Holding her breath and biting her lip, Arianne Richards pried off the oddly situated backing from which a piece of canvas protruded. Many old paintings had unusual frames and odd bits of paper and board tacked to the reverse, but this particular painting was neither very old nor very valuable.
Actually, she considered the insipid portrait one of the artist’s poorest works. Her mother could not possibly have looked that vain even twenty years ago, and she certainly had never been the frail and porcelain beauty the artist had thought to make of her. Perhaps that kind of beauty had been as fashionable then as it was now, but Arianne knew that her mother was as tall as she, and had always enjoyed robust good health.
Until these last few years. Frowning, Arianne opened up the backing. If she listened, she could hear her mother’s cough in the rooms above, but here in the workroom she tried to shut out this reminder. Her father had brought in no new commissions lately. There was nothing to be done in the studio, but Arianne had used the excuse of cleaning one of their own portraits to escape for a while into this solitude.
Not that she minded tending to her younger brothers and sister, or even cared that the major part of the housework fell on her shoulders now that her mother’s coughing spells had become more frequent. Her family had been all her life for twenty-one years. But the constant worry of the hacking cough gnawed at Arianne’s fears.
She could remember a time when she had run through the wild grasses of Somerset, free and laughing as only a child could. She had been too young to remember the death of her first baby sister, but she could remember the time after the fever, when her new baby brother had been carried off on angel’s wings, as her mother had explained it. It had been then that the laughing summer days had dwindled to a permanent winter.
Her mother had been a long time recovering from the fever. Her father’s genial absentmindedness had become more distracted. Bits and pieces of their heavy old carved furniture had begun to disappear: the lovely chair with the faded tapestry of lions and Romans, the massive walnut sideboard with so many intricate carvings that Arianne used it as a hiding place for her smallest treasures, even the golden candlesticks with the dragon heads that breathed fire when the candle was lit. Along with these fantasies of the past disappeared Arianne’s childhood.
They had removed to London by the time Lucinda was born. Even as a six-year-old Arianne had taken the responsibility of looking after the infant, rocking her cradle when she cried, keeping her amused when she was awake so her mother could rest and get strong again. It seemed a natural progression of things that her mother’s “best little helper” should be the one to watch the toddler when she began to walk, to set the table and clear the dishes on the maid’s night off, to stir the custard when the kitchen was a flurry of activity.
The backing finally came loose from the frame. She knew no one minded when she came down here to escape for a little while. Her father had encouraged her habit of watching him work as he cleared centuries of dirt and grime from the rare and valuable oils brought to him from the collections of the wealthy. He had even allowed her to help him on less valuable pieces, until she knew the best chemicals to use for which oils and could work without his guidance while he sought more business.
It was because his own collection was so extensive that Ross Richards was consulted by royalty and aristocracy seeking to keep their family treasures or newly acquired ones in good repair. Arianne wrinkled her nose in frustration as she thought of the fortune in paintings adorning the walls of their humble abode. The paintings were almost all they had left when they had moved to the city, and her father refused to part with even the least of them, even if it meant not taking a much-needed trip to Bath or Brighton to improve her mother’s ailing health.
It was the one subject on which she and her father were at odds, and it wouldn’t do to dwell on it now. Her father’s passion for art supported them, while her parents’ aristocratic relations gave them the connections to the world necessary to provide that support. They seemed content with that, and Arianne knew it wasn’t her place to interfere.
But as the backing slipped away to reveal a palette of colors that shouldn’t be there, Arianne gasped and felt a flutter of hope, hope hinged on keeping this discovery a secret from her beloved father.