Not Quite a Wife by Mary Jo Putney

  Mrs. Wicker ordered, “The rest of you lot come along and help me clean up. There are still some ginger cakes to soothe any cases of jangled nerves.” Harold by her side, she started to usher people inside.

  Colin Holt said to Elizabeth, who was snug against his side, “I’ll walk you home now, then call at the magistrate’s on the way back to report this.”

  Ned, the sailor, said, “I’ll keep watch over this ’un till the magistrate and ’is men get ’ere.” He kicked the bound man in the ribs none too gently.

  With the critical issues sorted, the crowd dissipated. Elizabeth Ware took tight hold of Colin’s arm and they followed the others into Zion House.

  As the garden cleared, Laurel lost her battle with nausea, folded to the damp earth, and became violently ill. She was shivering and retching up the last of the bride cake when someone knelt beside her.

  Kirkland. Even ill and with her eyes closed, she knew him. A warm garment was laid gently over her shoulders. His coat, his scent. Shaking, she pulled the coat closely around her shoulders.

  “Can you manage to return to the house?” he asked quietly. “I can carry you.”

  She’d be cradled against him. Warm and intimate . . . She retched again, but there was nothing left in her stomach. He put his hand under her elbow, but she jerked away. After wiping her mouth with her wrist, she rose unsteadily, using the wall for support.

  “Would you like water to rinse your mouth out?” There was an edge of anxiety in his voice.

  Water. The thought was desperately attractive. “Please.”

  As he headed to Zion House, she started toward the infirmary, the coat dragged tight around her. She couldn’t think beyond the horror of Bailey and his death. What next?

  James Kirkland. Husband. Lover. Nemesis.


  Chapter 17

  Kirkland caught up with Laurel halfway back to Herbert House. She accepted the tumbler of water gratefully, rinsing her mouth thoroughly before drinking. The tumbler was almost empty when she returned it with a faded, “Thank you. Now we need to take care of your hand.”

  He would have offered Laurel his arm for the rest of the walk through the garden, but her taut face made it clear that she was strung as tight as a drumhead. He swore silently, thinking that the ease they’d gained in the dancing had been lost again. He’d dared hope that when they were private, there would be another kiss, and perhaps more. Now she looked as if she’d shatter if he touched her.

  “We need to go to an examination room so I can see your hand more clearly,” Laurel said.

  “It’s not serious. My fingers still work.” When he wiggled them as proof, he was rewarded with a vicious stab of pain. Blood was seeping through the handkerchief he’d wrapped around the injury.

  “As Daniel said, ‘Nonetheless.’ It must be treated.”

  He thought about asking how she was, but wasn’t sure how well his concern would be received. Instead, he said, “Distracting Bailey as you did was both clever and incredibly brave. Eileen owes you her life.”

  “This isn’t the first time an abusive husband has come here after his wife,” she said, her voice troubled. “But never with such violence. Perhaps our military men can organize a more formal guard service.”

  “Besides guards, both houses can be made more secure,” he said. “Iron bars on ground-floor windows. Spikes on top of the garden walls. I have a man who is an expert about such measures. I’ll send him here to look the houses over and see what can be done to keep the inhabitants safer.” Seeing her frown, he added, “I’ll cover the costs.”

  She glanced at him askance. “You care that much about Zion House?”

  “Of course, and not just because it matters to you.” He flexed his left hand again. It still hurt. “I dislike bullies. Eileen Bailey is a brave and resourceful woman to have saved herself and her daughter from that brute she married. I imagine many others like her have passed through Zion House.”

  “Yes, and on behalf of them all, I thank you.” They’d reached Herbert House, so she opened the door and led him to one of the infirmary examination rooms. Daniel’s soothing tones could be heard coming from the room next door.

  Kirkland glanced around the room as Laurel lit the lamps. Was this where he’d been treated and had his amorous encounter with his wife? He wasn’t sure. His mind had been rather fuzzy at the time.

  “Sit, please.” Laurel directed him to a chair by the lamps for the best light, then produced a tray holding a basin, clean cloths, and various other medical supplies. She wouldn’t look at him, he realized. She kept her head down as she studied the long, shallow slash that sliced neatly across the heel of his hand. Though her fingers were icy, that didn’t affect her deft competence.

