Chapter Nine

January 2nd

A week after Christmas, the day after the New Year had been rung in at a dinner with her friends, Ashley found herself behind the shelter. Henry had made her think – not just about her ring, but about how the things she took for granted might mean the world (or at least the difference between hungry and full) to someone in his position. She had a cooler full of sandwiches and pop, a thermos of coffee, and a sleeping bag she’d dug out of storage that she’d never used.

The weak afternoon sun glinted off the dusting of snow that had fallen that morning. Ashley studied the tracks made by people wandering around the shelter. One set of tracks had a normal footprint and a dragging print with it, and she wondered if the person who was dragging their foot was okay. She peered into the corner where Henry said he lived, but there was nothing there today.

She wondered if he’d moved on as he’d hinted he might last week and thought about passing the food and pop to the young couple huddled beneath a blanket near the dumpster.

Tap tap tap

Ashley jerked her head to the left, her hand ready to start her car so she could flee. Henry peered in at her and Ashley felt a smile replace the fear. Looking into his incredibly blue eyes, her heart continued to pound in her chest as her hand fluttered to the door and flicked the button to release the locks. Henry came around the car to get in.

“Not looking so ritzy today,” Henry commented, taking in Ashley’s sweater and jeans as he closed the door.

“Don’t let them fool you, the sweater cost me eighty bucks.” Ashley shivered at the sudden cold Henry brought with him.

“A week of dinners then,” Henry chuckled, and Ashley worried about the slight wheeze she heard.

“Brought you some sandwiches,” Ashley pointed at the cooler on the floor in the backseat of the car, and Henry dove on it.

She watched the young couple as Henry ate two sandwiches before speaking again.

“Thanks.” He sounded embarrassed as he used his hand to check for crumbs in his beard.

“My pleasure.” Ashley’s gaze kept returning to the young couple. As hard as she tried to stifle the curiosity, she couldn’t help wondering about them. “That couple, they look so young.”

“She’s fourteen, he’s sixteen.” Henry’s tone was hushed — and sad, if Ashley was reading him correctly.

“That isn’t legal.” Ashley felt outrage that such young people were huddling in the cold, alone. How scared they must be.

“When your mother don’t care, you don’t care. No one’s lookin’ for her, and she’s been here since Boxing Day. He don’t live here, he goes home at night, but he hates her being out here. Can’t bring her home ‘cuz his parents don’t like her, but they’d have his picture on every bus station and milk carton from here to Vancouver if he didn’t come home.”

Ashley watched them for a few minutes, wondering if the girl could possibly be safe when the boy went home. As though reading her thoughts, Henry shrugged and said, “When he goes home, I take care of her.”

“You’re a good man.” Ashley smiled, patting his arm. Henry’s hand automatically went to his pocket, fiddling, and she pulled her hand away quickly, thinking he might be worried she’d ask about his treasure.

“Don’t be so sure. If I were a good man, would I be out here?”

Ashley thought about his question. “I don’t think it’s that simple. I’m sure there are some real badasses out here, but I’m just as sure that there are people like you that are here, surviving, and are good at their core. Maybe they have to steal a loaf of bread, or pick the odd pocket to keep going, but they’re not bad people. Like I said at Christmas, sometimes here is all that’s left, right?”

“Oh, yeah? And what do you know about people like us?” Henry sounded hostile, and Ashley frowned at him.

“Human nature is the same whether you are born into money or born on the street. The good exist in every class, and the bad too. I think sometimes the bad here is easier to spot – the evil to the core ones in my world can afford any mask.” Ashley thought again of Michael Jr.. She’d read the article Quinn Henderson had printed on Christmas Eve, painting the Golden Boy as a man who’d lost nearly everything only to fight his way back. The quote that’d stayed with her out of everything the Golden Boy had said came to her now. ‘You know, I forgive Ashley for what she did. For all of it. I just hope she gets the help she desperately needs.’ How sweet, how innocent, how endearing to the readers, how misleading.

“Might be right.” Henry grabbed two more sandwiches and opened the door. Ashley thought he was leaving, but watched as he went over to the young couple and gave the girl the sandwiches. The boy looked up at him and Ashley could lip read ‘thank you’ as he shook Henry’s hand. Henry returned to the car. 

“The boy brings her food, but I see today he brought less than usual. I think his parents must be asking questions now. Won’t be long before he can’t get here at all, or if he does, he’ll have nothing for her.”

Ashley studied them. “Is she a good kid?”

“Stole a loaf of bread,” Henry wheezed lustily. “You tell me.”

Ashley grinned at him as she fingered her cell phone. A plan was forming.

*

Half an hour after Henry left, Char parked her Mercedes beside Ashley and climbed out, a curious frown lining her forehead. Ashley rolled down her window as Char approached her door. “What’s up?”

Ashley pointed to the bundle of blankets the young girl was huddled beneath. “Fourteen years old, and her mother doesn’t care that she’s been on the streets for a week. Threw her out the day after Christmas.”

“You’re kidding!” Char eyed the blankets. “You’re sure there’s someone in there?”

“She’s freezing, and yes. She dove under the blankets when I got out of my car, so I got back inside, afraid I’d spook her into running off. Her boyfriend comes every day, tries to bring her food, but his parents don’t approve. Henry says he won’t come much once school starts in two days – his parents will wonder where he is. She rarely goes into the shelter for food – Henry says she’s terrified to go in there at all.”

“Who’s Henry?” Char asked, studying Ashley with surprised curiosity.

“The old guy from the dinner. I brought him some sandwiches. Anyway, you got any idea what we can do? I was thinking of bringing her home with me, but she’s fourteen. Do you think I’d be breaking the law?”

Char scratched her chin and went to her car without another word. Ashley rolled up her window and stepped out of hers, her gaze darting from the bundle of blankets to Char. Char’s door was closed but Ashley could see she was talking on her phone. Char knew someone in every walk of life – trying to figure out who she was talking so animatedly to was futile.

Ashley adjusted the coat she’d put on while waiting for Char and zipped it higher before pulling on her leather gloves to ward against the chill. The setting sun seemed to make it feel even colder. Several minutes passed, and Char gave Ashley the thumbs up before dropping her phone and getting out of the car.

“Who did you call?”

“I’ll explain later. Let’s go meet the girl.” Char approached the blankets, and said in a loud voice, “Knock, knock.”

The young girl peeked out, shivering. She had a ring in her eyebrow and left nostril, but she looked scared, years younger than fourteen.

“Hey, what are you doing here?” Char asked, her tone no more curious than if she’d asked her the time.

“No law against it.” She didn’t emerge from her blankets, and she sounded a lot bolder than her trembling lip expressed.

“Actually there is, the city is full of no loitering signs and police typically arrest people for vagrancy – if they’re out in the open. I doubt the cops come back here much unless someone gets attacked.” Char shrugged, looking around the dingy parking area. “Bet there’re rats in that dumpster.”

The girl’s eyes widened, and she looked beside her as though expecting a rat to join her any minute. “Haven’t seen any.”

“Yet,” Char said cheerfully. Ashley frowned at her friend. The girl needed someone to help her, not scare the wits out of her. “Where you from?”

The girl named an area of the city that wasn’t known for its affluence, or crime rate. A regular, blue collar type neighborhood in the north-east end of the city.

“Fancy that. You go to Thompson Collegiate?”

The girl’s eyes filled with tears. “Went.”

“Oh, you been out here that long?”

Ashley watched Char. She knew Char, knew she was playing at something, but for the life of her couldn’t figure out what.

“A week.” The girl sniffled and wiped her face with a hand clad in a woolen mitten that Ashley suddenly recognized – it was the same blue pair Henry had got for Christmas. Feeling warm inside, she looked around for him, but he was nowhere to be seen. He’d hightailed away the minute she’d called Char, after thanking her for the sandwiches and grudgingly accepted the sleeping bag she gave him.

