Read Chapter 23 before you continue…
Elaina’s mind tumbled through the tide of enlightenment that washed over her. She had never tried to work through the range of emotions surrounding the event before, though five years was plenty time for private musings. Her thoughts had been consumed by two phases of that watershed moment in her life. There was the horrific replay of Brooke’s confession and the harrowing sense of betrayal that took over later, accompanied by a myriad of emotions. Feelings of pain, confusion, mortification, anger and, worst of all, being second-rate had drowned out any reason for recovery. They had kept her from considering there might be a third component, gluing Brooke’s action to her reactions. Withheld contemplations of the loss she had also experienced though she was aware the loss was lurking in there too. Now, while standing before Brooke, the missing piece clicked into place. Talking to Brooke was what it took.
“What do you mean?” Brooke asked again, even as some new realization shone through her eyes.
“I always thought it was the way things were,” Elaina tried to explain, starting from the beginning. “You were the pretty and popular best friend. I was the smart and sporty one. Socializing was not my strongest suit but, hell, you were vivacious enough for both of us.”
“You were grounded while I was flighty,” Brooke corrected.
“You were adventurous and brave – dauntless.”
“It wasn’t as though you did not take risks. You were always there right beside me in those adventures. You were just more cautious and knew how to be more discreet. Wiser beyond your years.”
“We balanced each other,” Elaina conceded, nodding.
“Halves of a whole.”
“Two peas in a pod.” This last affirmation came from Ahyoka. Both Elaina and Brooke turned to her in surprise so she added with a sheepish grin, “I was feeling left out.”
They laughed, grateful for the moment of emotional reprieve. But then Elaina quieted, needing to get it all out now that she was finally ready. Sorted. “I didn’t mind. Not being as gorgeous or fashionable or as daring or even that you drew people to you like bees to honey. People just wanted to stay in the circle of your glory and I never minded that.”
Brooke nodded with understanding. “I know what you mean. I could always see how people turned to you when they really needed something important. Whether it was a math problem or picking team members during gym, you were always the first choice because all these things came naturally to you. You just got things. And you were always so good at knowing what was right, what others needed. Even my parents loved you more and I am their only child. But it didn’t matter because you always shared everything with me. All the approval, all the appreciation, all the…” Brooke came to a halt and color flooded to her face.
Elaina knew it was shame Brooke felt, remembering again that there was one thing unshareable that she took anyway. But there was more to what was stolen. “When you and Ewan…” Elaina stopped. She had to get this right. She did not want to accuse, not anymore. “That morning, my first reaction was anger. I kept thinking how you could do it to me. You were my friend, my best friend. How could my best friend steal my date? And that got me to wondering, was it that easy? How was it that you just got Ewan to… to… decide you were better after one date? Was it that, once he started dating me, he realized you were better? Were you just more desirable? Did that mean I was just not good enough? I have been stuck in the jealousy ever since. Jealous of my best friend.”
“I’m so, so sorry,” Brooke sobbed, her tears once again flowing freely. “Of course I was not more desirable, just available. I was a better slut than a friend. I disgust myself for what I did to you. I’m a terrible person, anything but desirable. Not worth spit.”
Elaina shook her head. She was done comparing. She did not know it before but now it was clear. “I was jealous of my best friend. My best friend. It made me feel insignificant for the first time. All those years growing up together, I thought our differences were what made our friendship work. You made up for what I didn’t have, I for you. But suddenly, it was as if what you didn’t have was easily overlooked because what you did have was more important while what I didn’t have really made me incomplete. Just incomplete.”
“No,” Brooke denied vehemently. “It was me who acted out of jealousy. Jealous because I thought you were more important to everyone than me, not the other way around. When you were nominated for that crown, for the first time I realized that you possessed all the qualities I possessed as well as the ones I didn’t. I felt you could easily outstrip me, leave me behind. I didn’t stop to think who my best friend was, how what I was doing affected her.”
“All these years,” Elaina went on, unmindful of Brooke’s protest, “I thought this feeling of undesirability was because Ewan chose you over me. But now I realize it was because you also chose him over me.” Elaina felt a tear roll down her cheek as she came to this conclusion. “You took away my best friend. I didn’t have my best friend to turn to.” Elaina wanted to look away. Admitting this to the person who was the cause of her grief made her feel weak. But now she also knew that the weakness could only be conquered if she faced it head-on. “If some other girl had slept with Ewan after our date, I would not have felt as undesirable as I felt because the other girl was you. You not choosing to remain true to me compounded that feeling of worthlessness.”
