Improper Pleasures (The Pleasure Series), page 22
“Ten.” James heard the shot before he had turned completely around.
Blackmore hadn’t moved far. James didn’t think he had taken a single step. With the growing dawn, James could still see the haunted look in his eyes that Blackmore couldn’t drink away no matter how hard he tried.
“Fire,” Rudd shouted. “The bastard tried to shoot you in the back!”
Reverend Fitzgerald shook his head. “Put him out of his misery. I can’t watch.” He turned and walked to the horses tied in the distance.
All the anger left James. Blackmore was ruining his own life. Whatever Ivy had done, it wasn’t worth this.
James raised his pistol. Blackmore didn’t flinch. James shot his pistol into the air. “This is done between us.” James turned his back on Blackmore and walked to his horse. He needed to catch up with Fitzgerald and arrange a wedding.
Astra waited in the hall while the sheriff dined on a feast intended for a house full of overnight guests. A few were still asleep though most had departed to enjoy the extended round of entertainments provided by the Keane family. Though the family had stayed out of the limelight since Trent’s grizzly death, followed by Lowell’s hasty marriage to Astra, they currently lived up to their reputation for scandal. James’s argument with Blackmore on the occasion of his introduction to society, punctuated by a duel, certainly brought the Keanes to the forefront of conversation with a bang.
Bang. What a horridly inappropriate term. Astra covered her mouth fighting off another wave of nausea. She had to cease begging the portly sheriff to forget the basted eggs and fresh baked raspberry scones in order to search for James. He had not found James and Lord Blackmore behind The Cross Roads Tavern, the place the rumors claimed as the location of the duel. When she offered to pack him a basket for his search, he told her it was too late to stop them, and even if he did, aristocratic men had their own way of settling things.
To keep from slipping into hysterics, Astra forced herself to stop picturing James in a puddle of his own blood. Perhaps she should try to force down a cup of tea and a dry piece of toast to calm her frayed nerves. Just the thought tumbled her unstable stomach all over again. If anything happened to James it would be her hands stained with blood. Astra collapsed onto a padded bench and leaned her head between her knees.
The click of the door forced her upright in time to see James walking down the hall, looking fit and refreshed.
She stood, their gazes locked. The wary narrowing of his eyes stopped her from running to him.
“I’m so relieved to see you,” she said when she wanted to smother him with kisses and hold him until she was assured disaster had been avoided.
“Wouldn’t want to lose your groom on your wedding day.” His tone was light, almost playful but his words cut Astra to the quick.
“I would not want to lose you under any circumstances. You mean far too much to me.” Astra could not stop the catch of emotion in her voice though it didn’t soften his expression one bit.
“Yes, last night’s escapades made that quite clear.” James’s gaze drifted over her head studying something behind her.
The sheriff appeared, a half-eaten scone clutched in his hand, a napkin still tucked in his collar. “Thought that was you racing down the drive at a full gallop, my lord. What’s your hurry? Running from something? Murder perhaps?”
“I wanted to grab some of Cook’s fresh scones before they were all gone. I see you beat me to them. I don’t believe we’ve met?” James held his hand out to the other man.
“Sherriff Carter,” he said and switched his scone to the other hand, wiping his palm on his thigh before shaking hands with James. “So I guess it’s you I’m arresting and Blackmore that’s being buried.” The sheriff took another bite of his scone, apparently untroubled by the idea.
James shrugged, showing no signs of guilt, or even remorse. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Well, it seems you’re the only one in the county who doesn’t. There is a disappointed crowd at The Crossroads Inn. They decided to pass the morning drinking instead of watching two fools shoot each other.”
“I’ve been riding since dawn. As for Lord Blackmore, I’m sure he’s nursing a hangover.”
“And perhaps he’s nursing a pistol wound along with that hangover. I’ll be riding over there to check and then I’ll be back. Did you happen to see anyone who could verify your story?”
“Reverend Fitzgerald. He’s marrying Lady Keane and I today.”
The sheriff turned to Astra, his gaze wide. “She failed to mention that fact when she dragged me out of a cozy bed this morning. Is this true, Lady Keane?”
She glanced at James and his warning gaze almost made her unable to speak. “Well, I didn’t want a crowd at the church.”
Sherriff Carter looked from James to Astra. “If all’s as you say, then that will be the end of it. For future reference my lord, dueling is illegal in England. Congratulations on your upcoming nuptials. If you will excuse me, the cook just brought out some apple smoked ham.” He bowed and returned to the dining room off the main hall.
“I’m starving, but I suppose we have a few things to discuss first.” He glanced longingly at the direction the sheriff took, then directed her to his study.
Astra led the way, not sure what to make of James’s casual manner. Once in the study, he closed the door behind him and came around and sat at his desk, putting the large black-lacquered barrier between them.
“You don’t have to marry me,” she blurted, too nervous to take a seat.
“And look like a bigger ass than I already appear. I don’t think so.”
Astra forced herself to sit. “Why marry today? Did you talk to Fitzgerald or was that a ruse? Lord Blackmore is alive, is he not?”
