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Crowning design, p.17
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       Crowning Design, p.17

           Leila Meacham
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  “Yes,” she said hesitantly.

  “Give them to me. I’m sure you realize that you will be removed as the architect in charge. The Parker Corporation will insist on it.” He gave her the briefest of smiles. “You are still my child, Deborah. The Hayden firm is still your home. You’re not about to be booted out, so have no fear of that. Neither is John. You are neither one to blame. It is the fault of that ridiculous deadline. Dan Parker, constructing a project of that enormity in the face of strikes and volatile interest rates, forcing us to work down to a gnat’s fanny, is responsible for debacles of this kind. Businessmen never learn.” He rose from the desk. “Give those to me,” he said again, “and I’ll go down and break the news to John.”

  “Randall—” Deborah held on to the documents, biting her lip.

  “Yes, Deborah? What else is troubling you?”

  “I think John’s figures of the columns were deliberately altered after they left my office on the twenty-second. When I turned the structural drawings over to you, the height of the columns read twenty feet. They were changed some time that day before they were printed for Dan.”

  Alarmingly, Randall’s face seemed to drain of every vestige of color, but the truth compelled her to press on. “It was done to discredit me or to ruin Dan financially, maybe even to cast a shadow on the Hayden firm. The purpose of the perpetrator could have been a combination of all three.”

  Slowly, Randall lowered himself back into his seat, jarred by her words. “What in the world are you saying, Deborah? That John altered his own drawings to blacken your reputation? I’m aware that you two have never gotten along, but he wouldn’t do that!”

  Deborah shook her head. “I’m convinced he wouldn’t either. I’m not accusing John. He thinks too much of you to harm me at the expense of the firm, so I’ve discounted him as a possibility.”

  Randall blinked at her incredulously. When at last he spoke, his voice was sorrowful. “Deborah, my dear, you were under enormous pressure after the theft of your drawings. Don’t you think that in those last days when time became so critical, you could have overlooked a mere four-inch miscalculation in his figures?”

  “Well, there is one way to find out,” said Deborah. “Let’s get John in here. If he says his drawings have been altered, will you believe me?”

  Randall gave that a moment’s consideration. “I’m not saying John would, but he’d have every reason to lie in his own behalf. He would be in the clear if he supported your assertion. Did anybody else check his figures of the columns?”

  “No, there wasn’t time.”

  “Then allow me to go down to his office before this discussion goes any further. You stay here. You know how defensive he gets around you. I’ll bring him along in a minute when I’ve explained what’s happened.”

  Left alone, Deborah’s worries turned from her own problems to Dan’s. She prayed desperately that he could locate another supply of steel and that it could be rolled, fabricated, and delivered to the site within a week. She wouldn’t allow herself to think about the ramifications if he couldn’t. The site would have to be shut down, and that would trigger a chain reaction affecting everybody connected with the project, from stockholders to Fred and Josie, whose businesses could not really resume until construction was completed. And as for her and Dan…In searing anguish, she thought of how they had parted without a loving embrace, a kiss, an assurance of love. He wanted to believe her. She knew that. He had been as shocked, as disappointed in her denial of the error as he was about the error itself. She couldn’t blame him from recoiling from what sounded like a cock-and-bull story. Of course she couldn’t. But, oh, please God, let her be proved guiltless!

  Her distraught musings broke off as the door opened, admitting Randall and a more than usually glum-faced John Turner. She stood up, fearful of what she discerned in their expressions. Randall spoke without preamble, verifying her fear. “John says that he computed the height of those columns at nineteen feet, eight inches, Deborah.”

  Round-eyed, Deborah gaped at the structural engineer. He said bleakly, “I’m sorry, Deborah. I really am. I was in such a rush—I got behind and I—I counted on you to catch any errors. You—you’re so good at that—” Nervously, he ran his tongue over his lips. His voice cracked as he tried to continue. “Forgive me. I’m sorry.” Reddening, he dropped his eyes from her incredulous stare.

  “John—?” Deborah put out a hand to touch his arm. “Why are you lying? You know that you made no error in the vertical dimensions. Why would you say that you did?”

