ALWAYS CHAPTER TWO
Brenna smiled at Gemma as her friend fell in step with her.
“So why were you laughing so hard back there?” Gemma asked.
Brenna chuckled. “I don’t know. I think Ash just took me by surprise.”
“It looked like you were enjoying yourself. You were hanging on to him like you didn’t want to let go,” Gemma said in a teasing tone.
Brenna felt heat creep up her face.
Gemma gasped. “Brenna Ward,” she said in a hushed, shocked tone.
“What?” Brenna tried to sound innocent, but she was sure she blushed deeper.
Gemma was still looking at her with round eyes when Sarah left Jeff’s side to join them.
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Brenna answered, gulping involuntarily.
“I made a comment that she looked like she enjoyed being in Ash’s arms, and her answer was this,” Gemma said, gesturing towards Brenna's flushed face.
Sarah frowned in question before understanding dawned, her face registering deep surprise similar to Gemma’s reaction. “Really?”
“Really what?” Brenna asked, her discomfort increasing as the two girls continued to stare at her. “I didn’t want Ash to drop me in the water,” she said weakly.
“Why are you blushing so hard?” Sarah whispered—almost excitedly, Brenna thought.
“No reason,” she answered with a nonchalant shrug, her gaze darting a few metres ahead to land on Ash’s back as he walked with Amanda and the other guys. “Um, did you know Ash is really strong? I mean, muscular. As in hard and… strong.” She gulped again.
“Anyone could tell that just from looking at him,” Gemma said, narrowing her yes at her. “So…?”
“So…” she said with a deep sigh, “I think… I think he’s sexy.”
Gemma and Sarah gasped as one.
“Because he’s, you know, strong… and hunky,” she babbled.
Her friends looked at each other with delight.
“You’ve suspected, haven’t you?” Sarah asked Gemma.
Gemma nodded gleefully. “For a long time.”
“Suspected what?” Brenna asked.
A call from Amanda from up ahead interrupted them. “Hey, girls! Hurry up! We need to discuss what to have for lunch since these guys are of no help. ‘Anything’ is all I can get out of them.”
“We’ll have to talk about this later,” Gemma whispered insistently as they walked faster to catch up with the group.
Brenna nodded. For some reason, her heart thumped hard in anticipation.
“So was the water cold, Bren?”
Brenna glanced sharply at Amanda as they all entered the apartment. Amanda sounded too nonchalant, and hadn’t she already asked her brother the same question?
“Yeah, it was cold. You should make sure Ash gets out of his wet clothes. Fortunately, only my feet got wet, and only because he dipped them in the water,” she answered, a smile forming from the memory.
Amanda laughed in response—a giggle that was suspiciously too high pitched.
Brenna frowned. Did Amanda notice her reaction to Ash, too? Oh no. Had she been too obvious? Had Ash himself noticed?
She needed to know the answers, but first she had to attend to her full bladder. “I need to use the bathroom,” she said, just in time to see Greg go in the one nearest the living room.
“Use any of the others,” Amanda said. “I’ll be in the kitchen to start preparing some lunch.”
Brenna made her way to a corridor leading to the three bedrooms in the sub-penthouse. She walked into one of the guest rooms with an en suite and used the toilet. As she washed her hands, she mulled over her reaction to Ash on the beach.
His playful actions had addled her brain to the extent that she was still thinking about how hunky and attractive he was.
Stop, she said, then tugged her earlobe.
But the memories of being in his arms kept on repeating. And she felt like swooning again.
This was not a simple case of liking a guy and letting him know she was interested. Her close friendship with Ash made it complicated. She could very easily imagine him avoiding her altogether if he knew how she felt and he didn’t feel the same. She wouldn’t want that. She’d never want to lose Ash.
So what should she do?
She shook her head, having no clear answer, and went for the door. As she turned the knob, she checked herself in the mirror for the first time since entering the bathroom. Ugh! Her hair was a mess! She pulled out a tie from her pocket and combed her fingers through her hair, taking her time and ensuring she looked all right with a ponytail. Nah. She looked better with her hair down.
What does it matter, Brenna? she chided herself, rolling her eyes.
She untied her hair just the same and smoothed it with her hands. It would have to do. Ash wasn’t likely to notice anyway.
She turned around to leave the bathroom, then froze.
The door was slightly ajar, and there was a small gap—enough for her to see what was happening in the bedroom. Creeping closer to the gap, she leaned in to have a better look, careful not to touch the door lest it moved and gave her away.
