“The crowd in the lounge at Glenmoor Country Club was thinning out when a woman near Meredith burst out, “My God! Who is that? He’s absolutely gorgeous!”
That remark, made in a louder tone than she’d intended, caused a ripple of interest, not only among the entire group Meredith was with, but with several other people who’d overheard her exclamation and were turning around.
“Who are you talking about?” Leigh Ackerman asked, peering about the room. Meredith, who was facing the entrance, glanced up and knew instantly exactly who had caused that awed, avaricious expression on Shelly’s face! Standing in the doorway, with his right hand thrust into his pants pocket, was a man who was at least six feet two, with hair almost as dark as the tuxedo that clung to his wide shoulders and long legs. His face was sun-bronzed, his eyes light, and as he stood there, idly studying the elegantly dressed members of Glenmoor, Meredith wondered how Shelly could ever have described him as “gorgeous.” His features looked as if they had been chiseled out of granite by some sculptor who had been intent on portraying brute strength and raw virility—not male beauty. His chin was square, his nose straight, his jaw hard with iron determination. All in all, Meredith thought he looked arrogant, proud, and tough. But then, she’d never been very attracted to dark, overly macho men.
“Look at those shoulders,” Shelly rhapsodized, “look at that face. Now, that, Douglas,” she teased, turning to Doug Chalfont, “is pure, undiluted sex appeal!”
Doug considered the man and shrugged, grinning. “He doesn’t do a thing for me.” Turning to one of the other men in their party whom Meredith had met for the first time tonight, he asked, “How about you, Rick? Does he turn you on?”
“I won’t know until I see his legs,” Rick joked. “I’m a leg man, which is why Meredith turns me on.”
At that moment, Jonathan appeared in the doorway, looking a little unsteady on his feet, and looped his arm around the newcomer’s shoulders while glancing about the room. Meredith saw the triumphant little smile he fired at his friends when he spotted all of them at the end of the bar, and she realized instantly that he appeared to be semi-drunk, but she was completely baffled by the groaning laugh that issued from both Leigh and Shelly. “Oh, no!” Leigh said, looking from Shelly to Meredith with comic dismay. “Please don’t tell me that magnificent male specimen is the laborer who Jonathan hired to work on one of their oil rigs!”
Doug Chalfont’s burst of laughter had drowned out most of Leigh’s words, and Meredith leaned closer to Leigh. “I’m sorry—what did you say?”
Speaking quickly so that she could finish before the two men reached them, Leigh explained, “The man with Jonathan is actually a steelworker from Indiana! Jon’s father made him hire the guy to work on their oil rig in Venezuela.”
Puzzled not only by the laughing looks being exchanged among Jonathan’s other friends, but Leigh’s explanation as well, Meredith said, “Why is he bringing him here?”
“It’s a joke, Meredith! Jon’s angry with his father for forcing him to hire the guy, and then holding him up to Jon as the latest example of what he ought to be. Jon brought the guy here to spite his father—you know, to force his father to meet him socially. And you know what’s really funny about all this,” she whispered just as the two men arrived. “Jon’s aunt just told us that his father and mother decided at the last minute to spend the weekend at their summer place instead of coming here—”
Jonathan’s overloud, slurred greeting made everyone within hearing turn and stare, including his aunt and uncle and Meredith’s father. “Hi, everyone,” he boomed, waving an expansive arm to include all of them. “Hi, Aunt Harriet and Uncle Russell!” He waited until he had everyone’s attention. “I’d like all of you to meet my buddy, Matt Terrell—no, F-Farrell,” he hiccuped. “Aunt Harriet, Uncle Russell,” he continued, grinning widely, “say hello to Matt, here. He’s my father’s latest example of what I ought to be when I grow up!”
“How do you do?” Jonathan’s aunt said civilly. Tearing her icy glance from her drunken nephew, she made a halfhearted effort to be courteous to the man he’d brought with him. “Where are you from, Mr. Farrell?”
“Indiana,” he replied in a calm matter-of-fact voice.
“Indianapolis?” Jonathan’s aunt said, frowning. “I don’t believe we know any Farrells from Indianapolis.”
“I’m not from Indianapolis. And I’m certain you don’t know my family.”
“Exactly where are you from?” Meredith’s father snapped, ready to interrogate and intimidate any male who went near Meredith.
Matt Farrell turned and Meredith watched in secret admiration as he met her father’s withering glance unflinchingly. “Edmunton—south of Gary.”
“What do you do?” he demanded rudely.
“I work in a steel mill,” he retorted, managing to look and sound just as hard and cold as her father had.
Stunned silence followed his revelation. Several middle-aged couples who’d been hanging back, waiting for Jonathan’s aunt and uncle, looked uneasily at each other and moved away. Mrs. Sommers obviously decided to make an equally hasty exit. “Have a pleasant evening, Mr. Farrell,” she said stiffly, and headed off to the dining rooms beside her husband.
