A Study in Scandal (Scandalous)

By: Caroline Linden

“Perhaps not.” The countess shook her head. “In a few years she may well thank you for saying nothing.”

Samantha looked at her mother, whose marriage could hardly have brought her much happiness. “She’s in love with him, Mama, and he with her. I—I think they will be happy together, if given a chance. And that means I could never forgive myself if I kept silent and prevented that chance.” She leaned forward at the anguish in her mother’s face. “I can’t stay silent. It has been a terrible weight on my conscience, and now it would be unbearable, if I knowingly allowed it to ruin two people’s happiness.”

Her mother didn’t argue further. Samantha told herself she was glad of that. After keeping the secret for seven years, she was both anxious and terrified to unburden herself. It felt like strength to contemplate facing the earl, but deep inside she felt she must be the weakest coward in the world to have avoided it so long. Even as she repeated, over and over, that it was the right thing to do, she worried that her nerve would fail her again.

The next day dawned clear and bright. Samantha took her time dressing, hoping a good appearance would please her father, and went downstairs.

Her brother was waiting, pacing the corridor some distance from the earl’s study. He stopped when he saw her. “I suppose you’re still set on this.” She nodded once. Looking grim, he only sighed and picked up a dusty leather satchel from the floor.

Together they walked to the earl’s study door. Benedict’s expression smoothed into an inscrutable mask as he knocked. Samantha felt a burst of love for him. She knew most of the times Benedict had been admitted to the earl’s study, it had been to get a whipping.

Lord Stratford was writing when they were admitted. His secretary backed silently out of the room, pulling the door closed behind him. For a few endless minutes, Samantha and Benedict stood at attention, waiting to be acknowledged. Her heart pounded. Father would be very angry. He had never whipped her, but she had never done anything this terrible. Perhaps her mother was right, and she should say nothing…

No. She gulped down her nerves. If he whipped her, she deserved it, not only for stealing and lying, but for letting an innocent man take the blame.

“What?” At last the earl spoke, in his usual abrupt and commanding manner.

“I have good news, sir,” said Benedict before she could begin. Samantha darted a shocked glance at him. What could possibly be good about this news?

The earl didn’t even look up. “For a change.”

“Indeed,” agreed Benedict. “To correct an old wrong.”

Stratford’s pen stopped. Slowly his gaze rose from his letter. “What old wrong?”

Samantha’s stomach heaved, fearing her brother was about to confess to the crime himself. He’d done that many times when they were children, to spare her or Elizabeth from punishment. But Benedict kept his confident smile in place and avoided looking at her. He lifted the leather satchel. “I have recovered the funds from The Death of Socrates.”

The name gave her a jolt of surprise; she’d almost forgotten it. But the stolen money had been payment for that painting, sold by the earl to another avid collector. How on earth had Benedict found it?

The earl’s cold blue eyes narrowed on the satchel. His expression stole Samantha’s breath; he looked like he could do murder in that moment. “How?”

“A fortunate guess.” Benedict said it confidently, but even he couldn’t withstand the piercing look from their father. He set the satchel gingerly on the edge of the desk. “Does it matter? Every guinea is here.”

Stratford got to his feet and leaned forward, resting his hands on the desk, never once looking away from his son. “Yes. It matters. Those funds were stolen from this room several years ago, yet now you claim to hold them in your hands. Where was the money, and how did you recover it?”

Samantha wondered all those things, too, but this was her chance, perhaps her only chance, to make a clean breast of it. Before her brother could say another word, Samantha blurted out, “I took the money, Father.”

The earl jerked, and complete astonishment flickered over his face. “You?”

Samantha nodded, ignoring the desperate glance Benedict threw her. “I did, Father.” Her hands were shaking, so she hid them in the folds of her skirt.

Stratford was motionless. “May I ask why?” he asked in a deadly quiet voice.

“I gave it to Mr. Vane.”

Fire flashed in her father’s eyes. “I see.”

She shook her head. “Not Sebastian Vane. Old Mr. Vane, his father.”

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