At fourteen, she broke her brother’s nose.
But he’d asked her to.
Well…he hadn’t exactly asked her to injure him. They’d lived far from home, in a boarding school. She should be strong, brave and independent, her brother claimed. He taught her self-defense. Their newest routine, she would throw a punch, and he would duck.
“Hit me, Eva. C’mon hit me.”
She didn’t. She couldn’t. Because how could she? She loved her brother.
“What are you waiting for? C’mon.”
She adjusted her stance like he’d taught her. She clenched her hands into fists by the side of her face like he’d taught her. All she had to do now was punch like he’d taught her. But…
“Imagine you’re kidnapped, and you are…on a boat.”
On a boat…
“You have no one to help you…no mom, no dad, not even me.”
Her stomach churned. More than being kidnapped, she feared being on a boat…surrounded by water…confined, enclosed…She wanted to throw up.
“I’m your kidnapper. Hit me. C’mon.”
She shut her eyes tight. Heavy tears tumbled down her face.
“Hit me damn it! I’ll duck.”
Her eyes still closed, heavy tears still rolling, she punched him with all her might…before he ducked.
The impact of her fist against the bridge of his nose sparked an agonizing current all the way from her knuckles, over her shoulder, to the middle of her back. She pulled her hand toward her, shaking it, cupping it, from the trembling pain.
Joey covered his face and moaned. Blood gushed from his nostrils down his chin and sprayed all over his white polo.
She’d never punched anyone ever again. One, she couldn’t, because the memory of her brother struggling to breathe while she rushed him to the warden for help ingrained in her mind for life. Two, she didn’t get kidnapped, nor did she surround herself by water for more than fourteen years.
But today…confined…enclosed…she readied to throw a punch mightier than she’d exercised on her brother.
He asked her to.
Trevor riled her plenty, as he continued to antagonize her uncle with mindless questioning. She’d do anything to wipe out his snarky grin. Would he bruise like her brother? Would he too bleed?
But Trevor was Clive’s best buddy, and she loved Clive. He was also an FBI agent. Would she get into trouble for hitting a federal agent? And why did she question that only now?
She tightened the grip on her fingers intertwined in her lap. Her attempts to suppress her aggression frayed with every passing second Trevor and his partner, Jason, acted out an obviously practiced routine to cause an innocent man to crumble with fright. And that’s the point; her uncle, an innocent man, had nothing to confess. So, yes, he did crumble, for the wrong reason. Why did they not see that?
They blamed her uncle for the numerous issues that plagued her company. The informant who’d sent her threatening letters, the informant who seemed intent to destroy every bit of reputation her late father had strived all his life to build, the informant who may, or may not, have killed her father… they blamed her uncle for all of the informant’s actions. They suspected he had close relations with the crook. And just when she concluded they’d hollowed their caldron of preposterous accusations, their conversation took another absurd dive when Trevor asked her uncle, “Are you the informant?”
Uncle Dave should have gone with a ridiculously blight yes. Instead, his usual jovial expression, now marred by annoyance, grew bleak. He stood behind his desk with his palms planted flat on the table and glowered at Trevor and Jason seated in front of him. “Get out.”
Trevor stared at him for a long moment. He then rose from his chair, placed a business card on the mahogany desk in front of him, and slid it toward her uncle. “Call me if you have anything more to share with us.”
“I’ve nothing more to share with you.” Uncle Dave clenched his jaw.
“Sure you do.”
“I’ve told you everything I know.”
“No, you haven’t, Mr. Avery.” Though unaffected on the surface, Trevor’s voice had an underlying simmer of seriousness that made Eva’s insides twinge. He suspected her uncle of corporate espionage, but why, what did he know that she didn’t?
“How dare you accuse me without proof?”
“Of course, we have proof. We wouldn’t be here otherwise, now would we?”
Trevor’s jeering heated Eva further. FBI or not, maybe she should reconsider that punch.
Her uncle, a decent man, didn’t deserve this sort of mockery. Especially from Trevor, who behaved like a perfect gentleman until today. Somehow, his accusations seemed misplaced. She could never imagine her uncle causing her or her company harm. The FBI definitely had their facts mixed up. They implicated the wrong man.
“Really?” Uncle Dave laughed, sounding confrontational. He eased back from the table and slid his hands into his pant pockets. He lifted his chin. “And what’s this proof you have?”
Yes. What proof do you have Trevor?
Trevor’s expression remained cold. “You haven’t told us about that letter your brother left for you.” He cut her a quick look as though to warn he’s hiding things from you, Eva.
Her heart did a harsh drop. A letter? Her father had left her uncle a letter? Had he left her one too? And why didn’t her uncle mention this letter to her? His betrayal sliced her. The whirlwind of emotions that had consumed her during the months after her father’s passing rushed back to her mind.
