After the Storm

Chapter Four

   Diana dressed for the Morgans' party with a rare expectancy, selecting an exquisite green silk gown that turned her eyes to jade.

   It was surprisingly cool for September, she thought, as she eased her BMW into the early evening traffic and touched a button to lower the window, welcoming the rush of exhilarating fresh air that swept through the car.

   To her left was Lake Michigan. How tranquil it seemed just now, but she knew a fast-moving storm could quickly churn the blue-gray waters to billowing foam. She smiled wryly. Life was like that — deceptively calm one minute, only to go spinning out of control in the span of a few short minutes.

   Diana entered the Eisenhower Expressway and allowed her thoughts to center on the Morgans. She loved them both. Dave had joined the Sullivan Publishing Company five years before and had survived the Ralph Roper era only at Joe's insistence that he was the best public relations man in the business. Ralph had claimed to know dozens who could do a better job, hoping to jockey one of his own men into Dave's position, but her father had remained adamant. And Linda. What an asset she was at author parties — always standing by Dave's side and socializing with guests in her carefully articulated diction.

   Linda was one of the few women Diana envied. She had everything Diana dreamed of having some day — a devoted husband, three well-mannered children, a lovely home. Now Diana smiled at the memory of a Friday morning, sitting in the Morgans' country-style kitchen, watching Linda prepare breakfast for the children.

   "No one would ever guess you did all this by yourself." Diana sat on the kitchen stool, chin-in-hand, and admired Linda, juggling three jobs at once. "Fixing pancakes at 7:00 in the morning for three kids, preparing lunches, cleaning your house. Why in the world don't you get help?"

   "I don't want any help." Linda smiled. "I'd rather do it myself," she quipped. She looked lovely in her Lanz robe, her dark hair caught back with a matching ribbon. "I love baking, cooking, and walking the kids to the park after school. It's my 'Father Knows Best' syndrome, I guess."

   After the school bus arrived, the two women had sat at the glass-covered breakfast table, sipped coffee, and munched on cinnamon rolls, ignoring the calories.

   Linda set her cup down and leaned toward Diana. "Hey, can you take a day off? I've got some shopping to do, and I'd love to treat you to a darling new restaurant in town.

   "Sounds heavenly." Diana surprised herself. "Let me make a call to the office."

   They shopped and lunched and after school walked the children to the park. Diana, enchanted by the new experience of sitting with young mothers on a neighborhood park bench, watched the children shouting and playing on the playground. She might have been on another planet, so different was this lifestyle from her own in the heart of the city's marketplace.

   Now she wondered sadly what Roper's misdeeds would do to disrupt the Morgan's comfortable lifestyle. But tonight she must forget him and concentrate on enjoying the evening.

   It would be good to see Marcie again. They complemented each other, she thought, Marcie's buoyant spirits balancing Diana's more serious, introspective nature.

   Now Diana turned off at the exit leading into Wheaton and drove through tree-shaded streets to a new development of long, low ranch-style homes. It was truly middleclass America, the heartland, a clean and friendly town centered about Wheaton College and catering to a body of collegiates, professors, book publishers, and executives who commuted from the city.

   Some cars were parked in the Morgan's wide driveway; others had hemmed themselves along the curb. Diana found a spot to park and walked slowly up the brick steps to the oaken front door, feeling genuinely happy for the first time in months.

   Linda, elegant in a brilliant yellow hostess gown, greeted Diana with a warm hug and led her into the luxurious living room, already overflowing with guests.

   With a fresh twinge of regret that she had been too busy lately with the business to contact Marcie, she now scanned the crowd for a glimpse of the petite blonde and spotted her at last across the room. Smiling down at her was a tall, ruggedly handsome stranger.

   Well, if it really isn't Steven Cartright, she thought, circling her way through the crowd. He seemed different, his smile softer, his stance less imperialistic.

   Dave halted her with a kiss on the cheek, whispering, "Mm, you look luscious. Thanks for coming."

   "Thanks for insisting." She laughed up at him.

   Then she was hugging Marcie, holding her at arm's length to get a good look at her dear friend. She was jolted by her wan appearance. Marcie's tired, she reasoned. She's been working too hard.

   "Long time . . ." Marcie crooned, her rosebud mouth pulled down into a fake frown.

   "I'm sorry, Marcie." Diana wanted to explain why she hadn't called, but Marcie put a finger to her lips.

   "Not now, I want you to meet a friend of mine."

   "I believe we've met." His voice was deep and resonant and when Diana met his gaze, she flushed. Then he did remember their meetings at various author parties. He had seemed egotistical and arrogant then, and why not — with one bestseller after another and critical acclaim from the press.

   She recalled telling Michael after meeting Cartright that he seemed insufferable.

   "Sure you're not a bit intrigued, darling?" he had teased.

   "Of course not!" she had retorted. "He's definitely not my type!"

   "That's a relief," he sighed, mopping an imaginary band of sweat from his brow. "I was beginning to wonder if I should be jealous."

   Now Diana found herself looking into Steven's dark eyes, and her breath caught in her throat. She couldn't help thinking of a line in one of the latest manuscripts she had reviewed: "She felt herself swimming in a sea of melted chocolate."

   Remembering her manners just in time, she extended her hand. He took it firmly, holding it a moment longer than etiquette required.

   "It's a pleasure to see you again, Diana."

   "And you, Dr. Cartright. I read your last book, Silent Struggles — was it two or three years ago? — and found it . . . interesting. Are we due for another soon?"

