Although pale, I noted her trembling had stopped. “Better. I haven’t eaten today. I just felt faint.”
“What about the headaches?”
She smiled reassuringly. “Honestly, I haven’t been eating enough because of my PhD. I’m feeling the pressure and I’m stressing out. I’ll take better care.”
“Here you go.” The clerk held out two of the heavy shopper bags.
I muttered thanks and handed one to Hannah, while taking the other one.
“Let me.” Ellie reached for Hannah’s bag.
“Oh no, you don’t.” I took her elbow. “We’re getting some food into you.”
Ellie tried to argue that she’d eat later at her mom’s Sunday dinner—a dinner I had thankfully managed to talk my way out of, telling Ellie I really wanted to get a few hours of work in—but I convinced her to at least grab a snack at this cute little bistro around the corner. Hannah walked beside us with Ellie’s hand on her back, guiding her through the crowds on Princes Street since she’d decided to start reading one of her books right away. I didn’t know how anyone could do that—reading while walking? It gave me travel sickness.
We were chatting about the upcoming Festival when I saw Braden. We’d seen each other at the bar on Friday when he, Ellie, Adam, Jenna, Ed and a few of Braden’s colleagues had decided to stop by Club 39 for a drink. We hadn’t really talked much and his attitude towards me had definitely veered into the friend zone.
I didn’t know if the feeling I got when he did that bothered me. But I did know I was feeling something when I saw him with her.
Braden was walking towards us, easily spotted in the crowd because of his height… and, well, his hotness. He was wearing dark blue jeans, black boots, and a dark grey long-sleeved thermal Henley that showcased his sculpted, broad-shouldered scrumptiousness.
In his hand was another hand.
It belonged to a woman I hadn’t ever seen before.
“Braden,” Ellie murmured and Hannah’s head popped up from her book, her whole face lighting up when she saw him.
“Braden!” she called out and his head jerked around from smiling down at his companion to follow the voice. His smile widened when he saw Hannah.
As we approached each other, I suddenly wished I was anywhere but where I was. The little kick I got in my gut when I saw him with someone else was not fun. In fact, that kick was quite possibly the worst joke that had been played on me in a while.
I also wasn’t keen on the carefully polite expression on his face when he saw I was with Ellie and Hannah.
I glanced up at Ellie as we came to a stop only to find her glaring daggers at the woman with Braden. Bewildered and frankly astonished, I couldn’t help but hiss her name in question.
She looked down at me, her jaw clenched. “I’ll tell you later.”
“Hannah.” Braden hugged her into his side and nodded at her bags. “Been spending your gift card?”
“Yeah. I got loads of books. Thanks again,” she added shyly.
“You’re welcome, sweetheart.” He let her go and turned to us. “Els, you’re looking pale. You okay?”
She was still glowering at him and I wanted to know what the hell I was missing. “I was feeling a bit faint. I haven’t eaten.”
“I’m taking her to get some food.” I thought I should mention that, so he didn’t think we were dragging her around when she wasn’t feeling well.
“Good,” he murmured, catching my eye. “Jocelyn, this is Vicky.”
Vicky and I looked at one another, our smiles polite. She reminded me a lot of Holly: tall, blonde, pretty and as natural as freaking Barbie. Still, she was hot.
Braden definitely had a type and I was not it. No wonder he’d stopped flirting with me. His sexual radar must have been wonky when we first met, but clearly it had been restored to order.
“Hello, Vicky,” Ellie purred unhappily.
I couldn’t help it—my eyebrows hit my hairline before I could stop them. Ellie sounded practically predatory.
I was impressed.
And definitely curious.
Braden shot his sister a quelling look. “I had my dinner meeting last night and Vicky was at the next table. We decided to catch up. Thought we’d grab some breakfast.”
In other words, Vicky was at the next table and they’d hooked up. I shrugged off the unfamiliar uneasiness that came over me. My chest felt a little sore and I was feeling a little queasy. Maybe Ellie wasn’t food-deprived— maybe we’d both eaten something bad yesterday.
“Nice to see you again, Ellie,” Vicky replied sweetly. She seemed nice enough.
“Hmm.” Ellie blatantly brushed her off, rolling her eyes and then skewering them into Braden. “Are you coming to dinner this afternoon?”
I watched the muscle in his jaw flex. He definitely wasn’t amused by his sister’s attitude. “Of course.” His eyes travelled back to me. “I’ll see you both there.”
“Joss can’t make it. She has stuff to do.”
He frowned at me. “It’s just a few hours. Surely you can squeeze us in?”
In response, Vicky pressed closer to Braden. “I’d love to have dinner, Braden.”
Braden gave her a somewhat patronizing pat on the hand. “Sorry, sweetheart, it’s just family.”
Three things happened at once. Ellie choked on her laughter, Vicky reared back like he’d slapped her, and I felt a panic attack coming on.
Feeling the fog closing in on me, I breathed through it and my confusion. “You know what.” I took a step back from them. “I totally forgot I said I’d drop off Jo’s tips to her at her apartment. Today. Now, actually.” I waved apologetically. “I gotta go. I’ll catch you later.”
And then I got the hell out of there as fast as I could.
“Why did you run?” Dr. Pritchard asked, her head tilted to the side like a curious bird.
I don’t know. “I don’t know.”
“You’ve mentioned Ellie’s brother, Braden, a number of times now. How does he fit into your life?”
I want him. “I guess he’s sort of a friend.” When she just stared at me, I shrugged. “We had an unconventional introduction.”
I told her everything.
“So you’re attracted to him?”
She nodded. “Back to my earlier question then. Why? Why did you run?”
Lady, if I knew that, would I be here? “I don’t know.”
“Was it because Braden was with another woman? Or because he implied you were family?”
“Both I guess.” I rubbed my forehead, feeling a headache coming on. “I want him to stay in the box I’ve put him in.”
“You know, the box. It’s got a label and everything. It’s says ‘sort-of friends’. We’re sort of friends, but not really good friends. We hang out, but we don’t really know each other. I prefer it that way. I think I might have panicked at the thought that he thinks there’s more. That he’d think we were close somehow. I don’t want that.”
“I just don’t.”
Seeming to sense my tone, Dr. Pritchard nodded and didn’t ask the question again. “And your feelings regarding seeing him with another woman…?”
“The only feelings I had were confusion and panic. He was with a woman he obviously has a sexual relationship and history with and he implied somehow that our friendship was deeper than what he had with her by saying what he did to her. Like I said, that’s not true. I don’t want that.”
“And that’s the only reason?”
“So you don’t want a relationship with Braden? Sexual or otherwise?”
“Let’s talk about that. We haven’t spoken about your relationship with men. You seem good at shutting people out, Joss. Has it been a while since your last relationship?”
“I’ve never been in a relationship.”
“Have you dated?”
I curled my lips as I remembered the so-called ‘wonder years’. “Do you want the sordid history? Okay, I’ll lay it out for you…”
“Did you get Jo her money?” Ellie asked quietly as she flopped down on the couch next to me.
I nodded, lying, and to purge my guilt I reached out for my coveted big bag of chips and offered them to her. “You want some?”
“Nah, I’m stuffed.” She relaxed back against the cushion, her eyes on the TV. “What’cha watching?”
“The Bourne Supremacy.”
“Mmm, Matt Damon.”
“Dinner okay? You feeling better?” I felt even more guilt about taking off on her like that. I was still trying to wrap my head around what exactly had happened to me in that moment.
Ellie slanted me a look. “Mum asked after you.”
That was nice. “Did you tell her I said hi?”
“Yes. And dinner was atmospheric. Braden was still pissed off at me.”
I smirked, looking back at the screen. “I’ve never seen you like that before. It was kind of bad-ass.”
“Yeah, well, Vicky’s a slut.”
I sucked in a breath, my eyes wide on her. Her normally open face was tight and stony. “You really don’t like her. Who is she?”
“She was Braden’s girlfriend for a while. I can’t believe he’s seeing her again.”
Realizing I meant ‘what the hell did she do to you?’ Ellie shrugged, her face crumpling. “I went over to see Adam about something one day and she was there. Naked. In his bed. He was nak*d too.”
I couldn’t believe it. “They cheated on Braden?”
“No,” she snorted humorlessly. “Adam fancied her, so Braden loaned her out to him.”
Jesus C… “Loaned her out?”
“Does she have no self-respect?”
“Did you not hear the part where she’s a slut?”
“I can’t believe Braden would do that. Just loan her out.”
“Maybe I used bad word choice. She was actually the one who told Braden she wanted Adam. Braden didn’t have a problem with it so he let them have sex.”
Kinky, a little cold maybe, but mutual, so who was I to judge? “So she has self-respect. What’s the big deal?” I tried to dig to the real source of Ellie’s dislike. “The girl likes sex.”
“She’s a slut!”
Oh yeah. I definitely knew the real reason now.
“You really like Adam, huh?”
She exhaled slowly and closed her eyes tight.
A streak of pain lashed across my chest as I watched the tear roll out from under her lashes and drip down her cheek.
“Oh honey.” I sat up and pulled her into my side, letting her cry quietly into my sweater. After a while, I reached for the half-eaten packet of cookies and handed her one. “Here. Sugar up and let’s watch Jason Bourne kick some ass.”