“Here, Sam, sit for a minute.” He set his sister on the couch and gave her a pillow to clutch before moving to Elizabeth. Tears glistened in her eyes, tears she seemed determined not to shed.
“Tell me.” He reached for her, but she took a step back.
“No. Don’t touch me. Not right now. Not after what my family did.”
Her family. Dread, icy and hard, sank its claws into his chest. Had they coerced her into becoming DeVander’s wife? Had she already signed a marriage license?
But then Sam wouldn’t be so upset at Jackson. The fear constricting his heart loosened just a bit. “Will one of you please tell me what’s going on?”
“You need to do an audit on your Albany office.” Elizabeth stared into the fire.
Her chin trembled, and she raised it, calling on that inner strength that had mesmerized him from the first time he’d met her. “Jackson and my father...th-they’ve been...” She swallowed, the tight muscles in her throat working far too hard. “Embezzling. From you. Since the panic, they’ve been using your accounting and insurance offices to steal from you and the companies you service.”
Every idea about what had happened, every thought about what he’d do to Jackson Wells, every word he’d planned to comfort Elizabeth with, deserted him.
“What do you mean, embezzling?” He heard his voice speaking, knew his mouth had somehow formed the words, but the implications of what Elizabeth had said seemed as vague and hazy as a mountain fog.
“I mean that I went to Jackson’s office before dinner tonight to find his ledger for Hayes Academy. Sometimes the supplies and materials arriving at the school haven’t matched the amounts that were supposedly ordered, so I wanted to compare my books with Jackson’s.” Her breath quivered as she blew it out. “I—I didn’t find the ledger for the academy, but I found another ledger instead. It was an accident. I wasn’t supposed to discover it. I never knew anything about what they were doing before tonight.”
“Oh, Lizzie.” He reached for her hand, but she pulled it away.
“You believe me, then?” Shock flared in her eyes.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
Two tears slid down her cheeks, silent compared to Sam’s noisy gulps on the couch, but almost more wrenching. “I went to the police station before I came here. The police officer—he wouldn’t believe me without the ledger. Said I had no business going through the accounting office at all, and maybe I could be prosecuted for looking at Jackson’s books without permission.”
“Elizabeth, that’s ridiculous. They’re my offices, and I promise no one’s going to prosecute you.”
She wiped furiously at the tears on her cheeks.
“Where’s the ledger now?” He didn’t think it possible for her face to lose more color, but her skin blanched yet again, and she stared at the blaze in the fireplace.
“Jackson threw it... Father wouldn’t let me leave, and—”
“Jackson? Your father?” He gripped her shoulders and jerked her around until she faced him fully. “You went to see them?”
She stood rigid in his arms, the warmth she’d shown him over the past week buried under layers of rigid hurt. “I had to make sure. What if I’d misread things? Imagined something that wasn’t really in the ledger? You weren’t here, and I couldn’t walk into a police station and accuse my family of stealing thousands of dollars without knowing for sure.”
He pulled her against him, pressing her head to his chest and wrapping his arms around her waist.
She only stiffened more.
“There were other companies listed in the ledger besides Hayes Academy. Connor School for Boys and Maple Ridge College with their normal operating expenses and the hospital in Albany. St. Thomas Orphanage and...” She sank her head. “I don’t remember what else. I’m sorry. I should have paid better attention.”
“Stop apologizing. You’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Don’t say I shouldn’t apologize.” Her eyes turned fierce, and she shoved at his chest.
He didn’t have to let go. He was stronger and could force her to stand in his embrace. But forcing people into his will had caused him enough trouble of late. So he released her, though every muscle in his body screamed to keep her close.
“My family was stealing from my students. And what’s worse, they expected me to keep silent.” Elizabeth fisted her hands in her already wrinkled skirt. “They actually thought I’d marry David and let him take care of matters, while Father and Jackson walked off with the money and promised not to steal again. If I don’t apologize for what they did, who will?”