Authors: Nina Coombs Pykare
Tags: #regency Gothic Romance
I sighed. Given this old gloomy castle, a man found hanged by his own cravat— I shivered at the awful picture thus presented to me. No wonder the servants were seeing things.
Why had I let my desire for a child of my own override my usual good sense? Why had I contracted this loveless marriage and come to this godforsaken place?
I had no answers to my questions, of course. I threw myself into a chair in front of the fire and stared into the flames. There was little point in continuing to ask myself rhetorical questions. I
come to Grey Cliffs. I
married the earl. And now I could not in good conscience leave.
After all, three young lives depended on me. At least three.
My hands crept to my flat stomach, curling over it protectively. Should I even consider bringing a child into this place?
I sighed and swallowed over the lump in my throat. I wanted the child. I wanted it so badly that tears welled up in my eyes at the mere thought. But given my new husband's anger over that very desire, and the temper I had not known he possessed, could I expect, should I hope—
The door from the corridor creaked open. I hurried to my feet and turned, half expecting Ned with some new prank. But it was not Ned who stood there, it was my husband.
Edward smiled at me, but his eyes were clouded and dark. I suppressed a shudder. He seemed so different from the pleasant, reserved man I had married.
"I have come to take you for a walk," he said. 'To show you your new home."
I kept my tongue between my teeth. He could at least have made it a request. But no. Not so much as a by-your-leave. Just a calm statement of fact. He was a man obviously used to giving orders—my new husband—and to having them obeyed.
Perhaps he detected my distemper from my expression. At any rate, his smile vanished. "Unless you have made other plans, of course."
I had no other plans. How should I? And such a walk would allow me to talk to him about the boy's dog. There was also Cousin Julia's disconcerting disclosure about the previous earl's death. But she must be mistaken about that. My husband would tell me she was mistaken and then I could forget the whole thing.
Edward mistook my thinking silence for a negative response and turned toward the door, presenting me with his broad back.
"Wait!" I cried. "I—I'll just get my cloak."
He turned back to me and I imagined I saw a hint of pleasure in his brooding features. "Good," he said, and I heard the satisfaction in his voice. "I think you'll like the moor. It has its own wild beauty."
* * * *
Some time later, I conceded that my husband was right. We had walked in silence for some minutes, through the twisted trees. Even though I knew the cause of their tortured look they still made me feel they were in agony. And finally we came out onto the rolling moor. The breeze was chill, but not extremely uncomfortable. I sniffed, noting it carried the smell of the sea.
The moor stretched out around us. Barren except for the wildness of sedge and gorse, there was still something exceptional about it. There was desolation of a sort, and yet the promise of a wild, savage beauty.
The earl moved closer to my side. "You should see it in the spring when the wildflowers bloom," he said. And then he chuckled. "You
see it in the spring when the wildflowers bloom."
I turned to look up into his face. His features had softened with his pleasure at this place. He looked younger, happier, and even more handsome.
He took another step toward me, his gaze traveling over my face. And then, quite suddenly, without a word of warning, he swept me into his arms.
They were strong arms, muscular, and they held me so close I smelled a hint of leather, a touch of spice. It was warm there, against his hard male body. I did not try to escape his grasp. My cloak had wrapped around me, making it difficult to move. And I felt a strangeness, held so close to this man I didn't know. But I did not really wish to move, because I felt something else, a ripple of what seemed like pleasure.
How could I take pleasure in being— I raised my head to look into his eyes, perhaps to—and knew I had made a mistake.
His eyes were dark—black as the rocks below my chamber window and just as hard. Yet they gleamed with something warm, something burning.
Then he bent his head and his lips covered mine. I shivered, but I was not cold. Indeed, a raging heat swept through my limbs, leaving me as weak and helpless as a child after a fever. But no child ever experienced the shocking emotions that invaded my body at the moment his tongue encountered mine.
I could not help myself, I cried out against his lips.
