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Crowning design, p.14
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       Crowning Design, p.14

           Leila Meacham
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  Deborah lay back down and breathed deeply to calm the palpitations of her heart. How ridiculous that a night that followed such a gratifying series of events should be interrupted by a nightmare. She glanced over at Dan, sleeping soundly. Well he might. The construction documents had been completed on time. They were ready for the final phase of verification before their execution into reality. She was positive the zoning commission would find no fault with the plans. They met every safety requirement, considered every public need from bathroom facilities to parking spaces for the handicapped. By the middle of December, the documents would be returned with the commission’s full approval to begin construction. Dan’s dream would be under way to fulfillment.

  Then why this palpitating heart? she wondered. Why the pinprick of concern in the back of my mind? She didn’t want to become like her mother, who used to worry over nothing.

  “Go easy on that,” Dan admonished as Deborah took a sip of the Champagne just served the first-class passengers. “You haven’t had anything to eat today, I’d bet.”

  They were airborne, leaving the glistening white peaks of the Colorado Rockies for the vast brown stretches of the Arizona desert. Temperatures were in the seventies there, Dan had said, just right for swimming. Deborah hoped so. After the pressure of the last nine weeks, she could think of no better way to recharge the batteries than to lie around a swimming pool, soaking up the sun.

  “I’ve been too excited to eat today,” Deborah said, relishing the Champagne, snuggling down into the comfort of the first-class seat. “This tastes wonderful. Now tell me again what we’re going to do in Phoenix?”

  Dan made a great show of turning his head in surprise, the hike of his brows clearly asking, all that we’re going to do?

  “No, silly.” She giggled, the Champagne already at work in her bloodstream.

  “Tonight when we arrive, we’re going to my condominium. You’ll meet my housekeeper, Mrs. Watson. She’s been with me for years and will move to Denver once I’ve built a house there—”

  “You plan to build a house in Denver?” Deborah interrupted, letting the stewardess refill her glass.

  “That’s my plan. Do you think you might like to design it? I won’t be getting around to it for a while, not until the head-quarters are finished and the company is transferred to Denver. But yes, eventually, I’d like to have a home of my own in Denver. I’m getting tired of town houses and condominiums.”

  “They say that happens to bachelors.” Deborah’s eyes widened ingenuously. “You were saying about Mrs. Watson?”

  Dan’s expression did not change by a flicker of an eyelash. He went on blandly, “She’ll have a grand meal prepared, I’m sure. She’s a great cook. You’ll like her.”

  “What will Mrs. Watson think about…you and me…about my staying with you?”

  “Mrs. Watson is not one to question or comment. She was told to prepare the guest bedroom. Whatever conclusions she draws she will keep to herself.”

  “I would imagine,” Deborah could not resist commenting, “that your Mrs. Watson has had numerous occasions on which to draw conclusions.”

  Dan smiled across at her and fondled her hand. “Jealous?”

  “Yes,” she admitted frankly.

  “Good. That’s a telling sign.”

  “Of what?”

  “That you’re falling under my spell.”

  Whatever that means, thought Deborah. Why can’t he tell me he loves me? “So continue with the schedule of events,” she urged.

  Dan explained that they would be going to Alicia’s for Thanksgiving dinner. There would be two other guests, both men, Alicia’s agent and attorney. “She’ll probably cook the meal herself. In your honor she’s preparing cornbread stuffing for the turkey. Do you like cornbread stuffing?”

  “Very much. It’s called dressing, though. Cornbread dressing. That’s awfully nice of her, Dan. Imagine—having Thanks-giving dinner cooked by a movie star! You know,” she turned to him matter-of-factly, “you’ve brought a number of surprises into my life.”

  Dan lifted her fingertips to his lips, his gaze engaging hers. “I hope to bring you many more,” he said softly.

  Mrs. Watson opened the door to them with a broad smile. She was an angular woman whose gray hair and numerous wrinkles suggested an age in the late fifties. Dan had said the woman was a widow whose only child had been killed in Vietnam. “Welcome to Phoenix, Miss Standridge, to Mr. Parker’s home. I have heard nothing but good things about you.”

