The music blaring from my speakers wasn’t loud enough to drown out my thoughts as I turned onto the wide, suburban street I didn’t think I’d see again. At least not while my parents were still alive.
There were more mansions in their neighborhood than there were in some entire cities. They guarded the street like looming sentinels, welcoming me home with their perfectly trimmed hedges and coldly beautiful facades.
I turned down the volume as I slowed outside of my parents’ wrought iron gates. After keying in the code they’d sent me, I watched as the massive gates crept open to reveal the house I’d grown up in.
Home, shit home.
From the outside, the place was incredible. The expansive front lawn was green, and the property was lined with the tall trees that gave Raleigh its nickname of the City of Oaks.
The overhang above their wide porch was held up by four colonial, statuesque pillars, and the Georgian-inspired brick house had been designed by a world-renowned architect. It had been eight short years since I’d last seen the place, but it looked exactly like I remembered it.
I’d thought I had at least another eight years or maybe more before I’d have to see it again. In the early days after I’d enlisted, I’d come home a few times for family holidays. Things had always been so tense that I’d stopped coming eventually.
Yet here I was. In the last place I’d expected to be for the only reason that could’ve lured me back: I was needed.
The fallout from my enlistment fifteen years ago lingered to this day, but I couldn’t stay away any longer. My father’s heart attack had seen to it that the time to return had come.
Whether I want to or not. Duty was duty, and I’d fulfilled mine to my country. It was time to do the same for my family company.
American Aviation needed someone at its helm, and, lucky me, I was the only player currently left in the game. My grandfather had started the company and built it into an empire, my father had expanded on said empire, and now it was my turn to see what I could do with it.
My mother’s dream was finally coming true. I was taking over the company, and there was nothing anybody could do about it—myself included.
My Maserati rolled to a stop at the end of the paved driveway. I parked underneath the porte cochere, engaged the emergency brake, and then sat back, scrubbing my hands over my face as I tried to come to terms with the fact that I was really here.
The ink on the paperwork ensuring my early separation from the Air Force wasn’t even dry yet, and I was already nearly a thousand miles from the base where I’d spent the last few years living. It was as surreal as it had been inevitable.
Companies didn’t run themselves, and ours was always going to need me eventually. Having resigned myself to the fact that my days as a pilot were over, I finally climbed out of the car and tossed the flight bag I’d brought with me over my shoulder.
As I pulled my aviator sunglasses away from my eyes and hooked them into the collar of my T-shirt, my gaze swept across the home I’d thought I’d left behind. While I’d always known I’d end up back in Raleigh eventually, I never thought I’d be moving back in here.
The current circumstances hadn’t given me much time to find a place of my own before I was racing back home. For the time being, that meant living here.
With my parents.
An Air Force Academy graduate, a military fighter pilot, the heir to one of the largest aviation companies in the world, and I was moving back in with my parents.
How the hell did it come to this?
Before I could give myself the obvious answer to that question, the double doors at the top of the stairs opened, and Michael, who’d been working for my family since before I was born, stepped neatly into my line of vision.
“Welcome home, Mr. Ramsey,” he said just as formally as always. “Your parents are eagerly awaiting your arrival. They’re in your father’s room.”
“Thanks, Mike.” I grinned as I took the stairs two at a time, clapping him on the shoulder even though I knew he abhorred any display of affection.
I’d been closer to him than I’d been to my own father growing up, though. Purely because Michael was always around and my father barely was. He might have a stiff upper lip and still refused to address me by my first name, but the old bastard couldn’t fool me.
“You missed me, Mike, didn’t you?”
His thin lips pursed, but eventually he dipped his graying head in a nod. “It certainly has been very quiet around here without you, Mr. Ramsey. It will be good to have you back.”
“It will definitely be less quiet. I can assure you of that much.” Even if it was only because I’d be in and out constantly.
While I would be staying here, I didn’t plan on spending more time at the house than I had to. Not that I thought that would be a problem once I got into the swing of things at the office.
I breezed past Michael, stepping inside my childhood home as he closed the doors behind us. It was both surprising and not surprising at all that the house looked much the same as it had the last time I’d been here. Surprising since even the fresh flowers in the crystal vases looked like the exact same ones, but unsurprising since my parents never had and never would make any major changes to the place.
The polished, checkered marble floors were as shiny as ever, sunlight streaming in through the banks of windows at the far end of the foyer. A sweeping staircase to my left led up to my suites while an identical one on the right led to my parents’. Guest rooms were on the upper levels, along with several different kinds of entertainment areas.
This level opened up to a large deck and a garden the size of a small nature reserve beyond. The staff kitchen, formal sitting room, parlor, and several dining areas spanned the length of the house down here. Beneath my feet was the theater room, wine cellar, and the basement that had been turned into a game room.
I sighed, readjusting my bag over my shoulder when Michael tried taking it from me. Disapproval lined his features when I glanced at him and shook my head. “It’s okay, Mike. I’ve got it.”
“Your mother requested an audience with you as soon as you arrived. I must insist that you go on up. Let me see to it that your luggage is taken to your rooms.”
“My luggage is one bag.” I tightened my grip on the strap. “I’m sure I can manage.”
The rest of my stuff was being shipped here from the base, but I hadn’t acquired much since I’d left here. Uniforms wouldn’t do me much good anymore, and most of the casual clothes I had fitted inside the flight bag.
“Very well,” Michael said, inclining his head toward my parents’ staircase as a gentle prompt. “They’re waiting for you, sir.”
“Of course.” There was no point in putting it off, so I headed up to see my parents.
The tension that’d always been present in the house was still here, but it was different now. I didn’t know if it was my dad’s heart attack, my return, or my mom’s ruling of the manor with her iron fist that was causing it, but the air itself seemed thick enough to cut with a knife.
Plush carpets absorbed my footsteps when I reached the landing, and when I knocked on my father’s door, the nurse beside his bed blinked in surprise to find me standing there. As I walked in, I noticed that his room was one that had changed since the last time I’d been in it.
It had been turned into something resembling a hospital room with a custom-made bed, beeping monitors, and a strangely sterile smell. He was getting the best care possible, but I’d already known my mother would have insisted on it.
Dad was propped up on the bed, his hand trembling slightly when he lifted it to wave at me. “Tristin, my boy. Welcome home.”
Selena, otherwise known—but not in public—as Mother, was in here too, waiting for me. Wearing six-inch heels even in her ailing husband’s bedroom, she stood up from an armchair facing the gardens and smiled when she opened her arms for me.
“It’s so good to finally have you home, darling,” she said before kissing the air beside my cheek.
Eight years later and she hadn’t aged a day. She also hadn’t changed her perfume, and the expensive, cloying scent clung to me even though our hug had barely been a brush.
I stepped away from her. “Mother. You look well.”
Her platinum-blonde hair was still cut into a sleek bob that came to sharp points at her chin. She judged the world through alert brown eyes that never seemed to miss a trick, and her makeup, clothing, and nails were on point but nothing over-the-top or ostentatious.
“Thank you, darling,” she replied, but not kindly.
Her gaze raked across me from head to toe. There was no mistaking her disappointment in my washed-out jeans and not-so-artfully torn T-shirt. I’d ripped the sleeve on an engine block I’d been helping one of the guys with at the auto hobby shop, and I thought the small tear in the side had happened during a training exercise. I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t really care.
I knew Selena was pleased that she was finally getting her way about me being back here and taking over the company. She would survive her discomfort regarding the clothes I’d chosen for the eleven-hour drive I’d just made. Either way, I held in any resentment I felt to make our reunion peaceful for my father’s sake.
When I turned to him, he beckoned me over. Unlike my mother, he looked very different than he had the last time I’d visited. The lines on his face were pronounced; his skin was sallow and his body gaunt. I’d gotten my length from him, but he didn’t seem to be well over six feet tall at the moment.
He seemed smaller. Frail. The hand he held out for me to shake didn’t just tremble in my grip, it felt like his skin was made of paper.
As much as I hated being back here, seeing him like this made the stark reality of his situation sink in. This wasn’t the powerful, domineering, devilishly charming man who’d steered American Aviation to previously unknown heights. He was a shadow of his former self, and it fucking killed me to see him this way.
“Dad,” I said, my voice much gentler than even I’d ever heard it. “How are you feeling?”
His blue eyes crinkled at the corners as he lifted his free hand to give me a dismissive wave. “I’m fine. I told them not to call you. You didn’t have to come back. My new VP has it covered for now.”
“Well, I’m here now. You might as well put me to work,” I said.
“I’m happy you’re home. When did you get discharged?”
Selena made a noise I couldn’t quite decipher, then excused herself. “I’m going to find the housekeeper to make sure your suite is ready for you. Do you want me to send Michael for your things?”
“No, Mom. It’s fine. I’ve already told him I’ve only got the one bag and I can take it.”
She pursed her lips but didn’t argue. If dad hadn’t been here, or hadn’t been sick, she would’ve. In front of him, however, it seemed we were all holding our tongues.
Once she was gone, I took a seat next to my father’s bed and smiled at him. “So, tell me about this new VP of ours.”
“Archer Cross,” Dad said, his expression turning thoughtful. The glint that came into his eyes when he was talking about the company was familiar. It was good to know some things about him hadn’t changed. “Thirty-five. Only two years older than you. I thought the two of you might get along well when the time came, even though I hadn’t known it would be coming just a few months after I appointed him. You’ll like him. He’s smart.”
“Good to know.” I asked him a few more questions, but he was weaker than I’d realized.
It wasn’t long before the talking exhausted him, and the stern-faced nurse stepped back into the room, quickly ending our conversation. “Mr. Luke needs to rest now, sir. You can visit again later.”
I smiled at her small concession to him by calling him by his first name, even though it was still preceded by mister. Dad had never been as much of a stickler for formality as Mom.
He tried to argue with her for a minute, but it was clear that she was right. Winking at him as I stood, I promised to be back later and then found my way to the west wing. My wing.
Selena’s perfume hung in the air, but the woman herself was already long gone. As was her housekeeper.
It was damn weird to be back in the rooms of my eighteen-year-old self. I set my bag down on the bed and turned slowly to take it all in. As with most everything else about this house, it had remained untouched in the years I’d been gone.
My walls were still painted navy blue. The bedroom and its en suite bathroom were big enough to fit my entire house back at the base, and that was without mentioning the music room, balcony, room-sized walk-in closet, or private TV room.
The previous times I’d been here after moving out, I hadn’t made the effort to clean anything up or out, so my closet was still filled with my clothes from high school. My black bedding bore the logo of some rock band I didn’t think existed anymore, and my posters and pictures were still there.
As my gaze tracked the space, I jerked when I saw a picture of myself with a gorgeous, curvy blonde at my side. Brittany Cleaver. Now that’s a blast from the past.
I strode closer to my nightstand, picking up the heavy pewter frame she’d had engraved for my birthday in senior year. Brittany had been my high school sweetheart, and looking at her, even now, set off a wave of feelings I hadn’t thought I was still capable of feeling.
God, I was so in love with her. I’d always considered going into the Air Force, but I’d known my parents wanted me to stay here in North Carolina.
For Brittany, I would’ve stayed. When she broke it off with me, though, there was nothing holding me back. I was in the recruitment office the very next day, and I left right after graduation.
There hadn’t been time to think much of the life I’d left behind here before I’d come back. I hadn’t even thought about Brittany since getting the call. Dad’s heart attack had set off a chain of events that had happened so fast, it had made my head spin.
One day, I’d been on a base at the other side of the world, and the next, I was on my way back here. The entire flight back to States I’d spent preparing so I could hit the ground running. I’d been emailed a file on the most urgent business I needed to take care of at American Aviation, and getting on top of things was going to be a feat.
I’d been back on my home base for less than twenty-four hours just to get some sleep and sign my name on a million dotted lines. Then I’d climbed into my favorite car to make the drive back to Raleigh. The other two cars I’d left behind.
The wheels of bureaucracy had never moved as fast as they had to make sure I could leave when I did. There were still some i’s to dot and t’s to cross, but nothing I couldn’t take care of from here.
Brittany’s glittering blue eyes smiled at me from the picture. I didn’t even know if she’d stuck around. She never used to have any plans to leave here, but that didn’t mean she never had. Still, I couldn’t help wondering if I would run into her now that I was back and, if I did, how I would feel about it.
It would definitely be interesting, though. Might even make coming back feel good. Who knows?
What I did know was that Brittany Cleaver hadn’t been part of my reasons for coming home, but if she was still here, and if she was still single, she’d sure provide a heck of a reason to enjoy staying.