Improper Pleasures (The Pleasure Series), page 26
James grabbed her wrists and pulled her arms over her head, pinning her beneath him.
“Not yet. I need to taste you to know you’re real,” he said in a husky voice that was another rough caress.
Astra turned to warm honey at his words. James kissed a trail down her neck and quickly found her nipple. She cried out when he sucked her with passionate abandon. Her body tightened and she knew she would tumble over the edge if he didn’t stop.
“James, please, make love to me.”
He continued his slow torture, ignoring her desperate plea. His only concession to her obvious need was to slip a finger easily inside her. Her slick passage clenched at the second finger. She bucked against him, riding the sweet feel of him. Only a few thrusts of his hand, forced her to cry out, unable to stop her intense spasms of release.
James didn’t slow his rhythmic manipulations, instead increased them, giving her no chance to recover. He removed his hand abruptly.
“You’re way ahead of me, woman. But not for long.” He guided himself to her entrance and slid inside her in one fierce stroke. In her highly-aroused state, her body immediately clenched around his thick shaft, poised to come immediately undone a second time. Astra gripped his shoulders, trying to stave off the acute pleasure of his fullness. He panted near her ear as he rocked against her in short serious thrusts. Not fully recovered from her first orgasm, Astra’s body tightened and convulsed against her will. He must have felt it because he gasped.
“God, you’re killing me.” He rasped, then groaned and shuddered as he filled her with his seed.
Her own breathing ragged, she held him, comforting them both, the connection between them solid, hot and unbreakable. He gently kissed her forehead, her cheek, her eyelids.
“I love you,” he whispered huskily.
Astra tensed beneath him, not sure that she heard him correctly. He braced himself on his forearms, staring into her face. She searched his gaze. The flickering candlelight cast deceptive shadows, making her believe he had said what she thought she had heard.
He grinned. “The appropriate response is “I love you, too.”
“James,” she began.
“Admittedly, you were well within your right to remind me of that a few days ago, but I’ve had a lot to contend with and—”
“There’s an account in my name for twenty thousand pounds. Wesley funded it with money he stole from Eastlan.” She sighed. “And you.”
James did not flinch. He hardly moved a muscle. “How long have you known about the account?”
“Wesley told me yesterday. But that’s not the real reason why you fired him, is it?”
“What do you know, Astra?”
The way he said the words chilled her. She could see a muscle flex in his jaw. He held her pinned beneath him, his body powerfully pressing into hers. Though he was still inside her, she felt him soften. The fire between them cooled with his sated lust. The forearm he braced beside her head tensed, the motion pulling her hair that he had trapped there.
She swallowed, frightened by the seriousness in his eyes. “I know that Wesley lost his position because of his affection for me.”
“And do you return that affection?”
“Yes!” she yelled, suddenly finding her voice and her strength. “I return Wesley’s affection deeply but not in kind. I never meant for him to become romantically attached to me, though I knew it was there.” She sucked in a deep breath. “I used Wesley to secure my own ends. To lean on when I had no one else. I valued his friendship and in return I let him destroy himself as a sacrifice to his unrequited love. But I did not do that to you, James, no matter what you believe. In fact, I have betrayed my dearest, oldest friend. I’ve handed you the evidence you need to send Wesley to prison, maybe even hang. I have not even allowed him enough time to leave England as he asked. What he did, he did for me. He took money from your rents to provide my inheritance, something which is due me, by the way.”
She paused to take a breath and realized James had risen, allowing her freedom of movement. He hovered over her on his hands and knees.
“Which you no longer needed once you married me.”
“Yes, exactly.” His making her point for her momentarily set her off balance. She lifted herself onto her elbows to study him, seeing what he was up to. His smug smile spurred unexpected anger. “Oh, we aren’t going to bring that up again, are we? I can only say I’m sorry so many times.”
His grin widened. “I like it when you turn feisty.”
She pressed her hand against her forehead and fell back onto the pillow, not allowing herself to forget her obligation to Wesley in the warmth of James’s teasing charm. “James, this is serious. Please don’t prosecute Wesley. I know you have the right to, and I don’t have the right to ask you not to. But he did it on my behalf.” She spoke to the shadows on the ceiling, unable to meet James’s gaze for fear she’d be deterred from what she must say on Wesley’s behalf.
“Wesley did not tell me of his plans to mislead you because he knew I would have none of it. You can have the money in my account. I begged him to give it all back plus anything else he might have taken. He does not trust you. Let me tell him you agree not to go to the authorities if he returns everything.” She pushed up on her elbows again to gauge his response.
“Tell him?” James had sat back on his knees, brushing his fingers through his loose hair. The hint of his usually light-hearted mood evaporated. “Do you have plans to see him again?”
“No, but I am sure he will be in touch with me eventually.”
“Come to me immediately if he tries to contact you again. Do not speak with him.”
She sighed. “James, do you not know that you and only you have, or have ever had, my love? I am grateful you are my husband. I pray that someday you will be happy with us.”
