Read Chapter 18 before you continue…
Matthew spent most of next day with Brooke as he had promised. And though he missed Elaina terribly, it turned out that he also had a stimulating time sightseeing with Brooke. She had driven them to a bike trail through a forest in a nearby county that ended up in a cave hidden behind a short waterfall. She had known both the trail and cave familiarly, being able to point out the entrance to the fissure in the cliff that was otherwise hidden by dark foliage and rushing white water. It had made for a very picturesque outing and since Brooke had already warned him to come prepared so as to take his equipment into the water, his growing portfolio of imagery had thoroughly benefited from the trip.
It was curious because, in the years that he had known her, Brooke had never given him the impression that she was outdoorsy. Even when they had been romantically involved, they had rarely held their dates alfresco. A walk in Central Park now and then was the extent of their nature excursions, preferring night clubs and chic restaurants for their rendezvous instead. In fact, this was the first time he had actually seen Brooke perform any vigorous exercise, though he heard her complaining often enough about the regime modelling kept her in. Matthew suspected that this particular display of nemophilism was really in response to the fact that Matthew had spent so much time with Elaina in the outdoors. Feeling threatened, Brooke may have just hoped he would see that she was just as country. Since he did not want to fuel another argument, he had wisely refrained from commenting on this new adventurous side of Brooke.
And it had worked. While Brooke had met him that morning with considerable reticence, by the time they had reached the cave, her silence had given way to exaltation for the beauty of their natural surroundings. It was clear that she missed the country, which only made him wonder more why she stayed away from home for so long. He had gathered a while ago that it had something to do with the falling out between Elaina and her – one couldn’t have not deduced as much after watching how each woman reacted to any mention of the other – but that only made him more curious about what the discord had been about. He was not stupid enough to ask, mind. He liked his head where it was, thank you, and did not fancy it being chewed off. So as the day wore on, he had kept mum on any topic that could lead to offsetting the dearly retrieved good mood of his companion.
Which made the predicament of informing Brooke about his decision to stay in Lainie’s Creek all the more difficult. Yet as they drew closer to the end of their daytrip, he knew he must gather his resolve and notify Brooke of his plans. The sooner he got it out in the open, the better. He decided to spill the news the moment they got back to McKenna ranch. It will just be like pulling off a Band-Aid.
Good thing he had been on his best behavior all day because Brooke was very cheerful when she finally parked in the driveway of the McKenna ranch house. “Thanks for coming, Matthew. I had a great time today.”
“Me too,” he admitted. “I’m surprised you are such a good cyclist. Some of the upward inclines were pretty steep but you managed them with aplomb.”
“Thanks. There are lots of trails in the area and I used to go biking all the time.”
“Well, it was good exercise and the cave was just the perfect reward afterward. I’m glad we did it.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed yourself. I’ll head for the showers. All this heat and dirt has me feeling way too grimy.” She made to get out of the cab when he stopped her.
“Before you go, there’s something I need to tell you.”
Brooke turned back to him, smile still in place but the light in her eyes flickered with trepidation. “Yes?”
Matthew breathed in deeply before dropping the bomb. “I’ve decided to stay in Lainie’s Creek a little longer?”
“Oh?” She released the door handle and fully turned to him.
“Yeah,” he said, nodding. “I’m still taking the flying back with you tomorrow but only to get some work done. Then I’ll return here for a longer duration. Well, not here precisely. I’ll be checking into a hotel.”
“Is it- is it because you haven’t completed the shoot for your Fall series?”
He shook his head. “No, I have the images I need.”
“Then?” Her smile was completely gone now.
He could tell she was avoiding the obvious. There was no hope for it but to be frank. “I’ll be here to stay close to Elaina.”
Brooke frowned. “Stay close to Elaina? But aren’t you needed back in New York? Your Fall series is always showcased in October. How will you get ready in time if you’re traipsing around Texas with Elaina?”
He chose not to be provoked by the barely concealed sneer in her words. “There’s still plenty to do before the exhibition and all of which can be done offsite. I can work on the selection and editing from here. Once that is done, my art team will visit me to discuss the copies and arrangements for the series book and they can take it back for publication. My publicist can take care of the hype building separately and consult with me over phone. As long as I’m back in the city by September to direct the sprucing of the gallery for installations I can be spared.”
