Authors: Sherryl Woods
hat fleeting moment under Taylor’s speculative gaze was the last straw. He’d looked so lost, so lonely in that one instant when his expression hadn’t been guarded. Why? What had happened to him over the past ten years to rob him of the zest for living they had once shared?
Darlene had already whetted Zelda’s curiosity about what had gone on in Taylor’s life while she’d been in Los Angeles. No one so far had satisfied that curiosity, and she had never tolerated secrets very well. Maybe that’s why she’d taken the paralegal courses, so she could be in a profession that allowed her to probe behind the facade most people displayed to the public and get at the truth of their lives.
Her one attempt to get Taylor to say anything about his marriage had failed miserably. Obviously if she was going to learn a thing, someone else would have to be the one to tell her. She sorted through the possibilities and picked Elsie Whittingham.
Elsie was lonely. She liked to talk. She had once provided an after-school refuge for Zelda. And she knew more about what went on in Port William than any other ten people combined, with the possible exception of Sarah Lynn. Zelda didn’t dare ask her old friend. Sarah Lynn might care about Zelda as if she were her own daughter, but she was also loyal to Taylor. Zelda didn’t want to test that loyalty.
That night on her way home from work, she stopped by Elsie’s for a glass of lemonade and some of her homemade gingersnaps. It wasn’t the first time she’d dropped in unannounced, acting on an old habit from childhood. But this evening was the first time she’d shown any interest in lingering beyond a few polite minutes. Elsie beamed as Zelda settled in a chair in front of the fireplace and sipped on her second glass of lemonade.
“First fire of the season,” Elsie said. “There’s a real bite in the air tonight.”
“Feels good,” Zelda said, referring as much to the chill outside as to the blazing warmth of the fire. She was enjoying the real changing of the seasons again.
“I sure am glad to have you stop by now and again,” Elsie added. “You remember how you used to do this when you were a girl? I recall it like it was yesterday. You always did love my gingersnaps. You and Taylor both. I must have baked twice a week just to keep you two satisfied.”
“That was Taylor. He could eat a dozen for every two I got.” She sighed. “Mama never baked,” she added wistfully. “Never cooked if she could help it. I used to pray that just once I’d come home from school and be able to sniff the scent of warm cookies fresh from the oven. Instead, all I ever smelled was bourbon.”
As soon as the words were out, Zelda regretted them. Keeping silent about her mother’s drinking had once been habit. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“And why not, I’d like to know?” Elsie said indignantly. “It wasn’t right.”
Zelda suddenly felt the need to defend her mother…again. “Mama did the best she could,” she said sharply, trying to make up for her indiscreet remark just moments before. “There were times when she was just fine, when she’d tell me stories or read to me from those books of hers. Sometimes she’d take down her big old atlas and point to places far away and talk about what it would be like to travel there. I knew more about geography by the time I was in grade school than some kids do when they graduate from college.”
Elsie pursed her lips. “It was your father I always felt sorry for. Poor Joseph had no wife looking after his needs the way she should.”
Zelda felt as if an old wound had been stripped open. “That’s not true,” she said in a low voice. “It was his fault. You don’t know what he was like.”
“He was a fine, Christian man,” Elsie insisted, looking shocked that Zelda would dare to suggest otherwise.
“He was selfish, rigid and judgmental. Why the hell do you think my mother drank in the first place?” she said furiously. “Because nothing she ever did was good enough to satisfy him. Not one blessed thing.”
Stunned by her outburst, Zelda snapped her mouth shut before she revealed far more than she’d ever intended to say about the horror of living in that house with Joseph Lane. He punished not with spankings, not even with yelling, but with his cold silence. Just the memory of it made her freeze up inside.
She set her unfinished glass of lemonade down carefully. “I think I’d best be going.”
Elsie regarded her worriedly. “There’s no need for you to run off. Let’s talk about something more pleasant. You shouldn’t go getting yourself all upset over things that can’t be changed. I’m sorry we got into it. All that was a long time ago. Tell me how things are going now that you’re back. Are you settling in okay over there? Is there anything you need?”
Zelda drew in a deep breath and finally sat back. “I’m fine,” she said. “Sooner or later I’m going to need to do something about the sorry state of the house, but for now I’m making do.”
