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Crowning design, p.6
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       Crowning Design, p.6

           Leila Meacham
 
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  “I’ll take care of her,” Dan said, helping her into her coat. He couldn’t help but laugh. She was very funny when she’d had one too many. Unlike some women he knew who became mean and spiteful when drunk, Deborah was appealingly humorous. The expression she gave him now was bewitching in its inebriated innocence, and he drew her protectively into his arms. “I won’t let her drive home in this condition. Say good night to the nice folks,” he instructed.

  “Good night to the nice folks,” Deborah obeyed with an infectious laugh. “Does that mean we have to go away now?”

  “Yes,” Dan said, chuckling. “That means we have to go away now. Good night, Josie, Fred.” Dan released an arm to shake hands. “It was a fine evening. I’m glad I was included.”

  “Since you were the cause of it, you should have been,” said Fred. “You’ll be taking her home in your car, I suppose? Hers will be fine here.”

  “Good enough,” said Dan. “Come on, lovely lady.”

  The brisk night air hit her like a splash of cold water. “Mr. Parker,” she said with solemn formality, the Southern accent slightly slurred. “I do believe I am inordinately tipsy.”

  “You can say that again,” Dan agreed as he tucked her into the rental car.

  “Mr. Parker, I do believe I am inordinately tipsy.”

  Dan’s mouth quirked in amusement as he started the motor. “And I know just the place for you to sleep it off, sweetheart.”

  “How about right here?” Deborah sighed, laying her head back against the headrest and closing her eyes.

  She was awakened when the door was opened on her side of the car. A tall man with silver hair led her along an unfamiliar walk toward a strange door beside a flower bed she had never seen before. “This isn’t my house!” she declared in confusion.

  “No, it isn’t,” he said in an unusually deep voice. But then, he was so tall and big. A voice had to come a long way to get out of him! “Come into my parlor said the spider to the fly.”

  That was a nice jingle, thought Deborah as she tottered over the threshold, supported by the tall man’s strong arm. “What are you going to do?” she inquired, looking up at a blur of silver.

  “Well, now, my lovely, that depends on you,” the tall man said, swinging her up in his arms.

  Chapter Four

  She awoke from the weight of light upon her eyelids. Cautiously, painfully, still struggling up from the nauseating depths of some strange, murky slumber, Deborah lifted first one lid and then the other. There was an unfamiliar ceiling above her head; a white, garish one. Where was her glass roof? Carefully, because some still-functioning center of intellect warned her not to move too fast, Deborah reached over the side of the bed for Dempsey. No Dempsey. Where was he? Where was she?

  Disregarding caution, she attempted to rise, but the sudden movement detonated an explosion inside her head, forcing her back upon the pillow with a sharp cry of pain. Covering her eyes from the light, she made an effort to think, but that hurt, too. A door opened, bringing the sense of a human presence. A deep, vaguely familiar voice said, “This will make you feel better,” and her hands were taken away and the shockingly cold compress positioned over her eyes. “When you feel that you can sit up,” the voice went on, “I have some aspirin and tomato juice.”

  “Dan—?”

  “Yes. Don’t try to talk. Everything is all right.”

  After the tomato juice and aspirin, she dozed, and upon awakening again, found the light bearable. Recollection of the night before was making headway through the fog of a headache without shedding much light on how she had come to be in Dan Parker’s bedroom. The answer to that could come later. The objective now was to get up.

  Deborah rolled off the bed to her feet, coming face-to-face with a disheveled stranger in the mirror. With a shocked gasp, she realized that the starkly pale face and mascara-smudged eyes were hers. She looked down at the crush of wrinkles that was her cream silk shirt and the bottom half of her beige satin slip. She was still in her panty hose. Where were her skirt, her shoes?

  “Deborah, what are you doing?”

  Very carefully, since too sudden a movement would have risked injury, Deborah rotated in the direction of the question. Dan Parker had come into the room, newspaper in hand, wearing slippers and a blue robe a trifle short for his long runner’s legs. Deborah looked away in embarrassment. “I’m looking for my shoes and skirt. I have to go home. Dempsey will be worried about me.”

  “Dempsey?”

  “My dog. He’s not used to spending the night outside, and he’ll be hungry.”

  “You’re not going anywhere until you have a shower and some breakfast. Then I’ll drive you to your car. It’s still parked at Josie’s. Dempsey will be all right until you get home. Your things are in the closet, and there’s a spare toothbrush in the second drawer of the linen cabinet. Do you think you can manage?”

  “Yes,” Deborah said, afraid to nod her head.

  Under the reviving jet of the shower, Deborah recognized that she was beginning to have a new set of feelings about a man. She couldn’t remember ever liking a man, not since Roger. Except…liking Dan gave her such a pleasant, zestful, good-to-be-alive feeling. She not only respected him, she was physically attracted to him as well, and for her, that was a rare response indeed.

  Dan was different from the bachelors she was accustomed to seeing—men on their way up who knew the importance of having the right address, the right possessions, being seen with the right woman. In addition to a presentable appearance and professional prestige, she enjoyed what Randall called a “certain air of breeding,” appreciated by the socially conscious men in her life.

  Their egos might have been considerably dented had they known why she really preferred their type. They, who loved only themselves, were not likely to love her. They were invulnerable to her, her beauty and worth, and she was safe from them and from herself. There was not a Roger among them who might run his Mercedes into a wall because of her.

  Not that Dan would, either. But he was the kind of man who would want more from her than just an impressive presence on his arm for an evening out. He had the kind of robust male magnetism that bespoke a healthy enjoyment of sex, and therein lay the problem. Sex was not for her. Of that, she was quite certain.

  In the bathroom mirror, Deborah gazed at the much improved reflection of herself. Now that she’d had a chance to make a site analysis of the situation, she could render a plan. And the plan called for backing off from this relationship. Dan’s regard was too important to her. They would be working together closely on the project this year; a romance was out of the question under the circumstances.

  “Well!” Dan said cheerfully, looking up from the morning newspaper at the small sunlit table in the breakfast nook. He was still in the blue robe, long brown legs crossed. The aroma of fresh coffee and something cheesy baking in the oven filled the kitchen. Sunlight streamed through a sliding glass door that lead to a small patio. “You don’t look too bad for a little boozehound the morning after. How do you feel?”

  “Still a little headachy, but much better, thank you. Mr. Parker, I—”

  “Mister Parker! What’s this mister business? You spent the night in my bedroom, Deborah, so that entitles you to call me Dan.” He got up, amused, his hands in the pockets of his robe, and moved to where she stood uncertainly in the doorway. “Embarrassed?” He grinned.

  “I don’t know what happened after the third or fourth Tom Collins. Did I make a complete fool of myself?”

  “Not in my opinion or anybody else’s, for that matter. You were awfully cute, and funny as the devil. You led a sing-along, sang ‘The Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech,’ and demonstrated the polka, but other than that—”

  Deborah closed her eyes. “Oh me, oh my. Thank God Randall Hayden wasn’t there.”

  “And one other little thing. Everybody knows you left with me, so I can’t speak for what that will do for your reputation.”

  “Why didn
’t Bea suggest I stay at her place?”

  Dan looked a bit sheepish. “I was scared to death somebody would come up with that idea.”

  It took Deborah’s weakened mental state a few seconds to assimilate that information. Then she gingerly risked a laugh. “Er, uh…what happened after you brought me here?”

  “Not a damned thing, unfortunately. Now help yourself to coffee. There’s also some more juice, if you like, and go out to the patio. You’ll find a fine Rocky Mountain morning out there. I’ll go get dressed and then we’ll have some breakfast.”

  With a steaming cup of coffee, Deborah went out on the patio. A fine September morning, crisp and clear, was indeed waiting. Majestic mornings like these always made her glad that she had come to Colorado. Dan’s town house faced west, and this morning no smog obscured the snow-capped peaks in the distance. Deborah breathed deeply of the freshness and the aroma of breakfast baking and pulled out a wrought-iron chair. As she sat down, she noticed a pair of running shorts and socks and a sweatshirt draped over the railing. He’s already been out jogging, she thought, remembering that last night Dan had told her the town house was close to a track.

  “Ready for a little breakfast?” her host asked, coming out on the patio with placemats, silverware, and salt and pepper shakers. “We’ll eat out here, if that’s all right with you.” He was in jeans, a blue denim shirt, and tennis shoes. There was a vitality about him that matched the morning, an exuberance of masculine vigor and spirit that filled her heart and made her smile. He truly was a devastating man.

  “You seem very practiced at all of this,” Deborah accused him archly as he began to set the small wrought-iron table.

  “Well, I’ve had quite a bit of experience at this sort of thing.”

  “I’ll just bet you have,” she said wryly.

  He answered with his deep, warm laugh, blue eyes twinkling down at her from beneath the expressive black brows, his smile easy and approving. “You know, you’re not at all bad looking.” Before she could reply, he bent down and deposited a full kiss on her open mouth. “That will do you until tonight,” he said easily, straightening up. “Now I’ll get that breakfast.”

  It was a soothing, satisfying combination of eggs and cheese and bread baked into a firm custard topped with bacon. “This is delicious.” Deborah sighed. “Where did you learn how to cook?”

  “I can’t remember when I didn’t know how to scramble something up for the table,” Dan replied. “My mother died when I was barely out of diapers, and my dad came back from Korea with a leg shot off and a lot of bad memories he never learned to deal with. It was up to me to look after us. As a bachelor, I’ve been grateful for the fact that I’m pretty proficient in the kitchen.”

  It was said without the least intent to elicit pity, but Deborah’s heart was suddenly wrung by the vision of a solicitous little boy, barely tall enough to stand at the kitchen cabinet, attempting to put together a family meal. She could feel herself being pulled deeper into this involvement, and her resistance was weakening. She must get out now before she took another bite. “Uh, Dan, about tonight. Could we have a rain check? I feel awful, and I have so much to do at home. I have a dozen errands to run and half the day is already gone—” She bit her lip. What a lame package of excuses!

  Dan wasn’t buying it either. The blue eyes rested steadily on her as he sipped his coffee, waiting for her to come to terms with whatever she was trying to tell him. “I take that back,” she said abruptly, looking off toward the mountains. “My real reason in not wanting to see you is that I don’t think it’s a good idea to mix social and business lives. We’ll be working together closely this year, and our professional relationship could suffer if—if we became involved emotionally.”

  “You must be awfully sure of my intentions to become…involved emotionally.”

  Deborah caught the mocking note and blushed. She supposed she deserved that, but she intended to stick to her guns. She said directly to Dan, “If I am wrong, then I misread the signals, and I apologize.”

  Dan set his cup down carefully. “You didn’t misread the signals, Deborah, and you may be right about mixing social and business lives. But I want to see you again. Maybe I already am involved. I think you are, too.”

  “No,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re wrong. At least I’m not so involved that I can’t pull out now.” She wiped her mouth and slipped the napkin under the edge of her plate. “You’ve been so kind,” she said formally. “I’ll help you to clear away the dishes, and then if I could impose upon you to drive me to my car…”

  Dan’s reaction was to cut another piece of the breakfast custard. “Sit down, Miss Standridge. I haven’t finished my meal and neither have you. If you’re like most women living alone, you probably won’t eat another bite until I pick you up at seven, so eat up. You’ll have to give me instructions on how to get out to your place. I’m looking forward to spending a quiet business evening with the architect in charge of my project. There are a few revisions in the plans I would like to suggest. Nothing major,” he said when he saw her eyes widening.

  “You’re splitting hairs!” she charged.

  “That could be so,” Dan said unconcernedly, taking a big bite of the custard. “But then that’s a prerogative of the client.”

