The Last Wicked Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 5)(25) by Lorraine Heath
“I know,” Winnie said softly. “My reaction was formed by habit. I know it upset you. I’m sorry for that.”
“No matter how angry I get, I do not lash out with my fists.” He’d fought back once and his mother had died as a result. He avoided confrontation at all cost.
“Yes, I know that as well,” she said softly.
Following his reaction, the medium had excused herself, saying she was late for another appointment. Satisfaction shimmered off her, as she walked from the room without uttering any other word. Catherine and Claybourne had also taken their leave shortly thereafter. And Graves had headed straightaway for the liquor. He took another long gulp. He hadn’t been able to protect himself when he was a child, but he damned sure wanted to protect Winnie.
“Perhaps we should adjourn to another room,” she suggested.
“The whiskey’s here and I’m in need of whiskey. Would you care for a brandy?”
She glanced around. “I don’t like this room. It feels like he’s here, as though he’s watching us.”
“He’s not. Spirits do not come back to haunt us.” Or at least that’s what he had believed before tonight. Grabbing his glass, he strode over to the fireplace, pressed his forearm against the mantel, and stared into the fire. All these years, he’d managed to hold thoughts of his past at bay. He’d worked obsessively to save lives so he didn’t have to focus on the one he’d taken.
Out of the corner of his eye, he watched as Winnie studied the table where the candle continued to burn, the shadows dancing around the rings and the pewter necklace. Even though the gaslights were now on, the candle seemed to provide more light. She brought her shoulders back, shoring up her courage he had no doubt. She marched over to the table, snatched up the rings, and walked to the desk. Opening the cigar box on the corner, she dropped the rings inside.
“Out of sight, out of mind?” he asked.
“Something like that.”
She wandered back over to the table and picked up the necklace. As she approached him, he was grateful to see no hesitancy in her step, no wariness in her eyes. Stopping before him, she gave him a soft smile as she lifted the chain to place it around his neck. Bending his head, he relished the feel of her fingers skimming over his hair as she carried the chain down to rest against his neck. She patted the pewter that now hovered over his chest. “I think it’s very sweet that you wear your mother’s cross.”
“Sweetness has nothing to do with it. It’s so I never forget how quickly and easily death can come.” His father had given it to him. “So you’ll remember,” he’d said, and he was fairly certain what it was his father wanted him to remember. Because of him his mother was dead.
Using only the tip of her finger, she touched the pewter again, and he imagined the tips of her fingers skipping over his chest, lingering here and there. “As soon as Mrs. Ponsby implied that you killed your mother, I knew the foolishness of thinking that anyone could truly contact the dead.” She lifted her gaze to his. “I know you had nothing at all to do with your mother’s death.”
Only he had everything to do with it, but he couldn’t tell her that. He didn’t want to see the same fear in her eyes that he had seen in his father’s.
“How did she know her words would strike a cord with you?” she asked.
She was so damned trusting, being this near to him, touching him, looking into his eyes. He wanted all of that: her trust, her touch, her deep brown eyes filled with adoration. For him, a sinner who had spent a good deal of his life striving to undo his sins. Wicked, his mother had called him, wicked boy, and he’d never understood exactly what he’d done that was so revolting. It had to be something inside of him, something only she could see.
“Because Mrs. Ponsby is very skilled at reading people. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard a parent say of their child, ‘He will be the death of me.’ I told her that my mother beat me. My mistake. I gave her something that she could work with. She would know that even if I had nothing at all to do with my mother’s death, I would harbor some guilt over it because I would have wished her dead a thousand times.”
“How do you know that she manipulates things in that way?”
“Because I grew up under the care of a kidsman who was very good at fleecing people. He would knock on someone’s door, and within a matter of minutes he would know what sort of tale to weave in order to separate a man from his coins. Reading people is a skill that one can develop.”
“Are you skilled at reading people?”
“It comes in handy when I have to deliver unpleasant news, if I can gauge how best to deliver it.”
“Can you read me?” she asked.
He tried not to, didn’t want to know exactly what she was thinking, how she felt. “I know you’re afraid.”
“Not of you. I’ve never been afraid of you. I know you’re a good man.”
Only he wasn’t. His past was a labyrinth of wrongdoing. His redemption rested with her, if he could only protect her from her husband, protect her from himself.
But she was making it so difficult when she stepped in closer, until her body was flush with his. She may have well have laid a hot brand to his flesh. He was acutely aware of every luscious dip and curve that comprised her.
He was familiar with the human body, had examined hundreds of them, had examined her, but he had never wanted to explore one with the patience and depths that he wanted to explore hers. He wanted to know the smallest of details, slide his tongue along the tiniest of crevices. He wanted to become lost in her until he forgot his past, until hers could no longer create a chasm between them. He wanted what he could not have, what he should not take.
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