The Last Wicked Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 5)(10) by Lorraine Heath
“Anything’s possible,” Swindler said. Working for Scotland Yard, he had access to the gaols and prisons. He had found a fourteen-year-old lad sentenced to transportation to a prison colony. He substituted Avendale for the boy.
“His sentence was for life, on the far side of the world,” Frannie pointed out. As a child, she’d been fascinated with letters and numbers, endlessly copying them until she could create any style, which made her an excellent forger. She had altered the documents so the description of the person sentenced more closely resembled Avendale. “How would he have managed to find his way back here?”
“He’s a bloody duke,” Jack reminded them. He had provided employment and a safe haven for the boy they had liberated when they tossed Avendale into the gaol as his replacement. “Once he healed enough to speak coherently, he could offer a fortune to someone willing to help him. As I was not here when you all made the decision to go forward with this swindle, I can’t attest to how well thought out it might have been.”
“It was very well thought out,” Claybourne said. He turned his attention to William. “All this conjecture seems rather pointless. Why do you think he’s returned?”
“Because Winnie—” He stopped, cleared his throat. “The Duchess of Avendale believes she’s seen him.”
Catherine gasped, placing her hand over her mouth. “No, it can’t be. He’ll kill her this time.”
Suddenly Graves was concerned he was raising the alarm a bit prematurely. It did seem unlikely that the man could escape and make his way back here. “She can’t be sure. She saw him at a distance, thought it was a ghost. But there are other things. Items being moved around. His scent wafting through the house. Things she can’t explain.”
“She’s told me none of this.”
“She feared she was going mad.”
“Perhaps she is,” Jack said. “If he did manage to return, I think he would march into his residence and announce that he had bloody well returned.”
“No,” Catherine said quietly. “I think he would strive to take his revenge by driving her mad. At least for a time. He’s had three years to ponder retribution. He’s the sort who enjoys pulling wings off flies rather than smashing them.”
Claybourne placed his hand over hers. “Do you want to tell the duchess what we did?”
Slowly, Catherine shook her head. “She would never forgive me. As horrible as he was, she wept when I told her that he died. As for the rest of you, if she told anyone of any consequence, you would all be ruined, possibly imprisoned. No, we swore three years ago that we would bear the burden of it and it would remain our secret. We must keep to that vow. But how do we protect her if we don’t tell her that she’s in need of protection?”
“We could be getting ahead of ourselves here,” Swindler said. “First, we need to discover if he is in fact here. I would like to have a look through her house.”
“I’ve actually put something into play,” Graves said. He explained about the sapphires and the safe. “She won’t be surprised when I bring you ’round to examine the safe.”
“We’ll need more than that,” Claybourne said. “We’ll need you to spend more time with her.”
“Jack has brutes he can send over to keep watch on the residence,” Graves said.
“The outside of it, yes. But as it appears Avendale may be lurking about inside, we need someone inside to watch and, if needed, to protect her. As the rest of us gents are married, I’m afraid it falls to you.”
Not precisely what Graves wanted to hear. As their earlier walk in the garden had proven, his desire for her was on a weak tether. Her husband had taken atrocious advantage of her. Graves had no wish to put himself in the same league, but everything he’d worked so hard to attain was at risk.
“Do we need to be concerned that he’ll hurt the boy?” Frannie asked.
“His heir?” Catherine questioned. “Not likely. He had two other wives before Winnie and neither produced a child, so I suspect he won’t risk Whit. He never hurt him before. His preferred target seems to be women.”
“What happened to his other wives?” Swindler asked. Graves wasn’t surprised that he had homed in on that particular aspect of Catherine’s words. The man was a demon for justice.
“They died,” Catherine said. “One took a tumble down the stairs, the other a fatal blow to the head when she fell from her bed.”
“Where was the bed?” Swindler asked. “On the roof?”
Catherine gave a hint of smile. “You understand now the depth of our concerns. If he is here, he will try to destroy us in his own manner—no matter how long it takes or what is required.”
While Graves was a man dedicated to saving lives, he could not help but believe that they would all have been better served if Claybourne had simply killed Avendale when presented with the opportunity. Now far too many people could be made to suffer.
Winnie most of all.
Winnie thought she should be terrified of the huge hulk of a man who stood in her entryway, but there was a gentleness in his smile that was reassuring. It also helped that William stood beside him. She was familiar with Inspector James Swindler. He had quite the reputation for solving crimes, but they had never been formally introduced as they were now.
“Bill says you’ve had a bit of a problem with items disappearing from your safe. I’d like to examine it.”
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