Improper Pleasures (The Pleasure Series), page 20
Astra approached him where he stood with his back to the cold fireplace. “James, you must have misunderstood. What did he say?”
“I’ll not repeat it. Nor will he. I’ll make sure of that.”
“I don’t care! He can say whatever he likes, just don’t do this. Please don’t risk your life. You mean too much to me.” The emotion in her voice teetered on the verge of hysterical but she would gladly sob to keep him from making such a foolish mistake.
“I do care what people say about you.” James lit the candles lining the mantle, then turned to face her. Either her words or the desperation in her plea softened James’s stern demeanor. He strode toward her and took her into his arms. “I won’t tolerate Lark’s father spreading lies about her mother.”
Astra pulled out of his arms. “Lark’s father? What was said James? I need to know everything.” Lord Blackmore had been part of Trent’s set but she never thought of him as one to ruin lives for sport. She had been wrong to flaunt herself at the ball. Bring notice to herself. It was as though Trent used his friends to ruin her from the grave.
James must have noticed how pale she’d become. “He’ll never repeat it, Astra. I promise you that.”
“I must know what he said about Lark? Was he speaking to you or others?”
James gathered her clenched hands in his and kissed her knuckles. “He didn’t mention Lark or claim her as his own, if that’s what’s upsetting you so.”
She pulled her hands from his, not sure whether to be relieved or horrified. “Lord Blackmore is not Lark’s father. I hardly know the man.”
James cocked his head. “The way he looked at you…”
“He was watching Ivy. Not me. They were engaged and needless to say it ended badly.”
James paused, then nodded with an inner understanding that did not clear the matter up for Astra in the least. “He thought Ivy was my mistress, I think.” He sighed. “But all I saw was him coveting you, like every other man in the room and there was not a damn thing I could do about it.”
Apparently Astra’s plan to make herself desirable had backfired. Again. “Lark’s father is dead, James.”
“Don’t patronize me.”
Tired of all the havoc secrets had wreaked tonight, Astra smiled sadly. “There was only one man I wanted to look at me tonight. You. I suppose I went too far.”
“Retribution for Miss Bainbridge I assume.”
“No, I just wanted…I don’t know what I wanted. To be beautiful and young and have a second chance at a promising future. Or at least pretend I did for one night.”
“Our arrangement has been a mistake.” That his words were not a question hurt Astra more than she expected.
“No. Never. You have made me happy. Made me feel beautiful and treasured, and I suppose there is a price to be paid, but I’ll be damned if it’s with your life. You must call off the duel.”
“He publicly called a guest in my home a whore. I’m not going to ignore that.”
Astra gasped at James’s words, as if the insult had been toward her. She turned and faced the window, not wanting James to know how personally she took the blow. “Will he never forgive her? Must she live her life in shame, eternally ostracized from society?”
“I’m not going to let that happen to you.” He came up behind her, reading her thoughts, her horror.
“I will not let you sacrifice yourself because of my folly.” She turned to face him, her spine as straight as Ivy’s when she’d left the ball knowing full well her presence had ruined the evening, just as she’d feared. “I have put one man in an early grave. I will not do that to you.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that Trent Keane, Lowell’s brother is Lark’s father. Lowell married me after his brother’s death to save me from ruin and to give his niece their family name.”
James stared at her, stunned. The look of disappointment and shock stabbed her in the heart. “So you were in love with Lark’s father and he you.”
Astra rushed to him. “No. I suppose I fancied myself in love with him, but he never returned my feelings. Honestly, he hardly noticed me. I can see that now. But he was so dashing and I fear I read far too many romantic novels.”
“Apparently he took some notice of you.” James remained stiff, on guard, though he wrapped her in his arms and held her against his bare chest.
“My mother had hopes that I would become mistress of Eastlan. She had the same goal herself but had failed to lure the heir away from his arranged marriage to Lady Phillina. She encouraged my girlhood infatuation with Trent. He was older, bold, handsome. But also, very spoiled and arrogant. I see that now, I didn’t then.”
James brushed her hair out of her face, relaxed a bit against her. “And a bastard who lures virgins to their ruin.”
She laid her forehead against his chest. Oh how easy it would be to paint a different picture from the truth. A much more flattering version that no one was likely to dispute, but this night of disasters was caused by lies. She owed James the truth, no matter how it hurt.
She forced herself to meet James’s gaze. “I lured him. My mother took me to London for a ball. I had never had much of a coming out. She didn’t handle her funds from my father well but she looked upon this occasion as an investment in both our futures.”
Astra pulled out of James’s embrace, unable to face him while she told the rest of her sordid tale. “Lord Keane had recently passed on, unexpectedly leaving Trent with the title. My mother decked me out in the finest gown, hired someone to arrange my hair, borrowed jewels from Lord knows where. The results turned Trent’s head. At first he didn’t even recognize me as the skinny brat of his former tutor.”
“And he seduced you.” James came up behind her and laid his hands on her shoulders. “That hardly makes you the culprit. Women are allowed to be beautiful without being punished for it.”
