STEPSISTER. He hated that f*cking word.
When their parents got married, the only thing Caleb Luxan had in common with Wren Brashill was that they both hated their parents. When he was sixteen, Caleb discovered Wren’s closely guarded secret and vowed to protect her: from that day forward she became the reason for every decision he made.
Jealousy and long-suppressed desire overpowered Caleb’s fierce protectiveness and they spent one forbidden and unforgettable night in each other arms, but the aftermath left Caleb panicked, Wren heartbroken, and their relationship in shambles. In the time since that fateful night, he’d only seen her once and had only managed to make the situation even worse.
The sudden death of his estranged father calls Caleb home and face-to-face with Wren for first time in years. He is presented with a choice that forces him to confront the painful memories of his youth and his many regrets with Wren.
Like it or not, his father’s last, hard lesson, will demand Caleb deal with his long denied emotions for Wren, or let go of her forever.
He was going to kill his best friend. He was literally going to fucking kill him.
The party was buzzing and so was Caleb’s brain. He didn’t know the time, but it had to be somewhere around 3 AM, and anger was simmering just below the surface.
He was thankful it was winding down and most of the guests had already left because he was agitated and pensive. The few who lingered were all part of his best friend, Dex’s, crowd. He knew Jake and Bret because they were part of the same group he used to hang with when he was younger, but there were several new faces.
Caleb had been hell-bent on making his father’s life a living hell. Dex and his friends were rough, tough, and tattooed. They walked a fine line between right and wrong; more unruly and wild than the preppy crowd that went to the private high school his father demanded he attend. However, that was sort of the point. The three other guys and two women that remained he’d never met prior to this evening when they’d shown up with his old friend.
Hard to believe how much could change in four years. Look at Wren.
His eyes had been unwillingly glued to her all night, stalking her every move.
The beer in his hand was probably the sixth he’d had in less than two hours, but he wasn’t drunk. The time at home had been a combination of heaven and hell. He’d been dying to see Wren and they’d had some great times together in the week he’d been back in Denver, but the familiar aches in his heart and groin hadn’t magically abated during their time apart. He silently chastised himself for being foolish enough to think that it would ease as she grew into a woman. His breath left his chest in a loud sigh.
Sure, the alcohol was giving him a buzz, but it wasn’t enough to kill the burn in his gut or the pressure in his chest as he watched Dex put the moves on Wren. Caleb had asked him to watch out for her in his absence; but Dex was supposed to protect her, not want her. No one fucking wanted her as much as Caleb had wanted her, or for as long. He’d been tortured with wanting her. He’d been tormented for years with it, but everyone thought of them as siblings. The very thought made Caleb’s stomach turn.
Someone was speaking to him, but he barely registered the sound of the female voice. His eyes were trained on Dex’s arms snaking around Wren’s back and waist, under the luxurious curtain of loose blonde curls that rained to just above her hips.
Caleb lifted the beer to his mouth and took a long pull. “Hmm?” he asked of the woman standing close to him as he sat, half-assed, on the back of a sofa. The music was blaring over the state-of-the-art stereo system, and he strained to hear her, but his eyes never left Wren.
“So this is your last year at MIT? Dex said you two were gonna start some sort of motorcycle company together. That’s so cool. My dad is part of an MC.”
Dex’s dad, Darren, had a shop and he had learned a shit load from the two of them; and more importantly, they’d become like family in the years after Caleb lost his mother. Darren was a stand-up guy who’d never abandon his kid, and Caleb envied the close relationship Dex shared with his father. Sure, he was a laborer and Edison Luxon had a successful corporation, but in Caleb’s eyes, Darren was the better man. He had ten times the respect for him.
Caleb met Dex at a high school wrestling meet when Caleb was thirteen and Dex was fifteen, and the two of them had become friends. Caleb spent as much time as possible at Darren’s shop and with Dex’s family, as he could. Dex was sort of a wild child, and his parents were less strict than Edison was, but there was a strong sense of mutual respect in their family.
Caleb and Dex hadn’t been angels growing up, but at least, Dex could count on his parents to have his back. It was completely unlike the abandonment that Caleb felt from Edison. Most of the time, Caleb acted out just to get his father’s attention. It hardly ever worked. Edison would deliver a cold lecture, calmly deal with the situation by paying someone off, and then forget about his son until the next time he got into trouble. Caleb had come to the conclusion that the only thing he could do was get the hell away from his father as soon as he was eighteen. Somehow even that got fucked up.
