The Parents: Anastasia

“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.”

“Smart woman.”

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.”

“My kids?”

“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.”

“Even Calliope?”

“Yep.”

“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.

Great.

“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.”

“Allegati-?”

“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.

“Talk.”

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.”

“What?”

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.”

“My phone?!”

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.”

“What?”

“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.”

“Really?”

“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?”

“Uh… no?”

“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?”

“Not really.”

“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?”

“Maybe.”

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.”

“Nowhere.”

“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. 

“What happened?” 

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.” 

Oh no

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?” 

“No.”

“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?” 

“And… he felt me up a little bit.” 

And?” 

“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.” 

“Did you?” 

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.”

She sniffs.

“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.

“Thanks, Mom.” 

“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. 

Maybe. 

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 like?”

“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.” 

“Dad, no…” 

“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.” 

A/N: This was originally supposed to be 4 parts, but it felt incomplete without Christian’s POV, so I’m going to add one more chapter. However, I’m just about to get on a plane for Indianapolis, so I’m not going to be able to write and post that chapter until next week. See you then, and #GoHawks.

Theodore Raymond

 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.

But…

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?”

“How?”

“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?”

“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.

Oh no.

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.

Fuck. Busted.

“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.

Lucky bastard.

“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.

Fuck.

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?

Next Chapter

Calliope Katherine

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?” 

“Yes?” 

“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.

He doesn’t. 

“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. 

“What?” 

“You told your mother that you went to Elizabeth’s house for SAT prep after school yesterday, right?” 

Shit.

“Yeah,” I lie with an incredibly unearned sense of self-confidence. 

“And you were at her house?” 

“Mhm.”

“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.” 

“Really?”

“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?” 

Babygirl

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. 

Next Chapter

Lucas Elliot

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. 

Like her. 

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.

“You’re late.” 

“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’m sorry.” 

“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.

“Yeah, okay.” 

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.

“Luke?” 

“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.

“Wait…” 

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?” 

“Right.” 

“Well, was she… your first?” 

“Love? Absolutely.” 

“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?” 

“Fifteen.” 

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. 

“No.”

“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. 

“Well, um…”

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?”

“No.”

“Then who?” 

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?” 

“Who?”

“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.”

“Okay. Thanks, Dad.” 

“Anytime, son.”

Next Chapter

Christian POV: The Birth of the Twins

“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?” 

“Yes.” 

“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.” 

“You’re sure?” 

“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?” 

“Yes, sir.” 

“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?” 

“It yummy.” 

“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. 

“No, Daddy!” 

“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. 

“Thanks, Mom.” 

“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. 

Artichokes. 

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?” 

“Ready.” 

“Which one of you said ‘I love you’ first?” 

“Me.” 

“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. 

“No…” 

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. 

“What’s wrong?” 

“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. 

“What’s wrong?” 

“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.” 

“Really?”

“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. 

“What?” 

“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. 

“Ana, stop…” 

“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.” 

“What?” 

“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. 

“Mr. Grey.” 

“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?” 

“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. 

“Christian…” 

“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. 

My son. 

“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.

“Thank you, Anastasia.” 

Chapter 53: Epilogue

Christian’s PoV:

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?” 

“Of course.” 

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.” 

“Okay.”

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?” 

“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.” 

Chapter 52

“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.

“Daddy!”

“Ana, give her to me.”

“No!”

“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 me for 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.

“Ana?”

“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. 

“Come, love.”

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?”

“I’m alright.”

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.

“Bro…”

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.”

“You do?”

“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.

“What’s wrong?”

“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.

The End.

Epilogue

Chapter 51

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 alive.

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.

“Christian…”

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.” 

“Christian…” 

“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.

“Ana…”

“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.

“Anaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.”

 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?”

“No one!”

“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.

“Come in.”

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!

“I’m sorry.”

“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’s wrong?”

“What happened to them?”

“Who?”

“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…”

“Ana…”

“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.”

“Oh.”

“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.”

“Yeah, well…”

“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.

“I choose you.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 50

“God damn it, Anastasia!” Luke hisses angrily through my earpiece. “What part about ‘stay where you fucking are’ don’t you understand?”

The gates in front of me groan open, but I don’t make any moves to drive forward. I sit with my eyes darting back and forth, straining my ears through the earpiece for any indication that the distraction has worked.

“Daddy?” I whisper.

“I’ve got eyes on him,” Woods replies. “They haven’t seen him yet, but they’re getting closer.” There’s a faint clicking noise that sounds like the hammer being pulled back on a gun. “I’ve got the guy on your right, Ray. You go left.”

I take a deep breath, watching several shadowy figures emerge from the house and start moving toward me. My heart is thundering in my chest, and every inch of my skin is covered in terrified goosebumps.

“Wait,” Woods whispers. “They’re turning around. They’re heading back toward the gate.”

“My guy too,” Harper says. “He got a radio call, they’re all headed towards Mrs. Grey.”

Thank god.

Two of the figures coming up the drive step into the wash of light from my headlights, and a different kind of fear grips my chest. My hands are trembling, so I pull them from the steering wheel and tuck them beneath my legs, doing my best to turn a fully confident front on the man who approaches my open window.

“Good evening, Mrs. Grey,” he sneers, and the passenger door opens. A hand reaches across the empty space and yanks me out of the drivers seat. The pressure puts too much stress on my shoulder and I let out a pain filled whine as I leave my seat. My legs get tangled between the seat and the man who quickly slides into the car to replace me, knocking my knees together hard enough that they still sting when I’m finally set upright in a stranger’s lap in the passenger’s seat.

“They’ve got her,” Smith says.

“Not for fucking long,” Luke replies, and the way he says it sounds almost like a personal slight. I can hear him moving quickly through the property. Some kind of foliage rustles around him, there’s a crunch of gravel beneath his feet.

“Sawyer, you’ve got company,” Wyatt warns him, but Luke’s response is almost gleeful. As the van starts to pull forward through the gate, I listen to the scuffle he has with whoever caught him. There aren’t any gunshots or any calls for help. The only thing I hear are muffled sounds of struggle, until Luke finally whispers, “I’m at the house.”

“Annie, listen to me,” my dad says urgently. “We are coming for you, but you are going to need to buy us a little time. Do not struggle, do every single thing they tell you to do. Just keep them talking, okay?”

I can’t answer, so I take another deep breath and let it out in a long, loud sigh that I hope he knows means I heard him. I don’t get any confirmation, only a volley of hushed orders and quiet grunting.

The van pulls into an empty garage and the rumble of the door as it closes behind us sounds more ominous than I’m prepared for. It makes every part of me tremble. I’m keenly aware that they’re going to try to use me against Christian, and everything that implies makes my heart hammer against my ribcage.

They can’t find out I’m pregnant.

I press my eyes closed as tightly as I can, fight the instinct to cradle my stomach, and remind myself that they’re going to bring me to him. Once I have him, my team will get us out. I just need to have a clear head and keep my courage until then.

