Chapter Eight

Grateful she’d left her purse and keys in her car, Ashley peeled rubber as she screeched down the long drive and through the gates that were still open, onto the street. She turned to go home but changed her mind. Ashley was sure her parents would head straight to her condo and she couldn’t face them yet. Her heart was racing, her mind whirling faster than the tires on her Volkswagen. Her anger fueled her and she squealed her tires turning a corner, then another, no idea where she was going. The quiet neighborhood she’d grown up in, where her parents and her grandparents had estates in, was a distant blur of holiday lights in her rearview mirror. Snow had begun to fall, and Ashley cranked the dial for the heater, cursing that she’d forgotten her coat at her grandparent’s house.

Driving into the downtown core, she slowed her speed. She didn’t want a ticket tonight, to read headlines tomorrow screaming that Ashley Gallagher had been driving like a maniac on Christmas night. She pulled into the lot behind the shelter, surprised at where she was. With no coat, she sat in the driver’s seat, trying to decide why she was there.

There was a tap on the driver’s window and Ashley jumped. Looking out into the snowy darkness, the face that peered back at her made her stomach jump. Pressing the button to lower the window, she fixed a smile on her face. “Hello, Henry.”

“What are you doing here? Did you forget somethin’?” He brushed snow from his shoulders.

“No, I was just driving around –” Ashley trailed off, not knowing what to say. Why would she, an obviously privileged person, be sitting outside a homeless shelter in a part of the city known for higher crime rates? And wearing expensive jewelry, driving a nice car? She had showered and changed before going to a late dinner at her grandparents, she no longer looked like the woman who had cooked for hundreds that afternoon.

“You should turn around, go home,” Henry muttered.

“I should. Want to get a cup of coffee?” Ashley grinned at the way his eyebrows, still dark unlike his beard, shot up.

Henry came around to the passenger side and got in. “Nothing’s open, it’s Christmas, remember?”

Ashley closed her window with a frown, turning in her seat to face Henry. “Any ideas?”

“Not a one.” Henry stared at her, a curious expression visible by the bright parking lot lights.

Ashley unbuckled her seatbelt, turning her whole body towards him. His clothes were well worn, but the hat and mitts he’d gotten for Christmas at the shelter looked as new and clean as they had when he’d taken the wrap off them earlier. “Where do you sleep?”

“There.” Henry pointed at a dark corner of the lot by the back door of the shelter.

Ashley wondered what to say. ‘Nice’ seemed ridiculous. “Do you ever sleep in the shelter?”

“Nah, but I’m new here. Might when I get to know some people.” Henry didn’t look at her, and Ashley wondered what she could ask without appearing rude.

“New to the streets?”

“Nah, new to this area. My other shelter got too crowded, and I heard about the spread being put on here –” Henry trailed off, still looking out the dash window.

“Oh,” Ashley felt ridiculous at her inability to carry a conversation.

“Yep, might not hang for long, too many people,” Henry muttered, scowling at the other areas in the lot where men and women were probably sleeping.

“You don’t like people?”

“Some.” Henry shrugged. “Some of these homeless bums are crazy, and it’s the crazy ones you gotta worry about.”

“Yeah, no kidding, but I think the ones that let you know they’re crazy aren’t half as bad as the ones who pretend to be normal.” Ashley thought of Michael Jr., shivering slightly.

“You clean up pretty good.” Henry peered at her finally. “Rich.”

A split-second of worry flashed – was Henry going to rob her? – and it passed. Henry seemed like a good guy, even if he found living in a box preferable to a room or bed in a shelter. “Thanks.”

“You are rich?”

“I do alright,” Ashley winced and hedged.

“Bling like that could buy me dinner for a year,” Henry remarked casually, pointing at the ring on her right hand, an antique that had belonged to her mother’s grandmother.

“You want it?” Ashley asked, twisting it off her finger. If he was threatening to rob her, she’d save him the trouble and give it to him. She put the ruby and diamond ring on her palm, held her hand out.

Henry looked at it for a long moment, then shook his head. He turned back to look out the window and began fingering the chest pocket on his ratty coat. If she didn’t instinctively trust Henry, she might have thought he had a weapon, but decided he must have some treasure of his own hidden in it and was just reassuring himself it was still there. “You’d really give that to me?”

“Sure. It was my grandmother’s, and it was my grandmother’s mother’s, but all it does for me is look pretty. If it would buy you dinner for a year, then I’d say it would do more for you than for me.”

Henry looked back at her, his beard twitching. “I think you might be one of those crazies you were talkin’ about.”

Ashley grinned, feeling herself relax as she slipped the ring on her finger. “Depends who you ask.”

Henry’s blue eyes crinkled at the corners. “What’s your story?”

Ashley blinked as she tensed. “My story?”

“Well, earlier you said your name was Anne but then one of them rich girls called you Ash. I read ‘bout the spread today put on by rich folk, that’s why I moved here. You’re obviously one of them rich ‘uns. I wouldn’t expect no one to say you guys were crazy unless it’s crazy for all the work you did, all the money you spent, so what’s your story? Why might some say you’re crazy?”

Ashley relaxed again, curling up in her seat so that her right foot was tucked under her left thigh, her arms wrapped around her bent right leg. “People see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear, and make their minds up based on the pieces they felt mattered. Some might tell you I’m kind, others might not speak so kindly. Perspective. I’m sure you know what I mean – some think the homeless are drunks or criminals, others feel sorry for them.”

“Oh yeah? And what do you think, moneybags?”

Ashley wondered if there was a hint of malice? Sarcasm? in his tone, but he was facing her fully and seemed interested in her answer so she smiled. “I guess like anything, really. Some stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason and I’m sure there are individuals who fit the whole ‘degenerate’ definition, but I think on the whole there’s a story to be told by each one of them, and some stories might be similar, but none will be the exact same. I’m not so privileged that I can’t see how life could wear someone down so much that the streets were the only place left to go.”

Henry stared at her for a long time, so long that Ashley felt uncomfortable. Then his beard twitched, his eyes crinkled, and he barked out a laugh. “You really are one of them crazies, ain’t ya?”

Ashley shrugged, her attention caught by an old man rummaging in a rickety old shopping cart. “I wish I had some of the leftovers, that guy looks hungry.”

The parking lot lights caught his sunken features in stark light when he kicked the cart.

“He wouldn’t take it, he’s still full up from all the stuff he rummaged outta the compost things your crew put up.”

Ashley put a hand to her mouth, her eyes filling with tears as she glanced at Henry. “Was he turned away from lunch for some reason?”

Henry snorted, shaking his head. “Idiot got drunker than a teenager tossed in a whisky vat. Woke up ‘bout seven, scented the compost, and feasted til he was full up. Fought off buncha raccoons and rats – setting up compost down here was kinda on the stupid side, you don’t mind me sayin’ – and now he’s sulkin’ cuz he done drank all the booze last night and ain’t no one fessin’ up they got some. That woman there?”

Ashley followed the direction Henry lifted his chin in and spotted a woman about the same age as Ashley, huddled in a blanket by the back door of the shelter. “What about her?”

Henry glanced at Ashley before looking back at the woman. “She’s got a mickey of rye she stole a few months ago. Quit drinkin’ the day she stole it, never opened the bottle. But she keeps it in her pocket, says so long as its there she don’t feel the need to drink it. If ol’ Ray there knew, he’d fight Mary for it. He took it? She’d be lost for days in every damned bottle she found, stole, begged, hooked for. Funny, huh? She’ll go on benders to drink her fill, then walk around forever more with a  bottle and never sip it.”

Ashley leaned her head against the seat, let her eyes drift closed. “The guy I bought this stupid car off of?”

“Volkswagen is a stupid car.”

