The Art of Deceit

(The L & L Mysteries #2)

by Wendy Lohr

Leyla and Lucien's field trip to the National Gallery of Art reveals more than the teens are expecting. After noticing something odd in a special exhibit painting, they try to convince the director of the Gallery that there's something wrong with the artwork. When they're not believed, the teens are determined to prove they are right. As they probe further, the teens uncover evidence of murder, deception, and black market dealings that may cost them their lives. Will the two friends be able to gather enough evidence to support their theory in time? Or will Leyla and Lucien go missing, leaving the Gallery to purchase clever forgeries?


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Chapter 1

“Alright, class, let’s all stick together. And no touching the artwork!” Mrs. Walker, the Fine Arts teacher, reminded them firmly.

Lucien Vintera suppressed a chuckle as his twin brother, Romi, rolled his violet-colored eyes at him. Romi was a mirror image of Lucien, with the same colored eyes, long black hair pulled back at the nape, and imposing height of six-foot-five. That was where their similarities ended, though.

Romi was much more outgoing and always seemed to feel easy amongst a crowd, whether it was strangers or friends. He played sports, dressed in the latest fashion, and was determined to become a member of the elite Royal Guard, of which their father was the Captain. Lucien was pretty certain that his twin dreamed of becoming the Captain of the Royal Guard some day, following in their fathers’ footsteps.

Being almost the exact opposite of his identical twin, Lucien preferred black t-shirts and jeans, rarely played sports, and was definitely not interested in becoming a Royal Guard. He hoped to someday be a successful artist, like their mother, and was constantly sketching, drawing, or painting something.

“Does she not realize that when you tell teenagers not to do something, they’re actually more likely to do it?” Mick Forrester, a good friend of theirs, asked quietly.

Grinning, Lucien shook his head in amusement as the group came to a halt inside the first gallery room. Their class was on a field trip to Ansalucia’s National Gallery of Art. Since Lucien’s greatest passion was art and his family used to live in Madria, the capital of Ansalucia and the city where the Gallery was located, he had visited the impressive art collection often in order to admire some of his favorite pieces.

Pulling his gaze away from the Baroque-period paintings, Lucien looked around at his classmates, many of whom were his friends. He and Romi had transferred a couple of months before from Madria to the small village of San Lucia where their father had relocated the family. Mick, who was of average height with a muscular build and thick brown hair with streaks of blond in it, had been the one to show him and Romi around the high school on their first day.

Mick had been really cool about introducing them to a group of his friends that he tended to hang out with a lot. Looking around the room, Lucien saw Dominic and Denise Phillips, siblings that were constantly bickering good-naturedly with each other. He also spotted Peter Lawson, who was as serious about art as Lucien was, explaining a Rembrandt painting to Sylvie Benson.

Realizing he didn’t see his best friend, Leyla Richards, amongst the group of students, Lucien wondered where the petite blond had wandered off to. Leyla, who was Mick’s cousin, was a year younger than the rest of the class, having skipped a grade because of her academic abilities.

Lucien and Leyla hit it off the very first day they’d met, quickly becoming good friends. She was originally from northern England, but had moved with her mother to Ansalucia when she was ten. Whenever she became nervous, annoyed, or excited about something, her British accent became even more distinct. This sometimes caused him to laugh, which would exasperate her, but Leyla could never stay annoyed with him for long because she was too easy-going. What was really cool was that they had worked together recently to solve a mystery, which led them to thwart an assassination attempt on the President of Spain.

A hand on his arm interrupted his wayward musings and he looked to see Monique Farquay standing there, smiling up at him. Suppressing a groan, he asked politely, “What is it, Monique?”

“I was wondering if you could explain one of the art pieces to me,” she whispered coyly and actually batted her eyelashes at him.

Sighing in resignation, he allowed the willowy brunette to drag him over to one of the paintings, wondering why she still persisted on trying to get a date with him. He wasn’t sure how much clearer he had to be for her to understand that he was not interested in her. Monique was rude and obnoxious to his friends and he had no desire to date someone with that kind of character.

After explaining what the artist was trying to portray in the painting (which, incidentally, turned out to be a self-portrait of the artist – not much to explain there), he turned away but was stopped as she caught his arm again and cooed softly, “You are so intelligent, Lucien. I feel like I always come away knowing so much more after you explain something to me.”

Not knowing quite how to respond to Monique’s exaggerated flattery, he was saved from his predicament by someone tugging on his other shirt sleeve. He was very relieved to hear his friend’s familiar British accent softly urging, “Lucien, you’ve got to check this out!”

Looking at Leyla, Lucien saw the excited grin on her face and wondered what she was up to. Wishing Monique would let go of his arm, he lowered his voice so he wouldn’t interrupt Mrs. Walker’s lecture and asked curiously, “Where’ve you been? You’ve missed half the lecture already.”

Rolling her sapphire eyes, she was about to answer when Monique interrupted and stated rudely, “Scram, Leyla! Lucien and I are busy studying art together.”

Frowning at Monique, he stated curtly, “I’ve already explained the painting, Monique. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I want to see what my friend needs.”

Monique’s mouth dropped as he removed his arm from her grip and turned to follow Leyla. Walking behind her, he couldn’t help but notice how much taller he was compared to her, but then he had to remember that he towered over most people. Once they were far enough away that Monique couldn’t hear, Leyla turned to him and asked curiously, “What was that all about?”

“The usual; she wanted a date and I didn’t,” he answered with a shrug. “So, what was so important that you bailed on the beginning of the tour?”

Grinning, she handed him a sleek looking pamphlet and whispered excitedly, “Here, read this!”

Thinking that his friend was a little strange sometimes, he obliged her and opened the pamphlet. Seeing photographs of some art pieces, Lucien peered more closely and uttered, “Wow, this is the Dutch artist I was telling you about last week that did all of those cool seascapes! Where did you get this?”

Leyla smiled mischievously and replied, “Well, while everyone else was making their way into this room, I slipped over to the information desk and asked about any special exhibits that were being presented today. They gave me this pamphlet. Apparently, a private citizen owns several of these pieces and has loaned them to the Gallery. According to the lady behind the information desk, if the artwork receives enough interest from the general public, then the Gallery may put in a bid to buy them. Is that cool, or what? As soon as I saw it was that artist you were telling me about, I just had to show you!”

“Leyla, this is sweet! We need to go check it out. As soon as you see the real paintings, you’ll know exactly what I was trying to explain to you. Especially about how he captured the moonlight on the water and such,” Lucien explained enthusiastically.

Welll, I was thinking that we could sneak over to the exhibit and look at it now, while the rest of the class is busy being bored. Besides, you’ve seen all of this stuff before and you can just fill me in later. What do you say?” she asked eagerly, her sapphire eyes twinkling.

Looking around to see if anyone had heard her, he leaned closer to her and whispered, “You are actually willing to risk getting in trouble with a teacher in order to look at some dead artists’ paintings?”

Leyla blushed slightly and whispered, “I know that I’m not quite the risk taker that you are, but I’m getting better. Are you interested?”

“How can I refuse when you’re actually chomping at the bit to break some rules?” he teased.

“Very funny, Lucien!” she retorted with a grin. “Come on, let’s get one of the others to cover for us and we’ll go check this out.”

He put his hand on her shoulder and suggested, “I’ve got a better idea. Let me ask Mrs. Walker if I can go to the bathroom and then you leave a couple of minutes later. That way, if she notices us missing, we can say we got lost or something.” Leyla nodded in agreement and he left to go find the teacher.

* * * * *

After Lucien left the room, Leyla anxiously waited for Mrs. Walker to move the class to the next section in the Gallery. As the students started slowly following the teacher, she hung back at the rear of the class, hoping not to get caught trying to sneak off. Seeing her chance, she quietly slipped away and headed for the exit that Lucien had gone through. Looking back quickly over her shoulder, she saw Sylvie watching her with a ‘you are being naughty’ look. Unable to stop the blush that stole across her cheeks, Leyla put a finger to her lips and her friend grinned and gave her a slight nod before disappearing into the next room with the rest of the class.

Feeling a little embarrassed at having gotten caught sneaking out of the lecture, but grateful it had been Sylvie who caught her, Leyla slipped silently out of the room and into the main hallway of the museum. She had always been a stickler for the rules, unlike Lucien, who seemed to bend them frequently. She couldn’t help but feel a little nervous about her now also bending the rules. Although she was pretty sure that she would never be quite up to par with Lucien, Leyla had convinced herself that she had to take some risks every once in a while if she wanted to live a little.

Seeing Lucien stepping out of the men’s room, she quickly made her way down the main corridor of the Gallery and joined him. Grinning excitedly, she motioned for him to follow, as she had memorized the location of the special exhibit before telling him about it. Within moments, they were inside a small, windowless exhibit room, paneled in rich dark mahogany. It actually had a cozy feel to it and she liked it immediately.

She heard Lucien whistle softly, the sound startling her in the silent room. Fidgeting with nervous excitement, Leyla looked over at her friend and asked curiously, “What is it, Lucien?”

He gestured towards the centerpiece of the exhibit. It was a marble sculpture of a woman emerging from the sea. It was very detailed and caused Leyla to blush slightly at the blatant nudity of the sculpture. Lucien didn’t seem disturbed by the sculpture’s explicit detail as he circled around it and admired the piece of art.

“Check it out, Leyla! This statue was inspired by Boticelli’s famous painting, The Birth of Venus. The painting is on display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. I’d really love to go there at some point to see it,” he marveled, continuing to slowly circle the sculpture. “I’ve got to learn how to sculpt with marble; this is incredible!”

Leyla didn’t respond as she was already bored with the sculpture of some ancient Roman goddess. Art really wasn’t her thing and she preferred to leave the admiration of it to those that actually cared about it. Moving over to one of the walls, she noticed that there were five oil paintings, one in the center with the other four placed at each corner. The painting in the center was nice, but the one that really caught her eye was the moonlit voyage of a large sailing ship. It was so realistic that she felt she could step right into the painting and hear the waves lap against the ship as it sailed along, illuminated by the moonlight.