There was Ash, stripping out of his wet clothes, his back to the bathroom door. Fortunately, he wouldn’t be able to tell she was playing Peeping Tom unless he paid attention to the narrow slit she was looking through.
But Ash was facing the built-in wardrobe. And it had mirror sliding doors. So nothing was hidden from her. Nothing.
She couldn’t look away.
Because Ash had taken off his boxer briefs.
And. She. Could. See. Everything.
Holy hell. He was stunning.
Her breathing shallowed as moisture pooled between her legs. She’d seen Ash without a shirt on a few times before, but this was the first she’d seen him fully naked.
Damn it, she was getting hot and bothered. And right now she wanted to lick his…
She shook her head vigorously to stop her lustful thoughts. But her eyes had other ideas. They didn’t want to stop roving Ash’s body. Gosh, he was seriously well hung.
Ash finished wiping himself dry with a towel, then he put on a new shirt—presumably one of Connor’s. The bottom part of his top must have gotten wet too. Then he stepped into a pair of denim jeans. He was going commando! Oh no, how could she face him during lunch knowing that? Without wanting to undo his fly and reach in? Especially when she’d love to see him hard…
Argh! Brenna! Stop it!
She shut her eyes and tried to normalise her breathing, but opened them again when she heard a rustling sound. Ash was stuffing his wet clothes in a plastic bag, and then he left the room.
Exhaling gustily, she turned around and leaned back on the wall. She almost laughed out loud when she caught sight of herself in the mirror. Her mouth was hanging open, her eyes dreamy. Yes, she looked aroused. Oh Lord, what should she do now?
Brenna swallowed her frustration as the conversation among the group got funnier. Not that she wasn’t enjoying herself, but she and the girls hadn’t had the chance to talk in private yet. Connor and Jeff didn’t seem to want to let their fiancées out of their sights, and Amanda and Sarah seemed happy to either sit on their men’s laps, or cuddle with them. It made her envious, of course, and the fact that Ash seemed to be avoiding her since getting back from the beach was starting to upset her.
If Ash had noticed her reaction to him, or had overheard her conversation with the girls earlier, it could be bad news. It could mean he didn’t want to encourage her.
Disappointment zipped through her at the thought. It was so acute she had to get up and escape for a few minutes.
“Coffee or tea, anyone?” she asked. “I’m happy to make them.”
“I’ll help you,” Amanda said, rising from her seat.
“Stay here, Amanda,” Gemma said. “This is your little party. I’ll help Bren.”
The two took everyone’s orders and headed to the kitchen.
“Oh, I’ve got ice cream in the fridge, too!” Amanda called out.
“In that case, I’ll help them scoop,” Sarah said, following Brenna and Gemma.
In the kitchen, Brenna found herself in front of two inquisitive faces.
“So let’s talk about you and Ash, Bren,” Sarah said.
Brenna breathed deeply. “Okay. But have you noticed that he seems to be avoiding even looking at me? Do you think he noticed something and he’s uncomfortable with it because he couldn’t imagine the two of us together?”
“So you’re imagining the two of you together?” Gemma asked, eyes wide.
“Even I am surprised by this, but for the last hour, the idea just keeps playing in my mind,” she said with candour, wondering for the umpteenth time what had gotten into her. She kept her mouth shut about seeing Ash naked, though. That was only for herself, no one else.
Gemma and Sarah glanced at each other.
“What if Ash thinks you see him as a brother, and he’s uncomfortable because he feels something, but thinks you don’t?” Gemma suggested.
Brenna’s eyes grew wide as the possibility hit her square in the chest. “You think he might be interested in me?” she whispered.
“Well, I don’t really know. I’ve suspected for a long time that he might be, but I haven’t really asked him.”
“Yeah, same here,” Sarah murmured.
Brenna’s brows furrowed. “Really?”
“Oh, Bren. You’re the one who always brings up the ‘brother’ thing with Ash. And you never notice his hurt look when you do so,” Sarah said.
“Oh my God,” Brenna said, her hand flying to her mouth. “Since when?”
Sarah sighed. “Well, I first noticed Ash looking at you differently when we were in our late teens. When guys came to hang around with us, he seemed to chase off your admirers first before he dealt with the others. I know he made it out as if it was a protective big-brotherly thing to do, but like I said, somehow it seemed different with you. When you started dating seriously, I thought Ash started spending less time with us.”
