Authors: Sherryl Woods
He winked at her. “Maybe not, but at least we know it’ll be edible. Now, scoot, and put your things away. Let me talk to Zelda for a few minutes and catch up on what happened at the office after I left to pick you up.”
Caitlin bounced off her chair and ran to the door. Then she hesitated and shot a worried look at Zelda. “You won’t go, will you?”
“And miss this casserole your father has so expertly warmed up? Not a chance.”
When Caitlin had gone, Zelda turned to Taylor. “I’m sorry she put you on the spot.”
“Are you really?” he inquired skeptically. “We both know you’d probably finished your work a good hour before Caitlin and I got home.”
She chafed under his knowing look. “Are you accusing me of engineering this meeting?”
She took heart from the fact that he didn’t appear as angry as he might have been. “Okay, so what if I did?”
“Look, it has nothing to do with you personally, or even you and me,” he insisted when she raised a skeptical brow. “Caitlin lost one person who was very important to her. I won’t have her form an attachment to someone else who’s only going to disappear from her life.”
Zelda’s indignation flared, then vanished in the space of a heartbeat. How could she argue with a warning that only stemmed from Taylor’s obvious love and concern for his daughter? “I’ll be careful, Taylor. I promise.”
He sighed and shook his head. “Careful?” he echoed. “I didn’t think the word was in your vocabulary.”
It was something Beau Matthews might have said, Zelda thought as her temper began to flare. She’d spent the past three weeks practically standing on her head to prove to Taylor that she was no longer some impetuous, irresponsible kid. Obviously she hadn’t made a dent in that thick skull of his.
Fueled by irritation and a sudden streak of pure mischief, she turned slowly and began moving toward him. Her pace was lazy, but relentless. He backed up a step, apparently warned by something he read in her expression that she was on the warpath and had no intention of playing fair.
“Don’t worry, Taylor,” she soothed. “This will be painless.”
Alarm rose in his eyes. “What are you up to?”
“No good,” she said cheerfully. “Isn’t that what you usually expect from me?”
He backed into the counter. Zelda kept coming until her body was pressed against his, toe to toe, thigh to thigh, hips to…well, there was no doubt at all about what impact she was having on him. So, he wasn’t nearly as immune as he pretended to be. Unfortunately, she thought as a shudder swept through her, neither was she. This game of hers could have dangerous consequences. Even knowing that, she wasn’t about to stop.
Looking him straight in the eye, she braced her hands on his chest. She began to fiddle with the buttons on his shirt until the first four were undone and she could slide her fingers into the mat of crisp hairs on his chest. His skin blazed beneath her slow, tantalizing touch. She could feel the sudden racing of his heart, heard the sharp intake of breath as she provocatively skimmed a fingernail across one taut masculine nipple.
“Zelda, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” he demanded in a choked whisper.
She noticed with a measure of satisfaction that for all of his protests, he wasn’t trying very hard to escape. “If you don’t know, then you’ve obviously been out of circulation for far too long.”
He brushed at her hands, but the gesture lacked conviction. She simply laced her fingers together behind his neck and touched her lips to his feverish cheek, liking the way the rough stubble felt against her own softer skin. There was no mistaking the shudder that swept through him or the desire that darkened his eyes. She pressed a kiss on the opposite cheek, then another on his furrowed brow. Then, when his breath was coming in ragged gasps, she began the same slow, deliberately provocative pattern all over again.
“Zelda? Why are you doing this?”
“Just living up to expectations,” she replied innocently as she skimmed a finger across his mouth, tracing the outline of his lips.
“Expectations?” he echoed weakly.
“Sure. I’m still wicked, untamed Zelda Lane, right? Daughter of the town’s most eccentric lady.” She emphasized her words with a slow, deep kiss that left them both trembling. She nodded in satisfaction. This was working out rather nicely. She was enjoying herself. So was Taylor, if his dazed expression was anything to judge by. Just to make sure he didn’t get to thinking too hard about what was happening, she kissed him again, molding her mouth to his, teasing his lips with her tongue until the whole world tilted.
When she could finally manage to speak again, she added nonchalantly, “Might as well enjoy myself, right?”
