“What were you doing, keeping that ledger where someone could find it?” Father crossed his arms and glared at Jackson. “You’re lucky only your sister noticed.”
“Maybe you should ask Elizabeth why she was in my office,” Jackson shot back.
“Will one of you please tell me what’s going on?” Mother said from where she still slumped on the settee.
Elizabeth turned to her mother. “Jackson has been embezzling funds from the accounts he handles at his office.” Admitting it aloud made everything somehow worse. She was no longer asking questions, but stating facts—rather irrefutable ones that would have disastrous consequences for her family. “I needed to look up something for Hayes Academy in his books, and I uncovered the embezzlement instead. Jackson didn’t just take from Samantha’s school, he stole from hospitals, orphanages, ladies’ clubs and—”
“Enough.” Father slashed his hand through the air. “We see you’ve familiarized yourself with the accounts. Now give the ledger to your brother.”
She clutched the book to her chest. “Give it back? Have you gone daft? Do you realize how much money’s been stolen?”
“Elizabeth. Do be respectful.” Mother fanned herself. “Whatever you’ve discovered, it’s no reason to call your father names.”
“Respectful?” At a time like this? Her mother couldn’t be serious. “Why should I be respectful, when Father’s known what Jackson’s been doing and hasn’t stopped him?”
“It was my idea, not Jackson’s.” Father leaned his wide frame against the door and watched her with an amused smile, as though enjoying the show at a circus. “Your brother merely had access to the funds.”
The air in the room turned so cold she could hardly breathe it without her lungs freezing in her chest. “What would possess you?”
But she didn’t need to ask, not really. The dates told her when the embezzlement had started. Seven months ago, just after the panic.
“We need money to live on,” Father said mildly. “And you’re aware of exactly how much we lost last March.”
“But you mortgaged the house. That gave you money. I know you’ve gone through most of the funds by now, but—”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Father waved his hand dismissively. “I merely invented that story when you and your mother started asking questions about how we could maintain our household staff and so forth.”
“You lied.” Fury surged through her as the full implication of his actions sank in, and she turned back to her brother. “And you lied, too. What reason do you have for this? You make a fine salary and keep apartments, with no great household to maintain.”
Jackson shrugged. “My trust fund went the same place yours did when our bank folded.”
“You’re criminals.” She squeezed the ledger against herself until it was sure to leave a rectangular imprint on her clothing. “I...I have to turn you in.”
Moisture, hot and traitorous, stung her eyes, but she blinked it away and stared at her father. “And you truly will lose your house when you have to repay everything you stole.”
“You can’t turn anyone in, Elizabeth.” Mother propped herself up from where she’d been lying on the settee. “I know you’re upset right now, dear, but you’d ruin the family name.”
“What purpose is there in a family name when the men who carry that name have no integrity? I’m not the one ruining anything.”
She whirled toward the door. She had to get away and decide what to do with the ledger. But Father stood in front of the door. He hadn’t moved so much as an inch since he’d shown David out.
She stilled, as the realization hit her. He hadn’t moved from the exit since David had left...because he was keeping her in. While Jackson paced in front of the fireplace, looking ready to pounce on her and rip the ledger from her hand at any moment.
“We can’t let you go. Don’t you understand?” Mother dragged herself to a standing position. Devastation haunted her eyes, and the wrinkles around her mouth and across her forehead seemed more pronounced than they had just minutes ago. “This is why you have to marry David. He can provide us with the funds we need to maintain everything, and your father and Jackson can stop what they’ve been doing. I’m sure they’re already sorry, aren’t you?”
Father harrumphed and Jackson kept his dark eyes pinned to her as he paced.
“See there?” Mother spoke as if they’d both agreed. “The embezzlement will stop, and David will take care of us until your father gets his investments and campaign funds rebuilt. But you can’t turn them in. You’d destroy our family.” Concern rang through Mother’s voice, and her eyes pleaded for understanding. The woman loved her family; no one would argue that. And she’d stay loyal, even if her loyalty meant she harbored thieves or murderers. Family always came first with Mother, which was why she’d attempted to arrange the scandal on Monday night. What was a little scandal, a little dishonesty, a little wrongdoing, when the family stood to benefit?