Not Quite A Wife
The Lost Lords Series Book #6
Marry in haste, repent at leisure.
James, Lord Kirkland, owns a shipping fleet, half a London gaming house, and is a ruthlessly effective spymaster. He is seldom self-indulgent. . .except when it comes to the gentle, indomitable beauty who was once his wife.
Laurel Herbert gave James her heart as an innocent young girl--until she saw him perform an act of shocking violence before her very eyes. That night she left her husband, and he let her go without a word of protest.
Now, ten years later, a chance encounter turns passionate, with consequences that cannot be ignored. But as they try to rebuild what was broken, they must face common enemies and a very uncommon love....
Putney's endearing characters and warm-hearted stories never fail to inspire and delight.
No one writes historical romance better.
Of all Putney's heroes, the Lost Lords are the most irresistible--bad boys who are so very good.
~RT Book Reviews
Laurel. Kirkland gradually rose from darkness to awareness, drifting in a sea of well-being. He’d dreamed of his wife, which wasn’t unusual, but most of the time, she vanished when he took her in his arms, leaving him aching with loneliness and frustration. This time he’d had one of his rare dreams of satisfaction, and with a degree of realism that was searing.
But consciousness would not be denied. He had a large inventory of aches and pains, including a throbbing head. What had happened? And where was he?
Not a familiar place, he was sure of that, but he was reasonably comfortable, lying on a firm but well cushioned bed with clean smelling sheets and covers. Memory rushed back. Damn, he’d had a fever attack while walking through Bristol, and had been too weak to fend off attackers!
He recognized the scent of lavender, probably from the sheets. That must be why his thoughts of Laurel had been so vivid. He’d sometimes called her his Lavender Lady because of the scent she often wore.
Reluctantly opening his eyes, he saw a plain, light-colored ceiling. Even that small effort was tiring.
“I see you’re awake.” The soothing female voice came from his right, and shocked him to his marrow.
He turned his head so quickly that he felt a wave of dizziness. Laurel sat in a chair by his bed, her lap full of mending. Seeing her brought back a shocking array of sensual memories from his recent dream. Her taste, her scent, the silky warmth of her skin, the welcoming heat of her body…
His jaw clenched as he suppressed the passionate memories, but he couldn’t suppress the reality of her presence. Even after ten years, she was achingly familiar. Her glorious bronze hair was loosely tied back and she was so beautiful his heart hurt.
But she was no longer the girl he’d married. Her openness to him and to the world had vanished, replaced by cool distance. Surely her glorious warmth couldn’t be entirely gone, but it was no longer for him. His heart died a little.
Yet she was still his wife. And God help him, he still wanted her.
“I’m sorry, Laurel.” His voice was a hoarse whisper. “You never wanted to see me again, yet here I am.”
She set her mending in the basket by her chair. “It’s hardly your fault, James. While you were suffering from fever, you were attacked by robbers not far from here. Two men who attend our chapel found you and brought you to the infirmary.”
While he tried to think of what to say to his long-estranged wife, he felt a soft bump on his left hip. He turned his head cautiously, and found himself looking into the golden eyes of a large gray cat, which was curled up against his side. Its thumping tail was what had caught his attention.
He blinked. “Is this the gray kitten you had me fish out of the pond all those years ago?”
“Yes, it’s Shadow. All grown up now. He makes himself free of the infirmary.”
Kirkland scratched the cat’s neck and was rewarded by a rumbling purr. “He’s pretty substantial for a shadow.”
“He takes a deep interest in his food dish, but he’s a good fellow. Patients who come here regularly look for him.” She laid a cool hand on Kirkland’s forehead. “The fever is gone, but you must be thirsty. Here, drink this. It will help your throat.”
She poured a drink from a stone jug into a mug, then slid an arm under his pillows and raised his head enough to hold the vessel to his lips. Her closeness was intoxicating.
Cutting off the thought, he sipped chicken broth, warm and tasty. He hated being so weak, but that was always the case after a bout of fever. It helped keep him humble.
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 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. “How did he go from studying classics and theology at Oxford to becoming a doctor?”
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 sent 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 you 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 somewhere far beneath her controlled surface.
And for these few moments, he was privileged to enjoy it once more….