Read Chapter 15 before you continue…
Madam Esmeralda truly appeared bewildered as she met Matthew’s gaze. “Hayden?”
Elaina was not fooled. She had visited Madam’s tent every year since she was a little girl with her friends to hear the old woman’s wild predictions. Esmeralda was not even her real name. When she was not moonlighting as a fortune-teller, the population of the county knew this old woman as the eccentric Widow Warren of Triple Axel, the adjacent town to Lainie’s Creek. It was true Widow Warren, née Mary Esme Smith, born and brought up in Lainie’s Creek, now lived in her deceased husband’s family home all by herself in the neighboring town, but she returned numerous times each year to take on her position as the county fair fortune-teller. Without any children of her own, the job afforded her an outlet to be around children and youths in the form of entertainment. She had seen all of Elaina’s friends and siblings grow up over the years and if she remembered Lainie Corey’s romantic misfortunes so clearly, she certainly was not going to forget the current Corey siblings in a hurry.
“Please don’t insult my intelligence by pretending not to know who Hayden is, Mrs. Warren,” retorted Elaina, dropping all pretense to the illusion of the role played by the older lady. “You know very well he is my brother just as I know you are no fortune-teller. Now fess up if he put you up to this.”
“Don’t take that tone with me, young lady,” scolded Madam, rising to her full height of barely five feet. “I don’t care for it much. None of your brothers have visited me since they left their days of wearing short pants behind and I certainly don’t take instructions from boys young enough to be my grandchildren.” She breathed heavily through her nose.
Elaina narrowed her eyes. “Then why did you feel the need to launch into that history?”
“And what if I did?” argued the widow. “You can only benefit from it if this boy is warned to stay away.”
Elaina never felt more humiliated than as she turned to look at Matthew and found that he could not even meet her eyes. She could just imagine what he was thinking, that she would break her heart when their romantic alliance ran through its natural course. Lainie’s story was what legends were made of. They were numerous versions of it, some even saying Lainie was pregnant at the time of her death. Growing up as a descendent of the family, she had heard it all. But never in her wildest dreams had she thought anyone would associate that legend to her life now. She wished she had never suggested to Matthew they visit Madam Esmeralda.
“My romantic overtures are not your concern,” Elaina said with quiet seething. “But thank you for the prediction, which has been as wild as always,” she added, before stalking out of the tent.
She needed to get away, especially from Matthew, looking all about as she stepped out into the bright sunlight, once again adjusting her sight. He would not want to continue, she was sure, but it was she who needed to end this. She would end this so he would know she had always been perfectly prepared for them to stop seeing each other once he went back to New York. After all, hadn’t that been their understanding from the beginning? It just seemed that the ending has come sooner than later, which was just as well.
Matthew joined her a moment later. “Where to now,” asked he as he drew up to her, blinking at the surrounding brightness. He sounded casual but Elaina knew better.
She still needed a moment to find her voice and collect her thoughts so she simply nodded, starting back towards the parking lot and he followed.
Matthew stopped short just outside the fair entrance. “Why are we going into the parking lot?”
Elaina stopped, took a deep breath and turned to face him. She steeled herself, trying not to look too deeply into his turquoise green eyes, which she knew would weaken her resolve. “I thought we should have some privacy.”
Matthew smiled crookedly and drew closer. “Yeah?” he said, his tone suggestive.
Elaina stepped back, shaking her head, stopping Matthew short. His nonchalance was an act, she knew, and she was releasing him from it. “Don’t. Don’t pretend that you’re not affected by what Mrs. Warren said.”
“I’m not affected.” He looked annoyed, a scowl replacing his smile.
“How can you not be?” Elaina raised her hand in the direction of the tent, palm turned up. “Are you saying you don’t feel any apprehension from hearing her prediction?”
“I don’t feel it because she did not make a prediction. She simply recounted a story of some really poor choices that were made by some naïve young people three-quarters of a century ago.”
“Choices as poor as ours made by people not so much younger than we are,” retorted Elaina, turning away from him.
