Authors: Sherryl Woods
“Actually, it was your idea,” she reminded him. “First, last night. Then just a few minutes ago back at the barn.”
“Timing is everything. The kids were still there last night. I figured we were safe. You turned me down at the barn, just like I knew you would.”
“I’ve changed my mind,” she said, her breath fanning his neck.
Suddenly he felt the touch of her tongue and almost bolted from the saddle. “Zelda, you’re not playing fair.”
“Nope,” she agreed, scattering little kisses over whatever bare flesh she could get to.
Taylor went absolutely still and tried to will himself not to respond. He wanted her so badly right this second he was afraid he’d explode. Wanting her so desperately sent doubts ricocheting through him. He’d vowed never to want anything or anyone this much again.
It would be one thing for them to share a quick roll in the hay, literally or figuratively. It would be quite another to make love, to linger and savor, to touch with joyous abandon, to open up his heart. He was more afraid of that than he ever had been of anything, and that was exactly what would happen if he and Zelda left this horse and allowed their instincts to take over. He would lose control. He would risk yet another loss, more anguish.
He shifted slightly in the saddle and gazed back at her, saw the bright anticipation shining in her eyes, the undeniable yearning that matched his own. Slowly he shook his head. “I can’t.”
“Can’t, or won’t?”
“It doesn’t really matter, does it? It’s too big a risk.”
He saw the light in her eyes dim, the proud jut of her chin. “I won’t pressure you again,” she said stoically.
Her refusal to argue surprised him, maybe even disappointed him. But he could hardly blame her. How many rejections could she be expected to tolerate and still bounce back?
“I think we’d better be getting back,” she said, while he struggled with cold honor versus hot need.
Honor, which suddenly tasted an awful lot like fear, won. He turned Daisy around and headed home, aching in more ways than one.
“Zelda?” he said eventually.
“What?” she said impatiently.
She shrugged. “It was a calculated risk. I lost.”
No, Taylor thought to himself. He was the one who had lost. He had lost her for the second time in his life. Pain cut through him like a knife.
He urged Daisy into a trot. Then suddenly, to his astonishment, he felt Zelda knee the horse, sending the filly into an all-out gallop. His hands tightened instinctively on the reins, exactly the wrong thing to do. Terrified and confused, the horse bolted on a dangerous course through the woods.
When she raced head-on for a low branch, Taylor saw it in time and ducked, shouting a warning at Zelda in the same instant. Too late! He heard the sickening
of the limb hitting her, felt her arms slacken around his waist, and then she was sliding. He tried to cling to her, but realized it was no use. Turning as best he could in the saddle, he hooked an arm around her waist, freed his feet from the stirrups and tumbled to the ground, trying desperately to protect Zelda as they landed.
The fall sent a sharp pain shooting down his leg. His butt was likely to be black and blue, but it was Zelda who concerned him. Her eyes were closed. A huge lump was already forming on her forehead. He pressed his finger to the pulse in her neck and was somewhat reassured when he found it strong and steady.
He stroked her forehead, avoiding that nasty lump. “Come on, sugar, wake up,” he murmured. With his heart hammering with anxiety, he touched his lips to hers, then gave a rueful smile. Did he think he was Prince Charming and this was Sleeping Beauty, for God’s sakes? The woman could be suffering from a concussion.
“Come on, sugar,” he murmured again. Again, because he couldn’t resist, he kissed her cheeks, then her lips, light, tender kisses meant to tease her back to consciousness.
Suddenly her eyelids fluttered.
“That’s it,” he encouraged. “Wake up.”
A vague smile drifted across her face. “Thought you weren’t going to do this,” she said groggily.
“Make love to me.”
“I’m not,” he said, but with far less certainty than he had only minutes before.
She sighed. “Too bad.”
“Yeah,” he said ruefully. “Too bad.”
More confident now that she was basically okay, he lifted her into his arms and carried her back to the house. Taylor saw his father glance outside, catch sight of them, and come racing out of the house.
“What the devil’s that fool woman gone and done now?”
“That horse you bought spooked,” Taylor snapped back furiously. “Zelda slammed into a tree branch. I knew something like this would happen. Don’t just stand there. Call the damned doctor.”
