Chapter 48

3

The following is intended for mature audiences and may contain material that is not suitable for some readers. Discretion is advised.

Christian’s hands shake and he takes a tentative step towards her, but Gia doesn’t respond to his approach. Her face is curious, like she’s merely interested in what he’s going to do next rather than worrying about trying to stop him and maintain her position of power. It’s eerie because, gun aside, Christian could easily overpower her, but she doesn’t seem to have any concern over that. Maybe that’s because she really intends to make good on the obvious threat she holds in her hands and Christian approaching is only going to goad her. Or maybe there’s someone else in the house. Is someone watching us? Someone armed who will come to Gia’s aid the moment Christian steps over whatever imaginary line they’ve drawn around her? Luke won’t come upstairs for at least an hour. If she has reinforcements, we’ll be on our own. Unless… where’s Kommer? Is he dead too? Like Ava?

“Gia, please.” His voice trembles and I wonder if that’s because he’s come to the same conclusions I have. “You and I will work this out. I will give you whatever it is that you’ve come here for, just… please. Give me my baby and let her and my wife leave.”

She laughs. Not for show, but legitimately, heartily, laughs, and it sends a cold chill up my spine. Christian stops and glances around the still mostly dark apartment before taking another step in her direction. The moment he moves, she pulls back the hammer of her pistol and lifts it carelessly up into her lap, right next to my baby.

“No, please!” I shriek. Christian turns back and shoots me a sharp, warning glare and holds his hand back to keep me still. I sink to my knees on the hard, marble floor, tears pouring from my eyes as fear overcomes me, and reach out desperately for Calliope.

Gia’s eyes flit down to me, and she lets out her final cruel laughs before sighing and shaking her head. “Go? No. No one is leaving.” She twists the gun in her hand so she can look at the watch on her wrist and then frowns. “We’re in for a little bit of a wait though, so why don’t you two have a seat?”

“Gia…”

“I said take a seat, Grey.” Her expression suddenly grows hard, menacing, and her voice turns to ice. Calliope reaches out her tiny little hand for the silver barrel of the gun, which is too long because of the silencer attached to the end. When her fingers wrap around it, Christian’s whole body tenses and I do everything I can not to vomit.

“Okay,” he says. “I’ll sit. It’s fine. We’ll negotiate on your terms but please, stop pointing that at my daughter.”

“Negotiate?” She laughs again, before reclaiming her stony demeanor. “Sit. Down.”

He holds his hand up in front of him in surrender and backs up to the couch behind me. I try to get up and slide into the seat next to him, because I know that listening to her and complying with her demands is the only way to keep my sweet, innocent little baby from being harmed, but I’m frozen. Her eyes narrow in on me and then a second later, I feel Christian’s hands wrap around my body. He picks me up, lifts me onto the sofa, and clings tightly to my hand, rubbing his thumb along the length of my index finger as if to silently promise everything is going to turn out okay.

My lip trembles as I stare singlemindedly at Calliope. My motherly instincts are in overdrive, feeling as though they’re burning me for keeping still and allowing her to remain in danger, but while I sit here running through a million different scenarios of how to get her out of Gia’s hands, I can’t think of even one that is safe or guaranteed to be successful. I’m paralyzed, impotent. Gia has the ultimate leverage in her hands and she knows it.

“I’m going to need your phones…” she says, and while Christian nods and then slowly reaches into his pocket to withdraw his iPhone, I shake my head.

“I don’t have it. It’s i-in my bag. I dropped it when I fell. It’s in the foyer.”

“You think you’re in a position to play games with me, Anastasia?”

“No.” My voice is high, the fear I feel coursing through me clinging to every word. “Gia, I swear to you, I don’t have it.”

She narrows her eyes at me and then waves her hand at Christian. He leans over to slide his phone across the floor to her and once her hands wrap around it, she gets out of her chair and gives us both a warning look.

“I swear to god neither of you better fucking move.”

We both nod and she turns to the foyer, taking my baby with her. The moment her eyes are no longer me, I start gasping for air, sure I’m about to succumb to a full blown panic attack, and Christian tightens his hand around mine. He looks around the apartment again, examining dark corners, focusing on what little of the upstairs we can see from where we sit on the couch. There’s nothing, but it doesn’t feel like there’s nothing.  

“It’s going to be okay, Ana,” he breathes so softly only I can hear him. “I’m going to get you and Calli out of here.”

“What about you?” I hiss back.

“I’ll be fine.”

“What are we going to do?” He shakes his head, unsure how to answer, and I begin shaking again. “They said he. Leila, Jack, Carter… they all said he. I heard him, Christian.”

“She’s not in charge. If she was, we’d already be dead. She’s just here to babysit us until he gets here. That’s what we’re waiting for.”

“What?”

He glances to our right, where Gia is returning from the foyer with my bag in her hand, and then opens my tightly clenched fist in my lap. With his fingers, he begins tracing letters into my palm.

J-A-N-E-D-O-E

Jane Doe. The woman who’d sent those photos of me. The woman who’d received a $10 million transfer this morning… It was Gia. But if she was being paid, that means that he’s still out there and since she’s still here even after the FBI’s pursuit tonight, he must not really be Gresham.

My eyes follow Gia as she moves across the room and finally sets Calliope down in the bassinet next to her chair, which she must have taken from my bedroom. There’s a tiny hint of relief in the knowledge that her hands are no longer on my baby, that Calliope is no longer staring down the barrel of a gun, but it’s not enough. Not nearly enough. Especially because, while she’s set the baby down, the gun is still in her hand and her finger is tapping absentmindedly against the trigger. Still, Christian shifts in the seat next to me. Preparing himself.

“Awh, you missed a call from your daddy, Ana. That sucks.” Gia gives me an obviously fake look of sympathy. “Maybe if you’d listened to your stupid fucking mother, you’d get to call him back.”

The redirection of her attention makes Christian shift again, but this time she notices and she once again raises the gun. Not at him, at me, and he’s paralyzed once more.

“Is that uncomfortable for you?” she sneers. “Knowing that if you’d just let her go, she wouldn’t be here right now? That if you weren’t so selfish and possessive, you’d be here with me and Ana and Calliope would be… oh, I don’t fucking care. Not here.” Christian starts to shake and his visible anger makes Gia’s eyes twinkle. “You should have fucked me when you had the chance.”

He squeezes my hand and then lets it fall into my lap, empty.

“Is that what this is about? Rejection? Because I turned you down?” She raises a challenging eyebrow and, after staring at her for a long time, his lips curl into same outrageously sexy half-smirk that has had me shamelessly chasing him for years. “I thought about it, you know. Last winter. I really, really thought about it.”

“Really?” She doesn’t believe him, but he nods all the same, slowly, and then drags his tongue over his bottom lip.

“Oh yeah. Every time I had you in the gym upstairs and you were in those tight sports bras or those tiny little shorts with your ass hanging out…” He pauses as though the memory makes him uncomfortable. Good uncomfortable. Delicious even. When he looks back up at her again, his eyes are blazing. “When you were sweating on the bench beneath me, I wondered what it would make you taste like. What it would sound like to hear you moaning, not from the weight, but from taking my cock. I wondered how much you’d be able to take down your throat or what I’d have to do to make you come. To make you scream.”

Gia swallows so hard, I can see her throat move and Christian leans toward her.

“Do you want to go into the bedroom and find out?”

She unconsciously reaches up and brushes her free hand across the back of her neck. When she drags it back down her body, she begins gnawing at her lip. “I–”

“You what, Gia?” His voice drops to a whisper. “Tell me what you want.”

“You, uh…” Another swallow and then her eyes meet his. “You must think I’m a special kind of stupid.”

Christian’s seductive act immediately drops. “What?”

“What do you think? I’m just going to turn around and skip my way to the bedroom, overcome with lust and desire, leaving Ana and Calliope completely unsupervised, and then you’ll… what? Wrestle the gun away from me? Maybe even tie me up with your little bondage toys so you don’t have to worry about me until the Feds get here? Then you come out here, the big hero, all ‘oh I didn’t mean it, Ana. I was just trying to save your life. I love you so much…’ Please.”

“No, I-I–”

“We need to get something straight between me and you, Grey.” She sits back down into the chair and spins it toward us, spreading her legs open and then leaning forward with her elbows rested on each of her knees. The gun dangles from her hand in between her legs. “I never wanted you, ever, because I know you’re a bad person. I know the things that you have done, and quite frankly, you disgust me. The flirting, the inappropriate touching, the giggles, the batting of the eyelashes, the sports bras, and the too short shorts, those weren’t for you. Those were for Elliot.”

“Oh really?” Now it’s Christian’s turn not to believe her.

“Yeah. I think you think my job was to spy on you and Ana, but it wasn’t. Ana was Leila’s responsibility. I was in charge of Elliot.”

“And why was that?”

“To isolate you. Everyone else in your life is just begging for a reason to jump ship. We already saw that right? I mean, your entire family cut you out for years. But not Elliot. Elliot is your ride or die, probably even more so than Ana since she left you too, so he had to go. It was too obvious just to kill him and his death probably wouldn’t have hurt you as much as abandonment. We just needed to find a way to make him abandon you. So, I put myself into his life and then threw myself at you. If you fucked me, it would be a betrayal. A personal betrayal against the person who had never betrayed you, who stood by you no matter what you did or how bad you fucked up. How could he continue to fight for you after that? He couldn’t, and once he was gone and we’d gotten Ana, you’d have no one else to turn to. You’d be alone. Vulnerable.”

She sighs before continuing.

“Unfortunately, Elliot was never really interested in me. He thought he was, he tried to tell himself that he was, but deep down, he was only ever with me to get Kate’s attention and no amount of blow jobs or nights spent having absolutely phenomenal sex could change that. So, he didn’t care that his girlfriend was practically begging his brother to fuck her because he always had one eye on Cambridge.” She shrugs. “It did make communication easier for me though, not having him watching me all the time. God he’s so fucking stupid.”

Christian’s jaw tenses and he stares back at her so intently it’s like his eyes are trying to bore holes right through her. “Isolation, huh? I’ve heard that one before. Tell me, is Elena really dead or is she on her way over here now?”

“Oh, no. She’s dead.” A wicked smile crosses her face. “He had a lot of fun with that one.”

“You psychotic bitch.”

She laughs, but it’s cut off by the ping of the elevator. Gia’s hand tightens on her gun and she practically jumps out of her chair, so I feel a rush of hope that someone knows we’re here and in danger and has come to save us. And for a brief second that hope is fueled when I see that it’s Luke who steps into the foyer, but that hope is dashed when Gia smiles.

“Baby!”

No. No, no, no. I refuse to…

Bang. Bang. Bang.

Gia raises her gun, pulls the trigger three times in quick succession, and Luke absorbs each of the bullets, one by one, into his chest before falling to his knees and collapsing on the floor. In his place, immediately behind where he’d been, Kommer stands with his own gun raised. Calliope starts to scream at the noise but I can’t look away from what’s in front of me to turn to her.

“No!” Without thinking, I leap from the couch and try to launch myself across the room at my fallen best friend, but Christian grabs me around the waist and pulls me back down.

“No,” he hisses. “You can’t help him. Don’t move, Anastasia.”

“Gia!” Kommer says, giving her a what the hell kind of look, but she brushes him off.

“Oh, please. I already had my chance at money-man taken away, it’s only fair that I get Sawyer. I’ve wanted that since New York. You were this close, Anthony. This close!”

A slow smile creeps across Kommer’s face. “Bloodthirsty.”

They laugh and she scurries across the great room to let him envelop her in his arms, but I don’t watch as they kiss. My eyes are wide and focused only on the floor where my best friend lies face down, not moving. I can feel my heart beating wildly in my chest as I struggle to breathe. I want to cry, and scream, and throw up, but I can’t. There’s too much shock. Too much fear. Not only does his motionless body mean that I’ve lost one of the people I love and care most about in the entire world, it means that Christian and I truly are alone. No one is going to come for us. Luke is dead, and Kommer is the one holding the gun.

I’m so absorbed in grief and the heightened severity of our situation that I don’t notice when Christian slinks off the couch behind me and creeps across the room. There’s no sound to alert me to his movements and he almost gets all the way to the bassinette before Kommer calls out to stop him.

“That’s far enough, Grey.” But Christian doesn’t falter under the threat of Kommer’s weapon. He looks defiantly back into his eyes and moves to place himself between our assailants and our child.

“No, no, baby,” Gia says. “Like this.” She pulls back the slide to make of show of ejecting one bullet but drawing another into the chamber, points the weapon at me, and then gives Christian a dark smile. “I’m a really good shot, Grey. Are you sure you’re want to test me?”

He freezes and glances uneasily back at me, but I want to scream for him to take the baby and run. The service entrance is just on the other side of the utility room, maybe I could head Gia and Kommer off long enough for him to get through the door. I’d take whatever they did to me, gladly, if it meant my husband and child would be safe. But he doesn’t run. He doesn’t move.

“Why don’t you go stand by the window, huh Grey? Hands up. Keep yourself out of trouble.” Kommer gestures for Christian to move away from the bassinet with this gun, and slowly, Christian steps back to the dark glass.

“I trusted you. I trusted you with the thing I care about most in the world. Tell me, Kommer, was it all a lie? Did you come onto my team knowing this is where we’d end up, or did he buy you out from under me?”

“He didn’t do anything. I’m not here for him. I’m here for her. She needed my help and there’s absolutely nothing in the world I wouldn’t do for her.”

“Even murder?”

“Would you, for Anastasia?”

He swallows, and I think it’s because he’s unwilling to answer that questions specifically because he’s trying desperately to keep us both alive, not coax him into what we can only assume they have planned. But then, to my surprise, he nods. “Yes, I would. And I can’t say that I’d care about the reason either, right or wrong. If that’s what she needed me to do, I’d do it. Absolutely. Because I love her.”

What the fuck is he doing?!

“But I would also die for her if I could, because what I actually care about is that she’s safe. I would do anything for that, hire an entire security team to shadow her every step, move across the country and jeopardize the entire stability of my company… Anything I could do to protect her, I would. Do you love Gia like that?”

Kommer just stares back at him for a moment, clearly confused. “Of course I do.”

“Then why are you here? What do you think is going to happen when this is over? You think you’ll just walk out of here and go on with your life with the woman you love and more money than you could ever spend? Don’t you think that’s the exact same thing he told Leila Williams? That he told Charles Gresham, or Jack Hyde, or Elena Lincoln. He promised Carter Reed Harvard and he was gunned down in the street.”

“They didn’t do their jobs…”

“They were loose ends. And that’s all you’ll be after this is over. Someone who could one day identify him. He’s coming for me tonight, and then it’ll be you. It doesn’t have to be like that. Help me, and I’ll protect you.”

“Look at him,” Gia says, squirming playfully under Kommer’s arm. “All confident like he has the first clue about what he’s talking about.” She kisses her lover’s thumb and then pushes him off of her before sauntering back into the great room, the arrogant smile back in place on her face. “There’s a big difference between me and Leila Williams, Grey.”

“You really think so, huh?”

“Mhm. You see Leila Williams was hired because she loved you and she wanted to make Anastasia pay for taking you away. That’s why she got Ana, not you. Charles Gresham and Jack Hyde were blackmail, Elena Lincoln wasn’t really given a choice since we had her packaged up in a little box that we had absolute control over, and Carter Reed… Well, Carter Reed was future planning. He was never supposed to be there the night Ana’s mother was whacked. That was punishment. Carter’s job was going to be to stay in touch with Kate so we’d be able to monitor your progress in tracking us all down once this was over, but then he showed he couldn’t be trusted by immediately running off to you so we had to do away with him too. Just like Isaac when he sent Elena’s book to Ana instead of me. We all have a role, and we’re all chosen very specifically, and very carefully. And the thing that keeps me here, that’s protected me even though I failed to break up you and Elliot, is much stronger than anything the other’s had.”

“Bullshit.”

Her smile falters and spiteful anger flares in her eyes. “You did a background check on me when I started dating Elliot, right?”

“Of course.”

“And what did you learn?”

Now it’s Christian’s turn to be confused, and it’s clear on his face that he doesn’t know what she’s getting at. Her gaze is insistent though, so he takes a breath and starts. “You were born in 1987 in New Jersey to Holly Paine, a single woman who died during childbirth and left no record for the father. They shifted you into the foster system until you were 3 weeks old, when you were adopted by Peter and Connie Matteo, both of modest income, but a hard working blue collar family. You graduated with a 4.0 from Oakcrest High School a year early and decided to attend the University of Washington to study graphic design in the hopes you’d earn an internship with one of the Seattle local tech giants, but then changed your focus to interior design your sophomore year. In 2010, you were selected for a post-graduation internship at my company and moved into the construction division where you proved to be a valuable asset working on a low income housing project GEH had been contracted to build for the city, so your position was made permanent. That’s how you met my brother. He’d put you in charge of interior design for the new GEH headquarters.”

He stops, probably wondering how much longer she expects him to go on or into how much detail, but she just keeps staring expectantly at him.

“Mhmm.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand what the point of this is.”

“The point is…” She flops down into the same chair she was sitting in when Christian and I had come into the apartment earlier in the evening and begins to spin. “Pete and Connie were not my parents. I had a daddy out there somewhere and when I turned sixteen, I decided I wanted to try and find out who that was. It took a year, but eventually the private investigator and team of DNA experts I’d hired got me a name. That’s why I chose to go to the University of Washington, not because I wanted to work at Microsoft.”

Christian’s face falls. “You’re his daughter.”

“Yep. And Daddy’s got a whole lot of money that’s going to be all mine if I just help him take care of you. At first it was just pictures, compromising pictures that were meant to break up you and your girlfriend, but then it turned into something… else. Something much more exciting.”

There’s another ping from the elevator but it doesn’t give me hope this time. I know there’s no one coming for us. Instead, it ignites a new level of fear inside of me because I know in the deepest part of my soul that this is it. This is what they’ve been waiting for. He’s here.

I can’t see into the foyer, but I can hear his footsteps and each one feels like the seconds ticking away on a timebomb.

“Kommer!” A wave of cold washes over me as the voice from the phone, the voice from my nightmares, rings loud and clear in the foyer.

“Yes, sir?” Kommer answers.

“There are cameras in the garage.”

“Uh… yes, sir. They’re Grey’s. For the cars… I disabled them this evening after Sawyer left. Before Gia got here.”

“And in the elevator.”

“Grey had them turned off months ago. He uh… he likes to fuck her in the elevator.”

“I see… Well shut it down. No one else gets up that elevator tonight.”

“Yes, sir.”

The footsteps sound again, then the man enters the great room and my body entire body seizes. He looks different than I remember, much less put together. His hair is longer and no longer perfectly coifed. His clothes aren’t as fine, he has facial hair now, and the practiced arrogance he used to carry himself with is gone, replaced now by something more careless and sloppy. But it’s none of those things that make it initially hard to recognize him, it’s the eyes. Once warm, they’re now cold, menacing, and entirely unfocused.

“Linc.” Christian’s voice is soft, devoid of any inflection, and the man standing in the entryway between the foyer and the living room smiles.

“Hi, Christian. It’s been awhile, well… for you. I’ve actually seen quite a bit of you and your life over the past few years.”

“So it would seem.”

They lock eyes for a long beat. Christian refuses to show fear or back down, but Linc seems to care very little about whatever kind of power play is going on between them. He turns and glances over to me, and the moment our eyes meet, a hungry kind of smile crosses his face. One I don’t like at all.

“Look. At. You.” His voice is husky and the intensity in his eyes terrifies me, but when I look down to break the overbearing eye contact between us, I realize for the first time since I looked into Ava’s eyes on the foyer floor that I’m sitting here only in a bra and a pair of panties, still covered in blood. Automatically, I move my hands up to try and cover as much of my body as I can but he doesn’t drop his gaze. Christian moves towards me, slowly, so he doesn’t draw attention to himself, but Lincoln doesn’t seem to care. He simply lets out long, energetic breath and takes a step forward until he comes even with Luke’s body.

“Who got Sawyer?”

“That would be me,” Gia replies, proudly, but Linc narrows his eyes at her.

“You really need to control this.”

Gia’s giddiness immediately dies out and when she speaks, her voice is flat and accusatory. “I thought you’d be happy.”

“I would have been had Kommer done it. But what did we talk about?”

“I-I-”

“I told you to calm down.”

They’re still here aren’t they?” She holds her arms out to gesture to Christian and I, but Linc just takes a deep, calming breath and shakes his head, as if to dispel his annoyance.

“Where’s the helicopter?”

“En route. It’ll be here any minute.”

Linc’s ravenous eyes move to me again. “Then let’s get to it.”

His words hit me like a jolt of electricity and when he moves again I find myself scrambling onto the couch, just to get farther away from him. Christian’s hand closes around my wrist and he quickly pulls me up so that I’m standing, and moves in front of me, protectively. It’s both relieving and infuriating, because while he’s protecting me, he’s leaving Calliope exposed. She’s at least six feet away from either of us, and now there are three of them, at least two of them armed. If Christian and I don’t get out of this, what will happen to her? Will he hurt her? Will he take her? Will she simply be found with our bodies, the way Christian was with his mother all those year ago?

Gia begins digging in a bag from the counter that I hadn’t noticed before while Linc marches through our living room like he owns the place. I begin to tremble as he moves to Calliope’s bassinette and then hold back an anguished scream when he reaches inside and pulls her out, grunting slightly as he settles her weight into his arm.

“Pretty baby,” he whispers. “You sure caused a lot of trouble coming into this world, you know that?” There’s a stark contradiction to his almost adoring tone and the sweet way he bounces her and tickles her tummy to the heaviness and terror that hang in the air because of his presence. My fingers curl into Christian’s arm, digging into his skin, and he reaches up to place a comforting hand over mine.

“Put her down,” he commands.

“In time,” Linc replies, and then uses his finger to tickle her under her chin. “First, we’re going to talk about some of your choices, Christian. That’s what tonight is going to be about. Your choices. What you chose then, and what you’ll choose now.”

“Choices?”

“Yes. You see, things have been a little one sided between us. A bit unfair really, and I’m here to rectify that. I made the choice to protect you, to turn my entire life upside down and inside out to fight for you, and you repaid me by lying, taking money from me, and stealing my company. You took my whole life away from me. Would you say that was a good choice, or a bad choice?”

The condescension in Linc’s tone clearly doesn’t sit well with Christian. “I didn’t steal your company, I–”

“I know how acquisitions work, Christian. I get it. Your business had a need and you had to fulfill it. But you didn’t have to come for me. Not after what you’d already taken from me.”

Christian exhales slowly, his body relaxes, and he nods. When he speaks, his voice is conciliatory. “You’re right. I didn’t have to come for you. Your company was the best fit for what I needed, the easiest to take on, and the most financially viable option, but you’re right. I didn’t have to take Lincoln Timber, and maybe I shouldn’t have after the history between us. I’m sorry. But I can’t give it back to you. It doesn’t exist anymore.”

“I understand that, I don’t expect you to.” He lets out a hard sigh and begins to pace. “It doesn’t really matter. Hell, I hadn’t taken any joy in work for years anyway. I’d lost my passion for it. So, maybe it was best in the end that it went to you. My people have good jobs in a thriving industry, I got a very generous pension, and that’s because of you. I can forgive Lincoln Timber.”

Christian nods, but neither of us relax. He hasn’t done what he’s done to be satisfied by an apology and he isn’t here to give his forgiveness. This is all just the preamble for what he’s really after.

“But it’s not just Lincoln Timber that you took from me,” he continues. “Not even close. You ruined me, Christian. You have no idea what you did to me, not in the slightest. I had to run, flee the state and re-headquarter my company because of the way you humiliated me. I lost half of the fortune I’d spent my entire life building. You took everything. And so tonight, I’m going to give you the chance to make it right by giving you a choice.”

“Which is?”

Linc smiles. “Your money or your family.”

I feel a pair of hands wrap around my arms and then violently yank me backwards. Both Christian and I had been so focused on Linc that neither one of us noticed Kommer sneaking around behind us, and now he had me restrained against his body with his gun pressed into my throat, just below my jaw.

“My family!” Christian shouts immediately. “My family. I choose my family.”

“Good choice.” He looks over to Gia and nods. She pulls a phone or maybe a small tablet out of the bag and turns to face us, but Christian quickly shakes his head.

“Let her go. You get nothing as long as you have a gun to my wife’s head.”

I shake again, wondering if Christian is in the position to make any kind of demands or if he’s just going to make the situation worse. Linc though, seems non-plussed.

“Let her go, Kommer.”

“And get the fuck away from her,” Christian growls.

Kommer’s hands drop from my body and I feel my fingers begin to throb at the rush of blood that had been choked back by his tight grip on my wrist. He stares Christian down as he saunters away from me and moves to the chair next to where Gia is still standing, making a show of slumping down into the seat and rocking back and forth.

“And Calliope…” Christian says, but this time, Linc’s eyes narrow. He’s losing patience.

“I think I’ve made enough concessions, Christian. It’s your turn. One hundred grand, if you please.”

Christian seems to do a double take. “Wait… a hundred grand? All you want is a hundred grand?

“Weren’t you listening? Tonight is about making things fair. You stole $100 thousand from me, I want it back.”

“You stole $65 million from me two fucking days ago!”

“Let me rephrase. I want you to give back the $100 thousand dollars you stole from me. I want you to make a choice, Christian.”

“You’ve killed people, Linc. You’ve destroyed lives, families… all over a hundred grand?”

“Sound familiar?”

Christian shakes his head with disgust at the challenging look Linc gives him and then reaches for Gia and the tablet in her hands. She smiles broadly as she moves towards him, but as she stretches out her hand to give the device to Christian, he suddenly lunges forward, grabs her by the arm, and pulls her against him the same way Kommer just had me. They struggle for half a second while Christian forces her to drop the gun and then grabs her by the throat, squeezing so tightly she starts to gasp for air and gag over the pressure.

“You have my daughter,” Christian says in a voice that is more menacing than anything I’ve ever heard from him before. “I have yours. Give her to me and I’ll let her go.”

What remained of the patient look Linc has worn since he first arrived vanishes. His eyes darken, the lines in his face seem to deepen, and his mouth stretches into a thin line.

“You always choose the money,” he says darkly. “You’ll always choose the money.” Everything that happens next plays out too quickly for either Christian or I to react, but so purposefully it’s like I’m watching it in slow motion. Linc reaches behind him, removes his own weapon from the back band of his jeans, and thrusts it forward at Christian. I scream as he pulls the trigger and the sonic boom of the bullet leaving it’s chamber echos through the room.

The glass behind me shatters. My face is showered with a burst of hot, fresh blood, like I’ve stepped out into a stormy summer night and tilted my face to the sky. I can’t move. I’m held in place by the sheer brutality of what has just happened.

Christian’s face is colored with shock and flecks of blood. He doesn’t shake the way I am, but he immediately withdraws his hold and let’s Gia’s body slump unceremoniously to the floor. Her skin makes a sickening slapping sound as she falls hard against the marble, and the lifeless arm that reaches out towards me is soon surrounded in a pool of deep, dark crimson.

“You have nothing to hold over me, Grey,” Linc says. “Nothing in the world matters to me. All I have left is hatred and anger and an overpowering need to make you pay. I’m not even a man anymore.”

My lungs tighten and I realize it’s because I’ve stopped breathing, but the silence that settles in after Lincoln’s threat is suddenly broken by Kommer’s cry of agony. The shock has passed, and he’s only just now processing what has happened right in front of him.  

“No!” He’s at Gia’s side in the time it takes me to blink and pulls her into his arms, shaking her, calling her name, refusing to believe what his eyes tell him. Eventually though, the reality of the situation to too much for him to deny, and he starts to shake with fury.

“You son of a bitch!” Kommer leaps from the ground to lunge at Linc, but with two more quick pulls on the trigger, which seem almost lazy, the threat is neutralized. Kommer staggers and reaches to touch the red stains growing across the front of his shirt, then coughs a bubble of blood and falls to the floor next to Gia.

All I can do is stare. My mind registers nothing, my ears ring with the sound of the gunshot still echoing inside my head, and every part of me is numb. It’s a defense mechanism I think, protecting me from the brutality of what I’ve had to witness tonight, and it holds me until a loud whirring sound fills the apartment and a bright light comes through the broken windows and catches my eye. We all turn to face the helicopter sweeping up the side of the building to the roof, where Christian’s helipad is waiting.

“That’s my ride,” Linc says. “We don’t have long,” He moves back to the bassinet to dispose of my baby, who is once again screaming her little lungs out. She’s hurt and I can only imagine it’s because of the gun firing too loudly for her little ears right over her head. But I can’t get to her. She needs me, and I can’t get to her.

Once Calliope no longer in Lincoln’s arms, he reaches down to gather the bag Gia had, and then slides the tablet she’d dropped back across the floor to Christian’s feet.

“You make the transfer. Gresham has already set it up, all you have to do is press the button. Ana can take your precious baby.”

It’s the only thing that could have broken the trance. I let out a strangled cry and shuffle forward, arms already outstretched for her.

“Ana, no!”

Christian’s cry is too late. The moment I’m within reach of the bassinette, Linc is on me. His hands wrap around me like pythons, squeezing me, violating me, his gun pressed tightly against my temple, and the low groan of pleasure he gives at my anemic struggle against his hold makes bile creep up into my mouth.

“Okay!” Christian screams. He leans down to pick up the tablet and presses his finger into the glass. Once the transfer is sent and he has the proof of it depicted on the screen, he turns the tablet so Linc can see. “It’s done. You have your money, a willing gift from me. I’m sorry I ever took it. Now, let her go.”

“No, I told you tonight was about your choices. You made it, and you chose wrong. You don’t get to give me anything anymore.”

He nods in agreement. “You’re right. Not a gift. I took the money from you, you took the money from me. Fair is fair.”

“Fair is fair? Fair is FAIR?” His grip tightens around me, making me whimper with pain, and Christian takes a cautionary step forward.

“Linc, please…”

I will make this fair! You took my money, I took yours. You fucked my wife…”

Christian’s face sallows the instant the words escape Linc’s lips, but when he speaks again, the anxious quiver is gone, replaced by restrained but growing anger. “Let her go, Linc.”

“How long did you have my wife, huh Christian? How long were you shoving your filthy cock inside of her behind my back? Four years wasn’t it?”

“Let. Her. Go.”

“You’re not making demands! I am the one who makes demands!” He shifts the gun, moving away from me and pointing it directly at Christian. “This is how it’s going to go. You can have your company, and your pristine reputation, and your daughter, but I am leaving with your pretty little bride tonight. She’ll stay with me until she’s satisfied the debt your disgusting affair with Elena has put you in. I will use her every night, in whatever way I see fit. Just the way you did with my wife. I will come in every one of her tight little holes, and at the end, if I haven’t gotten her pregnant and my baby hasn’t ripped her apart the way yours tried to, I’ll send her back to you. What’s left of her anyway. Let’s see how much you want her then.”

“I’ll fucking kill you!” Christian shouts, his teeth bared, and his entire body trembling with rage. All sense of self preservation gone, he strides forward like a bear, ready to maul and destroy, but before he even gets within arms reach, Linc’s hand squeezes the gun, and a shot rings loud and sure through the apartment.

Christian stumbles backward, looking stunned, and then his knees crumple until he falls backwards. Through the opening in his tuxedo jacket, I can see the red starting to spread over his pristine white shirt.

“No!” With everything I have I fight and pull against Linc’s grip. He tries to reach around me, to restrain me, but I’m no longer threatened by the gun and the tightness of his grip no longer causes me any pain. I’m sure I do as much damage to myself as I do to him while I kick and punch and knee every part of his body that I can reach, and finally, when my teeth sink deep down into the hand he tries to cover my mouth with, he roars in pain and releases me.   

“You little fucking bitch!”

I fall to the ground and scramble on my hands and knees to get to Christian. His breathing is ragged, shallow, and his eyes move wildly back and forth. I pull the jacket away from him to get a better look at his wound, then refuse to let the startling amount of blood coloring the shirt across his entire abdomen mean anything.

“You’re okay,” I whisper in panic, using my hands to press down on where I can see the bullet went through his shirt. “You’re going to be okay.” It’s not an assumption, it’s a demand. Because he has to be okay.

“Ana,” he croaks. “I love you.”

“No, you’re not saying goodbye.”

“You need to run…”

His words choke off as he continues struggling to breathe and tears prick my eyes. “I’m not leaving you. Don’t you dare leave me.”

His entire body shudders with pain and I feel the blood gush up through my fingers. He needs a hospital, now, or he’s going to bleed out.

“Anastasia, run!”

My rejection of his command is cut off with a scream of pain as Linc’s fingers twist through my hair at the back of my head and he yanks me backwards off of Christian. I feel his hands trying to wrap around me, to pull me back and away from my husband, so once again I begin fighting against him as if my life depended on it. Because Christian’s life does.

“No, no, no!” I scream, kicking him away and scratching against the marble floor to try and crawl my way back to Christian. His hand secures around my ankle and he pulls, hard, dragging me away again. My hands leave blood colored streaks across the floor as I search for something, anything to grab onto.

There’s nothing. And I am no match for Linc’s strength.

He leans down over the top of me and takes hold of my arms, finally pinning me to the floor. “You want to do this the hard way? Good. The harder you fight me, the more you struggle, the harder I get.” He grinds his pelvis into, proving he’s not speaking metaphorically. I start to sob as grief and terror begin to overwhelm me and he shifts his grip, holding both of my wrists above my head with one hand and subduing the rest of my body with his. I feel his free hand come down and begin to grope my breasts over my bra and then he leans in to drag his tongue over the lobe of my ear. “Should we start now? Maybe Christian should see the first time. That way, he won’t have to imagine what’s happening to you later. He’ll know, and he’ll get to feel what it’s like to have everything he’s ever wanted or cared about stolen away from him. Just like he did to me. I want him to wake up every morning knowing that I have what’s his. That I have you.”

“Ple-ease… let me go.”

He groans. “Fuck yes. Beg me to stop, Ana. God, you’re going to be fun. Mmm, it’s been a long time since I’ve had pussy as young as yours. I can’t wait to taste it.”

His hand moves away from my breast and then moves down. At first, I think he’s going to try and remove my panties, but when he reaches into his own pants and pulls out a syringe with clear liquid inside from his pocket, the fear that bursts inside of me is so much more palpable than anything I could have ever imagined. Whatever he tries, I can still fight him. I can still try to escape. I can still try to stop him. That needle is the kill switch to whatever hope there is left.

I squirm and thrash beneath him but his grip is so sure, it doesn’t even seem like he notices me struggling. He lifts the syringe to his mouth and uses his teeth to pull off the cap, then twists it in his hand and brings it down hard and fast into my thigh. I scream both from pain and defiance, but he’s only pushed the plunger halfway down when something hard hits him and he’s knocked onto the ground at my side, ripping the needle from my skin.

My head swims and my eyelids start to feel extremely heavy. It’s like a fog that has taken hold of my consciousness that I can’t shake away. It makes everything around me feel like a dream that I’ll only half remember in the morning.

With great deal of effort, I turn my head toward the movement I can see out of the corner of my eye and realize that the thing that hit him was Christian. He has Linc pinned beneath him and he hits him across the face so hard it sends a splatter of blood from his mouth across the pristine floor.

“No one threatens my wife,” Christian growls. He lifts his fist to punch him again, but Linc strikes first, hitting him in the side where he’s been wounded by the bullet. Christian lets out a horrifying yell, filled with pain, and it’s exactly the opportunity Linc needs. He shoves Christian away and then clamors over the top of him before he begins delivering his own rain of blows. A voice far in the back of my head screams at me to do something, to intervene, but my body is so heavy with the drug that I can’t get anything to move. Everything in my field of vision starts to move, like the colorful swirl of light on the surface of a bubble. I shake my head again, fighting desperately to stay alert, but it’s getting harder.

“Ana.” The almost ghostly sounding call comes from the other side of the room and when I turn to look, I see Luke struggling to pull himself across the floor.

“Luke!” I gasp with relief. He’s hurt, I can see that in his face and the way he can barely move, but he’s alive. And alive is help…

With a heavy groan, he pulls his hand back and then thrusts something forward at me. As it skitters to a stop at my side, I can only just make out that it’s a gun. My eyes move back to him, panting and struggling to stay conscious through the pain of his wounds, and I realize that he’s giving me the weapon because he’s not going to be able to get close enough or aim well enough in his state to be sure he won’t hit Christian.

But how could I?

I reach for it, struggling against the blackness that is trying desperately to cloud over my eyes, and wrap my hand around the handle of the gun. It’s heavy, maybe too heavy for me to lift while I’m fighting off the sedative, but before I even have the chance to turn back to the life or death fight taking place only feet away from me, another gunshot rings through the apartment.

And then everything goes black.

 

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Trigger Warning

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Once again, I just want to give those readers who are sensitive to certain topics a heads up before I post the next chapter. Chapter 48 is rated M for intense situations, strong language, and violence. If you are someone who would like to avoid difficult subject matter I would encourage you to reach out to me privately and after the chapter is posted I will give you the run down of what happens without all the gory details.

Chapter 47

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By Saturday morning, the rain has cleared and we’re gifted another beautiful late summer morning. We’ve opened all of the windows to fill the apartment with the fresh air being carried off the sound by the soft summer breeze, and it’s made the endless parade of reporters and interviewers that Kommer has ushered through seem somehow pleasant. That is until that same breeze also begins carrying Calliope’s cries and Christian’s arguments with the nanny in from my bedroom. I can’t quite make out what they’re fighting over and it’s distracting. Several times I have to ask the reporter sitting across from me to repeat her question because, rather than listening, I was looking to the hallway trying to figure out what’s going on.

“The emotions are just so real,” Miss Dark-Plum-Lipstick from the New Yorker says. “Tell us, Ana, where does that come from? What did you draw on for inspiration?”

“I’ve experienced loss just like everyone else. Heartbreak. Devastation. A lot of Isaiah’s pain is my own and that’s uncomfortable and vulnerable, but writing through those emotions was healing for me.”

“This novel centers mostly around coping with the loss of someone you truly loved. Since you’ve so recently lost your mother, is there anything you would have done differently now that you didn’t when you wrote this novel?”

“Oh, uh…” My attention is diverted once more as the sound of pounding footsteps make their way down the hallway from my bedroom and the nanny bursts into the living room in a huff.

“Ava?”

She narrows her eyes at me. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey, but I can’t…” She pauses and when she speaks again, it’s through clenched teeth. “He sent me to my room.”

“Sent you to your…?” I shake my head with dismay and slowly get out of my chair. “I’m sorry, will you please excuse me for a moment?”

“Ana, your AMA starts in five minutes. We really need to wrap this up,” Lydia warns. I glance up the hallway towards my bedroom, where I can still hear my daughter screaming bloody murder, and bite down on my lip with hesitation before turning back to Miss Dark-Plum-Lipstick.

“No, I don’t think I would change anything. My mother’s death wasn’t the loss I was working through when I wrote this. Maybe that’s a different story, maybe not. I guess we’ll see.”

“So what was it then? The loss you so heartbreakingly depicted in Escape?”

I frown. “Something I hope I never have to lose again. Excuse me.”

I can hear Lydia thanking the reporter behind me as I disappear into the hallway, but I hardly pay any attention to what she’s saying. My mind is focused only on whatever it is that could possibly be making Calliope scream so hard or that would make Christian banish our nanny, his only help for the entire day.

When I open the door to our bedroom, I find Christian pacing back and forth across the floor, holding Calliope tightly against him and bouncing her slightly as he tries to soothe her. She isn’t having any of it though, so I quickly step forward and take her out of his arms.

“What is going on in here?”

“We need a new nanny,” Christian says bluntly, so I raise an eyebrow at him.

“Why?”

“Because she’s perfectly content to lay Calliope face down on the floor and just watch her scream.”

I roll my eyes. “Christian, that’s just tummy time. Calli hates it, but she has to do it.”

His mouth sets into a hard line and he crosses his arms over his chest. “I don’t think she should have to do anything that makes her that miserable. My daughter deserves a life of comfort and luxury, not hardship and strife.”

“Your daughter needs to be able to hold her own head up and learn to crawl one day.”

He lets out another huff, but just as I’m about to ask him to go make peace with Ava, there’s a knock on the door and Kate pokes her head inside.

“Someone call for baby relief?” she asks. I turn to glare at Christian, but he holds his hands up in front of him, defensively.

“You’re supposed to be booked all day. I needed reinforcements.”

“Like the woman upstairs we pay for that exact purpose?”

His expression hardens again, telling me he still doesn’t think developmental growth is an appropriate excuse to force his baby to do something uncomfortable, but before I can argue with him Kate hurries in and holds her arms out for Calliope.

“Elliot is out on the boat with Carrick this afternoon so I was just shopping to kill time before I had to come over here to help you get ready for tonight anyway. This way I’ll get a few hours of quality time with my goddaughter.”

I pivot so I can relinquish my baby to her, but the moment she’s in Kate’s arms and not mine, she starts to scream again. It should hurt to see her tiny face crinkle and the tears that pour from her eyes, but I can’t help the smile her tiny little melt down brings out of me. Usually, it’s Christian she can’t stand to be separated from. Never before has she had this reaction from being taken away from me and I guiltily kind of love it.

“I have to do an AMA on Reddit in like 30 seconds,” I say, taking Calliope back from Kate. “Do you want to type for me so I can do tummy time with Calli?”

“You mean you trust me to respond to internet strangers asking questions for you?”

I narrow my eyes. “I trust you to dictate.”

“Okay.” A mischievous smile plays at her lips. “I can do that.”

“Exactly as I say,” I emphasize, warning her, but as she nods and backs through the doorway to the living room, the conspiratorial glint is still obvious in her eyes. I shake my head and turn back to Christian, who looks a little dismayed that I’m not finished with the press tour for the day.

“Have Kate bring her to me if she’s distracting you,” he says. “I guess if you’re going to take over, I might as well try to get some work done. I’ll be in my office.” I nod and then lean up to kiss him on the cheek before turning back to the living room where Kate is helping Lydia write something on a oversized piece of paper in thick, black Sharpie.

“What is that?”

“It’s for you to hold up,” Lydia replies, handing the paper to me while Kate picks up her phone and points it to me to take a picture. It has my username scribbled across it, proof that I’m actually here answering questions.

“Smile!” Kate says, and the phone clicks.

 

I’m surprised by how much I enjoy doing the AMA. I’m sure most of it is because I’m able to do the entire Q&A laying on the dining room floor with Calliope doing tummy time on my stomach while Kate and I come up with the most ridiculous answers we can. But I think a lot of it also has to do with the general lightheartedness of the interview. Not all of these questions are so heavy like they’ve been in every interview I’ve done so far. In fact, most of the things I’m asked are completely unrelated to Escape. What is your favorite kind of sandwich? What song is stuck in your head right now? If you could eliminate one thing from existence, what would it be?

“The St. Louis Rams,” I reply confidently, and Kate laughs as she types my response and then starts scrolling through the questions again.

“Okay, let’s see… Ooh, Marry, Fuck, Kill, are you ready?”

“Hit me with it.”

“Ryan Reynolds, Channing Tatum, Chris Hemsworth.”

“Ummmmm, marry Ryan Reynolds. Fuck Chris Hemsworth. Kill Channing Tatum.”

“Kill Channing Tatum? Are you crazy?”

“What do you mean crazy? Ryan Reynolds was last year’s sexiest man alive AND he’s hilarious. Definitely marriage material. And Chris Hemsworth is literally a god, so I don’t know what you want from me.”

“Well, obviously you fuck a Hemsworth, I understand that part. But… but… Channing Tatum.”

“Pass.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

“No I’m not,” I say in a sing song voice as I tickle Calliope’s sides. “We would take Ryan Reynolds over Channing Tatum any day, wouldn’t we Calli-lily? Yes we would. But we’ll never ever say that to Daddy, will we? Nooooo.” I lean down to rub my nose against hers and the second my skin touches her, she laughs and my whole body freezes.

“Oh my god. She laughed! Kate, she just laughed!”

“What?”

“She laughed. Her very first laugh! Quick, get my phone!”

Kate picks up my phone off the table and hands it to me, all the while laughing to herself. “This is amazing. Can I please be the one to tell Christian that his daughter’s first laugh was over his mom joking about fucking Ryan Reynolds?”

“Not just fucking,” I say, turning a broad smile back on Calliope. “Living in wedded bliss forever and ever…” She starts laughing again as I tickle her sides so I wrap my arms tighter around her and scramble off the floor. “Answer for me, Christian needs to see this.”

“Ana!” Lydia protests, but I shake off her protests as I turn for Christian’s office.

“She’ll do fine! But I better not read any responses later about Christian’s penis, Kate.”

“You won’t,” she says, and then shakes her head slightly as she looks back down at the laptop in front of her. “The memory of that still gives me nightmares.”

I roll my eyes and rush up the hallway that leads to Christian’s office, continuing to tickle and bounce and encourage my baby as we go so that when I come through the doors the first thing he’ll see is her giggling. But when I step inside, all thought of this milestone is immediately pushed out of my mind because Christian isn’t alone working in his office like I expected. Both Luke and Kommer are sitting across from him, Luke with his laptop open, and the three of them look both completely absorbed in and deadly serious about whatever they’re discussing.

“What’s going on?”

Christian and Kommer look up at me but Luke doesn’t, he’s too involved in what he’s doing.

“Nothing,” Christian says, dismissing me.

“Is it about Gresham? Have you found him?”

He swallows, looking conflicted. “There may be a… new development.”

“What kind of development?”

After a brief second of hesitation and a glance down at Luke, he finally concedes and waves me further inside. I shut the door and hurry across the room so I can see what’s open on Luke’s laptop, but it’s all just a bunch of coding screens, which mean nothing to me. Christian must see that because when I look up at him, he starts explaining without me having to prompt him.

“He’s still trying to trace the account the wire transfer ended up in. In the meantime, he’s been going back through everything he had on the club from his investigation last year, hoping to find something or someone that will lead us to him, and he found an email address. The one that belongs to  the person who had been sending photographs of you to TMZ last year. The owner of that account received a $10 million dollar transfer this morning.”

“Like a payment?” I check, and Christian nods.

I pause, thinking back to the lunch I had with Luke last year while we were still trying to figure out what Elena was doing behind the shield of her beauty salons. Whoever had taken pictures of me at that sex shop with Kate, and at the club with Luke, had forwarded them to the media through an anonymous email address.

“Jane Doe,” I say blankly. “So, who is she?”

“Well, she banks at Washington Federal.”

“So does half of Seattle. That doesn’t tell us who she is.”

“Hopefully that’s where this new information comes into play. There isn’t much in the email account, it looks like it’s been mostly inactive over the last year, except for this large dollar transfer. He just emptied his offshore account, it’s got to be from him. With this email, we have the last four digits of her account number, so Luke can trace it and get a real name and hopefully use her to take us right to him.”

“It’s got to be Elena Lincoln, right?” Kommer says. “Taylor briefed me on everything that happened last year between our camp and Elena Lincoln, she was trying to oust Ana. She’s the only person who had motive to go after her. It has to be Elena.”

“Why would Gresham transfer ten million dollars to a dead woman?” Christian asks.

“I don’t know. Maybe the transfer was set up before she was killed. Maybe the prison riot was legitimate, not a story to cover up his plan, and he wasn’t expecting to lose her. Or maybe she isn’t really dead… Has anyone actually verified that? Perhaps that’s where we should be devoting our attention.”

“No, it’s not Elena Lincoln,” I say, shaking my head. “That’s how we found out about the club. We started by trying to connect her to this account and we couldn’t. It’s not her.”

Luke snaps twice and points at me, signifying I’m on the same train of thought he is, and Kommer frowns.

“A submissive then? Miss Grey said this guy was involved in her BDSM club and that he had a favorite girl. Maybe that girl is Jane Doe. We have a name, Alexis Young. We should go after her.”

“Maybe,” Christian agrees. “It’s a place to start. Sawyer, how long will it take for you to get me information on Alexis Young?”

To my surprise, Luke pulls his hands off the keyboard and turns to Christian in frustration. “You’re going to have to prioritize. I can’t trace the original wire transfer, hack Jane Doe, monitor for any sign of Gresham’s activity, put together a dossier on a Alexis Young, and run security for Ana. Not in these time frames.”

“So, we cancel my event tonight,” I suggest, but Christian shakes his head.

“No. I promised you that I wouldn’t let any of this detract from your moment, and I intend on keeping that promise.”

“I’m fine, Christian. It’s more important that Luke is here working on all of this than watching over me at a stupid book party. I mean, there’s going to be a ton of people there, security’s not going to be easy anyway…”

“No, it’s not…” Luke says, suddenly sitting up. “So, that’ll be his move.”

“What?” Christian asks. “That public?”

“Yeah. In this case, the crowd might work for him. Make it easier for him and his people to hide. Ana’s right. Security is going to be tough with only the two of us and there are plenty of opportunities to get inside Columbia Tower with the caterers, florists, or whatever other outside vendors they’ve hired. Hell, he may even have been able to get one of his people, who ever is left, into the event security Random House hired.”

Christian and I exchange nervous glances.

“I don’t know…” Kommer asks. “He may be thinking he can hide, but in the end more people just means more witnesses. I would think he’d choose something more prive. Or maybe the reason we can’t find him is because he’s already gone. He has the money, why risk losing it?”

Christian shakes his head. “Because he’s put too much into this to just quit. Besides, he’s still paying people, remember? Jane Doe wouldn’t have gotten $10 million if he was gone.”

“So we cancel,” I re-affirm, but Luke looks up at me hesitantly.

“If Gresham is going to be there, this could be a shot. Maybe our last shot.” He turns back to Christian. “And we’re not necessarily alone. There’s always… what we talked about last night.”

“Last night?” I ask, furrowing my brow and glancing between them with confusion. But Christian doesn’t look at me. His eyes stay focused on Sawyer for a long beat and then he takes a breath and begins to nod.

“Alright, Luke I want you to send everything you have so far to Welch and have him take over. His priority is to find Gresham. Once we know where he is, none of this other shit will matter.”

“Yes, sir,” Luke says.

“Kommer, you’ll be staying here tonight.”

“Here? Sir?”

He nods to the baby in my arms, who is currently playing with the ends of my hair. “We’re not bringing Calliope to Ana’s event and I’m not going to leave her without security. We’re covering all of our bases. If anything out of the ordinary happens, anything, you get Calli and Ava into the panic room and call Hsu. Understand?”

“Sir, we’re already understaffed and I think that if we’re going to make a play on Gresham I’d be better suited…”

Christian cuts him off. “Do you understand?”

Kommer tenses and takes a breath. “Yes, sir.”

“Good. I’ll call Hsu now and tell them what we know so we can be prepared for tonight. And…” He pauses again and looks at Luke. “And we’ll greenlight plan B.”

“Yes, sir.”

“What should I do?”

Christian looks up to me and his expression softens. “Nothing. You just focus on fulfilling your obligations with Random House and enjoying your night.”

“Christian…”

He gets out of his chair and comes to me, placing each one of his hands on either side of my face so that I’m forced to look into the depths of his warm, gray eyes.

“This is just the beginning for you, Ana. I know you can’t see past Gresham right now, but I can. I know that tonight, you are going to secure that number one spot and it’s going to launch your very long and full career. I want you to experience every moment of that. I want to experience that with you. We’re going to take care of everything else. You just focus on enjoying this and taking everything in. You’ve earned it.”

I try to protest, but he leans down over Calliope and kisses me, effectively silencing me. The moment our lips touch Luke closes the lid of his laptop and taps Kommer with the back of his hand. “And… that’s our cue to leave.”

They both push their chairs away from Christian’s desk and I glance over my shoulder to watch them discretely leave the room. The moment the door closes, I turn back to the handsome man standing before me and stare up into his warm gray eyes.

“Did you need something?” he asks.

“Oh… no. Calli laughed.We were playing on the dining room floor and she laughed. I wanted you to see it.”

“What?” He smiles and lean down to Calliope’s level in my arms, reaching out to tickle her tummy. “Is your mommy funny?”

She doesn’t laugh this time, she simply stares up at her daddy with wide, wonder filled eyes, and I deflate.

“Of course she won’t do it now…”

He sighs and stands up to face me again. “It’s alright. Are you finished with your interviews?”

“Almost. I should go make sure that Kate isn’t telling the entire internet about the time I puked on the rollercoaster at the Puyallup Fair and maybe try to fit in one last plug for my book, but once I’m done with that, I’ll need to start getting ready for tonight. Do you want to take a shower?”

He raises an eyebrow. “With you?”

I wink and then turn to leave his office, sashaying my behind back and forth as I walk to the door. His low chuckle follows me into the hallway and while I make my way back to the great room, I quickly run through everything I want to say about Escape at the end of this AMA so I can get him naked in the shower as soon as possible.

 

When the clock finally rolls around to 7:30 that night, my stomach is tight with nerves. I’ve been to dozens of big black tie events over the last year, but they all centered around Christian. It was his job to make the good impression, it was his job to say all the right things and speak to all the right people. It was his job to captivate the room and push his agenda. Tonight, it’s all on me. I don’t know who Random House thinks they’re putting out there, or why this was a good idea, but I’ve never been great in front of crowds. People are Christian’s strong suit, not mine. I do my best when I’m completely alone, with a book or an open laptop as my only company, and as I once again glance over the section of my book Lydia has pre-highlighted for me to read, I find myself wishing that I would have negotiated a little harder with Random House. Surely, the party and the music and the food is enough to leave people with good feelings about my book and boost sales. I can’t imagine me reading or not reading will make that big of an impact.

There’s a sound behind me as the bedroom door opens and I turn to watch Christian sauntering out into the great room, clearly still in a good mood from this afternoon’s activities. He’s dressed in a simple but immaculately tailored black tuxedo and his hair is in just the perfect amount of disarray to make him look simultaneously well put together and like the sexiest man alive.

“Well?” he asks, holding his hands out to his side and turning to give me the full view of his tux.

“You look damn fine, Grey.”

“Good.” He moves towards me and takes me into his arms. “Because I’m taking my job as the arm candy for my extraordinarily brilliant, talented, and successful wife very, very seriously.”

I laugh and then lean up to kiss him softly on the lips. “Is everything ready for tonight? With Gresham, I mean…”

“Uh-uh,” he chides me. “I told you not to worry about any of that. This is all I want you to focus on, Ana.”

“Well that would be easier to do if I at least knew the plan!”

“Everything is under control. Tonight, this all comes to an end and you are going to get your number one spot. We’ll have a lot to celebrate when we return and I think I know just the way…” He pulls me tighter against his body and then kisses me once more, his lips soft but persistent as his tongue moves into my mouth. I moan while his heat washes over me and am pleased to discover it’s calming effects. By the time he releases me, the butterflies swarming furiously inside my stomach have stopped and my confidence has returned in full swing. He’s right. We are going to have a lot to celebrate. After tonight, we’re going to get our lives back, and with this book party, I’m going to ensure that we return to normalcy on exactly the right foot.

