"And six nights," he emphasized meaningfully, deliberately trying to make her blush again, wanting to shake her composure, to see again the uncertain girl who'd been unable to decide what to drink.

Pointedly ignoring his sexual reference, she said, "It's hard to believe we were ever married."

"That's not surprising since you never used my name."

"I'm sure," she countered, striving for a tone of serene indifference, "that there are dozens of women who are more entitled to do that than I ever was."

"You sound jealous."

"If I sound jealous," Meredith retorted, holding on to her temper with an effort, and leaning closer across the table, "then there's something terribly wrong with your hearing!"

A reluctant smile drifted across his features. "I had forgotten that prim boarding-school way you have of expressing yourself when you're angry."

"Why," she hissed, "are you deliberately trying to goad me into an argument?"

"Actually," he said dryly, "that last was a compliment."

"Oh," Meredith said. Surprised and a little flustered, she shifted her gaze to the waiter who was placing their drinks on the table. They gave him their lunch order, and she decided to wait until Matt had finished part of his drink, until the alcohol in it had soothed him a bit, before she broke the news to him about their nonexistent divorce. She left the next topic up to him to choose.

Matt picked up his glass, annoyed with himself for having needled her, and said with genuine courtesy and interest, "According to the society columns, you're active in a half-dozen charities, the symphony, the opera, and the ballet. What else do you do with your time?"

"I work fifty hours a week at Bancroft's," Meredith replied, vaguely disappointed that he'd never read about her achievements anywhere.

Matt knew all about her supposed accomplishments at Bancroft's, but he was curious about how good an executive she really was, and he knew he could judge that simply by listening to her talk. He began questioning her about her work.

Meredith answered—haltingly at first and then more freely, because she dreaded telling him the reason for this meeting and because her work was her favorite topic. His questions were so astute, and he seemed so genuinely interested in her answers, that before long she was telling him of her achievements and her goals, her successes and her failures. He had a way of listening that encouraged confidences—he concentrated exclusively on what was being said to him, as if each word were interesting and important and meaningful. Before she realized it, Meredith had even confided the problem she faced with accusations of nepotism at the store and how difficult it was to deal with that as well as the chauvinism her father fostered among his staff with his own attitude.

By the time the waiter cleared away their luncheon plates, Meredith had answered all his questions and finished nearly half the bottle of Bordeaux that he'd ordered. It occurred to her that the reason she'd been so vocal was because she'd been stalling about telling him her upsetting news. But even now, when that could no longer be put off, she felt vastly more relaxed than at the beginning of the meal.

In companionable silence they regarded each other across the table. "Your father is lucky to have you on his staff," Matt said, and he meant it sincerely. He had no doubt that she was one hell of an executive—possibly even a gifted executive. While she'd spoken, her management style had become clear to him; so had her dedication and intelligence, her enthusiasm and, most of all, her courage and wit.

"I'm the lucky one," Meredith said, smiling at him. "Bancroft's means everything to me. It's the most important thing in my life."

Matt leaned back in his chair, absorbing this newly discovered side of her. He frowned at the wine in the glass he was holding, wondering why in the hell she talked about those damned department stores as if they were people whom she loved. Why was her career the most important thing in her life? Why wasn't Parker Reynolds—or some other suitably prominent socialite —more important to her? But even while he asked himself the questions, Matt thought he knew the answer Her father had succeeded after all; he had dominated her so ruthlessly and so effectively, that in the end he had turned her off men almost completely. Whatever her reason for marrying Reynolds was, she apparently wasn't in love with him. Based on what she said, and the way she looked when she spoke of Bancroft's, she was wholly committed to and in love with a department store.

Pity drifted through him as he looked at her. Pity and tenderness—he had experienced those emotions the night he met her, along with a raging desire to possess her that had obliterated his common sense. He had walked into that country club, taken one look at her jaunty smile and glowing eyes, and lost his mind. His heart softened as he remembered the way she had gaily introduced him as if he were a steel magnate from Indiana. She had been so full of laughter and life, so innocently eager in his arms. God, he had wanted her! He had wanted to take her away from her father, to cherish and pamper and protect her.

If she had stayed married to him, he would have been incredibly proud of her now. In an impersonal sort of way, he was proud as hell of what she'd become.

Pamper and protect her? Matt realized the direction of his thoughts and clenched his teeth in self-disgust. Meredith didn't need anyone to protect her, she was as deadly as a black widow spider. The only human being who mattered to her was her father, and to appease him, she'd murdered her unborn child. She was spoiled, spineless, and heartless—an empty, beautiful mannequin who was meant to be draped in beautiful clothes and propped at the end of a dining room table. That was all she was good for, it was her only use in life. It was her appearance that had made him forget that for the past few minutes—that gorgeous face of hers with those captivating aquamarine eyes fringed with curly lashes; the proud way she held herself; that soft, generous mouth; the musical sound of her voice; the hesitant, infectious smile. Christ, he'd always been a fool where she was concerned, he thought, but his hostility was suddenly doused by the realization that this spurt of anger was foolish and pointless. Regardless of what she had done, she had been very young and very frightened, and it had happened long ago. It was over. Idly twirling the stem of the wineglass in his fingers, he looked at her and paid her a casual, impartial compliment: "From the sound of things, you've become a formidable executive. If we'd stayed married, I'd probably have tried to lure you over to my organization."

He had unwittingly tossed her the opening she needed, and Meredith seized it. Trying to inject a note of humor into the dire moment, she said with a nervous, choked laugh, "Then start trying to lure me over."

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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