“She’s inside,” Woods says. “Let’s move.”

“I’m already in the house,” Luke says, though he says it so softly, it’s almost impossible to distinguish the words.

The door that leads from the garage into the house opens, and a man hurries through it. He looks at the van with a giddy kind of excitement that looks too childish for the menacing atmosphere around him. When I’m pulled from the car and he gets his first real look at me, that excitement transforms into unbridled joy.

He looks up, holding his hands together as if in prayer, and whispers, “Thank you.”

Someone behind me calls something in Arabic, which the man in front of me responds to. I glance between them, trying to understand what was said, but Harper answers for me.

“They’re searching the van. They’re trying to figure out if she’s alone.”

There are more foreign words exchanged which Harper tells us is a consensus that I came on my own, and an order to sweep the van for any tracking or listening devices. The entire time she whispers in my ear, I keep my face blank. Every ounce of my control goes into keeping myself from reacting to the sounds in my earpiece so that it won’t be discovered. Especially when rough hands start searching my body for a wire. 

Thank god military technology isn’t that clumsy anymore.

The man who seems to be the one giving orders begins stalking toward me, and I close my eyes. Searching deep inside for strength.

His hand reaches up and cups my face, so I open my eyes and look at him. The shit eating grin on his face widens further.

“It really is you,” he says, the British accent in his voice telling me exactly who I’m dealing with. Nigel Dalton. “Could you really be this fucking stupid?”

“Or this fucking serious,” I say back, surprised by the even tone in my voice. On the inside, I can already feel adrenaline moving through my veins. “Where is my husband?”

“Hm, maybe I was wrong, Mrs. Grey. Maybe you’re exactly the person I need.”

He smirks at me, then pushes my face away with enough force that I nearly topple over. Hands grab me from behind, keeping me upright, and then hold me so there’s no way I could escape their grasp.

When Nigel turns around and re-enters the house, I feel a shove against my back that forces me to follow after him. The house is dark, except for a single ray of light at the end of the hallway that sends obscure and frightening shadows looming over me while the threat of danger creeps nearer. There are muffled sounds that are hard to distinguish coming from somewhere in the house, and as we approach that light, they become clearer. I hear a deadened blow followed by a pain filled grunt that I can immediately recognize as Christian’s.

A hand covers my mouth before I’m able to scream. I thrash violently against the hands holding me in place, not feeling any pain from their restraints and using that numbness to fight harder. I’m single minded in my need to get to Christian, but the moment I’m able to slip through one set of hands, three more are on me and I’m wrestled to the ground and gagged.

“Annie, are you okay?” my father’s worried voice demands in my ear. I fight against the man restraining me, knocking my elbows against the hardwood floor, and whimper in pain. “Annie?!”

“I’ve got eyes on her,” Luke says, so deathly quiet it sends a chill up my spine. “She’s got six guys with her, all armed.”

“Do not pursue alone!” my father hisses between panting breaths that tell me he’s moving very quickly, but Luke’s threatening response sounds so disconnected from himself that I’m not even sure he’s aware he spoke out loud.

“Get your fucking hands off of her.”

“Luke, that is an order! Stand down!” 

My head is being held tightly against the unyielding floor, but my eyes dance around to every corner of the room they can find, looking for Luke’s approach. No one seems to move though, so he must still be hiding. Waiting. I let my body go limp, and Nigel lets out a taunting laugh before he turns away, instructing his men to keep me there.

He rounds the corner and says something again in Arabic. A few seconds later, another man joins us from the room where Nigel is now and when I see his blood covered hands, I can’t stop the impulse to fight against the man holding me again. We struggle for several seconds until I hear Nigel speak, and I go still again. 

“Had enough?” he asks. There’s a spitting sound, and the creek of a wood chair before I hear Christian’s strained, but arrogant response.

“Are you kidding? I used to get off on this shit.”

Nigel laughs. “You’re very brave, I’ll give you that.”

“What do you know about brave? You’re a fucking coward. I can see it in your eyes. You’re terrified that your entire pathetic life’s work is about to be completely unravelled by a better man. You think you’re in control here, but make no mistake, at the end of this, you are going to lose everything. And I am going to take it from you.”

“Do you know what I really think, Grey?” Nigel asks. Christian doesn’t respond, but he continues anyway. “I think you’re going to pick up the phone, call Ms. Bailey, and tell her to break your energy technology apart bit by bit.”

“That’s never going to happen. I don’t give a fuck what you do to me.”

“To you, maybe. What about your wife?”

I can’t see him. I’m not even in the same room as him. But I can feel the change in the air the moment those words cross Nigel’s lips.

“Careful. That’s a line you really don’t want to cross. I’m going to ruin you, but you won’t walk out of here if I even hear you mention her again.”

“Well then, you’re not going to like what comes next very much. Not unless you pick up the phone and call Ms. Bailey.”

“Harper and I have the north entrance. Smith, Wyatt, are you ready for entry?” My dad’s voice and the responses from my team in my earpiece nearly drown out Christian’s response. 

“Bullshit.”

“Excuse me?”

“You don’t have her. Ros wouldn’t lie to me.”

“You’re sure about that?”

 “Unequivocally. I know what and who I have around her. I know you don’t have her.”

“I mean, it’s not like your confidence isn’t earned, Grey. I’ve watched others fail over and over again… but I would hope by now you’ve realized that I’m not like the others. And I’m not fucking around. Pick up the phone.”

“Go to hell.”

“There’s a 2nd story and an open landing over this room.” Luke whispers. “I can see at least one guy up there and he’s packing. Someone’s gotta get up there or he’ll pick us off like fish in a barrel.”

“I’m headed that way,” My dad replies.

“You really going to make me do this, Grey? You really wanna go this far and put the woman you love through what I’m gonna do to her?”

“You’ll never touch her. My people would die first. And if they do, you’ll still have to get through Sawyer, and you’ll still have to get through her dad. I know neither one of them will let her out of their sight while I’m gone.”

He sighs. “Alright, but remember I gave you the chance to stop this…”

 The floor creaks with heavy footsteps, then Nigel’s voice calls out into the hallway in Arabic once again. The body holding me down disappears and suddenly I’m wrenched up off the floor. The gag that had been held in my mouth falls forgotten to the ground as they drag me into the room and toss me, hard, onto the floor at Nigel’s feet. I feel a shock of panic for my babies, and it’s made worse when he pushes me roughly with his foot and I roll so that Christian can see my face.

His is a disaster. He’s bleeding from his nose, his lip, and nasty cut on his left cheek. There are different levels of bruising all around his face, the newest ones bright red, others a deep purple, and some that have already started to fade to a greenish-yellow. It adds dimensions to his face that shouldn’t be there, and it makes the anguish I see when his gray eyes meet mine seem almost monstrous.

“Ana?” he breathes in horror.

“I’m okay,” I answer back. Nigel’s hand twists in my hair and yanks me up off the ground, making me shriek with pain. Then he pulls my face right up to his lips.

“Let’s not make promises you can’t keep. Okay, sweetheart?”

“Let her go!” Christian commands. Nigel smiles at him.

“I’m sorry, Grey. You want this to stop, you’re going to have to call Ms. Bailey..”

He reaches for a knife sitting on the table next to him and brings it to my skin. Christian starts to thrash violently against his restraints, but I go perfectly still. 

Keep him talking. Protect your children.

“Wait!” The knife pauses only a breath away from the skin on my throat, while Christian continues to struggle uselessly. The hand Nigel has in my hair tightens. 

“That’s a useless word, beautiful. You’re not in Seattle anymore. You don’t have any power here.”

A high pitched noise sounds from somewhere off to my right, and Nigel’s hands release me. He falls to the ground, clutching his arm, and when I see the blood start to seep through his fingers, the room devolves into chaos. Several shouts fill the room and guns are drawn, pointing in every direction. There’s a crash on the other side of the room, and every barrel turns toward it, which is when Luke comes through an archway opposite from the entrance to the hall and dives at the man closest to him.

They roll across the floor, but the gun that turns in Luke’s direction drops when the man holding it is shot in the shoulder from somewhere on the 2nd floor. The man who was holding me down in the hall waves for someone to go investigate, but as they start to move, the glass on the windows of the back wall shatter apart into a million pieces and Wyatt and Smith come into the room with weapons drawn.

I move to Christian. He leans over to cover as much of my body with his as he can while I unfasten his right wrist from the arm of the chair he’s in. Once it’s free, his adept fingers are faster at untying the last knots and the moment he’s released himself, he grabs me and pulls me behind a sofa. His body covers mine, his hands gently hold my head to the ground, and bullets fly over the top of us.

“Where’s Calliope?” he whispers.

“They don’t have her, we came here. She’s safe.”

“Fuck.” He lets out a sigh of true relief that’s washed out by the implied threat in the very next words out of his mouth. “Stay down, and do not move. Do you understand me?”

“What?”

“Stay down, Anastasia.” He pushes himself up from the floor and launches himself over the couch. I scream for him to come back, but the sound is lost in the pandemonium around us. Crawling on my elbows, I move to the very end of the couch and peer around it. The room looks like a scene from The Avengers, but in the worst way possible. The danger all around me is so incredibly real, and it’s everywhere. Luke is locked in a fight with someone who is much bigger than he is. Wyatt and Smith wrestle with another guy who is trying to get a clean shot up at the 2nd floor balcony, and when I look up at his intended target, I see my dad fighting with a man who is trying to dump Harper over the railing. In the struggle, his gun falls to the floor with a sickening thud, just as Nigel scrambles up off the floor and tries to bolt from the room.

Christian slams him down on the ground.

It’s hard to know where to keep my attention, since every man I love is locked in a life and death battle. The glint of the knife Nigel dropped catches my attention just as it’s about to be brought down into Evan’s back, but Wyatt is there and the two of them manage to gain control of the weapon. Smith has to fire again, hitting his assailant in the thigh and incapacitating him. My dad has gotten Harper out of her precarious position, but the man the two of them are fighting seems to be better at hand to hand than either of them are. Luke tears around the room like the Tasmanian Devil, unleashing violence on whoever gets in his path. Christian attacks Nigel like a bloodthirsty wolverine.

Eventually, Harper and my father gain the upper hand and manage to subdue the man they’re fighting. Luke brings the last man left to resist us to his knees with a gun pointed at the back of his head, and everything goes still except for Christian.

“Mr. Grey,” Woods says as he and Wyatt pull him off of Nigel. Christian doesn’t stop. He fights their restraints just as hard as he intends to fight the man who put his hands on me until Luke manages to break through his bloodlust with one single word.

“Ana.”

Christian stops and looks back at me, finding me kneeling at the end of the couch and trembling. His eyes meet mine and with each second they stay locked there, his breathing becomes more regular, his body relaxes, and his face softens. Evan and Wyatt release him and he starts towards me. But behind him, I see Nigel sit up and weakly pick his gun up from the floor, and point it at his back.

“Fuck you, Grey…”

“Christian!” I scream.

The gunshot rings through the otherwise silent room at exactly the same time that Luke and I begin to move. Luke leaps through the air and slams into Christian, both of them falling to the floor. He hits him hard enough that Christian lets out a harsh grunt of pain before he scrambles to his knees and looks back at the man who fired. But the rage that brews inside of him is quenched by my father’s horrified scream.

“Annie, no!”

Christian rounds on me at the same time I look down at the blood quickly soaking the front of my shirt. The bullet hit me in the chest, right below my right collarbone, but I can’t feel it. I can’t feel anything. Everything around me seems to slow down. My father leaps down the last few stairs and starts to sprint for me. Luke launches himself off the ground. There’s another gunshot, and the other members of my team start shouting at one another and moving around the room. The color drains from Christian’s face and his expression morphs with anguish.

“NO!”

I still don’t feel it. Not until I try to take a breath and the air that moves through my lungs suddenly has me drowning in fire. I collapse just as Christian gets his arms around me.

“No, no, no, no, no!” he insists, again and again, his eyes moving over me in disbelief as he slowly lowers me to the ground. A weird convulsion moves through me, making my body jerk unnaturally, and it seems to break Christian’s sanity. He reaches for the weak part of my collar and yanks against it, shredding my shirt down the middle and exposing my wound.  Both Luke and my father fall to their knees at my side in the next second.

“Get out of the way, Christian,” my dad says, pushing his hands aside so he can press his own against the hole in my chest. I start to choke on the fire blazing in my lungs and my dad’s eyes move to Luke.

“Exit wound?”

Luke carefully pushes me up onto my side and glances over my back. When he speaks, he sounds terrified. “Yeah, it’s sucking air.”

“Fuck,” my dad hisses. Christian looks between them with alarm.

“What does that mean?”

“She’s not getting enough air,” Luke says. “She’s going to suffocate.” My father looks up at the rest of my team.

“Get me something to seal it!”

“I’ve got it,” Luke says. He shrugs his backpack off and tears it open. He pulls out something black, but whatever it is, he tosses it aside and instead takes the clear cellophane wrapper it was encased in and presses it to my skin. “Grey, there’s duct tape in there. Give it to me.” 

Christian’s hands dive into Luke’s bag and he pulls out a roll of duct tape. With his teeth, he quickly tears four short strips off that Luke uses to completely seal the plastic wrap to my skin. I whimper while he works, but the pain boiling inside my chest isn’t enough to keep me from hearing the torment in the angry words he spits at me through his impending tears.  “You’re so fucking stupid, Ana. Why would you do that? Why the fuck would you do that?!”

I try to tell him I’m sorry, I try to explain that it hadn’t been a decision—that Christian was in danger and I reacted on impulse. But when I open my mouth, the only sound that comes out is a ghostly moan.

“Don’t try to talk, Annie,” my dad says. “Be still. I need you to stay calm, because the more you panic, the faster your heart is going to beat, and the more blood you’re going to lose. I need you to just breathe. Okay, sweetie? Just breathe for me. Breathe for your babies.”

I take a breath, but the fire makes me wheeze. My father’s eyes shoot up to my husband.

“Christian, keep her focused. Keep her calm.”

I feel his hands cup my face, and then the only thing I can see are his eyes. They’re swimming with tears, but there’s a fierce kind of determination burning like the flames in my chest behind them.

“Breathe, baby. I need you to keep breathing for me.”

It’s painful, but I manage to breathe in and out every time he tells me to as long as his eyes stay connected to mine. I’m starting to fully realize what’s happened to me, and as my mind races to my babies, I want to panic. It’s not even a want, it’s a natural, biological reaction that I put everything into fighting because that’s the only way I can protect them. It feels like trying to stop falling after you’ve jumped out of a plane, but despite the impossibility, I find a way to do it. Because it’s the only way I can save my babies, and I have to fight with everything I have for the man holding on to me. 

“Breathe, baby…” He pleads again. 

I do. In and out. In and out. In and out. 

Each and every of those breaths feels like swallowing a hot fire poker. 

Once Luke has the wound bound tightly in plastic, it becomes a little easier to breathe, but everything around me starts to drift away. I can see my father, Luke, and Christian, but it’s like I’m looking at them in a dream. The pain radiating in my bones starts to fade, my vision goes black around the edges, and the fire in my chest turns to ice. It’s like the chaotically beating chambers of my heart freeze the blood pumping through them, until my whole body goes cold and I begin to shiver. There’s a faint taste of blood creeping into my mouth.

No. Please, no…

“Ana, stay with me,” Christian says, commanding rather than pleading. “You have to keep breathing, baby. Just keep breathing.”

“We’ve gotta get her out of here,” my dad says. “Get her back to the plane.” He nods to Christian, who then scoops me up to his arms. He moves so quickly through the house to the garage that it makes me nauseous. Everything around me begins to spin, the same way it does when I’ve had too much tequila. Only this time, I’m terrified to let myself succumb to the blackness that beckons me toward peace.

“Hang on, Ana,” Luke begs while he helps Christian get me into the van. They lay me on the floor between the seats, and Christian straddles my waist so he can keep pressure on my chest. His eyes move wildly back and forth as the thudding beneath his hands begins to grow weaker.

“Don’t you dare, Anastasia,” he warns me, tears finally breaking and rolling down his cheeks. He pushes harder against my chest. “You are not allowed to leave me, do you understand? You are not allowed to leave Calliope. Don’t you fucking dare!”

Smith takes the wheel and hits the gas so hard that the tires squeal and smoke beneath us. We fly in reverse down the driveway, and the blackness presses down on me harder, becoming more and more difficult to resist with each passing second. Wyatt produces a medical kit from somewhere in the van that mercifully has a transfusion line inside. He and Luke help get the needle in my father’s arm while Christian holds pressure on my wound. The cold starts to feel more persistent and my mind moves again to my babies.

“Christian…” I whisper weakly. He shakes his head.

“No, stop. No good-byes, you just need to hold on. Just keep breathing…”

“She’s going under,” my dad’s voice echoes in the distance. “Luke change places with Christian and start chest compressions…”

There’s a shift, and then I succumb to unconsciousness. The last words I hear are Christian’s desperate plea.

“Please, hold on…”

Next Chapter

Jade POV: That Fucking Smile

His heart hammers beneath my fingers on his chest. I gently tickle the curves of his muscles while he tries to catch the breath that’s still ladened down with the echos of his moans. These few seconds, before he’s said anything and before either one of us has found the will to move again, have become more blissful than anything I’ve ever experienced. 

And more terrifying. 

Because I’m comfortable here. I want to be here. And I think I’m starting to need it. I’m starting to need him. But there’s still so much I don’t know about him, so much he’s holding back, that I’m not sure letting myself catch feelings for him is a good idea. The only thing I’m certain, still lying here naked and tangled up with him, is that Luke Sawyer is a fucking god. And I’ve never heard of god that needed anybody.

“Why do you always bring me here?” I ask, pressing my palm against the heartbeat I want so desperately to be only for me. He looks down and frowns. 

“What’s wrong with the Fairmont? It’s a five star hotel…” 

“Yeah, and we always come here. We’ve hooked up a dozen times now, and I’ve never seen your apartment.” 

“Maybe I don’t have a great apartment.” 

“But you’re spending $400 on a hotel room every time we fuck?” 

“Which would explain why I can’t afford a great apartment, right?” 

“Luke, I’m being serious. I don’t know anything about you. I don’t know where you live. I’ve never met any of your friends, or anyone who even knows you. I still don’t even know what you really do.” 

“I thought we settled on hitman?” 

You’re not supposed to be okay with me calling you a murderer!”  I roll off of him and shake my head dejectedly at the ceiling. “This is starting to get weird.” 

He sits up, the crease in his brow the only imperfection on his gorgeous face. The blues of his eyes are so mesmerising in his concern that I almost want to let it all go so he’ll let me fall into him and make love to me all over again. 

And that’s the fucking problem

“Jade, what’s going on?” he asks. 

I sigh, then pull the blanket over my head so he can’t watch the flush of humiliation that colors my cheeks. “I don’t think I want this to be so casual anymore, Luke. I think… I think I might be falling for you.” 

A few seconds of silence pass, and I start to picture him leaping out of bed and bolting through the door before he even gets his pants all the way on. Instead, his fingers curl around the blanket and pull it away from my face. I want there to be a smile waiting for me when I look up at him. I want him to tell me that he feels exactly the same way and that he’s only been holding back because he’s just as nervous about this as I am. 

Instead, he looks curious. 

Not angry. 

Not appalled. 

Just curious.

“Why are you hiding from me?” 

I swallow. “I’m afraid you’re going to hurt me. I’m afraid I’m going to fall, and you’re just going to let me.” 

“Because you don’t know what I do?” 

“Because I don’t know who you really are.” 

He blinks. Then takes a long breath. 

“I was in the military,” he says, after a long pause. “First Infantry, United States Army. I spent most of my time on the Pakistani border.”

My heart thuds excitedly. “Oh? Are you from a military family?” 

“No.” He shakes his head. “My mom wasn’t the most stable woman. We moved around a lot when I was a kid. All over the country. I was loner, until some military recruiter caught me my senior year of high school. I enlisted, and deployed three months after graduation.” 

“That young?” 

He waves away the concern in my voice. “It was good for me. It gave me purpose for the first time. It gave me something to believe in. Gave me a family. I never stayed put long enough to make friends growing up, and somehow, in the middle of the desert on the other side of the world, I found my people.” 

