Family Merger (Chapter Four)

"Okay," Ron said, lobster juice dripping from his elbows onto the tablecloth-size napkin tucked into his collar, "we've decided I'm a true pirate of high finance. I give no quarter and expect none. I think everyone should take responsibility for their own actions and not expect outside help. You blame my career, my pursuit of money and power, even my failure to marry again, for my abysmal failure as a father. I think we've covered me. Now I want to hear about you. What did you want from your father that you didn't get?"

She'd known from the moment she agreed to have lunch with him she had to answer his question. She'd ordered lobster salad. He ordered a lobster in the shell. He'd surprised her by taking off his coat and rolling up his sleeves. She understood why when he let the juice run down his arms to his elbows.

"Do you always eat lobster like that?" she asked.

"No. I can ease the little sucker out of his shell without getting a single drop on a linen tablecloth that costs more than some cars. But you're not going to distract me any longer. You have me at your mercy. I want to become a better father. Tell me about yourself."

She had tried, without success, to convince him that her experiences had nothing to do with his success or failure as a father, but it appeared the only way to convince him was to tell him what he wanted to know.

"My father was away from home much of the time. When he was home, he was always meeting someone or bringing them to the house. There never seemed to be any time when he belonged to just us, when nobody else could interrupt or call him away. The few times he did find himself alone with us – on a family vacation or for an evening at home – I think he was bored and restless. I don't think he was interested in us."

"I take it he never played with you as a kid, read you stories, or kissed you good-night."

"Never." She hoped she didn't sound as if she were whining. It was a fact she'd accepted. She didn't think too much about it until he kicked her sister Elizabeth out of the house. She had never forgiven him for that.

"How did you rebuild your relationship? Maybe I can do the same thing with Cynthia."

"It's not the same. I'm an adult. I don't live at home."

His gaze seemed to become more intense. "Are you trying not to tell me that you and your father don't have a good relationship?"

She might as well get it over with. Ron Egan seemed to have a genius for finding the weak spots. "My father I and had a serious disagreement about ten years ago. We don't see each other much."

"How much is that?"

She stopped playing with the remains of her salad and looked him square in the face. "Usually once a month."

"Since when?"

"Since he threw my sister out of the house."

He took his napkin out of his collar, and carefully wiped his mouth and his hands. Then he sat back. "Tell me about it."

She couldn't believe she was getting ready to tell a man she'd known less than twenty-four hours about one of the most difficult episodes of her life, but for some reason she felt she could share it with him.

"My sister got pregnant when she was in high school. She was seventeen and wildly in love with the boy. My father wouldn't let her marry him. And after she did anyway, he said they couldn't live in his house."

"Why?"

"He said the boy was a shiftless bloodsucker. He said my sister had been stealing stuff from his office. Elizabeth was a little wild, but she wouldn't have done anything like that."

"Did you do anything to help?"

"I wasn't there. I was the good daughter who did everything Mom and Dad wanted. I was at boarding school. Elizabeth got herself kicked out of Country Day so she could go to public school. I dated boys from approved families. Elizabeth chose half her dates just because she knew they'd make my father furious."

"So you dedicated yourself to pregnant teenage girls because you think your sister got a raw deal."

"What would you have done?"

"Locked them in the same room until they came to some solution."

"That may work in business, though I wouldn't have thought so, but it doesn't work with personal relationships. You each have to try to understand where the other is coming from."

"Coddle them and make them think being stupid is an acceptable way to behave."

She folded her napkin. It was time to leave. "That's not what I said."

He put a fifty-dollar bill on the table and rose. "You said your father and sister should be allowed to stay at odds with each other because you have to honor their feelings. Yet you said I ought to take a leave of absence to repair my relationship with my daughter. Your logic is inconsistent. Either you have a set of principles that work in all situations, or you don't have a workable theory."

She had preceded him out of the restaurant and she waited to answer him until they were in the car.

"I told you I don't pretend to be a professional, so I don't give advice."

"You're giving me advice."

"Only because you insisted."

Kathryn didn't know how she'd let herself get drawn into helping Ron. All the other parents had been more than willing to meet with the specialists she recommended. Why couldn't she keep her distance from the Egans?

Something had been different about them from the first. Cynthia wasn't like the other girls. Or maybe she had reacted differently to her because Cynthia wasn't panicked or hysterical or even silent and moody. Kathryn felt almost as though they were equals even though Cynthia was only half her age.

