Despite its large size, the decor of the lounge had been intended to create an atmosphere of coziness. Overstuffed sofas and wing chairs were grouped around low tables, and the brass wall sconces were always dimmed so that they cast a warm glow against the mellow oak paneling. Normally the heavy velvet draperies were drawn across the French doors at the back of the lounge; tonight they'd been opened so that guests could stroll out onto the narrow terrace off the lounge, where a band was playing soft music. A bar stretched the entire length of the room on the left, and bartenders moved back and forth from the guests seated at the bar to the mirrored wall behind, where hundreds of liquor bottles were stacked on shelves beneath subdued spotlights.

Tonight the lounge was crowded, too, and Meredith was about to turn around and head downstairs when she spotted Shelly Fillmore and Leigh Ackerman, who'd both phoned to remind her she was expected to join them tonight. They were standing at the far end of the bar along with several more of Jonathan's friends and an older couple who Meredith finally identified as Mr. and Mrs. Russell Sommers—Jonathan's aunt and uncle. Pinning a smile on her face, Meredith walked up to them, and then froze as she noticed her father standing with another group of people just to their left. "Meredith," Mrs. Sommers said when Meredith had said hello to everyone, "I love your dress. Where on earth did you find that?"

Meredith had to glance down to see what she was wearing. "It came from Bancroft's."

"Where else!" Leigh Ackerman teased.

Mr. and Mrs. Sommers turned aside to speak to other friends, and Meredith kept one eye on her father, hoping he would stay completely away from her. She'd been standing still for several moments, letting his presence completely unsettle her, when it suddenly struck her that he was even managing to ruin this evening for her! That made her angrily decide to show him he couldn't do it and that, furthermore, she wasn't beaten yet. She turned and ordered a champagne cocktail from one of the bartenders, then she beamed her brightest smile on Doug Chalfont and gave an excellent imitation of being fascinated with whatever he was telling her.

Outside, twilight deepened into night; inside, conversations escalated in volume in direct proportion to the liquor being consumed, while Meredith sipped her second champagne cocktail and wondered if she ought to try to get a job and, in so doing, present her father with further proof of her resolve to go to a good college. She glanced at the mirror behind the bar and caught him watching her, his eyes narrowed with cool displeasure. Idly she wondered what he disapproved of now. Possibly it was her strapless dress, or, more likely, it was the attention Doug Chalfont was paying to her. It couldn't have been the glass of champagne she was holding, however. Just as Meredith had been required to speak like an adult as soon as she learned to talk, she had also been expected to conduct herself as an adult. When she was twelve, her father had started permitting her to stay at the table when he had a few guests in for dinner. By the time she was sixteen, she was learning to act as his hostess, and she sipped wine with dinner guests—in moderation, of course.

Beside her, Shelly Fillmore said it was probably time to go into the dining room or else risk losing their reserved table, and Meredith gave herself a mental shake, belatedly remembering her vow to have a good time tonight. "Jonathan said he'd join us in here before dinner," Shelly added. "Has anybody seen him?" Craning her neck, Shelly looked around the thinning crowd in the lounge, many of whom were also starting to proceed to the dining rooms. "My God!" she burst out, staring at the entrance of the lounge. "Who is that? He's absolutely gorgeous!" That remark, made in a louder tone than she'd intended, caused a ripple of interest, not only among the entire group Meredith was with, but with several other people who'd overheard her exclamation and were turning around.

"Who are you talking about?" Leigh Ackerman asked, peering about the room. Meredith, who was facing the entrance, glanced up and knew instantly exactly who had caused that awed, avaricious expression on Shelly's face! Standing in the doorway, with his right hand thrust into his pants pocket, was a man who was at least six feet two, with hair almost as dark as the tuxedo that clung to his wide shoulders and long legs. His face was sun-bronzed, his eyes light, and as he stood there, idly studying the elegantly dressed members of Glenmoor, Meredith wondered how Shelly could ever have described him as "gorgeous." His features looked as if they had been chiseled out of granite by some sculptor who had been intent on portraying brute strength and raw virility—not male beauty. His chin was square, his nose straight, his jaw hard with iron determination. All in all, Meredith thought he looked arrogant, proud, and tough. But then, she'd never been very attracted to dark, overly macho men.

"Look at those shoulders," Shelly rhapsodized, "look at that face. Now, that, Douglas," she teased, turning to Doug Chalfont, "is pure, undiluted sex appeal!"

Doug considered the man and shrugged, grinning. "He doesn't do a thing for me." Turning to one of the other men in their party whom Meredith had met for the first time tonight, he asked, "How about you, Rick? Does he turn you on?"

"I won't know until I see his legs," Rick joked. "I'm a leg man, which is why Meredith turns me on."

At that moment, Jonathan appeared in the doorway, looking a little unsteady on his feet, and looped his arm around the newcomer's shoulders while glancing about the room. Meredith saw the triumphant little smile he fired at his friends when he spotted all of them at the end of the bar, and she realized instantly that he appeared to be semi-drunk, but she was completely baffled by the groaning laugh that issued from both Leigh and Shelly. "Oh, no!" Leigh said, looking from Shelly to Meredith with comic dismay. "Please don't tell me that magnificent male specimen is the laborer who Jonathan hired to work on one of their oil rigs!"

Doug Chalfont's burst of laughter had drowned out most of Leigh's words, and Meredith leaned closer to Leigh. "I'm sorry—what did you say?"

Speaking quickly so that she could finish before the two men reached them, Leigh explained, "The man with Jonathan is actually a steelworker from Indiana! Jon's father made him hire the guy to work on their oil rig in Venezuela."

Puzzled not only by the laughing looks being exchanged among Jonathan's other friends, but Leigh's explanation as well, Meredith said, "Why is he bringing him here?"

"It's a joke, Meredith! Jon's angry with his father for forcing him to hire the guy, and then holding him up to Jon as the latest example of what he ought to be. Jon brought the guy here to spite his father—you know, to force his father to meet him socially. And you know what's really funny about all this," she whispered just as the two men arrived. "Jon's aunt just told us that his father and mother decided at the last minute to spend the weekend at their summer place instead of coming here—"


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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