Improper Pleasures (The Pleasure Series), page 10
“What I’m about to ask you is totally inappropriate, James. And the lady in question would be horrified if she knew I was being so bold, but something in your eyes makes me believe that you’re the kind of man who can handle such a delicate subject.” She winked and James felt sick.
Obviously, she didn’t know about the maid or she most definitely wouldn’t have winked, he decided. “I’ll do what I can. I pride myself on keeping private matters private.” Of course, if Phillina knew how many private matters he’d had to keep private, she’d probably not be asking him to help a lady with a delicate matter.
“The matter concerns Astra.”
“What about Astra?” He sat up abruptly, showing his interest before he could stop himself.
“No, nothing shameful.”
James studied his callused palms. Lady Phillina could read him too well. He’d have to remember that.
“You must promise that you’ll not mention this to Astra. Though she is my daughter-in-law, my regard for her goes beyond that. I think of her as my own daughter. And her own mother…well, you’ve met Lynette…”
“Go on, Lady Phillina.” James stopped feigning disinterest and met her suddenly direct brown gaze. “You can trust me. I give you my word I won’t mention our conversation to Astra.”
“Well, the truth of the matter is Astra is fearful of men.”
James blinked, unable to answer. The Astra that came to his study last night had definitely had her wits about her. Or had she? His suspicions that there might be more going on with Astra’s offer to be his mistress was beginning to take shape, but not as he’d expected. The mystery of Astra’s hasty marriage and daughter’s somewhat early birth became suddenly less mysterious and more sinister.
Lady Phillina shrugged at his stunned expression, hopefully taking it for surprise rather than anything having to do with his interest in Astra. “Not that she has told me as much, but I’ve known Astra since she was a girl. She can be a little cautious in mixed company. Not that I can blame her after everything she has endured.”
“What exactly has she endured?” He suddenly recalled Astra’s desperation in the study when he had hesitated in accepting her proposition. He thought her reaction had more to do with her need to hold on to her position at Eastlan rather than actual rejection. And, yes, pompous as he was, he assumed she’d been upset at his withdrawal because she had been swept off her feet by his amorous expertise.
The glow faded from Lady Phillina’s face. “She lost her father in her early teens. Lynette didn’t bother with a coming out because, well, we assumed she would marry someone local. When Astra finally married Lowell, I was not completely surprised theirs was more a comfortable friendship than a love affair.”
“Was Lowell not the man you expected Astra to marry?” James definitely did not like the idea that Astra had a living, breathing love match in the vicinity even if it were in the past. “It wasn’t Wesley, was it?”
“No, though Wesley no doubt was smitten with Astra early on. They all grew up together, you see. Lowell and Astra were more like brother and sister than sweethearts, in my observation. I had hoped that would change once Lowell regained his strength, but it never happened.”
As Lady Phillina clenched her hands together, James felt guilty forcing her to speak of things that obviously upset her. He gripped Lady Phillina’s shoulder and she instantly brightened.
“That’s why I think her teaching you how to act at the ball will be good for her too. She hasn’t been to a dance in years herself.”
“I promise I won’t be a difficult pupil.”
“Of course, you won’t. But I was thinking that you should treat Astra more like a suitor.”
James sat back. He needed to keep his affair with Astra free of that sort of thing at all cost, and now Lady Phillina was suggesting otherwise. “She might think I was being too forward.”
Lady Phillina waved his objections away. “I don’t think a woman alive would be insulted by your attentions.”
“What if she gets the wrong idea? Lady Phillina, I am not ready for a wife and—” He stopped himself from telling Lady Phillina that he intended to return to the sea and America the moment he could. No, he’d let her get her health back before he gave her another reason to be sad.
“If anyone knows her place, it’s Astra. At her age, I don’t doubt she’s aware of her need to find an older husband. Of course, at almost thirty she could still have children, but a man who needed an heir would wish for a younger wife. But, not to worry. I’m loading the deck with more eligible men than women. And I want Astra to glow at the ball. What better way to accomplish that than to be a woman who knows her appeal? She’ll be that much more attractive to the older men, don’t you see? A conquest always seems to bring out the competitive nature. I think it’s a grand plan!”
James found himself absurdly disturbed by the idea of the need for Astra to find an older, suitable man to wed. “I wasn’t aware that Astra…intended to remarry.”
“Oh, she is still resistant, but she shouldn’t remain a widow. She was a wonderful wife to my son, but she deserves a husband who is healthy and robust. Though no longer the cream of the crop, she is still young and beautiful. I certainly don’t wish for her to live the rest of her life alone.”
James realized Astra had the same idea, but she planned to accomplish it in a much different manner than Phillina imagined.
Lady Phillina’s silence forced James from his troubled thoughts, but not before the older woman had plenty of time to register his obvious turmoil. James shrugged, hoping she’d take his reticence for confusion. “As you know, I don’t know the proper etiquette for courting an English lady. What would you have me do exactly?”
This time, Lady Phillina patted his hand. “Oh James, I already know you are a consummate flirt. When you’re dancing, hold her the way a man holds a woman he’s interested in. Maybe a little too close, hmmm?”
