Family Merger (Chapter Six)

"We're having a problem with Schmidt and Wasserman," Ted was saying to Ron. "They won't listen to anything we say."

"This isn't a matter of money for them. It's an issue of national pride."

"Do you think you can change their minds?"

"I don't know."

"One of the other men said they wouldn't approve the merger if Schmidt and Wasserman were against it. What are you going to do?"

Ron had arrived at his hotel two hours before the meeting. He'd used that time to shower, change and listen to a report on what had been happening the last two days. It wasn't good. Ted and Ben had done everything he would have done, but two essential men – two government cabinet ministers – continued to argue against the merger. It didn't matter how the other men voted. These two men had the power to block it.

By the end of the day it had become very clear that the merger wouldn't – couldn't – go through without the approval of the government. With an election coming up that was predicted to be close, those men were afraid to do anything that might be unpopular with the voting public. Ron would have to give them something they could offer the people, or they would withhold approval.

"We have to come up with a reason they can't afford to vote against the merger," Ron said. "Hire as many people as you need. Spend as much as you have to, but you've got to find something we can use to persuade them to change their minds."

"Do you think you can keep them negotiating long enough to find it?" Ben asked.

"You have to keep them negotiating. I'm flying back to Charlotte tonight." He stuffed the last of the papers into his briefcase. "In fact, if I don't leave soon, I'll be late."

Both assistants reacted with shocked surprise. They'd spent the evening around the conference table in his suite going over every aspect of the merger, preparing arguments to bolster their position, brainstorming where they thought the next day's discussions would lead. Ron looked at his watch. "The chartered jet should be warming up its engines right now. I'll call you before the meeting tomorrow."

"You can't leave now," Ted said.

"I'll be back again in a couple of days, but I have to go home. My daughter needs me."

He couldn't afford to devote all his time to the merger. He had his daughter's life to straighten out. Maybe his own life needed straightening out just as much. He'd never stopped working long enough to think about it. But now he had, and he was beginning to realize something important was missing

"But we've never done a negotiation without you," Ben said.

"They expect you to be here," Ted added.

Ron knew that. He'd always used that as one of his selling points. Once you had his company, you had his undivided personal attention until everything was worked out and the last paper signed. That he never tried to handle more than one job at a time was a signature of his style.

He had sensed the resentment in Schmidt and Wasserman the minute he'd returned to the table that morning. They hadn't displayed any emotion. They simply rejected everything he said with icy politeness. This blanket refusal to listen to anything he said had stymied him until he realized their fear of the election was at the root of their refusal to be swayed by his arguments.

"You have to be so brilliant they won't remember I'm not here," Ron said as he grabbed his coat. "You've got to keep them coming back to the table until we can find the one piece of information that will change their minds."

He was at the doorway when an idea hit him. "Has anybody surveyed the workers?"

"That's their biggest argument," Ted said. "The workers are afraid they'll lose their jobs."

"Has anybody actually asked them? I don't mean the managers. I mean the men who bring their lunches in a pail."

"They say – "

"I could be wrong, but I smell the hand of the Arneholdts here. Maybe they don't want anybody to know what the common man thinks."

"That could take weeks, even months."

"We don't have weeks. We might not even have days. By tomorrow I want people at the gates of plants all over the country. Go into the countryside. Ask a cross section. I want reports every day. If we see a trend developing, we can use it."

"What if everybody's against the merger?"

"Then we have to find out why. That may be even more important."

"We'll have to stay up half the night."

"If you want my job, you'll have to stay up all night," Ron said as he passed through the door and sprinted for the elevator.

He clutched the bulging briefcase to his side as he settled into the limousine. He was uneasy about leaving the meeting. It wasn't merely that the negotiations might fail. His reputation was at stake. It wasn't written into the contract that he would be present at all negotiations, but that was his reputation. People expected it. And not delivering on an expectation rendered his personal integrity vulnerable. And his personal integrity had been the cornerstone of his success.

He had to weigh that against his daughter's happiness. He knew she could work everything out without him. She might do so more easily, but that wasn't what he wanted. He wanted the improvement of their relationship to be part of the solution. If Kathryn was right, Cynthia's having this baby was a cry for the love and affection he hadn't given her. Cynthia had made the mistake, but it had been his neglect that drove her to it.

The feeling of guilt, or responsibility, weighed heavily on him. He'd always planned everything he did in meticulous detail, worked at it with unremitting effort, had used each success to build even greater success the next time. He'd never failed.

Now he had.

Then there was Kathryn. He didn't know quite what to make of her or of his reaction to her. At first he had felt simply irritated by her assuming control of a situation that was none of her business. Then he felt a need to make her prove he could trust her to take care of Cynthia, even for a short time. Finally he had surprised himself by asking her to teach him how to become more sensitive toward Cynthia and women. Had he expected her to fail? Had he feared he might? Even though any success on her part meant a past failure of his own, he wanted her to prove she had analyzed the situation correctly and knew how to fix it.

But there was something about Kathryn that tugged strongly at him beyond the situation with Cynthia, beyond even his physical attraction to her. And while this – whatever it was – was intriguing, it was also irritating. He didn't need something else pulling on him right now. Cynthia and the merger were already pushing him into a corner. Still, he couldn't help thinking about Kathryn. She was tough and vulnerable, that rare combination he found most exciting in a woman. Kathryn wouldn't back down when she thought she was right. She didn't pull punches and she wasn't intimidated by him in any way.

It was obvious she was sensitive to people's needs or she wouldn't have made a success of the shelter. Even more telling, the girls wouldn't have confided in her, believed she could keep them safe. Yet she was vulnerable. Beneath her list, hidden behind her toughness and competence, was a vulnerability. Partly what he suspected was a rich feminine tenderness, and partly what he was sure was very real fear. Kathryn Roper was not a happy woman. And for some reason that wasn't okay with him. He didn't know what he'd do when he found out what she feared, what had hurt her so badly, but he meant to find out. Then he meant to see what he could do about it.

Kathryn was about to close her book when the phone rang. She looked at the clock. It was 12:33 a.m. Too late to take the call. She shouldn't even have been up this late, but she was keyed up. Too keyed up to pay real attention to the romance she'd been reading.

That's because you haven't stopped thinking about Ron Egan all day.

She had tried to put him out of her mind, but it seemed everything that happened reminded her of him. There had even been a story on the news about some trouble in the trailer park where he'd grown up. She probably wouldn't have remembered it, but she recognized Ron's trailer as the TV camera panned for a view of the park.

After five rings, her voice came on the answering machine. She hated the sound of her own voice on tape. It sounded too soft and feathery, as if she were some kind of helpless female. Then the message…

"This is Ron Egan. I don't want to wake you up, but I just got back from Geneva. I'm a little tired right now – "

She snatched up the phone. "You didn't wake me. I was reading."

"You shouldn't be up so late. You'll have bags under your eyes tomorrow."

It was probably just polite conversation, but no one had given a thought to her being up late since high school.

"The girls won't care."

"Look, it's too late to talk about it now, but I've got an idea for something that might start those girls and their families talking again. I've got to catch a few hours' sleep or I won't know what I'm saying, but I'll be there at about eight-thirty. Is that too early?"

"No." It was. The girls would just be starting their lessons. Their regular teacher had called in sick. If she couldn't find a substitute in the morning, she'd have to try to supervise their studies.

"Good. Tell Cynthia I missed her. I missed you, too."

Her heart fluttered. She told herself not to be foolish, that this was what she got for reading a romance late at night. "Like a thorn in you finger, I imagine," she said. She heard Ron chuckle softly.

"Not quite that bad. If you're interested, maybe I'll tell you about the two real thorns in my side. I won't keep you up."

"Are you driving?" she asked.

"No. My car is at the house. I had a limousine pick me up."

"Good. I don't imagine you've had much sleep since you left. I wouldn't want you to fall asleep at the wheel."

Why was she babbling on? It was no more than a twenty-minute drive from the airport to the section of town where he lived. Even a man suffering from severe sleep deprivation could stay awake that long.

"I intend to fall asleep as soon as I hang up."

"Won't that make it harder to get to sleep later?"

It might, but talking on the phone with a foolish female who couldn't tell when to hang up probably wouldn't help, either.

"I can sleep any time, any place. Now I'm keeping you up. Go to sleep. I'll be there before you know it."

"You don't have to be here so early. You need to sleep more than you need to talk to me."

