Chapter Two

November 2nd

Ashley dropped onto the cream-coloured sofa (the one her mother sniffed at every time she saw it because it was inferior to anything Gallagher’s once sold), and leaned her head back, positioning the re-warmed beanbag on her head. She knew the cover of the Toronto Reporter had triggered this never-ending headache (and the nightmares that plagued her sleep), but knowing the root didn’t alter the outcome. The silence, the heat of the beanbag, and exhaustion ruled her life at the moment.

Knock, thump, bang.

Ashley’s heartbeat picked up at the loud sound, picked up even more when her eyes popped open and she couldn’t see. The beanbag slid off her head and the gloomy grey light filled her apartment. Not night yet.

Rap-rap-rap.

No one from the security desk downstairs had called to request permission for whoever was at the door to enter, so that meant whoever was making all the noise was someone on her approved list. Unless someone managed to get past the vigilant team? Ashley willed the intruder to leave, but the knocking continued. Getting to her feet, she tossed the beanbag onto her coffee table and padded silently in sock feet to the door.  

 Every knock made the blood pounding through her brain audible, painful. She pressed herself against the cool metal door and peeked out the peephole. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to cry tears of relief or frustration when she saw the top half of Char’s head, her brow creased in impatience. Ashley unlocked the deadbolt and slid the chain free before pulling the door open as Char lifted her hand to knock again.

“You look like shit.” Char’s gaze swept from head to toe before she slipped around Ashley to enter.

Ashley quickly relocked the door, uttering a silent prayer for strength before forcing a smile and turning around. “Hey, Char, I wasn’t expecting you,”

Char glided to the sofa and sank onto one of the cushions without a sound. Char’s exotically beautiful pale skin had a red tinge to it, and her scowl reminded Ashley that Char was perfectly capable of biting.

“Nice to see you too, hope you’re well.” Ashley muttered under her breath.

“I’m going to kill her. With my bare hands if I can reach that swan neck of hers without a ladder.” Char grumbled as much to herself as to Ashley, her eyes flashing.

Instinctively and immediately, Ashley knew Char was talking about Sophie. She didn’t need the ladder reference because it was always Sophie that someone wanted to kill, slap, or otherwise do harm to. “What’s she done now?”

“Protesting the Christmas thing.” Char rolled her brown-black eyes.

“Of course she is.” Ashley nodded, resisting rolling her own. “Let me guess — why can’t we just give a bunch of money instead? Hire someone to do it?”

Char laughed. “Nailed it in one. Or two. Or both, whatever. She wants us to donate fifty turkeys and hire people to dish it out so she doesn’t have to leave the comfort of home to be a good person.”

Ashley struggled not to laugh as her head thumped meekly. Of the five women, best friends since childhood, it was mostly Sophie that took exception to their Society’s goal of giving back. ‘Not that I mind,’ Sophie’s speech always began. ‘But I don’t see how my getting up early, getting dirty, disrupting my schedule makes me a better person. I have no objections to paying someone to do what needs to be done and be done with it.’

“What do you think of my plan? Did you read the papers I gave you last night?” Char’s scowl morphed into hope as she studied Ashley.

“I did.” Every time she’d woken from another nightmare, she’d read a few pages. “I love the plan. I also know why Sophie won’t do it. The parts where you spelled out dress-code. No dressing flashy, rich, fancy. No heavy make-up, no jewelry? No way will she be seen in public looking like anything less than royalty.”

“Oh, she’s doing it,” Char huffed, gathering her long black curls and wrapping an elastic she always wore on her wrist around them. “I don’t care if she cries, stomps her feet, or offers tens of thousands of dollars, she will be there.”

Ashley raised an eyebrow. “How do you plan to make that little Christmas miracle happen?”

“Publicity, baby.” Char batted her long, mascara-free eyelashes. “Sophie can’t say no to publicity, especially since she’s the president of her own publicity company and can claim a write-off for company taxes.”

“I can,” Ashley muttered as her head squeezed tighter than a small child held mommy’s hand on the first day of school. “And I say, hell, no.”

