Read Chapter 19 before you continue…
Elaina lay awake in bed. Her head felt battered. There was a dull ache just behind her eyes that felt as though her brain had swollen to twice its size and refused to fit in its enclosure anymore. Side effects of too much thinking.
Hayden had cornered her again that morning and hadn’t that been a barrel of laugh. It was to impart yet another sermon about the potential danger of mixing with Matthew. When she refused to listen to his lectures, he told her about a discussion he had had with Brooke at the fair the previous day where Brooke had let drop that Matthew had come to Lainie’s Creek as her date but was now dating Elaina instead. The news had stumped Elaina for a few minutes and Hayden had taken her silence as sanction to carry on with his raving against dating outsiders, which he did verily.
But the rest of it had fallen on deaf ears. Elaina was preoccupied with putting together all that she had learnt about Matthew through their interactions. Sure he would not be in Lainie’s Creek if not for Brooke, but Matthew had already explained to her his role in visiting with Brooke. And all that he told her about himself only reflected on his candid nature. Matthew was not a liar and Brooke had a history of it. So she had thanked Hayden once again for looking out for her and sharing the information. She told him she would discuss this with Matthew and sent a grumbling older brother on his way.
Then she waited for Matthew to drop by. He had told her the previous night that he might be on an outing with Brooke and would come over once he became free, which he expected could be around late afternoon. Yet afternoon had rolled into evening and that into night, until the family had supper and turned in for the night – without him ever in sight. She cajoled herself that he was after all Brooke’s guest and it was not fair that she had monopolized most of his time since they met. She told herself this but it did not stop her from wondering if Brooke was taking advantage of their time together to put up a bit of competition. That was a thought which kept popping into her head and she had to keep stamping down.
Elaina growled into the shadows of her room. She was being unfair to Matthew again. Over the past few days, he certainly had proven himself as anything but fickle and deserved better than her suspicious musings. Those were the results of cultivating a five-year old stock of insecurities. Entirely her own problem. But he had not visited her today and tomorrow was originally the date of his departure so she wondered. He could have changed his mind about staying without Brooke’s help. Photography, three to four exhibitions per year, a teaching position at a renowned university, owning a gallery – the man liked to keep busy and he kept busy in New York. She wouldn’t be able to blame him if he had to bail on their fledgling relationship. Even if staying was his own idea in the first place.
She needed to turn off her brain and go to sleep. It had been a scalding summer day and the night had only melted the heat so it stuck damply to the skin. An air conditioner had been installed in her room some years ago. She had soon discovered that working in the sun all day after sleeping in the frigid air at night played havoc with her sinuses so she refrained from using the contraption. She usually kept the window wide open with the curtains drawn aside to allow whatever air that stirred outside to flow in. Sleeping in semi-darkness never bothered her. Tonight, however, the light wasn’t helping. If her nerves had not been frayed from overthinking she would have been asleep by now. She tossed to her side, facing away from the moonlight filtering in through the window.
There was a muffled thud behind her, as though something large had dropped to the carpet. Elaina sat up to discover the crouching shadow of a man beneath the window and it was all she could do to stop herself from screaming in alarm. Then the shadow rose to stand in the moonlight and Matthew loomed closer. She felt a thrill shoot up her spine as he swiftly sat on her bed and clamped a hand over her mouth.
“Don’t shout,” he instructed belatedly. “It’s me.”
A hand over her mouth did not stop her from snorting so she did. He removed the hand. “Next time you climb into a lady’s room at night, prepare to have her scream before you take your sweet time to reach her bed.”
He scowled. “Yeah? I was as fast as possible, seeing how my energy was a little taxed climbing up that tree.”
“Hey! I love that tree. It has really low branches – easy to scale and dismount.”
“Had a little practice, have we?” he inquired, his trademark smirk back in its place.
“Let’s just say grounding has always been an easy punishment for the Corey kids,” she replied before getting to the heart of the matter. “What are you doing here?”
“I missed you.” Matthew’s eyes glowed even in the dark as he stopped to properly look at her.
She felt self-conscious about her less than dapper attire. She had long kicked off her sheet and felt exposed in the raggedy tank top and striped cotton boxers. If she was not under the microscope of the man she was so attracted to and considering a serious relationship with, this would have struck her as droll because, before having met him, she could not remember another time in her life when she so often thought about clothes. She was also slightly sweaty and not for the first time in her life did she wish she had inherited her mother’s glands, which were none. For some reason, her brain decided to inform him of this shortcoming as he leaned towards her for a kiss. “I’m sweating.”
“I won’t mind your sweat if you won’t mind mine,” he said, chuckling. “Just climbed a tree in this heat, remember?”
“Oh. Kiss away then.”
“With pleasure,” he whispered, his breath grazing her lips before his mouth.
The pleasure was hers, she realized, sighing. He tilted her back until she was lying again with him halfway in bed with her. The weight of his chest firmly pressed upon her unencumbered breasts, which his hands soon found and molded to his liking, kneading and pinching until he had her gasping into his kiss. He trailed kisses down her neck, collar bone, the slope of her breast, shifting the strap of her top as he moved down to expose more of her skin. If he decided to go back to New York tomorrow, she will really miss this.
Elaina’s eyes popped open as she remembered the thoughts that had kept her up until he disembarked from that tree. She tried pushing him off her but he seemed to be in a world of his own making. “Matthew, stop. Stop, we need to talk.”
He raised his head but his gaze did not tell her he fully recovered from his lust induced delirium. “Can’t we talk after? I’ve been waiting to touch you all day.”
“Why? Why did you wait?”
He frowned, finally cottoning on as her tone implied she meant business. “What do you mean why I waited?”
“I mean, what kept you from coming here earlier instead of the dead of night,” she explained, as though speaking to a two-year old. “Your plans with Brooke were to end by afternoon and you were going to drop by after, right? Did it take longer than expected?”
Matthew sat back, a shifty look skulking into his eyes. “No, it did not take longer.”
Brooke, she realized. Elaina sat up, drawing up her knees to her chest and putting further distance between them. “She didn’t want you coming back here.” When he did not deny it, she went on, “Are you guys dating each other?”
Matthew’s head came up, startled. “What? No!”
“I was thinking.” He refused to meet her eyes.
She understood. He meant he was having second thoughts about staying in Lainie’s Creek. Ever since he proposed the idea to stay, she had been refusing to allow herself to hope. It was a well-honed habit to keep disappointments at bay. It seemed practice was futile here. “You should go.”
He finally met her eyes. “Go? Where?”
“Back to New York. That’s what you were thinking about, right? Having second thoughts about us?”
“No! Yes. I mean, no. Not the way you think.” He sighed, obviously hesitating over whether to reveal whatever that was bothering him.
She gave him a free pass. “You don’t have to explain. I get it. It was a fling. We flung. Now it’s over.”
“It was never just a fling and you know it,” he refuted, sounding highly exasperated. “And if it was over, I wouldn’t be here, trying to get into your bed.”
“Well, no one ever denied we have physical attraction going for us.”
“Yeah, that and a lot more. So I want you to stop backpedaling on our relationship at every turn.”
He had a point. She had been more than reluctant but there was good cause for it now. Because now he was having second thoughts. “So about those second thoughts?” she probed, trying to keep her voice casual.
He ran his hand through his hair, bidding for time. There was that hesitation again. “Brooke told me about how you and she had your falling out today,” he finally laid bare.
Dread filled her, followed by that familiar shame of having her weakness exposed. Comparing her desirability to a supermodel was unfair to herself but unavoidable all the same. However, he had chosen to be with her, she reminded herself. His every action spoke it, even his climbing that tree to get to be here. As the silence drew out between them, her thoughts jumped to another possibility. “You thought that I might be dating you for revenge.”
