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Crowning design, p.3
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       Crowning Design, p.3

           Leila Meacham
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  Jerkily, Ben complied. “Every bride, indeed every groom, goes through these last-minute doubts about the person they’ve chosen to marry,” he counseled. “It’s quite normal.”

  “Daddy, I am not marrying Roger. I have to call him right now. He’s chartered a plane for his part of the wedding party. I have to call him so that he can tell them all the wedding is off.”

  Isabelle began to cry. Benjamin stared in shock. “Deborah, dear, but you can’t do this…”

  “Daddy, I have to. Please try to understand and forgive me. I can’t marry Roger just to please you and Mother. Our marriage would be a terrible mistake, more so for Roger than for me. I am so sorry about all of this, but isn’t it better to know now than find out later?” Her parents remained speechless. “I—I must telephone,” Deborah said. “Don’t you see I must call before all of those people begin arriving at Lawson Downs?”

  Still they stared, the shock giving way to silent condemnation. Deborah gave each of them a kiss on the cheek. Her mother’s was wet with tears. “I’m so sorry, Mother,” she said and left her parents in the garden.

  Roger was overjoyed at hearing Deborah’s voice. She had finally located him in a roadside hangout where his stockmen had taken him for an impromptu bachelor party. “Speak a little louder, honey,” he yelled into the phone, shouting over a background din of boisterous voices and loud jukebox music. Deborah had to hold the receiver away from her ear. “There’s quite a racket in this place. What is so urgent that you had to call me here?”

  Deborah told him. She had wanted so much to be gentle, but the noise made it necessary to yell. “I’ll call you back!” Roger shouted at last. “Don’t leave the phone. I’ll call you back in a few minutes.”

  While she waited in an agony of remorse, Deborah could hear her mother sobbing and Benjamin offering broken words of consolation. Roger was not shouting when she answered his ring. “I’m in the owner’s office,” he explained, and Deborah could hear his struggle to remain calm. “Now go over all of that again.”

  Gently, Deborah obeyed, her heart breaking for his grief and disappointment. When she had finished, he said in a voice shattered with despair, “Deborah, don’t do this. Please don’t.”

  “Roger, my dear, I care too much for you not to—” The line suddenly went dead.

  For two days, without assistance from Isabelle, Deborah canceled the wedding preparations. She wrote letters of apology to Roger and Estelle, returned and readdressed packages to their senders, and answered the constant stream of telephone calls with determination. Isabelle shut herself in her room, refusing to speak to Deborah, and Benjamin remained in his study. On the evening of the second day, he answered the phone on his desk. Deborah was in the kitchen heating soup to entice her mother to eat.

  Ben came to stare at Deborah from the doorway of the kitchen, his mouth working strangely. “Daddy, what is the matter?”

  “You’d better pick up the phone in here,” he said with difficulty. “Estelle Lawson is on the line.”

  Deborah braced herself and lifted the receiver. “Yes, Mrs. Lawson?” she said quietly.

  “I just thought you ought to know, Deborah,” came the cold, precise intonation, “that for the rest of my life I will hold you responsible for the death of my son.”

  Chapter Two

  Deborah stood at the bay window, looking out at the aspen leaves flickering and flashing in the September sunshine. They had always reminded her of a mass meeting of butterflies, even when the tree had been a skimpy sapling eight years ago. That fall all but three of the “butterflies” had flown away. The three that remained had turned a bright red and had hung on through the fall months like nervous survivors of a long battle.

  Deborah had watched from the window as finally, one after the other, they had drifted to the ground in the blustery winter days. She had felt a chilled sense of loss. The desiccated leaves had made her think of the three elderly friends who had once drunk champagne together beneath the rosy lights of chandeliers. They, too, in the succeeding winters, their grips on life broken, had followed one another in death.

  She tensed when the knock came at the door and left the window to slip several sketches into a portfolio lying on the orderly desk. “Come in,” she called.

  The door opened, and Bea Talbert entered. She said after a brief, compassionate silence, “They’re ready for you, Deborah.”

  Deborah smiled wryly. “You say that as if I’m being summoned to hear my sentence. So the jury is in place, is it? Any idea of the verdict?”

  “Sorry. Can’t help you there. How do you feel?”

  “Scared. I don’t want to lose this one, Bea.”

  “You won’t, sweetie pie. Now come here and let’s have a look at you.”

  Deborah walked around the curved cherry desk and submitted herself to the critical eye of a woman whose maternal regard she had enjoyed throughout the last eight years.

  “You look sensational,” Bea pronounced, fluffing at the bow of Deborah’s silk blouse. “That suit becomes you. You don’t have a thing to worry about. Once those men get a look at you, they won’t be able to deny you anything.”

  “How I wish you were right, Bea. But I’ve learned that when it comes to businessmen, nothing can compete with the bottom line. What I’m counting on is the strength of those designs winning us this bid.” Deborah tucked the portfolio under her arm and followed Bea out. Together they walked down the corridor to the conference room.

  “What’s the weather like in there?” she asked.

  “Stormy the couple of times I’ve been in. The men were discussing the fate of your friends’ establishments. They were all talking at once, and Randall had to rap for order.”

  “Oh, goodness. Well, were they for keeping them or razing them?”

  “Honestly, Deborah, I couldn’t tell. The pros and cons sounded evenly divided to me.”

  “What did Daniel Parker have to say?”

  “Nothing. Just sat back and listened. He keeps his own counsel, that one. The others seem to treat him deferentially. I’d say that if you can sell that big fellow, you’ve sold the others.”

  “That’s what I think, too. What’s he like?”

  Bea sighed. “The kind of man who makes me wish I were twenty years younger. You don’t see many of his kind anymore. He’s not a handsome man, just very striking and—dynamic. It should be interesting when you two meet.”

  “Bea, you’re an incurable romantic. I was asking about his temperament, not his looks. And you can forget about any fireworks between us. Daniel Parker will have his mind on one thing only in there today—business.”

  She was certain of that. Deborah always researched the background of potential clients before designing a building as part of a Hayden bid. Research on Daniel Parker had revealed that the man lived and breathed only for making money. He was both a developer and a builder, having started his own company almost before he had graduated from college. Although she had uncovered little about his origins, he had apparently grown up in poverty. She had learned little else about him except that at thirty-eight he was still a bachelor and an addicted jogger. This last information had inspired her to include an indoor running track on the top floor of the building she had designed for his corporate headquarters when he moved his business from Phoenix to Denver.

  The problem today had arisen when the Parker Corporation purchased a block of Cutter Street as the site for its headquarters in a proposed business complex. Learning of the sale, Deborah had gone immediately to Randall to ask if the firm might submit a bid for the project. He had been surprised and asked why, saying that the firm already had more business than it could handle, Deborah in particular.

  Because, she had explained, Josie’s Bar and Fred’s Paper Shack sat juxtaposed in the center of the block. The buildings were leased by two colorful downtown characters who had become good friends of hers, and if another firm got the contract, their places of business could be razed right out from under them. Cou
ldn’t she at least sketch a preliminary workup of the area to show how the business complex could be designed around the two structures, thus allowing them to stand?

  Well, as Tony Pierson often said, “Whatever Deborah asks, that she shall receive.” Randall had approved her reasons and had praised the sketches. The firm had drawn up a mortgage package and had submitted a bid for the project. She was being summoned now to defend retaining the two little businesses when neither had shown much profit for years.

  “Well, here we are,” Bea said cheerfully as they approached the wide double doors of the conference room. “Are you ready?”

  “As ready as I’ll ever be,” Deborah replied, taking a deep breath between the hammer beats of her heart.

  “Then let’s go get ’em, tiger!”

