Improper Pleasures (The Pleasure Series), page 7
“I’m hardly out of mourning.” Astra smoothed her dove grey skirt. “But Lord Keane has agreed to allow Lady Phillina to remain at Eastlan. She hasn’t been well for some years and Lowell’s passing added to the strain. I feel I must stay on for her sake as well as the integrity of the Keane family name.”
Ivy nodded. “You were always the smart one, Astra. I wish a bit of your caution had rubbed off on me. You are wise to keep your eyes on the family reputation. A young scoundrel like the new lord could cause quite a scandal which might harm Lark’s prospects for a smart match. Even London is becoming puritanical again.”
“James is not a scoundrel.” Astra glanced up to find Ivy’s curious gaze and astute smirk leveled upon her. Though Astra had thought James a reprobate a mere few days ago, her attitude had softened considerably. “He has been quite unexpected in every way. And yes, I’ll admit he is terribly attractive.”
“Do I see a love match afoot?”
Astra’s smile faded. In all her secret desires for James, love never came into it. “No, I would not fall into such a folly twice. I have a daughter whose future I must ensure.”
Ivy set her cup down. “We were both full of foolish dreams back then. I’m sorry yours did not work the way you intended.”
“Or yours.” Astra found the courage to meet Ivy’s wistful gaze.
Ivy waved her hand in dismissal. “I made my choice and received all that was promised to me. I have no regrets.”
“Not even that your duke intends to marry another?” Though Ivy didn’t seem the least bit offended, Astra felt her face heat. “I’m sorry but I should not listen to gossip. My mother hasn’t changed. Even with my being secluded in the country, I can’t escape her.”
“Rumor rarely encompasses the whole story.” Ivy picked up the tea pot and refilled her cup. “But I am glad that you asked outright instead of whispering behind my back.”
“I’d never! I only asked because…” Astra stopped herself from confessing her growing obsession with James. When Ivy gestured with the tea pot, Astra shook her head though she held her cup and saucer tightly, a barrier to the direction of their conversation.
“You are considering becoming his mistress?” Ivy sat up straighter, appearing a bit stunned for the first time in their acquaintance.
Astra thought to deny that she would consider such a thing, but she had come here for information and she would not find a better opportunity to secure it. “My mother suggested I might.”
Ivy shook her head. “When did you begin to honor Lady Seabrook’s advice?”
“When it suits my own desires. I am intrigued by James. Actually, the feeling is mutual.” Astra’s heart raced, but the accompanying tightness in her throat eased with her confession.
“If you are saying you have developed an attachment for him, I highly recommend that you do not become his mistress.” Ivy sat forward, her serious direct gaze unnerving. “What could you possible gain by compromising yourself so?”
Astra settled cup to saucer without a single rattle. If she could ever be honest about her interest in James, it would be with Ivy. “As you said, he is very handsome. And my husband Lowell, well, he was all one would want in a provider and devoted husband, but I do not intend to marry again. The idea of spending all one’s nights alone seems unbearable.”
“I understand. A healthy bank account does not meet all of one’s needs. But it helps. And James has suggested you share his bed? How convenient.” Ivy sat back in her wicker chair and huffed. “What does he intend to give you in return?”
“It was my idea. I mean, it is not an idea really. He has no knowledge of my secret wish to share his bed.” Astra almost stumbled on her last word, but Ivy’s frank regard stopped her from behaving like a silly schoolgirl. “In fact, he has promised to control his urges toward me.”
Ivy tapped her chin. “So there is a strong attraction between you two?”
“Unbearable, really.” Astra had to abandon her saucer to the table. Her hands had begun to tremble and a flush spread across her chest.
“Then do not become intimately involved. Move out of Eastlan, set up your own life and find a discreet lover who does not stir you as this man does. Immediately.”
Astra straightened in her chair, stunned by Ivy’s advice and shocked that she was so inwardly deflated by it. Belatedly, Astra realized she had wanted nothing but encouragement for her wicked desire and Ivy would be the only source from which she would likely receive it. Except for her mother, of course, but Astra wanted support from someone she could trust. “So you regret your choice. Are you so miserable?”
