Chapter Twelve

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"What happened to the other painting?" Mary asked. She was standing in the library, frowning at the landscape behind the desk. "I don't like this one."

"Mary." Rebecca sighed.

"Why are you keeping so many secrets? Is something horrible happening? You can tell me, Becky. And where is Alex? He hasn't been to breakfast." She looked pale and upset but determined.

"Nothing horrible is happening, but the story is a little uncomfortable. Sit down, Mary," Rebecca said. She hoped to postpone that conversation, but maybe sooner was better in this case. "I wanted to tell you both. Where is Emily?"

"Playing outside. We have been cooped up in the house for so long, but today is not raining, so she wanted to go out for a bit. We have finished our lessons for today. I said she could." Mary lifted her nose defiantly. "I made her put on her winter coat and a shawl. She is warm, don't worry."

"Good," Rebecca approved. "Maybe I'll tell you then, and later on, we'll tell Emily." She braced herself and started talking, outlining Alex's version of the events. She paced as she talked, but whenever her eyes fell on the new painting, she turned away. She didn't like it either. It looked too much like the ruins of the abbey, and she never liked the place. She told Mary everything, including the Palinico paintings and Alex's plans to sell one to finance their new life.

Mary didn't interrupt or ask questions, but when Rebecca finished, accusations shimmered in the girl's eyes. "So he isn't our brother," Mary murmured. "Our real brother is a traitor." Her lips quivered. "And dead."

"Mary." Rebecca dropped down on the sofa beside her sister and hugged the girl. "Alex will be your brother again soon. He proposed to me last night."

Mary's woebegone expression cleared, as if by magic. "He did?"

Rebecca stretched out her hand with the new ring for Mary's inspection. "Pretty, isn't it?"

Mary nodded. "Do you love him?"

"Yes." Rebecca couldn't contain her happy smile.

"He'll be better for you than Mister Talbot," Mary said solemnly. "I didn't want to tell you but I never liked him. But Alex—I liked him and I'm angry with him too. He shouldn't have deceived us so."

"He didn't have a choice. All those generals in the army headquarters, you know. He couldn't disobey his orders." Convenient lies dropped so easily from her tongue, Rebecca wasn't even ashamed. Perhaps Sophronia's blood did run in her veins, as Alex had implied. She didn't like lying to Mary, but it was for a worthy cause. She wouldn't make a habit out of it. She would stop lying soon, as soon as this twisted ploy of brothers and betrayals cleared up for good. It was the last lie she would ever utter to Mary, she promised to herself.

"Is he going to sell all the paintings?" Mary asked abruptly.

"Not yet. He'll try to sell one. If it can commandeer the price he told me about, we'll be set for several years. It should be enough to rent a house in London and live comfortably. We won't be rich but we might afford an art teacher for you. Maybe riding lessons too."

"Oh," Mary gasped. "I didn't realize. We must leave here." Her face crumpled, but she visibly suppressed her grief, although wrinkles still lined her forehead. "I like New Oaks," she said faintly.

"I know. I do too, but it can't be helped, Mary. New Oaks doesn't belong to us. It's entailed. It will go to whatever heir of Alex—our brother Alex, I mean—the lawyers will find. We have to pack and leave as soon as Alex... Captain Woodward finds us lodgings in London."

"Becky." Mary turned in the circle of Rebecca's arms, as a new worry lifted its head in her mind. "If our brother was a traitor, do we have to wear mourning for him? What are the rules? I mean, could you get married right away."

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