Not Quite a Wife by Mary Jo Putney

  Yet his gaze was as direct as it was intense, and her spirit still responded to him because, on some deep level, they were connected. The ice in her veins vanished in a rush of heat. She should have known that he would come. Perhaps some unacknowledged part of her had even hoped that he would.

  He must have read her reaction, because he halted in the doorway. “I haven’t come to murder you, Laurel,” he said, his voice mild.

  She stood, wanting to reduce how far she had to look up to him. It would not be easy to send him away, but she must. He’d already changed her life in unexpected, painful ways. It was her task to make sure he didn’t do that again.

  When Kirkland had awakened from his fever in the infirmary, his awareness of Laurel had been hallucinatory, not quite real. Now he saw her with all his senses sharply alert. She was as alluring as when they’d first met, her figure graceful and her gaze direct. But her changeable blue-gray eyes were wary and she’d built a wall of reserve around herself that he could feel clear across the room. Which would make what he was going to propose even more difficult.

  After the first shock of recognition, her eyes cooled to ice gray. “What an unexpected pleasure, Lord Kirkland. You made very good speed.”

  “You didn’t expect me to come?”

  “Until now, you’ve respected my wishes. Daniel told you I didn’t wish to see you. Or did you break his neck before he could get that far?”

  “Not at all,” Kirkland said dryly. “I left him in possession of Kirkland House and told him to enjoy London for several days.”

  “Did he take you up on your most generous invitation?”

  “I don’t know. I left before he could reply.”

  Her eyes narrowed. “Have you come to say you’re going to take my baby away? The law may be on your side, but I would hope for better from you.”

  “It’s not your baby, Laurel,” he said gently. “It’s our baby. Which is why I’m here. We need to talk.”

  “What if I told you the baby isn’t yours?” she asked abruptly.

  Every fiber of his body seemed to freeze before he said without emotion, “You are legally my wife, and I would accept the child as mine for its sake. Nor would I wish you to bear the stigma of having an illegitimate child.”

  “Even if the heir to your title would be another man’s son?”

  His mouth twisted. “When I look at my paternal relations, it’s hard to make much of a case for continuing the bloodline. Was your child indeed sired by another man?”

  “No,” she said baldly. “Have you sired any bastards yourself?”

  “Not that I know of.” His mouth curved. “You’re not going to drive me off until we’ve talked, Laurel.”

  “I thought it was worth a try,” she said tartly. “We’d best go to the music room. We’ll have privacy there.”

  “As you wish.” He stepped back so she could move past him. She did so, her head high and lavender wafting tantalizingly in her wake.

  His arm tensed involuntarily and it took all his will not to reach out and draw her into an embrace. When he’d been her patient three weeks earlier, he’d wondered if her impact on him was partly because he was weakened and vulnerable, but now he was fully fit and the sight of her undermined his hard-won control.

  As Laurel moved into the anteroom, which contained a small desk and a large bookcase, a young woman entered from the other door. She brandished a sheaf of papers. “May I come in and discuss these invoices with you?” She stopped when she saw Kirkland. “Or perhaps you’re still busy.”

  “We can go over the invoices in the morning, Betsy.” Without introducing Kirkland, Laurel led the way past the girl, who watched curiously.

  A flight of narrow back stairs led up to the music room. The elegant furnishings and handsome piano wouldn’t have been out of place in the home of a grand lord. Which wasn’t surprising, since Kirkland had bought them for his bride not long after their marriage as a gift to honor her musical talents.

  After she’d left, he’d meticulously packed and shipped her family the instrument and everything else he’d given her. He’d been half mad in those days, and attending to his departed wife’s possessions had been a twisted way of keeping in touch with her.

  “Pray take a seat,” Laurel said. “Shall I ring for refreshments?”

  “I prefer not to be interrupted.” Kirkland smiled humorlessly. “And it’s probably best if I stand. I might end up pacing.”

