Authors: Nina Coombs Pykare
Tags: #regency Gothic Romance
"Good morning, Ned."
I saw the boy's mouth quiver slightly. He was anxious to know about the dog but obviously afraid to ask.
"Well," I said, smiling at them all. "I have a piece of good news."
Ned's face lit up, but he said nothing more.
"Ned, your father says you may bring Captain back to the nursery."
"Capital!" the twins cried in unison.
"He's mine!" Ned said fiercely, scowling at the twins. "All mine."
The twins exchanged a look, but kept silent.
"Of course the dog is yours," I agreed. "And you will want to bring him in soon, but perhaps you should wait till we've had our lessons."
The boy's face fell. "Of course," he said slowly, reluctantly. "Captain likes it outside."
"On the other hand," I went on, as though considering all the possibilities, "it might be useful to have him along with us."
All three of them stared at me, but it was Ned who echoed, "Along with us?"
"Yes," I said. "I thought we'd have our history lesson while we look for secret passageways and the priest hole you told me about."
The three of them gaped at me. Finally Ned asked, "You mean we're going to
for them? Really
"Yes," I said. "It should be an interesting lesson. Of course we could stay in the classroom and just—"
The twins got to their feet, their make-believe battles forgotten. "Dogs're good." "At smelling things out," they observed in tandem.
"Maybe he can find something," Ned said, for once not disagreeing with the others.
I had no idea what the dog might find, but Ned was obviously eager to get the animal back into the castle. "Yes," he said, nodding. "He's good at sniffing things out. I'm sure he can help. I'll go get him."
He was halfway to the door before he stopped. "Can I?" he turned to ask, his eyes pleading.
"Yes, Ned. But come right back. We'll be ready."
When Ned returned short minutes later, the dog was at his heels—a nondescript black dog, stocky, medium-sized, greying at the muzzle. He took one look at me and started yipping. Ned quieted him. "It's all right, Captain. Hester belongs here."
I swallowed hastily over the lump that had risen in my throat. That was good! The boy was already on his way to accepting me.
The dog came to me then, sniffing my skirts. I knelt and looked into his deep brown eyes. "Hello, Captain," I said softly, stretching out a tentative hand. The dog sniffed it, too, finally gave it a lick, and turned back to the boy.
"He likes you," Ned said, his hand resting possessively on the dog's head. "He only licks people he likes."
"That's right," said the twins.
Hiding my satisfaction, I got to my feet. "Now, where shall we start?"
* * * *
An hour later we were back in the nursery. We had found no secret passageways, no priest hole, but what we had found was more important—a common ground where we could meet and get to know each other.
Certainly Ned and the twins were still not friends, but at least they were able to speak to each other with some civility.
We gathered around the table then and Ned read to me. When I told him to pass the book to Peter, the boy shook his head. "Can't," he said.
"Now, Peter, come. Give it a try."
Peter and Paul exchanged some unintelligible words, then Peter turned to me. "Can't neither of us read nor write."
"Oh." How stupid of me to have forgotten the twins' origin. "Well," I said, "we'll fix that."
Paul stared at me. "Don't need to read. Gonna work the fields."
"Of course you need to read," I said firmly.
Peter raised an eyebrow, blue eyes very like his father's boring into mine. "Why?"
Why indeed? I thought. Given Robert's attitude they were lucky to have a roof over their heads, food to eat, and clothes to wear. An education was quite a luxury.
Still I persisted. These children were in my charge and while I was responsible for them, they would learn. "Because reading and writing will help you—"
"Don't see how," Peter interrupted.
I hesitated, trying to think of some good reply. But while I sought in my mind for some acceptable reason they would understand, the door opened.
"Hello," Robert said, giving me a practiced smile. "The chatelaine at work. You make a pretty picture."
I stiffened, his compliment making me uneasy. I disliked his rakish attitude and I meant to stand for none of that behavior in front of the children.
When he got no response from me, Robert turned to Ned. "What are you studying today?"