I smile, hoping it makes this new, giving mood I may or may not have forced him into feel safe and encouraging. But the cold barriers behind his eyes that keep his soul from me stay firmly in place as he continues. 

“There were eleven men in my squad. Every single one of them felt like a brother to me. We went on this scouting mission to take account of the enemy’s position, artillery, and defenses before an operation we planned to launch a few days after that. We got everything, wrote a report that turned into a flawless plan. It was one of those rare times over there when it felt like something was actually fucking happening and that we weren’t just wondering aimlessly across all that god forsaken sand for nothing.” 

“But the mission didn’t go as planned?” I ask. 

He shakes his head. “It never happened. The night before we were going to deploy, I woke up feeling horrible. My stomach was all tied up, I felt like I was having a heart-attack… I got out of my cot and walked a few hundred yards from the big canvas tent everyone was sleeping in and started puking. Apparently it was loud enough to wake my commander because he came to check on me, and while we were crouched down in the brush, a missile came over the hill and landed right on top of the tent we’d just left. The explosion blew Taylor and I back several feet. I had a concussion. The thing I remember most about getting back to camp is the ringing in my ears. And then the smell of burned flesh. We didn’t even have to check to know that nobody had survived, and bullets started flying down at us from the cliffside, so we jumped in the only vehicle that made it through the explosion and drove as we could out of there. The tank went dry about thirty miles outside of Bagram Air Force Base. We walked fifteen more before we got picked up.” 

“Luke…” 

“That’s just one time. I never knew my father. The first girl I ever slept with died in a drunk driving accident on her Senior prom night, and a few weeks ago, I watched a mad man point a gun at my best friend. I’ve lost almost every single person I’ve ever cared about, Jade. I like you. Really, I do. I wanna see you, I wanna spend time with you, and I’m really into fucking you, but… I’m not ready to let myself care yet. That’s going to take awhile…  Is that okay?” 

He actually looks contrite while his question hangs between us. I gnaw at my bottom lip, slightly overwhelmed with the new insight he’s given me. This reaction isn’t what I wanted, but now that I know the reasons behind his reticence, can I blame him? 

“I care,” I tell him. “Does that scare you?” 

He leans into me, his hand brushing gently against my cheek and resting there. His nose brushes tenderly against mine. “Not at all.” 

I bask in the warmth of his tone and fall into his lips. He kisses me back like he means it. Like he wants to leave clues about how he really feels but can’t say out loud yet. I can feel it in the way his hands cradle me, and in the way his tongue caresses mine. I feel it from him the same way I feel it beating in my heart, and even though I know it’s so stupid… I know that I’ve already tumbled down the rabbit hole, and all there’s left to do is explore Wonderland. 

“Are we okay?” he asks when he pulls away. My lips press together, lifting slightly at the corners, and I nod. The last of the tension leaves the creases around his eyes and he grins. “Good, cause I have to pee.” 

I snort as he rolls out of bed and his naked ass disappears through the bathroom door. There’s a kind of glow that fills my chest as I sink back into the pillows, and I bask in it for three or four absolutely heavenly seconds. 

Then Luke’s phone buzzes on the nightstand. 

Ana

Are you up?

Ana?

I frown and lean over, glancing at the closed bathroom door before I reach down and swipe the message. It opens his text conversation with her and just the messages I can see in the window make my stomach churn. 

I love you? My heart starts to race and the next breath I take shakes all the way down. Heat rushes to my face. Blood pounds behind my ears. A million thoughts start buzzing around my head until my mind is so full, I can’t sort anything out. It sends chaos ricocheting through my body. Leaping out of bed, I snatch my t-shirt off the floor and pull it over my head. I’m just working on my pants when Luke comes through the bathroom door. 

“What are you doing?” 

“I’m leaving.” 

“What? Why?” 

“Because you’re a fucking liar!” 

“What are you talking about?” 

“I asked you point blank, Lucas. I asked you if you had a girlfriend, I asked you if you had a wife. You told me no.” 

“I don’t!” 

“Oh, really? Then who the fuck is Ana?” 

His face goes blank. “You know about, Ana?” 

“Yeah,” I sneer back. “So you can save your bullshit sob stories, I know why you’ve kept me out of your life. Why I’ve never seen your apartment. Do you have kids there?” 

“What the fuck are you talking about?” 

I roll my eyes and pull on my shoes, then march toward the door. “Have a nice life, Luke.” 

He steps in front of me, the barriers in his eyes now cold and deadly. “How do you know about Ana?” 

“Check your phone.” 

“My phone?” 

“Yeah, she texted you and I gotta say, reading your love confessions for one another was really truly heartwarming.” 

He doesn’t even give me the decency to stand there and let me eviscerate him. The moment I say ‘she texted you, he’s moving across the room to pick up his phone. He takes a second to read what’s on the screen, then presses his finger into the glass and pulls it up to his ear. Then his eyes meet mine. 

“You’re making a mistake… Hey,” he takes a step away from me, and starts talking into his phone. “I’m up, are you okay?” 

My whole chin starts to tremble, and I can feel the tears welling in my waterline. Before he can see them, I pick up my bag and hurry out of the room. 


“Well fuck him,” Georgia says, tilting the rim of her beer against her lips and draining it. “Dude’s either a coward or an asshole, you’re better off without him.” 

“Yeah,” I reply, swallowing against the knot in my throat while I nod. “I just… I thought this one was different.” 

“None of them are different. All men are trash, and the ones who aren’t are either gay or are lying to themselves about not being gay.” 

I laugh and let my head fall back against the sofa. My apartment is a far cry from the luxurious accommodations at the Fairmont Olympic. It’s small, crowded with too much junk, and so poorly ventilated that it always smells a little bit like mildew from the constant rain. But it’s my place. And it’s ironic, as I sit here nursing the cracks of my breaking heart, that this was the place that I came to escape my last relationship. After a year of threats, and cruelty, and abuse… I’d finally gotten away and found a sanctuary. After surviving all of that, how could I let myself fall like this again? 

It’s those damn eyes. And his smile. Ugh, that fucking smile.

A flash of our night together moves through my memory. His hands roaming my body and holding me like I was too precious to let go. His lips caressing my skin and pressing against my ear. I can recall the low timber of his voice when he told me exactly what I did to him with perfect clarity, and it makes me tremble. 

“Jade…” 

I look up at my best friend, tears threatening at the corners of my eyes again. She tosses the cookie in her hand on the coffee table and moves across the sofa to wrap me in her arms. 

“You’re too good for him. He doesn’t deserve your tears. Why don’t we go out tonight, huh? Get your mind off of him? Joe’s working the door at some fancy donor dinner for the mayor’s race in Seattle. It’s like a five course meal and open bar. We can go get shit-faced.” 

I give her a skeptical look. “Don’t those things cost like $5,000 a head?” 

“Yeah, but that’s all paid in advance. They assume if you get through the door, you’ve paid. That’s where Joe comes in.” 

“Really?” I let my head drop from side to side, weighing my options. “Champagne?” 

“Dom Perignon, baby.” 

“Oh, fuck yeah.” Her grin stretches just as wide as mine does, and we bolt into the bedroom. My closet could honestly be mistaken for costume storage with the number of gigs I run around town while trying to get my event planning business off the ground, but I’ve gone to just enough swanky networking events to produce dresses for both Georgia and me. She’s worked the MAC counter part time for years, so I sit diligently still while she works her magic, and we make grand schemes about how we’re going to nab ourselves a bonafide millionaire by the end of the night. 

“And by nab, I assume we’re both talking about kidnapping one of these douchebags and dumping their bodies somewhere in the wilderness, right? I’ve been listening to murder podcasts for years to prepare for this.” 

I laugh. “Yeah, maybe the Starbucks guy will be there. Teach you to sell the Supersonics, motherfucker.” 

We both break down laughing until my phone starts to vibrate on the counter and I glance down to see Luke’s name spelled out across the screen. Instantly, the laughter dies out, and I feel my heart leap up into my throat. 

“What the fuck does he want?” Georgia snaps.

“I don’t know.” My fingers shake while I reach out for it, but I take a deep, bracing breath before I answer so he won’t be able to sense my vulnerability. “Hello?” 

“It’s not what you think it is.” 

I want to roll my eyes. “Oh, really. Please enlighten me then.” 

“We’re not dating. We’re not married. We’re not romantically involved in any way.” 

“I saw the texts, Luke. You said you loved her.” 

“And I do. Just not the way you think I do.”

“What does that mean?” 

“Can we talk? In person, I mean.” 

I glance down at Georgia, who looks like she’s ready to let him have it through the phone. “Uh… where are you?” 

“Just go outside.” 

“What?” 

“Go outside.” 

“I’m at my apartment, wh–” My words cut off as three loud booms make their way through the apartment to my bathroom. I glance uneasily in their direction. 

“Was that you?” 

“Open the door.” 

“How do you know where I live?” 

“I know everything about you, Jade. Please come open the door and let me explain.” 

I pull the phone away and hang up. Georgia stares at me with a questioning look, but I push past her and stalk warily towards the door. And sure enough, when I open it, he’s standing there waiting for me. 

“What in the–” 

“I’m not ready to lose you yet, Jade. So, if you’ll let me… I’d like to try and explain everything to you.” 

I step to the side and he walks past me into my apartment. My best friend is hovering in my bedroom door, and despite the fact that I’ve never even mentioned her to him before, he nods in her direction as though they’ve met a dozen times. 

“Georgia,” he greets her politely. 

“Uh… Luke, right?” 

“Yeah, would you mind giving us a few minutes of privacy?” 

“Sure.” She starts to back into my bedroom, but he shakes his head. 

“No, actually. I’d really appreciate it if you waited outside. Downstairs. Please.” 

Georgia’s eyes move to me and her brow arches in an unspoken question. I glance at Luke, pondering him for a moment, then nod to my best friend. She hesitates, then picks up her phone on her way to the door. “Call me if you need me.” 

“I will.” 

The moment she’s gone, Luke pulls a small device that looks a little like a walkie-talkie from his jacket pocket and starts holding it up to the walls like he’s trying to find a cell signal. 

“What are you doing?” 

“I’m looking for recording devices.” He moves past me as though what he just said was perfectly normal and moves into the bedroom to do the same thing. Once he’s made a sweep of the room, he turns off the device, shoves it back into his pocket, and turns to me. 

“I’m not a hitman.” 

“Are you sure?” Honestly, I’m not anymore…

He lets out a short breath through his nose, then starts to pace. “I’m part of an elite private security team for some very powerful individuals. I specialize in technology, mostly, but let’s say my job description is a little… nebulous.” 

“Is that how you know where I live?” 

“Yes. I’ve been checking into you since we first slept together. Since I knew I wanted there to be another time.” 

“What are you talking about? How do you know Georgia?” 

“I uh…” He swallows nervously. “I saw you two having lunch together a few weeks ago. I followed her back to the store where she works and snuck into her locker to bug her phone. I find close acquaintances to be one of the most useful ways of tripping someone up in a lie. People let their guard down with the people they trust.” 

“You’ve been spying on us?” 

“Yes.” 

“Why?” 

“Because I have to. Because there are people who will try to use me and everyone around me to get to the people that I work for. I’ve had to look into your past, your job, your… whole life to make sure you are who you say you are. I’ve been burned before, and it’s… It’s not a mistake I’m going to make again. But I know you’re not lying to me, and so I’m here to try and make it right.” 

“Who do you work for?” 

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Ana?” 

He goes stiff, and the ice I saw in his eyes earlier is replaced with fire. “Don’t say her name.” 

“Why?” 

“Because you can’t be in that part of my life. You can’t have anything to do with it, and that’s not because of you. It’s just the way it is. There are all kinds of rules, NDAs… real shit. I didn’t tell you because I can’t tell you, and if you can’t live with that, then… I mean, I get it. But I’m the same person I was last night, Jade. I don’t want you to walk away from me. I don’t want to lose what we have, or what you…” He pauses, and grits his jaw. “This morning you said you cared. I didn’t realize how much that meant to me until you walked out.” 

I shift uncomfortably, and he moves to me. 

“I don’t want you to stop caring.” 

It’s those damn eyes. Deep pools of blue I could swim in forever. And when I see the look of pleading reflecting down on me, and the want that colors it, I forget about everything except the parts of me that want this man. 

“I haven’t,” I whisper. “I do.” 

He wraps my arms around me and presses his lips to mine. I don’t even have time to catch my breath before his tongue slides into my mouth, and drags me down into the hazy euphoria that is quickly starting to feel like an addictive drug. And one that only he can provide. 

“Can I tell you one more thing?” he asks. 

“What?” 

“Well, I told you that I moved around a lot as a kid, right? We bounced from Toledo, Cincinnati, Minneapolis… Then we jumped to Portland, Seattle, and finally Fairbanks. I spent a lot of time in Alaska, and the thing about Alaska is that the days there are really dark, and really cold. When I went to the Middle East, everyone around me always bitched about the heat. But I loved it. It was like… making up for lost time, or something. Whenever I had downtime, I would go out and lay in the sand and just feel the sun on my skin and those quiet moments alone in the heat were some of the most peaceful I’ve ever experienced.” He pauses, and brushes his fingers over the side of my face. “You feel like the sun, Jade.” 

My lip trembles, so I catch it with my teeth before he notices, and throw my arms around him. 

“So… is that okay?” he asks. “I mean, as long as I’m doing what I’m doing, you’re only ever going to get half of me. That’s not negotiable. So… is that enough for you?” 

It’s a heavy question, and it weighs on me appropriately. I take a breath, and stare deep into those gorgeous blue eyes…

“I don’t know. Will you really give me that half?” 

“What do you mean?” 

“I mean, no more nights at the Fairmont. No more secret hook-ups and salacious rendezvous. If I only get half of you, then that half has to actually be with me.” 

“Okay.” He nods. “Yeah, just tell me what you need.” 

I reach over and pick up my purse off the bed and sling it over my shoulder. “Come on, we’re going out tonight. I’m going to introduce you to my friends.” 

He shoots me a guilty look. “I’m going to be real honest with you here, I know all your friends.” 

“Well, then I want them to know you.” My fingers lace with his and I pull him from the apartment, all the way out to the curb where Georgia is waiting. She runs upstairs to grab her purse, and I sneak in a tiny make-out sesh with Luke while we’re alone before the Uber arrives.

“Just like the sun,” he whispers.  


The venue for this ritzy party is slightly underwhelming. The white stone facade looks so ordinary, it could be a bank. But the first guy I see standing in line to get in is sporting a Rolex on his left wrist , and when I glance back at Georgia, she winks and flashes me a giddy smile. 

“What are we doing here?” Luke asks, his eyes flashing to the sign next to the door with the candidate’s information on it: Carrick Grey, For the People.

“We know the guy working the door, so we’re going to sneak in and enjoy all the fancy stuff. Don’t worry, we do stuff like this all the time. We’ve never gotten caught.” 

“Yeah, but–” 

“Hey, Michael! Cynthia!” Georgia says, cutting Luke off as she leans in to kiss the pretty redhead we met working concessions at a Sounders game a few years ago. “You look great.” 

“Thanks, I picked this dress up at Nordstroms after work, but I kept the tags on so I can return it tomorrow.” 

“Well you look beautiful,” I tell her, moving in for the hug. She beams at me, then turns her gaze to Luke. 

“Hi,” he says. “Cynthia, right?” 

She gives him a weird look. “Uh… yeah. Have we met?” 

“Oh, no… Jade’s just told me all about you.” He doesn’t blush or break eye contact with her at all. The lie passes through his lips smooth as butter and it makes me crinkle my brow. Cynthia on the other hand, smirks and tosses her hair over her shoulder. 

“Naturally.” 

With a charming smile, Luke holds his hand out for hers but she gives him a hug instead. He lets Michael introduce himself when they shake hands, then takes a step back and wraps an arm around me. 

“Shall we?” I ask. Michael nods and moves to lead the way. 

The line isn’t long. I mean, how long can you expect rich people to wait, right? But when we get to the front, we’re immediately confronted with a problem. Joe isn’t the one working the door. It’s a stranger standing there with the clipboard and the ear piece, and when we approach the head of the line, his gaze almost makes me think he’s onto us from the get go.

“Name?” he asks. 

“Uh… actually, is Joe here?” Michael asks. “He asked me to speak with him directly.” 

“He’s on a break. Name?” 

“Uh…” 

Michael’s eyes shift nervously back to Cynthia, who glances over at Georgia. The nervous energy that fills the space between them builds until the guy with the clipboard notices, and his stern face goes sour. 

“Look this is a paid event…” 

“Luke Sawyer,” Luke says, pushing forward. “My name is Luke Sawyer.” 

The wannabe bouncer standing in front of us looks down at his clipboard, and scans the names. “Sorry, you’re not on the list.” 

“Tell the people in your earpiece I’m here.” 

“I’m sorry, the list is the list. If you’re not on the list, you can’t come in.” 

“Just do it.” 

He rolls his eyes but reaches up to touch his earpiece. “Yeah, I’ve got a Luke Sawyer here at the door. He seems to think he should be on the list…” 

We wait while Mr. Stick-Up-His-Ass listens to whatever response comes through his earpiece. It’s an honest to god shock when the haughty superiority on his face starts to melt away. He coughs and reaches down for the velvet rope. 

“My apologies, Mr. Sawyer. Right this way.” 

“Sick…” Michael says, turning an incredulous look on Georgia. She beams back and Luke and I, but I turn toward him, utterly confused. 

“Powerful individuals?” I ask. 

“Yeah, let’s just… keep a low profile.” 

We walk through the dark corridor into a low lit, but trendy looking restaurant. Mostly, it’s filled with suits and their bored looking wives. There are waitresses milling through the crowd with trays of food and flutes of champagne, and I watch a woman in a red evening dress pluck one away from the passing waiter so she can pop a pill. 

“Over here,” Cynthia says, starting toward an empty table near the back. We slide into the seat and Luke pushes himself into the furthest, darkest corner he can. While everyone else gushes about the menu waiting on the place settings and tries to figure out how to flag someone down to order drinks, he sets his phone on the table, and starts to scan the people around us. 

“Looking for someone?” I ask. 

His eyes finish the sweep before he glances over at me. “No, just a habit.” 

“Oh my god, look…” Georgia whispers, reaching over to grab my arm. “Isn’t that Christian Grey?” 

“Oh yeah,” Cynthia says. “That’s definitely him. I’d know that gorgeous fucking face anywhere.” 

“Keep dreaming ladies. Any man who takes care of himself the way that fine specimen does is not batting for team hetero.” 

“He’s married…” Luke says. 

“Oh, how cute…” Michael replies, his voice simpering and mocking. I glance back at Luke, but he just rolls his eyes and picks up a menu. 

“Didn’t he just get shot or something?” Georgia asks. “I thought I read that he was attacked in his apartment.”

“Yeah, I think you– oh, hey! Miss!” 

A woman dressed all in black pauses on her way past the table and offers Cynthia a polite smile. She asks around the table for drinks, but Luke doesn’t answer when she gets to him. He’s staring off into the crowd again. 

“Is something wrong?’ 

Again, he doesn’t immediately turn back to me. “No, nothing.” 

A wave of unease moves over me, but just as I’m about to ask what’s going on, he leans in and presses his lips against mine. “I don’t do well in crowds, okay?” 

“Agoraphobic?” 

“No more like… hyper-paranoid. I’m in security, remember?” 

“Oh, well… do you want a drink?” 

“No. I think the best distraction for me is actually right here.” He pulls me closer to him and kisses me again. Really kisses me this time, and my friends start whooping around the table. 

“Oh my god, shut up.” I say, picking up a napkin and tossing it across the table at Georgia. She rolls her eyes at me, but engages everyone else in conversation when Luke pulls my face back to his and envelops me in his arms. 

The drinks come and the conversation flows. In between feeling me up under the table, and holding me tightly against his side, Luke starts to melt a little. He makes a joke when Michael spills his drink all over himself, and he and Cynthia get into a weirdly in-depth conversation about old Hollywood movies, most of which I’ve never heard of but he can rattle off like the ABCs. Just as the food comes to the table though, and all the people in sparkling evening wear start to take their seats, Luke’s phone buzzes on the table. 

I look down at the incoming call, and I see ANA on the screen. 

