I walked down the hall with dread filling every step. I was not looking forward to what was to come. I knew what was coming, but I was really hoping I was wrong. Maybe I had done something and I was about to be scolded.
That was always fun.
Getting scolded at the age of thirty by my overbearing parents was a little humiliating. But it was a part of my life and I was used to it. I nodded at one of the housekeepers that helped keep the massive house squeaky clean. It took an army to keep the residents fed and the house completely free of dust, and of course, there were the many drivers that were kept handy for those times when someone wanted to leave the house. God forbid anyone drive themselves.
I knocked on the heavy wooden door and waited to be told to enter. My mind went over the long list of things I might have done to deserve a summons. It could have been that woman I had in my house. I thought I got her out before anyone saw her. I had my own place, but I really didn’t have any independence. My house was nothing more than a small cottage at the back of the family’s estate. I needed a fence. A tall one.
“Come in,” my mother called out.
I pushed open the door. My father, Philip Ashford, sat at his huge desk that was supposedly one used by King Henry the Eighth. My mother, Dana Ashford, stood beside him. They looked like they were posing for a painting. They looked regal and every inch the aristocrats they were. My father was a duke and my mother a duchess when we were in England. Here, they were just Mr. and Mrs. Ashford.
“Good morning, son,” Mom said.
I nodded. “Mom, Dad.”
“Have a seat.” Dad gestured to one of the high-back wooden chairs that could double as a torture device. They weren’t comfortable and I personally didn’t find them to be all that attractive, but they went with the room. The office was filled with antiques that were worth millions. It wasn’t really my cup of tea, but my parents were very proud of their ancestry. I was as well, but I didn’t feel the need to flaunt it. Then again, I lived on the estate bought with the money my ancestors earned.
I sat down, dropped my ankle on my knee, and leaned against the back of the chair. I waited for them to say something about my attire. To be fair, they had summoned me while I was playing a game of basketball. The estate had a kickass court. I wasn’t about to wear a suit while playing a game of HORSE. We were at home. My parents were always “on” but my siblings and I chose to be a little more relaxed.
“I don’t think I did anything wrong,” I said. “So, what is it? What did I do?”
“We don’t only want to talk to you when you’ve done something wrong,” Mom said with a soft smile.
“It’s usually the reason,” I replied.
“We called you in here because it’s time,” she said in her typical softspoken way. We lived in South Carolina and her softspoken ways might be chalked up to a southern lady, but that wasn’t it. She was also a descendant of the British aristocracy. We didn’t live in England, but we still had to follow a lot of the old ways.
She didn’t have to explain what she was referring to. I knew exactly what it was. I had been dreading the moment for years. I knew it was coming. Every spring I tried to be invisible, hoping they would forget I was around.
“I’d rather not,” I replied.
“It’s not an option,” my father said.
I sighed, knowing it was inevitable. “I don’t want to get married. I don’t need to be married. We’re in different times. People of my generation don’t need to be married. I can run estates without a wife. I would prefer to be single.”
“That’s not an option,” my father said.
Stomping my feet wasn’t an option either. That didn’t mean I didn’t want to do it.
“I don’t see why I need to get married,” I complained.
“You’re the oldest son and heir to the Ashford name,” Mom said. “You know this. You know this day has been coming for a while. We’ve put it off long enough. It’s the beginning of the wedding season and you have to get out there. Your younger brothers and sisters need their chance to find a good match. They can’t do it until you get out there. It’s your year. Next year, we’ll pick the next one, but it’s time, son. There is no more time to wait.”
“You’re getting long in the tooth and young ladies these days aren’t interested in marrying portly, bald men,” my father said. “Take it from me, you want to pick your wife while you still have your looks.”
“Thanks,” I muttered. “I don’t care to marry. Period. Bald and portly or the handsome devil I am now.”
“Son, the Golden Society requires you to be married before your siblings get to have their coming out,” Mom said calmly. “Your sisters are anxious to be married. You’re standing in their way.”
“I see it as saving them,” I said. “At least until you guys get with the times and understand arranged marriages went out with horse and carriages as the sole means of transportation.”
“Tradition is important,” my father said. “You will honor the traditions of our family.”
“They aren’t your traditions,” I reminded him. “They are the traditions of an ancient society that has failed to change with the times. We live in America. You don’t have to follow those rules. It’s not like they can take away your fortune, name, or even your birthday. We are not beholden to them.”
