Read Chapter 24 before you continue…
Matthew tugged her into a dark room, locking the door behind them. The moment he had reached for her on the stage, hell broke loose. Despite the fact that he had the presence of mind to contain his emotions to a polite peck on the cheek, the media was not fooled and made sure to record plenty of visual proofs. Their chemistry belied their attempt at a nonchalant greeting and the nature of their relationship became one of the primary lineups of inquiry. She dreaded to imagine the kind of reaction a stronger display of affection from Matthew would have generated. His eloquent speech before her arrival had not helped the situation either. Fortunately, Matthew was able to volley the questions like the expert he was and even had tackled a few aimed at her.
There were, however, two questions he could not have answered on her behalf. And although Brooke had helped her anticipate them, allowing her time to prepare responses, when actually posed by the first query, having finally seen the magnitude of the exhibition, she shook to her core by newfound revelations.
“Matthew is a duly renowned artist in his genre. How did it feel to be under the investigation of his lens?”
Matthew’s eyes had sought hers in that moment. It was looking into the blue-green lagoon of his gaze, she had replied, straining her brain to find justifiable words. She remembered stringing together words such as flattering, gratifying, life altering and special into a tangle of sentences. Later, she had returned her attention to the journalist, in a final bid to disguise her more private emotions with banter. “I wasn’t his sole subject at the time but, seeing how it’s turned out, it’s a bit disconcerting really.”
The next question should have been easy. A reporter had asked, given that she had been exposed to the experience if she would consider future modeling offers, which she vehemently negated. However, the reporter had been persistent and went on to ask if she would remain strict on that decision if the request came from Matthew. She had blushed profusely, stumbling for the appropriate answer, and, in the end, mumbled a vague “time would tell”. Yet, she knew even then she would not refuse Matthew. She couldn’t.
She was grateful for the moment when their time on stage came to an end. Matthew wasted no time in whisking her away to more private quarters of the gallery’s back office. Now she blushed again as she stood in the dark with him, close enough for their breaths to mingle, and remembered the power he had to draw her in. In more ways than to just sweet talk her into sitting still for his camera.
“Thanks for the rescue,” she murmured, breathless from more than a dash down the corridors. She stepped back to put more distance between their bodies and bumped her backside into what felt like the side of a sofa. “Oh!”
“Let me get the lights,” came his mumbled response. There was the shuffle of his shoes, a click, and then they were flooded by light.
Elaina looked about the room as she tried to adjust her eyes. It was an office, commodious and stylishly monochromatic with splashes of color staring back at her from the art strewn everywhere. Most of the floor space was occupied by a massive workstation cluttered with books, magazines, loose stationery and rejected negatives, all glowing eerily by the white light issuing from some sort of fixture below the glass-topped surface. Nearest to the door was the cushiony sofa arrangement she had bumped into, surrounding a coffee table. Low filing cabinets surrounded the periphery with framed photographs and paintings hanging from the upper portions of the walls – except where multiple shelves were lined in a far corner to display an impressive collection of awards and certificates. Really, the prizes were almost obscured by an office desk in sturdy mahogany with an imposing executive chair, both of which looked mostly unused. There was a bright and cheery air to the place, as though it was a place for the exchange of ideas rather than governance.
“This is your office?” she said.
“Yes.” Matthew watched her nervously as though waiting to see if his décor passed her inspection.
She suddenly realized this was the first time she was truly in his domain. All their previous encounters were in her natural habitat and there was too little time out in the gallery for proper reflection into his world. She let her eyes roam around the room again, taking it all in with a new perspective. “It’s you,” she decided.
“How so?” He did not relax.
She turned to him fully. “It’s very urbane and fancy. But there is so much room in it and just enough knick-knack, you can tell the person who owns it has a big and welcoming heart. He is open to things that are already like him and things that are not very much like him at all. The owner is an explorer and he seems to have infinite enthusiasm for life.”
He finally seemed to lose his tension, startled out of him by her glowing review. “You got all that from this room?”
Elaina nodded, swallowing back her own nervousness. She needed him to believe her that she was now ready for all that he had to offer. “You also seem to have an immense capacity for patience and perseverance. But that much I realized before seeing this room.” She gave herself another nudge. “Thanks for waiting.”
