Improper Pleasures (The Pleasure Series), page 11
“Can’t imagine you being led. You dragged me around like a rag doll.”
“And I can’t imagine that’s a compliment.”
“Actually, it is. I felt like I was flying. You’re very good. Even if you don’t know all the steps, you take command with grace.” When she finished her last sentence, she grew suddenly quiet and turned away, fanning her face.
He rested his hands on his hips, parting his snug coat. Even with the chill that perpetually seeped through the stone walls, sweat rolled down the curve of his back and dampened his temples. Astra’s cheeks were flushed. Tendrils of hair clung to her neck. No doubt, she needed a breath of fresh air as badly as he did.
And once he whisked her away to the garden, maybe he could tell her in words as well as in deed that he had no interest in the overly-solicitous Melva. Her initial advances had caught him off guard after a long, lonely voyage. And, more importantly, before he had ever laid eyes on Astra.
“I need some air,” he said as casually as he could. “Would you care to join me in the garden?”
“Fabulous idea. I’ll have some refreshments brought to the sitting room while you two cool down.” The gleam in Phillina’s eye told James she had the wrong notion. After the evil eye he received from Astra the moment Melva slipped into the ballroom, he fully expected her to withdraw her offer to be his mistress. Though no doubt that would be the wisest course for both of them, he worried damage had already been done. If he did not show Astra otherwise, he feared she would take his hesitancy last night for rejection. After all, he hadn’t exactly hesitated with Melva. Oh, the hell with reason. He wanted Astra and he needed to show her how he felt. They’d bantered this thing about too long already.
“Shall we?” James said, tempering his agenda with exaggerated civility. He guided Astra past the French doors off the ballroom onto the terrace that led to the back gardens. The roses that fanned out from a Greek statue showed signs of blooming. Unlike much of the rest of the property, the gardens had been well tended over the years and one area of the estate he’d yet to explore.
The leaden sky provided no hints of the sunset James knew was eminent. Thick grey clouds growing darker was the only sign that day was leaving them.
He turned to Astra who had placed her palms on the stone railing and stared ahead of her.
“Show me the gardens.”
She blinked at him as if he had just asked her to show him her breasts. Not to mention that she clutched the front of her dress as if that was exactly what she was thinking he intended once he got her in the seclusion of the gardens. “Please, my lord. Say what you have to say here.”
James glanced around and saw Phillina’s face pressed against the window. He intended to kiss Astra as he had last night to set things straight once and for all, alleviating any doubts she might have about her desirability.
“Come on. I promise to be an imperfect gentleman.” He gave her a lecherous wink that she didn’t seem to find amusing.
“You don’t have to humor me.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t, but don’t you think you should humor me? Isn’t that part of our bargain?”
“We don’t have a bargain.” She turned away from the gardens, her back to the stone railing. “Do be sure to have someone cut bouquets for Phillina’s room and the foyer.”
“Hold on. I thought we had stopped discussing your leaving.” He had not expected this. A railing at his lack of amorous restraint, or a slap on the face perhaps, but not this.
She turned back to the lawn and stared as if she were memorizing it. “I hope I didn’t make too much of a fool of myself by making such an outrageous offer last night. I do so love Eastlan.”
“Eastlan, is it? I thought it had a little to do with your overwhelming attraction for me.”
She glanced at him, but it was more of a stabbing glare. “I’m trying to make this easier on both of us.”
James had to restrain himself from grabbing her and dragging her along with him. He’d passed his threshold with their dancing around such a basic subject. Whom one chose to share carnal knowledge with shouldn’t be so complicated. He was sure of it. “Show me the gardens. Please,” he added, before he headed down the steps. He paused halfway to find her remaining where she was. “We have an audience,” he said through clenched teeth.
She responded with a brief nod of understanding instead of glancing behind her, and giving away his ploy to lure her away from prying eyes. She silently followed him down the steps. Her cunning disturbed him as much as it pleased him.
When they reached the grass, he grasped her hand in his. From the distance, Lady Phillina still might be able to detect his action, but not his intent. Theirs would be no friendly stroll.
James dragged her toward the fountain in the center of the manicured yard, riddled with pathways of roses and other flowering shrub James couldn’t name. “I think we talked about being alone.”
She tried to tug her hand away, but he continued to pull her forward. “Slow down. You are not wearing a corset.”
He nodded in acknowledgement of her restrictive dress and honored her request. “I didn’t know Melva would be there today.”
“Obviously.” She grabbed her skirts with her free hand, strolling along beside him now that he slowed his pace.
“No. It’s not like that.”
“I understand, James. Believe me. Becoming involved with me would be much more complicated.”
And ultimately more fulfilling. James would have to make love to Astra a thousand different ways before discovering the depths behind her complicated persona. If there had not been thought to her motive, he would have accepted Astra’s offer to be his mistress immediately and taken her on the desk without hesitation. He wanted her, and frankly, he should have her. After all, it was her idea. “I am not involved with Melva. I have not even seen her since…” James let his words trail off. “I’m going to dismiss her.”
“Her father passed away last spring and the family needs the money. I discovered she’s the cook’s cousin. I don’t want her dismissed.”
James remained silent, though he was cursing himself for always playing the role of the bastard in this particular drama. Rightfully so, perhaps. He came to the end of the long lawn and noticed a grove of trees that hid the murky pond he’d earlier dismissed as a mosquito breeding ground. A shaded trail wrapped around the pond. A hint of sun seeped past the clouds, lending the pond a dull but inviting sheen to its dark green surface.
Astra lifted the hem of her skirt and revealed surprisingly flimsy slippers. “My shoes are getting muddy.”
James stared at the distant grey mansion that seemed to almost be swallowed by the gloom. Perhaps if he separated Astra from her precious Eastlan, he could discover what lay at the heart of her offer to be his mistress. Last night, he could have sworn it had much to do with mutual lust, but today he was far from sure. He turned his gaze and spotted a marble gazebo nestled amongst the trees along the pond’s edge. “I would like to settle this thing between us, if I may?”
James glanced at the thick mud that coated his own boots. The path to the gazebo was laden with puddles and not much dry ground in-between. James lifted Astra into his arms without asking, suspecting she would have said no to his wish to keep her feet dry.
Her shriek proved he was right.
“I’m not dragging you into the woods to ravage you.” That wasn’t exactly true, but he certainly wouldn’t do so without her permission. “I’m just saving your shoes on our way to the gazebo.”
“James.” She started to protest, then wrapped her arms around his neck and snuggled more solidly against him. “The gazebo is overgrown. It is no doubt infested with rats and badgers.”
“I’ll protect you.” He held her tighter, enjoying the feel of her curves against his chest.
She turned her nose up, but he suspected he saw a hint of a smile.
He trudged through ankle deep mud and found the entrance to
Instead of telling him she told him so, she glanced around his shoulder looking eager to crawl past the green tunnel and investigate the mysteries inside. James stepped on a large leafed vine with thorns and lifted a curtain of ivy that fell from overhead. Astra glanced at him suspiciously, then stepped past his makeshift doorway.
He ducked his head and followed. The green veil closed behind him. A flutter sounded from above accompanied by frightened squeaks. Astra covered her head with her hands. “Bats,” she said.
Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea after all. James drew Astra behind him. He clapped his hands and stomped his feet to the sound of more scurrying. Thankfully, only a few squirrels beat a hasty retreat before the gazebo fell silent. They were surrounded by a living curtain that left the shelter in green shadows. The opening onto the lake was less overgrown and provided a nice view of the water. On a sunny day, this place would be magical. But at the moment, it was damp and James suspected, as Astra guessed, probably rat infested.
He turned to her, ready to offer an alternate location for their talk, but noticed how she studied the pond and then the vines overhead in wonder. “We used to play in the gazebo as children. I had forgotten it even existed. After our begging, Father would give lessons here on summer days. It was so lovely. I pretended I was queen of an ancient civilization and this was my palace.”
James pulled her into his arms. She glanced up at him, but he didn’t give her time to protest. He kissed her gently on the mouth.
She wrapped her arms around his neck and returned his kiss like a familiar lover. He slipped his tongue inside her mouth, discovering her mouth’s warm contours, deepening the kiss and tasting her before he forced himself to pull away.
“I’ve wanted to do that since I saw you in the foyer this afternoon.” His breath came hard and his heart raced, unexpected from such a brief kiss.
Astra sighed. “You make me forget all reason when you do.”
He stared down into her face. “And your desire to become my mistress is reasonable?”
“It has to be.” She met his gaze with a seriousness that pulled down the corners of her hazel eyes. “Certainly the heart cannot be involved.”
Understanding dawned on him. “You don’t fancy yourself in love with me?”
She shook her head, but her smile was a little wistful and a little sad. “No. Nor do I want to fall into such folly. You are very charming, James. I think if we put our mutual attraction in the proper terms, it would be better for both of us.”
James suppressed a chill at her declaration that falling for him would be folly. Though, he whole heartedly agreed. “So a marriage is definitely not on your agenda, secret or otherwise?”
A flash of pain shown in her eyes, but it was quickly replaced by anger. “I am not that obtuse. I realize I am not what you would look for in a wife.”
“How do you know? I have not even considered what I want in a wife. Not that I’m in the market for a wife.” He added the last a little too adamantly. He just should have dropped the subject, but after his conversation with Phillina and the fiasco with Melva ruining her dancing lesson, he wanted Astra to know she was desirable in any capacity.
“I’m not a virgin. I have a child and I’m no longer in the bloom of youth.”
James realized he found the last part more appealing than not. He didn’t want a silly girl for a bride, but, truth be told, he had expected to marry a virgin if he married. Not that it truly mattered, he supposed. James decided it would be best to get the subject off of marriage all together. “I am not ready to have children. I plan to return to the sea for a few more years. I know other sailors go for years without seeing their offspring but I don’t intend to do so. I would want to know my children from conception.”
He stared at her and it only took a moment for understanding to dawn on her.
