Today's Reading

CHAPTER TWO

Vivian had kept all manner of secrets from her father, but she'd never suspected he'd kept any from her—until now. She stared at the tiny key in her palm and then glanced around the study. It had to open something in here, but what? She switched on the desk lamp to see better, moved to the filing cabinet, and pressed the tip of the key to the lock at the top. She expected it to slide in easily. When it didn't, she wiggled it, turned it upside down, and tried again. No, it definitely didn't fit. Her eyes scanned the room again and finally fell upon the large mahogany desk in front of her. Of course.

She sat in the desk chair and slipped the key into the drawer lock. She turned it, and with an audible click, it opened. Her palms grew sweaty, her stomach sour. It was ridiculous, she told herself. Her father had had nothing to hide. But if he'd had nothing to hide, why had he locked this drawer and hidden the key so well that no one was able to find it until now, so long after his death? She swallowed and pulled the drawer open before she lost her nerve.

It was empty. She tugged again on the pull, tipping the drawer down slightly. No, not quite empty.

The large white envelope that had been wedged in the back appeared with a soft ripping noise. A tear had opened down the side, and the distinctive green of currency peeked through. Vivian leaned in closer to discern what was scrawled in pencil near the bottom right corner. A. W. Racquet. She glanced toward the doorway, the sounds of laughter and music becoming louder as guests arrived at the Christmas party downstairs. Her eyes swept the room, then caught on the framed photo of her mother on the desk. Vivian's heart pounded as she pulled the envelope out and lifted the unsealed flap. Inside lay a thick wad of neatly stacked bills. She passed a thumb over them, listening to the muted whir of more cash than she'd ever held in her hands at one time before.

Then her thumb caught on the very last bit of paper. It was thicker than the bills and a cream color that, at first glance, blended in with the back of the envelope. Vivian slid it out halfway, and her eyes darted over the sentence scrawled on it in pencil: Talk and you lose everything.

Terror trailed icy fingers down her spine—a visceral memory of reading similar words directed at her only a few months ago. Her hands started to shake, the envelope rattling. But Vivian couldn't tear her eyes away from those words. The note was not addressed, and it was unsigned. She flipped the paper over, but it was blank on the opposite side. The edges were torn, as if it had been written in haste and ripped from a larger piece of paper. She read the  sentence twice, a third time, but it still made little sense. It was obviously a threat. But had her father been threatening someone else, or had someone been threatening him?

A floorboard squeaked in the hallway outside. Vivian shoved the cash and the note back into the envelope, dropping it back into the drawer before locking it. Her fingers slid down the dark-green velvet of her gown and over the smooth surface of her matching bolero jacket. Dash it all, no pockets. The doorknob rattled and began to turn. Vivian pulled the bodice of her dress away from her chest and deftly tucked the key under the edge of her brassiere. A split second later, the study door opened and Everett's head poked into the room.

"There you are," he said. His eyes flicked over the desk and the disassembled picture frame upon it. "What are you doing in here?"

Vivian forced a smile, her heart hammering in her chest. She scanned Everett's face, but she could read nothing among the freckles except mild curiosity. Her instinct had always been to keep everything close to the vest with him. He wasn't a scabby-kneed kid anymore, but he had a long history of being indiscreet, as younger brothers often do. Her head was spinning, running through the many possible meanings of what she had found. She couldn't have him announcing in the middle of the family Christmas party that she'd managed to open her father's long-locked drawer and had found a stack of cash and an ominous note.

"I came to get this," she said. She snatched the old paper ornament from the disassembled frame and held it up.

Everett's brow wrinkled. "And what exactly is that?"

Vivian looked down at the treasured ornament. Old Saint Nick had seen better days—but not much better. She'd never been much of an artist, even at five years old. He was sun-faded and tattered, the red of his suit bleached a dusky pink, the tinsel on the end of his cap ragged and sparse. Still, her father had thought so much of the ornament that he'd had it framed shortly before his death. And then he hid the key to his desk drawer in the frame's backing, she thought. Her stomach twisted.

"It's Saint Nicholas, of course," she said. Everett raised his eyebrows.

"You made me think of it with all your reminiscing about Father and Christmas past," Vivian went on, touching the scrap of remaining tinsel with her fingertip. "I thought I should free him from his frame and put him back on the tree where he belongs."

Everett shrugged, frowning at her childish handiwork. "That thing hardly seems worth the trouble."

Vivian grabbed a pencil from the cup that sat on the blotter and chucked it at him. He laughed as it glanced harmlessly off his shoulder.

"Anyway," he said as he straightened up, his face mock serious. "I came to inform you, Miss Witchell, that guests have started to arrive and your absence downstairs has been noted by management."

Vivian rolled her eyes. The annual Christmas party was their mother's crowning achievement. The entire family should be present and accounted for at all times. They must put on a united front. 

"Come on," Everett said, cocking his head toward the stairway with a smirk. He waggled his bronze eyebrows at her. "Mrs. Graves has whipped up a new batch of eggnog, and she's been pretty heavy-handed with the bourbon."

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