“So you couldn’t have told the school you were dropping out.” Char winked at Ashley when the young girl shook her head.

“Well, I was skipping a lot. They said I’d be expelled if I kept skipping off classes anyhow –”

“You like it here?” Char looked around as if they were in a cozy little garden instead of next to a dumpster that stunk faintly of rotten food. Ashley imagined in the summer months the stench would drive the girl far from her spot.

“It’s — .it’s okay –” the girl was shivering, and wrapped the blanket tighter around her.

“You got parents?” Ashley opened her mouth to berate Char for her rudeness, but the girl shook her head. “None?”

“My mother — she threw me out. My dad, he’s got a new family.” She sounded like a little girl who was lost and frightened. Tears were snaking down her cheeks, leaving streaks on her dirty face.

“Rough.” Char’s tone barely expressed sympathy. “Bet you’d love a shower, huh?”

“There’s a shower in the shelter, but it’s kind of — people watch.” The girl shuddered.

“What’s your name?” Char ignored her statement even though Ashley felt sick. She was a little girl. Who watched? Men?

“Angela.” She scrubbed her face with the mittens again, snuffling.

“Nice. Tell you what, I know a guy, he’s a good guy, owns a motel not far from your ‘hood. Ever seen the little place beside the huge hotel on Lawrence? The Hovel?” Angela nodded. “Don’t let the name fool you. It’s clean, and it’s not very busy. The big hotel sort of killed his business. He’s got some peeops living there, good folks that are hurting a bit. I’m thinking he might rent you a spot.”

Angela’s hopeful expression fell. Her despair was palpable and Ashley’s heart squeezed. “I don’t have any money.” 

“Hmm, that is a problem. You willing to work?”

The guarded look was back. “I know what that means. The old guy who gave me his mittens warned me that work means hook.”

“Yeah, here it means hook, and believe me, you and your high-falutin’ morals won’t resist long when your stomach feels like hunger is scratching your gut to ribbons, but where I’m from, and where I’m talking about, work means work. Making beds, doing laundry, cooking, whatever chore needs doing.”

Ashley gaped at Char. Carlos, the owner of the Hovel, was a millionaire that didn’t use his motel as a motel. And he owned the massive hotel next to The Hovel. Char knew him better than Ashley did, but she wasn’t sure that Carlos would be too happy to have a young girl on his premises – or willing to have her there.

“I do all that at home, that’s why my mom threw me out. Said I wasn’t doing enough because I didn’t fold her clothes right and smacked me because I burnt her steak.”

“Well, Carlos might not let you cook him steak then, but I think he might have a spot for you. You’ll earn it, and you’ll have to go to school regularly, no more skipping classes unless you’re sick. No drugs or alcohol on the premises. He’ll help you get some money, too.”

The girl crawled out from beneath the blankets fully and hunkered down in a coat much too large that Ashley suspected belonged to her boyfriend. “How am I going to earn money? Working or hooking?”

“There’s something called student welfare. He’ll help you get it, if your mother agrees you can’t stay with her.”

The girl looked hopeful, like life wasn’t over yet. Just then, the young man returned, carrying two steaming cups of coffee. He looked terrified, as if he wanted to run, but Angela pulled off her mitten and whistled shrilly with her fingers in her mouth. “It’s okay, Chris.”

As Angela explained to her boyfriend, Ashley pulled Char aside. “Carlos isn’t going to be happy if you show up with a street kid.”

“Oh, trust me, Carlos will be thrilled. He owes me for one thing, and for another, he’ll think it gets him an inch closer to getting me in his bed. I’ll let him think I’m grateful, but truth is, he’s a big softie. Got four teenage girls there as it is, and a teacher from the Catholic high school who acts as guardian for them. They don’t get to have boys in their rooms, they’ve got a nice little rec area to bring their friends over, and he gets paid for their rent because they all get student assistance. It’s win-win for everyone. He won’t admit it, but I think he puts their rent aside to help them go to college or university down the road.”

Ashley looked at her friend, a smile playing on her lips. “You going to let Carlos in your pants for this?”

“She’s only in grade nine. If she makes it to college, I might.”

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.”

Chapter Three

November 5th

Ashley clenched her teeth as she scanned the miles of parked cars, searching for an empty spot.

“Almost two months until Christmas. What the hell is the matter with people?” Ashley muttered under hear breath as she followed a family pushing two shopping carts full of junk they’d just bought. “You’re probably the same idiots who say my dad failed Gallagher’s. I bet you never parked at this end of the mall when Gallagher’s was here.”

Ashley scowled as they loaded their packages into the van. Once upon a time, Gallagher’s had stood tall and proud as the mall’s main anchor store, a sparkling jewel in her family’s now tarnished crown. The lampposts were garish with neon yellow signs boasting ‘even more price slashes’, so tacky compared to the elegant wreaths Gallagher’s always hung December 1st.

“Are you freaking kidding me?” Ashley slammed the heel of her hand on the horn when the couple laughed and went back to the store. Gluttony was the only word she could think of that came close to describing the hoarders going in and out of the American discount department store. She finally found a spot at the back where Gallagher’s employees once parked.

She zipped her coat and grabbed her leather purse before climbing out of the car and shivering as a gust of wind whipped her hair into a frenzy. The sound of the alarm setting carried on the wind as Ashley hurried across the parking lot, her eyes already tearing from the icy gusts. She jammed her hands into her pockets as the wind whistled, her hair tangling as tendrils were forced free of the clip she’d tried to tame them with. Sharp pain hit her shin and she stumbled, her eyes stinging as ends of her hair lashed at her eyeballs. She righted herself and turned to see what had caused the throbbing pain. A huge trailer hitch jutted out from the rear of a shiny new Dodge pickup truck.

“Inconsiderate fools.” Ashley yanked her right hand out of her warm pocket and held back the hair blinding her. “Why on earth would someone in Toronto need a freaking pickup truck?”

She felt like Suze as she grumbled to herself about vehicles that guzzled gas like Suze’s mother guzzled gin. “Probably some small dude with a complex.”

She stepped around a huddled group of teenagers, the faint whiff of cigarette smoke burning her nostrils as she entered the store. When Gallagher’s ruled this location, this would’ve been the baby section (infant and toddler clothes on the right, cribs, strollers, and toddler bedroom sets on the left), not the acres of parking spots for shopping carts the masses filled with bargains they didn’t need but couldn’t pass up the fifty percent off savings.

She went through the second set of doors, wincing at the bleeps and whistles of dozens of cash registers, blinked against the sudden brightness of fluorescent lighting, so different than the gloomy skies outside. She didn’t spare a second glance for the cheap metal racks stacked with candles, bins of discounted Hallowe’en candy, or rows of pre-lit Christmas trees as she hurried through the store. She knew she made no sense; determined to park in the lot of the enemy yet anxious to get away from the ghosts of her family’s failed empire rattling their chains overhead in fury the instant she stepped inside.

Ashley knew this chain of stores had started the crumbling of her family’s Canada-wide empire and she tried not to let her anger show to the shoppers she felt were more to blame. As if her dark thoughts had conjured her, Ashley could hear Suze’s recent rant at a Society meeting. Suze, eyes flashing with fury, bemoaning excessive consumerism while stomping her feet. “We live in a throwaway world. No one buys quality anymore, they just throw it out and buy more. All this shit? Landfill fodder by months end.”

Ashley nodded her agreement even though Suze wasn’t there as her head gave a feeble throb. Passing through the metal anti-theft gates at the mall entrance (which always seemed to scream), she was glad to put the noise behind her. The drone of the crowded mall was far more tolerable.

She manoeuvred around the window shoppers and strode purposely towards the food court until she caught sight of herself reflected in a store window. Ashley didn’t care how she looked but if Sophie saw her windswept appearance, she’d drag Ashley to a salon and demand a total makeover. She peeked at her watch to make sure she had enough time to hit the washroom for a fix-up and almost careened into a huge group of teenagers watching a videogame presentation. She staggered and almost tripped on a discarded backpack near the crowd. She’d finally managed to right herself when she felt something hard hit the backs of her knees and she fell.

“Oof.” Ashley’s heart jackhammered in her chest and cold sweat prickled her brow as her knees and hands slapped the cold tile floor. She scrambled to her feet, resisting the primal urge to flee, as she registered the attention she was receiving. Humiliation warmed her cheeks. Torn whether to scold the careless person who’d tackled her or simply forget the incident and carry on, her swirling thoughts stilled when she saw her assailant. A young woman, only her eyes visible because her hands covered the rest of her face, stared wild-eyed from behind the stroller she pushed.

“Oh God, I’m so sorry.” The woman’s big brown eyes filled with tears. “Are you okay?”

Ashley’s terror eked away as her concern for the other woman rose. “I’m okay. Are you hurt?”

The woman bit her lip as she dropped her hands to the handle of the stroller. Shaking her head, her chin trembled. “I’m fine. I’m just stupid, and I should’ve been going slower.”

Ashley stepped closer, her gaze darting to the carrier anchored to the stroller. A baby fussed, the chin trembling as the young woman’s did. “I’m fine. Honest. Where’s the fire?”

The woman’s face changed from horror to confusion to amusement. “No fire. Temper tantrum building in three…two…”

As if on cue, the baby began to howl. “Diaper change?”

Ashley fell into step beside the anxious mother, assuming they were both heading to the washroom.

“Feeding time.” The mother made cooing noises as she steered the stroller down the long corridor that led to the washrooms. They passed the men’s room and the row of payphones no one used (though many people were on cell phones near them). They had to wend their way around the people waiting to use the ATM.

“These benches are more comfortable than the ones in the mall and the food court will be rammed.”

Ashley spied the padded seats outside the women’s washroom and they veered around the women waiting. “Quieter down here, too.”

The mother nodded as she parked the stroller. With deft moves, she unstrapped and lifted the baby, grabbed the bottle sitting on the seat of the stroller, and settled on the bench. “I already had the bottle heated.”

The mother shook a drop on her wrist, adjusted the pink blanket around the baby in her arms, and popped the nipple in her mouth before she could holler any more.

“She’s beautiful.” Ashley fibbed (the baby was all scrunchy, red faced, and angry) as she settled beside her, watching with a sense of awe and wonder. As the only child of only children, she hadn’t grown up with siblings or cousins. No one in her circle had kids yet, either. Babies and children intrigued (and scared) her.

“Thanks.” The mother offered a nervous smile. Ashley noticed dark shadows under her eyes, and a weariness she knew well from a couple of the women’s shelters she’d been involved with.

“My name is Ashley.” Ashley was about to hold out her hand but realized the other woman’s hands were full of baby.

“I’m Jennifer, and this is Penelope. Penny for short.”

“That’s not very common, is it?” Ashley asked, smiling down at the suckling baby. She was sort of cute now that her face wasn’t such an angry red.

Ashley glanced up when she heard Jennifer sniffling. “Did I say something wrong?”

“I know, it’s stupid. I was like the fourth Jennifer in my class, and two of my friends are Jennifer. I wanted something pretty, but not something that every third girl was called. My mother says it’s a stupid name. Pennies are worthless, tarnish easily, and are cheap.”

“That’s just stu–” Ashley bristled, her defenses rising, before she stopped herself. Ashley rarely butted in with her opinions, especially with strangers. That was Char’s forte.

“That’s the way my mother is. She wasn’t the greatest for me, and she isn’t happy about being a grandma. That’s why Penny and I are here. We’re always here.” Jennifer’s brown eyes blinked furiously as she gazed down at her daughter.

Ashley frowned. “Always here?”

Jennifer darted a glance at Ashley, nodding. She bit her lip again. “The best thing I’ve ever done in this world was have Penny, but as my mother always points out, it was also the dumbest. I didn’t have a great job to begin with and I doubt they’ll hire me back when my mat leave is up. Not that I can afford to take the full year. Then again, as my mother constantly reminds me, I can’t afford daycare anyhow so it won’t matter. She tolerates us sleeping there but wants her peace during the day, so here we are.”

“What about Penny’s father?” Ashley peered closer at the baby drinking. Faded pink outfit, oft-washed blanket. She glanced at the stroller, saw the worn wheels, the tear in the carrier seat.

Jennifer laughed but there was no mirth in the sound. “As I said, getting pregnant was the dumbest thing I could’ve done according to my mother – unless you throw in the man who fathered her. He knows he’s won. I can’t afford a lawyer to force him to pay support because he’s denying paternity. He’s married – something I didn’t know until after I found out I was pregnant.”

Jennifer’s tears flowed and Ashley dug through her purse hoping to find a tissue. She found a wrinkled one and shook it out.

“Here, it’s clean, just not sure how long it’s been in the depths of this purse. I didn’t clean it out last spring, and just shoved my wallet in it this morning.” Ashley gave a sheepish grin as she gestured to the black leather purse she preferred to use in the winter.

Jennifer dabbed at her streaming eyes. “Imagine, having more than one purse. I don’t even own one, but I do have that bottle bag under the stroller and matching diaper bag that my friend gave me. She doesn’t use them anymore.”

Ashley felt an overwhelming urge to help this young woman. “You know the government will force him to pay or they’ll take away his license, don’t you?”

Jennifer snorted as she put the bottle down on the bench and held Penny to her shoulder, patting her back. “He’s fighting everything. My friend says they’ll make him pay for the paternity test but that it’ll take forever for them to get everything sorted. Penny will probably be in school before that happens. He wouldn’t even buy me diapers when I begged him. My mat leave unemployment hadn’t kicked in yet, my mother said the only help she’s willing to provide is a roof over our heads so long as we’re not there but to sleep, and I had to go to my friends and ask them to help me. I was nursing Penny in the beginning, until she refused my milk, so I had the food part covered, but I couldn’t even buy her diapers. My mother was right, I should’ve put her up for adoption.” Jennifer kept patting her daughter’s back as the tears began to fall in earnest.

“One sec.” Ashley jumped to her feet and rushed past the line of women waiting to use the toilets. She glanced by the sinks but saw nothing but hand dryers.

“Hey!” Ashley grabbed the arm of a woman leaving the first stall. “Can you pass me a handful of toilet paper?”

The other women in line grumbled but Ashley didn’t pay attention. The woman jerked a large wad of tissue free and thrust the paper into the hand Ashley wasn’t clutching her arm with.

“Thanks.” Ashley smiled and darted back out of the washroom, not bothering to apologize to the woman who was next in line.

“Here.” Ashley sat down breathlessly beside Jennifer, who had adjusted Penny to continue feeding her.

“Thanks.” Jennifer sniffed as she wiped her face before putting the bottle back to her daughter’s lips. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know where all this is coming from. I’ve never dumped on anyone like this, let alone a total stranger.”

Ashley watched Jennifer, saw the love shining in her eyes as she watched Penny drinking. She put her hand on Jennifer’s, the one holding the bottle, and squeezed. “Sometimes we bottle stuff up so much that the seal breaks and everything spills out. I’ve been there.”

Jennifer nodded, her eyes closed. “You ever felt like you were going to lose your mind because you can’t figure out a single thing you can do to change anything?”

Her eyes popped open as she turned her head. Ashley saw the depths of her despair drowning out the love. Ashley’s senses went on overload and she looked away as she nodded. There were lines of people everywhere and all of them were oblivious to the two women and the baby on the bench.

“I’m sorry.”

Ashley blinked, her attention shifting from a vaguely familiar man standing with his back to her as he waited for the ATM and glanced at Jennifer. “Pardon?”

Jennifer shifted Penny and put the nearly empty bottle on the bench beside her before she looked at Ashley again. “I thought, when I bumped into you, that you looked like who I wanted to be – you know, together. Rich.”

Ashley snorted. “Only half right.”

Jennifer’s cheeks flushed but she smiled. “I heard something in your voice, saw something flicker on your face just now, and I was reminded that money doesn’t fix everything.”

Ashley nodded, but her thoughts warred. Jennifer had no money and that was the root of her trouble. Ashley had tons, trust funds and inheritances and investments galore, but all the money in the world wouldn’t fix her issues. Yet the Golden’s, with all their money, were living the life of Riley, using that money to keep their foes down. The people they walked on – stomped on, crushed – just lifted them higher, like some decaying mountain for their pedestal to climb higher into the clouds.

“I’m just a fast-food worker that got herself knocked up by the first man to pretend at love, so don’t listen to me.” Jennifer’s cheeks turned pink and she shifted Penny in her arms.

“Sorry, I was lost in thought there. My grandmother would say woolgathering.” Ashley smiled at Jennifer.

“Diaper change time.” Jennifer sniffed and made a face before sighing when she saw the women lined up like cattle. “Ugh, the line just gets longer and longer.”

“Do you have to wait in line to use the change table?” Ashley’s mind whirled trying to remember if she’d ever noticed lines of mothers waiting to change their baby’s diaper.

“No, but they grumble and moan when I try to squeeze past with the stroller.” Jennifer shrugged, getting to her feet. “Thanks so much for not hating me for hitting you.”

Ashley grinned back. “Thanks for letting me sit with you. Do you need the stroller? I can sit here with it while you go change Penny.”

Jennifer eyed the women as she bit her lip. “You don’t mind?”

Ashley glanced at her watch and shook her head. “I’m early to meet my friends.”

Jennifer sighed, the sound wistful. “Friends at the mall? I don’t know that I’ve ever had that luxury, not even in high school. I come here because it’s warm and not my mother’s house, but the few friends I have don’t have time for the mall life. If you’re sure you don’t mind watching the stroller?”

Ashley shook her head as she freed the diaper bag from the stroller handle. “I assume you need this?”

Jennifer slung the strap over her shoulder. “I’ll be quick.”

“No rush.” Ashley watched Jennifer head into the washroom. She wore pants that were too big, a sweater that had been washed so many times the original colour was a mystery, and shoes that Agatha Gallagher would shudder at the thought of ever wearing. Ashley glanced at the bottom of the stroller and saw no coat, just a baby’s snowsuit. Ashley opened her purse, pulled out her wallet, and rifled through the contents. She pulled out a wad of twenties, $380 in total, and curled her fingers around the money. She scanned the crowd, making sure no one was watching. She grabbed the bottle bag from the basket, picked up the bottle Jennifer had left on the bench, and dropped both the bottle and the cash inside.

The hair on the back of her neck stood up and Ashley froze, the bottle bag almost returned to the bottom of the stroller. Someone was watching her – rather, she felt an attack of the old familiar paranoia kicking in. She shook her head as she settled the bottle bag on the bottom of the stroller, her eyes darting through the throngs of people. The man at the bank of payphones had his back to her but Ashley felt the same familiarity flash through her as she had when she’d spied him in the line for the ATM — and an instant of pure female admiration when she noticed his jeans hugged his ass perfectly.

“Whew, thanks.” Jennifer settled Penny into her carrier, taking care to buckle her in before putting the faded blanket over her.

Ashley’s wallet was still on top of the purse nestled in her lap. Jennifer raised an eyebrow but didn’t comment and Ashley was struck with inspiration. She opened the side where she kept all the spare cards for the various charities she worked with and found the one she was looking for.

“I hope –” Ashley faltered, feeling her cheeks warm. She jammed her wallet back in her purse and inhaled. “I hope you don’t feel offended by this but this is the number of a good friend of mine. Aretha helps women in tough situations, knows all the legal ins and outs to help you with Penny’s father. She’s got connections to everyone and everything.”

Jennifer raised an eyebrow as she took the card. “A Woman’s Place. Why would I be offended?”

Ashley cleared her throat as she pulled out her brush. She wouldn’t normally groom herself in the open but she was feeling socially awkward and uncomfortable, the panic at the man’s familiarity drawing her eyes to the payphone as often as to Jennifer.

“I…we just met and you don’t know me. Aretha can help you, but some women would look at that card and see charity, not a tool to assist you. I didn’t want you to think I looked down on you –” Ashley felt her face sizzle, she was botching this horribly and the more she pedaled, the deeper she dug in. She finally gave up, shrugged her shoulders as she reclipped her hair. “Aretha was there for me many times, still is when I need a friend. She’s got answers, connections. Knows people, loves people. Talk to Aretha and I can guarantee you she’ll know what your next step should be. She’ll walk with you if you need her, she’ll push you if you get scared, but she won’t let you sit in the mall seven days a week because you’re not wanted anywhere else.”

Ashley put her brush back in her purse, her eyes darting to the phones but the familiar man was gone. She breathed a sigh of relief.

“She’s helped you?” Jennifer’s left eyebrow was still arched in disbelief.

Ashley stood, nodding. “I didn’t know I needed her help when I went to her. I thought I could help her, help other women, but Aretha saw my need and understood it, helped me, when I had no clue I was dying.”

A bit extreme, a little mellow dramatic maybe. Ashley hadn’t been physically dying, but Aretha, a sixty-four-year-old woman with a heart even bigger than her massive body, had seen the slow decay of Ashley’s mental health and had taken her under her wing. She was sure Aretha would do the same for Jennifer, as she did for hundreds of women in the city.

“I’ll call her.” Jennifer put the card in the diaper bag before frowning at the bench. “The bottle, I was sure –”

“Oh, sorry. I put the bottle in the bottle bag. I hope that was the right place?” Ashley was backing away, preparing to flee if Jennifer opened the bottle bag in front of her.

“Thanks.” Jennifer smiled, and Ashley was struck at the young mother’s appearance. She almost shone, her eyes sparkled. “I feel odd. I think it’s hope, and I can’t remember the last time I felt it. Thank you, Ashley.”

Ashley smiled as she felt her phone vibrate in her coat pocket. “Call Aretha.” She grabbed her phone and hurried away, glancing at the display. Char was attempting to park her car if the picture of the full parking lot she’d just texted was any indication. She grinned as she made her way to the main part of the mall. She glanced back at Jennifer and felt the faint stirrings of a headache when she spotted Jennifer talking to a man – the same familiar form she’d seen at the ATM and the payphone. Jennifer wore a puzzled expression as she bent to get the bottle bag. Whoever the man was, he must’ve seen Ashley putting the money in the bag. Before Jennifer could get the bag free, Ashley joined the crowd, hoping she didn’t bump into Jennifer again – and wondering who the man was and why he had been watching her.

Chapter Two

November 2nd

Ashley dropped onto the cream-coloured sofa (the one her mother sniffed at every time she saw it because it was inferior to anything Gallagher’s once sold), and leaned her head back, positioning the re-warmed beanbag on her head. She knew the cover of the Toronto Reporter had triggered this never-ending headache (and the nightmares that plagued her sleep), but knowing the root didn’t alter the outcome. The silence, the heat of the beanbag, and exhaustion ruled her life at the moment.

Knock, thump, bang.

Ashley’s heartbeat picked up at the loud sound, picked up even more when her eyes popped open and she couldn’t see. The beanbag slid off her head and the gloomy grey light filled her apartment. Not night yet.

Rap-rap-rap.

No one from the security desk downstairs had called to request permission for whoever was at the door to enter, so that meant whoever was making all the noise was someone on her approved list. Unless someone managed to get past the vigilant team? Ashley willed the intruder to leave, but the knocking continued. Getting to her feet, she tossed the beanbag onto her coffee table and padded silently in sock feet to the door.  