The boy smiled. 'This morning we looked for secret passageways. Hester got Father to let Captain back into the nursery. And now we're reading." Ned looked at the twins. "Only they can't."
Robert frowned. "Can't read, is it? As I remember, it's rather a tough job at first." He crossed the room to lean over, his face close to mine. "What seems to be the problem?"
'There is no problem," I replied, leaning in the other direction, away from him. Why must the man get so close to me? ''The twins have had no lessons, so naturally they can't read."
"They said they won't need it," Ned volunteered. "Wish I didn't have to learn."
Robert frowned. "Of course you have to learn. You're a gentleman's son."
I couldn't believe the man's calloused disregard for his own children. The poor things had already suffered enough, probably been called all kinds of ugly names by the village children. And now—now their father was ignoring them, acting like they were invisible. And to add insult to injury, he was making up to Ned.
"Reading and writing are useful accomplishments for any person," I said firmly. "They will be useful to the twins."
For the first time, Robert turned his attention to his sons. The twins stared back at him, their expressions wary. When they exchanged remarks in their private language, I could not understand the sense of them, but I knew by the inflection that one questioned the other. Were they discussing their father?
"So, Peter, Paul," Robert said, his eyes narrowing. "Do you know who I am?"
Paul's face grew guarded. "You're Ned's Uncle Robert."
Robert nodded, but he looked almost disappointed. "What else do you know about me?"
Paul opened his mouth, then closed it again. "Not allowed to say," Peter observed.
I almost gasped. These children had been forbidden to name their own father. "Why?" I asked.
"Made Gramps mad," Peter said, sending his father a sly look.
Robert nodded. "I see."
I swallowed a curse. Was the man so hard-hearted he couldn't acknowledge his own children?
"Gramps isn't here," I pointed out. "So it's all right to say."
Peter and Paul exchanged another string of unintelligible syllables. "You're right," Paul said to me. He turned to Peter.
"We know," Peter said. "You're our father."
Somewhat to my surprise, Robert smiled. "Right," he said. "And now that you're living in the castle, you'll need to learn to read and write. Will you do that for me? Will you learn?"
I gaped like any country bumpkin. The unmitigated gall of the man—to ignore his sons for six years and then expect them to obey him!
But Peter and Paul didn't hesitate, they didn't consult in their private language, they didn't even look at each other. "Yes," they said together. "We will."
And while Ned and I watched in surprise, Robert took his sons by the hands and went to look at their tin soldiers, lying still upon the hearth.
* * * *
The rest of the day went quite well. After Robert left the nursery, with promises to his sons to spend more time with them, we went on to lessons in addition.
By the time we finished it was almost the hour for lunch. I decided to leave the boys to their meal with Betty and started for the door.
"Hester?" It was Ned, his voice hesitant.
I turned. "Yes?"
"When are you coming back?"
I hid my smile. "I think for a while we'll have lessons in the morning. In the afternoons you boys may play."
Ned's face lit up. "Or ride?"
I swallowed my sudden fear. "Yes. Your father told me that you have a pony."
"What about Peter and Paul?"
Ned frowned, but it looked somewhat put on to me. "I don't know. They weren't here when Father bought my pony."
I turned to the twins. "Do you ride?"
'"Course." "We do."
'Then I shall send word to the stables. The three of you may ride together."
Ned looked somewhat put out. "Unless," I added, "you would prefer to stay in and have more lessons."
The twins sent Ned a disgusted look. "No, no," he hurried to say. "That last governess used to tell me that fresh air was good for me."
I swallowed my smile. "Very well. You may ride this afternoon."
* * * *
After I freshened up, I went down the dark stairs to the dining room. The hall was still chill and dank, but I was warmed by thoughts of seeing Edward. My truant thoughts actually strayed to the coming evening—and bedtime.
I flushed and hurried on. Perhaps eventually I would get used to being Edward's wife, to feeling his kisses and—
I forced myself to push such disturbing thoughts from my mind. Darkness would come—and with it the closeness I longed for. In the meantime, I entered the empty dining room and filled my plate.
