Family Merger (Chapter Seven)

Shamus turned a royal purple. "You did this!" he screamed at Ron. "You encouraged him to defy me."

"No. I just told him since he was about to become a father, he had to start acting like an adult."

"He's a kid!" Shamus shouted. "He ought to act like a kid."

"I wish both our children hadn't made the decisions they did, but it's too late for that. Your grandchild will arrive in a little more than six months. That's a fact that can't be ignored."

"I can ignore it," Shamus said.

"Maybe, but I don't think you will. Come on, Kathryn. If we don't get settled soon, they'll start the party without us."

Ron had arranged for the families to be grouped together in large suites with several bedrooms. He and Kathryn were in a suite with Cynthia and Leigh. The two girls had driven down an hour earlier. As they approached their building, Leigh leaned out the window.

"Hurry up," she called down. "Wait until you see this setup."

Kathryn was only slightly more prepared than Leigh for the luxury she found. Their suite was made up of four huge bedrooms, each with a private bath, and opening onto a common room big enough to contain a conference table, an entertainment center, a business center, an area for socializing around a large stone fireplace and a wet bar.

"I wish Daddy could build us a beach house like this," Leigh said. "That way all of us could stay there at the same time. My grandparents have a place like this. It's loads of fun when all the cousins get together."

"I wouldn't know," Cynthia said. "I don't have any cousins."

"Well you can hardly blame your parents for that," Kathryn said. "I imagine they would have liked some brothers and sisters."

"Your mother especially wanted a sister," Ron said to his daughter. "She was delighted you were girl."

"Didn't you want a son?" Cynthia asked her father.

"I wanted several children," Ron said. "But I never regretted having you, not even when we found out your mother couldn't have any more kids."

"You must have wanted a boy to carry on the business."

"I was more interested in having boys to play football with. I never got to do that as a kid. I was looking forward to it."

"So instead you got a fat daughter."

"I got a tiny thing – you only weighed five and a quarter pounds – with no hair at all and huge blue eyes. For the first week you stared at me like I was something out of a fantasy movie. After that you seemed to decide I was safe and would even let me hold you without screaming for your mother."

"Mom says I did that, too," Leigh said, laughing. "It used to scare Dad to death. To this day he swears girls come into the world yelling at men."

"The smart ones know to check them out carefully," Kathryn said. "Are you girls settled in your rooms?"

"I'm practically lost in mine," Leigh said, "but I love it. Even my parents' bedroom isn't so big as this one. I can't wait to tell Mom about the king-size bed."

"But your family is one of the most famous in Charlotte," Cynthia said.

"That's because everybody's in politics. That doesn't mean we have a lot of money. We don't have anybody as smart as your father. I used to tell my brother he ought to marry you and get your father to give him a job."

"But I thought…" Cynthia let the sentence fade.

"We had some ancestors a couple hundred years ago who were in the right place at the right time," Leigh said. "We've had a few more since then who have done fairly well, but it takes smart people like your Dad to keep thinking of new ways to make money. You don't have to be smart to know how to spend it. My dad says the dumber you are, the more you spend. Now I'd better stop chattering. Mom says I never know when to shut up."

Kathryn thought her mother was probably right, but maybe she had given Cynthia something to think about. Having her best friend openly admire her father wasn't a bad thing.

"We're all gathering for hors d'oeuvres at six," Kathryn said. "If your father and I don't hurry, we'll never be ready."

"We can help," Leigh said.

"Thanks, but I'll probably go faster by myself."

"Yeah. I'll probably ooh and aah over everything you brought. Mom says you have the best taste of any woman in Charlotte."

"Of course she does," Ron said. "She chose to spend her weekend with us."

"Not that she had much choice after you railroaded her into it," Cynthia said.

"I admit I was doubtful at first, but after the way your father handled Mr. O'Grady in the parking lot, I think it may turn out okay."

"That man scares me," Leigh said. "He always looks like he wants to hit somebody. I think you were very brave to face him."

Ron laughed. "I don't think he considered hitting me."

"I don't know. You ought to hear some of the things Kerry says about him."

Ron gave her a conspiratorial look. "Could I enlist you two girls to help me this weekend?"

"Sure," Leigh said. "What do you want us to do?"

"Tell me something about the kids and their parents?"

Kathryn opened her mouth to object, but Ron forestalled her.

"I'm not talking about gossip. Everybody has a reason for feeling the way they do about something. It may be completely crazy, but to them it's valid. If I can understand what it is, maybe I can figure out a way to bring them around to my point of view."

"You mean force them to do what you want," Cynthia said.

"I know what he means," Leigh said. "Sometimes people are afraid of things they don't need to be afraid of. But they'll never tell you, so you don't know what to say."

Cynthia looked to Kathryn for confirmation. "I'm not sure I like the idea of prying into people's private lives," she said. "I wouldn't want people doing that to me."

"It's not prying exactly," Ron said. "It's pretty much what a psychologist does when you go to him."

"He's a professional. Besides, you know he won't use it to try to get you to do something you don't want to do."

"Everybody knows why they're here," Ron said. "I take that as a sign they want the same thing."

"Shamus said you forced him," Kathryn reminded him.

"He'd already thrown away the Harris contract. I'm only offering him the possibility of getting it back. He has plenty of other work."

"But he wants the Harris contract very badly," Kathryn said. "I think you're taking unfair advantage of him."

"He wants his son back even more," Ron said.

The more she learned about Ron, the more she realized how he had become so powerful. It was odd he could see other people so clearly, could analyze their position in detail, yet he had no idea how he was perceived by the people around him. He only saw himself as an extension of his work, not as a man whose work was only part of his life.

"Will you agree to help me?" Ron asked all three.

Leigh agreed enthusiastically. Kathryn hesitated a moment.

"I'll go along for the time being. But if you do something I think is wrong – "

"Don't hesitate to stop me. Cynthia can tell you I don't always get it right."

Cynthia didn't appear to like being put on the spot. "You're not very good with ordinary people," she said.

"I know," Ron said, "but I'm trying to learn. Will you help?"

Cynthia appeared undecided.

"Of course she will," Leigh said. "She wants things to turn out right for everybody."

"I didn't tell you they'd be better off with their parents," Cynthia said, apparently peeved her friend had shared what she clearly thought was confidential.

"But you said it would be better if they could go home," Leigh said. "Miss Roper thinks the same thing, don't you?"

"Yes," Kathryn said. "I consider my shelter a last resort."

"You were my first choice," Cynthia said.

Kathryn knew what Cynthia meant, but she doubted the girl realized how much the remark hurt her father.

"I think it would be best if we mingled before dinner," Ron said. "I want to make everybody feel as comfortable as possible."

"I'm not the hostess type," Cynthia said.

"It's like playing a game," Leigh said. "Pretend you're somebody like the president's wife. I know," she said delighted with her idea, "Queen Elizabeth."

"In that case, I guess I should curtsy." Kathryn made an elaborate but not very graceful curtsy. "I'm out of practice." But she had achieved her goal. Cynthia smiled. It was only a small concession, but maybe she'd stop fighting her father. Kathryn didn't know whether she thought his being successful would undermine her decision to leave home, or whether she resented that he hadn't done any of these things for her first.

"I'll let Leigh be Queen Elizabeth," Cynthia said. "I'll be Princess Anne."

"I'll be some duchess or other," Kathryn said. "Who're you going to be?" she asked Ron.

"I think I'd better be the head of the United Nations," he said, grinning broadly. "It's the only way I can outrank all this royalty. Now let's get ready. We don't have much time."

He picked up his suitcase and disappeared into his room.

"Do you really think this is going to work?" Cynthia asked Kathryn.

"I don't know. A lot depends on your father's powers of persuasion."

"He can talk anybody into anything," Cynthia said.

"In that case I suggest we back him to the fullest so we can share his glory when everybody ends up living happily ever after."

"Everybody except his daughter," Cynthia said.

"I expect he'll try his hardest to make sure you're happiest of all."

"He never has before."

"I think he has. He just didn't realize he was doing it the wrong way."

"Daddy always thinks he knows the answer."

"Not any more."

Cynthia didn't look convinced.

"All he's asking is that you give him the same chance to show he's changed the other kids are giving their parents. Remember, he's the one who organized this weekend. Don't you think that's a good sign?"

