Not Quite a Wife by Mary Jo Putney

  Halfway to Belmond, a question occurred to her. “Since his disappearance altered the course of our lives, did you ever learn what happened to your friend Wyndham? Or was his death one of the unsolved mysteries of war?”

  Kirkland glanced at her with a rare, unreserved smile. “Amazingly, Wyndham survived. Just as the truce collapsed, he offended a French official and was thrown into solitary confinement in a private dungeon. For years, my people in France looked for proof of his fate. Earlier this year, one of my best agents followed up a lead and, through luck and skill, rescued Wyndham and brought him safely back to England.”

  “Good heavens!” Laurel exclaimed, shocked. “Was he even sane after ten years in solitary confinement?”

  Kirkland’s smile vanished. “In his own words, Wyndham was ‘near as dammit to feral’ when he emerged from France. But he’s recovering well. He always had a happy disposition, and now he has much to be happy about.”

  “I’m glad,” she said sincerely. “I imagine that few such stories end well.”

  Kirkland sighed. “We do our best. It’s never enough.”

  How could she have forgotten about his overdeveloped sense of responsibility? “I realize now why you were never particularly devout. When a man thinks he’s God, there’s no reason to attend Sunday services.”

  “I beg your pardon?” he said, genuinely startled.

  “You can’t save everyone, James. No one can,” she said ruefully as she thought of people she’d nursed at the infirmary and Zion House. “Believe me, I know.”

  He fell silent as he halted the curricle so a dozen cows could amble across the narrow road. “I know I can’t save everyone. But I feel compelled to try.”

  “One must try, but we are imperfect humans,” she said. “Does Presbyterian guilt from your Scottish ancestors make you torture yourself for not being perfect?”

  “That’s surely part of it.” His voice darkened. “But . . . more a matter of atonement for my errors and the darker deeds of my work.”

  “The most we can ever do is our best,” she said quietly. “If worry is interest paid on troubles we haven’t had yet, guilt is pain wasted on what can’t be changed.”

  “Please remind me of that regularly. I need to hear it.” His glance at her was wry. “You haven’t lost your ability to skewer my weaknesses and pretensions.”

  She laughed. “Someone needs to.” Then she quickly looked away, unnerved at how they kept sliding into intimacy.

  Kirkland was not surprised to find that Belmond Manor hadn’t changed. As the startled but pleased old butler escorted them to Laurel’s parents, Kirkland said to Laurel under his breath, “Shall I terrorize them for you?”

  Her rigid expression eased. “Tempting, but best not to do so.” She took his arm. “This is going to be . . . strange.”

  “I can imagine.” He patted her hand where it rested on his forearm. “But we needn’t stay long. A brief official visit to announce our renewed civility, and then off.”

  Her smile was stiff, but she looked composed as the butler opened the door to the morning room and announced, “Lord and Lady Kirkland.”

  Their entrance produced palpable shock from the couple sitting on opposite sides of the fireplace. Kirkland was surprised at how the Herberts had aged. It wasn’t only the years and the graying hair, but the lines of disapproval that had deepened in their faces.

  George Herbert surged to his feet and exclaimed “Kirkland!” while his wife gasped and pressed a fist to her mouth in disbelief.

  “Mr. Herbert. Mrs. Herbert.” Kirkland bowed politely. His in-laws’ surprise was quickly followed by pleasure, but only as their gazes locked on Kirkland. They scarcely noticed their long-lost daughter, who stood rigidly beside him.

  He rested his hand in the small of Laurel’s back in a deliberately intimate, possessive gesture. Her tiny flinch would have been noticeable to no one else. Voice smooth, he said, “Laurel and I have reconciled, and of course we wished to inform you of the happy news right away.”

  “Well, well, happy news indeed!” Herbert exclaimed. “It was very good of you to take her back after the way she behaved.”

  “On the contrary, it was good of her to forgive my failings,” Kirkland replied with an edge in his voice. “All blame for our separation belongs to me.”

