Not Quite a Wife by Mary Jo Putney


  “I’ll go belowdecks to find the captives as quickly as I can,” Kirkland said. “I’m guessing they’re in one of the cabins, most likely Hardwick’s.”

  “I’ll go with you,” Rhodes said, his voice hard.

  “I’ll follow once the main deck is secured,” Rob said. “With luck, we can move fast enough to do this without much bloodshed.”

  “I don’t care if we kill them all!” Rhodes spat out. “The bloody bastards are slavers as well as kidnappers.”

  “You’ve never killed a man, have you, Rhodes?” Randall’s voice was soft.

  “No,” Rhodes admitted, “but I’m ready to tonight.”

  “It’s harder to kill than you might think,” Randall continued in that same low voice. “So concentrate your murderous impulses on those who deserve it the most.”

  Despite the soft tone, there was something in Randall’s words that cut to the bone. Rhodes drew a deep breath. “I know you’re right, sir. But if I can corner Hardwick or that scar-faced devil who was stalking Violet, I’ll damn well make them pay for what they’ve done.”

  “You may have to fight Kirkland for the honor,” Randall said dryly. “But believe me when I say that it’s best to concentrate on achieving our mission rather than dwelling on revenge. Too much emotion can be dangerous in battle.” He moved off to prepare his troops, Rob Carmichael by his side.

  “I’m understanding better what it takes to be a soldier,” Rhodes said to Kirkland.

  “It’s going to be an educational night all around,” Kirkland agreed.

  “You’ve been doing this sort of thing for years, haven’t you, sir?”

  “Not full-fledged assaults like this, but there have been dangerous situations.” Kirkland’s mouth tightened. Never had the personal stakes been as high as tonight.

  Rhodes gazed at the Jamaica Queen, which they were fast overtaking. “Educational indeed. By dawn, I’ll be wiser or dead.”

  Kirkland hoped neither of them would be dead. But death was a very real possibility. There was no question that he would sacrifice his life to save Laurel’s. He just hoped he didn’t have to.

  Captain Gordon did a flawless job of bringing the Britannia alongside the Jamaica Queen, then slamming it into the port side of the other vessel. They crashed with an impact that probably knocked half the men on the sailing ship off their feet, but neither vessel was damaged to the point of taking water.

  Kirkland and his men were waiting and braced for impact. The sound of the crash was still reverberating when Randall bellowed, “NOW!”

  Grappling hooks flew through air, propelled by the men with sailing experience. Rob Carmichael was among them, and he hooked into the sailing ship’s rigging with his first cast.

  In moments, enough hooks had caught to lock the two vessels together. Soames, who was such a dignified butler, had explained that screaming unnerved the enemy, so the boarding party catapulted over the railing with howls that could curdle a man’s blood.

  Though Kirkland was known for his reserve, he found himself shouting, “For Laurel!” like a berserker as he vaulted down to the Jamaica Queen’s deck beside Randall. Killing wasn’t his first choice, but he had a pistol in one hand and a dagger at his side, along with the skill to kill with his bare hands if necessary.

  They caught the Jamaica Queen totally unawares. Sailors boiled out of the hatches onto the main deck and were rounded up by some of Kirkland’s men who were armed with shotguns that could tear large, messy holes in anyone who resisted.

  A few fought, and fought hard. Randall charged full force into a skirmish and took two men down immediately while Rob protected his friend’s back and brought down a man who was coming at Randall with a knife.

  Cursing the darkness, Kirkland scanned the battle. Where the devil was Hardwick? Shouldn’t he be up here leading his men? Maybe he was and Kirkland just couldn’t find him.

  The scar-faced man! Kirkland spotted him amidships. Probably an officer since he was shouting orders and trying to rally his sailors. He would know where the captives were being held.

  Kirkland raced across the deck, dodging skirmishing sailors until he reached Scar Face, who was shouting orders with his back against the main mast. Kirkland used the single shot in his pistol to put a bullet through the man’s shoulder.

  Scar Face spun and fell to the deck, screaming with pain. Kirkland planted a boot in the middle of his chest and held the tip of the dagger to his throat. “The women! Where are they?”

  Scar Face spat. Kirkland drew an inch long slice across the devil’s throat. “Where are they? Tell me and you won’t die just yet.”

  Face white in contrast to his blood, Scar Face gasped, “Captain’s cabin, one deck down in the stern.”

  Kirkland was preparing to club the side of Scar Face’s head with the butt of his empty pistol when Rhodes appeared, a line of blood on his forehead.

  “You bastard!” Rhodes snarled. “This is for what you did to Violet!” Gripping his pistol in both hands, he shot Scar Face in the head at point-blank range.

  “Congratulations,” Kirkland said dryly as he swiftly reloaded his pistol. “You can now say you’ve killed a man.”

  Rhodes stood over the body of his victim, staring at the blood and blasted bone. Fury had turned to sick horror. He was indeed having an educational night.

  Rhodes would recover in time, but Kirkland wasn’t about to wait for that to happen. Reloaded pistol in hand, he turned toward the stern hatch that would take him down to the captain’s quarters—and found one of Hardwick’s men aiming a pistol at his head from barely six feet away.

  Kirkland was about to hurl himself to one side and hope that the pistol ball wouldn’t hit any lethal area when a shot rang out and his attacker crumpled. Blood sprayed from his temple and he was dead before he hit the deck.

  Kirkland had heard the sharp crack of a rifle, so he spun around, looking for the source. Captain Gordon stood on the deck of the Britannia, almost obscured by the cloud of smoke belched out by his rifle. The weapon was clamped upright between his knees as he swiftly reloaded.

  As the smoke cleared, their gazes met. Kirkland gave a fierce nod of acknowledgment and thanks. Gordon inclined his head ironically. Everything that had been between them in the past vanished, no longer important.

  Then Kirkland headed toward the rear hatch that would bring him down by the captain’s cabin, and prayed that his wife was still safe.

  Laurel had lit a lamp when it became dark. She’d also found a flask with a small amount of excellent brandy. She gave most to Violet to dull the pain, but took a couple of swigs herself. For the first time, she had some empathy for men who drank too much.

  She was pacing around the cabin once again when a shocking crash rocked the ship and pitched her to the floor. As the swinging lantern sent wild shadows splashing across the cabin, she looked up at the portholes. Good heavens, another ship was crunched against the left side of the Jamaica Queen! Grinding against it, in fact, with deep, ominous groans.

  Kirkland. She couldn’t imagine how he’d done it, but somehow he’d found a ship and followed faster than was humanly possible.

  As shouting and shots sounded above, Violet was jarred awake. Looking composed after her rest, she pushed herself to a sitting position. “What’s happening?”

  “Kirkland has caught up with us and has a crew boarding like pirates.” More grinding sounds from the friction between the ships. “I don’t know how on earth he did it, but he did.”

  Violet’s eyes glinted with fierce satisfaction. “You warned them he would come. And I am sure my Jasper is with him.”

  Laurel nodded agreement. “Hardwick isn’t the sort to listen to a woman. The more fool he.”

  Violet’s knuckles whitened on the edge of the bed as she swung her legs over the side and carefully stood. “My ankle is . . . better. If we must run, I can run.”

  “God willing, we can stay safely inside here until the fighting is over.”

  The shouting
and shots above were dying down. The battle must almost be over. Then the door rattled and a key scraped futilely in the lock. Hardwick was trying to enter the cabin. Laurel froze, her gaze riveted on the door.

  The pencil jamming worked! Vicious oaths scalded the air on the other side of the door. Laurel held her breath. The lock wouldn’t have to hold for much longer. . . .

  Boom! The door rattled from a thunderous kick. Boom! Boom! BOOM! The door lock shattered and the door swung inward. Hardwick charged into his cabin like a rampaging bull, flinging the useless door shut behind him.

  For an instant he stared at his captives. “Stupid sailors! I just said to lock you in, not untie you. But no matter. Since you can walk, it will save me time as I escape this rattrap.” He crossed the cabin to the desk in three long strides.

  The captain did something to the desk and there was a loud click as the drawers unlocked. He yanked a pair of pistols from the bottom drawer.

