Home > The Suffragette Scandal (Brothers Sinister #4)

The Suffragette Scandal (Brothers Sinister #4)
Author: Courtney Milan

Chapter One

Cambridgeshire, March 1877


It was one thing to do a man a favor. It was another entirely to take it this far—for Edward to shoulder his way through the shouting crowd on the banks of the river, jostling with other men for position. And for what purpose? So he could see a pair of boats come around the bend of the Thames? He hadn’t even known he was acquainted with a member of the Cambridge crew until he’d glanced at a newspaper this morning.

And yet here he was. Waiting. Like everyone around him, he leaned forward intently. Like them, he caught his breath when he glimpsed the first boat. But the crew on board was attired in dark blue, and cries of “Oxford, Oxford!” rose in a tumultuous roar around him. He sank back on his heels—but before he had a chance to relax, another boat came into view, rowed by men in light blue. Competing shouts rang out.

Edward didn’t cheer. He focused on the Cambridge boat intently.

It had been almost a decade since he’d seen Stephen Shaughnessy. Back then, Stephen had been a boy. An annoyance, as ever-present as a mosquito. Edward had expected to feel a wave of nostalgia when the man came into sight. Maybe the bitter tug of guilt.

But he couldn’t put a name to the feelings that assailed him—dark, indistinct things that pulled at him uncomfortably, leaving his muscles tensed and a phantom itch in his smallest finger. They weren’t proper emotions at all. He had only the sense that it was about to storm, and yet there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

Stephen—Edward knew he was the third man in the Cambridge boat from the papers—was nothing but an indistinct blot of dark hair and moving muscle. Scarcely a reason for Edward to leave his comfortable home in Toulouse, to risk the complacent life he’d fashioned for himself.

He’d done it anyway. He’d tried to eradicate all his idealism, but apparently he did still hold on to a few foolish principles.

Around him, the crowd’s expectant cheers grew louder, more boisterous. The race was close; the light blue Cambridge shirts crept up on Oxford. Edward felt like a dark rock, solid and unmoving in the midst of a froth of excitement.

Nothing represented his former brave, irrelevant principles more completely than the people mustered along the banks of the river. Everyone else concentrated on what was—for the moment—the most important thing in the universe: the men in their boats, struggling for speed in the choppy water. Here, there were no ethical morasses. In a universe of uncertainty, this one contest was set in stone. There was only black and white, right and wrong, Cambridge and Oxford.

And Oxford was ahead by a quarter length.

Not everyone was excited. To his right, back a few paces, a woman stood, scarcely hiding her boredom. She was dressed in a fussy, lacy gown that made her look like a sugar-spun confection. Pretty enough to look at, but he suspected she would hurt his teeth if he tried to partake. She clung to the arm of a florid-faced man, and glanced riverward every half minute or so—the certain look of a woman who’d been dragged out here and was doing her best to feign interest.

Most of the people standing back from the riverbank weren’t even trying to hide their boredom. The race was the place to be, so they’d come to see and be seen. He should join them, leave this prime position at the water’s edge for someone who cared.

But that was when his eye landed on one particular woman. She wasn’t standing behind the crowd out of ennui; she was perched on a stool, the better to see the proceedings. She wore a dark skirt and a white shirtwaist. But her jacket had a decidedly mannish flair to it—strong lines, military braid at the cuffs, and epaulettes at the shoulders. She wore a man’s bowler hat. A length of fabric in that odd shade of light bluish-green that was known as Cambridge Blue was knotted around her neck in a fair imitation of a cravat. She wasn’t feigning interest in the race; she was interested. She leaned forward, every bit as intent as the most avid student, as if she could push the craft forward with the power of her mind.

Edward had intended to drop back, but when he picked his way through the crowds at the banks, it turned out to not be a retreat. He found himself drifting toward the woman as if he were a satellite being drawn into orbit around her. As he got closer, he saw wisps of auburn hair peeking out from under her hat.

She watched the proceedings with a concentration so intent that she didn’t even notice him coming to stand a few feet from her. She simply pushed up on her tiptoes, fists clenched at her side, eyes fixed on the race.

He could see the river from the corner of his eye. The rowers were closing in on the finish. The woman leaned forward, raising a fist as if to cheer—and then gasped in sudden surprise.

Edward turned back to the river. He scarcely had a chance to see what happened. A dark object flew through the air from the opposite bank; the shouts of encouragement turned to outrage. And then the thing—whatever it was—hit the Cambridge boat right on Stephen’s position. It burst apart, and Edward saw a splash of vivid orange.

He’d been right. There was a storm coming. Edward stepped forward, his jaw clenched, a rising fury encompassing him. But there was nothing he could do—not here, not on the banks of the river.

Now he remembered why he hated England. He hadn’t felt this helpless in almost a decade, not since his father had ordered Stephen and Patrick stripped to the waist and whipped in front of him. This was why he’d come back. After all these years, he finally had a chance to do something about the anger he’d buried.

The boat was close enough now that Edward could see Stephen miss a beat, wipe his face. Some kind of an orange dye in a brittle shell had been lobbed at him.

“Oh, infamous!” shouted the woman in the cravat. “Don’t let them take you down, Stephen. Show them!”

He turned back to her. She knew Stephen? The mystery deepened. Here she was, rigged out in Cambridge colors, cheering for Stephen as if she had every right to do so. He had no idea who she was. She might be his fiancée, although he’d not heard of a betrothal. She wasn’t family; that he knew for certain.

Edward couldn’t make out Stephen’s expression at this distance, but he didn’t need to. There was a determination to the set of his shoulders, one Edward recognized all too well.

He’d been best friends with Stephen’s elder brother. Stephen had been five years younger—a persistent extra at best, an annoying hanger-on at worst. He’d followed the older boys around looking precisely as he did now: determined that he would not be excluded. The harder they had tried to leave him, the more he’d attached himself. Apparently that stubbornness hadn’t changed, because now he pulled harder. The Cambridge boat slid ahead a quarter of a length, and then another. And then they were in the lead, sliding past the judge’s boat to the roar of the crowd.

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