  “Pace if you wish.” Choosing to remain standing as well, Laurel drifted to a wing chair by the window. Her cat was stretched out on top of the seat back, so she stroked the sleek gray fur. “Though the law gives a father control over all children, there’s no need for you to trouble yourself with an infant. I’ll take charge of the nursery.”

  “I find myself oddly interested in my offspring,” he said, his voice desert dry. “I have no intention of leaving you and our child alone for the next eight or ten years.”

  “You will not take my baby away from me!” Her eyes blazed. “If you try, I’ll disappear to some place where you’ll never find me.”

  “Don’t underestimate my ability to find you.” He caught her gaze, needing to impress her with his sincerity. “I won’t take the child from you, and don’t want to start a war like the one between my parents. I want for us to be husband and wife.”

  Chapter 9

  “Surely you’re joking!” Laurel stared, aghast. “We can’t go back to what we had. It’s impossible.”

  There was a flicker in Kirkland’s eyes, impossible to read. “No, we can’t go back, but isn’t ten years of estrangement enough? ‘What God hath joined, let no man put asunder.’ We took vows in front of God and man, Laurel. We owe it to ourselves and our child to rebuild our marriage into a form that will benefit us all.”

  Throat dry, she said, “The baby was an accident.”

  “Was it? Or could it be fate?” Kirkland regarded her with burning eyes, as dangerous as a honed blade. “When I woke after the fever broke, I thought I had dreamed of intimacy with you. Obviously I was remembering, not dreaming, but I’m not sure how accurate those memories are. I didn’t force you, did I? I can’t believe I would do that even out of my head with fever.”

  “You didn’t force me. But you did strike out against some nightmare, and I was in the way.”

  He looked appalled. “I hit you?”

  “A glancing blow only.” If he hadn’t been hallucinating, the night would have gone very differently. “When I tried to calm you, you recognized me as your wife so you kissed me. I could have pulled away if I wished.” Her voice dropped to a whisper as she admitted, “For a few mad moments, I didn’t wish that.”

  “We are still married,” he pointed out. “We were drawn together by passion, so it’s not surprising it still burns.” Though he didn’t move a muscle, the sensual tension in the room increased, making her hotly, uncomfortably aware of his nearness.

  Her lips twisted. “I won’t try to deny it, but passion is not enough.”

  “We wed too young, Laurel, and that was a large part of why our marriage splintered.” There was sadness in his eyes. “We’re older and wiser now. Surely we can find a way to be married that is comfortable without sharing a bed.”

  Warily she asked, “Could you clarify what you mean?”

  “Some fashionable couples continue as loyal, affectionate friends even if they no longer live together.” His smile was wry. “It will probably be easier to be friends if we’re not sharing a bed.”

  “Youth wasn’t our only problem, my lord,” she said with deadly precision. “How many men have you killed since then?”

  His expression blanked. “Very few, and none that didn’t need killing,” he said with matching precision. “Would we be having this conversation if I were a soldier instead of a laborer in the murky fields of intelligence gathering?”

  It was a fair question, so she thought before replying. “I would be uncomfortable knowing you were a soldier with blood on your
hands,” she said slowly. “But at least I would understand. Murdering that man in front of me was very different.”

  She closed her eyes, wishing she could block out the horrific image. “When you looked up and saw me, your expression was monstrous. Evil. It revolted me to think that you were my husband. How can I allow a murderer near my child?”

  He flinched, his dark blue eyes showing pain, not evil. “There were mitigating circumstances.”

  “What possible mitigation can there be for murder?” Her stomach knotted as she remembered her flight from her husband’s house, and how he hadn’t uttered a single word to stop her. “If there were good reasons, why didn’t you tell me then?”

  “I was as horrified as you because I didn’t mean to kill the man.” His face seemed carved from marble. “Despite your belief in my bloodthirsty nature, I’d never killed anyone. Not then.”

