Not Quite a Wife by Mary Jo Putney

  His arm tightened around her. “Just as I hated the idea that you might have lovers. I suppose it was a form of superstition to hope that if I honored my vows, you would, too.”

  “I’m so very glad we both did.” That knowledge strengthened her closeness to him. “I thought that Cassie might have been your mistress. It was a relief when she said the only pillow talk she heard from you was during a bout of fever.”

  He made a face. “Believe me, the situation was profoundly unromantic. Cassie and I are friends with a great deal of shared history and trust, but never more.”

  After a hesitation, he continued, “Not that I didn’t find her attractive, but even if I’d made a habit of taking mistresses, I wouldn’t have become involved with Cassie. My agents are committed to our work and they know the risks. Even so, it’s hellishly difficult to send them into certain danger. To send a woman who’d shared my bed would be . . . unbearable. That was another reason to avoid temptation.”

  “Whatever your reasons, I’m grateful for the result.” She closed her eyes, content as she hadn’t been in ten years, and uttered a silent prayer of thanks.

  With one hand, he began a gentle massage of the back of her neck that made her feel even more relaxed, if that was possible. “When we arrived in London, you said you hoped to make friends here,” he said thoughtfully. “Do you think any of the women you met tonight have that potential?”

  “They’re a rather intimidating group,” she replied, “but they were also intelligent and compassionate. I liked them all, particularly Lady Julia. Do you think she’d mind if I called on her?”

  “I’m sure she’d be pleased to see you. Ashton House, where she and Randall stay when they’re in town, isn’t far from here.”

  “I’ll send her a note in the morning to see if there’s a convenient time for me to visit.” She chuckled. “I’m trying to get used to having footmen at my beck and call.”

  “Think of them not as a luxury, but as men in need of a job who are now well employed.”

  She came alert. “I just realized. A number of your male servants are soldiers who were injured in the line of duty, aren’t they? Not the matched sets of footmen that I’ve heard are common in great houses.”

  “Yes, several were soldiers, but since I have a shipping company, I have sailors also. It’s best not to confuse the two,” he said with a laugh.

  She was half asleep when he said hesitantly, “Will you consider spending more of your time in London rather than merely visiting now and then? I know your roots in Bristol are deep, but surely we can find a balance so we will be together most of the time. I often need to be in London, but we can have another home in Bristol. I’ve been training Rhodes to handle more of the spying work, which means I’ll be less busy than I was. More time to spend with you.”

  She blinked. She hadn’t thought that far ahead yet, but he was right. Tonight had changed everything. They were no longer two people who happened to be married but lived separate lives. They were a couple who should be—wanted to be—together.

  When she’d come to London, she’d been adamant about returning home to Bristol in a month, but the definition of “home” had changed. Now home meant where James was, and it sounded as if he wanted to be with her as much as she wanted to be with him. Shockingly wonderful marital relations had that effect. “If we’re both willing to compromise, we can work it out. And I think we’re both willing.”

  “I feel very willing indeed,” he murmured as his stroking hand moved down her back under the covers. “I’ve been thinking Shakespeare tonight.”

  She laughed. “I hope it’s not ‘I do desire we may be better strangers!’ ”

  “No, that was your motto,” he replied, unperturbed. “I was thinking more along the lines of ‘She makes hungry where most she satisfies.’ ” He cupped her breast, his thumb teasing her nipple into swift hardness.

  “In other words, you’re hungry again?” She drifted her hand down his torso and found that he was, indeed, hungry again.

  “I’ve been starving for ten years,” he whispered.

  “So have I.” She rolled into him, unable to get enough of his touch, his taste. “ ‘He makes hungry where most he satisfies,’ ” she breathed, and those were the last words either of them said until they were both, once again, satisfied.

  Chapter 31

  Kirkland might have thought it was another vivid dream, but when he woke up to the dawn, Laurel was in his arms, her glossy hair half covering her lovely face. His wife. The mother of his child. His one and only love. The sheer rightness of her presence made him feel whole as he had only been in the brief months after their marriage.

  As newlyweds, there had been no shadows on their love. They’d gone through their long honeymoon without a single argument. Thinking back, it was like a long, perfectly executed piano duet. Perhaps if they’d learned then how to disagree, the marriage might not have shattered so thoroughly.

  Now they’d both been tempered by life. They’d recommitted to their vows, so they should be able to resolve future disagreements without falling apart. All he had to do was refrain from killing someone in front of his wife. Surely he could manage that.

  Laurel shifted a little in his arms, moving onto her back. Her eyes opened sleepily and she gave him a smile as purely loving as when they’d been honeymooners. “I’m so very glad to be here,” she murmured.

  “Back where you belong.” He kissed her temple. “Alas, I must be out and about for much of the day. Do you have plans, or will you stay in bed all day and think of ways to drive me mad?”

  “No need to do that,” she said demurely as her hand moved down his body in a very undemure way. “It’s quite easy to drive you mad. Advance planning isn’t required.”

  He gasped as her hand reached its goal and arousal blazed through him. “It’s true. Men are such simple creatures.”

  “Only in this one area,” she said rather tartly. “But if you were simple in all ways, you’d be boring.” She pushed herself up on one arm and gazed down at him thoughtfully. “I do believe that I shall have my wicked way with you. I would advise complete surrender.”

  “You have conquered me, my lady.” He rolled onto his back. “Do with me as you will.”

  She smiled mischievously. “I intend to.”

  As she leaned down into a kiss, he closed his eyes to better savor the joy of surrender. She was a woman who loved to give, and he could think of nothing better than allowing her to do so.

  Laurel dozed again after Kirkland reluctantly left their bed so he could attend to business. As her husband left, Badger entered the room, circled three times by Laurel’s pillow, then settled with his head on her shoulder. He wasn’t as good a bedmate as Kirkland, but in his own softly purring way, he was very fine.

  After Laurel finally rose, bathed, and breakfasted, she sent Lady Julia a note to ask what might be a convenient time to call. The response was swift. Laurel was playing the piano when she received Lady Julia’s invitation to join her that morning for a visit and luncheon. Laurel sent an equally swift acceptance and headed for her wardrobe.

  Violet was in the dressing room pressing more of Madame Hélier’s newly delivered garments, so Laurel announced, “I need a gown for a quiet private visit with the daughter of a duke who is also a midwife. What would you suggest?”

  “A lady who is well born, yet down to earth.” Violet’s brows drew together for a moment. Then she gave a decisive nod. “This morning gown, my lady.”

  She removed a garment from the wardrobe. The gray was a warm, misty shade, subtle and interesting. “It’s not ostentatious, but the cut is elegant enough that if a duke strolls in, you need not be ashamed of your appearance. Wear it with your French shawl that blends shades of blue and gray and green, along with the dark gray bonnet with the peacock feather trim.”

  “Perfect!” Laurel stroked the soft, rich fabric of the gown. “I shall grow very lazy letting you always choose what I wear, but you do it so much bett
er than I.”

  Violet laughed. “It is my job to make you look beautiful as you have not allowed yourself to look before.”

  “With such a talent for flattery, the shop you own someday will be very successful!” As Violet laid out the gown and accessories, Laurel added, “You’re looking especially happy this morning. Any particular reason?”

  Violet blushed, her café au lait complexion darkening. “After breakfast Mr. Rhodes asked me to take a walk with him on my next half day. We did the same last week and it was . . . very enjoyable.”

  Laurel arched her brows. This was the first she’d heard of a budding relationship, but because Kirkland trusted and respected Rhodes, Violet should be safe with him. The girl’s glow when she mentioned his name proved that she was overcoming her wariness, at least with Rhodes.

  “Now that I’m settling in,” Laurel said, “I should take more walks around the neighborhood, too. What did you particularly enjoy? Other than the company.”