Astra turned, forcing herself to meet his gaze. “Thank you. But I did more than let him seduce me. I went alone with him to his townhouse. Even suggested it. There was a candle by the bedside that I blew out when the deed was complete. A signal. As arranged, my mother arrived catching us in the buff, my virgin’s blood on his sheets.”
“And he died before the wedding was complete. You were lucky.”
“No,” Astra said, feeling a bit lighter and a bit more miserable. “He refused to marry me. Said I was frigid. Unfit for his bed. He would not wed himself to a cold fish, he had said. I was afraid I suppose. He was a little rough.”
“Stop,” James said. “I’ve heard enough.”
“No, I must finish.” Her determination and the steadiness of her voice spurned her on with a strange sensation of power. The more she poured out her secrets the more in control she felt. “Not only did he refuse to marry me, he told his friends of his conquest. I think some of them kept quiet because it was so unsporting. I was naive and obviously smitten, and worst of all poor with no family except for my mother to look after me. I retired to the country, miserable, sick to my stomach with humiliation, or so I thought.”
“You were with child,” James said, keeping his distance.
“A couple of months later, Trent was mauled by his tiger. By the time I received the news, I realized I was breeding. When Lowell came home to bury his brother”—she swallowed before she continued, realizing she could forgive herself for her mistake with Trent, but never for her treatment of his brother—“he had been taking the waters in Bath for his lung ailment. His health was improving but instead of staying there he felt he should return immediately. With no one else to turn to, I confided in him and he hastily married me. There was talk, but we led a quiet life in the country and the speculation faded. At worst everyone thought I married Lowell for his title.”
“Why do you blame yourself for ruining his life? Anyone would have done the same. I’m sure he was happy that he was in a position to give his brother’s child a name.”
“Yes, he was.” James’s kind words r
“Then you made his secret wish a reality.”
Astra shook her head. “I killed him.”
“You are mistaken.”
“He claimed he was happy we married. And I wanted to be his wife in every way.” She glanced up at James. “He wanted an heir. He never touched me while I was pregnant with Lark. I was miserable to be around and he was so kind. Giving me time to adjust. He treated me like the timid virgin I most definitely was not. After Lark was born, he courted me. Long walks, dinners alone, gifts. But I could never accept him as a lover. I thought of him as a brother. Though I would never refuse him, I prayed he would lose interest in consummating the marriage and, God help me, I was relieved when his health would take an abrupt turn for the worse from time to time.”
James kissed her forehead. “You can’t blame yourself for a man’s unstable health.”
“We went on like that for two years, James. Lowell struggling with miserable bouts of illness. Then slowly getting better, beginning his courting process all over again and then abruptly another turn for the worse. And each time I was grateful by the reprieve while cursing myself for my horrid selfishness. Lowell deserved so much better.”
“Astra,” James kissed her lightly on the lips, the cheek. “You can’t blame yourself. I’m sure your hesitation had nothing to do with his bouts of illness.”
Astra wanted to believe James. She had almost convinced herself of the same, but the consistency of Lowell’s episodes when they were on the verge of truly becoming man and wife was hard to dismiss as coincidence.
Now that Astra had revealed the worst of it, she felt drained. She turned and sank into a blue velvet high-backed chair, caught her breath and remembered her real purpose in coming tonight.
“So, you see why you must call off the duel?”
“That’s impossible.” James padded on bare feet to a highly polished chest of drawers devoid of clutter except for a silver tray topped with a cut crystal decanter and goblet. He poured two brandies, handed one to Astra, then sat in the matching chair across from her. “The man challenged me in public. And even if he didn’t, his insult deserves to be answered.”
Astra forced herself to sip the strong drink, hoping to calm her strained nerves. She choked on it instead. James leaned forward to offer assistance but she waved him away. “Ivy does not wish you to fight the duel. It will only make things worse for her. She wants the whole incident to be forgotten.”
“That’s not likely even if I call off the duel.” James took a gulp of his brandy. “I fear there might be others who misinterpreted Blackmore’s words and my reaction. Bainbridge suspects…” James rubbed his forehead. “He suspects we are involved.”
Astra laid her head against the chair, suddenly realizing that speculation on her relationship with James had been inevitable the moment she’d decided to stay in residence at Eastlan. “You did not dance with the Bainbridge girls I noticed. Shame on you.”
“I intended to.” James shrugged. “I was too preoccupied mooning over you in that damned dress. I fear I gave us away to more than Bainbridge.”
“It’s only suspicion.” Despite the disaster looming before them, Astra could not help but smile at James. She must be mad to still yearn for such scandalous proof of James’s affection. “With two unattached adults of the opposite sex living under the same roof there was bound to be speculation of something tawdry.” She dropped her gaze to the warm brown liquid pooled in her glass. Her whole scheme to maintain her place at Eastlan while remaining above reproach had been as misguided as her mother’s plan to marry Astra to Trent. “Lark, Mother and I will pay an extended visit to some friends in Kent. The rumors about us will be forgotten but I fear Ivy will bear the brunt of people’s ill will and malicious gossip.”
