Read Chapter 8 before you continue…
The knowledge that Brooke did not fit into any part of Matthew’s romantic plans set Elaina’s mind to a sense of freedom that directly manifested to her body, which was now responding to his every touch with a hunger born of years of abstinence. She made up for the lost time – not only of the few days she had been rejecting him but all those years when she denied herself the solace of having someone covet her. She learned about mankind’s most ancient truth by imitating his every move with even greater fervor than which he imparted. She reveled in all the sensations he aroused in her and loved that she could do the same to him.
And when he finally broke the kiss, she protested by pulling him back for more. With firm grips on her shoulders, Matthew leaned back to look at her and chuckled. She was becoming cross-eyed with lust and he chuckled! But she could not rally enough outrage over his reaction. She just wanted to continue kissing.
“I think you remember now why you shouldn’t dismiss me anymore.” He sounded vaguely amused, but his voice was hoarse with the traces of his desire. When Elaina frowned in response, he smiled soothingly. “Oh, I promise you there will be more kisses later. More kisses and more of a lot more. But first we should get to know each other better, shouldn’t we?”
Elaina deepened her scowl. She was not feeling very particular about social norms right now.
Matthew dipped his head and peered into her eyes imploringly. “You understand what I mean by ‘a lot more’, don’t you?”
Oh! Elaina blushed beetroot and automatically averted her eyes.
Matthew laughed softly. “I gather you do. So how about a date? A proper opportunity where we may talk in a civilized manner without you challenging me in everything and maybe even coming to accept my suit for you?”
Elaina nodded, smiling shyly. Shyly? Oh Lord! He was turning her into a ninny.
Matthew brushed his lips with hers. Then as though unable to stop himself, he brushed them together again. “Thank you,” he said when he finally unwrapped himself from her and stepped back. “I believe that was the first time you agreed to one of my requests without any protest. I should kiss you more often.”
He was right. She should not let him off so easy. But when she opened her mouth to rectify just that, he pressed his index finger against her lips.
“Please don’t spoil this moment. I don’t know if I’ll get another one like it.” He looked so blissfully pleased with himself that she had to laugh. “Music to my ears. I’ll pick you up this evening around six and you can take me wherever is a good place for a date.”
“We’re going out tonight?” Elaina was sure her eyes were as big and round as 100 Watts light bulbs.
“Why wait? Tonight couldn’t be soon enough for me. So is tonight okay for you?
She took stock from his enthusiasm. “Yes.”
Matthew grinned and spontaneously dropped another kiss on her mouth. “I’ll see you at six then.” Before she could say goodbye, he stepped out of Marty’s stall and was gone.
Baffled by the rapid turn of events, Elaina picked up the sponge from the ground and dipped it in the bucket of water to strain it clean so she could continue Marty’s grooming. Marty snorted as though to chastise her for forgetting his needs for so long. As she sponged his back clean of the remaining saddle mark, she apologized to the horse for her inattentiveness and taking such inappropriate advantage of his private chamber. But she could not muster up the solemnity for it.
She was too busy smiling like a fool.
Matthew arrived at the Coreys’ house on the dot at six. It was only when Elaina had left the stable that afternoon that the implications of his proposed engagement hit her and she had been beside herself ever since with worry over what to wear on her first ever adult date. A proper adult date. The few random incidents where she had previously accepted the attentions of neighborhood bachelors had never amounted to much more than having to put on a fresh shirt and making sure that she washed behind her ears. But a date with Matthew was sure to be different because Matthew was different.
For one, he had not seen her grow up or knew all her foibles as the men of Lainie’s Creek did. He had not seen her with scabs on her knees or walk around town for months with an inch long gap in the front row of her denture when she began losing her baby teeth. He was used to sophisticated women who lived lofty lives in the city. But he had also said that he wanted to know her better and this was her chance to make a decent impression. For another, he had promised her kisses and more, and she found herself anticipating all of it even as the idea filled her with the kind of dread that came with ignorable experience. As opposed to the previous night when every reminder of their first kiss had enveloped her in a blend of mortification and loss, the reminder of their kiss in the stable only filled her with desire and impatience for more. And that was why she felt the need to look her best.
