A Study in Scandal (Scandalous)

By: Caroline Linden

For the second time he looked astonished. “The lunatic?”

“I was wrong,” she said quietly. “I am very sorry.”

Stratford looked at Benedict. “Did you know about this?” When Benedict hesitated, his father snapped, “The truth, boy.”

She could feel her brother’s despair, but to her relief he didn’t try to take the blame. “No, sir.”

“And you thought simply returning the money would make it all well again.” The earl straightened to his full height and folded his arms. “I think less and less of your judgment every day.” Benedict’s jaw twitched, but he said nothing. “Go,” said Stratford softly.

Benedict hesitated again. “Sir, Samantha was not wholly at fault—”

“I said go,” repeated his father sharply. “You’re afraid I might whip her? I would never raise my hand to a woman. I ought to have whipped you more, if this is the respect you have for me, but I fear it’s too late for that. Go, and stay gone.”

Benedict drew a breath as if he would argue, but Samantha made a small motion with one hand. This was her fault, and she deserved to bear the consequences. To her relief, her brother turned and left without another word, leaving her alone to face her father.

“I’m sorry, Father,” she said, reciting the words she had rehearsed all night. “I was a foolish girl and acted as one. I am ashamed of myself for having maintained the lie so long.” She wet her lips and steadied her voice. “I am telling you now because you must exonerate Sebastian Vane of stealing the money. No matter how much you dislike him, he is not a thief, and you have called him one for seven years—falsely, even if based on a reasonable suspicion.”

She hoped the blow to his honor, and the return of the money, would be enough. If he refused to retract his charge against Sebastian, Samantha didn’t know what she’d do. Standing on the street corner in Richmond and declaring herself the thief would only revive the horrid whispers about Sebastian, and enrage her father. She supposed she could call on Mr. Weston, Abigail’s father, and assure him that Sebastian was no thief… if she was ever permitted to leave Stratford Court again.

“Why exactly did you take this money?” Her father’s voice was more terrifying for being soft and even.

“I thought you wronged him,” she said bravely. She still did, to be truthful. In the depths of his lunacy, old Mr. Vane had sold the earl a large piece of land—including the parcel which held the family crypt, where Sebastian’s mother was buried—for a mere pittance. Stratford viewed a madman as beneath contempt, unfit to hold his lands, and he took full advantage of Mr. Vane, without caring one bit what it would do to Sebastian’s inheritance.

“Ah, a woman philosopher!” He rocked on his heels and raised his brows. “What a pity I didn’t consult you on that matter.”

Her face burned at the mockery. “I was wrong to take the money, just as you were wrong to accuse him. I have made an honorable confession. I trust you will not wish the lie to endure a moment longer, Father.”

His brows climbed even higher. “Is that what you require, my dear? But of course…” He smiled, cold and cynical. “My romantic daughter wants to clear Sebastian Vane, so he might have the girl who spurned your brother.”

Samantha bit back an instinctive protest. It was true Benedict had once courted Abigail Weston, but she was quite sure her brother had never been in love with her. And Miss Weston was genuinely in love with Sebastian, which meant Samantha understood completely why she’d refused Benedict. In time, she was sure even Benedict would be grateful to her for that.

Stratford flipped his coattails out behind him and sat down, reaching for a fresh piece of paper. He wrote two lines and signed his name with a flourish. “Will that do? Is it sufficiently humble, as I confess my great error in judgment?” He handed her the paper.

It was a stark admission of error, and even though it was exactly what she had wanted, it frightened her. “Yes, sir,” she whispered. “Perfectly.” This was not like her father, this overt courteousness. He had just sat down and done as she asked, without a word of reproach. He hadn’t even raised his voice. A knot of dread twisted in her stomach. “Thank you, Father.”

He bowed his head. “I am delighted it meets with your approval.” She curtsied, thinking it was best to escape while she could, but it was too late. Her father got up from his chair again and came around his desk. He touched her chin, raising her face so he could study it. Samantha stood very still; her heart thundered. She had rarely been this close to him, and never with his unwavering attention fixed on her.

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