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Ashe had been warned. The elderly ladies inside were somewhat eccentric, not always reasonable, but supposedly perfectly sane.
It was the perfectly sane part that had Circuit Court Judge Thomas AshfordAshe to his friendsworried. Why would his friend and longtime colleague Wyatt Gray have included perfectly sane in his description, unless Wyatt thought there would be some question about the ladies' sanity?
Wyatt had all but dared him to refuse to help, and Wyatt knew Ashe had a hard time refusing any kind of dare. So before Ashe had fully realized what he'd agreed to, he'd promised to do some vague favor for the ladies inside, something to do with a ceremony of some sort.
The front door of the three-story weathered stone mansion opened, and his first sight of the three little old ladies did nothing to allay his fears.
He'd seldom, if ever, been subject to such a frank appraisal from a woman in her seventiesat leastlet alone three of them, and it was more than a little unnerving. One of them seemed quite taken with his shoulders. The middle one just grinned at him. And the third looked as if she was considering testing the strength of his bicep to see if he worked out regularly, which he did. Not that he could imagine why it mattered to her.
He felt like a specimen of some rare and misunderstood species in a zoo.
What in the world were they planning to do to him?
"Judge Ashford, welcome to my home. I'm Eleanor Barrington Holmes," the middle one said, extending her hand to him. "I suspect we've been introduced before, although you may not remember. I believe you know my godson, Tate Darnley."
"From the Downtown Redevelopment Committee? Of course. He's doing an amazing job. Very nice to meet you again, ma'am," Ashe said, taking her hand. "You do a lot of good work for the community."
"I do my best, young man. Please allow me to present my dear friends, Kathleen Gray, Wyatt's late uncle's widow, and her cousin Gladdy Carlton."
"Ladies," Ashe said, shaking each of their hands.
"I'm also Wyatt's grandmother-in-law," the one who liked his shoulders said.
"Such a dear boy, and a delightful husband to our dear Jane," the one who'd looked as if she'd considered pinching him said.
Ashe tried not to look too shocked at that. Wyatt Gray, a delightful husband? That would certainly be a remarkable turnaround for a man who'd been one of the most successful divorce attorneys in the state, a man so cynical about the state of marriage that the idea of him ever entering into it was impossible to believe.
And yet, from everything Ashe had seen and heard, that was exactly what Wyatt had done and he seemed perfectly happy with his choice. Which was even stranger.
"Wyatt said you ladies needed help with a ceremony of some kind?" Ashe asked.
Eleanor smiled up at him. And slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow. "Yes, Judge, that's exactly what we need. Why don't you step out onto the patio for some tea, and we'll tell you all about it."
He let them lead him through several rooms to the patio at the back of the house where they sat down at an ornate black iron patio set. One of the ladies poured him a cup of hot tea, while another set a platter of baked goods in front of him.
"Our dear Amy, Tate's wife, made fresh ginger cookies this morning," Eleanor told him.
Ashe had noticed it smelled wonderful in the house and thought he remembered something about Tate Darn-ley's wife opening a bakery recently and maybe catering an event Ashe had attended. He took a still-warm cookie from the platter and started to eat. "Excellent."
"Amy does all the baking for our events," Eleanor said. "Weddings, receptions, fundraisers, luncheons, even classes."
So he would at least be well fed if he agreed to whatever the ladies wanted. Judging from the ginger cookies, that was a plus.
"Wyatt tells us you divorce people," Kathleen said.
One of them needed a divorce? He was always surprised when people their age called it quits on marriage, although it did certainly seem that everyone eventually did. Still it seemed as if people would at some point think they were safe from all that, when he'd learned in his job that people never were.
Just the other day he'd had a couple in his courtroom who were ending a marriage after forty-four years. Forty-four years? How could you endure forty-four years and suddenly decide it wasn't working? Had it worked for forty-three years and then stopped? Or had it been kind of bad all along, but not bad enough, until that last year? The last week? Last day?
Ashe really didn't understand.