The news of her father’s death had come abruptly, unexpected and shocking. A hit and run accident, as the police called it. Had she known the last time she’d spoken to her father their farewell would be everlasting, what could she have done? Could she have stopped him from his routine morning walk that led to his death?
Her uncle blinked. “That’s private. How did you even—”
“The more of these secrets we uncover, the less cordial our conversations will get. It’s in your best interest to tell us everything you know about this case.” Trevor gave the business card he’d placed on the desk two quick taps. “Call us.” He leaned toward her uncle. “Call us.” He nodded, keeping his voice deathly low.
“Get out.” His nostrils flared, his face reddened, he breathed heavy with an amplified wheeze. She’d never seen her uncle this furious.
Trevor slowly retreated, then gave her one last glance and a curt nod goodbye.
“Call us,” he said, again, to her uncle and sauntered toward the door. Jason followed. Without saying another word they left the room.
Uncle Dave stared at the door they’d closed behind them. “You don’t believe them, do you, Eva?” Though his tone sounded hopeful, uncertainty lingered in his expression.
She remained silent, unsure how to respond after finding he had hidden her father’s letter from her.
“Eva…” His mouth fell open.
Of course, her lack of response worsened matters. What was she thinking, not replying to his question? She gulped. “I don’t know.” Damn it! Bad answer.
Her toes curled in her shoes. She gripped the armrests of her chair. Her honesty always got to her. She didn’t mean to say those words out loud, but she didn’t have another answer either.
“You don’t know?” His eyes widened.
“Yes, I don’t know.” Uncomfortable in her own skin, she sprang from her seat and started to pace across the room. “This is too much for me to handle all at once.”
“Too much for you to handle? I’m the one who’s being wrongfully accused here, and it’s too much for you to handle?” He let out a heavy exhale. “How can you ever think that I would harm your father?” He paused. “He was my…my little brother, Eva.” His voice trembled.
She too puffed out a heavy breath. She needed to set this straight. Their conversation had veered way off and way too fast. “They have it wrong…they have it all wrong.” She did not know if she’d meant to bring her uncle peace or if she had talked out loud for her own sanity.
“Then why did you say you didn’t know?” His voice grew louder.
She stopped pacing and faced him. “Because, you didn’t tell me about the letter. Why the secrecy? Especially from me?” She too raised her voice.
His face paled. He didn’t reply. Why?
She swallowed. Wait…did she want to know if her father had…did she really want to know?
She wanted to know.
“Did he…” her voice broke. Her chest tightened from her rising emotions. She cleared her throat. “Did he leave me a letter?”
“Eva…” Her uncle’s expression softened.
She disliked that look. She disliked pity, a self-protective veil people donned whenever a conversation about her late-father emerged. She loathed their sympathy. She loathed feeling exposed.
“Did he or did he not leave me a letter?” Her nerves tightened with every word that left her mouth. She tried hard to keep her voice from wavering. She tried hard to sound a lot stronger than she felt.
“I don’t know,” he said quietly. “That letter was only to be read if something were to happen to your father.”
“What did it say?”
From his desk he picked up a ball with the words I think I can, written all over, and started to squeeze.
Do those things work? Should she get one too?
“He wanted you to own the company. He believed if anyone could bring it back to its past glory, it would be you.”
“Past glory? S. F. Designs wasn’t doing well even before I joined?”
“It wasn’t public knowledge.” I think I can, I think I can. “Nobody knew except your father and I.”
“Why?” She shook her head. “All this while, I’ve been blaming myself, thinking it was my doing, thinking it was my taking over after him that caused this chaos. Why did you let me think that? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Her already fueled aggression worsened. She clenched her fists tight, letting her nails dig into her palms. Oddly, the pain helped her keep from wanting to punch her uncle. Would he bruise? Would he bleed? Frankly, she didn’t care.
He pressed his lips together. He remained silent.
Then, it dawned on her. “You wanted me to fail.” Her stomach knotted as the words left her mouth. She’d hoped dearly he’d correct her interpretation of the situation.
His response shattered her hope. Only one word, but it hit her hard. “Why?” How was it possible that, of all people, her uncle would let her suffer this way? She stared at him, consumed by doubt about the very man she’d trusted unconditionally all her life.
“How else were you supposed to learn, Eva? You’re a trained chef! Your father might have believed in your abilities, but I most certainly did not. I needed to see for myself that your old man hadn’t gone senile and was setting you up on a pedestal because he loved you.” He stared at the stress ball in his palm for a moment, and then set it back onto the table. His tone returned to normal. “And now I know he was right all along. You’re the one to mend it all.”
Mend it all? She would mend it all? She had to be asleep. This had to be a nightmare. She pinched herself to ensure, the sting from which confirmed, this was real, all of it.
“How? How can you possibly know that? I’ve only worked here a few months. I’ve failed more times than I’ve succeeded, and not to forget, every step has been a battle.”
“Because, you’re exactly the spin this company needs. People know me. They know what to expect, and they already know what they don’t like,” he said grimly. “But you’re unpredictable. It brings a new twist to it all, Eva. Don’t you see? It builds curiosity. It builds interest.”
She related to the part about the new twist. Given her expertise, or lack thereof, in this industry, she’d made several decisions based on what she thought right, in that moment. Why? Because, new twist was her strong suit.
During the years she’d been a chef, she’d lost count of the number of times she’d started to create a recipe and ended up making something totally different from what she originally had in mind. Her ideas evolved all the time, and that’s what made her step away from the norm, find that new twist. Of course, she’d end up creating the best recipe of her life, or one that would go directly into the trash.
But working at S. F. Designs couldn’t be compared to any recipe creation. Many people’s livelihoods were at stake. Though working here didn’t come close to her experiences as a chef, the only way she could stay sane was to somehow relate her past familiarities with her present challenges.
So yes, every moment of every day remained unpredictable; she became unpredictable, even to herself. Because here, there was no one recipe of success for her to follow. Every day was an experiment. And she failed every day, although she also fixed her past failures every day.
Uncle Dave held her gaze for a bit longer, then turned to face the window. “He never spoke to me about the informant. He didn’t even mention it in his letter. I cannot imagine why Robin hid this from me. I mean…” He turned around, and his gaze darted around the room. “This is huge, Eva. This will burn us. This will destroy us. It already is—”
“Only if we let it.” She walked toward his desk, measuring her thoughts with every step. He felt vulnerable, and so did she. Her father’s words resonated in her mind; this company needs a fighter, this company needs you. But could she be a fighter? Sure, she would be more than willing to stand against all odds, for her father’s sake, but there were many times in recent months when she had been close to accepting defeat.
“I don’t know yet how we can stop this from tearing us down, but we have to begin somewhere. A-And the FBI is not our enemy.” Of course that last part made him look at her like she’d lost her mind, yet she continued, “It’s best if we tell them everything we know.” More like everything he knew, but she didn’t want to go there just yet.
And before she did anything else, she had one man to talk to, her father’s lawyer, Simon Cade.
Eva stormed into Simon Cade’s office, not caring that someone already sat with him.
Simon’s secretary rushed in after her. “I tried to stop her.”
Simon looked up from behind his desk. He stopped whatever he’d been doing and glared at Eva.
“It’s OK, Linda.”
Eva shot the secretary a you heard him look.
Linda narrowed her eyes at Eva and shook her head. She charged out of the room without another word.
Eva brought her glower back to Simon. “Did he leave me a letter?” Her jaw ached when she spoke. She’d clenched her teeth too many times since morning.
She bristled at his tone. It held the same pity her uncle had expressed only moments ago, and now the same pity pierced her ears. And just as she would tell him off, his attention shifted to the man seated in front of him.
The man stared at her, his mouth agape, and she stared right back.
What am I doing? She should control her emotions, at least at her workplace. But, this wasn’t her workplace. Although in the same building as hers, this was Simon’s office. The probability of the man knowing her was high. He would probably gossip about her later to all his friends, co-workers, acquaintances…and yet she continued to scowl at him. His gaze darted between her and Simon. Then, without a word, he sprang from his chair and left the room, closing the door after him.
“Did he or did he not, Simon?”
“Please, take a seat, Eva.”
“He did, didn’t he?” She tried hard to keep her tone controlled. She fisted her hands tight at her sides.
Simon sagged back into his chair and folded his arms across his chest. “Yes.”
“Why am I finding this out only now?”
“I’m not permitted to reveal such details, not until the time is right. You know that.”
“This is the first time my father has died, so no, I don’t.”
He stared at her, his expression blank.
“Is now the right time?”
When he didn’t answer her right away, she opened her mouth to protest, but he quickly said, “Yes, it is.” Angling forward, he pulled his desk drawer open and brought out a small silver key. He rose from his chair and tugged down the bottom seam of his silk double-breasted vest with both hands, straightening the risen folds. Had he used this time to think how to proceed next? He didn’t need to look his best to hand over a letter.
“Please, you should really sit down for this,” he said again, his tone more caring and less sympathetic. But she remained paralyzed.
Had she not walked into that heated conversation between her uncle and Trevor, she wouldn’t have known about the letter her father had left for her uncle. She would have continued to blame herself for the downfall of her company. And who knew when she’d have found out her father had left her a letter? Her thoughts jammed. She rubbed the spot on her forearm she’d pinched earlier. Yes, it was real. All of it.
Simon strolled toward a cabinet standing against the wall next to her. He looked exactly the way he did the first time she’d met him several years ago. His office, too, looked the same.
