Read Chapter 16 before you continue…
Brooke watched as Mathew finally detached himself from Elaina’s form after a long lingering kiss before laughingly leading her back into the fairgrounds, hand-in-hand. She had had her fingers crossed when Elaina had come out in a huff, but trouble in paradise did not even last five minutes before Matthew had cajoled cowgirl back into his arms and then back to the fair. If she did not know she was so awesome, Brooke would have thought the burning sensation in the pit of her stomach was something akin to self-loathing. But as she was fully confident in her awesomeness, it must be an acid imbalance from all the fried food her mother has been exposing her to since she came home. She could not wait to get back to her life in the city and away from this town once again because her return has been anything but the triumph she had anticipated it to be. In fact, it had been quite humiliating.
How was this even possible?
It was she who was the reputed beauty of the county turned famous supermodel, taking the New York runway by storm. She was the one, designers from Paris, London, Milan and Los Angeles rushed to book whenever their seasonal fashion expositions hit the Big Apple. Then how is it that the people of Lainie’s Creek did not idolize her upon her return?
Sure, there was that initial moment when news of her return spread through the small town like wildfire and when she stepped into the subdued lights of Stone’s Waterhole, a thirty-second hushed interruption had occurred in the activity within the pub where patrons had stopped what they were doing to acknowledge her presence – but there, the attention ended. In fact, it seemed that people were more interested in speculating why she had come back to the town than being impressed by her accomplishments.
Which was just very demoralizing because only she knew what it had cost to reach her standard of refined glory. She may have been the prettiest girl in Lainie’s Creek but in New York, the competition among beautiful women was cutthroat. She was buffed and polished every day to reach that perfect sheen of her golden locks and glow of her flawless skin and brightness of her dazzling smile. She had to exercise vigorously and get on endless diet, never allowed to eat what she enjoyed, which was the toughest since she had been brought up on a diet of crispy fried chicken, buttery mashed potatoes, rich gravy and smoky corn cobbs – Brooke groaned, as she remembered all the second helpings she enjoyed of her mother’s home cooked meals since her return to Lainie’s Creek and the exercise regime that awaited her back in Manhattan. But that was not the point. The point was that if after all that hard work and sacrifice she wanted a little adulation from the citizens of her hometown, was it too much to ask?
But instead of being stopped in the streets by her townspeople to discuss how her hair shined so brilliantly in the sun, she was sitting in her parents’ pickup in a dusty parking lot in the sweltering heat all alone while the guy she had brought along as moral support – and occasional date, if necessary – traipsed off with another woman to the county Fourth of July fair. Not just any woman but her former best friend with whom she had had a falling out in a similar scenario that led her to skipping out of her hometown to begin with. It was just like her luck that while Brooke had brought Matthew to make her look better, Elaina should reap the benefits like so much cheap souvenir. It is no wonder that she had spent the last half hour sitting in the parking lot contemplating whether to just skip the fair also, an idea that seemed more and more tempting by the minute. It’s not like anyone would miss her–
“Spying does not become you, Brooke McKenna.”
Brooke let out a startled scream at the sudden voice in her ear. There was a low chuckle that followed and she found Hayden or Tyler leaning against her side of the pickup, his arms braced on the window frame, his smug face awfully close to hers. “Lord preserve me but you almost scared the bejeezus out of me!” She was yelling and her southern accent was firmly back in place.
Closer inspection of his face told her it was Hayden. If she remembered correctly, his jaws were always set firmly wider than Tyler’s and he had a long vertical frown line between his eyebrows – probably a side effect of the teeth-clenching and scowling the older twin was prone to do. As children, Elaina and she would follow the older boys around wherever they went on the ranch or off. Tyler, the softer one, would sometimes allow them to penetrate into the fold, but Hayden? Hayden glowered. Hayden and Tyler were the epitome of cool, strapping boys who were always on an adventure, and Elaina and she could easily put up with a bit of glowering if it meant they could get in on some of that action.
