Stealing the Duke – Jess Michaels

The recent death of a certain Earl has unleashed a torrent of scandal that not even this publication has seen before. This is not the usual gossip which hints at mistresses or debts, but of something much darker. It seems this gentleman was guilty of robbing his own friends and neighbors of prized possessions. Many items have been returned since the dreadful news got out, but we must wonder how these terrible acts will af ect his remaining heirs, from the nephew who now inherits his title to the daughters who will be forced to live with his humiliation. We shall see if the Robbing Earl has done more harm than can ever be fixed, even by time itself. Marianne stared at the paper before her, the words swimming across the page as she read them over and over. Her stomach turned, and she nearly heaved up what little breakfast she had choked down already. The Scandal Sheet was a paper that was delivered weekly to the most influential houses in London. Its blind items of gossip about those with titles and power were often cruel. Marianne had always flinched as her father read them out loud, his laughter booming. And now here was one about him. A few lines so obvious that no one would doubt for a moment to whom it referred. What he had done was bad enough. Discovering the cache of stolen items in his personal effects after he died had been the worst moment of her life. She still went dizzy and her hands went clammy when she thought of it.

What she’d done about it made her nausea increase. She’d called the watch in the hopes they could handle the matter with discretion. They had not. One grasping captain—one who looked at her like she was guilty just for sharing her father’s name—one bastard of the highest order—had seen to that. Captain Black clearly viewed returning the items with much fanfare was a way to further his own relationships with those of power. In doing so, he had destroyed her. Within hours, the truth had begun to spread throughout Society. There had been whispers, rescinded invitations. Her father’s funeral had been poorly attended, and even the vicar had sniffed down his nose at the earl’s gravesite. And now this.

This public final nail in her father’s very recently buried coffin. Only it didn’t only bury him. As the paragraph about him implied, it also crushed her in its wake. And her younger sister. “Mari!” She jolted as the very person she had been contemplating flew into the room. Marianne forced a smile and flipped over The Scandal Sheet so it was face down on the table, for she didn’t want Juliet to see her pain. At ten, she didn’t deserve the burden of adult problems. “Poppin,” Marianne said, opening her arms so Juliet could hug her and press a kiss on her cheek. “I didn’t realize you would be back from Nora’s until after lunch.” Juliet had spent the night at a friend’s and Marianne expected her to leap into a spirited description of everything the two girls had done during their special night.

Instead Juliet’s face fell. “I…” Juliet’s eyes filled with tears. “They sent me home. And I heard Nora’s mother whispering that I should not be invited again.” “Why?” Marianne said, her heart sinking, for she already guessed the reason. Juliet’s gaze flitted to the paper next to Marianne’s hand and slowly moved to turn it right side up. She nodded toward it. “This.” Marianne ducked her head. She had tried to keep her sister from the truth, but now…well, there was nothing to do now.

All illusions were shattered. As were both their lives. “You read it?” Marianne asked softly. Juliet nodded, and Marianne sighed and motioned to the chair beside hers. Her sister took it and stared up at her with wide eyes that were the exact color of their late father’s. Odd to see his eyes again when he had been buried a week already. “Did Papa truly steal?” Juliet whispered. “Oh, poppin,” Marianne said, trying hard to find words to explain the unexplainable. “How do you know this nasty thing in that rag of a paper is about him?” Juliet lifted both eyebrows. “I’m not stupid, Mari.

And I’m not a little girl. Please don’t hide things from me. I know you have been, and I don’t want there to be secrets between us. Please tell me.” Marianne worried her lip. If Juliet’s friendships were already being affected by the truth, if they would soon suffer other consequences of their father’s actions, she supposed she owed Juliet the facts. “Papa had a compulsion,” she began softly. “I think he always had it. He took things. Little things, but also big things.

Mama tried to break him of it, but he didn’t seem to be able to stop, even when he promised he would. Her death only made it worse, it seems.” Juliet’s face crumpled, and Marianne hated herself for shattering her younger sister’s illusions. She hated her father for giving her cause to shatter them. “But…but can’t we just give them back?” Juliet pressed. “After all, you and I didn’t take anything. If we give everything back, perhaps Nora’s mother will see I’m not like him and let me play with her again.” Marianne bent her head, pain swelling in her. “Well, darling, you see, I did give the things back. As soon as I found the piles and piles of stolen items, I arranged to have them all returned.

