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Crowning design, p.12
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       Crowning Design, p.12

           Leila Meacham
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  Her heart was not ready for Dan Parker. She had not been free of pain long enough to endure the kind of grief that loving him could mean.

  She had closed her eyes in thought and did not see or hear the door to the office open or the approach of footsteps. “What you need,” said the richly toned voice coming from the other side of the desk, “is a weekend away from the drawing board.”

  Deborah blinked and lifted her chin. “If I’m dreaming, don’t tell me,” she said rising, unable to accept the vision of Dan in an overcoat and carrying a briefcase as more than a miracle of wishful thinking.

  Smiling, he set the briefcase purposefully on the desk and walked around it, his distinctive hair and eyes and brows in striking contrast to the deeply bronzed skin, a result of the desert sun. “Maybe this will prove that you’re not,” Dan said, bringing his head down, possessing her mouth with such intimacy that she gasped, opening her lips to his passion. Her arms went around him, and she returned his kiss with a fierce hunger, all restraint gone, only her need of him important. After a few moments, Dan said, “Push the intercom button and tell Bea you’re going home.”

  “Well, stop that so I can,” she said thickly.

  It was only four o’clock, but darkness had almost descended by the time they reached Deborah’s house. Dan had followed her in a four-wheel-drive Bronco outfitted with a telephone, which he had driven from Phoenix. He parked it in the garage on the other side of Deborah’s car and, taking her keys, went through the house to the back door to let Dempsey in from the backyard while she picked up her mail.

  The dog greeted him ecstatically, dragging his doggy towel to Dan for him to wipe his snowy paws. Dan laughed and bent to the task. “You’re quite a mutt, Demps!” he said, thinking how good it was to be here. He had gauged correctly that it was time to put in another appearance. Deborah’s happiness at seeing him left little doubt that she was in love with him. He hoped so. He very much wanted Deborah Standridge to fall in love with him. He noted the bars on the windows with a mixture of relief and distaste.

  “Shall I make us some coffee?” Deborah asked, coming into the kitchen. “What can I get you?”

  “You,” he said, going to her and slipping his arms around her waist. “Just you.”

  “Well,” she said shamelessly, throwing all caution, all the careful Savannah breeding to the wind, “we’ll have to go upstairs for that.”

  She loved him. She loved him totally and eternally. There was no turning the truth aside. It flowed into her heart like an inexorable tide, overturning all barriers. The knowledge should have filled her with a wondrous happiness, but it did not. She hadn’t the slightest idea of her importance to him in the scheme of his life, his work. She had no idea of how to tell him about Roger. She knew only that she had embarked on a journey from which there was no returning. She must see it through to the end, no matter where it might lead.

  Dan stirred, feeling her gaze. “Hello,” he said, his eyes still closed. “What are you thinking?”

  That I love you, her heart answered. “How would you like to go downstairs with me for some eggs and toast and then a long walk in the snow?”

  Dan chuckled. “Sounds like a good idea. What time is it?”

  “Two A.M. The snow has stopped.”

  Deborah prepared them omelets, toast, and cocoa. After eating, they dressed warmly, roused Dempsey, and still warmed by the cocoa, stepped out into a white world. Their breath wreathed out before them in the clear, sharp air. Only the crunch of their footsteps over snow and the occasional murmur of their voices disturbed the brittle night silence. Hand in hand, shoulder brushing shoulder, they tramped through a glistening infinity of snow and stars and close, black sky. For Deborah it was a memorable half hour. If nothing remained at the end, there would still be this memory, set in time, of the two of them alone on such a night.

  At breakfast they planned their weekend. Both were eager to try the slopes. Dan had brought his skis from Phoenix, so Deborah suggested they drive to Vail on Sunday and return by nightfall. Dempsey would have to remain behind. His doghouse was warm and spacious, and he was needed “to guard the drawings,” Deborah said to Dan with a wry grin. Now when she left the house, even to go for an hour’s grocery shopping, she always locked the documents in the safe. Dan gently tapped her chin. “Better safe than sorry,” he countered.