People loved the Corey twins, who were respectful of others even when getting into minor scrapes now and again and who could always be counted on to lend a hand to anyone in need. Bob and June raised some fine lads, everyone would say. Of course, it helped that they were twins because everyone loved twins. Yep, Hayden and Tyler were the beautiful towheads who never went through gawky preteen years even if everyone else around them had a bad hair once in a while, Brooke thought jealously now as she looked at his gorgeous profile.
Hayden grinned unapologetically at her remonstration. “Well, given the concentration with which you were glaring at the backs of my sister and your city friend, I’d say you had it coming.”
“I was not glaring at them!”
“Only spying on them then?” he amended, his tone patronizing.
“I wasn’t spying on them either,” she ground, only half-lying. She threw up her chin to appear more convincing. “It just so happens, I gave Matthew a ride to the fair.”
Hayden straightened away from her door and set his arms akimbo, his glower firmly back in place. “I just saw them coming out of the fair and returning. Together.”
She jumped on the information. “Oh, so you were spying on them.”
“Not at all,” he huffed. “I just got to the fair and was parking when I saw them coming out into the lot. It looked like they were arguing so I let them get on with it before heading into the fair myself. When whom do I spot but the most beautiful supermodel to have gotten away from Lainie’s Creek.”
Brooke brightened up instantly at the offhand compliment, lapping it up like rain drops after a drought. “You think I’m beautiful?”
Hayden snorted. “Even if the magazines were not a testament to the fact, you always knew you are beautiful so you don’t need me to confirm it.”
That did not sound like a compliment at all and Brooke scowled but felt it was best to let it slide because, after all, it was Hayden she was speaking to and she should have known better than to expect praises from the king of bad moods. She decided it was better to go to the fair if only to lose him in the crowd. She grabbed her purse from the dashboard and began rolling up the windows, preparing to get out.
“Wait a minute,” Hayden interjected, stopping her window half way up with one giant fist. “You did not say why you were spying on them.”
“That’s because I was not spying on them,” she groaned, rolling her eyes. “I was giving them their privacy, same as you.”
Skepticism etched his face as he countered, “If you brought Matthew to the fair as you said and he has had the time to go in, get into an argument with Elaina, come back out and makeup before returning, it is an awful lot of time for you to be sitting out here in the heat.”
He had her there. Brooke hesitated before responding. “If you must know, I was contemplating whether to go to the fair myself.”
His smug smirk was back. “Why? Our country fair too small town for a big city supermodel like you?”
“Yes. And if you haven’t noticed, I haven’t much company to enjoy the fair with as my date seemed to have ditched me for your sister.”
Hayden straightened again, looking stormy, and it was her turn to be smug. That’s right. Your sister is out on a date with the guy I brought here for me. Let him shift his anger on the happy couple for a change. If there was one thing she was certain about Hayden, it was that he was as protective of his family as a mama bear with her cubs. But as Hayden’s eyes bore into her with the intensity of a laser beam cutting glass, she wished she was not the messenger. Then he finally responded and it was even worse.
“Serves right, don’t you think, after you once made off with her date?”
Heat flooded her face from the neck to the roots of her hair. He knew. Hayden knew about her sleeping with Elaina’s prom date. It was the biggest mistake of her life, her most sordid secret. Not because she had been so ashamed afterwards that she felt compelled to leave town and had not been able to return since until now, but because it was the act that had led to her losing the best friend she ever had. She had hurt Elaina and she did not even know how to begin to apologize. How did one explain that after a lifetime of always being the more popular best friend, she had been overcome with jealousy when she was not chosen by the most mysterious glamorous boy in school to the prom? As far as excuses went, it was a despicable one. She did not think a justifiable excuse even existed for what she had done. It was so much easier to walk away than to admit that her heart had not been large enough to simply be happy for her friend.
And walking away was still the easier route, she found. Somehow, she managed to tear her eyes from Hayden’s condemning gaze. She stared resolutely out her windshield and after a while, watched from her periphery vision as Hayden stormed away. It was only when he had completely disappeared from her view and through the fair entrance that she allowed the tears to come.
Adulthood and her self-imposed exile seemed to have not improved her as a human being, she realized as she rolled back the windows down and started the engine. Vanity was still her downfall.
“There aren’t any real bullets in there, are there?”