 

Luke is already waiting for us in the SUV downstairs and as we climb into the back seat and Christian helps me gather the skirt of the long black Alexander McQueen gown that I was supposed to wear for the GEH New Year’s Eve Ball last winter, I can’t help but notice the almost cold kind of intensity radiating off my CPO. He’s focused, ready, and it’s just another reminder that, as much as Christian wants it to be, tonight isn’t just about me.

The thought does nothing to quell my nerves.

The traffic is fairly light getting across town, until we come within a few blocks of Columbia Tower and we try to merge into the line of cars on their way to the party. My party. I can’t help but keep track of the surprising number of people flooding up the carpet that’s lined with photographers and into the main doors. People that I’m going to have to get up in front of and speak to… Again, my stomach clenches with dread.

“This is it,” Christian says, squeezing my hand as we come to a stop. “Are you ready?”

“As much as I’m going to be.”

He leans over and kisses me on the cheek.  “You’re going to be fine. Better than that, you’re going to be remarkable. Just enjoy this, okay?” I nod nervously and he smiles, but when Luke comes around to open my door, he tugs my hand to keep me from climbing out and leans over to whisper in my ear. “Stay close to me. Don’t move out of my sight.”

I tighten my fingers around his and then take a deep breath as I step out of the car. Immediately, there’s a commotion of lights and the shouts of photographers, which I’m used to from all of the GEH events I’ve attended, except that this time, they’re calling my name. Lydia rushes up beside me and issues rapid fire instructions as we begin walking towards the line of photographers, but I hardly hear a word she says. I can pick out the word smile, so that’s what I focus on. Keeping the rising panic off my face and smiling.

Christian is a lifesaver. His hands around my waist guide me to look in the direction of each photograph we have to pose for, and his constant reassurances at least get me through the front doors of the building thinking I didn’t make a complete fool out of myself. We follow Lydia to the lobby just outside of the main ballroom, the same ballroom we were in for the Governor’s Ball last summer, but I don’t have time to ruminate over that because we’re immediately drug around the crowd of people to mingle with Seattle’s elite. Thankfully, Christian already knows most of everyone who’s here so there aren’t many awkward introductions, but he’s also good about ensuring the conversation never strays to business or GEH or even the charity projects our foundation has launched. He always turns the focus back to me, and the number of times I hear him praising my work never fails to make me smile.  

“Making the rounds for the wife tonight, huh Grey?” a man in a crisp blue suit asks, stepping forward and holding his hand out for Christian.

“Proudly,” he replies. “I’m counting on her being successful enough with this book that I can retire.”

The man lets out a strange laugh and then shakes his head. “Any news on the partnership with Microsoft you’re trying to put together for the GEH Ag-Sci expansion?”

“It’s still in the works.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard Ballman’s a real hard ass. Bailey’s on that deal right?”

“Yes she is.”

“So you have your wife paying the bills and your cute little redhead running your company? With all this free time you have on your hands, one would think you’d have a better record on the lower nine…”

Christian let’s out a harsh breath that I think is supposed to be a laugh, but the way his eyes darken tell me that he doesn’t find any humor in what this man has said.

“You’d think so, but I’ve found other ways to occupy my time than golf. You’re working with Kittinger on a steel contract for your Belltown development, right?”

“I am,” he replies, with mild surprise. “How did you know about that?”

“Oh, I’ve got a deal going with Kittinger myself. It’s not a contract, per se, it’s more of an… acquisition.” The man’s face falls and Christian smiles. “I’m really looking forward to seeing your presentation. That contract is the only thing keeping you from filing chapter seven, right? I’m sure the proposal you’ve planned to save your company will be riveting.

“I-I-”

“I’m sorry, if you’ll excuse us. My wife, the New Times’ bestseller, has several people to speak with tonight. But I’ll see you Thursday, Bill. And don’t worry, it won’t be Bailey who shows up.”

“Uh-I–”

Christian pulls gently on my hand to steer me away from the man still stammering behind us and as he picks up a flute of champagne from the tray offered to him by a waiter, I raise an eyebrow at him.

“So… he’s kind of a dick.”

“Yes. He is.” He lifts the glass to take a sip but as his eyes scan the crowd he stops and then slowly lowers the rim away from his lips. “I’ll be right back. Stay right here. Don’t go anywhere.”

“What?”

He slips his flute into my hand and then maneuvers around me through the crowd. As I watch him go, I realize he’s moving towards Luke, who glances nervously around the room until Christian comes up to him. It looks as though he only has time to get half a sentence out before Christian becomes visibly angry and they start arguing, but I don’t get the chance to try and decipher what they’re talking about before Lydia slips her hand into my elbow to get my attention.

“Alright, they’re just about to seat everyone for dinner. One of the Random House executives is going to go up on stage first and say a few words about Escape and how well it’s done and then she’ll introduce you for your reading. Are you ready?”

“I uh…”

“Lydia!”

We both turn and see the woman from HarperCollins, the one who was in the meeting when I signed my deal, waving us over to her. Lydia smiles and hooks her arm through mine, but as she drags me towards the side entrance into the ballroom, I turn back and look for Christian. I don’t see him, but Luke is coming towards me.

“What was that?” I hiss.

“Nothing. Everything is fine.”

“Luke!” I pull my arm out of Lydia’s grip and motion that I’ll follow after her, then pull Luke to the side so we’re relatively isolated. “Tell me what’s going on.”

“We have it under control, Ana…”

“Luke, I swear to god…”

“Fine.” His mouth mashes together into a tight line as he glances over my shoulder and then leans in closer to me. “I was right about security. Random House hired event security to supplement the team Columbia Tower had on staff in order accommodate a party this size and he was able to get his people in. They’ve got a whole plan in place. There’s a timed device on the main sprinkler system set to trigger the fire alarm and drive everyone outside. It was the job of his security team to usher you and Grey through the back, out those doors.” He points. “There’s a hall that leads to a back alley where there would be a car waiting for you. Gresham’s car.”

“How do you know this?”

“We found who he’d planted and got them to talk.”

I look at him with horror and immediately glance down at his hands, expecting his knuckles to be bloody, the way they were after he’d cornered Hyde in my dressing room in New York, but they aren’t. He doesn’t look disheveled at all.

“How? I thought… I thought everyone we’d gotten to had rehearsed answers.”

“Well, we have more resources now than we did before. More… persuasive resources.”

“The FBI?”

“Ana!” I turn as see Lydia looking at me, furiously waving me in through the door. I respond with an apologetic smile and hold up one finger before turning back to Luke.

“So we have Gresham then? He’s in custody?”

He shakes his head. “The moment we came through that back door, the car took off. Hsu’s on it. They’ve got a license plate number, a description of the car, and agents all over this city looking for him. The airport is shut down and the Washington Transportation Department has been alerted so he can’t board a ferry. There’s no where he can run. We’re going to find him. Tonight. It’s under control, I promise.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Ana!” Lydia hisses again. Luke pushes me gently towards her and I give her a sheepish look as we pass and enter the ballroom, but it’s hard to feel guilty for lagging behind even though the speaker from RandomHouse has already started. My heart is pounding, though I don’t know if that’s because of fear, anxiety, or excitement… We stopped him. At last, we were able to stop him before he could pull off one of his plans and now he’s on the run and we’re right behind him. We finally have the upper hand.

I slip into my chair at the table right in front of the stage and take the book I’ll be reading out of from Lydia. My fingers tap impatiently against the cover while I try and force myself to focus on the speaker, but I’m too hyper aware of Luke seated in the chair next to me. I know he has an earpiece in so he’s in contact with whoever is chasing Gresham down and all I want to do is stare at him and glean what I can from his expression. My knees bounce beneath the table and I’m chewing impatiently on the inside of my cheek, wishing Christian would come back from wherever he is and just tell me that it’s over.

Suddenly, the room around me erupts into applause and when I look up, I see the speaker and everyone around my table staring at me expectantly.

“Go,” Lydia whispers.

With a deep breath, I curl my fingers around the book in my hands and get up from my chair. Luke ghosts behind me, shadowing every step I take on my way up to the stage, and as I stand at the podium, trembling before the hundreds of pairs of eyes staring up at me, he subtly reaches forward and squeezes my hand.

“You’ve got this.”

I nod, and then force myself to smile. “Good evening, and thank you all for coming out tonight to help us celebrate the launch of my very first novel, Escape.” There’s applause again, giving me one last chance to glance back at Luke before I thank the necessary people and begin my reading. Part of me is hoping to draw one last bit of confidence from his reassuring demeanor, but when I turn, I see that he isn’t looking at me. He’s staring straight ahead, and when I follow his gaze I see why. There’s one door left open to the ballroom, and through it,  I can see Christian pacing in the lobby on his phone.

As I introduce the part of my book that I’ll be reading, giving context, I keep my eyes locked on Christian and wait for any kind of sign that they have Gresham. But there’s nothing before I have to start reading, and so I start the highlighted passage and pause every chance I get to check on my husband, hoping it comes across as dramatic rather than distracted.

The mountain is much steeper than I anticipated and I don’t have the equipment required to make the climb. Only my hands, and the shoes that are more suited for running than scaling a cliffside. But I didn’t choose this obstacle because it was easy, I chose it because I needed something grand to conquer on my own.”

I glance up, but nothing yet.

The rock is slick with snow and melting ice, making each ledge and hand hold a dangerous opportunity to fall, and yet I climb. The warmth of spring that is so omnipresent below is absent here, and the chill of winter nips not only at the tip of my nose and fingers, but at the inside of my lungs. Each heaving breath I take as I reach for one rock after another burns like only ice can, and yet I climb.”

Still nothing.

Hand over foot, higher and higher until the ground is no longer a safe distance beneath me. I’m single minded in my journey up the mountainside, refusing to let the fear of the fall slow me down. There are unsettled pebbles and dust that cascade down over the top of me, making me question the stability of the rock that is the only thing to keep me from falling, and yet I climb.

He’s stopped pacing. He’s frozen in front of the door, absorbed in his call…

At long last, my reach extends beyond the face of the mountain and instead digs down into the soft earth of the summit. With just the strength of my fingers, I pull myself up over the edge, like pulling myself out of the grave, and finally leave behind the pain and crushing sense of loss. As I stand on the precipice of the mountain, I’m free. Every tree littered across the mountain side is it’s own victory. Every rock, every blade of grass, even the crisp air that blows through my hair, it’s all my triumph. I did this, without her, and as I tilt my face up toward the sun and allow its rays to warm my face…”

I glance up and watch Christian’s body relax. His face slowly breaks into a wide smile and when he looks back into the ballroom, he flashes a thumbs up at Luke. I let out an audible gasp, like I’ve been holding my breath for far too long, and as warm relief floods through my veins, I turn back to the book and read through my widening smile.

I know that I’m going to be okay. That life will go on from here and that that life will be worth living.”

Applause breaks out again and I beam out at the crowd in front of me, feeling just like I did when I made the very climb I just read about. Like I’m on top of the world. Months of fear vanishes in an instant, leaving me unburdened and giddy. It’s over. We can once again finally breathe, and in this moment of victory, all I can think about is getting to the people that I love and holding them as close as possible, knowing they’re safe at long last.

Lydia steps up beside me to take over at the podium and I smile as I move back to my table and set the book down at my place setting. Luke pulls my chair out for me, but I don’t sit. Instead, I take a drink of my champagne and then nod to the door at the side of the ballroom where the two of us can slink back through the darkness in the room and out to the main hall as inconspicuously as possible.

Christian’s there to meet us the second we come through the doors and I actually let out a small laugh as he lifts me into the air and spins me around. When my feet touch the ground again, his lips come crashing down on mine.

“They have him?”

He nods. “They traced him back at his apartment, he barricaded himself inside. SWAT is on the way and they have him cornered. There’s no way out. We’ve got him.” His smile widens. “We’ve got him.”

“Thank god.” I wrap my arms around his neck and kiss him again, deeply, and with much more ardor than is appropriate for a public setting. He doesn’t pull back, he meets me with the same enthusiasm until Luke coughs behind us.

“Take me home,” I whisper against his lips.

“Your party…”

“I don’t care. I want see Calliope. I want to look at her in her crib and know that she’s safe, and then I just want to be with you. Like you said, we have a lot to celebrate and I don’t want to do that with strangers.”

He cups my face in the palms of his hands and stares down into my eyes, mirroring my own joy and adoration, and nods.

“I want that too. Come, let’s go home.”

My fingers entwine with his as he tugs me towards the door and as I glance back at Luke behind me, he rolls his eyes but smiles and follows after us.

 

By the time we pull into the garage under Escala, Christian’s hand is tangled in my hair and his lips are ravaging mine. I can feel the change in his body. He moves so much easier and there’s no tension in his kiss. Just bliss, and love, and the sweet taste of happiness.

Luke stops the SUV before the elevator and when Christian glances up at him, he starts nodding.

“I know, I know…. Give you an hour.”

“Thank you, Sawyer.” Christian replies. I offer him a grateful smile as Christian pulls me from the back of the SUV but he’s only able to briefly smile in return before his phone rings and he has to reach down to retrieve it.  

Once the elevator doors open, Christian sweeps me inside and immediately punches in the code before pressing me into the wall and attacking me again. His hands are all over me and I gasp when his lips part from mine and move down my neck. He doesn’t even wait until we’re released into the apartment before his fingers reach for the zipper on the back of my dress and he starts to pull it down so he has access to my breasts.

“When we get upstairs,” he whispers into my cleavage. “You go check on the baby and I’ll pick out the toys we’re going to need. Once I have you alone in our bed, I’m going to fuck you like a madman.”

I moan and then twist my fingers in hair, tugging slightly until I hear his breath hiss between his teeth and he nips at the swell of my breast. The elevator pings, announcing our arrival, and I smile as the doors pull back to reveal that the apartment is pitch black. There’s no one awake to catch us in the act, so the moment my feet hit the marble of the foyer, I let my dress fall to the floor.

“Fuck,” Christian breathes in approval. The doors close, taking with them our only source light, so when he reaches down and slaps my ass, it’s a surprise and it makes me shriek. He hums in pleasure as he massages the sting away from my skin with his hand. “Hurry. The longer you keep me waiting, the harder I’m going to spank you.”

I bite my bottom lip with anticipation and squeal again as I twist out of his arms and hurry across the foyer toward the great room. Unfortunately, in the dark, I’m unable to see the unexpected something lying in the middle of the floor and I trip, falling hard against cool marble.

“Shit, Ana!”

The fall is more painful than I’m prepared for. My face smacks against the floor and the force seems to reverberate through my teeth. My first fear is that I may have broken my nose because that’s where a lot of the pain is focused so I reach up to cup my face, whimpering, but I’m surprised that when I touch my skin, my hand is wet.

“What in the world?”

Christian fumbles along the wall for only second to find the light switch, but once he’s flicked it on and the room is flooded in bright, white light, my eyes widen in horror. My hands are covered in deep red blood. At first, I think it’s from my fall. That maybe I did break my nose and that I’m bleeding, but as I start to shake and look down at the ground beneath me, I realize there’s far too much blood around me to becoming from my nose.

“Holy shit,” Christian whispers in shock. “Ana–”

I look back at the thing that caused me to fall and am unable to hold back my scream. Ava is staring back at me, her green eyes open but unseeing in her extremely pale face. The puddle of blood on the ground is coming from her.

“Oh my god!” My voice shakes as I scramble off the ground, drenched in the blood of our nanny, but as Christian grabs a hold of me and tries to push me to the elevator, I hear the soft cry of my daughter come from the living room.

“Calliope!”

His hands tighten around me. “I’ll get her. You go…”

“No. Christian!”

I twist out of his grip and sprint through the arch into the great room, towards our daughter’s cries, and as I look through the dark room trying to find her, I hear the sound of lamp switching on and the room is flooded with light. Both Christian and I freeze, but we can’t see whoever it is in the room with us because they’re in a chair turned towards the windows. However, we can hear them cooing softly at our baby.

“She really is so beautiful,” a woman’s voice says. “You should be proud of that.”

“What do you want?” Christian asks. Whoever it is let’s out a breathy laugh and begins to turn. Once she’s fully facing us, her face breaks into a wide, arrogant smile.

“Where do I begin?”

Bile creeps up my throat and into my mouth, my body trembles, and my breath seems to leave my body all at once. It’s like my mind can’t comprehend what I’m seeing because I know who she is, but she shouldn’t be here. She shouldn’t be sitting carelessly in the middle of my living room with my baby tucked in one arm and a gun dangling lazily from one finger in her other hand.

Thankfully, Christian doesn’t seem as stunned as I am because he steps forward and positions his body between her and me, and then slowly reaches out towards her.

“Give me the baby, Gia.”

Next Chapter

A day in the life

Hi everyone.

Let’s have our very first fireside chat, shall we?

tenor

Cozy? Good.

So this last week, I was obviously behind on posting. I finished the last chapter on Wednesday, and posted the same day. That meant that the first day I could start chapter 47 was Thursday, which was coincidentally the day I got to go to the emergency room.

Unfortunately, my body hates me and I’ve spent the last few days on opiates. For those of you who have never taken opiate (as was the case for me before this week) let me tell you about some of the fun things I learned.

  1. They make you itch like you have the freakin’ chicken pox. Everywhere. What even in the…?
  2. They work really fast. Great if you’re in pain, bad if you’re hoping to get something done before you conk out, which leads me to…
  3. The sleep. Since Thursday afternoon, I have been awake only a total of MAAAAYBE 16 hours. I literally am astounded by the amount I’ve slept. Apparently, I’m a lightweight.

This morning I woke up feeling great. I was sure the worst was over and I was going to force myself to write an entire chapter in one day AND watch the Seahawks. I was even feeling so good that I decided I could go grocery shopping with my husband (to ensure he didn’t come home with an $100 worth of IPA beer and sunflower seeds).

But there, in the middle of the aisle of my local neighborhood Safeway, the pain struck again and now I’m home in bed looking down the long orange tube of an Rx bottle. So, here’s the deal. I’m still going to try and finish this chapter today. I got a good start this morning, so I’m hoping momentum will get me through. But if the pain killers win and manage to knock me out once again, I’m probably going to be late posting this week.

Wish me luck.

And wish my husband luck, because if I end up sleeping the Seahawks vs. Texans, my house is not going to be a place you want to be for the next week…

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xoxo

WishingMrGreyWasHere

Chapter 46

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It takes two days to get a loved ones ashes back from the crematorium. That’s something I know now. After meeting with the cheap estate lawyer my mother had used to draw up a will when she and Bob moved to Georgia, we learned that it was her wish to be cremated and that her ashes be spread over the sound in Seattle.

She’s left everything to Bob, minus some jewelry that had belonged to my grandmother and an old antique hope chest that she wanted me to have. He argued with me at first and said that my mother’s things should go to me since the will had been written before their separation, but under the circumstances I’d rather he make the decisions over what to do about the things that are all that remain of the life they had together. I don’t need her things. Things don’t bring her back and looking at them is too painful. Still, both he and Christian are insistent that I at least go through what’s left in the house before we leave to make sure there’s absolutely nothing of hers that I want to keep. So, on our last night in Georgia, Kate comes with me to my mother’s home and helps me sort through everything.

“Oh my god,” she says with amazement as she makes her way deeper into my mother’s closet. “I just got to the nineties.”

I sigh. “She never threw anything away. Except husbands, I guess.”

Kate frowns, but pulls out an azure colored power suit with over the top shoulder pads sewn in. “Awh, I remember this! Didn’t she wear this to our kindergarten graduation?”

“Yeah. Donate it.”

“What? Are you sure?”

I look away from her so she can’t see the tears welling in my eyes and quickly shake my head. “Yeah, I’m sure. I don’t need it so just donate it.”

“Well, I know you don’t need it, but don’t you want it? Something to remember her by?”

Her words wash over me and I can’t stop the grief that bubbles up inside of me. My face crinkles with pain and I break down into tears on my mother’s bed.

“Shit, Ana. I’m sorry.” The dress falls out of her hands and she crawls onto the bed next to me to wrap me in her arms. I try as best I can to pull back the tears, but now that the dam is broken, there’s no way to call back the flood.

“I don’t want to do this anymore.”

“Okay, we’ll take a break.”

I shake my head. “No, I don’t want to do it at all. Just get rid of everything, okay? I don’t want any of this stuff.” After a few calming breaths, I untangle myself from her arms and sit upright again, wiping the tears from my face and trying desperately to hang on to some form of composure. “I’m fine. I just want to throw everything away and get out of here. I’m fine.”

She watches me wearily as I climb off the bed and start to gather the things I had previously decided to take, a blanket she’d crocheted when I was a baby and has been around as long as I can remember, the jewelry box, and a sweatshirt that says Harvard Mom, and while I struggle to put the items into the oversized canvas bag I’ve brought along, she reaches out to stop me.

“Ana, you’re allowed to grieve. You don’t have to put on this strong front… no one would ever accuse you of being weak.”

“I’m not. I’m fine.”

“Ana…”

“I just don’t want to talk about it, okay? I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to think about this and I don’t want to feel this. I can’t handle it, so I’m just not going to. I’m not going to do this.”

“I don’t think it works that way, Ana. You can’t just skip grief.”

“Watch me.”

“Annie?” We turn towards the sound of my father’s knuckles rapping against the door frame and the second I see the look on his face, I once again have to fight the dry ache in my throat and the sting of impending tears in my eyes.

“I’ll just give you two a minute…” Kate says. She squeezes my hand and then moves to leave the room, but at the door, she pauses and leans up on her toes to whisper something in my dad’s ear. He nods and then steps aside so she can leave. Once she’s gone, he closes the door and comes to me. He’s holding a book, but I can’t see what it is because his arms open like he’s going to hug me, and I immediately have to move out of his reach.

“Don’t…” I warn him. “Please, don’t. I can’t cry anymore and that’s all you’re going to do, so please don’t.”

“It’s okay to cry, Annie. It’s okay to be sad. You should be. I know that it’s been rough for you two for a while, but I know that you loved your mother and that she loved you.” He takes a deep breath to quell his own emotion. “I know how hard this is for you.”

“No you don’t. I’m sorry, but no you don’t. The last time I spoke to her, I told her that I didn’t want her in my life anymore. I told we were done and then I asked my CPO to take her out of the room and out of my life. She died thinking I hated her, Dad. And I did.” My voice breaks on the last word and I have to sit back on the bed to keep myself from falling to the ground. “I did because I was so angry I couldn’t give her the time to explain herself. And when she reached out to me and tried to tell me what had happened, when she wrote to me trying to warn me of what was coming, I ignored her. I didn’t even read those letters until it was too late. I’m never going to be able to take that back, Dad. Mom died thinking I hated her.”

“No.” He chokes over the word as he begins shaking his head and wiping away his own tears. “No, she died thinking you had tried save her.”

He sits on the bed next to me and I immediately fall into him, letting him wrap me in the warm embrace that has comforted so many of my fears and heartaches over the years, yearning for it to do just that now.

“Why did this have to happen? I’m not ready to let her go. There’s so much she’s going to miss and that I’m not going to be able to share with her. Calliope will never know her. She won’t be there for her first birthday, she won’t see her first step or hear her first word… She’s gone, and I’m never going to see her again. What if… what if I forget her?”

“You won’t. Not ever.” I sniff and he hugs me tighter to him and kisses my temple before pulling me back so he can look me in the eye. “Come here, I want to show you something.”

I nod and move into the center of her bed while he pulls back the comforter and crawls in beside me. As I nestle down into his side, my mother’s smell surrounds me. I pause to breathe it in as deeply as possible, ignoring how tight it makes my throat feel, and try to memorize everything about it. It’s undoubtedly the first thing that will be lost to me in her absence, so I cling to it.

“Bob and I were going through your mother’s trunks and we found this.” He pulls the book he was carrying and places it on his lap in front of the both of us. As I look down at it, I realize that it’s a photo album. “There’s a lot of good stuff in here.”

He opens the cover to the first page, revealing pictures of the day I was born scattered across the black cardstock. My mom looks so young in these pictures, and extremely exhausted. My biological father was deployed, in fact, he died the day after this, so it’s my grandmother who leans down next to her in the only photo here that isn’t just of the two of us. The two of us. That’s how my life started. Just her and me. And the look on her face as she stares down at me in her arms in each and every faded photo makes my chest ache. There’s love there. Unrelenting, true love, which I recognize because it’s the way I feel when I look at my own daughter.

He turns the page and suddenly Ray is in our lives. This must have been after they were married because I look almost a year old in these photos, and as I stare at both my mother and father’s hair and clothes that are the late eighties personified, I can’t hold back my laugh.

“I still have those pants, you know,” my dad says, pointing at a pair of authentic parachute pants with some kind of chaotic black and white pattern spread across them.

“I can’t believe you ever wore those!” I giggle. He flashes a broad grin at me.

“Your mother bought them for me. She was very MTV back then and…” he sighs. “Oh, there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t have done for her. Look how happy we were.” He points at a photo in the corner of the three of us. It looks like they’re trying their damndest to take a good family photo, but I’m perched on Ray’s hip and far too interested in taking his sunglasses to look at the camera. My mom looks beside herself with laughter while Ray clutches his sunglasses against his face and tries to move out of the reach of my tiny little hand.

It’s the perfect picture, encapsulating the way I remember my life felt before Ray found out about the affair my mom had when I was fifteen, their subsequent divorce, and her disastrous marriage to Stephen. I’d forgotten this and how much I’d idolized her when I was a child, probably because of the resentment I harbored against her when Ray left. But it wasn’t always like that. She was amazing, and she worked as hard as she could to make sure I had a wonderful childhood. The evidence of that is spread across these pages.

We flip through photos of old vacations, holidays, and picnics in the park. My dad takes the time to reminisce over each and every memory and shares with me every one of the stories that are tied to the pictures here. I listen eagerly to everything he has to say and as we laugh together over a picture of my mom screaming and running away from a fish on the end of Ray’s pole, a welcome sense of peace crosses over me.

This is how people move past this. The hopelessness that’s had me spiraling between anger and overwhelming pain is all because I can’t handle the thought that I’ve lost her forever. That I’m never going to see or speak to her ever again. But she isn’t lost. She’s here, on these pages. She’s in the sixteen years of stories and memories I share with my dad, and the six more years of memories I have without him. And, as I listen to his stories and hear the side of things I never got as a child, I realize that she’s actually in every decision I make, everything I stand up for, and in the way I treat and love the people around me. Because she’s in me. She made me the person that I am. I’ve learned from her mistakes, and from her triumphs, and her guidance has not only made me a better person, but it’s going to make me a better mother too.

“Thank you, Daddy,” I say, cuddling into his side and wrapping my arms around him as tightly as I can.

“You’re welcome, sweetheart. There’s more of these out in the living room, I think you should keep them. That way, when you’re sad or you miss your mom….” His face morphs with pain and he leans back for a second, looking up and away from me to try and hold back his own tears. He can’t though, and when he speaks again, his voice is strained and a tear rolls from the corner of his eye down his stubbled cheek. “Call me, okay? And we’ll look through these together.”

I nod and bury my face in his chest, but I don’t have the chance to fall apart all over again because my phone rings from the place where it’s resting at the bottom of the bed.

“That’s probably Christian. I left him alone with Calliope.”

“Uh oh.” My dad laughs and releases me so I can pick up the phone, but when I look down at the screen, it isn’t Christian’s name I see displayed there.

“Shit, it’s Lydia…”

“Lydia?”

“My book agent. Crap, I’m probably going to be sued by Random House for abandoning my book tour.” I take a deep breath, steeling myself, and answer the call. “Hi, Lydia.”

“Ana, you darling girl. You’ve done it!”

“Done what?”

“I just got the email, Escape is going to debut at number three on the New York Times’ bestseller list.”

“Wait… what?”

“Apparently, all of this press from leaving at the very beginning of your tour for this family emergency has drummed up a ton of interest in you, and by proxy, your book. You’ve moved 14,000 copies in the past four days..”

“14,000 copies? Of my book? Oh my god. That’s amazing!”

“Yes. Yes it is. But we can’t lose momentum. I’ve spoken with Random House and they’re willing to cancel the rest of your scheduled publicity tour if you sit down through a press junket to give some written interviews, do an AMA, and attend one public black tie party where they can invite a ton of fabulous people and the press and have you do one reading.”

“Oh, um…”

“It’ll be in Seattle. I was at least able to ensure everything would come to you so you didn’t have to travel and be away from your family while you’re dealing with all of this.”

I sigh and let my head drop back as I consider the request. In Seattle or not, this isn’t good timing. We still have so much unresolved and a big public event presents a certain amount of danger. Especially in Seattle. Or… maybe the fact that it is so public would make it okay? Last March, when I was leaving the hospital, Taylor said the press was my friend. No one would attack me with cameras pointed directly at me at all times, and that’s exactly what this would be. It gets me out of the lengthy tour obligation, keeps me home so our security isn’t spread out, and it gives me the chance to celebrate this life long dream that, in light of everything else, has felt like nothing more than an asterisk mark to all other drama on my life.

“Okay,” I agree hastily. “Let’s do it.”

“Oh, good. I’m so glad you agreed because it’s already been planned. Your book party will take place at the Columbia Center in downtown Seattle on Saturday night. Eight o’clock.”

“Saturday? Lydia, it’s Thursday!”

“I know, but Random House is really trying to push you to number one by next week. Apparently Stephen King has some big novel coming out in the next few weeks and they’re afraid if we drag this out too long, that top spot is going to be stolen out from under you.”

I actually have to pause for a second and let those words wash off me before I can respond. She just used mine and Stephen King’s name in the same sentence… about the number one slot on the New York Times’ Bestseller List. My face breaks into a huge, uncontrollable smile that makes me glad she can’t see me through the phone.

“We’ll find a way to make it work. Thank you, Lydia.”

“No problem, Ana. I’ll see you Saturday. Oh! And, congratulations.”

“Thank you. Bye.” I hang up and the moment the phone is out of my hand, my dad pounces on me.

“So?”

“I’m a New York Times bestseller.”

“Annie!” I let out an elated laugh as he pulls me into his arms and rocks me back and forth. “This is the most amazing news! I’m so proud of you, baby girl.”

“Thanks, Dad.” I look up at him beaming down at me, but as I see the pride reflected in his eyes, the enormity of that phone call hits me. “Oh my god, I have so much to do… I need to get back to Seattle. I have to get a dress and figure out what to do with Calliope and… fuck, security. What am I going to do with Taylor being here? They said they can’t transport him back home until next week, and we haven’t gotten Mom’s ashes back yet. How am I going to get her ashes?”

“Don’t worry about all of that, that’s all just extra stuff that we’ll figure out along the way. You’ve got a good support network around you and we’ll help you with whatever we can. You just worry about enjoying this, Annie. This is your moment and after all you’ve been through, you deserve it.”

I smile. “Okay.”

“Good, then first things first. Let’s go tell your husband and get you back home.” He pulls the blanket back so I can climb out of bed, and I lean up to kiss him on the cheek before grabbing the album and scurrying from the room to where Luke is waiting in the living room. He’s plugged into his laptop, focusing hard on the screen as his fingers fly over the keyboard, and he’s so engrossed in whatever he’s doing that when I tap him on the shoulder, he jumps.

“Fuck,” he says, pulling an earbud out so he can focus on me. “You scared me.”

“Scared you?” I give him a hard look. “Keeping a real sharp eye out, huh?”

“Sorry, this is just taking me longer than I expected and it’s… frustrating.”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m trying to hack your husband.”

“My husband? Why?”

“Because log-ins can be traced and, if I’m right, I don’t want Gresham knowing we’re onto him.”  

I stare at him with confusion as he begins typing on his keyboard again, entering a long line of nonsensical code in a black text box and then watching the responding codes that follow.

“What are you talking about? What is this?”

“Grey asked me to find a link from Gresham to the plot against you and I have a hunch but…” He stops as his eyes begin scanning through the new code on the screen, and after inputting a few more lines of his own, there’s a slight disruption in the display and then a new screen pops up. It’s a portal to a bank account with a ridiculous number of zeros attached to the balance.

“Fuck… I’m right,” Luke says.

“What is that?”

“This is your husband’s Cayman Islands trust account. It’s the same kind of thing Gresham’s been using to hide his paper trail from us.”

“Why does he have $63 million in an offshore account?”

“Because he set it up for you, remember? When he thought there was a chance that he was going to prison last year?” I look down at the screen and try to remember that night, which is difficult because I’ve done everything I could to forget it. He told me there was money set aside for me and gave me a business card. My purse is on the sofa so I begin digging through it until I find my wallet, and in the mix of the dozen or so loyalty and rewards cards I have shoved in the folds, I find the crumpled up business card Christian gave to me should any of my information ever change. Embossed on the front in flat, silver typeface is the name Charles Gresham.

His name has been in my wallet this entire time.

“Wait, I thought he said there was $65 million in that account?” I glance up at Luke and toss him the card.

“There was.” He tilts the screen towards me so I can see the dozens of purchases for various amounts of money. $6,000, $1,800, $32,000, even $250,000. In total, over $2 million is missing and it all been paid to the same company. Limited LTD.

A chill washes over me as I hear Christian’s words from a past conversation echo through my head, ‘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.’

“Oh my god… That’s his company. Gresham’s. Limited LTD was the shell company he used to tie up the trust in Panama. He’s been paying people with Christian’s money.”

“Looks like it.”

There’s a knock on the door behind us, which makes Bob come out of the kitchen where he’s been sorting everything that is being shipped off to Goodwill later in the week. Luke and I fall silent as he opens the door, but relax when we see that it’s Christian who steps inside, holding a very wiggly Calliope in the crook of his arm.

“Christian!” My dad says jovially, coming out of the kitchen behind Bob. “I should have known you wouldn’t wait until we got back to celebrate. Isn’t this exact news we needed right now?”

“I’m sorry… what?” Christian looks back at my father with blank confusion and when his eyes shift to me, I feel my cheeks heat with a kind of prideful embarrassment. “You have news?”

“Yeah, um… I got a call from Lydia. Apparently me not going on my book tour was publicity all in itself. Escape is going to debut at number three on the New York Times’ bestseller list.”

His eyes widen. “What?”

I nod enthusiastically and his face breaks into a breathtaking smile.

“Ana, that’s incredible. Congratulations.”

“Thank you.”

“You didn’t tell me that, you punk.” Luke backhands me across my hip, but when I turn back to look at him, he’s smiling. “That’s awesome. Congratulations, Ana.”

“Well, if you’re not here to celebrate, what are you doing?” My dad asks. “Don’t tell me my perfect, angel granddaughter is giving you trouble.”

“Oh, she and I have had quite the day, but I’m here because we’re all headed to dinner and I wondered if you had time for a break and could join us?” He looks back to me and I frown.

“Actually, I came out here to talk to Luke because I needed to go find you. Lydia said Random House is willing to cancel the rest of my book tour if I fulfill a few last publicity obligations in Seattle. We need to fly home. Tonight, if possible.”

“Oh, well… yeah. I’ll call my pilot and have them fuel the plane. After dinner, we’ll go back to the hotel, pack, and be on our way.”

“Good, but first…” I turn to Luke, and as the excitement on his face turns somber and he reaches for his laptop again, Christian stiffens.

“Have you found something?”

“Unfortunately, yes. There’s a connection between Gresham and the account that’s being used to fund this plot against you. The account Taylor uncovered through Leila’s finances, the one that he’s used to pay all of the people who have come after you, is being funded through your own Caymen Islands account.” He turns the laptop towards Christian so he can see the purchases. “Authorization, Charles Gresham.”

The confusion on Christian’s face doesn’t diminish as he glances over the proof displayed on the screen of Luke’s laptop but I have a sneaking suspicion that may be because of shock.  

“What did you just say?”

“Limited LTD is funded through your account, and the funds are transferred from that shell company into the Panama account he’s using to pay his people He’s using your own money against you.”

The color drains from Christian’s complexion and as I see his body begin to shake, wonder if I should take the baby from him. Before I can move though, he turns to yell in the direction of the kitchen.

“Kate?” It takes a few seconds but she stumbles through the opening between the kitchen through the living room, her knees covered in dust, pulling yellow dishwashing gloves off her hands.

“Yeah?”

“My parents are taking Elliot and Mia to the 45th St Bistro. Would you and Ray mind getting Ana’s things together, taking Calliope, and letting them know we’ll be late but that you should all start without us? We’ll be leaving tonight, so I don’t want them to wait.”

“Uh, sure. Is everything okay?”

“Fine. We’ll be right behind you.”

She glances suspiciously between Christian and I for a moment, but shrugs and holds her hands out for Calliope. The moment he slides her into Kate’s arms though, she starts crying.

“You’re sure you want me to take her?”

Christian nods. “There’s a pacifier in her car seat. She’s been a little attached to me today but she also hasn’t napped much. Hopefully, she’ll fall asleep once you get her in the car.”

“Okay.” Her tone is dubious, because we all know that Christian is the one person Calliope has a hard time being separated from when she’s feeling comfortable, but she doesn’t argue. She turns to make her way back up the hallway where I’ve left the bag containing the things I wanted to keep of my mother’s and the moment she’s out of sight, Christian rounds on Luke.

“I want screenshots of everything. We need physical proof of every transfer that he’s made and the corresponding dates to when they hit the Panama account. Start a file that we can send to Hsu at the FBI. I want enough evidence for them to go after him by the time we touch down in Seattle.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“And I don’t want to leave Taylor or Reed here with no one to keep an eye on them. They’ve been targeted once, they’ll be targeted again. Who do we have that we can spare?”

“That have been vetted?” He shakes his head. “No one.”

“No one?”

“It’s just Kommer and I now.”

“How long will it take to bring someone on?”

Luke frowns. “I–I don’t have the contacts that, Taylor does. I’m not head of security, I’m just a tech guy who can throw a punch and shoot a gun. I’d have no idea where to start for recruiting…”

“I’ll stay.”

We all turn to face my father, who is standing looking purposefully at Christian, and my mouth drops open in horror. “What? You? No!”

“I can help, Annie. I’m more than capable of keeping watch on a civilian hospital for a few days and once Taylor is able to be airlifted home, I can bring your mother’s ashes to you. It solves everything.”

“No,” I argue again, shaking my head. “No, I don’t want you separated from us. If he’s trying to target me, he’ll hurt you.”

“I’m not afraid of him.” He turns back to Christian. “I have 23 years of experience in special ops for the United States army and Jason Taylor was wounded while trying to protect my family. I took an oath to never leave a man behind, and I don’t intend to.”

“Daddy…”

Christian looks wearily at him for a moment, torn between his need for my father’s help and the quiver in my voice.

“Uh, sir…”

We all turn at Luke who is looking down at his laptop now with wide eyes, tapping furiously on the keys as though he’s trying to undo something.

“What is it?”

“The Panama account. It’s empty.”

“What? What do you mean it’s empty?” Christian asks.

“We saw over two million dollars in transfers to that account,” I add.

“We did, but it’s gone. It looks like it was emptied by wire transfer this morning.”

“This morning? To who?”

“I don’t know, sir. It only tells me that the transfer was made…”

“Fuck.” Christian’s jaw clenches. “He knows we’re onto him. He’s going to try and run. Get Kommer on the phone. I want eyes on Gresham, now. He doesn’t move, he doesn’t even breathe without us knowing about it.”

“Yes, sir.”

He turns back to face my father. “It could be dangerous for you to stay behind.”

“I’m well aware of that, Son.”

He nods. “Okay then. Thank you, Ray.”

“No! Christian, No!”

“Ana, we don’t have another option. Sawyer’s right. It’s just him and Kommer now. I don’t have anyone else and both Reed and Taylor need us take care of them right now.”

“I’ll be fine, Annie.”

I shake my head again. “You don’t know that.”

“Alright, we’re all set,” Kate says, coming back into the room. “You said they were at 45th…” She stops as she catches up with the mood in the room. “What’s going on?”

“Change of plan,” Christian says. “We’re not going to dinner. We’re leaving now.” He holds his hand out to me. “Ana.”

“I’m not leaving my dad here alone.”

“We don’t have a choice, Ana.”

“No.” I look back at my father, my eyes pleading. “Please don’t make me beg.”

He takes a deep breath, and then turns to face Christian. “Go on. She’ll be out in a second.”

Christian nods then reaches out to take Calliope back from Kate, and after Luke has gathered all of this things, the three of them say goodbye to Bob and make their way through the front door.

“Annie…”

“No. Dad, I’ve already lost mom. Please, please, don’t make me risk losing you too.”

“I know you’re scared, but I can handle myself, sweetheart. I’ll be fine.”

“You can’t promise me that. You don’t realize what he’s capable of, what he’s willing to do!”

“You just have to trust me. I’m going to be fine. I’ll be home in a few days and when I get back, we’re going to get on that big boat of Christian’s with the rest of the Greys and we’re going to sail out into the middle of the water and say goodbye to your mother together. You said yourself that’s what you wanted, this is how we make that happen.”

I stare at him, feeling tears prick my eyes as I try to find the words to argue with him more. The problem is, he’s right. Christian’s right. There’s no one else and I don’t want to leave Taylor or Carter vulnerable anymore than I want to keep my Dad out of harm’s way. They’re family too and, for their safety, my dad really is the best for the job.

“Dad…”

“I promise you, Ana. I know what I’m doing. This is what I’ve done my whole life. Right now, you need to go back home and take care of your business. You need to get on that plane and so your husband can go home and find this guy and put an end to it once and for all. If he’s trying to run, you don’t have a lot of time, and if you’re going to protect yourself, your husband, your daughter… you need to stop him before he gets away. I can’t help you with that. But I can help with this. I need to stay hand and look out for what’s ours.”

I swallow, and after a long moment of hesitation, finally nod. “Just… don’t be a hero, okay? If something happens, protect yourself as much as you’re protecting them. Promise me that.”

“I promise.”

I bite down on my lip, still not feeling comfortable with the idea of him staying behind but knowing with more certainty after each passing minute that there’s no way around it. He gives me a reassuring smile, so I step forward and wrap my arms around him as tightly as I can.

“I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you too, sweetheart. Go knock ‘em dead. I know very well that that top spot is all yours. Nothing stops my Annie, right?”

I nod into his jacket and give him one last squeeze before letting out a harsh but cathartic breath and pulling away. Bob is standing by the door and as I pick up my purse from the couch I glance over and give him a wistful smile.

“I’m gonna miss you, Ana,” he says. “You’re a good kid. It’s been an honor being your step-dad.”

“There’s no reason to miss me,” I reply. “Just ‘cause Mom’s gone, it doesn’t mean you’re not apart of my family. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I do this thing where I like to keep my step-dads around.”

He laughs and nods. “I appreciate that. I really do.”

I cross the room and wrap him in a hug too, and as his arms curl around me, I feel his body sag. “Keep in touch, okay?” I tell him. “And, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Fourth of July, Callie’s birthday, hell… President’s Day, you’re always welcome in our home.”

“I love you, Ana.”

“I love you too, Bob. Call me later, okay?”

“Okay. Now get out of here and go get that book to number one.” He leans down and kisses the top of my head before releasing me and giving me one last affectionate smile. I turn back to my dad, hesitating once more, but wave and turn to leave.

“Ana, wait…”

I pause as Bob turns around and heads back into the kitchen, and when he returns my throat tightens once more when I see what he’s holding in his hand. It’s one of the dozens of souvenir Disneyland mugs my mother has collected over the years.

“Nothing in this world makes me think of your mother more than these mugs. I thought you should have one.”

“You’re right,” I say, laughing in spite of myself as I take one. “Thank you, Bob. This really is great.”

“See you soon, kid.”

I give him one last smile and then turn to leave for real. The door closes behind me and I immediately hear Calliope screaming from her car seat, while Christian and Kate stand over her, huddled tightly together in the open space between the car and the door, trying to coax her into taking a pacifier. And while hearing Calliope so upset triggers every one of my maternal instincts to calm and care for my baby, the scene before me is actually very comforting. There’s normalcy in it, and normalcy means life moves on. Right now, that’s the most meaningful thing in the world to me. The knowledge that in spite of everything we’ve been through, my family is strong and life will go on.

 

We have to go through a drive thru on our way from the hotel to the airport, and watching Christian eating Burger King as though he’s being forced to choke down poison has both Kate and I laughing so hard it makes our sides hurt. It’s the perfect thing to keep our minds off Gresham until we’re all seated on the plane, preparing for take off, and I glance over to see Luke on the phone trying to coordinate with Kommer while again typing furiously on his laptop. He hasn’t been able to pin down exactly where the wire transfer was received or who signed for it yet, so he’s setting up a remote connection in Seattle to keep the program running after we take off and he loses connectivity.

“Just find him, Kommer,” Luke sighs into the phone. “I don’t care how, just find him and keep in Seattle until we land. By whatever means necessary. I’ll handle it from there.”

He hangs up and glances over at me, but immediately shifts his gaze back to his computer once he realizes I’m staring at him. I want to talk to him and try to get a better idea of the situation and how much control we really have over what’s happening, but I don’t because he slips headphones back into his ears so he can concentrate and Natalia comes down the aisle with the mug of tea Christian asked her to bring for me.

“Thank you,” I say gratefully, and she smiles.

“Is there anything I can get for you, Mr. Grey?”

“No, this is fine.” His tone is sharp, and the anger apparent in everything from the set of his mouth to the way he sits in his seat has Natalia nervously scurrying away from us and disappearing towards the front of the plane. I can feel the tension radiating off of him, and it has me on edge. All this time, I thought if we could just figure out who it was, then we would settle this and it would all be over. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Christian said he was going to try and run, how far out of our reach could he get?

“Everything is going to be okay, right? This is all about to be over?”

He looks at me, but his stoic poker face doesn’t give anything away. He doesn’t say anything, he just leans over and kisses me softly on the cheek.

“I have some work to do. Do you need anything?”

I shake my head and then lean back as he  pulls out his own laptop and brings up a prospect report from Ros and a contract with the GEH letterhead at the top. Normally having him occupied by work for the entirety of the long flight while I’m drowning in nerves and unanswered questions would drive me insane. But today, I have my own distraction. There’s an email in my own inbox from Lydia going over questions she thinks will be asked in the interviews I’ll sit down for on Saturday, and how she thinks I should best answer them. With over seventy questions to review and to memorize responses for, I’m actually able to successfully keep my mind diverted from thoughts of my dad staying back in Georgia or the unknown of what we’ll find back home. That is until we land in Seattle and both Christian and Luke begin exchanging nervous looks, first with each other and then out the dark window. There’s a line of cars waiting to take us and Christian’s family home home, and the sight of the headlights cutting through the misty air has all of our collective minds back on Gresham.  

“Let’s go,” Christian says, grabbing my hand and pulling me from our seats the moment the doors have opened. We step into the warm night, which is heavy with moisture from rain that seems to have just stopped falling. It’s quiet, more so than is normal for the airport, and it actually seems to intensify my nerves. Like someone is watching us, waiting… The passenger’s side door of the car first in the line opens and Kommer steps onto the tarmac. We all turn to face him, hopeful, but his face doesn’t suggest he has good news for us.

“Fuck,” Christian hisses, making the same observation I have. He pulls me down the steps with him and waves off the driver who comes around to greet us. His attention is only on Kommer.

“Where is he?”

“I’m sorry, sir. He’s gone. His house, his office, it’s all been cleaned out. I collected what I could from his residence, even had a laptop to bring to Welch, but the hard drive had been wiped. He must have known we were coming after him and ran. He’s disappeared.”

Next Chapter

Update

I wish I could say that I’m not finished with this week’s update because work has been too busy, or the Cubs being in the NLCS occupied most of my nights this week (all true) but in reality, I think I’m just suffering from a good old fashion case of writer’s block.

I’ve drafted and re-drafted this chapter a few times and I can’t tell if I’m just trying to make it too complicated or if something needs to change. I’ve tried addressing the first, but obviously to no avail, so I’m going to work on the second.

It shouldn’t take me until next Monday to be finished, so just keep an eye out for this week’s update. It will hopefully be up in the next few days. If you haven’t subscribed to my email list, this would be the perfect time to do so.

Sorry guys 😦

Chapter 45

Silence. We all sit in complete silence, gaping at Mia while she shakes in her chair. I don’t know what to say, I don’t think anyone does, until Christian finally shakes his head, dispelling his own shock, and starts.

“What you mean you know…? How could you…? I-I– Who is it?”

Her bottom lip trembles as she fights off tears, but before she has a chance to calm her impending breakdown enough so that she can speak, Luke gets out of his chair and moves to Christian’s little sister.

“Mr. Grey, perhaps we should move to somewhere more private before we have this conversation? There are three other families in this room, four individuals… We have no way of knowing that this is a secure place for Miss Grey to tell us what she knows.”

“No, we’re not waiting another–” Christian begins to argue, but as if to prove Luke’s point, a woman walks by and stops dead in her tracks when she glances inside our small little compartment. Her eyes fall on me and widen.

“Oh, good lord!” she exclaims in a thick southern accent. “You’re Anastasia Steele! I watched you on the Today show and then they said on The View that you’d been attacked in New York! What happened, honey? What are you doing down here?”

“Um…”

I stammer, unsure of what to say under this woman’s insistent gaze, but thankfully Luke saves me when he steps through the opening of the vestibule and guides the woman away. Once she’s gone, Christian’s body tightens with frustration and he glares at his sister.

“Is she one of them? Is she working for him too?”

Mia shakes her head. “I don’t know.”

“Are you sure? Or is that just another one of your fucking lies?” His voice is icy and full of malice. I’ve never heard him speak to her that way and clearly, it rattles her. She shrinks away from him, but his overbearing fury doesn’t recede when he sees how scared she is looking up at him.

“Elliot, go find Kate,” he barks. “We’re leaving. The second we’re out of this hospital, we stay together. All of us.” He turns angry eyes back on his sister. “And you are not to leave my sight. Do you understand me, Amelia?”

She nods and Christian reaches down to pick up Calliope’s car seat, which is resting against the foot of the chair Luke has just vacated. Elliot hurries out of the vestibule in search of Kate and while the rest of the family gathers their things, I take a breath and go to Mia.

“Come on,” I say gently, placing a comforting arm around her and pulling her into me. She’s still shaking and as I hold her, she starts to cry again.

“I’m so sorry, Ana. I’m so sorry.”

“I know. Let’s go.”

My dad has decided to sit with Taylor as a sign of respect for a fallen soldier and, despite my attempts to bring him along with us, he refuses to leave. Christian gives him the address of the hotel we’re staying at, in case he changes his mind, and asks him to contact us if there’s any changes in Taylor’s condition. He promises we will, so after I’ve hugged and kissed him good-bye, Christian leads us all out to the hospital parking garage where the town car that he drove to pick me up and another, larger rental car are waiting for us. Luke takes the driver’s seat of one, Harrison the other, and Christian pulls Mia into the same town car as Calliope and me.

Though he sits in the front seat and he never speaks, I can feel anger radiating off of him the entire drive to the hotel. Silent tears run steadily down Mia’s face as she folds her arms tightly across her chest and stares through the window. Several times, while I fish around in Calliope’s car seat for the pacifier she keeps spitting out, I reach over to her and try to hold her hand, but she shakes me off every time. Seeing her like this brings me back to the morning of my wedding and the cuts in her skin I’d found as she changed. She told me she was punishing herself. That she hated herself. Now I truly know why she felt that way and it sends me spiraling through a confusing mess of deep rooted betrayal and heartache for the little sister that I love.

Christian won’t be able to accept her reasoning for why she made the choices she did. He’ll never be able to see past the danger her silence has kept us all in, and maybe to an extent, he’s right. I should be furious with her. I should be sick to my stomach over the choice she’s made and everything we’ve lost or come close to losing because of it. But all I see when I look at her is a terrified 17 year old girl, who I know loves her family, and who I know has been tortured with the secret that she’s held and the decision over whether to keep her silence or to tell and risk the safety of her entire family.  

“Let’s go,” Christian barks at her as we pull up to the modest, very un-Christian looking hotel, which he’s reserved under an assumed name to try and throw off anyone who may still be trying to find us. He helps me take Calliope’s car seat out of the back, then carries her into the lobby with his free hand wrapped tightly around Mia’s arm. He doesn’t release her for even a second while Luke checks us in and brings us the keys to our rooms, and when we’re finally behind closed doors again, he pushes her down onto one bed, then settles down on the other directly across from her. I try to put Calli down for the night as far away from the conversation as the cramped hotel room allows. I know she doesn’t understand what’s happening, but I want her to protect her from the amount of anger her father is projecting right now. It’s almost frightening, and even though our daughter is still an infant, I don’t want her seeing him like this.

“Christian, before you start…” Elliot says, the worry clear in his voice, but Christian holds up a hand to silence him. His cold eyes are focused only on Mia.

“Talk.”

She lets out a scared sob and diverts her eyes from her brother. “I’m sorry, Christian.”

“I don’t want to hear your fucking apologies, Mia. I want answers. Start talking.”

“I didn’t know the whole time,” she says defensively. “I thought he was just after me. I thought he was just trying to keep me from telling you who he was. He said all I had to do was keep quiet and no one would get hurt. I didn’t even know Ana was in trouble until she got kidnapped and even then, I didn’t think he was the same person until you said that you thought Gia was involved and then we were at dinner and she said his name…”

“What?” Elliot asks.

She turns and gives a pained look at Elliot. “Charles Gresham. His name is Charles Gresham. It’s the guy you and Gia were fighting over at the barbeque Mom threw for Ray.”

Elliot’s face goes blank, but Christian’s brow furrows in confusion. “Gresham? My finance guy? How could it be Gresham? Why the fuck would he want to come after me? After Ana?”

“Because you stopped him.”

“Stopped him from what?”

She swallows. “That night, when Ana found me at Elena’s club. When she grabbed me and took me away because Elena was trying to force me to have sex with that guy… It was Charles Gresham. He was the dominant who tried to… to…” Her voice cuts off, and this time, it’s Christian’s turn to look shocked.

“But you said… you said you didn’t know his name. When we questioned you before the trial, you said you didn’t know who he was. That’s why we didn’t go after him!”

“I didn’t. Back then, I only knew him as Mr. Darling, and that wasn’t his real name. They all used aliases and it wasn’t like I got their full employment records when they came into the club. They gave me a handful of cash, I took them back to Elena, no one asked questions. But, right before the trail, he found me while I was out getting ice cream with Tibby. He told me to keep my mouth shut, to never speak of him again, and as long as I could do that we wouldn’t have any problems. He wouldn’t have to hurt anyone. Not me. Not my family. I told him I’d never tell anyone, and at the time it was an easy promise to make because didn’t know his name. I couldn’t have told if I wanted to. Then… I found out. Last Thanksgiving, when Ana got caught in that storm, we were watching the news around the clock waiting for updates and he came on during the business segment. His name was on the bottom of the screen. Charles Gresham. I’d know his face anywhere. I’ll never be able to forget it.”

She stops and glances hesitantly back at Christian, but he doesn’t say anything. His expression hasn’t softened, his posture hasn’t relaxed, and he continues to look at her expectantly.

