The Last Wicked Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 5)(14) by Lorraine Heath
After a footman opened the door for him, he waited in the foyer while the butler informed Her Grace of his presence. When he saw Winnie descending the stairs in a lilac gown that revealed bared shoulders, he knew coming this evening was mistake. He should have simply sat on the steps and kept an eye out, because all he wanted now was to carry her back up the stairs to her bedchamber.
Knowing the truth of her situation, he couldn’t in all good conscience offer her marriage, knowing it would make her a bigamist. But it didn’t stop him from wanting her. Her hair was plaited and twisted in some elaborate design, but his fingers were nimble enough that he could have the pins scattered on the floor and her hair tumbling around her in two seconds. The fastenings on the back of her gown might take four, her corset six. He forced such tempting calculations from his mind as they served no purpose other than to add to his frustration.
She was under his care, and he had a strict moral code when it came to his professional pursuits, but his desire saw the ruse for what it was and refused to cooperate. She wasn’t a patient, she wasn’t ill. She was someone who intrigued him.
As she neared, her jasmine scent filled his nostrils and he wanted to seek out all the little spots where she applied the fragrance.
“Would you care for a bit of brandy before dinner?” she asked.
What he wanted was an entire bottle of whiskey, or perhaps a dose of laudanum, to drown out his errant thoughts. With a practiced smile that he knew appeared harmless, he shook his head. “You’re intoxicating enough.”
She laughed joyfully and sweetly. “Rubbish! My word, but I had no idea you were such a flirt.”
He couldn’t stop himself from smiling without pretense. He enjoyed her company; he had from the moment she’d begun to regain her strength and charmed him with stories of her youth. A pampered daughter of the aristocracy who had married a man who delivered harsh lessons that destroyed her naivety but not her spirit. “Only when it comes to you.”
“I find that difficult to believe. I suspect all of Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting are stumbling over themselves to get your attention.”
“Your suspicions are without foundation. I fear my flirtation skills are a trifle rusty. I’ve not had much time for the ladies since I began serving Victoria.” The women for whom he’d had time were the sort who required nothing beyond coins.
She wrapped her hand around the crook of his elbow. “Shall we go into dinner then?”
“I’m famished.” He stopped short of saying he was famished for her. His true seduction would come after dinner because he wanted to ensure that he stayed in the residence throughout the night as close to her as possible. While he felt a niggling of guilt at the role he was about the play, he assuaged it by reminding himself that he was doing it to protect her.
Jack had sent a couple of his minions over to watch the residence, and Swindler had made arrangements for a few extra bobbies to patrol the streets, but Graves felt a need to take his own precautions to ensure that if her blasted husband was around, he would be near enough to deal with him—preferably with her being none the wiser.
He had Claybourne’s grandfather to thank for the manners he brought to the table with him. When the old gent had discovered his grandson was a child of the rookeries, he’d not only taken him in but taken in his friends as well. It was then that Graves had learned the comforts of a clean bed, a bath, clothes that fit properly. He never took any of his comforts for granted.
He settled Winnie into her chair and then sat in the one opposite her. He was grateful they were being served in the smaller dining room and that the table was a modest one that would sit only six. The family dining room.
White wine was poured and the first course was served: a soup that was more broth than substance, but he couldn’t fault its flavor.
“I feared you might not survive your encounter with Catherine,” he said, striving to keep his voice level so it didn’t reveal his curiosity regarding what might have been said after he left. Catherine might have cautioned her not to become involved with him, which would mean he’d have to work all the harder at seduction.
“She warned me away from you.”
“I’m not surprised. You see me as a man of goodness, but I assure you I am more scoundrel than saint. I became a physician because I had much to atone for.”
“Nothing a lady needs to hear about, especially over dinner.”
Watching as she lifted the spoon to her lips, he found himself envious of a damned eating utensil. When she returned it to the bowl, she lifted her gaze to his, studied him for a moment. He wondered if she were able to see beneath the surface, to the part of him that he shared with no one.
“I know you grew up on the streets,” she said. “What was it like?”
While she’d been recovering, she hadn’t asked about his youth. He rather wished she hadn’t asked now. “Dirty. Harsh. But within Feagan’s den there was a sense of camaraderie.”
“Who is Feagan?”
“The kidsman who corralled us, taught us to steal and pilfer without getting caught.”
“What of your parents?”
He took a sip of his wine. “My mother washed clothes. What I remember most about her was how rough and raw her hands always looked.” How rough they felt when they grazed against his skin when she was in a rage and he served as the object upon which she could vent her anger. It was like being slapped with sandpaper. “My father earned his living digging graves in various cemeteries and pauper’s fields. And at night, he’d return to rob the graves. When I was big enough to hold a trowel, he took me with him.”
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