Read Chapter 25 before you continue…
It was a beautiful wedding ceremony and the happiness shining on the faces of the bride and groom proved that they were a match made in heaven. But then again, no other couple had ever been cheered for by all of Lainie’s Creek as much as this one – not even the iconic love affair between tragic Lainie Corey, after whose demise the town had been named, and her infamous beau William Brant. But that was a tale of long ago and, thankfully, without any repeat performances. In fact, the only couple other than the just-married Tyler and Ahyoka to draw the eyes of the guests was Elaina and Matthew, who were currently laughing through a lively jig, making a fool of themselves with their disarrayed dance moves.
Brooke felt no envy by their glowing mirth, only relief. She watched Matthew pull Elaina back into his arms and whisper something in her ear. It must have been funny too because Elaina threw back her head in an unladylike guffaw. Brooke had never seen her former best friend so full of cheerful abandon, not even when they were children. Amazing the changes true love could bring in a person. She hoped she too would find someone one day to share such connection with but for now felt content just to watch Elaina finally bask in the affection she deserved.
“Why are you sitting by yourself here, moping?”
Brooke turned to see Hayden drop down onto the folding chair beside hers. “I’m not moping. I’m watching people dance.”
Hayden raised an eyebrow. “Any couple in particular,” he inquired, knowing full well the answer.
Brooke turned away from him, her eyes trained on Elaina and Matthew once more though seeing little of their dance this time. Hayden had always been critical of her, even when she was little more than a child. He always lorded over Elaina and her, impressing the fact that he was older than them and therefore more experienced – as though being older equated to being wiser. Brooke was sure she would have liked to see a lot less of Hayden growing up. If only it hadn’t been for the fact that he was her former best friend’s older brother and whom said former best friend idolized. Of course, it was always Hayden who protested first whenever Elaina wished to accompany her twin brothers on their outings, bringing up their age difference as the main reason, but Brooke had also felt that his unwelcome attitude was especially directed to her.
But they were all now much older, each an adult who came into his or her own. She no longer needed Hayden’s approval. “Tyler and Ahyoka look very happy to be finally married,” she answered, purposely being elusive because she did not feel the need to dignify his question.
“Not the couple I meant and you know it.”
She remained silent. She would not rise to his bait.
“Elaina could never dance to save her life. Matthew seems to be cut with two left feet as well.”
“But they are charming together so it doesn’t matter if they can dance or not,” she automatically defended. Damn it.
“If they are so charming together, why do you look like the baby that got her lollypop stolen?”
He always made it so difficult to ignore him. “What the hell are you talking about, Hayden?”
“All I’m asking is if you don’t feel left out now, what with Elaina and Matthew being an item.”
Brooke turned back to Hayden to subject him to her condescension. “I’m sure you have seen that Elaina and I are now again in speaking terms and quite friendly with each other?”
Hayden shrugged and frowned to demonstrate his lack of confidence in their reconciliation. “For how long, though?”
She ignored the remark. “And you must also be aware I was responsible for getting Elaina to New York to patch things up with Matthew?”
Another shrug. “They would have gotten back together anyway if they truly love each other.”
Brooke gaped at Hayden. “Are you so cynical that you can’t believe them to be truly in love?”
She watched him take a long look at the couple they were discussing before turning back to her. “They seem the real deal enough.”
“Well, hallelujah, for Hayden’s seal of approval,” Brooke sneered caustically. “We know how hard those are to come by.”
Hayden frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Only that no one is ever good enough for your family, isn’t it? Especially when it comes to Elaina?”
“That’s not true. We love Ahyoka. I’m even ready to allow this Matthew fellow prove himself.”
Meaning the only one out of the running was she. “Whatever,” she threw over her shoulder as she turned in her seat to face the dancefloor again. She felt trapped suddenly. Trapped by her past, never to be forgiven for her mistake. She watched Matthew pull Elaina away from the dancefloor, the two slipping away from the general crowd, and wished she could also leave. But she would be damned if she left her seat before Hayden left his. She was done running away.
“So then you have no regrets?” he asked.
“I have plenty but to what are you referring?” she responded crossly, unable to pick up on the conversation.
“About your former nemesis and the man you once dated being together?” he pushed. “Sure you won’t try to get in the way again?”
“You’re a jerk, you know that?” Brooke answered without turning to see his response to her insult.
“Hey, I’m just watching out for my own,” came his sly reply. “I don’t want to watch Elaina in another five-year slump.”
