Not Quite a Wife by Mary Jo Putney

  Suppressing a sigh, she gazed out the window at the passing countryside. She wasn’t even sure they could manage to be comfortable together. But dear God, she wanted more! And that thought moved them into dangerous territory.

  Chapter 20

  Kirkland had traveled from London to Bristol with absurd speed when he’d learned of Laurel’s pregnancy, but their journey back to the city was a more normal two days, for which Laurel was grateful. She was even more grateful for the separate rooms in the inn where they spent the night.

  There was no more drama. After she fell asleep on his shoulder and panicked when she woke, Kirkland shifted to the facing seat, which eliminated the risk of her napping and ending up wrapped around him. She did nap often, and when she was awake, she hooked enough squares for two baby blankets before she ran out of wool. When they spoke, they were very, very civil.

  Given the confined quarters of the carriage, it was a relief to reach London. At least in some ways. As they moved from the country into crowded, raucous streets, Laurel began to tense. Bristol was a sizable city and a busy port, but London was in a whole different class. She could feel the weight of all the lives and strife.

  “You’re frowning now that we’re almost home,” Kirkland remarked.

  “I’d forgotten just how noisy, smelly, and crowded the city is.” She gazed out the carriage window. “I’ve only been here once before, and I didn’t stay long enough to become accustomed.” Since that visit had been the handful of days with Kirkland before her marriage had shattered, she didn’t have many good memories of London.

  “The city is overpowering for newcomers, but Samuel Johnson said that a man who was tired of London was tired of life,” Kirkland observed. “Once you become better accustomed, what would you like to do beyond the normal business of living?”

  Her brows arched. “Apart from compulsory visits to modistes?”

  He smiled. “Apart from that. Though if you prefer, the modistes can come to you. It’s one of the advantages of being a countess.”

  “That could be convenient,” she observed. “But what I really want is music. The opera, chamber concerts, soirees. I want to hear the best musicians in England.”

  “You’ll not hear any pianists better than you, but there is every kind of music, not to mention art and literature and lecture groups. Feasts for the mind and senses.”

  Until now, she’d looked on this visit as a duty, but for the first time, she felt anticipation. She hadn’t had a holiday—heavens, since her honeymoon!

  Though she loved her work and was proud of what she and her brother had accomplished, perhaps she was ready to sample the delights of a great city. “I want to do all those things! And also . . .” She bit her lip. “It’s rather childish, but I’ve always wanted to visit Astley’s Amphitheatre to see the stunt riders.”

  “I always enjoy Astley’s and shall welcome an excuse to go again,” he said promptly. “What else?”

  She glanced out at the fashionable streets of Mayfair. If she was to spend part of her life in London, she needed more than a handsome house. “I want to make friends, because without friends, London would be a sad place. You thought that some of your friends’ wives might be kindred spirits?”

  “I’ll arrange a dinner party a few days from now so you can judge for yourself,” he replied. “As soon as you have a new gown or two made.”

  “For confidence? You’re right, I’ll need armor when meeting people who will be inclined to disapprove of me,” she said wryly. “No matter how much you tell your friends that I was blameless in our separation, they’ll be loyal to you and understandably suspicious of me for complicating your life.”

  His brow furrowed. “You may be right, but they are fair-minded people. Any doubts will vanish once they meet you. Who could not like you?”

  She shook her head. “Your belief that I am special is one of your most appealing qualities, but not everyone would agree with you.”

  “We’ll find out soon enough, but truly, I don’t think you need worry.” He glanced out the window. “Almost home now. We’re entering Berkeley Square.”

  She was surprised to see that outside her window was an oval park in the center of a long city square. “This isn’t the house you had before.”

  “That place was damp and had no good memories, so I sold it,” he explained. “This house is larger and more comfortable, and the square is a pleasant place to walk.”

  “It looks very fashionable,” she said dubiously.

