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Alexandria knew her father didn't think she was a genius, but she wasn't dumb, either.
"Daddy, shouting isn't going to convince me to give you controlling interest in Wright Enterprises. Now, will you please sit down? Your blood pressure is probably off the charts."
Feeling as if she didn't have a friend in the world, Alexandria Lord Wright-Foster forced herself to stop fidgeting.
Her father had chosen to fight for his mother's money in a court of law instead of visiting her in the final months of her life. Because of that decision, Grandma Letty had left all of her money, and shares of the company stock, to her only frequent visitor, her newlywed, twenty-three-year-old, college dropout, never-been-in-charge-of-anything-but-decorating-the-conference-room granddaughter, Alexandria.
Her father may have lost the fight, but he was still angling to win the war.
"My blood pressure will be just fine when things start to run like they're supposed to around here. I've got some papers for you to sign." He tried to persuade Alexandria with a tone that said he'd take the deal if it were offered to him. "You'll get market value for the stock, and then you can go back to spoiling yourself."
"Daddy, I've already told you, those days are over."
"So, no more trips to New York for purses and shoes?" he challenged. "No more spa weeks in Arizona? No more couture fashion shows in Paris?"
"Ever since Marc and I got married, I've taken the family business seriously. I've been here every day learning this business and pulling my weight. I don't shop like I used to, and I don't party like I used to. I've changed. I'm a businesswoman."
"You can't play at this. You have no business skills andno business background."
"Daddy, you don't have a degree, either, and neither did Grandma Letty, and she was quite successful. So I've learned the same way you and she learnedon the job."
A tiny sound of disbelief left her father's mouth, but that was all.
"The bottom line is that I won't sign my stock over to you. Would you like something to drink? I'm having mineral water. Jerry? Mervyn," she asked her brothers who hadn't said a word through the entire exchange. "Would you like a glass?"
Jerry shook his head. He was the youngest brother, but older than Alexandria by ten months, had walked in late and sat at the head of the table, and nobody had corrected him.
Symbolically, that seat had been left empty after Big Daddy, their granddaddy, had died two years ago.
Jerry didn't know about the unspoken rule, having just returned from living in Texas. A concussion had ended his pro football career, but he was trying to get into the swing of things. He was very quiet and only answered questions when spoken to directly.
Marc, her husband, liked Jerry best.
Beneath the table, Alex pushed Send on her BlackBerry, hoping Marc would pick up.
For the past month he'd been in Philadelphia, but he'd been helping her practice assertiveness by webcam. Over a year ago he'd bought the book A Fool's Guide to Being Assertive.
Initially, she'd been offended. But once Marc had explained the book, then read it to her, then torn off the cover and made love to her to make up for offending her, she'd liked it. That's why she'd initially fallen in love with him. He'd helped her realize that although she didn't have degrees, she was smart, and the world needed people like her.
"You're costing us money, honey."
"How, Daddy?" she asked.
"All this waffling." He laughed in that big way corporate men did when nothing was funny.
"You're offering refreshments and we're trying to discuss business."
Alexandria lowered her glass of water and wiped her lip with the cloth napkin.
Her BlackBerry vibrated and she glanced at it then sent the call to voice mail. The same number had called four times, but it wasn't Marc. She'd answer if they called again. Maybe he'd lost his phone and had to get a new one.
"We don't have time for you to schedule your mani-pedi," her brother Mervyn added, their father's living puppet.
"I know, Mervyn. This is what I came to say. Too much money is going out of the company."
"You have to spend money to make money," their father interrupted, as if everyone knew that but her. "If you'd gotten your college degree like your brother here, you'd know that. But I'm not holding that against you. You're a helluva decorator."
Alexandria's face heated under the sting of his sexist sarcasm. She wanted to be immune to their bullying, but she wasn't. She bit her lip and her father's eyes lit up like the lights on a pinball machine. He knew he'd hurt her.
"That's what I'm talking about, little girl. You're out of your league. You need to be home with your husband. How long has it been since he's been home?"
"A month," she said softly.
"Give that man some babies," Mervyn Jr., chimed in all his fatherly glory. "You're always here in Atlanta, he's always gone. That might go a long way to helping Mama, in her delicate condition."
The audacity of Mervyn's words made her want to throw water on him. He'd done nothing to help his kids to bond with their mother. Were it not for their mothers, they wouldn't even know they had a grandmother.
"Mervyn, you have five kids, a sixth on the way. If Mama was going to shake her depression because of children, she should be doing the electric slide right now."
"Shut up, Alexandria. You don't belong here. We've been doing just fine without you."
"Grandma Letty didn't agree with you, Mervyn, or she'd have left you the money. But, oh, right, you didn't go visit her either. So I guess that means that I'm in charge. If you don't like it, you can always get out. If you stay, you shut up."
Alexandria couldn't believe what had just come out of her mouth, but she was proud of herself.
Then Mervyn started shouting. "Enough!" her father roared. She grabbed her briefcase and put it on the table. "I don't need a degree to know that you're stealing from us. We're not getting paid on certain accounts, and that's bad business. It's all right here in this report." She pushed the papers to the center of the table and Mervyn grabbed them and walked away.
"Youyou had us audited?" he stammered, glaring at her over his shoulder.
"Yes, I did."
Alexandria sat up straighter. "Yesterday. These are the first findings."
"How dare you?" he demanded. Their father tried to see the report, but Mervyn held it close to his chest.
"What does it say?" their father demanded.
"Nothing." Mervyn's rapid response was faster and louder than hers, and meant to deceive. His eyes seemed to be begging her not to reveal his secrets.
"You're stealing from the family." She spoke slowly so her father and Jerry could hear. "No more access to petty cash for you."
"Petty cash." Their father laughed in her face. Alex looked at Jerry and he shook his head.
"How much could it be? This is nonsense. You took a stranger's word over your brother's?" Mervyn Sr. asked his daughter.
"Not just someone. A certified public accountant, Daddy. A thousand dollars a week, sometimes more. He gets the money in cash from the office manager who logs it into a ledger."
"Excuse me." Willa, the receptionist, stood in the doorway. Tall and lean, she answered the phones beautifully, but had no self-esteem, thanks to a whorish ex-boyfriend who lived in the same building and whose bedroom wall adjoined Willa's. She could hear every headboard bang. Every night.
Alex had shared her assertiveness book with Willa last week. She was currently on chapter two. "I have an urgent call"
Alex gave her a nod of encouragement.
"No interruptions!" Mervyn Sr. barked.
Willa stayed in the doorway, undecided. "Um," she said, brushing her bangs from her forehead.
"Get out!" her father roared.
"Willa" Alex called, but the woman was already in motion. She ran down the hallway and through the door leading to the reception area.
She was probably in tears, packing her purse and getting ready to quit. Seven receptionists had quit the job since the previous March.
"Daddy, one day your outbursts are going to get you in big trouble. Everyone doesn't have to become accustomed to them like we have."
Alex picked up her BlackBerry and made a notation.
"What are you doing?" Mervyn demanded.
"Trying to keep the best receptionist we've ever had. I'm going to send Willa a fruit basket and a gift certificate for a mani-pedi. That will make her feel better."
"How dare you talk about me spending money, when you're ordering baskets and having independent auditors snoop into our family business. How dare you?"
Mervyn Jr.'s false indignation was almost funny in light of the trouble he was facing. "I dare because, before she died, Grandma Letty ordered this audit to be performed."
Jerry got up and walked slowly out the room and down the hall to check on Willa. They seemed to have formed an unlikely bond in the weeks since Jerry's return to Wright Enterprises. Willa taught him the phone system and he built up her broken self-esteem.
Alexandria showed her father and brothers the letter in her grandmother's handwriting. Their father sat down, unwilling to say a cross word against his mother.
"The first findings show that you've been embezzling for over five years at about sixty thousand dollars a year. You might have to go to jail."
Alex felt too vulnerable sitting down as her brother paced, but she didn't want to seem out of control either. She perched on the end of her chair.
Their father's chair bumped the table and he stood, looking alarmed. "That's a bunch of nonsense. I'll get my attorneys on these accountants and when they're finished, they'll wish they'd never set foot in this building."
Alexandria let her head fall back and she clasped her hands.
"Why are you praying?" Mervyn asked, his voice full of disdain.
"Because I was afraid the meeting was going to go this way. Daddy, do you want to see Mervyn behind bars? How will you explain to Mama that you let Mervyn steal from the company and then let him be thrown in jail?"
"What are you talking about? I'm not going anywhere," Mervyn said, his gaze shifting to their father to confirm.
Alex placed her hands on her folder. "If Daddy calls his attorney, we'll have to call the police. We will then file a report and explain the missing money for the past five years.