Read Chapter 17 before you continue…
“This is getting ridiculous,” Elaina repeated for what now seemed like the umpteenth time.
Matthew had got four out of seven shots into the cups with his previous bag of softballs and was now purchasing a second bag to continue his mission to win her a prize. “That was my practice set,” Matthew repeated, as he had claimed previously every time he missed a shot.
He was tenacious, she had to give him that. Every time he missed, he would shrug it off and try again. When he got in a ball in the cup, his elated whoops drew attentions of nearby fair visitors. His spirited attempt to win his date a prize had acquired him a set of groupie too – the teens who had earlier praised his pony had stuck by his side through thick and thin. Nothing achieved the adulation of adolescent girls than a man wanting to be a knight in shining armor, however misplaced that ambition may be. Elaina sighed.
Matthew heard her and raised an eyebrow. “You don’t think I can do this?”
Elaina had her fists on her hips much like her mother usually had when one of her brothers demonstrated their overtly macho and competitive traits. “Whether you can do this or not is not the point. The fact you don’t have to do this, however, is.”
“I can do this.”
“I’m sure you can but, again, not the point,” she ground out.
She was talking to a wall. Grinning, Matthew turned away from her, stepping once again up to the counter, determined to defeat the wobbling cups.
Elaina noticed the change in him immediately from how the sinews of his raised forearms peeked out from under his rolled up sleeves, more defined than before, the fine white cotton of his shirt stretching over his biceps and broad back, as though he was holding something much heavier than a softball. He crouched slightly, balancing himself on his calves and she appreciated as even the denim over his buttocks flexed. Whether he won her a toy today or not, she was going to reward him tonight for trying because his attempt was a fine thing to look at.
Then there was cheer all around them and Elaina looked up to find that a larger crowd had joined the audience and Matthew had made the first shot. “Nice to see high school basketball still paying off,” he said gleefully, brushing a quick kiss on her startled lips.
Elaina watched as Matthew waited for the cups to give their scheduled shake and the ball he had got in to tip out. Matthew nodded as the small crowd around them despaired. Then he waited again.
The attendant clearly did not enjoy being painted the villain here because it was clear that the crowd wanted the city guest to win. “C’mon, fella. I don’t have all day here.”
“All day is exactly what you have,” someone jeered from the crowd, followed by titters.
Matthew grinned, poised for the next shot. “It’s alright, folks,” he pacified his fans. “At the next wobble.” And then there was the wobble and Matthew made his shot, followed by quick successions of four more shots. Five consecutive balls, five victorious shots.
Elaina looked on, stunned, as Matthew turned around with jubilation coloring his features. He chest bumped with a random stranger in the crowd, fist bumped with one of the adoring teens and then suddenly he was upon her, grabbing her around the waist and lifting her up, Palomino and photo accessories included, planting a proprietary kiss on her mouth. Then he set her down, his eyes still twinkling with triumph as he turned towards the bemused attendant. He bowed, gallantly presenting the bag with the last softball still in it and cleared his throat before saying, “May I select my prize now?”
The attendant took the bag and waved towards the shelves grudgingly. “Please. Don’t let me keep you waiting like you did me.”
“The Royal Bengal Tiger. It fits so well with my lady here,” he said immediately, pointing to the large striped animal perched near the top of the toy pile. The attendant used a hooked staff to fetch it for him and Matthew thanked the guy before turning to her. “Here. Wait. Let me take my pony and bag back first.” They exchanged toys and belongings as the crowd around them dispersed, shooting them a few final thumbs-up.
“So, high school basketball?” Elaina asked, hugging her tiger. She liked it very much, and not just because it was the first prize a guy she was dating had ever won for her, though she believed that might have tipped the scale in the tiger’s favor greatly. But it was really an adorable tiger, all the same, with its orange and black fuzziness.
“Yes. Point guard for the Gedney Park High School, Class of ‘84,” Matthew replied as they strolled side by side, two adults with not a care in the world and immensely happy with the giant plush toys they were carrying.
“Seems like you were pretty good at it,” she probed, wanting to know more about him.
