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Crowning design, p.2
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       Crowning Design, p.2

           Leila Meacham
 
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  “Tell me you’re happy,” he said.

  “Roger, of course I’m happy. How could I not be? You’re the catch of every girl’s dream. Just ask my sorority sisters!” She laughed and described how her roommates had been green with envy after one of his visits to Georgia Tech.

  “But am I the catch of your dreams, Deborah?” he asked, reaching for her hand while he steered the Mercedes through the Saturday evening traffic.

  The question caught Deborah off guard. She did not allow herself dreams. They too often conflicted with those of her parents. Once she had secretly hoped to become a famous building designer, maybe even the leader in a new concept of architectural design. But she had always known that the architectural degree she was working so diligently to earn was only a pastime until marriage. Her parents were getting on in years. They had made it clear that they must have the peace of knowing that responsibility for their only child’s security had been transferred to a loving husband. Hope had been voiced that there might even be a grandchild or two to sweeten the ravages of age.

  Glancing at the swarthy figure behind the wheel, Deborah answered honestly, “Not only of mine, Roger, but of my parents. You are as ideal a husband as they could wish for me.”

  Roger longed to ask the next question but contented himself with her affectionate squeeze of his thumb.

  At his condominium, a bachelor retreat he maintained as a haven from the all-seeing eyes of his mother, Roger picked up an envelope from several that lay on the carpet beneath the mail slot. Opening it quickly, he scanned the contents and hooted delightedly. “Good ol’ Bear! I knew he wouldn’t let me down!”

  “Bear?”

  “My best man. We grew up together. We’re like brothers. He’s in South America now, constructing buildings for an oil company. I didn’t know until now if he would be able to make it to the wedding. Make yourself at home, kitten, while I read this. You don’t mind, do you? It’s been awhile since I’ve heard from him.”

  “No, go ahead. I’ll just get acquainted with your friends here,” Deborah said, indicating the stuffed animal heads arranged around the walls. Bear. The name suggested something huge and hairy, like the heads of these hapless creatures. She hoped that Roger, by evidence an avid hunter, did not expect her to take up the sport. She adored animals. The idea of shooting one was abhorrent to her.

  Roger finished the letter, smiling to himself, and shed the white dinner jacket and black tie. “You’ll like Bear,” he said, going to the bar built into the wall. “He says he won’t believe you until he sees you, that no girl could be the paragon I’ve described.”

  Deborah, watching him work with seltzer bottle and ice, was not listening. She was watching his small hands, realizing that they were disproportionate to the rest of his strong, stocky body. Black, wiry hair sprang from the backs of them, and the nails were rather long. Soon they would have access to her body. The thought of that eventuality compressed the air from her lungs in a seizure of panic. What was she doing sitting in this oppressively masculine room beneath the sightless eyes of animals killed to decorate the walls? Deborah’s head throbbed. She had to stifle an hysterical impulse to flee the room and the swarthy stranger coming forward with a tray of drinks.

  “Here we are, a couple of fine apples,” Roger said, setting down the tray of drinks. Handing Deborah a glass, his rib cage contracted at the look on her face. “Deborah—kitten! What is it?”

  With a strained smile, Deborah asked testily, “Roger, would you mind not calling me kitten? It makes me sound so—so insubstantial. And I’m not, you know. Everybody seems to have forgotten that I am about to graduate cum laude with a degree in architectural design. I can assure you that I wouldn’t be if I were in the least…kitten-like.”

  Roger regarded her without speaking, still feeling the spasm in his midsection. After a moment, he said in tender understanding, “You’re scared, aren’t you?”

  Deborah dropped her gaze. “I just can’t understand why you would want to marry me. I know you say you love me, but I don’t understand that either. You’re older and sophisticated and worldly. I know nothing about horses or hunting or running a home like Lawson Downs. I don’t know anything about—about—” She blushed as her tongue wrapped around the word.

