The Last Wicked Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 5)(6) by Lorraine Heath
She came to a quick stop as her dearest friend in all the world, the Countess of Claybourne, approached her. “Hello, Catherine.”
Catherine had given her a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek when she and the Earl of Claybourne had arrived earlier. Now she simply studied Winnie as though seeing her for the first time. “You appear happy.”
“Yes.” She dearly wanted to tell her why, but it was still so fresh, so wonderful that she decided to hold it to herself for a while longer, to simply embrace the amazement and glow of it. “I have every reason to be. The ball is quite the success.”
“Do you remember how hard I had to work to convince you that you could throw a smashing party?”
Winnie nodded, with the reminder of how she had fretted over the balls she’d given while Avendale was alive. “But I no longer have a fear of disappointing anyone. William Graves is most appreciative. He and I are going to meet later in the week to discuss the plans for the hospital.” She saw no reason to mention that she would also see him on the morrow. She had no desire to worry her friend, and in all likelihood nothing was wrong. Perhaps it was little more than being distracted arranging this affair. Yes, that was it, she was certain. She began planning it as soon as she arrived in London. She wanted everything to be perfect. She was devoted to it, and so her mind had been unable to focus on anything else.
“That’s wonderful,” Catherine said now about the hospital. “I’m so glad you have this project to occupy your time.”
“I rather enjoy it, meeting with the architects and builders. William Graves has given me leave to design it however I’d like. I’ve gone through tours of other hospitals, spoken with staff so I have a better understanding of all that is needed. I believe Dr. Graves will be pleased with my efforts.”
“I’m certain he will be. I’m quite impressed.” Reaching out, touching the petal of a lily sitting in a large blue vase, Catherine said, “Speaking of Graves, I saw you waltzing with him earlier.”
“You look as though something is afoot when you know he always dances with me. One dance. One dance only. I suppose it’s his way of thanking me.”
“You like him.”
“He’s very kind as you’re well aware.”
Catherine gave her a concerned smile. “Just take care, sweetling. His work comes first and always will. He’s dedicated to his patients.”
An hour ago, half an hour ago, Winnie would have simply nodded in agreement—but William Graves had kissed her. “I’m not expecting anything of him.” Well, perhaps she was just a little.
At that moment, the Earl of Claybourne appeared to claim his wife for a dance. Winnie had never expected Catherine to marry the Devil Earl, but she couldn’t deny that her friend was incredibly happy, and that the man obviously adored her.
The remainder of the evening, she visited with one person after another, ensured that food and champagne were readily available, thanked people for supporting her event, for ensuring that a first-rate hospital would be built. By the time midnight rolled around and everyone had left, she was exhausted from serving as hostess. She had to fairly drag herself up the stairs. But she couldn’t go to bed just yet.
Walking past her bedchamber, she carried on to one three doors down. Inside, she found her seven-year-old son sprawled over his bed, snoring lightly. The door to his governess’s apartments was closed as he was getting old enough not to be watched every moment. A lamp burned low on the table beside his bed. He’d never liked sleeping in the dark.
She approached as quietly as possible, then softly brushed his brown hair back from his brow. With his father’s death, he became the Duke of Avendale but she couldn’t quite bring herself to call him by his rightful title, perhaps because it still reminded her too much of her husband. To her, her son was Whit, the name that had become his while he held the courtesy title of the Earl of Whitson. She also believed Whit seemed more appropriate for a child. She suspected it wouldn’t be too long before he would begin wanting to be called by the name that had belonged to his father. But until then, she would have things her way.
She could only be grateful that his father had never taken a hand to him, that Whit had been too young to understand all that was happening within this household. And while she was certain that she would go to hell, she wouldn’t feel guilty about being glad that her husband had died. She knew it made her an awful person, but not nearly as dreadful as Avendale had been.
Leaning down, she pressed a light kiss to Whit’s forehead. “Sweet dreams, my love.”
She stilled as a fragrance assailed her. Caraway. It was a scent she associated with her husband, with pain, with humiliation. Her heart pounding, she spun around and searched the shadows. She saw nothing but the veiled darkness.
She was being ridiculous. Avendale was dead, but of late, the smell of him had begun seeping out of corners, out of little pockets, catching her unawares from time to time. She forbade the servants from having caraway seeds in the residence, from indulging in eating them. Someone must be disobeying the edict. She would have to take the matter up with the butler on the morrow.
She wanted no reminders of her husband, nothing that dredged up memories of her miserable existence while she had lived under his thumb.
With one last look at Whit, she silently left the room, closing the door quietly behind her. Her heart was finally returning to its normal rhythm. Perhaps it was time to find another residence in London. This one contained far too many memories. Wherever she looked, she saw reminders of Avendale. It made little sense that she would begin to smell him, as it had been three years since his passing, but his habit of constantly chewing on caraway seeds had caused the fragrance to permeate everything. When the house was closed up for winter, perhaps the scent had been trapped in little pockets of air and was released as the house was opened back up. But why had she not noticed it here sooner? She couldn’t explain it, didn’t want to think about it anymore.
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