Family Merger (Chapter Two)

"Are you sure everything went okay?"

Ron had called Ted the minute he got back to the house. It was 7:21 a.m. in Geneva. Time to be preparing for the second day's meeting. He was the one who was up past his bedtime. More than six hours past.

"Lord Hradschin is in favor of the merger," Ted said. "There's nothing that old pirate likes as much as money."

There really wasn't much that was difficult that had to be done during the first few days. It was mostly laying out the plans for the merger, explaining how they meant to restructure the company, answering questions, giving the costs and income projections. Ted was good at making difficult things sound simple and Ben could make you feel good about a root canal, but could they read the people, know who was going to be trouble, figure out the arguments necessary to bring them around, figure out how the politics played into the decision? That had always been his job.

"Don't move to a second point until you're certain everyone understands the first one," Ron said. "It'll only get worse as you go along if they don't."

He'd already rejected the idea of flying back to Geneva in the morning. Something had happened to him when Cynthia suddenly broke into tears and ran from the room. This wasn't the same as having a tantrum, sulking or being obstinate. She was deeply hurt, and he had no idea how to fix it.

Kathryn said she could teach him to understand his daughter if he really wanted to. He couldn't imagine why she would have any doubt. He had left his meeting just as it was getting started. What more proof could she want?

"Call me if you hit a snag. I'll have my cell phone with me… No, I don't know when I'll be back. In the next couple of days, but I can't say exactly when."

He was certain Kathryn would say he'd need more than one session, but he didn't have time for more. If she was as good as she thought, she could teach him everything he had to know in a couple of hours. After that it shouldn't take him more than a day to sort things out with Cynthia and get her back home.

"I've got to go. If I don't get some sleep, I'll be a zombie. You've been wanting a chance to do this on your own, so make the most of it."

He hung up the phone and fell back on the bed without bothering to take off his clothes. He would undress in a minute, just as soon as the muscles at the back of his neck and shoulders unknotted enough for him to move his arms. Then it struck him, the million-dollar question.

Had he screwed up so badly with Cynthia she wouldn't give him another chance?

He hoped not. Their relationship wasn't perfect, but they'd been going along with only an occasional bump until this pregnancy thing happened. He couldn't wait to get his hands on the boy who'd done this to his little girl. It was always the boy who was so anxious to have sex he didn't stop to think of the consequences.

"Is Daddy really going to let you try to teach him to understand women?" Cynthia asked Kathryn over a bowl of oatmeal sprinkled with brown sugar and pecans.

"That's what he says," Kathryn replied. "But he may be too angry at me to listen to anything I say."

They were sitting in the breakfast alcove in Kathryn's bright, cheerful kitchen. Sunlight streamed in through the windows despite the canopy of oaks that shaded the backyard.

"How can any man be angry at you?" Lisette asked. "You're beautiful." She had requested French toast, which she had promptly drowned in a sea of maple syrup. She had yet to swallow the vitamin and calcium pills that Mrs. Collias had placed by her plate.

"My dad never notices women, even when they're as beautiful as Miss Roper," Cynthia said. "I used to think it was because he could never love another woman after my mother died."

Kathryn couldn't imagine a man as handsome, energetic and vital as Ron Egan ignoring women. She was certain women didn't ignore him. She hadn't been able to.

"That's so romantic," Lisette cooed.

"Now I think it's because he'll never like any woman as much as he likes his work."

"But he's rich," Lisette reminded her. "All rich men like beautiful women, and he isn't even ancient with a potbelly and bald head. Please tell me he's not fifty."

Kathryn couldn't help laughing. "Fifty is not ancient, Lisette. You wait until you get there."

"I never want to be fifty," the young girl said. "I want to die while I'm still young and beautiful, just like Princess Diana."

"Well, speaking as one who has passed her thirtieth birthday, I can tell you I plan to live well past fifty. And I don't intend to become an old hag in the process."

"Of course not," Lisette said, smiling as she popped a vitamin in her mouth and followed it with half a glass of orange juice. "You can have all the plastic surgery you want."

"Will you do that?" Julia, the third of four girls at the table, asked.

"I hope to age gracefully."

"Why would you do that when you could still look young and beautiful?" Lisette asked.

"Because I want my husband to think of me as a wife and companion, not as someone who's concerned with nothing but her looks. I want to enjoy every phase of my life, to live each age honestly whatever its challenges."

"Kerry doesn't want me to look old," Lisette declared. "He wants me to be as beautiful as possible. I want to go to parties, wear beautiful clothes and have men follow me with their eyes when I walk past."

Kathryn decided somebody needed to explain to Mother Nature that some girls, regardless of their age, were just too young to have babies. Lisette should have been at the top of that list. This wasn't about rich husbands or beautiful clothes. She was about to become a mother. It was about learning to act with the maturity and responsibility necessary to make her a good mother.

"I want lots of children," Cynthia said. "I want a thousand pictures of when they learn to walk, start school, go on their first dates, of their proms and their graduations. I want books of pictures of their weddings, even more of their children. I want movies, too. After Mama got sick, she used to watch movies of me when I was a baby. She said I was her touchstone. She said as long as she had me she never felt lonely."

"Kerry will never leave my bedside when I get sick," Lisette said. "He'll be holding my hand when I die."

"Has your father dated?" Julia asked Cynthia.

"No."

"He must have loved your mother very much," Kathryn said.

"Both of them were only children whose parents died early," Cynthia said. "I think they were friends more than lovers."

"Would that bother you?" Kathryn asked.

"It would bother me," Lisette said. "If Kerry doesn't love me to distraction, I'll divorce him."

"Mama said she was happy because she had me to love," Cynthia answered. "Maybe a woman doesn't need more than that. What do you think?"

Kathryn realized what she thought was uncomfortably close to Lisette's feelings. Her own mother had been content to spend most of her married life waiting for her husband to return from business trips. When the split came between her sister and their father, her mother had backed their father's position without hesitation. Away at college at the time, Kathryn had been too furious to give any thought to her mother's position, but now she wondered. Could a woman be happily married to a man who was away from home more often than not?

"I can't speak for anyone but myself," Kathryn said, "but – "

The sound of the doorbell caused her to break off. Lisette bounded up from her chair. "It's Kerry. He can't stand to be separated from me."

"He must stay in the living room," Kathryn called after her. "I'll be in as soon as I fix my coffee."

"Do you think their parents will let them get married?" Julia asked as the door banged shut behind Lisette. "They're nuts about each other."

"It will depend on what Kerry's father says when he gets home."

"Where is he?"

"On a business trip. No one seems to know when he'll get back."

"My dad was on a business trip, too, but he came home right away."

Kathryn didn't know quite how to interpret Cynthia's expression. It seemed to be some combination of pride and anger. Kathryn concluded that Cynthia loved her father deeply but just didn't happen to like him very much right then.

Lisette came back into the kitchen looking dejected. "It's Cynthia's father. He said he's come for his sensitivity lessons." She made a face. "Nothing personal, Cynthia, but that man's not normal. It's Saturday morning, and he's in a suit and tie."

Kathryn felt something in the region of her stomach flutter uncomfortably. "I didn't expect him so early," she said, getting up to put her coffee cup on the sideboard. "I'm not even sure I thought he'd come."

"If my father says he'll do something, he does it," Cynthia said, as though that was not a trait she admired.

"Does he do everything in a suit and tie?" Julia asked.

"I've never seen him wear anything else outside the house," Cynthia said.

Kathryn was about to say it was an attitude that was as outmoded as the twentieth century, but she was flattered Ron Egan had taken such care with his appearance. He could have come dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. That was not a wise thought. Just imagining Ron Egan in jeans and a T-shirt caused her belly to tighten.

"What'll I do when Kerry comes?" Lisette asked.

"You can use the TV room as long as Mrs. Collias is in sight," Kathryn said.

"She hates me," Lisette wailed. "She never lets me – "

"Do anything foolish," Kathryn finished for her. "That's why I hired her."

"I can watch her," Cynthia offered.

"Your father might want to see you. Now I've got to go. Make sure you both finish your breakfast. Good nutrition is extremely important now."

Ron turned from the window when Kathryn entered the room. It was 7:58 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and he looked like he'd just stepped out of Gentleman's Quarterly. Foolish, though, to be feeling like a young girl meeting a date.

"You're earlier than I expected," Kathryn said.

"I want to get this over so I can get back to Geneva," Ron said, coming toward her. "I left my assistants to handle some very difficult negotiations."

The thaw that had begun in her feelings toward him stopped. She didn't know why he'd bothered to come home. He could have saved himself a lot of trouble by shouting at her over the phone.

"I'm sure there are lots of people in Geneva far more qualified than I to help you with sensitivity training," she said. "If you'll tell me where you're staying, I'll see if I can line up someone. I don't know about Saturday flights from Charlotte to Geneva, but I'm sure Atlanta or New York – "

Ron looked at her like she had lost her mind. "Who said anything about my flying back today?"

Kathryn took a moment to gather her thoughts. "I interpreted your remarks to mean you planned to return almost immediately."

"Well you interpreted them wrong." He seated himself on a sofa. "Come on, let's get this over with. I want to talk to Cynthia, and I want to be sensitive enough to understand how the hell she could get herself in such a fix."

Kathryn broke out laughing. She didn't know why. There was nothing funny about the situation, but she couldn't stop.

"What are you laughing about?" Ron demanded.

"I don't have a magic potion I can pour over you like Achilles's mother."

"She didn't have a potion," Ron said. "She held him by his heel and dipped him in the River Styx."

Kathryn was impressed despite herself. "Sorry. I'll try to avoid sloppy classical allusions."

"I like mythology," Ron said.

She wouldn't have expected that of him, but maybe he associated himself with the godlike humans of antiquity. He'd certainly accomplished enough to give him an exaggerated opinion of himself.

