After the Storm

Chapter Nine

   Diana awakened to the sound of rain drumming on her roof. In the night a sharp crack of thunder had startled her, and she had lain awake for hours. Exhausted, she turned slowly in bed and rested her head in her arms.

   The memories of the evening before played a duet with the falling rain — Steven's low voice offering to help her find that place of acceptance and joy. He had certainly found something. He was not the same egocentric, restless man she and Michael had met, but a deeply sensitive person. The suffering he had endured had doubtless been so intense he had needed a religious experience to see him through, she reasoned. She could not deny her physical and emotional attraction to him, but all that must be set aside. She had a business to run, and Marcie was obviously in love with him and needed him more than she had ever needed anyone in her life, even a best friend.

   Deliberately shutting out their conversation of the night before, Diana scheduled her day's activities. She must see Kevin, check on Marcie, call a staff meeting. Her thoughts gathered momentum as she dressed, selecting a flared skirt with a short matching jacket. After belting her raincoat, she slipped on boots and hurried to take the elevator to the underground parking lot.

   Driving along Lake Shore Drive through the heavy morning traffic, Diana's thoughts unexpectedly turned to Gran. Theirs had been a special closeness, and whenever she was troubled, it was Gran to whom she had turned for consolation. She missed her so much, now more than ever. Her own mother, Catherine, still kept her at arm's length, never exchanging affectionate hugs and kisses, never inviting an intimate sharing of hopes and dreams. It was a loveless, lifeless, touch-me-not relationship, and through the years, Diana had ceased to hope for anything more than polite conversation.

   Tim had always been Mother's favorite — Timmy, the small boy; Timothy, the teen-ager; Tim, the rebel. Catherine had lavished all her love and attention on her handsome son, and when he fled to Canada, it seemed she had nothing left to give to her husband and daughter.

   Gran had recognized the partiality early. "You're spoiling that boy, Catherine," she would scold. "Have you forgotten you have a daughter, too?"

   As long as she lived, Diana would never forget her mother's reply. "Diana is her father's daughter."

   How ominous and threatening those words sounded to a seven-year-old child. Did she not belong to her mother, too? It was not until years later that she came to understand she was born of a dying love. She knew only that her mother was seldom home, the elegant socialite keeping herself busy with her charity work, raising funds for abused and neglected children. Often, when left with Emily, their maid, while her parents attended charity galas, Diana found herself envying those neglected children.

   She braked for a light and noticed an exquisite fur coat displayed in a shop window. The coat reminded her of the one her parents had given her last Christmas. When Diana had impulsively run over to kiss her mother, Catherine had turned a cool cheek, her patrician profile a stern reminder of the emotional distance between them.

   Even Michael had not understood Diana's relationship with her mother, she recalled, turning into a side street. Catherine had warmed instantly to him and was effusive in her praise. And why not? He was the epitome of her fantasy for her only daughter — the son of wealthy parents, a well-known attorney, and heartstoppingly handsome. At last, Diana thought, she had done something to please her mother. But that was yesterday.

   After Michael's death, Catherine had become even more uncommunicative, giving more and more time to her volunteer work. Once, she had asked Diana to participate in a mother-daughter fashion show to benefit a favorite charity. As they stepped gracefully down the ramp together, Diana felt a rush of tender pride for her beautiful mother. After the show a photographer asked Catherine to pose with a stunning celebrity, and as Diana stepped aside, she caught a glimpse of her mother smiling flirtatiously into his eyes. Diana's heart plummeted. In that one look her most private fears were confirmed — that her mother was not happy with her father. She thought of him now.

   Diana had to admire her father. Despite his lack of formal education, Joe Sullivan had built a successful business. Now Diana realized that the two of them had entered the same contest to please Catherine. We might as well stop fooling ourselves, Dad, Diana thought to herself. She could never replace Tim in her mother's affections, and Catherine obviously despised Joe for permitting the breach between her son and the family. Now, it appeared, she simply tolerated her husband, depending upon his money to maintain her position in society.

   What if the publishing house should fail, Diana mused, and they were suddenly bankrupt? Catherine Sullivan needed money as newly mown grass needs moisture. Her own parents had left her a healthy inheritance which she had already exhausted on their extravagant home in Forest Hills and their cottage on the lake. Her insatiable appetite for material possessions fed on the income her father generated. No wonder he was looking ill again. If he lost his company, he might also lose his wife. And she, Diana, could save them both by consenting to Victor O'Neal's business-marriage merger.

   She pulled the car to a stop inside the parking lot, locked the door, and pocketed her keys.

   In the elevator, speeding to the top floor, Diana consulted her watch. She and Kevin had planned lunch at Hunan's, a Chinese restaurant nearby, but there was a morning's worth of work to do first.

   Entering her office suite, she nodded to Robin. She threw off her raincoat, reached for the phone on her desk, and dialed the hospital. After learning that Marcie was in X-ray, she slumped into her chair and swiveled around to observe the relentless downpour through the window wall. Below, a tiny army of umbrellas plodded along the streets like a procession of diligent mushrooms.

   At a soft tapping sound on the door, she turned to find Dave Morgan poking in his head like a tentative turtle. "How goes it, boss lady?"

