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Crowning design, p.4
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       Crowning Design, p.4

           Leila Meacham
 
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  “How old are Josie and Fred?” inquired Dan unexpectedly.

  “In their seventies.”

  Again their gazes locked. The dark brows arched slightly, and Deborah was subjected to a short cryptic scrutiny before Dan diverted his attention to the head of the table. Deborah felt her heart drop. She had lost the case for Fred and Josie. “Randall,” Dan said, “would you care at this time to state the firm’s position on this matter?”

  Randall was concentrating on re-lighting his pipe. He did not reply or look at his audience until that was accomplished. Deborah held her breath. She didn’t know if Randall would support her on this. She wasn’t certain she wanted him to. She had come to recognize the fact that architectural offices needed clients, profits, and growth potential for their own health and for that of their clients. If Randall was adamant about Fred and Josie, these men would simply take their business elsewhere. The city block and all its buildings were theirs to raze or preserve. If this corporation selected another firm to design its buildings, Fred and Josie would lose anyway, and so would Randall Hayden.

  “Gentlemen,” began Randall, “the Hayden firm for the past eight years has been particularly committed to urban revitalization. Unfortunately that commitment has involved, more often than not, the tearing down of the old to rebuild the new. But in this case, I do not think it is necessary to destroy two viable and beloved business concerns. The uniqueness of a city, an inner city with a heritage like Denver’s, cannot survive when the Josies and the Freds are driven out. Miss Standridge has ingeniously shown you how you can build your complex around them, preserving their livelihoods and the familiar services they provide. And I agree with her. As much as this firm would appreciate your business, gentlemen, if you insist on razing those two buildings, the firm will withdraw the bid.”

  A silence followed, broken by the sound of Randall pushing his chair back. He bestowed upon Deborah his mellow smile. “Thank you for coming, Miss Standridge. We’ll not detain you any longer.”

  Acknowledging her dismissal, Deborah closed her astonished mouth and rose. Immediately, the men did likewise. She gave the group a strained smile. “Thank you for the courtesy of your attention,” she said politely, nodding to Randall and hurrying out.

  Back at her desk, Deborah plopped dispiritedly into the chair and stared into space. Good Lord! She had just cost the firm a commission worth a fortune! If only she had been less abrasive, more charming. If only Randall did not believe in her so much! If only that Daniel Parker with his silver-gray hair and ice-blue eyes had not been so unmoved by her! What was with him anyway?

  She bit her lip reflectively. She was unaccustomed to such indifference from men. Although she had never used her looks to win concessions in her field, she had to admit that today she would not have minded if they had influenced the discussion. So much was at stake. This one time she was not above using any advantage to win the contract and to save Josie and Fred from being turned out into the street. Well, so much for her looks!

  “How did it go?” Bea demanded, poking her head around the door. Above it another one appeared. It belonged to Tony Pierson, a tall, loosely jointed young man with an engaging grin, a member of the team who had put together the mortgage package.

  Deborah regarded the pair dismally. “Not so well, I regret to say. If I were a betting woman, I’d say we lost the ball game.”

  “And just why is that, Deborah?” demanded another voice behind Bea and Tony. Its owner, a thin, sallow-faced man in a brown suit, pushed open the door to stare accusingly at the rival occupying the seat that should have gone to him five years before. “Could it be that Randall supported your mawkish regard for Fred and Josie and refused to sell the plans if their buildings are razed?”

  “You know the man well, John.” Deborah sighed. “Randall did exactly that.”

  “I swear, Deborah—” John raked a hand through his dry, characterless brown hair. “Randall would support you if you wanted to design a skyscraper on an ice floe!”

  “Hardly a comparison to Deborah’s proposal,” Bea scolded sternly. “You ought to be proud of her—and of Randall’s stand. The Hayden firm would never be a party to the destruction of those establishments, not for any amount of money.”

  Ignoring the rebuke, John continued. “Just what are you trying to prove with this crusade of yours, Deborah? Somehow it doesn’t fit the high society image we know.”

  “That you know,” Tony contended. “The rest of us have no trouble at all in understanding Deborah’s regard for Fred and Josie—”

  The loud clearing of a throat behind them ended the confrontation abruptly. Deborah stood up. At the door was another visitor, the suave Clayton Thomas. He entered the room, smiling smoothly, and Deborah wondered how much of the exchange he had overheard. “I do hope I’m not interrupting anything,” he said complacently.

  “Of course not, Mr. Thomas,” said Deborah, coming from around her desk. “May I present my colleagues, Tony Pierson, who helped to prepare the bid, and John Turner, our chief structural engineer. Mr. Hayden’s secretary, Bea Talbert, I believe you know.”

  After an exchange of greetings, Clayton turned to Deborah. “I thought you might like to know that the decision has not been made yet. We’re all to meet tomorrow morning for a final vote after a good night’s sleep on the matter.”

  “Very sensible, I am sure,” John agreed readily.

  “I’ve a question or two to ask you, Miss Standridge, if you don’t mind.” Clayton said pointedly. Taking the hint, Deborah escorted the others to the door.

  “See if you can salvage it, will you, love?” murmured John as he was leaving. “I’m sure you’ll think of a way.” She shut the door on his insinuating smile.

  Turning back to Clayton and suspecting what was coming, Deborah asked, “What questions do you have?”

  “One, will you have dinner with me—so that we can further discuss this business—and two, will you introduce me to Fred and Josie this evening? I don’t want to cast a vote without having met them. I thought it might be enlightening to have a nightcap in Josie’s Bar. How does that sound?”

  “I’d like that,” Deborah said without hesitation. “Except that I’m not free for dinner. I’d be happy, however, to meet you for a nightcap at Josie’s. I can’t promise that Fred will be there, but he usually is.”

  Clayton was careful to conceal his disappointment. After all, a half loaf was better than none. “Wonderful!” he exclaimed with false heartiness. “Since I’ll not have the pleasure of your company for dinner, I’ll dine alone at my hotel. I am at the Brown Palace. Do you think you could pick me up in the lobby at nine, and we can go to Josie’s together?”

  With as much grace as she could manage, Deborah agreed. “I am delighted.” The financier beamed. He held out a well-manicured hand and clasped hers for a long, warm minute. “I look forward to a lengthy discussion afterward.”

  Deborah allowed a brief smile to suffice as a response and led him to the door. When he was gone, she sighed wearily, under no illusion as to why Clayton Thomas wanted her company this evening. Clients had exerted this kind of pressure on her before when the Hayden firm was bidding with others for the same contract. She had learned that the simplest response was to make herself unavailable. But Clayton Thomas had outmaneuvered her by asking to meet Fred and Josie. They were a ploy to have her company for the evening, of course, but there was a slim chance that the irrepressible pair just might sway his judgment in their behalf. It was worth a try.

  “Oh, my dear—” breathed Clayton reverently as he took her hand in the magnificent rotunda of the Brown Palace Hotel. “Your dinner date probably threw himself on the floor and howled after you left him tonight.”

  “He’ll survive.” Deborah smiled, amused at how close Clayton had come in describing Dempsey’s reaction to her desertion. Dempsey shared all of her evenings. He was an immense black Labrador retriever picked up as a stray from the roadside shortly after her arrival in Denver. Flopped
rug-like on the floor of her bedroom, he had looked at her woefully as she dressed, his intelligent eyes watching every flick of the makeup brush. “I won’t be gone long, Demps. That I can promise you,” she tried to console him. “Maybe Josie will send you a treat.”

  Clayton’s eyes danced over the abundant richness of Deborah’s auburn hair falling loosely to her shoulders. Earlier in the day she had worn it in a chignon at the nape of her neck, very smart and feminine, but he much preferred it this way. She wore a sleeveless, high-necked sequined sheath in autumn gold and carried a complementing shawl. “I must say,” Clayton said, seeming about to pounce, “that you look—well, ravishing is the only word that comes to mind.”

  “You are too kind,” Deborah said impersonally. “We must hurry out. My car is parked out front, and the doorman isn’t too thrilled with me for leaving it there.”

  “Any man would be thrilled with you for anything.”

  Really? thought Deborah cynically. Put that in writing in the form of a signature on a Hayden contract.