  She still had his coat draped over her shoulders, but the way she was sitting in front of him allowed a dangerous view of her magnificent décolletage. She’d always had a splendid figure. Though it wasn’t why he loved her, it had been an entrancing bonus. Since this was not a good time to be entranced, he forced himself to look away.

  Laurel poured liquid from a bottle onto a cloth and began cleaning the knife slash. His hand jerked—the liquid stung like the very devil. Recognizing the distinctive scent, he said with surprise, “You clean wounds with gin?”

  “Daniel once had to patch up a group of sailors after a knife fight in a gin mill by the port.” She soaked a fresh piece of cloth with gin and wiped off the last of the drying blood. “When he checked later to see how they were doing, he realized that none of the many wounds inflicted that day developed any inflammation. Gin is cheap, so we use it regularly.”

  She still wasn’t looking at him. Guessing what was wrong, he said quietly, “I’m sorry that once again I’ve killed a man in front of you.”

  “I’m very grateful that you saved Eileen and Missy,” she said, still concentrating on his injured hand. “But . . . I do wonder if it was necessary to kill Bailey.”

  Don’t ever lie to me. He’d promised her that, which meant he had to tell her the whole truth, not a partial truth that left out the difficult bits. “Perhaps it wasn’t necessary,” he said slowly. “But it seemed right at the time.”

  She looked up at him then, her eyes bleakly gray. “You could have saved Eileen without anyone dying?”

  “When one is fighting a vicious brute armed with a deadly weapon, there’s little time to weigh the possibilities,” he said dryly. “Perhaps the knife didn’t have to end up in his throat. But he was large and dangerous and mad with drink and anger. It was safer for all concerned that he not have the chance to hurt others again.”

  He caught her gaze, wanting her to understand. “Even if Bailey had survived, what then? Hanging? Transportation to Botany Bay, where he might brutalize other women and children? What if he managed to escape? He’s the kind of man who would come after his wife and child again, and next time they might be unprotected.”

  “So you decided to remove the threat permanently.” Her voice was uninflected.

  “To say I decided makes it sound too deliberate. I knew he was a murderous drunkard and a danger to the innocent.” He sighed. “It’s remarkably difficult to kill another living being, Laurel. But . . . I’m pragmatic.”

  “Ruthlessly so,” she said, her voice edged.

  His lips tightened. “Did you hear Bailey’s comment about being able to get fifty pounds for his daughter? He probably planned to sell her to one of the brothels that specialize in small children. Missy is a pretty child and unusual looking with that bright red hair. He’d have been able to get a good price for her.”

  Laurel gasped, her eyes widening. “That’s what he meant? How vile!”

  “But you still are deeply disturbed that I killed the monster.”

  She swallowed hard. “I’m afraid so. Not that you were wrong. The problem is in me. Such violence makes me ill.”

  “I noticed,” he murmured, trying to sound ironic and amused. “Have you reconsidered coming to London with me?”<
br />
  She hesitated, and a bone-deep chill spread through him. Strange that she thought he was fearless.

  “None of the reasons to attempt reconciliation have changed,” she said gravely. “We owe it to ourselves and our child to try our best to rebuild this marriage.” She gave a faint, self-deprecating smile. “Not to mention that my megrims might be a result of the fact that I’m increasing. Women in my condition can behave very strangely.”

  His relief was almost unbearably intense. “Then we shall continue as we planned, and I shall hope never again to have to act in ways that make you ill.”

  “I hope so, too!” She put a light bandage on his hand, then rose. “Time for bed before I fall asleep here.”

  His gaze involuntarily shot to the broad examination table, which had made a fine bed on his first visit. When he jerked his gaze away, he saw Laurel’s brows arch with ironic amusement, but she said only, “Can we leave an hour later than we’d planned?”

  “Of course.” He got to his feet. “I won’t mind extra sleep, either.”

  He opened the door for her, and Shadow darted in and began stropping Laurel’s ankles. She scooped the cat up in her arms and scratched under his chin, which produced a rumbling purr. “I’m going to miss you, Shadow cat.”

  “You’re not bringing him with you?” Kirkland asked.

  “I considered it, but he’s not a young cat and it’s a long journey for just a month’s stay.” She transferred her attentions to his ears. “I shall leave him to the tender mercies of Mrs. Wicker, who dotes on him. He’ll be twice this size by the time I return.”

  As he escorted his wife up the stairs, Kirkland wondered how many cats it would take to keep her in London.

  As Kirkland left Laurel at her bedroom door, she wondered if he’d try to kiss her good night. She wasn’t sure she could bear for him to touch her. Luckily, her husband merely bowed, wished her a good night’s rest, and disappeared into his own bedchamber.

  Laurel entered her room, Shadow draped contentedly over her shoulder. To her surprise, Violet was seated in the corner with a lamp, quietly mending stockings. “I’m not sure those are worth the effort,” Laurel said as she set Shadow on her bed. “You should be getting some rest. We’ll have a long day tomorrow.”

  “I wanted to assure myself you were well,” Violet said as she set her mending into the basket beside her. “Perhaps you might want some broth to settle your stomach?”

  In other words, Violet had seen her new mistress being violently ill, but was too discreet to be specific. “I just realized that I’m ravenous,” Laurel said as she sank into a chair. “Broth, you say?”

  Violet moved to a tray on the dressing table, uncorked a jug, and poured gently steaming liquid into a mug. “Chicken broth and toasted bread. Delicate food after a difficult night.” She set the tray on the table beside Laurel.

  Laurel wrapped her cold hands around the warm mug and inhaled the rich scent of the broth. The temperature was just right for sipping. She sighed with pleasure as warmth eased through her. “You are very, very good at caring for people, Violet.” She nibbled on a piece of the crisp, thin cut toast. “Have we discussed your salary yet? Anything I might have said, I’ll double it.”

  Violet laughed but she looked pleased. “I can never repay my debt to you, but I will not refuse a salary. A woman without family or money will not fare well.”

  Laurel sipped more of the delicious broth. Mrs. Wicker did even the simplest things well. “What would you like for yourself in the future, Violet? Have you had time to think about that?”

  The girl settled down by her work basket, her brow furrowed. “For too long, I didn’t dare dream. But now . . . I want to live and die free. Perhaps someday to have a small dress shop where women who are not rich can come and I shall make garments that make them feel pretty and happy. And maybe in time I will find a man who is kind and looks at me as Mr. Kirkland looks at you.”

  Laurel frowned. “How does Kirkland look at me?” “As if you are his one hope of heaven,” Violet said simply.

  “I . . . haven’t noticed.” Disturbed, Laurel finished her broth and got to her feet. “Will you help me get this gown off? I want it burned.”

  Violet looked shocked. “But I can get the bloodstains out! The fabric is still sound and the color is very fine on you.”

  Laurel looked down at herself. Celestial blue fabric and bloodstains. Not to mention a neckline cut so low that it could distract a murderous drunk. “I can’t ever wear this gown again without thinking about tonight. But you’re right, it would be a sin to burn it. You may have it to do with as you will. Just . . . if you make it into a gown for yourself, please don’t wear it around me.”

  “You are generous, ma’am.” Violet moved behind Laurel and began unfastening the back. “The color would not suit me, but it will be perfect for someone else.”

  As long as Laurel didn’t have to see it again.

  Chapter 18

  Despite the early hour of Laurel and Kirkland’s departure, friends turned out to bid them farewell. Daniel was there, of course. He gave Laurel a long hug and murmured, “You can come home whenever you want, little sister. If you need my escort, let me know and I’ll be in London the next day.”

  “Thank you,” she whispered before letting him go. “It’s wrenching to leave my home of so many years.”

  “Another home awaits,” Kirkland said as he joined them. “In time, you may come to love it equally.”

  “Not in London!” she retorted. “This is my home and it always will be.”

  “Take care of her, Kirkland.” Daniel offered his hand, but the edge in his voice made his words more than routine good wishes.

  “I shall.” Kirkland shook Daniel’s hand, his gaze level.

  Not liking the way the two men were regarding each other, Laurel said, “Time we were on our way.”

  Kirkland nodded. “I’ll have a word with the drivers.”

  There were two carriages, neither bearing Kirkland’s coat of arms. One would carry Laurel and Kirkland; the other had Violet, Kirkland’s man Rhodes, and most of the baggage. Not that Laurel was bringing a huge amount. She would need nothing in London but her clothing, and she’d be acquiring a new wardrobe there.

  Anne Wilson, Betsy Rivers, and Eileen Bailey had also gathered to see them off. When Laurel hugged Eileen, she said, “How are you after such a frightening night?”

  Eileen smiled, looking more relaxed than Laurel had ever seen her. “I feel . . . very free, Miss Laurel. May God forgive me, I can’t be sorry Bailey is dead.”

  “I think God is very forgiving in circumstances like yours,” Laurel said, thinking that Kirkland’s rough justice had certainly benefited Eileen. “Give my love to Missy.”

  After they bid each other farewell, Laurel turned and was surprised to see Violet dodge behind the lead carriage, then lean against the side, her face pale and her hands knotted in fists. Kirkland had also noticed, and he reached the girl before Laurel did. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

  Violet swallowed hard. “A man has been watching me, I think for Captain Hardwick. A scarred sailor. I saw him down the street.”

  Laurel gazed down the street, but the man was gone. Kirkland’s eyes narrowed. “It’s good you’re leaving Bristol, Miss Smith. In London we must talk at greater length. Though it will be difficult for the man to trace you to the city, I suggest you not leave my house without a companion.”

  “Thank you, sir.” Violet’s hands unclenched. “And . . . and I have decided I will no longer be Miss Smith. The name was given to me because it was common, of no value. I was never a Smith, and I will not use that name again.”

  “Have you chosen another surname yet?” Laurel asked.

  “Would you mind if I take the name Herbert?” the girl asked shyly. “I won’t if you’d rather I didn’t. But I owe you so much. This is a way to honor you.”

  “That is one of the loveliest things anyone has ever said to me,” Laurel said warmly. “It
’s a pleasure to meet you, Violet Herbert!”

  “Thank you so much, ma’am!” Violet gave a radiant smile. “The slave girl Violet Smith is no more.”

  “You should be safer in London, but a woman’s first protector is herself,” Kirkland said. “I know a woman who has often been in dangerous places, and she’s learned how to fight well. She says most females are easy victims because they don’t know how to fight back. I can ask her to teach you useful tricks for self-defense.”

  “I would like that very much.” Violet bobbed a curtsy. “And now to London!”

  As Laurel headed to her carriage, she thought it said much about Kirkland that he lived a life where even the women knew how to kill.

  Still shaken by the sight of the scarred man, Violet walked swiftly toward the carriage that would take her, Mr. Kirkland’s valet, and the luggage to London. The sooner she was away from Bristol, the better.

  A man emerged from the carriage and held the door for her. Youngish, brown haired, and wiry in build, he offered her a cheerful smile. “I’m Rhodes, and we’ll be companions on the road to London.” Then his gaze locked on her with an expression Violet was all too familiar with. He swallowed. “You’re Miss Smith?”

  Violet put on her most severe expression. “Miss Herbert. I have just decided to change my surname.” Refusing his hand, she climbed into the carriage without aid and slid to the far end of the seat, as far from Rhodes as she could get.

  He swung up beside her and closed the door behind him. As he settled onto the seat, keeping his distance, he said, “I’m sorry I gawped at you, but honestly, you can’t blame a chap for being all agog at the sight of the prettiest girl in Bristol.”

  “Too often looking leads to touching,” she said with a scowl. “I’m free now and no man will ever again lay a finger on me if I’m unwilling.”

  He stared at her, shocked. “That’s not going to happen to you, not in Lord Kirkland’s household. He’d personally thrash any servant who bothered a woman. He’s right scary when he’s angry. I wouldn’t do it anyhow. My mum always taught me to be nice to girls ’cause they’re the weaker sex. Though I think she was wrong when it came to my sister.” He offered a tentative smile.

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