Read Chapter 10 before you continue…
True to his words, Matthew was back within the first hours of the next morning while Elaina was out checking the pastures. He rode up to meet her on a robust ebony stallion that turned out to be Marty again and she was pleased to see how well he was riding on his own, needing little guidance from Jonny, who had obviously taken it upon himself to escort the beginner through his morning lessons safely. When Elaina complimented Matthew on his quick learning abilities, Matthew responded jubilantly by demonstrating a round of antics, running circles around the lady he was trying to impress. Elaina and Jonny both laughed good-naturedly but the latter audience felt bound to throw in a word of caution or two here and there.
Once Matthew settled down and began guiding his horse to a jaunty trot beside Elaina’s own Palomino, he informed her that with the riding lessons he was taking from Jonny in return of the photography lessons he was imparting, he was falling behind his set schedule on the photo shoots. Elaina told him she understood if he needed to get back and chased him away to work on his series instead of loitering around her all day, creating distractions. Before he left, however, Matthew procured a promise from her that she would visit the pub that evening so he could meet her there. Though she seldom visited the town on weeknights, seeing how little time Matthew had remaining in Lainie’s Creek, she readily agreed and waved them goodbye with a sense of exhilaration.
With the semi-date at Stone’s Waterhole in the horizon, Elaina worked through the rest of her morning chores with a lighthearted sprint. Unfortunately, Hayden had other plans for her mood when she got back to the stables. While she was brushing down her horse, her older brother stormed into the barn in a huff.
“What bee has been bugging you, Big B?” she joked, unaware of her role in her brother’s sour disposition.
“Tyler and I finally discovered how that Hereford got loose on the other side of the fence. Seems like it took the same route your new love interest took the other day to trespass on to our land. He failed to mention to us the loose stumps in the fence he had crossed to get to our side of the border.”
Elaina’s hand stilled over her horse’s back, where she had been brushing the horse’s mane. She perfectly comprehended the kind of disaster that could be instigated by an oversight such as a broken fence on a cattle ranch but she also knew her brother’s aggravation had deeper roots. This was the first time she came across Hayden in solitary since the previous night’s encounter and it seemed that Hayden was just itching for a confrontation that she was only too happy to supply. “Matthew was lost, as you very well now know. And he is from the city so we can’t expect him to have the same survival sense about pasture enclosures as us. Why don’t you just tell me why you don’t like him so we can get over this embarrassing charade?”
Hayden recoiled in defense. “I see no cause to pay mind to City Boy one way or another. But don’t you think you’re jumping a little too fast to join his welcoming committee? You don’t know anything about the guy other than the fact that he’s here with the woman whom, by the way, you can’t even stand any longer.”
“And what business is that of yours,” asked Elaina, bristling, the tension that was rippling under her skin was spooking her horse, which protested in an abrupt whine. She unconsciously began patting its neck but her tone was no less cold as she continued, “Is that why you barged in on us last night? Because you don’t like his connection to Brooke?”
“Do I need any more cause for caution other than the fact that my sister is consorting with the man who’s visiting our town with the biggest traitor I’ve ever seen?”
“I can take care of myself!” shouted Elaina, now completely stepping away from her horse. She was shaking with fury that was not only targeted towards her meddling older brother. What her blossoming romance with Matthew had made her overlook had suddenly loomed back to the foreground of her consciousness – at the end of the day, when all things were said and done, she could not ignore the fact that her only connection to Matthew was drawn by and hanging by the balance of her relationship with Brooke.
Hayden sneered. “Yeah, we all know how well you took care of yourself the last time a city slicker came to town.”
Elaina flinched as though she had been slapped. She knew that he had witnessed the ugly scene between herself and her former best friend those five years ago and he knew that she knew he had witnessed it. But what was worse was both were acutely aware of how Elaina had crumpled after the incident, but this was the first time the incident was mentioned between them. It was a humiliating experience for her then and she could feel that humiliation wash over her even now. But the years had given her something to heal with that she had not possessed in the past – maturity enough to taste the lemons that life handed her with a pinch of salt. She mustered up that sense of grounded maturity now as she coolly answered her brother’s insult with dignity that she feigned better than she felt. “That’s not fair and you know it. I had no control over what happened then. But since I’ve already been there before, I’ll know how to handle myself with greater poise this time, won’t I?”
Hayden looked ashamed of himself and Elaina felt sorry for him. She knew he had her best interest at heart and, in many ways, her personality was mirror image to his – protective of those they loved, vigilant, self-sufficient and stubbornly set in their own ways. And it was this trait that had made Hayden burst out now to warn her about where she was storing her trust. “I just think you should act with more care and restraint with people who do not understand our ways of life,” he muttered in way of apology.
Elaina nodded with understanding but added, “Maybe I’m tired of being careful all the time. I’ve been careful for the last five years and I want to take a leap and experience life for the first time in my adulthood.”
Hayden’s brows furrowed with impatience that he had the presence of mind to iron away quickly. “Couldn’t you take a leap with someone closer to home? Someone who’ll stick around?”
“But that’s my point exactly. I don’t want to take a leap with anybody from home. If I land in a pile of cow dung on my first attempt, I don’t want the dung to be around for long to keep the memories stinking to high heavens, sort of speak,” Elaina laughed nervously.
Hayden arched his eyebrow at the image she painted with her words. “Is that what you’re up to? You really think you know what you’re doing?”
“I know that I know what I’m doing,” retorted she with convictions she prayed to God were not misplaced. “I’m just having a bit of fun, is all. Don’t worry so much,” she added, chiding him softly.
Hayden sighed. “I try not to. Really. But with Dad gone, it’s up to me to hold it together.”
His young features looked tired and older than their years and Elaina’s heart went out to him. She crossed the space between them and wrapped her arms around his torso, an act that she could not recall of having committed to in the recent past. “We’re all adults, Hayden. Well, at least all but Jonny. But even he will get there within the next twenty, thirty years.” They shared a laugh at their younger sibling’s expense, before she added, “You really don’t need to constantly look out for us.” She gave her brother an extra tight squeeze to show that she meant business and he responded with a squeeze of his own to tell her he appreciated what she was saying.
As Elaina stepped back, Hayden tipped her Stetson off her head just to lighten the mood and hide the gruffness in his voice as he said, “Don’t make an ass out of yourself over City Boy.”
Elaina bent down to swipe her hat off the ground and shoved it back on, shaking her head at her brother. “Just so we’re on the same page.”
He had been in the bar for fifteen minutes but she did not know yet that he was there. He watched her covertly, memorizing her quiet dignity, her natural grace, that self-assured personality of hers that poured out of her even as she lounged in the back booth of the public hall – in the only way he knew how. He made sure that he had the exposure of his camera set to a level that required minimum flash so as not to give away his position. His camera loved every artless statement that she made just by being who she was, without ever uttering a word.
He had decided that she was going to be the center of his Cowboy Country series and her being in a public area provided him the opportunity to do that without violating any privacy rights. She did not yet understand the tribute he was paying to her, making a woman the epitome of the most testosterone laden state of USA, but he knew she would see it his way once he had the entire series ready. It was going to be his gift to her for being who she was. Why it was so important to him, however, he knew now had deeper meanings but were those that he was not ready to analyze yet.
He put down his camera on the table at the other end of the crowded bar where he was sitting, taking out his secondary memory card and replacing it with the one he had been using regularly since he came to Texas. Some of the initial photos in this card were those he had taken of Elaina the first day they had met before she had fired her gun at him. He chuckled quietly at the memory of the incident and then smiled at his neighboring couples, who were occupying the nearest table to him. The first evening he had come to the bar with his camera, people had looked at him suspiciously until Brooke, who had accompanied him, set the folks in there right about what he was doing. That had bought him much appreciation from the locals who felt honored to be the subject of a high profiled photo exhibition in New York City. It was the reason he could go about his business of taking Elaina’s photographs tonight without disturbing the natural mood of the pub environment.
Standing up, he now made his way to Elaina’s booth in the back, the same one she had occupied the first night he had seen her here. It must be her regular, he guessed correctly. Elaina looked up and greeted him with a smile so bright that he felt its light like a tangible energy, swelling his heart and making it beat faster. “Hi,” he replied with a bright smile of his own, as he slipped into the booth across from her.
Her smile faltered a little as she watched him remove the strap from around his neck and gently place the camera on the wooden tabletop marred by scratches and use. “How come you have your camera?”
“I always have my camera, if not on my person than within reach. I’ve been taking pictures of the space here and its frequenters the few times I’ve come down.” He was switching on the equipment as he spoke so that he did not have to look her in the eye as he answered her with near truth. He rolled the dial to display the photographs stored in his memory card to two nights ago when he had visited the bar with Brooke and handed her the equipment turning the back panel towards her. “Just roll the dial beside the ‘play’ button to go forward or backward,” he instructed.
As she did as he coached, she had all the right responses for an artist’s ears and he basked in the clear admiration in her tone. Until she stilled and gasped, her eyes going round with surprise.
Matthew was immediately alert. “What is it?” said he, taking back the camera that she readily handed over. The screen displayed a picture of her from the first day they had met. It was the last shot he had taken that morning before his lens was destroyed. The photograph was oriented in portrait, showing her sitting strained atop her Palomino, one of her hands grasping the horse’s reign with a strength that belied her feminine stature. Her back was curved towards the horse’s rear so that the gentle slopes of her breasts were thrust forward and upward, straining against her shirtfront. Her other arm was raised and swung backwards to lend her balance as the horse pulled its undulating form in the direction she demanded, its head thrown back, its front hooves both almost a feet off the ground. Elaina had her head thrown back in the same manner, her neck arching, her face not quite turned towards the sun as she was boring her eyes into the back of the horse’s head in silent command but the sun had lit her face beneath her beige Stetson, throwing her entirely in a fiery glow that seemed to emanate from within her, her features all drawn into sharp beautiful focus, pronouncing its each curve and angle in beautiful juxtaposition with another. She was high and mighty yet feminine and heart-stopping gorgeous.