  “Nonsense!” Herbert said, beaming. “It’s a wife’s duty to obey her husband and fulfill his needs, not abandon him on a foolish whim.”

  As Laurel’s face stiffened, Kirkland said firmly, “There was nothing whimsical about her leaving. She was fully justified.”

  Elizabeth Herbert frowned at her daughter. She’d been a beauty and she’d passed her looks on to her children, but her face had turned sour. “It is never a woman’s place to judge her husband! I tried to raise you better than that, Laurel. I give thanks that you’ve finally come to your senses and Kirkland is willing to forgive your outrageous behavior!”

  Kirkland felt his temper rising. Ten years earlier, he’d been so besotted by Laurel that he hadn’t thought much about her parents beyond the fact that they were respectable members of the gentry and happy to give permission for their daughter to wed. Now he realized that he could have been a pox-ridden rake and they’d have encouraged the marriage, as long as their prospective son-in-law had a title and a fortune.

  “As I said, I was the one in need of forgiveness. Laurel’s behavior has been above reproach.” Reminding himself that reconciliation was the order of the day’s visit, he continued, “I look forward to resuming our acquaintance. May we sit down?”

  “Of course, of course, where are my manners!” Mrs. Herbert jumped to her feet and yanked on the bellpull. “I’ll order tea for us.” As she resumed her seat, she hissed to Laurel, “How dare you appear with your husband in such a disgraceful gown!”

  Though it was meant to be a private comment, Kirkland answered it as he took a firm grasp on Laurel’s hand and drew her down beside him on the sofa. “The fault is mine, Mrs. Herbert. I asked Laurel to wear this gown because the color makes her look particularly lovely.”

  Mrs. Herbert bit her lip, not wanting to insult her grand son-in-law, but having trouble controlling her waspish tongue.

  Clamping down on his anger, Kirkland said, “Naturally when we go up to London, Laurel can avail herself of the best modistes, which I hope will include gowns in this shade of celestial blue.”

  His mother-in-law’s expression blazed with envy that Laurel would have access to the latest fashions, along with fury that her daughter would fail to fully appreciate her opportunities. Voice sharp, she said, “You’ll need to hire yourself a good lady’s maid, my girl, since you’ve never shown any talent for dressing well.”

  Laurel hadn’t said a word since they’d arrived, but now she raised her head and said clearly, “I already have a maid. Violet was a West Indian slave until I rescued her from her owner.”

  Mrs. Herbert looked appalled. Mr. Herbert, nervous at how the conversation was going, said, “I assume you’ll be living primarily in London? House of Lords and all.”

  Laurel’s grip on Kirkland’s hand tightened, but she said sweetly, “I will divide my time between London and Bristol since my work is there.”

  Both Herberts looked horrified. “Your place is beside your husband!” her mother exclaimed. “Surely you will no longer mingle with filthy thieves and fallen women!”

  “They are all God’s children, Mother,” Laurel said piously. “I am merely doing my duty as a Christian.”

  “Bah, you’re the one who poisoned your brother’s mind!” her father snapped. “He would be living like a proper gentleman if you hadn’t dragged him down to your level. Kirkland, you must learn to control your wife!”

  Kirkland was starting to understand why Laurel hadn’t missed her parents in the last ten years. He looked at her with doting warmth. “Why should I wish to eliminate those traits which make her so special? So worthy of love?”

  There was no telling where the conversat
ion might have gone if the door hadn’t opened just then and two footmen entered with heavily laden silver trays. The butler had deduced that having a lord in the house meant the best available refreshments. The conversation devolved to tea and cakes and weather.

  It was very, very civil.

  Chapter 12

  Laurel felt brittle as Kirkland assisted her into the curricle for the return to Bristol. If he said a single word, she feared she’d snap.

  Perceptive as always, he was silent as he set the carriage in motion. As they turned from the long driveway into the lane that led to the main Bristol road, he said in a conversational tone, “My father used to beat me. Of course, most fathers beat their sons, but my father was particularly enthusiastic.”

