Authors: Sherryl Woods
Taylor Matthews, she thought with yet another sigh. He figured in too many memories of her past. To her disgust, ever since his call, she hadn’t been able to get him out of her mind. Once they’d been drawn together as inevitably as any two star-crossed lovers in history. In the end, though, it had all turned to ashes.
Damn his father’s political ambitions! she thought with as much vehemence now as she had then. If it hadn’t been for Beau Matthews’s obsessive drive to see his boy in the state capitol—or the White House, for that matter—she could have claimed Taylor’s heart publicly. Everyone in town saw that he was sweet on her, anyway.
But once Taylor had passed adolescence and started listening to his father, he’d begun hating himself for those wicked, wayward feelings he couldn’t control. She had seen it in his eyes and slowly withdrew into a protective shell, determined that he would never see how his change in attitude was quietly killing her. She’d had one lapse, the night he’d finally broken up with her, and to this day she regretted letting him know how much his defection had mattered.
She couldn’t help wondering now if he’d finally found some suitable, boring woman to stand by his side and satisfy his daddy’s standards. In all the years she’d been away from Port William, she had never asked about Taylor and her mother had never volunteered a word. It was just as well. Zelda hated being wrong, and she’d never in her life been more wrong than she had been about Taylor. He might have been sexy as sin and he might have exhibited exactly the kind of dangerous, wild streak that appealed to her in his teens, but he’d grown up into a stuffy, judgmental man—just like her own daddy, who’d trampled on Ella Louise’s spirit until she was nothing more than a shadowy presence.
That, she thought, snapping herself back to the present, was a whole other kettle of fish. And one she didn’t intend to explore, not today, not ever if she could help it.
* * *
The Port William grapevine was apparently still in fine working order. Within minutes of her arrival, Zelda was surrounded by a group of neighbors, all wearing black and all bearing covered dishes. She’d be eating macaroni and cheese, green bean casseroles and Jell-O salads for a month.
“Why on earth did Mama ask Taylor to handle her estate?” Zelda asked the three women in order to cut off their insincere murmurs of sympathy. Not one of them had said a kind word about her mother when she was alive. Still, Zelda credited them with having more insight into her mama’s final days than she did. “Did she explain that to any of you?”
“Well, he is a lawyer, honey,” Mabel Smith reminded her.
Zelda caught Mabel trying to keep her disapproving gaze off of Zelda’s colorful outfit, a thrift-shop ensemble of gauzy, floating materials that bore her own unmistakable flair for the dramatic. No doubt Mabel considered it totally unsuitable for mourning. Zelda knew, however, that her mother would have loved it. In fact, she could probably find some floppy picture hat to match hidden away in the back of her mother’s closet.
“Taylor’s the only lawyer in town these days, come to think of it,” Betty Sue Conner chimed in.
“What happened to Will Rutledge?” Zelda asked, recalling the sweet old man whose office had always reeked of pipe smoke.
“John Tatum?” She tried to keep the note of desperation out of her voice. Surely she could hire someone else to represent her to deal with Taylor.
“Moved to Charleston, five, maybe six years ago,” Mabel said.
“Honey, I thought you and Taylor were friends once upon a time. More than that, in fact,” Elsie Whittingham said. “Why I can recall plain as day the time that old man Highsmith found the two of you up in his hayloft. What a ruckus that caused!”
Betty Sue grinned. “Almost gave Beau Matthews a heart attack. He thought sure you’d end up pregnant and ruin all his big plans for Taylor.” Her expression suddenly sobered. “Funny how things turn out, isn’t it?”
“Betty Sue,” Mabel said in a low voice clearly meant to shush her.
Zelda let the warning go by, too lost in memories to question either one of them about it. Why wouldn’t those memories—good and bad—wither and die the way they should? Ten years should have been enough time to rob them of any impact at all. Obviously she didn’t have a lick of willpower.
She tried harder to put them aside, but she couldn’t seem to help recalling in explicit detail the way she’d felt being held in Taylor’s arms up in that hayloft, or the surge of adrenaline she’d felt scrambling down and running away when they’d been caught. Their laughter had echoed on the night air, along with old man Highsmith’s shouts and the sound of a shotgun being fired into the sky as a warning. She’d never run so fast in her life, clinging to Taylor’s hand all the way, knowing that whatever happened they were in it together.
