Read Chapter 21 before you continue…
“Absolutely not!” Elaina stared down her three opponents. She was on to them. Their speech on trying out new things, with a side order of an attempt to make her feel obligated towards the bride’s wishes as maid-of-honor, was as transparent as the glass wall birds flew into. Well, she was no bird brain and she had never before heard of Ahyoka’s dream to have her bachelorette party in New York City. Convenient, this dream should reveal itself so soon after they had all received invitations to a certain photo exhibition. “Y’all are just trying to get me to Matthew’s show. I ain’t falling for it.”
“She saw right through that one, didn’t she?” muttered Ethel from where she was attending the stew simmering on the stove in the Coreys’ kitchen.
“It was Brooke’s genius plan, I was just enacting it,” Ahyoka defended herself, sitting down across from Elaina in dejection.
“It got us all down to the business of talking about the subject all the same,” June tried to pacify the situation, looking kindly at her future daught-in-law. “Better out than boiling in our heads.”
Not a chance in hell. “What’s this about Brooke?” Elaina demanded, trying to curb her surprise at this new piece of information.
“The cat’s outta the bag now and here comes the hissy fit,” Ethel alerted, turning her back to the rest of the tableau as though seeking cover from a battle field.
“No one’s going to have a hissy fit,” June talked over Ahyoka who was beginning to stammer another protest at being chided for the plan and its source.
“I will if no one explains to me what’s this about it being Brooke’s plan,” warned Elaina.
“June, meet your only daughter,” threw in Ethel like an aside. “She’s blonde, blue-eyed, beautiful and likes to stomp around the ranch with an angry cloud of steam over her head, picking fights with anybody and everybody willing.” No one paid her much mind. Sarcasm was part of their housekeeper’s charm – her snarky comments, an embrace.
“You have been a tad bit hard to live with recently,” her mother added tentatively, trying to iron out the harshness in the appraisal.
“Try more like in recent few months,” Ethel put in.
“Just shy of three months actually,” Ahyoka tidied up, ever the banker with her penchant for numbers. “Since about the time that photographer we’ve all come to admire vamoosed.”
“I have not,” Elaina challenged across the kitchen table.
“Have too,” shot back Ahyoka. However, she still had the presence of mind to lean away out of reach, as Elaina noticed with smug satisfaction.
“Girls, please act your age,” June interrupted the spat in exasperation.
Elaina stared at the scuffed surface of the table in stony silence. She had plenty to say about what Ahyoka could do with her presumptuousness to psychoanalyze her but her mother’s orders were binding in their household and she dared not cross that line.
“Elaina,” June began after allowing them all a moment to school their more volatile emotions, “you’re the only daughter of my womb and I love you, baby, but you have always been a willful child. You’ve got this tendency to agitate the people around you with your bellicose reaction to every topic on God’s green earth but we’ve all learnt to accept it as part of your idiosyncrasies. We know we’re greatly to blame. Your daddy spoiled you as an only daughter and I indulged it because I was overcompensating the fact you had to grow up with so many men around this place. And Lord knows having the twins as older brothers was challenging enough on its own. They never cut corners with you on the demands of the ranch and you wanted so much to be like them that, before I realized, you became more fit for the barn than the parlor. But lately, your attitude has taken a turn that would try the patience of Job and I’ve been wondering if I shouldn’t have taken a greater hand in your upbringing – as a woman.”
Elaina opened her mouth to protest but June staved her off. “There’s no point denying it. I could have done more to teach you how to be as strong a woman as your daddy and brothers have taught you to be a man. But that’s all water under the bridge. What needs focus now is what we can do about the upgrade to your bad mood since Matthew left.” Again Elaina tried to interrupt but to no avail. “The reports of your bad behavior reach me fine, young lady, so don’t go trying to tell me they ain’t true. If it weren’t for the reports, then let me inform you, my hearing is fine and I can hear you barking at the hands all day every day from right here in the house. Seems like the only creatures who don’t piss you off these days are the horses and cows.”
