A Study in Scandal (Scandalous)

By: Caroline Linden

His eyes were as cold as a winter sky. “I see I failed with you,” he murmured. “Perhaps even more than I failed with your brother. I don’t quite know you, Samantha. It was always clear to me you were never as biddable as you ought to be, but you did appear to work at improving. Today, though…” He made a soft tsk, then continued in the same soft, leisurely tone that terrified her more than any furious shouting could have done. “It was all an act, wasn’t it? All these years you were merely pretending to be the dutiful daughter. You chose that hotheaded arrogant Vane over your family. You stole from me—your own father—and lied about it for seven years. Even now I suspect you confessed only because you want to help Vane, or perhaps that parvenue heiress he hopes to marry. I can tolerate some soft-heartedness in a woman, but not soft-headedness.” He released her and walked back to his desk. “And all this after I spoiled you so. I see now how wrong I was. You may go.”

Her knees went weak with relief. That was all? She couldn’t even react to the astonishing claim that he’d spoiled her, since no punishment had been threatened. “Thank you, sir.”

As if in a daze she opened the door and let herself out. Blindly she walked through the corridors. She felt off balance and disconcerted, having braced herself for a tremendous blow that never came. Even the relief of having confessed was absent, leaving only a terrible confusion. Was that to be her father’s only reaction?

“What happened?” Her brother’s urgent question startled her so badly she almost screamed.

Mutely she held out the paper. Benedict seized it and then looked at her in amazement. “He wrote this?” She nodded. “What did he do to you?” She couldn’t speak. “Samantha, what did he do to you?” repeated her brother, sounding panicked.

It broke her daze. “Nothing,” she said.

He swore and grabbed her arm, pulling her behind him to their mother’s suite. Lady Stratford was pacing when Benedict opened the door, but she stopped immediately at their entrance.

“She’s told him,” Benedict said, “but she won’t say how she’s to be punished.”

Anxious hope leapt in Lady Stratford’s eyes. “Perhaps he was content to have the money returned…”

Benedict shook his head, watching Samantha closely. “I doubt it.”

“He said…” Her voice failed for a moment. “He called me a woman philosopher. He said he had failed with me. But he wrote that”—she motioned to the paper Benedict still held—“and said nothing of consequences.” She looked from her brother to her mother. “That can’t be all he intends to do, can it?”

“Perhaps,” said the countess, her face as pale as milk.

“Doubtful,” muttered Benedict.

Now Samantha began to be afraid. “What should I do?”

“Nothing,” said her mother. “Do not show the slightest sign of fear or alarm. Act as if the matter is over and done with and no further thought of it will ever cross your mind.”

That sounded difficult. It would only trade the burden of a guilty conscience for the tension of waiting, waiting, waiting for the axe to fall on her. She looked to her brother.

He didn’t seem to know what to do. He ran his hands through his hair and avoided her gaze. “He told me to go, and stay gone. But I can’t leave you here alone to face him—“

“What could you do?” She raised her hands at his expression. “What could any of us do?”

No one said anything. They all knew the answer: nothing. It had always been that way in the earl’s house.

“Promise you’ll send me word in London if he acts on this.” Benedict’s voice made her start. “I won’t let him hurt you, Samantha. I swear I won’t.”

She shivered at the raw emotion in her brother’s voice. If Benedict, who had endured innumerable thrashings as a boy at the earl’s hands, feared for her safety, she ought to be terrified. But it was comforting to know he was on her side, even if she had no idea what he could do to protect her, or even what she needed protection from. “I promise.”

Chapter Two

For two terrible days silence reigned at Stratford Court. Samantha asked Benedict to send the earl’s note to Sebastian before he left, but then there was nothing else for her to do. It felt as if she—and her mother—were both holding their breath, waiting to see what the earl would do.

Stratford, however, seemed unchanged. Not one word of the matter crossed his lips, and with some disbelief Samantha began to think he might have simply given up on her. It hadn’t been his way, but if he no longer cared what happened to her, perhaps it wasn’t worth his trouble and effort to punish her.

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