Authors: Sherryl Woods
The last thought fueled enough anger that she left the porch and grabbed up all the old hooked rugs in the house and took them out to the clothesline in back. Then she proceeded to beat the daylights out of them. Clouds of dust swirled around her and left her sneezing. She backed up in search of fresh air and bumped straight into something solid. She knew from the way the goose bumps instantaneously rose all over her that the something was Taylor. His low chuckle confirmed it and sent sparks scampering straight down her spine.
“Taking out your frustrations on the carpet?” he inquired in a lazy drawl that was friendlier than just about anything else he’d said to her since her return.
“Just cleaning,” she said. She kept her tone curt so he wouldn’t guess how that drawl of his affected her. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve been thinking about something ever since you left my office this morning.”
“Oh?” She glanced up and looked into troubled gray eyes that immediately cut away from hers. “What would that be?”
He started to say something, then stopped. Finally, after some internal struggle she couldn’t begin to fathom, he said, “We never discussed salary. I can’t afford to pay what you were making in Los Angeles.”
Zelda could tell from his uneasy expression that her pay was not what had brought him out here. “You trying to wriggle out of our deal?”
“No, but this arrangement’s going to be difficult enough without any misunderstandings. I just wanted to be up-front with you about a potential problem.”
“That would be a pleasant change.” The sarcasm crept out before she could stop it.
Looking guilty, he shoved his hands in his pockets. “Damn it, Zelda, you’re not making this any easier.”
She regarded him evenly. “Is there some reason why I should?”
He groaned. “Okay, I can see you’re still angry. I suppose you have every right to be.”
“Suppose?” she echoed incredulously. Ten years’ worth of rage exploded. Caution flew out the window. She poked a finger in his chest. His rock-solid chest. She tried not to let that distract her from her fury.
“You suppose? Taylor Matthews, I was in love with you,” she blurted out to her regret. Once she’d said that, there didn’t seem to be much point in holding back. “You led me to believe you felt the same way. Then the minute your daddy suggested I might be a liability to the long-range political ambitions of the Matthews family, you dumped me with no more concern than you would have felt swatting a fly. I’d say that gives me cause to be angry.”
He leveled a gaze at her that almost took her breath away. It seemed he was looking straight into her soul. “It’s been a long time now,” he reminded her.
His apparent conviction that time should have healed her wounds just riled her up all over again.
“Being told you’re not good enough isn’t all that easy to forget,” she informed him. “I thought you were the one person in town I could count on, the one person who didn’t give a damn about my mama’s eccentricities, the one person who cared about
no matter what. Instead, you bailed out on me when my reputation got a little inconvenient, a reputation, I might add, that you had contributed considerably to creating.”
“It wasn’t your reputation… I mean, not exactly,” he began unconvincingly, then held up his hands. “Never mind. I can see coming by here was a bad idea. I’ll see you on Monday.”
Watching Taylor turn around and start to walk away in the middle of a fight infuriated Zelda almost more than any words he could have spoken. He hadn’t taken half a dozen steps when she instinctively flew after him, leaping on him from behind. Her arms looped around his neck and her knees dug into his sides as if she’d jumped astride a runaway horse.
“What the hell…?” he muttered just as they fell to the ground in a tangle. The air whooshed out of him as he landed with an ungraceful thud. Zelda’s own fall was cushioned, but she was beyond caring if she broke every bone in both their bodies.
“Damn you, Taylor Matthews, don’t you dare walk away from me like that again,” she shouted, pummeling his back with her fists.
He was absolutely still beneath the onslaught. In fact, he took it for a full minute, allowing her to vent her fury. Then, before she could catch her breath, he flipped her over as if she were no more trouble than a gnat and pinned her to the ground. She felt an almost forgotten surge of excitement race through her as she saw the angry sparks in his eyes. This was the man she’d adored, the man filled with passion, the man who tilted at windmills, the man who’d lavished more tenderness on her than both her parents combined.
“Come on, Taylor, fight with me,” she taunted. “Used to be we argued half the night away, then spent the rest of it making up.”
She could feel the heat rising in his body, even as his stormy expression gave way to something far more dangerous. Suddenly, just as she realized exactly what she’d set loose, his fingers were cupping her head and his mouth was on hers—hot, urgent, demanding. Years of pent-up hunger were in the kiss that shocked then thrilled with its deepening intensity. There was no tenderness on his part, no hint of gentle longing, just a raw, primitive need. Deep inside Zelda, a matching need exploded, even as it set off warning bells that clanged so loudly only an idiot would have ignored them.
“Taylor,” she murmured, too softly, too ineffectively. Her body, crushed beneath his, seemed to have a will of its own. Even as her mind screamed that she needed to get away, her hips arched to fit more intimately with his, seeking the source of the heat that had raged between them as quickly as a brushfire.
It had always been this way with them. Always.
And it never solved anything,
a voice inside her warned.
This time Zelda listened. She shoved hard against Taylor’s chest, tumbling him off her. He looked at her and groaned, his expression torn between guilt and a desire he couldn’t do a thing to hide.
“I will not allow this to happen,” he muttered under his breath, as if a sheer act of will was all that was required to shatter an unbreakable bond.
She glared at him. “What, Taylor? What is it you won’t allow?”
“This,” he said, waving his hand to encompass the two of them, the ground, their rumpled clothes.
“You were the one who kissed me,” she reminded him.
“I’m not denying that,” he snapped, scrambling back to his feet and brushing the grass off his suit. “It was a foolish mistake, okay? It won’t happen again.”
Zelda watched him flee, then murmured with an odd sense of exhilaration, “Bet it will.”
* * *
“Taylor, what’s this I hear about Zelda Lane being back?” Beau Matthews asked that night over dinner.
Taylor almost choked on a mouthful of black-eyed peas. Given the events of that very afternoon, he viewed Zelda as an even more dangerous topic than usual. He glanced toward his mother, appealing to her to switch the direction of the conversation. Unfortunately she didn’t take the hint.
“I saw her myself,” Geraldine Matthews said. “She was sitting in the diner before lunchtime, talking to Sarah Lynn. She looked even lovelier than I recalled.”
“There is nothing lovely about that girl,” Beau said. “She’s trouble. Always has been. That mother of hers was a drunk. If you ask me, Zelda’s bound to turn out just like her.”
The comment made Taylor see red. “Dad, you don’t know a thing in the world about what Zelda’s been doing the past ten years,” he retorted, defending her now as he should have done long ago. Guilt for his past silence gnawed at him, even as he tried belatedly to make his father see reason. “People change. She’s had a responsible job with a very important lawyer out in California.”
Beau’s head snapped up. “Now how would you know a thing like that, unless you’d seen her? You haven’t seen her, have you?”
“As a matter of fact, I asked Taylor to see to Ella Louise’s will,” his mother chimed in, shooting a warning glance at him. “Naturally, he’s had to see Zelda.”
“Now why would you go and do a damn fool thing like that?” Beau demanded, his anger now directed at the pair of them. “You know the last thing Taylor needs is to get mixed up with that girl again.”
Taylor stood up slowly and glowered at his father. “Dad, I’m past the age where you can control who I do or don’t see. Maybe if I hadn’t been such a damned idiot ten years ago and hadn’t listened to you, my life would have turned out differently.”
Ignoring his father’s stunned expression, he leaned down and kissed his mother’s cheek. “Thank you for dinner. I think I’d best be going before Dad and I wind up saying things we’re likely to regret.”
“I don’t believe in regrets, son,” his father shouted after him.
“I know,” Taylor said softly. “More’s the pity.”
As he drove back toward town, he was thankful he’d managed to keep quiet about hiring Zelda to work in his office. Of course it was only a matter of time before the news reached Beau. Well, that was just something he’d have to deal with when the time came. He’d had his reasons for hiring her…though damned if he could think of a one of them at the moment.
He sighed heavily. How different things might have been if he’d listened to his heart all those years ago instead of paying attention to his father’s misguided if well-intentioned demands!