“I knew you’d give me a hard time,” Char groaned. “Why is it that the five of us grew up together, practically raised together, and yet you and Sophie are so completely different and the constant bane of my existence?”

Ashley bristled, stung. “I’m a hell of a lot more co-operative, but I insist on no publicity.”

“I knew you’d say that, but you haven’t even heard what I’m going to do.” Char held up a jeweled hand to stop Ashley from speaking. Unlike Sophie’s jewelry, Char’s was mostly silver, handmade, and as exotic as the woman who wore it.

Ashley narrowed her eyes at her friend and crossed her arms over her chest. “I am not going to be there Christmas day if there’s publicity. I don’t care what you say.”

Char heaved a sigh. “Would you hear me out before you shoot me down? I’ve got it all figured out. I’m sending out an announcement to the three major papers, the two free dailies, and five of the major networks announcing what we’re doing. I’ll give them a copy of the Society’s mission statement, how our group feels that everyone should have a feast on Christmas Day, how we’re going to accommodate anyone who doesn’t believe in Christmas. That part you suggested last week? About how religion doesn’t change hunger, blah blah blah? Brilliant. Working that for the media to encourage donations so we can feed everyone, not just Christians. I’m inviting them to look at the time we’re putting in – the prep work we’ll be doing in the weeks leading up to the big day, the work that will go into preparing the meals, serving the food. How we plan to set up, staggering serving times so that there’s constantly people moving in and out, no one stuck outside waiting. What we’re going to do to make sure that not a single person goes away hungry. It’s win-win. Add another win because Sophie can handle all that and she’ll love being in the spotlight the whole time. The public will see what a great thing we’re doing and start sending out cheques to the shelter.”

Ashley narrowed her eyes even more, feeling her brow crease. “Where will I be during all this?”

“Well, most of the publicity will be done before Christmas to get the ball rolling for donations. On the big day, you’ll be in the kitchen – you’re the best cook out of all of us. You might happen to be in a shot or two, but I’ll try to prevent them from coming into the kitchen while you’re cooking. Is there a health code violation or something I can claim? Hell, I can do a great job on your make-up again, make you look like your grandmother if you want, on the off chance someone sneaks back there.”

“Oh, yeah, that would go over well. You know how Nan is about this stuff. She thinks we’re a bunch of fools as it is.” Ashley pursed her lips and cleared her throat to mimic her grandmother, a formidable woman who scared everyone from politicians to church leaders. “Why do you insist on wasting your time on a bunch of freeloaders? Don’t you know what welfare is for? Those homeless bums could be off the streets and living off our tax dollars, abusing welfare like the rest of them if they were willing to conform to the rules of society, but they won’t, so why are you wasting your money, time, and beautiful manicure to help out the ungrateful dregs of society?”

“God, you do sound just like Agatha.” Char shivered. “I get you a blonde or brunette wig to hide that red hair of yours, do your make-up and you could serve the old battle axe and even she wouldn’t recognize you.”

Ashley thought about Char’s offer. The media could be their biggest boon. All the fundraising luncheons with their peers they’d considered hosting over the next few weeks could be avoided if the public took an interest and donated enough. “I’ll think about it.”

“I know you will, and I know you’ll do the right thing. You and Suze always do.” Char winked. “Now that’s settled, get me a drink.”

Char usually helped herself to Ashley’s food and drink but Ashley leapt at the chance for a moment alone to think. Char was right. Ashley would do whatever it took to help the Society succeed in their goals. In the kitchen, she found a bottle of wine on the fridge door and hoped it wasn’t too old.

Pouring the wine into the glass, she felt her headache pick up as her pulse did. Media. Any time one of their deeds involved the media, Ashley was guaranteed a headache until the event was over. Almost two months until Christmas, was she really prepared to deal with a headache lasting that long?

Ashley left the bottle on the counter and went to peer out the window. The gloomy greyness did little to ease her worries. She watched someone on the sidewalk below as they weaved around a bicycle rider and a newspaper box before jogging up the two steps into the little store. Would she ever be normal? Would the media ever let her live her life without watching her, waiting for her to slip and fall so they could make her headline news again?  A BMW pulled up to the curb in front of the store and Ashley whirled around. The car reminded her of Michael, reminded Ashley that the media was on his side, and always would be.  