   She smiled a greeting, genuinely glad to see him. How grateful she was for Dave's friendship, something to hang on to when life seemed cold and bleak.

   He entered the room and lowered his lanky frame into a chair, grinning impishly. "Lavery was most impressed with you, Di, but he's definitely not interested in pumping his money into our organization. Of course, he knows about our financial problems, the pompous, self-satisfied, arrogant—"

   "Dad has some ideas." Diana fumbled with some papers on her desk. "His talk with Victor O'Neal was quite . . . fruitful."

   "Oh?"

   She had dreaded telling Dave about Victor's proposal but decided the blatant truth was the only way to proceed and came out with it. "Victor wants to merge his publishing house with Sullivan."

   Dave groaned. "I hope your dad nixed that idea!"

   "Not exactly."

   "Well? Di, what are you trying to say?"

   "There is a small string attached. The merger will take place if I agree to marry his son."

   "You? You and Kevin?" Dave stood up, his face flushed with anger. "And what did you say?"

   "No, of course. But what am I to do?" She lifted her hands in a gesture of helplessness. "I'm having lunch with Kevin today. I plan to ask him to convince his father to loan us money to get through the next book publication." She paused. "Have you read Cartright's manuscript?"

   Dave began to pace, running his hand through a shock of brown hair. "Yes . . . yes, I have, and it just might work if we can get him to tone down the religious part."

   "He won't. He can't," Diana said. "That's the crux of the whole story."

   "A Steven Cartright book might sell in spite of it." Dave bit his lower lip. "Let's call a board meeting, present the idea to them."

   "But he really hasn't offered the book to us, Dave. It was Marcie who gave me the manuscript and insisted I read it."

   At the mention of the name, tears flooded her eyes.

   Dave was puzzled. "What is it, Diana?"

   She told him about the doctors' diagnosis.

   "You poor kid!" Dave muttered. "Why didn't you tell me sooner? No wonder you're down. What can I do? Can Linda help?"

   "Marcie's in the hospital, and Steven's been very attentive. Dave, I think she loves him and possibly he's in love with her. At least he's a comfort to her right now. The Vales are devastated." The mental image of the couple kneeling in the chapel brought a fresh flow of tears. "I'm trying to hold positive thoughts, but with everything else—"

   Dave was at her side in a single bound, cradling her head on his shoulder.

   "You mustn't agree to the O'Neal proposal, Di. Promise me. Your father brought on his own troubles when he allowed Roper to run the company. It's not your problem. And as far as Marcie is concerned, leukemia is not the death sentence it used to be."

   When she had brought her emotions under control and he was seated again, Diana asked, "Dave, do you believe in God?"

   "Of course I do. You know Linda and I go to church every Sunday."

   "But I mean do you believe in a God who cares about us personally?"

   "Well . . ."

   Dave shifted uneasily. Diana reached for a Kleenex and smiled through her tears. He obviously didn't want to pursue this conversation.

   She glanced at the clock on her desk.

   "I must go. Dave, thanks for listening. And if you can pray, please remember Marcie."

   She left for lunch, walking the short block to Hunan's. Kevin stood when Diana walked into the lobby. Though not exactly handsome, he was decidedly engaging, with a lopsided grin and twinkling blue eyes. His aura of supreme confidence turned heads wherever he went. It was working again today, Diana observed, as they followed the waiter to a corner table.

   Kevin, like his father, was on a quest — a quest for power. If they worshiped at all, she thought, it was the god "Might makes right." So far, their methods had proven successful, for the O'Neal Publishing Company had reached its zenith during the past year. Now, it appeared, they intended to extend their empire by buying up smaller companies. She cringed to think that her own might be among them.

   Kevin pulled out her chair, kissing her lightly on the cheek. "How beautiful you look today, Diana."

   "Kevin," she began as soon as they had ordered lunch, "let's get right to the point. Our fathers want a merger, but . . ." Diana paused to take a sip of iced lemon water. "There is another option. You could persuade your father to loan us the money to publish and widely publicize another book. I think we have a winner—" She bit her full lower lip. She should have known better than to play her trump card so soon. Smelling out bestsellers was Kevin's forte, and his eyes shone with undisguised interest.

   "It wouldn't be all bad, you know," he said. "We could become a publishing phenomenon. With your beauty and my business acumen, think what we could accomplish together."

   She had no ally in Kevin, and while he ate his steak heartily and quickly downed several martinis, she lost her appetite. Kevin talked nonstop about what the merger could mean to their respective publishing houses. He knew, for instance, that Sullivan's had allowed some books to go out of print. A couple of these should be reprinted immediately. One, a mystery in the vein of Robert Ludlum, had movie potential; the other, an exercise and beauty book could be promoted as their lead book at the booksellers' convention next summer.

   "Diet and beauty books are a sure thing, Di."

   "Kevin, is this your idea of a marriage proposal?" She laughed lightly.

   "I'll do it properly if you like." There was a meaningful tenderness in his voice as he reached for her hand. "I'm crazy about you, Diana. You're beautiful, intelligent, and we'd be good together. What about it?"