  “About sex?” Roger asked. “Don’t you think I know that, Deborah? That is one of the reasons I find you so appealing. Don’t worry about being inexperienced—in anything. I’m a patient man, and I will never rush you into anything you don’t want—after we’re married,” he added smoothly, hoping she hadn’t noticed the correction. “I promise you that. You’ll enjoy being my wife. You’ll enjoy the estate and the little town of Lawsonville. The community will love you. You’ll blossom, Deborah. You’ll be free. No more kitchen stools for you!”

  Deborah lifted her eyes in wonder, slowly recollecting the time, long ago in Savannah, when Roger had found her on a stool in the kitchen. He had come looking for an apple. “Roger!” she cried in full understanding. “Now I remember! Now I know what you meant by that question about the apple!” Laughing, she looked at him with affection. He was so kind and good. She was just tired, that was all, and sick from the headache.

  But it was with relief when several days later Deborah let herself into the suite she shared with two sorority sisters on the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology. The girls were in class. A note laying on the desk read: Deborah, call Dr. Corbet. Important.

  Puzzled, Deborah dialed the number scrawled on the note, wondering why the chairman of her graduate committee had called. She had already met with him for their last advisory session before finals.

  “Deborah, my girl, I realize you have plans to marry soon after graduation,” said Dr. Corbet when he came on the line, “but I think you should know that Randall Hayden called me from Denver a few days ago to inquire about you.”

  “The Randall Hayden?” Deborah inquired, referring to the renowned architect who had critiqued her thesis project. She had never met him.

  “He wants to interview you for a job.”

  Dr. Corbet said no more, allowing time for that information to sink in. He had been deeply disappointed when informed that his most gifted student would not be pursuing an architectural career. “Did you tell him that I am to be married a week after graduation?” Deborah asked.

  “No-o-o,” drawled Dr. Corbet. “I thought I’d let you do that. Here’s his number. Why don’t you give him a call?”

  Deborah glanced at her watch. It would be ten o’clock in Denver, probably a good time for reaching the founder of a firm that had helped to launch the postmodern movement in building design. She was enormously flattered by his interest. “The least I can do,” Deborah said, “is thank him for thinking of me.”

  “My thoughts exactly,” said Dr. Corbet.

  A pleasant-voiced secretary put her through immediately to Randall Hayden. “Why, Miss Standridge, how good to hear from you,” he said warmly. “When can you come to Denver for an interview? We are interviewing designers for a position in our urban planning department.”

  “I am honored to be considered, Mr. Hayden.”

  “Then you’ll come? Shall we say the day after tomorrow? Call Mrs. Talbert back when you’ve made your flight reservations, and we’ll schedule the appointment according to your arrival time. She’ll also give you directions to our offices. The firm, of course, will bear all expenses. We’ll be seeing you Wednesday then?”

  “Yes,” said Deborah breathlessly, staring down at the telephone base as though she’d never seen it before.

  “Good. I look forward to meeting you.”

  Deborah hung up in amazement. What in the world had come over her? She must call Mrs. Talbert back immediately and apologize, saying that she couldn’t possibly go to Denver for an interview. She must explain that somehow, during the moments of talking with Mr. Hayden, everything but the chance to work for him had simply flown from her mind. She had forgotten that in a month’s time she was to be mar
ried.

  Deborah did not call Mrs. Talbert back. Ignoring the promptings of both conscience and reason, she spent the next forty minutes arranging a morning flight to Denver. When next she spoke with Mrs. Talbert, it was to tell the secretary of her arrival time. Her interview with Mr. Hayden was scheduled accordingly.

  Wednesday morning, Deborah lingered behind after her roommates went down to breakfast and hurriedly packed a bag, leaving a note saying she would be back tomorrow. The girls knew that Deborah had been morose lately—“the bridal jitters,” they called it. They would think she merely wanted to be alone for a while.

  An hour later, fastening her seat belt, Deborah remembered Roger’s words: “Have you never done anything on the spur of the moment…never told the devil to take the hindmost?” For once in her life she was doing exactly that. The experience was exhilarating. She almost laughed aloud as the plane lifted off.

