Authors: Nina Coombs Pykare
Tags: #regency Gothic Romance
Uncle Phillip laughed, the deep booming laugh that seemed so strange coming from such a small man. "She doesn't need to guess," he explained. "She heard Edward tell Hillyer he was going out and wouldn't be back till bedtime."
A wave of disappointment rolled over me. I missed Edward. If he didn't come home till late ... If he were still angry with me then ...
I turned to Hillyer, now standing coldly by the door. "Did the earl give you such information?"
Hillyer inclined his head. "Yes, milady."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
Hillyer looked pained. "Begging your pardon, milady, but the earl didn't tell me to tell you." He straightened. "You see, when he goes out he always tells me where he's going and when he'll be back."
"Quite a commendable practice," I observed, "especially when he had no lady." I fixed the butler with a cold eye. "Now, of course, I am here. And if the earl is called away, you'll be sure to inform me."
Hillyer shifted slightly, but his dour expression didn't change. "Yes, milady, I understand."
Uncle Phillip chuckled. "That's the way, m'girl. Show 'em who's in charge. It's important to be the one who
Since Hillyer was still in the room, I found it a little difficult to reply, but Cousin Julia had no such qualms. "Got to watch the servants," she said. "Got to keep them in line."
"I'm sure Hillyer does an admirable job," I went on. "He was merely following his instructions."
Oh yes, I stuck up for the butler. It was my husband I wanted to berate. How could the man just walk out without a word to me? Was that the kind of life I had to look forward to?
"Tonight," Cousin Julia said.
I raised an eyebrow. It was obvious I had missed part of her pronouncement. She gave me a pained look. "The spirits are here tonight."
Uncle Phillip snorted. "Ridiculous! Poppycock! My brother would have laughed himself to death just listening to you."
Cousin Julia's beady little eyes gleamed. She licked her lips. "Never you mind," she said. "My spirits are real. They come right into this castle. They talk to me."
Uncle Phillip made a face and winked at me, but I didn't respond. In my present mood I wished only to be alone. Still, these two misfits would be at each other's throats if I left the table early. And they did offer distraction of a sort.
"How do you know they are present?" I inquired. I would listen to anything to keep my mind off worrying over Edward.
Cousin Julia smiled mysteriously. "I
them," she said. "Right here." And she put a pudgy finger in the middle of her forehead.
I thought that rather a strange place for a spirit to perch, but I refrained from saying so.
"Sometimes," Cousin Julia continued. 'They move things."
"It's all a trick," Uncle Phillip pronounced. "Not that I don't believe in spirits." He leered. "But they're too busy to be talking to the likes of
Cousin Julia bristled, but said nothing. Obviously this was a running battle between the two.
"Now," Uncle Phillip said, "conjuring up Old Nick, that takes a real man." He straightened his bony shoulders. "And you've got to know how to do it." He turned to me eagerly. "You want me to show you?"
"Not tonight, Uncle Phillip." I pressed a hand to my forehead. "I seem to be getting the headache. I think I shall have to go up early." And I left the two of them, glaring at each other over Cook's rich dessert.
* * * *
But I soon discovered that going to my room brought me no peace of mind. The huge bed, with its covers neatly pulled back and my nightdress spread upon it, seemed to mock me. Only that morning I had been so happy there. And now—my husband had stormed out without so much as a good-bye.
I sighed. This marriage had certainly not turned out as I'd expected. I'd looked for a recalcitrant child, yes. But murder and madness—that was too much.
I crossed the room to peer out at the ocean. Darkness had fallen some time past, but the clouds were not hiding the moon and its light danced on the waves washing the rocks below. I shivered. It was a long fall to those rocks—long and deadly.
A rap sounded on the door to the hall. I whirled. Edward! "Come in."
But it was not Edward, but Betty. She came in and dropped me a curtsey. ''The boys is all abed, milady. The scamps was that tired from their ride." She cast me a shy glance. "If I might be saying it, milady, things is different, you being here. Even fer such a short time. Them boys, I mean, they ain't squabbling like they was." She smiled, then blushed. "I know it ain't for a maid to be saying, but it's glad I am you've come."
'Thank you, Betty." I appreciated her kind words, especially as they were the only kind ones I had heard.
"And, milady, Mr. Phillip sent me." Betty's eyes grew wide. "He said as how he's fixing to call up old Lucifer. And maybe you'd like to see."
I shivered. I didn't believe Uncle Phillip could conjure up the devil, but I certainly had no desire to witness such an attempt, whether it failed or not.
"Not tonight, Betty. Tell him not tonight."
* * * *
After Betty had helped me into my nightdress and left, I brushed my hair and climbed into the big bed. I did not, however, blow out all the candles. Still, the room was dim and gloomy, and shadows lurked in every corner. Could there really be ghosts? Could the spirits of the dead really return?
It seemed most unlikely to me, practical and sensible as I was. But the gloominess of the room, and my being alone, and my worry over Edward's strange behavior all combined to leave me shivering under the covers.
I had always been a person who saw problems as challenges. I was sure the recalcitrant boys I dealt with could each be won over—all I needed was to find the right approach.
But now I was faced with a different sort of problem. How could I fight a ghost? How could I discover the real truth about the death of the previous earl? And how could I understand the dark moody man who was my husband?
I had no answers to any of my questions. But there was one thing I was sure of. I could not leave this place. I meant to be aunt to the twins. I had given my solemn word to be mother to Ned. These were heavy chains, binding me to Grey Cliffs. But the strongest, the person who held me there by the strongest chain, was the angry brooding man I had married.
I shivered there in the gloom for some time and then I did what I usually do when I can see no practical answer to my problems—I prayed.
And as always my prayers brought a feeling of relief—and soon I dozed off.
I don't know whether a noise awoke me—or whether it was the sense of someone in the room with me. But I woke—quickly—with that startling heart-pounding fear, that cold sweat, that comes with a nightmare.
I must have uttered a cry of some kind when I saw the room was dark, for then I felt a hand touch my cheek. Even as I screamed I knew it was Edward's hand.
He gathered me against his warm chest. "Hester, Hester," he crooned. "It's all right. I'm here."
My trembling ceased and I felt safe. Whatever the reason for Edward's anger, that anger was gone. All I felt in his touch was affection.
"Hester, my dear Hester," he whispered. "Forgive my harshness earlier today."
A great welling of feeling choked me, making it impossible for me to speak. I swallowed hard.
His fingers caressed my cheek, moved slowly down my throat. "Hester, lovely Hester," he whispered against my ear. "Say you forgive me."
"I—" I struggled to maintain some semblance of sense. I couldn't let him think that he had only to touch me to elicit my forgiveness. I tried to hold myself stiff, though my traitorous body wanted to melt into his. "Why?"
His lips grazed my ear. "Why should you forgive me?" he whispered, his voice husky.
"No, no. Why were you so angry?"
He settled me comfortably against his chest. He was so warm, so solid. I waited.
"Fear," he said finally. "I was afraid."
It seemed incongruous, this big strong man being afraid. "Afraid of what?" I asked, though I thought perhaps I knew.
"I have only just found you," he whispered, his voice muffled in my hair. "And the thought of losing you—" He clasped me tightly to him.
My heart pounded and a great wave of joy surged through me. It was
he was concerned about. I felt such an overwhelming happiness that it frightened me. And in that moment I saw the truth. I loved Edward so much that even if there had been no Ned, no twins, no unborn child to hold me to Grey Cliffs Castle, I would never think of leaving my husband.
He had not said he loved me, not in so many words, but his voice told me, his kisses, his touch. He bent to my mouth again. "My Hester," he whispered and I raised my lips to his, waiting for my husband to kiss me, to love me.
* * * *
The next morning Edward left me early. With a kiss and a smile, he was off to attend to estate business. I rose and dressed, a very happy woman.
Our morning in the classroom was uneventful, but after lunch, remembering something I'd forgotten to tell the twins about the next day's lesson, I went in search of them.
In the nursery Betty sat by the fire, her needle ever busy with the mending. "Where are the boys?" I asked. "Did they go riding again?"
Betty shook her head. "Ned did. But one of them twins—I can't never tell them two apart—was whispering to the other. Something about pents and grams." Betty shrugged apologetically. "Didn't make no sense to me, milady."
