Read an Excerpt
New York City
Early May, 1838
She studied the big, shiny, block letters on the pebbled glass filling the top half of the massive office door. Lindsay Macphaull. Richard Patterson. If the paint was gold, she could scrape away her name and sell it. Everyone knew it was her office. It didn’t need to be so extravagantly labeled. Richard’s name would stay, of course. Legally, he was the one in command.
“Today could be the day, Miss MacPhaull.”
She turned to the young man who had spoken and found him standing behind his desk, his eyes bright and his upper lip faintly beaded with perspiration. Lindsay smiled and arched a brow. “Then what are you doing here, Jeb? Shouldn’t you be home with your wife?”
“I have reports to—”
“The arrival of one’s first child is more important than any report, Jeb,” she asserted gently. “Close up your ledgers and go home. Lucy needs you more today than we do.”
He fingered the corner of the leather-bound book. “Are you sure, Miss MacPhaull?”
“Absolutely,” she said, taking the young man’s hat from the peg on the wall. Handing it to him, she smiled broadly and added, “Please give my best wishes to Lucy. And send word as soon as you have it. We’ll be waiting anxiously.”
He nodded, put the hat on his head, quickly closed the ledger, and stripped away his sleeve protectors. Lindsay watched as he walked sedately to the door of the MacPhaull Company offices, crossed the threshold to the busy sidewalk, and then broke into a dead run. With a quiet chuckle, Lindsay turned and resumed her regular morning course.
There might be as much as a half ounce of gold in her name, she decided as she entered the dark paneled office. Every bit would help.
“Good morning, Miss Lindsay.” Benjamin Tipton, the head bookkeeper, stood across the desk from Richard Patterson in a manner approximating attention.
“Good morning, Ben,” she answered, nodding to Richard. “Please don’t let me interrupt your conversation.”
He nodded crisply and turned back to the task. Ben was such an interesting blend of contrasts, she thought — not for the first time. He was a supremely efficient bookkeeper, with a devotion to order and neatness that bordered on obsession, and yet there was something about him....
Though he’d never said anything, Lindsay couldn’t escape the sense that Ben magically transformed into a rakish ladies’ man when he left the offices each evening. His clothes were stylish and seemingly chosen to accentuate his blond hair and pale China-blue eyes. Lindsay knew that maintaining his wardrobe had to consume the vast majority of his wages. How he afforded to eat and entertain was beyond her.
Of course, she reminded herself as she stripped off her gloves, Ben could well have family resources from which to draw. He was at the age when most men could expect to receive an inheritance from their fathers. Somehow it didn’t seem at all odd — or the least bit unseemly — that Ben would try to parlay a bit of inherited wealth into social connections that might lead to a wife with an inheritance of her own. It was, after all, the way the world worked, and Ben appeared appropriately discreet about it. She just hoped that it never occurred to him that she might be receptive to his advances. Ben was a pleasant, handsome, and intelligent-enough man, but he was simply too much of a dandy to appeal to any of her senses. He reminded her of a porcelain doll.
“The news is even worse than we expected, Lindsay,” Richard said from his side of the huge mahogany desk, as Ben left carrying a stack of papers.
“You could have at least said ‘good morning’ and asked if I’d slept well,” she countered, smiling at him and undoing her bonnet strings.
He rolled his wheeled chair from behind the desk, saying, “It isn’t a good morning and you haven’t had a good night’s sleep in the last six months.”
There was no denying the latter and there hadn’t been a good morning in recent memory. She considered Richard, noting the creases in his brow and the tension in his powerful shoulders. “Are you all right?” she asked. “You look as though you didn’t sleep well, either.”
“The blasted headache won’t go away,” he said gruffly. “And no, I’m not having Dr. Bernard come by the office to check on me, so don’t even suggest it again. It’s the change of the season and nothing more.”
With a silent sigh, Lindsay changed the subject. “Has Henry danced through the offices this morning?”
Richard’s white brows knitted. “Are you expecting him?”
“He came by the house yesterday evening,” Lindsay explained, removing her pelisse and taking it to the brass cloak tree in the corner. “Edith wants to buy a winter home in Charleston. My brother is of a mind to indulge his wife’s latest whim and take advantage of the depressed situation in the South.”