She didn't kid herself when it came to Ron Egan. Everything was different because her physical response to him had been immediate and undeniable. It didn't matter that she might disagree with him in every way. As a man, she found him powerfully attractive. She wanted to be around him even though she knew it was a foolish thing to do.

He seemed to be truly interested in learning to communicate with his daughter, but he had no idea how to begin. If she didn't help him, he was liable to treat Cynthia as a hostile takeover. They could end up like her own family.

"From now on you and Cynthia will have to work things out on your own."

"Good. That means you'll be able to go on a date with me tonight, and you won't have to tell me how I'm doing everything wrong."

"Everyone will know what I did. How is that better?" Cynthia asked.

"It will be a lot better if you see your friends," Kathryn said.

They had been talking for nearly half an hour. Rather, Kathryn and Cynthia had been talking. Ron had been mostly listening, putting in a word now and then, responding when addressed directly. He felt as if they were conversing in a foreign tongue. The words were ones he knew, but they seemed to have different meanings from what he expected. He wondered if it was just a woman thing, or if there was some special bonding between them. He couldn't remember Cynthia ever being so open and relaxed with Margaret Norwood or the governess, and they'd known her most of her life.

They'd come back to find that Cynthia's best friend, Leigh Stedman, had come by to see her. After refusing to see her, Cynthia had locked herself in her room, extremely upset anyone at school knew where she was or that she was pregnant. It had taken Kathryn several minutes to convince Cynthia to let her into her room. It had taken more than thirty minutes to convince her to talk with her father.

Pacing up and down the large living room, he'd had plenty of time to rehearse what he meant to say. He'd even edited it to make sure he wasn't too severe. But when Cynthia walked through that door, she didn't look like a confident young woman any longer. She looked like the little girl who used to like to curl up in his lap and go to sleep when he worked late. He'd instinctively held out his arms, and she'd come to him.

For a few minutes everything was the way it used to be. They held each other while she cried. But as soon as her tears dried up, she became stiff, their positions awkward. When he released her, she moved away, ultimately sitting in a chair rather than on the sofa next to him. She looked so small, sitting in that huge overstuffed chair with her feet tucked under her, he could almost think of her as his little girl again. But he would have been fooling himself. At first she'd talked exclusively to Kathryn. It was as though she was embarrassed she'd cried in front of him. He'd wanted to tell her it was all right, that she never had to be afraid to come to him when she was frightened or feeling alone.

"I wouldn't look at it like that," Kathryn said. "You have a friend who knows what happened, and she still wants to be your friend."

"I don't have any real friends," Cynthia said.

"I'll bet you do," Kathryn said. "You've only been here two days, and already you're everybody's favorite. People can't help but want to be your friend."

Ron didn't know if Cynthia believed that, but it seemed to improve her spirits.

Cynthia chewed on her lower lip. "They won't want a friend with a baby," she said.

"All real friendships expand to include other people – boyfriends, husbands, children, even other friends. You'll see if you just give your friends a chance."

"Leigh's parents are just about the most important people in Charlotte," Cynthia said. "They'll never let her have anything to do with an unwed mother."

"I think you ought to give Leigh and her family a chance to make that decision rather than you making it for them. I think you'll find very few people are so narrow-minded, so unwilling to make allowances for mistakes."

Ron knew it must have been difficult for Kathryn to say that when her own parents had turned their backs on their daughter for the same reason.

"Leigh told Lisette she's coming back tomorrow," Kathryn said. "You've got to make up your mind what you're going to do."

"Do you like this girl?" Ron asked.

"Of course I like her," Cynthia said impatiently. "I said she was my best friend, didn't I?"

"Would you still want to be her friend if she got pregnant?" he asked.

Cynthia shifted position in the chair before she answered. "Yes, I would."

"Then I'm sure she feels the same way about you."

"I expect it will hurt Leigh a great deal if you cut her off," Kathryn said

"There's somebody else you need to see," Ron said.

"Who?" Cynthia asked.

"Margaret. She's helped take care of you from the day your mother and I brought you home from the hospital. She's devastated you would run away from her."

"This has nothing to do with her," Cynthia said.

"She loves you. That means everything you do affects her. The same is true for Rose, Rosco and Gretta even though they've known you only half as long. If you don't feel you can go see them, at least talk to them on the telephone."

"I didn't think they'd care."

"Margaret cares a lot. She treated your mother like her own daughter."

Ron didn't know whether making Cynthia think about how her behavior had affected others was the best thing to do, but he did know it would stop her from thinking she was isolated and unloved. Maybe if she could believe other people loved her, she could believe he loved her, too.

"Gretta said Margaret's been so upset she hasn't been able to sleep," Ron said.

Cynthia got up. "I'd better call her now. She feels sick when she can't sleep."

"That went better than I expected," Kathryn said after Cynthia left the room.

"Margaret Norwood has been like a mother to her. Cynthia's been so worried about me, the baby's father and her friends, she's forgotten the woman who's taken care of her since she was born."

"Talking to them and seeing Leigh will help pull her out of her isolation. I think you've done very well for one day."

"We've done well. You're still coaching me, remember?"

"You don't need coaching."

"That's because you think I'm so hopeless I'm hardly worth the trouble."

"No, I don't."

"It's only fair that you give me a chance to change your mind. Have dinner with me."

"Are you asking me for a date?"

"Didn't it sound like that? I haven't done it in a long time, but surely things haven't changed that much."

"I told you earlier I don't go out with clients."

"I'm not your client. Cynthia is."

"You're close enough."

"Then you pick what we do. A movie, dinner, the museum. I'm flying back to Geneva late tonight."

"I wondered how long it would be before you went back."

"I'm coming back right after the meeting. I won't be gone more than a day at a time until we get this thing sorted out."

"You need to stop including me."

"You're my advisor. Forget the professionals," he said when she started to protest. "I'm not going to sue you for practicing without a license. Just consider me a friend who needs your advice."

"Do you?"

"Especially tonight. I haven't dated a beautiful woman since my wife died."

"You'll have to ask someone else."

"When you decide what you want to do, let me know when to pick you up. Now I've got to call Geneva and find out how the meeting went today."

Then he was gone, leaving Kathryn's sputtering protests hanging in the air.

Kathryn decided she needed a new backbone. The one she had obviously wasn't doing the job. She was annoyed with herself for agreeing to go on this date. She had talked herself out of it at least twice before she picked up the phone to call him. She hadn't realized what a terrible snob she was until tonight. She'd given Ron three choices for the evening. The Charlotte Opera's production of Puccini's Tosca, the Mint Museum's exhibit of Tutankhamen, or the latest Harry Potter movie. Rather than accuse her of being exactly the kind of snob he'd suffered from growing up, he discussed her choices as if they were all of equal importance.

He said he'd always want to see Tosca, but after hearing the recording of Maria Callas in the role, he didn't think he could stand to hear anyone who wasn't absolutely world-class. He'd already seen the Tutankhamen exhibit, so if she didn't mind, they'd catch an early showing of the movie, have a late dinner, and she could drop him off at the airport.

Snobbery had caused her to pit the movie against Tosca and King Tut. Honesty forced her to admit she'd enjoyed it. And being with Ron.

"I realized early that being a success in the business world and being accepted in the social one were two different things," Ron was saying over dinner at one of his private clubs. "I signed up for every art and music class I could fit into my schedule. I even went to a couple of ballets." He made a face. "I can't say I enjoy men in pants so tight it makes me uncomfortable just to watch them, but I like opera. I don't even care if the soprano is twice as big and three times as old as the heroine is supposed to be. I just get angry when they go for a high note and can't reach it. You'd think they wouldn't give the part to someone who can't sing the notes."

He'd gone from Harry Potter to sports – the University of North Carolina, her alma mater, had just won the national soccer title – to opera. They'd discussed city planning when he said he wished she could get the city fathers to establish more parks. He said people in the inner city needed places for picnics and family gatherings, not just soccer fields, bike trails and ponds for ducks and geese. He was also in favor of preserving more trees, establishing deeper green belts around lakes and rivers, and improving public transportation.

Two things they didn't discuss were his job and hers.

"I can't believe you studied all those things just so you could talk to rich people at parties."

He laughed as if she'd made a joke. She didn't know more than a dozen men who could talk about anything remotely cultural. Most didn't consider it something a man needed to know. Like religion and table manners, culture was left to their wives.

"There's a lot more to business than just knowing how to do your job. Besides, I found I liked learning about all those things. It rounded me off, gave me that finish only a certain kind of education and lifestyle can give you. And as I said, I like the Impressionists, opera and Greek myths. I also like horse racing, but I can't afford that."

The more he talked, the more she realized she'd underestimated him, the more she started to feel he probably knew more about everything than she did.