Ignoring his father’s stunned expression, Taylor strode inside and took Zelda straight upstairs to his old room and settled her under the covers. An instant later his mother hurried in.
“I’ve brought some cool water and towels. Let me just put one on her forehead. It might help with the swelling.”
“I’ll do it,” Taylor said, brushing aside the assistance. Zelda was his responsibility. The accident could have been prevented if only he hadn’t given in and taken her on that ride in the first place. Once again he’d failed to protect someone in his life.
He dipped the towel in the water, wrung it out, then pressed it gently to Zelda’s forehead. “Where’s the doctor?” he demanded.
His mother squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. “Sweetheart, it’s only been a couple of minutes.”
Minutes? It felt like an eternity. “Why isn’t she awake? She was for an instant.”
“Seems to me that’s a good sign.”
He settled on the edge of the bed next to Zelda and held tightly to her hand. Memories of those last hours in Maribeth’s hospital room crowded in, filling him with panic.
“I can’t lose her,” he whispered, barely aware that he’d spoken aloud until he saw the look of shock, then something akin to resignation in his mother’s eyes.
“You’ve always loved her, haven’t you?” she said softly.
Taylor couldn’t deal with all the ragged, raw emotions tumbling through him. Nor could he make the admission his mother was demanding. He turned back to Zelda, his hand against her cheek.
And then he prayed.
elda felt like Sleeping Beauty, coming to in a strange place with a handsome man hovering over her. Taylor didn’t look intrigued, though. He looked worried.
“What’s wrong?” she whispered, wondering why her head hurt like the very devil.
“You had a run-in with a tree limb. You lost.”
She touched her forehead and winced. “I lost, all right. Let me guess. A concussion.”
“You seem familiar with the symptoms. Why do I suspect this isn’t the first one you’ve had?”
“Did you forget the night we fell off Miriam Winston’s roof trying to play Santa and his reindeer for her kids?”
Taylor thought back and recalled the incident all too vividly. A well-intentioned good deed gone awry. But Miriam’s kids had been thrilled, she’d told them, just as the doctor came to haul them off to a hospital, where their irate parents had shouted blame back and forth.
“I remember,” he told her.
“So how bad is it this time?”
“Mild, according to the doctor, but he wants you in the hospital overnight for observation.”
“Where am I now?”
“In my old bedroom.”
She looked around, instantly fascinated by the mementos scattered around. She managed a wobbly grin. “In your bed at last,” she murmured. “Too bad I can’t do anything about it.”
“Yeah, too bad.”
“Your parents must be thrilled. Why don’t we take the doctor up on his offer and get on over to the hospital?”
“You’re not budging. I told him we’d watch you all night.”
“Don’t you have to take Caitlin and her friends back to school?” she asked, not liking the idea of being left alone here with Beau and Geraldine Matthews, who were no doubt furious to find themselves saddled with her.
“Dad’s taking the other girls back now. Caitlin refused to go. She insisted on staying right here until she sees for herself that you’re okay. Threw a hellacious tantrum.” He shook his head. “I can’t imagine how she got to be so stubborn.”
Zelda grinned. “Right.”
Just then the door creaked open. Caitlin peeked around it, her face scrunched up with worry.
“Hi, sweetheart,” Zelda called reassuringly. “You can come in.”
Relief spread across the child’s face. “You’re okay?”
“My head feels as if its been used as a bowling ball, but other than that I’m just fine.”
Geraldine Matthews came in on Caitlin’s heels. “Sorry,” she apologized. “She was determined to see for herself that you’re doing better.”
Zelda looked at Caitlin. “Shouldn’t you have gone back to school with your friends?”
“I can go in the morning. Granddaddy said he’d take me then, unless you need me to look after you.”
Taylor shook his head. “Oh, I think the rest of us can manage to look after Zelda. You don’t want to miss classes, do you?”
“You have to go to work,” Caitlin said stubbornly. “I could read to her. We could even play games. I know lots of good ones, like Monopoly and Scrabble and Hearts.”
“Who taught you those games?” Taylor countered.
