Not Quite a Wife by Mary Jo Putney

  “We’ll do that, then. You’ll come with me, of course. You have more style in your little finger than I have in my whole body.” Not bothering to remove her rumpled gown, Laurel climbed onto the bed and pulled up the folded quilt that lay across the bottom of the mattress.

  “I shall be pleased to accompany you, but Lord Kirkland should come, too.”

  Laurel exhaled with pleasure as she relaxed. Two days in a coach, even a comfortable one, had left her very appreciative of a good mattress. “Why do we need Kirkland? I’m sure he has better things to do.”

  “I understand style, but I’ve always lived far from the centers of fashion.” Violet chuckled. “Given how well he dresses, his lordship must understand fashion.”

  Laurel covered a yawn. “Do I want to be fashionable?”

  She assumed Violet would say yes, but the girl surprised her. “Perhaps not, but you need to understand it well enough to know what you wish to embrace or avoid.”

  That made sense. “Then we shall learn London and fashion together. But now I must rest. Please wake me in time to dress for dinner.”

  “I shall.” Violet hesitated. “Forgive the impertinence, but are you increasing?”

  Laurel nodded. “Yes, and a very tiring business it is!”

  “Congratulations! That will affect your wardrobe, of course.”

  “So it will. Another subject I leave in your capable hands.” Laurel pulled the quilt over her head. The bed was deliciously comfortable, and large enough for two people with room to spare. A pity to waste it on a woman who was probably born to be a spinster, and hadn’t realized that in time to prevent herself from ruining a man’s life.

  Chapter 22

  By the time Laurel joined Kirkland for dinner, the tension he’d shown in the music room had been replaced by his usual calm control. Handsome, enigmatic, and concealing mysteries beneath his polished exterior. That control made it easier to be with him, but she missed the relaxed intimacy they’d shared with the music.

  As he pulled out her chair, she remarked, “This room is much more pleasant than the main dining room. One could hold a cricket match in there.”

  “I suspect you’re right.” Kirkland seated himself on the opposite side of the table and two footmen entered with trays of food and drink. “This is the breakfast room. The formal dining room is only used for company, and not always then.”

  As one of the footmen placed a bowl of deliciously scented soup in front of her, Laurel asked, “Do you dine in lonely splendor here?”

  He shrugged. “If I’m not attending some social event, I’ll usually eat at my desk in the study.”

  In other words, he worked much too hard. She tasted the soup, which was a rich chicken broth with herbs, rice, and shreds of chicken. She wondered if the Kirkland chef had been instructed to provide dishes that would appeal to a woman who was in the family way. She savored another spoonful. “Violet informs me that you should accompany me to the modiste because you know fashion and she only has style.”

  He smiled. “I’m sure she will rapidly learn what is fashionable, but I’ll be happy to escort you. I presume Violet will also come?” When Laurel nodded, he continued, “Then I’ll take Rhodes. As long as she might be in danger from Captain Hardwick, she shouldn’t go out without protection. Rhodes is a very useful man in a fight. He’ll make sure she comes to no harm.”

  Laurel finished her soup. “Is he rather more than the usual valet?”

  After a moment of hesitation, Kirkland said, “He helps me in my work in various ways. His background has given him some useful skills.”

  Laurel wondered what that bland remark covered. Probably spying of various sorts. She hoped Rhodes would also be an effective bodyguard. “I presume you know the best modiste in London and nothing less than the best will do for Lady Kirkland?”

  “The best is a matter of debate,” he said amiably. “If there’s a modiste you’d like to try, of course the choice is yours. But if you have no preference, Madame Hélier is patronized by the wives of some of my friends, and they always look very fine. I’m told she helps her clients achieve the look they want rather than imposing her own ideas.”

  Laurel tasted her poached sole with approval. “Then Madame Hélier it shall be. Do I need to make an appointment to see her?”

  “That would be advisable. I’ll have a note sent. I imagine that tomorrow you’ll want to become acquainted with the household, so perhaps the day after tomorrow?”

  Laurel sighed. “That will give me time to mentally prepare for the ordeal.”

