Not Quite a Wife by Mary Jo Putney

  When the cup was empty, she set it aside. She needed to light the lamps since dusk was falling. As she started to move away, he caught her hand and pulled it to his lips in a kiss that seemed to scald her fingers. She jerked away, but couldn’t block the flood of memories of the night they’d met.

  Daniel had often spoken of Kirkland, so she’d known that her brother’s friend must be an interesting and sharply intelligent young man. But she hadn’t expected his dark, riveting intensity when he found her in the music room.

  She’d glanced up and was caught by the deep blue eyes that seemed to look into her very soul. When she rose to greet him, it wasn’t manners that moved her but a need to move closer.

  They exchanged introductions as she extended her hand. After she gave him permission to call her Laurel, he bowed and pressed his lips on the back of her fingers, a curiously formal gesture under the circumstances.

  Her pulse began to race. Kirkland fascinated her, and she seemed to have the same effect on him, though she had no idea why. She was an ordinary girl with no unusual experiences or talents. Yet when he looked at her, she felt unique and beautiful.

  At his request, she played the piano more while he sat on the bench beside her and turned the pages of the scores. Though they didn’t touch, he was so close that she felt the heat of his body all along her right side. When he asked her to sing, she persuaded him to join her, and their voices blended as if they’d sung together all their lives.

  Neither of them wanted to say good night, so she suggested they descend to the kitchen for a midnight supper. She scrambled eggs and herbs and cheese while he made tea and toasted bread. Laurel knew basic cooking because her mother thought it was a woman’s duty to understand everything in the household, but she was impressed that Lord Kirkland was not totally baffled by a kitchen.

  Daringly Laurel produced a bottle of her father’s best white wine to accompany the meal, and their conversation continued through the night. Kirkland encouraged her to talk about herself, and his genuine interest was intoxicating.

  Kirkland in his turn told her amusing stories about the clashes between his parents. His aristocratic English father had married a strong-minded Scottish merchant’s daughter for her fortune, and exchanging vows was the last time the pair had agreed on anything. Kirkland’s preference for his down-to-earth Scottish relatives had resulted in his father sending him off to the Westerfield Academy after his parents separated.

  Though his anecdotes were witty, Laurel could hear the pain and loneliness of the little boy he’d been. Only later did she learn that he’d revealed more of himself in a single night than he’d shown her brother in years of friendship.

  Their tête-à-tête ended when the cook came yawning into the kitchen to start the day’s bread baking. She laughed and shooed them away to return to their beds for the hours before the rest of the household rose. Laurel left the kitchen reluctantly, fearing that the magic of the night would vanish by morning.

  But it didn’t. Instead of escorting her to her room, Kirkland took a detour to the music room, where dawn’s first light was brightening the chamber. Setting his hands on her shoulders, he said with quiet conviction, “Laurel, I do believe we should marry. Shall I speak with your father this morning?”

  Her jaw dropped. Despite the intensity of their hours together, the idea of marriage shocked her. This man, this brilliant young lord, wanted her for his wife?

  She stammered, “I . . . I believe the correct answer is, ‘Sir, this is so sudden!’ ”

  “Yes, it is,” he said softly, his gaze holding hers. “But I’ve never felt surer of anything in my life.”

  She drew a shaky breath, wanting to say yes but realizing how mad this conversation was. “Why me? Surely you’ve met many females who are richer, more beautiful, more knowledgeable.”

  “Perhaps. But as soon as I saw you, I knew you were the one I’ve been looking for,” he said with stark honesty. “We can take all the time you want to become better acquainted. Just . . . please, don’t say no. I need you.”

  The power of his certainty swept through her like a summer storm and found matching certainty in her soul. Though she had never believed in love at first sight, now she did. There was much they didn’t know about each other, but she believed on a level of deep truth that they belonged together.

