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Admiring Ash (Love Letters Book 1) by Anyta Sunday (1)

Just one more dollar.

Ash Heartford dropped to the frayed carpet in his studio attic apartment. He eyed his threadbare couch and rubbed his hands together in prayer. Please let him find one more dollar. Today was the deadline to pay his sister Danielle’s Advanced Space Camp tuition.

For eleven months he’d scrimped and scrimmaged, saving every spare cent to stockpile the eleven hundred dollars.

He was one dollar short.

The shower turning off spurred him on. Danielle was leaving for school in a few minutes.

He slid his hands down the cracks at the back of the lumpy couch. Couch God, if you’re listening, please give me a break.

Useless prayer.

No change was hiding between his couch cushions. He knew this. He took it apart every evening when he made the couch into his bed.

Regardless, he triple-checked.

He emptied his wallet again, hoping he’d overlooked a pocket. He couldn’t even run to the store and withdraw money because he was exactly four dollars and sixty-two cents in overdraft until payday, three days away.

He dove into the couch cushions a fourth time, head buried as he fought the frustration burning in his throat. He was sick of struggling financially. No matter how hard he worked scrubbing toilets, he was constantly failing Danielle.

She had scored a private-school scholarship, but the secondhand textbooks he had to buy her were outdated. Her uniform practically cost him a kidney, and at sixteen she was still wearing the first and only one. The skirt was now too short and her blazer had been donated by a friend.

He struggled at every turn to give her anything special.

Except space camp.

She’d won a scholarship last year, and it proved to be the best experience of her life. This year, there was no scholarship available. Ash had vowed to send her to camp no matter what.

Yet he was one hundred pennies short.

“Ashy?” Danielle said with an amused snort. “What are you doing? Why has Chucky fled the windowsill?”

He extracted himself from the cushions.

Danielle tightened her school tie. “Either you’re prematurely graying at twenty-five, or there are cobwebs in your hair.”

“Probably graying.” He batted his knotty hair and white threads flicked from his bangs. “So. Look. About space camp, I’m a dollar short.”

Danielle’s smile faltered, and she scanned the disheveled apartment. “Ashy,” she said softly chiding. “I can always bum a dollar off a friend—”

“Yeah, I know.” For once he wanted to give her something nice without asking for help. “Here’s a question I wish I never had to ask. Have you seen my pink tank top?”

Danielle smirked, ducked behind the curtain separating their rooms, and chucked a bright pink T-shirt to him. “It looks better on me.”

Ash laughed as he jerked out of his nightshirt and pulled on his cleaning uniform that Mrs. Hammock requested he wear while scrubbing her pool. Ridiculously tight to show off his lean figure. But she paid on time.

He only ever wore it when he cleaned for her. Or laundry days.

Danielle slumped against the kitchen counter frowning sadly. Their eyes met and she blurted, “I have a job offer to work weekends as a dishwasher. I’m gonna take it.”

Ash’s stomach dropped. “No.”

“But I want to help—”

“You need to concentrate on school.” On being a kid.

“But—”

“No buts. If you need more money, I’ll make it happen.”

“It’s not about needing more, it’s about wanting you to have some too.”

Ash slapped on a smile. “I’m fine.”

“You don’t have anything for yourself!”

He stretched his smile. “Silly. I have my awesome sister, and Chucky. I have cable I borrow from the neighbors.”

Danielle rolled her eyes. “At least let me help you clean one of your houses tonight.”

“How about you make dinner?” He winked, and hid his uniform with a hoodie. “Wait here.”

“Where are you going?”

“Jogging down to Brook’s.” One of their neighbors.

Ash might not have found that last dollar, but he sure as hell wouldn’t make Danielle beg her friends for it.

* * *

Two months later

River sat on a bench on Shady Heights Hill. Sun-soaked slats warmed his thighs, the breeze a refreshing contrast. He took in the view of Greenville below: tightly packed white houses; a permanent circus lining the outskirts; a river dividing the poorer neighborhoods from the obscenely rich.

He was one of the obscene.

Money couldn’t bring back the dead though, and he suffered grief like anyone else. He pinched a small cream envelope. Ash Heartford and an address were scrawled on the outside.

Handing over Silver Pines had been his pseudo-granddad’s last wish.

