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|On Dublin Street(On Dublin Street #1)(12) by Samantha Young|
“Have a seat.” Elodie shuffled Braden down into the armchair on my right as Clark left the room. She settled onto the arm of it and brushed Braden’s unkempt hair off his forehead. “How have you been? I heard you and Holly broke up.”
Braden hadn’t really crossed me as the type who liked to be ‘mothered’ but he just sat there, seeming to enjoying Elodie’s attention. He took her hand and kissed her knuckles affectionately. “I’m fine, Elle. It was just time, that’s all.”
“Hmm,” she answered with a frown. And then, as if remembering I was there, she turned to me. “You’ve met Joss, haven’t you?”
Braden nodded, a soft, almost secret smile, curving the corners of his lips. Still, it was friendly, not sexual, and I didn’t know whether to be happy or disappointed by that. Stupid hormones. “Yeah, Jocelyn and I have met.”
I felt my brows pull together. Why did he insist on calling me Jocelyn?
The frown soon disappeared as Clark returned and conversation gained momentum. I did my best, answering their questions and reciprocating, however I was never so grateful for Ellie. She came to my rescue when her mom started asking questions about my parents, deflecting the questions easily from me to Elodie, and I sighed with relief at having escaped having to be outright rude. I thought I was doing okay. I even managed to exchange friendly, non-sexual banter with Braden.
Then we moved to the dining room for dinner.
There was just something about the laughter, all the talk and noise, as we settled around it, helping ourselves to potatoes, veg and gravy to eat with the generous servings of roast chicken Elodie had put on our plates. As I poured gravy over my dinner, their chatter, their affection, the warm normality triggered the memories…
“I invited Mitch and Arlene for dinner,” My mom said, putting out extra place settings. Dru was over for dinner since we were working on a school project together, and my dad was settling baby Beth into her high chair.
Dad sighed. “I’m glad I made plenty of chili—as it is, Mitch will probably eat it all.”
“Be nice,” Mom admonished with a small smile on her lips. “They’ll be here any minute.”
“Just saying. Guy can eat.”
Dru giggled beside me, shooting my dad an adoring look. Dru’s dad was never around so my dad was like Superman to her.
“So how’s the project coming along?” Mom asked, pouring us out orange juice.
I shot Dru a secretive smile. It wasn’t coming along at all. We’d spent the last hour gossiping about Kyle Ramsey and Jude Jeffrey. Mostly we just kept saying the word ‘Jude’ like ‘Juuude’ and giggling like idiots.
My mom snorted, catching the look. “I see.”
“Hey neighbors!” a big bellyful of joy called out as Mitch and Arlene opened the French doors, stepping inside without knocking. It was okay. We were used to their overfamiliarity since they were our only neighbors in spitting distance of the house. My mom loved their overfamiliarity. My dad? Not so much.
After a lot of greetings—Mitch and Arlene were incapable of saying ‘hello’ just once—we all finally settled around the kitchen table with my dad’s famous chili.
“Why do you never cook for me?” Arlene complained to Mitch after moaning a little inappropriately at her first taste of dad’s chili.
“You never asked.”
“I bet Sarah never has to ask Luke to cook, do you Sarah?”
My mom threw dad a wide-eyed plea for help. “Um…”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
“Dad, Beth’s dropped her juice.” I nodded at the floor.
Since he was closest, he reached down to pick it up.
“My dad never cooks,” Dru put in, trying to make Arlene feel better.
“See,” Mitch mumbled around his chlli. “Not just me.”
Arlene scowled. “What do you mean, ‘see’? As if another man not cooking for his wife somehow makes it okay for you to not cook for your wife?”
Mitch swallowed. “Fine. I’ll cook.”
“Can you cook?” Mom asked softly and I heard my dad choke on a piece of chili.
I hid my giggle in a swallow of orange juice.
Silence descended around the table as we all looked at each other and then burst out laughing. Beth squealed at the noise, her tiny hand hitting her juice and sending it flying again, which made us laugh harder…
That memory was followed by another memory of a Christmas dinner. Thanksgiving. My thirteenth birthday…
The memories triggered a panic attack.
First my head grew fuzzy and I quickly lowered the gravy boat from my now trembling hand. The skin on my face tingled and cold sweat seeped from my pores. My heart was speeding so hard behind my ribcage I thought it might explode. My chest tightened and I struggled to breathe.
My chest rose and fell rapidly in shallow breaths, my frightened eyes searching for the voice.
He dropped his fork, leaning across the table toward me, a frown of concern between his brows. “Jocelyn?”
I needed to get out of there.
I needed air.
“Jocelyn… Christ,” Braden muttered, shoving back from the table, intent on coming around the table to help me.
Instead, I shot out of my seat, holding my hands out to stop him. Without a word, I turned and raced from the room, running down the hall to the bathroom where I slammed inside.
Shaking hands pushed up the window, and they and the rest of me were grateful for the rush of air that blasted over my face, even if it was warm air. Knowing I needed to calm down, I concentrated on slowing my breathing.
A few minutes later my body and mind came back to itself and I slumped onto the toilet seat, my limbs all jellified. I felt exhausted again. My second panic attack.
“Jocelyn?” his voice rumbled through the door.
I closed my eyes against it, wondering how the hell I was going to explain myself. Embarrassment warmed the blood in my cheeks.
I thought I was over this. It had been eight years. I should be over it by now.
At the sound of the door opening, my eyes cracked open too, and I watched as a concerned Braden stepped inside and closed the door. Briefly I wondered why he had followed me and Ellie hadn’t. When I didn’t say anything he came closer, dropping slowly to his haunches so we were at eye level. My eyes searched his gorgeous face and for once, I wished I could break my own damn rules. I had a feeling Braden would be able to make me forget everything for a while.
We gazed at one another for what seemed like forever, not saying a word. I was expecting a lot of questions since it must have been clear to everyone, or at least the adults at the table, that I had had a panic attack. Surely, they were all wondering why, and I really didn’t want to go back out there.
“Better?” Braden finally asked softly.
Wait. Was that it? No probing questions?
“Yeah.” No, not really.
He must have read my reaction to his question in my face because he cocked his head to the side, his gaze thoughtful. “You don’t need to tell me.”
I cracked a humorless smile. “I’ll just let you think I’m bat-shit crazy.”
Braden smiled back at me. “I already knew that.” He got up, holding a hand out to me. “Come on.”
I looked at his proffered hand warily. “I think maybe I should just go.”
“And I think you should have some good food with some good friends.”
I thought of Ellie and how warm and welcoming she’d been to me. It would be an insult to walk out of her mother’s dinner and I found myself not wanting to do anything that would alienate Ellie.
Taking Braden’s hand tentatively, I let him pull me to my feet. “What will I say?” No use pretending to be cool and collected with him now. He’d already seen me at my most vulnerable. Twice.
“Nothing,” he assured me. “You don’t need to explain yourself to anyone.” His smile was kind. I couldn’t decide what smile I liked more. This one, or the wicked one from before.
“Okay.” I took a deep breath and followed him out. He didn’t let go of my hand until we reached the dining room, and I refused to acknowledge the bereft feeling in my chest as his touch fell away from mine.
“Are you alright, honey?” Elodie asked as soon as we walked into the room.
“A little bit of sun stroke.” Braden waved Ellie’s mom off with reassurance. “She was out in the sun too long this morning.”
“Oh.” She turned her motherly concern on me. “I hope you at least wore sun screen.”
I nodded, sliding into my seat. “Just forgot to wear a hat.”
As their conversation picked up and the tension drained from the table, I ignored Ellie’s suspicious glances and shot Braden a grateful smile.
By the end of the dinner I was a little more relaxed, although looking forward to getting home and being alone for a while. Determined not to be taken unaware again, I put back up that wall between me and my memories and tried to enjoy the Nichols’ company. It wasn’t hard. They were an easy group to like.
My plans for being alone were foiled by Braden and Ellie who were meeting up with Adam for drinks. I tried to get out of going with them but Ellie wasn’t having it. It was like she sensed I was going home to brood or something.
After bidding the Nichols a goodbye and promising Elodie I’d be back, we headed out to grab a cab to take us back to the apartment so I could pick up my purse. I only had my cell on me and was determined nobody – as in Braden – was buying me drinks tonight, but me. The less I was in this guy’s debt the better.
As the cab drew up to the apartment, a tall, lanky figure sitting on our front stoop made my chest tighten. Heart racing, I jumped out of the cab first, hurrying over to James who stood up, his duffle bag kicked at his feet. Large dark circles plagued his eyes, his face was drawn and pale, the corners of his mouth tight with pain and anger.