“I played all through high school and got into college on a basketball scholarship,” explained he casually but she could trace a resignation in his voice. “But then I had a courtyard accident in my second year, injuring my heel. I was benched for six months while my heel convalesced. But when I got back to playing, I didn’t perform up to the mark and then ended up landing on my heel poorly again, once more injuring myself. That was the end of my basketball career.”
Elaina whistled sympathetically. “That must’ve been awful.”
Matthew laughed ruefully. “That’s an understatement. But not because of the reason you may think. I still love basketball but even then I knew I wasn’t going to join the NBA after college so I was less disappointed about not playing on the team than I had expected. I was more concerned about the loss of funds for my education. I had a second, loftier ambition.
“I was also in my high school photography club and pursued my college degree on fine arts in photography, which basketball was financing. A bummed heel meant my sports-aid was not going to be renewed and I had two more years of studying to do yet. Thankfully, I had a superb faculty who had faith in me and I was offered a TA position with one of my professors. I no longer had the glamorous lifestyle of an athlete but it partially compensated the tuition fees. Plus, being a TA meant I learnt more and had greater opportunity to hon my skills. Meanwhile, my frat brothers were great about living costs, making concessions when I was a bit behind. I eventually joined a local art gallery part-time to further substitute my lost basketball funding. I guess I got really lucky.”
Elaina marveled as she took this information in. He obviously did not have a carefree past and that made him seem all the more intriguing. His easy grace, good humor and debonair style had all suggested that he may have been born under an affluent star. Plus, she admitted to herself with deprecation, his being Brooke’s friend had also prejudiced her against him, believing any friend of Brooke must be as frivolous as she. It seemed Elaina had been unfair to Matthew and should be more sympathetic. It was obvious he was a man who worked hard towards overcoming his challenges and that was a trait she could always admire. His open, cheerful nature was not a resulted by comfort but sustained despite adversities. He just knew how to make life enjoyable.
“And you were in a frat.”
Something in her voice must have belied her approbation because he stopped to look at her and then grinned. “Don’t tell me you have something against frats.”
Elaina shrugged. “I have something against anything exclusive in nature.”
“You would not give me the benefit of doubt because I am from the city,” he reminded incredulously.
Matthew began walking again though with no seeming destination in mind. “My frat really was there for me when I needed them most. They helped me hang in there when I was injured and could no longer play basketball. My scholarship became null and photography equipment don’t come cheap. They pitched in as I got my finances back together with the TA position and a second job at the gallery. They’re my brothers for life,” he concluded, no room for argument.
Having built her understanding on such societies from what she had gleaned from magazines and movies, which mostly depicted an imagery of alcohol-induced abandonment, elitism and hazing-related accidents, she was not entirely bought over by his defense. But as he had managed to curb some of her previously harbored preconceptions about him, she decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. “It’s nice that you have such great friends.”
Even as she said the words she felt a twist in her heart for the friendship she no longer had. No matter how much time passed, it seemed that she could not accept that she had misplaced her trust in Brooke. But she did not want to dwell on Brooke’s betrayal on a day as lovely as this, especially when spending it with Matthew. “The sun will set soon and there are always fireworks afterward. I know a great place by the lake where the sights are most thrilling. It’s a mile up the creek.”
Matthew smiled at her askance. “Fireworks by the lake sound great.”
Elaina blushed as she stated the adjunct of her proposal. “It’s not amongst the main throng mind you. You may not have many subjects for your series.”
Matthew turned to her with a glow in his eyes. “A private viewing of the fireworks by lake sounds even better.”
Elaina took stock of his obvious interest for fortification. “Good. Let’s grab some food to go and we can make this into a picnic dinner.”
The fireworks were spectacular. Too bad he could not appreciate it as was due. The drive to the lake was mostly traveled in silence, the tension inside the pickup palpable. That they would be quite alone at the lake had been hinted and anticipation of the next time when he would touch her, kiss her, bury himself in her was primary on his mind – and he doubted that her thoughts were far different from his. If letting her slip out of his borrowed bedroom that morning required his restraint, knowing that they were now sitting by the lake, quite alone and with no one to interrupt them, tried his willpower like nothing had ever before.