"That's what I told myself when I was debating whether to call you this late, but I was wrong."

There was no point in trying to deny it. Ron Egan was interested in her, and whether she wanted to admit it or not, she was pleased. And excited.

"You're tired," she said. "We'll talk tomorrow."

"Eight-thirty."

"Good night."

"Good night."

She fumbled the phone back into its cradle, too preoccupied to care. Ron Egan was interested in her. What was she going to do about it? More to the point, what was she going to do about the fact she liked him, too? They were wrong for each other. Not that she believed he was thinking about marriage. He was unattached at the moment and they had been thrown together by circumstances. It wasn't surprising they would be interested in each other as long as they had a common interest. That sort of thing happened all the time.

But that wasn't really the way things worked for her. She'd never been interested in a man just because of proximity. In fact, being thrown together by random circumstances such as being in the same college classes or working together on a committee normally made her withdraw. She hated the phony kind of intimacy such situations created. It was like being away from reality for a few hours or days, and doing, saying or feeling things you knew you'd never do, say or feel once you went back to your real life.

That meant she would never see Ron again. A feeling akin to panic came over her. She tried to deny the feeling. She tried to blame it on being tired, to having eaten a piece of coconut cake at eleven-thirty, but she knew she was fooling herself. She wanted him to be interested in her, and she didn't want him to disappear when Cynthia moved back home. She didn't know what she wanted the relationship to mean, but she did know she didn't want to give it up just yet.

She told herself she was being as foolish as her girls had been about the boys that had gotten them in trouble, but that didn't change anything. She knew she would be downstairs long before eight-thirty. And whether she found a substitute teacher or not, she'd be listening for the sound of the doorbell.

The doorbell rang at precisely 8:30 a.m. Kathryn decided Ron must have waited on the porch for the second hand to reach twelve. She told herself she couldn't run to the door. She'd already changed her routine so she could be in the living room. Anything more would be too obvious. She opened the door to find Kerry O'Grady on her porch. He looked as if he were frightened out of his mind.

"I've got to see Lisette," he said.

Kathryn blocked Kerry's path. He knew she didn't allow visits until the girls finished their lessons.

"My dad's back," Kerry said. "He says I can quit school and go to work. He says I can go live with my mother's relatives. He says I can do any damned thing I want, but he's not going to support me and my gold-digging little whore. I've got to see Lisette."

Kathryn struggled to mask her disappointment. "Why aren't you in school?"

"This is more important than school," Kerry nearly shouted.

"I agree, but you can't see Lisette. She would get so upset it would take me a week to calm her down."

"What are we going to do?"

Before Kathryn could answer, a black Bentley pulled into her driveway. Ron Egan got out and waved to her. Instead of coming toward her, he opened the trunk, and began to take out one package after another.

"I think Mr. Egan would appreciate some help with those packages," she said to Kerry.

"I don't want to help anybody with packages," Kerry practically wailed. "I want to see Lisette."

"Help Mr. Egan with the packages, and I'll think about it."

Kerry turned to help Ron. Kathryn thought it might be a good idea if he did have to work for a while. His mother had done her best to keep him her little boy. If he and Lisette did marry, at least one of them should be capable of acting and thinking like an adult.

Kathryn was glad Ron had thought to buy Cynthia something in Geneva. Still, even if he was worth a hundred million dollars, a dozen packages were too many. She couldn't stop him from giving them all to Cynthia, but she would explain that neither his guilt nor Cynthia's anger was likely to be assuaged by such extravagance.

"I brought something for all the girls," Ron said when he reached the porch. "Tell me where I can put them."

It never occurred to Kathryn he would have bought presents for the other girls, too. "You can put them in the back parlor," she said, opening the door for the men to pass inside. "I'll have Ruby take them up later."

"Nothing doing," Ron said. "Presents are no fun unless you get to open them together."

"The girls are studying."

"I can wait," Ron said.

"Yeah," Kerry said. "We can wait."

Ron set his stack of presents in a sofa and settled down next to them. Kerry followed suit on the sofa opposite Ron.

"It won't take them long to open their presents," Ron said. "You could consider it a study break."

Kathryn knew she wouldn't get anything done until Ron had handed out his presents. "I'll tell Ruby to bring the girls down."

"She's got to come, too," Ron said. "I brought something for her."

"Why would you buy Ruby a present?" Kathryn's surprise caused her to ask before she realized it was a rude question.

"Because she answered the phone when I called. Somebody had to tell me the girls' names and help me figure out what to give them. You can stop standing there with your mouth open. You have a beautiful mouth, but I like it better when you smile."

Kathryn closed her mouth, too stunned to smile.

"While you're trying to remember how to smile," Ron said, "you can open your present."

"You shouldn't have bought me anything," Kathryn said. She was afraid her surprise was clear to both Ron and Kerry. Her pleasure was, too.

"I couldn't bring something for Ruby and not for you," Ron said.

Kathryn worried what Kerry was thinking. She'd always remained above gossip. If he started telling people Ron was giving her gifts, they could get the wrong idea.

"They're not terribly imaginative," Ron said. "I didn't have much time, and airport shops never have a good selection."

Kathryn didn't patronize airport shops – they never had anything she wanted and charged twice as much as she'd have paid elsewhere – but she had no doubt Ron would have had them fly anything in that was out of stock.

"I'll get the girls," she said.

It took a little convincing to talk Ruby into leaving her kitchen long enough to accept her gift, but the girls came tumbling down the stairs as if they were responding to a four-alarm fire.

"Don't you say a word about your father," she whispered to Kerry. "We'll figure out something later."

She needn't have worried. The moment Lisette saw Kerry, she started babbling happily. Kerry couldn't have gotten a word in if he'd tried.

"Your father brought something for everybody," Kathryn said to Cynthia. "That was very thoughtful of him."

Cynthia appeared unexcited by the stacks of presents. "Why?"

"Ask him."

"He'll probably say it was rude to give me a present without bringing something for everyone else. Like he would even remember me."

"Leigh remembered you when you didn't think she would. Don't you think your father has an even better reason?"

Kathryn wondered whether Cynthia was afraid to believe her father had truly thought of her. She couldn't be too critical of Cynthia. She had never believed her father had thought of her when he came home from trips bearing presents, even when they came from stores in the cities he'd visited. It was obvious to Kathryn his secretary had ordered them.

"The other girls can't open their presents until you do. If you don't hurry, Lisette will explode."

Julia was pleased, Betsy petrified. Ruby Collias didn't appear able to decide whether to disapprove or just accept her present and go back to her kitchen.

"You have to open your presents, too," Lisette said to Kathryn. "We all want to know what you got."

"You can start with this one," Ron said, handing her a small but rather heavy package. He'd gotten two presents for each of them.

All of the girls received necklaces with their birthstones as pendants. Naturally Lisette's would be a diamond. She squealed with delight, jumped up and gave Ron an impetuous hug and kiss.

"You don't have to hug me," Ron said to the other girls. "Just open your other gift."

"Miss Roper hasn't opened hers," Lisette said.

Kathryn knew she couldn't accept anything as extravagant as a birthstone pendant from Ron. Her birthstone was a ruby. She held her breath as she tore off the paper and opened the box.

"They're little pictures," Lisette said, obviously disappointed.

"They're coasters for the living room," Ron said. "Now I'll have someplace to set my glass of water."

Even as Kathryn breathed a sigh of relief, she felt her internal tension level rise. The pendants were probably handled by someone in his office, but Ron had obviously picked her gift out himself. It didn't matter that it was worth only a few dollars as opposed to a few thousand; it meant more because he'd chosen it.

"Maybe you'll get something better next time," Lisette whispered.

Kathryn knew it would be impossible to explain why her coasters were more valuable to her than a ruby pendant would have been.

The second gift was the same for everyone – very expensive German chocolate. The girls started sampling theirs immediately.

"It was very thoughtful of you to remember us," Kathryn said. Taking the hint, each girl thanked Ron, even Betsy who was so nervous she barely whispered the words. "Now run upstairs and put away your pendants. I'd hate to see you lose them."

Lisette clearly wanted to take Kerry off by herself. "I have to talk to Kerry first," Kathryn said to Lisette. "I'll tell you when you can come back down. You, too, Cynthia. I need your father's help for a few minutes."

Cynthia didn't show any of Lisette's reluctance to leave.

"What can I do?" Ron asked.

"Kerry, tell Mr. Egan what your father said. Maybe he can think of some way to help."

"That's a nice man," Ruby said when Kathryn entered the hall. "You be nice to him." With that, she turned and headed back to the kitchen.

Kathryn very much wanted to know what Ruby meant by her remarks, but she put her presents away and returned to the living room. Kerry had just finished telling Ron what had happened.

"Have you ever held a job?" Ron asked Kerry.

"No."

"Cut the lawn or carried out the trash?"

The boy shook his head.

"Then I suggest you put all thoughts of marrying Lisette out of your head, go home and tell your father you'll do anything he wants as long as he doesn't throw you out."

Kathryn was hardly more surprised than Kerry. "I love Lisette," the boy said. "I want to marry her and take care of our baby."

"You're a baby yourself," Ron said, dismissing him carelessly. "Leave playing house to real men."

Kerry jumped up, uttered a few four-letter words and turned to the door.

Ron grabbed his arm and nearly threw him back onto the sofa.

"It's easy to cuss when you get mad. It's not much harder to get your girlfriend pregnant. What's hard is stepping up to the role of being a man, a husband and a father. It wouldn't be as important if you only had to worry about Lisette. She's got a family to take care of her, but you've helped her create a baby. And no matter what kind of spoiled kid you are, no matter how little you were concerned with anything but your own physical gratification, you're this baby's father. For the rest of your life. It's up to you to determine if the kid will say That's my dad with pride or use some of your own four-letter words. You've got to learn to think and act like a man, learn how to support a family."

Kerry looked as if he'd been hit in the face with a fish. Kathryn didn't feel much different. Ron's actions had taken her by surprise, but it was the emotion behind his words that riveted her attention. He was white about the mouth. She hadn't seen him look this intense, so tightly wound.

"I want to take care of my kid," Kerry said, his voice barely more than a whisper. "I love Lisette."

Kathryn was afraid Ron was going to tell the boy he had no concept of what love was, but instead he released Kerry and settled back into his own seat. "Tell me why she ought to marry you instead of waiting for someone else."

"Because nobody else will ever love her like I do," Kerry said.

"What do you love about her?"

Kathryn listened as Ron guided Kerry into giving a more intelligent answer than she would have expected from him.

"Have you thought of the changes getting married and having a baby will make in your life?" Ron asked.

"I haven't thought of anything else since we found out."

"Do you have any idea what you want to do? It'll be hard to finish your education and work enough hours to support a wife and child. And there's Lisette's education."

"I've thought about all of that," Kerry said. "I know what I want to do."

"Good. Go discuss it with your family."

"My father won't listen."

"Make him. If you're going to be the head of your own family, you've got to stop thinking of yourself as a kid whose parents will take care of everything. Your decision forced you into the role of a man whether you're ready or not. Now it's time to step up to the plate."

Kerry didn't look completely confident, but neither did he look like the panicked boy Kathryn had found on her porch.

"Now you need to talk to Lisette."

"You can use the TV room," Kathryn said. "Mrs. Collias will call her for you."

"You're not going to sit with us?" he asked Kathryn.

Kerry seemed to have matured in the last half hour. "I think this is something you need to discuss in private."

"Thanks."

"You were a little rough on him," she said to Ron.

"Not half as rough as life is going to be."

"I'm sure of that, but I don't approve of being so hard on kids. They need understanding, not criticism."

"Is that why you're still angry at your father, because he criticized your sister instead of understood her?"

"This has nothing to do with me or my sister."

"It has everything to do with you understanding the responsibility these kids have taken on. It's good to give them support when the shock hits, but they've got to understand the rules have changed. They've created a new life. It doesn't matter how innocently. Somebody's got to make them realize they're not kids anymore. I expect both Kerry and Lisette's parents will come around sooner or later, but Kerry needs to start thinking like a man now. Lisette's not ready to carry her part of the load."

She was sure of that. No matter what they worked out, Kerry would need all the love and patience he could muster to help Lisette adjust to the life ahead of her.

"No kid is ready to be a father at seventeen," Ron said. "He ought to be dating a different girl every night and sneaking beers with his buddies."

"Is that what you did?"

"I didn't have buddies or money for beer, but guys need a period of pretty much limitless freedom before they're ready to settle down for good."

She wasn't sure any of the men she knew were ready to settle down, even the ones who weren't driven to be wealthy enough to retire by forty. They all seemed to want a relationship that was more like an extended honeymoon. "Thank you for the presents. It was very thoughtful to think of the girls and me."

"Think nothing of it. Did Leigh come back to see Cynthia?"

"Yes. She spent nearly an hour here yesterday. Cynthia was a little unsure at first, but it wasn't long before they had their heads together, whispering and giggling about everything that's happened in the last few days."

"Has it only been a few days? It seems like weeks."

"Things aren't going well in Geneva?"

"This one is tough." He suddenly grinned. "That's why I charge so much."

It was a grin to forestall further questions rather than one of amusement. He was just as bad as his daughter about not wanting to share, not wanting to depend on anyone else. She guessed that came from the years of his lonely struggle to lift himself out of a background of poverty, but that didn't make it any easier. Nobody should have to go through life feeling alone. It was always easier to carry the load when you had someone to share it with.

Not that she had a lot of room to talk. She never discussed the situation between her and her parents with anyone, not even her brothers. She didn't mention it to Elizabeth because Elizabeth mentioned it enough for both of them. But that wasn't sharing. It was more like replenishing the feeling of blame, culpability, or renewing her anger when it showed signs of wearing thin. Anger and guilt. She didn't know how it happened, but every time she saw her sister, she ended up feeling guilty she hadn't been the one thrown out of their parents' house.

"Got anything planned for this afternoon?" Ron asked.

"The usual. The girls visit with friends. Sometimes they go out with their families. We rent movies to watch in the evening."

"Then you don't have to be here."

"No, but I usually am."

"I need to talk to Cynthia a little while. That will give you time to tell Mrs. Collias I'm taking you out for a drive and lunch. I wish you'd told me about the movies. I'd have rented a theater. The girls need to get out once in a while."

Kathryn had never been poor, but she didn't think in terms of renting a whole theater for half a dozen people. Apparently Ron Egan did, which made it even harder to understand why he should want to spend his afternoon with her.

"I have an idea how to get these kids and their parents together long enough to really talk to each other."

"We can talk about that here."

"This isn't something to talk about. You have to see it."

"I don't know why I let you talk me into this," Kathryn said. "It'll be a disaster." She'd known Ron for two weeks, long enough to know his boundless energy could convince her he was right when she knew he was wrong. Yet she'd let him talk her into this harebrained scheme which, during the course of the last week, she'd become more and more certain would never work.

"It may not achieve everything we want, but at least it's a step in the right direction. The girls and their parents won't see anybody but themselves. They'll have to talk to each other."

"No, they won't. They can leave."

"I'll lock the gates."

"They'll stare at each other in stony silence."

"That's what I'm here for."

They were headed to a private corporate retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville. Ron had hired the entire complex and invited the girls and their families to spend the weekend together. He'd even convinced Kerry's parents to come along. Kathryn didn't know what kind of pressure Ron had brought to bear on Kerry's father, but the man had left a message saying there'd be hell to pay.

"You need to spend time with Cynthia," she said.

"I will, but I've got to make sure everyone else is making some progress. That's why I had Cynthia invite Leigh."

Leigh had visited Cynthia every day for the last week. Once Cynthia started to believe Leigh's friendship was strong enough to survive the stigma of Cynthia having an illegitimate child, she had started to look forward to her friend's visits. Leigh's presence had gone a long way toward helping Cynthia begin to bridge the gap between her and her father. Leigh liked Ron. She said she wished her own father were as attentive and understanding.

"I'm counting on you, too," Ron said to Kathryn.

"I don't mediate family fights. I still think you should have let me bring – "

"They can talk to your psychologists and family counselors next week. This weekend I don't want anybody telling them what to do."

"I hire professionals because they can't figure that out on their own."

"Go with me on this thing," Ron said. "It may not be the answer, but we've got to try everything."

Kathryn didn't know when her I had become Ron's we, but sometime during the last week he'd invented a role for himself and stepped into it with all the enthusiasm of a new convert. He'd been to Geneva twice, but had returned the next day both times. He'd contacted the parents of the kids, convinced them to take part in this weekend. She looked forward to it with fear and trembling. Ron seemed excited.

Kathryn looked out the window at the tree-covered hills and the low mountains in the distance. The Blue Ridge didn't have the grandeur of the Rockies or the Sierra Nevadas, but they were more welcoming. The air wasn't so thin, the trails were grassy and tree-covered, and temperatures were moderate. It could be an idyllic location for a close-knit family's weekend getaway. She didn't know how it would work as a backdrop for real-life versions of a family feud.

They had left the paved road a mile back. The mountain fell off at a near-forty-five-degree slant.

"I hope it doesn't rain this weekend," she continued.

"The forecast is for sunny days and cool nights," Ron said. "I ordered it especially for you."

Kathryn laughed. She wasn't entirely sure he hadn't. He'd already managed several things she had thought impossible, getting Kerry's father to agree to come to the retreat being at the top of the list. She was relieved when they reached the paved drive that curved around the base of the hill on which the retreat had been built. The arching limbs of some ancient maple and hickory trees kept the glare of sunlight from their eyes. They rounded a stone wall that encompassed a flower-filled garden, and Ron pulled the Bentley to a stop in the parking lot in the middle of the complex. A quick count showed Kathryn four buildings, the two largest with two stories. One had a huge front porch and the other an even larger deck. The stone-paved courtyard between them offered a view out over the mountains. The view of the evening sunsets would be fantastic.

"I hadn't realized the complex was so large," she said.

"It was built to handle up to sixty executives and their wives."

"Do you think it's big enough to handle Shamus O'Grady?"

"I once had the senior executives of the big three automakers here. I think it can handle Shamus."

Kathryn wasn't sure. Even now she saw Shamus approaching their car, a glass in his hand. Probably his famous Irish whiskey to fuel his even more famous temper. Kerry was only a step behind his father, his face a mask of anger. "You'll get your chance to find out sooner than you thought."

Ron popped the trunk and got out of the car. "Glad to see you had no trouble finding the place," he said to Shamus. "Kerry, how about giving us a hand here?"

"My son's not a bellhop," Shamus grumbled. "He doesn't carry luggage."

"We can handle the luggage. I want Kerry to help with the food. You can lend a hand though if you want."

"I thought you said this place was first-class," Shamus groused. "I didn't know we had to bring our own food."

"Mrs. Collias wouldn't let us leave without her chicken salad. She said you never know what strangers will put in it."

"You promised this place had a gourmet kitchen," Shamus said.

"That doesn't mean they know how to fix Mrs. Collias's chicken salad," Kathryn said. "The girls love it. Not to mention her rum cake, her special cheese bread, and roasted pecans no one else in the whole world knows how to make."

"I thought we were supposed to be getting in touch with ourselves," Shamus said, "not eating ourselves into an early grave."

"This is for the picnic tomorrow."

"I'm not going on any damned picnic," Shamus said. "I didn't give up a weekend at the club to pick ants out of my food."

"Take it easy, Dad," Kerry said. "You said you weren't going to jump to any conclusions. What do you want me to carry?" he asked Kathryn.

"Has it ever occurred to you that you'd have more business if you weren't so hard to get along with?" Ron said.

"I have all the business I want because I'm the best," Shamus shouted. "People stand in line to get me to build their house."

"But not the really big houses," Ron said. "Have you noticed that?"

"I have," Kerry said as he lifted the cooler from the trunk. "I heard one of the boys at school talking about it."

"You never said anything to me," Shamus shouted at his son.

"That's because you never listen to me," Kerry replied. "Where does this go?"

"In the recreation room downstairs," Ron said. "There's a refrigerator and freezer in the closet."

"I don't do those big houses because I can't deal with those women," Shamus said. "They don't know what they want. One of them had me rip out a kitchen twice."

"You got paid, didn't you?"

"Yeah, but – "

"She paid for the privilege of being able to change her mind. She wanted the house of her dreams, Shamus, not the house you thought she ought to have. Does the rum cake go in the refrigerator?" he asked Kathryn.

"I've got the best reputation of any builder in Charlotte," Shamus shouted.

"And the worst reputation as a person," Ron replied. "Do you think it would be all right to cut the cake before dinner? Rum cake is one of my favorites."

"Don't you dare," Kathryn said. "Ruby will chop off your fingers if she hears."

"Did you have anything to do with my losing the Harris contract?" Shamus asked.

"No," Kathryn said. "I did. When Naomi told me her contractor was driving her nuts and they hadn't even started the house, I told her she didn't have to work with anybody that made her miserable."

"Dammit!" Shamus shouted, his face turning purple. "I worked a damned year to get that contract."

"Then you've got Kathryn to thank for the fact Naomi Harris is willing to give you another chance," Ron said. "After the last time you talked to her, she said she would live in a tent before she'd let you build her house."

It was almost comical to see the air go out of Shamus.

"There's a catch somewhere," Shamus said. "What is it?"

"Naomi can't stand people yelling, even when they aren't yelling at her," Kathryn said. "She believes everybody in the world ought to get along together."

"Save the sweetness and light for Sunday. What's the catch?"

"The catch is you have to find a way to incorporate a little sweetness and light into your personality, or Naomi will give the job to your biggest competitor."

"And when is she going to see if I've got this sweetness and light?"

"She's not going to unless I tell her you've improved. I told her I was spending the weekend with your family in the mountains."

"I suppose you had to nose it around that Kerry knocked up some chick and now he wants me to support them."

"You've got to learn to express yourself a little better, Shamus," Ron said. "Talking like that can make you unpopular."

"Especially in this case," Kathryn said. "Naomi and Lisette's mother are friends."

"That whole damned crowd sticks together," Shamus said. "I didn't want Kerry to go to school with them, but his mother wouldn't let me rest until we got him enrolled. Now look what's happened? He's got some young lady pregnant, and I'm stuck in the woods trying to make nice when I rather bash their heads in."

"Bashing heads is Dad's solution to every problem," Kerry said. "Got anything else that needs to be carried in?"

Kathryn couldn't believe the difference in the boy. He'd had several long talks with Ron in between Ron's visits to Geneva. She didn't know what they discussed, but Kerry had developed a backbone. She hoped his father would be proud of him, but she supposed he would more likely see Kerry's new maturity as some kind of challenge.

In a way she felt sorry for Shamus. He'd come from Ireland as a boy, pulled himself up from poverty without anybody's help. Ron said Shamus interpreted Kerry's acceptance by his friends as a rejection of himself. It was ironic everything he'd worked for was to give Kerry the chance to move into the very society that he now saw as a barrier between them.

"Did you know about any of this?" Shamus asked his son.

"Yeah. I talked Robbie Harris into getting his mother to offer you the job, but he was really ticked when you treated his mom like you did. I tried to tell you about his mom, but you never listen to anybody. You have all the answers. And if anybody argues with you, you shout a little louder until they give up and go away. Well, you've shouted everybody away but Mom and me. Give me the pecans," he said to Kathryn. "Lisette's crazy about them, but Ruby says it's not good for the baby for her to eat too many." He turned to Kathryn. "Don't tell Lisette." He winked. "I want to surprise her."

"She's a child," Shamus said. "You can't marry a child."

"She's old enough to have a baby," Ron said. "That qualifies her as a woman, even if she's not as mature as we might wish."

"Don't try and come the high-and-mighty with me," Shamus roared. "You've got a kid in the same condition. What are you doing about its father?"

Kathryn knew it hurt Ron to have his daughter's situation flung at him like that, but she was proud of the way he responded. He didn't raise his voice. If anything, he sounded more patient than ever.

"I don't know who he is yet," Ron said. "When I do, I'll decide what to do about it."

"Well I've already decided what I'm going to do."

Kerry was halfway to the lodge, but he turned around at his father's words.

"Kerry's not going to marry that girl. He's going to finish high school and go to college like his mother wants. He's going to be a doctor or a lawyer and be so damned respectable he can look down his nose at anybody he wants."

"You know I don't want to go to college," Kerry said. He didn't retrace his steps, just stood there, halfway across the parking lot, facing his father with a maturity Kathryn knew would have been impossible a week before. "I don't need to go to college to build houses. I want to go into the business with you as soon as I graduate."

"I'm not letting you build houses," Shamus said. "You're going to college."

"No, I'm not."

"What are you going to do to support that girl and your kid? I'm not paying your bills."

"I'll start my own company," Kerry said.

Shamus uttered a derisive laugh. "And how the hell are you going to do that? It takes a hell of a lot of money to get started these days."

"I know. That's why I've talked to Mr. Egan about being my partner."