The Last Wicked Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 5)(19) by Lorraine Heath
“Did you sleep?” she asked William.
“I promised to keep watch,” he said with a small smile and a hoarse voice that stirred something deep inside her. It implied secret trysts. “Besides, I don’t need much sleep, and I rarely go an entire night without someone knocking on my door.”
“I can’t help but feel I’ve become quite the nuisance.”
“You haven’t. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be.” He tucked his finger beneath her chin and stroked her cheek with his thumb. “Are you feeling a bit more settled?”
“Somewhat. I’m quite embarrassed with the spectacle I made of myself last night.”
“You have nothing for which to be embarrassed. A nightmare can be upsetting enough without the strange occurrences you’re experiencing.”
“I just don’t understand what’s happening.”
“I think someone is striving to drive you mad.”
“But who and for what purpose?”
Turning his attention to the braid draped over her shoulder, he brushed his fingers through the loose strands at the end, seemingly mesmerized by the movements. “That I don’t know, but I’m wondering if it wouldn’t be wiser for you and your son to move into my residence.” He shifted his solemn gaze back to hers. “Just for a few days.”
She had felt so welcomed in his home, so at ease. It was there that she had come to realize the horror that her life had truly become. As she gained her strength, he allowed her to determine the menu for the meals. He never found fault with her selections. He never criticized if she spent her mornings reading or composing letters. For the first time in her life, the hours of the day became hers to do with as she pleased. He had given her glimpses of a life that didn’t encompass fear.
“I truly, truly appreciate the offer, but I’ll not be chased out of my own home. I don’t think Whit is in any danger. His governess hasn’t reported any strange goings on. All that is happening just seems directed at me. Perhaps I do have a disgruntled servant. I’ll speak with Thatcher, have him watch them a bit more closely.”
“I admire your resolve.” He traced the curve of her cheek. “But I don’t think you’ve quite recovered from last night’s misadventure. I have a morning ritual that I don’t always get to indulge in but I think it would be just the thing to chase the last of the shadows from your eyes.”
He was looking at her so intently, as though he were memorizing every line and curve of her features, every bump and every scar. His intensity had all sorts of notions racing through her mind, notions no proper lady should entertain. Morning rituals that included kissing and touching, hands on her thighs, her stomach, her breasts. She wasn’t certain she was quite ready for that, but she heard herself asking, “What sort of ritual?”
She blinked in surprise. Was that what the lower classes called it? She supposed she could see that, but not quite. And he might have once been ensconced among the dregs of society, but he had risen above that to a respected—and, in her mind at least—an exalted position. Surely he no longer used such crude references. She licked her lips. “What exactly does it entail?”
“A boat, oars, the Thames.”
“Oh, you mean actual rowing?”
With a grin, he skimmed his finger along the bridge of her nose. “What did you think I was alluding to?”
She was going to embarrass herself by admitting the truth. “Exactly what you said.” She was intrigued. “You truly go rowing in the morning?”
“Whenever I can before breakfast.”
Glancing over at the clock, she realized it was much earlier than she thought. “It must still be dark out.”
“It won’t be by the time we get there. Come with me. I think you’ll find it’s a refreshing way to begin the day.”
She thought doing anything with him would be a lovely way to start the day. “Yes, all right.”
With her pelisse folded closely around her, Winnie sat in the rowboat and watched in fascination as William worked the oars in a steady rhythm that caused the boat to glide smoothly over the water. She had looked in on Whit before she left, and he’d been sleeping soundly. On Winnie’s orders the day before, the governess had left the door to her apartments open so she could hear Whit if anything was amiss. Not that anything seemed to be. The fragrance of caraway seeds had faded, and she was questioning whether or not it had ever been there.
Forcing the worries from her mind, she concentrated on enjoying her outing. Wisps of light fog along the bank were beginning to burn off as the sky lightened from black to gray. The scent of last night’s rain was still heavy on the air.
Once she was settled in the boat, William removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, took the oars in hand, and set off. No leisurely rowing. His forearms revealed corded muscles, and she understood now the breadth of his shoulders, the firmness of his chest.
“Whatever possessed you to take up this sport?” she asked.
“One of Victoria’s advisors begins his day in a similar manner, and mentioned it to me. I’ve discovered an hour of strenuous activity clears my mind of its cobwebs. Sometimes, when I’m faced with a medical problem or dilemma, I find the solution will often come to me when I’m out here. I become lost in the exertion and it frees up my mind.”
He stopped rowing, and they coasted to a stop. She became aware of the quiet and the solitude, absolute solitude as she’d never experienced it.
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