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Crowning design, p.15
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       Crowning Design, p.15

           Leila Meacham
 
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  He had given her an out, and she had to take it. Tears sprang to her eyes. She shut the lids tightly to prevent their escape. “Yes.” She nodded, swallowing. “I just couldn’t combine a career and marriage. Neither would be successful.” She felt him move away from her, heard the click of the stove as he turned it off. After a long silence, Deborah opened her eyes. He had picked up the rose.

  “I had you pegged all wrong, Deborah,” he said, meditatively twirling the rose. “I thought you wanted what I did. Marriage, a home, kids. I wouldn’t ask you to give up your career, but I would ask you to make a place in it for us. I grew up without a mother, so I have some very specific ideas about the importance of a woman staying home, being home when the kids need her. I expected us to blend our careers. They are a natural for each other. You could pick and choose your hours, even your years.”

  “And while you were continuing your unimpeded climb to the top of the building industry,” she forced bitterness into her tone, “I’d be home wiping noses and cleaning hamster cages.”

  Dan laid the rose down. A glint of anger appeared in the blue eyes. “Something like that, if the kids needed you to. I realize it’s selfish to ask a woman today to do that, but I also realize it’s the only way being married to me would work. That’s why I’ve never married.” The corners of his lips lifted ironically. “If I seem a man totally dedicated to business, Deborah, it may interest you and Randall to know that I’ve never had anything else to do with my life until I met you.”

  Deborah took her eyes away from the tall figure. “I’m so sorry, Dan.”

  Deborah took a taxi from the airport out to the foothills, her eyes red and swollen, a sodden handkerchief balled in her fist. What a different return to Denver than the one she had envisioned with Dan. The ideal holiday weather was to hold through the weekend, and on Sunday they were to have risen early and driven back in the Mercedes, enjoying each other and the scenery and the music of Dan’s tape collection. At noon they planned to stop for a picnic. Now Dan would have a long, lonely drive by himself, with plenty of time to hurt and brood, to think how wrong he had been about the girl he loved. And he did love her, that was the tragedy. He wanted to marry her. He wanted everything she wanted. He had not pegged her wrong. She felt the turn of a new season in her life. She would soon be thirty. Spring was over. It had been a tragic, tumultuous season for her, and she would not be sorry to see it go. Her career and the Hayden firm had been her ballasts during these past stormy years, but that need was over now, thank God. She needed Dan now. She wanted him for all seasons, for every moment of her life. The problem now was whether he would ever want her again.

  Rather than let herself in with her keys, Deborah rang the doorbell to alert Bea and Randall of her presence, just in case she was interrupting any sort of romantic goings-on. She thought it unlikely, but one never knew. Her doubt was justified when Randall opened the door. Even at leisure he wore the inevitable bow tie, which today was amusingly incongruous with the rolled-up shirtsleeves, suspenders, her strawberry print apron tied around his middle, and slippers. He carried a spatula and stared at her blankly. “My dear child! We didn’t expect you until Sunday!”

  “My plans changed.” She should be furious with him, but she wasn’t. His meddlesome bid to hold on to her, to preserve her from Dan, had provided the escape she needed. “Hello, Dempsey.” The big Labrador, wriggling and whining in welcome, had appeared at the sound of her voice. She bent down to hug him, avoiding Randall’s curious eyes.

  “What in the world happened?” he demanded.

  “I came to my senses, that’s what happened. I realized that you were right about marriage sapping my creative energies. I’m not ready for that kind of sacrifice yet.” She gave the dog a final pat and straightened up. Randall’s stricken look was a surprise. She had expected an ear-to-ear grin. “What’s the matter? I thought you’d be pleased.”

  “You’re not saying that you and Dan are through?” he asked.

  “That’s exactly what I’m saying, Randall. It’s over between us. Why aren’t you happy about it? Isn’t this what you wanted?”

  “Why, uh, yes, certainly,” he said, blinking, coming to himself. “I’m just stunned, that’s all. You were so sure of your feelings the last time we spoke. Are you sure about them now?” Eyes narrowed, he considered her closely.

