Authors: Sherryl Woods
After Joseph Lane died at the age of thirty-eight in a boating accident, Ella Louise no longer wasted time sipping mint juleps in the way of old-fashioned, genteel Southern ladies. She switched to bourbon, taking it smooth and neat, from a coffee mug that appropriately enough said Life’s A Bitch…And Then You Die.
Though she loved her mother fiercely, Zelda found Ella Louise to be an embarrassment, especially when she wandered into town and caused such a commotion in the local bar that Sheriff Wiley had to drive her home. It had happened so regularly that people finally stopped commenting on it. They just shook their heads and viewed little Zelda with the sympathy they’d bestow on anyone in her sorry plight.
Refusing to allow her embarrassment to show, Zelda had learned at an early age to poke that stubborn chin of hers into the air and thumb her nose at their condescension. She had a temper to match her fiery red hair and one way or another she’d been telling the whole miserable town of Port William to take a hike practically since the day she was born. It was a skill her mama had instilled in her after years of perfecting it herself.
It had been ten years since Zelda had left Port William far behind to make a new home for herself in Los Angeles. She’d begged her mother to come with her at first, then resigned herself to the fact that Ella Louise would never leave the town where she’d been raised. She’d been determined to die in that decrepit house where she’d lived her whole pitiful life. She’d been a martyr to the bitter end, as far as Zelda could see.
“My life’s over, honey. You grab what you can,” she’d said more than once.
And so, with only minimal reluctance, Zelda had. She’d put her wild days behind her and settled down, content in the knowledge that no one in Los Angeles knew a thing about her background. She’d fooled her friends into thinking she was just any other normal woman with hopes and dreams and the determination to attain them. None of them realized exactly how driven she was to escape her past.
Now it seemed that past was about to catch up with her.
Though she couldn’t avoid Kate’s worried looks, Zelda did manage to get through an entire week without having to answer any more questions about her mother or about Port William. Furious with herself for the sign of weakness, she shed her tears late at night. In those dark, lonely hours, she tried desperately not to regret the fact that she hadn’t been back home once in all the years since she’d left. She couldn’t see much point in going now, when the only person in the entire town she’d ever loved was gone. Already buried, in fact, thanks to the instructions she’d given.
A fleeting image of Taylor Matthews crossed her mind and then was banished. Strong, gentle, wicked Taylor, she thought with a reluctant sigh. Okay, maybe there was one other person in Port William that she had loved, but those glorious days and wild nights were best forgotten. Taylor certainly hadn’t been able to put them behind him fast enough, she recalled with a bitterness that time had done nothing to mellow.
The phone rang and as if her thoughts alone had conjured him up, she heard Taylor’s voice. She recognized it at once, though it was deeper now, even sexier, which somehow infuriated her. She couldn’t quite decide, though, whether it was him she was mad at or herself for responding to that husky and no doubt unintended sensuality.
“Yes,” she said coolly, when she could finally catch her breath.
He cleared his throat. “Zelda, I’m real sorry about your mother.”
“Thank you,” she said stiffly, surprised that he would bother making a condolence call.
“Look, I don’t know if your mother told you what she had in mind, but I saw her the day before she died.”
“Why on earth would you go see Mama?”
“She asked me to come.”
“She asked you to come,” she repeated with undisguised astonishment.
“Yes. Actually, well, the bottom line is that I’m handling the estate.”
Oh, Mama, what the hell have you gone and done?
Zelda thought with a mounting sense of desperation. Determined not to let Taylor hear even one tiny hint of her dismay, she steadied her voice. “Fine, Taylor. Do whatever Mama wanted.”
“It’s not quite that simple.” He sighed heavily, sounding more put-upon than Beau Matthews ever had when he’d been lecturing Taylor on his many indiscretions, most of which he attributed directly to his son’s association with Zelda. “Actually, it’s damned complicated. I think you’d better come home so we can discuss it.”
“That’s not possible,” she said without hesitation. “You’re the lawyer, the executor, whatever. You deal with it.”
“Look,” he said with a trace of impatience, “there is nothing I would like better than to close things up and send you a check, but it’s not that easy. There are decisions to be made, and they have to be made by you. You’ll have to come home.”
