Chapter 40

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It’s an abnormally hot summer day, even for mid-July. The bridal boutique where I’m trying on my dress now that the final alterations have been made is sweltering. Luke looks incredibly uncomfortable sitting in the chair against the wall a few feet away from me, and while Grace paces back and forth near the door, talking to the hospital so she can follow up on one of her patients, she actually has to reach up and wipe the sweat away from her brow with the back of her hand.

“How are we doing, Miss Steele?” the manager asks, coming in from the back room for what feels like the 400th time today.

“We’re fine,” I tell her. “Still waiting.”

She nods and gives me a very forced looking smile. I’ve been here, in this dress, for probably 40 minutes and while I’m sure she would have normally insisted we move along with our appointment so she could get me out of here as quickly as possible, she holds her tongue because I will be leaving this shop today with over six figures worth of wedding dresses.

Not one, two.

I twist in the mirror to admire the back of the dress again when, finally, Kate comes bustling through the archway leading in from the main store.

“I’m so sorry, Ana, traffic was terrible and there’s paparazzi outsi–” she halts in mid-sentence and the apologetic look on her face suddenly changes to confusion. “But… that’s the same dress.”

“I know,” I sigh. “No one else has seen the new one yet, and I didn’t want to do the big reveal until you got here. I just wanted to look at the first dress one last time.”

“It’s beautiful,” Kate says. “And you look amazing in it. I don’t understand why you’re changing it.”

“It doesn’t fit the venue, and the other one is the one the paper announced I would be wearing, so…” My hands brush down over the soft ivory lace that perfectly hugs the body I’ve worked so hard to get back all the way down past my hips and then sweeps out in a graceful pool around my feet. The first time I tried this dress on, I immediately fell in love with the detail in the lace and the raw, unfinished edges of the thin lace straps that circle my shoulders. It’s beautiful, elegant, and yet still a little sexy. My breasts look fantastic cupped inside the custom created bodice and the dress itself is completely backless, all the way down to the top of my behind, which is artfully contained within the dress to look high, firm, and utterly perfect. I’ve imagined myself in this gown, walking down the aisle towards Christian, a hundred times, and even in just the fantasy of it, I could see the cocktail of wonder, love, and a hint of lust in his eyes.

It’s my perfect dress, but it’s not the dress I’ll be wearing on my wedding day.

I sigh and turn away from the mirror. Since the dress I”m wearing is custom made, I can’t return it, and while I step off the pedestal so I can make my way to the back to try on the new dress, I have a passing thought that maybe one day Calliope will wear this on her wedding day and it won’t feel like such a waste.

It takes three people to help me get into the gown I’m actually going to wear on Saturday. We begin with not one, but two layers of petticoats to ensure the skirt of the gown will reach it’s full potential and then I’m strapped tightly into a kind of corset that will both keep my waist looking tiny and perfect, and act as a support for my breasts since this gown is strapless but the the bodice isn’t boned.

After ensuring I can breathe, two salesgirls lift the dress as high as they can, while the manager holds open the skirt so I can slide inside, and as they carefully ease the dress over me, I prepare myself for the weight. The gown is gorgeous. I kept the lace theme, as I really did love that from the first dress, but this lace isn’t ivory, it’s white, almost blinding white, which seems a bit presumptuous since my daughter is being carried down the aisle by my soon to be Mother-in-Law right in front of me. The bodice is intricate with a deep v sweetheart neckline, and straps similar to the first dress that drape beautifully, but uselessly, over my arms at the side. At my waist, the skirt begins to billow out in a cloud of gossamer and lace, which is woven into a floral pattern throughout the skirt to reflect the gardens where we’re saying our vows, and then continues on several feet behind me. As the sales staff lay the gargantuan train out behind me, which I’m sure will look amazing tumbling down the long staircases of Thornewood Castle, I’m once again floored by how stunning this gown really is. It’s the kind of dress you would imagine royalty would wear, but it’s also extremely heavy. Almost uncomfortably so. It feels almost as though it’s consuming me, and every time I imagine Christian trying to fight his way through all of this material to get under my dress on our wedding night, I burst into a fit of giggles.

“Alright,” the manager says brightly as she steps away from me. “What do you think, dear?”

“It really is beautiful,” I say, glancing up and down in my own private mirror.”

“Your groom is going to be absolutely floored.” She smiles and attempts to further fluff the already overfull skirt. “Oh, you look like Cinderella. Shall we show the others?”

I nod and then take her hand to help me down off the pedestal, gathering the front of the skirt in my hand so I can walk, and as I wonder how that’s going to work practically when I walk down the aisle, one hand wrapped through my father’s elbow and another clutching to the huge white bouquet Seattle’s top tier florist has personally crafted for me, I feel the weight of the dress pulling me back. It’s like an anchor, determined to keep me in place, but I trudge forward, forcing myself out of the dressing room to where my family is waiting.

“Ana,” Luke says, straightening in his chair the moment I come through the arch and gawking at me. “Oh my god, you look…” He’s at a loss for words, and when Grace turns away from the display of hairpieces she’s carefully examining to look at me, her hand immediately shoots up to her mouth and her eyes well with tears.

“Oh, Ana… that’s it. That’s the dress. My darling girl, you look absolutely beautiful.”

“Really?”

“Yes, oh, Christian is going to lose his mind when he sees you.”

I let out a sharp exhale of relief and then step on the riser so I can examine the dress once more, but as the salesgirl places the veil over my hair and I turn to look at Kate, I notice that she’s not surveying the dress with quite the same enthusiasm as Luke or Grace.

“Kate?”

She glances up at me and gives me a subtly forced smile. “It’s a beautiful dress, Ana. You look like a princess.” Her words aren’t insincere, but they aren’t overly joyous or excited either, so I frown.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” She shakes her head, but I continue to stare her down until, eventually, she sighs. “It just doesn’t really look like you. Don’t get me wrong, it’s stunning, Ana. You are going to look phenomenal on your wedding day and Christian…” She hesitates again, pursing her lips together as though she’s trying to keep herself from saying something she’ll regret.

“And Christian?” I press her.

“You look gorgeous, Ana.”

And Christian?”

She sighs again. “The other dress is so much more modern and…” she bites her lip, clearly struggling for words. “When I first saw it, I imagined his jaw hitting the floor when he saw you appear at the end of the aisle. This dress is… pretty, but you are kind of lost in it.”

I stare at her for a long time and then, out of nowhere, suddenly burst into tears. The weight of the dress seems to pull on me and, as I dissolve into the torrent of emotion that’s been building inside of me since the moment Christian told me he’d changed our wedding plans, I crumple to the floor.

“Oh my god, Ana,” Kate says, rushing to my side. “I’m so sorry. It’s beautiful, it’s so beautiful, and you’re gorgeous. Christian is going to love it. Everyone is.”

“That’s true, Ana. You are going to be the most beautiful bride anyone has ever seen,” Grace adds and she falls to her knees next to me and pulls me into her arms.

“She’s right, though,” I sob. “This dress isn’t me. It isn’t Christian… at least I didn’t think it was. None of this feels right but he’s so insistent on making everything bigger and louder… do I not know him as well as I think I do?”

“Annie, he’s just excited,” Kate says, rubbing her hand over my back comfortingly. “He loves you and he wants to shout it from the rooftops. That’s all this is. And your wedding is going to be so beautiful. Hell, the entire city is treating it like a bigger deal than Will and Kate’s wedding. You’re like, Seattle’s very own princess. Your dress is fantastic.”

Her words don’t comfort me, in fact, they only make me sob harder, and Grace tightens her hold around me.

“It’s going to ruin everything. It’s too heavy. Christian and I have been taking ballroom lessons because I can’t dance to save my life and we’re going to be in front of hundreds of people… how am I supposed to do anything in this dress if I can’t move?”

“So we’ll get you a different dress for the reception. That’s not uncommon.”

“She has another dress…” Luke points out.

“No, like a dancing dress. Something that will look really great when you move.”

“I don’t have time to find and fit another dress, I’m getting married in two days, Kate.” Suddenly, my breath feels as though it freezes in my chest and I feel a wave of cold wash over me. “Two days. I’m getting married in two days…”

“Ana,” Grace says soothingly as my body begins to shake. “It’s okay, sweetie. Shhhh. You’re just feeling overwhelmed. This is just pre-wedding nerves, every girl gets them. You’re going to be okay.”

I shake my head. “I need out of this dress. Right now. Please, take it off.”

My hands reach desperately for the ties at the back of my dress and as Kate hurries to unfasten the bodice, the tears come more forcefully. When I’m finally free from the confines of the gown, her arms wrap around me again and she helps pull me to my feet.

“It’s okay, Ana. It’s going to be okay.”

“I’ll take care of the dress,” Grace says, looking worried. “Go get her back in her regular clothes and we’ll head home. We’ve got to be to the airport soon anyway.”

Kate nods and drags me into the changing rooms once again, and as I start to change out of the corset and petticoats and back into my jeans and loose fitting tank top, the tears stop and my body starts to relax.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper, wiping the moisture away from my eyes.

“What’s going on, Ana?”

“I just feel like I’m drowning. This wedding has taken on a life of it’s own. My book was released to the critics this week and Lydia has been calling me non-stop to talk about the feedback, but I haven’t had a chance to read any of it. I’m leaving on a book tour in five days and I don’t even know where I’m going because I haven’t had any time to look at the itinerary. Everything is moving so fast… I just need a second to breathe.”

“Why don’t you have a wedding planner helping you with all of this?”

“There wasn’t time for Taylor to vet another person. He’s already got his hands full with security for the actual wedding with the staff we’ve hired and the dozens of vendors that will be going in and out… not to mention this witch hunt he’s going on throughout GEH and Grey Construction.”

“What do you mean?”

“He traced payments from that offshore account to about a hundred different people but we have no idea if they’re all involved in this plot or if the person who’s behind this uses that account to pay anyone he contracts or does business with under the table. He started with Grey Construction, because Elliot’s CCTV footage proved that Gia didn’t leave that resignation note, and he found payments to people who are working on our new house. Taylor did a sweep of the whole property and found several issues with the security system they installed, spyware mostly, to collect the codes and so someone could have remote access to the cameras. They’ve been turned over to the… uh, they’ve been arrested,  but they’ve all given names we already know. Leila. Elena. Hyun. Clearly, they’ve rehearsed this.”

“Jesus…”

“There were like fifteen low level employees at GEH too, and some students at Harvard who I had classes with but never really talked to, but then there’s payments to dry cleaners, dog walkers, delivery services, repairmen, and a satellite company. Christian thinks that’s how he’s been keeping tabs on us, paying ordinary people to watch us and track our movements, but Taylor doesn’t think tracking each and every person on this list of people down and interrogating them is worth our resources. Especially if they’re being coached on what to say if they’re caught. We need some kind of real proof.”

“What about the people at GEH?”

“They’re being monitored, quietly. All of their communication coming in and going out is seen and read by Taylor or someone on his team first. I’m not really sure what they’re doing with it, or if any progress has been made because he and Christian are both being very tight lipped about their plans to handle this, but I think they’re trying to be less aggressive and more subtle in their approach since every time we think we’re getting close to someone who has real ties to him, they disappear, and it’s hard to get information out of someone who’s dead. It feels like we’re paddling upstream, you know. Fighting like crazy but not really getting anywhere.” I sigh. “The most important thing right now is to find out who he is, so Taylor is going to use the people we know he’s been in contact with and focus on doing that.”

“Well, as long as you’re safe, that’s all I care about. What are they doing to your house?”

“Complete overhaul. Everything has to be replaced. So, we’re not moving in as soon as we thought.”

“That’s sucks. I’m sorry…”

I nod, then tense as my phone rings in my purse, and when I reach inside and recognize the number as the bakery who we’ve hired to construct our massive, seven-tier wedding cake, my stress levels are instantly peaked again.

“Anastasia Steele,” I answer.

“Good Afternoon, Miss Steele. I’m calling from Sugar Cake Studio, and we’ve… had a miscommunication.”

“Miscommunication?”

“Yes, we’ve just finished the construction of your cake and the order form includes seven layers of madagascar vanilla cake, white chocolate raspberry filling, and buttercream frosting underneath white fondant, but the sugar english roses… our designer did them in gold.”

“Gold? No. Nothing in our wedding is gold. Just white and silver. They’re supposed to be silver.”

“I understand, Miss Steele, and you have my sincerest apologies, but with the number of roses it takes to finish your cake, there simply isn’t enough time to start over. They have to be hand crafted and set, painted…”

“I-I…” Instead of rushing through ideas of how to fix this, my mind goes completely blank and I feel as though I might be about to hyperventilate when Kate reaches out and takes the phone from me.

“What can we do to fix this?” she asks, and then pauses. “Do it then, whatever you can. Just make sure there is a cake there at one o’clock on Saturday. Great.” She hangs up and hands the phone back to me, and while I glance questioningly between her and my phone, she sighs.

“It’s cake, Ana. We’re two days away from the wedding, if something is goes wrong, it’s going to go wrong, and there’s no point in stressing about it. Just remember that by Saturday night, you’re going to be Mrs. Christian Grey. In the end, that’s all that matters, right?”

“Right. Thank you, Kate.” I take a deep breath, exhaling slowly, and as my body relaxes and catches up to my mind, she wraps an arm around me and squeezes me tightly into her side.

“You really need to unwind, babe. Luckily for you, I’ve got you covered.” She flashes a dazzling smile at me. “Let’s go.”

 

There’s a hoard of photographers outside, waiting for the first picture of the dress, so Grace takes the two, oversized, beige garment bags in her hands and uses them to shield herself while she and two salesgirls fight their way to the SUV parked on the curb. The diversion works fairly well for the most part, I’m at least able to get out of the store without being immediately surrounded. Once the photographers realize that I’m not the one climbing into the SUV though, they quickly turn around and Luke has to wrap himself around me and practically drag me to Kate’s car a few spaces back to get me there safely.

Inside her brand new, cherry red BMW, the crowd swarms us and I make a very purposeful gesture to shield my eyes with my left hand so they get plenty of pictures of my engagement ring. Last week, I dropped it off to get it cleaned and have the stone checked before I went to a dress fitting with Kate and Ros. When we left the dress shop, some photographer got a photo of me without my ring and the next day, three different local tabloids ran stories about how the wedding was off, and Christian went off the rails. Jacqueline, his PR manager, spent the entire day on the phone trying to force them to run a redaction, but to no avail. So, hopefully, when these photos get splashed all over some awful rag, at least some of those rumors will get cleared up.

“Head straight for Escala,” Luke tells Kate, sticking his head all the way in the car to prevent the photographers from hearing him. “We’ll be right behind you. No stops.”

“You got it, boss.” She whips out a pair of dark, oversized sunglasses to protect her vision from the flashing lights of the cameras and then slowly pulls away from the curb in the wake of people that Luke is able to make. Once she’s clear, she hits the gas and we speed off as best we can through downtown until we pull into the garage under Escala.

I notice, as we get out of the car and she pulls a suitcase far too large for one night out of her trunk, that my dad, Elliot, and Carrick are already here, which means that once Luke pulls into his own place with Grace, everyone is accounted for and we should be able to leave as soon as we get upstairs.

“Oh, I’m starting to get butterflies,” Grace says as the elevator hums to life and begins climbing the 31 floors to the penthouse. “I’m just so excited this day is finally here.” She wraps her arms around me from behind and kisses me on top of my head.

“Me too,” I tell her, although my butterflies feel more like bats.

When the doors open, we find Andrea pacing around the foyer on her cellphone, coordinating tuxedo delivery for tomorrow, but when she sees us step out of the elevator with the dress bags, she immediately dismisses whoever she’s on the phone with and tells them she’ll call them back.

“Wait, wait, wait! Is that the dress?”

“Yes,” I tell her.

“Okay…” She picks up a clipboard off the table in the center of the room and scans through the page attached. “It needs to go into the second guest room, and the spare needs to go in the first, so they don’t get confused. De Beers delivered your jewelry this afternoon, so it’s already up there, did you stop by Manolo Blahnik and get your shoes?”

“Oh, fuck,” I groan. “No, I completely forgot. Shit, what time is it?” I look down at my phone for the time, trying to figure out how I’m going to get downtown and back before we’re supposed to leave, but Andrea quickly reaches out and places a soothing hand on my forearm.

“Don’t worry about it, Ana. I’ll take care of it. Now that you’re home, your wedding weekend has officially commenced. You don’t worry about anything else, I’ll take it from here.”

“Thank you, Andrea,” I sigh with relief.

“Don’t mention it, Miss Steele. Or should I say, Mrs. Grey?” She winks and then moves past me to help Luke carry the heavy dress bags upstairs, while I move into the apartment to find my groom. At first, the only people I see are Carrick, Elliot, and my Dad, who are gathered by the window in eager conversation, but eventually my eyes fall on Christian, who is in the living room, hovering over Calliope in a plank position, doing push ups and kissing each of her cheeks as he falls down over the top of her.

“Must be nice to have so much energy to burn,” I say teasingly as I saunter towards them, and when he looks up, he beams.

“I’m getting married in two days, gotta look my best.”

Instantly, the image of the scale from this morning, displaying the last three pounds I just can’t seem to shed, comes to mind and I frown, which makes his smile falter for a second before he gets off the ground and comes at me with his hands reached out for my face. Once my cheeks are cupped in his palms, he kisses me fiercely.

“You are the most beautiful woman in the world,” he assures me. “Make no mistake, I’m the one really making out here. I know what a lucky son of a bitch I am to be giving you my name on Saturday.”

I bite down on my lower lip to pull back the ridiculous smile that wants to come out at his sweet words and then lean forward and peck him gently on the lips again. He hums and tries to deepen the kiss once more, but I quickly pull away.

“Behave,” I chastise him, and then move around him to Calliope still laid out over the blanket behind him. “Hi, sweetheart.”

I groan as I reach beneath the blankets and scoop her into my arms. Her eyes widen when I pull  her close to me, and when she reaches her tiny little hand from the bundle of blankets to grip my face with her little fingers, I feel myself melt.

“I missed you all day,” I coo at her, and then lean down and blow raspberries against her neck before kissing her all over her face. When I pull away, her face is lights up. “Awh… Are you sure we can’t take her with us?”

“The Vegas strip is no place for an infant,” Christian says.

“It’s been pretty good to us,” I argue, but he narrows his eyes in response.

“The things that have happened between you and I in Las Vegas are never going to happen to her. Over my dead body.”

“Well, Christian,” Kate interrupts. “If you don’t learn to relax a little bit, that’s gonna be in about five years. So, wha’d’you say we get out of here and let loose a little, huh?”

“Whenever you’re ready, Kate,” he placates her. She smiles and turns back to the room.

“Alright, everyone. Let’s roll out.”

“Vegas!” Elliot yells. Christian’s mom lets out an awkward whoop and punches her fist into the air, and as everyone else in the room devolves into laughter, I look back down at the baby in my arms and frown.

“She’s not going to think we’re abandoning her, right?”

“She’s just a baby, sweetheart, and you’re only going to be gone one night,” my dad says. “She and I are going to be just fine.”

I nod but hesitate before I pass her off to him. “Ava will be here, and so will Mrs. Jones, if you need any help. And Ryan is here for security. And you can call me if anything happens. Anything. Christian and I will get on a plane and…”

“Your lack of confidence in my parenting skills is astounding sometimes,” he says dryly, and while I try to brush his sarcasm off with a laugh, it comes out as more of a nervous whimper and I hug Calliope close to my chest again.

“Be good for Grandpa,” I whisper as I hug her. “Mommy will miss you. So, so much.”

“Ana…” Christian presses me, and slowly I shift her from my arms to my father’s. Christian steps forward and kisses Calliope softly on the head, and then reaches forward to grip my father’s arm.

“You’re sure you won’t join us?” he asks. “We have plenty of people to hold the fort down here and look after Calli, you’re more than welcome to come along.”

“Surprising, I don’t think my future son-in-law’s bachelor party is really the place for me.”

“It might help to have you along,” I joke. “God only knows what Elliot has planned.”

“Oh, you know what I have planned,” Elliot laughs from the archway that leads to the foyer. “If you think long and hard enough about it, I bet you can imagine everything I have planned.”

I grimace, and my father raises an eyebrow at me. “See? You kids have fun. Calli and I will be here when you get home.”

“I love you, Daddy.” I kiss him on the cheek and give Calliope one last guilty look before Christian hooks his hand through my elbow and pulls me gently towards the elevators where everyone else is waiting.

 

The long, stretch limo downstairs that is waiting to take us to the airport is once again surrounded by reporters, so our family makes a kind of human shield around Christian and I while Luke and Taylor hold up jackets to block our faces from the flashes. Once we’re inside though, we relax behind the darkly tinted windows, which adequately black out the photographers we know are still trying to get a photo, and join in the increasingly celebratory mood with the rest of our family. Even Christian doesn’t seem annoyed by the loud music or Kate’s obnoxious selfie taking. In fact, he and Elliot look more like best friends than I’ve ever seen them before as they joke around with each other the entire way to the airport.

When we pull onto the tarmac at SeaTac, the doors to the plane are already open, and we find that it’s because  Ros, Gwen, Mia, one of the two security guards Christian hired for his family, and a young girl I don’t know, are already aboard.

“Christian!” Ros cries as he comes around the front bulkhead and moves down the center of the plane. She leaps out of her seat and wraps her arms around the back of his head. “I can’t believe this day is finally here. I’m so happy for you! And Ana!” She moves to hug me in the same overzealous fashion. “I don’t know why, but it feels like we’re about to be family and I’m so excited about it.” She pauses, and then laughs. “We’re going to be like sister wives.”

“No, you’re not,” Christian says flatly. He looks irritated as he pushes me past her and into the pair of seats across the aisle, but before he sits down, he reaches over to knock the back of his hand against his sister’s knee. She’s huddled together in a pair of seats a row back and across from us, giggling with the girl I don’t know, so when she turns to look at Christian, she seems almost annoyed.

“What?”

“What?” Christian repeats. “How about, hi?”

“Hi.” She tries to turn back around to her friend, but Christian doesn’t let her.

“Where have you been? I’ve called you probably ten times and you’ve never answered or called me back. What are you, avoiding me?”

“No.” She’s defensive now. “I’m just busy. Summer recital is coming up and I’m a lead this year. I’ve been at rehearsal every day.”

“Well, Ana’s leaving next week on her book tour so I’ve got some free time. I’d like to take you to lunch or dinner, maybe have you come stay at Escala one night.”

“Can’t. I have several lifts in this show, so I’m eating very clean and low calorie. That doesn’t bode well for eating out.”

He narrows his eyes. “We live in Seattle, there’s plenty of restaurants that cater to clean eating. Or, Gail can cook for us.”

“That’s okay. Thanks, though.”

“Mia.” He sounds almost wounded. “You’re my sister, and I miss you. I want to spend some time with you. Besides, I thought you wanted to talk to me?”

She quickly shakes her head. “No. Nothing. I just… I just wanted to tell you to be careful. You know, with everything going on.” Her eyes shift up for a half second to the rest of our family filling in the seats at the front of the plane and then back to her friend. Her friend though doesn’t seem to be paying attention to her anymore. Instead, her gaze is fixed on her brother.

“Hi, Christian,” she says, waving her fingers at him in a very shy manner.

“Hello, Tabitha,” Christian replies. The girl starts to giggle and turns back to whisper to Mia and after a few seconds, Mia pulls away, rolls her eyes, and shakes her head.

“You’re so stupid, Tibby. He’s getting married.”

Christian lets out a sigh as he slumps down into the seat next to me, and I give him a teasing smile.

“So, you and Tibby, huh?”

His eyes narrow. “No.”

“She’s a little young for you,” I continue, ignoring his dismissive tone. “But she’s cute in an underage child kind of way…”

“Ana…”

“Do I have to go beat her up?”

Finally, he cracks a smile. “Stop.”

I giggle and pull up the armrest between us so I can cuddle against him until we take off and I have to put a seatbelt on. Natalia comes up the aisles while the pilot does the final pre-flight checks and passes out glasses of champagne, which both Mia and Tabitha very unsubtly sneak off her tray, but before we take our first sip, Carrick stands at the front of the plane and gives a toast.

“To my son, Christian, and his beautiful bride, Anastasia. We all love you, so much, and we’re so proud to be here to support you on this joyous day. I wish you both nothing but happiness and a lifetime worth of love. To Christian and Ana.”

“Christian and Ana!”

Christian leans over and places a gentle kiss against my lips before we raise our glasses and toast with the rest of our family, but as the plane begins taxing over the airfield, Kate and Elliot start digging through their bags to pass out the very first of their party favors. My guests receive bright pink lei’s that have tiny plastic penises between each flower, while Elliot’s all get a bottle of craft beer.

My first impression, Elliot- 1 Kate- 0.

“You’re not putting a penis on me,” I say firmly as Kate approaches Christian and I.

“Funny…” she muses. “That doesn’t sound like you.”

Christian glares at her as she laughs but instead of pulling out a Lei, she slips a glittery, pink pageant sash over my head that has the words “Future Mrs. Grey” screen printed across the front. Once I slide it in place, she puts a tiara in my hair and then leans over to kiss me on the forehead.

“Get ready for the ride of your life, Anastasia.” With a wink, she turns back for the front of the plane, and Christian raises an eyebrow at me.

“The ride of your life, huh? Clearly she doesn’t get what goes on behind closed doors.” I giggle under his hungry gaze and then take a sip of champagne, letting the upbeat mood of everyone around us and the warmth of Christian’s arm holding me tightly against him wash away all of my anxiety and uncertainty over the impending circus of a wedding taking place on Saturday as we gently rise into the sky.

 

It’s fairly late in the afternoon when we finally touch down in Vegas, and waiting for us on the tarmac are two separate stretch limousines. The driver with the sign that says “Grey” stands before a classic sleek, black limo, much like the one we took from Escala to the airport, while the driver holding the “Steele” sign, opens the door to a stretch, pink Escalade.

“Oh my god, Kate!” Mia shrieks excitedly. She hooks her arms through Tibby’s and streaks for the Escalade, and after Grace and Gwen have hugged and kissed their partners good-bye, they follow after the girls with Luke, Kommer, and Harrison.

“Where are you staying?” Kate checks with Elliot.

“The Venetian. You?”

“Aria. And you get 1Oak, we get Hyde.”

“That was the deal,” Elliot agrees. Kate nods and turns away from him, but he reaches out, grabs her arm, and pulls her back to him. “Hey… have fun tonight, okay?”

“Oh… yeah, you too.”

His tongue brushes swiftly over his bottom lip, but after a heated moment of pause between them, he eventually takes a deep breath, releases her arm, and nods. “Make sure my sister-in-law gets home safe, okay?”

“I will.” Kate leans up on her toes and kisses him on the cheek before she turns for the Escalade, and Elliot watches her forlornly as she disappears inside, before finally nodding to Christian and following Carrick, Taylor, Ros, and his own CPO into the other car.

Christian sighs. “Don’t drink too much, okay?”

“I won’t,” I promise, and then I give him a worried look before I lean in and very purposefully kiss him. “This is mine,” I whisper against his lips, kissing him again. “And this is mine.” My hand curls around his groin. “Anything else… I don’t want to hear about.”

“You have nothing to worry about, baby. I love you very much.”

