Read Chapter 5 before you continue…
Elaina stretched her arms up towards the heavens, which was pretty justified given that it was a Sunday and she had begun the day by attending mass. Not that she was feeling particularly pious. On the contrary, her mother had, as per usual, plied her with guilt in order to get her to church. It was not as if she had a bone to pick with God or anything. She just preferred to send up her prayers in private when she deemed prayers as necessary. But she refused to wear a dress for these weekly events – that was where she drew the line.
She had yawned her way through the entire service, guiltily averting her eyes whenever she caught Reverend Joseph’s. The problem was not that the priest frowned upon her lack of concentration in his sermons. The problem was that he preferred to send secretive smiles her way that spoke volumes of his tolerance for her indiscretions. In the three years since he had joined the community, she had learned that one thing was more absolute than any other about the young clergyman – Reverend Joseph was a patient man who was willing to allow his flock to turn to the faith at their own individual paces. Frankly, Elaina did not think she could live up to his faith in her. And it was harder to disappoint a man who showed so much patience in her than one who did not.
That is not to say that Elaina now had her arms raised above her head in penance. No, she was stretching to get the kinks out of her body. It had been an exhausting day and that was why she had chosen to come to her favorite spot in Lainie’s Creek – that is, Lainie’s Creek. First, she had to sit through a whole hour of sermon about how man’s independence is a privilege as much as it is a responsibility, no doubt sparked by the upcoming celebrations planned for the Fourth of July. Then, as if that was not enough to deplete a body of its verve, she had to accompany Ahyoka for another wedding shopping spree.
Elaina groaned to herself as she placed her hands on her hips and bent slightly backward, enjoying the sound relief her body was receiving from the stretch. The first fitting of the tailored maid of honor’s dress was today, so despite all her objections about never occasioning to wear a dress on Sundays, she had found herself in one before noon. She had stood there before one of the many elaborately framed life size mirrors in Madam Roberta’s Trousseaux in the dress she was destined to exhibit in a few months, while Madam Roberta’s seamstresses tucked in the swaths of slippery material at the matron’s instruction with pins that had very ominous points.
Elaina sighed again, trying to remind herself that at least the dress was not a complete loss. The color was a sunny gold and the material a very fine satin that, combined, complemented her hair and complexion beautifully. Even she, a person who had little sense or patience for fashion, had seen it reflected in the mirror. The dress was sleeveless and had a boat neckline, smoothly hugging her bodice, with the gentlest pleats at the small of her back before sweeping down to her calves into a high-low hem. Ahyoka had claimed that, contrary to popular practices, she wanted her maid of honor to look elegant to fit the taste and theme of the wedding, not act as a stark contrast to highlight the bride’s beauty.
Unfortunately, this meant that in the bride’s quest to turn Elaina into the perfect maid of honor, Elaina had all her Sundays booked with activities least preferable by her. Only today, after seeing how the dress had enhanced her natural colorings, Ahyoka had announced that once the final fitting was over she wanted to take Elaina for a hair and makeup rehearsal to decide how she must wear them at the wedding. Elaina was not an expert at wedding preparations, but it now seemed that Ahyoka was taking advantage of her lofty position as the bride to play doll on Elaina rather than coordinating more pressing components of the event.
It was a precarious role she played as the maid of honor to Ahyoka – especially when the bride had the sly disposition to feign willful sensitivity whenever the mood suited her needs most quickly. Elaina shook her head resignedly at the situation.
What was that?
From the corner of her eyes, it seemed that there was someone behind the nearest beech tree, watching her. It was hardly discernible but Elaina had definitely seen a brief movement and heard the rustles of clothes. And then she heard the snap of a twig to confirm her suspicions. “Who’s there? Come out!”
For a second, it seemed that the offender would not come forward. But then he slowly emerged from behind the tree – with a camera.
“You?” exclaimed Elaina, spinning around and promptly taking a dunk in the water. In her haste to confront the offender, she had forgotten that she was not standing at the bank of the stream but calf deep in the rivulet, her denim pants rolled up to her knees to keep them from getting wet. She had always found the smooth stones of the water beneath her feet a therapeutic source of respite when she felt tightly wound. It seemed ironic that she had slipped on those very same stones while trying to maneuver herself to face her adversary.