“I thought about telling then,” she continues. “Because I wanted him to have to face some consequences for what he did to me. But Christian had left for Cambridge, Mom and Dad were freaked out about Ana, Kate was caught in the storm too, and Elliot had fallen off the face of the planet… I didn’t really have anyone to turn to. Then Dad got cancer and everyone was worried about that, and Ana was pregnant… I felt like there wasn’t ever a good time to bring all of this up again. Especially with Christian proposing in Paris and planning for the baby. Once all the drama passed, it was like we finally had the chance to be a happy family again and I didn’t want to ruin it. I was just going to let it go. He never really got to touch me and Elena was already in jail. That seemed like fair retribution, I guess. I didn’t know he had anything to do with you or Ana. You never told us anything about Ana, and he had said that if I stayed quiet he wouldn’t hurt anyone. I thought it was just about me keeping his secret…” Her voice breaks as she begins to sob, but when Grace moves onto the bed next to her, she moves out of her reach and looks back up at Christian.

“I wanted to come to you after Ana was attacked and I realized it was the same guy, but I freaked out. I didn’t say anything so…  it was my fault. I couldn’t face that, I couldn’t face you. I really didn’t mean for any of this to happen…” She sniffs. “I just needed to talk to someone first and have them tell me it was going to be okay, that you’d forgive me. I called Kate a few times, but she never answered so I called Alexis instead. She worked at the club with me, as a submissive, and after everything closed down, she’d reached out to me and we’d gotten close. I could talk to her about everything that had happened and she understood. I mean, before he tried to get to me, she was Darling’s, err… Gresham’s favorite. So she knew what I was going through. He requested her almost every time he came in and he’d hurt her a couple times. I thought she would be supportive of me talking to you and would give me the courage to finally just do it, but she didn’t. She talked me out of it. She told me I was right. You would hate me and you’d never be my big brother the same way ever again. You’d only ever see this and it would all be for nothing because what happened to Ana was probably because of Gia anyway. Because Gia got caught opening her big mouth. But now Gia was gone and we were safe again as long as I stayed quiet. I believed that, and that I had to keep the secret because I could see now that he was serious. That he would hurt people.”

Mia hangs her head. “She must have had more to do with him than I knew because it was after that phone call when I started getting the pictures of all of you. He knew that I’d figured out who he was, and that I wanted to tell you. Alexis had to have told him.”

“Alexis?” Christian repeats, closing his eyes. When he opens them again, there’s recognition on his face. “Alexis Young?”

“Yes,” Mia confirms.

“I know her. I met with her after the trial. She was one the girls that wouldn’t take anything from me. She yelled at me and told me she’d never had a steady Dom before working for Elena and that I took that away from her. But she wasn’t the only one that felt that way. Several of the girls wanted to be in the lifestyle and I was fine with that as long as it was their choice. I never thought… Son of a bitch.”

“You said that he requested her every time he came in?” Luke asks. Mia nods.

“Every time. God, I’m so stupid.” She lets her head fall into her hands and then starts to cry again.

“You’re not stupid, Mia,” Grace says, trying again to comfort her, but Christian lets out a dark huff, so she turns a sharp gaze on her son. “You can be mad, but you can’t be cruel, Christian.”

“Oh, I’m more than fucking mad,” he says. “I have done everything I can to be there for you, Amelia. Hell, I’ve fought for you as hard as I fought for Ana, but that doesn’t seem to matter to you at all. I don’t care what else was going on, you lied to me and you keep lying to me, over and over again. This, the bar, hell the fucking party you almost got arrested at last year. It’s like Deja Vu all over again with you. If you had just come to me, I would have protected you. Then, now… I could have protected everyone. But instead, you kept your mouth shut and you lied and now we’re all in danger. Not legally this time. Actual danger.”  

“I was scared, Christian.”

“Oh, please. You’re not a child anymore, Mia. Stop acting like one. This isn’t a small thing that you’ve done and I don’t know we move forward from here. How can I trust anything you say? How do I even know this is the truth? How do I know he didn’t give you something to keep you quiet and that this is all just another distraction? You’ve been telling us all how good your lead role in Swan Lake this year is going to look on your Juilliard application. Did he get you that?” The longer he speaks, the more his anger becomes physically apparent. Mia cowers under his glare so Kate steps forward in her defense.

“Christian…”

“Not now, Kavanagh. This doesn’t concern you.”

“Excuse, you?” Elliot exclaims, jumping to her defense. “Don’t you dare talk to her that way.”

“Yeah.” Kate nods. “And don’t pretend like you haven’t been intimidated by someone into keeping secrets from your family, Christian Grey.”

“This is nothing like me and Elena, Kavanagh. This isn’t just keeping a secret about who my dick has been in, this is her withholding information from me that has almost led to my wife and my child being killed twice. Your best friend, Kate!”

“Well, if you would have just dealt with Elena when you were supposed to instead of lying and protecting her, she would have been in prison years ago and never would have been able to open that club and we wouldn’t be here right now!”

“Oh, here we go!” He throws his hands in the air in frustration. “Don’t try to deflect the blame on me, this is all because she is a sp-”

“Stop!” I scream, cutting off whatever biting response Christian was about to hurl at Kate. “Just stop, okay? This is stupid and it’s not getting us anywhere.”

“No!” Christian shakes his head as his body radiates with anger. He turns back to Mia. “I want answers. I want you to look me in the eye and tell me exactly how you justified keeping this to yourself. This is your fault, Amelia. Ryan, Taylor, Carla… that’s on you. I want to know how you sleep at night.”

“Her fault?” I snap. “That’s what you want out of this? Blame?”

He gives me a dark look and I feel my entire body tighten in defiance as I stare into his cold, gray eyes.

“Fine. Let’s play the blame game, Christian. Mia, yes, you should have spoken up before now. After everything we’ve all sacrificed for you and the choices you’ve made in the past, and how we all still stood by you, it’s really shitty that you wouldn’t trust us now.”

I turn, but look past Christian.

“Carrick, maybe if you were a little bit less concerned about what people thought about you and how your children would reflect on your precious legacy, you wouldn’t have made the exact same mistake with Mia that you made with Christian and she never would have turned to Elena in the first place. Grace, if you focused a little less on making sure your children loved and adored you and actually parented them, you’d have a better idea about what was really going on in their lives and we wouldn’t keep ending up in situations like this. Elliot, maybe if you wouldn’t have had your head shoved so far up your ass about Gia and her involvement in all of this, and if you hadn’t put up such a fight about Christian investigating her, we could have deduced her connection to this Gresham guy sooner and avoided Mia’s involvement altogether. Kate, if you would have given the girl who loved and adored you for years just an iota of your time after you broke up with Elliot, perhaps she would have had someone to talk to while her family was falling apart. Christian, if you learned to control your temper a little better and to forgive a little bit more and if you didn’t turn every small betrayal into some gigantic ordeal that drags us all through hell, she’d have been a little more willing to talk to you. And if I would have listened to her when she was trying to talk to me before, instead of assuming I knew what was wrong or trying to just fix her problems like I’m the one that knows what’s best in every fucking situation, she would have told me about this months ago when she first tried to. There is plenty of blame to go around in this room, but while we’re all in here pointing the finger at each other, he’s still out there. So let’s stop trying to assign blame and just fix the fucking problem!”

I’m shaking now and as everyone in the room gapes at me, I take several deep breaths to calm myself down.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “This anger isn’t going to do anyone any good. I was angry the last time I ever spoke to my mother. I told her I wanted nothing to do with her, and today, I lost her. I’m never going to get the chance to make things right with her again. I’m going to hold that with me for the rest of my life, so I’m not going to let that happen with us. We’re a family. At the end of the day, we’re all each other has and we’re going to deal with this as a family, not adversaries.”

Christian takes a deep breath and finally, he seems to relax. “You’re right, Ana. The enemy isn’t in this room. Mia, I’m sorry…”

“No, I’m sorry, Christian.” He reaches out and takes her hand, then moves to his knees on the floor in front of her so he can look her in the eye while she hangs her head in shame.

“I will never not love you, okay? Never. No matter what you do, and no matter how mad I get or how much I yell, you’re always going to be my little sister and I’m always going to be on your side. But you have to come to me when you’re in trouble. You have to talk to me. No matter what, okay?” She nods, so he kisses the backs of her hands and then looks up at Luke.

“Sawyer, you’re my point man now. We’ll have Mia talk to Hsu, but I don’t want to take any chances on circumstantial evidence. Find me something concrete on Gresham that I can turn over to the FBI and let’s get this son-of-a-bitch behind bars. In the meantime, I want to know where he is at all times and I want to know about anyone he’s in contact with.”

“Yes, sir,” Luke says, and after gathering his laptop bag, he leaves for his own room to get to work.

“Harrison,” Christian continues. “Go back to the hospital and wait with Ray. None of us should be alone right now. I want regular updates on Taylor’s condition. We’ll rejoin you at the hospital in the morning.”

“Yes, sir.”

Once he too has left, Christian rounds on his family and lets out a low, exhausted sounding breath. “It’s late and it’s been a long day for all of us. We should all try to get some sleep.”

“Yeah,” Carrick agrees. “We’re just next door and Mia’s staying in our room. Kate and Elliot are in the room on the other side of you. We’re all around if you or Ana need anything.”

Christian nods. “Thank you. Lock your deadbolts and don’t open the door for anyone. Everyone should have Luke or Harrison’s number, in case you need security.”

“I have both,” Kate says.

“Text them to me?” Mia asks. She nods and then Grace helps Mia off the bed.

“Come on, sweetheart. You and I need to have our own talk.” She frowns, though she gets off the bed willingly, but before they leave the room, Mia stops to hug me one last time.

“I’m so sorry about your mom, Ana. I’ll never forgive myself for what you’ve lost.”

“You didn’t pull the trigger, Mia. At the end of the day, this all comes down to him, to Gresham, and now we’re going to be able to make sure he never hurts any of us, or anyone else, ever again. Thank you for being honest tonight.”

She gives me a weak, rueful smile and then releases me so that Grace can hug me too. “I can’t imagine how painful this must be for you, dear. I’m so sorry this has happened. But you know, you’ll always have family, right? You have us and we all love you very much.”

“I know. Thank you, Grace.” My throat grows tight when she kisses me on the forehead, telling me that tears from the grief I feel are imminent, so once she releases me, I subtly recoil away from Carrick by moving into Christian’s side. I can’t handle anymore condolences. I’ll break down and there’s still so much I want to talk to Christian about once we’re alone. Thankfully, I think I can see understanding of this need expressed on Carrick’s face and Kate for sure is able to pick up on it. She wraps her hand around Elliot’s and tugs him towards the door.

“We’ll talk later. Okay, Ana?” she says. I give her the most grateful smile I can muster, nod, and then sigh in relief as Christian untangles his body from mine and moves to close the door behind everyone. After the deadbolt drops, he turns back to face me but his body slumps against the door.

“I don’t know what to say to you. I’m so sorry I couldn’t stop this, Ana.”

I shake my head. “No. You tried. This isn’t your fault. You’ve done everything you can and…” I stop, knowing that it’s this exact line of thinking that’s had him thinking about walking away from me all day. The pain in just the idea of that is overwhelming and as I look up at him, my eyes start to tear up again.

“Baby…”

“Please don’t leave me, Christian.”

“Hey.” His voice is soft as he pushes off the door, crosses the space between us, and takes me into his arms. “Baby, I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

“No, that’s not what you said earlier. You said you were putting me in danger. You were going to leave. I’m not safer without you, Christian. You know that. Separating wouldn’t make him stop coming after us, it would just make us both more vulnerable. We’re stronger together.”

“I know.”

“Then how could you even say that to me?”

“Ana.” His voice is pained and I can see him struggle to find the words to explain himself. His hands move to cup each side of my face and as we stare into each other’s eyes, all that’s reflected back at me is guilt and pain.

“I didn’t know what else to do,” he finally admits. “Everything he’s done, he’s pulled off unimpeded. I can’t even predict his plans and if I don’t know who or what he’s targeting next, I can’t guarantee it won’t be you. Hell, it was you. Hyde was in your dressing room, Ana, and people here died today. Can you even comprehend what it would have done to me if the voicemails I had in my phone when I landed this morning had said he’d actually gotten to you? That it was you in the hospital clinging to life? Or worse, that you were dead too? That’s all I’ve thought about all day!” He swallows the lump in his throat. “I can’t lose you like that, Ana. If he was trying to hurt me by going after the people I love, then I thought I had to take you out of that equation.”

“But he’s not just after you. I’m the one who pulled Mia out of Elena’s hands and I’m the one who put her in a car and drove her away. I made Mia tell you about the club, so I’m the reason it was shut down. If he’s seeking revenge because of what he’s lost, then it’s not just you he’s after. I’m just as culpable as you are.”

“We know that now, but this morning…” He pauses again, and by the look on his face I surmise that it’s to stop himself from going down the same dark train of thought he’s been stuck on all day. When he looks into my eyes again, there’s a new sense of determination. “All I wanted to do was protect you. I need you, baby. Please understand that.”

“I do understand that. Because I need you too.” He stares into my eyes for a long time, his gaze pleading, but I’m not sure what for. Forgiveness, maybe? Understanding? I can’t read him, so to cement the sentiment of my words hanging between us, I stand up on my tiptoes and press my lips to his.

“You said you would never leave me,” I whisper into his mouth. “Last year, after the trial, you said I’m never going to leave you. You don’t get to take that promise back, Christian.”

“I won’t. I’m sorry, Ana.”

“I need you to say it again. I need to hear you say you’re not going to leave.”

“I’m not going anywhere. I’m never going to leave you, Ana.”

“Good.” I take a deep, calming breath, and once again stare purposefully into his eyes. “I vowed to you on our wedding day that I would remain by your side and that I walk with you wherever our journey leads us. I vowed for better or for worse, and I meant those words, Christian. I would rather walk through hell with my hand in yours than spend an eternity in heaven without you.”

He stands there for a long moment, saying nothing, until eventually his arms wrap around me and he pulls me into a tight embrace. “I don’t deserve you.”

“Yes. You do. We’re meant to be, Christian Grey. You and me.” My hand moves to the back of his head and I once again pull his lips down to mine. The contact between us is soft at first, needy, but as we wrap ourselves more securely around each other, his ardor increases and the kiss morphs into something more fierce and passionate. His hands move back to my hair, unfurling the tie that holds it in a messy knot on top of my head before he discards the band carelessly on the floor. We break away for an instant, looking desperately at one another, until he sweeps me into his arms and carries me to the bed.

I gasp when I fall on the mattress, but the sound is short lived as he covers my body with his and kisses me again. My fingers move up and begin undoing the buttons of his shirt one by one until it’s open enough that I can slip my arms inside and feel his warm skin against mine. He hums a low sound of content at my touch, then reaches down to pull my blouse over my head.

“Ana,” he groans, then moves his lips down my body, between my breasts.

“Love me, Christian.”

His lips softly caress the swoop of my breast before he uses his tongue to trace a path up to my nipple. I’ve only just recently stopped breastfeeding so for the first time since Calliope’s birth, he truly is able to tease and torment my nipples the way that drives me crazy. Licking, sucking, biting. When he nips me, I cry out with a befuddled mix of pain and pleasure that heightens my growing arousal. After a long, arduous day like today, this is what I need from him. To lose myself in our gentle love peppered with his barbaric desire. The intensity of his passion burns away everything until nothing else matters. Only this. Only us.

I groan and fist my hands in his hair, pulling him back up to my lips. The kiss is wild and feverish, and while he claims dominion over me with his tongue, I reach down to undo his fly and then use a combination of my hands, legs, and finally feet to divest him of his pants. Once he’s naked, my hips buck up against his erection, yearning for him to fill the emptiness inside of me that is the result of everything I’ve lost today.

“Christ, Ana.” His words come out in a breath, but are full of the longing that is no doubt a reaction to my own fervor. His lips part from mine and move down to the curve of my neck, where he nuzzles me and covers my skin in soft, sweet kisses, while his hand moves down between my legs.

“Already so wet…” He sweeps his index finger back and forth across my clitoris a few times before he delves inside of me in one slick motion. Instantly, I clench around him and push against his hand. He moves his fingers in and out of me, in time with the rhythm of his tongue and his lips on my neck until I start to build and his hand is drenched with my arousal.

“Oh, fuck. Christian!”

“Taste,” he whispers. His fingers disappear from between my legs and move into my mouth. I suck hungrily, keeping my eyes fixed on his while he stares down at me with unbridled lust and wonder. After my tongue has removed most of my essence from his fingers, he pulls his hand away and immediately attacks my mouth with his again. His tongue is forceful as it moves with mine, seeking out every trace of my arousal that still lingers there.

“Delicious. You are so sweet, Ana.”

“Baby, please…” I beg.  

He sits up on his knees and places my leg over his right shoulder, lifting me even with his erection, but he doesn’t take me right away. Instead, he kisses my ankle and moves his hand tenderly up my calf towards my thigh. After sweeping the pad of his thumb lightly over my aching clitoris again, he moves my other leg over his left shoulder, then repeats the motion.

“Ready?”

“Yes. Please.”

He reaches down and guides his erection between my legs then grips tightly to my hips as he thrusts inside of me. As the euphoric feeling of the fullness takes hold my body, my legs curl around his shoulders, pulling me further into him, and he lets out a deeply gratified moan.

He sets a relentless pounding rhythm that is kept in time with our increasingly harsh and desperate breaths. I have to reach up and hold the headboard to keep it from slamming into the shared wall between ours and Kate’s and Elliot’s room, but when he grabs ahold of my left leg and pulls it over his head, holding my legs together over one shoulder while he continues to move in and out of me, tightening me so I can feel every inch of him, I give up. I don’t care if Kate and Elliot hear us, I don’t care about anything. Only him.

“Christian!” While my screams of pleasure reverberate around us, he lets my legs slide off his shoulder and then twists the lower half of my body to the side so that my legs are still together on the bed while my back remains pressed into the mattress. I reach out for him, pulling him down over the top of me so I can taste his sweet mouth again and as he pounds on and on, we’re reduced to nothing but hands and tongues and touch and overpowering, mind blowing sensation.

“Come for me, baby,” he whispers against my lips. I gasp and tilt my head back, prepared to scream his name again into the charged air around us once my orgasm finally takes hold of my body, but he reaches up and grabs my chin to stop me. “Look at me.”

I do. Our eyes lock and the pure and uninhibited want in his gaze, want for me, is enough to send me tumbling into the warm, dark depths of blissful release. I start to keen loudly as my orgasm overpowers me, but he absorbs the sound into his mouth, taking my screams for himself. With a loud, final grunt, he pushes as deep inside of me as he can reach and finds his own release, which, like mine, seems to go on forever. The feel of him, pushing me into the bed as we lose ourselves completely in one another, as he fills me, as his tongue entwines with mine… it’s perfect. We’re perfect, as long as we’re together.

The final waves of my orgasm come to an end and my entire body melts into the bed as Christian slowly rocks his hips back and forth, holding himself inside of me. I moan, and reach up to brush the locks of hair caught in the sweat on his brow away and stare up at his beautiful face.

“I love you so much.”

“I love you too.” He shifts so that I can wrap my legs around his body as he once again lays over the top of me, resting his weight on his forearms, then leans down to kiss the sensitive skin on my neck. With him so close, his scent surrounds me and I’m instantly inebriated. I don’t want him to ever move. I want to lay with him like this forever, stuck in this one perfect moment.

A pleasant, well satisfied moan breaks through my lips and his hands move lazily down my sides so he can explore my body. But soon, the gentle brush of his fingertips starts to tickle and it sends me into a fit of giggles. A breathtaking, genuine smile crosses his face and his fingers become more purposeful and insistent against my body. I try to struggle away from him but his hands clamp down around my sides and he continues to tickle me with just the pressure of his fingers.

“Oh my god, Christian! Stop!” I laugh, but he doesn’t. He just beams down at me until we hear a loud banging against the wall, presumably from Elliot, who I assume has officially heard enough from us.

I have to catch my breath as he finally rolls off of me, but as he settles down on the bed at my side, he turns and stares back at me with warmth and love radiating from his eyes. Despite how terrible these last 24 hours have been, in this moment, I’m actually able to feel something wonderful.

“You’re so beautiful,” he tells me. I smile in response.  

“Mmm. You’re not so bad yourself.” He leans in to kiss me again, but our tongues have only just touched when there’s an insistent vibration of his phone from the pocket of his pants, laying haphazardly at the bottom of the bed. He lets out a huff and then rolls over the top of me again, straddling me as he pulls out his phone and checks the notification.

“Work?” I check.

“No, it’s Luke. He’s running an algorithm to get through the security on Gresham’s system but he wants to know if he should try to find someone who can work security detail for your dad in Montesano.”

“Oh…” Just like that, our bubble is popped and the real world seeps back in. “Actually, I was thinking about asking him to come live with us in Escala for a while, if that’s okay. Just until we’ve resolved this issue with Gresham. I don’t really want him so far away, you know, after my mom…”

“Of course it’s okay,” Christian says. “I’ll call Kommer and have him prepare one of the guest rooms and to give him more space, just in case he wants to bring some of his own things to feel more at home.”

“Kommer?” I repeat, and for first time since I landed in Georgia, I realize that he’s been absent. “You left Kommer in Seattle?”

Christian nods absentmindedly. “He doesn’t live at Escala the way Taylor or Sawyer does. Ryan’s call came very suddenly and in the middle the night. I’d relieved Kommer hours before and I didn’t have time to track him down before I left for the airport. It worked out after I found out my parent’s house had been broken into because it reminded me that there’s other people in Seattle that are vulnerable right now. Ros and Gwen are staying in our apartment until we return and Kommer is with them and Gail. I’m going to have to find a way to make another security shift to ensure there’s someone with them at all times.”

“He made threats against Ros?”

“No, but he goes after people I care about. Ros is not only my best friend but she’s an integral to my company. I need her, and so I need to ensure she’s well protected until we resolve this issue once and for all.”

“Oh,” I reply, and then frown as he starts responding to Luke’s email. “Christian?”

“Hm?”

“Are you sure this was about targeting people you love?”

“You, my family, your mother… seems the most likely.”

“Elena?”

He frowns. “No. That had to be because he never got the book she wrote. People who don’t give him what he wants end up dead.”

“So, why didn’t he go after Hyde? Why did Hyde get a second chance and she got a fake prison riot? Why did Isaac?”

“Because…” he stops, unable to answer.

“I don’t think this was about going after you this time. I think this might have about tying up loose ends. The shooter from the car didn’t target my mom or your team, they mowed down everyone, indiscriminately. And from what we can tell, that wasn’t a reaction to Taylor showing up. It had all been planned. Carter said he never heard an exit strategy, it looks like that’s because there wasn’t one. There wasn’t ever supposed to be one. He wanted Isaac and my mother, maybe even Carter, and he got them all at once. Or he thought he did. Taylor and Ryan were just a bonus. Then he went after Elena, and he probably went to your parents’ house to get to Mia.”

“Maybe, but that still doesn’t answer your original point. What about Hyde?”

“Well… it wasn’t a very well thought out plan and we know that isn’t this guy’s modus operandi. I mean, even while he was on top of me holding a knife I was wondering how he planned to get out of that room. There was only one exit and Luke was standing outside the door.”

“So Hyde is incompetent, that doesn’t answer the question.”

“It might though. Leila told me right after she saved me that he, well Gresham, would know how difficult it would be to get to me once he’d showed his hand. If he really wanted me, he wouldn’t have sent someone who would bumble their way through it. I think he knew that Luke would stop Hyde, probably kill him, which mean that he wouldn’t have to. That or he’d succeed and bring me straight to him. Even now, in the worst case scenario where Hyde is alive and we’ve got him in custody, he doesn’t know enough to reveal who he is and they’re probably going to put him in prison. Just like they did Elena and we know happened to her. It’s all a win/win for him.”

He looks down at me for a long beat, examining me carefully, then gets out of the bed and starts to pace the room.

“So, if he’s getting rid of of all of his people…”

“Then we’re coming to the end. It’s all about to come to a head.”

“Because he hasn’t gotten what he really wants yet.” Christian starts nodding, as though all of this is starting to make sense. “He’s going to make a final move and he’s going to come after us. Hard. With everything he has left. He’s wants to end this too, just in his way.”

“We have to stop him, Christian. And we have to move fast.”

“We will. Once we settle your mom’s affairs, we’ll go home and we’ll take care of this once and for all. He can’t hide from us anymore.”

I nod, feeling reassured that we at least seem to be fighting on equal ground now, but as Christian walks towards me again, his phone rings in his hand.

“Harrison?” he answers. I wait while he listens to whatever Kate’s CPO is saying to him, trying to gauge the news by his face. He gives nothing away though, and when he hangs up the phone, his salutation is blunt. “We’ll be there soon.”

“Taylor?” I ask.

“He’s awake,” Christian says. “They took him off the vent and he’s breathing fine. The doctor says he’ll need a few more days of recovery, but the worst is over. He’s going to be okay.”

“Thank god.” All of the air in my body seems to leave my body in one long breath, taking with it the heavy weight of the fear I’ve held in my heart for Christian’s most trusted right hand man. “Thank god.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 44

I don’t feel anything. The entire flight from Newark to Hilton Head Airport I keep waiting for my emotions to take over, but they don’t. I sit in the seat of the tiny plane Christian was able to charter this morning feeling like a blank canvas. Not speaking. Registering nothing.

“Do you want to eat?” Luke asks from the seat across from me. I don’t even look at him as I shake my head. “Ana, you may not get a chance once we land. Have some pretzels.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Ana…”

“Just… bring me a bottle from the diaper bag. Calli should eat before we land.”

I hear his sharp intake of breath through his nose, but he doesn’t argue with me again. He gets up to do exactly as I ask and while I listen to him shaking the bottle of formula behind me I tighten my hold on my daughter, who is now sleeping in my arms. She screamed when the plane took off and continued to cry until long after we’d reached cruising altitude, but I almost prefered that. Now that she’s quiet and resting peacefully, there’s nothing to distract me from my thoughts. I know my mother is in critical condition, bad enough that Christian had been concerned about the time it would take me to fly from New York to Georgia, but I don’t know what happened to her or if anyone else I care for is among the injured. Or worse.

Carter. Taylor. Ryan. Bob.

They’re all question marks to me right now.

But they’re not the only questions keeping me silent. The thing making this the most difficult for me right now are the words that Luke said to me in the dressing room at the Today show, about Hyde.

“From what we know of this guy, he doesn’t seem to have a very forgiving nature when it comes to the people he has working for him not coming through…”

Hyun, Leila, Isaac. All people we know were working for him, and now they’re all dead because they didn’t accomplish what they were supposed to. When my mom did what she did after Calliope was born, I couldn’t understand it. I knew she’d been scared after what happened to me during spring break and, while I didn’t agree with it, I could even understand why she’d let that fear manifest into blame on Christian. But what I couldn’t understand was how she could, as a parent herself, let another parent believe their child was dead. How she could be selfish enough to try and steal a child away from her father when she believed that child had just lost her mother. How she could put the entire Grey family, who have been nothing but warm and welcoming from the day they met, through that much pain.

Unfortunately, the answer to those questions now seems obvious. She did what she did because he told her to. It was his plan. He wanted to hurt Christian, and he used someone I trusted to do it. That’s why she was so adamant about trying to break up Christian and I. That’s why she drug my dad into this and tried to poison him against Christian. Because of him. He wanted to take me away from Christian any way he could and my mother was going to help him. She didn’t though, and now she’s paid the price. But after everything Christian has given her, what could he have possibly promised her that would make her do this to him? To me?

I take a deep breath and tilt my head back, trying to fight back tears as I wonder what would have happened had I not made it through Calliope’s birth. She was in the hospital for 10 days. If they’d taken me off life support on day three, Christian and his family would have been gone long before she was discharged. Would she have been allowed to take her home? And if so, would she have tried to raise Calliope as her own, or would she have delivered her straight to him? Given him the ultimate leverage to use against Christian and take everything else he has away from him. Would he have ever gotten her back?

As I take the bottle from Luke and start to feed my daughter, my arms tighten around her tiny frame and I don’t relax my hold on her until after we’ve touched down in Savannah. A strange mix of nerves and dread course through me as we prepare to deboard because I’m not sure I even want to see my mother or know what her condition is. The betrayal I’ve felt so acutely since Calliope’s birth has been made even worse by my suspicion that she’s been involved in all of this and I can’t deal with that and the pain I still feel over the idea of losing her forever. Because, despite everything that’s happened over the last few months, she’s still my mother.

The choices she’s made don’t erase the twenty-two years of memories I have with her. They don’t negate all of the kisses on scraped needs, cuddles after nightmares, or the touch that was the only thing that felt good when I was sick. Hating what she’s done doesn’t make me forget about birthdays, or Christmases, or the one week every summer we spent on the beach playing in the surf and building sand castles. It doesn’t take back every I love you, even if it does make me question the sincerity behind it. It’s one thing to hate your mother when you know she’s safe. It’s an entirely different thing altogether when you know you’ll never speak to her or see her again. When you know that you’ll never have the chance to make things right.

I let out a long calming breath as I take the stairs from the plane down onto the tarmac, but the effects are wasted when I look up at the car waiting for us and see Christian step out. Not from the backseat, but the driver’s seat. Neither Taylor or Ryan are with him and after what happened last night, there’s only one explanation for why he would be alone out in public right now.

“Let’s get everything in the car as quickly as possible,” Christian says, looking past me to Luke. “We need to get back to the hospital.”

“What happened, Christian?” I ask.

He ignores me. “Get in the car, Ana.”

“No, where is everyone?” My voice is desperate as I seek answers to all the questions that have plagued me since I last spoke to him on the phone, but again, he doesn’t answer. Instead, his eyes flit nervously over the empty airfield around us and he pushes me towards the passenger seat of the black Cadillac.

“Just get in the fucking car.”

The bite in his tone momentarily extinguishes my need for answers as I too find myself looking over my shoulder before allowing him to take Calliope out of my arms and hurry me into the car. Luke buckles the carseat in behind me and once Calliope is secured inside the seat, Luke piles in next to her and Christian comes back around to the driver’s seat. Again, he looks warily around before he begins pulling off the tarmac and then speeds down the vaguely familiar highway in the direction of the hospital.

“What happened?” I ask again.

He takes a breath through his nose and when he speaks, his voice is tight. “They were ambushed.”

“How?” Luke asks.

“I don’t know… I don’t know the whole story. Everything happened very quickly. When they called me and I got on the plane, everything had gone according to plan. They had Isaac, they were bringing Carla back to Seattle… but when I landed, no one was there. None of them answered their phones, I had no idea what was going on. All I had was your mother’s address so I went there first and when I got there, the street was covered in glass and blood and everything was roped off by the police. They said it was a drive by.”

“As in… a shooting?” I ask. He nods.

“Your mother and Taylor are in critical condition, they were both in surgery when I got to the hospital.”

“Carter?” I check.

“He was wounded, but I think he’s going to be okay. I’m not really sure. He was admitted but he was also being questioned by the police so I haven’t had the chance to speak with him.”

“And, Ryan?” Luke asks. Christian presses his lips into a thin line and then slowly, shakes his head.

“Jesus Christ.” I look over my shoulder at Luke, who looks a little winded, and then reach back to take his hand. They were friends, and now he’s gone. Just like that. He squeezes my fingers with his, and then takes a few long deep breaths.

“Was there anyone apprehended at the scene?”

“No, the police are still looking for the car but Reed is the only witness who isn’t dead or unconscious. From what I’ve heard all he’s been able to tell them was that it was a black SUV with its lights off.”

I shake my head with disgust. “How did he coordinate something like this? Georgia, New York…”

“Washington,” Christian says, and the words send a tingle up my spine.

“Washington? What?”

“Kate and Elliot went to a concert in Tacoma last night and they stayed in a hotel, so my parents were watching her dog. Apparently he woke everyone up in the middle of the night barking his head off but when my dad got up to let him out, he didn’t see anything unusual. This morning though, after you called looking for me, Elliot brought Kate back to the house before going to Escala and when my dad told her that Champ had freaked out in the middle of the night, she asked Harrison to take a look around. The lock on the gate had been broken and the control panel on the alarm had been dismantled. It looks like someone tried to break in but got scared away when they came face to face with a 130 lb Bullmastiff.”

“Oh my god… everyone’s okay though?”

“Yeah.” He nods. “Thank god for Champ. I’m going to personally see to it that dog is never fed kibble for the rest of his life.”

“How did they get that close? Where was the security guard you hired to stay at your parent’s house?”

“You fired him last weekend. Remember?”

Right. Mia. Fuck, I forgot all about Mia. Should I tell Christian everything she said to me the morning of the wedding now? In the middle of all of this? I don’t know if he can handle much more.

“There’s more…” he says hesitantly. Shit.

“More?”

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his phone, then presses his thumb into the news app on the screen before passing it across the console to me. There are a few stories spread across the home page, all Seattle news, so it takes me a second to realize what he’s showing me.

 

Women’s Correctional Facility Riot Leaves One Inmate Dead, Others Wounded.

 

I don’t have to read the article to figure out who it was. Besides, this brings up another issue. One I don’t want to face or admit is an issue at all, but because I love the man sitting next to me, I have to.

I take a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Christian.”

“No, you’re not,” he replies bluntly. “And it’s fine. There’s no reason to be.” He’s brushing me off but I catch him swallowing, as if he’s trying to force down a lump in his throat, and the muscle in his jaw ticks as he clenches his teeth.

“You can talk to me, I won’t be upset. Are you… Are you okay?”

“No, I’m not okay,” he says bluntly. “But that has nothing to do with Elena. I’ve done everything I know how to do and I can’t stop him. He’s always one step ahead of me.” His hand moves up and drags through the light stubble over his chin and when he reaches back down for the steering wheel, he squeezes it so hard that his knuckles turn white. “Did I make the wrong choice?”

“What do you mean?”

“When Elena offered me his name for her freedom. Did I make the wrong choice?”

“You mean when you refused to put a child molestor and a convicted sex criminal back on the streets in exchange for the vague promise of a name? No, Christian. You didn’t make the wrong choice.”

“It’s very easy to moralize the situation when you frame it in black and white like that but things turn gray real fast when you consider what we’ve lost trying take the high road. I sent them here, Ana. Ryan’s blood is on my hands, and if Taylor or your mother…” He stops and swallows again. “It would be different if he was coming for me, but he isn’t. He attacks the people I love and I can’t stop him.”

“You will,” I reply firmly. “We’ll find a way.” We have to. There is no other choice. He doesn’t seem as sure though.

“When? And who else am I going to lose before that happens? Mia? You? I can’t keep lying to myself and think I’m protecting you when Hyde was in your fucking dressing room. I can’t stop him and I can’t risk losing you, Ana.”

“You’re not taking risks, this is happening to you. To all of us. You’re doing everything you can to make sure we’re all safe.”

“Am I?”

“What are you saying, Christian?”

“I don’t know.” He shakes his head. “I don’t know what I’m saying, I don’t know what I’m thinking… I don’t what I want to do. Maybe your mom was right. Maybe the answer is that… I’m too dangerous for you.”

“No, that’s not true,” I snap, but he doesn’t look at me. He focuses only on the road as he turns into the parking lot of the hospital. I don’t know how to take what he’s said. I don’t know if he’s serious or if he’s just scared, but his thought process over this whole thing has obviously changed, and this new direction has taken the wind out of me. Suddenly, in a whole new way, it feels as though I may be fighting for my life.

Once we’re parked, he gets out of the car and comes around my side to open the door. I over examine everything, from the way holds my hand in his to the way he walks beside me. In this moment, I can’t even think about what’s waiting on the other side of the automatic doors, even after we step through them.

“Christian,” I whisper. “I love you.”

He stops, pulling gently against my hand to stop me with him, and then looks deep into my eyes. They gray of his irises seems darker than normal, concealing his thoughts and emotions from me. I can’t read him, so I’m surprised when he takes my face in his hands, leans down, and kisses me. Not politely. This kiss is entirely inappropriate for the number of strangers in the waiting room around us, and for my CPO standing only a few feet away, carrying my daughter. His tongue invades my mouth and tangles forcibly with mine. He groans passionately against my lips. When he pulls away, it’s only because we’re both breathless and he has to take a moment to rest his forehead against mine to catch his breath.

“I love you too,” he whispers, sounding pained. “So much.”

There’s resignation in his voice that is terrifying and when he reaches down for my hand again, my throat tightens and tears spring to my eyes.

“Christian…”

He cuts me off. “Come. Let’s get an update.”

 

Taylor and my mother are out of surgery, but it’s too early to tell anything real about their condition. They’ve been moved into the ICU, where they’ll remain under constant supervision for at least the next 24 hours. Carter is no longer being interviewed by the police though, so we go to his room first to get the story of what actually happened.

“Carter,” I gasp as we step into the room. He’s shirtless, sitting up in bed, and there’s a large white bandage wrapped around his left shoulder. When he turns to look at me, he winces.

“Ana, are you okay?” There’s genuine concern in his voice that makes me feel guilty.

“Me? What about you?”

“I’ll be alright, it’s just the shoulder. Hurts like a bitch but it should leave a pretty cool scar that I can use to impress some girl who’s way too hot for me when I get out of here.”

I laugh and then carefully ease myself down on the side of his bed. “I’m so sorry, Carter. This is all because of me. I shouldn’t have agreed to what you proposed. You should have said no.”

“I’m not sorry,” he says. “What happened would have happened whether I was there or not and if I had said no and your mom was taken or killed, I wouldn’t have been able to ever look you in the eye again. We gave your mom a chance when she had nothing before, and at the very least, he lost someone too. Someone important. The fewer people he has to use to get to you and Calli, the better we’ll all sleep at night. I don’t regret going, Ana. I’m proud of my decision.”

“And I’m forever grateful,” Christian says. “This didn’t work out the way we’d hoped, but I want you to know that what we talked about still stands. And, if you ever need anything, it’s yours. Just call me.”

“Thanks, Grey.”

“Christian,” he corrects him. “My friends call me Christian.”

Carter smiles but then winces again and takes a deep breath as he allows his body to relax back into the pillows.

“I don’t want to put you through more than you’ve already had to endure,” Christian says. “But Ryan is dead and the head of my security is unconscious. I’d really like to talk to you about what happened.”

He nods. “Of course. Um… Isaac pulled me out of bed just after midnight. There was no phone call or advanced warning, he just shook me awake in the middle of the night and told me we had to go. Ana wasn’t supposed to be in Atlanta until Friday so we all thought we had more time. I was worried that Taylor wasn’t ready. I knew he had me under surveillance but I also don’t really know what that means so I thought maybe he might not have been prepared to go right then. We snuck out of the house and drove off my block, but I had no idea if Taylor knew we were leaving or not and I had no way to contact him. I just had to sit.”

“It’s like three hours from my house to Savannah and Isaac didn’t say a single word to me the entire drive. I didn’t even know where we were going. We just pulled up alongside the street of this random neighborhood and he started walking me through the plan. How we were going to get into the house, where the target would be, how we were going to restrain her. He never told me an exit plan and I realize now, that should have been a red flag, but I don’t know enough about this stuff to ask. I just agreed and silently hoped Taylor was there.”

“We got out of the car and went down this alley and jumped a back fence. It was only 4:30 so it was still dark outside and we came up behind this strange house. He jimmied the lock on the external garage door.”

Suddenly, I can picture the scene he describes with perfect detail. I know exactly the door he’s talking about and I know that my mother doesn’t lock the door from the garage into the house. From there, it’s only a few short steps to her bedroom.

“We got into the house and he handed me a gun. I waited for him to move first and then followed him through a laundry room and then off the right to the bedroom. She was still asleep so she didn’t hear us come in. She didn’t know we were there. He was fast. He got to her and pulled her out of bed, and she was so disoriented he’d already had the duct tape out before she started to scream. He didn’t even ask me for help as he tied her up, he didn’t need it. The way he restrained her and tied the ropes around her wrists, it’s like he’d done it a thousand times before and watching him do it was almost sickening. I still didn’t know who she was, but I knew that he planned to kidnap her and would probably end up killing her, and because I didn’t know where Taylor was, it felt like I was just letting it happen. I almost had to try and stop him, but as she struggled to get away from him and he finally called me for help, I heard the click of a gun behind me and Taylor’s voice telling Isaac to put his hands in the air.”

“He did and once Ryan came into the room and we both lifted our guns and pointed them directly at him. He dropped his weapon and backed up against the wall. Taylor wanted to get him out of the house, to get him somewhere secure, so while he dealt with Isaac, Ryan called you, and I moved to help the woman. It was only after I’d freed her that I got an inkling who she was. She has Ana’s eyes. She started to cry and I hugged her and told her that Ana had sent us for her and that she was safe. Then Ryan came back into the room to help Taylor. They talked for a while, trying to decide where to take him that would be safe until you arrived. I don’t even know where they decided, I was too focused on trying to calm down Ana’s mom, but once a decision had been made, they each hooked an elbow through Isaac’s arms and started dragging him from the room. They had a big SUV outside to get us all out of there and Ryan got in first so that they could put Isaac in the back seat between him and me. Taylor got in the driver’s seat, and I helped Ana’s Mom into the front passenger seat. I’d just closed the door and moved to get in the backseat myself when another car without headlights on pulled beside the car and opened fire.”

“The whole thing happened so fast. It probably only lasted maybe ten seconds but they unloaded a full magazine from an automatic rifle into the side of the SUV. I got hit almost immediately so I fell to the ground and I think now they must have thought I was dead. I probably would have been had I been in the car because both Ryan and Isaac…” He shudders. “I could hear their tires screeching as they peeled out on the asphalt and then a few seconds later the neighbors started coming out into their lawns and someone called the police. The ambulance came and brought us here and once they took the bullet out of me and patched up my arm, the police came in to question me. I don’t know anything else. Are Taylor and Ana’s mom okay?”

“We don’t know,” Christian says. “They just got out of surgery. They’re alive though.”

“Good.” He nods and I reach out to rest my hand over his, but I’m distracted again by a worried voice from the hallway.

“Ana?” It’s Kate and when she passes the open doorway and sees us sitting inside, she first looks relieved. Then her eyes fall on Carter and the bandage around his shoulder and her mouth falls open with shock.

“Kate? What are you doing here?” I ask.

“We just landed,” she explains. “The whole family came. We went to see your mom and Taylor and they told us you were here. They asked me to…” Her words cut off and she almost seems to gasp, like she’s having a hard time catching her breath. “Carter?”

“Hey, Katie…” he croaks. Her eyes widen with disbelief as she comes into the room and starts to examine him.

“Oh my god. Why are you here? What happened to you?”

“Oh you know. Just casually taking a bullet on the side of the road, typical Monday night stuff.”

“He was trying to save my mom,” I add.

“What? Why? Jesus Christ, are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. It’s nothing really. Actually…” He hesitates. “Katie, I’ve meaning to call you…”

“Ana?” It’s Elliot this time, standing awkwardly in the doorway, and he shifts uncomfortably as his eyes move from Kate and Carter, to me. “The doctors said you need to come. It’s not looking good.”

“Who?” I check, but the answer is in his eyes. I scramble quickly off the bed, reaching for Christian’s hand as I scurry across the floor. “I’ll be back, Carter,” I call over my shoulder. “I promise.”

“Don’t worry about me, Annie,” he replies. Kate takes the place I’ve vacated on his bedside and Elliot lingers in the doorway for just a moment, but he doesn’t say anything. He turns and follows Christian and I back down the brightly lit sterile hallway towards the ICU.

There are too many people surrounding my mother’s bed. Kate was right, the entire family came, and I have to force my way between Mia and Grace before I can see her.

It’s a shock.

She’s paler than I’ve ever seen her look before and there’s dry blood matted in her hair. They have her covered from the neck down so I don’t really know where she’s injured, but her halted breathing, even with the help of an intubation tube, gives me a good idea. Her eyes are closed, but the blood and the tubes make it impossible for me to imagine she’s just sleeping.

Looking at her, I feel so small. The shock grips my lungs like a vice, making it hard to breathe, and I can feel by body shaking. I want to cry and scream and be sick all at once, but I can’t do anything. I can’t can’t move. I can’t hold myself up. As the shaking becomes more violent, my knees give out and I’m swept with a wave of vertigo.

“Annie!” my dad cries worriedly from the other side of the bed.

“I’ve got her,” Christian says. He holds all of my weight as he catches me and pulls me against him, then turns to Elliot. “Bring me that chair, please.”

With a nod, Elliot turns and drags the chair against the wall near the foot of the bed towards me, and slowly Christian lowers me into it. My dad comes around the bed and kneels down next to me, then reaches up and takes my mother’s pale hand in his. The touching gesture catches my eye and brings up another question that was nagging at me on the plane. There should be another man here, holding her hand.

“Where’s Bob?” I ask.

My dad glances up at Christian and then back to me. He looks nervous. “I’m sorry… I should have said something but you and your mom weren’t really, uh…” He takes a breath. “Bob left your mom, Annie. Right after your graduation. He’s been living in an apartment a few miles away from her since June.”

“Oh…” At first the news doesn’t seem to make much impact on me, I think because I’m still in so much shock over everything that’s happened, but then, without warning, the dam holding back all of my emotions bursts with unbelievable force and my body crumples in the chair as I’m overtaken by horribly painful sobs. My dad pulls me into his chest and wraps as much of me as he can in his arms. He doesn’t whisper words of comfort into my ear, he knows there’s nothing he can say. He just holds me and lets me cry.

“Umm… excuse me. Are you Anastasia Steele?” I look up and, through my tears, see a very somber man looking down on me.

“Grey,” I cough, the correction now automatic, but when I nod, he takes a breath and steps past Carrick. He gives me a rundown on the severity of my mother’s condition and her injuries, which include three gunshot wounds to the chest and one to the abdomen. From his explanation of the surgery and everything they’ve observed since she’s been brought into the ICU, I get my first taste of how grim the prognosis really is. She’s not going to wake. She’s gone, and as her next of kin, they’re looking to me to make a decision on what to do. Only there isn’t really a choice. There’s only one thing to do. I just have to be the one to say it.

“It’s crowded in here…” Grace chokes from behind me, trying to hide her own tears. “Why don’t we go back to the waiting room and give Ana and Ray a little space, huh?”

Mia nods, but reaches out and hugs me over the back of my chair. “I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I love you, Ana.”

“I love you too, Meems.”

She sniffs and then let’s her mother lead her from the room with Elliot dragging along behind. Carrick gives me a tortured but sympathetic look, then tells Christian they’ll be outside before he follows after his wife and children.

“Mrs. Grey?” The doctor presses me. I glance back down at my mom and blink away tears.

“Can I just have a moment alone with her, please?”

“Of course,” the doctor says. “We’ll come check on you again in a few minutes.”

“Thank you.” He turns to leave and my dad stands and leans over my mother’s bed to kiss her on the forehead.

“Good-bye, Carla,” he says, unsuccessfully covering the crack in his voice. He turns back to me, reaches into his jacket, and pulls out a thick bunch of envelopes that are held together with a blue rubber band. “I met Elliot at Escala and he saw the letters piling up on the counter that your mom’s been sending to you. He thought you might like them now. If you want.”

“Thank you,” I tell him, reaching out and taking the letters from his shaking hands. His eyes are glassy and he takes a deep, wet breath before nodding, then kisses the top of my head and exits after the doctor.

“Do you want me to go?” Christian asks.

“Please,” I whisper. “But stay close. Okay? Don’t leave.”

“I won’t.” He too kisses me, on my forehead though. “I’m so sorry, Ana. If you need me for anything, I’ll be in the waiting room.”

“I’ll be out soon, okay?”

“Okay. I love you, baby.”

His words make me start to cry again but I shake off his attempts to comfort me and instead ask him to leave again so I can have one more moment alone with my mother. He does, and once I hear the door close behind him, I sink out my chair and onto my knees. I place the letters on the bed and then entwine my fingers with my mother’s

“It’s just you and me now, Mom. No one else. Please wake up.” I pause, gripping her hand tightly with mine as I wait, but she doesn’t stir. “Please,” I beg again. “Okay, we can talk. I shouldn’t have just ignored you, I’m sorry. But we can talk now. We can work out everything between us, we’ll figure out a way, but just wake up, okay? Please? Please, Mom.”

I wait, but there’s nothing. The room is silent except for the slow, steady beep of her heart on the monitor. A beep that won’t last forever.

“Please.”

The doctor doesn’t give me long. When he returns I ask him to explain everything to me one more time so I can be absolutely sure once this is over that I’ve made the right decision. After all, I was on life support once. But this isn’t like when I was in the hospital after Calliope. There isn’t a chance that she’s going to wake up and be fine. There isn’t even a chance that she’ll wake up with severe mental deficiencies or impaired motor function. This is about a machine that’s moving her lungs, and pumping her heart, and how long I want those machines to keep running.

He hands me a form to sign saying that he’s explained everything to me and that I understand what removing life support means. I scrawl a very shaky signature across the bottom and when he asks if I’d like another moment, I shake my head. There’s no sense in prolonging this. There’s no reason to hold on to something that isn’t there or to drawing out this pain. Hope is worse than defeat right now.

“I can’t watch you do it,” I tell him. He nods as his team comes into the room and then steps aside to let me pass.

I pause outside the room to let myself unravel. There’s no sound to whatever they’re doing inside so I don’t have to hear the final moments, which I’m grateful for. I slide slowly down the wall at my back until I’m sitting on the floor and while I try to regain control of my breathing, I reach out for the letters at my side, and slowly, open the one on top.

 

Anastasia,

I know you can’t understand what I did and I don’t expect you to. Hell, I think I was half out of my mind myself. I don’t intend to make excuses. I don’t expect you to forgive me. But at the very least, I do want you to know that what I did wasn’t purely out of selfishness. I was trying to protect you. I was trying to protect your daughter.

Before I came to Seattle for your baby shower in March, I’d gotten a phone call. It was a man who told me that your involvement with Christian was going to get you killed. He said that it was in my best interest to get you to leave Christian of your own volition, that that was the only way you’d be safe. I asked him who he was but he told me not to ask questions. Questions would get you killed. Words in general would get you killed. I was to convince you to leave, to break Christian’s heart, and if I could do that, you would be fine. He promised me that if you walked away, he wouldn’t harm you and he wouldn’t harm your baby. But if you didn’t, you would die. If I spoke of this conversation, you would die. If I called the police, you would die.

It’s not the first time I’ve gotten calls from crazies about you. Ever since your name started being printed in the news, people have called me. They always say vile things about what a slut you are or about raping you… I thought this was just the same in a long line of terribly unfunny prank calls.

But it wasn’t.

After your baby shower, you were attacked, and I knew it was real. And it was all because of me. Because I didn’t take it seriously. He called me again, and gave me one last chance. I took it. I knew you were too stubborn to listen to me, especially with a baby on the way, so I screamed at Christian on the phone and brought up everything he’s ever done and how it affected you. I blamed him for every hurt, for every tear, for every ounce of physical pain hoping that he might just give up and leave. But he wouldn’t. So then I tried Ray.

When he called you on your graduation, I thought that was the day. I thought I’d run out of time. I watched you laying in that hospital bed and I couldn’t stop all the horrible thoughts that some how, he’d done this to you. None of this was an accident, that you’d been poisoned or he’d found a way to hurt you, maybe while you were sleeping. It’s seems implausible now, but at the time, I was too blinded by fear and the reality that I was going to lose you for it not to all make sense.

I thought I’d lost you, Ana. I wasn’t going to lose Calliope too. That’s why I said what I said to Christian. I wanted to protect her from him. When I wrote my first letter to you, I still wasn’t sure I should tell you. I’m still so scared. Your father told me about the Leila girl and the boy from Thanksgiving, I don’t want that to be you.

But you won’t listen to me anymore, so I can’t protect you. There doesn’t seem to be any benefit to staying quiet if I can’t do what he’s asked me to do to keep you safe, so here it is. You’re in danger, Ana. Please, please, consider that. Consider the safety of your daughter. Run away. Please.

And don’t hate me forever.

I love you, darling baby girl. I’ll always love you. I’ll always be here for you. I’ll always be your mom.

 

Heartbroken. That’s the only way I can explain the way I feel right now and as I watch the doctors come out of my mother’s room while more hospital personnel go inside, I know I need to get out of here. Taylor is still here somewhere, and I don’t want to leave Carter alone, but I can’t be here right now. I need somewhere I can let myself fully absorb the gravity of what’s happening and then properly fall apart. Maybe in a hotel room, maybe just in the car, but either way, I need to leave this hospital.  

I peel myself off the floor, and make my way down the hall to the waiting room, where I know my father and the Grey’s are waiting. It’s an extremely nice setup they have here, the opposite really of the waiting room in Seattle. There are wooden partitions up that create private spaces for family members to come together, probably because this floor has seen so much death. But it means, as I search for my family, that I hear them talking before they see me and when I hear Christian’s voice, I stop to listen.

“I don’t know what else to do, Elliot,” he groans. “You think this is really what I want? You think I could live a day without Anastasia? He’s coming after me and you’re all in danger because of it. Because of me. I can’t let him hurt her.”

“So get on your plane,” Elliot says. “Let Ros have GEH, get on your plane with Ana and Calliope and just go somewhere he can’t find you. I know that you’re scared but you can’t leave her, Christian. It would destroy the both of you and… you’re a father now. That little girl deserves to have you in her life.”

“There’s got to be a way we can stop him,” Carrick says. “Something we haven’t thought of yet.”

“Are you willing to lose people we care about while we try?” Christian counters. “He was at your house last night, Dad. Ana’s mother is going to die because of him.”

“Yeah, so… are we going to talk about what that means?” Elliot asks.

“What do you mean?” Grace asks.

“Well, this guy knows everything Ana and Christian does, so he would know that Ana was estranged from her mother. That doesn’t make her a very likely target if he was trying to get her just to hurt Ana. We all had questions after she tried to basically kidnap Calliope after she was born, maybe… Don’t hate me for saying this, but maybe she was working with him. He does go after his own people when they don’t live up to his expectations and Carla didn’t deliver a baby to him.”

“No,” Christian says. “Carla didn’t like me, but she loved Ana. She wouldn’t have helped the man who was trying to hurt her.”

“She would if she thought that is what she was trying to prevent,” I say, and the voices on the other side of the partition go silent. I take a breath and wipe away the moisture still clinging to my cheeks before I step into view. Every pair of eyes turn to look at me, so I hold up my mother’s letter. “He called her before my shower and told her that if she didn’t break Christian and I up, he was going to hurt me and Calliope. He promised her that if she could convince me to break Christian’s heart and that she never said anything about him, that he wouldn’t harm me. He used my life as leverage over her and she fell for it.”

“What?” my dad asks. I hand him the letter. It’s silent as we all watch his eyes scan through the pages, and when he’s finished, there’s almost a green tint to his completion. “Why would someone do this?”

“Because it’s how he gets what he wants,” Mia says, her voice breaking as she forces out the words. “People are surprisingly self-sacrificing, so he demands your silence by going after the people you love. He sends flowers to your private dressing room at your rehearsal space with a note reminding you to keep your mouth shut. He sends you pictures from the inside of your house of your mother doing laundry with a red dot on the back of her head. He calls you from an anonymous number to talk about how much work your dad’s golf swing needs when you know he’s out on the course. He leaves pictures of Ana or Elliot or Kate on the the windshield of your car at school. He does everything he can to show you that he can get to the people you love and reminds you over and over again that staying silent is the only way to keep them from getting hurt.” She starts crying and every person sitting inside the closed off vestibule goes stiff.

“Mia…” Christian breathes. She looks up at him with tear filled eyes and shakes her head with shame.

“Christian…. I know who it is.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 43

today-show-logo

“Alright, Mrs. Grey. How’s that?”

I look up at my reflection the mirror in front of me and frown. This morning, I’m going to be making my first national television appearance and the makeup artist at the Today show has painted my lips bright scarlet. It makes my eyes look heavy and my skin more pale, something I don’t need help with. It’s too much.

“Umm…”

“Get that crap off of her,” Lydia says, coming up behind me. “Her makeup should be neutral, flawless, and above all else, understated. She’s an author, not Katy Perry.”

“Right,” the makeup artist says. She seems bitter as she picks up a makeup removing wipe and begins scrubbing my lips down while Lydia leans against the counter and stares at me.

“You ready?”

“Yes.” I try to exude confidence, even if I don’t feel it.

“Good. I’ve just talked to the stage manager and it looks like Lauer is going to try and turn this into a Dr. Phil special. You are not going to let him. People don’t buy sad books, Anastasia. They buy hopeful books. You will not let this interview be about what has happened, you will make it about how you have survived. This book is about strength and the resilience of hope. You got, that?”  

“Yeah. Of course.”

She nods. “Then go get yourself on the New York Times bestseller list. You go on in twenty minutes.”

I smile at her as she pushes herself away from the counter and claps me on the arm, then let out a long, calming breath into the mirror. When my makeup is finished and I’m left alone to collect my thoughts, my eyes flit down to my phone. Unfortunately, it’s 6:50 in the morning in New York, so not even 4 AM in Seattle, which means Christian probably isn’t up yet. Thankfully though, he texted me his reassurances last night so I’d have them to read over and over again before I go on air this morning.

Just go out there and be the woman I fell in love with and you’ll capture the heart of everyone watching.

I smile down at the screen and then glance over my shoulder to make sure no one is coming to collect me for my interview before deciding to try and call Christian anyway. I’m not there after all, and he usually doesn’t sleep as well alone. But, after dialing his number, I wait through a long litany of droning rings before I finally get his voicemail. Ignoring the sinking feeling of disappointment, I leave a message.

“Hey, I’m about to go on Today. Wish me luck. I miss you and love you.”

“Mrs. Grey?” I turn to see a young woman who’s wearing a headset and carrying a clipboard peaking uncertainly at me through a long black curtain. “This is your set call.”

“Thank you,” I tell her, then hang up the phone and check my appearance in the mirror one more time before sliding out of my chair and making my way to the set where I’ll be doing my segment.

To my surprise, there’s already another person waiting there, and he looks as nervous as I do. When he sees me though, his eyes widen.

“Oh! You’re… you’re Anastasia Steele.”

“Grey,” I reply, but the gentle correction only makes his eyes widen further. “I’m sorry… do I know you?”

“No.” He shakes his head as if to center himself and then reaches his hand out for mine. “I’m sorry, I’m Keith Brooks. I’m an author too… I’m recording my segment with Lauer after you for later in the week. I uh… I’m published through SIP. I think your husband owns it.”

“Oh, yeah. He does.” I smile at him. “I worked there last summer.”

He laughs. “Yeah, I uh… I know. They still talk about how good you were, actually. Especially with the stuff about the eReader. From what I’ve heard, I kind of wish you’d stayed and you could have represented me. I’ve watched your publicist running around barking orders at people all morning to make sure you don’t have any surprises during your interview and, hell I don’t even think mine showed up today.”

“No? Who’s working with you?”

“Jack. I mean, Hyde. Jack Hyde.”

“Oh…” I bite down nervously on my bottom lip as I turn to look at Luke, sitting on a chair across the stage from me, glancing interestedly between Keith and I as he sips his coffee and rocks Calliope’s carrier back and forth in the chair next to him. “And Jack? He’s here in New York with you?”

“Yeah, I mean… I think. He was on the fight, but I haven’t seen him this morning. He was hitting the bottle the bottle pretty hard at dinner though, I bet he’s just hung over. I’ve kind of heard that about him…”

“Right.” I swallow awkwardly and glance back at the main set where Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera are talking about today’s big headline. The last time I saw Jack was at the GEH New Year’s Eve Gala and he’d been drunk that night too. He also hadn’t seemed too happy to see me…

What was it he said to me?

“Mrs. Grey, they’re ready for you on set,” the stage manager says to me, breaking my concentration.

“Right,” I smile at her, then turn back to Keith.

“Good luck, and congratulations on your deal. I hope you do well.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Grey. And, you as well.”

With a smile, I shake his hand and then follow the state manager onto the overly lit set, where she gestures for me to take a seat on the couch. Lydia rushes up to me to offer one last bit of advice and then takes my phone while the crew hooks me up to a mic pack.

“Alright, Matt will be here in about 45 seconds,” the stage manager tells me. “We’re going to start on camera three, just him, and he’ll give some background about you and your book. Then we’ll change to camera one, right there, on the both of you. I don’t want you to worry about any of that though, you just focus on Matt. We like these things to feel as conversational as possible.”

“Right,” I agree.

“Good luck.” She winks and then moves hurriedly off the stage while Matt Lauer moves onto the set with a few staff members surrounding him, holding out papers for him to read over while he prepares to change segments.

“Mrs. Grey,” he greets me, holding out his hand for mine. “May I call you Anastasia on air?”

“Oh, please. Ana even.”

“Great.” He smiles and then sits in the sofa across from me, letting one of the assistants powder his face while the stage manager counts us down into the segment. When she points silently at Lauer, he immediately switches into his TV persona.

“For over a year, Seattle based Grey Enterprises Holdings has dominated national headlines because of the successes and scandals of the company’s billionaire CEO, Christian Grey and his longtime girlfriend, now wife, Anastasia Steele. This weekend was no different as their highly publicized elopement has thrust their names back into the news, and today, I have Anastasia Grey here with me to talk about her much anticipated first novel, Escape, which the critics all seem to summarize in one word. Remarkable.” He turns to me. “Thank you for being with us today, Ana.”

“Good morning, Matt.” I smile back at him. “Thank you for having me.”

“So, we have to start this morning with the wedding…”

“Do we?” I joke, wrinkling my nose, and he laughs.

“For weeks all of the details of this lavish ceremony are being reported to the press. The castle just outside of Seattle, what dress you’re going to wear, and the millions of dollars of jewelry on loan from De Beers. Then the day comes and…” his voice trails off.

“And we had private ceremony all on our own.”

“But why?”

“For exactly the reasons you just listed. We didn’t call up The Times or TMZ to tell them what I was wearing or where we were getting married, it all just leaks. You know, someone fits my dress and then talks to a reporter and suddenly it’s splashed all over the paper. Christian and I just wanted one day away from all of that. So, we gave the media the event they all wanted but kept our actual ceremony as a private affair between us and our family.”

“But what about your guests?”

I laugh. “Oh, Christian left them with quite the party. There was a band and dancing, really great food, and favors for all of the guests to take home. My security team just told me this morning that we’re still getting emails thanking us for such a lovely time and congratulating us. I think a lot of them are happy to be apart of the story.” I smile, but his face suddenly goes serious.

“I did notice when you came in this morning, you had a full security detail with you. Is that because of the incident that occurred last March?”

I take a breath. I’ve rehearsed these questions with Lydia over and over again, trying to prepare myself, but somehow, the reminder still triggers an uncomfortable reaction in me and my response comes out sounding a little weak. “Mhmm.”

He gives me a sympathetic smile and then turns to the camera to give a brief synopsis of the attempted kidnapping before cutting away to a video segment that I can watch on the screen behind us. It begins with the audio of Christian’s panicked phone call to the police, reporting me missing. I’ve never heard this before and it throws me off guard. Hearing the desperation in his voice is agony as I remember those terrifying few hours, Christian’s heartbreaking confession afterwards, and the horrifying dreams and terror that plagued me for weeks after I was home again. So, once video segment is over and Lauer turns back to me, I’m feeling a little dazed.

“Terrifying,” he says. “Ana, can you walk us through that day?”

I swallow and stare blankly back at him, the silence between us weighing heavily on me. I can feel the eyes of everyone in the room boring into us as they wait for me to answer and fill the dead air space, but my mind is blank. I glance over at Lydia, standing just off set. This is exactly what she warned me about and she motions for me to smile and keep the conversation upbeat. I take a breath and look back at Lauer.

“It was a horrifying experience that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It changed me, and the way I look at the world, but… it also gave me strength. That’s the message of my book. Strength in the face of adversity and the resilience of hope. It’s why I wrote this novel and it’s why I’m here today. To share that message.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Lydia beam and punch her fist in the air. Lauer doesn’t seem too pleased that I’ve robbed him of the chance to draw out my own personal horrifying experiences for the sake of engaging TV drama, but he doesn’t miss a beat as he’s forced to follow my lead and change the subject to my book.

I feel a small sense of victory to have most of the segment to discuss what I’ve written rather than the drama that constantly surrounds my life. Matt gives me the chance to talk about the emotions I put into the novel and how healing the entire writing process was. I express what I want out of publishing, which is to find people looking for a lifeline and offer it to them. I want to make people feel hopeful and optimistic after they’ve experienced tragedy.

“I worked through my own trauma thanks to the love and support of my family and through putting what I was feeling down on paper and leaving it on the page. If even one person who is struggling with heartbreak, or loss, or devastation can read this book and come out of it feeling like there’s light at the end of the tunnel, then I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do.”

Lauer smiles at me and turns for the camera again. “The book is called Escape, and it’s in stores today. Do yourself a favor, really, and pick up a copy. It truly is a life changing read.” He thanks me one last time and then looks at the camera focused only on him. “We’ll be right back.”

“And we’re off,” someone yells from off set. Immediately everyone, including myself, relaxes.

“Great interview,” Lauer says, reaching out to shake my hand. “Not what I expected… but your passion for this project really came through. You may have a career in journalism.”

“I think I’m going to stick to writing,” I say with a laugh, and he smiles back at me.

“Good-luck, Ana.”

I wait as he turns to walk back to the main stage where Meredith Vieira is still sitting, and then let out a long, relieved sigh. My first, solo, national interview is out of the way.

“Anastasia!” Lydia cries with excitement as she rushes towards me. “That was fantastic! They didn’t tell me about that video cut or I would have stopped it, but you handled it like a seasoned pro! I mean, maybe next time just a little less pause, but phenomenal. Absolutely phenomenal.”

“Really?”

“Absolutely. Now let’s go get you changed. We’re going to tape for The View and then we’ve got a book signing in downtown Manhattan before we head to Boston and Cambridge tonight for your reading at Harvard tomorrow.”

“Alright.” I stand and wait for Luke to follow me back to my dressing room, where I have approximately seven minutes to change.

“You did good, kid,” he tells me as I separate the dress bag Lydia has labeled The View from the other garments currently hanging on the wardrobe rack. “Personally, I’m a little offended that you seemed to credit your realization that life can go on after tragedy to writing this book rather than to the billion and one times I’ve watched It Happened One Night with you, but you know. You do you, I guess.” He gives me a teasing smile and I roll my eyes.

“Will you get out of here so I can change please?”

“As long as you promise not to wallow in guilt over that gross oversight you made out there.”

“I promise.” He hands Calliope off to the nanny, instructing her to follow stage security so they can load the car seat in the van and we can get out of here on time, then steps back out into the hall and leans against the wall just outside the door. After I’ve very purposefully slammed the door behind him, I let out a laugh through my nose and turn back to the wardrobe rack again. The moment I begin to pull down the zipper though, there’s a noise to my right and I turn just in time to see the bathroom door swing open and someone fly out at me.

“Don’t scream, don’t scream, don’t scream,” the stranger whispers, covering my mouth with his hand. “Don’t scream, it’s okay.”

My body seizes and I can taste something acrid creep into my mouth as the traumatizing memories begin flooding over me and panic sets in, but once the initial shock of his appearance gives way to the rush of adrenaline, I recognize that the man who has a hold of me. It’s Jack Hyde.

He doesn’t look the way the man who grabbed me last time did. There isn’t inexplicable fiery hatred behind his eyes. Instead, he looks almost pained, regretful, and I take that moment of hesitation to shove against his chest and pry his grip away from me.

“Jack, what are you doing in here?” I ask angrily. He frowns and lets out a huff that makes it so I can smell the alcohol on his breath.

“Ana…”

“You need to get out of my dressing room right now or Christian is going to have your job.”

“No… he won’t.”

I feel my face contort at the audacity of his drunken response. “You’re right. He’ll have it because you’re an incompetent fool who should be out with his client rather than stumbling around a televsion studio wasted and stalking my bathroom. What are you doing here?”

“I’m not supposed to be here.”

“No, you’re not.” I agree. “So, let’s go.”

I grab ahold of his jacket and attempt to pull him towards the door, but he doesn’t budge.

“Ana, I’m sorry.”

I turn around, giving him a hard, unsympathetic look, but notice his adam’s apple bob as he swallows, hard. “I never wanted to be apart of this…”

“Apart of wha-” My voice cuts off as he reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a knife. Instantly, the panic returns with paralyzing force. My eyes widen with fear as I instinctively take a step back and try to find my voice to call for help. “Lu-!”

He lunges, knocking me to the floor, but as he attempts to climb on top of me, I knee him in the groin and start to scream. The door flies open and Luke comes back into the room, weapon already drawn.

“Back away,” he commands, his voice calm but deadly. Jack tenses but slowly rolls off of me and drops the knife from his hand. “Get up and back against the wall. Do you have any other weapons on you?”

“No.” He takes several paces backwards, hands still raised in the air, until his back is flush against the wall. Luke approaches him cautiously, then reaches out and pats him down without ever losing his sights.

“Why don’t you take a seat, Hyde,” he says, but it’s more of a command than a suggestion. “You and I can have a little talk before they come take you away.”

“You might as well just call them. I can’t…” He swallows again. “I’m not going to tell you anything.”

“We’ll see.” Luke turns to me. “Ana, Lydia is down the hall. Walk to her, slowly, tell her that you’re not going to make your interview this afternoon, then call Hsu. Tell him we have a man to take into custody.”

Hyde laughs. “You think the police are going to help you?”

“No, I don’t.” Hyde’s face falters with confusion as he stares into Luke’s cold eyes.

“Ana, get out of this room. Now.”

I glance worriedly between the two of them, but nod and quickly back out of the room. The second the door closes behind me, there’s a loud crash from inside that makes me jump but I ignore it and take a steadying breath.

Despite Luke’s instructions, my first priority is to make sure Calliope was put in the car where she was supposed to be and not intercepted along the way. My heart thuds heavily in my chest as I hurry down the hall to the back doors, and I have to hold the wall to keep myself upright. But when I find her safely buckled into her seat, staring up at the small plastic toys spinning slowly over her head from the brace, relief washes through me and I’m able to think clearly once again.

“Give her to me,” I say to the nanny, using fumbling fingers to reach down and unbuckle the seatbelt that holds her carrier in place. Ava gives me a confused look as I pull Calliope from the car, but I don’t take the time to explain what has happened before heading back inside in search of my publicist and my phone.

I grip so tightly to the handle of Calliope’s car seat while I make my way back down the hallway of the studio that the strain in my knuckles actually starts to hurt. The discomfort doesn’t make me ease my hold though. I can’t. Horrible visions run through my mind of someone streaking by and snatching the carrier from my hand, like an old woman’s purse on a busy city street, and the fear that builds inside of me makes the thirty, maybe forty, foot walk from the door to where Lydia is pacing back and forth while she talks on the phone feel like an eternity.

“Hold on a second,” she says to whoever it is she’s speaking with and then pulls the phone away from her mouth. “Ana, what are you doing? We’ve got to get going.”

“We’re not going to make it,” I reply blankly. I’m crashing from the adrenaline rush and, as shock takes over, my body starts to shake.

“What are you talking about? Go get dressed, we’re going to get there with plenty of time.”

“No, you have to…” I swallow and try to clear the racing thoughts that are making it difficult to form a coherent sentence from my mind. “You have to call and cancel. I need my phone.”

“Ana, it’s release day and this is The View. We’re not cancelling. Now, go. Get dressed.”

“Lydia, there’s a man in my dressing room with Luke right now. He was in there waiting for me with a knife. We’re not going to make it to the fucking View.”

“What?” She quickly looks down the hall, and then back at me. “Oh my god, Ana.” Without even offering whoever she’s still on the phone with an explanation, she hangs up and starts to walk down the hall toward my room, but I reach out and grab onto her sleeve to stop her.

“No, no, no,” I say quickly. “Luke is handling it. Just give me my phone!.”

“Your phone? Oh, right.” She reaches into the pocket of her slacks and removes the phone I gave her before my interview. Once I have it in my hands, I glance back in the direction of my room and take a deep breath before slowly flipping through my contacts for the direct line to the FBI agent assigned to our case.

“Hsu.”

“Yes, hi. This is Anastasia Steele, er… Grey.”

“Good morning, Mrs. Grey. What can I do for you this morning?”

“I’m at studio 1A in Rockefeller Plaza, Manhattan. I’ve just had someone try to attack me again. Hyde. His name is Jack Hyde, I know him.”

“Are you hurt?” His voice is urgent now.

“No, I’m fine. My CPO was there. We’ve apprehended him.”

“Good. Stay where you are, I’m going to be sending two officers to you to bring him in. Twenty minutes, okay Anastasia?”

“Twenty minutes,” I repeat.

The line goes dead and I take another deep breath to try and calm my pounding heart. Everything around me has taken on a surreal quality, like a dream, and for a moment, I wonder if that’s exactly what this is. I mean, Jack? How did he get involved in this? Sure, he didn’t get the job he wanted and I knew after New Years that he was bitter about it but… enough that he was willing to kill me?

“Should we call security?” Lydia asks.

“Uh… yes. The FBI is on the way so the studio security is going to need to know, but I’ll take care of that. You just focus on clearing my schedule.”

She bites her lip, but eventually nods and scurries away from me to make the necessary calls to cancel all of my remaining appearances for the rest of the afternoon. I continue down the hall, through the rest of the stage crew until I find a security guard standing just off the main set.

He radios in the emergency to his team, but surprisingly is willing to simply stand guard outside my dressing room while Luke finishes whatever he’s doing inside. I’m not interested in finding out what that is or hearing the repercussions of what may be going on, so I remain at the end of the hall, being sure to keep myself and Calliope in sight of as many people as possible, and then try to work through everything that happened so I can be clear and concise when the agents on their way show up and pull me aside for questioning.

The one thing I keep ruminating on is the reluctance I saw in Jack’s eyes. This whole thing felt so much different than last time, sloppier and much less thought out. I mean, Luke was standing right outside my door. If he planned to take me, I don’t know how he thought he would have gotten me out, and if he planned to just kill me, he would have been caught immediately. The question is, was that Jack’s ineptitude or is the man behind this starting to panic and making rash decisions? And if this was his big attempt to get to me, what does that mean for Carter and Atlanta?

Was that all just a ruse?

A new wave of panic crosses over me as I realize that, if Atlanta was a red herring, then Taylor is stranded uselessly down south while Christian is back in Seattle with only Kommer there for protection. Is that enough? My hands fly for my phone and I once again try to call Christian, but when he still doesn’t answer, this time I feel a rush of cold and my scalp begins to tingle with fear.

Again and again, I try Christian’s phone, but I never get through. Several important people from NBC come down to talk to me, looking horrified that I was attacked in their building, but I decline their offers for another room and choose instead to wait in plain sight until the FBI agents arrive. It’s hard to get them to leave me alone, but after ignoring them long enough while I continue frantically calling Christian, they eventually back off. In total, I make thirty two calls, and I get his voicemail thirty two times. Tears prick my eyes as I force myself not to think about why he may not be answering. He’s in the shower. He’s got to be in the shower. Or at the gym. He’s upstairs lifting and the music is too loud for him to hear his phone ring. My body slumps against the wall.

“Please,” I whisper, a plea to the universe, and then tears start to roll down my cheeks.

 

Luke comes out of my dressing room only seconds before the agents Hsu sent arrive, which means I have no time to speak with him before they pull him aside to get the story of what has happened.

“He attacked her, I stopped him,” Luke says simply, nodding in my direction.

“And your hands?” I glance down and see his knuckles are cut and covered in blood, which seems to have also splattered over his pristine white shirt.

“He resisted.”

“Right.” The agent turns to look at the NBC executives once again hovering close by. “Is there a room we can use to interview the witnesses?”

“Of course, right this way.”

We’re led down another hall into a different, much smaller dressing room and then separated so they can take our stories individually. Thankfully, the entire thing happened so fast and without much fanfare that I’m able to answer the questions from the agent interviewing me fairly quickly. Mostly, I tell him about my history with Jack and everything I know of him, but when the agent asks if I could think of anything that would give him motive to help the man trying to harm my husband and I, I again find myself coming up short.

“I don’t know,” I tell him. “A job, I guess. He works for Christian and he didn’t get the job he wanted.”

“We’ll see what we can find out, Mrs. Grey. Don’t you worry.” He closes his book and shakes my hand, then leaves me to wait for Luke, who is interviewed for much longer. It’s mid-afternoon before we’re both finally cleared to leave the scene but as Lydia organizes the transportation of all my things, Luke pulls me back into the dressing room so we can talk in private.

“Have you heard from Christian?” I ask immediately.

“What? No, I haven’t had a chance to call them yet… Are you okay?”

“No. I can’t get Christian on the phone. I’ve called over forty times and nothing. His family hasn’t heard from him. Elliot was on his way to Escala to check on him, but he hasn’t called me back. Luke, what if…” My voice cuts off as I can’t force myself to verbalize my darkest fears, so Luke picks up his phone. He works his way through the entire chain of command, but he can’t reach Christian, Kommer, Ryan, or Taylor and no one knows where they are. Each phone call that puts us at a dead end is like a punch in the gut, winding me, until I physically can’t breathe.

“What do you want to do, Ana?” Luke asks.

I shake my head, unable to speak. I don’t know what I want to do. Fly to Seattle, maybe? But what if the reason he’s not answering his phone is because Hsu called him right after we got off the phone and he got a flight to New York? That sounds like something he would do. It’s the first even semi-logical reason I’ve had for Christian’s silence and I cling to that tiny ray of hope in order to prevent myself from falling completely apart.

“What did Jack say?” I ask weakly, another distraction.

“What?”

“Jack. What did he say? Please tell me he gave you something useful.”

He takes a deep breath and sighs. “He doesn’t know who it is.”

I let out a bitter laugh and shake my head. “So he lied to you.”

“No, I really don’t think so. He’s not in this deep like Elena Lincoln or Leila Williams was. Which makes me feel better since I checked up on him and ruled him out as a candidate months ago when we still thought Welch was trying to drum up support to oust Grey from GEH and SIP was listed on Welch’s contacts. He hadn’t received any payments or taken any suspicious leave, so I didn’t think he had been involved, but it turns out he’s not helping him for money. He’s only here because he’s being blackmailed.”

“What?”

“Apparently, he’s got an affinity for some really fucked up shit in the bedroom, particularly with girls who aren’t exactly legal yet…”

“Are you…? Oh my god!”

“Yeah. Anyway, the head guy has pictures and and video of him and some girls that he hacked off his computer so signing up for this plot against Grey was the only way for Hyde to keep the evidence of his perversions from making it into the hands of the police. He was supposed to come for you last night, but he got the wrong hotel.” He fights a very self-satisfied smile and I remember that he’d purposefully convoluted my accommodation arrangements for this exact purpose. “The good news is, if he tries anything to get out of this with the FBI, it’s still not going to work out great for him. From what we know of this guy, he doesn’t seem to have a very forgiving nature when it comes to the people he has working for him not coming through, and this was Hyde’s second assignment. He got this because he’d already fucked up the first.”

“Which was?”

“He’s been waiting for Elena’s manuscript. His job was to use his connections in the publishing industry and put it in the hands of someone who would make sure it hit shelves by summer. But he never got the manuscript. The person who was supposed to deliver it to him, Elena’s contact at the prison who I haven’t been able to track down, never sent it. Well, that isn’t true. He did send it. He just sent it to you, not Hyde.”

“He? As in…”

“No. Not him. Just another one of his henchmen.”

“Did Hyde say who he was?”

He nods. “Isaac Warren.”

“Isaac Warren?” I pause. Something about the name nags at me even though it isn’t familiar. Luke promises he’ll start digging tonight to find out who he is, but before he’s through encouraging me about how positive this development is, my eyes suddenly widen with recognition.

“Isaac,” I repeat. “Oh, my god Isaac. Luke, it’s Elena’s submissive.”

He pauses, considering what I’ve said, and then begins to slowly nod. “From the bar. Holy fuck, he worked at the bar. We still have the employment records that Grey used to hunt down all those girls. If he’s was an employee, we should have his phone number and address. Or an old one that could lead us to where he is now.”

“And if he’s acting as a liaison for Elena…”

“Then he definitely know who it is.” He smiles, and jumps out of his seat. “Come on, I’ve got to get to my laptop. We’ve got work to–”

His words cut off at the sound of my ringtone and when I reach down to pick up my phone and see Christian’s name on the screen, relief more tangible than I’ve ever felt before crosses through me.

“Oh my god, Christian,” I breathe when I answer.

“Ana, what’s going on? Are you okay?”

“Yes.” Warmth fills my veins at the sound of his voice, distracting me from the worry ladening his gravelly tone. “I mean, I was attacked again but…”

“What!”

“I’m fine,” I say quickly. “It was Jack Hyde. He tried to grab me while I was changing to leave the studio but Luke was here and nothing happened. I’m okay, Calliope is okay, we’re all perfectly safe. The FBI is here now.”

“Hyde?” In just that one word, I can hear the anger in his voice, and when he speaks again, I can hear his temper threatening to boil out of control. “That son of a bitch…”

“They just took him away.” I assure him. “He’s in custody, and he’s going to have to answer for his part in this. But the real point here is that Atlanta was a ruse, Christian. He used Carter to send Taylor on a wild goose chase. You were right, he was trying to separate our security team. Call him. Bring him home. They could try to go for you next.”

“Ana…”

“He talked, Christian. Jack talked. He doesn’t know who’s behind this but he told us the plan was to come for me in New York, not Atlanta, and he gave us a name. Someone who might lead us to him. The person who sent the manuscript and who’s been coordinating contact between this guy and Elena, is Isaac. Her submissive. He knows who he is, Christian. So all we have to do is find Isaac and we’ve got him.” I pause, waiting for his elated or at least relieved reaction, but it doesn’t come. “Christian, did you hear me?”

“Yeah, I heard you.”

“Then why aren’t you more excited? Christian, we have a lead. A good lead.”

“No, we don’t. We already have Isaac.”

“Wait, what? You do?”

“Yes.” He pauses again. “Ana, the reason I missed your calls this morning is because I was on a flight. To Georgia. It wasn’t a ruse, it’s just… Atlanta wasn’t the target.”

“What do you mean? What the target? Is Isaac there?” He doesn’t answer me right away, and when he does, there’s a nervous quiver in his voice that immediately has every one of the hairs on the back of my arms and neck standing on end.

“Baby…”

“What?”

“Isaac was the contact sent to help Reed. Last night, they were sent to eliminate their target and when Taylor and Ryan went to intervene, all hell broke loose. Several people were severely injured, others were killed. Isaac was one of them.”

My scalp tingles again and my throat goes dry. “One of them?”   

“Ana, baby. I’m so sorry…”

“Who?” My voice quivers and it takes Christian several long seconds to finally answer me.