Zelda saw the speculative look in Elsie’s eyes. She could guess what was really on the woman’s mind and since it would head the conversation in the direction she wanted, she just waited for curiosity to get the better of Elsie.
“You and Taylor getting along okay?” she asked eventually.
“He’s a good boss,” Zelda said.
Elsie rolled her eyes at the bland remark. “I wasn’t referring to his dictating skills.”
“We see each other at the office. That’s it.” She hesitated, then added in what she hoped was a casual tone, “But I was wondering something.”
“Did Taylor come straight back to Port William after law school?”
Judging from Elsie’s expression, she wasn’t fooled by Zelda’s casual air.
“No, indeed,” she said. “He went into practice over in Charleston, just like he always talked about doing.”
“Then how did he end up back here?”
Elsie hesitated, then shook her head. “I can’t say I know the whole story. Besides, that’s something you’d best be asking him,” she said.
It was a surprising display of discretion for a woman who loved to gossip. First Darlene, now Elsie. It appeared to Zelda if she stuck around Port William long enough this time, the whole blasted town would reform.
“I can’t ask my boss something like that,” she said piously. “It’s too personal.”
Elsie winked. “I know. If you were just asking because he’s your boss, I’d tell you what I do know. But you’re looking for more than the bare facts, and that’s something you ought to hear from him.”
“Why does everybody act so mysterious about this?” she snapped impatiently. “It’s not like I’m some scandalmonger from a tabloid. Taylor and I were close once.”
“A lot of water’s gone under the bridge since then, for both of you. Seems to me if you expect to be close again, you’d best open up those lines of communication.”
Zelda scowled at her, then grinned at the common sense suggestion. Whatever else her flaws might be, Elsie Whittingham had always had good solid advice for a lonely girl who hadn’t always trusted her own mother’s slurred words of wisdom. “Okay, okay, you’ve made your point.”
“Can I offer one more word of advice?”
“You’re asking?” she said incredulously. “Would a
Elsie chuckled. “Not likely. Don’t go stirring things up unless you’ve got a good reason for doing it. Taylor’s had a rough time of it. He doesn’t need someone else to come along and hurt him.”
“What makes you think I could do anything to hurt Taylor?”
“Because, honey, you always could, and some things just flat-out never change.”
All night long Elsie’s warning seemed to reverberate in Zelda’s head. Was it possible that Taylor did hold some deeply buried feelings for her, even after all this time? It would explain that unguarded expression she’d caught on his face, the hunger in that kiss.
If so, then, what right did she have stirring things up? Was she still hoping for revenge? Or were there feelings of her own, feelings that went beyond resentment, that she hadn’t yet grappled with, that maybe she didn’t want to face at all? Common sense told her to proceed with caution.
Of course, according to legend in Port William, anyway, common sense wasn’t something Zelda Lane had ever given a hang about. Since she’d already been tarred with that particular brush, she couldn’t see much reason to prove them wrong now.
* * *
The next day when Zelda placed a stack of letters on Taylor’s desk, instead of beating a rapid retreat, she lingered. Seeing the tense set of his shoulders, she longed to stand behind him and massage away the ache. Given his overall attitude toward her, though, he’d probably charge her with assault. Maybe even attempted murder, if her fingers happened to skim his neck.
“I was surprised to find you living in Port William after all this time,” she confessed in what she hoped was a casual tone.
He barely glanced at her. “Why? It’s home.”
Though his response was hardly an invitation for an intimate t;afete-;aga-t;afete, she sat down anyway. “But you were always so determined to live in Charleston or Columbia, and run for office.”
He straightened and regarded her evenly. “I did live in Charleston, and I did run.”
“You did?” she said, unable to hide her astonishment. If Taylor had run for office, why wasn’t he in the capital now? He wasn’t the kind of man who would even enter a race, unless he’d been virtually assured of winning.
“What happened?” she asked finally, since he didn’t seem inclined to enlighten her on his own.
A dark look crossed his face. He drummed his fingers on his desk, then shoved them through his hair. The nervous ritual was familiar, but in the past she’d only seen him act that way around Beau, when he’d been struggling not to tell him off. She was absolutely certain now that he intended to toss her out without replying.
