Fool for Love
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28 Park Lane
Some men turn into walruses when they're angry: all bushy and blowing air. Others resemble pigs, with pillowy cheeks and small eyes. Simon Darby turned into a Cossack. His eyes took on a slanted look. High cheekbones that spoke of generations of Darbys turned formidable, angular, and altogether foreign. To Gerard Bunge's mind, the man looked positively savage.
The last time the Honorable Gerard Bunge himself could remember being so enraged was when his doctor informed him that he had caught the pox. Even remembering the moment made him queasy. There was that uneasy sense of heavenly retribution, not to mention the unpleasant treatment lying ahead.
But even less would he like to be told that his inheritance had disappeared. After all, diseases come and go, but life is so expensive. Even handkerchiefs are prohibitive.
Darby was probably in shock. So Bunge repeated himself. "There's no question about it. Your aunt is increasing."
When Darby still didn't answer, Bunge strolled over to the litter of china dogs lining the mantelpiece and thought about poverty versus the pox again. Definitely syphilis was preferable.
"I said, Lady Rawlings is enceinte. I mean to say, the Countess of Trent paid her a visit in the country, and described the lady as waddling. Did you hear me, Darby?"
"They likely heard you in Norfolk."
Bunge couldn't stand silence himself, but it wasn't every day that a man had his inheritance snatched out from under his nose by an unborn babe. Tossing back his deep cuffs, he pushed the china dogs into a neat row. There had to be fourteen or fifteen of the lolling, garishly painted little things.
"I suppose these belong to one of your sisters," he said over his shoulder. The thought of Darby's sisters made Bunge feel a bit uncomfortable. After all, if Esme Rawlings's child was male, they had just lost their dowries.
"Actually, the dogs belonged to my stepmother," Darby remarked.
Quite the mortality rate in Darby's family, Bunge reflected: father, stepmother, uncle, gone in under one year. "I wish your aunt weren't increasing, damned if I don't," he said, displaying a rare flash of generosity.
He swallowed a curse as the sharp edge of his starched linen collar nipped him in the neck. He had to remember not to turn his head so quickly. The new high collars were the devil to wear.
"It could hardly be construed as your fault. I gather my uncle and aunt had an unexpected rapprochement before his death."
"Startled me to the gills when I heard he died in his wife's chamber," Bunge agreed. "Not that Lady Rawlings isn't a beautiful woman. But your uncle hadn't lived with his wife for years. He was snug in Lady Childe's pocket when I saw him last. I thought Rawlings and his wife weren't even on speaking terms."
"As far as I know, they rarely spoke. Presumably they engaged in heir-making without speech."
"Some are saying the child isn't Rawlings's, you know."
"Given that my uncle died in his wife's bedchamber, he and his wife likely engaged in activities that led to this child. You will please me by squashing any such rumors." Darby's eyes now wore their customary expression of detached amusement.
"You're going to have to get married," Bunge pointed out. "Course that won't be too difficult for you, catching a rich one. Heard that there's a wool merchant putting his daughter on the market this season -- everyone's saying she's a woolly breeder." He erupted in a cascade of high-pitched laughter.
But Darby's eyes hardened into distaste. "An unappetizing possibility." He gave a little half bow. "Much though I adore your company, Bunge, I have an appointment this afternoon."
Cool bastard, Bunge thought to himself, but he let himself be propelled toward the door. "Are you going to tell your stepsisters?"
"Naturally. Their esteemed aunt is going to have a baby. Josephine will be delighted."
"Does she know that the babe will do her out of a fortune?"
"I fail to see why inheritance issues should disturb a child still in the nursery."
"And you never know. Lady Rawlings might have a girl."
"A pleasing thought, under the circumstances."
"You're a cool one. Don't know what I'd do, if I had two girls to get off on the market, and -- "
"You would do admirably." Darby rang the bell, and his butler, Fanning, appeared with Bunge's coat, hat, and cane.
As he walked back into his study, the mask of detached amusement fell from Darby's face. He had choked back his rage in front of the painted popinjay who had so delighted in telling him of his aunt's pregnancy. But anger swelled in his throat.
"God-damned bitch." The words burned like poison in his mouth.
Whatever his uncle was doing in his wife's bedchamber, it didn't involve fornication. Rawlings had told him last July, just before he died, that the doctor had ruled out connubial acts -- and since he'd been a little in his cups, he'd added that Lady Childe was agreeable. No need to mention his wife, and he hadn't. His mistress, Lady Childe, was the only person remotely interested in Miles's ability to shake the bedsheets.
And yet he died in Esme Rawlings's bedchamber a week or so later. Suffered a heart attack in his wife's bedchamber. And now the woman was increasing -- waddling, even? Doubtless the child would be born on the early side. The house party took place last July. If the child were Miles's, his wife was six months along at the most. And why would the elegantly slim Lady Rawlings be waddling at only six months, with three long months to go?