“You just don’t understand! But why I am not surprised? You never do.”
Paul stared dispassionately at Nick, his fifteen-year-old son, whose handsome face was now contorted in anger, and wondered again where he had gone wrong as a father. Maybe he’d not been strict enough when the boy was a strong-willed youngster and he should have disciplined him each time he’d misbehaved. He recognized the fact that he’d frequently left any disciplining to Connie, although he’d always been aware that Connie tended to indulge their son. He supposed that this is what happened in many families.
“Well? Aren’t you even going to bother to defend yourself?”
“Why should I have to, as you put it, defend myself? In answer to your accusation that I don’t understand you, the sad truth is I do. You feel entitled and think that somehow I’m standing in the way of your happiness.” Paul swung his desk chair around to face the boy in the doorway. “Don’t you think you’re going about it in the wrong way,” he continued. “You can’t coerce someone into agreeing with you.”
“You wouldn’t buy me a car anyway, so why should I be nice to you?”
“Because it would make a pleasant change, don’t you agree?”
With a half-smothered oath, Nick abruptly turned away from the doorway and Paul heard his footsteps clattering down the wooden stairs. Aware that his calm responses had further fueled Nick’s anger, he sighed heavily and returned to the bank statement he’d been in the process of studying.
Paul heard a sound behind him and felt lips softly kissing his cheek. Recognizing her light cologne, he said, “Rose.”
She pulled a chair over to sit at the side of his desk. “Dad, why do you let him talk to you that way?”
“You heard us?”
She nodded. “Why do you tolerate it?”
“I don’t see that I have much choice. If I yell back at him, it’ll just make it worse. I keep hoping he’ll grow up. He’s fifteen and that’s often an awkward age for a guy.”
“Well, I think you should flatten him. He needs to be told off.”
He regarded her fondly. Luxuriant black hair framed an oval face with spectacular dark eyes. She’d just had her eighteenth birthday and he thought he’d never seen a lovelier girl. No wonder boys were always hanging around wherever she happened to be. He was glad, though, that so far all the attention she’d been getting seemed not to have changed her; she was still the calm, unflappable person she’d always been. He couldn’t remember her ever losing her temper or even raising her voice in anger. His Rosemarie, the light of his life.
Connie appeared in the doorway. “What on earth did you say to Nick? He flew out of the house and slammed the door muttering something about not being understood.”
“Rose and I were just discussing it. She thinks I should get tough and lean on him.”
“He’s just a boy, Paul. He’ll grow out of it.”
“Will he?” He frowned. “I’m beginning to wonder.”
Connie perched on a corner of Paul’s desk. “What was the argument about?”
“It takes two to argue and I wasn’t going to oblige. He wants me to buy him a car while at the same time he knows I’ll say no, so he jumps the gun and starts raising his voice. I think I might make it worse when I refuse to be drawn into a quarrel.”
Rose frowned and slowly asked, “Do you think it’s really about a car? He must know he’s being unreasonable. Maybe there’s something else bothering him.”
Paul shot her an appreciative look. “I think you may be right. Now we just have to figure out what it is.”
“I’ll try to find out, Dad.” She got up and walked toward the door. “I’m going to study my English lit now. Finals are just around the corner.”
Connie got off the desk and took the chair. “I’ll call you when dinner’s ready, Rose.”
She turned her attention to Paul, distress evident in her expression. “You’ve been Nicky’s age, Paul. How did you deal with it?”
“I lived through it, but I was a different personality. I was kind of introverted, more of a loner by choice. Nick seems to be trying to be a popular guy, to get along with everyone. Which, in my opinion, may be a mistake. Everybody’s different – he’s maybe trying to please them all and it can’t be done. Or maybe it’s girls with him, I don’t know. He’s good looking enough to have girls chase him, but . . . I wonder if even he knows what his problem is.”
Instead of replying, Connie went to the window and looked out before coming back to the chair again, as Paul continued.
“It seems as if there’s something else, something not obvious lying just under the surface. I think he’s flattered that girls are after him, but right now they’re not the be-all end-all to him.” He rubbed the back of his neck, a lifelong habit when he was worrying about something.
“The question is, how are we going to deal with something we don’t understand?”
“Leave him alone and see what happens. Ideally, he’ll realize for himself what’s wrong and do something about correcting it.”
Connie twisted her hands in her lap. “It’s just that I hate to see him so unhappy.”
Paul leaned toward her and took her hands in his. “Let’s hope that Rose can find out what the immediate problem is. She’ll help if she can.”
“At least we don’t have to worry about our daughter. She’s having the time of her life these days. Her graduation is almost upon us and I think she’s invited to more parties than there are days left before graduation. And,” she widened her eyes at him, “it seems she’ll have a different date for each party, which is good from my point of view.”
“Because so far she doesn’t seem to be seriously interested in any one guy.”
She directed a bleak smile at him and got out of her chair. “Right. We’re almost too lucky with Rose. I just hope she won’t go off the deep end later,” she said as she left the room.
He silently agreed and once more contemplated the difference between their children. One was volatile, excitable and frequently bad-tempered, while the other remained cool, imperturbable and sweet-tempered. He was grateful for Connie’s loving disposition and thanked God for the gift of Rose. A frown slowly formed between his brows as he considered his son, Nick, and wondered again if he was going about handling him the right way. Did all parents go through this kind of thing or was it singular to the Paul Gregory family? He recognized that he had much to be thankful for and decided that for the present he’d leave things alone, hoping they’d work themselves out and turned his attention once more to his bank statement.
Soon he had to admit that the bank statement only served to disguise the true reason for his inability to concentrate fully on any subject but the one that sat at the back of his mind like a sullen beast. He knew he’d have to deal with it sooner or later and decided to surrender to its magnetic pull. He forced himself to face up to it: he missed sleuthing, being a detective. For the past nineteen years he’d been a good husband and, he hoped, a good father. He couldn’t ask for a better daughter than Rose and, although Dominick’s behavior at this point left a lot to be desired, Paul hoped that he’d straighten out in the fullness of time.
He jerked his thoughts back to the subject of his restlessness, the worry that his days working undercover for the Drug Enforcement Administration were behind him; after the successful conclusion of his last case, they had contacted him only once when he regretted having had to turn them down due to a time conflict, hoping they’d call again. They hadn’t.
He’d worked steadily as the owner and manager of Pal’s since he’d married Connie and had been rewarded with monetary success and the ability to provide his family with a very good living. But he missed the excitement, the danger and the thrill of the chase that he’d known in the past. Face it, he told himself, the DEA probably is beginning to think I’m too old for handling that kind of business any more. After all, it was nearly twenty years ago when Connie and I were running around between continents on the trail of Stephen Meredith and his dangerous daughter. He struggled for a moment before he was able to come up with her name. Crystal! How could I ever forget about someone as evil as Crystal Meredith? I wonder where in the world she is now and how life has treated her. If there’s any justice, she’s behind bars somewhere. And I wonder what that old crook Stephen Meredith is up to these days. He’ll never know just how close I came to capturing him again and how much he owes to the friendship of our two wives a couple of decades ago. When Connie went to bat for Madeleine and begged me to let him go, I did – but I did it for her, not for him – never for him.
He stood and walked to the window where he gazed down at the lawn that sloped away beyond the patio and swimming pool to the bayou at the bottom of the garden. Movement caught his eye, revealing three figures quickly disappearing into the wooded area near the road. He recognized Nick, but his companions were strangers. Paul wondered why he thought they looked furtive.
Because they’re probably up to something they want to hide. To the right, blocking his view of the road, a thick line of trees ended at the bridge over the bayou, where the boys had disappeared. He shook his head, deciding not to allow himself to get sidetracked again by a problem he couldn’t immediately solve and returned to his desk and the bank statement.