Meredith raised her eyes to his then, wounded blue-green eyes. In a state of paralyzed uncertainty, Matt looked into those eyes, and what he saw nearly sent him to his knees: They were filled with tears and pleading. And truth. Naked, soul-destroying, unbearable truth. "Matt," she whispered achingly, "we—we had a baby girl."

"Oh, my God! he groaned, and he yanked her into his arms. "Oh, God!"

Meredith clung to him, her wet cheek pressed against his shirt, unable to stop the outpouring of grief and sorrow, now that she was in his arms. "I—I named her Elizabeth for your mother."

Matt scarcely heard her;his entire being was tormented with the image of Meredith, lying alone in a hospital room, waiting in vain for him. "Please, no," he pleaded with fate, clasping her tighter to him, rubbing his jaw against her hair. "Please no."

"I couldn't go to her funeral," she whispered hoarsely, "because I was so sick. My father said he went... you d-don't think he lied about that too, do you?"

The agony Matt felt when she mentioned a funeral and being sick almost doubled him over. "Oh, Christ!" he groaned, holding her tighter, running his hands over her back and shoulders, helplessly trying to heal the hurt he had unwittingly caused her years before. She lifted her tear-drenched face to his and begged him for reassurance: "I told him to be sure Elizabeth had dozens of flowers at her funeral. I told him they had to be pink roses. You ... you don't think he lied to me when he said he sent them?"

"He sent them!" Matt promised her fiercely. "I'm sure he did."

"I couldn't—couldn't bear it if she didn't have any flowers ..."

"Oh, please, darling," Matt whispered brokenly. "Please don't. No more."

Through the haze of her own sorrow and relief, Meredith heard the anguish clogging his voice, saw the ravaged sorrow on his face, and tenderness poured through her, its sweetness filling her heart until she ached with it. "Don't cry," she whispered, her own tears falling unchecked as she reached up and laid her fingers on his hard cheek. "It's all over now. Your father told me the truth. That's why I came here, you see ... I had to tell you what really happened. I had to ask you to forgive me—"

Leaning his head back, Matt closed his eyes and swallowed, trying to clear the painful lump of emotion that was clogging his throat. "Forgive you?" he repeated in a ragged whisper. "For what?"

"For hating you all these years."

He forced his eyes to open and he looked down at her beautiful face. "You couldn't possibly have hated me as much as I hate myself at this moment."

Meredith's heart lurched at the naked remorse in his eyes; he'd always seemed so completely invulnerable that she'd thought him incapable of deep feeling. Or perhaps her judgment had been clouded by her youth and inexperience. But whatever the case, she thought nothing of trying to comfort him now. "It's over. Don't think about it," she said softly, leaning her face against the hard wall of his chest, but it was a hopeless suggestion because in the silence before he spoke again, that was all either of them could think about. "Were you in much pain when it happened?" he said finally.

Meredith started to ask him again not to think of it, but she realized in some part of her mind that he was asking her to share with him now the things that would have been his right to share with her long ago. At the same time, he was offering her the belated chance to turn to him for the comfort that she'd needed from him. And Meredith slowly realized that she wanted that, even now. Standing in the circle of his arms, she felt the slow, soothing strokes of his hand against her nape and shoulders, and suddenly she wasn't twenty-nine anymore; she was eighteen, and he was twenty-six, and she was in love with him. He was strength and security and hope. "I was sleeping when it started," she began. "Something woke me up—I felt strange, and I turned on the lamp. When I looked down, the blankets were soaked with my blood. I screamed." She stopped, and then made herself continue. "Mrs. Ellis had just come back from Florida that day. She heard me and woke up my father and someone called an ambulance. The pains started coming, and I begged my father to try to call you, and the paramedics arrived. I remember them carrying me out of the house on a stretcher, and they were running. And I remember the sound of the siren screaming and screaming and screaming in the night. I tried to cover my ears to block out the sound, but they were giving me an injection and the paramedic held my arms down." Meredith drew a shuddering breath, not sure she could go on without starting to cry, but Matt's hand was drifting down her spine, holding her pressed against the solid strength of his body, and she found the courage to finish. "The next thing I remember was the sound of a machine beeping, and when I opened my eyes, I was lying in a hospital bed with all sorts of plastic tubes attached to me and a machine monitoring my heartbeats. It was daylight, and a nurse was there, but when I tried to ask her about our baby, she patted my hand and told me not to worry. I asked her if I could see you, and she said you weren't there yet. When I opened my eyes again, it was night and there were doctors and nurses all around the bed. I asked them about the baby, too, and they said my doctor was on his way and everything was going to be just fine. I knew they were lying to me. So I asked—no," she amended with a sad smile as she tipped her head back and looked at him, "I ordered them to let you come in because I knew they wouldn't dare lie to you."

He tried to smile back at her but it didn't reach his tormented gray eyes, and she laid her cheek against his chest. "They told me you weren't there, but that my father was, and then my doctor arrived, and my father came in, and everyone else left the room...."

Meredith stopped, cringing from the memory of what came next. As if Matt sensed what she was feeling, he laid his hand against her cheek, pressing her face to the rhythmic beating of his heart. "Tell me," he whispered, his deep voice ragged with tenderness and sorrow. "I'm here, and it can't hurt as much this time."

Meredith took his word for it, her hands sliding up his chest to his shoulders, instinctively clutching them for support, but fresh tears were flooding her eyes and clogging her voice. "Dr. Arledge told me that we'd had a baby girl, and that everything humanly possible had been done to save her, but they couldn't because—because she was too little." Tears raced down her cheeks. "Too little!" she repeated on a heartbroken sob. "I thought baby girls were supposed to be little. Little is such a—a pretty word ... so feminine..."

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance