One step closer a stepbr.., p.17
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       One Step Closer: A stepbrother, stand-alone novel., p.17

           Kahlen Aymes

  “Coffee for me. Black,” he said before the waitress could ask. He pulled out Wren’s chair and waited until she was seated before taking the one across from her. He glanced down at the menu quickly, and then up at Wren.

  “What are you hungry for?” She was starving, but her eyes searched the menu items for something healthy.

  Caleb knew what she was doing. “Sticky buns, bacon, eggs, and a mountain of pancakes.” Wren loved pancakes, but they were loaded with calories. “Don’t order bird food, Bird.”

  The corner of her pink lips lifted in a slight smile. Her lips were bowed and perfect, her blue eyes bright and sparkling beneath her somewhat matted down curls. Wren glanced up from the menu to meet his eyes and self-consciously started pulling and pushing at her hair. “Don’t look at me. I must look a mess.”

  Caleb laughed and threw down the menu at the same time as the waitress set the drinks on the table. “Yeah, but who cares?”

  Wren’s face twisted wryly. “Gee, thanks.”

  “My name is Suzy and I’ll be taking care of you today,” the waitress said. “Are you ready to order?”

  With a wave of his hand Caleb indicated she should take Wren’s order first.

  “I’ll have an egg white omelet with spinach and mushrooms, and an English muffin with the butter on the side.”

  “Any bacon?”

  Wren looked up and shook her head. “Nope.”

  “She’s always on a damn diet. I’ll have three scrambled eggs, four strips of bacon, a stack of pancakes, and two sticky buns.”

  Suzy smiled as she scribbled down Caleb’s order. “Wow. You must be a growing boy.”

  Wren’s eyes widened and she rolled them. Caleb saw her reaction, even if the waitress didn’t. He was still grinning at Wren across the table when the waitress left.

  “Wow, you must be a growing boy!” Wren mocked in a sing-song voice. “Bleh!” She tried not to smile, but couldn’t help it and they both laughed out loud.

  “Stop it, or I’ll think you’re jealous,” he goaded with a grin. Hoping he was right, he waited for her reaction.

  Their eyes locked. He knew she was thinking of their night together and wondering what the fuck happened afterward; why he left without a word, and why he pretended like it never happened. A public restaurant wasn’t the place to get into it, but it would definitely need to be addressed.

  “How’s Sam doing?” he asked. Inwardly he braced himself for the answer. The guy he’d seen her with on her birthday wasn’t Sam, but maybe they were just having a spat. Sam was the only guy Caleb was totally sure she’d ever been serious about.

  Wren’s eyes widened in surprise, and she cocked her head to one side. “You wanna talk about Sam? I thought you wanted to talk about your dad and stuff.”

  What Caleb needed was to find out what her life was like, if she was happy with it the way it was, and wanted to stay in New York indefinitely, or if she missed Colorado and might want to come back someday. He needed details, and Sam was a significant detail.

  “I do, but I want to know if you’re happy. Are you?” he asked seriously, his finger and thumb of his right hand fiddling with the handle of his coffee cup. He hadn’t taken a drink of it yet.

  Wren studied him. He was so freaking beautiful. His dark hair had been matted down by his helmet too, but with one swipe of his hand through it, he’d managed to make it look like messy perfection, and the soft shadow of beard on his strong jaw practically made her mouth water.

  Wren sat back in her chair before she spoke. “Yes. You know how much I love dancing.”

  This wasn’t going to be as easy as he’d hoped. He felt sick inside at his next words, but the questions had to be asked. He had to know, and not just because of how it would affect his decision about the will.

  “Sure, I do. But are you with Sam? Did you get married?”

  Caleb already knew the answer. It didn’t take a genius to do a public records search, and she wasn’t wearing a ring, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t still in her life. He told himself he needed to know if she was seeing anyone else because that could have an direct effect on whether she’d want to be tied to Lux, and whether he’d want another man owning half of it through possible divorce. Really, he just wanted to know. Period.

  Wren’s mouth opened in surprise, but then she closed it. How could she tell him that the San Francisco trip had ruined her relationship with Sam? Her heart hammered underneath her ribs until she thought it would fly from her chest. She clasped her hands together in her lap to quell their shaking. She never told Caleb she’d broken up with Sam. She’d never told him anything about her personal life in the past two years, so how could he know she wasn’t with Sam anymore?

  San Francisco had been heartbreaking, but it also hammered home some hard revelations.

  Wren swallowed. “Sam and I aren’t together. We haven’t been…” she stopped, not wanting Caleb to realize that the trip to see him and the events that followed had made Sam leave her. “For a while, now.”

  Caleb breathed a silent sigh of relief. So, what about the guy he’d seen her with on her birthday? He had to know.

  “Oh, I’m sorry it didn’t work out,” he said softly. A piece of him was rejoicing, but another part felt bad for her. She deserved to be loved. More than anyone he’d ever known, and he’d been a complete dick to Sam. He knew it when he was doing it, but at the time his heart was on fire and there wasn’t one fucking thing he could do to stop it. The poor schmuck had been lucky he hadn’t pounded him into the ground.

  One slight shoulder lifted in a shrug. “It’s okay. I guess it wasn’t meant to be.”

  She remembered it so clearly.

  Two years earlier Sam had proposed and she’d taken him to San Francisco to meet Caleb, hoping her new relationship would ease the awkwardness between Caleb and herself after their division after he’d slunk off and never acknowledged their night together.

  That weekend had served to open her eyes and made her face the truth. She’d liked Sam, but she didn’t love him. He was hot and talented, and he made her feel beautiful, but he wasn’t Caleb and putting the two of them side-by-side had been a mistake. Her entire life; no one could compare to Caleb and she was kidding herself and being dishonest with Sam by attempting to hide her feelings. After the night she’d introduced them, it had been clear to Sam that her heart was someplace else.

  She’d had a blow up with Caleb after their dinner and was pensive and quiet when she met Sam back at the hotel. She was heartbroken. Caleb had let her down when she needed him to help her move on with her life; to help her move on from him.

  It had been an awkward introduction between the two men and an uncomfortable meal at a local steak house filled with stilted small talk, long uncomfortable silences, and a lot of wine. Caleb’s dark brooding and intense stare as he sat back regarding the way Sam interacted with Wren had made his presence at the table a mostly silent, potent force. Sam had tried to make small talk, but Caleb’s short answers made the evening unbearable.

  “So, Wren tells me that you’re an engineer?” Sam had asked after the first round of drinks.

  “What else did she tell you?”

  Sam’s brow creased and his head cocked to one side, perplexed at Caleb’s rude tone. “Just that you two grew up together.”

  Caleb leaned forward to grab his Dos Equis, drained it and lifted his hand to signal the waiter to return so he could order another one. “I think she left a whole lot of shit out, then.”

  Sam cleared his throat and shot a look at Wren, who was seated between the two men. “Um… Well, I’m sure she didn’t tell me every detail.”

  “No, I’m positive of that.” Caleb grunted; his eyes flashing up to lock with Wren’s as she silently questioned what he was doing.

  “Can we order, please?” Wren asked, trying to lighten the mood. The air between them was so thick she could hardly breathe. Caleb had always been protective and so she justified his behavior. This was the first time sh
e’d been with a man in front of him since the night she spent dancing with Dex. She’s flushed as the memory pushed heat through her body. “I’m starving.”

  After the compulsory return questions of what Sam’s job entailed and the response about being one of the directors with Wren’s ballet company, and some dumb, meaningless conversations about the San Francisco Giants and the New York Mets, the evening thankfully came to a close with Wren sending Sam back to the hotel in a cab, so she could speak to Caleb in private.

  As they walked along the streets off of Fisherman’s Wharf, Wren struggled with what to say. She was angry that Caleb had behaved so badly after she’d extolled his virtues to Sam the way she had. She felt disappointed and angry.

  It was a damp night and Caleb had his collar turned up and his hands shoved into the pockets of his wool jacket, and Wren struggled on the cobblestone in her black stiletto heels, resigned to the fact her hair was getting spoiled by the misty air, her arms curled around her middle, holding her own long coat closer around her body. They walked slowly because of her shoes; the second time she stumbled and Caleb had to catch her to keep her from falling flat on her face.

