Not Quite a Wife by Mary Jo Putney

  When she stepped away, she left emptiness. He wanted to pull her back into an embrace, but if there was to be any hope, he must control his impatience and allow her to move at her own speed.

  Laurel drifted to the other side of the piano. “I expect in your business you’re very good at lying. Don’t ever lie to me.”

  “I won’t. I never have. I hope the same is true for you?”

  “Do lies of omission count?” she asked.

  He smiled. “If you mean your extremely prim and proper behavior when I woke up in your infirmary—no, that doesn’t count. You wanted to get rid of me, so it was best not to reveal that anything had transpired between us. It would have worked if you hadn’t conceived.”

  She swallowed hard. “I shouldn’t have told you about it so soon. So many pregnancies fail in the first months.”

  “That would be a great sadness,” he said quietly. “But even if you miscarry, we’ve been brought together to try again. I hadn’t thought that was possible. Now, it seems necessary.”

  “Trying is the right thing to do,” she agreed. “But that doesn’t mean that I’m not as nervous as a cricket on a griddle!”

  He laughed, and she laughed with him. Shared laughter must be a good omen. She asked, “What happens now?”

  “We need to break the news to Daniel when he returns from London. I don’t suppose he’ll be enthralled by the idea.” An understatement, but Daniel was a rational man and he wanted to see Laurel happy.

  “The change will be good for him,” she said thoughtfully. “He and I have become too comfortable. If I’m not always here to manage the household, perhaps he’ll realize it’s time he found a wife.”

  It wasn’t uncommon for a brother and sister to live together, and Laurel and Daniel had always been close. But she was Kirkland’s wife, dammit, and Daniel was surely good husband material if he ever bothered to look for a bride of his own. “I imagine you’ve made it easy for Daniel to work too hard. How long do you think it will take you to organize matters here so you can come to London?”

  “Not long. Betsy Rivers, my assistant, is very capable and can manage the bills and purchasing supplies and the rest. Anne Wilson is matron of Zion House and she’ll manage very well without me.” Laurel smiled a little wistfully. “We’ll miss each other, though. We’ve become good friends.”

  “Invite her to visit you when you’re in London. I can send a carriage. I want your life to be expanded, not diminished.” He thought about what should be done. “In order to support the fact that you’re leaving Bristol to join a long-absent husband, do you want to introduce me to some of your friends here? I should probably call on your parents and repeat that the fault has always been mine.”

  “I’m not quite as forgiving as I should be for the way they behaved when I left you, but I suppose it would be best to mend the breach.” She made a face. “Here at the infirmary, do you mind if I introduce you as plain Mr. Kirkland? It will be simpler if I’m not known as a countess.”

  Her head might believe that they should try to reconcile, but her heart still kept its distance. Concealing the thought, he said, “How fortunate that I’m one of the rare earls whose family name and title are the same. Mr. Kirkland it is.”

  She scooped up Shadow and settled in a chair with him in her lap. A furry chaperone. “I gather you spend most of your time in London these days?”

  He seated himself on a sofa at right angles to her. Out of touching distance in order to reduce temptation. “My work requires it.”

  “I don’t suppose you’d give up your murderous work,” she said dryly.

  He sighed, knowing how much that counted against him in her mind. “I can’t, my lady. Much of what I do is mundane, but some matters are vital.”

  “What kinds of affairs?” She gestured with one hand. “Your world is so different from mine. What have you done that you consider vital?”

  He thought a moment. “It’s been kept secret for obvious reasons, but a few months ago, my people stopped a conspiracy to assassinate the Prince Regent and his brothers and kidnap Princess Charlotte. At one point, I killed a kidnapper who was about to shoot a woman who was risking her life to save the princess. I may regret the way I killed Moran, but I had no qualms about stopping this particular villain.”

  Laurel’s eyes widened. “I . . . see. Such work really is vital, and I imagine you’re better at it than most. Does this keep you in London almost full time? What about your estate in Scotland? Do you visit there much? It’s so beautiful.”

  “I visit, though not often.” The estate reminded him too much of the joy he’d known there with Laurel. It was easier to stay at his Edinburgh house. “I’ve also bought a small estate just outside London so I can get away when I need quiet. It’s called Milton Manor. I think you’ll like it.”

  “I expect I will. It’s the social occasions I won’t like.” Her mouth twisted. “I’ll never make a grand hostess who lends luster to your name.”

  “I don’t require a grand hostess and you needn’t attend any social events that don’t appeal to you. I just want to be on civil terms with my wife.” Wanting to reassure her, he continued, “Nor will you have to face London alone. I’ll introduce you to women who might become friends. Women who care more about the less fortunate than they do about fashion. You won’t be alone.”

  She smiled wryly. “Country mouse goes to the city. I’ll try not to disgrace you.”

  “You won’t.” She’d never realized how special she was to him, how her warmth and composure made her presence a balm. Now, finally, he’d have her close again, even if it was only part time and she wouldn’t be quite a wife.

  He covered a yawn, suddenly exhausted now that his mission had been achieved. “Sorry, it was a long drive from London. I’ll head for the Ostrich Inn now. I’m sure they can find me a room.”

  She glanced out the window at the night sky. “It’s late. Since we’ve agreed to share a roof again at least some of the time, we might as well start now. You can stay in the guest room and use our stables.”

  Pleased that she made the offer, he said, “That would be very welcome.”

  “Once you’re sorted out, meet me in the kitchen and I’ll show you to your room.”

  He nodded and headed downstairs to talk to Rhodes, the only servant he’d brought with him. The knowledge that he would be under the same roof as his wife was both wonderful and terrifying. Dear God, don’t let me ruin this again.

  He was incredibly lucky that Laurel was giving him a second chance, even if it was limited and conditional. Maybe they couldn’t go back to what they’d had, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t hope they’d build a relationship that would take away some of the loneliness.

  Laurel glanced up as Kirkland entered the kitchen. “I assumed you’re hungry after your swift journey from London?”

  He gave the smile that was mostly a glint in his eyes. Devilishly attractive. “Yes, but I don’t expect you to feed me. You shouldn’t be doing the work of a kitchen maid.”

  “That’s a sign of the distance between our lives.” She scooped steaming potato and cheese soup into two bowls and set them on the table. “We have an ever-changing roster of servants from Zion House being trained here, so I often perform tasks too menial for a countess.”

  He settled in the Windsor chair on the other side of the table. “Since you are a countess, by definition this work isn’t menial.”

  “That’s an eloquent rationalization.” She set a platter of sliced ham and cheese and bread in the middle of the table, poured two glasses of West Country cider, and took her seat opposite. She’d forgotten to eat and hadn’t realized how hungry she was. “I may be officially a countess, but I’m a working woman, not a lady. And I have the rough hands to prove it.”

  She held up her right hand to demonstrate, which was a mistake. He took it between both of his.

  “They’re beautiful hands. Strong and capable.” He stroked from her wrist down over her fingers. His touch
sent shivers rippling straight through her. She couldn’t be losing all sense so soon!

  She jerked her hand away. “I think we should avoid unnecessary touching.”

  He took a deep breath and lowered his hands. “That would be . . . wise.”

  She sipped a spoonful of soup, almost scalding her tongue. “This turned out well. I had some lovely cheese on hand.”

  He tasted the soup appreciatively. “Your culinary skills have expanded. If you don’t like being a countess, you can definitely become a cook.”

  She smiled but shook her head. “Though working in the kitchen is soothing, I’m glad I don’t have to cook all the time. Then it would be work.”

  “So many things are like that.” He swallowed another spoonful. “The fact that you’re willing to do whatever needs to be done is part of your—genuineness, for lack of a better word.” His gaze caught hers. “Because I work so much in the shadows, your clarity is like a lantern in the night.”

  She was insane to agree to live under the same roof when he could produce shivers with words alone. Telling herself that she would become accustomed so his presence didn’t unbalance her so, she said, “You’re poetic and I’m practical. Eat your soup before it cools, James.”