At the look of sheer apprehension on Matthew’s face, Elaina broke into an uncharacteristic giggle. “Do you really think they would allow real bullets in a gun meant to shoot balloons in a country fair game?”
“Hey, when in Texas, better safe than sorry,” he replied, hands raised in surrender by his shoulders.
“You’re never going to let me live that down, will you, Mr. Halls?” asked she wryly.
Matthew drew closer to her and murmured in her ear suggestively, “If you want me to forget how we met after you nearly shot me to death, I’m open to bribes.”
She laughed before elbowing him in the ribs. “Move over, wise guy, and let me win you a stuffed animal.”
Matthew stepped away as she took aim at the balloons but protested, “You know, it doesn’t seem right that I’m letting you win a stuffed toy for me at a carnival. Aren’t male dates supposed to win the females dates the prizes?”
Elaina swiveled her aim towards his head, her eyes still trained on the target finder. “That kind of chauvinistic comments can get a bullet into you in these parts.”
Matthew had his hands back up in an instant. “Sorry, Ma’am,” he drawled in a credible impression of Southern accent.
“Much better.” Elaina returned her attention to the lesser animate targets and fired, hitting the red balloon at the center of the larger white balloons with her first shot.
Impressed by her marksmanship, Matthew let out a whistle before adding, “I’m beginning to count my lucky stars that your bullet missed me the other day.”
Elaina smirked as she handed the rifle back to the attendant, accepting the largest toy at the counter in exchange. “My bullet never misses its target,” she countered, shoving the giant Palomino pony that looked much like her own horse when it was young into his arms and turning away.
Matthew trailed after her, hugging the toy under one arm and drawing the attention of passers-by. Elaina took wicked pleasure as she watched a gaggle of teenage girls gushed at him. “Look!” pointed one, “What a cute pony.”
“This is highly embarrassing,” Elaina heard him mutter and paused.
“You don’t like my gift,” asked she with mock hurt lacing her tone. She pouted her lips for good measure.
“I love your gift,” he replied quickly. “I was just saying wouldn’t it be nicer if I won a toy for you too? Then we’d match,” he ended lamely.
“You’re going to win me a toy by shooting balloons?” She failed miserably in keeping the skepticism out of her voice.
“Of course not. I don’t know how to fire a gun. But there must be some stand around here giving away prizes for a game I can play.” He scanned the vicinity twice before his eye lit up at something to his liking. “Ball-in-Bucket! There! Let’s go.”
Elaina watched Matthew march to the stall in question, man with a mission, and followed him shaking her head.
“Bucket? Those are more like cups,” she heard Matthew protest indignantly.
This was true. There were rows of small cups large enough to hold 10 ounces of liquid in each starting about five feet away inside the counter of the stand. The attendant was handing Mathew a bag of seven softballs and detailing the objective, “Get three balls in the cups in a row and you get one of these small toys on the bottom row over there. Get five balls in a row and you get to pick one of the large toys on top.”
“That’s it?” asked Matthew suspiciously.
The attendant grinned maliciously. “Every once in a while the cups wobble. If one of the balls you got in gets out before you get in your streak, counting starts over.” Behind him, the rows cups gave a violent shudder to prove his words true.
The odds were grim and Elaina felt unfair to Matthew. “Come on, Matthew. You don’t have to win me anything. This is silly. And, frankly, a bit disappointing that you cannot graciously accept a gift that a woman won for you.”
Matthew ignored her, instead training his attention on the stall keeper. “Is there any timed interval between the wobbles?”
Matthew nodded as if accepting the challenge. He turned to Elaina. “Here, hold my pony. Make sure she doesn’t get away. I’ve become rather attached to her. Reminds me of how we met – you firing a gun on a Palomino, me somehow still alive.” He also took his backpack where he kept his camera parts off. “And guard my equipment with your life. There are some really great shots in it from today.”
“You really don’t have to do this,” she insisted, but he had already turned away and was receiving the bag of softballs from the attendant.
“Have some faith,” he said over his shoulder before stepping up to the counter, his right hand holding the first ball at his eye level while his left hand was at his right elbow for balance.
For the sake of his male ego, Elaina hoped she was gifted a toy today.
Read Chapter 18!