It’s almost spring. Stepping through the pristine glass doors of my building, I notice for the very first time that the morning air isn’t filled with the crisp bite of winter. The sun shines unimpeded over the shiny black surface of my town car, and there are birds chirping in the still barren trees overhead.
It’s all a sign of good things to come.
“Good morning, Ms. Gallagher,” my driver greets me, a broad grin stretching across his stubble spattered cheeks as he pulls open the back door of the car.
“Good Morning, Hugh.” I wink as I duck below the roof and settle into the wide leather seat, already warmed for me. The cup of coffee I need to start my day is sitting in the cup holder, along with a newspaper. I nearly roll my eyes as I look up and meet Hugh’s in the rearview mirror. He chuckles to himself as he pulls off the curb.
“The problem with people today is that no one reads the damn newspaper.”
He’s said that to me countless times, and so, as we sit in traffic, I drown out the sounds of horns and the pedestrians passing by my window by doing my part to solve the problem, and read the paper. It’s dry mostly. The stock market is performing fine, the Governor signed a new bill about healthcare, and Syracuse is advancing to the next round of the March Madness tournament. The world seems to be turning just as it always does, but when I turn the page and see a very familiar perfect coif of bronze hair shining at me like a Pantene ad, I scowl.
It’s seems, once again, Grey Enterprises Holdings has broken new ground in the technology industry in New York. A quick cursory glance of the article, though, tells me… it’s not in fiber optics. Grey’s acquired some green energy think-tank that just had their funding pulled by NYU.
“What are you up to?” I wonder aloud, narrowing my eyes at the paper as I search for answers.
I first met Christian Grey in 2009. His company was starting to make waves on the West coast but Grey Enterprises Holdings wasn’t even a blip on my radar back then. The fiber optics industry was like the Wild West during the gold rush. Open. Lawless. Filled with possibility. There was no competition yet, and the money came pouring in.
I went to a conference about fiber optics technologies advancements hosted in Los Angeles that winter, both to make sure I really was providing a product as cutting edge as I thought I was and because a streaming company was quietly shopping for upgraded fiber optics service. I’d gotten the tip from my old college roommate, who was VP at the time, and she’d assured me no one else knew. So, I floated around that conference like I owned the place, sipping champagne as I mingled with the other names in the industry.
When I first saw Grey, I thought he was an intern. He was barely old enough to drink, and he stood out like a sore thumb amongst the 30 and 40 somethings I was quickly growing tired of having the same inane conversations with. When his business partner finally made her way over to introduce herself, I gave her a gracious smile and my name, and to my shock, Christian Grey knew exactly who I was. He started listing off my company’s biggest achievements as though he’d had them written on a note card. It put me at a disadvantage because I didn’t know what he had done. I didn’t know what he was like. And I didn’t know the speaker we were all waiting on ran his god damn R&D department. All I knew is how utterly charming he was, and I let him take me for sucker that night.
Because the next day, I found out about Christian Grey. I met my friend for lunch, where she’d planned to take me to speak with the CEO about Gallagher Corporation’s fiber optics service. She smiled sweetly as she walked right past his assistant’s protests and opened the door to find him sitting across the desk from the same smug smile I’ve grown to detest more than anything else in the world.
I walked in just in time to see their handshake.
And that’s the story of our relationship. He’s one step ahead, one phone call in front of me. Always. It’s like being in traffic, not able to move, not able to go back. If I could, I would ram him out of my god damn way, but every time I’ve tried, it’s bit me in the ass. He’s ruthless. He comes for you. And after he’s done all the destruction he can, some sweet gesture of good will follows a few days later. Like a wedding invitation.
The car comes to a stop as I roll my eyes, remembering the announcement that Grey wouldn’t be making an appearance his own wedding that I’d flown 3,000 fucking miles to attend. I tuck the paper in my bag and flash another grateful smile to Hugh as he helps me out of the car.
The moment I step through the doors of Gallagher Corporation, I’m swept up in a whirlwind of busy. There’s a service outage all across the East Village that takes two hours with my tech team to resolve, I’ve got two client meetings to get in before lunch, and my accounting team weighs down my afternoon with less than desirable news about our Q1 revenue streams. While Fiber Optics continues to boom, almost a quarter of my divisions are underperforming, and there isn’t a division sinking our profit margin more than publishing. As I look over the financial reports the advisors in front of me have drawn up, laying out the dire financial situation of Greenwich Small Press, I feel myself grow hot.
The Seattle branch is bleeding, and Wallace still hasn’t found me a director.
Gathering the reports, I storm back to my office and shout for my assistant to get Scott on the phone. The ping that he’s waiting on the line for me comes through before I even take my seat behind my desk.
“Another quarter, another loss,” I say without greeting. “You’ve got some explaining to do, Scott.”
“I know, it’s rough. I’m trying, but our press is being pushed to the limit and I’m spread so thin…”
“So where’s the Seattle director? I asked you to find me someone weeks ago.”
“I have found someone. I actually just had a, uh… meeting with her the other day. A real giant in the industry I think will bring a fresh perspective and experience.”
“I’m sending you her resume now.” In the span of a breath, my email pings and I see the attachment clipped to the message with Scott’s name. At the same time, my assistant comes through the door with a stack of papers in her hand and an overwhelmed look on her face.
“Great, I’ll review it and get back to you,” I tell Scott, dismissively. Then I hang up and turn to face the girl struggling toward my desk. “Here, let me help you…”
After hours reviewing the audit reports for the data exchanges we send to our third party vendors, I return to the email Scott sent and open the attachment without reading the name attached. It doesn’t actually matter much to me who this person is, only if they’re going to make me money. And their resume is promising. Harvard graduate. Best-selling author. Experience interning with Seattle Independent Publishing.
Something about that makes me furrow my brow, but my concerns are wiped away by the metrics they’ve provided on the very next line. Forty thousand units moved in two months.
My eyes are just moving up to read the name of this diamond in the rough Scott has found when the phone on my desk pings and my secretary’s voice fills the silent room. “Ms. Gallagher?”
“You’ve uh… got Christian Grey on line one.”
“Yeah, should I patch him through?”
I let my head fall back and sigh, not quite prepared for the fight I know is waiting for me behind the blinking light next to the button for line one. It’s always a fight with him, and whatever reason he’s calling now has to be bad…
“Yeah, I’ll take it,” I tell her. Then I pick up the phone, press the button for line one, and prepare myself. “This is Carmen Gallagher.”
“Hold one moment for Christian Grey, please…” a female voice responds. There’s a click, and music begins to play.
That motherfucker put ME on hold?
“You really love pissing me off, don’t you, Gallagher?” His irritated voice breaks through the music a few moments later.
“Usually. But I actually don’t know what you’re talking about this time, Grey. Would you like to elaborate before you start to scream, or do you expect me to catch up?”
“I’m talking about my wife.”
“Anastasia? I haven’t seen her since your gala last New Year’s Eve.”
“Don’t bullshit me, Gallagher. You’re interviewing her on Friday.”
“What?” My eyes turn back to the screen in front of me, and I quickly scroll up until I see the name typed in bold face at the top. Anastasia R Grey. And suddenly, I realize why the intern position at SIP on her resume stuck out to me. She’s the reason I kicked my old R&D coordinator to the curb when he couldn’t produce an eReader that could compete with the one churned out of GEH. She’s the reason Grey’s publishing arm was able to explode so quickly and corner the market on any West coast talent guaranteed to draw in huge sales. She’s the reason my Seattle branch is bleeding.
How could I have forgotten that same fucking intern married my nemesis?
“She’s very highly qualified,” I continue, as though this information hasn’t completely blindsided me. I can hear him drum his fingers impatiently on his desk, which honestly only makes me concerned for the quality of the manicure I’m sure he’s paid top dollar for.
“You’re not going to hire her,” he says firmly. “If fact, you are going to express extreme remorse over missing out on such a valuable talent, but respectfully decline to make an offer. You can lie and say the position has been filled if you want.”
“And why would I do that?”
“Because you’re not an idiot.”
“Oh, how very generous of you,” I coo back, the hard, icy edge to his voice igniting the joy in mine. The one thing I truly have to give this man after all the time I’ve spend fighting him over the last few years is his sense of resolve. Once he’s set on something, he gets it. Usually that works against me, but as I hear the echo of that resolve leak into the anger he’s put on full display for me like a peacock in heat, I catch the undeniable scent of opportunity.
“I’m not fucking around, Gallagher. This is not a request. I expect her to leave that interview on Friday glowing with pride over her incredible accomplishments and success, all of which you will profusely remind her of again and again. I also expect her to leave unemployed.”
“Because you’re afraid she’ll finally put Greenwich back on top?”
“Please,” he snorts. “I have exactly zero fucks to give about Greenwich Small Press. I haven’t even cared about my own publishing house in years.”
“So then, what’s it to you what your wife does?”
“It’s everything to me,” he says, flatly. I hear him take a deep breath, and the weight of the silence hanging on the line makes my heart thud with excitement. He’s pausing… he’s breaking. I’m winning. “Gallagher…”
“Yes, Grey?” I reply in a saccharine tone.
“It would be wise of you to do this for me.” Even through the phone, I can tell the words come through bared teeth.
I grin. “Really? What’s in it for me?”
“What do you want?”
“You’re just gonna offer me a blank check like that? Fuck, I’m going to need some time to think…”
“You don’t have time,” he snaps. “I’ll owe you a favor, Gallagher. Consider how valuable that is.” There’s a click and the phone goes dead. I pull the receiver away from my face, and stare at it for a moment before resting it back in its cradle. Then my eyes return to the resume still open on the screen in front of me.
It’s difficult. My publishing house needs talent like Anastasia Grey. Unlike her husband, I actually do care very much about the profit line from my publishing houses, and if something doesn’t change soon, I’m going to have to cut the whole damn thing to protect my other assets. She’s my missing piece.
But he’s right. A personal favor from Christian Grey is nothing to balk at. Especially knowing that he and I are going to clash against each other in a few weeks over a fiber optics investment the Texas state government is looking to make by Q3. That could be mine, and so, with doubt plaguing my every movement, I drag my mouse to the X at the top of the document, and close the window.
How rare could a talent like Mrs. Anastasia Grey be anyway?
I may have been a little aggressive in the debate I participated in this afternoon.
Standing outside Teddy’s chemistry classroom, my phone buzzes non-stop with texts, emails, and missed calls from my father’s campaign advisors. They’re not happy I said on live television that the only way anyone could believe that the President’s economic policy embodied the type of imagination it takes to make a nation competitive in an international economy would be if they were “a brain-dead coward.”
Apparently, that rhetoric isn’t on message.
I think I went pretty easy on him…
Another email comes through, this time from Kate, who left her job last spring to spearhead media relations for my dad. Her words are sharper and much more threatening than the messages I got from her subordinates, so I sigh before typing out my apology and a promise I’ll behave. My thumb begrudgingly brushes the SEND icon just as I feel a tap on my shoulder.
“He’s in the nurse’s office,” Sawyer tells me. “There’s a secretary at the front door, the nurse is at her desk, and his parents are on their way. You’re not getting in there.”
I slide my phone back in my pocket. “Oh, I’ll get in there. Don’t worry about that. Did you find anything out about Calliope?”
“Nah, none of the staff are gossiping about her, so there’s nothing to overhear.”
I nod. “We’ll have to look deeper, then. After we get back to the house, I need you to go back to GEH and go through the PixC system to download the DMs her friends are sending. Elizabeth–”
“No,” he interrupts me, crossing his arms in defiance. “You know damn well that Ana made me promise I wouldn’t help you spy on the kids.”
“We’ll Ana doesn’t need to know about it.”
“Oh, no. This was a ‘super, best-friend, double, ultra-mega-cross-your-heart-and-swear-to-die’ type swear that she sealed with a packet of hot sauce that said “You’re Cool” on the front of it. That’s unbreakable. You’re on your own with this one, Buddy.”
The bell rings over my scowl and the halls are suddenly flooded with teenagers. The very last one out of Room 118 is the one who belongs to me, and the second Teddy’s eyes find Sawyer, he stumbles backward into the door closing behind him.
“Dad, no! I’m sorry! Please!” he pleads, with wide fearful eyes.
“Calm down, Teddy,” Sawyer says, rolling his eyes. “We’re not going to murder you.”
“Speak for yourself,” I grumble, then I glance in the direction I want him to go and give him a blunt, “Walk.”
He starts down the hall, and I fall in behind him like a shadow. I can see him taking deep breaths to calm his nerves and reassure himself, but the glimpse I get of his face as we turn a corner tells me he’s not having a lot of luck. As we approach the door for the office, I reach out and squeeze his shoulder. He gulps when he feels the nudge I give him in the direction of the door.
“What was the kid’s name who you hit?” I ask, stopping in front of the Secretary’s desk, but looking at my son.
I glance at the secretary, without acknowledging his answer. “Is he still in there? Theodore would like to apologize for his unfortunate conduct this afternoon.” I shoot a dark look down at him, and he turns pale as a sheet.
“Yes, Mr. Grey,” the secretary says, and she smirks down at Teddy, looking as though she’s glad some kind of justice is being done. I place my hand on his shoulder again, and drive him towards the small office near the back.
The same explanation makes the nurse very graciously duck out of her own office before I lead Teddy into the room where Brighton is resting. He’s laying on a pleather covered bed, not much different from the ones in the BDSM clubs I’ve brought Anastasia to over the years when we’re trying to get away from the kids. My son takes a deep breath and steps up to the bruised boy with an ice pack on his head.
“Uh, Brighton? I’m uh…”
“Sit down,” I snap, cutting off his stammering and pointing to a stool in the corner of the room. “You’re not apologizing for shit.”
His face is a shock of confusion when I step past him to the side of Brighton’s bed, and the wingtip of my shoe kicks against a metal trash can that smells of sick. Brighton cringes as the metallic ring reverberates through the room.
“I’m sorry,” I start. “Was that a little loud?”
Brighton’s battered face crinkles with pain, and he nods. I kick the trashcan again. His hands shoot up to hold his head, and I bend over so my face is only a few inches from his. He pushes against his pillow like he’s trying to sink further into the bed.
“Are you harassing my daughter?”
I kick the trashcan again. “You see, now you’ve called her a whore and a liar on the same day, and, I’ve got to tell you, Brighton. That doesn’t make me happy. Not very happy at all. Do I look like the kind of man you want to make unhappy?”
He stares back at me, too nervous to speak.
“You see this guy behind me?” I turn so he can see Sawyer, and his eyes briefly flit to him before moving back and staying fixed on me, the same way a person would watch a wild animal they were waiting to attack. “He’s incredibly talented at finding information about people who do things that make me unhappy. The kind of information people don’t want him, or anyone else, to know. Your secrets, your very worst lies, your deepest insecurities. He can find me whatever it takes to make the college scouts you’re going to miss this weekend the last that will ever make the trip to see you. I can make things very, very bad for you, Brighton. And it really wouldn’t even take up that much of my time. You talk to or about my daughter again, you even so much as think about her, this guy is going to become a real big part of your life, got it?”
He glances nervously between me and Sawyer, then nods.
I kick the trash can again.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.”
“I won’t talk to Calliope anymore.”
“You see, you just said her name and, for the life of me, I can’t think of a reason for her name to be in your mouth at all.”
“No, Sir! I’m sorry. I don’t even know here.”
“That’s better. I’m glad we understand each other.” I turn back to Teddy, and nod to the door. My son dips out, then Sawyer and I head out after him, leaving Brighton trembling in his bed.
Teddy keeps his distance and stares at me warily the entire walk to the parking lot. He didn’t expect me to cut off his apology, but the caution shining through his eyes makes me believe he’s certain that my anger for Brighton was only an appetizer to what’s coming for him.
It’s not an assumption I’m overly eager to dispel.
He did get suspended, after all.
“Don’t touch the car,” I bark when he reaches out for the door handle on my Lamborghini. I lift the scissor door for him, then, very closely, watch him climb in. “Fuck up anything on my interior, and I’ll ship you off to Military school.”
“No, si-“ The door slams closed before the words finish leaving his mouth. I turn to Sawyer.
“Follow me.” He nods and starts back to the car idling near the front, where Jade is waiting for him. I make my way around to the driver’s side, and duck beneath the door to climb in.
For the first few minutes of the drive, I say nothing. Letting him stew in the anxious energy I feel rolling off of him is a punishment well worthy of the crime, in my opinion. His eyes dart between the road ahead, and the reflection of Sawyer’s car in the rear-view mirror. When I pass the turn for our house, his fist wraps tightly around the handle on the door and he turns to me with a look of horror on his face.
“Dad, please!” he pleads. “I’ve learned my lesson, I swear. I’m never going to fight again in my entire life, I’m sorry!”
“I want to hear your story again,” I tell him, keeping my eyes on the road in front of me. “Start over.”
Talking slowly, methodically, thinking through every word before he lets it cross his lips, he recounts the same story I heard in the Vice Principal’s office earlier. When he’s finished, I make him tell me again. Then again. Each time he recounts what happened, I listen to the small, insignificant details he blows past, looking for contradictions that will help me sniff out a lie. But it’s futile. He repeats his story as if he were reading it from a book. I make him walk me through the whole day five times while we sit in traffic, and not even so much as the inflection he puts on his syllables varies.
“He heard the rumors going around about Calliope, so he came to confront her, and I couldn’t sit there and listen to him talk to her like that.”
New tactic. “Okay, what are the rumors going around about Calliope?”
He frowns. “I can’t tell you that.”
“Like hell you can’t.”
“Dad.” His eyes are pleading now. “I can’t tell you that.”
The reason is plain as day in front of me. It’s not because he doesn’t know, or he isn’t certain. It’s not even because he doesn’t want me to be mad at Calliope. Whatever it is, my kids have put it on lockdown. The covenant, they call it, and the years I’ve spent surrounded by high level security have never produced anything more impenetrable than that secret trust between my kids.
And a part of their relationship that I couldn’t be more proud of.
I sigh, and focus on the road in front of me for a few silent minutes. “You know, I used to get into fights at school.”
He looks at me like I just told him aliens were real. “What?”
“Oh, yeah. Almost daily. The bigger the dude, the better. It was like a sport, combing through the school to find who it was going to be next. I was so angry back then. All the time. It poisoned me. It made me forget how to enjoy things. It made me lose trust in everyone around me. I picked fights with people because I wanted to lash out at the whole world. I was in pain, and I wanted to make everyone around me hurt the exact same way I did.” I pause, and glance at my son. “Is there something more going on that maybe made you want to hurt Brighton a little bit today?”
He looks over at me with eyes that are as crystal clear blue as his mother’s, and yet, still able to shield so many secrets.
“No,” he says eventually, hanging his head. “Brighton’s just a jerk. You didn’t hear the way he was yelling at Callie.”
“No,” I agree. “But I do know that none of that matters to your school’s ethics committee. Or the admissions board at Harvard. I was expelled from school three times, Teddy. Grandpa couldn’t protect me from that, the same way I won’t be able to protect you. If this ever happens again, you’re going to be expelled. Things are different now than when I went to school, you may not be so lucky when Harvard gets your records.”
He looks up at me, completely lost. I just can’t tell if what he’s searching for now is answers or absolution. “I’m sorry, Dad, okay? I know it was wrong. It’s not like I wanted to fight him. But… what was I supposed to do? Nothing? Let him berate my sister in front of all the people who were already talking shit about her? He didn’t just call her a whore. When she told him to fuck off, he got pissed and slapped her soda off the table. If I didn’t stand up for her this time, then next time he might have slapped her. I’m not going to let that happen.”
My knuckles go white on the steering wheel.
“No, you won’t,” I respond, and then I let my turn signal fill the silence that follows. Teddy stares at his shoes, so he doesn’t see the lines of expensive cars outside until I stop. He follows me out of the car, then looks around like I’ve transported him to another planet.
“What are we doing here?”
“I want to be very clear that I meant every single thing I just said to you. I better never hear about you getting into fights at school again, or you’re going to be in for a world of hurt.” I bend down to look him in the eye. “But I’ve told you all your life that nothing is more important than family. We always support each other, we always look out for each other, and we always have each other’s backs. You did that for Calliope today, and, everything else aside, I want you to know just how fucking proud I am of you for that.”
I nod, smiling, then turn to face the line of cars. “So… pick one. You’ve earned it, Son.”
The shock is plain on his face as he processes what I’ve told him, but as he starts to accept what’s happening, the abject fear that’s clung to him melts beneath the glowing joy that suddenly bursts from his chest. “No way!”
I grin, watching him spin and start towards the lines of shiny sports cars as though he’s being beckoned into the pearly gates of heaven. It’s a lot to take in, and before the salesman rushes out to greet us, he weaves through the vehicles, marveling at each and every one like he’s in a museum of sacred art.
While he lives the fantasy of every teenage boy, I get to work on my kids’ suspensions. I heard what the Vice Principal had to say while Teddy took his test, and while his story wasn’t quite as sympathetic to my kids’ case as the one they told me, he collaborated enough of what I care about for me to intervene. I don’t bother with Dr. Wolfe, though. Or the school’s principal. Or even the superintendent. I go straight to the board of trustees and wrap this suspension into a question over any future endowments the school will receive from me or any of my foundations.
“And quite frankly,” I say through clenched teeth to the man on the other end of the phone. “The fact that this boy was able to bully my daughter the way he did and my son had to be the one to stop it, is unacceptable. If my children are spending their time outside of class unsupervised, how am I supposed to feel comfortable about their safety while they’re in your care? There are a good number of highly accredited private institutions in this city, Dr. Kessler. My niece attends the same school I attended with my brother and sister just across the lake. Perhaps it was a mistake to bring my children and my money to Bishop Blanchett after all.”
“Mr. Grey, there must have been some mistake. I find the events of this afternoon to be disturbing, and entirely unacceptable. I will personally see there are changes instituted going forward to prevent a situation like this from happening ever again. Dr. Wolfe behaved inappropriately today, and that will be rectified. I will ensure your children are reinstated this evening so that they may attend class tomorrow morning.”
“I appreciate that. Thank you, Dr. Kessler.”
“My pleasure, Mr. Grey. Please enjoy the rest of your evening, and do pass our apologies on to your children.”
“I will. Goodbye.”
I hang up and glance at Teddy again, before checking whatever notification made my phone vibrate while I was talking. I expect more castigations from the campaign, but it’s actually a Google notification.
Google Alert: Anastasia Grey
US Weekly, October 5th 2028: Mikah Wyler spotted in Gucci in Seattle. The Hollywood hunk was spotted having lunch with friends at a café in downtown Seattle Wednesday afternoon. It’s rumored he’s in talks with Universal to play the lead in the movie adaptation of Anastasia Grey’s best-selling romance series, Love and War.
What the fuck?
I swipe out of the notification and over to PixC. In the search bar, I type James Ryan’s name, another actor being considered for the role, and sure enough, he has pictures of Seattle on his story from early this morning.
I frown, slide my phone back into my pocket, and start over towards Sawyer, who’s hovering a few yards away with Jade, watching Teddy. “Hey.”
“Hey, a Porsche, huh?”
I grin. “Yeah, if he wouldn’t have fucked that kid up at school, I probably would have gotten him one of these.” I nod back to the Lamborghini behind me, and Luke laughs. He’s at ease, which makes him vulnerable.
“Ana tell you if they made a casting decision this afternoon?” I ask, very casually.
He shrugs. “She didn’t tell me when I talked to her earlier, but I think they’ve already pretty much decided on that Ryan guy, right? I think the audition today was just a formality.” He looks over at me and raises an eyebrow. “I’m surprised you’re okay with Ana checking out a bunch of hot, naked dudes all day.”
“I’m not, I didn’t know about it.” His mouth goes slack. “She told me they were doing script rewrites today.”
“Fuck!” he hisses, and I smirk.
“Consider us even for refusing to help me with Calliope.”
The resentment swirls in his eyes, but a new realization seems to dawn on him and the torment plaguing him fades away. “Whatever, I’ll just tell her Kate blabbed.”
I laugh, and turn to look at the cars in front of us. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a reason to let my inner Dominant out. I’ve missed it, and my head swims with the fantasies of how I’ll punish Anastasia this evening for her lie this morning, until my son catches my attention, and pulls me back into reality.
The salesman, who can’t be older than 22, is talking to him about the red 911 GT3 at the end, and I’m not sure Teddy’s hearing a word he’s saying. He stares at him the way I once caught my other son staring at the cheerleaders stretching on the side of the field during practice, right before he got dinged in the side of the head by a football headed his way. There’s no sense of subtlety at all. The guy he’s drooling over is obviously onto him and playing it up to make the sale. But there’s life in Teddy at this moment that I don’t get to see very often. He looks happy. Hopeful. Unburdened. I want to go over to him and show him this is okay, but I know that the light in his eyes will go out the moment he sees me coming and the shutters that guard his secrets will slam closed again.
It bothers me that he won’t tell me.
It bothers me that I don’t know why he won’t tell me.
It bothers me that I can’t find out.
Both Ana and Flynn have said again and again that I need to give him the space to accept his sexuality on his own terms and share it with us when he’s ready. Coming out is an important moment of acceptance and self-love that can’t be rushed. The longer it takes him though, the more worried I get. I know how self-destructive a sexually frustrated teenage boy can be, and it’s not what I want for my son.
Aren’t I seeing it now?
“Dad!” he calls, waving me over. I let the concern fall from my face and start towards him. He bounces with excitement over the car beside him. “This is the one!”
I laugh. “Calm down, Teddy. You haven’t even driven it yet.”
“Oh.” He turns to the salesman again, shaking off his exuberance and trying to play it cool. “So, uh, yeah… I think this is the one I want to test drive.”
“Great,” the salesman says, flashing him a flirty grin. “I just need your license and we can take it for spin.”
“Uh…” He looks at me, in a panic.
“He’s got a learner’s permit,” I clarify, and the salesman frowns.
“Oh, well, that might be an issue actually. We’re not allowed to let non-licensed drivers test drive. It’s an insurance issue…”
I offer him some cash on the side to try and get Teddy behind the wheel, but it turns out he’s the son of the owner, and too close to the business to risk breaking the rules. He does let me take the car out with just Teddy in the passenger’s seat though, and he and I have a blast cruising through surrounding streets testing the limits of the engine. His grin stretches from ear to ear by the time we pull back into the dealership, and when the salesman officially passes over the keys, he grips them in his fist and starts to dance.
“Alright, alright,” I laugh. “Let’s go home.”
“Beat you there,” he calls, racing off to his new car and shouting for Sawyer to jump in the driver’s seat so he can get out ahead of me. I take my time heading back to my Lamborghini, patiently navigate back to the freeway, and open the engine the moment I’m off the onramp. It takes seconds for me to fly past him, but he’s smart enough not to try and chase me. He’s broken enough rules today and Teddy was always the cautious one.
As I pull off the gas and signal for my exit, I almost wish I’d bought one for Luke. He’d have the pedal to the floor trying to get past me, and that could be fun.
I pull into the garage at home well before Teddy. The smug but entirely unearned sense of victory hums nicely beneath the surface of my skin, perfectly priming me for the night I spent the last half of the drive planning in meticulous detail. That is, until the woman all those plans center on steps out of the house looking like she’s seen murder.
“Christian Trevelyan-Grey! Where is my child?!” she shrieks. The anguish in her voice draws Luke and Callie out of the house behind her, and their faces melt with horror when they realize their brother isn’t with me.
“Relax,” I tell them, trying to keep myself from rolling my eyes. “He’s just a little behind me. I drive a Lambo, remember?”
“What did you do?” Ana demands. Her fists move to her hips, and her eyes brandish an unspoken accusation at me.
“He gave a kid who called his sister a whore in front of the whole school a concussion today. I gave him the punishment I thought adequately fit the crime.” The gates roll open over my explanation and Teddy pulls up the drive. Ana’s eyes move to the sleek red car that stops before her, blinking like she’s seeing a mirage.
“What?!” Luke shouts. “No fucking way!”
“Language, Lucas!” Ana chides him out of reflex as she stares, transfixed, on the car. Teddy opens his door, and climbs out, taking his time to soak in the attention. He struts around the front, grinning, and sweeping a hand over the hood like an assistant on a game show. “You like?”
“You have got to be kidding me,” Calliope says. She shoots the same look at me that her mother did, but I let their righteous anger roll off of me. I don’t care if Ana thinks I’m wrong. The lesson I taught my son today is that as long as he defends his family, his family will defend him.
I’m good with that.
“So I get grounded and he gets a PORSCHE?!” Luke continues, the temper he inherited from me getting him more and more worked up. I round on him and quash it before it can boil over.
“He stood up for his sister. You tried to stop him instead of backing him up.”
He opens his mouth to argue back, but his mother talks over him. “Teddy also cheated on a test today.”
The arguments I already have prepared catch in my throat. I was ready to defend the fight, I was ready to defend my response… this one comes out of nowhere. Teddy cheated? Why? He’s been studying all week. I helped him this morning and he was fine…
“Dr. Sutter called,” Ana explains. “It seems our sons thought it would be a good idea to switch places this morning so Teddy could take Luke’s test for him…”
“Which I did to help my brother,” Teddy interjects. “Family first. Right, Dad?”
This kid is at the top of his class. He’s so smart, it gets him in trouble because he gets bored too easily and uses chaos to deal with it. Because I know that, I don’t have the fortitude to explain to him the difference between cheating on an exam, and physically protecting his sister. So, I turn to Ana instead.
“So, what? Are they expelled?”
“No. Thankfully, Dr. Sutter is willing to give them another chance. Teddy and I can have a discussion about his punishment upstairs.”
“But, Mom!” Teddy whines.
“You heard your mother. Now, get inside,” I step back, giving him the space to do as I’ve told him, but he hesitates. His eyes move wildly between his mother and I, desperately searching for an argument to get him out of trouble. Ana doesn’t give him the time to try.
“There’s dinner in the fridge.”
The tension in his shoulders collapses with defeat, and he starts forward. I call his name, and let my disappointment bleed into the connection our eyes make. “Keys.”
“You can have them back when you get your license. Now, go eat. Go wash. And go to bed.”
He pouts as he reaches out and drops his keys in my outstretched hand. I nod to the other kids so they follow after him, and once all three of them are out of ears reach on the other side of the closed door, I turn an exhausted look on my wife.
“Cheating?” I repeat, in disbelief.
“I already talked to Luke about it, but you and I need to talk about Calliope.”
All at once, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I knew it was a dead end trying to get Teddy to tell me what was going on with his sister, so I didn’t waste my breath. But Ana’s been home with our daughter all night, and the pain I see breaking through her eyes as she stares helplessly up at me tells me that she had better luck than I did.
“What?” I ask, cautiously. She takes a deep breath, slides her hand into mine without saying a word, and leads me into the house. Teddy is the only one of our kids to linger in the kitchen. He stands in front of the microwave, watching the plate Ana made for him revolve and the timer tick down. We stand there, hovering behind him, until the timer goes off and he takes his dinner upstairs with his homework.
Ana leads me to my office.
“What?” I try again, when she closes the door behind us. She ignores me for the second time, and goes straight for the bar against the far wall. Suspicion colors everything I watch her do, from the ice she drops in the glass to the dark bourbon she pours. When she crosses the room and holds the drink out for me, I don’t immediately take it.
“What’s that for?”
“I’m going to tell you something that’s going to upset you, and you’re not going to blow up about it.”
“What?” I ask, more sharply. She holds out the drink and shakes it so the ice clinks against the sides of the glass.
With a frustrated growl, I reach out, take the drink, and slam it back in one gulp. Then I toss the glass down on my desk and stare at her expectantly. She dances nervously from foot to foot.
“You want another one?”
“Well…” She takes another deep breath. “I want you to go down to the school tomorrow and get our kids’ suspension reversed. These rumors–”
“I’ve already taken care of that, what are the rumors?”
“You’ve already taken care of it?”
“Yes, they’re going to school tomorrow morning. What are the rumors?”
“How did you–?”
“What are the rumors, Anastaisa?” I let my gaze cut into her like a razor, and she starts to gnaw at her bottom lip.
“Okay, okay, okay.” She takes a deep, bracing breath. “The rumor that is going around school about your daughter is that she was caught having sex with someone under the bleachers this morning.”
I feel it. I hear it. I see it. Everywhere. The heat rises inside of me, and I stiffen with the rolling molten wave as it spreads through my body. Ana quickly holds her hands up to stop the eruption.
“She wasn’t! She wasn’t!”
“She said that? What did Luke say?”
