"No problem. I'll leave Farrell all by himself and let him flounder while my father looks on, watching him try to figure out what fork to use. My old man won't be able to say a word to me either. After all, he's the one who told me to 'show Farrell the ropes' and 'look after him' while he's in Chicago."

Parker chuckled at Jon's ferocious expression. "There must be an easier way to solve your problem."

"There is," Jon said. "I can find myself a wealthy wife who can support me in my accustomed style, and then I can tell my old man to go fuck himself." He glanced over his shoulder and signaled a pretty girl in a maid's uniform who was passing a tray of drinks. She hurried over and he grinned at her. "You're not only pretty," he told her as he put his empty glass on her tray and took a fresh one, "you're a life saver!" From the flustered way she smiled at him and then blushed, it was obvious to Jon, and to the rest of the group, that she was not immune to his six-foot-one muscular body and attractive features. Leaning close to her, Jon said in a stage whisper, "Is it possible that you're only working for a caterer as a lark, but that your father actually owns a bank or a seat on the exchange?"

"What? I mean, no," she said, charmingly flustered.

Jon's smile turned teasing and sexy. "No seat on the exchange? How about some factories or some oil wells?"

"He's—he's a plumber," she blurted out.

Jonathan's grin faded, and he sighed. "Marriage is out of the question, then. There are certain financial and social requirements that the winning candidate for my wife will have to be able to meet. However, we could still have an affair. Why don't you meet me in my car in a half hour? It's the red Ferrari out in front."

The girl left, looking both miffed and intrigued.

"That was completely obnoxious of you," Shelly said, but Doug Chalfont nudged him and chuckled. "I'll bet you fifty bucks that girl is waiting in your car when you leave."

Jon turned his head and started to reply, but his attention was suddenly diverted by the sight of a breathtaking blonde wearing a black sheath with a high collar and short sleeves, who was walking down the stairs and into the living room. He stared at her with slackened jaw as she paused to talk to an elderly couple, and when a group of people shifted and blocked her from his view, he leaned sideways, trying to see her. "Who are you looking at?" Doug asked, following his gaze.

"I don't know who she is, but I'd like to find out."

"Where is she?" Shelly asked, and everyone looked in the direction he was staring.

"There!" Jon said, pointing with his glass as the crowd around the blonde moved and he saw her again.

Parker recognized her and grinned. "You've all known her for years, you just haven't seen her in a while." Four blank faces turned to him, and his grin widened. "That, my friends, is Meredith Bancroft."

"You're out of your mind!" Jon said. He stared hard at her but could find little resemblance between the gauche, rather plain girl he remembered and the poised young beauty he beheld: Gone was the baby fat, the glasses, the braces, and the ever-present barrette that used to hold back her straight hair. Now that pale golden hair was caught up in a simple chignon with tendrils at her ears framing a face of classic, sculpted beauty. She looked up then, somewhere to the right of Jon's group and nodded politely at someone, and he saw her eyes. Halfway across the room, he saw those large aquamarine eyes, and he suddenly remembered those same startling eyes peering up at him long ago.

Strangely exhausted, Meredith stood quietly, listening to people who spoke to her, smiling when they smiled, but she couldn't seem to absorb the reality that her grandfather was dead, and that the hundreds of people who seemed to be drifting from room to room were here because of that. The fact that she hadn't known him very well had reduced the grief she'd felt for the last few days to a dull ache.

She'd caught a glimpse of Parker at the graveside service, and she knew he could very well be somewhere in the house, but in view of the melancholy circumstances, it seemed wrong and disrespectful to go looking for him in hopes of furthering a romantic relationship at that time. Furthermore, she was growing just a little bit weary of always being the one who sought him out; it seemed to her that it was his turn to make some sort of move toward her. As if thinking of him had suddenly summoned him to her side, she heard an achingly familiar masculine voice say in her ear, "There's a man over in that alcove who's threatened my life if I don't bring you over so that he can say hello."

Already smiling, Meredith turned and put her hands into Parker's outstretched palms, then felt her knees go weak as he pulled her forward and kissed her cheek. "You look beautiful," he whispered, "and very tired. How about going for one of our walks after we get the social amenities over with?"

"All right," she said, surprised and relieved that her voice sounded steady.

When they reached the alcove, Meredith found herself in the ludicrous position of being reintroduced to four people she already knew, four people who had acted as if she were invisible when she'd last seen them several years earlier, and who now seemed gratifyingly eager to befriend her and include her in their activities. Shelly invited her to a party the following week and Leigh urged her to sit with them at Glenmoor's Fourth of July dance.

Parker deliberately "introduced" her to Jon last. "I can't believe it's you," he said, but the alcohol was making his words a little slurred. "Miss Bancroft," he continued with his most winning grin. "I was just explaining to these people that I'm in urgent need of a suitably rich and gorgeous wife. Would you marry me next weekend?"

Meredith's father had mentioned Jonathan's frequent rifts with his disappointed parents to her, Meredith assumed Jon's "urgent need" to marry a "rich" woman was probably the result of one of those, and his entire attitude struck her as funny. "Next weekend will be perfect," she said, smiling brightly. "My father will disown me for marrying before I finish college, though, so we'll have to live with your parents."

"God forbid!" Jonathan shuddered, and everyone laughed, including Jonathan.

Putting his hand on Meredith's elbow, Parker rescued her from further nonsense by saying, "Meredith needs some fresh air. We're going for a walk."

Outside, they strolled across the front lawn and wandered down the drive. "How are you bearing up?" he asked.

"I'm fine, really—just a little tired." In the ensuing silence, Meredith tried to think of some sort of witty and sophisticated repartee, then she settled for simplicity and said with sincere interest, "A lot must have happened to you in the last year. ..."


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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