Not Quite a Wife by Mary Jo Putney

  “In other words, your Presbyterian conscience says that if something goes wrong it’s your fault, and if something goes right, the credit goes to others?”

  He laughed a little. “That’s how it works.” Of its own volition, his hand stroked down her waist and over her hip. He made the hand stop, but couldn’t force himself to remove it entirely.

  Needing talk for distraction, he said, “In the case of Mrs. Simond and her two children, the heroine was Cassie. The Lady Wyndham you met tonight. She was one of my best agents for years and I miss her skills, yet I regularly thank God that she decided it was time to retire from spying.”

  “Why did she decide to do that after so many years?” Laurel asked.

  “Because of Wyndham. They are each other’s salvation.” Kirkland smiled into the darkness. “That was an outcome I never could have predicted, yet when I see them together, it’s clearly so right.”

  “Now she has someone to live for. And another someone on the way, if I’m interpreting her figure correctly.” Laurel’s fingers drifted through the hair at the back of Kirkland’s neck, sending him into full, throbbing arousal.

  “You are. Wyndham is equal parts ecstatic and terrified.” Kirkland shifted his position so she wouldn’t notice his erection, because once she did, she’d leave, and he couldn’t bear that. Holding her was too precious to risk. Dear God, but she smelled wonderful!

  Laurel chuckled. “From what I’ve seen, happiness and terror are normal for a man about to become a father. That was the case with you, wasn’t it?”

  “No,” he said softly. “I was entirely happy when I learned of it.”

  After too long a silence, she said, “I suppose the terror was mine.”

  He suppressed the pain her words caused. “No happiness at all?”

  “Oh, yes, I’ve always wanted a child and had given up hope of having one.” She laughed ruefully. “But the circumstances are certainly complicated!”

  He couldn’t deny that. But he didn’t miss the bleak years of shutting down his emotions and concentrating all his time and energy on his secret government work and his public role as earl and shipping magnate and all the other responsibilities he’d taken on to give himself a reason to get out of bed every morning.

  Speaking of complications . . . He was lying on his right side with his head pillowed on Laurel’s left shoulder. And while his thoughts wandered, his left hand, his traitorous left hand, had caressed up her torso and was now coming to rest on her right breast. She’d always had beautiful breasts that were surprisingly full given her slim height. The past ten years had made them even more lush.

  Carefully, since he’d heard a woman’s breasts became extra sensitive during pregnancy, he thumbed her nipple. It immediately became rigid and Laurel gasped.

  He forced his hand to become still. “This is where you say this isn’t what you came for, after which you take a polite leave.”

  She laid her hand over his, where it rested on her breast. “Actually, I . . . I did come for this, James, though it wouldn’t have happened tonight if not for your nightmare.”

  He froze, wondering if he was delusional again. “Perhaps . . . you might clarify your meaning?”

  Because the night was warm, he wore only a pair of drawers, so he felt the heat of her palm as her hand glided down his torso. Then her questing fingers slid under the waist of his drawers and clasped him firmly. Lightning blazed through his veins. Every fiber of his body was on fire and he briefly forgot how to breathe.

  “Is that clear enough?” she asked with a mixture of shyness and laughter.

  “Dear God, Laurel!” he groaned as he remembered speech again. “Are you sure of what you’re doing? Because if you don’t leave right now, I don’t think I’ll be able to stop.” Even now he wasn’t sure, but his last ragged shred of honor needed to hear that she had no doubts that could turn into agonized regrets.

  She took a deep breath. “I know I’m opening Pandora’s box, but I’m sure that I want to. My fears and reservations have kept us in limbo. It’s time to move forward, though I don’t know if I’m sending us to heaven or hell.” She squeezed him with her warm hand and his last shreds of rationality disintegrated.

  “Maybe I’ll be in hell tomorrow, but this is certainly heaven now,” he breathed. Knowing he’d last only moments if he allowed her to continue, he removed her hand and rolled above her, pinning her wrists beside her head as he leaned into a kiss.

  Her mouth and lips were softly welcoming, her tongue a serenade. This was how they’d kissed when they were newly wed and overflowing with passion. He was drunk with the taste of her, with the yielding female flesh beneath him.

  Even more, he was drunk on her warmth, the endless, life-giving warmth that was why he’d fallen in love with her. Though he’d persuaded her to attempt a modest reconciliation for the sake of their child, she’d retreated behind emotional barriers. Now those barriers were gone, revealing the essence of the woman he loved.

  Impatiently he tugged off his drawers. He wanted to see, touch, taste all of her, so he sat back on his heels, studying her in the dim light. Their wedding night had been a journey of discovery. Tonight was a rediscovery of what the years apart had wrought. She was no longer an innocent, but a woman who had dealt with the rougher side of life, and who had dedicated herself to a vital, sometimes dangerous calling. Yet she was still Laurel, with all the world’s warmth in her face.

  “Why are you so far away?” she asked with a teasing smile.

  Voice thick, he replied, “Since I didn’t really experience our encounter at your infirmary, I don’t want to miss a single precious moment this time.”

  Her taste in nightgowns hadn’t changed. This one was even plainer than what she’d worn on their wedding night, a simple garment of white cotton with a high neck and long sleeves and no decoration. It deserved the same fate.

  He took hold of the gown’s neck and tore the garment from neckline to bottom hem, which was harder to do than it looked. The controlled ferocity of his action relieved some of his churning emotion. Better yet, it revealed the luxuriant female curves that had been concealed by the garment.

  She smiled up like a sensual Madonna. “You’re very hard on nightgowns.”

  “Two in eleven years isn’t so terribly destructive,” he said, smiling back. The smile faded. “You are so beautiful. So impossibly, painfully beautiful.”

  “We’ll have no pain tonight,” she said firmly. “Only pleasure as simple and unshadowed as when we made love in the captain’s cabin of your ship while sailing on turquoise seas.”

  “The Lavender Lady. She’s the sweetest ship I’ve ever sailed.” The schooner was the first vessel he’d commissioned for the small shipping company he’d inherited from a Scottish uncle. It had been almost complete and ready to launch when he married Laurel. The vessel was as sleek and lovely as his new bride, so he’d changed the name and had Laurel christen it.

  He’d planned to have a new figurehead carved, one that looked more like Laurel, but before he could, she’d left him. He’d changed the name of the ship because it seemed bad luck to name it for a woman who would never return.

  The thought caused pain, and she’d forbidden pain tonight. He stretched over her again, bare skin to bare skin, acutely aware of all the erotic differences in firmness and texture between male and female. Supporting enough of his weight that he didn’t crush her, he began kissing his way downward.

  Because of Laurel’s natural reserve and bone-deep dignity, he’d been surprised after their marriage to discover that she had an equally natural, unashamed sensuality. She was an elegant lady and an earthy nymph wrapped in one irresistible package.

  The pulse in her slender throat beat its rhythm under his lips. He worshipped her magnificent breasts with tongue and mouth as she gasped and arched her back. Her breasts were so luscious that he could scarcely bear to leave them, but he was impatient to rediscover all the other long-remembered delights. He was intoxicated by her ta
ste, her texture, the rippling responsiveness of her body.

  When he savored the tender arc of her abdomen, he left a special kiss for the seed of new life that was hidden within. Their child, conceived by chance and so doubly a miracle.

  When his questing lips reached the sweet heat and moisture between her thighs, he discovered that she still loved the most intimate of kisses. As he delicately lapped the tender folds, she began thrashing out of control. “James! James!”

  Her fingers dug into his scalp and her thighs crushed around him as she cried out wordlessly. As her muscles and breathing relaxed, he rested his head on her stomach, the hammering of her blood beneath his cheek echoing his own pounding heart.

  He felt vastly pleased with himself. Pleasuring her was almost as intense as receiving pleasure himself. Laurel had always been the most generous of lovers. He’d had to teach her to accept as well as give.

  “Oh my . . .” she breathed as she slid her fingers into his hair. “Here I intended to make up for all I’ve denied you, and instead you’ve enraptured me. I’d almost forgotten how wonderful it is to be with you.”

