Chapter 29

“Maybe she…” 

“She isn’t.” 

“Well, what if she…?”

“She doesn’t.”

“But she could…” 

“She won’t.” 

I frown at Luke from the passenger’s seat. The traffic is heavier than normal because of an accident on 2nd Ave, so we’re stuck behind a long line of bright red taillights and angry horns. Luke stares through the windshield, irritated, cursing under his breath about the idiot in front of us. I know it’s not the traffic that’s bothering him.

“I’m just saying that when Christian and I broke up, I thought I’d never want to be with him again, and we’re celebrating our one year wedding anniversary next week. Look at Kate and Elliot!” 

“Yeah, the problem is that you and Kate never actually changed your minds. You never fell out of love with Grey.” 

“She fell out of love with you? She said that?”

He lets out a long breath. “It doesn’t matter what she said, it’s over. I don’t even care.” 

“Luke…” 

“You should be happy.” He turns to me, a wide grin masking the emptiness in his eyes. “The gang’s back together again.” 

“Well, of course I’m glad you’re back, but I don’t need you to put on a brave face for me. You said you loved her. Don’t you want me to like… I don’t know, cuddle with you all night and tell you how pretty you are while you cry all over me? I could bring chocolate ice cream and cookie dough.”

He laughs. “Could you imagine telling your husband that you weren’t coming to bed with him because you needed to come cuddle with me?” 

“He didn’t mind when I did it with Kate.” 

“You were already in Cambridge when Kate and Elliot broke up. And Kate and I are not equal best friends in the eyes of the law.” 

“I know, I know… you’re my actual best friend.” 

“Damn right.” He gives me a side smile, but as he turns his attention back to the traffic, his good mood fades again and I watch his blue eyes suddenly go hollow. 

“Luke, what can I do?” 

“Drop it.” 

I slump back into my seat, feeling guilt seep into every one of my pores. Luke only lost Jade because he was forced into a choice between me or her, and I wasn’t even the one he wanted to choose.

“It’s not your fault, Ana,” he tells me, as if he can read my mind.

“I don’t know if that’s true.” 

“Then fine, it’s your fault.” I turn a pained look on him. He grins back. “Nope, you’ve ruined any shot I have at future happiness. I guess you really owe me one, Steele.” 

“Yeah.” I turn back and stare solemnly out my window as we finally start to move again. “Tell me something I don’t already know.” 

He flips the turn signal to merge over to the parking garage next to my building. “Can I tell you something, though? For real?” 

“What?” 

“It’s killing me. But having something to move on to is a lot. You’re not just my job, you’re not just my best friend. You’re the home I can always go back to when I feel like I have nothing left. So, thank you.” 

I reach across the space between us, and squeeze his arm. “You don’t have to thank me. We’re family, Luke. Family is forever.” 

He smiles, then starts to shake his head. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I love you, you love me. Let’s talk about sports or something.” 

I laugh. He pulls into a parking place, then takes my bags before we head to the elevators. 

I’m in a great mood getting into the office. Not just because Luke is back, but because, for the first time in a long time, I have good news to share at our weekly staff meeting. I’m actually a little giddy as I collect everything I need to get started. Just one last look at my email before I head out…


From: Chrisitan Grey

Subject: Problematic Distractions

Date: July 16th 2012  08:49 AM

To: Anastasia Grey

I’ve been trying to read this proposal in front of me for almost twenty minutes, but I can’t absorb any of it because I can’t stop thinking about how beautiful you looked this morning. I should have dragged you from Calliope’s daycare to my office. 

What a shame.

Christian Grey

CEO, Grey Enterprises Holdings


I type a hurried response. 


From: Anastasia Grey

Subject: Loose Jargon

Date: July 16th 2012  09:10 AM

To: Christian Grey

So I’m ‘problematic,’ huh?

Anastasia Grey

Editor-in-Chief, Greenwich Small Press


With a smirk, I hit send and reach over to pull my freshly printed agendas out of the printer cartridge. Christian’s response comes just as I’m closing down my computer. 


From: Christian Grey

Subject: Problems

Date: July 16th 2012   09:11 AM

To: Anastasia Grey

Only if I’m going to save my company. 

Have lunch with me this afternoon. 

Chrisitan Grey

CEO, Grey Enterprises Holdings


From: Anastasia Grey

Subject: Hot Commodity

Date: July 16th 2012   09:13 AM

To: Christian Grey

Can’t. I’ve heard rumors GP is chasing a hot new prospective author. I couldn’t let the competition just walk away with a potential best-seller, now could I?”

Anastaisa Grey

Editor-in-Chief, Greenwich Small Press


Piling everything in my arms, I scurry off for my meeting. I’m the last to arrive, which I hate, but part of me can’t stop smiling either. Christian’s email banter is like a homing beacon, drawing me back to him.  

I’ve missed that kind of back and forth between us. I haven’t seen much of his playful side since the end of the fusion project. Actually, I haven’t seen much of anything except the CEO.

Not even the dominant…

I settle down at the head of the long table in the conference room, smiling up at my team. Before I can even start though, Stevens stands so that the entire room turns their attention to him. 

“Did you make a decision on the Hawkins manuscript I sent you on Friday?” 

“I haven’t read it,” I reply, patiently. He gives me the exact bitter look I expect.

“You haven’t approved one of my manuscripts in nearly six weeks. I’ve tried attacking this from all angles, and given you a little bit of everything. What are you looking for?” 

I pause, the corners of my mouth creeping up into a smile. “Do you want to tell them, Jacki?” 

She blushes. “I uh… I found a piece that Ana approved.” 

My entire staff reacts, most faces going blank with shock, a few eyes widening with excitement. 

“She’s underselling it,” I say proudly. “I started it Saturday morning and I was on the phone with the author’s agent that night to schedule a meeting. Jacki and I are having lunch with him this afternoon to try and get him to sign with us.” 

“Try?” Stevens raises an eyebrow. 

“He has other offers. At least two other publishing houses.” 

“Grey Publishing?” Roger, the man who’d made his suspicions about my connections to GP known on day one, looks at me with apprehension. 

“Yes,” I reply, purposely ensuring my voice holds the exact same amount of confidence as before. The nervous glances around the table tell me my team doesn’t feel the same. 

“We’ve never been able to poach an author from GP. Elizabeth Morgan has basically unlimited resources to invest in her authors. Your… er… husband gives her anything she asks for.” 

Sometimes, the competition between Christian and I can be fun. Sometimes, it makes my mouth taste like bile. 

“Well, I doubt she’s going to get much out of him right now.” My tone is brisk, a warning that any further conversation about Chrisitan will lead them into something treacherous. They seem to get the message because when I move on to review the latest sales reports, no one says a word.

Once my meeting ends, I do the same thing via video call with the New York office. Now that I have a prospect for our next big release, one that I think will actually meet Carmen’s impossible demands for 50,000 units, I’m willing to ease the reins on the New York press a little. There’s a coffee table book I think will sell well this fall, so with maybe too much hope, I give the release my approval.

I only have a few minutes once my meetings end before Jacki and I need to leave for our lunch. I stop by her desk before we head out to give her a pep-talk.

“You ready?” 

“I don’t know. I think so.” She looks a little green. “I’d feel better if I didn’t feel like the entire future of the company was basically riding on us convincing him to sign. Rodger wasn’t wrong. We’ve never beat GP on a signing. Not even close.” 

“Don’t worry about any of that. You have had incredible success this year. He would be lucky to have you representing his work. We just need to make him see that, which…” I hold up a folder filled with the data I compiled from Jacki’s last release. “You can leave to me.” 

“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Ana.” 

“Oh, you’d be fucked.” I smile, then I gesture for her to lead the way to the door. Luke is there waiting for us and between the two of us, we get Jacki so hyped that by the time we pull up to the restaurant, she’s almost forgotten that failure is even a possibility. It makes me radiate with happiness, which I direct straight at Luke. Once again, I’m reminded that he’s not just a hired bodyguard. He’s my partner in crime. 

