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Crowning design, p.8
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       Crowning Design, p.8

           Leila Meacham
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  “I was afraid you might respond that way, so, lest you think that I am prying into your dealings with men like some—voyeur, let me assure you that I have a reason for asking.”

  “I am anxious to hear it.”

  “I sense, deep in my heart, where I’ve always unerringly been warned about matters dearest to me, that Dan Parker will hurt you, Deborah.”

  “Dan—? Hurt me? Why would he do that?” she asked, seeing Randall flinch at the familiar use of the name.

  “Dan Parker is a man to whom business means everything. His sole interest in life is in making money. There is no room for anything or anyone else in it, certainly not the presence of a wife and children. Dan Parker is still unmarried at thirty-eight. That ought to suggest something to you.”

  “It suggests that perhaps he has never found the woman he wishes to marry,” she said quietly.

  “Do you believe for a moment that you might be that woman? Oh, my dear child, believe me, you are not. Why, Dan Parker is only interested in…the lowest sort of woman. I’m surprised your research did not reveal that when you were designing his headquarters. Certainly you must have learned that he has kept steady company with the actress Alicia Dameron for years.”

  “I never pay much attention to the public reputations of well-known people. It’s easy to be misled.” She had herself in mind when she spoke. It was possible that Dan, too, had used social subterfuge. But she had not known he was a womanizer. She had not known about Alicia Dameron. Where, she wondered, had Randall gotten his information?

  “And you are hoping to become the one woman to supplant the others?” Randall’s exasperation produced a blunt tone. “Deborah, you must not delude yourself. You are to Dan Parker what some new and different objet d’ art is to a collector—a collector, I might add, whose origins were in poverty. The blush of owning a Rembrandt wears off quickly to a man whose sole delight in possessing it is the ability to purchase it.”

  “Randall, that is quite enough!” said Deborah, getting up, aware that she was shaking from both anger and fright.

  “My dear child, I am sorry,” Randall said hastily, his voice softening. “I beg you to bear with me. All I am saying is that you are an original. He has never met a woman like you before. Do have a seat, please, and hear me out?”

  Deborah resumed her seat. “If you are worried that Dan will love me and leave me—isn’t that a risk one takes in any relationship?”

  “Ahhh.” Randall drew it out slowly, leaning toward her. “That question brings me to my point. Do you think you have the stamina to take another deep hurt? You know how broken you were when you first came to the firm. It’s taken years to put you back together, and we’ve managed to do that by directing your energies toward the fulfillment of a creative destiny. If you were to—heaven forbid—fall in love with Dan Parker and he were to abuse that regard, what would that do to you, Deborah?”

  Deborah knew that he could discern from the sudden rigidity of her features, the silence that met his question, that his shot had hit home. “You are involved with him already, aren’t you?” Randall ventured softly.

  “Yes,” she said.

  “I knew it! I knew it!” He leaped up with surprising agility and in distress paced away from the fire. “I knew that he had gotten to you already, the scoundrel!”

  “He hasn’t gotten to me, and he isn’t a scoundrel! You’ve no basis on which to distrust him so deeply, Randall,” Deborah asserted, but she felt unsettled by a nameless disquiet and looked away from Randall to the fire. Without his composure, he seemed as exposed and vulnerable as a featherless bird. “I’m sorry if my seeing Dan disturbs you, but I am a grown woman. I can take care of myself.”

  Suddenly still, Randall subjected her to a long deliberation. “Will it make any difference in the care you take of yourself, my dear, if I tell you that I have recently made a new will. You are my heir. Upon my death, the firm and all its assets go to you.”

  Deborah sat speechless, unmoving. Only the merry gossip of flames broke the tense, startled silence. “Randall, that is far too generous.”

  “That’s for me to decide. You are to be my successor. I’ve made my decision. Now, my dear, I must see you to the door. I am very weary tonight. No, not another word,” he admonished when she was about to speak. “Silence is best for reflection. We’ll have occasion to discuss this again.”