“Your mom is in the hospital. You need to get here as quickly as you can.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 42

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Riding up the elevator with Carter to our apartment in Escala is a much different experience now than it was last March. Then, he was bouncing up and down with excitement and chatting happily to Kate about the grandeur all around us that he was now very happy to be apart of. Now, he’s silent and still.

The doors open and Christian gestures him inside with the hand that isn’t holding the handle to Calliope’s car seat, then frowns as we step into the great room. It’s dark inside, except for the dozen or so artfully placed candles around the room, and the low burning fire in the fireplace. There’s soft music floating around us and, on the coffee table, a chilled bottle of champagne with two empty flutes and a bowl of fresh strawberries and melted chocolate. On the floor before the fireplace is a makeshift bed comprised of blankets and pillows, completely surrounded by flowers and loose petals.

“Uh… sorry,” Christian says awkwardly. “It’s our wedding night.”

“No, that’s fine,” Carter replies with the same uncomfortable tone. “I’m sorry I’m… interrupting.”

“Have a seat.” Christian nods to the couch and then picks up the remote to his iHome and flips off the music. Luke hits the lights and we all settle down on the sectional, looking expectantly at Carter.

“Tell us what happened,” Taylor says. “Be specific, no detail is too small.”

“Okay,” Carter begins. “I’ve been working with my dad this summer, and it’s been kind of hard. He’s… disappointed in me. I was supposed to get into Harvard law, and I didn’t. I didn’t graduate at the top of my class, my girlfriend did, and when I proposed to that girlfriend, she dumped me. I have nothing to show for my four years at Harvard, and he’s been riding me really hard about it. Anyway, I made an appeal to Harvard Law to try and get in for the fall semester and when I got my second rejection notice, the phone rang. It was some guy…”

“You didn’t recognize the voice?” Taylor asks.

“No.”

“What did he sound like?” Luke chimes in. “How did he speak to you?”

“Um… his voice was very low, deep. I think he sounded like he might be about my dad’s age, but I’ve never really been good at judging that kind of thing. He was calm, like almost too calm. He spoke to me with a kind of familiarity that shouldn’t exist between two strangers. You know what I mean? Like how there’s a difference in how you talk to someone you know versus someone you don’t. He sounded like we were old friends or something. Like he was calling to check up on me because he knew I was having a hard time and he wanted to help.”

“Did he have an accent or use any colloquialisms that might give you an idea where he was from?”

Carter shakes his head. “No. He he was actually very formal.”

“Ana?” Christian asks. He turns to me and I know that he’s checking to see if what Carter is saying matches what I remember from the times I’ve spoken with him.

“Yeah, I think older too. But he didn’t speak to me like that. He sounded like he was taunting me most of the time and there was like a…” I shiver as I recall our last conversation and his voice rings through my ears again. “He was very cold to me.”

“So we have no idea if this is even the same guy,” Christian says, leaning back and running his fingers through his hair in frustration.

“Wait,” Luke says. He gets off the couch and moves into the security office. When he returns a few seconds later, he has a small black box in his hand. “We were able to record the last bit of Ana’s conversation with him at graduation.”

He hits play on the small voice recorder and I feel my body go stiff as I listen to my shaking voice play through the speakers.

Is she dead?

He laughs. Goodbye, Anastasia. Have fun at the arts center tonight with your family. I’ve seen what they’ve done with the place and it looks wonderful. Your graduation celebration will be truly special. Oh, and I’ll see you soon.”

Luke presses stop and looks up at Carter. “Is that the man who called you?”

He nods. “Without a doubt.”

“Good, then we’re on the right track,” Taylor says. “What did he say to you?”

“Well, I answered the phone and he greeted me by name. I didn’t recognize his voice so I asked who he was and he told me it didn’t matter. He was calling because he wanted to help me. I asked what he meant and he said…” He pauses, looking as though he’s trying to remember the exact words before he continues. “Doesn’t it feel terrible when you just can’t get what you want? When you try again and again, but always come up short? When you fail. And then you look around and you see the people who do have everything, everything you want, and you that realize they’re the ones who deserve it the least.”

“And?” Taylor presses him.

“He called those people the takers. People who use other people’s hard work to get ahead, or who steal from others. He said he had a way to get me what I wanted, to correct the imbalance, and if I was willing to help him, he was willing to help me.”

“What did he offer you?” Christian asks.

“Harvard Law.”

“And what did you tell him?” Luke asks.

“Well, first, I asked him what he meant by being willing to help, and he went off on this weird tangent about… well, you, Grey. He asked me if I knew that Ana was going to be expelled last year but that you called and bought her back into the university. He said that was unfair. That her spot could have been given to someone else, someone who earned it. Instead, it went to a…”

“To a?” I press him when he stops and looks at me uncomfortably.

“To a billionaire’s whore.” He gives me an apologetic look, but I simply shake my head and motion for him to continue. “He also said that Grey’s career was a lie. He wasn’t the genius everyone thought he was, he built him empire on lies and then used Ros’s talents to keep it going. He said your entire business model was to steal, to take the hard work of others and claim it as your own, like you built this great thing, but you’ve never actually built anything in your life. He said that even when you get caught, you continue to take. He said that you took from him, that you took Ana from me, and together we could take from you.”

“Take what?” Christian asks. “Ana?”

“I don’t know. He just asked me if I would help him. By then, I’d figured out who he was. That he was the man who tried to kidnap Ana over spring break, and who was trying to hurt her. I knew what he was asking from me, and I thought maybe whatever he asked me to do could help you find him, so I said yes. He said he’d be in touch and hung up without another word. I don’t have your numbers anymore so I looked up the number for GEH and after talking to like, eighty people, I was directed to the security office and talked to Ryan. He flew me out here and now, here we are.”

“I followed the protocol exactly,” Ryan interjects, looking at Taylor. “I got him out and into an unmarked chartered plane without anyone noticing he’d left. He’s here in absolute secrecy.”

“Who drove him to the airport?”

“Wirtz flew down and met him in a public place, smuggled him into a car, and drove to Chattanooga. We used a decoy to make it look as though he’d returned home.”

“Flight staff?” Luke checks.

“Stevens was the pilot, no other staff aboard. They’re at Boeing now, waiting to fly him home.”

“Good,” Taylor says. “This is it, then. This is our chance to get on the inside and find out what he’s planning before he can execute.”

“He didn’t tell you what he was planning?” Christian asks. Carter shakes his head.

“No, he just told me he’d be in touch. Oh, and that someone would be coming to meet me. Someone one who is going to help me with whatever he’s got planned.”

“So he is planning something,” Christian says, getting up from the couch and pacing back and forth. “He’s not threatened or backing off, he’s just planning his next move. And it’s been too long since we’ve heard anything from him. Whatever is coming next, it’s going to be big.”

“We don’t know that,” I argue. “We don’t know that everything we’ve done isn’t just… working the way it’s supposed to. Maybe he did try to target the wedding, he just couldn’t get through security. Leila said they tried to get me in Cambridge before, but couldn’t because of Luke. Maybe we’re finally outsmarting him.”

Taylor shakes his head. “No, he wouldn’t call Reed the day before, if the wedding was his plan. Not with how well he thinks everything through before he acts. He’s got a different target in mind.”

“Her book tour,” Christian says, as though this was the answer he was expecting all along. He sits back down on the couch, dropping his head into his hands for a moment and then scrubbing them over his face. “He’s waiting for us to be separated. For our security team to be spread out. You live in Atlanta, right?”

“Yeah,” Carter says.

“Ana has a stop there next week.”

“I’m on top of it,” Luke says. “In every city we’re stopping at along the tour, we have three separate hotel reservations, all booked under aliases, and only myself and Taylor know where we’re actually staying. We have security arranged for each hotel and secure transportation. I’ve already received the clearance badges for television and radio appearances, and book signings. She’ll never have to leave my side. He’s not going to get anywhere near her on this trip.”

“Which actually may make this the perfect time to try and lure him out,” Taylor suggests. “Draw him into a trap while making him think that he’s got a clear path to Ana.”

Christian shakes his head. “No, I’m not going to use my wife as bait. Absolutely not. I want him to be so sure that there is no way he could be successful in getting to her on the road that he won’t even try.”

“Sir, I understand your hesitation, but if you’ll forgive me, that’s what we’ve been doing and it’s not working. We have done everything to be sure we stay one step ahead of him and he hasn’t made a move. She’s been safe, yes, and that’s fine for now, but we’re no closer to finding out who he is or ending this permanently. We cannot maintain this level of security forever. My team is overworked and mentally exhausted. Sawyer hasn’t even had a day off since March…”

“I’m fine,” Luke interrupts, but Taylor cuts him off.

“As long as he’s hiding, he’s got the upper hand. We need to force him out of the shadows so we can deal with this for real.”

Christian doesn’t respond, and from the look of him, I think it’s because he doesn’t know how. Every instinct he has tells him to protect me, to keep me out of harm’s way, but Taylor is right. As long as this person is still out there, none of us will ever be out of harm’s way. He takes a breath, deflating a little, and turns to look at me.

“You said you wanted to play offense,” I tell him. “It looks to me like we have the inside man Taylor wanted.”

He sighs again and looks back at Taylor. “Okay. She leaves in two days and she’ll be in Atlanta on Friday. What’s the plan?”

“Reed needs people,” Taylor replies immediately. “At least two within close proximity to keep an eye on him and to monitor his activity, including tapping his phone. If we have some people down there keeping him under 24 hour surveillance, we should know everything he knows without him having to reach out to us again, which will limit our risk of exposure and make sure we’re set for whatever comes.”

“Okay, who do we have to spare?” Christian asks, but when Taylor and Luke look at each other, they frown.

“I don’t need three body guards,” I offer. “I trust Luke to keep us safe.”

“No,” Christian says immediately. “I’m not going to lower your security when we’re purposefully trying to draw him to you.”

“But you won’t be. Not really. The whole point is that we’ll have two people with Carter, right? When they try to execute their plan, I’ll have those extra people too. They’ll be on our side and they’ll know exactly what to do to make sure we’re safe because they’ll be in on the plot.”

“We can coordinate,” Luke agrees. “I’ll know what’s coming and we’ll be prepared. We might even be able to make it so he thinks he’s got a clear shot on Ana while in reality, she’s not even present.”

Christian inhales very slowly through his nose and then gets up to pace again. “Fine, but if we’re going to rely on whoever we send with Reed, then they have to be the best.

“Yes, sir,” Taylor says. “I have some names in mind.”

“No,” Christian says. “You. Taylor, you’ll go with Reed, and so will Ryan. Sawyer will stay with Ana and Kommer, you’ll be here with me.”

“Sir,” Taylor protests, but Christian cuts him off.

“That’s how it’s going to be.” He turns back to me, and then looks up at Luke. “Sawyer, you can have the rest of the weekend off, Ana and I won’t be going anywhere. I suggest you fill that time with some practice at the range. If you’re going to be the only person protecting my wife, I don’t want you to be rusty.”

“Yes, sir,” Luke agrees.

“Mr. Grey, I very strongly believe that I should remain by your side. This book tour aside, you are still the primary target.”

“I’ve noted your concerns, Taylor, and I’m choosing to disregard them. Anastasia and Calliope remain this team’s top priority and as head of my security team, I expect you to honor that. I’ll be fine. You can coordinate directly with me once you’re set up with Reed.”

“Mr. Grey…” Taylor tries again, but this time, Christian cuts him off.

“You’ll be on a flight to Atlanta tonight, Jason. I suggest you pack your bags.”

Taylor takes a deep breath, looking as though he’s trying to hold back more arguments, then nods and turns back for the stairs that lead to the servants quarters where he and Gail share a living space.

“I can take them to the airport,” Luke says, getting off the couch. “We have an unregistered car in the lower levels of the garage. If someone is watching the apartment, we should get out of here undetected.”

“Thank you, Sawyer,” Christian says. “Reed, may I speak to you privately in my office for a moment?”

“Uh… sure,” Carter replies.

Christian nods and gestures for the hallway off the great room, but before he follows after Carter, he turns to me and reaches out for my hand. For a moment, I think he wants me to go with him, but he simply helps me off the sofa and presses a soft kiss into my lips.

“I’ll be quick.”

“Oh… okay. I’ll just put Calliope down then.”

“Good. Kiss her goodnight for me.” He kisses me again and then leans in to whisper into my ear. “Don’t take off this dress. I want that.”

I smile, stand up on my tiptoes so I can kiss him on the cheek, then turn to pick up my daughter, still buckled in her carseat, and carry her off to our bedroom. Once we’re alone, I focus solely on Calliope to try and keep my mind from running through all the possible would be scenarios of what we now have to prepare for. Thankfully, since she has to be changed and fed before I lay her in the bassinet by the bed, it’s not difficult to prevent my mind from wandering. Since I’m still in my wedding dress, I have to be meticulous as I’m changing and burping her, but for once, probably because she’s so tired, she lies still and lets me change her with very little fuss. Instead, she stares up at me with wide, captivated eyes, and for the very first time, I think I see her purposefully smile.

“Hi, baby girl,” I whisper, stroking my hand over the soft thin hair on top of her head while I beam down at her. “I married your daddy today.” She stretches her tiny little limbs, her mouth opening into a perfect round “O” as she yawns, and I smile. “We’re a family now. A real family. Just the three of us. And we love you so much. You, sweet Calliope, are a very loved little girl.”

Her eyes droop so I scoop her into my arms and move to the rocking chair Grace and Carrick gifted me for my very first mother’s day. We stare at one another for a long time as she fights sleep and part of me wonders if, even though she’s so young, she knows there’s something special about today and she doesn’t want to miss any of it. But eventually she loses the battle, and once I’ve laid her in her bed and placed the baby monitor next to her, I hurry into the bathroom to freshen up and then take the other monitor back into the great room with me.

It’s been long enough that I assume the security team has already left with Carter and I see immediately that Christian has taken advantage of the time I was shut away with Calliope. The lights have been turned off again so that the room is lit only by the soft flickering light of the candles and the fire. There’s romantic music once again filling the space around me and on the table, next to the bowl of strawberries, melted chocolate, and a new canister of whipped cream, the two previously empty flutes have been filled with champagne. The only thing I don’t see, is my husband.

“Christian?” I call, stepping further into the room, but as I lean forward to look around the corner into the kitchen, I feel a hand trace softly up the bare skin on my back.

“This dress is incredible,” Christian says quietly, from behind me. “You have never looked more beautiful than you do today, Anastasia.”

I bite down on my bottom lip and turn to face him. “You don’t look so bad yourself, Mr. Grey.”

The corner of his mouth upticks into a relaxed, half-smile, but his entire face seems to light up. He pulls me close so that I’m fully pressed against him and then brushes the tip of his nose over mine.

“All for you, Mrs. Grey.”

Heat floods my body as I hear the words for the first time, and while I bask in the joy of it, he leans down to kiss me. The kiss is slow, deep, and when he slips his tongue into my mouth, I feel my body melt into his. His hands move into my hair but don’t pull at the roots. There’s no fiery need burning too hot or fast in either of us. The reaction set off by this one kiss is potent, but controlled. Neither of us intends for this to be quick, and so when I finally pull away from him, my teeth sink into my bottom lip and I move to the table.

“You know, you didn’t have to put me through all that. You could have just told me the other wedding was a rouse.”

He smiles and steps closer. “Secrets only work if you protect them.”

“You don’t think I can keep a secret?”

“From Kate? No. And once Kate knew, Elliot would know. And once Elliot knew…”

I let out a breathy laugh, “It would be on the front page of the Seattle Times.”

“Exactly.”

I laugh again and then my eyes sweep over the strawberries on the table before I glance back up and give Christian a coy look.

“Would you like dessert, my dear husband?”

“Very much, my darling wife.” I can hear the hint of pride in his voice as he says the word, but the joy I take in that for myself is quickly cut short as I turn for the bowl and he once again steps behind me and moves the tips of his fingers up my back. I shiver with anticipation as he moves his hands across the back of my shoulders and begins easing the lace straps of my dress down over my arms. His lips follow the trail of excited goosebumps his fingers leave going down my left arm and as the dress falls to my waist, leaving my breasts exposed, he drops to his knees behind me and nimbly undoes the last of the fastenings holding the rest of the gown in place.

I’m left standing before him in nothing but my panties and the garters attached to my stockings, and he groans in approval as his hands reach up and kneed my behind.

“Turn around,” he says hoarsely. When I do, his face crinkles with obvious want. “Ana, you look… oh, baby, you look…”

“Good enough to eat?” I ask playfully. His eyes glimmer.

“Don’t mind if I do…” I gasp as he leans forward and kisses me over my panties. Through the thin lace, I can feel the heat of his breath and the moisture from his tongue, and instantly, he has me quaking with desire.

“Christian,” I breathe.

He moans and moves his mouth around me for a few seconds more, then sits back on his heels and licks his lips. “Delicious, as always.”

I giggle and he stands, glancing over my entire body one last time before he backs up to the sofa and takes a seat. “Turn around,” he tells me again. “Put your hands on the table and bend over for me.”

I do as I’m bid and then glance over my shoulder at him, watching his eyes darken enticingly as he stares at my only partially covered ass. “That’s quite the view, Mrs. Grey.”

“Oh really?” I take a breath and then begin moving my legs up and down to the beat of the soft music still playing around us, making my ass sashay back and forth. He hums his approval and then leans forward to take one of the glasses of champagne off the table, placing a soft kiss on my behind as he pulls away again.

“Go on.”

I smile and dip down, bending my knees so that I’m fully crouched down with my legs spread, and then slowly rise again until I’m standing with straight legs. My hands move up over my body and into my hair while I swing my hips back and forth, exposing more of my skin to him. I don’t know if I feel more secure, knowing Christian has now fully committed himself to me, or if I’m just too exalted over this perfect day to worry about insecurities, but for some reason, right now, I feel better about my body than I have in almost a year and all I want to do is show it off to my husband.

With my hands still in my hair, I turn my torso to face him, giving him just a peak of my naked breast before I let my hands drag down my body again. When they move past my hips and I grip firmly to my own ass, his breath hisses between his teeth.

“You’re so fucking sexy, Ana,” he whispers. I smile before moving towards him and climbing into his lap. His hands move back to my behind while I straddle him and grind my panties over the very noticeable bulge in his pants. My tongue sweeps hungrily over my bottom lip as the friction between us heightens my already intense desire to have him, but when his hands move up my body to cup my breasts, I quickly slap them out of the way.

“Not yet,” I chide him. “You are far too dressed to be allowed to touch.”

He gives me a crooked smile. “Well, what do you plan to do about that?”

“This.” I reach forward and slowly begin to unravel his tie, taking my time so I can sit up and press my breasts into his face while I pull it out from under his collar. He begins to kiss the curves of my breasts between my cleavage while I work on the buttons of his shirt, but once I have him naked from the waist up, I move from his lap onto the floor before him and very purposefully hold his gaze as my fingers begin work on his belt.

“Yes,” he hisses when I have his pants open and reach down past the band of his Calvin Kleins for his waiting erection. I slide my hand up and down over him for a moment, using just enough pressure to give him pleasure, but not enough to start building him toward any kind of release. His hips buck up, searching for more, and I feel a sense of power course through me that makes my entire body tingle. Right now, this beautiful man is completely mine, and I plan to indulge in him as long as I can for the rest of the night.

“Your mouth, baby,” he pleads. “I want your mouth.”

“Like this?” I drag the flat of my tongue up the entire length of his erection and then swirl it around the head, tasting the bead of precum that has already begun to form there.

“Yes,” he breathes. “Oh, suck me, baby.”

I smile and then engulf him with my mouth, pulling hard with my lips each time I rise up off him. His breathing become more irregular, punctuated with deep groans and shallow gasps at each new sensation of my lips or tongue moving around him. I take him as deep into my throat as I can, willing myself to ignore the threat of my gag reflex so I can swallow more of him each and every time I move my mouth down his extremely hard erection. He grips my hair again, but doesn’t force me further down onto him. Instead, his fingers massage my scalp while he allows me to pleasure him at my own pace.

“Ana, fuck you’re so good. I want you so much, baby. My wife. My beautiful, brilliant, sexy wife.”

I hum my approval as I continue to suck him, then use my hand to grip him firmly at the base of his erection. When I begin moving my fist over him in opposition of my mouth, his legs start to shake.

“Ana, baby. Wait,” he begs, his voice breaking now. “I want to come inside of you…”

“You will,” I promise, laving him with my tongue before taking him back into my mouth. He groans and lets his body relax, tilting his pelvis towards me to give me the best angle. I can feel him grow harder in my mouth, the head of his erection swelling as he climbs closer and closer to the edge. Knowing the end is near, I pull him as deeply into my throat as I can, and as he gasps at the added tightness around him, I feel him pulse inside my mouth, and then his hot release begins to drip down my throat.

“Fuck! Ana!” he cries out, his reverence clear in the way he says my name. I swallow over and over again, keeping my mouth as tight around him as possible while he unravels beneath me, and once it’s over, I start to suck him again. He shudders.

“Baby. Oh fuck…”

Suddenly, his hands cup either side of my face and he’s pulling me off of him, but the second my lips are free, he claims them with his own. His tongue moves through my mouth ardently as he slowly moves off the sofa, pulling me with him, to the bed in front of the fire. I sink easily back onto the pillows and blankets thanks to the sure grip of his strong hands, but once I’m lying flat over the floor, he pulls away from me.

“No,” I pout, but he simply smiles. I watch intently while he reaches over for the bowl of strawberries, selects a particularly plump, bright red one from the top, and then dips it in the melted chocolate.

“Hungry?” he asks, and the salacious tone beneath his voice tells me he isn’t really talking about the fruit he holds between his fingers.

“Starving,” I whisper back.

He pouts enticingly as he reaches down and places the berry against my lips, and I suck the chocolate off before biting the end. While I chew, he reaches for the chocolate again, but instead of dipping the strawberry for a second time, he picks up the entire container and moves it over the top of me.

“My turn,” he says. I watch him tip the bowl and then the steady stream of dark chocolate as it drips down over my body. It doesn’t burn, but it is hot, so I hiss as he continues to pour a line from my chest, over my breast, and down to my stomach. When he stops, he places the bowl back on the table and then gives me a lascivious grin. I bite my lip again, watching intently as he lowers his mouth down to my skin, and then groan as he begins to lick the chocolate from my body.

“Yes. Oh, Chrisitan!” He sucks lightly against me, taking his time as he moves up my body to make sure he’s left no trace of the chocolate behind, particularly over my breasts. When he’s finished, he continues up and kisses me deeply again, so that I can taste the hint of chocolate left on his tongue.

“So, sweet,” I tell him.

“And yet, not enough.” His eyes flash and I feel his fingers move down to pop open the snaps on my garters that hold my stockings in place. He rolls the nylon down each of my legs, then moves up again and hooks his fingers beneath my panties.

Once I’m naked, he turns for the table again, but this time, he picks up the canister of whipped cream. I watch, intrigued, as he shakes it over the top of me and then points the tip down at my mouth. I giggle slightly as he gives me a little too much, so that my cheeks puff out, but as his eyes glint with mirth, he moves the cannister down and begins leaving a trail of small dollops of whipped cream from my navel to my pubic bone.

“Mmm,” he hums. “Now, for my favorite dessert.”

I tilt my hips up towards him as he slowly licks each and every bit of whipped cream from my skin. The wait is agonizing as I anticipate what’s about to come, namely me, until he finally moves down between my legs.

“Mine,” he whispers, hovering over my lower lips. “You, my wife, are finally and completely mine.

“Yours,” I agree, and then he lowers his mouth onto me. I gasp and then tangle my fingers into the blankets at my side. He starts to devour me, giving me no time to become accustomed to the feel of his tongue or his lips before he begins his expert ministrations. I arch my back off the floor, feeling the pleasure radiating from where his mouth moves against me through my entire body. His fingers grip my thighs, opening me further for him, and when I feel his tongue sink inside of me, I begin to tremble.

“Yes, Christian. Oh god, yes!”

“Let me hear you, baby,” he says, keeping his lips against me. “I want you to scream when I make you come.”

I groan as he begins again and then push against him, taking everything I can from him as his tongue flicks against my clitoris. My cries of pleasure fill the room, overpowering the music while I build closer to release and growing louder still when his fingers move through my lips. With an expert skill that comes from years of learning and memorizing my body, he curls his fingers to exactly the place inside of me that makes my toes curl. He pumps his fingers in and out of me in time with each pulse of suction from his lips, and soon the heat burning hotter and hotter inside of me boils out of control and sends me spiraling down into a mindblowing orgasm.

“Christian!” I scream. He groans and presses his face against me harder, pulling every last ounce of pleasure out of me that he can until the quivering between my legs dies out and I’m left panting.

There’s hardly anytime for me to compose myself before he moves up my body and guides his erection inside of me. Immediately, the sudden fullness causes the pleasure to spike again. I reach up and wrap my arms around him but as he pistons in and out of me, I end up scraping my nails down his back, making him groan and thrust harder. His mouth comes down on mine, his insistent tongue moving forcefully, frenzied even.

“I love you, Ana,” he pants, his voice strained with his own pleasure as he continues to pump in and out of me, and it drives me crazy. I want him, all of him, as deep and as close to me as possible.

“I love you too, Christian,” I reply. “Hold me tighter. Love me, baby.”

“I do. Today, you’ve made me the happiest man alive. My wife. My love. My life.”

I whimper and pull his mouth back down to mine, then push against him so that he rolls off of me.

“Ana, what are you…” he begins, confused and a little indignant as he slides out of me, but his words cut off when I quickly throw my leg over him and then ease down onto his erection again. “Oh… fuck, baby.”

I throw my head back as I ride him, not holding back the cries of ecstasy that escape my lips as I feel him stretch me over and over again. His hands reach up and cup each of my breasts and he pinches my nipples tightly between his middle and index fingers. I moan, wishing I could feel his mouth on my breast again but not daring to ask for it as his erection hits me in exactly the right place to electrify my body each and every time I fall down on him, and I’m desperate not to lose it. I can feel the heat spreading through my body again and even though, after a while, my thighs begin to burn from my aggressive pace, I ignore it and hold out for the reward I know will be worth the discomfort a hundred times over.

“I’m close,” I breathe. “Fuck, baby. You going to make me come.”

“Keep riding me, Ana,” he commands. He sits up, pulling my body against his as I continue to move up and down over the top of him, and gives in to my silent wish, lavishing the nipple on my breast with his tongue. When he pulls it gently with his lips, I can’t hold back any longer. I come, hard, my insides gripping him and taking from him all he’s worth, and as I convulse around him he groans and tightens his grip around me, almost to the point where I think he might leave behind bruises.

“That’s it, baby. Come for me. Oh god… Ana!”

My orgasm is heightened when I feel the faint ripple of his release inside of me, and then the sharp bite of his teeth against my breast. His muscles tense as he fucks me through his own orgasm, trying to prolong mine as long as possible, and when we finally come down, we’re both completely drained. I collapse on top of him, unable to hold myself up anymore. It feels as though all of my muscles have turned to liquid. But instead of shifting me off of him and into the crook under his arm at his side, he simply wraps his arms around me and holds me tightly against his chest.

“I can’t imagine it ever gets any better than this,” he whispers, turning his head and kissing my hair. “Making love to my beautiful wife. This, what I feel right now, has to be the purpose of life.”

I feel a tingling sense of pleasure at his words, and then force myself to sit up so I can look into his eyes. “I know. I don’t think I’ll ever do anything greater in my life than love you. I meant what I said to you over the alter. You are my dream, Christian. Thank you for letting me live it.”

He smiles. “Believe me, the pleasure is all mine, Mrs. Grey.”

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