But…but it didn’t matter. In fact, it only made things worse.” She clenched a fist in her lap. “I should have just kept them hidden or burned them. My better instincts have caused nothing but heartache.” Juliet’s eyes went wide. “Mari, you don’t mean that!” she gasped. “Stealing is wrong. And if you’d just kept whatever he took or destroyed it, wouldn’t that have been stealing just as he did? You gave things back, that was the right thing to do.” Marianne sighed.

Trust sweet Juliet to see the world as black and white. It was a child’s prerogative to do so, she supposed. And in truth, she rather agreed with her sister. Perhaps holding her tongue about what she’d found would have saved her and her sister some grief, but living with that might very well have killed her. She’d never been good at lying. That was something she hadn’t inherited from her father. “You are correct, my love,” she said with a weak smile. “Giving back what he took was the right thing to do, whether it harms us or not. But some will only see the sin, not our attempt to remedy it, nor our innocence in the initial act.” “People like Nora’s mother,” Juliet whispered.

Marianne tried not to show her pain and anger. “Yes, I’m afraid so. There are consequences to what Papa did. They will be visited on us, it seems, since he is no longer around to pay them.” “Is that why Cousin Samuel is asking us to leave the house in a month?” Marianne froze. It seemed her sister had been very busy finding out information she’d been trying to keep a secret. “How did you hear that?” Juliet cast her eyes away in guilt. “I…I listened a little after you asked me to leave the room when he came to supper two nights ago. I didn’t hear everything, but he was very angry, wasn’t he?” Marianne let out her breath in a long burst. “Samuel inherits Papa’s title now, and with what our father did, he’ll have a long road to walk to bring the name Martingale back to any kind of respectability.

He believes having us away from London, out of this house, will help people forget.” “He thinks it’s our fault?” Juliet wailed. “He’s a blustering blowhard who only cares about himself,” Marianne burst out, shaking her head. “That he would cast a child out onto the—” She stopped herself, for she saw the fear light in Juliet’s eyes. “Mari?” she whispered. Marianne caught her hands. “I am making arrangements, my love. We have a little money from Papa’s estate.” A very little, but she didn’t mention that. “And we will find a happy spot where we can live together.

With time, people will forget about what our father did and it will all be…fine.” She said the words, but didn’t believe them. But from the way Juliet’s eyes lit up with faith and hope, it was clear her sister did. Juliet launched herself into Marianne’s arms. “You’ll fix it, Mari! I know you will,” Juliet whispered. “May I go up to see Miss Bennett?” Marianne smiled at the mention of Juliet’s beloved governess. “Of course. I’ll see you later, dearest.” Her sister left the room, her troubles abated for the moment. Marianne’s, of course, were not.

The settlement she and her sister would be allowed thanks to their cousin was hardly enough to pay for their own expenses. She would not be able to retain Miss Bennett, who was the light of her sister’s young life. In truth, she might not even be able to retain her own maid. She rubbed a hand over her eyes and got to her feet, fighting the nausea and anxiety that rose up from deep within her. She stumbled from the breakfast room and down the hallway toward her father’s office. There she had collected all her financial documents and some inquiries she’d made about a new residence. Perhaps if she looked them over again, she could stretch the funds just a little further, for her sister’s sake. She entered the office and tears leapt to her eyes. This place still held the spirit of her late father inside its walls. She smelled the scent of his tobacco still on the air.

She could all too easily picture him in the leather seat behind the desk, smiling up at her. She was angry with him. But she had loved him. She still loved him. “How could you leave us like this, Papa?” she murmured as she walked to his chair and sank into its soft cushion. “How am I to carry on?” She let herself sit like that for a moment, eyes closed, the smoky scent of the air filling her lungs. Then she pushed her shoulders back and focused on the papers strewn out in front of her. The numbers on them were terrifyingly stark. They wove a tale of the desperation she was trying hard to tamp down. She searched the desk for a quill, but frowned when there was none to be found.

An ink bottle, yes, but somehow the quill was no longer where she’d left it. With an exasperated sigh, she began to open drawers on her father’s desk, digging through his disorganization for the one thing she sought. In the third drawer she opened, she blindly pressed her fingers toward the back of the drawer and smiled. She felt them brush a long, thin handle of some kind, probably a quill crushed back in her father’s distracted hurry. She tugged, and to her surprise, she did not bring forward a pen, but there was a tiny click and a hidden door inside the drawer itself slid partly open as it caught on the myriad of papers on top of it. She snatched her hand back and stared at the tiny sliver of an opening beneath the obviously false bottom of the drawer. Her heart began to pound as she lowered a shaking hand to push the papers aside and examine the opening more closely. She could only think of one reason why her father would have such a hidden space in his desk. Only one reason he’d want to hide something. Because he’d stolen it.

