Touched by his confidence, Meredith said softly, "You must have loved her very much." Aware that she was treading on shaky ground, she said, "I never knew my own mother. She went to Italy after my parents' divorce. I guess I was lucky, don't you, not to have known her and loved her all those years, and then lost her?"
Matt realized exactly what point she was trying to make, and he didn't deride her efforts. "Very nice," he said with quiet gravity, then he shook off the mood and wryly announced, "I have amazingly excellent taste in women."
Meredith burst out laughing, then felt a jolt of delight when his hand slid across her back, curving around her waist to draw her tightly against his side as they walked. A few steps later, she thought of something that brought her up short. "Have you ever been married before?"
"No. Have you?" he added, teasing.
"You know perfectly well I haven't—hadn't done—" She stopped, uneasy with the topic.
"Yes, I do know," he confirmed. "What I can't understand is how anyone who looks like you could have reached the age of eighteen without losing your virginity to some rich, smooth-talking preppy boy along the way."
"I don't like preppy boys," Meredith replied, then she glanced at him, bemused. "I never actually realized that before."
That pleased Matt immensely because she sure as hell wasn't marrying one. He waited for her to say more. When she didn't, he prompted her disbelievingly. "That's it? That's the answer?"
"That's part of it. The whole truth is that I was so homely until I was sixteen that boys stayed completely away from me. By the time I wasn't homely anymore, I was so mad at them for ignoring me all those years that I didn't have a very high opinion of them on the whole."
Matt looked at her beautiful face, her tempting mouth, and radiant eyes, and he grinned. "Were you really homely?"
"Let me put it this way," she said dryly, "if we have a little girl, she'll be better off if she looks like you when she's young!"
Matt's sharp crack of laughter exploded into the soft night silence and he yanked her into his arms. Laughing, he buried his face in her fragrant hair, surprised by his feelings of tenderness because she'd apparently been homely, touched that she had confided it to him, and elated because ... because ... He refused to think of why. All that mattered was that she was laughing, too, and that her arms had slid around his waist. With a solemn smile, he rubbed his jaw against her head and whispered, "I have exquisite taste in women."
"Well, you wouldn't have thought that a couple of years ago," she said, laughing and leaning back in his arms.
"I'm a man of vision," he assured her quietly. "I would have thought it even then."
An hour later they were sitting on the porch steps facing each other, their backs propped against the railing. Matt was one step higher, his long legs stretched out in front of him. A step below him, Meredith was sitting with her knees drawn up against her chest, her arms wrapped around them. They were no longer making a conscious effort to get to know each other because Meredith was pregnant and they were getting married. They were simply a couple sitting outside on a late summer night, enjoying one another's company.
Leaning her head back, Meredith listened to a cricket chirping, her eyes half closed.
"What are you thinking about?" he asked quietly.
"I'm thinking that it will be autumn soon," she said, lifting her gaze to his. "Autumn is my absolute favorite season. Spring is overrated. It's soggy and the trees are still bare from winter. Winter drags on and on, and summer is nice, but it's all the same. Autumn is different. I mean, is there any perfume in the world that can compare with the smell of burning leaves?" she asked with an engaging smile. Matt thought she smelled a hell of a lot better than burning leaves, but he let her continue. "Autumn is exciting—things are changing. It's like dusk."
"Dusk is my favorite time of day, for the same reason. When I was young, I used to walk down our driveway at dusk in the summer and stand at the fence, watching all the cars going by with their headlights on. Everyone had a place to go, something to do. The night was just beginning ..." She trailed off in embarrassment. "That must sound incredibly silly."
"It sounds incredibly lonely."
"I wasn't lonely, not really. Just daydreaming. I know you got an awful impression of my father at Glenmoor that night, but he's not the ogre you imagine. He loves me, and all he's ever tried to do is to protect me and give me the best." Without warning, Meredith's lovely mood dissolved, and reality came crashing over her with sickening force. "And in return I'm going to go home in a few days, pregnant and—"
"We agreed not to worry about any of that tonight," he interrupted.
Meredith nodded and tried to smile, but she couldn't control her thoughts as easily as he apparently could. Suddenly she saw her child standing at the end of some driveway in Chicago, alone, watching the cars going by on the road. No family, no brothers and sisters, no father. Just her. And she wasn't sure she could be enough.
"If autumn is your favorite thing, what's your least favorite?" Matt asked, trying to divert her.
She thought a moment. "Christmas tree lots on the day after Christmas. There's something sad about those beautiful trees that no one picked out. They're like orphans no one want—" She broke off, realizing what she was saying and quickly looked away.
"It's after midnight," Matt said, rolling to his feet, knowing her mood was beyond salvaging. "Why don't we go to bed?"
It sounded as if he was taking it for granted they would, or should, go to bed together, and Meredith suddenly felt a sick lurch of panic at that. She was pregnant and he was going to marry her because he had to; the whole situation was already so sordid, it made her feel cheap and humiliated as it was.
In silence they turned off the living room lights and walked up the stairs. The door to Matt's room was immediately off the landing, while Julie's was to the left, at the end of the hall, with a bathroom in between. When they approached his door, Meredith took matters into her own hands. "Good night, Matt," she said shakily. Stepping around him, she tossed a fixed smile over her shoulder, and left him standing in his doorway. When he made no attempt to stop her, her emotions veered crazily from relief to chagrin. Apparently, she decided as she stepped into Julie's room, pregnant women had no sex appeal whatsoever, not even to the same man who'd gone crazy in bed with you a few weeks prior. She opened the door and walked into Julie's room.