"Very well," Pearson said, dropping the role of kindly mediator. "Here's where we stand. Our client has sufficient grounds for a very ugly and damaging lawsuit against your client's father. As a result of Philip Bancroft's unconscionable interference in our client's marriage, our client was deprived of his right to attend the funeral of his child, he was deprived of his right to comfort his wife and be comforted by her after the death of that child, and he was misled into believing she wanted to divorce him. In short, he was deprived of eleven years of marriage. Mr. Bancroft has also interfered with Mr. Farrell's business by illegally trying to influence the Southville zoning commission. These are matters that can, of course, be dealt with in a court of law…"

Stuart glanced at Farrell, who was watching Meredith, who, in turn, was staring fixedly at Pearson, the color draining from her face. Angry that she was unexpectedly being subjected to this, Stuart looked at Pearson and said disdainfully, "If every married man with interfering in-laws could sue them for it, there'd be a fifty-year back-up on the dockets. They'll laugh him out of court." Pearson regarded him with brows raised in challenge. "I doubt that. Bancroft's interference was malicious and extreme; I think a jury would relish ruling against Bancroft for what were, in my opinion, indefensible actions of astonishing viciousness. And that's before we start talking about Bancroft's illegal attempt to influence the Southville zoning commission. However," he said, holding up a hand to silence Stuart, "whether we won our cases or not, the mere filing of those cases would create a storm of unpleasant publicity—publicity that would be damaging to Mr. Bancroft and very possibly Bancroft and Company as well. It's common knowledge that Mr. Bancroft is seriously ill, and, of course, the effect of such publicity and a trial might further jeopardize his health."

A knot of fear and panic was growing in Meredith's stomach, but at that moment her strongest feeling was one of betrayal. She had driven to the farm to tell Matt the truth about the baby and her father's telegram; now he was threatening to use it against her. Her spirits lifted, however, when Pearson said, "I've mentioned all that, Miss Bancroft, not to alarm or distress you, but merely to remind you of the facts and to acquaint you with our point of view. However, Mr. Farrell is willing to overlook all of those things I've been mentioning, and to waive his rights to all legal proceedings against your father for all time ... for a few simple concessions from you. Stuart," he said as he handed a two-page document to Stuart and an identical copy of it to Meredith, "the verbal offer I am about to make is detailed in this document, and to relieve any doubts you may have about Mr. Farrell's sincerity, he has offered to sign it for you at the conclusion of this meeting. However, there is one stipulation, and that is that this offer must be accepted or rejected before your client leaves here today. If it is rejected, it is withdrawn forthwith and we will file legal proceedings against Philip Bancroft by the end of the week. Would you care to take a few minutes to look it over before I summarize it?"

Refusing to even glance at the document, Stuart tossed it on the table, leaned back in his chair, and regarded his adversary with a smile of acid disdain. "I'd much rather hear it from you. Bill. I never fully appreciated your flair for drama before this. The only reason I haven't told you to go to hell and meet us in court before now is that I can't bring myself to leave before I see the last act." Despite his apparent lack of concern over their threats, Stuart was not only worried, he was furious at Pearson's deliberate attempt to frighten and intimidate Meredith.

At a curt nod from Matt, Levinson suddenly stepped in, his voice conciliatory. "Perhaps it would be better if I summarize the offer contained in that document."

"I don't know about that," Stuart drawled insolently. "Are you the understudy or the star?"

"The star," the older man replied imperturbably. "I prepared the document." Directing his attention to Meredith, Levinson smiled and said, "As my associate has just explained, Miss Bancroft, if you agree to what your husband asks, he is willing to forgo taking legal action against your father, but he is also offering much more than that in this document: He is also offering to give you a generous settlement—a lump sum alimony payment if you prefer to think of it that way—in the amount of five million dollars."

That did it. The alarm Meredith had been feeling combined with shock; she looked at Stuart and said, "Agree to what? What is happening here?"

"It's just a game," Stuart reassured her. "First they threaten you with what they'll take away from you if you refuse to play. Now they're telling you what they'll give you if you do."

"A game?" she cried softly. "What game?"

"That's the part they're saving for the very end."

Her eyes clinging to his, Meredith nodded, gathered her wits, and looked at Levinson, studiously avoiding looking at Matt. "Go on, Mr. Levinson," she said, lifting her chin in a show of dignity and courage.

"In addition to the five-million-dollar settlement," Levinson said, "your husband will sell to Bancroft and Company a certain piece of property in Houston for the sum of twenty million dollars."

Meredith felt the room reel, and she turned her head then, looking at Matt, her face filled with confusion, gratitude, and misgivings. He held her gaze without flinching while Levinson added, "Last, if you agree to what your husband is proposing, he will sign a waiver on the usual two-year separation required by this state in order to obtain a divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. That will reduce the waiting period to six months."

Stuart dismissed that concession with a shrug. "We don't need a waiver from Farrell in order for the court to agree to reduce the waiting period. The law clearly states that if the couple has not cohabited for a period of two years, and irreconcilable differences exist, then the waiting period can be shortened to six months. These two people haven't cohabited in eleven years!"

Levinson leaned back in his chair, and Meredith had a sickening premonition of what he might be angling toward when he quietly said, "They spent last weekend together."

"So what?" Stuart said. He was no longer angry, he was stunned by Farrell's $5 million offer and completely preoccupied with discovering what concession Farrell wanted in return for it. "They did not cohabit in the marital sense of the word. They merely slept in the same house. No judge alive would think their marriage might be preserved, and insist on a two-year waiting period, merely because they managed to stay under the same roof for two days. What they did was certainly not cohabiting."

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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