"Of course she does," Leigh said. "I've offered to trade fathers any time she's ready."

"It's not just that," Cynthia said. "There's the baby and everything else."

"We can't fix everything at once," Kathryn said. "For the weekend, concentrate on restoring communication, getting to be friends again, learning to trust each other. Don't you want things to work out between you and your father?" she asked when Cynthia vacillated.

"Yes."

Kathryn feared Cynthia had planned how she thought everything should go and wasn't sure she wanted to risk this new development. Kathryn couldn't be sure whether Cynthia was afraid to try for fear she'd be hurt again or fear she'd lose control over the situation.

"Then you'll really do your best to help him this weekend. And not just with the others. He wants to help them, but it's you he's really concerned about."

"Okay," Cynthia said, "but I'm not going to believe things just because he says them. He's going to have to show me."

"Fair enough," Kathryn said. "Now I'd better go, or I won't be ready on time. I have a feeling your father wouldn't appreciate that."

"Yes, he will," Cynthia said. "Dad always says a person's appearance tells more about him than the words that come out of his mouth. Greg, that's his secretary, says he can spend hours deciding what to wear for an important first meeting with a client or the first time he comes to the negotiating table. We might end up waiting on him."

"Wouldn't they listen to anything you said?" Ron asked Ted.

"Nothing," Ted replied.

"You showed them the results of the poll?"

"They said they had more scientific polls that said just the opposite."

"Have you seen their polls? Do you know how they gathered the information?"

"Yes. They're skewed in the directions they thought the government wanted."

"Did you tell them?"

"Yes, but they didn't believe me. They said Americans will do or say anything for the sake of money."

"The Arneholdts are behind this."

"How do you know?"

"It's not cheap to convince a respected polling company to falsify its results. You've got to find proof. Hire investigators if you have to."

"That's not the only reason they're still refusing the merger," Ted said.

"What is it?"

"You've always conducted merger negotiations personally no matter how long it takes. They say your being in America shows you don't think it'll succeed so there's no point in wasting your time."

"I've been back three times since we started."

"Apparently that's not enough."

"Did you tell them I have personal business I can't ignore?"

"I don't think they believed me. Everybody knows this is the first time you haven't conducted all the negotiations yourself."

Ron was painfully aware of this. He could only assume none of them would have allowed a family crisis to keep them away from their work. He was also aware his absence was injuring the negotiations to the point the merger might fail.

"Tell them I'll be back on Monday," he said. "In the meantime, see what you can dig up on the Arneholdts. If it comes out the government is being manipulated by this family, they'll be falling over themselves to vote for the merger to save their political necks. You can do this without my being there. I'll call you early tomorrow."

Ron turned off his cell phone. He'd reached a crossroads, a moment of decision he'd never expected to face. His whole life had been directed toward stockpiling so much success it would force others to acknowledge his achievements. Most important of all, it would force people at the highest levels of society to accept him and his daughter as peers.

That goal had never changed, could never change, as long as he remembered the years when he was ignored, looked down on, pitied, even despised merely because he didn't have money, the proper background and social experiences. He felt as if he'd spent his entire life being invisible, performing herculean tasks without anybody noticing. He realized it wasn't an admirable goal, not the kind of thing you would want the world to know about you. It wasn't even something he was especially proud of, but it was something he couldn't get rid of, something that continued to drive him.

But that wasn't the only reason to pull off this merger. He needed this one major triumph to position his company securely in the upper ranks. He especially had to make it work if he was going to assume a less conspicuous role in the company, a company that up until now had prospered primarily because of his personal reputation.

And he was endangering all of this by staying in Charlotte. But he risked losing Cynthia if he went back to Geneva.

Before Kathryn broke in on his meeting, he'd never thought that could be possible. He was certain the tie between him and his daughter was strong and unbreakable because it was strong and unbreakable for him. No matter how few hours he spent with Cynthia, she'd never been far from his thoughts. She was the center of his world. Everything he did was for her. No matter what happened in their lives, he'd assumed each held first place in the other's heart, that nothing could threaten – much less sever – their tie.

But he'd been wrong. All that he had worked so hard to achieve seemed to come his way easily. All the things he'd taken for granted seemed about to slip away. He was faced with the decision of risking something he understood and wanted – his career – for something he didn't understand yet found essential – the love and understanding of his daughter.

