Aaron Kincaid felt the tension grip his body as soon as he crossed the state line into Pennsylvania. His jaw tightened unconsciously, and his hands gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white. Hoping to drive out the dread that held him in its grasp, Aaron pushed the button on the door of his midnight blue SUV and lowered the window. As he exited the small industrial town he'd been passing through, the pungent smell of the wooded area assaulted his nose while the sudden breeze ruffled his jet-black hair. Crickets sang in the tall weeds along the deserted road, and the last colorful traces of sunset were quickly fading, causing the temperature to drop. It was early spring, and the cool breeze brought back memories of another night Aaron had driven down this same road. He shook his head violently; his teeth clenched against his rising anger. Desperate to distract himself, he punched the button to the radio and let the smooth, mellow sounds of the saxophone fill his ears. The deep-rooted feelings still held him captive, and he cursed, pounding one open hand against the steering wheel as he did.
Too tired to fight the memories that threatened, Aaron sighed in defeat and let them crash over him. It had been nearly eleven years since he'd last visited this part of the country during the summer he turned eighteen. Hurt by his mother's sudden and unexpected third marriage, and angry at her refusal to let him stay home for the summer, Aaron had done the one thing he thought would hurt her back. He'd called his father. Although Aaron had agreed to visit his father and his new family, he'd vowed to keep everyone at a distance. Years alone at expensive boarding schools because of a mother with no desire to nurture a child and no contact with his father in sixteen years had already hardened Aaron's heart against his parents. He extended that cold indifference to everyone he met that summer. Everyone except Beccie, his mind whispered to him.
Once again, Aaron gripped the wheel, his forehead pulled down, along with his lips, into a scowl. He forced the memories away, concentrating instead on the road. Even without the directions, he almost instinctively knew where to turn. Shaking his head slowly, he turned off the highway and steered the SUV down the vaguely familiar roads that would soon lead him to his father's estate.
'Or is it Macy's estate now?' he wondered. 'Or one of my half-brothers?'
His thoughts led him to the reason for this trip after almost eleven years of silence between him and his father. A silence that would now stretch on indefinitely, Aaron thought with a twinge of regret. As always, it was quickly replaced with anger toward the father he never really knew. Would things have been different if that summer hadn't ended so abruptly? Aaron could still hear the heated words he'd exchanged with his father that night, could still feel the stab of pain at what always felt like his father's outright rejection of him.
"What right do you have to tell me what to do?" Aaron angrily asked his father.
"I am your father," Alexander Kincaid roared, "and this is my house. I warned you coming in what would and wouldn't be tolerated. This," Alexander spat angrily as he pointed at Aaron's bed and the frightened young girl clutching a sheet to her naked body, "this won't be tolerated."
"I'm eighteen," Aaron countered arrogantly.
"But she's not! And neither are your brothers in the rooms across the hall."
Aaron laughed angrily and moved off to gather the rest of his clothes.
"Always about them, isn't it, Dad?" he said sarcastically. "And what about me? I'm your son too, aren't I?"
"I'm thinking about you, Aaron. She's a minor. Do you realize the trouble…?"
"No one would have known if you'd respected my privacy and stayed out of my room."
"This is my house!" Alexander once again roared.
"And you never let me forget that," Aaron spat. He'd pulled on his jeans and slipped his shoes on his feet without tying them. Only his chest remained bare as he turned to face his father. "Admit it. You don't want me here any more than I want to be here."
Alexander hung his head in shame, and the wind was sucked from Aaron's lungs.
"I'll get my stuff and go," Aaron said softly. "I want to say goodbye to Stephen and Michael though."
"They're already asleep," Alexander stated flatly without looking up. Aaron nodded slowly, his face a carefully guarded mask against the hurt.
"So, I'll just go then," Aaron said. His voice didn't betray even a hint of emotion. It took only a moment for Aaron to throw all his things into his bag. No one spoke as he did. Alexander looked up briefly, but his eyes met with Aaron's angry glare, and he looked away sadly as Aaron moved toward the door.
Aaron's hands clenched the wheel again as the memory flooded over him. Despite his resolve not to care for his father, he'd been hurt by the rejection. Neither man had ever attempted to reconcile. Aaron's mother had been on her honeymoon with her new husband. Rather than try to soothe Aaron's distress, she set him up in an expensive loft near the University of Cambridge in Britain. Aaron spent the next four years immersed in his studies then threw himself into building his own business using money he earned while in school. He'd vowed to never to return to his father's house again, never to let himself care again, never to open up to another person as long as he lived.
Aaron sighed as he thought back on that vow. The long driveway came into view, and he slowly turned down the gravel road that would lead to his father's home. His chest ached with the pain of being in this place again, no matter what the circumstances. Only two days before, Macy had called Aaron with the news of Alexander's fatal heart attack. Reluctantly, Aaron had agreed to attend the funeral and stay for the reading of the will. As the house came into view, he suddenly regretted that decision.