Suddenly everyone was in motion. “Well!” Leigh Ackerman said brightly, looking around at all the people in their group except Matt Farrell, who was standing back and slightly to the side. “Let’s go eat!” She tucked her hand in Jon’s arm and turned him toward the door as she pointedly added, “I reserved a table for nine people.”
Meredith did a fast count; there were nine people in their group—excluding Matt Farrell. Paralyzed with disgust for Jonathan and all his friends, she remained where she was for the moment. Her father saw her standing in the general proximity of Farrell and stopped on his way to the dining room with his own friends, his hand clamping her elbow. “Get rid of him!” he spat out loudly enough for Farrell to hear, and then he stalked off. In a state of angry, defiant rebellion, Meredith watched him leave, then she glanced at Matt Farrell, not certain what to do next. He’d turned toward the French doors and was gazing out at the people on the terrace with the aloof indifference of someone who knows he is an unwanted outsider, and who therefore intends to look as if he prefers it that way.
Even if he hadn’t said he was a steelworker from Indiana, Meredith would have known within moments of meeting him that he didn’t belong. For one thing, his tuxedo didn’t fit his broad shoulders as if it had been custom made for him, which meant it was probably rented, nor did he speak with the ingrained assurance of a socialite who fully expects to be welcomed and liked wherever he is. Moreover, there was an indefinable lack of polish to his mannerisms—a subtle harshness and roughness that intrigued and repelled her at one and the same time.
Given all of that, it was astonishing that he should suddenly remind Meredith of herself. But he did. She looked at him standing completely alone, as if he didn’t care about being ostracized—and she saw herself when she was at St. Stephen’s school, spending every recess with a book in her lap trying to pretend she didn’t care either. “Mr. Farrell,” she asked as casually as she could, “would you like something to drink?”
He turned in surprise, hesitated a moment, and then nodded. “Scotch and water.”
Meredith signaled a waiter who hurried to her side. “Jimmy, Mr. Farrell would like a Scotch and water.”
When she turned back, she found Matt Farrell studying her with a slight frown, his gaze drifting over her face, her breasts and waist, then lifting again to her eyes, as if he were suspicious of her overture and trying to figure out why she’d bothered making it. “Who was the man who told you to get rid of me?” he asked abruptly.
She hated to alarm him with the truth. “My father.”
“You have my deepest and most sincere sympathy,” he mocked gravely, and Meredith burst out laughing because no one had ever dared criticize her father, even indirectly, and because she suddenly sensed that Matt Farrell was a “rebel,” just as she’d decided to be. That made him a kindred spirit, and instead of pitying him or being repelled by him, she suddenly thought of him as a brave mongrel who’d been unfairly thrust into a group of haughty pedigrees. She decided to rescue him. “Would you like to dance?” she asked, smiling at him as if he were an old friend.
He gave her an amused look. “What makes you think a steelworker from Edmunton, Indiana, knows how to dance, princess?”
“I think I can manage.”
That was a rather unfair assessment of his ability, Meredith decided a few minutes later as they danced outside on the terrace to the slow tune the little band was playing. He was actually quite competent, but he wasn’t very relaxed and his style was conservative.
“How am I doing?”
Blissfully unaware of the double meaning htat could be read into her lighthearted evaluation, she said, “So far, all I’ve been able to tell is that you have good rhythm and you move well. That’s all that really matters anyway.” Smiling into his eyes to take away any taint of criticism he might mistakenly read into her next words, she confided, “All you actually need is some practice.”
“How much practice do you recommend?”
“Not much. One night would be enough to learn some new moves.”
“I didn’t know there are any ‘new’ moves.”
“There are,” Meredith said, “but you have to learn to relax first.”
“First?” he repeated. “All this time, I’ve been under the impression that you were supposed to relax afterward.”
It hit her suddenly, what he was thinking and saying. Giving him a level look, she said, “Are we talking about dancing, Mr. Farrell?”
There was an unmistakable reprimand in her voice, and it registered on him. For a moment he studied her with heightened interest, reassessing, reevaluating. His eyes weren’t light blue as she’d originally thought, but a striking metallic gray, and his hair was dark brown, not black. When he spoke, his quiet voice had an apology in it. “We are now.” Belatedly explaining the reason for the constraint she’d sensed in his movements, he said, “I tore a ligament in my right leg a few weeks ago.”
“I’m sorry,” Meredith said, apologizing for asking him to come out here. “Does it hurt?”
A startling white smile swept across his tanned face. “Only when I dance.”
Meredith laughed at the joke and felt her own worries begin to fade into the background. They stayed outside for another dance, talking about nothing more meaningful than the bad music and the good weather. When they returned to the lounge, Jimmy brought their drinks. Goaded by mischief and resentment for Jonathan, Meredith said, “Please charge these drinks to Jonathan Sommers, Jimmy.” She glanced at Matt and saw the surprise on his face.
“Aren’t you a member here?”
“Yes,” Meredith said with a rueful smile. “That was petty revenge on my part.”
“For—” Belatedly realizing that anything she said now would sound like pity or embarrass him, she shrugged. “I don’t like Jonathan Sommers very much.”
He looked at her oddly, picked up his drink, and tossed down part of it. “You must be hungry. I’ll let you go and join your friends.”
It was a polite gesture intended to excuse her, but Meredith had no desire to join Jon’s group now, and as she looked around the room, it was obvious that if she did leave Matt Farrell there, no one else was going to make the slightest effort to befriend him. In fact, every one in the lounge was giving both of them a wide berth. “Actually,” she said, “the food here isn’t all that wonderful.”
He glanced at the occupants of the lounge and put his glass down with a finality that told her he intended to leave. “Neither are the people.”
“They aren’t staying away out of meanness or arrogance,” she assured him. “Not really.”
Slanting her a dubious, disinterested look, he said, “Why do you think they’re doing it?”
Meredith saw several middle-aged couples who were friends of her father’s—nice people, all of them. “Well, for one thing, they’re embarrassed about the way Jonathan acted. And because of what they know about you—where you live and what you do for a living, I mean—most of them simply concluded that they don’t have anything in common with you.”
He obviously thought she was patronizing him because he smiled politely and said, “It’s time for me to go.”
Suddenly the idea of having him leave with nothing but humiliation to remember the evening didn’t seem fair at all. In fact, it seemed unnecessary and . . . and unthinkable! “You can’t leave yet,” she announced with a determined smile. “Come with me, and bring your drink.”
His eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“Because,” Meredith declared with stubborn mischief, “it helps to have a drink in your hand to do this.”
“Do what?” he persisted.
“Mingle,” she declared. “We are going to mingle!”
“Absolutely not!” Matt caught her wrist to draw her back, but it was too late. Meredith was suddenly bent on ramming him down everyone’s throat and making them like it.
“Please humor me,” she said softly, her gaze beseeching.
A reluctant grin tugged at his lips. “You have the most amazing eyes—”
“Actually, I’m terribly nearsighted,” she teased with her most melting smile. “I’ve been known to walk into walls. It’s a pitiful thing to watch. Why don’t you give me your arm and guide me out into the hall so I don’t stumble?”
He wasn’t proof against her humor or that smile. “You are also very single-minded,” he replied, but he chuckled and reluctantly offered her his arm, prepared to humor her.
A few steps down the hall Meredith saw an elderly couple she knew. “Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Foster.” She greeted them cheerfully as they started to stroll past without seeing her.
They stopped at once. “Why, hello, Meredith,” Mrs. Foster said, then she and her husband smiled at Matt with polite inquiry.
“I’d like you to meet a friend of my father’s,” Meredith announced, swallowing her laughter at Matt’s incredulous glance. “This is Matt Farrell. Matt is from Indiana, and he’s in the steel business.”
“A pleasure,” Mr. Foster said genially, shaking Matt’s hand. “I know Meredith and her father don’t play golf, but I hope they told you we have two championship courses here at Glenmoor. Are you going to be here long enough to play a few rounds?”
“I’m not certain I’m going to be here long enough to finish this drink,” Matt said, obviously expecting to be forcibly evicted when Meredith’s father discovered she was introducing Matt as his friend.
Mr. Foster nodded in complete misunderstanding. “Business always seems to get in the way of pleasure. But at least you’ll see the fireworks tonight—we have the best show in town.”
“You’re going to tonight,” Matt predicted, his narrowed gaze focused warningly on Meredith’s guileless expression.
Mr. Foster returned to his favorite subject of golf, while Meredith struggled unsuccessfully to keep her face straight. “What’s your handicap?” he inquired of Matt.
“I think I’m Matt’s handicap tonight,” Meredith interceded, slanting Matt a provocative, laughing look.
“What?” Mr. Foster blinked.
But Matt didn’t answer and Meredith couldn’t, because his gaze had fixed on her smiling lips, and when his gray eyes lifted to hers, there was something different in their depths.
“Come along, dear,” Mrs. Foster said, observing the distracted expressions on Matt and Meredith’s faces. “These young people don’t want to spend their evening discussing golf.” Belatedly recovering her composure, Meredith told herself sternly she’d had too much champagne, then she tucked her hand through the crook of Matt’s arm. “Come with me,” she said, already walking down the staircase to the banquet room where the orchestra was playing.
For nearly an hour she guided him from one group to another, her eyes twinkling at Matt with shared laughter while she smoothly told outrageous half-truths about who he was and what he did for a living. And Matt stood beside her, not actively helping her, but observing her ingenuity with frank amusement.
“There, you see,” she announced gaily as they finally left the noise and music behind and walked out the front doors, strolling across the lawn. “It isn’t what you say that counts, it’s what you don’t say.”
“That’s an interesting theory,” he teased. “Do you have any more of them?”
Meredith shook her head, distracted by something she’d subconsciously noted all evening. “You don’t talk at all like a man who works in a steel mill.”
“How many of them do you know?”
“Just one,” she admitted.
His tone abruptly shifted to a serious one. “Do you come here often?”
They’d spent the first part of the evening playing a kind of silly game, but she sensed that he didn’t want any more games. Neither did she, and that moment marked a distinct change in the atmosphere between them. As they wandered past rose beds and flower gardens, he started asking her about herself. Meredith told him she’d been away at school and that she’d just graduated. When his next question was about her career plans, she realized that he’d erroneously assumed she meant she’d graduated from college. Rather than correcting him and risking some sort of appalled reaction when he discovered she was eighteen, not twenty-two, she sidestepped the problem by quickly asking him about himself.
He told her he was leaving in six weeks for Venezuela and what he was going to be doing while he was gone. From there, their conversation shifted with astonishing ease from one subject to another, until they finally stopped walking so that they could concentrate better on whatever was being said. Standing beneath an ancient elm on the lawn, oblivious to the rough bark against her bare back, Meredith listened to him, completely entranced. Matt was twenty-six, she’d discovered, and besides being witty and extremely well-spoken, he had a way of listening intently to what she said as if nothing else in the world mattered. It was disconcerting, and it was very flattering. It also created a false mood of complete intimacy and solitude. She’d just finished laughing at a joke he’d told her, when a fat bug dived past her face and buzzed around her ear. She jumped, grimacing and trying to see where it had gone. “Is it in my hair?” she asked uneasily, tipping her head down.
He put his hands on her shoulders and inspected her hair. “No,” he promised. “It was just a little June bug.”
“June bugs are disgusting, and that one was the size of a large hummingbird!” When he chuckled, she gave him a deliberately smug smile. “You won’t be laughing six weeks from now, when you can’t walk outside without tripping over snakes.”
“Is that right?” he murmured, but his attention had shifted to her mouth, and his hands were sliding up the sides of her neck to tenderly cradle her face.
“What are you doing?” Meredith whispered inanely as he began slowly rubbing his thumb over her lower lip.
“I’m trying to decide if I should let myself enjoy the fireworks.”
“The fireworks won’t start for another half hour,” she said shakily, knowing perfectly well she was going to be kissed.
“I have a feeling,” he whispered, slowly lowering his head, “they’re going to start right now.”
And they did. His mouth covered hers in an electrifyingly seductive kiss that sent sparks exploding through Meredith’s entire body. At first the kiss was light, coaxing; his mouth shaped itself to hers, delicately exploring the contours of her lips. Meredith had been kissed before, but always by relatively inexperienced, overeager boys; no one had ever kissed her with Matthew Farrell’s unhurried thoroughness. His hands shifted, one of them drifting down her spine to draw her closer, while the other slid behind her nape, and his mouth slowly opened on hers. Lost in the kiss, she moved her hands inside his tuxedo jacket, up his chest, over his broad shoulders, and then she wrapped her arms around his neck.
The minute she molded herself against him, his mouth opened farther, his tongue tracing hotly across her lips, urging them to part, and then demanding it. The moment that they did, his tongue plunged into her mouth, and the kiss exploded. His hand covered her breast, caressing it through her bodice, then restlessly swept behind her, cupping her bottom and pulling her tightly against him, making her vibrantly aware of his aroused body. Meredith stiffened slightly at the forced intimacy, and then for no explainable reason on earth, she laced her fingers through his hair and crushed her parted lips to his.
It seemed like hours later when he finally dragged his mouth from hers. Her heart racing like a trip-hammer, she stood in the circle of his arms, her forehead resting on his chest, while she tried to cope with the turbulent sensations she’d felt. Somewhere in her drugged mind it began to occur to her that he was going to think she was behaving very oddly about what had, in reality, been only a simple kiss. That embarrassing possibility finally made her force her head up. Fully expecting to see him watching her with puzzled amusement, she raised her gaze to his chiseled features, but what she saw there wasn’t derision. His gray eyes were smoldering, his face was harsh and dark with passion, and his arms tightened automatically, as if unwilling to let her go. Belatedly, she realized his body was still rigidly aroused, and she felt a peculiar sense of pleasure and pride that he had been, and was still, as affected by the kiss as she was. Without thinking what she was doing, her gaze dropped to his mouth. There was bold sensuality in the mold of those firm lips, and yet some of his kisses had been so exquisitely gentle. Tormentingly gentle . . . Longing to feel that mouth on hers again, Meredith lifted her gaze to his, an unconscious request in her eyes.
Matt understood the request, and a sound that was half groan, half laugh tore from his chest, his arms already tightening. “Yes,” he answered hoarsely, and seized her lips in a ravenous, devouring kiss that stole her breath, and drove her mad with pleasure.
Some time later, laughter rang out, and Meredith jerked awkwardly out of his arms, whirling around in alarm. Dozens of couples were strolling out of the club to watch the fireworks—and well ahead of them was her father who was stalking toward her with rage in every long, ground-covering stride. “Oh, my God,” she whispered. “Matt, you have to leave. Turn around and walk away! Now.”
“Please!” she almost cried. “I’ll be fine, he won’t say anything to me here, he’ll wait until we’re alone, but I don’t know what he’ll do to you.” A moment later Meredith knew the answer to that.
“There are two men on their way out here to escort you off the grounds, Farrell,” her father hissed, his face contorted with fury. He turned on Meredith and caught her arm in a viselike grip. “You’re coming with me.” Two of the club’s waiters were already walking across the driveway. As her father gave her arm a jerk, Meredith appealed once more to Matt over her shoulder. “Please, please go—don’t make a scene.”
Her father pulled her two steps forward, and Meredith, who had no choice but to walk or be dragged, was relieved almost to tears when both waiters who had been coming toward Matt slowed and then stopped. Matt had apparently started walking toward the road, Meredith realized with relief. Her father evidently reached the same conclusion, for when the waiters looked uncertainly to him for further instructions, he said, “Let the bastard go, but call the gate and make sure he doesn’t come back.”
As they approached the front doors, he turned to Meredith, his expression livid. “Your mother made herself the talk of this club, and I’ll be damned if you’re going to do it too. Do you hear me!” He flung her arm down as if her skin were contaminated by Matt’s touch, but he kept his voice low. Because a Bancroft, no matter how great the provocation, never aired family grievances in public. “Go home and stay there. It will take you twenty minutes to get to the house; in twenty-five minutes I’m going to call you, and God help you if you aren’t there!”
With that he turned on his heel and stalked into the clubhouse. In a state of sick humiliation, Meredith watched him go, then she went inside and got her purse. On the way to the parking lot, she saw three couples standing out in the shadows of the trees, all of them kissing.
Her vision blurred by tears of futile rage, Meredith had already driven past the solitary figure who was walking with a tuxedo jacket hooked over his right shoulder before she realized it was Matt. She braked to a stop, so consumed with guilt for the humiliation she’d caused him that she couldn’t immediately look at him.
He walked up to her side of the car and bent slightly, looking at her through the open window. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” With a halfhearted attempt at flippancy, she glanced at him. “My father is a Bancroft, and the Bancrofts never quarrel in public.”
He saw the unshed tears shimmering in her eyes. Reaching through the open window, he laid his callused fingertips against her smooth cheek. “And they don’t cry in front of other people either, do they?”
“Nope,” Meredith admitted, trying to absorb some of his wonderful indifference to her father. “I—I’m going home now. Can I drop you somewhere on the way?”
His gaze shifted from her face to the death grip she had on the steering wheel. “Yes, but only if you’ll let me drive this thing.” He spoke as if he merely wanted a chance to drive her car, but his next words made it obvious he was concerned about her ability to drive in her state of mind. “Why don’t I drive you home, and I’ll call a cab from there.”
“Be my guest,” Meredith said brightly, determined to salvage what little pride she had left. She got out and walked around to the passenger side.
Matt had no trouble mastering the gearshift, and a minute later the car glided smoothly out of the country club drive and shot out onto the main road. Headlights flew past in the dark and the breeze blew through the windows as they drove in silence. Far off to the left some other fireworks display came to a grand finale in a spectacular cascade of red, white, and blue. Meredith watched the brilliant sparks glitter and then slowly fade as they drifted downward. Belatedly recalling her manners, she said, “I want to apologize for what happened tonight—for my father, I mean.”
Matt shot her an amused sideways look. “He’s the one who should apologize. It hurt my pride when he sent those two flabby, middle-aged waiters to throw me out. At least he could have sent four of them—just to spare my ego.”
Meredith gaped at him, amazed because he obviously wasn’t the least bit intimidated by her father’s wrath, and then she smiled, because it felt wonderful to be with someone who wasn’t. With a jaunty look at his powerful shoulders, she said, “If he really wanted to get you out of there against your will, he’d have been wiser to send six.”
“My ego and I both thank you,” he said with a lazy grin, and Meredith, who would have sworn a few minutes ago that she’d never smile again, burst out laughing.
“You have a wonderful laugh,” he said quietly.
“Thank you,” she said, startled and pleased beyond proportion to the compliment. In the pale light from the dashboard she studied his shadowy profile, watching the wind ruffle his hair, wondering what it was about him that could make a few simple, quiet words seem like a physical caress. Shelly Fillmore’s words floated through her mind, providing the probable answer . . . “pure, undiluted sex appeal.” A few hours earlier she hadn’t thought Matt was extraordinarily, attractive. She did now. In fact, she was certain women drooled over him. No doubt they were also the reason he knew how to kiss as well as he did. He had sex appeal, all right—and a whole lot of experience kissing. “Turn in here,” she said a quarter of an hour later when they approached a pair of huge wrought-iron gates. Reaching forward, she pressed a button on the dashboard and the gates swung open into her driveway.
“This is home,” Meredith said as he pulled to a stop in front of the house.
He looked up at the imposing stone structure with its leaded glass windows while Meredith unlocked the front door. “It looks like a museum.”
“At least you didn’t say mausoleum,” she said, smiling over her shoulder.
“No, but I thought it.”
Meredith was still smiling at his blunt quip as she showed him into the darkened library at the back of the house and turned on a lamp, but when he went directly to the phone on the desk and picked it up, her heart sank. She wanted him to stay, she wanted to talk, she wanted to do anything to fend off the despair that she knew would overwhelm her again when she was alone. “There’s no reason for you to leave so soon. My father will play cards until the club closes at two A.M.”
He turned at the note of desperation in her voice. “Meredith, I’m not a bit worried about your father for my own sake, but you have to live with him. If he comes home and finds me here—”
“He won’t,” Meredith promised. “My father wouldn’t let death interrupt his card games; he’s an obsessive card player.”
“He’s damned obsessive about you too,” Matt said flatly, and Meredith held her breath while he hesitated before finally hanging up the phone. This was probably going to be the last pleasant evening she would have for months, and she was determined to make it last. “Would you like a brandy? I’m afraid I can’t offer you anything to eat because the servants are already in bed.”
“Brandy will be fine.”
Meredith went over to the liquor cabinet and took out the brandy decanter. Behind her, he said, “Do the servants lock the refrigerator at night?” She paused, a brandy snifter in her hand. “Something like that,” she evaded.
But Matt wasn’t fooled—she realized it the moment she brought his glass over to the sofa and saw the amusement gleaming in his eyes. “You can’t cook, can you, princess?”
“I’m sure I could,” she joked, “if someone showed me where the kitchen is, and then pointed out the stove and refrigerator.”
The corners of his mouth deepened into an answering smile, but he leaned forward and purposefully put his glass on the table. She knew exactly what he intended to do even before he caught her wrists and firmly pulled her toward him. “I know you can cook,” he said, tipping her chin up.
“What makes you so sure?”
“Because,” he whispered, “less than an hour ago you set me on fire.”
His mouth was a fraction of an inch from hers when the shrill ring of the telephone made her lurch out of his arms. When she answered it, her father’s voice was like an arctic blast. “I’m glad to see that you had sense enough to do as I told you. And Meredith,” he added, “I was on the verge of permitting you to go to Northwestern, but you can forget about that now. Your behavior tonight is living proof that you can’t be trusted.” He hung up on her.
With shaking fingers, Meredith replaced the receiver. Her arms began to tremble and then her knees, until her whole body was quaking with futility and rage, and she braced her palms on the desk to steady herself.
Matt came up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. “Meredith?” he said, his voice deep with concern. “Who was that? Is anything wrong?”
Even her voice shook. “That was my father checking to make certain that I came home as ordered.”
He was silent for a moment, and then he said quietly, “What have you done to make him distrust you like this?”
Matt’s thinly veiled accusation tore at her heart, hacking away at her rapidly disintegrating control. “What have I done?” she repeated, her voice rising with hysteria. “What have I done?”
“You must have given him some reason to think he has to guard you like this.”
Savage resentment boiled up inside of Meredith, erupting into a mass of churning rage. Her eyes bright with tears and some half-formed purpose, she swung around on him and slid her hands up his hard chest. “My mother was promiscuous. She couldn’t keep her hands off other men. My father guards me because he knows I’m like her.”
Matt’s eyes narrowed as she wrapped her arms fiercely around his neck. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“You know what I’m doing,” she whispered, and before he could answer, she pressed herself against his full length and kissed him long and lingeringly.
He wanted her—Meredith knew it the moment his arms encircled her, pulling her tightly against his hardening body. He wanted her. His mouth seized hers in a hungry, consuming kiss, and she tried to do her best to make certain he didn’t change his mind—and that she couldn’t change hers. Her fingers clumsy and urgent, she tugged the studs loose from his shirtfront and opened his shirt, sliding her hands up his chest, spreading the white cloth wide apart, baring what looked to be an acre of bronzed muscle with springy dark hairs, then she closed her eyes tightly, reached behind her back and started tugging on the zipper of her dress. She wanted this, she’d earned it, she told herself fiercely.
His quiet voice made her head jerk up, but she didn’t have the courage to lift her gaze above his chest.
“I’m flattered as hell, but I’ve never actually seen a woman rip off her clothes in the throes of passion, particularly after only one kiss.”
Defeated before she’d begun, Meredith leaned her forehead against his chest. His hand slid over her shoulder, long fingers curving around her nape, his thumb stroking, while his other hand slid around her waist and moved her closer. Then his fingers moved down her bare back to the zipper of her dress. The bodice of a very expensive chiffon gown came loose.
Swallowing audibly, she started to lift her arms to shield herself from view, and hesitated. “I’m . . . not very good at this,” she said, raising her eyes to his.
His lids drifted down, his gaze shifting to the tops of her breasts. “Aren’t you?” he whispered huskily as he bent his head.
Meredith wanted to find nirvana; she sought it in that next kiss. And she found it. Her fingers flexing against the corded muscles in his back, she kissed him with blind need, and when his parted lips moved insistently against hers, she welcomed the suggestive invasion of his tongue. She returned it, and made him gasp and clench her tighter. And then, suddenly, she wasn’t in control anymore; she wasn’t aware of anything except sensations. His mouth seized hers in stormy desire, her clothes came loose and a cold draft hit her. Her hair tumbled down over her shoulders, freed by his hands, and the room tilted as she was brought down onto the sofa beside a hard, demanding, naked male body.
And then it stopped, and Meredith surfaced a little from a dark, sweet world where she felt only his mouth and the stirring stroking of his hands over her flesh. She opened her eyes and saw him leaning up on his forearm, studying her face in the mellow glow of the desk lamp. “What are you doing?” she whispered, but the thin, wispy voice didn’t sound like hers.
“Looking at you.” As he said it, his gaze moved down along the sides of her breasts past her waist, then down her thighs and legs. Embarrassed, Meredith stopped him from what he was doing by touching her lips to his chest. His muscles flinched reflexively as she brushed her lips over his skin, and his hand sank slowly into the hair at her nape, lifting her forward. This time when she raised her gaze to his, he bent his head. His mouth captured hers almost roughly, his tongue parting her lips and driving into her mouth in a fiercely erotic kiss that sent flames shooting through her entire body. Leaning over her, he kissed her until she heard herself moaning softly, and then his mouth was at her breasts, making them ache while his fingers explored and tormented and made her back arch against his hand. He moved, his body shifting on top of her, his hips insistent, his lips rough and tender against the curve of her neck and cheek. His mouth returned to hers again, parting her lips; his legs wedged between hers, parting her thighs, and all the while his tongue was tangling with hers, withdrawing and plunging deep. And then he stopped.
Cradling her face between his palms, he ordered hoarsely, “Look at me.” Somehow Meredith managed to surface from her sensual daze; she forced her lids open and looked into his scorching gray eyes. The moment she did, Matt drove into her with a force that tore a low cry from her throat and made her body arch like a bow. In that split second he recognized he’d just taken her virginity, and his reaction was more violent than hers. He froze, his eyes clenched shut. His shoulders and arms taut, he stayed there inside her, unmoving. “Why?” he demanded in a raw whisper.
She shivered at the accusation she thought she heard and misunderstood his question. “Because I haven’t done it before.”
That answer made his eyes open and what she saw wasn’t disappointment or accusation, it was tenderness and regret. “Why didn’t you tell me? I could have made this much easier for you.”
Spreading her fingers over his cheek, Meredith said with a soft, reassuring smile, “You did make it easy. And perfect.”
That accomplished what nothing else had. It made him groan. He covered her lips with his and, with infinite gentleness, began to move inside her, withdrawing almost all the way and slowly plunging deep, steadily increasing the tempo of his driving strokes, giving and giving and giving until Meredith was wild beneath him. Her fingernails bit into his back and hips, clutching him to her, while the passion raging inside her built into a holocaust, and still it went on and on, until it finally exploded in long soul-destroying bursts of extravagant pleasure. Gathering her into his arms, Matt shoved his fingers into her hair, kissing her with fiery urgency, and drove into her one more time. The deep raw hunger of his kiss, the sudden surge of liquid from his body into hers, made Meredith clasp him tighter and moan with the exquisite sensation.
Her heart beating frantically, she moved onto her side with him, her face pressed against his chest, his arms tight around her. “Do you have any idea,” he whispered in a shaken, hoarse voice, his lips brushing her cheek, “how exciting you are, and how responsive?”
Meredith didn’t answer, because the reality of what he’d done was beginning to seep through her, and she didn’t want to let it. Not now, not yet. She didn’t want anything to spoil this. She closed her eyes and listened to the lovely things he continued to say to her while he laid his hand against her cheek, idly brushing his thumb over her skin.
And then he asked something that did need a response and the magic faded, receding beyond her reach. “Why?” he asked her quietly. “Why did you do this tonight? With me?”
She tensed at the difficult, probing question, sighed with a feeling of loss, and pulled out of his arms, wrapping herself in the afghan lying over the end of the sofa. She’d known about the physical intimacy of sex, but no one had warned her about this strange, uneasy aftermath. She felt stripped bare emotionally; exposed, defenseless, awkward. “I think we’d both better get dressed,” she said nervously, “and then I’ll tell you whatever you want to know. I’ll be right back.”
