Authors: Sherryl Woods
“Perhaps I should do that today,” Zelda suggested. “I ought to get used to it while you’re still around to explain how he likes his letters and notes done.”
“Why, sure,” Darlene replied, looking pleased at being considered an expert on her boss’s ways. Suddenly her complexion turned chalk-white. “Whoops! ‘Scuse me,” she exclaimed, and raced for the bathroom.
While Darlene dealt with her morning sickness, Zelda moved into position behind the computer terminal. Judging from the instruction books piled up, the office clearly had the most up-to-date programs. As soon as Darlene returned, she pointed out the codes, all of which were exactly like the standard ones Zelda was used to.
“I think I’m all set,” she said finally.
“Then I’ll just try to catch up on some of this filing,” Darlene said. “Mr. Matthews pulls files and leaves ‘em scattered all around when he’s done, especially on weekends. Then he yells like crazy because he can’t find what he’s looking for.”
Sounded just like Taylor, Zelda thought wryly. When push came to shove, he apparently never could take the blame for his mistakes. She certainly knew that firsthand.
By midafternoon she had caught up on the typing and she and Darlene had finished the filing. The filing had taken longer than usual because Darlene kept throwing up. Worried by the expectant mother’s pallor, Zelda sent her home.
Left alone, she sat quietly for a minute trying to absorb the fact that she was actually working in Taylor’s office. Her gaze was drawn toward the wall that separated the work space from his home.
She hadn’t heard a sound from next door all morning. Did that mean there was no wife, after all? Was that what Darlene had refrained from telling her, that Taylor and his wife were divorced? Or was it something more? She tried to imagine what might have made Taylor send a seven-year-old off to boarding school. Surely it wasn’t just that he didn’t like the role of single parent? He had always talked about how much he wanted kids, lots of them, since he’d been an only child.
When she tired of coming up with questions for which she could think of no answers, she picked up the morning’s work and took it into Taylor’s office. As she stacked the letters for his signature and the file notes for him to look over, she spotted the silver-framed photograph of a child in a swing. She glanced around, but could find no companion picture of the girl’s mother. She couldn’t resist picking up the photo of Caitlin to study it more closely, even though it was a poignant reminder that she had once hoped to share a family with Taylor.
With her fingers trembling more than they should, she touched the glass. The lovely, pint-size angel appeared to be about six or seven, which meant the picture had to be fairly recent. Her face was flushed, her black curls in disarray, but it was the devilish sparkle in her eyes that enchanted Zelda. How many times had she seen that exact same gleam in Taylor’s eyes right before he’d led them both into some mischief?
“Oh, I’ll bet you’re a handful,” she murmured, somehow pleased by the thought despite the pang of longing deep in her heart.
She had just replaced the photo on his desk when she sensed Taylor’s presence. Thanks to the thick carpeting, she hadn’t heard a sound. A guilty heat crept into her cheeks as she looked into eyes the exact color of storm clouds.
“Hi,” she said, offering a tentative smile that wasn’t returned. “I was just putting the work we did this morning on your desk.”
His gaze went from the photo to her and back again, proving that he’d arrived before she’d put it down. The angles in his face looked harsher than ever. Whatever he was thinking, though, he kept to himself.
“Where’s Darlene?” he asked finally.
“We were all caught up, so I suggested she go on home. She had a rough morning.”
For the first time he actually looked directly at her in a way that wasn’t condemning. “Rough how?” he asked.
She was pleased by the genuine concern in his voice. It proved he wasn’t as heartless as he sometimes liked to pretend. “Morning sickness,” she told him. “It’s come on with a vengeance. I hope you don’t mind that I let her go.”
He shook his head and eased past her to sit behind the desk. “Of course not. Everything quiet around here?”
“Harlan wants to stop by when it’s convenient to talk about filing suit against one of his suppliers. I scheduled him for ten tomorrow morning. He told me a little about the case, and I looked up some of the case law for you. The notes are on top of that stack to your left.”
If he was startled or pleased by her initiative, he didn’t display it by so much as the flicker of an eyelash. “Fine. Anything else?”
Oddly disgruntled by his failure to react, she shook her head. “I’ll be at my desk if you need me.”
At the door, she hesitated. “Taylor?”
He glanced up.
“How do I handle it if your wife calls or drops by when you’re busy? Should I interrupt you?”
The haunted expression that washed over his face stunned her. “That’s not something you’ll have to worry about,” he said, his curt tone so cold it could have chilled wine. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
The abrupt dismissal stung. Back in the outer office, Zelda wondered if these first few minutes were an indication of the way things were going to be from now on. Taylor hadn’t done anything she could rightfully complain about. He had been thoroughly professional, even if somewhat distant, right up until she’d mentioned his wife.
What on earth had gone wrong in that marriage? Whatever it was, Taylor was still clearly distraught by it. Zelda felt her heart wrench as she thought of Caitlin. What effect would such obvious anguish have on that beautiful, lively little child of his?
It was none of her business, she reminded herself sharply. None. She was just passing through Taylor’s life again.
* * *
As the door to his office closed, Taylor shoved his trembling fingers through his hair and muttered a curse. Why the hell had he taken his anger at Maribeth and events that had happened a lifetime ago out on Zelda? He’d seen the unmistakable flash of hurt in her eyes, the proud tilt of her chin. Damn it, she wasn’t just being nosy. As a new secretary, she’d made a perfectly natural inquiry. She couldn’t possibly know the story of his disastrous marriage and its tragic outcome. Beau Matthews had seen to it that the worst of it never reached the media. It was one of the rare times that Taylor had been grateful for his father’s power and influence. What little gossip that had made the rounds was bad enough. Sooner or later he’d have to tell Zelda at least that much of it or someone else in town was bound to do it first. Heaven knew how they would embellish it, but he doubted he’d come out the hero.
In the meantime, though, he had to find some way to coexist with Zelda for the next month without letting her very presence rattle him. Walking in here today, seeing her at his desk, had brought on a flood of old daydreams.
Once they’d talked for hours on end about how much he wanted to have an office that was attached to his home, so his family—Zelda and all of their adorable, redheaded little children—would be close by.
Well, that hadn’t happened, he reminded himself fiercely. He hadn’t married Zelda. His wife, well, he didn’t even want to think about Maribeth. And his beautiful, precious daughter was away at boarding school so he wouldn’t have to cope with raw memories that hurt too much. It shouldn’t have been this way, but nobody ever said life came with guarantees.
Suddenly he recalled the very first time he’d been truly aware that the redheaded daredevil who was two classes behind him in school was something more than a pint-size pest. He’d thought of her as little else than a girl who was always anxious to follow his lead, who always looked at him with the kind of adoration he hadn’t deserved, but which had made him feel ten feet tall. He’d been a rebellious kid. Zelda had been a more than willing co-conspirator.
He’d been a sophomore in high school when that had changed. Zelda had still been in junior high. In age difference it hadn’t been much. In terms of pretended sophistication, it had been light-years.
Even so, like a bolt from the blue, he’d noticed the endlessly long legs, the already curvaceous figure, the hair that gleamed like fire in the sun. His pal, his best friend, had grown up on him.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only one aware of the changes. When he’d first recognized that he was thinking of her differently, Zelda had been cornered outside Sarah Lynn’s by a half dozen taunting boys, whose tasteless comments were fueled more by rampaging hormones than cruelty.
Driven by some primitive instinct, Taylor had been about to rush to her rescue when he’d noticed the sparks in her eyes and recognized that the fourteen-year-old wasn’t intimidated. She was furious. He knew better than to get on the wrong side of Zelda’s temper, but her assailants obviously didn’t. Bobby Daniels had missed the signs completely and made one taunting comment too many. Zelda’s knee had caught him strategically and a left hook bloodied his nose. The stunned, open-mouthed boys had scattered, taking the moaning Bobby with them. Even Taylor had been awed.
“You throw a mean punch,” Taylor recalled telling her, falling a little bit in love with her at that moment. He’d known then that she was destined to be a woman who’d be a spirited match for any man. As young as he’d been, he’d wanted desperately to be that man. “How’d you learn to fight?”
“Practice,” she’d retorted with an expression he couldn’t fathom.