   "Please call me Steven, and yes, I've just completed a book — an autobiography you might say — though I'm not sure it's up for publication. My philosophy has changed quite radically. I doubt that my readers will like the new Steven Cartright."

   The publisher in Diana was instantly alert, eager to know if there was a story for Sullivan here.

   But Dave was at her side, grasping her elbow firmly. "Our guest of honor, Jerold Lavery, is asking to meet you."

   Lavery, a heavyset man with masses of white hair framing a ruddy round face, rather resembled a proper butler in the late-night movies. He spoke in precise English, and for a moment, Diana expected him to reach for a pipe and light it on the spot.

   "Delighted, my dear. I've been living for this moment." Jerold Lavery dropped his head to kiss her hand. No wonder he was publishing romance; he could have been a fifteenth-century knight bowing before his lady, she thought, amused. "Venture to say," he declared in his rolling baritone, standing back to look at her, "that you're the most exquisite creature I have feasted these eyes upon. 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate . . . But thy eternal summer shall not fade.' Ah, my dear, forgive an old Shakespearean actor his idiosyncrasies. But such beauty should be captured forever on canvas, on the screen, in poetry, as the subject of a great love story!" He gestured grandly. "Why, may I ask, are you burying such perfection in a publishing house?"

   "Because I love publishing, and it's my father's company." Diana laughed. "I understand that you publish romance exclusively."

   "Romance is definitely alive and well, my dear, and one must give the public what they wish."

   Dinner was announced, and Diana found herself seated to the right of Jerold Lavery. After World War II, she learned, he had acted for a while on the stage before emigrating to America to seek his fortune in films.

   "I must say I never thought I'd leave the legitimate theater. But I'm afraid my greed in those days out-weighed my dedication," he confessed. "By the time I reached Hollywood, however, I found my talents were not in great demand." He sighed dramatically, his delightfully accented voice carrying well over the conversation of the other dinner guests. "I was intrigued by the movie industry, however, and was willing to reduce myself to learning, as you Americans say, from the ground up. So I ran errands, held scripts, cleaned studios, until by the most fortuitous circumstances, I was asked to play a small part. Oh, the humiliation of it all — the waiting around for one's call to appear for one brief moment in a bit part." He paused, realizing he had captured an audience and went on with great flair. "I thought to myself, 'Really, Jerold, you can do much better than all this.' So I decided to try scriptwriting. I spent a summer at a friend's place in Malibu and wrote a screenplay. It was perfectly horrible! Writing was not my cup of tea." He laughed at his own small joke and continued his monologue. "I met a friend, an 'angel' as they say in the business, who had watched the growing market for romantic novels in the style of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, and with his very kind help, we began 'Always Romance.' I found a select group of writers who know how to tell a good story and the rest, as they say, is history."

   The dinner guests, along with Diana, had been captivated by Lavery's success story. Here was a publisher whose books were on every bestseller list in the country, read by increasing numbers of nostalgic people who longed for an occasional escape from their high-tech environment.

   Dave turned to Lavery. "Sullivan Publishing is interested in launching such a line, Jerold. Could we set up a meeting with you and Diana's father, the Chairman of the Board?"

   "Yes . . . yes, that would be quite nice. We'll have to do that." He turned to Diana, tilted his leonine head and looked down his long nose at her. "We must discuss the possibility. It takes a great deal of money to begin such an endeavor, you understand, but it does pay off in time."

   Lavery, without waiting for his host and hostess, stood up, his great girth almost visibly expanded by the quantities of food and drink he had consumed. Dave and Linda quickly stood, and the others took their cue and followed them into the family room where they mingled in congenial clusters.

   In passing, Dave spoke to Diana under his breath. "Well, old girl, I'd say we can't pursue such an endeavor at the moment, wouldn't you agree?"

   His perfect imitation of the Britisher sent Diana into a spasm of giggles, and she stifled them with a hand over her mouth before she could call attention to herself. Undoubtedly Lavery had already heard of Sullivan's financial troubles and was making it known in advance that he wasn't willing to put out any money to help them start their romantic fiction line.

   Diana turned to look for Marcie, not daring to admit that it was really Steven Cartright for whom she was searching. But she was detained by a number of friends she hadn't seen for months, and the evening flew by as she chatted with first one group and then another.

   The party was over, and the house slowly emptied of guests. Diana hugged her host and hostess and made her way to the front door and out into the brisk September night. Overhead, a myriad of stars sparkled against the black canopy of the sky.

   A low voice startled her. "Ah, here you are. I've barely had a chance to talk to you all evening."

   Diana turned to face Steven Cartright.

   "Sir Jerold monopolized your time."

   "Quite." Diana imitated his clipped English accent, and Steven smiled, his brown eyes twinkling with amusement.

   Suddenly Marcie appeared. "I do think we should leave, Steven," she said breathlessly. Then turning to Diana, "Could we have brunch tomorrow? I have something to tell you."

   "Yes, of course. Where and when?"

   "How about 11:00 at J.W.'s?"

   "I'll be there," she promised and moved away, aware of Steven's dark eyes noting her departure. Still feeling his eyes on her, she stopped at the end of the walk to call back. "It was nice seeing you again, Steven." And was surprised to discover that she meant it.

   "See you tomorrow, Di," Marcie said softly, and unexpectedly, a cold chill ran through Diana.

   Diana tossed for hours, and when at last sleep overtook her, she dreamed of a tall stranger bending to kiss her hand. But the man in her dreams wasn't obese and silver-haired, nor did he speak with an English accent. He was dark and handsome, and his eyes were the color of melted chocolate.

Chapter Five  ||  Table of Contents