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Crowning design, p.19
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       Crowning Design, p.19

           Leila Meacham
 
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  Dan rubbed her cheek with the back of his hand. “It was the only place you would have gone after you left my town house yesterday. My heart dropped to my knees when I got your note and then talked to Harvey. He told me all about his conversation with you, and I realized what you had to be thinking, how you must have been putting the pieces together but were still coming up with the wrong answers. By then I was positive that the drawings had been altered and that Randall was responsible. I saw his motive clearly. He was maniacally possessive of you. By altering those plans, he could cripple me financially, destroy our relationship, and tighten your ties to him. It’s a magnanimous boss who doesn’t fire an architect guilty of that kind of blunder. And in addition, now that he would learn of my association with Roger, he would even have me to blame for it! I would have been at Randall’s sooner, but Bea paid me a little visit.”

  “Bea?” Deborah asked in surprise, remembering, now that she thought about it, that Bea had been out of the office most of yesterday. No one had known where she was.

  “She was a very disturbed lady, torn between her loyalty and love for Randall and her affection for you. She came to tell me that she suspected Randall of sabotaging the plans. She had no proof, just her feelings, but she said that recently he had increased the firm’s liability coverage by an unusually large amount—too much of a coincidence, to her way of thinking, in the light of what has happened. Also, she said that he has been unlike himself since he got a mysterious call from the zoning office on the day the plans were supposed to have been approved.”

  “That’s so,” Deborah agreed, “and he did alter the drawings. He admitted it after I found my stolen things in a cedar chest in his guest room. “Yes,” she said in response to the surprised hike of Dan’s brows, “he was the thief who stole the architectural drawings.”

  “Well, I’ll be…” Dan said, comprehension breaking across his face. He got up from the bed and tossed her his robe. “I’ll get out of here and leave you to dress. See you in the kitchen in a few minutes, and we’ll tie up the rest of the loose ends. It’s time we had a long talk.”

  Presently, wearing the voluminous robe, Deborah joined Dan in the kitchen. He had placed milk and cereal on the table. She sat down at a bowl turned upside down on a plate. “Dan, I want to talk about Roger first.”

  “I do, too,” he said quietly. “If we had only talked earlier, all of this could have been avoided.”

  “Why didn’t you?”

  Dan drew a chair close and sandwiched her small hands between his. Intently gazing into her eyes, he said, “I wanted to, honey. At first there was no point in bringing up Roger. It was obvious to me the day we met in the conference room that you did not recall my name in connection with him, so I thought, what does it matter? She never needs to know.”

  “But then, as we became involved and as I came to love you, I really didn’t know what to do. It was clear you were still hurting from the past, still felt guilty about it, still felt estranged from Savannah and the memory of your parents. I frankly was scared of what your reaction would be once you knew of my connection to Roger. I decided to wait until I was sure of your feelings for me before I said anything, and maybe in that time you’d come to me. After that bomb you dropped on me on Thanksgiving, I was terrified of losing you.”

  “Dan, dearest.” Deborah kissed him softly, her eyes glimmering with tears. “Do you know the reason for that charade in Phoenix?”

  Dan looked thunderstruck as she related Alicia’s narrative. “Because the incidents were so similar,” she concluded, “I couldn’t risk telling you about Roger, not then. I couldn’t have withstood your rejection, Dan. But I did intend to tell you,” she said, wanting to make that clear.

  “I know, honey. After New Year’s. I wish you had believed me when I said that nothing would change the way I felt about you.”

  “But my parents’ feelings for me changed, Dan. They never forgave me for what I did to Roger, to our family name. I couldn’t imagine that you would forgive me.”

  “And what do you think you did, sweetheart?” He asked the question earnestly but kindly, holding her face between his hands. He asked again, “What do you think you did?”

  “Why, I—I caused Roger’s death.”

  “No, you didn’t, my love. Roger had been drinking heavily. He was bombed out of his mind when he crashed into that wall, a fact that I’m sure Estelle omitted when launching you on this eight-year guilt trip. Sure, the broken engagement led to the drinking, but Roger has to bear the responsibility for that. Estelle blamed you because she could not afford to blame herself. Your parents were guilty of the same subterfuge. They knew they were coercing you into marrying Roger. If they had permitted you your own life, Roger might be alive today. That was something Estelle and your folks could never bear to think about, so they let you carry their guilt. Roger himself admitted to me in letters that he knew you didn’t love him. He knew he was taking advantage of a situation in which you had no voice. He justified his action by the fact that he truly loved you and believed that someday you would come to love him.”

  Tears began to spill over the two big thumbs stroking her cheeks. An ice floe was breaking up within her, pulling away from the banks, melting in the sudden flow of warm water. “You mean that I—that I’m not responsible for Roger dying?”

  “Your courage in refusing to marry a man you did not love, not only for your sake, but for his, had a tragic consequence, honey, but that is the extent of your blame.”

  The joy of absolution flooded her soul. What would it be like to live without the guilt and pain that had been such a part of her life for so many years? But there was one final question. “Dan,” she asked, staring into his eyes and holding on to his strong wrists, “did you…ever blame me?”

  “No,” he answered, blinking at a quick film of moisture. “The saddest day of my life was the day Roger was buried. I hurt for Estelle, whose only failing was meddling in other people’s lives. She meant well, but this time it had tragic results. That was the way I saw it. Through the years, I wondered about the girl Roger had loved. If she was as sensitive and sweet as he thought she was, then I knew she had to be out there somewhere, carrying a mighty big burden. A few years ago, I picked up on your career. It was easy to follow from then on. I never intended—never even wanted—our paths to cross. We would just be painful reminders to each other. But then you submitted those renderings of the complex, and when I saw your concept of my headquarters, well, I knew I wouldn’t even consider another designer.” He bent forward, touching her forehead with his own. “And you know what?”

  “What?” she whispered, the tears falling and splashing everywhere.

  “Before the meeting was over that day in the conference room, the same feeling had come over me that I used to get in the jungles of South America when I’d read Roger’s letters about you. I think I must have loved you even then.”

  “Dan…” She found it impossible to continue. What a long journey it had been for both of them, but it was over now. They had arrived. They were home.

  “And now,” he said, kissing her lightly, “if you’ll just look under that bowl on your plate and give me an answer before I have to go to work for a few hours, I’d appreciate it. You and Demps stay here until I come in, then we’ll go out to the foothills and get you some clothes. I think it’s a good idea for you to stay with me for a while until we can settle this thing with Randall.”

  “We still haven’t talked about him.”

  “There will be time, honey. There’s always time to talk about the past. Now look under that bowl.”

  Still in the shelter of his arms, Deborah lifted the bowl. In the center of the plate was a blue velvet box. “I had that for you on Thanksgiving,” Dan said, as very slowly, Deborah lifted the lid. Her mouth formed a soft O of surprise. She slipped the ring on her finger and looked at the man she would now be able to hold and cherish for the rest of her life.

  “Yes,” she said.

&nb
sp; Epilogue

  He could always turn around and go back, John Turner thought as he paused on the wide front step, the large coat box tucked under his arm. He looked back at the trail of his footsteps leading to the front of the house Deborah had designed ten years ago for her growing family. The falling snow was already obliterating the evidence of his arrival. If he left now, after a few minutes, no visible sign of his coming and going would remain.

  He wished it were possible for time to have obliterated Deborah’s memories of him the way that the snow was wiping out his footprints. How wonderful if the years had erased the memory of his treachery and left only the recollection of his name and face to the woman whose name and face had occupied his thoughts for years.

  But she had landed on her feet, that was certain. In wry amusement, he thought how typical of Deborah Standridge to wind up with happiness, and he, the Hayden firm.

  John moved up under the overhang and surveyed the snow-covered lawn, imagining it green and sweeping, a romping ground where Deborah’s two sons played. There was a daughter, too; she must be three years old by now. It was hard to believe that Deborah herself had just turned forty.

  He had seen her only three times in the past ten years, twice at a distance and once in the theater during intermission when she had stood so close he could have touched her. He had backed into the crowd, his heart wrenching at her stunning beauty. She had been on the arm of her tall, silver-haired husband, a vision in satin and sable, drawing all eyes. Hers had been on none but the distinguished man at her side.

  She had never gone back to the Hayden firm once Randall had fired her, a surprise move that had stunned them all. So many had left the firm since she was there. Bea had defected immediately, another surprising blow. She had gone to work for Dan Parker and then, lo and behold, she had up and married his construction superintendent.

  Most shocking of all, though, had been Deborah’s marriage to Dan Parker. Everybody had thought it over between them, especially since Deborah was publicly blamed for nearly wrecking the project. If he had known then what he knew now, he would never have agreed to admit that he had computed those support columns four inches short.

  Well, that was why he was here. He could never wipe the slate clean, but at least he could sleep better at night. He rang the doorbell. After a few minutes, the door was opened by a gray-haired woman in a maid’s uniform. She stood in an anteroom separated from the foyer by an ornately grilled door through which he could see a sweeping flight of stairs. “Yes? May I help you?”

  John handed her his card. “Good afternoon. I am John Turner. I wonder if I might see Mrs. Parker?”

  Mrs. Watson’s assessing gaze swept over the brown-coated figure before studying the card. “Does Mrs. Parker know you?”

  “Yes, yes, she does, but she is not expecting me,” John said. He indicated the box. “I have something for her, something that belongs to her.”

  After deliberating, Mrs. Watson invited him into the anteroom, and the door clicked shut as she went off to notify Mrs. Parker of her visitor.

  He was kept waiting for only a few minutes before he saw Deborah, still beautiful—lovelier even—come down the stairs. He rose, clutching the coat box, as she opened the grilled door. “Hello, John,” she said in the soft Southern voice he remembered so well. She did not extend her hand but stood aside and said, “Please come in. Let’s go into the library where there’s a fire.”

  It was, of course, a magnificent house, but homey and comfortable, full of family life. Deborah collected a doll and several other toys from a sofa by the fireplace, saying, “My daughter likes to play here. Do sit down, John. You’ll find this spot comfortable.” She sat opposite him, making no offer to give him tea or to take his coat. “Mrs. Watson tells me that you have something that belongs to me.”

  “Well, uh, yes, Deborah.” He spoke for the first time, his heart beating rapidly. “I know you would want these things since your home burned down the day you…left the firm. I regretted the loss of the heirlooms you treasured so highly.” He handed her the box. “I am the executor of Randall’s estate, and in arranging for the auction of his house and furnishings, I came across these things. I’m sure they belong to you. I was…shocked to discover them.”

  Deborah removed the lid. “My mink coat and jewelry,” she said without surprise. “How did you know they were mine?”

  “Well, I—I remember the chain and medallion. And, there was the monogram inside the coat. I was sure the S stood for Standridge. I also acted on a…horrible hunch and called the sheriff’s department in that county where you used to live, and they still had a record of the items stolen. Those things were listed.”

  Deborah fingered the coat. “Then you know that Randall stole them?”

  “Yes,” he said shamefacedly. “And the drawings. I believe I’ve figured out why. It was a shock to me, Deborah, to discover after he died the kind of man he was, what he did to you.”

  “Did it take you that long?” Deborah asked ironically.

  “I refused to see what I didn’t want to see. I…cared for him, you know. When he came to me that day and asked me to lie about the columns, I did it because I believed in him. He said he was working for your best interests, that he was protecting you from yourself.”

  “He didn’t offer you my job to entice you to lie?” asked Deborah in surprise.

  “No, of course not. He relied on my going along with him because he knew about my real feelings for you—”

  “Your real feelings?”

  “Yes,” John stammered, turning red. “He knew that I—that I—had always admired you, and well, cared a great deal for you.”

  “What?” Deborah sat up on the edge of her seat. “John, you hated me!”

  “No, Deborah.” John swallowed, his prominent Adam’s apple bobbing as he struggled with his words. “That was…just a smoke screen to conceal my true feelings. I was resentful that you never looked at men like me. You only went out with men of importance, the successful ones who knew how to dress and what to say. You never gave anyone like me the time of day, and I—I felt affronted. None of them, not until Mr. Parker came along, could begin to feel for you what I did.”

  “John…” Deborah went to sit beside him on the couch and laid a hand on his arm. “I am so sorry. You must never believe that I was indifferent to you for the reasons you thought. It’s a long, long story, but one that I hope you’ll give me the opportunity to tell you sometime. How have you been since Randall died?”

  He shrugged, smiling slightly. “The same. Lonely. None of the original crew is with the firm anymore. Even Tony Pierson is gone. Randall drove everybody away. It was as if they were all a reminder of you. I think…he went a little crazy when both you and Bea left. I wonder now if he wasn’t the one who torched your house in the foothills. Was the culprit ever found?”

  “No,” she answered, allowing him his doubts. She herself had none. In the mail several days after the fire had come the set of house keys Randall had used over Thanksgiving. They had been enfolded in a white sheet of blank paper containing ashes in the crease. “Because of the burglar bars, firemen were unable to save anything. That’s why I’m especially appreciative of your bringing me these things.”

  “Do you miss your mountain?” he asked curiously.

  “No.” Deborah smiled, thinking, I have my mountain.

  Through the wide front window, he had seen a school bus draw up to the house. Now there was a clamor in the hall. John turned to see two little boys being divested of overcoats and caps by Mrs. Watson, their voices piping and breathless.

  “Come in here, boys,” called their mother. “I have someone I’d like you to meet.” She got up to greet them, her face aglow with a happiness that filled his heart with a strange contentment. He stood also. “Roger, Daniel, this is Mr. John Turner, an old…friend of your mother’s,” she said, glancing at John, who nodded in approval. “Mr. Turner and Aunt Bea and I used to work together.”

  Th
e two little boys, husky reproductions of their father, shook hands solemnly. “Before you were our mommy?” asked Roger, the older.

  “Yes, darling.” She touched his hair. “Now you two may go get some cookies.” They scampered off and Deborah said, “It’s time to wake my daughter from her nap. I’d like you to meet her. And Dan should be in soon. Won’t you stay awhile?”

  “Oh no, no, no,” said John hastily, wanting to stay. “Perhaps another time. I’ve got to get back to the office.”

  Deborah took his arm as she escorted him to the door. “Promise you’ll come again, John. Shall we say next Thursday for dinner? I’ll have Bea and Bill, too. You’ll like Bill, and Bea would love to see you again. Do say yes.”

  “Deborah—” he said, suddenly extraordinarily happy. “I’d like that very much. Thank you.”

  He knew she watched him from the door as he hurried down the walk to his car, uncaring of the snow. He was glad he had come.

  About the Author

  Leila Meacham is a writer and former teacher who lives in San Antonio, Texas. She is the bestselling author of the novels Roses, Tumbleweeds, Somerset, Titans, Ryan’s Hand, and Aly’s House. For more information, you can visit LeilaMeacham.com.

  Also by Leila Meacham

  Roses

  Tumbleweeds

  Somerset

  Titans

  Ryan’s Hand

  Aly’s House

  ACCLAIM FOR THE NOVELS OF

  LEILA MEACHAM

  TITANS

  “The novel has it all: a wide cast of characters, pitch-perfect period detail, romance, plenty of drama, and skeletons in the closet (literally). Saga fans will be swooning.”

  —Booklist (starred review)

 
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