  “Yes,” Deborah answered sincerely. “I am very sure about my feelings concerning Dan Parker. Let’s drop the subject, shall we? Where’s Bea?”

  “Out on the mountain trying to find some decorations for the table,” he said. Pleased relief had broken through at last. His tone was light, mellow. “I’m preparing lunch. A lemon sole dish. Stuffed mushrooms. Why don’t you go upstairs and lie down? Put a cold compress over your eyes. We’ll call you in time for lunch. Dempsey, you come with me. That’s a good boy.” With Dempsey following, Randall padded off in his slippers while Deborah climbed the stairs, desperate to be alone, her stomach turning at the thought of lemon sole.

  Bea and Randall stayed until early evening. Deborah thought they would never leave, yet, waving them off from the circular drive, she regretted not asking them to spend the night. Only loneliness waited back in the house, and she had had enough of that to last a lifetime. She stood a long time beneath the canopy of friendly stars before the cold night air drove her inside.

  Closing the front door, she stood in the foyer listening to the sound of loneliness echo about the silent, spacious house. Now that she needed it so badly, her house did not feel like a sanctuary at all. There was a quality about its silence that was alienating. She felt a stranger in the rooms she had designed and furnished with the treasures from her family.

  How was she to survive all alone? What would she do to occupy tomorrow and all day Sunday? She thought she had lived through the last of the weekends like the ones coming. What had she done then to endure their emptiness? There had always been Bea and Randall, but now neither of them could offer consolation about Dan. In those days there had been other men, but she had turned down so many invitations during the past months that everybody thought she was out of circulation. Other than Bea, she had never made a close woman friend, someone to call in times like these.

  Why hadn’t Dan called? Would he permit her to walk away from him just like that? If he cared for her, he wouldn’t just let her go, not after all they had meant to each other. Surely he wouldn’t. But he had to, Deborah sobbed on the way up the stairs to bed. He had to.

  She slept mercifully late Saturday and was awakened by Dempsey scratching on the bedroom door to be let out. “Oh, Demps, you poor thing!” she cried, pulling on a robe and following his bounding form down the stairs to the back door. It had snowed during the night. The weather had not held after all. She wondered if Dan had left Phoenix yesterday for Denver. He would have been slowed because of bad driving conditions and forced to stop at a motel along the way. In which case, he would get into Denver around noon.

  Deborah was suddenly sure that was what he had done. Her spirits lifted at once. With an eye on the clock, she went upstairs to wash and dry her hair in record time, brushing it out to bounce gloriously on her shoulders. She forsook the usual Saturday morning jeans and sweatshirt for mauve wool slacks and sweater, and by noon she and the house were as tidy as could be. Dempsey lay in the foyer by the door, having sensed an impending visitor.

  But Dan did not come.

  In the late afternoon she could bear the mocking silence of the house no longer. She needed the company of people and the sound of human voices. “I think I’ll go to the mall, Demps. Want to go with me?” she invited. In the garage, the presence of Dan’s Bronco was something of a comfort. One of these days he would have to come back to at least take possession of it. And she would still see him from time to time on the job site. As the architect in charge, she had every right to be there, especially during the crucial times of pouring concrete and erecting steel. She would certainly be at the site the day the steel columns went up.
They represented a dream coming true, and she had been a part of it.

  At the mall, congested with after-Thanksgiving shoppers buying for Christmas, Deborah allowed herself to be swept along in the crowds, barely conscious of anything but the growing ache in her heart and the continual mist in her eyes. Where was he? Why hadn’t he called? What was he feeling, thinking? Was he in pain, too? Wandering into a movie, she left halfway through it. Two hours had passed. Two never-to-be-regained hours. She was furious with herself. She was quicker to waste money than time, and rarely did she do either. Her heels clicked on the pavement as she walked determinedly to the car where Dempsey waited, his large head stuck out the window, watching the passersby.