“Luke didn’t say anything, and he didn’t have to. I believe her. I saw it in her eyes. She told me what happened, and I’m positive the rumor isn’t true.”
My breath all comes out in one long gust of relief. My head feels heavy, and light at the same time. I can feel my heart pounding in my chest. “Ok, then what happened?”
“She was giving a boy a hand job.”
“WHAT?!” I leap to my feet and launch myself away from my desk. “CALLIOPE!”
“Christian, no!” Ana manages to get between me and the door and she throws herself against it to keep me from bursting through. “You are not going to go up there and scream at her. Our daughter had her very sexual experience today, and it’s turned into a public humiliation.”
“You think that’s bad, wait til I get my hands on her. Move, Anastasia.”
“No!” She lets her dead weight fall against the door and stares back at me like a defiant kitten, ready to strike if necessary. “You are not going to make her feel any more shame over this than she already does. I mean it. I need you take your protective Dad hat off for a minute and think about how this could seriously affect your daughter’s relationship with sex.”
“Stop!” I say, moving away from her with my hands over my ears as though she’s just scraped her fingernails over a chalkboard. “Calliope does not have a relationship with sex…”
“Not yet, maybe, but…”
“But nothing. She’s seventeen, Anastasia.”
“Exactly. What were you doing at seventeen, Christian?”
I scowl at her. “What were you doing at seventeen?”
“Not having sex,” she admits. “And do you remember how weird you thought it was that I was still a virgin when I went to college? She’s ten months away from that, Christian. She’s not going to be seventeen forever.”
“I didn’t think it was weird, I thought it was a god damn blessing,” I growl, then shake my head with disgust because the idea of some fucking kid doing anything with my daughter even remotely resembling what I did with Anastasia when I was nineteen makes my skin crawl.
I suddenly feel a lot more sympathy towards my father-in-law for how difficult our relationship was in those first few months.
My body pulses with the need to march up the stairs and rip the doors from each one of my kids’ bedrooms until I know exactly what happened, how it happened, and who I now have to kill. The only thing that keeps me rooted is the pleading look in my wife’s eyes.
“Who was it?” I ask, through bared teeth. She shrugs.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?”
“She didn’t tell me.”
“The boys know, I’ll get it out of one of them…” I start toward the door, but she once again steps in my path.
“You know they’re not going to tell you anything.”
“Like hell they’re not. Go get me a crowbar, I’m going to break the fucking covenenant open.”
“Christian…” She reaches up and places a hand on either side of my face, then stares deep into my eyes. Once again, I see the depth of the pain I’d gotten a flash of out in the garage. “She was sobbing when I went to go talk to her this afternoon. She’s embarrassed, she feels violated, isolated, her trust broken… She’s very vulnerable right now, and she needs guidance. She needs reassurance. She needs to remember that she is not what everyone is telling her she is, or this could turn into something much bigger for her than it already is. Something that could destroy her. As much as it kills me, I know that there’s no one who can talk to her and really reach her like her daddy can. I need you to go take care of our daughter.”
I let out a hard sigh, and close my eyes. The need for bloodshed is still brewing inside of me, thrashing to get out, but the idea of my daughter being in real pain and not shielding her from it is unfathomable. I’ve always known that I would fall on a sword to protect my little girl, this feels like I might be about to.
“Okay,” I acquiesce. Ana smiles, and reaches up on her tiptoes to press her lips against mine.
“I love you.”
I take advantage, pulling her in for a much deeper, more intimate kiss. It’s really just a delay tactic. She lets me have it, then brushes her hand softly across my face and leaves my office.
I head to the bar for another drink.
Two more pours of bourbon later, I’m dragging my feet up the stairs to Calliope’s room. Her light is on, but she’s quiet inside. There’s a small part of me that hopes she’s fallen asleep, but that’s quashed when a shadow breaks the gold glow emanating from under her door.
“Come in,” she calls softly, and with one last fortifying breath, I step inside.
Her face is clean. For the first time in longer than I can remember, the gray eyes that stare at me with trepidation aren’t cloaked in thick black liner or mascara. Her skin is uneven, and blotchy from her tears. I can see shiny streaks of wet that haven’t quite dried on her cheeks.
She looks so much like she did when she was little.
“Can I talk to you?” I ask, softly closing the door behind me. The light in her eyes dims before she looks away.
“There’s nothing you can say to me that will make me hate myself more than I already do, so you might as well just skip the lectures.”
I stop, staring down at her in shock. “Why would I want to make you hate yourself, Calliope?”
“Because I’ve ruined everything. Because I’m a disappointment.”
“That’s not true.”
She looks up at me and a tear leaks over her lower lid. She reaches up to dash it away as it races down her cheek, but more come so fast after it that she eventually just lets her face crash into her hands. Her shoulders jump up and down with her sobs, and her entire body shakes. The echo of pain that reverberates in every shaky breath she draws lands on me like a pin full of needles.
I move to her bed and take a seat. “Come here, Princess.”
She turns to me, her face wet and cherry red. I open my arms, then wave her towards me with my fingers. A few more shaky sobs force their way from her chest, then she peels herself out of the chair and crawls into my lap. I wrap her in my arms, trying to protect her from her own pain.
“Do you know why I love you?” I ask. She sniffs and buries her face in my shirt.
“Because you have to.”
“Nope. Believe it or not, of all the things I’m required by law to do as your parent, loving you is not one of them.” I lean into her. “Why do you think I love you so much, Calliope?”
Her shoulders bob. “I don’t know.”
“Because you’re lovable.” I take her chin between my fingers and tilt her face up to mine. “There are so many things to love about you, Calliope. You’re strong, you’re funny, you’re fierce, and you’re beautiful, inside and out. But I don’t need to come up with a reason to love you. No one does. You are precious. You matter. And you deserve to be loved. Period.”
She stares back at me with unshed tears still glistening in her eyes. I can see the uncertainty still lingering there, so I let the sincerity of my love leak onto her until it’s extinguished. “Don’t ever let anyone make you believe otherwise, okay?”
She breaks again, a sob bursting out of her like she was holding her breath, then throws her arms around my neck. I squeeze her as tightly as I can without hurting her. I want to hold her tight enough to freeze her in this brief snapshot of time and keep her from growing up any more than she already has.
Today has made one truth I’ve always known even more painfully obvious. I’m not ready to let go of my baby girl, and the time I’m going to have to do that is hurtling towards us like a comet on a path to destroy my world.
“I love you, Daddy,” she whispers into my shoulder.
“I love you too, Calliope. Forever and always.”
I hug her one last time, then shift her off of me so I can get up. Her fingers cling to mine until they fall from distance, then she looks at her desk again and sighs. “Is it even worth it to study for the SATs? There’s no way I’ll get into Harvard after they find out I’ve been suspended.”
“You’re not suspended,” I tell her. “I took care of it. You’re going back to school tomorrow morning.”
“Really?” Her eyes light up with gratitude, then quickly dim with fear again. I can almost see her watching the vision of her return to school and all the people talking about her inside her head. It only takes two steps to close the distance between us again, then I kneel in front of her.
“You’re going to be okay, Calliope. I promise it’s going to be okay. Who gives a fuck what anyone else thinks or says? You’re Calliope Grey. Don’t you forget that.”
She takes a deep breath, then nods. “I won’t, Daddy.”
“Good.” I get up, taking a moment to cup her face, and turn back to the door. As I step out though, I pause one last time. “Oh, and Calliope?”
For just a moment, I let the gentle, understanding part of me succumb to the brute, and I feel my whole body harden. “You know why.”
Her eyes move to the floor, and I watch her shrink in her chair. “For how long?”
“Oh… until I find out who he is, I guess.”
“Three weeks, Calliope. He has three weeks to come introduce himself to me, or I’ll find out who he is myself. Until I do, you’re grounded.”
Her mouth drops open with a protest she can’t quite get out, so I close the door before she does. Teddy’s room is right next to Calliope’s and I can hear Ana’s muffled voice inside still, so I skip my goodnight and head straight for my bedroom. There’s an Xbox, a laptop, an iPad, and a few other small devices I don’t pay attention to resting on the comforter. They’re Luke’s and the screen of his iPhone is illuminated with an incoming call.
It’s his girlfriend.
I pick it up, and stare at her name on the screen until the call drops and a missed call notification takes its place. It’s his 4th one.
Slipping his phone back in my pocket, I head back out into the hallway, bypassing Teddy’s and Calliope’s doors and moving straight for Luke’s.
“Yeah?” he calls when I knock. I open the door and peek inside. He’s on his bed, his chemistry book open in front of him, and a look of abject defeat on his face.
“Your suspension was reversed,” I tell him. “So, I’ll see you downstairs for our workout first thing tomorrow morning. Don’t forget to set an alarm.”
“How? Mom took my phone.”
I grin, dip my hand into my pocket for my phone, and toss it to him. He catches it, taking a moment to look down at it and make sure it’s real, before looking back at me like he’s worried I’ve lost my mind.
“You made the responsible choice today,” I tell him. “School is not the place for you to be acting out or getting in trouble, especially if you’re going to achieve what you want to. You should be commended for keeping a level head.”
“Mhm. But if your Uncle Elliot ever threw a punch at some guy, you better believe I’m throwing one right behind him. You always have your brother’s back, I don’t care if he’s right or wrong. He’s always got you, do you understand me?”
He nods. “Are you kidding me? That motherfucker hit my brother and called my sister a whore. The second football season is over, I’m going to find Brighton off school grounds and beat his ass. No one comes for my family like that.”
“I didn’t hear that,” I tell him, seriously. “But, on a completely unrelated note, if you want to add some boxing in your morning workouts, I’m happy to switch up our routine.”
He grins and I nod to the phone still clutched in his hands. “That better be in the top drawer of my desk by 5 AM, and, if your mother asks…”
“I never saw you,” he finishes for me.
“That’s my boy. I love you, Luke.”
“Love you too. Goodnight, Dad.” He grins and I close the door.
Teddy’s light is off, so I poke my head in and wish him a good night’s sleep before heading back to my bedroom. Ana is going through the devices Luke left on the bed.
“Where is his phone?” she scowls to herself. “He can’t honestly think I wouldn’t notice he didn’t hand over his freaking phone…” She tosses Luke’s Apple watch on the bed and starts towards the door, but I reach and arm out to stop her.
“I think you have more to worry about right now than Luke’s phone,” I tell her. Her brow crinkles.
“What do you mean?”
“Where were you today?”
She blinks, clearly not understanding where I’m going with this. “With the kids…”
“Oh,” I repeat, grinning as I watch understanding dawn on her face. “Where were you, Anastasia?”
Her eyes search mine, desperately trying to decipher whether or not I know her secret or if I’m simply fishing for information. There’s too much anticipation brewing inside of me to wait for her to decide.
“Will it be Wyler or Ryan?”
“Uh….” Her voice shakes a little as she searches for something to say, but we both know it’s too late. I know. She knows, I know. And we both know what has to happen now.
“Tell me your safeword,” I tell her, stepping closer and gently wrapping my fingers around her arm. She swallows and looks up at me with a mixture of trepidation and day’s worth of quashed lust.
I feel my back go rod straight, and the corner of my lips ticks up in a devious, side smirk. “Take off your clothes and wait for me on the bed,” I command. Then I turn and disappear into my closet in search of the tools I’ll need to make this god awful day one actually worth remembering.
“Alright, very good, Mikah. I think we’ve got what we need.”
“Oh, great.” The actor in front of us changes drastically as he comes out of character. Gone is the dark, imposing dominant that had just been holding a whip over his head, ready to deliver the most delicious kind of punishment, and in his place is a welcoming set of clear blue eyes and an expectant smile. “Anything else?”
“Just the nudity. You can remove your clothes whenever you’re ready.”
An embarrassed smile creeps across my lips as the stranger in front of me pulls off his shirt. His arms are thick, his abs are toned, his chest impressive. He has the perfect body type, but it’s all going to come down to…
When his underwear falls to the floor, I have to glance up at the ceiling and take a breath to avoid losing my professional composure.
Keep it together, Anastasia.
“How do you feel about shaving?” The director asks, staring at the hair around this stranger’s penis as though she were asking his preference on a paint color. He shrugs, entirely nonplussed.
And the impressive package dangling between his thighs makes it clear why.
“Whatever you think is best for the role.”
“Hm. What do you think, Anastasia?”
“Great,” I chirp. “I mean, uh… I’ve got everything I need. Thank you, uh… Mikah.”
“Sure.” The actor picks up his pants, and I take a breath again. He moves to take the piece of paper the director hands him, then thanks us all for the opportunity and leaves the room. The women around me start fanning themselves.
“Thank-you for writing this book, Anastasia,” one of the studio execs says to me.
“And to think, all these guys are just trying to look like her husband,” the producer says. “How do you get any work done?”
I laugh, and because the grueling weeks we’ve already put into this production have made these women like sisters to me, I add, “Oh, make no mistake. I’m going home to night and fucking the shit out of him tonight.”
They all laugh, and the director raises her eyebrow. “Does he know that we’re casting his part today?”
“Oh, god no. I picked this week because I knew he’d be busy doing campaign work. That’s why we had to have final callbacks in Seattle instead of LA. He thinks we’re doing script rewrites today.”
I touch the tip of my nose, then point directly at her just as the door opens. Instead of another beautiful man coming in to read dirty lines and show off his crown jewels, my assistant hurries toward me.
“Mrs. Grey, the school just called. The kids are in the principal’s office.”
“All three of them. You’re gonna have to go down there, I’m afraid.”
“Oh god…” I shake my head and turn an apologetic look on the director. “I’m sorry, are we done for today?”
“Yeah, Mikah was the last one. We all agree it’s going to be Jason, right? He blew me away.”
“Absolutely,” the producer says.
“I agree. We’ll make a decision on our female lead tomorrow?”
“Yep, see you at 8.”
I thank everyone seated behind the long table while I gather my things, then walk with my assistant to my car. She can’t tell me exactly what they did, but she can tell me that a three day suspension is on the line and that they weren’t able to get ahold of Christian yet.
And since there’s a possibility of suspension, I consider not telling him.
Mother’s instinct to protect the lives of her children and all…
“Well, think of an angel and she shall appear,” he answers when I get into the car and ask the onboard system to call his number. He’s in a good mood, which means his interviews are going well.
That’s good news for my kids.
“Hey, baby. What’s going on?”
“I’m just sitting in front of a blank monitor waiting to debate this stooge on my dad’s economic policy.”
“Oh, do you need to go?”
“Not for a few minutes. What’s going on?”
“Well, not great news… I got a call from the school. The kids are in trouble.”
The good mood in his voice vanishes in the span of a breath. “Which kids?”
“All of them.”
“Jesus Christ…” I can hear his teeth grinding through the phone, and I brace myself for the full force of the storm before I continue.
“I’m on my way down there now. Apparently, suspension is on the table.”
He’s silent. And then he’s mad. “This interview is only going to take seven minutes, I’ll be right behind you.”
Christian hangs up without saying goodbye to me, and the chill in his voice makes me shiver. I press my foot harder against the pedal, coaxing more speed from the engine to ensure I’ll make it to the school before he does. When I pull into the parking lot, my eyes scan the cars around me for the familiar Lamborghini more intently than they search for an open parking space. When I don’t see him, I pull into a guest spot at the front, and take a moment to prepare myself.
I’m probably making more out of this than I should. I have great kids. How bad could it be, really?
The answer is bad enough that I spot them huddled together in a panic through the office window on my way in. Teddy is holding a towel against his face.
“Excuse me,” I greet the woman behind the desk. “My name is Anastasia Grey. I’m here for Calliope, Theodore, and Lucas.”
She glances up and her eyes morph with a very definitive you’re-a-bad-parent kind of judgement. “Yes, thank you for coming, Mrs. Grey. Right this way.”
She gets up from her desk and leads me to a door. On the other side of it, I find my children. Each and every one of them looks relieved when they see that their father isn’t half a step behind me. It’s actually a kindness that I pierce their shiny bubble of hope before he comes in here and stampedes all over it.
“He’s right behind me,” I warn them as the secretary disappears behind me. “Now, what did you do?”
It’s like watching a play I’ve seen 100 times. All three of them curl their lips beneath their teeth, and stare straight at me with blank expressions. There isn’t a guilty fidget or a nervous twitch among them. But this time, their stonewalling doesn’t matter because the vice principal opens his office door and motions for the four of us to come inside.
“Fighting!” he shouts, purple in the face. The vein on the side of his thick neck bulges through his skin and pulses with the thundering beat of his heart. “I tell you, Mrs. Grey. We put up with a lot from these boys. They’re often down right miscreants! But violence is absolutely unacceptable and I cannot tolerate it! Mr. King is being evaluated for a concussion, which puts him out of this Friday’s game. There were college scouts coming to see Mr. King play, Mrs. Grey. The actions of your children may have seriously jeopardized this child’s future.”
“I understand that, Dr. Wolfe, and I am very sorry. I am sure that none of this was their intention. I assure you, Mr. Grey and I will be taking this matter very seriously.”
“I don’t know that discipline at home will be enough this time, Mrs. Grey. I’m afraid I have no choice but to suspend Lucas and Theodore for the rest of the week. And Calliope will also be suspended pending the investigation of serious accusations that have been levied against her to the student ethics committee.”
“No!” Teddy shouts over me. “Mom, I can’t be suspended! My chemistry test starts in like five minutes. I can’t miss it, it’s a third of my grade!”
“They won’t let me play if I get suspended!” Luke adds.
“Harvard!” Calliope shrieks.
“Dr. Wolfe, there has to be some kind of middle ground here…”
“I’m sorry, but the decision has been made. Your sons may return to school on Monday. We’ll be in contact regarding your daughter.”
“What are the allegations against her?”
“Mom—“ Calliope’s nervous voice interrupts, but before I can answer, the door bursts open and Christian steps into the room. He looks livid. Enough so that the vice principal recoils when my husband’s eyes land on him. His eyes find me next, then finally, our children.
All three of them look at the floor.
“Dr. Wolfe, would you give us a moment alone, please?”
“Mr. Grey, perhaps you would be interested to know the reason your children are in my office this afternoon?”
Christian’s eyes glint with dire warning. “Yes, but I would like to hear it from them before I hear it from you. So if you wouldn’t mind…”
He moves to the door and opens it, effectively ordering the man out of his own office. It’s the kind of alpha move that makes the room feel suddenly hot. Although, that could be just my afternoon of casting coming back to haunt me…
The vice principal straightens his jacket, then stalks out of the door. Christian closes it and rounds on the kids.
Time for Act II.
Luke and Teddy turn in unison to look at Calliope, and she looks up at her dad with the same big doe eyes that have been getting her out of trouble since she was four.
“Daddy, Brighton King is a jerk. He is constantly following me around and harassing me to go out with him, even though I’ve told him he’s a creep about a million times.”
“Okay,” Christian says, nodding as he takes in the information. The intensity still burns in his eyes behind the calm, even tone. “Don’t like this kid already. Continue.”
“Well…” She seems to lose her words as she stares up at her father, which is a deviation from the performance that I’m not used to. Both of her brothers look at her like they don’t understand what she’s doing, and my husband’s gaze sharpens.
He thinks he’s about to break her.
“Calliope, tell me what happened.”
“He was waiting for her at her regular parking place this morning,” Luke jumps in. “He said something gross about her giving him a blow job.”
Christian’s face goes from dangerous to malevolent. “Excuse me?”
“Yeah,” Teddy agrees quickly, pulling the towel away from his face. I see the bruising around his eyes and nose for the first time, and it takes everything I have not to go to him and pull him in my arms. My poor baby. “So Calliope said something really mean back and embarrassed him in front of everyone.”
Luke smirks. “That he could spend his weekends jacking off like he always does…”
Christian looks back to Calliope, and she flinches. “Is that true, Calliope?”
She nods at her shoes, then sniffs and looks up at her dad with tears glittering in her eyes. “He came up to me at lunch and called me a whore in front of the whole school. Everyone heard him, Daddy.” She blinks, her composure breaking as she’s overtaken by a sob, and looks down at the floor.
“So I hit him,” Teddy says. “Luke tried to warn him this morning that he needed to be more respectful. I gave him the chance to apologize, he chose to get fucked up.”
“Theodore!” I chastise him, but Christian holds back a hand to silence me. He looks at Luke.
“Did you hit him too?”
“No, I pulled them apart.” He points to the purple bruise forming around his eye. “I got this because Brighton sucker punched me while I was trying to keep Teddy off of him.”
“They’re all suspended,” I tell him. “The boys through the rest of the week, Calliope pending the investigation of whatever rumors are going around about her.”
“What rumors?” Christian asks.
Calliope’s eyes go wide with fear and she sinks down in her chair like she’s hoping if she can make herself small enough, her dad won’t be able to see her. “Well, uh…”
“That she cheated,” Luke blurts out.
“That she brought alcohol…” Teddy says over him. They look at each other and then back at Christian, talking over each other again.
“I mean, she cheated,” Teddy says.
“I mean, she brought alcohol…”
“Oh, god…” Calliope moans, dropping her face into her hands.
Christian glances back at me, silently telling me that I’m the one who is going to have to unravel that mystery. When I nod, he turns back to the kids, and Teddy slides forward to the edge of his seat like he’s ready to jump out of it.
“Dad, I can’t be suspended. My chemistry test is happening right now, I’m missing it.”
“You’re not going to miss it,” Christian says. “Pick up your stuff, I’ll walk you to your classroom. I’ll deal with you when it’s over.” He turns and points between Luke and Calliope. “You two can go home with your mother.”
“But Dad, what about football?”
“You don’t get to play football when you get in fights at school, Lucas. Go home!”
“Yes, Sir.” Both Calliope and Luke scramble out of their seats before he can change his mind and claim their punishments for himself as well. I slowly get out of my seat, keeping my eyes on Teddy, who looks like he was just handed a terminal diagnosis. Christian reaches out to kiss me goodbye, and after briefly brushing my lips against his, I stand up on my toes to whisper in his ear.
“Please remember that he’s only fifteen, and that you were a teenager once too.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I know exactly how I’m going to deal with him, Anastasia.” There’s no room for argument in his response, so I turn and kiss my now terrified looking son on each cheek.
“I love you,” I remind him. “Good luck on your test.”
The nod I get in response feels more like a tremble than anything else.
Calliope drives home like there’s a cop behind her. She maintains five under the speed limit, never misses a signal, pauses at every stop longer than necessary, and keeps her DADSGRL vanity plate right in the middle of the lane the entire way. They pull into the garage, head straight into the kitchen, and wait for me to come in behind them.
“Leave your phones on the counter and go to your rooms.”
“Now, Calliope.” Her face melts with misery as she places her phone on the marble, the same way a grieving mother would if she were being forced to lay her child on a burning pyre. Then she turns and runs for her bedroom, screaming about how she hates everyone.
“Camille’s going to call, Mom…”
“And you’re going to miss it.” I point at the counter and he drops his phone next to his sister’s, though without all the dramatics she used. Once I hear the second door close from the bottom of the stairs, I meander into the living room and collapse on the couch. My feet are pinched in my shoes, my butt is sore from sitting on a hard stool all day, and I could really use one hell of a drink. I have no idea what Christian is going to do with Teddy and as the worry starts to mount deep in my gut, my phone rings on the arm rest next to me.
I glance down, expecting the worst. But it’s Big-Luke.
“Hey, you won’t believe the day I’ve had,” I answer. He chuckles on the other line.
“I think I’m about to find out. Your husband has summoned me.”
“I don’t know. He asked me and Jade to meet him at the school. I’m on my way there now.”
“Hi, Ana” Jade says, but I don’t get to respond before Luke starts talking again.
“What’s going on?”
“Some boy at school called Calliope a mean name and Teddy punched him. All three of my kids have been suspended.”
“Oof, that’s a shame. I really liked your kids. I’ll remember them fondly after their passing.”
“That’s not a funny joke, I’m worried that’s why Christian called you. You’d tell me if he asked you to hide a body, right?”
“You know you’ll always be my number one.”
“Good,” the phone beeps and I pull it away from my ear. The contact displayed on the screen tells me it’s my kids’ school again, and the small bit of reprieve I’ve taken talking on the phone with my best friend vanishes all at once.
What if Christian tracked down that Brighton kid…?
“Hey Luke, I gotta go. The school is calling again.”
“Yikes. Good Luck.”
“Thanks.” I hang up, then answer the next call cautiously. “Hello?”
“Hello, is this Mrs. Grey?”
“Yes, may I ask who’s speaking?”
“This is Dr. Sutter, I’m the sophomore chemistry teacher at your sons’ school. I’m actually grading Theodore’s test right this moment.”
“Yes, Dr. Sutter,” I breathe in relief. “I remember our meeting from parent/teacher conferences a few weeks ago. Thank you for allowing Teddy to take the test this afternoon. He’s studied so hard, he was devastated when he thought he was going to miss it.”
“Oh, yes his efforts are very obvious. He doesn’t seem to have missed a single question on the entire test, and for any other student that would raise serious questions for me. But Theodore is a gifted student.”
“Yes, I agree. And thank you for telling me. He’s been so stressed about this test, he’ll be very relieved to know he did well.”
“Curious, though. Lucas also did very well. Exceptionally well, in fact.”
“Oh, yes. In fact, his test is identical to his brother’s… down to the handwriting.”
My heart sinks. “Oh no…”
“Mrs. Grey, I trust I don’t need to remind you that cheating is an offense that this school deems worthy of expulsion, do I?”
“No. Dr. Sutter… I’m so sorry, I don’t know what’s gotten into these boys. Truly… I know that Luke has been really worried about his grades because of football, I’m sure Teddy just thought he was helping his brother.”
“Yes, I understand. Theodore is my best student, and I would hate to have one lapse in judgement shatter his future. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. An impressive score like Theodore’s should be kept, his actions with Lucas aside, that’s a score that’s earned. I will allow him to keep his grade and his brother to retake the test next week, and I won’t report him to the ethics committee for cheating. In return, I would like both of them to write me a 10,000 word essay on the importance of academic integrity, and they will both spend one hour after school in my laboratory conducting inventory for me for the rest of the semester.”
“That’s more than fair. Thank you so much for your understanding, Dr. Sutter. I promise you, it will not happen again.”
“See that it doesn’t. Good-bye, Mrs. Grey.”
“Goodbye.” I hang up, and ask the ceiling why I can’t be the kind of mom who doesn’t care what her kids do at school. Then I get up and drag myself and the weight of how much I don’t want to have to do this up the stairs.
I go to Luke’s room first.
“Come in,” he says after I knock softly against the door three times. I ease my way inside and find him laying on the bed, tossing a football into the air and catching it.
“We need to talk, Mister.”
“I don’t know what’s going on with Callie, you’ll have to ask her.”
I sigh, and pull the chair from his desk to the side of his bed to sit. The floor is cluttered with so much junk, it’s almost an impossible task.
“While I don’t believe that for a moment, I’m not here to talk about Calliope. I just got a call from Dr. Sutter.”
He turns to me, slowly, and raises an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Anything you want to tell me?”
“Luke.” This time, he hears the seriousness in my voice that tells him I know what he did. He doesn’t make excuses, he doesn’t try denying it any further. He just lays back in bed and starts to toss the football again. “Do you want to tell me why your test this morning was in Teddy’s handwriting?”
“Come on, Lucas. You know that cheating is wrong. You could have been expelled and the only reason you aren’t going to be is because Dr. Sutter is being very kind and generous to the two of you. Why would you do this?”
“I was going to fail. I didn’t want to blow my season…”
“You don’t think cheating could have blown up your season?”
“Mom, you don’t get it!” he shouts, sitting bolt upright and rounding on me like he’s ready to fight again. “Everyone was ragging on me this morning for spending time with Camille and not studying, but the truth is that she was trying to help me learn the material for the test, and never got anywhere. I can’t keep up! I don’t understand any of it. I’m not smart enough. I’ve tried, and tried, and tried, and all trying does is make me feel like an idiot when I fail. There was no way I was ever going to pass that test. Teddy could, and he wanted to see the test before he had to take it this afternoon.”
He throws himself down on his bed and turns away from me, his words still hovering between us like an angry swarm of bees. I push out of my chair and crawl on the bed behind him, running a comforting hand over his arm.
“You are smart enough, Luke.”
“Don’t patronize me.”
“Hey.” I pull on his shoulder and until he rolls back on his back. There are tears swimming in his eyes. “Your daddy told me about the talk you had this morning. He and I think that it’s a good idea to take you to the doctor for some tests. It shouldn’t be this much harder for you, and the fact that it is might mean there’s something else going on.”
“What, like Dyslexia?”
His face sours. “So you think I’m so dumb I have mental problems?”
“No, I think you might be playing with a set of rules that no one else is. How far do you think you’d get if your team only got one down on offense and the other team got four.”
“Exactly. Getting you into the doctor and getting you on the right plan is just about getting those three extra downs back.”
He sniffs, and wipes his nose with the back of his hand, then nods. “Okay.”
I lean forward and kiss him on the forehead, then get up and walk back to the door. Before I leave, I pause and turn back to face my son. “You’re grounded, by the way. You will put your Xbox and all of your devices on my bed by 6 PM, do you understand me?”
“All of them?!” I nod, and a look of horror crosses his face that, without context, could suggest I asked him to smother a baby. “Mom, what am I going to do?! I don’t get to go back to school until next week!”
I smile. “I wouldn’t worry about being bored. You’re going to write Dr. Sutter a 10,000 word essay on why academic integrity is important, in additional to the hour you’re going to spend an hour after school helping him upkeep his lab for the rest of the semester.”
“Ten thousand words?!”
“And, you’re going to write me a 15,000 word essay about what this has taught you, and how you’re going to grow from this experience. Once I have those papers and you retake your test, you may have your devices back.”
“But that’s not fair! Camille will break up with me if I don’t talk to her for that long.”
“Oh that’s more than fair. If you’d like to talk to your girlfriend, I suggest you get writing. Six PM, Lucas. Do not make me send your father to track you down.”
“I won’t.” I give him a look to communicate how serious I am, then step out into the hall and close his door behind me.
One kid down, one to go.
I take two steps down the hall, and knock on my daughter’s door. Unlike my son, she doesn’t invite me in. Privacy is a big thing with me and my kids. I know their dad doesn’t respect theirs, so I always make an effort to overcompensate and give them the space they wouldn’t otherwise have. But after I knock for a second time and still get no response, I reach down and slowly push open the door.
“Calliope?” She’s on her bed too, but she’s lying with her face in her pillow. Her shoulders shake violently, and without the door between us, I can hear her muffled sobs. “Calli Lily?”
I pick her up so that she’s sitting, and the wails of pain that pour out of her rip my soul apart. Her makeup is ruined, leaking down her face in long steaks. She’s beet red, and soaked in her own tears,
“What’s wrong?” I ask, rocking her back and forth. She just whimpers mom and continues to break apart in my arms. It’s devastating. I can feel my heart breaking more and more as each long minute passes, and my daughter continues to cry her eyes out. It takes nearly fifteen minutes for her to calm down enough that I can wipe her eyes and get her to look at me.
Her lip trembles, and she shakes her head. “I can’t tell you.”
“Yes, you can. You can tell me anything, Calliope.”
“Not this.” She looks up at me, eyes bright red and so full of tears they start to leak over the corners again. “Daddy will kill me.”
My next breath takes the wind out of me. I lean into her, pressing my forehead against hers, and my hand over her heart. “Nothing you could ever do will make me or your dad stop loving you, or make us not want to help you. I’m always on your side. Please, just tell me what happened?”
It takes a minute, but after staring at me helplessly through her tears, she finally breaks and starts to sob again. “Mom, everything’s so bad. Everyone is talking about me, everyone is lying about me, Izzie and Lizzie abandoned me…”
I lift her chin to look in her eyes. “Why?”
“I like a boy,” she admits in a whisper, and the confession actually makes me look nervously at the door to make sure her father isn’t hovering there listening. It’s not hard to make the connections between ‘I like a boy’ and another boy calling her a whore. I just do my best not to jump to conclusions about the details.
“A boy,” I repeat.
She takes a breath, like I’ve lifted the weight of the world off her chest, and nods. “His name is Pete, he goes to my school. We started talking at this party I went to with Lizzie and Iz back in August and…” She shrugs. “I like him.”
“Okay, tell me what you like about him.”
“Well…” She bites her lip, and I feel an unwelcome wave of foreboding. “He’s really funny and smart, almost philosophical. He doesn’t care about what people think about him, and I think that’s so cool. He’s his own person, you know? And he’s so hot. He’s got dark hair and these dark eyes that I swear see all the way down to my soul. He gets me.”
I clear my throat. “That’s intense.”
“You have no idea.”
“Is there anything I should know about him? Or you? Or what you may or may not be doing together?” She doesn’t respond, but I can see the guilt spelled out plain as day on her face. I know her well enough to know that she’s not going to give it to me freely, but if I walk her there, she won’t lie to me. “Were you at Elizabeth’s house last night?”
“Where were you?”
“I was with Pete. He drove me up to the north side of the lake and we… parked.”
Breathe in. Breathe out. “Did you have sex with him?”
“No!” Her denial comes out shrill, defensive, and a few more pieces of the puzzle fall into place.
“Okay, I believe you,” I assure her. “What did happen?”
“Well… we made out.”
“And… he felt me up a little bit.”
“That’s it. He wanted to go further, but I… I didn’t want to. Yet. I mean, maybe I do… I don’t know.”
“You’re not ready,” I tell her, and her eyes start to glisten again.
“But he is.” She lets out a long, burdened breath. I want to push her on what she just said, but I think I see her warring with the decision to tell me in her head as I sit and watch her, so I try to give her the space, and let her come to me.
“We meet up every morning under the bleachers in the football stadium. At first, it was just a place he and I could talk without everyone gawking at us and being in our business. He’s not part of my circle, and my friends don’t like him.” She swallows. “I knew it was going to be bad when people found out about us.”
She pauses, almost like she’s going to stop. So I press her on the part I actually care about. “You meet him every morning under the bleachers?”
“It’s where we had our first kiss, and ever since that happened we’ve been doing a lot less talking and a lot more kissing. This morning, when I went to go meet him, he asked me to… to…”
The look she gives me in her reticence pleads for understanding, so I reach out and take her hand. Even though I’m not sure I’m ready to hear what she has to say, I give her my warmest, most understanding look and say, “It’s okay, Calliope.”
“He asked me to give him a hand job.”
She bites her lip, and nods again. “I think… I think he might have real feelings for me and I was afraid that if I didn’t, then he would think I was lame and never talk to me again.”
Flames roar to life in my gut. “If that’s how he reacts, then he’s fucking loser and you should never talk to him again. A boy who really cares about you will wait until you’re ready. And a boy who doesn’t, is not a boy you need to be involved with in any way.”
“But I want him to like me back, Mom. So much.”
“I know you do.”
She takes another shaky break and looks down at her fingernails. “Two girls caught us right in the middle of it, and they told everyone. Now the whole school is talking about me, lying about me. Calling me names. Teddy said someone told him that I was giving him a blowjob. Luke told me he heard that I was having sex with three guys. Then Brighton called me whore in front of the whole school so now everyone thinks it’s all true… everything is so horrible, I wish I could just crawl into a hole and die!”
She falls onto the bed and starts sobbing again, so I gently rub a hand over my back to calm her down. “No, you don’t, Calliope. This isn’t the end of the world, I promise. People have said awful things about me, and about your daddy, to the whole world, and we made it out the other end. It can feel like the universe is collapsing in on you, but I promise it isn’t. People will move on.”
“You don’t get high school, Mom. People have been waiting for the moment they can take me down. They started hashtags on Twitter! “CancelGREYtion” and “DisGREYce.” I had everything, and I’m going to lose it all!”
“You know, Cal. You said the thing that you liked most about Pete is that he didn’t care what other people thought. That he got to be his own person. Maybe, the reason you like that about him is because, deep down, you want to be more like that. Maybe the truth is that all the popularity, and followers, and sponsorship, don’t actually make you happy. In fact, I have a suspicion that they might be making you miserable.”
“Think about that, okay?”
She doesn’t respond at all that time, so I get up to leave. Her voice stops me at the door.
“Are you going to tell dad?”
“Don’t worry about your dad, okay? I’ll handle it.” She nods, and looks up at me with trust shining in her eyes that wasn’t there before.
“Anytime, Calli Lily.”
After my talk with Calliope, I take the kids downstairs and sit them at the table to do their homework while I cook dinner. I’ve allowed them temporary access to the WiFi so they can email their teachers and ask, plead if they have to, for the work they’re going to miss during their suspension.
A suspension I now fully intend on marching into the school tomorrow and getting overturned. That is, if Christian has already done it for me.
Luke is dismayed that every one of his teachers sends him plenty of work to go along with the essays he has to write, and pouts miserably over his open Algebra book while he tries to get through the new chapter without any help. Christian’s better at the math and science stuff than I am, so I promise him his dad will help him with his work after dinner… except he still isn’t home by the time I get dinner on the table.
And my child hasn’t come back either.
I call three times, and get increasingly shorter iterations of rings before being sent to his voicemail. Teddy doesn’t answer his phone either. The kids finish their dinner and help me clean the kitchen before we finally hear the ominous rumble of the garage door.
Luke and Calliope exchange nervous looks. I dry my hands on a towel and walk to meet them in the garage, preparing myself to take in and roll with whatever punishment Christian has dealt out. He was a wild teenager, maybe he’ll surprise me. Maybe he’s actually uniquely qualified to deal with hormonal teenagers acting out on their rage.
I come through the door to find my husband climbing out of his Lamborghini and a wash of horror overcomes me when I realize that Teddy isn’t with him.
“Christian Trevelyan-Grey! Where is my child?!” I shriek. Luke and Callie poke their heads through the door then turn pale as a sheet, as though their greatest fears have been realized. Christian smirks.
“Relax, he’s just a little bit behind me. I drive a Lambo, remember?”
“What did you do?”
“He gave a kid who called his sister a whore in front of the whole school a concussion today. I gave him the punishment I thought adequately fit the crime,” he says, though the last of his words are drowned out by a deep rumble that starts up the driveway. I look in time to see a brand new, cherry red Porsche pull into my garage.
“What?!” Luke screams behind me. “No fucking way!”
“Language, Lucas!” I jab him with my elbow, but keep my eyes on the shiny heap of metal coming toward me. The car stops, and Teddy climbs out from behind the wheel, while his Uncle Luke steps out from the passenger’s side. His face is bruised and swollen, but his smile stretches from ear to ear.
“You have got to be kidding me,” Calliope says in disbelief. Her eyes move to her baby pink BMW, then looks at her dad like he’s betrayed her. Luke looks like he’s about ready to explode.
“So I get grounded and he gets a PORSCHE?!”
“He stood up for his sister,” Christian says. “You tried to stop him instead of backing him up.”
“Teddy also cheated on a test today,” I add, giving Christian a hard look. The arrogance on my husband’s face melts away, and he frowns. Teddy loses his smile and turns sharp eyes on his brother.
“Dr. Sutter called,” I continue. “It seems our sons thought it would be a good idea to switch places this morning so Teddy could take Luke’s test for him…”
“Which I did to help my brother,” Teddy argues. “Family first. Right, Dad?”
Christian sighs, the utter lack of agreement plain on his face, then turns to look at me. “So, what? Are they expelled?”
“No. Thankfully, Dr. Sutter is willing to give them another chance. Teddy and I can have a discussion about his punishment upstairs.”
“But, Mom!” Teddy complains.
“You heard your mother,” Christian sighs. “Now, get inside.”
“There’s dinner in the fridge,” I tell him.
He makes a helpless sound, looking between us with his mouth agape. But he trudges forward without another argument.
“Teddy.” Our son turns morose eyes back on his father. Christian holds out his hand. “Keys.”
“You can have them back when you get your license,” he says. “Now go eat, go wash up, and go to bed.” Teddy drops his keys in his dad’s hand and stomps into the house. I nod to the other kids, and they fall in line behind their brother. The door closes behind them, and I turn to face my husband.”
“Cheating?” He scoffs in disbelief. I nod.
“I already talked to Luke about it, but you and I need to talk about Calliope.”
My locker is right next to Luke’s, so I have to listen to him bitch the whole way there. His body hums with pent up energy. His fingers curl into fists so tight that his knuckles turn white.
“I swear to god, one day, I’m going to punch that smug motherfucker right in his pretty-boy face. He can’t threaten to bench me. Doesn’t he know who I am?”
I snort while I pull open my locker. He and I both know that he won’t do anything. Like it or not, Brighton is the quarterback and football is a QB sport. Luke likes to take the easy route in almost every way he can find, but the one thing he truly cares about and works hard at is football and his future in the NFL. He won’t do anything to jeopardize that, no matter how pissed off he gets.
And that makes me nervous.
“One of us is going to have to do something if he doesn’t lay off Callie soon. You know that, right?”
“Yeah.” He slams his locker closed. “I was just hoping he could manage to not be an absolute ass wipe until after the season…”
Like I said, he’s not going to do anything.
“Hey, what’s good my man?” Brody Case holds up his hand and I slap mine against it. Luke grips Robert Giles by the hand and beats his chest against his.
“You have chemistry 4th period, right?” I ask. Brody’s face goes sour.
“Don’t remind me. I’ve been studying for a week and I still feel like I’m going to bomb. Dr. Sutter is a sadist.”
“Oh, great. This all makes me feel real good, guys,” Luke says.
Rob laughs. “Because you’ve spent all week studying Camille?”
“They said study chemistry, and I did. Maybe they should be more specific.” He winks and I roll my eyes.
“I’ve got to get a higher score than Tanner McKinney. Do you think we could talk about the test over lunch?”
“You know, if you really wanted to get a leg up,” Brody starts, leaning in like he wants to keep what he’s going to say next strictly between the four of us. “Why don’t you and Luke just Lindsay Lohan this bitch?”
Luke crinkles his brow. “Is that like a drug thing…?”
“No, switch places! Luke has Sutter 1st period. Go take the test as him, and when you take it this afternoon, you’ll already know everything that’s on it. You two are identical, how would he know?”
“That would be so fucking epic,” Rob says.
Luke turns to me, his eyes widening. “Oh my god, Ted. Please? If you guys are this worried, there’s no hope for me. This test is like a third of our grade. You could help me for the rest of the semester.”
I chew on the inside of my cheek, mulling it over. This is wrong, I know that. I can almost feel the disappointed look I’d get from my mother covering my body like slime for just considering it.
I mean what are the odds we’ll get caught? Even my parents mix us up all the time, and my dad is so in our business that I’m surprised he can’t identify us by scent. I doubt Dr. Sutter has taken the time to study the extremely subtle differences between my brother and I to be able to figure us out. Besides, aren’t my parents always saying that family is more important than anything? I really do have the chance to help Luke make it through the season…
“Alright, let’s do it,” I tell him. He grins, then waves to our friends as I drag him to the bathroom. We pick two stalls next to each other, strip, and pass our clothes and backpacks beneath the barriers between us.
“Ugh, you need to work on your fit, Ted. This is not a vibe.” He gives me a slanted look. “You know our parents are billionaires, right?”
“Shut up. Meet me back here during passing period after class, okay?”
He holds out his hand and we close the deal with the secret handshake we made up when we were seven. The first bell rings, and we hurry out the bathroom in the opposite direction than either of us should be heading.
When I get to the chemistry lab, I’m confronted with a problem I never considered. Dr. Sutter has a seating chart, and I have no idea where Luke sat down the first day without knowing he would be stuck there for the entire semester.
What am I supposed to do? Ask?
“Luke!” a girl shrieks from somewhere off to my right. I turn just in time to be enveloped by a cloud of blonde hair. “I’ve been thinking about you all morning,” she moans in my ear. “Did you think last night was as hot as I did?”
I freeze. “Uh…”
Her hand cups my face and forces my head around so that she can kiss me. It comes like an assault. Her tongue slides into my mouth and I almost gag.
“Luke!” she snaps, pulling away and looking more offended than I’ve ever seen anyone look before.
“Camille, relax,” I hiss, pulling her aside so people stop looking at us. “I’m Teddy.”
“What?! Oh my god!” She leaps away from me and drags her sleeve across her lips to wipe me off her mouth. “Why didn’t you stop me?”
“When was I supposed to do that?”
She glares at me, and I hold up my hands in a conciliatory gesture. “Will you calm down? I’m going to take his test for him, I need Dr. Sutter to think I’m him.”
“You are?” Her eyes glitter with intrigue. “Oh my god, he’s so bad. I swear to god, he’s the hottest guy in this entire school.”
“Yeah, great. I’ll practice my best man’s speech. Will you help me?”
“Where does he sit?”
“Oh. Back row, middle table, left side.”
“Great. Thanks, Camille.”
“Mhm.” She smirks and then moves to a table near the front, coincidentally the seat I occupy in my class. I head to the back.
While the last few minutes before the final bell tick down, I try my best to keep my head down and not draw any attention. Luke’s more popular than I am, so most people wave or try to catch my attention in some way. It goes against all my instincts to smile back, but it’s what he would do. My thoughts about whether or not my flawless performance deserves an Oscar or not all drain away when the door opens, and Liam Bancroft enters the room.
I swear to god, it’s like he walks in slow motion.
His hair, a soft, dusty brown, is long on top, and swept artfully across his brow. He runs his hands through it as he nods to Camille at the front of the class. The green letterman’s jacket draped over his long, lean body really brings out the flecks of gold in his deep brown eyes.
He holds himself with the kind of confidence that suggests he knows how good looking he is, which I assume is the same confidence that lets him be totally out and proud to the whole school. To even be brave enough to audition for the football team, let alone play varsity and hang out with the rest of the jocks. He goes on dates with other guys. He took a dude to homecoming this year. He’s just getting over having his heart shattered by a boy who had loved him.
I don’t know what’s more powerful. My yearning for him, or my envy for the life he gets to have.
Because I don’t get to be out.
I don’t know if I ever will.
Liam’s grandfather isn’t running for president. Liam’s mother hasn’t built a career on graphic erotica that has made her a household name. Liam’s father isn’t Christian Grey.
My dad is a good dad, don’t get me wrong. He pays attention to us – sometimes a little too much, but all three of us are seen and know it. He invests himself in the things we care about, and even though he can be downright terrifying when he’s mad, I have no doubt that the man would take a bullet for me if it ever came to it.
But he’s a guy’s guy. He likes fast cars and dark liquor. He likes playing sports with my brother and fishing with my grandpas. He’s the biggest, baddest man in any room he enters, and I don’t know if a man like that can accept a gay son. The risk isn’t worth finding out. Every day, I’m terrified I’ll slip up and he’ll discover my secret, and never look me in the eye again.
Liam’s bright smile, which has starred in countless of my fantasies, turns in my direction and starts toward me. I feel my heart thud in my chest when I realize he’s headed for the chair directly next to me.
Of course he is. He’s on the football team and I’m supposed to be Luke.
“’Sup, Grey? You ready to get your ass reamed, or what?”
“This test… Everyone is freaking the fuck out.”
“Yeah.” I try to smile, but I worry it looks more like a grimace. Thankfully, he seems to chalk that up to nerves over the test because he ignores it.
“Brighton tell you there’s a scout coming to the game on Friday?”
“Oh, yeah. He…” My voice trails off as the door flies open and Gretchen Hernandez comes into the room like she’s being chased by wolves. She goes directly to Amanda Martin and starts whispering in her ear.
“What do you think’s going on there?” Liam asks.
“I don’t know.”
“No!” Amanda gasps. When Gretchen nods her head, they both turn to look back at me, and I feel my whole body deflate.
I bury my nose in my chemistry book, or Luke’s chemistry book which both looks and feels like it hasn’t been opened all year. Thankfully Dr. Sutter calls the attention of the class before either of them can confront me.
The test I take from the stack going around the room is heavy. Dr. Sutter gives us the entire period to complete it, and by page 3, I start to worry about finishing. The room around me is filled with a constant chorus of tortured groans and desperate sighs. I’m actually relieved. There isn’t a single question I don’t know the answer to, and getting the chance to go through this now, will help me pace myself better this afternoon.
No way I don’t completely ace this.
Eat it, Tanner McKinney.
When the bell rings, a few people in the room are on the edge of tears. Liam drops his head and bangs it on the table. I take a deep breath of relief. That is, until Amanda stops in front of my desk.
“Oh, how the pious have fallen.” I look up and see her holding her hands in front of her, as if she were praying.
“What are you talking about, Amanda?” Liam demands. Gretchen’s superior smile turns evil.
“Oh, didn’t you hear? Calliope Grey got caught blowing a guy right before the first bell. Turns out Little-Miss-Perfect is nothing more than Little-Miss-Slut.”
“You better watch your mouth, Gretchen,” I snap at her. She just smirks before walking away.
“What the fuck?” Liam asks. I shake my head in disbelief.
“It can’t be true. I know my sister.”
And I know that she knows our dad would actually murder her if she did what they said she did.
Luke and I manage to reclaim our own identities without any problems, except the asshole didn’t take notes in the English class he went to for me. But the rumor Amanda told me in chemistry spreads through the student body so swiftly and efficiently, I start to wonder how it got started. And what kernel of truth was its impetus.
At lunch, everyone is so obsessed with talking shit about my sister, that eyes start following me everywhere I go. I make my way to the table I share with Luke, Brody, and Rob, feeling like I’m swimming through a fishbowl. I don’t know how Calliope deals with this all the time.
“Dude, what’s going on with your sister?” Rob asks.
“Nothing, shut your fucking mouth,” Luke barks back. Clearly, like me, he understands that the rumor can’t be true, but it sounds like he’s had to defend her more today than I have.
A hush falls over the cafeteria, and I turn to see Calliope standing at the entrance. For the first time since I came to this school, she isn’t flanked on either side by her minions. She stands there like an island, with everyone staring at her.
I watch her take a deep breath, straighten her back, and march straight for the table no one else still dared to occupy with her head held high. I’m proud of her, but I can spot the tremble she’s trying to hide in her lip as she sits down.
Thankfully, people don’t stare too long. But we all know that chatter that starts up again as eyes move back to their peers is all about her.
“Poor Callie…” Luke whispers.
“Oh, I don’t think we’ve even seen how bad it’s going to get yet.” I tap his shoulder and point to the door again. The crowd parts and Brighton King starts barreling towards our sister. His eyes burn with jealous fire, and Calliope recedes a little as he approaches.
“Tell me it’s a lie!” he shouts at her, and everyone hears it because everyone is listening.
Calliope’s whole face goes pink. “I don’t owe you anything, Brighton.”
Her voice shakes, and the room fills with ominous oohs as everyone collectively acknowledges that she didn’t deny anything. Brighton reaches down and slaps Calliope’s open Diet Coke off the table. It gets all over her before slamming against the wall and rolling across the floor, spewing caramel colored foam everywhere.
It isn’t lost on me in this moment that, if the rumors are true, the guy she did this with doesn’t stand up to defend her. That only adds to my anger and, as I look over at Luke, I see him shaking with rage too.
“Answer me!” Brighton screams at my sister, but Luke still doesn’t get up.
“Fuck off, Brighton. I’m not your girlfriend!”
“No, you’re a fucking whore.”
Well. That’s it I guess.
“Hey!” I shout, leaping to my feet. “Don’t fucking talk to my sister like that.”
“Oh, yeah?” He turns to me, the fight he wants obvious in his eyes. “You got a problem, Grey?”
“Yeah, and you can apologize to her or I’m going to come over there and make it your problem.”
“No reason to apologize for calling a spade a spade.” He looks down at my sister with disgust. “Or, in this case, a slut a slut.”
I curl my hand into a fist and start towards him.
But here’s the thing… I’m more of a Dragon Age kind of a guy than a fighter. He dodges my first swing, and catches me right in the gut. All the air leaves my body, and I fall to the ground.
“Teddy!” Calliope calls, falling to her knees at my side. I push her away and scramble to my feet. “I don’t need your help, Cal.”
Brighton laughs and punches me in the nose.
My vision goes black and I stumble backwards, bending over to cup my face. My palms fill with my hot blood, and when my sight comes back, I see that the only reason I haven’t gotten a second blow is because Luke is restraining my attacker.
“Knock it off, Brighton!” he says.
“Get off me!”
He shoves my brother and starts towards me. I watch Luke stumble back, and it breaks the part inside of me that cares whether or not this guy is about to kick my ass. I charge at him, somehow managing to knock him to the hard linoleum. We roll around, punching each other every chance we get, and it’s honestly not great. But I’m beyond caring about pain. I just keep punching.
Luke manages to pull Brighton off of me, but when I scramble up to him again, my brother shucks him off and catches me by the shoulders.
“Teddy, not here…” His plea is cut off when he turns to look back at Brighton again and gets a hard right hook to the jaw that sends him to the ground.
“No, Luke!” Camille screams from the front of the crowd just off to the left, and she dives on the floor to get to my brother. My vision goes red.
“Argh!” The sound rips out of me as I lunge at Brighton. When I get him to the ground this time, I straddle his waist and let my fists fly, pummeling every inch of him I can reach as hard as I can, as fast as I can. But the set of hands that pull me off him this time aren’t Luke’s. Instead, I stare up into the furious eyes of Dr. Wolfe, the Vice Principal.
“My office, now!”
It’s not like I’ve never been in the Vice Principal’s office before. The chair I’m sitting in is so familiar that the seat practically forms to my butt. Luke and I like to pull our fair share of pranks, but it’s all in harmless fun. I’ve never been here for anything like this. The severity that hangs in the air and the throb in my bones make the experience a whole new level of terrifying. No one even talks to us. Dr. Wolfe pointed at the chairs we’re sitting in now and went into his office. Nothing has happened since then, and that was over half an hour ago.
My test is in twenty minutes.
I stare at the seconds ticking past on the clock above my head, holding a towel against my nose. It wasn’t broken when the nurse looked me over, so she didn’t have a reason to keep me. Brighton, on the other hand, has a concussion, so he doesn’t have to sit in the torturous silence waiting for his fate to be handed down.
“Will you please do something?” Luke hisses at Calliope.
“What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know. Bat your eyelashes or whatever stupid thing you do that gets you whatever you want all the time. If I don’t get to practice after school, I can’t play on Friday.”
“Okay, okay. Wait here.” Calliope gets up and goes into the room next to ours where the secretary is sitting. Luke and I both creep to the door to listen.
“Excuse me,” she begins. “Hi. This is all just a huge misunderstanding. You see, there’s an entire cafeteria of witnesses who can attest to the fact that Brighton King was in strong violation of the Bishop Blanchett anti-bullying policy, and I don’t think my father, the inventor of perpetual motion, would be too pleased to hear that you’ve taken his children out of class, robbing us of our educational opportunities, for the crime of standing up to a bully.”
“Well, your parents have already been called. We can ask him when he gets here.”
“Oh.” The trepidation in her response is reflected in the stillness that suddenly overcomes Luke and me. Bishop Blanchett is normally the kind of school to handle things without the involvement of the parents, and while most kids think that means the school gets to punish us more harshly… most kids don’t have our dad. There’s an ethics committee, a student conduct council… they only call the parents in if you’re really in trouble.
Calliope walks back into the room two shades paler than she was before. She sinks into her chair, and buries her face in her hands.
“We need to get our story straight before they get here,” Luke says.
“You think?” I snort.
Luke turns to Calliope, and waits. “So what is it?”
She doesn’t turn to look at him so he pushes her to get her attention and her head snaps up like a cobra ready to strike. “What?!”
“Don’t yell at me, we’re in this mess because of you.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong!”
“So you weren’t banging three dudes under the bleachers this morning?”
“What? No! Oh my god, the people at this school are such assholes!” She throws her face into her hands again, so I tell Luke to back off my with eyes and try the good-cop approach.
“So, what’s got Brighton so pissed off, Calliope?”
She glances up, her eyes focusing on the bloody rag I still clutch to my face, and her shoulders droop. “Well…”
“It’ll go in the covenant,” Luke promises, holding out his pinky. It’s an agreement between the three of us that started years ago. Anything that goes into the covenant has to be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And nothing that goes in can ever come out.
I hook my pinky around Luke’s, and after another second of hesitation, Calliope follows suit.
“Okay… do you guys know Pete Bigler?”
“The emo dude?” Luke asks, his nose wrinkling in distaste. Her eyes narrow and her jaw clenches the same way Dad’s does when he’s irritated. The judgement clears from Luke’s eyes. “Yeah, okay. We know who he is.”
“Well, we’ve been kinda… seeing each other in secret for a few weeks.”
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the reason why it’s been in secret is probably barreling his way here like an angry bull as we speak. The only thing I know about Pete Bigler is that he gets to school every day on a motorcycle.
“You were blowing Pete Bigler?” I ask.
“No! I was… well, sort of… you know… giving him a hand job.”
“Ew!” Luke says. “Calliope, no. Do you know how much better than him you can do?”
“What, you mean like Brighton King?”
“Well, no. But Pete Bigler. He’s…”
“You don’t even know him, Lucas!” Calliope cuts him off. Her whole persona turns cold and I can see the fight brewing in her eyes just as strongly as I saw it in Brighton’s. This time, I douse the flames instead of fanning them.
“So what are we going to tell our parents?”
“Excuse me?” an achingly familiar voice says in the room next to us. “My name is Anastasia Grey. I’m here for Calliope, Theodore, and Lucas.”
“Yes, thank you for coming, Mrs. Grey. Right this way.” A few seconds later, Ms. Ashford walks into the room with our mom on her heels. We all breathe a collective sigh of relief when we see Dad isn’t behind her, but that hope dies the moment the secretary leaves the room again.
“He’s right behind me,” Mom warns us. “Now what did you do?”
My gut sinks.
I’m already sore and achy from Brighton’s blows. How the fuck am I going to face my dad?
The vanity in front of me is littered with open makeup and at least six different sized brushes. The lights are hot and the air in my room is still filled with the sticky-sweet scent of hairspray. None of that affects me. I’m as still as my grandma in surgery as I swipe the bristled wand of my mascara over the ends of my eyelashes.
“And that’s the completed look,” I say brightly, leaning away from the mirror and turning to smile at my phone. “Thanks for getting ready with me this morning, guys. And remember, there’s still time to register to vote before November. Vote for my grandpa, and help us take back the future, today. Love you!”
With a wink, I press my finger into the screen of my phone to end my livestream. Once I’m sure the camera is off, I flip off the lights on the vanity and let out a sigh of relief.
The softly filtered morning light pouring in through my window is surprisingly golden. The days have been getting darker and gloomier as summer has turned into fall, but today the sky is clear and powder blue. Crimson leaves make a spotted pattern on the perfect emerald grass in the backyard, and the bare branches left behind carry the chill of autumn through the golden sunlight.
Luke is in the backyard playing catch with Dad, so lean against the window and watch them for awhile. The truth is, Luke is really talented. His problem is that he knows it. He’s one of the only two sophomores in the whole school starting on the varsity team, and he’s been the star. Playing under the big lights every Friday night and hearing the crowd roar his name after he makes one incredible catch after the other is starting to go to his head.
It’s making him annoying.
The best thing for him is to be forced to condition and train with Dad every day, really. I still have stress dreams about the times he’s helped me prepare for piano recitals. The first knuckle on my middle finger still aches sometimes from the long hours I spent practicing.
Mom, on the other hand, already has a customized Seahawks jersey with GREY and Luke’s high school number stitched on the back.
God help us, and the gravitational tilt of the earth, if his giant head ever does make it to the NFL.
When Dad waves for Luke to come inside, I turn around, pick up my bag, and head downstairs. Teddy is already in the kitchen, sitting on the counter, while Mom reads the flashcards that have been stuck to his hand for the last week to him and finishes breakfast. On the counter across from her, there’s an iPad that shows the gray screen from the end of my stream.
“Good morning, Calli Lilly,” she greets me when I slide into the seat next to my brother. She slides a bowl of oatmeal with eggs and fruit on the side across the counter.
“Mom!” Teddy snaps. “I need to study!”
“Teddy, you’ve had these cards memorized since last weekend. You are going to do fine, I promise you.”
“I can’t do fine. Tanner McKinney isn’t going to do fine. I know he’s got his eyes on Harvard, and they only accept one student a year from Bishop Blanchett. It has to be me.”
Mom gives him an exasperated look. “Why don’t you worry about finishing your breakfast before you start worrying about Harvard?”
My gut clenches. I know exactly why Teddy is stressed about Harvard. That’s what you do in my family. Grandpa went there, Mom, Aunt Kate, Aunt Mia, hell even Dad for a little while… Not getting accepted into Harvard for either of the Grey children who aren’t destined for a SEC or Pac 12 school isn’t an option.
Teddy’s still a sophomore. I’m six weeks away from the SATs and my hair is already falling out.
Luckily, I just got a hair vitamin endorsement.
Silver linings, right?
The back door opens, and Dad and Luke both come into the kitchen, pink-faced and grinning.
“You’re looking good out there, Kiddo,” Mom says, turning with a shaker bottle in each hand filled with protein powder and almond milk. Luke’s turns bright pink, because Mom still puts strawberry Nesquik in it for her special little guy. Dad’s eyes linger on the bottles in Mom’s hands, then he readjusts his hips, and Luke groans with disgust before snatching the bottle out of Mom’s hand and sliding across the counter, past the breakfast she has made for him, and heads straight to the fridge to raid the freezer for Toaster Strudel.
“Welcome home, Daddy!” I say, skipping over to him and throwing my arms around his neck. He’d been in Ohio at some University no one’s ever heard of for the debate Grandpa had against the President on Tuesday. I was already asleep when he got home last night.
“Thank you, Princess. I missed you.”
“Mmm.” My hum gets louder as he squeezes me so hard, he forces all the air from my diaphragm. I giggle, then take a step back, skipping from foot to foot as I prepare for the pitch I’ve been practicing since he left. “Daddy?”
“Well, I was thinking. It’s great and all that I’m starting to get sponsorships for my channel, but I think that I’m wasting my connection with my viewers on just ad revenue. If I came out with my own products, like a makeup line, maybe, I’d have a direct revenue stream and I’d be able to build my brand. Think of how impressive that will be on my Harvard application.”
“No, Calliope,” my mother interjects.
“But, why?” I demand, turning to confront her so quickly that my hair whips my dad in the face. “I already do makeup videos at least once a week, I’m on a ton of PR lists… it’s the next logical evolution!”
“Because you’re still in high school, Calliope. Launching a makeup line is a full-time job, and you already have one of those. When you graduate, then you can think about getting into business ventures, not before.”
“Dad!” I round back on him, expecting him to take my side.
“Your mother is right. You have all the time in the world to work, don’t trade away your youth for it. It’s a mistake. Trust me.”
I feel my face melt into an ugly pout of disappointment just as a flash of light bursts from the other side of the kitchen. Luke has his phone out, pointed directly at me.
“What are you doing?”
“Documenting this for posterity. I’m calling it, ‘the one time in seventeen years Dad has ever told Calliope no.’”
“Ugh, you’re such a jerk!” I grab the counter so I can launch myself at him, but Dad snags me by the arm and yanks me back.
“You know, there is one thing I did want to talk to you about.” The dangerous edge of warmth and casual amiability to his voice instantly has me on guard.
“You told your mother that you went to Elizabeth’s house for SAT prep after school yesterday, right?”
“Yeah,” I lie with an incredibly unearned sense of self-confidence.
“And you were at her house?”
“Then why was your car at the school until 6:30 last night?”
I could almost breathe a sigh of relief.
This is the man who put tracking devices in my tennis shoes when I was a toddler, and he doesn’t think I know he’s following my car? It’s a little insulting.
“Lizzie wanted to drive together. We went in her car.”
“Your phone was also at the school.”
“I left it in my car.” That one comes out free and clear, because I did leave it in my car. Along with my bag and the locket he gave me when I was five. With him, you can never be too careful.
Dad crosses his arms over his chest, the suspicion still firmly set in his eyes.
“You expect me to believe that you, Calliope Katherine Grey, were without your phone and had no access to social media for three and a half hours yesterday, and you never, at any point, went back to get it?”
“Well, let’s not get crazy. I had my laptop.” Actually, I didn’t, and it really was one of the most difficult ordeals I’ve ever had to endure. But fuck was it worth it.
Dad looks over at Luke and he shrugs. “I was at practice, she wasn’t at the school.”
He looks at Teddy.
“I saw her right after the final bell, and she was with Lizzie.”
I could smile.
In a world long ago and far away, my brothers and I couldn’t wait to snitch on each other. A football goes flying through the house, right into the Ming vase that dad spent months trying to get for the front room? I practically wrote a song about it and performed it in front of my entire family along with a tap dance. If I ever snuck into Mom’s bathroom to try on her expensive lipsticks, my brothers would tackle me to the floor and hold me there until she caught us.
I was about twelve when it dawned on me that tattling is just a scam my dad used to spy on us. Ever since then, the boys and I have been working off an ironclad see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing deal, and it’s saved us all a world of trouble over and over and over again.
