Not Quite a Wife by Mary Jo Putney


  “Of course I’m glad to have saved you! But does that make me any less of a sinner? Thou shalt not kill.” She buried her face in her hands, her shoulders shaking. “Perhaps I could have stopped him without using so much force.”

  His voice softened. “When vicious men are waving loaded pistols around, it’s best to err on the side of force. Trust your instincts, my lady. You did what was necessary.”

  “It isn’t just that I killed a man, though that’s bad enough,” she whispered. “I put you and your friends in mortal danger. I don’t know how I can live with myself. ”

  “We managed to rescue you and Violet with no serious casualties,” Kirkland said. “But even if we hadn’t been so lucky, every man who came with me knew the risks. To act is to accept the consequences of that action, and all of them did. Doing the right thing often means taking risks.”

  She swallowed hard. “I’m glad there were no other casualties, but I’m responsible for the death of Martin. He was just doing his job, and they killed him right in front of me! He never had a chance.” Her eyes closed briefly. “Did you know that he and one of the housemaids had been planning to marry? And now he’s dead.”

  Glad that he could offer some good news, Kirkland said, “Actually, Martin is alive and reasonably well. After they carried you and Violet off, he staggered across the park and fell bleeding at my feet with the news of the abduction. He behaved admirably, and I intend to see that he is well rewarded, along with my other servants who went so far above and beyond their duty.”

  Her head snapped up. “Martin isn’t dead? Thank God!”

  “You need to do more than thank God, Laurel.” Kirkland pulled her sapphire cross from an inside pocket. It had a delicate new golden chain. He pressed it into her hand, then wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close to his side.

  Softly he continued, “You need to ask God for forgiveness. That’s His job, isn’t it? To forgive imperfect humankind. You are quick to forgive others and offer them kindness. Do the same for yourself.” He couldn’t keep the catch out of his voice. “Please. Because I can’t bear to lose you again.”

  For an instant she stiffened and he feared that she would pull away. Then she opened her hand and stared at the cross. The sapphires sparkled in the lamplight with a clear Madonna blue.

  Turning her face into his shoulder, she began to weep great, tearing sobs of loss and anguish. He wrapped his other arm around her and drew her closer to his heart.

  Her agonized tears would have been unendurable, except that finally she’d turned to him.

  Laurel felt as if the pain would tear her apart. With stark clarity, she recognized that she’d never fully accepted that James could love her because she had never loved herself. No matter how hard she’d tried, she’d never been quite good enough for her parents, and that deep belief in her own unworthiness had shaped her life.

  Laurel Herbert, the doctor’s saintly sister, had been considered a paragon of faith in her community. Giving love had come easily to her, so she gave to everyone around, both for the pleasure of giving and as a way to compensate for her unworthiness.

  Yet she had never been fully able to accept love, except perhaps from her brother, who had been raised under the same roof. She had wanted to give James a child as the ultimate gift, for nothing less would be a sufficient return for all he’d given her. Having the prospect of a child, then failing, was devastating.

  Knowing herself to be unworthy, she’d never dared ask for forgiveness. The faith she had tried to keep at the center of her life was as weak and flawed as the rest of her.

  And yet—James loved her anyhow. His words, his voice, the tenderness of his embrace made it impossible not to believe. She realized that beyond the passion and music they shared, on a deep level beyond words they were the same: flawed, imperfect beings who yearned for love and doubted they were worthy of it.

  Where there was love, there was grace and mercy and forgiveness. With her tears ruining her husband’s shirt, she began to pray for the ability to forgive herself. For acceptance of her failings, for the strength to do better, and for the ability to give James the joy he deserved.

  A pinprick of golden light formed in the center of the despair that enveloped her. She caught her breath at that break in the darkness. When she reached for the light with her heart, it expanded through her, growing into brilliant currents of warmth and forgiveness that illuminated every dark corner of her tarnished soul.

  Her tears faded as she contemplated this new inner landscape. Yes, she’d miscarried the child she’d longed for and the pain was deep, but it was a grief that had been born by women from time immemorial.

  She had killed a man and that was not something she would ever forget, yet committing lethal violence had been the right choice when the alternative was seeing her beloved killed before her very eyes. She had brought Hardwick’s danger into the lives of her husband and his friends, but she couldn’t have walked away from a desperately struggling Violet that day in Bristol.

  To act was to accept the consequences of one’s actions. She had done the right thing by rescuing Violet, and though the consequences had been terrifying, in the end right had prevailed. For that, she gave profound thanks.

  She lifted her tearstained face and looked into the fathomless blue depths of her husband’s eyes, which had seen so much. “Have I mentioned lately how much I love you? You are not only stronger, richer, and better looking than I am, but wiser. I don’t know if I’ll ever understand why you love me, but from this day forth I won’t question it. I’ll just accept your love as the greatest gift of my life.”

  “You don’t know why? Because of your warmth, my lady,” he said as a smile illuminated his face, dissolving his pain and yearning. “The endless, blessed warmth that surrounds you wherever you go. Your presence makes everyone around you feel better and happier.” His smile turned rueful. “The intensity of my love is a mark of how very much my cold, dark soul needs that warmth.”

