Read Chapter 2 before you continue…
The sun had set an hour ago and Elaina felt settled in her skin for the first time during the day, lounging in her regular booth near the back of Stone’s Waterhole with Tyler and his fiancée, Ahyoka Gelderman. Apart from her family and people at their ranch, Ahyoka was one of the few persons in the world with who she was completely at ease.
Part Cherokee from her mother’s side, Ahyoka was the only child of a local banker and Tyler’s childhood sweetheart. And after Brooke had left Lainie’s Creek, the girl’s friendship, which was easily accessible due to her relationship with Tyler, had been somewhat a solace to the suddenly lonely Elaina. The fact that Ahyoka never questioned the lack of correspondence from Brooke made her friendship all the more welcome. Ahyoka was as sweet tempered and politic as Tyler, and the Coreys could not have been happier with the bond the couple shared.
Even when Ahyoka was away pursuing undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Texas in Austin, Tyler and Ahyoka’s love for each other remained lasting. They always seemed sure that once her studies were over, Ahyoka would return and take reign of her father’s business and a ring from Tyler. Tyler had only to wait until the beautiful raven-haired brown-eyed girl graduated from her MBA program. No later than Ahyoka had finished with her graduation ceremony and Tyler was waiting outside the hall where the commencement had taken place with that promised ring. It was to the relief of the entire population of Lainie’s Creek, who had been expecting their impending wedding for the past twelve years, Ahyoka had accepted it that day.
And right now, the couple was sitting across from Elaina, planning their wedding, which was due in the coming autumn. Elaina was more than happy to sit back and relax with her bottle of chilled beer, occasionally lending her opinion when asked as to what color the runners on the banquet tables should be. She had, after all, agreed to be the maid of honor. But for some reason she could not get as hyped about the fancy dress Ahyoka was planning to put her in in less than four months as she could about the new organic supplement feeds she read about in a magazine earlier in the week.
To calm the mild pangs of guilt compelled by her lack of enthusiasm, she allowed her eyes to roam over the crowd gathered in the bar and, before she could make a full round of observation, she had clapped them on the new arrival at the entrance. Matthew Halls in the flesh once again. And that had to mean Brooke McKenna was nearby.
Elaina had guessed they were to come across each other sooner or later but she had no idea what she would say to her former best friend when the fateful encounter occurred. Bowing her head low, she pretended to pay more attention to her soon-to-be sister-in-law’s excited words in hopes of remaining unnoticed. But all too soon she heard that familiar husky voice that once used to run in sync with her own.
Elaina looked up to see Brooke standing by their table, looking, if possible, even more beautiful than ever. Wavy blonde hair cascaded down her back in a stylish coiffure, polished makeup highlighted every feature of her angelic face to twice their radiance, a slinky designer dress in silver revealed her toned arms and legs to their perfectly manicured and pedicured nails. From the corner of her eyes, she could see Ahyoka’s mouth had dropped open in surprise at the sudden appearance of the girl who had left town mysteriously five years ago. Tyler was apparently less vulnerable to Brooke’s beauty, having already been exposed to it once earlier that day.
“Brooke,” was all Elaina could say in acknowledgment to the girl’s presence and took solace in the fact that she could tell Brooke was as tensed as she despite the practiced grin hitched to her face.
“It’s really nice to see you again,” Brooke enthused, as charming as ever, with only a hint of a drawl lingering in her accent. It was a mark of how deep their friendship once was that Elaina could hear the slight tremor of nervousness in that voice. She was sure the others had missed it, to whom Brooke had already turned her attention. “And Ahyoka, too! Great to see you and Tyler still together. Married, of course?”
“Recently engaged, actually,” replied Ahyoka. “The wedding’s in the third week of October. When did you get back? How have you been? We see your photos in magazines from time to time but that’s about it.”
“Oh, I’ve been very busy really. But I finally managed to get away and come home for a week now that work is a little steadier. I just got in yesterday evening. Let me introduce you to my friend. This is Matthew Halls. He’s a famous photographer in New York and an old friend. He came down with me for an opportunity to add some country profile to his portfolio. Matthew, this is Ahyoka Gelderman. We went to high school together though she was a couple of years senior. You’ve met Tyler and Elaina this morning, of course.”