Which was absolutely ridiculous, Matthew told himself, when he curbed his sexual reverie long enough to think about it. True, he had known there was something extraordinary about Elaina the moment he had laid his eyes on her, even if initially simply from the keenness of a photographer’s eye. But with each meeting, she had piqued his interest in new ways. First with her contrary manners that he found amusing, then with her dedication to her work and family, and just when he thought that being a cowgirl was the nucleus of her makeup, she allowed him to see her feminine sensuality. It had him consumed with thoughts of her whether she was sitting by his side on the back of her pickup truck or away in the neighboring ranch.
He had been with many women since puberty. A star athlete, girls had come to him easily in high school. He took advantage of it with caution, at least as much as the conflict between morals taught by his parents and the raging hormones of his adolescence would allow. But college had proved more liberating. College women were eager to discover their sexuality and he assisted them wherever he was able. By the time he began working as a fashion photographer post-college to save up to work independently, there were gorgeous women everywhere ripe for the picking. Now, as a distinguished artist of the world, he demonstrated more discretion but women were still available as much as ever. He had just learnt to be more discriminating, as experience and wisdom dictated.
So when he was hit by the existence of Elaina, he felt stumped. He had to admit that he was expecting nothing more than a bit of diversion while he accompanied a good friend in the country as he went about working on his upcoming series. It was a relief when he saw that she was not looking for anything more than a summer romance, a bit of experiment between two people from different walks of life to see how the erotic force building between them fared. He was sure that for him, at least, the release would come with consummating that force. But even last night, when she was writhing in ecstasy in his arms, he felt himself become tangled further and further in her allure. The more she unraveled, the more she became a mystery.
But he knew mystery was not the real quandary here. The trouble was that he had gotten to know her while pursuing her and that did not allay him of his desire for her. No, knowing her only made him like her more. Even the insecurities he often sensed rearing up inside her, the way she so often put up her barriers, made him want to take care of her. He could tell that spending time with him was helping her slowly lay those insecurities to rest and he felt a sense of purpose in the role he played in this change.
It may have been the reason why he had jumped to tell her that he was contemplating prolonging his stay in Lainie’s Creek. She was quickly shutting him out after that quack fortuneteller regaled them with the town’s gloomy history and he was not ready to give her up. The truth was that until that moment, he had not at all considered staying back in Texas when Brooke returned to New York. His life was in New York. His work was there and he never let it take a back seat no matter the circumstance.
He had plenty of great shots for his series from his week on the Coreys’ ranch and around the countryside. Yet, when he had seen the look of humiliation on her pretty face, his heart tugged. The sight of dejection in a woman as fiery as Elaina Corey was too much for even his pragmatic sensibilities. Suddenly, he had discovered he would do anything to make her believe that their affair was much, much more than whatever the legendary Lainie and William had. He would take as long as it took to prove it to her. And the idea of staying behind to do just that popped into his head. And no sooner than it was in his head, it was out of his mouth.
But even as he realized how impractical his proposal had been, he had not wanted to take it back. And then he had waited with baited breath for her to reject him like she always did when he proposed a romantic notion. Yet she hadn’t. She absorbed his words with a calm very unlike her and then she had accepted his offer. She was a challenge and a contradiction and utterly irresistible. Irresistibly kissable.
And we are back to square one. He sighed with resignation.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Elaina’s soft voice interrupted his thoughts.
Matthew turned to face Elaina. She was not looking at him but at the sky, leaning back with her weight braced on her hands behind her. He watched as another fountain of colors erupted in the sky with a grumbling blast, showering her beautiful profile with the reflection of its lights. He could drink her in like this insatiably. “I’m thinking about you obviously.”
She looked at him, a playful smile tugging the corners of her lovely lips. “Me? But I am right here.”
“It seems that I like thinking about you no matter where you are.”
She ducked her head and he knew, even though the lights did not allow him to see, that she blushed. “And what is it that you are thinking?”
He leaned towards her, brushing her shoulder with his. “Only how much I like kissing you.”
“S-so why don’t you do it more often?”
He loved that he could make her voice hitch like that. “Well, we just ate and I did not want you to think I only had one thing on my mind. Didn’t want to seem like I was taking advantage of our solitude with unwanted advances.”
