Meredith had braced herself for a far worse, far more explosive reception than this one. "I had some help finding you," she said, searching his haggard face, shaken by a stab of poignant tenderness for him. Suppressing the urge to reach up and take his face in her hands and say "I'm sorry," she contented herself for the time being with shrugging out of her coat and handing it to him.
"It's the butler's night off," Matt mocked, ignoring her coat. "Hang it up yourself." Instead of retorting as he expected, she turned and draped the coat over a chair. His eyes narrowed with anger and confusion as he compared her quiet humility with his last encounter with her. "Well?" he snapped. "Let's hear it. What do you want?"
To his surprise, she laughed—a funny, breathless laugh. "I think I want a drink. Yes, I definitely want a drink."
"We're out of Dom Perignon," he informed her. "You have your choice of scotch or vodka. Take it or leave it."
"Vodka is fine," she said quietly.
Matt's knees felt like water as he walked into the kitchen, poured some vodka into a glass, and returned to the living room. She took the glass he thrust at her and glanced around at the room. "It—it seems odd to see you here again after all these years—" she began haltingly.
"Why? This is where I come from—and where you think I still belong. I'm nothing but a dirty steelworker, remember?"
To Matt's dumbfounded disbelief, her color heightened with embarrassment and she started apologizing. "I'm very sorry I said that. I wanted to hurt you and I said that because I knew it would. I didn't mean it, and there's nothing wrong with being a steelworker—they're hardworking, decent men who—"
"What the hell are you trying to pull?" Matt exploded, then almost keeled over from the stabbing pain in his head. The room reeled, and he put his hand against the wall, trying to steady himself.
"What's wrong?" Meredith cried. "Are you ill?"
Matt had a sudden premonition that he was either going to collapse like a damned baby or throw up in front of her. "Get out of here, Meredith." His head swam and his stomach churned as he turned on his heel and started toward the stairs. "I'm going to bed."
"You are ill," she burst out, running toward him when he grabbed the banister and swayed on the second step. She reached for his arm to help him, and he jerked it away, but not before she felt the fiery heat of his skin. "My God, you're burning up!"
"Shut up, and lean on me," she commanded, and he didn't have the strength to stop her from picking up his arm and draping it over her shoulders.
When Meredith got him up to his bedroom, he staggered forward and collapsed on the bed, his eyes closed. Still as ... death. Terrified, she picked up his limp arm, felt for a pulse, and in her panic she couldn't find any. "Matt!" she cried, grabbing his shoulders and shaking him. "Matt, don't you dare die!" she warned hysterically. "I've come all this way to tell you things you have to know, to ask for your forgiveness and—"
The raw fear in her voice, the frantic way she was shaking him, finally penetrated Matt's befuddled senses, and in his dazed state he was incapable of nourishing any further animosity for her at all. All that seemed to matter was that she was there and that he felt terribly sick. "Stop—" he whispered, "shaking me! Dammit."
Meredith let go of him and almost cried with relief, then she got a grip on herself and tried to gather her wits. The last time she'd seen someone collapse like this, it had been her father and he had nearly died, but Matt was young and strong. He had a fever, he did not have a bad heart. Not certain what to do to help him, she looked around the room and saw the two prescription bottles on the table beside the bed. Both labels said he was to take one every three hours. "Matt," she said urgently, thinking it might be time for him to take more medicine, "when did you take these pills?"
Matt heard her and tried to force his eyes open, but before he could, she was clutching his hand, leaning close to his ear, and imploring him. "Matt, can you hear me?"
"I am not deaf," he rasped hoarsely, "and I am not dying. I have the flu and bronchitis. I just took more pills."
He felt the bed sink as she sat down beside him, and he actually imagined her fingertips gently smoothing the hair off his forehead. He was obviously very close to delirium, and the whole scene that he saw behind his eyes was taking on the quality of a comic dream: Meredith hovering frantically over him, touching his forehead, smoothing his hair back. Quite hilariously, impossibly funny.
"Are you certain that's all it is—the flu and bronchitis?" she asked from the other side of his closed eyelids.
His mouth quirked in a fevered smile. "How much worse do you want it?"
"I think I should call a doctor."
"I need a woman's touch."
She answered with a shaky, worried laugh. "Will I do?"
"Very funny," he whispered.
Meredith felt her heart lurch because he'd almost sounded as if she would more than suffice. "I'll leave you alone to rest."
"Thank you," he murmured, turning his face away from the overhead light, already drifting into sleep.
Meredith pulled the blankets over him, noticing for the first time that he'd been barefoot. He'd fallen asleep in the clothes he'd been wearing when he let her in, and she supposed they'd keep him warmer than pajamas. Walking over to the door, she put her hand on the light switch, then she turned back, watching his chest rise and fall in the steady rhythm of sleep. His breathing was ragged, his face was pale beneath his tan, but even sick and fast asleep he looked like a very large and formidable adversary. "Why is it," she wryly asked the sleeping man, "that every time I come near you, nothing happens the way it should?"
Her smile faded, and she turned out the light. She really hated chaos and uncertainty in her personal life; hated the helpless, endangered feeling it gave her. At work, chaos was fine—challenging, stimulating, exciting. Because at work, when she took risks or played hunches, they almost always paid off. If they didn't, the result was failure, not disaster. In her entire adult life she'd taken only two major personal risks, and they'd both proven to be catastrophic mistakes: She'd slept with Matthew Farrell and she'd married him. Even now, after eleven years, she was still trying to disentangle herself from the second one. Lisa was forever criticizing Parker's predictable, reliable nature, but Lisa couldn't understand that predictability and reliability were two things Meredith treasured, craved in her personal life. The ramifications of spontaneous personal risk, in her case, were more than she was willing to endure. In business she had a knack for gambling on the right things; in her personal life she just didn't!