Pents. Grams. What could the twins be talking about? And then I thought perhaps I knew. "Betty, did Uncle Phillip stop by the nursery today?"
Betty nodded. "He did, indeed, milady. Right after you left."
On no! Pentagrams! Uncle Phillip couldn't be— I rushed out.
Uncle Phillip's door stood ajar. I paused outside it, quieting myself. First, it was impossible to conjure up the devil. I firmly believed it impossible. And everyone knew the devil was to be summoned at midnight, at the witching hour, not in the middle of the day.
I took a deep breath and slowly pushed open the door. The sight that met my eyes made the hair stand up on my flesh!
In the center of the room, a room even gloomier than most in this dismal place, stood Uncle Phillip, his clothes dusty and mud-spattered. The rug had been rolled back, exposing the cold stone floor. And on that floor, laid out in white lines, was a great pentagram. Uncle Phillip stood in its center, eyes squeezed shut, chanting some unintelligible phrases.
That sight was frightening enough, but there was more. Beyond the pentagram the twins hovered. Their eyes tightly closed, their hands clasped, they were repeating Uncle Phillip's mad chant.
My fear gave way to anger. How dare the man involve innocent children in his nefarious schemes.
"Stop!" I shouted, my voice hoarse with rage.
Uncle Phillip's face turned ashen. His eyes flew open and he stared at me as though he expected to see Lucifer himself! Then his expression changed. Relief swept over his features and his color slowly returned to normal.
"H-Hester! What are you doing here?"
"I'm looking for the twins," I said, glancing at the culprits who now stood grinning at me. I gave Uncle Phillip a hard look. "How can you do such things in front of the boys?"
He shrugged. 'They wanted to watch."
"Well, they can't. I forbid it! Peter, Paul, come along now."
I used my sternest voice and the twins did not protest. They crossed the room, carefully skirting the pentagram, and reached my side.
With a last look at Uncle Phillip, I marched them out and down the hall. "Did you see his face?" Peter asked his brother.
Paul giggled. "For a minute there he thought he'd done it, really got the old devil to come."
I was convinced the twins were right. Certainly my appearance had startled Uncle Phillip almost as much as the devil's would have. But I didn't let on that I heard them.
When we reached the nursery, I put on my severest face. "Now," I said, facing the boys. 'There will be no more of this. No more! Do you understand?"
The twins nodded.
"Why aren't you out riding?"
There was a moments silence, then Paul said, "Ned wanted to go alone."
Peter nodded. "Anyhow, he rides too fast. Our horses can't keep up."
I nodded. "Well, then stay in, but keep away from Uncle Phillip."
They nodded, their eyes clear and innocent. "Yes, Hester. We will."
Had I known them better, I would have found such docility suspect. But I thought them suitably reprimanded and turned my thoughts elsewhere. As I left the nursery, I heard them exchange a comment in their private language, but I gave it no thought. And for that I would later have cause for regret.
That afternoon I spent exploring the castle on my own. In spite of Edward's fears for my safety, I thought it far more sensible to find the priest hole and the secret passageways. If their location were known, there would be no danger of anyone being trapped there until their bones were—as Ned had so dramatically put it—nothing but dust.
But my explorations turned up nothing and I returned to my room to dress for dinner. My blue gown was beginning to show the effects of wear and I was glad I had taken Edward at his word and sent to the village for the dressmaker. My governess clothes had been plain and serviceable—and much limited in number—so that I found dressing meant wearing the same few gowns. But soon my new ones would arrive.
I finished dressing, gave a pat to my hair, and hurried down to dinner. Uncle Phillip was there before me, in another of his collection of mismatched clothes and his sloppy carpet slippers. He gave me a look half-sheepish, half-pleading, and I knew he didn't want me to tell Edward that I'd caught him trying to summon Lucifer while the twins looked on. But I had made no such promise and was not yet sure what I would do.
This evening Cousin Julia's gown was of a subdued shade of rose, actually rather pretty, but her orange hair contrasted with it so that the effect was still unfortunate. She greeted me with a strange, sly smile. "No need to worry," she said. "He'll be here tonight."