“I love you too. Have fun.”

He kisses me one last time, but as the jeering and cat calls start pouring out of our respective rides, we finally part and go our separate ways.

The flow of alcohol begins in the limo and continues the moment we arrive at our resort. We’re greeted in the main lobby with another tray of champagne and then escorted up to the executive penthouse suite, where all the bars have been unlocked and an array of cocktail mixers have been laid over the table.

“James,” Grace says nervously to the bodyguard that came along with Mia to the airport. “You’ll keep an eye on all of this tonight… with the girls?” She waves her arms at all the alcohol, and her CPO nods.

“Of course, Ma’am.”

“We’re not even going to be here, Mom,” Mia says. “After dinner, Tibby and I are going shopping in the Forum Shops and then coming back here and hanging out at the pool.”

“Alright, dear.” She leans down and kisses the top of Mia’s hair just as Kate calls everyone’s attention by clanging a fork against a bottle of Grey Goose.

“Ladies, make yourselves a cocktail and then go get ready for an amazing night out. Dinner at Ra in an hour!” She squeals with excitement and then pulls my arm to lead me into the largest bedroom in the suite.

The proficiency in which Kate gets the both of us ready is almost terrifying, especially when she shoves me into the cavernous shower in the bathroom and then immediately climbs in after me. Her hands fly like lightning as she adds product to my hair and face over the bathroom sink and I’m amazed at how she does one thing to me, then something completely different to herself, without ever missing a beat.

“Aaaaaaand, done,” she says with pride, and then smiles. “You look hot, Ana.”

She’s right. As I glance around her to the mirror, I’m almost taken aback. The contour she applied is flawless and my hair is perfectly silky, straight, and so shiny it looks like I just walked off the set of a Pantene commercial. Though the rose gold, sequined dress she slips me into has ¾ sleeves and a high neckline, it’s probably tighter and shorter than I think Christian would be comfortable with, but it actually looks really great on me. It’s exactly the confidence boost I need, not only for tonight, but for this entire weekend, so, as I hop off the stool in front of the mirror, I grin at her, finally ready for my last fling before the ring.

Surprisingly, Grace is the one who takes the longest to get ready, so Kate, Gwen, and I wait around the counter with Mia and Tabitha, working our way through our third cocktail. I can already feel my head begin to swim and we haven’t even left the hotel room yet, but as I reach for one of the water bottles on the counter to try and slow down the effect of the alcohol, I’m distracted by Kate and Ros suddenly whooping. When I turn to look, I see Grace coming out of her bedroom and my mouth nearly drops to the floor. She looks phenomenal.

“Damn, Mom!” Mia exclaims.

“Don’t say damn, dear… but thank you.” She twirls to show off her sparkling black cocktail dress, her face lit up with bashful, but very pleased, embarrassment.

“You don’t think it’s too much?”

“Definitely not. You’ve still got it, Mama Grey,” I tell her.  

She winks. “That’s right. You girls may have nabbed my boys, but let’s not forget who landed the original Grey.”

We all laugh as she pops her hip out and then gather our things before heading downstairs where the Escalade is still waiting to take us to dinner.

It’s almost a little isolating in the car, because the way we’re seated leaves Kate and I kind of on our own, like an island, while Gwen, Mia, Tabitha, and Grace can all talk with each other. It’s nice though, because it gives me a moment alone with my best friend that I might not get again before the wedding.

“Are you ready?” she asks.

“Yeah,” I reply, but like she always does, she picks up on the hesitation in my voice.

“Uh oh. You’re not… changing your mind?”

“No, it’s not that. I want to be Christian’s wife more than anything, that’s the thing I keep clinging to… But the wedding, it’s kind of ridiculous. I don’t know why Christian wants all of the… noise.

“You know… I’ve said to Elliot over and over again that this big white wedding you’re having doesn’t feel like you and Christian. He’s normally so private…”

“Right? I don’t understand any of this, unless… I know he still has nightmares about me leaving him again and he has triggers for things that remind him of when we weren’t together, so part me wonders if he’s doing this huge ceremony to feel more secure. He wants me to make a statement about my commitment to him, a big one, that I can’t back out of because I made that statement to the entire world.”

“But you won’t…”

“I know.” I take a deep breath and sigh. “Or maybe he’s making the statement. He’s finally tied me down and he wants the world to know I’m his. Like property. This whole thing kind of feels like a big cattle auction, and I’m up for bid.”

She bites her lip. “I don’t know… it’s weird, I’ll give you that, but Christian loves you, Ana. He probably just wants to celebrate that in a big, big way.”

“That’s what he says. And, I don’t know… maybe.” I feel the stress and anxiety I felt in the bridal shop begin to creep back over me, so I quickly shake my head and try to change the subject.

“I don’t want to talk about the wedding right now, or tonight. Tell me about you. What’s going on with you and Elliot?”

She frowns. “Nothing. Nothing is going on.”

“Why? I thought you two were making progress? He’s all over you…”

“I know, and I thought so too. He even took me to dinner a few days ago and told me he’s still in love with me. He wants to get back together.”

“Well, then… Great!”

She shakes her head. “Nothing’s changed though. He still doesn’t want marriage, he still doesn’t want kids. He’s willing to promise me forever, but it’s just a promise between him and I. I was hoping seeing how happy Christian is with the wedding coming up and with Calliope, that he would change his mind, but no. It’s just not the future he wants.”

“That’s–” I stop, not really sure what to say to her, and then sigh in defeat. “I’m so sorry, Katie.”

She pulls her bottom lip into her mouth, sucking on it for a moment, and as I watch her, I notice her eyes glassing over with the tears she’s trying to hold back.

“I don’t know what to do. I want him, Ana. It’s so hard being around him and not being able to touch him the way I want to, or kiss him, or take him home with me and just… rip into him. Being around him all the time… I’m craving physical intimacy. And I love him. I really, really love him, and I don’t want to be with anyone else. Ever. And I don’t want him to be with anyone else. When I think about him and Gia, his hands on her body, his mouth…” She pauses, hanging her head. I reach over to pull her into me so I can wrap my arms around her, but she pulls away and gives me an almost pleading look. “I think I just have to give up on trying to change him, or change his mind, accept what is, and let myself be happy. Even if it means giving up marriage or ever having a child.”

I feel that like a punch to the heart. Calliope is only eleven weeks old, but I’ve already completely forgotten what life was like without her. She’s changed me and shown me the true extend of my ability to love another human being. Even thinking about her now makes me ache to have her in my arms… The idea that Kate may never have that for herself feels devastating.

“Is that really what will make you happy?” I ask.

She shrugs. “What would you have done? If Christian told you that he wouldn’t marry you and he wouldn’t give you children, would you have walked away?”

No.

Not for anything.

Thankfully, Christian was not only willing to give me those things, but he wanted them too. And as I look at the pain in Kate’s eyes, I once again feel a wave of guilt over my reservations about the wedding Christian wants. Kate might never have any of this, and here I am worrying over the details of one day out of the rest of forever.

“I’m going to tell him when we get back,” she says, reading my answer in my silence. “If he’s really committed to me, if he’s really in this forever, I don’t need a ring and I don’t need wedding. All I need is him.”

I nod, and then lean over to kiss her on top of her head. She takes a deep breath to gather herself again, and as the limo comes to a stop, she turns and smiles at me. “Enough with the heavy. Let’s go celebrate you.”

 

The restaurant, Ra, ends up being a sushi place, which serves some of the best salmon rolls I’ve ever had. We talk and laugh with each other until Kate has everyone around the table tell their favorite story about Christian and I. Gwen’s is a little embarrassing, as I’ve only really hung out with her a few times and thus her story centers around the time she and I halfway talked about the size of Christian’s penis. Mia’s involves me falling down a mountain on skis and Christian nearly beating the shit out of Elliot, and Kate simply talks about all the times we would have dinner together in Cambridge, both from our freshman year and my senior year, and she would just stop and watch the way Christian looked at me.

“It’s an incredible thing,” she says. “Being able to see the way you love each other. It fills my heart with so much joy to know that my best friend has found her soulmate.”

“Katie…” Tears well in my eyes as I lean over to wrap her in a tight hug and as she whispers how much she loves me into my ear, we both break down into full on tears.

“Alright,” Luke says from the seat on my other side. “I think we can slow down on the alcohol a little…” He reaches over to take the cocktail in front of me, but I turn and glare at him.

“I’m getting married, I’m allowed to be emotional. You should prepare yourself, I’m going to be crying a lot over the next few days.”

“But not tonight,” Kate sniffs. “Tonight is about celebrating.” She wipes the moisture away from her eyes and reaches into the bag she’s brought along with her. “Okay, we’re going to start our night with a little scavenger hunt, and once you’ve done everything on the list, we’ll end up at a nightclub where we can dance the rest of the night away.”

“Oooh, a scavenger hunt?” Grace asks. “Fun.”

“It’s a little naughty,” Kate says, and then turns to look at Mia and Tabitha. “You two, make yourselves scarce.”

“Fine,” Mia sighs. She gets out of her chair and comes around the table to hug me. “Have fun, Ana. I can’t believe that you’re going to be my real life sister in only two days. I’m so excited.”

“I love you, Meems.”

“You too.” I kiss her on the cheek as she pulls away, and after waving good-bye to her mom, she, Tibby, and her CPO leave the restaurant to have their own fun for the night.

“Alright,” Kate says, bringing the attention back to her. “Now, Ana. I need you to promise me that you’re going to do everything on this list, exactly as you’re instructed. No chickening out, you promise?”

I give her a suspicious look. “I don’t know, Kate….”

“Oh come one, Ana,” Gwen presses me. “Live the night to the fullest!”

“I promise I won’t make you like… cheat on Christian. Well, not a lot anyway.”

“Kate!”

“Kidding! This is just meant to loosen you up and make tonight a truly memorable experience. Nothing too crazy.”

I sigh. “Alright… if it’s not too crazy.”

“Great! Then let’s get started.” She looks down at the list in her hand and smiles at me. “Ladies, who wants to go see some hot, half naked Australian boys?”

Gwen rolls her eyes, but Kate and Grace’s excitement is enough to negate her lack of interest in male genitalia, and we all return to the Escalade in a fit of giggles. I actually wondered, when Elliot finally talked Christian into letting him throw a Vegas bachelor party, if Thunder From Down Under would be a part of what Kate had planned, but when we step into the limo and I see three extraordinarily well built men sitting on the pink upholstery waiting for us, I very quickly realize we’re not going to a show.

“Kate!”

She grins, reaches into her purse, and pulls out an enormous stack of ones. “Have a seat, Annie!”

I think my face must be beat red as she forces me down into a seat, and once a very uncomfortable Luke, Harrison, and Kommer have taken their seats and closed the door behind them, music fills the car and the men get up and start dancing.

It doesn’t take long before they’re stripped down to essentially nothing, and all of the something that’s covered by nothing, is right in my face. I let out an embarrassed squeal as two of them tie my wrists down with silk scarves, and as the third one climbs over my lap and begins grinding all over me, he looks down and flashes me a white, toothy smile.

“Is that alright, baby?”

“Uh…”

“She’s fine,” Kate laughs. “She’s used to being tied down.”

“Oh dear lord,” Grace says, and as I look over, she buries her face in her hands.

“Just relax, sweetheart,” he says. “We’re here to make you feel reeeeeeeeeeeeeal good.”

I bite down on my lip as the hip thrusting and gyrating intensifies with the music, but as the two other dancers move on to Kate and Grace, I feel a little less embarrassed. In fact, by the time we reach our second destination and my extraordinarily erotic lapdance comes to an end, the inside of my thighs are heated and aching for the attention of a certain handsome billionaire, who I know is in this city, but is also out of reach.

“That was task number one?” I ask Kate pointedly, as we get out of the limo.

She smiles. “Yep. And now for task number two. I think it’s time you start collecting things? Don’t you?”

She gives me a pointed look as she hooks her arm through mine and leads me into a building littered with stands selling alcohol on either side and tiny shops that sell clothes I don’t think I’d ever dream of wriggling into… well, unless it was for Christian’s eyes only. She leads me down the open breezeway, buying me shots or drinks at every stand we pass, until we end up in a bar that isn’t quite a club, but is filled with loud music and tons of people dancing.

It’s here where we work our way through most of the list, which  entails me getting a condom from a stranger, taking a blow job shot out of some guy I’ve never met’s lap, finding a man named Christian and convincing him to give me his phone number, and getting as many free drinks out of interested men as possible. Unfortunately for my sobriety, that isn’t a hard task to accomplish in this dress.

It’s nearly 11 by the time we stumble back to the Escalade, and Luke is already practically holding me up.

“Alright, I think it’s time to head back to the room,” he says, but Kate drunkenly shakes her head.

“No, we’ve got one more thing to do and then we’re going to the club.”

“Kate…” he tries to protest, but she leans over and places a finger over his lips.

“Shhhhhh. She’s okay. Here, Ana. Drink some water.” I take the water bottle from her and then take a deep breath before I slam half of it down. It does seem to help as I come a little bit more alert, but that may also just be from the cold, not the water itself.

“Luke,” I groan, allowing my body to fall sideways so I’m leaning against his shoulder. “You’re really one of my best friends, do you know that? Sometimes I hate that you work for Christian because I don’t want you to think you’re less important to me than anyone else in this car. I really love you. Like, a lot.”

He laughs. “You are so drunk.”

“I’m fiiiiiiiiine.”

“Mhmmm… then I’m going to need you to say right now, in front of everyone, that I’m actually your best friend. Me first, Kate second. And it will forever remain law in the eyes of this family.” He gives me a teasing smirk that make me laugh, and I lean up and kiss the tip of his nose, before melting back into his side.

“Everyone is equal in the eyes of the Lord.”

He bursts out laughing as we come to a stop and then slips another water bottle into the pocket of his jacket. “Don’t wander away from me,” he says firmly, before allowing me to file out behind Kate. “If I can’t touch you, you’re too far.”

“Yes, sir,” I slur.

The last stop ends up being Caesar’s Palace, and Kate leads us all to a side courtyard with all the stealth of a spy, but while she probably assumes she’s being as smooth as 007, a more apt descriptor would probably be the Pink Panther. Or Mr. Bean.

“Okay, okay, okay,” she whispers trying to get everyone to calm down. “Ana, you’re last objective, is to take off your panties, and leave them on this statue.”

“Kate!” I exclaim. “That’s vandalism.”

“No, it’s not. Not the bad kind anyway.”

“But, these a La Perla.”

“Oh, shut up, Ana,” Gwen interjects with a giggle. “You’re going to be a billionaire in two days. You can afford to lose a pair of panties.”

“We’re going to get arrested.”

“Not if you hurry up so we can get out of here. Come on!”

“But… but…” I stand there sputtering, but under the insistent gazes of the rest of my party, even Grace who has taken to tonight like a schoolgirl on her very first night out with the girls, I eventually sigh and reach beneath my dress.

“Hurry!” Kate says, standing in front of me so no one else will see what I’m doing. I ease the lace band past my behind and then shimmy them down my legs by shaking my hips. Once they’ve pooled on the ground at my feet, I scoop them up and very quickly slide them over the tiny feet of the cupid swimming around the woman carved from stone, towering over us.

“There!” I say once I’ve pulled them up as far as they can go.

“Awesome, now let’s get out of here,” Kate squeaks, and she grabs my arm and pulls me from the courtyard as quickly as she can.

We intended to end the night at the Bellagio, but the grounds of Caesar’s Palace are so vast, that we decide it’s easier to get into Omnia here, than the club at the resort one over. Thankfully, the bouncers at the door are more than willing to let us pass the line, especially with the hundred dollar tip I fish out of my bag, and after handing my black card to the hostess, we’re led to one of the clubs most exclusive tables and brought bottle service of Skyy Vodka and Patron.

The music is loud and the ocean of people on the dance floor in front of us is obscured by confetti and glitter floating in the air and the blinding, colored strobe lights that stream through every angle of the club. Kate lays out a line of shot glasses for everyone, but as I watch her pour the clear liquid into my glass, I grip onto Luke’s sleeve and pull him close so I can shout into his ear.

“I need to pee!”

He nods, takes my hand and pulls me from the plush couches to guide me to the bathroom. It’s an interesting journey to say the least. We pass a couple pushed up against the wall and the guy’s head is beneath the girl’s dress as he squats to go down on her. I’m also pretty sure I see someone take a line of coke off the sink in the bathroom. But none of that is as shocking as coming out of the stall and finding Mia and Tabitha, reapplying lip gloss in the bathroom mirror.

“Amelia!” I exclaim. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

“Ana!” The tube she holds in her hand drops into the sink as she turns around to face me, shock clear on her face. “Wha–what are you doing here? I thought you were going to Hyde.”

“We changed our minds.” I watch as she stumbles backwards in her heels and then frown. “Are you drunk?”

“No,” she says quickly, but Tabitha giggles.

“Yeah.”

“How did you even get in here?”

“A Grey credit card and a pair of fake IDs.”

Mia turns to glare at Tabitha. “Will you shut up!”

“Why? She’s not your mom.”

“No, worse. She’ll tell Christian. My mom will ground me, Christian will lock me up in a tower forever and never let me out. Or worse, he’ll take away the money he promised me for Juilliard.”

“He will not,” I tell her. “But make no mistake, you are in so much trouble. Where is your CPO?”

“We… kind of ditched him in the Forum Shops…”

“Amelia…” My voice is tight as I hold back all the things I want to scream at her, remind her of the unresolved threat still looming over us and how, as one of the most important people in Christian’s life, she’s a target, and something horrible could have happened to her. Unfortunately, I’m a little too drunk for that point to come across correctly and I don’t think the bathroom of a nightclub in Las Vegas, with at least a dozen interested onlookers watching us, is the place to have that discussion. So instead, I grab her by the arm and drag her back out to the hall with me, where Luke is waiting.

“What the…” Luke begins, but I cut him off.

“James whatever his name is, he’s fired.” Mia protests as I push her forward, back to the table where Kate, Grace, Gwen, and the rest of my security team are still waiting. When I pull her down on the seat next to Kate, Grace’s eyes widen to the size of dinner plates.

“What in the world…”

“They didn’t know we’d be here. They used to fake IDs to get in.” I reach down and pick up the last shot in the line and quickly slug it down. Grace’s face turns red with anger and she immediately yanks Mia to the side to scream at her the way I wanted to in the bathroom, but Kate quickly diverts my attention, refusing to let the weight of what could have happened and the reality of what did, affect the night.

Harrison ends up escorting both Mia and Tabitha back to the room, where he will stay with them for the rest of the night, and once Luke gets the text that they’re back and safe for the night, I feel much better and am able to engage with Kate again the way she wants me to. We dance with Gwen to the booming beat, until the electric synths buzz through the club and Britney’s new song begins thumping from the speakers next to the DJ.

“Let me guess,” Luke shouts. “You love this song?”

“I do!” Kate screams, and she quickly pulls Gwen and I up onto the table. Our bodies sway together in rhythm with the uptempo beat, and as I finally lose the fight and succumb to the overpowering alcohol coursing through my system, I feel a sense of freedom and euphoria as the music pulses through my body. Everything feels so good right now, unburdened by worry about the wedding. I can feel the music in my body, moving me, and it makes me feel kind of graceful, the way only Christian usually can. A moan escapes my lips as I once again think his name, and while I grind against Kate, I feel the need for him that had been awakened earlier in the limo rear it’s head once more. That is, until the song starts to die down and I feel a hand wrap around my wrist, pulling me off the table and onto the sofa again. When I look up to see who grabbed me, I see an angry pair of gray eyes piercing into mine.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Christian yells at me, and while the extent of his anger is slightly disconcerting, I understand it when I smell the alcohol wash over my face with his breath.

“Christian? I thought you were going to 1Oak?”

“Is that why you’re half-naked, standing on a table and shaking your ass for the entire damn world to see?”

I laugh and pull him down on the sofa next to me by his shirt, then immediately move on top of him so that I’m straddling his lap.

“I thought you liked my ass?”

“I do. And so does every horny son-of-a-bitch within a hundred foot radius of you.”

“Mmm,” I hum, and then lean down and kiss him deeply, forcing my tongue in his mouth as I grind over his lap.

“Ana…”

“You want to own me, Christian? You want to put on this big show to stake your claim to the world and keep every other man from looking at me? Do it. Own me.” I kiss him again, but he eases me back.

“What are you talking about?”

“You know that I’m never going to leave you, right? You know that I love you, only you, and nothing is ever going to change that? You don’t need to the media and whole big circus, I’m already yours. But if you want to own me… own me. I want you to. Right now.” I lean down and brush my lips against his ear. “Master.

He groans and as I begin sucking his earlobe, his hands move down to my ass over my dress, but when the fabric ends and his fingers find their way between my legs, he immediately tenses.

“What the— where are your panties, Anastasia?”

I giggle. “On a baby.”

“What?!”

I grip either side of his face and kiss him again, and this time he kisses me back. Or rather, he overtakes me, dominates me with just his tongue and his lips, and it sets my libido on fire.

“I want you to fuck me, Christian.” I whisper.

He bites my bottom lip and tugs. “You’re in so much trouble, I’m not sure you really want that right now.”

I smile. “Do your worst.”

His eyes turn dark as I lean backwards, and he quickly shifts me off his lap. After helping me to my feet, he leans in to speak to Taylor and then drags me from the booth. I hear Kate calling after me, but I can’t respond. Christian is already pulling me through the tightly packed crowd, and he doesn’t stop once until we’re through the main doors, where he asks the doorman to call his car.

“The Venetian,” Christian barks at the driver, and after Taylor climbs into the front seat and closes the door behind him, we pull through the messy flow of cabs and limousines and Christian’s fingers start drumming impatiently on the leather upholstery. We’re alone, and the security partition between us and the driver is up, so I half expect him to take this opportunity to ravish me. In fact, I’m kind of hoping for it, but he doesn’t. He simply stares stoically out the side window at the break lights all around us, and continues to tap his irritation into the seat next to him with the tips of his fingers.

It takes forever to get down the long driveway from the front doors of Caesars Palace to Las Vegas Blvd, and even longer to turn into the overcrowded traffic, halted by pedestrians stumbling drunkenly through the crosswalks and across the middle of the road. I think it would have probably been much shorter to simply walk across the skybridge towards the Venetian, but the security risk of walking through this many people with only Taylor with us is too great, so… we sit and wait in the gridlock. The entire way back, Christian never speaks to me. He hardly even looks at me and I can’t tell if his silence is real anger left over from finding me in the position he did at Omnia or simply impatience. I wouldn’t blame him for the latter, my own thighs are clenched tightly together as I sit and stew in my anticipation, but the more I think about the former, the more I worry. I did tell him to do his worst…

I swallow my nerves as we finally pull up in front of the Venetian and Taylor helps me out of the back of the limousine. He doesn’t have hold of me long though as Christian quickly appears around the back of the car, takes my hand, and begins dragging me into the resort. We snake across the casino floor towards the elevators, which are mercifully empty, but the anxious grin that begins to creep into the corner of my lips at the thought of an empty elevator is immediately washed away when Taylor steps through the doors behind us. Again, it’s silent as we ride up to the penthouse and it has my nerves peaked again. When Taylor steps to the side and allows us to enter the room, finally alone, I’m almost to the point where I’m not sure I want to be.

I muse to myself what Christian’s worst could possibly look like, but when I hear the final and nearly deafening sound of the door clicking closed behind us, all thought falls out of my head and I glance up into his cold, gray eyes nervously.

“Eyes down,” he commands. I comply immediately. “You want this?”

I bite down on my lip, reminding myself that Christian would never hurt me and I’m the one always pressing for more of his kinkier predilections. With a breath, I nod.

He doesn’t respond to me, instead, his hands suddenly grip my arms tightly and push against me, forcing me into the wall at my back so that his lips can claim mine with a possessive kind of hunger. I try to kiss him back, but he bites down on my lip, making me whimper, and then begins ravishing me with his tongue again. I succumb, letting him take over and do what he’s so, so good at.

His hands find their way under my dress again and when his fingers brush against my naked lips, he growls, captures my teeth between his lips, and tugs enough that it’s just this side of painful. I groan into his mouth as first one, then a second finger finds its way inside of me, but while he pumps them fiercely in and out of me and the need for this release that has been building inside of me all night suddenly begins building out of control into a quick and hot orgasm, suddenly he stops.

“Wait, no….” I protest. He smiles against my lips.

“Oh, baby. You think I’m going to let you come now? No. You have take your punishment first.”

“Punishment?”

His hand grips tightly onto mine again so he can drag me back into the bedroom, but this time I’m so dazed from the alcohol and the still poignant ache now demanding attention between my legs, that I stumble in my heels. He catches me, lifts me over his shoulder, and continues on until he tosses me onto his bed. I turn and look at him, anticipating him removing his clothes or perhaps simply diving at me again, but he doesn’t. He sits calmly on the edge of the bed and reaches out for me.

“Come.”

Slowly, I slide off the silky bedding and move to stand in front of him. He pulls me down on top of him, with enough force that I fall, but his strong arms secure themselves around me and then, very deliberately, he lays me over his knee.

Oh…

“I’m going to spank you, Anastasia. Do you know why?”

“Because I wasn’t wearing panties.”

He lets out a dark laugh. “You weren’t wearing panties while flaunting your body to the dozens of men staring at you, coveting you. You are mine, Anastasia, and I don’t like other men having certain thoughts about what is mine. Especially, when you’re encouraging them.”

“I wasn’t, I-I–” I feel the blood rushing to my head from being splayed over Christian’s lap, and it makes the effects of the alcohol stronger, keeping me from explaining, defending myself. So, when my words cut off, he pulls the hem of my dress over my behind and inhales sharply at the sight of my bare flesh.

“Why else?”

“I… Um…”

“What did I say to you at the airport?”

“You said… um…”

“I told you not to drink too much, and then I find you hanging off of Kate on a table in a nightclub. That’s not particularly sober behavior, is it, Anastasia? Drinking I can tolerate. Excessive public intoxication on the other hand…” His tongue clicks and then his hand brushes over my backside. Even that touch stokes the fire of desire inside of me, and to my surprise, when I open my legs, his hand moves down and glides through my lips.

“Jesus, you’re already wet,” he hisses, his fingers toying with my clitoris.

“Christian, please…” I beg.

“Not yet, baby. First.” His hand disappears and then slaps, hard, against me a split second later. The shock reverberates through my whole body and yet it feeds the hunger inside of me. The part of me that craves this, that asked for this, rejoices in the brutal contact, and when his hand stops massaging my ass and disappears again, I wait for the sharp bite of pain to come again with excited anticipation.

“Yes,” I whisper, and as I bite into the folds in his slacks around his knee, he lets out a satisfied breath, and hits me again. I rejoice in blow after blow, not only for the way the heat from the pain seems to electrify my body, but in the feeling of not being in control. To put yourself completely in the hands of someone you trust and who you love is surprising liberating, almost intoxicating, and as he hits me for the final time, I find that I want more. So much more. But I don’t want to just give my submission to him, I want him to claim it.

He’s panting from need and exertion when he finally eases me off his knee. I wince slightly as I settle down onto the floor, but stop when his hand grips my chin and he forces me to look up at him.

“Enough?” he asks, his voice husky.