  Denver had long fascinated her. She had never been there, but she had read about its robust lifestyle and climate, its lusty gold-mining origins so unlike the genteel traditions of Savannah. Having grown up near a sultry seacoast, she had often thought how refreshing it would be to live in a city bounded by mountains glistening with snow even in summer.

  As the plane descended, she sat with her nose pressed to the window, captivated by the mountain peaks topped with snow, brilliant against the blue sky. In the taxi she rolled down the windows and breathed in the fresh, invigorating air. Denver had problems with smog, she had read, but not today. It was the end of May, and there was still an icicle clarity about the atmosphere. Savannah was already sweltering under unprecedented heat.

  “Miss Standridge, it is a pleasure to meet you,” Randall Hayden said, laying aside his pipe and rising at her entrance. “I hope we didn’t take you away from end-of-year exams?”

  “Not at all, Mr. Hayden,” Deborah said, taking the slender hand and smiling into the gentle eyes. “Finals begin next week.”

  “From what Dr. Corbet says, I’ve every reason to believe they will present no problem.”

  “I hope you’re right,” she said, warming to the kindly voice and courtly manner. She thought he must be in his early sixties—a slightly built, somewhat stooped gentleman with an old-fashioned, gracious air about him. He wore a bow tie and a vest with a watch chain. His fair hair and brows were going white, and his eyes were the blue of a mild summer sky. He was like his buildings, Deborah decided—a tasteful blend of modernism tempered with the quiet elegance of a bygone age.

  “We must repair our inner cities, Miss Standridge,” Randall gravely explained on a tour of his offices an hour later. “If we do not, they will disintegrate into ghettos. We architects and those affiliated with our enterprises must turn our attention from suburbia, from the shopping malls and condominiums, and begin concentrating on making our downtowns liveable once again. The Hayden firm is committing itself to urban renewal. That is why we are expanding our urban planning department.”

  Deborah, listening intently, wondered what it would be like to work for this man. “This is the office, just completed, that the newest member of our firm will occupy,” said Randall, opening a door whose brass nameplate was as yet unengraved. Deborah stepped inside. The smell peculiar to newly constructed rooms greeted her. There was no furniture, but her feet sank into plush pale blue carpet. A bay window looked out onto a patch of ground laid out for landscaping. There, in front of the window, should go a curved desk, definitely cherry she decided, and imagined heavy chintz draperies in light blue and cream. Randall said nothing, but puffed his pipe and observed.

  “Well!” said Deborah brightly. “Your firm certainly does well by its newcomers.”

  “We try,” Randall said mildly.

  On the return flight, Deborah consoled herself with the certain conviction that someone of her total inexperience would never be offered the job anyway. It was enough to have been exposed, even briefly, to the creative, busy atmosphere of the Hayden firm and to have met its venerable founder. She had satisfied her impulse. Now she must get back to Georgia, study for finals, and prepare for the wedding. Mr. Hayden had promised to notify her of the firm’s decision, one way or the other.

  That weekend Roger came to the campus for a last visit until the week of the wedding. She had finals, and he had several stock-buying trips abroad that he wanted out of the way before they went on their honeymoon. “But I am going to miss you,” Roger breathed huskily as he held her the last night before returning to Virginia.

  “I’ll miss you, too,” Deborah said dutifully, “but it’s only three weeks until we see each other again.” They were parked in the Mercedes, and Roger was nuzzling her neck. “Roger…” Deborah murmured, pressing his head close to her throat. She wanted so much to feel something. She had to feel something. She must feel something! His lips and breath hot on her bare skin, Deborah could have screamed from disappointment.

  Recently, in a worried moment, her mother had confided that she had not loved Deborah’s father when they were first married. “But I came to love him, darling,” she had said encouragingly, stroking her daughter’s hair back from a face that had shown too much strain lately. “And we’ve had a wonderfully…satisfying marriage, like the kind you’ll have with Roger. Truly, dear.”

