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"Admit it, Lily.Your competitiveness has finally gotten the best of you."
"I'll admit nothing of the kind." Quite pleased with her new business venture, Lily Carrington eased back into the burgundy velvet of her office chair and lifted a cup of steaming hot chocolate to her lips.
Reginald spared her a quick glare, his thin lips set in a grim line as he continued to riffle through the box of disorganized company files atop her desk.
"It's no matter," she said. "McFarland is simply being a sore loser by withholding the payroll records and turning over the company files in such disarray. I'll sort through every page if I have to. There's more than one way to obtain payroll records. Surely someone on-site has kept a log of employees, work hours and pay rates."
"Take my advice, sweetness." Reginald tossed another file into the box, then brushed his fingers against his blue silk jacket as though his hands had been soiled. "Sell it."
"I will not. You're being rash."
"I'm being realistic." He dropped into the leather chair on the opposite side of her desk. A wedge of sunlight gleamed against the dark hair slicked back against his scalp. Stiff tracks left by his comb added to his look of severity. Even so, with his slight build and delicate facial structure, Regi was no more intimidating than a stern librarian or a cranky banker.
As her second cousin and top financial advisor, it was Regi's job to be circumspect about business matters, but Lily had run the numbers before going after the lumber company. With proper management, the Sierra lumber camp and mill would become a valuable asset to L. P. Carrington Industries.
"Lily,it's no secret that this entire venture is nothing but a folly to put ol' McFarland in his place."
A smile curved her lips before she took another sip of creamy cocoa, the taste nearly as sweet as her victory. She wouldn't deny the fact. The old goat had dared to come to her offices a few months ago seeking financial assistance, only to refuse to sit across the bargaining table from a woman. If that hadn't been insult enough, he'd later publicly ridiculed her before hundreds of colleagues at a charitable ball, calling her a disgrace to respectable businessmen.
A disgrace, was she? She hadn't been the one sitting idly by while her stock was discreetly bought out from under her. Her initials had been the prefix of Carrington Industries for five splendidly successful years. At twenty-five years old, Lily was L. P. Carrington Industries, owning more than eighty-five percent of the company. The supposed board of trustees, her old and ailing relatives, only cared that their bank accounts were brimming.
The fact that McFarland wasn't making this particular takeover an easy endeavor didn't take away from her delight at seeing the utter defeat and humiliation in his face as she had personally claimed the title of her new lumber company.
"L. P. Carrington Lumber," she said brightly. "I like the sound of it."
Reginald groaned as he reached toward the tray holding her silver chocolate pot. "Face it, strumpet, he let this money pit go because it was failing."
"You didn't see his face when I walked in. He didn't want to part with Pine Ridge."
"So you've taken the man's prized possession. You don't need to prove anything further." He sat back in his chair and pulled a silver flask from the inside of his jacket.
"Regi! It's barely ten o'clock in the morning!"
"And yet my head is throbbing as though I've suffered an entire day of your takeover activities."
Lily crossed her arms in disapproval as he poured a clear trail of spirits into his hot chocolate. He capped the flask and tucked it back into his jacket.
"I don't need to see the outstanding payroll records to surmise that this company is about to implode." Regi sat back, sipping his potent chocolate. "The accounting records reveal plenty. McFarland took out more than he put in and had nothing left to pay his employees, nor was he willing to dip into his personal funds to compensate for the loss."
"Exactly. The company failure was due to his poor management. I didn't walk into this completely blind, Reginald. The potential is there."
"Darling, you hardly need another source of income. And we have enough work to juggle without taking on a camp full of filthy oxen men who haven't been paid in weeks. This lumber business will be nothing but a drain on our time and resources."
"I'm keeping my new company. Success is the best revenge."
Regi took a deep drink, his dark eyes shining with mirth. "This is why men cower in fear when you enter a boardroom."
She didn't appreciate his catty tone. "They do."
"Yes, love, I know. I'm the one standing right beside you as they tremble. No one is questioning your success."
"That's not the point," she said, straightening her posture. She tugged at the bottom of her fitted waistcoat, smoothing wrinkles from the black-and-gray pinstriping.
Reginald rubbed at his temple. "What exactly is the point, love? I keep forgetting. Could it be that you need another excuse to stay cooped up in this pampered palace of an office?" He splayed his hands toward satin-lined walls trimmed with gold moldings. "Look at you. Impeccable style, flawless skin, every strawberry-blond curl swept up in sheer perfection, and all of it going to waste."
"I don't care for your perspective. Looking my best is hardly wasteful."
"I dare say ten years ago you'd have been the belle of every debutante ball, had you bothered to attend them."
Unlike the rest of the Carrington women, Lily didn't judge her worth by the size of her wedding dowry. She preferred to follow her mother's example and shun tradition. It was, after all, what everyone expected of her, for poor orphaned Lily to adopt her mother's reckless ways. She did hate to disappoint.
"If you'll recall, I was banned from such festivities."
Regi's tittering laugh increased her annoyance. "I assure you, no one has forgotten. You did pull off your own ruin with certain aplomb. And for what? To spend your days intimidating stuffy old men in gray suits and looking over the shoulders of all our accountants? Every day you descend from your living quarters bound and bustled in San Francisco's finest fashions. You need to get out once in a while, Lily. Strut your fancy wares."
"I'm a businesswoman, Reginald, not a peacock."
"You hardly need to be an exotic bird to get some fresh air. Take time for a social tea, a stroll through Ghirardelli Square for heaven's sake. You need a lover, Lil, not more work."
One brief interlude had been plenty to keep her focused on the finer things in lifebusiness and chocolate. No one had been complaining about her social life while she'd doubled the family fortunes. Regi was the only one who'd made any attempt to understand her, or at least humor her ambitions.
"You socialize enough for both of us," she said. "Someone has to run this place."
"If your aunt Iris knew how I've aided and abetted your spinster ways, she'd turn over in her grave."
Regi also knew how to get under Lily's skin.
"Doubtful," Lily said, her frown deepening at the thought of her late, harping guardian. "The old biddy could hardly be troubled to lift a finger in life, much less 'roll over.'And you are deliberately toying with my temper."
"On the contrary, I'm simply pointing out the obvious. You already work nonstop. This isn't a small undertaking, Lily."
"A successful lumber company will be a perfect addition to L. P. Industries."
"Yes, love, but we're talking about a bankrupt lumber camp. According to the latest financial records, McFarland hadn't paid his employees in over a month, which is why he was looking for outside funding. Are we to make good on those back wages? All we have is a list of names, with no hint of their position in the company or pay rate. We don't even know if the camp is abandoned or filled with disgruntled employees."
"We'll gather a team to assess the situation and obtain the payroll files. We'll send a messenger immediately with notices explaining the change of ownership and temporary freeze of financial assets."
Reginald scooted to the edge of his cushion and braced his hands wide on her desk. "Just for a moment let's be reasonable. What do you know of lumberjacks?"
"They chop down trees."
Regi laughed. "Oh, bravo. And when these jolly beasts of labor, who 'chop down trees,' come tromping from the woods demanding to be paid, what then, my darling?"
Lily refilled her cup and smiled brightly. "Refer them to you, of course, my financial counsel."
Regi arched a dark eyebrow. "I'd laugh if I didn't know you have a streak of viciousness in you. I can hardly counsel a woman who does not heed my advice."
"I'm neither naive nor inexperienced. Anything worth the effort is seldom easy."
The glint in Reginald's brown eyes told her he was quite aware of that fact.
"If they want their jobs they'll have to be patient while we work through McFarland's mess. Otherwise they're welcome to take up banners with those obnoxious men of the labor unions and harping ladies of Women's Suffrage, and march the streets. Goodness knows one can never please the masses."
"You have never tried to please the masses," Regi said. "So why not just please your cousin. Let this one go."
Regi's gaze narrowed. "When this lumber-camp jaunt goes up in smoke, I will expect a full I-should-have-listened-to-Reginald apology."
"I always listen to you, Regi," she said as she began thumbing through the box of files. "You've been my trusted friend since I arrived in San Francisco."
"Which says little of my sensibilities," he muttered.
"We will split the list of employees and see if we can't match them to job references buried in the rest of this mess."
Reginald stood and snatched the stack of paper she held out to him. "You realize we do employ secretaries?"
"Yes. Tell Emily I'd like another pot of hot chocolate."