  He laughed and obeyed. “Yes, my lady.”

  She buttered a piece of bread. “Will you return to London in the morning?”

  “There are no current crises, so I can stay a few days and meet your friends and coworkers.” He transferred a piece of ham to his plate. “Should we start by calling on your parents tomorrow morning?”

  Laurel’s stomach clenched. “I suppose we should.”

  “You’d rather not?” Kirkland was watching her closely.

  She was startled by how upset she was at the thought of seeing her parents again. Keeping her voice neutral, she said, “It’s sad to admit that since they cast me out, I haven’t missed them at all. They never had much interest in me, beyond wanting me to have good manners and make a decent marriage. Dealing with them reminds me that I’m not a very good Christian.”

  “Forgiveness is hard,” he said quietly.

  “I tell myself that they’re not evil. Just . . . very narrow. The only thing I’ve done that they really approved of was marrying you. They’d hoped for another son, and instead had me. It was a great disappointment. I suspect that my leaving you was the greatest disaster of their lives. Then to work with the poor here in Bristol . . . !” She shook her head. “Disgraceful!”

  Kirkland frowned. “Would it help if we wait till Daniel returns so he can accompany us?”

  She hesitated, then shook her head. “His presence would just complicate matters. Daniel has always been their pride and joy. His relationship with them has been somewhat strained in recent years because they don’t approve of his work, or the fact that he didn’t disown me, but he still sees them with some regularity.”

  “It’s hard to admit that one isn’t attached to family members.” Kirkland cut his ham into neat pieces. “But the truth is the truth.”

  She was relieved that he accepted her unfilial thoughts so calmly. Allowing herself to hope, she said, “Now that I’ve accepted that I can’t be the daughter they want, and they can’t be the parents I want, we can at least be civil. There will never be a better time to reestablish a relationship.”

  He raised his cider in a toast. “Then tomorrow, we shall all practice our civility.”

  She lifted her glass in return, and silently prayed that all would be boringly civil the next day.

  Marry in haste, repent at leisure. What a wise old saying. A pity Laurel hadn’t believed it. No eighteen-year-old did. She rolled over and pounded her pillow into a more comfortable shape. Relaxing with Kirkland under her roof was difficult.

  She’d gone from Miss Herbert to Lady Kirkland, then retreated into being Miss Herbert again. Now she’d be Mrs. Kirkland, at least in Bristol. But in London, she’d be Lady Kirkland, and it was an identity she’d never really come to terms with.

  She reminded herself that she knew much more of the world than when she’d married. Despite her natural reserve, she could hold a conversation with anyone. Even Kirkland’s friends, who probably would hate her for making him miserable.

  What about the women he’d said he’d introduce her to as potential friends? Would they be his former mistresses? Or worse, current mistresses?

  It didn’t bear thinking about. He and she would be civil. That was the goal. She could be civil.

  She reminded herself that she’d only be in London for a month. Then she could come home again. In the future, she might visit her husband in the city a time or two a year, but the center of her life would remain in Bristol.

  She rolled onto her back as a new thought struck. She’d need a new wardrobe. Kirkland was nothing if not generous, and he’d want to drown her in dresses. She loathed standing still while seamstresses poked and pinned.

  With a groan, she rolled over and mauled her pillow again. She could do this.

  She had to do this.

  Chapter 11

  Laurel had counted herself lucky to have only a mildly unsettled stomach in the mornings, but on this day, she woke with full-fledged morning sickness. After retching helplessly into her washbasin, she wiped her face with a wet towel and wondered miserably if her illness had as much to do with visiting her parents as the fact that she was increasing. She rather hoped so because that would mean she wouldn’t be so sick the next morning.

  After her stomach settled, she sipped a little water. She must inform her cook that there was a husband in the house who would want breakfast. But first, she needed to dress. What should a female wear when venturing forth to visit one’s difficult, long-estranged parents in the company of a fashionable and newly acknowledged husband? Demure but not dowdy, that was the ticket.

