One step closer a stepbr.., p.31
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       One Step Closer: A stepbrother, stand-alone novel., p.31

           Kahlen Aymes

  Wren’s head pounded and her stomach lurched again.

  She could only come up with one alternative that would work for her right in this moment; she had to leave, and she had to leave before he got back from his meetings.

  Could anything be worse? Just when she’d found Cale again, and now… she could lose him.

  “WREN!” CALEB BURST through the front door to the house and bound up the stairs two at time.

  After his meetings at Lux, Caleb was anxious to get home and talk to Wren. Jonathan was going to step in and run the company as he had been for the last few weeks, which would give Caleb time to get his affairs in order in San Francisco.

  Hours had passed and he’d texted Wren twice. She hadn’t responded and Caleb was getting worried. She hadn’t said what her plans were so he was curious as to why she hadn’t been answering her phone.

  “Wren!” He knocked loudly on her door. He wanted to spend every second with Wren before she had to go back to New York at the end of the week. “Wren! Open up. I have some things to tell you!”

  He leaned on the door, the palm of his hand flat on the fine wood. “Wren, come on. Don’t play with me.” He smiled gently as he said it. “I miss you.”

  When there was still no answer, he stepped back and took hold of the doorknob and turned it. Caleb was surprised when the door opened. The room was in shadows as the sunset dipped beyond the trees outside the windows, and the lack of light was a sure sign she wasn’t in her room. The bed was made and the room was neat.

  “Hmmm,” he murmured before heading out of her room and back into the hall. Maybe she and Jonesy were already going through his father’s things and packing them up for charity.

  The house was massive and he walked to the other end of the second level to glance into his father’s suite. “Jonesy? Wren?” Again, the rooms were silent and empty of life. He walked past the room his mother had occupied at the end of her life without checking to see if either woman was inside. It had been untouched so long, he didn’t even consider it a possibility.

  The house was quiet and as he walked through the main level he tried to remember if Jared’s limo was outside. Today was the last day he’d hired him. There were plenty of cars in the garage that he, Wren, and Jonesy could use when needed. Maybe he’d already left.

  The smell of freshly baked bread permeated the house, and four fresh loaves sat cooling on a rack on the marble counter, but the kitchen was conspicuously quiet. He moved from room to room, looking for life. Jonesy was getting older and so he considered she could be napping. But then remembered he’d told Wren to give her the night off.

  He pulled out his phone, but still she hadn’t answered any of his messages.

  What the fuck? He was starting to panic. Wren was a grown woman, and she was capable of taking care of herself. It was obvious from her years in New York, but while she was in Denver and especially after what had happened between them, he was positive she’d keep him in the loop of her plans.

  Caleb dialed her number but it went straight to voicemail, so either her phone was off or the battery was dead. His hand lifted to take a swipe through his dark hair.

  This is Wren Brashill. Leave your name and a short message and I’ll get right back to you.

  After the beep that followed, Caleb spoke as he paced around the kitchen.

  “Hey, where are you?” He realized how futile it was to leave a message on a phone that wasn’t on or dead. “I thought you’d be here getting ready to go out. Call me. I’m starting to worry.”

  Jonesy’s room was behind the kitchen near the spare one that Macy had stayed in, and he walked quickly down the back hall to check and see if she was home. Her door was shut and he felt guilty waking her if she was sleeping, but damn it, he had to know what was going on.

  He tapped lightly with the knuckle of his index finger. “Jonesy?”

  “Come in, Caleb,” she answered through the door.

  Relief flooded through him as he opened the door and peered in. Jonesy was sitting on an upholstered chaise lounge in one corner opposite her bed, with a book in her hand. There was a lamp on beside her to light the pages.

  “Hey, I’m sorry to bother you, but I can’t find Wren. We had dinner plans.”

  “Come in Caleb.” She moved her legs to the side and patted the lower part of the chaise. “Sit down.”