Matthew jumped off the bed as though it caught fire. He dragged a hand over his face, clearly agitated. “No,” he said finally. “I didn’t really. It gave me pause when Brooke suggested it.”
Elaina nodded, getting the picture. “Right. Right, Brooke suggested it. Of course she would. She slept with my prom date so of course she would think me capable of sleeping with her date.”
“I’m not her da–”
“And of course that would make you think,” she went on, waving off his interruption. “What else would you think? It sounds like the perfect revenge.”
“I did not think you dated me because you wanted to exact revenge on her,” he whispered furiously.
“Then what? What made you have second thoughts?” She was kind of feeling an anger rising within her and she let it boil. Anger was a more known emotion than the desperation she felt for him.
“I wondered why you did not tell me about your history yourself,” he replied somewhat lamely.
The answer did not convince so she let him have it. “Obviously, it did not fit in with my plan for revenge.”
“Don’t be like that. I came to talk this out.”
“Oh, is that why you are here? I thought it was for a last tumble with the country girl before slipping away to the city.”
He was upon her in an instant, grasping her close by the shoulders, his eyes boring into hers. “I want that tumble alright, you better believe it. But it will not be our last,” he declared through gritted teeth. Then he calmed his tone to be more cajoling. “Now, I’ll be returning to New York tomorrow but only to instruct my team on how to proceed for the exhibition during my absence. I will be back in a week, maybe ten days max.”
She shook off his hands. “Don’t bother. I can’t be that good a lay. Not as if I have experience like you or Brooke.”
“Please stop saying such things. No one benefits from it.” He paused, taking a deep breath as though to will his sensibility into order. “Look, it’s true that what Brooke told me about your past made me feel very uncomfortable,” he went on in a softer tone. “It wasn’t an easy thing to hear, especially from her, and I didn’t know what to think at first. It seemed like an important point to have missed out. Especially since it’s obvious you have not let it go as much as her. But then I realized what a painful part of your past it must’ve been and I told myself that you would’ve revealed it to me in your time. And by then I missed you so much I had to see you. It was already pretty late so I waited till everyone went to bed and snuck over. No one can doubt how I feel about you.”
But not all of it washed down as easily as he explained it. What Hayden had told her earlier seemed ridiculous then but not anymore. “And how do you feel about Brooke?”
“Don’t project what happened at your prom on to what we have, Elaina. Brooke and I are just friends.”
“Not the way Brooke tells it.”
“She told Hayden yesterday that you are here as her date.”
“Why would she say that? It’s not true.”
“Are you calling my brother a liar?”
“Elaina, stop putting words into my mouth. I was suggesting that he may have misunderstood whatever it was Brooke said. Brooke and I have not dated in three years.”
She felt it. Right there in the center of her chest. It happened every time she relived that moment when Brooke had informed her of sleeping with Ewan. It always started with a pinch and then slowly swelled until she felt the pinpricks spread to her fingertips and the soles of her feet. The buzz in her head would come next, followed by the rushing in her ears. She was glad she was sitting on her bed because when these sensations wore off, she always felt worn out and the need to brace herself on something to stay upright.
“Elaina? Elaina, talk to me.” His voice came to her from a distance and she tried to focus on him again. “Are you alright?” he was asking.
Elaina swallowed, trying to get her voice back. “You and Brooke dated?”
“Yes, briefly. Three years ago after we first met at a fashion show. I already told you about that.” There was confusion in Matthew’s eyes. She wanted to believe it was sincere.
“No, you never did.”
“What are you talking about? Of course I did. When I talked you into our date in Marty’s stall.”
Elaina laughed but without humor. “You must’ve skipped that part.”
“I couldn’t have. You were so adamant no to go out with me because I was here with Brooke so I–”
“So you ensured me there was nothing romantic between you two and I acquiesced,” she broke in. “You never told me about your past and I assumed you had always been just friends. Because if I knew anything to the contrary, I would never have dated you.”
