A Bride's Tangled Vows

By: Dani Wade

 One

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 again—at 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 vow—a 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 long—only 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 housekeeper—the one who’d baked cookies for him and his brothers while they were grieving the loss of their father—was 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 time—his 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 week—always 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.

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