The Last Wicked Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 5)(32) by Lorraine Heath
“Obviously someone from the streets,” he said.
“He’s the Duke of Avendale,” she corrected.
He looked at her, looked at William, looked at Avendale. “I see a man of the streets, a thief who has no doubt been breaking into your residence and stealing things. My report will indicate that the door has been tampered with by somewhat of an expert.”
She was on the verge of protesting again, when it dawned on her why William had sent for Swindler. “Of course. You’re part of the group that lived with the Earl of Claybourne’s grandfather.”
William took a step toward her. “Winnie, I know you despise me but no good will come from revealing the truth now. Swindler can make all this appear as though he broke in.”
“Are you saying that to protect yourself?”
“No, to protect you from the scandal. Everything about your life with him will become fodder for gossip. Yes, there are those of us who will no doubt suffer because of what we did, but you also have to consider the impact the tale will have on your son.”
She’d never spoken ill of Avendale to his son, had never wanted Whit to know the brute that his father was. He would suffer if the truth came out.
“But I killed him.”
“Not really. You hit him. He fell. The blow to the head killed him, but you had no influence over that. It was an accident.”
“Which is how my report will read,” Swindler said. “With all due respect, Your Grace, no one will question my findings.”
“You can live with this?”
“I can live with justice being served. In my profession, I see a lot of people who are hurt or killed and the culprits aren’t always caught. So I take justice where I can. Your husband treated you poorly, almost killed you, probably would have killed Bill here tonight. He was a man who didn’t feel remorse or regret. I’m not sorry to see him go. As I’m given to understand his two previous wives met with unfortunate accidents. Poetic justice, I say, that he should die from a blow to the head.”
“Is it really? In convincing me to say nothing are you not also striving to protect yourself? I imagine you played some role in his incarceration. You would have had access to the prisons that none of the others had.”
“We all knew the risks, Winnie,” William said. “We were all prepared to live with the results if what we did was ever discovered. Do what you must.”
She thought of how courageous they must have all been to risk so much when only Catherine truly knew her. What was she to them, other than someone the law wouldn’t protect? So they had done what they could to protect her.
She took a deep breath, a long sigh. “He’s wearing my husband’s rings. I’m not certain when he stole them, but they belong to my son, are part of his inheritance.”
Swindler nodded. “I’ll add that to my report. I’ll take the body to the coroner now if you have no objections.”
“I want him buried in the family crypt,” she informed them. “You don’t have to remove the other fellow, but Avendale should rest with his ancestors.”
“I’ll see to that,” William said.
She wasn’t surprised by his offer. He’d been looking out for her longer than she’d known, and he also had the skills to manage the task by himself. “We should see to your injuries,” she said.
“You don’t look fine from here,” Swindler said. “I’ll finish up. You go let the lady tend you.”
It appeared that William was going to object, so she said softly, “Please.”
She couldn’t have been more relieved when he acquiesced.
After taking him to her bedchamber, she sat him at her dressing table. She dipped a cloth into the washbasin, then kneeling before him began to gently wipe away the blood that he’d overlooked when he’d stopped the bleeding with his handkerchief. He grimaced, and she lightened her touch.
“I’m sorry if that hurt,” she said.
“I’ll live. I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you what I suspected when you first told me about the strange happenings. I was hoping I was wrong.”
She gave him a soft smile. “You’d rather I be mad?”
He shook his head. “No, I was hoping for another explanation.”
“I’m relieved that it’s over, that he’s truly gone, and yet I’m melancholy.”
“That’s to be expected I think.”
“If I hadn’t hit him so hard—”
He cradled her face between his palms. “Winnie, make no mistake. He was going to kill me. Bound as I was, I doubt I could have stopped him. In spite of his plans to have you committed, I suspect he would have killed you as well. I heard a bit of your conversation with him. He practically confessed to killing his other wives. You acquired justice not only for you but for them.”
“Will the guilt lessen in time, do you think?”
“I know it will, but it will never completely go away.” He averted his gaze for a moment, a distant expression on his face, and she couldn’t help but believe he was visiting the past. How often had she done the same? She watched as he swallowed. When he brought his gaze back to hers, it was raw, tormented. “Mrs. Ponsby had the right of it. I was responsible for my mother’s death. She was beating me one day, at the top of our stairs, outside for all the world to see. I was huddled, trying to deflect the blows, and I struck out at her, tried to kick her. I’m unclear as to exactly how it happened, but our legs got tangled, she lost her balance, fell backward through the railing and landed in the street. Broke her neck.”
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