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My Not So Wicked Stepbrother (My Not So Wicked Series Book 1) by Jennifer Peel (1)

Prologue

“Emma! Emma! Emma!”

“Mom! Mom! Mom!” I put my overenthusiastic mom on speaker, so I could continue to write my report for work.

“Funny, sweetie.”

“I thought so.”

“I have some news. Big news,” she squealed as if she was much younger than her fifty-four-year-old self.

“I already know it’s six months until Christmas today. I’m sorry, I don’t have my wish list ready for you. Things have been crazy at the plant.”

My mom’s blood ran red and green. She lived for Christmas, or pretty much any holiday, but Christmas was her favorite. If she didn’t have at least half her shopping done by July, she thought something awful would happen, like the couple from The Notebook would break up. I never had told her that Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams went splitsville a long time ago. She would have blamed it on the fact that she only made seven side dishes instead of ten for Christmas dinner that year, or maybe because she forgot to buy the postman a gift.

“Then it’s a good thing that I already know what I’m getting you for Christmas this year,” she sang to the tune of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.”

Perfect. It was so hard to think of at least twenty things I wanted. Sometimes I thought Mom forgot I was thirty—not thirteen—and that I owned a house, a Jeep, and even had a big girl job as a metallurgist for the steel plant. “I can’t wait to see what you picked out.”

“Oh, honey, he is a cool drink of water—make that a hot toddy on a cold winter’s night. Actually, he’s more like a present you are going to want to unwrap all year long.”

I minimized the melting efficiency report on my screen and gave Mom my full attention. I sadly knew where this was going but decided to try and divert her. “Are you finally getting me the Golden Retriever I’ve been begging for since I was nine?”

“Emma Elaine Loveless, you know I wanted to, but your sisters were allergic and now you work all day, and who would you raise it with?”

“Mom, single people have dogs all the time.”

“But it would be so nice to share a puppy with someone. Or you know, maybe a baby?”

I pinched the bridge of my nose. “I have to get this report done by the end of today. Do you think we could talk about this for the 76,985th time again tonight?”

She giggled. “It’s only been 56,321 times. Besides, I’ve found the perfect man for you and he’s going to look fantastic in our Christmas photos. Seriously, you will be the cutest couple. Even cuter than that Notebook couple. They’re still together, right?”

“Um . . . well . . . What about my Christmas gift?” I hated lending fuel to her unquenchable fire, but I couldn’t bring myself to torture her.

“Oh, honey, really, he’s the one. I have this feeling. I got tingles all over.”

I hoped she didn’t have nerve damage; that was the only reason I could imagine she would be tingling. When it came to me, she had horrible taste. For herself, she had picked two winners.

“Tingles like when you set me up with Darryl who you met at the gas station and it turned out he had stolen the Mercedes he was driving that you admired so much?”

“That was just a silly misunderstanding.”

“Mom, he was arrested before our dinner even arrived.” Unfortunately, that wasn’t my worst date.

“You don’t even like Thai food, so you’re welcome.”

“Okay, what about the time you gave Adam my number and he turned out to be married to three women and was looking for a fourth?” That was my worst date. Creepy.

“You have to admit he was handsome.”

I went from pinching the bridge of my nose to rubbing my temples. “Mom, report, remember?”

“You’re the one who keeps interrupting me.”

“My apologies, please tell me who I will need to be blocking from my phone in the near future?”

“Believe me, you are going to want to put Sawyer, I mean Dr. Sawyer King on speed dial.”

“What’s he a doctor of? Let me guess. He has a PhD in folklore,” I said dryly.

“My sides are hurting; you are so funny. No. He’s my new optometrist.”

“What happened to Dr. Alvarez?”

“She retired, and Sawyer has replaced her.”

I squirmed at the way she emphasized his name. “You’re on a first name basis?”

“He’s going to be my son-in-law.”

I rolled my eyes. “Does he know that? Please say no.”

“Sweetie, I know how to be subtle.”

“Like a sledgehammer,” I said under my breath.

“Do you need some cookies? You sound a little snarky.”

Cookies did sound good, especially Mom’s cookies. Maybe some of her peanut butter ones. “Just tell me what you told him.”