  “What the hell did you ask to go for a walk for when you have those damn things on?” he growled angrily. “It’s ridiculous.”

  “Why are you so mad? I haven’t seen you in forever and you’ve been a prick all night!”

  He was taken aback by her question and he straightened and turned back forward to keep walking. “I’m not mad. I just don’t want you to hurt yourself.”

  Silence followed for three or four minutes while Wren tried to muster the courage necessary for what was coming.

  Her contact with Caleb had been sparse for much of the almost two years that had passed since she’d seen him. She’d been so hurt because he refused to acknowledge the one night she spent in his arms which had been heaven to her, and what she thought would be the beginning she’d been waiting for… that he was just waiting for her to grow up. It turned out nothing was further from the truth and she’d had to face it. It probably didn’t help that the first time she’d been face-to-face with Caleb since that fateful night, she had another guy in tow.

  “I hoped you’d like Sam.”

  Caleb clenched his teeth and the muscle in his jaw started to twitch, but he didn’t respond. Wren reached out and touched his arm to get him to pause in his steps. She was almost running to keep up with him.

  “Cale, will you please stop for a minute? Look at me?” Her voice was pleading and filled with enough emotion to make it quiver. She looked up into his face. That face that haunted her dreams, along with strong arms, the sound of her name on his lips as he came inside her.

  “What? Why? Who is this guy? Are you in love with him?”

  She liked Sam. Liked him a lot, but she couldn’t say she loved him. Especially, not to Caleb. “I want you two to be friends.”

  Caleb visibly stiffened, stepping back so her hand dropped from his sleeve. “You and I never see each other. What does it matter if I like the guy?”

  “Because he’s asked me to marry him, Caleb. You’re the only other person in the world who means anything to me, and I need you in my life or I won’t be happy.”

  He kept walking, throwing an irritated glance over his shoulder, his voice taking on a harsher tone. “You can’t marry him. He’s a pussy. I can see it from a mile away. He can’t take care of you; he can barely lift his fucking drink.”

  “Cale, stop.” When he didn’t she did and yelled after him. “Cale!”

  He stopped and threw his arms out then let them drop to his sides heavily before turning to face her. “What?” he spat out.

  “It would mean a lot to me if you’d be the one to give me away.”

  Caleb’s surprise was plain on his face as he huffed loudly in disgust. His eyes widened for a split second, then his face changed to a rigid mask, cold and devoid of emotion. After a couple of seconds, he laughed harshly. “No.” He said, with a lift of both eyebrows and a hard shake of his head. “No way.”

  Wren felt as if the air had been knocked from her lungs, as if she’d just been kicked in the gut. Did he just say no? Her throat got tight and her eyes began to well with tears, Caleb’s form starting to blur in the dark night and the dim light of from the street lamps. She could see his arm lift like he was rubbing his mouth with the back of his hand. Wren blinked at the tears forming in her eyes.

  It was almost 11 PM on Saturday night, but there were still people milling about, despite the inclement weather and the start of a light rain. “No?” Wren asked, the words torn from her. “Really, Caleb?

  He visibly flinched. She hadn’t called him Caleb for years and it was like a slap in the face.

  “Did I stutter, Wren? No. Fucking. Way,” he punctuated the words, his eyes pained as he looked at her.

  She sucked in her breath on the start of a sob. “I’ve never asked you for anything. Despite all you’ve given me, I never asked for any of it. I’m asking for this. I nee—eed you to do this for me.”

  “I can’t, Wren!” The words ripped from him as he stormed closer until he was looming down on her, his hot breath showing white in the cold air. “I’ll give you anything! Ask me any goddamned thing you want, but I can’t do that. Not fucking that!”

  “I need you, Cale! You’re all the family I have.” Her voice broke as tears started to run down her face. She had faced the fact that she had to put her schoolgirl crush of Caleb in the past and she was trying her best to move beyond it, but her heart was breaking. There was no denying the one she loved the most was standing in front of her, and it killed her to ask this of him. “I need you to stand beside me when I do this. Please don’t let me down.”