"I preside over divorces as part of my duties in family court," he said. "One of you needs a divorce?"
"Oh, no. We're not married. It's for a series of classes at the estate"
"Wyatt said you might be able to help us," Kathleen said.
"Possibly," Ashe said, knowing better than to agree without knowing what he was agreeing to first this time. "What exactly do you need, ladies?"
"A divorce ceremony."
Ashe was confused. "We don't really have a ceremony."
"But you could do one, couldn't you? You're a judge. You can marry people, can't you?"
"Well, yes, I'm legally empowered to marry people." Although that was one duty he had yet to perform.
"Fine, just do that in reverse."
Ashe was starting to worry about the perfectly sane comments. "It doesn't exactly work that way, ladies. Why don't you tell me precisely what you need."
"A divorce ceremony. Could you make one up?" Kathleen suggested.
"Or we could make one up. I've been divorced," Eleanor said. "I remember everything about my divorce."
"I'm a widow," Kathleen said.
"And I've never been married," Gladdy said.
Ashe helped himself to another cookie, chewing slowly, striving for patience, and then asked, "Why do you need a divorce ceremony?"
"For the classes," Eleanor said, as if that made perfect sense.
Ashe smiled. They were kind of sweet and definitely interesting, but maybe not completely sane. "Ladies, what kind of class requires a divorce ceremony?"
"One for people who are divorced," Kathleen said.
Why had Ashe even needed to ask? "So, you're having classes for people who are divorced?"
"Yes," Eleanor said.
Ashe shook his head. "But, if the people coming are already divorced, why do they need to have a ceremony?"
Kathleen frowned. "It may be better if Lilah explains it. It sounds so much better when she does it."
Lilah? Ashe hadn't been warned there was a fourth one. He wondered if the whole concept would sound saner if Lilah explained it. Couldn't sound any crazier, he decided.
"All right," he said. "Where is Lilah?"
"She should be along any moment," Eleanor said.
And that's when Ashe looked up and saw
well, it looked like a mostly naked woman running across the back lawn.
"Oh, dear," Kathleen said. "I so hoped they would be done with all that before you arrived."
"I believe you may be a bit early, Judge," Eleanor said.
"Although I've always appreciated punctuality in a man," Gladdy said, giving him a not at all shy smile.
Ashe was really worried now. One of them was flirting with him, and one of them was nearly naked. He hoped it wasn't the nearly naked one who was supposed to make sense.
"Ladies, I'm not sure if Wyatt told you, but I have to stand for election next year to keep my seat on the bench." Eleanor should understand. She had long been active in local politics, successfully raising money for a number of candidates in addition to her work with various charities. Someone Ashe should know better, he'd been told. Still
"I'm not sure I'm the right man for this job. I'd really like to help you, but someone in my position in the community has to maintain a certain level of propriety"
"That doesn't sound like any fun," Gladdy said with a smile.
"Gladdy, please," Eleanor said.
She gave a little shrug, not looking at all sorry for her comment. Was she really flirting with him? A man less than half her age? He feared she was.
"I don't think it will be much fun, either," Ashe admitted. "But the election comes with the job. So, if you ladies will excuse me, I'll just"
"You can't go yet," Eleanor said, grabbing him by the arm. "You haven't even met Lilah."
Ashe was honestly a little afraid to meet Lilah. What if she was even crazier than the rest of them?
"She'll be done soon," Kathleen asked. "And then she can explain everything to you."
Ashe wanted to ask exactly what Lilah was doing but wasn't sure he wanted to know. From what he could tell, someone was on the back lawn of the estate, naked or nearly so, with a long, flowing wedding veil. She seemed to be running around, the glossy white veil trailing after her, and another woman was either chasing her or perhaps photographing her?
Yes, maybe that was it. Now he saw a third person, carrying around some lights on a pole. Photographer's lights?
He hoped so. That was the sanest explanation he could come up with. That what he was seeing was a photo session.
