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 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.

br />

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 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.

He eyed her bulk. He couldn’t escape to fetch help, with her leaning against the door. In normal circumstances, he could have removed her, but the circumstances were anything but normal. She had wedged herself solidly into the doorframe, and he could see no convenient way of getting to grips with her.

Besides, she was panting like a bellows. What if she had another of those alarming spasms, just as he was in the act of dragging her from the—a draft of cool air struck the back of his neck, and he glanced up, startled.

Up. He glanced back at Olivia, whose eyes were still closed in a frown of the most ferocious determination, then wheeled and sprinted up the stair before she could stop him.

He popped up next to the child working the bellows, who gaped at sight of him and left off pumping. A hiss from the organist started him again, though he continued to stare at Grey. The organist, hands and feet poised over manuals, pedals, and stops, ignored him completely, peering instead into a small mirror mounted on the organ, which allowed him to see the proceedings at the altar below.

Grey went hastily to the railing, just in time to see General Stanley sweep his mother into an embrace of such exuberant and obvious affection that the congregation broke into applause. Frantic, Grey jabbed his hands into his pockets, looking for some small missile, and came up with a paper of the boiled sweets he had bought for Percy, who had a sweet tooth.

Who? Anyone, he thought. Any woman, at least. All heads were turned toward the altar, where the bishop was raising his hands for the final blessing. Taking a deep breath and commending his soul to God, Grey pegged one of the sweets into the congregation. He’d aimed to strike the pew near Lady Anthony, one of his mother’s close friends seated near the back. Instead, he struck her husband, Sir Paul, squarely in the back of the neck. The baronet jerked and clapped a hand to the spot, as though stung by a bee.

Sir Paul glared wildly round, looking in every direction but up. Grey picked another sweet and was searching for a better target, when a small stir toward the front made him look there. Percy Wainwright had made his way out of the pew, and was heading for the back of the church, nearby heads turning curiously to follow him.

Abandoning his strategy, Grey raced past the organist and down the stairs. Almost too late, he saw Olivia, collapsed again at the foot of the stairs. Panicked at the thought of help escaping, he put both hands against the narrow walls and vaulted over her, coming down with a thump at the foot of the stair. He snatched open the door, just in time to find Percy outside it, looking startled.

He leaned out, seized Percy by the sleeve, and yanked him into the tiny space.

“Help me get her out!”

“What? My God! All right. Where shall we take her?” Percy was sidling round Olivia’s feet, evidently trying to decide what to take hold of. A peculiar whooshing noise made him shy back.

“Oh, Jesus!” Grey said, looking in horror at the spreading pool of liquid at his feet. “Olivia, are you all right?”

“It isn’t blood,” Percy said dubiously, trying without success to keep clear of the puddle.

“My new dress!” Olivia wailed.

“I’ll buy you a new one,” Grey promised. “Two. Olivia, you have to stand up. Can you stand up?”

“Shall I fetch someone? A doctor?” Percy made a tentative motion toward the door, but was forestalled by Olivia’s seizing the skirt of his coat.

“Just…wait,” she said, sitting up and panting. “It’s all right. It’s—” Her face went quite blank, and then suddenly assumed a look of the utmost concentration. Her hand fell from Percy’s coat and went to her belly. Her eyes went round, and so did her mouth.

If she screamed, it was drowned by a blast of organ music.

“Oh, God.” Grey was on his knees, pawing through an unending mass of yellow silk. Now there was blood, though not a great deal. “Oh, God, are you all right, Olivia?”

“I don’t really think so, John.” Percy was shouting to be heard over the music, squashed in beside her on the step, frantically trying to stroke her hair and mop her face with his handkerchief simultaneously. “Is she meant to—” His words were lost as the organist hit the pedals, the great diapasons opened above, and the staircase shook with the sound.

Grey had located a leg under the silk, straining with effort. Its fellow had to be there somewh—there. He gripped Olivia’s knees in what he hoped was a reassuring fashion, trying not to look at what might be happening between them.

Suddenly Olivia slid down, pressing back against Percy so hard that Grey heard his grunt above the music. Percy gripped her by the shoulders, bracing her disheveled head against his chest. Grey felt a sort of subterranean shudder go through her body, rather like the waves of sound that beat on them, and looked down involuntarily.

There was a crash nearby as the outer doors were flung open, and to the clash of swords and the cheers of soldiers, a long purple object slithered out into Grey’s hands, accompanied by a gush of fluids that did his cream silk breeches no good at all.


Tags: Diana Gabaldon Lord John Grey Suspense
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