Ashley’s eyes opened for a minute and she saw Henry watching her, his head nodding. “He’d just got the job at the dealership. He’d been a top seller at the Mercedes dealership for fifteen years, but his wife and daughter died in a car accident a couple of years back and he started drinking. Just a bit at first. I didn’t know him very well, but I’d been referred to him for years by family and friends. I never owned a Mercedes though, never bought a thing from him. Then his drinking got heavier, and Mercedes had to fire him because half of Rose—the neighbourhood his dealership was in – started complaining. People in the neighbourhood didn’t take kindly to his drinking, you know? Guess the rich prefer to drink socially, it’s more acceptable than swigging from a flask in your pocket. Anyhow, his son, the only person he had left, started struggling in school.” Ashley felt a pang in her heart, remembering how Liz had been so broken up over suspending the boy, how the father radiated pain she could feel every time she saw him. Liz had just been made principal, and her first disciplinary action as a new principal was to suspend a boy she wanted to hug more than punish.

“Hard on a kid, losing a mother. Guess he lost his father too, to drinkin’?” Henry’s voice was low, almost a whisper. Ashley nodded, opening her eyes to look into Henry’s.

“The boy missed his sister most of all – they were twins and best friends. After the accident, he’d had no one but his father, and then he was losing his father too. The boy, I think he’s twelve now, tried to kill himself. So the father found him, saved him, and quit drinking. Mercedes wouldn’t hire him back, but Volkswagen gave him a chance. I was going to buy a new car, was leaning to buy my first Mercedes. Then I heard the story, and I went to Volkswagen, and I bought this car. He told me until I bought this car, he wasn’t sure he’d still have a job because he hadn’t sold a single car since he’d started.”

“That was good of you.”

Ashley shook her head. “I’m not telling you to look good, I’m telling you because I think I understand that woman – Mary — there. When you’ve got what you need, you don’t think about it. When you don’t have something, it’s all you can think about and you drive yourself nuts trying to get it back. The salesman told me he’d been driving himself crazy trying to get his wife and daughter back, even knowing that was impossible, and almost lost his son in the process. He keeps a bottle of rum in his desk drawer, never opened it, but says so long as he has it, he doesn’t need to drink it. He keeps his son close, too – because he can’t get back his wife and daughter, can’t fix things for his son, but he can be the father his son needs.”

“And you’ll buy another Volkswagen, won’t ‘cha?” Henry’s whisper was so close Ashley felt the hair at her temple move.

“He works for GM now, since August, so I’ll have to figure out what I want there.” Ashley smiled, picturing herself driving a domestic car – and the way her grandmother would sniff if she picked out anything beneath a Cadillac.

“You buy a new car every year?” Henry’s tone had Ashley’s eyes popping open. She saw incredulity and disdain warring on his face.

“Only if I hear he’s not selling anything. I hate this Volkswagen, anyhow. I opted for a standard transmission because it cost more and he works on commission, but sure would be nice to drive a car that didn’t roll when you fall asleep and forget to set the parking brake.”

“You look about to fall asleep now – did you set the brake?”

Ashley nodded her head, her cheek rubbing on the leather seat.

“You had a long day. You’ll be safe here.”

Ashley nodded her head again, feeling herself floating. She dreamt she bought a car, sight unseen, from the salesman who needed her most. He promised her it was the best wheels money could buy and that she’d love it. She went with Henry to the dealership in Scarborough to pick up her new car and the salesman handed her the keys to a motorized wheelchair. Henry laughed until he wheezed, tears streaming down his face and disappearing in his beard, his electric blue eyes glowing with mirth. Ashley didn’t understand why she needed the wheelchair when all she’d wanted was a car. Henry told her she didn’t deserve to drive when the Golden Boy could only roll. Ashley started to cry, her head began to pound. People gathered around her in the parking lot of the dealership, pointing and laughing and shouting how she didn’t deserve such a good set of wheels. When she looked back at the chair she’d been sold, it was the same one she’d been wheeled out of the hospital in, the one they’d forced her to sit in until her father pulled up to take her home. She’d complained then about how she was fine, she could walk out, and she’d heard the nurse pushing her chair say ‘Trust me, we all know you can walk. Don’t complain about this short ride when the man you put in his chair will never have a choice.’ The nurse stepped forward out of the crowd now, her eyes flashing with malice. ‘You ain’t got a choice now, bitch.’

Ashley straightened in the driver’s seat, her heart pounding. She didn’t know where she was at first and her terror increased. Her eyes scanned the snowy parking lot beyond, trying to focus on the shadows – she’d heard Michael’s maniacal laugh and that’s what had woken her.

“Michael?” Ashley whispered, turning in the seat and realizing she was alone. Her neck was sore, and she put a hand to massage the kink. She remembered Henry – hadn’t the homeless man been sitting with her? She peered out into the inky darkness, seeing only what the parking lot lights allowed her to see. She wondered where Henry had gone.

She shook her head, cleared the remnants of the quickly fading dream away. She put her hand up to wave good-bye in the direction of the corner Henry had gestured to earlier. Even though she couldn’t see him, she was sure Henry was out there, watching her, watching out for her.

Chapter Seven

Dinner at her grandparents felt never-ending. Ashley was exhausted, and tired of the steady stream of complaints Nan made throughout their meal. The turkey was moist, the potatoes had no lumps, the gravy was like satin, but Nan said the salad was wilted, the turnips cold, and the ham overcooked. With each complaint, her eyes rested on Ashley, leaving no doubt that it wasn’t the cook she blamed.

“How were the vagrants?” Agatha Gallagher asked when the dinner dishes had been cleared and a steady stream of pies, cakes and cookies appeared.

“They seemed happy.” Ashley smiled tightly, rubbing her temples.

“Why shouldn’t they be? A roof over their heads, food in their bellies, and they don’t have to do a damned thing but show up at the door to eat.”

“Nan.” Ashley sighed, wishing her grandmother would find something else to complain about.

“Did a single one say thank-you?”

Ashley thought of Henry. He hadn’t thanked her, not really, but she’d felt his appreciation. “Yes, Nan.”

“Harumph.” Agatha scowled.

“Mom, did you say you were going away in the New Year?” Sarah Gallagher asked her mother-in-law in a cheery tone.

“Yes, to Italy. Going to the Vatican, and maybe squeeze in a little shopping.” Agatha’s expression changed from annoyed to thrilled.

Ashley wanted to laugh. Agatha didn’t give two hoots about the Pope, the Vatican, or anything in Rome but the shopping. She’d bet her car that her grandmother would spend an hour in Rome then hop on a train or plane to get to Milan before sunset.

“You must be excited.”

“She can’t wait to spend your inheritance.” Thomas Gallagher, Ashley’s grandfather, boomed out a laugh. “Got a list a mile long of things she needs.”

“Oh, stop.” Agatha glared at her husband, but there was a twinkle in her blue eyes.

“I wish Patrick would take me to Italy.” Sarah mock sighed, winking at her husband.

“Italy now? Last week you said you’d just die if you didn’t get to France.” Patrick teased his wife and glanced over at Ashley. “I suggested she take you, you’d be a far more exciting shopping companion, but your mother insisted we call it a second honeymoon.”

“Second honeymoon? More like tenth,” Agatha muttered. “Wasn’t your trip to Ireland a few years ago your second? And that trip to Spain your third?”

“All right, Ma, we get your point. It’s not like you aren’t collecting your own frequent flyer miles. You were in Greece last year, weren’t you?” Patrick asked, as though to point out that she wasn’t exactly thrifty either.

“Your father earned his money, and we’ll see fit to how we spend it.” Agatha’s tone was stern, her eyes narrowed at her son.

“Oh, unlike me, you mean? The man who caused Gallagher’s to close? Is that what you mean? That I’m a playboy that jet sets, spending money faster than he can make it?” Patrick’s face was turning as red as his hair.

