Chapter 50

3A09EEEF-95A0-4967-8BD4-27624353000F

OCTOBER

“That’s it, baby. Christ!”

I let my head fall back and moan as Christian’s hands move up and cup each of my breasts. He pinches my nipples between his index and middle fingers and the sharp bite of pain radiates through my entire body and wraps around the tight ball of pleasure building more and more potent in my belly. I reach down to place both of my hands on either of his thighs and lean back so that every time I rise and fall, he’s hitting me in exactly the right place.

“Oh, fuck!”

“Don’t come yet, Ana,” he warns me, but I don’t slow my pace. “Ana…”

“Why?”

His hands move down to my waist and he pulls me off of him. I whine as I fall on the bed, but he cuts off my protest with a hard, dominating kiss while he climbs over the top of me. “Because I fucking said so.”

I moan as he thrusts inside of me again, harder this time. His cadence is slow but purposeful and nearly bruising. Everytime he pushes into me, the force rocks me backwards so I wrap my arms and legs around him to keep myself anchored, but his punishing rhythm makes it impossible for me to hang on and my nails scrape down his back. He groans and kisses me again, so fiercely that I worry my lips will be swollen before he even pulls away.

“More,” I plead, and he lets out a lust filled moan before pulling out again, flipping me over onto my stomach and pulling my hips into the air. His hand comes down hard on my ass, making me gasp in both surprise and pleasure, and then his knees move between mine and force my legs as far apart as they can stretch. The position he puts me in feels precarious, but when he plunges inside of me again, I dig my knees and fingers into the comforter to find balance so he doesn’t have to stop. He’s so deep this way it’s like I can feel him in my tonsils. He leans over the top of me and sucks softly at my earlobe before whispering into my ear.

“Like that?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me how it feels, baby.”

“Deep. Full. Incredible. Please, don’t stop. Don’t ever stop.”

“Never,” he agrees, and then rams into me again. I turn to bury my face in the pillow so I can scream without worrying about Mrs. Jones or our new nanny hearing us, but he quickly wraps his fingers through my hair and turns my head again so my cries echo through the room around us. The louder I am, the harder he thrusts, and it continues to cycle on and on until my blood begins to flame through my veins with the promise of an impending orgasm.

“Oh, Ana…” he groans. “Mmm, you’re getting so tight.”

“You’re going to make me come.” My voice is too high, too full need. He’s been drawing this out all afternoon and I worry the desperation that drips from each of my words will make him pull back and once again leave me teetering on the line between all consuming pleasure and agony, but he doesn’t. His hand moves back down to my ass and digs into my skin, pulling at my lips and opening me further to him. Even my breaths start to shake with anticipation and I can feel his body start to tighten over the top of me.

“I want you to come at the same time I do, Ana.”

I whimper. “Then come.”

“Not yet. Almost.” He’s panting now and each harsh breath washes over my ear and radiates down my body like a shiver.

“Please…

“Almost. Almost. Fuck!” His hand moves beneath my chin and he tilts my lips up to his. The moment his tongue crosses into my mouth, my entire body seizes and I know I’m not going to be able to hold back anymore.

“Christian, I’m going to… “

“Now,” he commands, and on cue I explode. Every pulse of my orgasm is so intense I seem to convulse beneath the confines of Christian’s body and his responding, guttural groans of pleasure resonate with the hungry animal inside of me. I’m lost in a haze of hedonistic lust that is absorbed in the simple idea of him coming inside of me and how much satisfaction I find in it. To take him. To accept him. I want all of his pleasure and feeling what he’s experiencing sends me into a deep, carnal spiral that has me reeling long after the heat of my orgasm has died away.

“Oh my god,” I whisper once he’s finally pulled away and collapsed onto the bed next to me. My chest heaves with exertion and makes my head feel heavy. “You are so goddamn incredible at what you do, Christian Grey.”

He lets out a soft laugh and then turns a sexy, well satisfied smile on me. “Let’s not go out tonight. Let’s stay here, in bed, and just do this until we can’t anymore.”

“Mmm, as tempting as that sounds, and believe me, it does, we promised. Besides, we can’t miss Kate and Elliot’s anniversary.”

“Why? They should be celebrating the same way I want to.”

“By fucking me?” He glares and I laugh. “They want us there, so that’s where we’re going to be. It’s one night, Christian.”

He frowns. “This isn’t even really their anniversary. They broke up for ten months, they don’t just get to pretend that didn’t happen. Their new anniversary starts in July.”

I smile and reach over to brush my hand over his cheek. “It’s something to celebrate. We promised we wouldn’t let moments like these pass us by anymore, remember?”

“I’m not. I have plenty to celebrate right here.”

I squeal as he reaches around my body and grabs my ass and then lean in to kiss him again. It’s long and lingering and wonderful, but as much as I’m willing to let him tempt me into staying right here with him all night, Kate has done so much for me and tonight is for her.

“I need to get ready,” I whisper against his lips. He groans, but ultimately releases me, then lies back with his hands behind his head to enjoy the view as I climb out of bed.

It’s not the only view to enjoy. The sweeping vista of Lake Washington through the glass that makes up the back wall of our new bedroom is breathtaking. We’ve been in the new house for over a month now, and I still go out on the balcony every morning with a mug of tea to just stare out at the water. Everything is so peaceful here. Our days are no longer filled with the noise of sirens, garbage trucks, and city traffic. Now, it’s just soft autumn breezes that carry the smell of the water and sounds of children’s laughter from the houses closest to us. I’m so grateful that Christian had the foresight to buy this place when he did. The new house has been my own personal haven since the incident in July and being here was the first that that made me feel like moving on was truly possible.

After gathering the clothes that Christian tossed carelessly across the floor in his hurry to get inside of me, I bite down on my lip and turn a coy look back on my husband.

“You know, I do have to take a shower…” His responding smile is immediate.

“Well, then we better make sure you get good and dirty first.” He leaps out of the bed like a hungry jungle cat and I shriek with glee as he chases me into the bathroom.

We stay beneath the cascade of hot water for far longer than we should, but when I’m finally able to pull myself out of Christian’s persistent hands and get myself ready for tonight, I’m in a really great mood. Elliot has planned an elaborate evening at Seattle’s most exclusive, and expensive, restaurant, which means we’re all getting dressed up. It’s the rare opportunity I have to pick out a beautiful dress and be a little indulgent with makeup without worrying about putting on a public persona, which makes the hour in front of the mirror I spend getting ready feel more like fun and less like a chore. I dance around my bathroom in the special french lingerie I’ve specifically selected to drive Christian wild when we get home later, while shamelessly mouthing the lyrics to the N’Sync Christmas album playing on my phone. If this last year has taught me anything, it’s that I should never take anything for granted, and right now that means listening to Christmas music in October.

Calliope likes it, obviously because she’s inherited my excellent taste, and she giggles in her bouncy seat as I pirouette in front of the bathroom counter. I look down at her, beaming.

“Is that funny?” I coo, and when she laughs again, I unbuckle her from her seat and start to dance with her. She’s already dressed in the tiny powder blue gown I ordered for her a few days ago, and as we sweep across the floor, she looks just like a princess.

“Hold still,” I hear Christian say from the doorway, and then turn to see him holding his phone up to take a picture. I turn, trying to hide behind the baby as best I can, and give him an indignant look.

“Don’t you dare!”

The camera clicks, and when he looks down at the image on his screen, he smiles. “Perfect. Pouting about it just made you all the more adorable.”

I glare, but the discontent is short lived after he steps into the room and sweeps Calliope out of my arms.

Regarde ma jolie petite fille!” He lifts her over his head and pushes his face into her tummy, making vicious sounding snarls until she starts to laugh. The way he is with her, so light and happy, makes my heart melt and when he finally pulls her down into his arms, my smile is so broad my cheeks start to hurt.

“I’m telling you, Ana. We have to look into the world record for most beautiful baby, because I’m pretty sure we’ve got it in the bag.”

I laugh, then lean over Calliope and start kissing her entire face. “World’s best baby.”

When I pull away, Christian places a single finger beneath my chin and pulls my lips up to his. I hum with pleasure, deepening the kiss, and his hand slides down my throat to the low cut hem of my lingerie.

“What’s this?”

“Something for you to think about, rather than touch,” I say, slapping his hand away. “This is a present you’re going to have to open later.”

“That’s rude.”

“Oh, Mr. Grey, the things I have planned for you later are very rude indeed.” My eyes twinkle with lascivious promise, and I watch his mouth twist for just a hint of a second with desire. The desire that is spawned by my words is tangible as it hangs in the air between us, but eventually he takes a deep breath and steps back to lean against the bathroom wall.

“Elliot just called. Apparently there’s some concert or something that he wants us all to go see after dinner downtown and there won’t be any parking, so he wants us to pick them up since we have a Taylor to drop us off.”