Brooke broke their eye contact first, holding her head in shame, elbows braced against the island. From her periphery, Elaina saw Ahyoka turn away to give them their privacy even as she watched drops of tears hit the granite surface over which Brooke now hung her head. She watched Brookes shoulders heave with silent sobs. She mourned with her, knowing that just as this revelation freed herself, it must ensnare Brooke further. But it was out in the open now and so the healing process could begin. She wondered what the healing process could be.
As if hearing her thoughts, Brooke asked, “Tell me. Please tell me what I can do to make it up to you. How can I make it all better?”
Elaina wished she could help. “I don’t know,” she admitted quietly. “I have not figured this part out yet.”
“Can I say something?” Ahyoka broke in, nervous to be intruding. Brooke stiffened at the reminder of the audience but Elaina nodded her encouragement. “I think y’all being here right now, willing to talk it out finally, willing to listen, willing to help each other get past the pain – I think this is called making it better.”
Elaina nodded for the second time, agreeing. “Yes. I think it does help. I had not figured out what was really the matter until I spoke to you, Brooke. When you left, I had no one else to talk to. I could not allow myself to trust anyone else to hear my deepest secret.”
Brooke looked up at her, a new hope shining in her eyes. “Does that mean we can be friends again?”
Elaina frowned. “I don’t know if it will be easy. But I think I’m willing to give our friendship another shot. I’m not sure how much I can trust I would store by it.” She swallowed as she prepared to acknowledge the hardest part. “I am now sure that I missed having you in my life.”
“I missed you, too,” Brooke whispered, “so very much.”
Ahyoka burst into tears, startling them both. “Y’all are so stupid,” she cried. “We already knew Elaina was stubborn as a mule but you too? It’s a wonder y’all were friends for nearly two decades at that. To think, all y’all had to do was open up to each other.”
“I have been stupid,” Elaina admitted aloud.
“Not as stupid as me,” Brooke claimed, tearing a bit of paper towel from the counter to dry her eyes before passing the roll over to Ahyoka. “Dumb as a post, that’s what I am. I lost the best friend I ever had because I let one moment of jealousy take control. And then I was too stubborn to realize how wrong I was and get over my shame long enough to apologize.”
“You did apologize that morning. I was not listening. I wasn’t ready to listen.”
“You would’ve been ready if I apologized right. I’m just sorry it took me so long to come back to Lainie’s Creek.”
Elaina looked up. Thinking of Brooke’s return to their hometown made her think of Matthew. She felt a sudden disquiet, realizing what she had placed on stake due to her own doubts. She was wondering how to broach the subject when Ahyoka spoke up.
“Why did you come back to Lainie’s Creek finally? Why now?”
“Mama and Papa were haranguing me for a visit more than usual. I’ve been missing all the holidays in the country since I left. They visited me on a couple of Christmases here but you know it isn’t the same unless it’s back home. They didn’t get my aversion and I wasn’t about to enlighten them. They actually threatened me they would sell the ranch if I didn’t come home soon. I was never attached to the farm but Papa loves that place, I couldn’t let him do that because of me. And that’s when I bumped into Matthew at a party and he told me he was looking to do some countryside photography. Since I’m as country as he’s ever met, he asked if I could give him a few pointers on what to look out for. I told him I could do better, that I could show him country life firsthand. But then he met you, Elaina, once we got there and he just fell head over heels.” Brooke ended on the kind of enthusiasm that was more natural to her disposition.
Elaina blushed. She still did not dare believe a man of his worldly exposure could love a country confined woman like her. But Brooke seemed to understand her silence because she launched into further promoting Matthew’s feelings. “I know you still don’t trust me but believe me when I say he is a man in love. I have known him for as long as I have been living in this city – and no, before you argue, there is nothing romantic between us – we have been on a few dates years back but we just don’t suit that way. He seems to need someone like you. He’s been the world around but he needs someone grounded to make him feel at home but still exotic enough to excite the artist turns. And, Elaina, I think you need someone like him too. Trustworthy and open.”
“He is the first adventure I was ready to encounter since you left,” Elaina reflected.
“See? That tells me something.” Brooke cocked her head at Elaina. “Calculated risks. That’s what you take. You would not have opened up to Matthew if you had not been sure of him somewhere deep down in there – in your heart.”
“Brooke’s right,” Ahyoka added. “We’re here to make sure he is the one for you. You should march right up to his gallery right now and tell him you are ready to take a chance on love.”