"I'm more attracted to early nineteenth century English literature," she said.

"The romantic period."

"Yes, I suppose you could call it that, though the term usually refers to poetry."

"What else would you call the Brontes?" He seemed to realize he was off topic and give himself a mental shake. "But I didn't come here to discuss mythology or literature."

"You came here to learn how to become sensitive in one easy lesson."

"I don't expect it to be easy."

"Good. You can begin by not glaring at me. You have to be receptive to the feelings of others, able to interpret the slightest hint of what they may be feeling inside. As long as you're angry at me, you're too busy projecting feelings to be able to receive any."

"I'm not angry at you."

"Look at your facial expression," she said pointing to a mirror mounted in an ornate gold frame on the wall.

He was so slow to rise she thought he wasn't going to move. But once he stood, he moved quickly.

"What's wrong with my expression?" he asked.

"You look like you're about to chew somebody out."

"That's how I always look."

"Then it's a good place to start. Smile."

It was more of a grimace.

"Like you meant it. Imagine – "

"I don't need any help knowing what to imagine."

His smile was brilliant, warm, sexy. A mistake. It transformed him into a person she found even more attractive. "Okay, we know you can smile," she said, turning away from the mirror. "Now let's see how you sit."

He sat on the edge of his chair, leaning forward from the waist as if he were ready to pounce at any moment.

"Relax. You look like you're ready to attack the first person who disagrees with you, or so eager to speak you won't be willing to listen."

"I have to convince people they're making the best decision they can when they accept my offer."

"And if they don't?"

"I keep after them."

"Why?"

"I can't stand it when people make stupid decisions."

"You can't be judgmental," Kathryn said. "There's no right or wrong with people's feelings. All feelings are okay."

"That's ridiculous."

"What would you say if I told you your feelings for Cynthia and her situation were all wrong?"

"I'd say you were nuts."

"As long as you feel like that, you'll never be able to understand her or make her care how you feel."

"But you don't want me to tell her what I feel."

"She already knows."

"Then what's this sensitivity mumbo jumbo all about?"

"She needs to feel you're not angry at her, that you're not condemning her. Most important of all, she needs to feel you still love her."

"Of course I love her. But I'm not going to tell her I'm glad she's pregnant at sixteen, or that I'm looking forward to meeting the horny kid who's responsible for this."

Kathryn supposed she couldn't blame him for being upset. "Mr. Egan, you can't say anything like that to Cynthia."

"Why not?"

"Because it will prove to her you don't understand her feelings."

"I don't."

"Then it's up to you to change enough so you can."

He sat there a moment, apparently thinking of one response after another and rejecting them all.

"And how do you propose I do that?" he asked finally.

"You can begin by asking Cynthia how she feels about what's happening, about the kind of future she wants for her and her baby. You don't have to agree with what she says, but you have to make her feel you're not condemning her in any way. And when you do make a decision, she has got to feel you're putting her wishes ahead of your own."

"She's sixteen. She doesn't know what's best for her."

"Then you have to be so sensitive to her thoughts, you can guide them without her knowing you're doing it."

"I can't do that."

"Isn't that what you do in your business, convince people your way is the right way?"

"I don't waste time letting them think they're right in the first place. I knock the props out from under them within ten minutes. I destroy their security so completely they can't help but look for another way out."

"Maybe you should have talked to your wife more."

"Erin never asked me to stay home from a meeting or to leave the office early. My success was as important to her as it is to me."

Kathryn couldn't understand any woman feeling that way. "I don't think it's important to Cynthia."

"Then what is?"

"You are."

"She goes to the best school, we live in a new house in the best part of town and she has four people who are paid to see she has everything she needs. What else can I do for her?"

"You can stay home more. You can make her feel she's more important than your work."

Ron reacted as though she'd slapped him. "My work has never been as important as Cynthia!"

"Then why were you in Switzerland?"

"Because it's my job."

"Are you sure it's not about making more money, about control rather than making a company more efficient?"

His lips had thinned to an angry line. "What do you know about business?"

"Not as much as you do, but my father is a businessman and he's never home. Not one of his four children believes we or our mother are as important as his work."

He looked at her for a long moment. "Okay. Since you feel what I'm doing isn't working, what do you propose I do?"

"You could begin by taking a leave of absence from your job. You've got enough money to retire right now."

"And sit around all day understanding my daughter and some boy I have yet to meet?"

"That's a good place to start. Cynthia obviously isn't as materialistic as you. You need to try to see the world from her viewpoint."

"Did you ever ask your father why he worked so hard?"

"Yes."

"What did he say?"

"For his self-respect."

"Did you understand that?"

"Not really."

Ron suddenly seemed charged with energy. "Tell your housekeeper we'll be gone for a few hours."

"I can't leave."

"You're teaching me to be sensitive. Remember? Well, you can't do that if you don't understand my feelings, and you never will unless I show you a few things you know nothing about."

"Where are we going?"

"Somewhere I'm sure you've never been before."