Authors: Sherryl Woods
Zelda looked directly at Taylor, into eyes that had once gazed on her with so much love and tenderness. Were any of those old emotions left at all? Did she even want there to be? Because she’d once respected his opinion, once believed he knew her even better than she had known herself, she asked, “What do you think I should do? Should I fight this? Should I give everything up? Or should I stay here and make the best of it?”
She wasn’t sure what she hoped to hear him say in response to that—that he’d missed her, that he wanted her back in Port William for his own selfish reasons. Naturally, though, those were not the words that crossed his lips.
“I can’t advise you on something this personal. You have to do what you think is best, Zelda,” he said as if he’d rehearsed it a dozen times.
To her irritation, he’d refused to look her in the eye when he’d said it.
“That’s right,” she snapped, suddenly furious at his careful, noncommittal response. “It wouldn’t do for you to have an opinion now, would it? Maybe I should just call Beau and ask him.” She glared at Taylor, saw the immediate, angry glint in his eyes that told her she’d gone too far. “Oh, never mind. When do I have to decide?”
“There’s no rush, but the sooner we get things rolling, the better, if you decide you want to sell.”
She couldn’t miss the hopeful note in his voice. She knew in that instant that Taylor Matthews wanted her as far away from Port William as it was humanly possible for her to get.
Perversely, that was all it took to make her want to stay.
ord spread faster than a brushfire that Zelda Lane was back in town. There was some subdued whooping and rejoicing over coffee at Sarah Lynn’s the morning after her arrival, mostly from men who recalled her daredevil nature, flaming red hair and statuesque proportions. Some of them were the same men Taylor had once warned rather emphatically to steer clear of her.
Now he shook his head just listening to them. A part of him wished he could say what he was thinking and feeling so easily. Hell, he didn’t even know exactly what he was feeling. Guilt was probably part of it, guilt over treating her so shabbily. Anger that he’d let her get away?
No, damn it. Anger would imply caring, and he refused to admit how much he’d cared and how foolishly he’d tossed it all aside. Besides, emotions were costly. He’d learned that the hard way. Emotions were something he hadn’t allowed himself for a very long time.
He found himself wondering how Zelda would react to all the attention. For a woman who claimed to want her presence to go unnoticed, she certainly hadn’t done much to assure it. That red convertible she’d rented stuck out like a sore thumb among the standard gray sedans and pickups of most of Port William’s residents. Yet he couldn’t help thinking it was typically Zelda, flashy, sexy as the dickens and definitely inappropriate for a woman in mourning. The general consensus around him seemed to be that Zelda probably hadn’t changed one whit.
Taylor had to agree. The woman he’d seen the day before had been dressed with no regard to fashion sense or propriety. There might have been yards and yards of that orange and yellow fabric, but it had draped and clung in a way that had tantalized. Her earthy sensuality had simmered just below the surface, even as she sedately offered him some of that tepid tea. There’d been a defiant spark in those turquoise eyes of hers that offered up a ready challenge. And yet he’d sensed that under it all the vulnerability that had once touched his heart was still there. He’d also known that she would have denied it vehemently.
As he recalled his gut-level reaction to just being in the same room with her again, he caught the speculative glances cast in his direction. The conversation around him swirled on, with Zelda very much at the center of it. He felt as if battery acid were pitching in his stomach. Maybe it was no more than the caffeine he’d consumed during a long and restless night, but he doubted it. Chances were he could blame it all on seeing Zelda again.
He’d hoped—no, he’d prayed—that he’d be immune to her, that he’d walk into that house, take one look at her and wonder how she’d ever been able to tie him in knots. Instead his pulse had reacted as if she’d been buck naked and pleading for his touch, when all she’d done was stand there prim and proper and offer him tea. It just proved that time and common sense were no match for wayward hormones.
Oh, well, he’d done his duty, he consoled himself. There was no need for him to be in the same room with her again, at least not for longer than it took to sign a document or two. Despite the uncertainty she’d expressed, he’d been able to tell from her panicked expression and the desperate look she’d cast around that awful house that she would hightail it back to her exciting life in Los Angeles the first chance she got. Temptation would depart with her.
