Anthony stopped short when he saw Daphne. It was odd enough that his sister was sitting in the middle of the floor in the main hall. It was even more odd that she was crying.
Daphne never cried.
“Daff,” he said hesitantly, too young to know what to do with a crying female and wondering if he’d ever learn, “what—”
But before he could finish his question, Daphne lifted her head, and the shattering heartbreak in her large brown eyes cut through him like a knife. He stumbled back a step, knowing something was wrong, terribly wrong.
“He’d dead,” Daphne whispered. “Papa is dead.”
For a moment Anthony was sure he’d misheard. His father couldn’t be dead. Other people died young, like Uncle Hugo, but Uncle Hugo had been small and frail. Well, at least smaller and frailer than Edmund.
“You’re wrong,” he told Daphne. “You must be wrong.”
She shook her head. “Eloise told me. He was…it was…”
Anthony knew he shouldn’t shake his sister while she sobbed, but he couldn’t help himself. “It was what, Daphne?”
“A bee,” she whispered. “He was stung by a bee.”
For a moment Anthony could do nothing but stare at her. Finally, his voice hoarse and barely recognizable, he said, “A man doesn’t die from a bee sting, Daphne.”
She said nothing, just sat there on the floor, her throat working convulsively as she tried to control her tears.
“He’s been stung before,” Anthony added, his voice rising in volume. “I was with him. We were both stung. We came across a nest. I was stung on the shoulder.” Unbidden, his hand rose to touch the spot where he’d been stung so many years before. In a whisper he added, “He on his arm.”
Daphne just stared at him with an eerily blank expression.
“He was fine,” Anthony insisted. He could hear the panic in his voice and knew he was frightening his sister, but he was powerless to control it. “A man can’t die from a bee sting!”
Daphne shook her head, her dark eyes suddenly looking about a hundred years old. “It was a bee,” she said in a hollow voice. “Eloise saw it. One minute he was just standing there, and the next he was…he was…”
Anthony felt something very strange building within him, as if his muscles were about to jump through his skin. “The next he was what, Daphne?”
“Gone.” She looked bewildered by the word, as bewildered as he felt.
Anthony left Daphne sitting in the hall and took the stairs three at a time up to his parents’ bedchamber. Surely his father wasn’t dead. A man couldn’t die from a bee sting. It was impossible. Utterly mad. Edmund Bridgerton was young, he was strong. He was tall, his shoulders were broad, his muscles were powerful, and by God, no insignificant honeybee could have felled him.
But when Anthony reached the upstairs hall, he could tell by the utter and complete silence of the dozen or so hovering servants that the situation was grim.
And their pitying faces…for the rest of his life he’d be haunted by those pitying faces.
He’d thought he’d have to push his way into his parents’ room, but the servants parted as if they were drops in the Red Sea, and when Anthony pushed open the door, he knew.
His mother was sitting on the edge of the bed, not weeping, not even making a sound, just holding his father’s hand as she rocked slowly back and forth.
His father was still. Still as…
Anthony didn’t even want to think the word.
“Mama?” he choked out. He hadn’t called her that for years; she’d been “Mother” since he’d left for Eton.
She turned, slowly, as if hearing his voice through a long, long tunnel.
“What happened?” he whispered.
She shook her head, her eyes hopelessly far away. “I don’t know,” she said. Her lips remained parted by an inch or so, as if she’d meant to say something more but then forgotten to do it.
Anthony took a step forward, his movements awkward and jerky.
“He’s gone,” Violet finally whispered. “He’s gone and I…oh, God, I…” She placed a hand on her belly, full and round with child. “I told him—oh, Anthony, I told him—”
She looked as if she might shatter from the inside out. Anthony choked back the tears that were burning his eyes and stinging his throat and moved to her side. “It’s all right, Mama,” he said.
But he knew it wasn’t all right.
“I told him this had to be our last,” she gasped, sobbing onto his shoulder. “I told him I couldn’t carry another, and we’d have to be careful, and…Oh, God, Anthony, what I’d do to have him here and give him another child. I don’t understand. I just don’t understand….”
Anthony held her while she cried. He said nothing; it seemed useless to try to make any words fit the devastation in his heart.
He didn’t understand, either.
The doctors came later that evening and pronounced themselves baffled. They’d heard of such things before, but never in one so young and strong. He was so vital, so powerful; nobody could have known. It was true that the viscount’s younger brother Hugo had died quite suddenly the year before, but such things did not necessarily run in families, and besides, even though Hugo had died by himself out-of-doors, no one had noticed a bee sting on his skin.
Then again, nobody had looked.
Nobody could have known, the doctors kept saying, over and over until Anthony wanted to strangle them all. Eventually he got them out of the house, and he put his mother to bed. They had to move her into a spare bedroom; she grew agitated at the thought of sleeping in the bed she’d shared for so many years with Edmund. Anthony managed to send his six siblings to bed as well, telling them that they’d all talk in the morning, that everything would be well, and he would take care of them as their father would have wanted.
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