  Smiling, he cupped his hand over her most secret parts. “If you need another reminder . . .”

  She gasped, then rolled away. “Perhaps later. But now, my lord, it’s your turn.” Gently she pushed him onto his back, touching him in profoundly interesting ways in the process.

  By the time he settled into the pillows, he was breathing hard. His gaze locked on her lovely, intent face as she bent over him, contemplating where to begin. Her hair had come undone from its soft braid and spilled over her shoulders and her ripe breasts. “It’s a pagan thought,” he said unsteadily, “but you are the very model for Aphrodite. Infinitely desirable and bringing blessings to worshipful mankind.”

  Laughing eyes peered out from her tumbling bronze hair. “Not mankind. Only you, my very patient husband.” She caught a handful of her long hair and brushed it over him, stroking down his torso to his groin.

  He ground out, “Not. Patient. Now!”

  Her laughter turned wicked before she bent and let her skilled, sensual mouth follow the teasing trail of her hair. When her lips reached his throbbing erection, he thought he’d go mad. She’d lost none of the uninhibited expertise that he remembered.

  She took her time, bringing him to the brink, then slowing down to prolong the firestorm of desire. When he could endure no more, he gasped, “Enough!”

  In one swift movement, he rolled her onto her back, then positioned himself between her legs so that his heated flesh could slide along her moist, equally heated cleft. She moaned and clawed her nails into his back as he aroused her to desperate need.

  When he could endure no more, he buried himself in the intoxicating depths of her body. The explosion of sensation seared his senses. How had he lived without this fierce intimacy? Could he survive without it if she left him again?

  Furiously he banished all thoughts of the past and future. Nothing mattered but his wife and the glorious present.

  Culmination was only a dozen urgent thrusts away. As he shattered, she convulsed around him and they melded into one spirit, one mind, one passion.

  Every fiber of his body vibrated as his frantic blood slowed to normal. He rolled onto his side and pulled Laurel close against him. She was here now, and it was impossible to imagine them ever separating again. Even though passion was for the moment burned out, the warmth of her spirit still embraced him. When she decided to lower her defenses, she’d opened herself completely.

  Again he wondered how he’d lived without her life-giving warmth, and whether he could survive if she left him again.

  Don’t think such things. She was his wife and they were pledged to each other, now and forever, amen.

  And because he didn’t quite believe that, he held her close and refused to think about the morning.

  Chapter 30

  Laurel lay in James’s arms, her arm around his waist and her head on his shoulder. She loved his beautiful, strong, lean body; loved that they’d regained the intimacy of lying naked together without inhibition. Everything between them was so right that it was almost as if the years of separation had never happened. How could she have left him? Why?

  Immediately the horrific image of those beautiful hands snapping a man’s neck knotted her stomach with sick horror. She’d been so appalled, so anguished, that she couldn’t imagine letting him touch her, so she’d had no choice but to leave him. Even now the memories choked her breathing.

  But emotions faded with time. What she felt now was more the memory of horror than the harrowing pain of the original emotion. Also, she now knew that the intruder had carried a knife and might have taken James’s life. Self-defense wasn’t murder.

  And yet. . . “All those years ago—why didn’t you try to stop me from leaving?”

  His stroking hand stilled. “Because I killed a man and hadn’t meant to,” he said flatly. “Losing what I valued most seemed like a suitable punishment for my sins.”

  So Cassie had been right. Even though Cassie and Kirkland hadn’t been lovers, the woman knew him very well.

  He deserved equal honesty. Laurel forced herself to say, “I thought that when we arrived in London, you realized I was ill-suited to be a countess, so you made no attempt to change my mind because you didn’t want me anymore.”

  He sucked his breath in, shocked. “How could you have ever thought that?”

  “We had been on our honeymoon for a year, visiting your scattered properties, never meeting any of your friends.” Laurel moistened her lips. “After we separated, I wondered if you felt that I’d never fit into your world.”

  His face paled. “I was young and very selfish. You were the best thing that ever happened to me, and I didn’t want to share you with anyone or anything. I knew I’d have to when we returned to normal life, so I kept us away for as long as possible.”

