"I find it attractive," Joanna said stiffly, "even as a lowly robot, Mr. Farrell."
It took a moment for her icy retort to register on Matt, but when he glanced over his shoulder, both women were walking through the double doors past Eleanor Stern. "What's she miffed about?" he demanded of his own secretary, whose sole interest, like his own, was on getting work done at the office, not socializing or flirting.
Miss Stern straightened her severely cut gray suit and removed the pencil she'd tucked behind her ear. "I assume," she said with unhidden disdain for the other secretary, "that she hoped you'd be aware that she is a woman. She's been hoping you'd notice that since the day you arrived here."
"She's wasting her time," Matt advised. "Among other things, she's an employee. Only an idiot fools around with his employees."
"Perhaps you ought to get married," Miss Stern sensibly replied, but she was flipping pages in her dictation notebook, looking for some figures she wanted to discuss with him. "In my day, that would have put a stop to female aspirations."
A slow smile broke across Matt's face and he perched his hip on the conference table, suddenly eager to tell someone his newly discovered truth. "I am married," he quietly said, watching for her stunned reaction.
Miss Stern flipped a page, and without looking up, said, "My heartiest congratulations to you both."
"I'm serious," Matt said, his brows pulling together.
"Shall I relay that information to Miss Avery?" she asked with a deadpan look. "She's called twice today."
"Miss Stern," Matt said firmly, and for the first time in their sterile working relationship he truly regretted that he'd never befriended her. "I married Meredith Bancroft eleven years ago. She's coming here this afternoon."
She looked at him over the top of her steel-rimmed glasses. "You have dinner reservations at Renaldo's tonight. Will Miss Bancroft be joining you and Miss Avery? If so, shall I change the reservations to a party of three?"
"I canceled my date with—" Matt began, then his mouth dropped open, and a lazy grin spread across his face. "Do I detect a note of censure in your voice?"
"Certainly not, Mr. Farrell. You made it very clear at the beginning that censuring your actions was not part of my job. As I recall, you specifically said that you didn't want my personal opinions, and you didn't want cake on your birthday; you merely wanted my skills and my time. Now, do you want me to be present at this meeting to take notes?"
Matt swallowed back a startled laugh at the discovery that his long-ago remark had evidently been rankling her for all these years. "I think it might be a good idea for you to take notes. Pay particular attention to anything at all that Miss Bancroft or her attorney agree to; I intend to hold them to every concession."
"Very well," she said, and turned to leave.
Behind her, Matt's voice checked her in midstep.
"Miss Stern?" She turned back, her posture primly erect, her pencil poised for his instructions. Teasingly, Matt asked, "Do you have a first name?"
"Certainly," she replied, her eyes narrowing.
"May I use it?"
"Of course. Although, I don't think Eleanor suits you quite as well as Matthew."
Matt gaped at her deadpan expression and swallowed a sharp bark of laughter, uncertain whether she was serious or making a joke. "Do you suppose," he said gravely, "you and I could be... a little less formal around here?"
"I assume you're suggesting a more relaxed relationship, the sort one might find more typical between a secretary and her employer?"
"Yes, actually I was."
She lifted a thoughtful gray brow, but this time Matt saw it—the gleam of an answering smile in her pale eyes. "Will I have to bring you cake on your birthday?"
"Probably," he said with a sheepish grin.
"I'll make a note of it," she replied, and when she actually did, Matt burst out laughing. "Will there be anything else?" she asked, and for the first time in all these years Eleanor Stern smiled at him. The smile had an electrifying effect on her face.
"There is one more thing," Matt added. "It's very important, and I'd like your complete attention."
She sobered immediately. "You have it."
"In your opinion, is this conference room extremely impressive, or merely ostentatious?"
"I feel quite confident," she replied straightfaced, after looking the room over, "that Miss Bancroft will be dumbstruck with admiration."
Matt gaped as she turned on her heel without asking if he wanted anything and practically fled from the room, but he could have sworn her shoulders were shaking.
Peter Vanderwild was pacing nervously in Miss Stern's office, waiting for the old bat to emerge from Farrell's office and give him permission to enter. She came walking out with unusual haste, and Peter braced himself to be made to feel a truant schoolboy facing the principal. "Mr. Farrell wants to see me," he told her, trying to hide his agitation over Matt's urgent summons. "He said it was very important, but he didn't say what it was about and I—I didn't know which files to bring."
"I do not think," she said in an odd, choked voice, "you will need your files, Mr. Vanderwild. You may go in."
Peter gave her a queer, curious glance, then he hurried in to see Mr. Farrell. Two minutes later Peter backed out of Matt's office, inadvertently banging into the corner of Miss Stern's desk in his state of preoccupied worry.
She looked up at him. "Were you able to answer Mr. Farrell's question without your files?"
Desperately in need of reassurance, Peter braved what he knew would be her scorn. "Yes, but I—I'm not certain I gave the right answer. Miss Stern," he implored, "in your opinion, is the conference room impressive or ostentatious?"
"Impressive," she said.
Peter's shoulders sagged with relief. "That's what I said."
"That was the right answer."
Peter stared at her in amazement; she was looking at him, her eyes positively glinting with sympathetic amusement. Shocked at the realization that there was actually some warmth beneath her glacial surface, he wondered if his own rigidity had somehow caused her to regard him with such disfavor in the past. He decided to buy her a box of candy at Christmas.
Stuart was waiting, briefcase in hand, when Meredith walked into the lobby of Intercorp's building. "You look wonderful," he said, taking Meredith's hand in his. "Perfect. Calm and collected."