  Her friendliness eased Deborah’s embarrassment immediately and indicated that perhaps the woman had drawn some conclusions after all, and favorable ones, too. It was an uplifting thought.

  At the swimming pool the next morning, Deborah drew the eyes of all those who had come out on their patios with newspapers and coffee cups. Dan had already whistled his approval of the bathing suit. “But I am so white!” she despaired, looking down at her pale limbs.

  “What can you expect of a Colorado snow bunny? You’re lucky to have the kind of skin that doesn’t burn. By the time we leave, you’ll have a tan.”

  She already had a smattering of one, Deborah discovered, as she dressed for Alicia’s Thanksgiving dinner party. Her skin radiated a healthy glow, a flattering foil for the ivory Grecian dress so suited to the line of her figure. She had brought along a rope of pearls with a turquoise and diamond clasp to set off the dress. There was a matching bracelet, legacies from her mother.

  A number of times during the drive to Alicia’s house in Scottsdale, a suburb of Phoenix, Deborah felt Dan’s eyes leave the road and wander over to her. She sat in a delicious glow of excitement, her eyes presumably on the famous Camelback Mountain looming in the distance. It seemed to her like an extension upward of the desert itself since no trees and little vegetation grew on it. But her mind, her heart, her body throbbed with awareness of the man beside her and the pleasurable certainty that he loved her. It was only a matter of time, perhaps during this weekend, that he would declare it.

  Alicia herself opened the door to her rambling, white-stuccoed, Spanish-inspired mansion. “Deborah,” she fluted, extending a diamond-beringed hand, long red fingernails glistening. “I knew you would be exquisite. Welcome.”

  “Thank you,” said Deborah, enveloped at once in the breathtaking essence of all that was Alicia Dameron. Dan seemed totally inured.

  “Hello, princess,” he greeted her, casually kissing the proffered cheek. “I’m hungry as a bear. When do we eat?”

  “Shortly. Deborah, how do you stand him?”

  “Easy.” Deborah smiled.

  “Good for you,” said the actress.

  After dinner, their hostess left the men with cigars and brandy on the deck of the sparkling blue swimming pool to take Deborah on a tour of the house. Once alone, Alicia minced no words. “Has he told you yet that he loves you?”

  Deborah was too amused by Alicia’s directness to be taken aback. For all her dazzling beauty, fame, and diamonds, the actress was what people from the South termed “down-home folks.”

  “No, he hasn’t,” she answered.

  “Have you told him how you feel?”

  “No,” said Deborah.

  With a lavish flash of the diamond rings, Alicia demanded, “Well, why ever not? It’s plain as mud on a clean floor that you two are mad about each other. What are you waiting for?”

  “I’ve not wanted to rush things. Dan is the kind of man who has to have time to live with new feelings. I must be a new feeling for him; I might even be a threat to his concentration on business. Except for you, he has never permitted a woman to take precedence over it.”

  “Oh, that—” Alicia airily waved aside that notion. “I never took precedence over anything in Dan’s life, not in the way you mean. I happened to come along when his life was at a low ebb. He was hurting from the loss of a childhood friend in a car accident, a man he loved like a brother. You probably know that Dan’s mother died when he was very young. Even though h
is father was still living until a few years ago, Dan was practically an orphan. He adored the mother of the fellow who was killed. I guess she had sort of taken him under her wing and treated him like another son. She was a strong influence in his life, probably the main reason he’s a wealthy man today. Anyway, when her son was killed, she sort of shriveled up like an autumn leaf and died within the year. Dan suffered a double loss—” Alicia broke off at the stark look on Deborah’s face. “You didn’t know all of this?” Alicia inquired. “Surely Dan told you?”

  “No.” Deborah shook her head slowly, stunned by the impact of Alicia’s revelation. “No, he hasn’t.”

  “Possibly because it’s still a very painful subject with him, Deborah. It doesn’t mean anything. You have a lifetime to share these things.”

  For Deborah, the remainder of the visit was torture. She thought it would never end. The chill within her had expanded until she felt it seeping out through her pores, absorbing the warm sun captured earlier in the day. At one point, Dan asked in concern, “Everything okay, honey? You seem awfully quiet.”

  She managed a convincing smile. “I’m fine. The food and wine have made me drowsy, that’s all.”

  In the evening when they had finally returned to the condominium, Mrs. Watson was just leaving. “I thought I told you to take the day off!” Dan exclaimed. “What are you doing back here?”

  “Now don’t scold.” She wagged a finger at him in affection. “I just came in to tidy up a bit and to make sure everything was in readiness for you young folks to have a nice breakfast in the morning. I don’t come in until eleven, you see,” she explained to Deborah. “Mr. Parker is one for a nice breakfast, he is. Oh, and Mr. Parker—you know that photograph you always keep on the bureau of your room? It’s missing.”

  “No, it isn’t,” Dan replied. “I knocked it off accidentally, and the glass broke. I put it away until I can get it replaced.”

  “Oh,” Mrs. Watson said, satisfied, and wished them a good night.

  Deborah went out on the patio to wait for Dan to bring her a glass of milk and himself a nightcap. The night air was pleasant and balmy. Lifting her gaze heavenward, she saw that her evening stars followed them to Phoenix. They winked in merry familiarity, insensible to her mood.

  Dan came out on the patio and handed her a glass of milk. “Want to tell me about it?” he asked, taking a seat. “Was it anything that Alicia said?”

  “Goodness, no,” Deborah lied. “She was so friendly and pleasant. I could come to like her very much.”

  “Then what is it, Deborah?”

  Deborah studied the contents of her glass. “Dan…do you think we’re going too fast? I mean, we’ve only known each other a little over two months, and I—I feel that I am getting involved with you more deeply than I—I want to. You’re the most exciting man I’ve ever known. It’s been easy to lose my head over you, to forget for a while the—the importance of my career to me.”

  Dan sat in the shadows. Deborah sensed that he had become motionless. “I thought you wanted some space in my life,” he reminded her. His voice had the quiet quality of a rock.

  “Well, I did—I do—” She squeezed her eyes shut, as if it hurt to think. “Oh, Dan, I don’t know what I’m saying!”

  “Then let me interpret, Deborah. You’re saying you don’t know how you feel about me yet, that I’m rushing you toward something you’re not sure you want. Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”

  Deborah nodded miserably, her eyes downcast. Dan stood up. “I’m sure you can understand if I’m surprised. It seems that I have been sailing in this boat all by myself.” Deborah knew he was looking down at her, waiting, hoping for her to speak. She could feel the heavy weight of his disappointment when she did not. “Is there anything else you want to say to me before I say good night?”

  “No,” she whispered, her head still bent.

  “Then you’ll find the guest room more than comfortable, I believe. Good night, Deborah.”

  Dan caught a glimpse of his rigid countenance in the hall mirror as he passed to his room. The desert in the full heat of summer had seldom looked more forbidding. He began undressing, angrily yanking at his tie, chucking cuff links into the jewelry compartment on the top bureau drawer. His eye fell upon a small blue velvet ring box. He took it out and lifted the lid, his mouth tightening. The two-carat solitaire in the Tiffany setting winked back at him playfully, mockingly. He had intended placing the box on Deborah’s breakfast plate in the morning. Now he snapped the lid shut and hurled the box back into the bureau drawer before slamming it shut.

  In the guest room, Deborah wept bitterly into a pillow long into the night. Lord, she had paid a thousand times for what she had done. Was there never to be a final payment for the tragedy of eight years ago? How cruelly ironic that Dan had been a victim of a tragedy similar to the one she had caused. The loss of his friend, the loss of the woman who had been like a mother to him might just as easily have been Roger and Estelle. Her heart twisted with the memory of Dan’s face that one time he had alluded to a low period in his life. Pain, still fresh, had flitted across those clear eyes. He would never be able to forgive her. Her own parents had not. How could Dan?

  She had planned to make a clean break of the past this weekend. Now she never would. To tell Dan would mean to risk his rejection, and she could never bear that. There was still the burden of her parents’ censure on her shoulders, the weight of Estelle’s, the weight of her own. She could not add Dan’s.