“What? No. We’re not going there.”

“To Pioneer Square?”

I give him a pointed look to both illustrate that Pioneer Square is not the issue and that he should know exactly what I’m talking about.

Once the dust settled from the incident with Lincoln and we finally started to get back to our normal lives, Kate decided that she was ready to move in with Elliot again, but she didn’t want to live in the house that he shared with Gia. She’d helped him pick that house out the summer before and he’d shared it with another woman, so being there just felt like betrayal to her. He ultimately agreed to sell, but it was scooped off the market much more quickly than the new house they were building in Medina could be finished. So, they’ve been living in Escala in the interim. It’s been great for both of them being so close to work, but not so good for family gatherings. I haven’t been back since that night, and I never intend to.

Christian starts to look the way he does when he’s going to try and talk to me about what happened, so I quickly turn and reach for my mascara to give me a legitimate excuse for telling him I don’t have time to deal with this right now.

“Flynn still has you on his schedule, Ana. You should go and see him.”

“I do see him.”

“I mean, alone. Not just with me.”

“I’m fine.”

“Ana…”

“I’m fine!” I realize I’m shouting and that is an entirely inappropriate response for the message I’m trying to convey, so I take a breath and try again. “I’m fine. I just don’t want to go back to Escala. I’ve been very clear about that and you agreed.”

He wants to argue with me, I know he does, but he won’t. Instead he lets out a disappointed sigh and nods his head. “You’re right, I did. I’ll have Andrea send a car.”

“Fine.” My tone is meant to dismiss him, but he doesn’t leave. He comes up behind me and places a hand over the exposed part of my hip, so gently that his touch gives me goosebumps. When he drags the tip of his nose up the curve of my neck, my whole body shivers.

“I love you.”

Instantly, my irritation vanishes. “I love you too.”

“Mmm.” His lips press softly into the sensitive place just below my ear. “Get dressed. Any longer in just this and you and I are going to be very, very late.”

I laugh, step out of his reach, and then make eye contact with him in the mirror. “Then go.”

He smiles and disappears from the bathroom with Calli still tucked in his arms. I take a deep breath, turn up the volume on my phone, and start with the mascara again.

 

We’re the last to arrive at Canlis and Elliot is clearly irritated. He practically glares at Christian as he pulls out my chair at the table, but Kate’s over excitement to get Calliope in her arms quickly eliminates his ability to be openly indignant towards us. Christian knows this, so he gives Elliot an almost arrogant smirk as he relinquishes the baby and settles down into his seat next to me.

“Good of you to join us, Son,” Carrick says. “I must have called you three times today. I was beginning to worry.”

“I’m sorry, Ana and I have been a little pre-occupied this afternoon and I didn’t see your calls until we were already on the way. Is everything alright?”

“The team keeps telling me it is, but I’m concerned that this tape isn’t everything we’re hoping for. The man had an affair, which is terrible, but I’m not convinced it’s enough for Seattle voters to vote out their three term incumbent mayor. We should be focusing more on the systematic corruption he’s turned a blind eye on.”

Christian shakes his head. “We are, Dad, but believe me when I tell you this is your ace in the hole. It’s not just an affair. He used his position and taxpayer money to keep what he was doing secret. Government funds were spent on hotel rooms, weekend getaways, gifts. I’ve had every PR expert in this city keeping that narrative constant on the airways since the story broke, it’s going to ruin him. Come November, you’re going to be mayor, Dad. Trust me.”

“You really don’t think this is going to come back and bite us in the ass? I mean, the whole October surprise thing, isn’t it kind of… petty?”

“That footage wasn’t ours. It was sent to King 5 anonymously.” Carrick gives Christian a suspicious look but he doubles down.  “I swear, I really didn’t have anything to do with it. I’m sure it was sent by a concerned citizen who knew you really could do some good after you were elected. People believe in you, Dad.”

“What if whoever sent that tape tries to use it as blackmail later? As some kind of leverage for getting me into office?”

“I don’t know how they could. You didn’t pay for it, you didn’t even release it. Your hands are completely clean of this, Dad. You just need to relax and be grateful. This is a good thing.”

He takes a breath and nods, but as the conversation switches back to Kate and Elliot, I look down at the salad in front of me and push it around my plate with the end of my fork. Once Christian was out of the hospital, he immediately sued the Seattle Police Department for their own negligence in what had happened. Unfortunately, that lawsuit is currently being held up in a slew of bureaucratic loopholes and roadblocks through the King County court system, and the security footage we released to clear my father of the charges filed against him ultimately led both the police and the FBI to consider the case closed based on the confessions and ultimate death of Andrew Lincoln.

All of my worst fears about what would happen with the police after this was over have been realized. No follow up investigations are being done into the additional people Linc may have had working for him but were never caught, there hasn’t been anything done about the prison guards who allowed Elena Lincoln to be smuggled out of prison during the highly publicized riot only to be later found gruesomely murdered herself, and not one officer or detective has faced even reprimand over the failures to protect one of Seattle’s most notable residents, despite the overt threat that was brought to their attention over and over again. Carrick had warned us that this was going to be pushed under the rug, it was too damning to the people in power in this city, but Christian refused to let it. As a family, we decided that if the people in power weren’t going to help us, they needed to be replaced, and so, at the very last second, Carrick entered into the Seattle Mayoral race.

If he wins, when he wins, he’ll be able to appoint his own chief of police, who won’t let this go. Not just in our case, but for everyone. Three people died in the apartment fire Linc set to try and cover his disposal of Charles Gresham, their families deserve justice just the same as we do. Therefore, it’s our responsibility to do everything in our power to make sure Carrick overcomes the deficit his late entry has left him in with the voters so that he takes office in January. For Christian, that means providing funding, using his connections around the city to garner support, and hiring the best of the best to advise and run his father’s campaign. For the rest of us, it means something different.

“You okay?” Christian asks, reaching beneath the table to place a reassuring hand on my knee. I glance over, give him a closed lip smile, and then very purposefully turn my attention to Grace and Kate, who are talking about construction on her new house.

“You would think Elliot being the owner of the construction company building the house would mean fewer headaches and delays, but I swear something new comes up every week to push our moving day further out.”

“Well, if you didn’t keep changing your mind on what you wanted every three days…” Elliot says defensively, but when Kate turns to glare at him, he immediately falls silent.

“You’ll be settled soon enough,” Grace assures her. “Christian and Ana waited months for their home to finish being remodeled, and look how beautifully it turned out in the end. Speaking of which, I’m thinking about remodeling our kitchen and I wanted to talk to you about where you ordered your counters from, Anastasia. I can’t get over how beautiful your marble is.”

“Tuscany,” Elliot answers. “And trust me, it’s not worth it. That whole transaction was a nightmare.”

“But it’s the best of the best,” Christian insists.

“Mhm.” He rolls his eyes and then jumps a little before reaching into the pocket of his dinner jacket to remove his phone. When he sees the number, he frowns.

“No phones at the dinner table, Elliot,” Mia says, her tone annoyed because Grace had only just taken her phone away a few minutes before.

“Hold on, it’s work. I have to take this.”

“Now?” Kate asks.

“I’m sorry, I’ll be right back.” He gets up from the table and disappears through the dimly lit dining room, but as the conversation between the family turns to a new subject, I make eye contact with her and note that she looks a little rueful.

“Everything okay?”

“Fine,” she says, but the smile she gives me doesn’t reach her eyes.

Our entrees arrive before Elliot gets back, which doesn’t seem to sit well with Kate. I watch her glances to the door Elliot disappeared through become more pointed and angry the further we get into the meal and by the time he finally does come back to the table, she’s practically shaking.

“I have to go…” Elliot says nervously, picking up his glass of water to take a drink before pulling his coat from the back of his chair.

“You’re not serious,” Kate replies.

“I’m sorry, baby. Emergency. They need me down on a job site right now. Enjoy your dinner and I’ll meet you guys at the concert later, okay?”

“Elliot, it’s our anniversary.”

“I know, and I wish I could stay, but I can’t. I’ll get back as soon as I can. Promise.” He leans over to kiss her cheek, but she moves out of the way.

“I would think long and hard about your decision to leave this restaurant right now if I were you, Elliot Trevelyan-Grey.”

“I don’t want to go, Kate, but I have to. I’m sorry. I’ll be quick, I swear.”

Her mouth sets into a thin line, so he gives up on the idea of a kiss good-bye and gives the rest of his family a sheepish look before hurrying away from the table. Once he’s gone, I see Kate’s entire body tense and her grip tightens on the fork in her hand.

“This stuff happens,” Christian says, trying to play the peacekeeper. “You can’t always plan for catastrophes when you own a company. I’ve had to leave Ana in the lurch before.”

“Really?” Kate’s tone is more hard and skeptical than curious.

“Yeah. I missed nearly everything she planned for Valentine’s Day last year. She spent that night alone. No, worse, with Luke. It killed me, just like I know it’s killing Elliot to leave right now.”

Her shoulders rise as she takes a deep breath, but she still doesn’t seem to be put completely at ease by Christian’s reassurances. For the rest of the meal, she’s quiet and mostly withdrawn from the conversation around the table, so after we’ve left and Taylor has dropped us off in the heart of Pioneer Square so we can all make our way to the concert venue, I purposefully fall behind the others so she and I can speak privately.

“Are you okay?”

“One night, Ana. All I wanted was one night where I felt just as important as his job. I mean, is that too much to ask?”

“No. And you are important to him, Kate. Christian was right before. You know he would rather be here with you than anywhere else in the world.”

“Do I?” The overt doubt in her tone has me slightly taken aback and I think she can see that because she looks away and takes a second to choose her words carefully before she continues. “I know he loves me, okay? I know that, but maybe love means something different to him than it does to me. I don’t know… I just… I worry that this is turning into exactly what it was right before we broke up and I’d kind of forgotten how this felt, you know? To be abandoned all the time. To be his second choice. I know what it’s like not to have him, to miss him all the time, and it’s excruciating. I can’t do that again. But this…” She pauses again. “This isn’t better. Carter was willing to marry me, Ana. Carter wanted to marry me, and I turned him down. For this.

The pain in her voice wounds me but I don’t know how to comfort her. She knew what she was getting before she ever got back together with Elliot, she said she’d accepted it, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. Maybe she thought he’d change his mind. Maybe she’s changed hers.

“Kate, you know that Elliot doesn’t want marriage, don’t you?”

“Yes, Ana. He’s been very clear about that.”

“No, but… you really know that, right? You’re not secretly holding out hope that one day his perspective on the world will change and he’ll realize marriage is what he’s wanted all along?”

“No, I’m not. I don’t care about a wedding, that’s not what this is about. I told you that I’m perfectly fine if we never get married as long as he was in this for real, forever, but that’s not what this is. I need him to show me that I mean more to him than just someone who he can have fun and hang out with but is also willing to give him sex. I need to feel like his love means something. I need to know that he’s really committed before…” Her words cut off and I feel my brow furrow.

“Before?”

“Oh my god, look!” Mia cries, and Kate’s attention is diverted away from me to the open space in the square in front of us. Music has started from somewhere and the crowd of people milling around, which I thought was concert traffic, suddenly breaks out into an elaborate choreographed dance.

“It’s a flash mob,” Kate says, narrowing her eyes, and, slowly, the stress from our conversation about Elliot melts off her face as she takes in the remarkable sight before us. The whole performance is impressive, with professional level dancing, singers, and some incredible acrobatics. Both Mia and Grace pull out their phones to record but before I can follow their lead, two people come up behind us and hook their arms through Kate’s to drag her forward. My first reaction is to panic, to reach forward, pull her back, and scream for help, but it becomes apparent very quickly that what’s happening isn’t malicious. Her involvement is part of the performance.

They take her into the middle of the square, set her down in a single chair, and hand her a gorgeous bouquet of flowers. From then on, everything the performers do is directed only at her, and as I finally recognize what song they’re all dancing and singing to, I realize what’s happening and my eyes start to prick with tears.

The crowd of dancers parts and in the middle of the newly formed aisle, Elliot stands, grinning at Kate. He walks towards her as the flash mob finishes the final verse of the song.

 

Cause it’s a beautiful night,

We’re looking for something dumb to do.

Hey, baby.

I think I wanna marry you.

Is it the look in your eyes?

Or is it this dancing juice?

Who cares, baby.

I think I wanna marry you.

 

Christian steps up behind me, places his arms around me, and kisses me gently on the cheek. “Did you know about this?” I ask.

“You think I would really willingly go to a concert Elliot picked out for Kate? God, we could have been subjected to… Katy Perry.” The mock disgust in his voice makes me laugh and I turn to beam at him.

“You Grey men…”

He smiles, and then kisses me quickly before we both turn to look back at Kate and Elliot in the middle of the square. The crowd surrounding them, including all of us, collectively holds their breath as Elliot reaches into his jacket pocket, pulls out a small, black box, and sinks down to one knee.

“Kate, I love you with all of my heart and the fact that I didn’t do this the very moment I met you makes me the biggest idiot in the entire world.  There is no amount of time I could spend with you that would ever be enough. I need forever. So, Katherine Agnes Kavanagh, love of my life, will you marry me?”

She looks as though she’s gone into shock. Her eyes are wide as she glances between him and the ring in his hand, but she doesn’t move, she doesn’t speak, and soon the air is thick with an uncomfortable kind of anxiousness. Elliot swallows and holds the ring out further to her.

“Katie?”

Her bottom lip starts to tremble and she glances around at all of us gaping at her. Her hesitation makes me cringe. This is actually happening. Elliot is down on one knee, finally putting aside the selfish part of himself to give her the one thing she’s wanted since day one, and instead of jumping up and down with joy, she looks devastated. Why? She just told me she needed to see some kind of commitment from him and here he is, on bended knee. Fuck, maybe that’s it. Maybe this is too late. Is she going to say no?

“Elliot…” Her voice shakes. “I-I don’t know what to say. I didn’t think that you would–”

“I know,” he interrupts her. “I was stupid when I told you I didn’t want this. I do. I really do, Kate.”

She brings her hand up to cover her mouth, and a tear falls from the corner of her eyes. The problem is, it’s not really a happy tear.  “Baby, I want to marry you so much it hurts, but there’s something you need to know before you really ask me this question…”

His face falls and his complexion quickly develops an almost green tint. “What?”

She swallows and looks at all of us once last time, clearly wishing she didn’t have to say what she’s about to with an audience. When she speaks, her words come out in a whisper. “I’m pregnant.”

Oh my god.

I look up at Christian and see that his mouth is open in shock. Every one of us is paralyzed in this moment, wanting to look away from the now completely blank expression on Elliot’s face, but none of us can. It’s like a bad car accident on the freeway. He looks like she’s just hit him with a freight train and now he’s left reeling, unable to react and unable to speak. The tension from his complete and utter lack of response is so thick that each second feels like an eternity, and eventually Kate starts to sob.

“Please say something,” she pleads.

Elliot blinks, then swallows, and looks back up at her again. “Me? I asked you a question, Katie, and you haven’t answered me. Will you marry me?”

“You mean… you’re still asking?”

“Of course I am.”

“But… you said you didn’t want this. You said that… that…”

She starts choking over her tears again, so Elliot scrambles to his feet and forces her to look into his eyes. “What I want is you, Katie. All of you. Everything about you. You are all I’ve ever wanted.”

“Elliot.” Her face breaks into a huge smile and she starts nodding her head. “Yes! Yes, yes, yes, I’ll marry you.”

He smiles, but his hands are shaking so badly when he moves to put the ring on her that he drops the box entirely and the platinum band rolls far enough across the cement that Christian has to stop it with his foot.

“Smooth, Elliot,” he says, handing it back to him, and Elliot’s cheeks pink as he takes the ring from his brother and slides it onto Kate’s finger. As she leaps into his arms and kisses her brand new fiance so passionately that she has to have forgotten about the crowd of people still standing all around them, the tears pooling in my eyes finally break over my lower lids and begin pouring down my cheeks, and Christian pulls me tighter into him.

“I guess this makes it official, you two are officially going to be sisters. It’s everything you’ve ever wanted.”

I smile and glance down at Calliope, sleeping peacefully in the stroller in front of me, and then look back up into my husband’s eyes. “Yeah, but then again, I already have more than I could have ever dreamed. I have you. I love you, Christian.”

“I love you too, Anastasia. Forever and always.”

 

And there, in the light of the sunset pooling in the square around us, applause breaks out for Kate and Elliot’s happiness and Christian lowers his lips to mine in an all consuming kiss that resonates through every cell in my body.

Finally, everything is right.

Everything is perfect.

The End.

The Final Shade of Fifty coming February 2018

 

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Announcement!

Welcome to fireside chats, second edition.

Did someone bring marshmallows? Everyone cozy?

Great!

In December 2014, I got an idea for a story. It started simple enough, Christian and Ana meet in college when Christian is still Elena’s submissive. The idea was that Christian wouldn’t have enough separation from Elena’s control that the consequences of the abuse he’d endured by her hand would be more blatant and would therefore HAVE to be dealt with (since E.L. James never really did). With that in mind I started plotting, and while the idea remained intact the story took on a life of its own and quickly bloomed into A LOT more.

It took a month for me to do the general outline of the entire story, and then another month working out the finer details/arcs. And on March 31st 2015, A Different Shade of Fifty was born.

