In the kitchen, Meredith heard him moving above her head, and she smiled as she put the canned soup she'd prepared into a bowl and the sandwich she'd made for him onto a plate. From the moment Matt's hand had closed around hers, a strange peace had swept over her, a peace that had now burst into bloom like roses in springtime. She had never really known Matt Farrell, she realized, and she wondered if anyone truly did. According to everything she had read and heard about him, his business foes feared and hated him; his executives admired and were awed by him. Bankers courted him, CEOs asked his advice, and the Securities & Exchange Commission that presided over the stock exchange watched him like a hawk.

With few exceptions, she realized as she considered the stories she'd read, even people who admired him subtly gave the impression that Matthew Farrell was a dangerous predator to be handled gently and never angered.

And yet, Meredith thought with another soft smile, he had lain upstairs in that bed, still believing that she had coldly aborted his child and divorced him as if he were some insignificant beggar... and he had still taken her hand in his. He had been willing to forgive her. The memory of that moment, the sweetness of it, was incredibly poignant.

Obviously, Meredith decided, all those people who talked of him with fear and awe didn't know Matt well at all! If they did, they'd realize that he was capable of enormous understanding and great compassion. She picked up the tray and headed upstairs. Tonight, or in the morning, she would tell him about what had happened to their baby, but not right now. On the one hand, she was desperately eager to have it done with, to eradicate completely and forever the hurt, the anger, the confusion that they had both felt. Then the slate would be wiped clean; they could find real peace with each other, perhaps even real friendship, and they could put a graceful, congenial end to this ill-fated, tumultuous marriage of theirs. But as much as Meredith wanted to have it all out in the open, she was dreading the actual confrontation as she'd never dreaded anything before. This morning Matt had been willing to let bygones be bygones, but she did not like to think about his probable reaction when he discovered the extent of her father's treachery and duplicity.

For now she was content to let him exist in blissful ignorance of what was coming, and to give herself a short respite from what had been a wildly stressful and draining twenty-four hours ... and what was bound to be a painful and wrenching discussion for her as well as for him. It occurred to her that she was inordinately satisfied at the prospect of spending a quiet evening in his company, if he was well enough, but she didn't think that was in the least significant or alarming. After all, they were old friends in a way. And they deserved this chance to renew their friendship.

Pausing outside his door, she knocked and called, "Are you decent?"

With amused dread, Matt sensed instinctively that she was bringing him another tray. "Yes. Come in."

Meredith opened the door and saw him standing in front of the mirror with his shirt off, shaving. Stunned by the odd intimacy of seeing him like that again, she jerked her gaze from the sight of his bronze back and rippling muscles. In the mirror his brows rose when he noted her reaction. "It's nothing you haven't seen before," he remarked dryly.

Chastising herself for acting like an inexperienced, unsophisticated virgin, she tried to say something suitably flippant and blurted out the first banal thing that came to mind. "True, but I'm an engaged woman now."

His hand stilled. "You've got yourself a problem," he said lightly after a pulsebeat of silence. "A husband and a fiancé."

"I was homely and unpopular with boys when I was young," she joked, putting down the tray. "Now I'm trying to collect men to make up for lost time." Turning toward him she added on a more sober note, "From something your father said, I gather I'm not the only one who has a problem with a spouse as well as a fiancé. Evidently you're thinking of marrying the girl whose picture is on your desk."

With an outward appearance of nonchalance, Matt tipped his head back and ran the shaver up his neck to his jaw. "Is that what my father said?"

"Yep. Is it true?"

"Does it matter?"

She hesitated, oddly unhappy with the direction the conversation was taking, but she answered honestly. "No."

Matt unplugged the razor, feeling physically weak and loath to deal with the future right now. "Could I ask a favor?"

"Yes, of course."

"I've had an exhausting two weeks, and I was actually looking forward to coming out here to find some peace and quiet—"

Meredith felt as if he'd slapped her. "I'm sorry I've interrupted your peace."

Warm amusement sent a wry smile to his lips. "You've always cut up my peace, Meredith. Every time we come within sight of each other, all cosmic hell breaks loose. I didn't mean that I'm sorry you're here, I only meant that I'd like to spend a pleasant, restful afternoon with you, and not have to deal with anything heavy right now."

"I feel the same way, actually."

In complete accord, they stood silently contemplating each other, and then Meredith turned away and picked up the heavy navy-blue bathrobe with a Neiman-Marcus label that was lying over the back of the chair. "Why don't you put this on, and then you can sit here and eat your lunch."

He shrugged obligingly into the robe, knotted it at the waist, and sat down, but Meredith saw the uneasy way he was looking at the covered plates. "What's under that bowl?" he asked warily.

"A string of garlic," she lied with sham solemnity, "to hang around your neck." He was still laughing when she swept off the cover. "Even I can manage to cook a can of soup and slap sandwich meat between two slices of bread," she informed him, smiling back at him.

"Thank you," he said sincerely. "This is very nice of you."

After he finished eating, they went downstairs and sat in front of the fire he insisted on building. For a while they talked pleasantly about nothing more controversial than the weather, his sister, and finally the book he'd been reading. Obviously, Matt had amazing recuperative powers, she thought, but even so, she could see that he was getting tired. "Wouldn't you like to go back up to bed?" she asked.

"No, I like it better down here," he answered, but he was already stretching out on the sofa, leaning his head against a throw pillow. When Matt awoke an hour later, he had the same thought he'd had that morning when he first opened his eyes—that he'd only dreamed Meredith was there. But when he turned his head slightly and looked over at the chair she'd been sitting in earlier, he saw that it was no dream. She was there—jotting notes on a yellow writing tablet propped on her lap, her legs curled beneath her. Firelight gilded her hair, brushed her smooth cheeks with a faint rosy glow, and cast shadows off her long curly lashes. He watched her as she worked, smiling inwardly because she looked more like a schoolgirl doing her homework than the interim president of a national retail chain. In fact, the longer he watched her, the more impossible the truth seemed. That misconception was immediately disproved when he quietly asked, "What are you working on?"

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance