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Stepbrother Master(3)

By:Ava Jackson

Bull to the shit. He's not shy; he’s just an asshole. I decided to try my best to ignore him for now—both his dark mood and his disturbing hotness. I needed to change the subject. “Can I see your wedding dress, Mom?”

She immediately lit up again. “Of course. I’ve been dying to show you. I’m still disappointed you couldn’t come with me to that last fitting.” She threw one arm around me and squeezed me to her side. “But now that you’re done with school, I’ve got you all to myself for the summer. The dress is in the guest room closet, but I’ll move it so you’ll have room for your things.”

She chatted on about her plans for the wedding and our summer as I followed her upstairs. I was still skeptical about Husband Number Four, but Mom's excitement was becoming infectious. I hadn't seen her so animated and genuinely in love since Dad died when I was twelve. If it weren't for her being my mom, her lovebird routine with Russ would be downright cute.

And the ranch itself didn't hurt. What little I'd seen of Wild Cliffs had done its best to enchant me. The rustic mansion, with its beautiful views of the distant mountains, overlooked the rolling hills and private lake ... everything seemed picture perfect.

When we reached the guest room, I noticed that someone had brought up my bags. I also noticed that this single room was bigger than my Stanford apartment. “Who's that?” I pointed to the framed photograph on the dresser of a fierce-looking, uniformed man. “Is he coming to the wedding?”

“That's Ford's older brother, Nixon. He's overseas on a Navy SEAL training mission right now, but he sent us a really nice card. You should remind me to show it to you.”

Light footsteps tapped down the hallway. “Ma’am? Are you looking for any—” An aproned woman came in with a feather duster; she looked about my age, but dark-haired and dark-eyed. She stopped in the doorway when she saw me. Something about her quick up-and-down glance rubbed me the wrong way. It felt hard and calculating, like she was trying to read my price tag.

“I told you, call me Cynthia. We’re all family here.” Mom turned to me. “Celeste, this is my daughter. Emma, this is my guardian angel. When I first got here three months ago, I couldn't do a thing without her. She's the sweetest, most helpful girl—besides you, of course,” she quickly added.

Celeste smiled, but it was so brittle, I thought her face might crack. “Oh, right. Emma. So you're just staying until after the wedding?” Without waiting for my reply, she smiled at Mom. “Don't worry about it, Cynthia. This place is so big, I got lost for weeks when I first came here. You’ve managed to make yourself at home in such a short time.”

I couldn’t tell if her words were sarcastic or if she just had a naturally bitchy tone. I was going with both.

“Just seven more days.” Mom sighed. “I'm so lucky. Russ is … the man I never thought I’d find. And just look at this dress.” She opened the walk-in closet and flipped on the light.

Damn. Her wedding dress really was gorgeous. A waterfall of soft ivory chiffon draped from an empire waist, opening at the back into a long, scalloped satin train. The sheer, long-sleeved bodice was heavy with floral lace appliques, accented in seed pearls. Classy and sophisticated, without sacrificing an ounce of sexiness. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Celeste's gaze turn hungry.

“It's a custom design,” Mom said. “Great for old ladies like me with a little extra around the tummy.”

“As if you needed any help,” Celeste said.

Suck up harder; I think there's still some left.

“If I were the dreaming type ... well … maybe someday I’ll find what you’ve found with Mr. Bennett. I only hope I don’t have to look too far.” Her gaze drifted to the window, and I caught sight of Ford in the yard below, once again hauling bags of rocks. If Celeste had looked hungry while she surveyed the wedding dress, right now she looked downright ravenous. I tried not to let it bother me. But it made a certain sort of sense as to why she acted like a complete bitch … but it didn’t explain his behavior.

Celeste suddenly cocked her head at me. “Are you seeing anyone, Emma?”

Caught off guard, I replied, “Not at the moment.” I told myself not to pry, but I couldn’t hold the question back. “What about you?”

Her eyes drifted to the window again. She gave a cat-like smile, close-lipped and teasing.

Fabulous. Beautiful, rustic mansion, an incandescently happy mother, and a raging bitch of a housekeeper. I frowned. I couldn't put my finger on why Celeste bothered me so much. Whatever it was, though, I certainly wasn't sold on Mom's glowing opinion. God knew she wasn't the world's best judge of character—at least, not with men. But I didn't want to jump all over someone I'd just met, either. I tried to give Celeste the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she was just trying to make nice with Russ’s new wife to solidify her position.