“I am happy with us.” He dropped his gaze, obviously contemplating something weighty before he glanced up at her, his earlier seriousness returning full force. “I suspect Hutton poisoned me on our wedding night.”
“James, you can’t be serious. I understand why you dislike Wesley, but, if anyone poisoned you on our wedding night, it was you. You were quite intoxicated.”
“No. I mean, I realize I was not the best judge of things that night and if it were that incident alone I would think nothing of it. But there have been other accidents.”
“Now you sound like you are talking about the Keane Curse.”
“I think Wesley Hutton is the Keane Curse.”
“That’s as silly as saying I caused Lowell’s bouts of sickness by my dread of becoming his wife.”
“Not if someone were poisoning him to ensure that happened.” His earnest gaze forced Astra to sit up.
“I would never—”
“Not you. Wesley.”
“Lowell was his dearest friend. They were more like brothers than Trent and Lowell ever were.” She tugged at the sheet trapped under his knees to cover herself.
“Wesley has been fanatically in love with you for years.” James didn’t budge.
“I cannot listen to this.” Astra covered her eyes with her hand to block out his serious gaze. “Lowell and Wesley were inseparable. Lowell wanted Wesley to inherit.”
“So he said.” James shifted, bracing his back against a thick post of the bed, obviously studying her reaction. “But English law is hard to change. Believe me, I did my best to work around it when I first arrived.”
“No, it was possible for Wesley to inherit.” Astra pulled the sheet over her breasts, piling pillows against the headboard to support her back. “Your father never responded to any of the inquiries from his family. They all assumed he had died long ago. We had no idea there were any other living male heirs. Wesley’s mother was a Keane before she married. Lowell petitioned the Crown so Wesley could inherit the title through his mother, your father’s sister. He even agreed to change his name to Keane.”
“Then he had even more reason to kill Lowell.” James
Astra shook her head. The idea that Lowell’s crippling bouts were not only intentional, but caused by the hands of his most trusted friend was unbearable. Arsenic? The whole conversation sent a clammy sweat over Astra’s hot skin.
“I discovered arsenic’s popularity in eliminating rich relatives when I recently paid a visit to a French chemist who specializes in testifying at murder trials for such things. He found my theory not only plausible but quite probable. He said that arsenic poisoning might explain why Lowell’s health would take sudden drastic turns every time he made progress in his recovery.”
“I don’t believe it. Do you have a shred of tangible proof?” Though, Astra also could not help but be struck by the eerie validity of James’s story. Perhaps she was not the cause of Lowell’s abrupt declines.
“Not at the moment, but if we exhumed Lowell’s body—”
“We are not digging up Lowell!” Astra abruptly jumped off the bed, sure she would be sick. She spied the chamber pot in the corner but instead strode to the window and opened it. The cool night air and deep breaths through her nose helped. She didn’t want to be sick in front of James for fear she would be unable to explain herself. If she only waited, he could not deny her pregnancy. Surely he realized he had not taken the precaution of pulling out before his release tonight or the night they were caught in bed together. My God, had not her schemes gotten her enough trouble? And then there was Wesley.
She turned to face James. “You can’t be serious. Lowell had weak lungs since childhood. He could have easily succumbed to the slightest cold. Wesley had virtual control of Eastlan as it were. Why would he do such a thing?”
James got up from the bed, grabbing an afghan draped across the chair in front of the fire. He wrapped it around Astra.
“You have goose bumps.” He eased her against his chest, cuddling her in his arms. “Seeing how Hutton didn’t know about me, he thought he would only inherit if Lowell never produced an heir. You aren’t the only one who noticed Lowell’s bouts coincided with his amorous attention toward you. Lark noticed as well.”
She tried to pull out of his arms. “You discussed this with Lark?”
“I am not a complete imbecile when it comes to children.” James kept her anchored against his warmth. “She was the one who came to me. She feared my obvious illness the day after our wedding had something to do with her spriggans.”
“She thinks everything has something to do with her spriggans.”
“I won’t discount her sincerity or her fears.” James squeezed her tight then loosened his grip to kiss the top of her head. “There are too many coincidences, Astra. I’m going to summon the French chemist and have him examine Lowell’s body. I know it will be difficult for you, but I will support you through it.”
“Please don’t do this.” She squeezed the arm he had wrapped around her. “Whatever it may have been, and I am positive it did not include murder, Wesley’s plan failed. He’s a broken man, James. Let him go. Do not pursue this further.”
“Are you forgetting that I’m the only one standing between Wesley and his dreams? You might not think him capable of murder, but I know he is.” James gripped her shoulders, turning her to face him. “This is serious, Astra. I have to worry about taking a drink from a decanter in my own home for fear it might be poisoned.” He shook his head. “I can see you still doubt me, so let me lay out my suspicions for you. Since I’ve been at Eastlan, I have had a broken saddle strap which resulted in my taking a tumble. Only my agile balance from spending so much time at sea saved me from breaking my neck. My bedroom fills with smoke while the door is mysteriously locked, and in light of other evidence, I think I was drugged first.”
