"Allow me to offer a suggestion, Parker," Lisa replied sweetly, tucking her hand through his arm and marching him toward the open door. "Why don't you just treat him like any poor sucker with a dozen kids to support who needs a loan from your bank—and tell him no!"

Lisa, he said between his teeth, yanking her hand off his arm, "I could really learn to hate you." To Meredith, he added, "Be reasonable, the man is not only your father, we're also involved in business."

Plunking her hands on her hips, Lisa gave him a bright, daring smile. "Parker, where is your spine, your character, your courage?"

"Mind your own goddamned business. If you had any class, you'd realize this is a private matter and you'd go wait in the kitchen."

The rebuke had a surprising effect on Lisa; normally able to take as much as she gave, Parker's statement caused a humiliated flush to stain her cheeks. "Bastard," she said under her breath, and turning on her heel, she headed toward the kitchen. As she passed Meredith, she said, "I came here to console you, not upset you, Mer. I'll wait in the kitchen." In the kitchen, Lisa angrily brushed away the tears stinging her eyes as she snapped on the radio. "Go ahead and rant, Parker," she called, and gave the volume knob a hard twist, "I won't hear a word." From the radio came the sound of a screeching soprano weeping vociferously while performing an aria from Madame Butterfly.

In the living room, another long, demanding blast from the lobby buzzer joined the shrieking din of the soprano's plaintive wailing, and Parker drew in a harsh breath, torn between the urge to break the radio and strangle Lisa Pontini. He looked at his fiancee, who was standing a few feet away, too immersed in misery to notice the deafening racket, and his heart softened. "Meredith," he said gently when the buzzer went silent, "is that really what you want me to do—refuse to let him up here?"

She glanced at him, swallowed, and nodded.

"Then that's what I'll do."

"Thank you," she whispered.

Her father's furious voice as he stalked into the room brought them both lurching around in surprise. "Goddammit! It's a hell of a note when I have to sneak

past the security door with another tenant! What is this, a party?" he demanded, raising his voice to be heard above the opera blasting from the radio. "I left two messages with your secretary this afternoon, Meredith, and four more on your answering machine!"

Anger at his intrusion banished her exhaustion. "We have nothing to say to each other."

He flung his hat onto the sofa and jerked a cigar out of his pocket. Meredith watched him light it and stoically refused to comment. "On the contrary," he snapped, clamping the cigar between his teeth and glowering at her, "Stanley turned the presidency down. He said he didn't think he could handle it."

Too hurt by their earlier meeting to feel anything at this news, Meredith said matter-of-factly, "So you decided to offer it to me?"

"No, I did not! I offered it to my—the board's— second choice, Gordon Mitchell."

That piece of painful information hardly touched her. She shrugged. "Then why are you here?"

"Mitchell turned it down."

Parker reacted with the same surprise Meredith felt. "Mitchell's ambitious as hell. I'd have thought he'd be dying for a shot at it."

"So would I. However, he feels he can make a greater contribution to the store by remaining in merchandising. The well-being of Bancroft's is obviously more important to him than personal glory," he added with a pointed look at Meredith that silently accused her of self-aggrandizement. Brusquely, he finished, "You're the third choice. That's why I'm here."

"And I suppose you expect me to leap at the chance?" she retorted, still so hurt by what he'd said to her earlier that she couldn't feel elated over what he'd just told her.

"I expect you," he said, his face turning an angry, alarming red, "to behave like the executive you seem to think you are, which means putting our personal differences aside for the time being so that you can take advantage of the opportunity you're being offered!"

"There are other opportunities elsewhere."

"Don't be a fool! You'll never have a better chance to show us what you can do."

"Is that what you're giving me—a chance to prove myself?"

"Yes!" he bit out.

"And if I do prove myself, then what?"

"Who knows?"

"Under those circumstances, I'm not interested. Get someone else."

"Goddammit! There is no one as qualified as you are to do it, and you know it!"

The words burst from him in an explosion of resentment, frustration, and desperation. To Meredith his reluctant admission was infinitely sweeter than any ordinary praise. The excitement she'd refused to feel before began to build inside her, but she struggled to sound nonchalant. "In that case, I accept."

"Fine, we'll discuss business at dinner tomorrow. We have five days to go over pending projects before I leave on my cruise." He started to reach for his hat, intending to go.

"Not so fast," she said, her mind snapping into sudden focus. "First, but not most important, there's the matter of an increase in salary."

"One hundred fifty thousand dollars a year, effective one month after you move into my office."

"One hundred seventy-five thousand dollars a year, effective immediately," she argued.

"With the understanding," he angrily agreed, "that your salary returns to what it is now if—when—I come back from my leave of absence."

"Agreed."

"And," he added, "you're to make no—repeat, no— major changes in policy without consulting with me first."

"Agreed," she said again.

"Then it's settled."

"Not quite—there's one more thing I want from you. I intend to devote myself completely to my work, but I have two personal matters that I also have to take care of."

"What are they?"

"A divorce and a marriage. I can't have the latter without the former." When he remained rigid and silent, she walked forward. "I believe Matt will agree to a divorce if I can offer him an olive branch—the approval of his zoning request—and the further guarantee that there'll be no more interference in his private life from our end. In fact, I'm almost certain he will."

Her father studied her with a grim smile. "Do you really think so?"


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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