“That’s not what your mother said, nor what she meant.” Thomas’s voice was soothing, but he gave his wife a look Ashley could only describe as warning. Her heart swelled with love, her grandfather was always the peacemaker unless he had to remind his wife to mind her manners.

“It is, it’s always what she means.” Patrick stood up, throwing his napkin on his plate. Storming off down the hall, Ashley winced when the library door slammed.

“I’ll go after him.” Thomas looked at his pie with longing before retreating in the direction his son had gone. 

“He’s so sensitive.” Agatha gave a martyred sigh, picking up a china cup and sipping her tea.

“Well, Mom, you did –” Sarah faltered as Agatha pierced her with a look that could frost roses.

“Look, he’s sensitive about things. We all know what happened with Gallagher’s was bound to happen, what with the economy and the way the world is now. No one cares if they own something made in Canada, something to be passed down to the next generation. Everyone wants new, and they want it for less.”

Ashley let her mind wander. She’d heard this conversation most of her life. She’d been a teenager when Gallagher’s had closed the last of their stores. Her family had spiraled until Ashley’s own scandal had almost finished off her parent’s marriage. Sarah had supported her husband, but Patrick had felt like the failure no matter what Sarah said. He’d done everything in his power to keep Gallagher’s going, only to realize his blood, sweat, and tears hadn’t been a drop in the bucket. Ashley had watched her father become immersed in guilt and grief, inevitably ending up in a severe depression. She’d hated her grandmother on many occasions – Agatha had little time or patience for something as uncontrollable as depression — and had added to the guilt with digs that under her son’s tutelage, the iconic Gallagher’s was little more than a memory. Made jokes that if the Gallagher trust funds set up when Gallagher’s was booming ran out, Sarah’s fortune would keep Patrick and Ashley living the life of Riley, never having to work a day in their lives. Then the scandal that Ashley never imagined but that she had caused had pulled her father out of his depression where he’d started swinging, fighting with everything in him for his daughter – her name, her sanity, her will to live. With fewer and fewer reminders of that horrible time, Ashley worried her father was sinking back into his depression, and tonight’s explosion brought the worries to the forefront, pounding in her head and heart. What if Char was right – in a few months some reporter was going to do a horrible “Five Years Later” exposé, her father would be in the spotlight all over again, and he’d have to choose between feeling a failure, and fighting the masses to remind the world that Ashley was guilty of nothing more than self-defence.

“Ashley, Ashley,” Sarah called from her spot at the table, waving a hand to get Ashley’s attention.

Blinking, she looked up at her mother. Sarah’s eyes held concern. “Sorry. Yes?”

“Your grandmother was talking to you.”

“Oh, sorry. Yes, Nan?” Ashley lifted the corners of her mouth and hoped it would pass for a smile. Her exhaustion increased tenfold with the emotional weight of her thoughts.

“I said, did you hear about Michael?” Nan’s cool blue eyes scrutinized her.

Ashley felt that familiar shudder whenever Michael’s name was mentioned. “No, what about him?”

“There was an article in the paper yesterday. Did you know he’s learning to walk again?” Agatha’s tone was so light she might simply have brought up the topic of new income tax cuts.

“Really?” Ashley tried to inject some interest in the conversation, but her mind was whirling. One of the things Michael’s lawyer and publicity team had used to sway public sympathy was how Michael, then twenty-eight, would never walk again. The ploy had worked. So what if Ashley was going to suffer with debilitating headaches for the rest of her life from the blows to her head, live with a stiffness in her neck and back from the handle of the gun slamming into her spine over and over had caused? She could walk, but poor Michael. Broken-hearted Michael — “Sorry, what was that Nan?”

“I asked if you’ve seen Alex lately?”

Ashley blinked and shook her head slowly. Why was her grandmother dredging up the past, the names that were sure to hurt, on Christmas night? Alex. Ashley winced as she thought of the only man she’d ever loved. Michael had been her friend, but when he’d started pressuring her to date, she’d shied away – and met Alex. Alex, who’s family owned a grocery store empire, had sympathized with the demise of Gallagher’s, the only person she thought could truly understand what the bankruptcy of the company had meant to the family. Handsome, sweet, gentle, and kind, Alex had been her Prince Charming. Until she’d shot Michael. He’d sworn he believed her when she said Michael had attacked her, swore he didn’t blame her for the horrible accident (when she’d meant to fire the gun to empty the chamber and accidentally shot Michael in the back, paralyzing him, just so that he couldn’t shoot her first), but he hadn’t been able to handle the public scrutiny, the mutiny of the masses.

“I haven’t seen Alex in a couple of years.” Ashley felt sadness replace the fear Michael’s name had induced. She closed her eyes against the memory of the day Alex had ended their relationship, the look of regret mixed with pity as he’d broken her heart. The headache that had put her to bed for two straight weeks when she’d ventured to a fundraiser Char put on two years ago, two years after the last time she’d seen Alex, and Alex had been there with his parents. Too polite to ignore her, they’d made casual small talk while each searched for a means to escape, and the headache gripped her so violently she’d made no excuse at all, simply left the building without telling anyone.

“He’s getting married. I read that in the article also.” Agatha’s eagle eyes were pinned on Ashley’s face, so Ashley tried to feign benign interest.

“Oh, that’s nice. I’m glad he finally found someone.”

“Come off it, little girl. Where’s your backbone? Where’s your spine? You should be pissed, let off some steam. Your father, too. His little explosion was good, healthy — but you just sit there saying ‘how nice’, when I can see smoke billowing out beneath that red hair of yours.” Agatha banged the table with her fist for added emphasis. “Scream!”

Ashley shook her head and got shakily to her feet. “I’m too tired to scream, Nan. Besides, it might start a headache.”

“Enough of that nonsense. Shout, yell, cry. Poor Michael, you should see the pictures. Learning to walk all over again, like a little child. He works through the pain, grits his teeth, and keeps on trying no matter how hard it is. But you won’t release your control because it might hurt your head?”

Ashley looked to her mother for help, but Sarah was staring at Agatha, her mouth hanging open in horror.

“Isn’t it nice, Alex is moving on? Going to have a nice, lovely little life. With a lovely, quiet, normal girl. Her parents own a successful solar and wind power company. After the publicity while dating you, isn’t it sweet that he will finally have the perfect life he wanted? How positively smashing for him.”

“What do you want me to say, Nan? Do you want me to say that Michael doesn’t deserve to walk, that I wished he’d died? At the time, in that moment after the gun went off and I saw he was breathing, I thanked God, because even then, I hadn’t wanted my friend dead.” Ashley swiped angrily at her tears, glaring at her grandmother. “I don’t know what happened to Michael the night he attacked me, he was not the man I knew — but I didn’t want him to die. I didn’t want him to be dead because of me. And I cried, wept, thanked God over and over as I saw two Michael’s lying there. That’s how I shot him, you know – I was seeing double, and thought I was aiming at the wall, but it was his back. Yes, lovely, I shot a man in the back –”

Ashley was sobbing now, and her grandmother watched her with polite interest – but for a gleam in her eye. “And I told him, over and over, I was sorry, and he said he was sorry, and we lay there, until the paramedics came, until the police came. I had a concussion, I was in the hospital for weeks, and next thing you know, I’m a monster. Everyone but my closest friends and family turned on me, saying I was horrible. That I was a whore, a slut. That I led Michael on, was having an affair on Alex, and Michael had hurt me in a jealous rage because I dared to announce I was marrying another man. I had no idea how Michael felt, had no idea that my marrying Alex would break him. I was afraid of him, but I never told anyone. How silly — wonderful Michael Golden Sr.’s son, a threat? How laughable!”

“It’s okay, Ashley, it’s okay,” Sarah cooed, wrapping her arms around Ashley where she stood, shouting at Agatha, still sitting in her seat. “Enough! Agatha, stop this!”