"Right after I notify some of the staff that they'll be taking a trip to the mountains."
Lily slid her chair up to the desk and opened the file with rows of names listed in alphabetical order, management mingled with the most common of workers. It was no wonder McFarland's company had gone under. The man clearly had no business sense.
Her gaze scanned down the first page. A name caught her attention, forcing her to reread the line.
Barns, Juniper. Juniper Barns.
The name slapped across her senses like a razor strap. A name she'd heard over and over in her mind since she was twelve years old, since the night her father's business partner had stood on the front porch of her childhood home in Missouri, holding a hat and a gun belt.
"I'm sorry, Rose. Red won't be coming back. He was killed in Mason by a gunslinger named Juniper Barns. Gunned him down with those pearl-handled six-shooters."
Her mother had been devastated. Folks had said the influenza had killed her a few weeks later, but Lily knew better. Rose Palmer had stopped living that night on the porch. She'd let the sickness take her.
He'd killed her. The gunfighter had shattered Rose's heart by taking her husband.
Juniper Barns. The man who'd stripped the sun from Lily's sky. He'd stolen her parents, her life, forcing her into the care of strangers, relatives her mother had shunned so she could be with the man she loved. Lily didn't have to wonder why her mother had run off to Missouri, preferring her quiet life in the small cottage on a flower-filled meadow with her and Daddy. Dear Lord, how Lily'd missed her home, the wide-open sky, the scent of spruce and aspen, the sound of her mother's soft voice, her father's strong embraces
Old rage welled up and coiled across her shoulders. How many nights had she lain awake in her fancy prison, anger burning away tears she had refused to cry as she wished for the opportunity to shoot down the outlaw who'd stolen her family and turned her life into endless torment?
Juniper Barns. Lily's hand trembled as she brushed her finger over the letters. Not exactly a common name.
A man ain't no better than his name.
Her father's voice echoed in her mind. They were some of the last words he'd spoken to her. She remembered the last time she'd stood with him in the sun-sprayed meadow filled with tall grasses and wildflowers, his strong arms closed around her, his big hands helping her to steady the revolver as she took aim at a bottle sitting on a rock in the distance.
He stepped away. She squeezed the trigger, kicking off a shot. Glass exploded into glistening shards.
"That's my girl!"
There was always the threat of raiders in the high country. Daddy had insisted she practice with a revolver as well as a rifle. He said she was to tell her mother about neither.
"Your mama would have my hide for teaching you to handle a six-shooter, but she's a delicate sort of flower. My baby girl is pure Palmer. You don't have to be a man to defend your name and protect what's yours. Out here, we look out for our own. You got that, Lily girl?"
"I got it," she said, thinking of the gun belt tucked safely in her wardrobe upstairs.
You don't have to be a man to defend your name. A name the Carringtons had forbidden her to speak in their presence. She'd gotten even with the Carringtons, making her true initials, L. P., the prefix of the company name when she'd taken over Carrington Industries.
"Lily Palmer," she said to herself, the name sounding foreign to her ears. Had she been labeled a Carrington for so long, she'd forgotten her true self? Her chest ached at the thought.
"What's that, love?" Regi asked, stepping back into the open doorway of her office.
"I think you're right," she said, shaking off the chill of old memories. "I need a breath of fresh air."
His face lit up with a smile. "Wouldn't hurt."
"Emily?" she called out.
The young woman who worked as her secretary and housekeeper stepped into the room. "Yes, Miss Carrington?"
"Pull out my spring dresses and have Charles retrieve my trunks." She pushed back from her desk and stood. "Some winter dresses, as well," she added, remembering the drastic temperature fluctuations of the higher elevations.
Emily gave a firm nod. "Right away." "Your trunks?" said Regi. "You intend to take a trip now and dump this lumber mess onto my lap?"
"Of course not. I'll be accompanying our lawyers and accountants. I want to leave within a week."
Reginald stared at her as though she'd suddenly sprouted wings. "You're not serious."
"Weren't you the one just telling me I need to get out more?"
"I meant a trip to the zoo, a stroll through the park, not jaunting off into the wilderness!"
"How better to learn about my new company than to pay a visit? I won't have to rely on long-distance reports. It's the perfect solution."
"Lily, I " His hands clenched into fists. "I forbid it."