Being told what she had to do, especially by Taylor, only strengthened her resolve. “No.”
“Why, Zelda?” he said, his voice gentling for the first time. “You afraid to come back here, sugar?”
With a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach, she heard the familiar dare in his tone. He’d gotten her into trees, onto rooftops, into trouble with those taunting dares of his.
“I’m not afraid of anything, Taylor Matthews,” she snapped, falling into a trap as old as the first day they’d met. She heard his low, satisfied chuckle and bit off a few more choice words that occurred to her. Finally she gave in to the inevitable. “Okay,” she said grudgingly. “I’ll do what I can.”
Was he anxious to see her? More likely, just anxious to get it over with. “I’ll be there when I get there,” she told him with her very last bit of spunk.
She slammed the phone down then because she couldn’t tolerate one more smug word, one tiny little hint of I-told-you-so in his voice. Then she sat staring at the phone, dismayed. She was going home. She would see Taylor again. Dear Lord, what had she been thinking of? What had her mother been thinking of to get her into this mess?
The fact that Ella Louise had left an estate tangled in so much red tape that Zelda had no choice but to go back to Port William to straighten it out didn’t particularly surprise her. Her mother never had been one for doing things the ordinary way. It was Taylor’s involvement that was a kick-in-the-pants shock.
Still stunned, she went in to explain to Kate that she needed time off, after all.
“Of course, you have to go,” Kate said at once, her expression clearly relieved that Zelda had finally seen sense. “Take as much time as you need. I’ll call in that temp we used on your last vacation. If there’s anything I can do for you from here to straighten things out, if you need legal advice, you just have to call.”
Zelda fiddled with the back of the chair she’d been clutching for support. “I hate leaving you in the lurch, though. You have that big divorce case coming up next week. Maybe I should put this trip off. It’s not as if I can do anything for Mama now. Besides, how much of an estate can there be? Last I checked, she was dirt poor and wouldn’t take a dime from me to change that. Maybe I ought to let the state take her pitiful possessions and get on with my life.”
Kate’s gaze narrowed at the suggestion. Zelda knew her brilliant legal mind was bound to consider such an idea practically sacrilegious.
“Zelda, is there some reason you don’t want to go back to South Carolina?”
Zelda couldn’t figure out how to explain that she hadn’t been able to leave Port William fast enough. She was a different person now, confident, respected…tamed, some might say. She didn’t want to alter Kate’s impression of her, but she could see from her boss’s determined expression that nothing but the truth would end the cross-examination. As a whole slew of opposing attorneys knew, Kate was a master of the technique.
“You know how you see those shows about slow, backwater towns and you think they’re just old-fashioned stereotypes?” Zelda said eventually. “Well, Port William is the prototype. The people there didn’t know exactly what to make of Mama, and they certainly didn’t know what to make of me. She named me after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s loony wife, for goodness’ sake. All the townspeople knew about Fitzgerald was what they’d figured out from reading
The Great Gatsby.
It didn’t leave a great impression in their narrow little minds.”
“Surely they didn’t blame you for being named for some dead author’s crazy wife?”
“Blame me?” Zelda replied thoughtfully. “I don’t suppose so. They just figured I was destined to follow the same path into a mental institution or else live out my days like Mama in some drunken stupor. And that was before I moved to Los Angeles. Now they’ll probably want to hold an exorcism to rid me of the devil.”
Kate, born and raised in trend-setting, accepting L.A., looked skeptical. “It can’t be that bad.”
Zelda didn’t argue, but she knew in her heart that she’d actually given the town the benefit of the doubt. The sheriff was probably painting up a cell just for her return. Folks in Port William had never entirely understood that the things she’d done had been the high-spirited hijinks of a teenager trying desperately to live up to the failed dreams of a sad and lost mother. If she could have splashed in public fountains at midnight, as her namesake reportedly had, she would have done it. Port William, however, had been short on fountains. It was probably just as well. She’d gotten into enough mischief as it was.