  Caleb’s guard went up; preparing himself to hear something he didn’t want to hear. His brow furrowed and he shook his head, refusing to sit down. “Okay, this isn’t good.”

  “She said she got a call from New York that they were having early auditions for Giselle. She has a chance to perform with the New York Ballet if she is chosen.”

  He threaded the fingers of both hands together on the top of his head as he peered down at Jonesy. Already, his heart was starting to pound and he struggled to swallow. He wasn’t buying it.

  “No. She would have told me. I’ve been texting and calling her for the past three hours. What else happened?”

  Jonesy’s expression was sympathetic and she looked pained. “That’s all she told me, but…”

  “But what, Jonesy?” Caleb bellowed, making the old woman jump, and he regretted yelling at her. His gut instinct told him this was bad. He stepped forward and sat down beside her. “Look, I’m sorry, but I’m freaking out. What happened?”

  “Veronica called her this morning.”

  Caleb stood up immediately. “Jesus Christ. That woman is such a cunt!”

  Jonesy’s eyes widened in shock. “Caleb!” she admonished.

  “I’m sorry! But, she disgusts me!” He began to pace, but threw a glance at her. “What else?”

  “I don’t know all of the details; just that she asked to meet her downtown at her hotel. Wren went, then came home two hours later, packed her bags, and had Jared take her to the airport. She said her flight was at 5:30 and that she’d call you to let you know her plans.”

  “Well, she hasn’t.” Caleb’s head fell back and he closed his eyes, placing both hands on his hips.

  “Maybe she’s telling the truth about the audition. The timing could just be coincidental.”

  “I’d agree, if she would’ve let me know about it.” He glanced at his watch. It was after five so there was no way in hell he’d be able to catch her flight.

  “What do you think Veronica could have said?” Jonesy got up and walked to Caleb, putting a calming hand on his shoulder. His face was pinched and

  “You mean what could she have made up? She’s a liar, but I thought Wren was immune to her tricks after all this time.” He pulled his phone out of the pocket of his jeans and clicked Wren’s number; which he had on speed dial. Again, it went straight to voicemail. She was on the plane so Caleb hoped that was the explanation on why he couldn’t get through.

  “It’s me again. You left without telling me? Why didn’t you call me, Wren? Please call me when you land in New York.”

  He hung up the phone in defeat. “This is just what I need. I have to go back to San Francisco and quit my job.”

  Jonesy patted his shoulder again. “You go do that. Take a little time. Both you and Wren have some big changes ahead, but you do what you need to do, and she’ll get this audition out of the way. That ballet is one she’s aspired to be part of, Caleb.”

  “As I said, I’d get it if she’d told me. There is more to it. What hotel is that bitch in?”

  “Wren didn’t say, but I’m fairly sure she’s already left the city.”

  He nodded in disgust then turned and left the room.

  Jonesy called after him. “Do you need me to fix you something to eat?”

  “I’m not hungry, but thanks.”

  Caleb walked through the kitchen and down the back stairs. He was frustrated and pissed off. His first instinct was to beat the shit out of something but the prospect of hitting the bag wasn’t as attractive as an actual fight. He had dialed Dex’s phone number before he’d reached the bottom of the stairs.

What’s up?” Dex answered. “Miss me already?” He laughed into the phone.

  Caleb huffed. “Listen, is there a fight we can get into tonight?”

  “Is something up? I hear that old tone in your voice.”

  “Wren split without talking to me. Supposedly she has an audition, but the viper is involved.”

  “Oh, shit.”

  “Yeah. Wren’s on a plane and I won’t be able to talk to her for at least three hours and I can’t just sit here.”

  “I’ll check around, but it’s Monday night, there won’t be much. If I can’t, we can get a burger and beer; maybe play some pool.”

  Caleb sighed. He’d missed having his best friend to hang out with. “Sounds good.”

