"If you aren't here when I make the announcement to the others," he warned her as she turned toward the side door of his office that led through the conference room and then out into the hall, "they'll all suspect you ran out of here crying because you weren't the choice."

Meredith paused long enough to give him a look of magnificent contempt. "Don't fool yourself, Father. Even though you treat me like an unwanted millstone, there isn't one of them who truly believes you are as heartless and indifferent to me as you actually are. They'll think you told your own daughter days ago who the choice was going to be."

"They'll know differently when you resign," he warned, and for a split second there was something like alarm in his voice.

"They'll be too busy helping poor Allen Stanley run this place to think about it."

"I'll be running Allen Stanley."

She paused with her hand on the doorknob and looked at him over her shoulder, so numb inside that she actually managed to laugh. "I know that. Did you think I was arrogant enough to believe I could handle Bancroft's on my own, without guidance from you while you're on leave? Or were you afraid I'd try?" Without waiting for his reply, Meredith opened the door into the conference room and left him standing there.

Her disappointment at not having the chance to prove herself as Bancroft's temporary president was completely eclipsed by the pain of having just realized that she actually meant very little to him. For years she'd been telling herself he loved her, but he just didn't know how to show it. Now, as she waited for the elevator, Meredith felt as if someone had turned her world upside down and inside out. The doors opened and she stepped inside, then she stared at the double panel of lit numbers, not knowing which one to press because she didn't know where she was going. Or who she really was. All her life she'd been Philip Bancroft's daughter. That was her past. Her future had always been here, at the store. Now her past was a lie and her future was ... a void. Masculine voices were coming down the hall and she reached out and pressed the button for the mezzanine, praying the doors would close before anyone saw her.

The mezzanine was actually a balcony that looked out across the first floor of the store, and not until Meredith walked over to the polished brass railing and looked down did she realize that she had automatically come here, to her favorite place. Her hands gripping the cool, smooth brass railing, she stood there looking down at the noisy bustle in the aisles below, feeling isolated and entirely alone in a crowded department store teeming with Christmas shoppers while "White Christmas" played over the speaker system. Off to her right, at the lingerie counters, women were pawing through slips and nightgowns, while Mrs. Hollings, the manager of the lingerie department and Meredith's former supervisor, presided over the main counter with the same stern, unflappable calm she'd exhibited for all twenty-five of her years at Bancroft's. She gave Meredith a brief smile, but Meredith turned away, pretending not to have seen the silent greeting. She turned away because she could not manage even a pretense of a smile in return.

Behind her, shoppers were searching through the racks of silk peignoirs. On the balcony across the store from where she stood, the men's lounge wear department was doing a brisk business in bathrobes. She heard the voices, and the music, and the constant hum of computerized cash registers churning out sales tickets, but she felt nothing. Overhead, the store's paging system began to chime—two short bells, a pause, then one more; it was her paging code, but she didn't react. Not until someone actually spoke directly to her did she manage to move. "Do you work here?" an impatient shopper demanded.

Did she work here? With an effort Meredith dragged her mind into focus. "I mean," the woman continued as she thrust a peignoir at Meredith, "since you aren't wearing a coat, I assume you do."

"Yes," Meredith replied. For today, she worked here.

"Then where will I find the sale peignoirs in your ad?

This one is $425.00 and the ad in Sunday's Tribune said you had them for $89.95."

"Those are on the fifth floor," Meredith explained.

Her paging code sounded again, and still she stood there—not certain whether she was saying good-bye to the store, her dreams, or merely tormenting herself.

The third time the page sounded, Meredith reluctantly walked over to the counter near the bathrobes and dialed the number for the store's main operator. "This is Meredith Bancroft," she said. "You paged me?"

"Yes, Miss Bancroft. Your secretary says it's urgent that you call your office."

When she hung up, Meredith glanced at her watch. She had two more meetings scheduled for that afternoon— assuming she could make it through them as if everything were normal. And even if she could, what was the point of putting herself to the trouble of doing it? Reluctantly Meredith called Phyllis's extension. "It's me," she said. "You had me paged?"

"Yes, I'm sorry to bother you, Meredith," Phyllis began and from her sad, uneasy tone Meredith assumed that the meeting her father had called to announce his temporary successor was over, and the news was already out. "It's Mr. Reynolds," Phyllis continued. "He's called twice in the last half hour. He says he has to talk to you. He sounds awfully upset."

Meredith realized Parker had apparently heard the news too. "If he calls again, please tell him I'll get back to him later." She couldn't bear his sympathy right now without breaking down. And if he tried to tell her this was somehow for the best. . . she couldn't bear that either.

"All right," Phyllis said. "You have a meeting with the director of advertising in a half hour. Do you want me to cancel it?"

Again Meredith hesitated, her gaze roving almost lovingly over the frenetic activity all around her. She couldn't bear to just walk out—not with the Houston deal still up in the air and several other projects still needing her attention. If she worked hard for the next two weeks, she could complete much of her work and get the rest of it ready to be turned over to her successor. To leave things in a mess—to leave without taking care of some of her projects—was not in the best interest of her store. Her store. Hurting Bancroft's was like hurting herself. No matter where she went or what she did, this place would always be a part of her and she of it. "No, don't cancel anything. I'll be up there in a little while."

"Meredith?" Phyllis said hesitantly. "If it's any consolation, as far as most of us are concerned, you should have been given the president's job."

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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