"I don't belong here," he whispered as he studied the house, unchanged in eleven years. The large country porch that stretched across the front of the house was still decorated with hanging ivy and white rocking chairs. Even this early in the spring, the neatly trimmed rose bushes were beginning to blossom, and the porch swing had already been hung. Aaron parked his SUV along the row of countless other vehicles, but he couldn't bring himself to move from behind the wheel. Instead, he watched the house, remembering once again.
"Aaron?" Beccie called softly as he moved toward the door with his luggage in hand. He paused but didn't look back.
"I'll leave you to dress, Rebecca," Alexander said firmly, "then I'll arrange a ride home for you. Since Aaron is leaving, your mother doesn't ever need to know of this…this incident."
Aaron's jaw clenched, and he fought the urge to turn around. He could hear his father moving toward him. Aaron's back stiffened when Alexander stopped behind him.
"You won't be doing her any favors by drawing this out," Alexander said under his breath. "Leave now before you hurt her worse than you already have."
Aaron felt the rage resurface as he stared at the house, remembering that night so many years ago. He had never wanted to hurt Beccie. She had been the only one who had ever seemed to care about him, but Alexander's words, along with the muffled crying that suddenly began behind them, seemed to propel him from the house. Alexander had watched as Aaron broke out the window of his fastest car, Alexander's pride and joy, and threw his luggage in the back seat. Barely taking time to brush the glass off the driver's seat, Aaron fumbled under the seat for the spare keys he knew would be there. Alexander never made a move to stop him. Aaron often wondered if his father had been that relieved to see him go that he no longer cared about the car.
The front door of the house opened, jarring Aaron out of his memories. He watched as Macy approached the vehicle before he slowly, reluctantly, opened the door and stepped out to greet his stepmother. She was heavier than he remembered, and her once light brown hair was now sprinkled liberally with gray. Her smile was still warm as she approached him, even though her face showed the strain of her recent loss.
"I wasn't sure you'd really come," she said softly, hesitantly moving to hug him. Aaron tensed at her touch, this woman he had often blamed for his father's absence, but he allowed her to hold him until she moved away. Her eyes were full of tears, and she reached up to rest her hand gently on Aaron's cheek. "I know you and your father had your differences, Aaron, but he loved you."
Aaron looked away, his jaw tightening under Macy's hand. She reached up her other hand to gently turn his face back toward her. She held it there a moment, waiting for Aaron's eyes to meet hers. When they didn't, she spoke again softly.
"I didn't always agree with things Alexander did. I want you to know that. I need you to know that, Aaron."
He nodded slowly, his eyes finding hers briefly but quickly moving away when her pain showed.
"I wanted you to be part of this family," she whispered, her voice too choked with emotion for more than a whisper. "Your brothers," she began, but a sob broke into her words. She lowered her head for a moment before she continued. "Your brothers have always adored you, Aaron. You set the standard for them."
"I barely know them," Aaron replied tensely. Macy drew her hands away and nodded slowly, fighting back her tears. They both stood in silence a moment before Macy once again spoke.
"Come inside?" she asked softly.
"I don't know," Aaron said, shaking his head slowly. Again, Macy nodded and drew away from him farther.
"Stephen and his family are here," she said. "He married last year, and they just had their first child." She paused, and Aaron nodded, once again studying the house. "Michael will graduate in June. He's only looked at schools in New York, hoping to be closer to you."
Aaron's eyes met Macy's for a moment, his forehead wrinkled in confusion, before he turned back to study the house.
"And Andrew?" Aaron asked softly. Macy smiled, although it went unnoticed.
"Andrew is as active as any twelve year old boy could be. I can barely keep up with his schedule between baseball and football."
Aaron couldn't suppress the smile that pulled at the corners of his mouth. He nodded slowly, his pride for his brothers evident on his face. A flash of pain suddenly drove it all away, and Macy flinched at the raw anger that flickered through the tall, dark haired man in front of her.
'So much like his father,' she thought sadly then trembled slightly at the thought. 'Too much like Alexander?' she wondered.
The sun had dipped below the horizon, creating shadows across the yard as the last of the sunlight faded. Macy shivered again as she watched the shadows play across Aaron's tense, angry face. Forcing down the fear that suddenly gripped her, she stepped toward him again, this time not touching him. Her presence caught his attention, and he looked down at her, any emotion now carefully hidden from her.
"Come inside," Macy said more as an order than a request. "I'll send Michael and Andrew for your things later."
"I won't be staying here," Aaron stated. "I have a room…."
"You have a room here," Macy stated firmly. "I won't hear of anything else." She watched nervously as Aaron tensed and studied her face.
Reluctantly, he nodded and followed Macy toward the house. Despite the inviting warmth of the porch light, Aaron wondered why he'd agreed to stay. His chest tightened uncomfortably as Macy opened the front door and the hum of conversation reached them. When he hesitated, Macy's hand lightly touched his arm. Her eyes pleaded with him until he slowly followed her through the door and to the large library where much of the family was gathered. Aaron could barely breathe as memories assaulted him, but he buried the pain behind his anger. Macy waited, watching Aaron as he surveyed the room. His eyes fell on Michael first, tall and lean with the characteristic dark features that made him an obvious Kincaid. Michael animatedly told a story of a recent game, and everyone appeared charmed by his words.
'Another Kincaid trait,' Aaron thought sarcastically although inwardly he smiled slightly. His eyes fell on Andrew, who sat quietly in a corner. His face clearly showed the tumble of emotions there. His dark brown eyes were glassy with restrained tears, and his mouth was drawn and tight. Aaron noticed that Stephen's own dark brown eyes rarely left Andrew's face, even though he sat across the room next to a petite dark haired woman with a baby in her arms.
Aaron had little time to notice anyone else. Macy stepped past him into the room, and all eyes fell on her briefly before they turned to him. There was no introduction needed. Even after eleven years, Aaron looked too much like his father and brothers to question who he was.
Stephen rose, leaving his small family and moving quickly toward Aaron. Michael approached more slowly, letting Stephen stand before Aaron first. Andrew sat up, but didn't move from his chair. His eyes locked on the scene before him with a mixture of anger and longing.
"Aaron," Stephen said firmly although hesitantly. Aaron was studying the near mirror image in front of him, amazed at the same jet-black hair and nearly colorless eyes that they shared. Stephen's height and build made him slightly smaller than Aaron, and his features reflected Macy's own at times. Stephen extended his hand toward Aaron who only looked at it until Stephen spoke again. "Welcome home, brother," Stephen said. His voice was thick with emotion, and when Aaron finally took his hand in a firm handshake, Stephen pulled his brother forward for a warm hug. Aaron awkwardly hugged him back and moved away as quickly as he could.
"Welcome home, big brother," Michael, who shared Aaron's height, said as he stepped forward to pull Aaron into a hug. Stephen was wiping at tears as he watched the other two men embrace, and Aaron felt his stomach knot at the emotion. "Glad to have you home," Michael added as he released Aaron.
"It's been too long," Stephen said, his tears now under control. Aaron tensed again, and Macy placed a gentle hand on his arm.
"This is your home now too, Aaron," she smiled. "I want you to be comfortable here."
At Macy's words, Andrew moved from his chair and approached his brothers. His movement was cautious, and he eyed Aaron nervously.
"So, you're Aaron?" he asked slowly.
Aaron nodded, amused by the boy's hesitance and reluctance that reflected his own feelings. Andrew had the Kincaid coloring, but his features all belonged to Macy. His height appeared to come from her as well, but it was clear Andrew was an athletic boy.
"You were just a baby when you brother was here," Macy said to fill the tense silence that surrounded her youngest son's words.
"Why didn't you come back before now?" Andrew asked with a scowl.
"Andrew!" Macy warned.
"It's all right, Macy," Aaron said softly, but he made no attempt to answer Andrew's question. Macy frowned at her youngest son.
"Michael, take Andrew and go gather Aaron's bags. Take them to his room, please."
Michael nodded and ushered his younger brother from the room.
"You'll have to forgive him," Stephen said awkwardly. "He…" Stephen began but suddenly looked at Macy, his eyes wide. She smiled weakly.
"Why don't you introduce Aaron to your family?"
Stephen nodded and turned to wave his wife over to them. Macy found a chair near the door and sat to watch as Stephen draped his arm lovingly around Mariah's shoulders while he introduced her. Aaron's tension was still there, Macy noticed, and she watched it flare as several other family members moved forward to welcome him. She sighed and closed her eyes, rubbing them gently for a moment while she silently prayed.
The sound of feet pounding down the hallway startled her just before Andrew burst into the room with a slightly younger boy in pursuit. Andrew cast his mother a wicked glance before he ran across the room toward Aaron, the smaller boy still blindly following. Aaron stepped back as Andrew rushed past him, but the second boy slammed into Aaron's legs, nearly toppling the tall man. To steady them both, Aaron grabbed the boy's arms. A pair of nearly colorless eyes looked up into Aaron's from beneath a mess of jet-black hair. Aaron's own nose and chin were miniaturized on the boy, and a familiar expression of fear flashed through the boy's eyes.
Aaron looked questioningly at Macy without releasing the boy. Sighing, Macy frowned at a smug Andrew as she rose from her chair to cross the room. She smiled down at the frightened boy in Aaron's grasp and held out her arms to him. Aaron released the child so the boy could be folded into Macy's embrace. She leaned to kiss the boy's tousled hair before she turned apologetic eyes toward Aaron. She gently turned the boy toward him as well and noted the confusion that grew as Aaron studied the boy's face.
"Aaron," Macy began softly and slowly, "I'd like you to meet Alexander Michael Kincaid II. Your son."