One step closer a stepbr.., p.30
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       One Step Closer: A stepbrother, stand-alone novel., p.30

           Kahlen Aymes

  Veronica’s sugary sweet voice was a good indication that she was up to no good. Wren didn’t want to see her mother because she figured she would try to strong-arm some way to get her to hand over at least a portion of her inheritance. On the other hand, she had to put on her big girl panties and face her demons. She was sure being clear that she had no intentions of giving Veronica an “in” or handing over any money would go a long way to a more peaceful future. The last thing she wanted was weekly phone calls or drop-ins from that hag.


  “Wonderful, darling.

  When the call ended, Jonesy gave Wren a stern look. Obviously, she expected Wren to share the details of Veronica’s call. “You aren’t considering meeting that woman, are you?”

  Wren’s head cocked to one side guiltily. “I’m not looking forward to it, but I know she will never leave me alone until she says her piece.”

  “Oh, she wants a piece, alright. Your bank account, and a pound of flesh.” Jonesy was taking her aggression out on the bread dough she was punching down in the bowl before she turned and started pinching off a chunk to form it into a loaf, then put it in the greased pan she had waiting on the counter.

  Wren slid off of the stool, walked around the island to Jonesy and put her arm around her shoulders to give them a squeeze. “I love you, Jonesy.”

  “I love you too, dear.” Her hands were still in dough so she couldn’t return Wren’s embrace. “Just don’t let that pariah intimidate you.”

  “I won’t.” She took one last swallow of the fresh squeezed orange juice that Jonesy had given her, and then started to walk from the kitchen. “That was delicious.”

  “Caleb isn’t going to like you going alone,” Jonesy called after her retreating form.

  Wren stopped and turned back around so she could answer the housekeeper from the foyer that stood between the massive kitchen and the staircase. “I know, but I’m not thirteen anymore, and Caleb gave me a solid education on sticks and stones. My mother doesn’t have the same power over me; I’m not a scared kid anymore.”

  Jonesy hacked off another chunk of dough. “Okay, but he isn’t gonna like it.”

  As if he had psychic ability, her phone pinged and a text came in as she climbed the stairs and went into her room. It was from Caleb.

  Thank you for last night. I’m meeting Dex for lunch. I didn’t want to wake you. Jonathan wants me to meet him at Lux later. You can come along, but if you’d rather not, I can fill you in later.

  You go ahead. Will I see you for dinner?

  Yes. Why don’t you give Jonesy the night off and we’ll go out.

  Wren smiled as warmth filled her like flowing honey, and she started to blush.

  You mean, like a date?

  Much more than a date.


  WREN WALKED INTO the beautiful hotel right on time. She just wanted to get this meeting with Veronica behind her. Her conscious nagged a bit. She should have told Caleb her plans, but he would have insisted he accompany her and his day would have been ruined. No; it was time she learned how to handle her mother.

  Wren had on the best dress she’d taken with her to Bali. It was an aquamarine, cobalt blue, and white sundress with a flowing skirt that dropped to mid-calf and the bodice was fitted with spaghetti straps. She bought it because the darker color reminded her of Caleb’s eyes, but walking into the elaborate lobby, she couldn’t help feeling out of place.

  She found the bell stand and asked directions to the restaurant, but the hotel had two. Leave it to Veronica to make it as difficult as she possibly could.

  “Which one is the most expensive?” Wren asked the uniformed man who was clearly the bell captain.

  “There is a coffee and breakfast bar, and the Elway’s is right down that long hallway and to the left, ma’am,” he said pleasantly, and pointed the way.

  He smiled at her admiringly, and Wren answered with a small one of her own. “Thank you.”

  It wasn’t quite 11:30 am, and the restaurant was filling up for lunch. Dark wood and various shades of orange upholstery oozed elegance in the understated way that said a cup of coffee was going to cost ten dollars. Wren rolled her eyes because she couldn’t help herself.

  She approached the hostess stand where a very tall and thin brunette welcomed her. “Good afternoon. Would you like the dining room or the patio?”

