Not Quite a Wife by Mary Jo Putney

  “I look forward to the gathering.” He offered Laurel his arm. After a moment’s hesitation, she accepted, her hand curving lightly onto his coat sleeve. He could barely feel the brush of her fingers, but even that slight touch warmed him. They were making progress—she was touching him even without an audience.

  Where would they be after a month under the same roof?

  After they ate, Kirkland waited for Laurel while she changed and fixed her hair. She appeared in the same celestial blue gown she’d worn to call on her parents, but someone, presumably her new maid, Violet, had cut the bodice dramatically. Too much so for Laurel, who had tucked a demure white fichu around the neckline. Even covered up, she was beautiful.

  And she was wearing her wedding ring. His gaze locked onto the gold band. “I see you found your ring,” he said, his throat tight.

  “It was never lost,” she said quietly.

  He raised her left hand and kissed the gold band on her ring finger, then wondered if he’d exposed too much of himself. If she knew how he really felt, she’d bolt. Releasing her hand, he said lightly, “It’s good to see it again.”

  “I’m not wearing gloves tonight so that everyone can see the ring and know that we really are married,” she explained as she led him out into the large walled garden that joined the houses.

  It was still light, so he looked around appreciatively as they followed a wide, curving flagstone path to the other house. Besides flowers and shrubs, there were vegetable and herb gardens and fruit trees espaliered against the stone walls. “The garden is handsome and also practical, I see. Your work?”

  “It’s the personal project of Anne Wilson, the matron of Zion House. She puts residents to work out here. Women who have been abused find it soothing to work with plants and flowers.” Laurel gestured toward the vegetable beds. “Being able to produce some of our own food is useful as well.”

  They paused beside a handsome wooden bench set under an arch covered with flowering vines. “I see there are places to relax and enjoy the quiet as well. Another benefit for those in need of sanctuary?”

  Laurel nodded. “Violet sits out here every day for at least a few minutes. She says that she likes the freedom to just sit without worrying about being punished for not being busy.”

  He brushed his fingertips over the beautifully carved wood of the bench’s back and arms. “Were the benches made locally? I’ve not seen any like them.”

  “One of Zion House’s few male residents did the carving. He’s a sailor who carved to amuse himself on long voyages,” she explained. “He does beautiful work.”

  “How did he come to live here? I had the impression that Zion House residents were all women and children.”

  “He was in the navy and lost a leg in a sea battle with the French. He’s one of half a dozen men, mostly former soldiers and sailors, all of them handicapped in one way or another. They live in remodeled mews on the alley that runs alongside that wall.”

  “Separated from the women because men can’t be trusted?” Kirkland asked dryly.

  “Let’s say that it’s wise to reduce temptation on both sides,” she replied. “It’s useful to have male residents. Despite their disabilities, they can do much of the heavier work, and they also serve as guards.”

  “Guards?” he asked, then guessed the answer. “To protect women against abusive husbands.”

  “Exactly. We almost had a murder here once, until one of our former soldiers stepped in. He’s missing an arm, but he still knows how to be a soldier.” She frowned. “Most of the females who leave here can find decent positions in service, but it’s harder to find jobs for the men.”

  “Work is the key, isn’t it?” he said thoughtfully. “It sounds as if Zion House needs to start its own businesses to provide jobs. Starting with a woodshop.”

  “I’ve thought about doing that, but I’m not sure how to go about starting businesses and I haven’t had time to learn.” She glanced up through her lashes. “Start-up money would also be required.”

  “And you’re already stretching every penny until it squeaks?” he said with amusement. “I can give you more funding, and I know a man in Birmingham who has set up several small manufactories. I think he could be persuaded to come to Bristol to help you do the same.”

  “That would be marvelous!” Laurel’s eyes glowed.

  “While you’re in London, perhaps you’ll have the time to research what would be suitable and successful in Bristol,” he suggested. “Then you can write a proposal and we can get to work.”