Astra watched him pace around the room, his voice becoming more enthused. Clearly he was trying to convince himself as much as her.
“You are getting yourself overly excited. Perhaps we should sleep on it and discuss this in the morning. I’m quite tired.” Astra had begun to feel light-headed even though she had been forcing herself to eat little bits all day because of the baby. Still, her legs had become like warm marmalade.
“Then, there was the duel,” James continued. “I can’t blame that on Wesley, but I’d like to. My gut tells me otherwise, but I will give you the fact that my illness after our wedding night might have been self-induced. I refuse, however, to believe the stray shot that came very close to my head was a hunter, or Blackmore out for revenge, no matter what Sherriff Carter claims. I’d fired Wesley a few days earlier and his hatred was palpable.”
James stopped before her. “He’s been trying to kill me all along. Now he’s desperate. He’s dangerous, Astra.”
Astra stumbled to the closest place she could find and sank into the chair before she collapsed onto the floor. “Oh, James. I don’t believe any of this but things have changed. Wesley’s bound to give up when he hears the news.”
Astra cradled her head in her hand. “I’m carrying your child. Wesley would never harm me.” She raised her head, needing to look into his eyes. “Even if something befalls you, our child will now be the heir. Mother is absolutely positive that the child we conceived is a boy because the morning sickness came on suddenly and is worse than when I’d conceived with Lark.”
James stood stark still, stared as if she had cast lightning from her fingertips, like a god from some Greek legend, his nude masculine beauty captured in polished marble.
She lowered her head, not willing to see what came after stunned shock. She pressed her hand to her stomach, welcoming and acknowledging her child even if his father refused to. She tried to silently suck back the hot tears that slid across her cheeks.
A large warm hand closed around the one she laid in her lap. James brushed back her hair and then touched his lips to her cheek, kissing her sorrow away. “It will all be all right. You just take care of your little one. Forget everything I said.”
Your little one—not ours. “James,” she began but had to stop when tears choked her throat. What could she say to absolutely convince him that the child she carried could only be his? Even she had to admit that her reputation did not recommend her as one who could be trusted.
James brought her hand to his lips, he kissed her palm, then entwined their fingers. “I can’t bear to see you so distraught. There is nothing that can’t wait for another day. You need your rest.”
James helped her to her feet and guided her to his bed with a protective arm wrapped around her shoulders. He tucked her under the covers, blew out the candles and crawled in bed beside her. Once settled, he wrapped his arm around Astra’s waist and fit her snuggly against him. He sighed deeply, contentedly.
“I think this shall be my favorite part of having a wife.”
Astra closed her eyes tightly, willing her tears to leak silently from the corners of her eyes. James would misunderstand. She had no wish to disturb James’s rhythmic breathing, a signal that he’d quickly drifted off to sleep. Astra swore that this moment was worth all the others, both past and future. No doubt there would be plenty of opportunities in the days and weeks to come to consider all the obstacles to their temporary illusion of wedded bliss.
Astra paused under a trellis of climbing roses overwhelmed by the beauty of the fat blossoms. The flower’s yellow center spread into pink-tinged petals that reminded Astra of a summer sunrise. She tried to ignore the wonder of such a haphazardly placed miracle, but failed. Tears choked her throat and streamed down her cheeks before she could check her emotions. Perhaps her mother was correct in her insistence that Astra carried a boy. Every moment of the experience seemed so foreign from her time with Lark. Most especially the support and love from her baby’s father.
“Astra.” She heard her name called on the wind and immediately stiffened. All the things she had shoved out of her mind
Astra set down the basket of fresh cut flowers, then glanced back to the house several yards away. No one was about. James had barricaded himself in his study, determined to sort through the correspondence that had been left untouched since Wesley’s departure.
“Astra.” Wesley stepped out of the bushes again. “Please, I must speak with you.”
Astra laid down the shears next to the basket, dismissing the urge that she should carry them as a weapon. Her devotion to James had already betrayed her friendship to Wesley. She would not turn him into a villain to justify her choice. For too many years he had been her friend, her only companion during her self-imposed exile. Despite James’s request to avoid Wesley, she cut across the lush grass to meet him at the wild border. She would warn him that James knew of the secret account and be back to the house with her fresh cut flowers before anyone was the wiser. She could at least offer Wesley that small act of support.
The guilt she hoped to quell intensified with each step that brought her oldest friend into clarity. Never—not even as a toad-hunting lad—had she seen Wesley so disheveled. His usually neat hair hung in oily strands. It looked as though he had not bothered to bathe or shave in several days. The clothes he wore were the same she had seen him in last, with the addition of a worn overcoat that was two sizes too big. When she was almost upon him, he melted back into the thicket of green, knocking several full blooms to the ground in the process.
“You should not be here. I thought you said you were leaving Cornwall,” she said to the rhododendrons.
He parted the shrub and motioned for her to step over and behind it. She glanced back at the house one last time and did as he directed.