She herself wasn't endangered by it. Not a bit! The last thing she wanted in her life was an unpredictable sexual athlete who had women panting for him. She vastly preferred dependable, morally upright men. Like Parker. But she enjoyed Matt's company, she admitted that much to herself. Possibly, she was enjoying it too much.
On the sofa, Matt watched her, hoping she wouldn't find a book and lose herself in it for the rest of the evening. When she remained in front of the shelf with the old games on it for a rather long time, he thought maybe she was looking at the Monopoly game ... and remembering the last time they'd played it. "Would you like to play?" he asked.
Her head jerked around, her expression inexplicably wary. "Play what?"
"I thought you were looking at one of the games—the one on top."
Meredith saw it then, the Monopoly game, and all her preoccupation and worries vanished in the anticipation of spending the next few hours doing something as completely frivolous and silly as playing Monopoly with him. She smiled at him over her shoulder, reaching for it. "Do you want to?"
Matt suddenly wanted to as much as she apparently did. "I suppose we could," he said, already pulling the quilt off the sofa so they could sit there with the game board between them.
Two hours later, Matt owned Boardwalk, Park Place, the set of green properties, the set of red properties, the set of yellow properties, all four railroads, and both utilities; and the board was literally covered with his houses and hotels, which Meredith had to pay rent for every time her token landed on one of his properties. "You owe me two thousand dollars for that last move," he pointed out, utterly contented with his evening—and utterly enchanted with the woman who could turn a Monopoly game into one of the most enjoyable nights he'd had in years. "Hand it over."
Meredith gave him a limpid look that made him chuckle even before she said, "I have only five hundred left. Would you consider a loan?"
"Not a chance. I've won. Hand it over."
"Slumlords have no heart," she said, and she plopped the money into his open palm. She tried to scowl and ended up smiling at him. "I should have known from the last time we played this game—when you bought up everything in sight and took everyone's money—that you were going to turn out to be a famous, rich tycoon."
Instead of smiling, he looked at her for a moment and then asked quietly, "Would it have mattered if you had known?"
Meredith's heart skipped a beat at the sheer unexpectedness of such a momentous question. Trying desperately to pass the matter off lightly and restore their former mood, she gave him a comic look of a woman who has been grievously maligned and began to clear the game board. "I'll thank you not to imply that I might have been mercenary in my youth, Mr. Farrell. You've humiliated me enough for one night by winning away all my money."
"You're right, I have." Matt matched her light tone, but he was amazed that he'd asked the question out loud and furious with himself for suddenly starting to wonder what he might have done to make her want to stay married to him. Getting up, he made certain the fire wouldn't flare up while they slept. By the time he finished, he'd gotten himself under firm control. "Speaking of money," he said as she put the game back on the shelf, "if you ever personally guarantee a loan for your company again, at least insist that your fiance's bank agree to release you from that guarantee after two or three years. That's long enough for them to have proof that the loan is solid."
Relieved by the change of topic, Meredith turned around. "Do banks do that?"
"Ask your fiance." Matt heard the sarcasm in his voice, and he hated the absurd stab of jealousy that was causing it. And while he was still berating himself for what he'd already said, he said even more. "And if he won't agree, get yourself another banker."
Meredith knew she was suddenly on shaky ground, but she couldn't understand how she got there. "Reynolds Mercantile," she explained patiently, "has been Bancroft's bank for nearly a century. I'm certain, if you knew all the details of our finances, you'd agree that Parker has been more than accommodating."
Irrationally annoyed by her persistent defense of Parker, he purposely said something he'd wanted to say all night. "Is he responsible for that ring you're wearing on your left hand?"
She nodded, watching him warily.
"He has lousy taste. It's ugly as hell."
He said it with such magnificent disdain, and what he said was so true about the ring, Meredith felt uncontrollable laughter welling up inside her. He stood still, brows raised in challenge, daring her to deny it, and she bit down on her lip, trying not to giggle. "It's an heirloom."
"Well, an heirloom is a—"
"It is any object," Matt said bluntly, "with deep sentimental value that is too ugly to sell and too valuable to throw out."
Instead of being irate, as he half expected her to be, Meredith burst out laughing, slumping against the wall. "You're right," she laughed.
Watching her, Matt struggled to remember that she meant nothing to him anymore, then he tore his gaze from that flushed, intoxicating face of hers and glanced at the clock on the mantel. "It's after eleven o'clock," he said. "We may as well call it a night."
Startled by his curt tone, Meredith quickly turned off the lamp beside the sofa. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have kept you up so late. I didn't realize what time it is."
Like Cinderella's magic coach that turned into a pumpkin at the end of the night, the mood of pleasant conviviality had completely disintegrated when they walked up the stairs together to go to bed. Meredith sensed it, but she didn't know why it was happening. Matt sensed it, and he knew exactly why it was happening. With cool courtesy he escorted her to Julie's room and said good night.
At midnight Matt was still awake, his eyes shut, his mind obsessed with the fact that Meredith was sleeping down the hall. At 12:30 he rolled over onto his back and, in sheer frustration, he opened the prescription bottle and took one of the pills that the label warned would cause drowsiness. At 1:15 he yanked the cap off the bottle and took another one.
They put him to sleep, but in that drug-induced state, he dreamed of her ... endless, heated dreams, where Meredith turned into his arms, naked and eager, running her hands over him, making him groan with pleasure. He made love to her over and over again until he finally scared her because he couldn't stop.... "Matt, stop this, you're scaring me!"