She jumped at his touch and he let go of her arm, but she lifted her eyes to his, and when she did, much of the tension drained from her elegant face. She even managed a rueful little smile as she admitted, "I don't know why exactly, but I'm finding this whole ordeal excruciatingly awkward."

"It serves you right," he teased, trying to divert her with humor. "Didn't anyone ever tell you it's not nice to leave a man in bed with nothing but a note to say good-bye? It makes him wonder if you still respect him."

She swallowed a startled giggle at his pointed quip, and he grinned back at her. "Leaving you that way was foolish," she admitted, and it didn't occur to either of them to wonder why, no matter how long their separation, or how tense the circumstances surrounding each meeting, they fell easily into conversation with each other. "I can't explain why I did it. I don't understand it myself."

"I think I do," Matt said. "Here, drink this." He handed her the vodka and soda he'd made for her. When she started to decline and give it back to him, he shook his head. "It will help make this meeting a little easier to endure." He waited until she'd taken a sip and then he said what he'd gotten her over there to say. "I'd like to ask a favor of you now."

Meredith heard the sudden solemnity in his voice, and she looked at him closely. "What sort of favor?"

"Do you remember at the farm—you asked me for a truce?"

She nodded, remembering with poignant clarity the way she'd stood beside his bed, watching his hand close over hers.

"I'm asking you for the same thing now—a kind of a truce, a cease-fire, from the time my attorneys begin talking until you leave this room."

Alarm tingled through her, vague and unfocused, and she slowly put her glass down, warily searching his unreadable features. "I don't understand."

"I'm asking you to listen to the terms of my offer and to remember that, no matter how—" Matt paused, trying to think of a suitably descriptive word for how his terms were likely to strike her. Infuriating? Outrageous? Obscene? "No matter how unusual my terms may seem, I'm doing what I honestly believe is best for both of us. My attorneys are going to explain my legal alternatives if you refuse my offer, and you're bound to feel backed into a corner at first, but I'm asking you not to get up and walk out of here, or to tell the three of us to go to hell, no matter how angry you become. Last, I'm asking you to give me five minutes in here alone with you, after the meeting, during which time I will try to convince you to go along with what I'm suggesting. If I can't do that, you're free to tell me to go to hell and walk out of here. Will you agree to that?"

Meredith's alarm escalated to new heights, and yet he was only asking her to stay there, and stay calm, for an hour or so.

"I agreed to your terms at the farm," he reminded her, "Is it so much to ask that you agree to mine now?"

Unable to withstand the quiet force of his argument, Meredith slowly shook her head. "I suppose not. All right, I agree. Truce," she said, then watched in surprise as Matt held his hand out to her just as she had held hers out to him at the farm, except that he turned his hand palm up. Her heart gave an inexplicable little bump as she laid her hand in his and his fingers closed tightly around it.

"Thank you," he said.

It hit her that she had said exactly that to him. Amazed that this moment at the farm had obviously seemed poignant to him, too, she tried to smile back at him as she echoed his former words: "You're welcome."

Fully aware of the ploy that Farrell had used to draw Meredith away, Stuart permitted the two attorneys to carry on their barrage of diversionary conversation while he mentally ticked off the amount of time necessary to fix five drinks. When that time had elapsed, he swiveled around his chair, rudely turned his back on Levinson and Pearson and, without bothering to hide what he was doing, he craned his neck to see the occupants of the bar. He half expected to see Farrell trying to badger Meredith; what he saw was a couple in profile, captured in a pose so thoroughly startling that Stuart felt momentarily disoriented. Far from trying to badger her, Farrell was holding his hand out to her, looking at her with a somber smile that struck Stuart as decidedly ... tender. And Meredith, who was almost always completely composed, was putting her hand in his and looking up at him with an expression that Stuart had never seen on her face before: a vulnerable expression of naked caring.

Abruptly, he pulled his gaze from the couple and turned to the attorneys, but he still hadn't come up with a suitable explanation for Meredith's expression a minute later, when she and Farrell brought the drinks to the conference table.

When Farrell had seated Meredith, Pearson said, "Matt, shall we begin?" The seating arrangement had struck Stuart as odd from the minute he'd walked into the room: Pearson was deliberately positioned at the head of the conference table, where Farrell would normally have been. Meredith had been seated on Pearson's left, with Stuart next to her. Levinson was on Pearson's right, directly across from her, and now Farrell walked around the table, sitting down next to Levinson. Ever aware of subtleties, Stuart wondered if Farrell had deliberately put Pearson in the hot seat to make Meredith think that Pearson rather than himself was responsible for whatever she was about to hear. Either that, Stuart decided, watching Farrell angle his chair back and prop his ankle atop his knee, or else Farrell wanted to be able to observe Meredith throughout the proceedings without having to make it obvious, which it would have been if he'd been at the head of the table.

A moment later Pearson began to speak, and what he said was so unexpected, so incongruous that Stuart's brows drew together in wary surprise. "There is much to be considered here," he said, addressing his remarks to Stuart—remarks that Stuart instantly realized were deliberately designed to have an emotional effect on Meredith. "We have here a couple who took vows eleven years ago, solemn vows. They both knew at the time that marriage is an estate not to be entered into lightly or—"

Caught somewhere between annoyance and amusement, Stuart said, "You can dispense with reciting the entire wedding ceremony, Bill. They already went through it eleven years ago. That's why we're here now." He turned to Matt, who was idly rolling a gold pen between his fingers and said, "My client isn't interested in your attorneys' assessment of the situation. What do you want and what are you offering? Let's get down to business."

Instead of reacting to Stuart's deliberate provocation, Matt glanced at Pearson and, with a slight inclination of his head, he instructed him to do exactly that.


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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