  “Then why did you do it? Your life didn’t seem to be in danger.” She realized with sharp intensity that she wanted to believe he was less ruthless than he’d seemed. “Was he carrying a weapon that I didn’t see?”

  “His name was Harry Moran and he was known as a hired thug and assassin. He was carrying a long and very sharp knife. But that wasn’t why I killed him.” Kirkland began pacing again. “Remember that time, May 1803? The Peace of Amiens had just ended and we were once more at war with France.”

  “Of course I remember. We returned from our extended honeymoon because you believed that war was approaching.” She tried not to think of the halcyon days of their honeymoon. It began in a lovely house on the Severn, then continued in a Scottish seaside manor where Kirkland’s mother had been born. They’d had peace and laughter and solitude and more happiness than she’d imagined existed in the whole world.

  As winter approached, he took her on a voyage on one of his ships. They sailed to the turquoise seas of the Caribbean, a place so magical it seemed unreal. They’d made love and slept rocked by the sea. “I was rather sorry to return to London,” Laurel said, “but you had responsibilities at home and it was time to start building our new life. One can’t be on honeymoon forever.”

  “So I learned. On that night”—he swallowed hard—“when Moran broke in, I had just read a report that my friend Wyndham had disappeared in Paris and was presumed dead when war broke out again. And it was my damned fault!”

  Startled, she said, “That’s nonsense! Your friend was of age. Sensible Britons had left Paris by then. What could you have done? Gone there and dragged him back?”

  “That’s exactly what I could and should have done,” he said flatly. “I’d written Wyndham to warn him that the peace couldn’t last much longer, but he was a carefree sort who’d never met a problem he couldn’t talk his way out of. Until then.”

  “So because you were upset, you reacted more violently than you might have otherwise.” She frowned, trying to understand. “How is it possible to kill a man with your bare hands by accident?”

  “I’m sure Daniel told you about Kalarippayattu, the Hindu fighting technique that we all learned from Ashton?” When she nodded, he continued, “It can be very deadly. At school, we just sparred, careful to avoid doing real damage. Anyone who lost control was immediately pulled out of the sparring. But when I saw Moran and knew what he was, it released all my fury and guilt over losing Wyndham. I struck out at him, and before I realized what I was doing, he was dead.”

  She studied his bleak expression as she interpreted that ghastly night in a new way. “Perhaps you are not the monster you seemed then. But neither are you the man I thought I’d fallen in love with. I didn’t know you contained such darkness.”

  “The darkness may be why I was so drawn to you,” he said quietly. “You were all light. Everything that was good and true and beautiful.”

  “I’m no saint,” she said uncomfortably. “We married in a blind haze of desire. It would have been better if we’d never met.”

  “Perhaps, but marry we did. We pledged ourselves to each other, Laurel. We owe our child the chance to be a family.” He held her gaze, his voice softening. “I don’t want to live the rest of my life estranged from you.”

  She sighed. “What form do you suggest that this marriage take? I may be older and wiser now, but I’m also more set in my ways. At eighteen, all things seemed possible. Now I know better. I like my life here, I like the work I do, and it’s valuable. At eighteen, I was malleable, willing to leave my family and friends without a qualm. Now I have so much more to lose.”

  “The work you do is important everywhere,” he pointed out. “If you spend part of your time in London with me, you could start more clinics, more Zion Houses. Wealth makes many things easier. You can have two homes and move between them freely, as the mood strikes you. Our child would be able to grow up with both parents, not a permanent separation.”

  She bit her lip. “That might be worth risking if it was only us. But how can I raise my child near a man who can accidentally kill?”

  His face turned dead white. “That never happened again. It never will.”

  She inhaled deeply, trying to soothe the knotted pain in her chest. “Are you sure? Those exotic Hindu fighting skills were drilled into you until they became reflexes, or you wouldn’t have killed Moran.”

