Read Chapter 22 before you continue…
“I’m so glad y’all came!” There was a giant grin on Brooke’s face, as though she was genuinely happy to see them. Even Elaina. “C’mon in.” She led them through the small foyer of her Garment District factory-turned-flat to the living room.
“Oh, Brooke,” moaned Ahyoka very appropriately. “I do declare, this here is charming!”
A cavernous sitting room opened up into a dining area, behind which sprawled a shiny stone-and-steel kitchen. Picture windows lined the broadest stretch of wall in the expansive space, through which they had a panoramic view of New York City’s high-rises, from the concentration of industrial buildings across the street to the tip of the hotel they were staying in. It was the brightest, cleanest room Elaina had ever set foot in and she immediately became conscious of how dusty her boots were.
Everywhere she looked, gleaming white furniture occupied the prospect. Here and there, accents of gold and silver peeked out from metal and fabric articles ornamenting the alabaster scheme. She even spotted a pair of sequined throw pillows on the snowy leather couch that looked as though it was hardly ever sat on. On principle, Elaina knew she should feel revolted by its almost sterilized appearance. Yet she could not help admiring how tasteful it truly was – much like the image adapted by its resident. This was Brooke’s domain. The refined Brooke. Not the unruly, spirited best friend of her childhood.
She glanced at Brooke’s matching attire, which was a short white peasant frock cinched at the waist with a fat gold chain. Gold hoop earrings, bangles, and sandals completed the look. Elaina was ready to bet her horse that even the underwear was color coordinated with the living room. As usual, Brooke was showing off and Elaina once again wondered if this was not the worst plan that Brooke had ever had and she agreed to. She could never compete with the gorgeous Brooke of then, much less the glamorous Brooke of now.
Beside her, Elaina felt downright dowdy in her trademark plaid shirt and faded wrangler jeans. The newest item on her was the Suede jacket she had thrown on out of respect for the city’s cooler weather, the oldest were her spur-less boots and Stetson. The latter, she could not leave behind in her hotel room despite much deliberation because stepping outside without it made her head tingle too much to see whether she was coming or going. The overall effect drew too many curious glances down the four blocks they walked from the hotel to Brooke’s apartment building. Even Ahyoka had managed to citify her appearance, as indicated by the admiring smiles from the suits they had passed on the way. The knitted wool turtleneck in rich terracotta with grey-green safari pants and some kind of laced up heels perfectly suited the honeyed colorings of her exuberant companion.
“Thanks, the agency set this up for us,” Brooke was saying in response to Ahyoka’s profuse appreciation.
Ahyoka cocked her head inquisitively. “Us?”
“I have four roommates. We model through the same agency. The girls are all out now but they will be back in time for dinner. I told them y’all were coming and they canceled their plans to join us. Also, they usually try to stay in on nights I cook,” added Brooke with pride.
Elaina couldn’t help raising an eyebrow. “You cook now?”
Brooke smiled sheepishly, seeming to lose a bit of her nerve at the blunt question. “Yeah, had to teach myself when I moved out here. There was a lot of spare time in the first year while I was getting acquainted with the industry. I can make only a few dishes but I practiced them enough to make them edible.”
Elaina noticed again how Brooke’s drawl kept slipping in and out when she spoke. Must be a side effect of life on the East Coast, she concluded.
“I’m sure dinner will be delightful,” Ahyoka encouraged.
Brooke visibly relaxed. “Well, don’t just stand there. C’mon. I’ll show you my room. Then y’all can sit at the kitchen while I ready dinner and we can have ourselves a chat.”
Ahyoka made to follow but Elaina hesitated. “I better not walk in here with my boots on. They’re dusty,” she explained.
Brooke smiled at her with something akin to warmth. “Don’t worry yourself over that. Your dusty boots are a welcome touch.”
Brooke’s bedroom looked much more lived-in than the outer areas though decorated with equal style. At least, Elaina noted, there were more colors in it with a purple bedspread, one long rack full of designer outfits in clear garment covers shoved into a corner and containers of cosmetics strewn all over a massive vanity table with lights around its mirror. She wondered if this was typical of all models’ private quarters.
“They’re awfully pretty,” Ahyoka admired, looking at the clothes.
“Most of them are free from fashion shows I walked in this year. Y’all can try on a few later, if you’d like. Maybe take some back with you,” Brooke generously offered.
Elaina could tell Brooke was trying to buy her way into their good graces. “Thanks, but I’ll pass.”
Brooke blinked with surprise at Elaina’s harsh tone and Ahyoka tried to smooth things over with her characteristic diplomacy. “There’s hardly ever an occasion for such fancy clothes in Lainie’s Creek.”
Elaina frowned. She did not want any help being diplomatic. Seeing the drastic change in Brooke’s lifestyle only intensified memories of the event that had led her former best friend to this junction.
“How about we go back to the kitchen? I want to watch you cook. Maybe I can get some tips now that I’ll have to put a few square meals into Tyler after the wedding. Hannah’s cooking style is too advanced for me to learn from,” Ahyoka was babbling as Brooke continued to look upset. Elaina could almost hear the relief return to Ahyoka’s body when Brooke finally nodded with resignation and turned away to lead them back to the kitchen. To Elaina, Ahyoka added a furious whisper behind their host’s back. “Be nice!”
“Tea or coffee? Or maybe a beer? I can open up a glass of wine,” listed Brooke, nervous as a filly, as she moved about her kitchen.
“I’ll take a glass of wine,” Ahyoka replied, settling down on one of the bar stools at the island before turning to Elaina with a meaningful glare.
Elaina sighed in a way she knew must sound ungracious and picked a stool herself. “Beer will be fine.”
Brooke fetched the beer first – probably to pacify her more hostile guest. Grabbing a bottle from the fridge, she snapped it open and plucked it down in front of Elaina before moving on to the miniature wine rack. “Red or white?”
“What are we having?” Ahyoka asked.
“Yeah, I’ve been wondering about that,” sneered Elaina, wetting her lips on the first sip of her drink. “What do models eat? You know, if they eat at all?”
“Elaina!” came Ahyoka’s anxious rebuke.
But Brooke reached some sort of limit on her hospitality at having her career choice being scorned. She spun around and stood akimbo, angry and ready for war. “I’ve had enough of your snide comments.”
“Good,” countered Elaina, thumping the bottle down on the marble and getting to her feet. “We can dispense with the false civility and get to talking about why we’re really here.” Let no one ever accuse her of patience.
“Yes, let’s talk about my bachelorette party,” Ahyoka mediated, ever the designated peacekeeper.
“You might as well give it up, Ahy,” Brooke gritted through clenched jaws. “We both know Elaina has all the tact of a bull in a china shop. Always with a burr up her behind and never happy until she’s spoiled the good time wherever she’s at.”
Elaina snorted. “And you’d know all about having a good time of course?”
“Oh, just spit it out!”
Brooke looked as flabbergasted hearing the name spoken aloud as Elaina felt uttering it. She had not known what she would accomplish by visiting Brooke. There were, of course, the prenuptial undertakings for Ahyoka that Brooke had promised to spice up. And Elaina was committed to do her part in making the rest of the bride’s journey to the altar memorable. However, they all also knew it was a compromised diversion on the way to her meeting Matthew.
She had to admit that she was curious to learn what role Brooke intended to play in this reunion. Unlike her mother, she did not harbor any whimsical vision for reconciling a friendship gone sour. She was, however, willing to reach some sort of truce with Brooke – for being a common element with Matthew and all. At some point, while they spent the next couple of days teamed up for Ahyoka, she hoped to ensure there were no latent feelings from the days when Brooke herself had dated him. However, whatever conclusion she reached with Brooke on the road to reconnecting with Matthew, revisiting a love triangle from their adolescence had not been Elaina’s intent.
“Ewan who?” Ahyoka was throwing both of them inquisitive looks, hard at work, mining her memories.
“Ewan Pollack,” Brooke repeated, mostly to herself, apprehension etched on her every feature.
“We don’t have to talk about him,” Elaina muttered as she realized that, despite having provoked it, she was still not ready for a confrontation with Brooke. She felt the familiar pain rushing up. She wanted to throw up as an acidic taste hit the back of her throat.
“I think I need to,” Brooke whispered, sounding as though it was the last thing she needed.
“No.” Elaina glanced furtively at Ahyoka.
Comprehension dawned on Ahyoka’s face. “Oh. Ohhh? Look, I’ll step out. Y’all obviously need to talk out whatever this all is about. Privately.”
“Thanks,” Brooke nodded, swallowing her pride as she refrained from looking anyone in the eye. “Much obliged.”
“No,” Elaina ground out again, surer than before that she did not want to talk over that chapter of their lives. “We will not be discussing anything other than our plans for Ahy’s party and spa day and… and… stuff.”
Brooke looked miserable but determined. “It’s long overdue, Elaina. It’s where it all started. We both need to move on.”
“I have moved on!”
“No, you haven’t. I haven’t.”
Ahyoka made to leave again and Elaina panicked. She was not going to be here, left alone with Brooke, rehashing whatever that had happened all those years ago. “Don’t,” she stopped Ahyoka again. “You stay, I’ll leave. You guys work out the party plans and all. I can’t do this. I’m sorry.”
“I was jealous!” yelled Brooke, tears of shame finally spilling out of her beautiful luminous eyes. “I was jealous of you!”
More than anything else, it was the repeat of that pathetic lie that forced her to engage, breaking the dam of her rage. “Stop it! Stop explaining away what you did to me was out of jealousy,” Elaina returned with equal volume. “Stop telling me you sacrificed our lifetime of friendship over some random boy we barely knew. It’s pathetic. You sound pathetic.”
“Don’t you think I realize that? I’ve been repeating to myself just how pathetic I am for these past five years. It’s what’s kept me from reaching out to you. I couldn’t face you. So I just stayed away from my hometown, my family, my friends – everything I knew. It was easier that way. Running away was easier. I came out here and gave myself a restart. But I never escaped. Nowhere is far enough when you’re running from yourself.”
Elaina remained quiet. Those five years Brooke spoke of have been challenging for her too. Every single day, she was haunted by the memory of that morning after the prom, when Brooke confessed what she had done. Her body had left the barn after they parted ways but her mind remained in a loop, playing those few short minutes over and over again. Brooke’s betrayal had made her speechless in those moments but she had later practiced in her head what she would say if ever the opportunity arose again. Yet, now the scathing speech she had prepared escaped her. Try as she might, she could not remember.
“…you were always so perfect, I never measured up.”
Brooke was saying something and Elaina caught only the last part. “What are you talking about?”
“Don’t tell me you never saw it. Perfect student, perfect daughter, perfect sister, perfect friend – everyone could always count on you to be there for them. Perfect Elaina,” Brooke carried on as if stuck in a world no one but she could see. The epithet she gave Elaina sounded more like an insult than a praise.
Elaina gaped. “Everyone always loved me? You were the most popular girl in high school. You were the prom queen!”
“And Ewan was made king,” Brooke added in a quiet voice, still amidst her reverie. “Even then you were there for me. You smiled at me when I was out on the dancefloor, dancing the Royal Dance with your date.”
“So you took that as encouragement to go have sex with him?”
“Holy Hades!” gasped Ahyoka as the enormity of it all finally hit her, but both of them were now far too entrenched in the argument to take notice of their audience.
“Don’t you get it?” Brooke went on with desperation, finally coming back to the present. “He was the best catch in school and he was your date. It even got you nominated as prom queen – the same as me. It was as if, even after four years of preening, I didn’t hold a candle to your perfectness. I had to reinforce my campaigns to make sure I won. Yet even as I was crowned beside your date, you smiled at me.”
“Are you deranged? I was happy for you!”
“Why couldn’t you be jealous of me?”
“Because you were my friend. You were my best friend and I was happy you were made queen. It was always so important to you!”
“You practically handed me that crown.”
“I did not hand you that crown – you won it because you deserved it. No one deserved it more than you. You were always pretty and had more friends. If they nominated me for that stupid popularity contest, it was because of an afterthought to who I was going to the prom with. What kind of harebrained reason is that? Talk about being in poor taste.”
“You could’ve won if you tried. You would’ve been nominated earlier if–”
“So you’re saying you ruined our friendship not because you were jealous about a guy but over a stupid crown? A crown that you won anyway?”
Brooke stared back at her in silence, as if shocked by the accuracy of her summary.
“You know,” Elaina said with quiet menace, boring into Brooke’s eyes. “I don’t know how I didn’t notice it growing up but you’re crazier than Larrabee’s calf. If I didn’t need my good hand to hold my reins and if you didn’t need your nose for your livelihood, I’d make sure they connected so you could have some sense knocked into you.”
“Woah, woah, woah!” Ahyoka stood up, holding out her arms over the island between Elaina and Brooke, palms out. “We’re only here to talk – no blood spill.” She turned to Brooke and added, “I’d appreciate all this drama better with that wine.”
It was the necessary intervention to allow them to collect their cool. Brooke stepped away and took a bottle out from the rack. She wiped her tear-streaked face on the sleeve of her frock as she walked around, collecting glassware and cork. Her back was still turned to them, but Elaina noticed with satisfaction as some of that now wet makeup cleaned away on the white cotton.
“We’re having baked mahi-mahi and roasted asparagus,” explained Brooke, still terse with torment, when she finally came back to the island and placed a glass of white wine in front of Ahyoka.
As Elaina took in Brooke’s smudged mascara and marveled at how gorgeous her adversary continued to look, she finally realized what made Brooke’s betrayal so powerful even after all this time. “It was the first time I ever doubted my worth,” Elaina voiced her revelation, feeling awed by the fact.
Brooke looked up at her. Coral blue met cerulean blue, their two minds moving on the same wavelength for the first time in five years. Yet searching further clarity. “What?”
Read Chapter 24!