“I don’t intend to have your child, James. In fact, I was hoping since you are a man of the world, we can find a way to avoid that predicament. Don’t tell me you’ve not had lovers before. I know better.”
James didn’t bother to explain he had not done anything with Melva that could lead to pregnancy or would constitute her as one of his lovers, though, she was still correct. He had had more than a few lovers. Most more experienced, but always brief, impersonal encounters. However, he reminded himself, she was not without her own experiences. “As have you.”
She straightened, clearly annoyed. “I would not call it that. My circumstances are quite different than yours, but I think I see what you are getting at. Neither of us are fools. Would you agree to that?”
“I would.” James grinned, liking this version of Astra the best. Sharp, calculating and brutally honest.
“Then please don’t insult me by thinking I have concocted this scheme to trap you into marrying me for either my own selfish means or to hide an unwanted child. I would not do that to Lark. Lowell will be the only father Lark will ever know. Better to have a deceased father that loved her than a live one who does not.”
Again, James felt like a bastard. “Touché, Lady Keane. Of all the things that I might ponder in regards to your motivations, your devotion to your daughter is without question. I know you’d do anything to ensure her happiness.”
Astra took a deep breath. “Thank you. And perhaps to that end, I have made a mistake in thinking you would want me for a mistress. It all seemed so simple. Or perhaps, I just wanted it to be. You would have no trouble procuring whomever you choose to share your bed and without all my demanding stipulations.”
James strolled over to her. “But you are the one I want to share my bed and your stipulations are no more than your due.”
“I fear I don’t know much about seduction, as you might have guessed.”
“Ah, but then you give me the pleasure of teaching you.”
She blinked and smiled. “You would enjoy that?”
“More than you know.” James kissed Astra on the lips lightly, his hands cupping her chin. He rubbed his palms down her shoulders, over her breasts and circled them to the back of her waist. He had intended to do much more than that but the afternoon grew dark and damp. And, something held him back. Perhaps his sudden realization that his sexual relationship with Astra would be different than anything else he’d yet to experience. No matter what came of their affair, Astra would gain the secret knowledge of a woman well pleasured, or at least James would give it his best effort. And James would learn all the lush nuances of a woman who was the first he could think of as his own. James held Astra against him and felt her shiver. “Tonight, then?” he said near her ear.
Astra discarded the robe to her silk nightgown. The pure white confection had been a gift intended for her wedding night but had never been worn. She studied her reflection in the cheval mirror. The candles’ glow rendered the gown translucent. Astra squared her shoulders and sucked in the slight roundness of her post-childbirth belly. She slid her hands over her hips, triggering a tingling in her sex and a tightening of her nipples. The flutter in her throat warned her she could no longer distinguished her fear from her fierce longings. Astra took that as a good sign.
After blowing out the candles around the room, she slipped into her bed. She left the candle burning on her nightstand and smoothed the wrinkles from the quilt. James had managed a quiet word with her after dinner. She had been reading by the fire while her mother tried to teach Wesley and James London’s latest game of chance. James used the pretense of stoking the coals to whisper to her that he would visit her room just as he had in her fantasy. Astra could only nod, a thousand questions singing in her mind. Would he come in the middle of the night? Should she go to sleep? As if that were possible. James had left the group shortly after, claiming he had some work to do. That had been hours ago and Astra could hardl
On second thought, Astra blew out the candle and lay on her back, staring at the ceiling that clearly needed painting even in the muted light cast by the fireplace. The spare bedroom, close to Lowell’s room, seemed too plain to accept a paramour. A grander suite that attached to Lowell’s rooms had been used by his doctors and Astra never once thought of moving there, not even when Lowell was alive. Pleasant, practical, and unassuming described her room and her life for as long as she could remember. Lord, she hoped James would not find her as such as a lover. She shuddered at the change she brought upon herself, wreaking havoc to her world as she knew it. Astra Seabrook Keane, sensible to sultry.
A slight click of the door sounded and Astra barely stopped herself from bolting to a sitting position. She was supposed to be asleep. That’s how she had described her fantasy to James. And those had been the words that had swayed him to give into her madness. Astra closed her eyes and tried to relax her limbs.
A fire still glowed in the fireplace, making her acutely aware of the light in the room. James would be able to see her clearly, but she could only sense him in sound and vague shape behind her closed eyelids.
He padded to the bed in what sounded like bare feet. Astra suspected that he only wore a robe and was naked beneath it, just like in her fantasy. As she had guessed, James was proving to be a man of his word. His weight settled on the bed beside her and a riot of nerves welled up in her but she forced herself to remain still, sleeping. Oh touching him in reality would be so much better than her fantasy, yet she sensed she must play her part to the end.
Even with her eyes closed, she knew he hovered above her, studying her. Her eyelids fluttered and her uneven breathing no doubt gave her away. Still, James remained silent. His weight lifted from the bed and she heard his footfalls heading away from her. Perhaps he had changed his mind. Should she call to him? Astra remained feigning sleep. If he had changed his mind, this would be easier, and if he hadn’t, well, this was the fantasy, wasn’t it?