She'd just sat down at her desk and was taking the first sip of her coffee, when Lisa raced into her office, clutching a huge armload of newspapers. "Mer, I'm so sorry!" she burst out. "I bought every damned copy from the newspaper stand out front so they wouldn't have any more to sell. It's the only way I could think of to help you!"

"Help me?" Meredith asked with a startled smile.

Lisa's mouth fell open, and she clutched the newspapers tighter, as if to hide them. "You haven't seen the morning paper, have you?"

Alarm traced a finger up Meredith's spine. "No, I overslept and didn't have time. Why? What's wrong?"

With visible reluctance, Lisa slowly laid the stack on Meredith's desk. Meredith tore her eyes from Lisa's pale face, looked at the paper, then half rose from her chair. "Oh, my God!" she breathed, her stricken gaze flying over the print. She put down her coffee cup and stood up, forcing herself to read more slowly. Then she turned to page three and read the more sensational and personal article on that page. Finished, she looked at Lisa with glazed panic in her eyes. "Oh, my God," she whispered again.

They both jumped as Phyllis slammed Meredith's door and rushed toward them. "I've been in security," she said, her short hair disheveled, as if she'd been raking her fingers through it. "We were swarming with reporters at the main doors, waiting for us to open. They started getting in at the employee entrance, so Mark Braden let them all in and told them to go to the auditorium. The phone has been ringing off the hook. Most of the calls are from reporters, but you also had calls from two of the board members who want to talk to you immediately. Mr. Reynolds has called three times and Mr. Farrell called once. Mark Braden wants instructions. So do I!"

Meredith tried to concentrate, but her insides were trembling with sick dread. Sooner or later a reporter would dig up the reasons for her marriage to Matt. Someone would talk—a servant, an orderly at the hospital—and the world was going to know that she had been a silly, pregnant teenage bride of an unwilling husband. Her pride and her privacy were about to be torn to shreds. Other people made mistakes and broke rules, she thought bitterly, and got by with it. But not her—she had to pay again and again and again.

It suddenly hit her then, what else everyone was going to think when that sham lawyer revealed the details of her divorce, and she felt the room tilt sickeningly. Because her father hadn't settled for something nice and decent like irreconcilable differences, she was not merely going to be portrayed as some promiscuous teenager without enough sense to use birth control, she was also going to be the pathetic object of desertion and mental cruelty!

And Parker—dear God, Parker was a respectable banker and the papers were going to drag him into this mess.

She suddenly thought of Matt and what this was going to do to him, and she felt violently ill. When people learned he'd subjected his sad little pregnant wife to mental cruelty and then deserted her, his reputation and character would be destroyed beyond recall....

"Meredith, please—tell me what to do." Phyllis's imploring voice seemed to come from very far away. "The phone on my desk is ringing right now."

Lisa held up her hand. "Give her time to think—she just saw the newspaper when you walked in."

Meredith sank down in her chair, shaking her head to clear it, knowing she had to do something—anything. For lack of any other ideas, she said slowly, "We'll follow the same procedure we follow whenever something newsworthy happens at the store—notify the switchboard to screen all calls and have those from reporters transferred to public relations." She swallowed painfully. "Tell Mark Braden to keep herding the reporters who come here to the auditorium."

"Yes, but what do you want public relations to tell the reporters?"

Raising her gaze to Phyllis's, Meredith drew a ragged breath and admitted, "I don't know yet. Just tell them to wait—" She broke off at the knocking on her door, and all three of them turned as the receptionist poked her head inside and said anxiously, "I'm sorry to disturb you, Miss Bancroft, but Mr. Farrell is here, and he's— he's very, very insistent about seeing you. I don't think he's going to take no for an answer. Shall I use your phone and call security?"

"No!" Meredith said, bracing herself to face Matt's justifiable fury. "Phyllis, go bring him in here, will you?"

Having carefully observed what office the receptionist had headed for, Matt waited impatiently at the reception desk, ignoring the fascinated interest his presence was generating among the secretaries and clerks and the executives getting off the elevators. He saw the receptionist emerge from Meredith's office with another woman, and he took a step forward, fully prepared to go over or around both women if Meredith was foolish enough to refuse to see him. "Mr. Farrell," an attractive brunette in her late twenties said, managing to sound professional despite her wavering smile, "I'm Phyllis Tilsher, Miss Bancroft's secretary. I'm sorry you were made to wait. Will you come with me please?"

Forcing himself not to outpace her, Matt let her usher him to Meredith's office, where she swung open the door and stepped aside. At any other time, the incredible sight that Matt beheld would have made his chest swell with pride: Seated behind a baronial desk at the far end of a richly paneled office that shouted of hushed wealth and quiet dignity, with her golden hair caught up in a shining chignon, Meredith Bancroft looked like a regal young monarch who should have been sitting on a throne instead of a high-backed leather chair—a very pale and worried monarch at the moment. Tearing his eyes from her, he glanced at the secretary and unconsciously began taking charge. "I'm expecting two calls here," he told her quickly, "let me know the instant they come through. Tell anyone else who calls that we're in a budget meeting and can't be disturbed, and don't let anyone else past that door!"

Phyllis nodded and hastily left, closing the door behind her, and Matt headed for Meredith, who was slowly standing up and walking around to his side of the desk. Jerking his head toward the redhead standing near the windows who was studying him with unconcealed fascination, Matt said, "Who is she?"

"Lisa Pontini," Meredith said absently, "an old friend. Let her stay. Why," she added in a state of numb confusion, "are we having a budget meeting in here?"

Matt remembered Lisa Pontini's name from years before. Suppressing the urge to pull Meredith into his arms and try to comfort her—both of which he knew she'd reject—he smiled reassuringly and tried to inject a teasing note into his voice. "It'll throw the employees off the track temporarily if they think it's business at its most boring usual up here. Can you think of anything more boring than budgets?" She tried to smile at his humorous logic and couldn't, so Matt said with quiet force, "With a little luck we're going to pull through this with only a few scrapes and no scars. Now, will you trust me and do what I ask?"

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance