It felt like someone slammed a fist into her chest and buried it so deep she would never breathe again.
Ashlyn Gray pulled herself up, spine stiffening under the weight of the words hovering in the air. Her fingers bit into the wooden arms of the chair so tightly they ached. The lawyer’s lips continued to move, but static filled her ears and gray clouded her vision. Her blonde braid slapped against her cheek as she shook her head to clear it. A knot formed in her throat and she tried to swallow around it. Could this day get any worse?
Crossing and uncrossing her legs, she forced her hands to relax. She smoothed her damp palms on her simple, gray slacks and raised a finger. The lawyer stopped, adjusting his wire-rimmed glasses.
“What did you just say?” The question came out hoarse.
The lines between his brows creased. “Which part, Miss Gray?”
“You know very well which part.” Her mother fanned herself with her purse. “The part about me not keeping my house or money if Ashlyn does not marry in two months! Two months! What in the world was he thinking? She isn’t even dating!”
“Mother.” Reaching out, she grasped her mother’s arm and forced her to lower it before her purse became a projectile and Ben, her father’s lawyer, became the target.
“It’s as I said. Mr. Gray stipulates that in order for you to receive your inheritance you must marry within two months and remain married for a year. He put up provisions to continue to fund the remainder of this school year at the university, provided you get married as stated. Should you decide to not marry, you forfeit your inheritance and your mother is turned out of her home. Further, she will no longer receive an allowance.”
The horror on her mother’s face was almost comical. What would happen to Ann then? Would she be forced to rely on the charity of her friends or worse, would she have to work? Ashlyn knew for a fact that her mother hadn’t worked a day in her life.
Dropping her chin, she bit her lip and struggled against the insane urge to laugh. She could feel hysteria closing in and was unable to remember when she experienced a worse week. First, her father passed from a cancer she didn’t know he fought. The funeral was a circus, filled with people she knew didn’t care for him and who surrounded her sobbing mother with false condolences. Now, at the reading of his will, he played the final card, his ace, his last laugh. “Well, Ashlyn, what are you going to do about this?” The tone of her mother’s voice rose with each word, assaulting the insides of her ears.
Summoning every ounce of control she possessed, Ashlyn raised her chin and assessed the lawyer. Face calm, she kept her voice level. Losing her cool at this point would serve no one.
A glance at her mother told her that Ann had yet to recover. Ashlyn averted her eyes. She could no longer watch her open and close her mouth like a dying fish.
“We will, of course, request a copy of the will.”
“Yes, of course,” the lawyer slid a finger down the page. “But I assure you, it is sound. I drew it up myself.”
Ordinarily, a confident lawyer would be reassuring, but this man held her future hostage. She could only see that future moving farther out of reach. Her father knew that her career was the most important thing to her. While her peers partied, she scouted schools. Instead of dating, she focused on her career. She had known since she was fourteen what she wanted to do with her life.
What was her father thinking?
Edward Gray was not a man known for being frivolous or ridiculous. Secretive, yes, but not once did he mention his desire for her to marry. Now, she would never get the answer she needed.
Once, he told her there was hardly a man in the business world that could stand up to him the way she did. Was this a punishment? At the time, she detected pride in his words. This will made her question that assumption. She knew her father admired her determination, her desire to put her career above all else.
Ann clawed at her throat like a suffocating woman. “You have to marry, Ashlyn. I cannot work. Why, I have all of my charities and my-”
“Excuse me, Mrs. Gray, but can we finish this reading? I have an appointment in an hour’s time.”
“Yes, yes, of course.”
Her father let very few people get close to him. As she was his only child, and he rarely talked with his two brothers or their extended families, she couldn’t say the majority of his last will and testament surprised her. No, only the part where she needed to get married if she hoped to finish college anytime soon. That, and her mother’s livelihood depended on her decision.
Rising, she shook Ben’s hand and thanked him for his time. He assured them that copies would be delivered soon, though Ashlyn had little hope that any of the contents could be contested.
Ben’s experience spanned over thirty years.
The brisk Seattle air greeted them as they donned their coats and escaped the confines of the brick law building. A light drizzle misted the air, and her mother voiced her disgust, raising the umbrella that matched her raincoat. Ashlyn hadn’t brought an umbrella. The limo at the edge of the sidewalk proved they only needed to walk a few feet.
This morning was salon day for her mother, and Ann refused to waste her money on letting the weather ruin it. Personally, Ashlyn felt spending two-hundred dollars on a hair style was wasting money.
Climbing into the car and sitting across from her mother, she asked, “Linwood, would you please take me to my apartment?”
“Are you really going to leave me alone after that, Ashlyn?”
Closing her eyes, she prayed to the Almighty for patience. Today, he wasn’t listening. Somewhere, He and her father were having a laugh at her expense. “I’m sure you will be fine, mother. Have a cocktail and call Gwen.”
“I suppose I could do that. But you know I would rather have you home.”
Ashlyn suspected it was only so she could ensure her daughter heard and understood her ire toward Edward Gray.
“I’m sorry, mother. I have homework and it’s been a long week.”
“Yes, well, don’t forget about my charity tonight. It’s for children’s cancer, you know, and you promised you would go.”
The charity ball. She had promised she would go. While she supported anything worthwhile, she really wished she had told her mother otherwise.
“Why didn’t you tell me dad had cancer?”