In her pause I could hear her trying to spin the tale she had told him. It probably went something like this: Emma Loveless is my oldest daughter. You may wonder why we don’t have the same last name. Well, don’t you worry, she’s never been married, it’s just that her dad died when she was a baby and I remarried. And just because her last name is Loveless doesn’t mean she’s cursed never to have love. The fact that she believes it doesn’t make it true. Honestly, she is the sweetest girl. Smart, clever, athletic, she coaches soccer, and she can bake about anything your heart desires. And did I mention she’s cute?

She would forget to tell him I was ten to fifteen pounds overweight depending on the season, though I worked out more than any of my friends, even my model twin sisters. I may or may not have a love affair with cookies, cake, brownies, and basically anything with refined sugar. I mean, sugar is always there for you, and it comes in so many forms, showing up exactly as you needed it, when you needed it. Like now—I needed it in liquid form to get me through the rest of this conversation, and there it was, waiting for me on my desk in all its dark and handsome glory. I took a long swig of my Dr. Pepper and let the fizz settle my soul.

Mom finally got her story straight in her head. It must have been bad. I finished off the entire bottle of Dr. Pepper while bracing myself. The good news was there was more in the breakroom. See? Sugar is always available.

“I told him you are the smartest girl ever and a metall . . . meta something . . .”

For some reason she could never say metallurgist. Technically, I was a melt cast metallurgist, but that was really a mouthful for her to say.

“I told him you were an engineer who worked with steel,” she said, frustrated with herself. “And I told him that you were no prissy thing. I said, my Emma works hard and plays harder. Told him you even played football.”

“Mom, I was the kicker.” Seriously, it was no big deal, I walked on the field, kicked, and walked right back off. Too many of the boys were afraid to touch me, which our team used to its advantage.

“I know,” she squealed. “That’s the best part I wanted to tell you. You two know each other. He was the quarterback for Edenvale High the year you played.”

I leaned back in my chair and thought for a moment. Sawyer King? In a rush, a memory hit me. It was our homecoming game and Edenvale High was the it team—they still were. They were the largest high school in the neighboring three counties at the time. The small town I grew up in, Carrington Cove, didn’t have a high school back then so we went to the county school in Pine Falls. I remembered him because he was one of the best football players in the state during my senior year, not to mention extremely good looking. I’ve always had a bad habit of forgetting things, like everywhere. The night we played them my senior year I left my shoe behind. Just one. You would have thought I would have noticed the cold grass beneath my foot or my uneven steps, but I guess I was so used to walking out and kicking barefoot that it didn’t faze me, or maybe it was because I was so bummed we’d lost. But regardless, Sawyer King, for some weird reason I’ll never know, found my cleat.

I remember being embarrassed when he came running after me and called, “Hey Cinderella, you forgot your shoe.” Embarrassment had been a new feeling for me. I was the girl who pretty much did anything, whether I was dared to or not. I belched louder than the guys, jumped off cliffs, got dirty, and obviously I felt comfortable enough to “play” football. But then Sawyer King, the epitome of every girl’s high school fantasy, acknowledged my existence. He had the prettiest amber eyes and the all-American good boy looks. The kind of looks that rendered my seventeen-year-old self speechless. He must have been used to it because he flashed me his pearly whites and tossed me the shoe. “Good game, Loveless.” I stared after him, watching him run to catch up with his teammates. He did football pants justice, that much I remembered. And when he looked back and caught me staring. Good times. Hopefully he didn’t remember any of that.

“I think I remember him.” I felt bad lying to my mom. She was the best. She drove me crazy with her relentless matchmaking attempts, but there was no better mother alive than Shannon Carrington. I was only tired of trying to pretend that I had any hope of finding the one. Truly, I believed my name was a curse. I was the friend, never the girlfriend, certainly never the wife.

“He remembers you.”

Great. “Well, it’s not every day you see a girl play football.”

“Or kick fifty-five-yard field goals.” She and dad were still proud of that.

That too. “I hope he’s a good eye doctor for you.” That translated into please can this conversation be over with?

“He’s amazing. Best prescription I’ve had in ages. I’m seeing better than ever.”

My plan worked? Fantastic. “I’m happy for you. I should get back to my report.”

“Wait. Wait. I didn’t tell you what he said when I showed him a picture of you.”

“Mom,” I whined, “which picture did you show him?” Not like there were a lot of good ones floating around out there. Normally I wouldn’t care if someone saw me eating ice cream with my fingers or covered in mud from running an obstacle course, but for some reason I didn’t want this virtual stranger to see those things. Maybe because I thought he might be normal, not a felon or a polygamist.

