Authors: Sherryl Woods
Zelda Lane…her very name made the local gossips raise their eyebrows. She’d scandalized an entire town and filled upright Taylor Matthews with enough young love to burst all bounds of propriety. But that was long ago. Now a pillar of the community, Taylor privately rued the day he’d let Zelda go.
But not as much as he dreaded her return! Because Zelda was back—as beautiful and bold as ever. She was carrying a torch—as well as a grudge. And from the tips of his polished shoes to the top of his starched collar, Taylor knew he’d never quite gotten her out of his system…
Table of Contents
ith all the uncertainties in his life—and there were a bundle of them, one thing was absolutely, positively clear to Taylor Matthews. He did not want to handle the estate of Ella Louise Lane. Not under any circumstances.
In the first place, the woman was nuttier than a pecan pie. No medical examination had labeled her as such, but there were some things everyone in Port William, South Carolina, just accepted. Ella Louise’s eccentricity was one of them.
In the second and far more bothersome place, her primary heir was likely to be her daughter. As Taylor recalled all too explicitly, Zelda Lane was sexier than Julia Roberts and more trouble than half a dozen bank robbers. He wasn’t sure which side of her nature worried him more.
Unfortunately, Ella Louise had made up her mind she wanted Taylor for the job. She paced in front of him now wearing a bright orange sweater that clashed dramatically with her red hair, a faded pair of blue jeans that bagged on her too thin body and some kind of feathery, pink high-heeled slippers from another era. Mules, wasn’t that what they called them? How could she even stand up on the things? he wondered nervously as she teetered dangerously, then sank onto the sofa. He breathed a sigh of relief.
“Have you got that?” she demanded.
He blinked and stared at her.
“Got what?” he asked, still too bemused by her command invitation and unwanted memories of Zelda to pay much attention to the details of a will he had no intention of drawing up.
The only reason he was in this house at all was out of some misguided sense of duty. He knew deep in his gut that he’d bungled things with Zelda and he owed her for it. But not this much. Uh-uh. Definitely not enough to get within five hundred miles of her again. His days of risk-taking had ended. He had a nice, quiet, ordinary life now, and that was the way he wanted things to stay. There was nothing quiet or ordinary about Zelda.
Ella Louise scowled at him, while tapping her foot impatiently. “I declare, Taylor, for a bright young attorney, you don’t have a lick of concentration. Sometimes I wonder what my daughter ever saw in you.”
She studied him critically, then shook her head in bafflement. Taylor winced at the assessment that had obviously found him wanting. He felt an odd need to defend himself, to prove his desirability by listing the attractive, intelligent, socially acceptable women who’d tried to seduce him since the death of his wife. Fortunately he was able to keep his mouth clamped firmly shut.
Obviously the reference to Zelda and their long-dead relationship was making him a little crazy, stirring him in a way it had no business doing. With that in mind he tried one more time to make Ella Louise see sense. He figured he was wasting his time, given the fact that he was dealing with a woman who’d made a shrine out of her collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald novels, while the rest of the house practically collapsed around her. Still he had to try.
“I really think you should hire another lawyer,” he said. “I’ll be glad to call over to Charleston and have a friend of mine stop by to see you.”
“And how long will that take?” Ella Louise demanded. “Days? A week or two? I don’t have time. I want this done and done now.”
He regarded her even more nervously, studying the pale complexion and the feverish look in her eyes that he’d attributed to too many glasses of her favorite bourbon on an empty stomach. Was she suffering from some fatal illness, after all?
“Ella Louise,” he inquired worriedly, “are you all right? Should I call the doctor?”
“So he can tell me I’m dying?” she said with an unladylike snort. “Don’t need to hear him say it. I just need to get this one piece of business taken care of, so I can finally rest. Now can we get down to business or are you going to waste more of my time arguing?”
“You know Zelda and I didn’t part on the best of terms,” he protested in what had to be the biggest understatement since the local paper had described his political downfall as being the result of a slight mistake in judgment.
“I know,” she agreed with such great serenity that Taylor was sure she couldn’t possibly remember the details as vividly as he did. She must have forgotten all about the way Zelda had poked holes in every one of his brand new Mustang’s tires the night he’d broken up with her. Then she’d painted an unwarranted comment about his parentage on the town’s water tower. How she’d gotten up there was beyond him, but she’d always had a knack for managing the impossible.
Since he’d known deep down that he was the one at fault, he’d been the one who’d climbed that damned tower to remove the graffiti before his daddy went to the sheriff to demand Zelda’s arrest. A part of him, a part that remained untamed despite his father’s best efforts, had admired her audacity. He doubted she’d changed. The Zelda he remembered was capable of carrying a grudge on into the next century.
Given all that, he found Ella Louise’s enigmatic expression disturbing.
“How can you ask that she deal with me at a time when she’d be grieving?” He shook his head. “No, Ella Louise, this is a bad idea. I’ll get someone else here this afternoon.” He could call in a favor at his old law firm. They wouldn’t want to come, but they’d respond to the plea of a desperate man. He figured that was a role he wouldn’t have a bit of trouble playing convincingly.
“I want you,” she said stubbornly, then began a fit of coughing that had her whole body shaking.
Panicked by the increasingly obvious signs of some unnamed illness, Taylor finally agreed to take down her last wishes and put them into a legal will.
“But I won’t be the executor,” he said flatly. “You’ll have to think of someone else. There’s no point in upsetting Zelda any more than necessary at such a time. What about Mabel or Elsie? She always got along with them, didn’t she?”
“I’ll think about it,” she agreed.