  “Then it will be my pleasure to warm you day and night.” The new lightness in her soul allowed her to add teasingly, “Warming your nights will have to wait a bit, but not long, I promise you.”

  She tilted her head back and gave him a kiss that was a promise of forever. “We’ll make enough warmth together to light all the nights of our lives.”

  He kissed her back, his strong arms enfolding her. “For better or worse, as long as we both shall live. You’re all I ever wanted, my love.”

  And it was enough. He was enough. For always.

  Epilogue

  London

  The house was filled with music. Kirkland smiled as he entered his home, Laurel’s rich piano performance floating sweetly down the stairs. Since the servants enjoyed hearing her play, she’d taken to leaving the door of the music room open so the sound carried through the house.

  The first thing Kirkland did was hand his hat to Soames, now a butler again, though the older man admitted he’d enjoyed his brief return to his military days. Then Kirkland followed the music.

  He paused in the doorway of the music room. He always loved watching Laurel, and never more than when she was creating magic at the piano. Today she wore a bright gown in shades of violet and rose, the silk shining as the folds spilled around her. She was surely the loveliest creature on God’s earth.

  Sensing his presence, she looked up and gave the smile that was special for him, the one filled with endless warmth and love and understanding.

  In the month since they’d returned from Bristol, their marriage had entered a new phase. Passion was banked as they hadn’t yet resumed marital intimacy. Both of them, especially Laurel, wanted to put some time between the disasters that had almost shattered their marriage and the future they were building. At night they shared a bed and talked, holding hands and wearing nightclothes because bare skin was altogether too tempting.

  Through talk their mutual understanding deepened. He spoke of the mistakes he’d made, the successes, a
nd the damnable occasions when there was no good solution.

  Laurel haltingly revealed how she’d spent a lifetime being good, yet feeling deep inside that she could never be good enough. And when they ran out of words, they slept, always touching even as they shifted and turned throughout the night.

  Laurel looked so lovely that Kirkland couldn’t help but hope that soon there would be enough space between their past and their future that they could resume their physical intimacy. But he’d wait as long as it took for his wife to be fully restored and ready. He’d waited ten years, after all.

  He smiled as he crossed the room. “Your favorite Mozart Allegro and even Vivace. You must be feeling happy, my lady.”

  “I am!” She caught his hand and pulled him to the piano bench beside her. “An understatement, James. Come sit with me so we can play together.”

  He did, and the magic of their sharing a keyboard was a good metaphor for how much else they shared now that she’d fully opened her heart. After they finished a favorite Vivaldi piece, Laurel turned to him, her changeable eyes shining.

  “Lady Julia visited earlier today, and we had a most interesting discussion,” she said rather shyly. “I told her that despite the miscarriage, I still felt pregnant, which made no sense. Then I started to expand. You might have noticed?”

  His brows arched. “I haven’t seen enough of you to be aware of that.”

  Laurel blushed. “Because we’ve not been entirely—marital in the last month, it seemed impossible that I could be pregnant again, and the other possibilities were somewhat alarming. So she examined me, and said I’m not pregnant again, but still!”

  He stared at her. “You didn’t miscarry?”

  “I did, but Julia said that she’s heard of cases like mine, where there was an early miscarriage but a continuing pregnancy.” Laurel caught his hand and pressed it to her belly, which did indeed have a fuller curve. “Her theory is that there might potentially have been twins, but one wasn’t strong enough to survive. So it was lost. In such a case, the stronger child survives and is born normal and healthy. Julia said that seems to be exactly what has happened with me!”

  He stared at her, not quite able to believe. And yet this felt true and real. “I thought we’d already had our share of miracles.”

  She closed her eyes as she held his hand against her. “When I first realized I was pregnant, I was shocked and amazed and delighted, but felt . . . tentative. As if something wasn’t quite right. When I miscarried, it seemed almost inevitable.” Her eyes opened. “But this feels right. I still mourn the lost child, but the fact that there is another, stronger child truly is a miracle.”

  He wrapped his arms around her, feeling the warmth and female strength that gave his life meaning. “Blessed be,” he whispered. “I’m tempted to pick you up and whirl you around, but I don’t dare because I can’t risk hurting you. So I’ll kiss you instead.” Which he did, with passion, thoroughness, and joy.

  When the kiss ended so they could indulge in breathing, Laurel rose and caught his hands as she began to sing as she had once before.

  Drink to me only with thine eyes,

  And I will pledge with mine;

  He stood and joined in the song, his gaze on hers. This time his voice was no longer rusty, and it blended tenderly with her lush contralto.

  Or leave a kiss within the cup

  And I’ll not ask for wine.

  The thirst that from the soul doth rise

  Doth ask a drink divine;

  But might I of Jove’s nectar sip,

  I would not change for thine.

  When they finished the second verse, Laurel said shyly, “I asked Julia some other questions. I won’t break, my love. And don’t we have something wonderful to celebrate?”

  Clamping down on unruly hope, he asked, “You’re sure about the not breaking part?”