  Jarred from her own painful thoughts, she stared at his calm, regular profile. “You never told me that.”

  “What young man wants to appear as a helpless victim to the girl he loves?” His strong hands reined the horses back as the curricle approached a section of deep ruts. “Nor is it amusing to talk about how one is despised by those who should care most.”

  She swallowed hard, understanding what he meant. “Unamusing, and . . . almost impossible. To be fair, I didn’t feel despised, merely . . . unimportant. I was dutiful and well behaved, and never caused any trouble. That made me invisible, which was safe.”

  “Safer than attracting the critical attention of your parents?”

  She looked away, her gaze resting sightlessly on the hedges that lined the road. “They didn’t used to be quite so critical. I think they are disappointed in their children.”

  “Then they’re fools.” They had reached a straight section of road, so Kirkland let the horses move into a smooth canter. “I’ve wondered how such a traditional couple produced two such interesting and unusual offspring.”

  She was surprised by his comment. Daniel was interesting and unusual, but she never thought of herself that way. “My mother’s father was a famous eccentric. My parents found him embarrassing, which I suspect is why they became so very, very proper.” And critical of others.

  “You never told me about the eccentric grandfather.”

  “He was never discussed because he was an embarrassment.” Laurel frowned. “I’m not even sure what he did that was so embarrassing. I only met him a time or two when I was small, but I recall him as being jolly. I wish I’d known him better.”

  “I don’t suppose your parents appreciated jollity.”

  Her mouth quirked humorlessly. “An understatement. Mirth is ill bred. Unladylike.”

  “Perhaps having an eccentric grandfather in the family tree helped you and your brother be independent and original, but it’s difficult to be warm in a cold household.” His swift glance was penetrating. “What is the source of your amazing warmth, Laurel? Obviously not your parents.”

  Her fingers clenched on the edge of the curricle. He was damnably good at identifying the aspects of her childhood that she preferred not to discuss. But his question reminded her of the good she’d known along with the bad.

  “We had the most wonderful nurse,” she replied. “Nan was a local girl who was educated at a dame school and wanted to be a teacher herself, so she practiced on us. She was interested in everything, so we were, too. When we outgrew the nursery, she left Belmond Manor, married a nonconformist minister, and founded an infant school.”

  “Lucky infants. It sounds as if she gave you a good foundation. Were there other warm, subversive influences?”

  “Did I never mention the Mercers? The vicar and his wife when I was little. I practically lived at their house. They were kind and tolerant, and since they had five children, I was always welcome because I helped with the younger ones. They called me their oldest daughter.” She smiled reminiscently. “They let me borrow books as well.”

  “They’re not still in Belmond, are they? The vicar who married us was named Mr. Browne, I recall.”

  “When I was fifteen, Mr. Mercer inherited a nice little estate in Yorkshire and they moved away.” She sighed. “I missed them dreadfully.”

  “So when I appeared when you were seventeen, you were lonely.” He concentrated on his driving as they forded a small stream.

  Lonely, and ripe to fall in love. But she would have been head over heels for Kirkland whenever and wherever they’d met. He’d been the most entrancing man she’d ever encountered. He still was. “When I turned seventeen, there was vague talk of sending me to London for a season with some of my grander relations, but nothing came of it. Such things are expensive and my mother was sure I wouldn’t be a success so it would be money wasted.”

  “You would have been a great success,” he said dispassionately. “And it would have been better for both of us if you’d been in London when I visited Belmond.” His words were like a cool, smooth stiletto sliding between her ribs, but she couldn’t deny the truth of them. Marry in haste, repent at leisure.

  Her voice equally dispassionate, she said, “I’m not sure whether our meeting proves that God has a sense of humor, or that we are each other’s crosses to bear.”

  Instead of being angry, he laughed. “That’s an interesting way of looking at our marriage, my lady. I expect that we’re each other’s crosses, but surely we can bear them as friends. Now that we’re older and wiser.”

