Family Merger (Chapter Twelve)

Ron watched Kathryn as she slept. She looked so beautiful, so peaceful. He didn't know if he loved her. He hadn't been looking for love when he met her. Nor when he asked her for that first date. Not even when he asked her to go with him to Geneva. But he had found something that was mighty close.

Despite being miles apart in so many ways, Cynthia's situation had created a little island where they could meet that had nothing to do with the worlds they lived in. His one attempt to show her his world had had startling results. He still wasn't sure what had made him decide to walk out on the negotiations. He was satisfied he'd made the right decision, but would he have done it if Kathryn hadn't been with him, if he hadn't been anxious to spend the day with her? And if he wouldn't have done it without her, what did that mean?

As he watched her sleep and marveled at the feeling of calm that filled him, he realized that for the first time since Erin died he was thinking of sharing his life with a woman. He hadn't intended to remarry. For one thing, he didn't have time to look for the right woman. For another, any future wife would have to love Cynthia as much as he did. He was certain Kathryn could. She was halfway there already.

Then there was the matter of his career. Until Cynthia got pregnant, he hadn't considered cutting back, much less thought of doing something else. His work was the one thing that had never failed to give him that unqualified feeling of fulfillment.

But now it had.

He realized there were many things that were more important to him. He had begun to wonder if his own happiness didn't require him to make a change. The need to succeed, to be accepted, to be recognized by others, had driven him so relentlessly there hadn't been a question of doing anything else. Until a few weeks ago the need had been to find more ways to achieve even more spectacular successes.

While he was learning other things were more important to him, he also learned he didn't need the recognition of other people to know he was a success, to feel successful. And once he felt successful, the need to be successful began to ease. So many things had changed in these last few weeks, he hardly knew where to begin sorting out his feelings.

But he knew Kathryn was central to the changes. He also knew he couldn't imagine never seeing her again. He hadn't expected what he felt for her, but now he couldn't imagine going back to his life the way it used to be. In retrospect it seemed empty. He couldn't imagine how he could have felt it was full and satisfying. Maybe one of the reasons he'd worked so hard was to keep from facing the truth, from admitting he wasn't happy.

But he was happy now. He wanted to figure out how the courses of their far separated lives might be brought closer together. He still wanted to find out why Kathryn was unhappy, what she was hiding from, refusing to face. He was certain that would be important to his future happiness.

For the first time she could remember, Kathryn was reluctant to go home. She didn't want the plane to land, to have to walk out of the airport and back into her life in Charlotte. She was afraid that once she did that, the magic of the time she'd shared with Ron would slip away.

It wasn't that she had lost her interest in the girls. She was as determined as ever to help them. It wasn't that she'd lost her interest in the shelter. She couldn't imagine not being there when the next young girl found herself pregnant with nowhere to go. But it was no longer enough. She'd been telling herself for the last few years it didn't matter all that much that she couldn't seem to find a man she could love. She didn't need a husband to feel complete and happy. She had her work which was very important, and she had her girls. That was enough.

And it had been until Ron Egan came barging into her life. Nothing had been the same since. In the beginning she'd felt safe because she couldn't compromise with his interest in his career. But now that he was starting to consider change, she kept telling herself there had to be a way to compromise, that she could find it if she looked hard enough.

Now she was too impatient to wait. She knew what she wanted, and she wanted it now. She didn't, however, know if she could live with the price she would have to pay.

Ron had always looked forward to seeing Cynthia, but this time was special. For the first time in years, he felt he was really coming home. They had made a lot of progress that weekend in the mountains. Whatever they needed to figure out, they would be able to do it now.

"I bet you're anxious to get back," Ron said to Kathryn as the limousine pulled into the driveway. "Have you ever been away from your girls this long?"

"Only once."

She had been so quiet ever since the plane landed he was worried she was upset. She had assured him she wasn't, but something was wrong. He didn't need to be halfway in love with her to figure that out.

"I'm sure they're fine," she said. "Ruby can take just as good care of them as I can."

"It's not the same. I'm sure they're all anxious for you to come back."

The car came to a stop. He opened the door and got out. He'd half expected the girls to come rushing out the door to meet her, but it was late and the house seemed unnaturally quiet. In fact, the entire neighborhood was quiet. The chauffeur got the luggage while Ron walked with Kathryn up to the house.

"It feels hot and muggy," she said.

The smell of wet, moist earth invaded his nostrils. "It must have rained," he said, opening the door and they stepped inside.

A young man across the room sprang to his feet. It was a boy Ron had never seen before, a tall, well-built kid, probably handsome if he hadn't looked so startled. Ron didn't understand why the boy should look practically frightened. He was here after hours, but he was in the living room keeping a reasonable distance from the girl sitting across from him. Ron was surprised when the girl turned and he recognized his daughter.

"I thought you were supposed to be in bed," he said.

"I am," she said, "but I had to talk to Arthur."

"I don't think I've met you before," Kathryn said. She moved toward the boy whose gaze didn't leave Ron. "I'm Kathryn Roper. I run this shelter."

Arthur took Kathryn's outstretched hand. His handshake was perfunctory. He didn't take his gaze off Ron. "I'm Arthur Peabody."

"What brings you here, Arthur?" she asked.

"I wanted to see Cynthia."

"I'm always pleased to have her friends visit, but I don't allow it after hours. And I don't allow them to sit alone with the girls."

"Mrs. Collias is chaperoning Kerry and Lisette," Cynthia said. "She said I could see Arthur as long as we stayed in this room."

"What's Kerry doing here? He knows it's too late for visiting."

"He says he's talked his father into letting him get married and go into the business with him after his graduates this summer. He and Lisette are trying to come up with wedding plans."

"I'd think her mother would want to do that."

"Lisette says it's her wedding, and she wants everything to be the way she wants it. She figures she'll have a better chance if she has everything worked out before she tells her mother."

"Leave home for just one day, and the whole place goes to pot," Ron said, teasing.

"It's not that bad, but I don't like rules being broken without a good reason. Maybe Lisette has a reason – I'll talk with her in a few minutes – but you have no business being here," Kathryn said turning to Arthur. "You'll have to leave."

"I can't," he said, apparently more calm than moments ago.

"Of course you can," Ron said. He wasn't going to allow this kid to defy Kathryn.

"No, he can't, Daddy," Cynthia said.

"Why not?" Ron asked.

"Because he's the father of my baby."

Ron didn't know what came over him. Thirty years of rigid self-control went out the window. The most uncontrollable anger he'd experienced in his whole life grabbed hold of him. And every bit of it was directed at the boy across from his daughter.

"I'm going to kill you for what you did to my daughter," he bellowed.

"Ron Egan," Kathryn said, stepping between the two men, "get a grip on yourself. Have you gone crazy?"

"No. I just want to get my hands on the – "

"Well you won't do it in my house."

"I don't care where I do it," Ron said, picking her up and setting her aside as though she didn't weigh anything.

Cynthia tried to get between the two men.

Ron grabbed hold of Arthur. The boy didn't try to get away. He just stood there, waiting for whatever was going to happen. "I know things have changed," Ron said to the boy, menace in his voice, "but you still don't get a girl pregnant then disappear, especially when she's only sixteen."

"I didn't mean to get her pregnant, sir."

"Haven't you ever heard of condoms?"

"Daddy – "

"You stay out of this, Cynthia. This is between me and Arthur."

"No, it's not. In case you've forgotten, I'm the one who's pregnant. It's between me and Arthur."

Ron had to give the boy credit. He didn't look scared, but he did look upset.

"What's going on in here?" Lisette asked. "It sounded like a fight."

Lisette and Kerry had entered the parlor, followed by Mrs. Collias.

"If he's a friend of yours, tell him goodbye," Ron said.

Lisette giggled. Kerry smiled like it was a joke, and Ron felt some of the rage flow out of him. He didn't feel any less angry that this boy had taken advantage of his daughter, but he realized he couldn't beat him to a pulp. He didn't know what he could do, but he had to do something. The kid couldn't do something like this and get away scot-free.

"That's enough, "Kathryn said. "I won't have my living room be turned into a brawling ring."

"There's no such thing as a brawling ring," Kerry said.

"Daddy's not going to brawl or anything else," Cynthia said. "He's going to take his hands off Arthur. Miss Roper is going to take Lisette and Kerry somewhere else, and the three of us are going to sit down and talk like sensible human beings."

Ron didn't see anything sensible about the situation, but he was proud of Cynthia for standing up to him.

"Come on," Kathryn said to Kerry, Lisette and Mrs. Collias. "Let's leave them alone."

Ron didn't like being left alone with his daughter and this boy.

"Before you start yelling at Arthur," Cynthia said, "I have something to say."

"It won't do you any good to defend him."

"I'm not because I seduced him, not the other way around."

"I don't know why you would say something like that," Ron said, "but it's not going to protect him."

"I'm not saying it to protect him. I'm saying it because it's true."

Ron couldn't believe her. She'd hardly dated. She wouldn't know how. Ron told himself to take it easy. He'd get to the bottom of this shortly. Then he'd see what he could do to make this kid wish he'd never been born.

"Maybe we'd better sit down," Ron said. "I don't think the blood is reaching your head."

"I wish you'd stop acting like I'm helpless and innocent," Cynthia said.

Ron wanted better communication with his daughter, but he hadn't bargained on this. "You're telling me you dragged this boy into the bushes against his will and had your way with him?"

Cynthia smiled suddenly, and he felt better. If she could smile, there had to be some other explanation.

Ron turned abruptly to Arthur who flinched visibly. "My daughter says she seduced you. Is that true?"

The boy's tongue seemed to stick to the roof of his mouth. Of course it wasn't true. Not even a feckless teenage mass of rampant hormones could tell a lie like that.

"It wasn't that I didn't want to," Arthur said, "but I didn't have any protection."

"But you had sex anyway?"

"It's easy to get a boy to have sex, even if he's trying to hold back," Cynthia said. "All you have to do is – "

"I can guess," Ron said before Cynthia could shatter what was left of his image of his innocent daughter.

"It wasn't all her fault," Arthur said. "I was willing enough when she said it wasn't her time, that she wouldn't get pregnant."

"You told him you wouldn't get pregnant?" Ron said, stupefied, to his daughter.

"He wouldn't have had sex with me if I hadn't."

Ron decided it would be easier to go back to Geneva and pull off the impossible negotiations than to deal with this daughter. "Did you do this more than once?" he asked Cynthia.

Arthur answered. "No, sir. I wasn't stupid enough to do it twice."

Ron's heart sank. He turned to his daughter. "You knew it was your time, didn't you? You were hoping to get pregnant."

The color drained from Cynthia's face, but she didn't turn away. "I didn't plan it. I'd been really depressed all week, and Arthur was so sweet I just wanted to stay with him forever. I didn't think I would get pregnant, but I knew I wouldn't be upset if I did." Her body seemed to slump, to sink within itself. "There, you know all my horrible, dirty, nasty little secrets. I'm not sorry for myself, but I am sorry for Arthur. I shouldn't have done this to him."

Ron wanted to ask if she felt sorry for him, but he realized she hadn't even considered his feelings. "Why wouldn't getting pregnant upset you?"

"I wanted something of my own to love, something that would love me back. A baby has to love its mother, doesn't it?"

Ron felt as if someone had just kicked him in the gut, knocked him down and stomped on him. It was worse than that morning so long ago when he realized he wasn't as good as other people. Almost as bad as learning of Erin's cancer. Now his daughter, the only person he had left in the world, had said she was so desperately lonely she'd gotten pregnant so she could have a baby that would love her.

How could he ever have thought he was a success when he'd been such a monumental failure as a father?

Never in his life had he felt as miserable as he felt now. He had to do something to make Cynthia realize he loved her, that he always would love her.

He walked around the coffee table, held out his arms and drew the stiff, resisting body of his daughter into his embrace. "Baby, I love you just as much as I loved your mother. I would have given up every meeting, every trip, if it could have kept her alive. I feel the same way about you."

She pushed against him, but he wouldn't release her. "Then why didn't you do it?"

"Because I thought you understood I was doing it for you, that you wanted it as much as I did."