“I guess Suze is over the moon about this project?” Ashley forced a note of cheer into her voice as she returned to the living room with Char’s wine.

“She is now. I had to make a lot of compromises with her, too.” Char took the glass Ashley offered and sipped, nodding her approval. “I promised we’d use only compost friendly plates, that we would make the compost and recycling program part of the publicity, and that we wouldn’t use disposable foil roasters. I’d already figured we’d have to buy a bunch of roasting pans anyhow, so that wasn’t much of a sacrifice. We’ll make the pans we buy and donate part of the publicity. Let Soph figure out how to spin the whole ‘now they’ve got top of the line roasting pans forever and won’t need to invest in disposable foil products that harm the environment and cost a fortune’. Oh, and she’s allowed to make up pamphlets to hand out on biodegradable paper about the importance of taking care of the planet. I nixed the blurb about cigarettes since she doesn’t so much care about the dangers of second-hand smoke and more about the litter the butts create. And – you tell her I said this, I’ll call you a filthy liar – those pamphlets will save us on napkins because I’m sure the flimsy paper will be mistaken for napkins and people will wipe their mouths with them.”

Ashley chuckled, sitting on the sofa at the opposite end from Char. She didn’t want the publicity, didn’t want the public scrutiny, but it was for a good cause. Sighing heavily, she stared at Char. “If you promise no one knows it’s me, I’ll go along with it.”

Char jumped up, sloshing wine onto the carpet. “Shit, sorry, but thank you!”

Setting her glass down on the glass topped table next to the cooling bean bag, Char glided into the kitchen. Ashley let her eyes close and her body tense in her friend’s absence. She didn’t care about white wine on the dark area rug. Her mind was racing with worries that something would go wrong at Christmas, and she’d have to face the media again.

Chapter One

November 1st, almost five years later.

Ashley opened her car door and shivered as a sudden blast of crisp fall air hit her like a sucker punch. She’d parked beneath one of the many strategically placed lampposts illuminating the parking lot, disappointed she hadn’t been able to park near the entrance. She hunched into her coat as she climbed out and closed the door, scanning the lot for familiar vehicles. She locked the doors and  took a deep breath, planning the fastest route to warmth. Her high heels clicked on the pavement as she darted around parked cars, aiming for the sidewalk surrounding the trendy coffee shop. Her purse bounced on her hip as she clutched the lapels of her coat closed, trying to block the cold wind.  

Turning the corner, a frigid gust almost took her breath away, but Ashley paused at the row of three newspaper boxes still displaying the daily papers lining the brick wall at the entrance. Nothing caught her eye until she got to the last one, the black box containing the Toronto Reporter. The urge to kick the glass hit her so fast her foot left the pavement before common sense prevailed. Behind the glass was a full page colour photo of Toronto’s illustrious mayor, Michael Golden Sr., with his hand lifted in a wave to an invisible crowd, his handsome face beaming.

Ashley saw the monster behind the mask, the cracks in the chiseled good looks. Thinning hair, beady eyes behind wire-framed glasses, blood thirsty sneer not quite covered by his honed-for-the-camera smile, leering at her from inside the box. Ashley’s head pounded as another icy burst  lifted locks of hair from her face. The headline screamed Mayor Golden Promises More Funds to Fight Crime.

Ashley snorted and tore her gaze from the photo as images of the mayor’s son crept, unbidden and unwelcome, into her head. Not the Michael she’d thought she’d known, but the savage beast he truly was. Uglier, crueler, even more evil than his father.

Ashley shivered as she marched to the door, not from the chill this time but from her thoughts. She yanked the handle of one of the heavy glass doors and stepped inside. The inner doors were propped open but she was forced to stop at the end of the long line. She released her grip on her coat, shook out her left hand, and peered at her gold watch. Thirteen minutes until she could accuse her friends of being late.

The line inched forward and she moved fully into the coffee shop, flinching at the loud drone of voices coming from every direction. There were potted trees blocking her view of the seating area. The heavy-set woman in front of her was barking at someone Ashley couldn’t see. She shifted from one foot to the other and realized the woman was talking on her phone. A tall man, reeking of cheap cologne, got into line behind her, humming.

The line moved again and now Ashley could see inside properly. She raked the sea of people but no familiar faces stood out. Someone shouted from behind, triggering an invisible vice to squeeze her skull violently. At this rate, the Society meeting would go on without her. She shuffled along as the line shortened, relieved when the woman ahead of her stepped to the far end of the long counter to place her order. Ashley pressed her fingers to her temples. 

“May I take your order?”

Ashley dropped her hands and forced a smile for the pimple-faced young man standing behind the counter in front of her. “Large decaf, double cream please.”

He punched buttons on the keyboard. “That’ll be two-twenty-five.”

The young man scanned his coworkers, all busy filling previous orders. He looked tired but hurried to make the coffee while Ashley searched her leather wallet for a bill smaller than a fifty.

She pulled out a ten as he set the cup in front of her and she passed the money over. “Keep the change.”

He perked up, smiling from ear to ear. “For real? Thanks.”

Ashley wrapped both hands around the cup to warm them as she searched for somewhere to sit.  She spotted an empty table at the back and headed for it even though there weren’t enough seats.

“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you,” Ashley murmured under her breath when the couple at the table beside the empty one got up and took their garbage. She offered a small smile as they passed, set her purse on one table, and sat with her coffee at the other. The banter and chatter around her felt like stones pitched at her head. Ashley took a deep breath, trying to relax. A large group of teenagers got up, their laughter and jeering cat-calls fading the closer to the exit they got.

“There you are, darling. Saw your ugly car in the lot.” Sophie, a tall woman with ice blue eyes and hair frosted so expertly only her long-time friends knew she wasn’t a natural blonde, leaned over to air kiss Ashley’s cheek.

Caught by surprise, Ashley forced a smile as she moved her purse for Sophie. “You’re early.”

“Meeting ended early. Thought I’d see if anyone was here. If I hadn’t spotted your clunker I was going to head over to that cute little boutique in the next plaza. I know they’re not on par with what I usually buy but I like to help the little people when I can.” Sophie smiled proudly, as if she’d just announced she was ending world poverty by shopping at a high-end of mid-class store.

“I go in often. The owner is heavily involved in one of the charities I work with.” A chair scraped the tile floor nearby and Ashley winced. To cover her reaction, she lifted her cup to her lips, but didn’t sip. “Aren’t you going to have a coffee?”

“I will when that kid emptying the garbage brings it.” Sophie sniffed, looking around for whoever she’d ordered her drink from.

“You’re supposed to get it yourself.” Ashley gestured to the long line of tired looking people waiting their turn. Trust Sophie to expect table service.

“Are you kidding? That old guy second from the end sneezed when I came in, and I’m sure he farted at the same time. I am not standing behind that.” Sophie wrinkled her (expensive and expertly crafted) nose, waving off Ashley’s concern. “I offered the kid some cash, told him what I wanted, and said he could keep the change.”

A different boy than the one who’d served Ashley appeared. This boy’s face was unblemished, but he had the look of an awkward puppy who hadn’t yet grown into his huge paws.

“Here you go, medium coffee with two espresso shots.” His face turned red as he set a take-out cup in front of Sophie. His puppy-dog eyes were fixed on Sophie, but Sophie simply nodded curtly and looked the other way. He finally sidled off like a scolded puppy denied a bone.

She sipped her fancy coffee, making a face. “I don’t know why we bother meeting here. I’d much rather have gone to that bistro around the corner, had a good cappuccino or a real espresso.”

“Well, this is where Char said to meet. I guess you’ll have to ask her why she picked here.” Ashley rubbed her temples and imagined being alone on a little island with nothing but sand, sun, and surf to keep her company. Where the only news that mattered was the tide. She was still chilled and rubbed her arms through her coat.

“You getting sick?” Sophie turned her attention back to Ashley.

