The Last Wicked Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 5)(13) by Lorraine Heath
As he began striding from the room, she slid off the desk and began to do as he suggested.
Catherine Langdon, Countess of Claybourne, paced the hallway just outside the door to Winnie’s study. The butler’s announcement of her arrival was only a formality that he insisted upon. She knew the duchess would always be at home to her, as did the butler, so she had merely followed him into the study. She should not have been surprised by what greeted her. William Graves might have been a respected physician, but he was also a man, a man whose friendship with her husband had been forged during their youth. She knew the upbringing they’d had and their dislike of convention. But Winnie had always been so terribly proper.
But then so had Catherine upon a time. Scoundrels tended to have their way.
The door to the study opened. Graves closed it behind him and acknowledged her. “Countess.” Then, with long strides, he carried on down the hallway as though that were sufficient.
She hurried after him. “What the devil were you doing in there?” Catherine demanded.
He spun around, and she was taken aback by the anger burning in his blue eyes. “If you have to ask then Claybourne is not the man I thought he was.”
Obviously he’d not appreciated being interrupted, but the truth of it was that there should have been nothing going on to interrupt. “I know very well what you were doing. I was asking why you were doing it.”
“I was doing as ordered, ensuring that the lady would want to keep me close.”
She took a step forward. “You cannot toy with her affections.”
“You can’t have it both ways, Countess. Either you tell her why she needs to have someone watching over her or I provide her with a reason to want to keep me near.”
“And when the reason no longer exists?”
“We’ll deal with the aftermath. I promise it won’t be worse than a hangman’s noose.”
Spinning on his heel, he strode toward the door. She wanted to call after him, wanted to demand more of him, that he not hurt Winnie. But the only way to ensure that would be to do as he suggested: tell Winnie the truth.
Her friend would despise her. She might even decide that Avendale should be welcomed home. Then all would be for naught. She would again be at the mercy of a brute. And those who had been involved in his false demise could very well be introduced to prison or, as Graves had implied, the hangman’s noose.
Catherine had worked too hard to protect Winnie from Avendale to see it all undone now. All she could do was hope that they were mistaken about the man being about.
Sitting at a small table on the terrace with Catherine, Winnie ordered the butler to have tea and biscuits brought out. She had retied every ribbon, secured every button, and yet she still felt slightly askew. Every now and then a few strands of her hair would blow across her face with the gentle breeze. No matter how many times she tucked them back into her bun, they came free, reminding her of the madness that had consumed her within her tiny study.
She could taste peppermint on her lips, smell sandalwood on her skin. Her tea sat untouched and cooling because she didn’t want to lose the taste of William.
She could only be grateful that it hadn’t been Whit who had walked in on them, but she’d had the foresight to send him on an outing to the zoological gardens with his governess that morning. She hadn’t wanted him to be about when the inspector arrived. The last thing she desired was for her son to become frightened or to have any doubt regarding his mother’s sanity.
“Win, I know it’s none of my business—”
“If you’re about to comment on what you walked in on, then I quite agree that it is not your business.”
Winnie wasn’t certain she’d ever seen Catherine’s eyes so large with surprise, but then she’d never been one to stand up for herself. However, those days of cowering were behind her. She had nothing to fear any longer. Except for a possible thief or a bout of forgetfulness.
“He’s a commoner,” Catherine said.
“I’ve had an aristocrat, thank you very much. And that wasn’t so jolly.”
“I just don’t want you to get hurt,” Catherine said.
Reaching out, Winnie squeezed her friend’s hand. “I know you mean well. But he’s always been kind to me.”
“Just don’t misinterpret his kindness. Because of your past you’re vulnerable.”
Shaking her head, she looked out over the gardens. “I used to fear everything. I believed my opinion didn’t matter. I thought I was unworthy. I dreaded hosting balls or dinner parties, because I always disappointed Avendale. Now I can do so much more because I’ve no one to disappoint. William enjoyed the ball. He likes my plans for the hospital. He doesn’t judge me, Catherine. He accepts me as I am.”
“I didn’t realize you knew each other so well.”
She gave a secretive smile. “While I was healing he always there. He brushed my hair once. I was fevered and I think he thought I was unaware of my surroundings, but I was afraid if I let him know that he would stop. A man brushing my hair. I may have begun to fall in love with him then.”
“Just take care, sweetling. Like Claybourne, Jack, and Jim, he is a scoundrel at heart.”
“And I’ve yet to hear any of their wives complain.”
Arriving a little before half past seven, Graves circled the grounds to ensure that no one was lurking about. The threat of rain was in the air. He suspected it would arrive before they finished dinner.
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