After the Storm

Chapter Eight

   Wearily, Diana followed Steven into the brisk September evening. The air was hushed and still, as if holding its breath. Marcie couldn't die!

   Oh, Marce, please live, she breathed, riding alongside the lake with Steven at the wheel, recalling hot summer days when the high school kids had basked in the sun and swum in the surf, vivacious Marcie sparking the group with her zestful appreciation for life. You're too young . . . too young to die. Dr. Roberts had offered a glimmer of hope, and Diana intended to cling to it.

   She spoke only to give Steven directions to her penthouse apartment, and when they arrived, he walked her to her door, putting his hand over hers.

   "I know you're tired, Diana, but if there's anything I can do, I'm available."

   Fatigue from the tension of the day battered every bone in her body, but she knew something more than rest would be required to ease this numbing weariness. She needed someone to talk to, someone who would understand.

   In her apartment, Diana offered Steven a drink and when he shook his head, she busied herself with lighting the fireplace, grateful for the warmth spreading through her chilled body.

   "Tell me," Steven ventured, "about yourself and your friendship with Marcie."

   Diana gazed into the fire, a thousand evanescent memories intertwining in her thoughts. She told Steven of their carefree school years. Marcie's unhappy marriage, the birth of her stillborn baby, and her subsequent divorce. She talked on and on, losing herself in memories.

   "Marcie's illness is a cruel blow. I wish I hadn't been so absorbed in the business." She surprised herself then by telling Steven of the financial crisis created by Ralph Roper, but stopped short of revealing the proposed plan for a double merger. It was too ludicrous to mention.

   Outside, a gentle rain was falling, and in Diana's heightened emotional state, she recognized once again that Steven's presence started a familiar sensation.

   "I'm glad you told me," he said. "I understand so much more now. You know, Marcie's been a favorite student since the first day she bounced into class, her pixyish face alive and glowing, with those adorable dimples dancing in her cheeks. She turned every head in the class, including my own. He paused, taking note of her reflective mood. "Miracles still happen. Let's not give up hope."

   She stiffened, prepared for a sermon on faith and trust in God, but if one were forthcoming, the sharp ring of the telephone interrupted it.

   It was Kevin. He had obviously been drinking and babbled on about the plans for their marriage and the business merger, unaware that Diana was entertaining a guest. He was so terribly fond of her, her crooned, in fact desired her more than he could say. Quickly ending the impudent conversation, Diana promised to meet him for lunch the following day and replaced the receiver to rejoin Steven beside the fire, choosing not to elaborate on the conversation he had overheard.

   What would he think if he could read her mind at this moment, she thought, longing to feel his arms around her, to have his protection against the circumstances that threatened to crush her? If only she could — but this was hardly the time to discuss her personal problems. There was Marcie to consider.

   "Marcie just can't die, Steven. She's an only child, you know."

   "Yes, and the Vales worship her, but . . ." Steven hesitated as if wondering whether to pursue his line of thought. "I wonder if they have learned to let go of her, or she of them."

   She shot a startled look in Steven's direction. "It never occurred to me that Marcie wanted to break away, but maybe you're right. Maybe we all do." Diana was thinking of her own inordinate desire to please her parents, of her father's stubborn hold on her personal and professional life. "But we owe our parents so much, Marcie and I. They've given us the best of everything — in my case, even my very lucrative career." Diana yearned to defend her statement, yet she was becoming uncomfortably aware of the truth implied by Steven's observation. Perhaps she, too, had grown complacent, enjoying the nest so lavishly feathered for her.

   Steven gazed thoughtfully into the fire. "Yes, Marcie feels a debt of gratitude to her parents — one she keeps trying to repay by continuing to be their 'little girl.' Did you know she wanted to attend the University of California but felt obligated to stay here near her parents?"

   Wide-eyed, Diana stared at Steven, a trace of envy catching her offguard. Marcie had never given her the slightest reason to believe she had ever considered leaving Chicago. Apparently her best friend had forged a bond with this man that excluded even Diana.

   "I guess I've been so wrapped up in my own problems that I've spent too little time with Marcie," Diana admitted. "And when we are together, our conversations focus mostly on the company troubles, or my own grief."

   There, it was out! Though she hadn't mentioned Michael by name, the ball was in Steven's court now.

   "Marcie told me about your fiance's death," he said gently. "You've had your share of heartache, too, Diana. I'm sorry."

   "Thank you," she whispered.

   And before she knew it, she was in his arms, burrowing her head in the musky masculine strength of him, letting the tears flow unchecked. It had been so long, so long.

   "My dear Diana," he said, his deep voice caressing her name, "I promise you there is hope and joy even in grief." He held her at arm's length and looked deep into her eyes. "If you like, we can explore together and find that place for you."

   Diana drew back abruptly, rose, and walked to the window. She wrapped her arms about herself, watching the rain trace lazy patterns on the pane. What could she have been thinking of? How could she, for a single moment, have entertained romantic notions about Steven Cartright? Mile-high mountains stood between them, mountains that could never be moved — the company crisis, Marcie herself, and though she couldn't quite define it, the greatest barrier of all — Steven's deep faith and his strong belief in a personal relationship with God.

   No. They were two entirely different people, poles apart, and she must never forget it.

   Her eyes were dry and her voice steady as she turned to say good-night.

   He stood at the door, his dark eyes steadily holding hers. "Good night, Diana."

   In that instant she was as aware as he that something electric had passed between them, a nebulous something that knew nothing of barriers.

   After Steven left, Diana lay on her sofa, reflecting on his masculine strength and pondering his expressions of faith in God. Throughout the long night, his whispered words haunted her: "If you like, we can explore together and find that place for you."

   He, unlike other men, had not mouthed empty compliments, but had spoken of a place of hope, a place of joy and rest. Why would she shrink from such a discovery? Why not read out with both hands and grasp it? Why was she so confused, unable to sort out her feelings, and why was she helpless to still the rising storm in her heart.

Chapter Nine  ||  Table of Contents