  For a Thursday night, Josie’s bar was doing good business. A sizeable crowd, including a number of the strapping regulars who worked in a bottling factory one block away, filled the smoky room, keeping the carrot-haired woman behind the bar busy. Clayton’s eyes narrowed against the smoke, assessing the value of the hanging Tiffany lamps, solid brass fittings, mahogany bar and booths, and decided that he could be persuaded to allow Josie’s Bar to stay. His decision would depend on the young woman beside him. He winced as the proprietress spotted them and let out a gravelly bellow of welcome.

  “Deborah, lass, what a wonderful surprise! Come on up here to the bar. Make way there, lads. Move down a couple of stools. That’s right. Here’s a pair for ye, Deborah, all nice and warm. Fred!” Josie bellowed toward the end of the bar. “Look who’s here!”

  A man of short stature, whose outdated, wide-lapeled suit hung from his spare, arthritic frame, thrust a head out from the group discussing the fate of Cutter Street. A wide smile broke across his face when he saw Deborah. “Lovey!” he cried, disengaging himself to join her and the sleekly handsome fellow whose air of superiority was out of place in the friendly merriment of Josie’s. What was she doing with a fellow like him anyway? He was too old for her. “How goes it with you, my girl?” He hugged her hard, delighting as always in the clean, youthful smell of her. “Who’s this feller?”

  “Clayton Thomas, Fred Sims. And this is Josie Peabody. They were the first friends I made in Denver.”

  “Really?” said Clayton interestedly. His curiosity was piqued. How did a refined woman like Deborah Standridge come to have such devotion to a pair of seedy characters like these? “And what circumstances led to that? I must say, Deborah, you don’t seem the type to frequent bars.”

  “Ye’d be tellin’ the truth there!” averred Josie, rolling her eyes as well as her r’s. Her father had been Irish, a fact that explained her brogue and speech patterns. “Tell him how it happened, Fred.”

  Deborah looked on in amusement as Fred straightened his shoulders to tell the story of how they had met during her first week in Denver. “It happened to be a Saturday, and Deborah here, her car was parked down the street a ways. I happened to have strolled out on the sidewalk from my place of business next door, and I see these two roughies on motorcycles pull in on one side of her. The Lord only knows where they come from. We don’t see their likes around here too often. Anyways, I watch as Deborah comes out to get into her car to see if these two fellers who are lollin’ about on the hood are gonna move. Naturally, when they get a look at her, they don’t. They took the keys right outta her hand as she went to unlock the door, and I knew that was the time to call on a few of the boys in Josie’s. Sam and Tim, them two fellers with the big shoulders at the end of the bar, they was two that was in here that day, and I rounded them up and a few others, and we went down to rescue Miss Deborah here. They had her pretty shaken up by the time we got down there, no cop in sight, of course. But I’m here to tell you them fellers didn’t want no part of what I brung out to Deborah’s aid. They took off mighty fast.”

  “And what was the fate of the keys?” asked Clayton.

  “We made ’em a deal,” said Fred. “A couple of motorcycles for a set of keys.”

  “Oh, my. So the three of you have been fast friends ever since.”

  Catching the patronizing note in Clayton’s voice, Deborah said unsmilingly, “Since then I have been grateful for the incident. Otherwise, I might not have known Fred and Josie. Neither would the friends I’ve brought here.”

  “Which says something nice about you, Mr. Thomas. Are you new to Denver?” Josie asked.

  “No, I’ve been here before, a number of times. I’m here on business at present.”

  “What kind of business are you in?” asked Fred politely.

  “Banking.”

  “Oh?” said Fred encouragingly, waiting for Clayton to continue.

  On the stool beside him, Deborah stirred uncomfortably, and Clayton smoothly changed the subject by remarking on the mirrors that covered the wall behind the rows of liquor bottles. “They must be expensive to repair when things get out of hand on Saturday nights,” he suggested, folding his hand around Deborah’s. He gave it a conspiratorial squeeze to let her know he wouldn’t let the cat out of the bag.

  “Never had one broke yet!” Josie said proudly. “We don’t allow no hooligans in here. There’s enough regulars around most nights big enough to persuade a rowdy customer to take his business elsewhere.”

  “About the size of that big feller comin’ in the door.” Fred nodded toward the reflection in the mirror. “Except that he’s never been in here before, has he, Josie?”