In her room, Meredith put on a navy and white robe, tied the belt around her waist, and went back downstairs, still barefoot. As she passed the clock in the hall, she glanced at it. Her father would be home in an hour.
Matt was on the phone in the study, fully dressed with the exception of his tie, which he’d shoved into his pocket. “What’s the address here?” he asked. She told him and he relayed it to the cab company he had called. “I told them to be here in a half hour,” he said. Walking over to the coffee table in front of the sofa, he picked up his abandoned brandy glass.
“Can I get you anything else?” Meredith asked, because that question seemed like something a good hostess normally asked a guest when the evening neared its end. Or was that what a waitress asked, she wondered a little hysterically.
“I’d like an answer to my question,” he said. “What made you decide to do this tonight?”
She thought she heard a tautness in his voice, but his face was completely expressionless. She sighed and looked away, self-consciously tracing an inlaid square on the desk. “For years my father has treated me like a . . . a closet nymphomaniac, and I’ve never done anything to deserve it. Tonight when you insisted he must have some reason for ‘guarding me,’ something just snapped inside of me. I think I decided that if I was going to be treated like a tramp, I might as well have the experience of sleeping with a man. And at the same time, I had some insane idea of punishing you—and him. I wanted to show you that you were wrong.”
After several moments of ominous silence, Matt said curtly, “You could have convinced me I was wrong by simply telling me that your father is a tyrannical, suspicious bastard. I would have believed you.”
In her heart, Meredith knew that was true, and she glanced uneasily at him, wondering if anger had been her only reason for instigating what had just happened, or if she’d simply used anger as an excuse to experience intimately that sexual magnetism she’d felt from him all night. Used. That was the operative word. In a strange sort of way she felt guilty for using a man she had liked enormously to retaliate against her father.
In the lengthening silence, he seemed to evaluate what she’d said, and what she hadn’t said, and to guess what she was thinking. Whatever conclusions he drew from all that obviously didn’t please him very much, because he abruptly put down his glass and glanced at his watch. “I’ll walk down to the end of the drive.”
“I’ll show you out.” Polite sentences spoken between two strangers who’d been doing the most intimate possible things together less than one hour ago. That incongruity registered on her as she straightened from the desk. At the same moment his gaze riveted on her bare feet, shot back to her face, and then ricocheted to her hair tumbling loose about her shoulders. Barefoot, hair down, and in a long robe, Meredith did not look quite the way she did in a strapless evening dress with her hair in a sophisticated chignon. She knew before he asked the question what it was going to be.
“How old are you?”
“Not . . . quite as old as you think.”
“How old?” he persisted.
She expected some sort of reaction to that. Instead, he looked at her for a long, hard moment, and then he did something that made no sense to her. Turning, he went over to the desk and wrote something on a slip of paper. “This is my phone number in Edmunton,” he said calmly, handing it to her. “You can reach me there for the next six weeks. After that, Sommers will know how to get in touch with me somehow.”
When he left, she walked upstairs, frowning at the scrap of paper in her hand. If this was Matt’s way of suggesting she give him a call sometime, it was arrogant, rude, and completely obnoxious. And a little humiliating.
For most of the following week, Meredith jumped every time the phone rang, afraid that it was going to be Matt. Just the recollection of the things they’d done made her face burn with embarrassment, and she wanted to forget it and him.
By the following week she didn’t want to forget it at all. Once the guilt and fear of discovery had receded, she found herself thinking about him constantly, reliving the same moments she’d wanted to forget. Lying in bed at night, with her face pressed into the pillow, she felt his lips on her cheek and neck, and she recalled each sexy, tender word he’d whispered to her with a tiny thrill. She thought about other things too, like the pleasure of being with him while they talked on the lawn at Glenmoor, and the way he’d laughed at the things she said. She wondered if he was thinking about her, and if he was, why didn’t he call . . .
When he didn’t phone the week after that, Meredith realized she was obviously very forgettable and that he hadn’t thought her “exciting” or “responsive” at all. She went over and over the things she’d said to Matt just before he left, wondering if something she’d said was the reason for his silence now. She considered the possibility that she might have hurt his pride when she told him the truth about why she’d decided to sleep with him, but she found that very hard to believe. Matthew Farrell wasn’t the least bit insecure about his sexual attraction—he’d carried on that sexual banter with her within minutes of meeting her, when they first danced. It was more likely he hadn’t called because he’d decided she was too young to bother with.
By the end of the following week, Meredith no longer wanted to hear from him. Her period was two weeks overdue, and she wished to God she’d never met Matthew Farrell at all. As one day drifted into the next, she couldn’t think about anything except the terrifying possibility that she’d gotten pregnant. Lisa was in Europe, so there was no one to turn to or help make the time go faster. She waited and she prayed and she promised fervently that if she wasn’t pregnant, she’d never have intercourse again until she was married.
But either God wasn’t listening to her prayers or He was immune to bribery.