“Please don’t be something horrible,” she whispered as she pressed the opening wider and looked inside. There was a box there, like something that might contain jewelry. She drew it out and set it on the desk, staring at the tiny thing like it might bite and feeling the accusation of its presence even before she dared to open it. At last, though, she couldn’t escape the drive to see what was inside. To open that box and hope she would find something innocent. Her fingers shook as she unhinged the tiny clasp on the front of the box, then pressed it open. What she found made her catch her breath. It was a brooch. Beautifully made in ivory and gold. The lady whose profile it depicted had dainty features.

Marianne drew the piece out, feeling its weight in her palm, the coolness of the metal back against her skin. Slowly she turned it and realized it was engraved: Happy birthday, Anne All my love from your brother Alex She caught her breath. Anne was not her mother. Alex was not her father. In fact she knew of no one in her family with either of those names. Which meant her fears were likely true. This was a stolen piece, one her father had hidden. She turned it over again and realized the brooch had a clasp, as well. She opened it and revealed two portraits inside, one of a beautiful young woman, one of a handsome man. She stared at their faces and caught her breath.

She knew the woman. She was almost certain of it. It was Lady Anne, the sister of the Duke of Avondale. She and Anne had been of an age, though they hadn’t been friends. The young woman had died a few years back after an illness. Her brother, the duke, had not been seen in Society since. Once a dashing rake with a reputation of taking whatever he desired, he had disappeared. Rumors abounded that the man had gone mad. Or had been horribly injured in some way. Or perhaps even died.

And this was the brooch of Avondale’s late sister. How in the world had her father come to possess it? It had been so long since anyone saw the duke, her father likely would have had to break into his home and take it right beneath his nose. “Damn it,” she muttered as she put the brooch back into its place and slammed the box shut so she wouldn’t have to look at it anymore. She got up and paced across the room, staring into the fire for a moment before she turned back to the item. The box was still there, no matter how she wished it away. And now she had to decide what to do with it. “You have four options,” she said out loud to herself as she glared at the offending little cube. Talking things out had always helped her. “You could call the guard again. Only then that loathsome Captain Black will likely take great pleasure in leveraging our family drama for his own good.

Just like he did last time.” She shook her head. No, that wouldn’t do. The damage already caused was so great. Further information leaking into Society could be the death of any future Juliet might have. “You could put the box back,” she continued. “Just place it in Papa’s desk where you found it, close the drawer and never speak of it again.” It was a temptation to do so, indeed. But then what would happen? She wouldn’t truly forget she had found this thing and she knew she would likely forever wonder what had happened to it. Depending on who found it in the future, the damage she feared it might cause could still be out there, only waiting for some inopportune moment to strike and destroy her and her sister.

She huffed out a breath. “You could…sell it,” she continued, with uncertainty in her tone. Certainly there must be unscrupulous people who would buy such a fine piece. The money she collected would help her and Juliet in their dire straits. Only the idea of doing that made her stomach turn. She would be no better than her father if she benefitted from his thievery. That kind of blood money could bring no luck, that was for certain. She would have to live with what she’d done. Not to mention that if selling the piece was ever traced back to her, the ruin she feared would be even more certain. “I could not live with doing such a terrible thing,” she muttered.

“And that leaves me with my last option. I could…I could return the brooch to Avondale’s house here in London.” Saying those words made her entire body quake with terror. By God, just the idea of it was enough to make the blood drain from her cheeks. But the fear didn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea. As far as gossip said, Avondale was not in Town at present. His London estate was shut up, with likely only a servant or two in residence to manage it. If she could find an unlocked door or window, she could sneak in and leave the brooch somewhere it would be found. The duke would have his sentimental item returned, so she would have no guilt to hang over her head. And as long as she wasn’t caught, she could rest easy, knowing the brooch could no longer be traced to her father.

It was a risky option, but no more than the others. And at least she could live with herself when it came to returning what her father had taken. She nodded slowly, wishing that action could convince her she wasn’t a fool, and walked back to the desk. She opened the box, took out the brooch and thrust it into her pelisse pocket. Then she tossed the box into the fire, watching the evidence burn away. Now she just had to find a way to break into the Duke of Avondale’s home. But perhaps that was something that would come naturally once she got there. After all, she was her father’s daughter.

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