“Not yet, she’s not ready,” Brooke jumped in.
Elaina looked up at her, feelings of uncertainty returning with customary proportions. “I’m not ready?”
“Not that you are not fine as you are. If you only see the images he has put in the series you will know that he believes you are a more than enough match for him. They are beautiful. He put more heart in them than I have ever seen in his work.”
“You don’t have to say that,” Elaina demurred.
“It’s not just me saying that, it’s his work that says it. But you will have to wait for the opening to see that. And I don’t want you to meet him before then.”
“Yeah, why not?” Ahyoka too demanded.
“Because every girl needs a boost in confidence and I want you to knock him off his feet when he finally sees you. Give him a larger glimpse of your potentials. It’s time we finally discuss our spa and shopping plans.”
“A makeover!” Ahyoka practically bounced in her seat, finally cottoning on.
“Oh, no,” Elaina moaned. She was terrible with fashion.
“Oh, yes,” hissed Brooke. “With his work, he will always be around beautiful women. Let’s not ever unearth those insecurities again and repeat past misunderstandings.”
“My bachelorette party’s still on, right,” Ahyoka asked.
Brooke turned to the bride-to-be. “Your bachelorette party is an essential component of this makeover.”
Elaina had no idea what Brooke meant by that.
“Are you ready for your surprise?”
The voice in his ear was sultry and something out of a liquid dream. Or so would any warm blooded man think. Matthew, however, was in a frighteningly unaccommodating mood tonight. Very inappropriate for the opening night of one’s own show but this was not turning out to be like the exhibition launch he had dreamed of. Of course, everything technical was going as seamlessly as planned. His gallery and campaign teams had collaboratively ensured as much. But the most important element was still missing. Elaina.
Even though he had claimed to the contrary in front of Brooke the last time they had met, he had secretly wished Elaina would respond to his invite. He had hoped, upon seeing the invitation and learning that the series was centered on her, she would finally realize that she was not only a summer infatuation to him. The content of the package would vouch for his sincerity. But it seemed her fear and obstinacy had washed away any affection she may have once felt for him. The pre-event meet and greet session had been running for nearly an hour now and, in five minutes, his gallery manager would come claim him for the unveiling of the centerpiece. He had to finally admit defeat that she was not coming and he had no patience for Brooke’s baiting tonight.
“You have been telling me about this surprise for two days now,” he snapped, turning to face his friend. “Spit it out now because I’m losing whatever interest I had to begin with.”
Brooke pouted prettily. “I can’t reveal such a surprise before time, can I? It would spoil the impact. But if you are going to be so grouchy with me after I have gone to such effort, maybe I will keep this surprise all to myself.”
He wanted to strangle the Cheshire smile she ended her ridiculous threat on. Did she honestly expect him to salivate for a “surprise” in present conditions? He was about to show her how grouchy he felt, when Diana materialized at his side.
“Matthew, it’s time for the unveiling. We need you at the dais.” Diana disappeared as quickly as she appeared.
Matthew sent Brooke a parting glare before he followed his gallery manager to the small makeshift stage they had erected to the corner of the giant wall where Elaina’s larger-than-life portrait hung, currently covered in white velvet to contrast the near pitch black surroundings of the hall.He went through the motions mindlessly. It was all practiced anyway. He waved at the applauding crowd as he got on the platform. He heard Diana prattle a bit, welcoming and thanking the guests who made it, currying favors with the media, talking about the gallery. She introduced his gallery partner and primary shareholder, who in return gave a speech declaring his confidence in Matthew to bring on more art like this. Matthew laughed inwardly. There was no more art like this. He would never be able to recreate his love. Elaina. He stood up straighter and tried to focus because, even if she was not present, he owed it to Elaina to pay attention and play his part as the gracious host so that the art was received well.
“We know you are all waiting to hear from the artist himself,” Diana was saying, smiling her dazzling smile to match her shimmering ivory gown. “So without further ado, here is Matthew Halls!”
Matthew walked to the podium and finally looked out into the audience properly. He could see nothing but the glare of stage light trained on him. “Wow! I had not anticipated it would be this dark in here when I instructed my team to take out all the lights. Cut them all, I said, except the spots on the photos and on me. Talk about being vain.” The audience laughed obligingly and the profile spot on him dimmed a little, allowing him to adjust his sight. “Thanks,” he called out to an unknown technician. “Much better. I was only able to see my nose, I was in such a bright spot.” More laughter. He forced himself to relax as he picked up his thoughts. “You must all be wondering what made me cut all the lights on this exhibition. There have been other shows with more varied subjects. This one pageants only one subject and yet I am refusing to allow you all to see who you are sharing the viewing with. You came in here tonight, turned out in your season’s best, to see my Fall series as well as to meet old friends, art appreciators alike, exchange thoughts with them. Is it a good series, is it not? Is my best or my worst? And I have withheld that opportunity from you. Practically snatched it away. I wouldn’t blame you if you were aggravated by my audacity.”