  Violet blushed again and disguised it by reaching into the clothespress for the charming dark gray bonnet she’d suggested. “Shepherd Market is quite near here and it was lovely, like a fair. Music and jugglers and a woman who makes the best meat pies in London, according to Mr. Rhodes.”

  “That sounds like a perfect excursion. I’ll ask Kirkland to take me there.” Laurel raised her arms so Violet could drop the gray gown over her head. “Did you go anywhere else? I know there are fashionable houses to the west and fashionable shops to the east, but I’ve been so lazy that I’ve made no attempt to explore.”

  “Just across Berkeley Square is a tea shop and confectioner that Mr. Rhodes said is famous. It’s called Gunter’s and they serve the most delicious ices. Mr. Rhodes bought me one, but I think they’re too dear for a poor servant girl.” Violet batted her long black lashes innocently.

  Laurel laughed, delighted that the girl was revealing such playfulness. Violet had been so quiet and anxious when she first came to Zion House. “In other words, when we walk in the park, your long-suffering mistress should buy you an ice.”

  “Exactly. As well as one for yourself, of course. You will not regret it.”

  “We’ll do that next time we walk in the park.” Laurel studied her image in the mirror. Once again, Violet was right. The combination of blues and warm grays suited Laurel very well and emphasized the changeable colors of her eyes.

  As she wrapped the shawl around her shoulders, Laurel said, “Now we’re off to Ashton House. I’ll be there for several hours so you might want to take something to amuse yourself. Do you enjoy handwork?”

  “Like embroidery? Not really, and I’m caught up on the mending.” Violet broke into a smile. “Did you know that his lordship has a collection of books just for servants? Stories and travelers’ tales and sermons and texts on subjects like doing accounts. If we want to borrow one, all we have to do is sign it out with Mrs. Stratton. Since arriving in London, I read one whole book and I’m on my second now. Do you mind if I read while I wait for you?”

  “Not at all! I’m a great believer in reading. What is your current book?”

  “Robinson Crusoe.” Violet chuckled. “It is a tale of adventure set on a tropical island that is not much like Jamaica, but the author has a good imagination. It’s most enjoyable.”

  As she pulled on her gloves, Laurel realized that Zion House could use a similar lending library. She’d see that one was added.

  She was also warmed by the recognition that Kirkland shared her desire to help people better themselves. As he’d said, much of his time was spent on his spying and business responsibilities, but he’d still taken the time to create an exemplary household with customs that showed respect for all who dwelled within.

  If her husband could refrain from killing people when she was present, they should have a long and happy future together.

  Violet’s jaw dropped when the Kirkland carriage drove through the gates of Ashton House. “It’s huge! Like a royal palace.”

  Laurel was equally impressed. “Kirkland told me it’s the largest private home in London, but that didn’t prepare me for the reality.” No wonder Ashton didn’t mind having the Randalls stay with him. He could probably fit the entire Westerfield Academy in one wing and not notice.

  Ashton House was equally imposing inside, with sweeping staircases, high molded ceilings, and an impeccably trained staff. Violet was led off to the servants’ hall while Laurel was escorted upstairs by the butler.

  It was a relief to be welcomed to the Randalls’ rooms by a smiling Lady Julia. Petite, dark haired, and serene, she looked exactly as one might expect of a high-born woman who had become a skilled and compassionate midwife.

  “Are you properly intimidated by Ashton House?” Julia asked laughingly as she opened the door to admit her guest.

  Laurel chuckled. “I thought that Kirkland House was imposing, but I now realize that we’re paupers.”

  “You can see why Ashton was happy to grant my husband his own suite of rooms for as long as Randall wants them.” Julia gestured for Laurel to sit in a comfortable grouping of chairs and a sofa. “When Randall was in the army and seldom stayed in London, he didn’t need his own place, and now we all like the arrangement so much that Randall and I are impossible to dislodge.” She grinned. “Particularly since Ashton assigned us several more rooms after our marriage and the baby.”