The restaurant where I’m taking Lyonel Pierce, our potential new author, is the kind I had to drop Christian’s name at in order to get a reservation. It’s not the typical kind of place we’d meet with authors, but I’m desperate for this signing and I’m pulling out all of the stops. Even if that means dipping into my own pocketbook to make it happen…

The host leads us to a semi-private table near the back that sits in front of huge windows that provide scenic views of the sound. We’re the first to arrive, so I order wine for the table, because it’s what Christian would do. I even order a bottle I’ve seen in his private stores down in my cellar. It arrives at the same time as Lyonel and his agent, Collin Bennett.

“Collin!” I greet him with warm familiarity, as though we are old friends. I’ve never actually met him in my life, but I figure it can’t hurt to try and jump ahead a few steps in our working relationships, considering the other two Seattle publishing houses have a head start. 

“Anastasia,” he replies. Where I may be too familiar, my name sounds awkward and unnatural coming from his lips. Lyonel seems to notice. 

“You’ve met before?” 

“We spoke on the phone.” I give him my most dazzling smile and motion for him to sit down. He does and the waiter begins to fill his glass with the wine I’ve selected. I order appetizers and try to keep the conversation fun and casual all the way up until our entrees arrive. 

When the time finally comes for us to make our pitch, Jacki and I work flawlessly with one another. She reassures him of the process, I spell out all of the resources we’re able to provide in support. She tells him how hard she’ll work for him, I offer the numbers that back up her claims. By the time we’re finished, his agent looks intrigued. Lyonel is unreadable. 

“Well, what do you think?” Collin asks, his attention zeroed in on only his client.

“It all sounds great,” he says. “But… I looked into your company a little bit and your last release vastly underperformed. I read that you had cancelled one of your authors’ second options because you were having some financial problems. Is that something that could happen to me if I were to sign with you?” 

Jacki’s mouth thins so much, it isn’t even visible anymore. I offer him a reassuring smile. 

“There are never any guarantees. But I have absolutely every hope, every reason to believe that you are going to be a huge success. You do this with us, you give us your full commitment to making this release as loud as it can be, and we’ll take care of you.” 

He frowns, contemplating. I can see the decision rolling around in his brain behind his eyes. But just as I’m about to close the deal, I’m interrupted by a very embarrassed looking restaurant manager. 

“Excuse me, Mrs. Grey. I’m afraid your credit card has been declined.” 

I blink. “That’s impossible.” 

“I’m very sorry, but we’ve tried it three times.” 

He hands back my American Express, and I stare down at it in confusion. How could it possibly be declined? It doesn’t even have a limit… 

“Do you have another form of payment?” 

“Uh…” I reach for my purse, catching the uneasy glances Lyonel shoots at Collin. It makes the empty card slots in my wallet feel like open wounds. 

Fuck!

“Here,” Luke says from across the table, reaching into his wallet for his own credit card. A strange mixture of gratitude and shame flashes like a shock of heat over my skin. Privately, I give him a look that tells him that I’m not going to leave him on the hook for this. 

The bottle of wine I ordered was $1,500 alone.

“So,” I start again, stumbling slightly as I try to regain my bearings. “What do you say, Lyonel? Are you willing to take this chance with us?” 

He takes a deep breath, his fingers nervously toying with the napkin in front of him.

“I need to think about it,” he says at last. “Review my options.” 

My stomach drops as if he said no. My intuition tells me he did. I try to summon words, any coherent words to offer him, even just to stall. But the only thing I can think of is the coffee table book I approved earlier that morning. 

Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!

Lyonel gets up from the table and I walk him all the way to his car, making appeals the entire way. I’m trying to keep the increasingly urgent desperation I feel from leaking into my voice, but lyonel’s reaction makes me think that maybe it does. 

“Thank-you, Mrs. Grey,” he says, reaching out to shake my hand before he climbs into his car. “I’ll be in touch.” 

“I look forward to it,” I say weakly. The car pulls away, and the reality of what just slipped through my fingers hits me like a bucket of ice cold water. 

“Come on,” Luke says, coming up behind me and rubbing the goosebumps from my arms. “Let’s go back and you can figure out how you’re going to fix this.” 

I don’t go back to the office. I can’t face my employees until I once again come up with a plan to trudge forward. So, once I drop Jacki off at GSP, I stop by GEH to pick up Calliope and Kensie, and the four of us head home. 

Strangely, the house is empty when we arrive, and Gail didn’t leave a note to say where she’d gone, or if she’d be back to prepare dinner. I send her a text to find out as Kensie sets Calliope up on the floor with enough activities to keep her from wandering too much, but there’s no answer. 

Luke spreads out on the couch, and turns on the TV. I take a seat next to my baby, far enough away that she doesn’t take an interest in the stacks of papers I lay out on the coffee table, close enough that I can tickle her with my toes every time she does something so adorable that I can’t let it slide without giving her some kind of affection. It happens enough that, before I know it, I’m sprawled out on my back, holding her over me, bouncing her just enough to make her giggle. All of my worries and stress from the day seem to wash off me with the sound of her laughter. I glance up to see if Luke is as engrossed in the sound as I am, but he’s not looking at us. He’s frowning down at his phone.

“Problem?” I ask, sitting up and caging Calliope inside my arms and legs.

He shakes his head, and I see the brief flash of pain break through the mask he’s worn all day. 

“Is it Jade?” 

“No.” His voice is quiet, almost a whisper. “In fact, it isn’t Jade. I texted her this morning. She hasn’t responded.” 

“Maybe she’s just busy.” 

“Maybe.” 

I frown, then look down at Calliope, who is bouncing up and down in my arms to the music in a commercial playing over my shoulder. I scoop her up and drop her into Luke’s lap, knocking the phone right out of his hands. 

“Ana!” 

“Just hold her for a minute,” I tell him, as though I know a secret that he doesn’t. He glares at me, but his arms instinctively wrap around my daughter. 

“Hi, Wook,” she says, bouncing in his lap a little. He smiles at her. 

“Hey there, Calliope Kate.” She lets out a cackily laugh. When he joins in with her, she slowly pulls herself to her feet, unsteady on his legs, but held firmly by Luke’s sure hands. She leans forward and wraps her full pink lips around the tip of his nose. 

“Ew!” he laughs, his voice alight with joy. “What are you doing, Callie?” 

“Kissy,” she replies. He leans forwards and starts kissing her all over her face. Thirty seconds and he’s completely melted. The happiness Calliope can inspire in just about anyone she comes into contact with can be a powerful drug. Even if it’s only a placebo. 

We get up then to get her dinner ready, since I still haven’t heard from Gail. I take my time, lingering at the table long after Calliope is finished eating. Chrisitan hasn’t made it home in time to put her to bed in… I don’t even know the answer to that. I want to try and keep her up for him, but, eventually, she starts to nod off in her high chair.

“I’m going to get the munchkin ready for bed,” I tell Luke, getting up and pulling Calliope into my arms. She cuddles into me, nestling her face in the crook of my neck. 

“Okay, you want me to do something about dinner for us? I can order a pizza.” He gives me a devilish grin. “Don’t worry. I know how hard up for cash you are right now, so it’s my treat.”

I glare at him. “Pizza sounds great. I’ll grab some cash.” 

The pizza is waiting for me by the time I get Calliope down, hot and already paid for. He brings a twelve pack of cheap beer from his fridge in the apartment where he, Taylor, Gail, and Kensie live. We spread it all out on the kitchen counter, then move to the living room and start looking for a movie to watch together. 

“Let me guess…” He lets the cursor on the TV hover over It Happened One Night. I smile at him. 

“You’re the sad boy, you choose.” 

“Really?” 

“Really. Lay it on me, Luke. Do your worst.” 

He exits the library of movies stored on the TV and switches over to Netflix, choosing the first movie he sees with fire in the thumbnail. I roll my eyes and start to devour my piece of pizza. I should be working, looking for our next best shot at a mega-successful release, or at least trying to figure out how to keep my publishing house afloat until I do find what I’m looking for, but I’m drained. I need this. Actually, what I need is my husband, but I have no idea when he’ll get home. It’s after nine now…

“Now you see,” Luke says. “That would never happen in real life. Did you see the size of that explosion? No way you’re walking away from that.” 

“Well, not unless you’re Jason Statham.” 

Luke nods, knowingly. “That’s true. The man’s a genius.” 

I want to roll my eyes, but we’re both distracted by the beep of the security alarm that tells us an exterior door has opened. Luke’s hands tighten as we glance over the back of the couch. 

