One step closer a stepbr.., p.14
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       One Step Closer: A stepbrother, stand-alone novel., p.14

           Kahlen Aymes

  “He wouldn’t want you to blame yourself, Cale. He wasn’t an easy man to read. He was the adult, and you were a young boy who lost his mother. He knew how much she meant to you, and how much you must have suffered.”

  Caleb’s muscled frame was rigid and as Wren looked at him, she studied his profile, and could feel his coiled tension. The fingers in his right hand curled into a fist. “I was so mad. So many times, I wished he’d been the one to die.” His voice was full of pain, as the words tore from him. “I fucking hated him with every breath I took. You saw how much.”

  Wren nodded, though he didn’t see her acquiescence. She knew what he went through growing up when they had formed an affable alliance against their parents. She hated her mother at least as much as Caleb hated his father and she understood his anger and pain; then the apathy that became a welcome alternative. They’d been unlikely allies against a common enemy.

  “Maybe I deserved his indifference.”

  Wren got up and went to Caleb, standing behind him as he stood still as stone, and staring out the window. Her heart ached with love and grief for Caleb. She wanted to touch him; to offer reassurance, to take away the ache in his voice and heart. Without considering her actions, her arms slipped around his waist and she pressed up against his strong back and leaned her head against him, between his shoulder blades.

  Caleb was massive in comparison to her, and she was like a flower curling around him. Her hands fanned out against his hard stomach, her fingers finding the definition of his abs beneath his shirt. “Stop, Cale. I won’t let you do this to yourself. Your dad wouldn’t want that. None of it was your fault.” Her arms slid fully around him and held him tight against her body. “I can’t bear it. You’ve had enough pain. Enough.”

  Caleb sucked in a deep breath, the action bringing her even closer. He could feel every curve of her body pressed so closely against his back. He could feel her breathing, could feel how she shared his pain. His hand came up and he ran the flat of his hand from her elbow down to her hand, and then wrapped his fingers around hers.

  “When did you turn into the strong one?”

  Wren’s arms tightened around him. “When I met you. ”

  “Oh, Wren.” Should he just spill his guts? Would it fix everything? “I’ve got so much to say to you. How long can you stay?”

  She nodded against him, unwilling to end the contact between their bodies; needing the closeness as much as he did.

  He wanted to apologize for how he acted the last time he’d seen her, he wanted to say a hundred things… he needed her forgiveness.

  “How long do you need me?”

  In that moment a miracle happened; a sort of beautiful irony that taunted Caleb with its fragileness. It was as if he’d never screwed everything up between them. But would it stay this way?

  How long do I need you? Caleb thought. His heart raced to the point of exploding, and he wondered if Wren could feel it.


  AFTER SAYING GOODNIGHT to Wren forty minutes earlier, Caleb discarded his shirt, and unbuttoned his jeans, leaving them on and throwing himself on his big bed. Lying back, he stared at the ceiling with one arm bent so his hand rested between underneath his head. His mind was working overtime, bombarded with thoughts of Wren. He thought talking to her would help come to a decision regarding the will, but the conversation hadn’t moved deep enough.

  Part of him didn’t want to know much about her life, and part of him wanted to know every damn thing. How could he make this decision without her? “Uhhhhhgggg!” He groaned into the empty room, his fist clenching into the comforter.

  Obviously, she loved touring with her ballet company, but sharing Lux with her would mean she would want for nothing throughout her whole life. As much as Caleb hated thinking about it, he had to consider that money could bring out money-grubbers. Given her experience with Veronica, surely, Wren would recognize men with ulterior motives, but Caleb wondered if being wealthy would ruin her chances at real love.

  He felt sick inside at the thought. Regardless of how it would grate on him, he wanted her to have a happy life. No matter what that was or who she ended up with. Wren deserved someone to worship and adore her. Caleb sighed heavily, the sound filling the silence of the room.

  He needed to clarify a few things with Jonathan before he could make the decision. Would splitting the estate mean Wren would have to stop dancing completely or could they let the board of directors run the company and go about their respective lives? Was that what Caleb wanted?

  His father’s entire orchestration of this was to create a situation where he and Wren would be in constant contact. Caleb knew it, but he didn’t want to be selfish and just follow his heart. He had to do what was best for her. But what was that?

  “Fuck!” He spat, and then ran his hand over his face in agitated impatience. He still wasn’t sure what to do. Seeing Wren had stirred something deep inside of him, though he knew he had no right to feel that way. He’d let her down twice over the years, and her reaction earlier in his father’s study was more than he’d deserved or expected. He should have known she’d be loving and supportive despite everything; that’s who she was: who she’d always been. Too bad he went and fucked it all up. And, then made it worse.

  The room was pitch black, and so quiet. He could hear the soft whir of the heat blowing in through the vents, and feel his own heart beating in his chest. Suddenly, Caleb heard a loud noise from the other room that made him sit straight up.

  “Wren?” he called out softly.

  A few seconds later a shadowing figure appeared in the doorway and the room was suddenly flooded with light as Macy threw the switch, and Caleb was momentarily blinded.

  “Wren? What the hell, Caleb? What exactly is she to you and why are you expecting her to creep into your room?”

  Even as he blinked at the sudden and unwelcome brightness, Caleb could feel heat rushing up his neck and into his face. Macy had effectively caught him thinking about Wren, and she knew it. He scowled at the woman standing over his bed.

  Macy’s face wore an angry expression, her dark hair swinging around her shoulders as she walked around to the other side of the bed. She glared at him as she stood there in a slinky chemise.

  Caleb scooted to the edge of the bed, stood up and brushed past her. “My relationship with Wren is none of your business.” When Macy opened her mouth to protest but he continued. “You and I are dating, Macy. That’s all. You have no right to make demands of me. Jesus Christ! My father just died! Wren was close to him and she’s hurting, too.”

  “Yeah, I saw that earlier,” Macy retorted sarcastically. “Didn’t look like Edison was who she was close to.”

  He walked into the other room, his intent to get a stiff drink from the bar in the entertainment room. He reached into the refrigerator situated behind the bar for a beer, when he heard her footsteps behind him. Macy followed him and stood there in awkward silence, watching his every move.

  “I thought I made it clear that we weren’t going to share a room here.” He had serious doubts he’d ever share a room with her again, given his current state of antagonistic indifference toward her. What the hell did she think?

  “I know, Caleb. I’m sorry.” Realizing her mistake, Macy’s voice turned low and pleading. Caleb could hear the slightest tremble in her words. “I just wanted to comfort you.”

  Awesome, his mind reeled as he lifted the long neck bottle to his lips and took a long pull. That was just what he needed; to feel guilty on top of everything else. He turned to face her, but remained behind the bar. “I don’t need comfort, and I don’t want sex.”

  “You certainly looked like you needed comfort from Wren earlier.”

  Caleb’s head made an almost imperceptible shake, anger welling up inside him.

  “We have a history. She’s the only person who understa—” He stopped and changed his words. There was no way he was going to spill such personal memories. “Look, I’ll deal with the estate a
nd then see where we are.”

  The light from his room filtered down through the hallway, and those from the deck and backyard shone in through the windows. His head hurt and he didn’t want to turn on more lights, but he didn’t want Macy to think he had any type of romantic intentions, either.

  “Where are we, Caleb?” She shook her head and folded her arms across her chest. She wasn’t crying, but she wasn’t happy. Her face said it all, even in the dimness of the room.

  “No clue,” he said without hesitation. “I might have to stay in Denver for a while. The start-up may have to take a backseat until I get my head around everything.” He took another drink, draining half the bottle.

  “But, this inheritance is the answer, Caleb. You’ll sell everything then have more than enough money to start your firm. It solves everything. Right?”

  Caleb was shirtless as he stood there, tall, cut, and unmoving until he set his empty bottle down and bent to get another beer from the fridge. Her words should have been expected, but he was still surprised. “Don’t you want to do your job, now?” he asked, unable to keep the slight tinge of sarcasm from his tone.