Ivy shook her head. “I had no choice, Astra. You do. Forget James Keane. Collect your inheritance and build your own household. Take Lady Phillina with you if you do not wish to leave her. And find a generous lover immediately. Do not become involved foolishly with a man who you not only share a residence with but a surname. It will be too complicated. The relationship of a mistress and her paramour is a contractual affair where both parties know what they are to gain from the union in advance. The heart should never be involved.”
“Thank you for your honesty.” Astra stood. “I should be on my way. Lark and I visit Lady Phillina in the afternoons. May I come again?”
Ivy also stood. “I don’t think that would be wise.”
Astra nodded, knowing Ivy was correct on both counts. Not only must she give up a true friend for respectability and the bitter old matrons of the church, she must relinquish all thoughts of James Keane. She’d been right to visit her friend and she’d be right to heed her advice.
Astra arrived home to find both Lark and Lady Phillina napping. Apparently Lark had spent the morning frolicking in the garden until she’d nearly collapsed with exhaustion and Lady Phillina had similarly fallen asleep amongst a pile of her neglected correspondence. Still troubled by her conversation with Ivy, she wandered into the parlor, searching for a book she had been reading a few days ago. In years to come, as Lark developed more of her own interests, Astra would have longer stretches of empty time without even the memories of an illicit affair to keep her company. She shook off the thought, hating how much her self-pitying musing reminded her of her mother’s logic.
She blinked away the halo of light created by a bank of windows to notice a man with his back to her, apparently lost in admiring the manicured lawn.
“May I be of assistance, sir?” She feared the man might be another creditor. Perhaps it was merely curiosity, but they had been inundated with craftsman and merchants as of late. For years, most had served Eastlan’s needs without ever coming to the estate and humbly inquiring to speak with Wesley or James.
The man turned abruptly, as if he’d been caught in something. He must have recognized Astra because he blushed and bowed. “Oh, pardon me, Lady Keane. I just came to welcome the new lord of Eastlan. Mr. Alister Bainbridge, at your service, madam. Hope I’m not intruding on your privacy. The butler directed me to this fine parlor while he went to see if the baron would receive the likes of me. Told me to wait here, though I said I’d be fine outside.” The man bowed again.
A quick survey showed his clothing to be as well cut as any from the finest tailor in London. He sported a waistcoat in spring green satin embroidered with a maroon thread, complimented by a suit of forest-green wool. His well-crafted boots would be the envy of any of the local gentry.
“We certainly could not leave you on the steps, Mr. Bainbridge. Forgive me. Have we met? I have been in mourning for so long, I fear I have forgotten half of my acquaintances.” Astra stepped forward, desperately hoping Mr. Bainbridge had not come to collect a bill, for, by the looks of him, she feared it would be an expensive one. Charming him definitely fell into her area of expertise and part of her purpose for staying on at Eastlan.
Mr. Bainbridge took her offered hand. The heavy gold signet ring on his finger was hard not to notice. A cursory observation showed the ring to be Mr. Bainbridge’s initials rather than a fa
“We have never had the pleasure of an introduction, Lady Keane, though I have seen you about the village a time or two. I always point you out to my daughters so they know to recognize a true lady when they see one, if you don’t mind me saying so. They will be so excited when I recount my lucky happenstance in making your acquaintance today.”
“You are too kind, Mr. Bainbridge. Lord Keane will be disappointed that he missed you. I shall tell him of your visit along with your regard.”
“That would be very kind of you indeed, Lady Keane. Very kind.” Mr. Bainbridge seemed as pleased with her hospitality as he would a reception from the new lord himself. Not that James would refuse this man. Quite the contrary, his good-natured welcome would no doubt be music to James’s ears. She wondered if perhaps Mr. Bainbridge knew this, and it was the reason for his visit to a man far above his social status.