  Her smile turned wicked and she tugged him toward the bedroom. “Julia says that generally speaking, when women are increasing, they act in one of two ways. They either don’t want to be touched, or they want to be touched all the time. Guess which type I am!”

  Laughing, he stopped resisting and let her tow him toward their bedroom. “Have I mentioned lately how much I love you?”

  “Not since you left this morning.” She looked back over her shoulder with a smile that could light up London on the darkest day of winter. “I love you, too, James. Even more than yesterday, but not as much as tomorrow.”

  They were in their bedroom now, so he closed the door and took her into his arms. The future would have sorrow as well as joy because sorrow was part of life. But he knew now that nothing, nothing, could separate them again. The bonds between them had been forged in fire for all eternity.

  And today—today there was joy.

  Author’s notes:

  For the record, I did not invent the Vanishing Twin Syndrome for plot purposes. The syndrome was mentioned to me by an author friend who is an RN of many years of experience. I started researching, and found a Web site of posts from women who experienced an early loss, then went on to have a healthy baby. Modern technology makes the process more understandable, but I think a wise midwife might have been able to deduce that this happened even in the days before ultrasound.

  The slave trade was banned by the British Parliament and the American Congress in 1807. In 1808, the Royal Navy established the West Africa Squadron to stop illegal slavers by patrolling the coast of West Africa. Though the squadron started with two small ships, at the height of its efforts it employed a sixth of all naval vessels.

  Starting in 1820, the United States Navy began to join with the British to suppress the trade. The West Africa Squadron captured about 1,600 slave ships and freed around 150,000 Africans in the years between 1808 and 1860, so there must have been people like Kirkland supporting their efforts.

  Regular steamboat services started on the Thames in London in 1815, so Ashton wasn’t the only one testing steamboats at that time.

  I’m quite sure that Violet Herbert Rhodes completed her book, The Secrets of a Lady’s Maid, and that it became a bestseller!

  Read on for a preview of the next book in

  Mary Jo Putney’s Lost Lords series.

  Not Always a Saint

  will be available next September!

  Bristol, Autumn, 1806

  The fleet was in, the moon was full, and business was booming at the Herbert free infirmary. Daniel Herbert didn’t mind. He loved mending broken bodies and he loved the infirmary, which he’d designed with the able assistance of his sister, Laurel, who was his partner and best friend.

  Nonetheless, by midnight he’d had enough of patching up drunken sailors injured in tavern brawls. Three times he’d had to use the martial art skills he learned at school to discourage patients from appropriating the gin used for cleaning wounds, and two different older women had earnestly informed him that he was a saint, a label he considered as wrong as it was embarrassing.

  Daniel was relieved to discharge his last patient so that he and Laurel could close the infirmary for the night. He’d just dropped his used surgical instruments into a basin of soapy water when the door to his examination room swung open so hard that it banged the wall. He looked up to see his sister, who’d thrown open the door with one hand while her other arm was wrapped around the waist of a battered and bleeding young woman on the verge of collapse.

  Imperturbable as always, Laurel said, “Don’t put those instruments away yet, Daniel. We’ve a new customer.” She helped the girl onto the examination table.

  He hated seeing women who had been beaten, usually by the men who were supposed to protect them. As he studied the new patient, his fatigue vanished. She was hunched over, her face obscured by a tangle of dark hair that was matted with blood on the right side. She clutched a cloak tightly around her shoulders, and she was shaking from shock.

  Voice gentle, he said, “I’m Dr. Herbert. What’s your name?”

  “J . . . J . . . J .
. .”

  She spoke clumsily, as if her mouth was having trouble forming words, so he prompted, “Jane?”

  After a long moment, she whispered raggedly, “Yes. J . . . Jane.”

  “I’m going to examine you to find what needs fixing.” He moistened a clean cloth. “Raise your head so I can clean the blood from your face.”

  She complied, revealing a face with one eye swollen shut and such massive bruising that her own mother wouldn’t recognize her. Under the bruises she was very young, and he guessed that under normal circumstances she might be pretty. How could any man hurt a vulnerable young girl like this?

  He buried his anger for later. What mattered now was healing this wounded girl. She winced several times as he washed the blood from her face, despite his being as gentle as possible. He was particularly careful around her eyes. “You’re in luck,” he said conversationally. “You’ll have black eyes like a bare-knuckle boxer, but your eyes aren’t seriously damaged.”

  As he cleaned the gash on her head, he asked, “Who beat you?”

  She made a choked sound and cringed away from him. Noticing the glint of a wedding ring on her left hand, he asked, “Was it your husband?”

  Jane stared down at her hand as if she’d forgotten the ring she wore. Then she wrenched off the narrow circlet of gold and hurled it across the examination room. The ring bounced from the wall and rattled across the floor.

  “Sell it. Help . . . infirmary,” she whispered hoarsely. Her uplifted face revealed her bruised throat. The brute had tried to strangle her.

  Jane’s movements caused her cloak to slide from her shoulders, revealing a bloody slash down her back. The jagged laceration ran from her left shoulder almost to her waist. She must have been stabbed as she tried to escape. The tip of the blade had skittered to the left when it hit the edge of her stays, then continued downward through the padded garment.

 
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