How to Start a Scandal – Madeline Martin

Lady Violet Lavell had been summoned to the Earl of Hollingston’s study, which never boded well, and was settled precariously upon the chair her eldest sister had once dubbed the ‘squeak seat’. Her father cut an imposing figure with his large, square-shaped face and eyes that held the potential to bore into one’s very soul. There were moments of tenderness, of course, but now was not one of them. ‘You have four older sisters who are married with children of their own and a brother who has spent his life preparing to assume the title in addition to having his own family as well.’ Lord Hollingston’s brown eyes lifted from a piece of paper. Several stacks of paper, that was. ‘All my children have gone on about their lives,’ her father continued. ‘With one exception.’ His stare jabbed into her as though she was one of the hapless butterflies pinned into frames on his wall. ‘You,’ he said. She shifted on the chair before she could stop herself. Squeak. Drat. ‘You are three and twenty, Violet,’ he continued. ‘Nearly “on the shelf” as it’s said these days.

Yet you certainly spend money as if you are still seeking a husband.’ He tapped the stack of papers with his fingertips. Her bills, no doubt. ‘You have no plans for an unexpected windfall, do you?’ He lifted his brows. Actually, she did. But certainly nothing she meant to share with him. Not just yet, at least. Not until she built up the readership of her Lady Observer column in the Society Journal to the point where it generated a decent income. And by ‘decent income’, she meant the ability to afford more than a new dress once a year and a few sweets each month. She sat quiet as a mouse, unmoving on the dreaded squeak seat.

He took her silence as surrender to his sound logic and proceeded. ‘Violet, I have indulged your desire to remain unwed long enough. It is high time you were married.’ Violet’s heart knocked hard in her chest. ‘Please do not make me, Father.’ He pinched the bridge of his nose, then laboriously lowered his hand back to the desk. ‘I anticipated that might be your response. If you refuse to wed, I’m afraid I will have to insist that you retire to the country.’ Violet nodded slowly. Retire to the country.

It was not ideal, but she would readily take it over marriage. ‘As it happens, your sister is seeking a governess and would appreciate assistance with the children until she finds one.’ Squeak. Drat. ‘Which sister?’ Violet asked quickly to cover up the groan of springs. Please don’t let it be Sophie. Please don’t let it be Sophie. Please, please, please, be anyone but Sophie. ‘Sophie,’ her father answered. At that, Violet’s insides withered with dread.

Sophie had four children. They were an unruly, spoiled lot, resorting often to screaming fits as well as biting and all manner of awful habits. Violet shuddered. ‘They’ve been through four governesses already. This year.’ Lord Hollingston’s expression was implacable. ‘Which is why I suppose she requires another.’ ‘I would prefer not to, please,’ Violet said as prettily as was possible. Her father remained unmoved. ‘Your only option, I’m afraid, is to either wed by the end of the Season, or retire to the country and assist Sophie.

’ Violet’s mouth fell open. ‘Papa, it is most likely only three weeks until the end of the Season. Perhaps a month at most.’ He steepled his fingers. ‘So it is.’ ‘Might I have the summer to think it over?’ The chair cried out beneath her, but she didn’t care. ‘Perhaps next Season—’ ‘You’ve had six already.’ He spoke drily as his fingertips found their way to tap against the stack of bills. She didn’t have to look to know they were from the modiste, the milliner and other various shops she frequented. She had needed that clothing.

In order to glean gossip for the Lady Observer, she had to move freely among the ton. How was such a thing possible in an old frock? ‘There will be no negotiation.’ Lord Hollingston got to his feet and indicated the door. She had been dismissed with the worst of choices laid out before her. He walked around the desk and followed her out of the study. ‘I am not doing this to be cruel.’ His tone was gentler. ‘You cannot simply exist in life like this, Violet. You need purpose.’ She pressed her lips together.