Too quickly, it seemed to him, but he was willing to grasp at straws.
“Meantime,” she said blithely, “just put your name in there, and we’ll discuss it when you bring the papers back for me to sign.”
Taylor saw the stubborn set to her chin and remembered it all too well from countless quarrels with Zelda. With a sigh of resignation, he stopped arguing and took notes. It troubled him more than he could say, however, that that serene, enigmatic look was back in Ella Louise’s eyes when he left.
That night his own mother gave him a lecture on generosity of spirit, forgiveness and Christian charity. He wasn’t exactly sure which parts of her eloquent speech were applicable to Ella Louise’s situation, but he finally threw in the towel. Besides, as nutty as Ella Louise was, she’d probably have half a dozen executors named before she finally died. Come to think of it, she was probably stubborn enough to outlive them all.
The next day, after an endless night filled with memories of all the times he’d defied his parents and sneaked out to that old tumble-down house during high school and college, he pulled to a stop in the front yard. He could still recall as if it had been only yesterday the way Zelda had looked as she’d run down that dirt path from the front door, eyes sparkling with devilment, cheeks flushed with excitement, those long, long legs as bare as pure temptation. She’d had more spirit, more wild passion than any woman he’d ever known. The memory alone was enough to cause his body to grow hard with desire.
Let that be a warning, he thought ruefully as he tried to think of some way to extricate himself from the dangerous situation that Ella Louise’s signature on that damned will would just about guarantee. It was a time bomb, just ticking away, setting him up for disaster.
He tapped on the screen door and peered into the dim interior. When Ella Louise didn’t respond, he walked around the outside of the house looking for her, climbing over rusting wheelbarrows and haphazardly stacked piles of firewood. Filled with a sudden sense of impending doom, he returned to the front door, called out one last time, then crept inside.
He spotted her right off. Ella Louise was sitting in a rocker, her head slumped forward. Taylor knew without setting one foot closer that she was dead, that she’d finished up her earthly business with him the previous afternoon and died quietly in her sleep.
So, he thought with wry amusement, she’d gotten her wish, after all. Even without her signature, he knew he could make the will stick in court unless somebody wanted to raise a humdinger of a stink. Just as he’d feared, he was doomed to handling the settlement of Ella Louise’s estate.
Which meant seeing Zelda again.
God help him.
o, Zelda Lane thought as she slowly hung up the phone, her mother had finally gone and gotten her wish. She’d fallen asleep in her antique rocking chair and never awakened, according to the neighbor who’d just called.
As she tried to absorb the news, Zelda was torn between the predictable emptiness and a fierce anger that accompanied any loss. There was even an unwelcome touch of guilt mixed in. Her eyes stung but remained dry through a sheer act of will. She would not cry. She wouldn’t even mourn. How could she shed so much as a tear over the death of a woman who’d been determined to kill herself as far back as Zelda could remember?
“Damn you, Mama,” she whispered with a catch in her voice. “Damn you!”
Her boss regarded her with alarm. “Zelda, are you all right?” Kate Newton asked, coming around from behind her desk to squeeze Zelda’s suddenly trembling hand.
Zelda glanced up, feeling dazed, and caught the expression of genuine concern in Kate’s eyes. “It’s Mama,” she said flatly. “She died sometime during the night. She was at home, all alone, just the way she wanted it to happen.”
Ready, sympathetic tears immediately sprang into Kate’s eyes. “Oh, sweetie, I’m so sorry.” Then as if it weren’t the middle of an incredibly busy day, she said, “Come on. We’ll shut down for the afternoon, and I’ll help you pack.”
“Pack?” Zelda said blankly, clutching her steno pad more tightly. “For what?”
“I’m sure you’ll want to be on the first flight back east. Don’t you worry about a thing. I’ll call the airlines and take care of the reservations.”
Zelda shook her head. “No.” Her voice held steady with no sign of the turmoil she was feeling inside. She pretended not to see the look of puzzlement in Kate’s eyes as she stubbornly opened her pad to a clean page. “You were about to dictate a letter when I got that call.”
Dismay spread across Kate’s face. Zelda stared her down. After a moment’s hesitation, Kate swallowed whatever lecture she’d been about to begin and finished dictating. But before Zelda could escape to the outer office, Kate gently removed the pad from her hand, a glint of determination in her eyes. When it came to stubbornness, they were an equal match.
“Zelda, I know you must be in shock, but denying what’s happened won’t help,” she said gently.
“I’m not denying anything,” Zelda contradicted. “My mother’s dead. She finally got her wish. She’s been trying to kill herself with booze and cigarettes ever since I can remember.”
A wayward tear escaped despite her stoic determination not to admit how much that hurt. Before Kate could ask more troubling questions, Zelda ran from the office. By the time Kate caught up with her, she was already at her computer typing the letter her boss had just dictated. The keystrokes were automatic, though she had to force herself to concentrate on the shorthand that seemed shakier and less precise than usual. Kate finally sighed and gently closed the door between their offices in an attempt to give her the privacy she desperately wanted to avoid.
Her keystrokes finally slowed. Memories forced their way in, more powerful than the determination to avoid them.
she thought wearily.
How could you slip away on me like this?
She asked the question, but she already knew the answer. Her mother had slipped away on her and everyone else years ago.
Everybody in Port William, South Carolina, always knew that Zelda Lane’s mama was “under the weather” by three o’clock in the afternoon. Except on weekends, that is. Saturdays and Sundays, when Zelda’s daddy was home, Ella Louise started drinking earlier and reached her limit well before noon. It was a well-established pattern that never varied, even when Zelda begged her mother not to touch another drink.