Despite the danger—or perhaps because of it—it had been one of the happiest moments of her life. This wasn’t the first time it had come back to haunt her. No man had ever made her feel as exciting and alive as she had that night. The comparisons, whether she liked admitting it or not, were what had kept her single.
But she was a different woman now, and Taylor most assuredly was a different man. That was what she had to keep reminding herself as she tried to block those old feelings.
Before she could satisfactorily push the memory aside, however, the screen door squeaked and the man in question stood before her, bathed in the last rays of fading sunlight. Leave it to Taylor to make an unforgettable entrance. A TV evangelist couldn’t have asked for a more dramatic backdrop.
Taylor stood where he was, hands shoved in his pockets, and nodded. “Zelda.”
Since one word was all he seemed able to manage, Zelda matched him. “Taylor.”
The three fluttering female guests suddenly thought of a dozen excuses for why they had to rush home. During their whirlwind departure, Zelda tried to gather her composure. She figured the best she could hope for was the restraint to keep from throwing herself right smack into Taylor’s muscular arms. Why the devil couldn’t the man have gone all soft? Maybe even bald? Instead, he was as lean and handsome as ever.
She couldn’t seem to stop herself from drinking in the sight of him, from the fancy suit that couldn’t hide his football-broad shoulders to the untamed curl in his jet black hair, from the combative angle of his jaw to the spark of defiance in his clear gray eyes. That spark was a dead giveaway that Taylor hadn’t changed, after all. He was already just daring her to do something outrageous, something he could no doubt condemn her for afterward. This time, though, she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. She’d outgrown the need to defy the world at every turn. She would be pleasant, calm, mature…even if it killed her.
She rose to her full height, an impressive five foot nine, and said in her most gracious but distant tone, “May I offer you a cup of tea?”
Taylor blinked, then looked startled by the sight of her mother’s treasured silver teapot sitting on the scarred coffee table amid a collection of mismatched but elegant china cups. From the thunderstruck expression on his face, it was clear he hadn’t expected her to know the first thing about the social amenities. Zelda could have told him that no female could grow up in the South without learning a thing or two about social graces, whether they ever practiced them or not. Maybe he’d just figured to find her drinking the last of her mama’s bourbon.
“I suppose,” he said finally.
To her amusement he sounded as if he didn’t quite trust her ability to brew a drinkable pot of tea. Or perhaps he wasn’t sure even after all this time that she wouldn’t lace it with arsenic. Admittedly, the thought did hold a certain appeal.
“I’ll taste mine first, if that’ll put your mind at ease,” she said wryly, causing him to scowl as an embarrassed flush crept up his neck.
When they each had a cup and she’d taken a healthy swallow, she deliberately cast a defiant look in his direction. He regarded her warily. For a man who’d once displayed a remarkably silver-tongued charm, he seemed at a loss for words. She wasn’t inclined to help him out. She had enough to do just to keep her cup from rattling in its saucer and betraying her nerves.
“I’m sorry about your mother,” he said eventually.
He’d said it before on the phone. She hadn’t believed it then, either. Still, she nodded politely, thinking that he had a lot more to feel sorry about. Though Zelda doubted that she’d hear an apology for any of his past transgressions, she waited just the same.
During the gap in the conversation, she filled the time by checking out the status of his ring finger, mad at herself for caring, and trying not to be too obvious about it. No wedding band, she saw with some astonishment. And Taylor was definitely the type who’d want a ring to show the world that he was a family man and therefore suitably settled down and capable of handling the responsibilities of public office. The discovery kept her speechless. It also triggered an alarm, warning her to keep her guard up. A married Taylor would have been beyond reach. An unmarried Taylor spelled danger in capital letters.
Taylor finally broke the silence. “I’m glad you could come home.”
“You insisted,” she reminded him.
“True. As I explained on the phone, I’m afraid your mother’s will is somewhat unorthodox,” he said as if that were no less than anyone might have expected of Ella Louise. A nervous smile tugged at his lips, then disappeared under her disapproving gaze.