 Every knock made the blood pounding through her brain audible, painful. She pressed herself against the cool metal door and peeked out the peephole. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to cry tears of relief or frustration when she saw the top half of Char’s head, her brow creased in impatience. Ashley unlocked the deadbolt and slid the chain free before pulling the door open as Char lifted her hand to knock again.

“You look like shit.” Char’s gaze swept from head to toe before she slipped around Ashley to enter.

Ashley quickly relocked the door, uttering a silent prayer for strength before forcing a smile and turning around. “Hey, Char, I wasn’t expecting you,”

Char glided to the sofa and sank onto one of the cushions without a sound. Char’s exotically beautiful pale skin had a red tinge to it, and her scowl reminded Ashley that Char was perfectly capable of biting.

“Nice to see you too, hope you’re well.” Ashley muttered under her breath.

“I’m going to kill her. With my bare hands if I can reach that swan neck of hers without a ladder.” Char grumbled as much to herself as to Ashley, her eyes flashing.

Instinctively and immediately, Ashley knew Char was talking about Sophie. She didn’t need the ladder reference because it was always Sophie that someone wanted to kill, slap, or otherwise do harm to. “What’s she done now?”

“Protesting the Christmas thing.” Char rolled her brown-black eyes.

“Of course she is.” Ashley nodded, resisting rolling her own. “Let me guess — why can’t we just give a bunch of money instead? Hire someone to do it?”

Char laughed. “Nailed it in one. Or two. Or both, whatever. She wants us to donate fifty turkeys and hire people to dish it out so she doesn’t have to leave the comfort of home to be a good person.”

Ashley struggled not to laugh as her head thumped meekly. Of the five women, best friends since childhood, it was mostly Sophie that took exception to their Society’s goal of giving back. ‘Not that I mind,’ Sophie’s speech always began. ‘But I don’t see how my getting up early, getting dirty, disrupting my schedule makes me a better person. I have no objections to paying someone to do what needs to be done and be done with it.’

“What do you think of my plan? Did you read the papers I gave you last night?” Char’s scowl morphed into hope as she studied Ashley.

“I did.” Every time she’d woken from another nightmare, she’d read a few pages. “I love the plan. I also know why Sophie won’t do it. The parts where you spelled out dress-code. No dressing flashy, rich, fancy. No heavy make-up, no jewelry? No way will she be seen in public looking like anything less than royalty.”

“Oh, she’s doing it,” Char huffed, gathering her long black curls and wrapping an elastic she always wore on her wrist around them. “I don’t care if she cries, stomps her feet, or offers tens of thousands of dollars, she will be there.”

Ashley raised an eyebrow. “How do you plan to make that little Christmas miracle happen?”

“Publicity, baby.” Char batted her long, mascara-free eyelashes. “Sophie can’t say no to publicity, especially since she’s the president of her own publicity company and can claim a write-off for company taxes.”

“I can,” Ashley muttered as her head squeezed tighter than a small child held mommy’s hand on the first day of school. “And I say, hell, no.”

“I knew you’d give me a hard time,” Char groaned. “Why is it that the five of us grew up together, practically raised together, and yet you and Sophie are so completely different and the constant bane of my existence?”

Ashley bristled, stung. “I’m a hell of a lot more co-operative, but I insist on no publicity.”

“I knew you’d say that, but you haven’t even heard what I’m going to do.” Char held up a jeweled hand to stop Ashley from speaking. Unlike Sophie’s jewelry, Char’s was mostly silver, handmade, and as exotic as the woman who wore it.

Ashley narrowed her eyes at her friend and crossed her arms over her chest. “I am not going to be there Christmas day if there’s publicity. I don’t care what you say.”

Char heaved a sigh. “Would you hear me out before you shoot me down? I’ve got it all figured out. I’m sending out an announcement to the three major papers, the two free dailies, and five of the major networks announcing what we’re doing. I’ll give them a copy of the Society’s mission statement, how our group feels that everyone should have a feast on Christmas Day, how we’re going to accommodate anyone who doesn’t believe in Christmas. That part you suggested last week? About how religion doesn’t change hunger, blah blah blah? Brilliant. Working that for the media to encourage donations so we can feed everyone, not just Christians. I’m inviting them to look at the time we’re putting in – the prep work we’ll be doing in the weeks leading up to the big day, the work that will go into preparing the meals, serving the food. How we plan to set up, staggering serving times so that there’s constantly people moving in and out, no one stuck outside waiting. What we’re going to do to make sure that not a single person goes away hungry. It’s win-win. Add another win because Sophie can handle all that and she’ll love being in the spotlight the whole time. The public will see what a great thing we’re doing and start sending out cheques to the shelter.”

Ashley narrowed her eyes even more, feeling her brow crease. “Where will I be during all this?”

“Well, most of the publicity will be done before Christmas to get the ball rolling for donations. On the big day, you’ll be in the kitchen – you’re the best cook out of all of us. You might happen to be in a shot or two, but I’ll try to prevent them from coming into the kitchen while you’re cooking. Is there a health code violation or something I can claim? Hell, I can do a great job on your make-up again, make you look like your grandmother if you want, on the off chance someone sneaks back there.”

“Oh, yeah, that would go over well. You know how Nan is about this stuff. She thinks we’re a bunch of fools as it is.” Ashley pursed her lips and cleared her throat to mimic her grandmother, a formidable woman who scared everyone from politicians to church leaders. “Why do you insist on wasting your time on a bunch of freeloaders? Don’t you know what welfare is for? Those homeless bums could be off the streets and living off our tax dollars, abusing welfare like the rest of them if they were willing to conform to the rules of society, but they won’t, so why are you wasting your money, time, and beautiful manicure to help out the ungrateful dregs of society?”

“God, you do sound just like Agatha.” Char shivered. “I get you a blonde or brunette wig to hide that red hair of yours, do your make-up and you could serve the old battle axe and even she wouldn’t recognize you.”

Ashley thought about Char’s offer. The media could be their biggest boon. All the fundraising luncheons with their peers they’d considered hosting over the next few weeks could be avoided if the public took an interest and donated enough. “I’ll think about it.”

“I know you will, and I know you’ll do the right thing. You and Suze always do.” Char winked. “Now that’s settled, get me a drink.”

Char usually helped herself to Ashley’s food and drink but Ashley leapt at the chance for a moment alone to think. Char was right. Ashley would do whatever it took to help the Society succeed in their goals. In the kitchen, she found a bottle of wine on the fridge door and hoped it wasn’t too old.

Pouring the wine into the glass, she felt her headache pick up as her pulse did. Media. Any time one of their deeds involved the media, Ashley was guaranteed a headache until the event was over. Almost two months until Christmas, was she really prepared to deal with a headache lasting that long?

Ashley left the bottle on the counter and went to peer out the window. The gloomy greyness did little to ease her worries. She watched someone on the sidewalk below as they weaved around a bicycle rider and a newspaper box before jogging up the two steps into the little store. Would she ever be normal? Would the media ever let her live her life without watching her, waiting for her to slip and fall so they could make her headline news again?  A BMW pulled up to the curb in front of the store and Ashley whirled around. The car reminded her of Michael, reminded Ashley that the media was on his side, and always would be.  

“I guess Suze is over the moon about this project?” Ashley forced a note of cheer into her voice as she returned to the living room with Char’s wine.

“She is now. I had to make a lot of compromises with her, too.” Char took the glass Ashley offered and sipped, nodding her approval. “I promised we’d use only compost friendly plates, that we would make the compost and recycling program part of the publicity, and that we wouldn’t use disposable foil roasters. I’d already figured we’d have to buy a bunch of roasting pans anyhow, so that wasn’t much of a sacrifice. We’ll make the pans we buy and donate part of the publicity. Let Soph figure out how to spin the whole ‘now they’ve got top of the line roasting pans forever and won’t need to invest in disposable foil products that harm the environment and cost a fortune’. Oh, and she’s allowed to make up pamphlets to hand out on biodegradable paper about the importance of taking care of the planet. I nixed the blurb about cigarettes since she doesn’t so much care about the dangers of second-hand smoke and more about the litter the butts create. And – you tell her I said this, I’ll call you a filthy liar – those pamphlets will save us on napkins because I’m sure the flimsy paper will be mistaken for napkins and people will wipe their mouths with them.”

Ashley chuckled, sitting on the sofa at the opposite end from Char. She didn’t want the publicity, didn’t want the public scrutiny, but it was for a good cause. Sighing heavily, she stared at Char. “If you promise no one knows it’s me, I’ll go along with it.”

Char jumped up, sloshing wine onto the carpet. “Shit, sorry, but thank you!”

Setting her glass down on the glass topped table next to the cooling bean bag, Char glided into the kitchen. Ashley let her eyes close and her body tense in her friend’s absence. She didn’t care about white wine on the dark area rug. Her mind was racing with worries that something would go wrong at Christmas, and she’d have to face the media again.

Chapter One

November 1st, almost five years later.

Ashley opened her car door and shivered as a sudden blast of crisp fall air hit her like a sucker punch. She’d parked beneath one of the many strategically placed lampposts illuminating the parking lot, disappointed she hadn’t been able to park near the entrance. She hunched into her coat as she climbed out and closed the door, scanning the lot for familiar vehicles. She locked the doors and  took a deep breath, planning the fastest route to warmth. Her high heels clicked on the pavement as she darted around parked cars, aiming for the sidewalk surrounding the trendy coffee shop. Her purse bounced on her hip as she clutched the lapels of her coat closed, trying to block the cold wind.  

Turning the corner, a frigid gust almost took her breath away, but Ashley paused at the row of three newspaper boxes still displaying the daily papers lining the brick wall at the entrance. Nothing caught her eye until she got to the last one, the black box containing the Toronto Reporter. The urge to kick the glass hit her so fast her foot left the pavement before common sense prevailed. Behind the glass was a full page colour photo of Toronto’s illustrious mayor, Michael Golden Sr., with his hand lifted in a wave to an invisible crowd, his handsome face beaming.

Ashley saw the monster behind the mask, the cracks in the chiseled good looks. Thinning hair, beady eyes behind wire-framed glasses, blood thirsty sneer not quite covered by his honed-for-the-camera smile, leering at her from inside the box. Ashley’s head pounded as another icy burst  lifted locks of hair from her face. The headline screamed Mayor Golden Promises More Funds to Fight Crime.

Ashley snorted and tore her gaze from the photo as images of the mayor’s son crept, unbidden and unwelcome, into her head. Not the Michael she’d thought she’d known, but the savage beast he truly was. Uglier, crueler, even more evil than his father.

Ashley shivered as she marched to the door, not from the chill this time but from her thoughts. She yanked the handle of one of the heavy glass doors and stepped inside. The inner doors were propped open but she was forced to stop at the end of the long line. She released her grip on her coat, shook out her left hand, and peered at her gold watch. Thirteen minutes until she could accuse her friends of being late.

The line inched forward and she moved fully into the coffee shop, flinching at the loud drone of voices coming from every direction. There were potted trees blocking her view of the seating area. The heavy-set woman in front of her was barking at someone Ashley couldn’t see. She shifted from one foot to the other and realized the woman was talking on her phone. A tall man, reeking of cheap cologne, got into line behind her, humming.

The line moved again and now Ashley could see inside properly. She raked the sea of people but no familiar faces stood out. Someone shouted from behind, triggering an invisible vice to squeeze her skull violently. At this rate, the Society meeting would go on without her. She shuffled along as the line shortened, relieved when the woman ahead of her stepped to the far end of the long counter to place her order. Ashley pressed her fingers to her temples. 

“May I take your order?”

Ashley dropped her hands and forced a smile for the pimple-faced young man standing behind the counter in front of her. “Large decaf, double cream please.”

He punched buttons on the keyboard. “That’ll be two-twenty-five.”

The young man scanned his coworkers, all busy filling previous orders. He looked tired but hurried to make the coffee while Ashley searched her leather wallet for a bill smaller than a fifty.

She pulled out a ten as he set the cup in front of her and she passed the money over. “Keep the change.”

He perked up, smiling from ear to ear. “For real? Thanks.”

Ashley wrapped both hands around the cup to warm them as she searched for somewhere to sit.  She spotted an empty table at the back and headed for it even though there weren’t enough seats.

“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you,” Ashley murmured under her breath when the couple at the table beside the empty one got up and took their garbage. She offered a small smile as they passed, set her purse on one table, and sat with her coffee at the other. The banter and chatter around her felt like stones pitched at her head. Ashley took a deep breath, trying to relax. A large group of teenagers got up, their laughter and jeering cat-calls fading the closer to the exit they got.

“There you are, darling. Saw your ugly car in the lot.” Sophie, a tall woman with ice blue eyes and hair frosted so expertly only her long-time friends knew she wasn’t a natural blonde, leaned over to air kiss Ashley’s cheek.

Caught by surprise, Ashley forced a smile as she moved her purse for Sophie. “You’re early.”

“Meeting ended early. Thought I’d see if anyone was here. If I hadn’t spotted your clunker I was going to head over to that cute little boutique in the next plaza. I know they’re not on par with what I usually buy but I like to help the little people when I can.” Sophie smiled proudly, as if she’d just announced she was ending world poverty by shopping at a high-end of mid-class store.

“I go in often. The owner is heavily involved in one of the charities I work with.” A chair scraped the tile floor nearby and Ashley winced. To cover her reaction, she lifted her cup to her lips, but didn’t sip. “Aren’t you going to have a coffee?”

“I will when that kid emptying the garbage brings it.” Sophie sniffed, looking around for whoever she’d ordered her drink from.

“You’re supposed to get it yourself.” Ashley gestured to the long line of tired looking people waiting their turn. Trust Sophie to expect table service.

“Are you kidding? That old guy second from the end sneezed when I came in, and I’m sure he farted at the same time. I am not standing behind that.” Sophie wrinkled her (expensive and expertly crafted) nose, waving off Ashley’s concern. “I offered the kid some cash, told him what I wanted, and said he could keep the change.”

A different boy than the one who’d served Ashley appeared. This boy’s face was unblemished, but he had the look of an awkward puppy who hadn’t yet grown into his huge paws.

“Here you go, medium coffee with two espresso shots.” His face turned red as he set a take-out cup in front of Sophie. His puppy-dog eyes were fixed on Sophie, but Sophie simply nodded curtly and looked the other way. He finally sidled off like a scolded puppy denied a bone.

She sipped her fancy coffee, making a face. “I don’t know why we bother meeting here. I’d much rather have gone to that bistro around the corner, had a good cappuccino or a real espresso.”

“Well, this is where Char said to meet. I guess you’ll have to ask her why she picked here.” Ashley rubbed her temples and imagined being alone on a little island with nothing but sand, sun, and surf to keep her company. Where the only news that mattered was the tide. She was still chilled and rubbed her arms through her coat.

“You getting sick?” Sophie turned her attention back to Ashley.

“No, just a headache brewing.”

“Go home.” Sophie shrugged as she looked up. “Oh wait, here they come now.”

Relief flooded Ashley as she watched the three women winding their way around crowded tables, each carrying a different sized cup and laughing. Char, with long, curly black hair, was the most exotic. Heads turned as she passed, her long skirt and peasant blouse fluttering as she drifted to the table. Whether the kids still lingering near the front went to Liz’s school or not, they all hushed when they spied her following Char. Liz was no-nonsense, sleek, and professional. Even her short brown hair and power suit screamed principal (or dragon lady, as Liz swore the students called her behind her back). Even Ashley sometimes felt intimated by Liz. Suzanne, sweet Suze with the mousy brown hair and muddy eyes, pulled up the rear. Suze was the timid wallflower (unless someone littered; they’d learned as kids never to rile Suze by disrespecting Mother Earth around her). Suze never wore make-up, never dressed up, and always looked as though she expected someone to tell her to move along, that she didn’t belong with the pretty people.

“What the hell are you wearing, Suze? A potato sack?” Sophie laughed as the women found seats. Char sat across from Ashley as Liz and Suze settled at Sophie’s table.

“It’s hemp, one of the world’s –” Suze trailed off when the other women began to chatter over her.

“Smart getting our drinks in the drive-thru first.” Char gestured to the line now snaking around the outside of the building. “Would’ve taken at least a half an hour otherwise.”

“You came together?” Sophie pouted. “Why didn’t you pick me up too?”

“Because you refuse to sit in the back seat and I called shotgun.” Char’s brown-black eyes glittered menacingly. “Anything else you want to bitch about?”

“Yeah, why here? The coffee is crap.” Sophie folded her arms over her ample bosom and glared.

Ashley tried to follow the conversation but found the effort exhausting. She settled in her seat and let them get on with their gossiping and griping. If Char hadn’t insisted tonight’s meeting was urgent, Ashley wouldn’t have bothered leaving her condo. Ashley sputtered, coughed to cover her reaction, when she glanced over at the man next to them. He’d just opened the Reporter, leaving Golden Sr. at eye level, waving at her. Her head gave a thump and Ashley almost bolted until Char touched her hand.

“You okay?” Char whispered so only Ashley could hear.

“Mm. Headache.” Ashley sipped her coffee and let her eyes stay closed for an extra few beats of a blink.

“I’ll be quick.” Char shot the newspaper a dirty look as she opened her briefcase. “Time to get down to business.”

Sophie drummed her long nails on the tabletop. “Couldn’t we have done this somewhere better? I just know some idiot is going to dent my Porsche.”

“I get it, you don’t approve of our location. Crap coffee, careless drivers, your concerns have been noted and will be considered the next time we meet. We can be out of here a hell of a lot sooner if you’d just shut up long enough for me to talk.”

Char rifled through her briefcase and pulled out a thick folder. She removed the papers and passed out thick stacks bound by paper clips to each of them. She put the empty folder away and held her own sheath of papers, flipping the pages. Ashley glanced at hers but her vision blurred, so she put them under her purse and waited for someone to tell her what they said.

“Here, page three — as per our last meeting, I went ahead and arranged for us to work at a homeless shelter on Christmas Day. Not just any homeless shelter, either. The big one.” Char took time to look at each of them, a big smile lighting her face. Ashley followed Char’s gaze and would’ve laughed at the expressions on their faces if her head wasn’t threatening to split in two. Suze bit her lip, her trembling hand setting the reusable mug of whatever she was drinking down. Liz looked bored as she pressed the screen on her tablet, and Sophie’s mouth opened wide as she scowled.

“What time?” Liz asked, still tapping the screen.

“Noon until four. Don’t worry, you’ll still have time to do your family crap after.” Ashley noticed Char directed her words at Sophie. “It’s all on the sheets I handed you, along with schedules. Ash and I will work the longest Christmas Day but the rest of you have more to do to prepare in the weeks leading up to Christmas.”

“The world wastes billions of trees by printing scores of paper no one needs –” Suze faltered when Liz gave her a sharp look.

“I’m in.” Ashley picked up the papers and her purse as she stood. “If there’s nothing else, I need to go. Migraine brewing.”

“Squeeze the spot between your thumb and index finger–” Suze trailed off when Char hushed her but showed Ashley the spot she meant when Char’s attention switched to her briefcase, pulling out her notebook.

“Just one more thing, I need your pledge.” Char flipped through the pages, frowning.

“I gave it to you last week, for the month.” Ashley squeezed her eyes shut, trying to block out the glaring fluorescent lights. She forced a smile when she opened them.

Char studied her for several seconds. “Oh, right — it’s Soph that owes us for last month and this month. Your hours might be seven to three but there’re still details to hammer out down the road. I’ll call you tomorrow if anything you need to know pops up tonight.”

Char dismissed her with a casual wave belied by the furrow of concern between her eyes. Ashley left her barely touched coffee on the table knowing Suze would throw – recycle — it for her and bolted from the group, pulling her suede coat tight around her as she went. 

Her car beckoned as Ashley came around the corner. There were fewer cars now and she took long strides, desperate to get inside. As she crossed the front bumper, she pulled her fob out of her pocked.

Bang!  

Ashley stumbled, her keys flying out of her hand. She dove to the pavement, covering her head, her heart pounding as her brain screamed ‘run’. Her ears rang with the echoing bang, tears blurred her vision. Crouching between her car and the one parked beside her, she lifted her head to find the source of the gunshot, not wanting to run the wrong way and right into the line of fire.  

“What’d you drop the lid for, you idiot? Scared the hell out of me!”

Ashley watched the girl who’d yelled flick her cigarette as she shouted at the young guy who’d brought Sophie her coffee. The tall kid looked sheepishly at his coworker as he shrugged. “Sorry. Slipped and dropped the lid when I was throwing the bags in.”

Ashley picked up her keys and straightened, her nerves still screaming. The instant of sheer panic left her a wreck. She opened her door to engage the interior light and searched the backseat from outside, then inside the car.  She tossed her purse and the papers on the passenger seat as she slid into her seat. Her imagination went into overdrive, and she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up all over again, convinced someone was watching her, stalking her.

“Stop. Just stop. You’re fine. No one’s watch—” Ashley froze as she reached for her seatbelt. There was someone watching her from the next car. Instantly convinced it was Jr., she prepared to flee. The sane part of her mind registered the good-looking man, a man who looked nothing like Michael. She tried to smile but quit when her head thumped. She jammed the key in the ignition, made sure the radio was off and the heat on high, before she turned the key. Without waiting for the engine to warm, she shifted into first, released the emergency brake, and pulled out of her parking spot.

Traffic was unusually light as she pulled onto Bloor Street which meant not as many headlights shining into her eyes. Home. That’s all Ashley wanted. It took everything in her power not to stomp on the gas. When rain splashed her window, she turned on the wipers. The squelching, squealing, and thumping as the blades slid over glass radiated through her skull. The heater kicked in as she entered her Rosedale neighborhood. Her condo was on the outskirts of the exclusive community (her parents and grandparents both lived in the ‘old money’ section, as did the Golden’s).  

Her head pounded a tattoo any marching band would struggle to keep up with. The rain began to fall in sheets, forcing her to turn her wipers on high, but at least they no longer screamed dragging across the window. As she pulled into the driveway of her underground, she pressed the button to automatically open the door. The instant the nose of her car was inside the garage, she turned the wipers off. She drove past rows of expensive cars until she turned into her row and stopped. Her spot was the second one on the right, so she quickly reversed into her spot. She turned the key to cut the engine but left them in the ignition. The underground was a haven; all sounds muffled, the lighting low. Feeling nauseous, she rested her head against her headrest and closed her eyes.

An angry honk shattered the blessed peace she’d found. Ashley whipped her head to the left, her heart pounding in her chest. A black car sat inches from her door. Confusion raced with her pulse as she tried to figure out why the car was parked that way, why they continued to honk. The cobwebs cleared and Ashley realized her car had rolled to the middle of the aisle. She’d put her standard transmission in neutral but forgotten to set the parking brake. She jammed her foot down on the clutch, shifted into reverse, and hit the gas. The car didn’t move. She tried again, panicking. What was wrong with her car? She realized she’d forgotten to turn the key, but before she could fix her error, she heard a door slam. The sound echoed through the underground as the driver of the other car approached so fast she never got to see his face. She registered the fit outline beneath a form fitting black t-shirt, and fear filled her all over again. Every man in her building was overweight or soft (except Danny Ellis on the tenth floor, who had been positively skeletal the last time Ashley had seen him because of chemo and a long battle with cancer).  