“Honey, you’re so beautiful. I wish you would see that.”

How could I when all my life I always heard, your sisters are so gorgeous. Nearly every guy I ever knew asked me how old they were, and could he get their numbers. Even today I had guys befriend me to get to the M and M twins—Macey and Marlowe Carrington, genetic perfection. They got the best of Mom and Dad. Mom’s stunning ice blue eyes, Dad’s height and raven hair. I got Mom’s squishy middle and my biological dad’s hairy legs. I should buy stock in razors and Nair.

I sighed. “Which picture?”

“You know, our family picture we had taken in the spring.”

“Mom, that’s an unfair representation of me. I Spanxed every inch of my body and Marlowe did my hair and makeup.” She might have mentioned a few times I would be so pretty if I tried. I worked in a steel factory with crude, beer-guzzling men who I mostly loved, in 140-degree conditions at times. Even if there was anyone to try for, makeup would melt off my face.

“Oh, honey, you’re being silly; they don’t make Spanx for everything. I’ve looked.”

We both loved our cookies. But unlike me, my mom truly was beautiful, and she’d married the most handsome man in the county. He owned most of it, too.

It didn’t matter, I’m sure Dr. King only had eyes for my sisters. I wasn’t jealous. I loved Marlowe and Macey despite how opposite we were. “Did he get the girls’ numbers from you?”

“Why would he? They’re a little young for him.”

“Mom, they’re twenty-four and he has to be my age or close to it.”

“Six years is a lot of years.”

I didn’t argue with her.

“But I did give him your number after he said you looked exactly like he remembered you.”

Now I know he’s a liar. Not only was I not carrying around an extra ten pounds, okay fifteen, back then, but I had massive football helmet head the last time he saw me. It didn’t matter, because if he looked anything like he did back in high school, he probably had a girlfriend, or plenty waiting to occupy that title. Not that any of that would deter my mom. Even if he had one, she would push me on him like a used car salesman. Either way, rest assured, Sawyer King was not calling me.

“Love you, Mom.”

“I only want you to be happy.”

“I’m happy.” Truly, I was. I had a great life. Loving family—okay, Marlowe and Macey were a bit self-absorbed and acerbic at times, but I knew they would eventually grow out of that phase. I hoped. I had a terrific job and a dozen girls who adored me. I got to be a soccer mom without having to drive a minivan; that was a major win. And I had friends. Lots and lots of friends. Who needed a boyfriend?

“I love you, Emma. You made me believe in love at first sight. Someday, I hope you get the chance to know what that feels like.”

Me too.

~*~

Text from Unknown Number: Is this Emma?

Me: It depends on who’s asking. If this is the IRS, no, but I paid my taxes even though you could really give a single girl a break. I mean, sheesh, I’m sorry I don’t have any dependents to deduct. Now if this is Baskin Robbins, yes, I’m Emma and I love you. I’ll take a double scoop of chocolate ice cream with peanut butter sauce.

Unknown Number: I don’t want your money and I don’t have any ice cream, but now that you mention it, I could go for some.

Me: This is very disappointing, stranger. At least tell me you’re not a serial killer.

Unknown Number: I’m a doctor.

Me: All that means is you’re smart enough to get away with it.

Unknown Number: I am pretty smart.

Me: Now you’re starting to creep me out. I hope you have the wrong number or are texting from a penitentiary. Do they let prisoners have cell phones?

Unknown Number: I don’t think so.

Me: Do you know this from personal experience or because you know someone on the inside?

Unknown Number: Neither. Do you normally have conversations with strangers like this?

Me: Not typically, but I’m bored.

My team’s soccer game had been rained out and all the shows I liked were in summer reruns.

Unknown Number: So, you’re using me for entertainment?

Me: I’m not sure how entertaining you are. Do you know any good jokes?

Unknown Number: This is Sawyer King.

I sat up from my prostrate position on the couch.

Me: Haha, Jenna. Whose phone are you using? This isn’t funny.

I knew I shouldn’t have told my best friend about Sawyer, but she’d had a crush on him like every girl this side of the mountains. That was, until she finally figured out that Brad, my other best friend since preschool, was in love with her since he was an embryo. Jenna and Brad fancied themselves jokers. I guess since they owned a comedy club they were, but this wasn’t funny at all.

Not So Funny Best Friend: Who’s Jenna?

Me: Seriously, Jenna, the joke’s over. Sawyer King, god among men. Mr. I Hold the State High School Record for Touchdowns in One Season isn’t going to text me. An angel doesn’t text. He appears in your living room, hopefully wearing something akin to his cousin Cupid.

Jenna and I had stalked Sawyer on Facebook after I talked to my mom. Dr. King had grown up just fine. As in, he was ridiculously gorgeous and I’m so embarrassed my mom tried to set me up with him. How could she possibly think he was meant to father my children? Not that my ovaries didn’t scream that they deserved to breed with someone as beautiful as him, but even they knew it was a pipe dream. To punish me for not being able to snag such a catch, my period started early—while I was at work and without a tampon in my purse. Did I mention I worked with all men?

Really Not Funny Best Friend: You think I’m an angel? And I didn’t know Cupid was related to heavenly beings. I guess it’s the wings.

Me: Jen, joke’s over. Don’t you have work to do? I thought tonight was comedy sports night and you and Brad were facing Heidi and Oscar. I’m going now. I need to pluck that one stupid hair on my chin that acts like its high on miracle grow.

I threw my phone on the couch cushion next to me, wondering if maybe I should let the hair chin grow out and tie a bead to it. That could be fun. I could ask my friends, “What’s hanging?”

My phone rang before I could fully explore the possibilities of the fun conversations I could have about my chin hair. I picked up my phone to find it was Jenna calling from her mystery number. I bet she asked to use some random person’s phone at their comedy club, High on Laughs. It was a tribute to Colorado’s new marijuana law and all the potheads who now called our state home.

“Okay, Jen. I forgive you.”

“I’m so glad to hear that,” a gravelly masculine voice replied.

“Uh . . . Brad?” Please let it be Brad. He was good at imitating voices.

“It’s me, Sawyer. Mr. Ninety Touchdowns in a Season.”

No. No. No. I mean anyone could know that stat. Right?

“I’m sorry I’m not related to Cupid. No wings, and I haven’t worn diapers in years.”

I was losing feeling everywhere except in my brain, which remembered all the embarrassing things I just said, including plucking my chin hair.

“Are you there?” he asked.

“Um . . . yes. Why are you calling me?”

“I promised your mom I would.”

Grr. Mom. “Whatever she bribed you with, I’m willing to pay double if you forget our little texting conversation and my number.”

He laughed the most fantastically beautiful laugh I’d ever had the pleasure of hearing. “Are you sure? The price was pretty steep.”

Oh my gosh, she had resorted to paying people? I had been joking, as in figurative speech. “How much?” I internally cringed.

“Cinnamon rolls every week for a year.”

“Oh.”

“I refused the offer,” he said hastily.

“I thought you said you were smart. My mom’s cinnamon rolls are to die for. So, why are you contacting me then?”

He thought for a second. “I wanted to see for myself if it was true.”

“What?”

“Well, your mom made it sound as if you could walk on water.”

Of course she did. “You know you can too?”

“What? How?”

“If I tell you, do you promise to never ever reveal our little discussion even under threat of torture?”

“What if someone is pulling out my fingernails?”

“They grow back.”

“You’re harsh.”

Extreme measures for extreme possible embarrassment. “Walking on water is pretty amazing knowledge.”

“True. But what if I don’t want to forget your number?”

Uh, why wouldn’t he? “You don’t even know me.”

“That’s why I’m calling.” He thought for a moment. “How about this, in exchange for learning how to walk on water, I will forget everything except your number and that you think I’m god-like. And perhaps I can negotiate how you came to that conclusion and how you know about my football record.”

I fell to the side of my couch. I think I was literally dying from embarrassment. My heart was beating erratically enough for me to consider dialing 911. On the bright side, it would give me a good excuse to end this call, and he may even take mercy on me if I ended up in the ER or died. Either option sounded fantastic right about now.

“What kind of negotiations are we talking about?” I managed to squeak out through heart palpitations.

“Nothing too painful. You only have to admit to stalking me on, let me guess, Facebook, and tell me your secret to walking on water. In return, I promise I won’t ever stare at your chin hair and I might confess that I also looked you up on Facebook.”