  “I’ll do that.” She hesitated. “What if our reconciliation fails?”

  He hated that she was even thinking of the possibility. “I’ll still provide the funding and aid needed,” he promised. “I like using my money to do good, Laurel. I just don’t have the time to find appropriate uses. I’ll leave that to you.”

  As they approached the sanctuary house, Kirkland heard music. “Dancing tonight? Will there be enough male partners?”

  “No, but that won’t stop anyone from dancing! I can’t remember the last time I danced,” she said wistfully.

  “It will be my pleasure to partner you,” he said. “That will also help us persuade your friends that we’re happy together.”

  “That you don’t have horns and hooves,” she said with a smile as she took his arm in a possessive wifely way.

  He opened the door and voices and music flowed around them as they stepped into the small foyer. To the left, adjoining reception rooms had been opened into a decent-sized ballroom. At the far end was an elderly piano with an elderly but skilled female pianist. Seated beside her, a grizzled man with a wooden leg played zestfully on a fiddle. Chairs were set against all the walls, most of them occupied by older women and a few men, while the center of the space seethed with children and women.

  “Do all these people live here?” he asked with amazement.

  Laurel scanned the room. “Many, not all. Some lived here once and now have work and homes elsewhere, but they’ve come back for the party. Some are volunteers who help out here regularly. Elizabeth Ware, that pretty blonde with Dr. Holt, is one.” She nodded toward the left. “Violet is over there.”

  Kirkland followed his wife’s gaze to a dark, strikingly attractive girl who dressed with ladylike restraint rather than flaunting her exotic looks. She must have learned early that it was wise not to attract male attention. A pity she hadn’t been successful at that.

  Someone called, “There they are!”

  The music and chatter stopped dead and every head in the room swiveled toward them, including the pianist’s and the fiddler’s. Kirkland had confronted spies, traitors, and the Prince Regent in difficult moods, but he’d never felt so thoroughly examined. Or judged. There were children of all sizes, women of all ages, and a smattering of weathered-looking men. No Daniel, at least not yet.

  Laurel’s hand tightened on his arm. Raising her voice, she said, “Good evening, my friends. Allow me to introduce my husband, James Kirkland.”

  Kirkland offered his best smile. “It’s a great pleasure to meet the friends who have become my wife’s extended family.”

  As the crowd gave a kind of exhalation of relief and started to move again, a pleasantly authoritative woman approached. “Mr. Kirkland, welcome to Zion House. I’m Anne Wilson, matron of this establishment.”

  He bowed deeply. “And one of Laurel’s closest friends. We discussed the possibility of your visiting us at our home in London. I do hope you’ll consider it. You would be very welcome.”

  Her eyes sparkled, and he thought he’d made an ally. “I hope that will happen,” she said. “Let me give you a tour while Laurel is busy exchanging hugs with everyone.”

  He glanced at his wife and saw that an older woman with ravaged features and peaceful eyes was embracing Laurel. Leaving her to her farewells, he followed Anne Wilson out of the ballroom. When they were in the quieter foyer, Anne said, “You don’t actually have to do the tour, but I thought y
ou might like to step away for a bit.”

  “Plus, you get an opportunity to evaluate whether I’m good enough for Laurel,” he said with amusement. “The answer is that I’m not.”

  “It’s not a matter of being good enough,” Anne said thoughtfully. “More a matter of how well you suit. You’re not what I would have expected in her husband.”

  “Which is why we separated,” he said with regret. “But we are older and wiser now. At least, that’s the hope. And I would like the tour. Zion House is very important to my wife, and I wish to know more about it.”

  She nodded approvingly. “You’re wise to do so. If you asked her to choose between you and her work here—well, you might not like the results.”

  He suspected that she was giving him oblique advice. “I’ll bear that in mind. How many people live here?”

  “Usually between thirty and fifty, though in really cold weather, sometimes more. We don’t like turning anyone away.”

  He whistled softly. “The house is large, but even so, how do you manage?”

