Chapter 16

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September 2011

“Christian, I think it’s time we start considering that Ana might need REAL help. This isn’t healthy,” Carrick says.

“Don’t you think I’ve tried? I’ve flown in doctors from around the world, I’ve shielded her from the news and every mention of what happened. Hell, I’ve asked her to just… go see Flynn every single day since we left Escala, but she doesn’t want to talk about it. She’s not ready.” There’s a soft thud as, I imagine, Christian lets his head fall against the closed door between us. He should be at work now. I’ve heard through the bits of phone conversations he’s had with Ros and Welch as he paced the floor, thinking I was asleep, that GEH is launching a new, top secret energy project that he expects will take up most of his time until it’s complete. But he can’t go to work. He can’t leave the house. Because he won’t leave me.

I curl my fingers around the blankets that cover his childhood bed and pull them up over the top of my head, trying to block out their voices.

“She’s not eating, Son,” Carrick continues. “She’s not sleeping. She’s not taking care of herself…”

“She showered on her own this morning. That’s progress.”

“It’s been six weeks, a shower shouldn’t be a celebration. I think it’s time we thought about sending her to some kind of treatment facility. Somewhere beautiful and relaxing where she can get some separation. Find peace. They’re better equipped to deal with this kind of depression.”

“She’s not depressed. She’s terrified. And, sending her away from Calliope would only make her worse.”

“Christian…”

“She just needs more time, Dad. And if that’s what she needs, that’s what she’s going to get. I can take care of her until she’s ready.”

Carrick sighs. “Alright, I’m sorry I brought it up. Your mother is preparing a bottle downstairs. If you’ll get Calliope for me, I’ll take her down.”

I can hear the metallic grind of the knob as it turns, but Christian opens the door the rest of the way and moves across the bedroom in complete silence. The bassinet Calliope has been sleeping in since we moved in with Grace and Carrick is in the corner closest to the bed I’m lying in, and through sound and some other sense that seems to have been heightened in the aftermath of our ordeal with Andrew Lincoln, I know he’s lifting the baby into his arms and carrying her out of the room. Her small, sweet coos disappear with the click of the door closing and it takes everything in me not to call out for her, refuse to let them take her from my side.

My eyes screw tightly closed. ‘Grace is feeding her. She needs to eat. Grace is safe. This house is safe. We are safe.’

I repeat those words in my head over and over again, willing myself to believe them.

“I know you’re not sleeping,” Christian says, making me jump because I thought the room was empty. I take a deep breath to try and calm my system again, to stop the shaking, and pull the blanket off my head so that I can blink up at his worried face.

“How?” My voice is hoarse.

“You’re not screaming.” He takes a deep breath and sits on the bed beside me. His fingers move up into my hair, rubbing gently against my scalp. It feels nice, but I still involuntarily flinch under his touch, just as I have every time he’s touched me in the last six weeks. I know that it hurts him to see me recoil from his hands and I wish I could stop, but I can’t.

‘This house is safe. We are safe.’

“Ana. Baby…”

“Please don’t send me away,” I croak. “I’m trying. I’m really trying.”

“I know. You’re not going anywhere.”

I nod and then curl my bottom lip under my teeth, trying to hide the tremble from him. There’s heat from impending tears blooming in my eyes. “How long am I going to feel like this, Christian?”

“Baby–”

“I can’t stop seeing it. Every time I close my eyes, I see him. I feel him on top of me. No matter how much time passes, I can’t get out.”

“You are out, Ana. You’re right here, with me. Only me.” His voice is thick now too, and when I glance up to look at him again, I can see the pain etched in every crease in his forehead and around his eyes. As difficult as it is for me to simply press on day after day, I can’t imagine how devastating it is for him to see me this way. To watch me unravel over and over again. To be completely and utterly shattered. To know that every time he tries to pick me up and put me back together, I slip through his fingers and break all over again.

I feel weak, and I hate it. I hate what Lincoln has done to me. I hate that, even in death, he holds power over me. Christian, Carrick, Elliot, Kate, and my dad can all tell me that it’s over, that we’ve won and everything is safe now. But this isn’t victory. This, what I’m living right now, is the very definition of defeat.

“I promise you, Anastasia. I’m never going to let anyone hurt you ever again. No matter what it takes, no matter what I have to do, I’m going to keep you safe. I’m going to keep Calliope safe. No one will come for us ever again.”

“How do you do that?” I whisper. “How do you sound so sure?”

“Because I have to. I can’t fail at this again. I won’t.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Christian. You didn’t fail us. He was…”

“Insane, I know. But the holes in my defenses that he exposed will never be left open again. We’re wiser now. Stronger. I am in control, and no one is going to take that from me again. You’re safe, Ana. Please, let me try to help you.”

The pleading hope that looks down on me is nearly enough to break me in two.

“I love you, Christian,” I tell him, my voice cracking. I reach up and place a hand on his cheek. His eyes close as he leans into my touch and the look of relief that flashes briefly across his face makes my heart beat the first solid thump I’ve felt in weeks. But the warm, wholeness I feel pressing my fingers into his scruff fades as quickly as it came, changing instead into something cold and sharp. My hand recoils and I may as well have slapped him for the look of pain that instantly replaces his moment of serenity. “I just… can’t. Not yet. And I’m sorry. I wish I had your strength. I wish I felt any ounce of the control you do, but I don’t.”

He takes a deep breath through his nose and looks down at me for a long time, like he’s trying to solve a puzzle, but is continually coming up short. “What if…? I mean, maybe you can.”

“What do you mean?”

“I know how you’re feeling, Ana. I know that it feels like no one could ever understand, but I do. I spent a long time feeling like everything around me was out of my control. Like life was happening to you and you were helpless to stop it. I can… I can help you change that. I can help you take back control.” I can’t help but notice the caution in his voice, like he’s not sure he should really do what he’s suggesting. But the lure of his promise is too much to resist.

“Show me.”

He takes another deep breath in preparation and then nods. Slowly, his hands peel the comforter away from my body and the cold air of the room brings goosebumps to the surface of my skin. I want to pull them back. There’s a kind of vulnerability that comes from being exposed that I want to fight against on an instinctual level, but I force myself to bear it. The promise of respite from this constant fear is too strong.

“I love you, Anastasia,” he says, gruffly now. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“I know.”

His fingers release the blankets still clutched in his hand, and he moves his palms over my legs. My muscles tense, and every sinew of my body aches to pull away, but I don’t. I stare down at his hands, determined, and watch them trace the curves of my body.

“These are my hands,” Christian says. “Not his. Not anyone else’s. You belong to me, Anastasia, and these are the only hands that will ever touch you again.”

I nod and continue to watch the drag of his fingers over my skin. For months, the parts of me that Andrew Lincoln had groped and molested seem to burn with the imprint of his touch. But when Christian’s hands sweep over them, tender and full of his love, that burn is extinguished for the first time. I feel like he’s swiping an analgesic over my limbs, numbing the guilt and the pain. When he touches me the memory of all other touch dissipates, and the relief is like being able to breathe freely for the first time in months.

“You are mine, Ana,” he repeats.

“Yours,” I whisper back.

“You are safe.”

“Safe.”

His hands move up my body, over my hip, my side, my breast, until his hands cradle either side of my face. Again, he pauses to look deep into my eyes and like a bear awakening from a long winter hibernation, I feel the first stirrings of heat between my legs.

“Christian.”

His hands tighten around the roots of my hair, making me gasp, and then he leans down to kiss me. A real kiss, not the hesitant press of lips I’ve come to know over the past few weeks that always breaks away in rejection and hurt. His mouth is demanding against mine, taking from me what he wants but maintaining an expression of love that cannot be denied. A part of me realizes that his power should frighten me. In the aftermath of everything I’ve experienced, I should cower under his insistent, commanding touch. I should fear the pain and humiliation that is sure to follow, that I felt when Andrew Lincoln touched me. But Christian’s dominance doesn’t frighten me. His certainty, his strength, and his love reassure me in a way that’s different than it’s felt in the past. Somehow, his sovereignty in this moment is also mine. It’s not something I can explain, even to myself, it’s something I can only feel.

“Tell me your safeword,” he growls against my mouth.

“Red,” I pant back.

“Say that word, and I’ll stop. Whether it’s pain or pleasure, all you have to do is use that word, and everything will end. Do you understand me?”

“Yes.” And it’s in that moment that I truly do. Because I think of Christian as the strongest man in the world. The most powerful. The most influential. And for all that he controls, I’m the one who can stop him. Only me.

That’s power. True power. And it’s mine.

“Yes, what?” he asks, voice low and dark.

“Yes, Sir.” And with that, I’m flipped around and his hand comes down hard on my behind, the pain searing all memory of foreign touch from my body. When Christian climbs onto the bed behind me, kneeling between my legs and working quickly to get his belt open, I’m a clean slate. I’m brand new again. Stronger. More Sure. Put back together again by his strength and the power he lets me wield through the guise of submission.

 

“Mrs. Grey?”

I start and blink away the memory, before turning to look at my CPO standing in the doorway to my office. Even through my exhausted state, I can see the hesitance in his eyes. Like he’s unsure whether or not to bother me. I’d attempted to go back to bed once Christian left for work this morning and I’d made sure Calliope was fed and taken care of, but the moment my eyes closed, the nightmares returned, filled with fire and smoke and the whisper of Andrew Lincoln. So, I dragged my tired body into the shower, dressed, and came into work, intent on occupying my mind with chapter submissions and whatever I’m going to say to Scott about Phoenix. Unfortunately, my capacity for critical thinking after my long, sleepless night isn’t as keen as my will. The speech I’ve prepared to convince him feels empty of the conviction that I feel so potently, I’m willing to put my career on the line for it.

“Yes, Woods?” I yawn.

He closes the door and steps into my office, settling down into the chair on the other side of my desk and leaning towards me. “Is there something I can get for you, Ana? Coffee? Food, maybe?”

“No. I’m fine, thank you.” I offer him a weak smile that doesn’t fool him for a second, then sigh. “Did you speak to Andrea?”

“Yeah, he’s been in a meeting with his lawyers and PR team all morning.”

I fight not to roll my eyes. “Yeah, I had about seven different text messages from Jacqueline when I got out of the shower asking me to post a picture of Calliope on PixC to distract from all the media coverage about GEH right now.”

“Which you ignored?”

“Obviously. But I’ve got lots of pictures of Christian and I from my last year at Harvard that I thought would be just as distracting. I’m about six months pregnant in the one I posted, so maybe someone won’t realize it’s old and a new rumor will be started and all this other stuff will be swept under the rug.”

“Do you want it to be?” Woods stares at me, but not as though he’s expecting an answer. His tone and the careful look of empathy behind his eyes tells me he already knows what I want to say. I swallow my doubts and turn away from him. “Look, Ana. Taylor told me when I was assigned to your service that Mr. Grey had been clear about not wanting another CPO to get close to you. That’s why I’ve tried to keep you at arm’s length and stay professional. But… I’m here if you want to talk. I was there yesterday. I saw it. I know how hard that must have been for you.”

I look down at my hands in my lap, blinking away the hot moisture pooling over my lower lids. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Okay,” he concedes. “But I’m here if you do.”

“Thanks… Evan.”

“My pleasure, Ana.” He gets out of his chair and grins at me, trying to be reassuring, I think. It’s a different side of him, something I haven’t seen before. I never thought I’d find another CPO like Luke Sawyer, but there’s something genuine his concern, in the almost avuncular gleam in his eyes, that soothes the sense of unease inside of me just a fraction. I smile as he turns to go, but before he exits my office completely, he stops and faces me again.

“He’s doing a press conference this evening.”

“What? Why?” Woods raises an eyebrow, an indication that I should already know. And, after a few seconds thought, I do. By addressing the media himself, he can try to re-shape the narrative. He can express his regret over what happened and reassure the public of all the steps they’re taking to make sure none of this happens again. Offense as the best defense.

“Should I go?” I ask, but Woods just shrugs.

“If you want. But if you don’t, it’s going to be televised.”

Of course it is.

My phone beeps on my desk, interrupting my internal argument over supporting my husband publicly and disagreeing with him privately, and Abby’s voice comes through the speaker.

“Mrs. Grey, Mr. Wallace is on line one for you.”

Shit.

“Thank you, Abby.” I look up at Woods, tell him that I’ll let him know what I decide before this afternoon, and pick up the receiver on the phone. “Hi, Scott.”

“Ana, hey. Are you alright?”

My heart sinks. I guess, if he’s heard about it in New York, yesterday’s incident is now national news. “Yeah, thanks.”

“Is Grey…?”

“He’s fine. Everyone was fine.”

He lets out a sigh of relief that sounds surprisingly real through the phone. “Good. Carmen said this morning she wanted to send you flowers or something, but we weren’t sure if you’d be in the office today, or even if something like that would be welcome.”

“I appreciate the thought, but we’re fine. My immediate concern is what book we’re going to put up for Carmen tomorrow.”

“Really?”

My brows knit together. “Of course. I’m in the office, I’d like to my job.”

“Well, when I saw the news coverage last night, I assumed you’d be out for a few days. I only called because Stevens said you were in today and I was surprised.”

“You talked to Stevens? Why?”

“To let him know that Daves’ contract was sent out this morning. I expect it to be signed and returned by end of business today.”

“What?!” Angry heat rises inside of me, scorching away the exhaustion and dread lingering in my bones. “You approved The Black Rose?”

“Like I said, Ana… I thought you were going to be out.”

“Well, I’m not! I’m here, fully prepared to talk to you about why that very decision absolutely cannot be allowed to happen. Jesus, Scott…” My teeth clench as my continually growing anger renders me speechless.

“Look, I know you don’t agree, and that’s a shame, but this was always the right decision, Ana. Daves is a proven best seller, this is going to float you through the rest of the fiscal year. And once his sales make the right impact on our bottom line, you can go ahead with that other title you want.”

If they make the right impact,” I argue, “which I have serious doubts over, that impact won’t be felt for a year. Maybe more. You expect me to ask my author to sit around for that long, praying this novel doesn’t tank and destroy her chances at being published?”

“I’m sorry, Ana. It’s done.”

“And Carmen just approved this, without even discussing it with me?”

He goes on the defensive. “Like I said, we didn’t think you would be in.”

“Do you think cellphones only work inside this building?”

“I thought you probably had more important things to worry about yesterday than getting whatever book you liked best that week to the top of the frontlist. Decisions had to be made and you left the office early. You’re welcome for running your branch while you were gone, by the way.”

I can’t even dignify that with a response. I pull the phone away from my ear, slam it back down on the receiver, and turn back to my computer. On the screen is an open document I’ve used to create an outline of all of the research I’ve done on the current sales climate and competing titles, which I’d planned to go over with Scott on that call. Instead, I exit out and pull up my email.

 

From: Anastasia Grey

Subject: Resignation

Date: April 3rd, 2012, 11:45 AM

To: Carmen Gallagher

Dear Ms. Gallagher,

Please let this letter serve as notification of my resignation from Greenwich Small Press, effective immediately. There is nothing I, nor anyone else, can do to save your publishing house as long as that motherfucking….

 

I stop, take a breath, then let my head fall into my hands. I’m well within my rights to resign. How can I be expected to do what’s asked of me when every time I try to make a change, I’m blocked by the old guard? Scott can preach about how this is the right move until he’s blue in the face but it’s my name that’s on the line here. My credibility. And if this release fails… no, when this release fails, all the blame is going to fall on me.

But I’m not a quitter.

The only thing I’ve ever walked away from my entire life ended up being one my biggest regrets. I’ve spent years now putting what I broke that day back together. And I doubt Scott or Carmen will be as forgiving of me leaving as Christian was. I don’t want to run anymore. I don’t want to be seen as the person who throws their hands in the air in defeat every time something gets too difficult. I don’t want to be the girl who things happen to, where everything is outside of my control. This is a shitty hand, but I’m not a novice to this game.

With stubborn determination, I turn for my bag and pull out the beaten up copy of The Black Rose manuscript contained inside. The text on the page seems to mock me as I scan each chapter, picking up mistakes and lazy writing from even just a cursory glance. But this is now my cross to bear. The manuscript has been approved, the contract has been sent, and now I have to find a way to turn this into something remarkable. Or I have to leave.

Maybe it’s a side effect of spending too much time with people named Grey, but, despite how hopeless I feel this manuscript really is, I decide then and there that I’m not going to let it defeat me. I’m not going to throw away the work I’ve put in to fill this seat. Carmen told me when I was hired that she was essentially asking for a miracle, now it’s time for me to produce.

I press my finger into the zero on my phone to page reception.

“Yes, Mrs. Grey?” Penny responds.

“Penny, can you get Hailey Lewis on the line for me?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Our conversation is brief. I don’t have the heart to tell her that I’ve failed her over the phone. So, instead, I invite her to lunch. The excitement in her voice stabs at my heart as we agree on a time and place, and when I hang up I feel a crushing sense of disappointment warring with my newfound determination. But my path is set now, thanks to Scott, and the only way to go from here is forward.

I gather my things and make my way out of the office to meet Hailey for lunch, texting on my phone as I go. It’s only after I’ve slipped my phone back into my bag and glanced up to find Woods that I notice the shift in the atmosphere amongst my employees. Stevens is leaning far back in his chair, his feet kicked up on his desk and a gloating smile plastered on his face. Those in his close proximity stare at him with admiration, except for Jacki, who shakes her head and focuses her attention on her own screen. Clearly, the word is out. Scott won, and I lost.

“Stevens,” I say sharply, He blinks and glances lazily in my direction, as if the very act of turning to face me is a great expenditure of effort.

“Ana?”

“I just wanted to congratulate you on how hard you fought for your author. It’s that kind of tenacity that the people who put their careers in our hands every day expect from us. Well done.”

He laughs, gloating again. “Sure.”

“And I’ve decided, since you are so sure that this is the novel that’s going to carry us through the rest of the fiscal year and keep us from closing our doors come Christmas time, that I’m going to personally see to its success.”

The smug look on his face vanishes immediately. “What?”

“You won’t be needed going forward.” I give him a saccharine smile. “I’ll take it from here.”

“That’s my commission,” he argues.

“No, it was your commission. Now, this project is moving in a different direction. A direction that does not include you.”

“You can’t do that!”

“Oh, yes I can. You see, I think you’re under the impression that I’m not your boss, but I am. It is my name on that door and as long as that is true, we’re going to do things my way. Try to go over my head to Wallace again, and you won’t be missing out on commissions, you’ll be packing your things.”

His face grows red as his mouth drops open in shock, and his eyes flit around the room as though he’s looking for support from his fellow co-workers. But no one comes to his defense. Eight pairs of eyes turn to their computers, leaving him alone and dumbfounded.

“Oh,” I continue, stopping on my way out the door to face him again. “And it’s Mrs. Grey.”

A series of disjointed sounds escape his lips as he attempts, and fails, to make a coherent argument, but I don’t stay to see if he regains his composure. I have a lunch appointment. So, I motion for Woods to follow, turn on my heel, and walk through the doors

Shaker + Spear is an upscale seafood restaurant located in a hotel a few blocks from my office. It’s quiet and not too busy, the perfect atmosphere for a meeting. I’m the first to arrive and I wait at the table to for Hailey to join me with a cold glass of Chardonnay, one of Christian’s favorites. The taste reminds me of him, and the memory of a kiss that I can’t quite place in time, so I pick up my phone and send him a text.

Thinking of you. I hope everything is going well today.

Is that what I hope, though? It’s a question that’s been running through my mind all day. I know Christian. I know that this investigation being launched by the city and all of the negative media coverage is getting to him. He wouldn’t have gone into the office today if he wasn’t worried that his absence would derail everything he’s spent the last half a year trying to build. Not after seeing me in the aftermath. For the past seven months he’s heard nothing but no. Elliot, Ros, experts brought in from NASA and research groups all over the world have all told him this dream he has of creating sustainable, unlimited energy is impossible. I wanted to be the person that told him yes. I wanted to be the person who believed in him. But after yesterday, after seeing the destruction caused by his intractability and feeling even an iota of the devastation that would plague me forever if I were to lose him, I’m not sure I can be that anymore. I’m not sure that I can stand by his side and give him my full support and faith when I know what’s at risk. Ros worries for the future of GEH. Carrick worries for the sustainability of the city he’s been charged to protect. And I worry for him.

Calliope was in that building.

“Sorry I’m late!”

I’m pulled out of my thoughts by the jolt of the table as Hailey crashes down into the chair across from me. Her eyes are wide with excitement, her smile stretched wide and open across her face. There is no hint of doubt in her expression, no clue that I’m about to crush her dreams.

“You’re not late,” I assure her. “I was early. Shall we order an appetizer? You’re going to die over their oysters.”

“Yum!” she chirps, then picks up her menu. We chat until the food arrives, or rather, she chats and I listen intently. I haven’t had a conversation with her that’s ever lasted more than a few minutes, and I’m surprised to find how light and fun she is. Like Kate was when we first went to Harvard. I thought, after reading her novel, that I knew her on a level more personal than idle conversation. I imagined her to be serious. Wise beyond her years. Introspective and deeply observational. Discovering her almost childlike persona actually has me far more impressed with her writing ability than I was before. It has me aching to further explore her potential, to learn what else lies below the surface of this seemingly ordinary young woman.

“I haven’t gotten my contract by the way,” she says, as if it were simply a continuation of her previous thought. “You said you were going to send it last week, but I haven’t seen it yet.”

I frown. “Yeah, that’s why I asked you here today.”

“Oh?”

“Hailey…” I pause, unsure how to break this news to her without breaking her heart. “I need you to know that I think you’re incredible.”

Her face falls. “Oh no…”

“I tried everything I could, but the stars just wouldn’t align. It was premature for me to call you and make you an offer, and I’m sorry about that. I was confident that the people above me would see everything I see in you, but the timing just wasn’t right. I can make you a future offer, for next year maybe, but…” My words cut off, and she finishes for me.

“But I’d have to wait.”

“And I don’t think you should have to. Especially because anything I offer you for the future can’t be guaranteed. This is about your work, your talent, and your moment. I don’t want to take that away from you. I believe in your work. I believe that it’s going to do good things for you and for the countless people who will read your words and find hope. That kind of power shouldn’t be caught up in something as mundane as budgeting considerations and bureaucratic power plays.”

“So what do I do?”

“Get a lawyer. Someone who will look out for your interests above everything else. Someone who can help you navigate offers being made to you and the contracts you’ll be asked to sign. Don’t let anyone push you into publishing before your book is perfect. You only get one shot at a first release, and that release will make or break your entire career. Never settle. You should demand the best editors, best artists, and the best representation. You’re worth it. Phoenix is worth it. You’re going to be big, Hailey. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

She nods. “Okay. So–” She’s interrupted as another woman slides into the seat next to her, drops her bag on the floor by her feet, and picks up a glass of water on the table.

“Alright, alright, I’m here. What’s the big emergency? And I swear to god if the next words that come out of your mouth aren’t, ‘I’ve finished my manuscript and am ready to send it to the editors,’ I’m leaving.”

“What a surprise! Hailey, this is Lydia,” I say, gesturing to my agent with a smile.

“Pleasure,” Lydia replies with an uninterested glance in Hailey’s direction. “Do you have a manuscript for me or not, Ana?”

“I do, just not mine.” She looks taken aback for a moment, but I simply reach for my own bag and rise from my seat. “Lydia, this is Hailey. I think the two of you will get along just fine.”

“What are you talking about?” Lydia replies. “Where’s your manuscript, Ana?”

I wink at her, then turn to leave without another word. Maybe it was unethical. There’s probably some violation of my non-compete, despite how careful I was to not actually pitch Phoenix to Lydia. But it’s what I could live with. She’ll be in good hands. The best hands. With Lydia representing here, she might even get a contract with a big five publisher, and that’s what her talent deserves.

With a new spring in my step, I make my way through the restaurant, deciding to stop at the restroom before I rejoin Woods, who’s waiting for me at the front door. But just before I step into the hallway that leads to the bathrooms, someone large and hulking moves into my path, blocking me.

“Wait,” Luke hisses.

“Luke? What are you doing here?”

“Shh.” He leans against the wall, trying to look casual while still blocking me from sight of the bathrooms. He stays that way for a long moment, and just as I’m about to push him aside for being ridiculous, I find out why.

Alexis Young steps out of the bathroom and pauses just a few feet away from us, scanning the restaurant. Her eyes land on the table where Lydia is still sitting with Hailey, and her face falls with disappointment.

“Shit.” I hear her hiss. Then she storms out of the restaurant and disappears from view.

“Holy fuck,” I breathe in disbelief. “What is she doing here?”

“I don’t know,” Luke says. “She’s following all of you.”

“All of us?”

“You, Mia, Kate, Grey…. She was at the hospital when Kate went into labor, she trails Mia to every one of her ballet rehearsals, and she spends every morning at the coffee shop across the street from your office. I saw her yesterday, at GEH, and she looked… I don’t know, disappointed?”

My heart stops. “Disappointed? In what? That Christian got out? She wants him dead?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t know. I’ve been following her for a few weeks now and I can’t derive any kind of motive. I’ve searched her car, but haven’t found any weapons. I’ve tapped her phone, but she’s not getting calls or instructions from anyone. I’ve got her emails and her browsing history on surveillance, but nothing. She just… follows you. Never getting close enough for you to see her, but always so that whoever she’s tailing is in her line of sight.”

“So she’s keeping tabs on us,” I assume. “She’s keeping track of where we are and relaying that information back to someone. Someone from the police department, someone we haven’t uncovered from the conspiracy…” My voice grows more and more shrill with each word, until Luke reaches out to cover my mouth.

“I don’t know,” he says. “But I’ll find out. In the meantime, I need you to stay with Woods. No more waiting at the door bullshit.”

A familiar feeling creeps over me, the same feeling that encapsulated my entire life last year. The feeling of knowing that Leila was out there, watching me, waiting for a moment of weakness, and feeling it again makes me nauseous.

“No,” I say firmly. “No, we’re not waiting anymore. Every second she’s out there, Calliope, Mia, Kate… they’re all in danger. And I’m not going to sit idly by and wait for our enemies to make the first move anymore.”

“Ana…”

“You’ll set up a meeting. I don’t care how, I don’t care where. I don’t care if she knows I’m coming or if we have to ambush her, but I’m going to confront her. I’m going to find out what she wants and take care of it before it has the chance to fester into something that will come back and destroy us.”

“You know I can’t do that, Ana. This isn’t like Kozlowski or even Harrington. She was Gresham’s submissive, a man we know was dangerous. Who threatened violence against your sister-in-law and who was in the very deepest parts of Lincoln’s circle. This girl could be an actual threat and I’m not going to voluntarily put you in harm’s way.”

“I’m already in harm’s way. As long as she’s out there, she’s a threat, and I will no longer tolerate threats against me or my family. She’s a problem that needs to be taken care of and I will do that with or without your help.”

“Ana–”

“Are you going to get me a meeting, or not?”

His eyes dart between mine, obviously looking for some kind of hesitation he can prey on to change my mind, so I ensure he doesn’t find any. I purposefully exude every ounce of confidence I feel in my gut, and eventually he sighs.

“It’ll take me a few days. Maybe weeks. Once I find a way to do this so that you’re safe, then we’ll talk about setting up a meeting.”

“Good.” I lean forward, feeling slightly guilty for speaking to my best friend the way I just did, and kiss him softly on the cheek. “Thank you, Luke.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Now get out of here, and stay with your bodyguard, Anastasia. I mean it. I’ll call Taylor.”

“What are you following me too? How do you know how often I’m apart from Woods?”

“If I told you, you’d try to avoid me, and I can’t have that.”

My eyes narrow. “Don’t you have a girlfriend you could be stalking?”

“Nah, she stays where she’s supposed to, unlike someone I know.” He gives me a look that dares me to challenge him, but I don’t. I simply roll my eyes and turn away.

“I’ll be waiting for your call, Lucas,” I say in a sing song voice as I walk away. For a few more steps, I wait for some biting response, but it never comes. He doesn’t say anything. And when I turn to face him again, he’s gone. Disappeared, like a shadow at high noon.

“How does he do that?” I whisper to myself, and then realize, that’s how he keeps track of people. Me. Alexis. He can probably see me now and is having quite the laugh over me looking like an idiot, searching the restaurant to find him. I won’t give him the satisfaction. I turn and head outside, staying half a step in front of Woods the entire way back to the office.

 

Chapter 15

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She could have slapped me. She could have stormed up to me, pulled her fist as far back as she could reach and punched me hard across the face. It still wouldn’t be as devastating as those six words. Woods reaches out with his arms, holding them around me like he’s afraid I’m going to drop Calliope, or maybe just to take her from me, but I don’t relinquish her. The news of Christian being in imminent danger, that he might be hurt or worse, only makes me cling more tightly to our daughter.

“Ros…”

She shakes her head, then dashes the tears from her eyes with the backs of her hands and turns away from me. The police officer who has spent all afternoon keeping me back is standing a few feet away from us, facing the building and listening to the words coming through the speaker attached to his shoulder. She grabs his arm to get his attention.

“I need to know about the lab.”

“Ma’am, step back please.” He takes hold of her forearms, the same as he did to me, and tries to steer her back towards the crowd. She shakes him off, refusing to be dismissed.  

“This is my company and I need to know what’s happening to my people down there.”

“I’m sure you’re worried, but I don’t have any information for you at this time. If you could just step back and…”

“Christian Grey is trapped in that lab!”  She screams the words at him and waves her arm in the direction of the still smoking building. Behind me, the whispers of speculation and prayers from the crowd of onlookers that have been like a constant buzzing background noise for the last few hours goes silent. There is a reporter standing only twenty feet away from us and she stops in the middle of whatever she’s saying into the camera to gape back at us. Everything seems to stop. One second in time that’s suspended outside of reality, and then it all comes crashing down.

The police officer grabs the radio and reiterates what Ros just told him into it, which comes across more as confirmation than new information. Someone behind me shouts that Christian is dead and the sentiment is carried through the crowd like the swell of a wave, repeated over and over again.

“For god’s sake!” Ros shouts, her words like venom as she turns to face them. “His child is right here!”

“Ros!” My eyes flash in warning, then I turn to Woods in a panic. My hands shake as I reach out for him and simultaneously lower Calliope’s face to my shoulder. “Your jacket, now! Give me your jacket.”

He shrugs out of the dark gray suit jacket and hands it over to me. I manage to throw it over Calliope just before the reporter is able navigate her way across the glass covered sidewalk with her camera crew and shoves her microphone in my face.

“Mrs. Grey, KIRO 7 news. Can you confirm that your husband is trapped inside the laboratory where the explosion took place?”

“I, uh…” Calliope starts to cry again, incensed as she fights against my hold to get out from under the jacket. The reporter’s eyes flash down to her shape in my arms with a desperate kind of hunger. She covers the microphone with her hand and leans into her film crew.

“Keep the camera on the baby.”

Shit. I turn my back on her and look at our nanny, hoping my eyes convey how desperately I need to her listen and not ask questions. “Kensie, take Calliope. Go back to the house and pretend like everything is normal. Mommy and Daddy are just working late. We’ll meet you there as soon as we can.”

“Yes, Mrs. Grey.”

I move between Kensie and the camera, using my body to block as much of Calliope as I can while I shift her into the nanny’s arms just in case the jacket slips. “Keep her covered.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Kensie reaches down for my hand and squeezes my fingers. It’s a simple gesture of support, caring, but it feels too much like a condolence. I yank my hand out of her hold like she’s burned me.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey.”

“It’s fine, just go.”

She nods, then wraps Calliope tighter in her arms as she turns to leave. The crowd behind her is tight, rowdy with the arrival of those with family members who work in the building, and my heart clenches while I watch her try to push through them. I nearly call her back when I see her and my still crying child being jostled by people trying to get the officer at the line’s attention by screaming their questions over the constant noise of the crowd.  