“I think you assume we don’t want to be a part of the society that has been responsible for some of the most powerful matches in history,” Mom said.
“This is your fault,” my father muttered. “You’ve given him too much freedom. We should have made him marry years ago.”
“Don’t blame me,” Mom retorted. “He takes after you. Defiant and bullheaded—just like you.”
“Hello?” I waved my hand. “I’m right here.”
“We’ve already let them know we will be attending The Season,” Dad said.
I sighed, knowing arguing was futile. This day had been coming from the moment Dad’s little swimmers made contact. I was the heir and that meant I was expected to marry the right woman from the right family. It didn’t matter if we liked each other or not. It was all about being the most advantageous for the families. Maybe you could match two families whose property bordered another, and upon the death of the parents, the newlyweds would have an even bigger land holding. It was always about growing more powerful and wealthier. Feelings didn’t matter. It was all about producing the next line of heirs and starting the whole process all over again.
“I will go, but on one condition,” I finally said.
I knew I didn’t really have a leg to stand on. I could pretend I was in control, but I wasn’t. I watched as my parents exchanged a look. They were thinking about it, which was more than I had expected.
“What condition?” Dad asked.
“I get to have some input about who I marry,” I said.
“No,” Dad said.
Mom put a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll consider it, but you need to understand, the members have been waiting for you to finally enter the season. There are many options available.”
I didn’t have to guess who those options were. It had been talked about for the last couple of years. I had managed to put it off but the day of reckoning had finally arrived. “When?” I asked with resignation.
“You have a week,” Dad said. “We’ve made travel arrangements. We’ll be attending the Introduction Ball.”
“Oh joy,” I murmured.
“It’s time,” Dad said. “We’ve been very lenient, but it’s time for you to settle down. We need heirs.”
“Did you guys ever consider not everyone wants to be married and have children?” I asked.
“No,” Dad answered firmly.
“Fine,” I said and got to my feet. “Is that it?”
I left the office with my day effectively ruined. I knew I lived a charmed life. I had a great life. I never had to worry about where my next meal was coming from. I always had a roof over my head. I didn’t have to deal with the trappings of getting a job. Far from it. Work was actually frowned upon in my family. That was all because of the secret society my parents belonged to. Their parents belonged to it and their parents did as well. It was one of those old societies that went way, way back. I was born into it.
One of the rules of our little society was we didn’t work. We could volunteer and it was encouraged, but we weren’t supposed to be doctors, lawyers, or tradesmen. We could have hobbies, but of course, there were acceptable hobbies and those that were frowned upon. I imagined people from the outside looking in, assuming our secret society ever got out, would think we were nuts. We operated by a different set of rules than the rest of the world.
I walked down the massive corridor lined with portraits of my ancestors. I hated this particular hall. It felt like I was being watched and judged with every step. I could swear my great grandmother’s eyes followed me as I walked. I paused and looked at the picture of a great uncle. He was one of the first to make the move from England to South Carolina. He was dragged here from the Ashfords’ massive estate as a little boy. Their move to America was strategic. It was all about increasing the foothold around the world.
I loved living and growing up in the US. I did go to boarding school, but I always came home. I had to be very careful when I did go back into London society. I was an American with all the bad habits. At least, my British counterparts thought they were bad habits—like eating pizza with my fingers. The horror!
“You got out,” I said to the massive painting that made my uncle appear to be life size. Bigger than life size. “You never married, you lucky bastard.”
Then again, he died at the ripe age of thirty-two. I supposed that was why there was so much pressure on me to marry and reproduce. The Ashford line had come dangerously close to dying out. My father overcompensated. There were six of us, four boys and two girls. My parents weren’t taking any chances they were going to kill off the line. Now, it was up to us. Me, specifically. Just like the royal line, my sons and daughters would inherit and lead the next generation. That meant I had to have said children. And of course, not just any broodmare would do.
My parents were going to pick the woman they believed would be the best match. It wouldn’t matter if we loved each other or could even stand each other. It was all about securing the future. I walked away from the wall of portraits. I didn’t want to be married. I was telling them I was going to go along with it for now, but there was no way I was going to marry anyone.
I had been in love once. When that ended, I made up my mind right then to never love another. I was not going to give anyone my heart. I happened to believe that marriage should involve some kind of love. I knew I was in the minority with that belief. Marriage wasn’t about love in their collective opinion.
I didn’t care. I didn’t want any of it.