The fork falls from his hand he moves so quickly to answer it. 

“Hey… what’s wrong? Ana?” He recedes into the velvet cushions of the booth, trying to shrink into the shadows. “Talk to me, what’s going on? No, there’s no one in the house. Ana, there is no one in the house. Because I know. Where’s Woods? Okay, okay… Where are you? Where? Alright, I’m going to hang up the phone, call Woods, and tell him to go up there, okay? I’ll call you right back. No, okay, okay… shit.” He curses under his breath and sits up, glancing around the restaurant again. His eyes fall on something across the room and he nods to himself. “Hold on, okay?” 

He gets up from his seat and shoots an anxious look back at me before moving quickly away from the table. I feel the furrow in my brow while I watch him weave through the tables, and stop at the one positioned prominently in the center of everyone. He moves past the scary looking men in black suits, steps up right behind Christian Mother-Fucking Grey, and leans down to speak to him. The billionaire I’ve only ever seen on TV and in magazines before looks over at him like that’s perfectly normal, then takes his phone out of his hand and starts to talk into it. Within seconds, he’s jumping out of his seat and barreling towards the exit. Luke hesitates in his wake, then glances back at me. 

His shoulders slump, and as he trudges his way back, it all comes together. 

Ana. 

As in Anastasia

As in Anastasia Grey.

“Hey,” Georgia says, turning to me. “Where’d Luke–” 

I hardly hear her, and I’m already out of my seat before she can finish. The guilt is clear in Luke’s eyes from several yards away. 

“Christian Grey?” I hiss. “That’s the powerful person you work for? Grey Enterprises Holding, Man of the Year, Forbes Top 20 CEOs, billionaire Christian Grey?” 

His mouth opens, but he stumbles over the words so he grabs ahold of my wrist and drags me out of the restaurant. Once we’re on the sidewalk, he stops and glances up and down the street like he’s not sure where to go. I take his hand and drag him to the harbor steps where we can sit and talk in private. 


“I had a collapsed lung, a few broken ribs.” He hangs his head as the story he’s finally let himself tell pours out of him. It came like a trickling stream, at first. But when the dam broke it came in tidal waves until there was absolutely nothing left inside of him. “I almost lost my best friend. And I’m not entirely sure we’re out of the woods yet.”

“What do you mean?” 

“She’s…” He stops, and chews on the words before settling on, “terrified. She’s absolutely terrified, all the way down to her bones, and it’s changing her. I’m doing everything I can to stop it, but I don’t know if I can. I don’t know if she’s ever going to be able to come back from this.” 

The text messages I read this morning run through my mind again, and I start parroting them without realizing I’m saying it out loud. “I love you, please remember that.” He cringes with pain, and puts his forehead in his palms. “Are you worried she’s going to hurt herself?” 

“I don’t know what she’s going to do. She’s not in her right mind and… yeah. I’m afraid of what might happen if she’s left alone at the wrong time. I should be there, but…” 

His words come to an abrupt halt and he looks off over the sound with malice on his face. 

“But what?” 

“I– I just…” As he stutters through his words, the frustration that’s had hold of his entire body since he answered that phone call finally hits a breaking point. He deflates. The normally confident, strong, intimidating man I’m growing to love, looks lost. 

He shifts on the stair, pivoting towards me, and takes my face in both his hands. We stare deeply into each other’s eyes, and for the very first time, the walls behind his are gone. 

“Can I trust you, Jade?” he pleads, so softly that the noise of the traffic a hundred yards behind us nearly downs him out. I inch closer to him and hope the sincerity beating in my heart reflects in my eyes. 

“I don’t want to fuck you over, Luke. I don’t want to hurt you, or anyone you love. I don’t want to leave. I… “ I press my lips together, remembering the last time these words crossed my lips and the man I gave them to. How they didn’t stop what he did to me, and how much worse that made everything. But Luke isn’t Brandon. And if I want him to trust me, I have to trust him. “I’m falling in love with you.” 

His face breaks into a breathtaking smile, that same one that would let him drag me into the cement alcove near the look out and fuck me for all the people down on the waterfront to hear. He leans in to kiss me, but I pull back. 

“What’s wrong?” 

“I, uh…” Bits and pieces of the story he told me run through my mind again. The parts about the girl he’s admitting to me now that he’s afraid to lose. “The way you talk about Ana… I mean, I know she’s married and everything, but… are you in love with her?” 

His hands fall from my face and he turns away from me irritably. “Jesus Christ.” 

“No, I just–” 

“I’m not, okay?” he snaps. It’s not defensive, it’s genuinely angry. I lean away from him, feeling as shocked as I would have if he slapped me across the face, and my reaction seems to cool him down a little. 

“I’m sorry, it’s not you… Her husband’s a little, uh…” 

“Possessive?” 

“That’s not… what makes you say that?” 

I roll my eyes and pull my phone out of my cleavage, then type “Christian Grey” “Anastasia Grey” into Google Images. Most of what populates are pictures of them on red carpets or at some swanky event, but there are lots of paparazzi shots of them just walking on the street together. I point my phone at him and start swiping through them. 

“Look at his hands in every single one of these pictures. He always holds her hand so that his is over hers. And look at the way he poses with her. He doesn’t just hold a hand on her back, he wraps it all the way around her front, and curls it around her. He’s not just standing next to her, he’s holding her against him. That’s possession.” 

“And you get that just from a picture?” 

The ghost of a strong hand curls around my hip, tightening in warning, and I shiver. “Yeah, it’s not like he hides it.” 

“No, he doesn’t.” Luke chuckles, then shakes his head. “But it also means that he’s been accusing me of fucking his wife for… well, since I met him. And what’s funny is he is exactly why my relationship with Ana is what it is. Not just because she’s in love with him but because she likes his whole schtick. She wants that. She’s very happy letting him be the one in charge and falling perfectly in step with him. I like a little more fire. I like my women a little more… wild.” His eyes flame at me, and the last of my self-control drains away. I dig my fingers into the front of his shirt and pull him towards me, smashing my lips against his. He moans and wraps me in his arms, his hands tangling in my hair and tugging just enough to get me to gasp so that he can slide his tongue inside. 

I’d let him have me right there, but, miraculously, I manage to find some scrap of dignity. 

“Come on, Hitman. You’re not taking me to the Fairmont,” I tell him. “We’re going back to your apartment. I’m not a hooker, you don’t have to pay to fuck me.” 

“Can I make a confession?”

“What?” 

“I never paid for any of those rooms. I just charge them to Grey’s account… he doesn’t even notice.”

“That actually makes me insanely proud.” I laugh and take him by the hand, dragging him to the street so I can hail down a cab. I spend the few blocks to his apartment jacking him off with his jacket over his lap, and whispering all of the filthy things I’m going to do to him once he has me in his bed. 

Once the car stops, he throws a fistful of cash at the driver and yanks me out of the backseat.

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