Read Chapter 3 before you continue…
“Now what the hell are you doing here?”
Elaina watched as Matthew’s eyebrows shot up until they were halfway lost behind the dark flop of hair falling rakishly over his forehead. “Is that how you greet everyone who is a guest at your house or are you just not a morning person?”
“Don’t get cheeky with me. Why are you here?” Elaina had a fretful night of sleep. She had stayed up half the time with the memory of Matthew’s deep blue-green eyes staring down at her swimming in her head and suffered recurring waves of that headiness she had felt in the bar when he had stood too close. The last thing she needed was to find him in her house this early in the morning, looking for the entire world as though he was a king in his own palace. Was there no getting away from him even during daylight?
Matthew whistled low in appreciation of her dark mood. “Definitely not a morning person, then. I’m not ‘trespassing’ again, if that’s what you’re thinking. I came to pick up Jonny, and your mother was kind enough to invite me in for a glass of refreshment. Glad to see not all Corey women are inhospitable.”
“You came to pick Jonny up,” asked Elaina, ignoring his jibe.
“Yep. I’m taking him along on my project so he can show me around the country while I teach him a bit of the old tricks with the equipment. He showed quite a bit of interest in photography and I never say no to a kid with an aspiration. I thought we struck a win-win deal last night.”
“Last night?” she choked.
“I bumped into him at the bar after you’d left.”
The fact that her teenage brother was at the bar was of no consequence. A number of the local kids were allowed in but both the bartenders and the patrons knew never to pass them anything more potent than Dr. Pepper. The topic at hand, however, was creating a jittery feeling in the pit of her stomach. “You moved in right fast, didn’t you? Only a day and already you’re making friends left and right.”
“Well, I only have a week here so I need to make the most of it while I can. But if you ask me, I don’t think things are going fast enough at all. I still have a way to go before I procure what I’m targeting for.”
There was that look again. Those eyes that were usually as obscure as topazes engulfed in mist except at a time like now when he had set his focus on something. Now they were clear and dark pools of abyss. And if she stared at them any longer she was going to fall right in.
Someone laughed in a distant plane and Elaina drew her eyes away from Matthew’s to see who it belonged to. Only she was not prepared to find out the answer. Her mother had walked into the room holding a tray full of refreshments, a bemused look upon her face, and Brooke following her closely behind with eyes shining in mirth.
She was being invaded in her own house!
“Elaina,” June exclaimed sounding relieved. “Did you just get in from the barn? Where’s Jonny? I understand he has made plans to go out and pick up on a new hobby with our guest here.”
Elaina watched the look of approval on her mother’s face and frowned. It seemed June, like her younger brother, had taken a liking to Matthew and was downright friendly with Brooke again. Elaina knew her mother had always liked her former best friend’s spirited nature but had expected a less cordial welcome than this given she also knew about their falling out five years ago. “Jonny should be right along. He was just walking down his horse when I left him,” explained Elaina, trying not to feel betrayed.
Brooke walked across the room and tangled her arm through Matthew’s as though claiming proprietorship. “Matthew has offered to teach Jonny all he knows about photography. Isn’t that generous?”
Elaina grunted her acknowledgment and picked up a pecan cookie from the tray June had set on the coffee table. “So your friend was telling me. In exchange of a tour guide, I hear,” she said dismissively before plopping down into the nearest armchair and taking a savage bite out of her cookie.
“Elaina!” admonished June. “Where are your manners? You offer the guests first!”
“Well, it’s right there for their taking!”
“I must apologize for my daughter’s behavior, Mr. Halls. I know I taught her better than this but I guess her daddy was right. We should not have allowed her to become a rancher. It has left her fit only for a barn.”
Elaina shot her mother a look of rebellion and her mother stared her down pointedly until she quelled under it with shame. How she felt about Brooke or Matthew was no reason to embarrass her mother. Yet it would be a cold day in hell before she apologized to the present company. But she did chew more politely.
“Please call me Matthew, Mrs. Corey,” Matthew was saying with laughter lurking in his voice. “And don’t apologize for Elaina. I don’t mind her candor. It’s quite refreshing actually.”
“Aren’t you charming,” June replied, dimples in her cheeks.
“Probably the last words Eve said to the devil before she fell from Eden,” Elaina muttered under her breath but saw a smile tug at the corner of Matthew’s mouth nevertheless, indicating that he had heard her.
“But why are we standing? Sit down and have a cookie,” her mother continued, not having heard her daughter’s remark.
“Yes,” agreed Brooke, as if glad to have found a topic she could contribute to. “I was just telling Mrs. C how much I always loved her pecan cookies.” She held out the plate to Matthew but did not take a piece for herself to confirm her sentiments. Counting calories, Elaina surmised.
“That’s sweet, dear,” June smiled at Brooke before turning her attention back to her new guest. “So Matthew, I hear you had some work done yesterday. How do you like the country so far?”
“It’s really beautiful. I mean I can only capture the visuals with my camera, I know, but I wish I could encapsulate the whole experience of my morning walk yesterday. The air, the smell of the earth and green.”
“The getting lost, the being shot at,” added Elaina.
“Elaina,” warned June.
Matthew laughed. “Yes, that too. It would certainly be a different story to tell my audience. But I have especially become fascinated with the animals you have here. There are some exceptionally stunning specimens in Lainie’s Creek.” Matthew’s eyes flickered mischievously towards Elaina as he paid the last compliment and Elaina could not but flush. It was no more than an almost imperceptible glance but she felt as though he had placed her under his camera and zoomed in on her further than anyone had ever cared to focus before. Elaina had to force herself to look away as Matthew continued talking. “How many breeds of horses do you have at your ranch?”
As her mother launched into a detailed discussion on the kinds of animals they kept, Elaina found herself delving into reflections of her own. Exactly what Matthew’s intentions were, Elaina could not begin to guess. If the way her former best friend was fawning over the man was any indication, then the said man was definitely in a romantic tangle with the said former best friend. In fact, Brooke’s behavior showed a clear attempt on her part to appear domesticated. And his presence here with Brooke at this juncture was definitely suspect.
Yet, it also seemed that Matthew was flirting with her. Or maybe he flirted with every passing female. Or maybe he was not flirting with Elaina at all. Maybe that was just how city folks behaved. Maybe they called it being friendly in the cities and she was just too much of a simpleton to realize it. Because what did she know about flirting anyway? The only men she ever interacted with were either family or worked on her family estate or among the few friends with whom she had gone to school.
Elaina flushed again. It was truly pitiable that she was reading so much into his random overtures. And she was almost convinced she was not disappointed with this more credible prospect that a gorgeous and talented man was not romantically inclined towards her – that it was once again proof that her former best friend will always outperform her in attracting male interest. But harder still was to persuade herself that she was not beginning to find the mischievous gleam in his eyes, or the sardonic quirk of his eyebrow, or the humorous twitch of his mouth attractive.
“These really are very delicious, Mrs. Corey,” Matthew was saying.
“I’m glad you like them. And I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Since you all have such a big day planned ahead of you, I’ll pack some extra cookies with a flask of lemonade to take on your excursion. And maybe a box of sandwiches, too. Lord knows if you lot will get back in for lunch!” And with that she got up and bustled out of the room before Matthew could even formulate a polite protest on his lips.
So he turned to Elaina instead. “That’s very kind of Mrs. Corey.”
“I’ll say,” Brooke agreed. “I don’t know how much more of this country hospitality my waistline can take. Mama has been plying us with second and third helpings of everything at every meal. She’s even gone to the extent of taking over the reign of the kitchen. I told Matthew to take a few pictures of the look on our cook’s face. Such consternation was sure to earn him a fancy award or two. But I know what kind of trouble Mama’s cooking is going to get me in with my agent and I’m not looking forward to that.”
“Imagine that. Must be what kept you away for these five years,” Elaina returned. “And here we all were in an uproar that maybe it was something you were running away from.”
Brooke fumed and Elaina knew she should not have made that comment. Moreover, Matthew did not look at all as amused as he had a few minutes ago. There was unfeigned curiosity in his eyes that Elaina was sure she did not like any better than what usually brightened his gaze. Fortunately, her youngest sibling burst into the parlor at that moment and his obvious jubilance regarding his upcoming lessons dissuaded the tension.