“What about the exhibitions in your gallery in the meanwhile? Won’t they suffer?”
“Brooke,” he disputed, “I have a gallery manager I pay to handle that. I have other partners who are available to supervise wherever needed. I’m always travelling on projects and that is an expected role I play in the partnership.”
“You seem to have given this a lot of thought,” she said through pursed lips. “And all because you want to spend more time with Elaina.” She wasn’t asking a question but stating the conclusion she finally arrived to. After a pause, she added, “So she isn’t just a model you are fooling around with?”
Matthew felt a first glimmer of anger spark in him. With effort, he tempered it down, focusing on the question rather than the selection of words. “I think you know very well that my feelings for Elaina are serious.”
“And you are sure of this,” she asked, her voice cracking as it reached a higher pitch. “You are sure after just one week of knowing her?”
“I didn’t expect to feel this way, that is true,” he admitted. “I don’t think either of us did. But we have both realized that there is more than just passing attraction between us. There’s a possibility of something lasting and we deserve to see where it takes us.”
“So she knows you want to stay?”
“Of course she knows. I wouldn’t just move here without discussing it with her first.”
“Move here?” Brooke nearly squeaked, eyes round as dinner plates.
“Not ‘move’ move here. But I’ll be commuting to and fro a lot in the immediate future, spending the lion share of my time here with Elaina. We’ll see where our relationship takes us before making any life altering decision.”
“Life altering,” she jumped on the words, latching on to it. “What if you do move here? What about your career, your gallery?”
“If it comes to that, I can be a photographer anywhere in the world. And my gallery can be maintained as it always has been. Maybe I will play a less active role in the productions, maybe I will sell my share altogether. But I would like to know why you are so set against my decision to be with Elaina? I’m grateful that you introduced us but apart from that, where our relationship goes has nothing to with you?”
“It has everything to do with me,” she finally shouted, a manic look in her eyes. “Elaina was my best friend.”
Matthew shifted in his seat. Having arrived at the moment of truth, he now knew why he was reluctant to tell Brooke about his decision. “I’m aware of that. I’m also aware that you had a falling out a long time ago.”
Brooke’s eyes fluttered in astonishment. “You know? You know what happened? She told you?”
Matthew puckered his brows to find the correct words. “Elaina didn’t tell me, I learnt it in passing. I don’t have the details of what happened to break up your friendship but I realize it has affected and defined both your lives greatly.” Brooke tried to interject but he pressed on, “But the important thing is that I am not able to eschew my feelings for Elaina based on this knowledge. I understand you might feel that I am being disloyal to you–”
“Matthew,” she interrupted. “It’s not about you being disloyal to me.”
Matthew stopped, confused. “If you’re not angry with me for dating your ex-best friend than what are you objecting to?”
Brooke seemed to hesitate, as though fighting an inner battle on how much more information she could impart without exposing this deep dark secret both women seemed to guard with their very souls. Finally, seeming to have come to a conclusion, she began, “It has to do with the incident that caused our friendship to end.”
Matthew’s heart thudded. Ever since he arrived, he had felt the negative current that seemed to link Brooke to Elaina. Witnessing their open animosity, it had been shocking to learn they were once best friends. But with that knowledge had come curiosity that he had kept checked but had hoped someone would quench. Now, on the precipice of that disclosure, he suddenly did not want to know.
When he remained silent, she looked down at her hands, lying clenched together on her lap. There her eyes remained as she told her story. “You must already know that Elaina and I were inseparable since we were just children?” She glanced at him for confirmation and he nodded. Swallowing with great difficulty, she continued. “We did the same thing, wore the same thing, liked and hated the same things. But of course there were differences. Some things you could not nurture, they are what you are born with.
“Elaina did invariably well in school, whether it was academics or sports. On the honor roll in school, played little leagues al through elementary school. She did better than me even when we both put in the same level of effort. With time I took it to understand that she just had something I didn’t – smarts, sharing genes with Hayden and Tyler, whatever. And I could accept that because she never left me behind, even when she could. I remember in our junior year in high school, our math teacher had offered her to be promoted to math class with the seniors and she had refused. She said she didn’t want to be put in class with the seniors but I knew she had taken the decision because she knew if we weren’t in the same class, my grades would have suffered. I would’ve failed math. So I never had any cause to resent her being better than me.
“There was another reason that made our differences easier on me. I was always the more popular best friend. Elaina, you must’ve noticed, is a bit socially challenged. She just says whatever that comes to her mouth and she doesn’t seem to realize that what she is saying can be awkward until the words come out of her mouth and she sees others’ reactions. I think it’s because, being around Hayden and Tyler, she always wanted to be a boy more than a girl and ended up being a really clumsy mix. I trailed after the twins myself but I didn’t have to live with them. Growing up with those two paragons of boyhood was a challenge even from the next ranch.”
Matthew did not know where this was all going but it did give him a greater insight into who Elaina was. Why she always put up such a tough veneer before the whole world.
“I didn’t suffer the pressure to be like a couple of redneck older brothers like she did. No one told her to be like them, mind, but it was a standard she imposed on herself. She hero-worshipped them, still does by the looks of it. And this was all fine until we got to junior high. There, girls had to behave like girls. This was as easy for me as it was hard for her. I had my aunt in Dallas who was a talent agent – same aunt who got me my first modelling gig in New York. She always kept me abreast of latest styles in fashion and that played a great part in my being more popular. I would have happily shared anything I owned with Elaina but she never seemed to want to dress better or do more makeup. I think it’s because she saw how being popular meant so much to me and it was one thing she could let me easily get ahead of her. So our world was shared where we each played to our strengths.
“But all of that changed when Ewan Pollack came to town. Ewan was a senior same as us and apparently had been kicked out of his previous school. He was a heartthrob, the dream guy. Gorgeous, broody and mysterious. Every girl in school wanted him for a boyfriend and I was available. I knew would get him. When he joined our clique, it became certain that I would become the girl he would ask out. I could feel the attraction between us. But then he kept stalling and I had stayed aloof to not show my disappointment. I had all but given up when he asked out Elaina to the prom. And more shockingly, Elaina said yes. She said yes and she hardly ever dated due to being always busy with her studies or the ranch. It seemed that Elaina never guessed I wanted to date Ewan. Or so she claimed.
“The news of her dating Ewan changed everything. Suddenly, not only Elaina was the smarter and sportier best friend, but she was also the popular one. Our friendship was set off its equilibrium. And as the days got nearer to the prom, the excitement surrounding the event as everyone prepared for the big night put a strain on our relationship. Elaina was nominated as a candidate for prom queen. I was a candidate, too, of course, but I had worked my entire school career for the position, she was just selected because of her new boyfriend. Elaina had actually offered to withdraw from the nomination for me but I stopped her. I chose to be gracious instead. Also I didn’t want a pity win. I wanted to prove once and for all that there was something I could be better in when I won the crown.
“I thought it would feel good to win that crown but it didn’t. My king was Ewan Pollack and I danced the king and queen dance with him and that didn’t feel right either. Because when I turned to look at Elaina on the dance floor to see how she felt about Ewan latching on to me so tight, she smiled encouragingly. My win wasn’t a win at all because Elaina never tried to win. It felt like just another thing she handed to me. She didn’t even want Ewan, he was just the first guy who had asked her to the prom and she had said yes.”
Brooke stopped, resting her head on the back of her seat, staring out the windshield into distance. He knew that was not how the tale ended but he wanted to give her time. He was right. Listening to the story was anything but comfortable. But he supposed any story that ended with the disintegration of a lifelong friendship ought to be tragic. When Brooke seemed unable to get out of her self-inspection, he prompted her. “Is that when you decided to leave Lainie’s Creek?”
“No, the decision to leave town and start a new life for myself came to me the following day. After Elaina and I came to blows.”
Matthew forced down the sense of foreboding once more as he asked, “Why did you and Elaina come to blows?”
Brooke rolled her head on the headrest so she was looking straight into his eyes as she answered. “I told her that I had slept with Ewan after the prom.”
Read Chapter 20!