  John did not answer. Eyes still averted, mouth clamped tightly, he seemed about to explode with some profound, private grief. A string of retorts formed on her tongue. She wanted to remind him that the truth would make no difference to her outcome. As the architect in charge, she was still responsible. Her career would still be severely damaged, a development that should please him. So why couldn’t he tell the truth? Did he hate her so much that he couldn’t bear for her to have even that small comfort?

  But something in his remorse stayed her words. She turned away from him and sought a chair blindly. Randall said, “You may go back to your office now, John. I’ll talk with you later.”

  When he had gone, Randall said somewhat brusquely, “You, too, should go back to your office, my dear. The press will hear about this shortly. I want you to answer no telephone calls, respond to no inquiries. I’ll have to get in touch with our lawyers, line up our ducks. One further suggestion: Keep this theory of yours to yourself. It will serve only to discredit you further in the eyes of the architectural community.”

  Back at her desk, Deborah clasped her head in dismay. She had to be dreaming this insanity! What was going on here? Who had engineered this horror? Not John. Somehow she could not believe that John had altered his own computations to injure her, no matter how much he disliked her. But somebody in the firm had to be responsible. Only someone with a knowledge of in-house routine could have known, for instance, that when the shop drawings were returned to the firm for approval before the steel was cut, it would fall to Tony Pierson to check them for inaccuracies. He would do this by comparing them to the already modified structural drawings in the flat file. Since the two sets agreed, he would return the shop drawings to the steel fabricator as approved. If she or John had checked them, the discrepancy would have been spotted immediately and corrected.

  Deborah tried to take a deep, calming breath, but anxiety bound her chest. And inevitably, one of the dreaded headaches was beginning its painful rhythm in her temples.

  “We plan to sue this firm for every cent it’s worth!” announced Clayton Thomas dramatically the next morning, relishing the rush of color that swept Deborah’s coldly beautiful face.

  “Now, hold on, Clayton—” interrupted Dan from his position by the window.

  “No, you hold on!” snapped Thomas, redirecting his fury to the tall man who had preferred to stand during the meeting with the firm’s attorneys in Randall’s office. “From the very beginning I was the only one of the five of us opposed to the selection of that woman,” he jabbed a finger at Deborah, “as the designer of this project. Now I’m entitled to say I told you so. Furthermore, I intend to see that this firm is held responsible for any and all costs that accrue as a result of her incompetence. I hope your insurance is current, Randall.”

  “Indeed it is.” Randall did not seem to be in the least perturbed. “Deborah, would you care to be excused? There’s no reason for you to stay to listen to this diatribe.”

  “Thank you, Randall, but I prefer staying. Mr. Thomas has every right to be upset.”

  “Not as upset as you’re going to be, young lady, once word of your monumental bungling reaches the ears of the building industry. You’ll be lucky to get a commission to design outhouses!”

  Deborah caught a whiff of Dan’s cologne as he strode past the back of her chair to the door. Opening it, he said decisively, “Deborah, I want you to leave. Randall is right. Let the law
yers handle this. Nothing can be gained from your presence here.”

  Without further argument, Deborah nodded, careful not to meet Dan’s eye when she walked past him out into the reception room. They had not spoken since she left the job site yesterday morning. She knew he had been too busy to call; his line had been busy each time she’d dialed. But she had thought he would get in touch with her some way. All night, as she lay awake listening for the sound of the Bronco in the circular drive, fear had mounted that Dan now held her responsible for the disaster. He’d had time to appreciate the full extent of her error and had found that he could not forgive her its consequences. She’d been shocked to find him already in Randall’s office for the meeting. She’d expected him to come by her office first.

  The door closed behind her with a click of finality, bringing a sense of loss so acute Deborah thought she might double over from pain. Thankfully, Bea was out of the room. She could not have endured her well-meaning but ineffectual ministrations.

  “Deborah?” Dan spoke directly behind her, causing her heart to jump. “Here,” he said, unsnapping what sounded like a key from a ring. “This is to the town house. Meet me there after work. I may be a little late, but wait for me. Will you promise to do that?” The key was handed over her shoulder.

  Deborah nodded mutely and accepted the key without turning. The door opened, then clicked again.

  At five o’clock, Deborah was sitting in the dusk-shadowed living room of the town house. It had been a devastating day for her, but at least something of the Cutter Street debacle had been salvaged. Randall had saved the commission for the firm by the simple expedience of removing Deborah as the architect in charge and reassigning himself. New structural drawings had been ordered with Randall himself overseeing every specification. They would go to Dan in record time. He and Dan had convinced Clayton and the other less vindictive members of the corporation to hold off on a lawsuit until there was, in fact, a delay in construction. In the building schedule, Dan had wisely allowed a five-day grace period for the unexpected and unforeseen problems that can occur on any job site. There was a possibility that he could get another order of steel delivered within ten days, which would cut his losses considerably. And if the Parker Corporation did sue, Randall had assured Deborah that the firm was sufficiently insured to handle the financial damages.

  Now that the smoke had begun to clear, it seemed to Deborah that she alone had taken a direct hit. Some giant hand had destroyed her life, her future—before her very eyes. Whatever tomorrows she might have shared with Dan would never be. Her oversight nearly cost him millions, and he believed she lacked the integrity to take the responsibility for her mistake. That, compounded by the knowledge of Roger’s death, would surely destroy the love Dan felt for her.

  And the damage to her career, although a secondary loss in comparison to her greater grief, would be irreparable. Never again would she enjoy the esteem, the respect, the trust of associates and clients as she had in the past. Even if she discovered whose hand had changed those computations, the injury had been done to her reputation. Just as there was no returning to the love that she and Dan had known.

  And the firm would no longer seem like a loving family. She felt an outsider now, estranged from the group. One of its members had maliciously tried to destroy her life, and until she found out which one, she would suspect them all, even Bea, who—Lord forbid—could well have harbored a grudge against her all these years.

  Deborah sighed in weariness as the telephone jarred her already tense nerves. Probably that was Dan, calling to see if she were there. The caller was not, however. A rough male voice demanded abruptly, “Let me speak to Bear Parker. This is his old buddy at the Lanscomb Steel Company in San Antonio, Texas. I’m Harvey Lanscomb.”

  “Who?” she said, dumfounded. “Who did you say?”

  “Harvey Lanscomb. I need to talk with Bear Parker, pronto, miss. Is that boy around?”

  Bear—Bear—Bear. She was catapulted back into the past, to the night Roger had picked up a letter from the floor.

  “Lady, are you his secretary?” the man demanded. “I need to locate him, or at least leave a message. Hello? Are you there?”

  “Yes. Yes, I’m here.” Deborah spoke through the fire in her throat. “What is the message?”

  “Tell him that his old buddy came through for him. Tell him I’ve got his steel and will have it on the job site in six days, if we can get some structural specifications down here. Got that?”

  “I—I’ve got it,” Deborah could barely whisper. “Indeed I do.” She was remembering Roger’s delighted grin, the way he had glanced up from the letter and explained that it was from Bear, his best man.

  “Tell him to call me when he gets in. Here’s the number in case he doesn’t have it handy.”

  Her hand was shaking badly, and her heart threatened to pound through her chest, but Deborah managed to write down the man’s name and number. “Is that all?” she asked.

  “How is that old son of a gun anyway?” the man asked heartily. “Bear and I go back a long way, all the way to Lawsonville, Virginia, our hometown. Bear is his nickname. Got it playing football ’cause he looked like one and played like one back in those days. He use that handle out there?”

  “No,” Deborah answered. “He doesn’t use that name here.”

  “You his girlfriend? I wouldn’t figure he’d have his secretary at his house. Or maybe he would.” A hearty chuckle followed.

  “I’m neither,” she said. “I’ll leave Mr. Parker your message.”

  “Oh, yes, well, you be sure and do that, young lady,” Harvey Lanscomb said in embarrassment, realizing he might have made a tactless remark. “Bear sure does need this steel.”

  Deborah hung up in a haze of grief. Yes, indeed, he needed that steel. It had probably been ordered at the same time as the other and held until Dan had wreaked his vengeance. Oh, my darling, you gave me a dozen clues, and I never saw one!

