Read Chapter 14 before you continue…
Matthew practically jogged his way to meet Elaina. Partly because he wanted to put distance between himself and whatever daggers Brooke was throwing at his back. But also because he could not wait to see Elaina.
Last night was probably one of the best sexual experiences of his life. Elaina had been as open and honest with him in bed as she was with everything else. She had applied the same level of curiosity and sincerity to their love making that he had come to understand as her trademark for all aspects of her life. It had been intense and he was more than pleased to find out how healthy her sexual appetite was.
It was obvious that she was not practiced in the art of love making. But what she lacked in experience, she made up with enthusiasm. She was a quick learner and an adventurous one at that, eager to try her own things once she picked up on a few skills from him. After the few initial moments of hesitation, she boldly responded to his actions, often reciprocating the moves.
She wanted to please and he was still throbbing with pleasure.
Matthew quickened his steps. As he rounded the corner of the fair entrance and saw her standing by the fortune-teller’s tent as had been pre-assigned, he felt his heart skip. And when she turned around and spotted him, a smile brightening her already radiant face, he felt his heart swell at the thought that she was delighted to see him.
This was it, his brain informed him. He had found The One.
Matthew paused, giving his head a shake. The One? He was just happy to have found her waiting for him.
“Hi,” said Elaina as he drew near, a blush touching her cheeks.
“Hi,” replied he, loving the knowledge that last night’s experience had the honor of being the cause of the blush.
Loving? He really needed to get a hold of his wayward thoughts. He was getting way too ahead of the situation. “Been waiting long?” he asked, attempting to sound casual.
“Just about five minutes.”
An awkward pause ensued, as Matthew struggled to be nonchalant and not drag her into his arms in order to kiss her senseless. Then he watched as Elaina’s smile faltered and her blush deepened. And it was not the happy kind of blush. And he thought, to hell with casual. Being casual was overrated anyway.
“I couldn’t wait to get here and see you.” He wanted to kick himself for overdoing it and sounding like a dork, but when her smile returned, bringing the glow back with it, he decided being a dork was not so terrible a station in life.
“I’m glad you said that before me,” she laughed. “Because I’ve been looking forward to spending the day with you as well.”
Yes! whooped the right side of his brain while the left side tried to determine why he suddenly had the thought process of a teenage boy on his first date. “So where do you want to go first?” he said before his mind completely lost control.
Elaina looked about at the surrounding options. Then she looked back with challenge in her eyes. “How about exactly where we are standing? Shall we venture to learn our fate with the fortune-teller?”
Matthew raised an eyebrow. “You believe in these things?”
“And the answer is no but I know ‘Madam Esmeralda’ – she lives in the next town but was brought up here so she always takes up the fortune-teller’s tent in town fairs. She makes really wild predictions. It might be fun to see what she has to say about our future.”
Elaina shrugged. “For a lark.”
Matthew chewed the inside of his cheek and looked up squinting at the sun, as though really giving the idea a thought. But then when he looked back at her, there was definitely a mischievous twinkle in his eyes that belied his brevity. “I think it will be a very significant step towards assessing what our next course of association should be.”
“Excellent! I’m glad we’re in agreement.”
“Lead the way,” Matthew bowed.
The scent of burning incense filled his nostrils even as he tried to adjust his eyes to the gloomy interior of the purple tent. The glaring light of the Texan sun outside was a severe contrast to the surprisingly cool shelter of the fortune-teller’s spanning compartment. Matthew had to be impressed by the efforts of the fair organizers to make the space look authentic. No ordinary canvas tent with a lone crystal ball was this. Madam Esmeralda’s work space was made of heavy velvet curtains and questionable items that reflected traditional talisman hanging from strings attached to the low roof. There was even a baby bat sleeping in a small cage perched on an end table in the corner. Matthew’s hands itched to whip out his camera but refrained, so as not to ruin the mystery of their visit.
“I believe, we do have lovebirds amongst us, Gilly,” came a raspy voice from behind a cushiony armchair that faced away from the entrance, followed by a loud screeching sound, startling both Matthew and Elaina. There was a small monkey in a another cage set on the floor by the armchair that he had missed, which was now excitedly jumping up and down as if to express a match of opinion. They watched the monkey’s mirth until an old woman rose up from the armchair, her head barely visible over the back of the chair until she came around to face them.
