The Last Wicked Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 5)(33) by Lorraine Heath
She squeezed his hands. “Oh my God, my love, you can’t blame yourself for what happened.”
“I don’t think I fully understood that until tonight when I saw you strike out at Avendale. You didn’t mean to kill him, Winnie, just as I didn’t mean to kill my mother. I’ve spent a good deal of my life striving to make amends for something that wasn’t my fault. You are equally blameless in tonight’s tragedy.”
“Yes, but—” Somehow her situation felt different, but was it really?
“I think that’s why my father left me that night,” William continued. “When I gazed over the landing at my mother, I saw my father standing there, looking up at me. I think he might have feared that I was going to be like her, a brute. So he moved on.”
How could his father have left him? How could he have believed for a single moment that William would turn out like his mother? It never crossed Winnie’s mind that Whit would grow up to be anything except a good, honorable man.
“Although I never met him, I don’t much like your father,” she said. “That he would leave a child to fend for himself.”
“But his actions resulted in my life taking a turn that led me here. I love you, Winnie. I have for three years now, but I held my affections at bay, because I didn’t think you’d approve of what we’d done and that you would despise me for my role in it. But then I kissed you in the garden and all of that hardly seemed to matter anymore.”
It didn’t matter. They had tried to protect her because she hadn’t been strong enough to protect herself. But that night and all the days that followed changed her. She would never again believe she deserved anything other than the best. She had no doubt that the man before her was the absolute best. She gave him a small smile.
“Well, I am truly a widow now.”
He grinned at her. “So you are.”
Six Months Later
Winnie thought a wedding was a fine way to begin the year, and so she was quite excited when the first week of January was finally upon them and she was studying her reflection in a mirror. She had sold the house in London—too many ghosts there—and moved into a modest home that William had purchased. That afternoon, he would officially take up residence here with her and Whit, although many a previous night he, scoundrel that he was, would sneak in and join her in bed or sit with her before a fire and they would talk into the wee hours of the morning. She loved every moment she spent in his company.
William had been quite attentive the past several months as she struggled to reconcile all that had happened and came to terms with it. Avendale’s death often haunted her. Sometimes she awoke in a cold sweat, certain he’d arisen from the dead determined to reclaim her, but William was always there to comfort and assure her it was not so. He was gone, truly gone this time, and would never again hurt her.
She came to accept that Catherine had sought to protect her as best she could. Winnie dealt with some guilt over placing her friend in a position where she was willing to sell her soul in order to prevent Winnie from suffering at her husband’s hands. All she could remember during those long years was feeling helpless and not knowing where to turn.
But somehow, while Avendale had been away, she had changed, had taken charge of her own destiny. While she had not meant to kill him, she had fully intended to stand up to him, to show him that he could no longer control her with his fists. His returning had been her opportunity to redeem herself, to put him in his place, to demonstrate that she was now a woman to be reckoned with.
But all of those thoughts were for another day. Today, she was getting married.
“You look lovely,” Catherine said, coming up behind her to settle the veil into place.
“I feel lovely, inside and out.”
A rap sounded on the door. Catherine opened the door, and Winnie heard the Earl of Claybourne say, “It’s beginning to snow. We’d best be off to the church.”
Catherine turned to her. “Are you ready, Winnie?”
She took one last look at her reflection. She saw a woman who stood a bit taller, had no fears, was confident regarding the path she was on. A woman who was loved.
“More than ready.”
As most of the aristocracy was still in the country, only a few people attended the ceremony. Graves didn’t mind as they were the ones that mattered: Swindler and his wife, Emma; Jack Dodger and Lady Olivia; Frannie and the Duke of Greystone. The Earl of Claybourne had stood with Graves while Catherine was beside Winnie.
After they were pronounced man and wife, they enjoyed breakfast with their friends, then returned to their residence where they had watched Whit romping in the snow. But now it was late, the house was quiet, and she was his.
Standing behind her at the vanity, he brushed her hair, loving the way the mahogany glistened. He thought he would never tire of it, or of gazing at her reflection in the mirror. It didn’t hurt that she wasn’t wearing any clothes. But then neither was he. It seemed pointless to go through the motions of putting on nightclothes when they would only be removed as soon as possible. He enjoyed gazing at her body, and was grateful that she didn’t seem to mind giving his a once-over every now and then.
At the hundredth stroke, he swept the cascade of her hair over her shoulder, leaned down, and pressed a kiss to the nape of her neck. “I love you.”
Her eyes sparkled and glowed. Turning on the low stool, she smiled up at him. “I love you, too.”
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