After the Storm

Chapter Fourteen

   On Wednesday morning, Kevin called just as Diana walked into her office, his voice light and breezy. "I've planned a luncheon on Thursday with our parents. I thought it was time we all got together and talked over our plans."

   Diana sighed softly, thinking she would have to get used to Kevin arranging her life. "All right, Kev. Where and when?"

   "Let's meet in the Empire Room at noon. And would you make reservations? I'll be a little late, so take your own car. I'll see you there."

   At noon Dave Morgan stuck his head in the door and invited Diana to lunch. She grabbed at the chance for some friendly conversation with no strings attached. But there was the matter of telling Dave about her wedding plans. She predicted he would be furious. Oh, well. It had to be done. Best to get it over with.

   As they lunched, Dave told her of a new lead in his effort to locate Ralph Roper.

   "I'll be the star witness," she said grimly, toying with her salad.

   "You have no idea, Diana, how your lovely face becomes contorted whenever Roper's name is mentioned. I'd like to get him, too, but you mustn't let him destroy you. You're too young for wrinkles," he teased.

   Indignant, Diana dropped her fork. "I don't mind telling you I despise that man!"

   "I can't say I'm very fond of him, but hate, despise? My dear girl, whoever you hate ends up controlling you. Better let go of your anger. It isn't worth it."

   Diana looked about the small restaurant at the other diners, mostly business people from the skyscrapers on the avenue. She wondered about their lives. Were they happy, fulfilled? Had they experienced tragedy? Did they know that right now as she sat here, seemingly serene and content, there was an inner fire burning in her soul? Her fiance had possibly been murdered, her best friend was seriously ill, and she had committed herself to a loveless marriage. A tiny fragment of her thoughts brought Steven into the dark picture, and momentarily things looked brighter.

   She turned to Dave with a smile. "All is not lost, my friend."

   Dave stopped eating and stared at Diana. He knew her well and obviously she had something important to say.

   "Promise you'll listen until I'm through talking, and that you'll control yourself after I've told you."

   "I promise." Dave crossed his heart and grinned.

   "Kevin O'Neal and I are going to be married next June." His face turned beet red, and she she held up a warning hand. "You promised, remember?"

   "Diana!" He sputtered, and she placed a restraining fingertip over his lips.

   "Shh, Dave, it's done. I've accepted Kevin's proposal, and I've told my parents. Victor O'Neal has agreed to save our sinking ship." She paused. "Oh, by the way, one of the conditions is that you stay on as Director of Public Relations."

   Dave's face blanched as he stared at Diana. "I can't believe you would actually do this, and for what? For your father? Your mother? Your penthouse? For what? Money, for crying out loud?" He was shouting now, and Diana stood to leave.

   "You're attracting attention, Dave. We'll talk when you've cooled off." She walked briskly toward the door, aware of Dave's long strides behind her.

   Outside the restaurant, he grabbed her arm. "I won't let you do it, Di! It's emotional suicide!"

   "Your vote doesn't count, Dave, but thanks for caring." Diana blinked back the tears and pulled away, striding down the avenue.

   He caught up with her easily. It's the dumbest thing I've ever heard, Diana. You know, don't you, what you'd be sacrificing?"

   "Dave, I'm lonely, and Kevin's been very sweet to me. Please try to understand and, please," she added. "make Linda understand. You've both been such good friends."

   They rode the elevator in silence to the penthouse office. Dave turned down the hall, strode to his private office, and slammed the door hard behind him. Diana sighed and rifled through her many telephone messages. One was from her mother. She dialed the number.

   "Darling!" Catherine's voice was brighter than it had been in months. "I'm excited about our luncheon with the O'Neals tomorrow. What are you wearing?"

   "I haven't given it much thought, Mother."

   "Well, I suppose you're busy, dear. But I did want to ask when you planned on calling Tim."

   "Soon, mother, soon." Diana had been thinking of her brother. He really must be told.

   "Well, dear, I'll let you go. I have a meeting with the board of the children's charity this afternoon. See you tomorrow noon then."

