Improper Pleasures (The Pleasure Series), page 27
He settled a wide-brimmed hat on his head and she realized he had disguised himself as a common laborer. “I have been waiting for you all morning. Where have you been?”
She fumbled for an excuse as to why she had not gone into the garden to cut flowers for the breakfast table and Lady Phillina’s tray as was her custom. She could not tell Wesley that she and James had lay in bed together until the sun was decadently high in the sky.
“You should not be here at all,” she finally said in her defense. “James knows about the account in my name. I don’t know what he will do if he catches you on Eastlan’s grounds.”
Wesley cocked his head and studied her in a way that made Astra fidget. “But you don’t seem the worse for it. I assume he did not blame you.”
“No, he is quite upset with you, Wesley.” She took a deep breath and tried not to imagine the accusations James had claimed regarding Lowell to be true. Nor would she insult Wesley by repeating them.
“You look well. Rested.” Wesley regarded her with too critical of an eye, causing Astra to blush. “I suppose you think you are happy with the way things have arranged themselves.”
“I told you before that I married James because I love him. We have some misunderstandings to settle yet but I think we will indeed be happy together.” Astra had awakened in James’s bed to the late morning light, tea and a warm scone on the table beside the bed. After her revelation, James refused to continue their conversation about Wesley. Nor did he question her on her child’s parentage and for that she was eternally grateful.
“I wish I did not have to be the one to shatter your illusion, but unfortunately, I desperately need your help. Not everyone who has fallen victim to James Keane has fared as well as you.”
“I shall only help you if you return everything you took from Eastlan and James. You shall leave the country, perhaps live in Greece for a bit. You’ve always claimed to love it there.” She reached out her hand to Wesley. “Not forever, of course, but only until I can smooth things out with James.”
He squeezed her hand, smiled then released it. “You have too much faith in his generosity. Things have changed irrevocably. I will never be able to live in peace as long as James Keane is baron of Eastlan.”
Astra sighed, knowing Wesley was right. “You have been a constant friend to me, Wesley. I cannot bear the idea of never seeing you again, but it would hurt me worse to see you thrown into prison.”
“I will always be your loyal servant, Astra. Which is part of the reason why I have come to Eastlan, despite the jeopardy I have put myself in. Better you should know this now. Melva is carrying James’s child.”
Astra clutched her stomach. Wesley’s words jolted her with the same intensity of a physical blow. She instantly wanted to question the validity of Wesley’s claim, but simultaneously thought her friend would not lie to her. Her instinct was not to believe the unthinkable, but just as quickly doubts crept in about her own ability to know and trust others, something she certainly hadn’t been good at in the past. She had made so many mistakes in her lifetime, had she made another?
Her mind spun with the possibilities as she tried her best to sort things out quickly, but her thoughts grew more jumbled and she felt even more confused. Her pregnancy seemed to have affected her ability to think lately. Was that it? Or had she been fooling herself all along?
She rubbed her forehead as one clear thought formed: how could Melva even be sure the child belonged to James? But, Astra stopped herself, knowing too well what it felt like to be doubted. A woman knows. And besides, James had not interrogated her last night though she had anticipated such.
Wesley touched her shoulder as if to steady her. “I am sorry. This must be painful, but I knew you of all people would understand her desperation.”
“She came to you?” was all Astra could get past her dry throat.
“She had no one else. I was packing my things to leave England when she stumbled upon me. She fears she will be forced to leave Cornwall. She’s threatened to take her own life.”
“Does James know?” Astra suddenly feared the possibility that his lack of reaction last night could have had something to do with the fact that he had grown accustomed to women informing him that they carried his child. Or were her growing doubts simply silly delusions?
“Oh, yes, your husband is well aware that his mistress is with child, which is why she is so distraught. He wants Melva to go to London and have someone eliminate the complication. When she refused, she swore he slipped something in her drink to poison her.”
“James would never do anything like that.” The words came quickly, but the eerily familiar tale weakened Astra’s knees.
“You know the man better than I.” Wesley shrugged. “Perhaps her distress is causing her to imagine things, but I do fear she will do something horrible to herself. I want you to speak to her.”
“Me?” More than anything Astra yearned to escape behind Eastlan’s walls and for a few more days believe there were fairytale endings for women like her. Women who had made mistakes, who had been scarred by tragedy and heartache.
“I am worried for Melva’s well-being, both mentally and physically, not to mention the health of her innocent child. As you said, I must leave the country. I can’t look after her and she needs a friend. She is ashamed to tell her mother or sisters.”
“But surely she does not wish to speak with me of all people. I am James’s wife.”
“That’s exactly why she must speak with you. Who else will personally assure her that you will force James to provide for her and see to it that she is not abandoned in London?”
“I must speak to James about this. Immediately.” Astra had been for sweeping all that stood between them under the rug when it suited her. Perhaps James had been just as eager to ignore their differences because he also had a secret. Ironically, they were both unexpected pregnancies. Even though it added to her pain, she found she could not help but wonder if James had invented his wild stories about Wesley last night to discredit him, so as to cover for James’s own misdeeds. She hated to think so, but she had to consider the possibility. Astra turned to head for the house, determined to have her speculations answered by James himself.
Wesley grabbed her arm, halting her. “Please, Astra. I can’t leave England in good conscience with Melva in such dire straits. James no doubt has the sheriff on the hunt for me. I know you think this should not fall upon you, but in truth, you do have some sway over him. Perhaps as much as I hate to admit it, he does love you. He certainly seems to.”
Astra paused, relishing Wesley’s words and knowing they cost him dearly. Much of her anger melted away. Easily, Astra could be the one in Melva’s situation—and in fact had been the one in Melva’s situation.
“I shall talk to her and assure her that neither she nor her child will be abandoned.” Unfortunately, arrangements such as Melva’s were not uncommon. Many aristocrats had their illegitimate children on their estates. Astra’s fairytale would indeed be tarnished, but childish stories consisted of wishes and daydreams, did they not? Real life had warts and frogs that could not be transformed into princes no matter how much kissing had been done.
“Wonderful.” Wesley’s tug on Astra’s arm snapped her out of her self-pitying thoughts. “Come with me and you can be back in an hour.”
“I cannot leave now. Tell me where to find her, and I’ll visit tomorrow.”
“No, I can’t leave the country until I am certain she is taken care of.”
“Fine, then I will go immediately. Just let me tell Lark’s nanny that I will be away for awhile.”
Wesley refused to release his grip at her not-so-subtle yanks to retrieve her arm. “No, come with me now. James will become suspicious if you reveal you intend to slip away for an undisclosed purpose. The man has an otherworldly sense of survival. I cannot risk it.”
“No, he is occupied elsewhere at the moment.” Astra secretly wanted James to stop her, let him deal with this debac
“Oh, it’s not far. Melva is at a place where she and James met on Eastlan’s grounds. It’s a bit overgrown. You’d miss it if you weren’t looking for it.”
Astra immediately envisioned the gazebo and her heart froze.
She nodded, then followed Wesley, fearing she knew exactly where he was taking her. She felt a crack in her heart and feared the worst. Perhaps it was indeed time to open her eyes.
James finally broke the seal on the letter from Bainbridge, unable to put it off a moment longer. The correspondence accumulated at his brief absence had taken him all day to go through. At least Wesley had done something for his pay. He probably sorted through the posts before he did anything else and snagged any incriminating evidence.
James figured Wesley could have taken Bainbridge’s letter as well, apparently penned before James’s signature on the parish books had dried. James scanned the letter, skipping over the congratulations on his nuptials and honed in on the passage beginning with: “It is with much regret…” Bainbridge had suddenly discovered that he had diversified his interests too widely and would have to withdraw his support from the shipping venture.
James balled the letter and tossed it on top of the rest of the discarded correspondence. Of course, he could take Astra’s twenty thousand pounds and start his own shipping venture, but with a baby on the way, all that seemed too risky. The Americans had yet to have luck in convincing the British to unrestricted trade with their former colony despite the mutual benefits. James thought having a foot in both worlds would allow him to bypass the restrictions. Perhaps his wishful thinking simply proved him to be a fool, and that he had no head for business. Maybe his father had been right about him all along.
His plans to establish himself in England had succeeded too well, it seemed. Now he could not just sail off to America leaving a wife and child at home. Things were more complicated—for one, he had to make Eastlan strong for his heir. Astra suspected she carried a boy and the idea both frightened and awed him. James would do everything in his power to build a strong holding to hand down to his son. Never could he have imagined that a plot of dirt, a substantial one mind you, could have so much pull on his wandering spirit. He had a home now and there was nowhere else to go.
Glancing out the window he was surprised to discover that the bright afternoon had started to dim. Astra had promised to bring tea and scones to his study to keep him from drowning in correspondence. In fact, he’d been looking forward to the encounter all day. What had happened? His heartbeat began to quicken.
James stood, needing to find Astra. Though he justified his reasons, he still felt guilty for being so harsh to her these last few days. If he’d known of her condition—well, if he’d known of her condition he would have felt even more blindsided and trapped. Now that he had accepted his fate, he was determined to see that Astra remained calm and rested during the length of her pregnancy. His eldest sister had miscarried her first child and almost lost her life. James had been home from a voyage and had been the one to find her soaked in blood. The idea of discovering Astra in that state terrified him.
He paused at the closed door. A folded note blocked his exit. He had instructed both Mr. Rudd and the butler that he was not to be disturbed for the entirety of the afternoon, especially by tradesmen delivering unpaid bills. The note was addressed to Lord Keane in an awkward, almost childish script he did not recognize. The note was sealed with red wax absent of a personal insignia.
“Excuse me, James. Do you have a moment?”
James looked up to see Lady Phillina making her way down the hall without the use of her cane. James stuffed the note in his pocket. He’d dealt with enough correspondence for one day.
He rushed to Lady Phillina’s side and took her arm to support her, saying, “Have you seen Astra? I fear she isn’t feeling well.”
