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Crowning design, p.1
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       Crowning Design, p.1

           Leila Meacham
 
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Crowning Design


  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

  Copyright © 1984 by Leila Meacham

  Author letter copyright © 2017 by Leila Meacham

  Excerpt from Titans copyright © 2016 by Leila Meacham

  Cover design by Laura Klynestra

  Cover photo: Stephanie Cabrera/Offset

  Cover copyright © 2017 by Hachette Book Group, Inc.

  Hachette Book Group supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture.

  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

  Grand Central Publishing

  Hachette Book Group

  1290 Avenue of the Americas

  New York, NY 10104

  grandcentralpublishing.com

  twitter.com/grandcentralpub

  Originally published in hardcover in 1984 by the Walker Publishing Company, Inc., New York, New York.

  First Grand Central Publishing Edition: January 2017

  Grand Central Publishing is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

  The Grand Central Publishing name and logo is a trademark of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

  The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.

  The Hachette Speakers Bureau provides a wide range of authors for speaking events. To find out more, go to www.hachettespeakersbureau.com or call (866) 376-6591.

  Library of Congress Control Number: 2016942113.

  ISBNs: 978-1-4555-4139-3 (trade pbk.), 978-1-4555-4141-6 (library edition hardcover), 978-1-4555-4138-6 (ebook)

  E3-20161121-NF-DA

  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  A Letter to My Friends, Fans, Readers of My Later-In-Life Novels, and Newcomers to the Books of Leila Meacham

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Epilogue

  About the Author

  Also by Leila Meacham

  Acclaim for the Novels of Leila Meacham

  A Preview of “Titans”

  To Richard, again

  A Letter to My Friends, Fans, Readers of My Later-In-Life Novels, and Newcomers to the Books of Leila Meacham

  Dear Ones,

  Crowning Design is the last to be republished of the three romances I wrote in the mid-eighties. The other two—Ryan’s Hand and Aly’s House—were rereleased last year with prefaces, like this one, explaining that at the time of their writing thirty-three years ago I had no idea how to go about putting together a book, a deficit that I hope will not be too apparent in this one. For those of you who have never written a book-length narrative and for those of you who would like to, let me say that there is no agony like facing a blank page in a typewriter (or computer if you are of the electronically literate) with no idea of what or who to write about when you’ve been paid to do so by a certain deadline. And that’s exactly the position I found myself in when I first began to write Crowning Design. Ryan’s Hand had been published, and I was under contract to produce two more romances, never having believed I could write the first one. So there I sat racking my brain to come up with something containing characters, plot, and setting. If I failed, I could see my advance flying from my hand back to the publisher and my name forever shamed in publishing circles.

  Now I chuckle at the huge and absurd importance I gave myself. My advance would hardly have covered the bill for hamburgers and fries for two at a coffee shop, and nobody in “publishing circles” had a clue or cared the slightest who I was.

  But I cared and I wanted to tell an interesting story. Now those of you who’ve read my previous letters to fans and readers as introductions to Ryan’s Hand and Aly’s House already know that I don’t follow the tried-and-true rule of fiction writing that instructs writers to write what they know. I write about what I don’t know and then learn from research. So there I sat empty-brained the day the idea hit me for Crowning Design. Funny, odd, strange how a long-ago memory of a detail can leap out of the past at just the right moment and spawn a whole world (or book) of possibilities. Perhaps it only happens to writers under deadline looking at a blank page, but it happened to me. Somehow I was back in high school sitting in Miss Harbin’s biology class (we called unmarried women Miss in those days), eraser in hand bearing down hard on a pituitary gland I’d drawn in the wrong place on my rendering of the human anatomy. (No mistakes were allowed.) A classmate leaned over to me. “You are rubbing too hard. If you will erase lightly, the pencil marks will disappear entirely,” he said. And so I did and learned a valuable lesson that day. Better results can be achieved with gentle handling over hard pressure just about any time. But I digress. Ever afterward that school year, I followed my classmate’s advice, and Miss Harbin never knew my pencil lead had landed where it shouldn’t have been.

  So there it was, the one detail that would set up the mystery of who done it in Crowning Design. After that, the other elements of fiction came fairly quickly. I would set my story in a place I’d once visited briefly but didn’t know much about and would like to learn more. So Colorado it was. The Rockies, the clear mountain streams and rivers and lakes, the blue columbines, the seasons! (We don’t have seasons in Texas. Not predictable ones, anyway.) What a background against which to spin a tale! Architecture was a subject I’d wanted to know more about, so I jotted that down as a possible launchpad, and then the green light flashed. I was off and shooting forward to formulate the suspense story of Crowning Design. To see how those pencil marks fit into the novel, you’ll have to read the book, but since you wouldn’t be reading this if you did not have one in hand, I’ll wish you enjoyable reading with hope this finds you well.

  Leila Meacham

  Chapter One

  Roger Lawson might have known his mother would get the better of him. She usually did. Why couldn’t she have kept his engagement party small and simple, as he had asked—no, ordered—when he left for his stock-buying trip to Australia? He should have expected that in his absence she would orchestrate a bash like this and invite the entire Virginia gentry, not one of whom, by the looks of it, had declined.

