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.”

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