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Aiden Blackstone suppressed a shiver that had nothing to do with the afternoon thunderstorm raging all around him. For a moment, he remained immobile, staring at the elaborate scrolls carved into the heavy oak door before him. A door he'd promised himself he'd never pass through againat least, not while his grandfather was alive.
I should have come back here, Mother, only to see you.
But he'd sworn never to let himself be locked inside the walls of Blackstone Manor again. He'd thought he had all the time he would need to make his absence up to his mother. In his youthful ignorance, he hadn't realized everything he'd be giving up to uphold his vow. Now he was back to honor another vowa promise to see that his mother was taken care of.
The thought had his stomach roiling. Shaking it off, he reached for the old-fashioned iron knocker shaped like a bear's head. The cab had already left. On a day plagued by steamy, ferocious southern thunderstorms, he certainly wouldn't be walking the ten miles back to Black Hills, no matter how much he dreaded this visit. His nausea eased as he reminded himself that he wouldn't be here for longonly as long as necessary.
Knocking again, he listened intently for footsteps on the other side of the door. It wasn't really home if you had to wait for someone to answer. He'd walked away with the surety that only comes with untried youth. Now he returned a different man, a success on his own terms. He just wouldn't have the satisfaction of rubbing his grandfather's nose in it.
Because James Blackstone was dead.
The knob rattled, then the door swung inward with a deep creak. A tall man, his posture still strong despite the gray hair disappearing from his head, blinked several times as if not sure his aging eyes were trustworthy. Though he'd left his childhood home on his eighteenth birthday, Aiden recognized Nolen, the family butler.
"Ah, Master Aiden, we've been expecting you," the older man said.
"Thank you," Aiden returned with polite sincerity, stepping closer to look into the butler's faded blue eyes. Lightning cracked nearby and thunder almost immediately boomed with wall-rattling force, the storm a reflection of the upheaval deep in Aiden's core.
Still studying his face, the older man opened the door wide enough for Aiden and his luggage. "Of course," Nolen said, shutting out the pouring rain behind them. "It's been a long time, Master Aiden."
Aiden searched the other man's voice for condemnation, but found none. "Please leave your luggage here. I'll take it up once Marie has your room ready," Nolen instructed.
So the same housekeeperthe one who'd baked cookies for him and his brothers while they were grieving the loss of their fatherwas still here, too. They said nothing ever changed in small towns. They were right.
Aiden swept a quick glance around the open foyer, finding it the same as when he'd left, too. The only anomaly was an absent portrait that captured a long-ago moment in timehis parents, himself at about fifteen and his younger twin brothers about a year before his father's death.
Setting down his duffel and laptop case and shaking off the last drops of rain, he followed Nolen's silent steps through the shadowy breezeway at the center of the house. The gallery, his mother had always called this space that opened around the central staircase. It granted visitors an unobstructed view of the elaborate rails and landings of the two upper floors. Before air-conditioning, the space had allowed a breeze through the house on hot, humid, South Carolina afternoons. Today the sounds of his steps echoed off the walls as if the place were empty, abandoned.
But his mother was somewhere. Still in her old rooms, probably. Aiden didn't want to think of her, of how helpless her condition rendered her. And him. It had been so long since he'd last heard her voice on the phone, right before her stroke two years ago. After the car accident made travel difficult for her, Aiden's mother had called him once a weekalways when James left the house. The last time he'd seen Blackstone Manor's phone number on his caller ID, it had been his brother calling to tell him their mother had suffered a stroke, brought on by complications from her paralysis. Then silence ever since.
To Aiden's surprise, Nolen went directly to the stairway, oak banister gleaming even in the dim light as if it had just been polished. Most formal meetings in the house were held in his grandfather's study, where Aiden had assumed he'd be meeting with the lawyer. He'd just as soon get down to business.
"Did the lawyer give up on my arrival?" Aiden asked, curious about why he was being shown to his room first.
"I was told to bring you upstairs," Nolen replied, not even glancing back. Did he view the prodigal son with suspicion, an unknown entity who would change life as Nolen had lived it for over forty years?
Damn straight. He had every intention of using his grandfather's money to move his mother closer to her sons and provide her with the best care for her condition, much better than he could give her personally. He'd sell off everything, then hightail it back to his business in New York City. He had nothing more than a hard-won career waiting for him there, but at least it was something he'd built on his own. He wanted nothing to do with Blackstone Manor or the memories hidden within its walls.
