Not Quite a Wife by Mary Jo Putney

  Mackenzie laughed. “Whereas when I learned that Kiri was your sister, I knew immediately she was dead wrong for me. Not that the recognition did me much good.”

  “My sister is descended from Hindu warrior queens,” Ashton pointed out with a hint of laughter in his voice. “You never had a chance to escape. Not that you seemed to have struggled very hard.”

  “Actually, I did try to resist,” Mackenzie said seriously. “She deserved much better than a gambling house owner who was born on the wrong side of the blanket. But I’m so very glad that my resistance was futile!”

  Ashton’s gaze shifted to Kirkland. “Even though Laurel isn’t what I would have predicted, you do seem right together. I think . . . I think it’s because she seems to have depths that go down and down and down. Like you.”

  “You’re right about the depths. I visited Daniel Herbert’s home, discovered his little sister playing the piano, and was lost.” Kirkland thought acerbically that Rob wasn’t wrong to say that a man and a woman could be too much alike. But they could also be too different, as he and Laurel were.

  “She’s Daniel Herbert’s sister?” Wyndham asked, startled. “We were good friends in school, but for obvious reasons, I lost track of him. What is he doing now?”

  “He was ordained when he finished at Oxford,” Kirkland replied. “But he didn’t enter the church because his true passion was for medicine. By studying very hard and probably not sleeping for several years, he acquired credentials as both physician and surgeon. He and Laurel have been operating a free infirmary in Bristol. As a change of pace from saving lives, he preaches sometimes.”

  Brows arched around the table. “Impressive,” Wyndham said. “Though not really surprising. What part does your wife play in the infirmary?”

  “Anything that needs doing. She manages the place, is an excellent nurse, and her personal project is a sanctuary called Zion House, for women and children fleeing abusive males.”

  “I wonder if Julia knows about Zion House,” Randall said thoughtfully.

  “Your lady wife has obviously not been wearing the willow during your estrangement,” Ashton observed. “She’s a woman of ability as well as depth.”

  “It sounds like she’ll be hard to replace in Bristol,” Rob said.

  “Very true, so the current plan is for Laurel to spend part of her time in London and part in Bristol,” Kirkland said.

  That produced a noisy silence. None of his friends would welcome the idea of being apart from their wives for substantial amounts of time, but they were too polite to say so. Wyndham broke the silence by saying, “Having a wife is wonderful but will complicate your life.”

  “She will. She has,” Kirkland agreed. And he smiled ruefully.

  After tea was served in the drawing room, the ladies relaxed on various chairs and sofas so they could converse casually while waiting for the gentlemen to finish their port. Lady Julia, petite, dark haired, and serene, sat on Laurel’s right. Kirkland had said she was a midwife, though she didn’t look like any midwife Laurel had ever seen.

  The twins, equally petite but golden and laughing, shared a small sofa on the left. Lady Kiri, tall and with an exotic beauty that was different but equal to Violet’s, chose a chair opposite Laurel. As she settled in, she exchanged a few teasing words with Lady Wyndham, red haired and reserved, who sat in the chair beside Lady Kiri.

  The wives were as impressive as their husbands, which was saying a great deal. If there was one obvious trait shared by Kirkland’s friends, male and female, it was intelligence. If Laurel knew them better, she’d doubtless add competence to the list.

  Laurel’s long estrangement from Kirkland was the elephant in the room. The couples here tonight were Kirkland’s closest friends and she needed to be on civil terms with them even if she’d forever be outside their magical circle of longtime friendship.

  There would never be a better time to push the elephant into the middle of the circle. Laurel took a deep breath, then set aside her untouched tea cup. “All of you Westerfield wives are friends of my husband. You must be wondering about our separation and reconciliation, so ask any questions you like, no matter how blunt. I promise to answer honestly, with the understanding that what I say will remain private.”

  After a moment of startled silence, Lady Kiri said with amusement, “I begin to understand why Kirkland married you. If we are to be ruthlessly direct, we should set aside formality, I think. I’m Kiri, this dangerous redhead is Cassie, Lady Julia’s personal name is obvious, and the twins are Mariah and Sarah. What is your Christian name?”

  “Laurel.” Despite her nerves, Laurel managed a smile. “I see that directness comes naturally to you, Kiri.”

  “It’s a trait that has often been mentioned, and seldom in a complimentary way,” Kiri said drolly. Turning serious, she continued, “Very well, tell us why you separated. You seem a rational woman, so I presume you had your reasons.”

  Julia held up a restraining hand. “A story begins well before the crisis. It might be more useful to start with how you met and married. And I’d like to learn what you were doing in the years of your separation so I’ll know more of who you are now.”

  “We met in the usual sort of way. Kirkland and my brother Daniel were good friends from the Westerfield Academy and Oxford. My brother brought Kirkland home for a visit and Kirkland discovered me playing the piano, which entranced him because of his passion for music.” Laurel’s mouth twisted. “If I’d been doing anything else, such as embroidering or working in the garden, he’d probably not have noticed me.”

  Cassie’s brows arched. “Kirkland has a passion for music? I had no idea and I’ve known him longer than anyone else here.”

  A little surprised, Laurel said, “Music is his greatest pleasure, I think. He loves listening, and he plays the piano extremely well himself. We often played four handed.”

  “He kept both you and the music secret.” Kiri’s green eyes narrowed. “One can only wonder what other large secrets he has.”

  Anything to do with his work would be a secret, but Laurel wouldn’t mention that, since she was unsure what the other women knew. “To return to the tale, he liked my piano playing, we were both young, and it was . . . love at first sight.”

  “So often that means lust as first sight,” Mariah remarked. “But they can end up being the same thing. How old were you?”

  “Seventeen. We married a few weeks later.”

  “Your parents didn’t think you should wait longer?” Sarah said, startled. “I admit that Rob and I had a very short courtship, but I was twenty-six and he’s thirty-one and the courtship was . . . intense. Surely it would have been advisable to take the time to become better acquainted?”

  “My parents were not the sort to risk losing a wealthy earl as a son-in-law,” Laurel said dryly. She could see from her guests’ expressions that they understood the implications of that remark. “But to be fair, we were both mad to marry. After the wedding, we had a wonderful long honeymoon in Scotland and the West Indies. Then we came to London to settle into normal life.” She swallowed hard as she thought about what had happened next.

  Seeing Laurel’s discomfort, Mariah said, “We can return to the subject of the separation later. What have you been doing more recently? Not, I think, embroidering in your parents’ parlor.”

  The duchess was observant. Laurel replied, “I’ve been working with my brother at his free infirmary in Bristol. I also created a refuge for women and children who have fled violent husbands.” Laurel looked around the circle with a touch of defiance. “It has not been a ladylike existence.”

  Julia blinked. “Is your sanctuary Zion House?”

  “You’ve heard of us?” Laurel asked with surprise.

  An odd smile played around Julia’s lips. “Last year, you were visited by a pair of women who asked to study what you have achieved because they wished to establish similar refuges in other cities.”

  “Yes, they were directors of the Sister
s Foundation and they’ve been working with the Methodists,” Laurel said. “Since then, they’ve started refuges in three other cities, and are planning more in the future. I’m surprised you’ve heard of Zion House.”

  Julia chuckled. “I’m the founder of the Sisters Foundation.”

  “And I’m a patroness,” Mariah added. “We chose to work with the Methodists because they were already involved in social welfare and improving the lot of women.”

  “I had no idea that the founders were from the highest ranks of society,” Laurel said, fascinated.

  “Being a duke’s daughter doesn’t mean one is always safe from abusive men,” Julia said with desert dryness. “My directors said they offered you a grant to help your work, but you told them you were sufficiently well funded and they should use the money to start new refuges.”

  Though Laurel could have found a good use for the two hundred pounds offered by the women from the Sisters Foundation, starting a new refuge in another city seemed like a better use of the grant. “Zion House is funded by the money Kirkland settled on me for my support,” she explained. “He was very generous. Enough so to pay for Daniel’s infirmary and Zion House both.”

  Cassie sat bolt upright in her chair. “I want to contribute to your foundation, Julia. The cause is one I support wholeheartedly.”

  Her voice suggested that she knew something of male abuse, but it also implied something else. Laurel scanned the faces of the other women. “I was vaguely assuming that all of you knew each other well, rather like Kirkland’s school friends know each other, but that’s not true, is it?”

  “Definitely not,” Mariah said. “Julia and I have known each other about three years since we lived in the same small town, Hartley, but I only met Kiri after I met Adam. Cassie I’ve met in the last fortnight.” She smiled at her sister. “And though Sarah and I are twins, we weren’t raised together. We only found each other about a year ago.”

  “Which is why we sometimes indulge in twin silliness,” Sarah said with a chuckle. “We have so many years to catch up on.”

  “So I am less of an outsider than I expected,” Laurel said.

  “If you thought we’re a tight little group that hisses at everyone else, you’re wrong,” Kiri said with a laugh. “But enough of the digressions. Why did you and Kirkland separate if you were so much in love?”

  “We had just returned to London after a lengthy honeymoon, and Kirkland was about to send notices to the newspapers to announce our marriage since few people knew of it.” Laurel dropped her gaze to her cooling tea. Though she had invited questions, the separation was still difficult to discuss. “Then . . . a man broke into our house, and I saw Kirkland kill him with his bare hands. Swift, brutal, and efficient. I . . . I was horrified to discover that my husband was a dangerous stranger. I left the next morning.”

  After a shaken silence, Julia said, “That would be deeply upsetting. But surely it was self-defense?”

  Laurel sighed. “At the time, the killing seemed wholly unnecessary. When we reconciled, Kirkland explained some mitigating factors, but still.”

  “Violence is too often a fact of life,” Cassie said slowly. “For a sheltered and very young wife, it would be particularly horrifying. Only monsters kill for pleasure, or for no reason at all. But sometimes, killing cannot be avoided.”

  “My mind knows that. My emotions have much more trouble with the lethal reality.” Laurel swallowed hard. “The night before we left Bristol to come here, not even a week ago, he once again killed a man in front of me. It was completely justified because his action saved the life of a woman who was very nearly murdered by her husband. And yet . . . and yet the sight of his violence made me ill.”

  “Even though he saved a life?” Kiri frowned, trying to understand.

  “We are what we are,” Julia said. “For someone who is a healer by nature, violence is particularly dreadful. As a midwife, I understand this.” She paused, then said deliberately, “I once killed a man. It was an accident, but the death still haunts me.”

  Kiri’s green eyes rounded. “How dreadful! What happened?”

  “My first husband was beating me,” Julia said, her voice flat. “I shoved him as I tried to escape, and his skull smashed into the fireplace.”

  Her words created a horrified silence until Sarah said tautly, “I have also killed. Not that long ago, and not by accident.”

  “What happened?” Julia asked in a gentle voice.

  Sarah swallowed convulsively. “Evil men planned to slaughter a party of girls and women, including my young stepdaughter. The men deserved to die. I regret nothing. But dear God, the nightmares!” Tears showed in her eyes.

  Mariah slid across the sofa and put her arm around her sister’s shoulders. “Thank heaven Rob is there when you have nightmares,” she said softly.

  “Thank heaven indeed,” Sarah whispered.

  Stunned, Laurel said, “I know that much of my life I was sheltered, but is murderous violence common and I’ve just been lucky not to see more?”

  Cassie sighed. “Mercifully, it’s not common. But since we are being ruthlessly honest with each other, I have killed, and more than once. I have no regrets and no nightmares about my actions.” She bit her lip. “My nightmares are of the people I couldn’t save. But my life is not common. For many years, I was an agent moving between England and France. It was a long madness, and I’m glad that it’s over.”

  So Cassie had been an agent. Putting the pieces together, Laurel said, “Kirkland mentioned that you were the one wife here who knew he was married. Since we’re being ruthlessly honest, I shall ask this. Were you one of Kirkland’s lovers? Did he tell you he had a wife over his pillow?”

  Cassie looked startled before her face eased into a smile. “It was over a pillow, but not the way you think. Kirkland had a bad fever attack. You know about them?”

  When Laurel nodded, Cassie continued, “His condition was very dangerous and he couldn’t be left alone. Those of us who sat with him had to be trustworthy in case his ravings revealed any of his many secrets. In one of his deliriums, he spoke of his wife in heated but very complimentary terms.”

  She smiled impishly. “I won’t deny that I found him attractive and if he had made advances, I would have considered it. But he never did. I’m sure he thought it would be bad policy to become involved with one of his agents, and of course he was right.” She caught Laurel’s gaze. “I swear that I was not his mistress.”

  “No, you weren’t the lover of Laurel’s husband,” Sarah said coolly. “You were the lover of my husband.”

  Chapter 28

  Without moving a muscle, Cassie came alive with dangerous alertness, as if uncertain whether Sarah might attack. She looked very like Kirkland had when he was killing Bailey, Laurel realized. The room pulsed with tension as the other women watched Cassie and Sarah. Mariah was frowning.

  Voice soft, Cassie said, “Yes, we were lovers on and off for years. I thought of him as my best friend. I didn’t realize that he thought of me differently until I met Grey and discovered—hope.”

  “Hope?” Sarah’s brows arched.

  Cassie rose and moved restlessly around the room. There was a curve to her abdomen that suggested the middle months of pregnancy. “Rob and I had both lost so much that we had little to give to each other except. . . some kindness on the rare occasions we were together. Between his work and mine, that wasn’t often.”

  “Rob referred to you as a companion who dealt with danger, as he did,” Sarah said, her gaze following Cassie. “He thought someday the two of you would be able to settle down together.”

  “In a cottage by the sea,” Cassie murmured. “But since I never expected to survive the wars, I had no plans for the future.” She turned to face Sarah. “Despite all he suffered in prison, Grey has a . . . a brightness of spirit that changed me even when I didn’t believe we could have a future. I think you do the same for Rob. You give him a lightness and warmth that I could never have man

  “Yes, and he gives me the steadiness I need.” Sarah met the other woman’s gaze. “Thank you for the kindness you gave Rob when he needed it, Cassie.” She grinned. “And thank you for being fool enough to let him go!”

  Visibly relaxing, Cassie returned to her chair. “I’m glad you’re being so civilized! I was worried you might try to scratch my eyes out.”

  Sarah laughed. “I doubt I could if I tried. Not that I would try. You are part of what made Rob who he is, and I love who he is.”

  Laurel had been watching the other two women with fascination. “I was so worried about meeting you all, even though Kirkland said I shouldn’t be. But he was right. You are remarkable.” She smiled a little. “I rather thought it would be my eyes that would be scratched out for leaving Kirkland.”

  “No one can judge the truth of another marriage,” Kiri said seriously. “That said, you are the one who opened the door to all this ruthless honesty, but you have not completed your story. We know why you left Kirkland, but what has brought you back together again?”

  Laurel had asked for this, hadn’t she? “Kirkland was in Bristol meeting with the captain of one of his ships. When he left the port, he suffered a fever episode and then was assaulted by two thieves. He was brought unconscious to our infirmary. My brother was away and I was the only one available to treat him.”

  “That must have been quite a moment when you discovered the identity of your patient!” Mariah exclaimed.

  “An understatement of massive proportions,” Laurel said fervently. “His injuries weren’t too serious, but he was feverish. After I patched him up, I dosed him with Jesuit’s bark tea and that reduced the severity of the fever attack.” Her hands clenched. The next part was where it became difficult.

  When Laurel’s silence stretched, Kiri said, “Please, we are perishing of curiosity! Though perhaps I can guess what happened next.”

  Blushing violently, Laurel said, “Attraction . . . had never been a problem. He was delirious, I caught him to prevent a fall, and . . . I leave the rest to your imaginations.”

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