  Now, in desperation, Deborah willed herself to respond to Roger, but it was no use. Perhaps after the wedding…Her parents were still devoted to each other, even at their ages. Roger, feeling her tension, held her gently. “It’s going to be wonderful, honey. I promise,” he said.

  Three weeks later, Deborah was dressing for her final bridal luncheon when the call came from Denver. “It’s long distance, darling,” her mother called up the stairs just as the doorbell rang. Through the door’s glass insets, Deborah could see the uniformed mailman with another load of wedding packages.

  “I’ll take it up here, Mother,” she said from the landing, picking up the receiver. “This is Deborah Standridge.”

  “Miss Standridge, Randall Hayden here! How are you, my dear?”

  Nearly married, Deborah felt like responding, but she replied, “Well, thank you. And you?”

  “Happy, Miss Standridge, very happy indeed. I speak on behalf of the entire firm when I say that we are most eager for you to come join our urban planning department.” Randall chuckled in understanding when Deborah did not reply for a few seconds. “Um, Miss Standridge, are you still there?”

  “Mr. Hayden, I—I never expected to be hired. I—I don’t know what to say—”

  “Yes would be sufficient, my dear. However, if you wish to be verbose, you might try, ‘Yes, I would love to come work for your firm.’ Shall I repeat that?” Laughter laced his words.

  “No, that won’t be necessary. Yes, I would love to come work for your firm.”

  “Splendid! Now I realize you’ve just graduated, and you need a couple of weeks to rest and get organized, not to mention finding a place to live in Denver. Shall we say your employment begins two weeks from today? If you need an advance on your salary—”

  “No, I can manage. Thank you, Mr. Hayden. You’ll see me in two weeks.”

  “Oh, Miss Standridge, before you hang up—we’re in the process of landscaping the ground outside the bay window of your office. What kind of tree would you prefer for it?”

  “An aspen. I’d like an aspen tree, Mr. Hayden,” Deborah replied.

  Deborah was thoughtfully replacing the phone as her mother came to the foot of the stairs, the smile she had used for the mailman still in place. She was wearing peach linen, one of the bridal colors. Deborah was in yellow. Isabelle looked up at the strange set of her daughter’s face. “Who was that, dear?”

  “Randall Hayden. He’s the president of the Hayden architectural firm of Denver. He offered me a job. I accepted.”

  The smile slipped from Isabelle’s face. “You did what?”

  Slowly, Deborah came down the stairs. Her eyes were pleading. “Mother, I can’t marry Roger. I don’t love him. He is a w
onderful man, but he’s not for me. I don’t want to get married. I never did. I just wanted to make you and Daddy happy.”

  Although Isabelle had never appeared her age, she now looked every one of her seventy years. “You don’t mean that, darling. You’re just tired. Finals and then all of these back-to-back activities have taken a lot out of you. What you’re experiencing is commonly known as cold feet, a typical bridal syndrome. You’ll get over it. Now finish dressing. We’re late.”

  “Mother, you didn’t hear me. I am not going to the luncheon. I am not marrying Roger. I am going to Denver to work as an urban designer for the Hayden architectural firm.”

  Isabelle looked around wildly, as if searching for reinforcements. “Ben!” she yelled. “Your father will have something to say about this, young lady. This is absurd. You’re making us late for the luncheon. Ben!”

  Deborah followed her mother outside to the garden, where they found Benjamin Standridge contemplating a bed of snapdragons. He was suffering his usual yearly qualms about having to behead the central stems in order to force the plants to bush out and make new blossoms. “Yes, dears, what is it?” he addressed the two colorful blurs occupying his side vision and began his pruning.

  Both women spoke at once, one in anger, the other in appeal. Ultimately, each jumbled entreaty registered. “What is this, Deborah?” Ben said, getting to his feet. “You say you don’t want to marry Roger? But why on earth not?”

  “I don’t love him, Daddy. I—”

  “What has that got to do with anything!” Isabelle snapped. “I told you how it would be!” Ben blinked at his wife in bewilderment, not quite sure that he was grasping everything. “Say something, Ben!” Isabelle ordered.

 
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