Having followed blindly, he abruptly noticed Nolen's direction. Uneasiness stirred low in Aiden's gut. His and his brothers' old rooms took up the third floor. To his knowledgedated though it wasonly two sets of rooms occupied the second floor: his mother's and his grandfather's suites. Neither of which was he ready to visit. His mother'safter he'd had time to prepare himself. His grand-father'snever.
The lawyer, Canton, had said James died last night. Aiden had been focused on packing and getting here since then. He'd address what the future held after talking with Canton.
He directed his question to Nolen's back as they neared the double doors to his grandfather's suite, his tone emerging huskier than he would have liked. "Nolen, what's going on?"
But the other man didn't reply; he just took the last few steps to the doors, then twisted the knob and stepped back. "Mr. Canton is inside, Master Aiden."
The words were so familiar, yet somehow not. Aiden drew a deep breath, his jaw tightening at the repeated use of Nolen's childhood designation for him.
But it beat being called Master Blackstone. They shouldn't even have the hated last name, but his mother had given in to old James's demands. The Blackstone name had to survive, even if his grandfather could only throw girls. So he'd insisted his only daughter give the name to her own sons, shutting out any legacy his father might have wanted.
Aiden shook his head, then pushed through the doorway with a brief nod. He stepped into the room, warm despite the spring chill of the storm raging outside. His eyes strayed to the huge four-poster bed draped in heavy purple velvet.
His whole body recoiled. Watching him from the bed was his grandfather. His dead grandfather.
The rest of the room disappeared, along with the storm pounding against the windows. He could only stare at the man he'd been told had "passed on." Yet there he was, sitting up in bed, sizing up the adult Aiden with eyes piercing despite his age.
His body was thinner, frailer than Aiden remembered, but no one would mistake his grandfather for dead. The forceful spirit within the body was too potent to miss. Aiden instinctively focused on his adversarythe best defense was a strong offense. That strategy had kept him alive when he was young and broke; it did the same now that he was older and wealthier than he'd ever imagined he'd be when he'd walked away from Blackstone Manor.
"I knew you were a tough old bird, James, but I didn't think even you could rise from the dead," Aiden said.
To his surprise, his grandfather cracked a weak smile. "You always were a chip off the old block."
Aiden suppressed his resentment at the cliché and added a new piece of knowledge to his arsenal. James might not be dead, but his voice wavered, scratchy as if forced from a closed throat. Coupled with the milky paleness of his grandfather's once-bronze skin, Aiden could only imagine something serious must have occurred. Why wasn't he in the hospital?
Not that Aiden would have rushed home to provide comfort, even if he'd known his grandfather was sick. When he'd vowed that he wouldn't set foot in Blackstone Manor until his grandfather was dead, he'd meant it.
Something the old man knew only too well.
Anger blurred Aiden's surroundings for a moment. He stilled his body, then his brain, with slow, even breaths. His tunnel vision suddenly expanded to take in the woman who approached the bed with a glass of water. James frowned at her, obviously irritated at the interruption.
"You need this," she said, her voice soft, yet insistent.
Something about that sound threatened to temper Aiden's reaction. Wavy hair, the color of pecans toasted to perfection, settled in a luxuriant wave to the middle of her back. The thick waves framed classic, elegant features and movie-star creamy skin that added a beauty to the sickroom like a rose in a graveyard. Bright blue-colored scrubs outlined a slender body with curves in all the right placesnot that he should be noticing at the moment.
Just as he tried to pull his gaze away, one perfectly arched brow lifted. She stared James down, her hand opening to reveal two white capsules. That's when it hit him.
He didn't realize he'd spoken aloud until she stiffened.
James glanced between the two of them. "You remember Christina, I see."
Only too well. And from her ramrod-straight back he gathered she remembered his little nickname for her. That stubborn I will get my way look brought it all back. She used to look at him that very same way when they were teenagers, after he'd brushed her off like an annoying mosquito, dismissed her without a care for her feelings. Just a pesky little kid always hanging around, begging his family for attention. Until that last time. The time he'd taunted her for trying to horn in on a family that didn't want her. Her tears had imprinted on his conscience, permanently.
"Aiden," she acknowledged him with a cool nod. Then she turned her attention back to James. "Take these, please."