Brooke felt heat splash over her face and neck. She wished she could disappear into the grass her chair was set on or become only a wisp of air to flutter away in the wind. Anything, she sent up a silent prayer, to get away from Hayden.
“Howdy, Miz McKenna. Would you care to dance?”
The man standing in front of her was stout and paunchy with a ruddy face and the largest handlebar mustache she ever witnessed. She had never been happier to be asked to dance in her life. She rose quickly, allowing him to take her hand. “Why, I’d love to Mister…”
“Mason. Charles Mason, at your service.”
“Very pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Mason.” She ventured to glance at Hayden to find him glowering, his face reinstated to its natural countenance. “Shall we proceed to the dancefloor?”
And she allowed herself to be led away from the most disapproving man in the county without a backward look.
“We shouldn’t have left the party like that, Matthew. It’s my brother’s wedding.” There was no heat in Elaina’s reproach. She was in the passenger seat of Matthew’s rented car and they had been driving for nearly twenty minutes.
Matthew grinned unabashedly. “Relax. I will have you back before anyone finds us gone. In fact, I plan to have you back before the bouquet is thrown.”
Elaina blushed at the implication, suddenly feeling nervous about the possible purpose of this short excursion. It would be just like Matthew’s whirlwind ways to propose marriage just two weeks after they got back together. “Please, at least tell me where we are going. You know I don’t like surprises.”
Mathew chuckled. “Yes, you keep making that clear every time I’m about to surprise you.”
“Yet you surprise me anyway.”
Matthew winked at her sideways. “The results are always so amusing. You know you enjoy them once you find out what they are.”
Elaina sighed as she relented. He was right. She didn’t mind surprises when they were orchestrated by him. And he always looked so adorable when he managed to please her with the results. While she remained in New York with him earlier in the month, he kept taking her to all of his best hunts, which were many and varied in interests, draining all the energy from Ahyoka and her that their spa sessions had infused. Then he followed her back to Texas within a gap of one day from her departure, checking into the local inn where he had been living since. He insisted on moving to Lainie’s Creek and working on photography projects from the small town while keeping his share with the gallery. She knew he had already given Columbia his notice and planned to eventually look for a similar position with any of the institutions within driving proximity once he found a house to settle in. She had to constantly pinch herself to remember the kind of sacrifices he was making to be with her. If anyone had predicted a few months ago that she would one day meet a man who would love her so grandly, she would have slapped them with her Stetson and told them they were off their rockers.
“Here we are,” Matthew broke into her reverie as he turned off the highway and onto a dirt road bordered by tall thick foliage.
“You’re not tired of me already, are you? Planning to murder me and do away with my body somewhere in the woods?”
“As if I’d dare,” he chuckled.
Elaina grinned cockily. “So who is it that you are more afraid of? Hayden or me?”
“Your mother. Definitely your mother. She’s been way too accepting of me but I can tell she would chop me into little pieces if I ever gave her the reason.”
But Elaina wasn’t listening. They had reached the winding driveway of a large house with a sprawling front yard. The dark blue of shingles on the slanted roof and matching exterior window shutters on the bone white face of the two-story colonial structure looked enchanting against the parakeet green of the grass. Four tall round balustrade columns held up the high gabled roof of the square porch that led to the heavy double door entrance of the house. It was a gorgeous piece of architecture, luxurious even in its ancient lines.
As Matthew wound the car around and pulled it to a stop at the front steps of the building, Elaina realized where they were. “Why, this is the old Brant manor.”
“Ah! I see you are familiar with the place,” Matthew said, getting out.
Elaina scurried out of the car and looked at him as he came around the front of the car. “What are we doing here?”
“House hunting,” he explained, taking her hand and pulling her up the porch steps. He unlocked the door and got in. “Coming,” he asked when she paused.
“You have the key,” she stated the obvious, suspicion rising in her voice.
“Borrowed it from the realtor. Now come along.”
Elaina followed him through a high-ceilinged foyer with a quarter-turned stairwell that led to the upper floor. Opposite the main entrance was a long corridor that led to a parlor, a walk-in coatroom, a marble bathroom, a dining area and a study with built-in shelves like a library. Hardwood floor gleamed like honey all over the place. The parlor was clearly the largest room on the bottom floor, running all down one side of the house, broken only by nooks and crannies for smaller sitting spaces and a massive mosaic fireplace. At the back end of the parlor stood a glass wall that opened up to the back porch of the house and looked out to more yard space and the woods beyond.
