A Study in Scandal (Scandalous)

By: Caroline Linden

The last step to clear her conscience completely was to tell her father, and persuade him to retract his charges of thievery against Sebastian. Then Sebastian would be able to marry the girl he loved, and Samantha would feel that she had atoned for her sin against him. Even though she was determined, she knew the earl would be furious, and Benedict and her mother were doing their best to persuade her against it.

And to her shame, it was working. That lifelong fear of the earl lapped at her like cold dark water that could pull her in and drown her if she let it gain a hold on her. Benedict and Lady Stratford knew the whole story now, and they alone knew the earl’s true nature. If anyone could discover a way to justify not confessing her sin, it would be they.

“It was the act of a child,” her brother argued. “Surely we all deserve to let some of our childhood actions disappear without acknowledgment.”

Samantha sighed. She had been a child to act as she had, but it was no excuse. “I was sixteen,” she reminded Benedict. “Rash and unthinking, but old enough to know it was foolish and wrong,” she added in honesty, as he started to argue again.

No one could deny that.

“It happened so long ago,” fretted her mother.

Seven years ago next winter. “But it has not been forgotten,” was her gentle reply. Not by others, and certainly not by Samantha herself. The knowledge that she had ruined a man, yet been unable to explain or apologize, had sat like a weight on her soul for seven long years.

“No, it has not.” Benedict ran his hands through his hair, looking agonized. “But Samantha, think for a moment. You’re stirring up trouble where none exists.”

He meant trouble for her. No one had ever connected her to the missing money. Samantha was done thinking only of herself, though. “You’re wrong, Ben. It caused Sebastian a great deal of trouble, and I cannot continue to keep silent, when what I have to say can exonerate him.” Miss Weston’s plea had upset the delicate balance Samantha had found between guilt and fear. “Because I said nothing, Sebastian endured years of lies and distrust. Even from you, Ben,” she added as her brother closed his eyes.

“I thought…” His voice died and he hung his head. Benedict, who knew her so well, had suspected something seven years ago, though he never asked her about it. To protect her, he had turned his back on Sebastian, who had been his dearest friend since they were boys. It was another thorn of guilt, knowing that she had caused the rift between them. “I was wrong.”

“We were both wrong.” She laid her hand on his arm. “And we both owe it to Sebastian to make it right.”

“How will this make it right?” he exclaimed. The countess made a horrified shushing sound, and Benedict glanced uneasily at the door. “Father hates Sebastian Vane,” he said in a lower, though still impassioned, voice. “It’s bad enough that you…” He hesitated, as if the word tasted unpleasant. “That you stole from him, but you did it to help Vane. Don’t you see how that will enrage him?”

“It probably will.” She had no doubt of it, and the thought of her punishment made her pluck anxiously at the trim on her sleeve.

“Then don’t do this,” said Benedict urgently. “Vane wouldn’t want you to be hurt. I may not have been a good friend to him, but I know him well enough to vouch for that.”

“I must.” She shook her head, wishing they could understand. Even though she feared what the earl would do to her, she had to do this. Sebastian and Miss Weston were depending on her, whether they knew it or not. Perhaps that was what she had really been waiting for all these years: a chance to undo the damage she had caused and make it up to Sebastian. Now the moment had arrived and she would not shrink from it.

Her brother’s shoulders slumped. “When?”

“Tomorrow morning. As soon as I can.” The earl was away from Stratford Court for dinner tonight, and wouldn’t return until late. Samantha would rather have got it over with immediately, but tomorrow would have to suffice.

Benedict pulled her into his arms. “Promise me you won’t go alone,” he whispered against her hair. “For Mother’s sake.”

Over her brother’s shoulder Samantha saw her mother. The countess was fighting back tears, her face pale and strained. “I promise,” she said quietly.

He nodded and released her. With a murmured farewell to their mother, he left.

In the quiet, Lady Stratford came to take Samantha’s hand. “I wish you wouldn’t do this.”

“I know.” Together they walked to the settee and sat down, hands still clasped. “But I have to, Mama,” Samantha said softly. “If I say nothing, it will cost Sebastian the girl he loves.” The memory of Elizabeth’s sobs as Stratford ordered Mr. Halley out of the house haunted her. “It will cost Miss Weston a lifetime of happiness.”

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