The Last Wicked Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 5)(30) by Lorraine Heath
Sooner or later he would face her, she was certain of it. He could have his place in Society back. But he could not have his place back in her life. Although it would create enormous scandal, she would divorce him. Or more precisely, have him divorce her for adultery. She would admit to sleeping with William Graves. Her butler could testify that he possessed a key so he could come and go as he pleased. She suspected William would confess to the wrongdoing as well. After all, he owed her.
But regardless, she was not going to stay in this marriage.
During Avendale’s time away, she had come into her own. She managed the household here in London and at the estates and she managed them well. She had put together the means to raise money for a hospital. She had spoken with architects and builders and a physician in order to discover all that was needed. They had talked with her, offered advice, took her suggestions. She no longer felt small or insignificant. She was confident she could manage her own affairs. She’d been doing quite nicely for three years.
Thanks to William Graves, who had shown her how it should be between a man and a woman. Even before his interest of late, when she had been recovering, and had first suggested the notion for a hospital, he had embraced it and never questioned her ability to carry it off. He treated her with respect and valued her.
She could not go back to flinching every time her husband spoke, to cowering when he came near, to expecting to receive a blow.
While it occurred to her that things might go better if she had all her friends surrounding her, she needed to take care of this matter on her own. They had already put their lives and reputations at risk. Her anger at them was dissipating, leaving her overwhelmed with the realization that they would risk so much for her.
When it was her battle to fight.
Graves knew he shouldn’t be standing behind the hedgerows that lined Winnie’s back gardens, that she despised him and didn’t want him near, but he couldn’t force himself to stay away, not when there was a chance that she might be hurt, that her husband might be lurking in the shadows.
Whatever had made any of them think that their plan would be a permanent solution to Winnie’s problem, and why had they all agreed to it without consulting her? Why had he taken a role in it?
Because examining her bloody, battered, and smashed body, he had believed, truly believed, that no one should be mistreated as she had been. She had been so small, delicate, and fragile that it had never occurred to him that she would be capable of taking care of herself. Shame on him for not seeing three years ago that all she needed was to develop the confidence to stand up for herself. She had been so determined this morning to brush them off, to make it on her own.
But making it on her own, taking care of the matter, meant facing her husband, and he couldn’t allow her to face him alone. No matter how strong she thought she was, she was not strong enough for that.
He’d seen the servants leaving earlier, assumed her son had been taken elsewhere. No light escaped from any of the windows except the ones that looked out from the library. She was preparing to meet the beast in his own lair. He wondered if Avendale would respond to the invitation. Surely he had to know by now that she was aware he had returned.
Graves heard something rustling off to his left. Hefting the cudgel he’d borrowed from Jim, he cautiously stepped forward and peered—
Pain shot through the back of his skull.
Winnie didn’t remember falling asleep in the chair by the fire, but the smooth ominous voice sent a tremor through her. Fighting down the fear, she opened her eyes.
A great hulk of a man was crouched before her. Avendale.
Only it wasn’t. This man bore a horrid scar from cheek to chin. He was unshaven, his hair an unruly mess. His clothing was not tailored to fit him but looked like something he might have taken from a beggar. He wore a coarse black coat. His arms were beefier, his hands rougher.
“Avendale,” she replied, grateful her voice was steady. “Fancy seeing you here.”
“I think you were expecting me, but I still managed to take your lover by surprise.”
“My lover? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He shifted slightly and she saw William lying on the carpet, his hands bound behind him, eyes closed, blood pooling at the back of his head. “My God, what did you do?”
She started to get up, to see how badly he was injured, but Avendale shoved her back into the chair with one meaty hand, and rose to tower over her like Lucifer ascending from hell. “Were you bedding him before I was sent away?”
“I was never unfaithful.”
“What do you call last night? I stood outside your bedchamber listening to your cries. I almost barged in to kill him then and there, to kill you both. I would have been within my rights.”
“I thought you were dead. I didn’t know what happened to you, not until today.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
“I really don’t care if you do or not. Why have you been lurking about in such an unmanly fashion?” His jaw tightened and she could see the red flush of embarrassment staining his skin. If there was anything that irked him more than having his manhood questioned, she didn’t know what it was. Well, maybe being sent to the far side of the world aboard a prison ship was considerably more irritating. “Why not announce your return, why play these silly games?”
“So no one would question my sending my devoted wife to an insane asylum. My wife who loses things and finds them, who believes in spirits.” He grabbed the arms of the chair and lowered himself until he was hovering an inch from her nose. “I enjoyed watching you panic, although I must confess that you didn’t break as quickly as I thought you would.”
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