  She left the key on a hurriedly written note, addressed to Bear, by the telephone, then quickly put on her coat and fled the town house. She must go to Randall—to her usual port in a storm.

  “Good heavens!” he exclaimed when he opened his door a half hour later. “What’s happened now? You look pale as death!”

  “Randall, it was Dan!” Deborah burst out. “Dan had the plans altered!”

  “What? Dear child, come into the library where it’s warm, and let me get you some brandy. Sit there by the fire. Now tell me slowly what you’re talking about.”

  Deborah swallowed, struggling to gain possession of herself. When Randall returned with the brandy, she took a quick swallow and made an effort to speak intelligibly. “You remember the tragic story I told you of Roger Lawson, my former fiancé, and his mother, Estelle?”

  “Of course I do,” murmured Randall.

  “At Thanksgiving, Alicia told me a tragic story about Dan. It seems that when she first knew him, he was heartsick over the death of a friend he had known since childhood, a man who had been killed in a car accident. His mother, who had helped to raise Dan, died from apparent grief shortly afterward. This happened eight years ago, at the same time that I—” Deborah used the term that Dan would have chosen, “jilted Roger and caused his death.”

  Randall, stupefied, asked, “Are you saying that Dan’s best friend was Roger?”

  “Dan was to have been Roger’s best man. I never met him and had only heard him referred to as Bear. Now I recall that…that Bear was a builder. He was out of the country when Roger and I were engaged and was to have flown in for the wedding.”

  Randall’s pale eyes had deepened with shock. “And did you determine that Dan is Bear?” he asked.

  Deborah related the substance of the telephone call. “The whole thing was very carefully executed from the beginning,” she said, getting up to pace. If she kept moving, her blood would flow. If she sat down, everything inside would freeze. “First, Dan made sure the Hayden firm was awarded the bid for th
e complex. I don’t know exactly how he did that since we didn’t submit a bid until after we found out that he had bought Josie’s and Fred’s block. But that’s a minor detail. I’ll figure that out later.”

  “Maybe he had followed your career so closely that he knew how fond you were of them?” Randall suggested.

  “Could be,” Deborah agreed. “Certainly he has followed my career. The next thing he did was to engineer an affair with me.” She blushed as she said it, her heart ripping in two. “Once that was under way,” she continued, “he suggested a Saturday outing, one in which we would be gone all day, and asked me to bring along Dempsey. That move assured that the man he hired to steal the drawings would have clear entry into my house.”

  “And for what purpose did he steal the drawings, Deborah?”

  “To put me under even more pressure so that it would be easier to believe I had overlooked an error in the computations.”

  “But—but—” Randall looked bewildered. “How did he know John would make an error in the computations?”

  “Oh, Randall, don’t you see?” Deborah stopped her pacing to look askance at him. “Dan hired John Turner to alter the drawings! That’s why John lied about them yesterday. He altered them after the final check. Don’t you see?”

  “Yes, yes, I believe I am beginning to see everything,” Randall said slowly. “As punishment for what you did to Roger—since your career destroyed his best friend—Dan would see to it that he destroyed your career. But wouldn’t the cost to him financially make such an elaborate vengeance prohibitive?”

  Deborah scoffed bitterly. “Oh, you can bet Dan Parker did not invest more than he could afford. That supply of steel waiting in San Antonio will cut his losses, and the lawsuit he’ll bring against the firm will offset the rest. Dan won’t be out a penny for any of these machinations.”

  “We’ll see about that,” Randall said emphatically and got to his feet. He seemed relieved, as if a great weight had been lifted from his frail shoulders. “You must stay here tonight,” he said, taking charge. “You can’t go home with that madman roaming about. I’ll go get Dempsey and bring him here. He shouldn’t stay out overnight in this kind of weather. While I’m there, I’ll pack a bag for you. No, don’t bother about giving me your keys,” he said when she went for her purse. “I have the set you gave me when you went to Phoenix for Thanksgiving. I keep forgetting to give them back.” He leaned over to kiss her pale cheek, smiling fondly. “My dear girl, don’t worry. I will protect you, as always.”

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