"Of course I love you," Tim Shaw said wearily. It felt like he was saying it for the hundredth time that day.
It would probably be a little easier if I meant it.
Charity Trask, sitting ramrod-straight at the far end of the sofa, continued to pout. "I can't feel comfortable with you, Tim," she said primly.
"Why...not?" It had almost come out as, "Why the hell not?"
"I can't forget your involvement with...Rachel Drummond." The dowdy young woman spoke the name as if it pained her to say something so distasteful. A dirty word. "I think you loved her."
"No!" Tim had become such a scoundrel that the memory of that real, true love no longer troubled him at all. "Rachel and I were only friends, Charity. And besides, she's dead. How can you feel threatened by someone who's dead?"
"You don't stop loving a person just because they die!" Her lower lip quivered. "Everyone s-seems to think my father is dead. And I still love him. I always will."
"Um, yes." Tim cast his eyes downward, pretending to observe a few moments' respectful silence in memory of the presumed-dead Reverend Gregory Trask.
It was hard not to smile, as he recalled following Judith's orders to wall up the room in which the old hypocrite - her husband - was trapped.
I wonder if he used the gun she provided him, or clung to hope till he starved to death?
In a sense, he had something on Judith Collins Trask. But he couldn't betray her without incriminating himself, so blackmail was out of the question.
His only hope of cashing in was to marry Charity. Judith clearly felt guilty about having murdered the little prude's father, and intended to make up for it by lavishing money on her.
He dreaded being stuck with Charity for the rest of his life. He'd liked her better when she thought she was Pansy Faye.
But he'd cross that bridge when he came to it.
Right now, he was having an unexpectedly hard time getting her to agree to marry him.
"Charity," he reminded her, "your father really wanted us to be together."
He could tell that had hit home.
"I know," she said in a hushed voice. "And for that reason, I want to believe in you, Tim. But I still have these doubts..." Tears brimmed in her eyes.
He tried edging closer.
It hadn't seemed possible she could retreat farther into her corner of the sofa, but she did.
He groped desperately for another idea.
But it was Charity who spoke up. "W-wait! Thinking of my father...maybe there is something you can do to convince me you love me!"
Oh-oh. What if she demands I find out what happened to him?
Fortunately, that didn't seem to be it. Deep in thought, Charity said, "There's someone who really hurt Father. You could help me...make him pay."
Tim still felt uneasy, but he said, "If it's doable, I'll do it. What's this all about? Who is the guy, and how did he hurt your father?"
"You know how much Father loved me," she began shyly.
"Yes." Probably not at all.
"Well, when we first came to live at Collinwood, there was an artist who was here frequently. Charles Delaware Tate. Father commissioned him to paint a portrait of me.
"But he never finished it. And he took Father's money, too!"
Tim was perplexed. "Do you want him to finish the portrait, or give the money back? Tate's left town, but I can probably find him -"
"No! I don't care about the portrait, or the money. Besides, there's no proof Father paid him. He didn't ask for a receipt. Father was such a moral man himself that it never occurred to him others might be dishonest."
Tim nodded solemnly. "Yes, Reverend Trask was a man of impeccable morals."
As proven by his having drugged or hypnotized or bewitched me to get me to kill the first Mrs. Trask, instead of doing it himself.
"But if you don't want the portrait or the money," he asked, "what do you want?"
"He really hurt Father by not finishing that portrait," she reiterated. "So I want to do something that will hurt him.
"Not physically, of course! That would be a sin. But there's another way...
"I only know this because Father told me. The reason Mr. Tate specializes in portraits is that he has a hard time painting other things, like landscapes. He can't seem to get the perspective right.
"He's only done one landscape that he's satisfied with, and he's very proud of it. He keeps it with him, not for sale. It's called 'View of South Wales.' He'd be devastated if he lost that painting."
Tim couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Are you asking me to steal for you?"
Charity looked shocked. "Of course not! It wouldn't be stealing!
"I suppose, in the eyes of the law, it would be. But not really. You and I know Mr. Tate owes me money. It would just be...compensation."
Tim couldn't quite see the distinction.
Not that he cared.
"Have you seen this painting?" If she hasn't, I can save myself a lot of trouble. Have some hack paint any old thing and call it "View of South Wales."
He was sure Charity didn't have any specialized knowledge of Tate's art.
Or, for that matter, of South Wales.
But it turned out she had seen the painting. She gave him a description.
Still, she'd only seen it once. And she'd described a very bland landscape. A fake might work.
Then Charity said as an afterthought, "It isn't only important to Mr. Tate for sentimental reasons. He's becoming more and more famous as a portrait artist. According to Father, he believes that if he hangs onto 'View of South Wales' - his one good landscape - for a few years, it will be worth a fortune."
Tim dropped the idea of settling for a fake.
"Charity," he said earnestly, "I will find that blackguard. I will prove my love by avenging the wrong done you and your father!
"And then -" He abandoned the sofa and dropped to one knee before her. "Then may I dare to hope that you will become my wife?"
"Oh yes, Tim," she whispered. "You certainly may!"
Aye, Pansy thought wickedly as the door closed behind him, 'e certainly may...dare to 'ope!
Oi might've been able to steal the bloomin' thing meself. But why not make some use o' that greedy bloke?
She congratulated herself on the plan. 'E won't fake up a painting because 'e thinks the genuine article's valuable. And 'e won't just take off with it, because 'e wants t' marry me an' get at the Collins money.
Of course, Gregory Trask had never seen "View of South Wales." It was a new painting whose real importance was that it concealed Quentin's portrait. Pansy's second sight had told her that.
And she knew where she'd hide it, from her thieving suitor and everyone else: in the gutted ruin of Worthington Hall, which "Charity" stood to inherit when Trask was declared dead.
She saw only one potential problem. To stay at Collinwood and maintain her cover, she might actually have to marry Tim Shaw.
She dreaded being stuck with Tim for the rest of her life. She'd liked him better when she thought she was Charity Trask.
But she'd cross that bridge when she came to it.