It’s Chrisitan.

He looks exhausted. Worse, he looks half-dead. It’s nearly nine-thirty, which means he’s been in the office for over thirteen hours today. Knowing him, he didn’t take a single break. Still, his eyes manage to find their strength as he glances suspiciously between Luke and I on the couch. 

Luke sighs. “See you tomorrow, Ana.” 

“Good night.” I smile as he gets off the couch and walks back to the kitchen for the abandoned beer.

“Luke,” Chrisitan calls, making him stop with a hunch before he cautiously turns back to face my husband. 

“Mr. Grey?” 

Christian stares back at him for a second, then nods to the beer in his hands. “May I?” 

“Oh,” Luke says, looking down at the half-empty case. “Yeah, sure.” 

He reaches into the box, pulls out a can, and tosses it easily to Christian. Then he looks over at me as though that was one of the weirdest exchanges of his life. “Night, Ana.” 

I wave at him, then turn my attention back to Christian. He reaches into one of the pizza boxes on the counter and pulls out a slice, ignoring the stack of plates as his heavy footfalls lead him into the living room. I eye him curiously, like I’ve never seen the man before. He’s sitting here in a $7,000 Brioni suit, chewing Domino’s pizza and drinking warm Rainier. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Chrisitan drink anything out of a can before.

“How was your day?” I ask.

“Long,” he grunts back. “I’m sorry. I really wanted to be home to put Calliope down with you. I tried. But then my lawyers called…” He shakes his head, as though trying to dispel a bad memory. “How was she?” 

“Good. I pulled her out of daycare early so she and I spent all afternoon together.” 

“Why did you pull her out early? I thought you had a meeting with that new author this afternoon? I expected you’d be drafting contracts when I got home.” 

I frown, shrinking into the sofa cushions next to him. “I did have lunch with a new author today. It didn’t go very well.” 

“Oh… baby.” He reaches for me, pulling me into him, but I squirm away. I lost to him after all, he’s not exactly the person I want to comfort me. Honestly, I’m surprised he’s not gloating. 

“Well he’s going to sign with Elizabeth, so congratulations.” My words are bitter, and they make him smile. It’s the first real spark of life I’ve seen in him since he came through the door. 

“Really?” 

Ah, there’s the gloating

“Mhm. And he was my best shot to right the ship. Now we’re sinking again.” I cross my arms over my chest, trying to hold onto the anger so that my eyes don’t well with helpless tears. It doesn’t matter, Christian can read me like the Sunday paper. 

“There will be others, Ana. You’ll find what you’re looking for and then you’ll work your magic. As much as I would love to see Carmen Gallagher have to choke on that loss, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that you’re going to figure out a way to make this right, and then blow us away with the results.”

He’d have me, right then and there, if I hadn’t heard the rancorous way he’d said Carmen’s name. 

“I thought you and Carmen were friends…ish?” 

He makes a face, almost like what I’ve said has offended him. “Carmen Gallagher and I are not friends. We understand one another. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t feel a grim sense of satisfaction if say… her plane disappeared over the ocean somewhere.” 

“That’s a little much, don’t you think? Everything okay between you two?” 

“Ever since the public found out about my company’s… financial problems.” He says the words like they’re coated in poison. “The vultures have started circling. Carmen Gallagher is a particularly ravenous bottom feeder.” 

I look away from the darkness swirling like smoke in his eyes, and stare down at my fingers instead. “Are we going to be alright, Christian?” My voice is barely audible.

“Of course we are,” he replies. “I don’t want you to worry about anything. Nothing will change for you.” 

“My credit card was declined today.” 

His whole jaw goes tight and a deep line mars his perfect forehead. “What?” 

“When I tried to pay for lunch, they told me my card was no good. Luke had to pay.” 

“I’ll make a phone call tomorrow. That won’t happen again.” His voice is even, calm. But I can hear the anger just below the surface. 

“Chrisitan… “ I angle towards him, snuggling as close as I can without actually crawling into his lap. “Tell me how bad it is.” 

He swallows, then reaches over and cups the side of my face. He stares into my eyes for a long time, stroking his thumb across my cheek as he drinks me in. I almost think he’s going to blow me off entirely until he adjusts in his seat, an arm on the back of the couch propping up his head. His palm falls from my face to my lap.

“Kate threw me a bone. Kavanagh Media is fully switching over to Grey Fiber Optic service starting in August. I’ve got a meeting first thing Monday morning with the CEO of a company in Texas that has government contracts, so if we can make a deal with them, we might have an opening into Texas for another state project. And, we filed for a patent today on a new kind of energy efficient battery that we’ve developed with some recycled tech from the fusion project. My manufacturing plant is going to start production next week. If all of that goes exactly the way I need it to, GEH should stay afloat.”

Should? I swallow against the tightening in my throat. 

“What does that mean for us?” 

“Well…” Again, he pauses. Despite the bombshell he just dropped, he seems even less enthusiastic to share whatever he has to say next. Eventually, he gets up and walks away from me, keeping his back to me as he continues. “Ana, I’m going to be letting some of our staff go.” 

“Which departments?” 

“No, our… personal staff.” 

My mouth falls open. “Chrstian, you can’t fire Luke. He’s only been back one day and–”

“No,” he interrupts me, turning back to face me again. “Not Taylor or Sawyer.” 

“So…?” 

“I’ll speak with Makensie tomorrow morning. Gail left this afternoon.” 

My hand moves up to cover my mouth. It’s the only thing I can think to do because I certainly can’t think of a way to respond to that. Calliope is going to be devastated once she realizes Kensie isn’t coming back. I can’t even bring myself to think about Gail. 

Christian’s head falls, the confession of how dire our situation is breaking him. I’m on my feet in the next second, wrapping my arms around him. 

“I’m so sorry, Ana. I should have listened. I should have seen the evidence of what was right in front of me. I just… I really, really thought I could do this.” 

“I know.” My words are more true than I think he can even know. I felt the same kind of confidence he’s begging me to understand when I walked into that restaurant today. I’d even preemptively made decisions, made promises, assuming I’d already had the deal in the bag. Now, I have nothing. 

It’s poetic in a way. After everything we’ve survived, the thing to truly humble us was our own hubris. For the first time, standing there with him, it feels like we’re just two twenty-something kids who have no idea what the hell we’re doing. 

But neither one of us is a quitter and as long as we have something to fight for, we won’t stop. We have Calliope’s future to think about, and all of the dreams we each want the other to be able to achieve. 

“Don’t give up on me, Ana. Please.” His plea weighs heavy on my heart. I reach up and wrap my arms around his neck, pulling myself up so that my nose is only just not touching his. 

“I’ll never give up on you. We’re going to get through this. No matter what happens, you and I, we’re going to be just fine. You’re enough for me, Christian. You’re more than I ever even dared to be selfish enough to dream about.” 

He leans forward and kisses me, his lips pleading in their want. For a long time, all he does is kiss me. Deep. Slow. Sensual. His tongue caresses mine in a way that makes my entire body tingle. His hands move softly over me, bringing goosebumps to the surface of my skin that only become more pronounced with every soft moan or declaration of love that escapes his lips each and every time we part, even if it’s just for a second. 

God I love him

It’s overwhelming sometimes, like it’s too powerful for me to truly feel in its entirety all at once, because there’s not enough space in my heart to physically contain it all. That if I tried, I would burst apart like a dying star. So, I push into him. The powerful feelings of love and want and belonging overflowing from me, pouring into him. He drinks it all in greedily, like he’s just emerged from the desert after forty long days and nights and my lips are his very first taste of cool, clean water. 

I’m so absorbed in his kiss that I don’t realize it when he sweeps me up into his arms and carries me up the stairs to our bedroom. He falls onto the bed with me, but it could have been the couch or a cloud high above the planet for all I know. I’ve completely disappeared into him and the healing love we share between us. 

Long after our clothes have been tossed to the floor and we’ve both managed to tumble our way back to Earth from an absolutely astounding high, he lays next to me looking much lighter. Sated. He drags his index finger from my collar bones to my belly button, over and over again. We lay there, in comfortable silence, neither one of us quite ready to leave the other for sleep. 

“Do you remember last year when you were still pregnant and you had convinced yourself that I was sleeping with Gia while you were in Cambridge?” he asks. 

Her name makes me cringe with revulsion, but I nod. “I was stupid. It was the hormones.” 

He lets out a soft laugh, then props himself up on his elbows and looks down at me like I’m the most precious thing in the entire world.

“This is why she, and every other girl like her, never held any interest for me. Gia, Leila, even Elena… none of them would be here right now. None of them would have stood by me through this. When you say you love me, you really mean me.” 

“I do.” 

He closes his eyes, as though he’s suddenly in pain. “I don’t deserve you.” 

I take his face in my hands and force him to look up at me. “Yes, Chrisitan. You do. You are every bit the man today that you were before all of this happened. Nothing as stupid as money could ever change that for me. I love you.” 

“Sometimes, love doesn’t feel like enough to describe the way I feel about you.” He kisses me again, and for a moment, I think we’re going to pick up right where we left off. But then he pulls away and brushes his hand tenderly through my hair. “Would you mind if I brought Calliope in here to sleep with us tonight?” 

“You miss her.” It’s a statement, but he answers anyway. 

“More than you could ever know.” 

My face crinkles in pain when I hear the strain behind his words. With the hours he’s been working, he hasn’t really seen her for more than a few minutes a day for nearly a month. 

“Yeah,” I tell him. “Go get her.” He nods and places one last kiss against my lips. 

“I’ll be right back.” 

“I’ll be counting the seconds.” He laughs, but the second his heat disappears from my side, I start to count. 

1, 2, 3…

Chapter 28

There are few things in life I find as engrossing as my daughter’s curls. She gets them from me, but I’ve always resented the everpresent wave in my hair. Not quite straight, not quite curly… some unattractive mix in-between that I’ve spent hours of my life straightening out with a flat iron. Calliope’s are beautiful. Everything about her is so beautiful. 

God, I miss her. 

Mackenzie had already given her dinner and a bath by the time I got home from work. I’d barely got to put her down for bed, and Christian isn’t even home yet. It’s been a long week. A long few weeks. The failure of The Black Rose has been a tough pill to swallow as the reality of our revenue shortages really become apparent. Without Jacki, I don’t think we’d make payroll. I’ve had to significantly cut back production at both the Seattle and the New York Press to keep our overhead low, which a few of my editors have suggested was to keep them from earning their full commissions. The truth is, I don’t want to hinder their sales. I just can’t afford the paper to print their product on.

And Carmen won’t loosen the reins until I find her a unicorn.

 I’ve been working long hours trying to figure out how to gap the difference without having to lose anyone and it’s starting to look like I’m going to have to come up with something a whole lot more innovative than one best selling release to dig us out of the hole we’re in. I just wish I could clear my head enough to think about what that might be. 

One more reason I need tonight to go exactly the way I hope it will.

With one last longing look at my daughter, I hook the baby monitor on the side of her crib, kiss her cheek, and slowly back out of the room. I pause for a second, waiting for any fussy noises, then follow the sounds of the TV coming from my bedroom. Kate is sitting on the bed, breastfeeding Kennedy one last time before she puts her down with Calliope. 

I go into my closet and look at the hangers in front of me. This isn’t a dressy kind of dinner party, I expect everyone to show up in jeans, but I’ve put so much thought into absolutely every other part of tonight that I can’t stop myself from obsessing over this too. I’m like a woman possessed.

“What do you think about this top?” I ask, stepping out of the closet and holding the hanger up for Kate. 

“It’s a little low in the front, don’t you think?” 

“I thought that if tonight doesn’t go well, it might make it easier to distract Christian.” 

She makes a face. “Somehow I think you’re going to have a hard time patching things up between Luke and Chrisitan if you’re sitting at the table with your tits out the whole time. Just a hunch.” 

I turn the top back towards me and look at it again, this time more critically. She has a point. 

“You’re right,” I concede, heading back into the closet. I settle on jeans and one of Christian’s t-shirts, hoping the subtle claim will put him at ease. After quick touch ups on my hair and makeup, I head back out. Kate is now sans Kennedy and fully dressed again, applying lip gloss in the giant mirror across from the bed. Her reflection makes eye contact with me, and the look she gives me says she knows exactly why Christian had that mirror installed in exactly the place and angle it is. I laugh, then drag her out of the room and downstairs. 

The smell hits us before we even make it to the first floor. Garlic, cheese, and the herby aromatic scent of homemade marinara. I’d never thought before what I would serve if I ever had to say… bring the leaders of two warring countries together for a summit at Camp David. But when I found myself planning a dinner that felt exactly of that magnitude, the answer came to me immediately. 

Gail’s lasagna. 

It’s the one thing even the security team will steal out of the freezer, so I know Luke loves it. And anytime Christian gets in the kind of mood where he leaves terror and destruction in his wake, this always finds its way onto our table, and Christian is always appeased afterwards.

“It smells delicious, Gail,” I say, inhaling gratefully as we step into the kitchen. 

“Well it better do the trick,” she says. “I’ve made a tiramisu to go with dinner to make sure of it. I can’t take his mood anymore.” 

Her words should shock me. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard Gail say anything so brazen about Christian before. But, he hasn’t exactly been the easiest person to deal with for the last few weeks. 

Just after GEH announced they were indefinitely postponing the project they had previously promised would create thousands of jobs, a promise they had used to leverage tax cuts, Christian’s fiscal year came to an end. Days later, his end of year financial statements leaked to the public and the real backlash began. I refused to call him a failure, but every publication that’s ever reported on him or his company didn’t. It’s like they’ve been waiting, salivating at the chance to prove Chrisitan Grey was just a flash in the pan, and his spectacular fall from grace was something they knew would happen all along. He says he doesn’t care what the press says, but I know better. I can see it in his eyes. 

He’s humiliated.

“I’m going to go check on the table,” I tell Gail, feeling again how necessary it is for tonight to go absolutely perfect. She smiles, a promise that I’ll love what I find sparkling in her eyes. And Gail is an honest woman. The table on our veranda has been set for six. A long grapevine spotted with several different herbs weaves it way around each plate and wine glass. There is an amazing charcuterie board already on the table, along with several dishes of olive oil for the bread Gail has spent the last two days making. Overhead, twinkle lights wink happily under the dark overhang of the house. They, along with the fireplace on the other side of the open, outdoor patio space, provide the perfect amount of light for us to see each other comfortably. But, there’s not enough to erase the dancing reflections of light on the water at the end of our property. 

It really does look perfect. 

I’m just adjusting a fork on the table when I hear the doorbell ring and I dash inside. Kate and Elliot stand together in the main room, already starting on a glass of wine. I move past them so quickly, I nearly beat Taylor to the door. 

“Mrs. Grey!” he calls, and I stop immediately. He moves towards me and places a single finger on my shoulder to nudge me back several steps away from the door. Only then does he open it, but the second I see Luke, I rush past Taylor and jump at him. 

“Luke!” 

“Hey, Ana.” He chuckles, but the tightness of his arms around me tells me just how much he’s missed me too. When he lets me go, I turn to Jade and hug her just as eagerly. 

“I love your hair,” I tell her when I pull away, capturing the end of a long, wavy tendril. She looks like a mermaid. 

“Oh, it’s awful! Luke and I were playing beach volleyball over in West Seattle all day and we swam a bit. I told him not to get my hair wet and he immediately dumped me in the water so… now it looks like this.” 

“Luke!” I’m indignant on her behalf. He just rolls his eyes. 

“She said she wanted to swim, there was no way she wasn’t going to get her hair wet. This way, we didn’t have to waste any time before the inevitable happened. And look, she’s just as beautiful now as she was when her hair was straight.” He frowns. “It was straight before, wasn’t it?” 

I slap him across the chest and Jade laughs. Taylor coughs behind us. 

“Mrs. Grey, perhaps you’d like to come into the house and finish this conversation?” 

“Yeah,” Luke agrees for me, stepping to the side so we can go in first. “Ladies.” 

I sigh, then hook my arm through Jade’s and drag her inside. 

“Mr. Sawyer,” Taylor says, so formally the words sound weird coming out of his mouth. “May I take your, uh…” 

I follow his gaze to the bottle of tequila in Luke’s hand, which he passes to me. 

“I was going to bring wine, but Grey has a whole room full of wine fancier than anything I can afford. So, I brought this just for you.” 