  “This side of the square is. One of the patronesses of Almack’s, Lady Jersey, lives just over there. The other side has very nice shops, including the famous Gunter’s tea shop.” He smiled. “Easy walking distance.”

  “Lord help me,” she muttered. “That doesn’t mean I have to go to Almack’s, does it? Not that they’d let me in since I am most certainly not fashionable!”

  “I am considered very fashionable,” he said peaceably, “and as my wife you’d be welcome. That doesn’t mean you have to attend any of the assemblies, though.”

  She felt an internal twinge and pressed a hand to her abdomen. “I’m more interested in finding a good midwife. Perhaps one of your friends’ wives will know one.”

  “My friend Major Randall’s wife is a very skilled midwife. If the Randalls are in London, you’ll be able to meet her when we have that dinner.”

  One of his wellborn friends had married a midwife? That was unusual enough to be worthy of note, but before she could inquire further, the carriage rumbled to a halt in front of one of the town houses. After the guard opened the carriage door and lowered the steps, Kirkland stepped out and turned to offer his hand. “Welcome to your London home, Lady Kirkland.”

  A new house, a new start. Since she’d only be in London a month, Laurel could have endured the old house where their marriage had shattered. But she was glad she didn’t have to. Feeling rumpled and not much like a countess, she took his hand and stepped down. As they entered the house, the baggage coach containing Violet and Rhodes halted behind the first coach.

  Kirkland rapped the dragon’s-head knocker sharply, then produced a key and opened his front door. Seeing Laurel’s surprise, he explained, “I often come and go at odd hours, so I prefer not to have to wake any servants.”

  “Thoughtful,” she commented. “As well as keeping your activities discreet.”

  “That, too,” he agreed as he opened the door and ushered her inside.

  Before the door had closed, a balding butler emerged from the depths of the house. “My lord!” He made a swift bow. “We didn’t know when you’d be returning.”

  “Neither did I until I left Bristol. Soames, may I present Lady Kirkland. Laurel, Soames is my extraordinarily efficient butler.”

  Soames was a man of military bearing and massive dignity, but his eyes almost popped before he bowed again. “Shall I assemble the staff for her ladyship to meet?”

  Kirkland glanced at Laurel, then shook his head. “My wife is tired. I’ll take her to her rooms so she can rest. A light supper for later, please. She can meet Mrs. Stratton and the rest of the staff in the morning. Speaking of staff, Rhodes and my wife’s maid, Miss Violet Herbert are right behind us with the baggage.”

  “Very good, my lord.”

  As Laurel headed to the staircase with Kirkland, she couldn’t resist saying, “Never a dull moment in Kirkland House, Soames?”

  His eyes glinted. “No, my lady. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

  Chapter 21

  Kirkland had never believed that he and Laurel would reconcile, but even so, when he’d considered buying the Berkeley Square house, he’d thought of her. That had been particularly true when he’d walked through the mistress’s suite, which overlooked the sizable garden behind the house. It had been bittersweet pleasure to imagine her gazing from the window at the flowers and plane trees of the garden, her lovely face pensive.

  And now she was here. He still didn’t quite believe it.

bsp; She turned with a smile. “It’s a handsome house. Much nicer than the old one.”

  “You’re free to make whatever changes you want. Painting, wallpaper, new furniture.”

  Her gaze swept over the serene cream walls and moldings, the accents of rose and green. “That won’t be necessary. It almost seems as if you decorated the rooms to my tastes.” Her glance went back to him. “Did you?”

  Once again honesty was required. “Yes,” he admitted. “These rooms were drab and something had to be done, so I chose colors and furnishings I thought you’d like even though I didn’t expect you to ever see them.”

  “Life is mysterious.” She turned from the window. “Your rooms are adjacent?”

  He nodded. “The layout is very similar. There are connecting doors between the bedrooms and the two sitting rooms.” After a moment, he added, “I can have locks put on your side if you like.”

  Her expressive brows arched. “Is that necessary?”