That was why she made the mistake of confiding about her date and anxiety to Ahyoka when she came over for lunch. Like everything else, Ahyoka attacked the problem with the kind of zeal that left Elaina exhausted. Given that the intended bride already had a pre-assigned goal to transform Elaina into femme personified for her own wedding, Ahyoka’s enthusiasm escalated into a sudden frenzy of makeover. Ahyoka had departed promptly after lunch to collect all her beauty supplies and more than a couple of dresses and was back before Elaina could even complete a quick shower.
The two young women spent the afternoon wearing face masks (Elaina rinsed off hers before the prescribed twenty minutes), doing their nails (Elaina refused to coat them with any kind of varnish that was only destined to come off the following morning at work), hairstyling (Elaina grudgingly conceded to a French braid), and picking out clothes (Elaina even tried on a few of the dresses Ahyoka brought but thankfully found them all too short or tight). The result was that Elaina was fifteen minutes late when Matthew came to pick her up.
When Elaina finally made her way down to the parlor where Matthew was waiting with a jubilant Jonny, a curious Tyler, and a surly Hayden, she was much more comfortably dressed than any of Ahyoka’s suggestions could have accomplished. But Elaina had remained steadfast in her opinion that comfortable attire was imperative for a date that she already felt nervous about almost enough to cancel. In the end, the two friends had compromised and Elaina had dressed in fresh dark blue jeans and a dress vest of turquoise silk. Ahyoka had won the battle by applying moisturizer to her skin, mascara to her lashes, and mauve pink lipstick with plum liner to her lips and then dangling peacock feather earrings on either sides of her face.
To Elaina’s utter dismay, everyone except for Hayden had joined June to wish the daters good luck as they got into the pickup Matthew had drove over in. Hayden had stayed back in the parlor and, while Elaina wondered at his grumpy mood, she was grateful for one less body at the front door waving with mad enthusiasm as they pulled out of the drive. The overwhelming support of her family kept them quiet until they were well outside the main gate of the Coreys’ premises. Then Matthew spoke up.
“I never took you for one of those women who keep their dates waiting.”
Elaina looked startled by his frankness and turned to Matthew with guilt. “I’m sorry. I hadn’t meant to be late.”
Matthew chuckled, steering their vehicle on to the main road that led to the creek and towards town. “No, you weren’t really that late. I was just impatient to see you. The wait was worth it, by the way. You look very pretty.”
Elaina blushed and looked back to the road. “Thank you. Ahyoka insisted that I wear makeup.”
“It looks nice on you. Although, I quite like how you look without it as well.”
Elaina found that compliment even more delightful than the last and felt that it was only polite to reciprocate. “You cleaned up pretty good, yourself. But then again you always look a fine gentleman of the first water.”
There was a silent pause where Elaina realized she overdid it and grimaced to herself. Then Matthew spoke up, his voice oddly gruff. “You know I just want to park this vehicle and kiss you until we’re both out of breath, don’t you? But I’m restraining myself so that I don’t muss you up before our date even begins.”
Elaina did not know how to answer to that pronouncement so she sat in silence as the sexual tension in the pickup crackled between them. After a while, Matthew started talking in a safer vein. “So where shall we go?”
“I asked Ahy and she suggested perhaps a movie would be good for a first date. There’s a decent theater in town,” replied Elaina, hoping he would approve the result of her homework.
But apparently that was too much to hope for. “Does Ahyoka always direct your dates?”
Elaina blushed and was thankful for the shadows filling the interior of the pickup. “I don’t date very often. And I certainly never had to pick what to do on one.”
Matthew smoothly recovered the conversation before it too faded into silence. “Movie sounds great! Shall we head to the theater first or have dinner?”
“We really don’t have to go to the movies if you don’t want to,” said she, trying to sound noncommittal but sounding depressed instead.
“What? And miss the opportunity to cop a feel of a sexy woman in a darkened movie hall? I don’t think so.”
Elaina heard the grin in Matthew’s voice and knew he was trying to lift her mood so she surrendered her surliness. He deserved points for his efforts. “Alright, movie first then. Might as well set it behind us.”
“Oh, you’re saying that now, Miz Elaina,” Matthew protested putting on that Texan drawl that he was getting very good at imitating. “But wait ‘till you receive one of my tender kisses in a theater full of people. You’re in for a treat, even if I do say so myself.”
His good humor was infectious and Elaina began to grin despite herself. “Is that so, Mr. Halls?” she teased.
“That is indeed so, Miz Elaina.”
But despite his claims, Matthew proved to be a gentleman. Since it was a weeknight, only one movie was playing and they were already half an hour late to the show. There was not an entire theater full of people but quite a crowd had turned up and sat scattered throughout the hall. Matthew maintained a respectful distance that he assured was for the benefit of the audience, as she seemed to know too many of them personally. Although, he did manage quite a few surreptitious kisses that frankly left her with a lingering high the rest of the time.
Which was why she was surprised when he was able to cite scenes from the movie with accurate details over dinner. “I can’t believe you were actually watching!”
Matthew wiggled his eyebrows and grinned arrogantly. “What can I say about my multi-tasking capabilities that you’ve not witnessed firsthand?”
Elaina threw her French fry at him and laughed. “No really. I think I missed the entire movie.”
“That too is a compliment to my other more amorous skills.” When Elaina rolled her eyes, he added, “It was a romantic comedy. All romantic comedies are alike.”
“No, they’re not!”
“Aha! So you’re a fan of the romance.” Matthew looked inordinately pleased with this discovery.
“Maybe a little. And of the comedies,” confessed she, smiling sheepishly. Then she glowered. “If you tell another soul I’ll stab you with the vegetable sticks you call dinner.” Matthew also ate healthy. She had brought him to the local diner which was popular for its fillet burgers, a greasy juicy slap-together affair between beef and bun, and he had ordered the most nutritious item on the menu, grilled chicken with corn biscuits – no gravy – and sautéed vegetables. She had ordered the burgers with fries – lots of ketchup. It was iced lemon tea for him and vanilla milkshake for her. He was a City Boy through and through and she had an obligation to her ancestors who all ate what they grew.
“Hey,” protested Matthew. “I’m proud of the way I eat – it’s a testament to my self-discipline. We, city folks, don’t have the luxury of vigorous daily exercise that you lot do with your horseback riding and estate maintenance and we must compensate by eating smarter. Besides, since I’ve been here, Brooke’s mother has been plying me with fat round the clock. If I’m not careful when the opportunity rises, I may let my body go to seeds and then how will I hold on to your attention? It was hard enough getting you to this date.” He stabbed a slice of capsicum with his fork and popped it in his mouth for effect.
The mention of Brooke threatened to resurface her old insecurities but she forced herself to push them aside. Instead, she broadened her grin and approved his laments over her, “Damn straight! So what else interests you besides taking care of that body of yours and photography?”
“I’m very interested in getting out of here to continue what we didn’t get to do enough at the movies,” replied he suggestively.
Elaina thinned her lips before reprimanding him. “I thought this date was supposed to be an attempt for us to get to know one another?”
Matthew raised his hands palms out in defeat. “Alright, alright. My, are you demanding.”
Elaina arched a delicate golden eyebrow. “After cornering me in Marty’s stall today?”
Matthew grinned. “That was ingenious of me, wasn’t it?”
“Ha! It was a stroke of luck you even met me this afternoon,” Elaina rejoined, her voice rising with mock outrage.
“That may be. But it’s what one does with the opportunity that counts. And one thinks one has risen superbly to the occasion.”
“One obviously needs to be put back in his place and quickly.”
Matthew’s face fell. “You sure know how to intimidate a guy out of his thunder.”
“And without a gun, too,” added she, trying not to laugh at the boyish sulk on his face.
