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Alfred, Earl of Dorn, was drunk, angry -- and anxious. Not because of the difficult labor his frail wife Penelope was at this very moment enduring, as she struggled to bear the son who would ensure her husband's fortune. Certainly not for the comfort of the mistress whose importunate summons had brought him at this most inconvenient moment to the opulent little maisonette he had given her. Roughly shouldering his way past the sleepy servant who was opening the door for him, the earl strode through the hall and thrust his way into the overdecorated bedroom.
"There had better be a damned good reason for--" he began, and then froze. There were three people in the room. The earl glared at his mistress and the grinning man who was standing at the bedside. Carlotta, beautiful even at this moment, held out a lustily bawling infant for Dorn's inspection.
"A healthy boy!" she crowed. "Has your lady-wife done as well by you, Dorn? Dr. Smith tells me she has been in labor for three days, and will likely die, and the child with her! What a pity you did not choose the mother of your heir with the same skill you use to pick your brood mares!" She motioned to the doctor. "Pour us all a drink, Smith! The earl will wish to offer a toast to his fine son -- who is not his heir!"
"Why didn't you tell me it was to be so soon ? I hadn't realized--!" stammered the earl, for once at a loss.
"How could I? You haven't been next or nigh me for a month!" screeched Carlotta. "It's widely known that Milord of Dorn isn't interested in pregnant females -- even his poor little dab of a wife!"
Under the stimulation of hismistress's venom Lord Dorn regained his wits. "Jealous, my dear?" He smirked. "You know you are always -- attractive -- " He eyed her buxom body insultingly. "The thing of it is, your -- ah -- curves are always so voluptuous that one couldn't be sure..."
A lusty bawl from the red-faced, black-haired infant caught his attention. He stared down grimly at the child. His son. A healthy male. Whereas Penelope, if she survived, would probably present him with some wretched, puling brat -- or, even worse, a girl! Frowning, he accepted the whiskey the doctor offered. As he drank, he considered the woman in the rumpled bed, and the raven-haired child in her arms. Already the germ of an idea was taking root in his mind. If his legitimate child were to die with its dying mother... all the Dorn males had red hair, but Penelope had a swarthy uncle....
"Don't you wish to hold your son, milord?" The doctor grinned over his whiskey. "He's a fine lad, strong and lusty. Too bad he was born on the wrong side of the blanket! He would have put paid to your cousin's hopes of inheriting the title!"
Did everyone in London know all his business? "My wife will bear a son!" he snarled at the gossip-monger.
The doctor looked at him, a hint of pity in the bleary gaze. "If you say so, milord," he agreed. With a few words of advice to the mother, he made his adieux.
Carlotta laughed raucously, shifting the baby so it might feed at her swollen breast. It nuzzled greedily.
"So, my toplofty earl, you are forced to concede the victory to your prim-mouthed cousin? How he will enjoy telling his pious friends that it is his seed that will grace the earldom, and not that of the notorious rake, Lord Dorn! Can't you just hear him prosing on that Virtue has triumphed ?"
The earl's intent glare moved from the grunting infant to the dark-eyed courtesan. Toast of the London opera season, Carlotta was no more Spanish than he was. But whatever her antecedents, she had borne a healthy child -- a male child, who could rescue Alfred's branch of the family from the encroachment of mealymouthed Benedict, his cousin and heir.
Alfred, Earl of Dorn, tightened his jaw.
"This is what we are going to do," he said, in a deep, guttural voice that no one had ever heard from his throat before.
Copyright © 1987 by Elizabeth Chater