  She would go home and eat a bite, then work on several preliminary designs in the studio. No more feeling sorry for herself. No more wasting time! She would work, work, work! That was the only antidote, the only solace, the only sure remedy for all pain, all grief. If Dan were as miserable as she, he would have called by now. Of course, there was the possibility that he would telephone tonight. Or that he had tried while she had been gone. What had he thought when she wasn’t there? The car shot toward the foothills.

  Making the circular drive around to the garage, she pressed the electronic door opener. The double door slid up, and a cry that had no breath behind it died in her throat. For a few frozen seconds, her mind refused to believe what her eyes so clearly saw. Dan’s Bronco was gone! A white piece of paper had been taped to the service room door. Scrambling out of the car, Deborah snatched it down. Deborah, the bold, black writing ran, your garage door was open when I came out with my construction superintendent to pick up the Bronco. Burglar bars won’t help that kind of carelessness. Thanks for keeping the car. Dan.

  Deborah held the note to her breast. It was written on the same kind of memo paper as the other note from Dan, the one containing a circle shaded black. Dempsey began to whimper as he saw the tears start to trickle down the face of his mistress. Following her into the kitchen from the garage, he sat down on his haunches and waited patiently when she crumpled beside him and buried her face in his thick, black ruff.

  Within the three-week period that the construction documents were in the hands of the zoning commission, Deborah conducted her personal and professional affairs in a trance, walking quietly through her days as if she were in a house of death. She had neither seen nor talked with Dan a single time since his return to Denver. She knew he was busy with the final preparations for beginning construction once the plans were approved. No doubt they filled his time, his heart, his mind; gave him comfort and relief—if he were in need of that.

  “Now, Deborah,” said Randall in her office the day before the plans were to be released, “I expect you to wear something smashing for the ground-breaking ceremony and luncheon that follows. It’s scheduled for the day after tomorrow, remember. All the local networks will be televising it as part of the evening news. The governor and mayor will be there. I will, too, of course, but the spotlight will be on you, the designer of the project.”

  “You forgot Dan,” Deborah said dryly. “I imagine part of that spotlight will be on him too since it’s his project. Will any other members of the corporation be attending?” If so, she hoped Clayton Thomas would not be among them.

  “I’m not sure. As for Dan, I didn’t wish to bring up an unpleasant subject. Have you, uh, seen him?”

  Deborah continued to concentrate on the report of a site analysis she was writing. “Not since I saw him in Phoenix.”

  She could feel the beam of his smile. “All for the best, I’m sure. I am proud of you, my dear.”

  The intercom buzzed. “For you,” Deborah said, handing Randall the phone, and went back to the report.

  “What! What’s that you say, Bea? Well, he could have informed us, the…ill-bred…”

  Startled, Deborah looked up. She’d seldom heard Randall raise his voice. He ignored her interrogating gaze and snapped, “Cancel my appointments this afternoon, Bea, and I don’t want to be disturbed once I come back to the office. I have some phone calls to make.” He slammed the phone down with such fury that Deborah thought Bea’s eardrum must be broken.

  “What on earth—?” she queried.

  “A friend of mine from the zoning office called to say that the Cutter Street plans were approved yesterday. Dan Parker picked them up—” He broke off, thinking hard.

  Puzzled, Deborah stared at him. “But, that’s wonderful! That means Dan can order the steel two days early. I don’t know why you’re so upset, Randall.”

  “The Hayden firm should have been informed that the plans had been accepted. It was an insult, a slap in the face that Dan did not let us know. I—I had a celebration party planned.”

  “We can still have the party,” Deborah said soothingly. “Dan probably hasn’t had a second to call us since he picked up the documents. He’s probably been in financial huddles, meeting with suppliers, ordering materials. You know how it is, Randall, when a complex of this size is getting under way.”

  “Deborah—” Randall had found his dignity. He took a deep breath to regain his composure. “Dan Parker should have had the courtesy to inform us personally that those plans had been accepted. This firm spent weeks of careful and steady effort on those documents and labored under enormous hardship, as you well know. I expected him, if not from good breeding at least from common courtesy, to have the decency to let us know.” Randall slammed the door as he left.