Her firm posture belied the frailty of her appearance, her body encased in swaths of burgundy chiffon gauze shimmering even in the low light of the hurricane lamp. Her peppered hair sleeked down either side of her narrow face, which was made of a wrinkled mouth painted a deep red, a bulbous nose and beady eyes that squinted as though her eyesight failed her.
But then she walked straight up to Elaina with purpose, making Matthew uncomfortable with the sudden proximity. He curbed his urge to come stand between the two women when he remembered Elaina saying she knew the fortune-teller, but not before taking a stunted step forward that the older woman did not miss. “Hrmph,” huffed the fortune-teller, nostrils flaring in affront as she turned away and took a seat at the round teak table that occupied the center of the cluttered marquee. “Sit,” she demanded, pointedly looking at the empty straight-back chairs opposite her.
Elaina promptly sat. Matthew took his time, not removing his eyes from the old crone’s weathered face. She was definitely giving him the creeps and he had to admonish himself for his childish reaction, hence trying to stare her down like an opponent.
But the elder lady saw right through his bravado, calling him on it. “There is no need to be nervous for those of good intentions.” There was an all-knowing smirk on her wrinkled mouth but now also accompanied a softness in her eyes that put him a bit more at ease.
Madam Esmeralda seemed to feel that she had managed to reach out to him because she turned her attention to Elaina. “You have some questions.”
Elaina grinned at Matthew as she spoke. “We have just begun dating.”
“I can tell,” replied Madam. When both Elaina and Matthew looked at her questioningly, she quipped, “One does not need to possess the sixth sense to feel the sexual pull between the two of you – the kind only new couples enjoy.”
“We’re not a couple,” Elaina quickly corrected.
Too quickly for Matthew’s liking. True that they had only begun seeing each other but she did not have to sound so opposed to being a couple. “We’ve been on a few dates,” he offered in way of explanation.
Madam’s ears perked up at his East Coast accent and she leaned forward, one hand shooting out to grasp her fake-crystal ball. “An out-of-towner? How interesting.”
Matthew frowned. “Why’s that?”
Madam ignored his question, turning away from him as she addressed Elaina instead. “And you, young girl? You are that Corey girl, aren’t you? Elaina Corey?” Elaina nodded. “Hmm. You do have the coloring. You look quite a bit like Lainie. I knew Lainie.” She sighed at a memory. “So beautiful, so tragic.”
Elaina fidgeted in her chair, suddenly no longer seeming excited about the visit, but did not respond to this cryptic remark so Matthew guessed he was missing something. “Who’s Lainie?”
“Not the sharpest needle in the pincushion, are you?” smirked the old lady again with her know-it-all glint, putting Matthew again on the defensive. “Lainie was the beautiful woman after whom this town has been named. I believe your date here was named after her.”
Matthew looked to Elaina and she answered. “Elaina Corey was also the name of my great aunt from papa’s side.”
“And they say I’m cryptic,” scoffed Madam with her raspy voice. “Fine, I’ll tell him.” With that, Madam Esmeralda returned her full gaze on him as she launched into her story, as if to study his every reaction to her words. “Lainie Corey was of the third generation of Coreys in this town and the Coreys are one of the oldest families in the settlement. Practically established the town themselves. The town was called Greenhills back then – not very original but there you have it. ‘Lainie’s Creek’ is so much more appropriate.
“Lainie was as beautiful as they come. A heart-stopper. I was only a girl in frocks at the time she was a young lady and my friends and I used to marvel over her beauty – we all wanted to grow up to be as beautiful as her. Even at our tender age we all knew she would catch the best looking chap to walk through Greenhills.
“And that is just what happened. Towns like these always had new families moving in back in those days. Ours had lush fertile grounds with the stream flowing in from the hills. Perfect for farmers but it was also perfect for businessmen who saw the opportunity to peddle to the local families. So the Brants moved in and opened a general store.”
Matthew felt more than saw Elaina stiffen in her seat at the name and Madam seemed to notice it too, as her eyes briefly flicked to his right but she went on with the story with relish.
“It was a fine general store. Had everything a family could desire in the country. Families rich and poor could all make happy purchases because the variety of items, ordinary and luxurious, was so wide. They had such a great section of candies – we used to go there every afternoon for candies,” Madam sighed at the obviously happy memory.