River flicked the edge of the envelope against the pad of his thumb.

He should pay a visit to this Ash Heartford. Have it done with. Return to being a regular twenty-seven year old with a healthy amount of hormones that needed indulging.

He was loath to say goodbye.

His phone rang, and River answered, smirking at his friend Duke on the screen. Twenty-two and full of the same energy River used to have. “You never give up, do you?”

“One of these days you’ll get your groove back. There’s a party tonight at Club Twenty-One. Lotta dick.”

“You’re all charm.”

“I try. Where are you?” Duke pinched his brows together as if trying to figure out where River was. “Blue sky, melancholic smile . . .”

“I’m at our spot.” His and granddad Lester’s spot. Their go-to place for conversation.

“Okay dude, stop calling it your spot. If I didn’t know you two were like the boy and grandpa from Up, I’d think it was creepy.”

“It’s perfectly normal.”

“Normal? I don’t have a friend that’s a cane-wielding old dude.”

“I inherited that cane, you know. I could be that friend . . .”

Duke poked out his tongue. “Don’t expect strangers to understand. If you mention ‘our spot’ prepare to explain yourself.”

“I like how you think I would randomly tell strangers my private things.”

“Ok then, what about showing your private things? A cute twink, maybe? Club Twenty-One. Tonight.”

“Not interested.”

Duke gave an exasperated sigh. “You used to be.”

“Maybe I’m growing up. You might think about trying it.”

Duke flipped him off. “Never going to happen.”

River laughed. Duke and he had been friends since they were paired up at college in a buddy-system, there to help the new kids integrate. River had been a senior, and Duke a freshman. They’d clicked, and a decade later, they were still close.

“Okay, okay,” Duke said. “Being real now. How are you holding up?”

River glanced at the unopened envelope on his lap. “I’m doing fine. Just . . .”

“Just?”

“Lester’s last will and testament. His estate went to me uncontested. I am officially the owner of Silver Pines. But . . .”

“Stop pausing at all the good parts.”

“It adds dramatic tension.”

“I’d punch you in the arm if I were at your spot, ” he said, adding dramatic air quotes.

“Like I’d ever let you.’”

Duke rang out a hearty laugh.

River joined him. It felt good to laugh in the fresh air and the sweet scent of summer. Something he yearned to have back in his life again.

He had Duke, Ben, and his irritating twin Landon, but none of them clicked the same way he had with granddad Lester.

“Tell me,” Duke whined. “You know I hate waiting.”

“Never a truer word spoken. Fine. Lester and I talked shortly before he passed away. He was too ill to suffer through the processes of changing his will and testament and asked if I would gift-deed Silver Pines to Ash once it came through to me. Said Ash needed the place more than I did.”

“Who’s Ash?”

The million-dollar question. “An old friend of his maybe? Someone from his past?”

“But you were like his grandson, why would he take Silver Pines from you?”

“He wasn’t cutting me out. He knew I have enough and that I don’t care for material things.” It was why he had chosen River to be the executor of his will.

A flattering gesture in theory.

In reality? Suffering through the lengthy process of marshaling his assets, distributing his belongings, hunting down a son that refused to take any of it, and dealing with lawyers had been a brutal year.

But Lester was right. River didn’t care for the monetary value of Silver Pines. The sentimental value though . . .

This was Lester’s last wish.

He stared at the envelope.

Lester had insisted on River passing Silver Pines on. He’d refused to say who Ash was, saying it was Ash’s choice whether to share. Lester nevertheless pleaded River to befriend Ash—and whatever he did, not to sleep with him. The cheeky old bastard. River didn’t screw every guy he met.

He hadn’t screwed any since Lester had passed.

“You’ve gone glassy-eyed,” Duke said. “Taking a trip down memory lane?”

“Nope.”

“Liar.”

“Yeah.” He set his phone on the bench and tucked the smaller envelope from Lester into the larger envelope that housed the gift-deed contract. All it needed was Ash’s witnessed signatures, and River had fulfilled Lester’s wishes.

“When are you gifting Silver Pines to this mysterious Ash?” Duke asked.

River stood, rolled the large envelope, and slid it into his back pocket. Picked up his phone and cracked a pun that would have Lester rolling his eyes in his grave. “No time like the present.”

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