  They agreed that Saturday had to be a workday for both of them, but in the evening they would go out to dinner. She whistled when he named the restaurant, knowing it to be the poshest in Denver. “And I have a surprise for you,” he said.

  They had just sat down to their work, Deborah in her workroom and Dan at the kitchen table with a briefcase of papers, when Dempsey set up a ruckus in the backyard. She joined Dan at the glass door and ordered, “Dempsey, stop that!” when she saw him nudging something gray on the snow. When the Labrador persisted, Deborah hurried out into the morning air, sharp as broken glass, to investigate. It moved, and Deborah saw that it was a large gray bird struggling to get away from the dog. She had run out without her jacket, and Dan stayed behind to get it. By the time he joined her, she was hunched over the bird protectively. Dan threw the jacket around her shoulders and grabbed Dempsey by the collar.

  “It’s a falcon,” she said, “a peregrine falcon. There’s a nest of them up there in the mountain. This one has been shot.”

  Holding Dempsey back, Dan noticed a spill of blood, startlingly red, leaching into the snow. The creature’s large-pupiled gaze was intent upon Deborah’s face as she held it. “Watch out for that beak, honey,” Dan warned, worried that the bird might be a carrier of disease. But even as he spoke, the bird’s thin lids slowly lowered, and the short, curved beak unhinged. After a final, pitiable twitch, the bird lay still. “Honey—” Dan touched her shoulder. “Take Dempsey inside, and I’ll bury it outside the fence.”

  But Deborah did not move. She continued to stare at the bird, her hair ruffled by a sudden light wind springing from nowhere, like a spirit passing, Dan thought.

  “There’s a shovel in the garage,” she said at last. “I thank you, Dan. Dempsey, come with me.”

  Back in the kitchen, Deborah decided to make a fresh pot of coffee to steady her shaking hands before taking them back to the drawing board. She mustn’t let what had just happened spoil the few precious hours of the weekend. Dan was returning to Phoenix Monday morning. But the fact was, the falcon had reminded her of Estelle Lawson. That accusing stare, as if she were somehow responsible for its death, had been so like the one that had troubled her dreams for years. Like the falcon, the woman had probably died with accusation still in her eyes, unforgiving to the end.

  At the back door, Dan stamped snow from his shoes, watching her through the glass. She kept her back to him when he came into the kitchen. “That was a shame,” he said. “Some deer hunter probably bagged the poor bugger. I buried it deep enough to keep from marauders.”

  “That was good of you,” Deborah said, turning to hand him a steaming cup of coffee. She kissed his cold lips lightly, pressing her cheek against his for a moment. “I think I’ll go back to work now. See you at lunch.”

  “Deborah?” He searched her face with a frown. “Don’t go back to work yet. You’re still disturbed by the death of that bird, aren’t you? Sit down and have a cup of coffee with me. You’ll feel better.”

  “I always feel better about everything when I’m with you.” She smiled, appreciating the kind of man he was. Taking her cup to the table, she drew out a chair. “You may think this is silly, but that falcon, the accusing way it looked at me, made me think of a woman I once hurt very badly. I was engaged to her son. He had two older sisters, and they meant very much to Estelle, but the sun rose and set on Roger.” Deborah took a sip of coffee to moisten her throat, aware that Dan was watching and listening intently.

  “What happened?” he asked quietly.

  “I broke our engagement almost on the eve of our wedding—”

  It was not possibl
e to continue. There was something about Dan’s listening attitude, the tension of his posture, that made the words stick in her throat. Was he bothered by the knowledge that she had once been engaged to another man?

  “Anyway,” she said on a conclusive note, “his mother never forgave me. I can’t say that I blame her.”

  “Did you love…Roger?”

  Deborah’s gaze was direct. “No. That is why I didn’t marry him.” Decisively, she pushed back her chair and rose. “It’s still a painful subject and one that I can’t bring myself to discuss. I don’t know why I brought it up.”

  “Were your parents understanding about the broken engagement?” Dan seemed determined to press the subject.

  “I should say not. They were deeply shocked and hurt. They never forgave me for the shame I brought to the family name. Family names are very important in Savannah.” She smiled fleetingly, desperate to leave the kitchen before Dan could ask her anything more about Roger. “I really have to get back to work, Dan.”

  “Is that all of the story?” he persisted, his gaze deeply penetrating.

  “It is for now,” she said firmly.

  In the studio she sat down and pressed a fist to her forehead in despair. Why in the world had she brought the subject up? What an insane, stupid thing to do! Now Dan would be curious and would want to know more about the man she had almost married. It was only natural. He wouldn’t now. But in some unguarded, intimate moment, he could very well ask: “What happened to Roger, honey? Where is he now?”

  At lunch Dan knocked on the studio door. “Soup’s on,” he called, “literally.” When she opened it, Deborah could smell the aroma of tomato soup heating. The breakfast bar was set with placemats, napkins, and spoons. “I took the liberty of rummaging,” Dan said, ladling soup into bowls. “I hope this suits your fancy.” He had found crackers, too, and cheese and apples.

  Deborah sat down at the bar and sniffed approvingly. “You are an enterprising man, dear sir, very handy to have around.”

  “I’m glad you think so,” he said.

  Her stomach was in knots, but she ate the soup and skillfully guided the conversation away from any subject that might lead back to their previous discussion. “What’s my surprise?” she asked.

  Dan shook his head. “Uh-uh, not until tonight.”

  After lunch he followed her into the studio. “What are you working on now?” he asked, studying the aerial perspective of the Parker complex tacked on the wall. His headquarters structure rose majestically from the midst of the surrounding buildings, adding grace to the Denver skyline. His eyes shone as he studied it.

  “The portico of the bank building,” she answered, amused and pleased at his expression. “The drawings of the support columns were finished and given to John, our structural engineer, with little loss from the schedule I’m happy to say.”

  Around the room she had tacked the aerial perspectives of all her building designs. She watched as Dan inspected each once. “Remarkable,” he breathed in admiration. “For just a kid in the business, you’ve done a lot, haven’t you? But I have to say,” he said, standing once more before the view of the seven-story gem of corporate beauty and function, “that the Cutter Street complex will be your crowning design.”

  “Well, we’ll see,” Deborah said. She would not have shared her misgivings with anyone, but sometimes in the anxiety of meeting the deadline, she felt apprehensive about the complex. The theft of the drawings had seemed like a bad omen. She was uneasy that the plans would not be subjected to the usual thorough examination for errors before being released to the city planning and zoning office.

  In the late afternoon, Dan jogged off down the road for his daily five-mile run while she took Dempsey for a walk to shake off the confinement of the house. The earlier disquiet had fled, willed away by the determination to let nothing interfere with the weekend with Dan. Deborah was looking forward to the evening, eager to learn the nature of the surprise Dan had promised.

  At the foot of the stairs when he returned, Deborah suggested, “Meet you in the living room at six-thirty? Then will you tell me about my surprise?” His face glowing red from the cold and exertion, Dan consulted the strange looking black-banded jogger’s watch he wore.

  “You will know at exactly seven o’clock,” he said. “We should have time for a drink before it arrives.”

  “Oh, you!” She swatted his shoulder in frustration. “You’re such a tease!”

  Deborah had already planned what she would wear, worried only that the silk evening shoes that matched her dress would be ruined by the snow. Although the evening ahead would be exciting and a welcome change from so many evenings alone lately, it would still have been cozy to stay in tonight and enjoy the comfort of the fire. More snow was expected, and it was such a cold, wet night for driving. The traffic and road conditions would demand the attention they could be giving each other.

  She heard stereo music as she came down the stairs, indicating that Dan had preceded her to the living room. She paused in the doorway to observe him, a man of such masculine splendor that she wondered how she could ever have thought him attainable. He was at the barred picture window, gazing out at the night. Lamplight gleamed on the well-groomed hair and the faultless tailoring of the dark blue suit. He turned at her entrance.

  “Good Lord, Deborah,” he exclaimed softly, his whole being expressing stunned admiration.

  Deborah relaxed and said with a laugh, “You look heartbreakingly handsome yourself.”

