Meredith's laugh was short and choked. "Thanks," she said, and hung up the phone. Phyllis's words of support were sweet, but just now they didn't do much to lift her heavy spirits.

Chapter 30

Parker glanced at the ringing telephone in Meredith's living room, and then at her. She was standing at the window, looking pale and withdrawn. "That's probably your father again."

"Let the answering machine take it," Meredith replied with a shrug. She'd left the office at five o'clock, and by then she'd already refused to take two calls from her father and several more from reporters who were eager to ask how she felt about being passed over for the presidency today.

Her father's voice crackled with fury as soon as her recorded message was finished: "Meredith, I know you're there, dammit. Answer this phone! I want to talk to you."

Sliding his arm around her waist from behind, Parker drew her against him. "I know you don't want to talk to him," he said with sympathetic logic, "but he's already called four times in the past hour. Why not talk to him and get it over with?"

Parker had insisted on seeing Meredith to lend her moral support, but all she wanted was to be alone. "I don't want to talk to anyone right now, especially him. Please try to understand. I'd really like to be ... by myself."

"I know," he said with a sigh, but he remained where he was, offering silent sympathy while Meredith stared listlessly out the window into the darkness. "Come over to the sofa," he whispered, his lips brushing her temple. "I'll fix you a drink." She shook her head, declining the drink, but she walked over to the sofa and sat in the circle of his arms. "Are you certain you'll be all right if I leave?" he asked an hour later. "I have some things I have to do if I'm going to leave tomorrow, but I hate to go when you're in a mood like this. Tomorrow's Thanksgiving and you're not going to want to spend it with your father as you'd planned. Look," he said abruptly, coming to a decision, "I'll cancel my flight to Geneva. Someone else can give the address to the banking conference. Hell, they won't notice—"

"No!" Meredith burst out, forcing herself to display an energy she didn't feel as she stood up. In all the pathos of the moment, she'd forgotten Parker was supposed to leave tomorrow for three weeks of meetings with his European counterparts and to give the keynote address at the World Banking Conference. "I'm not going to throw myself out of a window," she promised with a wry smile, sliding her hand around his neck and giving him a gentle kiss good-bye. "I'll have Thanksgiving dinner with Lisa's family instead. By the time you come back, I'll have made new career plans, and I'll have my life back in order. I'll finalize the arrangements for our wedding."

"What do you intend to do about Farrell?"

Closing her eyes, Meredith wondered briefly how anyone was supposed to deal with so many complications, setbacks, and disappointments. In the face of today's crushing revelations, she'd actually forgotten that she was still married to that loathsome, impossible— "My father will have to agree to stop blocking Matt's rezoning request. He owes me that much," she added bitterly. "When he does, I'll have a lawyer contact Matt and offer him that as a peace offering."

"Do you think you can handle the wedding arrangements when you're feeling like this?" he asked gently.

"I can and I will," she promised, forcing enthusiasm into her voice. "We'll be married in February—on schedule!"

"There's one more thing—" he added, cupping her cheek in his palm. "Promise me you won't commit yourself to a new job until I get back."

"Why not?"

Drawing a long breath, he said very carefully, "I've always understood why you've insisted on working at Bancroft's, but since you can't anymore, I'd like you to at least give some thought to making a career out of being my wife. You'd have plenty to do. In addition to running our home and entertaining, there's civic and charitable work—"

Overwhelmed by a despair beyond anything she'd known in years, Meredith started to protest, and then gave up. "Have a safe trip," she whispered as she pressed a kiss on his cheek.

They were partway to the door when someone began determinedly pressing the buzzer from the lobby in a jaunty, familiar rhythm. "That's Lisa," Meredith said, filled with guilt at having forgotten their dinner date and frustration because she wasn't going to be permitted the solitude she desperately needed. She pressed the button that unlocked the security door on the bottom floor, and a minute later Lisa marched into the apartment wearing a determinedly cheerful smile and carrying containers of Chinese food. "I heard what happened today," she announced, giving Meredith a brief, hard hug. "I figured you'd forget our dinner plans, and I figured you wouldn't be hungry," she added, putting the cartons on the polished surface of the dining room table and shrugging out of her coat, "but I couldn't stand the thought of you spending the evening alone, so here I am—want me or lot." Pausing to glance over her shoulder, she added, 'Sorry, Parker, I didn't know you'd be here. I guess the food will stretch."

"Parker's just going," Meredith told her, hoping the two of them would forgo their usual verbal sparring. 'He's leaving tomorrow to attend the World Banking Conference."

"How fun!" Lisa said dramatically, turning a dazzling smile on Parker. "You can compare techniques for foreclosing on widows with bankers from all over the world."

Meredith saw his face freeze, saw his eyes narrow with fury, and she was dimly aware of feeling surprised again that Lisa's jibes dug that deep, but at the moment her awn problems outweighed all else. "Please, you two!" she warned, looking at the two people she loved and who struck sparks off each other. "Don't bicker. Not tonight. Lisa, I can't eat a mouthful of food—"

"You have to eat to keep your strength up."

"And," Meredith continued determinedly, "I'd rather be alone—honest."

"Not a chance. Your father was pulling up across the street just as I came up." As if to confirm that, the buzzer began to sound.

"He can stay down there all night for all I care," Meredith said, opening her apartment door for Parker.

Parker swung around. "For God's sake, I can't leave yet if he's down there. He'll expect me to let him up here."

"Don't do it," she told him, fighting to control her emotions.

"What the hell am I supposed to tell him when he asks me to hold the security door open for him?"

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance