My Not So Wicked Stepbrother (My Not So Wicked Series Book 1), page 17
“Em, you’re beautiful. I hope you know that.”
“Beautiful is an exaggeration, but I like myself.”
“Stop that, please. You are beautiful. You can ask Brad. He said more guys didn’t ask you out in high school because you intimidated them. No guy wants to think his girl can play ball better than him.”
“I don’t think that’s Sawyer’s problem. He could kick my butt on the field.”
“Em, I don’t know what happened this morning, but don’t give up hope yet.”
“I don’t know, but now I need to go climb into a caster and figure out why molten steel is oozing out of it.”
“See how intimidating you are?”
I laughed through my tears. “I’m just me.”
“Just me, you’re the best person I know. I love your guts. Call me later.”
“Love you too. Get some rest for my godson.”
“If only he would stay off my bladder.”
I hung up feeling a tad less depressed. This tiny strand of hope stretched across my heart, holding it together thinking there was a chance with Sawyer. In the next second, that string frayed because I couldn’t think of one good reason why he didn’t kiss me this morning unless he was turned off by my less-than-perfect figure.
Those conflicting emotions carried me into the melt shop. It felt more like the cold mill this morning with all the equipment shut down.
Sawyer played in my tired brain all day while I crawled in and out of the caster trying to figure out what was causing the problem. My brain could hardly concentrate on all the process data I was having to muddle through. The problem was that my life felt like a bigger problem at the moment. Add to that no sleep and a heart that was on the verge of breaking. Sawyer’s and my conversation kept running through my head. My hopes rose when I heard him say, I know where you belong. Did he think it was with him? But as soon as that wonderful thought took hold, I would remember the sting of rejection. His hand repulsed by my squishy middle.
The misery of not knowing would be over tonight. I would finally know one way or the other, because there was no going back after what happened this morning. There was no way for me to hide my feelings for him any longer. No matter what, he knew I wanted him. It was clear by how I had responded to him in my bed. His actions, though, were puzzling. This was all assuming I made it that far. I was exhausted. Not even all the Dr. Pepper I was downing was helping.
By two that afternoon I was exhausted, filthy, and had managed to rule out a bad encoder and misalignment. It also wasn’t the mold powder, which was like a crazy expensive industrial cooking spray. In frustration, I looked at the data once more and somehow my brain began to function.
“Can someone bring me an infrared gun?” I shouted. I should have done this earlier, but the thermocouple data looked good. “We need to run a ghost slab!” I yelled to my tech guys.
While they went to work getting the caster and furnaces back up and running, I went up into the observation deck and took a small but much needed nap curled up in the corner on the floor. For a beautiful hour my brain was void of any thoughts or dreams. That was until Wallace came up and nudged me. “Wake up, kiddo. The higher ups are on me to get the strand back up and running.”
With barely opened eyes, I looked up at him. “I don’t like this job.” That was a lie, but in the second it felt very true.
Wallace chuckled deeply while reaching out to help me up. That was a good call on his part. I needed all the help I could get. With one hoist I was on my feet. One of my guys was standing ready with a cold Dr. Pepper. I took it and downed it all in one long drink. I crushed the can with my hand and belched loud enough to fill the entire deck. And I wondered why Sawyer was turned off by me. “Let’s do this.”
We marched back down like soldiers off to war with my infrared gun as our weapon of choice. I fired that baby at the thermocouples, and lo and behold, they were a bunch of liars. Ugh. It was the thermocouples all along. “Well, there’s our problem. Call the mechanics down here and get those replaced, and you should be ready go,” I instructed the tech.
Wallace patted my back. “Go get some rest, kiddo. You did good.”
Rest. Yes, it sounded so good. Too bad I had soccer practice and something with Sawyer tonight. Maybe Sawyer could just tell me quickly he was abhorred by me and then I could cry myself to sleep. At least I would be sleeping. Or, maybe, just maybe, he would tell me something different and I could fall asleep in his arms. That sounded like heaven.
I walked into the blaring sunlight and remembered not to complain about the heat or the sun after what I’d experienced in Alabama. That made me think—did I really want to live there? We didn’t have tornadoes here. In Denver, sure, but not on this side of the mountains. So we had blizzards, but you got plenty of warning before those, and snow was fun to play in. Tornadoes not so much. Depending on what Sawyer said tonight, I might want to take my chances with the tornadoes.
As soon as I reached my Jeep, my phone rang. I reached into my pocket with my black-streaked hand. I needed a shower something fierce. Frankie’s name was on my screen. I hope she wasn’t calling me to tell me she was quitting before the end of summer, though at this point I felt like my dad deserved it for thrusting that wicked witch wife of his on all of us. Maybe that was Sawyer’s hang-up—he didn’t want to make out with his stepsister. If that was his problem, I hated Josephine even more.
“Hey, Frankie. How are you?”
“Emma, you gotta get up here.”
“What’s wrong? Did something happen to my dad? My sisters?”
She paused, making my heart beat out of my chest.
“Everyone is physically fine, but your dad has lost his damn mind. You’ve got to get up here now before he makes a serious mistake.”
“What is going on?”
“One of our guests claims she had some money and jewelry stolen from her cabin.”
“What? That’s never happened before.”
“Exactly. But Ashton conveniently found the jewelry in Morgan’s room in the bunkhouse.”
“Morgan, as in Ray’s son? No way.” We’d known that family forever and they were as true as true could be.
“No way is right. I think . . . Emma, I think Ashton is the real culprit.”
I dropped my phone on the pavement. It was a miracle it didn’t crack. I hastily picked it up. “Frankie, why do you think that?”
“Emma, please just come. I’ll explain more when you get here.”
I hung up and tapped my phone against my head. Did someone hate me? So much for showering or maybe even making soccer practice, at this rate. And worse, how was this going to affect my already shaky family dynamics? I knew Frankie would never make such an accusation unless she was certain. My gut began to wriggle. Sawyer’s thoughts and feelings about this new twist in the plot entered the picture. Should I call him? What would I say? Maybe it was best for me to go and see what I was dealing with first.
Honestly, though, I don’t know why Frankie thought I could be of any help. No one in my family cared about my feelings or what I had to say as of late. Dad was pretty much non-existent in my life now. No more phone calls or visits. When I was there, Josephine made sure we never had any quality time together.
I called Aspen on my way up to the Ranch to see if there was any way she could help out at soccer practice tonight. I knew Fridays at the bank were busy, but I was desperate and wanted my girls to be ready for the game tomorrow. I’d heard from Aspen via Chloe that the practice earlier in the week run by Gwendolyn was more like a fashion tutorial and they all went home with a set of fake eyelashes and bright ruby-red lips. No telling what they would get tonight if some sanity didn’t show up. Padding for their training bras?
Thankfully, Aspen said she could make it work. I owed her big time. At least it was something I didn’t have to worry about.
The mountains and the valley that were usually such a comfort to me no longer brought me the
When I drove onto the property it didn’t take me long to spot where all the trouble was brewing. There was a good-sized group gathered near the barn. Dad was the most prominent figure among them due to his height and the poise he was naturally blessed with that said he was in charge. His awful wife was glued to him, as her usual. These women that lean. Morgan, the accused, was standing next to his dad, Ray, who was shaking his head while taking a protective stance. Surprisingly, my sisters were there, but unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised that they were standing too close to Ashton. That gave me an uneasy feeling, but not as uneasy as when I realized Sawyer was there standing back from the fray. Back behind people I didn’t recognize. Why was he there?
As soon as I parked my Jeep, Frankie ran up to me, her long, gray hair whipping behind her. She was a woman on a mission.
She wasn’t the only one.
As soon as Josephine caught wind that I was there, she made a mad dash toward me.
“Emma,” Frankie said in a rush. “You have to listen to me, I saw Ashton coming out of the cabin of the couple who has been robbed. He seems to be a frequent visitor for a lot of—”
“Did you call Emma out here to tell lies to her too?” Josephine sneered at me with such disdain while her dark eyes judged my appearance.
I got it—I was winning no beauty contests in my filthy jeans and long-sleeved cotton shirt with hair that was caked in grime from crawling around the caster all day. Believe me, it wasn’t my dream to be here like this.
Frankie turned on a dime to face Josephine. “Don’t you dare call me a liar. What you’re doing to Ray’s boy isn’t right. Come to think of it, what you’ve done to this family and place isn’t right.”
Rage filled Josephine’s unnaturally taut face. “Dane!” she shrieked.
In a herd, the group near the barn moved the scene to the parking area where I was.
Sawyer’s and my eyes met. He looked confused, in his shirt and tie looking as if he had come from work, as to why he was there. That was a good question. Who called him?
Next, I turned my focus on Dad, who looked as exhausted as I was both physically and emotionally. His lined face was haggard, and he walked as if he had to force each step.
An irate Ray and a scared Morgan who was all of nineteen joined Frankie and me as if we were forming teams. Then and there I knew this wasn’t going to end well. Mom had always said don’t draw dividing lines with those you love.
A couple I didn’t know walked up and the woman of the pair gave me the same look Josephine did. Sue me for having a job.
“Who is this?” the snotty princess with an uppity nose asked.
Oddly, several people answered. Dad said, “This is my oldest daughter.”
But Ray, Morgan, and Frankie all said in unison, “She’s the Lady of Carrington Ranch.”
That filled me with such sweet pride to be called by my mother’s title, but oh, that did not go over well with Stepmommy Dearest. Her nostrils flared while she gave each of them withering glances.
I looked at Sawyer, who was now looking down at the gravel, shaking his head.
I stepped forward to speak to the couple. “I’m Emma, Dane’s daughter.” I used deductive reasoning to conclude this was the couple who had been robbed. “Can you tell me what happened?”
The snotty princess clucked her tongue. “Are you even in charge here?”
“No, she’s not,” Josephine answered.
The princess’s man looked like he was embarrassed by his wife or girlfriend’s reaction. He put his arm around her. “Honey, she’s just trying to help.”
Princess pointed at Morgan. “We already know who did it, so fire the creep before I call the police.”
“Wait a minute, please. Maybe this was all a misunderstanding.” I tried to reason with her.
Ashton stepped forward proudly, looking like a cowboy. “I found her diamond earrings in Morgan’s bunk.”
“I didn’t take them,” Morgan swore with a crack in his voice. “I don’t know how they got there.” The poor kid was scared stiff.
“Did you see Morgan near your cabin?” I asked the man, hoping his partner didn’t go off. It didn’t work.
“Of course we didn’t see him; that’s how crimes are committed, you idiot.”
“Hey,” Sawyer chimed in. “We don’t need to call anyone names.”
Sawyer’s defense of me didn’t sit well with his mother. “Emma, we have this handled here. You should have never been called.”
That did it. Frankie had hit her limit. “Someone with some sense needs to be here.” Frankie faced me. “Emma, I swear to you on your mother’s grave that,” she turned and pointed, “I saw Ashton sneaking out of their cabin yesterday evening. And it wasn’t the first time.”
“She’s lying.” Ashton’s face turned red, but he kept his cool.
Oddly though, I caught a glimpse of the princess and her cheeks had turned a few shades of pink. “That couldn’t be,” snotty girl said, “I was there all evening.”
I bet she was. “Were you by yourself?” I asked.
Princess’s eyes popped. “Why does that matter?”
“Yes, Emma, why does that matter?” Josephine seethed. “You wouldn’t be accusing my son of something would you?”
“I’m just trying to get the facts.”
“Emma,” Marlowe whined, “Ashton is totally innocent. He turned in the earrings.”
The princess’s partner squeezed her tighter. “I don’t think I like what you’re implying about my fiancée.”
Dad finally stepped in. “Listen folks, I will take care of any cash you say was stolen, as well as refund your entire stay.”
“Oh, you better,” princess snotty snarled, “but I’ll still be leaving a scathing review on Trip Advisor telling people they better not pack any valuables if they stay here. I may still call the police.” She turned and marched off with her man trailing behind her with his tail between his legs. If he was smart, he would run far away.
The fact that she hadn’t called the police in the first place spoke volumes to me. I think if we called them now, their investigation would show a much different picture than the one trying to be repainted.
There were two camps left, though I really only cared about one person’s reaction at the moment. Sawyer was looking at me with disbelief as if begging me to do the right thing. The problem was I think we had much different opinions on who was right and who was dead wrong.
“Emma, I can’t believe you are blaming Ashton for this.” Macey frowned.
Josephine took that as her cue. “Oh, she doesn’t really believe Frankie, now do you? She would never take the word of an employee over her family, right?” A triumphant smile blazed on her face as she looked between me and Sawyer. It became painfully clear who had invited Sawyer and why he was here.
Frankie took my hand and squeezed it.
I looked at Dad who closed his eyes and shook his head. No surprise there. Where was the man who had always been my champion?
Tears filled my eyes for the loss I had incurred and the one that I knew was about to happen. I stared straight at Sawyer. “I believe Frankie. I know Morgan would never do such a thing.”
“Are you saying I did this, sis?” Ashton used the term of endearment with such a snake-like hiss. It was enough to make me shiver in the warm evening sun.
Sawyer’s brows raised waiting for my response. His incredulou
I turned from Sawyer and faced Ashton. It was as if I was looking at him for the first time. Where I used to see a warm, kind face, I now recognized it was an act. He looked like Josephine now more than ever. Conniving and vicious. She had put on the same act to catch my father. Now the façade was long gone. Ashton’s was too.
“Ashton, I’m not your sister and you better stay away from mine.”
“How dare you talk like that to my son.” Josephine whipped her head toward Sawyer. “Do you see what I’m talking about now? I’ve done everything I can.” She started to cry. “She wouldn’t even help me plan the dance, when all I’ve tried to do is be a friend to her.”
I spat out a laugh. She was such a liar. “If you were trying to be my friend, please stop.”
She gave me a scathing look before facing my father. “Do you see this?” She really poured on the tears before she stomped off sobbing. Ashton chased after her, but not before glaring at me.
My sisters both looked at me as if I had lost my mind. “That was really mean, Emma,” Macey threw at me. “Mind your own business from now on,” Marlowe added in.
Sawyer stood frozen, staring at me coldly, but I couldn’t deal with him yet.
Frankie gave my hand one more good squeeze. “Honey, I’m done here. I can’t work like this.” She faced my father. “Mr. Carrington, I always thought you were a good man, but I’m not sure anymore.” She shook her head. “Shannon wouldn’t have wanted this for you or your girls.” She wrapped me in her arms. “Take care. I’m only a call away if you need anything.”
“Frankie,” I cried.
“I know.” She walked away.
Dad let her.
Ray took off his cowboy hat and ran his hand over his balding head. “I gotta say, Dane, Frankie’s right. Things haven’t been the same since Shannon died. I think it’s time for us to part ways.”
Dad’s brown eyes widened. “Listen, Ray, we can work this out.”
“I don’t think so. When you didn’t stand up for my boy or your girl here,” he patted my back, “it told me all I needed to know about where your head is.”