The Haunting of Grey Cliffs
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by Nina Coombs Pykare
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: Hester Durant accepted the proposal of a stranger, the Earl of Grey Cliffs, because he promised to provide for her if she would care for his troubled son. Mostly she agreed because of his anguished eyes. But on arrival at her new home she discovered eccentric relatives and a mystery surrounding the death of Edward's father. Was there a killer at the castle? Regency Gothic Romance; originally published by Diamond Books/Berkley
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 1992
eBookwise Release Date: January 2010
27 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [201 KB]
Reading time: 129-181 min.
All Other formats: Printing DISABLED, Read-aloud DISABLED
I looked into the brooding eyes of the stranger, eyes set in a dark, handsome face. The thing he had just suggested was inconceivable, preposterous. The very idea quite took my breath away.
"Milord," I said, willing my voice to a steadiness I wished to feel and yet could not. "I cannot marry you, a man I have only just met, a total stranger."
Edward, Earl of Grey Cliffs, fixed me with those brooding eyes, eyes as black as pitch and revealing just as little. He sat across the small table from me in the private parlor of the inn where I had come in response to his message.
"I am not a total stranger, Miss Durant," he pointed out, his deep voice carrying the authority of a peer of the realm. "You will recall that I come to you with the recommendation of the marquis of Carolington."
This was true, in a rather roundabout fashion. Actually, the marquis had recommended me to the earl. I had earned a reputation for dealing with boys, especially young scamps who delighted in driving off their governesses. The earl had such a son--Andrew by name--and the earl and I had spent the last hour discussing him and his problems. The boy did need me; I could tell that. And I was more than ready to undertake his education.
I had come to this interview prepared to be offered employment as a governess. But this! I had not come expecting a proposal of marriage!
"Milord," I protested, "there must be many ladies in London more appropriate to hold the position of your wife. I am only a governess."
The earl straightened in his chair. "I am well aware of your qualifications," he said, his voice stringent. "And as to the ladies of London--" His handsome face twisted into a harsh imitation of a smile I found more frightening than any frown. "The ladies of London hold no charm for me. I have no wish to ally myself with any--lady."
The last word was uttered with great bitterness. I was no stranger to pain and it was pain I recognized beneath the man's acrimonious tone. The personable lineaments of his face--and they were personable despite his obvious anger--did not hide a certain anguish.
Having always a heart easily affected by suffering, I felt some sympathy for the earl, but sympathy was very different from love. And I, when I had thought of marriage, had thought always of love.
I knew that many--perhaps most--ladies in that year of 1817 married not for love but for monetary reasons, but I was not the sort to think of money in relation to a man.
The earl was still regarding me, his dark eyes hooded, his handsome face now devoid of all expression. A frisson of fear slithered down my spine. Perhaps, I thought, dismissing the shiver, someone had trod on my grave. I could see no occasion for fear in this situation. The earl was an honorable man; the marquis had vouched for him.
"I understand that this has been somewhat of a jolt for you," the earl commented. "I am sorry for that. I had no intention of causing you distress."
He seemed to grow bigger as his eyes bore into mine, bigger and even more imposing. 'Take your time. Miss Durant. Ask any questions you wish."
Questions! I hesitated, smoothing at the skirt of my drab brown gown with nervous fingers. How was I to ascertain which question to ask the man first? And then I realized what I most needed to know.
"Milord." My voice squeaked slightly and I firmed my shoulders to show I was in control of myself. "Since you give me permission, I will ask. Why me? Why should I be chosen as the object of your matrimonial intentions?"
The earl smiled, sadly this time. He flicked a piece of lint from his well-fitting coat. "You are quite as intelligent as the marquis made you out to be," he declared. "And certainly I will tell you why I have chosen you. But first, relax a little, have some tea. And be assured I shall soon satisfy all your objections."
I did not see how that could be possible--my mind was such a riot of objections--but nervousness had dried out my mouth. So I took up my cup for a welcome sip of tea.
The earl leaned his elbows upon the table and looked me in the eye. "The marquis assured me you were the one to deal with Ned's unruliness and now that I have talked with you myself I am persuaded of it."
"I know how to deal with boys," I said, returning his look over the rim of my cup. "But I do not know how to deal with a proposal that I become a countess." Not that I should really consider such an outlandish suggestion, but the man had asked for a chance to present his case. Common courtesy dictated that I at least listen to him. "I know little about life in the ton."
"First," he said, "you may rest easy on that score. I do not intend that we shall go about in society."
I supposed he meant it at that moment, but I did not see how any lord would long wish to forego the joys of society. And when he returned to them, I didn't fancy being put down by the ladies of the ton. I was, in fact, well-born myself, but Jeremy's death in Spain-- Jeremy, my dearly loved younger brother and Papa's only son--had so deranged Papa that he had lost all regard for the estate, an estate that would eventually go to a distant relative upon whom it was entailed.
I did not blame Papa that in his derangement he had also forgotten about me. I, too, had grieved deeply, but Papa died leaving me bereft of family and funds--so that in the end it was my love for Jeremy that proved my salvation from abject poverty. Because I had raised Jeremy from an infant I knew how to deal with boys. And because I knew how to deal with boys I was able to get employment as a governess.
The earl had picked up his teacup and was regarding me over the rim of it, and I realized that he must think he had answered my objections. I hastened to let him know otherwise. "But in future," I said, "you may well change your mind and wish to return to society."
The earl sighed, a sound of great distress. "I did not wish to bother you with all the sordid facts," he began.
There was anger in his tone, in his expression-- anger and something more. "Milord," I interrupted, experiencing a tremor of trepidation. "You need not tell me--"
"I fear I do need," he said, setting his cup down on the table with a thump. "I have asked you to be my wife and you have every right to know the reputation of the man who has asked for your hand. My reputation is--in a word--quite bad."
"Bad?" I repeated, dismayed to hear the quaver in my voice.
He straightened his shoulders. "Quite so. It happened in this wise. My first wife, Royale, was a beautiful woman, a very beautiful woman." He paused and a look of unutterable misery cast a pall across his features. "Unfortunately, her beauty was only skin deep."
I felt a slight flush climb to my cheeks. Though I knew myself far from ugly, I had never set up to be a beauty. My hair, though luxuriant when released from its governess's Spartan knot, was an ordinary brown, and my eyes an ordinary green.
Charles had thought me beautiful, or at least he'd said he had, but Charles had been dead these five years, killed in the same battle as Jeremy. That power-mad Frenchman, Napoleon Bonaparte, had taken from me both husband-to-be and brother--and a year later, from his grief, my father.
"My wife," the earl continued, "did not want a child and resented the removal from society that its impending arrival made necessary."
My hands commenced to tremble and hastily I returned my cup to its saucer. What sort of barbarous woman did not want her own child? Many a night, alone in my narrow governess's bed, I had mourned the children I would never have. Charles had been my first love and he had been my last--and when poverty forced me to become a governess I knew that I should never marry.
The earl had fallen into a reverie, a painful one from the look on his face. I waited some minutes and then I asked, "What happened, milord?"
He started and smiled at me grimly. "After the child was born, she retaliated by making me the laughingstock of London, cuckolding me with every man she could find. And then she ran off to the colonies--with a footman."
My shock must have registered on my face in spite of all my efforts to hide it.
"Yes," he said, his voice vibrating with fury. "With a footman! I stayed in the city." His face took on the look of granite, hewn to angular lines by time and adversity. "For two years I attended every social function to which I was invited, facing down every innuendo, every smirking matron, every prying fop." He frowned ferociously. "The talk died down finally and I found the so-called delights of the city no longer appealed to me. So a year ago I removed, as I told you, to my castle in Cornwall."
It was all rather confusing, but one thing was obvious--the earl was a proud man, this scandal had tried him sorely.
He gave me a strange speculative look. "If you require to be in the city," he said, leaning across the table toward me, "I could reconsider my decision."
"Oh no! Cornwall, Cornwall will be fine. That is--" I stammered on, not wanting him to construe my words as an acceptance of his proposal. "I do not care to live in London." My tongue seemed unable to obey my commands, or perhaps my thoughts were so jumbled they made little sense. I forced myself to take a deep breath. "Milord, please forgive me, I am all confused."
"How so?" he asked, his tone kindly.
"I cannot see why I must be your wife to care for--"
"The boy needs love," he interrupted harshly. "He adored his mother, though she had little time for him."
"But I will--that is, I would love him," I insisted. "Marriage is not necessary for that."
He shook his head stubbornly. "I think it is. I want the boy to have someone steady, someone solid to hang on to."
Still I did not understand. "But he has you, milord. He has his father."
A shadow crossed his face. "True, but if we marry, he will also have you." He paused and his face darkened further. "If you accept my suit," he said, "I intend to name you in my will as the boy's guardian."
Again a premonition of danger shivered over me. "Milord, you talk like a man who may not--" I could not finish the sentence. To think of this great strong man at death's door was frightening. "Are you ill?"
"No, no. It is nothing like that." He affected a smile, but it did not reach his eyes, which remained black as a moonless midnight. "Life is chancy," he explained. "An accident while riding, a sudden swift illness ... the boy has suffered much already. That's why I want a mother for him, not a governess who may depart on any whim."
It seemed unkind to remind him that marriage had not prevented the boy's real mother from departing, so I remained silent.
It was almost as though the earl read my mind; he leaned toward me further still, his strong mouth twisting in a sardonic smile. "You are not at all like her," he said. "She was fair and blonde, with all the dazzle--and hardness--of diamonds, but you, you are softness, calm, the peace of midnight."
I did not feel at all peaceful, and for a brief moment I actually envied the unhappy creature who had run off and left her child. It was only for a moment and only because when he spoke of her a peculiar look of longing stole over the earl's saturnine features.
"I know that Cornwall is a lonely place, removed from much society," he continued. "But from what the marquis told me I thought that would not be amiss with you."
This was all madness, I thought, trying to control emotions as unruly as any I had ever contended with among my charges. How could I marry a stranger? How could he?
"You--you know only what the marquis told you of me," I went on, hesitantly, playing devil's advocate. "How can you wish to spend your life with me on such short acquaintance?"
"I know more about you than you think," he returned, his gaze never wavering. "I, too, served in Spain. I knew Jeremy--and Charles."
My heart almost leaped out of my throat. "You knew Jeremy? You knew my brother?"
He nodded, for the first time smiling warmly. "Many a bivouac your brother enlivened with his tales of snakes in your bed and toads in your dresser drawers, the numerous escapades of his mischievous youth."
"You knew Jeremy," I repeated, hardly able to comprehend it.
"He spoke of you always with great affection," the earl said, reaching across the little table to cover my hand with his. His fingers were warm, comforting, and to my surprise I did not resent the liberty he took in touching me.
For a long moment he remained with his hand over mine, then he withdrew it and to my consternation I experienced a sense of loss. It was because of Jeremy, I told myself briskly, because I was still missing Jeremy.
"Have you any more questions?" the earl inquired.
I shook my head, unable to speak over the lump in my throat, the lump that rose when I thought overmuch of Jeremy being gone.
"I realize I have given you a great deal to contemplate," the earl said. "Perhaps you would like some time to consider all this."
I nodded, reaching in my reticule for a handkerchief.
"So," he went on, "I shall repair to that chair over by the fire." His eyes searched my face. "If you have any more questions or if you wish to indicate conditions, something more than I have offered--"
I shook my head so violently that he smiled again. "Very well, I shall leave you to your decision making."
He got to his feet, and I should have been blind had I not seen that he was a fine figure of a man, broad-shouldered, lean-hipped, with the look of one who has led an active outdoor life, and yet as well dressed as even Beau Brummel could require.
The earl crossed the parlor to the fire, sank into a worn leather chair, and stretched his gleaming boots toward the grate.
A husband, I thought, trying to collect my rioting thoughts. How incredible! If I liked, I might have a husband--and not just any husband but a handsome, titled one, with a castle in Cornwall.
My practical nature asserted itself then and began to insist that I think. In spite of his having been friend to Jeremy, I knew very little of the earl. What kind of husband would he make? That first wife, that Royale, she had not thought him much of a husband. But then, she had not been much of a wife. I shivered in my chair though the room was warm. The earl had looked quite ferocious when he spoke of the footman. No wonder the two had left the country.
Why had she disliked her husband so? And how could she have forsaken her child? But there were no answers to such questions.
Enough speculation on the earl's first wife, I told myself. I would never know why she had done what she'd done, but her behavior and her reasons for it were not my problem. My problem was that I must decide if I wished to be his second wife.
I set myself to examining both sides of the question, a trick learned from Papa in his better days.
What had I to consider here? First, the place. Removal to Cornwall was of little moment to me. I had no desire for the amusements of high society or the excitement of life in the city. I had always loved the country and could be quite happy there. So place would go on the "Good" side of my mental ledger.
Second, there was the child Ned, who from what his father had said was in dire need of a woman's love. As always, a new child to work with made me feel an expectancy much like that of a hunter riding to hounds--or so I imagined since I did not ride. I had shared my brother's fascination for frogs and toads, snakes and field mice, but I drew the line at horses. Not even my beloved Jeremy could persuade me to trust one of those wild creatures whose mad runaway had left us both motherless. But I would not need to ride, so the horses could be forgotten. The boy, too, went on the "Good" side.
Third, there was the earl himself, a personable man, concerned for his son, kind to me. As good a man as any--if I had to wed a stranger.
And fourth-- A blush rose to my cheeks and spread over my entire body as my mind finally allowed me to comprehend that my heart's desire, the secret longing of many years, was actually within my reach. If I married the earl, I might have a child of my own!
The thought brought fresh tears to my eyes, which, because he had considerately turned his back on me to afford me more privacy, the earl did not see.
A child of my own, a sweet babe to hold in my arms, to call me Mama. The picture was so enchanting I could almost see the child. Dark it would be, dark like its father--and me.
I looked down at my hands, clutching my tear-dampened handkerchief in my lap. Within the year those hands might hold my child. Not since Charles's death had I thought ... nor even dared to pray.... A little sob escaped my throat, a small sound scarcely louder than a twig crackling in the fire, yet the earl was on his feet, his face turned to me questioningly.
I swallowed, looking up at him. "I find, milord, that I have one more question."
"Of course," he said, advancing toward me. "Ask it."
I could not ask with him towering over me, so I got to my feet and stood trembling. "I..." I felt the blood rush to my face, but I must know before I could reach a decision. "This ... this marriage between us ... you did not say ..." I faltered to a halt. He waited, and finally I managed to go on. "You did not say if it was to be--be consummated."
His features hardened into a frown. "I'm sorry," he said gravely, "but I cannot agree to a marriage in name only."
Evidently he did not hear my sigh of relief, his somber expression did not lighten. "You see," he continued, "I find myself also in need of love and affection." He touched my cheek lightly, his fingers warm. "And I had hoped you might learn to give it to me."
A certain tenderness possessed me, perhaps because I was thinking of what he might give me--the child of my dreams. "I cannot promise you love," I said, my voice breaking. "But certainly I can give you affection. And when you are the father of my child--"
I saw recognition dawn in his eyes--and then a kind of cold bleakness gathering there. "I understand," he said, his voice gone chill. "You marry me so you may have a child of your own."
He took a step back, as though he no longer cared to be that near me. "I should have realized," he said, his tone acid. "Each woman has her price."
He made me sound so mercenary, so hard. "Milord--" I wanted to explain, but he cut me off with a sharp motion of his hand.
"Never mind. Miss Durant. At least it is a price I can pay." He gave me a severe look. "Just see that you have love enough left for Ned."
The sharpness of his tone shocked me into indignation. "Of course I shall! As I love God, I give you my solemn oath, I shall love and care for Ned as if he were my own flesh and blood."
The earl sighed, his expression unreadable, his eyes clouded. "I suppose I can ask for no more than that."