Samantha searched her face. “Is this because of what Luke said yesterday? How he didn’t think we should go to dinner at your parents? That your ma might do something she shouldn’t?”
If only the situation was that simple. If only she’d accepted Luke’s advice and stayed home rather than claiming she couldn’t ignore her family. “No. It’s got nothing to do with my mother or Luke. It’s something else entirely. Trust me. Please.”
Samantha reached forward and offered her hand. “But what about you?”
“I’ll be fine.”
She only prayed her words were true.
Elizabeth’s heart pounded as the footman opened the door to her parents’ drawing room and she stepped inside. She’d spent countless hours in this room growing up, quietly doing needlework or taking refreshments while Mother and her friends gossiped about the latest goings-on. Yet she hardly recognized it now. The room seemed different somehow—darker, emptier, even though the furniture and window dressings and people inside were much the same.
Mother sat on the settee, and David and Father stood by the fire discussing politics in muted tones.
The familiar feeling of betrayal wrapped itself around her gut. Of course David would be here. She should have expected it. It was evidently too much to ask her parents to shun the man who had nearly forced her into marriage the other night, especially when that man had money and political connections. Well, they were about to find out how deep David’s love for her and the rest of the family ran. Because if the ledger she held in her hand proved true, he’d run from the house and publically denounce any relationship with them before noon tomorrow.
Elizabeth stared at Jackson, sprawled comfortably in his favorite armchair. Surely there must be some mistake. How could he sit there in his expensive suit and act as though everything was normal if he’d been stealing money from schools, hospitals and orphanages?
“Good evening, Elizabeth, how lovely to see you.”
Elizabeth ignored David and headed straight for her brother. “Explain this. Tell me it’s not what I think.” She threw the book in his lap.
Jackson glanced down, a flicker of recognition racing across his face, then he shoved the ledger off his legs onto the floor.
A flurry of footsteps and voices rushed around her.
“Elizabeth, what are you doing?”
“Is this any way to behave before dinner?”
“I see you’re as excited to see me as I am to see you, darling.”
“Jackson, what’s that book?”
“David, perhaps you better excuse our family for a few moments.”
But despite the chaos, Elizabeth didn’t pull her eyes away from her brother.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Jackson shrugged indolently, as though there was nothing wrong with the world. As though that book didn’t shake the very core holding their family together. “I’ve never seen these accounts before in my life. Now where’s my fiancée? She was supposed to come with you, wasn’t she?”
Elizabeth picked up the ledger and drew in a breath—it burned like fire down her throat and into her lungs. “Never seen it? I got it from your office! The entries are written in your handwriting! Unless I’m misunderstanding this ledger—which I don’t think I am—you’ve been embezzling money.”
“Embezzling?” Mother squeaked. “Jackson’s been embezzling?”
“That’s quite enough, Elizabeth.” Father’s voice boomed from the doorway.
She turned and scanned the room to find David gone, Mother looking ready to faint on the settee, and Father glowering.
“He’s been stealing money, Father. Look for yourself.” She came toward him, holding the book out.
“Stop being such a ninny. I know what’s in there. But bringing the matter up before dinner is hardly appropriate.”
She stopped, standing halfway between her father and Jackson. “You...you know what’s in it?” It made no sense. How could her father know unless...
“No,” she whispered.
Father laughed, a polished chuckle he no doubt used when advocating one bill or another in the assembly. “Where do you think all that money is? In some account for your brother?”
She pressed her eyes shut and tried to block off her ears, tried to prevent her father’s meaning from sinking through to her brain. Her father couldn’t be embezzling, too. He was a politician, for goodness’ sake. The slightest whiff of scandal would ruin his career.
But why else would Father admit to recognizing the ledger?
“How dare you.” She clenched one hand around the book’s binding and another in her skirt. If only she could fly at him, rage and beat and kick until she was spent. Or maybe she could simply close her eyes and disappear, be somewhere else entirely. With Luke having dinner. In her classroom teaching quadratic equations. In her parlor helping MaryAnne get ready for the play. Anywhere but standing in her parents’ drawing room.