  It was the moment for which Randall Hayden had been waiting all morning. He was not to be disappointed. Bea Talbert, his trusted secretary for twenty-five years, had an appreciation for the dramatic and a sense of timing that seldom erred. All heads turned as the double doors opened. Bea, assuming her haughtiest pose, stood momentarily in the doorway, her large elegant figure blocking from view the young woman behind her. “Gentlemen,” she announced coolly, “Deborah Standridge,” and stepped aside to leave Deborah framed in the doorway.

  Perfect! thought Randall, clamping down hard on his pipe to keep from smiling. He never failed to be entertained by the reactions of other men to Deborah’s beauty. She had a marvelous face and figure, her poise and carriage giving an illusion of greater height than she possessed. All but one of the five men were rising quickly to their feet, squaring shoulders and adjusting coats. Dan Parker rose slowly, almost reluctantly.

  His reaction—or lack of it—puzzled Randall. The strongly carved features, the level blue eyes, revealed nothing but merely retained the inscrutable reserve with which he had earlier greeted the storm of protest arising over one aspect of the mortgage package. “Let’s wait and hear out the architect,” had been his comment. The others had taken it as an admonition and gone to other matters. Now Randall, observing his stony regard of Deborah, felt a cold apprehension. He went to her quickly and placed a protective arm about her shoulders. With the pride of a father, he made the introductions. He left until last the presentation of his protégé to Dan Parker.

  There was a moment of silence as the two extraordinary people shook hands. “Miss Standridge,” the builder acknowledged simply, his deeply modulated voice a proper accompaniment to his impressive size. “You’ve put together quite a package. Mind answering a few questions about it?”

  “That is why I am here,” she answered a bit stiffly, at once judging him to be the kind of man who would rebuff an attempt to charm. The gray hair was definitely premature, but somehow it suited him, she decided, noting the contrast with his clear blue eyes and darkly tanned skin. He had the power and presence of a mountain. Mountains were among her favorite things, but this one was discomfiting. She had the impression that she was trespassing on unfriendly territory.

  Withdrawing her hand, she looked about for a chair. Clayton Thomas, introduced as a banker from New York, quickly pulled one out, smiling broadly. “Don’t be afraid of us, Miss Standridge,” he said urbanely. “We never eat lovely, auburn-haired young architects before lunch.”

  “In that case I’d better hurry to satisfy your questions before then.” Deborah smiled, taking a seat.

  Polite laughter, joined by all but Daniel Parker, lightened the atmosphere. At the head of the table, Randall set down his pipe and laced his long, sensitive fingers together. “The gentlemen would like to know, Deborah, why you feel it necessary to preserve Josie’s Bar and Fred’s Paper Shack on Cutter Street.”

  “You can understand our concern from a businessman’s point of view, I am sure,” explained Clayton Thomas smoothly. Of the group, he had been the most hotly opposed to allowing a dingy little bar and newspaper stand to remain on the site intended for an important business center. After all, it wasn’t as if either of them were an historical landmark! “Josie’s Bar and Fred’s Paper Shack would detract from the appearance of the other buildings, not to mention the financial liability they would be to the corporation until the deaths or retirements of the tenants. As you have mentioned in your report, neither of these two tenants can afford to pay the lease once the project is completed. The corporation would have to absorb the cost of their rents. And then with the demise or retirement of these two people, we would be left with two white elephants on our hands.” He gave Deborah the flash of his smile to soften any sting his words might have. She was a knockout, and he still had two evenings left in Denver before returning to New York and his third wife. She would probably welcome the opportunity of wooing his vote.

  One of the other five spoke up. “Personally, I think your designs are wonderful. Beautiful as well as functional. But it seems absurd to me that you would want to build them around those two straggly businesses.”

  “What the consensus here seems to be, Miss Standridge,” interposed the deep voice of Dan Parker, “is that they would be costly eyesores. We’re asking you to explain why they shouldn’t be leveled with all the other original structures on that block.”

  Their eyes met. Deborah saw something in his she could not fathom. Dislike? Disdain? Perhaps he was one of those men opposed to women in business. He seemed the type. She glanced quickly at Randall before replying. He gazed back at her benignly, unperturbed. The slender fingers still lay peacefully entwined.