“Yeah. We’ve talked about it for a long time, that’s why I’m studying mechanical engineering. It’s not that easy; we’re both dead broke, and his Dad’s shop can’t spare him right now. A lot has to happen first,” Caleb answered.
“But…” the young woman began, waving her hand around at the expensive surroundings. “It looks like your family is rich—”
Caleb cut her off. “Don’t get excited, honey. These are my old man’s digs, not mine.” He huffed. The only reason he even came home, ever, was because of Wren. The music changed to a slow, deep rhythm.
“But this place…”
“Yeah. My dad is swimming in it, but hell will freeze over before I’d ask him for a damn thing. He’d just hold it over my head for the rest of my life, or at least, the rest of his.” He could elaborate that his father was a control freak, or explain the reason he hated Edison so much, but he’d most likely never see her again. So, what was the point? Besides, he was preoccupied with what was happening across the room.
Caleb glanced down at the woman for the first time since their conversation began. She had hair so dark it looked black in the dim light. Her make-up was overdone making her skin tone a deep tan, and her clothing was tight and cheap. She was a sharp contrast to Wren’s natural, blonde beauty. Caleb tried to remember the name Dex had mentioned when he’d introduced her earlier.
Was it Marie? He wracked his brain. Maryann? Michelle? He knew it was an “M” name, but not sure exactly what. Fuck!
Movement in his peripheral vision made his eyes return to Dex and Wren. Aside from the girl at his side, everyone else was playing pool on the other half of the big room, except for the one couple dancing. Caleb’s chest was tight as he tried to breathe; it physically fucking hurt to watch.
Dex was pulling Wren close, pressing her against him and they were swaying softly to the song. Wren seemed to be enjoying herself. Her head was tilted up to look at Dex; she was smiling alluringly. She was so beautiful when she was happy. How could she keep getting more fucking beautiful every time he saw her?
Wren laid her head on Dex’s shoulder, her hands slipping up around his neck, clearly losing herself. She had just turned eighteen a month earlier, but Caleb was sure she’d had a drink or two; which was enough to make her less inhibited.
Caleb swallowed. He was mesmerized, unable to look away from the two of them. It was nothing short of torture knowing it was impossible for him to touch her the same way Dex was able to. Not only was she the daughter of his father’s second wife, she was younger by close to three years. Sure, he could protect her from that abusive bitch. He could spend time with her. He could even fantasize about her, but that’s where it stopped. Even though Wren had developed a kind of crush on him at first, he’d never considered they could be more. He loved her. He’d always loved her, but he’d always considered her off limits.
He tried to keep making small talk with the girl whose name he couldn’t remember. He nursed what was left of his beer, until he caught sight of Dex’s hand sliding down over Wren’s ass to the hem of her dress and then creep up slightly; underneath.
Caleb’s eyes narrowed and adrenaline started to flood his veins abruptly clearing the alcohol haze. Suddenly the music was deafening. The beat was pounding in his head like a hammer; the dim light flickering with the beat. It was getting brighter with each hit of the base drum.
“It looks like Dex likes your little sister.”
Caleb’s nostrils flared, and the skin of his face felt as if it was lit on fire. He ran a quick hand over the scruff on his jaw trying to alleviate it. The girl reached out to touch his muscled bicep.
Caleb clenched his teeth. “Wren isn’t my sister.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Stepsister then. Same diff.”
No. It wasn’t the same thing, not even close. If the “M” girl sensed Caleb’s irritation, she didn’t show it.
His instincts made his muscles coil, and it was all he could do not to fly across the room and pummel his best friend down to the floor. He still fought in the occasional underground fight club, but he was in even better shape now. The boxing club at MIT was official, and kept him lean and honed. He could still beat the shit out of anyone who challenged him. He could probably do it even easier than before, and right now; he wanted to pound Dex into the fucking ground.
Didn’t he know how Caleb felt about Wren?
When Dex’s hand rose higher under Wren’s dress, his intent to grab her ass full on, Caleb couldn’t stand still any longer. He dropped his beer and the glass bottle broke with a loud crash on the hardwood floor; making the girl beside him jump.
“Party’s over,” Caleb growled deeply.
The girl looked dumbstruck as Caleb left her standing there and moved quickly across the room to shut down the music.
“Party’s over!” he said, louder this time; shouting so he would be heard over the music.
Dex and Wren split apart when the music stopped abruptly and everyone in the room was staring in Caleb’s direction with blank looks on their faces. However, they sat down their drinks, and began putting on their coats.
Dex’s hand slid down Wren’s arm and his fingers closed around her hand, as he took a couple of steps toward his friend. “What’s up, man? Why? The house is empty.”
Caleb met his eyes unflinchingly. “I’m tired. Everyone out.” Caleb’s tone was low but the only sound in the silent room. “Now.”
Dex looked incredulous, and shook his head. “Why Caleb?”
Caleb continued to stare him down, his eyes menacing. “I said; I’m tired.” He was livid and he didn’t even understand why he was so fucking pissed off. Shit, if he’d been dancing with a beautiful girl he was into, he’d probably have copped a feel too.
Wren pulled her hand from Dex’s grip and walked to Caleb, looking up into his face. She looked so damn innocent, her brilliant blue eyes wide. “Cale, what’s going on? We were only dancing.”
Caleb looked down into her face, his eyes softening at the confused look in her blue eyes, and his thumb lifting her chin briefly. “Stay here.”
The others, sensing the palpable tension between Dex and Caleb had already started to file up the stairs to the outside door. Caleb nodded in the direction of Bret, who was waiting for the two girls to precede him up the stairs, then followed.
“I don’t get it, Caleb. I mean, what the hell?” He took two steps in Wren’s direction.
“You don’t have to get it,” Caleb commanded, nodding at the stairwell. “You just have to get the fuck out of here.”
Dex looked pissed, then glanced down at Wren. “You wanna come with?” he asked Wren.
Caleb shook his head once and in one second had moved in front of Wren, to separate her from Dex. “She stays.” His tone insisted compliance.
“Caleb, this makes no sense, man. We were having a good time dancing.”
“Yeah, I saw,” Caleb hissed. The fingers on his right hand began curling into a fist at his side, and he had to mentally insist it didn’t fly and punch Dex right there. “I want to talk to you. Outside.”
Dex’s eyes widened. Suddenly he understood. Definitely, he made a move in Wren’s direction, intending to kiss her full on the mouth just to piss Caleb off, but Wren, sensing it wouldn’t help the situation between the two men, backed up even further behind Caleb.
She’d danced with Dex and purposefully let him get a little too familiar with her because she felt hurt that Caleb was letting Michelle monopolize him on his last night in town. However, she didn’t intend for the two of them to out and out brawl, and she didn’t see it coming. She would have preferred spending the evening alone with Caleb; talking, driving around, or watching a movie together; but it hadn’t been her choice.
“Unless you want to die, I suggest you get the fuck out! Now!” Caleb seethed.
Anger flooded through Dex, as well. His friend was overstepping. He didn’t do anything wrong, and he’d be damned if he’d cower to Caleb’s jealousy.
“Just go, Dex. Go on,” Wren implored, peering at him from behind Caleb’s solid form. Caleb was poised to strike, and Wren could feel his anger vibrate in the air around them like electricity.
Dex was built; lean and strong, but Caleb was a competitive boxer and formidable; he easily had thirty pounds of muscle on Dex. Wren didn’t want Dex getting pummeled or Caleb regretting his actions afterward, which she was certain he would. They’d been friends for as long as she’d known them both and the last thing she wanted was to see their friendship ruined.
She mentally kicked herself for leading Dex on. She was confused by Caleb’s sudden anger, but it made her heart trip around in her chest at the same time. She felt excitement at the prospect he might be jealous making her own adrenalin flow.
Wren liked Dex and he’d taken great pains to fill Caleb’s shoes after he left, but no one could ever take Caleb’s place. Wren had been in love with Caleb for years, but he was older and not once had she imagined he’d reciprocate her feelings. Even now, habit made her push down that daydream.
He was just acting like the protective older brother, as he had since the day he found out about her mother’s treatment of her. He’d changed her life, and that was the beginning of her hero worship. Before she knew it, her schoolgirl crush had eventually matured and grown into full-blown love.
Dex turned and pulled on his leather jacket. He started to climb the stairs with Caleb following closely behind, leaving Wren standing in the middle of the big room, alone. “I’ll be back in a minute,” Caleb said over his shoulder as he left.
Dex’s motorcycle was the only one left in the wide driveway at the back of the house in front of the five-stall garage, signaling that everyone else had already gone.
Before Dex could say a word, Caleb used both of his hands to give Dex’s shoulders a forceful shove that sent him stumbling and falling backward into his bike. The machine fell over with the loud clang of metal bashing against the pavement, and leaving Dex sprawled face-up over it.
“What the fuck were you doing touching her like that? Wren is off-limits! You were supposed to protect her, not try to get in her pants! Have you touched her before this?”
“Son of a bitch!” Dex shouted. “You just wrecked my bike! You’re gonna pay for that!”
“Answer me!” Caleb’s chest was heaving. “What’s going on between you two?”
Dex scrambled to sit up, pushed his weight up off the fallen motorcycle with his hands, and lunged at Caleb without answering; hitting him hard in the middle with his shoulder. Caleb grunted as the breath was forced from his lungs. He stumbled backward but didn’t fall. He pushed Dex back and soon the two were going at each other with fists swinging. Caleb took a hit on the jaw, pain exploding in his face, before he managed to land a hard right hook to Dex’s temple. He followed it with a solid left upper cut to his jaw.
Dex fell backward, hard onto the pavement, and landed with a guttural grunt.
“What the hell is your problem? For Christ’s sake, Caleb, we’re friends!”
Caleb looked down at Dex, his breathing heavy from the exertion of the fight, the fight with his emotions getting the better of him. “Yeah, but friend or not, touch her again and I swear I’ll mother fucking kill you!”
“Wren isn’t fifteen anymore, Caleb!” Dex returned, out of breath and moving to get to his feet. “She’s an adult and she doesn’t need big brother’s permission to dance with me.”
If anyone was painfully aware of Wren’s age and how she’d blossomed into a gorgeous and graceful young woman, it was Caleb.
“I saw what you were doing, and dancing was the last thing on your goddamned mind! I could deal with a random guy; but not you. Anyone but you, Dex!”
Their eyes met and Dex could see the pain on his friend’s face. He’d watched Caleb come to Wren’s defense at school, with her mother, or anyone who made fun of her or hurt her for years. He should have seen that Wren was more to Caleb than he’d ever admitted. It was clear that brotherly was not how his friend felt about Wren. It was clear that it wouldn’t matter who was trying to get with her; Caleb wouldn’t take it well.
Dex nodded and put up his hand to keep Caleb from hitting him again, while he was down. “Okay, man. You should’ve said something.”
“You should’ve known.” Caleb’s brow was furrowed with a scowl firmly planted on his face. He turned his back and reentered the house, running his hand through his over-long hair, anger still pumping through his veins as he went down the backstairs to the lower level. He probably didn’t need another drink, but he wanted one. His body was still on fire, and his mind was raging at him. He took a deep breath, not sure what the confrontation with Wren was going to be like. She was sitting on one of the big recliners that were lined up in front of the big projection TV on one end of the room.
Caleb walked past her, between the theater set-up and the pool table to the wet bar along one side. Foregoing the beer in the full-sized refrigerator, he reached for a glass and the crystal decanter of amber liquid. It was his father’s expensive single malt scotch. He’d never liked that shit. He was feeling in need of something stronger, so he poured half the glass full and downed it in one big swallow. It burned all the way down; Caleb could feel it run down his esophagus and into his stomach, the heat leaving a trail that didn’t lessen the tightness in his chest.
He refilled the glass and turned, his gaze intense as it settled on Wren. The music was still off and Wren hadn’t said anything. Caleb had fought his desire for Wren for years. Ever since he’d seen her as she really was without that hideous disguise she always wore when she and her mother first moved in with the Luxon men. The scotch, along with the beer, might be impairing his judgment just a little, but damn, if she wanted to grow up; he’d help her.
His eyes seared over her body, taking in the short dress that left her legs bare and gave Dex easy access to her ass. Anger flared inside him again.
“I don’t understand you, Caleb—” Wren began, but he held up his hand to stop her. He took another swallow of the scotch then sat the glass down on the mahogany bar and walked purposely toward her.
She was amazingly beautiful, and he’d had enough fantasies about her to last a lifetime. He couldn’t resist the blonde curls that tumbled down her back to her waist. Her dancer’s body was slight and firm, her skin flawless and smooth. Caleb’s cock was already hard, but blood surged again, making it throb even more painfully inside his jeans.
Their eyes met and locked. Wren could sense a danger behind his eyes, a look that had never been directed at her. Her body quickened and heat pooled inside her at the intensity in his eyes as he slowly unbuttoned his white shirt. When he got to her he reached out and took both of her upper arms in his hands, forcefully pulling her up to stand in front of him, close enough to feel the heat radiating between them. She smelled amazing. Like spring flowers with a hint of vanilla. He leaned down and ran the tip of his nose from her shoulder, up the cord of her neck until his mouth was next to her ear.
He spoke in a guttural whisper. “You wanna play with the big boys? Then, play with me.”
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