But he couldn't give up one for the other. He understood enough to know he had to have them both. He didn't know how he was going to manage that, but maybe Kathryn could help him figure it out.

That was still another problem. He was beginning to feel he wanted Kathryn, too. He didn't see how he could have all three. But it seemed like all three were essential for his happiness. He was beginning to realize he'd never really been happy before. He'd been so busy chasing success, he'd forgotten to pay attention to himself.

Just weeks ago he'd been certain his life was on track, about to achieve the success he'd worked toward since he was ten. Now he was in danger of losing everything at once. How could he have been so blind?

The important question was, what was he going to do about it? He didn't know, but he had a strong feeling he would have to depend on Kathryn to help him find the answers.

He decided she was the best part of being in the worst mess of his life.

Kathryn backed away from the door. She doubted Ron was saying anything he wouldn't want her to hear, but she didn't want him to think she was eavesdropping. Besides, she didn't want to know what he was saying. Just the thought of a business conversation reminded her of the times her father was too busy to be involved with his own family. And remembering that always made her angry. He thought his family should behave with the same logic as his business. When they didn't, he didn't attempt to understand them. Kathryn had tried to be a dutiful, obedient daughter, but Elizabeth had been spoiled. She was beautiful from the moment she was born, vivacious, able to charm anything in pants. She became adroit at using the attention and indulgence of her mother and older siblings to protect her from her father's strictures. When the break came over her pregnancy, their father had put his foot down. Much to Kathryn's astonishment, her mother had supported him.

Kathryn had taken her sister's side, and the argument ballooned out of control, everyone saying things they later regretted.

Now here was Ron, unable to go even a few hours without calling Geneva. He had a pregnant daughter who was estranged from him, a retreat full of angry parents, and he still couldn't keep his mind off his work. She guessed she shouldn't have expected anything different. People all over the world sought his help and advice. It was hard for a daughter to compete. A thirty-year-old woman who ran a shelter for unwed mothers didn't stand a chance.

As soon as that thought ran through her mind, Kathryn knew she was in danger of becoming enamored of a man who represented everything she abhorred. Over the past two weeks he'd spent nearly every moment he was in Charlotte with Cynthia or with her. She'd given up pretending they weren't dating, but she'd held fast to the belief that it was only a temporary circumstance. Apparently her heart had decided it liked Ron – liked his genuineness, his readiness to admit his mistakes and his resolve to correct them – and didn't care about anything else. She didn't know what her brain had been doing while her heart was cooking up this disaster. Whatever it was, it had been a strategic error. She had to run while she had a chance.

Yet for the next few days it would be impossible to keep her distance from Ron. Regardless of any personal danger, her primary responsibility was to start the girls and their families talking. From the moment she accepted them into her shelter, she had become in loco parentis. She owed it to everyone not to let this opportunity slip away.

Then there were Ron and Cynthia. Cynthia depended on her. Ron depended on her. She shouldn't have assumed such obligations if she had any doubts about being able to carry through to the end. By accepting his help with her shelter, she'd tied herself to him in additional ways. She not only couldn't ignore him, she had to pay close attention to everything he did. If he was successful, she had to know how to do it again.

After he was no longer here.

Ron looked at the people in the room and felt adrenaline start to flow. They had huddled together in distinctly separate groups in the recreation room, some around the pool table, others near the TV, one group at a large window facing a distant mountain, and still another backed up against the bar where they'd put the ice and soft drinks. Everyone seemed to be avoiding the food in the middle of the room. This was a challenge to Ron's skill, and that always brought with it an eagerness to prove himself equal to the job. He decided to start with the most difficult task.

"Remember to keep moving," he said to Kathryn, Cynthia and Leigh. "Don't let anyone get you in a corner. Get people talking. That's the first step in getting them relaxed."

"They look like they're afraid somebody's going to attack them," Leigh said.

"Somebody is," Cynthia said. "My dad."

She acted as if it were a terrible thing, but Ron heard a trace of pride in her voice. She might not like him right now, but she was proud of his abilities. He wondered if Kathryn felt the same way. She'd been mighty cool since she came out of her room. It was almost as though they were back to that very first night, her distrusting him and disliking him.