At that prospect, he uttered a heartfelt sigh of relief and finished his coffee. Before he could set down the cup, Sarah Lynn bustled over with a fresh pot.
Taylor shook his head. “I’ve got to get to the office.”
Sarah Lynn didn’t take the hint. She didn’t even know the meaning of the phrase. She slid into the seat opposite him. “Not before you tell me all about Zelda,” she said, clearly in the mood for a long chat. “I heard you were out at her house first thing.”
“Because I’m handling her mother’s will,” he pointed out, not liking the way she seemed to have transformed his purely professional visit into something personal. If it hadn’t been for that damned will, he wouldn’t have been within a hundred miles of the Lane house, at least not with Zelda in it. Sarah Lynn ought to know that about as well as anyone. She’d been there for Zelda, when the girl had been spitting mad and hurt because Taylor’d walked out on her. She’d given him her two cents on the subject, listened to his pitiful explanation, then somehow managed to stay loyal to both of them.
“Don’t try to turn my stopping by on her first day home into anything else,” he warned.
Sarah Lynn looked unconvinced. Still, she kept her opinion of his defensiveness to herself. “Whatever,” she said blandly. “How’s she look?”
Before he could muster a disinterested reply, a knowing, delighted grin spread across Sarah Lynn’s round face. “Never mind, I can see by the look in your eyes that she must be as gorgeous as ever. She still gets to you, huh?” she said, rubbing it in.
“You two were hotter than a bowl of five-star chili once upon a time. It’s damn near impossible to put out that kind of a flame. I oughta know. I’ve never forgotten that gorgeous Texan who swooped through town and swept me off my feet forty years ago. Talk about fireworks! You and Zelda used to get that exact same look in your eyes when you’d spot each other and thought no one else was looking.”
Taylor scowled at her but tried to keep his irritation out of his voice. It wouldn’t do to overreact. It would just set more tongues wagging. “Sarah Lynn, honey,” he teased, “has anyone ever told you you have an overly active imagination?”
“No one whose opinion I trust,” she smart-mouthed back. “Why don’t you bring her on by for lunch?”
At her assumption that he and Zelda would pick up right where they’d left off, his fragile hold on his patience snapped. “If Zelda wants to eat here, she knows the way,” he reminded her irritably as he slid from the booth. “Frankly, I’m not all that sure she’ll be around long enough.”
Sarah Lynn chuckled, obviously putting her own interpretation on his sour attitude. “Bye-bye, hon. You have a good one, you hear.”
Taylor doubted any day that had started out with one of Sarah Lynn’s inquisitions about her silly, romantic imaginings could possibly turn out to be good. The walk down the block to the old clapboard house that served as both his home and his office was short enough to be uneventful, but also too short to improve his mood.
Inside the office, the normally effusive Darlene Maitland greeted him with a subdued expression. Darlene was twenty-two, recently married and could type with fervor, if not accuracy. She was the only person in town who’d applied for the job of secretary when he’d posted a notice on the bulletin board at Sarah Lynn’s. Since she was known for her bubbling enthusiasm—she’d been head cheerleader every year in high school—Taylor had a feeling her downcast look did not bode well for the rest of his morning.
“Guess what?” she said, following him into his office and plunking a handful of pink message slips onto his desk.
“What?” he said, in no mood to play guessing games.
He regarded her as if she’d just announced that a bomb had arrived in the morning mail. Obviously he could not voice his real reaction to the news. “Congratulations!” he said with what he hoped was enough sincerity to cover his dismay.
If Darlene sensed his lack of enthusiasm, she didn’t show it. “Thanks,” she said, practically bursting with excitement now that the news was out. “Tommy Ray and I weren’t counting on this, but it’ll be okay.” She shook her head, her hand resting protectively on her still-flat stomach. “A baby! Can you imagine?”
“It’s something, all right.”
She regarded him more somberly. “It means I’m going to have to quit, though.”
There it was, the bombshell he’d been waiting for. The pregnancy, with its prospects of morning sickness and time off for shopping and lunchtime showers couldn’t possibly have been enough. Oh, no. Darlene had to go and quit, too. It just about clinched the day’s status as one of the worst in his life.
