The Last Wicked Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 5)(9) by Lorraine Heath
“I feel like such a ninny,” she said after a while. “I don’t know why I reacted as I did. I’m sure there is a logical explanation for everything.”
“You’re not a ninny. Sometimes we just need to talk with someone about the things bothering us. We can blow them out of proportion if we are our only counsel.”
“You’re always so kind.”
No, not always. He suspected her husband would describe him as the devil.
The carriage came to a halt. He alighted then handed her down. “I would like to take a stroll through your residence just to assure you that there are no monsters lurking in the corners.”
“I feel like a child.”
“You’re not. Oftentimes, we need assurances.”
She gave him a sweet smile. “All right then.”
She unlocked the door. As they went in, he found some relief in the fact that she had locked the door before she left. But it might be worth it to have the locks changed. He’d mention it later. He didn’t want to alarm her any more than she was already alarmed.
Leaving her in the foyer, he walked briskly through rooms that in no way reminded him of her. While no longer here, her husband’s presence was overbearing in dark, sturdy furniture, dark walls, thick draperies. He took an extra moment in a small room that he had no doubt served not only as her sitting room, but her sanctuary. A delicate secretary stood against a wall, fragile animal figurines adorned small tables. The fabric covering the chairs and sofa were pale yellow and green, as though she’d been striving to bring sunshine into her life. Above the fireplace was a painting of a young girl with a basket of flowers. The eyes were innocent, but he would have recognized them anywhere. They belonged to Winnie.
But he found nothing suspicious among the shadows in any of the rooms.
He gave her a reassuring nod when he met back up with her in the foyer. “All seems to be in order down here,” he assured her.
He escorted her up the stairs. While she waited outside her bedchamber door, he examined her room, making note of the tiniest of details: the blue flowers on the wall paper, the rumpled bed linens, the copy of Oliver Twist on the bedside table. Her exotic jasmine fragrance permeating the room. A gilded-framed painting of a small boy plucking flowers. Behind it, he was certain he would find her safe where she thought her most precious jewels would be secure.
He stepped back into the hallway. “All seems to be in order. I’m just going to dash through the other rooms.”
He made short work of the task, taking care not to awaken her son. As a boy, working for Feagan, he had learned how to break into homes and assess the inside quickly to find the treasurers. Some skills one never forgot.
As he returned to her side, she blushed. “No ghosts?” she asked.
“None that I could detect.”
“Truth be told, I didn’t truly expect you to find anything. It’s all so odd, isn’t it?”
“I’m sure there’s an explanation. We’ll figure it out easily enough. Meanwhile, try to get some sleep and send word if you need me—for anything.”
“I truly appreciate your kindness and assistance. I’ve instructed my driver to return you to your residence.”
“Thank you.” Cradling her face with one hand, he leaned in and kissed her, just a brief taste to sustain him for what he had to do next. “Sweet dreams, Winnie.”
Leaving her there, he hurried down the stairs before bad judgment overtook him and he found himself putting her to bed—and ensuring he joined her there to rumple those bed linens a bit more. He was loath to leave her, but he knew no good would come of his staying.
Once outside, he called up to the driver, “Carry on. I’ll be walking.”
He waited until the carriage disappeared up the drive on its way to the carriage house. Then he took a quick turn about the gardens. Nothing amiss. No one hiding in the shadows. He tried to take some comfort from that.
But he found there was none to be had.
An hour later he was standing by the fireplace within the Earl of Claybourne’s library. Claybourne and his wife were nestled on a couch together. Frannie Mabry, the Duchess of Greystone, sat in a wingback chair near the one in which Jack Dodger lounged. James Swindler had taken a seat at the outer edge of the circle.
“It’s half past three in the morning. What the devil is going on?” Claybourne asked.
“We may have a problem,” Graves told him.
“What the deuce would that be?”
“The Duke of Avendale. I fear he may have risen from the dead.”
Silence greeted his pronouncement, which didn’t surprise him in the least. They’d all played a role in Avendale’s “death.” Graves had provided the charred remains of a corpse, identified as the duke only because it wore the duke’s rings.
“Are you quite certain that he was sent to the penal colony in New Zealand?” Graves asked.
“I saw him dragged onto the prison hulk myself,” Claybourne said. He was the one who had captured Avendale, broken his jaw so he couldn’t speak, and delivered him into Swindler’s keeping. “Catherine was with me. She can attest to it.”
Beside him, his wife looked as though she might be ill. She had conveyed the news to her dear friend that her husband had perished in a fire at Heatherwood. “We stayed until the ship left port.”
“Is it possible that he found a way to escape and return here?” Graves asked.
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