Brooke was babbling. Elaina allowed herself to watch and enjoy it with a slightly sadistic satisfaction. Of course everyone but she probably took the pour of words to be in keeping with Brooke’s natural exuberance but she knew better.
But a more amusing development was taking place across the table from her. Having exchanged greetings with Matthew, Ahyoka had turned to Tyler. “You met Brooke since she returned already?” the girl demanded in an uncharacteristically accusatory tone. Obviously Tyler had not told his fiancée about the events of earlier that day. Elaina wondered if it was purposely done so as to not put Ahyoka on her guard. Despite Ahyoka’s faith in their relationship, females with significant others in general tended to get wary around Brooke’s level of beauty.
Tyler shrugged. “I forgot. We have more pressing issues on hand with the wedding coming so soon.” Elaina mentally congratulated her brother on his save. But then he said something she would have liked to kick him for. “Beats me how I could’ve forgotten though, since Elaina went and shot her friend before anyone was even properly introduced.”
It was Elaina’s turn to be under the speculation of those almond shaped dark eyes. “You shot a man?”
“Not him. It was a warning fire in his general direction,” Elaina protested stiffly.
“A warning that missed my head by less than five inches,” retorted Matthew. His ego was obviously still bruised.
“Relax. The bullet wouldn’t have hit you. I’m a great markswoman,” grinned Elaina, looking up at him.
“I’m happy all the same that you don’t have any gun with you now.”
Elaina’s smile faltered as she saw the intensity in Matthew’s eyes. She could not determine what the look meant but she was suddenly aware, with him standing so close, that he was very handsome, in that tall dark form she usually found described by women fluttering themselves nonsensical over good looking men. With wavy hair as black as night and turquoise eyes, she could understand why Brooke was with him.
“I am still waiting for that apology, you know,” he added quietly.
She was not sure if it was the weather, but suddenly Elaina felt the heat spread through her body. In all the words she had already chanced to exchange with this man, she never noticed the sex appeal in his voice. Somehow, in the excitement of earlier that day, its deep scratchy quality had escaped her and seemed all the more heightened in effect right now. Chalking the blush on her face and neck to confusion, if only because that was a feeling with which she was familiar, Elaina finally became forthcoming with the words he wanted to hear. “I’m sorry I shot at you, okay?”
“Grudgingly it might be, but I guess it’s the best I’ll get.” And then, Matthew smiled down at her and became even more handsome.
While Elaina blushed into a deeper shade of crimson, Ahyoka was enjoying the show. “Well, since all is peaceful in the world again, why don’t you two join us?” offered she. “The bar is pretty crowded tonight so I don’t think you guys will get another table anytime soon.”
Elaina jumped out of the booth, forcing both Brooke and Matthew to move back. “My drink’s finished,” she lied. “I’ll go get another round. Does anyone else want anything?” There was a general mumble of requests from all those present. “Another round of beers for everyone then,” she murmured. And a good escape plan for me, please, she silently prayed.
“I’ll come with you and help carry,” Matthew volunteered.
“You don’t have to.”
“I insist. Five bottles of beer and you’ve got only two hands. I’ll help with the extra. If that’s alright with you, of course. Someone in this place must have a gun and I wouldn’t want to tax your patience.”
Elaina stared back at him mulishly. Not an easy feat now that they were both standing on the ground and he had about six-seven inches of elevated advantage on her. “Fine,” she finally agreed and made her way over to the counter, Matthew following in her wake. “Five beers this way, Arnie,” she called to the owner of the establishment, who also seemed to be tending the bar tonight due to the huge number of weekend customers. Arnie nodded that he heard her from behind the other end of the counter but it seemed like it would be some time before he reached their order.
If Elaina had expected a moment of peaceful contemplation to organize how quickly she could get out of being with Brooke and her city friend, she was wrong. Her companion insisted on filling the silence while they waited for their drinks. “So how come you’re not with your boyfriend tonight?”
Elaina looked at him incredulously. Was he really trying to find out if she was single? “Haven’t got one.”
“Really? What, are the men afraid of your gun?”
“They shouldn’t be since you don’t seem to be anymore. Texan men have their own guns.”
“Then what seems to be the problem?”
“I haven’t the time for one.”
“Everyone has the time for some love.”
Elaina gave him a scathing look. “Why don’t you just worry about your relationship with Brooke?”
“Brooke and me? We aren’t together. I mean we’re here together but we aren’t dating. Just friends.”
“You come down to her hometown with her when she returns after five years. That don’t seem like ‘just friends’ to me,” Elaina projected.
“That was just timing,” Matthew explained with a shrug. “Nobody ever leaves New York once they get there. I didn’t think her late return mattered so much or that five years is very late for that matter. I came down to add to my portfolio like Brooke said. It’s always more helpful if you know someone who’s an expert on the subject of your next expo.”
“Brooke isn’t all that expert on cattle ranching. She never got involved in farming.”
“Well, you seem to be an expert. Want to give me a crash course?”
Elaina found him standing too close for comfort. The air seemed palpable between them and she could feel her blood thicken again. She cleared her suddenly closed throat. “You’ll find enough help to show you around at the McKennas’ ranch,” she dodged and turned back to the counter so that he could not pursue the matter.
But he was adamant. “So that’s a ‘no’, then?”
“That’s definitely a ‘no’, Mr. Halls.”
“Please, call me Matthew. Any friend of Brooke is a friend of mine.”
Friend of Brooke, thought Elaina with a halt. Well, that settled the matter, didn’t it? She really wasn’t a friend of Brooke’s anymore. That was also her cue to hightail out of there. But before she could make any excuses, another voice trilled behind her.
“There you are! How long does it take for you two to get some drinks?”
Brooke had obviously missed her ‘friend’ because Elaina turned to find the girl leaning on Matthew. “‘Just friends’, my behind,” she snorted under her breath. But Matthew must have heard because his head turned towards her. Elaina was saved from his stare as their drinks arrived at that very moment. She passed two of the bottles in the direction of where Matthew and Brooke were standing more as one large mass than two separate individuals and picked up three of the other bottles herself. “I guess you two get to carry your own drinks, after all,” she told Matthew, raising her eyebrows and bottle at him in mock salute.
As she veered around the two and made her way back to their table, she heard Brooke tell Matthew, “Come dance with me, Matthew, love. This is my favorite song!”
Someone was playing Shut Up And Kiss Me by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Appropriate perhaps for the current mood but not Brooke’s favorite song as far as Elaina knew it. She set down two drinks in front of Tyler and Ahyoka. Hayden was there at the booth as well. She sat down beside her older brother as Ahyoka asked where Brooke and her friend were.
Elaina motioned with her eyes pointedly at the couple dancing on the floor. Well, Brooke was dancing at least. Matthew was just standing there swaying his body a little but concentrating more on not spilling the drinks from the bottles he was holding. But they had the whole bar’s attention, it seemed, as both clearly appeared as though they were out-of-towners. But most probably because Brooke was gorgeous and danced very well – even to that song.
“So that’s who Brooke is with, huh?” Ahyoka surmised, turning back to Elaina.
“Seems like it,” Elaina shrugged. “City Boy claims they’re ‘just friends’ though. Don’t look like ‘just friends’ to me.”
Ahyoka giggled. “They sure don’t. What do you think that’s about Brooke coming back after such a long time with a guy lassoed?”
“Beats me. None of my business anyway,” Elaina answered noncommittally and changed the subject. “What was it that you were saying about table runners?”
Beside her, Hayden groaned.
Ahyoka pursed her lips. “Well, Hayden Corey, I suppose you’d have your brother and me married without table runners now, wouldn’t you?”
“How my brother gets married is his business entirely,” replied Hayden calmly. “I just think if it is his business, his table runners need not be brought up in public in front of folks that don’t want to make it their business, is all.”
“And you’d probably have Tyler and me married in front of the court judge and just get on with having the babies, is that right?”
“Seems a shame to waste so much time on table runners since starting a family is the prerogative to getting married. Might as well get on with business now, right?”
“I’ll tell you what’s right, Hayden Corey. Thank God, I picked the right twin ‘cause at least one of you knows the difference between cattle and man.”
“Now, Ahy,” Tyler cajoled, rubbing a hand over his fiancée’s back. “You know better than to let my brother yank your chain. Let’s just decide on the wedding things like we were.” He then turned to his brother with warning in his eyes. “And you leave Ahy alone. You know she’s got a lot on her plate with the wedding so close.”
