“So where was your father going on this ‘sightseeing’ trip?” Nikki asked over lemonade.
“Some little town called ‘Seneca,’” Lexie answered.
Breathing suddenly became very difficult for Nikki as she realized the full impact of this little fact. Should she call Margo? Should she warn her? Should she have told her brother what she knew when he had asked her for the hundredth time the evening before? Would they see each other in such a small town? These and other partial questions wandered through Nikki’s mind in a matter of just a few seconds.
“Aunt Nikki, what’s wrong?”
Nikki took a deep breath, and forced a smile when she looked at her niece. “Nothing pet,” she lied, “go on and show me your present.”
While Lexie went inside to get the gift, Nikki threw caution to the wind and called Margo’s cell, not knowing what she would say. Margo’s voicemail picked up before the phone even rang, so she most likely had it turned off. She was probably doing some kind of holiday book signing, the store packed with tourists. She left a message for her to call her ASAP and clicked the phone closed just as Lexie came back outside.
“Here it is,” Lexie said proudly, holding out her hand to show her. “Isn’t it amazing?”
“Beautiful,” Nikki convincingly gushed, acting as though she had never seen the box before.
Lexie sat on the steps and pushed the button on the side to start the music. While the horses pranced up and down on their little poles, her thumb encountered another button under the base of the box. A small drawer popped open from beneath.
“I didn’t know it did that!” Lexie exclaimed, looking inside the tiny compartment.
“What’s this?” she asked, pulling out the silver flash drive. “Do you think it’s a message?”
Nikki thought carefully and quickly before answering her.
“Honey, it’s obviously an antique. Your mom probably did not know it did that either. Probably just something a previous owner had put in there.”
“Flash drives haven’t been all that popular for that long Aunt Nikki” Lexie chided.
The girl had her there. Still wishing for more control of the situation that was barreling out of hand faster than a steam engine; Nikki decided to strike a bargain.
“Tell you what, we’ll go out tomorrow and see what’s on that together on your lap-top. Some place where we can concentrate and not be disturbed by the drool twins.”
Lexie laughed and agreed, sliding the silver disc drive into Nikki’s outstretched palm.
That bought her some time, she thought, putting the flash drive in the pocket of her jacket. If Margo returned her call before the opportunity to escape the family house came along, she would be sure to ask about the compartment and its contents. Another mystery would just have to wait.
In Margo’s living room, Larson sat on the couch mindlessly chewing on a carrot. Margo had made a snack for them and they were sharing it in front of the fireplace. The afternoon had completely gotten away from them,.and it was evening. The daylight outside the window slipped away like sand in an hourglass. Each had their own fear of the time passing so quickly, there were so many things left unsaid. Not to mention the original purpose for Larson’s trip to Seneca in the first place.
“I don’t want to leave you” he said simply, “but I have to get to the bottom of this. I’m so afraid if I walk out that door you’ll disappear and I won’t see you again.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Margo said quietly.
Larson looked in her eyes, seeing the resolve and admired her for all she‘d been through in her life. “I have so many questions…real questions about how your life has been. However, this case, this man is on trial for murder, and what Gail knows could lend a great deal to his defense. I just don’t want to fail either of you.” He leaned forward to put his plate on the table and take her hand in his. “You understand that right?”
“You could let me help,” Margo said. She turned slightly from her place next to him on the couch to face him. Her eyes searched his lovingly, encouragingly. “I’ve been a bit curious as to where Gail had gone. I know where she lives. Maybe I could help.”
Larson gazed into her hopeful eyes and smiled. His dreams had come true. He could not believe that she was sitting next to him, encouraging him though her touch. However, just the mere thought of her in danger put him completely against her becoming any more involved.
“Honey, I want to say yes, but the risk…”
“Risk? I’ve known her a long time, Larson. I do not know what she got herself into, but I couldn’t turn my back on her any more than you can forget your client. I was planning to go over there anyway tomorrow before work. Why don’t we go together and see what we come up with?”
Larson silently thought it over for a moment. “How long has she been gone?”
She shrugged, carelessly, pausing to take a sip of her tea. “She was there in the shop last Friday. I had gone by to …” she paused for a moment, biting her lip. “Okay, here’s the thing. I bought Lexie a gift from Gail. This year’s gift. I have been getting and sending gifts since she was about eight. Since I left started my business here after graduation. I have a Masters in Literary Science now, and a BA in Business Management.”
A smile came slowly to his lips. He had known all along that those mysterious gifts had been from her, and said as much.
“So it was you! She showed me the first few, but then she never said anything. Every year?” he asked incredulously.
“Every year,” she put the cup back down and took his hand again.
“The little notes? Did those continue as well?”
“Just quotes. This years’ gift I sent Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote, ‘Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ I put the card and the gift in the mail before Gail disappeared. When I saw her Friday she was all upset about it though, and that was unusual. Gail had picked out the piece for me herself. Nevertheless, there she was, that last Friday morning, all upset upending drawers and boxes looking for something so frantically I remember thinking she was into something shady. I’d never seen her act that way before.”
“What did you get from her?”
“A music box. A music box that played “Always on My Mind,” she smiled then. “You remember that song right?”
“Our first dance as husband and wife? How could I forget. You’ll never know how much…” suddenly the thoughts in Larson’s brain clicked backwards to the description.
“A music box? My client had hidden a flash drive in a music box that disappeared shortly before his arrest. I wonder if that is what happened. That it had been shipped to Gail’s store.”
“There is a hidden compartment. I will call him and see if I can get a better description. Are you sure Lexie got it?”
“I’m sure,” Margo sighed, looking down at their joined hands. “There’s something else you should know, Larson.”
Gently she pulled her hand away, rose, and walked over to the entertainment center. She pulled out a few DVD cases from a drawer and handed them to him.
Larson read the labels on the cases. Lexie School Circus…10 years old; Parade Flag Carrier, 12 years old; Braces off 14th Birthday; Tennis Championships, 15 years old. He looked up at her, questions firing through his over-worked brain simply put forth in a single word.
“Nikki” she admitted softly. “I’ve been seeing your sister on a regular basis since I returned.” Margo raised her eyes to look at him, her eyes glistening, tears beginning to spill over the rims. “It is important that you realize that I had to somehow stay a part of your life. Doing my grandfather’s bidding was the last thing I wanted. I lost so much, missed so much. When I left, I vowed that while I couldn’t risk returning to you, I had to have some part of you. After I graduated I settled down here in Seneca, opened the store, and then I knew Nikki was my answer. I ran into her, quite by accident in Asheville, she was on her way to you. I gave her my number and told her to call me, but not to tell you that she’d seen me. Then she called me after a few days, and told me about the letter Lexie had written to Santa. I had to do something, so I sent her the ornament, and a few days later got her a late birthday present.”
She seemed to know what he was thinking, ‘why not him?‘, but she continued. “I was just so afraid to contact you, truthfully I‘m still afraid of what Papa may do. I do not know what kind of power he can still reign in, but none of that seems important now that I have seen you again. I want to be with you if you will allow it. I want to see Lexie.”
She sat beside him again, cautiously putting her hand on his arm. “You’ve done such a wonderful job raising her Larson. Do you think she’d want to see me?”
Images of happy family outings marched through his mind. Every trip, every adventure that he had shared with his daughter had been shared with his wife, even though he had been unaware. It was little wonder why he had never gotten over her; she had never really left them. Determination came to the forefront and he realized the play of emotions must have been showing on his face. He took a deep breath and slid his hands up over her lap to grab her hands. Pulling them up he kissed each one, slowly brushing his lips across the back then upturning them to place a light kiss on the palm.
“I can’t think of anything we’d both like more,” he told her, his voice husky with emotion. “I’m sure I’m not the only person that has dreamed of you returning.”
She was uncertain, her anxiety palpable as again she saw that light and fire of desire darken his eyes. The tea was forgotten and their bodies bent toward each other, hungry again, knowing that even another moment would be too long to wait.
She pulled his shirt from his waistband; he unbuttoned her shirt and pulled it back, exposing her skin. His lips touched skin and ignited a passion that he had no choice but to match.
“I need you,” he said simply, and pulled her to the floor.
Later, much later, the darkness outside overwhelmed the quiet confines of the room. On a bed of blankets, pillows, cushions and discarded clothing, they nestled together in the warmest of embraces.
Larson chuckled, gathering her close to him, sliding his hand along her spine in a caress. “Well that settles it,” he said.
“You have to come back to Abbeville with me,” he decided. “We can check out Gail’s on the way out of town, and I can call my investigator back home and get him on this as well.”
“With me,” he repeated. “I am not losing you again, I can’t. I have to go deal with my sister, but Lexie should see you. Besides,” he paused, kissing her lightly on the lips, “I’m not ready to say good-bye to you. Okay?”
“Okay, “Margo searched his eyes, seeing the love and truth therein. Here it was, in front of her, the answer to a faraway wish. She leaned forward and kissed him, pulling back a breaths’ space. “It seems like I’ve thrown caution to the winds anyway. Should we call your family to warn then?”
Larson grinned and nodded toward the clock on the mantle. “Sweetheart, it’s almost midnight. While this is great news, I doubt it warrants waking up my parents. Besides, I don’t want to give Nikki a chance to run away. I still have to wonder about that music box though. If the flash drive is in it, and Gail was trying to retrieve it, could anyone else know about it? You said you’re sure Nikki mailed it?”
“Larson, she should have gotten it on her birthday. I always made sure of that.” Margo paused and looked around, trying to remember where she had put her purse. She started to rise, but Larson held her in place.
“Let’s just get a little sleep, have breakfast and coffee together. Then you can call my sister, and we can check out Gail’s. I have a need to hold my wife in my arms for a while,” he brushed his lips over the column of her neck and growled softly in her ear, “It’s been too long, already.”
Margo felt the warmth spreading through her and she brazenly lifted herself from the floor.
“Hold your wife in a bed then, dear,” she smiled, her eyes twinkling, “We’re a bit too old for the floor!” With that she took off toward her room.
“I’ll show you old,” he said, gathering up an afghan and running after her down the hall, the sound of their laughter echoing off the walls of the hall way.