Improper Pleasures (The Pleasure Series), page 9
Not that he could blame the men, who still held traces of the field on their clothes and weathered skin, for finding him suspect. Squeezed into his dandy red riding suit, James would have sneered at himself too. James understood it would take time for the locals to accept him, but he didn’t have that luxury. The longer he stayed the more difficult his lust for Astra would become. Before last night, he had compartmentalized his infatuation as inappropriate and something that wasn’t going to happen anywhere but in his overactive imagination. He had been accepting of that. But now… If he hadn’t been studying the accounts for the years of her marriage and her daughter’s birth, he might not have hesitated. Never mind that he’d been going over old ledgers that had nothing to do with their current problems but held secrets to Astra’s past.
A gaggle of women in coarse wool in varying shades of mud hid their whispers behind their loaded baskets as they walked past. A peel of high pitched laughter drifted behind them. Once he would have assumed his viral charm had melted the matronly group into girlish giggles. He kicked at a loose stone in the road and longed to return to Eastlan. He should have consulted Astra before he’d left the house. But he’d purposely avoided her, sneaking past the breakfast room where he heard her conversing with a laughing child, no doubt her daughter. Though he’d thought of little else last night, James still was not sure how he should react to her offer to be his mistress.
Of course, he knew what he wanted to do. He ached to accept Astra’s offer.
Really, why shouldn’t he take her as his mistress?
Because she was a decent woman. A widow with a child. A respectable woman whom he had no plans to marry. Though he thought his inheritance his just due for the hell he’d spent as a prisoner of war, his fight with the British didn’t extend to its people, most especially Astra.
Where was Wesley? James was finished with standing around, the object of everyone’s curiosity, and took off up the street.
A group of children gathered across the alley and openly stared. James turned to walk the other way, then quickly swiveled and yelled, “Boo!” in his loudest booming voice. A chorus of high-pitched squeals rained down on the sleepy village as the children scattered like leaves in a storm.
He reached his destination at the top of the cobblestone hill and there met a red-faced and flustered Wesley.
“There you are,” Wesley said as he pulled a white lace handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his brow. “Well, I did it. I convinced the men too shear our wool at the end of July, mid-August at the latest.”
James stopped. “Even I know that’s too late. Not only will the wool be molted, but the market will be glutted. No, we must harvest our wool sooner than later. We will hire another group of shearers.”
“But they will want to be paid up front, won’t they?” Wesley pressed two fingers to his lips, cutting off his outburst. “I am sorry. I am a bit frazzled. They wanted more money than usual.”
James studied his distant cousin. Wesley’s incompetence had seemed innocent enough up until now. For the first time, James suspected that Wesley was purposely misleading him.
“I’ll find a way to pay the men. The wool harvest is imperative.” James thought of borrowing money from his sister’s husband, but it would have to be money that could not be lost. He would not gamble with his sisters’ security. Of course, he could sell his ship but the idea of not having his escape at the ready caused a cold sweat beneath his wool riding jacket.
“Waiting and paying less will serve us better. A good shearer is worth his weight in gold. These men will give us a more productive harvest than a less skilled crew. Besides, it has been lean years in St. Keynes. These men have mouths to feed and I fear they have already been given a hefty advance to shear someone’s sheep before ours. We will be fine shearing in July.”
“How much do we charge in rent?” The village that supported his estate seemed far less affluent than her betters. The white-washed houses and thatched roofs had seen better days. Even the cobblestone beneath his feet appeared to be crumbling.
“A pittance. It barely covers the upkeep of Eastlan.”
James shook his head. “Something has to change, Wesley.” At this point, James was pretty sure it would be his steward.
“I am doing my best, James. Not to speak ill of the dead, but Lowell did not have his mind on the estate. And with the search for your father and then you, who had been trading abroad at his death, Eastlan was left without a master for almost two years.” Wesley seemed to shrug off his annoyance, leaving James to wonder if he had any idea he’d struck a nerve with his offhand comment. “But not to worry. We shall turn Eastlan around even if we must shear late in the season.”
“I wish to visit the rest of the tenants as soon as possible.” The harshness in his voice was directed at himself instead of Wesley. James and his father had disagreed on America’s independence, along with about everything else. That he hadn’t returned home when he got word that his father was ill still ate at James. Even so, he doubted they would have reconciled even if he had. Hell, James didn’t know anything about the man, including the fact he was in line for an English title. James shook off the unwanted realization and focused on the matter at hand. He knew how to handle a ship’s finances with a crew to pay and feed, storms to battle and shipments that spoil if not delivered on time. Eastlan couldn’t be that much different. He’d had his head buried in old accounts for too long. Better to get a feel for the place and replace Wesley as soon as possible.
“Of course. As I told you before, I was just giving them time to ready for your visit. An appearance by their master is quite an honor. They want to be at their best.”
Hating how little progress he’d made since his arrival, James studied the familiar ocean in the distance for comfort. Things were entirely too complicated with his supposed boon. But instead of Eastlan, the first thing that popped into his mind was Astra. He took a deep calming breath, and then another. The mere thought of last night stirred his groin and if he got hard in his tailored breeches it would be a disaster.
“I want to return to Eastlan.” If nothing else, he could read Astra. Her delicate features showed her every emotion. He needed to settle things between them so at least he could focus.
“As you wish. I thought we would visit a tavern with excellent local cuisine. But, you’re the baron.”
James dragged his gaze away from the weak ray of sun playing on the water and studied Wesley. Was that hostility in his voice? The curl of Wesley’s lips showed he was definitely put out.
“An ale and a piece of kidney pie on our way to the stables might be in order,” James conceded. He was famished and wouldn’t mind taking in more of the village. And perhaps he had better cool down a bit before confronting Astra.
Wesley seemed to brighten. “I know just the pub.”
They headed off down the street at a much slower pace than they’d arrived. James heard a faint snicker and glanced over his shoulder to see that the children he’d frightened had regrouped, but in greater number.
“Did you and Astra grow up together?” ventured James as casually as possible.
“We were inseparable—Lowell, Astra and I. Her father was our school master and your father’s, too, by the way. ”
“I thought Astra’s father was a baron.”
“That’s true, but before that, he was a school master, and again at the end of his life. He loved to teach. Even after he retired from the House of Commons.”
James rubbed his jaw. “I’m confused.”
“Astra’s father was given his barony for his service to the crown. The title died out with him, which was no surprise. Your barony’s different. Much better.”
“So Astra didn’t grow up on some big estate with a house full of servants?”
“No, Lord Seabrook was a simple man. He rented a manor house on the edge of the village and tutored local students until he married. But as it was, old Master Seabrook was lucky to have Astra. He must have bee
“That’s surprising.” Of what James thought he knew of Astra’s mother, she didn’t seem content to live on the outskirts of anything.
“Is it? He had just received his barony when the lady set her hooks on him. Pardon the pun. Her family are fishermen, but she cast her nets out for bigger fish. She was the village beauty after all.”
“And Astra? Did she do the same?” James recalled the entry in the ledgers about Astra’s marriage to Lowell shortly after his inheritance of the barony, not even a month after his brother’s death. The receipt from the wedding breakfast had proved it was a small affair, but the doctors brought up from Bath to attend to Lowell’s health had cost a small fortune.
“Astra doesn’t like her precarious situation any more than I do.” Wesley’s gaze drifted somewhere over James’s shoulder. “Scat. Be gone with you. Don’t you have chores to attend to?”
James heard the chorus of giggles, but no scampering of feet. “I think I’ve become their entertainment. I’m pretty good at a making a spectacle of myself. Watch.”
James slowly bent his knees, then abruptly whirled and lunged at the children with his arms spread wide. Instead of saying boo, he just growled. Their shrieks resulted in a ringing in his ears but the laughter that welled up in his chest was worth it.
When he turned back to Wesley, the man stood slack-jawed. “Oh, we’re going to hear about this.”
“I’ll make it up to them, don’t worry.” James strode down the street forcing Wesley to break into a trot to catch up.
“So tell me, does anyone marry for love in this country?” he asked.
“Only the foolish and usually those unions are disastrous.” Wesley slowed his pace and James hung back unable to continue to feign disinterest in their conversation.
“Well, let it be known I’ll only marry a woman who truly cares for me,” James said with a fierceness that surprised even him. Not having the means or the inclination, James hadn’t really considered that anyone would ever want him for anything other than his charming self. His father had married his mother for his grandfather’s mercantile business and the fact had always been painfully obvious.
Wesley pressed his handkerchief to his lips before he spoke. “Then I’m sorry for you because now that you’re a peer, you’re not likely get what you want. Or at least you’ll never know for sure.”
“I see. So I am now the county’s most eligible bachelor. Thank you for the warning.” James turned and headed back down the street. Once he came to a shop he had passed earlier, he ducked inside. He took his time with his purchases, including one of every flavor and color. He popped one of the sweets into his mouth. The red ones tasted of berries. Not bad.
He returned to the street to find Wesley had sunk onto a wooden bench outside the store. James’s band of young followers gathered across the way. A couple of tall boys and a cherubic-face girl half their size broke away from the rest and stood in the middle of the cobblestone street. They were getting braver. James was about to see how brave they really were. So far, he hadn’t found English children any different from their American counterparts. At least he didn’t have to be concerned about changing his behavior around them.
He stalked toward them and the boys stepped back. The girl held her ground. Maybe English females weren’t that different from American ones after all.
He held out his hand, palm open. “Who wants a sweet?”
The children descended on him like a hoard of swine at feeding time. Some things were universal. His next thought included matters of the flesh also being one of them.
He nodded to himself. If Astra still wanted to be his mistress, James knew he could not say no, no matter that he suspected it might lead to complications. He’d find a way to deal with them. As long as she knew that marriage was not in the cards for them and that he had a ship waiting to take him home the moment his work at Eastlan was complete, he would enjoy her offer.
With that settled, at least in his own mind, James laughed at the children’s groans of pleasure. Perhaps he just might miss this place a little bit after all.