Instead, he merely glared at her impatiently, then bent back over his work. A wise woman would have taken the hint. Zelda, however, wasn’t about to let it rest, now that she’d finally opened up the subject.
He looked up, scowling. “Damn it, I don’t have time for this. I hired you to work, not to cross-examine me.”
“I can’t do the best possible job, if I don’t really know the person for whom I’m working.”
“You’ve known me for the better part of the past thirty years,” he reminded her.
She shook her head. “I knew you ten years ago. You’ve changed, Taylor. You used to be just as big a risk-taker as me, maybe even more daring. Now you’ve settled for boring. I can’t help but wonder why.”
He tossed his pen aside. “Zelda, what’s this really all about? I seriously doubt whether you’re worried about how stodgy I’ve become. Besides, you’re here on a temporary basis, right? Maybe for one more week. Less than a year, if you decide to fulfill the terms of your mother’s will. I don’t see much need to confess all my deep, dark secrets to you.”
“Who better to talk to than an old friend who’s leaving town?” she shot right back, angered by his assumption that she wouldn’t last one instant beyond the year necessary to satisfy the terms of the will. “I’ll take your secrets with me.”
“How reassuring. I’ll keep that in mind if I ever feel the need to make a confession.”
Zelda groaned and barely resisted the urge to shake him. Or kiss him until he looked as bemused as he had at her house a few weeks back. “Why can’t you stop being so evasive and just answer me? Is the truth so terrible? Maybe you could just start by telling me about Caitlin. In the past three weeks, you’ve never once mentioned her name.”
A faint spark of warmth lit his eyes. “Seems to me you already know about her,” he said dryly as he glanced pointedly at the framed picture on his desk.
“I know she exists,” she corrected, refusing to be baited. “I don’t know anything about her or about her mother.”
“Frankly, I can’t believe no one’s filled you in,” he muttered. His gaze narrowed suspiciously. “Or is that why you’re asking, just so you can gloat?”
“Gloat about what? No one’s told me a damn thing. In fact, everyone’s so tight-lipped, you’d think I was asking about national security. If you don’t want to talk about your marriage, then tell me about the election.”
“Look it up in the local paper. There were plenty of stories at the time.”
“I’ve worked for a highly publicized attorney in L.A. I know how the media can distort things. I’m asking for your version,” she said with exaggerated patience.
Taylor uttered a sigh of resignation. “Damn it, you always were persistent,” he grumbled.
She grinned, relaxing slightly. Victory was just within her grasp. She could sense it. She just had to reel him in. “Glad to know I haven’t lost the knack for it. I’m still waiting for an answer, by the way.”
“I lost, okay?” he said, then added with undisguised bitterness, “That ought to make you happy.”
The words were curt, but it was the bleak expression in his eyes that distressed her. Taylor rarely showed signs of his vulnerabilities. Whatever had happened had hurt him deeply. With anyone else that might have dissuaded her from pursuing the topic, but she sensed that Taylor needed to talk. He wouldn’t, unless she badgered him into it. So she kept at him, but her tone softened.
“Why would that make me happy?” she asked, genuinely puzzled by the comment. “I always wanted what was best for you. Remember when we used to talk about how we would redecorate the White House one day? I believed in that dream, Taylor. Even when I knew I wouldn’t be the woman there with you, I still wanted you to get there someday.”
“Sure,” he said disbelievingly. “Once upon a time, maybe you felt that way, but I suspect I haven’t exactly been in your prayers in recent years.”
“Maybe, maybe not, but I do know how much being elected to public office meant to you and your family. In fact,” she added dryly, “who would understand that better than I would? I paid a high enough price, so you could fulfill Beau’s ambition.”
“It was my ambition, Zelda, not just my father’s, but you’re right. It sure as hell did ruin things between us. The blame for that’s as much mine as my father’s.”
Once again filled with regret, Zelda sighed. “It didn’t have to ruin things for us, Taylor. I think that’s what made me angriest. You bought into your father’s assumption that I’d be a liability.” She shook off the memories. It was too late now to change what had happened back then. “Look, all I’m saying is that I know how disappointed you must have been, but that still doesn’t explain why you’re here in Port William again. Losing a campaign wouldn’t send you running back home.”