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Chapter 53

"Are you sure?" squeaked Julie. "I mean, like—positive?" Her next words came in a rush. "I thought I just had a flu or something. It's been going around, you know. Bad one. Sick to my stomach, that's all. I woulda gone to Eisenach except Alex insisted I see you and Mike backed him up. Wouldn't let me go." She glared at the doctor, as if to say: This is all your fault!

James Nichols managed to keep a completely straight face. It was not easy. The face of the young woman perched on the chair in the examining room was a study in contradictions. Anxiety, chagrin, apprehensiveness—all of these warred with outrage and indignation.

"Those things are supposed to work," she snarled.

James opened his mouth. Julie drove right over him. "They are!"

Again he tried to speak. Julie drove right over him.

"Alex is going to kill me," she moaned. "I promised him we had nothing to worry about!" She pressed her hand over her mouth. Mumbled: "What am I gonna do?"

James thought he could get a word in edgewise, now. "Julie, you're supposed to use a diaphragm with contraceptive—"

"The stores ran out!" she protested. Imperious demand: "What was I supposed to do?"

Abstain, came the whimsical thought. But James squelched it. The likelihood of someone as vigorous as Julie Sims abstaining from sex with her fiancé ranked somewhere below the proverbial snowball in hell. And James was hardly in a position to criticize. Leaving aside his own reprobate youth, his relationship with Melissa was neither platonic nor blessed by the sanctity of matrimony.

On the other hand, he thought wryly, Melissa was fifty-seven years old. For them, contraception was a moot point.

"Oh, Jesus, he's gonna kill me," Julie whimpered anew. Now she pressed both hands over her mouth. Gargling sounds emerged.

James managed a paternal frown. "Why?" Hrmph, hmrph. "I should think Alex is the one to be worrying. Your father—not to mention Frank!—aren't exactly going to be—"

Julie gargled protest through her hands.

"I didn't quite catch that."

She took the hands off her lips and opened them wide, cupping them around her mouth as if to impart a secret.

"It was my idea," she hissed. Seeing the expression on the doctor's face, Julie laughed. The sound was perhaps a tad hysterical. Well, semihysterical.

"You think it was Alex? Ha! That proper fellow? Oh, God!" The laughter swelled. Yes, definitely semihysterical. "It took me weeks to wear him down!"

For a moment, her eyes grew dreamy. "He's such a sweet guy," she whispered. "It was a nice change, not having to fend off the sweaty mitts."

Julie slumped in her chair. "He's gonna kill me." The words carried all the gloomy surety of a Cassandra.

James cleared his throat. "You do have a couple of options. The first is an abortion." Hastily: "I don't do abortions myself, but Doctor Adams can handle that. So can Doctor Abrabanel, for that matter. At your stage of pregnancy, it's not a difficult procedure."

Julie gave him a sharp glance. "If it's so easy, why can't you do it?" Then, seeing the stiff look on his face, she giggled. "Don't tell me!" Giggle, giggle. "Boy, I bet that was a donnybrook. When you told Melissa, I mean."

James shrugged. "Wasn't a donnybrook at all. She has her principles, I got mine." His own eyes got a bit dreamy. "We get along pretty well, all things considered."

Abruptly, Julie shook her head. "Abortion's out anyway. I don't approve of it myself. So what's the other option?"

"It's obvious, isn't it? Get married."

Julie was back to wailing. "He's gonna kill me!" Her hands went back over her mouth. Gargle, gargle.

James scratched his head. "I don't get it. The way I heard it, he's been trying to get you to set a date."

Again, the hands popped open. "He has!" she hissed. The hands closed. Gargle.

"So what's the problem?"

Julie took a deep breath, sucking the air through her fingers. Then, slowly, eased it out. She removed the hands, dropped them into her lap, slumped her shoulders, and heaved a sigh worthy of Cassandra. Unheeded, again.

"You don't get it. It's the principle of the thing. By the time—" Her eyes narrowed, as she did some quick calculations. "By the time we got married—couldn't be sooner than next month, at the earliest—maybe not till September 'cause he's gotta go right away to see the king of Sweden as soon as he and Mike get done whipping those Spanish clowns—"

Calculate, calculate. James was struggling to keep a straight face again. He wasn't sure which amused him more—Julie's insouciant assumption that the Spaniards would be trounced, or her blithe reference to her fiancé's familiarity with royalty.

"Yeah," she concluded. "That's what I thought. We couldn't get married until sometime in September." She puffed out her cheeks and cupped her hands a foot away from her belly, in a parody of a pregnant woman.

"For Christ's sake, Julie! You can't possibly be serious. That early in the second trimester? Nothing would show at all."

"It would six months later!" she snapped. "Big time!"

James shrugged. "By then you'd be married. So who cares? Wouldn't be the first time—"

"That's the whole point!" Wailing: "You know how sensitive Alex is on account of he's illegitimate! You know! He's told me once, he's told me a thousand times: 'No child of mine will ever be bastard born.' " Even in her despair, she managed quite a good rendition of Mackay's Scottish accent.

Julie's logic had completely eluded James, by now. "I don't get it," he muttered. "If you're married when the child is born, then he—or she—isn't—"

"It's the principle of the thing!" she wailed. "Don't you understand? And nobody can get hung up on principles like a damn Scottish Calvinist!"

She was no longer even slumped in her chair. Just puddled in it, like a quivering blob of anxiety.

"He's gonna kill me," she squeaked. "I'm dead."

James' struggle for dignity collapsed, finally. He just couldn't resist. "Make sure you tell him at five hundred yards, then."

Julie's ensuing words were not uttered in a squeak. Rather the opposite. James consoled himself with the thought that he had, as was a doctor's duty, elevated his patient's spirits. In a manner of speaking.


Shortly thereafter, he ushered Rebecca into the same examination room.

"Julie seems out of sorts," she commented. "Is something wrong?"

James' lips twitched. "Nothing serious." He helped her into the chair.

"Oof!" said Rebecca. She gave the doctor a quick smile. "Thank you. I feel so awkward."

She gazed down at her belly. "Philosophically, I do not approve of this," she pronounced. "It seems such a foolish way to go about the matter. By the time a woman can get accustomed to her condition, it is gone." Her dark eyes grew very warm. "Soon."

James nodded. "Six to eight weeks. Can't be sure with a first pregnancy."

Rebecca lifted her head, smiling. "We did not waste any time, did we, Michael and I?" She broke off, laughing softly. "It will be such a scandal! The baby will be born barely seven months after we were married."

The thought did not seem to disturb her. Not in the least. James grinned.

"There seems to be a lot of that going around, these days."

It didn't take Rebecca more than two seconds to make the connection. In a movement which bore an uncanny similarity to Julie's, she clapped her hands over her mouth.

She laughed softly. Gargled.

"Poor Alex!" she mumbled through her fingers. She took the fingers away and cupped her hands around her mouth. "Julie will kill him," she hissed.

James threw up his hands. "Women! I can't follow your logic at all!"

He stalked over to his own chair and sat down in it heavily, then glared at Rebecca. "Explain your reasoning, if you would."

Rebecca dropped her hands into her lap. Her brow furrowed.

"Is it not obvious? Julie will be convinced that Alex will be furious with her because I am quite certain—I know none of the details, mind you, but I do know Julie—that she convinced him pregnancy was not to be feared."

Rebecca ran fingers through her hair, thinking. "Yes, that would certainly be the way it would have happened. Alex is too much the gentleman to have urged the thing upon her. She would have been the seductress, not the seduced one. Then—"

Thinking, thinking. "Of course, it is obvious. She will now tell Alex, convinced that he will lose his temper. You know how Julie is! By the time she tells him, she will have worked herself into a fury because she will be convinced that Alex will be furious with her. Like a firearm, primed and loaded. Alex, of course, will say something wrong. Under the circumstances, that is a certainty, since anything he says will be wrong as far as Julie is concerned. Then—"

She beamed. "The logic is impeccable. Julie will kill him. Hopefully, of course, she will only slay him with words. Since, I trust, she will not have given him the news at five hundred paces."

