I yawned as my eyes fluttered open. I was enveloped in Aiden’s arms, surrounded by his smell and wrapped in his love. I took in a deep breath and sighed, basking in the afterglow of last night. It was a beautiful evening—from start to finish—one I tucked away in that special place that belonged to Aiden and me.
After coming home from my proposal last night, Aiden carried me upstairs and made sweet, gentle love to me. It’s rare that we have the patience to slow our pace and savor each moment, but when we do, it’s the complete giving and receiving of love on its purest level. I’m reminded of how perfect we are together—of how Aiden was uniquely designed, just for me.
And now I was snuggled in bed with my fiancé, trying to recall every detail. Fiancé! Aria Cason has a fiancé. Would wonders ever cease? I lifted my hand and stared at the gorgeous ring as it sparkled in the light of the morning sun. I couldn’t believe I was engaged to Aiden Raine. And the new piece of jewelry on my left hand was nothing short of exquisite.
“Did you say yes because of the ring?” Aiden teased, and kissed my shoulder.
Smiling, I turned to face him. “I said yes because I’m crazy in love you. How long have you been awake?”
“Not very,” he replied.
Even with the rasp of sleep in his voice, I felt the resonance of his velvet tone between my legs.
“Second thoughts?” he asked.
I was sure once the shock had worn off, I would probably freak out, but for now, I was the happiest, most content woman on the planet. “Not a one,” I replied.
“Good,” he said, his grip tightening around my waist. “So when are you going to marry me?”
“Can I have at least twenty-four hours to be engaged?” I joked.
Aiden didn’t smile at my attempt at humor. “You’ve said yes. I don’t see any reason to wait.”
“What’s the rush? It’s not like I’m pregnant, and you’re marrying me to protect my virtue. That ship has sailed—Lyric is proof of that.”
He reached up and touched the tip of my nose and then kissed it. “I just don’t want to wait.”
“Let’s focus on getting moved first and then we can discuss dates,” I suggested. “How’s that?”
“As far as I’m concerned, we can move today and get married tomorrow.”
“Oh, you.” I laughed. “I think I want a wedding, and I want my sisters to be a part of it. And besides that, I want Lyric to have something to look back on when he’s older.”
“It’s so easy for me to be selfish when it comes to you,” he said. “If it’s a wedding you want, then a wedding you shall have. I want you to have whatever you want—whatever makes you happy.”
The look in his eyes didn’t support his words. “What are you worried about?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said.
“If your rush is because you think I’ll change my mind, you’re wrong. I won’t. I love you, and I’m extremely happy, baby.”
He kissed my cheek and smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Come. Let’s get showered and dressed. We need to get these Boston plans underway.”
After our shower, we headed to the kitchen for a cup of tea for me and coffee for Aiden. I couldn’t help but notice that he was being extra attentive. Not that I didn’t enjoy his prolonged gazes, but there was something behind the furtive glances that worried me. It reminded me of his behavior after our first visit to Seducente—he’d been in quiet observance, ready to curtail any sign of my unease or of my tendency to run.
Since Aiden had to go to work, we decided to wait until later in the day to iron out the details on our move to Boston. After feeding and spending some time with Lyric, Aiden and I returned to our bedroom to get dressed.
“Why don’t you come with me to work today?” he asked. He pulled me into his arms and planted a chaste kiss on my lips.
I smiled up at him as his hands slowly moved down my back and then lower, grasping my behind.
“I thought you had meetings all day.”
“I do,” he said. “No reason you can’t be present for those.”
“Wait. Which meetings are we referring to? Raine Industries or one of your foundations?”
“Does it matter?” he asked.
I knew what he was doing. He didn’t want me out of his sight for any prolonged measure of time. I didn’t know whether to go along with it to reassure him, or tell him no, and then remind him of what he’d asked of me—what we’d asked of each other—to trust in the strength of our relationship.
“Babe, you know I love you, and despite the fact that I didn’t answer right away, I’m happy I said yes. Nothing is going to change that. I’m staying. You’re stuck with me.”
“Can I get that in writing?” he joked.
He was smiling, but I knew he was half-serious.
“You’ll have it in writing soon enough.” I eased from his embrace and went to the dresser in search of my diamond earrings.
Aiden followed me. “You know…I’m surprised you said yes,” he said.