“Perfect,” I laugh. We move through the hall to join Kate and Elliot, and the second Taylor disappears into his office, Luke leans in to whisper in my ear. 

“Mrs. Grey and Mr. Sawyer, huh? We really are in trouble.” 

“You have no idea,” I grumble. I haven’t so much as gone to the bathroom without Taylor shadowing me since the Scott incident, the reminder of which must show up on my face in some way, because Luke gives me a quick, suspicious look. I’m not going to tell him about Scott, though. I’m already having a hard time keeping Christian from finishing the job he started back in New York, and we only just barely avoided legal trouble from that encounter because of some very scary and expensive attorneys Christian hired to respond to the assault charges Scott filed against him. I don’t need Luke getting himself into trouble too. Thankfully, Elliot calls his name so he turns away from me and smiles. 

We migrate out onto the veranda, pouring wine between us as we settle into conversation. Luke and Elliot are mad about some call made during the Mariners game the night before, which I couldn’t care less about. So instead, Kate and I steal Jade’s attention. Remembering the concerns my best friend had shared with me over the phone, I take the opportunity to talk him up. 

 “I’ve always wanted to do something like that,” Jade says after Kate tells her about the kayaking trip she and Elliot are going on later in the summer. 

“You should go!” I encourage her. 

Jade crinkles her nose. “Luke wouldn’t want to do anything like that. He’s not really an ‘outdoors’ kinda guy.” 

“That’s not true. He and I used to do outdoorsy stuff all the time. A couple years ago, he and I went mountain climbing in Vermont.” My voice is a little louder than I mean for it to be, probably because of the wine, so both Elliot and Luke are looking at me now. I call him in for reinforcement. “Right, Luke?”

He furrows his brow. “I remember being tricked up a mountain.” 

Clearly, Jade doesn’t talk as loudly as I do. 

“You drove, I’d hardly call that tricking you.” 

“You said you wanted to go on a hike.” 

“It was a hike.” I focus my gaze on him. Let me help you, Luke. He seems to pick up that he should drop it, but apparently not why. 

“Whatever you say, Steele.” 

“Grey,” a voice says from the door. We all turn to look at the same time and find Chrisitan hovering in the doorway. 

“Christian!” I say brightly, inviting him to the seat next to me with a warm smile. He doesn’t come to me. He’s not even looking at me. He’s staring straight at Luke. 

“Her name isn’t Steele anymore, it’s Grey,” he says again. Luke nods. 

“Yeah, I know. Grey.” 

They stare tensely at one another for a long minute until Gail comes through the door around him, carrying her lasagna. Just as I hoped it would, it lures Chritian to the table. 

He slides into the chair next to me, scooting it close to mine so he can easily rest his hand on my knee. He leans over to kiss me, letting his lips linger against mine for longer than is appropriate for company. Like the statement I tried to make earlier by wearing his clothes, it’s a claim, and I let him stake it. 

It’s the only way I can think to make him feel like he doesn’t have to. 

Elliot coughs. “Okay, Christian. Do you wanna pee on her too?” 

Christian pulls away, but his eyes stay on mine. “Hi.” 

“How was your day?” 

He sighs, pushing away from me, and pulls out his phone. I glare at it. The damn thing has been glued to the inside of his palm for weeks. “I’m being sued by an investor,” he says.

My brow crinkles with concern and I reach out to touch him, but he brushes me off. 

“It’s fine. It’s not like he flew my wife all the way across the fucking country to have a meeting with Astor Harrington so she could hire him behind my back without saying a goddamn word, so he’s not even the worst person I’ve had to deal with today.” 

I blanch and my face heats with humiliation. “Christian, you promised.” 

“Yeah, well you can’t always hold me to the things I say in bed, sweetheart. Especially not in the way you made me say it.” 

Okay, that had been a dirty trick. But so is this. 

“Christian, can I…” 

“Ana,” Luke interrupts, holding up a hand to stop me. “It’s fine.” 

Christian glances up at him with cool eyes, but Luke doesn’t cower.

“I didn’t work for you anymore,” he says calmly. “I wasn’t under any obligation to report anything to you.” 

“She’s my wife,” Christian growls. 

“And why was she there in the first place, Grey? Why was she worried about him? Who did she think he would come after?” 

“Careful, Sawyer.” Chrisitan’s voice is a warning. A final one. And for some baffling reason, Luke looks like he wants to press it. 

“Baby, have some wine,” I say, picking up the bottle and pouring it with a heavy hand into Christian’s glass. Elliot jumps on the opportunity to change the subject. 

“Yeah, let’s eat. I’ve been smelling that lasagna for an hour and I’m starving.” There’s a murmur of agreement around the table, then dishes are passed around. Christian picks up his glass and drinks half of it. 

I keep it full. 

The food does the trick. Everyone is so enamored with the lasagna that the mood around the table elevates dramatically, and the conversation flows more naturally. Christian’s fingers even loosen their death grip from the inside of my thigh. Instead, he passes his fingertips gently across my skin, sending tingles skipping through me. I set my fork down, unable to eat another bite, and cuddle into him while Elliot finishes selling Kate up the river for the lengths she’s been willing to go to in order to get the inside scoop on some senator who might be having an affair. 

“I’m pretty sure I’m going to get a call from the police saying she’s been picked up for stalking. And then what would I tell Kennedy?” 

“That her mom is a badass,” Kate laughs. She looks at me, green eyes glinting with hunger. “I’m this close to nailing him, Ana. This close.” 

“Well, if you need any pointers, I’m sure Sawyer has some useful advice,” Chrisitan interjects. “How was it you found out the last mayor was having an affair before you got that tape and used it to get my dad elected? Does that require a similar skill set than say… tracking someone’s immigration status, or is it a more complicated operation?” 

Luke grinds his teeth. “It wasn’t any more difficult than being asked to follow around a nineteen year old girl for two years and lie about why.” 

“Dessert!” I shriek, feeling the escalation coming from Chrisitan like the eye of a storm. “There’s tiramisu in the fridge, will you please go get it?” 

Christian turns to me, anger coloring every feature of his beautiful face. He picks up the napkin off his lap and throws it on the table, prowling away from us like a hungry jungle cat checking the perimeter before setting in for the kill. 

“Stop antagonizing him!” I snap, throwing the end of a breadstick at Luke. He looks incensed. 

“Me? He’s the one throwing punches. What am I supposed to do? Take it like a bitch?” 

“No, but pissing him off more isn’t helping. We were wrong, Luke. We need to eat a little crow to gain some trust back.” 

“He’s not as right as you think he is, Ana.” 

“Then, please,” Christian snarls from behind him, the tiramisu in his hands. “Tell me how I’m wrong, Sawyer.” This time, the malice in Christian’s voice is enough that Luke actually jumps a little. But he recovers quickly. 

“She wasn’t paranoid. She was afraid people were following her, I’ve dealt with her stalkers. She was afraid people were watching her, I’ve taken spyware off her phone and computer. Any time you do anything, the paparazzi swarm her. She has been targeted again and again and…” His words cut off, like he knows better than to actually say them aloud, but he’s physically shaking holding them back. 

“Go ahead, Luke,” Christian says, almost taunting him. He takes a step closer, tossing the dish that contains the dessert on the table, and both Jade and I exchange nervous glances. Elliot motions for Kate to stand up and back away from the table a few steps, then he gets up and moves closer to his brother. 

Luke shakes his head. “Why doesn’t she have a CPO?” 

“She does and I’m about ten seconds away from asking him to see you out.” 

“Taylor isn’t good for Ana.” 

“He’s the best there is.” 

Not for Ana. Taylor is strict. He doesn’t know when to let her get away with something harmless and just take the heat for it himself, and when he needs to actually stop her. He just follows your orders to a T.” 

“That’s what makes him a good CPO, Sawyer.” 

“No, that’s what’s going to get her hurt. Because no matter how necessary she knows our presence is, she hates it. She hates being watched all the time, and she hates feeling like she’s being babysat. Eventually, she’s going to find an excuse to rebel against it. You’re right. Taylor is the best, and Taylor will stop her. But all that means is that she’s going to do something stupid to try and trick him.” His eyes narrow. “Sometimes you have to let her go get a milkshake with Kate at midnight and act like you’re mad that she got around you so that she won’t figure out how to actually get around you.” 

“Hey!” I interject, but neither of them look at me. They continue glaring at each other, Christian moving another inch closer. 

“You think you really know best how to protect her? You were the one putting her in danger. You were the one encouraging the insane fucking behavior that could have put her directly in harm’s way.” 

“You think I helped her because I was proud of what we were doing? Because I thought it was a good idea? I said she wasn’t paranoid, I didn’t say she wasn’t stupid. I helped her because, if I didn’t, she would have found someone else, and it wouldn’t have been Taylor or Woods. It would be someone none of us would know about because she wanted it to be kept from you. I helped her so I could be there to keep her safe. I helped her so that I could talk her out of it. Hate me all you want, Grey, I did it because I care about her and I didn’t want to see her get hurt trying to keep herself from getting hurt.” 

“Yeah, why don’t you tell me more about how much you care for my wife?” 

“More than you’re ever going to be comfortable with. I’m not in love with Anastasia, Christian. But I do love her. She’s the only family I have. I’m not going to sleep with her, I’m not going to try and take her from you. I’m not even under the illusion that I could if I wanted to. Which. I. Don’t. So, if you want to be an asshole to me, be an asshole. It’s not going to chase me away from Ana. If you wanna hit me, take your best shot. I’m not going to fight back and turn her against me. Otherwise, you need to get the fuck over it.” 

You could hear a pin drop.

I fully expect Christian to punch him. I can almost see him visualising it behind his hurricaine gray eyes. But he doesn’t. He considers him carefully, his body solid as ice. And by the time he speaks, he still hasn’t thawed. 

“I know how this ends. I know that I can’t keep you out of Ana’s life. I know that trying to do that will make her very unhappy, and that goes against absolutely every fucking thing I’ve ever promised her. But you came between us, Sawyer. You helped her put up a wall I didn’t even know I had to tear down. Why should I trust you ever again?” 

“Because we both want the same thing.” 

It takes a while, but Chistian nods. “Fine, you start Monday. Ana and I go to work together to take Calliope to daycare. Be ready to leave by eight. Woods’ room is empty, you can start moving in tonight. Taylor will make whatever arrangements you need.” 

I take a deep breath, a smile breaking across my face as I realize what’s happening. It worked! Oh my god, it really fucking worked!

“No,” Luke says. 

Christian blinks, uncomprehending. “Excuse me?” 

“No. I’ve got a life now.” He looks back at Jade. “I’m not giving her up, and I can’t have her and do this job at the same time. So, I’m sorry, but no.”

“No?” Christian repeats. “Jesus, Sawyer. What the fuck was all that bullshit about Taylor for, then?” 

“I meant that. Ana needs someone, just not him.” 

“Well who the fuck do you suggest? I can’t get anyone to take the job!” 

“Get Woods back. He was almost decent. A few more months and he could be…” 

“She was out of that hotel room for an hour and he didn’t even know.” 

“I’ve gone more than an hour without checking on Ana before.” 

Christian gives him a hard look. “Let’s play a game, shall we? Let’s say that Ana is going to be spending a night alone. I’m not even in the same city, neither is Kate. But she tells you that she doesn’t want your company. She wants to be by herself. She’s just going to stay in her room, so you don’t even have to worry about her. You can have the night off. What would you do?” 

Luke frowns. “Stand outside her door until she tried to sneak out.” 

“Exactly. Whoever I assign to Ana also ends up with Calliope, and I’m not trusting my entire existence to someone who can be fooled by an excuse that didn’t work on my parents when I was fifteen.” 

“Okay, what about…” 

“Luke.” This time, it’s Jade who interjects. “You should take the job.” 

“No, you don’t know what that means. It’s not like a 9-5, it’s a lifestyle. I’d have to live here, spend all my time going where Ana goes, even when she travels. I couldn’t be with you anymore…” 

She presses her lips together, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. “You’re not with me now.” 

Luke goes stiff. “What?” 

“You haven’t been you ever since you two got back from New York, and tonight… I think I finally know why. You’ve told me all about what you used to do. You loved it. You miss it. You miss her. And it’s been killing you to be away. This is where you want to be. You should take the job.”

“Jade–”

She steps forward and kisses him on the cheek. “It’s okay. It’s probably better this way.” 

Then she leaves. Without a single look back, she walks to the door and disappears into my house. Luke shoots a pained, almost sick look at me before he runs after her, calling her name. The rest of us stand there, unmoving, unsure of what to do. Unsure of what just happened…

Sunday morning, Luke pulls a uHaul into my driveway.

Next Chapter

Chapter 27

Just how bad Christian fucked up, we don’t get to see until that weekend. We get back to Seattle late Friday night, too late to even pick up Calliope from Kate and Elliot’s. So Saturday morning is the soonest we can make it to the remote testing site where Christian stores his fusion project. Elliot is waiting for us there, at Christian’s request, but when we pull up beside him, he doesn’t even look at us. He’s staring at the building in front of us, shaking his head in disbelief. 

“Oh my god,” I whisper, stepping out of the car and surveying the damage in front of me. 

The testing site is a large, rectangular building, all white with industrial doors and windows. Almost exactly half of the building looks as though it recently survived a bombing, with repeated volleys. Any windows still attached to the structure are wrapped in cellophane and a few smaller holes have been covered with bright blue tarps. Most of that half of the building has been completely blown apart and it’s left the paint over the entire front of the structure singed black. 

“Jesus,” Chrisitan says, walking forward and stopping with his hands on his hips. A hot flash of anger moves through me and I round on him. 

“Another explosion?!” 

He doesn’t answer. He takes my hand and pulls me toward the building. 

The damage is worse inside. Entire walls are missing, rooms have been gutted… we’re handed hard hats before we’re even allowed to enter the lab. 

“What happened?” Christian demands as we approach Welch. 

“We couldn’t contain the heat. It got out of control.”

“What about the cooling system? The suppression system?” 

“They worked fine… until they burned inside the housing unit.” 

“What does that mean?” 

Elliot takes a step forward and picks up one of the prototypes that managed to survive the explosion. Even though it wasn’t the one that exploded, it still looks like something that was recovered from a plane crash. He turns toward Christian and starts explaining about heat and friction, using the model in his hands to illustrate the point. I’m distracted from what he’s telling us by two people who enter the lab from an entrance opposite the one we came through.

 It’s Ros, talking to a guy in a white lab coat and surveying the damage with a look that’s made up of defeat, disgust, and a hundred other emotions too embroiled with one another to separate. 

“It’s like I said when you brought this up last February,” Elliot finishes, tossing the prototype back on the counter like a piece of junk. “Perpetual motion is a fantasy. You can’t overcome friction.” 

Welch shakes his head in defiance. The same unshakable look of determination I’ve seen in Christian’s eyes over the last few months is reflected in his. “What if we detach the core from the housing unit? Make a floating structure around it that can absorb the energy and redistribute it back into the mechanism without transferring any of that energy into the structure?” 

Elliot shakes his head. “What would you make it out of that wouldn’t melt or reflect enough potential energy to throw off the equilibrium of your core?” 

“Well, we could… uh…” He stops, clearly racking his brain for answers but also dismissing each and every idea he comes up with. Before he’s able to offer a solution, Ros stomps past me, past Elliot, past Welch, and steps right up to Christian. 

“I got the estimate. Wanna take a guess?” 

He glares at her. “Not really.” 

“$128 million. You just blew up another $128 million!  You wanna write the check for that? Because I don’t know that GEH can anymore, Christian.” 

They stare at one another, two unyielding titans battling it out until one of them breaks. When it happens, it’s not the one I expect. 

“Alright,” Christian says. “Shut it down.” 

Ros blinks, looking as though that was the very last thing she expected him to say. “What?” 

“Shut it down. All of it. Clean it up, pack it away, get it out of here.” 

“Mr. Grey!” Welch protests, but he silences him with a sharp look. 

“I said shut it down.” Christian reaches for me, pulling me after him as he storms out of the lab. I hear a crash, followed by several loud clangs, like metal tumbling across concrete. Glancing back over my shoulder, I see that it’s because Welch threw the destroyed prototype across the room. His whole team is bent over the table, heads hung in vanquish. Ros watches us go, shaking her head like she isn’t sure what in the world she is going to do next. 