“What more, you’ve been remiss in your responsibilities to our bride,” June carried on in a new vein. Elaina looked up to accuse her soon-to-be sister-in-law only to find misery already present on that lovely face. “Don’t look at Ahy, young lady,” her mother chastised. “She hasn’t been complaining, bless her patient heart. These two eyes in my sockets work as fine as my hearing and they’ve been watching you. You missed the bridal fitting, the menu tasting, flower selection, the whole shebang. And just this morning I received a call from Mrs. Jenkins over at Bell’s Couture that you have yet to turn up for the trial of your own maid-of-honor gown. The wedding is less than a month away. Don’t you think you owe Ahy a bit more consideration than that?”
Elaina dropped her eyes as the guilt finally clutched at her heart. Of all her tantrums, she had been most unfair to Ahyoka. The woman has been more than her brother’s significant other the past few years; she has been her closest confidant – the sister-friend every woman needed to keep her desires grounded and the feminine insecurities at bay. And now, when it was her turn to be there for Ahyoka, when her friend was on the precipice of embarking on a new journey and was probably drowning in wedding woes, Elaina had abandoned her.
Elaina reached out and placed a hand on Ahyoka’s clasped hands resting on the table. “I’m so sorry, Ahy. Ma’s right, I’ve been a terrible friend. I don’t deserve to be your maid-of-honor.”
Ahyoka turned her hands and comforted Elaina in return with a gentle squeeze. “Don’t be silly. Who else would fit the role?” Then an expression of alarm came to her eyes. “You’re not backing out, are you?”
“I won’t abandon you at this late hour,” Elaina replied ruefully. Then shaking her head, she added, “Although, it seems like all I have done is abandon you lately.”
“Nah! Most of it’s under control. June’s been a right help. I was bruising something awful for not having Mama with me to share this special time but June stepped in for the role.” Ahyoka smiled at the older woman who returned it with maternal fervor.
“You are a daughter to me, Ahy. Have been since before you had your braces taken out,” June reminded them all on the special place the girl had earned in their family since the time she had begun dating Tyler. She then turned to Elaina with an equally encouraging smile. “I’m glad you’re beginning to see the error of your ways and hope you’ll start paying more attention to helping Ahy with her nuptials.” She paused again, as if to carefully arrange the words she was about to say next. “But more than being disappointed, we have been – and I’m sure everyone here agrees – worried about you.”
Elaina withdrew into herself again, folding her arms tightly about her stomach to keep the nervous flutters in check. She did not want to talk about the subject she suspected was coming up. Matthew.
June came around to sit in the chair beside her, bumping shoulder to shoulder as way of comfort. “There ain’t no doubt in anyone’s mind that the reason behind your more than usual level of cantankerous mood is your breakup with Matthew.”
“It wasn’t a breakup,” Elaina objected lamely. “We weren’t in that kind of relationship. We were just casually dating.”
“Pardon me but I solemnly beg to differ,” Ahyoka spoke up. “There was nothing casual about your affair. Not from the very beginning.”
“I agree,” June continued. “Heaven witness, Matthew was in your hot pursuit like a dog with a bone from the get-go.”
“Ma, this is really more discussion on my love life with you than I’m comfortable handling.” Elaina began to rise, ready to escape further interrogation.
“Elaina Sharon Corey, you stay put while I’m talking to you,” June ordered. Elaina sat. “You’ll hear me out today because there are some odd notions you have in your head about love and romance that I’ve fixin’ to set straight for the past five years. I’ve always minded my own business before about your love life, hoping when the time came and you met someone you truly cared for you will find your way. But no mother, not even one who raised a bunch of belligerent hellions like you and your brothers, can sit idle and watch as her child throws away the love of her life.”
Everyone stared at June. It was more outburst than anyone in the room had ever witnessed from the lady of the house. Of course, she had yelled at her husband and children as necessary to keep her world in order but now she looked almost manic. With dismay, Elaina realized there was a tired look about her mother’s usually sparkling eyes that she had only seen once before in her life – when her father passed away. With another stab of remorse, she realized she was the cause of that weariness. She wished she knew how to restore that sparkle.