  “I said, no, Wren.” He turned and started walking away again. When she didn’t follow, he stopped and turned back. Coming closer and taking her cold hand in his and starting to pull her along with him down the sidewalk.

  Wren yanked her hand free of his abruptly, and stopped, causing Caleb to turn to her again. She held out her wrist, pulling up the sleeve of her coat to expose her tattoo. “Remember this? Remember when you took me to get it? You wanted to know why I wanted it.” She was crying full out now, her voice breaking. “I can’t believe you didn’t know. A white fucking horse?” A bitter laugh burst from her as she stood shaking in front of him. “It’s you, Caleb. YOU. You are the white horse, the savior, the knight in shining armor of my life!”

  Caleb’s head dropped and his shoulders slumped as she railed at him. He couldn’t meet her eyes. “I know that.” It was a simple statement that held the weight of Thor’s hammer.

  Tears poured from her eyes and sobs broke from her chest. She wished she could fall to her knees into a broken mess on the wet pavement, the rain falling around her. Her heart was breaking, as much as the morning after their night together, when she gave herself so fully to him. She wanted his arms around her. She wanted her Caleb to save her once again; to save her from the misery of not being everything to him. “Then live up to it, like you always have. I need you in my life, Cale.” Her voice was so soft he barely heard her words. “Please.”

  Wren waited for him to speak for what seemed like forever. She used her cold fingers to push the wet hair out of her eyes and blinked; unsure if the drops on her eyelashes were tears or raindrops.

  When Caleb finally lifted his head, the expression on his face and the tone in his voice said it all. He was hurting as much as she was. “But you’re asking me for something, I can’t do. I don’t know him. I can’t give my blessing to someone I’m not absolutely certain can take care of you.”

  “That’s not it, Caleb. Just… tell me the truth!” She felt like she was begging for her very last breath.

  “Come on, let’s go. I’ll take you back to your hotel. Sam’s waiting.”

  Pain exploded inside Wren. Every cell in her body protested and felt like it would implode and she gasped for breath. “He’s a great guy if you’d give him a chance. Y
ou two are a lot a like.”

  “He’s nothing like me,” he railed. “How can he take care of you? He’s a pussy who prances around in tights; my wrists are bigger than his biceps! He can’t protect you!”

  “Caleb, I’ve been protecting myself just fine! I’ve been in New York for more than two years without you. I’m okay.” She pulled her hand from his and put her palms out at her side. “See?”

  He shook his head as he lifted his hand and quickly wiped at one eye with his thumb, starting to walk away from her toward the curb. “The hell you are.”

  Traffic was moderate, a mixture of cars, SUVs and cabs. Caleb whistled and held up his hand, hailing one of them.

  “Who else do I have to walk me down the aisle?” She took a step closer to him, reaching out her hand.

  “My dad.” His answer was harsh and abrupt.

  A cry broke from her chest. Edison had become dear to her, but no one meant more than Caleb. She’d hoped her getting married would have taken the pressure of the sexual tension that always existed between them away and they could be close again. Caleb opened the door of the yellow cab and waited for Wren to get in. She stopped in front of him. “I miss you, Cale. Please do this for me. I want you back in my life.”

  He ushered her inside and she fully expected him to follow her but he only leaned in and gave the name of her hotel to the driver. “Then, don’t get married.”

  He shut the door, hammered on the roof of the car, and then turned away as the sky opened up and rain started pouring down. She was sobbing in the backseat of the cab, and once again, Caleb was walking away from her.

  When she got back to the hotel it was easy for Sam to see how upset she was, despite her attempt to convince him she looked so ruined due to the rain pouring down outside. She was in so much pain she finally broke down and told him everything. She couldn’t help it, and it was the honest thing to do.

  “You’re in love with your brother, Wren? That’s so fucking sick!”

  Sam stormed around her hotel room gathering his things and throwing it all in his suitcase in angry outburst. He was hurt and Wren couldn’t blame him, but there was nothing she could do or say to change reality. She did love Caleb. She’d always love Caleb and she had to face it. She wasn’t strong enough to pretend that she didn’t or that she was okay.

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