I don’t answer. Instead I lunge up at him, knocking him back onto the bed and kissing him hard. He isn’t stunned or taken aback, he immediately shifts me off of him and rolls me onto the bed so that he can completely cover my body with his own, effectively subduing me, and the weight of him on top of me instantly connects with all of my reward receptors.

“No, no, baby. Not tonight. Tonight, you do only as I say. Tonight, you are mine to do with as I please. Understand?”

“Yes.”

“What was that?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Mmm, good girl.” He begins moving down my body, kissing my neck and the lines of my collar bones, undressing me as he moves down my body. Once my dress is gone, and his mouth reaches my breasts, his gentle ministrations come to an end. He sucks hard on the swell of my breast, enough that I have to reach down and stop him.

“Wait, my dress… you can’t give me hickeys, they’ll show through my dress.”

His free hand reaches up and pinches my free nipple so tightly I yelp, and then his lips continue to move down over my stomach, past my hips, and between my legs.

“Oh, fuck!” I scream, and my thighs clench tightly around his head. He growls and it’s quite possibly the sexiest sound I’ve ever heard in my life. I want to reach down and tangle my fingers in his hair, encourage him, hold him in place, use him while I grind against his so, so talented mouth… but I’m not sure what I am and am not allowed to do in this moment. He’s in charge. So, instead, I lie back, panting heavily and begging for more, letting the pleasure consume me.

When it starts, it burns slow. But like a spark over dry timber in the dead heat of August, the early beginnings of my orgasm quickly spread out of control through my body. It’s too much, too powerful. Every impulse I have tells me to escape him, to pull back and collect myself or risk being torn apart by the orgasm approaching much, much too quickly. I’m not going to be able to take it, but as I try and squirm away from him, his hands clamp down firmly over my hips and hold me in place.

“Fuck! Oh… oh, fuck, Christian! I can’t. Fuck, I can’t!”

He doesn’t answer, he simply rolls his tongue over my clitoris and then sucks, hard, and I’m lost. The blood pounding in my ears as my orgasm overtakes me is so loud I can’t even hear myself screaming his name. I can only feel, and what I feel is so intense, it’s as though I’ve been pushed to a higher level of understanding regarding what humans can and cannot survive through. My entire body is alive, flowing with powerful, unrelenting pleasure, and after it pulses through me again, and again, on and on, until I think I’m going to pass out, I begin to come down, and my body starts to tremble.

“Holy shit…” I whisper, but I hardly have anytime to recover. Christian takes hold of me again and flips me onto my front, grabbing me by the hips and pulling them up so I’m on my knees before him. I hear the jingle of his belt and the sound of his zipper, but once I feel the tip of his erection brush against me, he pauses.

“I love you, Anastasia.”

I cry out in surprise as he slams inside of me, harder than I’m prepared for, and he groans in satisfaction.

“That’s it, baby. There’s no one else here. Let me hear you. Scream my name.”

“Christian!”

My fingers twist into the bedding as I search desperately to feel anchored to something while he pounds into me over and over again. Each thrust is hard, fast, and made more aggressive by his hands pulling my hips back into him each time he pushes into me. With his knees, he pushes my legs as far apart as they can go so he can take me as deep as possible. His hands probe my ass, kneading my still tender flesh. When his fingers dig into my behind, it pulls my lips tighter around him, intensifying the sensation of his ardent and relentless assault. I’m hyper aware of every movement he makes, every change in angle, every increase or decrease in his cadence. My breathing comes out in harsh huffs that match his. It’s rough, savage, and astonishingly incredible.

“You like that, baby?” His voice is tight, and I wonder if he’s getting close.

“Yes. Oh, god, yes!”

He growls again. “I want you to come with me. Will you do that for me?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Fuck, baby. You make me feel so… Mmmm. This is it, Anastasia. This is all I’m ever going to want. All I’m ever going to need. I’m home, here, inside of you. I love you.”

“I love you too, Christian.”

He groans, grips more tightly to my hips, and increases the ferocity of his thrusts. I feel a quickening beginning deep inside of me and I try to hold it off, refusing to let the heat have me until Christian finds his own release, but it’s difficult. The feel of him moving in and out of me combined with the sound of his moans of pleasure is like gasoline poured directly on the fire slowly building inside of me, and as I teeter on the edge, I’m certain there’s no way I’m going to keep my balance.

“Christian… please. I’m going to…”

“Hold on. I’m almost there. Fuck, I’m almost there.”

I whimper and bite down my hip, struggling against the waves of pleasure that threaten to overwhelm me any minute. It’s no use. There’s no way I’m going to be able to stop it. But, just as I feel my body begin to succumb, Christian let’s out a deep, guttural noise that tells me he too is on the brink of release.

“Fuck, this is it,” I hisses. “Come for me, Ana. Come for me.”

The pressure inside of me releases in an instant and floods my veins with warm, welcome pleasure. I feel my orgasm pulsing through me in time with his thrusts until he finally cries out a garbled version of my name, comes violently inside of me, and together, we are lost.

The world slows. I melt into the bed beneath me, feeling as though my limbs have turned to liquid. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so relaxed until Christian moves onto the bed next to me and wraps me in his arms from behind.

“Are you still angry with me?” I ask.

“No, and I wasn’t really.”

“Liar.”

He chuckles. “Fine, I was. Mostly though, II’ve just been thinking about fucking you like that all night and now here we are. I’ll have you here next to me, naked, in my arms for the rest of the night. Who would have thought breaking the rules would be so fun?”

“I’m pretty sure Kate was the one who insisted we shouldn’t see each other tonight. I don’t ever remember agreeing to that.”

“Mmm, it’s so sexy when you fight the power, baby.”

I giggle as he holds me tighter against him, but then freeze as we hear the door to the suite open. Christian never closed his bedroom door behind us, so we’re laying here, on top of the bed, completely exposed to whoever just walked in. Thankfully though, as we both scramble to get under the blankets, we quickly realize that the intruder has no interest in investigating what may or may not be going on in Christian’s room.

“I love you, Katie,” Elliot says, each word punctuated by the sound of a kiss. “I’m never going to let you go again.”

“Never,” she agrees. “This is it, okay? You and me.”

“You and me.” We hear them kissing again and then the door to the suite opposite ours slams closed.

“Oh my god, she really did it,” I say in a breath. Christian raises an eyebrow at me, so I explain. “Kate said that she was going to get back together with Elliot. I guess she did…”

“Oh… well, great! That’s really great.” He smiles, looking genuinely happy, and then leans forward to kiss me again, and as I fall back into the pillows, I try not to let the thoughts of what Kate is giving up to be in that room with Elliot right now ruin the last night I will spend with Christian as Anastasia Steele.

 

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Chapter 39

kiss

After maybe two hours of sleep, I’m awoken much too soon by the engines of the yacht roaring to life and tugging us further away from the coast. Christian has his arm draped over me while his fingers run gently through the ends of my hair, and when I slowly open my eyes and glance over at him, I see that he still has Calliope, finally sleeping soundly, laid over his chest.

“Good morning,” I whisper hoarsely.

“Mmm,” he hums back at me, easing himself over to kiss the top of my hair. “Good morning.”

“Happy Birthday.”

He sighs. “Last year on my birthday I woke up with my cock in your mouth.” He moves his hand softly over Calliope’s back and then looks forlornly over at me. “Isn’t having kids fun?”

I let out a very tired laugh. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s gotten into her these past couple days. I can go give her to Kate if you want. Or your mom.”

“Oh, no. After how long it took her to go to sleep? We’re never moving her again. I live here now.”

I laugh again and then carefully lift myself off the bed to kiss him without waking the baby. I mean for it to be a quick, chaste good morning kiss, but when I try to pull away from him he moves his hand up to the side of my face, tenderly cups my cheek, and holds me in place. I moan softly as his lips move tantalizingly with mine and while I lose myself in the feel of him and the sound of our constrained breathing, my hand automatically reaches down his body and grips onto his waiting erection. His entire body tenses so I quickly try to withdraw my hand, but when I do, he groans.

“Do you think we can put her back to bed without waking her?”

“I think we should definitely try…”

He gives me a lascivious grin and then places the palm of his hand over the back of Calliope’s head so that he can hold her firmly against his chest while he sits up. I stare at her with the same nervous concentration I imagine someone would feel while watching a bomb being defused, but Christian is able to ease himself out of the bed and gently lay our daughter inside her bassinette without disturbing her. He takes a few careful steps back towards the bed, facing her and watching her carefully, but the only movement she makes is the gentle rise and fall of her chest while she sleeps. Once he’s absolutely sure the transfer has been successful, he turns back to me and his eyes cloud over with the intensity of his desire.

“Open your legs,” he commands briskly. I comply immediately and then watch him hungrily as he climbs into the bed over the top of me. My fingers trace up the well defined lines of the muscles in his arms as he leans down to kiss me, but just as I feel the pressure of his weight pressing me into the mattress, there’s a loud knock on our bedroom door that wakes Calliope.

“Wakie, wakie, birthday boy,” Elliot’s high, teasing tone comes through the door. “Mommy made you breakfast, schnookums.”

Christian props himself up on his elbows over me, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath as though he’s looking deep inside himself for patience he simply can’t summon over Calliope’s angry cries. “I’m going to kill him,” he says at last. “We’re in international waters, there isn’t anyone around us for hundreds of miles. I think I’m actually going to kill him.”

I giggle and push against his chest to roll him off of me. “Don’t. He’s the only one who can get the baby to stop crying.”

 

Thankfully, it doesn’t take much to calm my very sleepy baby down. She fusses a little as I carry her out to the dining room where the rest of the family is waiting, but once I’ve settled down next to Christian and given her the bottle the staff have warmed for breakfast, it takes only minutes for her to fall back asleep.

“Chocolate chip pancakes,” Grace says proudly, setting a giant, overfilled platter in the middle of the table. “Happy birthday, Christian.”

“Thanks, Mom,” he replies, and I find myself glancing worriedly over at her as she begins to serve him, wondering if she’s picked up on the bitterness in his tone. I don’t think she does though, because when she moves on to fill Mia’s plate, she’s beaming. She has her entire family around one table, healthy, happy, and enjoying each other’s company. I doubt there’s anything that could get to her right now. Not even me groggily swaying back and forth through the morning conversation, or Christian’s obvious yawns over his pancakes.

Once we begin eating, everyone seated around the table begins passing several different expensive gifts, and a few silly ones from Kate and Mia, to Christian before the discussion turns to our plans for the day. I expect Elliot to dismiss anything that doesn’t involve 250 horsepower jettisoning him through the choppy ocean water, but when Kate looks over at Christian and I practically falling asleep in our breakfast, she suggests we all hang around the yacht, relax, and spend some time with the whole family, and he doesn’t put up an argument.

“What are you sick or something?” Mia asks, raising an eyebrow at him.

“No, just sore. Christian bought those new machines and they’re fucking heavy.” He rolls out both of his shoulders to stretch his sore muscles and Christian smirks at him.

“You need to start lifting heavier, Elliot. You’re getting soft.”

“Shut up, Christian. I don’t need your advice, thank you very much. Shouldn’t you be out working on your dad bod or something?”

“You seem to be doing a good enough job on that for the both of us.”

Elliot narrows his eyes. “I’ll fight you.”

“That’s okay,” Christian shrugs. “I bench more than you.”

“Psht, doubt it.”

“I’m just saying… you should have maybe taken advantage of having Gia around when you did. That girl knew her way around a gym. Why don’t you call her up and see if she’ll train with you?”

“Because I don’t want to, Christian,” Elliot snaps, emphasizing Christian’s name as he glances sideways at Kate. “That relationship is exactly where it should be. In the past.”

“So you haven’t heard from her?” Christian asks.

“No!”

“Not even an angry post break up text or a late night booty call?”

“No, Christian, I haven’t heard from her since she moved out of my house and I haven’t wanted to. We’re done, she’s out of my life. Drop it.”

“Hmm…” He frowns as he reaches for his glass of water, and as Elliot unsuccessfully tries to change the subject from across the table, I reach down and grip the free hand he rests absentmindedly on my knee.

“Everything okay?”

“Fine.”

“Then why the sudden interest in Gia?” The table falls silent and, as everyone turns to look at Christian and I, Elliot drops his silverware out of frustration and it clangs loudly against his plate.

“For the love of god, can we please stop talking about her?”

“No,” Christian says. “I’m afraid we can’t.”

“Christian?” Carrick checks, and with a deep breath, Christian pulls his hand away from mine and rests them flat over the table.

“Taylor can’t find her,” he says at last. “She was at Ana’s baby shower when we announced Calliope’s name, and because she had her own security, who attended Taylor’s meeting the day that Ana was kidnapped, she knew Ana would be alone. She went on family vacations with us, she was at family dinners, she and I were alone in a gym together on several occassions… She’s one of Taylor’s prime suspects for the inside leak but, to the day she moved out of your house, we can’t find anything on her. She hasn’t purchased any property or applied for a mortgage or lease, the tabs on the license plates of her car are expired, and her insurance wasn’t renewed. We tried tracing the number we had to find her, but her phone has been turned off and none of her bank cards have been used since April. She’s just… gone.”

“Gone?” Elliot repeats. “She can’t be gone, where would she go?”

I get a sickening feeling deep in my stomach when I turn and look at Christian, only to see him raise his eyebrows at Elliot in a way that suggests the answer to his question should be obvious. And it is obvious. Elena said there were more we didn’t know about, but if we didn’t know them, they wouldn’t be targets. Just like Hyun. Just like Leila.

“You said there were dings in the walls when she moved out…” I say, turning to look at Elliot. “What if that wasn’t from furniture? What if there was a struggle?”

His eyes dart back and forth as he considers this and the color slowly drains from his face, but he quickly composes himself and shakes his head. “No, she texted me after she was out, she left a note at work saying she was quitting…”

“Handwritten or typed?” Christian asks.

Elliot takes a breath and then mashes his lips together, refusing to answer as he looks down at the half eaten pancakes in front of him, and Christian nods.

“I’m going to need the security footage of your building from that day. We need to see who left that letter.”

He nods, looking almost sick, but as he picks up his own drink, Mia coughs uncomfortably from the other end of the table.

“Ummm, Christian….?”

“Yeah, Meems?”

“I um… I think that…”

Her words cut off when an unexpected thumping sound echos around the room so loudly it makes everyone jump and both Kate and I scream in surprise. We turn to the source of the sound, my adrenaline spiking and rushing through my blood, but realize it was just a bird flying into the window. As I place my hand over my racing heart though, Calliope starts to cry again.

“Oh, Calli-lily,” I say, rocking her gently in my arms as she screams her displeasure at being woken for a second time this morning through the startled silence still hovering over the table. “Shhh, it’s okay. Ugh, she’s so tired.”

“We’re supposed to feel bad about her not getting enough sleep?” Christian says through another great yawn, but as I reach of over and gently push him, he slowly gets out of his seat and nods to the archway behind him. “Why don’t we take her back to bed? She’ll sleep better separated from the noise of everyone enjoying Mom’s delicious breakfast, and you and I can try to get another hour or so of rest before we start our day.”

“Okay,” I agree. Christian helps me out of my chair and I quickly cross the table to give Grace a hug. “Thank you for breakfast, it was delicious.”

“You’re welcome. Enjoy your nap.”

“I will. Believe me, I will.”

She smiles as I walk around the table, pausing to lean down and kiss my father on the cheek, but before Christian reaches out for me, he stops and rests his hand on Mia’s shoulder.

“We’ll talk later, okay?” She gives him a tight smile and nods, then Christian places his hand on my lower back and leads me out of the dining room towards the stairs.

 

Once we get Calliope down for the third time this morning, Christian cuddles up next to me in bed and begins to kiss me softly up and down the curve of my neck, but while I’m sure the heavy petting is meant to lead to sex, we both fall asleep before either one of us can even remove any clothes. It’s nice though. The hour long nap in Christian’s arms provides us with just enough energy to enjoy the rest of the afternoon with our family, and Calliope isn’t disturbed again until she wakes on her own, ready for another bottle.

After moving back out to the main living space to rejoin the others, we sit on a pair of lounge chairs out on the deck under a huge white umbrella while Kate, Mia, and Elliot splash around in the pool, our father’s take to fishing again, and Grace curls up on the couch beside us with a romance novel. Christian is in heaven having uninterrupted time to play with our daughter, and while I laugh along with the two of them, I can’t help but refocus my attention once again on Kate and Elliot and how they’re behaving towards one another.  I notice that Kate has masterfully covered the scar in her skin with a black one piece swimsuit that’s cut low enough in the front to not make any one question her sudden inclination towards modesty. Elliot seems plenty enough distracted by the cleavage she’s showing and as I catch him not so subtly staring at her for the tenth time this afternoon, Christian nudges me with his elbow and nods towards them.

“If they have sex on my birthday and I don’t, I’m going to be fucking pissed.”

“They’re not going to have sex,” I tell him. “They’re not even together.”

“Mhmm,” he hums disbelievingly, and as I roll my eyes and turn back to look at the pool, I watch Elliot chase Mia out of the water onto the smooth, teak deck.

“Just give in, Mia,” he threatens her. “You’re going underwater and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

“I don’t think so. Not by you!” They run two laps around the pool, Mia just managing to avoid the very tips of his fingers as he reaches for her, and then she sprints to the waist high rail that surrounds the third story deck and climbs on top of it.

“Amelia!” Grace shrieks in terror, but Mia just looks back at us with a wicked grin and launches herself off the rail, somersaulting down until we all hear the loud splash in the ocean below. Christian passes Calliope to me and immediately bolts out of his seat, hurrying to the rail where Elliot is already standing in shock, but after an agonizing few seconds of panic, relief colors both of their faces when the sounds of Mia’s laughter echo up to us from the water.

“Mia, are you crazy?” Elliot shouts down at her.

“Awh, come on. Don’t be a baby, Elliot. Jump!”

“You have no idea what’s down there!” Christian argues.

“Yes I do! Ocean! Come on, Christian! YOLO!” Mia begins making chicken sounds up at her brothers, but as they both glance at one another, silently questioning what they should do, Kate shimmies in between them.

“Excuse me, gentleman,” she says, and just like Mia, she climbs onto the railing, springs high into the air, and tumbles over the side of the yacht in a graceful dive that creates a splash so subtle, I can’t hear her hit the water from where I’m sitting. Thankfully, Elliot smiles, which I take as a sign that she’s made it over alright, and climbs on the railing to cannonball after her.

“Oh good lord,” Grace says, cringing away from her children and shaking her head. I should have followed her lead because while Grace picks up her book again, Mia and Elliot both call out for Christian, and like the fool he is, he too climbs up on the rail.

“Christian!” I scream, but it’s too late. Like Kate, he leaps off the side with the grace of a professional high diver and plummets into the ocean below. I turn panicked eyes on Grace, who automatically reaches out and gestures for me to pass her the baby, and then rush to the rail. He’s just emerging from the white cloud of bubbles in the water below as I lean over the side of the yacht.

“Are you crazy?” I yell at him as he quickly turns his head away from the wave of water Elliot throws at him with his arm. “You’re a father now!”

“It’s not as high as it looks,” he calls back to me. “And it’s fun. Come on, baby.”

I cross my arms and shake my head at him. “You’re insane.”

“Ana! Ana!” Mia begins to chant, but when I cock my head to the side and give both of them a look which makes it clear that climbing over this railing is simply not going to happen for me, Christian nods to the end of the boat and reaches through the water to begin pulling himself towards it.

“Come to the bottom deck, we’ll pull the jet skis out.” Immediately Mia, Kate, and I turn to look at Elliot. His shoulders rise from the water and he lets out a heavy breath.

“I mean… if we have to.

Laughter sounds over the water as Kate splashes water into his face and begins swimming after Christian, while I turn back to Grace. “Are you okay? I don’t have to go if you’ve had enough baby time this weekend.”

“If you try to take this baby from me, I will scream.” Her face is hard and serious as she says the words, but as I gape back at her, she smiles and lets out a soft breathy laugh. “Go, Anastasia! Have fun with the man you love. Calliope and I will be just fine.”

“Alright,” I agree, although hesitantly as I really could just stay here the rest of the afternoon losing myself in the feel of her in my arms and her perfect angelic face. Especially since Christian has been hogging her all day, and it already feels as though I’ve barely been able to hold her. “Just call if you need us to come back.”

“I will,” she promises.

“Have fun, kiddo!” my dad calls over his shoulder from the port side of the deck. “Just stay on the other side or you’ll scare all the fish away.”

I laugh. “Yes, daddy.”

After kissing Grace quickly on the cheek and thanking her for sitting with Calliope, I rush to the bedroom and change into a swimsuit. It’s a little revealing for how comfortable I’m feeling with my body right now, so I slip a loose, open knit tunic over my head to try and cover up a little before darting down the steps to the bottom deck, where I find the others jumping and diving off the much more sturdy railing into the cool, deep blue water below. I shiver slightly as my bare feet touch the wet wood on the sun drenched deck and then watch as Christian tucks his body from on top of the steel rail and then pushes back, stretching towards the water in a much too easy looking back flip.

“Show off,” Kate says, but she too climbs on the rail, takes a deep breath and then leaps into the air, folding her body in a perfect pike before she falls backwards into an arrow straight dive.

“You two could give a guy a complex,” Elliot says.

“Sucks to suck,” Christian laughs from somewhere in the water.

“Oh, yeah?” Elliot looks over at Mia and they exchange an evil grin with one another before backing up several paces and leaping over the railing together. The resulting splash is so big, I can see it over the solid rail, from the back of the deck and, judging by Kate’s scream, it completely covers both her and Christian. There’s a series of smaller splashing sounds in the water, until I see Christian swim up to the boat launch off the back of the yacht and pull himself out of the waves. His hand reaches up to wipe the excess water off his face and, though he’s already smiling broadly, his face brightens even further when he sees me standing there.

“I thought we were jet skiing?” I ask, my voice accusatory.

“We will. But the water is great. You should swim with us for a while.”

I shake my head and pout my lips. “It’s cold.”

“Not really.” He reaches out for my hand as though he’s going to tug me towards the water and I immediately flinch away.

“Don’t…”

“Don’t?” he repeats, and then he smiles again for half a second before shaking his head with dismay and taking a step back. “Well, if you don’t want to get wet…”

“I do not,” I affirm. He nods and moves to turn away from me, but, so fast I hardly even have time to react, he turns back, leans down to grab me tightly behind the legs and throws me over his shoulder.

“Christian!” I scream in protest, but he doesn’t stop. He moves quickly to the boat launch and, ignoring my screams and the furious way I move my arms and legs to escape from him, he dumps me overboard. My lungs seem to almost seize as the icy water permeates every pore of my body and when I break through the surface again, gasping for air and see him smiling at me, I shake my head and narrow my eyes.

“You are so fucking dead,” I threaten him. He laughs and dives back into the water right beside me, and I wait for him to re-emerge before I immediately place both of my hands on top of his head and force him under again. He captures one of my legs underwater to pull me down with him and as we both come back up for air, I’m lost to a fit of giggles as we splash one another. He generates far more water than I do however, as his arms really are much thicker than mine, so I quickly swim backwards and use my feet to churn up as much as I can to push back at him. Unfortunately it’s not a very well thought out plan because I’ve only just got him with one really good splash when his hand wraps around my ankle and I find myself being dragged back towards him until he wraps my legs around his waist, pulls me flush against him, and kisses me hard on the mouth.

“I love you,” he tells me.

“I love you too,” I reply. “Even though I think you’re kind of a butthead right now and you taste like salt.”

He laughs and dumps me backwards into the water again.

 

We spend the rest of the afternoon swimming around the yacht and then finally cruising through the water on the jet skis. It’s a much less… erotic activity than it was last year when he had the silver balls inside of me, but it’s nice being able to wrap myself around him while the cool sea spray sprinkles over our legs and the hot June sun shines on us from above. There’s even a brief period where he turns control over to me, although it’s very brief because I manage to dump us both in the water while trying to jump through Elliot’s wake. Still, by the time we pull back into the yacht and head up to the main deck where dinner is being served, my face hurts from smiling so much throughout the day and I feel more relaxed than I have in weeks. I was right, we needed this weekend. And from the way Christian looks, happy, and actually as young as he truly is, he needed it too.

“I take it you didn’t catch anything today…” Elliot says, taunting his father slightly as we sit down at the table to a plate of chicken.

“Yeah, a bunch of rowdy kids came tearing through the water on a bunch of jet skis,” Carrick says, narrowing his eyes at him. “Funny how we didn’t catch anything.”

“The nerve of some people,” Elliot smiles back. Carrick laughs and reaches over to clap him on the shoulder just as Grace passes me a bowl of salad.

“So, Ana, I’ve been meaning to ask if you’ve found a venue for the wedding yet? I called the archbishop at St. Andrews and they’ve had a cancellation at the end of July. Infidelity, terrible… but wonderful for you and Christian.”

“Actually, Christian and I were also hoping to talk to you about that this weekend. I think we’ve decided that instead of the big, white wedding, we’d rather have a small ceremony at your house, if that’s okay?”

“Really?” Her face lights up. “Oh, absolutely! We could use the boat house for your bridal suite and make a carpet of rose petals down to the water for your aisle. I know exactly where we’ll have the ceremony. Oh! And on the west lawn we can set up a tent for your reception with a dance floor and flowers and lights. We’ll have the perfect view of the sun setting over the lake. It’ll be absolutely beautiful!”

“Thanks, Mom,” Christian interrupts. “But I actually don’t think that’ll be necessary.”

“What?” I ask, turning a very confused look on him.

“Andrea found an opening at Thornewood. It’s a castle over in Lakewood and it’s really quite stunning. Very opulent and luxurious, the pictures will be phenomenal. We can get married out in the gardens, there’s a grand ballroom for the reception, and they can accommodate up to 250 guests, which means we only need to eliminate a hundred names from our original list.”

“You mean… your original list,” I counter. “I thought we agreed we wanted a small ceremony with just close friends and family?”

“Because we were having to compromise… This place will do anything and everything you want. However you want it.”

“But… I-I…”

He grips my hand reassuringly. “You’re going to love it, Anastasia. I promise. Our wedding is going to be beautiful, exactly the way you always dreamed. And I’ve made sure Andrea will have the capacity to help you with whatever you need so we can get this done without overwhelming you.”

“Wait, so you’ve already booked it?”

He nods. “I put the deposit down yesterday.”

“Christian…” I take a deep breath to quell my rising frustration and slowly count to ten. As I do, images of the wedding he describes flashes through my mind. Me in an extravagant white gown, walking down the aisle to the slow melody of soft music floating around me and through a crowd of faceless people to the place where Christian is waiting for me under a stunning canopy of white wisteria. I can picture him taking me into his arms in the middle of an empty dancefloor, beaming at me as he twirls me around through the group of onlookers and camera flashes. I can envision our toast and cutting an enormous wedding cake, which we feed each other graciously instead of smashing into the other’s faces. It’s a beautiful dream, one I think any girl would want, but it just doesn’t feel like us.