As bemused as he was, as badly as his traitorous body ached for her, Taylor couldn’t ignore the sad, wistful note in her voice. There was a lot of hurt behind that jaunty comment, a hurt he didn’t begin to understand, but which touched him deeply just the same.
It also made him feel like a heel for allowing her to go on this way,
for enjoying it, damn it!
He admitted the latter to himself only after some deep and troublesome soul-searching. He was tempted, all right, tempted to play this scene straight through to the end.
Only the knowledge that they would both hate themselves in the morning—and Caitlin’s inconvenient presence in another part of the house—kept him from giving in to the wild sensations Zelda’s determined touches were arousing in him. He put his hands on her waist and lifted her away, putting a much needed inch or two of space between them. No more, he noticed ruefully. He could still feel the heat radiating from her, still catch a whiff of some subtle, exotic fragrance.
Ignoring the rebellious glint in her eyes, he smoothed her hair back from her face with one hand. He caressed the pale shadows under her eyes, traced the outline of her kiss-swollen lips with his thumb.
“I’m sorry,” he said finally.
She regarded him with obvious bewilderment. “Sorry? For what?”
“Because you’ve been trying so hard for weeks now to prove what a changed woman you are, and I obviously haven’t been paying attention. That’s what this seduction ritual is all about, isn’t it?”
She regarded him with feigned astonishment. “Well, hallelujah! I’m so glad something finally got through that incredibly thick skull of yours. What was it? The kiss? That certainly couldn’t have been it. You were definitely afraid I was about to have my wicked way with you.”
“Was not,” he said, unable to resist being drawn into the argument. The desire to laugh with sheer exhilaration shimmered just beneath the surface. Terrified of giving in to it, of succumbing to Zelda’s seductive ways, he choked back his amusement.
“Were, too,” she taunted right back. “I dare you to kiss me back.”
Mustering every bit of self-restraint he could, he gave her an impersonal peck on the cheek. A quick, hit-and-run kind of kiss. A meaningless kiss. So meaningless he almost couldn’t stop himself.
“Be careful what you ask for, you wicked little she-devil. You could get it,” he warned.
Zelda sighed so heavily it almost broke his heart. “Not me, Taylor,” she said in a way that expressed resigned acceptance rather than self-pity. “For some of us, nothing comes easy. They tell me it builds character.”
For Taylor, who’d learned all about struggling only after years of feeling blessed, the lesson had done just that. He was a stronger man today than he had been when he’d allowed his father to drive Zelda out of his life. Strong enough to say no to temptation. He couldn’t help thinking, though, that it was too bad that the lesson had come too late for the two of them.
“Be grateful you learned how to fight back at such an early age,” he told her. “You had more character at fourteen than I did ten years ago when I let you go. I think maybe you’ve always known exactly who you are and what you wanted out of life. I’m just finding out about myself. I’m not so sure I like what I’m discovering.”
He turned away and busied himself getting the silverware for the table. Zelda’s hesitant hand on his shoulder sent a wave of pure longing washing through him, a longing for something as real and normal as a wife and home, nights like this with their teasing intimacy.
He glanced back at her and saw that she was regarding him quizzically. Because he didn’t want her fussing over him or asking a lot of unanswerable questions, he met that inquisitive gaze with a defiant look.
“Don’t go making anything out of that,” he warned.
His sharp tone didn’t seem to faze her, however. Her gaze never wavered.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself, Taylor,” she scolded. “Remember, you’re still the man I fell in love with. Anyone who could capture Zelda Lane’s hard heart couldn’t be all bad, now could they?”
He was prevented from answering by Caitlin’s noisy arrival. It was just as well, he told himself. He’d had no idea what to say, what Zelda had expected him to say. Just as he was trying to puzzle out the answer to that, he heard Caitlin’s dismayed yelp, followed almost immediately by Zelda’s unrestrained hoot of laughter.
Glancing their way, he groaned at the sight that greeted him.
“Daddy,” Caitlin scolded, “you burned dinner again.”
Zelda winked at him. “Habit, I guess.”
aylor grabbed a pot holder and snatched the smoldering casserole from the oven. “It’s just a little crisp around the edges,” he informed them, fanning aside the smoke.
Zelda peered over his shoulder, the exotic scent of her perfume counterpointed by the aroma of burned noodles. “Crisp?” she repeated. “Quite an understatement, I’d say.”