  Laurel bit her lip, wishing she’d been able to figure out the desk lock. She doubted she could shoot a man, but Violet would have fewer qualms.

  As Hardwick checked the loading of his weapons, he snarled, “You bitches are going to be my hostages to get out of here. If I have guns to your heads, they’ll let me go off in a dinghy.”

  His gaze locked onto Violet. “Haven’t got time to shag you, but I’m bloody well going to have a sample.” Leaving one pistol on the desk, he strode toward the bed and grabbed Violet’s hand. “Feel what’s waiting for you, slut!”

  He was pulling her hand toward his crotch when she jerked free and caught hold of his little finger. Eyes blazing, she bent the finger backward with vicious force.

  Hardwick pulled back, screaming with shock and pain. “Damn you!”

  Face feral, Violet hissed, “You’re the one who will be damned to hell for eternity, you vile swine!”

  As Hardwick struck her with a heavy hand, the lockless door swung open so hard it smashed into the wall. “It’s all over now, Hardwick!”

  Kirkland’s voice was lethally cold as he charged through the doorway, his gaze scanning the cabin. When he saw Laurel, desperate relief blazed in his eyes.

  In that instant when Kirkland’s attention was on Laurel, Hardwick spun around and raised his cocked pistol, taking dead aim at Kirkland.

  Noooo! As panic screamed through Laurel, the action slowed to a hallucinatory speed. Operating on frantic instinct, she grabbed the heavy brass telescope from its stand as if it weighed no more than a broom handle and smashed it into the back of Hardwick’s head with every iota of strength she possessed.

  She could feel his bones break under the impact of her blow. Hardwick made a single strangled sound before pitching over on his side. His pistol discharged into the ceiling with a deafening boom in the confined space.

  Then there was silence except for the low grinding of the ships. Laurel stared aghast at Hardwick, knowing that no one could survive with his neck bent at that angle.

  She had killed a man. Laurel Herbert, known for her gentleness, kindness, and cowardly inability to wring a chicken’s neck, who had broken her sacred vows and walked away when her husband killed, was herself a murderer.

  She began shaking and her knees started to buckle. Then strong, warm arms embraced her, holding her safe. “Dear God, Laurel,” Kirkland breathed, his words an anguished prayer of relief. “I was so afraid that I’d lost you forever!”

  She buried her face against him, still shaking. As if at a great distance, she heard another man enter. Rhodes called out, “Violet!”

  Violet cried, “Jasper!” Laurel heard the sound of two people coming together, heard sobs and ragged prayers of thanks, but she couldn’t move to save her life.

  She’d saved her husband’s life—and incinerated her soul.

  Chapter 36

  Because Kirkland and his friends had discussed the possibilities, cleaning up after capturing the Jamaica Queen was surprisingly swift. They’d achieved the best of all possible outcomes. Both women were safe and had suffered no serious physical damage. Kirkland was sure there was some mental and emotional damage, but Laurel and Violet were strong women. They had survived, and they would heal.

  Several men from the Britannia had been wounded, but none of the injuries were serious. The Jamaica Queen had suffered many more casualties, with four deaths: Hardwick; Scar Face, who turned out to be a second mate named Moody; the sailor shot by Captain Gordon; and a brute of a sail maker who made the fatal mistake of trying to stab Rob Carmichael with a huge marlinespike.

  Hardwick’s first mate claimed that he’d known nothing about the kidnapping in advance. He’d been appalled to learn that two women, one of them gently born, had been abducted, and he’d planned to secretly help them escape in a dinghy before the Thames emptied into the sea. Kirkland judged him as a liar and a weasel, but his earnest desire to change sides made him useful.

  Rob Carmichael and Randall stayed on the Jamaica Queen with enough of Kirkland’s men to ensure that the surviving members of Hardwick’s crew would behave. They’d sail the ship back to London.

  Kirkland, Rhodes, their ladies, and the Kirkland House men who’d been injured returned to London on the Britannia. With Ashton in the engine room and Captain Gordon at the helm, they steamed back to the city at a speed only slightly less than what they’d maintained on the chase downstream. Ashton was very pleased with the performance of his new steamship.

