Whenever he came to dinner, she loved listening to him talk about business at the bank, and she especially loved the walks they began taking afterward, while their parents lingered over brandy. It was during their walk last summer that Meredith made the mortifying discovery that Parker had always known she had a crush on him. He'd begun by asking her how the skiing had been the past winter in Vermont, and Meredith had regaled him with a funny story about going skiing with the captain of Litchfield's ski team. When Parker stopped laughing at the fact that her date had to chase her ski down the face of the mountain, which he'd done with style and flair, he said with smiling solemnity, "Every time I see you, you're more beautiful than the time before. I guess I've always known that someone was going to eventually take my place in your heart, but I never thought it would be usurped by some jock who rescued your ski. Actually," he teased, "I was getting used to being your favorite romantic hero."

Pride and common sense kept Meredith from blurting out that he'd misunderstood and that no one had taken his place; maturity stopped her from pretending he'd never had a place in her heart. Since he obviously wasn't destroyed by her imagined defection, she did the only thing she could do, which was to try to salvage their friendship and simultaneously treat her crush on him as if she, too, regarded it as an amusing thing of her youthful past. "You knew how I felt?" she asked, managing to smile.

"I knew," he averred, returning her smile. "I used to wonder if your father would notice and come looking for me with a gun. He's very protective of you."

"I've noticed that too," Meredith joked, although that particular issue was far from a laughing matter then or now.

Parker had chuckled at her quip, and then he'd sobered and said, "Even though your heart belongs to a skier, I hope this doesn't mean our walks and dinners and tennis games are over. I've always enjoyed them, I mean that."

They'd ended up talking about Meredith's college plans and her intention to follow in her ancestors' footsteps, all the way to the president's office at Bancroft & Company. He alone seemed to understand how she felt about taking her rightful place at Bancroft's, and he sincerely believed she could do it if she wanted it badly enough.

Now, as Meredith stood in the dorm room, thinking about seeing him again after an entire year had passed, she was already trying to prepare herself for the possibility that all Parker would ever be was a friend. The prospect was disheartening, but she felt certain of his friendship, and that meant a great deal to her too.

Behind Meredith, Lisa walked out of the closet with her last armload of clothes and dumped them on the bed beside an open suitcase. "You're thinking of Parker," she teased. "You always get that dreamy look on your—" She broke off as Nick Tierney arrived in the doorway, his two friends blocked from view behind him.

"I've told both these guys," he announced, tipping his head toward his unseen friends, "that they're about to see more beauty in one room than they've seen in the entire state of Connecticut, but that since I was here first, I have first choice, and my choice is Meredith." Winking at Lisa, he stepped aside. "Gentlemen," he said with a sweeping gesture of his hand, "allow me to introduce you to my 'second choice.'" The other two walked in looking bored, cocky, and collegiate, a matched pair of Ivy League models. They took one look at Lisa and stopped dead.

The muscular blond in the lead recovered first. "You must be Meredith," he said to Lisa, his wry expression making it clear that he thought Nick had stolen the best for himself. "I'm Craig Huxford and this is Chase Vauthier." He nodded to the dark-haired twenty-one-year-old beside him who was looking Lisa over like a man who has finally beheld perfection.

Lisa folded her arms across her chest and regarded them both with amusement "I'm not Meredith."

Their heads turned in unison to the opposite corner of the room, where Meredith was standing.

"God—" Craig Huxford whispered reverently.

"God—" Chase Vauthier echoed as they looked from one girl to the other and back again.

Meredith bit her lip to keep from laughing at their absurd reaction. Lisa raised her brows and dryly said, "Whenever you boys are through with your prayers, we'll offer you a Coke in return for your help stacking these packing boxes for the movers."

They started forward, grinning. Behind them, Philip Bancroft walked in a half hour early and came to a halt, his face darkening with fury as he looked at the three young men. "What the hell is going on in here?"

The five occupants of the room froze, then Meredith stepped in and tried to smooth matters over by hastily introducing the boys to her father. Ignoring her effort, he jerked his head at the door. "Out!" he snapped, and when they'd left, he turned on the girls. "I thought the rules of this school prohibited men other than fathers from entering this goddamned building."

He didn't "think" that, he knew it. Two years ago, he'd paid a surprise visit on Meredith, and when he arrived at the dorm at four o'clock on a Sunday afternoon, he'd seen boys sitting around downstairs in the dorm's lounge area, just inside the main doors. Before that weekend, male visitors had been allowed into the lounge on weekend afternoons. After that day, males were banned from entering the building at all times. Philip had gotten the rules changed himself by storming into the administrator's office and accusing her of everything from gross negligence to contributing to the delinquency of minors, then he threatened to notify all the parents of those facts and to cancel the large annual endowment the Bancroft family gave to Bensonhurst.

Now Meredith fought down her fury and humiliation over his behavior to the three boys who'd done nothing to warrant his wrath. "In the first place," she said, "the school year ended yesterday, so the rules don't apply. Secondly, they were only trying to help us stack these boxes for shipping so we can leave—"

"I was under the impression," he interrupted, "that I was coming here this morning to do all that. I believe that was why I got out of bed at—" He broke off his tirade at the sound of the administrator's voice.

"Excuse me, Mr. Bancroft," she said. "You have an urgent phone call downstairs."

When he left to take his call, Meredith sank down on the bed and Lisa slammed her Coke onto the desk. "I cannot understand that man!" she said furiously. "He's impossible! He won't let you date anyone he hasn't known since babyhood, and he scares off everyone else who tries. He gave you a car for your sixteenth birthday, and he won't let you drive it. I have four brothers who are Italian, dammit, and combined they're not as overbearingly protective as your father is!" Unaware that she was only adding to Meredith's angry frustration, she walked over and sat down beside her. "Mer, you have to do something about him, or this summer is going to be worse than the last one for you. I'm going to be gone for half of it, so you won't even have me to hang around with." The staff at Bensonhurst had been so impressed with Lisa's grades and her artistic talent that they'd gotten her a six-week European scholarship, where the chosen student was allowed to select whatever city best suited her future career plans. Lisa had decided on Rome and enrolled in a course on interior design there.


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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