“Quit? Why on earth would you want to do that?” he demanded, unable to keep the cranky note from his voice. What had happened to all those women who wanted to have careers and motherhood? Taylor wondered miserably. “When’s the baby due, anyway?”
“Not for another six months, but Tommy Ray figures I ought to go ahead and quit now so we can work on building a nursery and getting it all fixed up. I won’t leave you in the lurch or anything. I figured you ought to be able to find somebody to replace me in two weeks. I could start looking around for you right away, if you want me to.”
Taylor didn’t have a lot of hope that two weeks was enough time since it had taken him three months to find Darlene, but he gave her his blessing. If anyone could track down a replacement, it would be Darlene. She had the instincts of a bloodhound. He’d turned her loose a couple of times to track down information that might otherwise have required a private eye. She’d had it so fast, he’d been awed.
“You find me a couple of good candidates,” he told her, trying to muster a smile. “I’ll do the final interview.”
“You bet. Just leave it to me. By the way, Caitlin’s school called. The headmistress wants to talk to you.”
“Did she say what it’s about?” he asked. Given the way the day was going, his seven-year-old had probably burned the place down.
“Nope. Just that it was important. The number’s right here.” She handed him the message slip on the top of the pile. “Want me to place the call?”
Taylor shook his head. “I can do it.”
A few minutes later he had Josephine Lawrence Patterson on the line. Every time he talked to her, he couldn’t help imagining her whacking his knuckles with a ruler.
“Mr. Matthews, I’m worried about Caitlin,” she announced in that direct fashion he’d always admired until now. Now it set off alarm bells.
“Is she sick?”
“Homesick is more like it. Perhaps you could pick her up this weekend for a visit?”
If there was a hint of censure in Ms. Patterson’s tone, Taylor couldn’t identify it. Still, he was filled with guilt. He’d had to go to Charleston the previous weekend and had canceled Caitlin’s regular visit home. He hadn’t allowed himself to hear any disappointment in her voice. In fact, he’d convinced himself she’d sounded happy about staying with her friends. Apparently, though, his daughter was almost as adept as he was at hiding her real feelings. It wasn’t a trait he was particularly proud about handing down.
“Please tell her I’ll pick her up on Friday afternoon.”
“Isn’t that something you should tell her yourself?” she said, and this time the mild rebuke was clear.
“Of course. I’ll call later today, when classes are out. Thank you, Ms. Patterson. It means a lot to me to know how well you look out for Caitlin.”
“She’s a lovely child, Mr. Matthews. I wish…well, I wish your circumstances were different.”
“So do I, Ms. Patterson,” he said. “So do I.”
For some reason, as he spoke, an image of Zelda immediately came to mind. He did his damnedest to banish it before it could land him in a heap of misery.
* * *
Less than a week later, just when Taylor had almost managed to block Darlene’s imminent departure from his mind, she showed up with the astonishing news that she’d found the ideal person to be her replacement, someone with seven years of legal secretary experience, plus paralegal training.
“In Port William?” Taylor said, regarding her skeptically.
“Yeah. Isn’t that great? She just moved here. Perfect timing, huh? It’s like an omen or something.”
Omen was not the word that popped into Taylor’s mind. A slow, steady pounding throbbed in his head as he guessed exactly who Darlene had discovered. Unless someone had had visitors he’d heard nothing about, only one person had returned to Port William in recent weeks. He’d been clinging desperately to the idea that her return was not permanent enough to require employment. Apparently the gods were dead set on making his life hell.
“Darlene, tell me you are not talking about Zelda Lane.”
If she heard the panicked note in his voice, she didn’t let on. “Why, of course, I am,” she said blithely. “I’d forgotten you know her because of the will and all. She’ll be terrific, don’t you think?”
The only thing terrific Taylor could think of was the fact that Darlene was too young to recall his prior relationship with Zelda. At least she’d created this awkward situation innocently. Perhaps it wasn’t too late to steer her toward looking for some other candidate for the job.
“You haven’t said anything to her, have you?” he inquired, though admittedly without much hope. Darlene was not known for her reticence.