It’s a longer and more convoluted drive to Kate and Elliot’s house in Medina than it would have been to go straight home to Seattle. I see Elliot’s car behind us in the side view mirror the entire drive there, but I only catch a glimpse of his face a few times. He looks worried, and so am I. There was something hanging in the air of the lab when we left, something no one was willing to say out loud, but that everyone clearly knows. Everyone except me. But with the way Chrisitan looks as he mindlessly follows the highway, I don’t think now is the time to press about it.

We pull up to Kate and Elliot’s house and follow him inside through the garage. Kate is on the couch, the babies both napping in a playpen a few feet away. A long investigative report on medical record fraud sits in her lap. She smiles as we file into the room. 

“How’d it go?” 

“Christian finally saw reason and ended his fusion project,” Elliot answers. 

She turns slowly toward my husband, a taunting smile spreading slowly across her face. “Awh, I didn’t take you for a quitter, Grey.” 

Christian goes rigid and stays that way for several seconds. Kate blanches. It had been a joke, but he doesn’t take it well. When he thaws, it’s only enough so that he can move. 

He goes to the playpen and gently lifts Calliope into his arms while he scans the room for her carseat. Once he locates it, he looks at me and motions to the door. 

“Let’s go, I’ve got work to do.” 

My mouth pops open in protest, but snaps shut at the look I get in return. I nod, reluctantly, and turn to give Kate a tight smile. The disappointment I see in her eyes echoes my own. We’ve been gone all week and I’ve barely even had the chance to talk to her. This morning, I’d hoped we were going to spend the afternoon here. Maybe even call Grace and Carrick to meet us somewhere for dinner. 

It doesn’t look like any of that is happening. 

Christian skips hugs from Kate and his brother and makes a beeline out the door with the baby. By the time I’ve said my goodbyes and finally get out of the house, Calliope is already buckled in the back and he’s waiting in the driver’s seat, the car idling. I slide in next to him, barely getting the door closed before he starts out of the driveway. 

“Do you want to talk about it?” I ask, hesitantly, once he’s turned onto the 520. He shakes his head, not even bothering to speak aloud. It drives me nuts, not knowing what he’s thinking. Especially with the amount of tension I can feel rolling off of him and filling the car like a toxic pool. I’m desperate to know exactly what he’s putting himself through so I can stop it. 

Reaching past the console between us, I move my fingers into his hair, lightly scratching his scalp with my nails. For a second, he lets me. He leans into my touch, breathing deeply as he does. But then he reaches back and pulls my hand away. He doesn’t release me, though. He holds my hand in his lap and every so often, he lifts my fingertips to his lips. 

Once we’re home, he goes straight into his office and I get the sinking feeling I won’t see him for the rest of the day. It’s as good an excuse as any to get some work done myself. So, after I move Calliope into her bed, I take the baby monitor to my office and settle down with my laptop. It’s only been a week, but running two branches is already proving to be a much bigger task than I’d anticipated. I forced the  Seattle branch to change their strategy and eliminate the volume model they’d used before. Scott didn’t do the same for his branch, and now taking on the New York office has more than doubled the amount of work I have to do on any given day. 

With an air of dread, I open my email, only to be immediately sidetracked when my phone rings. It’s a welcome distraction, though. An elated smile crosses my lips the moment I read the name on the caller ID.

“Hey, Luke,” I answer. 

“Okay, so here’s what we tell him. I had a brain tumor that impaired my judgement, right? But I’ve had it removed now and now I’m cured!” 

I laugh. Luke and I haven’t seen each other since the night Christian caught us in New York. Christian hasn’t explicitly asked me not to, but I see the tightness in his jaw and the dark shadow that clouds his eyes whenever Luke calls. I don’t think it’s a great idea to invite him over to veg out on the couch. Not yet. Not today.

“I don’t think that’s going to work.” 

“C’mon, Ana,” he complains. “Just come over for a few hours. You can bring your new CPO. I need to make sure this guy is up to snuff anyway, and I’m sure you need to get started on torturing him with It Happened One Night. Or we could pick something new, just for him. Like, Casablanca. God, I’d give anything for those two hours back.” 

I laugh. “Sorry, Luke. I think Taylor actually likes black & white movies. He’s not completely devoid of taste like you.” I smile to myself, waiting for some biting remark about my music. 

“Taylor?” he says instead. “Where’s your CPO?”

“Well…” I chew on my lip, feeling the now all too familiar feeling of guilt filling my stomach. “Apparently, Taylor is having a hard time filling the job.” 

“Why? Everyone wants to move out of GEH to personal security. It’s more than double the pay.” 

“I guess people have noticed that my CPOs never last very long. No one wants to end up unemployed.” 

“So, what? You just don’t have anyone with you? Are you alone in your office downtown everyday?” The accusation in his voice gets stronger with each word. Clearly, he isn’t pleased with the idea. 

“No, I have Taylor.” 

He lets out a harsh, irritated breath, but doesn’t push it any further. “Will you come over here?” 

“It’s not a good day, Luke. Christian…” I look at the door, imagining Chrisitan in his own office and feeling myself sink again. “It’s just not a good day.” 

“That sucks. I’m used to seeing you all day, every day. Now it’s like… I don’t know. I’m just lonely, I guess.” 

“What about Jade?” 

“Yeah, I’ve got Jade.” He lets out a low sigh, one I know very well. 

“Uh, oh. What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. I think… These past few days, every time she looks at me, it’s like… she’s looking for something that’s missing. I think she’s getting bored with me.” 

“That doesn’t seem possible.” 

He laughs. “It is though. I’m a boring guy. I’m trained to be hyper aware of my surroundings at all times and I can’t turn it off, so going out is exhausting most of the time. We don’t have any friends in common, except you… and I can’t even see you anymore. I don’t know, Ana. I think she’s going to dump me.” 

“Luke…” My heart feels heavy in my chest. A year ago, I thought Luke and I would grow old together. Not the way Christian and I would, of course. I pictured him, long after he’d retired from being my bodyguard, moving into an apartment in my house where he’d live out the rest of his days like Joey from Full House. He doesn’t have anyone else. Only me. So, when he’d told me he’d fallen in love with Jade, I’d started to imagine a whole new life for him. A future where he’d have a family of his own, maybe kids. Hearing the sadness in his words now as he worries he’s about to lose her makes me wonder if he’d imagined a future like that too.

“I just don’t know what to do about it. I’d take her anywhere she wanted to go, but we don’t have anyone to do anything with. Maybe I can call Kate, see if she’ll invite Jade and me the next time she and Elliot go off together.” 

That would be perfect, except that Kate just had a baby. 

“It’s the Fourth of July soon and we’re probably going out on the yacht. You can bring Jade!” 

“Yeah, I’m sure Grey would love to spend an entire weekend trapped with me at sea. If you’re trying to murder your husband, there are faster ways to do it than giving him high blood pressure, Ana.” 

I laugh. “You leave Christian to me.” 

“I don’t know.” 

“He’s going to have to get over it eventually. You’re my best friend, you’re going to be around. I want you around. Besides, there’s a good possibility that Kim is going to be there with her kids and I could use a buffer.” 

“Kate. Elliot. Your dad. Your husband. Both of your in-laws. Your baby…” 

“As many buffers as humanly possible.” 

He laughs again. “ I don’t know, Ana. I don’t want to start another fight between the two of you. I think a whole weekend might be too much to start with. Maybe we could… have dinner or something? All of us. Kate and Elliot too.” 

“I can set that up. We’ll do dinner at my place next Friday.” 

“You’re sure that’s okay?” 

“It’s more than okay. In fact, I insist.” 

“Okay, we’ll go.” He pauses. “Thank you. I’ve been driving myself crazy thinking about what I’m going to do with Jade for days.” 

“You know I’d do anything for you, Luke. Now, get off the phone with me and call your girlfriend. It is a Saturday and you are going to take her out on a date tonight. Somewhere loud and crowded that you’ll hate. That’s an order.” 

“I’m done taking your orders, Steele. I don’t work for you anymore.” 

“You’ll never be done taking my orders, Sawyer.” I laugh, then hang up the phone. I decide to text Kate and ask her to send Luke ideas for places he’ll be able to take Jade, but while I’m answering all of the questions she shoots back to me, I hear Calliope begin to cry through the baby monitor. 