“Hm,” Dad puffs, clearly not believing me, but not having enough evidence to question me further. Teddy swoops in to save the day.
“Dad, I’ve got a huge chemistry test today. Will you please read flashcards with me?”
“Sure, hand ‘em here.”
Luke tosses his blender bottle into the sink like he’s shooting a basket, then disappears upstairs to take a shower. I eat my oatmeal and scroll Instagram, listening to Teddy and my dad repeat chemistry equations back and forth.
Seven o’clock comes and goes, and Luke never comes downstairs. I start getting anxious with each precious minute before the first bell that dwindles down, and Teddy starts to complain about having his schedule thrown off and it affecting his ability to concentrate. By 7:15, Dad has to up there and physically bring him down to get him out the door.
“Ugh, what is that?” I ask, crinkling my nose while I slam the car door behind me. The engine is so silent when I start the car that I have to actually wait for the Endurance logo to pop up on the screen in my dash for me to be sure it’s on.
“My new cologne,” Luke answers. “Camille bought it for me.”
“What, did you bathe in it?” I reach up and lower the convertible top to let in clean air, then slip a pair of shades over my eyes and gun it out of the garage.
There are a lot of perks to being a Grey kid. We get that. Most kids don’t live in houses like ours, or drive the cars we do, or spend their summers on a yacht in the Mediterranean. I’m grateful for the amazing life my parents have provided me, absolutely, and I try to practice that gratitude every day. Today, I’m grateful for the parking.
There are lines of cars slowly crawling up the aisles of the parking lot, and each and every one of them ignores the open one near the front. Not because there’s a reserved sign or a blue line. The thing that keeps it empty is more intangible, but possibly more effective.
It’s the air of ruthless power and authority that I have spent years observing from my father, and perfecting.
I pull into my widely-known-to-be reserved spot as if there was a red carpet leading me there, then step out on the asphalt where I’m greeted by two girls dressed in outfits that perfectly coordinate with mine. Elizabeth and Isobel, my right hand girls. Their clothes are part of their daily assignment, to watch my live stream each morning and plan accordingly.
Low-key, it’s a game plan half the girls in the school follow.
I’ve watched the various popular girls come and go through the years. Some have drastic personality changes that make them into exiles, some physically have moved away, and others just never had what it took to be the queen bee. I did. And unlike the other, I don’t make mistakes. I don’t trip up.
That’s where my girls come in.
It takes a lot to keep the crown on your head, and I’ve played enough chess to know that even a queen doesn’t have enough power to safeguard her kingdom alone. With Lizzie and Izzie, I know everything about everyone, and I know exactly how to use that to my advantage. No one can challenge me, because I’m prepared to take down everyone.
“Morning, girls,” I greet them, smiling as I take the coffee Lizzie holds out for me.
“Morning, Callie,” they repeat in unison. I expect Izzy to launch into her morning report of everything that’s happened since three o’clock yesterday afternoon that I need to know about, but she doesn’t. There’s an awkward pause and when I turn to look where they’re staring, I see why.
Brighton King is walking toward us.
“Oh, god…” I groan.
“Hey, Grey!” he calls, which is, thankfully, directed at my brother.
“What’s up, Brighton?” Luke answers.
“There’s a scout from Auburn and LSU coming to watch the game Friday.”
“Calm down, sophomore. He’s coming for me. So, I swear to god, if you drop so much as one pass this Friday night, you’re going to wish you never showed your face around this school by Monday. Got it?”
“Oh. Well, I think-”
“Well, I think…” Brighton cuts him off in a mocking voice. “Don’t think, Stupid. You’ll hurt yourself.”
Luke’s face flushes, and I feel a hot spike of anger.
“Shut up, Brighton. The only reason the team is anything is because you’ve got him to catch those weak ass throws you lob ten yards short of the target every week.”
Brighton’s eyes flash in my direction, and I read him instantly. He could have gone with vengeance. Instead, he chooses to be a creep.
“Callie, why do you always try to fight with me when we both know what you really want is to be at that game, right behind the player’s bench, with my letterman jacket around your shoulders and my hickeys all over your neck?”
“I’d rather drink bleach.”
“Feisty this morning.” I roll my eyes and start toward the building, but he falls in step right behind me.
“Come on, what do you say, Callie? My brother can get us some alcohol. After the game, we could drive out to the north side of the lake and park. Have a few drinks. Maybe explore the idea of your very first blowjob.”
His hand moves under my hair and across my neck. It sends shivers of revulsion down my back.
“Don’t touch me, Brighton.”
“You know, you say no but you’ve got goosebumps, Calliope.” The hand on the back of my neck starts to caress me. I cringe away from his touch, and Luke steps between us to shove him away.
“She said don’t. That means no.”
“Careful, Grey. You want to see a minute of playing time the rest of the season, you’ll turn around and walk away.”
He hesitates. A lifetime of ‘defend family above everything’ keeps him rooted in place, but the fragile line of opportunities that all his dreams depend on has him swaying with the desire to go.
He doesn’t though, and that’s enough for me.
It’s not like I actually want to screw up his season.
“Leave him alone, Brighton,” I say, turning and walking away.
“What about Friday night?”
“I’m sure you and your hand will have a great time, just like you have every other Friday night this year.”
There’s a chorus of laughter that echoes through the onlookers we’ve drawn, but I don’t stay to enjoy my petty win. I walk through the front doors and part the crowds that fill the halls like the red sea. Eyes follow every single step we take. Lizzie and Izzie both glow under the attention, and normally I would too. But the twenty-five minutes before home room may just be the exception to the rule. I spot a clock on the wall of an open-doored classroom as I pass, and see just how much of those precious minutes Brighton took up.
“Girls,” I say, stopping dead in my tracks. I turn to Lizzie and slip my bag off my shoulder into her waiting hands. “Take this to my locker to unpack and bring my books to homeroom. I need to go to the bathroom.”
“I’ll go with you,” Izzie volunteers.
I frown. “I meant the nurse’s office. I’m getting my period and the cramps are killing me.”
“You sure you don’t want company?” Izzie checks.
“No, I’ll catch up with you during the next passing period.”
They exchange disconcerted looks, but shrug and wave as they turn to go. I wait until I see them turn around the corner, then start as quickly as I can towards the door at the back of the school.
It’s difficult slipping out unnoticed, but thankfully a teacher monitoring the hall draws everyone’s attention by busting a kid for having a bandana hanging out the back pocket of his uniform. I open the door just enough to slide out, then hold it as it closes so no one hears the catch of the metal sliding back into place.
There are fewer people on this side of the building. The track team is huddled up at the edge of the football field, just having finished practice, and the two people I pass on the sidewalk around the stadium are too absorbed in their phones to pay any attention to me.
I take one last cautionary look before slipping through the unlocked gate, then dash to the bleachers.
“I was starting to think you weren’t coming,” Pete says. He takes a long drag from the end of a cigarette that doesn’t smell like tobacco, then drops it on the ground and grinds it into the gravel with the toe of his chuck taylors. His long black hair falls into his eyes, and when he shakes it away, the solitary beam of light peeking through the slats between the seats glints off the piercing in his lip.
There’s no other guy like Peter Bigler at Bishop Blanchett High School. It’s a private school in one of the wealthiest zip codes in America, but he didn’t grow up here. He’s from further south, in Tukwila, which I only know exists because it’s between Seattle and the airport, and my dad once told me that if he ever caught me there, I’d be grounded until menopause. Pete’s dad is a tenured teacher at the school, so he gets to go here tuition free. Everything about him screams that he doesn’t belong, from the tattoo just barely poking out above the collar of his shirt, to the black sharpie scribbled all over the nail on his ring finger.
He’s wild. He’s dangerous. He’s so fucking hot that I can hardly stand it.
“Sorry, it was my stupid brother’s fault.”
“Oh, yeah?” He gives me a trouble-is-headed-your-way grin, and I feel my knees weaken.
That’s not just a cliché.
It actually happens.
“Come here,” he tells me, and I stumble forward into his open arms as though I never had another choice. His hand moves up to grab my face while he kisses me, and it makes my blood hot beneath my skin. The way he touches me always feels so imperative. Like he’s been dying to do it his whole life and now that he can, he’s overwhelmed by the starvation of my absence. He kisses me like he has to. He wraps around me like he’d battle dragons to keep me safe.
“You always taste so fucking good,” he growls against my lips. I feel the gold bite of metal against my arms as he pushes me back into the bleachers and presses his body into me. “You got me so fucking hot last night, Callie. I swear to god, I don’t know how I let you get out of that car.”
“I wish I didn’t have to leave. We never have enough time.”
“So let’s make the best of what we have.” His hand moves up to cup my breast, which doesn’t shock me at all. But after a few minutes of very heavy petting and deep tonsil exploration, he pulls away from my lips, and moves to whisper in my ear.
“Touch my dick.”
I freeze. “What?”
His hands disappear from my boobs and move down to the buttons on the front of his trousers. My eyes go wide as he pulls out the band of his boxers, and I see his erection poking out at me through the opening.
Pete and I have been meeting like this for a little over a month now, since Kyle Warner’s end of summer party back in August. Under the bleachers, in the backseat of his beat up Toyota Camry… He’s been all over me, and it’s been an intoxicating ride, like rollercoaster that only ever goes down.
Last night, we parked behind the Northgate Mall and made out until our faces were swollen. He took off my bra and put his mouth on my boobs, and that’s as far as we’ve ever gone. Nothing below the waist, for either of us.
I’ve never even seen a penis in real life before.
“Just put your hand on it,” he urges me. I stare down at him, feeling suddenly very hot behind the ears. He pushes his hips forward, then pulls my lips back to his. “Come on, babygirl. You don’t want to give me blue balls, do you?”
He’s never called me that before. Does that mean something’s changed? That his feelings are becoming more real? Is he falling in love with me? It feels that way when he kisses me. I feel that way when he touches me.
My heart starts to pound at the possibility and the only thing I can think in that moment is not to fuck it up. So I take a deep breath, reach into his pants, and wrap my fingers around his dick.
It’s somehow both softer and harder than I thought it would be. His shaft is as rigid as steel, but he feels smooth and warm in my hand. When I squeeze him, he shudders, and when I start to move my hand up and down, he grunts against my lips.
“Oh, fuck that feels good, Callie.”
“Like that?” I check. He reaches down and wraps his hand around my fist, tightening my grip around him, and tugs faster. I follow his lead, adjusting pressure and speed according to the groans each action pulls out of him. His hand goes back to my boobs, clawing at the buttons on my shirt until he can get inside my bra.
“Mmm,” he moans. “You have such sexy tits, babygirl. You’re so fucking hot, god I want to come on you. In you…” He bites his lip as he glances down at my hand, then looks up at me with blazing eyes. “You want to make me come, don’t you Calliope?”
My mouth has gone completely dry, so all I can do is nod. The grin he flashes makes me feel like I’m making a deal with the devil, but that doesn’t mean anything to me at that moment. All I care about is showing him how good I can make him feel.
“That’s it. God, you’re so filthy. I’m almost there. Don’t stop…”
“Oh my god!”
The world around me suddenly goes cold. I turn and see Rebecca Reinhardt and Jennifer Paddington crouched in the opening under the bleachers, staring at us in shock. There’s a cigarette in Jennifer’s hand that tumbles to the ground as she gapes at us.
I don’t know what to do, and the gravity of the situation has me paralyzed. I stand there, mouth open, holding onto Pete’s dick with one hand, and curl my fingers into his jacket with the other.
Slowly, the shock on their faces melts away into a pair of vindictive smiles, and they slowly back out of the bleachers.
“Shit, what do we do?” I hiss in panic.
“Keep jacking me off, why the fuck did you stop?”
The bell rings off in the distance and while I turn toward the direction of the sound, tears prick in my eyes.
“Fuck!” I cry, and I start to sprint towards the school, ignoring Pete’s calls, and fighting back the tears that seem determined to fall.
I don’t even make it back into the school before I feel the metaphorical weight of my crown start to teeter from its firmly steady position on top of my head.
Her hair is like the fields of barley and wheat we drive past on the way to my Grandpa Ray’s house. It sways in the wind, and carries a scent that makes me think of summer. She doesn’t realize how often she plays with it. I’ll stare at her from across the table when I take her to dinner and watch her toss it over her shoulder or twirl it around her fingers. It’s crazy. She doesn’t even think about it, and it’s constantly got me so full engrossed that I once missed a grand slam the Mariner’s hit to win the game in the bottom of the 9th inning.
It’s so pretty and soft.
The way it tumbles over her shoulders or when she sweeps it up on top of her head, and wispy tendrils fall in a delicate frame around her gorgeous green eyes. I want to bury my face deep into her hair, and breathe her in. I want to run my hands through it and feel the cold ends slide like silk through the tips of my fingers. I want to–
“Wake up!” Teddy’s voice only just manages to break through my dreams of Camille before I’m walloped in the face with a heavy pillow. My head jerks back and the corner of the pillowcase snaps my exposed eye.
“Ah!” I scream, reaching up to cover the blinding pain radiating from my eyeball. “What the fuck, Ted?”
“Your alarm has been going off for ten minutes. I can hear it all the way in my room.”
As the pain subsides to a dull throb, the shrill chirp from my phone starts leaking into my consciousness.
“Fuck!” I dive for it and leap out of bed the moment I see the time. Teddy scowls while I scoop a pair of basketball shorts and t-shirt from the top of my hamper, so I blow him a kiss as I push my way past him out the door.
“If I fail this test today, I’m going to kill you, Luke!” he calls down the hall after me. I flash him a grin as I pull on the banister to round the stairs.
“Not worried about it. I’ll bet on you, Poindexter.”
He tells me to fuck off while I take the stairs two at a time, and I hear Mom shout his name all the way back from her bedroom. The instant karma of it makes me grin, but that comes right back to bite me in the ass when I slip on the rug at the bottom of the steps in the basement and stumble into the gym, right into a rack of plates. They teeter, swaying to the left, then even further to the right. The momentum on the next swing is enough to send them clattering noisily to the ground.
Behind me, I hear the sound of a metal bar sliding back into the grooves on the bench press. I turn, moving slowly like I’m afraid to spook a wild animal.
My dad is not amused.
“I know, I overslept.”
“Greys don’t oversleep.” The gray in his eyes goes hard in the way only his can, like the steel of a broadsword ready to lunge out and cut you. I swallow the lump of trepidation growing in my throat.
“I don’t want apologies, I want excellence. Do you think this is excellence, Lucas?”
He saw my midterm grades. Shit.
“I’m trying, Dad…”
“Are you? Because you have to get into college to have a shot at an NFL career, and I know you were too young to remember the whole college admissions scandal thing, but I’m not going to Felicity Huffman myself because you don’t want to study.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to study, I’m just… I don’t know. I’m tired a lot, it’s hard to concentrate.”
“You wouldn’t be so tired all the time if you weren’t staying up until one in the morning on FaceTime with your girlfriend.”
My eyes go wide with horror. “You know about that?”
He rolls his eyes. “Of course, I do. Nothing happens on your phone that I don’t know about. Honestly, Calliope should have taught you better than that.”
Well, she did tell me that dad monitored our calls. I thought since FaceTime used WiFi, I could get around all that. And, you know, there’s the added bonus of having my smoking hot girlfriend on camera while we’re both totally alone.
I grin. “Well, if I have to give up the girl or the 5 AM workouts, I choose the workouts. So if you’ll excuse me…”
I turn and start for the door, but my dad grabs me by the back collar of my t-shirt.
“Luke, I’m serious. You’ve got a hell of a lot of talent but none of that means anything without discipline. What you want is not going to be handed to you the way so much of the rest of your life is. It takes work, dedication, and a lot of sacrifice. Are you willing to commit to that? Because if you’re not, you’re wasting both of our time.”
I stand under his expectant gaze, knowing that I’m messing up and that the opportunities to do that are getting fewer and fear the closer I get to senior year. But it’s not like I try to fail. Teddy and Callipe have never even had a tiny blemish on their spotless GPAs. Watching how proud our parents are of them while they give me some variation of the same lecture over and over again isn’t exactly what I’d call a great time.
Most of the time, I just feel like dirt.
“It’s harder for me, Dad.” The vulnerability in my voice melts the icy stiffness that grips his frame and he leans down to look me in the eye.
“What do you mean?”
“Everyone does everything so fast. I’ll read something, but I won’t understand any of it. So I’ll go back to read it again, but then everyone else is already moving on to the next thing and I’m behind. But I can’t catch up because I missed the middle parts.” My shoulders slump with my frustrated sigh. “I always think I’ll just do it at home, but the teacher doesn’t come home with me.”
“What about your mother and I? You know, people are generally of the opinion that she and I are pretty smart.”
“You’re never here. Ever since Grandpa’s campaign started, you’ve been away more often than you’ve been home. Mom’s got all the movie stuff going on… Jade tried to help me once, but she barely made it through her regular classes. Ten years ago. There’s nothing she can do to help me with Algebra II.”
He frowns. “What about Teddy? He takes the same classes you do.”
“I’d rather Teddy think I was lazy than dumb.”
The very last of the tension in my dad’s face disappears. His eyes shine with concern as he reaches out to cup my shoulder.
“You’re not dumb, Luke.”
“Then why does everybody else do everything so much easier than me?”
“I don’t know, but now that you’ve told me, I promise that your mother and I will do everything we can to figure it out. I’ll get you a tutor, if you want. And you could meet them at Aunt Mia’s house if you don’t want your brother and sister to know.”
“You won’t tell them?”
“Not if you don’t want me to.”
I hesitate. The idea of spending my free time with some nerd trying to teach me Economics isn’t exactly my ideal scenario. But Coach already warned me that if I didn’t get my GPA by the time report cards came out, I could kiss State goodbye.
And probably a few of my teeth when Brighton King found out he was going to be without his go to receiver with his senior year season on the line.
Dad smiles and clasps my shoulder once before straightening again and moving back to the same bench he was on before. “Pick up something heavy,” he tells me.
“Again and again and again…”
My routine is the same as it is every morning. Yoga, cardio, strength training. It’s boring, monotonous, and too easy to focus on how tired I’m getting. Dad has the TV set to CNN, watching two commentators I don’t care about talking about the debate Grandpa had with the president a few nights ago. It does little to distract me, so I let my mind wander back to my dreams about Camille.
We’ve known each other since Kindergarten. She was in my 2nd, 4th, and 5th grade class. I had her in homeroom all year in 8th grade, and she was in both my biology and French class Freshman year.
How did it take me all that time to realize how absolutely gorgeous she was? How is it possible that up until a few months ago, I just thought of her as a girl I went to school with? Why did it take a tight white tank top over a hot pink bikini and a bucket of ice cold water to make me see her?
Or the fact that she has the most incredible set of tits I’ve ever seen.
I have to drop the barbell over my head to cover the boner that tents my shorts when memories from the night before start flooding into my brain. She went farther than she’s ever let me push her before. I’m going to be haunted by that coy look she gave me when she took off her t-shirt after I asked if I could see her tits for the rest of my life. When I asked her to lick the tips of her fingers and pull on her nipples, she did that too.
“Yeah, Dad?” I squeak, turning to face him in a way that makes it impossible to tell that I’m hard in the folds of my shorts.
Something getting increasingly harder to do…
“You ready to go to some drills?” He holds up a football.
“Uh… yeah. Sure.” I turn back toward the opposite wall, close my eyes, and banish Camille from my thoughts. It doesn’t work, so I take a different approach. “Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut…”
I mean to whisper, but Dad sneaks up behind me somehow and overhears. I try to shift my shorts again, but it just draws his attention.
He smirks. “You need something that requires more thought than listing states you’ve already memorized, Son,” he chuckles. “The point is to divert blood flow back to the brain.”
I flash him a guilty look, but he gives me a conspiratorial grin.
“I usually try to think of business deals I’ve lost in the past and what I should have done differently.”
“This still happens to you?”
His grin broadens. “Have you seen your mother?”
“Ugh, gross.” I grimace as I get the very unwanted mental images his stupid smile puts in my head and stomp away. There’s a door on the other side of the room that lets out into the backyard, under the veranda. Dad stops right at the edge of the grass and the stairs that lead up to the main level of the house, and lobs the football into the air. I take off, throwing myself forward with reckless abandon as I steal as much purchase from the ground as possible. Since my growth spurt over the summer, I’m so much faster. I make it across the yard with plenty of time to turn and catch the ball right before it hits me in the chest.
“Excellent, Luke. Great speed. Now, high knees all the way back. Let’s go…”
We spend about twenty minutes moving between catching and calisthenics. It’s my favorite part of the morning because it’s the time I get to shine in front of my dad. Calliope may be perfect in his eyes. Teddy may be the budding genius in the family. But in these few minutes we have alone together every day, I get a break from being the screw up. Each spectacular catch I make, every personal record I break… it all culminates in the pride I see reflected in his eyes.
It makes me feel ten feet tall.
“Alright, we gotta head in so you can eat before school. You’re doing great, Kid. Your footwork is getting really, really good. I’m impressed.”
I beam at the praise. “Thanks, Dad.”
He tosses me the ball and we start up the stairs together. Before we get to the kitchen door though, I tug on his arm to pull him back.
He turns and raises an eyebrow at me. “What?”
“Can I, I mean… uh, can I ask you something, and you won’t get mad?”
“Probably not, what is it?”
I grind my teeth together, second guessing my curiosity. But now that I’ve brought it up and he’s staring at me, waiting, I can’t really back down. “Well… you met Mom when you were 19, right?”
“Well, was she… your first?”
“No, not your first love. Your… you know, first.”
He narrows his eyes and crosses his arms over his chest, almost defensively. “No, she wasn’t.”
“Oh. How old were you when you, uh… with a girl, for the first time?”
His answer is blunt, and the fact that he gave that answer so easily is surprising. “That’s the same age I am now.”
He nods his head, slowly. Keeping his eyes trained on me the whole time.
I fidget. “Do you… regret it? Doing it before Mom?”
I see his jaw twitch as he mulls over his next words very carefully, like he’s trying to hold back something and he’s afraid if he doesn’t think it through exactly, he’ll let out a secret. So I’m surprised by his curt reply.
“Oh.” A thousand things run through my mind at once. My dad is a lot of things and very important to a lot of people, but the thing I know about him better than anything else is that he absolutely, entirely, and forever is in love with my mom. The way he talks about her makes it seem like she’s always been the only girl in his life. Learning there’s another is a whole new aspect of him I’ve never heard about before, but as much as I want to question it further, the tacit permission he just gave me to do exactly what I want to do is really what I need to focus on right now.
“Something you want to tell me, Luke?” he asks, when I’m quiet for too long.
Dad sighs and pulls me over to the overstuffed patio furniture next to the door into the kitchen. I look into his probing eyes with caution.
“Are you having sex?” he asks.
I press my lips together, then shake my head. “No, sir.”
He doesn’t waste time not believing me. “Are you going to have sex with this Camille girl?” This time, I don’t answer. He continues like I did. “Look, I’m not going to waste my breath telling you not to, but if you’re going to start having sex, there are somethings you need to know and remember.”
“You already gave me the sex talk, Dad.”
“This isn’t just about mechanics.”
I narrow my eyes at him, and he moves his chair forward and leans in closer to me.
“Condoms are not optional. I know you think you’re the first genius who ever thought of pulling out, but you’re not, and I promise you, it won’t work. If you don’t believe me, you can take both your brother and sister, go look in the mirror, and see the proof yourself.”
I place a hand over my chest like I’m shocked. “Are you telling me that the Grey children were all accidents?!”
My voice is exaggerated in its offense, but only because it’s well known family lore that Dad only has three kids because he got snipped basically the day he found out about Teddy and me. He doesn’t rise to my bait though.
“I’m serious, Luke. Every. Single. Time. It only takes once, and a baby or an STD could ruin your whole life.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll wear a condom.”
“And remember that Camille, or whatever girl you’re with, is not just an object for you to fuck and move on. She is a person, with feelings, who is giving a part of themselves to you. That’s not a little thing, no matter how much you may think it is. If you choose to sleep with a woman, you will respect her, and the trust she has given you. Believe me when I tell you that I have never been put through more hell or been hurt worse than I was by a woman whose heart I broke.”
“The woman you slept with before Mom?”
He takes a deep breath, then shakes his head. “Maybe when you’re older.”
It’s my least favorite answer to anything. I’m fifteen, I’m not a baby anymore. I can handle the fact that my dad was probably an asshole when he was young. Hell, he’s an asshole at 39. And the fact that he doesn’t want to talk about it, makes me want to know more.
“Who was she?”
“The woman you slept with before mom.”
“She was… someone I don’t like to think about anymore.”
“But you said you don’t regret sleeping with her.”
“That’s not what you asked before.” I scrunch my eyebrows together with confusion, and he lets out an exasperated sigh. “I’m not at all proud of the person I chose to do it with, but I don’t regret having sex before your mother. It taught me how to be the lover she deserved–”
“Okay, okay, okay…” I cut him off before I start to think of his dirty hands on my angel of a mother. It’s bad enough I have to hear it all the time… from five doors down the fucking hall. “I’m sorry I asked.”
He smiles, which is a nice break in the tension that’s been building between us for the last few minutes. “The point is, I have no illusions that you’re getting to the point where you’re going to start having sex, and I’m not necessarily of the mindset that you need to fight that. But wear a condom, be selective, and don’t be an asshole.”
I grin. “Would you say that to Callie?”
He doesn’t even blink over it. “Absolutely not. When I gave her the sex talk, I told her that condoms weren’t effective and sex would kill her.”
I laugh, and he gets up out of his chair, reaching down to help me to my feet. “You’re going to be late for school.”
“It’s just getting to be too much,” Ros says, taking a sip from her third Tom Collins. “I don’t have the resources to manage it all anymore and I think it’s starting to hold us back. Gallagher’s been relentless, and I don’t have the capacity to fight her on new contracts or have Welch give us faster speeds when I’m buried up to my eyeballs in fusion negotiations. Try as I may, I’m unfortunately not you, and my new COO is definitely not me. We’re spread too thin.”
The leather over my chair groans as I sit back and bring my right ankle to rest on my left knee. I pick up my tumbler and swirl the bourbon inside around thoughtfully before downing it in a single gulp. “Endurance is the future of GEH. Don’t lose sight of that.”
“So, what? You think I should just drop everything else and put everything we have into Endurance?”
“Christian.” She says my name like I’m being ridiculous, then takes a much longer drink. “Could you imagine GEH without its Fiber Optics division?”
“Yes, I have. Over a year ago when I first started planning Endurance.”
“It’s what built this company. It’s our very foundation.” She shakes her head, the reluctance weighing heavily on her face, and shakes the ice around in the bottom of her glass. I get up from my chair and move to the bar against the far wall of my office. In a clean glass with ice, I mix together the gin, syrup, lemon juice, and soda, then pour another bourbon for myself, and make my way back to my desk. She smiles gratefully as I pass her the fresh cocktail.
“Maybe it’s time to implement a board of directors,” I suggest as I settle back into the seat next to her. Her brow creases.
“You can’t be serious.”
I nod. “Endurance is the future of GEH, and it needs all of your attention. There is no point in you wasting your time fucking around with contracts worth a few million in Fiber Optics, when a single Endurance contract is worth more than the assets of every other division in the company combined. Everything that is not Endurance should be absolutely meaningless to you now. So, if you don’t want to shut it all down, you’re going to have to find someone else to run it. Create a board and assign a director to govern each division. Remove yourself.”
Her face is blank for a long beat, then morphs with incredulity. “Are you telling me Christian Grey is suddenly okay with his company being controlled by a body who could overrule the CEO?”
I shrug. “I’m not the CEO anymore. And if you don’t structure the board in a way that makes it so that you still have an absolute controlling majority vote, then I’ve taught you nothing.”
She laughs, but the sound is interrupted with a steady knock on my office door. “Yes?”
Silently, the door eases open, and Mackensie steps inside with Calliope perched on her hip. They’ve been in the playroom since dinner and yet, somehow, my baby’s mouth and fingers are covered in chocolate. Her eyes are alight with joy. It sends a wave of warmth through me more powerful and soothing than bourbon could ever compete with.
“Daddy!” she chirps. “I got a treat.”
“I see that,” I laugh back.
Mackensie gives Calliope a playfully chastising look, before turning her warm eyes to me. “I’m sorry to interrupt you, Mr. Grey. Gail was baking with Calliope while I put Kennedy down and she let her have the spoon with the batter on it. I’m going to give her a bath, but I wanted to bring her in to say good night first.”
“No need,” I tell her, deciding against my drink and sliding it away from me. “I’ll put her to bed myself.”
“Absolutely.” I push out of my seat and nod to Ros, who sighs and climbs to her feet as well.
“Thanks for the free advice,” she says, leaning in to hug me. Her arms wrap around my shoulders and her chest melds to mine. It’s strange. Not because there’s any residual effects from my touch issues, but because Ros has never been particularly physically affectionate in all the years we worked together. Not when we were teenagers and it felt like it was us against the world, not when we were at the top of our game, or during our lowest lows. Since I’ve been gone, she’s suddenly a cheesy dad on a 90s family sitcom.
“Anytime,” I tell her once she’s pulled away from me again. “Though, if you are going to form a board, I do expect representation. So, I don’t know that it’s free advice…”
She laughs and shakes her head. At the door, I pull Calliope from the nanny’s arms and dismiss her for the night. Then Ros and I move into the living room… or what used to be my living room.
The furniture is gone and has been replaced with various medical equipment. There’s a hospital bed at the center, surrounded with black-screened monitors, and empty poles that I hope will never hold IV bags of fluid or blood. Sterile instruments lie inside their packages, already arranged neatly on trays in the exact place they should be in an emergency situation. Behind the gate that keeps Calliope away from all of it, there are two incubators and defilation machine. The carpet has been torn up and replaced with white, shiny linoleum that won’t absorb blood, no matter how much there is.
It’s a complete delivery room and trauma center all in one, ready to be used at a moment’s notice.
I ignore it all as we move to the foyer. As much as I need the certainty the equipment provides, looking at it makes me tense. I’ve spent months doing everything I can to ensure that Ana has space and time to heal from her trauma and experience this pregnancy with as little stress as possible. And it’s worked… for the most part. She’s managed to find peace and joy in her pregnancy, but she does seem to pick up and take on the worry of everyone around her. The closer we get to her due date, the tighter the knot of fear twists around my gut, and the harder it is to keep my trepidation from leaking into the otherwise tranquil blue of her eyes. And that trepidation is starting to show up in her lab results.
It’s not going to be like last time.
It’s not going to be like last time.
It’s not going to be like last time.
Once we make it to the front door, Ros kisses Calliope’s chocolatey cheeks and gives us both a warm smile before promising to see me at the same time next week and ducking out into the light spring rain that falls through the night.
“Wait…” I call to her, then duck my head into the security office. “Taylor, will you walk Ros to her car?”
“Ana’s still upstairs?”
“Yes, sir. Doesn’t look like she’s convinced Sawyer to help her shimmy out the window yet.” He chuckles at his own joke, but I don’t know that I find it particularly funny. Probably because I can’t be entirely sure it is a joke. As predicted, Ana’s reacting to mandatory bedrest like it’s some form of inhumane torture I’ve personally invented just for her. If Kate and Sawyer didn’t show up here daily to give her something to do besides harass Stephen’s over the Phoenix project or watch me worry about her, I’d probably have to get her an ankle monitor to keep her from disappearing in the night.
“Well, don’t put it past her…” I reply, in warning. Taylor nods.
“Of course, sir. Woods will keep an eye on her while I escort Ms. Bailey out.”
He pulls an umbrella from the stand next to the door, then smiles at my former partner as he motions for her to duck beneath it. She waves to me, then follows him down my front walk. In the security office, Woods rolls his chair to the screen that shows the display from the camera outside my bedroom window. It glows with life, but it’s still and quiet. Satisfied, I turn to my baby girl.
“Ready to get cleaned up, Princess?”
“No, I like it.”
“You like it?”
“Really?” I pull her delicate fingers to my mouth and nibble at the ends with my lips. “Hm… you’re right. I like it too. Maybe I’ll just…” I make sounds like I’m eating her as I move my lips up her arm, and she starts to giggle.
“I don’t know, baby girl. I don’t think I’m going to be able to resist. You should probably take a bath, just to be safe.”
She mashes her lips together, but tilts her head to the side as though she’s weighing her options. The look of careful consideration behind her gray eyes almost makes me laugh. “Do the pink water?”
“Yeah, you can have pink water.”
“Okay, den don’t eat me. I take a bath.” I laugh and pull her into me, kissing her hard on the cheek as I start for the stairs.
Now that she’s almost two and fully mobile, it’s difficult keeping her corralled while I fill her bath. Mostly, I keep her distracted on the floor by letting her pick out which toys she’ll take into the tub with her, but when I’m changing the settings on the lights Welch installed so that the bath water looks pink, my mother comes in with my naked baby squirming in her arms. She’s dressed in a robe with her house slippers peeking out beneath.
At the same time the equipment was being set up downstairs, I had people moving my mother into one of our guest suites. She’s here with Ana every morning, every night, and any time Dr. Baker isn’t on call. I not only have the space and tools for an emergency, I also have a trained surgeon. There will not come a time when I am unprepared for the worst if Ana goes into labor unexpectedly.
It’s not going to be like last time.
“Someone made a break for it,” she says, looking down at Calliope as though she could never do anything wrong, despite the fact that she’s grunting with effort, trying to escape her hold.
“Do you need some help?”
“No…” I reach up and turn off the water, checking the temperature one last time before I turn to retrieve my baby. But even in the two seconds it took me to dip my fingers into the bath, Calliope has taken off again and my mother has to chase her down. She brings her back into the bathroom, glowing while Calliope complains.
“Okay,” I admit. “Maybe I need some help.”
My mother smiles, then sets Calliope down in the tub. She whines that she wants out, but when my mother distracts her with the pink water and a toy mermaid, she goes still and I’m able to wash her hair and the last of the chocolate from her skin.
“All done,” I tell her, and I pull the plug on the drain. My mom throws her hands up in celebration, and Calliope giggles at the praise. I pull the hooded towel off the back of the door that looks like a unicorn, and wrap it around my baby.
“Do you want me to help put her down?” my mom asks.
I shake my head. “No, I’m going to take her in to see Ana before I put her to bed.”
“Okay.” With one last warm smile, my mom kisses Calliope’s forehead and tells her that she’ll see her in the morning. Calliope lifts her fingers to wave good-bye, then tucks her wet cheeks into my shirt. I hug her tightly against my chest, basking in the glow it gives me, then start toward my own bedroom.
The laughter hits me before I even open the door, and once I do my eyes immediately move to Ana. She’s sitting up against our headboard, so round now that it takes every pillow wedged and propped up around her to keep her upright. The serenity reflected in her eyes makes me breathe, and I turn a grateful look toward its impetus. At the end of the bed, Luke and Jade shoot bitter looks at Kate and Elliot, who are celebrating smugly next to them.
“This isn’t a fair game,” Sawyer complains. “You two have been together for half a decade. Jade and I are barely a year into this. You two are married. Newlyweds should not apply to people who are not newly wed.”
“Bitch all you want, I clearly love Kate more than you love Jade and thems the cold hard facts,” Elliot replies with a teasing smile. “I don’t know what to tell you, buddy. That’s just the way it is sometimes.”
Sawyer rolls his eyes and catches me hovering in the doorway with Calliope. The look of irritation vanishes, and is replaced with vengeance.
“Alright, Elliot. If you’re so confident that you know everything there is to know about Kate, then why don’t you try a round against your brother and Ana?”
Elliot’s eyes shift to the door, finding me standing there looking back at him with a cocked eyebrow. The superiority drains from his face instantly. “That’s not fair, he’s like a stalker.”
Sawyer laughs. “Yeah, I know. I did most of his stalking for him. But the best thing about this game is that all it takes to win is loving your girl more than your opponent, remember? How much do you love Kate, Elliot?”
Ana turns to look at me, grinning, before facing my brother. “Yeah, Elliot. You and Kate have spent way more time together than Christian and I have, after all. Surely, you had more time to get to know her in those long years Christian and I weren’t even speaking to each other.”
“Hey!” I say sharply, reaching up to cover Calliope’s ears. “Can we not bring up such morbid subjects in front of the baby, please?”
Ana giggles and reaches out for our daughter. While I cross the room to gently lay her in her arms, Jade reaches over to take the box of cards that rests in front of Ana. Once she’s plucked one out, she leans over and softly reads the questions so Elliot can’t hear, and Kate writes down her answers. The time passes in a blur of tranquil happiness watching Ana and Calliope cuddle with one another, and shocks of panic whenever I see a flash of discomfort cross Ana’s face.
It’s not going to be like last time.
“Got it?” Jade asks once Kate sets her pen down.
“Piece of cake.”
“No,” Elliot interrupts. “Not ‘piece of cake.’ Kate and I get a handicap.”
“A handicap?” Luke repeats.
“Yeah. We all know that Christian’s going to get them all right, and no one here is going to be impressed. If I also get them all right, then I think I should win. So we get plus one.” He turns to me, a challenge sparking behind his blue eyes, and I grin.
“Fine, but if I still beat you, Calliope’s playhouse takes precedence over your next client. And you’re going to do it for free.”
He mashes his lips together in contemplation, narrowing his eyes as he sizes up the risk. When I called his secretary about the elaborate princess castle I wanted to build in the backyard, she told me it would be six months before they had an opening.
My own brother…
“If you’re scared…” I taunt him, and the uncertainty in his eyes vanishes.
“Fine, deal.” He turns to Jade, and I wrap an arm around my wife and daughter.
“Alright, question number one. What is the trait Kate has that’s most like her mom?”
“Her pathological need to control everything,” Elliot says. Kate turns her notebook around, and although her answer wasn’t quite so blunt, both Luke and Jade decide that ‘bossy’ is a match and award them the first point. Elliot grins at her, she whacks him with her notebook for being a smartass.
“Hey! This game is about love!” he says, defensively. “That’s not very loving behavior.” She narrows her eyes, but I interject before she can snap back at him.
“There’s nothing wrong with having a pathological need to control everything. Some people are just better at things, and should be in charge.”
“Yeah…” Sawyer says, and he gives an over exaggerated side-eye to Ana. Her giggle, and Jade reading the next question keep me from reminding him how in-charge I can really be.
“Who is Kate’s biggest celebrity crush?” Jade asks.
This time, Elliot snorts. “She’s going to say it’s Channing Tatum, but it’s actually the dude who played the bearded guy on Star Trek Next Generation.” He turns taunting eyes to his wife. “Her very first love.”
Kate shows the paper that does in fact say Channing Tatum, though the blush in her cheeks verifies everything else Elliot said as well.
“That’s still a point,” Jade says, marking the paper on the bed next to her. “And the next question… What is Kate’s favorite pizza topping?”
“Sausage, mushroom, and olive, same as me.” He turns to Kate, waiting for the celebration, but before she even turns her paper around, Ana’s face breaks into a smile and I know he’s got it wrong.
“Artichokes,” Ana says, while Sawyer nods beside her. Elliot’s brow furrows and Kate turns her notebook around.
Elliot’s face goes blank and he looks up at his wife with a furrowed brow. “What do you… I’ve literally never seen you eat a pizza with artichokes on it.”
Kate gives him a sour look. “That’s because we always order what you want.”
“Uh, yeah… because what I want is delicious. Artichokes? What’s wrong with you, Katherine?”
She lifts her notebook to slap Elliot across the arm with it for a second time. “That was your handicap, so you better get everything right from here on out. I can already see that self-satisfied smirk starting in the corner of Christian’s lips, and I can’t risk sending Ana into early labor by slapping it off of him.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Kate,” I add, feeling my grin broaden as I speak. She narrows her eyes, and turns back to Jade for the next question.
Elliot knows that her very first career ambition was to be a gymnast, and that the first car she drove was a BMW. It all comes down to the last question, and for a moment, I think I’ve got him when he stutters over the name of her first pet cat. The panic builds in his eyes as he searches the deepest recesses of his brain, coming up empty handed…
“Fluffy!” he says, just as Jade’s about to call time. “Its name was Fluffy.”
“Fluffy,” Kate confirms, turning her piece of paper over, and Elliot lets out a long breath. I turn to Ana and we agree through just a look that there’s about a 100% chance that his answer was a guess.
“Alright, Grey,” Sawyer says. “You agreed to the handicap, so he’s got a perfect score. Don’t fuck this up.”
“Please.” I lift Calliope out of Ana’s arms, letting her kiss her cheeks over and over again, then dip out of the room to put her down while Ana answers her questions. She’s already calm and sleepy from the lavender bath wash and the time spent cuddling her mother, so I choose a short book, and read it through to her before I lay her in bed next to an already sleeping Kennedy. She’s awake as I leave the room, but I’m certain she won’t be by the time I get back to Ana.
“Good night, Calliope. I love you.”
As quietly as possible, I ease her door closed and make my way back to my bedroom. Ana’s trying to adjust how she’s sitting and winces with pain, so while Elliot and Jade argue over how difficult the questions she chose were, I help my wife rearrange her pillows and desperately try to hide the worry from showing through my eyes.
Her C-section is in a few days, and it’ll be over.
It won’t be like last time.
It won’t be like last time.
I breathe through the mantra, then settle down next to Ana.
“Alright,” Jade says, bouncing slightly as she picks up the cards in front of her. “You ready, Christian?”
“Which one of you said ‘I love you’ first?”
“Obviously,” Sawyer breathes. Elliot turns for my reaction, but I just shrug with acceptance and wait for Ana to reveal the answer that matches mine.
“Christian, although he didn’t really say it to me so much as scream it at me…”
“There it is,” Kate laughs.
“That’s only one,” Elliot says, and Kate reaches out for his hand as though he needs the moral support. Jade shuffles her cards.
“Question number two, what would Ana say is the best vacation the two of you ever went on together?
“I mean…” I pause, sifting through memories of beaches and cities and mountain lakes that make me ache over the devotion I feel for the woman next to me, but none of them equal Christmas, her final year at Harvard.
“Paris,” I answer and she turns her notebook around to tell me she feels the same. The memories of that week twinkle in her eyes, and seeing that joy in her makes me forget for a moment that we’re with company. I lean over to take her lips and relish in the memory with her, but before I can slide my tongue into her mouth, Kate coughs.
“Alright, Christian, you’ve got four questions to go.”
“Fine.” I sit back disappointed, and Jade reads the next question.
“What is Ana’s favorite flower?”
“No,” Elliot interrupts. “You agreed to change that, remember? He sends her flowers all the damn time, he should know her top three.”
“He always sends me the same flowers,” Ana says, but Elliot shakes his head.
“I can tell you what her favorite flower is. He’s got to name her top three.”
All the eyes in the room turn to me, and I turn to my wife and drag my fingers over her cheeks. “Pink peonies. The soft pink, not the dark pink. And she likes them best just before they fully bloom, so I always make sure they’re picked out individually. Her second favorite are Calla Lilies, for our daughter, and after that she likes wildflowers with lavender and poppies in them… like the ones that grew in the fields next to the river she and her dad went fishing on when she was a little girl.”
The look of love on my wife’s face blooms like the flowers she loves and she turns her notebook around, then she drops it on the bed all together as she moves to kiss me again. My lips stretch into a smile while they play against hers, and I listen to Kate chiding Elliot through Sawyer and Jade’s laughter.
“You didn’t even know her favorite pizza topping,” Luke laughs.
The next question is about her favorite book, which, despite a flourishing career in publishing and a Harvard degree in English, is still Harry Potter, and that her Who Wants to be a Millionaire phone-a-friend would be her dad, who just so happens to be a trivia wiz.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, we get it. I told you all he would get all of them right. It’s still a tie.”
“Not if he doesn’t get this one right,” Jade says. She picks up the last card and reads, “What was your first date?”
“It was an off campus party after the first football game of the season our freshman year. Her top was backless, but she was wearing jeans…” I turn to look at Ana. “The jealousy I felt over seeing you standing there with Reed, looking as beautiful as you did, was the thing that put started putting everything together for me. I’ll never forget that night.”
“Aw,” Jade says, pushing out her bottom lip. Elliot rolls his eyes, and Kate shrugs at Luke as though she expected the outcome and is satisfied enough to have beaten him. But Ana turns to me, looking confused, then raises an eyebrow.
She turns her notebook around and I read what she’s written aloud. “Dinner at Olena.”
“Yeah, right before Christmas break. You asked me out to dinner, I drove there in Kate’s car…”
“I remember. But that wasn’t our first date. That party was the first Saturday of the semester.”
“And it wasn’t a date.”
“What are you talking about? I drove all the way around Cambridge looking for you so I could keep that date.” I look over at my brother. “You were there. That was the night you and Kate first hooked up.”
He nods in agreement, but Ana shakes her head.
“You spent the first hour of that party having phone sex with Elena Lincoln. That was not a date you had with me.”
“That was the night of our first kiss!”
She shrugs. “Turns out I kiss boys I’m not dating. Our first date does not end with you angrily throwing me out of your room, Christian.”
I stare at her blankly, working very hard not to replay that stupid mistake again. “Okay, fine… but Olena? What about the morning after that party when I took you to breakfast and kissed you again?”
She looks up at me, unimpressed. “What happened on the way home from that restaurant?” I don’t answer so she does for me. “Nothing before you broke it off with Elena Lincoln counts.”
“Fine, then our first date was that party I came to the night I decided I wanted you. That was in October, not December.”
“I was dating Carter Reed when we were at that party.”
I shake my head. “No, I’ve deemed that relationship to be retroactively voided. Your breakup was like an annulment, none of it ever happened.”
She scoffs, but Elliot nods in agreement. “Hear, hear. In fact, anyone who dated Carter Reed in this room, consider your entire romantic history nullified.” Kate rolls her eyes.
“What if you’re currently dating Carter Reed?” Jade asks. “Or just hooking up with him behind your boyfriend’s back, I guess.” Sawyer turns to glare at her, but she smiles innocently. “I’m just curious.”
“Yeah, well you better get un-curious. I’ve spent a good deal of time monitoring Carter Reed and I know all of his weaknesses.”
“And I’ll pay for his defense,” I add.
“And I’ll provide the alibi.” Elliot straightens up and his expression turns serious. “No officer, he was with me the whoooooooole time.”
Kate laughs. “Oh please, you’d break fifteen seconds into questioning.”
Sawyer, Jade, and I all start to laugh with her but when Ana doesn’t join in, I turn concerned eyes in her direction. Her brow is slightly bunched, and she rubs her hand gently over her bump. Instantly, there’s a lump in my throat.
“Are you alright? What’s wrong? What hurts?”
“Nothing, I’m fine. Just… tired, I think.”
“Oh, well we’ll go…” Kate says, immediately jumping out of bed the moment her eyes meet mine. Elliot, Sawyer, and Jade follow as though Ana’s expression of discomfort was a marching order. She frowns, ready to protest, but Kate comes to kiss her head before she can speak.
“It’s okay, it’s late and I don’t want to drive all the way home anyway. Elliot and I will crash downstairs. We’ll see you at breakfast, okay?”
She nods enthusiastically, then turns to Sawyer and Jade. “Will you stay too?”
“You mean, will we spend the night in this gorgeous mansion so your housekeeper can make us an amazing breakfast in the morning?” Jade replies. “I mean, pull my leg…”
Sawyer rolls his eyes and reaches over to tousle Ana’s hair. “I’ll do a parameter sweep with Smith and Wyatt, make sure they don’t miss anything.”
“Thank you. Goodnight, Luke.” He winks at her, then crosses the room to shove as hard as he can against the window frame. It doesn’t budge, and since not a single window in this room has been unlocked in almost a year now, there’s no reason it would. But testing each and every one of them in front of Ana every night has been a crucial part in helping her shake the nightmares of someone climbing through them and dragging me off into the night. He moves around the room, really putting a show into how secure they are, before he gives her a thumbs up, and follows the others out of the room. When the door closes behind him, I turn and have to swallow back the order that wants to claw its way up my throat when I see Ana trying to crawl out of bed.
“What are you doing?” I say instead, only just managing to hang on to the calm and supporting tone I’ve been practicing with Flynn as she’s gotten more and more tired of staying still, and the need for her to do just that has gotten more and more severe.
“I have to pee,” she says, turning so she can roll her feet onto the floor. I rush to her side, and grab her by the sides so I can lift her onto her feet.
“Let me help you…”
“It’s just a few steps, Christian. I’ve got it.”
With a slow, deep breath that manages to quell the Dominant rising inside of me, I nod and take a step back while she waddles to the bathroom. The door closes, and I wait for any signs of distress before picking up my phone and dialing down to the security office.
“Mr. Grey?” Taylor answers.
“Everyone is going to stay the night, so go ahead and shut everything down. Update me once we’re secure.”
“Yes, sir.” He hangs up without another word, and I turn back to the still closed bathroom door. A few seconds pass, and Ana doesn’t emerge, so I fight the urge to check on her by shifting that impulse onto my daughter. Kate is sneaking out of the room just as I step in, but Calliope is lost in her dreams so there’s not much more for me to do than to kiss her cheeks, stroke her hair, and whisper a reminder of how much I love her.
The door is still closed when I come back, and the last of my patience breaks. I rap my knuckles against the barrier three times and lean into the wood. “Ana, are you alright? What’s going on in there?”
“I’m fine.” The response is soft, almost unsure, so I disregard it and push into the bathroom regardless. She’s standing in front of the mirror, holding her belly, and taking deep breaths.
It makes the hairs on the back of my neck rise.
“I just feel very… pregnant,” she says, sighing the last word as though its utterance is as much of a burden as the weight of the twins. “I’m very ready for this c-section.”
“Me too.” I let out a long breath of relief that only lasts until she turns to look at me. I can still see lingering pain in the set of her lips, so I hold a hand out for hers. “You shouldn’t be on your feet. Let’s get you back into bed.”
The blue in her eyes turns morose, but she nods and walks to me. I try to carry most of her weight, fearing what could happen if she were to endure any kind of strain at all. I can feel her annoyance, but she doesn’t fight me on it. True to her word, she’s been as cautious and compliant as the doctors have asked her to be. All these months on bedrest she’s been very frank about how miserable it’s been, but she hasn’t fought it. And despite the difficulties and the boredom, she hasn’t lost the sparkle in her eye that bloomed the day she learned she would be a mother again.
I’m envious of that joy. I want so much to bask in it with her, and I’ve tried as best as I could. But no matter how healthy she’s been or how hopeful Dr. Baker has become in the past few months, I still feel a dark cloud of possibility hovering over us, and it sheaths me in constant worry.
“Thank you, by the way.”
“Hm?” I grab her hands as she crawls into bed, then help pull the covers over her.
“For asking Kate and Luke to come over. These few days have been harder… lonelier. I didn’t even know how much I needed it until they got here.”
“You’re welcome,” I ask, leaning down to kiss her. She moans softly, but the sound is cut off with a sharp gasp of pain.
“Nothing.” She shakes her head, but her hand moves back down to press into her bump. I can feel the alarm growing on my face, and when she sees it, she presses her lips into a patient smile. “It’s just tight, I’m fine.”
“Mhm.” My eyes narrow at her suspiciously, but the buzz on my phone draws my attention instead. I pick it up from the side table and read the text waiting on the screen.
“Taylor’s got everything locked down, and Woods is on duty tonight. Is there anything you need?”
The gentle reassurance in her eyes slowly deconstructs into a ghost of fear, and her skin turns half a shade paler.
“Did… did you check on Calliope?”
“She’s sleeping like an angel. Her windows are secure, the camera in her room is on. We’re all safe.”
“We’re all safe,” she repeats in a whisper, as though it’s some kind of affirmation. She rubs her belly and nods to herself. “We’re all safe.”
I glance at her hand, watching the slow circles she draws over her bump and cautious eyes. She doesn’t seem to be showing any lingering signs of pain or distress, but there is an awkward discomfort in the set of her brow. She turns to watch me undress, and I watch her lips press tightly together as though she’s holding something back as I climb into bed next to her.
She moves over to cuddle into my side. A small degree of relief courses through me as I feel the warmth of her body press into mine, and when she lays her head against my chest, my body lets go of some of the tension I hold whenever I’m not doing exactly this. I reach over and move my hand to her bump, tracing the circles she made.
“Stop,” she says, reaching down to place her hand over mine.
“I know when you’re worrying, Christian. I’m fine. I feel really good, and Dr. Baker said there’s nothing to worry about.”
“Your blood pressure was high this morning.”
“Yeah, but that was just stress and it turns out that watching Luke lose at things is a really good stress reducer.” She laughs, but when I don’t join in with her, she reaches for my chin and tilts my face up so she can kiss me. “I feel really good, Christian. And we’ve only got four more days until my c-section.”
“Anything can happen in four days.”
Her eyes meet mine again, and this time, they hold my gaze with purpose. “Stop. I’m fine. Everything you’ve done has worked. We’re all fine.”
Her hand moves down to her belly, moving in soft, caressing circles that even I can feel the love behind. I try to breathe that in. To let myself feel the bliss of certainty that she’s let overcome her in the last few weeks, but every time I try to meet her there, I see the blood pooling beneath her dress at her graduation party.
“You’re too tense,” she says, her hand moving from my face, down to my chest. She traces the lines beneath my t-shirt with her finger, and moves down over my stomach to the band of my sweatpants. Her eyes don’t leave mine, and her teeth sinks into her bottom lip as her hand dips beneath the barrier and curls around my cock.
The moment I feel her touch, I’m hard.
“Why?” The innocence in her voice makes my cock jump in her hand. She looks up at me with doe eyes and pouty lips that turn my blood hot. She strokes me inside my pants, gentle fingers skimming over steel while she begs for more with her eyes. I want to give it to her, but I remember very clearly the night we had before her abruption. And I can hear that it was stress triggered by Lincoln that was compounded over months that caused her complications last time over and over and over again, but I’ll never shake the uncertainty I feel in my gut that maybe it was because of the way I fucked her right before it happened. Maybe her heart rate spiked too high, maybe she moved wrong or too quickly, maybe I was too rough… I’ll never be 100% sure that wasn’t what happened, and any uncertainty is too much when I know what’s at risk. So since she entered her third trimester, I’ve only given her my mouth, and I’ve refused reciprocation.
That was ten weeks ago.
“Ana, stop…” I say again, but the command loses its bite in the groan that escapes my chest. My body is betraying me. My hips push against her grip, encouraging her, and my cock stays rigid inside her hand.
“Okay, I’ll stop.” Her fingers open and move away from me, and while I choke back my complaint, they take hold of my sweatpants and pull down.
“What are you doing?”
“Not using my hand.” She leans over, her hair grazing my t-shirt as she lowers her lips to me. I realize too late what she’s doing, or maybe it just takes me too long to summon the will to stop her. But once her lips brush the tip of my cock, it’s impossible for me to pull back.
“Oh, fuck,” I groan as I sink into her hot, wet mouth. She moves slow, exploring every inch of me with her tongue and she pulls me in and out again and again. A shiver works its way down my legs, and my muscles start to tighten. She can feel the changes in me, and it makes her hum around me.
“Baby… wait…” I plead. I should pull her away, but I don’t trust my hands not to push her down further, so I keep them planted firmly at my side.
“I don’t want to wait. I want to swallow your come.”
“Fuuuuck.” My hips buck up, pushing my cock against the tight ring at the back of her throat, and I lose the will to fight. I lie there, resisting my urges to take control and dominate instead of resisting her. She pulls me deeper into her mouth, past the limit I set for myself when I’m fucking her face, and I start to tremble. Her throat clenches tightly around me, and I know she’s fighting her gag reflex. But when I do find the strength to pull back a little, she pushes herself further and the head of my cock swells with satisfaction. The drag of her lips over me as she begins to bob again is mind boggling. It’s euphoria. It’s…
“Oh!” The word escapes her mouth in the same instance the warmth disappears from my cock.
“Too much?” I ask. She lets out a harsh breath of panic, then turns wide eyes back to me.
“I… I think my water just broke.”
Everything goes cold. For a long breath, I’m frozen in time and the nightmare that was Calliope’s birth repeats in my mind. I start to shake, breath becomes harder to take, and everything seems to go absolutely silent, like I’m trapped in a vacuum.
“No…” I bleat. “No, no, no, no….” I reach for the blankets, expecting to find our sheets stained crimson. Instead, all I find beneath my wife is a clear puddle of wet. There’s no blood.
“Mom!” I shout, tucking my dick back in my sweats and diving for my phone. Ana stares down at the wet place between her legs, and, as I watch the sense of panic growing behind her eyes, I suddenly forget how to use a phone. There’s a knock on the door, and my mother ducks her head inside.
“What is… oh my god.” Her eyes narrow in on Ana, and her mouth drops open in shock.
“It’s too early,” Ana says. “Dr. Baker said four more days…”
Dr. Baker. I take a breath, and search through my contacts for her name, then press my finger against the glass and toss my phone to my mother. “Tell the doctor she’s in labor.”
She nods and pulls the phone to her ear as she disappears back into the hallway, and I reach for Ana.
“Easy now, baby.”
She nods and slides her hands into mine, holding tightly to me as I lift her from bed as gently as I can. She’s unsteady on her feet, so I decide it’s not worth the risk and sweep her up into my arms. The competing thoughts of whether or not I should take her to the hospital or the trauma center downstairs completely occupying my mind. But before I make the choice, Ana stops me at the bedroom door.
“Wait, my bag, Christian. My bag.”
“My hospital bag is in the closet. I need my bag.”
I blink several times before I realize what she’s saying to me. There’s a small duffle bag she packed a few weeks ago and made me keep somewhere accessible for when she went into labor. I was working under the assumption that “labor” for her was going to be a medical emergency, so ever since I tossed it up on the shelf above my shirts, I haven’t given it much thought.
“Fuck the bag,” I say, turning again to hurry down the hall. She grabs onto the wall and nearly falls from my grip. “Ana!”
“Relax, Christian. It’s okay, I’m okay. I need my bag for the hospital. Please set me down and go get my bag.” The blue in her eyes shines with the crystal clarity of her sincerity. I search for hidden pain, for a lack of focus, for anything that would suggest she was about to slip from me, but there’s nothing but an anxious kind of energy that verges on the edge of excitement. She reaches up and places her palm flat against her face. “Our babies are about to be born. Go get my bag so that we can go meet them.”
The weight in that statement hits me and I sit there in limbo for a moment while I process it. My mother once again appears in the frame of my door, this time dressed in leggings and a baggy sweatshirt. Her face is alight with so much excitement, I wonder how much she’s struggling to keep her joyful tears at bay.
“Dr. Baker is on her way to the hospital. She said she’ll meet you there.”
Hospital, then. Slowly, I lower Ana to the ground. “Wait here for me.”
She nods and I bolt through our bathroom to the closet. I’m already running back to her the moment my fingers curl around the small floral bag, and when I re-enter our bedroom, slinging it over my shoulder, Ana’s eyes meet mine and her bottom lip starts to tremble.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” She shakes her head and reaches out for my hand. “Nothing at all.”
I slide my hand into hers and wrap another around her waist, supporting her weight as I guide her through the hallway and down the stairs. Taylor is standing in the kitchen, holding a cup of coffee in one hand and scrolling through his phone with the other. Gail hovers over the sink, rinsing the last of this evening’s dishes. They both look up as we enter, and Taylor’s face melts with concern.
“She’s in labor. We need to get to the hospital.”
“Oh, Mrs. Grey!” Gail says, laying a hand over her heart. She beams with the same joy my mother does, but Taylor is all business.
“This way, Mrs. Grey.” He sweeps an arm forward so that I can push Anastasia ahead of him, then snags the keys to the SUV off the hook as he follows behind us. I help Ana into the backseat and climb in behind her just as Taylor slides into the driver’s seat.
“Hurry,” I tell him. He nods, and shifts into reverse.
A contraction hits Ana hard as we back out of the driveway, and her hand clamps around mine. The pain on her face is heightened by the red that flushes her cheeks. When the color grows darker, I realize she’s holding her breath.
“Breathe, baby. Just like we practiced. In…” She pants slightly, letting in short, harsh puffs of air, before finally relaxing enough to take a deep breath. “Good, now out. Just like that, breathe in… breathe out… Taylor, start a timer.”
Six and a half minutes pass before her next contraction, and I coach her through three more before we finally pull into the drop off at the hospital where Dr. Baker is already waiting for us.
“What? Are you allergic to doing things the way we planned them?” she asks with a teasing grin the moment the door opens.
“Apparently,” Ana replies. “I’ve—ooh!” She lets out a squeak of pain and reaches down for her bump again. I turn alarmed eyes on the doctor.
“I haven’t seen any blood yet, but she’s extremely uncomfortable.”
“Yeah, labor’s not a cakewalk,” Dr. Baker laughs, while Ana lowers herself into the wheelchair she’s holding on to. My brow starts to pull together with a strange cocktail of worry and frustration, and the joking smile on the doctor’s face smooths out into something more reassuring. “I’ve already spoken with your mother, Mr. Grey. She’s given me a very detailed account, and neither one of us are concerned.”
“It’s not too early?” Ana checks, still cringing through the tail end of her contraction. “You said you wanted to wait four more days…”
“Thirty-seven weeks is extremely normal for twins. You’ve had a very healthy pregnancy, everything from your visit two days ago looked great. You can relax, Ana. I think you’re in for the delivery we all hoped you’d have.”
Ana smiles until her bottom lip starts to tremble and she reaches down for her belly.
“Mr. Grey,” Taylor interrupts from behind me. “It’s very open here, the two of you should step inside.”
He gestures for the automatic doors and the warmth in Ana’s smile fades as her eyes start to dart manically around the entrance to the emergency room. I reach for her hand, but her reaction is so noticeable that even Dr. Baker intervenes to keep her calm.
“Come on, Mrs. Grey. We’ve got your private room ready. All there’s left to do is bring those beautiful boys into this world.”
She nods, keeping a protective hand laid over her belly, and squeezes my fingers. I squeeze back, then move behind her so I can push her chair into the hospital. We follow Dr. Baker through the hospital to the maternity ward, where we’re led to a corner room with a pre-made hospital bed, a sofa, and a view of the city.
“There’s a private bathroom there,” Dr. Baker says, pointing to the door on the far side of the room. “If you’ll just change into a gown, I’ll examine you and find out where we are.” The doctor goes to a cabinet to pull out a hospital gown, but Ana shakes her head at it.
“Kate had one made for me.” She looks to me. “In my bag.”
I nod, still frazzled and slightly off balance, and dive into the bag. It’s filled with soft clothes and toiletries, all of which get in the fucking way.
“This?” I check, holding up a handful of pink silk after digging through the bag three times and realizing I have no idea what I’m looking for. Ana nods and holds out her hand. I ignore it, moving to her and helping her out of the chair, and then leading her to the bathroom.
“Do you need help?” I check. She stops at the door, reaches up to cup my face, and gently presses her lips to mine.
“I can hear your voice shaking. I’m okay, Christian. This is going to be okay. Please be happy with me.” My heart is thundering in my chest. The phantom of fear that’s had my guts tied up for months now wraps around me like an iron fist. I can feel the tightness in every one of my muscles as the panic response in me chooses fight—but the pleading in her eyes somehow breaks through all that. The warmth of her fingers seeps into my skin, and when I take a deep breath, it’s like I’m breathing in a new kind of air.
“I’m happy,” I whisper, leaning into her and pressing my forehead to hers. “I just need a minute to accept that this is really… fine.”
“Well, then I’ll give you a minute.” She kisses me once more, then takes the gown out of my hands and disappears into the bathroom. My eyes shoot up to Dr. Baker and she gives me a gracious smile before ducking out of the room. Once I’m alone, I cross the linoleum floor to a mirror hanging on the wall, and stare into the gray eyes looking back at me.
I can see the dread. It’s in the dull sheen of my irises, and the lines around my frown. It’s in the slump in my shoulders and the tightness of my jaw. It smothers the joy I could be experiencing over the arrival of my children, like a blanket tossed over an open fire.
I take a deep breath, and try to think back to Ana’s last pregnancy. Before the delivery doused everything in blood and loss, I spent every waking second waiting for my daughter. Imagining what she would look like, what she would feel like. Whether she would be more like me, or like Ana. I’d day dream about all the things I couldn’t wait to do with her. Teaching her to ski and to sail. Helping her through French and piano lessons. Offering advice and guidance while she sailed through her very first hostile takeover… I’ve lived countless lives with Calliope as my dreams and visions of our future together have changed as I’ve gotten to know her, and I’ve felt absolute fulfillment with every single one of them.
But I haven’t lived those same dreams for my boys.
I haven’t thought of anything past this day. This moment.
Closing my eyes, I let myself imagine them. The soft skin, the warm smell, the infatuated look that will shine in their eyes every time I rock them to sleep. I replay scenarios I’ve imagined with Calliope, and try to picture two small dark haired toddlers dragging along behind us. I think about Elliot and I growing up, and try to put the versions of my sons I’m picturing into our places. Will they be like us? Will they love each other the way Elliot and I do? Which one will be the role model, and which one will cause trouble, like me?
“Luke,” I answer aloud, chuckling to myself.
“What about him?” Ana asks behind me, coming out of the bathroom dressed in her gown and holding a hand against her lower back to help keep her balance. When our eyes meet, the worry that’s plagued everything doesn’t quite flood through me the same way it did before.
I shake my head. “Nothing. I just can’t wait to meet him and his brother.”
Ana’s face breaks into a dazzling smile, then she reaches out for my hand so I can help her into bed.
Dr. Baker’s examination tells us that Ana’s only dilated 4 CM, which she tells us means we’re in for a wait. It gives my whole fucking family time to show up and start camping out in our room, and for Ana’s dad to drive down from Montesano. I spend the entire night in a rocking chair next to Ana, cradling a sleeping Calliope in my arms while everyone chatters excitedly. But as the hours pass, and Ana’s labor continues to drag into the next morning, eyes start to droop, and the excitement dwindles.
“Maybe we should go get some breakfast?” my mother suggests through a deep yawn.
“Some coffee at the very least,” my father agrees.
There’s a shuffle around the room as everyone gets up to head down to the cafeteria. Ray kisses Ana’s forehead while Kim takes Calliope from me.
“Don’t have that baby until we get back,” Kate makes Ana promise, and it’s a promise she keeps. Hours drag on and on, and her contractions come closer and closer. I spend a good deal of time with a cool rag, dabbing her forehead while she breathes through the dull pressure beneath her epidural, or massaging away the deep aches in her back. The afternoon comes and goes, and my family decides to head back to the house to get some sleep somewhere around seven centimeters. Even I start to doze off in the chair next to Ana, when I’m suddenly pulled very quickly out of my uneasy sleep.
“Oh, oh, oh…” She sits up, gripping onto the railing at the edge of her bed. Her mouth drops open in a silent gasp, and she squirms uncomfortably. I can see the tension around her eyes as she starts to push. I take her hand.
“Just breathe through it, baby. Don’t push yet.”
“I can’t…” She clenches her jaw and whimpers slightly as she forces pressure down on her womb. “I can’t stop it.”
I reach over for the call button, then glance up at the clock the moment her contraction starts. The second hand just barely passes the one minute mark before she’s squeezing my hand again. There’s a knock on the door, and the nurse who has been with us all night eases into the room.
“How are you doing, Mrs. Grey?”
“It’s stronger now. I can’t stop pushing.”
“Well, the doctor just checked you a few minutes ago and you still had a couple centimeters left to dilate, but I’ll call her down to check one more time.”
“Thank yooooo-” Ana’s voice goes shrill as it’s cut off with another contraction, and the nurse scurries through the door. I reach for my wife and gently rub her back while she tries to breathe through the pressure. Once her body relaxes, I lean over and kiss the top of her hair.
“You’re amazing, Anastasia. I love you so much.”
Her head rolls in my direction, her eyes still glittering with the moisture in her eyes from her last contraction. I lean down and take her lips just as Dr. Baker enters the room.
“Alight, let’s see how close we are…” Ana once again lifts her feet into the stirrups at the end of her hospital bed, and Dr. Baker moves between her knees.
“Ten centimeters,” she says, rolling on her stool across the room to hit a button on the wall. “They’re coming.”
“Oh,” Ana says, the first hint of nerves leaking into her voice. I squeeze her hand and kiss the crown of her hair again.
“You can do this,” I remind her. She takes a deep breath and nods.
The room fills with people as the doctor prepares for the birth. Two nurses stand behind her, while another comes up on Ana’s left side and offers her a cool rag for her head. Her response is cut off with the gasp of another contraction, so I take the damp cloth from the nurse and dab it against her dewy skin myself.
“That’s very good, Ana,” Dr. Baker encourages her. “Every time you feel that pressure, I want you to push as hard as you can, and take all the time between to rest and catch your breath, okay?”
“Good, here we go again. Ready?”
Ana’s face tightens as she begins to push once more. I stand next to her, letting her crush my hand as she throws all of her strength into each and every push. When her contractions end and she’s left panting and exhausted, I clean her forehead, rub her shoulders, and tell her how much I love her. She pushes for over forty minutes, giving everything she has, and nothing happens.
“Okay, relax, Ana,” Dr. Baker finally says after one particularly brutal contraction. She reaches between Ana’s legs again, while my wife collapses against her pillows, utterly bereft.
“I can’t anymore. I can’t…”
“Yes, you can. Just relax, take deep breaths.” Tears form in the corners of her eyes while she tries to catch her breath, but she never gets the chance to before the pressure of her next contraction starts.
“No, no…” she cries. “I can’t do it again.”
“You can do anything, baby. Deep breath…” She tries, but her strength seems to fail halfway through. Dr. Baker encourages her, but Ana’s movements are so anemic that even her best isn’t enough to get her through it.
“Don’t give up on me now, Ana,” the doctor says as her pushing window closes, and once again Ana goes limp.
“I can’t do it. I don’t have any strength left…”
“Yes, you do. I can feel him. He’s just about to crown, he just needs one more big push. Ready?”
The pace of Ana’s breathing increases as the pressure for her to push start building again. She tries to prop herself up so she can start pushing, but her body is tired and sluggish. I can see the torment on her face as she worries that she’ll miss another pushing window, so I slide the table next to the bed aside and crawl into the bed with her. Moving her pillow, I take its place and pull her against me. I hold her while her hands push down on my knees. She lets out a defiant shriek and once again forces everything through her birthing canal.
“That’s it! That’s it!” Dr. Baker says. “Here he comes, I can see his head.”
“Let me see, let me see,” she begs. A nurse snags a mirror off the counter behind her and holds it down between Ana’s legs on her next rest. It’s gruesome, but the small curls of dark hair visible through the blood seem to give Ana a second wind. When her next contraction hits, she claws my legs and screams through it, but every push she gives brings our baby further into our world. Once his head is clear and I can see his face, the most amazing feeling comes over me. Pride, and love, and unbridled joy. It’s rejuvenating, it’s enchanting… It’s like being born again myself.
“Almost there, baby,” I say, tightening the hold I have on the woman I love and swearing to myself that I’ll never let her go again. I’m in absolute awe over her as I feel her laboring in my arms. As I see the gift she’s given me inching towards his first breath. Ana screams again with the ferocity of her strain as she pushes our son’s shoulders from her body, then Dr. Baker wraps her hands around his torso and gently guides him all the way out.
And then he’s here.
The doctor places our son on Ana’s chest and she breaks down into tears. A million kinds of wonder move through her eyes when she looks at his face for the first time. The love I see in her is instant, irrevocable, and all consuming. I recognize it because I feel it reverberating in my bones. Holding them both in my arms is a moment of pure divinity that changes me all the way down to my cells.
I will do anything for this boy, and for the brother coming right behind him.
“Teddy,” Ana sobs, brushing her fingers over our son’s cheeks. “This is Teddy.”
We’d chosen the names weeks ago, though it hadn’t been a quick or easy decision. There wasn’t a moment of great inspiration for either of us, the way it had happened at the Louvre in Paris when Ana chose Calliope’s name. She wanted to name one of our sons for Sawyer, I wanted to name one for Elliot. Then she wanted to name one for her father, and we were out of kids, so Elliot’s middle name became Raymond. Then Elliot thought it was a good idea to make a big deal about how he got a first name while Kate only got a middle name, so Ana changed her mind again and we ended up with Raymond Elliot.
It made sense at that point to name our second son after my father, but he didn’t warm to that the way I thought he would. Apparently, my dad’s never been especially fond of his name, so when I told him that I wanted to name my own son after him, he suggested his father’s name instead. Ana fell in love with it, but then the middle names didn’t go together and now we’ve ended up with…
“Theodore Raymond Grey,” she says, enraptured.
“Yeah,” I agree. “That’s him.” She lets out a joy filled sound as she leans over to kiss his tiny, messy face, then the nurses take him to be cleaned. He’s only out of Ana’s hands a minute or so before she starts to feel pressure again.
“Here comes his brother,” Dr. Baker says. Ana nods with a new kind of determination, then leans back against me for support. I hold on to her just as tightly as I did the first time, and let a torrent of love and encouragement pour from my lips and she starts to push again. Luke moves faster than Teddy did. Ana only pushes a few times before he starts to crown. We watch in the mirror, just like we did with his brother. But as his head begins to emerge, he stalls. Ana pushes, and pushes, and pushes, but he won’t budge.
“What’s wrong?” I demand, when Ana collapses in my arms, too exhausted to even hold herself up after a particularly strenuous push that resulted in nothing. Dr. Baker shakes her head, but slides her hand beneath Ana’s hospital gown to examine her. I watch closely each line of concern that etches its way across her face under her eyes go wide with realization, and she leans over to whisper in the ear of her nurse.
The nurse begins moving very quickly, mobilizing everyone around her. The erupting chaos echoes in the thunder of my heart.
“What’s wrong?” Ana whimpers, her voice weak and hoarse. Dr. Baker offers her a patient smile.
“Everything is going to be okay, Ana. Your baby’s shoulder is caught on your pelvic bone, and he’s stuck, but we’re going to get him out.”
Her breath trembles and her hand pulls away from my knee erratically and reaches for mine. She shakes in my arms as she watches the doctor work, and I don’t think I take a single breath. Every alarm I’ve kept at bay over the last seven months suddenly goes off at once, and the panic it sends coursing through me wreaks havoc on my body. My gut clenches so tightly it paralyzes me. I feel as though ice begins to flow through my veins, making me numb and unresponsive. Suddenly, I’m woozy.
“Hold very still for me, Ana,” Dr. Baker says.
“Christian…” Her fingers clench around mine, pulling me out of my spiraling dread. I cling back, holding on to her as though someone may try to steal her from me at any second.
“You’re okay,” I whisper to her. “You’re okay, you’re both okay.”
“It’s going to be okay,” Dr. Baker parrots. “Just stay very still.”
Ana grimaces as Dr. Baker pushes against her, adding more pressure, until she actually starts to feel it through the spinal tap. “Ahhhhhh!”
“I know, Ana. I know.” The work is slow. The care Dr. Baker has to put into each movement to keep from hurting either Ana or the baby drags the pain my wife is in out for several, excruciating minutes. I want to wrap around her and shield her from the pain, but neither one of us can move. I can only hold her still, and repeat again and again that they’re both going to be okay.
I don’t even know if I’m doing it for Ana or myself.
“Almost,” Dr. Baker says. Ana’s face contorts again and she lets out a horrible, pain-filled noise that cuts into me like a knife, then she lets out a breath and Dr. Baker pulls away smiling. “You’re a rock star, Ana,” she encourages her. “It’s all downhill from here.”
Ana nods and readjusts, taking the time she has between contractions to breathe and find her strength again. I dab her face with the cool cloth, then lean around to kiss her lips. She breaks away with a gasp when the contraction hits.
“Push, baby. You’re almost there. Push.”
She screams again, and Luke’s head emerges from Ana’s body. The movement doesn’t bring the sense of relief with it that it should, though. He’s more still than his brother was, and his color is slightly darker. Deep red, rather than a healthy pink. Dr. Baker moves with much more urgency with Luke than she did with Teddy, and encourages me to push Ana harder each and every time she has a contraction. When Luke stalls on his shoulders, she doesn’t wait for Ana to try again on another push.
“Forceps,” she says instead, and a nurse passes them to her. She places the metal tips against our son, and starts to pull. Ana cringes away from it, so I reach up and place a hand in front of her eyes.
“It’s okay, baby. He’s going to be okay.”
“Clear,” Dr. Baker says. This time, the cord is cut quickly, and they don’t pass our son off to Ana immediately. Instead, he’s swept away to the emergency triage station behind us.
“Is he okay? What’s wrong?” Ana begs, but no one turns to us. The doctor is absorbed in our son, and the only nurse in the room who isn’t assisting her is currently occupied with Teddy.
“Here you are Mrs. Grey,” she says, laying a bundle of baby blue blankets in Ana’s arms. She pulls Teddy into her protectively, brushing the soft fabric away and studying his face carefully before turning her worried eyes back to Dr. Baker. I kiss her cheek, and climb out of the bed, moving to hover just behind the nurses.
“Come on,” Dr. Baker whispers to herself, while she works to clear my son’s mouth and nasal passages with one hand and massage his chest with the other. I’ve never seen the intensity radiate off this woman that I see now, and it terrifies me all the way up until I hear Luke’s very first cry.
“There you go,” Dr. Baker says, triumphantly. She nods to the nurses next to her, and they begin to disperse. Luke’s cries ring shrilly through the room while Dr. Baker performs an exam, but once she’s finished measuring the rhythm of his heart, she coos to him and wraps him in a blanket that looks just like the one around his brother. The swaddle seems to calm him some, so his screams are merely tiny sounds of discontent by the time she holds him out to me. “Congratulations, Mr. Grey.”
“He’s alright?” I check, and her responding nod slows the thundering beat of my heart.
“He’s more than alright. He’s just perfect. Be careful with this one, he just might take after his sister.”
“God, I hope so.” My eyes turn down to my son’s face and I feel my insides melt. He’s quite possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Hair closer to my shade than Ana’s but eyes the same astoundingly clear blue as hers. They capture me in the same way, and make my blood boil with a fierce protectiveness that’s born of absolute pure love and pride.
“Christian!” Ana’s impatient voice breaks through the metamorphosis occurring inside me that’s nearly brought tears to my eyes. I turn back to her, and the bundle of blankets in her arms that calls to me with the same kind of pull as gravity. I move towards them, blissfully unaware of anything going on around us. I don’t know if there are still nurses in the room or not, but it doesn’t matter. At this very moment, Ana and I are completely alone with our boys.
She shifts Teddy so I can lay Luke in the crook of her opposite arm, and her worried eyes move over every inch of his tiny little body. Once she’s felt and seen how perfect he is for herself, she breaks in exactly the way I’d just stopped.
“Hi, Luke,” she whispers through her tears. Her eyes stare deeply into his for several long minutes before she looks up at me as though her heart is close to bursting. “They’re perfect.”
“Yeah,” I agree. “You did amazing, Ana.”
“We did.” Her eyes twinkle as she turns to look back down at Teddy, and I realize that the only thing missing from this moment is their sister. A quick call to my mom brings my whole family to the hospital, but they’re gracious enough to let us have a few minutes, just our family, before they all come barging in.
“Don’t take too long,” my mother pleads as she hands my daughter off to me in the waiting room. “I can’t wait to get to those babies.”
“I won’t, Mom.” I turn to Calliope. “Are you ready to go meet your brothers?” She nods sleepily against my shirt, so I lay a gentle hand across her back and carry her to Ana’s room.
“Hi, Calli-lily,” Ana says, when we enter. “There’s two little boys over here who really want to meet you.”
“Brofers?” she checks, and Ana nods. I carry her to the bed and set her next to her mother, then carefully lift each of the boys out of nursery bins next to the bed. Ana takes Luke in her left arm, and pulls Calliope under her right. I gently lay Teddy in Calliope’s lap and help her hold him from her other side.
“Oooooh, baby,” she says in awe.
“That’s Teddy,” Ana tells her. “Can you say Teddy?”
“No, his name not Teddy. His name is brofer.” Ana and I giggle, just while Calliope turns a confused look on each of us, Teddy spits up the breast milk Ana just finished feeding him, and it dribbles down onto his sister’s legs.
“Ew, I don’t like this one!” Calliope cries, and while Ana and I laugh, there’s a knock on the door that brings the rest of our family into this perfect moment. I watch as each person that I love picks up and falls instantly for my sons, and when I look back to see Ana staring at me, watching our boys, I turn, lean down, and press my lips to hers.
She has me actually fucking panting when I finally have to reach down, take her by the hair, and pull her mouth away from my cock. The woman is relentless, like she’s trying to suck the soul out of me, and as the muscles in my thighs twitch with anticipation of the release I’d just stopped, I think she might have nearly succeeded.
“I wasn’t finished,” she says with swollen lips, the words labored like she’s just finished running a 5k.
“Not nearly,” I agree. My fingers twist more tightly into her hair and I yank her up to me, sliding my tongue past her lips when her mouth drops open with a gasp from the quick shock of pain. It takes her a second to catch up to me, then her soft lips begin to move fervently and her tongue battles with mine for control. It’s a struggle my inner-dominant won’t allow me to entertain.
I flip her on her back and spread out over the top of her, letting her feel as much of my weight as I know she can handle. She squirms fruitlessly beneath me. I give her a taunting smile, trying to encourage her struggle, then spread her legs apart with the tops of my thighs.
“Are you ready for me?” I ask, stroking my cock against her entrance. She groans and tries to push down on me.
Always so greedy.
“I’m ready,” she whimpers. “Can’t you feel how wet I am for you?”
I can. She’s already soaked the tip of my cock and I’ve barely brushed through her lips. Her skin is flushed, her chest heaves with each needy breath she draws in. Her eyes bore into mine, half-crazed with desire. It all makes me want to bury myself deep inside of her until I’ve fucked all rational thought from us both. But I know the longer I keep her in this suspended state of need, the harder she’s going to come. And fuck do I want to blow her goddamn mind.
“Say it again,” I tell her, and she’s so well attuned to my wants that I don’t even have to clarify what.
“For you,” she repeats. “I’m wet for you. Only you. So wet. Please, Christian!” I stroke her clit with the pad of my thumb as she starts to beg. It makes her voice shrill and much too loud with our kids sleeping just across the hall. I reach up and cover her mouth, then slam inside her until I’ve bottomed out. Her eyes go wide as she screams into my hand, then roll back into her head.
“That’s it, Ana. Feel me. Feel how perfectly I fit inside of you. Like you were fucking made for me.” I give her a few hard, punishing thrusts as I make my point. “You. Are. Mine.”
She lets out a rough, broken groan in agreement and starts to push back against me. I take her by the hip, holding her in place so I can hammer in and out of her as fast and hard as I please. She takes everything I give her and sobs for more. The rougher I get, the more swollen she becomes, the tighter she is around me. It’s fucking heaven and if I could stay here, in this moment forever, I would a million times over.
She shakes her head away from my hand and screws her eyes tightly shut. “Fuck, I’m going to come. Oh….god….”
“Open your eyes, Anastasia. Look at me.”
She struggles, but eventually her eyelids pry back. The moment her bright, blue irises meet mine, she starts to convulse around my cock. The strangled, almost inhuman sounds that force their way out of my wife make me so hard, I think my brain might be a little oxygen deprived from all the blood being diverted to my groin. I certainly can’t think straight. Can’t think of anything except continuing to pound into her with everything I’ve got. As she starts to get louder, I lean down and kiss her, swallowing each one of her cries of ecstasy.
I can feel it when she starts to come down, so I reach between us and start to rub circles over her clit, trying to keep her flying while I approach lift off. She starts to gasp like she’s in pain. I’m overwhelming her. But when I falter, she shoots me a dangerous look and hisses, “Don’t you dare fucking stop.”
So I don’t. I increase the pressure, change the angle, push until my balls are pressed so hard into her it’s nearly painful… then the quivering starts again and I lose everything I have inside of her in a spectacularly violent eruption.
Our breathing melds together in a harsh, unpleasant melody that slowly smooths out into something calmer. My erection twitches inside of her and she smiles, looking like an angel floating on a cloud of euphoria. Her dark hair is a tangled mess on her pillow, but the way it frames her face makes her look stunning.
All these years, and she still absolutely takes my breath away.
I reach up and lovingly brush the backs of my fingers over her cheeks, basking in her loveliness, until there’s a sudden, loud pounding on our door.
“Mom!” Calliope screams, the sound still shrill even though it’s muffled by the barrier between us. I take a deep breath, silently express my irritation to Ana, then turn my head in the direction of our daughter.
“Get away from the door, Calliope!”
“But, Dad! They’re ruining everything!”
With a defeated sigh, I straighten my right arm and lift myself high enough off the bed that Ana can roll out from underneath me. I immediately miss her warmth, and as I watch her throw on my sweatpants and t-shirt, I decide to take a moment to gather myself before I go find out what the boys have done that’s upset their sister so much.
I might kill them otherwise.
My eyes move around the room, finding nothing new or interesting to settle upon. We’ve spent a lot of time here throughout the years, but somehow this place will only ever really hold the early memories for me. Like the feeling of pure bliss I’d get when I’d arrive here after being away from Ana for far too long. That’s the strongest one. Stronger even than the memories caged inside these walls that used to bear more pain than I knew I was capable of carrying.
That’s how it is with us. The good has completely erased all of the bad. The painful memories from our youth have been buried beneath years and years of love and happiness. They’re so far gone, we can hardly even remember the details of the terrifying things we’ve had to persevere through. That Ana has had to survive.
I’m thankful for that.
It took about five years after I left GEH for her to shake the last of her ghosts. I think it was the success of Phoenix that made her start to hope again for the first time, so I’d encouraged her to use the profits from that release to buy another press so that Grey Publishing could grow. Another year passed, another best-seller, and another printing press.
By the time she came to me and told me she was ready to release the novel she’d written about our love story, she’d grown her publishing company large enough to be able to publish it herself. Everything about that book was her decision, her vision. And when the accolades came pouring in, she’d bathed in them instead of turning away in fear.
And that’s when I knew I made the right decision.
I may have slipped up over the years and started a new company… or seven. But it never lasts more than eighteen months or so. I always sell before it gets big enough to take over our lives or drag me back down into the dirtiest parts of the rat race. I always choose her. I always choose our children.
And I’ve never regretted it.
After a few minutes, I climb out of bed and go through my suitcase until I find a pair of workout shorts and clean shirt. I can hear Ana screaming at the twins all the way up the stairs and when I get down to the kitchen, I find both of them pinned to the wall with their mother’s finger moving threateningly between each of their faces. Calliope stands behind Ana, her arms folded over her chest while she glares at her brothers. I glance up through the kitchen window to see what the fuss is all about and when I see it, my teeth grind together and I count to three so I don’t start shouting right along with my wife.
They’ve taken a sheet and painted, ‘CALLIOPE GREY HAD TO RETAKE THE SATs BECAUSE HER FIRST SCORE WASN’T HIGH ENOUGH TO GET HER INTO HARVARD,’ on it in bold, black letters. It’s currently draped over our car in the driveway.
With a clenched jaw I give them both a very unamused look. Luke flinches, which means it was his idea.
“Take it down,” I tell them, and both he and Teddy nod before hurrying out of the kitchen.
“Lucas Elliot!” I call. He stops, meets my gaze, then sighs.
“I’m sorry, Cal.”
She narrows her eyes. “You’re dead to me.”
“Hey,” Ana says, nudging our daughter with disapproval. Calliope turns to her, the anger gone now and only a desperate sense of pleading lingering in the gray of her eyes.
“Do you think I’m a fraud?”
“No!” Ana says, quickly. “You worked so hard to get here. You’ve earned it, Calli-lilly.”
“But they’re not wrong. Oh, god… am I going to be the stupid kid in my class?”
“Absolutely not,” I say firmly. She looks at me, and I move to her, bending down so I can stare straight into the eyes that are like mirrors to mine. “You are the most incredible young woman this university has seen in almost twenty years.” I glance at Ana, then back to Calliope. “You are a Grey. Don’t you dare forget what that means.”
She smiles. “Okay, Daddy.”
“Now go get ready or you’re going to be stuck unpacking this afternoon instead of out enjoying all the freshman orientation activities.”
“Okay.” She looks at her mom. “Help me pick something to wear?”
Calliope turns and skips up the stairs two at a time. Ana brushes her fingers over my chest, giving me an adoring look as she follows. It’s like a siren’s song, calling me to pursue her. But, instead, I turn my attention to my sons, who trapse back into the kitchen looking much too satisfied with themselves.
“This is a big day for her,” I tell them seriously, and they each give me an equally serious look in return.
“Dad, we’re her little brothers,” Teddy says. “If we didn’t make every single moment of her life just a little bit miserable, we wouldn’t be doing our jobs.”
I shake my head. “That’s not how my kids love each other. My kids are an impenetrable force of solidarity. Unless you’re telling me that’s changed and I should actually be up there using her moment of weakness to find out who took my Lamborghini out last month?”
Luke elbows Teddy harshly in the ribs and he grunts before he speaks up. “You know, I think we should go tell Callie how proud we are that she got into Harvard. It’s really an accomplishment when you think about it.”
“Yeah, she worked so hard,” Luke agrees.
I roll my eyes and walk over to the counter where my wallet and keys are laying, pull out a hundred dollar bill, and hand it over to Teddy. “Why don’t you guys go into town and get breakfast for everyone, huh? Make yourselves useful.”
“Can I keep the change?” Teddy asks.
“Yeah. But I swear to god, if you come back here with McDonalds on your sister’s first day at Harvard, I’m going to knock you upside the head so hard that Calliope’s first SAT score will be a fantasy for you.”
“Deal,” Luke says, snatching the cash out of his brother’s hand and bolting for the door. Teddy calls after him and disappears. I cringe as I watch them fighting with each other inches away from the SUV… so close to the perfect black paint.
Once the boys pull out of the driveway, I head upstairs to peek in on Calliope. She’s switching between two different blouses, holding each of them up against her and looking to Ana and Jade, who is watching through the screen of Ana’s phone, for approval. I pause, wondering if I’ll hear Sawyer’s commentary echoing in the background or if he’s buried in the lab at GEH. Once Welch retired, Luke was his chosen candidate for the head R&D spot. He’s not just good, he’s intuitive and daring. Now my Thursday night drinks with Ros are little more than bragging sessions about all the success GEH is having without me.
When that happens, I always make sure to pay the check. You know… with the Endurance money she still has to pay me every quarter.
Ana turns to me and raises an eyebrow, but I just wink back at her and leave the fashion decisions to the girls.
It’s not an area where my opinions matter or are even welcomed anyway.
I make my way across the hall, into Ana’s old room, and pull out my phone. My dad told me he wanted updates of every single thing that happened the moment Calliope touched down in Cambridge, but apparently having a grandchild attending his alma mater isn’t important enough to drag him away from his meetings because when I call his office, I get his secretary.
“I’m sorry, sir. President Grey is currently in a meeting with the ambassador from Montenegro. He won’t be available for several hours.”
“Can you pass me onto his press secretary?”
“Sure. One moment, please.”
I roll my eyes when I’m put on hold and classical music begins to play. I’d never thought about the hold music that would play at the White House before my father was elected two years ago. Now, every time I hear it, it sounds ridiculous.
“This is Katherine Grey,” Kate answers in a rush.
“This is your brother-in-law.”
“Hi, Chrisitan. I’m just about to step into a press conference, is this an emergency?”
“Yes, I’m afraid it is.”
“Oh god, what’s wrong?”
“My baby girl is going to college today and I don’t know how I’m supposed to just… leave her here.”
“Awhhhh.” She draws the sound out for several long seconds. “You’re going to be fine. Just remember how it felt when your parents dropped you off at Harvard.”
“I do remember how it felt. I didn’t want to be here and I practically begged them to take me back home. Why does she want to leave me, Kate?”
Kate laughs. “Oh, she’ll come back. She’s stubborn and independent like her mom, but she adores you. No way she stays away for long.”
“Oh no, I’ll make sure of that.”
“Of course you will. I’ve really gotta go, so if you need someone to coddle you more, you’re going to have to have to call Elliot. He’s golfing with the Senator from Maine this afternoon though, so he might ignore you. Just saying.”
“Well, if I were him and I was golfing, I’d probably be too embarrassed to answer my phone too. Kennedy beat him last time we played.”
“Kennedy is on her high school’s golf team. They were the top ranked team in the nation last year.”
“And it’s clear she had a teacher who wasn’t her father.”
“Goodbye, Christian,” Kate says, laughter ringing behind each word.
“Bye, Kate. Love you”
“Love you too.” She hangs up and I briefly consider calling my mother, but I can see the car pull into the driveway, so I let the girls know there’s breakfast waiting for them, then make my way downstairs.
The boys come in carrying a single box and a cardboard drink holder filled with coffees. When I lift the lid of the container and see that all they’ve brought back is an assortment of pastries, I give them a very unimpressed look.
“You said not McDonalds,” Teddy argues. I take a breath, ready to let him have it, but Ana comes down the stairs and looks into the box like she’s looking at a chest full of treasure.
“Oh my god, I love this place,” she says, reaching in eagerly and taking out a pain au chocolat. When her teeth break through the crusty exterior, she lets out a long moan that makes my cock twitch, then looks down at our son. “Amazing. Thank-you, sweetheart.”
She leans over and kisses Teddy on top of his head. He gives me a sly smile knowing that if Ana’s happy, I have no choice but to let it go.
Point to you, kid.
Calliope is too nervous to eat, so after Ana, Luke, and Teddy finish their pastries and I’ve helped my daughter triple check that she hasn’t forgotten anything, the girls pile into the car while the boys help me connect the tow-trailer filled with boxes we’re going to have to load into Calliope’s dorm to the back of the SUV.
It’s frustrating getting onto campus because the roads are too narrow and overly packed and I’m towing an extra six feet behind me. The secret service, who took over for Taylor once my father was elected, are usually very good at staying invisible and out of our way. Today, they’re just another black car clogging up the fucking road.
They’re the reason you don’t have to hire another Sawyer. They’re the reason you don’t have to hire another Sawyer. They’re the reason you don’t have to hire another Sawyer…
When we finally make it to the unloading area near the dorms, I feel as though I’ve just driven my family straight through a battlefield. Each and every one of my nerves is frayed, which makes the prospect of saying goodbye to my daughter in a few minutes a little daunting.
“Alright, boys,” I say, stepping out of the car and moving to the trailer. “It’s a long trek to Grays so let’s do this in one trip, okay?”
“Make the goons carry it,” Teddy complains, glancing at the wall of suits forming behind us. Just like Ana, he’s not a fan of his 24-hour security detail. But I can’t let these guys go just because my family finally feels safe, the way I did with Woods, Harper, Smith, and Wyatt.
“They can’t do their jobs if their hands are full,” I remind him. “So load up.”
“Bet I can carry more than you,” Luke tells his brother. Teddy gives him a look like he’s offended by the very notion and begins to pile his arms with boxes. Two more, in fact, than Luke carries. When Teddy walks away, teetering slightly as he balances the precarious pile in his hands, and makes his way blindly towards Grays Hall, Luke looks back at me and grins. “Sucker.”
I laugh, then throw an extra box on his pile and start gathering things to carry for myself. Ana comes up next to me and takes a box into her hands.
“What are you doing?” I ask, though it’s more of an accusation.
“I’m not helpless, Christian.”
“We’ve got it under control.” I shake my head and move to take the box out of Ana’s hands, but Calliope steps up next to me and puts her hands on her hips.
“Are you implying that she’s somehow too delicate to carry a 10lb box? Because that’s extraordinarily misogynistic, Daddy.”
Right. She’s in college now.
“Fine.” I reach into the trailer and pick up one of the smaller boxes and dump it in Calliope’s arms. “After you, Princess.”
She makes a face but turns down the path the same way her brothers went. Ana smiles, then we turn and take a walk we haven’t taken together since we were nineteen.
Grays Hall is exactly as I remember it. The lacquer on the banister of the staircase has exactly the same sheen. The 4th step up still makes the same unique creaking sound. I’ve thought about this place more times than I could ever count. In a way, it represents the true genesis of my life. I’d like to take a moment to pause and really breathe it all in, but when Ana skips a few steps ahead of me, and I catch sight of her ass wrapped in those tight little jeans of hers… I’m suddenly no longer interested in taking trips down memory lane.
If only my hands weren’t otherwise occupied…
We make our way up the 2nd landing and wind through the other students to the middle of the hallway. Calliope has to dig her keys out of the orientation packet we got yesterday. Once she finds them, she pauses for a moment to look at the door in front of her and takes a deep breath.
“Come on, Callie. Your shit’s heavy,” Teddy complains. Calliope rounds on him.
“I am at Harvard University and I am having a moment.”
“Shut up, Teddy,” I tell him. He grumbles and shifts the boxes in his hands.
Calliope slides the key into the lock and opens the door, but before she can take a step forward, both Teddy and Luke push past her and into the room.
“Theodore Raymond and Lucas Elliot, I swear to God…” Ana says, threateningly. Calliope rolls her eyes, then looks at me.
