"The care with which you pick the locations," her father corrected her, and he looked so cold and stern that it took a moment before Meredith realized he had just paid her a compliment. It was not the first time he'd paid her a grudging compliment, but coming now, with the board present, Meredith took it as a highly encouraging sign that he was not only going to support the Houston project, but that he meant to ask the board to approve her as interim president during his leave of absence. "Thank you," she said with quiet simplicity, and sat down.

As if he hardly knew what she was thanking him for, he turned to Parker. "I gather your bank is still willing to commit the funds for a loan to finance the Houston project if the board so approves it?"

"We intend to, Philip, but only under the terms we discussed at the last meeting."

Meredith had known about those terms for weeks, but even so, she had to bite her lip to hide her moment of panic at his mention of them. Parker's bank—more accurately his own board of directors—had reviewed the enormous sums of money they'd loaned to Bancroft's in the last few years, and they'd grown nervous about the astronomical figures. In order to make the loans for the Phoenix and now the Houston store, his board had insisted on some new terms. Specifically, they were requiring she and her father to personally guarantee the loans as well as to put up additional collateral, including their personal stock in Bancroft's, to secure the loans. Meredith was gambling with her own money, and she found it slightly terrifying. Beyond her stock in Bancroft's and her salary, the only money she had was her inheritance from her grandfather, and it was that which she was going to put up as additional collateral for the Houston store.

As her father spoke, however, it was obvious he was still angry at what he regarded as outrageous demands from his banker. "You know how I feel about your special terms, Parker. Given the fact that Reynolds Mercantile has been Bancroft's only bank for more than eighty years, this sudden demand for personal guarantees and additional collateral is not only uncalled for, it's insulting."

"I understand your feelings," Parker said calmly. "I even agree with you, and you know that. This morning I met again with my board and tried to persuade them to either relinquish their insistence on these tighter terms or at least to lessen their demands, but without success. However," he continued, looking at the men assembled around the table in order to include them in his remarks, "their insistence on added collateral and personal guarantees is no reflection on their opinion of Bancroft & Company's worthiness as a borrower."

"Sounds to me like it is," old Cyrus announced.

"Sounds to me like your bank thinks Bancroft's is a potential deadbeat!"

"They think nothing of the sort. The fact is that in the last year the economic climate for department store chains has been less than healthy. Two of them have filed Chapter 11 to escape being shut down by their creditors while they try to reorganize. That's one factor that influenced our decision, but of equal importance is the fact that banks have been failing in numbers unequaled since the Great Depression. As a result of that, most banks are becoming increasingly cautious about lending too much to any one borrower. Then, too, we have to satisfy the bank examiners who are now scrutinizing all our loans more closely than ever before. Lending requirements are stricter now."

"Sounds to me like we ought to go to another bank," Cyrus suggested with a bright, eager look at the faces around the table. "That's what I'd do! Tell Parker here to go to Hades and we'll find our money elsewhere!"

"We could try to find other financing," Meredith told Cyrus, struggling to separate her personal feelings for Parker from this discussion. "However, Parker's bank is giving us a very advantageous interest rate that we'd have difficulty getting from any other bank. He's naturally—"

"There's nothing natural about it," Cyrus interrupted, passing an appreciative glance over her that verged on lecherous before he turned accusingly on Parker. "If I were going to marry this gorgeous young woman, the natural thing would be to give her any little thing she wants instead of tying up her assets!"

"Cyrus," Meredith warned, wondering why some old men, like Cyrus, abandoned dignity in favor of acting and speaking like pubescent teenagers, "this is business."

"Women shouldn't be involved in business—unless they're ugly and can't get a man to look after them. In my day, a beautiful girl like yourself would be at home, doing natural things like having babies and—"

"This isn't your day, Cyrus!" Parker snapped. "Go ahead, Meredith—what were you about to say?"

"I was about to say," Meredith replied, feeling her cheeks warm with embarrassment as the other men at the table exchanged smirking glances, "that your bank's special conditions are of little serious concern, since Bancroft & Company is going to make all loan payments on a timely basis."

"That's quite true," her father averred, his attitude becoming resigned and impatient. "Unless anyone has anything to add to this discussion, I believe we can close the Houston topic and vote on it at the end of this meeting."

Picking up her file, Meredith formally thanked the board for their consideration of the Houston project and left the boardroom.

"Well?" Phyllis asked, following Meredith into her office. "How did it go? Is there going to be a Houston branch of Bancroft's or not?"

"They're voting on it right now," Meredith said, leafing through the morning mail Phyllis had laid on her desk.

"I have my fingers crossed."

Touched by Phyllis's dedication to her and to Bancroft's, Meredith smiled reassuringly. "They'll approve the Houston store," she predicted. Her father was reluctantly in favor of that, so she had little doubt on that score. What she couldn't ascertain from his remarks during the past weeks was whether or not he was in favor of building the complete mall at the outset. "All that's really in doubt is whether they'll approve the building of the entire mall or only our store. Will you call Sam Green and ask him to bring the Thorp contracts?"

When she hung up the phone a few minutes later, Sam Green was standing in her doorway. Sam was only five feet five with hair the color and texture of steel wool, but there was an aura of competence and authority about him that was immediately recognizable—particularly to anyone who found themselves on the opposite side of any legal issue he was handling. Behind his wire-rimmed glasses, his green eyes were sharp with intelligence. At the moment, however, they were peering expectantly at Meredith. "Phyllis said you're ready to start finalizing a contract for the Houston land," he said, walking into her office. "Does this mean we have the board's approval?"

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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