  But Randall’s outraged sense of decorum could not quell the gladness bursting inside Deborah. How relieved Dan must be, how eager now to get that first nail driven! He must be congratulated. She dialed the number of the town house, letting the phone ring and ring should Dan just be coming up the walk, unlocking the front door. But there was no answer.

  She hung up, all the joy that had filled her sails suddenly gone. Once more, with the feeling of being set adrift alone on a doleful sea, she bent to the report.

  Deborah had begun taking Dempsey for a brisk walk just before bedtime. The exercise and sharp mountain air helped to lessen the day’s emotional weariness and induce sleep. That evening, as she was walking with Dempsey down the short lane leading to the circular drive, a pair of powerful headlights turned into the lane and flooded over them. Turning, she was momentarily blinded by the glare and groped for Dempsey’s collar as the dog growled low in his throat. The vehicle stopped, it’s motor cut off. She caught a flash of silver and the brief outline of a tall figure when the door opened and slammed. Her heart almost stopped. From the darkness came a deep and wonderfully familiar voice. “Don’t you think this nonsense has gone on long enough?”

  “Dan!” she cried, leaping forward. “Oh, my darling!”

  “Lady, what you’ve put us through!” he said, seizing her to his chest, where Deborah proceeded to sob uncontrollably, clinging to him as if he were a life raft about to capsize.

  “I love you,” she choked. “I love you! I love you!”

  “I figured you did,” Dan said, his voice husky with feeling. “You just needed some time to realize it.”

  Later when they lay entwined and at peace, Dan proposed, “Let’s make a deal not to say anything more to rock this shaky boat, Deborah. Neither of us can afford it emotionally. I know I sure can’t. I’ve nearly been out of my mind for the past three weeks and frankly, I’d just as soon hold off on any more serious discussions until after construction is well under way. I need my wits about me right now. Is it a deal?”

  Deborah, her eyes closed, nodded contentedly. “It’s a deal.”

  He stirred to prop up on an elbow. She could feel him peering closely. “Did you really mean what you said about your career?”

  Her eyes opened. They wandered lovingly over the strong features, imprinting them in memory. “My career has been a cushion, Dan. It’s supported me, softened the blow of a number of losses I’ve suffered in my life. It’s been all I’ve ever had that I could rely on.”

  “Until now,
he said and asked persuasively, “What kind of losses?”

  “You said you didn’t want to rock this shaky boat, remember? I don’t either. Right now I just want to be happy together. Every moment is so precious.” Softly, she ran her hand down his muscular bicep.

  The muscle quickened beneath her touch. “Deborah,” he groaned as his head sank to her, “don’t talk as if we won’t have forever.”

  Deborah chose not to tell Randall about the reconciliation with Dan. She could do without his comments, having enough qualms of her own about it. Not even Bea suspected the change in their status. When Dan telephoned the office, the calls were assumed to pertain to business.

  The ground-breaking ceremony on Friday was blessed with dry, brisk weather, just right for the fur coats worn by the wives of the dignitaries attending. Construction had already begun on the site, but for the morning occasion, labor had been suspended. The workers in their hard hats sat grouped together on one of the recently poured foundation slabs, enjoying thoughts of the refreshment tables. An area had been cleared for two of them, one for the sandwiches and coffee and cake, the other to hold Champagne and canapés.

  Indeed, the mayor and governor did attend. The mayor, to the accompaniment of whirring television cameras and popping flash bulbs, spoke of Deborah in sonorous tones. “At last we have emerging in the architectural community the presence of a young but commanding talent,” he beamed a smile at Deborah, “who is returning us to the quiet yet astonishing beauty of the classical age.”

  Deborah, standing to his right in a teal blue coat, wondered if the man knew what he was talking about. She was relieved when he directed his effusive speech to Dan. “Here is a man,” the mayor said of the builder, “who has never allowed the problems of business to overwhelm his humane and environmental concerns.” He launched into the story of Dan’s generosity in permitting the complex to be constructed around Fred’s Paper Shack and Josie’s Bar—“Preserving for us all,” he concluded, “an integral part of Cutter Street, of downtown Denver, the likes of which we will never see again.”

 
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