stomach rolled completely over. "H-haunting?"
"That's right. He's been seen by the servants. I've seen him myself." She frowned, twisting her face into a tortured grimace. "I just don't understand why he won't tell me who did it."
"Perhaps he doesn't know," I said. Then I realized that she almost had me believing. "That is—"
Cousin Julia smiled. "That's it!" she cried, clapping her hands. "It must have happened while he was asleep. Thank you, my dear."
"But Cousin Julia—I don't believe in ghosts."
Cousin Julia chortled. "Perhaps not now ... but later, when you have seen him, you will be a believer. Yes, you will."
Cousin Julia ate for some time, devouring more food than most people would consume in an entire day. Though my appetite had deserted me, I forced myself to chew and swallow. When her plate was half empty, Cousin Julia turned to me. "I suppose he didn't tell you about
I swallowed a furious retort. Cousin Julia seemed the sort who liked to make people angry at each other. I didn't intend to give her that satisfaction. "If you mean the former countess, you are wrong. Edward told me about her."
Cousin Julia licked her lips, her eyes gleaming. "She was the talk of all London. You must have heard of her."
I looked Cousin Julia right in the eye. "I'm afraid I was too busy with the marquis of Carolington's children to be listening to gossip."
Cousin Julia's mouth formed a round 0. "You mean—"
I laughed. "You mean, Edward didn't tell
? Before he married me, I was a governess."
"Yes. And proud of it."
That should keep her quiet for a while, I thought, and finding my appetite quite gone, I repaired to my room to consider the happenings of this extraordinary day.
Though my room was nicely appointed and relatively cheerful because large windows had been set into the thick stone walls, I was not able to enjoy the pleasantness of the room or the lovely view of the sea below it, now sparkling in the midday sun.
Murdered! The old earl had been murdered! Or so Cousin Julia believed.
Angrily I paced the length of the rug and back again, my temper flaring higher than the flames on the hearth. Another thing my fine new husband had neglected to tell me!
But who could have done such a horrible thing? If, indeed, it had been murder. I tried to calm myself, to think sensibly. After all, Cousin Julia was hardly the most reputable source of information. Imagine the woman believing she could speak with the dead!
And this haunting she insisted upon—I was a person who prided herself on using reason. Certainly I did not believe in the existence of ghosts. The servants were probably imagining things.