  It was a beautiful June day, but Wren was sure her mother would not choose the breeze ruffling her hair, no matter how nice it was outside. “I’m meeting my mother, Veronica Luxon?” It came out sounding like a question.

  “Oh, my gosh, yes!” she gushed. Clearly, the young woman had seen Veronica’s face in some of the Lux advertisements. “Right this way, please.” She motioned Wren to follow her through the restaurant to one of the curved booths against a far wall.

  The booth looked out into the restaurant so Veronica saw her coming and waved her over. Wren was annoyed that her mother always had to take some sort of action to draw attention. She was elegantly dressed in a white suit, her hair freshly coiffed in an updo from a salon. Her fingers were dripping in diamonds, including the large rock Edison had given her for an engagement ring.

  Veronica’s face turned sour as the hostess waited for Wren to slide in before she placed a leather-bound menu in front of her on the bone china bread plate. “What are you wearing, Wren? This is the Ritz for goodness sake.”

  Wren slid into the booth, grateful for the size of it so she could keep a good amount of distance between herself and her mother. “Nice to see you, too, Mother.”

  Veronica was sufficiently sidetracked, like a dog that drops his ball when presented with a steak. Her bright red lips curved into a broad smile, showing her perfect teeth. She reached out a hand, hoping to take Wren’s in hers but her daughter didn’t comply, instead folding both of her hands in her lap after setting her purse on the seat next to her.

  Veronica looked taken aback for a split second. “Wren, dear, is that any way to greet your mummy?”

  Wren cringed. Why did she insist on that insipid label? It sounded off to Wren because it was completely fake, like everything else about her mother.

  “I don’t remember we ever lived in England, Mother, and I can remember years when you wanted me to call you Veronica. Nothing remotely related to mummy.” Wren kept her voice dry and her guard up. “What’s this about? Oh, besides a ride to the airport.”

  Veronica sat back and glared at Wren. “No need to get nasty. That stepbrother of yours is rubbing off on you. It’s not attractive at all, Wren,” she said indignantly.

  Wren’s mind screamed with hatred and a multitude of insults she wanted to hurl at her mother. “Haven’t you heard? You’re divorced. Caleb isn’t my stepbrother, anymore.”

  “I’m still your mother and I won’t have you speaking to me like that.”

  Wren shifted in her seat. The waiter came and asked Wren if she wanted a beverage. “Just water with lemon, please.”

  “Sparkling or still?”

  “Still will be fine, but I’d love a lemon wedge with it.”

  “I’ll have another vodka tonic,” Veronica said before the girl could walk away.

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  “It’s a little early for the hard stuff, isn’t it, Mother?”

  “Look, I wanted to have a nice lunch, but since you’re being so unpleasant, I’ll get right to it.” The bright red and overly long acrylic nails clacked on the surface of the crystal glass as she picked it up. “I know you’re going to be touring, and Caleb has to get his house in order in California, so I’m very willing to step in and offer my help. I can move into the Bould—””

  Wren’s hair was tied up in a messy bun on the top of her head, but the hair on the back of her neck bristled, and Wren’s eyes locked with Veronica’s. “Wait, what? What do you know of Cale’s plans?” she interrupted.

  “Cale. That’s so cute.”

  Wren’s brow furrowed and she put up a hand to halt Ver
onica. She was about to ask a question, but she already knew the answer. “No, how do you know what his plans are?”

  Veronica looked uncomfortable, cornered as she was by Wren’s intuition. She reached up and patted the back of her hair nervously.

  “Well, Macy mentioned it at the reading, and then I spoke to her on the phone last evening. She seems very nice and she loves Caleb. She just wants the best for him.”

  Wren huffed and shook her head, ready to bolt out of the restaurant without hearing another lying word. “First; no you won’t be moving into the Boulder house. I’m not an idiot. I know exactly what you’re trying to pull.”

  “I’m just trying to help you. Macy will be moving into the Denver house with Caleb, and they’ll want their privacy, Wren. Be reasonable.”

  Wren felt like her mother was trying to herd her in a direction she didn’t believe or want to go in, but despite telling herself to remain calm, she was affected. Her pulse increased, and she could physically feel heat seeping up her neck and into her face. “Caleb has no intentions of being with Macy. Stop lying. You won’t intimidate, hurt, or cajole me into giving you what you want. Edison gave you more than you deserved in his will. That God-awful ring on your hand is worth a few million, so sell it if you need money.”

  They hadn’t ordered, but the waiter made no move to approach the table during the heated exchange.

  “How dare you say that to me? You have no idea what I put up with when I was married to him. I did it for you, you ungrateful brat!”

  “Yeah. The best of everything, trips, having your face on the Lux brand, dripping diamonds, ” Wren spat, venom dripping from every word. “You had it so hard.”

  It was as if the dam had broken and everything she’d ever wanted to say to her mother was gushing forth. “You poor thing. Anyone who ever met you knows you never do anything for anyone but yourself. I watched it through four husbands. I’m sort of surprised you haven’t found another one. Caleb had you pegged from day one, and he was only fourteen!”

  “Should have known you’d latch on to that little prick. He made my life hell!”

  A smug smile settled on Wren’s face as she began to scoot from the booth and throw her unused linen napkin on top of the table. “We’re done, Mother. I don’t ever want to lay eyes on you again. You won’t get a dime from me, so stop trying. I despise you.”

  “You would have nothing if it weren’t for me marrying that cold bastard, Wren. You should thank me!” Veronica derided.

  If looks could kill, Wren would have dropped dead on the spot, but she smiled sweetly at her mother. “You know? You’re right. Thank you, Mother.”

  “That’s better. Now, it will end up costing too much money to contest the will, and that would be foolish. So, as soon as everything comes out of escrow, I’ll take residence in the Boulder house and you can set me up with a modest bank account. I don’t need much, Wren. Just a comfortable life.”

  Wren couldn’t believe her ears and she almost laughed out loud. “You’re deranged. You should seek professional help.”

  “Well, I won’t be taking sharp objects to my skin, that’s for sure.”

  Loathing reminiscent of what she experienced in her youth exploded inside Wren, and angry tears stung her eyes. The last thing she wanted was to start crying in front of the very woman who caused her enough misery to hurt herself. Her instincts were to flee and she found herself longing for Caleb’s presence next to her. He wouldn’t allow Veronica to treat her this way and she chastised herself for agreeing to see her at all.

  “This is over. I’m leaving.” Wren began to scoot the last couple of feet out of the big booth, but couldn’t because Macy had appeared out of nowhere.

  “Not so fast, Sunshine.” Her lips slid into a salacious grin.

  Wren’s heart plummeted and she was stunned into silence. Veronica’s intention was to tag team her with Macy. Both of them seemed desperate enough to do anything to get what they wanted. Veronica wanted her money, and Macy wanted Caleb and everything that came with him.

  “Let me out of the booth, Macy.”

  “Calm down. You don’t want to make a scene in a place like this. You and your mother are both sort of famous, and you won’t do Caleb any good by making a fool of yourself. It will end up all over social media.” Macy’s tone was low and sounded soothing to anyone else listening, but Wren knew she was malicious in her intent. “We both know you won’t embarrass him, so, sit there and listen up.”

  Veronica chuckled and waved the waiter over, who had her new drink. She picked it up and sipped it calmly while Macy did the dirty work.

  Wren’s heart was pounding so hard she could hear the beat in her ears. She was flushed and felt like she was going to vomit.

  “I’m not about to let some little charity case ruin the life Caleb and I have planned. Especially, now.” She opened her purse and held it open so Wren could see inside. Lying just inside the opening was a long white plastic tube with a pink lid on one end. Macy reached in and turned it over so the window with two pink lines showed. Her expression was egotistical and Wren wanted to die.

  Oh, God, her mind screamed. She tried to suck in a deep breath but her heart felt as if it would fly from her body and she couldn’t breathe. “It duh—does—doesn’t prove anything,” she gasped out.

  Macy shrugged nonchalantly and Veronica squeezed the lime wedge perched on the edge of her glass into her fresh drink, completely unmoved by the events around her.

  “Do you think Caleb and I have been playing Tiddlywinks, Wren?” She shook her head. “Oh, that man is virile, here’s the proof.” She held the pregnancy test up, uncaring who saw it or that it was completely unsanitary to bring it into a restaurant. “Even if he has you convinced he doesn’t love me, he is an honorable man. We both know what comes next.”

  “I don’t believe you, Macy. You’re just like her,” she said, pointing to Veronica. “You’ll do or say anything to get what you want.”

  Macy’s eyes bored into Wren. “When it comes to Caleb, you bet your ass I will. Do you really think I walked up to some random pregnant woman and ask her to pee on this thing? You’re pathetic. Get real, Wren.”

  Wren felt hot, her chest tight, and she was about to throw up. Her eyelids drooped lazily and she tried to swallow down the bile. “Let me out.” Her voice was soft and wavering. Macy was pleased with herself and neither of the two women cared that Wren was physically in distress. “I’m gonna be sick.”

  The manager came over to the table a concerned look on her face, just as Wren started to pant and push at Macy to move. She was having a panic attack and needed to get out of there or she would vomit what little she had in her stomach right there.

  The manager was standing next to the table and recognized the urgency. “Should I call anyone, miss?”

  “I jus—just ne—need to go!”

  “Should I call an ambulance? Let her out, please, ma’am!” the manager insisted.

  Macy finally complied, moving to let Wren out of the booth, but not quickly enough. Wren shoved her hard, sending her tumbling out of the booth and onto the carpeted floor. Macy’s goal of avoiding a scene was moot when the restaurant fell silent as all of the staff members and patrons stopped what they were doing to turn their attention to Wren and Macy.

  Tears were streaming down Wren’s face as she scrambled over Macy and ran as fast as she could to the bathroom. The hand she had over her mouth was Wren’s last effort not to puke where she was. She barely made it and had no choice but to vomit in the sink. She felt humiliated, heartbroken and furious. It only took a couple of heaves to completely empty her stomach of the orange juice she’d had that morning.

  She was breathing heavily and her whole body was shaking. She turned on the water and cleaned out the sink, lifting her head to stare at her reflection. She used a paper towel to wipe at her mouth. Wren felt weak and wanted to fall to her knees and scream, but she couldn’t do that in the bathroom of the Ritz Carlton. She sniffed loudly
, trying to calm her breathing.

  The woman who had helped her at the table followed her. “Are you alright? Do you need anything?”

  Wren looked at the woman through blurry eyes. “I’d like some water, please.”

  “Of course. Is anything else I can do?”

  Wren shook her head, putting her full weight on her arms. “Nothing except I left my purse in the booth. Can you please get it for me? My phone’s inside and I need to call my ride.”

  Oh, my God. What if Macy stole her phone and started texting Caleb with it?

  The manager came forward and placed a hand lightly on her shoulder. “Okay. Just one moment.”

  The woman left and returned about a minute later and handed it to Wren who immediately opened it to check to make sure the phone was there. She breathed a sigh of relief.

  “Have they left?”

  “The woman nodded. “They have. Will you be okay, now? I can walk you out.”

  Wren nodded and pulled out her phone and dialed Jared’s number. All she wanted was distance from Colorado and everything in it. She knew she should speak to Caleb but it would hurt like hell, and it wouldn’t change anything. If Macy was pregnant, she’d still be pregnant in a few weeks when Wren had had some time to process. The last thing she wanted or needed was to be an emotional basket case when she spoke to Caleb. If Macy was pregnant with his child, she didn’t want her break down to keep him from doing the thing his integrity demanded.

  Sitting in the back of the car as Jared drove her home, she cried softly behind her sunglasses. She found herself wishing she had someone to confide in, and pour out her heartbreak to, but then, the only person she’d ever felt safe doing that with was Caleb, and she’d already come to terms with the reason why she couldn’t talk to him. On the other hand, there was no way she’d be able to be near him and hide how broken she was. He’d see right through her, and Jonesy would tell Caleb the minute her back was turned.

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