“It’s still edible,” Taylor insisted.
“I don’t want any,” his traitorous daughter insisted. “It’s yucky.”
Taylor refused to meet Zelda’s gaze. Given how the dish had wound up in its charred state, he could just imagine the sparks of tolerant I-told-you-so amusement lighting her eyes.
“Okay, I’ll put a frozen pizza in for you,” he told Caitlin. “Zelda, how about you? Pizza or some of this delicious casserole.”
Caitlin regarded their guest expectantly.
“Your mother didn’t know I’d be here when she sent this over, right?” Zelda inquired.
His gaze narrowed suspiciously. “Right,” he agreed. “So, what’s your point?”
“Then I suppose I could risk the casserole,” she said thoughtfully. “Surely a little charcoal won’t poison me, and I wouldn’t want to do anything to undermine your masculine pride.”
He shot her a wry look. “Very funny. My ego doesn’t need any mercy stroking by you.”
That devilish glint immediately rose in her eyes. “Oh, really?” she said softly.
He cast a warning look in Caitlin’s direction. His daughter, however, seemed oblivious to the innuendos. She’d climbed on a chair, removed a pizza from the freezer and already had it on a baking sheet. It was all too obvious that it was a routine they’d been through before. Taylor avoided looking at Zelda as he took the pizza from Caitlin, put it in the oven and turned up the heat.
“I’ll watch it, Daddy,” she informed him.
Zelda shot her a conspiratorial grin. “I think that’s probably a very good idea, Caitlin. Your father seems to be easily distracted tonight.”
Taylor couldn’t think of a single response he could utter with his impressionable daughter in the room. It didn’t prevent him from regarding Zelda in a way that promised very sweet revenge for her sassy tongue. He hadn’t looked forward to anything so much in ages, a fact that scared the daylights out of him.
* * *
Zelda spent Saturday having another long talk with herself. It was getting to be a disconcerting habit. Pretty soon she’d be surrounded by cats and acting like a slightly dotty old spinster.
Still, she had things to work out. After Friday night she knew that she was treading on dangerous turf. Coming back to Port William had stirred up old longings.
She picked up one of her mother’s favorite books,
This Side of Paradise,
and clung to it, rubbing her fingers over the worn cover.
“Oh, Mama, what should I do?” she murmured.
She was beginning to get an inkling that this turmoil was part of her mother’s plan. Maybe Ella Louise had recognized that too many things had been left unresolved when Zelda fled to Los Angeles with her heart in tatters. Maybe she’d known, as Zelda hadn’t until the night before, that she’d never be able to get on with her life in L.A. or in Port William until she’d dealt once and for all with the permanent ache Taylor Matthews had left inside her.
But a whole year? She’d barely been home a month and already things were more complicated, instead of less. Another eleven months and she probably wouldn’t have a strand of hair left in her head with the way Taylor’s impossible ways made her want to tear it out.
Okay, this wasn’t something she could blame entirely on Taylor. These were her emotions. Stupid, wasted emotions, as near as she could tell. Just because he’d kissed her as though he’d meant it didn’t prove he was about to get tangled up in something more lasting.
Go or stay? Stay or go? The choice tormented her for the rest of Saturday and all through the endless night.
On Sunday morning, with the memory of the challenge in Taylor’s eyes on Friday still very much on her mind and Saturday’s uncertainty even fresher, Zelda went to church. Sheer instinct had her up and dressed in a subdued silk dress before she considered the ramifications of showing up in a place where she was bound to run into Taylor’s parents. Besides, it had been so long since she’d been inside a church, she ought to be praying that the rafters wouldn’t collapse.
The minister, if it was still Jesse Hall, would probably offer up a few prayers of his own at the sight of her. He’d once had to call the volunteer fire department to drag her and Taylor down from the steeple. Not satisfied to ring the bell by pulling the rope, they’d climbed all the way up to give it a push or two at close range. The memory of Beau’s horrified expression as he’d watched their undignified descent to the ground brought out a smile.
As she strolled across the lawn in front of the Port William Methodist Church, she glanced up at the steeple and felt an old familiar urge to do something outrageous. Maturity kept her feet planted firmly on the ground. Or so she told herself.