"I'll start with Kerry's parents," Ron said.

"Do you think you should after the way he acted in the parking lot?" Kathryn asked.

"He's got to know I'm not trying to undermine his relationship with his son. Until then, he's not going to cooperate with anything we do."

"I'll take Betsy," Cynthia said. "She's scared of almost everybody else."

"I'll take Lisette's parents," Leigh said.

"I guess that leaves me with Julia," Kathryn said.

"Battle stations everyone," Ron said.

"This is not a war."

"It is to Shamus."

Ron headed over to the O'Gradys who were standing together by the door to the courtyard. It was obvious Kerry wanted to be with Lisette. It was equally obvious his father was standing in his way.

"Is your suite okay?" Ron asked.

Shamus's looked angry, but his wife looked nervous. She kept glancing back and forth between her husband and her son.

"It's very nice," she said. "Very luxurious."

"You can't buy me with a fancy suite," Shamus said.

"I'm not trying to. I only want you to be comfortable. The rest of the weekend won't be easy."

"It will be for me," Shamus said. "I'm not staying. We're leaving right after dinner."

"You can't," Ron said. "The gate is locked, and I'm the only one with a key."

Ron thought Shamus would explode. His wife looked as though she didn't know what to do. Kerry smiled. "I guess that answers that question."

"You can't make us stay here. That's kidnapping."

Kerry laughed. "I can see the headlines now. Crazy Irishman accuses internationally famous businessman of kidnapping him in a luxurious mountain retreat along with several other families. Police didn't understand the charge since the Irishman admitted he'd gone there willingly."

"Don't talk to your father like that, Kerry," his mother said. "It makes him angry."

"I can't make him angry, but it's okay if he makes me angry and you miserable."

"Don't say that."

"Why not? It's true."

"Neither of you should be trying to make the other angry," Ron said. "I'd hoped you'd use this opportunity to come to an understanding of what's important to each of you."

"And you've made that so easy, telling Kerry you'd bankroll him."

"I asked him," Kerry said, "but he said you'd want me to go into business with you."

"He's giving you ideas, making you feel too big for your britches."

Kerry mumbled a couple of oaths under his breath. "I'm going to sit with Lisette. There's no point in staying here. You won't listen to anybody but yourself."

"Kerry, come back here," his father shouted. "If you don't, you can find some other place else to live."

"Shamus!" his wife exclaimed.

Kerry turned around. His expression had lost the anger of a moment ago. He looked tired. "I already asked Uncle Mike. He said I could stay with him until you came to your senses."

"You call him back right this minute," Mrs. O'Grady said to her husband. "If you don't, you can live in that house by yourself." When Shamus hesitated, she turned and walked off after her son.

"See what you've done!" Shamus said, turning to Ron. "You with your big promises."

"Nobody could have done anything if you hadn't driven Kerry away first."

"I'm not driving him away, you daft fool. I'm trying to save him."

"By denying him what he wants? Would you have listened to your father if he'd told you you couldn't become a contractor?"

"He did tell me," Shamus said, his voice slightly less belligerent, "but I knew it was my way out of poverty."

"Then why should you expect your son to be any different?"

"Because I've done all of this for him. He won't have to fight his way up the way I did."

"I said something very much like that a few days ago. I didn't understand when my daughter didn't instantly throw her arms around my neck and thank me."

"What did she do?" Shamus asked.

"Pretty much what Kerry just did. Those were my goals, my reasons – not hers. I never asked her what her goals were. I still don't know. She doesn't trust me enough to tell me."

Shamus was quiet a moment. "Do you think she'll tell you?"

"I don't know. I didn't exactly ignore her, but I saw what I wanted to see, and ignored all the warnings along the way. Now I find myself estranged from my daughter and my professional career in danger of collapsing. It strikes me you're in pretty much the same situation."

Shamus was quiet for another moment. "What are you going to do?"

"First I have to decide what is more important. Even if I manage to save both, everything I do in the future has to be guided by that decision, or I'll find myself in the same predicament before long."

"You trying to tell me something?"

"You've got to decide which is more important to you, your pride or your family. I think your wife and son have already made up their minds." Mrs. O'Grady had joined her son. "I've got to circulate. Can't have my guests saying the host didn't make an effort to speak to everyone. Bad manners."

