He turned with his hand on the doorknob. "What commitment?"

"I want you to agree that when Matt turns out to be innocent of all this, you will not only apologize to him for the things you've done, but that you will honestly and sincerely try to befriend him! Furthermore, I want you to promise that you will inform Mark and Sam and anyone else you've slandered him to that you were completely wrong." He tried to brush that unlikely event aside with an angry shrug, but Meredith was determined to strike a bargain. "Yes or no?"

"Yes," he bit out.

After he left, Meredith sank down in her chair. Not for one second did she think there was anything to warn Matt about, and yet she felt vaguely as if she'd been subtly manipulated by the need for silence into siding against him. And at the same time, she was profoundly touched by her father's tacit announcements that he loved her and approved of the job she'd done in his absence. But most of all, what she felt was hope—hope that when the facts all came out and her father apologized to Matt, Matt would be generous enough to accept the apology. The possibility of having the two men she loved become, if not friends, at least not foes, was heady stuff indeed.

Despite her optimism and confidence, one thing her father had said stayed with her, hovering at the edge of her mind. She had dinner with Matt that night in a dimly lit corner of a local restaurant. When he questioned her about her confrontation with her father, she told him about most of it, excluding her father's absurd belief that Matt was behind the bomb scares and a nonexistent takeover attempt. That much she was willing to keep from him in return for her father's promised apology when he was proven wrong. But she purposely waited until later that night, when they'd gone back to her apartment and made love, to ask him about the one comment her father had made that was bothering her. She waited because she didn't want it to sound like an accusation or a confrontation.

Beside her in bed, Matt leaned up on his elbow, idly tracing his finger along the curve of her cheek. "Come home with me," he whispered achingly, "I promised you paradise, and I can't give it to you when we're living in two different places and pretending we're only half married."

Meredith gave him a distracted smile, and it was enough to alert him that something else was on her mind.

Taking her chin between his thumb and forefinger, he turned her face toward his. "What's wrong?" he said quietly.

Carefully keeping her tone nonjudgmental, Meredith lifted her eyes to his. "It's something my father said," she admitted.

His jaw hardened at the mention of her father. "What did he say?"

"He told me that years ago you threatened that you'd buy him and then bury him if he tried to come between us. You didn't really say that, did you?"

"Yes," he replied shortly, then he added more calmly, "When I said that, your father was trying to bribe and then bully me into leaving you. So I made threats of my own if he came between us."

"But you didn't really mean what you said, did you?" she asked, her gaze searching his.

"At the time I meant every word. I always mean what I say," he whispered as his mouth came down on hers for a long, deep kiss. "But," he murmured, his lips feather-light against her cheek, "sometimes I change my mind..."

"And by burying him," Meredith persisted, "did you actually mean kill him?"

"I meant that part of the threat figuratively, not literally, although, at the time, I'd have relished doing him serious bodily injury."

Soothed but not completely satisfied, Meredith put her fingers over his lips to stop him from distracting her with another kiss. "Why did you tell him you intended to buy him?"

He lifted his head, frowning at the doubt in her voice. "I'd just finished refusing his bribe and listening to him accuse me of being after your money, not you. I told him I didn't need your money, that I intended to have enough of my own someday to buy and sell him. I think those were almost my exact words. And I suppose by bury him, I meant the same thing—being able to buy and sell him." Meredith's expression cleared, and she drew his head down to hers, her fingers sliding caressingly over bis cheek. "May I have that kiss now?" she whispered, smiling.

Chapter 54

The smile was still lingering in her heart the next morning when she reached for the newspaper lying outside her apartment door. The headline almost sent her to her knees:

MATTHEW FARRELL QUESTIONED IN MURDER OF STANISLAUS SPYZHALSKI

Her heart hammering, she picked up the paper and read the accompanying story. It began by rehashing the entire fiasco of the sham attorney who'd provided them with falsified divorce documents and ended with the ominous statement that Matt had been questioned by the police late yesterday afternoon.

Meredith stared at that sentence in cold shock. Matt had been questioned yesterday. Yesterday. And he'd not only kept it secret from her last night, he hadn't looked or acted as if anything at all was wrong! Dumbstruck by this incontrovertible proof of his ability to hide his emotions, to deceive even her, she walked slowly into her apartment to get ready to go to work, intending to call him from the office.

Lisa was pacing back and forth when she arrived.

"Meredith, I have to talk to you," she said as she closed the door to Meredith's office.

Meredith looked at her childhood friend, and her uncertainty about Lisa's loyalty showed in the hesitancy of her smile. "I was wondering when you were going to get around to that."

"What do you mean?"

Meredith looked blankly at her. "I mean about Parker."

That seemed to hurtle Lisa into distracted despair. "Parker? Oh, God, I've wanted to talk to you about that, only I hadn't gotten up the courage yet. Meredith," she implored, raising her hands and letting them fall helplessly, "I know you must think I'm the biggest liar and phony in the world for the way I made fun of him to you, but I swear I didn't do it to try to stop you from marrying him. I was trying to stop myself from wanting him, trying to convince myself he was nothing but a—a stuffy banker. And, dammit, you weren't really in love with him—look how quickly you fell into Matt's arms when he came back." Her defiant facade crumbled. "Oh, please, don't hate me for this. Please don't. Meredith," she said, and her voice broke, "I love you more than my own sisters, and I've hated myself for loving the man you wanted..."

Suddenly they were two eighth-graders again who'd had a quarrel and were confronting each other on the school playground at St. Stephen's, but they were older now, and wiser, and they knew the value of their friendship. Lisa looked at her, tears shimmering in her eyes, her hands clenched into helpless fists at her sides. "Please," she whispered. "Don't hate me."


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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