Authors: Nina Coombs Pykare
Tags: #regency Gothic Romance
I did not know how to respond to this. Nor did I care to admit to myself that I wished to retire with him. "I—I am not particularly tired,” I said, but my voice lacked conviction and in truth I was weary.
"You look weary," he repeated, in a voice that brooked no resistance. "You'd best go up now."
At another time I might have argued with him. I certainly did not care to let him think he could order me about like a common servant. But I
weary. And there was a strange look about his eyes, a look that seemed almost tender.
I got to my feet. "Good night, then," I said, and despising myself for the tremor I heard in my voice, I turned toward the stairs.
"Good night, wife."
The strangest sensation quivered down my spine. I was Edward's wife in the eyes of the law. And I knew I would be his wife in more than that whenever he decided to make it so. The thought turned my knees weak and raised that heat in me again so that I could feel my very cheeks burning. I picked up a candelabra and began to ascend the great stairs.
The hall was dark and gloomy, always pervaded by a chill that seeped into the bones. But that night I felt little of it. The fire that burned through my veins drove all else before it and heated my very flesh!
I reached my chamber and set the candelabra upon the bedside table. The maid Betty had been there before me, lighting candles, turning back the covers, laying out my nightdress.
I sighed as I looked at it. It was much patched and darned, poor thing, but then I had never expected anyone to see me in it—least of all a handsome husband. For a moment I gave myself up to wishing for some frivolous feminine adornments—ribbons and bows, pretty gowns. Perhaps then Edward would—
I pushed the thought from my mind and summoned Betty to help me undress. When she was gone, I sat before the mirror in my nightdress and brushed my hair the required one hundred strokes. I studied my reflection in the glass, wondering what my husband saw when he looked at me. Did he find me attractive? Did he
to consummate our marriage? His kiss that afternoon had seemed to indicate so, yet he had sent me up to bed alone.
In exasperation, I threw down the hairbrush and got to my feet. I would go to bed, I told myself as I blew out the candles. And I would sleep.
Surprisingly enough, I did just that. I was indeed weary and had not been in bed long before I drifted off into slumber.
When I wakened, the room was quite dark. It took a moment for me to realize where I was. And then I heard the sound.
It was not an ordinary sound. There was something frightening, something sinister and unearthly about it.
"Go-o-o-o-o—" a voice breathed. "Leave—this— cursed—place."
I lay frozen in the great bed, staring into the Stygian darkness. But I could see nothing, nothing but the deep black of midnight. I swallowed. Was this the ghost Cousin Julia had talked about? But I did not believe in ghosts.
"Who—who are you?" I whispered, finally getting my tongue to work.
"Leave—this—place," the voice repeated in dire tones.
"I will do no such—" I began, and then I felt it. A hand! A chill ghostly hand touched my cheek. A scream forced its way out of my throat. It was followed by another.
I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to stop myself. But the feel of that cold, clammy hand lingered on my cheek. I simply had to scream—and go on screaming.
The heavy oak door crashed open, hitting the wall with a thud. "Hester!" Edward rushed across the room to the bed. "Hester! What’s wrong?"
I opened my eyes to the welcome sight of my husband's face shining in the moonlight. Never had a human being looked so wonderful to me.
I threw myself, sobbing, into his arms. "He—he was here!"
Edward dropped down on the great bed and held me close against his chest, his warm strong chest. "Easy, Hester."
"Oh, it was horrible!"
"It's all right, my dear."
Gradually my sobs ceased and I lay trembling in my husband's arms. 'There now," he said. "It will be all right." He smoothed the hair away from my forehead. "It was only a bad dream."
I tried to protest. "No, it was—"
"You must have fallen asleep and then you dreamed." He held me close, patting my back as I might pat a child.
His face was so close to mine. The memory of that kiss on the moor twisted inside me and my body began to experience those sensations of heat. It was then I recalled that I was wearing only my nightdress and my husband was holding me in his arms.
"You're trembling like a leaf," he said tenderly. "Shall I stay with you?"
The warmth in his eyes, the touch of his fingers on my cheek, left little doubt as to what would transpire if he stayed. I looked up into his heated eyes. "Yes," I whispered. "Stay."
He smoothed my hair one more time. "Let me just light a candle," he said and rose to shut the door. "This place gets drafty."
I watched him cross the room, so strong, so handsome, and the trembling in my limbs had nothing to do with ghostly voices in the darkness. I was about to become a wife and I both feared and anticipated that event.
When he returned to the bed, Edward looked down at me from hooded eyes. "Shall I leave the candle burning?"
I hesitated. I was innocent of all knowledge of lovemaking and in my modesty would have preferred the darkness. But even Edward's presence could not completely dispel the memory of that clammy touch. "Yes, please," I whispered.
He began to undress and I tried to close my eyes, but could not. He seemed so nonchalant, dropping his clothing piece by piece upon the floor, then turning to me with a smile. Of course I had seen male bodies, Jeremy's when he was little, but I had never seen a full-grown man without his clothes. Such a magnificent man. My breath caught in my throat.
He climbed into the great bed and pulled me into the crook of his arm, right against that warm male body. "Do you want to talk about your dream?" he asked, his lips against my cheek.
I knew that I should tell him I did not believe it had been a dream. But he was so close, the heat of his body burning through my nightdress inflamed my very skin.
"Sweet Hester,” he whispered. "Beautiful Hester." That heat that glowed inside me burned ever brighter, and when he pulled me closer and covered my lips with his, I lost all thought of anything but the man who held me.
Sometime later, I lay nestled in the crook of his arm, my nightdress discarded on the floor. He kissed the tip of my ear. "You will have your child, Hester." He chuckled. "And soon, I think. Very soon."
I sighed and moved closer to his warmth. No one had ever told me what I might expect in the marriage bed, so I had brought with me no expectations. But even if someone
told me, I would not have believed them. Such pleasure seemed almost impossible.
Edward's lips moved across my cheek to my throat. "Is it—" I turned toward him. "Is it always like this?"
He laughed, catching my bottom lip between his teeth in a way that set my body on fire again and made it move against his. "Yes," he murmured against my mouth. "It will always be this good."
* * * *
We slept finally, our limbs entwined, and with his strong body enfolding mine I felt no fear. The morning sun, shining in my eyes, woke me. The room was cold, the candle burned down. My nightdress lay still upon the floor, but I had no need of it. Under the comforter I was cozy and warm. My husband lay, one arm across my breasts, one leg over mine. He stirred, and to my dismay I felt my desire rising. The heat flooded my cheeks at the thought of the night before, of what we had done. Edward must think me so wanton.
"Good morning," he said, his dark face so close to mine."
"Good morning," I murmured.
His lips grazed my cheek and my traitorous body moved. My husband laughed. "Lovely Hester," he whispered, drawing me once more into a passionate embrace. "Hungry Hester."
* * * *
Sometime later, he left my bed. Striding in naked splendor to the door that opened into his room, he blew me a kiss. "Stay cozy till I send Betty to help you dress."
As he shut the door to his room, I sighed luxuriantly and stretched, letting my hands stray toward my stomach. Now I was a wife and perhaps already I was on my way to becoming a mother.
Betty came in good time and helped me into my gown, clicking her tongue as she retrieved Edward's discarded clothing. "Just like a little one a man be," she chuckled. "When he be wanting
She looked at me slyly, perhaps wondering if I would take offense, but on that morning nothing could have offended me. I simply laughed with her.
"I will see you later, Betty," I said when I was dressed. "I will be taking over some of the boys' care." I paused. "But I wonder, would you continue to look out for them?"
"Of course, milady." She eyed me leerily. "But them twins—"
"It’s not uncommon for twins to create their own language," I said calmly.
Betty's eyes widened. "You mean that ain't the devil atalking through them?"
"Of course not, Betty. It's just a language they've made up."
Betty grinned. "Well I never! Them little rascals! Sure, milady, I'll be watching of 'em."
* * * *
I hummed under my breath as I descended the great stairs. The hall was just as gloomy as ever, but my spirits were so high that even the darkness seemed warm.