Simon, an affable, cigar loving, bald man with a penchant for wooden finishes, had worked as her father’s lawyer since the time S. F. Designs had setup office in Stanton Tower. Simon’s law firm, especially his office, remained imprinted in Eva’s memories since the first time she’d visited him with her father. Three of his office walls were covered in cherry wood, and matching beams ran along the ceiling. Rustic hardwood covered the floor. A large shiny wooden desk sat in one corner, behind which stood a high back leather chair in chocolate brown. Bright daylight shone through the window behind the chair, pouring in to awaken his office. Beyond the window was a view of the many piers that extended into the bay curving along the street. How she longed to be out there, by the waterfront, basking in the ocean breeze under the warm sun. How she longed to be anywhere else but here.
From within the cabinet that contained a multitude of grooves filled with kick-knacks, from his collection of signed golf balls, to awards, to a bowl of pinecones, Simon opened an unassuming door and revealed a grey safe with a circular combination lock. He rotated the lock a few times. A light beep opened the door to the safe. He pulled a rectangular box about half way out, inserted the silver key into it and opened the lid, then brought out a white envelope from within.
Eva stared at the envelope he’d held. It was from her father. What did it say?
Simon locked the box and pushed it back into the safe. He closed the door and turned the combination lock dial until it beeped, twice this time. When their eyes met again, he stood still. His gaze drifted down to the envelope in his hand and then back to her. He sighed and handed the envelope over to her.
Evie, her father’s handwriting in blue ink on the front of the cover brimmed emotions she tried hard to quell. She swallowed the thick lump that had formed in her throat as she stared at the envelope in her trembling hands.
What was with her and envelopes these days? First, the termination letter from Stanton, then, the threat letter she’d received in St. Barth, and now, the most straining of them all, this note from her father. She inhaled a deep breath to ready herself for whatever she was about to read. She pulled the letter out of the cover but couldn’t bring herself to unfold the paper. She turned to look at Simon who had now returned to his seat.
He rested his elbow on one arm of the chair and chewed on the earpiece of his reading glasses. He studied her from behind his desk.
The seriousness in his expression made her mind falter further. Her legs wobbled. Maybe she should take that seat after all. She stepped, slow and indecisive, toward an empty chair and sat stiff onto the seat. She held in a deep breath, unfolded the letter and read the three words her father had written.
Trust no one
A chill ran through her, raising the hair at her nape. Her breath remained caught. She flipped the letter over, but it was blank. Of the many things her father could have told her, those were all the words he chose to say? What did he mean? Is this a riddle? She glared at Simon hoping he might have a clue.
“He’s right.” He nodded as he removed the earpiece from his mouth and set the glasses onto his desk.
“You’ve read this?”
“He wanted me to.”
“To caution you.”
Typical of Simon, to keep his answers clipped. And he did that with his questions too. He’d pose them in a way that despite deep consideration one couldn’t possibly know the right answer. Her father had commended Simon for exactly that skill. She might too, had it not been her in the hot seat.
“He trusted no one, not even me at times, and neither should you.”
“And yet, you’re the only one he spoke to about the informant.”
He remained silent. Keeping his face devoid of expression, he gave nothing away.
Was he the only person her father had spoken to about the informant? Was there someone else?
“Was there anything else he wanted me to know?”
Simon’s gaze dropped to his glasses on the table. He stared at them for a moment and then looked back up at her. “There’s one more envelope, but I cannot hand it over yet.”
“Why not? What does that say?”
“I’ve not been informed of its contents. It’s to be read only by you, in due time.”
This made no sense. “I already know it exists, why don’t you just give it to me now?”
“You know I can’t, Eva. I can only turn it over when it’s all resolved.”
“When what all’s resolved?”
Simon pursed his lips. Once again, he refrained from speaking any more than he should.
His methodical silence charred her already broiled up anxiety. She wanted to scream at the top of her lungs. Instead, she went for a heavy sigh.
Had he prepared in advance to have this exact conversation with her? She wouldn’t let him succeed in his silence. She needed him to reveal more. “I know you’re keeping the FBI posted about the happenings in my company.”
He continued to remain quiet. Of course, he knew she knew.
“Did you tell them about this?” She waved the paper in her hand.
“No. Your father didn’t want me to.”
“But he wanted you to tell them about the letter he left for my uncle. Why?”
“I’m not authorized to say.”
“By whom? The FBI?”
“My father’s dead,” she almost shouted. Her insides did a sharp drop when she realized the harshness of those words that had scurried out of her mouth.
He stilled and so did she.
“It was a dying man’s wish, Eva.” He sounded bereaved.
What… “Dying man? He knew…? He knew his life was in danger? The FBI told me he was followed, but…” Her breath caught. “Was he being threatened?”
Simon gave her another silent look.
Unbelievable! “Let me guess, you’re not authorized to say.”
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