The parlor met back with the main corridor with a second set of double doors, leading to a long dining area with plenty of light filtering in through the windows. There was a butler’s pantry that buffered the kitchen from the dining room. The kitchen itself was just as impressively proportioned with a large island, a smaller dining table than the one in the main dining, and a huge six-burner stove with built-in double oven. Wood-framed cabinets in a warm rich tone lined the perimeter where the walls did not open out to windows and doors. There were four exits, a door leading back to the butler’s pantry, one down to the cellar, a door to the backyard and an open frame up the back stairs.
“This place is huge,” Elaina exhaled, turning back to Matthew with wonder.
“There is more upstairs.”
Elaina cocked her head. “Just how much more?”
“Four bedrooms, three full baths, an open common and an attic that is sliced in half, one part open and one part turned into a small servants’ quarter,” Matthew said. “I’m guessing this is your first time inside.”
“Surprising, isn’t it,” Elaina replied, nodding, “given who the original owners were and our shared family history? But the people who own the place now live in the city, hardly come to visit, and keep to themselves when they do. Everyone in town guesses they kept the place as a tax write-off. You plan to rent this?”
Matthew shook his head. “I plan to buy it.”
Elaina stepped back, staring at him incredulously. “Excuse me. What will you do with a place this big?”
“Build a home. Have a family. A huge one, I hope.” He looked earnest.
Elaina felt herself break into sweats. This was huge, and not only the house. “A family? A huge family? With who?”
Matthew smiled weakly. “I can only think of one candidate to share the experience with.”
“But we’ve only just begun to know each other. You can’t make an investment of this size based on such a short relationship. You don’t even know me that well.”
“There was a time when men ordered their brides over mail. Comparatively, I think my risk assessment fairs much better.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she scolded him gruffly. “We don’t live in those times anymore where there aren’t any women around to choose from. What if you like someone better down the line?”
Matthew squinted at her inquiringly. “Why? Do you plan to like someone better down the line?”
Elaina laughed with self-deprecation. “Yeah, right. Remember my five-year dry spell before I met you?”
“Well, it took me a whole lot of dating other women to come to the conclusion you are the best match for me.” Matthew stepped closer, pulling Elaina into an embrace. “There isn’t going to be someone better. I already know that.”
“Why must you always rush things?” Elaina cried even as she cuddled up to him, thoroughly exasperated but loving him more for his sheer confidence in them.
“Trust me. You promised you will believe in us, remember?”
She looked up into his eyes, reading the sincerity in his green, green gaze. “I do.”
Matthew blew out a sigh of relief. “Thank god, because I already bought it.”
“What?” exclaimed Elaina, eyes wide with shock.
“I knew you would agree.” He tightened his arms around her waist when she tried to pull away in disbelief.
“How? How did you know I would agree?”
“Because you love me?”
“Matthew,” she moaned, giving up. As stubborn as everyone always called her, they did not have a clue to Matthew’s willful ways, which she was only coming to realize. She may be boisterous in anger but he had a sneaky quality to getting his ways. “May I at least be told why it has to be this humongous house?”
“I thought that would be obvious. It’s the Brant house. I asked your mom when I got back from New York why you were named after a woman who committed suicide due to an unrequited love. She told me–”
“To give Lainie a second chance for a happy ending,” Elaina broke in, awed of his thoughtfulness.
“Yes. This is what she wanted, wasn’t it? To marry the man she loved and moved into his home? This was his home at the time. Oh, don’t cry, sweetheart.”
Elaina felt the tears only when he referred to them. “You have stolen all of my heart, Matthew Halls,” she accused on a sniffle.
Matthew kissed her cheeks, capturing her tears with his lips before replying. “What? Only just now when I buy you a house? Sheesh! You had stolen mine when I looked up the barrel of your rifle and into your eyes.”
Elaina half-laughed, half-sobbed. “You just won’t let me live that down.”
“Of course not! It will make for such glorious family stories.”
Family stories wih a family of their own in this house. A life with Matthew. “I love you,” she whispered, choked with emotions.
Matthew smiled slowly. “Then will you mind if we take a little longer to return to the wedding reception?”
“You want to show me the rest of the house?”
“Among other things. But first I want to celebrate the purchase of this house by breaking it in,” he said, leaning in for a kiss.
And as they touched and kissed and loved each other, right there on the kitchen floor of the house that she was now going to make his home, Elaina realized that she finally met the person who will remain her steadfast partner in life. It will still take some to get used to her good fortune, to being loved so completely, and just the sheer force with which Matthew lived his life, but she was now utterly buckled in for the ride.