Mr. Bainbridge reached in his pocket and retrieved a silver engraved case, producing a crisp linen card with black lettering. Instead of presenting it to Astra, he laid it on a polished table next to a porcelain vase of daffodils. He patted the card, almost superstitiously, then turned to Astra. “Perhaps our meeting will save me from making a blunder, Lady Keane. I thought to invite Lord Keane to my home at Rosemound.”
Astra nodded, suddenly knowing exactly who Mr. Bainbridge was. A year or so ago she had heard some talk about an obscenely wealthy tin merchant who had bought an estate two villages over. Astra had been too consumed with Lowell’s recent death to pay much attention to her mother’s rambling outrage. A social climber herself, Lady Seabrook did not care for other commoners scaling to her heights.
“Rosemound, how lovely. I used to visit there as a girl when Lady Piedmont owned the estate. Did you keep the gardens?”
“I’m proud to say I have and I have added a few antiquities of my own. If dinner is too forward, I would be honored if you or Lord Keane would care to visit the collection or stroll the hedge maze one sunny afternoon.”
“I will most definitely extend the invitation, Mr. Bainbridge.”
Mr. Bainbridge nodded. “I’ll be on my way, then. It has been an honor, Lady Keane.” He strode to the door then paused. “I would also like to extend my support to Lord Keane should he need it. Perhaps I assume too much for a lowly merchant to think he may be of service to one of Cornwall’s greatest nobility, but I have done quite well in the tin industry. I don’t pay attention to gossip for the most part, though the wife does, and she hears that the new lord, being from America and all, perhaps could use support from the local tradesmen.”
“I think Lord Keane will be quite pleased to hear of your support.” Astra paused, reconsidered her initial reaction, then decided she liked Mr. Bainbridge and that he could indeed lend James credibility with the local merchants, which could be helpful. “He so wants to do what is best for Eastlan and the community. And though I admire your discretion when it comes to any spreading rumors, I think it would not be out of place for you to say a kind word for Lord Keane now and again.”
“I would be honored, madam. I hope to have the chance to tell his lordship so in person. Oh, and you might want to tell him I have three lovely daughters who sing and play music like angels. And all of marriageable age with considerable dowries.” Mr. Bainbridge put his hand over his heart. “Of course, I don’t assume to make a match with such an esteemed family, but my wife is a dreamer. Thank you so much for your time, Lady Keane. Good day. I’ll show myself out.”
Mr. Bainbridge hurriedly put on his hat that sat askew due to his nervous mishandling and exited the parlor, perhaps suddenly realizing he had said too much. Or more likely, realizing he had said just enough.
Whatever the reason for his hasty departure, Astra was grateful. Mr. Bainbridge held the solution to James’s financial problems. Many nobles married commoners for their dowries. She prayed Mr. Bainbridge had no idea of James’s dilemma or he could start planning the nuptials immediately. James claimed he didn’t intend to marry, but he had already proven himself to be quite practical. The very idea of James bringing a bride to Eastlan speared Astra with anguish.
She wandered back to the chair that held her book. Only one rational plan came to mind as how to distract James from making another alliance. Though there was nothing rational about the heat that flushed her skin. Or the ache between her legs that forced her to shift, crossing her legs to quell a rush of forbidden lust.
Unfortunately, Astra Keane had no idea how to seduce a man.
Astra stood outside James’s lit study. He had missed dinner and she imagined all kinds of things that kept him away besides the estate’s business. Perhaps he had stumbled across Mr. Bainbridge and had spent the evening being mesmerized by his charming daughters. Astra firmly knocked on the closed door before she lost her nerve.
James abruptly opened it, forcing a gasp from Astra. He balanced a tray of dirty dishes in one hand and appeared just as startled as Astra at finding her in the doorway.
“I thought you might be O’Donald. I told him I’d bring the dishes to the kitchen myself. He didn’t seem taken with the idea.” He set the tray on a nearby table. “Is something wrong? It’s late.”
