After the Storm

Chapter Two

   Diana was at her cool and composed best when Joe Sullivan strode, unannounced, into her office, interrupting a meeting with her top staff member. But she greeted him graciously.

   "What can I do for you, Dad?"

   "I'd like a word with you, Diana," he growled, peering through his bushy eyebrows at the public relations director who was sitting with his chair comfortably cocked, his feet planted on Diana's desk, hands locked behind his head.

   When Dave Morgan made no move to leave, he continued. "As you know, I've hired the best detectives in Chicago to locate Ralph Roper, but it appears he's vanished into thin air, taking his records with him. The only thing he left behind was a list of debts a mile long." He paced restlessly for a moment. "Well, I thought you should know. I'm having lunch with Victor O'Neal today."

   Diana frowned. "Oh, Dad! Dave and I were just discussing the options. He thinks—"

   "Just what do you think?" Joe snapped, glaring at Dave. "Can you walk into a bank and get me a loan of, say, three million?"

   Dave lowered his feet. "Joe, don't ask Vic O'Neal. There'll be strings attached." He rose to his full height, towering over his boss.

   "Listen, kid, I've been in this business since before you were born. Victor's been wanting to merge his publishing company with ours for a long time and, though I'd never agree to that, he might consider a loan to tide us over."

   "Please, Dad." Diana's voice was calming. "Dave's right. Victor O'Neal is a selfish man. He may loan you the money, but only if there's something in it for him. He could ruin us."

   "I'm . . . we're already ruined." The desperation in his voice wrenched Diana's heart. He left abruptly, slamming the door behind him.

   "Oh, Dave, how awful for him . . . for all of us."

   Dave scooped up Diana's hand. "Come on, boss lady. Let's forget our troubles over lunch."

   "I don't think I could swallow a bite, thinking of Dad humiliating himself."

   Even as a child Diana had never liked or trusted Victor O'Neal, though their families had been close at one time. But when O'Neal Publishing Company began luring Sullivan authors with promises of higher advances, the friendship cooled. And recalling her high school days with Victor's son, Kevin, she was pretty sure the younger O'Neal was cut out of the same cloth. Bribery, whether for grades or girls, had been his game, and she had abhorred his blatant arrogance.

   After Michael, there had been no other men in her life, except Dave Morgan. She dearly loved Dave who was witty, caring, and happily married, the father of three children. Dave was a dear man and Dave was safe.

   Shaking off her somber mood, she picked up her purse. "Lead on. I'm suddenly starved!"

   "Let's not talk business, Di," Dave said once they were seated in a favorite steakhouse. "Let's talk about the party Linda and I are giving Saturday evening — a subject you have carefully avoided, incidentally."

   He placed his menu face down and waited while Diana intently studied the selections, although they both knew she would order the chef salad and herb tea. She did.

   "I'm sorry, Dave, but I just don't feel like socializing."

   "The party starts at 7 P.M. It's informal. You know, 'a milling of the crowd in his perfectly appointed living room.' " They smiled, enjoying their private joke, using cliches from slush-pile manuscripts. "Besides, there's a man I want you to meet."

   When she opened her mouth to protest, he held up his hand. "It's not what you think. He's in his seventies and quite harmless, a publishing genius from the West Coast. He's the founder and chairman of 'Forever Romance.' Perhaps he can give us some advice on opening our own romantic fiction line. Socialize with him at the party and, if you can interest your dad, we'll set up a meeting. There's millions in it, Di, and it's something we should consider immediately."

   "How? With what?"

   "Who knows?" Dave frowned. "The guy just might finance such an operation for us. Maybe we could distribute for him in the Midwest."

   Diana's expression remained closed.

   "And guess what?" Dave grinned, playing his trump card. "Marcie's coming and bringing a friend."

   Diana looked up quickly, interest sparking her eyes. "Marcie? Marcie?"

   The name recalled the painful past, when Marcie had moved in with her just after Michael's funeral. Her friend had prepared tantalizing delicacies to tempt her appetite, had wept with her when the thought of life without Michael overwhelmed her, had simply offered the gift of her friendship. Then, when Diana remained inconsolable, she had left, moving back to her own apartment with promises to check on Diana often. Marcie, whose rare empathy was born of a failed marriage and the loss of a child.

   Dave studied the changing emotions mirrored in Diana's eyes. "Now, can you really turn me down?"

   "But she didn't tell me."

   "That's because you haven't talked to her lately, Di. You've been so out of it that you've cut yourself off from everyone who cares about you." He watched her wince and gave her time to recover before adding, "The friend she's bringing is Dr. Steven Cartright."

   "Steven Cartright!" Diana stared at Dave, wide-eyed. "How in the world would she know him, and why is she bringing him to your party?"

   "It seems," Dave said playfully, "that Dr. Cartright, the very famous author, is teaching a course in creative writing at the university where our Marcie attends."

   "Teaching? Steven Cartright, the best-selling author?" There was a bite to her tone.

   "I take it you don't like the man, but we'd do well to get him on our list."

   "And how do you propose we do that? He's an author with a publisher who advances an incredible amount of money."

   "It seems," Dave said, "that Cartright has not written a book in two years, not since the death of his wife, and the last book he did write, I hear by way of my private grapevine, was rejected."

   Diana frowned speculatively. "But why?"

   "Beats me. But you can be sure I'll find out."

   Their lunches arrived, and Dave attacked his filet mignon with a single-minded vigor that rivaled his launching of a new book.

   "So, you've met Dr. Cartright, I take it," he said at last, stopping for breath between bites. "Why the hostility?"

   "Michael and I met him at an autograph party. He was a bachelor, playing the field, very sure of himself but rather restless, uneasy, unsettled. His books are a product of that spirit, asking questions no one in the world could answer."

   "That's why they're great sellers, Di. No one wants answers, not really. They just love the big questions. Why am I here? What's the meaning of life? Where am I going? Who am I? Who will give me space to be me? ad nauseum." Dave groaned.

   "I saw him once after Michael's death, just a few months ago, as a matter of fact," she mused, remembering. "He started across the room toward me, but I turned my back. We did speak briefly as we were leaving, and he was very polite, quite different actually. Of course, I had no idea he had been married and had lost his wife. I guess I was pretty rude to him."

   "Well, you can make it up at our party Saturday evening." Dave grinned and buttered another roll.

   "I wonder why Marcie's bringing him."

   "Didn't ask, but she'd feel badly if you didn't show, Di." Dave put his knife down and touched Diana's arm. "You must come. I promised Lavery, the publisher, you'd be there. Don't let me down."

   "I know I've been avoiding Marcie and my friends. Since Michael . . . since the agony of not knowing just how he died . . . if Roper . . . ." Diana paused again. "I just wish I knew that Roper would be indicted someday for the wrong he's done, but he's slipped into oblivion."

   "Diana." Dave laid his hand over hers. The man is probably safe in Geneva with your millions. But someday he'll trap himself."

   "Just the thought of Ralph Roper angers me beyond all belief. That he could have fooled my father, the board, the public —"

   "But not us." Dave lifted his water glass in a salute to their discernment. "We knew."

   "What good does it do? Michael had all the evidence with him when his plane crashed." Her voice broke. "Without proof, nothing we could say would matter. If we went to court, it would be our word against Roper's, if we could find him."

   "We weren't going to talk business, remember? Now how about the party? Is it a deal?"

   Dave's twinkling brown eyes creased at the corners, and she relented. "It's a deal."

Chapter Three  ||  Table of Contents