“But I know you will pardon me because I know you feel it as I do. How can you not, I say, when it’s her? She has consumed me, my thoughts, my space, my heart, my art. I wanted you to feel just how much I am consumed by her and I am sure you get the picture.” He paused at his pun to allow his audience a bit more laughter to vent. He was allowing his desolation to seep out and make eye contact with his listeners. He must not do that else they would not receive the full message. “I went to Texas last July to see how the other side lived. The side not cemented in by our urban jungle – the fertile side. And I met her. One hundred percent unadulterated country. Simple and untouched by the artifice of a modern generation. She showed me how to revel in the dirt, tasting the salt of the earth, dance in the dust, smelling the sweetness of the wind, paint with the grime accumulated on my skin, feeling the life strumming within under the beating sun. She showed me how meshed with nature we could become if we allowed nature to take hold of us.
“She took me back to rural America and actually helped me discover a lot about myself. The least of which was that, after falling on my ass a handful of times, even I could successfully mount a horse.” More laughter. “But the more astounding discovery I made was how much country there was left in me, a third-generation city mortal. She glowed like the sun in the gloom of a life programmed by a mechanical society, bringing with her heat even in winter. By allowing me to glimpse into her, she showed me how a world apart from what I always knew was living inside of me. For that, I am truly thankful to Elaina Corey, The Cowgirl.”
He stepped back into the lower lights at the corner of the stage as applause broke out in the audience standing still beyond the edge of light. Diana took to the microphone once again and waited for the compliments to quiet down. “We are almost at that moment to unveil Matthew’s centerpiece for this Fall’s series. But we think it is only fair that you meet the life-size cowgirl before you meet the larger than life encapsulation of what she embodied for Matthew. Allow me to introduce you to Elaina Corey.”
He saw a spotlight hitting a new mark behind the crowd. A pool of light followed an apparition that gracefully glided through the shadows, the crowd falling apart as she approached the stage. He could not see their faces but knew they must be awed by her. He was. She blossomed nearer and nearer, just as he had described a few moments earlier, like a hot star scattering the gloom with her potent energy. Her skirts swished the floor, an undulating black concoction of satiny folds with whorls of gold beads licking at the hems and flaring towards her waist like flames.
As she drew level with the bottom of the dais, his position on top afforded him greater vantage. His gaze was immediately pulled to her tantalizing cleavage, peeking from the ample dip in the neckline of her haltered bodice, which he now noticed was really an old-fashioned cowboy vest in rich glossy leather, attached to her inky skirt and exposing the gleaming tan of her shoulders and arms. Belatedly, he noticed one of the men from his team hand her up to get on the stage. When she turned around to face the crowd, he saw that with her long flaxen tresses swept over one shoulder as they were, her back remained just as exposed, all the way to her waist. He felt heat pool to his neck as desire assaulted his senses and other parts of his anatomy.
The audience loved her, the ovation was unanimous. She may have put on a designer outfit but even then she exuded a country charm. No longer perched on her horse, but she still had a certain dignified quality in her gaze as she looked over the sea of people who were now more visible with the additional lights. Yet beneath her confident veneer, he saw that she was shaking. He remembered how little she liked to draw attention to herself and realized what it must have cost her to be here. For him. She was here for him. It was as though she was breathing hope into him even as he watched her. He wanted to go to her, take her by the hand and sweep her away to some place secluded. But even as he contemplated giving in to that impulse, Diana announced the unveiling and his team removed the white veil from the centerpiece portrait.
He heard the awed whispers rippling through the viewers but his eyes only sought to measure her reaction. He saw the flicker of recognition cross her beautiful features and knew the moment she realized it was the first picture he had ever taken of her, the same picture he had shown her to convince her to model for him. He saw her eyes widen with shock at seeing herself in such proportion, her spirit unbiddable even by the giant frame. He watched her throat convulse with comprehension as the enormity of his emotions finally dawned on her. He saw her lick her lower lip with trepidation as she turned her observation finally to him.
She nodded her acquiescence and he reached for her.
Read Chapter 25 !