Will I be happy with a wedding that feels as though it was meant for someone else? Ten years from now, when I look at the undoubtedly beautiful pictures of what should be the happiest day of my life, will I feel any regret that I didn’t stand up for what I really wanted? I don’t know. But it’s not often Christian isn’t willing to give me exactly what I want, and since this is the second time he’s insisted on a lavish ceremony, it must be important to him. Perhaps there’s a reason that he’s not telling me. Some deep rooted insecurity that seems to come out anytime the concept of forever between him and I comes up. Looking at him now, and the uncertainty behind his eyes, I wonder if that’s exactly it. When I brought up Astor’s inclusion on the guest list, he’d argued that he’d wanted to make a statement that I was his and he was mine. Perhaps that wasn’t entirely truthful. Perhaps he wants that statement for himself and the grand wedding fulfils that need for him. Looking at him now, and the careful uncertainty reflected in his eyes, I actually think that may be the exact reason.

I take a breath and nod. “Okay. If you love it, then I’m sure I will too. I can’t wait to see it.”

He smiles at me and then lifts my fingers to his lips. “Me either.”

 

After dinner, we move back into the sitting room where we’d played games the night before, and while we spend most of the night talking as a family and taking turns with a very silly Calliope sprawled out on her favorite blanket in the middle of the floor, eventually her playful mood subsides and as Grace takes her back into her arms, a heavy silence falls over the room. We all seem to glance at one another, unsure of what to do, and when Elliot begins looking for the remote to turn on the satellite TV so he can get an update on the Mariners, Grace lets out a low cough to clear her throat.

“So…” she says coyly. “I brought Mia’s cello and Elliot’s old guitar. It’s been so long since I’ve heard the three of you play together, I thought tonight you’d give us all a little treat.” Her eyes move over to the piano Christian had put in the corner of the sitting room last summer. Christian and Elliot make eye contact, silently asking one another if they’re up to it, but Mia scoffs and shakes her head.

“I don’t want to play with Elliot.”

“Why not?” Elliot asks, clearly offended.

“Because you never practice,” she says. “And I don’t really feel like playing an exciting medley of Row Row Row Your Boat and Mary Had a Little Lamb for our family right now.”

“I know much more than that.” He rolls his eyes as he gets off the couch and disappears through the archway that leads to main cabins, and when he returns there is an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder that he tunes as he walks. Christian once again lifts our conjoined hands to place a gentle kiss against the tips of my fingers and then peels himself off the couch to take his place at the piano bench. I watch them say something quietly to one another, and once Christian nods, Mia folds her arms across her chest in defiance and we all settle back as the first high note from the piano sounds around us.

I can vaguely recognize the melody of what they’re playing, but without the tell-tale 80s synths and beat from the drums, I can’t place the song until Elliot looks up at Kate and begins to sing lyrics I recognize.

I’ve been waiting, for a girl like you, to come into my life. I’ve been waiting, for a girl like you, a love that will survive. I’ve been waiting, for someone new, to make me feel alive. Yeah, waiting, for a girl like you, to come into my life.”

Grace begins swaying next to me and my dad keeps the beat with his foot and his thumb drumming against his leg, but Elliot doesn’t shift his focus away from Kate. Their eyes stay locked on one another as Elliot very purposefully sings each and every lyric directly towards her, and when the final notes of the music he and Christian play slowly fades away and we all break into applause, still, his eyes never leave hers.

“What are the rules about Foreigner in this house?” Carrick asks pointedly.

“That they’re the greatest foreign invasion since the Beatles?” Mia replies with a laugh, but when Carrick turns to glare at her, Elliot slams his hand down over the strings of his guitar and he and Christian pick up the beginning riffs of Working Man by RUSH. Over the next hour, they take requests for songs and I’m impressed by Christian’s ability to generally get through anything we throw at them. Eventually though, after dozens of old country songs my father asks to hear and entirely too much old ‘70s rock that only the Grey children know, Kate and Mia begin to get restless.

“Can we play something from this century, please?” Mia begs.

“Britney Spears literally came out with an album like three months ago,” Kate interjects. “What are you even doing with your lives?”

“No, no, no,” Grace interrupts. “Something from Adele. Oh, I just love her new album.”

“Ugh, Adele is so boring,” Mia complains. “We need something fun that we can get up and dance to. Like Kesha, or that new Rihanna song. What is it, S&M?”

“It does feature Britney Spears,” Kate says, but Christian shakes his head.

“I’m not playing that song.”

“Yes, thank you,” I say dryly. “What about Bruno Mars? I sing Just The Way You Are to Calliope before bed every night. She loves it.”

“Uh, Dr. Dre or nothing,” Elliot says, and while that starts a whole new argument over rap vs. pop between him and his sister, Christian puts a stop to it with the simple press of his fingers against the piano keys and few soft sung lyrics.

I wanna be a billionaire so fucking bad… by all of the things I never had.” The room erupts into laughter, but the pause is short lived before Elliot joins in on the guitar. “I wanna be on the cover of Forbes magazine, smiling next to Oprah and the Queen. Oh everytime I close my eyes, I see my name in shining lights. Yeah. A different city every night oh I, I swear, the world better prepare, for I’m a billionaire.

I squeal as Elliot takes over the rap part of the song and Kate pulls me off to dance with her. We all laugh at the ridiculousness and irony of the song not only being played on a multimillion dollar yacht, but that Christian Grey himself continues to sing the chorus. Even Carrick buries his hand to hide his laughter as he shakes his head, and Grace makes a face at Calliope, who seems to be entranced by the people dancing all around her. Kate practically falls over when the song ends as she dissolves into a fit of giggles, and while I grip tightly onto her, gripping my side, which is a little sore from laughing so hard, Elliot places his guitar back in his case and turns to Christian.

“You know, that song makes me realize how much you’re slacking there, Christian. What have you even done for Katrina victims?”

He laughs. “Very little.”

“Selfish.”

“You’re right. How dare I be seventeen.” He rolls his eyes, but Elliot just smiles.

“How dare you indeed.”

Christian reaches up and softly punches Elliot in the arm, which makes him laugh and hold out his hand to help Christian off the piano bench. It’s late now, so my father gets up to excuse himself for the night, which Grace and Carrick also take advantage of, and while they say goodnight to each of us, Elliot finally finds the remote and flips the TV to ESPN. Kate curls up on the couch next to him and Mia reaches for a magazine she brought along, but Christian makes eye contact with me and very subtly nods towards the archway that leads to our bedroom. I bite my lip.

“Uh… Kate?”

“Yes, m’dear?” she replies, not looking away from the TV.

“How would you feel about watching Calliope for awhile? Just until you go to bed…”

“But for at least an hour,” Christian interjects, and as he looks at her very purposefully, a knowing smile stretches across her lips.

“Yeah, I can do that,” she says. “Happy Birthday, Christian.”

“Thank you,” he replies, his voice almost curt as he immediately reaches down for my hand and tugs me out of the room and through the archway that places us at the bottom of the stairs which lead up to our bedroom.

The moment we’re no longer in sight of Kate, Mia, and Elliot, his lips are pressed firmly into mine. I briefly feel the wall at the bottom of the stairs at my back as Christian envelops me with his body, his desirous moans punctuating the hungry sounds of our kiss while his hands greedily explore my body, until, eventually, he lifts me into his arms, wraps my legs around his waist, and carries me the rest of the way to our bed without ever pulling his lips away from mine.

The long stream of moonlight shining in through the picturesque windows of our master suite allows me to see his face in the otherwise dark room. The sound of the yacht cutting through the ocean waves echos through silence around us while his fingers pull the crochet dress over my skin. I let out a eager moan as his lips begin to leave a trail of soft kisses over every inch of skin he reveals until he finally discards the meager material on the floor next to the bed and cups the sides over each of my breasts over my bikini top, pushing them together so he can bury his face in my cleavage.

“Christian,” I breathe longingly. His tongue traces the inside swell of my breast before he looks up at me, lustful fire glinting brightly in his dark eyes.

“Soon, baby. Soon.” His mouth moves over my nipple and he flicks it gently with his tongue before enveloping the hardening bud in his mouth and moving his lips soft enough that he’s not really sucking, but I can feel the tantalizing heat combined with his saliva in each and every movement. With a wanton moan I push back into the pillow and arch my breasts higher off the bed, into his mouth, and he groans a deep, needy sound as he clutches my now wet nipple tightly between his thumb and finger and moves to my other breast. I writhe beneath him, reduced to only a vessel full of want and need, until I’m eventually able to reach between our bodies, down his swim trunks, and grip his erection firmly in my hand. He lets out an audible gasp that fuels every one of my reward centers and encourages me on.

When his mouth moves away from my nipple, I gently push him away, rolling him onto his back on the bed next to me, and then climb over the top of him. My fingers hook beneath the band of his swim trunks and the moment I free his erection, before I’ve even pushed his shorts all the way down his legs, I take his cock in my mouth and suck hungrily.

“Oh, jesus, Ana,” he groans. I hum as I once again feel my own sense of pleasure in what I’m doing to him, and then wrap my fingers around the base of his cock, working my hand in opposition to my mouth and keeping my lips tight around him as I bob up and down. The tempo of his breathing increases with my pace, and soon I feel his hands on my ass, kneading me and using his thumbs to stretch my lower lips beneath my bikini bottom, until he unravels the ties keeping my swimsuit in place and pulls against my leg so that I move over his face, straddling him.

His erection is deep in my throat when I first feel his tongue against my clitoris, and my resulting moan around his cock makes his body shiver. I push down again, taking him as deeply in my mouth as I can and hoping the tightness of my throat makes up for the times I release my lips to gasp in pleasure over the feel of his mouth moving over me. Several times, he simply kisses me. A sweet, soft peck against my most sensitive erogenous zone that feels loving and romantic and pushes me far too close to the edge, far too quickly. My legs begin to tremble, my irregular breathing makes it difficult for me to maintain the rhythm I’ve set with my mouth, and my insides clench. He lets out a breathy laugh and I can feel him smiling against me as he moves his whole face over me, invigorating me all at once.

“Baby,” he says. “Already?”

“Mmm… you’re too good.”

“Good. Come for me. I want you soaking when I start making love to you.”

I feel a rush of cool air from his lips as he blows against me, and then the heat of his tongue. He begins to suck my clitoris, rolling it gently between his lips before he laps at me again, and the combination of sensations quickly overwhelms me until I fall apart in his capable hands. My whole body shakes as I pant over his still hard and waiting erection, feeling the waves of pleasure roll over me again and again, like high tide claiming more and more of the dry sand on a beach. The entire world melts away for a long moment that seems to go on and on, prolonged by the incessant work of his tongue swirling around my clitoris, until finally, the tide begins to receded and I’m once again in control of my body.

I kiss the tip of his erection and begin to suck again, but he quickly moves me off of him and tosses me carelessly back onto the bed. His hands grip the inside of my knees and pry them apart, as wide as the will go, and as he glances down at me, his face melts with desire.

“Stay just like this,” he commands me. “I want you open and waiting for me.”

“Where are you going?”

“I need a condom. You’re not on birth control yet.”

“Oh…”

He climbs off the bed and moves to his still packed bag, which is resting on a chair pushed against the wall. From the small front pocket, he removes a ribbon of blue foil packets, tears one away, and, as he moves back to me, he rips open the foil with his teeth. My hips squirm with uncomfortable impatience, but I watch him with near awe as he rolls the latex ring over his erection.

“Are you ready?” he asks, his voice husky with his desire.

I can’t answer. Instead, I reach up and grip the roots of his hair, a little too firmly, with my fingertips and pull him down on top of me, claiming his mouth as I bask in the heat of his skin pressed against mine. While we kiss, his hips move absentmindedly so that the tip of his erection brushes against me, making me whimper until I capture his bottom lip between my teeth and tug gently.

He reaches down and begins purposefully moving his cock up and down through my lips, lubricating himself with my arousal, and when he speaks again, his voice is dripping with lust.

“Tell me what you want, Anastasia.”

“Christian, please…” The words come out in a breath and my head tilts backwards as I allow myself to be overcome with the anticipation, but his fingers wrap around my jaw and pull my face back down so that I have to look into his eyes.

“Tell me what you want, baby.”

I swallow. “You. I want you, Christian. All of you.”

“I love you,” he whispers, and then he plunges inside of me. My insides clench around him as he sinks fully into me and when my breath hisses through my teeth in an uncontrollable show of my pleasure, he lets out a long, satisfied groan.

“Fuck,” he whispers. “God, I’ve missed this. You feel so fucking incredible, Anastasia.”

“Take me, Christian. Lose yourself in me.”

He shakes his head. “Not yet. I just want to feel you.” I let out a disappointed sound and grind against him, desperately seeking friction, but his hand presses down on my hip and holds me in place. “Wait, baby,” he tells me, looking deeply into my eyes. “Just be here with me for a minute.”

Our eyes stay locked on one another for a long moment, while he’s still fully buried inside of me, until he eventually leans down and presses his lips into mine. Our tongues tangle together, our lips move in perfect synchronization, and as the ferocity of our kiss increases, so does his rhythm inside of me. He starts slow, controlled, and each tantalizing stroke of him moving in and out of me is complete and utter ecstasy. I feel my leg hitch up over his arm through the haze of pleasure taking over my mind, and the new position allows him deeper access. He moves against me in exactly the right place, in exactly the right way with each stroke in and out, over and over again. My fingers twist in his hair as I hold him in this deep and meaningful kiss that is the only thing more potent to me right now than the feel of his hands running over my body. Exploring me. Reclaiming me. Holding me tight, and refusing to let go.

He doesn’t whisper dirty words into my ear or throw me around and slap me hard on the ass. There isn’t the desperate barbarity I expected after six long weeks of drought. The hunger is there, but it’s different. It’s not about the pleasure or the release, it’s about the intimacy and the connection between us, and in this moment and it’s so much better than what I expected. Deeper and more meaningful. It’s the essence of him and of me, and after the absence of physical intimacy between us, it feels as though he’s recommitting himself to me. Each and every movement of him inside of me, of his lips touching my skin, or even his gaze as he stares down at me with complete love adoration feels powerful and momentous, and it sends a wave of overwhelming emotion over me.

Maybe it’s still my hormones trying to negotiate themselves, but I feel tears well in my eyes.

“Ana?” he checks when I reach up to brush the moisture from my lashes. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I love you so much, Christian.”

“And I love you. More than anything else in this entire world.” He kisses me again and pushes farther into me, holding himself there for a beat before pulling back and thrusting again. I pull him as tightly against me as I can and try to pour as much of the love as I’m feeling into him as our mouths move together in time with his thrusts. Soon, the heated passion between us morphs into the promising first hint of my approaching orgasm, and as I wrap my legs around him, I pull away just enough so that I can speak.

“Don’t stop. I’m going come.”

“I’m almost there too,” he replies. “Wait for me. Come with me.”

My teeth sink into my bottom lip as his pace increases and drives me closer to the edge. There’s a growing tightness in his lips against mine as he’s pulled closer and closer to his own release, and just before he explodes, his hand moves hard and fast down to the bed next to my head, his fingers grip tightly to the sheets, and his body trembles once more.

“Almost. There,” he pants with each thrust. “Are you there, baby?”

“Yes,” I moan.

“Then come for me. Let me feel you, Ana. Come for me, baby.”

My body reacts to his words as though his command holds physical power over me, and once again, I feel as though my body is being split apart by an orgasm so intense it blurs my vision and radiates all the way from the tips of my fingers down to my toes. I scream in pleasure as I’m ravaged again and again by the force of the pleasure coursing through me, and soon, I hear him cry out my name as he tumbles into the dark pool of reverential hedonism alongside me. I could stay, lost in this moment with him forever, but eventually it comes to an end, and I’m dragged back to earth admist the sounds of our unified heavy breathing. Once clarity comes back, and the final pulse of my orgams dies away, he reaches up to cup the side of my face and stares deeply into my eyes.

“Sometimes, I love you doesn’t feel like enough. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to really express the way I truly feel about you, Anastasia.”

“You just did,” I tell him, and as a smile plays at the corner of his mouth, he slowly leans down and kisses me once more.

Next Chapter

Chapter 38

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In my final weeks at Harvard, the thought had crossed my mind that I might be restless post graduation. I didn’t have a Monday through Friday job lined up the way Kate did, or even prospects to continue on in school like Carter. Essentially, I felt as though I’d be floating, bored. But that hasn’t been the case. If anything, I have more to do now that I ever did when I was up late writing papers or studying for exams.

Christian has hired a full time, live in nanny to help me with Calliope during the day while he’s at work, but, in addition to the time it took her get through Taylor’s new screening process, it was weeks before I allowed her anywhere near my daughter. Not just because of the deep seated distrust both Leila’s and Elena’s admissions have given me about any strangers infiltrating our tightly guarded inner circle, but because I simply want to be the one to take care of my daughter. I want to feed her, change her, put her down for her naps, and subsequently check on her every two minutes to make sure she’s still breathing. But since Calliope still won’t breastfeed, the sheer amount of time I spend just pumping in a day has made balancing the impending publish date of my book, being the sole caregiver for my daughter, and making plans for the wedding that Christian, in the wake of Calliope’s birth, now insists must happen sooner rather than later, impossible. In fact, I’m just retrieving the enormous list of guests Christian wants to invite to witness our impending nuptials from the printer when my phone rings and I look down and see Lydia Palermo, the agent I’ve hired to replace Dr. Ralston in representing me while my book is being published, splashed across the screen.

“Hey, Lydia,” I answer, tucking the stack of papers under my arm and hurrying back down the stairs where I’ve left all the other wedding planning materials spread over the coffee table.

“Hi, Ana. I just got off the phone with Random House and they’re willing to push back the soft release until July 19th and the hard release until 26th, but that’s the latest they’ll go, and they’re insistent your book tour will continue on the 26th as planned. They’ve already booked your first nine appearances.”

“And none of that can be pushed back?” I ask. “By even just a few weeks?”

“They’re not even willing to have a discussion about it,” she sighs. “The publicity materials about your signings and readings have already been sent to the printers. They told you they wanted to move fast and you signed a contract.”

“I know, and I want honor that contract, it’s just that Christian has kind of settled on July 30th as our wedding day and…”

“So pick a new date,” she interrupts me. “You’ll only be gone nineteen days.”

“Do you want to tell him that?”

She laughs. “Unfortunately that falls outside of my duties as your literary agent. I do wish you the best of luck though.”

“Mmm. Well, send me the confirmations and itinerary, I guess.  They’ve booked rooms and travel accommodations for Calliope, three security guards, and a nanny, right?”

“I made sure of it.”

“Thanks,” I reply, and then bite my lip as I prepare myself to ask my next question. One of the reasons I was so eager to hire Lydia is that she has clients and contacts through all five major publishing companies and several independent presses scattered throughout the US and the UK, and having her on my team means I can use her connections to my advantage.

“Have…” I hesitate, but force myself to continue. “Have you heard anything about the manuscript I asked you to look out for yet?”

“Nope,” she says, confident in her denial. “And I don’t think you have to worry about it. Harper Collins isn’t going to touch it because of their contract with you, and I’ve spoken to my partners at Hachette, Macmillan, Random House, and Simon and Schuster, anything that pops up will be sent back to you immediately. None of them are interested in fighting your fiancé and the power of Grey Enterprises Holdings through litigation for something that essentially equates to a celebrity tell all written by a woman who is serving time for committing sex crimes. The public outcry over selling her story would be outrageous, definitely not worth the headache. If she does try to sell it though, we’ll put a stop to it. We’re all on your side, Ana. You just worry about your upcoming book tour and getting started on book number two. Once Escape hits the stands, your fans are going to be ravenous for whatever your brilliant mind comes up with next.”

I laugh and roll my eyes. “Will do, and thank you so much for your help, Lydia. Seriously. Both Christian and I really appreciate it.”

“No problem, Ana. Talk to you soon.”

“Bye.”

I hang up the phone and sigh with relief, until I look back down at the guest list again and the information sheets for the two wedding venues in Seattle that had availability for the date Christian wanted, but that are now no longer viable. Finding anything that wasn’t booked for a date six weeks in advance has been extraordinarily difficult. Finding one available sooner than that is going to be impossible. Especially if we’re to find somewhere that can accommodate as many people as Christian apparently wants to invite…

I press my fingers into my temple, trying to relieve the tension headache growing stronger by the second behind my eye, then look up when I hear the elevator ping and watch Luke trudge dejectedly into the great room. His appearance instantly pushes my concerns over the wedding aside. The background checks Taylor has been pulling on essentially everyone we know are starting to trickle in, and day by day, everyone around me has been pulled into his office and questioned about what has been found in their past. Today, it was Luke.

“How’d it go?” I ask as he plops down on the couch next to me.

“Rough,” he replies. “That was worse than when I was hired. Taylor’s been so granular going through every detail of my past to try to find something to connect me to this guy that he had my elementary school report cards in my file. He’s noted every phone call I’ve made in the past two years, gone line by line through my bank records, re-verified every one of my travel plans that I’ve made since Grey hired me, and still, he grilled me so hard that he almost had me questioning whether or not I was behind it all.”

“I know it’s not you,” I assure him. “But, you’re the one who is around me the most and you heard Christian. Every one is a suspect now and you just needed to be eliminated from that list. He’s just being thorough.”

“Well, I’m not a suspect anymore,” he says. “But I can’t say the same for Cardella.”

“What?!”

“Yeah, Taylor found out that her dad has a ton of gambling debt, like, hundreds of thousands of dollars. He thinks it’s motive enough that she could be leaking information about you and Grey.”

“Gambling debt?” I frown as I consider the consequences of this, and as I compare what I know of Cardella with what’s happened over the last few months, I feel my stomach drop. “Oh my god… she was supposed to be here that morning I was almost kidnapped. The rest of the security team went to GEH for that meeting with Taylor, but she was supposed to stay. She said there was a miscommunication, that she thought Kommer was staying, but… she was the last one to leave. She knew I was alone.”

“And she was the last to come back after the hospital called and said you’d been found,” Luke says. “She was also the person who’d brought all your gifts to the arts center for your graduation party, the gifts we found that box he’d left for you in. She was the last one to leave the building, and the one responsible for locking up.”

“So, it’s her. She’s the inside leak.”

He sighs. “She denied it, but obviously she would. We brought her into Grey’s office and our team team questioned her, tried to find any holes in her story, and to get her to reveal something useful, but she didn’t. She said she knew nothing, and that’s what we got out of her. Nothing. So, either she’s telling the truth or this guy who’s coming after you has actually thought of everything, including only hiring people who are excellent liars.”

“He’s been working with Elena, taking advice from her, letting her help plan…” I shake my head. “He’s thought of everything.”

“Grey said the same thing. He fired Cardella this afternoon and gave her employee file and statements from our team to the FBI.”

“FBI?”

“This guy has committed crimes across state lines, this is bigger than just the police now. Not that the police have been any help. An investigation has been started but, since this guy seems to have an insider leaking information, we’re keeping it as quiet as we can to prevent him from being able to evade us.”

“Who knows?”

“Grey. Taylor. Me. And now you.”

“Oh… so, what happened when he fired her? I mean, she didn’t make any threats or anything, did she?”

He shakes his head. “No, but she was upset. Grey was pretty harsh, vicious even, and he did it right in front of everyone. She was shaking when she left his office.”

“Great,” I reply in dismay. “As if we don’t have enough enemies.”

Luke shrugs. “He’s angry and I don’t think he can control it when he feels so desperate to protect you. He’s going to do anything and everything in his power to make sure you’re safe and that we find this guy before anything else happens. That’s the only thing he seems to care about right now and the longer we go without knowing who’s behind it all, the more furious he gets. Well, that and he’s not getting laid. He’s been cranky.”

He smiles at me but as I roll my eyes and push the pointless pile of papers on the table in front of me to the side, he sits up straight and begins scanning the room around us.

“Where’s my kid?”

“Your kid?” I repeat, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah, my kid. Adorable little baby, brown hair, gray eyes, about this big… you can’t miss her. She’s the cutest fucking baby you’ve ever seen.”

I laugh. “She’s upstairs with Ava. She’s been fussy all afternoon so she’s trying to put her down for a nap.”

“She’s been fussy because Uncle Luke has been gone. But I’m here now and I’m ready for some baby time.” He jumps off the couch, bounds for the stairs, and I lean over the table, resting my cheek in my hand as I watch him go. The extent to which Calliope has everyone in this house wrapped around her finger is astounding, and yet, I can’t blame any of them. She really is the most perfect thing in existence.

“Ana?” Gail calls, stepping out of the kitchen. “Taylor just called, he and Mr. Grey are on their way home. Should I start dinner?”

“Yes, please. Thank you, Gail.”

She smiles and nods, and as she turns back to the kitchen, Luke begins to descend the stairs with a bundle of blankets in his arms, our new nanny trailing closely behind him.

“Here she is,” he coos as he takes his place on the couch next to me again. “I think she may have gotten bigger in just the couple hours I was at GEH today.” He frowns as he looks down at her angelic, sleeping face. “Stop growing, kid.”

“No, keep growing,” I counter. “She’s still almost a full pound smaller than she should be.”

“But I like her tiny. Look at these hands. Are you telling me you don’t want these hands to stay this size forever?”

“Mmm. Yeah, almost as much as I want her to keep her chubby little legs.”

He laughs and then leans down to kiss her on top of her head, squeezing her tightly against him before taking another long pause just to stare at her. As he reaches down and strokes his finger softly over her cupid’s bow, I push myself up off the floor and slide onto the couch next to them.

“So, what else isn’t Christian telling me. It’s been six weeks and nothing…”

“It takes a long time to review this stuff, Ana. We’re trying to be as thorough as possible.”

“No, I mean, it’s been six weeks and nothing has happened. No more threats, no more attempted kidnappings, no more phone calls. What is he waiting for?”

Luke sighs. “I don’t know. It’s got Taylor on edge too. I’d like to think he’s pulling back because we’re getting close, but in reality, I think he’s just biding his time. Regrouping and looking for an opening. But I won’t let him find one. I haven’t taken my eye off of anything, I promise.”

“You’re sure you’re not spread too thin?”

“No. I can handle it.”

I take a breath, wishing I had full confidence in his assertions, but I know how much he has on his plate. How much the entire security team has on their plate. And without Cardella, that load just got a little heavier for everyone.    

“How are you doing reviewing the security footage you got off the server at the prison?” I ask. “Do we know who’s been to see Elena yet?”

“No,” he sighs. “But I’ve still got 872 hours of footage left to review.”

“I just feel like you should have already seen something. I mean, I wrote a book, I know how long it takes, so he had to have commissioned it in the summer or early fall. And, we know he was in contact with her before she started writing because she was the one who came up with the plan to oust Welch and that happened over Thanksgiving. If Christian is right and the head guard has tampered with the visitors log to erase any proof of this guy meeting with her, then he may have also erased the corresponding security footage. What if he never visited her at all? What if all of this was coordinated through letters or over the phone?”

“Then we’ll find ourselves at a dead end. But until I’ve gone through everything we have, I’m not just going to give up.”

“I’m not suggesting you do. I just want to know what our plan b is.”

“Well, plan b is probably going down to the prison and…” he begins, but his voice cuts off when the elevator doors open again and Christian and Taylor step into the foyer. Because it’s Christian, Kommer, who’d stayed behind with me while Luke was being interviewed at GEH this afternoon, steps out of the security office and waits to be dismissed so he can take his turn at being interrogated by Taylor.

“Where is she?” Christian asks, and Kommer nods in our direction.

“In the living room, sir.”

“Good. I’ll leave you to it then.” Both Kommer and Taylor nod and disappear back into the security office while Christian turns to lock down the elevator with the new external security system that’s been installed and then steps into the great room, but as he approaches the couch where Luke and I are sitting, his eyes aren’t searching for me.

“There she is,” he says, groaning slightly as he reaches down and lifts Calliope out of Luke’s arms and into his own. Once he no longer has a hold of her, Luke turns to me and scrunches his face together in a look of disappointment, but as I laugh, he claps his hand over my knee, perhaps a little too hard, and heaves himself off the couch.

“Stop distracting me, Ana,” he says. “I have work to be doing.”

“Yeah, okay.” I roll my eyes, but smile after him as he quickly moves out of the great room and ducks into the security office to join Taylor and Kommer. When I turn back to Christian and see the now customary look of pure adoration he gives her as he sways back and forth, rocking her gently in his arms, my smile widens. The longer I stare though, the less my fascination is focused on his love for our daughter, and more on simply him.

“What?” he asks, looking down at me while I subtly bite down on my bottom lip.

I shake my head. “Nothing. Just you.” My eyes rake over him again, drinking him in, and my breath hisses between my teeth. “You know maybe you should change before you come home from work. You standing there, looking like you do in that suit… it’s not really fair.”

“Don’t talk to me about fair. I watched you folding laundry yesterday in nothing but one of my t-shirts and a thong. Do you have any idea what bouncing on the exercise ball with Calliope all day, every day, has done to your ass? Good things, Ana. Very good things.”

His eyes darken as they shift down to my bare legs, curled beneath me on the couch, and I feel all of the muscles inside of me clench. Unfortunately though, I still have five days before our six week celibacy constraint comes to an end, so I quickly change the subject.

“How was your day? Is the new building everything you hoped it would be?”

“Yeah, it’s been great actually. The integrated technology interfaces have really changed our productivity. Meetings are easier, my communication with Ros has vastly improved, our servers are running faster, and it finally feels like we’ve visually caught up to the success we’ve had. Elliot did a great job, except I wish he’d had the foresight to put a daycare in my office.”

“You think I’d let you take my baby out of this apartment to be around a bunch of germy little kids all day?”

“A bunch of kids? No, I meant in my office. Next to my desk. Basically I’m telling you that I’m going to buy a pack n’ play and start taking her to work with me.”

“I don’t think so,” I laugh. “You’ll have to fight me for her.”

“In a few days, I’d be more than happy to subdue you until you agree to my terms.” He smirks and raises his eyebrows at me suggestively, and while I giggle at his not so subtle promise, Mrs. Jones steps out of the kitchen again and begins laying dinner out on the dining room table. Christian reaches down for my hand and helps me to my feet, then regretfully relinquishes Calliope to Ava.

“Again?” he asks, once we’ve settled down at the table and I pass him the bowl of Chicken Caesar salad. “What, did Gail forget how to use the oven while we were in Cambridge?”

“That’s my fault. I have a wedding dress to fit into and despite hardly eating anything in the hospital for 10 days and doing about a billion squats over the past few weeks whenever I have to try and calm Calliope down, I still have nine pounds to lose before I’m back to my pre-pregnancy size.”

“I wish you wouldn’t worry about that. I think you look just as good as the day I met you.”

“That’s because I am the same size I was when you met me. But I didn’t work my butt off on a treadmill for 2 ½ years to be that size on my wedding day. The internet says my uterus should be back to it’s normal size by now, there’s no excuse for… all of this.” I wave my hands over my body where I feel as though I’m carrying extra weight, and Christian frowns.

“I think you’re beautiful.”

“And I appreciate that. But I want to feel beautiful.” I reach out for the glass of ice water next to my placesetting, but stop when Christian gets out of his chair and comes around the table towards me. His hand moves into my hair and, slowly, he pulls me into him until his lips press against mine. The soft moan he lets out as I kiss him back sends shivers down my back and when his tongue tangles with mine the tension the stress of the day has left in my body immediately melts away and there is no longer a wedding to plan, a book to publish, a crazy psycho on the loose, or even dinner on the table in front of me. There is only Christian. This beautiful, sexy man, who I want with every fiber of my being.

“How do you feel now?” he asks when he pulls away.

“Aroused.”

He laughs at my flat, sardonic tone and then adjusts himself through his trousers as he straightens his back and glances down at me with lust burning in his eyes. “Right back at you, baby. More so than you know.”

“I think I have a pretty good idea.” I bite down on my lip, and his eyes narrow before he lets out a long, disappointed sigh and takes his seat again. We eat for a moment in charged silence, until I finally say something to take our minds off what we both want, but can’t have.

“So, what do you want to do on Saturday?”

He raises an eyebrow and gives me sly smile. “You want a play by play of everything I’ve been fantasizing about over the last six weeks?”

“Not that part of Saturday. Your mother called me this morning, she wanted to know what you want to do for your birthday.”

“My birthday?”

“Yes, Saturday is also your birthday.”

“Really?” He takes his phone out of his pocket and flips through the apps, presumably for his calendar, and then lets out a surprised, huh, before leaning back in his chair and eventually smiling. “I guess that really changes what I’m allowed to ask for…”

I shake my head, but don’t bother hiding my smile. “I’m looking more for family oriented requests. You know, activities your parents and little sister can be present for.”

He frowns. “I don’t really want to make a big deal out of it. We have more important things to worry about right now.”

“I disagree. I think we need normalcy and things to celebrate now more than ever. This year’s been tough, but it’s also been really great and we keep forgetting that. We’re engaged, we’ve had a baby, we’re only a few weeks away from moving into the house that’s going to be our daughter’s family home… there’s so much I’m grateful for and all of that is because of you. I want to celebrate you, Christian. We all do.”

He takes a deep breath, considering the sincerity of my words for a moment, and then nods. “Okay. We’ll take the yacht out for the weekend and bring the whole family along. We’ll all be together and we won’t need as much security so Taylor can stay behind to continue his investigation.”

“How’s that going? I heard you fired Cardella today.”

“Mmm,” he hums, confirming but not elaborating.

“Do you really think she’s the inside leak?” I press him.

“I don’t know, but I have more reason to believe she is than she isn’t. She didn’t give us any useful information to help us find this fuck though, so it all feels like a wash in the end.”

“Not if she was giving him inside information. I want us to find out who he is and I want for him to be out of our lives for good, but until we can make that happen, the most important thing is keeping Calliope safe. And we do that by circling the wagons and keeping him from seeing our hand.”

“I know,” Christian nods. “And we don’t need Cardella to find him. He’s going to slip up, and I’ll be there when he does. He can’t hide from me forever, and once I find him, I will make sure he never comes near you or Calliope ever again.”

“I know you will,” I assure him, and as he nods, I lean over the table to kiss him once more.

“So, how was your day?” Christian asks, picking up his fork to eat again. “Did you pick a venue?”

“Actually… I need to talk to you about that.”

“Oh?”

“Lydia called me this afternoon. Random House won’t postpone my book tour. I’m going to be travelling from July 26th to August 15th. We can’t get married on the 30th.”

His chewing slows as he stares at me, but when I don’t say anything else, he swallows, takes a breath, and then nods.

“Okay, so we move the date up one weekend.”

“Or… postpone it…”

“Postpone it? You mean, until you get back?”

“Or, maybe, until next summer…”

“Next summer!”

“I just feel like we’re rushing this so much that we’ve had to compromise on everything and this wedding doesn’t even look the way I’d dreamed it would anymore.”

“Okay,” he says, his voice controlled and patient, telling me he’s about to shift into negotiation mode. “What do you want to change?”

“Well, for starters I don’t want to get married in just some random hotel or skyscraper in the middle of the city. There’s nothing about either of those places that makes me feel a connection to you or reminds me of the wonderful parts of our life that we’ve shared together. I’d love to get married in Paris or Vermont, or… by the ocean. Don’t you remember standing on that beach in Hawaii and how beautiful it was when the sun went down over the water? The way it felt standing there together, like we had our whole future ahead of us and it was bright and exciting? That’s what I want for our wedding, not just whatever place is available.”

“Okay, then let’s try the yacht club. It’s on the sound and we can get married at sunset.”

“I did. They’re booked through the end of the summer and have already started taking reservations for next spring. There’s no where on the water that isn’t booked solid until next year.”

“I’ll try. I’m sure someone would be willing to give up their reservation for the right price, and if that’s what you want, I’ll pay whatever it takes.”

“And what are you going to do about the guests? That list you sent me has almost 350 names on it.”

“We’ll figure it out.”

“But… why? I looked at that list and I don’t even know like 80% of those people. I mean…” I get up and hurry back to the coffee table in the great room where I’ve left the guest list Christian sent me that afternoon and begin flipping through it as I return to him. “Okay, who is Lois Greenman?”

He sits back in his chair and folds his arms. “City councilwoman. She’s the head of the committee that approves land grants and zoning initiatives for the city of Seattle. Her approval means that I may be able to expand my shipping yard in the next fiscal year, which is key to the sustainability of my manufacturing division. Her approval will be much easier to get if she feels as though we have a personal relationship and I’ve worked extremely hard to cultivate that relationship at all of those galas and charity events that you hate being dragged to.”

I purse my lips together. “Fine. As much as I’m not crazy about the idea of you using our wedding to broker a business deal, fine. But what about… Astor Harrington?”

He shrugs. “Some people just need to know that you are officially and forever will be mine.”

I narrow my eyes at him and then, very purposefully, reach down and cross Astor’s name off the list. Christian doesn’t flinch, so I look down at the pages in front of me to find more names to remove, but looking through line after line of unfamiliar names just seems to overwhelm me again and I have to stop. I rest my face in my hands and as I take a deep, calming breath, I hear Christian sigh.

“Ana, are you… are you getting cold feet?”

My eyes snap up to him immediately. “Of course not. This has nothing to do with marrying you, Christian, this just isn’t how I dreamed our wedding would be. I was picturing something intimate and beautiful, with all of our friends and family watching as we pledge our love to one another. That when we take our vows, we’re doing it because it’s right and we’re ready, not because we’re being scared into it by some faceless psycho who’s hanging over our lives like the specter of death.”

Christian leans forward to rest his elbows on the table and begins scrubbing his hands over his face, but he doesn’t say anything.

“You’re mad…” I say softly.

“No.” He shakes his head. “I’m just trying to understand what you’re feeling because… what you’re saying doesn’t make sense to me. Yes, we’re both under a lot of stress, and yes, I’d ideally like our wedding to happen without the weight of what we’re facing hovering over us, and maybe we’ve made these plans very quickly, but I don’t feel like we’re rushing into this. If anything, I feel like I’ve been waiting an eternity for this day to finally come and… I don’t want to wait anymore. Maybe I’ve tried to make this bigger than you wanted, or grander, and maybe I am going overboard, but… I love you, more than anything, and I just want this day to be as big and momentous as it feels to me. If you don’t want the big guest list, we won’t have it. If you don’t want the expensive venue and grand ballrooms for the reception, consider them gone. We can get married right on the lake in my parents back yard, or on the yacht, or we can put everyone on my plane and fly to that same beach in Hawaii and get married at sunset. I don’t care. At the end of the day, all I want is to finally be married to you, and I can’t wait another year for that to happen, Ana.”

I lean my cheek on my hand as I listen to what he says and then nod. It’s a compromise. He’s conceding what I don’t want in exchange for what he needs. It’s fair and while I would prefer to postpone our wedding until we’ve resolved this horrific nightmare with whoever is after us, maybe the lesson that the universe tried to teach me with the almost kidnapping and Calliope’s birth is that I need to stop taking time for granted. There are no promised tomorrows, or next years. Life isn’t a guarantee and so you have to take what you want while you can. Right now, I want Christian. I want to be his, and for him to be mine, until death do us part.  

“Okay, we won’t wait,” I tell him. “We’ll talk to your parents about having the wedding at their house while we’re out on the yacht this weekend and we’ll get married on the 23rd before I leave.”

“Good.” He nods, and as he talks a breath of relief, I get out of my chair, move to him, and straddle his lap.

“We don’t need the expensive venus and the grand ballrooms for our wedding to feel momentous. It already will be, because that’s the way I love you. You are the center of my universe, Christian Grey, and whether we get married next month or next year, nothing will change that. I will love you with everything I have inside of me until my very last day.”

“Forever.”

“And ever, and ever, and ever…” I continue, until eventually, he cuts off my words with a kiss.

 

****

 

Leaving for the marina Friday morning is chaos. When Christian handed Calliope off to me in the morning before he left for work, she immediately melted down into a fit of tears that nothing seems to be able to stop.

“You’re certain she’s not wet or something?” Luke asks as I fight to get her fastened into her carseat in the back of the SUV.

“No, she’s not wet, she’s not hungry, she doesn’t want to sleep… she just wants to cry.” I snap, my frustration coming out more than I mean for it to.

“Here, try a pacifier,” my dad suggests, passing it to me, but when I lean over her seat and brush the tip of the nipple against her bottom lip she doesn’t even attempt to suckle.

“Please, Calliope,” I beg over the sound of her screaming.

“Harrison just texted me,” Luke interrupts. “Kate just got to the marina with the rest of the Greys. They’re waiting on us.”

“Okay.” I sigh and try to take a moment to compose myself before I crawl into the seat next to her, but her shrill scream is like a hammer chipping away at my heart.

“You always slept in the car,” my dad assures me as Luke begins pulling out of the garage beneath Escala. “Anytime you got into fits like this, your mom and I would put you in the car and drive you around until you fell asleep. It worked every time.”

“Well, I hope she takes after me then.” I lean over her seat and make soft clicking sounds with my tongue as I twister her tiny fingers around my index finger. “Please, take after me…”

She doesn’t. The entire time we fight the traffic of downtown Seattle on our way to the marina, she screams and screams with as much force as her little lungs can muster.

“Oh dear, Calliope,” Grace says while I finally step out of the car on the loading dock next to the yacht and she reaches inside to pull my crying baby from her car seat. “What’s the matter, angel?”

“Her dad left and he’s the only one she loves,” I say dejectedly.

“Oh, do you miss your daddy?” Grace continues. “It’s okay, my sweet little baby, he’s going to be here tonight. Oh…” She pulls her more tightly into her chest but it does nothing to comfort her. If anything, it makes her scream louder.

“She is just not having it today,” Kate says. She reaches out to take her from Grace and gently bounces her in her arms, but nothing.

“I think they’re done with the security checks,” Elliot says, walking up behind Kate. He nods over his shoulder at Ryan, Kommer, and a few crew members coming up from below decks, but frowns as Calliope’s incessant tantrum catches his attention. “What did you do to her, Kate?”

“Nothing, she’s just a little cranky this morning. That’s all.”

“Give her to me,” Elliot says. Kate turns to place her in his arms and, like magic, the moment she’s nestled in and her eyes lock with Elliot’s, the giant, alligator tears rolling over her cheeks and the high piercing screams she emits, stop. She falls completely silent and simply gazes up at her uncle with a look close to wonder.

“There, see?” Elliot says proudly.

“Oh my god, you’re a miracle worker,” I tell him gratefully, and he smiles.

“Elliot Grey, baby whisperer.” He turns to Kate. “Sorry, she loves me more.”

Kate narrows her eyes. “I’ll cut you.”

“Okay, okay,” Grace says, moving up the dock and glancing longingly at her son as though she’s desperate to take my baby from him. “Let’s get going. Your father and sister are already aboard and those jet skis aren’t going to ride themselves.”

I stifle a laugh as I remember Christian’s idle threat to have the jetskis removed from the yacht after Elliot’s seventh phone call last week reminding him to have them serviced before we disembarked, and then hook my arm through Kate’s as we follow Grace and my father aboard the yacht.

It’s nice when we set sail. I don’t want Calliope out under the sun or being wind beaten and battered while we carve our way through the deep blue water towards the Strait of Juan Del Fuca, so we open the all the doors and windows to let in the cool sea air and settle down in the sitting room to visit with one another. Elliot keeps Calliope calm and quiet, swaddled in his arms, until we’re far enough off the coast that we can cut the engines and drift while my dad and Carrick throw fishing lines off the top deck and Mia, Kate, and Elliot pull out the jetskis.

“I’ll stay with her,” Grace offers when she sees me laying Calliope in her bassinet after I’ve finally rocked her to sleep. “You should go out on the jet skis too. Have some fun.”

“Oh, actually I was kind of looking forward to the peace and quiet,” I tell her. “I’ve started writing again and… I actually really like what I’ve got so far. I’ve been excited to work on it, and I don’t get a lot of time back home.”

“Another book?”

“Maybe. I don’t know… This has been a much different experience. Last time, I needed to put my thoughts and feelings on paper to work through them. This time, I just… I want Christian to know.”

“Know what?”

“The way I love him. The way he’s changed me. The way he’s made me see the entire world differently. Better. That despite everything we’ve been through, I’ve never felt closer to heaven than when I was fighting through hell with him. I don’t feel the way about him, even about what happened, as I did when I wrote Escaping Neverland. I don’t want that to be the legacy I leave behind of our love. So I’m starting over.”

“A love story.” She smiles. “I can’t wait to read it.”

“We’ll see.” I laugh, and as she nods and squeezes my shoulder, she turns to face the bassinet that contains my sleeping daughter.

“Well, what if I take Calliope in the other room to read with me? I’ll keep an eye on her while you take the afternoon to write.”

“Really? That’d be great actually. I’ll just go into the office in mine and Christian’s room. Just bring her to me when you need a break.”

“Never,” she says. I let out a soft, disbelieving laugh as I remember Calliope’s tantrum from this morning and then peel myself off the couch, kiss her gently on the forehead, and thank Grace again before disappearing back into the office inside the main cabin.

Just the way we did in the sitting room, I open all the windows and allow the salty sea air fill the room before I settle down at Christian’s desk with my laptop and begin reading through the last few pages of what I’ve already written and picking up again where I’d left off. It’s difficult to concentrate at first, the sounds of the jet skis’ motors and Kate’s and Mia’s laughter are almost a little too enticing, but I know how rare this opportunity to just sit down for an indeterminate amount of time to write now that I have my baby home with me, so I want to take full advantage of it while I can. With every ounce of self control I possess, I focus all of my attention on the blank page I have in front of me and begin to type, and while the words don’t come as readily as I wish they would, they do come, and I’m actually able to get an amount done that I’m proud of before there’s a knock on my door and Luke pokes his head inside the office.

“Ana?”

“Yeah?”

“Mr. Grey is on the phone for you.”

I glance down and see the satellite phone in his hand and frown. “Is everything okay?”

“Oh yeah, he and I had a long conversation, shared our hopes and dreams, and talked all about our feelings before he asked me to speak to you, so I know exactly what this phone call is about.”

I roll my eyes. “You’re such a pain in the ass.”

He laughs as he tosses me the phone, but I wait until the door closes behind him before I answer. “Hey, baby. Are you on your way?”

“No, that’s why I’m calling. Taylor may have found something in Leila’s financial records, a paper trail. Her tuition, her apartment, her living expenses were all being paid out of an offshore account owned by a company called Limited LTD, based in Panama.”

“Panama? Wait, I thought this guy was in Seattle?”

“He is. It’s a shell corporation.”

“I don’t know what that is…”

He sighs. “It’s a company that exists only on paper. Wealthy people use them to hide assets for tax evasion purposes. You can transfer money or property through the shell company into an offshore account because the ownership of the company is tied up in a blind trust so the wealth can’t be traced back to the legitimate owner. It’s a good way to make millions of dollars in revenue look like millions of dollars of loss, or to pay people without the government being able to track it.”

“How do you know about that?”

“Because I have three myself, in Panama, the Cayman Islands, and Monaco.”

I bite my tongue to prevent myself from veering off subject at Christian’s casual admission to tax evasion, and try to sort through the things I understand of what he’s told me.

“So what does this mean? If it’s in a blind trust and we can’t trace the owner of the account, how can we use this to find out who he is?”

“We can’t. But with some help from Welch, we may be able to find out who else he’s paying to work for him and when we do, hopefully one of them can lead us to him.”

“Good,” I say, immediately feeling a tangible sense of relief as for the first time since we knew what was coming for us, it actually feels like we’ve chipped away at the perfect defense he’s put in place to shield his identity from us. “So… are you not coming, then?”

“No, I’ll be there. Just late. Welch is running code now to try and break through the securities on the account so we can trace the payments, and once he does, it’ll take him a few days to sort through the data. I just don’t want to leave until I at least know we have an access point.”

“Okay. Then I’ll see you tonight.”

“I love you, Anastasia.”

“I love you too. Bye.” I hang up the phone and glance down at the screen of my laptop in front of me again, but I don’t think I can write anymore. Now that I know Christian is making some progress at finding out who’s been after us, my concentration is shot. I don’t, however, want to sit here driving myself crazy all afternoon running through a hundred implausible scenarios of what he’s going to find, so I tidy up the desk I’ve been working at and head out to rejoin the rest of the family.

Carrick and my dad have had a great afternoon and their catches have been passed off to Christian’s chef to prepare for dinner, so I find them in the sitting room with Grace. Calliope is laid out over her favorite blanket on floor while my dad dangles a soft lamb plush toy over her, which she watches with absolute fascination.

“How has she been?” I ask, sitting next to Grace on the sofa.

“Wonderful,” she beams at me. “After I fed her, we read a little bit and then grandpa came inside to change her.”

“You’re on diaper duty, dad?” I ask with a laugh.

“I’d change a million diapers for this little girl.” He reaches down to brush the tip of his finger over her full lips but she doesn’t look away from the toy my father still holds over the top of her until she sneezes and while we all melt over the adorable sound, her face crinkles in indignation. As though she’s angry the sneeze has broken her concentration.

“Oh my god, she’s so freaking cute. She’s going to be the death of me,” I beam, and then quickly slide from the couch to the floor to play with her and my father. We lie there with her, fully engrossed in peek-a-boo and the little piggies game for much longer than should be acceptable for a room full of grown adults, until Kate, Elliot, and Mia come in looking for dinner.

“I’m just going to go change,” Kate says through chattering teeth. “I’m freezing.”

“Of course you are,” Elliot replies. “You’re soaking wet. Why did you wear a tank top under your life jacket?”

“Because… I don’t like the way the zipper feels against my skin when I’m wet.”

“You never cared before.”

“Well, I do now.” Her tone is defensive and it takes Elliot off guard. He furrows his brow at her as she turns and hurries through the exit that leads to the main cabins and then turns a questioning look on me, but I quickly glance away because I know exactly why Kate is wearing a tank top under her lifejacket, but clearly, she’s not ready for everyone else to know.

“Mom, when are we going to eat?” Mia asks.

“We’re waiting for Christian, sweetie.”

“Oh…” I interject. “I’m sorry, he called me a little while ago and he’s going to be late. We should start without him.”

“Late? Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, Taylor thinks he’s found a way to find out who’s behind all of this.”

“What?” Elliot exclaims. “Are they going after him? We should go back…”

“No, it’s not like that. They found his bank account or something and it’s all anonymous so it doesn’t tell us much but they’re hoping Welch can use it to find out who else he’s paying so we can use one of them to find out who he is.”

“Sounds like a good way to end up with more bodies…” my dad says darkly, but Elliot shakes his head.

“I honestly don’t care. These people have hurt my family and have threatened to do worse… I don’t care what happens to any of them. No matter what role they’re playing, they’re helping him, and they deserve whatever they get.”

“Elliot,” Grace says, admonishing him, but he doesn’t back down.

“Why would would you feel remorse for them after what they’ve put Ana and Christian through? After the horrible things he’s done to his own people, what do you think he has saved for Ana? For Calliope? And what if he doesn’t stop there? What if Mia is next? Or Kate? Christian has this right. We need to find this guy and stop him. By whatever means necessary.” He looks over at Luke purposefully and Luke’s subtle return nod doesn’t go unnoticed by me.

“What do you mean by whatever means necessary?” I ask. “What has Christian said?”

Neither of them answer and before I can press them, the head of the yacht staff appears in the entryway and announces dinner.

“Wonderful,” Grace says, clearly glad for the subject change. She jumps to her feet and quickly begins ushering Mia towards the dining room downstairs while my dad scoop Calliope into his arms and walks with Carrick, discussing fishing plans for the next day and where he thinks they should cast out. I remain in place, glancing uneasily between Luke and Elliot, but neither of them says anything. Elliot simply turns to follow the rest of his family and Luke comes to me, holding out his hand to help me off the floor.

“What has Christian told you to do?” I ask him, and he frowns.

“Don’t worry about it, Ana.”

“No, don’t shut me out like that, Luke. I deserve to know.”

He sighs. “You’ve said the words, Ana. He told us to stop him by any means necessary. It’s up to Taylor and I to decide what that is.”

I bite my bottom lip as he tries to turn me and lead me to the dining room with the others, but before we’re fully out of the sitting room, I stop him.

“Just… don’t do anything illegal, okay?”

“Illegal? You think what Taylor and Welch are doing right now is legal? You don’t have a problem with that.”

“No one is going to get hurt, Luke…”

“Plenty of people are going to get hurt, Ana. That’s the kind of monster we’re dealing with now. Our job is simply to make sure that you and everyone you love aren’t one of those people. That’s what I care about, that’s what your fiancé cares about, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

I hesitate, not knowing what to say. Reading between the lines, I have a good idea of what that means and the thought of it not only makes me extremely uncomfortable, it almost makes me sick. What we’re willing to do, and what we’re not willing to do is what should separate us from what he is. But I’m a soldier’s daughter. I understand that sometimes peace comes at a cost and when it comes right down to it, if it were someone I loved, I don’t know how far I’d be willing to go to keep them from being harmed. I just hope I never have to find out.

 

There’s a much more welcome sense of levity to dinner. Grace especially seems eager to direct the conversation in ways that can’t turn back to what Christian is currently dealing with and both Carrick and my father are happy to help her. We’re all just discussing plans to attend a fourth of July parade in Montesano that is honoring my father’s service, when Kate finally returns, and when I look up at her, even my mouth pops open.

She’s gotten some sun out on the water today, which not only means that her skin is glowing, but that her champagne colored hair looks a shade or two lighter and it’s tumbling softly over her shoulder in beachy waves. The long, white, billowy halter dress she’s changed into looks fantastic contrasted against the caramel tint to her skin and she’s put on just enough makeup to look fresh and natural, but also unattainably beautiful.

“Kate,” Elliot says, jumping out of his seat so quickly that it falls backwards and clunks noisily against the hardwood floor. “You look… stunning.”

“Thank you, Elliot,” she smiles radiantly, and as she moves to take her place at the table next to Mia, she glances over and winks at me. Elliot moves around the table and pulls her chair out for her and then stares down at Mia for a moment, almost as though he’s going to ask her to move, but thinks better of it and returns to his own seat.

“So, did you kids have a good time out on the water this afternoon?” Carrick asks.

“Yeah, it was a little flat,” Mia says. “But it was fun.”

“Flat?” Kate asks. “You got like a three foot swell. I thought for sure you were going in the water. I’d already turned around to come rescue you, thinking we were going to have to tow you back to the yacht for first aid, and then you just spun out and went off.”

“Kids play,” she says, waving off Kate’s concern with her hand. “I wanna go ride somewhere where the water is less stagnant. Like Chile, I hear they have swells there that can get up to 25 feet tall. Could you imagine riding through a wave tunnel like that? So awesome.”

“My sister,” Elliot says, sniffing and pretending to wipe away a very proud tear.

“That all sounds very exciting until the wave collapses on you and you’re stranded, tumbling around underwater in the middle of the ocean with that heavy machine on top of you,” Grace says. “Then what would you do?”

“That’s not going to happen, Mom.”

“Mhmm, I don’t think so.”

“You’ll be eighteen soon,” Elliot says with a smile. “Then I can take you.”

“Over Christian’s dead body,” I say with a laugh.

“He’ll probably be right there with us,” Mia says. “I know that when we go on vacation now that you two hole up or are happy to make out on the beach all day but before you came along, Christian was always up for anything. Skiing, surfing, parasailing, jet skiing… he did it all. He and I used to spend days just going up and down Hyde Park when we would go to Aspen.”

“Ah, my favorite run,” I say, rolling the shoulder I’d dislocated going down that very ski run three years ago and listening to the sickening popping sound it still makes.

“Looks like you’re really holding Christian back, Ana,” Kate says with a laugh. “I didn’t realize he used to be interesting.”

“We just need to get him back on the horse,” Elliot says. “It’s so damn difficult getting him to leave work unless Ana is literally in danger. He needs to learn how to vacation again.”

“Oh, he’ll come around now that Calliope’s arrived.”

“Especially once we get her her first set of skis,” Elliot says gleefully. “Can you imagine the look on his face the first time we take her on a run? He’ll literally have a heart attack.” He laughs, but I shake my head.

“You’ll never get to know because there’s no way Christian would ever allow it. That little girl is going to be the most overprotected child in America.”

“Which is why she has godparents,” Kate says, smiling mischievously at Elliot. “By this time next year, she’ll be out on the jet skis with us.”

“No she won’t,” he says. “We won’t be here.”

“And where will you be?” Carrick asks.

“Kayaking the inside passage,” Kate says. “It’s a five week trip from Seattle to Skagway. Elliot’s always wanted to do it. He was telling me about it on the phone the other night and he reeled me right in. We’re already planning.”

“Really?” I ask suspiciously, and she nods, but not with the implication in her expression that would tell me making plans together is anything more than two friends sharing their love of a common hobby together, and as they explain the trip more to Grace, Carrick, and my father, the more that seems to be solidified. Even when Carrick asks where they plan to sleep along the 1,500 mile journey, they explain there is plenty of storage space in the kayak for individual sized tents and sleeping bags, and not once do they crack a guilty smile or exchange secretive glances across the table. Still, I know how Kate feels about Elliot, and how Elliot feels about Kate. They’re playing it cool but if they’re having late night phone conversations and Kate’s making an effort to look the way she does for a family dinner, there might be something more going on. I don’t know why she’d hide that from me, but now, I have to find out.

“Well, sounds like a fun trip,” Carrick says. “I’ll look forward to hearing all about it.”

“Me too,” I say suspiciously, before narrowing my eyes on Kate. “Me. Too.”

After dinner we head back into the sitting room and since we haven’t heard from Christian yet, we decide to spend the evening playing some of the board games Grace brought along just in case there was a freak storm that mean we’d be stuck inside. Based on my history with Christian and what he’s told me about playing games with Elliot growing up, I pass on Monopoly and we all settle for Clue. But instead of paying attention to Colonel Mustard’s activities in the Conservatory, I try and solve the mystery of what’s going on between Elliot and Kate. They’re competitive during the game, though that’s just in their nature, but aren’t any pet names exchanged among the pointed, taunting barbs they throw at one another, and never once do I catch them locking eyes when the attention is focused elsewhere around the table. When I finally get up to put Calliope to bed though, I do notice that his hand is on her knee under the table, and his thumb moves in soft, slow circles over the fabric of her dress.

“Good night, sweet baby,” Grace coos as I reach in her arms to take my daughter. She kisses her softly on the head, and after I’ve taken her around the table and said goodnight to everyone still seated there, I head off through the open room to the stairs that lead up to the main cabin, alone.

Calliope is a little fussy as I set her down, but she falls asleep fairly quickly. I think briefly of waiting up for Christian, maybe even writing to pass the time, but I have no idea when he’s actually going to arrive and it’s already late enough that my eyelids feel heavy. With a sigh, I gently stroke the soft hair on top of my daughter’s head one last time and then crawl into the cool, crisp bedding. The waves lapping against the side of the yacht are calming, the perfect background noise to lull me off into restful sleep, but it simply won’t come. My mind is no longer occupied with what may or may not be going on between Kate and Elliot, nor with the plot holes in my new story I haven’t worked out yet, or the not so idle threats Calliope’s godparents have made about turning her into the next Evel Knievel before she’s even out of diapers. Instead, I find myself lying there in the darkness, trying to keep absolutely quiet as I listen desperately for the whir of helicopter blades through the open windows.

Today has been a wonderful respite from the stress of everything going on back home and the noise and chaos of the city, but it’s been lonely too. I’ve enjoyed having time to write but I would have rather spent that time with Christian fishing with our fathers or maybe even out on the jet skis with Kate and his siblings. This weekend is supposed to be about him and so far, he is the only part that’s missing.

As I lie there, trying not to think about the actual reasons he isn’t here, I finally do begin to drift, but I’m not able to lose myself in dreams before I’m awakened abruptly by the screeching metallic sound of the Charlie Tango’s landing gear touching down on the helipad just above me. I glance nervously over at Calliope, praying the sound hasn’t woken her too, but she sleeps soundly through the noise of the helicopter powering down and the voices that drift down through the window as Christian is welcomed by the night staff.

Excited anticipation takes grip of my stomach while I wait for his appearance and the moment he comes through the bedroom door, the tense exhaustion on his face immediately melts away in favor of delighted relief. He closes the door behind him and begins stripping out of his clothes as he stalks towards the bed and climbs over the top of me.

“Hi,” I tell him as he covers my body with his.

“Hi. I’m sorry I’m late.”

“It’s okay. Did Welch get what he needed?”

“Mhm. He’s downloading the data file over night and he and Taylor will begin pouring through it tomorrow. I almost wish I’d left Sawyer behind. He’s good at this kind of thing.”

I hum in agreement and Christian leans down to take my lips with his. I feel my entire body relax as he kisses me, the warmth of his affection chasing away the loneliness that’s kept me awake half the night. Everything’s perfect now, exactly how it should be, and I can feel that contentedness with each brush of his lips against mine. Finally, our restful weekend away can really begin.

“It’s after midnight, you know,” Christian says as he pulls away. “It’s my birthday.”

“Happy Birthday,” I whisper. He smiles and shakes his head.

“No, that’s not really what I meant. It’s June 18th, officially six weeks from Calliope’s birth.”

“Oh…”

He smiles again before reclaiming my lips, but just as the tenacity of his tongue against mine begins to spark the welcome heat between my legs and his hand starts to creep beneath the t-shirt I fell asleep in, Calliope wakes and begins to cry.

And she doesn’t stop until the pink light of dawn creeps through our bedroom windows.  

Next Chapter

Chapter 38 Preview

Excerpt from dinner between Christian and Ana:

 

“So, what do you want to do on Saturday?”

He raises an eyebrow and gives me sly smile. “You want a play by play of everything I’ve been fantasizing about over the last six weeks?”

“Not that part of Saturday. Your mother called me this morning, she wanted to know what you want to do for your birthday.”

“My birthday?”

“Yes, Saturday is also your birthday.”

“Really?” He takes his phone out of his pocket and flips through the apps, presumably for his calendar, and then lets out a surprised, huh, before leaning back in his chair and eventually smiling. “I guess that really changes what I’m allowed to ask for…”

I shake my head, but don’t bother hiding my smile. “I’m looking more for family oriented requests. You know, activities your parents and little sister can be present for.”

He frowns. “I don’t really want to make a big deal out of it. We have more important things to worry about right now.”

“I disagree. I think we need normalcy and things to celebrate now more than ever. This year’s been tough, but it’s also been really great and we keep forgetting that. We’re engaged, we’ve had a baby, we’re only a few weeks away from moving into the house that’s going to be our daughter’s family home… there’s so much I’m grateful for and all of that is because of you. I want to celebrate you, Christian. We all do.”

He takes a deep breath, considering the sincerity of my words for a moment, and then nods. “Okay. We’ll take the yacht out for the weekend and bring the whole family along. We’ll all be together and we won’t need as much security so Taylor can stay behind to continue his investigation.”

 

See you Monday!

xoxo WishingMrGreyWasHere

Announcing….

blood rose 2

Summary

Raymond Steele Sr. wasn’t like the tech tycoons that made up the majority of Seattle’s wealthy businessmen. His fortune wasn’t made from the mattresses he sold all over town and his power didn’t come from the size of his empire. Raymond Steele’s influence was built on blood and loyalty. That loyalty made everyone in his closely guarded circle family, even if they didn’t want to be, and family doesn’t turn on one another, nor does it disintegrate when the figure head dies. Family is forever. This is Christian Grey’s conundrum. He has spent his entire life paying for the sins of his father, Raymond Steele Jr.’s right hand man, and his ties to the family have threatened his career, his relationships, his freedom, and his life. But as he begins to unravel the secrets of the Steele legacy and attempts to escape the reign of Seattle’s most notorious crime syndicate once and for all, he learns that there’s only one way to leave the family. Seize power, or die trying.

Unfortunately for Christian, he’s not the only player who wants to change the game.

 

Things you should know:

  1. This story is OOC (Out of Character) and AU (Alternate Universe) which means there are changes to the backstories and personalities of some of the characters. You’ll have a better time if you drop some your preconceived notions about these characters going in. Their motivations are different, and, for a lot of them, their roles and qualities are very different. Clean slate.
  2. If I could categorize this story by Genre the way you do on FanFiction, I would choose Romance/Drama/Crime/Suspense
  3. This story will be rated M for explicit sexual content, graphic violence, strong language, and intense situations.
  4. This story will be poly-protagonist, meaning multiple POVs throughout the whole story.
  5. You should expect other/different romantic pairings in this story, for multiple characters.
  6. There is no BDSM or sexual history with Elena Lincoln in this story, Christian’s background is completely different. He’s not adopted, he is the biological son of Carrick Grey and Grace Trevelyan. No crack whore past or related trauma.
  7. I’m going to remain very tight lipped about this story, because there are going to be some (what I hope will be) shocking twists and turns along the way and I want my readers to experience that. Therefore, I will not reveal if it’s HEA (Happily Ever After), I will not reveal if there is cheating, and I will not reveal the fate of any character. It’s all going to unfold organically.
  8. There will be main character deaths.
  9. There are original characters in this story, both good and bad.
  10. This will not be a series the way that Shades of Fifty was. One book only.

Family Trees

Raymond Steele Sr. (Married to Anastasia Steele I)

Raymond Steel Jr. (Married to Carla Wilks)

    • Vincent Steele
    • Anastasia Steele

Walter Steele    

                                *****

Carrick Grey (Married to Grace Trevelyan)

    • Elliot Grey
    • Christian Grey (Married to Leila Williams)
    • Kate Grey
    • Mia Grey

                                *****

John Lincoln (Married to Elena Kelly)

    • John Lincoln Jr. (Died as an infant)
    • Calvin Lincoln
    • Thomas Lincoln
    • Camilla Lincoln

 

Coming after the outtakes for A Stronger Shade of Fifty have been completed

The Results Are In!

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CHRISTIAN IS THE FATHER!

haha, jk. (Although, not really… he is. To be clear)

It looks like the majority of you are okay with posting the next chapter in its entirety next Monday with a teaser on Friday. I will also be announcing my next story tomorrow, not posting a chapter, just posting the title and a short summary, plus some quick facts that I know a lot of you will want to know before deciding whether or not you want to read it. But I hope it will all make you really look forward to it, because I am so excited. I think it’s going to be some of the best stuff I’ve written 🙂

As for this post, I will now be using this to officially be taking requests for outtakes. 

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If you haven’t read the outtakes for Different and Broken (you should do so because the outtakes for Broken are my favorite of the whole series), they are scenes from a different character’s perspective, or a scene we know about or have a vague idea about, but didn’t actually get to see because Ana wasn’t there. For instance, maybe you really want to see Kate and Elliot’s break up, or you want to know what was really going through Christian’s head when Ana told him she was pregnant, or maybe you’ve just always had a burning curiosity about what Luke and Taylor talk about while they’re waiting around for Christian and Ana to finish doing it all the time. Just put a description of the scene you want to see and the character’s perspective you want to see it from in the comment section of THIS post, and once we get close to the end of Stronger, I will go through the comments, note which scenes I think will be interesting for everyone or will add new insight to the story.

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Note: Please leave your comments/requests on THIS POST ONLY. I won’t go through the reviews of every subsequent chapter to find outtake requests.

If you want to find this post in a few weeks after it’s been buried under new chapters to add another scene or idea for outtakes, it will be categorized under the wishing… section in the top menu bar. Just click the word “wishing…” and you’ll find all of my non-chapter posts.

Also note that while I am willing to accommodate as many requests as possible and I know there will be more for Stronger because so much of the story is shrouded in mystery, I will not be able to accommodate ALL requests. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure I’d just have to re-write Stronger from Captain Conspiracy’s perspective. haha

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Actual photograph of Captain Conspiracy. Photo Credit: Leila Williams

Thanks again for your understanding after I didn’t post this week. I know a lot of you said very kind things to make me feel better about it, but I really do hate not having something to give you every week. I’m going to be better. No more missed posts until the end of Stronger, I promise. That’s only like 8 weeks… 9 weeks? Or maybe 20, who even knows. Sighhhhhhhh.

xoxoxo

WishingMrGreyWasHere

Author’s Note

I’m the worst.

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I’m moving this weekend and while I was going to desperately try to not let that affect my posting schedule, this week IRL just became waaay to busy for me to find any writing time. I know, I know, this is starting to happen way too often and this definitely isn’t the way I want to run this site, so I have a proposition for all of you.

Chapter 38 looks like it’s going to be a monster, but there is a clear cut transition scene in the beginning/middle where I could theoretically split the chapter. I have about 3,000 words of the beginning part finished and would probably only need to write about 1,000 (ish) more until I get to where I think I could split the chapter. This could be finished today and posted either tonight (Midnight Eastern Standard Time/9 PM Pacific Standard time, US) or tomorrow morning at the time I would usually post on Mondays. Then I will do everything I can to finish the rest of the chapter by next Monday to continue posting as usual.

Pro: no missed updates, just one late one.

Con: shorter chapters, and while there is some important information in both sections, there’s a lot of fluffy goodness (desperately needed, right?) but splitting the chapter over two weeks could feel as though it’s dragging the plot out.

The other option would be to keep them together and post it all as one giant chapter next Monday. IDK. I’ll let you guys vote.

f4gbaq

Because I do feel bad, and I don’t want you guys to think I’m okay with not posting as often as I have been, in addition to letting you choose how you want the next chapter posted, I will give you another option of something I can give to you in pennance.

Option 1:

I WILL have this entire chapter posted by next Monday, so I can give you a teaser later in the week, probably Friday, like I did with chapter 37.

Option 2:

I’ve finished the detailed outline of my next story that I will begin posting AFTER I finish A Stronger Shade of Fifty, and the outtakes, so I can post a brief summary of that so you’ll have an idea of what’s coming in the future. Because I’m hype about it!

Option 3:

I can start the post for outtake requests where you all can leave comments about which scenes from A Stronger Shade of Fifty you would like to see from a different character’s perspective, or scene’s we’ve missed because Ana wasn’t there… or unconscious… This will remain open until the story has concluded so you can continue adding scenes until the Stronger is finished.

Option 4:

All or any combination of options 1-3.

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Again, I’m sorry there’s no update today. I really hate that I don’t have anything to share, especially since it feels like there weren’t really extenuating circumstances, I just didn’t finish. I hate that, and I am sorry. I’ve been reading your comments all week, and I love all the speculation! I think before the big baddie gets revealed, I might post a poll just to get an idea of who you think it is! Should I give a hint????

very vague hint:

Over the course of all of the comments/reviews, in all of the chapters of Stronger, someone HAS guessed correctly who it is. His name (or at least description of who he is) is out there, but which guess is correct? I am eager to see your speculation continue 🙂

So, in the comments of this very unnecessarily long Author’s note, please leave your vote of what you would like to have posted this week, split the chapters or post all as one next Monday, and your votes for the options listed above.

Again, I’m really sorry I don’t have anything to post this morning. But I promise on all things good in this world (See: Jamie Dornan) that I really am going to make it a priority to see that this doesn’t happen again.

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Distracting Jamie Dornan Gif

xoxo

WishingMrGreyWasHere

 

Chapter 37

walla-walla-prison

Within the next thirty minutes, the great room is filled with Christian’s family. Elena’s book has a total of thirty chapters so we split it into five chapter increments between myself, Christian, Grace, Carrick, Kate, and Elliot and begin combing the pages for anything that could be damaging to Christian, GEH, or our family if it were made public. It takes only minutes for the room to be filled with the sound of pens scratching over paper as we note the page numbers of every horrifying thing she says.

“Oh my god!” I look up at Kate and watch her gag so hard she has to cover her mouth, as though she’s worried she may actually throw up. “Jesus Christ, don’t read chapter seven.”

“What?” Christian demands. He leaves his place on the couch next to me and moves to Kate, taking the book out of her hands and scanning the page she’s reading. It’s obvious in his reaction when he finds the passage that gave her such a hard time.

“Don’t read chapter seven,” he confirms, and despite the fact that I know from Kate’s reaction and the look on Christian’s face that I really don’t want to know, my fingers are suddenly itching to flip back through the pages to read what Elena has said. I stop myself though. Kate has the unfortunate job of reading through the chapters written about Christian’s time as her submissive and Elena has been graphic. Extremely graphic.

“At least she’s not shying away from the fact that she’s the villain,” Elliot says with disgust as he turns the page of his section. “There’s no way she can publish this. She’ll go to prison.”

“She’s already in prison,” Christian says.

“And we have to make sure that isn’t what she intends for you with this manuscript,” Carrick says. “Focus on what you’re reading.”

Kate takes a breath, nods, and turns her eyes back to the pages in her hands, and as Christian takes his place next to me again, I also have to physically prepare myself to continue reading. I’ve been given the chapters that cover Christian’s send off and subsequent first months at Harvard, and what I’ve read so far has me disgusted, angry, and feeling a way towards Christian that I haven’t felt since before we started dating. Like I’m once again an extra in this twisted relationship he shared with her. An intruder.

As I end Chapter 12, I learn, based on the date, that right before Christian kissed me for the very first time, he’d just had phone sex with her. That’s why he was late for the party that night I got drunk with Jose. It wasn’t because he was lost, it was because he was sitting in his car outside whispering dirty things into her ear until she got off. Perhaps that’s why he lost control and kissed me when he took me back to his dorm. She’d left him turned on and unsatisfied and I was just a warm body, drunk and willing, in front of him. Maybe he was picturing her…

Quickly, I shake the unwelcome thought away and turn the page to start the next chapter.

Chapter 13

Anastasia Steele

“Great,” I whisper. Christian looks over at me and once he reads the chapter title, he reaches out to take the pages from me.

“Baby, don’t… you don’t need to put yourself through that.”

I shake my head. “You think I’m not going to read the vile things she has to say about me? You don’t think I need to know what she plans on telling the entire world about how I came into your life?”

“Ana, it doesn’t matter what she says or what anyone thinks. We know that she’s going to try and make you out as the thing that’s ruined me, but you know that you are the best thing that…”

“Don’t!” I quickly withdraw from his outstretched hand. “Don’t touch me, Christian. Not right now.”

“Ana…” There’s hurt reflect in his voice after my rebuke and while I know that’s it’s not fair to hold him responsible for anything said in this manuscript or to punish him for what Elena has written, I can’t help the way this is making me feel. Reading all of this, learning details he’s kept secret from me for years, is ripping open wounds that I thought had healed a long time ago and somehow, despite the ring on my finger and the beautiful baby sleeping soundly in a basket on the floor only a few feet away from me, I’m suddenly once again the insecure nineteen year old girl from three years ago who wanted a boy that couldn’t love her back. I need space, and so I get up and move to the other side of the couch to sit next to Kate.

“Do you need a glass of wine?” Kate asks, but I shake my head and turn my attention back to the pages in my hand so I don’t have to look at the torment in Christian’s eyes.

I’ll never forget the first time I heard her voice. My husband was gone (again), I’d been drinking, and I was lonely. Solitude has never been my forte, it gives me too much time to think. My head was swimming with alcohol and memories of my lost sister and I needed a distraction. It was late in Cambridge, past the time I expected Christian to have parted ways with his brother for the night, so I picked up my phone and dialed his number, thinking at least I could distract myself with my vibrator and another round with my submissive. My dutiful, obedient, faithful submissive.

“Hello, Christian Grey’s phone.”

Those are the first words Anastasia Steele ever spoke to me, and to say they came as a shock would be grossly understated. Christian had been forbidden to have any form of contact with the opposite sex while he was at Harvard. He was mine after all, and I had no intentions of sharing him. But one week into his very first semester, I’d already caught him breaking the rules, and even over the phone, there was something about this girl that had the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. I knew she was trouble. What I didn’t know was that she would eventually lead to the complete and utter annihilation of everything I’d worked so hard to build.

“Fuck, here it is,” Carrick says. I glance up from the page I’m reading and feel my gut tighten when I see the look of foreboding on his face. Once he has Christian’s attention he looks at the manuscript in his hand and begins reading.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect that day. I’d hoped that what I’d said to him made a difference but I knew, deep in my heart, that I’d lost all the power I’d once held the day Anastasia Steele opened her legs for him. For the first time in almost 25 years, I was vulnerable, and though I’d refused to show it, when Christian took the stand I felt as though I was going to cry, or scream, or maybe just vomit all over the table in front of me.”

“I can’t recall most of his testimony. It’s all hazy to me now, like the vague memories you’re left with the morning after a night of too much drinking. But the most important question I remember with perfect clarity. The prosecutor asked, ‘were you subjected to any sexual contact, initiated by Mrs. Lincoln, on April 14th 2003’, and before the judge, Anastasia, his family, and God, Christian responded with an absolute and resounding, ‘no’. He lied. He’d done as I told him to do and lied. Starting GEH was that important to him. Important enough that he committed felony perjury and betrayed everyone who loved him, all for money he would have gotten anyway if he’d just waited three more years.”

“Somehow, after months of feeling him slip from my grasp, I’d reeled him back in. I knew with that one word that he’d lose the trust and support of his family and the love and devotion of the girl who’d stolen him from me. He was mine again, and even as he told me that he never wanted to see or hear from me again, even as I transferred the money to start his company that I’d promised in exchange for his lie, the money which was supposed to be the last exchange we ever had, I knew he was mine. He fought it. He’d spent months alone following the trial, single and shunned from his family, and he never reached out to me. Not until New Years Eve, 2008, when he’d called me just before midnight, feeling rejected again by the love of his life. The moment I heard the vulnerability in his voice through the phone, I hooked him, brought him back into my control, and together, we built an empire.”

“She said it…” Elliot says. “She said you lied under oath for money. That GEH was built on a bribe.”

“So what do I do?” Christian asks his father. “How do I keep this from getting into the hands of a publisher? Sue for defamation of character? For libel?”

“You can’t sue for libel if what she says is true,” Carrick replies. “She isn’t lying, Christian.”

“She’s writing about me without my permission. She intends to make a profit off my name, surely there is something I can do to stop it.”

“Technically… she’s writing an autobiography. You were a part of her life and she’s telling her life’s story. What she’s written is factual. She doesn’t make assumptions…”

“Doesn’t make assumptions?” Christian interrupts him. He flips back through the pages he’s reviewed, scans the text, and chooses a passage to read aloud. “It’s taken years of deep introspection to divine what makes her hold over him so much stronger than mine. She’s not more clever or more manipulative. She offers him no competitive advantage in the business world while I have time and time again helped GEH expand and prosper. She’s not willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead because her moral compass is stagnant and absolute. No, the power she wields over him is much more simple, instinctual even. As much as it wounds my ego to admit, Anastasia Steele is better at sucking dick than I am.”

Elliot snorts and then covers his mouth to hide his growing smile, and Grace turns a sharp look on him.

“This isn’t the time, Elliot,” she admonishes him.

“What?” he replies, innocently. “I thought we were debating the factual accuracy of what was written? Is he arguing that’s not true?”

“Of course it’s true,” Christian says, but the moment the words are out of his mouth, he frowns and shoots an apologetic look at me. “I-I… What I mean to say is… Shut the fuck up, Elliot.”

“What about her NDA?” I ask. “Don’t all GEH employees have to sign one?”

“Yes,” Christian says, perking up slightly. “Yes, they do.”

He disappears into his office, though none of us continue reading in his absence. Mostly everyone stares at Carrick, but while Grace, Elliot, and Kate all look hopeful, I can’t ignore the regretful impatience clear in his expression. Like he’s dreading having to give someone bad news.

“Here it is,” Christian says, brandishing the papers towards his father as he comes back into the great room. “Signed, March 19th 2009. Elena Lincoln.”

“So she can’t publish anything about Christian without being in violation of this NDA,” Kate says. “He can stop her. He can sue for an injunction.”

“No.” Carrick shakes his head. “You can’t sue for violation of an NDA until there’s been a violation. Writing this novel, sending it to another covered entity under that NDA with no clear threat to do anything with it is not a breach. Until this manuscript is placed in a publisher’s hands and a judge rules that this autobiography is in violation, she hasn’t broken your agreement. If both of those things happen, you may be awarded damages and maybe those damages will be significant enough to offset the profits she’ll make from selling her story, but by that point…”

“By that point, the damage has been done,” I answer for him.

“Exactly.”

“So what do I do?” Christian says, his frustration clear now. “How do I stop this?”

“You give her what she wants,” Carrick says. “She sent it to you, not directly to a publisher. Clearly, she wants something from you.”

“She didn’t send it to him,” I argue. “She sent it to me.”

“Knowing that you would tell Christian,” Carrick says, but I shake my head.

“No, if this were meant for Christian, if she wanted something from just Christian, she wouldn’t have involved me. She knows that I’d never agree to Christian associating himself with her in anyway again. If that’s what she wanted she’d have been more secretive. She’s reaching out. She thinks showing me her hand will bring me to her.”

“Which it won’t,” Christian says dismissively.

“Won’t it?”

He looks down at me with a furrowed brow. “Of course not. You’re not going to a prison, Ana. Absolutely not.”

“We don’t have a choice, Christian. This isn’t just about avoiding embarrassment or a scandal that could hurt your business. This is about you once again facing criminal charges. We can’t just ignore this.”

“She’s right,” Elliot agrees. “And we all know Elena won’t just give up if you don’t give her what she wants. This is a clear threat, and she makes good on her threats.”

“But what could she possibly want from Ana?” Kate asks. “If she wanted a buy out, she would go to Christian.”

“And she’s in prison. It’s not like money is going to do her any good when she’s behind bars,” Elliot adds.

“No,” Carrick says. “But she’s only got five years before she’s on parole, four and some change now. Coming out to a big payday could help her in a lot of ways.”

“But again… if it was money she was after, she would have written to Christian,” Kate says. “Whatever she wants has to be something she can only get from Ana, or from both of you, and really… there’s only one way to find out what that is.”