He’d played things by the book, though. He’d finished law school, married a girl from the best sorority on campus, one with all the right bloodlines—a descendant of the original South Carolina settlers, no less. They’d bought a fancy house in Charleston. He’d joined the most prestigious law firm in town, thanks to Maribeth’s family influence. Caitlin had been born almost nine months to the day after the wedding, right on time, with a minimum of fuss.
Within a year Taylor had been positioned to run for public office. Beau had been ecstatic. His golden boy was exactly where he wanted him, on schedule and destined for greatness.
At the time it hadn’t seemed to matter much to Taylor that he was miserable. There was little time for introspection, anyway. Maybe if he’d stopped long enough to take a good long look at his life and his marriage, things wouldn’t have turned out the way they had.
Without realizing what he was doing, he found himself instinctively driving by Zelda’s house. Those five minutes this afternoon when he’d disregarded every warning and kissed the woman senseless had been the first time he’d felt alive in more years than he could recall.
But it wouldn’t work between them, not after all the lessons he’d learned. Zelda was high-spirited and impetuous, a combination that had very nearly destroyed him once. He wouldn’t risk that kind of anguish again.
elda marched into Taylor’s office on Monday morning with her shoulders squared and her head held high. She was determined that Taylor would never detect even the tiniest hint of the nervousness she felt. She wore another power suit just to make a statement—black this time. There was nothing more professional than basic black.
Admittedly, though, her uneasiness had nothing to do with the job. She knew after working for Kate that she could handle the workload of a small-town lawyer with one hand tied behind her. It was the memory of that unexpected, searing kiss that had her jumpy as a June bug.
Fortunately the first person she saw when she walked into Taylor’s office was Darlene, not her new boss.
“Hey, there,” Darlene said, beaming. “You’re right on time. Today should be a light day. Mr. Matthews had to take Caitlin back to school. Then he planned to go on over to Charleston to file some motions in a case he’s handling over there.”
Zelda stopped in her tracks. “Caitlin?” she questioned, her pulse hammering.
“His daughter,” Darlene said, totally unaware that she’d just dropped a bombshell of atomic proportions. “Haven’t you met her yet? She’s the cutest little thing. She’ll be eight pretty soon. Looks just like her daddy. She’s in boarding school, has been ever since…” She paused and bit her lip. “Well, maybe that’s something you ought to hear about from Mr. Matthews. He wouldn’t want me gossiping about his personal life.”
Of all the times for Darlene to decide to hold her tongue, Zelda thought in frustration. She didn’t dare probe too deeply for fear the talkative Darlene would later mention her interest to Taylor.
“All lawyers rely on their secretaries’ discretion,” she said diplomatically. “I’m sure he must appreciate yours. Of course, if I’m going to be working here, it would help to know if I should expect his wife and daughter to be popping in, and whether he minds being disturbed.”
To Zelda’s regret, Darlene grinned mischievously. Obviously she was quicker than Zelda had given her credit for being.
“Oh, Mr. Matthews will fill you in on all that kind of thing, I’m sure,” she said. She regarded Zelda speculatively. “You know I was talking to my mother about you. She remembers you from when you lived here before.”
“Her name’s Jeannie Wilson. She’d already had my older sister, that’s Danielle, by then. Anyway, she said you and Taylor—I mean, Mr. Matthews—well, that you had something real special going.”
“We were friends,” Zelda said a little too emphatically.
Darlene regarded her disbelievingly. “Sounded to me like it was a whole lot more than that.”
“Well, you know how rumors are.”
“How come you didn’t mention any of that when I asked you if you wanted to apply for my job? I mean, I knew you knew him because of his doing your mama’s will and all, but I’d never guessed about the rest.”
“It hardly seemed relevant,” Zelda said.
“Yeah, I suppose not. My mother said you split up and then you left for California.”
“That’s about it,” Zelda agreed, knowing that the capsulized version didn’t begin to cover all the heartache involved. “Darlene, don’t you think we ought to get to work?”
Darlene blinked at the pointed suggestion. “Oh, yeah, sure. I guess we should. Mr. Matthews told me to explain which cases he’s working on, where we keep things, that sort of stuff. Mondays are usually pretty busy because he sits in that house all weekend long with his dictating machine. I spend the whole day typing.”