Chapter 26 - Stone (Part 1)
Stepping into the Brennen household, a lot of little details fell into place regarding Aubree’s personality.
The unconscious twitch of her eye when someone entered the pack house with dirt coating their feet. How she’d wash her dishes in the sink immediately after using them. How she swept and mopped the kitchen floor and foyer after everyone had come home in the morning from the nightly hunt, despite the fact that they all took turns cleaning the house. How she’d pick up his and her clothes off the floor of their room every morning and toss the ripped garments in the trash.
Everything at her parents’ house was immaculately clean.
The walls were stark white. Not a single smudge marred the surface. The dark-stained hardwood floors, a deep mahogany red, shone in the light. Spotless. Not a speck of dirt or dust anywhere, not even in the corners of the crown molding along the floor.
The vinegary-lavender scent of her mother’s cleaning solution peppered his eyes and filled his nose. He tried to take shallow breaths through his mouth, but it was no use.
As he followed Aubree and her father into the living room, he turned his focus to the large window and walked straight toward it. A black leather loveseat stood in front of the window and as he reached for the window, he asked, “Mind if I open the window?”
“Oh, are you warm?” her father asked. “I can turn on the AC—”
“Thank you, but I need fresh air,” he said as he opened the window.
[Are you okay?] Aubree asked, coming up behind him as he straightened up.
Closing his eyes, the evening air drifted in and he gulped in breath after breath of it. Car fumes and barbecuing meat from the neighbors met his nose, along with the fresh scent of grass and spice from the bushes on both sides of the pathway against the front of the house.
[It’s hard to breathe. Your mother’s cleaning solution is so strong.]
He sat down at the end of the loveseat, next to the window and forced a neutral expression on his face. Aubree took the seat next to him. [I’ll ask Mom if we can move dinner outside.]
He shook his head. [The dog.]
He glanced at her and watched her deflate a little, her teeth raking over her bottom lip.
Why was she sitting so far away? There was an inch of space between them.
An involuntary rumble of discontent vibrated in his throat as he draped his arm around her shoulder and pulled her closer. Inhaling her scent would help to block out the overpowering odor of the cleaning chemicals her mother was adamant on using.
Her scent shifted to one of nervousness and her heart skipped a beat.
Fear flashed in her eyes as she looked up to meet his gaze. [Not so close.]
He frowned. [Why?]
Their mental conversation was cut off when her father—Steve—chuckled lightly from the other side of the room.
Aubree’s eyes flitted to the source of the sound, while Stone allowed his gaze to drift more slowly in her father’s direction.
[Just... Not so tight. Dad’s laid-back, but if Mom pops in...]
She trailed off as her father said, “So, tell me a bit about yourself, Stone.”
[Very well,] he said, reclining in his seat and resting his arm across the back of the couch behind her.
She relaxed, easing back and leaning the back of her head against his arm. [Thank you.]
“What would you like to know, sir?” Stone asked, his attention back on her father.
“Well, what do you like to do for fun? What are your hobbies and interest?”
“Running. Fitness,” Stone said. “I’ve even got Aubree running and lifting weights.”
Aubree’s hand met her face before a flush of red graced her cheeks.
Raising an eyebrow, an amused grin tugged on Steve’s lips. “Oh really? That’s interesting.”
“Stargazing is my favorite,” Stone added. “I suppose you could call that a hobby. I don’t get to do that as much as I used to. The city lights blot out the night sky.”
“Oh, yeah? That takes me back to my youth,” he said with a light sigh as he relaxed in his matching leather recliner. ” I loved camping with my folks in the summer and stargazing at night. We should do that again sometime, Bree. It’s been... how many years has it been since we last went camping?”
Aubree hummed, running her fingers through her hair and brushing it behind an ear. “I think the summer after my sophomore year? I didn’t have time for it after that if I recall. Yeah, that had to be it. I got my first part-time job the summer after my junior year. Had to make some money to save up for college.”
Her father nodded, his fingers scratching through his beard on his chin. “That you did. Say, how is your job going? I haven’t heard too much about it in the last little while.”
Aubree nodded, a little too quickly, not that her father seemed to notice. “Good, good. Keeping busy.”
“Bree, would you mind setting the table for me?” her mother called from the kitchen.
Aubree visibly swallowed. Her gaze turned from her father back to Stone as she hesitated to respond.
Stone gave her a slight nod of his head. [I’ll be fine.]
“Okay.” She inhaled a deep breath before rising to her feet and walking out.
Stone watched her before feeling her father’s gaze on him. Ignoring the stare, he eased back in his seat and prepared for the onslaught from both parents, only one of which he could respond to directly.
As soon as Aubree’s footsteps entered the kitchen and he could hear her gathering plates and silverware, her mother’s whispered voice cut through his ears. “Okay, I’m not blind, but you can’t possibly be serious about this guy.”
“Mom, please. You said you would give him a chance. I’m counting on you to keep an open mind.”
“Look at him! How old is he even? He looks like he could be at least thirty! He’s too old for you!”
“Stop it. You’re embarrassing yourself,” Aubree replied under her breath.
Her mother scoffed as Aubree’s footsteps moved away to what must have been the dining room. He could hear her setting the plates down on the wooden surface, slightly muffled by placemats, as her father’s hands laced together before him on his lap, his eyes bearing down into Stone’s.
Her father didn’t beat around the bush and came right out with the question every father had the right to ask.
“So, Stone, tell me... What are your intentions with my daughter?”
A hint of nervousness tainted Steve’s scent. His posture was relaxed, but the look in his eyes when Stone’s gaze met his was one of wary determination.
Lowering his arm to his side, he straightened and maintained eye-contact with her father.
“Sir, I know what you must think of me given all that has happened in such a short period of time, but let me first assure you that this was Aubree’s choice, and it needs to be respected.
“I won’t lie. Her spirit drew me to her. She must have felt the same, even though she was in love with Dan at the time. We both tried to ignore it. Tried to pretend that it didn’t exist, but that kind of connection is a force of nature that will only lead to pain if one does not adhere to it.”
Her father stared back at him, his eyes growing wider as he continued in a lower voice that made Steve strain to hear him clearly. He probably expected a short and direct response, not a summation of everything they went through.
“She agreed to Dan’s proposal prematurely, as she had feelings for me that she wasn’t yet sure of and knew she had to figure them out before she did marry him.
“After her accident, I realized what I could have lost, and I couldn’t live with that in my heart. Not again.”
He didn’t miss the look of surprise at his last words, but he pressed on, not wanting to bring up that subject so soon in their meeting. Not unless pressed about it.
“So, I made my feelings known while I thought I still had a chance, only to find out that she was engaged to Dan. The thing was, she looked confused and torn because, as much as she didn’t want to admit it, she had developing feelings for me as well.”
He cleared his throat. “The timing wasn’t right, and I wish the circumstances were less stressful than they were on her, but she knew she had to make a choice. I hope you and Sandra can understand and respect her decision because of how hard it was for her to make. She loved Dan very much.”
Sighing for emphasis, he brushed his fingers through his hair that had fallen in his eyes. “Now, in response to your initial question, my answer is simple. My intentions are to stand by her side, love her and make her feel loved, and make her happy every day of her life. And when the time is right, I will ask for her hand in marriage.”