After the Storm

Chapter Six

   On Monday morning Diana summoned Robin to her office, dictated three rejection letters to hopeful authors, explaining that their house was not in the market for their particular stories, and then handed her Steven Cartright's manuscript.

   "Please Xerox three copies, one for each of the readers and one for Dave Morgan and make certain they understand it is today's top priority. And," she added, "please get my father on the line."

   Drained emotionally and physically, Diana sighed deeply. It was a call she must make.

   "Let's meet at the club for lunch," he said curtly. "We need to have that little talk."

   His tone carried an indefinable note of — what was it? anticipation. She agreed to meet him and replaced the receiver.

   Robin buzzed to say that Marcie was on the line, and Diana forced a cheerful "Good morning." The anxiety that had plagued Diana since she learned of Marcie's illness dissipated somewhat at the sound of her friend's merry voice.

   "I've been released from the hospital," she said, "but I won't know the results of the tests until later this week. So, how did you like Steven's book? You did read it, didn't you?" There was a long silence. "Di?"

   "Yes, I read it. Apparently his entire philosophy has done a turnabout. I'm confused, yet curious about this new Steven Cartright."

   Marcie laughed aloud. "I knew it! Listen, I'm feeling much better and am on my way to class. Can we talk later?"

   "Are you sure you should be so hasty? You're just out of the hospital. Why not take the day to rest?" Diana frowned into the telephone.

   "I'm fine! Really, Di, you worry too much."

   Marcie sounded so like her old self that Diana was convinced she had been right in her analysis. Marcie was simply run down, and Mr. Mac would prescribe iron therapy and a good diet. He was wise to insist on the tests, but there was obviously nothing seriously wrong.

   "Then run along. I won't keep you. We can talk tonight."

   Diana hung up with a sense of relief, both that her friend was improving and that she had avoided a discussion of Steven Cartright. She wasn't quite ready for that.

   She glanced at her watch, thinking about her luncheon date with her father. Maybe he had good news for her — a banker, perhaps, willing to speculate on their future. She left the office and walked the few blocks to the club, too preoccupied to enjoy the lovely September afternoon.

   To Diana's astonishment Victor O'Neal, puffing on an expensive cigar, was seated at the table with Joe Sullivan. She lifted an eyebrow at her father, who was scrupulously avoiding her gaze.

   "Hello, Mr. O'Neal," she said politely, aware that for many years he had insisted she call him by his first name.

   She was also aware that Victor O'Neal would be delighted if she became his daughter-in-law, and that knowledge created an icy edge to their meetings. Wouldn't they be surprised to learn that Kevin had already proposed marriage, though teasingly, when he had insisted they would make an excellent team. She had told him marriage demanded a deep and committed love, not just teamwork. Kevin had laughed, calling her a hopeless romantic who read too many novels. He had said he did admire her immensely — her soft feminine beauty and grace, not to mention her brains and family connections. Diana had ended his verbal love-making with an indignant glare. The very idea of marrying Kevin O'Neal, a known womanizer, a heavy drinker, a rich man's spoiled son, was preposterous.

   Diana smiled benevolently at Victor O'Neal, scanned the menu, and ordered a fruit salad.

   "Now," she said, folding her hands neatly, "this is very nice, but we aren't just having a lovely lunch together, are we?"

   Victor O'Neal laughed. "Clever girl, Diana, but then you always were. Your father and I have been discussing the business. Your company is having a little difficulty, I understand. I want to help."

   The air crackled from unspoken tension.

   "Just how do you think you can help, Mr. O'Neal?" she asked.

   But she knew, she knew what was on his mind and glanced at her father for reassurance that it wasn't so. His ruddy face was unreadable, offering little consolation. How deeply troubled he looked, and though he had allowed Ralph Roper carte blanche to the business, with subsequent problems, Diana was deeply moved by the sadness in her father's eyes. Tears welled in her eyes, but Victor O'Neal didn't notice. He was too busy cutting his steak.

   "Here's our plan."

   When he emphasized the word our, Diana glanced over at father.

   Victor continued his monologue. "You and Kevin — O'Neal and Sullivan — two great Irish houses merging in marriage and business. Now, Diana, don't look so shocked. Kevin adores you and I would be proud."