Then she’d sashayed into Sarah Lynn’s and ordered a hamburger, fries and a hot-fudge sundae as if punching out a bully had only whetted her appetite. She hadn’t even blinked when an irate Patty Sue Daniels had stormed in a few minutes later to threaten Zelda with jail for decking her precious son.
“Go ahead,” she’d said, calm as you please. “But you won’t like hearing the filth that was coming out of his mouth testified to in court.”
“Who’d believe you?” Patty Sue had retorted derisively. “Everybody in town knows your mama’s a mental case and that you’re just like her.”
Zelda had turned pale at that, every drop of color washing out of her skin. Her hands had clenched into fists once more. She’d slid off her stool at the counter, her intentions clear to anyone who knew her as well as Taylor did. Before she could deck Patty Sue, Taylor had interceded, even though he figured the obnoxious woman deserved whatever she got.
“I heard him, too,” he’d said, stepping between them. “Think the judge and jury will believe me? Let me see now, what were his exact words?” In a low voice he’d repeated Bobby’s remarks word for word, avoiding Zelda’s gaze the whole time.
Patty Sue had turned red as a beet while listening to the crude remarks. “I ought to tan your hide, young man. Or maybe I ought to have a word with your daddy. Nobody talks that way to a lady.”
“Exactly,” he’d said. “But I’m not the one you ought to be explaining that to.”
Patty Sue had left in a huff. Considering how gingerly Bobby had inched into his seat in class the next morning, apparently his mother had taken Taylor’s advice to heart. Even after all these years, the memory made him chuckle. He doubted if the town’s newly elected mayor—
Daniels—would recall the incident so fondly.
That defiant spark in Zelda that had first fascinated him had been very much in evidence on Friday when he’d made the foolish mistake of stopping by her house. She was still a hellion, all right. And she could still pack a wallop. He had the bruises on his back to prove it.
And, no matter how much he might hate it, he was still fascinated. This time, though, he’d die before he’d do a damned thing about it. He sighed and wondered exactly how many times he’d need to remind himself of that over the coming weeks.
* * *
After that first awkward day, Zelda told herself things had to improve. Instead, each day turned into torment. They were both so polite it made her want to scream. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected, but it wasn’t this cool civility. Taylor was a good lawyer, smart and instinctive, and more than willing to listen to her suggestions. He was even lavish with his praise, though most often it came in the form of notes jotted on the corner of papers she’d written for him. The ideal boss.
Unfortunately, Zelda had wanted her old friend back, if not her old lover.
She made it through the first week and then the second. By the third she was ready to admit that this had been the third worst mistake of her life. The first had been falling in love with Taylor all those years ago. The second had been not getting over him.
She ought to quit. She sat at the computer, glaring at his office, and tried to convince herself to walk out and go back to Los Angeles where life was far less complicated.
“You are not a quitter,” she snapped finally. “You are not.”
Suddenly she realized she was not alone. She looked up from her computer and caught Taylor watching her with something akin to longing on his face. It was the first tangible sign she’d had that he didn’t outright loathe her for putting them both into this awkward situation.
“Is everything okay?” she asked, her voice far too breathless to suit her. Obviously she was reading too much into that unguarded expression she’d just witnessed, an expression that had vanished faster than a wisp of smoke.
“I suppose I was just wondering why I never realized you were so…” He fumbled for a word.
“Smart? Responsible?” Zelda supplied with an automatic edge of sarcasm. Then her innate good humor crept in. Her tone lighter, she taunted, “It’s hard to pick up on things like that when you’re skinny-dipping at one in the morning or sneaking into Sarah Lynn’s to make ice-cream sundaes in the dark.”
Taylor’s gaze softened. His chuckle crept in and, like a touch of spring air, it warmed her heart.
“It’s a good thing Sarah Lynn has a forgiving nature, or we’d have served time for that one,” he said.
“It was still the best hot-fudge sundae I ever had,” she replied, unable to keep the wistful note from her voice.
A smile tilted the corners of his mouth, then disappeared in a beat. “Yeah, me, too.”
While Zelda stared after him with her heart thudding, he quietly closed the door to his office. Now what, she wondered, was that all about?