Not Quite a Wife by Mary Jo Putney

  As the duchess plumped down on the sofa, Julia said, “When my foundation directors visited you at Zion House, you were starting some job-training programs for your residents. How have you gone about it and what is proving successful?”

  “We concentrate on practical skills like cleaning, cooking, baby nursing, and for women with more education, subjects like keeping accounts. Most of our teachers are residents so the classes vary, but we’re developing formal plans of study to assure that the students learn all the skills necessary,” Laurel explained. “After that, they serve an apprenticeship in homes of local people who support the program.”

  That kicked off an animated discussion that carried the three women through the next hours, including shared ideas, laughter, and an excellent luncheon. By the time she left, Laurel knew she had two new friends who were kindred spirits. She must invite Anne Wilson up from Bristol so all of them could meet together. As matron of Zion House, Anne had practical experience of the day-to-day details. Perhaps she could be persuaded to write a guide for matrons of other refuges.

  Heavens, Laurel hadn’t even broached the subject of security, or their plans to start small businesses. She’d met both of Kirkland’s experts and been impressed. Both men were now in Bristol, one making Zion House safer, the other starting a woodshop.

  As Violet joined her and they waited for their carriage, Laurel asked her maid, “How did you and Robinson Crusoe do?”

  “I read some, but I also talked with the maids of the duchess and Lady Julia. We exchanged some recipes.” Violet smiled. “I was also well fed.”

  “A good day for both of us.” An idea struck Laurel. “The afternoon is pleasant, so I’ll have the coachman take us to Gunter’s for ices and we can walk home across the park.”

  “I shall be most happy to assist you with the ices, my lady.” Violet’s words were prim but her eyes sparkled.

  The carriage arrived and Laurel was assisted in by a footman. As she settled inside, she smiled with satisfaction. There was nothing like making friends to reconcile oneself with living in a new place.

  Laurel had sometimes had ices, but they were a rare and expensive treat because of the difficulty of obtaining sufficient ice and the complexity of the production. Visiting Gunter’s was almost as much a treat for her as for Violet.

  After her first taste of her orange flower ice, she sighed with pleasure. “You were right, Violet. This is exquisite. We must end all our walks here.”

  Violet smiled happily over her cinnamon-flavored ice. “I shall be honored to accompany you every time.”

  Despite making her bites small, Laurel’s ice was gone too soon, and it would be undignified for a countess to lick the dish. Could a pregnant woman justify wolfing down one or two more? Though the thought appealed, she didn’t think she was capable of letting herself be so undisciplined.

  But she could certainly become a regular patron since Gunter’s was so close. “I must speak with Mr. Gunter about supplying ices to Kirkland House when we entertain. They should be able to pack them in an ice-filled chest so they’ll last a few hours.”

  “I’m sure they’ll be able to accommodate you for a suitably outrageous price.”

  Money did have its uses. Not only ices, but this lovely park right in front of Kirkland House, where Laurel could so easily stretch her legs and breathe fresh air.

  As she and Violet strolled into the square, the Kirkland footman jumped from the carriage to escort them home while the coachman took the carriage around to the stables. Laurel was getting used to having so many servants. It was easy now that she knew them as individuals.

  She circled one of the great plane trees, thinking that she was having a splendid day, and the best was yet to come. She gave a very private smile, and estimated the number of hours it would be until she and her husband could go to bed.

  Chapter 32

  In the week since Laurel and Kirkland had gone from sharing a roof to sharing a bed, they’d started to shape their lives into a new pattern that suited them both. Usually they would have a leisurely breakfast where they laughed and discussed interesting stories from the newspapers. Then Kirkland would go about his work, usually leaving the house, while Laurel would consult with Mrs. Stratton about household affairs. The housekeeper no longer felt threatened by her new mistress since Laurel seldom interfered.

  Laurel had better things to do. In Bristol, she’d been busy from dawn to dark, but now she worked on a larger scale. Lady Julia had put her on the board of the Sisters Foundation, and along with Mariah and Kiri, they were developing plans to expand the network of shelters. She missed working directly with the women and children, but her present work would benefit many more people.

  London was starting to feel more like home. Under the terms of their original reconciliation, she’d planned to visit London occasionally and spend the bulk of her time in Bristol. Now the balance was reversed. She would visit Bristol to see friends and her brother and also to check that the infirmary and Zion House ran smoothly, but her presence would be needed less and less.

  As Laurel and Violet prepared for their afternoon walk, Laurel wondered how long this magical phase of her marriage would last. After the child was born, there would be many changes. But the elements—time with her husband and meaningful work for both of them—were now in place.

  When they stepped out of the house into Berkeley Square, Violet looked at the sky doubtfully. “It looks like rain soon, my lady.”

  “Very true, but this is England. If we only ventured out in sunshine, we’d never get any exercise,” Laurel said briskly. “And we would also have many fewer ices.”

  “True, and that would be very sad,” Violet agreed.

  “Martin, best bring an umbrella,” Laurel said to the wiry former sailor turned footman who was escorting them today. Violet had told Laurel that escorting the countess on her daily walk was such a coveted task that the men took turns, largely because Laurel always bought ices for the escorts as well as for herself and Violet.

  Ices were expensive, but she enjoyed spending Kirkland’s money in ways that brought such pleasure. He’d certainly brought pleasure to her every night for the week since they’d become lovers again. It would be more proper to say that they had resumed marital relations, but “becoming lovers” did a better job of capturing the flavor of their wickedly passionate nights.

  Besides establishing more refuges, the Sisters Foundation wanted to expand their training programs. Too often a woman stayed with a brutal man because she feared she and her children would starve if she left. These women needed to acquire skills to support themselves.

  Sketching out training programs had given Laurel an idea. As she and her maid started around the park, she asked, “Violet, how would you feel about writing a short book about the skills required of a lady’s maid?”

  Violet stopped in her tracks, her eyes widening to saucer size. “I could never write a book!” she gasped.

  “Of course you can. It would just be a matter of writing down what a good lady’s maid needs to be able to do, and how to do it. Rather like the classes you were teaching at Zion House. Clothing, hair, making creams and lotions and cosmetics, and the rest. I realize it’s taken you years to develop these skills, but you were good at explaining how to do each task. The first use of the book would be a guide for women at refuges like Zion House, but I believe that it could find a broader audience.”

  Violet resumed walking, but she bit her lip. “I have learned to speak and read well, but I do not write so well.”

  “That’s not a problem. I can work with you. We’ll call it a pamphlet if that sounds less alarming.” Laurel smiled. “Wouldn’t it be splendid to have a book with your name on it? You can dedicate it to me and people will know that you are the personal maid of a countess. A countess who needs a great deal of help to look respectable!”

  That made Violet laugh, and as they walked around the park, the girl began listing the topics such a book would need to cover. Eve
n though the sky was darkening, Laurel was in no rush to go inside, because the more Violet talked and expanded on her ideas, the more she believed she really could write a book.

  Laurel and Violet and the ever-patient Martin circled and crisscrossed the oval park. Because of the threatening rain, the square was almost empty, but that didn’t matter. Violet was bubbling with ideas. As they neared Gunter’s for their end-of-walk treat, Laurel said, “About your recipes for cosmetics. Are you willing to share all of them? Or most of them?”

  Violet pursed her lips as she thought. “Most I will share. There are a few I would rather keep secret.”

  “There’s a good title for you. Secrets of a Lady’s Maid,” Laurel suggested, half serious and half teasing. “As long as people don’t expect naughty stories!”

  Several carriages were pulled up opposite Gunter’s, including a huge travel coach, but there were no open vehicles and only a handful of customers were in the shop. As always, Laurel and her companions ate their ices outside. The first drops of rain began to fall as they finished the treats, and a cold wind swept across the park.