“They will not be unwanted.”
Her voice was barely a whisper and it flitted over his skin, quickening it with a surge of energy that needed immediate expelling. He was grateful for her generous words and moved in without delay, eager to display his gratitude. He reached for her, sliding his hand over the nape of her neck, combing his finger through her loose hair to pull her in for a kiss. His lips drew in hers with a delicious suction and he rolled his tongue over their seam until he gained access to her honeyed mouth.
He knew he should take it slower, show more finesse. Perhaps he could have been more suave had he not been waiting to make love to her the whole day. It had been the first day, too, that he had had her undivided attention away from her work at the ranch, where they just had fun. After the small hiccup at the fortune-teller, she had become as carefree as he had ever seen her and it had driven him mad. Her unfettered laughter, wry mischief, challenging responses had all stoked his fire. He needed that raw Elaina again, in all her abandonment.
Pausing to allow them both some air, Matthew let his intention be known. “Elaina, I want to make love to you. Is that okay?”
Her eyes were closed. She opened them now but barely, drowsy with the high of their kiss. “Here?”
Matthew swallowed, wondering how much longer he would have to wait to reach wherever place she thought appropriate for lovemaking but conceded. “Wherever you want but tonight.”
“Here is good.”
There was that generosity again. He thanked her with another deep kiss, teasing her tongue the way he already knew she liked. She mimicked her, winning a groan of approval from him. Gently, he pressed her down on the back of the pickup, appreciative that at least they had laid out a blanket on it earlier, a surprisingly clean one. His hands were already roving over her accommodating body, one unclasping the buttons of her blouse while the other wrapped about the back of her thigh to pull it across his hip, drawing her closer. He ground himself into the cleft of her legs to demonstrate just how hard she was making him and smiled into her mouth when she moaned with pleasure.
Her blouse undone, he pulled his mouth from hers to look at what he had exposed. She was wearing a simple white bra under the yellow blouse with the merest strip of lace and a satin bow resting on the valley of her breasts. Nothing like the sexy lingerie he used to photograph on models she could make his mouth water for her without them just fine. The skin on the swell of her breasts was paler than on her neck and face yet he could only admire the imperfection of the tan. Her beauty was artless. She was the nature of American country personified. He kissed those swells with reverence, each in their turn, brushing the heat of his mouth over her skin. He felt her move restlessly under him and took it as instruction to pull the edge of bra down, revealing a dusky taut nipple. Biting in, he tasted her, rolling his tongue over the roused peak, drawing out a startled hiss from her. She was a bit salty from the heat of a day spent out in the sun. She was delicious. He needed more.
Quickly, he pushed the blouse off her shoulders, pausing when he noticed a discoloration on her left shoulder. Evidence of their lovemaking from the previous night. He brushed the mark with a finger.
“Ma noticed it this morning.” Matthew found her watching him so he raised an eyebrow in question. “She suggested I might want to wear a scarf or something to cover it up before heading to the fair so I went and changed my shirt,” she explained.
“So we’re in the clear,” he asked. He was not sure how the progress in their courtship would be accepted by her mother. Hayden, he knew, would have come for his blood by now.
Elaina stared as though in deep reflection before answering. “Yes, I think so.”
“Well, good to see you are so enthusiastic,” he grumbled with a frown.
“Oh, but I am enthusiastic,” she chuckled, drawing a long finger over his brow, teasing it down the bridge of his nose.
Matthew nipped her fingertip as it reached his mouth, touching the pad gently with his tongue. “I’m glad because, like it or not, I plan to debauch you right now.”
“Debauch? Don’t take your sweet time!”
He took her words to heart. Soon they were burning away skin to skin and moving in a rhythm that perfectly complemented each other’s every desire. They kissed and touched and he was buried in her warmth just as he had longed the entire day. When they came, they came together, each liberated by the experience. The last thing he saw before they collapsed into the afterglow was the beautiful image of her arched over him much like the way he had seen her the first time through the lens of his camera, in the throes of her passion. And, as though to emulate the culmination of their experience, a final stray firework burst into a shower of colors in the sky behind her.
The fireworks were really spectacular. And he could finally appreciate them as was due.
Read Chapter 19!