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.