Because that hesitant smile reminded her of the boy who’d stolen her heart, it played havoc with Zelda’s insides. It wasn’t a reaction she was wild about. To keep things businesslike and on track, she said hurriedly, “What’s so strange about it?”
Taylor leaned forward, his elbows propped on his knees. That posture could make a woman believe she had his full attention, that she was the most important thing in his universe. She wondered how many women, besides her, it had fooled.
“On the surface,” he said, “the will seems pretty straightforward. You’re her only heir. This house belongs to you now, along with some cash, some nice shares of several blue chips she’d bought years ago and, of course, all of her personal possessions.”
Though it was considerably more than Zelda had expected, the details didn’t sound complicated to her. She regarded him in confusion. “What’s so odd about that?”
“Nothing,” he admitted. “However, there is a condition.”
Zelda’s pulse skipped a beat. “Which is?” she asked with an increasingly familiar sense of dread. What crazy notion had Ella Louise gotten into her head in those final months? She stared nervously at Taylor and waited.
He met her gaze and a flicker of some long-forgotten emotion rose in his eyes. He cleared his throat, tugged at his already loosened tie, blinked and looked away. Finally he said, “She wants you to live in the house for one year.”
Zelda could feel the panic building inside. She glanced around the dreary room with its tattered wallpaper of fading cabbage roses, dusty drapes and uncomfortable furniture, and felt as if she’d just been sentenced to prison. Why on earth would her mother ask such a thing? Even though she hadn’t had the gumption to act on it, Zelda knew that Ella Louise had longed all her life to be away from here.
“And if I don’t?”
“It all goes to establish a scholarship for a writer, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Memorial Scholarship, to be exact. You’ll get nothing except her collection of books. They are first editions, by the way.”
Zelda held back a desire to moan. It wasn’t that she wanted the property, the handful of stocks or the paltry amount of cash. Kate paid her well and she was happy in Los Angeles without any of that. But this place, this hated place, was her mama’s only legacy. How could she walk away from that as if it didn’t matter? How could she ignore her mama’s last wish, no matter how bizarre, no matter how it might turn her life upside down?
“There is no way around this crazy stipulation?”
“None. I drew it up myself. It’s airtight.”
Taylor sounded almost regretful about that, she noted, wondering if he hoped she’d try to break the will, anyway. Maybe Kate could find a loophole, she thought with a flash of hope. She dismissed the idea almost as readily as it had come to her. She couldn’t even consider such an action unless she understood what had been in her mother’s mind when she drew up the document.
“How long ago did she make out this will?” she asked.
“The day she called me to the house, the day before she died.”
“So recently?” she said in amazement. “Was there any question…? Could she have been confused?”
“You know how Ella Louise was,” he said dryly. “But I’d have to say her mind was clear as a bell. She knew exactly what she wanted. Knowing how you’d feel about it, I even tried to argue with her about naming me executor, but she was determined. She wouldn’t hear of asking someone else to do it.”
“Why was it so important to her that I come home? Did she tell you that?”
Apparently he heard the dismay in her voice. For the first time since he’d walked into the house, Taylor regarded her with real sympathy. “She said that deep down you were two of a kind, that eventually you’d figure it out.”
“Cryptic to the end,” Zelda said, because she absolutely refused to say what she was really thinking, that despite Taylor’s impression otherwise, her mother had finally lost her always fragile grip on reality like one of those pathetic, dreamy southern heroines Tennessee Williams wrote about so well.
His mission completed, Taylor rose with an obvious expression of relief. “What will you do?”
Zelda sighed. “I don’t know,” she said honestly. “I just don’t know.”
“Is there… Are you involved with someone in Los Angeles? Do you need to get back?”
She couldn’t tell from looking at him how he might feel about it if there was a man waiting for her. Pride made her want to invent the hottest romance on record. But even as the words of the lie formed on her lips, she was already shaking her head.
“A career?” he asked. “You’ve been out there a long time now. It must seem like home.”
“It does. I have friends. I have a wonderful job. I’d hate to leave it,” she admitted, but she knew that Kate would probably grant her a leave of absence to do whatever she had to do. In the past few months, since her own marriage, Kate had placed a whole new emphasis on the meaning of family.