Read Chapter 20 before you continue…
Matthew stared at the massive blank wall. He had it, along with all the other walls prepped for the exhibition, painted jet black with a finely grooved texture to make them appear as though it was suctioning the light out of the surrounding space. What little light he had left on, that is. Straying from the usual still exhibition format that displayed colorful arts on white surfaces in a brightly lit atmosphere, he had decided to showcase his series in a dimmed hall with strategically located accent lights. Soon photos developed in sepia hues would hang on black walls as though blossoming out of a void. Because that’s how the subject affected him these days.
Elaina had not relented to his plea. As promised, he had called her as soon as he returned to New York and numerous times in the week that followed, always with the same desperate reasoning to make her have faith in their relationship. While she received his calls, she had pointblank let him know that his return to Lainie’s Creek will not be welcome. She did not own a cell phone and it had costed him a bruised ego to so often call the ranch and ask for her only to have her tell him it was over between them – but he had done it nevertheless. He would have gone back to see her anyway if it were not for Hayden finally informing him during his call the night before his scheduled return flight that Elaina no longer wished to speak to him before hanging up sharply. After which, he had torn his air ticket and threw himself into his work.
Yet, try as he may to keep his mind and time occupied with teaching photography to college students or supervising the existing exhibition at the gallery or even shooting hoops with his friends, memories of Elaina was never far from his mind. He particularly missed her when developing the images for the Fall exhibition when even the photos without her in them brought on a wave of nostalgia of their shared experiences those summer days. Moreover, as he had sifted further and further through the photos, he soon realized that she occupied over sixty percent of the shots he had taken in Lainie’s Creek and most of the rest forty percent shots were also in some way linked to the story of this striking woman he had now pieced together. He had eventually embraced the inevitable and built the story of his series around her. Now with only two more weeks before “The Cowgirl” showcased, his mind was swimming with thoughts of the protagonist of his pictorial narrative more than ever, as though he had not last seen her two months, ten days and twenty-two hours ago.
“You should really turn on some more lights in here.”
Matthew turned around to find that Brooke had arrived for their date. Pseudo-date. Once again he was doing her a favor by accompanying her as a plus one. This time to the fashion event of the Fall season, as she had put it when pleading with him to escort her earlier that week. For a supermodel, why she was so often resorting to him to rescue her when there were always a bevy of men fawning over her was beyond his comprehension. He found it highly taxing.
“We’re testing the lighting with these walls,” he explained rather than dwell further on the drawbacks of being Brooke’s last-minute date.
“And you plan to make it this dark in here during the exhibition?” She turned in spot to fully take in the gloomy surrounding, displaying that excellent figure wrapped in a sheath gown glittering with soft-gold sequins that accentuated her glowing buttery skin with a strapless bodice and a side split reaching her hips to allow frequent peeks at one long shapely leg. It did nothing for him.
Instead he stuck to explaining his intent with the lack of lighting. “The photos will receive the principal lights to minimize distractions. I want the audience to pay attention where it matters most – on my subject.”
“Yes, I received the invitation in the mail earlier this week,” replied Brooke with a slight crease between her brows. “Judging from the title you finally settled on, I’m guessing your focus is on Elaina?”
Matthew nodded. “She turned out to be the heart of the matter.” He looked away, staring at the blank dark wall again where the center piece of his series would be hanging.
“Does your subject know that she is about to become famous?”
Matthew shrugged. “I have sent both of your families invitations for the opening night. She should know by now. I haven’t received any call from her protesting my choice.” It would not have mattered if Elaina had called him in protest. In fact, he had partly sent them as means of provocation. She had not yet taken the bait. Frustrating because he had had the card designed specifically to rile her up, using a picture of her form on her horse, partially silhouetted against a setting sun as the back of the card.
“That doesn’t mean she consents. I know her and she has never liked being in the limelight.”
“All the pictures were taken with her knowledge that they will become part of my Fall exhibition.”
“You’re asking for a world of trouble.”
