Her eyes snapped open, narrowed, dropped to the smile on his lips, then lifted to his eyes again in confused misery. "I can't," she whispered hoarsely. "This whole idea is insane, I see that now. We'll only be making things worse for each other, and the baby, by getting married."
"Why do you say that?"
"Why?" she repeated, flushing with humiliation. "How can you ask me why? My God, you didn't even want to take me out again after that night. You haven't even phoned. How can—"
"I intended to call you," he interrupted. She rolled her eyes at that unbelievable claim, and he went on. "In a year or two—as soon as I got back from South America." If she weren't so miserable, Meredith would have laughed in his face at that one, but his next words, spoken with quiet force, stunned her and doused the impulse. "If I'd thought for one minute you actually wanted to hear from me, I'd have called you long before this."
Torn between disbelief and painful hope, Meredith closed her eyes, trying unsuccessfully to deal with her bewildering, uncontrollable reactions. Everything was extremes—extremes of despair, of relief, of hope, of joy.
"Cheer up!" Matt ordered again, inordinately pleased that she'd apparently wanted to see him again. Among other things, he'd assumed six weeks ago that in the harsh light of day, she'd reevaluate things and decide his combined lack of money and social standing were impossible obstacles to any further relationship. Evidently she hadn't felt that way. She drew a ragged breath, and not until she spoke did Matt realize that she was trying valiantly to respond to his urging to cheer up. With a tremulous smile she said darkly, "Are you planning to be a nag?"
"I think that's supposed to be my line."
"Mmm." he confirmed. "Wives nag."
"What do husbands do?"
He gave her a look of deliberate superiority. "Husbands command."
In contrast to her next words, her smile and voice were angelically sweet. "Would you like to bet on that?"
Matt tore his gaze from her inviting lips and looked into jewel-bright eyes. Mesmerized, he answered with blunt honesty. "No."
And then the last thing that he expected occurred. Instead of cheering her up, he realized she was crying, and just when he was blaming himself for making her do that, Meredith put her arms around him and pulled him down to her. Burying her face in the curve of his neck and shoulder, she turned into his arms as he stretched out beside her on the bed, her slim shoulders shaking. When she finally spoke, several moments later, her words were rendered almost indistinguishable by tears. "Does a farmer's fiancée have to can and pickle things?"
Matt muffled a stunned laugh, stroking her luxuriant hair. "No."
"Good, because I don't know how."
"I'm not a farmer," he reassured her. "You know that."
The real cause of her misery came pouring out in a sob of deep, pure grief. "I was supposed to start college next month. I have to go to college. I p-planned to be president someday, Matt."
Astonished, Matt tipped his chin down, trying to see her face. "That's a hell of a goal," he said before he could stop himself. "President of the United States ..."
That last, perfectly serious remark, startled a shriek of teary laughter from the unpredictable young woman in his arms. "Not of the United States, of a store!" she corrected him, and the gorgeous eyes she raised to his were suddenly swimming with tears of laughter now instead of despair.
"Thank God for that," he teased, so eager to keep her smiling that he paid no attention to the implications of what he was saying. "I expect to be a reasonably rich man in the next few years, but buying you the presidency of the United States might be beyond my means even then."
"Thank you," she whispered.
"For making me laugh. I haven't cried this much since I was a child. Now I can't seem to stop."
"I hope you weren't laughing at what I said about being rich."
Despite his light tone, Meredith sensed that he was extremely serious about that, and she sobered. She saw the determination in that square jaw, the intelligence and hard-bitten experience in those gray eyes. His life had not given him any of the advantages that it offered men of her own class, but she sensed instinctively that Matt Farrell had a rare kind of strength coupled with an indomitable will to succeed. She sensed something else about him too—that despite his arbitrary attitude and the mild cynicism she'd glimpsed, there was a core of gentleness within him. His behavior today was proof of that. She had initiated their lovemaking six weeks ago, and this pregnancy and hasty marriage was undoubtedly as disastrous to bis life as it was to hers. Yet, not once had he torn into her for her stupidity or carelessness, nor had he told her to go to hell when she asked him if he would marry her—which she'd half expected him to do.
Watching her study him, Matt knew she was rating his chances to succeed and make good his claim; he also knew how incongruous that claim would seem to her, particularly now. The night he'd met her, he'd at least looked successful. Now, however, she knew what sort of place he came from; she'd seen him with his head under the hood of a truck and grease all over his hands, and he remembered that momentary flash of shock and repugnance on her face. And so, as he looked down at that beautiful face of hers, he waited for her to laugh at his pretension—no, not laugh—she was much too well bred to laugh in his face; she'd say something condescending, and he'd know it in an instant, because those expressive eyes of hers would give away her real thoughts.
She finally spoke, her voice quiet, thoughtful, smiling. "Planning to set the world on fire, are you?"
"With a torch," he averred.
To his complete shock, Meredith Bancroft lifted her hand and shyly laid it against his tense jaw, her fingers spreading over his cheek. The smile on her lips transferred to her eyes, making them glow. Softly, but with absolute conviction, she whispered, "I'm sure you will, Matt."
Matt opened his mouth to say something, and he couldn't speak; the touch of her fingers, the proximity of her body, and the look in her eyes suddenly drugged his mind. Six weeks ago, he'd been wildly attracted to her; in the space of a moment, that latent attraction erupted with a force that made him lean down and seize her mouth with hard, demanding hunger. He devoured its sweetness, stunned by his own urgency, astonished when he had to slow down and coax her lips apart, because he knew instinctively she was feeling a little of what he was feeling. And when her lips did part and begin to move with his, he was shocked by the surge of triumph he felt. Common sense fled; Matt leaned up and over her, his body already rigid with desire, and almost groaned a few minutes later when she tore her mouth from his and held her hands against his chest to keep him away. "Your family," she gasped desperately. "They're downstairs ..."