And it was true. As much as Elaina hated to admit it, since Ahyoka had found out that the wedding date was set so near after being proposed only a fortnight ago, she had begun to panic and Elaina, as the maid of honor, had to put up with a lot of the craziness that had followed. In less than a month, Elaina had to leave her daily ranch routines to accompany her friend to more shops than she had visited in all her life, picking out the colors and fabrics and flavors for anything from dresses to invitation cards to flowers to cakes. She had to deliver opinions on more things than she had ever thought to care about, in the end inventing what she assumed her friend had wanted to hear. Elaina was built to sit on a horse not cut out to make a bride’s companion and confidante.
But like a good friend, she now tried to listen as Hayden frowned beside her at another longwinded oration about wedding décor. And she tried even harder to keep her eyes from drifting to the spot where Brooke and Matthew were still dancing to the new song now playing on the jukebox.
And when that song ended, despite trying not to look, Elaina spotted Brooke and her city friend heading back to their table and jumped out of the booth a second time that night. “Well, I’ll be off for the night then, Ahy,” explained she to her friend who had stopped in surprise amidst her lecture. “I feel all tuckered out tonight.”
Hayden followed her out. “I guess I’ll go, too,” he said, clearly glad to be able to excuse himself now that someone else had broached the subject first. “Not like a man is fit to keep his masculinity intact sitting at this table,” Elaina heard him mutter under his breath. But before she or her brother could make their escape, Brooke had drawn up level with them.
“Are you guys leaving already?” Brooke said breathlessly. Behind her, Elaina saw Matthew stare at her with a frown on his face, his eyes shaded by his furrowed brows.
“Yeap,” Elaina answered simply before cutting a path around the two.
Once outside, Hayden whistled in relief. “Man, I thought I was done for in there with Ahy ranting on about baby’s breaths and candles and them damn table runners. Whoever invented table runners anyway? Table cloths are fancy enough.”
Elaina shrugged in response before she threw herself into the passenger seat of their pickup truck. She knew as little about such matters as her older brother did but still felt guilty about running out on her friend. But the possibility of having to sit down and be sociable with Brooke was one situation she could not yet fathom so she had run for it.
Also, she really did not want to have to stay squeezed in a booth with City Boy while he pretended that he and Brook were “just friends” when they clearly were not. Even if he did look something fine while putting on the show, which, she assumed, he probably would.
Matthew had watched Elaina disappear faster than he had thought humanly possible. He would have asked her to stick around had she not had her older brother follow her out of the pub. Though Matthew probably had an inch or two of advantage over Hayden, the latter clearly bore the vestige of the stubborn and impulsive streak his sister felt no compunction to hide.
So instead, he had taken the seat recently emptied only to be condemned to hearing about wedding fashion from the two female occupants at the booth. Tyler had a glazed look in his eyes as he listened to his bride-to-be chatter excitedly with Brooke who clearly also had a lot to say on the subject and was exulting the expertise she had gained from her career with relish. Clearly Tyler felt he was doing his duty as the bridegroom but he, Matthew, was a free man yet.
“I’ll go punch in a new song in the jukebox,” he excused himself lamely and was glad to see none of the others even noticed him rising. The jukebox did not list what his MP3 would boast but there were a few tracks that he could be found indulging in. And Grand Funk Railroad was good even in the East so he selected Some Kind of Wonderful and punched in the codes and waited for the percussion to distract his ruffled feathers. And instead thought about the slow mischievous smile that had played on Elaina’s lips earlier.
She really did have a sexy mouth. Too bad it always had contrary statements spewing out of it. But already he was beginning to find even that challenging nature of hers entertaining. He certainly had never met anyone like her before. For one thing, none of the women he knew owned a gun. But it was more than that. Defiant and self-assertive, she impressed without trying to. Initially, she had seemed to him the silent, resilient type, but he was glad to find that she could be baited into an easy and engaging discourse.
It was a pleasant surprise when he had later picked up on the sly playfulness to her personality. It had had his blood heating right up. Why, when she had smiled up at him that single time, he had felt his very skin come alive with the need to touch her. He had wanted to reach out with his hand and brush his thumb against her lips to feel the crinkled texture of them. It surprised him how fast that desire had risen in him. It was almost elemental. But her smile had gone as fast as it had appeared and it had not appeared again.