  Only Estelle Lawson could come up with this rose-tinted monstrosity, he fumed, looking up at the chandeliers swathed in pink net. Their twinkling lights, pink for good measure, cast a blush over everything, as if anything else was needed to give guests the illusion that they had walked into a rosy dream world. In addition to the fountain of pink champagne and musicians in pink dinner jackets, lavish arrangements of azaleas, in shades from palest blush to deepest fuchsia, were everywhere. They adorned the pink linen-draped tables, hung in heavy garlands from the balustrades, twined profusely around every column in the colonial ballroom. “To honor our Georgia beauty,” Estelle explained ebulliently, wafting among her guests in a swirl of frothy chiffon the color of strawberry ice cream.

  Only his mother could have pulled this off, Roger was thinking. Only she would have wanted to. Sheer
extravagance guaranteed that the Lawsonville Country Club would never again see the likes of such a party. Too much wasn’t enough for her. Well, it was more than enough for him.

  “It’s suffocating in here,” he moaned. “I feel like I’m being buried alive in cotton candy.”

  Deborah glanced with humor at her fiancé, a stockily built man of unexpected grace on the dance floor, and suggested, “Then let’s go out to the terrace, Roger.”

  “With pleasure,” he agreed, adroitly waltzing her to the French doors that offered escape from the flower-bedecked ballroom. “Dammit!” he said when the doors were closed behind them. “If anyone but my mother were responsible for this…but what can you do to your own mother?”

  “Nothing,” Deborah answered, understanding his frustration well. “No more than I can do to mine.”

  “Sorry you’ve gotten involved in all of this?”

  Her laughter was the loveliest sound he’d ever heard, allaying, somewhat, his fear that she would change her mind about marrying him. “You may be the one who’s sorry,” she had teased.

  “Never,” he vowed, drawing her close. God, she was beautiful. He had never seen anyone as exquisite, as exciting, as this women he had just announced he was to marry. For once his mother and her infernal meddling in his life had paid off. That trip to Georgia last Christmas she had finagled him into taking her on…“I want to see Isabelle, Roger, and I cannot go alone. The girls are busy with their husbands’ families for Christmas. It will be just the two of us this year, and why stay home when we can bask in the land of peaches and sunshine for the holidays? I want to see Isabelle. Something tells me I should. After all, I’m seventy now and there aren’t many of us Kappas left from the class of ’35. Look here,” she had said, wagging a letter in front of him at which he barely glanced.

  It had been a letter from her old sorority chum inviting them to spend Christmas in Georgia. He didn’t like Georgia. It was humid and sultry even in winter, especially on the coast where the Standridges lived. He remembered the humidity from the one childhood visit he had paid with his widowed mother to the Standridges. Mr. and Mrs. Standridge had seemed old to him then, and he had thought it peculiar that they should have a five-year-old daughter. He had been fourteen then and aware that his mother was not as young as those of his friends.

  The child had been a bewitching little girl, very proper and polite. She didn’t whine and pull at him like pesky younger sisters of his friends. He had felt rather sorry for her, for even then he had sensed that as an only child of parents already in their fifties—a very beautiful, doll-like child—she was not being permitted a normal childhood. This perception had been verified when, bored and waiting to go into Savannah with his mother and the Standridges for dinner, he had wandered into the kitchen in search of an apple. There in the center of the room had sat the little girl on a stool as if glued to it, her eyes fixed on him when he swung open the door from the dining room.

  “What are you doing?” he had demanded.

  “I am to sit here after I am dressed so that I won’t get mussed.”

  “Oh,” he had said, taking in the fine lace dress with its satin sash, the black patent shoes and spotless white socks.

  “How long do you have to sit there?”

  “Until my parents are dressed and ready to leave.”

  “Is that very long?”

  She had shrugged delicate shoulders, her amber eyes large and liquid in the fine-boned face.

  “Do you want an apple?”

  There was a basket of them, large and enticingly red. He had refused one earlier, asking if he might save it for later.

  “Thank you, no. I would just get juice all over me.”

  “I can’t imagine you ever getting anything on you.”

  “But I would, you see, so I can’t have one.”

  Roger had taken an apple. It would be hours before they actually had dinner. He took it outside to eat, not caring if the succulent juice dribbled on his navy blue blazer. He sat on the stoop and thought about the little girl sitting on the stool alone in the kitchen so that she would be picture perfect when time came to show her off.

  They’re cruel to do that to her, he thought with disgust, thinking of his two rambunctious older sisters who had always come and gone as they pleased. They would never have allowed themselves to be planted on a kitchen stool.

  That had been sixteen years ago, and now here she was, as picture perfect at twenty-one as she had been then. The body of the little girl was gone. He held the figure of a desirable woman in his arms, but the naivete and innocence were still there. In many ways, she was still the little girl sitting on the kitchen stool.

  “Would you like an apple?” Roger asked.

  “What?”

  “An apple. Would you like to go to my place and have an apple?”