   And, Diana thought ruefully, her mother would doubtless announce her daughter's engagement to the very eligible Kevin O'Neal at the board meeting. In turn, the board members would be on the telephone to their friends by mid-afternoon at the latest. She knew the system.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

   On Thursday noon, Victor O'Neal was ecstatically happy as he waited in the lobby of the Empire Room for his son and the Sullivans to arrive. Never once had he really doubted the ultimate success of his plan. Whatever Victor wanted, Victor usually got. He wanted Diana Sullivan as his daughter-in-law, and he wanted to acquire the Sullivan Publishing House. Soon he would have both.

   He grinned broadly as the Sullivans appeared and stood to seat Catherine and Diana. Diana, looking especially beautiful in a smart white dress accessorized by a wide gold belt, smiled unevenly at her future father-in-law. They sat in a corner booth, making small talk. While happy conversation spun about her head, Diana fought to stifle rising tears.

   Ambivalent thoughts whirled through her mind. She had done the right thing! She had ruined her life! Since the man she had adored was dead, and since Steven was unattainable, what did it matter! She spied Kevin moving between the tables and forced a welcoming smile.

   He pulled out a chair and beckoned the waiter for a menu.

   Without preamble, he introduced the reason for their gathering. "What do you think? This charming girl here has consented to be my wife."

   Catherine touched Kevin's hand. "Diana's father and I are happy, Kevin, so happy, aren't we deah?" Her Southern drawl became more pronounced, as it usually did when she wanted to impress the listener.

   Joe reached for an invisible cigar in his breast pocket then quickly moved his hand away. "Looks like the younger generation will be running our companies, Vic."

   Conversation whirled over Diana's head, centering on the business and upcoming meetings with their attorneys.

   Halfway through lunch. Catherine glanced at Diana and noticed her somber mood. "Oh, dear, I forgot! No wonder you're so gloomy. How's your friend Marcie?"

   "She's home now and feeling better. But her illness is quite serious."

   "How hard for you, darling," Catherine purred, sipping from her wine glass and gazing about the elegant room, where only the socially elite enjoyed the gourmet cuisine.

   Feeling increasingly isolated, Diana watched the others at the table joining in animated conversation. As the president of the Sullivan Publishing House, she should have been included in the discussion of the merger, but they were proceeding quite nicely without her input. It was a portent of things to come, she thought grimly.

   Kevin walked her to her car, his arm loosely about her waist. He opened the door and helped her in, then leaned down to the level of the window. "You might at least act as though you're happy darling. But, of course, you're worried about your friend, aren't you?"

   Diana's expression softened, and she touched Kevin's hand contritely. "Yes, I am, Kevin, and I'm sorry I've been poor company. Marcie's home with her parents, and I'm driving out to see her now."

   Kevin brushed his lips across Diana's forehead. "She'll be fine. Didn't the doctor say it was exhaustion or something?" His voice trailed, and he lifted his head, catching sight of his father's El Dorado across the parking lot. "I've got to run, Di. See you later."

   Diana decided to take the scenic route to Lake Forest and the Vale estate. Her parents were happy. Victor O'Neal was happy. Kevin was happy. And she? She hadn't known such deep despair since Michael's death. She was permanently trapped. Her mother was discussing wedding plans, and her father doubtless had already alerted their attorney to gather the materials needed to form a business conglomerate.

   She eased her BMW into the Vales' driveway, recalling other days — picking up Marcie for cheerleading practice, for ball games, for beach outings. Carefree days.

   Wrapped in a pink velour robe, Marcie was reading by the fireplace when Leona, the maid, ushered Diana into the library. Marcie's eyes sparkled as she stretched out her hand, pulling Diana down for a kiss on the cheek.

   "So?" Diana sank onto the hearth near the fire and studied her friend's face critically. "How are you?"

   "Oh, Di, so much has happened to me since this thing . . . " She searched for the words to express her thoughts. "I've been doing a lot of thinking, soul-searching you might say, and have made some discoveries. Until now, my life has been so meaningless, so superficial. You know, the mentality of the idle rich?" She laughed. "Well, Di, I've been searching for truth, and Steven has pointed the way."

   For the first time in all the years they had known each other, Diana felt uncomfortable with Marcie. So often, religious differences did that to people, she thought. They built impenetrable walls, dividing even the best of friends.

   "It's just that you've fallen in love with Steven," she retorted, vaguely aware of a rising anger. "It's normal to become confused at such a time. He's been good to you so you want to please him, to believe whatever he tells you."

   "It isn't Steven or love or . . ." Marcie held up the book she was reading. It was entitled, Mere Christianity, the book Steven had mentioned in his manuscript. What could be so life-changing in a thin, unimpressive paperback? She took the book Marcie was holding and turned it around in her hands.

   "Keep it, Di. Read it. I feel you'll understand once you've read it for yourself."

   "Yes, Marcie, okay." Dismissing the subject, Diana placed the small book in her purse. "I'm so happy you're better, but don't rush it. Rest and relax. I'm counting on you for June, you know."

   Marcie's petite features sobered quickly.

   "Don't do it, Di. You don't love Kevin O'Neal."

   "I'm really lonely, Marcie. Anyway, it's time I settled down."

   "At least promise to wait." Marcie's tone was plaintive.

   Diana patted Marcie's hand. This was one time she couldn't open her heart to her dearest friend. Marcie couldn't understand the urgent necessity for a move to save the publishing house from bankruptcy and her parents from financial ruin.

   "I'm having dinner with your Steven Cartright tomorrow evening," she said, adding quickly, "to discuss his book."

   "I know you told me once before that you could probably not be able to publish it. Has there been a change?"

   "I'm not sure Cartright wants it published." She shrugged. "I believe he wrote it simply as a tribute to his wife, but I plan to suggest some religious publishers to him. It's beautifully written, and a Cartright book is a guaranteed bestseller."

   "He's been greatly influenced by C.S. Lewis," Marcie said softly.

   "Who?"

   "The man who wrote the book you have in your purse." Marcie laughed.

   "Oh, that. I can't promise to read it soon. I'm swamped. Tell me, Marcie, what do doctors say? How long can you be home?" Diana anxiously searched her friend's face.

   Marcie smiled gratefully at Diana's obvious concern. "The doctors aren't saying much at this point, but my white cells have stabilized, and I'm feeling much stronger. Besides, we're praying for a miracle. But even if I don't have a permanent remission, I'm not afraid, not anymore."

   "We're all thinking positively," Diana murmured, embarrassed by the turn of the conversation. She planted a kiss on Marcie's cheek and promised to return soon.

   Taking the expressway back to the city, Diana reflected on her visit with Marcie. Although she was deeply grateful that Steven had brought comfort and solace to Marcie, she hoped he wouldn't make a religious fanatic out of her.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

   Diana turned restlessly in bed. She slipped on a robe, walked to the kitchen, and poured herself a glass of milk.

   Returning to her bedroom, she noticed her purse on the chest of drawers, reached for it, and withdrew the small white volume.

   How strange that she, Diana Sullivan, university graduate, should have been so mesmerized by this professor. He had influenced millions of readers by explaining logically and simply the facts of Christianity. Diana read one paragraph several times, because her belief had paralleled that of so many — that Jesus of Nazareth was merely a teacher, a good man, much like Aristotle and Plato.

   I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish things that people often say about Him. "I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God." That is the one thing we must not say. a man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

   With a start Diana sat upright in bed. Of course! Gran's God. C.S. Lewis and Steven were writing of Gran's God. Tears began to fall, starting deep within, melting the hard core in her heart. The question of why God permitted tragedy no longer seemed as important as what she, Diana, would believe about this Jesus.

   She placed the white book on her nightstand and closed her eyes. The words she had read and the feelings they had evoked must be relegated to other lost treasures of the past. Perhaps, if she were lucky, they would eventually fade completely from her consciousness.

Chapter Fifteen  ||  Table of Contents