"Do I detect a note of cynicism in your voice every time you mention the woman?"
"Because she got her hands on three quarters of your grandfather's estate," Matt speculated, "instead of half of it, which would be more normal?"
Meredith glanced at her watch, realized she needed to do something about dinner, and hurried through the rest of her explanation. "That isn't why I can't stand her. Charlotte is the hardest, coldest woman I've ever known, and I think she deliberately widened the breach between my father and grandfather. Not that it took much effort on her part," Meredith concluded with a wry smile. "My father and grandfather were hardheaded and hot-tempered—entirely too much alike to have a nice, peaceful relationship. Once, when they were quarreling about the way my father was running the store, I heard my grandfather shout at my father that the only smart thing my father had ever done in his life was to marry my mother—and then he'd loused that up just like he was lousing up the store." With an apologetic glance at the clock, she stood up then and said, "It's gotten late, and you must be hungry. I'll fix something for dinner."
Matt realized he was famished, and he stood up too. "Was your father really lousing up the store?" he asked as they walked into the kitchen.
Meredith laughed and shook her head. "No, I'm certain he wasn't. My grandfather had a weakness for beautiful women. He was crazy about my mother and furious at the time because of the divorce. He's the one who gave her the block of Bancroft's stock, actually. He said it served my father right because he'd know that every time the store made one dollar of profit, she was getting a piece of it in dividends."
"He sounds like a great guy," Matt said sarcastically.
Meredith's mind had already shifted to dinner, and she opened the cupboard, trying to decide what he might be able to eat. Matt went straight to the refrigerator and took out the steaks. "How about these?"
"Steaks? Do you feel like eating something that heavy?"
"I think so. I haven't eaten a full meal in days." Despite his interest in dinner, Matt was strangely reluctant to end their conversation, perhaps because idle conversation like this between the two of them was such a novel experience. Almost as novel, but not quite as unbelievable, as having her there now, playing the part of a devoted, attentive wife looking after her recuperating husband. As he unwrapped the meat, he watched her standing at his shoulder, tying a towel around her narrow waist for a makeshift apron. Hoping to get her to talk to him again, he made a joking reference to one of the last things she'd said. "Does your father tell you that you're lousing up the store?"
Taking down the loaf of bread, she gave him a bright sideways smile, but the smile didn't quite reach those expressive eyes of hers. "Only when he's in an unusually good mood."
Meredith saw sympathy flicker in his eyes, and she immediately endeavored to show him that it wasn't necessary. "It's embarrassing when he rants at me in meetings with store executives, but they're all accustomed to it by now. Besides, all of them have come under fire from him, too, though not as often or in the same way I get it. You see, they realize my father is the sort of man who—who hates to be confronted with proof that someone else is perfectly capable of accomplishing something without his advice or interference. He hires competent, knowledgeable people with good ideas, then he bullies them into submitting to his own ideas. If the idea works, he takes the credit; if it fails, they're his scapegoat. Those who defy him and stick to their guns get promotions and raises if their ideas succeed, but they don't get thanks or recognition. And they're in for the same battle the very next time they want to do something innovative."
"And you," Matt asked, leaning a shoulder against the wall beside her, "how do you handle things now that you're running the show?"
Meredith paused in the act of taking silverware from the drawer and looked at him, her thoughts drifting to the meeting he'd held in his office the day she'd gone there. Unfortunately, she was distracted by the sight of his bare chest, which was now at eye level and which was clearly exposed to view by the gaping front of his robe. Looking at all that bronze skin and muscle with its sprinkling of dark curly hairs had an unexpected and disquieting effect on her. With a funny catch in her breath, she lifted her gaze to his and the feeling subsided, but not the intimacy of the moment. "I handle things the way you do," she said softly, not bothering to hide the admiration she'd felt.
He quirked a dark brow at her. "How do you know how I handle things?"
"I watched you the day I came to your office. I've always known there was a better way to deal with executives than what I've seen my father do, but I wasn't certain if I'd be mistaken for being weak and feminine if I tried for a more open dialogue when I became president."
"And?" he prodded, grinning slightly.
"And you were doing exactly that with your staff that day—yet no one would ever accuse you of being weak or feminine. And so," she finished with a breathless, self-conscious laugh as she turned back to the silverware drawer, "I decided to be just like you when I grow up!"
Silence hung in the room like a living, breathing thing—Meredith uneasily self-conscious, and Matt far more pleased by her praise than he wanted to admit. "That's very flattering," he said formally. "Thank you." "You're welcome. Now, why don't you sit down and I'll fix dinner."
After dinner they went back to the living room, and Meredith wandered over to the bookcase, surveying the old books and games there. She'd had a beautiful, unforgettable day, and that fact was making her feel guilty about Parker and vaguely uneasy about... about something she couldn't quite name. Yes, she could, she thought with brutal honesty, she could name it easily, though she couldn't understand why it was affecting her. There was too much overpowering masculinity in this house for her peace of mind, too much male charm, too many memories starting to stir. She hadn't anticipated any of that when she came here. She hadn't expected a close-up view of Matt's bare chest to set off a chain of memories of other times when she'd seen it—times when she was lying on her back with Matt above her, inside her.
She ran her finger slowly along dusty spines of novels without actually seeing their titles, and she wondered idly how many other women shared those same intimate memories of Matt's body joined with theirs. Dozens, she decided, no hundreds, probably. And in a funny, purely impartial way, she no longer condemned Matt for all his well-publicized sexual exploits any more than she could find it in her heart to continue looking down her nose at the women who offered him their bodies. Now, as a grown woman herself, she fully recognized what she had only partially understood as a girl, and that was that Matt Farrell positively exuded bold sex appeal and potent masculinity. In itself, that was a lethal attraction, but when one added in the enormous wealth he'd accumulated and the power he now wielded, she could see why the combination would be absolutely irresistible to most women.