“Hey, you two,” Zelda interrupted. “It won’t be necessary for anyone to look after me. I’ll be at work tomorrow, too.”
“That’s what you think,” Taylor retorted.
“It really would be best to take it easy for another day,” Taylor’s mother said. “You’re more than welcome to stay here. I’d enjoy the company.”
Zelda was stunned by the unexpected sincerity of the offer. “I really don’t think…”
“Please,” she said. “It’s the least we can do.”
Zelda was certain there was an apology in there somewhere, but she wasn’t exactly sure what it was for. The least she could do was meet the woman halfway, though how Beau Matthews would feel about all this was troublesome at best. In the end, though, it was just more rational to stay put. She had the feeling that if she budged one inch from this bed, she wasn’t going to be happy with the consequences.
“If you’re sure it’s no bother,” she said finally.
“Absolutely none,” Mrs. Matthews reassured her. “Now, come along, Caitlin. Help me fix dinner. Let Zelda get some rest.”
“What about Daddy?” Caitlin responded defiantly. “He’s staying.”
“Oh, I doubt we could get him out of there with a blast of dynamite,” she retorted, to Zelda’s astonishment.
When they had gone, Zelda regarded Taylor intently. “Did I miss something here?”
He shook his head, apparently equally bemused by his mother’s behavior. “Maybe she’s afraid of being sued,” he suggested dryly. “You were on their horse when you knocked yourself out.”
“She doesn’t look afraid. She looks like a woman who’s made up her mind about something.”
“You know as much as I do,” he said, staring at the now closed bedroom door with a decidedly worried expression on his face.
“I think I like being here in the same bed you slept in as a boy.”
His lips twitched. “Do you really?”
She reached up and touched his cheek, enjoying the masculine feel of the faint stubble against her skin. “I’d like it even better if you were in here with me.”
“I’m right here,” he pointed out.
“That’s not the same as
He scowled at her. “You swore you were going to stop saying things like that.”
“What can I tell you?” she said innocently. “That whack on the head must have addled my brain.”
Suddenly his arms were under her shoulders and she found herself curled against his chest. She could feel the steady thumping of his heart. His heat seemed to envelop her and make her feel safe.
“You scared the hell out of me,” he admitted eventually, his voice ragged. “You were so still out there.”
“Given my reputation for nonstop energy, that would have been startling,” she teased.
“It’s not a joke. You could have been killed. Whatever possessed you to dig your heels into the horse’s flanks?”
Zelda thought back to the precise instant when she’d acted so foolishly. “I was angry,” she admitted. “I acted without thinking.”
Taylor sighed. “See, that’s exactly the kind of thing that terrifies me. What if you’d been killed?”
“But you might have been,” he said angrily, giving her shoulders a shake. “Blast it all, aren’t you ever going to learn to think first?”
She knew he was right, but she hated saying so aloud. It would only give him ammunition to use against her later, when he called things off between them one more time. “Sometimes it’s as important to take risks as it is to play it safe. It’s called living.”
“No,” he corrected softly, his expression defeated. “Sometimes it’s called dying.”
With that, he walked out and left her feeling miserable and more alone than ever.
* * *
Taylor wondered how many close calls one man could be expected to endure. For once, he wasn’t even thinking of dangerous risks, either. He was thinking about sex. He was thinking about it too damned much, it seemed to him. One of these days, he was going to throw caution to the wind and show Zelda just how desperately he wanted her. Surely he deserved that much before he let her go again.
The trick, of course, would be letting her go once he’d known the joy of holding her in his arms, of rediscovering the satin texture of her skin, of losing himself to the scent of her, of burying himself deep inside her. He groaned.
Damn! He was aroused again. He had to stop thinking about such things. He had to concentrate on something else. Maybe a football game. All that violence and competitiveness ought to release a little pent-up sexual tension.
It didn’t. Five hours later, he was bleary-eyed, exhausted, and wanted Zelda just as badly as he had before. He went upstairs and slipped into his old room. She was slung across his bed from one corner to the other, the covers kicked aside. His mother’s demure little cotton nightgown might have made anyone else look almost virginal. It made Zelda look desirable.