In sheer panic she tore free of his mouth and then his grasp. She stepped back into the doorway, her chest heaving, fists clenched at her sides.

"How could you even consider sleeping with Reynolds when you kiss me like that?" he demanded in a low, accusing voice.

Meredith managed a look of angry scorn. "How could you break your promise to behave impersonally tonight?"

"We aren't in your apartment," he pointed out, and his ability to twist everything and everyone to suit himself was the last straw. She stepped back, checked the impulse to slam the door in his face and, at the last second, she shut it with a hard snap. Once inside the protection of her own apartment, however, she slumped against the door and her head bent in anguished defeat. The mere fact that he had blackmailed and coerced her into this arrangement would have been enough to make any woman with a spine be able to withstand him for three short months. But not her, she thought furiously, shoving away from the door. Not her. She hadn't even lasted three weeks! She was spineless where he was concerned, putty in his hands. Filled with self-disgust, Meredith wandered toward the sofa, stopping at the end table to pick up Parker's picture. He looked back at her, smiling, handsome, dependable, filled with integrity. Furthermore, he loved her! He'd told her so dozens of times. Matt hadn't—not once! But was that going to stop her from surrendering her pride, her self-respect, to Matthew Farrell? Probably not, she thought bitterly. Not at this rate.

Stuart had said Matt didn't want to hurt her. Based on the way he'd swooped to her rescue yesterday, Meredith was inclined to accept that even now, when she was battered by emotions she didn't want and couldn't control. No, Matt didn't want to hurt her. For a variety of obscure and convoluted reasons, what Matt did want was to have her back with him, and that was where she'd get hurt. Matt's reputation for womanizing was legendary; he was also completely unpredictable and unreliable. The combination was absolutely guaranteed to break her heart.

She sank down on the sofa and put her face in her hands. He didn't want to hurt her ... For a few minutes Meredith contemplated trying to appeal to his protective instinct—the same one that had made him move heaven and earth to help her yesterday. She could tell him honestly, "Matt, I know you don't really want to hurt me, so please go away. I have a nice life planned for myself. Don't spoil it for me. I don't mean anything to you—not really. I'm just another conquest to you, a passing fixation you have ..."

She considered it, but she knew it would be a waste of time. She'd already said as much to him, but to no avail. Matt meant to fight this battle to the very end and emerge victorious—and he was doing it for reasons that were probably clearer to her than to him.

Lifting her head, she stared into the fire, remembering his words: I'll give you paradise on a gold platter. We'll be a family, we'll have children . . . I'd like six, but I'll settle for one.

If she told him she couldn't have children, that might make him give up his whole scheme. And the moment she realized it might, Meredith felt as if her heart would shatter, and that reaction made her furious with herself and him. "Damn you!" she told him aloud. "Damn you for making me feel vulnerable like this again."

He didn't want to be a family; he just wanted the novelty, the accomplishment of having her live with him for a while. Sexually she would bore him within days, Meredith knew. Matt was an entirely sensual being; he'd slept with movie stars and exotic models. Meredith was sexually repressed and embarrassingly inept, and she knew it. She'd felt that way eleven years ago with Matt. After their divorce it had taken two years to regain just a little of her self-esteem and the ability to feel some desire. Lisa had insisted that the only complete cure was to sleep with someone else, and Meredith had tried. She'd gone to bed with a university track star who'd been chasing her for months, and it had been disastrous. His panting and pawing had revolted her, while her reticence and ineptitude had frustrated and angered him. Even now she could remember his taunts and they made her shudder: C'mon, baby, don't just lie there, do something for me . . . What the hell's the matter with you anyway ... How can anybody who looks as hot as you be so cold? When he tried to consummate the act, something inside her had snapped and she'd fought him off, grabbed her clothes, and fled. Sex, she'd decided, was not for her.

Parker had been her only other lover, and he was different—tender, sweet, undemanding. And even he was disappointed with her in bed; he'd never criticized her openly, but she sensed how he felt.

Meredith flopped back and let her head rest against the arm of the sofa, staring dry-eyed at the ceiling, refusing to cry the tears that ached in her throat. Parker could never have made her feel as miserable as she did now. Never. Only Matt could do this to her. And even so, she wanted him.

The realization hit her unbidden, terrifying, unacceptable. Undeniable.

In just a few days Matt had led her this far along the path of utter and humiliating capitulation. Tears of shame and futility sparkled in her eyes. He didn't even have to say I love you to make her want to throw all her plans for her life away.

Across the room, the antique grandfather clock began to chime the hour of ten. To Meredith it was tolling the end of her peace and serenity.

Matt maneuvered the Rolls out from behind two trucks that were blocking his lane, then he reached for the car phone. The clock on the dash showed ten o'clock, but he didn't hesitate to make his call. Peter Vanderwild answered Matt's call on the second ring, sounding startled and honored by this unprecedented late-night call. "My trip to Philadelphia was a complete success, sir," he told Matt on the erroneous assumption that was why his boss was calling.

"Never mind that now," Matt said impatiently. "What I want to know is if there's any way at all that there could be a leak about us buying up Bancroft's stock—a leak that would start takeover rumors on Wall Street?"

"No way. I've taken all the usual precautions to cover our identity until it's time to file the SEC papers. Their stock is climbing steadily, so it's naturally costing us more to get it lately."

"I think there's another player in the game," Matt said tersely. "Find out who the hell it is!"

"Someone else actually wants to take them over?" Vanderwild repeated. "I thought that too before, but why? They're a lousy investment right now unless you have a personal reason like yours."

"Peter," Matt warned, "keep your face out of my personal business or you'll be looking through the want ads."

"I didn't mean—that is, I read the newspapers—I apologize—"

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance