A nervous Keith followed his attorney into his office. In one of the
chairs facing his desk sat a woman who looked nothing like what
he expected. It was probably silly of him, but from Jeff’s
description of a struggling divorced mother, he hadn’t expected
anyone who looked, well, quite so together. For one thing, she
was petite. Keith imagined that her schedule of full-time work,
part-time college, plus caring for her children didn't leave much
time for nutritious eating, but Tracy Pegram hardly had a figure
of a woman who grabbed a lot of greasy hamburgers and French fries
on the run.
She was also fashionable. Her hair was cut in an extremely short natural that emphasized delicate features and a graceful neck. From what he’d seen, the shorter a woman’s hair the larger her earrings tended to be—perhaps to prevent her from being mistaken for a man—but Tracy Pegram’s lobes were decorated with small gold love knots, just one in each ear. She wore a simple black sweater and black pants with a black-trimmed collarless kelly green suit jacket. A thin gold chain hung around her neck with a curvy capital T hanging from it. To Keith’s eyes, Ms. Pegram looked as well-dressed as, well, Wendy, who was clearly in a considerably higher income bracket.
“Mrs. Tracy Pegram, may I present Mr. Keith Norwood,” Jeff said.
Keith saw the flash of recognition in her dark eyes. She shook the hand he offered like she was in a trance.
“You might recognize him,” Jeff added lamely.
She spoke for the first time since Keith entered the room. “Yes, I do.”
“Keith, you sit there,” Jeff instructed, indicating the chair to Mrs. Pegram’s right, then went around to sit behind his desk.
After Keith was seated he cleared his throat and began to speak. He noticed that while he sat all the way back in his chair, she sat upright, her legs bent backward at the knee and demurely crossed at the ankle. He tried not to be intimidated by her stern body language. “Mrs. Pegram,” he began earnestly, “I can’t tell you how sorry I am about what happened yesterday. My son, Josh, has been unhappy lately about my campaign. You see, if I should win it’ll involve moving to Springfield. He’s fifteen and doesn’t want to leave his friends.”
“I don’t mean to sound rude, Mr. Norwood, but is that supposed to be an explanation for what he did? Your son has a tantrum because he doesn’t want to move and my son ends up with a broken leg?” Her eyes flashed with anger.
He resisted the urge to exchange worried glances with Jeff. The last thing he wanted to do was make Tracy Pegram think they were ganging up on her. “Of course not. I just wanted to give you some background information.”
She nodded. “I know about the accident that killed your wife and mother-in-law,” she said softly. “I truly am sorry for the...horrendous experience you and your son suffered, but perhaps he should be supervised more closely.”
Keith’s spine stiffened. He understood the message behind her words: that he shouldn’t be out campaigning, he should be at home with his son. And he didn’t like it. Who was this woman to tell him how to raise his son? With all she had on her plate, how much time did she spend with her kids?
She kept looking at him with anger in her dark eyes. Keith didn’t know if he’d ever had her vote to begin with, but if he ever had it, he’d definitely lost it now.
Jeff quickly intervened, leaning forward personably. “Listen, we’ll all parents here. We have to realize that even the best-behaved child is going to act out every now and again. I’m not saying that Josh has had no problems stemming from witnessing the accident that killed his mother and grandmother, but that ordeal is pretty much behind him. What happened yesterday was really a one-time impulse that he regrets very much. Mrs. Pegram, I asked you here today in the hopes that we can reach some kind of a quiet settlement.” He put just the right emphasis on the word ‘quiet.’
Keith found himself holding his breath as he waited for her reaction.
Tracy felt torn. She was being asked to take money in exchange for not pursuing legal action. Josh Norwood had left the scene of an accident, and one with injuries at that.
But he was also the son of a wealthy man, and she'd recently begun dipping into her meager savings to keep her bills paid on time, something she wouldn’t be able to keep up for very long. She was still paying back the loan she’d taken against her retirement account to finance her divorce from Clint. Her credit card balance was creeping upward because of emergency repairs for a nine-year-old car she couldn’t afford to replace. And the kids always needed something, especially the rapidly growing Gabe. Things were worse now than they’d ever been before, and her stress level was becoming unendurable. Just last week she’d actually been reduced to tears when she realized she’d accidentally picked up two half gallons of more expensive premium orange juice instead of the regular kind she usually bought. Things had to be pretty bad when an expenditure of a dollar and forty cents made her cry. In that case it wasn’t so much the money as it was the strain of trying to keep up. And who knew when Clint would be able to send her anything?
It might not be fair that rich men like Keith Norwood could buy their children’s way out of just about any jam, but she had no choice. She had to hear him out.
“I’m listening,” she said quietly, trying not to sound defeated.
“I wanted to give you an amount that would cover your out of pocket expenses for your son’s medical treatment and would leave plenty left over,” Keith Norwood said. He paused, then said, “Twenty-five thousand dollars.”