The sideboard was loaded with food. I filled a plate, eager to eat and get to the boys. I planned to start that day with history, teaching them more about the reign of Henry VIII. They should know more about that monarch than his abhorrence of things Catholic.
I had put away a good amount of food and was feeling quite pleased with myself and with life in general when I heard a whistling in the hall.
I looked up in time to see a man enter the room. I knew at once that he was Edward's brother, Robert. The family resemblance was there, though Robert did not appear to be nearly as handsome as my husband.
He was younger, but there was a certain slackness around his overfull lips, a certain puffiness around his jaded eyes, that bespoke a life of dissipation.
The glance he threw my way on first entering the room soon became a detailed perusal of my person. "Well, well," he exclaimed. "Edward didn't say you were such a beauty."
He crossed and took my hand, raising it to his lips in a practiced gesture, but I remained unimpressed. Rakes had always seemed to me at best rather useless creatures.
"No words of welcome from such a vision of loveliness?" He grinned at me and I conceded that he had a certain charm. "Has she perhaps the voice of a frog?"
"Her voice is quite normal." Edward came into the room, moving directly to my side.
I had already removed my fingers from his brother's grasp. Edward took them possessively in his own. A surge of warmth rippled through me.
"Have you seen your sons yet?" I asked Robert.
He shrugged. "No. They're well enough, though, I suppose."
I glared at the man. "Well enough! And how would you know? Man, these are your children, your own flesh and blood! Have you no feeling for them?"
He didn't seem the least perturbed. "My dear Hester, you will get nowhere by yelling at me in that shrewish fashion. As Edward will be only too glad to tell you."
My husband's tightened lips confirmed this and he nodded grimly.
Robert laughed. "It's no use, Hester. I cannot be reformed. I'm too much like our dear departed father for reformation. Give me wine, women, and song—and I'm happy."
"You're disgusting," Edward said grimly. "How long do you plan to stay this time?"
"Till quarter day, of course." He cast a shrewd glance at Edward. "Unless, of course, you'll give me my money now."
Edward cursed, then looked to me and clamped his mouth shut.
"Forgive my dear brother," Robert said with false cheerfulness. "He's forgotten how to act around a woman."
This I knew to be a lie, but I did not respond to his baiting.
"The care of the earldom weighs heavy on his shoulders," Robert continued. "So heavy." And he sent Edward a provoking look.
I sighed. It was easy to see that there was no love lost between the brothers. But I could hardly blame Edward for that. After the scandal he had suffered with his wife, he must be doubly wounded by his brother's indiscretions. And for the man to behave so callously toward his own children—
I turned to my husband and smiled. He finally was my husband, and much to my satisfaction. He smiled back at me, warmly, tenderly.
Robert snorted. "Perhaps I should leave you lovebirds to your billing and cooing."
Edward's expression hardened. 'That won't be necessary. Besides, I wish to have some words with you in private."
"Of course, brother dear."
I did not see how Robert could be so nonchalant. If Edward were glaring at me in that grim fashion, I knew I should be really alarmed.
But Edward was smiling at me. "I'll see you later, dear," he said, and bent to put a kiss on my brow. Then he straightened. "Come, Robert, let's go to the drawing room."
After my husband and his brother disappeared down the hall, I finished my tea and set out for the nursery. I had settled on a plan of attack—sometimes winning over a boy seemed rather like fighting a war. But the results were usually much better.
I pushed open the nursery door. The twins were at play upon the hearth, their lead soldiers battling with miniature troops of Napoleon.
Ned, however, stood across the room, gazing out the narrow window toward the stables.
"Good morning," I said, putting as much cheerfulness as I could into my voice.
"Morning, milady." Betty raised her head from her mending and nodded.
The twins looked up and smiled. "Good," said one. "Morning," said the other.
I returned their smiles. They seemed quite healthy in their outlook—Robert's children—perhaps it was just as well he had not spent much time with them. Such a man could be a bad influence.
Ned turned from the window, his eyes eager. "Did you—" He stopped himself. "Good morning, Hester."