  Thinking she must be mad, she hesitantly tested her conviction by standing on her toes and giving him a shy kiss. His lips were warm and firm. Intoxicating. He caught his breath and slipped his arms around her waist, returning the kiss with slow tenderness and a yearning so deep she could feel it in her bones.

  From the moment they’d met, she’d known he was a passionate man. Now she discovered that she was a passionate woman. She had been kissed a few times by young men of her acquaintance, and found the process only mildly interesting.

  But with James Kirkland, her body and soul caught fire. She pressed against him, her mouth opening under his with eager exploration. No wonder men and women made fools of themselves for love, she thought dizzily. She wanted to sink into him, merge into one. She wanted him to sink into her. . . .

  Kirkland was the one to end the kiss, his breathing jagged as he locked his hands around her upper arms and retreated a step. “I . . . I hope that means you are at least willing to consider my proposal.”

  Doubts banished, she smiled up at him, happier than she’d ever been in her life. “I do believe you’re right. We should marry, because I can’t imagine ever feeling this way about another man.”

  His face lit with joy as he kissed her again. The powerful sense of rightness was irresistible and she gave herself to it willingly. They were meant to be together, she was sure of it. . . .

  When Laurel snapped out of her unwelcome reverie, she realized that she had retreated halfway across the room. She was shaking and her fingers were pressed hard on her lips, as if his kisses still burned there.

  If only she could hate Kirkland. But she couldn’t. Hate was not part of her nature. Instead, she had an agonizing hole in her heart because the chasm between them was too wide to be bridged.

  Her parents had been startled when Laurel and Kirkland decided to marry on the basis of a single night’s conversation, but they were also overjoyed at the prospect of their daughter making such a splendid match. Though the Herberts were respected members of the gentry, their branch of the family didn’t possess titles or great wealth or political connections. Now their daughter would be a countess.

  The Herberts invited Kirkland to stay at the house for the month until Laurel’s eighteenth birthday. During that time, the two could further their acquaintance. After her birthday, if the two were still of a mind to marry, they could wed in the parish church.

  Though it was sensible to take more time, nothing that happened in the following weeks made Laurel’s betrothal seem like a mistake. Every day she loved James more as they laughed and talked and made music together.

  He ordered books for her to read, listening to her seriously when they discussed them. One of the things she loved most was the way he respected her intelligence and encouraged her to form her own opinions.

  She watched him carefully for any sign that he was regretting his hasty proposal, but she saw none. He lit up like a candle whenever he saw her, and she realized that her presence made him happy in ways he hadn’t been before. She’d given up trying to understand why. She was just grateful that they pleased each other equally.

  Interestingly, only Daniel, who knew Kirkland best, had doubts. Laurel laughed his concern away when her brother cautioned her that Kirkland was a complicated and not always easy man. Yes, she and her husband would have occasional disagreements. All couples did. But the love they shared was too powerful and true to ignore.

  Looking back on that time of absolute certainty and joy, she knew that she’d been right about the power and truth of their love. Her tragic mistake was being too young and inexperienced to know that love wasn’t always enough.

Chapter 3

  Laurel’s remembering ended when Kirkland moved restlessly, his face shiny with perspiration. She frowned and poured another cup of the fever tea. He needed both the remedy and the fluids. She’d treated enough patients with fever to know how unpredictable the course could be, alternating between chills and fever and, at its worst, delirium. She hoped he was receiving the remedy early enough to prevent his illness from worsening.

  She propped him up on the pillows and slowly coaxed him into drinking more tea. His dark hair was matted with perspiration and needed a cut. He always wore it a little longer than fashion decreed. Though she could see fine lines of strain around his eyes, she was struck by how little his appearance had changed.

  He was, what, thirty-two now? A man in the prime of life. When they’d met, he’d been twenty-one. Young. He was only recently down from Oxford, and had been in possession of his full inheritance for less than a year.

  To her, he’d seemed like a mature man of the world, but looking back, she realized that they were barely more than children. If only they’d had the sense to wait! But with passion blazing through their veins, waiting was intolerable, and there were no barriers to prevent them from marrying.

