A Study in Scandal (Scandalous)

By: Caroline Linden



She should have known better.

At breakfast on the third day, Stratford finished his spartan meal and leaned back in his chair. “I shall be departing this morning.”

“Indeed,” said the countess with her usual cool composure. “I will notify the housekeeper about dinner. Will you be gone long, my dear?”

“A few days.” His piercing gaze landed on Samantha, quietly eating her toast. “Aren’t you curious to know where I’m going?”

The toast stuck in her throat. Samantha seized her tea and gulped it down, shooting a wide-eyed look at her mother. The countess’s expression was blank. It was very unlike the earl to encourage inquisitiveness. “I didn’t like to be presumptuous and ask, Father,” she managed to croak.

His smile was flat. “No? A lesson learned, at last. This time I shall tell you, because it concerns you.”

All the tension that had slowly ebbed during the last few days returned in full force, keeping her immobile in her chair as she waited for the blow. If Stratford had waited three days, he must have planned some awful new punishment for her.

“This week has been a most illuminating one,” Stratford said. “And a humbling one. I realized I failed as your father, Samantha, failed miserably. And therefore, perhaps it’s time I quit the field and found you a husband to guide your actions. A man with a firm hand, who won’t tempt you to abuse his tender nature as you’ve done mine. I’m going to Penton Lodge to see the Marquess of Dorre. He’s looking for a bride for his second son. I’m sure he’ll take you without much protest.”

For a moment the sunlight streaming through the windows seem to go out, leaving the room cold and gray. Samantha couldn’t draw breath into her lungs. Lord Dorre’s second son, Philip, was a handsome man, but with a brutal nature that even his father’s immense wealth couldn’t overshadow. Someone had once told her that he had put down a horse by shooting out each of its legs. There were whispers that he had got into a fight with another man and left the fellow crippled, unable to walk or speak. Every girl in Richmond would sooner claim a broken ankle—would sooner break her ankle in truth—than dance with Lord Philip. Samantha thought she’d rather be whipped than spend even one day with Philip, let alone marry him.

“My dear,” exclaimed the countess in obvious distress. “Would you ally yourself with such a known libertine?”

That was true. Samantha had forgotten the tales of Lord Philip’s debauched parties in London, attended by all manner of wicked persons. Lord Stratford must know of them as well, if she did, and for a moment hope reared its head. One thing Stratford could not abide was drunkenness and public indiscretion.

Slowly the earl turned to face his wife. She sat motionless, but her eyes were wide with appeal and her chin quivered. “Ah, I see,” he said quietly. “You worry for her. ’Tis true, Lord Philip has a temper and a taste for danger.” He looked at Samantha. “But our daughter is a clever girl, Lady Stratford. Clever enough to keep a secret from her entire family for seven years! I expect she’ll learn soon enough how to please her husband and keep him from straying into immoral pleasures. I’m sure he’ll be able to instruct her on his…tastes. Samantha is far past the age when she should be married anyway. It’s my duty as a father to find her a husband, and I shan’t neglect it any longer.”

“He is cruel,” whispered Lady Stratford. “Please, my dear—”

The earl slammed one hand down on the table, making the silverware—and his wife—jump. His eyes blazed with fury. “Remember your place, Lady Stratford!” He pushed back his chair and rose. “Tell your maid to fetch your trunks,” he said coldly to Samantha. “You shall be married within the month.” He turned on his heel and strode from the room.

A month. The words hung in the silence, as if a judge had pronounced a death sentence on her. A month.

Samantha stared at her plate in shock, her half-eaten toast forgotten. He meant it. God help her, he really might do it. So much for Benedict’s hope that the return of the stolen money would soften his anger. He hadn’t cared about the money at all.

Nor, apparently, about her.

“I will speak to him,” came the countess’s voice, so strained and quiet Samantha barely heard it. “I will persuade him against this. Perhaps not against marriage—” Her face contorted for a moment. “I should have suspected. You ought to have been married by now, mistress of your own home. If you had been, you would be safe—” She stopped and closed her eyes.

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