After the Storm

Chapter Seventeen

   "Friends and members of the O'Neal and Sullivan families, this is an occasion we shall long remember. With justifiable pride, I announce the engagement of our daughter Diana to Kevin O'Neal — a 'merger' we have eagerly anticipated."

   Joe Sullivan stood at the head of a table filled with harvest bounty and lifted his champagne glass. "Please join me in toasting the couple's future happiness."

   Diana glanced around the table at the guests. It was a dream come true for her father, she knew, to have Tim home for his first Thanksgiving with the family since he had bolted for Canada years before. When Tim called, Joe had readily accepted his apology. He was much too elated with recent events to bear his son a grudge any longer.

   And just look at the sparkle in her mother's eyes! Catherine was wearing her chestnut hair long and flowing to her lovely shoulders and was glowing with happiness.

   Diana smiled politely, acknowledging the good wishes of her friends and family. Unconsciously she twisted the heirloom diamond, recalling the moment Kevin had slipped it on her finger.

   The evening before, after the elder Sullivans had retired for the night and Tim had left to visit friends, Kevin suggested a stroll in the garden. In the gazebo, he had pulled her into his arms and produced a magnificent diamond solitaire.

   He laughed when she gasped. "I told you I had something special for you. It was my grandmother's ring and means a great deal to our family. It's yours now, darling, which should tell you how much you mean to us."

   Deeply moved, Diana received the ring, returning Kevin's embrace with surprising ardor.

   The wind rose, rattling dead leaves against the roof, and they walked back into the house, arm in arm.

   "With the announcement of our engagement tomorrow, darling, we can get on with the merger of our two companies — O'Neal and Sullivan."

   Diana thought she detected smug satisfaction in the smile he turned on her. "If it hadn't been for Ralph Roper, the merger would never have been necessary," she mused.

   "I can't imagine why your father let him take over the business the way he did."

   "That's not the point, Kev." Diana bit her lower lip. "The point is he stole funds from our company and should be prosecuted. And I still think he might have been responsible for Michael's death."

   This was the first time she had broached the subject with Kevin, and she was unprepared for the intensity of his reaction. "I don't want you ever saying a thing like that again, do you hear?"

   "But what if it's true?" Diana couldn't believe they were quarreling so soon.

   He stared coldly at her. "You little idiot, if word gets out that you suspect Roper of murder, he could sue you for slander?"

   They stood in icy silence, staring out the window at the first falling snowflakes that were whirling as giddily as Diana's thoughts. She had learned one thing. She would never mention Roper to Kevin again.

   "Look, Di," Kevin said, "let's not talk about unpleasant matters. Tomorrow's our big day. I'm going home now and I want you to put Roper out of your pretty little head." He kissed her then, brushing his lips tenderly along her neck until he settled them firmly over her mouth.

   Now Diana was roused from her reflections by cries of congratulations and requests to inspect her new ring. Absently she extended her hand, somewhat embarrassed by the ostentatious display it made.

   In the late afternoon, after generous servings of Emily's mincemeat pie, the men moved into the den to watch a football game on TV. Only Kevin excused himself to go to his office "to plow though all that paper on my desk."

   Diana felt a bit foolish with a beautiful heirloom diamond on her finger and no adoring fiancé at her side.

   "Will you come with me to visit Marcie?" she asked Tim, and he stood instantly, his arm encircling her small waist.

   "Only you could tear me away from this game, Sis. Let's go."

   Tim was in exuberant spirits, and he took the winding roads leading out of Lake Forest at maximum speed.

   "A California November sure is different from Chicago's!" He grinned. "The only snow we ever see is painted on store windows."

   "Sounds dreadfully dull." Diana made a wry face. "One of the things I love most about Chicago is the changing seasons." How could one appreciate spring and summer without the storms of winter? But she wasn't about to argue with a California-lover.

   "So," Tim began on a serious note, "tell me, Di, now that you are officially engaged, are you happy?"

   Diana fingered her newly acquired ring as Tim maneuvered the car into the flow of traffic on the expressway.

   When she didn't answer right away, he took the lead. "I never told you, but I was in love once, or thought I was, with a girl I lived with in L.A. Her name was Susan. We traveled with a fast crowd — drugs, booze, late parties. Well, I was right there in the middle of it all. But one morning I woke up feeling old. I looked at my reflection in the mirror and said to myself, 'Tim, my boy. You're thirty-three years old and you're going nowhere in the fast lane.' "

   Diana snapped her head around to stare at her brother, eager to hear the details.

   "Canada had been a blast. I was younger then, full of adventure, and glad to be safe from the jungles of Nam. But turning thirty-three? That was a sobering experience. I knew I couldn't go on playing games for the rest of my life."