“Given the reports that came in this morning’s mail, Henry would be hard-pressed to buy Edith a new privy.”
Privy? The very circumspect Richard Patterson had actually uttered the word “privy”? Lindsay barely managed to keep her smile contained. “The news is that bad, Richard?”
He took a stack of paper from his desk and handed it to her, saying, “Read for yourself and see what you think. I’ve sorted them, ranging from bad to worse. Would you care for your coffee now?”
Lindsay nodded absently, already reading as she moved to the leather divan. The first letter was from a bank in St. Louis reminding her that the loan payment on the warehouse was sixty days past due. Lindsay quickly moved on. The building had burnt to the ground three months ago. Given the current economic situation, there was no point in rebuilding it and no reason to pay for something that no longer existed. She and Richard had decided that the only reasonable course was to sell the land itself in an attempt to recoup the loss. If a buyer couldn’t be found, they’d let the bank have it.
The second letter was from an architect who wanted payment for the design phase of a large renovation project being undertaken on the home of Mr. Henry MacPhaull. With clenched teeth, Lindsay moved it to the bottom of the stack. Richard wordlessly placed the cup and saucer on the wide arm of the divan.
The third piece of correspondence was from a man on Long Island who indicated that he would be most happy to sell Miss Agatha MacPhaull the land she wanted. He considered seventeen hundred dollars a very fair price and was instructing his attorney to draw up a bill of sale. Seventeen hundred dollars? Lindsay skimmed the letter again. For five acres? Perhaps in the center of the city, but certainly not for land on Long Island. In fifty years, seventeen hundred dollars might be a reasonable price, but not now. Besides, she didn’t have the money. Lindsay expelled a long breath and took a careful sip of her coffee before going on to the rest of the news awaiting her.
The Emerson Bank of Ohio was demanding immediate and full payment from the investors in the Todasca Canal Company. The project had been abandoned and the managers had taken themselves to parts unknown. The bank showed the MacPhaull Company as having a fifteen percent interest in the concern and thus owing twenty thousand dollars of the outstanding debt.
Todasca had been Henry’s idea. An old school chum had been the head of the firm and Henry had made an absolute pest of himself about it, eventually wearing down her patience. Against her better judgment she’d agreed to invest, just to get him out of the office.
Her blood pounding, Lindsay went to the last letter. Heavy spring rains had combined with a rapid thaw and led to widespread flooding in western Virginia. The MacPhaull Coal Company managers had been forced to suspend operations until the mines could be pumped out and the lost and damaged machinery replaced. They roughly estimated the temporary loss of revenues at forty thousand dollars, the cost of salvaging and rebuilding at another forty.
Her stomach leaden, she laid the stack of papers in her lap. She’d have to find the money to replace the machinery and get the mines operational again. There wasn’t any other choice. The annual income from the mines last year had been close to a quarter of a million dollars, the revenues providing the fiscal foundation of the MacPhaull Company.
With cup and saucer in hand, she took a steadying breath and said, “What are we going to do, Richard? We don’t have the cash reserves to meet these expenses.”
“The first thing we’re going to do,” Richard answered briskly, “is put an end to Henry’s renovations and Agatha’s land acquisition.”
“Agreed.” Despite knowing the soundness of the course, she inwardly cringed. The scenes would be horrible. Henry and Agatha had never learned the difference between wanting and needing.
“Then there are a few properties we might consider selling,” Richard continued, obviously having given the matter a great deal of thought before she’d arrived. “Henry’s yacht, for instance. And Agatha’s cottage at the shore. Neither produces revenue; they just consume it. Both are expenses the company can ill-afford given the present circumstances. Selling will not only give us needed cash but free up future money that can be used to keep the revenue-producing ventures in operation.”
Having her sister out of the house for several months every year was a bit of heaven Lindsay was reluctant to surrender. But times were hard, she reminded herself sternly. Sacrifices were necessary. So was practicality. “Agatha leaves for the cottage in a couple of weeks and it’s too late to change her plans. She won’t cooperate in the selling, and being in residence will put her in a position to undermine the effort. I suggest we postpone putting the property up until after she returns to the city this fall.”
