“Andy, hold up a sec,” Brody called as Cope left the table to get Ella another glass of wine. He’d managed to hog her all to himself for the last forty-five minutes at their little table near the dance floor. Eventually he’d have to share her, but he’d enjoy what he had for the time he had it.
“Nice party, Brody. Congratulations.” Cope smiled. It was good to see his friend so happy. Startling to see the way Brody couldn’t seem to tear himself away from Elise and Rennie for very long. They were his anchor, but not in a negative way. He and Ben had shown Cope just how that sort of connection was unique and special instead of a burden.
“I said something earlier that bugged you. I’m sorry about that. You’ve been my friend a really long time. I’ve never doubted you, or that you were a good guy. I was being protective of Ella, but I went about it wrong.”
“It’s fine. No harm done.” But he appreciated the apology nonetheless.
“Always harm done when you hurt a friend. You’re changing. Not that you were an ass with women in the past, so get that look out of your eyes. You look at her differently. Different than the way you looked at the women you’ve been with before. I know what that is. Elise changed everything for me. It’s hard and sort of scary sometimes. Hard to let go of who you were to make room for who you can be. And I didn’t make that any easier with the way I acted.”
It was a sore spot, Cope knew, but it did make it better to hear someone he respected say that. To know he was changed by Ella and that it showed.
Adrian approached. “What’s going on? And man, since I’ve had three glasses of champagne and I can claim tipsiness, I have to tell you both that Elise and Ella look amazing tonight. Damn, Brody, your fiancée is freaking beautiful. Don’t know how you rated someone like her. Must be payback for all the nice shit you’ve done for me and Erin since forever.”
“Just making amends.” Brody tipped his head in Cope’s direction.
Because he was never really angry to begin with and because he knew his friend cared about him and Ella both, he made a joke to ease the mood. “He’s making sure I’m not mad because I’m keeping an eye on his bike for the few days he’s taking Elise out to the coast.”
“Speaking of romance and stuff, this thing with you and Ella, it’s pretty wow. I believe there was eye-fucking last night.” Adrian sent him a raised brow.
“That was the only kind. I’m taking my time with her.”
Adrian laughed. “Well, you turned it up full blast. She deserves that.”
Cope nodded. “She does.”
“I need to get popcorn because this will be amusing. Maybe I’ll swoop in and snag her. Take her to some swank resort on a private island. Spoil her mercilessly and have sex with her a few thousand times.”
“Ha. If you could walk again after I broke your legs.” It was a good thing Cope knew Adrian wouldn’t do anything like that. Jealousy was an odd sort of feeling. Not entirely unpleasant, but pretty unusual. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt jealousy over a woman.
Adrian’s brows rose. “Wow. You are gone for her. About damned time you took yourself seriously and stopped fucking every woman who crossed your path.” Adrian’s smile was rueful then. “We’re getting too old for that shit.”
“I don’t regret what I was before. I didn’t have an epiphany or a checklist as to when I’d fall for a woman in a big way. She’s always been special. Always been different. Maybe it’s that she was my friend first. I don’t know.”
“Nothing to regret.” Adrian shrugged, diffusing Cope’s defensive-ness. “You and I like women a lot, and unlike my ugly brother here, we have an unusual amount of talent with the fairer sex.”
Brody rolled his eyes. “It’s that she sees you. All of you down to the bone.”
That was exactly it.
“Humbling, that. Scary, because underneath is where you put all the shit you don’t want others to see and judge. So she’ll make you a better man because you want her to see you that way.” Brody shrugged.
Adrian stood there quietly for long moments, along with Cope.
“Yeah. That’s it, I guess. You’re pretty smart for an old guy.”
“Oh, go on then, cover your emotions with humor.”
Cope realized for the millionth time just how fortunate he was with his family. The one he’d been born to and the one he’d made with his friends.
“And now I’m off in search of a drink for that gorgeous redhead I’m wooing.” He paused and looked at the Brown brothers. “Thanks.”
“Meh. Just don’t fuck up my bike.”
Just across the yard, Ella stood with Elise. “You just, god, you glow with love for that man, and he’s mad for you.” Elise’s smile in response to her comments made Ella give in and hug her friend. “I’m so happy for you. What you have together is so special. You and Rennie have your prince charming.”
