The Last Wicked Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 5)(3) by Lorraine Heath
Now the music drifted into silence, and very slowly their movements came to a halt. He appeared on the verge of saying something, asking for another dance perhaps. Or at least she hoped those were the words he would utter. She didn’t care if only two dances was proper. She would dance every one with him if he but asked.
Instead, he gave her a small smile and began to lead her toward the sweeping staircase where she could be on hand to greet any latecomers. Once they reached their destination, he again took her hand and kissed the back of it.
“Thank you for the dance,” he said.
“It was my pleasure.”
His eyes darkened. “No, Duchess, as always it was mine.”
With those parting words, he strode away, becoming lost in the thicket of guests. She had little doubt that he was off to search out his friends who were here. Others who had grown up on the streets with him supported her efforts, more for the good doctor’s benefit than hers, she was certain. He seemed to instill loyalty in people. But then that probably wasn’t unusual considering his skill at warding off death’s advances.
Yet she did often find herself wishing she had met him under different circumstances, that she had met him before she had ever become a wife.
Standing in a darkened corner of the terrace, William Graves sipped the whiskey that he’d pilfered from the library. He preferred the bite of hard liquor to champagne. It was more in line with the darkness that resided inside him.
Dancing with Winifred Buckland, Duchess of Avendale, served as his favorite moments of the year. Even though the activity was pure torment.
Three years ago, he’d done what was necessary to save her, although not everything was exactly legal. Not that he’d ever suffered any guilt over skirting the law. But he wasn’t certain she would be as accepting of his wrongdoing. As a matter of fact, he was rather certain she would despise him for his role in her husband’s demise, and so he kept his distance when he would prefer to close the gap between them.
Or at least explore the possibility of closing it. He was drawn to her in ways he’d never been drawn to another woman. She possessed a vulnerability that he suspected hid a reservoir of strength, and he would dearly love to help her uncover that secret about herself, but he feared her discovery of his secrets.
His secrets that could very well destroy not only her but every other soul about whom he cared.
So for two years now, he came to this blasted ball. He danced once with her. He inhaled her jasmine fragrance, felt the heat of her skin seeping through her clothes and his gloves to mingle with the warmth of his hands. He gazed into her somber brown eyes, and wished to God that he possessed the power to make her laugh. He studied her crooked nose, which in spite of its origins he found endearing, and wondered if she were aware how many times she rubbed the bridge of it, how many times she seemed to try to hide it. He was familiar with the scar across her eyebrow, the one on her cheek, and the faint one on the underside of her chin that she might not even know was there. He found no fault with them, as they were signs of survival, but he loathed the reasons that she possessed them.
Still, he often thought of how it would feel to trail his mouth over them, and wondered if in the process he would heal the inner hurts with as much success as he’d managed to heal the outer ones.
He longed to remove the pins from her mahogany hair. He doubted she was aware that during some of her moments of delirium he had brushed it to keep it from becoming so infested with tangles that it would need to be shorn. It fell to her waist, and was so beautiful. As beautiful as she was. He could gaze into her brown eyes for hours, but he’d done all the gazing he allowed himself for the night. One dance. A few moments. He dared not torture himself further by taking more. His ability to resist her was on a weak tether.
He downed the contents of the tumbler before setting it aside on the railing. Time to be off, to find another woman to distract him from his desires. Although unfortunately, since he’d met her, all other women paled in comparison, left him wanting. He often worked himself to exhaustion simply so he wouldn’t carry her into dreams, because she never wore a stitch of clothing there, and his frustration with past actions merely increased. But even knowing the price he paid, he would do it again without hesitation. He would do anything at all to protect her.
Turning on his heel, he paused as he saw the duchess descending the steps that led into the garden. He shouldn’t follow her. She might have arranged a tryst, but he seemed incapable of stopping his legs from making short work of closing the distance separating them. “Duchess?”
Stopping, she faced him. Within the pale light cast by the gas lamps that lined the path, he saw her slight smile. Gentle, warm, welcoming. She was the kindest person he’d ever known. In his youth he had longed for one kind touch, one sweet caress that would ease all the hurts. He imagined she would be a balm to his harsh soul.
“I do wish you would call me Winnie,” she said softly.
“You’re a duchess; I’m a commoner.”
“A commoner who serves as one of the queen’s many physicians. I would say that makes you uncommon, Dr. Graves.”
Ignoring her argument—he needed nothing to create a sense of intimacy between them that might weaken his resolve to remain aloof—he said, “Should you be out here alone?”
“It’s my garden. As a widow, I have no need of a chaperone.” She looked back over her shoulder. “It’s such a crush in there, which is a great benefit to the cause, but I was beginning to feel as though I were suffocating. I just needed a bit of fresh air, so I thought to take a quick turn about the garden. Would you care to join me?”
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