  He studied her graceful figure, a perfect balance between slimness and womanly curves. “I hope not,” he said honestly. “But I can’t make any guarantees. You’re still the most attractive woman I’ve ever met.”

  She looked away. “Is there a music room?”

  “At the front of the house. This way.”

  Laurel’s face lit up when he ushered her into the music room. “The piano looks just like my Broadwood!”

  “Your instrument had the best sound of any piano I’ve ever heard, so I had Broadwood make another like it.”

  Face alight, she sat on the bench and ran exploratory fingers over the keys, producing a ripple of clear, bright notes. “I haven’t played in days.” She glanced up at him, her face relaxed. “Since you showed up on my doorstep. Not playing is surely bad for my temper.”

  “Then play for me. It will improve both of our tempers.”

  She needed no encouragement. Turning back to the instrument, she began the Rondeau allegro movement of Mozart’s Sonata in B-flat Major, filling the room with swift, playful notes. A good omen for her mood, he thought. He settled on the sofa and closed his eyes, his tension dissolving in the rich currents of her playing.

  When she finished the movement, he opened his eyes and applauded. “You’re even better than you were before, Laurel. Not just technique but the feeling.”

  She spread the fingers of her left hand and played a low, somber chord. “There is nothing like working with people in trouble to expand one’s store of feeling.”

  “That’s part of being older and wiser, I think. Would you honor me with an encore, my lady?”

  She regarded him thoughtfully. “You said you still played.” She rose from the piano and gestured at it grandly. “Your turn, maestro.”

  “I’m not up to your standards,” he said uncomfortably. He never played for others, only himself.

  “This isn’t a contest.” A glint of humor showed in her eyes. “As your former teacher, I want to learn if you’ve been practicing.”

  He supposed that was fair. His love for music was part of what had drawn him to Laurel, who had music flowing in her veins. As a boy, he would pick out tunes on the largely unused Kirkland piano when there was no one around to hear.

  When he’d revealed his passion for music to Laurel, she’d offered lessons. He’d leaped at the opportunity to learn. She was a wonderful, patient teacher, and those lessons were among the brightest memories of their honeymoon.

  As they exchanged places, he wondered what to play. Not one of the Mozart pieces that Laurel performed so brilliantly. He should choose one of his favorites. Ah, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. The Andante from the Sonata in G Major. He knew it well, and played it well. Usually.

  He rested his hands on the keyboard for a long moment and stilled his mind in preparation. He would never be Laurel’s equal as a pianist, but he didn’t want to humiliate himself in front of her. As he began weaving intricate cascades of notes, Laurel sat up straight, listening with her whole body.

  He hadn’t played for others because for years, music had been the truest outlet for the emotions he suppressed in his daily life. But who had a better right to hear those feelings than his wife? Anger, despair, longing, hope—everything flowed from his mind to his hands and into the music.

  When he finished the piece, the silence was so long that he was almost afraid to look at Laurel until she said quietly, “That was extraordinary. You’ve improved remarkably, my lord.”

  He was ridiculously relieved by her praise. Turning on the bench so he could see her, he said, “As you see, I’ve been practicing. I’ve also continued with my hobby of making new arrangements. I enjoy reducing concertos for multiple instruments into sonatas for myself.”

  “I’d almost forgotten, but your first arrangements were creating four-handed pieces we could play together.” She rose from the sofa. “Shall we do that again?”

  He’d done those first arrangements because they were a challenge, and because he liked the idea of sharing a keyboard with Laurel. Playing together had been enormous fun, and had often ended in a different kind of play. Refusing her request now would be wise—but there was a limit to his store of wisdom. “I’d like that.”

  He moved to the left so there was room for her on the bench. She was so close that he felt the warmth of her body. He forced his gaze to the keyboard, trying not to remember how their joint playing had ended in the past.

  She began a Beethoven sonata they both loved, which was why he’d created a four-handed version. Laurel’s pleasure in the result had been satisfying in a way his more worldly accomplishments had never been.

