Chapter Ten

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His duty as a former officer and a gentleman demanded he contact the army headquarters and let them know about Carlyle's supposed treachery. Nothing had been proven yet, but he suspected the blackmailer Joshua didn't have any reason to lie. The army had special agents, and they could ferret information about Carlyle's friends and acquaintances. They could find out who Joshua was, but it would be too late for Rebecca and himself.

The blackmailer would already have learned about the swindle Rebecca and Alex unleashed on the lawyers and the neighbors. The damn creep could bleed them for years. No. Alex would have to untangle this knot himself. He would have to meet the crook personally and... do what? Kill him? Arrest him? No. As soon as he was arrested, Joshua or whatever his real name was would open his mouth and spill the beans. Alex could go to jail for their Carlyle scam. He had to unravel this coil another way.

He thrust his hands into his pockets and paced, trying to see the problem from all angles, to find a sneaky solution. He must outsmart the lowlife slug Joshua. Alex's fingers encountered the sharp edges of the rubies in his pocket, and he halted in his tracks. The ring. Did he still want to marry the traitor's sister? To associate forever with his family?

It didn't take him long to conclude that he did. Neither Rebecca nor her sisters were responsible for their brother's actions. Nothing changed in their relationships. The sooner he found a way out of this new predicament, the sooner he would be free to sell the paintings and liberate Rebecca and himself from the fake brother fiasco.

Too keyed up to sleep, one outrageous scenario after another spinning in his head, he poured himself another shot of brandy and resumed his pacing across the library. He had always thought better while doing something else. His brain seemed to need a distraction to come up with original ideas. When midnight had come and gone, while his thoughts revolved along the same beaten grooves, Alex stopped his fruitless pacing. He should visit the attic instead and rummage through the discards there. Maybe some old piece of furniture or a moth-eaten hat would spark his creativity.

He would prefer to share his explorations with Rebecca—it was always exciting to explore unknown attics with a friend—but she was asleep after her ordeal. The entire house was silent, and the door to the attic at the end of the second-floor corridor was locked.

Rebecca had told him that some of the stairs were broken. When the girls had first arrived at the manor, Emily was three. Afraid that the toddler might climb the unsafe stairs and injure herself, Rebecca had locked the door until the stairs could be fixed, but she had never gotten around to it, so the door stayed locked. He knew where to find the key though—on a hook in a corner of the kitchen.

Alex shucked off his boots to avoid waking anyone and crept stealthily through the sleeping house, first to the kitchen to get the key and an oil lamp, and then upstairs past all the bedrooms. He unlocked the attic door and climbed the stairs in his socks, testing each riser carefully to keep away from the broken ones.

His lamp was just bright enough to illuminate the attic—a narrow room spanning the length of the manor. One small dusty window near the trap door rattled under the onslaught of rain and wind outside. The dirty boards of the floor seemed icy even through his woolen socks.

More muted knocking on the opposite side of the attic probably indicated another window, although the haphazard piles of junk—broken furniture, old trunks, and cardboard boxes of all varieties—obscured the view. Rebecca had been right to lock the door. Aside from the two broken risers he had encountered on his way up, this place was a death trap for a three-year-old. Even at six, Emily would be at risk here. When he was six, he would've spent hours in this place, investigating all the possibilities for mishap.

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