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Crowning design, p.7
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       Crowning Design, p.7

           Leila Meacham
 
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  “Deborah, it’s ingenious!” he said in appreciation when the double doors were opened to her bedroom. It was a room of wide, graceful proportions, decorated in soothing blues and greens, furnished in rich woods. But it was the roof line that intrigued him. Instead of a flat plane, it jutted out at an oblique angle to the night sky, leaving a wide but protected portion of glass directly above the king-sized bed. Moonshine and starlight flowed into the room. Dan could imagine lying on the bed, lost in the illusion of floating among the clouds and stars. “Surely something inspired you to design the roof like that!”

  “Well, yes, but it’s as silly as singing ‘The Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech’!”

  “Try me,” he urged.

  “When I was a little girl, I used to think how exciting it would be to go camping and lie out at night gazing at the stars. There has always been something about space and nature that has appealed to me. I used to think that when I got grown,” she underlined the choice of words with a self-conscious laugh, “I would learn how to camp and hike and fish. Not hunt. I could never hunt.”

  “You didn’t go camping when you were a little girl?” His tone was quiet and encouraging.

  “Oh, heavens, no! My parents didn’t allow it. Besides, they were not young when I was born, and were far past the age to rough it by the time I was able to do so. So when I got grown,” she laughed again, “I compromised with my little-girl fantasies and built this room so that I could lie here at night and see the stars.”

  “Then you never did learn to fish or hike or camp?”

  “No.” She smiled. “I’ve never known anyone who could teach me.”

  “No one?” Dan asked, lifting his brows at the question.

  “Well, yes, there was one man, someone I knew long ago,” Deborah said, puzzled by the query and thinking of Roger, “but I was…still a little girl then.” She changed the subject and led him from the room.

  She was taken to a restaurant overlooking a deep gorge. Directly across from the glass alcove where they sat was the summit of another mountain, its cap of last year’s snow glistening in the moonlight. Deborah thought how alike they were: the mountain across the way and the man sitting across from her, his hair gleaming like silver beneath the softly defused lights.

  “Why did you choose Denver for the location of your head-quarters, Dan?” Deborah asked after they had ordered. Both had chosen rainbow trout, caught that day from the cold stream gurgling far below in the rocky, narrow ravine, which in daylight could be seen from their window.

  “The labor force is easier to deal with in Denver, and it’s central to the locations I hope to be developing during the coming years. What about you? How did a girl from Savannah happen to land here?”

  Deborah explained that Randall Hayden had offered her a job right after graduation from college.

  “I’m surprised some guy had not already put an engagement ring on your finger,” said Dan, taking a sip of his martini and noting the sudden flush of color in Deborah’s cheeks.

  Her eyes dropped to the wineglass as she reached for it. “At the time, marriage was not for me,” she said.

  “Has it ever been?”

  “No. I’m not the marrying type. My career means too much to me. I could never combine the two. Neither would be successful.”

  “So you’ve foregone marriage for your work?”

  “Yes.” She smiled faintly. “You seem to have done the same.”

  “Appearances can be deceiving,” Dan said, offering no further comment on the subject. He brought up Clayton Thomas. “I’ve made an offer to buy him out,” he said. “I don’t approve of his business tactics. I apologize for the fact that you had to be subjected to the particular kind of strong-arm maneuvers he’s capable of.”

  “They didn’t work, you know.”

  “I know,” Dan said with a smile.

  Her heart felt lighter instantly. She laughed aloud.

  “Tell me,” he demanded, smiling more broadly, affected by her laughter.

  Grinning, Deborah related the details of how she had used Dempsey as an excuse to avoid the rest of the amorous evening Clayton had planned. “You mean he never knew that Dempsey was a dog?” Dan asked in an explosion of laughter. Deborah shook her head, and their joined mirth filled the glass alcove.

  For the rest of the evening, their conversation was light and enjoyable. No mention was made of revisions in the plans. Only as Dan was driving her home did there come a feeling of disquiet between them. Dan sensed Deborah’s tension and knew she was worrying about how to get rid of him tactfully without causing offense. He did not intend to make it easy for her. He had to find out why she was afraid of him.

  In the circular drive, her hand went immediately to the door handle as the car stopped. “No need to walk me to the door,” Deborah said lightly, disregarding the manners that dictated the contrary. “Thank you for a lovely evening. I enjoyed every minute of it.”

  “Deborah—” Dan reached for her hand and held it in a gentle vise. “I most certainly do have to walk you to the door. Furthermore, I want to make sure everything is all right in the house before I leave you.”

  “You’re thinking of burglars?” She laughed thinly. “With Dempsey in the house?”

  He did not comment on the fact that burglars intent on breaking into a house knew how to deal with a dog. “Why are you so nervous? You’re afraid of me, aren’t you? And your fear has nothing to do with what we talked about earlier—mixing personal and business relations.”

  “Afraid of you?” Deborah chortled. “Of course not. That’s ridiculous. I—”

  “Then ask me in for a nightcap.”

  In the darkness of the car, a narrow band of light from the portico fell directly across his eyes. The challenge in them was hard and clear. Dan’s fingers moved to her wrist, and Deborah knew he could feel the race of her pulse. Why was she so afraid? Nothing had to happen unless she let it. With mock solemnity, Deborah said, “Very well. Won’t you come in for a brandy, Mr. Parker?”

  Dempsey greeted them at the door, wagging his tail and sniffing the doggy bag with the remains of the boneless trout she had saved for him. “Please help yourself to brandy,” Deborah invited, “while I give Dempsey his treat.”

  “I believe I’ll wait for you, Deborah,” Dan said quietly. “Hurry back, won’t you?”

  In the kitchen, watching Dempsey wolf down the trout, Deborah came to an astonishing conclusion. She didn’t really want to discourage Dan’s…physical attentions. The thought was so novel, her mind couldn’t pursue it. She took another tack. If Dan tried to make love to her, and it looked as though he would try—if not tonight, soon—what would she do? Regardless of these new and startling feelings, the situation was clearly impossible. How could she cool this relationship gracefully? What could she say? Do? She’d never had this sort of problem before. Dan was no Clayton Thomas…

  “Deborah, what’s the matter?”

  He had come into the kitchen, and she was suddenly aware of the tears in her eyes, easily visible under the harsh glare of the overhead lights. “Oh, rats!” she said.

  Dan gently turned her to face him. “Tell me what’s disturbing you. Why are you afraid of what’s happening to us?”

  “It has nothing to do with you.”

  “What then? Does it have anything to do with the past, something you’re afraid I might not understand?”

  She stared up at him, the amber eyes bright and searching. “What if it does?”

  “The past is yours, Deborah, not mine. It’s not for anyone else to forgive or remember. It forged you, made you the woman you are now, and that’s all that matters.”

  “Oh, but Dan—” She moved out from under his hands and walked into the living room to kinder lights and the familiar comfort of possessions brought from the home in Savannah, to the tribute of tall red roses in the crystal vase, a mockery now. “You see,” she said, clasping her hands for courage, taking a breath, swallowing at the sadness twisti
ng her vocal cords, “I am one of those women who can’t, who can’t—”

  Dan drew her back against him, resting his chin on the burnished crown of her head. He could feel the taut sorrow in her, the struggle with pain. He was beginning to suspect the nature of her torment and was relieved that it was not as he had thought. “Are you sure you want to go on with this? It’s not necessary, you know.”

  He lowered his head and covered her lips with his own. Unhurriedly, patiently, Dan began to sensually vanquish her fears. He must not give in to his own hunger, he thought. Not yet. He must play her easily, gently—get her ready for him, for herself. Tenderly, Dan traced her lips as if they were the petals of a rose, the delicate wings of a butterfly. Even more tenderly, he tasted them. “Deborah,” he whispered, his breath warm on her mouth, “don’t worry about loving me. I want to love you. Let me show you how wonderful, how lovely you are.”

  “No—” she whispered, although even she doubted that she meant it.

  “Yes, Deborah. Let me show you the kind of woman you are.” Lifting her up in his arms, he carried her up the stairs effortlessly. At the double doors, he paused. “You don’t really want me to leave, do you?”

  “No,” she answered, and there was no doubt in her voice now.

  Chapter Five

  Deborah did not want to go to Randall’s bridge party. She dressed with indifference, choosing from habit clothes that would please him. Randall had decided opinions about what women should wear. In his view bridge called for cashmere sweaters, worn with a single strand of pearls, and wool skirts. Pumps, of course, and perhaps a scarf to tie back the hair. She ought to mind more than she did, Deborah thought. But the truth was, Randall’s dictatorial meddlesomeness was so like that of her parents that it served to remind her of their way of showing their love and concern.

  Knotting the paisley scarf that complemented the sweater and skirt she had chosen, Deborah grinned at herself in the mirror. Her eyes shone, her skin seemed to glow. The look of love. But how could she be in love with a man she’d only known for four days? Still, everyone there tonight—and especially Randall, who knew her so well—was bound to know something extraordinary had happened.

  Well, miracles had that effect. She twirled before the mirror with a laugh, unabashedly admiring her figure, happy that it turned heads. If she wasn’t in love, this was certainly the next best thing.

  Arising from his rug-like sprawl on the floor, Dempsey watched his mistress with a quizzical tilt to his head. “Oh, Demps!” Deborah hugged him impulsively, heedless of dog hair on her clothes. “You like him, don’t you? Isn’t he simply wonderful?”

  She had awakened that morning to the sound of water splashing in the shower. She had stretched euphorically, sensuously, then burrowed once again under the covers to relive the ecstacy of the night before. Dempsey was on his pallet. Dan must have already been downstairs to put him outside from the kitchen where he had been confined for the night, then allowed him back in. Deborah smiled to herself under the covers. He was a man who could take care of things, could make himself at home. He had found the soap, towels, the supply of new tooth-brushes she kept on hand for guests. When he finished dressing, he would probably go downstairs, bring in the Sunday paper, make coffee, and feed Dempsey. What a man! She sighed and dozed off again.

  When next she opened her eyes, the sunlight was streaming through her special window. She showered and dressed hurriedly, her morning for jeans this time. She didn’t want to miss another minute of being with him, and he must be fed a hearty, man-pleasing breakfast.

  “Good morning, Dan.”

  She’d found him sitting at the breakfast bar with the Sunday papers, and her heart had thudded when the silver head turned. Dempsey was at his feet, obviously fed, or he would have been banging his empty bowl. The kitchen was fragrant with the smell of coffee. “You’ll stay for breakfast, won’t you?”

  He had gotten up from the stool and gone to her, and with profound tenderness had taken her face between his big hands. She felt the painful, pleasurable throb, the vital hunger that he had incited the night before, and returned the deep, full, satisfying kiss. “Yes,” he said.

  She prepared the Southern breakfast that had pleased her father every Sunday morning of his life: ham and eggs, grits, and red-eye gravy for the homemade biscuits. As she stirred and hummed while Dan read the paper, she only hoped he liked Southern breakfasts. Her worry vanished when she set his plate before him.

  “Grits!” He sighed with pleasure. “And red-eye gravy!”

  “How do you happen to know about grits and red-eye gravy?”

  His eyes were on the napkin he shook out for his lap. “I’ve done a lot of building in the South,” he said.

  Dan had not wanted her to go to Randall’s bridge party. He suggested they spend the day together, go for a walk in the woods, buy some steaks, and cook them on the outdoor grill for dinner.

  “I can’t do that, Dan,” she had said with gentle resolution. “These Sunday bridge suppers mean so much to Randall. They’re the highlight of his week, and it would be difficult for him to find a fourth this late in the day.” As much as she had wanted to cancel, Deborah had been unwilling to disappoint the man she loved like a father. She tried to define their relationship to Dan. “He’s been my guide and mentor, my confidant and guardian ever since the first day I set foot in the Hayden firm. He took such a chance with me, Dan, when he named me head of the urban planning department immediately following my internship. He’s always supported me, as he proved the other day with the Fred and Josie issue. I have so few opportunities to repay him, to express my appreciation for all he’s done for me. That’s why I can’t cancel this evening.”

  “You repay him, Deborah, by being the best urban designer in the state. You’ve brought a lot of business to the Hayden firm. As for his support of you about Fred and Josie, he pretty well knew he was safe with that gesture. He knew how badly we wanted your designs.”

  “You don’t like Randall, do you?” she had asked slowly, disappointment twisting in her chest.

  “He seems so possessive of you. I suppose I can understand that since he’s been a widower for so long and has no children. He dotes on you as the daughter he never had. But there can be danger in too much possession.”

  Deborah had dropped the subject, but they managed the walk in the woods, taking Dempsey. Dan kept a pair of boots in the trunk of his car for site inspections, and he held her hand as they tramped along the edge of the foothills behind her house.

  “Tomorrow night then?” he asked as he was leaving. She had looked up at him, so crisp against the background of the blue and gold day, and nodded. “I’ll call you at the office about a time and place.” Tilting her chin, he had kissed her, not once but several times as autumn leaves swirled around them.

  Now she made a sorrowful face in the mirror. “Oh, Dan, I want to be with you tonight!”

  The telephone rang on the nightstand. “I miss you already,” Dan said. “Did I thank you for a fine day?”

  Deborah smiled in tender reflection. “Did I thank you for last night?”

  “In the best possible way. Good night, Deborah.”

  She was a few minutes late, a tardiness that provoked a faint line of disapproval between Randall’s fair brows when he opened the door of his Victorian-style residence to her. “It’s all right, my dear,” he said reassuringly, as if her “hello” had been a lengthy apology. “Traffic wreaks havoc with the most punctual among us, even on a quiet Sunday.” He kissed her cheek, remarking, “What a delightful perfume. I like it almost as much as I do my favorite, which you usually wear. You look lovely. Come on in and greet everyone. Naturally, everybody is here. What shall I get you for an aperitif?”

  Good heavens, what have I done? she wondered in surprise as she followed Randall into the library where a fire had been lit and the bridge table set up. The others, a man and a woman in middle age, both lawyers, were at the fire with their drinks. They, too, had just a
rrived and were relieving the chill of the sudden cold front that had blown down from the Rockies. Deborah gave the evening her best, but she found the conversation dull and the play boring. She was concerned about Randall’s cool reserve toward her, carefully concealed from the others by his impeccable manners.

  “Deborah, would you mind waiting for a few moments,” he requested when the evening finally drew to an end. “I have something to discuss with you that can’t wait until morning.”

  Once the guests were seen off, Randall suggested, “Let us go back to the fire, my dear. I’ll not keep you long. You look tired.”

  Deborah glanced at him sharply. Did she? Or was that an implication of some kind? His manner was so strange. Depressed, Deborah linked an arm through his. “What is it, Randall? Have I offended you in some way? You must tell me.”

  He seemed mollified by her taking his arm and said in a conciliatory tone, “Forgive an old man who loves you as if you were his very own. I could not bear it if anything happened to you. You are the solace of my old age. Without you, I could not go on.”

  “Randall, dear—” In dismay, Deborah stared at the pain-shadowed eyes, the hurt mouth. “Whatever has given you the idea that something will happen to me?”

  “Before we discuss that,” he patted her hand, “let’s have some brandy to take the chill off our bones and—perhaps my words.”

  Deborah rarely drank after dinner, but she accepted the snifter of brandy and watched as Randall lowered his slight, brittle frame into a velvet high-backed chair the twin of hers. With a frowning interest in the swirl of brandy, he cleared his throat and began, “Bea tells me that you left Josie’s Friday night with Dan Parker, and that you were…quite inebriated. I must confess to you frankly, my dear child, that I have been very concerned about where he took you. I can’t imagine that he knew where you lived on such short acquaintance, and you were obviously not in a state to direct him.”

  Deborah set down the snifter of brandy untasted. “Randall, I’m sorry, but that really is none of your business.”

 
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