Leaning his hip against the jukebox, Matthew thought once again about how quickly Elaina had made her way out of the bar – without so much as a goodbye or goodnight at that! But he had a feeling he knew what had caused her to ignore him this time. It seemed Cowgirl Elaina was reading the signs Brooke was leaving around entirely wrong, taking the latter girl’s friendliness to be flirtation. Meaning she thought Matthew had lied to her.
Well, at least it seemed to align with his belief that the cowgirl was headstrong and rash in her opinions. The problem was that even with the glorious country of East Texas all around him, he had come to find Elaina the subject he was most interested in as yet. Something needed to be done about that.
Matthew turned his head to find to his utter surprise Jonny standing beside him. “What are you doing here, Jonny? Aren’t you underage?”
Jonny’s grin widened. “I am. But everyone here knows me so I’m allowed in. People keep a good lookout though that I don’t get anything with alcohol passed to me.”
“Ah… Living the good life here, aren’t we, Jonny boy?” teased Matthew, grinning back.
Jonny shrugged, trying to act noncommittal but Matthew could tell he was pleased. “So how did you find the crowd here in Stone’s?”
“Haven’t really met anyone new other than Tyler’s fiancée. But the crowd seems nice, lively but not yet chaotic. Seems like a nice place to visit during the weekends.”
Jonny seemed to gauge what he said with the quiet scrutiny of his eyes. Finally seeming to accept that Matthew was not merely being polite, he nodded. “So where is your camera tonight?”
“In Mr. McKenna’s pickup. Brooke made me leave it behind saying she was hoping to get some dancing done without me having to lug it around everywhere.”
“Don’t see the point in coming out here to take photographs if you’re not even allowed to carry your equipment.”
Smart boy, Jonny. “Yeah. I guess sometimes we men gotta accept the peculiarities of women.”
“Yeah, I guess we do. I don’t remember Brooke much, since she moved away when I was so young, but I hear Brooke McKenna always got what she wanted. I suppose being her boyfriend makes it hard for you to contradict that?”
Matthew had just taken a swig at his drink and choked when he heard Jonny’s surmise of his relationship with Brooke. Coughing, he corrected the younger fellow. “No, no, you got that wrong. Everyone here seems to get it wrong. Dunno how many more people I’ll need to explain it to. Brooke and I are just friends.”
Jonny looked skeptic. “Really? Even though you came down here –”
“Even though I came down here with her after she returned home from a five years’ absence”, Matthew finished, nodding in exasperation. “I keep hearing how that’s a big deal but it’s really a big coincidence. We are really just friends.”
Again Jonny watched him fluster quietly, looking a lot older and wiser than he should at his age. “Okay if you say so,” he said at last. “But then why you’d listen to her and put away your camera I cannot figure. It seems to me that photography is mighty interesting.”
Something in the boy’s tone caught Matthew’s attention immediately. “Would you like to learn a bit of photography while I’m in town, Jonny?” he offered. For one, Matthew never denied the privilege of sharing his favorite activity with anyone who was interested, for another, it seemed that Jonny’s friendship could get him closer to his favorite cowgirl.
“If I had the opportunity, I wouldn’t mind none, I suppose,” replied Jonny shyly.
Bingo. “Well, I’ll love to teach you as much as I can. How about this? I take you out around on my field trips from now on while I’m in Lainie’s Creek and teach you as much as I can in exchange of you becoming my official tour guide around this country. Make sure that I don’t get lost again in these parts.”
Jonny looked excited and Matthew could feel that pride he usually did whenever he met with a keen student in one of his classes. For the first time, the boy looked really very much like a boy. “Well, that sounds just great. Wait till I tell Ma. She’d be so excited to hear.”
Matthew smiled. It was not every day you did a good deed and secured an instant return on the investment. And it seemed he had just found his best angle to focus on Elaina Corey. So he took Jonny to the counter, sat down side by side on barstools, bought the kid a Dr. Pepper, and began devising the next day’s itinerary, making sure that Jonny understood that Matthew would come to pick him up at the Corey’s ranch.
Read Chapter 4