  “As best we can. The goal is keep everyone safe, and help them develop the skills to support themselves and their children as well.” She led him down a short passage. “We have a nursery for the small children and an infirmary run by our own residents.”

  “Laurel said that you’re the person who developed the garden?”

  “Yes, people enjoy working there, and it’s good to provide some of our own food.” She led the way up a narrow service stairway. “The floors above are mostly sleeping quarters, though some rooms are used for lessons during the day.”

  “What kind of lessons?”

  “Everything!” She chuckled. “Reading and writing for those who were never taught. Needlework, cooking, cleaning, laundry. Sometimes music and drawing. Almost everyone has a skill they can teach, and everyone is better for learning more. Laurel set up all these programs. She’s a born teacher, though she spends most of her time managing the infirmary and Zion House.”

  “Will they collapse without her?” he asked.

  “I hope not,” Anne said seriously. “Laurel has trained others in the various skills needed, but she is the heart and soul of this place. She can’t really be replaced. I believe we’ll manage, but it won’t be easy to adjust to her absence.”

  Kirkland wished the matron thought there would be no problems. They might need Laurel, but so did he. “She’ll be returning soon,” he said. “At least that’s the plan.”

  Anne frowned. “I wish I was sure Laurel would really be back in a month.”

  Kirkland wished he could be sure that she wouldn’t.

  Chapter 15

  By the time they returned to the ballroom, Kirkland had even more respect for Laurel and what she had created here. As Anne moved away, Kirkland paused in the wide doorway, his gaze riveted on his wife. Laurel glowed with the warmth that had entranced him when they’d met.

  He’d feared that he’d destroyed that quality, because he’d seen little of it since they’d met again. But tonight the kindness and acceptance that were the essence of Laurel blazed forth with a power that drew everyone in the ballroom to her. She had a gift for friendship, and it came from caring about everyone who crossed her path.

  He frowned thoughtfully. Though he’d known she needed regular peace and solitude, now he recognized clearly that she also needed to be with people she enjoyed, and who enjoyed her. He must do his best to help her find new friends in London to balance the strong friendships she had here.

  She held a small boy while she laughed with the group around her, and it was vividly clear that she really was the heart and soul of the community she’d created. He gritted his teeth and refused to feel guilty about taking her away. He’d found her first.

  The double doors to the dining room were opened and Laurel’s assistant, Betsy Rivers, emerged. “Mr. and Mrs. Kirkland, it’s time to cut the cake.” She grinned. “No one can eat until you’ve done that, so the sooner the better!”

  “Heavens, we can’t keep people from their supper.” With a smile, Laurel returned the small boy to his mother and moved to Kirkland’s side. They entered the dining room together, the rest of the guests churning behind.

  The dining room’s three long tables were arranged in a U shape and decorated with vases of flowers and greens from the garden. The white tablecloths were scarcely visible because of the platters of carefully arranged food. The swiftly created foods on display weren’t London-elaborate or made with expensive ingredients, but Kirkland was sure the potato cakes and dressed eggs and other dishes would be delicious. Clearly everything had been made with love, which was an ingredient beyond mere money.

  The centerpiece of the middle table was a magnificent bride cake with Mrs. Wicker and a round, good-natured-looking man standing behind it. Almost two feet across, the cake was iced with expensive white sugar frosting and carefully applied decorative loops of the same sweet topping.

  “What a beautiful cake!” Laurel exclaimed.

  “Indeed it is,” Kirkland agreed as he studied the intricate decorations. “I’m amazed you were able to produce such a splendid bride cake so quickly.”

  “ ’Tis my Harold’s work,” Mrs. Wicker said proudly. She patted his arm, then offered a long knife to Laurel. “I took charge of the savories, but no one makes a cake like Harold! He pieced together four smaller cakes and he’s invented his own special way of decorating. ’Tisn’t a finer baker in Bristol!”

  As guests pressed around, Laurel cut the cake, revealing the dark, fruited interior. Fruit cake for fertility. From the scent, Kirkland guessed that good brandy was part of the recipe.

