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The Talon House

If By Chance


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If By Chance

Chapter Sixteen

By Nick

The clock was counting down for Gerald and I, and we both knew it. As we sat across from each other, I couldn't help but wonder what he was experiencing at the moment. I for one was taken by our surroundings, the cool feeling of new leather against the back of my light blue button down accented by the relaxing trickle of a miniature indoor fountain. For a moment, I was able to close my eyes and pretend that we were back in Luray, enjoying the serenity of the time away we took, where not a worry in the world could reach us. Unfortunately, the sound of a very insistent voice brought me back to the present.

"Dennis, I want you to look at Gerald and consider all of the words associated with your feelings about what we've discussed today," I was instructed. "Then I want you to communicate with him by saying them out loud."

"Pain, hurt, anger, betrayal of trust, confusion," I said, letting the verbiage roll off of my tongue like water from a cliff, causing my fiancé to look helplessly my way before lowering his head in shame.

"Is that all?" I was asked, and I nodded.

"I can't think of anything else to say."

And that was it. I was out of words to convey my deepest, most painful feelings at a moment when I probably should have been able to give so much more. I should have known, though, that I wasn't about to get off that easily.

"Now talk about how all of this affects your relationship," I was told, and I had to take a deep breath before I went on. I was told in the beginning of the session not to tread lightly, but there was no way I could trample Gerald for something he couldn't help. I decided to choose my next words as carefully as possible.

"It affects our relationship both positively and negatively," I said, trying to ease the pain of what I was about to say, even though I knew that it wasn't something that, unconsciously at least, Gerald didn't already realize. "I think this harkens back to his childhood, when he was afraid to make a wrong move, and when him and his mom did everything they could to please his father. That's where he learned how to hide things by sweeping them under the carpet, so to speak."

"Is that what you think he's been doing?" I was asked, and I nodded without hesitation.

"But it's not his fault," I was quick to add. "I mean, yes, I'm a little disappointed that he didn't just tell me the truth from the start so we could work through it, but I understand. This is what he's been conditioned to do from an early age."

With that, I looked over at Gerald and felt awful for him. I could feel my cheeks heating up and goose bumps form on the back of my neck out of embarrassment for him. He didn't deserve to have to hear this, but at the same time, it had to be said. We had to move forward, but before we could, we had to go back in time. Not just to when he came into my life, but all the way back.

We had to dismantle Gerald's life and piece it all back together, or there would be no future for us. I found that out the hard way, and once I did, I realized that we needed to get some kind of help. Because for Gerald and I, it was now or never, and after what he confessed, never getting the kind of help we needed as a couple meant never getting married.

Otherwise, it was the end of our story.

I suppose it would have been easier for me to just lick my wounds, kick myself, and move on without Gerald. That's what most people would have done. I mean, honestly, I don't think many marriages would have been able to endure the kind of blow that our engagement had suffered. As a matter of fact, had I not loved Gerald as much as I did, odds are that we wouldn't have been sitting in an office with a pre-marital counselor at all. Instead, I would have told him to stay out of my life forever, and I would have never let another man get that close to me again.

The worst part for me was the deception. I couldn't find a way to get past it, and for three days, hardly a word was spoken between Gerald and I. To be perfectly honest, I was halfway expecting him to wait for me to leave, then pack his bags and move out without a word. That's how weird things got after I learned that Gerald helped Peter cook the books.

I mean, I didn't understand why he didn't level with me from the get go. As soon as he knew what was going on, I felt, he should have come to me with what he knew and what he'd done. I wouldn't have held it against him. I would have done everything in my power to make sure that he wasn't touched by the investigation. And I mean everything.

After he told me, I went to my study to be alone. I was in total shock, and part of my mind couldn't process the information that I had just been presented with. I was in denial for about a half an hour, sure that there was some kind of mistake, or that I heard him wrong. Another part of my mind was outraged, trying to reconcile the words that came out of his mouth with the fact that he'd been aware all along of what I was up against. All of the depositions, all of the stress, all of the uncertainty. Hell, my termination.

I was working with the f****** Justice Department, for God's sake. I gave up my career, my livelihood, to do the right thing. To fight against all of the things that were wrong in my chosen field. What part of that didn't resonate with him? I gave sworn testimony. My entire life was altered over this mess.

My entire f****** life.

And now I find out that he was a part of it. That he took liberties with my trust, with our romance. That he knew my back was up against a wall for so many weeks, and he was supposed to be standing behind me. Instead, he was doing dirt behind my back, and making a mockery of everything I'd struggled with for the last three months.

Then there was the third part of my mind. The part that wanted to talk to him, to find out why he didn't come to me right away. The part of me that knew he was scared, and that he didn't want to go through with it. That he was probably confused, and maybe a little star struck that the division manager of the firm he'd just gone to work for wanted him to do something important for the company, something that could make all of the difference for his career.

There's a fine line in business that we all walk, especially in finance. We know what's ethical and what's wrong, and that there's that gray area where sometimes it's okay to meander into, as long as we're mindful to tread lightly. But sometimes we go into that gray area too many times, and it becomes really convenient to just hover there. And that's when it happens.

We find out that sometimes, when no one's watching, we can trim a little fat and take a little for ourselves. We take playoff tickets from a vendor whose contract is up for renewal, or we treat the inspector from the Department of Agriculture to lunch at his favorite restaurant. We accept free software from an IT consultant who knows that one of her competitors is trying to land the business with the company we work for.

But it's a trap.

A lot of executives fall into that trap, and once you're in, it's hard to get out. I've seen it a million times before. It's in the news every day. MCI WorldCom, Enron, Author Andersen, the Savings and Loan Scandal of the late 1980's. It happens to good people, bad people, and people who go into corporate America to make a change. They just know that corporate greed won't affect them, and that they'll be fresh thinkers with a high level of ethics that will change the industry. Unfortunately, corporate America changes them instead, and they lose sight of what they're doing. I feel very fortunate to have never fallen into that trap, but make no mistake about it; it's a slippery slope.

When it comes to Gerald, there's so much more to take into account, too. He's been through so much, and I couldn't help but feel like it would be terribly unfair of me not to take his experiences in life into account while I deliberated his confession. I'll stop short of saying that I wanted to get revenge, because that's never been the case. I'm not a spiteful person in the least, but I admit that part of me actually thought that it would only be right for him to pay a price for committing a crime. But that was the anger, and I knew that I couldn't let my anger color my reaction. At least, not my long range reaction.

Once I had a chance to calm down and think things through, I found myself dealing with a much different emotion. I mean, it's always easy to say that you'll always do the right thing, and look at things in black and white. But, as always, there's that gray area in life, and my gray area was here and now. There's right, there's wrong, and then there's right now. I knew that right now, Gerald needed me to walk that line for him, and as odd as it felt initially, once I moved into that gray area, I didn't find it very hard to walk along the edge of that slope after all.

"We're getting some couple's counseling," I declared, not waiting for him to agree or disagree. I got the feeling from the look on his face, Gerald knew not to question me. I'd been dictating orders to him all morning, and he'd been eager to listen to what I had to say, and more than willing to follow my instructions.

When I woke up that morning, it was a little after five. It was still dark outside, but the silhouette from the moon was visible through the clouds. I sat on the side of the bed and turned the lamp on, determined to get my plan out there for Gerald to digest before I lost my nerve and changed my mind. I felt him stirring around under the covers, prompting me to look over my right shoulder just in time to see him blinking as he sat up, trying to get acclimated to the light.

"Will you sit next to me?" I asked him softly, and he immediately acquiesced. Once he was settled in his spot, he gave me a questioning look, and all I could bring myself to do was wrap a protective arm around his shoulder and hold him tightly for a long, quiet moment. I felt his light breath against my neck as he nuzzled the side of his face into my shoulder, and I knew that there was only one way for us to deal with what we were facing.

"We're not going to say anything," I said. "We're not telling Donald, we're not telling the police, we're not telling my mom and dad. As far as I'm concerned, it didn't happen."

"But Dennis," he started, but I cut him off.

"There's no two ways about this," I said with a tone of finality. "If Peter tries, I'll cover for you. I was your boss, and all of your work was supposed to cross my desk first. Obviously, that didn't happen, but no one has to know. That's it."

"Are you sure?" he asked, and I nodded in an authoritive manner.

"Not a word, Gerald," I said. "If this gets out, you can go to prison for what happened, and I can go to prison for covering it up. We have to agree to this."

"What about Peter?" he asked, and I shrugged.

"What about him?"

What if he talks?" he fretted, and I gave him the simplest answer I could.

"You'll deny it," I said. "I guarantee that he has no proof. He's bluffing right now, so we're not going to say anything."

"Are you sure?" he asked, sounding doubtful.

"Trust me, Gerald," I told him confidently. "I know Peter like the back of my hand. He's just trying to get you to talk to him and say something incriminating. If he had any real proof, he'd have already told the Justice Department. Just leave it alone and it'll go away."

"What about us?" he asked. "Will it go away for you and me?"

I leaned in and planted a kiss on the end of his nose, giving him a smile I knew he'd return. Sure enough, as soon as I pulled my lips away, I was treated to my reward.

"I love you Dennis," he said.

"I love you too sweetie," I said. "Everything's going to work out, but we have something else we need to do, babe. We need to hash the rest of this out."

"What else is there?" he asked, sounding a little bewildered, and I took a deep breath.

"You tell me," I answered, and he gave me a look that said he was very aware of what I meant, but that he wanted me to say it myself.

I almost choked on my coffee when I opened the materials we got from the finance department at Gerald's alma matter. I was halfway laughing at the absurdity of how much his parents actually spent versus how much they were demanding from Gerald. In fact, if it weren't for the fact that it was his parents we were dealing with, I'd probably be inclined to threaten to have them charged with extortion unless they ceased with their collection activities.

"Eight hundred dollars?" he gawked, shaking his head. "I'll write them a check and drop it in the mail."

"It might not be that easy, babe," I warned him. "Even if they have to stop hounding us about your tuition, they're not going to leave us alone."

"We could always block their calls," he suggested, and I gave him a skeptical look.

"Are you really going to block your mom and dad's number?" I asked, and he sighed and shook his head.

I knew there was no way he could do it. Personally, I wouldn't want him to, anyway. I mean, for all of their craziness, they were still his mom and dad. He had a lot of issues stemming from his childhood, issues that were starting to affect our relationship, and cutting them off might be a short-term patch, but in the end, his issues with them would just fester under the surface. By the time it started to leak out, the poison might be too powerful for us to fight, and spiritually, it could kill him.

"It's up to you, babe," I said. "I'm going to support any decision you make, but I think there's always a better way to go about things than just severing your ties with your parents. Why don't we start by making them copies of the statements we have and sending them along with a check. At least then, they'll know we're making a good faith effort to accommodate them."

"You know that as soon as they get the money, they're going to call here," he said, a stressful expression crossing his face. "I'm not looking forward to that."

"Well, we'll cross that bridge when we get to it," I told him. "Until then, let's just deal with the here and now."

And that's exactly what we did. Gerald wrote a check, put it in an envelope with copies of all of the statements we had, and sent it to his mom and dad by certified mail. In the meanwhile, we had an appointment with our counselor, and I was looking forward to discussing the progress Gerald was making in regards to his mom and dad. Unfortunately, I was blindsided when we got there by a different topic altogether.

"Dennis, talk about your mom and dad, and how their fighting shaped your view of relationships when you were younger."

I looked across the room at the counselor, feeling terribly uncomfortable about the course we were charting that morning. I felt self-conscious, I felt vulnerable, and I felt scared. Because for the first time since I was in Junior High School, I had to face a ghost that had been quietly haunting me for years.

I wasn't sure what to say, to be honest. I've always been able to cope with the reality of my parent's marriage, and all of its problems, by shrugging it all off. They'd made it this far, I always reasoned, and even though it was far from perfect, it was still better than what a lot of people could point to and say they had. Still, I couldn't help but feel ashamed as I straightened my posture and prepared to confront the issues I'd carried into adulthood from my own childhood. But just as fast as all of those terrible feelings swept over me, they all seemed to fade away in a moment of pure bliss when Gerald took my right hand and gave it a firm squeeze. I looked to my right and saw the face of an angel, and that was when I realized that I had nothing to fear in my life.

Then, with a long, reflective sigh, I bared my soul.

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