Seeing the expression on the doctor's face, Rebecca frowned. "Is something wrong, James?"

Nichols shook his head. "Nope. I'm just glad you're on our side." He snapped his fingers. "That for Richelieu!"


Gretchen leaned over the bed and kissed Jeff on the forehead. She could feel the fever through her lips, but was not concerned. Not any longer.

Jeff's eyes opened. Smiling, Gretchen sat on the bed and bent her head down. Her lips began to part.

Jeff twitched his head aside. "Don't!" he protested. "You might catch—"

"Nothing," she whispered. She took his face in strong hands and turned it back to her own. The kiss which followed was gentle. But it was also lingering, and not platonic in the least.

"Nothing," she whispered. "Nothing but a fever. I just returned from seeing Dr. Nichols. He assured me that you have none of the symptoms of the plague."

"Even so—" Jeff tried to push her away. He was too weak to succeed in that task. His wife did not push easily. "The flu is bad enough, Gretchen! You don't have my resistance to it!"

She rose slowly and shrugged. Gretchen understood the medical logic behind her husband's words. Dr. Nichols had explained to her at considerable length. People of her time did not have a built-up resistance to strains of disease carried by those born in the future.

She began to disrobe. Gretchen understood the logic, but she did not agree with it. She had her own way of reasoning, which was more tough-minded. Much more.

"Best I develop it, then," she murmured. Now nude, she slid under the sheets and pressed herself against her husband. Her movements were gentle, not passionate. But they were no more platonic than her earlier kiss. Since Jeff had contracted influenza, two days earlier, she had been forced to sleep with the children. Her husband had insisted. Now, she practically wallowed in the sensation of his body against hers.

Feebly, Jeff tried to protest again. Gretchen put her hand over his mouth. "Be quiet," she whispered. "I will contract this disease sooner or later, anyway. So why not get on with it?"

Jeff sighed and closed his eyes. His fears for his wife were warring with desire for her nearness. Desire won. He enfolded her in his arms and drew her closer still.

"Oh, yes," Gretchen murmured a few minutes later. "There's something else. Dr. Nichols tells me I am definitely pregnant."

Jeff's eyes popped open.

"What, husband? You are worrying again? It happens, you know." She snuggled closer. "I will be fine, and the baby also. And look at it this way—at least there will be no scandal. Our baby will not be born at a questionable time."

She chuckled. "Unlike some others, I suspect."


Captain Gars drove his men well beyond sundown. Only when the last glimmer of dusk faded, and the forest was black with the night, did he relent.

"Make camp," he growled, climbing down from his horse. His movements were stiff and heavy. The past two days had been brutal, as hard as the captain had kept up the pursuit. And if his men thought the notion of four hundred cavalrymen pursuing two thousand was bizarre, they kept their thoughts to themselves. Captain Gars was not one to listen to reason.

"No fires," he commanded. "Not following Croats. Eat the food cold."

None of his soldiers complained. Captain Gars was not one to listen to complaints, either. And besides, he was sharing the same cold food and sleeping on the same naked ground.

When the men were settled down, Anders Jönsson approached him. The captain was sitting on his bedroll, staring at nothing.

"And tomorrow, Captain? What then?"

Captain Gars lifted his head. "Tomorrow we will rise before sunup. There is no time to lose. The Croats will reach Grantville by mid-morning at the latest."

He paused, thinking. "I am certain, now, of their plan. Everything makes sense. The Spaniards that Saxe-Weimar let through, the seemingly pointless attack on Suhl. Diversions to draw off the American army. The Croats are the thing. They will strike a town filled with women and children. Their purpose is pure slaughter and destruction."

Jönsson frowned. "To what end?"

The captain shrugged. "Ask someone else. That is the way men like Wallenstein and Richelieu think. I am skeptical of such reasoning, myself." He smiled faintly. "But then—what do you expect? I am a madman. It is well known."


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