“We have to go talk to her,” I agree. “Together, as a united front. Be clear right off the bat that she’s not going to separate us, come between us, or play us against each other. Not anymore.”

Christian shakes his head. “No, you’re not going.”

“Christian…”

“No, Ana. I’m not taking you to negotiate with Elena Lincoln.”

“Why? So I don’t mess up whatever deal you’re going to make with her with my stagnant moral compass? Because you think that what she wrote about me here was correct? That I’m not as clever or shrewd as she is and that somehow I’ll go in there and fall for whatever master manipulation technique she has planned for us? I’m not useless, Christian. There is nothing she could say or do that would blind me to what she really is or what she’s really trying to do. I can handle myself against Elena Lincoln.”

“You think I’m worried about Elena?” he asks, and when I cross my arms, he lets out a humorless laugh and turns towards the foyer.

“Taylor!”

It takes a few seconds, but Taylor rounds the corner from the security office and stands expectantly in the entrance between the foyer and the great room.

“Yes, sir?”

“Will you bring me the box you found in Anastasia’s graduation gifts?”

Taylor glances uneasily at me. “Uh… sir?

“Please.” Taylor nods and disappears back into his office for a moment, and when he returns, he holds out a small, brown gift box with a piece of twine wrapped around it. Christian takes it in his hand and then looks up at me.

“You asked why security had been tightened in the hospital, why Taylor was interviewing the entire nursing staff? He found this box on the gift table when he went to collect your things from the arts center after graduation.”

He tosses the box to me and when I catch it between my hands, it rattles. I feel a sense of foreboding when all six pairs of eyes turn to watch as I unravel the twine and slowly lift the lid. Inside, nestled carelessly at the bottom of the box, there’s a small golden locket, which, unfortunately, I recognize immediately.

“This is Leila’s,” I say quietly. “I asked her about it when I first started working at GEH. There’s a picture of her grandmother inside of it, she wore it every day. She was… she was wearing it the day she saved me.”

“Open it,” Christian says, but when I glance up and see the hard look on his face, I’m not sure that I want to. This is it. Proof that he got to her. He wasn’t lying. Leila really is gone.

I reach into the box, tangle my fingers through the long gold chain, and slowly pull it out. The small heart locket twirls innocently as it dangles over the box, but it’s like staring murder in the face and the sight of it makes me sick. Part of me hopes that’s what has Christian overreacting so much, that it’s the locket itself, the physical proof of Leila’s death, that has him so paranoid, but when I pry open the hinge and see what’s inside, that hope is squashed.

The locket no longer contains the photograph of Leila’s grandmother. Instead, it’s my face that looks up at me. At least, I’m pretty sure it’s me… it’s hard to tell because the face of the girl inside is obscured by a smear of something that looks horribly like blood. The juxtaposition between the smile on my face in this picture and the dark red color shrouding all of my features until I’m nearly unrecognizable is a clear and deliberate threat. Silent, but powerful.  As I close the locket in my hand, the saliva pooling in my mouth begins to sting my cheeks, and while I try to swallow it, I glance nervously down at Calliope.

“Have you considered that this could be a ploy by him?” Christian asks. “That Elena never meant to send that manuscript to you, that someone else did, and that if we go down to the prison to speak to her about it, we’ll find that something else is waiting for us? What if that package had your name on it because was meant to draw you out of this apartment, to isolate you so that he can try to take you again? Once we’re inside that prison, we’re not in control anymore. We have to do everything the guards in charge tell us to do, go where they tell us, and we already know he’s bought off the police. I highly doubt that’s where his power stops.”

“So, we take security…”

“No.” He shakes his head again. “That’s not good enough anymore. I don’t care if you have Sawyer with you, or Taylor, or the whole fucking military. I’m not going to knowingly put you in harms way and whether this is a trap being laid by him, or Elena playing games, this is a risk. I refuse to take the bait, Ana.”

“So, what do you want to do, Christian?” Carrick asks.

“Tomorrow morning, Taylor and I will drive up to Gig Harbor alone and I will talk to her. If she really is behind this, I’ll put an end to it.” He looks over at me again. “I promise.”  

“And how do you propose to do that?” Elliot asks. “Elena isn’t exactly best known for being reasonable. Or… sane.”

“I know how to handle her. She’s manipulative and self-serving, but she’s not stupid. There’s a way to stop her and, within reason, I’ll take care of it.”

“Great,” I snap, throwing what’s left of my part of the manuscript down on the couch and jumping to my feet. “So we’re right back to where we started. You and Elena will make your deals together behind closed doors and I’ll… what? Sit at home and trust you? Hope that this time it won’t be as bad as perjury or a secretly funded underground brothel?” I scoff, not bothering to hide the disgust on my face before turning back to him. “I really thought we were past this, but I guess we never will be.”

I reach down to scoop the basket that holds my sleeping baby into my arms and storm angrily from the great room to our bedroom. There’s too much anger inside of me, too much pent up energy begging for some form of violent release, but I can’t even pace while I’m holding Calliope for fear the movement might wake her. My jaw clenches as I hold back the furious scream I so desperately want to release into the room until my eyes fall upon the beautiful, frilly, white bassinet Kate has set up against Christian’s side of the bed. After taking a deep breath, I lay the basket over our comforter, gently reach down to take Calliope in my arms, and lay her down inside of her perfect little bed.

Her face bunches together as I withdraw my arms, but she doesn’t wake. She looks serene, peaceful, and while I watch her lying there without a care in the world, I feel the passionate anger inside of me recede and tears over the feeling of loss and rejection that consumes me every time I think of Christian’s involvement with Elena begin to well in my eyes.

It’s the same hurt I felt reading through Elena’s words tonight, so maybe, beneath the anger, that’s really all I’m feeling. I know Christian has changed. I know now that he would never make the same choice that he made when he was 19, so I shouldn’t worry about him speaking to her anymore. But she’s the problem. Not just for the horrible things she’s put us through or that we know she’s capable of doing, but on the basser level of what she represents. A time when loving Christian wasn’t easy. A time when he was satisfied, fulfilled even, with someone else, someone I hate. That she’s the only other person he’s ever shared his body with, when I never have, and while I never want to, the fact that he has feels as though it gives her some kind of power that I’ll never be able to take no matter how far he pulls away from her. Maybe that’s not fair, maybe that’s unreasonable and illogical, but the pain I feel from knowing that at one time he took pleasure in sleeping with her is very, very real, and it’s never felt more potent than tonight, after reading her describe it to me in clear, explicit detail.

The door opens behind me and closes with a soft click, but it remains so quiet inside the room that I can hear each and every footprint across the carpet until they stop directly behind me.

“I would never betray you,” Christian says quietly, and I once again have to take a deep breath to stop the tears leaking over my lower lids from becoming much more forceful before I turn around to face him.

“Not intentionally,” I agree. “But whatever she wants… you know it’s not going to be as simple as money.”

“I know.” He nods. “But I also know my limits, and yours, and I’m not going to cross those lines just to make a deal with her.”

His eyes are sincere but not comforting, so I look away from him and down at the floor. He reaches up and brushes his thumb over my cheek to wipe away my tears.

“You don’t believe me?”

“That’s not it. I know you want to do right by me, Christian. I trust that at least.”

“Then why are you crying?”

“Because you fucked her,” I whimper. “While you were chasing me, and kissing me alleys, and fuming over Carter and Jose, and making me fall in love with you… you were fucking her. And I knew you were, it’s just… I’ve never had it spelled out in front of me in black and white before. I never had to face the actual crossover between the two of us before tonight. That hurts, Christian. She hurts me. You being around her hurts me, and I can’t just go back to feeling like I’m on the outside of this connection that you have with her anymore. I don’t want you around her, I don’t want you alone with her. If you’re going down there, the only way that I am going to be okay with it is if I am by your side.”

“Ana… it’s not safe.”

“So we make it safe,” I argue. “We hold more power than you give us credit for. We’re not prisoners, so we don’t have to let them separate us. If they try, if they tell us our security can’t be around us or that I need to leave your side for any reason, we’ll leave. We just leave. We’ll come back here and we’ll figure out another way to stop her. But you know as well as I do that we’re better when we’re together, Christian. The only time anyone is ever able to gain the upper hand is when they come between us. That’s what she wants to do, that’s what she’s going to try to do. Let’s show her that she can’t.”

He doesn’t answer me right away. Instead, he looks over at Calliope in the bassinet next to us, and after staring at her for what feels like an eternity, he finally meets my eyes again, sighs, and nods.

“Okay. We go together, and we stay together.”

“That’s all I’m asking,” I reply, and as he nods again, I step forward to wrap my arms around his neck and take his lips with mine. This kiss is healing. The moment I feel the heat of his mouth on mine, it seems to wash through my body and ease away the pain and uncertainty Elena’s words have plagued me with. When I pull away, Christian’s mood is markedly improved.

“You know…” he says. “I’d forgotten about Jose. Whatever happened to him?”

I shrug. “He was kind of weird after you and I broke up. He tried to move in way too fast and came on a little too strong… Luke scared him away pretty quick.”

Christian smiles. “Remind me later to give him a raise.” I laugh and kiss him again.

 

The nerves of everyone in the apartment the next morning are palpable, but I don’t know if mine are more severe because of the impending meeting with Elena, or the fact that I’m about to leave my baby in someone else’s care for the first time.

“I pumped this morning,” I tell my father as I cling tightly to Calliope in my arms. “There’s enough milk in the fridge to get you through until we come back. We have a bottle warmer in the boxes with all the baby stuff in the dining room, you can use that or just run the storage bags under hot water from the faucet. Don’t the use the microwave. There’s diapers and wipes and extra clothes in her bag. If she gets fussy…”

“Ana, sweetheart. We’re going to be okay,” my dad assures me. “Trust me, I’ve had a daughter before and we did just fine.”

“Right, of course.” Though it feels as though it may rip my heart out to do so, I step closer so he can take Calliope from me, but the moment she’s out of my arms, I immediately feel bereft.

“We have our phones,” Christian says, and I’m pleased to note he sounds just as nervous as I do. “If you need us for any reason, don’t hesitate to call. We’ll come back right away.”

“Don’t worry, Son. I’ll take care of your little girl, you go do what you have to do.”

Christian nods and then takes my hand. “You ready?”

“Yeah.” I lean over to kiss Calliope’s cheek one last time, then do the same for my father, and after forcing myself to turn away from them both, I let Christian lead me to the elevator where Taylor and Sawyer are already waiting for us.

It’s an hour drive to the Washington State Women’s Correctional facility, and I spend every second of it dreading what’s to come. I know Elena has a price in mind for the manuscript she sent to me, and while I have no idea what that is, I know it’s going to be steep. The longer I have to guess what that price may be, the more nervous I get.

We’re greeted outside of the prison by a severe looking guard, who takes our names from Taylor and then has us escorted through the gates to the main entrance where Christian and I are both searched for weapons or contraband. Once we’ve been cleared, another set of guards lead us down a long sterile hallway and as we approach a desk where even more guards are seated, I glance through the window behind them and realize we’re able to see right into the prison. The inmates are visible, just on the other side of this wall, and in spite of myself, I feel a tiny pang of fear. I didn’t realize we’d be this close…

“You must be Christian Grey,” one of the guards says as we come to a stop in front his desk.

“Yes.”

“Here to see inmate number 24783, Elena Lincoln.”

“That is correct.”

He glances up at us and narrows his eyes. “Wasn’t it you who put her in here in the first place?”

“No, I think it was the prostitution and money laundering that did that…” Christian says dryly, and I feel myself cringe when I see the guards reaction.

“What’s your business here today, Mr. Grey?” he asks.

Christian’s face hardens. “We’re here to see an old family friend. Surely, that’s not a concept that’s foreign to you.”

“No, it’s not,” he agrees, his voice cold. “Inmate number 42783 is classified by Washington State Women’s Correctional Facility to be a non-violent inmate. This means that she is entitled to unsupervised visits with those who have been approved by the board, in this case you, but you are also entitled to have a guard present should you feel it is appropriate.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Christian says.

“Fine. Hanson!” A guard sitting a few seats away stands and looks over at us expectantly.

“Yes, sir?”

“Please show Mr. Grey and Miss Steele to interview room number three. Rodgers over here will fetch the inmate.”

“Yes, sir,” Officer Hanson says. “Mr. Grey, Miss Steele, if you’ll follow me.”

Christian nods and turns to follow the officer past the desk and up a hallway to the right, and as I fall in behind him, I give a shy smile to the guard Christian spoke with. He narrows his eyes suspiciously and the hard, angry lines etched in his face remain firmly in place. As we move forward down the hallway identical to the one that led us to the desk, I can feel his eyes following us, and both Taylor and Luke fall in line behind me, both close enough that their hands brush my arms as they walk. Clearly, he makes them nervous too.

“Alright, Mr. Grey,” Officer Hanson says when we come up to a steel door with a large number three printed next to it. “This door doesn’t open from the inside to ensure the inmate remains secure. I will be just outside, so if you need anything, you can use that phone to dial the front desk or just bang real hard on the door and I’ll be here to respond.”

“Thank you,” Christian says. He steps aside to let me enter first and both Taylor and Luke move forward to each side of the door, like sentries put in place to protect an important diplomat. We both take a seat at the unassuming metal table in the middle of the room, and glance around at the cinderblock walls that feel cold and suffocating.

“Let’s make this quick,” Christian says quietly. “I don’t like the feel of this place.”

“It’s a prison,” I remind him. “I don’t think you’re supposed to.”

The door opens again and Officer Hanson steps inside, followed immediately by Elena, who’s dressed in orange and has cuffs around her wrists. She doesn’t look at us while they uncuff her or offer her thinly veiled threats about being right outside the door. In fact, she doesn’t even turn in our direction until the guards step out of the room and close the door behind them. Once they do, she faces us with a broad smile and I feel my heart sink a little. I’d actually forgotten, through my hate colored memories, how beautiful she was, and after everything I read last night about her and Christian, it’s not a pleasant reminder.

“Christian,” she says, her seductive tone only heightening my aggravation. “You look incredible. You’re much…” She lifts her hands up to her shoulders and holds them their, demonstrating the bulk Christian has added to his upper body over the last few months. “Have you started a new workout regimen?”

“Boxing,” Christian replies flatly, and her smile widens.

“Mmm, you always did like a good fight.” She bites down on her lip. “And it’s starting to look like a fight may love you. You really do look…”

“Enough, Elena,” Christian says, but her smile doesn’t falter.

“Sorry, I’ve spent a lot of time around too many women and like I told Ana last spring, they don’t allow conjugal visits unless you’re married and Andrew just doesn’t count anymore. Not that he’d come down here if I asked.”

“Do you blame him?” I ask icily.

“Oh yes,” she affirms immediately. “For most things actually.”

I scoff. “You’re right. It was so unfair of him to break his marriage vows and molest teenagers behind your back. Oh wait, that was you.”

“You think he didn’t cheat on me?” she asks. “You think all those long trips he took were solely business related. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if he has children out there somewhere. And.. speaking of children, I expected you to look much different, rounder. I guess I didn’t receive a birth announcement.”

“Funny how that happened.”

“Hmm.” She takes the seat across the table from us and folds her hands on the table. “So? Did we have a boy or a girl?”

We didn’t have anything. You’re not and will never be a part of our child’s life, Elena. If I have my way, she won’t even know your name.”

“So, a girl then,” Elena says, and I roll my eyes.

“We’re not here to discuss our baby,” Christian interrupts. “We’re not here to make idle chit chat. We’re here to find out what it is you want.”

“What I want?”

“For the book,” I snap. “The tell all. The manuscript you put into an envelope with my name written on the front and sent to Escala to drag us all the way down here.”

“Oh… that.”

I let out a huff of frustration and Christian reaches over to place his hand over mine. “What do you want, Elena?” he asks again.

She smiles again and leans over the table. “I want back in the game.”

“What game?”

The game. My favorite game. You know… you watch prison shows on TV and they make you think there’s a certain glamour to this life, intrigue, hierarchies, schemes, and plots… but it’s not true. Most of these women are just here getting their GEDs and participating in vocational programs. Honestly, I’m so bored I could die.”

“Could you?”

“Ana,” Christian chides me, before turning back to Elena. “I don’t know what game you’re talking about, Elena.”

“Then let me make it clear for you. You use you influence, power, money… whatever it takes, to get me out of here, send me off to a quaint but lavish seaside villa in French Polynesia or perhaps along the Mediterranean, and make it so I don’t have to worry about money for the rest of my life, and I’ll give you the name of the man who wants to destroy you.”

The impatient look on Christian’s face vanishes immediately and is replaced with blank shock. “What did you just say?”

She leans in closer. “Better yet, I’ll help you bring him down. Destroy him before he can destroy you. Let’s face it, Christian. You’re outmatched here. You’ve never been a schemer and you have no idea what you’re up against, how deep this goes, how close it is to your inner circle he really is. I can help you. I can protect you, and Anastasia, and your precious little baby… Calliope.”

I stiffen. “How did you…?”

“Like I said, this shit goes deep. He’s not going to stop until he ruins you and you can pivot and maneuver out of his reach all you want, but eventually, he’s going to catch up to you. Eventually, he’ll take everything you hold dear away from you and leave you broken.”

“How do you know who he is, Elena?” Christian asks, and she raises an eyebrow at him.

“You think I wanted to write this book? You think I was just dying to tell the world our story so that when I get out of here, if I get out of here, I’ll be greeted as a child predator? No, I was commissioned. Threatened really. If I didn’t write that book, I’d end up just like Hyun, or Leila, or the countless others you don’t even know about.”

“Who is it?”

“Uh uh uh. That’s not how this works. That name is the only thing I have, so if you want it, you’re going to have to pay the price.”

“God damn it, Elena. Tell me who it fucking is,” Christian says, his anger rising, but she’s not intimidated by him.

“No.”

“You think he’s the only one who can threaten you? You think I won’t go to extremes to get what I need from you when what you’re withholding from me equates to Ana’s safety? What’s to stop Taylor or Sawyer from using whatever excessive force it takes to make you talk? What’s to stop me?”

“Decency,” Elena says simply. “Your conscience. The love you have for Anastasia, who would surely be implicated in anything you chose to do to me. And the love you have for the daughter you want to see grow up, in person, not from behind the bars of a jail cell. You see, that’s the difference between you and him, Christian. There’s nothing in this world he wants more or that is more important to him than seeing you suffer. There’s no punishment too great or too terrifying to dissuade him. That’s why you need me, because I’m the only person in your life who will do whatever it takes. I’m the only person who’s a match for him.”

“Give me the fucking name, Elena!” Christian roars.

“You know my terms.”

He shoves away from the table so violently I actually cringe and both Luke and Taylor move closer to the table as he begins pacing.

Elena sighs and leans back in her chair. “Christian, we can go back and forth all day if you want, but you know in the end that…”

“Did you help him?” he cuts her off.

“What?”

He storms around to her side of the table, leaning so far over her chair that his nose is nearly pressed against hers. “Did you help him? Besides writing this book, what have you done to help him?”

I glance between them nervously, watching the power of wills warring with one another. Christian is furious and his size and temper are terrifying in conjunction, but Elena has a pathological, blood thirsty need for control and so she stares blankly into the eyes of the beast with no sense of remorse or fear.

“Did you help him” Christian repeats.

“Yes,” she finally responds. “In the beginning. Welch was my idea, and Ros. I told him who to go after, when, and how. I gave him the names of the people inside your company most willing to turn on your for a pay out. I told him that the best way to get to you was to make you distrust the people closest to you, the ones who would never betray you, the ones who stand by your side no matter what, because once you’d pushed them away, there was no way you could stop him. You’re always at your weakest when you’re isolated and it’s so easy to isolate you.”

“What about Anastasia?”

She shakes her head. “No, I knew that was a lost cause. You’re too in love with her. She could fuck someone right in front of you and you’d take her back in the end. There’s no way to isolate you from her. I’ve tried that, and look where it’s got me.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” Christian says. “Did you have anything to do with the plan to kidnap her? With the threats he’s made against her?”

“No,” she says. “Blood and gore isn’t really my style and the things he has planned for Anastasia…” She shudders and Christian’s knuckles turn white as his hands curl into fists on top of the table.

“Ana,” he says, the deathly calm in his voice more chilling than the rage he displayed only moments before. “Let’s go.”

“Go? But we haven’t solved anything. Her book… her…”

“She not going to publish the book,” he interrupts me. “Not if she has any say in it, and if she’s already sent it to him, we’re wasting our time here anyway.”

“And what about him?”

“We’ll handle it. I’m not making a deal with her to lessen her prison time.” He turns back to Elena. “In fact, in five years, I will be here doing everything in my power to see that you don’t make parole. You deserve every second you spend in here, you evil bitch.”

“Christian, I promise, I’m trying to help you,” Elena says, but he ignores her and reaches his hand out to help me out of my seat. I take it, stand, and begin moving towards Luke and Taylor, but Elena’s voice stops us again.

“Christian, please!” she practically shrieks. “You don’t understand how far he’s willing to go, what he’s willing to do… He’s fucking insane. He’s never going to stop coming after you.”  

His back stiffens and he slowly turns around to face her again. “Good,” he says, with the same frightening calm. “Because the next time comes for Anastasia or my daughter again, I won’t be unprepared and I’ll fucking kill him. When you see him again, you tell him that.”

“Please,” she repeats, begging now. “Get me out of here. Let me help you.”

“Give me the name, Elena.” He stares her down and for the first time since I’ve known them, she cowers slightly under his glare.

“I can’t,” she whispers. “He’ll kill me too.”

“Then you can burn in hell.”

He turns back to me, takes my hand, and without a second look over his shoulder at the trembling woman who, just seconds ago, held all the power, he bangs on the steel door and leads me back out to the hallway.

“We’re finished,” he says to Officer Hanson. He nods and first directs the guards outside to collect Elena, and then leads us back down the hall to the main front desk. As we pass, the main guard watches us with an almost venomous kind of vindictiveness clear on his face.

“You have yourself a real nice day, Mr. Grey,” he says coolly, and while Christian doesn’t stop or respond, he grips tighter to me and pulls us more quickly towards the main door.

There’s no pause as we get into the back of the SUV, even to put seatbelts on. The moment the doors close behind us, Taylor hits the gas and Christian starts barking commands.

“Taylor, I want new background checks and investigations done on anyone who has come into contact with myself or Anastasia in the last sixteen months. My family, Kate, Ros, Flynn, lawyers, doctors, our security team, employees at GEH, everyone. No one is exempt, everyone is a suspect. I want to know every detail you can find, specifically anything that could connect them to Elena Lincoln or a mutual acquaintance between us.”

“Yes, sir,” Taylor responds.

“Sawyer, I want to know who has been in that prison, who sorts her mail, who monitors her phone calls, who approves her visitors, and who those visitors have been. No one goes in to see her from this moment on without me knowing about it.”

“Yes, sir,” Luke says.

“We’re not just playing defense anymore,” Christian says. “We’re going to find this motherfucker, and when we do, he’s going to wish he’d never heard of Christian Grey.”

Next Chapter

Thank you!

This weekend I surpassed over 1,000 followers and I wanted to take a quick second to thank each and every one you. Leaving FanFiction was a scary thing at first. I thought I would lose my entire audience and sharing this story with you is seriously the highlight of my week, each and every week. But it’s actually been great being able to post here, on my own site. So, thank you for coming along with me. Thank you for debates in the reviews and your constant encouragement. I truly hope the end of Stronger, and this series, lives up to your expectations, and I hope, when it’s over, you’ll all continue on with me to the next adventure.

tenor

I don’t have a bonus update, I just don’t have the time to turn out chapters the way I used to anymore. BUT, here’s a little teaser for chapter 37, courtesy of Elena Lincoln 😉

I’ll never forget the first time I heard her voice. My husband was gone (again), I’d been drinking, and I was lonely. Solitude has never been my forte, it gives me too much time to think. My head was swimming with alcohol and memories of my lost sister and I needed a distraction. It was late in Cambridge, past the time I expected Christian to have parted ways with his brother for the night, so I picked up my phone and dialed his number, thinking at least I could distract myself with my vibrator and another round with my submissive. My dutiful, obedient, faithful submissive.

“Hello, Christian Grey’s phone.”

Those are the first words Anastasia Steele ever spoke to me, and to say they came as a shock would be grossly understated. Christian had been forbidden to have any form of contact with the opposite sex while he was at Harvard. He was mine after all, and I had no intentions of sharing him. But one week into his very first semester, I’d already caught him breaking the rules, and even over the phone, there was something about this girl that had the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. I knew she was trouble. What I didn’t know was that she would eventually lead to the complete and utter annihilation of everything I’d worked so hard to build.

See you Monday!

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xoxo

WishingMrGreyWasHere

Chapter 36

vidasi

The exhaustion disappears the instant I feel Dr. Baker’s hands on my arm, removing the last of the wires monitoring my heart and the IV from the port in my elbow. I stare almost in disbelief as the last line is removed from my body.

“Do you think you can sit up?” Dr. Baker asks.

“Yes, of course,” I reply, enthusiastically.

Christian reaches his hands out and my whole body feels as though it’s shaking when I take them. Slowly, he helps me into a sitting position, and then to swing my legs off the side of the bed. I was reduced to oral pain killers last night, rather than intravenous, so moving is a little painful, but I do everything I can to hide it. I won’t let anything make Dr. Baker change her mind now.

“Alright. Easy, baby,” Christian says as I pull against his sturdy grip and try to stand. The pain spikes as my weight is transferred to the floor and when I groan, he hurriedly reaches for the wheelchair a few feet away.

“How is that, Ana? Any pain, dizziness, nausea?” Dr. Baker checks.

“No, I’m fine. I’m ready.”

“That’s very good news,” she says, smiling and then looking up at Christian. “I think we’re ready to downgrade her from the ICU. We’ll move her to a private suite on the maternity floor so she’s closer to Calliope. I’ll continue monitoring her there, but if she continues to progress as well as she has been, I don’t think she’ll need to be here much longer.”

“Really? So, she’s in the clear? There’s no longer any reason for us to be concerned…?”

“I don’t think so,” Dr. Baker assures him. “We’ll keep her a couple more days, but she’s really made a remarkable recovery, very quickly. You were right, Mr. Grey. She just needed to do things in her own time. She’s going to be fine.”

He lets out an elated breath. “That’s excellent news. Thank you.”

“Christian. Baby!” I exclaim, turning around and giving him a frustrated look.

“Oh, right. Let’s go. Thank you again, Dr. Baker.”

“Of course. Go enjoy your baby. She really is beautiful, Anastasia.”

I nod eagerly and Christian begins to push me forward. My nerves mount as we make it through the door and travel the long, bustling hallway towards the elevator. The NICU is only a floor down from my room but even just the short elevator ride feels as though it goes on for an eternity. My entire body is trembling with anticipation, like a runner trying to hold his position at the starting mark of a race. I hate that I’m confined to this chair. I hate that I can’t sprint to her the way I want to. Every step it takes to get to the NICU is agony, and I think it’s because, despite Dr. Baker’s assurances, I haven’t entirely accepted this is really happening yet. I’ve been denied this so many times, I feel as though any minute something will go wrong or someone will change their mind and I’ll be dragged back to my room. In fact, I’m not entirely convinced this isn’t just a dream until we round the corner and I see Kate, Mia, and Elliot hovering outside the doors that lead into the NICU, dressed head to toe in the same light pink medical gowns I’ve seen Christian peel off a hundred times after returning from Calliope’s bedside.

