Not Quite a Wife by Mary Jo Putney




  “OH, GOD, LAUREL!”

  He caught her around the waist and pulled her onto the table beside him in a crushing embrace. “I had the most ghastly dreams that I’d lost you. I looked everywhere and couldn’t find you.” His grip tightened as he said in a hoarse whisper, “You were gone and I was so afraid. So afraid . . .”

  She gasped, shocked by being held full length against his barely clothed body. She knew she should break free, but the sheer physical rightness of being in his arms paralyzed her.

  Even more shocking was the raw emotion and need in his voice. When she’d left him, he’d seemed cool and uncaring, as if relieved that she’d no longer require time and attention. He’d shown no signs of pain.

  Trying to control her trembling, she said, “I’m not lost; I’m right here. You need to rest and drink more Jesuit’s bark tea. By morning you should be fine.”

  “Now that I’ve found you again”—he rolled over so that he was braced above her—“I’ll never let you go.”

  Books by Mary Jo Putney

  The Lost Lords series

  Loving a Lost Lord

  Never Less Than a Lady

  Nowhere Near Respectable

  No Longer a Gentleman

  Sometimes a Rogue

  Other titles

  One Perfect Rose

  The Bargain

  The Rake

  Mischief and Mistletoe

  NOT QUITE A WIFE

  MARY JO PUTNEY

  ZEBRA BOOKS

  KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.

  http://www.kensingtonbooks.com

  All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.

  Table of Contents

  “OH, GOD, LAUREL!”

  Also by

  Title Page

  Dedication

  Acknowledgments

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Epilogue

  Author’s notes:

  Teaser chapter

  Copyright Page

  To PandaMax,

  the leader of the pack.

  And to all the generous rescuers who

  help animals in distress

  find better lives.

  Acknowledgments

  To my friend, fellow author, and ER nurse, Laurie Kingery, for still more valuable medical information!

  And, of course, the Cauldron and the Wenches

  and my most excellent agent,

  Robin Rue.

  Chapter 1

  James, Lord Kirkland, owned a shipping fleet and half a fashionable London gaming house, and was a darkly effective spymaster in the shadow war between Britain and Napoleon’s France. He was seldom self-indulgent . . .

  . . . except when his business took him to the port city of Bristol, as it had done today. He met with the captain of his ship, deciphered the letter the captain had brought, and gave it to a courier to carry back to London with all due haste. Then he dismissed his assistant, saying that he preferred to walk back to the inn where they were staying.

  The late spring afternoon sunshine and warmth made his words plausible, though rain, ice, or snow wouldn’t have stopped him. For these brief minutes, he wouldn’t think about his business, or his covert work, or the possible undesirable outcomes to various plans, or potentially lethal threats to his agents. Instead, he’d remember, and grieve for, what he’d lost.

  The day had warmed up considerably while he conducted his business on shipboard. If he were private, he’d strip off his coat and hat and work in his shirtsleeves. Ah, well, he’d be back at the inn soon enough.

  Now he tormented himself with the knowledge that she lived only a few streets away. He savored the bittersweet thought that in minutes he could knock on her door.

  She might open it herself—she was never one for ceremony—and they’d be face to face again. Would her lustrous bronze hair have darkened? Would her misty sea eyes be blue or gray?

  His mouth twisted at the knowledge that her expressive eyes would be gray with anger and disappointment when she saw him. Which was why he wouldn’t turn down the street that led to her home. She’d said she never wanted to see him again, and he’d sworn that she wouldn’t.

  Sometimes his sophist’s mind played with that. He’d promised she wouldn’t see him, but did that mean that he could look at her if he remained unseen? But looking would never be enough. . . .

  He cut off his line of thought, for that way madness lay.

  Damn, but it was hot today! He wrenched at his neck cloth, feeling suffocated. Only then, as he lurched against the wall of the building beside him, did he realize that he was having a malaria attack. He seldom had them these days, but sometimes, usually at the most inconvenient possible moment, the fever would flare up again.

  He must return to his inn, where he had Jesuit’s bark to tame the fever. The inn couldn’t be more than ten minutes’ walk away. Head spinning, he turned down an alley that would take him in that direction.

  Halfway down he stopped, not recognizing the buildings at the other end. This wasn’t right, he must have walked farther than he’d realized. He turned uncertainly and started to retrace his steps.

  Dizzy, he halted to lean against the wall, grateful for the cool brick against his sweating forehead. The inn. The inn! What was the name? The Ship? The Ostrich? Dammit, what was the name? He’d stayed there often.

  He pushed himself upright and started again toward the alley entrance, one hand skimming the wall for balance, but after a dozen steps he folded to his knees, gasping for breath. He needed to get to a safe place. The inn, or back to his ship, which would still be in the harbor.

  The light darkened and he saw two men approaching down the alley. “Please,” he said raggedly. “I need help. . . .”

  “Well, lookee here,” a crude West Country voice said. “A pigeon for the plucking. Drunk as a lord, he be.”

