Authors: Lorraine Heath
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical romance, #Victorian
A Scoundrels of St. James Novella
For all my lovely readers who give my characters a home in their hearts.
From the Journal of William Graves
was born to a woman who deemed me worthless, except when I provided her with a convenient spot for the back of her hand. I learned well to avoid her, to hide in corners, to find a way to be far from her reach. As soon as my legs could keep up, I began to accompany my father on his nightly runs to the graveyards.
He was a grave robber, you see. And he treated me much more kindly than did my mum. He saw potential in me, because I was willing to help him dig for the treasures. That was what he called them. Often the well-to-do were buried with their jewelry. Some fancy gents had gold teeth. All were cadavers, needed by the hospital for teaching potential physicians about the intricacies of the human body, and they put coins in my father’s pockets.
I never feared the dead. They could no longer hurt me.
When my mum died, my father took her straightaway to the hospital because she would fetch us a tidy sum. But that time—after they paid my father—I lingered about, caught glimpses of the reverence with which the bodies were handled and the secrets they revealed.
When I returned home, my father was gone. I never saw him again. I don’t know if he was robbed and killed for his flush pockets or if he decided he wanted to be rid of me, realized my mum was correct and I wasn’t worth the effort of keeping alive.
I was eight at the time, and soon found myself on the streets where I fell in with a fellow who went by the name of Feagan. He managed a group of child thieves, and soon taught me to rob swells of their silk handkerchiefs. My fingers were nimble and quick, well suited to the task.
However, Fate is a fickle lady. Eventually it was discovered that one of Feagan’s lads was actually a lost child of the aristocracy, and when Luke went to live with his grandfather, the Earl of Claybourne, he took me with him. I was tutored in mathematics, penmanship, and reading. When I was of a proper age, I gained admittance to a teaching hospital.
I was comfortable around the cadavers, eager to understand all they could share with me. In time, I was able to apply what I learned. I became a renowned physician, treating the poor and aristocracy alike. Eventually, my skills became known to the queen, and she bade me to serve at her pleasure, which I did gladly.
But I never forgot my humble beginnings, never forgot that the dead always tell their secrets.
inifred Buckland, the Duchess of Avendale, had never been more terrified in her life. Something was wrong, dreadfully wrong, and she feared that if she told anyone what was happening that they would see her straightaway to Bedlam.
So as people arrived for her charity ball, she stood at the foot of the stairs that led into the grand salon and pretended nothing was amiss. With a warm smile, she thanked the most influential and affluent members of the aristocracy for coming in support of her plans to build a hospital. It was a grand undertaking, but managing the project had served to bolster her confidence.
She began hosting the event shortly after her first year of mourning. Her husband had died in a fire at Heatherwood, the Earl of Claybourne’s ancestral estate. The reason for his being in the manor was still a bit murky, but his death was clear. She’d seen his charred remains and had the ducal rings removed from the ash of his fingers. With his demise had come her freedom—her freedom from pain, humiliation, and paralyzing fear. He’d been a brute, if she were honest. Although only a handful of people knew that truth. It wasn’t something about which one boasted.
After greeting the latest arrivals, she experienced a small respite and took a moment to glance around. The orchestra situated in the balcony was playing a waltz. Morning lilies, her favorite flower, were arranged in lovely vases, bringing their sweet fragrance into the ballroom. Through a nearby door, her guests wandered into another room where they were greeted with an abundance of food and drink on long linen-covered tables. Champagne flowed. Laughter floated through the rooms. She loved the laughter most of all. Such a joyous sound when there had been little enough in her life for some years.
Where once arranging balls had been a tedious ordeal that often undermined her self-esteem because her husband always found fault with one thing or another, now she enjoyed the task immensely because her ball served the purpose of repaying the man who had quite literally rescued her from death’s door.
Glancing back up the stairs, she felt her heart give a little stutter as she watched William Graves descending. With his blond hair curling about his head like a halo, he reminded her of an angel. Her angel. He had not only seen to her injuries, but had provided her with sanctuary after the last horrible beating her husband had given her before his accidental death.
It was because of William Graves that she hosted this affair every year. She very much intended to use the funds to establish a hospital in his honor as a way to repay him for all he’d done for her.
Finally he reached her, took her gloved hand, and pressed a kiss to it. “Your Grace, you’re looking lovely this evening.”
“Dr. Graves, I’m so pleased you could join us.” She wished she didn’t sound so breathless, as though she were the one who had just descended the stairs, and descended them at a hurried clip. She didn’t know why he always made her struggle for breath, in a rather pleasant way that implied anticipation rather than dread. Considering the treatment she’d endured at the hands of her husband, she was very much surprised that she didn’t fear all men.
But there was something about William Graves that had always put her at ease. The devilment dancing in the blue of his eyes perhaps or the way he smiled somewhat roguishly as though he were very adept at holding a lady’s secrets, especially if he were the reason for those secrets. His was the face of Adonis, and while his evening clothes provided him with an elegance and veneer of civility, she knew power resided beneath the fabric. He had carried her with such ease three years ago. Barely conscious at the time, she’d still been extremely aware of being cocooned within the shelter of his strong arms. His voice had issued quiet but insistent commands, urging her not to succumb to death’s clutches. She suspected most of his patients healed because of his unwavering insistence that they not do otherwise.
He took in his surroundings with the attention of someone who never failed to overlook the tiniest of details. “You have a rather nice turnout. I’m not sure I’d have been missed.”
Rubbing the bridge of her nose, she said, “You would have been, I assure you. And you’re correct about the attendance this evening. This year’s donations will provide the funds to see that the work on the hospital begins in earnest.”
His blue gaze came back to bear on her. “A hospital will be much appreciated. You’re very generous to give it your time and such devotion.”
“It’s no sacrifice, I assure you. Perhaps if you have a couple of spare hours in the next few days, we could discuss some of the details. I want to ensure that it suits your needs.”
“I trust your judgment.”
He would never know how much those words meant to her. Her husband had sought to control every aspect of her life, had never trusted her judgment. In the end, she began to doubt it as well. “Still, I value your opinion.”
“Your Grace, it should have nothing to do with me.”
It had everything to do with him. “Please,” she urged, knowing that next he would tell her again that he had done nothing out of the ordinary in caring for her. She liked him, rather a lot, but he kept a respectful distance and was always so formal with her. She knew he had grown up on the streets and was a friend to the Earl of Claybourne. It was how she had met him as the earl had also assisted that awful night. “It gives my life purpose. I’m going to build a hospital whether or not you assist me, but doing it on my own, I may muck things up.”
He smiled, a soft upturn of his lips. “I doubt you will muck things up, but I suppose I could add some insight regarding the needs of a hospital. I’ll make time in my schedule to look over your plans.”
“I appreciate it.”
“Now, can you make time in your hostess schedule to dance with me?”
Joy burst through her. It was the first ball where she had not worn her mourning garb. In her pale blue evening gown, she felt young again, not weighted down with the poor decisions of her youth. “I can indeed. My dance card is completely open. Widows are not nearly as sought after as young single ladies.”
“Personally, I prefer a lady with some experience in life to the ones who are too innocent.” The strains of another waltz started up. “Will this dance suffice?”
She couldn’t contain her pleasure. “It will do very nicely.”
As he led her onto the dance floor, she did experience a moment of disappointment. She would have felt far more self-possessed if she were wearing the sapphire necklace that once belonged to her mother. It would have gone perfectly with her gown and would have served to distract from her misshapen nose that listed slightly to one side—a parting gift from Avendale. But when she’d gone to the safe earlier to retrieve the sapphires, they hadn’t been there. She didn’t know how the necklace could have been stolen when the safe was secure and she was the only one with the key. She tried to remember when she had last worn it, and if she might have placed it elsewhere, but she always took such care with the jewelry, more because of its sentimental value than its monetary worth.
But thoughts of the necklace slipped from her mind as William Graves took her into his arms and swept her over the gleaming marble floor. Her favorite part of the evening was always this singular dance with him. He would only ask her once. It mattered not that no one else escorted her onto the dance area. After these few minutes, he wouldn’t intrude on her evening again—as though she would consider any time spent with him an intrusion.