  By now, Caleb was inside his bedroom and moved to flip the light on in the adjoining bathroom. He ended the call and set his phone down on the top of his dresser, intent on getting into a hot shower. Even if Dex did find a fight, the hot water might relax him in the meantime. He’d changed before lunch with his friend and he was dressed in black pants and a cream colored button down. He kicked off his shoes and quickly unbuttoned his shirt when out of the corner of his eye, he saw a white envelope setting on top of one of his pillows; the white paper contrasting sharply with the navy blue cotton pillow case.

  Caleb started to unbuckle his belt and undo his pants, his shirt hanging completely open. He stopped dead as his heart dropped to his stomach. Whatever was inside had to be from Wren, and if so, it wasn’t a good sign. He leaned over and picked it up, hesitant to open it.

  “Fucking hell,” he said, sinking down to sit on the edge of his bed. He ran a hand slowly through his hair and leaned back against his pillows leaving one foot on the floor. He stared at the one word written on the outside in Wren’s perfect handwriting.


  He might as well rip off the Bandaid. Waiting was a pussy thing to do, and he was no pussy. His lean fingers ripped off the end of the envelope and he pulled out the note. Something else heavier was inside and dropped onto his chest. It was cold and glancing down, he instantly recognized it.

  His mother’s locket.

  He gave a slow, disbelieving shake of his head. She didn’t just give something that meant so much back. Not after what had happened between them. He’d finally admitted he was in love with her; he’d bared his soul, and now this?

  Caleb’s vision blurred in the dimly lit room and his eyes started to burn. He wasn’t even sure he cared what was in the fucking letter after that. It was the ultimate betrayal. What the hell did she think? That he’d make love to her, spill his guts and then she’d leave him? Was this payback for how he left after their first night together?

  Pain shot through him, and his chest refused to expand. He felt like there were steel bands around his chest preventing him from breathing, his heart was racing uncomfortably.

  He couldn’t believe Wren would be so malicious. Veronica, yes; even Macy, but not Wren. He unfolded her note and squinted to read it under the low light, praying he’d find some sort of reasonable explanation.

  Dear Cale,

  I’m sorry I left without talking to you, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to leave if I saw you. So much has happened in the past few days and I need to make sure that if we end up together, it’s for the right reasons.

  I love you for always taking care of me, but I don’t want the money. My life would be nothing if it weren’t for you, but this is about you and me. Not the money.

  I’m not my mother. I know you’ll say that you already know that, but I just need to prove it.

  It’s ironic that you gave me half of the estate to make sure I would be part of your life, and I’m giving it back for the very same reason. I need to make sure you know that I would choose you if you didn’t have a penny to your name; if you had nothing to give me but your heart.

  You can run Lux and I’ll do another tour just like we planned. Then, if we don’t end up together, I’ll talk to Jonathan and figure out a way to give back the assets. It’s your birthright, not mine. It’s hard to hate my mother, when she is the reason I have you. I’d go through the bad stuff all over again, if I knew you’d be at the end of it.

  I know everything inside of you is screaming at me right now, but please do this for me. Let’s just take a break for a few months to make sure of each other. If you give me that locket again, I swear, I’ll never take it off.

  No matter what, you’ll always be my Superman.

  Love forever,


  Caleb swallowed hard at the pain welling up that caused his throat to ache. His chest heaved with emotion as he bent his arm to rest over his eyes; his hand still holding on to the letter. His heart was breaking, but how could he be mad at her for this? If anything, he loved her even more.

  “God, Wren,” he said as if she could hear him. “You are so fucking perfect.” The pain in his voice was tangible and two tears welled in his blue eyes, spilling out from his closed lids and running down the side of his face.

  He bolted upright and grabbed his phone off of his dresser, instantly dialing her number. He knew she’d still be in the air and wouldn’t answer. Maybe she wouldn’t answer anyway, but he had something to say.

  Caleb wished the sweet voice on the other end wasn’t just a message.

  “It’s me, Bird. I got your letter and I’ll do what you ask, but I don’t like it. I love you, and nothing will change in whatever time you think needs to pass. I’ll keep my distance, but talk to me. Please call me. I just got you back. I already miss you.”

