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.

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