My husband raised his head, his eyes gone even harder and now stone cold. His lips curled in what approached a sneer. "Beware, Hester, you will get no child if you refuse me."
I had been about to apologize, to explain—though not the precise nature of the feelings that even then made me blush—but his gruff tone and annoyed expression pinched my pride. So instead I simply replied, "I know, milord. I shall endeavor to do better."
Such a soft answer seemed to take him by surprise and for a moment his features warmed again. He reached out, pulling up my hood, which had fallen back during our embrace. "I'm sure you will," he said, touching my cheek with a warm finger. "I'll see to it."
The words were a threat, that much seemed plain. Yet they were spoken with so much tenderness, so much warmth, that I felt that awful heat rising in me again and could not reply.
He didn't seem to take this amiss, but removed his arm from around me, and twining the fingers of one hand through mine, turned back toward the moor. "Shall we walk a little farther? Tell me, now that you've met him, what do you think of Ned?"
That was the opening I sought and immediately I launched into a recital of our tour of the castle and his topics of discussion.
My husband laughed outright when he heard about the snake in the schoolroom desk. "Carolington was right," he said. "You can handle any young boy."
His eyes seemed to say something else, something more, but I nodded and hurried on. "I was a little concerned with this talk of priest holes—that could be dangerous."
Edward shrugged. "The boy has been warned. I think he will listen."
"I hope so." I hesitated, my gaze returning to the moor in front of us. I swallowed, trying to steady my voice. "Edward, Edward, I—"
He stopped short and turned toward me, his eyes boring into mine. "Hester, don't hesitate. If you've something to say to me, then out with it. Remember, I'm your husband."
"I know that," I said, pushing to the back of my mind the embarrassing knowledge that this man was my husband—so far at least—in name only. "Very well then." I took a deep breath. "It's about Ned's dog."
Edward's face softened. "Captain?"
"Yes. The boy tells me the dog is forbidden entry to the castle."
"Yes." It looked like Edward was about to smile.
"Something about a snake and the last governess," I went on.
Edward frowned. "The boy had to be reprimanded."
"Yes, of course," I said. "I am in perfect agreement about that. But—"
"Yes, Hester?" Edward raised an eyebrow. "Go on."
"I promised him I would speak to you about the dog, to see if he might be allowed back in the nursery."
"Is that what you would advise?"
He must know that. Otherwise why should I ask? He was playing some sort of game with me. I braced myself, waiting for his outburst of temper, and said, "Yes, I think—"
"Fine. I leave all such decisions up to you. Shall we walk on?"
I was stunned. Why had he conceded so easily? "Yes, I— Thank you."
"There's no need for thanks," he said as we resumed our walk and he took my hand in his again. "I married you to give Ned a mother. Why should I prevent you from acting as a mother would? Or
The bitterness of his tone made me know he was thinking of
the beautiful Royale who had run off, deserted her husband and her son. I glanced at Edward, observing how his jaw had tightened.
"Ned is quite an intelligent boy," I hastened to remark. "I'm sure he will come to love me. And I him." I swallowed a lump in my throat, wishing I could erase the look of hurt I'd glimpsed in my husband's eyes.
The fingers that held mine tightened. "Yes," Edward said, his voice husky. "Ned will come to love you. I'm sure of it."
For one wild moment my heart pounded in my throat. For that moment I expected Edward to go on, to say that he, too, could grow to love me. But of course he said no such thing, believing that he might was all a figment of my imagination. I
him to love me. Why, I cannot say precisely except, perhaps, that I wished my child—our child—to grow up in a loving family.
But Edward said no more and I, swallowing my disappointment, tried to look around, to drink in the savage beauty of this wild place, a beauty I knew appealed to my husband.
But I could not forget Cousin Julia's suspicions. They rankled in my mind like a thistle in a finger and I could not be content till I had answers. So I gathered my courage and spoke. "Edward?"
He didn't stop walking and I was grateful. I wasn't sure I wished to see his face when I asked the question that was searing through my mind.