  Under the stars, Deborah lay awake thinking about the amazing revelations of the last twenty-four hours. It was true that Randall had an uncanny perception of people, their motives and fears. But he was wrong about Dan. Dan would never hurt her, not deliberately. He possessed too much of the compassion that often comes with great strength, too much of the gentleness so frequently found in big men.

  He had given her an incomparable gift—a new knowledge of herself. He had made possible a choice she had subconsciously foresworn. Intimacy, marriage, children. All that had seemed too risky, too dangerous. They offered too many ways to fail, to hurt others and to be hurt herself. She couldn’t afford that. Her career had provided a satisfying alternative, and only rarely had she thought of a future and old age without the love of a husband and family. Now Dan had freed her to consider other possibilities.

  How ironic that the two men she most admired should have warned her about each other on the same day! How sad that they didn’t like each other. Why, Randall had even used that astounding disclosure about the will as an inducement to keep her from seeing Dan. Well, she had news for him! Inheriting the firm would never be enticement enough to give up Dan…if she should ever love him.

  At the town house, Dan stretched out his long legs before the fire. Occasionally, his knees bothered him now, the result of several injuries he had suffered while playing lineman on his high school football team. He was treating himself to a cigar, a rare luxury, but tonight he was in need of extra comfort. His earlier five-mile jog around the nearby track had not produced an answer to a troublesome question. Staring into the fire, he smoked and thought. By the time the cigar and fire had burned low, Dan had decided how to deal with Deborah Standridge. The best plan would be first to get her to fall in love with him. And then he would spring the surprise.

  Monday, which Deborah had anticipated happily, was not off to a good start. At the meeting she called to assign the construction documents for the Parker project, John Turner created a scene. These were the mechanical, electrical, structural, and architectural drawings that Dan Parker would be taking to the city planning and zoning office November twenty-second to ensure that the plans complied with Denver’s building and public safety codes.

  “Now let me see if I understand you correctly.” John spoke each word distinctly. “You are proposing that I wait until you are finished with the architectural drawings of the eight support columns before I am to begin the structural specifications for them?”

  “That is correct,” Deborah said patiently. “If you look at my original rendering of the lobby, you’ll see that there are certain aesthetic considerations about the columns requiring a detailed set of architectural drawings from which to figure the structural computations. That’s why I don’t want you to work from the original rendering.”

  “Would that be because you don’t trust me to compute them accurately without your blasted drawings, Miss Standridge?”

  “John,” Deborah sighed, “please do not reduce this meeting to a battleground. Where do you get such ideas? We all know that you’re the best structural engineer in town.” Immediately, she regretted the poor choice of compliments. John’s lip curled sardonically.

  “Thank you, Deborah,” he said with an acerbic smile. “How neatly you manage to keep me in my place. May I humbly remind you that by asking me to wait for your drawings, you could put me behind in my own schedule?”

  “No, I won’t. You can work on the other structural specifications. I’ll begin the drawings for the columns right away and have them to you by next Monday. I wouldn’t insist that you use them if those colum
ns weren’t such a vital part of the headquarters building. But exposed as they are in the atrium, surely you can understand why it’s important that every feature be just right. They’re the focal point of the whole design!”

  “They’re nothing but decorative folderol.” John snorted. “They impede the flow of traffic.”

  “They aid the flow of traffic, John!” intervened Tony Pierson. “Just look at the rendering!”

  “No thanks. I’ve been told to wait for the drawings.” He stood up, tall and thin. “How long did you say we have on this package?”

  Sickened and appalled by the man’s unadulterated dislike of her, Deborah answered, “Nine weeks from today. That’s when Mr. Parker needs them. Once they’ve been approved, the steel can be ordered and work on the site begun—”

  “Don’t tutor me on the ins and outs, the procedures of the building industry, Deborah. I’ve been dealing with it considerably longer than you have.” He favored the group with a bitter smile. “Well, good mawnin’ yawl. Doncha tawk about me when ahm gawn, ya heah!” he said, imitating Deborah’s accent, and strolled from the conference room.

