"Don't you worry none, Miz Farrell," he said, glancing at her in the rearview mirror, "ain't nobody goin' to stop us. Even if they could catch us, they won't bother us, because I'm packin'."

"Packing?" Meredith repeated numbly, glancing at the empty seat beside him, half expecting to see an open suitcase. "Packing what?"

"A rod."

"Pardon me?"

"I'm packin' a rod," he reiterated.

"You're going fishing? Now?"

He let out a sharp bark of laughter, shook his big head, and by way of explanation he pulled open his black suit coat. "I'm packin' a rod," he repeated, and Meredith stared in wide-eyed horror at the butt of the handgun that protruded from a lethal-looking shoulder holster.

"Oh, my God," she breathed and, turning limply, she slid back down on the seat and devoted herself to agonizing over Lisa's fate. In her current frame of mind she didn't particularly care if Matt and Parker both spent the night in jail for disturbing the peace, but she was worried about Lisa. Meredith had seen Parker swing at Matt first; she had no doubt who'd started the fistfight, but she also saw Parker miss his target, and she wasn't the least bit inclined to forgive Matt, who was sober, for turning a missed, drunken punch into a barroom brawl! Lisa, Meredith recalled, had been fiddling with the catch on her purse at about the time Parker had swung at Matt, and she'd looked up only when someone screamed—just in time to see Matt floor Parker. Which was why she'd launched herself into the fray out of some misbegotten— and incomprehensible—desire to defend Parker, whom she'd always seemed to dislike. The entire scenario passed before Meredith's eyes, and if she weren't so disgusted with the lot of them, she'd have laughed at the memory of Lisa drawing back her fist to poke Matt right in the eye. Having a lot of brothers certainly paid off at such times, Meredith decided grimly. She had no idea if Lisa had actually connected with her target, because, at the time, she herself had been bending down to help Parker up, and when she looked up, Matt's elbow had smacked her in the eye. It dawned on her then that the area around her right eye felt funny and she touched her fingertips to it. It felt tender.

A few minutes later she jumped when the phone rang, its ordinary sound glaringly out of place in a fleeing Cadillac limousine being driven by a man who was probably an ex-mobster.

"It's for you," Joe called cheerfully. "It's Matt. They got out of the restaurant okay. Everyone's fine. He wants to talk to you."

The news that Matt was calling her now, after everything he'd put her through, had an effect on Meredith like spontaneous combustion. She jerked the phone out of its built-in cradle in the side panel and put it to her ear. "Joe says you're fine," Matt began, his deep voice subdued. "I have your coat and—" Meredith didn't hear the rest of what he said. Very slowly, very deliberately, and with infinite satisfaction, she hung up on him.

Ten minutes later, when the curb in front of her apartment building was already racing by the side windows, Matt's chauffeur finally slammed on the brakes and, with all the delicacy of a pilot landing a 727 on the far end of a short runway, he brought the car to a teeth-jarring stop. Having failed to kill her on the highway or cause her to die of fright, he then got out of the car while it was still rocking, opened the back door with a flourish, and, with a satisfied grin, announced, "Here we are, Miz Farrell, safe and sound."

Meredith doubled up her fist.

Thirty years of civilized behavior and good breeding could not be overcome, however, so she forced her fingers to relax, climbed out of the car on legs that shook like jelly, and courteously, if dishonestly, wished him a good night. She walked into the building, escorted by Joe, who insisted he had to do it, and everyone in the lobby turned to stare at her askance—the doorman, the desk guard, and several tenants who were returning from an early evening. "G-good evening, Miss Bancroft," the desk guard babbled, gaping at her open-mouthed.

Meredith assumed her appearance must be a sight. She put up her chin and brazened it out. "Good evening, Terry," she replied with a gracious smile while yanking her arm from Joe's protective grasp.

A few moments later, however, when she unlocked her apartment door and saw herself reflected in the foyer mirror, she stopped dead, her eyes widening, her breath catching on a burst of horrified laughter. Her hair was standing straight out on one side, and the other side looked like it had been arranged with an electric mixer, her bolero jacket, which had looked pert earlier, was hanging drunkenly off the back of one shoulder, and the ascot tie was slung over the other shoulder. "Very nice," she sarcastically informed her reflection, and closed the apartment door.

"I should really go home," Parker said, gingerly rubbing his sore jaw. "It's eleven o'clock."

"Your place will be crawling with news people," Lisa told him firmly. "You may as well stay here tonight."

"What about Meredith?" he said a few minutes later when she returned from the kitchen and handed him another cup of tea.

Lisa felt a funny ache in her heart at his frustrating concentration on a woman who was not in love with him and who was, moreover, the last woman in the world he should be in love with. "Parker," she said softly, "it's over."

He lifted his head and looked at her in the muted light from the lamp, realizing she was referring to his future with Meredith. "I know," he said somberly.

"It's not the end of the world," Lisa continued, sitting beside him. Parker noticed, not for the first time, the way lamplight struck ruby lights off her hair. "The relationship was comfortable for you and Meredith, but do you know what happens to comfortable after a few years?"

"No, what?"

"It degenerates to dull."

Without answering, he drank the tea and put the mug down, then he looked around her living room because he felt an odd reluctance to look at her. The room was an eclectic combination of starkly modern and charmingly traditional, with unusual art pieces thrown in. It was like her—daring, dazzling, unsettling. An Aztec mask stood upon a modernistic mirrored pedestal beside a chair upholstered in pale peach leather with a basket of ivy next to it. The mirror above the fireplace was modern American; the Chelsea porcelain figurines on the mantel were English. Restless and uneasy with the questions drifting persistently through his mind, Parker stood up and went over to the fireplace to inspect the porcelain figurines. "This is beautiful," he said sincerely. "Seventeenth century, isn't it?"

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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