“You okay?” I check.
“Are you kidding? In an hour, they’re going to be on a plane back to Seattle and I’m not going to have to see them again until Thanksgiving.”
“You’ll come home before Thanksgiving, Calliope.” My voice drops, a clear warning cutting through each word. “Even if I have to fly back here and drag you home myself.”
“And he will,” Ana says. She raises her eyebrows at her. “Believe me.”
Calliope laughs and moves forward to walk into her new room with her mother. I smirk at the back of their heads, adjust my grip on the boxes in my arms, and follow after them.
The room is almost identical to the one Ana and Kate shared our freshman year. Two twin sized beds sit parallel to one another on opposite sides of the room. Identical wardrobes and desks are situated haphazardly around them. Though the room is empty, it’s clear that Calliope’s roommate has already arrived. Exactly half of the room has been decorated, almost as though there was a line drawn down the middle.
“Mom, look!” Calliope shrieks, discarding her box onto the empty bed and running to the window. “We have a view of the yard!”
“Gorgeous,” Ana agrees. “Oh, just wait for the fall to come. All the leaves change colors and it makes everything look so magical. You’re going to absolutely love it here, Calliope.”
Callie bites her lip, trying and failing to hold back her excited smile.
“Damn,” Luke interrupts. “Cal, your roommate’s a dime.”
He’s leaning over the other girl’s desk, staring at a picture tacked to a bulletin board.
“Hold on there, Luke,” Teddy says. “I think that’s… I think that’s drool on your chin.”
Calliope rounds on me. “Dad!”
“Boys, go wait out in the car,” I tell them firmly. “We’ll be out in a few minutes.”
“You’re not supposed to go to Dad first,” Luke spits at his sister, offended. Calliope crosses her arms over her chest, looking almost exactly like her mother.
“Fight it in court.”
“I’ll fight you right here.” Luke starts for his sister, but I grab him by the collar and yank him back.
“I said, go wait in the car. Now.”
“Fine,” Teddy says. “See you later, Calliope. Make good choices, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Calliope’s brow furrows. “That’s contradictory advice. You never make good choices.”
“Yeah, well, you know what I mean.” He glances at me and Ana, then leans forward and gives her a hug so quick you would think he was trying to not be seen. “See you at Mom’s birthday.”
He squeezes out the door and Luke pulls out of my grip so he can move to his sister. His temper, as hot and quick as mine, has fizzled out under the much more earnest look he gives her. “Seriously, don’t make me have to come up here and kick some guy’s ass, okay?”
“I won’t,” Calliope laughs.
“No, she won’t.” I add. They both look at me, grinning, then hug each other goodbye.
“See you later, goober,” Calliope says.
“Yeah, you too, Miss Priss.”
He turns to leave, but there’s a blonde haired girl standing in the doorway looking at us sheepishly. “Sorry, I uh…”
“Summer?” Calliope asks.
She nods. “Yeah, are you Call.. uh…Cali-ohp?”
“Calliope, but you can just call me Callie,” she corrects her.
“Oh, thank god. Hey, Callie.”
“Hey, yourself,” Luke says. He wags his eyebrows at Callie’s roommate. She looks as though she’s trying not to laugh.
“What are you? Fourteen?”
“Sixteen,” he corrects her. “Which is coincidentally a number just over twice as high as the number of zeros on the end of my trust fund, if you get my drift.”
“Luke, Uncle Sawyer gave me a can of pepper spray and I’m about fifteen seconds away from using it on you.”
“No need, Cal. It’s hot enough in here already.”
“Oh my god, GET OUT!” Calliope picks up a pillow from the pile of things we’ve carried in and hurls it across the room at him. Luke dodges it easily, then he holds up his hand like he’s talking on the phone..
“Callie can give you my number. Call me, baby.”
“Lucas…” I warn him. He grins and disappears into the hallway.
“I’m sorry about that,” Calliope tells her roommate. “Little brothers, you know…”
“I don’t, but I’ll trust you.” They each laugh awkwardly, then Callie turns to us.
“Uh… these are my parents. My dad, Christian Grey. And my mom, Ana..”
Summer’s face goes pale and she raises a hand to cover her mouth in shock. “Oh my god, you’re Anastasia Grey.”
“Yes,” Ana says gracefully. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Summer.”
“Meet me? Oh my god, I can’t believe… I… and you’re… Oh my god, you have no idea how much I love you. Your Love and War series seriously raised my expectations of men so high that I’ll never find love.”
Actually, that was me, but go on…
“Oh, I hope not,” Ana says. “But, thank you.”
“Would you, I mean, if it’s not super rude of me to ask… would you sign your book for me? I have one here. I had to make sure I had a copy with me.”
“Sure,” Ana says. Summer moves to her bookshelf and Calliope gives me a slanted look, clearly not pleased that she seems to be paired with her mother’s one woman fan club. She’s not a fan of Ana’s War and Love series, because it’s both erotic and based so closely on our relationship that the male lead’s name is Tristan. Calliope has said over and over again that she has no interest in reading about her parent’s sex life, but from the moment Ana got the deal to turn her novels into a movie franchise, she hasn’t been able to avoid it.
I chuckle back at her and wrap my hands around her shoulder. Ana hands the book back to Summer, then turns to face Calliope.
“I guess we’ve gotta let you get to it.”
“Already?” Calliope asks sadly. Ana nods, then opens her arms. Calliope seemingly vanishes from my side, she moves to her mother so quickly. By the time Ana gets her arms around her, they’re both in tears.
“Call me every single day, okay?” Ana makes her promise. Calliope nods.
“I can come home whenever I want, right? Even if it’s not a long weekend?”
“Whenever you want.”
Calliope takes a deep breath and nods, then hugs her mother again. “I’m going to miss you so much, Mommy.”
“I know, baby. Me too. But we’ll be here for homecoming weekend with Uncle Elliot and Aunt Kate, and Daddy and I are going to come for the Yale game.”
It takes a good amount of time, but Ana finally releases her, and Calliope turns to me.
“This is your last chance, kid. You sure you don’t want to just stay home and live off of me forever?”
She laughs. “As enticing as that sounds, I think I’ve gotta try to make it my own way. My dad sort of set this impossibly high standard and created perpetual motion at 24 so… you understand.”
I nod, wanting to give her the same kind of lighthearted response she’s given me. But suddenly, my throat is a little tight. So, to buy myself a few seconds, I reach into my pocket, take out my wallet, and remove a brand new American Express card.
“This is for you,” I tell her. “And as long as your grades stay above a B average, you can use it to your heart’s content.”
“Really?” Calliope asks, her face lighting up like the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center I used to take her ice skating under when she was small.
“Really. And if you get into trouble or if you need anything, anything at all, just call me. I can be here in seven hours, okay?”
“Come here, Princess.” She falls into me and I wrap her up in a hug so tight, I lift her several inches off the ground. The thought crosses my mind that I could bolt. I could toss her over my shoulder and take her back to the car, drag her back to Seattle, and lock her in her room. I own the plane, no one would even know… But instead, I set her down and kiss the top of her head. “I love you, Calliope.”
“I love you too, Daddy.”
With a sad smile, I turn from her and immediately reach for Ana. Her hand in mine is the only thing that keeps me together as we leave our daughter’s room. Once we’ve closed the door behind us, though, Ana breaks.
“Christian!” she sobs, pushing her face into my chest. “How did this happen? She was just a baby a few years ago, wasn’t she?”
“A few seconds ago.”
“I’m not ready for this. How am I supposed to live a day without her? Who am I going to hang out with?”
I snort. “Sawyer, probably.”
That gets to her. She giggles into my shirt, then pulls away to look up at me. Her eyes still glisten with tears. “What are we going to do when the boys leave for school?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Luke isn’t going to get into college.”
She slaps me across the arm and I lean down to kiss her softly on the lips. “Once the kids are gone, you and I will have each other. Forever.”
“Mmm, that does sound absolutely perfect.”
“Good, hold on to that. Because this,” I gesture back to Callie’s room. “This hurts like a motherfucker.”
She laughs in agreement, then takes me by the hand and tries to drag me down the hall. I stop her.
“Hold on.” With purpose, I step to the room directly across the hall from Calliope’s and knock sharply on the door. Fifteen seconds later, a tiny redheaded girl in jean shorts and a Harvard t-shirt appears in the doorway.
“Yes?” she asks. I glance down at her and breathe a sigh of relief.
“Nothing, I’m sorry to bother you.” She gives me a confused look and closes the door. When I turn to Ana, she’s got her hands on her hips and one eyebrow raised.
I grin and take her hand so I can lead her down the hallway to where we’ll join our sons. “I just had to check.”
“Ho’d dis, Mommy.” Calliope holds out a plastic block to me, part of a set she’s trying to fit through the right shaped holes on the toy in front of her. I take it and stare at her face, which is screwed up in concentration as she decides which slot the plastic star in her other hand will go through. “Here?”
She points at an opening and looks at me for approval. I give her an encouraging smile.
“There’s only one way to find out.”
She looks at the star she’s holding one last time, then places it against the hole. The five points slip through easily, and she turns wide eyes back on me.
“You did it!” I celebrate along with her, scooping her into my arms. I wrap her up and kiss every inch of her face while I tell her how proud I am over and over again. Her laughter chimes gloriously in my ears. Her smell fills every breath I take, and it starts an uncontrollable chain reaction. At first, it’s almost cleansing… But it changes. It starts with an unexpected wash of unease that quickly and irrationally unravels into paranoia, then fear, then…
“Christian!” My hands lock down as Calliope moves to pick up another toy, and she whines while she tries to struggle out of my grip. I pull her against me and scurry to my feet, turning panicked eyes on the windows laying dark and dormant behind the curtains of the hotel room. The hairs on the back on my neck rise and an eerie, invasive feeling overcomes me, like I’m being watched. Maybe there are cameras in the room. Maybe they’re waiting for us to leave, or tracking the movements of our security team.
“Ana?” I spin towards Christian’s voice just as he steps into the room, and the moment his eyes fall on me, his face melts with concern. “Come here.”
I don’t move, so he takes the few steps it takes to close the distance between us and wraps both me and Calliope in his arms. She starts to struggle again, but my hands stay firm.
“Ana, give her to me.”
“Ana…” He reaches up and grasps my face, cupping my chin so he can tilt my head up and force my eyes to his. He holds my gaze until I start to breathe again, and my grip relaxes. Calliope stops squirming. He slides his hands against her sides and pulls her out of my arms, resting her on his hip. I start to protest, but his lips cut me off before I’ve even formed the first word.
It calms me.
“What happened?” he asks, pulling away from the kiss.
“Nothing. I just…” I pause, pressing my lips together and shaking my head as I struggle with just how ridiculous I’m being. “I just smelled her.”
His eyes narrow. “Okay… I don’t really know what I can do about that…”
My shoulders deflate a little and I bury my face into him to try and hide my growing anguish. “I don’t think I can leave her.”
I feel him take a deep breath, and release it as though he’s been waiting for this to come all day. Honestly, he’s probably been waiting for it since we left Seattle. “You don’t have to.” I shoot a pointed look back at him, but he maintains every ounce of sincerity. “You don’t have to.”
“Christian, this is the biggest night of your life. I’m not missing it.”
“This isn’t the biggest night of my life.” He tilts my chin up again, refusing to let me hide from him. “Not by far.”
Somehow, even with the phantom of a tremble still haunting my lip, I manage to smile. The real kind that makes the cold trepidation in his eyes warm a little. I stare back into the depths of those dark gray irises and go through the breathing exercises Flynn gave mefor situations just like these.
“That’s better,” Christian whispers when he feels me relax. He sweeps a hand over my cheek, then turns for the door. “Mackensie!”
“Yes, sir?” Our nanny pops her head through the open door and Christian holds Calliope out for her.
“Will you give her a bath and put her to bed, please?”
“Sure thing.” She takes my daughter and turns her toward me. “Say good night to Mommy.”
“Nigh-nigh, Mommy.” I smile again and lean in to kiss her on the cheeks, but when Mackensie turns and leaves the room, the uncomfortably familiar feeling of dread fills the void she leaves behind. Automatically, I reach down and cradle my stomach protectively. Christian pulls my hand away and draws my eyes to his again.
“Have I told you how absolutely beautiful you look tonight?”
“Not yet.” My eyes move down to my dress. It’s a deep emerald green, with a long flowing skirt that’s cinched at my waist, a plunging neckline, and long sleeves that hide the barely healed scar on my shoulder. “Kate bought the dress…”
“I’ll have to remember to thank her. You are absolutely breathtaking, Anastasia.” He smiles and pulls a flat box from the inside of his tuxedo jacket and holds it out for me. “This is for you.”
I turn nervous eyes down to the hinged lid he pulls back, and feel my breath catch when I see the necklace laid on the black velvet inside. Three thick rows of diamonds make up the chain, and there are tendrils of increasingly large diamonds and emeralds cascading delicately towards the center, which would fall between my cleavage. It’s gorgeous, and so, so over-the-top.
“H-how much did this cost?” I breathe.
Christian frowns. “Don’t worry about it…”
I swallow thickly, unable to move. I know if I reach for it, my fingers will tremble, and Christian will notice. I know if I look at him, he’ll see the sudden alarm in my eyes. So I just stand there and stare at it, and that gives me away just as much as the other stuff would.
“I-I—” I tuck my lip beneath my teeth, and he reaches out to tilt my face up to his. His eyes meet mine, immediately searching.
“Red,” he mutters when he doesn’t find the answers himself. I press my lips together, and draw in a long, uneasy breath.
This is Flynn.
After I lost it that first night back home, Christian went with me to go see Flynn the next morning. Last time, after Lincoln, he was looking for answers. He wanted Flynn to tell him how he could fix me so we could get back to normal. This time, the only thing he’s cared about is keeping me from shutting him out again. From hiding from him. And so now we have a safeword. Any time Christian says it, I have to tell him what I’m thinking. I’m not allowed to lie, and I’m not allowed to hide the ugliness. And has to make that safe for me. Whatever confession I have to give, he has to respond with love.
It’s actually managed to build a very deep sense of trust between us. So, in the spirit of that, I take a deep breath and continue.
“Luke told me awhile ago that I had been targeted before because of my wedding ring. It’s just… there are going to be photographers at this event tonight, and I don’t think I want to be seen in…”
I let the words trail off because I know he’ll fill in the blanks himself. He does, and I wait for pain or rejection to color the heart-stoppingly beautiful features of his face, but it doesn’t come. He nods, closes the lid to the jewelry box, and reaches down to take my hand.
I don’t know if I’m waiting for his fingers to shake with suppressed irritation, or tighten in a show of pain, but I definitely don’t expect it when he slips off my wedding ring and tucks it into his palm. He lifts my bare finger to his lips, and gently kisses the tattoo there. Then he moves to the room safe, locks the jewelry inside, and turns to reach for me.
He leads me into the main room where Taylor is gathered with Evan, Smith, Wyatt, and Harper. All five of them look up as we enter the room.
“Taylor, would you please go over the plan for tonight with Anastasia?”
He nods. “Smith, Wyatt, and Harper will remain here with Calliope and Mackensie. All three of them will have a communication line with me.” He reaches up and taps his ear to draw attention to the earpiece. “We have body doubles for both you and Mr. Grey, and I will be taking them through the hotel to the limo waiting out front, while the two of you are escorted to the car we have waiting for you out back. When you arrive, you’ll be taken through a private entrance we’ve arranged with the venue, and they’ll have you seated first. You will not be exposed to the public at all.”
I take a deep breath, actually feeling a little better now that I can visualize it. “Okay.”
Taylor gives me an affectionate smile, then steps to the side so I can start for the doors to our suite. I don’t move though, and Christian doesn’t push me.
“Are you ready?” he asks instead. Clenching my teeth in apprehension, I reach over for his hand and nod. He pulls me from the room, and the moment we’re through the door, all of my senses sing to life. I can hear my heart pounding in my ears, as my pulse starts to race. It’s like in a vacuum. Sound changes, the walls around me feel like they’re closing in. I have to focus to control my breathing.
When the elevator dings, I throw myself protectively in front of Christian. He simply wraps his arms around me and carries us both inside.
My thoughts move to Calliope as we descend to the ground floor. I want to think through every single way someone could try to get to her, and then double check with Taylor that he’s made preparations for it. Maybe even ask if he’s thought of anything I haven’t. But that isn’t healthy, so instead I look at the numbers and repeat each one in my head to keep my thoughts busy.
“Did you see the edits Stevens sent for Phoenix?” Christian asks, while Taylor and Evan murmur quietly to one another behind us.
I nod. “I have more to send back. I was planning on doing that tomorrow morning before we leave.”
“Are you happy with his performance so far?”
I press my lips together. Obviously, I haven’t been in any shape to go back to work, and since I’d already sent Jacki to New York to take over the newly rebranded Grey Library, Christian asked me to pick someone to step in while I was out. I chose Stevens, and when he asked the obvious follow-up in the meeting where Christian offered him the job, he’d told him I was taking extended maternity leave.
A few days after that, a card came to our house from my employees, congratulating me for our upcoming bundle of joy. Christian was standing right next to me when I opened it, but he didn’t say anything. He’s gone to every one of my doctor’s appointments, held my hand, and listened to the plan Dr. Baker and I have put together in complete silence. He hasn’t mentioned termination again, but he also doesn’t really talk about my pregnancy at all. Grace thinks that means he’s coming around, but I’m not sure. If he’s accepted it, he hasn’t said it, and the strange cold war surrounding this one thing that could be so good and healing for us right now, is instead incredibly lonely.
But I’m too much of a coward to say anything because I don’t want to fight with him again and drive him back to that– No. It’s fine. We’re fine.
I nod and squeeze his hand as the elevator doors roll back and our security leads the way into the brightly lit corridor on the other side. There’s a man and woman standing there, dressed identically to Christian and I.
“Your doubles for this evening, Mr. Grey,” Taylor says, gesturing to each of them. Christian reaches out a hand for the man, but I miss the introduction because I’m too focused on the handshake. Christian’s hands are much larger than this man’s, and his shoulders are broader. And my hair is a shade darker than the woman next to him. She might be a little taller than me too…
Will anyone else pick up on those differences?
Christian turns another concerned look on me when I don’t respond to something the woman says directly to me, so I shake away my daze and work my face into a smile. “Thank you so much for being here tonight,” I tell her. She responds in a thick, Swedish accent.
“It’s my pleasure, Mrs. Grey.”
“Shall we?” Taylor asks, gesturing for our doubles to start towards the lobby. They do, and when both Taylor and Woods fall in around them, I feel a shock of panic.
“Wait, I thought Evan was going to take us to the car!” I hiss, while the flashes from the paparazzi waiting outside the main entrance reflect like Christmas lights off the wall in front of us.
“No, I am,” a voice says behind us. I spin so fast I nearly disorient myself, and the grin Luke gives me as Christian reaches out to steady me has me instantly irritated. That irritation vanishes though when his jacket shifts, and I see the gun strapped to his chest.
He doesn’t even work for us anymore.
“Ready?” he asks, turning his gaze up to Christian. He nods and Luke turns to a door that tells us it is for staff only, and ushers us inside. Jade is there waiting, dressed in a gown the exact same shade of cherry as her lips. She squeals excitedly when she sees me and thrusts her arms around me.
“Oh my god, isn’t this place magical? I’ve never left the US before, did Luke tell you that?” Her joy is so innocent and resounding that I can’t help but be swayed by it. Even if it’s only a little, her smile brings me a sense of levity that is welcoming. When I glance at Luke, I can tell he notices the difference. And the smile I get in return tells me that I’m getting a glimpse of why he’s fallen so in love with her.
Christian takes my arm and leads me through the narrow hallways to the kitchen, then through a back-storage area to a loading dock that can’t be seen from the street. There’s a car there waiting for us, but we have to wait for Luke to clear the alley before we can step outside. It isn’t the limo our decoys left in. This car is much less conspicuous. The windows are tinted so darkly that I don’t know if you’d be able to see inside even if you pressed your face directly against the glass, and the door is so heavy when Luke pulls it back for us, that I’m sure it’s reinforced with bulletproof armor.
“You nervous, big shot?” Luke asks as Christian steps aside to let me crawl into the back seat. I catch his frown as I move past him.
“Like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Why? You know you’re going to win, right? You created perpetual motion. You’re literally going to be considered one of the fathers of modern science.”
“I know.” His response is confident, but uninterested, and Luke gives him a strange look as he climbs in after us.
While we drive through the autumn drenched streets of Stockholm, Jade points through the windows and beams with excitement back at Luke each and every time she spots something new. He stares back at her, glowing. Absolutely soaking in every ounce of her radiance.
Christian looks at me as though he’s worried I’ll start to cry.
“I’m trying,” I whisper to him, grateful Luke is currently lost in his own little world.
“I know.” His fingers untangle from mine so that he can brush them through my hair and rest gently against the side of my head. My eyes shift to his and the look of understanding and love that pours over me is like catching the very end of a rope right before you know you’re about to fall. I swallow and inch closer to him, as though immersing myself in his aura will ward off the trepidation. He leans in and presses his lips to my ear. “I don’t have any expectations, Anastasia. I’m just going to love you.”
I breathe him in as he pulls back and stares into the depths of his eyes, looking for any hint of insincerity. There’s only devotion. I haven’t seen any sign that he may be losing patience with my constant breakdowns or increasing worry that I may be slipping too far, the way that it was last time. He hasn’t buried himself in work, trying to come up with his next powerplay that will once again elevate him beyond the reach of his enemies.
In fact, he’s barely worked at all.
All GEH business is currently being conducted out of my house. Ros shows up at my door every day at the same time that Flynn does, and while I have my session with him on the sofa in the living room, Ros disappears into Christian’s office. They work until my time with Flynn is done, and the moment he leaves, so does Ros, and Christian turns his full attention back to Calliope and me.
“I love you too,” I whisper through the darkness between us. He smiles, presses his lips to mine, and kisses me with all the love I need to feel to remember I’ve got him back for good.
“Wait, where are we going?” Jade asks when the car suddenly turns down a side street and the long line of limousines filling the road leading up to the venue disappears behind us. Luke shoots a cocky look down at her.
“We’re VIPs, baby.” She rolls her eyes and shakes her head, then plops back into the seat and crosses her arms over her chest with disappointment. The back sides of the tightly packed buildings that make up the alley we turn down to get to the back entrance are much less scenic than the public street.
The car stops outside an unassuming brick wall set with an industrial looking door. There’s a woman waiting there in an impeccable black gown. She smiles as Luke pulls back the door and Christian steps out, eagerly reaching out a hand for him.
“Welcome, Mr. Grey. I’m Eva Karlsson, and on behalf of The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, let me just tell you how happy we are that you were able to attend tonight.”
“The honor is mine,” he replies as he shakes her hand. She beams and turns to me, but before her hand can wrap around mine, Luke starts impatiently pushing us towards the door.
“Okay, inside, inside, inside…” he repeats to us over and over again. Eva looks shocked and indignant as he practically shoves me past her, but Christian moves so quickly in response to his orders that she doesn’t have time to argue. In fact, Luke keeps his urgent pace as he leads us through the maze of hallways, so she doesn’t even really get the opportunity to offer Christian the welcome speech she has prepared for him before we emerge in the ballroom where the ceremony will take place this evening.
The room is enormous, filled with dozens of round tables that are set with fine china and glittering centerpieces. Though a few people have already begun trickling in from the ruckus that’s going on behind the doors on the other side of the room, it’s mostly empty, and as we’re led to our table near the stage, I glance at the entrances all around us. Taylor stands at one and Woods is already posted at the other. Both of them are checking tickets for every person who enters.
Their plan seems to have gone off without a hitch, and as I’m settled down into a seat between Christian and Luke, I start to breathe easy again.
Until I start thinking about Calliope…
“Christian!” Grace calls, hurrying across the ballroom with open arms for her son. He turns to go to her, so it’s Luke who sees the shift in me. While the rest of our family starts towards us, he reaches up to touch his earpiece.
“Harper, you there? You got eyes on the baby? Go to her.” He reaches up and peels the clear rubber out of his ear and hands it to me. I scrunch my brow together as I take it, but when I hear the small, sleepy sounds Calliope makes on the other end, I shoot him a grateful look.
“Hey, beautiful,” Kate says, coming around the table to give me a hug. “How are you?”
She glances over at Luke, who shrugs, and after taking a long breath, she leans down to kiss me on the cheek. “I’ll come take Christian’s chair when they call him up there, okay?”
“If they call him up there,” Elliot argues. “Let’s not forget there are three other people nominated, and one of them discovered a new wavelength frequency, so let’s not count our chickens, okay?”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Elliot.” Christian rolls his eyes, and Elliot chuckles before sliding into a seat next to Kate. He accepts hugs and congratulations from my father and Kim next, who both come around the table to me once they’ve passed my husband off to Mia. Ros comes next, then Welch and a few other high-ranking GEH engineers. And just as everyone starts to settle down, he turns and comes face to face with his father.
They stand there, staring at each other for a moment. Then slowly, Carrick’s face breaks into a glowing smile. “I am so fucking proud of you, son,” he says, and Christian’s lips go tight.
“Thanks, Dad.” They hug, and it lasts much longer than I’ve ever seen them embrace before. I think I see Carrick whisper something into Christian’s ear, and he nods before he pulls back and claps his father tightly on the shoulder. Grace reaches a shaky hand for her husband as he comes to sit next to her, and I feel a wave of elation when I see the profound sense of satisfaction that shines back at me behind Christian’s eyes. He takes a seat and reaches for my hands, kissing the back of my fingers before entwining our fingers and tucking them both into his lap.
Dinner is served and it gives us the chance to forget about the stakes of tonight and enjoy each other’s company. We’re served a special kind of fermented fish as an appetizer that we’re told is a Scandinavian delicacy. I have to have it moved as far away from me as possible, because the smell immediately makes me want to vomit, but that just seems to provoke Luke and Elliot. No one else will touch it, so they start piling it on their plates.
“First to puke loses,” Elliot says, glancing at my best friend. Luke raises an eyebrow.
“What does the winner get?”
“To be Master of the Universe, obviously.”
“My million-dollar prize,” Christian offers, and Elliot’s face breaks into a huge grin.
“Oh, fuck yeah.” He takes the last scoop of fish and gives Luke a taunting smile. “You ready?”
Luke nods and picks up his fork. Mia gives them a count down and once she says, “go!” they both start shoveling food into their mouths. Elliot immediately starts to gag. Luke’s like a machine.
“Oh my god, it’s so bad,” Elliot groans, struggling with everything he has not to lose what he’s managed to get down. His face is beat red, he keeps involuntarily cringing… he looks over at Luke like he’s suddenly concerned he might not be human. “What the hell, dude?”
Luke swallows the very last bite and tosses his fork on his plate. “I have to live off Jade’s cooking now, nothing phases me anymore.”
“Hey!” She slaps him across the chest and he laughs, pulling her into him and smothering her with kisses.
“Oh my god, you smell like that disgusting fish!” she says. The indignant look she tries to give him through the smile she can’t hold back makes me giggle, and Christian squeezes my hand under the table.
“More champagne?” the waiter checks as he passes by.
“Water for her, please,” Christian says, nodding to me, and Grace winks at me from across the table. I turn to look at him, for any sign of what he’s thinking, but the lights dim, and the first speaker takes the stage.
The speeches are endless. Presenters, nominees, past winners, foundation members… the ceremony drags on for hours. I spend the beginning listening to Mackensie read to Calliope, and then her soft breathing as she falls asleep. But once Luke takes his earpiece back, I lean into Christian and fight the jet lag and pregnancy hormones that make me want to sleep. I’m just about to lose that battle, when they finally call Christian’s category.
I hold my breath as they talk about all the amazing progress that has been made in the field of physics this year, and my heart starts to pound in my chest when they bring up Endurance.
“And so without further ado, please help me welcome this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in physics, Mr. Christian Grey.”
The room erupts in deafening applause and somehow, Kate’s shriek of exaltation still manages to ring around the room. I turn to Christian to find him already looking at me, a look of determination set on his face that doesn’t match the taste of victory in the air. He holds tight to my hand as he gets out of his seat, dragging me with him, then pulls me into a deep kiss that is entirely inappropriate for the venue. I can hear the vague whoops and hollers echoing through the still ringing applause, but he doesn’t let me go until Elliot reaches out and physically grabs onto him.
He pulls back and the hard lines I’d seen in his face right after they called his names have smoothed out into complete serenity. “I love you,” he says.
“I love you too.”
The carefree smile that touches his lips as he squeezes my hand and steps away from me makes my heart skip. I stay on my feet, following him with my gaze as he makes his way onto the stage. True to her word, Kate slips into Christian’s empty seat, and pulls me down with her just as he begins to speak.
“Good evening,” he begins. “And thank you to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for this incredible honor. It’s one I humbly have to share with my entire team. Frederick Welch, my head engineer. I had an idea, and his brilliance is what made it a reality. The outstanding team of scientists who led this discovery with noble hearts and unrelenting belief. The weight of their contributions is so significant, that it seems inadequate for me to be the one standing before you tonight. My contribution was mostly paying for it, and even that was made possible through the tireless efforts of my COO and dearest friend, Rosaline Bailey. GEH will become Endurance, but I am not Endurance. This team is Endurance. And because of the excellence this team represents, and the work I know that they will continue despite their already resounding success, I have found peace in the decision I’ve made about the future of the technology and the company that controls it.”
There’s a curious murmur around the room, and both Carrick and I exchange confused looks.
“I am resigning as CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings,” Christian says. “Effective immediately. Rosaline Bailey will step into my place and all future communications regarding the evolution of the Endurance project will come from her and the GEH team. I have no further comment.”
And that’s it.
He turns around and walks off the stage. The crowd devolves into an uproar as people try to figure out what just happened. Even me. Did he just… did he just give up GEH? I turn to Ros, and when she looks back at me, a single tear rolls down her cheek.
“Is this real?” I ask her, noting that she doesn’t look particularly shocked. When she nods, I scramble out of my seat and fight my way past Luke and through the throngs of people and camera flashes until I get to him. His hand closes around mine at the same time Woods grips onto my back and Taylor slides up on his other side. They push us through the chaos to the back entrance we came through, then lead us quickly through the hallways to the car that’s already waiting for us.
“Wait, what about everyone else?” I ask when he pulls open the door for me to get in.
“They’ll find their way back to the hotel.” I glance nervously back at the doors, but climb into the car and slide across the seat to make room for Christian. I can hardly even wait for the door to close behind him.
“What the hell did you just do?!”
“What I should have done years ago, but was too selfish to do.” He takes my hands in his and looks deep into my eyes. “When I finished Endurance, the moment I succeeded, I knew that I was going to get everything I ever wanted. Those deep wants, the ones that come from all that trauma in my childhood. But when I had that realization, I didn’t feel anything. There wasn’t any profound sense of relief or life-affirming accomplishment. It felt like anything else. Like completing the state project, or signing a lucrative contract. And while everyone around me celebrated like it was the greatest day of their lives, I just wanted to get home to you. The only thing that makes me feel the way I thought Endurance would make me feel… that I thought GEH would make me feel, is you. Is looking into your eyes, tasting your lips, hearing you tell me you love me… That’s what I care about. That’s the only thing I care about. I don’t choose GEH, Anastasia. I don’t choose the hell that comes along with the ambition and ruthlessness GEH brings out of me. I don’t want to be that person anymore. I choose you. I choose Calliope.” He swallows, then slowly reaches down and places a hand over my stomach. “I choose our family.”
I think my heart may have burst.
“You mean… you—you–”
“Without GEH, I can be here for you every step of the way. I can carry you through this pregnancy. I can make this safe for all three of you. I promise you, I am going to get you through this, no matter what it takes, because… I want it too.”
“I do. I really, really do.”
I let out a loud, sharp sound that’s somewhere between an exalted laugh and sentimental sob, then take his face in my hands and crash my lips to his. He kisses me back, telling me over and over again how much he loves me.
“It’s not going to be like last time, Christian,” I whisper against his lips. “I’m going to do everything Dr. Baker tells me to do. I’m going to be perfect, I swear to you.”
He pulls back and gives me a pointed look. “Can I get that in writing?”
I laugh and start shaking my head, the disbelief still hanging over me like a bad feeling you can’t shake. “What does this mean for us? Is it going to go back to the way it was before Endurance? I mean, when we thought we were going to lose everything?”
He shakes his head. “No. Ros and I have agreed to a very generous severance package and… I still own the patent on, well, almost all of GEH’s technologies. Including Endurance. We’ll be collecting royalties as long as those technologies are in use.”