“Matthew! You’re here!”
Matthew grinned at the boy, instantly schooling his features like a natural actor. “You didn’t think I’d forget, did you?”
“No, Sir. But I can’t wait to start all the same.”
“I’m glad to hear it. We’ll be on our way soon as Mrs. Corey returns with the care package she’s rustling up for us.”
“Great! I’ll just go wash up a bit and then we’ll be good to go,” Jonny put in before he bounded out of the room. They heard the thumps of his feet charge up the stairs.
“I think I’m going to be nauseous,” Elaina interjected.
“I find his enthusiasm contagious,” Brooke returned, obviously trying to appear a positive contrast to Elaina’s cynicism.
“So are you taking lessons now, too?” Elaina almost snarled.
“Oh, no! I much prefer being the subject than the studier,” trilled Brooke, looking even more beautiful, as though to prove just what a fascinating subject she would make.
“Yes, always the belle of the ball,” said Elaina, trying to keep the sneer out of her voice. “Well, I’ll scoot off now. Afraid some of us must tend to more menial tasks while others are involved brandishing a camera or posing for one.”
“I’d like to photograph you further.”
“What?” Elaina had stopped short on her way out of the room. It was the first time Matthew had spoken directly to either one of them since Brooke and she began their spat.
“I set up a makeshift studio in one of Mr. McKenna’s toolshed yesterday and developed the photos I took of you before you shot at me–“
“Shot in your general direction,” Elaina cut in.
Matthew smiled indulgently. “Before you shot your gun in my general direction. I must say you make a fine study. It’s not what I came looking for in Texas but now I find that my series will be incomplete without it. You must allow me to take more photos of you.”
Elaina blinked. And it took all her concentration not to blush. It was not the kind of attention she was used to and she was certain she could not perform well under it. “I did not allow you to photograph me the first time. And it’s flattering but I’m afraid I can’t help. I’ll leave that to professionals like Brooke.”
Matthew shook his head. “I only add authentic scenes to my personal portfolio – never directed or with professional models. Besides what I want here cannot be faked. That kind of concentration and skill can only be carried off by a natural like you.”
It was too much. A man was finally choosing her over Brooke. And the appreciation was saddled with an accountability that she was not ready for – one she had not even anticipated. “I still can’t help you.”
“But I think I can make you come around.”
“Is that a challenge?”
“It’s a request.”
“Too bad I’m not the obliging kind.”
The air around them grew palpable. In fact, she was having trouble breathing in that air. All she could concentrate on was the depth of Matthew’s gaze. It was not demanding yet it held enough intimacy to suggest that he had the right to a positive reply from her. And, somehow, it seemed alright that he should feel so secure of her consent – that, despite the newness of their acquaintance, he was not overstepping his bounds by doing so.
And that rang the alarms in her head. She knew if she agreed to his request, she was good as gone. She did not know what, but she knew something would happen and it would not be good.
“She’s right. She’s not very good under the spotlight.”
It was Brooke. Elaina had forgotten that she was also present in the room and so, apparently, had Matthew who seemed equally startled by her voice. And while Elaina once again felt the hurt and anger that she now associated with Brooke’s lack of loyalty, she was grateful for the endorsement on her decision. So Elaina nodded in agreement and turned her eyes towards the door with longing.
But not before she noticed the fire flicker away in Matthew’s eyes and the disappointment that replaced it. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” said he, directing his reply to Elaina’s nod instead of Brooke’s words.
“Well, it’s the truth,” replied Elaina with mustered indifference. “And I’m very busy with the ranch and Tyler’s upcoming wedding so I doubt I’d even have time to comply. Anyway, I have to go. You guys have fun today.”
She did not wait for a reply, happy just to have gained an opportunity to make her escape at last. Because despite the years of practice, even she was not experienced enough to curtail the very dangerous feelings Matthew was stoking within her. It was the worst that could have happened. She was beginning to like him.
Read Chapter 5