"It's possible he's right," he said, and from his cool, clipped tone, she knew he was beginning to realize that she suspected him, and that he was going to despise her for it. In profound misery she looked away again, and her gaze fell on the framed photograph of his mother and father smiling at each other on their wedding day. A similar photo had been in one of the albums she'd packed away at the farm. The photographs... The names beneath them . . . The names. His mother's maiden name was COLLIER. The Collier Trust had bought up Bancroft & Company's loans. If she hadn't been so beset with other problems, she'd have made the connection before.
Her gaze shot to Matt's face, while the dawning pain of betrayal slashed through her like a thousand jagged knives. "Your mother's name was Collier, wasn't it?" she said, her voice ragged with anguish. "You are the Collier Trust, aren't you!"
"Yes," he said, watching her, as if almost uncertain of how or why she was reacting like this.
"Oh, my God!" she said, backing away a step. "You're buying up our stock, and you've bought up all our loans. What are you planning to do, foreclose and take us over if we're late with a payment?"
"That's ridiculous," he said, but there was urgency in his voice as he started toward her. "Meredith, I was trying to help you."
"How?" she cried, wrapping her arms around her stomach and jerking back out of his reach. "By buying up our loans or buying up our stock?"
"You're lying!" she said as everything fell into place, and her blinding obsession with him gave way to agonizing reality. "You started buying our stock the day after we had lunch—right after you found that my father blocked your rezoning request. I've seen the dates. You weren't trying to help me!"
"No, not then I wasn't," he answered with desperate sincerity. "I bought the original blocks of stock with every intention of accumulating enough to gain either a seat on your board of directors or possibly a controlling interest."
"And you've kept right on buying them ever since," she flung back. "Only now the shares you're buying are costing you a lot less, aren't they, because our stock has dropped after those bomb threats! Tell me something," she demanded shakily, "just this once, tell me the truth—the complete and entire truth! Did you have Spyzhalski killed? Are you behind those bomb threats?"
Shuddering with fury and anguish, she ignored his protest. "The first bomb scare took place the same week we had lunch and you found out my father had your rezoning request denied! Don't you find that just a little bit coincidental?"
"I'm not responsible for any of that," he argued urgently. "Listen to me! If you want the entire truth, I'll give it to you." His voice gentled. "Will you listen to me, darling?"
Her treacherous heart slammed against her ribs at the sound of his voice calling her darling and the expression in those gray eyes. She nodded, but she knew she'd never be able to believe he was telling her the complete truth, not when he'd already hidden so much from her, and so skillfully.
"I've already admitted I started buying shares of your stock to retaliate against your father. Later, after we were together at the farm, I began to realize how important that department store is to you, and I also knew that when your father came home and found us together again, he'd pull out every stop to dissuade you from staying with me. I figured that sooner or later he'll make you choose: him or me. Bancroft and Company and the presidency of it, or nothing, if you choose me. I decided to keep buying up your stock so that he couldn't do that. I was prepared to buy however much stock it would take to gain control of the board of directors so that he couldn't threaten you with the loss of the presidency, because I'd control the board."
Meredith stared at him, her trust demolished by his secrecy over this and all the other things. "But you couldn't confide your noble motives to me," she said, glaring her disdain.
"I wasn't sure how you'd react."
"And yesterday you let me make a fool of myself telling you about our new lender—the Collier Trust, when you're the Collier Trust."
"I was afraid you'd see it as—charity!"
"I'm not that stupid," she retorted, but her voice was trembling and tears were burning the backs of her eyes. "It wasn't charity, it was a brilliant tactical move! You promised my father you'd own him someday, and now you do! With the help of a few bombs, and my unwitting cooperation."
"I know it looks that way—"
"Because it is that way!" she cried. "From the day I came to the farm to tell you what really happened eleven years ago, you've been ruthlessly using everything I've told you to manipulate things until they happen the way you want them to. You've lied to me—"
"No, I haven't!"
"You've deliberately misled me, and that's the same thing! Your methods are all dishonest, and yet you expect me to believe your motives are noble? Well, I can't!"
"Don't do this to us," he warned, his voice hoarse with angry desperation as he realized he was losing her. "You're letting eleven years of mistrust color everything you've discovered I've done."
In some part of herself Meredith wasn't sure he was wrong. All she was sure of was that a bogus lawyer who got in Matt's way was dead, and her father, who'd gotten in his way, would soon be little more than a puppet dancing on the end of Matt's financial strings. And so was she. "Prove it to me," she cried on the verge of hysteria. "I want proof."
His face tightened. "Someone has to prove to you I'm not an arsonist or a murderer, is that it? You have to have proof that I'm not guilty of all the rest of that, and if I can't give it to you, you're going to believe the worst?"
Battered by the truth of his words, she looked at him, feeling as if her heart were being torn to pieces. When he spoke again, his deep voice was aching with emotion.
"All you have to do is trust me for a few weeks until the authorities find out the truth." He held out his hand for hers. "Trust me, darling," he said tenderly.
With uncertainty clawing at her, Meredith looked at his outstretched hand, but she couldn't move. The bomb threats were too convenient... the police weren't questioning all Spyzhalski's clients, because they hadn't questioned her.
"Either give me your hand," he said, "or end it now, and put us both out of our misery."
Meredith wiled herself to put her hand in his and trust him, but she couldn't do it. "I can't," she whispered brokenly. "I want to, but I just can't!" His hand fell to his side, his face wiped clean of all expression. Unable to endure the way he was looking at her, she turned to leave. Her fingers closed around the keys in her pocket, the keys to the car he'd given her. She pulled them out and turned, holding them toward him. "I'm sorry," she said, fighting to keep her voice from shaking, "I'm not allowed to accept gifts of over twenty-five dollars from anyone with whom my company has business dealings."