He'd already judged her and handed her her penance —and to Meredith, who wanted only to tell the truth and make him understand and someday forgive her, it seemed like a lifelong sentence to purgatory. He waited a minute, evidently to give them both time to put the subject to rest, and then he put the glass down. Putting his arm around her shoulders, he drew her close and tipped her chin up, trying to smile into her shadowed eyes. "From what you told me about your phone call with Stuart this morning, it sounds like Farrell's going to be reasonably decent about all this."

"He is," Meredith said, but guilt and misery made her smile wobble.

Parker kissed her forehead. "It's almost over, then. Tomorrow night we'll toast your successful divorce negotiations and maybe even the acquisition of that Houston property you want so badly." He sobered then, and what he said made Meredith belatedly realize how deeply concerned he was about matters at the bank. "I may have to look around and find you another lender to finance that store and the land. Morton Simonson is the third large borrower to file Chapter 11 on us in the last six months. If we aren't taking the money in, we can't lend it out unless we borrow it from the fed, and we're already heavily borrowed there."

"I didn't know you'd had two other big loans go bad."

"The economy is scaring the hell out of me. Never mind," he added, standing up and pulling her to her feet, smiling reassuringly. "The bank isn't going to collapse. We're in better shape than most of our competitors. Could you do me a favor though?" he asked half seriously.

"Anything," she stated without hesitation.

He grinned and put his arms around her for a goodnight kiss. "Could you make certain that Bancroft and Company continues to make all its loan payments to Reynolds Mercantile Trust on time?"

"Absolutely!" Meredith replied, smiling tenderly at him. He kissed her then, a long, tired, gentle kiss that Meredith returned with more fervor than ever before. When he left, she refused to compare that kiss to Matt's demanding, hot, ardent ones. Passion was what Matt's kisses offered. Parker's offered love.

Chapter 40

Matt stood in the center of the mammoth conference room that adjoined his office, his hands on his hips, looking at everything through narrowed, critical eyes. In thirty minutes Meredith would be there, and he was desperately, boyishly, determined to impress her with all the trappings of his success. A secretary and the receptionist, whose names he'd heretofore never bothered to learn, had been summoned to the conference room so that he could seek their opinion of the overall effect. He'd called Vanderwild's office, too, and left him an urgent message to come up immediately. Vanderwild was closer to Meredith's age than Matt was, and he had good taste—it wouldn't hurt to get his opinion on things. "What do you think, Joanna?" he asked the secretary now, his hand on the dimmer switch that controlled the tiny spotlights high above in the ceiling. "Is this too little light or too much?"

"I—I think it's just right, Mr. Farrell," Joanna replied hastily, trying very hard not to show how shocked she was to discover that their formidable employer was actually subject to a human frailty like doubt, and that, moreover, he had finally put himself to the trouble of learning their names. The fact that he also had a devastating smile was not exactly a surprise. They'd seen him smile in meetings with his executives, in magazines, and newspapers, but until today, no woman at Haskell Electronics had ever had that smile focused upon herself, and both Joanna and Valerie were trying hard not to look as flustered or flattered as they felt.

Valerie stood back, studying the effect of the center-piece on the conference table. "I think the fresh flowers on the conference table are a lovely touch," she assured him. "Shall I arrange to have the florist bring a similar spray every Tuesday?"

"Why would I want to do that?" Matt asked, so absorbed in the matter of lighting that he momentarily forgot that he'd led both women to think his sudden interest in the appearance of his office and conference room was purely aesthetic and not related to today's guests in any way. "That looks nice," he said, watching Joanna arrange a $2,000 crystal water pitcher and matching glasses on one end of the rosewood conference table. When she straightened and backed away from the table, Matt passed a slow, critical glance over the vast room with its silver carpeting and burgundy suede sofas and chairs. Although his office and this conference room took up an entire side of the glass high rise and offered a breathtaking view of the Chicago skyline, he'd decided to close the opaque draperies. With the draperies closed and the room dim, the spotlights highlighted the satin sheen of the thirty-foot rosewood table and sent prisms of light flashing off the deeply faceted crystal on the table. Like the conference table, the interior walls were of rosewood, and a circular bar had been recessed into one of them. The doors to the bar were open now with light glancing off thousands of crystal facets on the gold-rimmed tumblers and decanters that stood upon the shelves.

Despite that, Matt continued to deliberate about the room. With the draperies closed, the room looked more lush, cozier. Or else like an expensive restaurant, he wasn't certain anymore. "Open or closed?" he asked the two women, then he pressed a button that sent eighty feet of draperies gliding open across the glass wall so that the skyline was revealed, and they could help him decide.

"Open," Joanna said.

"Open," Valerie echoed.

Matt looked out at the hazy, overcast day. The meeting with Meredith would go on for at least an hour, by which time it would be dark, and the view would be spectacular. "Closed," he said, pressing the button and watching the draperies whoosh across the glass walls. "I'll open them when it's dark out," he said, thinking aloud.

Brushing back the sides of his suit coat, he considered the coming meeting, knowing that his obsession with minor details was foolish. Even if Meredith was duly impressed with $40,000 worth of crystal and all the other trappings of his little kingdom—even if she was cordial and relaxed and gracious when she walked in—she sure as hell wasn't going to like her surroundings, or her host, once the meeting began.

He sighed, half eager and half reluctant for the battle to begin, then he absently remembered the two women who were waiting to see if he needed anything else. "Thank you both very much. You've been very helpful," he said, his mind going back to the appearance of the suite. He flashed a smile at both women, a warm smile that made them feel appreciated and noticed and admired at last, then he spoiled that utterly by demanding of the secretary, "If you were a woman, would you find this room attractive?"

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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