“Leave her be, Sarah.” Agatha’s calm tone stopped Ashley’s sobs.

Ashley whirled to face her grandmother, her body shaking with rage. “You — always making Dad feel like he failed. Always making me feel like the scandal I brought to the Gallagher’s was far worse than what actually happened to me. You sit there, judging us, blaming us –”

Patrick stood beside Ashley, supporting her as Sarah supported her from the other side, and Ashley paused to look up at him, bursting with a fierce love. “Nan, Gallagher’s was no one’s fault, no one’s, but the slide started long before Dad took the reins. Yet you blame him. And you sit there, feeling sorry for Michael, bitter that I didn’t marry Alex after all – the feather in your cap – the heir of the Bagley family fortune – and you don’t care about the nightmares, the pain, the guilt and the misery I live in. You only care that I shamed you — that I hurt someone this city idolizes even though they have no idea of the monster behind those dimples, that I wasn’t able to hold on to Alex. Maybe I should have died that night. Maybe I shouldn’t have shot off that final bullet, the one I know Michael wanted to put in my head, should have let him. Then you could’ve been the grieving grandmother, and there would’ve been no shame for you –” Ashley whirled, smashing into the chair so hard it fell back and clattered on the hardwood floor. Pushed past her parents, flew down the marble hallway to the front door. The shouting, the crashing of dishes and furniture were cut off immediately by the echoing slam of the heavy oak doors as Ashley tore off into the night.

Chapter Six

December 25th

Ashley couldn’t stop the smile lighting her face as she waited in the too-warm kitchen for the last seven turkeys to finish cooking. Her arms ached from mashing hundreds of pounds of potatoes, peeling carrots, and stuffing more than half of the fifty birds they’d provided, yet she was happier than she could remember being in a very long time. The rest of the Society were out front ladling gravy over plates of food fit for a king and keeping the nosy media away from her domain. The shelter employees and regular volunteers had kept up with the dishwashing, taking the compost to the bins Suze had provided, and stirring whatever Ashley needed a hand with.

Ashley’s heart filled with pride as she wiped her hands on her apron, seeing the success of the day written on the glowing faces of her helpers. She sat on the rickety chair someone had scrounged up for her when they realized Ashley had no intention of taking a proper break. She’d been there since just after four, prepping and cooking ahead of schedule with Char, and knew she’d sleep well that night.

The rented ovens, now clean and shiny after hard use, were waiting for pick-up the day after Boxing Day. The brand-new, top-of-the-line, professional standard oven Char had purchased and donated as her own personal contribution, stood proudly in the middle of the kitchen and made the decent old ones look shabby.

“You have the energy of ten women.” Clarisse, the shelter director, looked at her with amazement. “I’m exhausted, and I’ve hardly done anything.”

“Don’t say peeling carrots and baking rolls along with everything else you’ve been doing is doing nothing.” Ashley laughed, grabbing a bottle of water from the counter beside her and drinking deeply. “I’m not going to be able to eat a bite at my grandparents later. If I ever see another turkey it will be decades too soon.”

“I hear you. Last year I oversaw the potatoes, and I haven’t eaten one since. Not even a French fry.” Clarisse made a face at the leftover potatoes waiting to be mashed. “Next year I think we’ll serve salad instead of potatoes.”

Laughing, Ashley glanced up as Char swung through the doors, looking her usual exotic self. She wore a peasant blouse and jeans, her long black hair tied up high on her head in an intricate braid. Anyone else would look ridiculous, but Char made it work beautifully.

 “It’s going to be at least ten more minutes until these last turkeys are done.” Ashley checked the electronic thermometers they’d bought to make sure the turkeys reached proper internal temperature. “I just basted them.”

“The crowd is dwindling. Might not need them. We definitely didn’t need the biggest birds we could find,” Char sighed, leaning against the counter. “Media’s gone if you want to come out.”

 “I’ll come out after the turkeys are done,” Ashley promised, even though she was hoping to wait longer, face even fewer people.

“At last count we’ve served three hundred and seventeen people. I know we’ve run over our time, but it was worth it.” Char looked to Clarisse for approval. “If no one else lines up, you’ll be able to serve a ton of sandwiches and casseroles for the next several days.”

“The freezers were getting low, so we’ll freeze a bunch of the meat for mid-winter sandwiches or soups. I can’t thank you or the Society enough, Char,” Clarisse said, her tone awed and full of sincerity. “Most years we’re lucky if we have anyone but staff to serve, and the most we can give is one piece of turkey. You and your friends not only offered the best meal these people have had all year, you raised enough money that we’ll be able to feed them for most of next year.”

“That was the plan.” Char’s smile lit her face and her eyes sparkled.

Raised voices penetrated the happy glow. Everyone in the kitchen stiffened as Char rolled her eyes and headed for the door. Ashley considered following until she recognized the voices. Sophie, screaming at someone about gravy drops on her shoe. Suze’s sniffling shrieks of apology followed.

“You go on out, sit and mingle with the folks finishing up.” Clarisse rolled her shoulders as the first thermometer dinged it had reached desired temperature

“No, it’s okay. I’ll get that turkey out, check the others.” Ashley finished her bottle of water and tossed the empty into the blue bin.

“You ‘fraid of the homeless?” Roger, a beefy dark-skinned man, asked with a frown.

“No, why would you say that?” Ashley felt her eyebrows shoot up.

“You ain’t been out there once. Your friends all took turns eatin’ a plate with the rest of ‘em, but you ain’t bothered to stick your head out the door.” Roger narrowed his chocolate eyes at her, and Ashley felt like she’d been assessed and found lacking.

“Oh, well, I –” Ashley took a deep breath, willing herself to calm down. She didn’t need to explain her terror of the media. “I was put in charge of the cooking, and I take my duties seriously.”

“Or just don’t want to get dirty.” Roger grumbled, his eyes full of disbelief.

“Roger!” Clarisse, hands on her narrow hips, stood tall and sounded horrified. “That’s enough!”

“Well, wasn’t so long ago I was out there, gettin’ my free food, and you’d be surprised how many volunteers were scared to join us.” Roger licked his large pink lips as he concentrated on mashing the last pot of cooked potatoes.

“I don’t feel that way.” Ashley spoke just above a whisper. “I have my reasons for staying behind closed doors, and not one of them has to do with prejudice.”

“Ah, media. Pretty thing like you is camera shy?” Roger’s whole face lit with a wide grin. “I noticed when they came back here to take pictures you disappeared outside.”

“Something like that.” Ashley put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “I just don’t like the spotlight.”

“Cameras all gone now.” Roger winked. “Me and Clarisse’ll take care of the rest of the food, you go on out there.”

Ashley had no choice. She pulled her apron off and jammed it in the hamper with the rest of the days dirty laundry. Fingers crossed there were no lingering reporters out front, she pulled the sleeves of her red shirt down and squared her shoulders, stiffened her spine, and smiled at Roger before pushing through the doors. She scanned the huge cafeteria, sighed her relief when she saw only the volunteers and a few homeless eating their dinners. The tree Sophie’s company donated stood in the corner, and Ashley noticed there were very few wrapped gifts remaining beneath the boughs decorated by a local daycare centre. All holidays were represented in the ornaments and decorations hung around the cafeteria.

“Take this and eat.” Char shoved a compostable plate in her hands. Ashley glared at the food – her hours in the kitchen had her stomach rebelling at the thought of eating – but she nodded and went over to a grubby man eating alone.

“Merry Christmas. Is it okay if I join you?” Ashley stood across the table from him, waiting for a response. The man shoved potato on his fork with his thumb before he finally nodded. He ate with gusto which pleased her. “Any good?”

Again, he nodded, but he never looked at her. Ashley took a tentative bite, decided she could manage a few more. Sophie and Liz bickered behind her over who would do what in the clean-up, and she grinned. One of the perks to sweating it out in the kitchen since early morning was that she was relieved automatically of clean up duty.

“You gonna eat that?” The man pointed a dirty finger at the bun Ashley had moved to the side so it didn’t get soggy with gravy. The bun was the only thing that didn’t turn her stomach (because she’d had nothing to do with baking them), but she shook her head and offered it to him.

“Would you care for another plate?” Ashley asked, looking down at the one he had scraped clean already.

“Nope, but the buns sure are tasty.” He winked, looking straight at her. Ashley had a vague feeling of familiarity, but his unusual blue eyes were unforgettable. Perhaps she’d seen him when she’d hid outside from the press? He had a grey beard, was greying at the temples, but for some reason she thought he looked years younger than the fifty or sixty she’d originally pegged him for. Did living on the streets age you beyond your years? 

“How was the turkey?” Ashley asked, frowning when the man gave the thumbs down. “Really?”

The man laughed then pounded his chest as he started to wheeze. He fidgeted with his pockets, and she thought he was looking for a handkerchief. She was about to call for help when he picked up one of Suze’s printed environment handouts and wiped his mouth with it. “Gotcha. You’re the one that cooked all this up, ain’t ya?”

Ashley grinned and nodded. “I was part of the cooking crew, yes.”

“Pretty good grub, not McDonald’s or nothin’, but not half bad.” Ashley laughed when he winked again.

The man eyed the slice of pumpkin pie and snatched the plate away before she could change her mind. “I remember my mother saying stuff like that. Spend the day in the kitchen making a huge dinner, and even though she never sampled nothin’, she was still stuffed by the time it was on the table.”

Ashley felt a wave of melancholy wash over her. Growing up as a Gallagher meant they’d dined on incredible dinners prepared by their cook Louise, a heavy-set woman who’d been there all of Ashley’s life and still worked for her parents. Her mother baked often, said it was therapeutic, but swore she was a natural at burning water. Every day, meals magically appeared on the diining room table at dinner time, all photo-worthy creations by Louise. Ashley had spent half her childhood following Louise around the kitchen, learning how to cook and enjoying the work, even though Ashley’s grandmother felt she shouldn’t be allowed.

“Thanks, I think.” Ashley shook her head at his teasing, pushing her plate away. “I’m stuffed.  I swear, working back there I must have consumed half of what I cooked through my pores. Do you want my pie? The bakery that donated the pies is amazing but I just can’t eat anything else.”

“That sounds wonderful.” Ashley admitted before frowning at her own wistful tone.

“It was.” The man’s blue eyes seemed to fill with sadness as he nodded. “Hard sometimes to remember, you know?”

Ashley thought she might, so she nodded. She wanted to ask him if his mother was gone, what had happened to him that he was there, eating Christmas dinner in a shelter and not with a family he loved, who loved him. But she bit her tongue. Questions like that were rude and intrusive, and none of her business anyway. She’d made the mistake of getting involved and asking Jennifer last month, she wasn’t about to repeat the error.

“I’ll get us some coffee.” Ashley didn’t wait for a reply. She hurried to Liz who was manning the beverage station.

“Making friends? I can’t believe you were allowed out of the kitchen.” Liz’s sleek hair shone beneath the fluorescent lighting.

“Char put her whip away, said I’d earned a break.” Ashley laughed, putting cream in her coffee.

“I’d say. You’ve got potato in your hair.” Liz chuckled as Ashley felt her hair that was escaping the hairnet she’d forgotten she had on.

“Great.” Ashley felt her cheeks warm. “How did I get food in my hair with a net on?”

“No idea, but if anyone can manage it, it’s you.”

Ashley picked up the cups and went back to her companion.  Setting hers down, she held his. “I wasn’t sure what you took in yours.”

“Black.” He shoveled a forkful of pie, his tone gruff. Ashley handed him the steaming cup.

“What’s your name?” Ashley asked, sitting back on the bench at her side of the table.

He hesitated at the question, shifting in his seat. He picked up his coffee, sipped, and set the cup down. “Henry.”

Ashley didn’t know why, but she didn’t think he was telling the truth. Maybe it was because he didn’t look like a Henry, or maybe it was because those strange blue eyes didn’t meet hers as he fidgeted, but either way, Ashley would have bet her trust fund Henry wasn’t his given name.

“I’m Anne.” Ashley held out her hand, her eyes open wide.

The man’s eyes fixed on hers for a second, and she knew he’d pegged her a liar, too. Good, so he’d know he hadn’t fooled her. His brow wrinkled in disbelief as he stuck out his hand to shake hers. “Nice to meet you, Anne.”

She pulled her hand away the instant she deemed they’d touched long enough. She resisted the shiver that ran down her spine as she put her tingling hand in her lap.

“Ash!” Ashley spun in her seat to see Suze waving frantically as she hurried over.

“What’s up?” Ashley half hoped the kitchen was on fire and they needed her to put the flames out, the other part of her hoped there was nothing wrong so she could chat longer with Henry.

“Clarisse told me to tell you that the food is cooked and they’re going to put everything away in the freezers. They don’t need you anymore.”

“If they’re sure – I don’t mind helping them prep the leftovers.” Ashley crossed her fingers in her lap, still not sure what she was hoping for.

“Clarisse said you did the work of ten today, and she wasn’t going to risk slave labor charges by letting you do anything else.” Suze went back into the kitchen and Ashley shifted on the bench, nerves fluttering in her belly as she fixed a smile to her face. Her smile dropped. Henry was gone.

Chapter Five

Ashley parked in her spot and climbed out, surprised but pleased the headache twinging all afternoon had never fully formed. In fact, she wasn’t even as upset over Char’s bombshell as she thought she should be. Shock was the only explanation she could come up with. As she stepped into the elevator, a man’s voice shouted.

“Hold it, please.”

Ashley automatically pressed the button to hold the doors and waited until the owner of the voice hopped in. She pressed the button for her floor and smiled politely while she waited for him to do the same. Her smile fizzled when she recognized him – the man who’d almost hit her the other night.

“We meet again.” He smiled but his green eyes remained cold. Ashley tried to look away, but the magnetic pull of them kept her gaze focused on his. The man reached around her to press a button on the panel.

“I’m sorry about the other night,” Ashley mumbled, heat pinkening her cheeks. She lowered her gaze then looked back at him, her eyes narrowing. “That was you, lurking in the hallway at the mall.”

“You get headaches, yeah, I know.” He stared at the panel above the doors, the one that showed what floor they were passing. “I wasn’t lurking, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Was that drug money you dropped in that woman’s bag?”

Ashley squared her shoulders, her eyes narrowing at him. “Yes, I do get headaches. And no, that was not drug money. She’s a single mother. Rather than embarrass her by offering a bit of help –”

Ashley stopped talking when she realized the man wasn’t looking at her, probably wasn’t even listening. “None of your damned business.”

He glanced at her before returning his attention to the numbers lighting up. Why on earth had she tried to explain herself to someone who wouldn’t listen? She’d figured out almost five years ago that people make up their own minds regardless of what you tell them, and this guy was no different. He’d decided she was either a drunk, a druggie, or a ditz that couldn’t park her car, and he’d decided she must have ulterior motives for putting cash in a single mother’s bottle bag. This green-eyed monster man was obviously just another opinionated jerk with vision clouded by prejudice.

“Better now?” The man broke the silence, his tone not quite friendly, but no longer cold enough to frost the glass of the mirrors lining the elevator. “Your head. Better?”

“Today, yes.” Ashley shrugged her shoulders, wondering if she should cut him some slack for asking.

“Oh, you get them often?” He sounded curious but not sympathetic.

“Mm.” Ashley didn’t care to get involved in a conversation that would inevitably end with him asking her what caused them. She didn’t think replying, ‘being hit repeatedly in the temple, neck and skull with a pistol’ made for comfortable conversation, and she was sure if she did actually say that one day, the light would go on in the person’s eyes, and they would back away as though fearing Ashley would suddenly pull a gun on them and shoot.

The doors slid open on her floor, and without another word, Ashley stalked off, her footsteps muffled on the thick carpet lining the hall. She heard the faint whir of the elevator motor and was relieved the green-eyed monster man was gone.

At her door, before she could slip the key in the lock, the hairs on the back of her neck rose and she whirled, looking down the hall, her heart racing. She was sure she’d heard something, just a whisper of someone moving, but the hallway was empty. The doors to all the other units were closed. There was a large, leafy tree standing between the two elevator doors, and she studied it for a moment, wondering why it caught her attention. Before she could step forward to investigate, her own door swung open, and her heart leapt with fear.

Ashley prepared to run as she glanced back at her door. Ashley groaned in relief when she saw her mother standing on the threshold looking down the hall as Ashley had been. “Oh, God, Mom! You just about gave me a heart attack!”

“What were you looking at?” Sarah Gallagher asked by way of greeting.

“I thought I heard something. You know me, always imagining the boogey man is lurking nearby.” Ashley laughed, entering her condo.

Sarah closed the door behind Ashley, and helped her shrug out of her coat. Ashley locked the door and slid the chain while Sarah hung the coat on the coat tree.

“You look nice.” Sarah smiled, hugging her.

“Thanks Mom, nothing special. Just running some errands with the girls.” Ashley followed the scent of banana bread to the kitchen.

“Hmph,” Sarah straightened her shoulders and sliced off a piece of bread for her daughter. She buttered the bread, placing it on a paper towel.

“What?” Ashley picked the bread up without the paper towel and bit into the still warm slice with a contented sigh. 

“I know what you’re doing — that dinner. I don’t approve.” Sarah stirred the contents of a large glass mixing bowl, and Ashley tried to determine if her mother was making a cake or muffins.

“Why? You don’t think the homeless deserve a decent Christmas dinner?” Ashley frowned, licking butter off her thumb.

“Oh, stop it, you know I believe in helping the less fortunate. Even if your grandmother — well, anyhow, you know I support that kind of thing, but I don’t support the danger you’re putting yourself in.”

“How am I putting myself in danger? There are going to be hundreds of people there, the media included, and it’s not like the homeless are going to attack me because the gravy is lumpy.” Ashley forced a laugh while battling the escalating thump in her head that the word media had provoked. Ashley even stuck her finger in the mixing bowl before Sarah could slap her hand, determined to appear nonchalant about her mother’s concern. She licked the batter but her mouth had gone dry and she doubted her mother was baking anything that resembled the sawdust she tasted.

“That’s what I’m talking about, Ashley. The media.” Sarah sniffed as she poured batter into muffin tins.

“I’m going to wear a disguise.” Ashley put her hand on her mother’s arm when she saw the mixing bowl was shaking.

“Your name was mentioned on the news last night.” Sarah stilled, her back rigid beneath a loose fitting green cardigan.

Ashley froze, felt her body stiffen. “What did they say?”

“Just that you and your ‘Society’ are planning a huge dinner for the homeless.” Sarah sighed, and Ashley relaxed. She already knew Char had put out memos to the media to drum up support for the shelter, that Sophie’s publicity company was already working out strategic ways to get their deed so big everyone was talking about it – and lining up to throw money at it.

“So?”

“Well, how long until the media realizes who you really are and dredges up the past?” Sarah slammed the bowl down, the wooden spoon she’d used to stir flying out and landing on the tile floor. Sarah snatched the piece of paper towel Ashley had left on the counter and stooped to pick up the spoon and wiped the drops of batter from the tile.

“They know who I am, but they don’t remind the public because they know they’d be hurting the shelter. I did have supporters, remember?  They’d be busy making the media look bad for tainting our good deeds.”

“Not if they put the right spin on it, Ashley. Not if they start by asking who’s feeding the ‘Golden Boy’ this Christmas?” Sarah turned anguished eyes the same green as Ashley’s on her. “We all know Michael Golden Jr is a son-of-a-bitch, but the city loves Michael Golden Sr, politician extraordinaire. And who is your father but a failure to our country?”

“Dad is not a failure to our country, Mom.” Ashley fumed, pacing her kitchen.

“I know he’s not, but that’s how the country sees him. His great grandfather got off a boat as a poor Irishman and built an empire that lasted generations, a jewel in Canada’s crown, and when the empire – albeit already crumbling – passed to your father and it failed, the country blamed him. The last of the Canadian heritage, they called it. Gone, bankrupt. Rather than blaming the American retailer that helped nail the coffin closed, they chose to blame your father, even your grandfather in part, for taking away something they were so proud of.” Sarah sniffed, putting the muffin tin in the oven.

“Then they shouldn’t have sold out, they should have still shopped at Gallagher’s. It’s not our fault that no one wants what lasts. They buy cheap, throw it away when it’s ‘old’, and buy another cheap piece of shit. It’s not our fault –” Ashley inhaled, forced her hands to relax from the fists they’d balled into. She stared out the kitchen window at the traffic below, the streetlights illuminating parked cars lining the street. She tore her gaze from a BMW she’d seen parked in front of a café several times and focused on her mother, blinking frustrated tears away. “Look, I know I was the one that finished off the reputation of our family, but I’ve been trying so hard to make up for it. If some reporter, some media outlet, tries to sully what we’ve been doing by dredging up the past, I’m fully prepared to show all the ways I’ve been trying to make it up to the country.”

“It’s not that easy, and you know it. Your good deeds are seen as paying for your sins, that you’re only doing it to make yourself look good. No one cares what’s in your heart, baby girl.” Sarah turned away, but not before Ashley saw the misery in her eyes.

Ashley rubbed her temples. She knew her mother was right. What would anyone care that the poor rich girl who paralyzed another member of ‘royalty’ did to atone for her sins? No one would believe she did it for the city she still loved, did it for those who weren’t born into money as she had been. They’d just see a woman who was trying to clean herself off from the muck and mire she’d been bogged in for years.

“Take those out in twenty minutes. I’m meeting your father for dinner.” Sarah patted Ashley’s cheek and grabbed her coat from the kitchen chair she’d draped it on, whirling out of the kitchen, satisfied she had made her point.

Chapter Four

By the time Ashley found a table in the packed food court, she’d decided the mystery man must be connected to Jennifer, maybe even Penny’s father. The familiarity was probably all in her head – the city was full of broad-shouldered, dark-haired men with great asses.

“Do you need this chair?” Ashley asked the two older women at the table next to the empty one she’d scored.

“No, dear.” They shook their heads in unison and Ashley smiled as she dragged it over to the table she’d claimed.

There were four chairs already, so she put her newly acquired chair in the middle of the table and settled in to wait. The drone of voices was louder in the food court, and Ashley massaged her temples in an attempt to keep the brewing migraine at bay. The scent of grease in the air turned her tummy and she closed her eyes for a few seconds, willing her nerves to settle. Today was important, no time for her to crumble.

“Ash, Ash!” Char floated into view from behind a group of women standing in the middle of the aisle, each pointing in a different direction at various food spots. Char settled at the seat on Ashley’s immediate right and groaned. “Haven’t even been here ten minutes and already I hate everyone.”

Ashley raised her eyebrows. “This was your idea.”

Char glared in her direction before scanning the crowd of people. “Shut up. I hate shopping at the best of times, but I swear, these cursed people start Christmas shopping too soon. You watch – Christmas shit will be out by August next year.”

Ashley decided Char had crossed the border from cranky to miserable before she’d even parked her car. Rather than poke the beast, she kept her mouth shut, resisting the urge to taunt Char about being in the wrong profession (marketing) if she hated shopping so much. “Are you hungry?”