  Macy walked toward him and leaned on the bar, her eyes dark and imploring. “That’s not what I meant. The design firm is your dream. Now you can have it without owing anyone. That’s all.”

  He ran a hand through his mop of hair. It was short on the sides and the back, but the top was longer. “No, that’s not all. Not even close.”

  Caleb backed up to lean on counter by the sink of the wet bar. He wanted to keep the Italian marble bar top, that Macy was almost sprawled across, between them. She shook her head and shrugged slightly. “Then, what?” she asked, until it dawned on her, incredulity showing on her pretty face. “You have to take care of your little sister? Is that it?”

  Caleb huffed angrily. “Wren is not my sister. How many times do I have to fucking say it?”

  “But, it has to do with her, doesn’t it.” Macy stated. It had to be some sort of misguided loyalty Caleb felt for the young woman. “Like how?”

  Caleb struggled with how much he was willing to share with Macy. He’d already settled that it was none of her business, but maybe he could tell her just enough so she’d stop pressing him about Wren and back off long enough so he could get her out of town while he dealt with things. “Like, she gets part of it, and there’s a clause that states we can’t sell for five years.” He silently hoped the five years would be the dealbreaker he needed.

  Macy let out her breath, her eyes wide. “Wow, that sucks. Your dad really was a prick.”

  Caleb considered his next words carefully. They were only partially true, but Macy was smart and she wouldn’t just take a placating answer designed to shut her up so he could move to the next subject. “I worry that my step-hag will show up. I know her and she’ll descend and lay in wait like a vulture after a kill. I’ve always protected Wren from—well, let’s just say, I’ve always protected her.”

  “Always protected her, why? Living here? In the lap of luxury, what could she possibly need protection from?”

  “That’s not my story to tell.”

  Macy moved slowly around the end of the bar, intent on getting closer to Caleb. When she was a couple of feet away, her arm snaked out and she ran the fingers of her right hand down the hard contours of his stomach. He was so effing delicious: his shoulders and arms were strong and defined, his stomach flat, but ripped, the six pack and V made her fingers itch to touch him. She’d want him even if he wasn’t gorgeous, but it was a bonus.

  Caleb’s hand closed around her wrist to stop her descent to the open waistband of his jeans, and at the same time spoke softly. “I’d appreciate it if you‘d keep this quiet. I don’t want Wren to know that I already know what’s in the will.” He moved around her without touching her, leaving her to stand there blankly watching him move away.

  She could sense a new distance between them and she damn sure knew the reason why. It wouldn’t do. It wouldn’t do at all. Something had to give. She had to figure out how to get rid of that little ballerina bitch, and fast.

  “I’m exhausted. I’ll see you in the morning,” Caleb said flatly.

  With that, he disappeared into the hall, the light to his room went out, and she heard the door to his room close with a click. It was like a thunderclap in the silence.

  “Uh uh,” she said softly to herself as she walked up the stairs and deciding to take a little exploratory trip through the house in search of Wren's room. If she didn’t get a chance to talk to her alone on their little shopping trip tomorrow, she’d just have to figure out a way to get her alone at some point. She needed to know Wren’s intentions and feelings for Caleb before she could figure out how to deal with her.

  “No little dancing orphan is going to ruin the future I have planned for us, Caleb Luxon. Especially, not now. No way in hell.”


  IT WAS NO WONDER that Wren couldn’t sleep.

  It could have been her long nap and the jet lag, but it was also because she was haunted by the events of the evening. She dug out some of her old dance clothes from one of the drawers in her mahogany dresser: a leotard, tights, and a short chiffon wrap skirt that tied around her waist. She slipped on a pair of pale pink ballet slippers; thinking a good workout was just what her body needed. Ballet could help ease tension and clear her mind.