She might look elegant and serene, but Aiden could see the steel beneath the silk from across the room. Was there sexy under there, too? Nope, not gonna think about it. His strict, one-night stand policy meant no strings, and that woman had hearth and home written all over her. He wouldn't be here long enough to find out anything about anybody.
With a low grumble, James took the pills from her hand and chased them down with the water. "Happy now?"
His attitude didn't faze her. "Yes, thank you." Her smile only hinted that she was patronizing him. Her presence as a nurse piqued Aiden's curiosity.
His gaze lingered on her retreat to the far window, the rain outside a gray backdrop to her scrubs, before returning to the bed that dominated the room. His voice deepened to a growl. "What do you want?"
One corner of his grandfather's mouth lifted slightly, then fell as if his strength had drained away in a rush. "Straight to the point. I've always liked that in you, boy." His words slurred. "You're right. Might as well get on with it."
He straightened a bit in the bed. "I had a heart attack. Serious, but I'm not dead yet. Still, this little episode"
"Little!" Christina exclaimed.
James ignored her outburst. "has warned me it's time to get my affairs in order. Secure the future of the Blackstone legacy."
He nodded toward the suit standing nearby. "John Can-tonmy lawyer."
Aiden gave the man's shifting stance a good once-over. Ah, the man behind the phone call. "He must pay you well if you're willing to lie about life and death."
"He merely indulged me under the circumstances," James answered for Canton, displaying his usual unrepentant attitude. Whatever it takes to get the job done. The words James had repeated so often in Aiden's presence replayed through his mind.
"You're needed at home, Aiden," his grandfather said.
"It's your responsibility to be here, to take care of the family when I die."
"Again?" Aiden couldn't help saying.
Once more his grandfather's lips lifted in a weak semblance of the smirk Aiden remembered too well. "Sooner than I like to think. Canton"
Aiden frowned as his grandfather's head eased back against the pillows, as if he simply didn't have the energy to keep up his diabolical power-monger role anymore.
"As your grandfather told you, I'm his lawyer," Canton said as he reached out to shake Aiden's hand, his grip forceful, perhaps overcompensating for his thin frame. "I've been handling your grandfather's affairs for about five years now."
"You have my condolences," Aiden said.
Canton paused, blinking behind his glasses at Aiden's droll tone.
James lifted his head, irritation adding to the strain on his lined face. "There are things that need to be taken care of, Aiden. Soon."
His own anger rushed to replace numb curiosity. "You mean, you're going to arrange everything so it will continue just the way you want it."
This time James managed to jerk forward in a shadow of his favorite stance: that of looming over the unsuspecting victim. "I've run this family for over fifty years. I know what's best. Not some slacker who runs away at the first hint of responsibility. Your mother"
He fell back with a gasp, shaking as his eyes closed.
"Christina," Canton said, his sharp tone echoing in the room.
Christina crossed to the bed and checked James's pulse on the underside of his fragile wrist. Aiden noticed the tremble of her fingers with their blunt-cut nails. So she wasn't indifferent. Did she actually care for the old buzzard?
Somehow he couldn't imagine it. Then she held James's head while he swallowed some more water. Her abundant hair swung forward to hide her features, but her movements were efficient and sure.
Despite wanting to remain unmoved, Aiden's heart sped up. "You should be in a hospital," he said.
"They couldn't make him stay once your grandfather refused further treatments. He said if he was going to die, he would die at Blackstone Manor," Canton said. "Christina was already in residence and could follow the doctor's orders ."
His grandfather breathed deeply, then rested back against the pillows, his mouth drawn, eyes closed.
"Can you?" Aiden asked her.
She glanced up, treating him to another glimpse of creamy, flawless skin and chocolate eyes flickering with worry.
"Of course," she said, her tone matter-of-fact. "Mr. Blackstone isn't going to die. But he will need significant recovery time. I'd prefer him to stay in the hospital for a bit longer, but. " Her shrug said what can you do when a person's crazy?
Something about her rubbed Aiden wrong. She didn't belong in this room or with these people. Her beauty and grace shouldn't be sullied by his grandfather's villainous legacy. But that calm, professional facade masked her feelings in this situation. Was she just here for the job? Or another reason? Once more, Aiden felt jealous of her, wishing he could master his own emotions so completely.
But he was out of practice in dealing with the old man.