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|On Dublin Street(On Dublin Street #1)(9) by Samantha Young|
My lips curled up apologetically. “I know. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. I’m used to Braden.”
As though he’d heard his name, Ellie’s cell lit up and his name flashed across the screen. She answered it immediately, but without her usual cheer. Seems my dead family was a mood killer.
I don’t know how, but Ellie had managed to convince me to go out with them. I stared down at Ellie and Braden’s friends in a dress I’d borrowed from her wardrobe. They were seated on sofas around a low coffee table in a bar on George IV Bridge. Braden had called two hours ago asking us to meet them all here. Of course, I’d been ready an hour ago. Ellie had taken forever to get ready, and as she shot Adam a smile, I began to understand why.
“Everyone, this is my new flatmate Jocelyn.” She turned to me. “Jocelyn, this is Jenna and Ed.”
I’d gotten the run down in the cab down here. Jenna, the cute blonde with the quirky glasses and diamond engagement ring was Ellie’s best friend and fellow PhD student. Ed, the short blonde guy who made geeky stylish, was Jenna’s fiancé.
“And you’ve met Adam and Braden.” Her smile slipped a little as she looked at the woman sitting pressed up against Braden. She had pale, almost white, blonde hair, huge blue eyes, long limbs and a full pouty mouth. “And this is Holly. Braden’s girlfriend.”
I remembered instantly that Ellie didn’t like her. From the sneer Holly gave Ellie, it was clear the feeling was mutual. I said hello to everyone, avoiding Braden’s gaze and ignoring the way my heart was pounding against my ribcage just being near him and his girlfriend.
No way was I going to feel despondent about the fact that she reminded me of Jo: my complete opposite in every way.
Sitting down next to Jenna as Ellie rushed off to get us drinks, I tried to look anywhere but at the couple to my right.
“How are you settling in then, Jocelyn?” Adam asked from across the table.
Grateful, I gave him a wide smile. “Good, thanks. And it’s Joss.”
“So you and Ellie are rubbing along well then?”
Something in his voice told me it wasn’t a casual question. He was worried about my roommate. I began to wonder if Ellie’s feelings might be reciprocated. “We’re getting along amazingly. She’s a great person.”
My answer went over well with him. “Good, I’m glad. So Ellie tells me you’re writing a book?”
“Oh my God,” Holly interrupted with her throaty English accent. I hated that her accent was so cool. “Did I tell you, babe, that my friend Cheri got published?”
Braden shook his head, his eyes darting to my face. I glanced away quickly, pretending to be fascinated by Holly’s news of this mysterious Cheri person.
“Cheri is my best friend from home,” Holly explained to the table just as Ellie came back with the drinks. I shimmied over to let her in beside me. “She writes the best books.”
“What are they about?” Ed asked politely. I glanced at Jenna and saw she and Ellie were exchanging ‘a look’. I was getting that Holly was not at all well-liked among the girls.
“Oh they’re just amazing. They’re about this girl from the poorhouse who falls in love with this guy who’s a businessman but still has, like, an old English title… like an earl or something. So romantic. And her writing is just amazing. She’s just amazing.”
Okay. Apparently she was amazing.
“So it’s an historical novel?” Ed asked.
“No.” She shook her head in bemusement.
“Holly,” Braden appeared to be trying not to smile, “There’s no such thing as a poorhouse anymore. Are you sure it’s not an historical?”
“Well, Cheri didn’t say it was.”
“Then I’m sure you’re right,” Adam told her congenially. Ellie’s shoulders shook next to mine at the very well-disguised sarcasm in his reply. I tried to look anywhere but at Braden.
“Jenna, when’s your first dress-fitting again?” Ellie asked, peering around me.
Jenna grinned impishly. “Oh it’s not for ages. I’ve been banned from mum’s house because I keep going into her wardrobe to stare at it.”
“Oh?” I asked, trying to be friendly. “When’s the wedding?”
“Five months,” Ed replied, smiling lovingly at Jenna.
Wow. A guy who wasn’t afraid to show how he really felt. It was disarming and another flash image of my dad smiling at my mom crossed my brain. I took a drink, shoving it back down under all my steel.
Ellie made a little squeeing sound beside me. “You should see Jenna’s dress. We’re getting-”
“Oh, babe,” Holly interrupted again. “Did I tell you about Lisa getting married in October? I told her it was a dreadful time of year to get married but she insisted she wanted an autumn wedding. Have you ever heard anything like it? Anyway, it’s some drafty castle in some place called Oban so we’ll need to arrange accommodation.”
“Barcaldine Castle.” Braden nodded. “It’s a nice wee place.”
“Maybe in the summer, but not in October.”
And that was pretty much how the next hour went. Every time someone mentioned a topic, Holly took control, her loud voice carrying above the noise of the crowded bar. She made it easy to vilify her, and I knew almost immediately why Ellie couldn’t stand her. Holly was loud, obnoxious and completely self-absorbed. Worse, I got the feeling Braden was studying my reaction to her. Why did he care what I thought?
Needing a break from Holly’s voice, a voice I’d thought charming at first and now greatly disliked, I volunteered to get the next round of drinks. I relaxed into the bar, giving the bartender my order, and enjoyed the quiet—the bar was in the back of the building, behind a wall and a corridor, away from Holly’s voice.
But then he had to follow me, didn’t he?
Heat flushed my right side as I felt him press up against me as he leaned into the bar. My nose tingled at the smell of his cologne and those butterflies were back again.
“So… you’re a writer?” Braden looked down at me.
It was the first time he’d asked me anything without sex in his voice. I looked up at him, taken aback by the genuine curiosity in his pale gaze. I smiled a little self-deprecatingly. I wasn’t a writer yet. “Trying to be.”
“What do you write?”
I thought about my mom and drew a deep breath, pushing the thought out. “Fantasy.”
His eyebrows quirked a little as though he hadn’t expected that to be my answer. “Why fantasy?”
The bartender gave me the total for the drinks before I could answer Braden, but Braden handed over money before I could even reach for my purse. “I’ll pay,” I insisted.
He waved off my offer as though I were insane. “Well?” he asked as he took his change. The drinks sat before us on the bar but Braden didn’t seem that intent on getting them back to the table.
I sighed, knowing the faster I answered the faster I could get away from him. “Because reality has no authority there. My imagination controls everything.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth I regretted them. A smart person would read between the lines. And Braden was smart.
Our eyes met, a silent understanding passing between us. Finally, Braden nodded. “I can see the attraction in that.”
“Yeah.” I dragged my gaze away. Bad enough he’d seen me physically na**d. I didn’t need him stripping me bare to the soul.
“I’m glad you and Ellie are getting along.”
“You’re very protective of her, aren’t you?”
“Why? She seems a lot stronger than you think.”
His eyebrows furrowed as he thought about it. “It’s not about her strength. Maybe it’s the way she looks or talks that fools people into thinking Ellie’s fragile. I know different. Ellie can take the bad stuff and bounce back better than anyone I know. It’s not about that. It’s about making sure the bad stuff doesn’t happen to her in the first place. She’s too nice for her own good and I’ve seen her hurt too many times by people who claimed to care about her.”
I didn’t envy him that job. “Yeah I can see that. Ellie wears her heart on her sleeve.”
Startled by the observation, I looked up at him warily. “How’s that?”
His eyes were searching, burrowing, trying to get inside me. I took a step back and he inched closer. “I’ve heard what Ellie had to say about you. And then there’s how you are with me. You try not to give anything away.”
Back off. “You don’t either. I don’t know anything real about you.”
“I’m not that hard to get to know, really.” He flashed me a quick smile. “But you… I think you’ve made an art form out of deflection and self-possession.”
Stop analyzing me. I rolled my eyes. “You think throwing a dishrag at you is an example of how self-possessed I am?”
He laughed, a deep reverberation that bumped its way down my spine. “Fair enough.” And then he shot me that look again—that look that felt as though he were sliding his long, masculine fingers inside my panties. “You look beautiful tonight.”
I flushed inwardly at the compliment. Outwardly I smirked. “So does your girlfriend.”
Braden sighed heavily at my pointed comment and picked up a few of the glasses from the bar. “I didn’t mean anything by it, Jocelyn. It was just a compliment.”
No it wasn’t. You’re playing games with me. And if we’re going to be around each other all the time, I want it to stop. “Was it? Do you talk to everyone the way you talk to me?”
“And what way is that?”
“Like you’ve seen me na**d.”
Grinning, Braden’s eyes glittered with heat. “No. But then I haven’t seen everyone na**d.”