  “Time to go home,” Laurel said. Kirkland would probably be there since he’d planned to invite several friends over for a meeting of some sort. She hoped the meeting wouldn’t be long. If his friends were gone, perhaps she could persuade him into an afternoon nap. Being with child gave so many good excuses to go to bed.

  The Duke of Ashton was the first to arrive. As he shook Kirkland’s hand, he said, “You’re looking remarkably well, and I don’t suppose it’s hard to guess the reason.”

  Kirkland laughed. “It’s been the best week of my life, Ash. Laurel and I get along so well that it’s difficult to remember all those years of separation.”

  “I’m glad for you,” Ashton said sincerely. “Mariah said to thank you for bringing her a new friend. Now what is this mysterious meeting you’ve called?”

  “I’ve invited Randall and Carmichael, so I’ll explain it all at once.”

  A gleam in his eyes, Ashton said, “Since they’re coming also, I’ll wait before I tell you how my latest infernal machine is doing.”

  “Your new steamship? I trust it hasn’t exploded.”

  Ashton grinned. “Be fair. The only time one exploded was attempted murder.”

  Before Kirkland could ask another question, Randall was announced. As he handed his hat to the butler, he said, “You have competition for your wife’s affections, Kirkland. Benjamin fell halfway in love with her when she played the piano for us.”

  “I can hardly blame him, since I did the same,” Kirkland said mildly.

  Rob Carmichael entered last. He’d spent time as a sailor and had a keen weather sense, so he announced, “There’s a squall coming. Literally. And perhaps there’s a metaphorical squall in the area since you asked us to meet with you, Kirkland?”

  “Yes,” Kirkland said as he ushered his friends into his study. “I’ve asked you here because there’s a large issue I’ve not paid much attention to, and I’d like your thoughts and perhaps your influence if we decide to chart a strategy for the future.”

  “What’s the issue?” Randall asked as he settled into a comfortable chair.

  “The illegal slave trade. Ash, you probably know most about the subject. You aligned yourself with the abolitionists as soon as you took your seat in the House of Lords and threw your considerable weight behind the legislation that banned the slave trade. It’s been what, six years since the bill was passed?”

  Ashton nodded. “Yes, and it was a major victory. But not a final solution, of course. There is still much to be done. What has brought about this interest on your part? I would have thought defeating Napoleon would be enough to keep you busy.”

  Kirkland grimaced. “Heaven knows that’s true. But I was reminded by Laurel’s maid that there are other pressing issues. Violet was born a slave in Jamaica and trained as a lady’s maid. Her mistress brought her to England for a visit. Violet is an intelligent, thoroughly decent young woman with a passion to grow and learn, but unluckily, in England she was sold to a certain Captain Hardwick, who became obsessed with her.”

  “I’ve seen the girl leaving Ashton House with your wife,” Ashton said. “Very striking, unfortunately for her.”

  Carmichael frowned. “Hardwick is a thoroughgoing villain. Did Lady Kirkland buy the girl’s freedom?”

  “No, Laurel came across Hardwick and a couple of his men at the port of Bristol trying to force Violet out to Hardwick’s ship. Laurel cited legal precedent and took Violet away from him with the help of some friendly stevedores who backed her up.”

  There was a stunned silence before Randall said, “It didn’t occur to your lady wife that taking a slave away from a vicious brute might be dangerous?”

  “Probably not.” Kirkland still winced when he thought how badly her intervention might have gone. “She saw a girl in desperate straits and couldn’t not help.”

  “I’m starting to understand your mutual attraction better,” Randall said acerbically. “You’re both mad martyrs who will do what is right even if it kills you.”

  “That’s probably true, though I’m much more devious than Laurel,” Kirkland said ruefully. “There’s more to Violet’s story. Hardwick set one of his men to watching the girl, probably in hope of taking her back. That’s one reason Laurel brought Violet to London, where she should be safe.”

  Randall spoke again. “So the plight of this one girl you know has made you start thinking about all the unfortunates you don’t know?”