  Laurel chose a simple, high-necked morning gown that she wore to chapel on Sundays. Though it wasn’t fashionable, the style suited her, and the celestial blue fabric made her eyes look equally blue while her skin glowed. After pulling her hair back into a neat coil, she followed the tantalizing fragrance of baking bread to the kitchen.

  As she approached the door, she heard raucous laughter from her cook, Mrs. Wicker, a bawdy widow. Surprised, Laurel stepped into the kitchen to see that Kirkland had arrived ahead of her. He was impeccably dressed, clearly a man of fashion, and heart-stoppingly handsome, yet he managed to look entirely at home at the plain wooden table.

  He was giving the short, rotund cook his full attention. That was part of his charm, she realized. When Laurel was with him, she felt as if she was the most important person in his world. Which meant that she shouldn’t take that intense focus so seriously. Listening well was his nature, and surely a good trait for a spy.

  The cook grinned when she saw Laurel. “There you are, Miss Laurel. Or rather, Mrs. Kirkland. Such a secret you’ve been keeping!” She batted Kirkland’s arm cheerfully, leaving a smudge of flour on the elegant navy blue sleeve. “If I’d a husband like this one, I’d keep him in my bed!”

  Laurel’s gaze moved to Kirkland, whose eyes were brimming with repressed amusement. Telling herself she would not be embarrassed, she said calmly, “From what I’ve heard, you did exactly that with your husbands, and rumor has it that the baker from the next street is ready to become husband number four.”

  “You’ve got long ears, miss! Or Mrs., rather. Mebbe I’ll wed him and mebbe not.” Mrs. Wicker poured tea and slid it over the table. “You need a good breakfast before you go off to see your parents. Eggs? Beans? Ham?”

  Laurel’s stomach roiled at the thought. She swallowed hard. “Just tea and toast, please.”

  Kirkland obviously recognized her nerves, but didn’t comment. He kept Mrs. Wicker laughing with his witticisms while he did full justice to a hearty breakfast.

  If his parents were alive, would he be tense if he visited them? Even if he was, he’d show only that controlled, impenetrable courtesy. She must strive to do the same.
  After breakfast, she donned her bonnet and stepped outside to the smart curricle Kirkland had hired for the drive. As he took her hand to help her up to the high seat, he said, “Your fingers feel like ice even through gloves. We don’t have to do this if you’d rather not.”

  For a moment, she was powerfully tempted. Don’t be such a coward, Laurel! If she was beginning a new life, she must be braver. She climbed up to her seat and released his hand quickly. “I truly don’t want to see them, but—I should attempt to mend the breach. We’re supposed to honor our father and mother, after all.”

  “Not all parents deserve honor,” he said dryly as he climbed in and took hold of the reins. “Even so, when we get there, we need to seem relaxed with each other if we’re to appear convincingly reconciled.”

  She deciphered that easily. “Meaning I shouldn’t pull away whenever you come near me?”

  “Exactly.” He slanted her a glance as he set the curricle in motion. “Can you bear the usual gentlemanly courtesies from me?”

  “I shall train myself not to flinch.” Which would not be easy. As the curricle began to move, she added, “It’s too early to mention the baby, I think.”

  “The news would surely please them greatly.”

  She did not want to tell them about it face to face. Better to impart it in a letter, where she wouldn’t be immediately battered by her mother’s criticism and advice. “Yes, but it would be a complication. They aren’t dreadful, just . . . very narrow. They do best with simple situations.”

  Kirkland navigated neatly around a dray loaded with barrels that had halted in the middle of the street. Because Herbert House was close to the port, traffic was heavy, and maneuvering through the drays and carriages ended conversation. That suited Laurel.

  He seemed equally comfortable with silence. The pair of bay horses pulling the curricle was lively, but Kirkland was a skilled driver who made controlling the carriage look easy. As they left the city, Laurel relaxed and began to enjoy the lovely day. She seldom got out of the city these days, and she missed the rolling hills and fresh air.

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