He was no more surprised than I was. “Stop the presses! Media alert. Aiden Raine displays self-doubt. The world is coming to an end,” I teased.
“But you’re glad you did?” he asked.
“And you’re happy?”
“Yes. Very. How could I not be?”
“And no matter what, you’re staying…right?”
I stopped looking for my earring and turned to face him. Although he had the same calm look that was his norm, he was anything but, and my assurances didn’t seem to register at all. He was still worried I’d run.
Aiden and I were in the home office looking at designs for our Boston home when a faint knock diverted our attention. We looked up and saw Sienna standing in the doorway.
“Hello, you two. Forgive me for intruding. I would’ve called first, but Aiden hasn’t been accepting my calls as of late, so I took a chance and came over unannounced. I was hoping I could speak with you, Aiden,” she said.
I looked at Aiden and was surprised by the almost immediate shift in his expression. He went from calm to agitated in a measure of seconds.
“What is it, Mother?” he asked.
“Actually, I’m glad you’re both here,” she said, eyeing me. “As this concerns you as well, Aria.”
I glanced skeptically at Aiden then back at Sienna, and wondered what was happening now.
“Please come in, Sienna. Have a seat,” I offered.
She wore “elite and wealthy” extremely well. She was dressed in a stylish gray pantsuit and cream-colored heels. Her dark hair was parted in the middle and pulled into a perfect knot in the back. A pearl necklace fell right above the collar of her cream silk blouse. Other than the necklace and pearl stud earrings, her wedding ring was her only jewelry. And as usual, her makeup was flawless.
“If this is about Lyric appearing in that charity show of yours, the answer is no,” Aiden said, his voice firm. “And I’d appreciate if you’d refrain from asking about ridiculous things like that in the future.”
Sienna’s lips fell into a frown, her spirit deflating as she took in her son’s demeanor. “I understand,” she replied and took a seat. “That was only part of the reason for my visit.”
“And the other part?” Aiden asked. He made zero attempt to hide his impatience.
Sienna’s mouth opened into a perfect ‘o’, giving her face the look of a question mark. What the hell had happened between last night and now?
Although obviously still puzzled by Aiden’s delivery, she shook off his impudence and started to respond. “Well…I know you have a certain level of resentment toward me. You always have, but I couldn’t help but notice it’s become blatant as of late. What have I done? And what can I do to make amends?”
Sienna appeared vulnerable, as though she might break down in tears. “Maybe you two should talk alone,” I suggested.
Aiden looked at me and shook his head, rejecting my offer. “No. You don’t have to leave,” he said, and then looked back to Sienna. “There’s nothing you can do, Mother. What’s done is done.”
“Would you be so kind as to tell me what is done, so I can at least make an attempt at reparations?” she asked.
Aiden acknowledged her question with a condescending sneer. “How much time do you have?”
I spun around, shocked by the coldness in his tone. “Aiden! Don’t be so cruel. Talk to her,” I encouraged.
“Aria, you know as well as I do, this is pointless,” he replied.
“Please. For the sake of what we hope to give to Lyric,” I said.
Aiden drew a deep breath. “Mother, I’ll only address the two most recent offenses, because I doubt you’ll be able to stomach the others.”
“You’re very angry with me, but last night, and even during the holidays, you were more than cordial, so, I don’t understand what happened,” Sienna said.
That made two of us. From time to time, some of Aiden’s ill will toward Sienna slipped out, but he quickly self-corrected and placated her, at least to a certain degree.
“Last night and the holidays were for the sake of Aria and my son. Aria should be able to look back on those special moments with fondness.”
“So you were pretending?” she asked.
“No. I was doing what Raines do.” Aiden stared at his mother, bitterness fueling his every word. “I set it all aside for the sake of the family.”
Sienna was quiet and then said, “It felt as if we were actually the family we depict on our Christmas cards. Obviously, we have some healing to do. And since we’re having a wedding soon, I hope it will bring us all closer. So if there is even a slight chance that we can resolve any conflict between us, I would like to try.”
“You know how I feel about your silence during the time Lyric was taken from us,” Aiden said.