She did have purpose. The Lady Observer occupied all her free time. Except no one knew she was the author of the column and she didn’t care for them to know. Instead, she simply nodded and made for the stairs. Her feet hesitated as she got to the landing and considered her options. Going up the stairs would lead her to her chamber. Walking down the hall in the opposite direction, however, would lead to the kitchen where Cook had made the most delicious pastries earlier. Violet knew well enough that Cook made more than would ever possibly be eaten in only one day. She shouldn’t, she knew. Except that she could practically taste the sweet, tart strawberry jam against her tongue.

Her teeth longed to press down into the flaky dough and meet the delicate crunch and pop of the sugar crystals that glittered over the top like frost. Yes. To the kitchen. She shifted. ‘I wouldn’t bother.’ Lord Hollingston lifted his gaze over the top of a paper he held in front of his face as he walked. ‘Your mother anticipated you might be emotional over this and had Cook lock away all the pastries.’ Emotional? All of them? She tried to swallow her sorrow, but still a squawk emerged. It was bad enough to be given such dismal choices. It was entirely another to be deprived of consolation.

Tears blurred her vision. ‘Good evening, Violet.’ Her father’s gaze swept up the stairs, a silent order to proceed to her chamber. She nodded, unable to speak, and backed away from him, this time climbing the risers as she was bid. As her feet trudged upwards in a slow march, she concocted an article in her mind. Scandal-sheet writer disappears from society rather suddenly. Speculation abounds, but rumour has it she’s gone to take on the menial task of unpaid governess to her sister’s four children. A scandal, indeed! Not that anyone would truly even notice if she was gone. What was one less wallflower floating in the background at a ball? The knot in her throat tightened and she almost burst into tears right there. She couldn’t, just couldn’t, act as governess to Sophie’s children.

Not when countless others who had far more experience and patience than she had given up the task as hopeless. But marriage… Well, she couldn’t do that either. She pushed through the door to the bedchamber and glanced at the silver-tissue gown on a dressmaker’s form propped at the side of her room. To some it might be considered a fashionable form of decor. For Violet, it was a painful reminder. Of what she had lost, of how she had failed. That she always needed to try harder. A surge of anger overtook her. A pox on trying harder. She shoved past the gown to the small box in the drawer behind it, the one filled with toffees.

She snatched one up, unfurled the crinkly wax wrapper, popped it into her mouth and practically moaned as the decadence of sugary confection dissolved against her tongue. She shouldn’t be doing it, she knew, but could scarcely help it any more than she could stop breathing. After all, food was a way of remembering for her. Well, for remembering and for forgetting and, at that moment, she wanted to forget it all. Even if it was fleeting. A sob choked out around the sweet in her mouth, a pitiful sound to be sure. She put her face into her hands and gave way to the desolation ringing hollow in her chest. What was she to do? Seth Sinclair, the Earl of Dalton, entered the town house located on Grosvenor Street for the first time in nearly six years. In his absence, the old brick front had been stuccoed over, the layer of plaster smoothing out all the chinks and seams. He had left as a second son with little purpose beyond his purchased military commission.

He now grudgingly returned, fresh out of a major battle, as an unqualified earl who would rather continue his life as a soldier. Especially when he’d been only months away from being promoted to major, a rank he’d worked damn hard to achieve. Gibbons was still the same, the old butler not looking a day over ninety as he always had. Pleasure flushed the aged man’s cheeks as he offered a warm welcome. Despite the external alterations to the town house, the interior was unchanged with a shining marble floor in a checked pattern and a pale green silk brocade on the walls. Paintings from centuries of Sinclair ancestors stared down at him with bland expressions. Disappointed with him, no doubt. Most Sinclairs generally were. Though everything was as it had always been, Seth did not have the sense of having returned home. But then Dalton Place never truly had felt like a home should.

At least not for him. His feet echoed on the hard floor as he made his way back to the morning room where Gibbons had informed him his mother was taking tea. Seth stopped in front of the grand double doors, loathing the trepidation tightening the back of his neck. He had sent his mother a missive to inform her of his impending arrival. No doubt she was expecting him. ‘Seth?’ Lady Dalton’s voice came from the other side of the door, pitched with what almost sounded like desperation. He opened the door at last and stepped inside. His mother had already risen from her favourite blue-velvet sofa and stood poised with a foot set forward as if she’d meant to go to the door herself. Though it had been over a year since William’s death, she still wore a black gown, indicating her full mourning. Of course she did.