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Ashley muttered even though he couldn’t possibly hear her with her window up. Turning the key, she released the clutch too quickly and stalled.

“Geez, come on, I’m not a new driver!” Ashley pounded the steering wheel with her left hand as she turned the key with her right. She revved her engine once before expertly reversing into her spot. She took a bracing breath as she set the parking brake and turned the car off. The momentary fear left her as she gathered her things. “You live in a high security building, dummy. You’re dealing with a rich a-hole, not a Golden one.”

 Her head still pounded but the sight of the irate man fueled her. She got out of her car and pressed the lock button, resisting the urge to flinch at the echoing honk. She waited for his raging diatribe to slow, shuffling the papers she held as she slung her purse over her shoulder.

“Could’ve hit you. Killed you. What were you –”

Ashley raised an eyebrow, hoping to look bored rather than about to keel over. “I’m really sorry, please stop shouting.”

The man opened his mouth and closed it again. Ashley felt the vise-like pressure on her head throb once more but bit her lip to stop a grin when she realized he reminded her of a fish out of water. She almost smiled until his green eyes narrowed. “Are you drunk?”

Ashley’s heart thumped wildly as her temper flared. She suddenly recognized the man, and his words pissed her off. The handsome guy she’d noticed in the parking lot at the coffee shop, the one she’d tried and failed to smile at, was the same guy who’d just screamed his fool head off at her. She thought she knew everyone in her building but she’d never seen this guy in her life until today.

Her head pounded, reminding her why she’d been so careless. “I’ve got a colossal headache and I rested my head a second. Forgot to set the brake. I am not drunk.”

Something flashed in his eyes. If the headache hadn’t resumed its attack, she might’ve puzzled over the ominous feeling, but all she really cared about at that moment was crawling into bed. She left him standing in the middle of the aisle and stormed over to the elevators without another word.

Prologue

April 17

The pain was unlike anything Ashley had ever experienced. Her vision blurred, doubled, faded, her ears rang, all sense of where she was, who she was erased by blows to her head, her neck, her spine. She tried to listen for signs, but all she could hear were the echoes of gunshots. Bile rose to the back of her throat, threatening to choke her. She tried to get up but her head pounded and her body felt like something weighed her down and she didn’t have the strength to fight.

“Jesus, Ashley, you’re so beautiful, so perfect.”

Ashley blinked, searching for the source of the voice. A dark shape hovered over her and she tried to reach up to touch but her hands were pinned to her sides. Where was she? Who was talking? She knew horror when a finger traced over her cheek, brushed hair back from her face.

“Why do you look so disgusted by my touch? You love me, you’ve said it twenty-three times. I kept count.” The voice coming from the dark shape hovering over her was familiar, so familiar. Alex?

“Alex?” Ashley whispered the name even as she knew it couldn’t be him. Alex would help her, would hold her. Not Alex’s voice. It wouldn’t hurt her face to say his name.

The shape growled and she felt the weight on her shift. Her left hand rose into the air as if attached to a string a marionette controlled. She tried to see, but the nausea overwhelmed her and she heaved as something tugged on her finger. She heard a sob as she swallowed the acid down again, trying not to choke.

“I can’t believe you took his ring, agreed to be his wife. You’re mine, Ashley. Say it, say you love me.”

Ashley struggled to speak, to ask where she was, but her jaw wouldn’t move. She tried to open her mouth to scream but pain radiated from her jaw to her brain.

The weight on her chest shifted again, and she thought she could smell sweat and despair. If crazy had a scent, Ashley was sure what she smelled now would be it.

“I guess you can’t talk, huh?” The giggle. The male, high pitched giggle triggered a memory. What? Who?

“Look at me, Ashley, look at me. See me, love me.”

Ashley blinked, tried to focus, blinked again. She saw two Michaels inches from her face, staring down at her with an insanity in his eyes she’d never seen before. “God, your eyes, they see inside me. You said you loved me. I thought you saw inside me and loved who you saw, but then you took his ring. How could you? First you gave him your body, then you gave him your soul. I thought you loved me. I’m the Golden Boy, you should’ve loved me, promised me forever.”

Ashley wanted to shake her head, scream that she’d only ever said she loved him the way she did with all her friends. Never the way she said it to Alex, showed Alex. Her mouth wouldn’t open, and her head hurt too much to move.

“I’ve got one bullet left, Ashley. Say you love me or I put the bullet in your brain. I’ll do it from the side so I can still see your eyes. Watch as the life and the light die in them. The blood on your forehead isn’t anywhere near as pretty as your hair. I want to wash the blood off so I can see your pretty face properly when you say the words. Say you love me when I come back, tell me, show me. I’ll get you a better ring than this.”

Ashley tried to focus on what Michael was showing her but her vision swam. It had to be her engagement ring, the ring Alex had given her – when? An hour ago? Two? Ten?

She heard something small hit the wall, the same wall she knew was now riddled with bullets, and heard it bounce across the floor. She’d find her ring, put her ring back on her finger, if Michael would just get off her.

“I’m going to make you pretty so you can say you love me. Don’t go anywhere.” Michael brushed a kiss over her lips and Ashley almost threw up. She felt the weight on her body ease, felt a breeze on her flesh – dear God, was she naked? What had she done? What had he done to her? She hadn’t been so drunk she’d have betrayed Alex, would she? A tear escaped as she felt around for her ring. Her hand found something cold, something metal. She gripped it with her left hand and tried to lift the object so she could see. She realized it was Michael’s gun, Terror quickened her pulse and her hands shook. She almost dropped the gun but then she remembered – one more bullet. The next shot would kill her. Ashley forced herself to sit up, holding the gun out in front of her like she’d seen in the movies, tried to aim at the wall. Her vision grayed and she saw double again. She saw two dark shapes moving – towards her? Away? She pointed the gun at the wall between the shapes and fired. Her eardrums throbbed from the sound, her arms jerked, and the gun dropped to the floor. So did the dark shape.

“Michael?” Ashley whispered his name when she heard a faint groan. “Michael?”

Ashley forced herself to roll over, got to her knees, her arms felt weak as they shook supporting her upper body weight. Every inch of her screamed in agony, she almost blacked out again. She blinked but her vision wouldn’t clear. She tried to stand but couldn’t. “Michael?”

She began to crawl on her hands and knees. Her hands were wet, her knees slid. Blood, she could smell the metallic scent, could feel herself slipping in it.

“Michael!” She tried to scream as her jaw felt like it ripped apart.

She was beside him now, feeling for his pulse but she couldn’t find one because her hand shook. She ran her hands over his body, down his bare chest to the jeans opened at the fly. His phone was clipped to his waistband. She freed it, tried to see to dial. She kept messing up. She willed herself to ignore the pain, pressed the home button to activate Siri.

“Call 9-1-1!” Ashley thanked God when the phone began to ring.

“9-1-1 what’s your emergency?”

“Ambulance. Gun. Help.” Ashley struggled to speak into the phone as Michael’s hand reached for her. She managed to tell the operator her address before she collapsed on top of Michael, sobbing.

“Don’t die, please don’t die.” Ashley’s tears burned her skin, the vomit she’d avoided spewing now came up, narrowly missing Michael’s body. The smell of the vomit mixing with the blood released more vomit, until all she could smell was her own fluids. “I don’t want to be the reason you die.”

“You do love me –” Michael whispered, his hands wrapping around Ashley as she heaved again.