When old man Brady brushed up against her, using the contact as an opportunity to slide his hand around her thigh to cup her butt, Meredith Hanover was positive one of two things would happen.
She was either going to vomit the petit fours and hors d'oeuvres of tonight's charity event all over his tux or knee him in the groin.
Oh, how she wished she could do something. Meredith swallowed hard, forcing back the bile that had risen, and stepped away, scanning the room for her father. If she made a scene, if she insulted the man Father hoped would soon merge his bank with Father's brokerage company, there would be hell to pay.
Why couldn't he have left her alone? She'd selected a quiet corner by a plant as her cover and was attempting to enjoy the profiteroles, her dessert plate thankfully hiding a brochure that someone—she couldn't recall who—had thrust at her at the dessert table. Inside the folded paper contained the outline of the next charity and likely her next obligation. Tonight's charity event not even over and already someone was planning another. It wasn't about doing good; it was about looking good. Looking important and being seen. She could hear their requests in her head. She really must be on the board they'd said. They couldn't do it without her. Yet, they'd done just as well before she got involved.
The brochure had been the instigator for the initial flashes of a headache.
Then Brady had infiltrated her hidey-hole spot and pinched her rear.
Behind her right eye, a sharp stabbing pain began to pulse.
She should have stayed in the open. He'd have never been so bold had she not been behind the potted plant.
She thrust her dish at Beady-eyed Brady. “I'm not feeling well.”
He took the dish and leered. “I can take you to my home. Your father would approve.”
Meredith covered her mouth and spun on her heels. Her goal was to reach the nearest ladies room as quickly as she could without breaking into a run.
Were there other people in the world that hated their lives as much as she did?
For what had to be the millionth time, she wished her life were different. She craved a miracle that would change everything.
If given the chance at one wish, Meredith was certain most people would ask for three more wishes. Not Meredith, she would be content with the one. That was all she needed to change her life. One simple wish. The trick came in how she would word said request.
There would be no asking for freedom. It wasn’t specific enough. Asking for freedom from her father was likely too vague as well.
No, she would have to be right on point. She'd have to ask for a new life in a certain town with a great job. Maybe running a bookstore or being a teacher. She did have her degree in education, after all. Though, if that didn’t work, she’d clean houses or work with animals, having always loved horses. Anything had to be better than what she did. Eavesdropping for her father was not an occupation or a purposeful life.
While managing to avoid all eye contact, Meredith wove through the crowd, circumventing her father, her focus on the ladies’ room. Her teeth clenched together with hopes of holding back both the headache and nausea, she pushed the door open then slipped through the narrow opening, anxious for the door to close behind her. Blissfully, she noted the room was empty. Afraid she might still be sick, Meredith locked herself in a stall and waited, hoping the quiet would help her headache recede.
One wish. That's all she needed.
Meredith knew there'd be some nuance she’d forget to consider with that one wish. A distinction small enough it would easily be overlooked but significant enough she would end up with her “freedom,” but living a life just as unfulfilling, uneventful, and sadly as heartbreaking as her current one.
Therefore, she concluded, even if she found a genie in a bottle, her life would not improve, and wishing things would change was never going to be enough. Action would be required on her part. It was up to her to take back her freedom.
How did the saying go? Freedom doesn’t come free. Apparently not in any situation. Was she willing to pay the price? Looking from the outside, her life appeared cushy. After all, she was a resident of Victors Club, one of the richest suburbs outside Dallas-Fort Worth. Nothing said “winner” more than a postal code that deemed it so. Oh, and the three-quarter-of-a-million dollar starter homes. Her father's home, a brick two-story McMansion with a chauffeur, a cook, and a housekeeper was a dream for most people. Who wouldn't want that?
All these people around her, but no one to really talk with. All the money to make life enjoyable, but the marble and steel decor of her father's home made her feel cold and breakable. All those advantages, but none for her. She was only permitted to go and do as much as her father's leash would allow. Sure, he thought she had everything. Pretty dresses and fancy shoes to wear to charity events. What more could she want?
What more indeed. Simply contemplating her life made the pain behind her eyes flare.
She braced her hand against the stall wall, not caring if her forced yoga breathing sounded odd or out of place. Giving into the oncoming headache would be far worse. These events did this to her every time. Bad Breath Brady made them come on quicker.
It was hard to make conversation and “keep her ears open” like her father demanded when she was doing everything in her power to not lie on the floor, cover her eyes with her arm, and fade to black. That was the best way to deal with a painful onslaught poorly named a benign migraine. It should be called “sledgehammer headache” or “slow death.”
Her hand shook when she raised her arm to cover her eyes. The paper she’d forgotten she was holding drew her attention when it flapped and crinkled.
She peeked at it from under her arm.
Youth Village of Dallas. A local orphanage and treatment center for kids. It was an admirable charity in all aspects. Who didn’t want to help parentless children? Who didn’t want to give them clothes and toys they would not normally receive?
Meredith Hanover, that was who.
Oh, sure, she wanted to help, just as much as the rest of them. She was not even remotely that black-hearted. She rather liked the idea of being present when the kids got their gifts. That would be far lovelier than these sterile, extravagant money-wasting banquets. She’d done her share last year, her first year with the charity. She’d done so well she’d exceeded the established goal by an additional eighty thousand dollars. Her colleagues, a term she used loosely since they were her mother’s friends, had closed the event with a stunning gala and awarded Meredith Woman of the Year. Something her mother had also achieved during her short life before her unexpected death. Meredith had come away from the event with additional pressure from her father, her first migraine, and never seeing the face of one kid who would benefit.
Crumbling the paper, Meredith dropped it in the toilet and flushed.
“I’m an awful person,” she mumbled, rubbing her temples, and squinting as she watched the crumbled ball swirl around the bowl before disappearing.
“I highly doubt that,” said the person in the stall next to her.
Meredith hadn’t heard anyone come into the ladies’ room. She knew she should apologize but said instead, “It’s true.”
Ducking her head to rest against the cold metal of the stall, she closed her eyes once more and gave a fruitless effort to mentally bat away the pain. The headache was in full bloom.
“I’ve known you a long time, Meredith Hanover, and being a horrible person is never a phrase that’s associated with your name. Ever. Quite the opposite, actually.”
Meredith tried to place the voice, but as the throbbing increased, her awareness decreased. “That’s because I have you all fooled. The thought of helping orphaned children has sent me to the restroom hiding.” Never mind Brady's wandering hands.
“Funny, it did the same to me as well. Perhaps it’s because we, in our own way, are orphans ourselves.”
Curiosity getting the best of her, Meredith slid along the wall of the stall until she came to the door and turned the latch, releasing it. Stepping back, she let it slowly swing open while she lifted her arm to shade her eyes. She searched the room for the woman who was speaking.
The lights dimmed, she assumed by the other woman in the room, and Meredith took in her first steady breath of relief. “Yes.”
She felt a hand gently take her elbow and guide her to a plush bench in the waiting room of the ladies’ restroom. Because, even here, at the Museum of Fine Art, women needed a place to gossip privately. Many deals were made while lipstick was being reapplied and hair resprayed.
“Thank you.” She leaned back against the bench and slowly moved her arm to her side. The lack of direct light was a relief of the highest degree. The only thing that would be better would be to fall into bed and sleep it off.
Through squinty eyes, she stared up at her benefactress. “Sabrina Holloway?” She knew of the woman more than she knew the actual person, though her mom had spoken kindly of her since they’d served on many boards together.
Sabrina eased down next to her. “It’s been a while since our paths crossed. These days I think the only event we chair together is the fundraiser for the Veteran’s home.”
“That had been my mom’s favorite.” Meredith forced herself to think of something other than her mother or else she’d likely break down in tears. With pain akin to that of the migraine, each trip down memory lane was powerfully heavy with remorse and laced with what-ifs. But was the grass ever greener? Entertaining those fantasies was an awful endeavor that left her feeling more alone and hopeless than usual. She’d rather push back the sun than journey down the what-if path.
“Of all the vets, those old, cranky world-war vets are my favorite as well. I could give every last charity up but that one.” Sabrina sighed. “It's harder seeing the young guys come in. And with no families.”
“Heartbreaking even.” She leaned her head against the wall, her eyes closed. “Do you ever get tired of it all Sabrina?”
“All the time. But I take a vacation or try something new—a hobby if you will—and reset. There are worse activities one can be engaged in.”
Meredith lifted one lid a smidge. “I’m not sure there is. At least for me there isn't. Making constant pleasantries is wearing.”
“You need to get away.” Sabrina sat next to her and held out her hand, palm up, presenting two small capsules. “Take these.” She held a cup of water in her other hand.
“Will they put me out of my misery?” Meredith mumbled before scooping up the pills.
“Temporarily, I hope. You really should think of taking some time away.”
Meredith’s nod was subtle, as motion tended to make her stomach roll. “The last time I got away was…eight years ago.” Man, she sounded pathetic. But it was hard to sound anything else when admitting the last time your family went on vacation was the trip when your mother died.
“Ah.” Sabrina didn’t need to offer anything further. She knew. Everyone knew really. Her mother was greatly missed. Meredith was a shallow replacement for a woman so beloved. It wasn’t that she hadn’t tried, but had her father not demanded she participate in every single charity situation imaginable that he felt would benefit him, had he not forced her into her mother’s social shoes, she might have found happiness in the work. But when every aspect of a person's life was controlled by another, Meredith was certain pleasure couldn't be found. At least she'd never come across it.