The Last Wicked Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 5)(17) by Lorraine Heath
She inhaled his sandalwood scent, but her lungs froze, her nose stung. Not sandalwood. Caraway. Cloying. Suffocating.
His hands closed around her throat. She couldn’t breathe. He was weighing her down, taking her into the depths of hell. She fought, she kicked, she screamed a silent scream that was somehow more terrifying. She was going to die! He was going to—
Winnie awoke with a jolt, breathing heavily, her body trembling. She scrambled back until she was sitting against the headboard. Most of the room was ensconced in wavering shadows that danced around the corners and over the ceiling. The lamp was no longer burning, but there was a fire in the hearth. She didn’t remember there being a fire when she went to sleep.
The room was chilled and damp. The windows were open, the draperies pulled aside, and the curtains of lighter fabric blowing in the breeze as rain pattered against the floor. Had William returned and opened them? Then where was he?
And why was the caraway scent stronger now? She was trembling, her silk nightdress clinging to her dampened skin. She had to get hold of herself. Some warm milk, some warm milk would help.
She reached for the lamp to relight it and froze.
There, resting on the corner of the bedside table were two rings—ducal rings—that had belonged to her husband. She’d left them in a safe at the ancestral estate, to be given to Whit when he was older and his fingers large enough to accommodate them.
So how the devil had they ended up there?
With the rain pelting his hat and coat, Graves stood outside Winnie’s residence. It was half past four in the morning. She was no doubt asleep by now. If he unlocked that door, walked into her residence, into her bedchamber, everything would change. There would be no going back.
As much as he wanted her, he didn’t want her under these circumstances. He hadn’t expected his actions toward her to result in her welcoming him so quickly and swiftly. While his feelings for her might be honest, his reasons for pursuing her at the moment were not.
He should turn about and go home. But he was the only one with the ability to stay near enough to her to protect them all. Staying close to her would certainly prove no hardship—at least not until she was no longer content with only the small part he would offer.
Do no harm. That was the mantra of his profession, but in her case he had failed to heed it, which was why he was now standing in the blasted rain arguing with himself. He didn’t have to wake her. He could just sit in a chair and watch her.
That seemed the way to go. To torment himself further by being near enough to touch her, but refraining. That would definitely qualify him for sainthood.
He marched up the steps, slipped the key into the lock, let himself in, and locked the door behind him. Within the foyer, all was silent, hushed. A lamp had been left to burn on a table. He had far too many nights where lamps were left to burn for him as he sat vigil, striving to ward off death, but it snuck by him when it was good and ready. Alone in his residence, he mourned the loss of every patient while he analyzed every step of the treatment, striving to understand why sometimes things worked and sometimes they didn’t. There was always more to learn, so much more to learn.
If he didn’t go up those grand sweeping stairs, if they were correct about the danger, if something happened to her, he would analyze this night until the what-ifs drove him mad.
Leaving his damp hat and coat on a rack in the foyer, he grabbed the lamp and started up the stairs. He fought to tamp down the anticipation building with each step. He was only going to watch her sleep, nothing more. But he could certainly take pleasure in that.
Three years before, he’d been awoken in the dead of night to come here. Outside her door, he came to a stop as the images assailed him: her battered face, her badly beaten body. He’d never seen anyone covered in so many bruises, and he’d dealt with survivors of a train wreck. He flattened his palm against the door. Unlike Claybourne and Jack, he’d never had a penchant for violence, but that night, he thought if her husband had stepped into the room, he might have very well killed him. That a man could willingly inflict so much harm on another human being, on a woman, on his wife—Graves was neither innocent nor naive but sometimes he did not understand the minds of men.
Quietly he opened the door. A weak fire struggling to remain relevant chased shadows around the room. His heart lurched at the sight of the rumpled, but empty bed. Quickly he stepped farther into the room. Rain was coming in through the open windows, pooling on the floor. Then he spotted her huddled in a corner, shivering uncontrollably. He rushed across the room and crouched before her. “Winnie, sweetheart?”
She lifted a dazed gaze to his.
Cautiously he cradled her face in his palm. “Did you have a bad dream?”
Jerkily she shook her head and lifted a shaking hand, pointing with one finger. “I don’t . . . know . . . how they got here.”
Twisting around, he studied the bed where she indicated. “What precisely?”
“On the table.”
Unfolding his body, he strode over to the bedside table. His gut clenched as he picked up the two rings. He knew them well. He’d placed them on a pauper’s fingers. Inwardly, he cursed harshly, but outwardly he gave no sign of his alarm or trepidation. He halfway hoped the blighter was still in the residence. If they crossed paths, Graves would be digging a grave before the night was out.
But when he turned back to Winnie, he knew he couldn’t leave her, not like this. Nor could he tell her the truth of it. At that moment she was all that mattered. After slipping the rings into his trousers’ pocket, he walked back over to her. “It’s going to be all right.”
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