   He ranted on, waving his arms as he explained the vast marketing worlds waiting to be conquered. They would expand the fiction line and even go international if Joe liked the idea, hinting broadly that he could improve widely on their overseas operation. The business would prosper beyond their wildest expectations.

   Anger flushed Diana's face. "I am not a contract to be signed, Mr. O'Neal." She glared at him in icy rage.

   "Diana, Diana, you needn't decide now. Think about my little proposition. I'll loan you the money to pay your creditors. Yes," he confessed, anticipating her next question, "your father here has told me that you're well over three million in debt, but I can handle that, that is, when Kevin's engagement ring is on your finger and your marriage plans announced. After the wedding, we'll form a partnership." He smiled, obviously pleased with himself.

   Diana gaped at him, unable to speak.

   Victor O'Neal's face reddened. "I don't want your answer today. Think it over."

   Diana turned to her father. "Dad?"

   Joe Sullivan wiped his mouth with a napkin. "I don't know what else to do, honey girl." The affectionate childhood name she hadn't heard in years proved her undoing, unlocking the tears that threatened to overflow.

   Victor O'Neal picked up the check, summoned the waiter, and rose to leave. "I'll go now. The two of you talk. Remember, some of the best marriages have been arranged by the parents. Look at me and Molly — thirty-seven years of bliss — arranged by our parents in Ireland. Diana, it could be the best decision of your life."

   Through angry tears, Diana watched the husky Irishman stride away. Sold! Bartered merchandise! She sat anchored to her chair. She had expected her father to rise to her defense, but in his desperation he was thinking only of the business. How could he entertain the idea of an "arranged" marriage with a known playboy like Kevin O'Neal? How could he ask her to make a commitment that would affect the rest of her life just to save his business? Yet she knew the publishing house was more than a business. His reputation was at stake. His self-esteem. The lifestyle he had so carefully carved for his family. The business was his very life!

   Father and daughter sat silently for a long time, Joe Sullivan sipping his forbidden wine, Diana averting her eyes from his face.

   But when she looked up, she noted the ashen cast to his complexion, the deep furrows in his brow. "Dad, I must get back to the office. Please go home and rest. You don't look well."

   "Honey girl. I'm sorry about this. I really am. But please consider Victor's proposition. Frankly, I've been worried about you since Michael's death. You've become a recluse, except for your job. You need what all women need — a husband, a home, children."

   "There will be some serious consequences of accepting that man's proposition, Dad. Personnel cutbacks . . ." Her voice trailed away. "There must be other alternatives." But she knew he would have considered them all.

   "Dad," she went on, "I've been wanting to tell you about a real find . . . a potential blockbuster. I . . . I've just finished reading it."

   But Joe wasn't listening. Diana took her father's arm and led him to the parking lot, cautioning him to go straight home. She had seen him look this stricken only once before — on that unforgettable night her brother had torn up his draft card, flung the pieces on the floor, and stormed from the house.

   On the walk back to the office, her thoughts roamed.

   "I wasn't afraid to fight, young man!" her father had raged. "And I fought alongside a lot of other brave lads with one thought in mind — to protect America from Naziism. Where would you be today if we had turned our backs on our country and deserted?"

   "But, Dad," Tim argued, "I'm not afraid to fight. Vietnam is not America's war. It's a tool for a bunch of greedy politicians, and I refuse to have anything to do with it!"

   With that, Tim stalked out, his mother clinging to his arm. He threw her off and slammed the door behind him. Catherine fell to the floor waiting, blaming her husband, blaming the war, blaming the world, blaming God.

   Diana stopped for a light, still feeling the emotional pain of that incident. The memories persisted as she walked aimlessly through the crowds of shoppers and office workers on their lunch hour.

   Not until the war was over, neither won nor lost, did they hear from Tim again. A letter, postmarked from Canada, arrived at the height of the Watergate affair. Joe Sullivan sobbed, reaching for his wife, but she turned from his grasp to stand apart, weeping alone. Diana had not missed the signs of the invisible wall erected between her parents, but, she reasoned, when Tim came home, the cool distance would dissipate. Now, it appeared, Tim would not be coming home to stay. He had been acting on a Canadian stage and was now leaving for Hollywood. On his way west, he would stop by for the Christmas holidays.

   "I miss all of you," he wrote, "and Di, I really can't believe my little sister is in college. I'll bet you've become quite a beauty, too."

   Tim's homecoming lasted only a week. At first, Joe was relieved to have his son back and was silent about his defection. Catherine was openly adoring. But it wasn't long before the restlessness, the arguments began again.

   "Please, Tim," Diana pleaded. "You're only home for a few days. Call a truce. Make Mom and Dad happy."

   "That may be okay for you, Di, but not for me. I live only to make one person happy — me. What can I say? That I'm sorry I defected? I'm not, you know. It was a stupid, unforgivable war, and everyone knows it. And I'm not staying in Chicago to run the business. No three-piece suits for me! Dad and I don't agree on anything, and I can't pretend we do."

   "Why not?" Diana insisted. "What harm would it do?"

   Tim grinned mischievously. Why, he actually enjoyed contention, she thought. She shook her head. He was more rebellious than ever, and he was laying the blame squarely on their parents.

   "California, here I come!" he declared as they drove him to O'Hare at the end of his visit.

   Letters arrived sporadically. Tim was working as a truck driver at a major studio, getting a few bit parts, but he had made some friends and loved California. No strait-laced thinking here. Only freedom — lots of it. Each in his own space, doing his own thing.

   But that was all in the past. Diana shook off the disturbing thoughts as she approached her office building. Tim had dropped out of their lives. Now they were faced with a dilemma that seemed equally unsolvable, short of Victor O'Neal's outrageous proposal. Perhaps she could convince Kevin to consent to a loan but, remembering the triumphant gleam in Victor's eyes, doubted that he would cooperate.

   Even if Steven Cartright's book should be accepted by their House, where would they find the money to print and publicize it? They were at a dead end, dependent upon the O'Neal empire to bail them out. And if Victor O'Neal had any editorial input, he'd never consent to publish a book with a religious slant.

   Still, Diana mentally replayed the fascinating story again and again. How clearly Cartright, obviously a man of intelligence and sound thinking, expressed his belief in a personal God who loved so supremely that nothing came to his children except through his hand. He had written of the death of his beloved wife, Julie, with unashamed sorrow, yet with the hope of seeing her again.

   Diana had buried her God along with Michael. The God she had created would never have allowed the death of a promising young man. She dismissed the notion of eternal life as a childish fantasy. And yet, she abhorred the idea that Michael existed nowhere, his vitality turned to ashes. Her thoughts vacillated between longing to believe in another life and resenting God for not living up to her expectations of him.

   She sighed deeply, thinking again of the complicated web Ralph Roper had woven. Her father's financial reverses were frightening, with far-reaching implications, so how could she refuse to honor his request? While marriage to Kevin spelled the end of hope for her, it would mean the assurance of continuing wealth and happiness for the elder Sullivans, not to mention her father's health.

   She pressed the penthouse button, glancing in the mirror to absently brush through her chestnut hair and freshen her lipstick. No one must surmise the desperate panic that lay beneath her fixed smile.

   "Someone is waiting inside to see you, Ms. Sullivan," Robin informed her, and Diana braced herself. Personal feelings must not interfere with business, even a failing business.

   She entered her private suite and received a jolt. Steven Cartright! She summoned an attitude of poise, stretched out her hand, and gazed into his clear brown eyes.

   "Steven. How nice to see you."

   Unaccountably glad that she had worn her azure blue blouse and full black skirt over classy black boots today, she ushered him into her inner offices, mindful that they might soon be subleased, along with the elegant furnishings. For now, however, she was president of the company and in command of any situation that might occur, even unexpected ones.

   She beckoned Steven Cartright to the guest chair opposite her elaborate desk. Marcie was right. He carried himself with an unusual air of purpose and strength.

   She cleared her throat softly. "Marcie told you, then, that I read your book and liked it."

   Steven seemed completely unimpressed by her position of power, and she felt immediately chagrined. Of course not. Why should he? As a widely published author, he knew his way around the publishing business. She wondered if he knew the financial status of her company and decided he probably did.

   "I didn't come about the book, Diana," he said softly. "It's about Marcie."

Chapter Seven  ||  Table of Contents