  Laurel set a wedge of cake on a small plate and offered it to him. Her eyes matched the celestial blue of her gown. “Will you do the honors, my dear?”

  He accepted the plate with a smile and took a bite as everyone waited for his judgment. He was perfectly prepared to praise the cake even if it tasted like sawdust, but lying wasn’t necessary. The rich, spicy flavors burst in his mouth with delicious layers of flavor. His eyes widened. “I’ve never tasted better! Here, my lady.”

  He offered Laurel the rest of the cake, feeling very husbandly. She tasted it, then exclaimed, “This is better than our original bride cake! Thank you both so much.”

  As people applauded, Kirkland murmured, “Later, perhaps we should ask Harold if he’d like to expand his bakery in partnership with Zion House.”

  Eyes sparkling, Laurel said, “I had the same thought.” He loved that their minds were in harmony.

  As Mrs. Wicker began slicing the rest of the cake, Kirkland and Laurel collected samples of all the dishes and glasses of lemonade and had a second supper. He was right—the food might be made from simple ingredients, but it was delicious.

  There were no opportunities to speak privately while they ate, since there was a continual stream of people coming to speak with Laurel. They were polite but wary to Kirkland, which was reasonable enough. He said little, content to watch Laurel.

  When they’d finished eating, he collected both plates and said, “I’ll open the door to the garden for some fresh air.”

  Laurel gave him a quick smile. “We’ll need that if there’s dancing.”

  Night had fallen, but the moon was full, bathing the garden in silvery light. A lovely night for a lovely event. In just this short time, Kirkland was coming to appreciate the community Laurel and Daniel had created. His own talents were exercised on the dark side of life. His wife and her brother created light and hope for those most in need.

  When he returned to the ballroom, he was spotted by a small redheaded girl child. Her chin firmed and she marched pugnaciously across the room and stopped directly in front of him. “You’re taking Miss Laurel away?”

  He knelt so they were closer to the same level. “Yes, she and I are married, you know. It’s usual for husband and wife to live under the same roof.”

  “Will you hit her?”

  He blinked. “Good God, no! Th
at would be very wrong.”

  She looked even more pugnacious. “Men hit women all the time.”

  He realized that must have been what her home was like, and his heart ached for the child and her mother. “And it’s always wrong. Men are supposed to protect and cherish women and children.”

  Looking unconvinced, she said, “Miss Laurel belongs here with us!”

  “That’s why she’ll return,” he said seriously. “Much of her heart is here.”

  “Then why is she going?”

  “Because I hope some of her heart is with me.”

  A familiar male voice said behind him, “It’s a waste of energy trying to reason with Missy. She knows her own mind, and isn’t about to change it.”

  Daniel. Feeling at a disadvantage, Kirkland got to his feet, keeping a wary eye on his brother-in-law, who looked tired and rumpled, and had traces of blood on his shirt. He must have come directly from the infirmary. “I was beginning to realize that.”

  Attention shifting, Missy threw her arms around Daniel’s knees. “Dr. Daniel!”

  Smiling, he bent and ruffled her red hair. Like his sister, Daniel had an appealing natural warmth and ease. He glanced at Kirkland and his warmth vanished, but at least he wasn’t actively hostile.

  Thinking he should make an overture, Kirkland said, “Anne Wilson gave me a tour of Zion House. I hadn’t realized how diverse your services are.”

  “Laurel gets the credit. I look after people’s bodies and souls. She helps them build better lives.”

  “Don’t let Miss Laurel go, Dr. Daniel!” Missy interjected.

  “It’s not my place to tell her she can’t go with her husband.” Daniel gently pried the little girl’s arms loose. “Isn’t it time you were in bed, Missy?”

  “No,” she said firmly. Then a similarly small friend called from across the room. Missy squealed and spun away at high speed.

  Kirkland shook his head in amazement. “What a terrifying amount of energy.”

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