I sat up. That did not make me feel better. Oh no, if anything, this was worse. Cardiac arrest, here I come. I had the most embarrassing pictures and videos on Facebook. Everything from bad Spice Girls karaoke and burping out the alphabet song, to Halloween pictures where I’d dressed up like a bowl of Froot Loops, or when Jenna and I were a bra. I was the left saggy boob. And I wondered why nobody found me to be a catch. I didn’t mind everyone else in the world looking at my life in pictures, but not him. Not after looking at Sawyer’s profile filled with professional pictures of him doing things like skiing or graduating from the University of Houston College of Optometry. Not to mention all the gorgeous women he’d dated over the years. They had names like Candy and Sasha. He even looked fabulous blowing out his birthday candles. No one should look good doing that. Needless to say, it all made me feel self-conscious. Maybe I should feel like that more often. I might get more dates.

“You’re stalking me on Facebook?” I homed in on that factoid.

“I think the deal was for you to admit that first.”

I melted into my comfy leather couch to help me get through the trauma I was experiencing. “See . . . the thing is, my mom, as wonderful as she is, has this awful habit of setting me up with less-than-scrupulous men, so I was preparing myself in case I had to get a restraining order.”

“Understandable. But why is she setting you up when according to your Facebook profile, you are in quite a few relationships already. It’s stiff competition. The Pillsbury Doughboy, Duncan Hines, Dr. Pepper, Mr. Pibb—”

“I only see Mr. Pibb if the Dr. isn’t available. And the Doughboy’s real name is Poppin’ Fresh. No one really knows that.” It was sad that I did, but bread would always be my first love.

“Consider me informed. Thank you. But what about Tony the Tiger and Captain Crunch? Do you see them at the same time?”

“All the time.”

He laughed. “Should I ask about Betty Crocker? I’m not judging.”

I sighed with content. She was my favorite. “Betty and I have a special relationship. I go to her when all the guys have let me down.”

“Is that often?”

I paused, not sure how to respond. “Are you asking how often Betty and I hook up?” Based on the pictures I saw of his girlfriends he probably thought I should dump Betty altogether.

He cleared his throat. “No. No,” he scrambled to say. “I meant, do men disappoint you often?”

“Are we talking about my guys or guy-guys?”

“Guy-guys.”

“Well . . . how do I put this?” I didn’t want to sound bitter, because I honestly wasn’t. There were perks to being the friend, never the girlfriend. I never had to worry about silly things like three-month anniversaries or if I had garlic on my pizza, because there was no one to kiss. I’d be willing to stock up on mint gum, because I really did like garlic. But no matter how fresh my breath was or non-felonious my dates were, I always managed to end up in the friend zone. “I tend to keep my expectations low unless it’s Colonel Sanders or my dad, so the answer is no.”

He thought about that for a second. “So you like chicken, your dad, and cereal. Anything else?”

The fact that I hadn’t scared him away yet surprised me. “That’s only the tip of the iceberg, but I’m sure you have better things to do than listen to me ramble about why I love spreadsheets and soccer.”

His masculine laugh filled my ears. “You say the most unexpected things. I can’t think of anything I’d like to do better right now than to hear more about you.”

This couldn’t be real. “Did my mom already bring you cinnamon rolls?”

“Not one.”

I sank back against my couch, more confused. But what the heck, my shows were all in reruns. “Okay, spreadsheets or soccer first?”

“You choose.”

I started with spreadsheets since that tied into my job and all the data I constantly analyzed that for some reason brought me ridiculous amounts of joy. From there we moved on to soccer, which turned into a full-blown sports conversation. He was more of a football and hockey guy. We ended up talking about lots of different subjects, including our families. He had an older brother and his parents were divorced. Like me, he was also a lover of the great outdoors and his favorite food was pancakes. I could get on board with that. He sounded intelligent, unmarried, and supposedly had never been arrested, which made me wonder what was wrong with him. But the more I talked to him the more I liked him, even at two in the morning when I could barely keep my eyes open, but neither one of us was in any hurry to end the call. For me it was like talking to your best friend who you never knew existed, and all you wanted to do was catch up with him.

However, I did have to be at the plant at six. I hated to end our marathon call that was only paused when I had to pee—twice. Eight hours is a long time. “I suppose I should tell you the secret to walking on water and let you get some sleep.” I yawned, already curled up in my bed. I had even brushed my teeth while he seduced me with tales of disgusting eye appointments, like removing parasites from patients’ eyes.

“Wait,” he sounded panicked.

“You don’t want to know?”

“I do . . . but I want you to tell me in person.” He paused. “Would you like to go on a date?”