A Study in Scandal (Scandalous)

By: Caroline Linden

Chapter One

Lady Samantha Lennox had been afraid of her father every day of her life.

Even as a child she had known to conceal this from everyone except her mother and siblings. To the world at large, the Earl of Stratford presented an image of austere urbanity, widely known for his unparalleled collection of art and his ascetic personal habits. He was known as a proud man, true, but that was common among noblemen and was even accounted as his due.

Only his family knew his real nature: not merely proud, but utterly convinced of his own superiority. Acclaimed for his artistic eye, but ruthless in the pursuit of works he desired. Lord and master of a vast, wealthy estate, but cruelly unforgiving of anyone who didn’t meet his standards. And when it came to his family, he expected nothing short of perfection.

His wife—whom he married for her beauty and her dowry, so that his children would be both handsome and wealthy—needed his permission for every purchase, and any item of her wardrobe that displeased him was promptly destroyed. His daughters were raised to be charming and pleasant at all times, never contradicting him or giving any bad impression of themselves, so that they might be a credit to him. His son was expected to be the epitome of a gentleman, well-educated, charming, always masterfully in control of every circumstance. The Earl of Stratford’s wishes were paramount, and woe to anyone who flouted them.

And Samantha, his youngest daughter, was about to tell him she had stolen from him and lied to him to conceal that theft for seven years.

Even now, as she stood in her mother’s private parlor listening to her brother and mother beg her to reconsider, she wondered how she’d got herself into this position. She certainly hadn’t planned to become a criminal. But with one rash action, she had sentenced herself to a sort of purgatory, where the threat of discovery had weighed more heavily on her with every passing year.

Looking back, she could see how stupid she’d been. As a girl, she had fancied herself in love with Sebastian Vane, a good friend of her older brother Benedict, tall and handsome, loyal and kind. He lived across the river from Stratford Court, and the happiest memories of her childhood had been when Benedict would row them over to meet Sebastian in the woods, where they played at being pirates or explorers. When the earl was away, Samantha’s mother permitted her children to do such things. But when she was ten, the earl discovered it and immediately forbade her from it, although Benedict was still allowed to go.

She was sure those youthful memories had fueled her infatuation with Sebastian, even after he went into the army and left Richmond. But it had been her sister Elizabeth’s ill-fated romance that made her determined to marry as soon as possible, and Sebastian—being familiar, dear, and nearby—was her only potential suitor. Elizabeth, three years older than she, fell in love with a man named Robert Halley, who was kind, charming, and wealthy, but merely a gentleman. Lord Stratford refused his suit. Elizabeth wept and the countess pleaded, but the earl was implacable. “My daughter will not wed a commoner,” he’d coldly said as he locked Elizabeth in her room to contemplate her error.

Samantha could not imagine the heartbreak her sister felt. She had vowed to wed as she pleased, and escape her father’s control. But Sebastian was a commoner, and even worse, his father had gone mad and frittered away the Vane fortune until there was almost nothing left. Lord Stratford would never allow the match, and Samantha had impulsively embarked on a mad plan to force the issue.

Madness was the only way to explain it. She had taken leave of her senses and stolen four thousand guineas from a chest in her father’s study. Late one night, she crept out of the house and smuggled the coins across the river to Montrose Hill House, Sebastian’s home, where she gave them to his father. She reasoned that if Mr. Vane claimed it was a hidden reserve of funds, Sebastian would take the money. In her fevered dreams, he would then rush to ask her father for her hand in marriage, and if the earl refused, Samantha was ready to elope with Sebastian.

But nothing had gone right except the theft itself. Instead of blaming his recently sacked valet for the robbery, Lord Stratford publicly blamed Sebastian. Even worse, old Mr. Vane disappeared, along with the money, and soon people were whispering that his son must have killed him. Far from being his salvation, her stupid ploy had been his ruin. Horrified, Samantha had said nothing, and soon Sebastian was a pariah in Richmond.

And for seven years since, she’d said nothing—not one word of defense or protest against the vilification of a man she had loved since girlhood. The shame of it had grown a little more each year until it felt like a ball of lead inside her. But now Sebastian had fallen in love, with Miss Abigail Weston, and when Miss Weston came to beg for Samantha’s help in clearing his name of those charges of theft and murder, it had been a great relief to finally tell the truth. She’d confessed all to Miss Weston and her sister, and to Benedict.

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