Authors: Sherryl Woods
“You mean about the job? Sure. I told her all about it, about what a great boss you are.”
“Did you happen to mention my name?”
Darlene regarded him blankly. “I didn’t need to. You’re the only lawyer in town. Everyone knows that.”
“But she might not, especially if she just moved here.” It was his only hope, that Zelda would back out of the interview the minute she found out who she’d be working for. The prospect of having her here, in this office, not more than two dozen steps from his bedroom, made his pulse kick.
“Oh, she knows,” Darlene announced blithely. “In fact, she’s sitting out front right now, waiting for the interview I scheduled.” She studied him worriedly. “Boss, you look kinda funny. Did I do something wrong? I mean, I could tell her you’re busy or something.”
Wrong, he thought, trying not to panic at the understatement. Bringing Zelda into this office wasn’t wrong. It was flat-out guaranteed emotional suicide.
* * *
Zelda wasn’t sure what had possessed her to agree to an interview with Taylor. Not that Darlene hadn’t been persuasive. That girl could sell pinecones to someone living in the forest. She’d swooped down on Zelda with so much enthusiasm that Zelda had almost forgotten exactly who it was Darlene wanted her to work for. To her astonishment, she’d found herself nodding and agreeing to show up this morning, even though she hadn’t even decided whether or not to stay in Port William. She’d even used Harlan’s brand new machine to fax Kate for a letter of recommendation. She’d told herself she was just going through the motions, that it was a way to get under Taylor’s skin. She couldn’t think of anyone more deserving of a little discomfort.
Now here she was in Taylor’s reception area, wearing one of her best business suits in a turquoise fabric that matched her eyes, and wondering if she’d gone and lost her mind. What had gotten into her?
Perhaps it was that same quirky streak that always encouraged her to do the unexpected. Perhaps it was a desire to see the look on Taylor’s face when she walked into his office. Perhaps, if she was prepared to admit the truth, it was a deep-seated desire to show him and everyone else in this town that she was an intelligent, responsible woman and not the flake they all remembered.
Not that she needed to prove anything to anyone at this late date, she told herself staunchly. She knew who she was. Wasn’t that all that really mattered?
She was just about satisfied with that mature, rational explanation, when Darlene announced that Taylor was ready to see her. Her heart thumped unsteadily as she walked into his sedate, mahogany-paneled office, an office she could have described down to the last detail in advance thanks to all the times he’d daydreamed aloud to her about how it would look one day. The genuine surge of pleasure she felt at the expression of absolute bewilderment on Taylor’s face told her that all that stuff about maturity was so much hogwash. She liked seeing Taylor shaken up. Even more, she supposed, she liked knowing she could be the one to do it.
As soon as the door closed behind Darlene, Taylor started shaking his head.
“Zelda, I can’t imagine what you’re doing here. You know this isn’t a good idea.”
Thoroughly enjoying herself now that she’d admitted to herself why she’d come, she regarded him innocently. “Why is that?” she inquired sweetly.
“It just isn’t. There’s too much…” His voice trailed off.
“Chemistry?” she suggested, to fill the conversational void.
Taylor glared at her. “No, damn it.”
He rubbed his temples. “Zelda, it’s just a bad idea. I can’t make it any plainer than that.”
“You don’t think I’m qualified?” she asked. She pushed the recommendation from Kate across the desk. “I think my letter of reference speaks for itself.”
He glanced at the letterhead, obviously prepared to dismiss it. She could tell the precise instant when the name registered. Thanks to some highly publicized celebrity cases, Kate Newton had a national reputation as a crackerjack divorce lawyer. His eyes widened as he read every glowing word Kate had written. He cleared his throat.
“Well, your former boss certainly speaks quite highly of your work,” he admitted.
Zelda tried not to gloat. “Yes,” she said briskly. “Now, then, if we’re agreed that I’m more than qualified for the job, what exactly is the problem?”
Taylor was too much the lawyer to say anything that might later be used against him in a discrimination suit. Zelda regarded him smugly while he struggled to find a suitable answer that wouldn’t fuel her desire for revenge for his walking out on her. He choked back every response that apparently came to mind, then finally settled for saying, “I thought you were going back to Los Angeles.”