Oh, my. Astra had not planned this well. Seduction always seemed something to guard against. Now that she had decided to embrace the role of seducer, she had not a clue on how to proceed. She certainly couldn’t blurt out her intentions. Not that she knew exactly what they were. She would make a fool of herself if he rejected her. A fear that suddenly seemed a very real possibility.
He’d removed his coat and rolled up the sleeves of his linen shirt. The well-used fabric was open at the throat. Though he still wore a navy wool waistcoat, the garment only emphasized the broadness of his chest. He seemed to be examining her with the same attention to detail and Astra cringed on what he might be thinking. Her modest brown gown printed with pale pink flowers gripped her waist, making the most of her small breasts though the neckline was not nearly as low cut as the current style. The pearls she chose with the small gold cross now seemed entirely too prudish. Not that she imagined anything in her wardrobe suited her purpose tonight.
“I noticed you missed dinner, though now I see you were provided a meal.” Astra forced the awkward words past her dry throat.
“Yes. Cold beef and cheese. I didn’t wake you, did I?” His tone was not rude but far from welcoming. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his tan breeches and shifted, almost defensively.
Astra anxiously waited at the threshold, fearing he would not ask her in. “No, I was awake. I couldn’t sleep. I wondered if you’d made any progress with the estate.”
She stopped congratulating herself on her leading question when James’s face fell. He brushed his hand through his already mussed hair and turned away. “Things could be better. I’m going to have a drink. Can I offer you something?”
“A sherry would be wonderful. Perhaps that will make me drowsy.” Astra strolled into his study and she quietly closed the door behind her. She’d passed her first obstacle. They were alone together and she prayed nature would take its course.
“I rode to Devon this morning to meet with another landowner about innovations he’s made to his holdings.” He strode to a sideboard and rummaged through the bottles.
“That sounds promising.” Astra forced herself to sit in the same chair where she’d sat at their first meeting, but this time arranging her skirts and trying to appear relaxed. She wet her lips and attempted a seductive look.
“The man would not receive me. Though Lord Blackmore is a baron as well, he is also the heir to an earldom which apparently outranks me by quite a bit. It was a wasted day and a long ride.” He poured a thimbleful of sherry in a cut crystal glass, a much larger goblet of brandy for himself.
“James, you should have consulted me first. We could have sent a note ahead. Lord Blackmore is known to be eccentric.”
He handed Astra her drink, sinking down in the chair beside
“We can still right the situation. We will send notice and call on him formally.”
James took a big slug of his brandy. “Don’t send a note. I don’t need his help if he doesn’t want to give it. I’ll find another way.”
His voice held a little too much passion for the circumstance at hand. Her James had a fierce streak of pride. Her James. The possessive endearment sent a shiver of thrill across Astra’s skin that Ivy would no doubt frown upon. Though Astra had thoroughly convinced herself of the absolute necessity of becoming James’s mistress, a sensation that had nothing to do with logic sped her pulse.
Astra toyed with her necklace to avoid fanning the heat that had suffused her breasts and neck. “As you like, but perhaps you should consult me on people you wish to meet. The proper introductions are of the utmost importance.”
“I’ve ordered some books from London. I’ll teach myself and then Lord Blackmore will come asking me for advice.”
“But you shall not refuse him, as he did you?”
James’s gaze softened as if she had just discovered something secret about him. Astra suspected the mischievous grin that quickly followed was a ploy to cover a flash of vulnerability.
“No. I wouldn’t turn him away. Then I would not be able to gloat properly.”
“Not everyone in England is quick to shun you.” Astra spoke before she could stop herself. Although it worked to her advantage for James to believe he was an outsider, Astra found she had no desire to deceive him. “You had a visitor today by the name of Mr. Bainbridge.”
“Did he want me to pay a bill?”
“Not at all.” Astra’s laugh sounded a bit high pitched even to her own ears. “He came to lend you support, no less. Even invited you to dinner. Mr. Bainbridge is a wealthy tin merchant. He has quite the influence in Cornwall and I’d wager his prestige even extends to London.”