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Excerpt 2

“With my goods I thee endow, with my body I thee worship…”

Grey, in the front pew with Percy Wainwright, was close enough to see the expression on the General’s face, which surprised him with its soft intensity.  He was the more surprised–and not a little taken aback–to catch an answering flash of response from the Countess’s eyes.

He experienced that peculiar crawling of the flesh that attends any child’s sudden realization that a parent must not only have engaged at some comfortably primeval date in the theoretical carnal act that resulted in his own existence–but was capable of doing it again in the all-too-physical present.

He glanced quickly at Percy, to see whether this frisson of horror was shared, but saw only an expression of subdued wistfulness on Percy’s mobile face.  Of course it would not be the same, he reminded himself; the General was in fact not Percy’s father.  There would be no bar to his imagining…he choked that line of thought off at the root, staring hard at Percy in order to avoid looking at the wedding couple.

The light from one of the stained-glass windows caught a few tiny dark bristles, missed in shaving, just beneath Percy’s lower lip. Shone through the amber irises of his eyes, and touched his flesh with rose and gold.

Grey sincerely hoped that his new brother was not thinking–Percy looked suddenly sideways and met his eyes.  Grey took a deep breath and looked away, fixing his gaze on a stained-glass window illustrating the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, roasted on a gridiron.

They stood close together, the full skirts of their coats brushing.  He felt a stirring among the folds of blue velvet, and Percy’s hand brushed his.

No more than a touch, but he breathed deep, and embarrassment faded into awareness.

Tonight.

They had made a solemn pact, the two of them.  After the wedding-breakfast, they would go away and spend the rest of the day–and the night–together, though hell should bar the way.

Grey crooked one finger round one of Percy’s, very briefly, then let go.  He realized that his thoughts had gone well beyond the limits of what was suitable in church, and tried to force his attention back to the solemn spiritual event being enacted in front of him.  Though why the church had thought to put things like “with my body I thee worship” into the service…

He caught sight of Olivia, discreetly lurking behind one of the slender stone pillars–far too slender to hide her current grand proportions.  He smiled, then noticed that her face was pale, set in a pained grimace.  No doubt recalling her own nuptials, and missing Malcolm, he thought sympathetically.

It might be two years before the gallant Captain Stubbs returned, by which time his first offspring would be–

Olivia’s grimace deepened, and her face went purple.  Grey gripped the back of the pew in sudden consternation, and Percy glanced curiously at him.  Grey lifted his chin, trying to indicate Olivia’s alarming behavior, but Percy’s view of her was blocked by the pillar and a carved wooden screen.  He frowned at Grey in puzzlement, and Grey leaned forward a bit, trying to see whether–but Olivia had disappeared.

The bishop was discoursing comfortably upon the honorable estate of marriage and looked well set to continue upon this course for some time.  Grey tried by means of various small jerks of the head and grimacing of his own to alert one of the women on the other side of the aisle, but beyond frowns of puzzlement from the elderly Havisham sisters and a flirtatious glance behind her fan from Lady Sheridan, was unable to elicit any response.

“What is it?” Percy whispered.

“Don’t know.”  She couldn’t possibly have fainted without someone noticing.  Perhaps gone outside for air?

“Maybe nothing.  Stay here,” he whispered back, and slipping past Percy, left the pew as quietly as he might and walked rapidly down the side aisle, head lowered and the back of his hand pressed to his mouth, as though he might be indisposed.

He reached the vestibule and flung open the heavy outer door, causing a premature flurry of “hurrahs!” and a smart clash of swords from the waiting honor guard, who snapped into formation, making an archway for the happy couple.

Contorting his face into what he hoped was apology, Grey made abortive waving motions at the indignant swordsmen and shut the door hastily upon a chorus of disgruntled oaths.

Muttering a few of his own, he made his way back into the church and along the right-hand aisle, glancing furtively into the alcove that held the baptismal font, up into the crowded galleries–for God’s sake, an enormously pregnant woman could not simply vanish in the midst of a crowded church!

He ducked into the secluded side chapel, but no one was there.  A single candle burned before the statue on the altar, a rather blank-faced thing with outspread hands—Christ Intercessor, he thought Olivia had said it was.  At this point, though, he’d take help where he could get it.