James!” Astra rushed toward him the moment he strode past the large double doors leading into the marble entryway. Her face glowed with the same enthusiasm as the children who had taken all his candy and his breath hitched, surprised that he could be the cause of her joy.
“Is that from the village tailor?” Her eyes widened slightly at his appearance.
“What’s wrong?” He glanced down at himself to see what she saw. The breeches were entirely too tight, he knew. Perhaps that was it. “I should have known better than to let another man dress me.”
“No. You look wonderful. Both the cut and cloth is exceptional.”
He studied her, trying to detect a hint of a smirk. She appeared scandalized more than amused. “Then why are you looking at me like you’ve never seen a man dressed like this before? Is it the color?”
She pressed both her palms to her chest. “The color suits you.”
“Then what? I’m going to wear my old clothes if you don’t tell me why you’re looking at me like that.”
“I just didn’t realize you were so, so…stout.”
James shrugged out of the coat and held it out to Astra. “The damn thing has shoulder pads.”
She pushed the garment back toward him. “Put your coat back on. A gentleman doesn’t undress in the foyer.”
James did as she asked, not liking the fact that she seemed so lighthearted when he could hardly look at her without vivid images of last night. How she’d looked panting up at him while he had his hands under her gown. Didn’t she have any idea how close he’d been to flipping up her skirts, ripping open his fly and plunging inside her without preamble?
“I thought you were counting on the fact that I’m not a gentleman,” he said more briskly than he intended.
Astra’s smile faltered and she clasped her hands in front of her. “It wasn’t my intention to make you angry. You wear your clothes well. The jacket suits you. It’s that simple.”
He inched closer to her and lowered his voice to a husky whisper. “You like my body, do you, Astra? There’s more to see.”
She lifted her gaze to his. “Does that mean you are ready to accept my proposal?”
She stared directly into his eyes and his muscles tightened in dangerous anticipation. “How could I refuse?”
“Excellent.” The tremor in her voice belied her words. She glanced at the footman standing by the front door. “Then we shall discuss it further at our first available opportunity.”
“A discussion is not what I had in mind.” James wanted to whisk her away to his study this instant. Astra wore a high-necked gown with a brown sheen and black ribbons woven into her prudishly restrained hair. After last night, her appearance seemed purposely punishing, her oval face pale amongst the severe colors. And still, all he could think about was peeling off her layers and undoing her confined hair to get to the lusty creature who’d sat on his desk with her legs spread, the green in her hazel eyes flashing. They could go a little further this afternoon, he thought, and he would touch her, taste her. He didn’t have to fully commit his body, or hers, just yet.
“Then perhaps you’ll enjoy your lesson after all. The reason I’ve been waiting for your return is that Lady Phillina wants to come downstairs and watch me teach you to dance.”
“Today? I have work to attend to. In my study. My desk awaits.” He raised his eyebrows suggestively and was rewarded with a shy smile from Astra.
“I don’t wish Lady Phillina to change her mind and she insists that you be the one to carry her down to the ballroom. I don’t think she’s been downstairs in over a year. James, you don’t know what a step this is for her.”
“Yes, I think I do.” He nodded, understanding how momentous it must be that Lady Phillina was eager to leave her room. “A dancing lesson it is.” The gratitude in Astra’s gaze was wo
She stood rooted in the center of the hall. That odd feeling in his chest mirrored the secret smile on her face. “Go on. I’ll finish readying the ballroom. Perhaps we can find a moment alone afterwards.”
James took the stairs two at a time. Something was happening between him and Astra. Something he no longer had the will to stop. He rapped on Lady Phillina’s door, anxious to return to Astra before all the logical reasons why he should snuff their potential affair rose to ruin his good mood.
“My lord.” The maid who opened the door dropped to a curtsy. James resisted the urge to bow in return. He’d been told by the butler it was not done.
“Oh, James!” Lady Phillina called from her chair. “You look like a proper English gentleman.” She suddenly pressed a lace handkerchief to her mouth and closed her eyes against tears.
James rushed to her side. “What is it?”
“Please forgive me.” She dabbed at her eyes and smiled. “You bring back memories. You resemble my eldest son at times. It takes me by surprise.”
Lady Phillina was dressed in a royal blue gown with the slightest sheen in the material. Her grey hair was piled on her head in an artful arrangement. A blush tinted her cheeks and lips that looked distinctively like rouge.
“See? You should have let me remain in my own clothes. I don’t want to upset you.” He definitely didn’t want to tell her he’d just be leaving all their purchases here when he returned home, and he didn’t relish the moment when he would have to inform her. “Should I come back later?”
“No, you must stay.” Lady Phillina took a ragged breath in an effort to compose herself. “Mary, could you leave us for one moment. I need to talk to James about something in private.”
Once the maid left the room, Phillina gestured for James to sit on the sofa. That they were about to talk about something personal and private suddenly tightened the neck of James’s collar. Good God, but he hoped she hadn’t found out about the red-haired maid. Or worse, Astra’s plans.