Jonathan's overloud, slurred greeting made everyone within hearing turn and stare, including his aunt and uncle and Meredith's father. "Hi, everyone," he boomed, waving an expansive arm to include all of them. "Hi, Aunt Harriet and Uncle Russell!" He waited until he had everyone's attention. "I'd like all of you to meet my buddy, Matt Terrell—no, F-Farrell," he hiccuped.
"Aunt Harriet, Uncle Russell," he continued, grinning widely, "say hello to Matt, here. He's my father's latest example of what I ought to be when I grow up!"
"How do you do?" Jonathan's aunt said civilly. Tearing her icy glance from her drunken nephew, she made a halfhearted effort to be courteous to the man he'd brought with him. "Where are you from, Mr. Farrell?"
"Indiana," he replied in a calm matter-of-fact voice.
"Indianapolis?" Jonathan's aunt said, frowning. "I don't believe we know any Farrells from Indianapolis."
"I'm not from Indianapolis. And I'm certain you don't know my family."
"Exactly where are you from?" Meredith's father snapped, ready to interrogate and intimidate any male who went near Meredith.
Matt Farrell turned and Meredith watched in secret admiration as he met her father's withering glance unflinchingly. "Edmunton—south of Gary."
"What do you do?" he demanded rudely.
"I work in a steel mill," he retorted, managing to look and sound just as hard and cold as her father had.
Stunned silence followed his revelation. Several middle-aged couples who'd been hanging back, waiting for Jonathan's aunt and uncle, looked uneasily at each other and moved away. Mrs. Sommers obviously decided to make an equally hasty exit. "Have a pleasant evening, Mr. Farrell," she said stiffly, and headed off to the dining rooms beside her husband.
Suddenly everyone was in motion. "Well!" Leigh Ackerman said brightly, looking around at all the people in their group except Matt Farrell, who was standing back and slightly to the side. "Let's go eat!" She tucked her hand in Jon's arm and turned him toward the door as she pointedly added, "I reserved a table for nine people."
Meredith did a fast count; there were nine people in their group—excluding Matt Farrell. Paralyzed with disgust for Jonathan and all his friends, she remained where she was for the moment. Her father saw her standing in the general proximity of Farrell and stopped on his way to the dining room with his own friends, his hand clamping her elbow. "Get rid of him!" he spat out loudly enough for Farrell to hear, and then he stalked off. In a state of angry, defiant rebellion, Meredith watched him leave, then she glanced at Matt Farrell, not certain what to do next. He'd turned toward the French doors and was gazing out at the people on the terrace with the aloof indifference of someone who knows he is an unwanted outsider, and who therefore intends to look as if he prefers it that way.
Even if he hadn't said he was a steelworker from Indiana, Meredith would have known within moments of meeting him that he didn't belong. For one thing, his tuxedo didn't fit his broad shoulders as if it had been custom made for him, which meant it was probably rented, nor did he speak with the ingrained assurance of a socialite who fully expects to be welcomed and liked wherever he is. Moreover, there was an indefinable lack of polish to his mannerisms—a subtle harshness and roughness that intrigued and repelled her at one and the same time.
Given all of that, it was astonishing that he should suddenly remind Meredith of herself. But he did. She looked at him standing completely alone, as if he didn't care about being ostracized—and she saw herself when she was at St. Stephen's school, spending every recess with a book in her lap, trying to pretend she didn't care either. "Mr. Farrell," she asked as casually as she could, "would you like something to drink?"
He turned in surprise, hesitated a moment, then he nodded. "Scotch and water."
Meredith signaled a waiter who hurried to her side, "Jimmy, Mr. Farrell would like a Scotch and water."
When she turned back, she found Matt Farrell studying her with a slight frown, his gaze drifting over her face, her breasts and waist, then lifting again to her eyes, as if he were suspicious of her overture and trying to figure out why she'd bothered making it. "Who was the man who told you to get rid of me?" he asked abruptly.
She hated to alarm him with the truth. "My father."
"You have my deepest and most sincere sympathy," he mocked gravely, and Meredith burst out laughing because no one had ever dared criticize her father, even indirectly, and because she suddenly sensed that Matt Farrell was a "rebel," just as she'd decided to be. That made him a kindred spirit, and instead of pitying him or being repelled by him, she suddenly thought of him as a brave mongrel who'd been unfairly thrust into a group of haughty pedigrees. She decided to rescue him. "Would you like to dance?" she asked, smiling at him as if he were an old friend.
He gave her an amused look. "What makes you think a steelworker from Edmunton, Indiana, knows how to dance, princess?"
"I think I can manage."
That was a rather unfair assessment of his ability, Meredith decided a few minutes later as they danced outside on the terrace to the slow tune the little band was playing. He was actually quite competent, but he wasn't very relaxed and his style was conservative.
"How am I doing?"
Blissfully unaware of the double meaning that could be read into her lighthearted evaluation, she said, "So far, all I've been able to tell is that you have good rhythm and you move well. That's all that really matters anyway." Smiling into his eyes to take away any taint of criticism he might mistakenly read into her next words, she confided, "All you actually need is some practice."
"How much practice do you recommend?"
"Not much. One night would be enough to learn some new moves."
"I didn't know there are any 'new' moves."
"There are," Meredith said, "but you have to learn to relax first."
"First?" he repeated. "All this time, I've been under the impression that you were supposed to relax afterward."
It hit her suddenly, what he was thinking and saying. Giving him a level look, she said, "Are we talking about dancing, Mr. Farrell?"
There was an unmistakable reprimand in her voice, and it registered on him. For a moment he studied her with heightened interest, reassessing, reevaluating. His eyes weren't light blue as she'd originally thought, but a striking metallic gray, and his hair was dark brown, not black. When he spoke, his quiet voice had an apology in it. "We are now." Belatedly explaining the reason for the constraint she'd sensed in his movements, he said, "I tore a ligament in my right leg a few weeks ago."