"Does this mean," he asked with mocking delight, "that I can be a member of that exclusive little country club of yours?"

Rushing, she nodded.

"I'm not interested. I never was. What else are you offering?" When she hesitated, and twisted her fingers in her lap, he lost patience. "Don't tell me that was it? That's your entire offer? And now I'm supposed to forgive and forget and give you what you really want?"

"What do you mean, really want?"

"Houston!" he clarified icily. "Among your unselfish motives for this visit, you left out the thirty-million-dollar motive that sent you scurrying to my apartment last night. Or am I misjudging the purity of your actions, Meredith?"

She surprised him again by shaking her head and quietly admitting, "I found out yesterday that you'd bought the Houston land, and you're right—it was the catalyst that sent me to your apartment."

"And then brought you running out here," he added sarcastically. "And now that you're here, you're prepared to say or do whatever it takes to make me change my mind and sell you the property for what I paid for it. Just how far are you wiling to go?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, is that it? Surely those few paltry concessions aren't the best you can do?"

She opened her mouth to reply, but Matt had enough of this disgusting charade. "Let me save you the trouble of answering that," he said nastily. "Nothing you can do or say, now or in the future, will make one damned bit of difference to me. You can hover solicitously by my bedside, you can offer to climb into bed with me, and the Houston property is still going to cost you thirty million if you want it. Is that clear?"

Her reaction stunned him utterly. He'd been hammering at her with every sentence he spoke, threatening her with public lawsuits and devastating scandal that would ensue, insulting her with every nuance of his voice; in short, he'd subjected her to the sort of intimidation that made hardened business adversaries either sweat or rage, but he hadn't been able to break her control. In fact, she was looking at him with an expression that, if Matt didn't know it was impossible, looked almost like tenderness and contrition.

"That's very clear," she replied softly, and she slowly stood up.

"You're leaving, I take it?"

She shook her head and smiled a little. "I'm going to take the cover off your breakfast plate and hover solicitously at your bedside."

"For Christ's sake!" Matt exploded, his own rigid control over the situation slipping a notch. "Didn't you understand what I just said? Nothing you do is going to make me change my mind about the Houston property!"

Her expression sobered, but her eyes remained soft, looking into his. "I believe you."

"And?" he demanded, his anger giving way to complete bafflement which he blamed upon the drug that was making it hard to concentrate.

"And I accept your decision as—as a sort of, well, penance for past misdeeds. You couldn't have found a better one either, Matt," she admitted without rancor. "I wanted that property for Bancroft and Company, and it's going to hurt terribly when it goes to someone else. We can't afford to pay thirty million." He stared at her in shocked disbelief as she continued with a somber smile. "You've taken away from me something I wanted desperately. Now that you have, will you call it even between us and agree to a truce?"

His first instinct was to tell her to go to hell, but that was a purely emotional reaction, and when it came to bargaining, Matt had learned long before never to let his emotions overrule his judgment or interfere with his logic. And logic reminded him that some sort of civilized relationship with her was exactly what he'd hoped to achieve in their last two encounters. Now she was offering it to him—and at the same time she was conceding victory to him with a grace that was astounding. And nearly irresistible. Standing there, waiting for his decision, with her hair tumbling in artless waves and curls over her shoulders, and her hands shoved into her pants pockets, Meredith Bancroft looked more like a contrite high school girl who'd been summoned to the principal's office than like a corporate executive. And at the same time, she still managed to look like the proud young socialite she was—quietly regal, serenely unat-tainable, enticingly beautiful.

Looking at her now, Matt finally and completely understood his long-ago obsession with her. Meredith Bancroft was the quintessential woman—changeable and unpredictable, haughty and sweet, witty and solemn, serene and volatile, incredibly proper ... unconsciously provocative.

What was the point in carrying on this ridiculous war with her, he asked himself. If he called it off, they could go their own ways without any more regrets. The past should have been buried years earlier, it was long past time to do it now. He'd had his revenge—ten million dollars worth, because he didn't believe for a minute that she wouldn't find a way to raise the extra money. He was already wavering when he suddenly remembered her carrying that tray into him, and he had to stifle the urge to chuckle. The moment his expression altered, she seemed to sense that he was on the verge of capitulating; her shoulders relaxed a little and her eyes lit with relief. The fact that she could read him that well was just irksome enough to make him decide to prolong her suspense. Crossing his arms over his chest, Matt said, "I don't make deals when I'm flat on my back."

She wasn't fooled. "Do you think some breakfast might sweeten your disposition?" she asked with a teasing smile.

"I doubt it," he replied, but her smile was so contagious that he started to grin in spite of himself.

"So do I," she joked, then she offered him her hand. "Truce?"

Matt reacted automatically to the gesture, starting to extend his hand, but she suddenly pulled her hand just out of reach, and with a winsome smile she said, "Before you agree, there's one thing I ought to warn you about."

"And that is?"

Her voice was half serious. "I was thinking of suing you over the Houston property. I wouldn't want my earlier remark to mislead you into thinking I'm voluntarily accepting the loss of it as penance. When I said that, I only meant that if the courts won't force you to sell it for current market value, I'll accept that without hard feelings toward you. I hope you'll understand that whatever happens on that matter, it's only business not personal."

Matt's eyes gleamed with suppressed laughter. "I admire your honesty and tenacity," he told her truthfully. "However, I suggest that you reconsider taking me to court. It will cost you a fortune to sue me for fraud or whatever grounds you're considering, and you'll still lose."


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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