"Then fire me!" she flung back. "No, I won't give you that much satisfaction! I resign. Effective immediately. You'll have a letter on your desk in fifteen minutes."
Before she could take the first step to leave, he sank into his chair. "Sit down!" he ordered her. "Since you're determined to have it out at this inopportune moment, let's lay all our cards on the table."
"That will be a welcome change!" Meredith retorted, sitting down.
"Now," he said with biting sarcasm, "the truth is that you are not angry about my choosing Allen Stanley, you're angry because I didn't choose you."
"I'm angry about both those things."
"Either way, I had sound reasons for not choosing you, Meredith. For one thing, you are not old enough or experienced enough to take over the reins of this company."
Really?" Meredith shot back. "How did you arrive at that conclusion? You were less than a year older than I am now when Grandfather put you in charge."
"That was different."
"It certainly was," she agreed, her voice shaking with anger. "Your record at this store when you were put in charge was a great deal less impressive than mine is! In fact, the only thing you really accomplished was to come to work on time!" She saw him put his hand to his chest, as if he were having a pain, and that only made her more furious. "Don't you dare fake a heart attack, because it won't stop me from saying what I should have said years ago." His hand fell from his jacket and he glared at her white-faced as she pronounced, "You are a bigot. And the real reason you won't give me a chance is because I am a female."
"You're not far from wrong," he gritted out with a suppressed rage that nearly matched hers. "There are five men out there in that reception room who have invested decades of their lives in this store. Not a few years, but decades!"
"Really?" she retorted sarcastically. "How many of them have invested four million dollars of their own money in it? Furthermore, you're not only bluffing, you're lying. Two of those men came to work here the same year I did, and for higher salaries, I might add."
His hands closed into fists on his desk. "This discussion is pointless."
"Yes, it is," she agreed bitterly, standing up. "My resignation still stands."
"Just where do you think you'll go from here?" he said in a voice that implied she'd never find a comparable job.
"To any major retailer in the country!" Meredith countered, too furious to consider the anguish such an act of disloyalty would cause her. Bancroft's was her history, her life. "Marshall Field's would hire me in five minutes, so would the May Company or Neimans—"
"Now you're bluffing!" he snapped.
"Just watch me!" she warned, but she was already sickened by the thought of working for Bancroft's competitors and exhausted by the holocaust of emotions inside her. Almost wearily, she said, "Just once, could you possibly be completely honest with me—"
When he waited in stony silence for her question, she said, "You never intended to turn the store over to me, did you? Not now, and not in the future, no matter how long or how hard I worked here?"
In her heart she'd always known that, but even so, she reeled from the shock of having him say it. "Because I'm a woman," she stated.
"That's one reason. Those men out there won't work for a woman."
"That's garbage," Meredith replied numbly. "And it's illegal. It's also untrue, but you already know that. Dozens of men report to me, directly or indirectly, in the departments under my control. It's your own egotistical bigotry that makes you believe I shouldn't run this organization."
"Maybe it's partly that," he shot back. "And maybe it's also because I refuse to aid and abet you in your blind determination to build your entire life around this company! In fact, I will do anything in my power to prevent you from building your life around any career with any store! Those are my motives for keeping you from inheriting this office, Meredith. And whether you like my motives or not, at least I know what they are. You, on the other hand, don't even know why you're determined to turn yourself into Bancroft's next president."
"What!" she uttered in blank, angry confusion. "Suppose you tell me why you think I am."
"Very well, I will. Eleven years ago you married a bastard who was after your money and who'd gotten you pregnant; you lost his baby and you discovered you could never have more children. And suddenly," he finished with bitter triumph, "you developed an abiding love for Bancroft and Company and a driving ambition to mother it!"
Meredith stared at him while all the flaws in his argument raged through her brain and a lump of emotion swelled painfully in her throat. Fighting to keep her voice steady, she said, "I have loved this place since I was a little girl; I loved it before I met Matthew Farrell and I loved it after he was out of my life. In fact, I can tell you exactly when I decided to work here and be president someday. I was six years old, and you brought me here to wait for you while you met with the board. And you told me," she continued raggedly, "that I could sit there, in your chair, while I waited for you. And I did. I sat there, touching your fountain pens and I buzzed your secretary on the intercom, and she came in and let me dictate a letter. It was a letter to you," she said—and from the way his face paled, she knew he suddenly remembered that letter. "The letter said"—she paused to draw another shattered breath, adamantly refusing to let him see her cry—'Dear Father, I am going to study and work very hard, so that someday you will be so proud of me that you'll let me work here like you and Grandfather. And if I do, will you let me sit in your chair again?'
"You read the letter that day, and you said 'of course,'" Meredith finished, looking at him with proud disdain. "I kept my word; you never meant to keep yours. Other little girls played house, but not me," she added on a choked laugh. "I played department store!"
Lifting her chin, she added, "I used to think you loved me. I knew you wished I'd been a boy, but I never realized you didn't give a damn about me because I was merely a girl. All my life you've made me despise my mother for leaving us, but now I wonder if she left or you drove her away, exactly as you've just driven me away. My resignation will be on your desk tomorrow." She saw the look of knowing satisfaction on his face at her postponement, and she lifted her chin higher. "I have meetings scheduled, and I won't be able to get to it before then."