Matthew did not respond, as she closed her eyes to block out the humiliation that continued to assault her. She was never the right choice for anyone and she should have listened to her initial misgivings about starting an alliance with him.
But then she felt him close the distance between them, his hands on her shoulders, his chest against her back. “Our choices were not poor,” he said softly.
His breath grazed her right ear, sending treacherous little licks of fire down her neck and spine. Yet she held herself stiff when she really just wanted to lean into him. “Please don’t,” she gasped.
He pressed closer instead, trailing his hands down her arms until he had his arms folded over her stomach, drawing her hips against his. “Ours was not a poor choice because no one talked me into asking you out and you are a lot stronger woman than what Lainie seems to have been. We both knew that this may or may not be a long term thing and we still entered into it because what we are feeling for each other right now is not an everyday thing. I know that it’s not. I’m not here to dally with you and I care about you unlike that jerk William who humiliated Lainie. I’m not so weak that I will enter into a relationship with a woman because the town thought I should and I certainly will not break things off with you just because some fortune-teller and your crazy brother frown upon it.”
Elaina could hear the laughter lurking in his words when he referred to Hayden and she wanted to smile. That is what Matthew’s smiles and laughter did to her now. She wanted to believe him when he said she was stronger than her namesake but was she? Sure, she would not drown herself in the creek when he left but she was not so refined as to ignore the fact that he was slowly making her give away her heart to him. “This cannot bode well if we continue.”
Matthew sighed then turned her around to face him, clasping his hands on the small of her back to hold her against him. “We have been through this already before we started dating,” he reminded, poring his gaze into her, casting his spell. “Maybe this is a short summer fling or maybe it will stretch to a longer period. But what I am feeling now – and I am sure my physical condition is evidence of the fact – is not how I react to every woman I date and I want to find out why I feel this way.”
Elaina blushed because she could feel how aroused he was even as he discussed such a dire subject. She pushed against his chest to put some distance between them so she could stick to her resolve but his arms tightened about her.
“No. I want you against me all day and all night long. And while I can’t have that, I will take what I can. And it’s not just physical. That is how I feel about all that we have together. I want to be with you and I am thinking of stretching my stay in the neighborhood for a while longer to see where this thing between us goes.”
Elaina could feel her eyes rounding as she stared at him in astonishment. “What?”
Matthew nodded. “I had been thinking about it. Despite being in the profession for over a decade, this is my first trip to the West and I think I can add to my portfolio for the series exhibition next Fall if I stay a little longer. I can take up residence at a hotel for a month and visit nearby counties for exploration and do shoots while you and I figure out what to do about us.”
“About us,” Elaina asked, the gurgling happiness filling up her chest rendering her speech inane.
Matthew looked serious. “Yes, us. We shouldn’t give up so easily, should we, just because a couple of people object to us? I have never felt this way about a woman as I feel about you, Elaina. Last night was more than just physical. I don’t know what it was but I want to keep exploring until I find out why I felt, no, feel this way. I don’t know if it is forever or for a while, but I am not giving up so easily.”
Well, when he put it like that. “You are very stubborn,” she observed. “Have been from the start.”
“No less stubborn than you,” he quipped, finally grinning, as he felt her give in. “So how about it? Can we continue things and see where it goes?”
Elaina bit her lips, pondering if it was a good idea, as she toyed with the open button of his collar. Her nail slipped and grazed his skin lightly, making him hiss. “Oh, did I hurt you?” her eyes snapping to his.
“Not where you think.” He had his head thrown back and eyes squeezed shut.
“Think a little lower. I mostly think with the lower part of my body whenever you’re nearby,” he explained, making Elaina blush again. “So you agree to continue seeing each other?”
“Yes,” she agreed, her voice barely a whisper.
Matthew leaned in. “And I can have my kiss now?” Elaina nodded and he continued leaning in. “Finally. I have been desperate for your sweet mouth since you left my room this morning,” he informed just before their breaths mingled and his lips closed over hers.
Read Chapter 17!