  Kirkland laughed. “Will you feel better about a new wardrobe if you recall that your mother will be wild with envy?”

  “That’s a low but gratifying thought.” She sampled the cauliflower with cheese sauce. Lovely, with a hint of nutmeg. “If I am temporary mistress of the household, I need to meet your chef and possibly steal some recipes to take back to Bristol.”

  If he disliked her reference to the fact that she wouldn’t stay, he concealed the reaction. “Mrs. Simond might not be willing to share them, but sincere admiration is the quickest way to her heart.”

  “My admiration will be very sincere!” She finished her fish. “You have a female cook? I thought Mayfair only allowed temperamental male chefs, preferably French.”

  “Mrs. Simond is English, but she was married to a French chef. They lived and worked together in Paris until he was executed for some alleged political failing.”

  Laurel frowned. “How horrible for Mrs. Simond! Not to mention a waste of a good chef. Did you find her through an agency?”

  “One of my agents helped her and her two children escape to England,” he explained. “She arrived with no money or references, but the agent who brought the Simonds from France knew I was in need of a cook.”

  “Helping Mrs. Simond was very good of you.” The thinly sliced roast beef was as delicious as everything else Laurel had eaten. “Not to mention good for you.”

  “Seldom have I had a generous impulse so well rewarded. She regularly receives offers from people who dine here, but so far she has remained loyal.” His eyes glinted with amusement. “I generally increase her wages to insure that.”

  “Whatever you’re paying her, she’s worth it. Your dinner parties must be very popular.” The final course was cakes, nuts, and fruit, but all Laurel could manage was a single cake. A single, exquisite, cardamom-flavored almond cake.

  Replete, Laurel said, “I’m tired again. I’ll write a letter to Daniel to assure him I’m fine, then call it a night so that I’ll be prepared to meet your household staff in the morning. They will not be enthralled by my presence.”

  “They will be as soon as they get to know you.” Kirkland stood as she got to her feet. “Sleep well, my dear.”

  She hoped she would, but with her husband separated from her by only a connecting door, sleep might not happen.

  Laurel had been right to say that his servants would not be enthralled, Kirkland discovered the next morning as he introduced her to his household staff. He was so glad to have her back in his life that he hadn’t realized how many of the people around him felt protective on his behalf. That partisanship was demonstrated as soon as he introduced Laurel to Mrs. Stratton, the housekeeper.

  Usually Mrs. Stratton was brisk but pleasant, with an easy smile. Not this morning. Her expression was flinty as she greeted her new mistress. “Good day, Lady Kirkland. Shall I summon the staff so you can meet them all at once, or do you prefer to go through the house room by room and meet them where they work?” She held up a small daybook. “I’ll take notes of the changes you wish to make.”

  Laurel smiled and offered her hand. Even in her plain day dress, she had a quiet but unmistakable authority. “Good day, Mrs. Stratton. Naturally I wish to meet the servants, but I can do that as you guide me through the household. There’s no need to take notes. Since I’ll be dividing my time between London and Bristol, I intend to leave the management of Kirkland House in your experienced

  The housekeeper’s expression thawed somewhat. By the time they’d gone through half the house, she was back to her normal friendly self. Kirkland enjoyed watching his wife’s charm disarm his servants. He realized he’d been foolish to worry about how well Laurel would deal with a large London household. She’d managed a larger and more complicated establishment for years, and was expert at evaluating people and problems. She not only knew the right questions to ask, but in several places she made suggestions so gracefully that Mrs. Stratton agreed without even noticing that the new mistress was making changes.

  By the time they completed the tour of Kirkland House, Laurel had won respect and tentative acceptance from the entire staff. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Simond was the greatest challenge. She felt that she owed the lives of herself and her two children to Kirkland, and she would cheerfully take a carving knife to anyone who threatened him.

  When Kirkland and Laurel entered the kitchen, the cook looked up with a scowl that sat oddly on her usually cheerful round face. After Kirkland introduced Laurel, the cook nodded brusquely. Her “My lady” sounded like a curse.

  Undeterred, Laurel said, “Mrs. Simond, your cooking is superb! Everything from last night’s soup to this morning’s eggs has been masterly. Kirkland tells me that his guests often try to lure you away, so I hope you are content here. He deserves the best.”

  Softening a little, Mrs. Simond said, “His lordship has been that good to me, he has. He’s got my loyalty for life.” The implication was clear that Laurel had failed in the loyalty department.

  Serenely ignoring the innuendo, Laurel said, “Kirkland said he generally leaves menus in your capable hands. Since that works so well, I certainly won’t interfere, but I would like a tour of your domain.” She smiled at the young scullery maid. “I’d also like to meet your assistants. Producing a fine meal takes many hands.”

  Mrs. Simond introduced the three young women who worked under her, then took Laurel and Kirkland on a tour of the pantries and the still room. Once again, Laurel’s questions demonstrated her knowledge and appreciation of the work done here.

  The tour was almost over when Mrs. Simond opened the door to the scullery and a furry black and white creature streaked out, bolting past Laurel and the cook with a frantic scrabbling of claws. It was a large, chunky tomcat. He ricocheted around the kitchen, but with no door open for escape, he had to settle for taking refuge in a corner under a wooden chair.

  “Who’s this now?” Laurel drifted toward the cat’s hiding place.

  “The kitchen cat,” Mrs. Simond said with a defensive glance at Kirkland. “Half wild and afraid of people, but good at getting rid of vermin.”

  “Every kitchen needs at least one cat. Does he have a name?” Laurel knelt, her skirts falling about her, and held out one hand as she crooned, “Aren’t you the fine fellow? Do you realize how very lucky you were to have Mrs. Simond take you in?”

  “I call him Badger ’cause he’s black and white.” Mrs. Simond regarded the cat fondly. “And because he likes burrowing under things. He’s a timid fellow, for all that he’s sizable. Won’t let anyone touch him. He turned up in the kitchen garden half starving. I started to feed him and he came inside when the weather got cold.”

  “I’m sure he had a difficult life before he found you.” Laurel rubbed her fingers together and the cat moved a little closer. He was mostly black, with white feet and muzzle and huge, tragic green eyes. “Will you let me pet you, Mr. Badger?”

  Shy but drawn to Laurel’s gentle voice, the cat emerged from under the chair and leaned heavily against her hand. He had a broad tomcat head and his left ear was ragged. When Laurel started to scratch his neck, he closed his eyes and purred rustily.

  “He never did that for me!” Mrs. Simond said indignantly.

  “Now that he feels safe, he’s willing to be cuddled, but because he’s shy, he was waiting for you to make the first move,” Laurel said. “May I pick you up, Mr. Badger?”

  Carefully she slid her hands around him. Since he didn’t object, she lifted him in her arms. He flattened his chin on her shoulder, purring steadily.

  Laurel’s face glowed above the black and white fur. “What a very fine cat, Mrs. Simond!” She moved so that the cat was within petting range of the cook.

  Mrs. Simond stroked the furry head and he purred even more ecstatically. As Kirkland watched the love feast, he thought how much he and Badger had in common. Both of them wanted nothing more than to be cradled in Laurel’s arms.

  “You chose your feline assistant well, Mrs. Simond.” Laurel gently deposited Badger on the floor. “May I come and visit him if I promise not to get in the way of your work? I miss my cat, Shadow, but he’s too old to travel well.”

  Looking hopeful, Badger leaned against Mrs. Simond’s ankle. The cook picked him up and he relaxed in her arms as he’d done with Laurel. Expression doting, Mrs. Simond said, “Of course you can visit, my lady.”

  Laurel and Kirkland took their leave and headed upstairs. When they were out of earshot of the kitchen, he remarked, “It’s always good to charm the cook, but this is the first time I’ve seen a cat used for the purpose.”

  Laurel laughed. “Cooks and cats and kitchens always go together. Badger knows he’s found himself a good berth here, and he’s willing to express his appreciation.”

  “You were right that my household and friends would need to be won over, and you did so admirably,” he said seriously. “You look . . . as if you could be happy here.” Then he could have kicked himself for pushing her.

  Her smile disappeared. “You have a lovely house and good people working for you, but the same could be said of a decent hotel.”

  He held open a door for her. “Most hotels don’t have really good pianos.”

  Her expression eased. “There is that.”

  But it would take more than a cat and a piano to hold her here. He just wished he knew what would work.

  Chapter 23

  Kirkland had five different offices, not counting the ones on his various estates or the workplaces in Scotland. There was his government office in a small, unmarked building with two cells in the basement. There was his shipping company office in the Kirkland warehouse amid London’s dockyards. He shared an office with his friend Damian Mackenzie in the gambling club they co-owned, though Kirkland didn’t do much of the actual work, except for the time when Mac had been officially dead.

  There was also his study on the ground floor of Kirkland House, where he did the majority of his work. Lastly, a corner of his bedroom was equipped with a desk that he used when he wanted to work until he was tired enough to fall directly into his bed. That was the office he chose after Laurel retired because he could strip off his coat and cravat and boots and relax.

  He was too restless to sleep, so he tried to study reports from France while quietly savoring the fact that Laurel was just on the other side of the connecting door. Since images of her sleeping in his arms—or in his arms and not sleeping—played havoc with his concentration, he decided to write some letters and later indulge in the results of some string toasting.

  He’d written a dozen letters and the toasting was almost done when there was a knock on the connecting door to Laurel’s suite. Surprised, he called permission to enter, and Laurel shyly entered his bedroom. She wore a plain dark robe and her bronze hair fell over one shoulder in a shining braid. He caught his breath, thinking that she had the lush, profoundly feminine beauty of a goddess—and he wanted nothing more than to worship her.

  After an instant of delirious speculation, Kirkland accepted that there was nothing remotely seductive in her demeanor. Since she was followed by the soft-footed cat, Badger, he stood and said lightly, “Are you and Badger having trouble falling asleep?”

  She smiled and pushed her braid back over her shoulder. “I am, though Badger has no sleeping problems. He was snoring with his head on my shoulder. I lured him to my bedroom for the company. I hope Mrs. Simond doesn’t bec
ome angry with me about his fickleness.”

  “We all know the reputation tomcats have for visiting different beds,” Kirkland observed.

  “So very male,” she murmured. “Actually, I’m here because I was awake and starting to feel hungry. I was about to head down to the kitchen when I noticed delicious scents coming from your room.”

  “String toasting is an old schoolboy custom.” He gestured toward his fireplace where several apples and small, shallow pans dangled from strings in front of a fire. “Tonight is rather cold and foggy, so I decided to toast a small supper for myself. Apples are the traditional treat. I’ve added some small cheese melting pans.”

  Chuckling, she moved toward the fireplace and knelt to study what he was toasting. “Lady Agnes Westerfield never objected to her students driving nails into her mantels?”

  “She knew how hungry boys are, so she made sure there were generous supplies of apples and cheese available to keep us from starving between dinner and breakfast.” He smiled reminiscently. “I loved my years at the Westerfield Academy, and some of my best memories are of sitting by a fire toasting apples and building friendships.”

  “Daniel said he and you would debate theology and philosophy late into the night.” Laurel rose and curled up in the wing chair that faced the fireplace, her legs tucked under her. “He never mentioned the string toasting.”

  “Being undignified, it was something of a schoolboy secret.” Kirkland turned another wing chair to face the fireplace, keeping it far enough from Laurel’s chair that he wouldn’t be tempted to touch her. “But I’m far from the only grown man to still indulge. The apples aren’t quite done yet, but I can offer you toasted cheddar on pilot bread, with claret to wash it down.”

  “What is pilot bread?”

  “A simple, dry biscuit that keeps a very long time.” Beside the fireplace was a square basket that contained utensils, wine, cheese, and a tin box of pilot bread. He removed a piece and handed it to Laurel. “Named for ship pilots. It hasn’t a lot of flavor, but it’s very common at sea because it doesn’t spoil. Cheese improves it markedly.”

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