"As soon as you say something I disagree with," he informed her in a tone of authority he'd never used on her before, "I'll let you know."

Daunted by his tone, but comforted by his words, she said, "Oh." Nervously rubbing her palms on the legs of her tan slacks, Meredith continued, "My father divorced my mother because she slept around. If I go home and tell him I'm pregnant, I think he'll throw me out. I don't have any money, but I'll inherit some when I'm thirty. I can try to raise my baby myself, somehow, until then..."

He finally spoke. Two words—terse and final "Our baby."

Meredith nodded shakily, relieved to the point of tears that he felt that way. "The last alternative is one you— you aren't going to like. I don't like it either. It's obscene...." She trailed off in humiliated anguish, then she summoned all her courage and began again, her words rushing out. "Matt, would you be willing to help me convince my father we fell in love, and decided to get... get married right away? Then we could tell him a few weeks from now that I'm pregnant? Naturally, after the baby is born, we'll get a divorce. Would you agree to an arrangement like that?"

"With great reluctance," he snapped after a prolonged pause.

Drowning in humiliation at his long hesitation and ungracious acceptance, Meredith turned her face away. "Thank you for being so gallant," she replied sarcastically. "I'll be happy to put it in writing that I don't want anything from you for the baby, and that I promise to give you a divorce. I have a pen in my purse," she added, starting for the car with some half-formed, angry idea of writing out an agreement there and then.

His hand locked on her arm as she stalked past him, pulling her to an abrupt halt and turning her around. "How the hell do you expect me to react?" he bit out. "Don't you think it's just a little unromantic on your part to begin by telling me you find the idea of marrying me 'obscene' and to start talking about a divorce in the same breath you mentioned marriage?"

"Unromantic?" Meredith repeated, gaping at his harsh features, torn between hysterical laughter at his monumental understatement and alarm at his anger. But then the rest of what he'd said hit her, banishing her mirth and making her feel like a thoughtless child. "I'm sorry," she said, looking directly into enigmatic silver eyes. "I truly am. I didn't mean that marrying you is obscene to me. I meant that getting married because I'm already pregnant is an obscene reason for doing something that's—that's supposed to happen only because two people are in love."

Limp with relief, she watched his expression soften. "If we can make it to the courthouse before five o'clock," he said, straightening and taking charge, "we can get the license out of the way today and get married on Saturday."

Getting a marriage license struck Meredith as being appallingly easy and sickeningly meaningless. She stood beside Matt, producing the necessary documents to prove her age and identity, watching him sign his name and signing hers beneath it. Then they walked out of the old courthouse in the center of town while the janitor waited impatiently to lock the doors behind them. Engaged to be married. As simply and unemotionally as that. "We made it just in time," she said, her smile bright and brittle, her stomach churning. "Where are we going now?" she added as she slid into the car, automatically letting him drive because she didn't want to bother.

"I'm going to take you home."

"Home?" she repeated tautly, noticing he didn't look one bit more pleased about what they'd just done than she felt. "I can't go home, not until we're married."

"I wasn't referring to that stone fortress in Chicago," he corrected her, sliding into the seat beside her. "I was talking about my home." As tired and bemused as she felt, his disdainful description of her house still made her smile a little. She was beginning to realize that Matthew Farrell wasn't awed or intimidated by anything, or anyone. Turning, he rested his arm across the back of her seat, and her smile faded at his implacable tone. "I agreed to get a license, but before we take the final step, we're going to have to come to an agreement on some things."

"What things?"

"I don't know yet. We'll talk more at home."

Forty-five minutes later, Matt turned off a county road lined with neatly tended cornfields into a rutted driveway. The car rattled and pounded over the wooden planks of a little bridge that spanned a creek, rounded a curve, and Meredith had her first glimpse of the place he called home. In sharp contrast to the well-kept fields in the distance, the quaint frame farmhouse looked forlorn and badly in need of paint. In the yard, weeds were winning the battle for space with grass, and the door on the barn to the left of the house was hanging drunkenly on one hinge. Despite all that, there was evidence that someone had once loved and enjoyed the place; pink roses were blooming riotously on a trellis beside the porch and there was an old wooden porch swing hanging from the limb of a giant oak tree in the front yard.

On the way there, Matt had told her that his mother had died seven years before, after a long bout with cancer, and that he lived there with his father and his sixteen-year-old sister. Overwhelmed with nervousness at the thought of meeting his family, Meredith tipped her head toward the right, where a farmer was driving a tractor through a field. "Is that your father?"

Matt paused as he leaned down to open her door, glanced in the direction she indicated, and shook his head. "That's a neighbor. We sold most of our land years ago, and we lease the rest to him. My father lost what little interest he had in farming when my mother died." He saw the tension in her face as they started up the porch steps, and he put his hand on her arm. "What's wrong?"

"I'm scared to death about facing your family."

"There's nothing to be afraid of. My sister will think you're exciting and sophisticated because you're from the big city." After a hesitant pause, he added, "My father drinks, Meredith. He started when they told him my mother's illness was terminal. He holds down a regular job and he's never abusive. I'm telling you this so you'll understand him and be able to make allowances. He's been completely sober for a couple of months, but that can end at any time." It wasn't an apology, it was a statement of fact, spoken in a calm, nonjudgmental voice.

"I understand," she said, though she'd never had any close association with an alcoholic in her life and she didn't understand at all.

She was spared the need to worry about it further because at that moment the screen door banged open and a slim girl with Matt's dark hair and gray eyes raced onto the porch, her gaze glued to the car in the yard. "Omigod, Matt, a Porsche!" Her hair was cut almost as short as his, and it made her pretty features even more vivid. She turned to Meredith, her face alive with reverent wonder. "Is it yours?"


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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