“Woods, go with Calliope,” I say, not taking my eyes off Kensie’s ponytail, the only part of her I can track through the sea of people. “Don’t let anyone near her and keep reporters away from the gates once you get home. I don’t want her to be scared.”

“Mrs. Grey…” He leans in real close to keep the microphones still held in my direction from picking up what he’s saying. “My orders come for your husband and I’ve been instructed never to leave your side.”

“Then he can yell at me for sending you away after they pull him out of that lab!” I should care that there are cameras on me. I should care that everyone within earshot is hanging on my every word, hoping for some kind of new information I might have simply because of who I am to the company’s CEO. But I don’t. The only thing I care about is what is happening to my husband right now and that Calliope isn’t exposed and put in danger of being targeted because we weren’t careful enough with her in a crowd of strangers. Still, he doesn’t move to follow after Kensie.

“Mrs. Grey, perhaps you should come back to the house with—“

“No! No, I’m not going anywhere.” I lean in too, meeting him the rest of the way, and wrap my arms around his neck in a hug so that I can press my lips right up to his ear. “Please, Evan. The only thing that is going to keep me together right now is knowing that Calliope is at home safe. I need you to make sure that happens. I need you to make sure that she’s not scared. Please.”

He hesitates, but eventually nods. I mouth the words ‘thank you’ to him, and he turns me back to face Ros, Andrea, and Olivia.

“Those three,” he says, pointing at each of them in turn with his index finger. “You never leave their side. Do you understand me? Not for anything.”

The look on Ros’s face as she stares at the building tells me that she’s not going anywhere anytime soon, so it’s an easy promise for me to make.

“I won’t leave until he’s out.”

“Alright. Then… keep your cell on you, and take this.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a slender black cylinder. I recognize it instantly, because Luke made me carry a similar one last year after we found out Leila was following me. Pepper spray.

“Stay safe, Ana.” It’s the first time he’s used my name instead of Mrs. Grey, and I once again have to bite my lip to keep it from trembling. I give him a nod, because it’s all I can manage, and he turns and snakes through the crowd, following Kensie and Calliope to the car. It’s one weight of a million lifted off my shoulders and I get just one second to breathe freely. But sending my bodyguard away has immediate consequences and it comes in the form of hands that grab me from behind.

“Mrs. Grey, do you have any information to give the public regarding Christian Grey’s condition?”

The reporter. Without Woods hovering inches behind me, she’s immediately more aggressive. I try to take a step back, but she takes one with me, her microphone held so closely to my lips I’m sure she’s picking up the sounds of my breathing. It’s suffocating and more than a little intimidating, but thankfully the sound of clacking heels and repeated no, no, no’s bring Jaqueline to my rescue.

“That’ll be enough, Susan,” she says, getting in between me and the reporter with her arms held out in front of her like a protective barrier. “Mrs. Grey will not be answering any questions at this time.”

The reporter leans back on her heels and raises a skeptical eyebrow at her, but Jaqueline holds her ground. With a shake of her head, Miss Kiro 7 News steps back and motions for her camera crew to follow her back to their previous recording spot. They stop though, when an important looking town car pulls up on the street just behind us and Carrick steps out.

“Mayor Grey!” She picks up the cord to her microphone and makes towards the street, but the crowd keeps her from ambushing him. The frustration of being denied access to yet another important interview is clear on her face as she holds out her microphone and attempts to shout questions over the noise of people, street traffic, and emergency crews, but by the time Carrick makes it to me his security team has escorted her away.

“Ana,” Carrick breathes in relief, immediately pulling me into a tight embrace. “Thank god, you’re not hurt.”

I shake my head against the lapels of his jacket, holding back tears. “I wasn’t here. I was walking and I heard the explosion…” There’s more I want to say, but my throat is growing tighter with each and every word.

“Where’s Calliope?”

“Home,” I reply lamely. “With Kensie and Woods.”

“And Christian? Is he…?”

I can’t hold it back anymore. I let out a choking sob into his chest and start to shake. “I don’t know, I don’t know. All they’ve told me is there was an explosion in the R&D lab and he was inside. I don’t even know if they’re trying to get him out…”

“Let me see what I can find out.” He kisses the crown of my head and then releases me, moving with purpose towards the same officer who has rebuked both Ros and I all day. I turn and glance back at Christian’s partner and best friend. She has one arm folded so tightly across the front of her designer jacket that I’m not sure how she’s breathing, and three fingers from her other hand are pressed to her lips.

“They’re going to get him out,” I tell her, wrapping an arm around her back and laying my head on her shoulder. “They have to get him out.”

“Unlimited energy,” she replies. Her eyes are glassy with worry again and I’m not entirely sure the words she says aloud are directed at me. “This is what happens when you try to fuck around with the laws of physics. God damn it, I told him…” Her lips press tightly together and she takes a deep breath through her nose. “I swear to god, if he makes it out of there alive, I’m going to kill him.”

With all the uncertainty still hanging in the air, her words would be a cruel if I couldn’t see how much it hurts her to say them. She’s terrified, not just for her building or for her company, but for her best friend. So I squeeze her tighter, and let myself fall apart on her pretty jacket.

“I know. Me too.”

“Oh, Ana…” She turns and takes me into her arms, holding me up as I devolve into a sobbing mess. There’s too much here that’s too familiar. My eyes screw tightly shut to fight against the tears rolling down my cheeks, but blocking out everything going on around me only allows new visions to fill my head. Memories of Christian in a hospital bed, battered and unresponsive. The pain on his face during physical therapy that helped him regain his strength after surgery. The sound of the gunshot that gave him the wound that made physical therapy necessary in the first place.

“Oh god, what is it?”

I look up from Ros’ shoulder and see Elliot standing a few yards away. His eyes are wide and terrified. His hair is windblown. His cheeks are pink. Did he run here from Escala?

“What’s happened?” he asks again, moving closer to me. “Christian isn’t…?”

I shake my head, or maybe I’m just shaking so hard it does it all on its own. “I don’t know.”

“Jesus.” He takes me from Ros and tucks me inside his strong arms, then looks over the heads of the police officers and paramedics roaming around the empty space in front of us like they’re going to have all the answers. “Dad? Dad!”

One arm leaves my shoulder as Elliot reaches up to wave his father over to us, and while Carrick approaches, he turns me so that I’m facing him too. It’s not just Carrick walking towards us. He’s flanked on either side by a police officer and a fireman, both of whom wear important looking badges that I assume mean they’re in command.

“Well?” Elliot demands.

“The fire from explosion caused a collapse at the entryway. The parking garage above them caved in and now they’re trapped behind a wall of rubble and rebar. We can’t shift anything until we know it won’t cause a further collapse.”

Elliot looks at the fire chief. “I can help with that. I’m an engineer and I built this building. I know everything about it, brick by brick.”

“Good, get to the lobby,” the fire chief says. “My men will tell you where to go from there.”

Elliot nods and runs forward, but no one has asked or answered the only question I care about. “What about the people inside? Is anyone… hurt?” It’s the most I can stand to ask.

The police chief frowns. “We’re not sure, Mrs. Grey. The power system has failed inside the lab and all of our efforts to get some form of communication inside have failed.”

“What do you mean failed?”

“Oh my god.” Ros hand drops from her mouth to her chest. “He was worried about hacking… The lab was encased in lead so outside signals couldn’t get through to the systems inside.”

Because he had been hacked before. Because Andrew Lincoln had used the GEH servers against him before.

Ros takes a breath, and regains all of the composure she’s let slip since she was pulled out of the building. “So, we don’t even know if they’re alive in there?”

“No, ma’am. But we are doing everything in our power to get to them and get them out safely, I promise you that.”

“Oh, god!” I double over and begin sobbing into my hands again. Carrick is at my side in the next instant, pulling me back into him and nodding towards the officers.

“Then get to it, Captain. Keep me updated of any progress.”

“Yes, sir,” the officer responds, and both he and the fire chief turn and hurry away from us.

Carrick attempts to comfort me, but there’s no way I could find comfort in the hours that follow. I had thought, foolishly, that Elliot’s involvement in the rescue would move things along. That he would be so desperate to save his brother that he’d throw caution to the wind and dive head first into the debris that had him enclosed inside the lab. But he doesn’t. He spends hours evaluating the structural integrity of the support beams surrounding the caved in opening, ensuring that moving any of the concrete won’t cause further collapse. The logical part of me understands why this is a necessity. But my heart seems to tear further apart with every passing minute that Christian doesn’t emerge from the GEH building.

As the sun sinks low in the sky, and the shadows from the other skyscrapers around us grow longer over the sidewalk where we stand, the crowd noise begins to die down. Dusk sets in and the only sound left is staccato thud of helicopter blades over head and the shouts of the emergency crews below. I can’t feel anything. Not the pangs of hunger or the dry ache of thirst. My phone has been buzzing non-stop in my bag, but I ignore it. When candles start being passed around, like defeat has been accepted and we’re now collectively mourning the loss of the eight people now confirmed to have been in the lab at the time of the explosion, I hear a voice echo inside my head that I haven’t heard outside of my nightmares since that fateful night last July.

Looks like I still got him in the end.

“No!” I scream, pulling each of my hands out of Carrick’s and Ros’ hold. They look at me like they think I’ve lost it, and maybe I have. I shake my head, trying to dispel the echo of Andrew Lincoln’s voice, and back away from my loved ones. “I can’t stand here anymore. I can’t stay here and wait, doing nothing!” The police charged with crowd control have thinned out over the last few hours, giving me an opportunity to slip through and make it to the building if I run. I take it.

Carrick shouts my name to get me to come back and the few officers that are too far away to actually do anything issue warnings, but that’s not what stops me. A pair of strong hands latches onto my arm from behind and yanks me back. I look over my shoulder and nearly break down again when I see who has ahold of me.

“Ma’am, get back!” An officer yells at me, his hand on the gun at his hip as he runs towards us, but Luke holds out his hand to try and diffuse the situation.

“I’ve got her, Officer,” he says. “Her husband is inside, you have to understand.”

“Yeah, well.” He takes his hand off his gun, and motions with his head towards the crowd. “Just get back in line.”

“Yes, sir.” Luke nods, then tightens his fingers around my arm as he leads me back to the same place I stood next to Carrick and Ros, except now Jade is there too, waiting with a jacket and a pair of sneakers in her hand.

“I saw you on TV,” she says, holding the shoes out for me. “I thought you could use these.”

“Thank you,” I whisper, unable to fully express my gratitude under the weight of my grief. She smiles anyway, and helps hold me up as I switch out my shoes.

“I’ll take those, Mrs. Grey,” Andrea says, reaching out for my heels. I hand them over but look down at them in disgust. They’re a part of today. They’re a part of this nightmare.

“I never want to see those again,” I tell her. She nods, then my attention is drawn away by the jacket Luke drapes over my shoulders.

Finally, long after dark has fallen and the clock has ticked past midnight, the metallic whir of saws echoing through the air stops. My breath catches in my throat and my eyes move away from the front doors for the first time in hours, searching for paramedics preparing to enter the building to care for the wounded after they’ve been extracted. There’s nothing though. Only a heavy silence that permeates everything around me.

My heart thuds in my ears. I shiver, but not because I’m cold. My future, my entire reason for living, is hanging in the balance, and I know in the deepest parts of me that this is it. I’m about to get the answers I’ve been waiting for all day. But when five minutes turn to twenty, then thirty… I’m not certain I’m ready for them anymore.

Please be okay.

Please be okay.

Please be okay.

“Look!” someone behind me yells. My eyes, closed in silent prayer, snap open and turn back to the doors. The emergency crews are wheeling a gurney out of the building and the sight of it floods my entire body with fear until I see the group of men ambling out behind it. Barney, Welch, three men in ash darkened lab coats, Taylor, and then…

“Christian!” I sprint forward and for the first time, no one stops me. He turns in the direction I call out his name, then abandons the medical professionals there to examine him and his team, and rushes towards me. We meet at the top of the steps, halfway between the building and the sidewalk, and I leap into his open arms. Dust and ash from his clothes surround us in a choking, murky cloud when my body makes impact with his, but I don’t notice. I’m single minded as my lips come crashing into his.

“Christian!” I sob into his mouth. “Oh, thank God! Thank God! I was so scared I was going to lose you.”  

“Never. I’m right here, baby.”

A days worth of anxiety and grief begin pouring out of me, and I can’t hold it back. His arms snake around me, holding me against him as though he’ll never let me go again, and he whispers a long myriad of promises and reassurances into my hair. I take a deep breath, and manage to calm myself enough to pull away from him, then glance up into his eyes.

“Oh my god, you’re bleeding…”

“Oh.” He reaches up and touches his hair line, which is matted with dark, congealed blood. “It’s nothing. I’m fine.”

But he’s not. Now that the initial relief of knowing he’s safe has passed, I can see the damage. He looks as though he’s been torn straight out of war movie. Every part of him is gray with dust, except the lines down the side of his face that are streaked with the color of flesh from sweat dripping down his brow. His fine clothes are branded with large swaths of black from the heat and flames of the explosion. His normal musk is gone, replaced by something acrid that has a distinct chemical quality to it. His beautiful face is painted with exhaustion.

“Christian Trevelyan-Grey!” Ros storms up into the space between us and shoves him roughly enough that he stumbles backward a few paces. He quickly regains his equilibrium, and looks at her in confusion.

“Ros?”

“Are you out of your goddamn mind?”

“It was an acc-” His words cut off as she shoves him again, though he doesn’t lose his balance the way he did before. They stand a few yards apart, staring each other down until Ros finally breaks with a chest heaving gasp and throws her arms around him. “I am going to yell at you so hard tomorrow.”

“I know,” he breathes back. “I know.”

She lowers her face into his dust covered shirt, takes a deep breath, and then moves aside for Carrick. Both men seem to stiffen as they stand before one another, waiting for the other to speak first. Apparently, not even tragedy is enough to break through this cold war they’re currently fighting.

“Are you hurt?” Carrick asks at last. Christian shakes his head.

“No, I’m fine. It was close but… I’m fine.”

“Good.” The Adam’s apple in Carrick’s throat bobs as he nods his head, and, after a moment of hesitation, he steps forward and wraps his arms around his son. “Don’t do that to me again, Christian.”

“I won’t. I’m sorry.”

“I know.” Carrick nods, and sniffs hard. “I know.”

They pull apart, but Carrick doesn’t let go of Christian’s shoulder. Instead, he glances behind him, at the building, and his face turns serious.

“Look, I need to warn you. They’re going to–”

“Mr. Grey?” We all turn and see a young police officer approach the stairs from the direction of the building. Carrick’s hand immediately falls from Christian’s shirt.

“Yes?” he answers.

“I’m going to need you to come with me to triage, sir. Have a medical team look you over.”

“I’m fine, thank you.”

“I’m sorry, sir. That’s not an option.”

“It’s always an option. I know what an AMA is, consider this a refusal to be treated.”

“Well, if you’re refusing medical care, then I need you to step over here so we can have talk about the incident. I’m going to need a statement.”

“Oh.” He looks around blankly for a moment, caught unprepared, then nods. But Carrick calls out to stop him as he begins to follow the officer away from us.

“Christian!” He stops and turns back again. Carrick’s jaw tenses as though he’s trying to find a way to work around something he can’t bring himself to say. “Just… don’t say anything without a lawyer present.”

“What’s going on?”

“Sir, if you’ll come with me.” The officer tries to nudge him forward, but Christian doesn’t move.

“Dad?”

“Go, Son,” Carrick says. “Just remember that you don’t have to answer anything without a lawyer.”

I watch Christian’s chest expand with a deep breath before he breaks eye contact with his father and moves to follow the officer across the courtyard.

“Wait, is he being arrested?” I ask.

“No,” Carrick confirms. “Just detained until he can be questioned.”

“Questioned about what? What’s going on?”

That same look of being torn apart by some unsaid words crosses his face, and he shakes his head again. “You should call his lawyer, Ana.”

“Lawyer? You’re his lawyer, Carrick.”

“No, I’m not. Not anymore.” He takes a few steps closer to me, then hooks his fingers around my arm and pulls me aside. “Ana, this isn’t going to go away. He caused an explosion in the middle of the city. Three civilians were injured and I don’t even know what’s happened to the guy they brought out of the lab on a stretcher. The city of Seattle is going to have to open an investigation into what happened here today, and I’m the mayor now. It’s my job to oversee that investigation, so I can’t be apart of it. I can’t help you.”

I blink, feeling like all the air is sucked out of my lungs at once. “What does an investigation mean?”  

He swallows, and shakes his head again. “Call his lawyer, Ana.”

I nod, then move to Ros. Without Carrick, I’m not exactly sure which lawyer I need to get down here and she knows Christian’s corporate legal team better than anyone. She gives me a name, Andrea gets me a number, and thirty minutes later my husband has a team of men in pristine suits behind him refusing to let him answer any questions. It drags the entire interrogation process out, which seems excessive since he hasn’t been charged with anything. Elliot can’t stay to wait for answers because he’s got a new baby at home and Ros opts to go with the man who was injured in the explosion, a lab tech named Sheldon who broke his leg under falling debris. When the first rays of dawn start to color the sky above us, it’s only Luke and I left, and he holds tightly to my hand until Christian finally returns.

“Ready?” he asks, his voice like gravel and his eyes heavy with fatigue.

“Yes,” I reply, then turn to Luke. “Thank you for waiting with me.”

“Of course. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” Christian gives him a tight smile and half a nod, then takes my hand out of his and leads me down to the street. There’s a car waiting for us, though it’s not being driven by anyone I recognize. I can see the clear wire connected to his earpiece though, so I assume it’s someone on Christian’s security team.

“Where to, Mr. Grey?” the driver asks.

“Home, please.” The driver nods and signals to turn into oncoming traffic, and Christian’s head falls against the headrest.

“What happened?” I ask.

“I don’t even know.” He opens his eyes and looks at me, but the cool confidence he normally exudes is gone. “We thought we’d figured it out. Welch built a prototype and I went down there to see it in action, but the cooling mechanisms gave out thirty seconds into his demonstration. There were safety precautions in place and every single one of them failed. Over and over again. We did everything we could to stop it, but it just kept getting hotter and hotter until eventually…”

“It exploded,” I finish for him.

He nods. “Thankfully the blast went up instead of out so we were able to avoid the shockwave. But everything was on fire then, blocking our way out, and the suppression system was damaged in the explosion. It took us over an hour to get it under control and then everything caved in. It was like every time we solved one crisis, something else happened.”

I shiver as I imagine what he’s gone through, then unbuckle my seatbelt and crawl into his lap.

“Ana…”

“No,” I whimper, cutting him off before he can tell me to get back in my own seat. My fingers curl into his shirt and I lay my head down on his shoulder, taking comfort in the steady rise and fall of his chest. It takes him a few seconds to accept that I’m not going to let him move me back onto the leather seat next to him, but once he does his arms wrap around me and he lays his cheek against my hair.

“I’m sorry, Christian.”

“We’re okay. Everyone was okay.” He kisses the top of my head, and we make the rest of the drive home in silence. The sky overhead is orange with the rising sun by the time we pull into the driveway. It’s nearly seven, and we should both be dead with exhaustion. But if Kensie got Calliope down at a decent hour last night, she should be waking at any time.

“I need a shower,” Christian tells me once we step into the kitchen.

I nod. “I’m going to check on the baby. I’ll be up in a minute.”

“Okay.” He leans over and kisses me softly on the lips, then untangles our fingers and pulls away from me. I feel immediately bereft. Not enough of the doubt and dread that plagued me all day yesterday have been washed away for me to feel comfortable having him out of my reach. I need him to hold me. I need to feel his heart beating under my hands and the heat of his skin pressed against mine. I decide I’m going to slip into the shower with him, maybe ask him to make love to me before we finally give in to our heavy eyelids and get some much needed sleep, but first I make my way up to the nursery.

The door to the guest room where Kensie sleeps when she stays overnight is closed, so I assume Calliope is still fast asleep. With as much care as I can manage, I ease open the door and tip toe across the floor, moving as slowly as possible as I glance over the railing of her crib. She’s staring at the mobile over her head, silent but wide awake. That is, until she sees me.

“Mama?”

My shoulders fall as all my plans for this morning fly out the window, but I smile and reach down to scoop her in my arms. She molds her body around mine and after giving her a few good morning kisses, I get her changed and let her help me pick out what she wants to wear for the day before I take her down to the kitchen for breakfast.

I expect things to be different. Our staff surely saw the news coverage of the accident and assumed that they wouldn’t be needed today, so I mentally go through what’s already been prepared for Calliope and debate whether or not I’ll need to make something for Christian or if he’ll want to get straight into bed. But when we get downstairs, it’s like I’ve walked into the movie Groundhog’s Day.

Gail stands in front of the stove, an omelet frying in the pan in front of her. Kensie is sipping a cup of coffee as she lays Calliope’s breakfast down on the tray of her high chair. And Christian stands behind the counter, dressed in a fresh suit, typing furiously on the iPhone in his hand. The scene is too familiar, too much like any other day. Like we haven’t been living through a nightmare for the past 16 hours.

“What are you doing?” I ask Christian as I place Calliope in her highchair. He doesn’t answer me right away, choosing instead to finish his email, or text, or whatever it is he’s doing with his phone.

“I’ve got to get back to the office,” he says, after finally putting down his phone and picking up the mug of coffee Gail has poured for him.

“What? What do you mean you’re going back to the office? Don’t you think you should stay home and take it easy for a few days?”

His phone buzzes on the counter and he picks it up while he answers me. “I can’t. I’ve got to be there to survey the damage, meet with my lawyer, and work with Andrea to find an offsite facility that’s large enough to relocate the fusion project to. Jacqueline is in a panic. This whole ordeal is going to be a PR nightmare and I’m going to need all the public support I can get now that everyone knows what we’re doing.”

My stomach drops. “Wait. You’re… you’re not going to scrap the project?”

“Of course not. We had a breakthrough yesterday.”

“Yeah, right before it exploded.”

“And we’ve learned from it.” He drains the rest of his coffee, slips his phone into his pocket, and moves across the kitchen to give me a kiss goodbye. “You should stay home today. Get some sleep.”

“Me? What about you?”

“I’ll be fine.” His hand brushes my cheek, and he gives me a small smile that I think is meant to be reassuring, but it misses that mark by about a hundred miles. I’m at a loss for words. What could I possibly say to explain why I don’t want him to go back to that building today that isn’t already obvious?

He leans down to kiss the top of Calliope’s head then looks up as the security officer who drove us home this morning enters the kitchen. Christian nods to him, then tells me he loves me again before following him out of the kitchen. And I watch him go, feeling like I’m stranded on an island in the middle of shark infested waters.

Next Chapter

Chapter 14

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Kate is only able to hold Kennedy for about ten minutes or so before the exhaustion from labor really hits her. She fights it, but her body is weak and the nurses insist she get some rest before they make a first attempt at breastfeeding. Reluctantly, she allows Elliot to take their daughter out of her arms, then we all watch as the nurse takes feet and hand prints and lays her on the scale.

I can’t take my eyes off of her. Her tiny fingers. Her squirmy little legs. My mind immediately begins to divide her features between Kate and Elliot, but it’s difficult. Calliope is my twin. Well, except for her eyes, which belong to Christian. Kennedy seems much more evenly split. Both her parents are blonde, so the wisps of wheat colored hair that top her head aren’t a surprise. She’ll be beautiful, like her mother, but her features will be strong and pronounced like her father. Not even her eyes, the same green as Kate’s but flecked with Elliot’s blue, could be claimed by just one of them. But the combination is gorgeous.

“God, look at her,” Elliot says, awed. “She’s so pretty.”

I nod. “Yeah. She is.”

“She’s… perfect.” A smile plays at his lips, but never fully forms, and I think it’s because he’s too distracted trying to memorize her. He’s raptured, already falling head over heels in love, and watching him gets me choked up.

“We’ll take her to the nursery, Mr. Grey,” the nurse smiles. “Your family will be able to see her there once you’re ready.”

“Thank you.” He nods, so the nurse places Kennedy in a plastic bin and begins to push her from the room, but Elliot calls out to stop her. “Wait!”

“Yes, Mr. Grey?”

“Just…” He takes a nervous breath. “Just be careful with her. It took my wife nine months to make her.”

The nurse smiles. “No need to worry, Mr. Grey. I’ll make sure little Miss Kennedy here is attended to like the VIP patient she is.”

“Good.” He nods again and when the nurse leaves with the baby, he immediately returns to Kate’s bedside and takes her hand. She’d been dozing, and Elliot’s touch wakes her with a start. “I’m sorry,” he says. “How are you feeling?”

“Like someone ripped my insides out through my vagina.” She attempts a laugh, but the pitiful sound dies out quickly as her eyelids start to droop again.

“Then, I’ll let you rest and Ana and I will go tell the family.” He picks up her hand and kisses each of her fingers. “You are an incredible woman, Katherine. Thank you for what you’ve given me today.”

“Mmm.” Her hands reach out blindly for him and when she touches the side of his face, she pulls him into her until their lips meet. “I love you, Elliot.”

“I love you too. Now sleep, baby. I’ll come check on you in a bit.”

She tries to nod, but her she’s already drifting off. Her eyelids close and her head lolls to the side. Elliot brushes the backs of his fingers over her cheek and looks down on her with a kind of veneration that is too personal for me to intrude upon. I step out to wait in the hallway and, seconds later, Elliot joins me. He eases the door closed so that he won’t wake Kate, but once the metal parts of the latch clink together, he turns and nearly collapses against the wall.

“You alright?” I check, moving closer and placing a supportive hand on his arm. He nods, but closes his eyes.

“I’m a father. This morning, I was just… checking a foundation against a blueprint and now I’m a father.”

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

“And terrifying. I can do this, right?”

“Of course you can. Elliot, all that little girl needs from you is to love her unconditionally, and you have the biggest heart of anyone I know.”

He smiles. “It’s amazing how fast they wrap you around their finger, right? I thought it was going to feel weird, but it doesn’t. It feels like she was always here. Like she’s always been mine. Shit, mine. I have a daughter.”

“Yes, you do.” I laugh. “And a gorgeous one at that.”

He holds his arms out and pulls me into a lung crushing hug. “Thank you for being there for my wife today. I know going back there must have been hard for you.”

I inhale deeply, but squeeze him right back. “I’ll always be there. For all three of you.”

“I know, and that’s why I love you so much. Really, though. I love you, Ana. I’m grateful everyday that Christian found you and brought you into our family. You make us all a little bit better.”

The honest confession takes me off guard, so I’m unprepared for the wave of emotion that hits me. My throat feels tight, my eyes well with tears… I sniff, pull back, and give him a skeptical look. “You going soft on me, Elliot?”

He grins. “My daughter was born twenty minutes ago. Give me a pass this one time, huh?”

“No pass needed. I love you too, Elliot.”

He leans down and kisses me hard on the forehead, then hooks his arm through mine and drags me through the maternity ward so we can break the good news to the rest of the family.

When we come through the double doors, we find everyone seated together in a tight group of chairs close to the information desk. Calliope is standing on wobbily legs in Christian’s lap, facing him, with her wrists clasped tightly in his hands for balance. She’s clearly enjoying the attention of everyone around her, and as she stares pointedly at her daddy, she happily babbles away to her heart’s content. He responds every time she pauses to take a breath, like they’re having the most engaging conversation he’s ever been apart of, and my already full heart expands nearly to the point of bursting.

“There they are!” Grace exclaims, jumping out of her seat and rushing over to us. “Well?”

Elliot grins. “Her name is Kennedy. She weighs 8lbs, and 3oz. She has all ten fingers, and all ten toes, and both she and Kate are doing great.”

“Oh, congratulations, sweetheart!” Grace throws her arms around Elliot as joyful tears run down her cheeks. “I’m so happy for you!”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“Congratulations, Son,” Carrick says, taking Grace’s place the moment she releases Elliot.

“Thanks, Dad.” Carrick pats his back a few times, the way guys always do to make physical contact between them less intimate, and then Mia slides in to wrap her arms around his waist.

“Can we see her?” Christian asks, trying to speak through the fingers Calliope keeps putting in his mouth.

“Yeah, she’s in the nursery.” Elliot turns to lead us back through the doors we just came through, and Grace reaches down to take Carrick’s hand. Mr. and Mrs. Kavanagh grip both of Elliot’s hands, congratulating him and saying again and again how proud they are to have him as a son in law.

“Ah, thanks, Ma,” Elliot replies, his face flushed with embarrassment. Mrs. Kavanagh kisses his cheek and then hurries through the doors after Grace and Carrick. Calliope leans over, arms stretched out for me, so I take her and follow suit. Christian’s hand rests softly on my lower back and when the doors swing closed behind us, he places a kiss against my temple.

“Hey,” I say softly, then reach up to grab his chin and tilt his face towards mine. I stop and kiss him. Really kiss him. “I love you.”

He hums with pleasure. “Not like I love you.” His lips press to mine again, softly this time, and quick, like a secret just between the two of us. “Now, behave,” he whispers. “Or I’ll pull you into an empty room and finish what I started this morning.”

“And that’s supposed to make me behave because…?”

He laughs, then nudges me forward again, and I pout a little as we make our way to the nursery.

There are four other newborns currently being adored by their families, so the nursery is crowded. Christian and I stay back and watch Kennedy being introduced to her grandparents through the large viewing window in the hallway. Mia leans as far forward as the glass will allow, her elbows resting on the metal ledge between the window and the drywall. She looks the way I felt when I watched them put my brand new niece into Kate’s arms for the first time. I reach over and affectionately rub my hand over her back.

“Do you see the baby?” Christian asks, leaning closer into Calliope, who is still sitting on my hip.

“UnNen,” she replies, pressing her hands against the glass and looking at Elliot. It’s her best attempt at ‘Uncle’. The speech therapist Christian hired to work with her while she’s at school has already helped her develop language skills far beyond what’s expected for her age, especially in terms of vocabulary and the ability to repeat words we give her, but she still can’t quite grasp the ‘L’ sound.

“That’s right,” he says. “That’s Uncle Elliot and Aunt Kate’s baby. Kennedy. She’s your cousin.”

Calliope gasps and stares at the pink bundle Grace lifts into her arms. When she turns back to Christian her fingers curl into tight fists and she shakes excitedly. “Ooh!”

We both laugh.

“Yeah, I think they’re going to be best friends,” I say, brushing my finger under her chin. Christian nods. We watch for several minutes, until both sets of Grandparents give their final kisses to Elliot and the baby and step out into the hall to join us.

“My turn!” Mia says. She rushes around the corner, slowing only when she comes through the door of the nursery. Elliot looks up and motions through the glass for Christian and I to join them.

“Do you want to meet, Kennedy?” I ask Calliope. She bounces in my arms.

“Kenny!”

“Oh my god, Kenny!” Grace chirps. “What a perfect nickname, and from her favorite big cousin!”

Christian’s face twists into a look between displeasure and uncertainty. “Let’s see how Kate feels about nicknames before we start assigning them, huh?”

Grace sighs. “Alright, but I think it’s going to stick. We’re going to go peek in on Kate. Let us know if you need anything.”

Christian leans down so his mother can kiss his cheek, but even though he shakes the hands of both of Kate’s parents and offers them his congratulations, he and Carrick hardly even look at each other. This is supposed to be a joyous day, for the whole family, and this new animosity between them stands in stark contradiction to that. It’s not something on want for Kate on her special day, and I’m about to tell them as much, but Christian pulls against my hand and Grace hurries Carrick down the hall. I can’t even express my distaste to my husband, because he’s in too much of a hurry to get into the nursery. As is the baby in my arms, who is now chanting nonsense at me to push me along.

“She’s so tiny,” Mia says, just after we come through the door.

“Yeah, so don’t break her…” There are obvious nerves in Elliot’s voice and the overprotective way he stares down at his newborn daughter quickly washes away my irritation with Christian and his father. He glances up at us, rolling his eyes at the look on my face, and then nods to Christian.

“You wanna hold your god daughter?”

“Yeah, I do.” Mia sighs and moves to pass Kennedy to Christian, but the moment his hands touch her, Calliope screams.

“No!” She throws her body forward at Christian, nearly causing me to drop her. Without thinking, Elliot snatches Kennedy into his own arms, while Christian turns to keep Calliope from tumbling down onto the hard, linoleum floor.

“Calliope Katherine!” he scolds her, more frightened over her near fall than angry. “Just what in the world do you think you’re doing?”

“Mine, Dada. Mine!” She turns to look at the baby, her fingers digging into Christian’s shirt and her face scrunched up in anger. “No, Kenny!”

I bite down on my bottom lip. “Uh, oh…”

“You see,” Elliot says, chuckling. “I told you she was going to have a hard time not being the only little princess around here anymore.”

Christian sighs. “We’ll try again later. I read in those books last year that it’s a good idea to buy a gift from the baby to a new sibling to try and curtail jealousy issues and help win the older child over. Maybe that’s something we should try with Kennedy?”

I shrug, not too crazy about rewarding possessive behavior by giving her presents, but before we can discuss it further, a nurse comes in and smiles at all of us.

“Mrs. Grey is ready to try breastfeeding.”

“Oh good,” Elliot says. He looks down at Kennedy and smiles. “Let’s go find your mama, huh?”

He reaches over and grips Christian’s arm, then follows the nurse out of the nursery. Mia falls in line behind him, but as Christian adjusts Calliope in his arms and moves to take a step forward, I reach out and stop him.

“We should go.”

“She’s going to have to learn to share, Ana. Might as well start now.”

“No, not because of Calliope. Because of Kate.” He raises an eyebrow at me, so I continue. “This is the first day she has with Kennedy, and there’s a lot of us here. I remember being in her place, watching everyone pass my baby around when all I wanted was to have her for myself. We should give her today. We’ll visit once they’re home.”

“They’re going back to Escala, baby.”

“What?”

He nods. “My parents live three blocks away and Kate’s dad works right down the street. She wants to stay close while they adjust to having a new baby at home. They’re probably not going to move for a few weeks.”

“Oh…”

“We’ll figure it out. You don’t have to go back until you’re ready.”

I nod, then accept the hand he slips into mine as we leave the nursery. There’s a confidence in his voice that tells me he thinks I’ll be ready to go back sooner, rather than later, but I don’t. That place still haunts me. Every time I go to work and see the shadow it casts over the street below. Every time I see a forwarding address on a piece of mail. Every time I close my eyes and smell the flowers Gail kept on the table, mixing with the rusty scent of blood. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready to go back, and the thought is like a dark rain cloud hovering over me as we walk through the parking lot and make our way back home.

****

I go into work Monday morning with four inch heels and bright red lipstick. For the first time since I started, I opted not to drive into the city with Christian so we could drop Calliope off at daycare together. I’m already on emotionally shaky ground with Kate leaving the hospital with baby Kennedy this morning, knowing that she’s returning to Escala for at least the remainder of her maternity leave. It feels like an impenetrable barrier between me and my brand new niece, so I didn’t think I’d be able to handle Calliope’s tears while she begged for me not to leave her on top of the guilt I already feel knowing I’m not going to be able to be there for my best friend while she makes the transition into her new role as a mother. Not before the call I’ve scheduled with Carmen for this morning, which feels like it’ll make or break my career.

After Abby and I go through everything else on my calendar for today and I’ve given her specific instructions for the flowers I want waiting inside the apartment at Escala for when Kate gets home, she hurries out of my office and I turn my attention to my email. It’s filled with the usual mass dump of submissions for me to approve, so I take a quick sip of the latte I’d brought in with me this morning and click on the first one. It’s one of Tyler Sullivan’s authors, so I’m perhaps judging the content a little to harshly, but just as I start to think this one might not be completely unreadable, there’s a knock on the door.

“Come in,” I call.

“Mrs. Grey?” Jacki pokes her head inside, blushing like she’s embarrassed to be interrupting me. I give her my warmest smile and motion her inside.

“Good morning. What can I do for you?”

“I just wanted to make sure you saw the sample I sent to you this morning. I… uh, I took your advice and had the IT team restrict my submission inbox to romance novels and women’s fiction and changed my bio on the website. I spent all weekend reading what was sent to me. I’ve never loved my job so much.”

I smile. “Good. I’m really glad to hear that.”

“Yeah. Anyway, I found something I just really, really loved, so I wanted to come in here to, you know, make sure it got a fair shake.”

I scroll through my email until I find one from her. “For Kristen Paige?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I look at it right now.”

“Great.” Her face lights up and I can tell that beneath the professional composure she’s trying to maintain, deep down she’s holding back and a fangirl level of excitement. “I’ll leave you to it then.”

“Thank you, Jacki.”

The door closes again, and I send a quick email back to Tyler telling him to go ahead and send me the rest of the manuscript for the sample I just read before I click over to Jacki’s submission. I’m more curious about these few chapters than I have been over anything else sent to me so far.  Not just because it’s an opportunity for me to prove my methods are better, but because Jacki said her favorite book is Pride and Prejudice. And while the Austen classic is a beautiful love story, I’m not sure how well an age of innocence type romance would fare in this day and age. But Jacki said she loved it, and if she can be used as representation for the audience that makes up 46% of all sales for mass produced paperbacks, I’m inclined to listen to her judgment.

Except, once I dive in, I learn quickly that this isn’t an age of innocence type story at all. There are no white knights or damsels in distress, only an innocent trust fund girl experiencing a real and satisfying sexual awakening with a hardened, bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks. It’s Romeo and Juliet or Beauty and the Beast, but with sex. A lot of sex. Hot, passionate, fiery, fantasy sex that makes me want to pull out a notepad and jot some ideas down to take home to Christian for us to try out tonight. All night…

“Ana?”

I jump and look up at the door with all the guilt of a child being caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

“Yes, Abby?” I squeak.

Her brow knits together. “You alright?”

“Uh, yeah. Of course I am.”

“You look a little… flustered.”

“Oh. No, I’m fine. It’s just a little hot in here.”

Her eyes move up and dance around the room, like she’s looking for a source of heat that only I can feel. “No…”

“Must just be me then. What can I do for you, Abby?”

“Your call with Ms. Gallagher is in four minutes. I’ve got you all set up in the conference room so the construction noise outside doesn’t bother you.”

“Oh, thank you. That was really thoughtful.”

“Of course. Is there anything else I can get for you, Mrs. Grey… Er, sorry, Ana?”

“I think I’m all set.” I wink and she smiles back at me as she exits the room. There are only a few pages left of the sample I have in my inbox, so I minimize the window to read the rest later and gather everything I need for my meeting. As I walk through the open office towards the conference room, I pause at Jacki’s desk. She looks up when I place a hand on her shoulder and bend down so that I can speak softly enough that only she’ll be able to hear me.

“I absolutely loved it.”

Her face lights up. “Really?”

“Really. You’ve found a winner, Jacki. Get me the rest of the manuscript and we’ll get a contract drawn up for Ms. Paige.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Ana,” I say softly, then turn back towards the conference room. After only a few steps though, I stop and face Jacki again. My hand reaches up to cover the bare part of my chest visible between the V-neck collar of my blouse so that she won’t be able to tell that I’m flushed. “Oh, and Jacki… get it to me today, huh?”

Apparently, I don’t fool her at all, because she grins knowingly back at me. “I’ll send it now.”

“Thank you.” I clear my throat, nod at Tyler, and hurry into the meeting room where I can close the door behind me.

Abby, ever thoughtful, has left a post it note on the table with the call in number for our meeting, so I dial and follow the prompts the robotic voice directs me through until it allows me to join the meeting.

“Good afternoon, did someone just join the call?” an unknown male voice answers.

“Uh, yes. This is Anastasia Grey, for Carmen Gallagher.”

“Yes, Mrs. Grey. My name is Hunter Leary, I’m Ms. Gallagher’s assistant. She’s just getting off another call. She’ll join momentarily.”

“Oh, great.” I reach out and mute the audio on my phone, and then start flipping through what I’ve prepared for this meeting. I don’t have much beyond numbers for similar novels published within the last five years, thanks to Scott after he killed my focus group, so I know that this is going to come down to me. How convincing I can be, and how much she really trusts me to do the job she hired me to do.

The phone beeps.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” Carmen says. “Anastasia are you on the line?”

“Yes, Ms. Gallagher.”

“Great. Scott, what about you?”

“Yeah, I’m here.”

My back stiffens and an acrid tastes creeps into my mouth. Shit, I hadn’t considered that Scott would be included in this call.

“Well, let’s jump into it then. What’s going on?”

“Uh…” I stutter, feeling like I’ve lost my bearings. “I, um, wanted to speak to you about the summer release we’re gearing up for.”

“What about it?”

I open my mouth to answer, but before I can get any words out, Scott cuts me off. “Anastasia and I are having a fundamental disagreement over which title we should be moving forward with. She’s found something more suited to her personal tastes and she wants to push it ahead of the release we’ve been waiting on all year.”

“Which is?”

Scott answers again. “Walter Daves’ new book. It’s a psychological thriller, mystery. Great stuff. He’s Seattle’s current best seller.”

“So, what’s the problem? It seems to me if our best selling author sent us a manuscript, we publish it.”

“Exactly my point.”

“With all due respect,” I interject. “I’ve read the manuscript and I don’t think it’s ready for publication.”

“Nothing is ready for publication at this stage,” Scott argues. “It’s why we have editors.”

“Right. But there’s a vast difference in quality of raw material here. I’ve got a manuscript for a new, local author and it’s practically ready to hit the shelves. The story is better, the writing is better, and I really believe it’s going to appeal towards a much wider demographic. It’s the better option.”

“You’re just glazing over a key word here, Anastasia,” Scott says, the irritation in his voice more noticeable now.  “New author. She has no established fan base, no name recognition, nothing. No one is going to buy her book.”

“I didn’t have any of that either, and I’m over a million copies sold.”

“Oh, please. You had name recognition. Your name has been all over every gossip rag and the internet since you started screwing Christian Grey.”

Excuse me?”

“Alright, alright, alright,” Carmen interrupts, and I can tell just by her voice that her patience is wearing thin. “Scott, you’re out of line.”

“I’m sorry, that was crass. But the facts are the facts. She had just as much name recognition as any other socialite, probably more after that whole kidnapping thing that was all over the news. This author she’s trying to push has nothing. Not even on social media. We invest in this title, we may as well close up shop.”

“And I disagree,” I reply through clenched teeth, doing everything in my power to ignore the reminder of what happened last March and how much that actually did play a role in my book deal with HarperCollins. “Daves may give us big pre-order and release day numbers, but that’ll fizzle out quickly once the critics get ahold of it. Hailey Lewis’ novel is a long term investment that is going to ensure the success of this publishing house for years to come.”

Carmen sighs. “Look, I hired the two of you to be my experts, but your advice means next to nothing if you’re contradicting each other. I need you both to work as a team.”

“I agree,” Scott says. “And I’m only sticking to the course we set at the beginning of the fiscal year. Daves is our premier release and deviating from that plan is suicide.”

“And I’m just doing what I was hired to do,” I argue. “I know Daves feels safe, but he’s not. And pushing this title into publication now is going to damage our bottom line and rest of his career.”

“When do we need to make a decision in order to meet our deadlines?” Carmen asks.

Scott snorts. “Last week.”

“Then you have ‘til Wednesday morning. I want you two to find some common ground, pick a title, and move forward. Scott, you’ll let me know before I fly out Wednesday afternoon.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good, then I’ll leave you to it. Hunter, my office in fifteen minutes.”

“Yes, Ms. Gallagher.”

There’s a click, and she’s gone. I let my head fall into my hands. “So what are we going to do, Scott?”

“I’m going to tell her we’re moving forward with Daves.”

“I’m not on board with that. Really, I can feel in my gut that going with Daves is a mistake. I know you don’t believe me, but this is a Seattle release, not New York. You have to trust me to run this branch.”

“And I will, once you’ve proven that you can be trusted. Right now, I see no reason to trust you. Right now, I see you arguing with me, with our staff, and going behind my back to Carmen when you don’t get your way. I’ve been in this business for twelve years, I know what I’m doing. I’m lofting you a softball here, honey. Hit it out of the park and we’ll talk about signing new authors.”

“Okay, don’t call me honey. I have a degree from Harvard, I’ve at least earned my own name.”

He sighs. “Fine, you know what? I’ll make you a deal. Convince me that this new title is all you’re building it up to be in the next twenty-four hours and I’ll tell Carmen we’ve decided on Lewis. Otherwise, we’re going with Daves.”

“Fine,” I reply, because I know it’s the best offer I’m going to get with Carmen’s Wednesday deadline. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“Enjoy the rest of your day, Ana.”

“You too, Scott.” We both say the other’s name with contempt, and hang up the phone without real salutation. I slump back in my chair, feeling the enormous weight of the task in front of me. It’s clear to me why Hailey’s novel is the better choice, I just need to find a way to make Scott see reason. But I’m not going to have any breakthroughs on that front sitting here stewing over it. I need to clear my head.

I get up from the table and leave the conference room, making sure I don’t look as though I’m avoiding eye contact with any of the probing gazes that look up to me. It’s bad enough having to fight Scott to be able to do my job. I don’t need my subordinates to see me crack under pressure.

“Abby, I’m going to take a walk,” I say, approaching reception. She looks up at me and smiles.

“Will I need to push your 01:30?”

“No, I’ll be back soon. Just forward any calls to voicemail, unless it’s family. I want to know once Kate gets home from the hospital.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Woods?” My CPO looks up, then gets out of his seat and follows me through the door. I feel full of anxious energy as we make our way down the elevator, but there’s something about being in the open air that always gives me clarity. It’s one of the reasons I still crave my morning run.

“Where to, Mrs. Grey?” Woods asks.

“Just a few blocks. Hang back, okay? I need some space to think.”

“No problem. Just stay in my line of sight. Mr. Grey’s orders.”

I give him a tight smile and nod, then start my way up the sidewalk. My mind races through dozens of possibilities of what I can do, each less likely to be successful than the last. But every time I dismiss an idea, I see Hailey’s face. I hear her voice and how excited she was when I told her she was going to be published. This isn’t just about money, or about my career, this is about a promise I made to a young, talented author. She deserves to be published. She deserves all of the accolades this novel is going to bring to her, and I want to help her get there. It’s the reason I got back into the business, and if I fail her now, I fail myself. I fail everyone. I fail my family for all the hours I’ve spent away from home, I fail the readers who will never get a chance to experience this story, and I fail the next generation of writers that Hailey could inspire. The way I inspired her.

I stop walking and lean against the front façade of a Starbucks. The stone is cold and wet on my exposed arms, but I push past the discomfort and let the worry and stress fall out of my mind.

Think, Anastasia. Think.

But my thoughts are disrupted by a loud boom and the ground shaking beneath my feet. My eyes snap open and I look wildly around, unsure of which direction the sound came from, until I begin to hear screams of horror. I turn and look at the source of the noise, and my gaze slowly creeps up the side of the tall glass building I recognize in an instant.

“No!”

“Mrs. Grey!” Woods calls after me, but I’ve already taken off. The heels I wore this morning to make me feel more confident going into my meeting with Carmen slow me down, so I kick them off and leave them on the sidewalk behind me.

A crowd has formed around the corner from GEH, making it difficult for me to shove my way through. Several people stand there staring, their hands covering their mouths, their faces pale as freshly poured milk. I force my way to the front just as the police cruisers make it onto the scene, and my heart thuds in my chest. The sidewalks around the building are covered in shards and pebbles of glass from the broken windows all around the first floor. Men and women in expensive looking suits pour out of the building, their clothes singed and darkened with dust.

“What happened?” a voice asks behind me.

“I don’t know,” someone else replies. “There was some kind of explosion at the GEH building…”

“Oh my god, it’s terrorists!”

I gasp and push forward again, paying little mind to the glass covered pavement even though I’m barefoot. I’m careful to inspect the faces of each person I see come out of the building, looking for one I recognize, but before I get too close, a hand closes around my arm and pulls me back.

“Miss, I’m going to need you to stay back. It isn’t safe.” It’s a police officer, and instantly, my guard is up. I yank my arm out of his hold.

“My name is Anastasia Grey, this is my husband’s building.”

“That’s nice, lady. But I’m still going to need you to get back.”

“Well, do you know what happened?

“All we know is that there was an explosion on the basement level. Now, step back, ma’am.”

Basement level? That’s what? The parking garage and… the R&D lab. I feel a pain in my chest as I think about Welch and Barney, who I’ve worked closely with several times, but in the same thought, I feel relief. Calliope is on the 7th floor, far away from R&D, and Christian is way up on 30.

“Are you evacuating the whole building?” I ask the officer. He glares down at me.

“Yes, Now, get back!”

“Mrs. Grey.” I turn and see Woods behind me, my shoes in hand. He guides me back to the front of the crowd and I slip my heels back on as I continue watching the people being led out of the building by men in uniform.

The process is slow, and the people come in waves. I know once they get to the 4th floor, because that’s where Grey Publishing is located and I recognize Elizabeth when she emerges from the building. No one in that department looks injured or even scorched the way the initial wave did, so I breathe a little easier. There’s still three floors left to evacuate before they’ll get to Calliope and if the people on four are safe, she should be too.

“Have you seen anyone from R&D?” I ask Woods when the 5th floor wave begins to emerge. He glances through the crowd of people and shakes his head.

“No, ma’am. But if there was an explosion, it might take more to get to them. It could have compromised the integrity of the building and they’re not going to want to shift anything until they’ve evacuated everyone they can.”

I’m hit with another wave of fear. “You think the building could collapse?”

“I don’t know, ma’am. I just know they’re going to want to get everyone out before they even survey the damage.”

“Jesus Christ.” Where’s Elliot when you need him?

Several more emergency vehicles pull into the blocked off road between us and the building all at once. More police cruisers, fire trucks, and at least a dozen ambulances. The sight of them makes the knot of dread in my stomach pull tighter. An ambulance means someone has been injured. A fleet of them means that a lot of people were. The one day I didn’t take Calliope to daycare. The one fucking day…  I focus my eyes on the doors, waiting in agony for a face I know.

“Mrs. Grey,” Woods says, urgently. “There’s Mackenzie.”

I turn to the side door, and see a line of people and children coming towards us. Kensie has Calliope in her arms, trying to soothe her as she wails at the top of her lungs, and I feel my heart thud to a stop in my chest.

“Calliope!” The officer holding the line at the front of the crowd has to once again hold me back to keep me from running to her, but the nanny hears my cry and makes a beeline towards us.

“She’s fine,” Kensie says the moment she’s in earshot. “Just scared. It was really loud.”

“Oh, baby…” I take her into my arms and look her over, despite Kensie’s reassurances. My hands brush over every inch of her skin, looking for cuts or bruises, but there’s nothing. She’s perfect. “Shhh, Calliope. It’s okay. I’ve got you.”

“Mama. Mamamama…”

“Shhh.” I hug her tightly against me, rocking her back and forth as my eyes turn back to the doors. Now that I know my child is safe, every thought I have shifts to Christian and the twenty three floors that have to be evacuated before emergency crews make it to the executive suite. Normally, I’d think they would try to get the high ranking executives out first, but I also know, if he’s able to, Christian would have issued instructions for emergency crews to get to his employees first. Like a good captain, he’ll be the last to disembark his sinking ship, and that’s what has me so terrified. I glance at the broken windows again, and the solid steel that surrounds them, looking for any sign of weakness.

Please. Please be okay…

It takes over an hour, and the wait is torture. I try calling his cell ten different times, but each time it goes straight to voicemail and that sends a fresh wave of panic through me. Woods tries to reassure me by reminding me that he may have left his phone behind in his haste to get out of the office, or that he’s on the phone with emergency services so he can’t pick up.

None of that makes me feel better.

Finally, I see Ros’ fiery red hair emerge from the building. She turns and waves the rest of the staff through the doors: her assistant, then Andrea, Olivia, a few interns whose faces I recognize but whose names I never learned, and… that’s it. Christian isn’t with them.

“Ros!” I scream. She turns to look at me, her eyes glassy with impending tears, and moves toward me.

“Ana.”

“Where is he? Why isn’t he with you?”

“He wasn’t in his office. He was in a meeting.”

“Oh, thank god. Where?”

She swallows. “He was in the R&D lab.”

 

Chapter 13

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Attention passengers, we’re making our final descent into Seattle. Please make sure your trays are in the upright and locked position, and please remain seated with your seat belt fastened for the remainder of the flight.

 

I look up from the report in my lap and feel a pressure in my chest I hadn’t realized was there release. Christian kissed me goodbye at the airport less than 48 hours ago, but every second I’ve been away from him and Calliope has felt like a day all on its own. He’d worried when I took this job that travelling was going to be hard for me, but having Luke and Calliope with me in Cambridge had given me an overinflated sense of confidence. This weekend has left me exhausted. Not just from the long night at Angela Rowe’s signing celebration, but from the nightmares that made sleeping through the few hours I had available to me impossible.

The plane dips below the clouds, bringing the city and everything that surrounds it into view. I slip my work back into my carry on and stare longingly at the sapphire colored water that I know lies right at the end of my yard. The view conjures memories of Christian and Calliope feeding ducks together, and it makes me smile.

“Glad to be home, Mrs. Grey?” Woods asks from the seat next to me.

“Very,” I reply. “Thank you for coming with me.”

“It’s my pleasure, Ma’am.”

Twenty minutes later, we’re on the ground and I hurry Woods along as we deboard the plane and make for the exit. It’s crowded, so getting out of the terminal means weaving through tightly packed groups of tourists and anxious looking businessmen. It slows me down and makes my heart pound with impatient excitement.

When we come through the final doors at the security barrier, I immediately start looking around for Christian, hoping he’ll have Calliope with him. But when I see a face I recognize, it isn’t my husband’s, and my chest deflates with disappointment.

“Good morning, Mrs. Grey,” Taylor greets me. “Woods. How was your flight?”

“Fine, thank you.” I smile in case he picked up on my less than enthused reaction to seeing him there waiting for me, and he takes the bag slung over my shoulder while motioning for both me and my CPO to follow him towards the exit for the parking structure. “Where’s Christian?”

“Home, I’m afraid. He told me he wanted to spend the morning with your daughter before he has to do some work this afternoon.”

“Oh.” My face falls. After losing what little free time we have together to this book party, I was hoping that he’d want to spend the afternoon together. I know how busy he is right now. He told me before they launched this project that it was going to take up a significant amount of his time. But I was home all the time then. Now, time seems so much more precious. I wonder if whatever he’s got scheduled could be pushed to Monday? Would I dare ask? I know how important this is to him…

Once we get to the car, Taylor holds open the door to the backseat for me, then helps Woods load the luggage into the trunk. The traffic is light going through Seattle, so I don’t expect it will take us long to get home, and I use the time I do have on the commute to check the emails I’ve missed since I had to turn my phone off for my flight out of San Francisco. Mostly, it’s just follow up from the party from last night, but sandwiched in between the congratulations and invoices from the different vendors I’d hired, there’s an email from Abby.

 

From: Abigail Kyle

Subject: Focus Group

Date: April 1st 2012  09:18 AM

To: Anastasia Grey

Good Morning, Ana!

I just got an email from the people who operate the meeting space where I scheduled your focus group for tomorrow, and they said payment has been denied. I called Mary in accounting and she said corporate didn’t approve it. What do you want me to do?

-Abby

Abigail Kyle

Assistant to Anastasia Grey, Greenwich Small Press

 

My teeth clench together. Of course it wasn’t approved.

My fingers itch to type back that she can just put it on my credit card, but there’s no use in continuing to fight this fight if everything I do is just going to fall on deaf ears. I should just stop and call Carmen, plead my case now before we get any further with The Black Rose and there’s no turning back. But as I click out of my email and start scrolling through my contacts for her number, I get a picture of Christian and what would happen if a department head called his cell phone directly to argue about something he already didn’t approve when he was at home with Calliope and me. They wouldn’t have a job Monday.

Tomorrow then. I’ll call tomorrow and have a calm, rational discussion with Carmen about why we should go with Phoenix. She hired me. That means she must trust my judgment.

The thought’s enough to make me put my phone away, but it’s not enough to quell the irritation boiling inside of me. It shouldn’t be this hard for me to push something through. I was hired to right the ship, but every time I try to set a course Scott drops an anchor. He was the one who pursued me, so I can’t understand why he’s playing these… power struggle games with me.

That’s it, I guess. Power. He wanted me to come on board because he knew I was the best fit, but he’s not ready to let go of the power he’d held when he was the only one in charge. For a few months, Greenwich was entirely his. Now I’m here, and two weeks in I’m already challenging his vision. That’s not something I’m going to apologize for. At the end of the day, my name is going to be on this release, not his, and I’m not going to risk my reputation for his ego. But, it is something I can be cognizant of moving forward. I grew up playing chess with my father, and this is no different. Just moves and countermoves. And while Scott may have experience on his side, I have experience dealing with men who desire power. I might be outgunned at the moment, but I’m not certainly out matched.

The car stops and Taylor rolls down his window to punch the code into the box that opens the gate. We sit there, idling, until the iron bars that protect my home groan open and he can pull into the driveway.

“Welcome home, Ana.”

I look up, meet Taylor’s twinkling eyes in the rear-view mirror, and smile. “Thank you, Taylor. It’s good to be home.”

 

I enter the house through the garage, which was a mistake because it takes me longer to get to the living room than it would have had I asked Taylor to drop me off at the front door. My entire body is itching to get Calliope back into my arms. So, the second I hear the sounds of the foreign language learning videos that Christian insists the baby watch every day, I drop any pretense of patience and bolt to her.

“There she is!” I squeal when I come around the corner and see her sitting on her blanket in the middle of the room, staring up at the cartoons on the TV with complete rapture. She turns her head slowly when she looks over at me, but she doesn’t scream with joy or even smile. Her eyes grow wide with surprise and her mouth rounds out to a perfect little o.

“Mama?”

“Hey, Calli-lily!” I scoop her up, and she reaches out for my hair. Her fingers twist and tug on the ends, almost as though she’s trying to decide whether or not I’m real. Once she’s certain, her eyes meet mine again.

“Hi, Mama.”

“Hi, baby!” I hug her, letting her scent fill my head and wash away days worth of yearning. She clings to me, curling her fingers tightly into my dress while repeating, ‘mama’, over and over again. Kensie is on the couch, smiling up at us, so I turn to her.

“How was your weekend?”

“Great. Easy, actually. Calliope’s an angel and Mr. Grey has been very hands on with her the entire time you’ve been away.” She smiles, like she’s sharing a secret that she shouldn’t. “He slept in the rocking chair in her nursery last night. I woke up in the middle of the night, so I thought I’d check on her, and there he was, fast asleep. If I wasn’t afraid of waking him, I’d have sent you a picture.

“Awh.” My lips pout together and I wrap my arms tighter around my baby and rock her gently back and forth. She yawns and nestles into me, curling up like she wants to fall asleep.

“She was up pretty early, so I think she’s probably ready for a nap,” Kensie says. “We were just finishing up some French lessons and then I was going to put her down.”

“I’ll do it,” I tell her. “Where’s my husband?”

“In his office, I think? He got a call from his assistant over breakfast and I overheard him say something about being booked this afternoon and putting a do not disturb on his email. He disappeared not long after Taylor left to get you.”

I sigh. “Alright, I’ll find him. In the meantime, let’s get you down for a nap, huh?” I look at Calliope and kiss her forehead, speaking with my lips still pressed to her skin. “What do you say, Munchkin?”

“No. Mama.”

I laugh, then wink at Kensie and carry Calliope off to her nursery. She doesn’t want me to let her go, so before I lie her down in her crib I pick a book from the shelf, and sit and read with her in the rocking chair. She fights her eyelids as long as she can, using her fingers in my hair as a distraction to keep her tethered to consciousness. But it’s not long before her eyelashes flutter and she dozes off in my arms.

After lying her down in the crib and taking just a few minutes to stare down at her perfect little face, I venture out in search of my husband. But he isn’t in his office like I expected him to be. He’s not in the gym, or pacing with his phone on the veranda, so I head back up the stairs to check our bedroom.

“Christian?” I call, stepping inside and frowning when I come up empty handed again. The bathroom door is ajar, so I cross the room to check if he’s maybe taking a shower, but stop when I hear the bedroom door close behind me and then several soft footsteps across the carpet. I feel him before he touches me. His warm, masculine scent swirls around me, drawing me to him, heightening every other sense. I shiver when his hands sweep up my bare arms and his face moves into the curve between my neck and shoulder. The gentle kiss of his lips on the sensitive spot below my ear sends a wave of electricity through me, and, instantly, I’m his.

“Welcome home,” he whispers. The deep, need ladened timber reverberating from his chest makes my entire body hum with want. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too.”

His fingers drag up the sides of my arms, all the way up over my shoulders to the zipper at the back of my dress, and the barely there scrape of his neatly trimmed fingernails leaves goose bumps in my skin. As he glides the zipper down my back, his lips move from my neck to kiss every inch of skin he exposes.

“I—I thought you were working this afternoon?”

“Oh, believe me, I plan on doing plenty of work. Right here.” His tongue caresses the skin on my back and I tremble.

“Christian.” My voice comes out in a whisper and desire drips from my lips like warm honey. When the zipper reaches its terminus, his hands slide into my open dress, palms caressing my back as he moves them up my body, widening the gap in the fabric, until the sleeves slip from my shoulders and my entire dress pools around my feet.

“Bed,” he whispers.

I turn in his arms to face him and his mouth comes crashing down on mine. His tongue parts my lips. My fingers curl into his hair. The kiss is soft and deep, slow, and yet filled with a desperate kind of need that has me internally screaming for him push me back onto our bed, rip away my panties, and take me until I’m adequately claimed once again.

He doesn’t though. There is no fiery urgency in the way his hands explore my body or how his tongue tangles with mine. Without his hands ever leaving my skin, he reaches down past my behind to the insides of my thighs and lifts me so that my legs curl around his waist. My hold tightens around his upper body as he carries me across our bedroom, forcing him to come with me once he deposits me onto the bed.

His body consumes me. I’m pinned beneath him at every limb, his weight too much for me to move. But I don’t struggle. I don’t want to be free of his touch.

Reaching over his shoulders, he untangles my arms from around his neck and pins them both down into the mattress at either side of my head, though not to restrain me. With the same gentility he used to touch me at the door, his hands move over my forearms, all the way up, until his fingers can entangle with mine. It’s a simple gesture, intimate but innocent, and it sends a wave of welcome heat down my body, between my legs.

I tilt my hips up, grinding my pelvic bone into his erection in a desperate attempt for friction. He smiles against my lips and presses into me, matching my enthusiasm. “Always so impatient,” he says.

“I need you.”

“Mmm, are you wet?”

“Yes.”

He releases my hand and reaches down my body. My panties are such an insignificant barrier to him, they might as well not be there at all. When his finger slips through my arousal, he groans into my mouth. “So wet…”

I gasp and cling tighter to him, begging for more through my kiss rather than my words, and he obliges. Two long fingers slide into me while his thumb circles my clitoris. The heat intensifies and my eyes roll back. When my mouth drops open in a silent gasp of pleasure, his teeth tug at my bottom lip.

“I have every intention of making love to you, Anastasia,” he says. “But just because I don’t expect you to submit to me doesn’t mean the rules have changed.”

“What rules?”

“You know which rules.” He pushes his fingers as deep inside of me as he can reach, curling them around to stroke the place that has my toes digging into the sheets. “Say it.”

“I-I…” I bite down on my lip and force myself to swallow my panting breaths so I can get the words out. “I only come for your mouth or your cock.”

“And I intend for you to do both.”

I whimper and clench around his fingers, desperate to stave off the orgasm he seems just as eager to coax out of me. I pant his name, claw at his arms, and, mercifully, just as I’m about to lose the battle and fall over the ledge, his hand disappears. The emptiness left behind is both a relief and unbelievably torturous. But he takes pity on me.

With one last kiss against my lips, he moves down my body. While he pauses to suckle softly on each of my nipples, I reach down, dig my fingers into his shirt, and pull it up over his head. He lifts himself enough for the fabric to be removed, then drags the tip of his tongue through my cleavage, down the middle of my stomach, over my hip bone, and across my thigh. I clench again, electrified by only his eyes and the focus with which he stares at his prize between my legs. I want to thread my fingers through his hair, grip at the roots until his mouth falls open with pain and pleasure, and then guide him into me. But I resist. I let him stare. I let him plan. And after a few agonizing seconds of waiting, I’m rewarded with his tongue.

“Oh, fuck. Christian!” Once his name crosses my lips, he begins to suck softly on my clitoris then drags the resulting inundation of my arousal up and round that sensitive bundle of nerves with the flat of his tongue. A pattern starts to develop, three flicks, swirl, long lick. Flick. Swirl. Lick. Flick. Swirl. Lick. My back arches off the bed, my mouth drops open, my eyes close. The wick to my release has been lit, and when he begins to suck again, I fill his mouth with fireworks.

“Christian!”

He growls and uses his lips and tongue to work me through my orgasm, dragging it out, drowning me in it until I’m reduced to nothing but a quaking, breathless mess. When I come down and the world comes into focus again, he leaves a final kiss against me and then drags himself up my body again. The tip of his erection plays against my still quaking opening.

“I could watch you come all day, Anastasia.”

“I’m inclined to let you.”

He flashes me that mischievous smile I always feel in the deepest, most secret parts of me. “Good.”

In one smooth motion, he thrusts inside of me and takes my resulting cry of pleasure into his mouth. His tongue dances with mine in synchrony with his movements inside of me, slow and controlled, but filled with love and promise. I hook my leg around his hips, desperate to be closer to him despite the fact that his thrusts push him as deep inside of me as humanly possible. The blunt end of him tests my boundaries while his hands cradle my face with a gentility that I wouldn’t normally expect from him during sex. It’s a silent but powerful gesture. He missed me. He’s glad I’m home. And, he loves me.

“Oh, Ana…” he groans. The sound of my name reverberates against my lips until he kisses me again, and I can’t tell which gives me more pleasure. The reverence in his voice is religious in it’s devotion, yet it’s a pale imitation of the depth of feeling I have for him. For this connection. For the piece of himself he’s given me, and only me. I pull away from the kiss so I can look into his eyes, and when I do his face twists with an intense emotion I can’t read.

“Give me your hand,” he says. I do, and he brings each of my fingertips to his lips before pulling my hand down between my legs. At first, I think he wants me to touch myself. But he lays my hand flat over my pubic bone, my index and middle fingers bookends to the connection between our bodies. “Feel me. Feel the way we move together.”

“Ah…” Even the sharp intake of breath I take shakes. It’s too much to contain. The pleasure, his adoration, the depth of feeling his love making brings out of me. I’m overwhelmed, and the burden of those feelings coil inside of me, tighter and tighter, until everything disintegrates.

My orgasm doesn’t hit me with the force of a supernova the way the first one did. It’s more like a breath of wind spreading flames across the dry foliage of the forest floor. The hot flames of pleasure creep slowly through my entire body, but with enough potency to burn me down to the bone. I feel him everywhere. From the tips of my fingers to the ends of my toes, I writhe with pleasure so intense I’m baffled by my own body’s ability to contain it.

“Oh, fuck!” Christian grunts through clenched teeth. His eyes close, and his expression twists with determination as he struggles to keep his own release at bay long enough to see me through the highest peak of mine. One long sustained note escapes my chest, raising higher and higher in pitch until it’s silent and then… “Ana!”

He pushes as deep into me as he can, then stills. His erection is so swollen that I can feel him pulse with every drip he releases inside of me. I welcome it. I want it. In that moment, lost in the heat of orgasm, I reject every part of my existence that doesn’t exist solely for his pleasure.

Our breathing is synchronized as we come down, and we’re both covered in a thin sheen of sweat. Every part of my body is overcome with a feeling of relaxation so deep, I can’t move. He kisses me deeply, then rolls over and collapses on the bed at my side, his chest heaving with every breath he takes. We lay there in silence for what is probably only a minute or so, though it feels much longer, and then he turns to look at me.

“You’re incredible, you know that?”

I let my head loll to the side and blink at him. “I’m sorry, who are you?” It takes half a second, but his face breaks into a smile and we both laugh until, somehow, we’re kissing again. He leans up on his arms and brushes the backs of his fingers over my cheeks while our lips play softly against each other. When we part, he smiles and looks down at me with the same love I felt a few minutes ago swimming in his eyes.

“How was your trip?”

“It was fine.”

His brow furrows. “Fine? You hosted a party that the San Francisco Chronicle was raving about this morning. It had to have been better than fine.”

I want to roll my eyes. Of course he’s already read all the press. “No, the party was good. There’s a lot of enthusiasm surrounding this release right now and I’m excited to see how that translates to sales.”

“But?”

“Corporate killed my focus group, and I think Scott is probably behind it.”

Christian snorts. “How fragile does a man’s ego have to be to be so threatened by the success of a colleague at an entirely separate branch all the way across the country?”

“I think it’s more about control. He ran GSP unchecked for months, and now here I am, refusing to just give in to what he wants on the first big release I’ve been given.” I sigh. “Anyway, I’m going to call Carmen on Monday and try to talk her over to my side. You know her, right?”

He shrugs, and I turn so that I’m facing him better.

“What do I need to do to convince her?”

“Oh, no. You’re the competition now. Any advice I give you would be in direct opposition to the interests of my own publishing company. You’re on your own, Mrs. Grey.”

“Shouldn’t there be some kind of loophole where you ignore the whole competition thing and give me advice because I’m your wife and you love me and you want me to succeed?”

He smiles. “I do love you. And I’d give you all the advice you could handle if you wanted to leave and come work for me.”

“I can’t come work for you. I signed a non-compete.”

“Oh, please. I’ll put my lawyers up against Carmen Gallagher’s any day. You want to come to GP, just say the word and it’s yours.”

“No, thank you.”

“Then my lips are sealed.”

“Oh really?” I lean up and kiss him again, coaxing his lips apart with my tongue so I can deepen the kiss. He moans and lovingly runs his fingers through my hair again. When we part, I place one last, sweet peck against his lips for good measure. “How about now?”

“Mmm… no dice.”

“Christian!”

He laughs, but turns away from me to pick up his phone, vibrating on the floor next to the bed. I only just get a glance of Kate’s name displayed across the screen before he answers.

“Kate?” He pauses, but I can’t hear what she’s saying. I can only judge the tone of the call by his face, and his expression goes from curious to worry in a split second. “Yeah, she just got home. What’s wrong?”

“Wrong?” I breathe, but he holds a hand up to silence me so that he can hear what she’s saying.

“Where’s Elliot? Fuck. Okay, don’t move. We’ll be there in twenty minutes.” He hangs up the phone and leaps out of bed, picking up his clothes and throwing them on as he moves quickly for our bedroom door.

“What’s going on?” I ask, panic rising in my chest.

“Kate’s in labor, and Elliot’s on a job site in Tacoma. We need to pick her up and take her to the hospital.”

“Labor? Oh my god, she’s having her baby!” My smile widens with each word, and despite his hurry, he smiles back at me.

“Yeah. Now get dressed. I’ll get Calliope and meet you at the car.”

I nod quickly and scurry out of bed. The dress I wore on the plane this morning is all business and only looks good with a sky high pair of heels, not something I want wear sitting in a waiting room all day, so I go to the closet, find one of Christian’s t-shirts and a pair of leggings. My hair is a dead give away that I’ve just been fucked within an inch of my life, but there isn’t any time to do anything about it. I sweep it up in a messy bun on top of my head, spritz myself with perfume to mask the smell of Christian and sex, and bolt to the door.

He’s already in the garage by the time I get downstairs, buckling Calliope into her car seat while dismissing Kensie until Monday. Taylor is in the driver’s seat, the engine of the SUV purring gently, so I give our nanny a grateful smile and jump into the backseat.

“Where to, Mr. Grey?” Taylor asks.

“Escala, and hurry.”

Taylor nods and begins to back out of the garage, and I feel like someone just dropped a 100 lb weight in my lap. I hadn’t considered where Kate was, only that I needed to get to her as quickly as possible. Her movers are scheduled for 8 AM tomorrow morning, of course she goes into labor today.

“You alright?” Christian asks, reaching over to grasp my hand. I turn and stare back at him, forcing the fear clutching my windpipe down so that my voice won’t betray me.

“Of course I am. Kate’s having her baby today.”

He gives me a small but warm smile, then reaches into the car seat and brushes his hand lovingly through Calliope’s curls, and once again, I get away with it.

Dread builds inside me the entire drive into downtown, like a rock that’s fallen into the pit of my stomach. I try to alleviate my anxiety by telling myself this drive is no different than the commute I take into work every morning. But any comfort I’m able to find in the lie comes and goes as quickly as it takes for us to pass the GSP building. Only two blocks, and then Taylor signals for the drive to the parking garage below Escala.

For some reason, the small box that contains the sensor for the initial gate is still in the dash of the SUV, so Taylor doesn’t stop to punch in a code before the gate swings open. I have no moment to brace myself before we descend into the dark garage, and the moment the muted light streaming in through the window at my side is obstructed, I feel a wave of cold. There’s a pillar not far from the lane that leads us to the elevator, is that where Kommer was hiding, waiting for us to return that night? Is this where Luke was first pulled out of this very car at gunpoint? My mind is filled with these kinds of questions and when we stop, and I reach for the handle on the door, I say a silent prayer that Christian doesn’t notice my fingers shaking.

“You don’t have to come up,” he says. “You can wait here with Calliope.”

I swallow, both my mind and heart racing. Kate is upstairs, scared and alone. I should go to her. I need to go to her. But the very sight of the elevator, the thought of punching in the code to the penthouse, the image of watching each number tick higher as we rise up to the place where it happened… it all has me frozen, unable to move.

I look back at Christian and nod. “Hurry.”

“I will.” He opens the door and disappears from the safe confines of our car. I watch every step he takes to the elevator and then hold my breath as he steps inside, fighting every instinct that tells me to call him back. Once the doors close and he’s out of my sight, I force my mind to go blank, place my hand over my daughter in her car seat, and focus on Taylor. The piece that was missing last time.

“Three minutes, Mrs. Grey,” he says, making eye contact with me in the rear view mirror. “That’s as long as it takes.”

I nod, let my head fall back against the headrest, and close my eyes.

One. Two. Three. Four…

I get all the way to one hundred eighty-nine when the faint ding of the elevator arriving catches my attention. My eyes snap open and I look up at a scene that I had imagined a hundred times last year, only with myself in the place currently being occupied by my best friend. Christian has a small, pink gym bag slung over his shoulder, one arm around Kate’s waist, and one hand clutched in hers so that she has something to hold and steady herself. Her face is contorted with pain and worry. Her lips are pursed with the release of a long breath, and her free arm carefully cradles her baby bump. They stop as Kate half doubles over with the pain of a contraction, and while I can’t hear the words, I can see Christian lean down and say something to her that makes her nod and encourages her to continue on to the car. It should make me happy to see him supporting her the way he is, it does make me happy. But watching them makes me think of Calliope’s birth, the experience I missed because of my abruption, and I view him leading Kate towards me through the green tinge of envy.

Stop it, Ana.

When they’re only a few feet away, I get out of the car and take Kate’s hands. She’s panting, and I can see in her eyes that she’s scared. Nodding for Christian to put her bag in the back while I lead her into the backseat, I put an arm around her and try to sooth her with my voice as best as possible.

“Easy, Katie. We’ve got you. We’re going to the hospital now.”

“E-Elliot,” she pants. “Sh-she can’t be born before Elliot gets here.”

“I’ll call him,” Christian says. “Find out where he is.” Kate nods, but none of the uneasiness leaves her eyes. I slide into the back seat next to her, and take her hand.

“He’s coming, Kate. He’s going to make it. Just breathe with me.”

Thankfully, Kate acted as my partner in Christian’s absence through countless Lamaze classes the year before, so it isn’t weird coaching her to breath through the entire drive to Northwest Hospital. She clutches my hand so tightly that I can’t feel most of it after a few minutes, and the very tips of my fingers turn deep red, almost purple, in color. But I can tell how much it helps her, knowing I’m there, so I let her squeeze me as much as she needs to for the entirety of the ride.

“We’re here,” I encourage her once the SUV stops in front of the sliding glass doors at the Emergency Room entrance. Christian jumps out of the front passenger seat and opens our door, somehow managing to get her bag from the trunk and still make it back to us in time to hold most of her weight as she carefully steps out onto the asphalt. A man in light blue scrubs rushes towards us, pushing a wheelchair in front of him, and I once again let her clutch my hand while Christian helps lower her down into it.

“Where is he now?” she asks, looking at Christian with desperate eyes.

“He just texted me. There’s an accident on I-5, but he’s gotten around to 167 at Federal Way. He’s coming, Kate. He’ll make it.”

“But if he…” she shakes her head, deciding against whatever it was she was going to say, and looks up at me. “Don’t leave me, Ana.”

“I won’t, Kate. I’m right here.”

She nods again, furiously, like she’s trying to convince herself of something, and the nurse pushes her forward into the ER. They take us straight up to the maternity floor and while Kate and I are shown back to the private birthing suite they booked months ago, Christian is handed a clipboard to fill out her information and tasked with sitting with Calliope in the waiting room and calling both her and Elliot’s parents.

“Breathe, Katie,” I say, looking up at the clock on the wall and trying to calculate how much time is left until I think Elliot is going to arrive. She screams again, through another powerful contraction, and I think I see her involuntarily pushing. Shit… should she be? “You’re doing great, Kate. Keep breathing.” I drop her hand and run to the door, scream for the nurse, and return to her side until, finally, someone comes to examine her.

“Drugs!” she cries the moment the doctor comes into the room. “I want the drugs, give me the drugs.”

“We’ll see what we can do, Mrs. Grey. Let me just get a look here and see where we’re at.” I stand to the side, keeping her fingers interlaced with mine, as he helps her get her leg into the stirrups and dives between her legs. She screams again, pushes again, and the doctor sits up straight. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey, it looks like we’re past the point of an epidural. You’re fully dilated, this baby is coming.”

“What?” she pants. “I-I’ve only been in labor for a little over an ho—OWE!” Another scream, another push.

“I know it’s fast,” the doctor says, scooting closer to the end of the table. “But this is good. You’ll be grateful for a quick labor come tomorrow. Patricia!”

“No, my husband’s not here yet. Ana, she can’t be born before Elliot gets here…”

“I know, he’s coming.”

A nurse scurries into the room with a tray on a cart and quickly dresses the doctor in a plastic gown, mask, and gloves.

“No.” Kate shakes her head defiantly. “No, I’m not going to do this until he’s here. I ca—AAH!” Her fingers crush my hand and I shoot a worried look down at the doctor.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey,” he says. “We can’t wait. You’re going to need to start pushing.”

“No. No, I won’t.”

“It’s not an option. I need you to push for me, okay? In three, two…”

She lets out a distraught sounding sob. “Ana.”

I squeeze her hand, holding her just as tightly as she holds me. “I’m here for you. I’m not going anywhere. Now push, Katie. Push!”

The imploring look she gives me gives way to agony in an instant and the room fills with the sound of her pain as she gives her first real push. This is happening, just like that. She’s not just in labor, she’s giving birth, and I’m the only one here with her.”

“Good, Katie,” I tell her as her muscles relax. “You’re doing so good.”

Tears swim in her eyes. “I don’t want to do this, Ana. Not yet. I need more time.”

“We don’t have time. She’s coming, ready or not. But Elliot is going to be here any second and I’m going to get you through this until he comes through that door. You’ve got this, Kate. You can do this.”

“I-I—“

“Here we go,” the doctor interrupts. “Big push now, Mrs. Grey. In 3, 2, 1…” She screams once more, and as the sound reverberates off the walls of the tiny room, the door bursts open and Elliot steps inside, looking frantic.

“Elliot!” Kate pants.

He rushes to her side, takes her free hand in his, and brings her fingers to her lips. “I’m here, I’m here. I’m sorry. Are we doing this?”

I nod. “She’s coming. That was her second push.”

“Good. You’re doing so good, baby. I love you so much.”

I sigh in relief and move to slip my hand out of Kate’s, but the moment she feels movement, she tightens her hold around me. “No, don’t go!”

“Okay,” I nod, stepping right back up to the side of the bed. “I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

“One more time, Mrs. Grey,” the doctor instructs her. “Big push on 3, 2, 1…”

After her first ten pushes or so, her forehead is coated with sweat, so I wet a towel in the metal sink against the far wall and dab it against her skin. Elliot coaches her perfectly, offering her encouragement when she needs it, and praise once she’s made it through a particularly rough contraction. I can see the exhaustion on her face, but when her eyes meet with Elliot’s, somehow, she finds the strength to keep going.

“Excellent job, Mrs. Grey,” the doctor says. “I can see her head.”

“You can?” She turns wild-eyed to Elliot. “Can you see her?”

He looks between her legs. “Holy shit, there she is. That’s her head!”

“I want to see,” Kate cries. The nurse standing behind the doctor picks up a mirror from her tray and places it between Kate’s legs, but just as she’s about to sit up, she’s hit with another contraction. A tear leaks over her lower lid as the pain once again becomes clear on her face. It’s hard, seeing her like this. Every scream of pain seems to make my chest tighten, like I’m being crushed by a boa constrictor. And it goes on, and on. For all the urgency with which this birth began, I’m surprised by how long it takes for the baby to actually make her grand debut. I always thought waiting was just about dilating, but Kate pushes for over an hour before her little girl really starts to emerge.

I watch her head appear, then her shoulders, and, after a few more pushes, the doctor invites Elliot to take the baby in his hands and he pulls her the rest of the way from Kate’s body. Then it’s over. Just like that. Kate collapses back onto the bed, panting as though she’s just run a marathon, and the doctor holds her daughter up for Elliot to cut the cord.

“Give her to me,” Kate says. “Give her to me.”

Without even cleaning her off, the doctor slides the baby into Elliot’s arms and he carries her over to Kate.

“Here she is,” he says.

She smiles and holds out her arms. “Kennedy.”

“Kennedy?” I look between them, brow furrowed, and Elliot smiles.

“Yeah.”

“That’s beautiful. Does she have a middle name?”

“Kavanagh,” he answers, since Kate is too busy marveling at her brand new daughter’s face. “We’re all Trevelyan Grey, me, Christian, and Mia. So, we thought we’d carry on the tradition.”

“Kennedy Kavanagh Grey,” I repeat, my grin growing wider. “I love it. Congratulations. She’s so beautiful.”

“Thanks, Ana,” Elliot says, but Kate ignores me. She ignores Elliot. She ignores the doctor and the nurse. She only has eyes for Kennedy, and I have never in the nearly fifteen years that she’s been my best friend, seen her look any happier.

Next Chapter

Chapter 12

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After months of the ever present blanket of clouds and rain, spring makes its first grand appearance the Saturday after my first week of work. The sun is warm in the clear sky, there’s a gentle breeze that blows off the lake behind our house, and the air is filled with the sweet scent of blooming flowers and freshly mown grass. It’s the kind of day that demands your attention. So, after Christian finishes a phone call with Ros and I’ve cleaned away our breakfast, I call the family, pack up a picnic lunch and a blanket, and take the baby to play in our, so far unused, park sized backyard.

It’s the perfect day. Christian is undistracted, Calliope’s face is alight with joy, and for the first time all week, I’m able to forget about the unread submissions continually trickling into my inbox. There’s nothing but warm weather and plastic wands for blowing bubbles.

“Mine! Mine!” Calliope complains when Christian takes the wand back to dip into the soapy liquid. It’s the newest word she’s picked up at daycare, most likely because she’s been forced to share toys for the first time in her life, and I’m not the biggest fan.

“Please,” I correct her, but she only blinks at me before turning back to Christian and holding out her hands for the wand again. He laughs, then passes it back to her, and as she blows raspberries at the iridescent liquid inside the loop, I glare at him.

“What?”

“You can’t reward her for bad behavior. She doesn’t get to demand things. If she wants something, she can ask politely for it.”

He looks appalled. “My daughter doesn’t need to ask permission to take what’s hers. We should be encouraging her to stand up for herself. It’s exactly this kind of tenacity and sense of self worth that will make her into a world leader one day.”

“Or you’ll turn her into a spoiled brat.”

“Brat? No, not my sweet little Calliope. Look at this face. Does this look like a brat to you?” He turns her around so that she’s looking up at me and while I watch her attempt to blow bubbles in the same way she leaves kisses on my cheek, I can’t help but melt under her wide eyed gaze.

“See,” Christian says, gloating. I wrinkle my nose at him.

“This is no way an approval of your behavior,” I tell him. “She’s just so cute.” I lean forward to tickle her tummy and when she starts to giggle, I scoop her into my lap and kiss every part of her face that I can reach. Christian smiles at the both of us, but is distracted as he pulls out his phone by a series of booming barks coming from the house. In the next second, Champ comes barreling down the yard towards us and I’m only just able to move Calliope out of the way before he’s on top of me, pinning my shoulders down to the ground with his massive paws while he covers my face in slobber.

“Champ!” Elliot yells, running down to pull him off of me, but Christian gets there first. He pulls the dog back off the blanket from us, but it doesn’t stop him from struggling to get back to me. I laugh, check to make sure Calliope wasn’t scared, and then scoot forward to scratch his flat head and wrinkly lips.

“Hey, Champ! Oh, I missed you!”

“The dog?” Christian asks, raising an eyebrow at his brother. “You brought the dog?”

Elliot shrugs. “He’s been cooped up in that apartment for months. It’s a nice day, Kate wanted to bring him so that he could get some exercise.”

“So take him to a dog park.”

“Okay,” Elliot laughs. “You go say that to my eight month pregnant wife. See how that works out for you.”

“Where is Kate?” I ask, but, in response, Elliot just turns towards the house. I follow his gaze and see Kate waddling carefully over the sloping grass towards us, holding her round tummy as if she’s afraid not supporting its weight will send her tumbling down the lawn.

“Babe, wait,” Elliot calls. He rushes towards her but she holds a hand out towards him in defiance.

“I don’t need your help, I can walk thirty feet.”

“I don’t want you fall.” He reaches out to take her arm, but she yanks it out of his hold.

“I’m pregnant, Elliot. Not an invalid.”

“Fine.” He holds his hands up in surrender and backs a few feet away. Kate’s mouth sets in prideful determination, but after taking a few steps down hill, she starts to lose her balance. Elliot crosses his arms over his chest and grins.

“Need some help?”

“No.” Her stubbornness is actually quite impressive. I almost wonder if she’s going to stay stranded in that one place all afternoon in order to make her point that she doesn’t need Elliot to help her, but she turns pleading eyes towards me. “Ana…”

With a laugh, I get up and take the hands she reaches out for me, then slowly guide her down to our blanket. She does let Elliot hold most of her weight as she lowers herself onto the ground, but once she’s settled in, she quickly brushes him away.

“I’m fine, I’m fine.”

“Alright.” He takes a few steps back. “Do you want anything?”

“Elliot… You’re hovering.”

“Fine.” He begins to dig in the bag they brought along with them and pulls out a bright orange braided rope. Champ, who’s collar is still clutched in Christian’s hand, immediately freezes and focuses every ounce of his attention on it. Elliot swings the toy back and forth, chuckling slightly as Champ follows it with his entire head, and the throws it as far as he can towards the water. Champ takes off like a bolt of lightning and we all watch as he seeks it out, plays with it for roughly two seconds, then brings it back.

“Good boy,” Kate says, when he drops the toy in front of Elliot. As he picks it up and once again throws it as far as he can, she turns to me and sighs, looking as though she’s carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders… or maybe in her uterus.

“You look like you’re ready for the baby to come,” I tell her.

“Oh my god, Ana. I swear, I can’t do three more weeks of this. I’m swollen everywhere. I haven’t seen my feet in weeks, I’m exhausted, cranky, starving all of the time, and I’ve got such bad pregnancy brain that I can’t focus on anything at work. It takes me three times as long to do every single task as it normally would.”

“Well, when do you go on maternity leave?”

“Right now,” Elliot says, emphatically, looking sternly over at her as though this is a fight they’ve had before and he’s ready to launch on the defensive again. “Her last day was Friday.”

“It most certainly was not,” Kate argues. “I’m not just going to sit around the apartment twiddling my thumbs for three weeks when I’m perfectly capable of going to work.”

“You’re not though. You are very pregnant, Kate. You need to slow down and take it easy. You’re done with work for the next twelve weeks.”

“No, I’m not.” Her lips thin together as she struggles to restrain her irritation, and Elliot turns imploring eyes on me.

“Ana, a little help here?”

“He’s right, Katie. You really should take the time you have left to relax and get ready for the baby. Aren’t you about to move into your new house? You could set up the nursery.”

“Oh don’t even get me started on the damn house,” Elliot says, throwing the toy again. His frustration propels the rope farther, sending it crashing into the lake, which Champ jumps into without a second thought.

“What’s wrong with the house?” Christian asks.

“Nothing,” Elliot replies. “Absolutely nothing. I’ve spent the better part of a year building and renovating it to be exactly what she wants, and now she wants to sell it.”

“What? Why do you want to sell it?” I ask.

Kate shrugs. “I was thinking we might talk to Christian about buying Escala.”

“But I thought you loved your new house.”

“I do. I really do. But Escala has a lot of advantages that moving to Medina wouldn’t. Now that Grace and Carrick are basically living full time in the downtown apartment, they’re practically our neighbors and I’d like to have them close when the baby comes. We’ve got doormen and a maintenance staff. The location is really great…”

“It’s closer to her work,” Elliot says emphatically. “She wants to stay because it’s closer to work.”

“That’s not a bad thing, Elliot. It’s closer to your work too, you know.”

“It’s a penthouse apartment in a 31 story building smack dab in the middle of the city. What about that says ‘family home’ to you?”

“A lot of kids grow up in the city.”

“Not our kids. Our kids are going to have a yard to play in and curb for a lemonade stand. I’m not going to have them walking past junkies shooting up in alleys or trekking through homeless camps on their way to school.”

“Dad’s going to fix that,” Christian interrupts. “Remember?”

“Yeah, uh huh.” Elliot rolls his eyes. “So was the last mayor.”

“Where are your parents, anyway?” Kate asks, looking around the yard like she’s going to find Grace or Carrick hiding behind a tree.

“Mom’s on call,” Christian replies. “She was at the hospital when Ana invited her.”

“What about Carrick?”

Christian frowns and Elliot shakes his head. “He and Christian are fighting.”

“We’re not fighting,” Christian says. “We’re having a professional disagreement that he’s brought into our personal lives.”

“Yeah, because it’s stopping him from doing anything else. You know the city council told him that they’re not going to approve his appointments until the budget is finalized? And he can’t finalize the budget while you’re pushing this whole tax cuts for billionaires thing.”

“Wait, appointments?” I ask. “Like… police chief?”

“Yep,” Elliot says.

“Well, then he should stop fighting me,” Christian says. “I’m not asking for that much. And if this project takes off, I’ll be providing more jobs for this city than Microsoft and Amazon combined.”

“And if it doesn’t, he’ll be the mayor that got elected and immediately gave his own son millions of dollars in tax cuts for no reason.”

“Then it’s a good thing I’m not going to fail.”

“You can’t do what you want to do, Christian! You’re chasing the impossible. As in, against the laws of physics impossible. Dad isn’t going to give you what you want.”

“Then I’ll have to take it.”

Elliot lets out an exasperated sigh. “I swear to god, you two are exactly the same person. Two rams beating their heads against each other trying to get the upper hand, when in reality you’re both just giving yourself brain damage.”

Champ returns again, but before Elliot can whip his toy back out towards the lake, Calliope crawls across the blanket and reaches up for it. “Mine!”

The irritation on Elliot’s face immediately disappears as he looks down at her tiny fingers clutching the air over and over again in her attempt to reach up to an impossible height and take the tug rope from him. He frowns, obviously wanting to give her what she’s asking for but knowing it’s not a great idea to let a ten month old little girl take a toy that the 120 lb Bull Mastiff ten feet away is dying to for.

“I don’t know, Calliope. Champ might get you and you’d get hurt.”

She’s undeterred. “Mine!”

“No, Callie baby. I’m sorry.”

Her face contorts with an impending temper tantrum, but before she burst into tears, she looks over at Christian, her hands still stretched high above her head, and in a shaking voice says, “Mine, Dada.”

Christian moves across the blanket, lifts her up onto her feet, and crouches down behind her. His arms wrap protectively her waist so that he can snatch her up out of reach in an instant if he has to, and then he holds out his hand for the rope.

“No, Christian,” I say, dread gripping my stomach.

“I’ve got her, Ana.” His assurances aren’t enough to make me stop clenching my teeth in fear, but when he turns around again, Elliot hands the toy over to him. I cringe as Champ’s eyes follow the bright orange rope into Calliope’s hand, like beacon, and he begins to bounce with excitement in front of her.

“Alright, Princess,” Christian coaches her. “Pull it back like this and… throw!” He guides her hand back and then helps her snap it forward, but she forgets the part where you’re supposed to let go. Champ takes off, but very quickly realizes there’s nothing to chase, so he trots back and starts to whine.

“Try again,” Christian continues. He goes through the motions with her three more times, but only when he tells her exactly when to let go does she succeed in throwing the toy for the dog. It only travels about a foot away from her, so Champ has to run towards her to pick it up instead of away, but she screams with joy when the dog lays the rope at her feet and then lays patiently down in the grass for her to throw it again.

“Real hard this time,” Christian says on her fifth successful throw. “One, two, three!” With all of her strength she manages to toss the rope another four or five inches, but this time when Champ brings it back to her, he doesn’t step back and wait to retrieve it again. He barrels forward into her and Christian, knocking them back slightly, and starts licking her face from chin to forehead. Christian immediately pulls her up out of the dog’s reach, but she doesn’t look scared or start to cry. In fact, she’s more upset that Christian’s keeping her from reaching Champ.

“No, Dada! No!”

“Let me see her,” Elliot says, but Christian is wary when he looks down at his outstretched hands. Elliot rolls his eyes. “I’m not going to let her get hurt. Champ listens to me better than he listens to you.”

Reluctantly, Christian passes Calliope off and Elliot swings her up into the air before grabbing onto Champs collar and lowering her down so she can pet him.

“Gentle now,” I warn her, nervous to have her so close. It’s not that I think Champ is going to attack her, he’s just so much bigger than she is that he could hurt her on accident. She looks over at me with wide eyes, but Elliot quickly gets her attention again and shows her how to gently stroke her hands across the dog’s fur. The look on her face is that of pure wonder and after a few seconds, Champ’s eyes close and he lays down on the blanket at her feet. Calliope giggles, then falls to her knees and crawls over to him, wrapping her arms around his back in the biggest hug she can manage.

“Whew,” Kate says. “Well, he’s good with kids. That’s a relief.”

Elliot smiles. “Look at her. You’re going to have to get a dog, Christian.”

“Why? I’ve got yours.” He flashes his brother a grin, then pulls out his phone to take a picture of Calliope cuddling with Champ. I peak over his shoulder to see the photo he got, and my heart instantly melts.

For the rest of the afternoon, Christian, Elliot, and I take turns running around with Calliope and Champ, who seem to have a superhuman level of energy to burn. When Champ finally needs to come lay down for a break, Christian walks Calliope down to the lake, where two ducks swim in the shallows around our dock with their brand new baby ducklings. I send Elliot down with some of the bread from our picnic, then grin as I listen to Kate’s euphoric excitement over the impending arrival of her baby girl and watch my own daughter tossing breadcrumbs into the water with her father. When they run out of bread and the ducks swim away, Christian brings her back to me, and she sits on his hip making weird, throaty sounds at him, almost like the crackle of a broken radio.

“What is she doing?” I ask when he sets her on the ground next to a snoozing Champ. He plops down on the blanket next to me and grins.

“Callie, what does a duck say?”

She turns to him and begins making the sound again, and I laugh.

“Almost.”

Christian’s arms wrap around me and he slowly pulls me down onto the blanket. His fingers brush loose tendrils of my hair from my face and then he leans down and presses his lips into mine. I moan and wrap my arms around his neck, but when he begins to nibble on my bottom lip and his hand moves higher up my thigh, I quickly pull away.

“Watch your hands there, Mr. Grey,” I scold him.

His eyes twinkle and his lips stretch into a devious kind of smile. “These hands?”

Before I can squirm away, his fingers clamp down on my sides, moving just enough to make me kick and flail to get away from him, but not enough to give me any leeway to escape.

“Stop!” I scream through my raucous laughter, but of course he doesn’t.

“What was that? What did you want me to do?”

“Stop!” I call again. “Oh my god, I hate you! Stop!” My cheeks start to burn from smiling too broadly and I desperately try to catch my breath. For a moment, I almost break free of his hold, but he pulls me right back into him and his tickles become more insistent. I roll away, laughing and struggling for air. “No! No!”

“No, Dada!”

He stops and turns to see our little girl standing on wobbly legs a few inches away, but holding out one finger as sternly as she’s currently looking down at him.

“I can’t tickle, Mommy?”

“No!”

His face falls. “Alright. Then, I guess I’ll just… have to tickle you!” He launches at her, gently pushing her back on to the blanket and then attacking her with his fingers. She screams and starts to giggle, but while I sit up and look happily at the two of them, Champ comes barreling over the top of them, barking loudly as he knocks Christian off the baby and pins him into the grass, snarling. Elliot nearly falls over with laughter, but manages to compose himself just enough to pull the dog away from my husband.

“Good boy, Champ!” he says in praise. Christian glares.

“Mr. Grey?”

We all turn and see Taylor standing a few feet away, looking slightly uncomfortable to be interrupting us. Christian quickly gets to his feet, brushing away the grass from his clothes.

“Taylor?”

“A package just arrived. I think it’s urgent.”

“Really? I’ll take it in my office.”

“Oh… it’s not for you. It’s for Mrs. Grey, sir.”

Christian turns around and looks down at me, his eyebrow furrowed in confusion. “You’re expecting something urgent?”

I sigh. “It’s probably Walter Daves’ finished manuscript. He’s GSP’s biggest author and we’re depending on his sales to get us through the rest of the fiscal year. Scott was supposed to send it on Friday but, Saturday is good too I guess.” I roll my eyes.

“So, no miracle yet?” Kate asks. I shake my head.

“I’ve actually signed off on a lot of really great pieces. We’ve got a really strong catalogue of non-fiction titles, but unless it’s a celebrity autobiography, that’s not a genre that really produces big dollar sales. Walter Daves’ last series put up impressive numbers, so I’m hoping this novel does at least as well as his last. We really need him to help us make up a big deficit in the fiction department.”

“Well, I guess we’ll leave you to it then.” She reaches out for Elliot’s hands so he can help her to her feet, and then holds out her arms to hug me good-bye.

“You’ll let us know if you need help moving?” I ask her.

“Yeah, but I don’t think we will. Elliot’s working the next two weekends so he can get caught up on everything before taking a few weeks off for the baby. We hired movers.”

“Okay. Well, let me know if you need anything else.”

“Will do. Thank you for a wonderful afternoon, we had a lot of fun.”

“Us too.”

I smile, then pass her off to Christian while I accept a hug goodbye from Elliot. Calliope reaches up for me, so I scoop her into my arms and carry her to the entryway where we see Kate and Elliot off, but by the time we’ve closed the door behind them, her eyelids are drooping so badly, it looks as though she can barely keep them open.

“I think someone needs a nap,” I tell Christian.

“I’ll take her. Apparently, you have work to do.”

“Thank you. I’ll be in my office.” He pulls the baby from my arms into his, and I rise up onto my toes to kiss him before he carries her upstairs to her room. A small sense of longing fills me as I watch them disappear, but I push it aside and try to forget about the beautiful day outside, or any other possible distraction, as I make my way back to my office. There, I find the envelope sitting on my desk, which I rip open to reveal a well put together manuscript. It’s bound better than I would have expected, but I try not to let that set my expectation too high as I start to read.

In a way, The Black Rose, is a relief. It’s much better than the drivel I’ve sorted through all week, but… by chapter six, I’m already convinced this isn’t the blockbuster seller that I need it to be either. Still, I hold out, and over the next three hours I make it to the end. Once I do, I lean back in my chair and let out a heavy breath. It isn’t terrible, but it’s not great either. The writing needs some improvement, the plot is slightly tropy and predictable, and I’m a little worried that once the editors get to it and cut out all the unnecessary fluff there won’t really be much left… but it’s publishable.

Maybe.

Or maybe I’m just desperate.

There’s too much work to be done on it for a weekend I’m spending at home with my family, so I send a text to my new PA, Abby, and ask her to schedule a meeting on Monday with my entire team so we can come up with a strategy of how best to tackle this title, which I fear is going to be a behemoth. Once the email is sent though, and I move to place Mr. Daves’ novel in my bag so that I don’t forget it on Monday, I notice another manuscript that I’d completely forgotten about.

Phoenix, by Hailey Lewis.

With a cursory glance, I look down at the phone sitting on my desk. At home, Christian and I share phone lines, and I can see that he’s currently on a call with someone because of the light illuminated next to the button for line one. He’s undoubtedly taking advantage of Calliope’s nap to finish up whatever he was working on this morning, so I don’t think I’ll be missed if I spend an hour or two reviewing the draft I promised Hailey I’d glance over. I can afford to be a little more comfortable though. So, rather than read at my desk, I pick up a red pen and take the manuscript into the library with me, where I sprawl out on a cushy sofa and begin chapter one.

It’s a sci-fi novel that I would market as young adult, but the story is actually quite complex and interesting. Based in a fictional country which has been taken over by a totalitarian regime that uses violence to squash any attempts at revolution, a young girl named Hazel narrowly escapes a bombing that has killed her entire family and manages to refugee to a safe zone over the border. There, with no loved ones left and no hope for her future, she begins working for the resistance. For several chapters, I read about her journey to become a warrior for her people and then about her victories against her enemy. The title becomes clear. Left horribly burned and scarred from the bombing, she rises from the flames and ashes of her past to become a true hero. But just as I find myself ready to cheer on her victory for the resistance, Hazel finds out that the people she’s dedicated her life to fighting for are only a different side of the same coin as the people who murdered her family. It’s devastating and makes me as the reader feel defeated, until Hazel stands up on her own, sheds the banners of warring countries, and launches her own rebellion. It’s thrilling. Every twist and turn is unexpected and when I finally come to the end, I’m ravenous for more. The whole book reads so effortlessly, that it felt like I was watching a movie, and when I flip back through the notes I made, I realize there are several chapters where I made no annotations at all.

This is it.

This is the story Greenwich needs to publish. It has best seller written all over it. Hell, this could become the next big phenomenon. It’ll take some serious investment, expansion probably, and a dedicated staff comprised of the best of the best, but with the right marketing and editing, we could hang our entire year on this one release. Hell, we could probably ride out the next five years if it lives up to the potential I think it could have. Everyone is going to want this title, big and small publishers alike. The only advantage I have here is that no one else has this yet, and Hailey might be willing to take a gamble with me because of the personal connection we’ve already built. If she does, I’m going to make her the next Suzanne Collins and put GSP right at the top of the Seattle Publishing food chain.

When Christian finally pulls me out of my office so that he and I can share a late dinner together, I’m filled with so much excitement and determination, that I can hardly contain myself. There was some time, when I was sorting through dud after dud in my inbox last week, that I almost thought I’d made a mistake. That my success at Grey Publishing and with Escape might have overinflated my ego a bit and made me believe I was capable of achieving things that were simply unrealistic. But this manuscript has completely erased all of that doubt. I’m that confident in it. And that confidence carries me through the rest of the weekend.

 

****

 

I was wrong before, when I said I wanted Calliope to care that we were leaving her at daycare. I think she thought the place Christian and I dropped her off every morning last week was temporary, and she was willing to give it a try for a week. But when we take her back the following Monday, she devolves into the worst temper tantrum I’ve ever seen. Nothing can console her. She cries, and screams, and kicks… She even hits Kensie in the face when I try to hand her over. And the lecture Christian gives her about hitting when he immediately takes her from our nanny does nothing, because she’s back in his arms, which is all she wanted. But when we finally leave, the tears start again. I step into the hallway outside the locked security door with her screams still ringing loudly behind me.

“She’s going to be fine,” Christian assures me, reaching up to my face and wiping away an escaped tear that I can let show now that my baby is no longer in front of me. “I’ll come check on her after my meetings this morning.”

I nod, but his promise doesn’t make me forget the horrible sounds of Calliope’s screams. Like she was being tortured…

“Hey,” he continues. His fingers wrap around my chin so that he can tilt my face up towards his, forcing me to look into his eyes. “She’s in excellent hands. I don’t want you to worry about her, I want you focus on this book you’re going to pitch. It’s not going to be any fun when Grey Publishing beats your quarterly sales if you can claim that you were distracted by Calliope.”

Despite myself, I smile. “You’re ridiculous.”

“Yes.” He laughs. “And you’re going to be late. I love you.”

“I love you too.” His lips press into mine, washing away a small degree of the pain I feel for leaving Calliope, and then he walks me to the elevator to see me off.

Calliope’s tantrum aside, I feel really good when I get to the office. For the first time, Scott isn’t here to greet me or direct me through what he wants to accomplish today. I’m officially on my own and with Phoenix tucked securely in my bag, I’m feeling more confident about that than I did when I left the office Friday afternoon.

Abby greets me at the door with a mug of tea and an iPad, and she begins running through my schedule for the day as we walk into my office together.

“I’ve booked your flight and hotel for Angela Rowe’s book party in San Francisco, the latest numbers on Pinehart’s sales are on your desk, and you got an email from Calliope’s pediatrician reminding you that her one year booster shots are due. I booked an appointment for April 25th and blocked out your calendar so you’ll be able to go with her.”

I sit at my desk and smile gratefully at her. “You’re a lifesaver, Abby. Really.”

“I do what I can, Mrs. Grey.”

“Ana, please. Is everything all set for our meeting this morning?”

“Yes, ma’am. 09:30 AM. Do you need me to set up any presentations for you?”

“Not today, it should be fairly basic. I’ve got a few emails to respond to and I’ll need to send Pinehart’s number to New York once I’ve reviewed them and made a decision on optioning his second book. Then I’m all set.”

“Perfect. Let me know if you need anything else, Mrs. Grey.”

“Will do, thank you.” She smiles and turns to head back to her place next to Penny at reception, but before she closes the door, I call out to stop her. “Oh, and Abby…”

“Yes, Mrs. Grey?”

“Please call me Ana.”

“Right. Ana. Sorry.” I smile at her as she turns to leave, then get to work on everything I have to complete before my meeting this morning, including rehearsing my pitch for Phoenix.

 

The conference room is full by the time I leave my office. Twelve pairs of eyes follow me as I make my way to the head of the table, and before I can even set my things down, I’m barraged with questions.

“Mrs. Grey, I really need you to reconsider the Jefferson Morris title. It’s rough, yes, but I think with the right editing and marketing, it could be a success.”

“Morris is a hack,” a woman named Nadia interjects. “What we really need to discuss is the serious lack of funding that was approved for Rowe’s promotional tour. Pinehurst got almost double what you’ve approved for Rowe…”

“Have you gotten the manuscript from Walter Daves yet?” A hush falls over the room at that question and every pair of eyes turns towards me.

“Yes, I received Daves’ manuscript over the weekend,” I reply. “I’ve read it, and I’ve decided that we aren’t going to pursue The Black Rose for our big summer title.”

There’s a pulse of silence, so intense that it feels heavy, and then a roar as twelve people begin shouting angrily at me.

What do you mean we’re not going to release The Black Rose?

Daves is our best selling author!

You can’t just come in here and cancel my author’s releases! Daves has carried this publishing house for years!

“Exactly,” I say, holding my hands up to the stop the shouting and trying desperately to keep my voice firm. “Daves is the best this press has put out in years, and we’re floundering. Okay, this isn’t a debate. Just like my rejection of Jefferson Morris or the amount of money I’ve allocated to Rowe’s promo tour is not up for debate. I was brought in here to turn this place around, and we’re not going to do that by resting on our laurels and publishing the same weak material over and over again. I’m not going to sugar coat it for you guys, we’re in trouble. And it’s going to take something big to save us. Thankfully, I have something big.”

I reach into my bag, remove the copies that I made of Hailey’s manuscript Sunday night, and begin to pass them around the table.

“This is Phoenix, the debut novel of a local, young author, and it’s brilliant. It’s a young adult, sci-fiction story that I think will work well for audiences aged 12-35, which is our primary demographic, and this one book opens us up for possible franchise opportunities. We’re going to throw all of our weight behind this release, so I want all of you to read it and familiarize yourselves with some of the viral marketing techniques I’ve put together to reach younger audiences. Editing team, you’ll need to get started right away. This is going to be fast so I need everyone on board.”

I pause, expecting questions or requests for more specific direction, but there’s nothing. The people seated around the table before me simply blink at one another, or stare down at the manuscript in their hands as if it’s in an ancient dialect that they can’t understand. At least… for a second.

“Debut novel?” Stevens repeats, the uncertainty in his voice clear. “You’re telling me that you want to cancel the release of our most profitable author to take a chance on an amateur writer who has absolutely no following?”

“Yes. It’s called discovering new talent.”

“No, what it is is bullshit!” Tyler Sullivan, one of our agents, exclaims. “Walter Daves is my author, and I’m not just going to sit back while you discredit everything he’s done for this publishing house so that you can get one of your friends or… one of you or your husband’s bootlicking sycophant’s published. The Stormy Nights Saga built this business. Walter Daves is Greenwich Small Press.”

I take a deep breath and rest both of my hands on the smooth surface of the table before looking Sullivan directly in the eyes. “Tyler, have you actually read The Black Rose?

“Most of it, yes.”

“And what did you think?”

“I thought it was enjoyable. I think we’re going to see just as much success from The Black Rose as we did from Stormy Nights.”

“Really?” I sit in my chair, and click my teeth together in contemplation a few times before continuing. “Tell me, Tyler. What’s your favorite book?”

“Excuse me?”

“Now might be a good time to address one of the bigger issues I think might be hurting us, help you see where I’m coming from. So, I want to know… what’s your favorite book?”

His jaw flexes with irritation. “I’m partial to Tolstoy.”

“Well, that’s an English major answer if I’ve ever heard one. Let’s try again. Jacki, what’s your favorite book?”

She blinks, clearly taken off guard. “Ummm, I don’t know. Pride and Prejudice?”

“Romance. A little old fashioned, but a classic for sure.” I smile encouragingly at her, then begin to pace the table.

“I studied literature at Harvard, so I can’t say that I don’t also enjoy the classics. In fact, I wrote my thesis on the evils of imperialism as is depicted in The Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, and I took inspiration for my own depiction of desperation for the unobtainable in Escape from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. But my favorite book of all time is Harry Potter. Specifically The Prisoner of Azkaban, which I think has something to do with Sirius Black coming into Harry’s life and stepping in as a father figure when he doesn’t really have to, much in the same way my own father came into my life… But the point is, my favorite book is Harry Potter. The magic, the whole new world JK Rowling created… the fantasy. That’s my genre. That’s what makes me love to read. The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire… anything that takes me on an epic journey in a far away world where anything is possible and good overcomes evil. That’s what I want. Sci-fi is good too, though I prefer books based on dystopian futures over aliens, like The Hunger Games or The Handmaid’s Tale. But it’s my preference for this genre that makes me an expert. I can tell you what makes a good fantasy hero. I can tell you what themes or plotlines are overdone or cliché. I can tell you what will resonate with other fantasy readers, because I am one. Stevens, you’re currently representing a non-fiction title, a children’s book, and a crime drama. Can you tell me what will make any one of those three a bestseller?”

“Marketing,” he replies.

“No, not what can we do to help boost its numbers. I want you to tell me what specific things in the story itself appeals to the readers who seek out those genres.”

“Ummm…”

“Jacki,” I say, cutting him off. “You said that Pride and Prejudice was your favorite book. Why?”

She blushes. “Mr. Darcy. He’s so wonderful and romantic, and his love for Elizabeth is beautiful.”

“He’s boring,” Tyler says under his breath.

Jacki blushes. “Maybe. I-I guess I’m just a sucker for a happily ever after…”

“And that’s fine. So are millions and millions of other readers just like you. It’s a billion dollar industry, and how many romance novels did we publish last year?”

“None,” Stevens says, and I nod.

“None. Instead, Jacki’s biggest title last year was a horror novel that sold just under 750 copies. So, tell me Jacki, what about that story made you think that it was going to be a success for GSP?”

“Well, I don’t know. It, uh… It just got approved.”

“And it bombed. Now we can talk about the god awful cover art and whether or not we could have done anything to help bolster sales during the release, but the cold hard facts are that that horror story, The House on Switzer Street, was both poorly written and nearly a carbon copy of Stephen King’s Rose Red. Had Jacki been well versed in the genre before she sent it off for approval, she would have known that. We need quality titles and this…” I reach into my bag, pull out my copy of The Black Rose, and toss it onto the table, ”is not quality.”

Every pair of eyes around the table shift down to manuscript before them, but no one says anything. I can tell by the thin lips and several red faces that a few of them want to argue, but won’t.

“I’m telling you,” I say, more gently now, “that this story, Phoenix, is our best move. This is a best seller, and with the right editing and representation, the sales of this one title could eclipse our entire fiscal year from last year. I need you all on board.”

“Yeah,” Jacki says. “She’s right. We need a change. What we’re doing isn’t working. We all know that Mrs. Grey knows how to sell books, we should listen to her.” She turns to look at me. “I’m on board.”

“Good.” There’s a small murmur that makes its way around the table and while it doesn’t necessarily sound confident, it’s not disagreeing either. Maybe most of the people here need to see the outcome of the changes I’m proposing before they fully buy into them, but with something I’m as sure of as I am of Phoenix, I’m okay with that.

“Great, then let’s get to work. We’ll meet on Friday to discuss strategy.”

The room fills with the sound of books closing and chairs scraping against wood as everyone gets out of their seats to return to their desks. I gather my own materials and make a beeline for my office, the disappointment of my team’s less than enthused reaction over Phoenix dissipating as I reach for my phone and dial the number on the note Hailey left for me. It rings twice.

“Hello?”

“Hi, is this Hailey Lewis?”

“Yes it is. May I ask who’s calling?”

“This is Anastasia Grey, er… Steele. Do you have a moment?”

“Oh my god, Anastasia Steele! Yes! Yes! Of course I do!”

“Well, Hailey, I just wanted to call and tell you that I finished Phoenix, and I absolutely loved it.”

“You did?”

“I did. And, I’m not sure if you know this, but I’ve recently taken over as the head of Greenwich Small Press. We’re looking for a fiction title to release this summer and I’d like to talk to you about what it would take to get you to sign with GSP.” Several seconds pass, but there’s only silence on the other end of the line. “Hailey? Are you still there?”

“I don’t know. I think I might be sleeping or… maybe dead.”

I laugh. “You’re not dead, I promise. This is real. I’m going to send you an official offer letter, I just wanted to have you on the phone when I told you how truly wonderful your story was.”

“So, you… you really want to publish my book? Like, I’m going to be a real author?”

“Yes, you are.”

“Oh my god.” She’s quiet again, except that I can hear a series of small but harsh broken breaths through the phone that tell me she’s crying. This is overwhelming, I’ve been there before, so I give her a minute. “I don’t know what to say,” she says at last. “Thank you. I mean, you were my hero before, but now…”

“There’s no need to thank me, Hailey. Trust me, you’ve earned this. You’ve truly created something amazing.”

“Ugh! I don’t think I’ll ever get over you saying that. So what now? What do I do?”

“Well, I’ll send an offer letter for you to sign and get back to me and then we’ll meet to discuss the details of your contract. I’ve already given your manuscript to our editing team, so now, unfortunately, all there is to do is wait.”

“Okay. I can do that. Not well, but I can do it.”

“Good. Then I’ll send this contract over to you and we’ll talk again soon. Bye, Hailey. And congratulations.”

“Bye! And thank you. Oh my god, thank you, thank you, thank you!”

I hang up the phone, feeling my chest swell with pride and happiness, but as I turn to my computer and pull up the standard contract GSP sends to all of our new authors, I’m distracted by the paging tone on my phone.

“Mrs. Grey, Scott Wallace is on line one for you.”

“Thank you, Penny.” I press my finger into the button next to line one and pick up the phone. “Good morning, Scott. What can I do for you?”

“You can tell me why you’ve pushed the manuscript I sent to you over the weekend off the frontlist.”

“Well, I read it and thought it was extraordinarily average. There’s another work we’re going to be pursuing that I think we’ll find more success with.”

“I didn’t send you that manuscript for your approval, Anastasia. I sent it to you so that you’d get it to your editors. GSP will be moving forward with The Black Rose.”

“I’m sorry, did you read it? It’s not good, Scott.”

“Walter Daves is a bestselling author with an established fan base. We don’t have the luxury of taking chances on unknowns right now because you like fairy tales. This is a business, Anastasia, not your personal book club. Get that manuscript into production.”

Because you like fairy tales? So, someone in that meeting called him.

“No. I’m sorry, but no. This isn’t about my preferences, this about what is going to make this company money. I know it’s been awhile since you’ve had to share this position, Scott, but I’m the President of the Seattle branch, and I am choosing not to move forward with The Black Rose. If you have a problem with that, we can speak with Carmen.”

“I’ve already spoken to Carmen and she’s greenlit the Daves’ title.”

“Wait, you already spoke to her? Why didn’t she call me?”

“I told you this is how it works. You go through me, I go to Carmen. This isn’t a discussion. The decision has been made and you either get on board or you pack your things.” There’s a click as Scott hangs up and then the long droning of the dial tone. My muscles seize with anger. What the hell does he mean get on board or pack your things? He’s not my boss…

But Carmen is.

My body deflates as I sink back into my chair. He’s already got Carmen to sign off on The Black Rose. What am I going to do, call her up and say nu-uh? Scott has numbers on his side. As much as I dislike this story, Tyler was right. Daves’ Stormy Nights series is the biggest title this publishing house has ever released. It was a New York Times bestseller and was nearly optioned by Universal. I brought it up in my interview. Carmen is just like Christian, focused on data and numbers. There’s no way I’d be able to convince her to take a chance on a novice author who’s never been published before over our current sales Juggernaut. Not without some kind of research to back me up.

Gritting my teeth, I get out of my seat and leave my office. Several smug smiles and looks of superiority follow me all the way to reception, but I don’t dignify them with any kind of reaction. My only disappointment is that there are too many people smirking at me for me to immediately know who went to Scott so I can deal with them.

“Abby, I need you to put a focus group together for me,” I say, taking care not to let any hint of nerves our doubt show in my voice.

“A focus group, Mrs. Grey?”

“Eleven participants, ages sixteen to thirty-five, evenly split between males and females.”

“Okay. And this is for…”

“For Phoenix. I’m going to need data if I’m going to explain to Carmen why The Black Rose is a terrible decision for us going forward.”

“That’s not going to work,” a voice says behind me, and I turn to see Tyler standing at his desk, arms crossed, scowling at me. Bingo. “A focus group won’t change anyone’s mind. That’s not the way we do things around here.”

“No, maybe it isn’t,” I say, my voice low and cold. “But it is the way I do things. And as long as my name is on that office, the way that I do things is the way that this branch does things. Anyone who has a problem with that going forward, can go ahead and bypass Mr. Wallace and speak to me directly.”

My eyes narrow in on Tyler, then I push off the counter and storm back to my office, letting the door slam closed behind me.

Next Chapter

Updates

Happy Tuesday everyone! I know that most of the U.S. is experiencing a devastating heat wave, but here in the Pacific Northwest it’s only 48 degrees. So, I think it’s appropriate for a…

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Fireside chat. That’s what that means.

Anyway…

I know I’ve been terrible at updates for WEEKS. And I have all kinds of excuses. My job’s been really busy, we’ve been travelling a lot, my husband is on summer break (he’s a teacher) so he’s been hogging all of the time I usually reserve for writing… but I know that you all probably aren’t interested in excuses. You just want to know where your update is.

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The unfortunate answer is… I’m working on it. I don’t know what it is about Final that’s making it impossible for me to find my groove and get into a routine, but I’ve been on the struggle bus for a few weeks now.

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There are so many things I’m excited for in this story, so I don’t want you to think my interest isn’t there and I’m going to quit. I’m not. In fact, when I sat down and plotted this book out from start to finish, I nearly cried with how well this ending wraps up all four books and finally (haha, get it?) concludes Christian and Ana’s story. Calliope though… there might be more. There’s hardship, and drama, and angst ahead, which you all know I need to live, but the HEA I promised from day one is still fully intact. I want to get there. I’m excited to get there. I’m not going to ghost you all and disappear, promise.

This summer, between family visits, camping trips, vacations, weddings, and standing in line for Seahawks tickets, I might just need some extra time between posts.

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That being said, I’m going to actually take the rest of this week to finish chapter 12, because it’s an important chapter and I don’t want to rush it. And because I want to get back on my Monday schedule. How I thought I’d be able to get back on a Monday schedule when I’ve been posting on Wednesdays because I already couldn’t get it finished in a week is BEYOND me.

But I want to offer a heartfelt and sincere thank you to all of you who have followed me through this long journey we’ve gone on together. Honestly, I really do feel terrible when I don’t have something to post on Mondays because I feel like I owe it to you with how much you guys have been there for me. Without your constant love and support, I probably would have abandoned ship on this story years ago. And now, not only do I have three completed books under my belt that I can look back on and feel proud of, I actually met with some people in LA a few weeks ago to begin work on copyrights and purchasing ISBNs and meeting with cover art artists for my own original novel. That wouldn’t have happened without all of you, so THANK YOU. Truly. For everything I’ve given you these past three years, you’ve given me so much more. And for that I’ll never be able to fully express my gratitude.

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Get it? Hahahahaha

(Best Barbra impression: Stick around for the jokes)

So, while I start plugging away at chapter 12 again, I hope you’ll all be like me and will be wishingmrgreywashere.

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Chapter 11

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Calliope squirms in my arms as I carry her through the front doors of GEH for her very first day of daycare. There are no tears, like I expected there to be, no screams of torture. She’s simply too interested in the men and women hurrying through the lobby around us to stay still. Taylor is outside, still idling on the curb with Woods while they wait to take me to work, so it’s just Christian and I dropping her off. He walks by my side, juggling her diaper bag, stroller, and the three different stuffed animals that Calliope couldn’t bear to be parted from this morning, all while trying to guide us to the nursery and answer emails on his phone. We get several strange looks as we make our way to the elevator, like people are genuinely shocked to see a ten month old baby being paraded through the epicenter of Seattle business and commerce. But I soon realize the questioning stares aren’t being directed at Calliope. They’re all gaping at Christian, who I suppose looks odd to his employees with a baby pink blanket draped over the shoulder of his bespoke Brioni suit and the plastic end of an escaped pacifier clenched between his teeth.

“Seventh floor,” he mumbles distractedly, once we step into the elevator. I move to the panel and lean over to press the round button labelled ‘7’, but when Calliope sees the small glass sphere light up, she shrieks with excitement and thrusts her tiny hands out for as many buttons as she can reach.

“No, no, no!” I say, trying to pull her hands away, but the damage is done. We’re stopping at every floor except three on our journey up to her daycare. Christian sighs, unable to do anything but accept each and every stop. The patience he’s trying to summon, however, vanishes in an instant when a tiny woman manages to worm her way through the doors before they fully close.

“Mr. Grey,” she pants in relief.

“Jacqueline,” Christian replies. “What can I do for you?”

“The optics on this tax issue with your father aren’t good. He’s coming off as a strong leader, bent on eliminating corruption, even when it means standing up to his own family, and you’re kind of being perceived as a holding the city ransom while demanding handouts from the Seattle tax payers. Your brand is about exceptionalism. You’re a self-made billionaire running a successful multinational corporation that breaks profit records nearly every year and pushes the boundaries of innovation in every industry you touch. This battle with your father is counteracting all that good publicity and I’m afraid it’s bringing up questions about how safe of an investment Grey technologies are to those who’re helping bankroll this big project you’re trying to get off the ground.”

“Well if I lose this battle against my father and GEH doesn’t get enough in tax incentives this quarter, they won’t have questions, they’ll have proof. I’m not letting this project fail, Jacqueline, no matter who I have to fight to make it happen.”

“Then perhaps we should focus on changing the narrative. Give the media something to print besides this political war you’re fighting with the city that you helped transform. We need a win, Mr. Grey. Something big that we can get out to the press this week. Otherwise, your funding is going to be pulled and you’re going to be fighting over tax breaks to fund a project that’s DOA.”

He sighs. “Fine. I’ll take a look at what I’ve got in the pipeline and send you some numbers this afternoon.”

“Perfect. Thank you, Mr. Grey.”

“Mhm,” he mumbles over the sound over the elevator opening on the fourth floor. “Now get out.”

Jacqueline smiles and turns to face Calliope and I. “She really is such a beautiful baby, Mrs. Grey. I’m telling you, that’s a face for PixC if I’ve ever seen one.”

“Jacqueline,” Christian says, more firmly this time. “Go.”

She lets out a soft, disappointed sound and winks at my baby before ducking out of the elevator again and leaving us alone. I swallow, preparing myself for what I want to say, and face my husband.

“Christian, I don’t like that you’re going after your dad like this. Family is more important than anything, even your supercars.”

“It’s not about the cars, Ana. It’s about creating clean, unlimited energy. Do you have any idea what that would mean? How that would change the world?” I stare back at him, unblinking and unimpressed, and he sighs. “My dad is the highest ranking government official in this city, Anastasia. Sometimes that is going to put us at odds. But it’s not personal. It’s business, and I can separate the two.”

“Can he?”

The doors ping open on the seventh floor and Christian quickly ushers me out of the elevator without answering. We wind our way through several hallways, past a few departments I’m unfamiliar with, until we finally make it to a desk sitting outside a locked door that is guarded by a security officer.

“Mr. Grey,” the friendly looking woman behind the desk greets us. Her smile is bright and her eyes are friendly, a contradiction to the steel and bulletproof glass door she watches over. “This must be little Calliope.”

“Can you say, hi?” I ask, gently pinching Calliope’s toes through her socks. She blinks at the woman smiling back at her, then turns and buries her face in my blouse.

“Awh,” the woman says, her expression alight with sympathy. “It’s okay to be nervous on your first day, sweetheart. But there’s lots of fun toys in there and other kids that want to play with you. Doesn’t that sound fun?”

Calliope turns her face just the smallest degree so she can get a peak at the woman beaming at her, encouraging her, and after assessing the situation and finding nothing to scare her away from the promise of free toys, she slowly pulls away from me and looks through the glass to the children playing inside.

“Kensie’s in there,” I say encouragingly. “Do you want to go play with Kensie?”

She does her best to nod and then reaches for the door. “Ki-ki, Mama. Ki-ki.”

“Okay, Calli-lily. Let’s go find Ki-ki.” She coos with delight while Christian thanks the woman behind the desk, and after she’s pressed the button that causes the heavy metal locks to open with a loud, high pitched clink, the security guard opens the door for us and we step inside. I look back at him questioningly and then turn to Christian. “Isn’t that the same security guard I fired in Vegas for letting Mia and her friend sneak into a nightclub?”

“Yeah, his name is James. Alan James, I think.”

“And that’s the man you put in charge of watching over our daughter all day, every day? The man who couldn’t keep track of two seventeen year olds when they were his only responsibility?”

Christian rolls his eyes. “Calliope isn’t Mia, Anastasia.”

“No. She’s my daughter so she’s probably going to be even worse! Do you know how many times I’ve ditched Luke over the years, Christian? And that was Luke. Not generic security guard number three.”

“And I didn’t fire Sawyer for losing you, either. There are four teachers who work here, plus Mackensie, and she’s going to be behind locked doors that are under constant video surveillance. She’s perfectly safe. You know that I wouldn’t leave her here if she wasn’t.”

“I’d still feel better with a more senior member of your security team watching over her.”

“Well, I just reassigned Harrison to Mia, at your request, and since Sawyer left, that makes James the most senior member I have available.”

I frown. “That’s not true. What does Taylor do all day? Can’t we get him?”

Christian laughs, then leads me through the small sitting room and past a gate with a latch too high for anyone under the age of six to reach. From there, we find several rooms, organized by the age of the children inside, surrounding one large play area.

“She’s in the caterpillar room,” Christian says, motioning to the door farthest to the left. I hitch the baby higher up on my hip and follow him inside. It’s a larger space than I imagined, with fewer children inside. There are small wooden cubbies all along one wall, and cribs against the other. The majority of the floor is covered in brightly colored pieces of rubber that fit together like puzzle pieces and every toy you could possibly imagine.

“There she is!” Mackensie cries, locking eyes with Calliope the moment she spots us.

“Ki-ki! Ki-ki!” My baby throws her body in the direction of our nanny, making it difficult for me to hang onto her, but the excited squeals she makes trying to get away from me hurt more than her little feet kicking fervently against my chest ever could.

Kensie grunts as she takes the baby out of my arms and carries her across the room. I stand there, watching her being introduced to the other children and handed toys before Christian finally pulls me away to speak with the teachers. They give me an overview of the kinds of activities she’ll be doing during the day and what her schedule is going to be like going forward. Christian’s hired a speech expert to help her expand her vocabulary more quickly and efficiently, and there’s a dietician on staff to prepare healthy meals that both provide optimal nutrition and are loved by even the pickiest eaters. She’ll be exposed to art and music, and there’s a reading corner filled with books the staff read to the children every afternoon. It’s the perfect place to care for my baby while I’m at work all day, but that doesn’t make it any easier to leave her here.

“She’s going to be fine,” Christian promises me. “And I’m just upstairs if she needs something. Even if it’s just to come sit with me awhile.”

“I know.” I watch her gaping at a child next to her, who is playing with a toy, with complete and utter fascination. Part of me expects her to try and rip it out of his hands, but she doesn’t. Kensie encourages her to share and she does without complaint.

“We should go,” Christian says. “It’ll be better for her if she doesn’t have to watch us leave.”

My bottom lip trembles as he wraps an arm around me and leads me out of the room. By the time we make it back out to the hallway, I break down completely.

“Hey… baby. She’s going to be fine. She was having fun.”

“I know, that’s the problem! She doesn’t even care that we’re leaving her.”

“You wanted her to cry?”

“No! And… yes. A little. I don’t want her to be sad but I want her to want me around. She didn’t even notice that we left. This is how it happens, Christian. One day, she’s going to leave us and this is where it starts.”

He laughs at my melodrama and pulls me into him. “She’s not even a year old yet, Ana.”

“Yeah, well you’re going to blink and she’s going to be eighteen.”

“Then I’ll try not to blink.” He kisses my forehead and tugs me away from the daycare, towards the elevators, and then walks me back out to the car to send me off on my first day. Woods is there to open the door for me, but before I climb back into the SUV, I pause and take a moment to find my zen. Trauma from leaving Calliope behind aside, taking this job isn’t the same as accepting my internship with SIP, and that’s been playing on my nerves all morning. Greenwich isn’t a new player in the industry, they’ve been established in this city for over seven years. And while sales have suffered, the name still carries weight. I am now responsible for every piece of literature this publishing house produces going forward. It’s going to be my job to lead, to give the company vision, and to re-carve out our place in an overcrowded, highly competitive industry. Yesterday, that prospect had me dancing around the house with excitement. Now, I’m mostly nauseated.

“I can do this, right?” I ask, looking up at Christian with pleading eyes, and to my surprise, he looks taken aback.

“Of course you can.”

“But… what I’m a disaster? What if SIP was a fluke and I’m about to go run this publishing house into the ground?”

He laughs. “Then I’ll buy up the authors’ contracts cheap and have one less competitor to worry about. It’s a win/win, really.”

I glare, but he simply leans down and presses his lips softly into mine. “Anastasia, you’ve earned this. No one gave you special favors or pushed you ahead because you have my name. You worked your ass off for years to gain the experience that got you here. This is because of your talent, and your mind. Yes, you’ll make mistakes, that’s unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to fail. Elizabeth is at the top of her field and she didn’t graduate from Harvard. She isn’t a New York Times bestselling author. And she didn’t build her first publishing house at 21. You did. You are going to be incredible, Anastasia. I just can’t wait to see what you’re going to do.”

I take a breath and smile. “Thank you. I really do love you, you know that?”  

“I do.” He releases me, but swipes his thumb across my cheek affectionately before fully letting me go. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“I won’t,” I say with a laugh, only realizing after he’s shut me inside the car and we begin to pull away what sage advice that really is. Christian knows what it takes to be successful. He takes risks, he follows his instincts, and he always manages to do the impossible. I’ll get through this, as long as I don’t do anything Christian wouldn’t do.

Much as I did the last time I arrived at GSP, I take the time to appreciate the art deco feel of the building before going inside. It’s a stark contrast to Christian’s ultra modern skyscraper a few blocks down the road. There are no digital keypads in hidden panels or walls entirely comprised of ultra high definition screens. This office is industrial in the purest sense of the word: brick walls, wood floors, and exposed beams. I think I prefer it this way. Christian’s office is beautiful, a architectural feat that is sure to one day be considered one of the crowning jewels of this city, but there’s something about the loud echo of my footsteps inside the poorly insulated halls and the faint smell of age and dust that brings me right back to the halls of Harvard. There’s comfort in that. Like Christian’s reassurances this morning, it reminds me who I am and why I’m here.

“Last chance,” Woods says, a slightly teasing tone in his voice as his hand pauses on the handle of the door to the GSP lobby.

I smile and reach up to touch his arm. “Awh, there’s no reason to be nervous, Woods. I’m going to be with you the whole day. Everyone is going to love you.”

He laughs, then pulls open the door, and I walk up to the receptionist feeling the levity of my joke propelling me forward. “Good morning.”

“Mrs. Grey,” the petite redhead behind the counter greets me. “Welcome to Greenwich Small Press.”

“Thank you. Penny, right?”

“Uh, yeah.” She looks taken aback. “I’m surprised you remembered.”

“I try.” I smile, then wait as she picks up the receiver to her phone.

“Mr. Wallace, Mrs. Grey has arrived. Yes, sir.” She hangs up and turns back me. “Can I take your coffee order now, Mrs. Grey? I’ll be going out around 09:30.”

“Coffee order?”

“Mr. Wallace isn’t partial to brewed coffee, he has me make a Starbucks run every morning before his afternoon meetings.”

“Does he?”

“Yes, ma’am. He says this country runs on caffeine. I’d be happy to pick something up for you as well.”

“Thank you, Penny, but I don’t think that…”

“Anastasia!” a voice interrupts me from across the room. I turn and see Scott Wallace approaching, a grin stretched wide across his face and his hand held out for mine. “Welcome to Greenwich.”

“Thank you, Scott,” I reply, accepting his handshake. Once he releases me, he reaches into his jacket, pulls out his wallet, and takes out a twenty.

“Grab me some lunch on your way back, sweetheart,” he says to Penny. “I expect our department meeting will go long this afternoon and I’m going to need to eat by eleven if I’m going to meet my protein macros today.”

Sweetheart?

“Yes, Mr. Wallace.”

“And, no gluten.”  

“No, sir.”

“You’re a doll, Penny. You’re a doll.” He winks at her, making a clicking sound with his cheek as he points at her with his fingers in the shape of a pistol. She blushes and quickly settles back into her chair, but I don’t think the flush in her cheeks is from bashfulness. I think it’s embarrassment, or maybe anger she’s unable to express to a superior.

“You know, Scott,” I say defensively. “I’d really prefer our receptionist not spend any unnecessary time away from her desk. Her job is to answer the phones and to greet anyone who comes through that door. It seems to me running errands to coffee shops prevents her from doing that.”

He gives me a placating smile. “We’re not a busy office, Ana. We don’t have many appointments, and the phones hardly ever ring.” I raise an eyebrow and, as if in direct contradiction to what he just told me, a call comes through the phone on Penny’s desk. She smirks as she picks it up and I look back at Scott.

“Perhaps it would be better if your PA took care of your errands from here on out.”

His face falls. “My PA has her hands full with actual work, Anastasia, reviewing submissions for my approval. I know you’re new here, so perhaps you don’t understand how much is about to fall onto your plate, but I assure you, having Penny run down the street for a coffee and a cobb salad is a much better use of company resources.”

“Mr. Wallace,” Penny interrupts. “Ms. Gallagher is on line one for you.”

“I’ll take it in my office,” he says, then looks back to me. “I’m sorry, I’ll take it in Ana’s office.”

He turns and disappears into the back office I had my interview in, while I sigh and face the receptionist again. “Penny, this is Evan Woods, my personal security. Will you help find a place for him?”

“Of course, Mrs. Grey.”

“And Woods, I hate to ask but would you mind running down the block to Starbucks when it’s time? I’d really prefer reception not be left uncovered.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Thank you.” Penny gets up to show Woods to an empty desk near the back office, and I take  the opportunity alone to get acquainted with the office. The open floor space is covered with small clusters of desks that belong to each department – the editors, agents, creative team, marketing and advertising, and web design. I saunter between each division, trying to subtly observe my new employees at work without disturbing them, until Wallace finally pokes his head out of the back office.

“Ana.” It’s a summons, so I excuse myself from the introductions I’d been making with Mrs. Thompson, the head of HR, and make my way back to him. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to have you here,” he says, as he closes the door behind us. “This travelling back and forth from New York twice a week is killing me.”

“Well, I’m excited to get started.”

“Good, have a seat.” There’s a small sofa and coffee table to the right of the desk that he gestures for, so I settle down on the leather cushion and wait expectantly. He picks up a sheet of paper from the printer, which looks as though it may also serve as a fax machine, and places it on the table in front of me.

“Carmen just sent this over for you,” he explains. “It’s a non-compete agreement.”

“Non-compete?”

“It simply states that if you choose to resign, you will not take employment with one of our competitors or start a competing business, nor will you disclose any confidential information about company practices to any other players in the industry.”

“You mean to say that it’s a contract to prevent me from stealing all of your trade secrets and taking them to Grey Publishing.”

“I’m afraid Ms. Gallagher insists. She’s asked to have this document faxed back to her the moment you’ve signed.”

“So, I can assume she won’t be making a trip to Seattle any time soon?”

“GSP is more of a side line for Gallagher Industries, so Carmen tends to be fairly hands off. I’ll be your main point of contact until you get on your feet here, then you’ll mostly be on your own.”

“I see.” I reach over to pick up the document he’s brought to me and begin to read. It looks fairly standard, almost identical to the non-disclosure agreement I signed for my internship at GEH two summers ago, except for the restriction on taking other employment in the industry or starting a competing publishing house of my own. I see the merit in that. Greenwich is making a huge gamble by hiring someone who has such close ties to their largest industry competitor, no matter how qualified I am. And since I really do want to launch my career separate from my husband’s name and company, it’s not necessarily that which gives me pause. What keeps me from simply scrolling my signature across the line on the bottom of the page is my currently unpublished manuscript. I have no idea how that will play into my responsibilities to Greenwich under this contract, and I’m not prepared to sign the rights to my own work away without even having the choice to review my options.

“One moment please.” I stand and go to the door, then call for Woods to join us in the office. Scott looks slightly perplexed as to what I’m doing, but I keep my attention focused on my CPO to keep arguments and questions at a minimum.

“Yes, Mrs. Grey?”

“I’m going to need my lawyer to look over this,” I tell him, holding out the non-compete agreement. “Would you please get a copy of this to Astor Harrington and let him know that it’s urgent. I’ll need it back as soon as possible.”

“Uh, Ana, this isn’t really negotiable,” Scott says. “I need a signature on that document or there’s nothing more we can do here.”

“Then this should have been sent to me last week when I signed the rest of my contracts.” He blinks as Woods pulls the non-compete from my hands and turns back towards reception. I watch him hand the document to Penny and when she gets up to place it in the fax machine, Woods pulls out his cell phone to make a call.

“Well,” I say, turning back to Scott. “Since this means we won’t be able to go over our current workload, I suggest we take the time to discuss expectations. Tell me what I need to know to succeed here.”

He sighs in frustration, but nods and moves across the couch to make room for me. We spend a good hour and a half discussing the structure of the company and how our roles play together. While he’ll be here help me get settled in and ease my transition with our employees, he really is just my New York counterpart. I’ll report directly to Carmen Gallagher, though he’s clear that I shouldn’t involve our CEO unless “the place is burning down.”

“I have utter confidence that you’re going to navigate your way through this position flawlessly, Anastasia. But I’ve been here a long time. If you have questions or need to talk something out, call me. If we can’t figure it out together, then we’ll talk to Carmen.”

I nod. “Okay.”

“Mr. Wallace,” Penny says, knocking on the office door and poking her head inside. “They’re ready for you in the conference room.”

“Have we received Mrs. Grey’s non-compete yet?” Scott asks.

“Mr. Harrington is holding on line one.”

“Thank you, Penny.” I get up, move to the desk that’s now mine, and pick up the receiver, but I don’t actually answer the holding call until Scott has left the room with our receptionist. Once the door is closed, I push my finger into the button next to the blinking light.

“Hi, Astor. Sorry to keep you waiting.”

“No problem, Ana. I looked the agreement over and it seems fairly standard. I wouldn’t caution against you signing it.”

“Would this have any affect on my work independent from GSP? I have a novel that’s finished but unpublished and I’m not sure I’m willing to limit my distribution rights to Greenwich. I’ve previously worked for large publishers and I don’t believe GSP has the production capability I would expect.”

“I’d feel comfortable defending your rights to pursue outside opportunities for publishing under this contract,” he says. “But if you’d like me to draft an addendum making those rights clear, I’d be more than happy to do so.”

“That’s alright. If your comfortable, I’m comfortable.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence. Make sure they send me a copy of the agreement once you’ve signed. I want the signed version on file should any issues arise.”

“Will do. Thank you, Astor.”

“My pleasure, Ana. Have a good afternoon.”

“You too, bye.” I hang up, feeling a little more confident, and head out into the main office. Several faces have disappeared, assumedly for the meeting Scott is attending. I pick up the satchel bag Christian gifted to me before my interview from Wood’s desk, remove my laptop so I can take notes, and then make my way up to reception.

“Penny, did Woods give you a fax number for Mr. Harrington?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good.” I pick up the non-compete agreement from her desk, sign the line next to the one that already bears Carmen’s signature, and hand it back to her. “Will you please send this to Ms. Gallagher and Mr. Harrington as soon as possible.”

“Of course, Mrs. Grey.” She takes the paper from me and goes to the fax machine, and I turn back for the conference room for my first official meetings as head of this branch.

Despite the fact that the meeting has started by the time I enter the room, it doesn’t appear that I’ve missed much. Scott is distracted, typing on his phone, while Mrs. Thompson shares baby pictures she received in her email this morning from an employee who is currently out on maternity leave. I apologize for being late, open my laptop on the table, and wait expectantly, but the casual chatter around the table has stopped now that I’m seated at the table and the other department heads look at each other uncertainly.

“Alright,”  Scott says, setting his phone on the table. “First thing’s first. Team, this is Anastasia Grey. I’m sure you’re aware, but she’s been brought on to head this branch going forward.”

“And in six months we’ll all get pink slips and our authors will be sold to Grey Publishing,” someone across from me hisses. I glance up from my laptop and notice a few agreeing nods around the table that take me a little by surprise.

“Today,” Scott continues, ignoring the remark but speaking more firmly, “is her first day. So, let’s get her up to speed. Stevens, since you’re so eager for attention this morning, why don’t we start with you?”

The man across the table, who had interrupted him earlier, stiffens and hastily reaches for the papers in front of him. I start at him, feeling conflicted. Should I have addressed what he just said? Christian would have… wouldn’t he?

“Okay,” Stevens begins. “Brooks has decided on EHar-Money: The Business of Online Dating for his title on the examination of the internet dating industry, so that’s finally going to the printers the afternoon. We’re on schedule for a May 1st publication. We’ve got Angela Rowe’s contract in the can, so Mrs. Weatherbaffle’s Wishing Tree is going into the first round of editing this week. And we’ve got the numbers in for Pineheart’s latest mystery. They’re not as strong as his previous titles, but I’m not worried yet.”

“Fine,” Scott says. “Keep an eye on Pineheart. I’m sure Mrs. Grey here will want another review of his numbers before we option his next book.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Can I just…” I hold up a finger at Scott and turn a confused look on Stevens. “I’m sorry, I just want to make sure I understand our frontlist here… Your currently representing a non-fiction title, a children’s book, and a crime drama?”

“Yes, Mrs. Grey.”

I frown. “Is that common? That you all work with authors in multiple genres?”

“Yeah,” Stevens replies. “Genre plays very little into our process here. Once our agents find a manuscript their interested in, they’ll send it to you, you’ll approve it for representation and have a contract drafted. Then it’s given to one of us.”

“At random?”

“There’s an order,” a woman a few spots down clarifies. “The agents are on a rotation, and submissions get assigned as the come in. Once the contract is signed, whichever one of us is available takes it.”

I frown. At SIP, our copy and acquisition editors were divided into departments based on the genres they felt passionate about – fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, high fantasy, sci-fi… It’s how we ensured each author had absolutely the best person available to help them through their journey. I wouldn’t expect someone with a thirst for horror stories to provide the same level of dedication they’d give to Stephen King as they would someone like Danielle Steel.

“I suppose I just don’t understand why we would take the stance that any of us are better serving an author at random than we would when their work was hand selected based on mutual interest in the subject matter.”

“It’s how we keep the workload even,” Scott answers. “We find an agent’s time is the most valuable asset they can give to an author and that’s impossible if they’re juggling a disproportionate amount of titles compared to the rest of their department.”

“It’s called teamwork, Mrs. Grey,” someone says from the other side of the table, as if they expect I’ve never heard the word before. I narrow my eyes.

“Right. I just hadn’t considered we were dealing with volume so high that the number of hours we have to spend with each of our authors has been commoditized. Personally, I think I’d trade quantity for quality any day.”

The room falls silent and every pair of eyes around the table turns to Scott. He smiles, but his fingertips are white against the table. “Of course, we do the best with what we have, Ana. But as the number of titles being self-published rises and saturates the market, we’re forced to keep up. We’re a business, first and foremost.”

“And wouldn’t it be better for business if we were publishing ten titles that sold 50,000 copies instead of 100 titles that sold 1,000?”

“It would. And that’s why you’re here, Ana. You’ve got your eyes set on the great white whale, go reel him in.” While encouraging on the surface, I can tell that his words are a placation. A way to get me to drop it. But I shouldn’t. I won’t. This isn’t a disagreement over whether or not the receptionist should be used to run personal errands, this is high level, business strategy. And while I’m not going to compromise when the numbers clearly show his model is failing, this is not a debate I intend to have with Scott in front of every department head before I’ve even earned their trust.

So instead, I spend the rest of the meeting trying to get everything on the frontlist down. What we’ve signed, what’s currently out to print, and what we’re actively searching out for future publication. It seems our bottom line this year is relying heavily on the work of one author, who has proven successful to GSP in the past, and a hail mary that we haven’t even discovered yet. That’s the note Scott leaves the group with, to get all of their best manuscripts to me for review so I can approve GSP’s next best seller. Then he dismisses everyone and reaches out the door to take the lunch Woods brought back for him before he has the same meeting again, on video conference, with the New York branch.

With Scott out of commission for the next few hours, there’s nothing for me to really do but go back to my office and begin sorting through the submissions the agents on staff immediately begin to flood my inbox with. It’s adequate to fill the rest of my afternoon, and a good chunk of my week for that matter, but as I skim through the best of the best that we currently have in the pipeline, I can’t find a single sample that I would even want to request more pages of. There’s a lack of vision. Direction. And as I reply ‘no’ to the eighth first chapter I’ve read, I remember that all of that falls to me now. I am now responsible for every piece of literature this publishing house produces going forward. Gallagher, Wallace… they’re expecting me to work miracles to get them back to the top of the Seattle publishing food chain, but with what I’m being given, not even a miracle is going to be able to save us.

“Mrs. Grey?” I turn in the direction of the voice and look down at the speaker on my phone.

“Yes, Penny?”

“There’s a Miss Palermo here to see you.”

“Here?”

“Yes, ma’am. Should I tell her you’re unavailable?”

“No. No, send her back.” I give a cursory glance over my desk, racking my brain for something I might have forgotten that would be urgent enough for my literary agent to track me down at work, then stand and straighten my skirt as my door opens.

“Greenwich Small Press?” Lydia demands the moment she steps into my office. Small. Press?! This is what you’ve put your next book on hold for, Anastasia? For this I turned away Random House?”

“That’s right. So if you’re here to harass me for chapters, you’ve wasted a trip.”

She sighs. “Not entirely. While I was hoping I’d get here and be able to talk some sense into you, I mostly stopped by to give you this. It arrived for you at my office on Friday.”

She holds out a manila envelope, which I take with a real degree of confusion until I rip away the seal and pull out a manuscript with a note taped to the front.

 

Dear Ms. Steele,

Thank you again for giving me the courage to achieve this dream that I never knew I had. Because of you, I’ve finally found who I’m meant to be. This novel is dedicated to you.

Hailey Lewis

 

The girl I met at my book signing. I asked her to send her manuscript to my agent so I could look over it and give her my feedback.

“Oh, great. Thank you, Lydia.”

She waves me off. “No thank you necessary. A copy of your manuscript is plenty thanks enough.” She holds out her hand expectantly, like I would be able to materialize a printed copy of my draft out of thin air even if I did want to give it to her. My expression twists with irritation.

“Like I said, you’re wasting your time. My second title is on hold until I’m ready to share it with the world. I’m not going to be pressured into publishing any sooner than that.”

She deflates. “Fine. Call me when that happens. In the meantime, if there’s anything you need, let me know.”

“I wouldn’t say no if you wanted to some authors my way.”

“Greenwich Small Press, Anastasia.” She grimaces. “What about your experience with me leads you to believe I do anything small?”

I smile and shake my head. “Goodbye, Lydia.”

“Goodbye, Anastasia. I hope you find whatever it is that will make you publish soon. I’ve been eyeing a condo in the Dominican Republic and I need your commission checks to get me there. You’re gonna be big!”

She waves over her shoulder as she saunters out of my office, and I roll my eyes before collapsing back into my chair. The manuscript she left feels meaty, too much so for me to start while I’ve still got an inbox full of submissions to wade through, so I slip it into my bag and half forget it’s there as I settle in and turn my attention back to my work. Work that feels as impossible as the search for the holy grail.

Next Chapter

Chapter 10

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After making up with Christian, I have an entire week without any nightmares. Some nights, I don’t dream at all. Others I spend with him. In Paris. At the tiny cabin we shared in Vermont. Even just in our own bed. For hours and hours, I have him in my arms, on top of me, inside of me, and there isn’t anything or anyone to distract us or to take him away from me. On Saturday, I enjoy a particularly vivid dream of him massaging me under the hot sun on the beach we stayed at in the Maldives, which is perhaps why I don’t immediately wake when his lips begin to softly caress my throat.

“Ana,” he whispers longingly, and finally my eyes flutter open.

“Mmm. Good morning.”

“You have no idea.” He reaches down to pull me into him and I smile as I feel his erection press into my backside.

“That gives me a pretty good clue.” I turn in this arms, immediately attacking his lips, and he’s there to meet me. His hands roam my body, like he simply can’t touch enough of me. He pushes his body against mine, like he can’t be close enough to me. His tongue moves with mine, like he can’t get enough of the way I taste.

His passion is so overwhelming, I have to pull away just so I can breathe. But that doesn’t stop him. His lips move down, his teeth scraping against my jaw before he once again begins kissing and sucking the sensitive skin over my throat. I pant with want. His desire bleeds into mine, forcing heat to flood down between my legs, where it pools and begins to burn. A fire that only he can extinguish.

“Christian, please,” I moan.

“Wait,” he growls back. He nips me, hard enough that I let out a whimper of pain, but the hurt is immediately soothed away by his tongue washing over my skin. He starts to suck again, harder this time, more purposefully, and I gasp.

“Wait. Christian. You’re going to give me hickeys.”

“Good. I like you marked.”

“The baby shower is today!” He bites me again, telling me he doesn’t care, and while at first I’m a little incensed, the fight quickly drains out of me when his hand slides up under my t-shirt and his expert fingers begin toying with my nipples. Once again, the lust flames to life between my legs and nothing else in the world matters.

My back arches up off the bed, pressing my breasts into his palms, but it’s not enough for him. With a hungry snarl, he peels the t-shirt, his t-shirt, that I wore to bed over my head, then rolls over on top of me. The feel of his heat and of his skin on mine only heightens the already potent sensation until my skin becomes so overly sensitive to his touch that each brush of his fingers sends an electric jolt of pleasure through me so intense that I feel singed. I want him. Now. Hard. As deep as he can possibly reach. But he’s in no hurry. His weight presses into me, holding me down, keeping me still, while his lips move back to mine and his hands continue their lascivious exploration of the rest of my body.

“Christian, please,” I whine again. “Touch me. I need you to touch me.”

“Where?”

“You know where.”

“Here?” He drags the back of his fingers over the curve of my neck, making me shiver with pleasure. Only, not the kind of pleasure I’m desperate for.

“No.”

“Here?” His hand moves down and he cups my breasts again. Rougher this time. His fingers dig into my flesh, deep enough that he’ll mark me there too, but the gratification I derive from the domination is not enough to slake my need for him.

“No.”

“Mmm,” he hums, satisfied by the tormented plea in my voice. “Here?”

His hands move down between my legs and, gently, he swipes his finger over my clit through the thin layer of my panties. I shudder.

“Yesssss. More!”

“Not a fucking chance.” With barbaric strength and speed, his hand disappears and finds its way to my wrist. He moves both of my arms over my head, secures them with his left hand, and lays down over the top of me again. With his legs, he forces my thighs open as wide as they can reach and then pins them in place with his knees. His hold is sure, and I’m not strong enough to move him. I’m helpless and he knows it.

His hand reaches down between my legs again.

“No…” With the same soft touch, his finger once again moves over that sensitive bundle of nerves, contrasting starkly with the harsh way he’s holding me down. “Christian!”

“What?”

“Fuck me!”

“Oh no, baby. You don’t want it bad enough yet.” He kisses me again, though not in the gentle way he did before. I know my lips will be swollen by the time he’s finished and it makes what he’s doing to me over my panties feel like torture. Delicious torture that he drags out until my entire body is trembling and covered in sweat.

“Oh god, yes…” I moan, when I feel the early hints of an impending orgasm blooming deep inside of me.

“Don’t come in your panties, Anastasia.”

“Why?”

“You come for my cock or you come for my mouth, nothing else. Do you understand me?”

“Then fuck me, Christian!”

He leans forward and speaks so softly that I wouldn’t be able to hear him if his lips were pressed directly into my ear. “Beg me.”

“Please,” I whimper back. “Please, Christian. I need you.”

“Who do you belong to, Anastasia?”

“You. Only you. I’m yours.”

“I love you.” His teeth sink into the lobe of my ear and he pulls harshly, not releasing me until I gasp. “Remember that.”

I don’t have time to respond before he pulls away, and sits up, towering over me. He stops playing with me, but his hands don’t leave my panties. Instead, his fingers curl beneath the lace until he has fabric bunched up in each of his fists and he yanks, shredding my panties down the middle. Once he’s released them, they hang in tatters around my legs, but I’m exposed now. Ready for him.

He moves down, positing himself between my legs until his mouth is mere centimeters from where I need him most, but he doesn’t touch me. He just looks at me, surveying me as though what lies before him is his most treasured possession. It’s unbelievably erotic and my clit twitches under his piercing gaze.

“So pink,” he growls. “Swollen. Wet. Hungry for my cock.”

“Yes!”

His lips part and he moves closer. I feel his breath wash over me, but he still doesn’t make contact. He moves all around me, near enough that I can sense the movement. I want to buck my hips up, push into his lips and search out his oh so talented tongue, but I’m paralyzed beneath him. No longer because he holds me down, but because I know this is how he wants me. And with the promise of what’s to come, I’d do anything to give him what he wants.

Slowly, he inches into me until his lips are just barely pressed against my entrance. “Come, Anastasia.”

The tiny hint of movement of his mouth against my clit is all I need. My orgasm rips through me and at long last, I’m rewarded with his tongue. With every pull of his lips, he drains me, and every pass of his tongue keeps me soaring. The pleasure is so intense that my vision goes dark and my entire body quakes in time with every pulse reverberating out from my center. It goes on and on. By the time the I start to come down, I’m hoarse from screaming his name.

“That’s it, baby.” He pulls away, then grabs me by the hips and flips me onto my stomach. So smoothly that it feels like one motion, he pulls my hips into the air and slams inside of me, and the moment he invades me, I come again. My insides grip him with every thrust, drawing him in deeper.

“You’re. So. Wet.” He pulls his hand away from my hip and brings it down hard on my behind. I let out a primal scream in response.

“More,” I beg, and he delivers. Again and again until it’s too much for me to take anymore. It’s a limit I don’t have to verbalize. He knows, because he knows my body better than I do. His hand slides over my back and into my hair, which he takes in his fist to use as leverage as he continues pounding into me. The pain that he pulls from the roots of my hair is the perfect contrast to the pleasure he draws out from inside of me, until eventually, it’s not a contrast at all. It all melds into one, into pleasure, that threatens to overwhelm and consume me.

“Christian! Christian, I can’t… You’re going to m-make me… I can’t.”

“Save it for me,” he commands. “I’m almost there. Save it for me.”

He’s close. I feel that now, in the tightening of his fingers against my hip and in the urgency of his thrusts. I’m going to make him come. Why is it that the knowledge of his impending orgasm seems to intensify the urgency of mine? Is it the thought of him spilling himself inside of me, leaving behind the evidence of our love making? Is it the confirmation that I do to him everything that he does to me? I can’t be sure, but the proof of his pleasure has me quickly spiraling back into the fiery depths of unrelenting indulgence and passion that I can only ever find with him. The fuse is lit, and now, inch by inch, I watch what’s left of my control burn away until I explode.

“Fuck, Ana!” Christian cries out. And with one, two, three more thrusts, he comes. Garbled versions of my name, peppered with a few choice expletives, bubble from his lips with every ripple I feel against my insides, until he stills and collapses down over the top of me.

Our breathing is harsh, uneven and out of sync. For a long, drawn out moment, he doesn’t move, and while his broad, muscular frame is overwhelming and slightly too heavy for me to bear, there’s a comfort to his weight. Like a hot mug of tea on a stormy night or coming home after too much time away.

“I love you,” he whispers at last. He leaves soft kisses against the back of my shoulder, a change from the rough way he handled me only moments ago. It makes my entire body hum with contentment, and when I start to move beneath him, trying to press as much of my body into his as is possible, he lifts himself just enough so that he can flip me back onto my back and kiss my lips again. I wrap my legs around him, and he reaches down to brush his fingertips over my skin, starting from my knee and working his way up, but when he touches my still sore backside, I hiss slightly.

“Are you okay?” he checks.

“Yeah, just a little tender.”  

He smiles and caresses the tip of my nose with his. “Tender, huh?”

“Mhm. Your handiwork is going to stay with me all day, Mr. Grey. You should be proud of yourself.”

“Oh, I am.” He looks down over my naked body and his grin broadens. “Very proud.”

I laugh, then reach up to run my hand through his hair, soaking in his good mood. But just as he leans down to kiss me again, we hear the first cries of our waking daughter sound through the baby monitor on the nightstand. He deflates, which only makes me giggle harder.

“I’ve got it,” I tell him, pushing against his broad shoulders in an attempt to roll him off of me, but he shakes his head.

“No, you stay right here. Relax. Go take a shower. I’ll get her up and we’ll meet you downstairs.”

“Okay.” I nod and beam up at him. He places once last kiss against my lips and then climbs out of bed, pulling a pair of workout shorts from his top drawer before hurrying out the door. I stretch out over the sheets, reveling in the feeling of complete and absolute relaxation and in the smell of his skin that still clings to mine. But as I start arguing with myself about getting out of bed to take a shower, I hear Christian’s voice come through the baby monitor. So, I pause and listen to him with our daughter.

“Good morning, Princess,” he greets her.

“Dada,” Calliope replies, her voice still thick with the tears she used to summon him. There’s a groan as, I presume, he lowers the bars of her crib and lifts her into his arms. She makes all her normal babbling sounds as he finds something for her to wear and moves her onto the changing table, and I listen to his enraptured responses to complete nonsense for several seconds. But Gail isn’t here today, which means our breakfast will be up to me, so I can only linger for a moment before I really do need to get up and get ready for the day.

With a sigh, I roll out of bed and step onto the heated floors that lead me into the bathroom. Despite our early morning activities, my eyelids are still heavy from too little sleep, so I rub the backs of my fingers over them while I reach into our shower and twist the knob for the hot water. But when I look into the mirror over the sinks, and my vision begins to adjust, I notice that my throat and my breasts are both covered in deep red splotches, some of them almost purple. A closer look reveals that most of the marks are accompanied with the imprints of teeth and my mouth drops open in shock.

Hickeys.

He actually gave me hickeys, like we’re sixteen years old or something. That’s what his very proud comment was about, and his smug smile. He said he liked me marked, and here I am looking like a freaking leopard. All thanks to Christian Grey.

Gritting my teeth, I step into the shower and begin to scrub my skin with the raw sea sponge resting on the metal rack set in the slate tile. It doesn’t do anything, obviously, so once I’m cleaned and dried, I have to start applying concealer from my chest up. It takes me double the time to get ready than it normally would with all the blending I have to do to try and make the extra makeup look natural, and even after I’ve done everything I know how to do, I can still see the shadows of Christian’s love bites all over my skin.

I sigh and glare at my reflection in the mirror. Of course he does this on a day that I’m hosting a house full of people. He’s going to pay for this.  

Oh, ho, ho is he going to pay for this.

With one last sweep of my brush through my hair, I leave the bathroom and head downstairs where Christian has Calliope set up in her highchair with the banana and greek yogurt puree that Gail made and left in jars for the weekend. He looks up at me as I enter, and must immediately understand what makes me glare at him, because he smiles.

“How was your shower?”

“Oh, great!” I reply, sarcastically. “Real great.”

He laughs and dips the color changing plastic spoon in his hand back into the jar. But when he holds it out for Calliope, she smacks it with the back of her hand, sending banana mush all over him.

“No, Dada. Mama!” Calliope protests. Christian blinks through the food splattered across his face and I struggle so hard not to laugh at him that I end up snorting over the cup of coffee I’ve poured. He turns to look at me, incensed. I shrug.

“Karma.”

He shakes his head, then gets up to take the kitchen towel I offer him, and while he cleans up, I move toward my impatient baby.

“Good morning, munchkin! How is my favorite baby in the whole wide world this morning?”

“Mama!”

I smile, then kiss each of her cheeks before grabbing onto her high chair and dragging her over to the kitchen island. I make sure to say, ‘weeeeeeee’ as I move her, so that she’s not scared by the scraping noise her chair makes on the tile floor. But she’s much too brave to let something as trivial as a loud noise scare her. When I stop and sit at the barstool to continue feeding her, she’s lost to a fit of giggles.

“Was that fun?” Christian asks, his eyes twinkling. She shrieks and reaches out for him.

“Dada! Dada!”

“You’re up,” I tell him, setting the spoon back down on the tray of her high chair and moving around the counter to start getting ingredients out of the fridge. But as he passes me to return to our daughter, his arm hooks around my waist and he pulls me into him so that he can whisper in my ear.

“The makeup is no use, Anastasia. I still know they’re there.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I take the towel out of his hands and, once he releases me, snap it against his behind. He flinches and looks back at me, indignant, but I simply give him a completely unapologetic look and get to work making breakfast.

“What time does everyone get here today?” he asks.

“One. But the caterers will be here around noon and I’ve got a ton of decorating to do.”

“Mhm.” He’s looking back at Calliope, eyes wide with interest, following her every movement, until my phone rings on the island and he reaches over to read the name across the screen.

“Kate?” I ask. He shakes his head and rolls his eyes as he slides my phone across the counter to me.

“Sawyer.”

“Luke? Why is he calling me?” I glance down and see that it is indeed his name splayed out across my caller ID and then answer. “Hello?”

“Riddle me this, Batman. Why is my girlfriend coming to your house this afternoon?”

“What?”

“Jade. Why did she just get out of my bed to go get in the shower so she can get ready to go hang out with you?”

“Oh, Kate’s baby shower is today.”

“And?”

“And, I invited her.”

“How did you even get her number?”

I roll my eyes, despite the knowledge that he can’t see me. “Christian isn’t the only one who has access to Jason Taylor.”

“Ana!”

“What?”

“I thought we agreed that we would do this at my pace?”

“No, we agreed that I wouldn’t pressure you for information and that you could open up to me at your own pace. And I only agreed to that because I knew I could circumvent you by just getting everything from her.”

“Ana!”

“We’re going to be best friends. Deal with it.”

“I’m going to murder you. In cold blood. I hope you’re prepared for that.”

“Awh, I love you too. Feel free to come by. Elliot and Christian are staying so you won’t be the only guy.”

“Why do you do this to me?”

“Because I’m your best friend. Bye, Luke.”

“I hate you.”

I hang up the phone, grinning to myself, and turn to scoop Christian’s omelet out of the skillet, but when I turn to give it to him, he’s frowning at me.

“What was that about?”

“Oh, nothing. I invited Jade to Kate’s baby shower so she and I can get to know each other and he’s not very happy about it.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s afraid that after years of making fun of me for how obsessed I am with you, I’m going to find out that he’s just as much of a softy underneath that security robot exterior as I am.”

“Mmm,” Christian says, less interested now as he turns his attention back to feeding Calliope. “Women will do that to you.”

“Women?” I raise an eyebrow at him. “Just women?”

His eyes twinkle and the corner of his mouth ticks up into a lopsided, but undeniably sexy smirk. “The ones who are worth it.”

It takes all morning, but by the time I’m finished, my living room has been transformed into a living, breathing Pinterest board. I decided not to go the traditional pink route, like Kate did for my baby shower. Instead, I’ve chosen a Breakfast at Tiffany’s theme to commemorate all the Saturdays she and I spent watching that movie together.

The tables are all draped in white or robin’s-egg-blue, and the treats I’ve set out for our guests are all laid over shiny, platinum trays. For food, I’ve forgone the tea sandwiches and fancy h’orderves, and instead laid out a spread of all of Kate’s pregnancy cravings. It’s a strange mix with a serving dish full of pickles, a tray of french fries, soft pretzels and jalapeno cheese dip, mozzarella sticks, a whole bowl of fresh pineapple, and every kind of chocolate I could get my hands on. Grace’s country club friends might not approve but I really wanted this day to be about Kate. She’s been such an amazing friend to me through the years, through thick and thin. She deserves the world.

In the center of the foyer, there is large, round table, covered in a floor length white tablecloth. On top of it is a beautiful arrangement of favors for each and every one of Kate’s guests. A platinum pendant with Baby Grey inscribed into the metal, hanging from a slender white gold chain, each wrapped in the tell-tale blue tiffany box and tied up with thick white bow.

“It’s beautiful,” Christian says, wrapping his arms around me from behind. “She’s going to love it.”

“I think so too,” I reply, giddy with anticipation. I spin in his arms and kiss him as a way of expressing all of my gratitude for his help this morning, but our lips only just touch when the doorbell rings. “That’s probably Kate.”

He sighs and reluctantly lets me go.

Kate looks stunning, dressed in a floor length white dress that hangs loosely off her shoulders but hugs the curve of her baby bump perfectly. Her hair is curled and fitted with a crown of flowers that make her look like mother earth incarnate.

“Katie,” I gasp.

She blushes. “Is it too much?”

“Of course not. You look gorgeous!”

“Okay, good. Because I really, really love it.” We laugh and I step aside to let her through the door. Elliot follows after her, holding his arms out and spinning as he comes through the doorway, then stopping and looking expectantly at me.

“Well?” He’s dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, which is very out of place next to Kate’s nearly regal look, but the expectation in his eyes makes me laugh.

“Very handsome.”

“Thanks, Ana. I know, I know, it’s not kosher to outshine the mother of my child at her own baby shower, but what can I say? You just can’t tone down this level of attractive.”

“Attractive,” Christian snorts. Elliot narrows his eyes at him.

“Yeah, attractive. More so than any other man in this family. Especially those within close proximity to where we are now. Right now. Here. In this house.”

Kate rolls her eyes. “I feel like this conversation is not about me right now and today is my day. So, if you two will excuse us, my best friend and I are going to go enjoy my baby shower.”

Our baby shower,” Elliot calls after her, but she ignores him and instead tugs me towards the living room.

I feel a deep rooted sense of satisfaction when I see how happy she is with everything I’ve set up for her. Her eyes swim with tears when she sees the favors, she squeals with glee at the silver letter balloons that spell out ‘Welcome Baby Grey’ against the back wall of the living room, and her eyes grow wide when she sees the food spread out on the table.

“Oh my god,” she says, immediately picking up one of the tiffany colored paper plates and loading it with mozzarella sticks. “This is amazing!”

“I tried to get all of your favorites. I hope you’re hungry.”

“Hungry? Ana, I’m telling you… I have no idea how you stayed so cute and small when you were pregnant with Calliope. I have not been able to stop eating since I hit 35 weeks.”

“Well, I didn’t make it to 35 weeks, so that could be why.”

She freezes, mozzarella stick in midair. I raise an eyebrow, wondering if I was wrong and she’s gotten over the cheese and fried food craving, but then, out of nowhere, her face crinkles and she dissolves into tears.

“Oh, Kate!”

“I-I’m sorry,” she sobs. “Here I am, h-having a completely h-healthy pregnancy after everyth-hing you went through and I’m just rubbing it in your face!”

“Oh, no. Katie, you don’t have to apologize! I’m so happy that your pregnancy has gone so well. Why on earth would I want anything else?”

“Because you didn’t get a choice. Because you almost lost everything and I’m— What an insensitive thing to s-say!”

“No, Kate.” I frown and reach out for her, not sure if trying to comfort her is working or just making her cry harder.

“I’ve got it,” Elliot interrupts, taking Kate into his arms. She buries her face into him and begins to tremble, but he doesn’t seem concerned. He simply holds her and brushes his hand through her hair. “Shhh. You’re okay. We’re all fine.”

“No we’re not, because I’m a big, pregnant mess and I’m ruining the shower that Ana worked so hard to put together for me.”

“You’re not ruining anything, baby Nothing ever could. You know why?”

“Because we’re having a baby.”

“Because we’re having a baby. In only four short weeks, she’s going to be here and you and I are going to be parents. Home stretch.”

She sniffs and nods, then pulls away and lets him wipe the moisture from under her eyes. “I love you,” she says.

“Not as much as I love you.”

“Ana? Christian?” Grace’s voice echoes through the hall and we all turn back to the entryway. As fast as they came, the tears pass and Kate’s face breaks into a smile. She kisses Elliot on the cheek and hurries away from him to bask in Grace’s congratulations.

Elliot sighs. “That happens about three times a day now. Her hormones are crazy out of whack.”

“Oh, god,” I say, my lower lip jutting out as I turn to watch Kate and Grace hug. “Poor thing. I’m so glad I never went through that.”

“Excuse me?” Christian says. I turn and raise an eyebrow in his direction, but his assertion is just as strong in his eyes as it was in his voice.

“I never went through that!”

“Oh yes you did. You nearly ripped my head off one day because you asked me to bring you fruit snacks and I brought you back an apple. And every single time that insurance commercial came on where the soldier comes home and buys a house with his family, all thanks to USAA, you bawled your eyes out.”

“My dad was at war!” I say defensively. “And who the hell mistakes fruit snacks for actual fruit?”

He laughs. “You’re right, maybe it wasn’t pregnancy hormones.”

I glare at him, but when he reaches out with his arm, drapes it over my shoulder, and pulls me into him, my irritation vanishes in favor of warm contentment. Which, after what I just witnessed Kate go through, might actually be just further supporting Christian’s argument.

“There she is!” Grace coos, stepping over to the playpen holding the baby. Calliope’s face lights up.

“Gigi! Gigi!”

“That’s right, baby! Grandma’s here!” Grace snuggles her tightly into her chest and then walks over to Kate looking absolutely elated. “And to think, in just a few weeks we’re going to have two of these precious little angels. Oh, my heart is just so full for both of you.”

“I’m a little wary of how well Calliope is going to take to the baby,” Elliot says. “I think she likes being the only grandchild.”

“Well, she’s just going to have to get over that,” Grace says. “Once she has a little brother or sister she’ll have to share everything, even Daddy and Mommy.” She leans into Calliope to kiss her cheeks, but Christian looks over at me like his mother just said something that might signal she’s developing the early stages of dementia, which Kate misreads.

“Why are you looking at her like that? You’re hiding something. Oh my god! Is Ana pregnant?”

“No!” Christian says, a little too strongly. “No, we’re done. We have Calliope and she is perfect and wonderful, but she’s enough.”

“What!” Grace exclaims, turning a horrifying look on me. “Ana, you have to want another one.”

“Uh…” Thankfully, I’m saved from having to make permanent, life altering declarations under the piercing gaze of my mother-in-law because the door bells rings. With an apologetic smile, I excuse myself and make my way to the front entryway, but when I open the door, I find only a giant bouquet of balloons.

“Um… hello?”

“Happy baby shower day!” My dad’s girlfriend pokes her head out from around the balloons and beams at me. My stomach falls, but I fight to keep the reaction off my face as I reluctantly accept her hug.

“Hey, Kim. Where’s dad?”

“Oh, he’s still back with the car. Kate’s parents arrived at the same time we did, and they got caught up talking. I just wanted to get these gifts out of the rain.”

“Right. Well… come on in.” I smile, hoping it’s not a grimace, and step aside to let her through. She immediately reaches up to grab her chest when she sees the decorations, like they’ve actually taken her breath away.

“Is it my mom?” Kate asks, coming in from the living room.

“Not quite,” Kim says, and she rushes forward to wrap Kate in her arms with the same enthusiasm she just showed me. “Oh, congratulations, sweetheart.”

“Thank you, Kim. Did you see the favors Ana got? They’re amazing! Here, take one!” Kate picks up a box from the arrangement and hands one to Kim. She gives me a wary look before lifting the cardboard lid, and once she sees what’s inside, her mouth drops open.

“Anastasia! This is far too extravagant, you can’t just be giving these away!”

I’m taken aback, and it’s clear on my face. “Kate is my best friend. No, she’s my sister. There is nothing too extravagant to celebrate the birth of her first child.”

“Spending more money does not make memories more valuable, Ana.” Her tone is chastising, and I immediately go from surprised to pissed.

“Oh, I am fully….”

“Kim!” Christian comes in from the living room, smiling at Kim and holding his arms out for her. They hug, which irritates me both because she irritates me, and because Christian doesn’t hug anyone.

“Christian, how are you dear?”

“We’re very well, thank you. Where’s Ray?”

“Oh, he’ll be along in a minute. He’s outside with the Kavanaghs.”

Kate perks up. “My parents are outside?”

Kim nods, then hurries through the still open front door and out into the light drizzle of rain. Grace enters from the living room, my baby still held steadily in her arms, which draws Kim away, and Christian crosses the open foyer to pull me into him. It’s an innocent hug at first, a show of warm affection punctuated by a soft kiss on my cheek. But then his lips move up to my ear.

“Today is not the day you start a war with Kim,” he warns me. “Today is about Kate.”

My shoulders slump, but I nod. He kisses me again and then perks up to greet whoever is coming up the walkway behind me.

“Ray,” he calls, reaching out for a handshake. “How are you?”

“I’m doing great, son. How are—“ I turn, my sour mood with Kim forgotten the moment I hear my father’s voice, but when he sees me, his words cut off and the broad, welcoming smile on his face falls. His hand tightens too much around Christian’s as his eyes narrow in on my throat.

“Hey, Daddy.”

“Ana.” Quick and concise, and his gaze doesn’t move up to meet mine. I swallow, push through the awkward air hanging between the three of us, and hug him, worried at first he might rebuff me in favor of one of his famous, overly stern lectures. But he doesn’t. His arms open and he folds me into him, holding me tight against his chest while his palm smooths over the back of my hair.

“How are you doing, baby girl?” he asks, when I pull away. The softness has returned to his voice, but his eyes continue to glance down at the skin just above the neckline of my dress.

“Much better.”

“No nightmares?”

I swallow, feeling my cheeks pink as I recall the images that have replaced Andrew Lincoln in my dreams over the last week. The same images that led to the hickeys he won’t stop looking at.

“Nope. It’s been a good week.”

“Good, I’m glad. When do you start your new job?”

“Monday. Christian took me to tour the GEH daycare center this week. We’ll be sending Calliope with Kensie everyday so she gets one-on-one attention, and he’s got top tier childhood development educators and a full time nurse on staff. All of that, mixed with the fact that I’ll only be 3 ½ blocks away from her at all times has finally given me peace about this decision.”

“I’m glad. I know it’s hard to let go but you getting out there, doing what you’re good at, and being successful at it is going to do so much for Calliope. You’re going to make her proud.”

I smile. “I hope so.”

“You’ve made me proud.” I blush again, and my dad pulls me back into his embrace, telling me how much he’s missed me in the last few weeks as he squeezes the breath out of me. When he releases me though, he once again looks down at the concealer covering my skin and his jaw tightens.

“Christian,” he says, a dismissal, and then follows the rest of our guests back into the living room. I turn to face my husband, my eyes bearing into him like daggers.

He snorts, and reaches up with his hand to hide his laughter from me. I smack him across the arm, refusing to laugh with him no matter how difficult it is to hold it down.

“You. Are. In. So. Much. Trouble.” I say, each word punctuated by the slap of my palm over one of his bulking biceps or across his solid chest. He flinches away from me, more to mock me than to actually attempt avoiding my hands, and laughs as I chase him into the living room.

Over the next thirty minutes, my house fills with guests. Girls from Kate’s office, her aunts and grandmother, Grace’s friends, Mia, and finally, Luke and Jade. The moment I open the door and see them standing there, I push past my best friend and wrap his girl tightly in my arms.

“Hi, Jade!” I say excitedly. “I’m so glad you could make it.”

“Of course. Thank you for the invitation.”

“Oh, please. Luke is my family, which means you are too. Come in, come in! Everyone is in the living room, we’re just about to start games. Oh, and don’t forget to grab a box from the table.”

She looks past me to see what’s left of the Tiffany’s boxes, smiles, and then tries to maintain composure as she rushes forward towards the table. I bite my lip, feeling a warm rush that this is going really well, until I turn back to Luke. He reaches out, handing me a pink, glittery gift bag, and glares at me.

“Hey, buddy!” I say, clapping him on the shoulder.

“I’m watching you, Steele.” He lifts his hand to his face, two fingers pointing at his eyes, and then turns them around on me before pointing towards the living room. It’s a warning, and a dismissal. I roll my eyes, but turn back to Jade rather than argue with him.

“Ana, these are so pretty!” she says, pulling the silver chain from the box. “I’ve never… uh, I’ve never owned anything from Tiffany’s before.”

I lean in, almost conspiratorially. “Before I met Christian, the only jewelry I owned came from Claire’s.”

She giggles nervously, so I hook my arm through hers and smile. “Come on, let’s go make Kate do a bunch of embarrassing stuff in front of all her friends and family.”

“If we must,” she says. There’s a sigh behind us as I tug her into the living room, followed by Luke’s dejected footfalls. He hovers at the back of the room with Christian and Elliot while I bring Jade to the front with me and pull out or first game. It’s sort of like a take on Never Have I Ever, except that each guest gets a paddle with Kate’s name on one side and Elliot’s on the other. The game is to determine which of them will better fit the description of each topic, like, ‘who will be the disciplinarian’ or ‘who will ignore bedtime when the other parent isn’t home.’ Kate and Elliot’s answers end up being the most fun, because they hardly ever agree, except when it comes to rule breaking. By the end of the game, Kate’s decided that she’ll never be able to leave Elliot alone with her child, because their house will just devolve into anarchical chaos.

After games, we move on to gifts, and I dutifully sit next to Kate’s side, writing down everything she opens and who gave them to her.

“Okay, hand me Ana’s!” she says, reaching out for the square white box wrapped in a pale pink bow.

“Ana’s?” Christian says, as Mrs. Kavanagh hands her daughter the package. “What about me?”

Kate’s eyes narrow. “I’ll give you $100 if you can tell me what’s in this box right now.”

Christian frowns, his eyes narrowing in on the gift before he eventually shakes his head. I giggle and then move a little closer to Kate as she starts to unravel the ribbon and reaches inside.

Her eyes widen. “Oh, Ana.”

With careful fingers, she reaches into the box and pulls out the hand painted musical jewelry box that I had custom made just for my goddaughter. The pearly white box rests on feet made of 24k gold, which also hugs the edges of each of the four corners and surrounds the hinged lid. All four sides are painted with cream colored roses and violets, resting on vines of dark green foliage. Purple and blue butterflies flit whimsically between the blossoms and at the very top, there is another butterfly crafted in three dimensions with stained glass that catches the light. On the inside, dancing proudly over a bed of baby pink satin, a hand painted ballerina twirls to the tinkling notes of Tchaikovsky’s, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. And there, resting in the felt inserts, is a strand of perfect pearls that I hope one day she might wear for her graduation or maybe her wedding.

“Oh, Ana,” Kate breathes. “This is so beautiful. Thank you so much!”

“You’re welcome,” I say, smiling and reaching out to hold her hand. But she doesn’t reach back for me. She stares down at the ballerina, turning gracefully around and around, until her smile disappears and she once again breaks down in tears.

“Katie!” I exclaim, moving closer, but it’s still only Elliot who can comfort her. He barrels forward, lifts the music box from her hands, sets it to the side, and pulls her into him.

“Did you see it?” she sobs into his t-shirt. “It’s s-s-so beautiful.”

“Yeah, I saw it, baby. It’s very pretty.” He glances down at me before drawing in a deep breath and patting her gently on the back. I laugh softly to myself, but reach up to rub my hand gently over the small of Kate’s back, before gathering her gifts together and encouraging her guests to try one of the sinful chocolate cupcakes we’d ordered from Kate’s favorite bakery in downtown Seattle.

With everyone talking amongst themselves and enjoying dessert, I finally have time to make conversation with Jade. And it doesn’t take long for me to discover how she broke through Luke’s walls and touched his heart. She’s amazing. She’s funny and down to earth, and there’s something about her smile and the warmth in her eyes that draws you in. I learn that she’s from a small town in Washington, similar to me only from the east side of the state instead of the west. She studied public relations at WSU and is currently working for an event planner in downtown Seattle.

“You’ll have to give me your card,” I offer. “Christian hosts events all the time for GEH and I’m sure I will too now that I’m heading back into the workforce.”

“Really? Oh, great!” She reaches into her purse to fish out her wallet, but as she hands her card to me, I’m distracted by Grace shouting from across the room.

“Christian! Christian!” She waves her arms frantically, desperate to get her son’s attention, and when I follow her gaze I see why. Calliope has spent most of the party on her play mat, next to Grace, but she’s pulled herself up with the help of the coffee table and is now taking her first tentative steps towards the music box on the side table next to the chair Kate had been sitting in.

“She’s walking!” I shriek. Christian sets his drink on the counter and crosses the room, reaching her in the blink of an eye. He crouches down several feet in front of her and holds out his hands.

“Come here, Princess. Come to Daddy.”

She makes a small, giggly sound and changes course, taking two more steps in Christian’s direction before she starts to wobble and loses her balance. Christian scoops her up just before she falls and swings her into the air. The pride that reflects in his eyes in that moment, nearly brings tears to mine.

“You did it!” I say happily, brushing my hand over Jade’s arm as a way of excusing myself and hurrying over to my daughter. “Oh my god, she’s walking!”

Christian pulls her down onto his hip and kisses her entire face before handing her over to me. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to speak with Taylor about the new security precautions we’re going to have to put in place now that she’s mobile. This house is a death trap.”

I roll my eyes, but don’t stop him. I pull Calliope into me and celebrate with her until it’s necessary for me to pass her off to my father so that he can shower her with praise too.

“Ana?” a small voice calls from behind me, and I turn to see Mia looking at me cautiously. Unlike the rest of our family, she’s not beaming with celebration and it immediately has me on guard.

“What’s wrong?”

“Can I talk to you for a second?” She leans around and looks at her mom. “In private?”

I nod, and gesture for the hallway, then lead her to my office at the back of the house. Once the door is closed, she takes a seat in one of the pretty padded chairs by the window, and I follow after her.

“Everything okay?” I check.

She shakes her head. “I don’t know. I might just be paranoid… there shouldn’t be anymore to worry about…”

“Tell me what happened.”

She swallows. “Do you remember that girl? The one who… the one who worked with me at Elena’s club? Gresham’s girl.”

“Yeah, uh… Alexis, right? Alexis Young?”

Mia nods. “I saw her.”

“What do you mean you saw her?”

“It’s happened a couple times. I saw her at the mall when I was with Tibby last week. I saw her at a gas station when I stopped to get gas on my way to school. And today, she was at the store I went into to buy Kate’s shower gift.”

My brow furrows, but she continues before I can respond.

“That’s fine, right? I mean, those were all public places. She had just as much right to be there as I did. Maybe she knows someone who is having a baby too. And everyone needs to fill up their gas tanks every now and then. I shouldn’t be… worried. Should I?”

“No,” I tell her after a long pause. “No, I don’t want you to be worried. You’re right, it could be a coincidence. But I’m going to find out, okay?”

“I think it’s nothing. Like I said before, just paranoia, but I don’t want to make the same mistakes I made in the past.”

I nod and wrap her in a hug. “But we’re going to make sure. Thank you for telling me, Mia.”

Next Chapter

 

Updates

update2b

Happy Sunday!

I’ve been on vacation this week and didn’t quite get enough writing time in to finish this week’s update in time to have it up by Monday. I will not be taking a whole week though. I’m shooting to have this update posted on Wednesday and will continue on the following Monday.

I’m truly sorry that I’m late this week, but I hope this lighter chapter will be worth the wait.

Also, if you haven’t subscribed for email updates, now would be a great time to do so!!

And yes, even at Disneyland, I was still wishingmrgreywashere

xoxo

Tara

 

Chapter 09

fifty-shades-freed-1511912606

Carter blinks, seemingly confused by my question, which is weird because the last time we had regular contact with each other, he was lamenting over the fact that he’d been waitlisted for Harvard Law and how doubtful it seemed that his status would change before the start of term. But here he is, books in hand and the tell-tale signs of exhaustion darkening the skin beneath his eyes.

“What do you mean, ‘what am I doing here’?” he asks. “I go to school here. What are you doing here?”

“Oh, we uh… we’re here with Mia. She got in for next year and it’s orientation weekend.”

“Grey’s sister? Didn’t she want to be a singer or… actress or something?”

“Ballet dancer. But she decided she wants to study law instead, so here we are. And you… I didn’t know that you got off the wait list. That’s amazing! Come here.” I hold out my arms to hug him, and while he does step into my embrace, I note that he’s being overly cautious. Maybe that’s because he has some unresolved feelings over his break up with Kate that are now too much to ignore in the absence of a mad man threatening my life. Or maybe, it’s because I haven’t called him since he was released from the hospital in Georgia. A hospital he was only in because of a great personal sacrifice he made to protect me and my family.

“I’m sorry I haven’t called,” I say, pulling away from him. But he shakes his head dismissively.

“Don’t be. I get it.” He pauses, and the air between us is suddenly ladened with the unspoken events of the past. His hand twitches, almost as though he wants to reach out for me, but thinks better of it almost immediately. “When I heard about what happened to you… I called Kate to try and see how you were doing. She said it was pretty bad.”

“It was, at first. But some time has passed and… We’re moving on. We’re good. Fine.” I force a smile, and he nods.

“Good. I’m really glad to hear that. Do you wanna… get a coffee or something? Catch up?”

“Yeah, I do, but… I’ve gotta get back to my sister before she thinks I abandoned her. Do you want to come over tonight for dinner or something?”

“Come over? You still have your house here?”

“Yeah. We knew we’d back fairly often and the property value is good, so Christian just decided to keep it. It’s pretty empty and boring though, so you’d actually be doing me a huge favor by coming over and keeping me company. I don’t know that I can handle losing another game of Monopoly to anyone named Grey.”

“Yeah, losing out to a Grey sucks.” He laughs, and while I can hear the good humor in his voice, his words make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. My smile falters and, instinctively, Luke steps closer to me. I try to subtly bat him away and laugh.

“So, I’ll see you tonight? I can order in from that sub place you like. What is it called? Al’s?”

“That’s the place. You bring the food, I’ll bring the beer.”

“Best idea I’ve heard all day. Seven o’clock?”

“I’ll be there.”

“Good.” I lean in and give him one last hug before he straightens the books in his arms and continues on up the walkway, towards the parking lot behind the main law building.

“I saw that,” Luke says once we’re alone, and I swallow the growing lump in my throat

“I know.”

“So, what? He’s next on the list now?”

I gnaw on my bottom lip, staring for a long minute in the direction Carter disappeared, contemplating. I haven’t had any questions about anyone Luke and I have dealt with so far. It’s all come so naturally that it’s almost felt like acting on instinct. But as I stand there, repeating Carter’s words in my head over and over again, analyzing them, I feel torn for the very first time.

‘Yeah, losing out to a Grey sucks.’

Is that threatening? Does that mean he’s holding a grudge? Does he blame Elliot or Christian for losing Kate and me and he’s angrier about it than he let on when he came to Seattle after our wedding? I noticed he was awkward when I tried to hug him earlier, maybe I was right. Maybe, now that I’m not being stalked by a man actively trying to kidnap me anymore, he doesn’t have to push his hurt feelings aside for the greater good and can instead let them fester in the resentment that is undoubtedly made worse by the fact that I never even called to check on him after we left Atlanta…

Or maybe, it was just a joke.

“Ana?”

“I don’t know,” I admit. “But he’s coming over tonight. So we’ll see.”

Luke sighs and reaches out to rub my shoulders. “For what it’s worth… I wouldn’t have called Kate to check on you if I was holding any resentment strong enough to make me want to hurt you or your family.”

“And I probably wouldn’t give someone I wanted dead a liver either, but Gia offered.” I turn to look at Luke and swallow. “And Kommer used to drive all way into Boston at two o’clock in the morning to buy the fruit snacks that I liked because the store in Cambridge was closed and I was having a craving. People lie, Luke. Everyone lies. The bad ones and the good ones. Christian lies. And now, so do we.”

“You’re doing it to protect your family. And Christian… he does shady shit sometimes but you know that he means well.”

“We all do. For someone.” Luke’s mouth drops open like he’s going to argue, but suddenly can’t find the words, so I brush him off and take the handle of Calliope’s stroller out of his hands. “Come on, Mia is going to wonder where we are.”

Mia doesn’t answer her phone when I call from the car, trying to figure out where she’s at, so we decide to start at the Old Yard and work out from there. Thankfully, the sheer number of dorms there are to showcase for the incoming freshman means we arrive right at the end of the tour, just as Mia’s group is exiting Grays Hall. I wave at her as she descends the stairs at the middle entrance and try to gauge her excitement, but she’s playing it very cool. I suspect she wants to appear mature and reserved in front of her future classmates, but, just like her brother, it takes me only seconds to find the excited twinkle in her eyes.

“Well?” I ask, handing her a water bottle from the pocket beneath Calliope’s stroller. “How was it?”

“Grays is definitely the best. I can see why you and Christian picked it. It seems less crowded, and it’s definitely the most updated… but if you get a room on the wrong side of the hall, you won’t get that perfect view of the yard. Christian didn’t have a view, right? But maybe that was because he was by himself. I’ll definitely need a roommate… I wonder if that’s something you can request?”

She continues on and on about her future plans for living in Grays Hall as we follow the group away from the dormitories, and listening to her is exactly like listening to Kate five years ago. I can feel the same excited energy radiating off of her that I felt then and, for just one minute, I’m a little jealous of her. Harvard was the greatest, most transformative experience I ever had, except maybe motherhood, and despite how glad I was to finally have the endless nights of studying and brutal weeks of tests and papers behind me when it was all over, I now kind of wish I had just one more year. Except I wouldn’t go through those long months without Christian again for anything in the world. Not even Harvard.

There’s a break in the day’s activities for lunch, which we’ll be having at Annenberg Dining Hall to give the students and parents both a sample of campus cuisine. It’s weird how, years later, they’re still serving the exact same food, right down to the decorations on the little pudding cups at the dessert station. Mia doesn’t know well enough to stay away from the main dishes at the entree station, which are served in mass, but rather than warn her away, I decide its best she learn through trail by fire, just like we all had to. And it’s a little satisfying to watch her wrinkle her nose over her lemon chicken pasta, while I enjoy the salad I made myself at the salad bar.

“I’m going to starve!” she complains, and I giggle but shake my head.

“It’s not all bad. You’ll learn quick what’s good and what to avoid. If it’s hot and comes out of a big metal dish, you don’t want it. But breakfast is good, and so is the soup. And if you go to the deli and get the thin sliced bread, instead of the thick stuff they have behind the grill, you can get a decent grilled cheese sandwich.”

She grimaces and pushes her pasta around with her fork. “I can’t believe Christian actually used to eat here. He’s pickier than I am.”

“He didn’t come because of the food,” I tell her and when she looks up, I wink. “He came for me.”

Luke shakes his head and lets his silverware clink down on top of his plate. “I need you to repeat what you just said to yourself and think very carefully about the way you phrased that.”

I laugh, but Mia tears the corner off the crusty bread on the side of her plate and tosses it at him. “You have a dirty mind.”

“Oh, my sweet summer child…”

“Game of Thrones?” I interject. “And you say I’m the nerd!”

“Game of Thrones is quite possibly the best television show ever created, it’s not nerdy.”

“Meh. The books were better.”

“And that’s why you’re the nerd” I push him, hard enough that he’s knocked slightly off balance and has to catch his weight on the bench, but when he sits up we both devolve into laughter until a beet red Mia threatens to leave and never speak to either of us again. Luke seems fine with that, but I quickly pull it together and hiss for him to knock it off.

“Alright, everyone!” our tour guide says brightly, getting up from her seat at the table where she has been getting grilled by parents for the better part of the last hour. “It’s time we go meet with your academic advisors and get signed up for classes! Who’s excited?”

She gets several responses with varying degrees of enthusiasm as everyone clears their lunch trays and gathers together again. But when Mia gets up from the table, she turns and knocks fairly hard into Calliope’s stroller, jolting her, and causing her to wake. Immediately, she screams. I try to calm her by pulling her from the stroller and holding her close to me, bouncing her, rocking her back and forth, even offering her the pacifier Christian has been adamant she can only have at night. Nothing works. Her gurgly screams echo through the cavernous hall, disturbing the students and drowning out whatever our guide is trying to say. I get several dirty looks from other parents, even a few from the people in Mia’s group, so as we make our way outside, I reach out for Mia’s hand and pull her back so we can talk privately.

“I think we’re going to go.”

“What? No! You can’t go. This is the part that actually matters.”

“I know. But you’re going to have an advisor, Mia. They can help you better that I ever could. Trust me, you’re in good hands.”

“I don’t want to do this by myself.”

Calliope starts digging her fingers into the side of my face, wailing and demanding my attention. “I’m sorry, Mia.”

Her face falls, but she nods. “Alright. I’ll call you when we’re done?”

“Yeah, and text me to let me know how everything goes.” She smiles in agreement and tries to kiss Calliope, but my very red faced baby dodges her and buries her face into my shoulder where she continues to sob and drench my t-shirt in her tears. I give Mia an awkward side hug while Luke wishes her good luck, and then we hurry away back towards the parking lot where we’ve left the car.

It takes some borderline professional level wrestling moves to get Callie back into her car seat and a two ibuprofen I wash down with warm water to get us back to the house. Once we’re inside, I immediately lay her blanket down over the floor so I can change her, but she continues to fight me the entire time.

“Come on, Calli-lilly,” I practically beg as I try to pull a t-shirt down over her head. “Work with me here.”

“No!” she screams. “No! No! No!”

“What do you mean, no? You can’t be a nakie baby!”

“No!” I see the small movement of her mouth that tells me she’s about to start crying again, so I give up. I wad up the shirt and little stretch pants I planned to dress her in and shove them unceremoniously back in her diaper bag. And she revels in her victory. The little monster even has the audacity to giggle at me.

“Oh you think it’s funny?” I ask, tickling her sides. She smiles and cringes away from me, giggling more as I brush the tips of my fingers over her skin. Luke shakes his head.

“Sometimes I think that she’s Grey’s kid, through and through. But then she does something to remind me that she is, in fact, 50% you.”

“What do you mean?”

“She’s stubborn and impossible, but then one little smile and all is forgiven.”

“Awh!” I pout my lips at him, but he quickly rolls his eyes before looking back down at Callie and grinning.

“Hey, I got bad news for you, kid. I’m a monster. And I’m gonna get you!” She shrieks as he launches himself from the rocking chair and crawls away from him, and I lie down on the hardwood floor to watch, grateful for a little break. She loves being chased around, and Luke happily gives her what she wants for the better part of an hour. When he’s finally exhausted, Calliope is back to my playful, happy little baby, and she stays that way for the rest of the evening. She doesn’t put up a fight when I feed her or give her a bath later, and as seven o’clock rolls around, she sits quietly in my lap, listening to the story I read to her, until the doorbell rings. Luke gets up to answer it, but she turns wide eyes to me.

“Dada?”

“No, baby. Daddy’s at work.”

“No dada.” The disappointment is clear on her face as she snuggles into me, but Luke opens the door to let in Carter, so I simply cuddle her, rather than try to console her.

“Hey,” he greets us with a broad grin, holding up two six packs of ‘Gansett. “Am I too early?”

“Not at all.” I smile back, then look down at Calliope. “You ready for bed, munchkin?” She doesn’t reply, choosing instead to further bury her face into my t-shirt. So I tighten my hold on her and get out of the rocking chair. The closer I get to Carter, the more she tries to retreat into me.

“Can you say hi?” I ask in an encouraging voice. “Hi, Carter. Hi.”

She mumbles something into my shirt, which I think is mama, so simply hug her and give Carter an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, she’s not usually this shy.”

“That’s okay, we just met. Her name was… um…”

“Calliope.”

“Right.” He smiles and then leans in close to her, trying to get her to look at him. “Hey, Calliope. My name is Carter. I’m a friend of your mom’s.”

Again, she doesn’t respond. I try to shift her so she can’t hide her face against me, but as she moves, she shrieks and throws her body into me, nearly causing me to drop her.

“And that is when I can tell she’s Grey’s kid,” Luke interrupts with a laugh. “She hates Reed.”

Thankfully, Carter laughs too, before breaking off one of the white and red cans in his hand and tossing it Luke. They begin to talk casually with one another, catching up, so I ask Luke to order dinner and then take the opportunity to disappear back upstairs where I can put Calliope down for the night. She’s not keen to let me leave her alone in the room, but after softly singing her a few of her favorite lullabies, she drifts off enough that I can sneak out into the hallway without her making a fuss. By the time I get downstairs, the food has arrived and most of the first six pack Carter brought is gone.

“You have to go pick up Mia,” I warn Luke, narrowing my eyes at the can of beer in his hand.

“It’s not me,” he replies, and I follow my eyes to the two empties sitting on the floor by Carter.

“Hey, I’m just getting a head start,” he says. “Catch up to me, Steele.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. It’s been a long time since I’ve had anything but a glass of wine with dinner. I think it’s safe to say I’ve lost all of my tolerance for alcohol.” I pop the tab on top of the beer can and take my first sip, surprised by how familiar it tastes despite the fact that I haven’t had a cold ‘Gansett since probably my junior year.

“Mmm,” I hum. “Memories.”

“Or the lack of,” Carter laughs. He lifts his can and after tapping the tip of mine against his, we both laugh and drink again.

It doesn’t take long for me to catch him up on everything that’s happened in my life since we last saw each other. I purposefully avoid the topic of Andrew Lincoln, but since that’s really what my entire life has been about over the last six months, I mostly have to talk about Christian and Calliope. There’s a weird moment where he tells me that the last he heard, Calliope had died when I was in labor and he only found out that wasn’t true when he came to warn me about the phone call he’d gotten from Lincoln on what turned out to be my wedding night.

“I really feel like I haven’t thanked you enough for what you did,” I tell him, but he brushes me off.

“Don’t worry about it. Seriously, I know you would have done the same for me.”

I nod. “I would. I was worried that after you and Kate broke up that you’d just kind of fade out of our lives. I’m glad we can still be friends.”

“Me too. How is Kate, anyway? I haven’t heard from her since… you know. After it happened.”

“Oh. Well, she and Elliot supposedly got married.”

“Supposedly?”

I roll my eyes. “They eloped. Went to Vegas, didn’t invite me. Her driver’s license may say ‘Grey’ now, but I refuse to acknowledge the validity of their marriage until I get a damn bridesmaid’s dress.”

“She’s being serious,” Luke says. “Grey has even suggested they do a vow renewal just so Ana will stop complaining about it.”

I turn to glare at him. “You can’t have a vow renewal if you’ve never been married, Lucas.”

He shakes his head. “You see what I mean. I’m just waiting for the day when Ana tries to make a joke about how their baby is a bastard and Kate whacks her upside the head.”

“I would never say something like that!” I say indignantly, but he seems less intimidated and more like he’s trying desperately to stop himself from smiling.

“Why? Because… Calliope is… well… you know.” I reach over to find something to throw at him, and, rather than help me, Carter just looks over at me, confused.

“Kate had a baby?”

“Oh, not yet,” I tell him. “But soon. She’s due April 14th.”

“Wow. So… he really did give her every thing she wanted.” The atmosphere of the room shifts as his words echo through the room and an uncomfortable quiet falls over us. I notice Luke glance over at me out of the corner of my eye, but before I can say anything, we’re interrupted by the shrill ring of my cellphone from the other room.

“I’m sorry, that might be Christian. Hold on.” After untangling my legs and getting up off the floor, I prepare myself to tell Christian I can’t continue our fight from earlier this afternoon because I’m too busy entertaining Carter Reed, which would probably result in him magically showing up here in a seemingly impossible amount of time, but when I get to my phone, it’s not his number I see. It’s Mia’s. And while part of me is relieved, a bigger part is a little upset that Christian hasn’t called me back to talk through our fight this afternoon. It’s not like him to leave things awkward and unresolved between us.

Mia’s ready for Luke to come pick her up, so he ducks out, promising to be right back, while I settle back down on the floor across from Carter. He’s still a little off about the whole Kate revelation thing, so I nervously drag my finger over the lip of my beer can and look up at him.

“Are you okay?” I ask. “About… you know, everything that happened. I know that it was hard for you with Christian and I, and now Kate and Elliot…”

“I’m fine, Ana.”

“You’re sure? No hard feelings?”

He shakes his head. “No. Maybe at first, but not anymore. I think that I’ve had enough time to think about it to realize that… if Kate had accepted my proposal and we’d gotten married, neither one of us would have been happy. I mean, she wouldn’t stay here. You were moving away and she had that job offer from her dad. She was always going to have to go back to Seattle and that’s not what I wanted. I wanted to be here. And as much as they drive me crazy, I don’t think I’d want to settle down and start a family so far from my parents. She’d never agree to leave hers. That fight would have never ended and eventually, we’d grow to resent each other and blame each other for everything we missed out on in life. I would have been her biggest mistake, and she would have been mine. In a way, the time we spent together was perfect. Exactly what is was meant to be. Now, I can think back on what we had together and be happy about what we shared instead of letting all those great memories be ruined and tainted because we didn’t let go when we should have.”

I smile and let myself relax into the wall at my back. “Yeah. God, you’re so different.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the Carter Reed I knew was always more concerned about his beer pong record than doing serious introspection on his life. You never made plans past what you were doing that weekend, let alone consider what was going to make you happy long term.”

He laughs. “Yeah, well maybe law school does that to you. Or maybe it was getting waitlisted. I’d never been told no before and, honestly, if your husband hadn’t stepped in, I wouldn’t be here right now. That hit a little close to home.”

“What do you mean?”

“Let’s just say I wasn’t next on the waitlist. My dad nearly disowned me.”

“No, about Christian… What do you mean he stepped in?”

He raises an eyebrow at me. “He got me in. When I came to talk to him about that phone call last summer, he told me that if I was really there to help him, he wanted to help me. He offered me a job first, but when I turned it down, he said he’d get me into Harvard Law. I thought after what happened to your mom that he’d take it back but he didn’t. He made all the calls and worked whatever magic he had to work and now, here I am.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah, I might have been wrong about him. He’s a good guy, your husband. And if I had to lose you to anyone, I’m glad it’s someone like him.”

“Someone like him?”

“Well, I’m never actually going to say I’m glad he stole my girlfriend in college. I’m forgiving, but I’m not a saint.” I laugh, and he reaches over to get us both another beer. From then on, it’s easy to talk to him. I can see just how much he’s grown up this year and I have to say that I’m impressed. He tells me about school and how he thinks he’s going to pull away from the corporate law path his dad wants him on and look into environmental law. Something about a case he read in class involving loggers and indigenous animals really struck a chord with him, and I can hear his passion when he tells me about all the things he can do to help the cause once he graduates. He’s even nearly quit drinking. He’s put all of his energy into being the top of his class, just like Kate. It’s a change, hearing him so dedicated to something that didn’t involve a keg or a bunch of girls bikini tops. He has a whole new lease on life and hearing the ease with which he credits Christian not only calms my nerves, but it makes me really excited for him. Carter is a good guy and I feel in the deepest parts of my soul that we’ll have nothing to worry about from him. Only years of meaningful friendship.

Luke and Mia return about thirty minutes later, but while Mia heads straight upstairs to call her parents, Luke stays behind to hang out a little while longer. Except, a little while kind of turns into a long while. Carter leaves at around eleven and only then because Luke reminds me we have an early morning flight to catch. I hug him goodbye at the door, tell him to stay in touch, and then make him promise he’ll look after my little sister next year. He agrees with a laugh, and then shakes Luke’s hand before he finally turns to go. Then we lock up the house, say goodnight, and head off to our separate rooms.

I’ve been waiting for Christian’s call for the last few hours, but it hasn’t come. Even if we are fighting, I expected him to call when he woke up this morning. I have Calliope with me after all. The fact that he didn’t makes me uneasy, so I decide to bite the bullet and be the first to break our silent cold war. But he doesn’t pick up. The phone rings twice and goes to voicemail.

He’s in meetings, Ana. And he’s with Taylor. He’s fine.

Calliope is sleeping peacefully in her pack n’ play and her small, delicate features look angelic in the muted light. It’s too much to resist. I quickly take a picture, but I don’t send it to our whole family like I normally would. I just send it to Christian, hoping to bait him into a response, even if it’s just a text. Minutes pass though and nothing. I think briefly of slipping into the bathroom and snapping a nude in the mirror, knowing that wouldn’t go unanswered, but that’s not productive either. I’m still mad about what happened and I don’t want him to think he’s just off the hook. Maybe I don’t need to scream at him like I really wanted to this afternoon, maybe I don’t need to call him all the hateful names I now regret even thinking earlier… but I do want to discuss how he hurt me, hear him validate those feelings, and to apologize. If we don’t talk about it, I’ll never know that it won’t happen again. And if I don’t trust him not to interfere with my career, every single victory or defeat I experience from this moment forward is always going to leave me with questions.

So I take my phone into bed with me, convinced he’ll call me once he’s finished with whatever he’s doing. Every few seconds, I tap the screen of my phone to check for missed calls for text messages, but there’s nothing. I fall asleep with nothing.

***

It’s chaos getting ready and out the door in time for our flight the next morning. Somehow, Mia has lost a shoe and she tears through everything trying to find it. She’s made it very clear that she has no intention of leaving this house until it’s packed safely in her bag, so Luke helps her look. Meanwhile, I sit on the floor downstairs with Calliope in my lap, trying to feed her a jar of mashed pears, which she refuses over and over again.

“Dada,” she whines.

“I know, baby. I miss him too. But we’re going to see him tonight, I promise. Just eat for me, please.”

“No, dada! Dada!”

Sighing in defeat, I reach for my phone on the other side of the blanket and try to call Christian again, this time on FaceTime so Calliope can associate his voice with his face. But once again, he doesn’t pick up and the understanding side of me that tried to excuse his rejection yesterday dissipates under the weight of my anguished cries. He has no right to be upset with me. This fight is his fault, and he shouldn’t be ignoring me. Especially when I have his daughter.

“Found it,” Luke says, coming down the stairs. “It was already in her bag, can you believe that?

“You don’t say,” I reply sourly, and he frowns.

“You ready?”

“Yeah. Callie won’t eat so we’ll have to try once we get to the airport.”

“A hungry, cranky baby on a plane? What could possibly go wrong?”

I glare at him, then gather everything I can reach and start stuffing Calliope’s diaper bag so we can go. It’s unorganized and anything I need will undoubtedly be impossible to find, but that’s a problem for future Ana to deal with.

We barely get out the door on time and Luke has to race down the freeway so we’re not late. Thankfully, it’s Sunday, so traffic is fairly light, but the airport itself is packed. There’s a line to return our rental car, there’s a line to wait for the shuttle to the terminal, and there is a line in front of every ticket kiosk at the Delta counter. I fidget uncomfortably with Calliope in my arms, while she points at any man in a suit who passes us, asking for Christian, until I finally am able to insert my credit card in the machine to print out my ticket. And after all of that, a message pops up that tells me I need to speak with a Delta employee.

“You have got to be kidding me!” I exclaim in frustration, and when Mia gets the same message that I did, she shrugs and reaches out to place a comforting hand on my arm.

“Hey, maybe Christian called and got us upgraded.”

“Yeah. Maybe.”

We gather all of our luggage together and tell Mia to wait with Calliope while Luke and I go to the counter to figure out what’s going on. Unfortunately, it’s not an upgrade at all. Our flight home was overbooked and we’ve been bumped to a different flight later in the afternoon. I argue. I ask to speak to a supervisor, and then that person’s supervisor. I even drop Christian’s name and threaten to get the company’s CEO involved, but all to no avail. By the time I speak to anyone who has the authority to help us, the doors have been closed and the plane has left the gate.

“So what do we do?” Luke asks.

“Nothing,” Mia grumbles. “We already gave up our car, its not like we can go anywhere.”

“Let’s just go wait at the gate. There’s food inside and if Calliope will eat, maybe I can do a few laps around the airport with her in the stroller and get her to fall asleep before we finally get on a plane. If we ever get on a plane.”

“Alright,” Luke says. “Lets go.”

Once we get past security, we find our gate and then search out something to eat for breakfast. Unfortunately, the only place in our terminal is a sports bar type restaurant that only serves greasy food and plays Red Sox baseball on the TV. Luke’s game though, and Mia makes it clear that she will very happily go ham on some fries, so I wait for the waitress to take our order and then duck into the Hudson News directly across from us to buy a banana for Calliope. It’s actually the first thing this morning that seems to work out. Luke is content to watch sports and drink Bloody Mary’s, Mia snaps a picture of her food to post on PixC and then calls Tibby to recount every second of her weekend, and hunger has finally won out enough for Calliope to actually want to eat the banana I offer her. Only, she doesn’t want to just take a bite off the end. She wants to hold it. But when I break off the tip and hand it to her, she squishes it in her hand and wipes it all over herself. Then she looks down at the mess and starts to cry again.

“Well, you see, that’s what happens!” I say irritably, picking up a cloth napkin from the table and wiping her down as best I can. Mia fishes out an new shirt we can change her into from the diaper bag, but as I get up to take her to the bathroom, Luke’s phone rings and it diverts my attention.

“Taylor?” I ask. He shakes his head and holds up a finger. Mia gets up and offers to change Calliope, and though I let her, I quickly regret that decision when I realize the phone call Luke takes has nothing to do with Christian.

“Hey, baby,” he says. “We got bumped from our flight, so we’ll be a few hours late. You should just wait for me at home. I’ll make Ana drive me back when we land. Oh, it was fine. How about you? What did you do this weekend?”

I slump back into my chair and feel an unpleasant mixture of irritation and jealousy as I listen to Luke’s phone call. Jade is seemingly very interested in Luke’s trip and wants to talk to him so badly, she won’t let him end the call. I can’t even get Christian to answer the phone.

“Everything alright?” Mia asks, as she sets a now clean Calliope back into the high chair pushed up to the table.

“Yeah, fine.”

“You sure? You seem a little… off today.”

I shake my head. “I’m fine.”

“Do you think that if you tell people that enough, you might start to believe it too?” Her poignant remark, which echoes so many of the thoughts I’ve had over the past few months, strikes a cord. But when I turn to argue with her, she simply raises a challenging eyebrow and I feel the fight drain out of me.

“Christian and I are fighting,” I reply.

“You two are always fighting.”

“No we aren’t!”

“Oh, yeah. You’re right. You being so stubborn and him being so controlling never leads to any arguments in the Grey household. How could I possibly think there could ever be something wrong between the two of you?”

Despite myself, I laugh. “We still don’t fight all the time.”

“Okay, well, what are you fighting about this time?”

“Me being stubborn and him being controlling.”

“You don’t say!” She smiles broadly and then picks up a fry, dips it in ketchup, and hands it to me. “You wanna talk about it?”

“No,” I reply while I chew. “Not in front of Calliope.”

“Well, whatever it is, it’s probably not as serious as you think it is. It’s hard to tell what someone is actually feeling over the phone, maybe you two just need to talk in person.”

“Yeah, I hope so.”

“If it helps, he didn’t even seem irritated when I talked to him this morning. So, he can’t be that mad.”

I drop the fry I was reaching over to get and gape back at her. “You talked to him?”

“Yeah, he called me this morning to find out how registration went. I think he said that whatever he and Ros are doing over there was going well, so he’ll probably be in a good mood when he gets home. Might make things easier.”

“Oh, no.” I grit my teeth together and ball up a napkin in my hand. “Easy is not what this is going to be.”

“What do you…?” Her words cut off as a disembodied voice comes over the loud speaker and announces that our flight has begun boarding. Quickly, I pay the bill and then hurry with Luke and Mia to get to our gate. On the plane, Mia takes the same seat across the aisle from Luke, Callie, and I, so our conversation is effectively over. Luke looks at me curiously, as if he too senses that I need to talk, but I don’t. Not to him. Not to Mia. The person that I need to talk to has chosen to be silent and I won’t get the chance to make him talk to me until late tonight.

***

It’s dinner time when we land in Seattle, and Woods is waiting for us at the airport. Our first stop is to drop Luke off at his apartment with Jade, and then to drop Mia off at the apartment downtown that Carrick and Grace now live in full time. They ask me to stay and have dinner with them, even offer to call Kate and Elliot over, but I’m fried and just want to get Calliope to bed, read a book, and drink a large glass of wine.

“Well, why don’t you leave her here with us?” Grace suggests. “You and Christian have been apart all weekend, I’m sure you’d like a night off from parenting to… get reacquainted.”

It’s not a bad idea. It very possible that Christian and I could wake up the entire house screaming at each other tonight and I don’t want Calliope around that. But still…

“Thank you, Grace. But he’s going to want to see her when he gets home.”

She sighs. “Of course he will. Well, we’ll see you all next weekend at the baby shower.”

“Yes, you will.” I smile and accept her warm hug, then wave good-bye to Mia and Carrick before heading back to the car.

At home, all the stress of the day melts away. Gail has dinner ready, even though it’s still her night off, and despite my protests she pours the large glass of wine I’ve been dying for since early this morning. Calliope is excited to get back to all of her toys and I watch her play with them and crawl around the living room until she’s too tired to continue. Then I give her a bath, read her favorite story, and put her to bed. Before I even lay her down in her crib, she’s out for the count.

But once Calliope is asleep for the night, the wait begins. Christian’s flight from Taiwan is much longer than our flight from Boston, and I have no idea when he’s actually going to get here because he didn’t call me when he took off. I probably wouldn’t have waited up for him, but I don’t want to be mad at him anymore. I just want to talk this out and get back to the perfect place that only exists when he and I are in sync with one another. So I wait. I pour a second glass of wine and curl up in front of the fireplace, reading the book I took to Boston with me until I’m fighting my eyelids.

It’s the alarm on the door that tells me he’s arrived. The electronic beep sounds through the empty entryway, and after I listen to him punch the code into the keypad, I hear him dismiss Taylor for the night. He sounds tired, which will either work for me, or against me.

“Christian!” I call, and the voices in the foyer stop. I hear each of his footsteps across the marble floors until he appears through the archway at the front of the living room.

“Why are you awake?” he asks.

“I waited up for you.”

“Why?” His voice is sharp, cold, and it makes all of my muscles tighten defensively.

“Because I want to talk to you.”

“Oh, now you want to talk? When there’s nothing left to talk about? You took that job without consulting me, Anastasia. You made this decision all on your own, what am I supposed to say to that?”

“You’re supposed to say your sorry.”

“Sorry? You expect me to apologize?”

“Yes, I do.”

He shakes his head in disgust and backs away from me. “No. I will not apologize for doing what I thought was best. I will not apologize for the decisions I make to protect you.”

“Protect me? Christian how on earth does this protect me?” I’m screaming loud enough that my words seem to hit him like a physical object. He cringes and then falters back again, though this time not of his own volition. It makes me take pause and when he looks up at me again, his eyes are swimming with pain.

“Anastasia.” The hoarsely whispered word echoes through my ears and then I watch in horror as he collapses to the ground. The impact shifts his jacket and I see a stain of red blood wash over his abdomen, growing darker as his skin grows pale.

“Christian?” I shriek, flying across the room to his side. “Christian, what happened to you?” His blood coats my hands as I look for wound and come up empty handed. There’s nothing for me to apply pressure to, nothing for me to fix and make him better. I can’t find the source of the bleeding, so I reach up and press my red tinted fingers into his throat, searching for a pulse.

Nothing. There’s nothing.

“No!”

“Ana!” I’m jolted awake, gasping for air, and find Christian kneeling next to the couch by my side. He’s no longer pale, no longer writhing in agony, and it takes me several seconds to realize he’s wearing something entirely different.

It was a dream.

“Hey,” he breathes, squeezing my hand in his and rubbing his thumb gently over mine. “Are you okay?”

A sob forces its way out of my chest and I throw my arms around him, hugging him as close to me as I can and breathing in his scent as though it were oxygen after too much deprivation. His strong arms wrap around me and his hand moves soothingly over my back, until I’ve stropped trembling and can speak without the impediment of tears.

I pull back and look him, drinking him in and feeling nothing but appreciation for soft gray that flickers in the light of the low burning fire. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too.” He leans in and kisses me, softly, but I once again wrap my arms behind his neck and pull him into me. I pour everything into that kiss. The fear from dream, the anger from our fight, and the longing that I’ve felt for him since the moment we left one another at the airport. It’s suffocating, but in a good way. Like air is not worth being apart from him for even a second. Eventually though, he breaks the kiss and rests his forehead against mine.

“You didn’t call,” I whisper.

“I didn’t want to fight. I’m hate fighting with you, Anastasia.”

“I don’t like fighting with you either, but that doesn’t mean we can just avoid conflict. We have to communicate with each other. That’s how this whole thing started in the first place. No communication.”

“I didn’t know what to say to you. I know that you’re mad and I know that you have every right to be furious with me… but I can’t tell you that I’m sorry. I’m not. If I had it to do over again, I would make the same decision. I promise you that my intentions were good and while you may not agree with me, I did it because I was trying to take care of you. That’s all I want. I’m so scared that you’re not ready for this and we’re going to lose what little progress we’ve made. I can’t watch you break again, Ana. I can’t.”

I chew on my bottom lip and reach out to cup his face in the palm of my hand. He leans into my touch, closing his eyes and reveling in the feeling of it, then looks back up at me, his eyes pleading for forgiveness.

“I’m not going to break, Christian. Not because of this. You’ve got to stop treating me like I’m fragile. I won’t tell you that I’m fine, because I know you don’t believe me when I say that, but if there is any hope of getting back to the person I used to be, then I have to move on. This is what I want to move on to. It gives me purpose and it makes me feel…” I pause trying to find the right word, but I don’t have to. He finds it for me.

“Fulfilled. You like helping others and this enables you to do that. You like solving problems, and this gives you plenty of problems to solve. You like accomplishing things on your own and feeling proud over what you’ve achieved. I know that about you. I love that about you. But the on your own thing… that’s the part that scares me.”

“Why?”

“When you’re here, I know you’re safe. Here, I have security, and gates, and codes, and panic rooms… I don’t have any of that at GSP. Nothing. No control. Sending you out there, beyond the things that I can control feels worse than terrifying. It feels impossible.”

I take a deep breath and nod. “Okay. Then… I’ll come work Grey Publishing. Just like we planned.”

“No.” He shakes his head and I automatically lean back in surprise.

“No?”

“You won’t find what you’re looking for at GP. There’s nothing for you to do there except go to work and carry on with business as usual. That’s not what you want and it was selfish of me to try and force you into it. Especially if this is what you need to heal. I should know better than anyone what it’s like to have people try and make you smaller than you know you were destined to be. So, I think you should go work at Greenwich. At GP, you’d be great. But at Greenwich, you’d be extraordinary.”

I smile. “You think so?”

“No. I know so.”

“I’m going to have to travel.”

“I know, and we’ll find a way to make that work for both of us. And for Calliope.”

“Everything I accomplish going forward is going to be against your best interest. Every author I sign will be one GP didn’t.”

“And I’ll be just proud of you as I would have been had you come to work for me. I’m your husband first, Ana. CEO, second.”

“But what about Carmen? This isn’t just a rival publishing house, this is one of the biggest competitors for your whole business.”

“And there’s something really hot about the idea of sleeping with the enemy.” He smiles, then growls slightly as he leans into me and takes my lips with his, but I quickly squirm away.

“Wait, don’t you want to go see Calliope?”

He considers this for a moment, but ultimately shakes his head. “I’ll get her up in the morning. What I want, right now, is you. Only you.” He kisses me again, and this time, I don’t fight him off. I return his passion with equal fervor and when he lifts me into his arms and carries me off to our bedroom, the only thing I find myself not content with is the all too slow speed with which he moves.

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