  “Mebbe he is a lord,” his companion cackled. “Look at them clothes! I wager he has a heavy purse. That coat’ll be worth a pretty penny, too.”

  Kirkland swore to himself. Ordinarily he could handle two clumsy louts without even breathing hard, but at the moment, an alley cat could take him down.

  Even so, his trained reflexes kicked in when a rough hand grabbed his arm and dragged him to his feet so the man could yank at his coat. Kirkland wrenched free and kicked the fellow’s knee, sending his assailant staggering.

  “Bugger!” the man swore, enraged. “You’ll be sorry for that!”

  They came at him together, snarling the filthiest oaths imaginable. Kirkland managed to land a few blows, but he was quickly knocked to the ground. A booted foot swung viciously toward his head. He tried to roll away, but the wall prevented him from getting clear. The boot grazed his skull, and merciful darkness descended.

  Infirmary hours wer
e over for the day, and Laurel Herbert luxuriated in the quiet. Not many people had come seeking treatment that afternoon. That was fortunate since Daniel was away and Laurel was no physician, though she’d learned a great deal through working in the infirmary for years.

  Betsy Rivers, her assistant, was away visiting her ailing grandmother, so Laurel had the house to herself for the night. Such delicious peace!

  She made a cup of tea, releasing her hair from its knot as the tea steeped. When the drink was ready, she carried the gently fragrant cup upstairs to the music room, where her piano, a magnificent Broadwood, awaited.

  Also waiting was her gray tomcat, Shadow. He looked up from the chair where he’d been snoozing, blinked his golden eyes, then tucked his nose under his tail again. He was very easy company, which suited her mood.

  Laurel settled on the bench and put the tea aside to cool. What to play? She was learning a new Mozart piece, but since she was tired, her fingers drifted into her favorite Beethoven sonata. Music was food for the soul, and she loved the serene power of the piece even though it carried too many memories.

  She had just finished the Adagio movement when she heard the knocker hammering on the infirmary door. She smiled ruefully and took a large swallow of tea before setting the cup aside to head downstairs. She should have known that peace and quiet were not guaranteed. The Herbert Infirmary never refused anyone, and since she lived upstairs and was the only one here this evening, the duty was hers.

  In the interest of dignity, she tied a simple knot in her long hair. It would slide out soon, but while it lasted, she’d look more mature and responsible.

  She opened the door to find two stevedores from the port who attended services at her brother’s chapel. Between them they carried an unconscious man wearing only drawers and a torn, bloody shirt, his limp arms slung over their shoulders.

  “Sorry, Miss Herbert,” the taller man, Potter, said. “We found this fellow beaten bad in an alley and figgered you’d see to him.”

  “And so I will. You were right to bring him here.” Laurel stepped back so they could move past her. The injured man’s head was hanging and dark hair obscured his face, but he looked fit and healthy, which always helped in recovery.

  As they carried him to the nearest examination room, Larkin said worriedly, “He’s got a fever, poor sod. Not the pox, is it?”

  “I see no signs of smallpox,” Laurel said reassuringly. “Fevers have many causes.”

  The examination room had good natural light and a wide, padded table standing in the middle. Built-in cabinets held instruments, bandages, linens, and other supplies.

  The stevedores laid the man down with surprising gentleness and rolled him onto his back. Laurel frowned as she scanned the damage. Bruises and lacerations aplenty, but no massive bleeding, no obviously broken bones, and his breathing was good.

  If there wasn’t a serious head injury . . . Her gaze moved to his face. Strong, even features, high cheekbones. . . She gasped, icy weakness washing through her.

  “You know him, miss?” Potter asked.

  She struggled for control, and was surprised how calm her voice sounded. “He’s . . . Lord Kirkland. A friend of the family. He and my brother were schoolmates.”

  Larkin scratched his head. “If he be a lord, some-un’ will be looking for him. Was he comin’ to visit you?”

  “He has a shipping company, so likely he’s in Bristol on business,” she said, still unnaturally calm. “He had swamp fever as a boy and sometimes it flares up again. If that’s the case this time, there’s no risk to you for your good deed.”

  Potter asked, “Do you need help with the fellow, Miss Herbert?”

  Guessing that they wanted to get home for their supper, she shook her head. “No, I’ll examine Lord Kirkland to see how serious his injuries are. If he needs a surgeon, I’ll send someone from Zion House to bring one.” She managed a smile. “Mr. Potter, Mr. Larkin—you have been true good Samaritans today.”

  Pleased by her praise, they ducked their heads bashfully and left. Laurel latched the door behind them, then leaned back against it, shaking. Could she have been wrong in her identification? She’d been seeing shadows of James Kirkland in other men for years.

  No, she would recognize him at midnight in a coal mine. Steeling herself, she returned to the examination room to tend his injuries. He looked oddly vulnerable lying there. Young. Not as enigmatic and formidable as he loomed in her memory.