Matthew nodded, his eyes pools of yearning daunted only by uncertainty garnered with the passing of time and separation. “I couldn’t have not-waited. My heart refused to give up hope you would come.”
“And so here I am.”
“It was worth it. Just seeing you stand before me again, feels every bit as wonderful as I’d imagined. More. You look amazing.” His eyes roved over her from head to toe.
Elaina pulled at the gold clasp on her left wrist, twirling it with the index of her right hand, once again self-conscious about her new look. “Thanks. It was Brooke’s doing.”
He did not seem to pick up on the intensity with which she broached Brooke’s name, as realization seemed to dawn on him. “That’s what she meant by having a surprise for me.”
She nodded apologetically. “I arrived a couple of days ago but she wouldn’t let me meet you until tonight.”
“I’ll kill her.”
“She thought I could use a makeover before appearing at your event. You know? To blend in with the local scene?” She was not trying to complain but seeing the kind of people he rubbed shoulders with made her wonder whether she will ever learn to fit into this part of his world.
Matthew frowned. “You don’t need to blend in with the local scene. You are too… matchless to ever be a part of the scenery.”
She didn’t exactly feel reassured. It was important that she met the approval of these people who obviously played a significant role in his life. “So failed attempt then?”
Matthew took her hands in his, making her realize that she had started to twist the bangle round and round in a nervous frenzy. He pulled her to him until they stood toe to toe. “You look breathtaking. But then looking at you always takes my breath away. To me, you are a perfect vision in any form you appear. And tonight, the people out there in the hall got to see what I see too. I spoke to some of them before the unveiling and they were impressed by you even before you arrived. And later, as you walked through the audience, I felt them admire you all over again, it was so palpable. I still say you didn’t need a makeover but that doesn’t mean I’m unable to appreciate the results.” He grinned, the corner of his mouth tucked up in that familiar way, and added, “Especially the backless part of your dress.”
Elaina felt her heart skip. She felt it swell with joy. Once again she was overwhelmed by his all-encompassing capacity to discover beauty. Here was proof that accepting and valuing diversity was second nature to him. His words comforted her spirit, which had been abused by her self-constructed insecurities for half a decade. They made her want to believe he could appreciate her for who she truly was – that his regard for her was not the byproduct of some imaginary legend he had created through his lens.
She was also relieved to realize that there may be lesser need to gentrify her looks and personality for the city folks. Because after the strain of the past two days under Brooke’s tutelage and care, she had a whole new perspective on the effort it took to be a professional model. In fact, she suspected there was a lot more to the level of beauty regime New Yorkers put themselves through and no way was she willing to find out what they were. Being stroked and polished and trimmed and teased for hours on end had tested every bit of her self-restraint, which she was already always in short supply of. If it took a village to raise a child, it took an army to convert a cowgirl into a city broad. “I’m happy to hear you like the sparkly me but even happier you’re okay with my usual dusty self because this coiffure is already giving me a headache.”
“I’m amazed she got you to leave your Stetson behind,” Matthew chuckled, taking a step back for another view.
Elaina raised her skirt and stuck her foot out. “Still have my boots on though. Walking on pencil thin heels requires more than two days’ training.”
“No spurs, I see,” he observed with a raised eyebrow.
“The sacrifices I make for you,” she teased back, happy that they could fall into their old repartee so quickly and without having to get too much into the cause of their temporary rift though she knew the topic was just around the bend.
Matthew laughed, pulling her once again to him, this time in a full embrace. “And I’m grateful for each one. God, I’ve missed you,” he exclaimed with a sigh, tucking her head under his chin. “To think we could’ve been together from two days earlier.”
“Brooke only meant to help. And it is better this way, in any case. I would’ve only been a distraction to your event preparation.”
“Well, it turns out you are a distraction to me whether you are in the vicinity or not. You are never far from my mind so you two could have saved me the additional days of heartache.” She felt his body stiffen at the reminder of what they almost lost. “So it sounds like you and Brooke are getting along again?”
She heard the hesitation in his voice and was glad he was unable to see her face, which she could feel was now burning with shame at her unreasonable fears. “We worked on clearing the air. There was a lot of hurt – confusion that should not exist between friends. We made a pact to try to be better friends to each other than we were before. With honest communications. Whether or not we become best friends again.”
“I’m glad it worked out for you,” Matthew crooned, giving her a comforting squeeze.