"Edward, how did your father die?"
He scowled but did not stop or turn. "Why do you ask?"
"Because I want to know."
He stopped then and swung around to face me. The afternoon sun behind his back cast his face into obscurity so I could see nothing but a looming black shadow. My heart rose up in my throat and my knees took to trembling. I was alone on the moor with a man of great anger, great passion. I tasted primeval fear.
He grabbed me by the upper arm and shook me slightly. "Hester! I want an answer. Who's been talking to you!"
I saw I would have to tell him. I moistened my lips. "Cousin Julia told me about his death—the unusual manner of it."
He laughed harshly, his hands dropping away from my arms. "You mean hanging himself by his own cravat?"
I nodded, swallowing my fear. "I— Why should a man do such a thing?" I asked, dismayed to hear the quiver in my voice.
Edward sighed. "I don't know. The physician said there was nothing wrong with him. No fatal illness or anything like that."
I tried to keep my voice steady. "Your mother? When did she die?"
"If you mean did he die because he had lost her, the answer is no. She died when I was quite young."
He sighed again. "One thing you must understand, Hester. My father was not a popular man. He was a hard man, always after more—more money, more power, more women."
He paused. "And he had made many enemies. Ask Uncle Phillip. He often bore the brunt of my father's anger. There was no one to say a good word for the old man. When he died, people began to whisper 'murder.' They even pointed the finger at me." He paused, frowning fiercely. "I suppose I was the logical choice, but I can assure you, I had nothing to do with my father's death."
He turned back to the moor, drawing me on. "It's entirely possible that he killed himself. In the last year before his death he had begun to act strangely. He'd always been a violent man, often in fits of rage breaking whatever was in reach. But then he became very quiet, watching people and saying nothing."
Edward shook his head. "It was like he'd become another person."
"You mean," I ventured, wondering at my own temerity, "that perhaps his mind was disturbed?"
His reply was curt. "Yes, perhaps."
He walked on in silence for some moments while I wrestled with this new and surprising knowledge.
First murder, now madness! Was every new day to bring me more dismaying information about this disquieting family?
I gulped. I had thought Cousin Julia and Uncle Phillip somewhat eccentric. But perhaps madness, true madness, ran in the family, was in the blood that ran through their veins!
I swallowed hastily. "Your mother—how did she die?"
"How?" Edward stopped again, but this time the sun was behind me and I saw his handsome features twisted into a frown. "From loneliness. From neglect. From lack of love."
The pain in his voice was so intense that for a moment I could not reply. Then I said, "But Edward, those things do not kill."
"You're quite right," he replied coldly.
My shock must have registered on my face for he laughed harshly. "No, not like
Not with a weapon. She died trying to give him another son."
I experienced the strongest urge to take this big man into my arms and comfort him like I would have a hurt little boy. Of course I did not.
"You might as well know now," he went on brusquely. "Someone is sure to tell you soon. I despised my father. I hated him!"
I sucked in my breath. Could he have—
Almost as though I'd spoken my thoughts, he answered them. "But I didn't kill him. As God is my witness, I did not kill him!"
His eyes searched mine intently and I knew he wanted some response from me. It came from my heart. "I believe you," I said firmly. "I believe you."
The rest of our walk was uneventful. By common consent we spoke only of the moor. Edward named for me the various grasses and plants, pointing out the sedge, the gorse, the samphire.
Duly I observed them and duly I admired the great stones that lay about, as though scattered by some giant hand. Edward spoke, too, of the people who had left those stones behind them, people of long ago, but I paid little real attention—my thoughts returning time and again to the puzzling matter of his father's death.
I spoke no more about it, however, and in due time we returned to the castle for dinner.
The day's conversation had left my nerves on edge and the approach of darkness—and bedtime—did nothing to calm them.
Cousin Julia and Uncle Phillip were both quite silent through the meal and then slipped away, leaving me alone with my husband.
"You look weary," Edward said. "Perhaps you should retire early."