Matthew finally looked stumped. He turned away from her, resting his head in his hands, elbows to knees. She gave him time to recollect as she herself drew strength in light of this new information. She could now see why Brooke behaved so territorial towards Matthew each time they had met. How she could have a valid argument that she, Elaina, was using Matthew to wreck vengeance.
Matthew finally turned back to her. “I’m really sorry if I somehow missed out on telling you that Brooke and I once dated. But the important thing is that I am here with you now and I want to be with you. She and I are a thing of the past and there is no bearing for you and me to not see each other over this.”
“I’m not sure it is all in the past though.” It killed her to admit this, to realize that she might be pushing him back towards Brooke even as she said it.
“Elaina,” Matthew warned.
“She obviously still cares for you,” Elaina insisted.
“Is it really? She brought you home with her. She had been gone for so long we doubted she will ever come back home but when she did, she brought a man along. To stay in her home and meet her family. A man she has been romantically involved with. If that isn’t telling enough, she has latched on to you at any hint of interest you have shown towards me. And now she has divulged to you a secret that can only paint her a villain. All because she can’t bear to see you with me.” Elaina saw the flicker of doubt in his eyes as the words sunk in. “I don’t think she is over you.”
“No, no, no. I am only here because she is a dear friend and she needed moral support while I needed a good outlet to carry out my plan for a concept I had been planning on. That’s all there is to it.”
“You can put the boot in the oven but that doesn’t make it biscuit.”
“I don’t care how she feels,” he burst out finally. “Whatever you may think Brooke feels isn’t real. This is. Us. We are real. I’m not going to throw us away on the off chance that she might still be carrying a torch for me.”
Elaina felt the breath leave her body. With those words, he sealed their fate. If ever she thought that she was fighting to give him a chance to back out or conceding to Brooke in response to the humiliation of his knowing her failings, the doubts were erased from her mind. Him accepting the possibility of Brooke caring for him was like a dash of ice water to whatever heated misconception she harbored. Somehow, his accepting that Brooke might still have feelings for him made it more true than when she thought it herself. The truth was that she was not Brooke. To do as Brooke had done all those years ago would be far more humiliating than to have a man stolen from her.
“I can’t, Matthew,” she told him softly, trying to inject firmness into her words at the same time. “I can’t be with you even if there is a glimmer of that torch still burning. I won’t be like her.”
“Elaina.” Matthew tried to pull her into his arms.
“No, please go. And don’t come back.”
“You don’t mean that,” he implored, brushing her lips with his to prove his point.
Elaina tasted him, wanting to taste more. But that was no longer possible. “I do.”
“Don’t tell me you care so little as to give us up,” he said with desperation.
“I realize that there are some things I care about more,” she replied, trying to sound determined even as her heart broke into tiny little pieces as he again referred to the two of them as “us”.
For the second time, he bounced off her bed. This time in anger. “I can’t stay away from you. How can you?”
She turned away from the view of his beautiful face and form, if only to stay resolved. “I can. I will.”
“We will see about that,” he challenged. “I’m leaving tomorrow as planned and I’ll call you when I get there. I’m hoping you will come to your senses by the time I return.”
She knew she would not be changing her mind and refused to give him hope by responding to him. Silence would have to be her only answer.
He stood there for what seemed like an eternity, making it harder for her to stay true to her stance every second he was present. She could feel the anger seething from him in waves but it was his desperation simmering just below the surface that made it so difficult. But she succeeded and when she refused to acknowledge him further, he stalked away, climbing out the window, leaving just as he had come in.
She waited a few beats of her heart before rushing to the window after him to make sure he landed safely. His injured heel. She watched him stalk away from the house with long strides. And when he paused and turned back to look up at her window, she dropped to the floor and out of sight. Breathing hard to keep the pain at bay, which tried to sear her very skin, she pressed her back against the low wall.
“Oh my god,” she sobbed, giving up as the tears came. She was in love.
Read Chapter 21 !