Midnight Pleasures with a Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 4)(15) by Lorraine Heath
Because sleep had eluded him last night, he’d gone to the mortuary where they’d taken the woman they’d found in Whitechapel. In spite of Sir David’s orders, he’d been unable to let the dead lie without at least trying to determine the story. The woman had been beaten beyond recognition. She’d been discovered sprawled in the alleyway wearing only a silver choker. While Swindler had spent many of the early hours of the morning interviewing those in the area where she was found, striving to at least determine a name for the victim, his thoughts had been elsewhere. It was unlike him not to remain focused on the task at hand. But this morning every fair-haired woman had caused him to think about Miss Watkins. Every question he asked had prodded him to wonder what questions he should ask of her. Every person peering around a corner trying to discern why he was there reminded him of his responsibility to cease her annoying Rockberry. He was striving to solve a murder that was not his assignment, and he’d been distracted by memories of Miss Watkins: her smiles, her laughter, her innocence.
But he could tell her none of that. Nor could he discuss any other murders that he’d investigated. While they fascinated him, they’d no doubt alarm her. His life suddenly seemed dreadfully dull. The only hope he had of an interesting conversation would come from her.
“Just as you’d never been to London, I’ve never been beyond London,” he finally told her.
“Tell me of your home.”
“You’ve never been outside of London?”
Swindler heard the incredulity in her voice. “No. Would I need a map?”
She laughed, and he wanted to capture the delightful sound and store it in a wooden box, to be heard whenever he lifted the lid. He was not usually so filled with fanciful thoughts, but she charmed him with little more than her presence.
“I daresay, you most certainly would, although the railways make travel a bit easier.”
“So tell me about your home.”
“It’s a small stone cottage built near the cliffs. The music of the sea is a constant refrain, but it’s not nearly as noisy as the city. I think that surprised me most—all the different sounds that come together. It’s never quiet. Even with the sea at home, I’ve always found myself able to think without noise intruding. Sometimes I can hardly think here. Well, except for now, of course. It’s very pleasant on the river.”
“Odd. I don’t notice the noises you refer to. I don’t know if I would like living by the sea if it gives a man too much time with his thoughts.”
“Do you not fancy your thoughts, Mr. Swindler?”
Sometimes they were too disturbing, too menacing, but he wasn’t going to share that with her. Instead he sought to put them back on course. “I’m surprised your home is small. I thought all the aristocracy lived in large residences.”
“While my father was part of the aristocracy, our beginnings were humble. Although he dreamed of better for his daughters. I suppose that’s the way of a father. Is your father still living?”
He should have expected the question, based on his own inquiries. He considered lying. He considered giving only a portion of the truth, but decided that although it pained him to give the answer, he could accomplish more with the truth, build a fragile cornerstone for trust. “No. He died on the gallows when I was eight.”
Sorrow reshaped the lines of her face into exquisite beauty, because the emotions were unguarded and true. He’d misjudged the wisest course. He’d thought to disarm her, and instead he was the one taken off guard. She lured from hiding something deep inside him. Emotions he’d locked away long ago wanted to venture forth from the darkness—if for only a moment.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, her voice brimming with her need to provide comfort. If she cared this deeply for a man she’d only recently met, what would be the depth of her love for a sister…or a husband? “What was his offense?”
He reminded himself he was playing a role, and that whatever developed between them would be frayed with falsehood and weak with deceptions. His words were flat, never allowed to touch his soul. “He was charged with thievery. Left me an orphan. Like yours, my mother died in childbirth. I was apparently an unusually large babe.”
“That’s how you came to be with that kidsman. Feagan, was it?”
“Yes, I was fortunate he took me in. I had no family. You and I are alike in that regard, I suppose.”
He rowed in silence for several minutes, absorbing the quietness that he’d never really noticed before. He watched as she glanced around, wondered if he’d revealed too much, was curious as to what she might be thinking.
She suddenly closed her parasol and set it in the bottom of the boat. Then very slowly, inch by inch, she began to peel off her right glove, revealing skin that up until that moment he’d only been able to imagine. His body tightened as though she’d loosened the buttons on her bodice. She tugged on one finger, then the next, and the next, and with each tug his mouth grew remarkably drier.
At long last the glove was completely removed, exposing a hand as creamy and smooth as her face, her nails clipped short and well manicured. Hers was the hand of a true lady, one who relied on servants to do the hard work. Leaning over slightly, she dipped her hand in the water and her features took on an expression more serene than before, more so than he’d ever seen on anyone.
“I miss the sea,” she said quietly. She peered at him through lowered lashes. “Do you swim, Mr. Swindler?”
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