The Last Wicked Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 5)(8) by Lorraine Heath
Taking the chair opposite hers, he studied her for a moment. She was pale, far too pale, although he could see a hint of color returning to her cheeks. He understood now why her hair was braided. Having found the item beneath her pillow, she had no doubt retired for the night. He fought not to distract himself with images of her in the bed.
“Now tell me about the necklace,” he urged quietly.
“I told you about it in the garden, how it wasn’t in the safe. As I was settling into bed, I slipped my hand beneath the pillow. I discovered it there. Why would anyone put it there?”
Leaning forward, elbows on thighs, he worked to think things through. He wasn’t nearly as good with this deciphering motives business as Swindler. He was better at determining the cause of fevers, illnesses, and injuries. “Perhaps someone had taken it from the safe, heard you coming, and slipped it under the pillow to retrieve later.”
“A servant? Why would they begin stealing from me now?”
“Gambling debts, perhaps. Maybe they fell in with a rough lot on their day off.”
“I’m afraid I did it.” She rubbed her brow. “As I mentioned in the garden, I’ve experienced some bouts of forgetfulness. I’ve been misplacing a lot of things lately. A book on the table beside my bed. I use a ribbon to mark my place. Sometimes when I open the book to the ribbon, it’s either at a place I’ve read before or a place pages away from where I finished. My perfume atomizer. I keep it on my dressing table. But once I found it on the windowsill.”
“Easily explained. A servant not taking care as she’s cleaning.”
She shook her head vigorously. “Sometimes when I wake up at night, I smell my husband. He had a penchant for eating caraway seeds incessantly. He always smelled of them. I’ve forbidden the servants from having them in the residence. But the odor is sometimes there in different places. I also sleep with a lamp burning, but sometimes I will awaken to absolute darkness, the flame extinguished, the caraway scent more vivid as though I’ve had a visitor.”
She folded her hands so tightly around the glass he could see the whites of her knuckles. It was not to be tolerated. He shot out of the chair, knelt before her, took the glass, and once again wrapped his hands around hers. “Fragrances linger, particularly in cloth. I have a handkerchief that belonged to my father. I can still smell him in it.”
“I considered that, but Dr. Graves—”
“Please call me Bill.”
“It’s too harsh. I prefer William.”
“William it is.” He preferred it as well, but his friends had always called him Bill and on the streets it was a stronger name, one that bespoke confidence. He skimmed his thumbs over her knuckles. “I’m sure there is a simple explanation for everything.”
“Yes, quite. As I said I’m going mad.”
“I seriously doubt that.”
“Then perhaps his ghost is haunting me, because I could swear that I have seen him.”
Every muscle and fiber of his being stood at attention. “Where?”
“Once at the far end of the garden. At twilight. It was difficult to see very clearly, because the shadows were moving in. He was there and then he wasn’t. Another time in the park. Although I can’t be absolutely sure as he was so far away, but the resemblance at a distance was uncanny. In truth, though, it wasn’t so much the sight of him as it was the sense of him watching me. I could always feel when Avendale watched me, because he did it with such intensity as though he expected me to make a mistake or behave badly, and he wanted to be able to pounce immediately in order to correct me.”
He lifted his hand to her cheek and slowly stroked the soft skin. “My mother was an unkind woman who beat me religiously. When she passed, for years, I thought I saw her in the streets. I still think I see her from time to time—especially those nights when I’m exhausted and my guard is down. When we are traumatized by those whom we love, it’s often difficult to believe they are actually gone. But your husband is gone. He can’t hurt you, Winnie.”
She nodded. “I know, and you could not have spoken truer words. It is frightfully difficult to believe sometimes that he is truly gone—which brings me back to the possibility that perhaps I am going mad. Because I sense his presence when I know I shouldn’t.”
“Winnie, you need to dispense with this notion that you’re going mad. You survived a horrendous ordeal that most would find difficult if not impossible to overcome. The remnants of it, not the ghost of your husband, are haunting you. But you will survive this. You need to ensure you get plenty of rest and that you have things to occupy your time and your mind so you aren’t becoming lost in the past.”
As she smiled, the guilt ricocheted through him. “Like the hospital,” she said.
“Yes. We’ll get together to discuss it in a couple of days. But now it’s late and you should get some much-needed rest.”
She laid her hand against his cheek. “Thank you so much. You always make me feel better.”
Holding her hand in place, he turned his head slightly and pressed a kiss to her palm. “It’s my pleasure. I’ll see you home.”
“It’s not necessary. I’ve already disturbed you enough.”
“You never disturb me.”
He banked the fire and grabbed his jacket before escorting her out to the waiting carriage. After assisting her inside, he sat beside her, placed his arm around her shoulders, and drew her in against his side. Everything within him screamed that it wasn’t appropriate. But then it was the time of night for inappropriate things. He placed his lips on the top of her head, took what joy he could from her nearness.
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