Char didn’t get a chance to answer before Suze appeared, her cheeks pink from the cold (or was it rage at the blatant disregard for recycling stations versus garbage receptacles?). Ashley decided it was environmental when Suze glared at the men behind them wadding their cardboard and jamming the garbage into the plastic cups.

“Shut it.” Char must’ve seen Suze’s rant forming when Ashley had because she shot her a warning look and Suze sat down at the end of the table on Ashley’s left. “Where’re Liz and Sophie?”

“Sophie’s getting us coffee and Liz is running late.” Suze waved her hand, gesturing at the coffee stand. A second later, Sophie appeared empty handed.

“No coffee?” Char glared as Sophie pulled out the chair next to Char, across from Suze.

“They’re coming. I gave the kid an extra twenty bucks to serve us.” Sophie brushed her seat with a napkin before sitting and crossing her legs. As always, she looked rich, the only word Ashley could think of to describe her. Even dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, Sophie didn’t fit in with the mall crowd.

“You didn’t wear a coat?” Ashley shivered at the thought of the frigid wind outside. She still wore her coat and was comfortable.

“Nah, why bother? It’s in the trunk of the car.”

“But it’s bitter out!” Char frowned as she unbuttoned her own coat.

“So? I’m parked right outside the door.” Sophie shrugged as she used her index finger to direct the teenager doling out the cups he’d just brought.

Ashley moved her hand and smiled as he put a cup marked 2C (two cream) in front of her.

“You’re not in a handicapped spot are you?” Suze groaned and almost knocked the drink out of the young man’s hand as he tried to pass her the cup marked T (tea).

Char’s attempt at a smile when she was handed her cup (DD — double-double, code for two cream, two sugar) came across as menacing, and Ashley didn’t blame the kid for shaking as he set another cup (1M2SW/one milk, two sweetener) at the empty spot for Liz and seemed relieved as he set the final cup (M/Milk) in front of Sophie and raced away before anyone demanded anything else of him.

Sophie picked up her cup and blew into the hole before sipping and shuddering at the brew. “Of course I am. Why bother getting a handicapped sticker if you don’t use it at Christmas?”

Sophie rolled her eyes and Suze pursed her lips in disapproval. The usual argument about selfishly using handicapped spots meant for people who were disabled was pre-empted by Liz’s arrival.

“Sorry I’m late. I got stuck on the phone with the director. Parents are making noise about Christmas again,” Liz huffed, flopping in the only free spot. She grabbed her coffee and glared as she sipped. Ashley knew director was code for mother, and a long discussion with her mother would’ve put Liz in a foul mood.

“Oh, you mean the ‘holiday season’?” Char grumbled.

“Actually, no. I mean about Christmas. This year it’s a group of Christians protesting. Seems they’re tired of their children not being allowed to sing Christmas carols, discuss Santa, or have a Christmas tree to decorate.” Liz sighed, setting her  cup down.

“Good, it’s about time. I mean, I’m all for kids learning about Kwanza, Hanukah, and whatever else they learn about, why shouldn’t we teach other cultures about Christmas?” Char took a deep breath. Ashley caught Sophie’s eye and began to giggle at Sophie’s exaggerated eye roll.

“Okay, listen. I know your views, I even know Liz secretly agrees, but really, debating it again isn’t going to solve anything, and I want to go home. Can we get this done?” Ashley interrupted the two women gearing up to launch an intense discussion that would inevitably lead to an argument and get Suze upset.

“Fine,” Char sniffed, and Ashley hid a grin by sipping her coffee. Char didn’t like someone else taking charge and Ashley being right and taking charge probably really grated on her.

“Why are we here again?” Sophie asked in a whiney voice. “I wanted to go to the spa today. I desperately need a massage, and a manicure.”

“Well, part of the dinner is gifts. We’re going to pass out information to store managers asking for donations. My number is listed on the paper. Anything they’re willing to give we’ll come back for next week.” Char opened her briefcase and took out several sheets of paper, handing bunches to each of them. “If they can’t donate something useful to the homeless, meaning warm stuff, easy to carry stuff, even decks of cards, then they can make a cheque payable to The Society and we’ll buy the items needed. Make it clear we don’t want any useless crap like last summer’s flip-flops or other junk. We want real stuff for real people, in winter. And remind them anything they donate can be written off as a charitable donation, but only if we accept it. And we’ll issue donation slips for monetary donations. I marked your areas on the front of your packet so we don’t hit the same places.”

“And I’m buying roasting pans, pots, and things like that,” Suze reminded them. “I drove here only because I needed room for everything, otherwise I would’ve taken the bus. I hope everything fits in my little Tesla or I’ll have to find one of you to take a load.”

“Why?” Sophie asked in a bored voice, but her eyebrows arched at the mention of taking the bus.

“Because we agreed to cook using pots and pans, not tin foil, non-recyclable, waste producing stuff. The shelter doesn’t have half of what we need – I was there on Wednesday – so we’ll buy them and donate them to the shelter after.” Suze sat up proudly, and Ashley felt a rush of affection for the normally meek and quiet woman.

“I think that’s a great idea, Suze,” Ashley said as Sophie snorted. “Think about it, Soph. It’s not just about the environment. You can point out to the press how we purchased the best cooking utensils that would last for years for the shelter, out of our own pocket. You can spin the web to lure them in, about how much we’re doing to benefit them by providing sturdy, good quality equipment to save their budget from inadequate equipment, throw away foil pans that likely cost them a fortune feeding the masses. Make the group look good that we bought everything even before we canvassed for donations.”

Sophie’s eyes lit up at this. Anything to put her and her friends in a good light was welcome, and it also meant she’d have even more time in the spotlight to lecture not just about the people, but about the environment, too. Ashley winked at Suze, relaxing until Char clapped her hands with enough force people three tables away looked over.

“Keep those friggin receipts, Suze. Let’s move it,” Char barked, tucking her now empty folder back into her briefcase and slinging the strap over her shoulder.

Ashley finished her coffee and carefully placed the empty cup in the blue box when she saw Suze watching. 

“We’ll meet back here?” Suze asked Char.

“Let’s meet at Fitzgerald’s. I’m going to need a drink when this is done.” A scowl marred Sophie’s pretty face as she glared at the throngs of people.

“Sounds good.” Liz nodded, fiddling with her tablet. “I need a drink already.”

“Remember, you’re driving, so don’t drink too much,” Suze sniffed as she scurried away, clutching her stack of papers.

“Sometimes I just want to smack her,” Sophie grumbled as she ambled into the crowd, so tall she was impossible to miss.

“And sometimes I just want to smack Sophie,” Liz muttered, striding off into the crowd and disappearing.

“Want to go together?” Char asked when they were alone.

“Sure.” Ashley smiled but she suspected Char didn’t want her to be alone. Char, of all their friends, understood and remembered the most about noise and crowds triggering Ashley’s headaches. Knew her anxiety escalated when she was surrounded by crowds of people.

They found themselves in one of the less crowded stretches of the mall. Most of the stores in the oldest section of a mall that had been pieced together decade by decade were long standing businesses that likely paid less for rent and got the least amount of foot traffic. Ashley hoped this was an area Jennifer avoided too.

“I swear, I don’t know how some of these places stay in business,” Ashley blurted as they left a boutique selling clothes even her grandmother would call stuffy.

“You’d be surprised. Most of their customers come in during the week when the mall isn’t crowded with Christmas shoppers.” Char steered her into another store. Ashley wasn’t surprised Char knew this. She was in marketing and advertising and constantly researched shopping habits and trends.

“If you have anything you might be willing to donate, you can call the number on the sheet and someone will come by to pick it up. We’re asking for each item donated to have a value of less than twenty-five dollars, and something that might be useful to someone less fortunate but not so cumbersome that they wouldn’t have any way of carrying it with them,” Char explained to the manager of the accessory store. Ashley smiled brightly, but her eye was caught by a display of pins. Wandering over, she admired them while she listened to Char give her pitch.