She had to admit she enjoyed the little hint of desperation in his voice. “I never said that,” she corrected.
“Then you’ve decided to fulfill the terms of the will?”
“Let’s just say that knowing I’d have a job would make me more inclined to stick around. So, what’s it going to be, Taylor? Do I have the job or not?”
He regarded her intently. “Zelda, are you sure you want to do this?”
“You mean, stay in Port William?”
“No. I mean, do you seriously want to work for me?”
It was the closest he’d come to conceding that she might have cause not to want to be in the same room with him. She leveled a perfectly bland look straight at him. “It’s a job, Taylor. It happens to be one I’m trained for. Beyond that, I don’t think there are any other considerations.”
Her defiant gaze dared him to contradict her. Finally he sighed.
“I suppose we could give it a try.”
Zelda nodded. “Shall we say, one month?”
“One month would be fine.” He seemed to stumble over the response.
Zelda caught the distress he tried valiantly to hide and grinned. “I’ll see you bright and early Monday morning, then. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to it.”
Taylor looked as if he’d rather eat dirt.
nfortunately, Zelda didn’t realize until she was walking back home that her perverse desire to rattle Taylor had overcome her own instincts for self-preservation. If she’d managed to open Taylor’s eyes to another side of her personality thanks to Kate’s glowing recommendation, then he had taught her something, as well. All Taylor Matthews had to do to make her pulse flutter was breathe. That was it. His mere existence in a room set her heart racing.
There was no reasoning with a reaction like that. Without half trying, Taylor made her want to do all those wicked, outrageous things that had so appalled the straitlaced people of Port William a decade ago, the very things that had sent Taylor himself scurrying out of her life.
And she had just agreed to go to work for the man! She’d probably be chasing
around his desk by the end of the first week.
Since such clear evidence that her daredevil streak was far from dead appalled her, she stopped by Sarah Lynn’s for something calorie-laden to combat outright depression. A hot-fudge sundae ought to do it. The more decadent, the better.
Though it was early for the lunch crowd, at least half a dozen people were lingering over coffee and gossip. Since all conversation stopped the minute she walked in, Zelda had a hunch she was the current topic. It was hardly the first time, but it made her uncomfortable just the same. She suddenly longed for L.A., where the only people who knew her name were the ones she told.
Though most of the faces at the counter were familiar, she merely waved a greeting. She pointedly avoided making the sort of eye contact that would invite anyone to join her. As she headed for the nearest empty booth, Sarah Lynn bustled out from the kitchen and embraced her. She smelled of cinnamon and apples. It must be apple crisp day, served hot and topped by melting vanilla ice cream, Zelda recalled as she returned Sarah Lynn’s hug.
That hug and the genuine warmth behind it brought the salty sting of tears to Zelda’s eyes for the first time since she’d gotten home. Just being in this place, with the scent of fresh-baked pies in the air and the Formica and chrome polished to a spotless gleam, was enough to carry her back in time. She had more happy memories here than she did of that house a few blocks away.
“Zelda, honey, I’ve been wondering just when you were going to come to see me,” Sarah Lynn said in a tone that gently scolded her for the delay. “Now sit right down here and tell me all about Hollywood. Have you met any stars out there? Why, I’ll bet you know Kevin Costner.”
She sighed dreamily at the prospect, a reaction that seemed somewhat unexpected from a woman edging toward sixty and built as solidly as one of those mowers over at Harlan’s. Zelda knew, though, that Sarah Lynn’s practical, down-to-earth nature hid a romantic streak almost as wide as her own mama’s had been.
Laughing at the evidence of it, Zelda shook her head. “Sorry to disappoint you, but I’ve never met him. I did arrive at a restaurant one night right after he’d left with carry-out. Does that count?”
“Not for much,” Sarah Lynn said with a laugh. “Well, never you mind. What can I get you, hon?”
“A hot-fudge sundae,” Zelda said at once. “The biggest one you can make.”
Sarah Lynn didn’t remind her that it was before noon. She’d never been one to criticize her customers’ dietary whims. Given her cholesterol-laden menu, it would have been decidedly bad for business. “Extra whipped cream, the way you always liked it?” she said immediately.