“There she is, there she is,” Mia says giddily.

“Hey, Meems,” I greet her as we come to stop. She hesitates for a moment, and then leans forward to give me a tentative hug that grows more ardent when I don’t immediately shatter into a thousand pieces like a china doll. “I’m so happy to see you up and around. You really scared us, you know.”

“I’m sorry. I won’t do it again, promise.”

“I’m holding you to that,” she says, pulling away with a large smile plastered across her face. I return the gesture and then look to Kate.

“How are you feeling?” she asks.

“Great. Dr. Baker says I’m going to be fine. Is she really in there? Calliope?”

“Yeah.” She smiles. “She’s really in there. You have to wear this though.” She holds out the sheet of pink plastic in her hands and I quickly slip my arms through the thin sleeves. Next, Elliot hands me a mask and paper-like covers for my hair and feet, and once I’m completely covered, Christian wheels me over to a hand sanitizer dispenser.

“Alright,” he says as I rub the alcohol over my hands. “Let’s go.”

I take a deep breath when he pushes me through the doors and we begin passing several plastic boxes surrounded by worried looking parents. I glance at each one, wondering which of the incubators is holding my daughter, but as we make it near the back of the NICU and I see Grace and Carrick cooing over a box filled with baby pink blankets, my search is over.

“Isn’t she the most perfect thing you’ve ever seen?” Grace asks. “I could just eat her up.”

“I’d settle for just being able to hold her,” Carrick replies. His finger strokes softly against the plastic casing just as we come up beside them, and when Grace looks up and sees me in the chair, her face immediately breaks into a smile.

“Ana, darling. Come here. There’s someone who wants to meet you very much.” I smile as she steps aside and lets Christian push me right up to the side of the incubator so that I can peer through the clear plastic at the tiny baby inside.

Despite the fact that I’ve thought of nothing else but this exact moment for almost three days, I’m unprepared for how seeing her for the first time makes me feel. I’m immediately absorbed in the small, delicate features of her face, the curve in her lips, the flutter in her eyelids as she sleeps. As I stare at her, memorizing her, counting each of her soft little breaths, I feel my heart begin to ache. Not from sadness or pain, but from overwhelming love. It’s instant, irreversible, and all consuming. Grace, Christian, Dr. Baker, Kate, my dad… they’re all right. She’s absolutely beautiful. I’ve never seen a face so perfect, so angelic, as my daughter’s. She’s mesmerising.

“She’s so small,” I whisper as I place my hand against the plastic box surrounding her.

“But she’s already putting on weight,” a voice says behind me, and I turn to see a doctor in a white coat smiling at me. “You must be Anastasia?”

“Yes.”

“My name is Dr. Craig, I’ve been watching over Calliope for the past few days. You should be very proud, she’s a fighter.”

“Just like her mother,” Christian says.

“I’ve heard,” Dr. Craig says, her smile widening as she looks up at him. She takes a step closer to the incubator, and her eyes seem to warm as she looks down at my baby. “Ah, do you see the way her mouth is moving?”

I look down and watch my baby’s lips pucker and relax a few times before she falls still again and then nod.

“She’s trying to suckle. We have her on a feeding tube now, but I think she’s ready to try eating on her own. Are you up to it?”

“Me? I can feed her?”

“Of course you can, Anastasia. I know this can be overwhelming, but she’s really yours. All yours.”

I let out an almost incredulous sounding laugh through the smile that’s so big, it makes my cheeks feel sore, and Dr. Craig reaches down to place a reassuring hand on my shoulder.

“Dr. Baker told me she’s having you moved to this floor. Why don’t you go get situated, and we’ll bring her to you in just a minute.”

“Wait, she’s leaving the NICU?” Christian asks.

“She’s breathing on her own, she’s gaining weight, she’s maintaining her body temperature… I think she’s ready to give it a try, at least to breastfeed. In fact, once she’s eating on her own, I think she should be just about ready to go home.”

“Already?”

“You have a very strong willed daughter, Mr. Grey. Good luck with her, you’re going to need it.”

Grace gasps and when I turn to look at her, I see her reach up to cover her smile with her hand as tears of joy well in her eyes. It’s a trigger, and immediately, I feel my own bottom lip begin to quiver.

“Let’s go,” I say, looking up at Christian from my chair. “I wanna hold her.”

“Okay.”

He reaches for the handles on the back of the wheelchair and I glance down at Calliope once more.

“I’ll see you in minute, okay? I love you.” My fingers move against the plastic shield between us, trying to grip it as though doing so will make her feel my desire to squeeze her, and with one last lingering look, Christian wheels me away.

The room the NICU nurse leads us to is really just a few doors down, which makes me happy. As long as Calliope has to remain in the NICU, I want to be as close to her as possible. Now that I’m no longer confined to my room in the ICU, I should be free to spend as much time with her as possible, the way Christian has been able to for the last six days.

“Here you are, Miss Steele,” the nurse says, motioning us through the door to my new room. I smile at her but when I get a glimpse of Taylor behind her, looking as though he’s interviewing (maybe even interrogating) a male nurse just down the hallway while Luke takes his picture, my smile falters.

“What’s that about?” I ask Christian, nodding in their direction.

“Oh, they’re just screening the nursing staff.  We need records and documentation of anyone who may come in contact with you while you’re here.”

“Why?”

“It’s just a precaution. Don’t worry about it.” He gives me a placating smile that I immediately see through and my eyes automatically narrow in suspicion.

“What happened? And don’t lie to me.”

He takes a steadying breath. “We’ll talk about it later.”

I press my lips together in frustration, but decide not to push the issue until after I’ve had time with him and Calliope together, alone. He probably thinks I’ll forget or maybe will just let it go, but I won’t. I haven’t forgotten what happened just before my abruption. I know he’s here somewhere.

Christian and the nurse help me get into bed and for a few minutes I’m surrounded by family, talking happily amongst each other about my daughter and the lives they’ve put on hold back home over this past week while Calliope and I hung in limbo. Kate was supposed to take her place as Vice President of Kavanagh Media on Monday, and now that she’s no longer worried about me, she happily shares her excitement about this next step in her life with the Greys. Even my dad ignores the game Elliot found on TV to share in the joyful atmosphere of the room.

“I’ll get used to it,” Kate says airily. “Brand new apartment, a corner office on the 22nd floor… You’re on the 8th floor at GEH, aren’t you, Christian?”

“Yes, Kate,” he replies, his voice deadpan. “You are clearly superior to me in every way.”

“Takes a strong man to admit it.” She laughs but then moves across the room to give him a hug from the side and as he squeezes her back he tells her that he’s proud of her and kisses her on the top of her head.

“We all are,” Carrick agrees, and then turns to look at his son. “When are you moving into your new building, Christian?”

“We’re just waiting on the final inspection from the city now,” Elliot answers for him. “Once we get the approval from them, he should be ready to move in anytime and I can move on to the Amazon campus expansion.”

“And my house,” Christian interjects. “Now that Calliope is born, I want to get her and Ana out of Escala as soon as possible.”

“And we can start planning the wedding!” Mia chimes in.

“Oh, speaking of the wedding,” Carrick turns around and picks up the leather bag he left in the chair under the window and pulls out a folder filled with official looking documents.

“The hospital staff brought Calliope’s birth certificate by this morning. You can make Christian official.”

“If I must,” I say, giving him a coy smile. He raises an eyebrow at me as I take the document and the pen that Carrick hands me and begin filling in the information.

“Detroit,” Christian says when I get to father’s place of birth, and I give him a hard, sardonic look.

“I know where you were born, Christian.”

“I just want to make sure it’s accurate,” he says defensively. I shake my head, scrawl my name across the signature line for Mother, and then slide the document over to him. Once he’s added his own perfect signature under father, there’s a noticeable change in his expression. Something between relief and pride.

“And that’s it,” Carrick says. “Calliope is officially on the record.” I smile as I hand him the birth certificate, but rather than place everything back in his bag, he hands me another document. “This is for you. It’s a medical power of attorney that I’d had drawn up after we found out what Carla had done. This will appoint Christian as your designated agent and he’ll be able to make healthcare decisions for you if for any reason you’re unable to do so for yourself. It’ll hold you over until you get married.”

“Oh.” I take the document and pick up the pen again, but as I sign the line at the bottom of the page, Christian looks away. I’m glad that Carrick had the foresight to have this done for us, but thinking about being in another situation like this so soon seems to put a damper on the great mood that fills the room. Thankfully, just as I hand the signed document back to him, there’s a knock on the door and a nurse pushes a small cart in with a box resting on top that holds my baby.

“Someone’s hungry,” she chirps as she pushes Calliope to my bedside. When she stops she looks at Christian and smiles. “Daddy, do you want to hold her?”

He nods, though his gaze is focused entirely on our baby. He seems almost dazed as he steps forward and reaches into box to lift the tiny pink swaddle of blankets into his arms. The moment she’s pressed into his chest, the small fussy noises she’s making stop and Christian’s face breaks into a breathtaking smile. He gives her the same look that up until now had been reserved solely for me, a look of pure love and adoration, and as I watch him hold and comfort our daughter for the first time, my heart feels as though it swells to the point of bursting.

“Wait, wait, wait!” Grace cries, stepping up to the other side of my bed with her phone out. “Look here, Christian.”

“Mom…” he objects, but before Grace can push her point, Carrick drapes an arm over her shoulder and pulls her back.

“What do you say we let Ana and Christian spend some time with the baby alone, huh? It’s almost lunch time, we can go out, get some real food, and come back to enjoy Calliope after they’ve had their fill of her.”

“Come back in thirty years,” Christian says. His father laughs and then nudges Grace around the bed so they can say their goodbyes. I cycle through hugs with the entire family, as does Christian, and after Mia has kissed Calliope’s head for the 8th time, Elliot is finally able to usher everyone, including the nurse, through the doors and Christian and I are alone.

“What do you say, little girl?” Christian coos to our daughter. “Are you ready to meet your mom?”

The baby doesn’t make a sound, but he leans over my bed anyway and gently places Calliope into my folded arms. Again, I’m floored by how tiny she is. Holding her is almost the same as holding nothing at all, but I can feel her. I can feel what little weight there is to her, I can feel her warmth, and I can feel the tiny movements she makes as she fidgets in her sleep. It finally feels real, like she’s actually mine and I’m going to get to keep her, and as I stare down at her beautiful, peaceful face, I once again feel as though I could cry.

“Have you ever loved anything so much?” I ask through the impending tears. Christian reaches out to place a gentle hand on my shoulder.

“Yes, I have.”

I glance up at him and feel my body melt when I see the loving way he’s staring at Calliope and I. He leans down and softly presses his lips into mine and when he pulls away from the kiss, I can’t hold back my ridiculous smile.

“I love you,” he says.

“I love you too. More now that I think I ever have before. This is perfect, Christian. Everything is finally perfect.”

 

To my chagrin, Calliope doesn’t take to breastfeeding. We try on and off for hours but she’s never able to latch, even after I have a lactation specialist come guide us through the entire process. Dr. Baker tells me it’s most likely because she doesn’t yet have the strength to latch to my breast and while I fear after the fourth failed attempt that they’re going to take her from me and reattach her to the feeding tubes in the NICU, a nurse comes in with a special bottle made for premature babies, lays my daughter in Christian’s arms, and, miraculously, she begins to eat.

“Of course she does it for you,” I complain as I stare longingly at him bonding so personally with our baby.

“Here, you can take her,” he says. He shifts towards me but never takes his eyes off Calliope and when I hear the reverence in his voice, I know that I’m not going to be able to separate them.

“No, keep her,” I concede. “Just… tilt her towards me and hold her still so I can see her.” He does, and we both watch her as if she’s the most engaging thing in the world until her bottle is finished and she falls back asleep.

Now that she’s eating on her own and she’s done well for the few hours we’ve had her in my room, the doctors decide it’s time to see how she does overnight outside of the NICU as a trial run so we can discuss taking her home from the hospital. For the next 24 hours she’s under intense observation at my bedside while I’m nearly permanently attached to a breast pump so we can build up a supply to bottle feed her. It’s terrifying having her only feet away from me, with no nurse or doctor hovering over her 24 hours a day, but it’s also wonderful. For the first time, it feels like Christian and I are parents. We’re allowed to feed her, to change her, and to hold her whenever we want to, and when I give her a bottle for the very first time and she opens her tiny gray eyes and stares up at me, the hope I’ve held onto since I awoke in the hospital vanishes and is replaced with absolute certainty. I see the strength and determination in her eyes that I feel in my own heart. She’s healthy, strong, and she’s not going anywhere. Once I’m sure of that, the remainder of our stay here feels very unintimidating.

We spend a total of ten days in the hospital and as the final days tick past us, more and more of our family leaves to head back to Seattle. Grace, Carrick, and Mia fly out on Friday to make it back for Mia’s ballet auditions on Saturday, and Kate and Elliot leave Sunday morning to get back for work. When we’re preparing to be discharged on Monday, only my father is remains with behind with us.

“What’s left at the house?” I ask, as Christian wheels me out to the parking lot where Taylor is waiting with a rental car, since my Lexus has been returned to the dealer.

“Not much,” he replies. “The movers took what Kate is keeping last weekend and Taylor had the rest of the security team load everything you wanted on my plane this morning.”

“So there’s no reason to go back?”

“Not if you don’t want to.”

I press my lips together and my mind begins debating what I want before we leave Cambridge for the final time. It feels wrong to just get on a plane without taking a moment to reflect upon the place where so much has changed for me, but as I imagine taking one last walk through the empty halls that will no longer hold any feeling of home, I’m not sure I’ll get the closure I intended to. That’s something that Kate and I should have done together, pausing to reminisce and laugh at every bump or nick in walls. And I can’t stop imagining the blood stained carpet or the memories the very idea of it conjures. No, I don’t think it’s a good idea to return, but I already feel the poignant sense of longing for the house that feels as though it built me.

“Ana?” Christian asks.

“No, we don’t need to go back. I don’t think I’ll get any closure there anyway”

“Well, what if you don’t need closure at all?”

“What do you mean?”

“This place is important to you, baby. It’s not like you’re never going to come back here again. What if we didn’t sell the house? You could keep it so that you could come visit anytime you wanted. Come back to stay a few days with Kate sometime, or bring Calliope to the Harvard vs Yale game every year. Maybe she can live there when she comes here herself.”

I glance up at him and the picture his words give me instantly changes my dismay into something beautiful and sanguine. The feeling of loss is replaced with visions of my daughter running through the back yard in a Crimson sweatshirt, laughing while Christian and I chase her. I think about escaping to the quiet solitude of the empty house for a weekend to put the finishing touches on my next novel, evoking the same inspiration from the four walls of my bedroom that got me through my first book.

“Yeah,” I tell him, smiling. “You’re right. I’m not finished with this place, we should keep it. Thank you, Christian.”

“No,” he says as we come to a stop at the curb and he reaches down to take Calliope out of my arms and kisses her softly on the forehead. “Thank you.”

I spend most of the drive to the airport splitting my attention between staring out the side windows at Cambridge disappearing behind us and worrying over every small bump the car makes and how it could possibly be endangering Calliope. It doesn’t bode well for the flight, but at least once we’re in the air, I can hold her in my arms, which feels safer and more comforting than having her buckled in the carseat in the seat next to me.

“She’s beautiful, Mr. Grey,” Natalia says once we’re at cruising altitude and she can come check on us. “Is there anything I can get for either you or Miss Steele?”

“We’re fine,” Christian says, but he turns to my dad who is sitting across the aisle and a few seats back from us. “Ray?”

“No.” He shakes his head. “But… I would like it if you’d join me back here for a moment to have a chat, son.”

Christian takes a deep breath, exhaling in one long breath, and his body slumps a little, but he nods and turns to me. “I’ll be right back.”

“We’ll be here,” I reply. “Good luck.”

They move to the seats at the very back of the plane, which means I can’t hear what they’re saying, and it has me nervous. Especially because I can’t see my father and every time I glance over my shoulder at Christian, all I see is pain or disgust reflected on his face. I expect them to be gone for… 30 minutes or an hour tops, but when the pilot flips on the fasten seatbelt light and tells us to prepare for landing at SeaTac, Christian still hasn’t returned. In fact, when we begin our descent, it’s my dad that slips into the seat next to me, not Christian, who is occupied with the security team at the back of the plane.

“Well?” I ask. He frowns.

“Your mom left a lot out. A Lot out. That’s… that’s some rough stuff.”

“Yeah,” I agree. “But we got through it and it’s done now. We’ve put it behind us and we’re very happy together.”

“Which is incredible. I’m so proud of you, Ana. The strength it must have taken for you to get through all of that, to stand by him…”

“He’s worth it,” I assure him.

“You know, I think you’re right. I don’t think any father ever thinks there’s a man out there who’s good enough or who deserves his daughter, but this one, this one I like.”

“Told you.”

He smiles at me and then looks down at the sleeping baby in my arms. “Can I hold her?”

“Of course you can.” Moving as little as possible, I slide her into his arms, and once he’s able to pull her against him, his face melts with the same look of pure devotion she seems to elicit from everyone she touches.

“She’s such a pretty baby,” he whispers. “I thought you were the most beautiful little girl I’d ever seen when I first met you, but she may have you beat, kid.”

“She definitely does,” I agree.

“You know, if she has even an ounce of your spirit, you’re in for a whole world of trouble.” The plane bounces as we touch down and before I answer my father, I glance quickly out at the glow of the city lights over the horizon coming from Seattle, waiting for the sense of foreboding that plagued me before I escaped this city what feels like a lifetime ago, but it doesn’t come.

“You ready for it?” my dad asks.

“I really am,” I tell him. “I can’t wait.”

 

I feel extremely tired as we step into the elevator at Escala and begin the journey up to the apartment. Not in the way I did when I was pregnant or in the hospital, but in the way you do after you’ve spent too much time on vacation. Like we’ve had too much of a good thing and now it’s time to relax, decompress, and get back to real life. Kate texted me to let me know she’d brought a crib over to the apartment, since we were expecting to be in the new house by the time Calliope arrived and never put in a nursery at Escala, so all I can think about in the elevator is putting her to bed, saying goodnight to my father, pouring my first glass of wine, and drawing a long relaxing bath to share with Christian. A smile crosses my face as I imagine it, but the dream comes to a crashing halt when the doors open and we hear Kate and Elliot’s voices coming from the kitchen.

“Oh my god, don’t you dare!” Kate squeals.

“I can’t stop it, it’s acting of it’s own accord. There’s nothing I can do. I’m sorry, Kate.”

“Elliot…” We hear her scream and then the sound of shattering glass, but as Christian moves Calliope’s carseat behind his back while taking a protective step towards me, and our security team rushes for the kitchen, we hear her laugh.

“Shit, we broke a wine glass,” Kate says. “And it’s Baccarat.”

“Way to go, Kate.”

Christian gives me a side glance over his shoulder, rolls his eyes, and then moves further into the apartment again. Before I follow him though, my dad kisses me goodnight and heads for the stairs that lead up to the guest room, leaving us to survey the damage on our own. Luke and Kommer step aside to let us pass as we walk through the living room and once we can fully see into the kitchen, we find Elliot still holding the sidespray from the sink and Kate gathering the broken pieces of the deep bordeaux glass they’d knocked off the rack. She glances up as she picks up the final shattered piece from the floor, sees us standing on the opposite end of the counter, and her face immediately shifts to a look a chagrin.

“Christian! Ana! You’re home…”

“Oh… hey, bro. Welcome back,” Elliot adds guiltily. Christian glances between them, shakes his head and places Calliope’s car seat on an oversized barstool pressed up against the counter.

“What are you two doing in here?”

“Well, we thought you might be hungry so we came to make you dinner,” Kate says.

Christian narrows his eyes. “I have a housekeeper.”

“We just wanted to make sure you had everything you needed. I wasn’t sure where you wanted to put Callie for the next few weeks so we set up a crib in one of the guest rooms upstairs and a bassinet in your bedroom. I also brought Ana a motherhood survival kit I put together filled with all of the things the internet told me she can’t live without.” She quickly moves from the kitchen to the dining room and pulls a giant basket off the table that seems to be filled with lotions, supplies, and a ton of assorted goods from The Honest Company.

“Awh, Kate,” I say, my bottom lip jutting out as I quickly glance through everything she’s put together for me. “You’re best godmother in the entire world.”

“I know. Mia and I also went to Barnes and Noble last night and bought every children’s book we could find. They’re up in the room with the crib but I should warn you, there’s like 200 of them. I fully intend for you to raise my goddaughter to be a scholar.”

“You’re unbelievable and so incredibly generous,” I say, smiling at her and moving around the counter. “Thank you so much, Kate.” She accepts the hug I give her but only for a moment as she quickly pushes me away and demands to hold the baby. I laugh, take her hand and lead her to the car seat.

“Yes, Kate is very generous,” Christian says, glancing over the basket and then shooting a pointed look at Elliot. “She’s doing an excellent job upholding her title as godmother.” Elliot gasps and places a hand over his chest, like he’s deeply offended.

“You didn’t really think I would forget you, did you Christian?”

“Yes,” he replies flatly. “Yes I did.”

“That hurts, bro. And after all the time I took meticulously wrapping this present for you…”

He too walks over to the table, but instead of picking up a basket, he pulls a square package from one of the dining room chairs, wrapped messily in birthday themed paper, and places it on the counter in front of his brother. Christian smiles, claps Elliot on the shoulder, and begins to tear away the paper. Once he’s got the package opened, he reaches inside, frowns, and then pulls out a bottle of lotion and a box of tissues.

“It’s going to be a long six weeks for you,” Elliot says solemnly. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”

Christian rolls his eyes and throws the items back in the box. “You’re such a fuck, Elliot,” he laughs.

“Oh, yeah?” he replies in good humor. “Who do you think put your crib together upstairs, you douchebag?”

“You mean it wasn’t Kate? Great, now I have to go up there and make sure it’s not going to fall apart and kill my baby in the middle of the night.”

Elliot laughs. “You could do that. Or we could go into the library, have a drink to celebrate your daughter, and let these girls catch up a little bit.”

“Yeah,” Christian agrees with a smile. “I think that’s exactly what we should do.”

He comes back to me, kissing me softly on the cheek before going to Calliope as she sleeps peacefully in Kate’s arms. Then both he and Elliot disappear down the long hallway towards the library.

“Ana, I’m obsessed with this baby,” Kate says. “She’s so freaking pretty. You’re like… champion babymaker.”

“Mmm,” I hum in agreement. “I can’t describe it to you, Kate. I love her so much it hurts.”

“And she smells so good. Ugh, I want one.”

I bite down on my lip as she leans down, inhales Calliope’s scent from the top of her head and then places a gentle kiss on each of her round cheeks.

“Speaking of which…” I begin awkwardly. “You seem to be spending a lot of time with Elliot, here… back at the hospital… I’m sorry but, where’s Carter?”

The adoring smile on her face falls, her body deflates a little, and she continues to look at Calliope, not me, as she answers.

“I’m not really sure. He’s… probably back in Georgia, I guess. He didn’t really want to talk to me after.”

“What happened?”

She sighs. “He asked me to marry him, Ana.”

“I know. Clearly, it was the biggest shock of my life.” She lets out a morbid kind of laugh but doesn’t continue, so I push her a little. “So… you said no?”

“I didn’t love him,” she says. “I thought maybe I could, one day, but… I don’t think it works that way anymore. At least not the kind of love I want.”

“What do you mean?”

She takes another breath before she answers me. “This is going to sound horrible but, when we were in the hospital, before Christian knew about Calliope or if you were going to be okay, I spent a lot of time just… watching him. He was devastated. I’m glad you didn’t see him like that, Ana, because it was bad. Really bad. But it was bad because he loves you so much. If you would have died, his whole world would have been destroyed. You consume him, and as terrifying as that makes the idea of losing you to him, it makes what you two have together…” She pauses as she tries to find the words.

“Beautiful?” I suggest. She presses her lips together and shakes her head.

“It’s more than that. It’s what makes life have meaning. I want that. I want someone whose world begins and ends with me. I want someone who would sacrifice anything, who would walk through fire if that’s what it took to make me happy. But also, I want someone who I love so completely, so passionately, that I can’t envision a world where they don’t exist. I want deep, meaningful, true love, Ana, and I was never going to have that with Carter.”

“Okay, that’s fair. If you didn’t love Carter, you shouldn’t have married him. But… what about Elliot? How does he fit into this?”  

She bites her lip. “I’m in love with Elliot, and I love him the way that I want to love the man I’m going to marry. I can’t deny that anymore, and the longer we’re apart the more I have to admit to myself that that love is unshakable. I love his family, I love his sense of adventure, I love the person that he is… I could happily spend the rest of my life with Elliot Grey, but… I don’t know that he loves me the way I need to be loved. If anything is ever going to happen between us again, I need to know that he does, and that he will. Forever.”

“Well, I hope it works out. Selfishly because he’s going to be in my life from now until the end and I can’t go through anymore Gia’s… More selfishly because I love you, Kate, very, very, much, and I want you to have everything in the world that your heart desires.”

“I love you too, Ana,” she smiles. “And I love this baby. Oh my god, I love this baby!” I laugh as she tightens her hold on Calliope and leaves feather light kisses all over her face. Calliope stirs for a moment, but just enough to squish her little face together in protest before her features smooth out and she’s lost to her dreams again. When Kate looks up at me, the pouting look of adorable overload on her face makes me wonder if she’s about to burst into tears, and once again I feel my heart swell.

A timer goes off behind me in the kitchen, so Kate kisses Calliope once more before placing her back in her carrier and coming around the counter with me to pull the lasagna she’s made out of the oven. I move to the cabinet to take out plates for the four of us and to set the table, but before I reach for the door, my eyes fall on a box resting on the counter across from me.

“What’s that?” I ask. Kate looks over her shoulder at the box and then turns back to the bread she’s pulling from the oven.

“Just mail. Whatever wasn’t forwarded to Cambridge, I guess.”

“Oh…” Curiosity gets the better of me so I cross the marble floor to begin sorting through the letters and packages inside. There’s nothing here for me, everything I touch has Christian’s name on it, minus a few letters from my mother which I fully intend to ignore, until my fingers close around a battered looking manilla envelope addressed to me, but with no return address.

“Who’s that from?” Kate asks, glancing over at me as she slices the bread.

“I don’t know, it doesn’t say.” My fingers probe the package, which is surprisingly heavy for something delivered in just an envelope, but as I feel around the edges, I’m able to identify the familiar shape and weight inside.

“It’s a manuscript,” I say.

“Did Random House do any editing?” Kate asks.

“I don’t know. I didn’t think so…” I quickly rip open the flap, reach inside, and pull out the rudimentary bound stack of papers. When I look down at the title page though, it’s not Escape or even Escaping Neverland that I see printed there. What I do see, sends a cold chill over my entire body, like my blood has suddenly turned to ice.

“What is it?” Kate asks. I turn the manuscript to her so she can read the title.

 

Monster.

The detailed first hand account from the broken southern girl that built America’s most powerful CEO

By: Elena Lincoln

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