  “Exactly. I’d been vaguely aware of Hardwick, but after I learned how he was stalking Violet, I decided to investigate him further.”

  “There have been credible rumors that he is involved in the illegal slave trade,” Rob Carmichael said. “Have you confirmed that?”

  Kirkland nodded. “My valet, Rhodes, is in charge of the investigation. I’ve been training him to take on some of my intelligence work, and he shows real talent. Now that you’ve gone and married, Rob, I can’t count on you to handle everything if I drop dead.”

  His friend grinned. “Sorry about that,” he said, not sounding sorry at all. “Rhodes combines a rather unremarkable appearance with a very clever mind, and he grew up in the dockland area, didn’t he?”

  “Exactly. He’s first rate at finding information and putting the pieces together, which is what the job requires. I’ll have to find a new valet soon, which will be a nuisance, but it’s easier to find good servants than good spymasters.”

  “What are your goals?” Randall asked. “To bring down Hardwick and in the process protect Violet and others who might be threatened by him?”

  “That would be just the start,” Kirkland said. “The larger issue is to increase the resources of the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron so they can do more to stop illegal slave ships on the Middle Passage between Africa and the new world. I’m not sure how that would be done. It will probably require an act of Parliament.”

  “The ocean is large, the squadron currently has only three or four ships, and there are those who feel the Royal Navy should be concentrating on the war in Europe.” Ashton frowned. “Not to mention that there are men who still make a great deal of money from slavery, and they will not want to see the illegal trade stopped.”

  “All true, and Hardwick is such a man. This must be a long-term project. The European wars should be over in a year or two, which will free up resources,” Kirkland replied. “It’s time to start planning for the future.”

  “If Parliament becomes involved in the next few years, you and Ash and Rob all have seats in the Lords and can vote to raise appropriations, but I’m a mere commoner for the foreseeable future,” Randall said. “I don’t know if I can do much to help.”

  “Lord Daventry is one of those peers whose vote is always hard to predict. As his heir presumptive, you have some influence with him, don’t you? Any chance he might be persuaded to support an increase in funding and resources for the squadron??

  Randall considered. “My uncle hasn’t much use for my opinion, but the project is one he might be inclined to support if it comes before the Lords. The best way to influence him would be to have Julia talk to Lady Daventry. They’ve been thick as thieves ever since Julia delivered her ladyship’s baby.”

  “Is Wyndham still thinking about becoming a Member of Parliament?” Ashton asked. “I should think he would be a solid supporter of antislavery measures.”

  “Yes, just as his father will support such measures in the Lords,” Kirkland said. “Wyndham and Cassie have returned to Summerhill, but before they left, he told me that he’s now able to tolerate crowds again, even a crowd of politicians, so he’ll take a seat next year after one of his father’s MPs retires.”

  “It sounds like you’ll be able to marshal quite a bit of support,” Rob observed. “Have you asked Violet what she knows? If she spent much time with Hardwick, she might have picked up information about his activities.”

  “That’s a good thought. I’ll ask her to come down now, and Laurel as well. Since Bristol was a major port for ships in the trade to deliver cargo from the Indies, she might have some useful information.”

  A footman had entered to light lamps since the sky had darkened, so Kirkland asked him to request that Lady Kirkland and her maid join them in the study. “I shall inquire, my lord,” the footman said. “But her ladyship and maid have gone out for their afternoon walk in Berkeley Square, and I believe they haven’t returned yet.”

  “Find out, please,” Kirkland said tersely. The footman left, accompanied by a flash of lightning and a crash of thunder that followed almost instantly. Rain began pounding down and the sky was almost full dark.

  “You predicted that squall right, Rob.” Restlessly Kirkland rose and lit the lamps himself. He was getting the itchy feeling that something dire was about to happen, and he’d learned that such feelings were usually right. They were also too damned general to be of any use other than to make his nerves twang like piano strings.

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