“How kind of you to ask. I would say he’s well, but since you’ve met the man, you know that’s not the case. I can say, however, that at the moment he’s intact in body, if not spirit. We both missed.” James clasped his fingers and rested his chin on his knuckles. His direct blue gaze asked for something, but, what she couldn’t imagine.
“I would say I’m sorry, but I’m almost sure you would not believe me.”
“Unfortunately, I want to.” For a moment, James dropped his placid expression and dragged his fingers through his hair. He had deep circles under his eyes and hollows under his stubbled cheek. “But I’d be a fool to do so. Your record with men doesn’t serve you well.”
“I’m well aware of that and in no need of a reminder.” Astra clamped her lips, not wanting to cry. She forced a shaky breath. “Is there nothing I can do, or say?”
James stood and came around the desk. Astra hoped beyond reason for some softening in him, praying that he would take her in his arms and make everything all right.
“You can pull yourself together and act like you’re happy about the nuptials. No doubt we will have quite an audience.” He sat on the edge of the desk, studying her as if he suspected her theatrics false.
“Why today, James? How did you persuade Reverend Fitzgerald to agree to it?”
“That was quite easy. He was thrilled. Even rode out to have the bishop sign the special license. It seems the young reverend’s rather fond of your friend Ivy Templeton. Did you forget about her? She would have suffered far worse than anyone because of my very public argument with Blackmore.”
Astra wiped the tears from her puffy eyes and dabbed her runny nose with a delicate lace-edged handkerchief, a ridiculous choice considering the circumstances.
“Ivy understands. People are cruel.” Astra sniffed, hoping James took a hint from her last statement. His calm seemed rather cruel. At least if he yelled at her, she might be able to explain herself.
“Perhaps, but she won’t suffer because of my actions. Fitzgerald, and no doubt our hungry sheriff, will spread the word that the argument with Blackmore was a misunderstanding. I’ve been smitten with you, you see. Last night forced my hand. I was jeal
Astra stared into her drenched handkerchief, fighting to contain her heartache. How could he be so smug and amused by something that was tearing her apart?
“I do love you, James,” she whispered.
He stood and walked away, leaving no doubt that he dismissed her confession as not worth addressing.
“Anyone who heard last night’s fiasco—and I’m sure many did thanks to your wailing daughter and shrill mother—will understand how a newly engaged couple living under the same roof could no longer contain their smoldering passion. And being Godly and all that, we decided we must marry immediately. Everyone is happy and Ivy is exonerated.” He paced the room, his agitation finally creeping into his voice.
“Except for you. You’re not happy.”
James paused at the window, braced his hand on the frame and stared out at the lawn. “I hope I can be.”
Astra blinked, his words more than she expected. “What can I do? What do you want from me?”
He turned and leaned on the wall, several feet away from her. His tired eyes glistened with intense emotion, though his expression was stoic. “Never lie to me again.”
“I did not. I—”
He raised a hand to stop her. “You kept the truth about Lark’s father from me for far too long.”
She bowed her head unable to tell him that Lark’s welfare, protecting her reputation, was more important than Astra’s own happiness. She would do anything—but James already knew that. Even trapping a man into marrying her was fair game when it came to securing Lark’s future. She closed her eyes and nodded.
“Don’t push me. Don’t expect anything from me.” He shoved away from the window and settled behind his desk. “I’m going to need some time to put things in perspective. I was blindsided last night and feel the fool twice over for not seeing it coming.”
“Do you care for me still, at all?”
His gaze turned cold and hard. “Don’t ask me to reveal myself to you. I’ve done that enough already.” He rubbed his temples. “I have a splitting headache. I need to eat.”
Astra stood. “I shall bring you a plate”
“Don’t.” His words were harsh. “I don’t want you to grovel.”
“Then what do you want, James? I am sorry. I know you don’t want to hear it, but I am. I had no idea my mother would stoop to this kind of deplorable manipulation. But I should have, shouldn’t I? But to use Lark” Astra shook her head, suddenly deflated by her outburst and sheer exhaustion. “I should have known, though. I did not reveal our affair to my mother. That she hadn’t continued in her campaign to have me seduce you should have warned me that she already knew.”
James bowed his head. “Don’t ask for my forgiveness right now. I’m too confused. Too tired. I don’t want to say all is well in this moment, when I can’t be sure of it. Or my feelings.”
“As always, thank you for your honesty, James.” She sniffed, and wiped her dry, swollen eyes for good measure though she suspected she would not cry again for a very long time. She had no tears left. “Our guests will be up soon and I need to wash my face before I must face them.”
James followed her to the door. “Invite them all to stay and celebrate tonight. We are to meet Fitzgerald at the church in a few hours.”
“You can’t be serious.”
He paused at a side table, poured a brandy and slugged it back. “I’m quite serious.” He motioned to her with the glass. “Care for one to get your strength up?”
Astra clutched her stomach, eager to leave the room and either lie down or throw up. “No, thank you. I thought you would be the last person to want our guests to stay any longer than necessary.”