“I guess you’ll have to be careful what you give,” the manager was saying. “Anything that looks valuable will make them a target for thieves.”

Char cast a stricken glance at Ashley and Ashley groaned. They hadn’t thought of that. “You’re right, of course. And gift certificates aren’t recommended, either. Most of the people that come to the shelter wouldn’t have the means to come to this mall to use it.”

Or be welcomed by mall security, Ashley added in her head.

“I have some nice mitten, hat, and scarf sets, hand-knit by a friend of mine that would be perfect. I’ll talk to her, see what she has available. I might be able to get several sets.”

Ashley wandered back, eyeing the mittens on display behind the counter. “Oh, that would be exactly the kind of thing we need, Char. Useful, and warm.”

“I agree.” Char ran a finger over the well-crafted mittens, the thick toque, the wide scarf. “If your friend has a business or a circle that knits, we can buy what’s not donated from them once we know how much we’ve got to play with. I might even know someone that I can buy good yarn at wholesale prices to supply them with.”

“There are quite a few knitters looking for hands and feet to knit for.” The manager knelt behind the counter and resurfaced with a small book. She flicked through several pages before scribbling something on a sheet of paper. “Here’s her number. You can call her, let her know what you’re looking for. She might be able to get her group knitting with a purpose. And providing yarn will definitely increase their production.”

Char took the paper, her brown-black eyes sparkling in excitement. “Thank you so much.”

She filed the paper in her briefcase and linked arms with Ashley as they left the store. 

“I think we’ve got this area covered.” Ashley cringed as they made their way back to the busier section of the mall. The noise levels were escalating. “Where to next?”

“Firzgerald’s. I purposely assigned us the least because I need to talk to you.”

A strong sense of foreboding filled her as they made their way to the popular bar-restaurant. She stood a few steps away from Char as she requested a table for five in a quiet corner. The hostess marked a map with Sophie, Liz, and Suze’s names, grabbed menus, and with a bright smile tilted her head for them to follow.

The bar area was packed with men, probably all waiting for their wives to finish their shopping or rewarding themselves with a beer for finishing their own. It was too early for dinner, too late for lunch, so there were several empty tables in the sit-down restaurant area. The hostess dealt out menus as if they were oversized cards to five spots, offered another smile, and left.

Char hung her briefcase on her chair back, shrugged out of her coat and hung it over the briefcase, and dropped into her seat. One look at Char’s pinched features and Ashley heard a voice in her head scream ‘run’. Whatever had Char looking so weighed down and serious, Ashley was sure she didn’t want to know. A loud cheer from the bar area felt like a blow to her head and Ashley debated fleeing with a lame claim to a migraine.

“You can’t run,” Char said eventually, and Ashley sat. “No headache brewing, either. I’ve been watching for signs of one.”

“Might as well spill it, it can’t be worse than I’m already thinking,” Ashley mumbled, picking up the menu even though she wasn’t hungry.

“I found out some stuff.” Char put a hand on Ashley’s, forcing her to lower the menu. “Most of the feedback from the media has been positive, and we’ve been assured of decent airtime on the local news stations, good coverage in the papers leading up to the event. But –”

Ashley swallowed, worry making her gut clench. She already knew, was sure she knew what Char was going to say, but still she asked. “So?”

“Well, it’s five years this spring coming,” Char reminded Ashley gently.

Cold washed over her. Five years this spring. Sounded like a celebration for a happy time, or even the commemoration of a beloved’s passing. Ashley supposed it was an anniversary of sorts, the anniversary of the night her life changed, the birth of a nightmare she’d never truly woke up from. Ashley didn’t speak and looked around the table for a napkin to shred. Finding none, she fidgeted and fiddled with her jewelry, twirling her necklace, looking at her watch.

“I have a friend at one of the big papers, The Toronto Reporter. There’s a rumour that one of the bigger journalists, some new to the paper asshat out to prove he’s worth the money they’re paying him, is planning to cover our event, but not necessarily in the best light. You know, balking at rich people doing a good deed, all that crap. He’s been doing his homework, researching all of us, and your name has apparently caught his eye.”

“I’ll back out now, tell them I’m not involved. I’ll do whatever you need me to do behind the scenes, but I won’t ruin this for you.” Ashley was numb and huddled deeper into her suede coat.

“It won’t matter. Your name has forever been linked to all the Society does, and the media has mostly ignored it, choosing instead to highlight the good we’re doing. The disguises you insist on are for you because I’m sure the media has always known who you were and has chosen not to mention that you are the same infamous Ashley Gallagher.”

Ashley sighed. She knew it was true, had seen her name often in print – from the scandal and from what the Society did for society – and never had they been linked.

“So even in my disguise, this reporter is going to taint the dinner, the work we’ve been doing, with what I did five years ago?” Ashley asked, feeling shame and hurt heat her cheeks.

Char nodded, her small hand curling into a fist on the table. “I don’t give a damn, and I’ll make sure that every other media outlet has the chance to publish something along the lines of, ‘the Society putting on the dinner — including Ashley Gallagher – yes, that Ashley Gallagher, innocent Ashley Gallagher –” Char rambled off several different speeches she had prepared to feed the media to do damage control, but Ashley was barely listening.

“I told you. I told you when you started this Society stuff that you should leave me out of it. No one is going to care what we’ve done, what we’re planning to do. All they’ll report is that I’m involved, and it will make all your hard work count for nothing. You’ll be dragged through the mud with me, just like before.” Ashley shook her head, her temper igniting a headache when Char tried to shush her. “This reporter, he’s decided to do more than report on the dinner, hasn’t he? He’s going to carry this through — through to April, isn’t he?”

Char looked at Ashley, her brown-black eyes filled with sympathy. “I believe he’s already started to research you. I’m telling you this because I think it’s going to be a whole lot bigger after Christmas. I think the Society is just a start for him, the diving board into the cesspool so to speak. I don’t know if he’s got it out for you on a personal level, or if he just wants to sensationalize old news, five years later. A sort of a ‘where are they now, what have they been doing since’ type of series.”

“That means he’s been in touch with—” Ashley swallowed hard around the lump in her throat. “Michael?”

Char looked away, and Ashley felt sick. She pictured Michael, with his boyish good looks, his dimples, and his wheelchair – the wheelchair Ashley had put him in. It didn’t matter that Michael had almost killed her. The media had sided with the Golden Boy, the son of the beloved mayor Michael Golden Sr, and painted Ashley in the worst possible light. Even on rare occasions when they’d printed the facts – that Michael had pulled a gun on her, smashing her repeatedly in the head and tried to rape her – they’d glossed over the horrors, omitted the horrific details, and worded the articles to make it sound like Ashley had been responsible for the rage Michael Jr had been in. If she hadn’t dated the Golden Boy casually for months, if she hadn’t announced her engagement to another man that night, if she hadn’t been dressed to break Michael’s heart. Like a wind had caught every newspaper she’d been on the front page of, Ashley saw the headlines scream by as pages turned. Gallagher daughter charged with attempted murder. Michael Golden Jr, Golden Boy, paralyzed at twenty-eight, Gallagher princess arrested.

“Stop it,” Char demanded in a low voice, and Ashley blinked back tears.

“I know what you’re doing, dammit. I won’t let you fall apart. You’re just beginning to pull yourself together after that bastard destroyed who you were, and I will not let him – or some journalist who hates the elite – take you apart again. I just wanted you to be warned. The whispers are going to start, but this time I’m prepared, and I’m going to be shouting from the rooftops. And if I’m not mistaken, Suze, Liz and Soph will be standing with me, pushing back. Not again, Ash, not again,” Char promised, and Ashley saw a tear streak down her friends cheek. “I let you down before, I won’t now. I promise.”