The one thing Zelda had always known about small-town living was that people never forgot anything—good or bad. In this case, it genuinely made her feel as if she’d come home. “Of course.”
When Sarah Lynn brought the sundae with its mound of freshly whipped cream and sprinkle of nuts, she settled down opposite Zelda. Her expression turned sober.
“I don’t have much time before this place gets busier than rush hour at a train station, but tell me how you’re doing. I want the truth, too, not one of those polite evasions you use with acquaintances. You getting along okay out at the house? I know you must miss your mama.”
Zelda paused with a spoonful of ice cream halfway to her mouth and said softly, “Yes, I do. I don’t think I really accepted that she was gone until I came back here.”
“They buried her next to your daddy, just like you asked. I planted some mums. I thought she’d like that. You been out to the cemetery?”
Zelda shook her head. “I couldn’t. Not yet.”
“Well, never mind. You’ll go when you’re ready.”
“Did people talk because I didn’t make it back for the funeral?”
“Honey, people in this town always talk. Ain’t no point in worrying about it. Besides, we all handle things the best way we can.”
Zelda sighed, grateful that this woman to whom she’d once been so close wasn’t making any judgments. She regarded Sarah Lynn with genuine fondness. “You were one of the few people in this town who really understood what she was like, you know. You never judged her. Or me. I always appreciated that.”
“Maybe because I knew what it was like to have dreams go awry.” She reached over and patted Zelda’s hand. “Whatever her idiosyncrasies, she loved you, honey. I know that as surely as I know the sun comes up in the morning.”
Zelda had known that, too, but it didn’t hurt to be reminded, especially now when her mother’s final act seemed to contradict the fact. Maybe Sarah Lynn was the one who could explain Ella Louise’s whim.
“Do you know why she wanted me to come back here and stay, then?” she asked, unable to keep a trace of bitterness out of her voice. “How could she insist on that when she knew how much I hated it, when she knew I had a new life in Los Angeles?”
Sarah Lynn didn’t show the slightest hint of surprise at Zelda’s question. Obviously news of the will’s terms had reached her. Either that or Ella Louise had discussed them with her. Apparently not the latter, Zelda realized with regret as Sarah Lynn shook her head.
“She never said a thing about her will or about wanting you back here, at least not straight out. She did worry about you being all the way out in California, though. We talked about it more than once.”
The response only added to Zelda’s confusion. “She never gave me a clue that she was worried. She never was the kind of mother to issue warnings about every little thing. Besides, it’s no more dangerous in L.A. than anyplace else these days.”
“Hon, I don’t think it was crime that worried her.”
Before Zelda could ask her what she meant by her cryptic remark, the diner’s door opened and a half dozen customers flocked in. Sarah Lynn patted her hand once again. “Let’s get together real soon. You need anything in the meantime, you just give me a holler.”
Since there seemed to be no point in trying to pursue the conversation now when Sarah Lynn was distracted, Zelda just squeezed her hand. “Thanks. It’s good to see you.”
Sarah Lynn winked at her. “And don’t you let Taylor work you too hard.”
Zelda stared after her in astonishment. It seemed some things in Port William never changed. She and Taylor were still making news.
* * *
That afternoon Zelda put on a pair of shorts and an old shirt she’d found hanging on the back of a hook in the bathroom. She knotted the shirttails at her waist, then settled down on the front porch with a glass of iced tea. The sun filtered through the trees in a way that made the yard seem prettier than it was. She barely noticed it. She figured it was time she had a serious talk with herself.
It appeared she’d decided to stay in Port William, despite whatever misgivings she might have had only a few short hours ago. Her conversation with Sarah Lynn had only confirmed that her mother had wanted her back here for some very specific reason. She had to stay long enough to figure out what that was, or at least to satisfy herself that it had been no more than a flighty whim.
The decision to stay made, that left her to wrestle with the equally troubling matter of Taylor Matthews. She reminded herself that nothing was likely to start up with Taylor again unless she allowed it. She told herself that pride alone ought to keep her from forgiving him too quickly for the way he’d treated her. And then she conceded dryly that Taylor hadn’t exactly looked as if he was interested in spending eight hours a day in an office with her, much less pursuing anything more personal.