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Crowning design, p.9
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       Crowning Design, p.9

           Leila Meacham
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  “I met Alicia when I was about thirty,” Dan said. “She had just moved to Phoenix. I was going through a low period in my life, and her sunny disposition was good for me. She was zany and frivolous, game for anything, and she made me laugh and enjoy life again. At first we were lovers, but something rarer developed between us that we hadn’t counted on. It was friendship. Sex became a waste of time, utterly pointless. I know that’s hard to believe with a woman like her, but it’s the truth. We became buddies, there for each other when we were down, sharing the good times when we were up. That’s God’s honest truth, Deborah. She’d tell you the same thing and would if I asked her to.”

  “That isn’t necessary,” Deborah said. “It was just that she sounded so…proprietorial, as if you belonged to her.”

  “Pure press-release talk for the sake of her image in case she was talking to a fan.” Dan waved away the comment with a big hand. “She called today to tell me that she’s been signed for a new television series. Her career has been on the downswing for a number of years now, so I’m deeply happy for her. She’s a deserving lady, a nice one, too. You’d like her.”

  “I just can’t imagine how she would…could give you up as…a lover,” Deborah said, glancing away, feeling a warm blush spread up her neck.

  Dan’s gaze sparkled with amusement. He leaned forward, drawing her hand into his. “Thank you. That was a sweet thing to say. But, honey, heart has a lot to do with the quality of lovemaking. Mine was never involved in what went on between Alicia and me. With you, it is. Maybe that’s why Alicia and I preferred friendship.”

  Deborah turned back to him. The eyes shone blue and clear, the eyes of honesty. She wondered what had been the nature of his grief eight years ago. She would have liked to have been there to comfort him, then remembered that at the time she was dealing with her own set of sorrows. She repressed inquiring into it, not only out of tact, but because a disclosure on his part now would call for one on hers later. She pressed his hand and gave him a small, relieved smile. “I’ll get that coffee now,” she said.

  Still, Deborah thought as she poured two steaming cups, her heart now housed a fear that would not let things be as they were. “What is it, Deborah?” Dan asked as he took the cup. “You still look concerned.”

  “So much has happened to me in the last few days. I’ve experienced a number of…unsettling feelings. It’s not that I mind being unsettled,” she said quickly. “Lord knows I can use some shaking up in my existence, but you see, I don’t know how much shaking up I can handle. I’m still unsteady from a period in my own life that drained me of the courage to let myself get involved with anyone.”

  Dan set his coffee cup down. “Tell me about that time, Deborah,” he said in quiet earnestness. “Tell me so that I can help and understand you.”

  But Deborah shook her head. “I’m sorry, Dan. Not now. Maybe never. It’s too soon for confidences like that.” Only Randall knew of her grief, her shame. “Dearest child, isn’t it time you told me about it?” he had asked when he found her crying at the bay window one January day when the aspen tree had been as bare as her heart. Estelle Lawson had just died, and Randall’s warm concern had been as embracing as a pair of fatherly arms. He had led her to a chair and sat beside her while she poured out the whole story about Roger. And in the next few years when they were all gone—the three people whose lives she had so tragically altered and shortened—he had sat beside her again, gentle and consoling.

  Now Deborah said with a small smile, “Thanks for offering anyway.”

  “A pleasure, believe me.” Dan smiled. “So where do we go from here? I know where I would like to go, but I don’t want to rush my fences with you, Deborah, if that’s what you’re trying to tell me. I just want to continue seeing you, no bed and board expected, not until you’re ready to offer it.”

  “I just need some time to sort out my feelings and thoughts, Dan. I need some breathing space—”

  “How long a breathing space?”

  “Give me a week, maybe longer. Both of us have work to do. I’ve got the architectural drawings to do of the support columns for your headquarters, and I’ll be working late at the office on them. They’re due to go to our structural engineer next Monday…”

  Dan’s face fell. The setting sun had made a prism of the glass behind him, firing his hair like a halo and sharply etching the wide breadth of his shoulders. “Damn it, Deborah, you’re making too much of this,” he complained. “What’s the harm of seeing each other if I promise not to carry you off to the bedroom? But okay—” He put up his hand in a placating gesture when he saw that her mind was made up and rose, drawing her into his arms, his blue eyes searching her face. “Have dinner with me anyway,” he said. “You look in need of a good meal.”

