Chapter Eight

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"Well," said the art dealer. Tall and lanky, with shrewd eyes and an old-fashioned wig, he regarded Alex with obvious interest. "Palonico didn't leave many paintings, and they are quite valuable, but the price would depend on many parameters, including the condition of the paintings, the size, the frame, and of course, the provenance." He bent his bony fingers, one by one, as he enumerated. "Where does it come from?"

Alex came prepared for this question. Nobody knew the paintings came with the New Oaks estate, and it should stay this way if Rebecca was to benefit. "I won it at cards," he said firmly. "A couple years ago, when I was still with the army." The lie dropped easily from his tongue, much more comfortable than pretending to be Carlyle.

That one he detested, but nobody knew the source of the paintings. Perhaps their previous owner did win them at cards, and that was why the estate inventory didn't list them. Even if the lack of provenance detracted from the paintings' values, it was safer for Rebecca in the long run if her name wasn't linked with them.

"The frame is very simple, no gilding or carving," he continued. "The condition—I don't know. I think it's in good condition, but you'll have to see for yourself. And the size..." He hesitated, looking around. "I didn't measure it, but it's approximately like that one." He pointed at a large still life on the gallery wall. "I know you can't give me the exact price without seeing, but could you give me an estimated range?"

"Well. I'm reluctant to commit myself, but I suspect, if it's a real Palonico and not a forgery, it would be somewhere from five to fifty thousand pounds, depending on condition. I have to see, of course."

"Of course," Alex said. He didn't expect such a high estimate. Even if he counted on the lowest range, Rebecca could easily move out of New Oaks and have enough money for several years without the need for strict economy. Or any economy. They could rent a house in London or anywhere they wanted. They could buy a riding horse and hire an art teacher for Mary. No more counterfeit Carlyle. He grinned.

"Could I buy a landscape with ruins of a similar size but for much less money?" he pressed his agenda. They still needed a couple of cheap paintings to replace the Palonico. He hoped both Rebecca's paintings had been painted by Palonico, not forgeries as the dealer implied, otherwise all his merry calculations would go up in smoke.

The dealer turned to glance around his gallery. "That one I would sell for a couple hundred." He nodded at the side wall. "But you can see the quality is not anywhere near Palonico's."

He started babbling about transparency, perspective, and palette, but Alex didn't listen. He nodded politely, stepped closer to take a look, and agreed with the gallery owner even without knowing any of the artistic vocabulary. This painting was large but flat, while Palonico's paintings seemed alive. Whenever he looked at them, he always wanted to step into the frame, to climb the steps, to glimpse inside the ruins.

"Yes, you're right." Alex turned back to the dealer. "Thank you for your time and expertise. I'll bring you the painting in a few days, so you could see for yourself. If it's Palonico, how fast would it sell?"

The man frowned thoughtfully and drummed his fingers on his desk. "Well, I can't really say. I'll have to contact the collectors, see who is interested."

"An estimate," Alex prodded. "A year? Three days? Five months? What should I expect?"

The dealer winced. "A few months," he said. "But there is no guarantee."

"Of course. I just want to know. Thank you."

They shook hands, and Alex left the gallery in high spirits. Among all the visits he had paid since he came to town, this one ended on a most successful note. The other ones, while he hunted for position, reminded him of fishing. He tossed out the lures, and everyone promised to ask around, but no definitive answers were forthcoming. All he could do was sit back and wait. He had never been fond of fishing.

Something would come up, he was sure, and then, with a decent income of his own, he could finally woo Rebecca properly. And marry her. For now, he would go shopping. He would buy all three girls at New Oaks their Christmas gifts. He wanted to spoil them. Before now, except for an occasional mistress, he hadn't had anyone to spoil, and he liked the feeling. With his pension for several months in his pocket, he felt like Prince Regent, rich and powerful. He turned towards Bond Street and its shopping arcades.

When he returned to his hotel room later in the evening, he was in possession of a gorgeous doll in a princess gown for Emily, a set of watercolors and an album for Mary, and a golden brooch with small rubies set in a twinkling spiral for Rebecca. He had bought another trinket for Rebecca as well but not a gift.

He gazed at the ring with the same design as the brooch, lying quietly in his palm. So small and innocent, this ring represented such a huge step for both Rebecca and himself. Alex stuffed the ring into his pocket and imagined what the girls would do when they received his gifts. Emily would kiss him soundly. Mary would be more bashful, but her quiet admiration would be equally gratifying. And Rebecca—maybe he would get a kiss from her too. He hoped. She seemed to like the kisses they had already shared.

Tomorrow morning, he would hire a small wagon to transport the paintings to London, and then he would go home. Strange how New Oaks had become home in a few short weeks. Not the manor itself but its girly occupants. As soon as he dispersed with the damn travesty of brother playacting and resumed his real identity, they could all be happy, and he wouldn't have to steal kisses with Rebecca on the sly, in secret from her sisters. Or maybe he would, for propriety's sake, until they got married.

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