James felt himself blush slightly. It was embarrassing getting romantic instruction from Lady Phillina. But he supposed he needed it. If Astra actually wanted a man in her life, perhaps he should not take her up on her offer. Damn it, he’d hoped to not come to his senses so quickly. In light of calling off their arrangement before it had begun, their encounter last night was now to be mere torture rather than a prelude to something ultimately more satisfying.
“And perhaps escort her for a stroll in the garden after dinner. Steal a kiss?”
James adamantly shook his head at Lady Phillina’s last comment. If he kissed Astra again, he knew what he would do next. “I fear then I would get the wrong idea. Lady Phillina, you have entirely too much faith in me. I’m no lad.”
“Oh dear, I’ve said too much.” Lady Phillina pressed her fingers to her lips and her cheeks reddened. “I apologize if I’ve offended you. Of course, you are a grown man with a grown man’s needs. Say no more.”
James wished he had said less. Talking about his “needs” with Lady Phillina was appalling. “You haven’t offended me. It’s just that I’m afraid I’ll offend Astra.”
“Perhaps, but she needs to accept the idea of being courted if she’s to find a husband. You, being so young, seem a safe choice, that’s all.”
“I’ll do what I can,” he finally said to lure Lady Phillina off the subject of a romantic liaison between him and Astra. Though, their conversation gave him much to take up with Astra at their next meeting. Last night, Astra mentioned she’d been hurt before. He thought she alluded to the loss of her husband. Now he wasn’t sure. If he said yes to her proposal, he might be taking advantage of her and if he said no, he feared he would be doing irreparable damage to her pride with his rejection. Because, he suddenly concluded that someone in her past had likely rejected her.
“Wonderful. I know you’d not refuse a lady in distress. Let’s go down. Astra’s been waiting all day.”
James stood and scooped Phillina into his arms without further invitation. Her squeal of delight warned him she knew ex
Astra didn’t try to hide her admiration for James as he settled Lady Phillina gently on a padded arm chair brought into the ballroom. Though she never voiced her fears, she wondered if Lady Phillina might never leave her room again. And that she would do so in preparation for a ball was nothing short of a miracle.
Her mother rushed into the large saloon cleared of furniture, skirts billowing in her wake like a deep mauve wind. Apparently, the idea of being left out altogether overcame her mother’s anger that she couldn’t be one of the dancers. “I guess you’re right, Astra. No one has mastered the pianoforte as I have.”
Her mother’s pout was transformed into a slight grin when she spotted James. “Well, well.” And to James’s growing discomfort and Astra’s fury, her mother examined James like he was a prized piece of horse flesh.
“Yes, oh yes, I’d say that tailor did an excellent job. How nice it is to see a man who can fill out a snugly cut riding suit,” said her mother as she sauntered a circle around James.
James shrugged and Astra thought the heightened color under his tanned skin might be a blush.
Astra clapped her hands and burst into motion. “All right everyone. We need to start. We have much to cover. Mother, you shall take your place at the pianoforte.”
Her mother paused to look over James one more time. “Pity we shall not have the pleasure of a dance. Save me one for the ball, won’t you?” She strolled over to the pianoforte and plopped herself onto the bench in a flourish.
“All right, we’ll begin with a simple English Country dance.” Astra sighed with relief when her mother started with some scales to warm up. “If that meets with your approval, Lady Phillina?”
“That’s exactly what I’d start with. Go on, dear.”
Astra scanned the room to find the rest of the couples she’d enlisted for the lesson. Mr. Rudd and O’Donald, the butler, stood beside the far wall with the look that they meant to sneak out at their first chance.
“All right you two, over here. And where did Cook go?”
O’Donald stepped forward and bowed. “She said she had a pastry she needed to attend. And though, I’m delighted to be of assistance, Mr. Rudd asked me to reiterate that he’s never danced a day in his life and would prefer to keep it that way.”
Mr. Rudd’s scowl spoke his displeasure quite articulately.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Rudd. Just follow along while I teach James. We need three couples at the minimum and it seems Wesley has forgotten my request for his presence this afternoon.”
Astra turned to James, whom, she realized, had been watching her with rapt interest. He glanced away when she caught his gaze. Astra shook off the tingling sensation James’s direct stare had given her and focused on the task at hand.
“All right, Lord Keane, you stand here. I’ll be your partner and Mary, you and Mr. Rudd will be next in line.” After she waved him over a second time, Mr. Rudd dragged himself into position. “Just follow, Mary,” she said, but despite his blank features, she suspected he inwardly groaned.
“O’Donald, you’re at the end. I’m afraid you’ll have to pretend to have a partner until the cook can free herself from the kitchen.”
“Very good, Lady Keane.”
“No need for that,” Wesley’s voice and the sound of his hurried stride brought a smile to Astra’s face until she turned to find him closely followed by Melva, the maid she had caught with James.
“So sorry I’m late, but I brought Melva here to serve as an apology.” Wesley strode to take Mr. Rudd’s place who vacated the room as quickly as possible. “We were short a couple, were we not?”
Melva sauntered into position, her eyes leisurely brushing over James as she took her place in front of Wesley. The bodice of her uniform was inappropriately low and too tight by half.
Astra tugged at the long sleeves of her brown silk day dress, and readjusted the high collar. Despite the slight sheen in the chocolate-colored material, a shade of which Astra admired this very morning, she felt frumpish compared to Melva in her coarse uniform. Even Melva’s rumpled hair, with bright red tendrils sticking from her white cap, appeared immensely more festive than Astra’s tightly braided twist.
Astra pulled her gaze away from Melva. This elaborate dancing lesson was primarily orchestrated for Lady Phillina. Astra would not let her own insecurities ruin it. “All right, Mother. Begin.”
Finally, Astra had no choice but to glance up at James. He stared directly into her eyes as if his gaze had been on her the entire time, never once straying to Melva’s bountiful cleavage and vibrant red hair.
James’s bright blue gaze was soft, almost apologetic. He bowed to her. “May I have the honor of this dance, Lady Keane?”
She nodded and gave him a small smile. “Now, move forward, we meet in the middle.” He followed her lead, his step jaunty rather than stiff. No surprise there.
“We hook arms.” And the moment his solid arm possessively linked with hers, the little flutter in her stomach spread its wings and took flight.
Astra suddenly had trouble breathing. James orchestrated her into a twirl, then sailed her down to the end of dancers. While Astra stood open-mouthed in the center of the aisle, James bowed again, then returned to his spot.
“I say, Astra, James is a quick study.” Phillina clapped her hands. “Very good, James.”
Astra put her hands on her hips. “I didn’t teach you that. You already know how to dance.”
James slyly grinned. “I know that one, but we don’t call it an English Country dance back home. Let’s try another.”
Astra studied him from the corner of her eye. “What other dances do you know?”
He shrugged. “A few Scottish reels. The quadrille. The minuet.”
Her mother had long quit playing and stood beside the dancers, staring at James as if he had sprouted another head.
“The minuet? Her mother shoved Astra aside and stood in front of James. “Show me.”
James glanced at Astra. She moved away, allowing her mother the floor. James took a step back. “There’s no music. Let me give it a try with Astra. It’s been years since I went to a formal dance.”
Her mother grabbed James’s hands. “I’m not sure that Astra knows the steps herself. She’s not been to a formal dance in years either. At least not one in London, which are the only kind there are.”
“I’ve been to few a balls in London,” Astra said in her defense, though her one and only trip to London had been a royal disaster. That was the night all her girlish dreams had been brutally crushed.
“Yes, and you were so traumatized you stayed in your room for a week afterwards. Ready, James. One, two, three.” Her mother picked up the flounce of her skirt and dipped towards James. James made a clumsy lurch and her mother shrieked and jumped back.
“My apologies, Lady Seabrook. I can’t seem to keep my step without music.”
“I don’t think we’ll bother with the minuet,” Lady Phillina called from her seat. “It’s not as if the ton will be attending. Just a few neighbors and the country gentry. The country dances will be fine.”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous, Phillina. You can’t have a ball without a minuet,” insisted her mother.
“Then we’ll call our little fete a dance rather than a ball,” said Phillina without losing an ounce of her enthusiasm. “A country dance.”
“As you wish, I’ll just play.” With as much grace as she could muster, her mother limped back to the piano.
Astra studied James, noting that a hint of satisfaction played around his lips. Even with James’s blunder regarding the minuet, Astra had lost the zest for her task. Who was she to instruct James on how to dance? He’d probably attended more dances than she’d ever hoped to. And his natural charm would easily overpower even the snootiest critic. And he was a baron.
She, on the other hand, was a financially-dependent, past-her-prime, bloom-off-the-rose
Astra massaged her brow. “I think that’s enough for one day.” Belatedly, she remembered her silent vow not to disappoint Lady Phillina, but she was entirely too distraught to continue.
James stopped her immediate exit by standing directly in front of her and gripping her upper arms.
“We’ve just started. Why don’t we have everyone else leave and you and I can go over the steps, then we’ll practice with the others? I just got lucky on that first one.”
She gazed up into his sincere blue eyes that appeared darker than normal. “If you really wish it, but I’m afraid my mother is right. I’m not exactly an expert on dances.”
“That settles it then. Everyone out. Except Lady Phillina, of course.”
As lord of the manor, James’s word was immediately obeyed. Astra started to breathe again as the others filed out of the room. That is until she spotted Melva pausing by the door long enough to make eye-contact with James. When she thought no one else was looking, she squeezed her breast and leered a silent promise. Astra immediately turned away before she was forced to witness James’s response.
James flawlessly completed the last step of the “Sir Roger de Coverley,” the same dance he knew back home as the “Virginia reel” before he remembered he was supposed to misstep. The smile on Astra’s face as she gasped for breath showed she didn’t find him catching on to the dance so quickly grounds for suspicion. She seemed to relax around him as long as she had the upper hand.
“A little fast, but very good. You’ve done that one before.”
He shrugged. “Believe it or not we used to dance on the ship. I never had to play the part of the lady because I was the captain. Even if the others had to alternate leading, that dance was everyone’s favorite.”