“I thought it was because he was busy dating other women himself,” Brenna answered, her heart galloping in her chest.
“I noticed what Sarah noticed, too,” Gemma said. “But you were oblivious to the whole thing, Bren. When you started going out with Darren and gushed about him, telling all of us how in love you were with him, I thought Ash looked crestfallen. I resolved then that I wouldn’t mention my suspicions to anyone—because it might wreck your whole relationship. If you didn’t feel the same, I couldn’t see the point of bringing it up. I thought it would hurt him more.”
Sarah nodded in agreement.
Tears sprung to Brenna’s eyes. “He’s had feelings for me for that long?” And to think it bothered her that she’d been attracted to him for a year. One year compared to ten for him? How could she have been so blind?
“Yes, I think he's had feelings for you for that long,” Gemma said. “But he’s never said anything to me.”
“Same here,” Sarah said.
“But you never spoke about this amongst yourselves?”
She stared at them, sensing a deep stirring in her heart. “Do you think he still has feelings for me now?”
Both Gemma and Sarah shrugged.
“Hey, girls,” Amanda said, appearing in her kitchen. “Is everything okay? You haven’t started anything.”
“Sorry,” Gemma said with a grin, and started opening cupboards.
Brenna stared at Amanda. If Ash had told anyone, he would have told his sister. Should she ask her now?
“Bren? What’s up?” Amanda asked.
Brenna’s gaze darted to Gemma and Sarah, but they’d busied themselves with the tasks at hand.
“It’s to do with Ash, isn’t it?” Amanda said. “What did you guys talk about earlier when he took you to the water’s edge?”
Brenna smiled. “We were joking about how cold the water is and how we don’t have a change of clothes.” Images of Ash stripping in the guest bedroom filled her mind, making her flush again.
“Are you imagining my brother in a wet t-shirt contest?” Amanda joked.
Brenna laughed to cover her embarrassment. “No, I’m imagining him naked.”
Amanda gasped. “Bren! Are you kidding me? Is this what you guys were talking about? Tell me!”
With hushed voices, the three shared with Amanda their earlier conversation.
“There were times when I wanted to throttle you for not noticing, Bren,” Amanda said quietly. “But you were with Darren. Even after you broke up with Darren you still didn’t notice. I’ve felt sorry for my brother for years. But I know he’d hate for me to interfere. Plus, I didn’t know what good it would do to tell you, since you weren’t interested anyway.”
Brenna could only stare at Amanda in shock.
“So what did you talk about at the beach?” Amanda asked with a frown.
The rest of what she and Ash had discussed came crashing back to Brenna. “He asked whether I expected to get serious with Lance,” she said, mortification filling her. “I was so frazzled by being in his arms that I didn’t clarify to him I’m not hung up on Lance at all, although I might have given him that impression.”
“Oh, Bren,” Gemma said with a hint of exasperation. “You told him you’re sticking with Lance?”
“Yes,” she said in a small voice. “I’m now sorry I did.”
“That probably explains why Ash is avoiding even looking at you. He’s dealing with another heartbreak—one you’ve caused.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt him,” she cried in dismay. “Maybe I should pull him aside and tell him I didn’t mean what I said. Sure, I like Lance. He’s nice. But I most definitely do not love him. I don’t even think I’ll ever get to the love stage with Lance at all.”
“But you’re not ready to break up with him, are you?” Amanda asked.
Brenna paused, considering the question and scanning herself for a truthful answer. “You know what? I really don’t mind if I do. Deep inside I know Lance is not the man for me. I also know things between us are starting to fizzle fast. I was just too stubborn to admit I’m heading for another failed relationship—that was why I hadn’t wanted to end it yet. But… I feel differently now.”
“And what are you gonna do with Ash?” Sarah asked.
Her lips tugged upwards, the thought of Ash filling her with warmth. “It would be great if he’s still interested in me, wouldn’t it?”
“Bren,” Amanda said quietly. “Ash is seeing someone at the moment—a woman he met at a birthday party.”
Brenna looked at her friend in alarm. “He’s got a new girlfriend?”
Amanda shrugged. “You know Ash. He dates them, then nothing further happens. To be honest, I think you’re the reason why he hasn’t fallen in love with anyone else.”
Brenna breathed in sharply. “So you don’t think he likes this other woman?”