   Diana held her breath while Tim negotiated the passing lane. He had never been so open with her.

   "That's when a gal from work invited me to the Vineyard Fellowship, and I agreed to go. Susan moved out the same hour I told her I had attended church and was seriously thinking about God. She thought I was crazy. That was four years ago, Di, and my life has changed. I couldn't make it without a sense of forgiveness from God. The terrible guilt lifted from my shoulders, and I spent the next few years getting to know him."

   "You sound just like Steven Cartright. You ought to meet him, Tim. You two have a lot in common." There was a trace of wistfulness in Diana's voice. But the conversation ended abruptly as Tim swung the sleek car into the hospital parking lot.

*  *  *  *  *  *   *

   "Well, well, little Marcie all grown up." Tim gave a low whistle when they found her sitting up in bed, looking pink and cheery in a ruffled bedjacket. "May I have this dance?" And he spun around the room, holding his imaginary partner in a loose embrace.

   Marcie giggled at the outrageous sight, and when Tim pulled up a chair, the two of them entered into a lively discussion that spanned their years apart, concluding with the testimony of their newly found faith in Jesus Christ.

   Diana sat apart, feeling left out, like a poor child looking through the window of a candy store. She craved some of the flavor, the substance of the life they had found, but couldn't find the door. Even their vocabulary excluded her — words like grace, redemption, discipleship. They might as well have been speaking a foreign language.

   Sensing that Marcie was tiring, Tim placed his big hands over hers and prayed for her recovery.

   "Thanks, Tim," Marcie breathed, a hint of moisture in her eyes. Brightening, she turned to Diana. "You got your ring today. Let's see!"

   Diana held out her left hand, and the huge stone flashed a cold light.

   "It's gorgeous, Di. You'd better be happy."

   "I will be when you're home for good." Diana leaned down and kissed her friend's cheek. "And when my brother decides to spend a little more time in Chicago."

   "I think you'll be seeing more of me, now that I know what I've been missing." He gave Marcie a conspiratorial wink and dropped a soft kiss on her lips.

   Her flushed cheeks did not escape Diana's notice, nor did the look that passed between her friend and her brother. Just what was going on here? There seemed to be more than the camaraderie of longtime friends. Maybe it was that special bond between two people who shared a deep faith — that religion thing that so mystified Diana.

   At that moment Louis and Beverly Vale entered the room.

   "Well, look who's here, looking handsomer than ever!" Beverly hugged Tim, then backed away to get a better look. "Why, I do believe you've gotten taller." Casting a glance at her rosy-cheeked daughter, she added, "And from what I can see, you're good medicine, too. I hope you'll drop by often while you're home."

   "Would every day be too often?" There was a look on Tim's face that Diana had never seen there before. Then he flashed a familiar grin. "That is, if Marcie can put up with me."

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

   On the ride home Diana was thoughtful. "Marcie thinks a great deal of Steven Cartright. In fact, I thought she was in love with him."

   "Thought? That's past tense, Sis." Tim expertly drove Diana's BMW onto the expressway. "What happened to think?"

   "Well, you two seemed to hit it off in a big way."

   "She's an eyeful, fun, and after what she's been through, remarkably cheerful." Tim turned to smile at his sister, but his blue eyes were serious.

   "Would you ever consider moving back to Chicago, Tim?"

   "Don't think so, not unless my Father leads me here."

   "Why, Tim, you know Dad would be delighted to have you back permanently!"

   "I meant my heavenly Father."

   "Oh."

   "I have to tell you, Dad asked if I'd consider talking to O'Neal about working for the firm after the merger."

   "And?"

   "I don't want to work for O'Neal."

   Nor do I, Diana thought grimly.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

   Tim visited Marcie each evening, toured the publishing house, saw old friends and, on his last night in Chicago, met Steven at the hospital.

   Again Diana felt like an intruder as the three of them shared what they were learning on their spiritual journey, how God was directing their lives, and how much more they desired to grow in the knowledge of his Word. Even the Vales joined in this strange conversation.

   Once, Diana excused herself and called Kevin to pick her up, but his answering machine informed her that he was "not available at the moment and would return the call as soon as possible." She hung up, dejected. Even her fiancé was remote these days.

   Returning to Marcie's room, Diana sat quietly, listening on the periphery of their discussion.

   When visiting hours were over, everyone but Tim rose to leave.

   "Give me a minute or two alone with this gal, Di. I'll be right there," he said, and Diana smiled, closing the door softly behind her.

   Walking swiftly through the tiled corridor toward the exit doors, she heard the sound of Steven's footsteps overtaking her. When he cupped her shoulders and turned her to face him, her heart began to pound.

   "Congratulations." The look he gave her was unsettling.

   "Thank you."

   "There's something I must tell you, Diana," he said in a low voice. "I'll be leaving Chicago before Christmas. I'm not sure when, or if, I'll return. But it wouldn't be before next fall. In any case, you'll be Mrs. Kevin O'Neal."

   There were no words for the agony in her heart.

   Steven took her arm and propelled her through the door and into the biting-cold night. With his hand still grasping her arm, he steered her toward his car, parked under a barren maple tree.

   "Get in."

   She obeyed without question, though the pain in her chest was so intense she could scarcely breathe.

   Steven slid in beside her, started the motor, and switched on the heater. In the filtered light from the streetlamp, she could see the strong line of his jaw.

   "I have no right to say this . . . I wish I had told you the truth earlier . . . that evening in your apartment over dinner when you assumed I was in love in Marcie. I tried to tell you about the many faces of love, but you put up a wall between us. Now you're engaged and I'm leaving, but I'm going to tell you anyway. I care for Marcie. She needs all our prayers. But it's you I love, Diana. Only you."

   She twisted her ring and stared out the icy windshield, hoping she wouldn't break down and weep. She wanted to throw herself into Steven's arms, to confess her love for him. But how could she? She was wearing another man's ring on her finger? She fought for control and faced Steven, glad he couldn't see the glistening tears in her eyes.

   "Where are you going?" she whispered, hardly daring to trust her voice.

   "It's not important now, is it?" He touched her face gently. "I do love you so, Diana. I wish you could have waited."

   Diana faltered, took Steven's hand, and held it against her cheek for a long moment. "Thank you, Steven . . . for everything. I'll never forget you."

   He reached for her, and Diana leaned against him for a brief moment. "I must go. Tim will be looking for me."

   She fled toward the hospital entrance. Only when she heard Steven's car leaving the curb did she allow the tears to flow and, with her blurred vision, ran straight into Tim's arms.

   "Hey! What's going on?"

   "Please take me home, Tim."

   "Are you going to tell me what this is all about?" he said soberly when they pulled out of the parking lot.

   Diana shook her head, sobbing softly.

   "Is it Cartright? Diana, look at me." Tim's jaw flexed as he turned to regard his sister. "Are you in love with him?"

   No answer.

   "I guess that means you are, but you're going to marry Kevin O'Neal anyway. Dear, sweet Diana, always doing the thing that's expected of you, even if it means throwing your life away."

   "Don't, Tim, not now." She huddled miserably into her fur coat.

   "You can't go through with it, you know. I won't let you."

   Tim lectured her about happiness, fulfillment, finding God's perfect mate, while Diana only half-listened, hearing instead Steven's last words: It's you I love, Diana. Only you.

   "I wish I didn't have to leave tomorrow," Tim said.

  "It doesn't matter." Diana's voice was barely a whisper. "Steven is leaving Chicago in a month, and then it won't matter any more."

   "You must listen to your heart, Sis. If you two love each other, hang the business."

   "That's a laugh. Don't you think I've considered every avenue of escape? Lain awake nights, trying to figure a way out of the mess we're in?" Diana's voice bordered on hysteria. "I'm trapped, Tim, now more than ever."

   Tim had already said his good-byes to his parents, planning to stay overnight with Diana since his flight departed from O'Hare. Now he ushered her into her apartment, pushed her down on the loveseat, and touched a match to the kindling in the fireplace. It caught instantly, and soon there was a cheerful blaze warming the room.

   "Now, Sis," he said, sinking down beside her, "you have some talking to do."

   "Yes." She said it aloud for the first time. "Yes, I'm in love with Steven, and he told me tonight he was in love with me, but it's impossible. It's all impossible. I'm engaged to Kevin. Don't you see?"

   "No," he said firmly. "No, I don't see. You will not marry Kevin. Leave it to me. Didn't I always fix things for you when you were but a wee lass?" He grinned his irresistible grin.

   "I'm afraid this is something even you can't fix, big brother."

   "You're right. I can't. But God can."

   "Oh, Tim." Diana sighed in exasperation. "God has nothing to do with this."

   "Wanna bet? He has everything to do with everything. It's time you learned that very basic fact, little sister." He unfolded his lanky frame and pulled Diana to her feet. "Now, let's get some sleep. I have an early flight, remember?"

   At the guest room door, he turned. "I wish you had confided in me sooner. I should have been here, you know. I'm going to find a way to rescue the Sullivans from the wolves."

   "If only you could."

   "Trust me, Di," he said. "Better still, trust God."

   For hours, Diana lay staring into the darkness. Why had love come to her once, only to be snatched away, and then came again too late? 

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