What could a divorce ceremony possibly have to do with the photo session of a scantily clad bride? No matter what, it couldn't be good for a judge facing election soon. People wanted their judges to be above reproach, respectable, steady, solid and, of course, to show good judgment in all things.
Ashe turned his attention from the back lawn of the estate to the three little old ladies with him. He would swear they were trying to look perfectly innocent.
"It's not what you think," Eleanor tried to assure him.
"I have no idea what I think," Ashe admitted.
"And I bet it's been a long time since a woman surprised you," Gladdy said. "We all need to be surprised every now and then, dear."
No, really, he didn't, Ashe thought, smiling uneasily.
He liked his life just the way it was.
"Perfect. We got it. Exactly what we wanted." Lilah Ryan lowered her camera with a satisfied sigh. She'd been a budding photographer in high school and through her first year of college, then put it aside for a more practical life, until she realized that being so practical meant losing so much of herself in the process. She wasn't doing that anymore. "Thanks, guys. I really appreciate your patience."
The man carrying the heavy lights for the shoot, Benactually her model's boyfriendgroaned as he put the lights down. "Only took twice as long as it was supposed to."
"But we got it right," Lilah said, then turned to the model she'd hired for the shoot. "Zoe, thank you so much. You were great. You're going to look beautiful, I promise. And the posters will be all over town."
Zoe stood tall and slender, the wedding veil wrapped around her, until she slipped into the robe Ben offered. "I don't think they'll let you put these all over town."
"They will, you'll see." Lilah was certain.
The image would be both provocative and tasteful. Lilah would make sure of it. And everyone would wonder what was going to happen at her classes, which was exactly what she wanted.
Lilah had promised herself she was going to do all that she could to get everything she wanted from now on. No more waiting. No more putting aside her own wishes for anyone else. She'd done that for too long.
The three of them picked up their equipment and headed back to the house. It really was lovely, the perfect setting for a wedding. Which also made it the perfect setting for Lilah's classes.
She said goodbye to Zoe and Ben, who helpfully offered to pack up their equipment for her, then went to find Eleanor, whom she called a cousin, but was actually her mother's second cousin's aunt. Eleanor claimed she knew the perfect person to perform the divorce ceremony, and he was supposed to stop by this afternoon.
Lilah was so happy. Everything was coming together just as she'd hoped. She had the perfect location, this beautiful estate where people often came to get married. From her private life-coaching practice, she already had a number of people eager to attend her first series of classes, and now she also had what she was sure would be a striking, provocative image to use on her new promotional materials.
Someone to perform a divorce ceremony would be the icing on the cake.
Some people might think it sounded silly, a divorce ceremony, or a series of classes featuring workshops, group exercises and emotional clearing to help get over a relationship gone bad.
Lilah didn't care. She knew better. She'd learned a lot from the mistakes she'd made in her own life and in dealing with her own divorce. The life-coaching approach wasn't what she'd always envisioned for her career as a therapist, but she was thrilled to be doing this. Over the years, she'd seen too many people doing the same thing, over and over again, stuck in the misery of their current lives and unable to move forward. It had been maddening, frustrating and left her feeling as if she wasn't truly helping anyone.
But now she felt as if she was helping and that this was simply what she was born to do.
Humming happily to herself, she walked through the house until she found Eleanor in the dining room with her two best friends, Kathleen and Gladdy, and a man.
An exceptionally good-looking man.
Not that Lilah really cared all that much how he looked. After all, a woman could only gaze at a man for so long. Eventually he opened his mouth and said something, often something offensive or stupid or simply dull. And then he'd do something controlling or belittling or just plain obnoxious. Looks came to mean so little when the reality of the man set in.
Still, this one was more appealing on the surface than most, Lilah had to admit. All starch and polish, with a beautifully tailored suit over an equally impressive body. He was tall, broad, powerful, leaning perhaps toward arrogance, but he had great dark hair and beautiful dark eyes.
"Lilah, darling," Eleanor said, beaming at her. "I found the perfect man for you."