  Kirkland spent most of the return trip with Laurel, lying on the bunk in a cabin and holding her in his arms. She seemed numb with shock and barely aware of him. Kirkland wasn’t in the habit of praying, but he sent up fervent prayers that she would recover swiftly from all she’d endured.

  But the disasters weren’t over. When Kirkland and Laurel arrived home in late morning, Laurel closed her eyes and pressed her hand to her belly, a spasm of pain twisting her face. “Please,” she whispered, “ask Lady Julia to come as soon as she can.”

  Dear God, what if she was miscarrying? The thought made him ill, but Kirkland guessed that after all that she endured in the last day, it wasn’t surprising. “I’ll bring her right away,” he promised, “but first we need to get you to your bed.”

  When he scooped her up in his arms, he saw two or three tiny drops of scarlet blood on the foyer’s marble floor. His heart twisted beyond grief.

  With most of the male servants not yet returned, it was a housemaid who appeared when he called out. Tersely he said, “Send Mrs. Stratton up to Lady Kirkland’s rooms immediately.” Then he carried his wife up the long stairs, each step pounding like a lead weight on his brain.

  He hated to leave her, but he could bring Julia most quickly. Plus, he needed to reassure Mariah as well as Lady Julia that their husbands were all right.

  By the time he laid Laurel on her bed, Mrs. Stratton was there, her expression aghast. “Poor sweet lady! We’ll take care of her.”

  Kirkland brushed a kiss on Laurel’s pale cheek, then headed out to the mews, not bothering to change his muddy clothing. He would have hitched the horses to his chaise himself, but the one groom who hadn’t gone after Laurel because he’d lost a leg in the army insisted on doing it for him. Kirkland leaned against the stable wall, so tired that he was in the numb state that lay beyond exhaustion.

  Luckily, it was a short drive to Ashton House. As soon as he was admitted, Mariah, Julia, and Sarah came flying down the sweeping staircase along with Randall’s foster son, Benjamin, and Rob’s daughter, Bree.

  “Our mission was a complete success,” Kirkland said quickly, realizing he should have known his friends’ families would gather here for mutual support. “Your menfolk are unhurt, and they made it possible to rescue Laurel and Violet.”

  As Benjamin whooped with relief and Bree hugged Sarah, Mariah said fervently, “Thank heaven! What happened?”

  “The kidnapper, Hardwick, got them onto his ship and was sailing down the Thames,” Kirkland explained. “But Ashton’s steamship, the Britannia, was moored nearby,
so we went in pursuit. With Ashton ruining his clothes in the engine room, we made record speed. We overtook and boarded the kidnappers’ ship, ably led by Rob and Randall. No serious casualties on our side.”

  “When will they be home?” Mariah asked.

  “Ashton will be here quite soon. He brought us back on the Britannia, but he had to shut the boilers down or some such before he could leave the boat.” To Julia, Kirkland said, “Randall will be home later today, probably this evening. He and Rob are bringing back the sailing ship with prisoners.” He exhaled roughly. “I am fortunate in my friends.”

  “You’ve more than earned that, James,” Julia said quietly as she wrapped an arm around Benjamin’s shoulders. “Given everything Alex has survived, I shouldn’t have been worried, but it’s hard not to. How is Laurel doing?”

  Every muscle in Kirkland’s body tensed. “I think . . . I think she’s miscarrying. She sent me to get you. Do I need to call in a physician as well?”

  Her face compassionate, Lady Julia said, “Not unless there are complications, which is unlikely this early in the pregnancy. I’ll go upstairs for my midwife bag and we can leave right away.”

  As Lady Julia moved swiftly up the stairs, Sarah said softly, “I’m so sorry, Kirkland. If there’s anything I can do . . .”

  He closed his eyes, knowing there was nothing that could be done for the child that would never be. “Thank you. As long as Laurel is all right . . .” His voice trailed off.

  “She will be,” Mariah said firmly. “Julia is probably the best midwife in England. She saved my life when Richard was born. But you, sir, also need some saving. Or at the very least, a long rest.” Her nose wrinkled. “And a bath!”

 
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