He slammed the phone down, and Meredith slowly hung up, then she looked at Matt, whose back was still turned on her, as if accusing her of not taking a stronger stand. "This has been quite a day," she said bitterly. "I suppose you're angry because I didn't come right out and tell him more about us."

Without turning, Matt lifted his hand and wearily rubbed the tense muscles at the base of his neck. "I'm not angry, Meredith," he said in a flat, emotionless voice. "I'm trying to convince myself you won't back down when he gets here, that you won't start doubting me and yourself, or, worse—start weighing what you have to gain by staying with me against what you have to lose if you do."

"What are you talking about?" she said, walking over to him.

He gave her a grim, sideways look. "For days I've been trying to second-guess what he'll do when he gets back here and finds out you want to stay with me. I've just figured it out."

"I repeat," she said softly. "What are you talking about?"

"Your father's going to play his trump card. He's going to make you choose: him or me; Bancroft and Company, along with the president's office—or nothing if you choose me. And I'm not sure," he added on a ragged sigh, "which way you'll go."

Meredith was too worn out, too spent, to take on a problem she didn't have yet. "It won't come to that," she said, because she honestly believed she could, with time, persuade her father to accept Matt. "I'm all he has, and he loves me in his own way," she said, her eyes pleading with him not to make things harder on her now than they already were. "And because he does, he'll rant and rave, and he may threaten me with that, but he'll relent. I've thought a lot about what he did to us. Matt, please, just put yourself in his place," she urged. "Suppose you had an eighteen-year-old daughter whom you'd sheltered from every reality and ugly thing in life. And suppose she met a much older man who you honestly believed was a—a gold digger. And that man took her virginity and got her pregnant. How would you feel about him?"

After a moment of silence Matt said tersely, "I'd hate his guts," and just when Meredith thought she'd scored her point, he added, "but I'd find some way to accept him for her sake. And I sure as hell wouldn't crush her by making her think he'd walked out on her. Nor would I try to bribe him into doing exactly that," he added.

Meredith swallowed. "Did he try to do that?"

"Yes. The day I took you home to him."

"What did you say?"

Matt gazed into her wide, troubled blue eyes, smiled reassuringly, and put his arm around her. "I told him," he whispered as his mouth came down on hers for a long, drugging kiss, "that I didn't think he ought to interfere in our lives. But," he murmured thickly, kissing her ear as she melted against him, "not quite in those words."

It was midnight when he walked her down to her car. Exhausted from the trials of the day and deliriously limp from his lovemaking, Meredith sank into the driver's seat of the Jaguar. "Are you certain you're awake enough to drive?" he asked, his hand on the open door.

"Just barely," she said with a languorous smile, turning the key in the ignition. The heater and radio came on as the engine throbbed to life.

"I'm giving a party for the cast of Phantom of the Opera on Friday night," he said. "A lot of people you know are coming to it. My sister will be here, too, and I thought I'd invite your lawyer. I think the two of them would hit it off."

When he hesitated, as if afraid to voice the question, Meredith said teasingly, "If that was an invitation, my answer is yes."

"I wasn't going to ask you to come as a guest."

Embarrassed and confused, Meredith glanced at the steering wheel. "Oh."

"I'd like you to act as my hostess, Meredith."

She realized then the reason for his hesitation. He was asking her for what constituted a semi-public declaration that they were a couple. She looked into those compelling gray eyes of his and smiled helplessly. "Is it black tie?"

"Yes, why?"

"Because," she said with a jaunty glance, "it's very important for a hostess to be dressed just right."

With a half-laugh, half-groan, Matt pulled her out of the car and into his arms, seizing her lips in a long kiss of gratitude and relief.

He was still kissing her when the newsman on the radio announced that the body of Stanislaus Spyzhalski, who'd been arrested for falsely representing himself as an attorney to clients including Matthew Farrell and Meredith Bancroft, had been found in a ditch on a county road outside of Belleville, Illinois.

Meredith jerked back and she stared at Matt in shock. "Did you hear that?"

"I heard it earlier today."

His complete indifference and his failure to mention it to her struck Meredith as a little odd, but exhaustion had rendered her incapable of rational thought, and Matt's mouth was already opening on hers again.

Chapter 52

Inquest, the investigative agency owned by Intercorp, was headquartered in Philadelphia and headed by a former CIA man, Richard Olsen. Olsen was waiting in the reception area when Matt got off the elevator at 8:30 the next morning. "It's good to see you, Matt," he said as they shook hands.

"I'll be with you in five minutes," Matt promised. "Before we get started, I need to make a phone call."

Closing his office door behind him, Matt sat down at his desk and called a private number that rang on the desk of the president of a large Chicago bank. It was answered on the first ring by the president of that bank. "It's Matt," he said without preamble. "Reynolds Mercantile is pulling out on the Bancroft loan, just as we thought they would. So did the other lender they'd lined up for B and C."

"The economy's shaky and lenders are nervous," the banker remarked. "Also, Reynolds Merc had two mega-loans go bad on them this quarter, so they'll be looking for money for a while."

"I know all that," Matt replied impatiently. "What I don't know is whether the bomb scares are enough to make them decide B and C is becoming risky, and to start selling off some of the loans they're holding on them."

"Shall we give it a try?"

"Do it today," Matt ordered.

"The same approach we talked about before?" the banker reconfirmed. "We buy up the B and C loans on behalf of the Collier Trust and you arrange to take them off our hands within sixty days."

"Right."

"Is it all right to mention the name Collier to Reynolds? He won't connect it with you?"


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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