  Chapter Ten

  A soft knock came at the door. It was nine o’clock, Deborah was dressed, and her bags were packed. “Yes?” she called.

  “How about some of Mrs. Watson’s breakfast?” Dan invited through the closed door. “Her feelings will be hurt if we don’t at least try it.”

  Deborah glanced at herself in the mirror. Makeup did not disguise the kind of night she’d had. She took a moment to inhale deeply, to steady her nerves for the ordeal ahead, knowing they were beyond much help. Just his gentle knock, the compassionate timbre of his voice, had brought her to the edge of tears. “Coming,” she said.

  Dan’s eyes dilated in surprise as he took in the traveling suit. He himself was dressed in bathing trunks and a matching shirt, ready for a leisurely morning of swimming and sunbathing. After lunch he planned to take Deborah Christmas shopping along Scottsdale’s Fifth Avenue. “What’s this?” he asked, glancing at the bags on the bed. “You’re not leaving?”

  “I’m afraid so, Dan. It was a mistake to come. While you were out jogging, I called the airlines and booked a flight back to Denver. Luckily, I was able to get one—”

  “Deborah, you can’t leave like this! We can talk out whatever problem you seem to think we have. Running away isn’t going to help.”

  He made a move toward her, but she backed away. “I’m not running away from anything, Dan. I’m going back to something, something I never should have left.”

  “What the hell are you talking about?”

  “My career. For a while I forgot how important it is to me, how all-consuming. I thought I told you last night. Since coming here, I’ve come to realize that I’m not ready for the direction our relationship seems to be heading. I don’t want that kind of commitment yet.” Her words sounded thin and hollow; she hardly recognized the sound of her own voice. “If I am flattering myself about your intentions—” she began again, unable to lift her eyes above the region of his Adam’s apple, “I—well, chalk it up to the height of female conceit.” She shrugged and raised her eyes, smiling weakly. “Or unmitigated gall, brass, nerve, chutzpah, cheek—you name it, I deserve it.”

  “Cut that out, Deborah!” Dan ordered sharply. Beneath the tan, a flush had swept his face. “I don’t care if you miss your plane, we’re going to talk about this. You owe me an explanation about this sudden about-face of yours. And quit the cocky wordplay. It’s inappropriate at a time like this.”

  “It isn’t an about-face. You just refused to see what y
ou should have seen all along!”

  “Enlighten me, please,” he drawled.

  “My career is my whole life, Dan, just like business is yours. You of all people should understand what my work means to me. I thought it would be fairer to call a—a halt now…than…let us go on.” Dan had blurred behind a curtain of tears, and Deborah pushed past the broad shoulders, seeking space, air, water. Her throat felt dry as sand. She plunged toward the kitchen, slowing at the appearance of the brightly set breakfast table. Dear Mrs. Watson! In the center, a yellow ceramic cornucopia brimmed with fresh fruit. Across one plate lay a long-stemmed red rose, and the heavenly smell of baking sweet rolls wafted about the kitchen. Deborah grabbed a glass and turned on the tap. She had to stop crying if this was going to work. Lord! Sometimes it hurt to be alive!

  Dan came up behind her as she filled the glass. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with taking over as successor to Randall when he retires, would it? Or inheriting the firm when he dies?”

  Water sloshed over the sleeve of the suit, saturating the cuff of her silk blouse. Slowly Deborah turned to face him, her mouth and eyes wide in astonishment. “What? How did you know about that?”

  Dan eyed her grimly. “Randall told me when I picked up the documents. He made it clear that you would succeed him only if I disappeared from your life. Apparently he thinks you’re too good for me or for the marital state, period. I intended to discuss our conversation with you. I didn’t want to throw a monkey wrench into your career opportunities, but what I really anticipated hearing was your laugh when I told you about his last-ditch effort to break us up. I know he’s tried. I even went so far as wishing I could be a fly on the wall when you stormed into his office Monday morning and told him what he could do with his firm.” Dan stepped closer, making no attempt to touch her. The blue eyes flashed with anguish. “Have I really been in this boat all by myself, Deborah?”

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