"I never wanted it," she cried. "Even when Mama was alive, I begged her to make you stay home."

He remembered that, but he and Erin had thought it was just a child's desire to keep both parents close.

"Mrs. Norwood was always the one who went to my school programs, met with my teachers, took me to the doctor, read to me and sat up with me when I was sick or too frightened to sleep. It was never you. I wanted it to be you. Just once I wanted to be more important than your work."

He hugged her again. "You are more important. You always have been. I didn't know what I was doing to you, but I do now and I'll never do it again."

"You'll go back to Geneva tomorrow. You'll – "

"I broke off negotiations this morning. I'm not going back."

"You didn't do it because of me."

"I realized the negotiations were not the most important thing in my life, and I didn't have the desire to stay there and pull them back together. I wanted to be back here with you."

"Did you really walk out of that meeting?" Cynthia obviously found it hard to believe.

"You can ask Kathryn." She had just returned to the room. "She saw me do it."

"Do you really mean to stay home?"

"I've decided to let Ben and Ted handle all trips abroad from now on. I don't know what I'll do, but I won't go far from home."

"Promise?" Cynthia looked like she didn't dare believe him.

"Promise. You'll never know what agony it has been to learn you wanted a baby to love you because you didn't feel your father loved you. If it takes the rest of my life, I promise to make you believe that was never true."

Cynthia's resistance collapsed. She put both her arms around him and started crying, deep, hiccupping sobs that shook her body. Ron's arms tightened around her as he fought the unfamiliar feeling that he was about to cry himself.

Kathryn tugged at Arthur's sleeve. "I think we should leave them alone for a few minutes," she whispered. She tiptoed out of the parlor, Arthur following.

"I need to talk to Cynthia," Arthur said as soon as they were outside. "We didn't get a chance to say much before you two turned up."

"Tomorrow might be a better time."

"She won't see me. I had to threaten to climb in through the window tonight." He looked back at the door into the parlor. "I have to talk to her father, too."

"I think that ought to wait."

"No. I know what I did was terrible, but I've got to do what I can to make it right. I've got to talk to him. I'm going to wait."

"Do your parents know where you are?"

"They think I'm with a friend."

"Don't you think you ought to give them a call?"

"I guess so."

"There's a phone in my office." She pointed to a door down the hall then watched as Arthur moved as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. His shattered world, she thought to herself. Just like her sister so many years ago. Why did it have to happen over and over again? Was it impossible to make young people understand what they were doing before it was too late?

Probably. With Mother Nature doing all she could to propagate the species, man's efforts at restraint were puny by comparison.

Kathryn didn't think Arthur should talk to Ron tonight, but she admired the boy for having the courage to accept his responsibilities. But as hard as it would be to face Cynthia's father, she imagined it would be still harder to face his own parents. She remembered what happened when her sister tried.

"Did you get your parents?" Kathryn asked when Arthur came back into the hall.

"Yeah. It's okay for me to be late."

"Why don't you wait in the TV room?" Kathryn said.

"Will you wait with me?"

"Sure. Don't worry about Cynthia's father. His bark is worse than his bite."

Arthur attempted a weak smile. "Glad to hear that. His bark nearly killed me."

They talked about unrelated things until Ron found them twenty minutes later. He looked unhappy to see Arthur was still there.

"I thought you'd be gone," he said.

"I wanted to talk to you."

Ron couldn't revive his anger. Cynthia's admission that a lot was her fault made it Ron's fault. If he'd been the kind of father he should have been, the boy wouldn't be in this position now.

"Do your parents know?" Ron asked.

"I didn't know myself until today. I've been wondering what happened to her. If I hadn't overheard Leigh and Kerry talking at school I still wouldn't know. I knew it was my fault. Cynthia isn't the kind of girl to mess around with a lot of guys. Why didn't she tell me?"

"She didn't want it to ruin your life," Kathryn told him.

"That's what she said about me, too," Ron said, "but she has to realize this is your child, my grandchild. We've got to think about the baby as well as ourselves."

Arthur dropped his head into his hands. "I'm not ready to be a father. I haven't even finished high school."

"Biology doesn't know anything about high school," Ron said.

"My parents are going to kill me. They'll completely flip out."

"I'll leave you two to talk," Kathryn said. "I need to check on the girls."

"Don't go to bed before I get a chance to talk to you," Ron said.

"Okay."

She closed the door, wondering what Ron would say to the boy. Taking everything into consideration, from Geneva to walking out on the negotiations to meeting the father of his future grandchild, this had to be one of the most momentous days in Ron Egan's life. She was glad she'd been able to share it.

"Can I fix you a drink?" Kathryn asked when Ron found her in the kitchen more than an hour later. "Sorry, I forgot you don't drink."

"I'll take a glass of wine if you've got any."

"How about some brandy?"

"Okay. How is Cynthia?"

"She's upset about Arthur. I tried to tell her the baby is Arthur's as much as it's hers, but she won't listen. What did the boy have to say?"

"Poor kid, he reminds me so much of me. His family has too many children, not enough money. He's attending Country Day on a football scholarship and was hoping to win a scholarship to an Ivy League college. Now he says he wants to go to college here in town so he can work part-time and help support the baby."

"What did you tell him?" she asked as she handed him the brandy.

"I told him not to worry about Cynthia or the baby, that I would take care of them. He could go on to college, get his degree and start his life as if he didn't have anybody to worry about but himself."

"That was very forgiving of you."

"He said it was his baby, he wanted to help support it and he wanted to try to be its father."

"I think that's very admirable of him."

"So do I, but it won't work. If his parents don't convince him to turn his back on Cynthia and the baby, just trying to establish himself in life will." Ron took a sip of brandy and made a face. "This is awful! Why did you buy it?"

Kathryn laughed. "It was a gift."

"The person must have wanted to make you sick. I'll settle for coffee. Tell me where I can find everything."

"It'll be easier if I do it myself."

While she fixed his coffee and he drank it, he told her most of what had passed between him and Arthur and between him and Cynthia.

"When this started, you were between me and Cynthia," Ron said to Kathryn. "Now it looks like I'm between Cynthia and Arthur."

"What are you going to do about him?"

"Help him, of course. I'm partially responsible for this mess. I can't leave him to sink or swim by himself."

"I didn't think you would."

"What did you think I'd do?"

"I don't know. Once you decided not to kill him, I knew you'd help him."

They were sitting side by side at the table in the breakfast room. Ron reached out and took her hand. "And what made you think that?"

"You're the kind of man who tries to take care of everything. That's probably why you went into merger negotiations, trying to convince people to do what's best for them."

"Not everybody thinks my motives are quite so pure."

"I didn't used to, either, but I know you better now."

Ron leaned over and kissed her on the lips. She kissed him back.

"If you know me all that well, then you know I'm in desperate need of some tender loving care. Why don't we sit in the TV room and cuddle for an hour or so?"

"What would the girls think if they knew?"

"That I'm lucky enough to be cuddling with the prettiest, smartest and nicest woman in Charlotte."

"I think they'd be more interested in you."

He stood and pulled her to her feet. "We can imagine we're in a plane by ourselves winging our way to some exotic spot."

"I don't dare," Kathryn said with a chuckle, "for fear I'll disgrace myself with you on the fireplace rug."

Ron couldn't wait to talk to Kathryn. For one thing, it had been more than thirty-six hours since he'd seen her. For another, he had several pieces of very interesting news to share with her.

He had spent the better part of last evening with Arthur's family. He'd ended up being impressed that such an intelligent, responsible and honorable boy had come out of that household. Apparently they had been furious until they realized the father of the girl he got pregnant was very rich. After that they started putting pressure on him to get married. Arthur had made it clear neither he nor Cynthia loved each other, that they had no intention of complicating their lives any more than they already had. It hadn't taken Ron long to convince them he had no intention of giving any future son-in-law free access to his money, or a substantial bank account of his own. He expected Cynthia's husband to support her.

But maybe of more interest to Kathryn was that the largest bank in North Carolina had decided to embark on a series of mergers over the next several years, and they wanted Ron's firm to handle all of them. That meant he would be able to work in Charlotte and any trips out of town could be short.

He also had a new project he wanted to discuss with her, one he'd only thought of yesterday.