  Dan approached, drinking her in with his eyes. “Heartbreaking?”

  “That’s an old Southern expression. It’s used to describe the kind of boy a girl can never hope to capture just for herself but can enjoy only for a little while, like a perfect day that you can’t hold forever.”

  “Is that what you think I am, a passing day that you can’t hold forever?”

  She had led them to a precipice, she realized, dropping her eyes to the knot of his striped silk tie. She couldn’t answer that question, not yet. Neither could he. He knew so little about her. He did not know about Roger. “It’s too soon for questions like that,” she answered gently, her throat tightening. She could not imagine her tomorrows without Dan. “A day at a time leads to forever—maybe,” she added, looking at him.

  Disappointment lay a moment in his eyes. Then he bent and lightly kissed the side of her mouth. “I must make a point to make each one special,” he said, letting the moment pass. “And speaking of special, I believe I hear your surprise. It’s here early.”

  “Hear my surprise?”

  “Where is your coat?”

  “Why, in the hall.” She had hung it there when she came downstairs, a pearl gray silver fox to complement her silver lamé dinner dress. As Dan helped her into it, the door chimes sounded. Dan’s height and size obstructed the caller from view, but in the drive she could see part of a long, shining, black hood.

  “Dan!” she burst out, rushing to peer round his shoulder. A chauffeur in livery stood at the door, and in the circular drive was a long, sleek limousine. The driver touched his black-billed cap when he saw Deborah, rendered momentarily speechless by her beauty. “I don’t believe it,” she cried. “I just don’t believe it! I was so worried about going out on a night like tonight, not being able to talk to you because you’d be concentrating on driving. Now, we get to enjoy every minute! Oh, Dan, how thoughtful of you!” she cried in pleasure, peering into the sumptuous interior.

  “I think you’ve made a hit, sir,” said the chauffeur, grinning.

  “It would seem so.” Dan chuckled, delighted at her pleasure. “I’d say it’s the only conveyance worthy of her tonight, wouldn’t you?” Both were smiling at her.

  “Indeed I do, sir.”

  The driver bowed her into the spacious backseat while Dan locked the front door. There was Champagne, of course, cooling in ice in a deep well of the ingeniously constructed bar. The napkin had slipped, and Deborah saw that it was a vintage Dom Perignon. Da
n pushed a button when he joined her, and as the limousine pulled out of the drive, a glass partition noiselessly glided up between them and the driver. They grinned at each other and met halfway for a kiss. “You’re such a nice man,” she said.

  “I hope you will always think so,” he answered. His eyes ran over her in a caress. How beautifully that fur set off the luster of her hair, the purity of her skin. Her eyes shone with a happiness he had never seen before. Good. He must get her to trust him, to believe him. “Just a prelude,” he said, “for what I hope will be a memorable evening.” He poured them each a chilled glass of the costly vintage, opened by the driver the moment he’d arrived. They touched glasses. “To us, Deborah—to whatever that may mean.”

  “I’ll drink to that,” she said, blushing slightly under the directness of the blue gaze.

  “I think you should be a tour director for the Tourist Bureau of Colorado in your spare time,” Dan drawled as they trudged with their shoulder-supported skis down the narrow streets of Vail toward the chairlifts that would take them to the slopes known as the Back Bowls, recommended for expert skiers only. Deborah had just finished acquainting Dan with some of the history of the village, patterned after several of the skiing meccas of Europe. Deborah appreciated its Alpine architecture and the fact that no cars were allowed on the streets. They had to be left in the parking areas outside the town.

  “Maybe I will if I ever lose my job.” She laughed. “It may make a nice change.”

  “You getting tired of your job?” Dan asked in surprise.

  “Only of deadlines,” she said, wrinkling her nose at him.

  Dan was a strong skier, but Deborah’s skill was a match for his strength. In perfect alignment, at one with snow and wind and speed, they schussed together down the uninterrupted expanses of treeless terrain, the snow-like powder beneath their skis. At the completion of one run, Dan grinned at her, his eyes as brilliantly blue as the sky behind his head. “Looks as if we’ve found something else we do well together.”

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