Authors: Sherryl Woods
He regarded her intently for the space of a heartbeat and then he sighed deeply. “No,” he said quietly, “but losing my wife did.”
Zelda felt as if the wind had been knocked out of her. “Losing your wife,” she echoed in dismay. “How? Surely she didn’t divorce you just because you lost an election.”
“No. She died,” he said bluntly.
The succinct reply explained a lot…and nothing at all. This time, though, Taylor’s dark, forbidding gaze kept Zelda from pressing for more answers. But it didn’t keep her from wondering.
* * *
After she’d left his office, Taylor felt all of the old pain and anguish wash over him. The wound, which had been healing nicely at long last, had been ripped open with just one sympathetic look from Zelda. He didn’t want her sympathy. He didn’t even want anyone to know how much pain he was in. He just wanted to be allowed to exist in peace. He wanted a life with no expectations and no bitter disappointments. No highs. No lows. With a woman like Zelda, there’d always be plenty of both. He shuddered at the thought.
Clearly, though, Zelda didn’t intend to let him get off that easily. Just behind her sympathetic expression, he’d seen the familiar stubborn determination to probe until she knew everything. He’d remembered too late how persistent she could be and how perceptive. She’d guessed, when no one else ever had, how much he’d resented Beau’s control of his life, even when they’d shared the same goals.
It was obvious, too, that Zelda blamed his father for everything that they’d lost. Some day he would have to correct that impression. In the end, it had been his mother who’d persuaded him to see reason, who’d gently pointed out how much more suitable a woman like Maribeth would be when he eventually ran for office. No one regretted the success of her persuasion more than his mother did today. He wondered if perhaps that was why she’d been so insistent that he help Ella Louise with her will, a gesture to make amends for a wrong done to Ella Louise’s daughter.
Or maybe even a gesture meant to give him a second chance at happiness. What a laugh that was! He’d botched his life up royally and, bottom line, he had no one to blame but himself. He hadn’t been an impressionable kid when he’d cut Zelda out of his life. He’d made choices, bad ones, and he was going to spend the rest of his miserable life paying for them. Wasn’t that what penance was all about?
Taylor sighed as he struggled to face the fact that it was only a matter of time before Zelda heard the whole story about his marriage. He knew he should be the one to tell her, but the words just hadn’t come. It had been easier to talk about the election. Losing a political race was one thing. Failure was another.
He admitted to himself that pride had kept him quiet. That and the fact that they both knew her presence here was only temporary. There was no point in sharing secrets, in allowing a touch of intimacy that could delude either of them that things could ever be the same between them. His decision to keep silent had been a good one, he told himself repeatedly.
If that were true, though, why was that gnawing turmoil in his stomach worse than ever? And why did he sense that he’d missed an ideal opportunity to strengthen a bond that never should have been broken in the first place?
He still hadn’t answered those questions by Friday afternoon. At three that day, as he’d sworn to Ms. Patterson that he would do religiously once a month, he drove to the small private boarding school where he’d sent Caitlin. Ignoring his parents’ objections, he’d told himself that he was no match for a precocious seven-year-old who needed rigid discipline. Except for those lonely hours in the evening, when he desperately missed the sound of Caitlin’s laughter, he almost believed it.
He stood outside the gates and watched her come down the walkway in her blue and gray uniform, her wild black curls tamed into braids, her pace sedate. Something inside him wrenched at the sight, but he didn’t dare admit to himself that he’d preferred the exuberant child who’d flung herself into his arms with sticky kisses only a year before.
“Hello, Daddy,” she said in a soft, emotionless voice. Her eyes, the same gray as his own, were shadowed in a way no child’s should be.
“Hey, puddin’. How’s my best girl?” He tugged on a braid and a familiar, impish grin flitted too briefly across her face. “How’s school?”
“It’s okay. I got an A in math. My teacher says I have a very orderly mind.”
Taylor winced. How could he ever have thought that such praise would delight him? It sounded so dull, so predictable. It sounded like something to be said once all the life had been squeezed out of a person, not words to be used to describe a seven-year-old.