  She swallowed hard. “I wish I’d known that.”

  “Would it have made a difference if you had?” He began stroking her back again. “Would you have stayed if I’d asked? Pleaded? Begged?”

  “I . . . don’t know.” She considered. “My revulsion was too powerful, I think. Time has dimmed the horror. Plus, in my work, I’ve seen a wide range of life’s rawness and cruelty. I’m much harder to shock now. But then . . .” She shook her head.

  “So it probably wouldn’t have made any difference if I’d tried to change your mind.” He exhaled. “I’m glad to know that, because I’ve often wondered if letting you walk away was the right thing to do.”

  “It was,” she said, regretting the pain they’d both endured. “Devastating, but right.”

  “In that case, I have a question for you, though I probably shouldn’t ask. But needing to understand is my besetting sin.” He smiled. “One of them, anyhow. What changed your mind about . . . marital intimacy?”

  “The wives of your friends,” she said wryly. “Remember the elephant mentioned earlier? I knew they’d all be madly curious about our separation and reconciliation. It was like an unacknowledged elephant in the room. So when we retired to take tea, I told them to ask whatever questions they liked. They asked, and I answered. I didn’t speak of private things, of course, but I told them enough that they could understand.”

  “Good lord,” he said, amusement in his voice. “Mackenzie was right. You were having hair-raising conversations.”

  “I’ve never experienced anything like it! But as we talked, I learned about them as they learned about me. While they understood why I left you and didn’t condemn the girl I was then, it was pointed out that I am no longer eighteen and it’s time I took my marriage vows more seriously.” She swallowed hard. “I think of myself as a woman of my word, so it was difficult to be reminded how badly I’ve failed to keep those vows. I’m sorry, James. I’m trying to do better.”

  “For which I’m incredibly grateful,” he said fervently. “But don’t be too hard on yourself, Laurel. Having strong mora
l objections to murder is a legitimate value that conflicts with those vows.”

  “I thought so at the time. But one of the ladies suggested that by denying physical intimacy, I was . . . unbalancing the scales. The deeper my bond with you, the more I should be able to accept the aspects of your character that are most opposed to my own.” She paused. “It’s a good theory.”

  “Theory is all very well,” he said in a voice that was not as light as he probably intended, “but do you think it will work out in practice?”

  She tightened her arm around his waist. “I certainly hope so!” she said wryly. “If you can refrain from killing anyone in front of me, all should be well.”

  He sighed. “I’ll do my best.”

  “There’s one other thing,” she said in a small voice. “I understand that you’ve had mistresses. I can’t expect otherwise when I wasn’t fulfilling my wifely obligations. But . . . I hope you will dismiss whoever holds that position now.”

  “I hate to shatter your belief,” he said softly, “but there is no mistress, nor has there been one. Since we’ve married, it’s only been you.”

  She jerked away from him and pulled herself up on one elbow so she could stare into his face. “What? Why not? No one, even me, would blame you for seeking satisfaction elsewhere when I failed to uphold my end of the marriage.”

  “Did you have lovers?” he countered.

  “Of course not!”

  “Why not?”

  “Those vows I mentioned earlier. To forsake all others, keeping only unto you,” she said, trying to make out his expression in the dim light.

  “Do you think a man is any less capable of keeping his vows than a woman?” he asked. “You’re a deeply passionate woman, Laurel, yet you held to yours.”

  She bit her lip as she thought about it. “I thought men were different. That celibacy is almost impossible.”

  “A lot of males promote that belief, but it’s not true. Mind you, it wasn’t easy!” He laughed suddenly. “Celibacy has been very good for my work.”

  “As it has been for mine!” She tried to absorb the enormity of what he’d said. No mistresses in all the years of their separation. He had kept to his vows just as she had. It had never occurred to her that he would do so, but the knowledge lifted a weight that she hadn’t realized she carried. “I’m so glad that I no longer have to pretend I’m not upset by the thought of you lying with other women. I didn’t think I had a right to resent it if you had other bedmates, but I hated the idea!”

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