   An image of Steven flashed through her mind — his quiet strength, his compassion, his strong arms holding her. She erased the mental picture and concentrated on Kevin.

   "We don't love each other, Kevin, and I could never tolerate this." She pointed to his martini glass.

   He shrugged. "Oh, that. No problem, my sweet. I can quit anytime."

   So say they all, Diana thought wryly.

   "Anyway, what is love? Like anything worthwhile, love can be acquired. What matters is the business. Dad and I calculated what we could do if we joined forces. The possibilities are limitless! Look, I'll show you." Using a placemat, Kevin quickly sketched out the new structure, stabbing the paper in his eagerness to prove the success of such a venture.

   Diana's face fell as Kevin explained the ramifications of bankruptcy. It was unfortunate that her father had allowed Ralph Roper to create such a fiasco, he said, but the time was ripe to begin again. Sullivan's could be stronger than ever. With a few exceptions the staff could stay on to inaugurate the new era. He didn't anticipate any problems, only a bright future for them all.

   How arrogantly confident he was, a trait Diana found extremely offensive. To him the whole idea of the merger seemed like a game in which he pushed all the pieces about until he won. Suddenly she was very tired.

   "Kevin . . ." She rose, reaching for her raincoat and purse. "I'm sorry, but I really must go. My best friend is in the hospital, and I must call before my afternoon appointments."

   Without waiting for his acknowledgment, she ended their discussion and preceded him to the door. She promised to think about the business merger if he would consider her request of a loan.

   Kevin grinned, crossed his heart, and leaned over to kiss her lightly on the lips. His breath reeked of alcohol.

   Quickly she escaped to the outside, inhaling deeply the fresh damp air. Until today Diana had never given Kevin's drinking a second thought. His life was his to spend as he chose, that is, unless he chose to spend it with her, in which case a drinking problem would nest on her doorstep. She shuddered. Social drinking had always been accepted in the Sullivan home, and in fact, she had taken her first drink as a teen-ager, immediately disliking the dry taste in her throat.

   In college there had been her friend, Betsy, whose father was an alcoholic. Betsy had confided to Diana her embarrassment in bringing friends home during grade school, never knowing whether he might be inebriated. At those times she introduced him as a visiting uncle. Betsy refused any form of alcoholic beverages and had become active in a support group for children of alcoholic parents.

   Funny, Diana thought, that she should think of Betsy. But the smell of liquor on Kevin's breath and the glassy look in his eyes reminded her of Betsy's tragic life. What if she should consent to marry Kevin O'Neal and he became an alcoholic or, God forbid, was already addicted? If she were to confide this fear to her father, would he still insist she make such a sacrifice?

   Diana walked briskly to the office, relieved that the rain had stopped. The sun was bravely peeking through the clouds.

   She must put the possibility of a business-marriage merger out of her mind. Yet visions of her mother's disappointment and her father's disgrace danced crazily through her head.

   With feigned confidence she walked purposefully through the outer doors of the publishing house, left instructions with Robin to call a staff meeting for three o'clock, and entered her suite. She stepped to the phone, dialed the number of Northwestern Memorial, and waited impatiently as the operator made the connection to Marcie's room.

   "Hi, Diana," came her bubbling voice over the wire. "I'm feeling fine. My folks are here. And guess what? Steven's been here, too. Wasn't he wonderful to bring me to the hospital yesterday?"

   "Yes, he was," Diana replied quietly.

   So, her intuitions had been right on target. Steven's tenderness the day before had been merely the gesture of a caring, sensitive man, attempting to console the friend of the woman he loved. Or — her thoughts skidded to a halt — perhaps Marcie's critical illness was a reminder of the suffering of his beloved Julie.

   Diana replaced the receiver after promising to visit Marcie later that evening, then immediately dialed Dr. Mac's number.

   "Can you tell me what's going on with Marcie?"

   "It's really quite amazing," Dr. Mac said. "I must say that Dr. Roberts and I are surprised that her blood has stabilized to such a great degree. Of course, the transfusions helped enormously and we expected some improvement." He paused, then said hurriedly, "Well, time will tell if we have achieved a good remission."

   "Oh, thank God," Diana breathed, her spirits lifting as she cradled the receiver.

   Diana allowed herself one last thought of Steven Cartright — Steven, as he had held her so gently, his umber eyes melting into hers. There was no denying the attraction, for she had known love before. Perhaps each person was allotted only one great love in a lifetime. Fate had given and Fate had taken away. Her destiny seemed clear.

   She dialed Kevin's number, and when he answered, she deliberately made her voice light and airy. "How about coming around to the apartment tonight, Kev. I think we need to talk some more."

   "Just say when." She could envision Kevin's grin of victory.

   "And will you talk to your father today about a loan?"

   "Huh? Oh, you bet."

   "Then I'll see you at seven. I'll cook my spaghetti specialty." She laughed, but the effort left an ache in her throat.

   At the staff meeting that afternoon, she would hint that good news was forthcoming and that no one should look for other employment just yet. She would take the only path open to her that would save her parents, their lifestyle, and the company.

   When there is only one door open, you enter that door, don't you?

Chapter Ten  ||  Table of Contents