“Fascinating, isn’t it,” Lucien murmured in her ear, startling her again.

“Yes, it is. Now I know why you were having a hard time describing it to me. It’s so surreal!” she observed in fascination, continuing to stare at the mesmerizing scene.

“Yeah, the artist actually did a time lapse with these scenes. He started with daybreak, which is the painting in the center. Then he moved through various phases of the day, ending with the moonlit seascape. That one, of course, turned out to be the most popular, and most coveted, of the five seascapes,” Lucien explained in an authoritative manner.

As her friend got closer to the moonlight painting, Leyla nervously looked around to see if anyone was watching them. They were completely alone in the exhibit room, which was a little odd since she would have expected at least a security guard to be on duty in the room. She had seen them everywhere else in the Art Gallery, so why wasn’t there one here?

Turning her attention back to the painting, she couldn’t believe Lucien was actually touching the frame and shifting it to get better lighting on the painting. Just as she was about to reprimand him, something caught her eye and she exclaimed, “Lucien, do that again!”

“Do what, Leyla?” he asked and she told him to tilt the frame again.

The light hit the lower right-hand corner of the painting just right and she asked, “What does that symbol mean?”

“What symbol?” he asked in surprise.

She pointed it out to him and inquired, “Did the artist put it in there for some reason?”

Examining it closely, a frown suddenly marred his face. He looked as though he was about to say something when Leyla heard Mrs. Walker’s voice say, “Now, stay close while we observe this special exhibit, class.”

Leyla whirled around as the teacher walked into the room with the rest of the class. Seeing her and Lucien, Mrs. Walker exclaimed in surprise, “Leyla, Lucien, what are you two doing in here?!”

Lucien, who had released the painting just in time, answered smoothly, “Oh, there you all are. We’re sorry, Mrs. Walker, but I ran into Leyla when I was coming back from of the restroom and we got turned around. We were trying to find the group when we discovered this room. I guess I got distracted when I found these paintings and began explaining the Dutch influence to Leyla.”

Leyla bit back a laugh as Mrs. Walker broke out into a proud grin and stated, “Oh, that’s quite alright, Lucien. But now you two need to join the group again so I can move on with the lecture.”

They both murmured “Yes, ma’am” and went to the back of the group as their classmates snickered at them. Leyla saw Sylvie give her a knowing look and shake her finger at her. She had a feeling that her friend was going to want to know exactly what Leyla had been up to and hoped she could convince Sylvie that it had nothing to do with having a romantic moment with Lucien. The idea of being romantic with her best friend, even if he was one of the more gorgeous guys in school, was not something she wanted to dwell on for very long.

While Mrs. Walker continued the lecture, Leyla looked over at Lucien and saw him frowning, not paying any attention to what was going on around them. She wondered what was bothering him, but decided now was not the time to ask. Apparently, something wasn’t quite right about the painting and she resolved to ask him about it as soon as she got a chance.

At the end of the lecture, Mrs. Walker allowed the students thirty minutes to look around on their own and most of them left the special exhibit area. Lucien immediately went back over to the seascape paintings and stared at them intently. Leyla joined him and whispered, “What are you looking at, Lucien? I can see those wheels turning in your head over there.”

He gave her a small smile and murmured, “I’m not quite sure, yet. I don’t recall there being a symbol in this painting, but I want to go home and check something first to see if I remember correctly.”

Leyla was quiet for a moment, sensing Lucien’s apprehension about the painting, and then asked softly, “Do you think it’s a fake?”

“Sshh, keep it down, will ya? You can’t just say that kind of stuff in an art gallery, Leyla. These people take this very seriously and would be really upset if someone accused them of displaying art that wasn’t by the real artist,” Lucien chastised her emphatically.

“I didn’t say it that loud, Lucien,” she sniffed in exasperation. “Chill out! No one else heard me. Now, do you think that might be the case here or not?”

“I can’t say for sure right now. It would help if I could get a better look at these other paintings, but I can’t do that with all these people standing in the room,” he complained in frustration. “I do have a really awesome art book at home with this artist’s paintings, including these five in particular. So, I want to take a look at it and see if I can identify anything unusual.”

“Well, let me know if you come up with something. Maybe we’ve stumbled onto a new mystery,” she mused excitedly.

“You’re pretty warped, you know that?” he teased. “I’ll let you know, though. If we have stumbled onto something here, then I hope you’re up for some sleuthing.”

“Absolutely!” she stated eagerly. “We made a pretty good team the last time around. There shouldn’t be any reason we couldn’t pull it off again!”

Laughing, he nodded in agreement and they turned to head out of the room so they could meet up with the rest of the class for the return trip. Once they were back at school, Leyla reminded Lucien to call her if he found something. Then she walked home, wondering if there really was something significant in what they had discovered at the Gallery.

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