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Crowning design, p.10
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       Crowning Design, p.10

           Leila Meacham
 
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  Her companion looked across at her, observing the excitement in the amber eyes, themselves reminding him of the splendor of a bright fall day. “You’re really sold on Colorado, aren’t you?”

  “I don’t think I could be happy anywhere else. I adore mountains. They’re so solid and enduring.”

  “Tell me about your parents,” he said suddenly. “Are they still living?”

  “No,” she said, startled at the question. “They died within the first four years of my coming to Denver.”

  “I’m sorry,” Dan said, glancing quickly at her profile. “Do you ever go back to Savannah?”

  “No. There’s no reason to. No relatives are left. When my parents died, I sold the house, the place where I grew up.”

  Dan smiled. “What about your friends? Do you ever have the desire to go back to see them?”

  “Occasionally, but I never have.” Sometimes, she wanted to tell him, she missed Savannah terribly. It would have been wonderful to go home, back to Pecan Street, to the house where she was born, to the neighborhood and the friends she had known since childhood. But she was no longer welcome there. She was known as the girl who had jilted a fine man on the eve of her wedding, provoked his death, and caused her parents to grieve themselves into early graves.

  Deborah said, “I don’t want you to think that Savannah isn’t dear to me. It’s a lovely old Southern city, but I felt stifled there, as if I were mildewing in a hope chest with great-grand-mother’s lace tablecloth. I had to break free of it, go somewhere where I could breathe and live my own life without answering to anybody.”

  “And have you been able to do that?”

  “Yes,” she said. “Now I don’t have anybody to answer to, nobody at all.”

  Around noon, Deborah directed Dan north from the interstate onto a two-lane highway leading into the deep, brilliant world of the Arapaho National Forest. Dan let out an awed exclamation. “It’s something, isn’t it?” Deborah breathed, experiencing the usual seasonal frustration of trying to assimilate so much beauty all at once. In the moving car, with the brilliant reds and rusts and greens and yellows flashing by on either side, she had the sensation of suddenly being plunged into a universe composed only of silence and dazzling color. Even Dempsey seemed awed by the majestic grandeur.

  “This road,” Deborah explained in a tone full of respect for the splendor, “leads to Eldorado Canyon. There’s a bluff we’ll come to in a few minutes that you can see from the road. We can turn off there, and it’s just a short distance to a clearing. I found it when I first came to Colorado. I’ve come back many times.”

  “By yourself?” Dan asked, looking at her.

  “No,” she said. “With Dempsey.”

  Deborah suggested they wait to unpack the car until after their exploration of the forest. “The chipmunks and camp robbers can make quick work of a picnic basket,” she said. “They won’t bother us when we get back because of Dempsey.”

  “Camp robbers?” he asked.

  “Birds.” She laughed. “Don’t you know anything about this business of picnicking in Colorado?”

  For answer, he tweaked her nose. Once out of the car, Dan held out his hand and she slipped hers into it. For a moment they stood in awed silence, letting the forest reach their deepest senses. Dempsey had already bounded off in pursuit of a tuft-eared squirrel.

  “I feel like whispering,” Dan whispered.

  “You should. It’s nature’s cathedral.”

  They began the climb toward the bluff, pausing to admire the aspens growing along the slope.

  She asked if he knew why the aspens quake. No, he did not, he said, but he had a feeling he was about to be enlightened.

  “Indeed you are,” Deborah assured him. “Ute legend has it that at one time, when all living things trembled in anticipation of the Great Spirit’s arrival on earth, the aspen stood still, showing irreverance. That did not set too well with the Great Spirit. So, as a penance, the aspen was sentenced to quake forever.”

  Deborah finished the recital as they came to a break in the trees, suffused with sunlight. An aspen tree, golden with light, quivered in front of them, and Deborah went to hold a mass of the fluttering leaves loosely in her hands. Dan came to stand beside her, fascinated by the gentleness with which she held the trembling leaves. Unexpectedly, she said, “Not to be forgiven is a terrible thing.”

  They explored and hiked for over an hour until Dan announced that he was hungry. Deborah discovered that she was eager for his reaction to the meal. “Let’s go see if we can find anything to eat,” she said mysteriously.

  His expression of pleasure when the food was laid out more than satisfied her desire to please. He had set the folding table and chairs in a stream of sunlight that felt pleasant in the chill of the forest. They ate and drank slowly, savoring the wine, the peace, the quiet, each other. Deborah, mindful of the vault of the sky, the floor like gold beneath their feet, the leaves twinkling their approval when Dan’s laughter rang through the trees, had never known such a time of utter contentment. She wished she could capture the moment forever and then realized that perhaps she had. Never again would she enter a forest without the memory of this day with Dan.

  “I…baked a cake last night,” Deborah said at the meal’s end, suddenly overcome with the peculiar shyness that sometimes struck during certain moments with Dan. “The recipe is one that my mother especially prized. She refused to give it to anyone, or if she did she altered it so that no one else’s ever tasted as good as hers. It was my favorite dessert as a child. I thought you might like it, too.”

  She was conscious of Dan regarding her in rather stunned surprise. “You baked a cake for me?” he asked quietly. “I feel highly complimented, Deborah. No one has ever done that for me.”

  “I hope you like it,” she said, lifting out the rich chocolate cake. She cut him a generous slice, then bent to give Dempsey a treat while Dan ate the first bite, afraid to watch his face.

  “It’s delicious,” he pronounced. “More than delicious. Sensational. It will become my favorite, too.”

  The statement implied a long association with her and her mother’s recipe. Deborah did not pursue the point. It was enough that he had said it.

  She didn’t want the outing to end. While Dan packed the car, she went back to the stream of sunlight for one final memory. “What are you thinking?” he called to her. He was beside the car, jacket open, hair ruffled, a portion of chest exposed at the neck of the plaid shirt, legs powerful in the taut jeans.

  “How well-suited to mountains you are,” she answered.

  Chapter Seven

  It was Dan who first saw the wide-open front door. The mountain’s late afternoon shadow had fallen across the circular drive, and Deborah was occupied with keeping Dempsey’s curious nose out of the grocery sack containing steaks for dinner. “Stay in the car, Deborah, and lock the doors after me,” Dan ordered quietly as he stopped the car. “I want Dempsey to come with me.”

  “What’s the matter?” she asked, alarmed by the quiet urgency in his voice. Then, over Dan’s shoulder, she saw the open door. “Oh, no!”

  “Stay put,” he said again. “Keep the motor running. Come on, Dempsey.”

  “Dan, you can’t go in there! Somebody may still be inside!”

  “I don’t think so. There’s no vehicle about, not unless it’s in the alley. In which case the front door wouldn’t be open to warn you of a burglar inside. I’ll check the back first. Get behind the wheel and be ready to move if you have to.”

  “Dan—”

  “Do as I ask, Deborah.”

  She watched as Dan and the dog disappeared around the corner of the house, her throat nearly closed in fear. She knew that she had locked the front door as she left. Dan had watched her. They should simply leave now and go somewhere to call the police. What if the burglars were still in the house and should hurt Dan!

  Deborah was ready to go to his aid when Dan appeared in the open doorway. His face h
ad the look of granite. “You were lucky,” he said grimly. “They broke a kitchen window to get in, but at least they didn’t damage the house. It’s safe to come in. I’ll call the sheriff’s office.”

  While Dan telephoned, Deborah took a survey of the house, sickened by the fact that the sanctity of her home had been violated. But at least the man—why did she think there had been only one?—had not wreaked havoc with her precious furnishings, the china, crystal, and art objects inherited from her parents. He had taken all the sterling, a mink coat that had belonged to her mother, the pearl and diamond earrings she had worn Saturday night with Dan, and the gold chain with the medallion. Her other jewelry was still locked in the safe. She was missing radios and cameras, a tape recorder, and the small television set that had been in the kitchen. Oddly, the thief had also taken a few books and other personal things, including a framed picture of herself.

  But in the workroom off the kitchen, she made a terrible discovery. “Dan!” she cried out to him in the kitchen, where he had been speaking on the phone. “He took the architectural drawings!” Frantically she searched her mind for where else they could be, but no, she remembered working on them here last night while waiting for the cake to bake.

  “Architectural drawings of the project?” Dan entered the small studio with a frown. “Are you sure?”

  “Yes,” she said, her face suddenly gone white. “They were of the support columns and—and I had completed several others—”

  “But there must be copies at the office?”

  “No,” she said, fighting down a surge of hysteria. “I’ve been working on them here at night because I was falling behind at the office. I couldn’t work without interruption.” Her eyes widened at the look on his face. “Dan,” she offered quickly, hoping to head off his anger, “I can redraw the columns. By tacking a few hours onto my workday and working weekends, I can make up for the lost time.”

  Dan’s healthy tan had taken on the color of a forbidding winter twilight. The dark brows drew together as he approached. “Exactly what are we talking about here? How long did it take you to do the drawings?”

  “A week.” Deborah swallowed.

  “A week! We don’t have an extra week, Deborah!”

  “Dan, you’ve got to trust me. I can redraw them. I promise you they’ll be ready by the twenty-second.”

  “How? By driving yourself into the ground? Not eating or sleeping? What kind of answer is that to this problem?”

  “That’s my concern. I’ve been under pressure before, but I’ve always come through. You said yourself that I’m known around town as a lady who keeps deadlines.”

  “You were foolish to keep those drawings here, Deborah, especially since I’ve told you a number of times that this house is a sitting target for vandals.”

  “Yes,” she conceded, moistening dry lips. “I—it just never entered my mind that a thief would take something as useless to him as a set of architectural drawings.” She looked at him remorsefully. “I’m so sorry, Dan.”

  It was on the tip of his tongue to reply that her apology wouldn’t mean a tinker’s damn to the others whose fortunes and livelihoods were riding on this project. It certainly wouldn’t to him if he had to renegotiate his financial arrangements at a higher interest rate because the documents weren’t ready by the deadline.

  But her expression was terrified. Not a trace remained of the earlier vibrant glow that had been on her face. It occurred to him that she might be worried about more than just the deadline. She could be afraid that the situation might jeopardize their relationship. He took her by the shoulders. “Let’s not slay any dragons until we see ’em,” he said reasonably, controlling his ire. “Time enough to worry about the deadline if and when it’s not met. I have every confidence it will be. Now come on.” He smoothed back her hair. “Let’s get some color back into that face. This isn’t the end of the world, and I’m not some Great Spirit condemning you to quake forever.”

  She smiled slightly. “You would have every right to.”

  “Try me when and if you don’t make the deadline.”

  “No thanks. I believe I’ll pass on that.”

  He kissed her forehead. “What you need to do now is make a list of the items stolen. The sheriff will want one. After I unload the car, I’ll board up that broken window. Do you have any lumber lying around?”

  “In the garage, left over from when the house was built,” Deborah answered.

  It was the young deputy’s opinion that she had been robbed by an amateur. “The evidence supports that theory, Miss Standridge. The burglar took items at random, some worthless to him, such as your picture and those drawings, and left other things that he could have sold for a pretty penny if he’d known their value. The way he entered the house, by breaking the window instead of cutting it, smacks of someone who was just passing by, some bold kid maybe, who went up and rang your doorbell. When nobody answered and the dog didn’t bark, he knew you weren’t home. He went around to the back, knocked in that window, unlatched it, came in, and took what he wanted.” He gave her a look of sympathy. “I know it’s a small blessing, but be grateful that he didn’t make a mess of things. So many of them do, just out of spite.”

  “There’s no hope of recovering my things, I suppose?”

  “I wish I could say there was, ma’am. We’ll sure call you if anything on that list turns up. In the meantime, I suggest you secure your home a little better.”

  “Burglar bars, you think?” asked Dan.

  “They won’t stop a professional, but they will a casual thief like this one.”

  Dan walked with the deputy to his car, where they conversed for a few minutes. When he returned, he found Deborah unloading the picnic basket, her movements quiet and composed. He observed her in silence, reminded of how differently the day had begun. Since their conversation in the workroom, they had spoken only a few words to each other. “Would you like a drink?” he asked. “I could certainly use one.”

  She nodded, and he returned shortly with a Tom Collins. She was putting the steaks, still in the grocery sack, into the refrigerator. “Don’t forget those when you leave,” she said. “I may forget to remind you.”

  “I thought we were grilling them for dinner.”

  “I’d rather not, if you don’t mind, Dan. I’d like to get started on the drawings, and frankly, I’d like to be alone this evening.”

  Dan drew closer, his brow furrowing. “It’s not a good idea for you to be alone tonight, Deborah. And I certainly don’t think you should work on the drawings. You could make a mistake, and we can certainly do without those.”

  She faced him squarely. “Mr. Parker, I do not make mistakes on architectural drawings.”

  “Deborah, if you’re worried that this is going to have any affect on us, you can lay that worry aside. One of the problems in working with women in business,” he sighed, “is that you people cannot separate personal and business feelings. This problem today affects our business relationship, not us personally, understand?”

  “I’ll give it some thought,” she said.

  “Good. Now, I’m staying for dinner. If I leave, you won’t eat. Also I’m staying the night, unless you think you can throw me out bodily.”

  To the sound of hammer striking nails, Deborah washed the plastic cups and plates and restored the picnic basket to order, her mind on what Dan had said. She wished she could believe him, but it had been her experience that failure always affected love. Love withdrew in the face of failure. She should know. Withdrawal of affection, or the threat of it, had been her parents’ punishment for failure. That dark source of emotion had given birth to the excruciating headaches that had plagued most of her life. One was gathering force now behind her temples. She had not been bothered with them in recent years, not since working for Randall Hayden.

  She fed Dempsey and set the table in the dining room, opening the silverware drawer without thinking. She could not have said why she began to cry when she saw
again the empty velvet compartments. Possessions were, after all, only possessions. But not hers. They were memories, all that were left of the years in Savannah, of her parents and the house on Pecan Street—the only tangible comfort in her banishment from the dear and familiar. She had designed this house for them in the peace of the foothills, the shelter of the mountain, and now she knew how much they meant to her and how easily they could be taken away.

  Dempsey, disturbed by the sight of his mistress in tears, sat on his haunches and whimpered in distress. “It’s all right, boy,” said Dan, coming up behind them. “I’ll take over now.”

  Dan lay awake in the guest room, propped high on pillows and thinking. The evening had not been rescued. Deborah had not stayed long in his arms when he found her crying but had dried her eyes quickly and gone about the preparations for dinner. After a silent meal, she had left him to the television set and gone into the studio, closing the door. Without her, he had not wanted to watch television, not with a briefcase of work waiting in the trunk of his car.

  At the kitchen table, facing the closed door of the studio, he had been unable to concentrate on the papers spread out for his attention. He kept seeing Deborah in the stream of sunlight those last few minutes in the forest, heard again her words, reexperienced the feeling that had swept over him.

  Damn! He had not meant to upbraid the beautiful woman in the forest. Why couldn’t she understand that? The builder had been angry with the architect handling the most important project of his career. Finding her crying, it had been the man who had taken her into his arms, sensitive to the pain of a woman hurting from the violation of her home.

 
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