“Ah…perhaps you wouldn’t mind lending a hand?” he whispered, not knowing any official prayers for the purpose.  “If you please.”  With a polite nod, he withdrew and resumed his hunt, this time going back down the nave toward the door.  What if she had meant to go out, but been overcome before reaching the egress?

He scanned the pews covertly as he passed, in case she might merely have gone to sit down with friends, but received nothing save curious looks from the inhabitants.   He reached the door to the vestibule again, and hesitated, unsure where to search next.  Whether by heavenly intercession or luck, at this point, he spotted a small wooden door set inconspicuously in the shadows beneath the organ gallery.

He tried the door, and finding it unlocked, pushed it cautiously inward–only to have it stick halfway.  He was about to give it a healthy shove, when he perceived the foot just beyond it, clad in a lemon-yellow silk slipper.

“Olivia!” he thrust his head through the opening, and found his cousin seated on the bottom step of a small stairway, looking like an untidy heap of lemon-yellow laundry.  Seeing him, she withdrew her foot, allowing him to open the door enough to sidle through.

“Olivia!  Are you unwell?”

“No!” she hissed.  “For heaven’s sake, keep your voice down, John!”

“Shall I fetch someone to you?” he whispered, bending down to look at her.  There was not much light here; only what filtered down the winding stairwell from the loft above.  As the light was coming through a window over the loft, it fell down the stairs in a wash of the most delicate hues, with watery lozenges of pink and blue and gold that made Olivia appear to be sitting at the foot of a rainbow.

“No, no,” she assured him.  “I only felt tired and wanted to sit down for a bit.”

He glanced skeptically at their surroundings.

“And you decided to sit down here, rather than in a pew.  Quite.  Will I go and fetch you some water?”  The nearest water to hand was likely the baptismal font, and the only vessel in which he could carry it was his hat, which he had inadvertently brought away with him.  Still–

“I don’t need–”  Her voice broke off and she arched her back a little, eyes and lips squeezing shut.  She put one hand behind her, pressing a fist into her lower back.  Her face had gone purple again; he could see that, despite the light.

He wished to rush back into the church and fetch a woman to her at once, but was afraid to leave her thus in mid-spasm.  He’d been in the general vicinity of women birthing–soldiers’ wives and camp-followers–but had never witnessed the process at close quarters.  His impression was that it involved a good deal of screaming, though; Olivia wasn’t doing that.  Yet.

She blew out air through pursed lips, relaxed, and opened her eyes.

“How long have you been doing…that?”  He gestured delicately at her bulging midsection.   Not that the answer would be of help; he hadn’t any notion how long this process was meant to take.

“Only since this morning,” she assured him, and put a hand to the small of her back, grimacing again.  He wished she wouldn’t; she looked like nothing so much as one of the gargoyles on the pediment outside.  “Don’t worry, everybody says first babies take ages.  Days, sometimes,” she added, letting out held breath in a gasp.

“In your position, I think I would not find that an encouraging thought at the moment.”  He turned, hand to the door.  “I’m going to fetch someone.”

“No!”  She sprang to her feet, surprising him extremely, as he hadn’t thought she could move at all, let alone so fast.  She clung ferociously to his arm.  “Nothing is going to interfere with this wedding, do you hear me?  Nothing!”

“But you–”

“No!”  Her face was an inch from his, eyes bulging in a commanding stare that would not have disgraced a sergeant conducting drills on the square.  ”I’ve worked over these arrangements for six months, and I won’t have them undone now!  Don’t you take one step out there!”

He paused, but she clearly meant it.  And she wasn’t letting go of his sleeve, either.  He sighed and gave in–for the moment.

“All right.  For heaven’s sake, though, sit down.”

Instead, she clenched her teeth and pressed suddenly hard against the door, grinding her back against the wood.  Her belly had firmed up in some indefinable fashion, so that it seemed even larger, if such a thing was possible.  There was so little room at the foot of the stairs that the enormous swell of it brushed against him, and the air was filled with the smell of sweat and something sweetly animal, completely overpowering the feeble scents of powder and eau-de-toilette.

She was clenching her hands, as well as her teeth, and he found that he was doing precisely the same thing.  Also holding his breath.

She relaxed and exhaled, and so did he.

“For God’s sake, Olivia!”

She was leaning against the door, feet braced, hands cupping her enormous belly, her eyes still closed, breathing.  She opened one eye and looked at him.

“You,” she said.  “Be quiet.”  And closed it again.