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.
“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.