The words legally adopted tore at Meredith's heart as she saw the look of betrayal flash across her father's ashen face. Slowly, he turned his head and looked at Charlotte; she returned his stare unflinchingly while a smile of malicious triumph spread across her face. "You conniving bitch!" he said between his teeth. "You said you'd get him to adopt them, and you did."
"I warned you years ago that I would. I'm warning you now that our score still isn't settled," she added, her smile widening as if she was thriving on his fury. "Think about that, Philip. Lie awake at night, wondering where I'll strike you next and what I'll take away from you. Lie awake, wondering and worrying, just like you made me lie awake eighteen years ago."
The bones of his face stood out as he clamped his jaws to stop himself from dignifying that with a reply. Meredith tore her gaze from the two of them and looked at Charlotte's sons. Jason's face was a replica of his mother's—triumphant and malicious. Joel was frowning at his shoes. Joel is soft, Meredith's father had said years ago. Charlotte and Jason are like greedy barracudas, but at least you know what to expect of them. The younger boy, Joel, makes my skin crawl—there's something strange about him.
As if he sensed that Meredith was looking at him, Joel glanced up, his expression carefully noncommittal. He didn't look strange to Meredith or at all threatening. In fact, when she'd last seen him on the occasion of the wedding, Joel had gone out of his way to be nice to her. At the time, Meredith had felt sorry for him because his mother openly preferred Jason, and Jason, who was two years older, seemed to feel nothing for his brother but contempt.
Suddenly Meredith couldn't stand the oppressive atmosphere in the room any longer. "If you'll excuse me," she said to the lawyer, who was spreading some papers out on the desk, "I'll wait outside until you're finished."
"You'll need to sign these papers, Miss Bancroft."
"I'll sign them before you leave, after my father has read them."
Instead of going upstairs, Meredith decided to go outside. It was getting dark and she wandered down the steps, letting the evening breeze cool her face. Behind her, the front door opened, and she turned, thinking it was the lawyer calling her back inside. Joel stood there, arrested in midstep, as startled as she by their confrontation. He hesitated as if he wanted to remain but wasn't certain he was welcome.
It had been hammered into her head that one was always gracious to anyone who was one's guest, so Meredith tried to smile. "It's nice out here, isn't it?"
Joel nodded, accepting the unspoken invitation to join her if he wished, and he walked down the steps. At twenty-three, he was shorter by several inches than his older brother, and not as attractive as Jason. He stood, looking at her, as if unable to think what to say. "You've changed," he finally said.
"I imagine I have. I was eleven years old the last time I saw you."
"After what just happened in there, you must wish to God you'd never laid eyes on any of us."
Still a little dazed by the terms of her grandfather's will and unable to assimilate what it all meant in terms of the future, Meredith shrugged. "Tomorrow I may feel that way. Right now I just feel—numb."
"I'd like you to know—" he said haltingly, "that I didn't plot to steal your grandfather's affection or his money from your father."
Unable to either hate him or forgive him for cheating her father of his rightful inheritance, Meredith sighed and looked up at the sky. "What did your mother mean in there—about settling a score with my father?"
"All I know is that they've hated each other for as long as I can remember. I have no idea what started it, but I do know my mother won't stop until she's satisfied with her revenge."
"God, what a mess!"
"Lady," he replied with deadly certainty, "it's only just begun."
A chill raced up Meredith's spine at that grim prophecy, and she snapped her gaze from the sky to his face, but he merely lifted his brows and refused to elaborate.
Meredith yanked a dress out of her closet to wear to the Fourth of July party, tossed it across the bed, and pulled off her bathrobe. This summer, which had begun with a funeral, had degenerated into a five-week battle with her father over which college she would attend—a battle that had escalated into a full-fledged war the previous day. In the past, Meredith had always bent over backward to please him; when he was needlessly strict, she told herself it was only because he loved her and was afraid for her, when he was brusque, she rationalized that he had responsibilities that tired him, but now, now that she'd belatedly discovered that his plans for her were on a collision course with her own, she was not willing to give up her dreams to pacify him.
From the time she was a young girl, she'd assumed that someday she would have the chance to follow in the footsteps of all her forebears and take her rightful place at Bancroft & Company. Each successive generation of Bancroft men had proudly worked their way up through the store's hierarchy, starting there as a department manager, then moving up through the ranks to vice president, and later, president and chief executive officer. Finally, when they were ready to turn the direction of the store over to their sons, they became chairman of the board. Not once in nearly one hundred years had a Bancroft failed to do that, and not once in all that time had any Bancroft ever been ridiculed by the press or by the store's employees for being incompetent or undeserving of the titles they eventually held. Meredith believed, she knew, she could prove herself worthy, too, if she were just given the chance. All she wanted or expected was that chance. And the only reason her father didn't want to give it to her was that she hadn't had the foresight to be his son instead of his daughter!
Frustrated to the point of tears, she stepped into the dress and pulled it up. Reaching behind her back, she struggled with the zipper as she walked over to the dressing table and looked in the mirror above it. With complete disinterest she surveyed the strapless cocktail dress that she'd bought weeks before for that night's occasion. The bodice was sheared at the sides so that it crisscrossed her breasts, sarong-style, in a multicolored rainbow of pale pastel silk chiffon, then it nipped in at the waist before falling in a graceful swirl to her knees. Picking up a hairbrush, she ran it through her long hair. Rather than expend the effort of doing anything special with it, she brushed it back off her face, twisted it up into a chignon, and pulled a few tendrils loose at her ears to soften the effect. The rose topaz pendant would have been the perfect accent for her dress, but her father was also going to Glenmoor tonight, and she refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing her wear it. Instead, she clipped on a pair of ornate gold earrings inset with pink stones that sparkled and danced in the light, and left her shoulders and neck bare. The hairstyle gave her a more sophisticated look and the golden tan she'd acquired looked lovely against the strapless bodice of the dress; if it hadn't, Meredith wouldn't have cared, nor would she have changed into something different. How she looked was a matter of complete indifference to her, the only reason she was going was that she couldn't stand the thought of staying home and letting frustration drive her insane, and that she'd promised Shelly Fillmore and the rest of Jonathan's friends that she'd join them there.