The Virgin Bride of Northcliffe Hall – Catherine Coulter

The first time Grayson Sherbrooke saw the huge black stallion, he was on his knees looking down at a flirtatious goldfish in the ornamental pond in the western Northcliffe gardens. It was near to midnight. Grayson hadn’t been able to sleep and had decided a walk was just the thing to tire him out and slow down his brain, which was always busy teasing out another Thomas Straithmore story. As for Thomas’s most recent otherworldly adventure, The Ancient Spirits of Sedgwick House, it was going on sale in the new year. Grayson breathed in deeply. The night was cool, the air still, the moon nearly full, lighting up the gardens, so he’d pinched out his candle and left it just inside the side door of Northcliffe Hall. A clear, perfect night was an amazing occurrence, a special treat for an Englishman. Grayson looked beyond the gardens to the home wood—filled with maples and oaks and deer and foxes and who knew what else. He’d spent many hours in the home wood as a boy, visiting his cousins, and he knew it stretched to the narrow, rutted country road that meandered through small hamlets to the larger fishing village of Eastbourne on the southern coast. The massive white limestone cliffs drew visitors from all around, even Frenchies, which made the locals snort in their ale. A black stallion suddenly burst from the wood and pranced to the pond. Grayson held himself still and watched the magnificent animal gracefully lower his head. Grayson didn’t think he made a sound, but suddenly the stallion’s head whipped up and he stared directly at Grayson. Time seemed to freeze. Neither moved.

He was wearing an ornamental silver bridle, a red stone set at the forehead. Then the stallion nickered softly. Grayson said, “Who are you, boy? You’re beautiful, you know that? Where is your rider?” The stallion snorted and reared up, his hooves flailing the air. He gave Grayson another long look, tossed his head, and galloped back into the trees. Grayson got slowly to his feet. He didn’t wonder who the stallion belonged to, didn’t even wonder why he was drinking in the Sherbrooke ornamental pond at midnight. No, what he wondered was why the stallion had looked at him with intelligence—and recognition—and why he wore a beautiful silver bridle that looked to be very old. He’d greeted him too, hadn’t he? Again, he wondered how such an animal could have come to him. Grayson shook his head—his writer’s brain was working overtime. A horse was just a horse.

He rose and dusted off his breeches and walked back to the hall, turning to look every couple of steps toward the home wood, but there was no sign of the magnificent black stallion. He didn’t detour to the walled-in eastern garden with all the naked marble statues of men and women in various sexual positions (brought from Italy by a long-ago earl), but he would visit before the end of his stay. He imagined his five-year-old son, Pip, staring up at the naked statues, mesmerized, eager, asking questions that would leave him blank-brained, and shuddered. Thankfully, none of the children were old enough to sneak into the garden and gawk and giggle and point. Give them another four, five years. He picked up the candle he’d left in the small entranceway, touched a lucifer to the wick, and made his way back up the massive front staircase to the western wing to his bedchamber, designated as his for years now. He found himself walking past his chamber to the nursery. He quietly opened the door and looked in. Moonlight flowed through the three large windows, bathing the long rectangular room in soft light. It didn’t look much different than it had when he’d been a boy—scores of maps, mostly old, but some newer ones as well, and oil paintings of horses covered the walls.

He saw Napoleon’s troops on a shelf, the soldiers, horses, and the cannons in disarray, obviously defeated. Wellington’s army sat in splendid formations on the shelf above, soldiers on horseback, the cannons at their backs. Thankfully there’d been no wars since the last battle between Wellington and Napoleon at Waterloo that long-ago June of 1815. But revolution was in the air in Europe, and that meant violence was coming. Would England be involved? He prayed not. He glanced at the other shelves filled with bows and arrows, several wooden foils, and ancient, thankfully unloaded, dueling pistols. A rocking horse set on three wheels stood in a corner. It was a little boys’ nursery, nary a doll or a ruffle to be seen. There were four doors off the main room, each opening into a small bedchamber. He walked to Pip’s door, quietly opened it, and cupped the candle flame with his hand so not to awaken him.

Pip lay on his back on the small bed, his arms over his head, needful, he’d told his father, to protect him from fire-breathing dragons that came at night. A fine solution, Grayson had said. He looked down at this precious being, always marveling, then he quietly left his room to check on Barnaby. Barnaby’s hands were crossed over his chest, making him look quite dead. Where had that pose come from? Grayson looked in on P.C. too. She was smiling in her sleep. Dreaming about Barnaby? Would he be her stepfather perhaps this year? Next year? One of her hands was closed around a small wooden pistol her grandfather, known as the Great, had given her for her last birthday. If the young Sherbrooke twins, Douglas and Everett, were here—instead of being in London with their parents, James and Corrie—he knew they wouldn’t dare torment her.