Elise’s laugh had some tears in it. “I know. I have to keep pinching myself because he always seems too good to be true. But he’s mine. Damn, Ella, that hunk of thousand-watt hot over there is all mine.”
Both women looked to Brody, where he stood with Adrian, their heads close, laughing about something. Trouble most likely, but the best kind. Brody wore a pinstripe suit. He cleaned up very well. He even had a pocket square, red with white silk. He’d told her earlier that the red was for Elise and the white for Rennie. The man really was a dream. Adrian looked ridiculously handsome in his paler pinstripe suit, his hair longer than his brother’s. Even in the years she’d known him and Erin too, there were times when she had to pause when she remembered they were both so famous.
“Don’t take this the wrong way or anything, but holy crapweasels, he’s so hot.”
Elise tipped her head back and laughed. “He is. He totally is.” She linked her arm through Ella’s. “And speaking of hot, it’snot my imagination that Cope has been looking at you all day like he wanted to take a big bite of you. I’m thrilled for you.”
They walked through the crowd. Not so much a crowd, just a group of their closest friends. Laughter and conversation littered the air, falling into the place between the notes of the music the DJ was playing.
“This is all so lovely.”
Elise nodded. “It’s amazing to me that I have all these people who love me, love my kid, love the man I love so much.” Elise motioned at the guests. “I’m glad you’re here. Now, you were about to tell me what’s going on with you and Cope.”
“I don’t know. I don’t!” she said quickly when Elise turned to her and raised a single brow. “He seems different. But I’m different too. Or I’m trying to be. Anyway, I’m not Raven.” She tipped her head to where Raven and one of her friends had set up camp near Cope and flirted with him madly.
“Let’s be thankful for that,” Elise mumbled. “I assume you mean more sexually bold?”
Blushing like crazy, Ella nodded and then shrugged. “She’s bold all around. Goes after what she wants. Annoying or not, it’s a great personality trait.”
Elise shook her head. “Ella, you’re the boldest person I know, and I’m not just saying that. You’ve come back from some pretty dark stuff. You’re about to get your master’s degree, for heaven’s sake. You’ve put your life back together, and now you’ve found room for a man in it, and look at who you’ve ended up with? You didn’t even go for training wheels dating; you headed straight for the expert course.”
Ella laughed. “He sure isn’t the bunny slopes.”
“Listen, if he wanted that, wanted Raven, he could have it. But he doesn’t. He’s not hitting anything any of these women are pitching his way. I know you’ve noticed that, since you’ve been watching him all day as he’s been watching you. Just, you know, jump on him already.”
Ella hesitated, chewing her lip a moment, wondering if she even knew how to be in a normal romance with someone. It’d been a long time since she’d been in one.
She was scared of fucking it up with her baggage and issues. Scared she couldn’t measure up to these other women who were not her.
Elise turned to her, taking her hands in her own. Understanding played over her features. “You’re scared.”
Ella grinned briefly, thinking about how Elise had barged into her life and hadn’t put up with any excuses from Ella to keep her out. The friendship had happened suddenly, in the midst of Elise’s growing relationship with Brody. Elise had been in the café at closing, and the two women had gone out to dinner. Talking with Elise had felt so natural and easy, so it hadn’t entirely been a shock when the attack came up in the conversation. Ella didn’t talk about it very much, about the time before when she’d slowly begun to unravel as her own person. Of the day he’d forced his way into her apartment and tried to kill her. In Elise’s eyes Ella saw pity, but more empathy, far more understanding and most of all, acceptance.
Elise waited, letting Ella spool up the words however she needed to.
She let out a long breath. “Scared. Confused. Giddy. Off balance totally. I haven’t jumped on anyone in a very, very long time. He’s so . . . God, Elise he’s totally out of my league. He’s like, an expert at being a man. Not that I should be an expert or anything; that came out wrong.”
Elise’s shoulders began to shake until she let out her laugh and threw her arms around Ella. “I’m sorry, I am! You just do that thing when you’re all flustered and excited. Your voice gets higher and higher, and you sound like a cartoon. It’s adorable and makes me want to hug you.”
“That’s the second wonderful compliment I’ve received of that sort lately.” Ella knew she had a funny voice. She’d hated it until the eighth grade when, over the summer, she’d decided it was cool to have a voice like no one else’s. Most people still thought it was odd, but being complimented about it or having people appreciate it pleased her.
“Anyway, I don’t know what the heck to do with it. I don’t even know if it’s anything to be thinking about. He flirts with everyone. Now I’m part of that group, but what it means beyond that? Who knows? I like that it makes my belly fluttery, though. I haven’t had this sort of reaction to a man, well, in a very long time.” She shrugged, still smiling because it did make her happy, just being a silly, normal woman who was crushing on some totally unattainable guy.
“Well, yes, he is the kind of man who, you know, owns it. Brody is like that. Ben and Todd. Adrian. All in their own way, but it works. Makes them supersexy and sometimes sort of overwhelming for that woman they’ve decided to focus on so completely.” Elise smiled as her gaze snagged on Brody. “I’m not trying to rush you into anything you’re not ready for. But I definitely think what he’s got is more than just a realization you’re a girl. He’s got a realization that you’re you. He wants it.”
“No matter what, I feel excited about it. As long as I don’t mess things up and ruin our friendship. I like Andrew a lot.”
Even though she’d been people watching as they’d walked around, her gaze had always returned to him. She stared this time, greedily taking in the way he leaned against one of the tables in Adrian’s sweeping backyard. The water lay at his back, a stretch of blue as deep as his eyes. He looked handsome there, ocean and sky at his back, the fairy lights strung through the trees looking almost like stars.
Portable outdoor heaters had been set up, so despite the evening chill, the area was warm enough to enjoy being outside. Adrian had done a lot of work. She’d helped some, but the bulk of the planning had been done by him. The yard was so lovely, it was clear he’d had it all done with Rennie and Elise in mind. The beds overflowed with early fall flowers, and large vases and containers of cut flowers filled the air with their scent. The Brown siblings were tight that way, all pleased and loving with each other.
“Changing the subject now before I throw up from nervousness. This is the best engagement party I’ve ever attended. The food is ridiculously good. And the view, wow, I’d sleep out here every night if I lived in this house.”
“I know. This has been a very perfect day. My life is so very wonderful. Never thought I’d have two rock stars singing a song my soon-to-be-husband wrote for me.” Elise laughed. “Been a wild ride, falling in love with Brody.”
Elise squeezed her hand and then waved as Rennie squealed and ran toward them.
“I’m so glad to see you, Ella!” Rennie threw her arms around Ella’s neck when she bent to hug the little girl.
“Hi there, Irene.” She kissed the top of Rennie’s head. “You sure do look pretty in that dress. I can’t wait to see you rock the maid of honor job.”
Rennie grinned. “Thanks. Remember you promised to help me practice. Since you’ll be in the wedding too, I can help you practice when you help me.”
“That’s a really good idea. Deal.” She held her hand out, pinky finger extended. “Pinky swear.”
Rennie lit up, and they clasped pinkies for a moment. “Pinky swear.”
“Look at all my favorite beautiful women in one spot.” Brody approached, sweeping Rennie up in one arm and hugging Elise with the other. “And each one of you is absolutely gorgeous.” He looked to Ella. “I can’t say it has nothing to do with the way you can see my work, just a peek of it, when you don’t wear the matching jacket, Ella.” He grinned.
“That won’t be happening any time soon. It’s too cold outside for that tonight.”
“I’m telling her she should do a grand unveiling when it warms up and you finish the whole thing.” Elise leaned her head against his shoulder, and a twinge of envy soured Ella’s belly for a brief moment. What would it feel like to be able to lean on someone like that? To know they’d catch you if you fell, that they’d be there for you without fists and cutting words?
“There you are.” Cope approached and handed Ella a glass of champagne. “Have you been hiding?”
“More like you’ve been blinded by a sea of barely concealed woman-flesh.” Elise smirked.
“Can’t blame that on me! I was just scoping out what new tray of goodies was coming out of the kitchen, and I was beset.” He turned his attention back to Ella. “And here was the woman I was looking for the whole time.”