“No, just a headache brewing.”

“Go home.” Sophie shrugged as she looked up. “Oh wait, here they come now.”

Relief flooded Ashley as she watched the three women winding their way around crowded tables, each carrying a different sized cup and laughing. Char, with long, curly black hair, was the most exotic. Heads turned as she passed, her long skirt and peasant blouse fluttering as she drifted to the table. Whether the kids still lingering near the front went to Liz’s school or not, they all hushed when they spied her following Char. Liz was no-nonsense, sleek, and professional. Even her short brown hair and power suit screamed principal (or dragon lady, as Liz swore the students called her behind her back). Even Ashley sometimes felt intimated by Liz. Suzanne, sweet Suze with the mousy brown hair and muddy eyes, pulled up the rear. Suze was the timid wallflower (unless someone littered; they’d learned as kids never to rile Suze by disrespecting Mother Earth around her). Suze never wore make-up, never dressed up, and always looked as though she expected someone to tell her to move along, that she didn’t belong with the pretty people.

“What the hell are you wearing, Suze? A potato sack?” Sophie laughed as the women found seats. Char sat across from Ashley as Liz and Suze settled at Sophie’s table.

“It’s hemp, one of the world’s –” Suze trailed off when the other women began to chatter over her.

“Smart getting our drinks in the drive-thru first.” Char gestured to the line now snaking around the outside of the building. “Would’ve taken at least a half an hour otherwise.”

“You came together?” Sophie pouted. “Why didn’t you pick me up too?”

“Because you refuse to sit in the back seat and I called shotgun.” Char’s brown-black eyes glittered menacingly. “Anything else you want to bitch about?”

“Yeah, why here? The coffee is crap.” Sophie folded her arms over her ample bosom and glared.

Ashley tried to follow the conversation but found the effort exhausting. She settled in her seat and let them get on with their gossiping and griping. If Char hadn’t insisted tonight’s meeting was urgent, Ashley wouldn’t have bothered leaving her condo. Ashley sputtered, coughed to cover her reaction, when she glanced over at the man next to them. He’d just opened the Reporter, leaving Golden Sr. at eye level, waving at her. Her head gave a thump and Ashley almost bolted until Char touched her hand.

“You okay?” Char whispered so only Ashley could hear.

“Mm. Headache.” Ashley sipped her coffee and let her eyes stay closed for an extra few beats of a blink.

“I’ll be quick.” Char shot the newspaper a dirty look as she opened her briefcase. “Time to get down to business.”

Sophie drummed her long nails on the tabletop. “Couldn’t we have done this somewhere better? I just know some idiot is going to dent my Porsche.”

“I get it, you don’t approve of our location. Crap coffee, careless drivers, your concerns have been noted and will be considered the next time we meet. We can be out of here a hell of a lot sooner if you’d just shut up long enough for me to talk.”

Char rifled through her briefcase and pulled out a thick folder. She removed the papers and passed out thick stacks bound by paper clips to each of them. She put the empty folder away and held her own sheath of papers, flipping the pages. Ashley glanced at hers but her vision blurred, so she put them under her purse and waited for someone to tell her what they said.

“Here, page three — as per our last meeting, I went ahead and arranged for us to work at a homeless shelter on Christmas Day. Not just any homeless shelter, either. The big one.” Char took time to look at each of them, a big smile lighting her face. Ashley followed Char’s gaze and would’ve laughed at the expressions on their faces if her head wasn’t threatening to split in two. Suze bit her lip, her trembling hand setting the reusable mug of whatever she was drinking down. Liz looked bored as she pressed the screen on her tablet, and Sophie’s mouth opened wide as she scowled.

“What time?” Liz asked, still tapping the screen.

“Noon until four. Don’t worry, you’ll still have time to do your family crap after.” Ashley noticed Char directed her words at Sophie. “It’s all on the sheets I handed you, along with schedules. Ash and I will work the longest Christmas Day but the rest of you have more to do to prepare in the weeks leading up to Christmas.”

“The world wastes billions of trees by printing scores of paper no one needs –” Suze faltered when Liz gave her a sharp look.

“I’m in.” Ashley picked up the papers and her purse as she stood. “If there’s nothing else, I need to go. Migraine brewing.”

“Squeeze the spot between your thumb and index finger–” Suze trailed off when Char hushed her but showed Ashley the spot she meant when Char’s attention switched to her briefcase, pulling out her notebook.

“Just one more thing, I need your pledge.” Char flipped through the pages, frowning.

“I gave it to you last week, for the month.” Ashley squeezed her eyes shut, trying to block out the glaring fluorescent lights. She forced a smile when she opened them.

Char studied her for several seconds. “Oh, right — it’s Soph that owes us for last month and this month. Your hours might be seven to three but there’re still details to hammer out down the road. I’ll call you tomorrow if anything you need to know pops up tonight.”

Char dismissed her with a casual wave belied by the furrow of concern between her eyes. Ashley left her barely touched coffee on the table knowing Suze would throw – recycle — it for her and bolted from the group, pulling her suede coat tight around her as she went. 

Her car beckoned as Ashley came around the corner. There were fewer cars now and she took long strides, desperate to get inside. As she crossed the front bumper, she pulled her fob out of her pocked.

Bang!  

Ashley stumbled, her keys flying out of her hand. She dove to the pavement, covering her head, her heart pounding as her brain screamed ‘run’. Her ears rang with the echoing bang, tears blurred her vision. Crouching between her car and the one parked beside her, she lifted her head to find the source of the gunshot, not wanting to run the wrong way and right into the line of fire.  

“What’d you drop the lid for, you idiot? Scared the hell out of me!”

Ashley watched the girl who’d yelled flick her cigarette as she shouted at the young guy who’d brought Sophie her coffee. The tall kid looked sheepishly at his coworker as he shrugged. “Sorry. Slipped and dropped the lid when I was throwing the bags in.”

Ashley picked up her keys and straightened, her nerves still screaming. The instant of sheer panic left her a wreck. She opened her door to engage the interior light and searched the backseat from outside, then inside the car.  She tossed her purse and the papers on the passenger seat as she slid into her seat. Her imagination went into overdrive, and she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up all over again, convinced someone was watching her, stalking her.

“Stop. Just stop. You’re fine. No one’s watch—” Ashley froze as she reached for her seatbelt. There was someone watching her from the next car. Instantly convinced it was Jr., she prepared to flee. The sane part of her mind registered the good-looking man, a man who looked nothing like Michael. She tried to smile but quit when her head thumped. She jammed the key in the ignition, made sure the radio was off and the heat on high, before she turned the key. Without waiting for the engine to warm, she shifted into first, released the emergency brake, and pulled out of her parking spot.

Traffic was unusually light as she pulled onto Bloor Street which meant not as many headlights shining into her eyes. Home. That’s all Ashley wanted. It took everything in her power not to stomp on the gas. When rain splashed her window, she turned on the wipers. The squelching, squealing, and thumping as the blades slid over glass radiated through her skull. The heater kicked in as she entered her Rosedale neighborhood. Her condo was on the outskirts of the exclusive community (her parents and grandparents both lived in the ‘old money’ section, as did the Golden’s).  

Her head pounded a tattoo any marching band would struggle to keep up with. The rain began to fall in sheets, forcing her to turn her wipers on high, but at least they no longer screamed dragging across the window. As she pulled into the driveway of her underground, she pressed the button to automatically open the door. The instant the nose of her car was inside the garage, she turned the wipers off. She drove past rows of expensive cars until she turned into her row and stopped. Her spot was the second one on the right, so she quickly reversed into her spot. She turned the key to cut the engine but left them in the ignition. The underground was a haven; all sounds muffled, the lighting low. Feeling nauseous, she rested her head against her headrest and closed her eyes.

An angry honk shattered the blessed peace she’d found. Ashley whipped her head to the left, her heart pounding in her chest. A black car sat inches from her door. Confusion raced with her pulse as she tried to figure out why the car was parked that way, why they continued to honk. The cobwebs cleared and Ashley realized her car had rolled to the middle of the aisle. She’d put her standard transmission in neutral but forgotten to set the parking brake. She jammed her foot down on the clutch, shifted into reverse, and hit the gas. The car didn’t move. She tried again, panicking. What was wrong with her car? She realized she’d forgotten to turn the key, but before she could fix her error, she heard a door slam. The sound echoed through the underground as the driver of the other car approached so fast she never got to see his face. She registered the fit outline beneath a form fitting black t-shirt, and fear filled her all over again. Every man in her building was overweight or soft (except Danny Ellis on the tenth floor, who had been positively skeletal the last time Ashley had seen him because of chemo and a long battle with cancer).  

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Ashley muttered even though he couldn’t possibly hear her with her window up. Turning the key, she released the clutch too quickly and stalled.

“Geez, come on, I’m not a new driver!” Ashley pounded the steering wheel with her left hand as she turned the key with her right. She revved her engine once before expertly reversing into her spot. She took a bracing breath as she set the parking brake and turned the car off. The momentary fear left her as she gathered her things. “You live in a high security building, dummy. You’re dealing with a rich a-hole, not a Golden one.”

 Her head still pounded but the sight of the irate man fueled her. She got out of her car and pressed the lock button, resisting the urge to flinch at the echoing honk. She waited for his raging diatribe to slow, shuffling the papers she held as she slung her purse over her shoulder.

“Could’ve hit you. Killed you. What were you –”

Ashley raised an eyebrow, hoping to look bored rather than about to keel over. “I’m really sorry, please stop shouting.”

The man opened his mouth and closed it again. Ashley felt the vise-like pressure on her head throb once more but bit her lip to stop a grin when she realized he reminded her of a fish out of water. She almost smiled until his green eyes narrowed. “Are you drunk?”

Ashley’s heart thumped wildly as her temper flared. She suddenly recognized the man, and his words pissed her off. The handsome guy she’d noticed in the parking lot at the coffee shop, the one she’d tried and failed to smile at, was the same guy who’d just screamed his fool head off at her. She thought she knew everyone in her building but she’d never seen this guy in her life until today.

Her head pounded, reminding her why she’d been so careless. “I’ve got a colossal headache and I rested my head a second. Forgot to set the brake. I am not drunk.”

Something flashed in his eyes. If the headache hadn’t resumed its attack, she might’ve puzzled over the ominous feeling, but all she really cared about at that moment was crawling into bed. She left him standing in the middle of the aisle and stormed over to the elevators without another word.

Prologue

April 17

The pain was unlike anything Ashley had ever experienced. Her vision blurred, doubled, faded, her ears rang, all sense of where she was, who she was erased by blows to her head, her neck, her spine. She tried to listen for signs, but all she could hear were the echoes of gunshots. Bile rose to the back of her throat, threatening to choke her. She tried to get up but her head pounded and her body felt like something weighed her down and she didn’t have the strength to fight.

“Jesus, Ashley, you’re so beautiful, so perfect.”

Ashley blinked, searching for the source of the voice. A dark shape hovered over her and she tried to reach up to touch but her hands were pinned to her sides. Where was she? Who was talking? She knew horror when a finger traced over her cheek, brushed hair back from her face.

“Why do you look so disgusted by my touch? You love me, you’ve said it twenty-three times. I kept count.” The voice coming from the dark shape hovering over her was familiar, so familiar. Alex?

“Alex?” Ashley whispered the name even as she knew it couldn’t be him. Alex would help her, would hold her. Not Alex’s voice. It wouldn’t hurt her face to say his name.

The shape growled and she felt the weight on her shift. Her left hand rose into the air as if attached to a string a marionette controlled. She tried to see, but the nausea overwhelmed her and she heaved as something tugged on her finger. She heard a sob as she swallowed the acid down again, trying not to choke.

“I can’t believe you took his ring, agreed to be his wife. You’re mine, Ashley. Say it, say you love me.”

Ashley struggled to speak, to ask where she was, but her jaw wouldn’t move. She tried to open her mouth to scream but pain radiated from her jaw to her brain.