She’d show no mercy and clout them without hesitation. P.C. looked more like her mother, beautiful Miranda, every day, her hair the same rich honey color, her eyes as blue as a Sherbrooke’s. He didn’t doubt she’d break hearts when she grew up, and wasn’t that a thought. Time, he was realizing, kept moving forward, sweeping away youth, making a father into a grandfather at breakneck speed. He thought of the earl, his uncle Douglas, still tall, straight, hair thick and white as snow. Grayson couldn’t imagine him ever leaving this earth. Had he stood in the nursery years ago just as Grayson was doing, watching his own sons, Jason and James, sleeping? When Grayson finally fell asleep, he dreamed the magnificent black stallion was standing silent, watching him. With recognition, wearing that ancient silver bridle.

What was that red stone? He wasn’t surprised in his dream when the stallion walked to him, nodded, blew into his hand, and Grayson swung himself up on his back. He rode the stallion until he awoke with a start as the stallion jumped an impossibly high fence. He realized his heart was beating fast with excitement. He felt quite well rested—wonderful, in fact. He also realized he missed Miranda and wished she hadn’t had to remain at Wolffe Hall to tend her sick mother-in-law. At least he’d brought P.C. and Barnaby with him, a treat for the children as well as for him since their antics never ceased to amaze and amuse him. CHAPTER TWO The next morning Grayson’s aunt Alex, the Countess of Northcliffe, smiled at him across the breakfast table the next morning. The sun pouring in through the long window made her red hair gleam like the most brilliant ruby, and any white hairs were discreetly tucked under the vivid red.

She whispered as she handed him the muffin basket, “Cook made nutty buns to welcome you, Grayson. Your uncle Douglas will be back from the stables any minute, and he will try to nab them. Quickly, take two. Hide one under your napkin. Hurry.” Alex took her own advice and grabbed two nutty buns out of the basket, hid one and bit into the other, and chewed. She looked ready to fall unconscious with pleasure. After one bite, Grayson was in a near swoon himself. He said, “I got an icebox.” Alex stopped her chewing.

“Does the ice melt and leak all over the floor?” “Yes, but not so much as Mr. Moore’s earlier ones, so I’m told. This one was made by a Mr. Hubalto Custer of York, sawdust stuffed in the sides to keep it cold. It’s a marvel, Aunt Alex. My cook complains about slipping in the puddles and breaking her leg, but her food stays cold, so she shakes her head and says, ‘The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.’” Grayson’s uncle Douglas, the Earl of Northcliff, said from the breakfast room doorway, “Cook informed me she won’t have one of those ugly heathen boxes in her kitchen.” Grayson said without pause, “The champagne stays perfectly chilled.” Douglas grinned. “Perhaps another conversation with Cook is in order.

” He grabbed the basket, sat down, and ate a nutty bun in two bites. Alex deftly pulled the basket in front of her. The breakfast room was warm, the air smelling of cinnamon. Grayson felt very good indeed. He hadn’t seen his aunt and uncle in too long a time, and in his youth, Northcliffe had been his second home. They spoke of his father, Ryder Sherbrooke, who’d rescued children since he’d been a very young man. Douglas said, “In Ryder’s last letter, he said there are now fourteen children living at Brandon House, the newest addition a little boy, around five years old, Ryder thinks. Max is his name. He prevented the boy’s sale to a brothel.” The countess cocked her head.

“Goodness, why a brothel? What would a little boy do in a brothel? Run errands? Clean boots?” Douglas cleared his throat, opened and shut his mouth. Grayson said immediately, “Yes, he would be a boot boy,” and he took the last bite of his first nutty bun. “What do you suggest I do with the children today?” As a distraction, it served. Alex said, “Take them to see the white cliffs at Eastbourne and go down to the beach. I know the water is always cold—” Douglas said, “It’s cold enough to freeze your parts off, Grayson. The children? They’ll scream and splash each other and have a magnificent time. If you remember, all you boys always did. And they’ll try to drown you, so be on your guard.” “Oh, I remember. When Mr.