Ella sipped her champagne, liking the way his attention worked with the bubbles to make her feel light and silly. “So what you’re saying is breasts just happen?”
“If the day is very good, yes.” He grinned, and she laughed. “Come walk with me, Ella. Protect my honor.”
Ella rolled her eyes at him but linked her arm through his. “Where are you taking me?”
He drew her away, weaving them through the tables and around the people until they’d ended up on an overlook with a pretty wooden bench. “How about here?”
She sat and looked out over the water, glittering with the light of reflected stars. “So pretty tonight.” Shivering, she didn’t relay the next part, which was that it was cold.
“Here.” He took his suit coat off and put it over her shoulders. Instantly she sighed as his warmth surrounded her.
“God, thank you. That’s so much better.”
“Glad to be of service,” he murmured, his body very close to hers. “I haven’t told you in about an hour or so, but you look gorgeous. Purple is really your color.”
“Thank you. I was afraid I was too pale or that the freckles would overwhelm the color.”
“You have the most beautiful skin, seeing more of it only helps. Speaking of seeing more, I caught a glimpse of the tattoo. I forgot to ask you last night, but when will it be totally finished?”
“Brody will put on the final touches when I finish at the end of this quarter.”
“He’s adding a piece with each milestone?”
She nodded. “Yeah. I know some might think it’s silly to place so much importance on finishing a paper or whatever. But considering where my life has been, they’re huge steps.”
“They are. I agree. So how are you? I mean really?”
She looked at him in the quiet dark and thought about the million ways she could answer that question. “Depends on what you’re asking.”
He took her hand and she let him, liking that he held her without crushing her, but also with some pressure. The scent rising from the inside of his suit coat made her feel drunk. He smelled really good, making it hard to think clearly without just sniffing him.
“I’m asking whatever you want to answer.” He paused for a while, and she let him. “I figure it this way, you’re surrounded by people who care about you, and they are afraid to stir up bad feelings. So they don’t talk about it, the attack and your recovery. Now, it could be you don’t want to talk about it ever again, and I respect that. But I figure it could also be that you’d like to talk about it every once in a while with someone who has watched you triumph over a series of events that would have driven a lesser person to insanity.”
She swallowed past the lump in her throat.
“I’m good. With everything.” She shrugged and continued to look out over the water. “Two years ago I didn’t even know if I’d be able to walk again. Hell, five years ago I had to ask for permission to wear a certain sweater or even answer the phone.” She hadn’t meant to reveal that last bit.
He held her hand and said nothing.
“I’m nearly done with all this school. I may have a job when the new year starts. I have friends and family who care about me.” She sipped her champagne, draining it.
“I’ll be back in a moment. Don’t move!” He got up and jogged around the bend. While he was out of sight, she gave in and let herself bounce her knee to free some of her nervous energy. Damn, he got to her. Maybe it was the way he was so steadfast and strong. Or his voice. Or the way he focused so totally on her, listening to what she said. Or the way he looked. Whatever it was, he left her scatterbrained and blurty.
He came back into view with an armful of things.
“First.” He put the things down on the bench before unfurling a blanket. “Here, this should help. Adrian told me to let you know he has more if you need them.” He sat again, getting tucked in beneath it with her. He then handed her another glass, this one warm. “Mulled wine. Erin says it’s her best recipe and to drink an extra mug for her.”
Ella laughed. “Done.” She sipped, the warmth trailing down her throat and into her belly. “She wasn’t lying.”
“Last, I’m so hungry I thought a plate of a few somethings might help.”
“Thank you.” She ducked her head with a smile.
“You’re welcome.” He tucked some of her hair behind her ear and got lost in the feel of his fingertip brushing over the skin just behind her earlobe. He swallowed and moved his hand away.
“For everything. I mean, you’re a great listener.”
“You’re my friend, Ella. I hope you know you can tell me anything.”
She turned to face him, tucking one of her legs beneath her. “I know that. You’re an honorable person. I respect that. It’s just hard sometimes, hard to say what’s inside because it sounds so bad.” She blinked back tears. “I’m mostly past it, but there’s still shame. I’m still afraid, even though I have no reason to be. I hate that.”