Lady Samantha Lennox had been afraid of her father every day of her life.
Even as a child she had known to conceal this from everyone except her mother and siblings. To the world at large, the Earl of Stratford presented an image of austere urbanity, widely known for his unparalleled collection of art and his ascetic personal habits. He was known as a proud man, true, but that was common among noblemen and was even accounted as his due.
Only his family knew his real nature: not merely proud, but utterly convinced of his own superiority. Acclaimed for his artistic eye, but ruthless in the pursuit of works he desired. Lord and master of a vast, wealthy estate, but cruelly unforgiving of anyone who didn't meet his standards. And when it came to his family, he expected nothing short of perfection.
His wife—whom he married for her beauty and her dowry, so that his children would be both handsome and wealthy—needed his permission for every purchase, and any item of her wardrobe that displeased him was promptly destroyed. His daughters were raised to be charming and pleasant at all times, never contradicting him or giving any bad impression of themselves, so that they might be a credit to him. His son was expected to be the epitome of a gentleman, well-educated, charming, always masterfully in control of every circumstance. The Earl of Stratford's wishes were paramount, and woe to anyone who flouted them.
And Samantha, his youngest daughter, was about to tell him she had stolen from him and lied to him to conceal that theft for seven years.
Even now, as she stood in her mother's private parlor listening to her brother and mother beg her to reconsider, she wondered how she'd got herself into this position. She certainly hadn't planned to become a criminal. But with one rash action, she had sentenced herself to a sort of purgatory, where the threat of discovery had weighed more heavily on her with every passing year.
Looking back, she could see how stupid she'd been. As a girl, she had fancied herself in love with Sebastian Vane, a good friend of her older brother Benedict, tall and handsome, loyal and kind. He lived across the river from Stratford Court, and the happiest memories of her childhood had been when Benedict would row them over to meet Sebastian in the woods, where they played at being pirates or explorers. When the earl was away, Samantha's mother permitted her children to do such things. But when she was ten, the earl discovered it and immediately forbade her from it, although Benedict was still allowed to go.
She was sure those youthful memories had fueled her infatuation with Sebastian, even after he went into the army and left Richmond. But it had been her sister Elizabeth's ill-fated romance that made her determined to marry as soon as possible, and Sebastian—being familiar, dear, and nearby—was her only potential suitor. Elizabeth, three years older than she, fell in love with a man named Robert Halley, who was kind, charming, and wealthy, but merely a gentleman. Lord Stratford refused his suit. Elizabeth wept and the countess pleaded, but the earl was implacable. "My daughter will not wed a commoner," he'd coldly said as he locked Elizabeth in her room to contemplate her error.
Samantha could not imagine the heartbreak her sister felt. She had vowed to wed as she pleased, and escape her father's control. But Sebastian was a commoner, and even worse, his father had gone mad and frittered away the Vane fortune until there was almost nothing left. Lord Stratford would never allow the match, and Samantha had impulsively embarked on a mad plan to force the issue.
Madness was the only way to explain it. She had taken leave of her senses and stolen four thousand guineas from a chest in her father's study. Late one night, she crept out of the house and smuggled the coins across the river to Montrose Hill House, Sebastian's home, where she gave them to his father. She reasoned that if Mr. Vane claimed it was a hidden reserve of funds, Sebastian would take the money. In her fevered dreams, he would then rush to ask her father for her hand in marriage, and if the earl refused, Samantha was ready to elope with Sebastian.
But nothing had gone right except the theft itself. Instead of blaming his recently sacked valet for the robbery, Lord Stratford publicly blamed Sebastian. Even worse, old Mr. Vane disappeared, along with the money, and soon people were whispering that his son must have killed him. Far from being his salvation, her stupid ploy had been his ruin. Horrified, Samantha had said nothing, and soon Sebastian was a pariah in Richmond.
And for seven years since, she'd said nothing—not one word of defence or protest against the vilification of a man she had loved since girlhood. The shame of it had grown a little more each year until it felt like a ball of lead inside her. But now Sebastian had fallen in love, with Miss Abigail Weston, and when Miss Weston came to beg for Samantha's help in clearing his name of those charges of theft and murder, it had been a great relief to finally tell the truth. She'd confessed all to Miss Weston and her sister, and to Benedict.
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 had not explained or apologized, 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."
"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."
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.
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."