  She didn’t remember. He could tell by the way the amber eyes searched his face. “Ah, kitten,” he said, swept by a great tenderness for the woman in his arms, “have you never done anything on the spur of the moment, disobeyed your parents, let your hair down, told the devil to take the hindmost?”

  “Not very often,” Deborah admitted with a small smile. “Not ever, actually. Are you asking to leave the party? Is that what the apple is all about? But what will our parents say?”

  “Plenty, but what the hell?” He shrugged. “They’re happy. They’ve got us engaged. This pony show is really for them anyway. Besides, I want to see as much of my girl as I can before she has to go back to college. What do you say?”

  A faint crease disturbed the porcelain-smooth brow. “Shouldn’t we at least say something to them before we leave?” she worried. His arms were very strong, she realized, and he had the kind of swarthy beard growth that required a shave twice a day. Deborah supposed she would become accustomed to the bristly feel of it next to her skin, just as she would to being the wife of a famous horse breeder and the mistress of the family estate, Lawson Downs.

  The idea of both still seemed farfetched to her. Each morning now she awoke thinking that the last four months since Christmas had been a dream. As she had come down the stairs to greet Roger and his mother in the hall, she would never have had the faintest inkling that their visit would lead to this pre-nuptial extravaganza tonight.

  Roger kissed the sweetly curving mouth. “If you say so, kitten. But the rest of the night is mine, and I don’t intend to share it with that champagne-sipping crowd in there.”

  They found the elderly trio—Estelle Lawson, Benjamin and Isabelle Standridge—at the fountain of champagne, engaged in a private toast of their own. “Oh, there you are, my dears!” trilled Estelle, greeting them with what Roger recognized as gloating triumph. “Cheer up, Roger. I know you wanted a smaller party, but I may not have the opportunity to enjoy many more occasions like this. I was right to indulge myself, wasn’t I, Deborah?”

  Estelle’s eyes were like those of a bird, Deborah thought. They were perfectly round with the yellow irises dominated by hard, black pupils. “It’s a lovely party, Mrs. Lawson. Everyone seems to be having a splendid time.”

  “You have your mother’s diplomacy, my dear. But Mrs. Lawson seems so formal. It won’t be long before you’ll be calling me Mother Lawson. You wouldn’t object to that, would you, Isabelle?—Deborah calling me Mother?” She fastened the birdlike gaze on the woman she had known for half a century.

  “Of course not,” Isabelle replied, still an amazingly pretty woman, although wide swaths of silver now concealed much of the rich auburn hair Deborah had inherited. “Deborah’s name for me has always been Mummy.”

  “Oh, not always, dear,” Ben hastened to contradict. “I believe she has called you Mother for the past several years. It sounds a little more grown-up, you know,” he explained to Roger. “Mom might be a nice choice for you, Estelle.”

  “Mom Lawson sounds like the name of a woman running a gang of outlaws,” Estelle protested. “I much prefer Mother.”

  “Well, then,” Isabell
e sighed, “I guess she can still call me Mummy.”

  Two embarrassed spots of color had appeared on Deborah’s cheeks. She turned to her fiancé decisively. “Roger, did you say something about an apple?”

  Roger grinned. “That I did. If you folks will excuse us, we’re going to the kitchen for an apple. Don’t wait up.” Seeing his mother about to protest, he gripped Deborah’s elbow and steered her toward the ballroom doors before the trio could organize their objections.

  “They’ve finally gotten to you, haven’t they?” Roger commented as he drove out of the club parking lot in the direction of his condominium overlooking the Potomac River.

  Deborah pressed her throbbing temples. The headache had been with her for the entire round of exhausting prenuptial activities. “I am so weary of that kind of discussion. Would it ever occur to either of our mothers to ask me what I might like to call your mother?”

  Roger found that observation amusing. “When we’re married,” he chuckled, “you’ll have your say in everything. I guarantee it.”

  Deborah did not respond. How grand it would be, she sighed inwardly, if Roger did not have to shield her from the domination of his mother. She’d had enough of that from her own parents. Now she wondered if she weren’t, by marrying into Roger’s formidable family, just adding another thumb to the two she’d lived under all her short life. Estelle Lawson was one of those matriarchs who had reared two daughters and a son to knuckle under to no one, not even to her, and Deborah instinctively knew that had they done so, offspring or not, Estelle would have ground them under her heel. Deborah had never bucked anyone or any decision made for her in her life. What chance would she have to lead her own life in a house with such a woman? For it was understood that while Deborah would assume the title and duties of mistress of Lawson Downs, her mother-in-law would continue to occupy a wing of the mansion.

  “You’re thinking mighty hard over there, kitten. What’s going on in that lovely head of yours? Not reconsidering marrying me, are you?” It was a fear that he could not lay to rest. He knew that the decision to marry him had not been hers. Accustomed from infancy to accepting what her parents thought best for her, Deborah had yet to realize that she could make decisions for herself. The little show of assertiveness awhile ago had delighted him, but she must not be encouraged to try her wings too often—not until they were married. Once discovered, she just might fly away from them all.

 
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