“You give the word, and I’ll get the papers drawn up right away,” Jeff added. “You’ll be able to pick up your check this afternoon. Of course, there are some terms we have to ask that you agree to.”
Tracy’s fingers gripped the arm rests of the chair, forcing her facial expression to remain impassive. Twenty-five thousand dollars! That was probably two-thirds of her annual salary. To think that Keith Norwood could pay her that much money in one lump sum, the same way she would buy a ninety-nine-cent burger at McDonald’s. She could actually pick it up on her way home from work, Jeff said.
But nothing was as simple as it seemed on the surface, and Jeff Howard’s words suggested a catch. “What kind of terms?” she asked, her voice low with suspicion.
“Confidentiality. We would expect for the details of the situation itself, as well as the financial settlement, to be kept secret. No friends, no family...not even your ex-husband should be told.”
Her eyes narrowed. She had broken her promise to Amber and hadn’t yet telephoned Clint, but it bothered her that Jeff knew about Clint in the first place. “How do you know I have an ex-husband?” Once again she was reminded of the creepy feeling she’d gotten that morning when Jeff called her house.
As he hedged, the answer came to her with the force of a strong ocean wave. “My God, you’ve had me investigated,” she said accusingly. “You did more than just find out my name and phone number. You’ve snooped into my personal business, going over any records that exist on me. You invaded my privacy!”
While listening to her tirade, Keith noticed that her voice had a husky quality to it that was charming. In a different setting he’d find it sexy. He pushed that outrageous thought aside and sought to reassure her. “Mrs. Pegram,” he said in the most soothing voice he could muster, “I can understand your being upset at the thought of a background check being done on you, but I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s only common sense to get an idea of a person’s character before you offer them cash to keep something quiet.” Too late, he realized that pointing out his ability to pay her for her silence would only antagonize her.
She turned on him with blazing eyes. “And what if my character had been questionable, in your opinion? That doesn’t change the fact that my son has a broken leg because of your son's reckless driving. So then what would you have done?”
His answer came without hesitation. “I would’ve brought Josh to the police station to turn himself in. I would have let the insurance company handle the settlement, dropped out of the race for governor, and done everything I could to protect my son against the law.” Keith spoke with quiet resolve that conveyed he was every bit as concerned for his son’s welfare as she was for hers.
He certainly sounded convincing, she thought. She felt herself softening, then swiftly changed her mind. She couldn’t cave in now. Josh’s leg would be in a cast for the next six weeks. She’d have to shuttle him to and from school all that time, and she was already exhausted.
No. As far as she was concerned, Keith Norwood was as sincere as Fred C. Davis, the character of a do-nothing, hot-air Chicago alderman on the old TV sitcom Good Times. His decision to stay in the governor’s race four years ago after his wife was killed before his eyes suggested he was power-mad and wanted to be the nation’s second black president. Couldn’t he see that his son had been traumatized and needed his dad? That might be why the kid took his grandfather’s car keys in the first place, to get his father to stop running for office and pay him some attention for a change.
It almost seemed unfair that such a cold, unfeeling man—even if he did manage to project warmth and sincerity on the surface, like that heartfelt claim he’d just made—should have been blessed with a personal fortune, Tracy thought. Imagine, paying someone twenty-five thousand dollars just like that!
It just went to show how real estate often made people rich. Tracy had dreamed, at least she used to when she and Clint were still married, of one day buying a house, a place of their own that she would lovingly decorate, and where they would raise their children. Of course, they would have owned just one house, the one they lived in. Keith Norwood, on the other hand, owned properties all over Lake County in a partnership with his father. It was likely those lucrative investments more so than his salary as attorney general, that allowed him to write five-figure checks without a second thought.
She blinked. Wait a minute. Real estate. That was the key. Keith Norwood could do something for her that would help her even more than twenty-five thousand dollars' cash, something that would help her get back on her feet.
“Um, Mrs. Pegram?” Jeff Howard prompted.
She decided to go ahead and ask. All he could say was no. She could even make him sweat a little, suggest subtly that she’d press charges if he didn’t give her what she wanted. She wouldn’t actually do that, of course. Tracy had no interest in revenge. She just wanted a chance to get ahead for once in her life, and a better future for Amber and Gabe. If he resisted, she’d just accept the money and go about her business. But he didn’t have to know that. That damn background check showed she wasn’t a criminal, but it wasn’t like they could read her thoughts by reading a piece of paper.
“I’m going to make you a counteroffer,” she said. “Your offer is very generous, and while cash is always wonderful...”
Keith and Jeff looked at each other in puzzlement, and she knew they were wondering what on earth she was about to ask for.
Tracy rushed on. “But what I’d really like is a rental house with free rent for five years, a house with three bedrooms in a good school district, like Gurnee.”
There. She’d said it.