My appetite had always been healthy and my morning's work had made me hungry. I was about half finished when Edward came in. I smiled at him—my husband—such a fine-looking man. "I was hoping to see you," I said.
He didn't return my smile. In fact, he frowned. He didn't fill a plate either, but advanced to the table and stood glaring down at me. "I have been wanting to speak to
he said darkly.
My heart rose up in my throat. What had caused this sudden change in his behavior? Only this morning he had folded me in passionate embraces. And now he was glaring at me as though I had become the worst kind of criminal. I couldn't help wondering how I had offended him, but a moment's recollection gave me no clue.
So I asked. "Edward, what is wrong? Why do you glare at me so?"
He scowled, his dark brows meeting in a fierce line. "Didn't I tell you?"
I got to my feet—it seemed easier to face him that way. I felt less frightened. "Tell me what?"
"What do you think you're doing?"
Now I was getting angry, fast losing patience at this foolish sort of interrogation. "Doing about what?" I demanded crossly. "For heaven's sake, Edward, make some sense! Whatever are you talking about?"
"Priest holes and secret passageways," he intoned darkly.
I still did not understand. "What about them?"
He stiffened and seemed to loom even larger. "You are encouraging the boys to look for them. This can only cause trouble."
The trouble was coming from Robert—I strongly suspected. Who else would have reported our excursion? "Edward," I kept my tone calm. "You know the boys are going to look for these anyway. Wouldn't it be wiser to have a grown-up along?"
He drew himself up even more—a big man, and in his present mood very threatening. 'The boys are forbidden to look for secret passageways!" he thundered. "They are not to have their heads filled with talk of such things—secret chambers and priest holes, indeed! Have you no idea how dangerous this can be?"
My patience was exhausted. "Of course I know. That's why I thought it better for me to be along when they found them."
better," he cried. "You are
to look for such things, not to talk of such things. Is that understood?"
I drew myself up to my full height and met the blazing anger of his eyes. "Yes, milord," I said sharply. I was quite capable of anger myself. "You have made yourself amply clear."
He stared at me for a moment, then spun on his heel and stalked out.
I dropped into my chair again and continued my meal. I must eat, I reminded myself when I found the food had lost its flavor. If the new little life had started inside me, it must be nourished.
As I methodically chewed and swallowed, I considered my husband's rude behavior. That he had a temper, I had known. But to be the object of it—and for such a patently ridiculous reason ... No person living could keep boys that age from looking for an exciting secret passageway. Surely Edward must know that. He had been a boy himself.
I sighed and poured myself another cup of tea. How could the man who had loved me so passionately, held me so tenderly, now treat me like the meanest inferior! It was difficult to believe.
Yet, while my body was still warmed by the memory of his touch, my ears rang with the force of his angry pronouncement.
I would obey him. He was the earl and my husband. Obedience was his due. Still, I knew that obedience in this matter would serve no purpose. The boys would continue to search. They were, after all, boys.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. I spent the afternoon familiarizing myself with the castle, getting to know the servants. I had a long, rather detailed discussion with the cook and was confident that our meals would show improvement.
And through it all, I puzzled over my husband's strange behavior. To show so much anger over a simple story of secret passageways. Why? Why had Edward been so upset?
I dressed for dinner, putting on my blue gown. But in the dining room I found only Uncle Phillip and Cousin Julia. Uncle Phillip was his usual baggy, mismatched self, liberally covered with dust and dried mud. I was getting used to his ragtag appearance.
But Cousin Julia was wearing a gown of cerise satin that contrasted sharply with her hair, which though she had liberally powdered it, was still a startling orange hue.
"Edward won't be here," Cousin Julia said, drawing her chair up to the table.
"How do you know?"
Cousin Julia tittered. "The spirits told me."
A chill crept down my spine. "Perhaps he's just a trifle late."
Cousin Julia shook her head. "No. He's been really detained."
Another frisson of fear slithered down my backbone. "I don't see how you can know such things. You must be guessing."