Richard rubbed his forehead. “Is Henry’s yacht fair game?” he asked, his hope wary.
Lindsay nodded. Everything was fair game. It was just a matter of timing. She’d been quietly selling off family heirlooms for the last three months to pay the household expenses. Last week had seen some of her mother’s silver serving pieces, a Persian rug, and six oil paintings carted off to the auction house. “Henry won’t be happy with the news. He’ll resist until the bitter end and make it as unpleasant as possible.”
“Henry is never happy anyway,” Richard observed, backing his wheeled chair behind the desk. “Neither is Agatha. They were born wailing and they’ve never stopped.”
“That’s uncharitable,” Lindsay observed quietly, “but largely true, I’m afraid.” She laid the papers aside, rose, and reached for the silver pot on the corner of the desk. She felt Richard’s scrutiny as she poured herself another cup of steaming coffee.
“The company holds title to all the family property, Lindsay,” he said softly. “It’s within my power of attorney to buy and sell as the needs of the company require. Your brother and sister have no legal say in regard to the actions I take.”
“I don’t either, for that matter,” she pointed out.
“At least you have common sense and a head for business, girl. That can’t be said for Henry and Agatha.”
She returned to the divan and, slowly sinking down on the cool leather, confessed, “At the moment, my common sense is feeling absolutely overwhelmed by the circumstances.”
“That’s quite understandable. The situation’s grave, Lindsay. We’re teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.”
How long would it be before they tumbled? she wondered. President Van Buren had assured the nation that the effects of the Panic would be short-lived, that business would rebound in a healthy and timely manner. In the year between then and now, matters had only become worse. There was no comfort in the knowledge that the MacPhaull Company wasn’t the only business frantically bailing in a desperate attempt to stay afloat. Older and bigger companies than theirs hadn’t been able to withstand the weight of the slowly collapsing economy. Factories and shops and businesses of every kind had ceased operations. Men all over the country were unable to find even the most menial of jobs. Faced with the loss of their homes and no food, they were, by the thousands, taking their families West. The land was free for the taking out there, and eating was more a matter of accurate shooting than having gold or silver in your pocket.
What would happen to her when she ran out of things to sell? she wondered. Would she have to go West like the others? What would Henry and his family do? Where could Agatha go? And Richard? Richard didn’t have any family. Paralyzed from the waist down, every day was a challenge for him. To even think of him trying to make an overland journey to a new life ...
A soft knocking against wood brought her from the gloomy morass of her thoughts. Ben stood in the open doorway. At her arched brow, he said, “Mr. Vanderhagen is here and requests a few moments of your time. He says it’s a very important matter.”
The family attorney had come to them? If Otis Vanderhagen had thought it necessary to leave his office ... The look of stoic resolve on Richard’s face wasn’t reassuring. Her stomach cold and knotted, Lindsay rose and smoothed her skirts, saying, “Please show him in, Ben.”
With a crisp nod, Ben backed out of the doorway. He’d barely disappeared when Otis Vanderhagen all but rolled into the room. At nine in the morning he reeked of cigar smoke and hair tonic. Tugging his waistcoat down over his considerable girth, he called out their names in a deafening roar. Lindsay couldn’t keep from wincing and looking for an avenue of escape.
She started as she realized that a second man stood in the doorway. Filled the doorway, actually. Height and, at the shoulders, width. He wore a dark charcoal-colored suit, and while the lines of it were a season or two past truly fashionable, it clearly spoke of a good tailor, conservative taste, and a powerful physique. Heavy-heeled boots, she noted. They’d been polished, but no amount of lampblack would ever cover the scuffs on the insides of each. He held a large, relatively flat-brimmed black hat in his hands and the expression on his face told her he didn’t want to be there. She knew how he felt.
“Allow me to present Mr. Jackson Stennett,” Otis said too loudly, turning to wave the man farther into the room. “Mr. Stennett is a citizen of the Republic of Texas. Mr. Stennett, may I present Miss Lindsay MacPhaull and Mr. Richard Patterson.”
He had dark hair and intelligent brown eyes, she noted as he stepped toward her. High cheekbones, too, and a solid, square jaw. Definitely handsome, Lindsay thought as he barely nodded.