The Last Wicked Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 5)(21) by Lorraine Heath
A shiver raced through her. “Someone’s watching.”
He looked at the trees and brush lining the water’s edge. “The man who just rowed by us, perhaps.”
“No, this feels almost sinister.”
“Winnie, there’s no one about.”
He’s hiding, she wanted to tell him. He means us harm, but she would sound truly mad. She couldn’t see anyone, and who would want to hurt her? Avendale was the only one who ever had. Everyone else treated her kindly. She released a self-conscious laugh. “I’m sorry, I’m ruining our lovely morning.”
“You don’t need to apologize, and you’re not ruining anything.” He studied her with concern that made her feel silly for raising an alarm. She had absolutely no reason to feel threatened and yet she did. It was almost as though Avendale’s gaze was boring a hole through her back. He’d had such an intense stare that she’d been able to feel it at the most crowded of balls, no matter where he was in the room.
“I think perhaps remnants of last night are lingering,” he said, taking strands of her hair that the wind had tugged free of the braid and tucking them behind her ear. How could such a simple act of putting her back together feel so remarkably intimate, set her back to rights in so many ways? All her fears dissipated as gently as the fog.
“Yes, I think you’re right. I thought I was over the fright from last night.”
“How would you like to row us back?” he asked.
“I don’t believe I’d have the strength.”
“I’m relatively certain you’re stronger than you realize. I’ll sit behind you and guide you until you have the hang of it.” Pushing himself up, careful not to rock the boat overmuch, he sat on the bench and then assisted her into position, so she was sitting between his thighs. When she took hold of the oars, he folded his hands over hers. “You can’t make any mistakes here.”
His faith in her caused her chest to tighten. She’d once become accustomed to not being able to do anything correctly. It was quite liberating to know William was not awaiting an opportunity to scold her.
“Whenever you’re ready,” he said, and she thought she’d never been more ready to take on a task.
As she moved the oars, she was quite aware of his strength serving to guide her. She felt the muscles of his powerful chest tightening and loosening against her back, the ropy muscles of his arms bunching and undulating with his movements. They moved in tandem, rocking forward, leaning back, working together to skim over the water. She thought anything he did with her would mirror this togetherness, this partnership. She imagined what a fortunate woman his wife would be.
“Why have you never married?” she asked.
“I fear it would take a very special woman to be content with the life I can offer her, leaving her bed at all hours, arriving for dinner after the food has cooled, or having the meal interrupted when she is in the midst of telling me about her day. My schedule is seldom governed by the clock.”
“That sounds rather like something you would say at social affairs when meddling mothers are trying to foist their daughters off on you.”
His low chuckle tickled her soul. “Quite right.”
While she considered questioning him further, she decided to let it pass. His reasons were obviously personal or he would have shared them without her having to pull the answer from him. If she could characterize their relationship at all, she would do so using the term “completely honest.” He’d never lied to her, never deceived her. She could be herself with him without fear of judgment, and she accepted him as he was. It was quite freeing, to have that amount of trust with someone.
Oh, she certainly trusted Catherine, but her trust of William was more complete, more firm. It was the bedrock upon which a foundation of something deeper could be built. He gave her confidence in herself that had been sorely lacking before. He allowed her to trust herself.
Her muscles began to burn with the relentless rowing, but she took satisfaction in it. Then she realized that his hands were no longer folded over hers, but merely resting atop them, that he was moving with her but his muscles weren’t knotting with effort.
“I’m doing this on my own, aren’t I?” she asked.
“I was wondering when you might notice.”
“You make me believe I can do anything, that I truly have nothing to fear.”
“You can do anything,” he said quietly. “I truly believe that.”
They were nearing their destination, the small dock where boats were stored and rented.
“I’ll guide us in,” he said. “It can get tricky.”
As much as she didn’t want to, she accepted the wisdom of his words. She was still a novice, but she felt invincible. While he took over the oars, she folded her hands in her lap.
“I need to face my demons,” she said succinctly. “I think all these strange occurrences that have been happening are tied in with Avendale.”
He stilled, the oars out of the water, droplets dripping into the Thames. “Why would you think that?”
“Because I never truly let him go. I’ve allowed him to maintain a hold over me. If I’m not going mad, then something has to be moving those objects around, causing all those unexplainable things to be happening. I think his spirit might be haunting me. Even out here, the strange sensation I had of being watched, I think I can attribute it to him.”
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