The weight on her chest shifted again, and she thought she could smell sweat and despair. If crazy had a scent, Ashley was sure what she smelled now would be it.

“I guess you can’t talk, huh?” The giggle. The male, high pitched giggle triggered a memory. What? Who?

“Look at me, Ashley, look at me. See me, love me.”

Ashley blinked, tried to focus, blinked again. She saw two Michaels inches from her face, staring down at her with an insanity in his eyes she’d never seen before. “God, your eyes, they see inside me. You said you loved me. I thought you saw inside me and loved who you saw, but then you took his ring. How could you? First you gave him your body, then you gave him your soul. I thought you loved me. I’m the Golden Boy, you should’ve loved me, promised me forever.”

Ashley wanted to shake her head, scream that she’d only ever said she loved him the way she did with all her friends. Never the way she said it to Alex, showed Alex. Her mouth wouldn’t open, and her head hurt too much to move.

“I’ve got one bullet left, Ashley. Say you love me or I put the bullet in your brain. I’ll do it from the side so I can still see your eyes. Watch as the life and the light die in them. The blood on your forehead isn’t anywhere near as pretty as your hair. I want to wash the blood off so I can see your pretty face properly when you say the words. Say you love me when I come back, tell me, show me. I’ll get you a better ring than this.”

Ashley tried to focus on what Michael was showing her but her vision swam. It had to be her engagement ring, the ring Alex had given her – when? An hour ago? Two? Ten?

She heard something small hit the wall, the same wall she knew was now riddled with bullets, and heard it bounce across the floor. She’d find her ring, put her ring back on her finger, if Michael would just get off her.

“I’m going to make you pretty so you can say you love me. Don’t go anywhere.” Michael brushed a kiss over her lips and Ashley almost threw up. She felt the weight on her body ease, felt a breeze on her flesh – dear God, was she naked? What had she done? What had he done to her? She hadn’t been so drunk she’d have betrayed Alex, would she? A tear escaped as she felt around for her ring. Her hand found something cold, something metal. She gripped it with her left hand and tried to lift the object so she could see. She realized it was Michael’s gun, Terror quickened her pulse and her hands shook. She almost dropped the gun but then she remembered – one more bullet. The next shot would kill her. Ashley forced herself to sit up, holding the gun out in front of her like she’d seen in the movies, tried to aim at the wall. Her vision grayed and she saw double again. She saw two dark shapes moving – towards her? Away? She pointed the gun at the wall between the shapes and fired. Her eardrums throbbed from the sound, her arms jerked, and the gun dropped to the floor. So did the dark shape.

“Michael?” Ashley whispered his name when she heard a faint groan. “Michael?”

Ashley forced herself to roll over, got to her knees, her arms felt weak as they shook supporting her upper body weight. Every inch of her screamed in agony, she almost blacked out again. She blinked but her vision wouldn’t clear. She tried to stand but couldn’t. “Michael?”

She began to crawl on her hands and knees. Her hands were wet, her knees slid. Blood, she could smell the metallic scent, could feel herself slipping in it.

“Michael!” She tried to scream as her jaw felt like it ripped apart.

She was beside him now, feeling for his pulse but she couldn’t find one because her hand shook. She ran her hands over his body, down his bare chest to the jeans opened at the fly. His phone was clipped to his waistband. She freed it, tried to see to dial. She kept messing up. She willed herself to ignore the pain, pressed the home button to activate Siri.

“Call 9-1-1!” Ashley thanked God when the phone began to ring.

“9-1-1 what’s your emergency?”

“Ambulance. Gun. Help.” Ashley struggled to speak into the phone as Michael’s hand reached for her. She managed to tell the operator her address before she collapsed on top of Michael, sobbing.

“Don’t die, please don’t die.” Ashley’s tears burned her skin, the vomit she’d avoided spewing now came up, narrowly missing Michael’s body. The smell of the vomit mixing with the blood released more vomit, until all she could smell was her own fluids. “I don’t want to be the reason you die.”

“You do love me –” Michael whispered, his hands wrapping around Ashley as she heaved again.