  He struggled for a moment, the recording continuing through his silence. He didn’t want to break the connection if this was this last connection he’d have with her. “I love you, Wren. Call me back.”

  After he ended the call, he called Dex.

  “You didn’t give me much time to look, man. I haven’t even started.”

  “No, that’s why I’m calling. I want to get a tattoo, then let’s get burgers and beer.”

  “Okay. I’ll call Scanlan’s and see if he is open around 7:30. He’s usually booked, but maybe since it’s Monday he’ll have an opening.”

  “I wondered if he was still in the city.” It was the same establishment where he and Dex had gotten matching tribal tattoos done around their left biceps when they were kids. Darren had consented, but Caleb had forged a consent letter and then flaunted it in front of his father. Edison had been furious. “Just a simple one. Script.”

  “Cool. If I don’t call back, it’s a go; just meet me there.”

  “Right. Thanks, Dex.”

  “It’s good to have you back.”

  “I was just thinking the same thing.”

  IT HAD BEEN FIVE days and Wren still hadn’t returned his calls.

  Caleb still called her everyday, hoping she’d eventually answer. Her letter said she loved him, and he understood her need for clarity and distance, at least for the time being. However, he didn’t understand why she wouldn’t talk to him. It was making him nuts but he was trying to occupy himself with packing.

  He’d been back in San Francisco since Thursday morning, and he’d already started packing up his apartment. His kitchen was finished except for the drawers. One of them was full of his father’s numerous unopened letters. His plan was to just throw them all in a box and go through them once he moved back to Denver.

  The managing partner of his firm was not happy about his resignation, but he understood Caleb’s new commitments. Caleb had full AutoCAD software loaded onto his laptop, so he was able to soften the blow by committing to completing all of his current projects; even if it meant doing so from Colorado. He also agreed to take an occasional freelance job as needed. The two things together, meant he could leave as soon as his apartment was sublet. He had the money to buy out his lease, but it went against his convictions to throw thousands of dollars in cash to the wind.

  Macy had been relentless in her calls and texts, before Caleb left Denver and once she knew he was in back t
own and it had gotten ten times worse.

  Caleb had listed all of his furniture online and he had already sold his living room set, so the front room of his apartment was empty except for the stack of boxes starting to accumulate along one wall. Most of the boxes were marked for Goodwill or the food pantry.

  Caleb grabbed a beer out of the now almost barren refrigerator. He’d been able to run, but no boxing workouts and he didn’t feel like himself. Even though missing a few workouts wouldn’t have an adverse effect on his body, he felt lethargic and he didn’t like it. His stomach grumbled. He didn’t have a lot of food left. He had a takeout menu from Chopstix hanging on his refrigerator by a magnet with an old 49ers schedule printed on it. He grimaced, looking through it. What could he order that wasn’t completely bad for him? He needed protein, but he hated all the gloppy sauce that typically coated Chinese takeout.

  He took a long pull on his beer trying to decide, when there was a short knock on his door. Taking his Dos Equis with him, he went to open it and was unprepared for who stood there. Macy stood in front of him dressed in black jeans, a bright orange tank top, and high-heeled sandals.

  She came forward and wrapped her arms around him in a tight hug, and pressed her lips to his, though he was unresponsive. “I’ve missed you,” she said against his mouth.

  Caleb quickly pulled back, and moved away from her a displeased scowl on his handsome face. Macy’s gaze took in Caleb’s faded jeans, and old grey T-shirt with an open light blue plaid button down layered over top of it.

  “What are you doing here?” he asked abruptly, continuing to stand in the doorway without asking her in.

  “I thought you’d be glad to see me.” Macy walked passed him without waiting for an invitation.

  Caleb shook his head at her presumptive behavior. By all means, barge in, he thought. “It’s only been a few days since you left Denver; nothing’s changed since then. As you can see,” he indicated around the apartment. “I’m getting ready to move.”

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