Chapter Seven

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He had said to wait for him but he hadn't actually proposed. He had just assumed she would agree, but to what? Was he contemplating marriage? Or something else? It would be disastrous to make a mistake and misconstrue his intentions. And who was he to order her around like his property?

Rebecca glared at the ledger in front of her, but her thoughts wouldn't stay on the sums. Alex had been gone for almost two weeks, and she missed him. What was he doing for so long in the city? Everyone was asking about him. After the service on Sunday, it seemed that the entire congregation of the church had trooped past her to inquire about his absence.

Her sisters asked daily if there was a letter from him, but no letter arrived. The blasted man didn't write. Maybe he just left, tired of his role-playing and their endless problems. She couldn't blame him. She shouldn't have started this crazy scheme in the first place. Perhaps she should look for a position and not rely on his plans to sell the paintings. Yes, she would write to her friends in the village where they had lived with her aunt and ask if anyone could recommend anything.

She pulled a fresh sheet of foolscap from a stack on her desk, when Mary flew into the library. Waving a letter and beaming, she plopped down on a sofa.

"From Alex?" Rebecca asked eagerly.

"No." Mary's joy faded visibly. "No letter from him again. That's from my friend Alicia. I wrote to her that Alex came back from the war, and she said she would tell everybody. Her Aunt Trudy is surprised she didn't receive your letter about it. It's probably gone astray, right? I'm sure you wrote to Trudy the next day after Alex came, as I did to Alicia."

She chattered on, and Rebecca nodded at intervals, but inside, she quaked. Trudy had been her best friend, when they lived with her aunt. Trudy's parents and Rebecca's aunt had been neighbors. Of course, she would've written to Trudy if Alex, her brother, had returned, but he hadn't. Rebecca was going to write to Trudy right now, to ask if anyone had heard about a position for her.

Alicia's timely letter saved her from an irreparable misstep. It would've been catastrophic, if her letter with such a request arrived only days after Mary's triumphant account of her brother's return from war. It would've started tongues wagging. If Alicia wasn't such a reliable correspondent, Rebecca might've unthinkingly put Alex's good name and freedom in jeopardy. Sent him to prison. She blanched at the thought. Luckily Mary, absorbed in her recital, didn't notice.

Rebecca fixed a smile on her face and nodded encouragingly at Mary to continue with her news but she didn't listen. How would she look for a position now? She couldn't ask anywhere. Her little lie, which she had thought so clever at the time, was getting out of hand. It was crippling her, it was messing with her sisters' heads and hearts, and what it did to Alex she didn't even want to contemplate.

She had heard about some agencies in London that supplied governesses and paid companions to those in need, but she didn't know how to contact such an agency. Perhaps she could ask around, as if for a poor relation? Maybe the vicar would know? No, she couldn't ask him. He already suspected Alex. Gosh, she was in such a pickle! Her only hope was that Alex would return with good news. She wanted to weep with her helplessness but had to pretend to share Mary's elation.

"I must go," Mary said at last and climbed to her feet. "I want to finish Alex's portrait before he comes back. I want it to be a surprise gift for Christmas. Why doesn't he write?" She frowned thoughtfully as she left the library.

"Yes," Rebecca murmured to the closed door. She rubbed her arms and sighed. "I'd like to know that too."

Then another thought intruded on her contemplation. Mary had read the infrequent letters from their brother, the true one. If Alex wrote a letter, Mary would demand to read it. She would see right away that the handwriting was different. Alex had probably realized this hazard long ago. That's why he didn't write. Gosh, how would they extricate themselves from this imbroglio?

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