  She shot him a teasing glance as her slim fingers danced across the keys. He found that he still intuitively anticipated her changes in tempo so that his playing complemented hers. It was a pleasure almost equal to kissing her.

  Almost, not quite.

  When they finished, she said, “That was wonderful. You must have guessed that having music here was the best way to make me feel at home in London.”

  “I didn’t think that consciously, but I knew it was as essential to you as the air you breathe,” he admitted.

  “And equally essential to you.” She rested her fingers soundlessly on the keys as she exhaled roughly. “You want more than to be comfortable friends for the sake of our child, don’t you?”

  “Yes,” he said softly, matching her directness. “How could I not? We can’t recapture the past, but my greatest hope is that we can find our way to be truly married again. You’re the only wife I’ve ever wanted, Laurel.”

  She raised her head, her perfect profile silhouetted against the window. “You’ve ruined me for any other husband, James, but I don’t think I can be what you want. What you deserve. My mind understands your actions, but my emotions—my sense of right and wrong—can’t deal with the violence. Even if it’s justified.”

  “You are as you are, my lady, just as I am what I am,” he said with profound regret. “Perhaps spending time together will bring us together again. But I’m not counting on that.”

  “Perhaps when pregnancy is no longer working on my emotions, I’ll be less difficult,” she said with a sigh.

  “Again, I’m not counting on it,” he said dryly. “One’s sense of right and wrong is an essential part of one’s character. But I’m very grateful that you’re here. If this is the closest we can be—it’s a great deal better than nothing.”

  “James . . .” She reached out to lay her hand over his.

  He jerked away. “That isn’t wise, Laurel. After that music—I’m not sure that I am safe.”

  She yanked her hand back. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to make this any more difficult than it already is.”

  “I know.” He stood, thinking it was ironic that they could understand each other so well, yet still be separated by their essential natures. “I shall leave you to your music. I have business to attend to in my study. Until we dine, my lady?”

  She stood, then sank into a sweeping court curtsy. “Un
til we dine, my lord.” As she rose, her eyes were filled with deep sadness.

  He bowed with matching courtliness, then left the room. At the moment, it was very difficult to hold on to the frail hope that she might again be his wife in every way.

  Was it possible to survive without hope?

  To steady her frayed nerves, Laurel played a complete Mozart sonata after Kirkland left. She liked that they could share music and talk honestly to each other.

  The hard part was the abyss that lay between them. Civility and being older and wiser made it possible for them to communicate—but not to build a bridge over that damnable abyss.

  As the last notes of the sonata died, she realized she was exhausted. Wearily she returned to her sumptuous bedchamber. During her time in the music room, vases of bright, fragrant flowers had magically appeared in her bedchamber to welcome the countess. Kirkland’s staff was very efficient.

  The open door to the dressing room revealed that Violet was efficiently unpacking Laurel’s trunk. Laurel asked, “Are your quarters comfortable?”

  The girl glanced up. “Oh, yes, my lady. I have a fine room all to myself in the attic as well as a chamber off this dressing room for when you need me close. The housekeeper and other staff were very welcoming because I am your personal maid.” Violet placed a short stack of folded shifts in the clothespress.

  Laurel subsided into a chair and removed her shoes. “My wardrobe is rather pathetic, isn’t it?”

  “Your clothing is suitable for a woman who runs an infirmary and a sanctuary in a provincial city,” Violet said tactfully. “But the world expects more of a countess.”

  Laurel wrinkled her nose. “I don’t want to look like a tragic mistake of Kirkland’s youth, so clothing is my first priority. He says I can summon a modiste, or go out to an exclusive shop. Is one method preferable to the other? You’re my expert.”

  Violet thought as she continued unpacking. “You should go out, I think. You need to become accustomed to London, and if you go to a shop that has partially made garments available, you should be able to walk out with a new gown. Also, there will be more samples of fabric and trimmings.”

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