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.