Had seeing Zelda again reminded him of what it had been like to be a child? Before they’d met, he’d been every bit as studious and diligent as his daughter was now. Zelda had breathed the spirit back into him. What terrors they had been! For the first time in a very long time, he found himself smiling at the memories.
Caitlin regarded him curiously. “What’s so funny, Daddy?”
The surprise written all over her face reminded him of how seldom he smiled these days. “I was just thinking back to a long time ago.”
He felt as if the blood drained out of his face. “No,” he said, trying to keep the edge out of his voice. “No, I wasn’t thinking about your mother.”
Caitlin’s expression, which for one brief instant had been that of a happy, exuberant kid again, shut down immediately at his terse response.
Taylor cursed himself for his insensitivity. He’d vowed that he would never do anything to destroy the love Caitlin had felt for her mother, no matter how much he blamed Maribeth for ruining their lives. Obviously he was going to have to guard his words more closely.
During the drive back to Port William, he tried to put that spark back into her eyes with silly teasing, but Caitlin was too sensitive to his moods to respond. She was silent all the way, lost in thoughts. Looking at her sitting stiff and silent beside him came very close to breaking his heart.
elda stood at the front window of the office long past six o’clock, watching for Taylor. Dusk settled in right along with anxiety over his likely reaction to her presence on his return. Still, she couldn’t make herself go. She switched on the outside lights illuminating the driveway and waited.
Though he hadn’t said a word about his destination, she knew from what Darlene had told her that he was probably going to pick up his daughter. Even knowing that he would be furious to find her still around, she had dragged out her work until it seemed silly not to stay just a little longer. She needed to see for herself the child she might have shared with Taylor if only things had been different, needed to try to understand the currently unfathomable dynamics of their father-daughter relationship.
She knew what she was doing was foolish, that it would be emotionally costly. Still, she stood there, gazing down the street, wondering how she dared to get involved. Once she’d left Port William, would she be able to bear thinking of that little girl going through life without a mother and banished by a father for reasons Zelda couldn’t begin to comprehend? Wouldn’t it be better not to know what Taylor’s child was like, how much she needed to be loved?
Too late for caution now, she thought. Her heart began to hammer with anticipation as Taylor’s car turned the corner. As he pulled into the driveway, her breath seemed to catch in her throat. Finally the car door opened and Caitlin emerged.
Instantly Zelda felt the tug on her heart, the sting of tears in her eyes. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected, but it certainly wasn’t this placid, too thin child who walked so sedately at her father’s side instead of skipping ahead. She carried an expensive overnight bag rather than some outrageously colorful tote like the ones most youngsters preferred. So little, yet pretending to be so grown-up. Zelda’s heart ached for her.
Picking up her own purse and firming her resolve, Zelda swiftly left the office, locking the door behind her. She met the pair on the walk, defiantly ignoring Taylor’s forbidding expression. She hunkered down in front of Caitlin and held out her hand.
“Hi, I’m Zelda. I’m your dad’s new secretary. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”
Caitlin placed one delicate hand in Zelda’s. “Hello,” she said, her tone very proper, very reserved. “I’m pleased to meet you, too.”
She glanced up at her father for approval. Then with an obvious flash of childish curiosity, she asked, “What kind of name is Zelda?”
“A troublesome one,” Zelda admitted with a self-conscious laugh. “My mother happened to love a particular author and since she couldn’t name me after him, she named me after his wife. When I was your age, I really hated my name. Now I don’t mind it so much.”
“You probably just got used to it,” Caitlin said, displaying a wisdom beyond her years. Zelda couldn’t help wondering how often the child had been told that she would get used to something eventually, just to be patient.
“Maybe I did get used to it,” Zelda agreed. “Or maybe it was that someone used to say my name with so much love in his voice that it suddenly seemed very special.” She could feel Taylor’s gaze burning into her, but she refused to look at him.
“Your boyfriend?” Caitlin asked, obviously every bit as fascinated as she might have been by some gloriously romantic fairy tale.
Zelda glanced up at Taylor, then back at his daughter. “Yes. He was, back then.”
“Did you marry him?” Caitlin inquired ingenuously.
Before Zelda could respond, Caitlin confided, “I’m going to marry a prince someday and live in a castle.”