Though she had been standing near the edge of the creek, in her sputtering confusion of having slipped, being submerged, and failing to get back her foothold, she somehow found herself in deeper runs, unable to break surface without pushing her feet against the bottom. Moments later, she felt a pair of strong hands grab her by the collar and drag her above the water. Flailing her arms wildly to find her balance, she smacked her rescuer clear across the nose, who in turn released her as he howled in pain and raised his hands to his injury, and she found herself once again plunged into the water. Thankfully, her rescuer seemed to harbor nobler intentions than vengeance for the injury she had inflicted upon him because she soon felt herself being dragged above the surface.
“Just relax,” she heard Matthew grind out from somewhere just above her head. “Stop waving your arms around like a windmill!”
After a few more seconds of struggle, Elaina managed to find her purchase on the pebbled bottom and stood in waist deep water. Assured that she would not take another accidental plunge to go under, he returned his attention to his nose, obviously checking if it was bleeding or broken. Elaina sent up a silent thank you to God when he seemed satisfied that all was okay with his handsome face. She supposed she should thank Matthew as well for helping her out of the water or apologize for hurting his nose. But now that she knew he was still in one piece, she could only access her outrage at having her privacy violated.
“I can’t believe you were watching me from behind that tree! Are you stalking me?”
Matthew arched his eyebrow smugly. “What? No ‘thank you’ for saving your life?”
“I can swim,” Elaina spat out.
“That’s beside the point.”
“I wouldn’t have needed rescuing if you weren’t creeping around here and startled me.”
Matthew changed tact. “I see you’re not apologizing for hitting me on the nose either.”
Elaina forgot that she had been feeling guilty about the incident just minutes ago. Now she only felt incensed by his lack of remorse for spying on her. “Again, it wouldn’t have come to that if I hadn’t needed rescuing from nearly drowning after being startled by YOU!” she spelt out as though speaking to an especially slow learner, practically bellowing the last word.
Matthew averted his eyes and looked to the shore. “This is ridiculous. Let’s get out of the water. There’s no point in standing in the wet.”
“We’re already wet. Soaked. To the bones.”
“And that lends sense to our continuing to stand waist deep in Lainie’s Creek because?”
“You’re not getting away from me that easily without an explanation as to why you were watching me,” retorted Elaina through gritted teeth, her hands on her hips in a very combative stance.
“I don’t think I want to get away from you. You make a very fetching picture all drenched and disheveled.” There was a seductive curve to Matthew’s mouth now and though they were standing within a couple of arms’ length to each other, she could feel him radiating heat through his wet clothes. Then, as if to prove his words, he took a predatory step forward to lessen the gap.
Elaina wanted to step back. She wanted to gulp down the apprehension that rose to her throat. Instead, she forced herself to stand her ground and repeated, “Are you stalking me?”
Matthew attempted to stare her down for seconds longer but she did not quell. Finally, he answered, “No.”
“Then what are you doing here?” Her voice was quiet now to reflect his.
Matthew shrugged. “I came to conduct a sunset shoot over the creek and found you standing in the water and stretching. I admit I found it a very curious sight and was observing you.”
“Were you taking pictures?”
Matthew turned his eyes to look past her right shoulder. “I came here to take pictures.”
“Of me. Were you taking pictures of me?”
Matthew paused to contemplate the right answer. After a moment, he replied, still not looking directly at her, “Like I said, I came to capture the sunset over the waters. And you were in the waters.”
“If you had made your presence known in a respectable manner before being found out, I would have happily gotten out of the water to oblige your photographic ambitions.”
Matthew’s eyes finally clapped back onto her face. “You have already shown that you do not wish to oblige to my photographic ambitions. Besides, you leaving the waters would’ve ruined the effect.”
Elaina felt another spurt of anger. “I told you not to photograph me.”
“And I chose to ignore that.”
“You have no rights– ”
“I don’t seem to feel that way.”
“You have no rights to feel in any way over me.”
“Again, I disagree.”
This just wasn’t working. And she certainly could not appreciate her traitorous heart for soaring at the idea that he claimed a right to feel – something – for her. It was not that she simply found it flattering he was pursuing to make her a part of his self-appointed assignment. It was definitely something more, a need to know he felt possessive of her. But that just wouldn’t do. “Where is that insufferable camera of yours,” asked she, affecting indignation.
Matthew smirked. “You didn’t think I’d bring it into the water, did you? You’ve already ruined one of my telelenses. This time, I’ve left it safe and sound by the tree.”
“Your camera lens deserved to be ruined! They would’ve been fine if you weren’t sneaking around the countryside taking pictures of people despite their prohibition.” She knew she was yelling again, but she could not help it. The man sparked a lot of contradictory feelings within her, none of which she could be content with.
Matthew leaned forward, his jaws set stiff. “If you’d kindly remember, I hadn’t yet been prohibited from taking anyone’s pictures when you ruined my lens. And my lens wouldn’t be currently in gadget heaven if you weren’t the type of woman who literally jumps the gun without thinking about the consequences of her actions first.” He straightened again, his smug smile back on his lips. “And as for the prohibition stipulated on me presently, I choose to ignore it because it obviously does not come from the most reasonable character.”
Elaina shook in her spot. Not because she was wet and the cold was starting to set into her bones. No, it was the rage. She did not know why she felt it. His decision to continue photographing her could prompt her indignation, her outrage, maybe even a choice to report him to the authorities – but this – this pure haze of wanting to teach him a lesson and perhaps resort to an act of violence just so that he would go away and leave her alone she could not fathom the origin of. Maybe it was an overreaction, maybe it was being unreasonable as he accused. But she suddenly wanted to be unreasonable and commit to something drastic – anything to prove to herself that he was only a nuisance and nothing more. She turned and began trudging her way to the grassy bank.
“Where are you going?” Matthew called after her and she could hear him following.
“Getting out of the water,” returned Elaina over her shoulders.
“Finally something sensible,” sighed her opponent.
“Oh, yes, very! And then I’m bringing your camera back for a swim.”
“What?” she heard Matthew’s startled reply and began running now that she was out of the water.
Matthew followed close on her heels and before she knew it, he had grabbed the waist of her shirt and she felt her back slammed against his front, her breath leaving her body in a whoosh. “Let go of me!”
She fought hard but was no match for his strength. He struggled but managed to turn her around until she was facing him and he had his arms tightly wrapped around her. “Oh, no you don’t. You’re getting nowhere near my camera. What is wrong with you? Where does all this rage come from?”
“From having my privacy violated!” shouted she, continuing to struggle.
“And what, let you have it easy?”
“There’s nothing easy about you.” Matthew dropped his voice so that it was deep and husky and oddly intimate. “But I now have you where I want you and I can assure you that I’m not letting you go anytime soon, so I suggest you stop fighting me.”
And Elaina did. She stopped fighting him. The change in him was so abrupt and unexpected that she could do nothing but what he asked. And suddenly, she noticed that her breasts, hips, thighs were all pressed to his length. That her toes barely touched the ground as he had her in his grip and raised against his body. That his mouth was mere inches from hers. That his eyes looked hungry. For the second time since he had chased and caught her, she felt her breath sharply leave her body.
A soft smile touched his lips and warmth lighted his eyes. “There. See? That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
Elaina only stared. He was so beautiful. She had noticed that about him before but now his beauty seemed different. His hair was curled and slightly matted and dripping water. His eyes were dark and intense and rimmed with sinfully long lashes for a man and water from the creek still clung to them, glittering with trapped sunlight. His nose was straight and strong just like she could feel his body to be, pressed against hers. But it was his afternoon stubble that most fascinated her now. It looked prickly but not in a bad way. And before she knew what she was doing, she raised her hand to touch his chin to learn how his beard would feel against her fingertips.
Matthew groaned and Elaina jerked back her hand. “Sorry,” gasped she.
He shook his head and swallowed before replying. “Don’t. Don’t say sorry. Don’t be sorry.” He paused, then added, “Why did you touch me?”
Elaina lowered her eyes. She knew what had compelled her to touch his chin but she was not about to divulge that emotion. “I don’t know,” she lied instead.
She did not think it possible, but one of his arms tightened around her waist further, pressing her body closer to his, all while he raised his other arm to place his hand on her cheek and tip her chin up, forcing her to look back into his eyes. “Don’t you,” asked he, just before he closed the distance between their mouths to kiss her.
Read Chapter 7