“I’m counting on it,” he replied intensely, turning back to her.
“You are hoping to draw her out of her hiding,” Brooke stated shrewdly after a pause.
“Absolutely,” he admitted brazenly. “But I’m beginning to doubt she will respond to the gauntlet.”
Brooke opened her mouth with further warning but stopped as Diana Jackson, Matthew’s gallery manager, approached the pool of light in which he and Brooke stood. “Matthew, would you like us to bring out the centerpiece now?” Diana asked.
The interruption to the tête-à-tête was most welcome. “Yes, Diana. Immediately, if will you please. As you can see, Brooke and I have an engagement to attend.”
“Good evening, Ms. McKenna,” Diana smiled politely at Brooke. “You look lovely.”
Brooke presented her with one of her dazzling smiles and added a conspiratorial wink. “Why, thank you, Diana. It is the gala dinner for the Fall Fashion Week. I hope to make a good impression to book some spots for next year.”
“I’m sure you will have your schedule full very soon then. We will just take a few more moments of your time as we mount the photo and adjust the lights on it. We just need Matthew’s feedback. Be right back.” She quickly dissolved into the darkness again to instruct the hands to proceed with the task.
The silence that then ensued was unpleasant. There had been numerous such silences in their friendship since they returned from the trip to Texas. While both of their respective work and social lives had resumed at normal pace, their meetings with one another were always chased by shadows. The pressure eased a little in the presence of other friends and industry colleagues, but when they were alone, the silence often became deafening despite the overt attempts to keep appearances casual. Matthew stayed clear of such moments whenever he could but he also sensed that resuming their friendship like the way it was before last summer was more important to Brooke than it was to him. Almost as though she had something to prove.
Matthew could at least congratulate himself for being able to take any notion of romance with Brooke off the table regardless of how awkward it had been to broach the topic. The moment they had checked in their luggage at the airport and sat down to wait for the boarding call, he had cleared it with Brooke that he was not interested in pursuing anything romantic with her. Thankfully, she had taken it with humor and ensured him she only thought of him as a friend as well.
At one point over the last couple of months, however, he had resented her continued presence in his life. If it were not for the misunderstanding brought on by her fateful confession that day, he might still be with Elaina. But even then he also knew how unfair it was to blame her for telling him the truth – a truth that revealed a past that had occurred long before he even met Elaina and, he had to admit, one that had needed to be laid bare if his relationship with Elaina were to progress. And he also reminded himself that if it were not for Brooke, he would have never even met Elaina. He had eventually come to accept that if he was not with Elaina it was because a weakness existed in their relationship, with or without Brooke in their lives. So here they were.
As his team brought out the larger than life photo wrapped in brown manila and proceeded to lock its frame into place, Brooke broke the silence. “Have you tried calling her to ask if she received the invitation?” she asked quietly to avoid being overheard.
“I already know that it has. I had hers specially tracked for notification when it is delivered.”
“Then did you call her to find out if she is coming?”
Matthew shook his head as he watched the work progress. “It wouldn’t make a difference.”
“Sounds like you are ready to give up.”
Matthew laughed without humor. “If I have learnt anything about Elaina, it is that actions matter more to her than words. If seeing the invitation does not help get my message through, a call from me certainly wouldn’t.”
They fell silent again, each watching as the giant frame was raised with a pulley and fixed into place, each lost in their own thoughts. When the team drew the cover off the photo and the light hit the image for the first time, Matthew felt his emotions well up in him again, wanting to be physically near Elaina. Beside him, he heard Brooke gasp.
“Matthew! She’s stunning!” Brooke breathed, gazing at the first ever photo of Elaina that he had ever taken.
She was. In his world of supermodels from across the globe, travels to foreign lands and remote locations, Elaina was the most beautiful woman he had ever met. It was not for her oval face and celestial features or the relatively small frame of her physique or its gentle curves and sharp angles. No, it was the way she carried her natural beauty in the bold confident grace and posture when she was atop her horse. It was in the arch of her back as she maintained her balance on the bucking beast, the strain of her forearm as she gripped the reins, the swish of her hair as they flew around from beneath her Stetson. She rose out of the Texan dust and stretched towards the sun, making everyone and everything around her seem inconsequential. “The most stunning person I have ever seen,” he agreed.
He felt Brooke’s hand on his shoulder, pressing him to turn and look at her. “You truly love her,” she stated when he obliged.
He wondered how it could take anyone so long to come to that conclusion. “Yes.”
“She has to know,” Brooke replied, suddenly imploring.
“One can only hope she does soon.”
Standing up taller, Brooke firmed her spine. “Excuse me, but one can certainly do more than hope.”
It was probably the twentieth time she was calling Ahyoka, each time letting the phone ring to full. The girl was probably the only person in God’s green earth who did not own an answering machine so that someone could even leave her a damn message. Brooke had also gotten hold of her cell number from her mother but found that switched off. Time was of the essence and she had once or twice contemplated whether to call Mrs. Corey instead but had eventually chickened out. What she needed to discuss required a lot of explaining and she did not have the courage for that far as Elaina’s mother was concerned – the elder woman had always been very kind to her.
Since her discussion with Matthew the previous night, Brooke had decided that it was her fault that the lovebirds were now separated and it therefore was her cross to bear. Just as Brooke was ready to hang up, the call was received. “Hello?” answered a man.
That’s strange. Her mom had informed her that Ahyoka lived alone. “Hello. Is this number Ahyoka Gelderman’s apartment?”
“Yes. Who’s this?”
“Tyler?” she guessed instead.
Pause. Then, “Yeah.”
“Tyler, it’s Brooke. Is Ahy around?”
“Brooke?” She could hear the surprise in his voice. “Yeah, Ahy’s right here. Hold on.”
There was a muffled discussion at the other end before Ahyoka came on. “Brooke?” she asked tentatively.
Brooke felt relief wash over her. “Ahyoka! Am I glad to finally reach you – I’ve been calling all day. Tried your cell as well but it’s switched off.”
“I was out on errands with Tyler for the wedding. It’s at the end of next month if you remember.”
“That’s right. How’s the wedding preparations coming around?”
“Preparations are going fine. How’re things with you? I’m sure you didn’t call to discuss my upcoming nuptials. Is everything okay?”
“You must be surprised to hear from me.”
“Kind of, yes.”
“I hate to call you only in need but I your help.”
“I figured as much,” came the wry reply.
Brooke laughed to deflect the irritation she felt at being shamed. It was not as though Ahyoka was a big part of her life that she was neglecting. “It’s about Elaina and Matthew.”
Sheesh! She obviously was not going to be thrown the proverbial bone. “Yeah. I need your help in getting them back together.”
There was a long pause before Ahyoka replied with a more alert, “Oh?”
Brooke rolled her eyes, glad they weren’t talking face-to-face. “Well, as you know, they were dating.”
“And now they’re not.”
“Because you got in the way,” Ahyoka reminded her sharply.
Brooke felt her face grow hot. Whoever said admitting fault to oneself was harder than admitting it to others had it backwards. “Yes, in a way.”
“Elaina is no longer dating Matthew because he is with you.”
“No, that is not actually true,” Brooke said, sitting up straighter. “Matthew and I are just friends – have been friends for around three years now. We may have very briefly dated a few times when we first knew each other but we are perfectly platonic now. Practically brother and sister.”
“A brother you brought home to meet your parents?” Ahyoka asked skeptically.
“I didn’t bring him home to meet my parents. I just had him tag along and so they met him. He had to work on a project and the location of my hometown was convenient.” She left out the part where she needed him as support because it was irrelevant.
“Well, honey,” Ahyoka was saying, “It’s kind of hard to believe when he’s over there with you and not down here with Elaina.”
“Ahy, he’s not here with me, he lives in New York. And he wanted to be down there with Elaina but she wouldn’t let him.”
“So you’re sure there’s nothing between the two of you.”
“Ok, I’ll bite. But why does that make it so that he should be back with Elaina?”
Brooke suddenly felt unsure. “Well, doesn’t she love him?”
“You won’t hear it from me even if she does.”
“Well, he loves her.”
“How do you figure that?”
“You know he was down there to photo shoot for his upcoming exhibition, right?”
“And he took a bunch of photos of Elaina while he was at it?”
“More than a few, as I saw it.”
“Yeah. Well, he was originally going to conceptualize the exhibition around country life. But now, he’s series is called ‘The Cowgirl’.”
“It’s on Elaina?”
“All about Elaina. It’s like his magnum opus.”
“Whooey! When Elaina finds out she’ll raise hell and stick a chunk under it. She does not like the limelight.”
“That’s what I told him. Turns out he’s looking forward to her getting angry at him. He even sent her an invitation, hoping to get her to finally talk to him.”
“Boy must have a death wish. But then again, I sort of had it figured he must be double back-boned to have gone after Elaina the way he did when he was here.” A furious whisper followed this assessment in the background at the other end and Ahyoka spoke to Tyler. “I’m just saying, Tyler. You know it’s true.” Returning to the call, she added, “So he may be in love with Elaina. But that doesn’t mean he’s right for her.”
“It means he’s right for her if she loves him too,” Brooke countered. “Look, Ahy. I know I have not been the prime example of friendship when it came to Elaina and it is possible that she may have changed a lot in the past few years that we’ve been out of touch. But I know Matthew truly loves her. He’s been moping around so much it would bring tears to a glass eye. Nothing cheers him up. And frankly, there have been exhibitions before but I have never seen him so dedicated or secretive. I thought he was losing his vertical hold. That is, until last night.”
“What happened last night?” There was a curious note to Ahyoka’s voice and Brooke was glad.
“I went to see him at his gallery,” she explained, hedging the truth on why she was there. “They were getting the gallery ready for the exhibition – it’ll open October fourth. And they had hung up the centerpiece of his series, a giant blowup. It’s a shot of Elaina rearing up on her horse. I’m telling you, Ahy, you would not doubt his love if you saw that photo.” Ahyoka sighed and Brooke drew courage from that. “The only thing matters is if Elaina loves him too.”
Ahyoka sighed again but this time in resignation. “Just because a chicken has wings don’t mean it can fly.”
“All I’m saying is even if Elaina is in love with him,” came the reply, accompanied by angry whispers behind her, “there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“Of course we can do something about it,” said Brooke indignantly. “We can get them together again so they can see how much they love each other.”
“How do you propose we do that?”
“Matthew sent her the invitation to the opening and he already knows she has received it since he had it tracked by the courier. Help me get Elaina up here for the event.”
“Oh, no,” Ahyoka vehemently declined. “That plan is a big hole in the fence. Have you met Elaina? You know the one thing that hasn’t changed since you two fell out? She’s as single-tracked as when you two used to paint the town together.”
“I know she can be argumentative but we can’t not try. I can’t not try. I need to make amends.”
Ahyoka must have heard the desperation in Brooke’s voice. “Let’s say,” she said in way of relenting, “for some warped reason I want to experiment and see what happens if you poke a grizzly mama who lost her cub in the eye. How, do you think, we will get Elaina to agree to fly to New York and attend this event?”
Brooke laughed nervously. “Talking her into seeing what an important part she plays as the star of the exhibition won’t help?”
“If you want me to put my life on the line four weeks before my wedding because you want to clear your conscious, you better have a plan worthier than that.”
“No, no. I do have a plan. And I’m glad you brought up your wedding because we will definitely put that into the equation.”
“I’m not moving my wedding to New York,” Ahyoka warned, alarmed herself.
“Not at all. We will just need to relocate some of your pre-wedding activities here,” Brooke compromised, finally breaking into a wide grin.
Read Chapter 22 !