Ramsey brings them down after their breakfast”—Grayson checked his pocket watch—“in about fifteen minutes, I’ll ask them. Thank you, sir, for letting the children ride the twins’ ponies. Should I ask Mr. Ramsey to come with us? He seemed to like P.C. especially, said something about having a little girl around was a pleasure after noisy little boys, and P.C. told him smartly she was just as noisy. I’m only sorry James and Corrie and the twins are in London. He scrawled me a quick note, told me he’d been invited to speak at the Royal Astronomical Society.

He said it was possible Prince Albert would be there. He was very excited.” Alex nodded. “Yes, he’s presenting his paper on one of the rings of Saturn. As for Corrie, she promised the twins a visit to the Tower. I believe she hired a guide to tell them all the bloodthirsty details of all the royal beheadings over the centuries. I was surprised when the twins’ tutor, Mr. Ramsey, asked to remain here at Northcliffe. He said he didn’t like London, said it made him physically ill. He did not elaborate, so there’s a question.

He then offered to look after the children we told him you were bringing with you. James and Corrie are planning on coming home next Wednesday to see you and Pip. Then, my dear, you’re going to be dragged around to visit every single relative in the area. The last count, I believe, is about twenty.” Grayson took another bite of his nutty bun as he listened to Aunt Alex talk about her gardens, how people still stopped to look and explore. Uncle Douglas grunted. “One of these days I’m going to look out the window and see a face staring back at me.” Alex laughed. “I’ve been wondering if we should charge an admission fee. What do you think, Grayson?” Grayson shook his head.

“Let people bless you for allowing them to see the splendor of your gardens without lightening their pockets. Your beneficence will spread far and wide.” “That will mean we’ll have hoards of visitors coming here,” Uncle Douglas said. “Of course, the twins would love that. I can see them offering to guide people around—for a small fee.” They spoke about James and Corrie’s twin boys, Douglas and Everett, brilliant, both of them, naturally. When Alex paused to chew another bite of nutty bun, Grayson said, “I couldn’t sleep last night, so I went walking around your beautiful gardens, Aunt Alex. I saw a magnificent black stallion come out of the home wood to drink out of your ornamental pond. Is he one of your horses? A neighbor’s?” His uncle Douglas frowned. “A black stallion, you say, here on Northcliffe property? At the ornamental pond? I have two blacks, but they’re not let loose at night, too dangerous.

A pity Corrie isn’t here—she knows every animal within five miles of Northcliffe.” Only one nutty bun left. Three hands went toward the basket. Alex was the fastest. She laughed, paused. “You are our guest, Grayson, but—” She took a big bite. “Sorry. Tell us more about the stallion.” Grayson took a sip of strong black oolong tea, only a dollop of milk, just as he liked it, and said slowly, “It was odd, but I don’t think the black stallion belongs to anyone. Actually, he looked like he was his own master.

” He shrugged. “Like he was also something else altogether.” His uncle reached over and punched his arm. “Come on, Grayson, don’t romanticize a horse or turn him into a character for one of your stories. What was so unusual about the animal?” “Silver reins and bridle, an odd, ornamental affair. It looked very old. Alex leaned forward. “That is unusual. Do you think he threw his rider? But what would anyone be doing in our home wood?” No time for more discussion about the black stallion. They heard the children’s excited voices, a babble of words, laughter, arguments, a couple of kid-snarls between P.

C. and Barnaby. “Ah, my troops have arrived.” There was a knock on the door, and Mr. Ramsey stuck his head in. “My lord, my lady, Master Grayson. I have the children. They are, ah, rather insistent to be gone.” “They always are,” Grayson said, tossed down his napkin, and rose. “Pip, P.

C., Barnaby, come and bid a polite good morning to his lordship and her ladyship.” Barnaby made a credible bow and confided to Douglas, “I want to be a lordship when I grows up.” P.C. punched his arm. “Grow up, not grows. And you can’t be a lordship, Barnaby. Everyone knows you have to be born a lordship or it’s all over. However, you will be my husband, and that is every bit as fine as a lordship, isn’t it, sir?” Douglas studied the small boy—ten years old or thereabouts, Grayson had told him—the dark-red curly hair, the bright blue eyes.

He said to P.C., his voice deep and serious, “Being your husband would make him a king, P.C.” P.C. poked Barnaby’s arm again as she beamed at the earl. “That is what I tell him, sir. If he ever disagrees, which he sometimes does because he’s an ignorant boy, I smash him.” Pip said to her, “Your mama says Barnaby speaks the King’s English like a little Etonian, whatever that means.

But don’t we have a queen, Papa?” Grayson nodded, waited for more.

.

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