  “Not to my recollection,” she said, gazing over Fred’s shoulder. “What’ll you have, Mr. Thomas? You look like a scotch and water man to me.”

  “You’ve hit the nail on the head, Josie. Deborah?”

  “Deborah likes a creme de menthe this time of night,” Josie answered for her.

  On the stool, Deborah had stiffened. In the mirror she caught sight of Dan Parker’s silver-streaked head as he made his way toward them, casually dressed in gray sweater and slacks. Clayton had seen him, too, and readied his smile, gripping Deborah’s hand tighter when she tried to draw it away. “Hello, Dan,” he said affably, swiveling around to greet the tall builder. “Fancy meeting you here.”

  Chapter Three

  I see we had the same idea, at least in part,” Dan said, dropping his eyes to Deborah’s covered hand. “You made a good point when you asked us that question this morning, Miss Standridge.”

  “If—” qualified Clayton with a smile at Deborah, “the outcome isn’t like knowing the cow of the steak you had for dinner.”

  Deborah felt her color rising. Daniel Parker had no doubt, either, as to why Clayton had asked her out. And Clayton was making it clear what was at stake if she lost his vote. “It was good of you to come,” she said formally, cognizant that Fred had grown very quiet. “Can Josie get you something?”

  “A beer, please. Coors.” He spoke over her head. “You must be Josie Peabody.”

  “That I am, sir. And you?”

  “Dan Parker.” He reached a long arm between Deborah and Fred to shake hands with the plump, good-natured woman whose cheeks were like red plums. “And you’re Fred Sims.” Dan turned to the much shorter man.

  After some deliberation of the proffered hand, during which time Deborah held her breath, Fred took it. “You’ve got us at a disadvantage, sir, Josie and me. You wouldn’t be one of them fellers that’s bought this city block, would you?”

  Later, Deborah was to compare the sudden hush that fell in the bar, the almost total cessation of speech, to the television commercial about E. F. Hutton. Suddenly every eye and ear seemed to be tuned to their conversation. The men with whom Fred had been talking earlier, the brawny factory workers, disbanded to amble curiously over to them.

  “Danny, my boy,” said Clayto
n, releasing Deborah’s hand to take a hasty swallow of his drink, “you’ve just bought us a pack of trouble.”

  “Fred,” Deborah said worriedly, watching the men take position behind Dan, “these gentlemen are here as my guests tonight.”

  “Well, that’s fine, lovey, but I’d still like Mr. Dan Parker here to answer my question, if he’d be so kind.”

  “I would be so kind, Mr. Sims. Yes, I am one of the investors who has bought this block of Cutter Street,” he said pleasantly, ignoring the menacing stir behind him. “Miss Standridge has been trying to convince us that this bar and your establishment are an essential, integral part of the neighborhood, and I wanted to come down and see for myself.”

  “Well, now, seems to me that’d be mighty hard to do over one bottle of beer. Was that to say that you fellers haven’t yet made up yer minds what yer going to do with us?”

  “You want us to help make up their minds, Fred?” asked a threatening voice behind Dan.

  Deborah slid off the stool, her heart hammering. “Fred—”

  “How about an answer to my question?” Fred insisted, his stern inquiry turned to include Clayton Thomas. The financier had reached again for Deborah’s hand with the intention of slipping quietly away to leave Dan to deal with the confrontation.

  “The final decision has not been made yet,” Dan answered. “Suppose you send your friends back to the end of the bar, and you and I can take a stroll next door. I’d like to see Fred’s Paper Shack.” He nodded toward Clayton. “Mr. Thomas would like to see it, too, no doubt.”

  “Oh, but I—I can’t leave Deborah!” Clayton protested.

  “Of course ye can!” Josie scoffed. “This is Deborah’s second home. Ye run along. The rest of ye—” she addressed the hefty regulars with a scowl, “go back to your drinking. Your beers are gettin’ warm.”

  To encourage Clayton to accompany Fred and Dan, Deborah gave him a small smile and squeezed his arm, a gesture she hoped had escaped the builder’s attention. “Please go with them. I’d like you to see Fred’s place. I want to visit with Josie anyway.”

 
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