“It’s true, I didn’t use my best judgment, and if I could go back and do it differently, please believe me when I say I would. I never should have let Connor convince me to do things his way. I’ve just been going along with everything he’s wanted for so many years. I’ve let him make the final call on most decisions, even those that relate to my own children. I know that’s no excuse, but please know I’m genuinely remorseful.”
She’d literally been brainwashed into the silent woman she’d once told me I needed to be for Aiden’s sake. I didn’t know how any woman could be that person to anyone. I looked at her, and all I felt was sorrow.
“Don’t you think it’s a little too late to learn how to be a mother?”
“Aiden!” she gasped. “Your father and I didn’t raise you to be so disrespectful and—”
“Don’t say that!” Aiden lashed out, pointing a finger at her. “You and I both know you and Dad didn’t raise me.”
It was as if Aiden had dashed her with ice cold water. “Is this the part where you throw Dianna in my face again? Aiden, why do you say such things to me?”
“I’m only stating the truth,” Aiden said.
“Just because she helped clean some of your scrapes and read you a few bedtime stories, that doesn’t make her your mother. I’m your mother! That woman usurped my authority at every turn when it came to you.”
“I have no intention of discussing her with you. Besides, she isn’t the reason for your visit.”
“You’re right,” she replied in a quiet voice. “She isn’t.” Sienna looked toward me. “Aria, can I trouble you for something to drink?”
“Of course. Sparkling water?” I asked.
“Something stronger. Perhaps a brandy.”
I looked at Aiden, as he assessed his mother, his angry expression abruptly changed to one of concern.
“Sure,” I said, and headed to the bar.
They were both quiet until I passed Sienna a glass. She took a sip of the alcohol and then said, “I apologize for my outburst.”
Sienna carried herself with a sartorial elegance, even when she was in full-bitch mode, but not in this moment. The façade of refined culture and superiority had washed away. Her expression, her words, even her choice of drink had somehow humanized her.
“It’s okay,” I said, as I sat beside Aiden.
“Aiden, do you think you can ever forgive me?” she asked.
Aiden’s contemplative gaze ran over Sienna’s face. “I know how Dad is,” he replied, his tone empathetic.
Had seeing how difficult this was for her softened Aiden’s demeanor?
“I know how he manipulates and pushes his way,” he said, turning less sympathetic. “And you’re right—you’ve let him do it my whole life, so why should I expect anything different. Can I forgive it? I don’t think so.”
Her face fell, but she recovered quickly, reapplying her highbrow exterior. “I see.”
We all sat in awkward silence for several seconds until I nudged Aiden, suggesting he say something.
“But…that’s all in the past,” Aiden started. “If you’re really interested in making some changes, there’s a chance we can develop a better relationship.”
“It’s going to be difficult,” Sienna said. “Years and years of learned behavior can’t be erased.”
“I know, but if you’re really sincere, I’ll support you.”
“We both will,” I added.
“Thank you, Aiden. And you too, Aria. I feel like such a fool. All these years I’ve conditioned myself to think I was doing what was best for the family, but nothing could be further from the truth.”
“We’ll be here for you, and I’m certain Sloan, Nick and Allie will say the same,” Aiden said.
“That is my hope,” she replied, and took another sip of brandy. “You said there were two issues. I’m almost afraid to ask, but what is the other?”
“Mother, I really need to know,” Aiden said. “What’s brought on this change?”
Sienna looked at me with a warm smile and said, “Watching you and Aria start your family. You two are genuinely happy, and it’s not the masquerade our family has become over the years. It’s real love. Your father and I had that once.” With a smile and a slight shake of her head, she said, “I still love Connor, but so many things have become a part of being a Raine, that I often forget why I fell in love with him. The night Lyric was back with us, and Aria said I had no right to call myself a mother, it shattered me. I’ve been so focused on making sure you pick a woman who we considered suitable, that I disregarded what was right for you, for all of my children. And since that horrible night, I’ve been asking to spend time with you and with my grandson, and you’ve either ignored my requests, or flat out refused. And Aiden, that broke my heart. You’ve always been the one I could count on. The one who made sure everything was okay. So I knew I was going to lose you if I didn’t do something.”
“And you came up with all of this on your own?” he asked.
“No. Of course not,” she said, waving off his question. “I was quite distraught after you turned away from me, and I had a doctor call for anxiety medication, and he referred me to a therapist. I’ve been seeing her for about three weeks now, and our sessions have been quite extensive.”
“I’m happy for you, Sienna,” I said. “That’s a huge step.”
“Yes. It is,” she said, her eyes fixed on the drink in her hands. She lifted her gaze to meet Aiden’s, took a deep breath, and exhaled her question. “Are you going to tell me the rest?”
“It’s about Aria,” Aiden replied.
Me? What did any of this have to do with me?
I watched Aiden as he explained. “Aria has mentioned a conversation in which you explained your philosophy on the role of a woman, of any woman who should be at my side. Those words of wisdom played a huge part in her deciding to leave the country with my son.”
Sienna glanced toward me, an apology in her eyes. She took a sip of the brandy and then looked back at Aiden.
“I was doing what I thought was best at the time. I was wrong to have sought her out and imposed my views on her. And while my apology can’t undo the harm I caused, I will offer one all the same.” Sienna’s ashamed eyes met mine. “Aria, I’m truly sorry. I should have kept my big mouth shut. I know my words hurt you, and to be honest, at the time I wasn’t concerned about that. I sit here now and see how happy you make my son, how much he loves you…well, I was a bit of a shrew, and I had no right to come to you as I did. Aiden is happier than I’ve ever seen him. He was miserable when you left, but I was hoping he’d get over it, and find the person we thought he needed, but I was wrong. You’re the person he needs, and I couldn’t be happier that you’ve found your way back to each other.”
Before I could respond, Aiden interjected. “You’ll understand if I’m skeptical about your sudden change of heart.”
“This may come as a shock to you Aiden, but I’m quite fond of Aria. I think she’s a remarkable woman. Would I have chosen her for you? Quite honestly, no. But that’s not because I dislike her or because I have ill will toward her. It’s because—”
“Because she’s not like you. She’s not one of us.” He grabbed my hand and leaned over to kiss my cheek. “That’s one of the things I love most—that she’s not like us. I love seeing life through her eyes. It’s not filtered or tainted with the elitist residue that coats who we really are.”
“We’re not that bad, Aiden,” Sienna defended.
“Perhaps,” he said.
“I have every hope of mending my relationship with Aria,” Sienna said. “If you’re agreeable,” she added, looking at me with a buoyant expression.
“I would like that,” I said.
“One more thing,” Aiden said. “If you ever approach her under the guise of giving advice that ultimately pushes her away from me, don’t bother with an apology.”
Sienna nodded. “Understood.”
“Is there anything else?” Aiden asked.
“Yes, one last thing,” she said, and looked at me. “I’d like to plan and host the wedding.”
Aiden and I exchanged questioning glances, and then I looked toward his mother. “Sienna, to be honest, Aiden and I haven’t really discussed any of this. I’m still reeling over the fact that I’m engaged. Who knows…we may opt for a long engagement.”
Aiden was not pleased with that. “No. I want to marry you, and I’ve already made it clear I don’t plan on waiting.”
Sienna glanced at Aiden and then directed her next statement to me. “I suppose you two should talk it over.”
“We will and we’ll let you know,” I said.
“That’s acceptable. But we can’t delay very much. We’ll need to have plenty of time to make sure this event is one worthy of the Raine name.”
And there she was. The Sienna I remembered. It was going to be difficult for her to shake off years of personas, but to be honest, if she could just be a decent mother to her kids and stand up to that husband of hers, I could deal with the rest of her.
Once Sienna had left, I turned to Aiden. “I’ve always noticed how kind you were to your mother, even when she didn’t deserve it. And I understand why you’ve been angry with her lately, but even after her apology, which I really do feel was sincere, you didn’t soften toward her very much. What’s changed?”
“The more time I spend with Lyric, the more I appreciate the role of a parent. It’s a privilege, and I get to experience this with him. I’m already planning his first soccer game and his first camping trip. I want to teach him how to play the piano, how to ride. And then I think back to my childhood, and it’s beyond my understanding that someone could fail to grasp every bit of time they had with their kid. Lyric is still a baby, but I see changes in him every day. It all goes by so quickly, and I don’t want to miss any of it. And my parents, well they missed most of it voluntarily. I don’t get it.”
My heart both grew and broke at the same time. “I’m glad Lyric has you,” I said.
“And I’m glad he has you.”