Matthew felt the same lightheadedness he did every time he had when looking at this picture. It was the kind of picture a photographer acquired a few times in his lifetime, not out of any artistic genius but from sheer luck. He had known immediately that she was to be the central topic of his next exhibition when he had first seen the cause of his near death experience that first morning. Now he looked up and into her eyes with a sincerity that overwhelmed as he said, “Do you see how beautiful you are and why you must let me photograph you for my exhibition?” He had wanted to wait until he had all the photos for the documentary ready but he could feel a tingle in his skin that told him now was the time to bring the proposal up again.
She looked pained and embarrassed by his repeated proposition. He watched her open her mouth and then shut it. She looked away from him and her eyes seemed to bounce from one object to another that were all positioned somewhere behind him, denoting the restless thoughts that must be warring within her. He knew his photograph had surprised her. It had given her new insight to her beauty and powers as one of God’s creatures. But in the time he had spent with her, he had also come to know a shyness she possessed about her desirability that she hid well behind a cocky attitude and sense of humor. When she still did not verbally responded after a minute of inner debate, sensing her weakness, he pressed her.
“Elaina, can’t you see in this picture how you embody the whole concept of America’s pedigree? You are what makes the cowboy life fascinating to the urban population. You are what we left behind when we allowed ourselves to be industrialized and swallowed in the concrete jungle. You are the child of the soil of this nation that most of us no longer remember. You are the earth and the sun and the nature that we escape to when city life becomes too hectic and exhausting. But today we tend to escape to a commercialized version of you. But by portraying you and what you represent, I want to help the city audience that will visit my exhibition to relate once again to the exhilarating and real you – the America we have left behind.”
He spoke from the heart. Granted that he did not know he felt this way about the country until he was smack in the middle of it and had met her, but now he knew how he felt and he needed to expound and express those emotions to the audience that he communicated with on a regular basis. He was glad that they were sitting in the last booth of the bar and that it was too noisy for them to be overheard because he felt his emotions were still too raw and private for him to share with anyone but Elaina.
Elaina had listened to his compliments through blushes that had left her features perpetually crimson but as he wound down with his closing statement, she looked up at him sharply. “Is that why you have taken to dating me?”
Her blunt question took the air out of him. He tried to curb his irritation even as her query offended his sensibilities, but the frown was prominently on his face nevertheless as he replied. “I admit that I asked to photograph you for my professional requisites but I think you should also understand that I have made it my profession to bring certain important realities of our lives and the world around us that has been endangered by our chase for capital supremacy into focus.
“But as that may be and despite it, even as I had taken that first photograph of you that day out of professional inspirations, I had felt an attraction towards you that went beyond my photographic ambitions, which I can easily forgo if it may be your prerequisite to dating me.” There. Let it never be said that he did not place all his intentions on the table right where she could see them.
She dragged her lower lips through her teeth as she deliberated what he said and as he watched her, he felt a tug in his groin that made him forget his recent irritation with her mistrust of him. He could almost feel the soft textures of her mouth on his lips from memory, could taste their sweetness on his tongue. At that instant, he did not care what her answer turned out to be. He wanted to drag her out of their booth and back to his pickup and break free of the restraint he had been exercising over his body due to the vulnerability he had picked up from her the first time he had kissed her by the creek. He would like nothing better than to tumble her, sort of speak, but he was taking his time so she would be fully prepared when they finally gave in to their bodies’ desires.
His mind was still running in overdrive, his imagination flowing with pleasant eroticism, and he did not hear her respond at first, only watching her soft lips curl in a shy sweet smile. He saw her mouth form his names a number of times before her husky voice penetrated his concentration. “What,” asked he, thoroughly startled by the hold she had on his senses.
Elaina was beginning to look nervous. “I said, alright.”
“Alright?” he repeated stupidly. What had they been talking about?
Elaina blushed prettily and lowered her eyes to the empty beer bottle, where she was twirling its neck between her thumb and forefinger. “Alright, I’ll let you photograph me.”
Matthew began to feel a really wonderful emotion swell in his chest, until his heart felt fit to burst. His face broke into a smile from its intensity until she was rid of her shyness and was smiling back just as happily. “Really?” he asked and she nodded vigorously. “This is great!”
“But I do have conditions,” she added quickly.
“What is it?”
“Your work cannot interfere with mine nor can it slow me down.”
“You won’t even know I’m there.”
“You’ll also have to show me first all the photos you plan to exhibit. I’m still not sure how I feel about my pictures being viewed by a bunch of strangers and I’d feel more comfortable if I could at least see what they will be seeing before they actually do.”
Matthew reached forward and grasped her hand, turning it in his and massaging the hollow of her palm with his thumb, eliciting as much erotic current through his body with the contact as he did through hers. “I’ll let you even screen out any that I pick from the final batch if it makes you feel too exposed. I really appreciate your agreeing to this. You do understand what this means, don’t you?” Elaina tilted her head at him and he smiled slyly back at her. “We will be spending a lot of time in each other’s company.”
Elaina threw back her head and laughed richly, her hair spilling over her shoulders in splashes of corn silk. When she looked back at him, her eyes shone with playful mirth, too. “Oh, I already calculated as much when I agreed.”
It was Matthew’s turn to laugh.
Read Chapter 12 next week…