"Like you care."

"I'm discovering I care for quite a number of unexpected things."

Like Kathryn Roper. He saw her talking to Julia Mingenmeer's parents while Julia stood by looking uncomfortable. He wondered all over again what could have induced a young woman with Kathryn's advantages to devote so much of her time and resources to these girls. He now knew it was Kathryn's sister's pregnancy, rather than her own, that was the reason Kathryn established her shelter, but there was something else that bothered Kathryn, something that caused her to divert all her maternal feelings to the daughters of other women. Ron was determined to find out what it was. Kathryn deserved the chance to have her own family.

Ron wanted more family. He hadn't known it until he'd started talking to Kerry and the families of the girls. He and Erin – both only children – had wanted at least three children. Maybe more.

He wondered how Kathryn felt about large families.

Such thoughts were premature, but he already knew he wanted her to be part of his life after he and Cynthia were back home. He hadn't dated much since Erin's death. People constantly offered to fix him up with a perfect woman, but Ron preferred working late – even all weekend – to blind dates.

But his feelings for Kathryn had been different from the start. He always kept the parts of his life carefully separated. Physical attraction in one corner, business in another, family in still another. Kathryn had managed to spill over into all three. He hadn't thought much of it at first. He was too busy dealing with the immediate problems facing him. When he did get a few moments to think about it, he realized how special Kathryn had been to him.

He'd been of two minds about her from the start. He hadn't want to get involved with a woman who had abetted Cynthia in running away from home. He'd wanted to bring the whammy down on her good and proper, but a few hours' consideration – maybe it had taken only a few minutes – had convinced him he was strongly attracted to Kathryn. No red-blooded man could be around her and not be attracted. She was just too pretty, too vital, too… He wasn't sure what word to use, but it was impossible for him to be indifferent to her.

But it hadn't taken him long to realize that behind that facade she was as unhappy as the rest of them. Every time they had come close to talking about her family, she changed the subject, a dead giveaway something was seriously wrong. He intended to fix it. That was the least he could do after what she'd done for Cynthia and the rest of these girls.

He looked around the room. Cynthia and Leigh were talking to Betsy's family. It was a shame the girl was so shy and nervous…or just plain scared.

Maybe the boy had given her the feeling he understood her, that he would stand up for her. He could see how she would reach out to anyone who gave her the sense of importance her family didn't. He'd have to have a long talk with them. Now that she'd gotten the courage to break away, Betsy wouldn't go back unless things changed radically.

He couldn't help but wonder if Cynthia had felt that way about him. He'd done everything he could to make sure she felt loved and cared for, but he was learning things that mattered to him didn't necessarily matter the same way to other people.

He wondered what was at the bottom of Julia's disaffection from her family. Her parents seemed exactly what you'd expect in professional and social circles, and genuinely interested in their children.

They said they would do anything that might bring Julia home, yet both parents were in earnest conversation with Kathryn while Julia shifted her weight from foot to foot looking bored and angry. They needed to learn to talk with their daughter rather than just about her.

Could the same be said of him? He thought he'd tried to talk to Cynthia during the last few years, but had he really talked to her, really listened to her, or had he just thought he had? Whatever the case, he'd have to do better. It was hard watching her be so animated, so open, talking to Betsy's family, when she was so closed and withdrawn when he tried to talk to her. He would have to count on Leigh and Kathryn to help convince Cynthia he'd changed, that he really did love her and want to learn to make her happy.

It was hard to stand back and wait for someone else to do the work for him. All his life he'd taken the initiative, sometimes despite active opposition from people who should have been helping him. He was aggressive, decisive, hardheaded, confident, consistent and knew exactly what he wanted. He'd have to learn to make these attributes appear positive in Cynthia's eyes.

In Kathryn's, too.

In the meantime he'd better make sure his brilliant idea of a weekend retreat was a success. Lisette's family was next. Lisette was a pretty girl with a very engaging personality, but he didn't understand how a boy like Kerry could have fallen so desperately in love with her. He would have thought they'd drive each other nuts. He was relieved to see the Saunders family actually appeared to welcome his approach.

"This is an absolutely beautiful place," Mrs. Saunders said when he reached the group. "Thank you for inviting us." She looked uneasily at Lisette, who was snuggled up against Kerry. She appeared to be using him as a barrier against her parents. "It's been good to be able to spend a few minutes with Lisette."

"I hope you'll have more than a few minutes together before the weekend is over." He'd have to remember to tell Kerry not to monopolize Lisette.

"It's important we find out something about the boy," Mr. Saunders said, casting a harsh look in the direction of Shamus O'Grady who stood by himself across the room. "I hope he's nothing like his father."

"Paul, don't talk like that in front of his wife," Mrs. Saunders said.

"Shamus has a lot of good qualities," Ron said.

"Then he's kept them hidden," Paul replied, not intimidated by his wife's strictures.

"You're both right," Mrs. O'Grady said. "Shamus is a good man, even a wonderful man sometimes, but he came up so hard he can't understand not everybody else is like him."

"We did everything parents are supposed to do," Mr. Saunders said, "but she runs to Kerry every chance she gets. Everything he says is right. Everything we say is wrong."

Ron wasn't sure what had gone wrong here, but it was clear Lisette had put her future in Kerry's hands.

"She's only sixteen," Mr. Saunders said. "How's she going to go to college and take care of a baby?"

"We had such plans for her," Mrs. Saunders said. "I know she's my daughter and I'm prejudiced, but she's so smart and talented. You should see her dance. Classical ballet. There there's her music. She's taken piano since she was four. She plays Chopin beautifully. Just last year we discovered she has a remarkable voice." She sighed in disappointment. "Her grandmother is convinced that with all her talents she could become Miss America."

Ron was getting the picture of a young woman who likely saw herself not as a person but as a collection of talents and attributes to win honors and bring glory to the family. She probably didn't think anybody could love her unless she was winning some kind of trophy.

"I'll tell you what I've been telling myself and everyone here this weekend," Ron said. "Ask Lisette what she wants for herself. Don't take her first answer because she's going to tell you what she thinks you want to hear. Keep after her until she tells you the truth."

"We know what she wants," Mrs. Saunders said. "She has wanted the same things all her life."

"At least one thing has changed," Mrs. O'Grady said. "She wants to marry my son and have his baby."

"And ruin her life," the Saunders said in unison.

"It won't ruin my life," Lisette said. "It's what I want more than anything."

"There's nothing wrong with a husband and a baby," her mother said in a wheedling tone of voice. "I'd love to be a grandmother, but there's so much you had hoped to accomplish."

For the first time since Ron had known her, Lisette looked miserable rather than confident and cheerful.

"I thought I wanted all those things, but I want Kerry and the baby more."

"But you've worked so hard for so long," her father said.

"Right now we need to focus on Lisette, Kerry and the baby," Ron said. "It'll be here in less than six months. It would be best if you'd figured out what you want to do before then."

"We know what we want to do," Kerry said. "We want to get married."

"That's crazy," Mr. Saunders said. "You're too young."

"They're obviously not too young to become parents," Mrs. O'Grady said. "I think that makes them old enough to be married."

"I don't know what you can hope to get out of this," Mr. Saunders said to Mrs. O'Grady. "We don't have any money. Not the kind you have."

"This has nothing to do with money," Mrs. O'Grady said.

"It has to do with wasted opportunity," Mr. Saunders said.

"There are a couple of facts you can't ignore," Ron said, hoping to keep the argument from escalating. "Lisette is pregnant, and she and Kerry want to get married."

"We're going to get married," Kerry said.

"You have to start from there," Ron said to the three angry parents. "Your old plans won't work anymore. And I think you ought to include Mr. O'Grady in that discussion," Ron said. "He's just as concerned about Kerry's future as you are about Lisette's."

"Then what's he doing standing across the room by himself?"

"Trying, just as you are, to come to grips with the new reality."

A waiter came in to announce dinner. Ron was relieved. He hoped it was too soon to tell, but so far he hadn't been very successful. He not only hadn't brought about any kind of reconciliation or understanding, only dinner had prevented what threatened to be a heated, probably rancorous, fight. He had to find a way to get these two families over the disappointment in the failure of their plans for their children and move on to coming up with new plans that took into account the present situation and their children's needs and wishes.

"I shouldn't be there with you," Kathryn said to Cynthia. "Your father wants to talk to you alone."

"I don't want to be alone with him."

They were leaning against a railing on the flagstone patio between the two meeting buildings. The mountain fell away abruptly in front them. It had turned cool enough to need a sweater for bare arms, but the half moon was brilliant and the night air crisp and dry. Kathryn had always preferred the mountains to the beach in the summer, something else the men she dated didn't understand.

"Are you afraid?"

"No."

"Then what's the problem? He wants to talk about the things he doesn't understand."

"No, he doesn't. He wants to tell me what to think. He gets paid millions to do that with people who're just as strong-minded as he is. I haven't got a chance."

"Of course you do. You decided to come to my shelter, didn't you?"

"I did that while he was away. If he'd been here, he'd have found a way to talk me out of it. He always does."

"What do you mean?"

"We're always having these discussions where I tell him what I think. Then he tells me what I ought to think. I tell him again what I think, and he begins to dismantle my argument piece by piece. When he's done, I have no choice but to agree with him even though I know I don't agree with him."

"Have you told him that?"

"No."

"Then I think you should. Say it very nicely, but make it clear you won't be argued out of your position."

Cynthia turned away and looked out over the mountain. "It won't work."

"You have to try. Otherwise, this whole weekend will be a waste. Your father has worked very hard to make it a success."

"Of course he has. This is what he does. He couldn't stop himself. It's how he thinks." She wrapped her arms around herself and turned back to Kathryn. "Ron Egan never fails. He can't afford to. It could ruin his reputation."

"That may be true in his business, but this is very different. He wants to help the others, but his real objective is to make things right with you."

"Then why did he stay away from me all evening then spend most of dinner talking to you?"

"Probably because you were sullen and refused to speak to him. Leigh told you as much." Kathryn reached out, took Cynthia's hand. "I know you're angry with your father, but I'm sure he's genuine in his desire to try to understand what you want. You know how helpful he's been to Kerry."

Kathryn's sympathy had gone out to Ron. She didn't know what it was like to face powerful men across the board table, but it couldn't be any worse than facing four sets of angry, resentful, bullheaded parents who'd already alienated their children and weren't the least bit reluctant to turn their anger on Ron.

She had tried to warn Ron he had set himself an impossible task, but she had to admit it was better to try and fail than not try at all. If nothing else, Cynthia would have a better notion of how difficult her father's work could be. It would be good for Cynthia to think of someone else besides herself.

Maybe he had used strong-arm tactics to get everybody here, but she was proud of him for having the courage to tackle a nearly impossible task. He kept up a brave front, but he couldn't hide his disappointment from her. She wanted to put her arms around him and tell him not to try so hard, that nobody could make people listen when they didn't want to.

That last thought showed Kathryn just how far her mind had changed with respect to Ron. She still believed he valued his career too much and his daughter too little, but he was proving he could learn from his mistakes.

"Your father thought if he gave you some space, maybe you'd lighten up and cut him a little slack."

Cynthia pulled away from Kathryn. "Daddy would never use a phrase like lighten up and cut him a little slack."

"Okay, so I paraphrased it. Another reason he stayed away was to help the other girls. He'd committed himself to coming up with solutions for everyone this weekend. He was just doing his best to make that happen."

"But don't you see, that's exactly what he's always doing, putting everybody ahead of me. Just once I want to come first."

Kathryn supposed it came from being young, of having no perspective, of being frightened, but it was obvious Cynthia couldn't understand that nearly everything Ron had done since he appeared out of the night that first evening had proved she was very much in the forefront of what mattered to him. Ron would have to handle the rapprochement with his daughter himself, but it would be up to Kathryn to help Cynthia see that though her father might be employing old skills and using old ways, he was using them to achieve new ends. He was attempting to win his daughter back.

"I don't think you understand exactly what your father is doing and why, but that can wait," Kathryn said. "The important thing right now is to go in there and listen to him, to give him the benefit of the doubt, to trust him."

"Maybe I should lick his hand like an old dog."

Kathryn's optimism flagged. "It's time to see if you've inherited your father's skills of negotiation. If so, this ought to be an interesting evening."