  James, Lord Kirkland. Rich beyond imagining, onetime best friend to her brother, the most dangerous man she’d ever met.

  James, the husband she’d left ten long years ago.

  Chapter 2

  Kirkland struggled through agonizing darkness, knowing it was a fever attack. His dreams of Laurel were always most vivid when his body burned. Then she seemed real enough to touch. Memories of her flooded through him with hypnotic intensity.

  If he lived to be a hundred, he’d never forget the night they met. Laurel’s older brother, Daniel Herbert, had been a student at the Westerfield Academy a class behind Kirkland. Daniel hadn’t been sent there for bad behavior—he’d been a paragon of courtesy and discipline.

  But his parents worried that he was too religious. A proper English gentleman should be a man of faith, but too much faith was—unseemly.

  Worse, Daniel was drawn to reformist sects like the Methodists, and his parents saw no reason why society needed reforming. They’d sent their son to Lady Agnes Westerfield on the assumption that a duke’s daughter would ensure that her students had a good Church of England upbringing.

  They’d been right, to a point. Students had to attend weekly chapel services, but they weren’t required to hold any particular set of beliefs. Lady Agnes Westerfield, who had traveled widely, believed that the Church of England was not the only path to heaven.

  Kirkland and Daniel Herbert had become friends when they discovered a mutual passion for discussing ethics, morals, and philosophy to a depth that sent other students fleeing. Daniel’s views were more religious and spiritual while Kirkland leaned toward philosophers like Locke and Voltaire. Their conclusions about justice and morals were often the same, but the paths they took there were different.

  Their stimulating discussions continued for years as they moved from the Westerfield Academy to Oxford. Kirkland had just finished at Balliol when Daniel invited him to visit the Herbert family home near Bristol.

  Slowed by muddy roads, the two of them had arrived late at Belmond Manor, after the household had retired. Daniel showed Kirkland to a guest room, then went yawning to bed.

  Though the room was comfortable, Kirkland had trouble falling to sleep. He was tossing and turning when he heard music. A pianist was playing Beethoven in the room below his bedchamber. He loved music and was competent on the piano, but whoever played downstairs was extraordinary.

  Kirkland was cursed with curiosity, so he donned slippers and a banyan and followed the enchanting music. Downstairs he opened the door to the music room—and saw Laurel Herbert for the first time.

  She sat on the other side of the piano, her delicate features illuminated by a branch of candles. Her face and fair coloring emphasized her resemblance to Daniel, and she was so beautiful that she hurt his heart. She didn’t have the flamboyant appearance of a girl who could enter a room and draw every eye. Yet when he looked at her, he couldn’t look away.

  She glanced up as the door opened. Her wide-set eyes were a misty blue gray and the heavy braid of hair falling over her shoulder had the lustrous warmth of polished bronze.

  As their gazes met, powerful energy sparked between them like silent lightning. Every fiber in his body came alive.

  For the space of a dozen heartbeats, her hands stilled on the keyboard as her eyes widened. Then she rose and circled around the piano to greet him. Though he knew she was not yet eighteen, she had a quiet self-possession that was rare at any age.

  “You must be Daniel’s friend, Lord Kirkland.” She smiled and offered
her hand. She was tall and graceful as a fawn. “Welcome to Belmond Manor, my lord.”

  “Call me James.” As he took her hand and met her steady gaze, warmth and peace flowed through him, touching places in his soul that had been numb his whole life. Warmth and openness were the very essence of Laurel Herbert, and as he tightened his clasp on her hand, he knew with absurd certainty that he would love this woman till the day he died.

  Laurel had tended patients of all ages, races, and both genders over the years, so she could tend an estranged husband. Or so she told herself, though her hands were shaking when she brewed a pot of Jesuit’s bark tea and set it aside to steep while she treated his injuries.

  She might have stripped off the tattered garments if he’d been an unconscious stranger, but with James—she couldn’t. He was an intensely private man, and she of all people had no right to invade that privacy. So she inspected him limb by limb, testing that bones were intact and cleaning scrapes and cuts before moving on.

  She’d known this body so well once. . . .

  No! She cut off the thought and concentrated on cleaning the shallow but messy head wound that accounted for most of the bloodstains on his shirt. He was thinner than she remembered, taut muscle over bone with no softness anywhere. Working too hard, no doubt. Under his polished reserve, he’d always run on his nerves. Like a candle burning at both ends . . .

  Again she cut off the thought. He’d have bruises galore, but apart from his fever, his condition was good, though he’d have a pounding headache when he awoke.

  By the time she finished cleaning and treating his wounds, the Jesuit’s bark was ready. She strained a cup of the bitter fluid and stirred in a generous portion of honey.

  He shifted restlessly as she propped him up with pillows, then spooned tea between his lips. Though his face twisted at the taste, he must have recognized it as necessary medicine because he didn’t pull away. Seeing that he was swallowing well, she held the cup to his mouth so he could drink directly.

 
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