There was a van he didn't recognize in the driveway when he reached the house. He hardly paid any attention to that until Mrs. Collias answered the door instead of Kathryn.

"Her sister's here," Mrs. Collias said. Ron couldn't tell if she was angry or disapproving, but something had the woman's nose out of joint.

"Will she be here long?" Ron asked.

"However long, it'll be too long," Mrs. Collias said. "Do you want me to call your daughter? She's finished her studies for today."

"Sure."

Ron was unhappy when Cynthia entered the parlor looking just as upset as Mrs. Collias.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"That woman is here again."

"What woman?"

"Miss Roper's sister."

"The one who had the baby?" He realized too late he might have divulged privileged information.

"She's got three horrible kids, and she comes here begging for money."

"How do you know?"

"Julia told me. She's been here the longest and was here when that woman came the last time. She's been putting the squeeze on Miss Roper ever since she opened this place."

"Kathryn doesn't strike me as the kind of person you can successfully put the squeeze on."

"That's just it. Her sister makes her feel guilty."

"How can she do that?"

"Julia listened at the door the last time. She says that Elizabeth – that's her sister's name – makes her feel guilty because Elizabeth always had to stand alone."

"That's nonsense. Kathryn's relationship with her parents was ruined because of what happened to Elizabeth."

"Then she brings in the fact that their aunt left this house and all her money to Kathryn."

"So?"

"So Elizabeth makes Kathryn feel guilty and she gives her money."

"Why does she need money?"

"She says her husband doesn't earn enough money to give the kids all the things they need. What they need is a year's tuition to obedience school."

"How do you know so much about her kids?"

"Her sister came one day when you were in Geneva. She talked Miss Roper out of some tickets to some really important reception downtown. Elizabeth said her husband needed to make the contacts for his business. She went through Miss Roper's closets and took her best gown, the one Miss Roper had bought especially for the reception and hadn't even worn yet. She said since Miss Roper wasn't going to the party, she wouldn't need it."

Ron wanted to go straight to where Elizabeth had Kathryn cornered and throw her out of the house. But he knew the relationship between Kathryn and her sister was none of his business. He was certain Kathryn would be angry if he interfered. If she felt guilty about what had happened, she probably didn't want him to know what was going on. He told himself to focus on Cynthia.

"I've been talking to Arthur and his family," he said, firmly pushing Kathryn's sister out of his mind. "He wants to help with the baby."

"He doesn't have any money."

"We can work around that."

Cynthia turned her face away from him. "I can take care of my baby by myself."

"Not without my help. You've got to realize that when you and Arthur decided to have unprotected sex, you started something that will have consequences far beyond the two or you. We're talking about another human being here, not you, not Arthur, not me. A baby that deserves everything in life every other kid wants. And one of the things it needs most is a father. Isn't that what you've been telling me you needed?"

"Yes, but – "

"No buts. Arthur's parents want him to marry you, but Arthur refused."

"Good."

"But you're both going to have to make compromises for the good of the baby. You understand that, don't you?"

She nodded, but he knew she didn't. She was so young, so naive, she had no idea what it meant to bring a child into the world, but she would learn. And Arthur. It didn't look like the boy would get much guidance or support from home.

"We've got a lot to talk about," Ron said. "I want you to move back home. Would you consider it?"

She seemed fearful, uneasy. "I don't know."

"I know you like having Kathryn and the house between you and me, but we have to learn to live together again. The sooner we start, the better it'll be for you and the baby."

"I'll think about it, but don't start putting pressure on me."

"How can I help it? You're my baby. I feel about you the same way you're going to feel about your baby. Would you like having it living in somebody else's house where you couldn't watch over it and make sure it was safe?"

"No."

"That's how I feel. If you – "

The door opened and Julia came into the room. She ignored Ron's presence.

"Do you know what that woman wants now? A new car," Julia said without waiting for a response. "When Miss Roper said she didn't have enough money to buy her a BMW, that witch said she'd take Miss Roper's Jaguar instead. She said her husband needs it to make the right kind of impression on his clients."

Cynthia turned her to father. "Daddy, can you – "

"I'm on my way."