  Nice, very nice, thought Dan that evening as he pulled into the circular drive leading to Deborah’s house. A little remote, though, for a girl living alone. Before ringing the doorbell, he admired the architectural distinction of the house, the sensitive attention to silhouette, particularly at the juncture of building to sky. The location of the house at the foot of a mountain some distance from neighbors was symbolic of Deborah somehow, or at least his preliminary impression of her. She required both being sheltered and being left alone.

  “Good evening,” Deborah said in answer to the push of the brass doorbell. Behind her, its mellow peal still resonated throughout the house, like the chimes of a fine old clock. From the far regions came the bark of a dog, Dempsey, no doubt, confined to the kitchen until the greetings were over. “Did you have trouble finding me?”

  “Not at all. This is very beautiful,” Dan said, his glance indicating the house. “Your design, I imagine?”

  “Yes. I was afraid that you might not get to see much of the exterior since the sun sets so quickly now. Please come in. Those are for me?”

  He had brought her a dozen red roses. He had never been a man for giving flowers to women, but he very much wanted to bring her something lovely and special tonight. She was the kind of woman to whom a man brought lovely and special things.

  “They are so beautiful, Dan,” she exclaimed softly, lifting the long-stemmed roses out of the green tissue paper in the long box. Her face glowed with the childlike pleasure that had so moved him last night. “Would you mind mixing a drink for yourself?” she asked. “The bar is there, and I believe you’ll find anything you want. I must get a vase for these.”

  He assured her that he could manage and went to the bar, but his attention was still on Deborah. He admired the long, straight back and elegant legs as she walked into the dining room to select a vase from a lighted cabinet filled with glittering crystal and china. The entire house had a quiet air of tasteful opulence.

  “I love roses,” she said, coming back carrying the buds and vase. While he poured his drink, she arranged the flowers on the coffee table.

  Dan realized that he had spoken only a few words since arriving, that he had been unable to do anything but drink her in. “Roses become you,” he said solemnly, observing the lovely blooms near her face. “May I pour you anything?”

  “Only a pitcher of water from the bar for these, if you don’t mind. There’s one above your head there. Last night should do me for quite a while.” She laughed. “I’ll have a glass of wine with dinner. When I arrange these, I’ll go get Dempsey. He has to be kept in the kitchen until guests are settled; then he’s allowed to come in and say hello. He has pretty good manners for a
fellow with no formal education.”

  “You mean he didn’t go to obedience school?” asked Dan, handing her the pitcher. “What breed is he?” She was wearing a sheer navy dress over its own strapless underslip, which left little doubt of the fullness of her breasts. A prim narrow band of white satin, much like a clergyman’s collar, caught the dress at the neck, chastening its allure. Her hair, rich and full, swept away from a well-defined widow’s peak in an auburn tempest of waves and curls. At her ears were pearls of impressive size, encircled with diamonds. Dan wondered who had bought her those, or if she purchased her own jewelry. There was so much about her he wanted to know.

  “… I picked him up as a stray by the side of the road,” Deborah was saying when he took his thoughts back to her explanation about the dog. “He was starving and had been terribly abused. I’d never had a dog, nor a pet of any kind, actually. I had no idea if I could take care of him, but I opened the car door and invited him in. I knew I was taking a chance. My mother would have had a hissy, but I felt so sorry for him. As it’s turned out, we’ve been very good for each other. He’s been no trouble at all. Shall I go get him?” Deborah asked.

  “By all means,” said Dan.

  Deborah got to her feet, encased in navy satin shoes, he noticed, and left the room. While she was gone, Dan sipped his martini and reflected on the insight into her disposition he had just been given.

  After meeting Dempsey, who seemed to like Dan at first sniff, he was taken on a tour of Deborah’s house. Again, Dan thought how well it suited her. It was a combination of contemporary and traditional design, with gracious rooms quietly and elegantly furnished. For a young woman not yet thirty, Dan noted, she had acquired an enviable collection of fine things. He was amused and somehow pleased at her hesitancy, disguised with a flippancy unnatural to her, to show him her bedroom. She’s afraid of me, he thought, afraid of what could happen between us. Why? She did not seem a woman fearful of men, only of him. He must learn why.

 
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