“So… we’re good?”
He laughs. “Our great-great-great-great grandchildren will be good.”
There’s a turbulent storm of emotion building inside of me that’s becoming harder and harder to suppress. I push my lips together to keep them from trembling, and his eyes melt with concern.
“It’s all just hitting me. No more business trips.”
He smiles. “No more business trips.”
“No more long hours.”
“No more long hours.”
“I’ll have you. Always.”
“Always.” He scoots closer to me, and cups the sides of my face with his hands. “I told you after I finished Endurance that the only thing I wanted was to be with you. Now I will be. I’ll be a better husband. I’ll be a better father. I’ll be a better man. From this day forward, I’m giving myself to you, the way you’ve always, wholly, given yourself to me.”
The sincerity beneath his deep timber resonates in my soul in a way that brings me peace. That gives me visions of futures I’ve never seen before where we’re wrapped up in only each other, in only our children, and we’re blissfully happy about it. There aren’t dark figures lingering in the shadows. The pictures aren’t painted with a slightly ominous shade. Everything is just washed in golden light, wrapped in feelings of serenity and contentment. As I once again imagine picking up a slightly bigger Calliope and tossing her into a pile of leaves while Christian chases two little vaguely outlined children around us, my eyes well with tears.
“I can’t believe it,” I sniff, dashing the tears away. “You did it. After all this time, you really, actually did it.”
He frowns. “Did what?”
“You’ve given me the world, Christian.”
He blinks and stares back at me, a smile slowly crossing his lips as love shadows every line and curve of his face. He leans in and hovers a few precious centimeters from me, then slowly pushes his lips into mine. It’s the most meaningful kiss we’ve ever shared. So deep, so sweet, so tender… It’s the kind of kiss they write epic poems about, and it’s that kiss that leads us into our happily ever after.
Coming out of unconsciousness is like waking up still drunk after a night of heavy drinking. I can’t feel anything, except a general sense that something isn’t right. My thoughts and memories are all jumbled like individual pieces of a puzzle I can’t quite fit together. It takes a lot to peel my eyelids back and, when I do, everything is out of focus. I have to blink several times before the dark, ambiguous shape next to my bed turns into Christian.
He’s holding my hand. My wedding ring is missing so his thumb moves gently over the letters tattooed into my skin. There’s a profound kind of misery on his face that makes him look so much older than he really is.
It takes a moment for me to remember why he looks that way. Why there are tubes stuck in my arm and a monitor loudly keeping count of each one of my heart beats. Why there’s a new, powerful urge brewing deep inside of me to grab onto him and never let him go.
His face is bruised, but not as swollen as I remember from when I last saw him. He’s dressed in dark green scrubs that match the sterile, slightly ammonic scent clinging to the air. They hang limply off him while he hunches over my bedside like a war-shocked veteran who has finally come home after a long winter.
But he’s here.
He’s touching me…
The monitor next to me starts beeping more rapidly, and it catches Christian’s attention. Anxious eyes dart up and watch the green line draw peaks and valleys across the screen, then shift to me. The moment he knows I’m awake, there’s a visible change in him. A powerful relief that erases the new, unkind years the deep lines of worry have etched into his face.
“Hey,” he breathes, moving closer and enclosing my entire hand in his. I squeeze back and a slightly manic smile moves across his lips. “How do you feel?”
I swallow, realizing for the first time how dry my mouth is, and how much it tastes like blood and medicine. It’s painful when I try to talk, like a blistering hot breeze moving over an open wound. Then, as I start to rearrange my thoughts into something coherent, gunshots ring through my memory and the scene that put me here catches up to me. That’s when the first real wave of fear is able to break through the anesthesia fog.
“Did I…” The words I’m able to wheeze out lose their strength halfway through, and I have to start over. “Did I lose them?”
Christian’s face goes blank and his eyes shift down to my stomach. He blinks like he isn’t sure how to answer, and my heart starts thundering in my chest. The chaos plays through the heart monitor, and urges him to speak.
“No. You didn’t lose them. You’re okay. They’re okay. They’re, uh… fighters.” He looks away from me as though he’s done something wrong. The torment that faded from his face the moment his eyes met mine returns. The lingering despair that drove us into the impasse I’d thought could never be bridged is heavy in his voice, and it makes me feel an echo of the horrifying pain I’d endured through those hours he was missing all over again.
And even just that shadow of hurt, is enough to send a fissure through my heart over the broken man sitting beside me, and the still thrumming heartbeats of our children encased inside of me. Tears well in my eyes and, even heavy with the last of the drugs, my body begins to shake.
“Christian… I’m so sorry.”
His eyebrows pull together, etching a deep, angry crease in his forehead. His eyes blaze with accusation. “What did you just say to me?”
“I’m sorry. I never should have let you leave. I should have begged you to come home the moment I knew you left. I should have never ran… We could have talked about this, we could have worked through this together the same way we’ve worked through everything else. But I… I was scared, and I was angry, and I… I forgot that you weren’t my enemy. I broke us. This is all my fault.”
“No.” He sits up straighter and a resentful kind of outrage settles into every one of his features. “This is not your fault. I took this where it went, even when I knew how you would react. I tried to force you into a choice I knew you would never make. I put you in an impossible position, and so I forced us apart. I made us vulnerable. It was my technology these people wanted destroyed. They were coming after me.” He pauses, swallowing his next words before he can say them out loud, as if he doesn’t like the way they taste. “Just like Elena came for me. Just like Leila came for me. Just like Lincoln came for me… It’s always me, except I’m never the one that has to deal with the consequences.”
He turns a pained look on me that makes my heart shatter just a little further.
He silences me with an exasperated shake of his head. “Don’t. Don’t try to excuse my part in this. I’ve heard you try so many times now that it’s starting to sound like I’m gaslighting you.”
“That’s not true.”
“It is though.” He takes another deep breath and squeezes my hands again. The pain in his eyes grows deeper as he mulls through his next confession, and while I watch him prepare his speech, I’m almost worried that I’m not prepared to hear it.
“Ana… I don’t know what to do. I’m so fucking lost that I don’t even know which way to turn anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
He takes a heavy breath. The confidence that he normally wears like a second skin has completely vanished and he looks broken down and utterly bereft in its absence.
“You are absolutely everything good in my life. You are sunshine first thing in the morning, and serenity when I close my eyes to go to sleep at night. The warmth of your body when you wrap around me is like some kind of magic that makes all of the bullshit and pain and anger I’ve been holding onto my entire life disappear… You are the parts inside of me that stop me from turning into a monster, and I cannot survive without you. But everything, everything is trying to take you from me. All the time. Over and over again. And everytime I try to stop it, it just gets worse.”
“No, just let me…” He pauses and rubs my hand between his, pulling it up to his lips so he can kiss my fingers while he gathers himself enough to continue. “I’ve spent my entire life in therapy talking about what I went through as a kid, but the truth of it is that I don’t remember hardly any of it. The only thing I remember with any kind of clarity is the fear. I can still feel it. It comes out of nowhere sometimes, and it turns everything around me into a threat, every person into an adversary. I have to be smarter. Stronger. Faster. More powerful.”
He stumbles over the last word, then scoffs and hangs his head with disgust. “That’s the only way I win. That’s the only way I can protect myself. To stop myself from ever feeling that fear again. Everything I’ve ever done has been about getting more power and having more control over the people around me. I got into BDSM with Elena, because I was drawn to the power play. I dreamed up GEH because I wanted the power that came with being the CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation. I pursued Endurance because I knew the power it would offer me once it was mine. I have lied, cheated, and nearly lost everything and everyone I’ve ever cared about for that power, and the only thing it’s ever done is threaten you. And now I live with that fear. The fear that I’m going to lose you. That I’m going to watch something horrible happen to you. That you’ll be bleeding in my arms. That you’re going to end up in a hospital bed, clinging to life, beyond my power to save you, and the only thing I’ll be able to do is sit here and burn while I feel you slip away.” He looks up at the monitor again, his words painting a perfect picture of the room we’re in now. His fears realized. “This is worse than the fear I’ve been avoiding my whole life ever was, and it’s because of me. It’s because of the choices that I’ve made. That I keep making. Your dreams, your children, your life… it’s all constantly under threat. Because of me. You’re here because of me.”
“This isn’t your fault…”
“Yes it is.” He spits the words through clenched teeth. “They wanted Endurance, which I only started because I was trying to fix how I’d fucked up with Lincoln, and Lincoln only happened because of how I fucked up with Elena over and over again.” He pauses, shaking with anger. “It always comes back to that lie. To that one mistake that I have been running from for four fucking years. Every. Single. Time.”
Another tear chases its predecessor down my cheek. I take a shaky breath as I try to come up with something to say, anything to wipe away the self-loathing so clear in his eyes, but words fail me. He nods, as though my reticence is an affirmation of his own thoughts.
“It’s just going to keep escalating, unless something changes. Something has to change.”
“What do you mean?”
He presses his lips together. “I have to stop running.”
I don’t like the defeat in his voice, or the implication of what it may mean. A thousand different scenarios run through my mind of what he could be about to do next, each more devastating than the last. When I finally get him to look up at me again, I plead with him through the tears in my eyes.
“You’re not a bad person, Christian.”
“I don’t know if that’s true…”
“They don’t give the Nobel Prize to bad people.”
His brow wrinkles with confusion. “What?”
I take a deep breath, hoping I have enough strength to make it through the explanation. “The day you went missing, they announced that you’d been nominated for a Nobel Prize. You’re going to win. Because you made the whole world a better place.”
He scrunches his brow together as he loses himself in thought, then falls back in his chair, looking slightly dazed. I squeeze his hand.
“You’re not a bad person, you just seem to attract the attention of the people who are.”
He sits in silence for a moment, mulling over what I’ve said. Then he leans into me again and takes my hand. “Then that’s what has to change.”
I find out from the doctor later that afternoon that the surgery I’d undergone to repair the damage the bullet had done to my lungs had been successful, and it had been Luke’s quick thinking with the plastic he’d used to seal my wound that had saved my life. Unfortunately, the hospital I’d been taken to is on a military base that is so high security clearance, Christian was only allowed to come because of the deal he’d made for Endurance. Luke wasn’t. I have no way to thank him, and I’m stuck in my hospital bed for two days before I recover enough to travel home.
Those two days are dark.
The first time I’m able to fall asleep without drugs, the nightmares come back. I wake up screaming, trying to fight Christian off of me in the darkness until I realize he isn’t Lincoln… as if nothing had changed from last fall at all. It takes him a long time to get me calmed down enough to crawl into my hospital bed with me and wrap me in his arms. Once he does, I cry until they sedate me again.
I spend the next day in a panic over Calliope. I can feel with the same absolute certainty that I used to throughout all of the long dark months last winter that something’s going to happen to her. Someone’s going to take her, someone will try to rob us and she’ll get hurt in the fray, someone is going to burn the house down… I don’t know. I just know that she isn’t safe if she isn’t with us, and it doesn’t matter how many times Christian tells me that she’s with our whole family and our entire security team, I can’t believe him until I see her with my own eyes. Until I have her back in my arms. Christian does everything he can to get me a phone call back home so that I can hear Kate tell me that she’s fine, but he doesn’t have the kind of power on the base that he does in the civilian world. So, I spend the entire day riddled with fear, and that night, I scream again.
When I’m finally discharged, the doctor gives Christian a referral for a psychiatric hospital back in Seattle.
It’s nighttime when our plane lands at SeaTac, exactly one week after I’d left. There’s an ominous energy hanging in the air that I can feel as clearly as the drops of rain that speckle my hair as we deboard. The feeling grows more pronounced and harder to hide as I struggle through the door of the waiting SUV that Taylor holds open. Christian has to help me climb in since my arm is immobilized, and my injuries make almost all movement painful, but it isn’t the piercing pain in my chest that has my heart racing when we pull through off the tarmac and through a crowd of waiting photographers.
It’s the memory of that video on Luke’s phone. The paparazzi who led Nigel right to Christian when he was most vulnerable.
By the time the skyline of Seattle appears around the scenic curves of the I-5, and I catch a glimpse of the glow from the roof of Escala, a tightness that seems to grab hold of my chest and squeeze like a boa constrictor begins to suffocate me. I grip the seat beneath me until my knuckles go white.
Christian reaches over and breaks my hold from the leather and entwines his fingers with mine. His lips press into my cheek, halting the tear carving its way down to my chin, then he rests his forehead against the side of my face.
“It’s okay if you’re going to fall apart, Ana. I’ll put you back together again. Whatever you need now is okay.” I nod and reach for his hand, gripping it so tightly it’s like I’m worried he’ll disappear again. He winces slightly when my nails dig into him, but he never pulls away. He only ever pulls me closer. And as long as I’m wrapped in his warmth, I can hold it together.
Until we get home.
We pull through our gates and find our driveway packed full of cars. Kate and Elliot, My Dad and Kim, Grace and Carrick, Luke and Jade… Everyone we know is here, and there’s an expectation to that that I’m not sure I’m ready for.
Taylor climbs out of the SUV once we’ve stopped in the garage and comes around to open my door for me. I can’t move. I’m too busy shaking. Too busy listening to the pale echo of Lincoln’s cold, threatening voice ringing distantly in my ears. A reminder I now know I can’t let myself ignore…
I gasp and Christian wraps his arms around me.
“I’m okay.” I push him away and start to shake out my hands, trying anything to relieve enough of the anxiety for me to take control of my own body again. “I’m going to be okay, I just need a second. I don’t want Calliope to see me like this.”
“Okay.” He lets me sit there and fall apart for a few more seconds, but when it becomes clear that the deep breaths I take over and over again are causing me to hyperventilate more than calm down, he tilts my face to his and slowly presses his lips to mine.
It’s like a pebble being dropped into a placid pool, breaking the tension and sending ripples of reassurance through me. It’s something to hold onto, so I dig in and kiss him back until the tears stop, my breathing returns to normal, and my heart falls into a more normal cadence.
“Better?” he asks, wiping the tears from my eyes. I nod and take one last deep breath before I turn to Taylor.
“I want Escala put up for sale, and I want to take the very first offer we receive, no matter what it is. Can you arrange that?”
Taylor’s eyes shift nervously over my shoulder to Christian, lingering there while they silently communicate with one another, then he nods.
“Yes, Mrs. Grey. I’ll be in touch with your realtor first thing tomorrow morning.”
“Good. Thank you.” He reaches out and I slide the hand not tied up in a sling into his so that he can help me from the car. The door closes behind me and Christian wraps an arm around my waist as he leads me inside. I take one last moment to try and center myself, then follow him through the door.
The house is filled with the alluring scent of food. Familiar voices float through the kitchen towards us. It’s warm, and the wash of light that comes from the fixtures on the wall in the laundry room is the perfect shade of home.
But the chime on the security alarm still makes me jump.
Christian’s hand tightens for a moment on my hip, a quick squeeze of support before he pulls me toward the voices coming from our living room. We emerge through the kitchen to find everyone waiting for us, but my eyes search specifically for Calliope. She’s in Jade’s lap, who is sitting on the floor at Luke’s feet.
“Ana?” Grace leaps up from the sofa, looking half-mad with worry. Everyone else turns to me and each and every one of their faces reflects some varying degree of Grace’s concern.
Christian leans into me and whispers, “Whatever you need is okay.”
I feel my insides tighten, but I manage to keep my voice from shaking.
“I’m okay,” I say as much to Christian as I do to everyone else. The moisture from the unshed tears in Grace’s eyes continues to glimmer. Mia’s eyes are as wide as saucers, and she’s sitting so still she might be holding her breath. Kim reaches into my father’s lap and grabs his hand.
“What about the twins?” Carrick is the one brave enough to speak, but only enough to force the answer for the question that no one else wants to ask. His eyes move to my stomach, and Christian goes stiff next to me.
“They’re fine,” he says. “She protected them.” His mother crumples to her knees. She takes several life affirming breaths, then folds her hands over the ottoman and begins to pray. Kate devolves into tears that Elliot has to absorb into his t-shirt. Calliope looks between the two of them uncertainly, then turns to me. Her bottom lip begins to tremble, and her face goes flushed just before she lets out a miserable wail.
For the first time since we left the hospital, I move out of Christian’s reach and start towards Calliope. Her tiny hands are already reaching for me, but when I try to scoop her up, I scream in pain and nearly drop her. She wails harder, so Christian hurries to take her in his arms.
“No heavy lifting,” he reminds me, reaching out and gently stroking the shoulder that’s currently supported by the sling. I feel a deep longing bloom in my chest that starts to ache until he turns, and holds Calliope up to me. I reach up and run a finger through her soft curls and feel an enormous sense of relief… and then overpowering, irrational fear that makes me feel like I’m actually going a little insane.
The cold voice taunts me from the back of my mind again. I shiver, and think through every square foot of space between me and our bedroom upstairs… But I can’t lift her. I can’t carry her. So, I can’t run.
“Are you hungry?” Grace asks. “We were just about to sit down to dinner.”
“Yeah, I’ve made a lasagna,” Gail adds from the kitchen. Christian turns hopeful eyes on me.
“Can’t say no to that…”
I take a deep breath, then glance nervously at Calliope and the tears swimming in her eyes. I’m absolutely overwhelmed with the compulsion to have her in my arms. To take both her and Christian somewhere secure, where I know that no one can get to either one of them, so that it’ll be safe for me to fall apart. And it’s not the same kind of compulsion an alcoholic feels when they’ve reached their lowest low and haven’t had a drink. It’s like needing to breathe. Each pair of eyes pleading with me to stay is like a hand choking me.
“Dinner will make you feel better, sweetheart,” my dad says, then the concern on his face becomes a plea. “Please?”
I swallow as I glance around the room again, then nod in defeat. Calliope screams when Christian tries to hand her off, so it’s my dad who wraps a protective arm around me and leads me to the dining room. He helps me settle down in a chair with the same care Christian uses to secure Calliope into her highchair. Then he kisses me on the crown of my hair and tells me that he loves me. I can hear the intent behind the words he’s given me a million times. Like he’s still feeling the aftershocks of grief and feels as though he can’t waste another second not expressing the way he feels to the people he loves. It’s a compulsion I remember well, so I know it’s born from the hope of a second chance.
I don’t have that hope anymore.
There’s no such thing as a clean slate. No starting over. I know that now, so my father’s gesture makes me nervous. Like maybe he knows someone else is coming, but I’m the only one taking seriously how bad it will be next time…
Christian sits next to me while my dad moves around the table to take the empty seat next to Kim. His hand slides into mine and his lips move to my ear.
“If it’s too much, just squeeze my hand and I’ll ask everyone to leave. Whatever you need is okay.”
The warmth in his voice might have been enough to break through the unease surrounding me like a forcefield, but I don’t actually hear a word of what he says. I’m distracted by Luke, who’s watching Gail dishing plates of lasagna on the serving bar behind the table. I can’t tell if he’s staring at the food, or the way Gail is dishing it out, but the amount of attention he gives her while everyone else skirts around the questions they’re dying to ask is… unsettling.
I turn to look at Gail just as she begins to serve.
“What happened when they took you out of Escala?” Carrick asks Christian. I watch Gail set a plate down in front of him. She serves Grace while Christian starts to speak. He squeezes my hand periodically while he recounts his story, checking on me. I hardly hear him. I watch Gail serve Kate, Elliot, Mia, Jade, Luke, my father, Kim… she picks up the last two plates at the same time, glancing at each of them for just half a second, before moving to the table and very carefully setting a plate down in front of, first me, then Christian.
Except… she didn’t just place the plate in her right hand in front of me, which would be the obvious choice because I’m on her right side. Instead she turns her whole body to give me the plate on her left. And when she turns again to serve Christian, she says, “enjoy.” Like she’s taunting him to eat it…
“Me some, Daddy,” Calliope cries, stretching her fingers out for the food in front of Christian.
“No, no, Callie,” Gail coos to her. “I have a special plate for you, right here.” She sets a small serving on Calliope’s tray and leans over to kiss her on the cheek. “This one is just for babies.”
She doesn’t want Calliope to eat Christian’s food.
I turn to look at my husband, fork in hand, suspended over his food while he finishes his story. The words I haven’t heard a word of pause, and he dips the metal prongs into his lasagna.
My one good arm flies out and knocks his entire plate across the table, sending it tumbling over the other side between Grace and Mia, and crashing to the floor.
Christian hovers in shock for a moment, then turns to me. I leap to my feet and glare at our housekeeper.
“Why did you serve that to him?” I demand. Her eyes go wide, her mouth drops open. She sputters, unsure of how to respond to the anger in my voice.
“She’s doing her job, baby…” Christian tells me, but I still don’t look at him.
“Why did you stop Calliope from sharing his food?”
Gail starts shaking, clearly on the edge of tears. “The s-s-sausage is too spicy for her. The one I made for her is vegetarian…”
I don’t buy it. “Who the fuck have you been talking to?”
“Ana…” Christian stands up and places a hand on each of my arms. He’s trying to hide a deep sense of alarm behind a look of compassion. No one else around the table does. My father’s lips are thin with anxiety. Kate has a hand over her mouth, which I guess by the tears welling in her eyes is to hide the tremble of her lip. Luke looks angry and he stares into space, shaking his head.
Everywhere I look, I see varying degrees of shock or pain or humiliation. When Kim gets up to help Gail clean the mess I made, I start to feel the atmosphere around me a little differently. I replay everything I watched Gail do in my mind, but this time I can’t tell if she was acting weird or just being careful… My family seems to think I’m overreacting, but I can’t tell anymore if that’s true or not. Did she even do anything different than she normally does?
My face flushes with embarrassment as I force myself to take a step back and see just how crazy I’m acting, but there’s still a very powerful instinct in my gut that’s telling me I’m right. It also tells me that Jade is a threat. That Kim is a threat. That Mia’s probably hiding something from us that’s going to put everyone in danger, and I’m going to be the one who has to stop it.. I want to be rational and recognize these thoughts as paranoid and part of my trauma, just like Flynn taught me to do last time… but the conflict is confusing and it tugs harshly at the ends of my already unravelling stability. It’s a fight I can’t wage with everyone staring at me.
Without a look back, I move single-mindedly from the room, up the stairs, and to my bedroom. With the exact same careful precision that became routine a year ago, I lock the door and back away with my hands held protectively in front of me. The windows are my next concern. I find myself trying to calculate the distance between the ground and the balcony, then what it would take to scale it. I check the locks on the window frame to make sure they’re secure… but that wouldn’t stop them from being broken.
An image of the glass shattering and my security team swinging into the room where Christian was being held like seal-team-six sweeps through my mind, and I feel my hackles raise up. Could they do that here? Would they know what room was ours? What room is Calliope’s?
Somewhere in the distance, Lincoln’s voice calls to me.
I’m about to have a panic attack. I can feel it coming. It’s difficult to breathe, it’s impossible to think. I can feel the strength of my thundering heart pounding against my throat. My eyes move around the room searching for more vulnerabilities, for shadowy figures hiding in wait. The paranoia spirals out of control until I finally just collapse on the floor and start to cry.
Christian is the first to come for me and it’s exactly the way it was a year ago. He stands outside the locked door and knocks, gently trying to coax me into letting him in. I want to, desperately. I want to beg him to bring Calliope with him inside, and never leave. But I’m paralyzed. I can’t move, I can’t stop my body from shaking so violently that it feels as though it might disrupt the rhythm of my heart. All I can do is sob, and scream when it becomes too much to contain.
My dad comes next. Then Kate.
I can’t move.
Somewhere around nine, Flynn knocks on the door and, when I don’t open it, he spends nearly an hour trying to talk to me through the barrier. I can’t even hear him over my own crying. After he goes, I have about ten minutes to myself before someone starts pounding on the door again.
“God damn it, Anastasia. Open the motherfucking door!” The commanding tone beneath the order is familiar, but it doesn’t match the voice. It isn’t Christian banging furiously against the door, it’s Luke. “I swear to god, Ana. Grey won’t take the door down, but I will. Open the fucking door.”
For the first time in hours, I’m able to drag myself up off the floor and shamble towards the volley of fists. I carefully twist the lock, and when I pull open the door, Luke actually looks a little shocked.
I blink at him through tear-saturated eyelashes.
He takes a deep breath and marches past me. I close the door while he starts to pace, hand on his hips, like he’s still rehearsing whatever speech he’s about to give.
“What?” I prompt him in a whisper. He looks at me like I’m crazy.
“What? Fucking what?! Anastasia, I am so fucking mad at you, I can’t even see straight.”
“You’re mad at me?”
“Of course I’m fucking mad! This is what I was trying to prevent! You weren’t supposed to be there. You were supposed to be in a van half-a-mile away. You know where you can’t get shot? In a FUCKING VAN HALF-A-MILE AWAY!” He takes another deep breath, but it doesn’t do much to calm him down. “The only reason I let you be in that van in the first place is because you fucking promised you would do as you were told, and you lied to me.”
“They were coming for my dad, Luke!”
“YOU JUMPED IN FRONT OF A GUN, ANA!”
“That was aimed at my husband!”
“I DON’T CARE! I DON’T FUCKING CARE!” His hands ball into fists. “You first! That’s not just Grey’s rule! I dove for him because you were supposed to be safe! You were out of the way and you… you… you made me fail! AGAIN!”
He’s really mad. The rage roiling off him coats me like hot tar and as I feel the sharp bite of his words snake around me like barbed wire, I start to tremble, then full on shake. I’m holding my breath, but once I can’t anymore it comes out in a horrible, painful gasp that hits him so starkly, he looks as though I’ve just slapped him across the face. My shoulders hunch, my body curls in on itself, and I start to cry again.
“Ana… no. I’m sorry…”
“No, you’re not.” He wraps me in his arms, careful not to put too much pressure on my shoulder. I try to push him away, but he holds me tight to him.
“He didn’t call home for three days, Ana. The last time I saw you, they were intubating you. I thought you might… and then he didn’t call for three days. I’m not strong enough for stuff like that. And it only happened because you stepped in front of a fucking gun!”
“Yeah, well… apology not accepted. You’re going to have a hell of a time making this one up to me, Steele.” I let out another shaky breath and his hand moves into my hair, holding my face to his chest so that I can listen to his heartbeat. “He’s not the only one who would lose you, you know. What would I do without you, Ana? ”
I swallow against the constriction in my throat and pull away from him so that I can look into the sky blue depths of his eyes. “You saved my life.”
He scrunches his brow together in a questioning crease.
“The doctor said that the plastic taped over the exit wound let me breathe long enough to keep me alive. Christian told me you kept my heart beating the whole way back and they had to pull you off me once they got me on the plane so they could take off. You saved my life, and you saved my babies.”
His lips go tight again, though this time it seems more like it might be because he’s trying not to cry now. He nods once, then hugs me again.
“Don’t ever fucking do that to me again.”
If only it were that easy.
Without the accusation in Luke’s eyes to fend off, dread starts to seep back into all the empty places inside of me. I go stiff, and Luke notices.
“What happened to them?”
“To Nigel, and his… people?” It seems like too generous a word. Luke’s eyes turn two shades darker.
“Wyatt shot Nigel right after you got hit, he’s dead. The others were taken into custody and are being held under the full authority of the US government. They’re going to rot in federal prison.”
“But there will be others.”
“We don’t know that…”
“I do. Carmen said something about the Saudi’s coming for Christian months ago, and they weren’t the only ones. Oil executives, energy Titans… Scott Wallace. Bill Fitchett. Even her… there will be others. Tell me I’m wrong.”
Luke stares back at me like he doesn’t want to answer. I nod as though he did. “So what are we going to do about it?”
He narrows his eyes cautiously. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, how are you and I going to stop them before they get another shot at Christian?”
He shakes his head. “You’re scared, I get that. But that didn’t change anything last time. It made everything worse, remember? You didn’t like who it turned you into…”
“I don’t care! They could come for Calliope next. Or…” My hands drop to my stomach, and his eyes follow the movement. He frowns.
“I can’t, Ana. I can’t be the one to put you in those situations again, especially not while you’re pregnant.”
“You were the one who said we weren’t wrong last time.”
“That’s not what I meant…”
“I let them talk me out of it, Luke. I let them convince me that it was safe, and this is what happened because I let my guard down. I can’t do that, because we aren’t safe. You were right. You were right when you said that Christian attracts a lot of attention, and makes a lot of enemies. That’s part of our life, and I’m not going to sit around and let it make me a victim anymore. I can’t keep going through this…”
“I want to know who is going to be financially affected by Endurance, and I want them all on our radar. Will you do that for me? Or do I need to find someone else?”
Luke shifts uncomfortably, unwilling to answer. He’s saved in the end by Christian, who calls my name from the now open bedroom door.
I turn to him and try not to feel the pain I see in his eyes. He just stares at me for a long minute, then turns to Luke.
“Will you leave us, please?”
Luke nods, and disappears behind him without another word. Christian turns to me.
“I’m not trying to hide it from you,” I say, defensively. He nods, then closes the door and moves to stand in front of me. I can feel the pull toward him when he stops, so close he’s only just not pressed against me. I can feel the warmth radiating off him like the glow of a fire that promises to ward off my demons, and automatically, I push myself into it.
He twists his arms around me. “I’m trying to make a decision.”
“About whether or not to have me committed?”
“No.” He takes a step back and when his hands move in front of me again, I see that he’s holding a stack of papers. He holds them up for me, and I realize, it’s my manuscript.
The one I wrote about him.
“Why do you have this?”
“I found it when I was looking for Phoenix,” he admits. “And I read it when Calliope got sick.”
“You read it?”
“Mmm.” He nods. “I thought it was beautiful. It made me feel things I had forgotten, parts of the ways I love you that have been eclipsed by others. Parts that I’ve had to repress because they’re too closely entwined with memories that are painful. Except that, the way you wrote it… none of it was painful anymore. It just made me realize how much I have loved every moment that you and I have ever shared together. How much it really means to me. How much it changed me, how much it makes me want to change more… How much more important everything in this book is to me than the things I’ve put them aside for. I’ve been waiting forever to tell you how much I love it. How much it meant to me to read the words from you… but you never bring it up.”
“I called Lydia, and she told me that she’s been asking for it for almost a year, but you said it wasn’t finished. You just told her that a few weeks ago.” He holds it up again. “But it’s been more than a month since I’ve read it.”
“Look at me.” He tilts my chin up so that my blue eyes meet his steely ones. “Tell me why.”
I open my mouth, but he places a finger against my lips before I can speak.
“Don’t try to spare my feelings, I want to know the truth.”
I stare back at him, at the expectation reflected back at me, like he already knows the answer— which is impossible, because I haven’t even been able to verbalize it to myself. But if he knows, then there’s no point in trying to hide it from him. Or from myself.
“My mother was killed while I was on my last book tour,” I tell him. “Hyde attacked me in my dressing room while I was doing interviews. We were out of the apartment the night Lincoln came because I was doing a reading…” I glance up at him, feeling a wash of shame. “I don’t feel particularly safe having my schedule made public, or being pushed into the spotlight at all, really. I don’t want to be seen the way I thought I did when I wrote Escape, or even… when I started writing this.”
His face crinkles with pain. “Which is also why you don’t want Calliope on PixC.”
I nod and his eyes move down to the manuscript in his hands. “This is your dream, Anastasia.”
“No, not in the way you think it is.” He raises an eyebrow at me. I move back into the aura of his heat. “My dream isn’t this manuscript, it’s what’s inside of it. That’s the only thing I care about, and that manuscript, the notoriety that comes with it, puts what I do care about in danger.”
“Is that why you went back to publishing? So you could be part of the creative process without being the one in the spotlight?”
I shrug. I hadn’t had that conscious thought before, but it sort of rings true. He nods to himself again, then looks up at me. This time though, the deep-rooted conflict on his face seems to have resolved. He opens the paper book in his hands, skimming until he finds the passage he’s looking for, then he starts to read aloud.
“When I moved into his side, and felt his arm wrap around me, everything else disappeared. There was nothing but him, me, and the vast ocean of stars illuminating the ink blot sky overhead. And in that nothing… there was happiness.”
He looks up.
“You’re happiness to me too, Anastasia. All that could ever exist.” My lip begins to tremble as tears creep to the surface again, and he stops it with a deep, sensual kiss. One that seems to spread like a drug down my throat and through my blood. He melds his mouth to mine and wraps me in the safety of his arms. His scent fills my head and makes the horrible images playing on a loop through my memory seem duller, more distant… less threatening.
When I stop shaking, his lips break away and he rests his forehead on mine.