“What friends?” James jumped to his feet, tensing his shoulders and balling his fist, ready to do battle with an imaginary rival. “You never mentioned friends in Kent before. This friend wouldn’t happen to be a tall, good-looking man by the name of Roger, would it?”
“Roger? Do you mean Lord Chadwick? No, I was speaking of a cousin on my father’s side. I’m sure you were introduced. I had not seen her since my father’s funeral. To her good fortune she has recently married well and generously invited me to visit her estate for a long stay. She claims she’s quite lonely so far from home. I think it would be best.”
James strode before Astra’s chair. “I’m still fighting the duel.”
“I pray you do not, but either way, we have put ourselves under the magnifying glass and I think the only solution is for us to part for a while.”
He shook his head in denial, his deep frown tugging at her heart.
“For Lark more than myself.” Though she should not touch him again, she could not stand the desperate look in his gaze. She reached out and took his hand. “Lark must not be tainted by scandal if we hope for her to make a good marriage.”
“What shall I do without you? I’ll be eating my soup with my sorbet spoon.” James brought their joined hands to his lips.
“You were smashing tonight. Your rugged charm has beguiled them all and if you start eating soup with a sorbet spoon I’m sure it will be the new fashion.”
James pulled her up to stand, guided her against his body and looked into her face. “Are you ending it?”
She wrapped her arms around him and entwined her fingers behind his back. “I should, but I cannot. But I think a separation will do us both good. We have forgotten ourselves and our arrangement too many times.”
James stared down into her upturned hazel eyes and not for the first time tonight hated the so-called Arrangement. They were much more than an arrangement. Blackmore’s insults along with Bainbridge’s observation had forced James to realize the position he had put Astra in. He didn’t want her to go, though he knew hiding his feelings for Astra was getting nearly impossible. If they stayed together, it would no doubt lead to more speculation and rumor. But somehow letting her go away on her own seemed worse. She had confessed her deepest secret to him, her daughter’s true parentage, and he didn’t take that trust lightly.
Of course, there was one way to solve the problem, but he wasn’t ready to make a lifelong vow in a befuddled state of mind. Not to mention that he had to fight a bloody duel tomorrow. When he asked her to be his wife, it would be under better circumstances. And suddenly something he hadn’t known was in the back of his mind became a certainty. He’d never be able to walk away from Astra.
Instead of confessing things he’d yet to come to terms with, he held her tighter. “Stay with me tonight.”
She opened her mouth to answer and he could see the denial in her eyes. He covered her mouth with his, stopping her predicted reasonable objections. A moan tore from her throat. She returned his kiss with the same repressed need, turmoil and violent passion James had struggled with all night. He opened her robe and cupped her breast, massaging her nipple through the thin silk until she leaned into his palm. Too ready to guide her to the floor and take her on the carpet, James swooped her into his arms and carried her to the bed, kissing her senseless all the while.
He could do this every night. There was no reason they couldn’t marry.
James laid her on the bed, shed his breeches and crawled beside her. She, just as eager, yanked off her nightgown. James paused to stare at her, her nipples straining, her skin flushed, her blonde hair trailed around her pale shoulders. In that moment, she was all he ever wanted and all he thought he might ever want.
He covered her soft inviting curves with the press of his bo
Her tight warmth wrapped around him, snatching his breath with a jolt of unbridled pleasure. He rocked against her in a melding of body and soul. When he made love to Astra, when he took her like this, there was no conflict, no social moray, just two souls coming together in perfect, mind-numbing harmony.
His body took over and he forgot everything but the feel of Astra wrapped around him, clutching him hard on each withdrawal. The first serious clench of her body caught him off guard and he moaned at the intense sensation of Astra’s release. He should pull out, but all he wanted to do was plunge deeper. His balls tightened and he knew he had to fight the urge to ride Astra’s orgasm. His mind rebelled against his traitorous body, but he couldn’t let go of her. As his orgasm unleashed low in his belly, he surged into her more deeply. She seemed to grip him even harder with her inner muscles. He shuddered and spilled himself in her tight body with wracking shudders, groaning like a beast.
A knock sounded on the door. Astra shoved him off her with more force than he thought her capable of and sat bolt upright, still panting for breath.
“James?” said a shaky feminine voice.
Shit, it was Lady Phillina.
“James,” she called again. “I am sorry to wake you but we have a situation that requires your assistance.”
Damnation but Lady Phillina was in his sitting room directly outside his bedroom door. James swung off the bed, he tossed Astra her nightgown which she used to wipe evidence of their carnal exchange from her thighs. Still, her cheeks were flushed, her hair tousled beyond hope. If Lady Phillina saw her now, they were doomed. “The back stairs,” he said quickly, sure she would understand that she should use the servants stairs as an escape as soon as he could drag Lady Phillina into the hall. He found his breeches and pulled them on.