I’m not one of those writers who can just write chapter to chapter, I’ve always been working from an overarching outline from start to finish, and then a more narrow, granular outline for each book. I always knew the trial would happen, I always knew about Elena’s club and Mia’s involvement, and I always knew it was Andrew Lincoln who would come for them in the end. The outlines I write from are so detailed, they include dialogue. But as I started to approach the end of a Stronger Shade of Fifty, that became less and less true. This is the actual end of the 84 page outline I created three years ago.

Long, angsty hospital scene where Christian is in surgery. He’s fine, it all works out. They move into the big house and live happily ever after.

Seriously. I went from basically creating a whole separate outline for Ana’s book, just so I would know exactly how and where it actually mirrors what happened between her and Christian, and writing turn by turn directions for how Luke and Kate take Ana to Cape Flattery for the wedding, to “He’s fine, it all works out.”

Now, I’m actually at the end of A Stronger Shade of Fifty and I’m left with… how?!

How does this all work out? How does Ana ever step into a room again without having to check all of the corners to feel safe? What happens to all the remaining pieces that Lincoln couldn’t just dispose of, like the police involvement? Where do Kate and Elliot go from here? What ever happened to Carter?

I fell into the classic trap. I closed the plot, but I didn’t create resolution for the characters.

I think I thought I’d be able to answer these questions in “future takes”, like a few scenes here or there would fill in the details and we’d all be satisfied.

But I’m not satisfied.

Not even close.

So, that being said, I’d like to announce…

Book 4: The Final Shade of Fifty.

Unapologetic 2nd Britney gif

Time frames: 

I’m going to do the Stronger outtakes first, the same as I’ve done with every other story. For those of you who never followed me on fan fiction, my typical process is to write all of the outtakes at one time (offline) and then post them as I get a head start on the actual story. I’m probably going to take a break to decompress from the Stronger roller coaster and really solidify everything I’m going to do for TFSOF (which includes one major arch I had to cut from Stronger due to it’s already over complicated plot– excitement!), and will most likely begin writing the outtakes sometime after Christmas. Depending on how many outtakes I end up doing, I should start posting the first chapter of The Final Shade of Fifty probably sometime in February.

In the meantime, please stay subscribed as I will be posting other Fifty blog posts, like my review of Darker and initial impressions of Fifty Shades Freed, and will keep you all in the loop of where I’m at in the process of getting TFSOF up.

For those of you who were really excited about The Family, I’m sorry. I was excited too. But if I don’t finish what I’ve started now, it’ll leave a bitter taste in my mouth for the rest of eternity. I will not be writing that story. Instead, once Shades of Fifty is ACTUALLY complete, I will be starting an original work, which I will also post here. That’s right, an original. Thanks to the encouragement of everyone here, I think I’m finally brave enough to really take the plunge and create my own characters with their own problems and their own drama. It’s nerve racking and vulnerable, but I can’t wait.

Is three too excessive? No.

See you all Monday! Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving to my American followers. If you’re not in the U.S., you should still eat a lot of food today. I’m pretty sure there’s some kind of loophole in the space-time continuum that makes it so that calories don’t count on the 3rd Thursday of November. At least that’s what I’m going to tell myself as I throw down this second (or forth) slice of pie.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering. I’m still wishingmrgreywashere.

Chapter 49

ambulance-lights

It’s the noise that wakes me, because the discordant mixture of sounds filling the space around me is like a drum beating hard and loud against my temple. My head feels like it’s going to explode with pain but my body is too heavy and unresponsive to do anything about it. It’s like gravity has somehow intensified in strength and it’s pulling me down into a sea of black that threatens to drown me.

I’m awake, though.

For awhile there was nothing, but I can hear things now. I can sense movement around me and I can feel. Someone is touching me, moving me, but I can’t decipher exactly what they’re doing to me because all sensation is convoluted by the noise and the pounding pain in my head. I try to think around the pain, to push past it and find a voice I recognize, but I can’t. The man I hear speaking is unfamiliar to me.

“Minor abrasions on both of her hands, wrists, and knees. There’s a fairly deep laceration on her right thigh. No GSW. From the look of the bruising over her limbs and torso, I’d say she needs a scan to rule out any internal injuries.” He pauses and presses his hands on the inside of my thigh, which are still sticky with blood. “And possibly a rape kit.”

Rape kit?

It takes a great deal of effort, but I’m able to pry my eyelids back enough to see light and vague shapes through my lashes. The brightness intensifies the pain in my head and I’m still so drowsy that everything around me is really just one amalgamated blur, but when I’m able to push out a weak sounding whimper it catches the attention of the man holding my arm and he immediately leans over and begins shining a light into my eyes.

“Mrs. Grey, can you hear me?” I try to speak, but I can’t. My body just isn’t responding the way I want it to. “Mrs. Grey, my name is Ken Davis. I’m a paramedic. Do you know what’s happened to you?”

What’s happened to me?

The paramedic pulls the light away from my eyes and in the brief moment of darkness that occurs while my eyes adjust, the memories of tonight start flooding over me all at once. Ava in a puddle of blood on the foyer floor. Luke sinking to his knees after Gia shot him in the chest. Gia, Kommer, Christian. The last memory I have is of Andrew Lincoln pinning me to the floor, his hot breath washing over me while his hands groped by body. He told me he was going to take me, that he was going to violate me, and then he stabbed me with a needle. Now I’m in a strange place, unable to move and unable to scream.

Panic sets in but it’s not enough to free me from my almost paralyzed state, so as a series of ghostly, terrified sounds bubble through my lips, the paramedic leans over me to hold on to both of my arms. I don’t know, though, if that’s meant to comfort or restrain me.

“It’s okay, you’re okay. Can you speak?”

I do my best to shake my head, but the movement is so subtle I’m not sure he’ll notice and the inability to properly communicate when I have no idea what’s going on around me makes my entire body shake. What’s wrong with me?

“That’s okay. You’ve been incapacitated by a sedative drug, Mrs. Grey, and it’s affecting your motor skills and muscle control. We’re currently in an ambulance on our way to Virginia Mason Medical Center where they’ll be able to help mitigate some of the side effects you’re experiencing. They’re going to take care of you. We’ll be there in three minutes, okay?”

His words swirl through the haze of my mind, but dissipate without any lasting impact. I can’t concentrate for more than a few seconds at a time and already I can feel consciousness trying to slip away from me again. It takes everything I have to fight the temptation of painless bliss that beckons to me, but I do it because it’s the only way I can get answers to the questions that are the only thing pressing enough to stick through my fuzzy thoughts. Where’s my daughter? What’s happened to Andrew Lincoln? The last memory I have of tonight is of Christian bleeding on the floor a few feet away from me. He needed help, not me. So why am I the one in the ambulance?

I try to speak again, but the only sounds I can make are shallow, rapid gasps that make my head spin. No matter how hard I try, I simply can’t speak. So I spend the remainder of the ride in silent agony, simply fighting to stay awake.

When we finally arrive, the back doors fly open and the ambulance is filled with flashes of red and white light. The paramedics begin repeating the status of my condition to the doctors, who take hold of my gurney and pull me out into the brisk night air. None of them talk about my family or how I got out of my apartment. Through the flurry of movement and shouting, all I want to do is to scream for answers but I’m mute. Movement makes me nauseous and dizzy, and I want to close my eyes to stop the swirl of my stationary surroundings, but I know that if I do I’ll lose my grip on reality again. So, I force myself to swallow back the vile liquid creeping up into my throat and try to reach out for a hand close to me, thinking if I could just get someone’s attention they would know to update me on my loved ones. But nothing moves. Nothing changes.

The doctors whisk me through the automatic doors into the emergency room and for a split second my frustration and fears are interrupted by surprise over the commotion going on all around me. There are people everywhere, too many people, like I’m being wheeled through a FEMA relief center after a record breaking storm, and the room is filled with screams and the sounds of doctors calling for more blood and burn kits. I want to cringe away from a patient in a temporary bed only a few feet away from me who’s skin is charred black and blistered. He screams while a young doctor attempts to debride his wounds. It’s a scene repeated over and over again as I make my way further into the trauma center and the realization hits that I’m not the only one who’s faced something horrific tonight. The hospital is busy, and in the sea of people I don’t see one concerned family member standing by a bedside. Maybe that’s why no one is here with me.

Please, let that be why.

“Non-emergent cases in the hallway, Johnson!” a very frazzled looking doctor yells at the man steering my gurney.

“Sir, this is Anastasia Grey.”

“Shit. Gunshot wound?”

“No, sir. Minor abrasions, lacerations, and evidence of assault.”

The doctor drops the clipboard in his hand on the counter behind him and comes to my bedside to get a closer look at my injuries. His hands clasp around my wrist and I unconsciously flinch away from him, like I’ve developed some kind of new reflex that repels human touch.  

“Did that hurt, Mrs. Grey?”

I moan, and am met with confusion.

“She’s been drugged, sir, and only just regained consciousness in the ambulance on the way here. The paramedic said she hasn’t been able to speak or move of her own volition yet.”

“Well, let’s get her a blood test so we know what’s in her system and a CT to check for any internal injuries. I’ll put the order in, take her straight there. There’s no room for an extra bed in here.”

“Yes, sir.” I’m jolted forward once more and pushed away from the crowd of people filling the trauma room. Too late, the thought crosses my mind that Christian may have been one of the patients being triaged in the room behind me, but the doctor moving my gurney through the hallways towards the imaging rooms misinterprets my anemic protests to go back.

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Grey. You’re safe now. We’re going to take some images to make sure you’re not bleeding internally and then we’ll get you cleaned up. No one is going to hurt you. You don’t have to be afraid anymore.”

Afraid?

I’m not afraid. Not in the way he means. The helplessness of not being able to tell him stop him and get the answers I so desperately need is so much worse than the fear. The fear only exists because I still have hope, but that hope is tied to time and with every precious second that passes my impotence slowly drains away whatever optimism I’m able to conjure like water cupped inside my hands. I have no idea where my daughter is. I have no idea if my husband is alive. I have nothing. When the doctor leaves me in the hallway to wait for CT to be freed up so he can check on his other patients, I’m in limbo and after a few minutes of doing everything I can to shirk the aftereffects of the drug, I lose the battle and slip into blackness once again.

 

I have no idea how much time has passed when I wake up, but it must have been significant because I’m back inside the noisy trauma room with an IV stuck inside my arm. The pain in my head is gone and I don’t feel so heavy anymore, so I try to move but a voice quickly stops me.

“Easy, you might be weaker than you think.” I look up and see a new doctor standing by the monitor next to my bed looking down at me with concern. “How are you feeling?”

“Better,” I rasp, and although the sound is feeble, I’m overjoyed simply by the fact that my voice responds at all. “I’m fine. Where is my family?”

“They’re in the waiting room. There isn’t space for extra bodies back here right now. We’re just waiting on the results from you CT. If everything comes back clear, you’ll be released tonight and they can take you home.”

“But my husband… he’s here? He’s okay? Does he have my daughter with him?”

His face falls and my stomach drops. “He’s, uh– here…”

“Where? Is he okay?”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey, I’m not his doctor. I don’t have any updates on his condition. I believe he’s been taken into surgery though.”

It feels like all of the air is sucked out of my body at once, and for a split second I think I’m going to throw up. Of course he’s in surgery, I felt the blood he was losing with my own hands, but I don’t know long it took for the police to arrive after I lost consciousness or how quickly they were able to get him here. There’s no reference for me to gauge how serious his condition is.  

I have to get to him. I can’t stay here and not know every single thing that’s happening.

“I need to leave,” I tell the doctor, but he shakes his head.

“It shouldn’t be much longer before we get your results, Mrs. Grey. I can’t discharge you until–”

“You don’t have to discharge me, I just need to get to the surgery floor. Please.” The desperation in my voice seems to resonate with him, because I can see the conflict in his eyes when he shakes his head.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey. We’re going to get you out of here as soon as possible, I promise.” With that, he turns, leaves, and I’m alone again. Out of the twelve or so doctors who rush past my bed, none of them come to check on me again, so there’s no one for me to appeal to. God, what I would give for a phone. Even if Grace, or Carrick, or even Elliot can’t come back to see me, they have information on Christian and not having any form of communication with them has me just as helpless as I was when I first got here. It’s maddening and I make it only twenty minutes before I’m pulling at the tape holding my IV in place with the intent of getting off this floor and to Christian’s bedside. Doctors be damned. Unfortunately, I only just pull the IV from my elbow before I’m caught.

“Mrs. Grey, wait…”

“No!” My voice is sharper than I mean for it to be, but I can no longer hold back the eruption of emotion that’s been building inside of me like a pressure cooker. “You can’t keep me here. I don’t care what the consequences are or if leaving is against medical advice, I have to get to my family and you’re not going to stop me.” It occurs to me then that my assertion would hold a lot more weight if I had Luke with me to run interference, but even just the thought of his name brings back the images of Gia and the gun, and I immediately have to push that all thoughts of him aside. I can’t deal with the grief over losing my best friend right now. I have to keep it together.

For a tense moment, the doctor stares into the challenge burning behind my eyes, but he doesn’t have time to try and deny me again before the doctor I’d had before comes in with clipboard and inappropriately upbeat attitude.

“Great news, Mrs. Grey. Your scans are just fine and your system looks to be fully flushed of the flunitrazepam that was affecting you earlier. You’re good to go. I have your discharge paperwork right here.”

I snatch the clipboard out of his hand and use the pen wedged under the metal clamp to scrawl a messy version of my name across the signature line at the bottom. He takes the paperwork back and then hands me a pair of light blue scrubs, which makes me realize that I’m completely naked under the paper gown, when before I’d at least been wearing underwear.

“Where are my, er… clothes?”

“The police have taken them as evidence. They came to take pictures of your injuries earlier and they’re waiting outside to get a statement, but I’ll let them know they’ll need to contact you at a different time.”

“Oh… Thanks,” I reply, snatching the scrubs from his hands and yanking up the bottoms under the hospital gown. I should be more grateful, I suppose, since all he’s trying to do is get me out of here as quickly as possible, which is all I’ve asked for since I really woke up, but it’s hard for me to feel any gratitude when what he’s just said feels so violating. I lost my trust in the police months ago and after everything that’s happened tonight, it’s sickening to know they’ve been in here while I was unconscious. That they’re collecting evidence for a crime that they’ve had a part in. I don’t know where we go from here, I don’t even want to think past Christian’s surgery right now, but once we do leave and we begin to pick up the pieces of everything in our lives that has been shattered, the corruption inside the Seattle Police Department will be one of, if not the first, things that Christian and I will take on.

I’ll be sure of that.

The doctor gives me a tight smile, then taps his colleague on the shoulder and motions for him to follow him out of my makeshift vestibule. They close the curtain behind them to give me some privacy and I slip the scrub top over my head before darting out into the crowded trauma room and following the signs that will me to the surgery floor. It’s like a maze getting through the hospital, and I’m not even really certain I’m going the right way until I round the final corner and see Grace, Elliot, Kate, and Mia all seated in a line of chairs outside a set of double doors that are guarded on each side by a police officer.

“Ana!” Mia flies out of her chair and rushes towards me, but stops before she can hug me. “Oh my god, she’s covered in blood.”

“I’m fine,” I say dismissively, because I don’t want to waste any time answering questions right now about me right now. The first thing I need to worry about is the carseat in the chair next to Kate, which I can’t get to fast enough.

One question answered.

“Is she okay?” I ask, fumbling with the buckle to pull her out of her seat and into my arms.

“Yeah,” Kate replies. “The paramedics didn’t think she needed to be brought here by ambulance so we had her evaluated right when we got here. She’s perfect.”

“Oh, thank god,” I whisper, and then kiss the top of her head while squeezing her as tightly to my body as possible. “And Christian?”

Grace lets out a grief stricken sob behind me that makes my scalp prickle.

“What?”

It’s Elliot who answers. “He was shot. The bullet lodged into his kidney and it can’t be salvaged. They’re removing it now. Apparently, there was a fire in an apartment building downtown tonight so the doctors have been too busy to talk to us regularly. That’s the last update we got.”

“What do you mean that’s the last update? What does that mean? Is he going to be okay?”

“He’s still in surgery. We’re not going to know anything else until they’re finished.”

Once again, I find it hard to catch my breath. Organ removal presents a litany of complications all in its own. His condition is serious, critical even, and there’s nothing I can do to help him or ensure that he’s going to be okay. It’s the worst kind of fear, knowing that I’m in danger of losing the man I love, but also being certain that there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop it or help him in anyway. The pain of that feeling is indescribable and the only thing that can give me even an iota of solace in this moment is my daughter in my arms. That’s something, a connection to Christian that feels tangible. Like comforting her when she fusses is somehow comforting him.  

I start to pace, bouncing Calliope slightly in my arms as she tries to fall asleep, and while I do everything I can to ignore Grace crying steadily into a handkerchief, I realize for the first time that there should be another person here to worry with her, to hold her hand, and to assure everyone that everything is going to be okay.

“Where’s Carrick?” I ask, and the effect of my words is immediately apparent on everyone’s face.

“He’s uh…” Elliot begins, but Kate puts a hand on his arm and leans towards me. When she speaks, her expression and her voice are both careful, controlled, and purposefully reassuring. She’s going to give me bad news.

“He’s with your dad.”

“My dad? In Georgia?”

“No, Ray isn’t in Georgia. He’s–” She pauses to take a bracing breath. “He’s in the King County Detention Center.”

My eyes widen. “Jail? He’s in jail? Why?”

“For the murder of Ava, Kommer, Gia, and Andrew Lincoln.”

“What!”

Elliot leaps out of his chair and holds his hands out like he’s afraid I’m going to drop the baby. “Easy, Ana…”

“I’ve got her, Elliot. Tell me what’s going on.”

“Okay. Your dad was the one who called 911 to get help for you and Christian. When the police arrived, they found four dead bodies and they had no conscious witnesses, and after questioning Ray, he admitted that he’d killed Linc. That’s how we all found out what happened. When they arrested your dad, the police called Mom because of the baby and so Dad went down to the police station to advocate for Ray. We picked up Calliope and brought her here. That’s all we know.”

“What happened, Ana?” Kate asks.

They all look up at me expectantly, and for the first time since I’ve woken up, reality catches up with me, begins to overwhelm me, and tears start to pool in my eyes. I don’t know if I’m ready to talk about this yet, but I also know how horrible feels to have no idea what’s going on and I can see the same agony I felt only a short while ago reflected in Grace’s eyes.

“She was there waiting for us when we got home,” I begin in a shaky voice. “Ava was already dead by the time we got into the apartment and Gia was there holding Calliope and a gun. We were wrong about Gresham, he was just another pawn. It was Andrew Lincoln. This whole thing was revenge for the money Elena gave Christian after the trial and the affair that they had. He said taking me would make things fair between them and Christian got shot trying to protect me. He said he was going to… going to…” I can’t finish the sentence. Instead, I break down into tears.

“Jesus.” Kate gets out of her chair, takes Calliope from me, and then helps me into an empty seat where I can try and regain my composure. All three of them reach out to put a comforting hand on me, but again, the physical touch feels invasive and uncomfortable and I end up just cringing away. Obviously, I was right before and I’m not in a strong enough place to talk about this yet, so I take a breath and then redirect the conversation to the things I need to know, rather than what I need to explain.

“Have any of you talked to my dad?”

Elliot shakes his head. “No, but Dad will get this sorted out. It’s going to be okay, Ana. It’s over.”

I want to nod, but it’s hard to feel reassured over his words when everything that could have possibly gone wrong over the last twenty-four hours, did.

“You know what,” Kate says. “You should go back and see Luke. He’s been asking about you and it might make you feel a little better.”

“Luke is dead Kate. Gia shot him before he even got near us.”

“No, he’s not dead, Ana. He’s banged up pretty bad and he had to have surgery to fix his pneumo… uh–”

“Pneumothorax,” Grace whispers.

“Yeah, collapsed lung, punctured lung, whatever. But he’s fine now. He’s awake and resting.”

“What?”

She nods and after I realize that she’s completely serious, I scramble out of my chair and go to the reception desk, where a young, very tired looking woman is fielding a non-stop stream of phone calls.

“I don’t have an update on Grey,” she says, glancing irritably at Kate behind me as we approach the desk.

“No, I know. Luke Sawyer?”

“Are you family?”

“No, just a friend. A close friend. My name is Anastasia Grey.”

Her eyes widen with recognition. “Anastasia Grey? We’ve tried calling several times, you’re his emergency contact.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t have my phone.”

“Well go on in. He’s in recovery room 237.”

“Great.” I turn, but then pause and look back at her with pleading eyes. “You’ll let me know when my husband is out of surgery?”

“Of course, Mrs. Grey.”

“Thank you.” I give her the most grateful smile I can muster and push away from the desk, but Kate doesn’t follow me.  Whether that’s because she wants to give me time alone with Luke or because she doesn’t want to leave Elliot while we’re still waiting to hear about Christian, I’m not sure. But I don’t stop to ask her. I slip past the watchful eyes of the officers standing next to the double doors and then wind my way through the surgery floor until I find room 237. When I push my way inside, he rolls his head in my direction, away from the TV playing re-runs of an old sitcom over his bed, and then immediately sits up. The movement makes him wince.

“Ana?”

“Don’t move,” I say, staring at him in disbelief. “Don’t hurt yourself.”

“Oh, no. I’m fine. Are you? What’s going on with Grey?”

“We don’t know yet, he’s still in surgery. Kate told me they’re removing his kidney.”

“Shit.”

I nod and then slowly approach the side of his bed. As he sinks back in the bed, his face once again contorts with pain so I try rearranging his pillows in an effort to make him more comfortable, purposefully touching him a subtly as I can to make sure he’s real and that I’m not just experiencing some kind of lucid dream. There’s no way he should be here talking to me right now.

“Thanks,” he says, and then reaches up to brush his fingers over the part of my chest that is still caked with blood through the v of my scrub top. “You’re a mess. Are you okay?”

“Me? You’re worried about me? Luke, Gia shot you. I saw it. I thought you were dead.”

“No. You should know that you’d never get rid of me that easily.” He laughs, but that quickly devolves into coughing, which obviously causes him a great deal of pain. It hurts, seeing him like this, and as I pull my bottom lip into my mouth to hide the quiver from him, his smile fades and he reaches out for my hand. “Before I left Georgia, Taylor told me to make sure I wore a vest when I brought the son-of-a-bitch down. I think part of that was tongue-in-cheek, because he wasn’t wearing one during that drive-by, but it saved my life. It broke three of my ribs and punctured a lung… but I’m here.”

He looks down then, like he can’t bear to make eye contact with me anymore.

“Ana, I’m so sorry. I should have never let you go up there. I thought they had Gresham and I’d called Kommer on our way back from Columbia Tower. He said everything was quiet but… I just gave him heads up that you were on your way. I’m so sorry.”

“Hey, it’s not…”

“Don’t tell me it’s not my fault. I’ve worked with this guy for months, closer than anyone else on the team. How did I not notice something was off about him? How did we not find anything that would tell us he was in on this?”

“Not everything can be found out about a person through a background check, Luke. Christian likes to think you tell everything there is to know about a person through their history, but knowing who they were doesn’t necessarily reveal their current motivations. Or their obsessions. Everything he did was for love, as twisted as that is, but we thought that the person he loved was dead. They weren’t married, they didn’t live together, I don’t even know when they talked… How could you have possibly known that he and Gia were together? I don’t think there was a way that we could have foreseen this from him. He played his part well.”

He shakes his head again. “But I was with him all the time. All those nights in Cambridge, on the flights… Jesus, I left him alone with you. That’s why I never really put much stock in the idea that it was him when we were trying to find the mole earlier. If he was a part of this, why did he wait? He had more than enough opportunities to make a move. Why didn’t he take you when he had the chance?”

“I don’t know.” I shrug. “Risk, I guess. Lincoln valued him more as the inside man than an abductor. That’s how he could stay ahead of us. He always knew our moves before we made them because Kommer told him everything.”

Luke’s jaw tightens as he clenches his teeth in anger and shakes his head. “I wish I would have been the one to kill him. He didn’t deserve a bullet to the head. I would have made it slow. I would have made it painful.”

His words are too visual and they bring back flashes of what happened so clearly I can hear the reverberations of the gunshot that hit Christian echo through my ears.

“Luke, please…” I reach up to dash away the moisture pooling against my lower lids and he lets out a painful sigh before moving over in his bed and pulling back the blanket so I can crawl up next to him. I hesitate at first, thinking I’ll hurt him if I even touch him, but he doesn’t seem to be worried about that so I move as carefully as I can until I’m nestled into the empty space at his side.

“I’m sorry,” he says.  

“It’s fine.”

“No, it isn’t. You’re not fine, I’m not fine, but at least it’s over right? No more anonymous threats, phone calls, or strangers hiding in the shadows. You don’t have to be scared anymore. We all get to move on.”

“How?”

“That’s up to you, I think. Whatever you need from here on out to make yourself feel safe, that’s what we do.”

“I just don’t want to go back,” I reply, my voice breaking. “I’m never going back into that apartment, Luke. We’ll stay with Grace and Carrick until the house is finished, or maybe Kate, my dad… I don’t care. But I’m never stepping foot inside Escala again.”

“Okay. We can make that happen.”

I nod and then try to calm my resurging tears by taking a few deep breaths and pushing as much air from my diaphragm as I can, like I can expel the memories with each long exhale. He gives me a minute to compose myself, but when I don’t speak again, he reaches for the remote to unmute the TV, which I now realize is playing an old episode of I Love Lucy. I’ve seen this one before, many times, and it’s a good one, but it doesn’t stop my mind from racing through all of the questions I still don’t have the answers to.

“Can I ask you something?”

“No.”

I can’t help it, I laugh, but even though the movement of me in the bed makes him grimace, his face lights up a little.

“What?”

“Kate said my dad was the one who shot Andrew Lincoln.”

“Lucky bastard…” A hard look silences him, and he nods. “Yeah. Ray shot him.”

“My dad is supposed to be in Georgia, Luke.”

He shakes his head. “Nope. Plan B.”

“Plan B?”

“Your dad spent 20 years doing special ops in the military, Ana. He has more experience than everyone on Grey’s team, Taylor included, and Taylor thought we were being stupid leaving him behind when we were short handed and we knew someone was still going to come after you. They talked and agreed he would come back. Taylor didn’t even call Grey until Ray was on a flight home so he couldn’t argue. But Grey knew you wouldn’t want your dad anywhere near this, so he and I decided his involvement would be on an as needed basis. Plan B. We didn’t know at the time that we were going to need him as soon as your book party.”

My eyebrows crease as I try and piece together what he’s saying with how I remember the last 24 hours. Christian had said something about plan b yesterday morning in his office and for me not to worry about it. Was that my dad?

“Wait, he was at my book party?”

Luke nods. “Yeah. Remember I told you we’d finally gotten one of his guys to talk and he told us their plan?”

“You mean your persuasive resources?”

“Your dad’s a scary man, Ana. He got the job done but, damn…” He tries to look repulsed, but he can’t hold back a small, overly pleased smile and once again, I can’t stop the small laugh that forces its way through my lips.

“Yeah, imagine being brought home at midnight by the police at the age of 16 for drinking beers under the overpass…”

He looks back down at me and narrows his eyes. “So all that partying before wasn’t actually a symptom of you and Grey breaking up? You’re hiding an alcohol problem, aren’t you?”

“Not as well as I thought, obviously.” He laughs at my joke, but it’s not long before my own teasing smile disappears and I start chewing on the inside of my cheek as a release for my nerves and uncertainty. “They arrested him, Luke. They’re charging him with the murder of Ava, Gia, Kommer… everyone.”

“Don’t worry about that. He didn’t kill any of them and what he did do is justifiable in the eyes of the law. He’ll be fine.”

If they believe him. Luke, we can’t trust the police, remember? What if exposing Lincoln exposes the corruption in the police department and so they try to pin it on my dad and use the fact that I was drugged and Christian was shot to discredit our statements?”

“Then we’ll use the security footage.”

“Kommer disabled the cameras. There is no footage.”

“No. Kommer thought he turned off the cameras, but in reality he never had that power. There’s a master code in the system that we can use to shut everything down and every person on Grey’s team has that code, but, after what Leila said about him being in Escala, Taylor took four cameras off the mainframe and programmed them with a different code that only he has. The one at the bottom of the elevator, the one in the foyer, the one in the great room, and the one at the service entrance. Not even Grey can turn them off, only Taylor.”

“How do you know that if Kommer didn’t?”

“Because having cameras that can’t be turned off led to footage being on system that Grey never intended to be captured by security cameras, and Taylor doesn’t have the time to review film so he delegated to me to erase it all. Other systems had been compromised and he didn’t want someone to get into the home server, download the footage, and distribute it. Or use it as blackmail.”

“Like what?

“Like your wedding night.”

“Oh…” My cheeks flush and Luke immediately begins back peddling.

“I didn’t watch it or anything. Believe me, I’m not really interested in…”

“No, it’s okay,” I say, cutting him off. “This is good. This means that it’s all there. We have the proof of everything that happened. Actually, this is great. Luke!” Without thinking I quickly wrap him in a hug only to have him let out a horrible sounding groan of pain.

“Oh my god, I’m sorry! Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!”

“It’s fine,” he says in a tight voice. “Just… you stay on that side and I’ll stay on my side, okay?”

“Okay.” I ease back and lie absolutely still next to him, feeling guilty until I feel his body relax, and then rest my head on his shoulder. I still have things I want to ask, but I think that it’s probably better to let him rest now so I lay still and silent through the rest of I Love Lucy and then another episode of Bewitched, until there’s a knock on the frame of the door.

“Mrs. Grey?”

“Yes?”

“Mr. Grey is out of surgery. He’s in a recovery room just down the hall, if you’d like to see him.”

“He is? Is he okay?”

“He’s still out from the anesthesia, but his surgery went well. They’ve already taken him off the vent and his vitals are strong.”

I turn a frenzied look back at Luke and he smiles. “Go. I’m fine.”

“Feel better, okay? And let me know if you need anything. Anything at all. I’ll be just down the hall.”

“I will.”

I lean over to kiss him softly on the cheek and then hurry out of the room as fast as I can behind the nurse. She takes me only four doors down and then moves aside to let me pass, but as I step inside the room, I feel as though I hit a brick wall.

The shock doesn’t come from the tubes in his arms or the beeps from the machine monitoring his heart beats, I can handle that. I expected that. The shock comes because I hardly recognize my own husband. The entire left side of his face is marred by deep purple bruise and his eye is so swollen, I don’t think he’ll be able to open it even after he wakes up. There’s a cut on his lip that looks like the doctors had to sew up and he’s so pale that every injury looks much more stark and severe than I’m sure it really is.

“Should I let the rest of your family back, Mrs. Grey? Or do you need a moment?”

“I-I–” I walk aimlessly towards him, like a zombie, too petrified to give her a proper answer. My eyes move over every inch of his face, pulling out anything and everything I recognize, and as I finally see him beneath the carnage, my chest heaves with a deep sob and I collapse into the chair at the side of the bed. I take his hand and curl my fingers with his, and as tears start to stream silently down my cheeks, I hear the door close behind me and we’re alone.

 

Grace falls apart when she sees him for the first time. Elliot has to hold on to her to keep her from collapsing to the floor while Mia finds another chair, but even though the nurse gave me at least half an hour before she finally let his family back here, I hardly register any of them. I don’t have the capacity to worry about comforting her or anyone else right now. The entire time I sit at his bedside, nothing is able pull my attention away from Christian, not even the doctors who come to tell us about his surgery and what we can expect as far as recovery goes. He’s going to be okay, I gather that much, but I don’t trust anything enough to take my eyes off of him for even a second.

The grief comes in waves. First it’s Grace, then Mia. She sits at the foot of his bed, holding on to his leg and trying to coax him awake by pleading with him and promising him anything that pops into her mind. It wounds all of us, listening to her fears for her favorite brother, but not as much as the sharp, single sob Elliot lets out when he finally breaks and can’t hold it back anymore.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “Fuck, I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, Elliot,” Kate says. “You can be upset.”

“No.” He shakes his head and looks up at me. “Ana, I’m so fucking sorry.”

“What?”

“This is my fault…”

“Elliot.” Kate tries to pull him into her, but he pushes her away, and then doubles over in his chair. “I brought Gia into our lives. I gave him someone else to use against us. If I hadn’t been so weak…

“Stop, Elliot. It’s not your fault.”

“How can you say that? If I had never started dating her…”

“It’s not your fault, Elliot,” I repeat, interrupting him. “Gia was always going to be there. It had nothing to do to you. In fact, you were the part of their plan that failed.”

“Failed? What do you mean?”

“She only dated you to try and turn you against Christian. You’re his support system. When he needs to lean on someone, he goes to you and you’re always there. She wanted to take that away from him. Lincoln wanted to take that away from him. He’s self-destructive when he feels alone, easier to get to, so she tried to get Christian to sleep with her so that you would feel betrayed and you would walk away.”

“What?” He turns to look back at Christian, and, slowly, the look of blank shock on his face slowly fades to anger. So much so that, when he speaks, he’s almost incoherent. “He told me that she was trying to… that she… and I defended her.”

“Yeah, that’s kind of what you do. You stick up for the people you care about and you stand by them, even if they’re wrong. Sometimes, that can be a flaw.” He grimaces and looks away from me out of shame, but I reach across the bed to take his hand. “I’m not angry with you, Elliot. Who you are and the things you do are valuable enough to Christian that Lincoln knew he had to ruin your relationship if he was ever going to really destroy him. They preyed on you when you were weak, but you didn’t let them take what they were after. You were the part of their plan that failed. I have only gratitude for that.”

He presses his lips together and, after a long pause, nods. “Thank you, Ana. Seriously. I can’t believe how well you’re holding it together right now.”

“I’m not,” I tell him,  then turn my attention back to Christian and silently beg him to open his eyes.

 

After the first few hours, the sleepless night begins to weigh on all of us. Elliot falls asleep in the chair across from me with Kate snoozing quietly on his shoulder. Mia curls up on the floor next to Calliope’s carseat and Grace nods off somewhere around 4 o’clock. Everything is quiet and dark, but there’s no way I can sleep, and I don’t want to. I’m not ready yet to face what dreams may come after tonight, so I force myself to stay awake by counting each and every breath Christian takes. When my head feels too heavy to hold up anymore, I lean over to rest my cheek on our conjoined hands and focus on the feel of Christian’s steady pulse beneath my fingers. The wait is agonizing and for the first time, I feel like I can truly appreciate what Christian went through after Calliope’s birth. I wouldn’t wish this torture on anyone. Waiting, not knowing… it’s devastating.

“Ana…”

My body tenses and at first I think I have fallen asleep and the hoarse voice I’ve heard is just part of a cruel dream, but Christian’s fingers lightly squeeze mine, and I immediately sit upright in my chair, wide awake.

“Christian?”

His mouth moves as he swallows and then, slowly, he turns his head towards me and opens his eyes.

“I haven’t seen it, but I don’t think I’m going to be on The Most Beautiful People list this year.”

Jokes. He’s making jokes.

“No,” I reply, and the half-laugh, half-sob sound the explodes out of me makes me sound insane. “You’re definitely going to lose out to Bradley Cooper.”

He too laughs and the pain of doing so is immediately apparent on his face. I reach over for the call button at the side of his bed, but he takes hold of my hand to stop me.

“Not yet. Where’s Linc?”

He doesn’t know? “Dead. My dad got into the apartment and shot him. He’s dead.”

“Good.” He lies still again, but I can tell from the tightness in his face that he hasn’t gone back to sleep. It looks like he’s trying to hide the amount of pain he’s in from me. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Calliope is fine. We’re all okay. I can call the nurse, Christian.”

He takes a deep breath and nods, so I reach for the plastic box hanging from the monitor and press the call button. Once the red light comes on, I move to sit again, but he grabs onto my scrubs and then shifts his hand up to cup the side of my face. For a long time, he just stares at me and then the corner of his mouth upticks into a soft smile.

“Hi.”

I smile again and place my hand over his against the side of my face. “Hi.”

He pulls and I follow until I’m leaning over him and can place the softest kiss I can manage against his lips. He holds me there until the doctors come. In that kiss, as chaste as it may be, there is promise. Not for an ending, as I have been assured of all night, but for a beginning. A new beginning for both of us. Just us.

The nightmare may be over, but the dream has just begun.

Next Chapter

Chapter 48

3

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gia…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about you?” I hiss back.

“I’ll be fine.”

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I-I–”

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

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

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

“And why was that?”

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

She sighs before continuing.

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

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

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

“You psychotic bitch.”

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

“Baby!”

No. No, no, no. I refuse to…

Bang. Bang. Bang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Even murder?”

“Would you, for Anastasia?”

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

What the fuck is he doing?!

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

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

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

“They didn’t do their jobs…”

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

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

“You really think so, huh?”

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

“Bullshit.”

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

“Of course.”

“And what did you learn?”

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

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

“Mhmm.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir?” Kommer answers.

“There are cameras in the garage.”

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

“And in the elevator.”

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

“So it would seem.”

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

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

“Who got Sawyer?”

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

“You really need to control this.”

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

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

“I-I-”

“I told you to calm down.”

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

“Where’s the helicopter?”

“En route. It’ll be here any minute.”

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

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

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

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

“Put her down,” he commands.

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

“Choices?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which is?”

Linc smiles. “Your money or your family.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Let her go, Kommer.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sound familiar?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ana, no!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Linc, please…”

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

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

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

“Let. Her. Go.”

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

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

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

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

“You little fucking bitch!”

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

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

“Ana,” he croaks. “I love you.”

“No, you’re not saying goodbye.”

“You need to run…”

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

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

“Anastasia, run!”

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

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

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

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

“Ple-ease… let me go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But how could I?

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

And then everything goes black.

Next Chapter

Trigger Warning

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

Chapter 47

fifty_shades_of_grey-9-0-0

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

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

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

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

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

“Ava?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is going on in here?”

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is that?”

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

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

 

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

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

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

“Hit me with it.”

“Ryan Reynolds, Channing Tatum, Chris Hemsworth.”

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

“Kill Channing Tatum? Are you crazy?”

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

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

“Pass.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s going on?”

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

“Nothing,” Christian says, dismissing me.

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

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

“What kind of development?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, she banks at Washington Federal.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian and I exchange nervous glances.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir,” Luke says.

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

“Here? Sir?”

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

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

Christian cuts him off. “Do you understand?”

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

“What should I do?”

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

“Christian…”

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

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

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

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

“Did you need something?” he asks.

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

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

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

“Of course she won’t do it now…”

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

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

He raises an eyebrow. “With you?”

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

 

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

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

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

“You look damn fine, Grey.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The thought does nothing to quell my nerves.

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

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

“As much as I’m going to be.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s still in the works.”

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

“Yes she is.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I-I-”

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

“Uh-I–”

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

“So… he’s kind of a dick.”

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

“What?”

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

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

“I uh…”

“Lydia!”

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

“What was that?” I hiss.

“Nothing. Everything is fine.”

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

“We have it under control, Ana…”

“Luke, I swear to god…”

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

“How do you know this?”

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

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

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

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

“The FBI?”

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

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

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

“Really?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“Go,” Lydia whispers.

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

“You’ve got this.”

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

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

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

I glance up, but nothing yet.

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

Still nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They have him?”

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

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

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

“Your party…”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

“I know, I know…. Give you an hour.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit, Ana!”

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

“What in the world?”

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

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

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

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

“Calliope!”

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

“No. Christian!”

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

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

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

“Where do I begin?”

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

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

“Give me the baby, Gia.”

Next Chapter

A day in the life

Hi everyone.

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

tenor

Cozy? Good.

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

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

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

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

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

Wish me luck.

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

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xoxo

WishingMrGreyWasHere

Chapter 46

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. Donate it.”

“What? Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“I don’t want to do this anymore.”

“Okay, we’ll take a break.”

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

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

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

“I’m not. I’m fine.”

“Ana…”

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

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

“Watch me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit, it’s Lydia…”

“Lydia?”

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

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

“Done what?”

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

“Wait… what?”

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

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

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

“Oh, um…”

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

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

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

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

“Saturday? Lydia, it’s Thursday!”

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

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

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

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

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

“So?”

“I’m a New York Times bestseller.”

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

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

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

I smile. “Okay.”

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing?”

“I’m trying to hack your husband.”

“My husband? Why?”

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

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

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

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

“Fuck… I’m right,” Luke says.

“What is that?”

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

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

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

His name has been in my wallet this entire time.

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

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

A chill washes over me as I hear Christian’s words from a past conversation echo through my head, ‘Taylor may have found something in Leila’s financial records, a paper trail. Her tuition, her apartment, her living expenses were all being paid out of an offshore account owned by a company called Limited LTD, based in Panama.’

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

“Looks like it.”

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

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

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

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

His eyes widen. “What?”

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

“Ana, that’s incredible. Congratulations.”

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you found something?”

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

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

“What did you just say?”

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

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

“Uh, sure. Is everything okay?”

“Fine. We’ll be right behind you.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Sir.”

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

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

“No one?”

“It’s just Kommer and I now.”

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

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

“I’ll stay.”

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

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

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

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

“Daddy…”

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

“Uh, sir…”

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

“What is it?”

“The Panama account. It’s empty.”

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

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

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

“This morning? To who?”

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

“I’m well aware of that, Son.”

He nods. “Okay then. Thank you, Ray.”

“No! Christian, No!”

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

“I’ll be fine, Annie.”

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

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

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

“I’m not leaving my dad here alone.”

“We don’t have a choice, Ana.”

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

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

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

“Annie…”

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

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

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

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

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

“Dad…”

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

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

“I promise.”

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

“I love you, Daddy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I love you, Ana.”

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

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

“Ana, wait…”

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

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

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

“See you soon, kid.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is he?”

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

Next Chapter

Update

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

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

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

Sorry guys 😦

Chapter 45

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um…”

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

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

Mia shakes her head. “I don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m so sorry, Ana. I’m so sorry.”

“I know. Let’s go.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Talk.”

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

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

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

“What?” Elliot asks.

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

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

“Because you stopped him.”

“Stopped him from what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Mia confirms.

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

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

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

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

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

“I was scared, Christian.”

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

“Christian…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I turn, but look past Christian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

“I have both,” Kate says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Baby…”

“Please don’t leave me, Christian.”

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t. I’m sorry, Ana.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Love me, Christian.”

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

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

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

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

“Oh, fuck. Christian!”

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

“Delicious. You are so sweet, Ana.”

“Baby, please…” I beg.  

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

“Ready?”

“Yes. Please.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I love you so much.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Work?” I check.

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

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

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

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

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

“He made threats against Ros?”

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

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

“Hm?”

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

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

“Elena?”

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

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

“Because…” he stops, unable to answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Taylor?” I ask.

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

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

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