"Did Sam happen to use the word takeover?" he demanded, his voice tight
"Yes," Meredith said reluctantly, and flipped to the next page, "but we all agreed that's probably an imaginary worry, because we'd be a poor takeover target right now. As you already know, we had a bomb threat in the New Orleans store, which proved to be false. It slowed down sales for several days; then they returned to normal." For the next few minutes she continued leafing through the pages until she'd brought him up-to-date on everything, including Parker's call that morning about their new lenders. "That takes care of business," she said, watching him for signs that the strain was more than his heart could take. He looked like a stone statue in that chair, but his color had returned to normal. "Now let's take care of personal matters—Matthew Farrell in particular." Deliberately phrasing the question as a challenge, she said, "Can you handle a discussion of him now?"
"Yes," he snapped.
Gentling her voice, she said, "When I discovered he'd bought the Houston land, I went to his apartment to force a showdown. Instead of finding Matt there, I found his father, who warned me to stay away from Matt, and who accused me of trying to ruin his life and of having an abortion eleven years ago." His jaws clamped, and Meredith calmly continued. "I went to see Matt at the farm that weekend, and together we realized what you had done, including preventing him from seeing me in the hospital. When I had time to think," she said with a sad smile, "I realized you obviously thought you were protecting me from—from a man you believed to be a social-climbing gold digger, which is what you called him back then. You shouldn't have interfered," she added somberly. "I loved him, and I never got completely over the pain of believing he'd deserted me and the baby. In the end you caused me more hurt than he ever could have. But I know you didn't mean to," she added, searching his rigid face.
When he didn't move or speak, Meredith continued. "The week after I came back from seeing Matt at the farm, the bogus lawyer you hired was arrested, and he started naming his clients' names, which caused an uproar in the press about Matt, Parker, and me. Matt had him bailed out of jail and taken care of, then the three of us gave a joint press conference. We tried to pass the matter off as lightly as possible and to put up a show of solidarity. Unfortunately, last week four of us went out to dinner for my birthday, and Parker had too much to drink ... and, well, there was a fight, and that got us in the newspapers again. About all I can say," she added, trying desperately to joke and find something positive from it, "is that our business had an upward surge for several days after the press conference, which probably came from all the publicity."
Her father didn't smile. When he finally spoke, his voice shook with angry disbelief. "You've broken your engagement to Parker, haven't you?"
"Because of Farrell."
"Yes." Softly, but with absolute conviction, she said, "I love him."
"Then you're an idiot!"
"And he loves me."
That brought her father out of his chair, his lip curled with contempt. "That monster doesn't want you or love you—what he wants is revenge against me!"
His tone hurt as much as his words, but Meredith didn't falter. "Matt understands that I can't live with him for a few weeks—not after I stood in the auditorium downstairs and publicly announced that we scarcely knew each other and there was no possibility of a reconciliation. Now," she concluded with quiet finality, "the fact is that the two of you are going to have to learn to accept each other. I won't pretend that Matt isn't still angry with you for what you did, but he loves me, and because he does, he'll forgive you for the past eventually, and even try to find a way to be friends with you—"
"Did he actually tell you that, Meredith?" he demanded with biting scorn.
"No," she admitted, "but—"
"Then let me tell you what he told me eleven years ago," he grated out, leaning his fists on the desk. "That bastard warned me—he threatened me in my own home—that if I came between you and him, he'd buy me and then he'd bury me. He didn't have a thousand dollars to his name eleven years ago, so that was an empty threat, but it isn't now, by God!"
"What were you doing at the time to make him say such a thing?" Meredith demanded, already guessing at the answer.
"I won't hide it from you. I tried to pay him off to go away, and when he refused the money, I took a swing at him!"
"And did he hit you back?" she asked, knowing he wouldn't.
"He wasn't that stupid! We were in my house, and I'd have called the police. Besides, he didn't dare alienate you by attacking me. He knew you were going to inherit millions from your grandfather, and he intended to get his hands on all of that. He warned me what would happen if I got in his way, and now he intends to make it happen!"
"It wasn't a warning, it was an empty threat," Meredith said slowly, trying to put herself in Matt's place and think how he would have felt. "What would you expect him to do, stand there and let you humiliate and bully him, and then thank you for it? He had as much pride as you have, and he's just as strong-willed as you. That's why you two can't stand each other."
His mouth dropped open at her naivete, and he stared at her in speechless wonder, his anger draining. "Meredith," he said almost gently, "you're a very smart young woman, and yet you're still a gullible little fool where Farrell is concerned! You’ve been sitting here updating me on a series of dramatic events that are having dire effects on our business. And yet it hasn't seemed to occur to you they all, including these bomb threats, coincided with Farrell's reentry into our lives!"
"Oh, don't be ridiculous!" she said, shocked into laughter.
"We'll see who's ridiculous," he warned fiercely, and leaning across the desk, he picked up the intercom and said, "Send Braden in here. And tell Sam Green and Allen Stanley I want them to join us immediately."
As soon as the corporation's lawyer and its controller arrived a few minutes later, Philip launched into action. "We're not going to play games in this meeting," he told them. "I'm going to lay all my cards on the table, but nothing that is said in here is to leave this room. Is that clear?"
The three men nodded immediately, and Philip turned to Braden. "Let's hear your theory about the bomb scares."