She’d been easy prey for a boy such as Taylor, who’d had his own demons to sort through and had known just how to tease her into accompanying him. Foolishly, she’d thought that their daring exploits would bond them together forever, but she couldn’t have been more wrong. In the end, Taylor had proved himself to be every bit a Matthews—disgustingly stuffy, terrifyingly ambitious and thoroughly predictable. He had rid himself of the wild girl from the wrong side of the tracks without a backward glance.
She’d hated him for abandoning her, for leaving her lost and alone in a town that could never understand her longing for acceptance. Even more, though, she had hated seeing the passionate man she’d loved since childhood become another sacrifice to the Matthews tradition. She wondered if he’d turned out to be every bit as stodgy as his father, or if some spark of that individuality and spunk he’d shown with her had remained.
No use speculating, she thought. She’d find out soon enough. To her deep regret, her pulse bucked a little just at the prospect.
She was going to see Taylor Matthews again.
God help her.
ort William looked exactly as Zelda had remembered it, exactly as it had looked for the past century, probably. Pine trees littered the ground with their long, slippery needles. With the exception of one or two sadly neglected plantation houses on the outskirts of town and the big, brick Matthews place on top of a hill overlooking the river, most of the community consisted of small clapboard houses. Almost without exception, each had a wide front porch, a rocking chair or swing from which to observe the passing of time, and a row of azalea bushes turning brown as the chill air of autumn belligerently pushed its way south. The lazy Waccamaw River wound its way toward the sea, providing a few picturesque settings in the lowland locale that was an otherwise quaint painting that time had faded.
As she drove in from Charleston, her speed slowing with every mile, Zelda made note of the few obvious changes, starting with the familiar welcome sign that announced that the town of Port William, founded in 1756, now boasted a population of 1,027. It had grown.
Beyond that, the only real concession to the nineties that she could see was a strip mall about two miles from the center of town. It consisted of a national discount store, a modern grocery store and a video rental store. On the outside, at least, everything else looked almost the same, except for a new coat of paint here and there and some visible updating of equipment.
Based on the number of pickups jammed along the strip of asphalt in front, Harlan’s Feed and Grain was still the gathering place for men, a handful of tobacco growers and the usually out-of-work textile mill employees. The fancy riding mowers displayed on the back side of the parking lot, however, suggested Harlan had updated his stock to more high-tech, high-priced wonders. She couldn’t imagine who was buying them.
Vera Mae’s Salon de Beauty had new curtains hanging on the windows, but through the open doorway Zelda could see the same old red-vinyl chairs inside. She wondered if Vera Mae was still doing her famous beehive hairdos and cementing them in place with spray.
Next door, Sarah Lynn’s Diner was packed with the lunch crowd. Zelda was willing to bet Monday was still the day Sarah Lynn baked her famous lemon meringue pie. She doubted the plump, matronly woman, who’d looked after Zelda like one of her own, had gone trendy and put key lime pie on the menu in its place. The locals would shun such innovation, dismissing it as putting on airs.
Zelda ignored the fact that her mouth was watering at the thought of that lemon meringue pie. She wasn’t up to announcing her presence in town quite yet, much less handling Sarah Lynn’s sympathy. Instead she drove her rental car straight on to the house in which she’d grown up.
When she pulled onto the tiny patch of lawn, she turned off the engine and sat staring at the old frame house, which was badly in need of paint. It was no better or worse than most of the houses around it, but Zelda had always resented the way her parents had let it go to seed. When she was fifteen, she’d earned enough money to buy paint and had given it a coat of white herself, slapping it on with zeal, if not neatness. From the looks of it, that was the last coat of paint it had received.
Not quite ready to go inside, she rolled down the car window and drew in a lungful of the fresh, pine-scented air. Memories crowded in like so many teenagers trying to be first in line for concert tickets. A few of those memories were even good, like the time she and Jimmy Martin had sat on the creaky front porch swing holding hands while Mama played Grandpa’s old Glenn Miller records inside. And there was the time Taylor Matthews had pelted her bedroom window with stones in the middle of the night and dared her to go skinny-dipping in the river with him. Naturally, she hadn’t been able to resist.