  “It’s nice that this space is used rather than sitting empty,” Laurel said as she settled into a wing chair. “My first thought when we entered the grounds was,

  ‘Good heavens!’ My second thought was to wonder how many women and children could be housed here if it became another sanctuary like Zion House.”

  “A woman after my own heart!” Julia settled in the sofa opposite Laurel and tucked her feet up under her. “I don’t think Ashton is ready to give up his home, but he and Mariah have been very generous to the Sisters Foundation. I have all kinds of questions to ask you. Do you mind if Mariah joins us later? She’s interested, too.”

  “Not at all. I want to get to know her better. I’d also love to meet your daughter, and I gather Mariah has recently had a baby also?”

  “Yes, her Richard is only about five weeks older than my Anne-Marie.” Julia smiled. “Naturally we want to show our babies off, and all you have to do in return is say how beautiful they are.”

  “That will be easy. All babies are beautiful.” Laurel rested one hand on her belly, wondering if she dared discuss her recurring fear that she wouldn’t be able to carry this pregnancy to completion. But there was no point in mentioning that, since if Laurel was right, there was nothing Julia could do anyhow. “Could you recommend a good midwife? I’m not sure if this baby will be born here or in Bristol, but I thought I should have an expert on hand in both locations. I haven’t talked to a midwife yet, but it seems as if I should.”

  “It’s good to think ahead,” Julia agreed. “We won’t be in London long enough for you to become a patient of mine, but I can give you several recommendations here in the city. If you have questions to ask now, feel free. You’re not far along, I think?”

  “Almost two months.” Laurel could give the exact date and even the exact hour if that was requested. “It’s so early I haven’t wanted to speak much about it.”

  “I presume you’ve had symptoms. Would you care to discuss them?”

  “Some sickness in the morning.” She remembered the visit to her parents. “That’s not usually too bad unless I must do something I don’t want to later in the day.”

  “That does happen,” Julia said with wry amusement. “What else?”

  Delighted to talk to someone who understood and was interested, Laurel explained what her body was doing and received useful information about what to expect in the coming months. They were just finishing their discussion when Major Randall and a boy around thirteen or so entered the sitting room from the private rooms beyond.

  The major smiled at Laurel. “Welcome to my humble quarters, Lad
y Kirkland. You see the straits former officers are reduced to.” He waved a hand that took in the airy chamber and sumptuous furnishings.

  Laurel laughed. “My heart is wrung by your plight, Major.”

  Humor lurking in his eyes, he said, “Your sympathy is appreciated. May I present Benjamin Thomas Randall? Benjamin, this is Lady Kirkland.”

  Benjamin bowed politely, but his curious expression suggested that he was interested to meet Lord Kirkland’s wife. After the introductions, Randall said, “We are off to indulge in masculine pursuits like riding and perhaps visiting Tattersall’s.” He brushed a kiss on his wife’s hair before he headed to the door. “I expect the two of you will have half of Britain’s social problems sorted out by the time we return.”

  Julia laughed. “We’ll do our best.” She caught Benjamin’s hand as he passed and gave it a quick squeeze. “Please don’t bring a pony home from Tattersall’s. I’m not sure our rooms have space for one.”

  “I suppose not,” Benjamin said with feigned regret. He kissed Julia’s cheek, then followed Major Randall out.

  After the door closed, Laurel said, “Randall’s son? He’s an engaging lad.”

  “Benjamin’s father was Alex’s cousin, but he’s ours now.” Julia smiled fondly. “He’s a student at the Westerfield Academy.”

  “I hope to meet Lady Agnes Westerfield someday. She must be the most amazing woman.”

  “She is, and I’m sure you’ll meet her soon.” The reply came from Mariah as she entered the sitting room with a warm smile. “It’s so nice to see you again now that the elephant has been dismissed!” She brandished notebook and pencil. “And now to work.”

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