Elaina knew she needed to apologize for hurting him. It was an important step to starting anew. “I’m sorry you got dragged into our mess. Sorry I jeopardized our relationship because I was too insecure to have faith in you,” she said, forcing herself to look up into his eyes.
Matthew gazed back at her with the kind of generosity of spirit she had come to admire about him. “I wish you never had to go through such an ordeal. But it was a day of silver lining that I met you and for that I will be eternally grateful to Brooke. I wish we had not lost those months apart after but I’ll accept my good luck now that you are back in my life. Thank you for changing your mind about us.”
“I love you.” The words escaped her in a burst of emotions. She had not planned on disclosing this significant piece of information so soon after their reunion, but now that the truth was out, she was relieved. But Matthew looked as stunned as she felt by her confession and she wondered if it really was too soon. “You don’t have to say it back. Really, I realize how sudden it must seem. We only just got back together. And how long did we know each other before that? Just a week. But there it is. I’m in love with you despite all my attempts to mutilate the experience. I have never met a person who made me want to believe in the goodness in this world as much as you and–”
“I love you, too.”
“How can you even think otherwise? Haven’t I been sending that exact message all these months?”
“Well, you never really said so in those specific words before. A girl needs to hear it to believe it. Especially a girl harboring a range of insecurities as wide as I was. Not that I would know how girls are generally convinced in these matters. Have had so little experience in the love department myself, I’m hardly an expert. So maybe your way was the right–”
Matthew silenced her rambling with a crushing kiss. It was a kiss born of wonder, solace and sheer elation. But it didn’t take long to turn into a desperate demonstration of their hunger. Hunger born out of months of separation imposed so soon after discovering their ability to so mutually sate one another’s desires. He delved his tongue into her mouth and she allowed him to reclaim the familiarity of their kiss. Yet she felt new awakenings tremble through her as she realized it was the first kiss they shared without fear or insecurities holding her back. She discovered the freedom that comes with complete surrender. It was all in that single, ever-transforming kiss.
Matthew came up for air first and she felt the loss of his lips even as her lungs refilled with oxygen. She chased his mouth with hers and heard him chortle. “Believe me, sweetheart, when I say I have enough pent up craving to keep us locked in here for a few weeks at least. But we have a bevy of guests just beyond that door who are probably wondering where we ran off to. We need to go back before they fill the columns tomorrow with news about the disappearing photographer and his mesmerizing muse.”
“Oh, but maybe a little longer?” she proposed, failing to put aside the delirium so soon after she was given another taste.
Matthew shook his head with great regret. “I’m afraid it’ll end with me mussing you up and I doubt you will thank me for it once you meet my parents.”
She felt as though she was suddenly doused with ice water. “Your parents? Meet them? Here?”
“Of course they are here, silly. Never missed an opportunity one of these events yet. In fact, they came here tonight hoping as much as me that you will show up.” He nudged her with the hard evidence of his desire, smirking with confidence. “Maybe not as much as me.”
But Elaina wasn’t listening. “But-but it’s too soon! I didn’t even realize you had spoken to them about me. We only just reconciled. Oh Lord, did you tell them about our fight? How could you have told them about ‘us’ us already?”
Matthew looked at her with concern. “I didn’t need to tell them about ‘us’, as you put it, for them to guess how I feel about you. I think everyone who is in this building tonight by now realizes it and by tomorrow, a great part of the country will be notified as well.”
“Wow. Wow! Wow.” Elaina was already having difficulty processing the idea of meeting the parents and she only now realized she was dating some sort of celebrity.
“Are you alright?”
“It’s just all happening at once.”
“I’m sorry. Maybe I have made a hash of things by announcing my love to the world like this.”
Elaina finally saw the uncertainty creeping into his eyes and regrouped. “No, I like that you make statements with these sweeping gestures. I like that you are such an open book and meet the world with all your heart. I’ll be fine. I want this. I want ‘us’ and I will not be afraid.” Even to her own ears, she sounded little convinced.
Matthew nodded encouragingly. “Good, because there is no turning back from here.”
“I am just a bit overwhelmed because it’s all happening so fast.”
“That’s the way I roll, baby,” he grinned, tugging at her heart with his jauntiness, tugging her hand along with him as he moved to unlock the door. “Only good times ahead.”
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