Had Seth been the son to have died, doubtless she would be outfitted in a pastel sprigged muslin. ‘Are you injured?’ she whispered. For that one moment—that wrenching and sadly fleeting moment—she actually appeared to care. He hated the wrench in his chest. After all these years, he should be beyond hope. ‘No, I’m not injured,’ Seth replied steadily. Many of his brethren at Waterloo, however, had sustained debilitating injuries of those who had the good fortune to even come away with their lives. But he couldn’t think of Waterloo. Not now. Not when it had been less than a fortnight since the battle and the stink of gunpowder and blood still clung to his nostrils.

Not when the images left were lodged like nightmares in his mind. He clenched his teeth. His mother straightened and, all at once, her expression smoothed. ‘You are home then? For good.’ ‘I’m selling my commission,’ he replied. He had to, lest he be tempted to return. The life of a soldier had suited him far better than one wiled away tediously in drawing rooms and Almack’s. ‘I am home.’ She nodded and considered him for a long moment. No doubt comparing him against William.

Seth would come up short. He always had. Her forehead crinkled and he almost thought she might express some concern for his well-being during the six years he had been away fighting. First on the Peninsula, and then at Waterloo. Many of his fellow soldiers had died in that time. Though Waterloo had easily claimed the most lives, wreaked the most carnage. The beginnings of sweat prickled along his brow. He clenched his hand into a fist. Stop thinking of it. ‘It’s been over a year,’ his mother said, emotion clogging her voice for the first time in perhaps Seth’s entire life.

She swallowed. ‘It’s been over a year since William—’ Her words choked off and she dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief she pulled from her long, black sleeve. ‘You didn’t attend his funeral.’ ‘I was escorting Napoleon to Elba when it occurred and was then required to attend the Vienna Congress.’ Seth kept his response absent of emotion despite the ire nipping at his nerves. ‘I didn’t even receive notice of his death until well after the funeral had passed.’ ‘And yet still you did not return home.’ Her words were accusing as her tears fell in earnest. ‘I was fighting for England,’ he countered. ‘You were fighting for glory,’ she scoffed and pushed past him, not bothering to close the door behind her as she left.

Seth sighed into the empty space. That had gone exactly as poorly as he had anticipated. ‘Seth?’ a soft feminine voice spoke up from behind him. He turned to find his younger sister, Caroline, standing in the open doorway. She was no longer the little girl he’d left behind, but now a woman of nineteen, recently come out. He’d missed her debut, too, though he’d read about it in the papers some months later when they were finally delivered. ‘Caroline, I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you,’ he said. She raced over the thick Turkish carpet and threw her arms around him. ‘You’ve nothing to apologise for.’ She squeezed him fiercely.

‘You’re home. That is all that matters.’ Home. The word was so easily thrown about. But it wasn’t his home. It wasn’t his title. He didn’t even have his own bloody valet. Everything had all belonged to William. Seth was merely a figure standing in place for a ghost. He gave a half-hearted smirk.

‘You may be the only one pleased with my return.’ Caroline released him and stepped back. She’d grown into a lovely woman. She had the same dark eyes and hair as him, but where his features were hard lines and sharp angles, everything about her was soft with femininity. ‘It’s been terribly difficult on Mother.’ Caroline glanced behind her and lowered her voice. ‘The solicitor who was handling our affairs stole all her jewellery. Mother tried to keep it quiet, but…’ Caroline pressed her lips together. ‘Word got out. It was quite the scandal to weather.

’ Seth winced. ‘And I wasn’t here.’ For the first time, he truly did regret his absence from London. ‘You were fighting for our country.’ Caroline gave a little shrug. ‘And you’re here now. That is all that matters. I’m so pleased to have you home, Brother.’ ‘I intend to fully take on the earldom and see to all our affairs. Neither of you will ever have to worry again,’ he vowed.

And by God, he meant it. No matter what it took, he would do what was necessary to be every bit as good an earl as William had been. Or at least he’d be the best he could.

.

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