  Given the lateness of the hour, she kept the music and the lights low. She’d decided on contemporary, rather than classical music, as she often did when she was dancing just for herself. The stereo speakers were excellent, and on her way to turn on the music, she passed by the vanity that matched the rest of the furniture in the room.

  The only pointe shoes she had here were the first ones she’d ever owned, and they were very well used. Caleb had bought them for her years ago and they were beat up so bad they offered little support anymore; the fabric was peeling away from the tips to expose the hard structure beneath. Despite their condition, Wren couldn’t bear to throw them out; they might was well have been made of gold. Untouched for years, they hung by their ribbons over the corner of the mirror in a position of honor and memory. She made a mental note to take them with her when she traveled back to New York.

  With Edison gone, it wasn’t likely she’d be visiting very often. Depending on what Caleb’s plans were, she had no idea if he’d even keep this house. Sadness flooded through her at the thought of never being in this house again. There were some hard times within these walls, but it held so many great memories, too. Her heart skipped a beat as she ran a hand lovingly over the ripped and frayed satin of the shoes she treasured as if they were the Hope Diamond.

  She remembered when Caleb had surprised her by taking her to a dance studio in one of the northern suburbs the day after her fifteenth birthday. She could see it play out in her mind as if it were happening right then and there.

  His face had been bruised and his lower lip split from the fight he’d fought the night before. It had been a few months since she’d stopped dressing in her disguise, and he had made sure he was with her whenever Veronica was around.

  With Jonesy’s help, the two of them had been able to keep pretty good track of the modeling shoots, promotional trips or vacations that Veronica went on with Edison, and Caleb kept a handwritten note in his front right jean pocket. They began to look forward to the freedom they gained when their parents were gone. Caleb made Wren a priority whether they were in town or not.

  Wren’s eyes started to burn, and her throat ached.

  He’d been so diligent in his efforts to keep her safe at home and at school. Her mother had been less cruel once Caleb warned her off, however she still kept Wren from dancing, which was the only thing she wanted in the world. Forbidding her daughter from taking classes was her one last avenue of torture.

  When they pulled up to the outside, she was excited to see where there were.

  “Cale, what are we doing here?”

  “You like to dance,
don’t ya?” he asked with a lopsided grin.

  It was a cold March day and he’d stolen the keys to Veronica’s Mercedes. When he’d shown up after school in it, she wasn’t even afraid of her mother’s wrath because she was with Caleb; hesitating a mere three seconds before sliding into the luxurious leather seats.

  “Yes!” Wren was giddy with happiness. “But—”

  “But nothing! Come on.” Caleb had been almost as excited as she was.

  He took her hand and pulled her with him across the parking lot; toward the studio, then in through the door. The smell of the sweat, rosin, and wood assaulted her nostrils and brought back many happy memories of when she was very young. Her face almost hurt from the big smile she couldn’t quell.

  “May I help you?” A young woman, with her dark hair scraped back in a tight bun and dressed in a leotard, had asked from behind the front counter.

  “Yeah. I’m Caleb Luxon. I called last week. About the lessons?”

  Joy filled every cell of Wren’s body at the words, though she was uncertain they’d be able to carry it off or how she’d afford it. She was certain she wouldn’t be allowed to continue, though she would be satisfied with just an afternoon on the wood.

  The woman’s face twisted wryly and she smiled. “For you?” Her eyes skated over Caleb’s face, handsome, even though he was injured.

  He laughed. “No. I spoke to Emily Mason about lessons for Wren Brashill.”

  The girl’s expression changed, as recognition dawned on her. “Oh, yes. Emily told me you’d be coming by today. She’s teaching a class until 4:30, but instructed me to help Wren get the paperwork filled out.”

  The woman handed Wren a clipboard with a form on it and a pen attached, but she hesitated to take it. “Cale, I can’t.” She shook her head adamantly.

  He put one arm around Wren, took the clipboard from the receptionist with the other, and turned her toward the waiting room in one motion, speaking in low tones right by her ear. “Yeah, you can. I’ll handle the hag-a-saurus.”

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