Not Quite a Wife by Mary Jo Putney

  He finished the broth, then sagged back into his pillows. His body craved more rest, but he couldn’t bear to close his eyes on the miraculous sight of his wife. “How long have I been here?”

  “Since yesterday evening. I managed to get several cups of Jesuit’s bark tea down you and it seems to have cut off the fever quickly. More broth?” When he shook his head, she set the mug down. “I assume you have anxious servants waiting at a local inn. Tell me which one and I’ll send word.”

  “The Ostrich.” His eyes drifted shut, and he had to force them open. “Will Daniel be in later, or is he refusing to talk to me?”

  “He’s away for a few days on a surgical tour in Wales.”

  Kirkland’s brows furrowed. “A surgical tour?”

  “Several times a year he visits areas where there are no surgeons or physicians and provides care for those in need,” she explained.

  “Daniel, the saint,” Kirkland murmured, unable to keep a dry note from his voice. “He was always interested in medicine and I knew he’d become a doctor, but how did he get there from studying classics and theology at Oxford?”

  Laurel regarded him coolly. “He always wanted to study medicine, but my parents thought it too low an occupation. They said that if he insisted on training for a profession even though he’d inherit the estate, he should enter the church, and he was not unwilling. He didn’t decide to study medicine until I left you and my parents refused to let me return home. They said I could go back to you or starve.”

  Kirkland winced. “I didn’t know that. You should have told them I was to blame.”

  “I did,” she said, her voice even cooler. “But you were an earl, and therefore it was my duty to accept any little eccentricities you might have. I was shameless, a disgrace to the family name, for leaving you.”

  Kirkland’s head pounded even worse. “That’s why you and Daniel chose to set up your own household?”

  She nodded. “He was furious with our parents. Since you insisted on giving me a generous separation allowance, we were able to live comfortably while Daniel did his medical training.” She made a gesture that included their surroundings. “When he completed his studies, we bought this house and set up the infirmary. Later, we bought the house directly behind this one and turned it into a sanctuary for women and children escaping dangerously violent men. Zion House.” Her eyes narrowed. “But surely an accomplished spy like you knew all that.”

  “I kept track of where you lived, but no more,” he said shortly. Thinking he might as well know the worst, he asked, “Does Daniel still hate me?”

  She hesitated too long. “It is not in his nature to really hate. But because he’s loyal to his little sister, he holds you responsible for . . . for . . .” She hesitated again.

  “For ruining your life? He’s right to do so.” If not for Kirkland, Laurel would have married a normal man and had a real home and children by now. Instead she was locked into limbo, not a maiden yet not quite a wife, sleeping alone and childless. At least, he assumed she was sleeping alone. Though he couldn’t bear the thought of her with another man, he couldn’t blame her if she’d found someone to warm her nights.

  “You didn’t ruin my life,” she said calmly. “Just set it on a new course, and not necessarily a worse one. The work I do here matters, James. If I was merely a wife, my life would be narrower and shallower.”

  It stung that she thought a life with him would have been shallow, but at least she had moved beyond the wreckage of their marriage without bitterness. She’d always had a gift for appreciating the moment rather than longing for what she didn’t have.

  But though she might not hate him, an invisible wall surrounded her and made it clear that he should keep his distance. Which was easy because he didn’t have the strength to walk across the room.

  Though his body craved more rest, he didn’t want their conversation to end. “Do you still play the piano?”

  “Of course.” She smiled with a touch of self-mockery. “Even serious-minded reformers like me need our pleasures. The Broadwood piano you gave me is in the music room upstairs. It was quite a challenge getting it up there.”

  His gaze touched her bare left hand and he wondered what she’d done with her wedding ring. “The Broadwood is a lovely instrument, but I’m surprised that you kept anything I’d given you.”

  “The tone is so wonderful that I couldn’t bear to part with it.” She cocked her head. “Do you still play? Or do you not have time?”

  “I play occasionally.” After Laurel left him, making music was his chief pleasure since it could be done alone and playing never failed to soothe him. He’d improved greatly over the years, but he’d never be as good as Laurel, who was truly gifted. “I’m sorry your piano is out of listening range. I’d like to hear you play again.”

  “I keep a small harp here in the infirmary,” she said, a little hesitant. “I can play that if you like.”

  “I didn’t know you played the harp. I’d like very much to hear it.”

  She set aside her mending and stood. “I’ll only be a minute. Unless you need something else?”

  Only her. “Music is enough. Food for the soul, you know.”

  She nodded agreement as she left the room. Luckily, she returned before he drifted to sleep again. The harp in her arms was small enough to carry easily and nestle in her lap when she sat again. He studied the instrument as she tuned it. “I’ve not seen a harp like that before.”

  “It belonged to an old Irish woman here in Bristol. I used to visit her every week or so. I’d take a basket of food and Mrs. Donovan would tell me wonderful stories. Because her fingers were too twisted to play the harp well, she taught me so I could play for her.” Laurel’s fingers rippled over the strings as she checked the tuning. The small instrument had a surprisingly deep, rich sound. “She asked me to play for her as she lay dying, and then left me the harp. It was her most treasured possession.”

  Kirkland had married a saint. No wonder the marriage had broken down so quickly when she realized how great a sinner he was.

  But for now he had the unexpected gift of time with her. It might never come again, so he would savor every moment to create new memories for the future. And the sweetest memory of all would be that dream of intimacy that had not really happened. . . .

  She began to play a haunting Irish tune, singing along in her soft, rich contralto.

  The minstrel boy to the war is gone,

  In the ranks of death you’ll find him;

  His father’s sword he has girded on,

  And his wild harp slung behind him. . . .

  He closed his eyes, letting the music flow through him. In the liquid notes, he heard the sweet warmth that had been the essence of Laurel when they’d first met. He was glad to know that warmth still existed under her cool, controlled surface. And for these few moments, he was privileged to enjoy it once more. . . .

  Chapter 4

  For a time, Laurel lost herself in the music. It was the second great passion she and her husband had shared, and playing for him eased some of the turmoil created by their swift, shocking intimacy. Thank heaven he didn’t seem to realize what they’d done!

  She looked up and saw that James had drifted to sleep, his breathing slow and regular. His still figure reminded her of the effigy of a Crusader knight that lay in the Herberts’ village church. He had the chiseled features of a warrior, austere and haunted.

  Her hands came to rest on the harp strings as she studied him, committing every detail to memory. This meeting was pure chance and wouldn’t happen again.

  Yet despite their fierce, unwelcome intimacy, she was glad to see him. Their separation had been an aching wound for years, but now she felt a sense of peace. The mutual attraction would likely never go away, but they had grown in very different directions. She’d learned that love wasn’t enough, and apparently James had done the same.

  It was full light outside, and soon the infirmary would be bustling with staff an
d people seeking treatment. She must send a message to Kirkland’s servants at the Ostrich Inn. They would be worried. As soon as his people received the message, they’d swoop in and take him away and see that he was properly cared for.

  She set the harp down and stood, but before leaving the room, she brushed her fingers lightly through his dark hair. James was the man he’d always been, only more so. She was the woman she’d always been, only more so. She would never stop caring for him, but that didn’t mean she needed to see him or be with him.

  Go with God, James. But go.

  Kirkland was pulled from dreams of Laurel’s embrace by a brisk, familiar Cockney voice. “Are you awake, sir, or shall we carry you off like a sack of potatoes?”

  The voice belonged to Rhodes, who was nominally Kirkland’s valet, though his sharp intelligence had him performing far more demanding duties. Today the anxiety under the brash words made Rhodes sound more like a mother hen.

  Reluctantly Kirkland opened his eyes to see Rhodes frowning down at him. This room at the Herbert infirmary was flooded with light, and early morning silence had been replaced by the noises of a busy city and an active infirmary. “You are not carrying me out of here like a sack of potatoes,” he said firmly.

  He tried to sit up, and almost passed out from dizziness. Rhodes caught him until his head steadied. “The lady said you was robbed, and then had a fever attack?”

  “Fever first. Robbery after.” Kirkland managed to sit up and swing his legs over the edge of the examination table. He wore only a loose sleep shirt. He tried not to think of Laurel’s hands efficiently stripping him down to his skin. “Miss Herbert had Jesuit’s bark. Saved me from a full fever attack.”

  “She’s quite the lady,” Rhodes said admiringly. “Your carriage is outside. If I dress you, can you walk that far?”

  Kirkland considered. Fever always left him so weak he could barely move, but since this bout had been cut off early, his condition was less dire than usual. “I’ll need some help, but I can make it that far.”

  “Then stand up so I can dress you. Sir.”

  Kirkland drew a deep breath, then eased himself onto his feet, swaying. He kept one hand on the examination table for balance. Rhodes had seen him through other bouts of fever and knew to bring loose, casual garments and slip-on shoes. Trying to get boots onto a man as limp as Kirkland would be an exercise in futility.

  When he was decent, Kirkland sat on the edge of the table again, as tired as if he’d run ten miles. “Please ask Miss Herbert to come in at her convenience. I wish to thank her for her care.”

  Rhodes nodded, taking the request at face value. He hadn’t entered Kirkland’s service until the marriage had broken up, so he didn’t know about Laurel. Because of their extended honeymoon, very few people had known about the marriage.

  “Thought you’d want to thank the lady in practical form.” Rhodes produced a small purse that clinked and set it next to Kirkland, then left to summon Laurel.

  Kirkland straightened, trying not to look as weak as he felt. Apparently a man never got over wanting to impress an attractive woman. He ran a hand over his stubbled jaw and sighed. Impressing Laurel was already a lost cause.

  As he waited, he pondered their earlier discussion. Laurel hadn’t seemed angry or resentful of his presence. Was there any chance she might be willing to consider a reconciliation? Perhaps they might rebuild what had been so utterly broken.

  He realized he was deluding himself when the door opened and Laurel entered. Her hair was drawn back and she wore a plain, dove gray gown that made him think of nuns. Her expression was all business, proof that he was merely one more task she needed to accomplish.

  Keeping his voice equally businesslike, he said, “Thank you for caring for me. Bristol is lucky to have you and Daniel and your infirmary.” He lifted the purse of coins Rhodes had left and handed it to her. “To help others.”

  She accepted the purse with a nod of thanks. “You’re already supporting most of the infirmary through the income you settled on me when we separated, but this will be put to good use.”

  “I’m sure.” He hesitated, wanting to say something more significant. “Though it was an accident, I’m not sorry I ended up here. It’s good to know you’re well and doing meaningful work.”

  Her expression softened. “I’m also glad to see you. I had a sense of incompleteness about our . . . relationship. Now it feels properly finished.”

  It was a marriage, not a relationship. Luckily, he was good at concealing pain. “Will you tell your brother I was here?”

  She shrugged. “Not unless someone on the staff mentions to Daniel that we treated a lord while he was away and he asks me about it.”

  “That will spare his temper.” Knowing it was time to leave, Kirkland stood, willing himself not to sway. “If you ever need my aid, don’t hesitate to ask.”

  “That’s unlikely to be necessary,” she said in a cool voice.

  He suspected that her real reaction was I’ll ask for your help when there are icicles in hell, but she was too much a lady to say that. Since he might fall over if he tried to bow, he just inclined his head. “Good-bye, Laurel. And thank you.”

  He took one last, lingering look, committing to memory her grace and grave intelligence. His wife had been a lovely girl. Now she was a strong, quietly beautiful woman, no longer his.

  Never again his.