  And they’d have a child to love together. She said abruptly, “Thank you for defending me to my parents. They were delighted to see you, so it would have been easier for you to ignore their comments.”

  “You’re my wife. It’s my job to defend you, even from your own parents if necessary.” He glanced over. “Didn’t Daniel defend you?”

  “They knew better than to be too critical of me in front of him. And once he turned ten, he was away at school much of the time.”

  “Which was my gain and your loss. He was a good friend to me.”

  “That was when I started spending more time with the Mercers.” She sighed. “I really saw very little of my parents. Why do I still care so much what they think?”

  She didn’t expect an answer, but he said thoughtfully, “It may be nature’s way of preventing children from killing their parents when the relationship proves impossible.”

  She blinked. “I’d think you were joking, except that I’m quite sure you’re not.”

  “If I’d been older and stronger, I’m not sure what would have happened with my own parents. After my mother died, I told my father I wanted to live with my Scottish grandparents. He gave me the worst beating of my life.” Kirkland slowed the horses as they passed through a tiny hamlet, neatly avoiding a chicken that ran into the road.

  “And you wanted to kill him.”

  “I actually tried—you were right about my murderous tendencies. But the letter opener on his desk was dull so I didn’t do much damage. Not one of my finer moments.” This time, he was the one who looked brittle to the breaking point.

  She laid her right hand over his left where he was gripping the reins. “Because you lost your temper so thoroughly, or because you failed to do much damage?”

  “I’m not really sure. Luckily my furious attack convinced him to send me to the Westerfield Academy. He considered it punishment because it kept me away from my Scottish relations. I considered it a gift because it kept me away from him.” He glanced over with a trace of humor. “The Lord truly does work in mysterious ways.”

  “Lady Agnes Westerfield seems to be the best thing that ever happened to her assorted boys. I hope I have a chance to meet her someday.”

  “You will. She comes up to Town from Kent regularly.” They were entering the outskirts of Bristol and traffic was increasing, so he slowed the curricle down. “Do you really have a lady’s maid that you rescued from slavery?”

  She relaxed a little at his question. “Violet is a trained maid who was a slave in Jamaica, and I did prevent a revolting fellow called Captain Hardwick from carrying her off to his ship. He said he’d bought her, I quoted a legal precedent, and with the
support of the local stevedores I was able to get her safely away. She’s at Zion House now.”

  Kirkland frowned. “I’ve heard of this Captain Hardwick. He’s a nasty piece of work and probably an illegal slave runner. I don’t suppose you stopped to consider the risk you were taking?”

  “Not really. There wasn’t time.” She arched her brows. “You needn’t lecture me on my foolishness. Daniel already did.”

  “It’s a chilling tale that could have gone badly wrong, but it didn’t. Well done, my lady.” He inclined his head respectfully. “So you’re taking her to London?”

  “I haven’t yet asked her. I hadn’t thought about it until my mother told me I must hire a maid. Violet might not want to go to London.”

  “I imagine she’ll be happy to accompany you.”

  The afternoon traffic was heavy, so conversation ended until they arrived back at Herbert House. Kirkland stepped down and turned to help Laurel out. He held her hand a moment longer even after she was on the ground, his eyes intent.

  She was acutely aware of his strength and closeness and had the absurd thought that he wanted to kiss her. She jerked her hand free.

  He didn’t react to her rudeness, saying only, “Would you be offended if I said that you look tired and in need of rest?”

  So he wasn’t interested in kissing, just worried about her health. “You’re right, it was a tiring expedition. I’ll get some rest now.”

  He gave a nod of approval. “I must return the curricle. When will you be ready to travel up to Town?”

  She considered, and realized that the sooner she moved forward, the better. “I can be ready tomorrow morning. I’ll go talk to Violet.”

  “If she refuses, it won’t be difficult to hire a good lady’s maid in London.”

  “True, but Violet is very good, and a known quantity.” And she’d rather go to London with at least one friendly face. Someone who was on her side.

  Now why had she thought that? Kirkland wasn’t her enemy.

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