  There was an embarrassed silence when he had gone. “He gets more jealous of you every year, Deborah,” Tony maintained.

  Deborah mulled over Tony’s remark on the way to her office. Each year John Turner did seem to become more intolerant of her success. His professional jealousy was alienating him from everyone in the firm, perhaps might even endanger his job if Randall were to learn of it. Randall prided himself on running a company that was like a happy family. Discordant notes were not allowed.

  Deborah did not want John’s position in the firm jeopardized because of her. She felt a strange sympathy for him and even appreciated some of the engineer’s qualities that were often overshadowed by his blatant antipathy toward her. There was no one in the firm more loyal to Randall, no one more hard working or dependable than John. Because he had worked for Randall so long and because he held two degrees—engineering and architecture, a notable accomplishment in itself—John had been bitterly disappointed five years before when the urban design department had gone to Deborah. Long divorced, growing older, lonelier, and more frustrated, he seemed to nurse his grudge against her as if it were the only source of comfort in a cold and alien world.

  The phone was ringing as she entered the office. “Deborah,” Bea said on the line, “would you mind talking to this woman from Phoenix? She is trying to reach Dan Parker with an urgent message and insists on speaking to someone who works directly with him.”

  “A woman? All right. Put her on. Is she his secretary?”

  Deborah recognized one of Bea’s dramatic pauses. “Hardly, dear,” she said after an appropriate amount of silence. “It’s Alicia Dameron, the actress.”

  Good ol’ Bea; she could never resist an occasion for dramatics, thought Deborah in annoyance. She had the sensation of her blood having just frozen. “Then, by all means, put her on,” Deborah said evenly.

  Alicia Dameron’s famous voice did not project the slightest inflection of urgency. It was vivacious, chatty, and confiding, the kind of voice used for old friends. “I hope you’ll excuse me for using you as a go-between for Dan and me,” Alicia said, “but there’s no answer at his town house, and I didn’t know where else to reach him. He told me your firm was handling the project he’s working on there. May I leave a message for him with you?”

  Deborah, remembering the actress from a scene in one of her movies some years ago, could picture the petite, Barbie-doll actress talking on a phone by her swimming pool. She could see the silver blond hair carelessly secured behind shell-pink ears, the devastating beauty of the blue eyes, the perfect, tanned little figure barely covered by a very small bikini. A paralyzing jealousy swept over her.

  “Are you there?” Alicia’s tone held a merry note of concern.

  “I’m here,” Deborah answered stiffly. “I’ll be talking with Mr. Parker sometime this afternoon and will pass on your message. Does he have your number?”

  “Indeed he does!” Alicia laughed gaily. “Tell you what—just have that dear man call me. I want to tell him the good news myself. And my dear, tell him that if he doesn’t call me by tonight, he’s in big trouble. Emphasize that: big trouble!” Her laughter tinkled like a crystal bell.

  Deborah tried to settle down to work at the drawing board in her office but could not concentrate. Alicia Dameron’s merry voice, its intimate reference to Dan, played over and over in her mind. She was interrupted constantly by the ring of the telephone and by members of the project team with questions about their work. Finally, with an exasperated sigh, Deborah pushed the intercom button. “I’m going home, Bea. I can’t get any work done around here. Mr. Parker will be calling sometime today. Please see that he gets this message from Alicia Dameron.”

  She relayed Alicia’s words and heard Bea’s sharp intake of breath. “Dan Parker doesn’t seem the kind of man to take that kind of domineering from any woman.”

  “Alicia Dameron isn’t any woman, Bea. Be sure and tell Randall that I’ve left. And when Mr. Parker calls, tell him to telephone me at home.”

  Deborah irritably pulled her hair out from under the collar of the ultrasuede jacket that was part of the blue ensemble she had selected for her date with Dan. Randall was quite right when he said she should wear her hair in a neckline chignon rather than loose the way Dan liked it. Worn long, it was far too much of a bother. She unfastened the gold chain with its medallion from around her neck and dropped it into a pocket. It was too heavy, an heirloom piece she wore only on special occasions. She picked up a portfolio of sketches and left the office by the side door. The day was now nothing but a sour taste in her mouth. She would go home to the sanctuary of her house and her faithful Dempsey.

  Well, what did you expect? she asked herself as she drove through the changing countryside. Randall warned you about Dan. Dan Parker was a man who liked women. He was a lady killer, straight and true. No, not straight and true. A man could not have a girl in every town where he had a job site and be considered straight and true. Out-and-out would do. Dan Parker was an out-and-out womanizer who required a dependable source of feminine comfort in the city where he happened to be working.

  She wondered what Dan intended to do with Alicia when his headquarters were moved from Phoenix. Or was she the constant star around which they in the lesser galaxies revolved? Well, she, Deborah, never intended to find out! Blast him! Tears stung her eyes. He had made her aware of something about love that she’d just as soon not have learned. Simply, that if it is painful to be loved, to love involves a greater agony. Not that I love him. How could I? I don’t even know him. Obviously.

  That afternoon Deborah took a break from her drawing board and was in the backyard with Dempsey when she heard a car door slam. The Labrador bounded away to investigate. She ordered her features blank of all expression, furious that her heart had begun to race out of control.

  “Hello, you two.” Dan’s resonant greeting floated across the leaf-strewn lawn.

  Chapter Six

  Deborah watched Dan open the gate, bend down to scratch Dempsey’s ear, then begin the trek toward where she stood unmoving and unsmiling. He could hurt me, she thought. He could hurt me terribly. He was in khaki slacks, plaid shirt, and Windbreaker, a builder’s attire for meeting with contractors and viewing job sites. His stride made short work of the distance, the smile vanishing when it was not met with a response.

  “I have a feeling I’m in trouble,” he said, pausing with hands on hips in a stance compellingly masculine. Her feigned indifference was almost impossible to maintain in the face of the sudden sharp desire for him.

  “I left word at the office to have you call me,” she said hollowly, her lips stiff with pain.

  “I got it,” Dan said, “but I knew I’d better get out here quick after Bea relayed that message Alicia had given you and then told me that you had left early to go home. She said she thought you sounded upset.

  “Bea reads too much into things,” Deborah said, “and you could have saved yourself a trip. If you had called I would have told you that I’ve changed my mind about tonight. I’m sorry if that seems to be a habit with me, but I really do have too much work to do. Right now I can’t afford a social life, not until the construction documents are finished.”

  Dan stepped closer, folding large hands around her shoulders. “No, don’t pull away, Deborah. Let’s talk about Alicia. I can understand what you must be thinking and feeling.”

  “You don’t owe me an explanation, Dan. Your women friends are your business. Silly me to mind the competition, but I do.” She shivered beneath his hands. The sun had begun to edge toward the crest of the mountain, and the air was growing colder.

  Dan continued quietly. “There’s been something too important between us, Deborah. I do owe you an explanation about Alicia. I feel you owe me the chance to give you one. Let’s go inside. You’re getting cold, and I could use a cup of coffee.”

  Without a word, Deborah led the way to the back door. She had no right to condemn him without a hearing, that was true, but now she was uncomfortable with her feelings for him, no matter what he said about Alicia.

  In the kitchen, Dan took off his jacket and straddled a chair to watch Deborah prepare a fresh pot of coffee. His presence seemed to take over the kitchen, affecting her movements, making them self-conscious and clumsy. Always a lonely place for her at twilight, the room would be even lonelier when he was gone.

  “Would you believe me,” he said, “if I told you that Alicia and I are probably each other’s best friend? I haven’t had a pal like her since…I lost a buddy of mine a long time ago.”

  “I’ve no reason not to believe you about anything, Dan. You just talk, and I’ll just listen.” The coffee perking, Deborah took a seat at the table.

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