  “Gentlemen,” Deborah began quietly, addressing the group as a whole and avoiding the steady eye of Dan Parker. “Have any of you visited either place?” Their expressions affirmed that they had not. “I think you would find that Josie’s Bar would never be a white elephant. It would require some renovation, certainly, when Josie Peabody retires, but the structure itself is in excellent shape. You shouldn’t have any trouble leasing it as a bar. The interior alone would lure prospective tenants.”

  “Even with competition from the bar of the hotel we’ll be building on the block?” questioned another of the five, a heavy-set man with a pugnacious manner.

  “A different crowd frequents Josie’s,” Deborah answered. “In Denver, most bars cater to occupational groups. The factory workers who have drunk beer for years in Josie’s would never feel at home in a hotel cocktail lounge.”

  “What about Fred’s Paper Shack?” asked another member of the investment group. “There we’re not talking about a great deal of floor space. We’d have to knock out walls to accommodate another type of business concern.”

  “Not necessarily,” Deborah argued patiently, happening to glance at Dan Parker as she reached for her portfolio. She realized suddenly that the man’s incisive attention was not really focused on her replies but was focused on her personally. Yet there was not a trace of admiration in those clear blue eyes. What was he thinking about?

  Discomfited again, she drew out a number of sketches and passed them around the table. “These are preliminary drawings of business possibilities that I feel would prosper in that space,” she said. “It’s an ideal location for a stationery and card stand, craft shop, boutique, or exotic foods shop. Even a small bookstore would probably do very well there.”

  While waiting for the men to study the drawings, Deborah cast a brief look at Randall. He gave the head of his urban planning department a quick wink and reached for his pipe.

  “All right,” Dan said, “you’ve given us the commercial arguments for retaining them. What are your personal ones?”

  Deborah shifted in her seat, vexed by the blunt tone. He was indeed a profit-motivated businessman, and she wasn’t winning him. “Those are harder to sell but just as important. The families of Josie Peabody and Fred Sims have occupied those two establishments since before the second World War. The businesses were legacies handed down to the present tenants. To the people who live and work in that area—I’m talking about the true city dwellers, not the suburban commuters who will be working in
your buildings—Josie’s Bar and Fred’s Paper Shack are an integral part of their lives. A morning couldn’t begin without buying a paper from Fred or end without a beer in Josie’s. And those patrons represent more than just a livelihood to Josie and Fred. Since neither of them have any living relatives, they are like family to them.”

  Deborah paused a moment. She had been addressing her remarks around the table but now directed them to Dan. “It would be impossible for those two to relocate as the other tenants on the block have done. The bar and Josie, the paper stand and Fred, are inseparable. You might as well try to move a tree without its roots. It wouldn’t survive. Neither would Josie or Fred.”

  “You are asking us then,” said the heavyset man, “to consider the two establishments from the viewpoint of charity rather than economics.”

  Deborah flashed an irritated look at the speaker. “Josie and Fred would be offended by charity. They’ve paid their dues to Denver, enough to allow them to live out their working lives in peace. Sentiment might be a better viewpoint from which to consider them. Sentiment and profits are not necessarily oil-and-water mixtures. They can occasionally be successfully blended.”

  She thought she saw the briefest glint of amusement in the blue eyes across the table before Clayton Thomas drew her attention. “And how do you propose to blend the two, my dear?” he asked, smarting a bit from the little knuckle rap she had given them as businessmen. “The fact is that this corporation would be out a considerable sum on behalf of sentiment, let alone the inconvenience and costs of renovation when these people do retire.”

  “Oh, Mr. Thomas.” Deborah could feel her patience giving way. “The favorable publicity the corporation would receive from allowing that pair to remain on Cutter Street would more than offset the sacrifice of the loss in their lease money or any further costs. Tenants would be standing in line to lease space from such a humane corporation.”

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