  After James left, Laurel sank into the chair beside the examination table and locked her shaking hands in her lap. Thank heaven he was gone and she’d managed not to lose her composure. It was rather shocking how deeply he still affected her.

  The reverse wasn’t true. He had been glad to see her, but he’d left without looking back.

  Pray God the blasted man never landed in her infirmary again.

  Chapter 5

  Laurel’s office was on the ground floor in the rear of Herbert House, and it overlooked the garden shared by the infirmary and Zion House. The evening was well advanced, so Laurel’s office was quiet and she could concentrate on listing supplies that needed to be ordered. She was squinting in the lamplight when a familiar voice behind her said teasingly, “You’re working late.”

  She spun about in her chair to see the rangy figure of her brother in the office doorway. He looked travel worn and weary, but his smile was warm.

  “Daniel!” She swiftly rose to hug him. When his arms went around her, she closed her eyes and fully relaxed for the first time since Kirkland had left a fortnight before. Her kind, good-natured big brother, who had always looked out for her, even when her parents had cast her off. In his embrace, she felt safe and cared for.

  Stepping back with reluctance, she said, “I didn’t expect you until next week.”

  “With Colin Holt along to take some of the patients, I finished sooner than expected and was anxious to get home.” He eyed her thoughtfully. “That was an unusually earnest hug. Problems here?”

  For an instant she hesitated. If she was to tell her brother about Kirkland’s unexpected sojourn in the infirmary, now was the time to do it. The moment passed as she decided to stay silent. Daniel looked tired and there was no reason that he needed to know. “Nothing unusual. One of the infant schoolteachers has been ill this past week and I’ve been filling in there as well as doing the rest of my work. Those little ones have so much energy!”

  “No wonder you’re tired.” Daniel slung an arm around her shoulders and steered her out the door. “But you adore them. Come along and keep me company while I find something to eat.”

  She smiled. “In other words, you’d like me to make my special eggs for you.”

  “You see through me far too easily, little sister,” he said with mock ruefulness. He bent to scratch the head of Shadow, who had been keeping Laurel company in the office and would certainly continue to do so in the kitchen. “But it’s sadly true that nothing will restore my energy more quickly, so I shall take advantage of your well-known charitable nature.”

Laughing, she headed down the stairs with him. He really was the best brother in the world. They had the same coloring and features and long bones, so no one seeing them together ever doubted their relationship. But Daniel was much more outgoing than she was. He could talk to anyone about anything.

  As they entered the kitchen, she said, “Tell me about your journey. How is the new chapel in Aberwilly faring?”

  “Very well. The local landowner gave them permission to use an old house just outside the village, and the congregation has already fixed the place up and set up a school there. I performed the first wedding in their chapel since the local parish vicar doesn’t approve of Methodists and won’t perform weddings for them.”

  “It’s convenient that you stayed at Oxford long enough to be ordained. How many eggs hungry are you?”

  “Four. And add a couple of more for yourself. You look as if you forgot to eat.”

  Her brow furrowed. “I believe I did. I was working on a budget for next year and lost track of time.”

  Daniel unwrapped a piece of cheese and cut it into thick slices, offering one to Shadow. “Better you than me.”

  “Which is why I always handle the accounts. It’s good that I’ve a knack for figuring since I’m no surgeon.” She entered the pantry and collected eggs, potatoes, onions, and bacon.

  “You may not be a surgeon, but you’re the best nurse the infirmary has.” He found a loaf of bread and a knife and began slicing. “I’ll toast some bread to go with the eggs. Ale or tea?”

  “Tea.” Laurel cut the bacon into small pieces and started frying it. “You thought that taking Colin on the tour would be a good test of his abilities and temperament. I gather that he proved himself?”

  “He did indeed.” Daniel filled the kettle with water and set it to heat. “He learns quickly and he’s adaptable and willing to do what is needful rather than standing on his dignity as a physician. I’ve been thinking about offering him a permanent position, but I wanted to talk to you first. What do you think?”

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