“I don’t know. It’s too new to tell with this one,” Amanda said before burying her face in her hands. “This is why I’ve kept my nose out of this in the past. It’s so stressful thinking that Ash likes you but you don’t like him back. But what if it’s different with this woman? What if it’s now the reverse and you start liking him but he’s no longer available? I don’t want you getting hurt either, Bren.”
“You think he’s moved on?” Brenna asked, dismayed by the possibility.
“I have no idea. I’m sorry. I really don’t know.”
“I want to find out,” Brenna murmured.
“How? Are you gonna ask him straight out?”
“No. I’d have to be subtle. Our friendship is at stake.”
“Please don’t lead him on, Bren,” Amanda pleaded.
She looked Amanda straight in the eye. “I’d never deliberately hurt Ash, Amanda. You know that.”
As they walked back to the balcony, carrying trays with ice cream and hot drinks, Brenna’s gaze immediately went to Ash. Fondness washed over her as she watched him chat with the guys.
A clear image of her flying to Ash’s arms flashed in her mind. She saw herself holding him tight and telling him she was so sorry she’d made him wait for so long. The picture was so strong it brought tears to her eyes.
In that second, she knew her world had shifted.
“What took you girls so long?” Connor asked.
“You know us. We got busy chatting,” Amanda responded, setting the tray she was carrying on the table. Brenna did likewise, grateful no one was looking at her. She blinked the tears away and took deep breaths to calm herself. Then she sat on a chair next to Ash.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to go soon,” Ash said, checking his watch.
“Why? What else have you got on this afternoon?” Amanda asked.
“I promised someone I’d pick her up from the hospital.”
Her? Brenna’s ears pricked.
“Hospital? Who?” Amanda asked.
“Sophie. This woman I’m seeing. She’s visiting a friend’s kid at the Children’s Hospital.”
“You have a new girlfriend?” Greg asked. “How long have you been going out with her?”
“About three weeks or so.”
“Doesn’t she drive? How did she get to the hospital?” Amanda asked.
“The kid’s parents picked her up, but they’re staying with their son until tonight, so Sophie needs a lift home.”
“Do you like her, Ash? As in really, really like her?” Amanda prodded.
Brenna found herself holding her breath for Ash’s response.
“Would I be going out with her if I didn’t like her?” he replied.
“Yes,” Amanda replied boldly. “You’ve gone out with women before to test if there was something there. Then you got your confirmation that there was nothing.”
“But I haven’t gone out with those girls again, have I?”
“Ooh, it must mean you really like Sophie then, hey?” Jeff said before wincing. “Did you just kick my leg, babe?” he asked Sarah in surprise.
“Sorry, it was an accident,” Sarah said with an innocent smile. “Anyway, Ash, what does this woman do?”
“She runs a hairdressing salon. Don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll all get to meet her someday.”
“Meet her? Whoa, you must be getting serious, bro,” Greg teased.
Ash grinned at Greg, and Brenna’s heart sank. Was that a yes? Was he getting serious with Sophie? No!
“Are you bummed that your baby sister’s going to beat you to the altar?” Greg asked.
Ash laughed. “Not at all. But now that my baby sister’s all grown up and getting married, I can stop worrying about her and start focusing on my own love life.”
Amanda rolled her eyes. “You’re the overprotective brother who insists on poking your nose in my business, Ash.”
“It’s tit for tat and all that, sis. Gemma’s the last one I have to worry about now,” Ash said with an exaggerated sigh.
“Not the last,” Gemma said. “Brenna’s still single too.”
Brenna was surprised at Gemma’s comment, but she was grateful for it. What would Ash say about that?
“She’s got Lance,” Ash said rather cheerily.
Ash’s tone pinched Brenna’s heart. “Not for long,” she murmured, unable to help the distressed frown on her face.
“Is everything okay, Bren?” he asked softly.
He noticed! She gave him a sweet smile, words catching in her throat.
Ash reached over and patted her on the arm. “You’ll be fine, Bren. I know it,” he said, then stood up. “I’m afraid I have to go, guys. I don’t want to be late in picking up Sophie. And Bren, I’m sure you’ll work it out with Lance,” he added with an encouraging smile.
Brenna’s jaw slackened as she watched Ash leave to go to another woman. Hurt gripped her, and she was shocked by the intensity of it. It was almost as if a switch had been flicked. Or rather, as if a dam had been broken. Feelings for Ash she’d been forcefully ignoring were gushing out.
But was she just a tad too late?
***End of Chapter Two***
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