The guests, who'd all read Sally Mansfield's column, naturally assumed Meredith would be interested in seeing what Farrell had to say. After glancing at her with curious smiles, the roomful of people turned in unison to the television set as Matt's face and voice filled the room.
"How do you feel about the growing number of hostile corporate takeovers?" Barbara Walters asked him, and Meredith noted with disgust that even the journalist was leaning forward in her chair, as if fascinated by him.
"I think it's a trend that's bound to continue, until such time as guidelines are set up to control it."
"Is anyone immune from a forced merger with you— friends, and so forth? I mean," she added with joking alarm, "is it possible that our own ABC could find itself your next prey?"
"The object of a takeover attempt is called the target," Matt said evasively, smiling, "not the prey. However," he said with a lazy, disarming smile, "if it will set your mind at rest, I can assure you that Intercorp does not have an acquisitive eye on ABC." The men in the room chuckled at his quip, but Meredith kept her face perfectly blank.
"Can we talk a little more about your private life now? During the past few years you've reportedly had torrid love affairs with several movie stars, a princess, and most recently with Maria Calvaris, the shipping heiress. Were these widely publicized love affairs real, or were they invented by the gossip columnists?"
Meredith heard again the appreciative laughter that filled the library at Matt's sangfroid, and her eyes sparked with resentment over the ease with which he could win people over.
"You've never married, and I was wondering if you have any plans to marry in the future?"
"It's not out of the question."
His brief smile emphasized the impertinence of the question, and Meredith gritted her teeth, remembering how that smile had once made her heart hammer. Abruptly, the television cameras switched back to the local newscasters, but Meredith's moment of relief was squelched by the senator, who turned to her with friendly curiosity. "I imagine all of us here read Sally Mansfield's column, Meredith. Would you care to satisfy our curiosity and tell us why you don't like Farrell?"
Meredith managed to imitate Matt's lazy smile. "No."
They all laughed, but she saw the heightened curiosity in their faces, and she hastily busied herself plumping up the sofa pillows as the senator said to her father, "Stanton Avery has put Farrell's name up for membership at the country club."
Mentally cursing Matt Farrell for coming to Chicago, Meredith shot her father a warning look, but his temper had already overruled his judgment "I'm quite certain that those of us in this room have enough influence among us to keep him out—even if everyone else who belongs to Glenmoor wants him in, which they won't"
Judge Northrup heard that and broke off his conversation with another guest. "Is that what you want us to do, Philip? Blackball him?"
"You're damned right it is."
"If you're convinced he's an undesirable, that's good enough for me," said the judge, looking around at the
others. Slowly but emphatically, all her father's guests nodded their unanimous agreement, and Meredith knew that Matt's chances of belonging to Glenmoor were now zero.
"He's bought a huge tract of land out in Southville," the judge told her father. "Wants it rezoned so he can build a big high-tech industrial complex on it."
"Is that right?" her father said, and Meredith realized from his next words that he planned to squelch that, too, if he could. "Who do we know on the Southville zoning commission?"
"Several people. There's Paulson and—"
"For heaven's sake!" she interrupted with a forced laugh, sending her father a pleading look. "There's no need to roll out the heavy guns just because I don't like Matt Farrell."
"I'm certain you and your father must have excellent reasons to feel as you do," Senator Davies said.
"You're damned ri—"
"Not at all!" Meredith said, cutting off her father and trying to stop a vendetta from getting under way. With a bright artificial smile, she told everyone, "The truth is that Matt Farrell made a pass at me years ago, when I was eighteen, and father has never forgiven him for it."
"Now I know where I've met him!" Mrs. Foster exclaimed, looking at her husband. Turning to Meredith, she said, "It was years ago at Glenmoor! I remember thinking what an extraordinarily attractive young man he was ... and, Meredith—you were the one who introduced us to him!"
Whether by accident or design, the senator spared Meredith the need to reply by saying, "Well, I hate to break up my own birthday party, but I have to be on a plane to Washington at midnight...."
A half hour later the last of the guests departed, and Meredith was bidding them good-bye beside her father when she saw a car turn into the drive. "Who the hell is that?" her father said, scowling at the headlights swooping toward them.
She peered at the car and identified it as a light blue Mercedes when it passed beneath one of the lamps along the drive. "It's Parker!"
"At eleven o'clock at night?"
Meredith began to tremble with foreboding, and that was before the porch lights illuminated his tense, grim face. "I was hoping the party would have broken up by now. I need to talk to both of you."
"Parker," Meredith began, "don't forget my father's been ill—"
"I won't distress him unduly," Parker promised, almost propelling them down the hall with a hand against both their backs, "but he needs to be apprised of the facts so that they can be dealt with properly."
"Stop talking about me like I'm not here," Philip said when they entered the library. "Facts about what? What the hell is going on?"
Pausing to close the library doors, Parker said, "I think you both ought to sit down."
"Dammit, Parker, nothing upsets me more than being kept in suspense—"
"Very well. Philip, last night I happened to have a look at Meredith's divorce decree, and there were several irregularities about it. Do you recall, about eight years ago, reading of a Chicago attorney who was accepting fees from clients, then pocketing the fees without ever filing their cases?"
"Yes. So what?"
"And about five years ago there was another batch of stories about an alleged attorney on the South Side named Joseph Grandola who was convicted of fifty-some counts of fraud for misrepresenting himself as an attorney and charging fees to handle cases that never actually went near a courthouse." He waited for a comment, but short of a sudden rigidity in Philip's stance, there was no response, and so he went on. "Grandola had a year of law school before they kicked him out. A few years later he opened an office in a neighborhood where most of his 'clients' were undereducated. For over a decade he got away with his scam by taking only cases that wouldn't require a trial and that were unlikely to ever involve an opposing attorney—such as uncontested divorces, wills that needed to be drawn up, and so forth—"