"What do you do for fun?" she asked.

"Nothing."

"Everybody has something they do when they want to let their hair down."

"I don't have time. In my business if you don't work all the time, somebody passes you."

"You'll go crazy."

"Not if you like your work. The pressure can be intense and the hours long, but I like challenges, pitting myself against the other guy."

"That sounds primitive."

"It is. Instead of doing it with rocks and spears, we do it with computers and leveraged buyouts. But there are some things I don't like. I hate golf. It's a boring game, but every executive in the world seems to play. I find eating endless meals at high-priced restaurants or tedious dinner parties a waste of time. And I have little appreciation for fine wines or aged whiskey."

Now it was her turn to laugh. "I'm surprised they haven't thrown you out of the country club." She nearly swallowed her words. Did he belong to any country clubs? Some discriminated for the most ridiculous reasons.

"Not yet, but I don't go often enough to offend anyone. Belonging to the right club is part of business in Europe. You've got to be the right sort before they'll touch your money."

He said it all as if it didn't matter, but she could feel the undertone of resentment. He wasn't accepted by the people who mattered, even though he'd accomplished more than they had. He'd accepted it as a fact of life, but it was something he wouldn't – couldn't – accept for his daughter.

"Now tell me something about yourself," Ron said. "I find it hard to understand why a pretty woman like you isn't married with her own children."

"Is that the only thing you think women are good for, being wives and mothers?" She hadn't expected that of him, but wasn't it what he'd done in his own life, left his wife home to take care of the baby while he roamed the world? That's what her father thought, and just about every other man she knew.

"I've come up against too many tough women across the board table to think that," Ron said. "You're clearly not interested in a career unless you consider taking care of other people's children a career."

"I think of it as a vocation."

"I think of it as an avocation, something so important you'll continue to be involved in it but not your main goal in life."

That's something else all men seemed to have in common, a certainty they knew what a woman was thinking. She didn't know which male gene made them feel infallible, but she hoped medical science would soon find a way to eradicate it. It was time men realized they were no more talented or gifted than women, only bigger and often stronger. And the need for bigger and stronger had vanished centuries ago.

"What is my main goal?" She was curious to know what he thought.

"I don't know. That's why I asked you. Do you have anything against marriage, or do you just dislike men in general?"

He was clever enough to know he'd taken a wrong step. "I have nothing against marriage or men. I probably would have been married ten years ago if I'd found the right man."

"Then you should be going out every night, leaving those girls to Ruby. She looks more than capable of handling any trouble."

"Ruby is absolutely wonderful, but she likes to go to bed early."

"Then hire one of your experts."

"I do. I not only date, but I enjoy all the ordinary social activities normal for someone my age."

"Like what? You avoid your family."

"Not all the time."

"And you stopped running and playing tennis because you couldn't afford to take the time away from the girls. You stopped going to the opera or the symphony because the men you dated didn't know enough to be able to discuss what they'd heard, and you don't like professional football, basketball, soccer or hockey because they're loud and too violent. I won't even ask about stock car racing. I can't see you with that crowd."

"You make me sound like an unbearable snob."

"No, you make yourself look like a woman who's cut herself off from the rest of the world. You're young, beautiful, wealthy, intelligent, good company and you have a sense of humor when you let yourself relax. You've got more going for you than ninety-nine out of a hundred women, so why aren't you out there having the time of your life?"

"You've known me for less than two days. What do you think gives you the right to ask such a question?"

"Nothing gives me the right unless it's that I'm interested in you. I even like you. I sure as hell know you're sexy. I'm surprised you don't have to station Ruby at the door to drive off dates so overcome by your body they forget themselves on the front porch."

She had dated a lot of men, but never one who could segue so smoothly from fine arts to flattery to sexual attraction.

"I've never been attacked on the front porch or anywhere else."

"What kind of men do you go out with? They can't have an ounce of red blood in their bodies. Or do you give them an injection that renders them harmless for the next four hours."

She smiled. "No. I interview them first. That's why I don't end up with the wrong kind of man."

He looked at her as if she were crazy. "You interview them?"

"Yes."

"And they submit to this?"

She began to feel uncomfortable. Some of the men had reacted very unpleasantly. They had been even more rude about her choice of questions, but she refused to give an inch. She wasn't going to end up like her mother. "Not all of them, but enough."

"Holy hell! I can hardly wait to know what you ask them."