Not Quite a Wife
This, the sixth book in Ms Putney’s Lost Lords series tells the story of a couple who have been estranged for over a decade. I’m a sucker for a good second-chance romance, so this book seemed as though it would be right up my alley – and while it did tick a few of my favourite boxes, there are some really big flaws that I found it impossible to ignore, and which kept pulling me out of the story.
James, Lord Kirkland, and his wife Laurel fell in love at first sight and were married in their teens. They parted after only a year of marriage and have lived separate lives for over a decade when they are unexpectedly reunited. On a visit to Bristol, Kirkland is beset by a malaria attack, and, in his weakened state, is set upon by thieves. Bruised, battered and bloody, he is found in the street and taken to the local infirmary, which is run by Daniel Herbert – a former friend – and his sister, Laurel, who is known by everyone as Miss Herbert, having kept the fact of her marriage a secret. Needless to say, she is not only stunned to see her husband injured, she is astonished at seeing him at all, given they have not had anything to do with each other for such a long time.
Later that night, having treated Kirkland’s physical injuries and given him something to lower his fever, an accidental touch ignites something long denied in both of them, and they indulge in a completely unexpected act of passion. The next morning, Laurel’s hopes that Kirkland will remember nothing of their lovemaking are realised, and she sends him on his way as soon as his manservant arrives to assist him.
Laurel’s life since she left her husband has been filled with work. She assists her brother – a doctor – at the infirmary they have established, and also runs a refuge for women escaping abusive relationships called Zion House. She enjoys her work and her life – although Kirkland’s reappearance has awaked something in her she had thought long since buried. But her work at the infirmary and the refuge keep her very busy – so busy, in fact, that she doesn’t immediately realise that her body clock is off. But when she does notice, she knows that there is only one possible explanation.
Even though she knows that, once born, Kirkland will have the right to take the child away from her should he so wish, Laurel has no thoughts of concealing her pregnancy. When he is informed of it, James rushes immediately to Bristol, suggesting to Laurel that they should try to find a way to live together amicably for the sake of the child. They agree to a compromise that will see Laurel spending most of her time in Bristol and visiting London occasionally; and Kirkland asks her to spend a month in London with him straightaway. The fact that there has actually been a Lady Kirkland for the last decade is bound to cause rather a stir and James wants to start to introduce her to society. Because Laurel left him very shortly after their extended honeymoon, nobody knew of the marriage except immediate family.
James and Laurel make a good start to their reconciliation. They have never really fallen out of love, and get along very well, which is actually one of those flaws I mentioned. Even though they are both feeling their way and tiptoeing around each other to start with, they get along so well, it’s difficult to understand why they weren’t able to work out their differences before this.
Another flaw is that Laurel’s reasons for running out on James are – to my mind – flimsy at best, and there is just no reason for their separation to have lasted for so long. Laurel explains that she left so precipitately because she’d seen Kirkland kill a man with his bare hands, and had suddenly realised that she didn’t really know the man she’d married. She left without hearing James’ side of the story, which is that the man he killed had broken into their house and was a known assassin. We’re never told the reason for the break-in, and to my way of thinking, finding a known assassin creeping around your house in the dead of night is reason enough to act first and ask questions later. But Laurel persists in thinking of James as a murderer. And later, when he is forced to commit a violent act in order to save the life of a woman and her child at the refuge, she still sees him as a murderer.
I realise that Laurel is a religious woman, and later in the story she does admit to the fact that she has come to see that James has acted in the only way possible, and that she needs to adjust her mindset – but for the couple to have parted over this with no explanation on either side makes no sense. And that being the case, it’s an OPD – Obvious Plot Device. These always make me suspect that perhaps the author is trying to put a square peg into a round hole – they can find no other way to make their story work, so they put in an OPD and hope the readers won’t notice.
Sorry, but I noticed.
Then there’s the fact that Kirkland just lets Laurel leave him and doesn’t make any attempt to explain, stop her or seek her out. Yes, the author says something to the effect that his Presbyterian sensibilities mean he sees her desertion as a just punishment for his actions…but again, it really doesn’t wash.
There is an interesting sub-plot concerning a young black woman whom Laurel rescues from an illegal slaver, a sweet secondary romance, and we meet all the other Lost Lords and their wives. But the scene in which Laurel offers the other women the chance to question her as to the reasons for the estrangement features some incredibly creaky dialogue – of the “let’s fill in the blanks for anyone who hasn’t read the other books” variety.
I’ve read and enjoyed a number of books by this author, and it kills me to say this, but I’m afraid this one is a big disappointment. The flaws in the storytelling I’ve mentioned are never far from the surface and because of that, the story doesn’t flow at all well. The central characters are likeable, but overly passive, and Laurel is a little too self-righteous for my tastes. If you’re following the series, then you might want to read this for completeness, but it’s not one of Ms Putney’s best books.