  “Perhaps I’m uniquely evil because students at the Westerfield Academy still learn Kalarippayattu and I’ve never heard of anyone else doing such a thing. But I think it was a rare situation that will never be repeated. Particularly not with a child.” His mouth lifted humorlessly. “Your own brother, an ordained vicar, physician, and surgeon, was very good at Kalarippayattu. Has he ever accidentally killed anyone?”

  It was startling to think that Daniel might be as capable of administering swift death as Kirkland had. Then she remembered an occasion he’d mentioned in passing when he’d been attacked on the street by a pair of thieves. He’d brushed the incident off, saying that they’d quickly run away, but now she wondered if he’d used some of the same skills Kirkland had.

  But Daniel was not the issue. “He hasn’t, but that’s not the point here. When you and I married, I trusted you completely, in all ways. That trust was broken the night you committed murder. I can’t imagine being wife to a man I can’t trust, and I don’t know how, or even if, trust can be rebuilt.”

  “I don’t know either,” he said steadily. “But I do know that there is no chance to rebuild if we continue to live apart. Perhaps trust can grow from the mundane business of living together, even if it’s only part time.”

  She moved to the piano and played a soft ripple of notes as she struggled to understand her panicked resistance to his proposal. Women had been leaving their homes to be with their husbands from time immemorial. She’d done it gladly when they’d first wed and she could do it again, particularly if she only lived with him part time. And he was right, she could do much good with his wealth.

  Her real reasons for resisting were deeper. It wasn’t just lack of trust; she liked the woman she’d become. It was all too easy to imagine losing herself in his power and intensity. “Perhaps I was braver at eighteen than I am now. Or perhaps I was so infatuated that I wasn’t thinking clearly then, and now I am.”

  “Too much clear thinking is surely injurious to marriage,” he said with wry humor. “Just remember that trying to build a bridge between us commits you to nothing but spending some time with me. If it doesn’t work, you can return to Bristol whenever you wish. But I believe we should try this before the baby is born so when it arrives, we might be a couple again. Friendly. Courteous. Husband and wife. That would be better for all three of us.”

  She studied his handsome, formidable face. Was the passionate young man who’d loved her deeply still there? She’d thought so during the heated encounter that had brought them to this point, but perhaps that had been simply passion without love. Perhaps he was proposing reconciliation simply because it was the right thing to do.

  And damnably, he was correct: attempting to reconcile
was the right thing to do. His appeal to the sacred vows they’d taken was impossible to ignore. She had always been a woman of her word, yet in the matter of marriage, the most important vows of all, she’d failed. She had pledged herself to him for better or worse. Their vows and their child demanded they attempt to rebuild their marriage, even if it was only a shadow of what they’d once had.

  “You are right that if there is to be any hope, we must spend time together,” she said slowly. “And I’m right that intimacy muddles one’s mind.”

  “Do you have a suggestion for how to proceed?”

  “That we live together for—a month? Not as husband and wife, but as friends. That will give us time to become reacquainted. Perhaps trust will grow from that.”

  “Let’s aim for three months,” he suggested. “Long enough to determine whether we can share a roof amiably.”

  “A month,” she said firmly. “We can extend the trial if it’s going well. If we drive each other mad, the sooner it’s over, the better.”

  She assumed he had a mistress, as so many men of his rank did. Should she ask that he dismiss the woman?

  No, better not to raise the subject. It would make Laurel’s situation easier if he had another woman to turn to, and she was cowardly enough not to want to know about other women in his life.

  “Very well, a month. We have a bargain.” He offered his hand and a devastating smile. “I’m so glad, my Lavender Lady. I’ve missed you.”

  The use of the nickname was a painful reminder of what they’d lost, but she managed a smile. “I’ve missed you, too.”

  Then she made the mistake of taking his proffered hand, and the rush of emotional and physical connection was worse than any nickname.

  But she suppressed her reaction. After all, she was older and wiser now.

  Chapter 10

  Kirkland could have held Laurel’s hand all night. Despite her wariness and the distance between them, touching her felt right.

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