Meredith nodded, taken aback by the surge of instantaneous liking she felt for the girl who resembled Matt so much, and yet had none of his reserve. "You must be incredibly rich," she continued ingenuously. "I mean, Laura Frederickson is very rich, but she's never had a Porsche."

Meredith was stunned by the mention of money and curious about Laura Frederickson; Matt looked extremely annoyed by the mention of both. "Knock it off, Julie!" he warned.

"Oh, sorry," she said, grinning at him. To Meredith she said, "Hi. I am Matt's incredibly bad-mannered sister, Julie. Are you guys coming inside?" She opened the screen door. "Dad got up a little while ago," she added to Matt. "He's working the eleven o'clock shift this week, so dinner will be at seven-thirty. Is that okay?"

"Fine," Matt said, putting his hand on Meredith's back, ushering her inside. Meredith glanced about her, her heart beating a frantic tattoo as she braced herself to meet Matt's father. The interior of the house looked much like the exterior—quaint, with signs of neglect and wear that overshadowed its early-American charm. The wooden plank floors were scarred and scuffed, and the braided rugs that were scattered about were worn and faded. At right angles to a brick fireplace with bookshelves built into the wall, a pair of nubby green armchairs faced a sofa upholstered in a patterned cloth that long ago had resembled autumn leaves. Beyond the living room was a dining room with maple furniture, and beyond that an open door revealed a kitchen with a sink that stood on legs. A stairway on the right led from the dining room to the second floor, and a very tall, thin man with graying hair and a deeply grooved face was walking down it, a folded newspaper in one hand, a glass filled with dark amber liquid in the other. Unfortunately, Meredith hadn't seen him until that moment, and the uneasiness she felt as she looked around the house was still written across her face when her eyes riveted on the glass in his hand.

"What's going on?" he asked as he walked into the living room, glancing from Meredith to Matt to Julie, who was hovering near the fireplace, surreptitiously admiring Meredith's pleated slacks, Italian sandals, and khaki safari shirt.

In answer, Matt introduced Meredith to him and to Julie. "Meredith and I met when I was in Chicago last month," he added. "We're getting married on Saturday."

"You're whaaat?" his father uttered.

"Fantastic!" Julie cried, diverting everyone. "I always wanted a big sister, but I never imagined she'd come with her very own Porsche!"

"Her very own what?" Patrick Farrell demanded of his irrepressible daughter.

"Porsche," Julie repeated ecstatically, racing over to the window and drawing the curtain back to show him. Meredith's car glinted in the sunlight—sleek, white, and expensive. As completely out of place as she was. Patrick evidently thought so, too, because when he looked from the car to Meredith, his shaggy brows jerked together until the creases between his faded blue eyes deepened to furrows. "Chicago?" he said. "You were in Chicago for only a few days!"

"Love at first sight!" Julie declared, leaping into the breach of taut silence. "How romantic!"

Patrick Farrell, who'd seen the uneasy expression on Meredith's face when she glanced around the house a moment earlier, attributed her reaction to disdain for his home and for him, not to her own frighteningly uncertain future. Now he glanced out the window at her car, then turned and looked at her frozen face. "Love at first sight," he repeated, studying her with unconcealed doubt. "Is that what it was?"

"Obviously," Matt said in a tone that warned him to drop the subject, then he rescued Meredith by the expedient means of asking her if she'd like to rest before dinner. Meredith would have eagerly grabbed at barbed wire to haul herself out of this. Next to telling Matt she was pregnant, this was the second most humiliating confrontation of her life. She nodded at Matt while Julie insisted that Meredith use her room, and Matt went out to the car for Meredith's overnight bag.

Upstairs, Meredith sank morosely onto Julie's four-poster, and Matt put her single piece of luggage on a chair. "The worst is over with," he told her quietly.

Without looking up, she shook her head, twisting her fingers in her lap. "I don't think so. I think it's only beginning." Seizing on the smallest of her looming problems, she said, "Your father hated me on sight."

Laughter tinged his voice. "It might have helped if you hadn't looked at the glass of iced tea he was holding like it was a coiled snake."

Flopping back on the bed, she stared at the ceiling and swallowed, ashamed and bewildered. "Did I do that?" she asked hoarsely, closing her eyes as if to shut out the image.

Matt looked down at the forlorn beauty draped across the bed like a drooping flower, and in his mind he saw her as she'd been at the country club six weeks ago, filled with laughing mischief and doing her effective damnedest to ensure that he enjoyed himself. He noted the changes in her while something strange and unfamiliar tugged levity at his heart, and his mind pointed out the absurdities of their dilemma.

They didn't know each other at all; they knew each other intimately.

In comparison to every other female he'd had sex with, Meredith was a complete innocent; she was pregnant with his child.

There was a social gulf between them a thousand miles wide; they were going to bridge that gulf with marriage. And then widen it with divorce.

*   *   *

They had absolutely nothing in common; nothing except one astonishing night of lovemaking—sweet, hot lovemaking, where the seductive, insistent temptress in his arms had become a panicky virgin, and then a tormenting delight. An unforgettable night of lovemaking that had haunted him for weeks afterward, a night when he had been willingly seduced, only to become the insistent seducer who was more desperate than ever in his life to give them both a climax they'd never forget.

And he certainly had.

Thanks to his unsurpassed diligence and determination in that endeavor, he'd made himself a father.

A wife and child were definitely not a part of Matt's master plan right now; on the other hand, he'd known when he devised the plan and followed it for ten long years, that sooner or later something was going to happen and he was going to have to adapt it to suit new requirements. The responsibility for Meredith and the baby was coming at a very inopportune time, but Matt was used to shouldering enormous responsibilities. No, the responsibility didn't bother him as much as other things did—the most immediate of which was the absence of hope and laughter on Meredith Bancroft's face. The possibility that because of what happened six weeks ago, those two things might never brighten that entrancing face of hers bothered him more than he would have believed possible. Which was why he leaned over her, braced his fists on either side of her shoulders, and in a voice he'd meant to be teasing, he ordered sharply, "Cheer up, sleeping beauty!"


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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