  “Damn you, you’ll not get away with that!” Kirkland cried out, his voice harsh. He swung his arm, striking Laurel across her cheek and almost knocking her to the floor.

  He began thrashing as if in a fight for his life. Fearing he’d fall from the examination table, she caught his shoulder. “James, stop struggling!” she said briskly. “You’re safe now. I’m with you and you’re safe.”

  He stopped thrashing and raised his head to stare at her with mad, unfocused eyes. “Laurel? Is that really you?”

  She stroked his damp hair back and said soothingly, “Indeed it is, James. You are having one of your fever attacks, but you’re safe here. You’ll be all right.”

  “Oh, God, Laurel!” He caught her around the waist and pulled her onto the table beside him in a crushing embrace. “I had the most ghastly dreams that I’d lost you. I looked everywhere and couldn’t find you.” His grip tightened as he said in a hoarse whisper, “You were gone and I was so afraid. So afraid . . .”

  She gasped, shocked by being held full length against his barely clothed body. She knew she should break free, but the sheer physical rightness of being in his arms paralyzed her.

  Even more shocking was the raw emotion and need in his voice. When she’d left him, he’d seemed cool and uncaring, as if relieved that she’d no longer require time and attention. He’d shown no signs of pain.

  Trying to control her trembling, she said, “I’m not lost; I’m right here. You need to rest and drink more Jesuit’s bark tea. By morning you should be fine.”

  “Now that I’ve found you again”—he rolled over so that he was braced above her—“I’ll never let you go.” He kissed her with naked hunger, as if craving her very soul.

  Wisdom evaporated in an instant and she kissed him back, drinking from his mouth as if she were dying and his passion was the nectar of life. All the years of weeping with loneliness and heated, frustrated dreams had made her as hungry as he.

  His hands moved over her, kneading her yielding flesh as the kiss burned through the night. When he cupped her breast, heat shot straight to her loins. When he pulled up her skirts and laid his scorching hand on her bare thigh, she went half mad, every fiber of her being pulsing in response. Her legs separated and she cried out when he touched her moist, swollen flesh, desperate for the release he offered.

  She scarcely noticed when he dragged off his drawers, and she was ready, more than ready, when he surged into her in the ultimate intimacy. “Laurel, my love,” he gasped, “I’ve missed you so much. . . .”

  She needed this mating as much as he. Through the lonely years, she’d dreamed of the brief, happy months of their marriage. Though their differences had proved irreconcilable, there had been no conflict in their bed.

  “Ah, God . . .” He groaned and poured himself into her, bringing on a release so shattering that she lost track of time and place, knowing only the passion that bound them together. For too long she had been empty, and now he made her whole.

  She cried out and crushed herself against him, her body softening as tension flowed away, leaving peace and utter fulfillment. He also relaxed, murmuring soft, unintelligible words that she knew meant love.

  She wanted this deep, treacherous sense of rightness to last forever, but she knew that it was an illusion. Society would think their coupling no sin since they were lawfully wed, yet she knew in her heart that it was wrong. She’d walked away from her husband for good reason, yet tonight, she’d weakly yielded to the damnable physical bond that still joined them. What had she been thinking?

  She hadn’t thought at all, only reacted to his touch and urgent emotions. She began to edge out from under his solid weight.

  Though he was still delirious, he shifted to his side to free her, but he caught her hand to keep her close. Rather than pull away, she took a deep breath to collect herself. Then she examined him with the eyes of experience.

  Though still feverish and unaware of his surroundings, his restlessness had subsided and he was sliding into deep sleep. He’d had two fever attacks during the time they were together. The second time, they’d made love before the attack became too severe. James had been feverish but aware and passionate. Afterward he fell deeply asleep and awoke with the fever broken. As he’d kissed her good morning, he told her that she was the best remedy imaginable.

  She suspected Jesuit’s bark was more reliable, but her presence did seem to be good for him. Her nurse’s intuition said there was a good chance that once again, James would sleep deeply and awake with the fever broken.

  She couldn’t undo what they had just done. She couldn’t even make herself wish that it hadn’t happened. But she could keep it to herself. When feverish, James had strange, wild dreams. If she acted with calm detachment, he would believe their encounter was merely one such dream.

  She must clean them both and get a nightshirt on him so there would be no trace of their intimacy. When he awoke, she’d notify his servants to collect him and it would be as if this night’s mad mating had never happened. James would return to his complicated world while she would continue with the work that gave her life meaning.

  And she would bury her heart once again.

  Laurel. Kirkland gradually rose from darkness to awareness, drifting in a sea of well-being. He’d dreamed of his wife, which wasn’t unusual, but most of the time, she vanished when he took her in his arms, leaving him aching with loneliness and frustration. This time he’d had one of his rare dreams of satisfaction, and with a degree of realism that was searing.

  But consciousness would not be denied. He had a large inventory of aches and pains, including a throbbing head. What had happened? And where was he?

  Not a familiar place, he was sure of that, but he was reasonably comfortable, lying on a firm but well-cushioned bed with clean-smelling sheets and covers. Memory rushed back. Damn, he’d had a fever attack while walking through Bristol, and had been too weak to fend off attackers!

  He recognized the scent of lavender, probably from the sheets. That must be why his thoughts of Laurel had been so vivid. He’d sometimes called her his Lavender Lady because of the scent she often wore.

  Reluctantly opening his eyes, he saw a plain, light-colored ceiling. Even that small effort was tiring.

  “I see you’re awake.” The soothing female voice came from his right, and shocked him to his marrow.

  He turned his head so quickly that he felt a wave of dizziness. Laurel sat in a chair by his bed, her lap full of mending. Seeing her brought back a shocking array of sensual memories from his recent dream. Her taste, her scent, the silky warmth of her skin, the welcoming heat of her body . . .

  His jaw clenched as he suppressed the passionate memories, but he couldn’t suppress the reality of her presence. Even after ten years, she was ach
ingly familiar. Her glorious bronze hair was loosely tied back and she was so beautiful his heart hurt.

  But she was no longer the girl he’d married. Her openness to him and to the world had vanished, replaced by cool distance. Surely her glorious warmth couldn’t be entirely gone, but it was no longer for him. His heart died a little.

  Yet she was still his wife. And God help him, he still wanted her.

  “I’m sorry, Laurel.” His voice was a hoarse whisper. “You never wanted to see me again, yet here I am.”

  She set her mending in the basket by her chair. “It’s hardly your fault, James. While you were suffering from fever, you were attacked by robbers not far from here. Two men who attend our chapel found you and brought you to the infirmary.”

  While he tried to think of what to say to his long-estranged wife, he felt a soft bump on his left hip. He turned his head cautiously and found himself looking into the golden eyes of a large gray cat, which was curled up against his side. Its thumping tail was what had caught his attention.

  He blinked. “Is this the gray kitten you had me fish out of the pond all those years ago?”

  “Yes, it’s Shadow. All grown up now. He makes himself free of the infirmary.”

  Kirkland scratched the cat’s neck and was rewarded by a rumbling purr. “He’s pretty substantial for a shadow.”

  “He takes a deep interest in his food dish, but he’s a good fellow. Patients who come here regularly look for him.” She laid a cool hand on Kirkland’s forehead. “The fever is gone, but you must be thirsty. Here, drink this. It will help your throat.”

  She poured a drink from a stone jug into a mug, then slid an arm under his pillows and raised his head enough to hold the vessel to his lips. Her closeness was intoxicating.

  Cutting off the thought, he sipped chicken broth, warm and tasty. He hated being so weak, but that was always the case after a bout of fever. It helped keep him humble.

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