Not Quite a Wife by Mary Jo Putney

  She studied the simple square of baked biscuit. “Cheese with pilot bread, please. I think Badger will want some also.” The cat had leaped onto her lap and was staring longingly at the cheese, his tail twitching.

  Kirkland cut thin slices from the block of cheddar and laid them on the hearth for the cat. Then he poured melted cheddar onto the bread and handed the small plate to Laurel. “Not up to Mrs. Simond’s standards, but unofficial food has its own charm.”

  “A very nice cheddar,” she said after a bite. “Claret would go well with it.”

  He poured them both small glasses of wine, then settled into his chair for his own biscuits with hot cheese. He loved the quiet domesticity of sharing a fire and food with Laurel. It was the small moments like this that gave him hope for their future.

  She ate several more biscuits with cheese and sipped at her wine before saying in a low voice, “Your servants have practical reasons to accept me, but I’m worried about the dinner with your friends. When do you plan to invite them to meet me, and how large is the party likely to be?”

  “In two or three days. Long enough for you to acquire suitable clothing.” He made a mental count. “Five couples, if they’re all in town and available.”

  “I trust the guest list has been carefully selected to include only people who will take a charitable view of my unwifely behavior?” she asked warily.

  “The men are all friends from the Westerfield Academy, which proves they were never particularly conventional,” he said reassuringly. “And none have married the sort of woman who condemns easily.”

  She sipped at her claret. “Have your friends known all along that you were married and abandoned? If so, they’ve had plenty of time to develop low opinions about me. And justly so since I was the one who left you.”

  “Ashton knows because he’s the sort of man one can talk to when one’s life falls apart.” And Kirkland had fallen apart quite thoroughly when he’d told his friend what had happened. Ashton had sympathy and a grave acceptance that made it possible to reveal pain. “Mackenzie and Carmichael also know because they’ve worked closely with me for years.”

  “The others don’t know you’re married?” She began nervously breaking a piece of pilot bread into crumbs.

  “I’m not sure about Randall, since he’s spent much of his time dodging French bullets in various uncomfortable places. Wyndham wouldn’t know because he was in that French dungeon. His wife, Cassie, is aware of the marriage, though none of the details.” Kirkland studied Laurel’s still profile. She looked less relaxed than earlier. “Prior knowledge won’t matter, not after they meet you.”

  “You overrate my charm,” Laurel said tersely. “Your male friends will probably be more accepting than their wives. Females, and I include myself in this generalization, are usually fiercely partisan where friends are concerned.”

  He uneasily recognized that she might be right—the wives he’d be inviting were indeed fierce on behalf of those they cared about, and they cared about Kirkland. Loyal and loving themselves, they might have trouble understanding how Laurel could abandon her marriage vows.

  They would surely come around in time after they met her—even loyal friends wouldn’t claim he was good husband material. But in the short term, it might be awkward for Laurel. “I promise none of them will try to scratch your eyes out.”

  She petted Badger, who was back on her lap. Firelight glinted off her gold wedding ring. “At least I have my attack cat to protect me.”

  Thinking it time for a change of subject, he said, “The apples look nicely roasted now. I usually sprinkle on sugar and cinnamon, but melted cheese would also be good.”

  “Sugar and cinnamon, please.”

  He forked a hot, juicy apple with crispy skin into a bowl, sprinkled sugar and cinnamon on top, and handed it to Laurel. “Mmmmm,” she said after a bite. “No wonder schoolboys are so fond of roasted apples. This would be even better with clotted cream on top.”

  “Occasionally cream was available.” He smiled fondly. “Food fit for the gods.”

  He ate his own roasted apple, the familiar flavors a soothing reminder of his school days. He was contemplating more wine when Laurel said, “You were at your desk when I came in. Do you ever stop working?”

  He sighed. “Nowhere near often enough. I’ve been trying to cut back, though. I want to have time for my child. I’ve been training managers for my businesses and properties, and with the war against the French going well, my government work isn’t as demanding as it once was.”

  “I suspect you haven’t had a holiday since our honeymoon.”

  She was right, he realized. “After you left, there was no pleasure left in frivolity,” he said dryly. “You, also, drowned yourself in work.”

  “That’s true,” she admitted. “I’m not quite sure how to be a lady of leisure for the next month.” She set Badger on the floor, then got to her feet as she covered a yawn. “But I can nap for much of the time. Gestation takes a surprising amount of energy.”

  He got to his feet. “I’m sure you’re doing it as well as you do everything else.”

  Laurel hesitated before saying, “I hope so.” She stepped up to him and brushed a light kiss on his cheek. “Good night, James.”

  Without conscious volition, his arms went around her and he pulled her close, her sweet body molding against him. In her nightgown and robe, she was all softness and warmth, with a faint scent of lavender. Warm, so warm . . .

  For the space of a dozen heartbeats, she leaned into him, sighing with pleasure. Her arms slid around his waist.

  His tenderness transformed into sharp, unruly heat. He bent his head for a kiss, his hand moving to cup her breast.

  She stiffened, then pushed away, saying huskily, “This isn’t why I came here tonight, Kirkland.”

  He swallowed hard and didn’t reach to bring her back. “I know. But like a delicious roasted apple covered with cream, you’re irresistible.”

  Her laughter lightened the moment. “A common apple, not one of Mrs. Simond’s elegant treats. Yes, that’s me.” She turned and headed to the connecting door. “I think I’ll be able to sleep now. Tomorrow promises to be a long and tiring day.”

  Badger was following her out. Kirkland looked at the cat. “I’m the one who gave you cheese, you ungrateful feline.”

  The cat turned and contemplated him, then trotted back into his room. Laurel smiled. “Cupboard love. I’ll let you bear the weight of Mrs. Simond’s jealousy if she finds out where Badger has been sleeping.”

  “My kitchen is supporting this beast’s considerable appetite, so I might as well get some benefit.” Kirkland scooped the cat into his arms and began scratching the furry neck. Badger began to knead Kirkland’s chest happily.

  As Laurel disappeared into her room, he set the cat on his mattress and undressed. He hoped it was a good sign that he’d managed to lure the cat to his bed.

  Now if only he could do the same with his wife. . . .

  Chapter 24

  Madame Hélier’s very exclusive salon was tucked discreetly behind Oxford Street, with only a brass plaque saying HÉLIER’S on the door leading up to the premises. As Laurel climbed the enclosed stairway, she smiled wryly at how the owner had chosen to be a floor above street level. One mustn’t allow the vulgar to peer into windows.

  When Kirkland ushered Laurel into the serenely tasteful showroom, she saw that the location allowed great swaths of sunlight to pour in through the wide windows. That had to be useful for choosing colors.

  And there was color in abundance. The soft, neutral shades of the carpets and furnishings set off lengths of brilliant fabrics draped across two of the walls. Violet said in a low voice, “See how carefully they’ve chosen the display fabrics? Any woman who walks in here will see at least one color that will look splendid on her.”

  “You’re right. Like this reddish-brown silk would become you.” Laurel rubbed the fabric between two fingers to feel the sumptuous weight and text

  “Devonshire brown.” Violet gave the fabric a swift, longing look, then turned her attention to the other materials on display. “But we are here for you today, my lady. That blue silk would be lovely. Or that misty green. The gold brocade.” She pointed out different lengths of rich materials.

  Violet’s color sense was flawless; even Laurel could see that. Laurel’s gaze touched on a wide chest to one side. The massive piece of furniture had dozens of small drawers, each marked with samples of what was inside. Buttons of wood or shimmering seashell or exquisite Wedgwood china. Lengths of ribbon and lace and other trims. For the first time in her life, Laurel really understood the pure aesthetic pleasure of finery.

  As Laurel and Violet enjoyed the colors and textures, Kirkland and Madame Hélier greeted each other in a friendly way. Laurel tried not to look for signs that Kirkland had expensively outfitted his mistresses at Hélier’s, but saw nothing. Perhaps mistresses frequented different establishments.

  After Kirkland introduced Laurel to Madame Hélier, the modiste said, “Lady Kirkland, welcome to my modest domain.” Madame Hélier was a slim woman of middle years with a slight French accent, and she wore an elegant dove gray gown that displayed her talents. Her eyes were shrewd but thoughtful as she studied Laurel.

  Kirkland said, “My wife needs a complete wardrobe so she will be prepared for all occasions, and it needs to be done slightly faster than is humanly possible.”

  As Madame Hélier laughed, Laurel said firmly, “I am not planning to have an extensive social life. I need only a morning gown and perhaps a walking dress, plus a more formal gown suitable for dinner with friends.”

  “She will need more,” Kirkland said, his gaze slanting toward Laurel. “We have plans to attend the opera and the theater. Not to mention Astley’s Amphitheatre.”

  “I can’t wear the same gown again and again?” Laurel asked, knowing the answer.

  “It would be remarked on if Lady Kirkland had only one evening gown,” he said gravely. “I would be considered a neglectful and miserly husband.”

  She wrinkled her nose. “That wouldn’t be fair to you, but too large a wardrobe seems wasteful.”

  “We shall begin with one each of morning, walking and dinner gowns to be created right away. More garments can be added later as needed,” Madame Hélier said tactfully. “Lady Kirkland, what is your personal style? How do you wish to present yourself to the polite world?”

  Laurel had never thought of her wardrobe in such terms. She didn’t have a personal style, only clothing chosen for comfort and practicality so she didn’t have to think about it much. “My personal style is casual to a fault. Violet, how do I want to look for the polite world?”

  “Classic simplicity,” her maid said without hesitation. “Timeless and flattering and dignified.”

  “A style not unlike Madame Hélier’s,” Kirkland said. “But with more color.”

  The Frenchwoman’s brows arched. “I’ve never been singled out as a model for my clients.” She flicked her hand at her soft gray gown. “Like the furnishings of my salon, I wish to be quietly in the background.”

  “But you have understated elegance,” Laurel said as she admired the cut of Madame Hélier’s gown. It fit perfectly and the fabric flowed around the modiste’s trim figure. “I would like a similar look.” She glanced at her husband. “With more color.”

  Kirkland smiled at her. “A riding habit will also be needed. Shoes and cloaks and all the underpinnings. Also, Violet, you have a talent for hairstyling. Would you like a session or two of tutoring by a master stylist?”

  “Oh yes!” Violet’s eyes rounded with excitement.

  Laurel thought with amusement that being tricked out as a suitable countess might be tedious for her, but Violet was enjoying the process. There were other benefits for the girl as well since it was traditional for a lady to give discarded garments to her maid for reselling. With Kirkland insisting on outfitting his wife in high style, eventually Violet would earn enough from her mistress’s castoffs to start her own shop.

  “Lord Kirkland, it is time for us to take your lady’s measurements and perhaps fit a particular gown for her,” Madame Hélier said. “Do you wish to wait in the gentleman’s parlor, or will you be leaving now?”

  “I brought some work with me, so I’ll wait.” He’d brought his lap desk, so he carried it with him as an assistant escorted him to a cozy side chamber. He was being asked his preference of tea, sherry, or some other beverage as he disappeared from view.

  “At least my husband won’t be bored,” Laurel observed to Violet as they entered the fitting room behind the showroom.

  “I brought a book of poetry to read to you if you need diversion, my lady. Lord Byron,” Violet said. But her gaze was moving hungrily over the racks of rich, colorful fabrics. There were even more here than in the main showroom.

  “It’s time to remove your outer garments so we can take your measurements, Lady Kirkland.” Madame Hélier gestured to a low dais. “If you will step up . . . ?”

  Laurel handed her light shawl to an assistant and stepped up, but said, “I’m increasing, so my new gowns must have room to expand.”

  “Congratulations to you and your lordship!” The modiste looked genuinely delighted for them. “I shall make sure your new garments will look well from now right up to your time of confinement.”

  Laurel found that it was difficult to maintain her distaste for the fitting process when everyone around her was so helpful and enthusiastic. Violet never did get around to reading poetry. She was too busy exploring every inch of the salon.

  As Laurel’s very ordinary gown was removed, she said quietly to the modiste, “That Devonshire brown silk in the showroom. Do you agree that it will suit my maid?”

  “Oh yes. The color would bring out her golden skin tones.”

  “Add a dress length of the fabric to my order. I’m sure Violet will make a really lovely gown from it.” The girl deserved something new, not a remade castoff.

  Madame Hélier nodded approvingly. “It shall be done.” She studied Laurel’s stays and shift thoughtfully. “One of my assistants is a talented corsetiere, so we have available a supply of stays of different sizes and shapes. A fine dress requires a fine foundation. I would like you to try a set of Betty’s stays.”

  “As long as they’re comfortable,” Laurel said warily.

  “They will be. Once we have your measurements, Betty can make custom stays, but what is available now will do reasonably well.”

  With a sigh, Laurel let Betty remove her old, well-broken-in stays and replace them with a new set that fit quite well and wasn’t uncomfortable. She could get used to these, she decided, if she could be convinced they were of benefit.

  Madam nodded approvingly when Laurel was laced up. “You must choose fabrics, and there is a draper’s shop across the street if you wish a broader range of choices. But for today, I have a walking dress that should suit you.”

  She gestured to an assistant who disappeared into the adjoining room and returned holding a dark orange gown. “I keep a number of partially sewn garments here that can be quickly finished if a lady is in need of a new gown immediately.”

  Curious, Laurel asked, “Do all London modistes have so much fabric and trim and their own corsetiere?”

  “No, Madame Hélier’s is unique. I decided it would benefit my clients to offer as many services as possible under one roof,” the Frenchwoman explained. “I also offer swiftness without sacrificing quality.” She held up the gown. “This color is called ‘capucine’ and will be splendid on you. Here, lift your arms so I can help you into it.”

  Laurel complied, and Madame Hélier dropped the gown over her head. After she tightened the lacing up the back, she did some swift pinning. “Very little work will be required to fit this to you properly. Turn and look in the mirror.”

  Laurel did, and her jaw dropped. She’d never worn anything like this rich, dark orange shade, and it did wonderful thi
ngs for her hair and complexion. The gown was cut lower than what she usually wore, but not so low that she felt the need to reach for a fichu. There was delicate peach ribbon trim, and the garment flowed gracefully over her body, making her look simultaneously demure, dignified, and just a little provocative.

  “Oh my,” she breathed. “You were right about having the proper stays. How long will it take to finish this gown so I can wear it?”

  “Less than an hour.” Looking pleased, the modiste removed the gown and handed it to a pair of assistants to hem. “Would you like a cup of tea and perhaps some cakes while you wait? We can decide on fabrics and styles for the other garments. I also have accessories you might like.”

  “Tea would be very welcome.” Laurel raised her voice. “Violet, I need your assistance in choosing materials and styles.”

  “While we are looking at samples, she can also restyle your hair.” Speaking to Violet, the modiste said, “An upswept style like the one I have, yes?”

  Violet nodded. “That will suit my lady very well.”

  Soon the round table at one side of the room was covered with tea cups, fabric samples, fashion plates, and meticulously dressed fashion dolls showing the latest styles. To her surprise, Laurel enjoyed discussing her choices with two experts.

  By the time the capucine gown was ready to wear, Laurel had ordered half a dozen garments and numerous accessories, and she’d spent more of Kirkland’s money than she wanted to think about. Her conscience twitched—but not as much as she’d expected.

  Madame Hélier helped her into the gown, then tied a matching capucine ribbon around Laurel’s throat. The final touch was to drape a magnificent patterned Indian shawl around Laurel’s shoulders. The rich colors of the shawl were a perfect complement to the gown. “There, my lady! Admire yourself in that mirror, then go and show your husband how fine you can be.”

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