“The Brants had a son in college. William was his name. Studied somewhere on the North. He would visit his parents on holidays. And on one of these visits, he and Lainie met. Oh, he was as beautiful as she. They say there was an instant connection between them and the whole town thought it was a great match. He was the edified son of a wealthy merchant, she was the daughter of a pillar of our community. They both would have educated, wealthy, beautiful children, the town folks used to say. I don’t think I ever saw an entire town support a courtship in that manner since – with good reason, too.
Madam Esmeralda paused, as if she realized something new and was now in deep contemplation of it. “Why?” Matthew felt compelled to ask when she did not immediately pick up her story.
Madam started with surprise, as though she forgot he and Elaina were there. She looked straight at Elaina then with such a piercing gaze that he had to turn to see what she was seeing. Elaina shifted in her seat in discomfort so he glanced away, refocusing his attention on the woman who had now become more of a story-teller than a fortune-teller.
“Because it came to a very tragic end,” continued she with a tone implying that was an imbecile not to realize what was so obvious. “The town’s expectation built up to more pressure than William could handle and when he graduated, he returned to the town with a lady-friend from college – a classmate he was engaged to.”
Matthew dared not look at Elaina. He felt her discomfort because he was feeling rather uncomfortable himself. He now dreaded to hear the rest of the story but Madam did not stop.
“William’s parents had apparently even scolded him something harsh for his ill-behavior. They did not care so much for Elaina but they knew what their son straying from a relationship with the daughter of the most standing family in the locale could mean to their business and very existence. They were right to worry. But after they scolded him in front of his fiancée, he was even more determined to marry his college mate.
“He went to the diner on Main Street where Lainie used to work and took his anger over his parents out on her by informing her in front of everyone present at the diner that day that he was engaged. He told her he never loved her, that while he began dating her because he liked her, he had stopped liking her that way long time ago and only continued the relationship because his parents and the town looked to it like a community accomplishment. But he aspired to a life in the city and wanted to get into politics and he could not have had a diner-girl for a wife even if he had loved her.
“Then he left her standing there to watch the back of him retreat and only collected his fiancee before hightailing out of town. Everyone sympathized with Lainie but was proud of her when she did not cry. She just said she would like to take the day off and everyone in the diner agreed. In a town like this, decisions are either made in the open or become a matter of public opinion anyway.
“So Lainie left and got home. And her family supported her when they heard why she was home from work early. She did not try to hide the details of the breakup, as it would reach her family’s ears anyway. But in all that time she never cried or showed she was overtly upset. Her family was proud of her and so was the town. The Brant lost a few patrons but mostly life went on as usual.
“And then a month later the Brant brought news that their son had gone and done it. He got married to his fiancee. The town was vehement in their public abuse of William and a girl they had never met. No one was better than their Lainie, they claimed, and it was his loss. And Lainie heard it all but said nothing and went on with her work at the diner as usual. But after she helped close down the diner that night, she did not go home.
“By midnight her parents were frantic and brought out a search party that anyone roused from their sleep to be asked about her whereabouts joined. And no one found her that night or the next day. And then a day later there was news that they had found a woman’s body down the river few towns away. And as the day got longer, we learnt it was Lainie. She had thrown herself in the water, she had taken her life. The entire town was beside themselves, angry with the Brant, blaming them for the outcome. The Brant shut down their business here and moved away soon after. The town folks renamed this place Lainie’s Creek after that – perhaps because they also blamed themselves for being partially responsible for encouraging a relationship to such degree and wanted to repent.”
There was pin drop silence in the tent when Madam Esmeralda finished her story. Matthew dared not look at Elaina. He wanted to get out of there but felt it would be rude. He could not help but feel the weight of the story he just learnt as he compared it with his relationship with Elaina. Elaina, who was named after the woman who had a relationship with an out-of-town man same as he. He will be going back to New York in less than two days and he doubted their relationship would continue to be romantic after that. Long distance relationships hardly ever worked and they both knew they had two very different futures that had no opportunity of ever becoming parallel.
As if reading his mind, Madam Esmeralda spoke up. “We no longer support romance between locals and outsiders.”
There was a scraping noise beside him and then a crash as Elaina stood up abruptly, knocking her chair down in process. Matthew turned to see Elaina’s cheeks flushed with anger, her chest rising up and down with labored breath.
“Did Hayden put you up to this?” she asked vehemently.
Read Chapter 16