"I'm assuming we'll have it in a few minutes. How much do you think our opening offer to Thorp should be?"

"They're asking thirty million," he replied, thinking aloud as he sat in one of the chairs in front of her desk. "How about an opening offer of eighteen million, and we settle at, say, twenty? They've got a mortgage on that land and they need cash badly. They might sell it for twenty."

"Do you really think so?"

"Probably not," he said with a chuckle.

"If we have to, we'll go to twenty-five. It's worth a maximum of thirty, but they haven't been able to sell it for that—" The phone rang on her desk and Meredith answered it instead of finishing her sentence. Her father's voice was curt and final: "We will proceed with the Houston project, Meredith, but we will postpone building the entire mall until we have some profits out of our store there."

"I think you're making a mistake," she told him, hiding her disappointment behind a brisk, businesslike tone.

"It was the board's decision."

"You could have swayed them," Meredith said baldly.

"Very well, then, that was my decision."

"And it's a mistake."

"When you are running this company, you can make the decisions—"

Meredith's heart gave a funny little lurch at his words. "And am I going to be doing that?"

"Until then I will make them," he said, avoiding her question. "For now, I'm going home. I'm not feeling well. In fact, I'd have postponed the meeting this morning if you hadn't been so adamant about needing to get going on the land deal."

Uncertain whether he was really ill or simply using that as a ploy to avoid a discussion with her, Meredith

sighed. "Take care of yourself. I'll see you at dinner Thursday night." When she hung up the phone, she allowed herself a silent moment of regret that the entire mall couldn't be built, and then she did what she'd learned to do years before, after her disastrous marriage: She faced reality and found something in it to look forward to and work toward. Smiling at Sam Green, she injected a note of pleasure and triumph into her voice. "We have approval to proceed on the Houston project."

"The entire mall, or just the store?"

"Just the store."

"I think it's a mistake."

He'd obviously heard her say as much to her father, but Meredith didn't comment on his remark. She'd made it a policy to keep her comments and thoughts about her father's policies to herself whenever possible. Instead, she said, "How soon can you get a contract ready and take it to Thorp?"

"I can have the contracts ready by tomorrow night. But if you want me to negotiate the deal personally, I won't be able to go down to Houston until the week after next. We're still preparing that lawsuit against Wilson Toys."

"I'd rather you handle it," she said, knowing that he'd be able to negotiate a better deal than anyone else, but wishing he could do it sooner. "I suppose the week after next will be all right. By then we may have a written commitment from Reynolds Mercantile, and we won't need to make the contract contingent on financing."

"That land has been for sale for years," he said with a smile. "It will still be available in two weeks. Besides, the longer we wait, the more likely Thorp will be to take our low-ball-park offer." When she still looked concerned, he added, "I'll try to get my people moving quicker on the Wilson lawsuit. As soon as we wrap it up, I'll head to Houston."

It was after six when Meredith looked up from the contracts she'd been reading and saw Phyllis heading toward her with her coat on and Meredith's evening newspaper in her hand. "I'm sorry about the Houston deal," Phyllis said, "sorry that they wouldn't approve the entire mall, I mean."

Meredith leaned back in her chair and smiled wearily. "Thank you."

"For being sorry?"

"No," Meredith replied, reaching for the newspaper, "for caring. Basically, though, I'd say it's been a pretty good day."

Phyllis nodded toward the newspaper which she'd already opened to the second page. "I hope that this doesn't make you change your mind."

Puzzled, Meredith unfolded it and saw Matthew Farrell looking back at her beside some starlet who'd evidently flown to Chicago in his private jet to accompany him to the party of a friend last night. Snatches of newspaper copy imprinted itself on Meredith's mind as she glanced at the glowing article about Chicago's newest entrepreneur and most eligible bachelor, but when she looked up at Phyllis, her face was perfectly composed. "Is this supposed to bother me?"

"Check the business section before you decide," Phyllis advised.

It occurred to Meredith to tell Phyllis that she was out of line, and, just as quickly, she dismissed the notion. Phyllis had been her first secretary, and Meredith had been her first boss. In the past six years they'd worked hundreds of nights together as well as dozens of weekends; they'd eaten cold sandwiches at Meredith's desk while they worked to meet project deadlines. They were a dedicated team, they liked and respected each other.

The first page of the business section contained another picture of Matt and a glowing article about his leadership of Intercorp, his reasons for relocating to Chicago, the fabulous manufacturing facility he intended to build at Southville, and yet another mention of the lavish penthouse apartment he'd bought and furnished in the BerkeleyTowers. Beside his picture and slightly below it was a picture of Meredith, accompanied by an article that quoted her remarks about Bancroft's successful expansion into the national retailing market.

"They gave him top billing," Phyllis noted, perching her hip on the edge of Meredith's desk, watching her read the article. "He's been here for less than two weeks and the newspapers are full of stories about him."

"Newspapers are also full of stories about muggers and rapists," Meredith reminded her, disgusted by the lavish praise the article heaped on his leadership, and furious with herself because for some reason, seeing his picture was making her hands tremble. No doubt her reaction was the result of knowing he was in Chicago now instead of thousands of miles away.

"Is he really as handsome as he looks in his pictures?"

"Handsome?" Meredith said with careful indifference as she got up and headed to the closet for her coat. "Not to me."

"He's a jerk, right?" Phyllis said with an irrepressible grin.

Meredith smiled back at her and walked over to lock her desk. "How'd you guess?"

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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