Admittedly when they’d first met I’d had hopes of playing matchmaker but recent revelations had spoiled my hopes. However, Braden still asked an awful lot of questions about Joss and he stared at her (a lot), and I was beginning to suspect that, despite denials from both of them, something was going on. I didn’t know how to feel about that now that I knew Joss wasn’t keen on being in a relationship. It was difficult to pin down her true feelings about anything and I didn’t want either Braden or her to get hurt.
Deciding to bite my tongue about a lot of things I kept our conversation cheerful as we approached our friends. Braden, Adam, Jenna and Ed were already there, sitting on a large chenille blanket with two picnic hampers beside them. My eyes immediately went to Adam and then quickly moved to Braden when I discovered Adam was watching me.
I laughed as Joss teased Braden upon our arrival, something not many people outside of our family dared to do and I loved that Joss did. I think secretly my big brother did too.
Without thinking about it I flopped down onto the blanket beside Adam. His strong arm came around me instantly and he squeezed me affectionately against his side. “Nice to see you, Els.”
The whole point of the picnic was to catch up with Adam and Braden since they’d been working so hard on the new development we’d barely seen them these last few weeks. I missed them both, I did. I missed Adam, and inhaling the familiar smell of him and feeling his strength pressed against my right side, I almost forgot for a moment my earlier resolve.
“Yeah, you too.” I gave him a half-hearted smile and pulled casually out of his embrace. I turned to Jenna and Ed to greet them properly, ignoring the sudden tension radiating from Adam. He knew me too well, and he immediately understood something was wrong.
Hearing Joss tell Braden she needed to take a rain check on the picnic, worry brought my head around to her. I gazed up at her in concern, suddenly wondering if there had been more to her distraction earlier than I’d previously thought. “Is everything okay? Do you need me to come?”
Joss shook her head, and waved her phone at me. “No, I’m okay. Rhian just really needs someone to talk to. It can’t wait. Sorry.” She was avoiding Braden’s eyes for some reason and when I glanced at my brother I found him studying Joss in a weird way. Did he not believe her? Why not? Rhian was Joss’s best friend. She stayed in London and had been having personal problems lately, so it was completely plausible that she needed to talk. “See you later.” Joss walked away, her long ponytail swaying across her back. Looking back at Braden I watched him watch her in a way that unnerved me. It wasn’t just the fact that he had that determined, focused expression he got on his face when he was going after something— usually a development and never a woman—it was the glimmer of excitement in his eyes.
I’d never seen him look at anybody that way. The romantic side of me sighed happily. The practical side of me (and believe it or not I had one) worried her lip between her teeth, thinking Joss and Braden were either the perfect match or a freaking disaster waiting to happen.
Later, after having frozen Adam out to the point of seriously pissing him off, my suspicions over Braden’s interest were confirmed when he pestered me all the way home about Joss. I knew by the time he’d dropped me off on Dublin Street that he was going after her, and I knew from having grown up with him that when Braden really wanted something he was absolutely relentless, even when he was reaching for the impossible. I could only hope Joss didn’t hurt him while he tried to reach for her.
*** I’d spent the picnic catching up with Jenna and laughing at Braden and Ed’s jokes. Maybe once in the entire three hours we hung out did I speak directly to Adam, and I avoided his gaze at all costs. That was difficult, considering he was constantly trying to catch it.
Thankfully there wasn’t a quiet moment for him to ask me what the hell was wrong with me, so my form of torture worked out even better than I’d planned it.
I was gratified to discover it was a form of torture because by the time Braden and I left him, Adam’s expression was black with ill humor. Normally, Braden would have noticed our behavior, but much like Joss he was kind of distracted.
I was even more gratified to discover later, after having a discussion with Joss regarding Braden —I was still unsure of where Joss stood on that one since I thought she was protesting her disinterest just a wee bit too much—and then confiding in her about Adam, that she agreed with me: Adam needed to be taught a lesson. If he didn’t want to be in my life in a romantic sense, then he needed to butt out of my romantic life. I was going to continue my torture that evening.
Joss was working at the bar while Braden, Adam and I were going out for drinks with Darren, the manager of Braden’s nightclub Fire, and Darren’s wife Donna. I wore a black top that was backless. It was held together by a silk ribbon across the middle of the back, while the front was demure with a high neckline and draped chiffon panel that fell a good three inches past my waist. I’d matched the top with black skinny jeans that were so tight they might as well have been painted on. My hair was pulled up into a messy bun to give maximum impact to the top, and I was wearing four inch silver heels to match the silver tear drop earrings I was wearing.
It was a little more femme fatale than I usually went for but it did the trick. Adam’s eyes flared when I turned around after greeting Donna, his gaze burning as he took in the full effect of the outfit.
That just pissed me off.
What pissed me off even more was Braden’s announcement that we were going to Club 39. Knowing what he was up to regarding Joss, I didn’t feel comfortable letting him unleash his plan while she was busy working. However, Braden wouldn’t listen to me and Donna wanted to check out the bar.
My annoyance levels increased when Adam held me back as we walked along George Street.
“Are you going to tell me what’s wrong or am I going to have to guess?” he asked, his words clipped.
I shrugged, not looking at him. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Ellie, don’t. Being a bitch doesn’t suit you.”
I flinched but kept walking. “You know what else doesn’t suit me? Being single. But apparently that’s not my choice.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” he hissed, his voice low since we’d gotten closer to Braden.
I kept my voice low too as I illuminated him, snapping my head around to glare at him.
“You know exactly what I’m talking about, you overbearing arsehole.”
“Everything okay?” Braden turned around to frown at us.
I nodded sharply and hurried forward to walk beside him. As we approached Club 39, I sighed, “Braden, I hope you know what you’re doing.”
He shot me a wicked smile. “Always do. You know, Darren knows the doorman here.”
Turning to Darren, Braden set his devious little plan in motion. “Darren, why don’t you go on in ahead and gets us drinks. We’ll find a table.”
Darren nodded and ignored the complaints from people standing in line as he shoved his way down the narrow steps to the basement bar. He greeted the big guy at the door and they spoke for a few minutes. He turned and pointed up to the street where we were standing and the next thing was we were being waved down the stairs. Darren disappeared inside the club and I watched Braden take Donna’s arm.
I glowered at his back. Donna was an attractive brunette and Braden was hoping to use her to make Joss jealous. I knew how Braden worked. He liked this idea because it meant that he could use a woman to make Joss jealous without actually getting entangled with another woman. My brother liked reaction, and I was guessing he wanted a big reaction from Joss.
Part of me hoped she’d deal with it with her usual admirable self-possession.
Unfortunately my hopes were dashed. As soon as we got inside Club 39 my eyes swung to Joss and I watched her expression harden as Braden leaned down to whisper in Donna’s ear.
He looked right through Joss and I saw a flicker of something I didn’t like pass in her eyes before she quickly turned away.
I really wanted to bash my brother’s head against Adam’s.
More than anything I just wanted to leave the two of them to it. But Adam wouldn’t let me. He pressed me forward as Braden managed to clear us a table and I brushed off his hand, still playing it cool. I strode after Braden and stopped as he and Donna, followed by Adam, slid onto a couch. Standing over them I couldn’t decide which one I wanted to glare at more.
“Ellie, sit your arse down,” I heard Adam snap over the music.
I narrowed my eyes and shook my head.
Adam’s expression darkened and before I had a chance to maneuver away from him, he reached up, grabbed my arm and yanked me down beside him. At the feel of his body pressed flushed to my side, I struggled to get away from him but was halted by the sensual brush of his fingers across my bare back as his arm wound around my waist. His hand clamped down on my hip and he forced me closer, his mouth at my ear. “If you stop acting like a petulant child, I’ll stop being overbearing.”
I stopped struggling against him but held myself tense so he’d know I was still angry with him. For the next hour he kept me held against him, his grip possessive and definitely more than friendly.
Braden didn’t even notice. His eyes were burning holes in Joss and her colleague Craig who had started the night off by sharing a kiss and spent the last hour flirting and having fun.
I liked this side of Joss.
Braden apparently didn’t. No. He did. He just didn’t like that she was doing it with another guy. The mini-drama playing out before me almost kept my mind off my own, but when Braden, who’d clearly finally had enough, got up and approached the bar when Joss went on break and somehow managed to talk the other bartender into letting him into the staffroom, I was brought back to my own problem with no escape.
Darren and Donna were up at the bar getting more drinks.
Adam and I were alone on the couch.
He caressed my hip soothingly, obviously trying to get me to relax. “So,” he spoke into my ear again, reinforcing the feeling that we were in our own little bubble inside the bar.
“Are you going to tell me why you’re being a bitch to me?”
“Stop calling me that,” I snapped, turning my head so our noses were almost touching. I stared into his dark eyes and lost my breath so badly I had to look away.
“Stop acting like one.”
“I’m annoyed,” I explained. “I get to be annoyed.”
“Would you fill me in?”
I turned to him again, and this time I don’t think I managed to mask my hurt and confusion over his actions because his own expression softened with concern. “Why did you threaten Nicholas with physical violence when he came to you for advice about asking me out?”
Understanding dawned in his eyes and he sighed heavily. “He’s not good enough for you.”
“That’s not up to you to decide.”
His fingers dug into my hip as they curled in reflex to my response. “It’s up to me to protect you.”