She watched as June pulled herself together again with a deep determined breath. “We only want to see you happy and have decided there is just one way to ensure that. We’re of the mind that you’re in love with Matthew.” When Elaina did not deny it, she nodded with approval. “Good. Admission is the first step to recovery.”
“Recovering what, Ma?”
“Why, the love of your life of course,” June answered as though it was the most obvious thing. “We need to get your life back in control and that won’t happen until you have your love back in your life.”
“I have control over my life.”
“Honey, you lost control over your life the first time Brooke left town.”
Elaina watched as both Ahyoka and Ethel straightened with the curiosity that seemed to grip anyone whenever the topic of her fall-out with Brooke was raised. She hoped her mother would not divulge the events that caused it now. It was her best kept secret and she was not ready to allow any more individuals to discover it. She doubted she ever would be ready to care less.
“You have kept yourself from exploring normal adult love over the misplaced insecurities that you are not worthy of a man’s love. That somehow if you open your heart to someone special, he will disappoint and leave you. And when a man finally moseys along to wipe away these misconceptions, you fought it tooth and nail every which way to Tuesday. Lord preserve me, but I was as wary when an out-of-towner, that too arriving with Brooke, finally took your fancy. But more than even that I was relieved to watch you finally come out of your shell. And then when you fell in love, instead of cherishing it, you let your insecurities take control again and sent that love packing.”
“Well, you know what they say,” Elaina jested morosely. “If you love someone, set them free; if they love you, they’ll come back to you.”
“Honey, you didn’t set him free, you threw his love back in his face.”
Elaina shrugged. “He doesn’t really love me. He only thinks he does because I’m a new concept in his life. It’s the artist in him drawn to me.”
“If a man willing to constantly humiliate himself by putting his heart out there isn’t in love, then I must be two sandwiches short of a picnic,” Ethel finally broke in, unable to keep silent any longer. “We’ve all seen how the boy pursued you from the moment he came around.”
“That’s right, Elaina,” Ahyoka added her two-pennies. “Even now, so long after he last clapped his eyes on you, he sent you that invitation.”
“He’s being polite,” Elaina disputed, refusing to allow hope to rekindle in her heart. “What else could he do when using some of the photos he took of me in his show?”
“Well, now you’re just being purposely obtuse,” Ahyoka admonished. “You can’t ask us to believe you didn’t figure out the exhibition is on you. It’s called ‘The Cowgirl’. How many cowgirls has he shot pictures of? Besides, we don’t need guesswork. Brooke called me to tell me how it is.”
Rather than raise her confidence, knowing Brooke was again involving herself in her spoiled love affair only fueled Elaina’s resentment. “And you’ve been getting chummy with Brooke, have you? Discussing wedding plans with the expert?”
Ahyoka threw her chin up in defiance. “No. She, in fact, called me to inform me that Matthew has been as surly as you have been. Separation does not sit well with either of you, it seems.”
As Elaina opened her mouth to counter but June stepped in. “Don’t get your heckles up again, child. There’s only so much teeth grinding we can take. Brooke’s called in because she’s trying to be a friend. She feels as strongly as we do that you and Matthew need to get back together. For all our sanity’s sake,” her mother added with a twitch to the corner of her lips.
“I can’t believe you’re defending her!” yelled Elaina in outrage.
“I ain’t defending her,” June returned with frustration. “I’m calling spade a spade. She was the one who came up with the plan on how to get you to New York to see the show. But I’ll let Ahy fill you up on that.”
Elaina turned to Ahyoka with a smirk. “Let me guess, it has something to do with this bachelorette party.”
Ahyoka nodded nervously. “Brooke thought it would be easier to convince you to go to New York on the notion that it was for me. Since I’m getting married, it could be my lastwild single girl trip. New York has better night clubs to host the party, good spa services if I wanted to pamper myself for the wedding day. She even suggested all the great shopping we could do to add to my trousseau.”
Elaina raised an eyebrow. “Sounds like Brooke’s doing a better job at being your maid-of-honor than me. Maybe she should take over from me.”
Ahyoka looked stricken. “You know we’re all doing this just for you. I barely even know Brooke. How can you even suggest such a thing when I’ve waited so long for you to be on board with the wedding preparations?”
The reminder of her dereliction of duties took the heat out of her jealousy. “You’re right. You’ve been a much better friend to me than I have ever been to you.”
“Then you will go? To make up for it all?” There was hope in Ahyoka’s eyes even as she joked. “Because it’s not a bad idea going. Since we cooked up the plan, I’ve been mulling it over and I think I would really like to visit New York City. Spa and shopping there sounds like darn tootin’ fun. And I must admit I’m mighty curious to see this exhibition on you.”
“I don’t know,” Elaina backpedaled as the nerves took hold of her again. “I don’t think I can see Matthew again. I don’t even think I can fathom Brooke again. There’s just too much…” She trailed off thinking about what she could not say. No matter how convinced everyone was that Matthew and she belonged together, she could never get over the fact that Brooke dated him first and that might still be holding a torch for him. How could she ever compete if Brooke ever chose to challenge her? What if he regretted choosing her in some distant future?
June laid a comforting hand on her shoulder, breaking into her thoughts. “Sweetheart, this visit to New York is more important than you realize. It is a chance to put the past behind. Only then can you move forward. I understand you’re afraid. But sitting here in our kitchen will never erase those fears. Your daddy and I raised you better than to run away from challenges. You need to go to New York and see that show – realize for yourself that you are worth loving. At least you are worth an entire exhibition by a famous photographer.”
Elaina chuckled nervously but could not say anything, feeling choked up by a kaleidoscope of warring emotions.
“You owe him a gracious thank you in the least,” June was saying, “for doing you such an honor. How would it look if the subject of his show was not present for the unveiling? You would be doing him a favor. You love him enough to do him that favor, don’t you?”
Unable to hold back the tears any longer, Elaina threw herself into her mother’s arms, pressing her face to the shoulder so the others would not see her longings. Just as it was when she was younger, inhaling her mother’s familiar scent of sandalwood and patchouli consoled her.
“My poor baby,” June comforted her with a tight embrace and gentle pats. “I know it has been hard, all of it. What happened all those years ago would throw the best of riders off their saddle and you were just learning to get on the horse. I know how hard it must have been to finally open up to the prospect of love. I know how terrifying uncertainty of love can be. But, sweetheart, the best way to fall in love is with blind faith. If you let it, fear will get the best of you no matter what happens. You need to go to that show. You need to see Matthew again and see what he means when he bares his feelings for you to the world. Baby steps. Just go and see the show and thank him. Then see where it leads. Can you do that?”
Elaina sat back, wiping her tears on the sleeves of her shirt. She nodded her acquiescence but did not meet anyone’s eyes from embarrassment.
“Praised be the Lord, our Savior,” came Ethel’s soft exclamation, making everyone, including Elaina, laugh nervously.
When everyone quieted down again, June tipped Elaina’s face up with a finger so that she was forced to look into her mother’s imploring eyes. “There’s something else I need you to do, honey,” June insisted gently. “I need you to meet Brooke like is planned and accept her assistance.” Elaina tried to pull away. This was asking too much. But her mother would not let her retreat. Shaking her head, June explained, “Baby steps. And the first step would be to put what happened between you and Brooke in the past where it belongs. I am not asking you to be her friend. I am, however, asking you to forgive her so you can finally learn to forget those painful emotions that have held you back all these years.
“Like it or not, she seems to be a close friend of the man you love from what she is willing to do to get you back together. Y’all need to learn to be together without the past always lurking in the background if you want your love to have a fighting chance. It might be easier to forgive her if you remind yourself that this cannot be easy for her. The guilty conscience is harder to face than a conscience wronged. See what she has to say. Be the bighearted person we raised you to be.”
And it was reflecting upon those sage words that Elaina finally found herself on the doorstep to Brooke’s apartment four nights later.