“That’s why I intend to let everyone know that this is a love match and I’m eager to spend some time alone with my wife. No one will have the nerve to stay past tomorrow. The bigger we make this, the quicker talk will die down. There will be nothing further to talk about.”
“You are a quick study.” She watched him, strong and confident in his tailored riding suit. The dark blue coat stretched across his broad shoulders as he poured the brandy in his glass with more force than necessary.
James tossed back the liquid in one gulp. “Not quick enough.”
Astra turned to go, almost feeling as if she were his partner in a lavish charade, but again he reminded her she was merely the villainess in a sordid drama. “I must check on Lark. She was sleeping when I woke and I want to make sure she’s calmed down.”
“Don’t look so sad when you tell her the good news.” James straightened and tugged on his wrinkled waistcoat. “And now, for the performance of my life. Luckily, you’ve taught me well.”
James held open the door. Astra stepped out of the study and practically stumbled upon a crowd of guests returning from an early morning ride, or more likely, a foiled dawn duel.
“Lord Keane, we heard the news. Bravo. You swooped up the beautiful widow before any of us got a chance at her.”
James grabbed the offered hand of a tall man whom Astra recognized, but at the moment was at a loss to name. “Couldn’t risk a handsome fellow like yourself stealing away the woman that I love. I couldn’t afford to wait another minute to ask Lady Keane to be my wife.” James grabbed Astra’s hand and kissed it.
Astra almost choked in an effort to find her voice. “Excuse me. This is all so overwhelming and I must find a gown to wear to my wedding.” Thankfully the party was entirely male and dismissed her with warm wishes, understanding the importance of a woman’s wedding day. They probably all thought she was distraught because she did not have time to order a new gown. Someone called for champagne and the men jostled a smiling James along to find food and libation.
Astra trudged up Eastlan’s grand staircase, her heart as heavy as her pounding head. Yes, she had taught James well. Too well. She would gladly trade her sophisticated, polished husband-to-be for the brash colonial who wore his feelings on his sleeve.
Astra turned away from the cracked mirror that hung in the church’s vestibule. The lavender gown she painstakingly chose for her wedding dress brought out the purple circles under her eyes and tinted her white pallor an unattractive shade of pale green. Astra shoved away her last thought before another round of perspiration sprouted on her upper lip.
“Astra, I understand you are nervous but you must calm yourself. Your powder is turning to cake.” Her mother approached Astra armed with a freshly dusted puff. Astra crossed the room to escape the assault.
“Enough powder. Nothing is going to disguise the fact that I have not slept since the night before last.” Or the fact she had been throwing up for the last hour.
“Some rouge then,” her mother returned the puff to the array of beauty aids she had strewn across a rough wood bench, her make-shift dressing table. “You are entirely too pale.”
“Of course I’m pale. James hates me thanks to your meddling,” snapped Astra. Her mother’s irritating good cheer broke through Astra’s numb state.
“He certainly does not hate you,” Lady Phillina said from a worn leather chair that must have been passed down through generations of rectors. “I think our James is happy to do the right thing by you, dear. He has been celebrating all morning with the guests. I’ve never seen him so jovial.”
Or drunk. Astra rested her forehead in her palm. Why she bothered to wear the dress James had admired all those weeks ago was beyond her. She’d be lucky if he could even stand for the ceremony.
“I agree with Lady Phillina, Astra.” Her mother gently patted Astra’s shoulder. “If he hated the idea, he wouldn’t have insisted on having the wedding today. Even I was shocked by his enthusiasm.”
“He doesn’t want to put off the inevitable, no matter
Her mother surprised her with a handful of creamy rouge she smeared across Astra’s cheek with her free hand. “If he thought it painful I doubt he would have insisted that Lark attend. She is so excited to walk down the aisle with her bouquet of flowers.”
Astra strode to the mirror, forced to look into her guilt-ridden eyes once more. She did her best to tame the red streaks across her cheeks. She kept her gaze above the modest neckline of her simple lavender gown. If she had any sense of justice, she would wear the low-cut green confection she had worn the night before, or better yet, borrow another gown from Ivy. A blood red one this time to suit the occasion.
Though she longed to, Astra was not brave enough for such theatrics. Her second and last excursion onto center stage had been more disastrous than the first. Nor would she make a spectacle of herself in front of Lark. Astra suspected James might be making such a production about the ceremony to punish her. And what better way than having Lark in attendance.
Having her daughter see her commit such a travesty in a house of God shamed Astra to the core. So many wrongs she had committed had been motivated by her desire to maintain appearances for her daughter’s sake. Now that she had succeeded so smashingly, she would take it all back to show her daughter what a marriage should be, could be.
For all Astra’s dreams of a stunning, secure marriage for her daughter, she suddenly realized that Lark would fair far better married to a man who truly loved her, for herself above everything. Anything else killed one’s soul day by day, little by little.
“Astra, dear, you’re frightening me. You look like you do not know yourself.”
Astra abruptly turned to find Lady Phillina standing by her side. Phillina pressed a hand against Astra’s cheek. “You are clammy. Are you ill? Perhaps we should postpone the wedding after all.”