James had the sudden urge to blurt out that he was to be a father, but he sensed the news should come from Astra. The idea of announcing that he, James Keane, was to become a father gave him a surprising surge of pride and joy. The feeling overwhelmed him.
Lady Phillina gasped. “You know about the baby! I can tell by the look on your face. Oh, James, you seem happy. Are you?”
James shrugged letting his grin break past his recently forced restraint. His dreams of a fleet of ships had been small in comparison to what he now possessed. He might not have as much coin as he’d hoped, but he was richer than he ever expected to be. He had a wife, a child on the way, and an estate that he had grown to love despite the tremendous amount of care it needed. He had a family. A home. A safe haven that no one could capture or destroy.
“How could I not be?” James narrowed his gaze, giving his aunt a playfully scolding look. “I just wish I wasn’t the last to know.”
“Astra wanted to be sure and… Oh dear, I am intruding again. Forgive me. Still, I feel I must speak with you in private about a very delicate matter.”
“Of course, Aunt Phillina, you may speak with me about anything.” James guided Lady Phillina to the sitting room to a chair near a window overlooking Eastlan’s grand front lawn. He wondered how many delicate matters this woman had. She settled in the overstuffed chair, clasped her hands in her lap, then bowed her head in serious contemplation of what she intended to say.
James collapsed in the matching chair opposite the one where she sat. He was definitely not in the mood for any more complications. His heavy sigh caught her attention.
“Oh dear, it’s not that bad. I hope my confessions will set everything right.”
“Confession?” James tensed. Not another one.
“Well, I’m pleased Astra told you about the baby. I did not want to be the one to spoil her surprise, but I am no fool. It is clear she has been upset since the wedding and blaming herself unfairly for things that were beyond her control. I feared for not only her health but that of the child’s.”
“I can assure you, she’ll not be further troubled if I have anything to do with it. I admit I was upset at first, but I wasn’t expecting to be dragged to the altar.” James cleared his throat, hating that he sounded defensive.
“You two were having marital relations, were you not? What did you expect?”
James was sure he blushed. “Point taken. I would have liked to propose to her by myself in my own good time. Considering the current circumstance, I can see why that wasn’t possible.”
“And would you have proposed? I was unaware of the extenuating circumstance when I agreed to Lynette’s scheme, as were you.”
“You were in bed with Lady Seabrook!” James bolted to his feet, shocked at the manipulation of the two older women. Well, perhaps not Lady Seabrook… But dear, sweet, Lady Phillina?
“Well, we would not have been successful if you also were not in bed with someone you should not have been.” Lady Phillina gripped her shawl and pulled it snuggly around her.
James slowly sat back down. “Perhaps, but I was not plotting the downfall—” Lady Phillina’s sharp gaze forced James to swallow his words and change his course. “I like to think I would have done the right thing by Astra eventually. I do love her, you know.”
Lady Phillina pressed her hand to her heart and appeared to almost swoon in her relief. “I did not know, but I so hoped you did. I have been wrong about these things before.”
“You mean Astra’s relationship with Lowell.” James forged ahead, hoping he might have an opportunity to discuss what exactly did happen to Lowell. With Astra’s condition, a murder trial seemed out of the question. He couldn’t and wouldn’t drag those painful memories up for public consumption when Astra was so vulnerable.
“No, Lowell and Astra did love each other, though not with the same passion you two have.
James shifted. Astra would be devastated if he accidentally revealed her secret to Lady Phillina, but he was interested to discover what the elder Lady Keane already knew.
“Yes, I think I heard Astra had a girlish infatuation with him at one time.”
Lady Phillina stared at James, her light brown eyes alight with a directness that made them clear and bright. “I know Lark is my elder son’s child. And I could not love my granddaughter more. I fear I always had a soft spot for Trent. Unfortunately, it took my breaking Astra’s heart to discover that I also had a blind spot where my first born was concerned as well.”
“You didn’t break Astra’s heart, that bas—” James shook his head. “I’m sorry. I don’t wish to speak ill of the dead but Trent was the one who hurt Astra.”
“Perhaps, but he had a helping hand. I wish I could lay the blame solely on Lady Seabrook but I was the one who devised the plan to catch Trent with Astra in his townhouse in London. I even financed her journey and her wardrobe. I hadn’t an inkling that Trent could be so cruel.” Lady Phillina gasped and clutched her mouth. She closed her eyes and James could see tears in the corners. “That is a lie. You see, I cannot even tell the truth about Trent even when I desperately want to.”
James frantically searched his pockets for a handkerchief but came up empty. With a household full of women, he’d better ask Mr. Rudd to make that a part of his daily wardrobe.
“My eldest son was always spoiled.” Lady Phillina sniffed and clenched her jaw in obvious determination to speak her mind. “When my husband passed away unexpectedly, I was eager for Trent to settle down and take the reins of the family holdings. Instead, he just used his title and power to amuse himself with debauchery in London. Outlandish spending, gambling. The rumors reached me all the way in Cornwall. I hoped a wife would settle him down.”
“So you chose Astra.”