Well-manicured fingers plucked at fabric of her mother’s skirt as she avoided Ashlyn’s gaze. “Would it have made a difference?”
“To me, it would have.”
“He told me not to tell you, not to burden you with it. Yet, he thought nothing of burdening me with it.”
“You’re his wife. It’s not supposed to be a burden!”
“Yes, well, what would you know? You weren’t married to him.”
Reigning in her temper, Ashlyn remained silent. She knew it wouldn’t do any good. Arguing with her mother always proved useless and sadly futile. Ann Gray heard nothing unless she wanted to hear it. The woman was so self-absorbed nothing could penetrate that glamorous facade.
Bidding her mother goodbye as the limo pulled into the lot of her apartments near the University of Washington, she felt relieved to be home. Her own promise to keep the peace and band with her mother to get through her father’s death rang in her ears. Ann wasn’t vicious, just clueless.
Walking up two flights of stairs, the railing wet beneath her fingers, she found her best friend Joshua sitting on the concrete outside her door. His ear buds were in and he was intent on the textbook in front of him. Hardly taller than she, his dark hair artfully spiked, one ear pierced and glasses that were purposefully thick-rimmed and black, he hardly looked like someone a Seattle socialite would have as a best friend.
She might have loved him more for that.
Waving a hand in front of his face, she called his name.
Jerking the ear bud from one side, he grinned. “Oh hey, Ash. How did the lawyer’s go?”
Releasing the excessive sigh she held all morning, Ashlyn slipped her key into the lock and shrugged out of her coat, dropping her purse on the kitchen table.
“Don’t ask, Josh.”
“That bad?” He made himself at home on her sofa.
Slipping out of her heels, she welcomed the cool air of the fridge. Rising, she held up a half-full bottle. “It’s a moment that calls for a glass of Merlot.”
“Oh man... That is bad.”
“What might just be worse, I’m not sure, is that I promised my mother I would go to that charity event tonight. Are you sure you won’t be my date?”
“As much as I adore social functions of a high caliber,” Josh began, “I’m meeting Adam tonight.
Besides, what makes you think I want to see my parents?”
Anyone looking at Josh would never know he came from a family as wealthy as her own. She loved that about him too. She looked every part the socialite, retaining too much of the niceties and the poise. While Josh came across very polite, she knew he was much more his own person than she.
“Anyway, what about the will?” He patted the area on the sofa next to him. Handing him a glass of wine, she sank gratefully into the soft cushions and rested her head on his shoulder.
“A lot of legal words amounting to one awful ultimatum.” She fortified herself with a few sips. “If I don’t marry in two months’ time, I forfeit my inheritance and my mother gets kicked out of our family home.”
Josh whistled, taking a gulp of his own wine.
“Oh, there is more. If I don’t marry, mother gets no money.”
Her friend laughed, a delightful cackle filled with true mirth. “Oh, now, that is rich!”
“Well... I’m not going to cut off my own hand to spite my face.” Rubbing a palm across her eyes and down her nose, she added, “Married. Josh, I’m 23 years old. I don’t want to get married, let alone date. I have-”
“This very important, carefully constructed plan for your future.”
She shoved him. “I’m serious. I am so close to getting my PhD.”
Leaning back, she closed her eyes.
She sat up. “Of course, it is only for a year. If I can find someone to marry me that could benefit from this too... Then I can get on with my life after.”
She looked at him.
“Oh, no. No, no, no. I am not marrying you, as much as I love you, Ash. I don’t think Adam would understand no matter how well I explained it to him.”
“What kind of best friend are you?”
He patted her shoulder. “One that appreciates his love life.”
“I only have two months to do this, Josh. What should I do, take out an advertisement in the Seattle Times?”
Snorting on his wine, Josh ran a hand across his mouth. “Ash, as your friend, I have to steer you away from that course. Don’t you have any rich friends you grew up with who would help you out?”
She pinned him with her eyes. “Yes, sitting right in front of me.”
“Other than me.”
Flinging herself back on the sofa, she used his lap to support her aching feet.
“Josh, be serious. Who would I ask to marry me? None of the people I grew up with are mature enough for that... No, I have no idea what I am going to do.”
He rubbed her knees. “We’ll figure it out, Ash. Hey, we have two months.”
“Two months is not a long time, Josh.”
Fiddling with his glasses, Josh looked away. “I can talk to Adam, but-”
Lurching forward, she threw her arms around him. “Even that much would be such a relief, Josh!”
He squeezed her back. “I’m not promising anything, Ash.”
She didn’t need him to promise; the possibility was enough. It stilled the nerves rioting in her stomach, twisting and hurling her guts around like they were having a party she wasn’t invited to. She couldn’t imagine Adam would agree, but it proved Josh cared if he would brave the censure of his love.
Kissing his cheek, she gripped his shoulders and pulled back. “Thank you.”
He looked pained. “I hope you know how much I love you. Otherwise, I wouldn’t even be considering this.”
“I know. And I love you too.”
As her friend struggled to smile, she felt a prick of guilt deflate her relief. Could she ask him to do this when it made him so uncomfortable? What would happen in a year to him and Adam if they did marry? Yet, would it be terrible for Josh to only ask? Or was she being incredibly selfish to even suggest it?
Her mouth opened to tell him to forget about it, but the words wouldn’t come out. What other choice would there be? She knew no one to marry her besides her friend. This could be the only course; even if she was a horrible person to consider it.