Zelda nodded seriously. “Now that seems like a very good goal to me,” she replied approvingly. “Have you picked out the castle?”
Caitlin giggled. “No. I’ve never even seen one, but daddy promised to take me to…” She looked at her father. “What’s that place you said you’d take me?”
“Europe,” Taylor said, his lips twitching with amusement. “It’s across the Atlantic Ocean. Remember, I showed you once on the globe.”
“He showed me pictures of castles in a book, too,” Caitlin confided to Zelda. “I think I liked the one at Disney World best.”
Taylor laughed aloud at that. Something inside Zelda twisted free at the sound. How long had it been since she’d heard his laughter?
“Sweetheart, that wasn’t Disney World,” he said, his hand caressing his daughter’s head. “That was Neuschwanstein in Germany. It was built by King Ludwig.”
Caitlin wasn’t impressed by the historical information. “Well, it looked like the one at Disney World. I see it all the time on TV.” She inched a little closer to Zelda. “Maybe you’d like to stay for dinner and I could show you the castles, too. Do you know any princes?”
Zelda heard the hopeful note in her voice, but she also caught the dismayed expression on Taylor’s face. Discretion called for polite excuses.
“Maybe another time,” she promised. “Your dad probably already has other plans for tonight. I’m sure he wants to hear all about what you’re doing at school. And I can be thinking about whether I’ve ever crossed paths with any princes.”
“But I’m not home very much,” Caitlin said wistfully, casting an appealing look up at her father. “It would by okay, wouldn’t it, Daddy? Please.”
Zelda saw Taylor’s resolve wavering and knew that there was very little he would deny his daughter, no matter how hard he’d tried to distance himself from her by putting her out of sight in that boarding school. “If Zelda has the time, of course, she can stay,” he conceded with undisguised reluctance.
Caitlin obviously wasn’t aware of the subtle nuances between the adults. Her eyes lit up. “See. I told you it would be okay. You can stay, can’t you?”
Zelda regarded Taylor intently. He gave a faint, albeit unhappy, nod. “I would love to stay,” she told Caitlin, and meant it. She had been instantaneously charmed by this pint-size version of Taylor. A maternal instinct, long ago forced into dormancy, rebelliously reappeared.
As if she sensed that she’d found an ally, the child immediately tucked her hand into Zelda’s and led her inside. “Maybe you can teach me to cook,” she said. “Daddy’s not very good.”
“I know,” Zelda said, casting a sly look at the indignant Taylor, who was scowling with feigned ferocity at his traitorous daughter. “Once he tried to make me a hamburger and burned it to a crisp.”
What she neglected to say was that he’d been so busy kissing her, he hadn’t given the hamburgers a second thought. It was clear from the heat that rose in Taylor’s eyes that he remembered the incident every bit as clearly as she did, that he, too, recalled how her skin had heated beneath his touch, how her mouth had opened so readily beneath his. Now his gaze lingered on her face as if they could recapture the sweetness and passion of that moment without so much as a touch. Awareness shimmered through her, followed all too quickly by desire.
But even as her body hummed with longing, Taylor visibly composed himself. Through some supreme act of will that Zelda wished she could emulate, he replaced intensity with determined amusement.
“Perhaps if I hadn’t been so distracted that night,” he taunted, bringing a flush to Zelda’s face as he ushered them into the kitchen. With one lasting knowing look cast in Zelda’s direction, he grinned and said, “Now, sit down, you two, and let me prove how you’ve both misjudged me.”
“Misjudged, hell,” Zelda murmured, thinking that she’d had Taylor pegged almost as far back as she could remember. Too bad he didn’t seem to know her at all. He’d pasted a label on her years ago and hadn’t bothered to note that it was outdated.
“Daddy, maybe you should let Zelda cook,” Caitlin insisted, regarding him worriedly as he stripped off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves.
Giving his daughter yet another indignant look, he tugged open the refrigerator and pulled a casserole from inside. With a deliberately dramatic flourish, he turned on the oven and popped the dish in. “See,” he said triumphantly. “All done.”
Hands on tiny hips, Caitlin made a face at her father. “Grandma made it, didn’t she?” she guessed, then added with childish derision, “That’s not cooking.”