He nodded before asking, “How’s Marty?”
“Offended and perhaps slightly scarred by our behavior in his stall.”
Matthew smiled at the memory. “Yeah, I did tumble you well in the hay, didn’t I?”
“Except for the fact that you didn’t really tumble me,” she pointed out.
“But I wanted to. And I plan to yet,” Matthew’s voice dropped with intent.
Elaina dropped her eyes to the few fries remaining on her plate, swimming in ketchup. Despite his suggestion that they get to know one another better first, his sexual attraction for her was obvious in his frequent and easy reference to the issue. And while it flattered beyond all her expectations, it frightened her too. Earlier that day she had been eager to begin their courtship and delve into all the passion that he had promised her. But the more time she spent in his company, the more she liked him, the more seemed at stake with this dalliance, the more she became nervous about what might transpire. She did not know when he planned to deliver but suddenly she did not feel ready to jump in so quickly. What if he found her lacking? What if she did not measure up to his previous experiences?
So she tried to convey her need to slow down without completely discouraging him, as she said, “I think you were telling me about your life in New York.”
He got the message and accepted the change of subject with grace and consideration. “Well, I actually teach photography modules at Columbia University. I was offered to teach as an associate professor but I declined because that requires more commitment and time and effort than teaching modules. I prefer to keep my schedule open since I travel so much for my own documentaries – I try to get in at least three to four exhibitions a year. But I still teach because I like to see other people passionate about the subject. I used to do commercial photography for fashion magazines – that’s how I met Brooke – but I stopped once I became solvent enough to go freelance. I still go on hire for docu-mags, however, when a really interesting offer comes up.”
“And what about your personal life?”
Matthew shrugged. “My work really is my personal life, too. Most of the people in my life I met through my work. I make a lot of friends on my travels and keep in touch with them through internet social networking. On evenings when I’m free, I sometimes meet my friends for drinks and a chat. My parents live in White Plains so I visit them on the last weekend of every month. I’m their only child so they like to remind me that it’s my duty to stay close. On other weekends, I play basketball with a regular group that I joined eight years ago. That is about it. Now you.”
Elaina tried to summarize her life the way he did and realized there was not much to tell him that he did not already know. And what he did not know was too painful to tell him. So she leaned back in her chair, as if increasing the space between them could distance her from the painful memory that always seemed to loom over her life. “My life is just what you see. I work on the ranch and stay with my family.”
“Elaina,” Matthew admonished. “I told you about me and now it’s your turn.”
She wanted to tell him something radical about herself that would inspire awe or make her seem more interesting but all the antics in her life were from a time and with a person she had long ago forsaken. And she certainly did not want to share it with the man whose very presence in her life was due to his connection with that forsaken comrade. Besides, she was not petty enough to unveil that part of her history if Brooke had not. Brooke had brought Matthew to Lainie’s Creek and knew him longer and she had the right to tell him first. So she hedged the topic and said, “I’m born and brought up here. I know everyone who lives here and all its history. I was good in school so my parents – well, my dad mostly – wanted to make me go to college. But life on this ranch was all I ever wanted so I stayed behind after high school. I have never gone to any place outside Texas and I’ve never really wanted to.”
Matthew cocked his head. “Really?”
Elaina smiled at his obvious surprise. “I guess it seems incomprehensible to you because you travel so much but my family and the ranch keeps me busy and content. There’s certainty here. Fewer risks.”
“Risks make life fun.”
“Risks also can disappoint.”
Matthew’s eyes narrowed to a squint in blatant curiosity and Elaina regretted her last comeback. It revealed too much of what was in her heart. She prayed he would stem his curiosity and not ask her any question to which she may have to lie. She did not like dishonesty and she liked him too much to be dishonest with him. But already she knew from their encounters that Matthew did not like to beat around the bush, even though that was where she literally first spotted him. Matthew liked to go straight to what he wanted. And true to her conjectures, his next question was a direct hit.
“You keep telling me that you don’t really date. Why is that exactly?”
Read Chapter 10