  Deborah slipped her arms up around his neck, the feel of him warm and tantalizing and solid. “That bad, huh?”

  “Terrible. I don’t know how I could bear to kiss you, you looking so washed out and all. But then that’s the result of resisting natural urges, so I’m told.”

  Deborah smiled in amusement, welcoming the descent of his lips.

  Later, at her front door, Dan kissed her lengthily again. “Don’t—” she said against the hard strength of his neck. “Don’t make it hard for me to say good night.”

  “All right, I won’t. Go on in now and get a good night’s sleep. Be sure to lock all the doors. I worry about you out here without even an alarm system. Why don’t you have one?”

  “I do,” she said. “I have Dempsey. An alarm system wouldn’t get anybody out here in time to prevent a burglary. I have dead-bolt locks on all the doors and windows. Besides, all those alarm gadgets intrude on the aesthetics of the house.”

  “If you say so, Deborah. I’ll call you tomorrow from Josie’s because I plan to be at the site all day. Okay?”

  “Okay.” She smiled, lifting her lips for his kiss, dreading his leaving.

  Dan waited until he heard the click of the front door lock before getting into his car, then cursed under his breath. Damn that Alicia! She’d nearly ruined everything!

  In a wave of loneliness, Deborah listened to Dan’s car pulling away. She’d shown good judgment, she convinced herself, in keeping him at a distance for a while. Although Dan was honest and sincere, he owed her nothing. She could very well be only a temporary diversion. She had to have time to answer Randall’s emotionally provocative question: “Can you afford to be hurt again?”

  She did not know. In the last eight years she’d tried to reduce the risk of being loved. She was unfamiliar, totally, with the other side of the coin, the risk of loving. But today, for those few hours in which she had been unable to work, to concentrate, to think of anything but Dan, she had glimpsed what that was like. To love and then to be discarded…undoubtedly many women in Dan’s life had suffered that experience. Was she whole enough, had the seams knit strongly enough to risk what loving Dan might mean? Could she endure another abandonment?

  Deborah put Dempsey outside while she went upstairs to get ready for bed. And then, of course, she thought as she pulled back covers and set the alarm, there was the other problem that must be dealt with even if their course was smooth. How would Dan react when she told him about what had happened eight years ago?

  As if her sentence had been delivered only yesterday, Deborah could clearly hear Estelle’s words: “I just want you to know, Deborah, that for the rest of my life I shall hold you responsible for the death of my son.” And Estelle had held to that until death, which had followed shortly after Roger’s. It was as if he had been the sun of her existence; once it had set, night had fallen quickly for the aging matriarch. The pictures of the car accident that had claimed Roger’s life had never dimmed in Deborah’s memory. Estelle, wishing to hurt, had sent them along with newspaper reports of the tragedy. One line had haunted Deborah for years: “Those who arrived to attend Roger Lawson’s wedding stayed to attend his funeral.”

  Her parents never forgave he
r for the grief she had caused. In addition to everything else, she had destroyed a friendship of fifty years. Estelle refused to see Isabelle, to listen to any pleas or apologies, to grant any forgiveness. Isabelle, her spirit broken by the social stigma as well as the shame of Deborah’s action, could hardly bring herself to speak to her only child. Caught between the two women he loved, Ben shrank into himself, shuffling through the days of discord with an air of perpetual bewilderment.

  Her parents had seen her move to Denver as a desertion. Deborah should stay in Savannah and suffer with them the shame of what she had done. She might have submitted to their demands had she not been convinced that Roger would have wanted her to go to Denver. He would have wanted her to try her wings, to fly away. One morning she was standing at the window of her bedroom, the untroubled spring day like a reproach to her heart. “Roger,” she had said, making up her mind, “I’m going to Denver. If I don’t go, not one good thing will have come from all this.” There had followed a strange, ephemeral few minutes, possibly imagined, but incredibly comforting. Over her had flowed a sensation of warmth, of light. A great peace descended. She had stood very still, her eyes filling, and she had whispered, “Thank you, Roger.”

  In a nightgown and robe, Deborah, burdened with the heavy weight of memories, went downstairs to the back door to call Dempsey. He seemed interested in something in the alley beyond the fence. Was there a car parked out there in the shadow of the mountain? She could make out only Dempsey’s dark shape. She called him sharply, and he responded at once. Nothing is out there, she scolded herself. Dempsey would have set up a howl. Dan’s worry about locked doors and burglars had her seeing things.

  The next morning, Deborah was at her drawing board early, hoping for a head start on the columns before being bombarded with questions. The intercom buzzed. She pushed it with a sigh and Bea asked, “Deborah, may I speak with you?”

  “Shoot,” she said.

  “Not over the phone. I’ll be around in a few minutes.”

  It meant a delay, but Bea had sounded concerned. The secretary’s usually unflappable demeanor was missing when she came into Deborah’s office moments later. “It looks serious,” Deborah said, asking Bea to sit down. “What’s the matter?”

  “I think I owe you an apology.”

  Deborah’s brows rose. “You do? What for?”

  “For tattling on you to Randall about leaving Josie’s with Dan Parker the other night. I had no idea he would get so upset about it. You know I adore him, Deborah, but honestly, the dear man lives in the Victorian era. He’s a walking antique.”

  “I’d say that’s an apt description.” Deborah smiled. “He means well, though.”

  “That he does, dear, but when he mentioned that he’d spoken to you about leaving with Mr. Parker, I nearly died. I told Randall because I was so happy about it. I think Mr. Parker would be a wonderful match for you. He’s rich, successful, good looking. I thought Randall would be happy, too, but no, he flew into one of those rare, quiet rages of his that are far more frightening than the kind where people throw things. And then yesterday, when Alicia Dameron called, I didn’t know that she and Mr. Parker had once been a hot item, not until Randall told me. I thought she’d called on business.”

  “You told Randall that Alicia Dameron had called?”

  “Well, yes, dear. I was so excited about talking to her and mentioned it when I went in to tell him that you’d left. I’ve been mad at myself for putting her through to you ever since.”

  “Well, don’t be,” Deborah said, “and you don’t owe me an apology about anything. I certainly didn’t think you had tattled on me. Randall is just looking out for my welfare. He’s not as sold on Dan as you are.”

  “Obviously,” said Bea wryly. “Randall is seldom wrong about people, but he surely must be about Mr. Parker. The man is so forthright.”

  “Isn’t he?” Deborah smiled tenderly.

  In the afternoon, Deborah had another visitor. “What brings you to this neck of the woods, as if I didn’t know?” Deborah said, switching off the high-intensity light above the drawing board and spinning around on the stool to give Randall her full attention.

  “Was I or was I not right about Alicia Dameron?” he asked with satisfaction, regarding her closely.

  Deborah deliberated a moment. “What, just exactly, do you mean?”

  “Don’t hedge with me, Deborah,” Randall snapped. “Bea told me that the woman called here yesterday for Dan and spoke with you. And don’t tell me to mind my own business because I won’t.” He puffed fiercely on his pipe.

  “So I see,” said Deborah. “Randall, if you’re asking me whether or not Alicia is in Dan’s life still, then the answer is yes.”

  “Aha! How do you feel about that?”


  “Good. Now maybe you will come to your senses. You’re not planning to continue seeing him, are you?”

  “Not for a while. I need some breathing room.”

  “Very wise. Have you thought at all about what I said concerning the will?”

  “No, I haven’t.”

  “Somehow that does not surprise me.” He peered over her shoulder at the drawing. “Looking good,” he said. “When will you be through?”

  “Probably never if these interruptions don’t stop,” she said pointedly. “I may have to work on the columns over the weekend.”

  “Well, I must say,” he said, his glance roving over her face, inspecting it, “a good night’s sleep does wonders for you. You look very rested.”

  “How do you know that I had a good night’s sleep?” Deborah asked in surprise.

  Randall was on his way out. At the door he turned to her with a smile. “The power of my observation, my dear. It is never wrong.”

  In the early afternoon, Dan telephoned. All day she had missed him. The memory of him hung over her like the aromatic scent of Randall’s pipe. As she worked on the stately columns that would support the seven floors of his headquarters, she thought about the reputation he had earned as a builder and developer. Was he really interested only in making money? Were women merely restorative pastimes outside business hours?

  She could not disguise her delight when she heard his voice. “How nice,” she said, smiling into the receiver. “Are you in Josie’s?”

  “Uh-huh. I’m having a beer and missing you. Could I talk you into seeing me tonight?”

  “You could, but I’m hoping you won’t try. You promised not to rush your fences, remember?”

  “I remember,” he grumbled. “Okay, so what about Saturday? You’ll need a break from that drawing board by then. I want to spend the whole day with you. Do you mind?”

  “Would you be willing to do anything I suggested, put yourself in my hands for the entire day?”

  “The entire night, too, if you like,” Dan offered.

  “Dan!” She gasped, surprising herself. “Not over the phone! Anybody could be listening!” She sounded as dramatic as Bea but some instinct warned her that the office was no longer a safe place for private telephone conversations with Dan.

  The bantering tone faded. “Are you serious, Deborah? Who would want to listen in on our conversations?”

  A romance-starved secretary, a boss who thinks your intentions dishonorable, a jealous and spiteful colleague out to discredit me—these were the choices she could have mentioned. “What would you say to driving up toward Arapaho National Forest to see the trees and have a picnic?”

  “Anything you say. If you’ll get the food together, I’ll bring the wine. Dinner is on me. And let’s take Dempsey with us.”

  “Oh, he’ll like that!” Deborah said eagerly. “Will nine o’clock be too early?”

  “Not to be with you, Deborah.”

  Deborah was ready by the time Dan arrived at the kitchen door Saturday morning. The windows and inner door were open to allow in the sunshine and fresh air carrying a nip of the frost that had fallen during the night. Dempsey, sensing preparations afoot for
an outing when his mistress took down the picnic basket, had stayed close to her heels all morning. “We’re going to the mountains today, Demps,” she told him, packing sausage, deviled eggs, French bread, apples, an assortment of cheeses, and the pièce de resistance, a chocolate cake baked the night before.

  “Hello, there!” Dan called through the outer glass door, stamping leaves from his boots. Dempsey barked to alert her of his presence and together they went to welcome him. He had already been on his morning run, she could tell, for his cheeks still held the ruddy glow of healthy exertion. Their eyes exchanged a laugh through the glass.

  “Good morning,” she returned, unlocking it and backing up to allow him room. He entered the kitchen, bringing in a surge of the outdoors and the ebullience of high spirits. His eyes were as clear as a fine, bright sky.

  “I’ve missed you,” he said, his sweeping glance taking her in all at once.

  “Likewise,” Deborah said, suddenly a little shy, hesitant, holding fast to the reins of her feelings.

  Dan understood. “Come here.” He grinned, the laughter coming from deep within his chest. She was all at once enveloped by his down-filled jacket, drawn into its warm depths where her arms slipped readily around a lean, firm waist. Slowly, his mouth settled over hers, and for a long, bliss-filled moment she was cocooned in a sensual fusion of warmth and flannel and hard, muscular flesh.

  “I thought you were too busy a man for this sort of thing,” Deborah murmured when her mouth was freed.

  “What—kissing you or going on a picnic?”

  “Both. It’s a package deal.”

  “I’ll take it,” he said. “Wrap it up.”

  She could not joke about it, she found, as her throat tightened. “How about some coffee while we load?” she suggested.

  There was no point in taking his rental car. Dan could drive hers, she offered. A short while later, with Dempsey ensconced on the backseat, they began the journey west, and Deborah relaxed to enjoy the sensation of the Colorado Rockies in autumn. Beginning in mid-September and running through October, she told Dan, the Rocky Mountain range had to be the most spectacular sight on earth. “Starting with the aspen groves, trees at the highest elevations change color first, but as the season progresses, the colors spread down the mountains, like bright paint dripping down a green canvas,” she explained, “until they finally reach the foothills.”

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