So much for getting any work done.

Christian doesn’t come out of his office to join us for dinner. He doesn’t come out of his office at all. Just after I get Calliope down for bed, I drag my laptop down to the couch with me, but I’m pulled from the manuscript I’m reading by the sound of the doorbell. In the distance, I hear the muffled sounds of Taylor greeting whoever it is and a few seconds later, Ros walks into my living room. She goes straight into Christian’s office without saying a word to me, and closes the door behind her. By the time she emerges again, I’ve fallen asleep on top of my computer.

“Ros?” I call, rubbing my eyes with the back of my hand as I sit up. She steps back into the room, looking completely drained. “How is he?” 

“Not good.” She shakes her head. “It’s not good, Ana.” 

“What do you mean?” 

She sighs and moves to the couch next to me, collapsing into the cushions as if her legs have actually given out. 

“He’s been blowing through money for months, and I mean money. We’ve sunk billions into developing the technology for the fusion project. I’ve tried to stop him, to make him see reason. He just kept telling me that it didn’t matter how much we spent, once the prototype worked, it would pay for itself thousands of times over. But it doesn’t work, so we have nothing.” 

“What do you mean, ‘nothing’?” 

She lets her head fall in my direction. “GEH is barely solvent. We’re in trouble, Ana. Big trouble.” 

“Oh, god. Christian…” My voice is filled with pain. Ros nods, the movement echoing the hurt in my voice, then peels herself off the couch. 

“I gotta get back to work,” she says. “I’ll see you later.” 

I give her a weak smile and wave until she disappears into the foyer. Once she’s gone, I push away from the couch and make my way to Christian’s office. 

He doesn’t look up when I open the door. He’s completely absorbed in whatever is on his computer screen, his fingers flying over the keyboard. When I approach, he stops, looks up at me, and leans back in his chair. 

“Come here.”

I crawl into his lap and reach for his face so I can hold his gaze with some serious eye contact. “Not being able to overcome the impossible doesn’t make you a failure, it makes you human.” 

It takes him a long time to reply. 

“I don’t want to be human,” he says at last, the word at the end dripping with loathing. “I need to be more. So much more. I need to be a god. I need to have so much control over this world that it strikes fear in the hearts of those who hate me. I need to stand so far above the fruitlessly ambitious lowlives fighting over my scraps that they won’t even be able to see me well enough to be envious. I need to wield so much power that entire fucking nations will raise armies to stand between you and danger if that’s what I ask for. That is what this project was going to buy me, and I failed. I wasn’t good enough to make it happen.” 

“Don’t say that. Don’t even think that way. You’re Christian Grey. You’ve redefined entire industries, you’ve invented technologies that have revolutionized the way we connect with one another, you’ve brought infrastructure and opportunity to places where it didn’t exist before. This doesn’t take away from any of that success, Christian. You are a god.”

He just looks at me, stoic, considering me for a long, silent minute with impassive eyes. “Do you want to know the secret to my success, Anastasia?” 

“Devastatingly good looks?” 

He doesn’t laugh. His head tilts to the side, and furrows his brow. “It’s a feeling. That’s it. Whatever it is I’m working on, an acquisition, a sale, a new R&D project… I can do as much research and data analysis as I can possibly consume and it never matters. My decision always comes down to a feeling. A gut reaction. I don’t know how it works, but it’s never failed me. Never. But I felt in my bones that I was going to do this. That I was going to build this machine and change the entire course of the future. I still do…” 

His head falls back against his chair and for the first time, there’s a crack in his mask. He looks… lost. 

“They told you it was impossible,” I whisper. 

“My whole life has been people telling me everything I wanted to do was impossible and me proving them wrong. I thought this would be one more thing.” He goes silent again, reaching up to play with the ends of my hair. After a while though, his hands go still and his eyes shift up to mine. “If I couldn’t give you this anymore… the yachts, and the private planes, and the penthouses, and seaside mansions… would you still love me?” 

My heart feels like it freezes solid in my chest, then starts again with thick heavy thuds that hurt with every beat. 

“Christian…” I don’t even know how to continue on from that. How could he possibly even question that?” 

I sit up in his lap, moving my hands to either side of his face, and stare into his eyes. I try to pour everything into that contact, every ounce of the love I feel for him. I try to prove how unshakable that love is with the way I hold him. None of it is powerful enough to hold the weight of how I really feel about him. There’s only one way to express the sheer force of that love. So I lean down and kiss him. 

His lips are hesitant against mine at first, but as I fall deeper into the kiss, he tumbles after me. 

It isn’t the fiery kind of kiss I’d normally expect while straddling him in his office chair. His lips are soft against mine, his tongue undomineering. He doesn’t push for more or try to take control. Our mouths move together, in sync. Our breaths come in equal measure and our heartbeats match each other’s cadence. He moans when I slide my fingers into his hair so I can hold him to me, and each sweet pass of his lips makes me shiver with pleasure. 

I melt so deeply into that kiss that the hands that start pulling his clothes away from his body aren’t even controlled by me anymore. I untangle his tie while he pulls my shirt off of me and begins attacking my bra. I’m only half stripped, my panties merely swept hastily to the side, when his restraint breaks and he thrusts inside of me. 

I gasp, and then hurriedly reclaim his lips again. His hands go to my hips, pushing me down on him, holding me there while he’s buried as deep inside of me as he can reach. I moan, revelling in the fullness. Revelling in him. 

“I love you, Chrisitan,” I tell him, each word wrapped in the reverie flowing through my veins. 

He groans and starts to churn his hips. 

I move the way his hands direct me, slowly, in opposition to his own long, deep strokes. My skin heats and my insides grip him as the intensity of his eyes makes me tremble. I want to moan, but I don’t. I tell him that I love him. Over and over and over again. Every small whine, every pleading breath, every gasp… I choke it all back and tell him, “I love you,” in its place. 

It does something to him. 

His fingers dig into me, but not because he wants to mark me. Not to remind me who I belong to. He’s trying to find a way to get closer to me than he already is. The intensity of our kiss rages out of control, like flames spreading across an oil spill, but it’s not about uncontainable want. It’s like he’s suffocating and the only way he can draw breath is through me. Like I’m more important than breathing anyway. 

We writhe against one another, touching anything and everything we can get our hands on. When the first hint of my orgasm begins to blossom inside of me, he moves my hands from his chest and wraps them around him, pulling me flush against his skin. 

“I love you,” I whine, nearly at the edge. 

“Show me,” he whispers against my ear. “Come for me, baby.” 

I do, collapsing against him the moment it starts, unable to do anything but let the pleasure have me. The ‘I love yous’ bubble through my lips until I can’t form coherent words anymore. Then his lips are on mine and we lose ourselves again until he finds his own release inside of me. 

We come down panting, clinging to one another, staring deeply into each other’s eyes and reiterating everything that was just said between us without any words. He presses his forehead into mine, taking a deep breath as he reaches up and places the palm of his hand over my heart. 

“I’ll fix this,” he promises. “I don’t know how, but I’m not going to let it end this way. There’s still so much more I want to give you.”

“You gave me Calliope. You gave me a family. You gave me your heart. What more could possibly give me?”

He gives me a small smile, a gesture of appreciation, not conceit, and brushes a wisp of hair from my face. 

“The same thing I’ve promised you from the moment I fell in love with you. The world.” 

I cuddle into him, pressing my face to his skin and breathing him in, loving the faint trace of my own scent on him. I want to reassure him that he has nothing to prove to me, no debt to pay… but that’s not what he needs to hear right now. 

“I believe in you, Christian.”

His hands stop moving across my skin. His eyes, drinking in the sight of my naked breasts, close. I see his forehead crease, and then, he wraps me in his arms. 

“I love you, Anastasia,” he breathes into my hair. “So fucking much.” 

“I love you, too, Chrisitan. For better or worse.”

He nuzzles me. “As long as we both shall live.” 

Next Chapter

Chapter 26

It’s a slough to the airport the next morning. My eyes are heavy and my body is sore all over from our particularly relentless night of love making. When Christian takes my hand and pulls me from the car, it feels like I have to physically drag my body behind him to make it onto the plane. Even with his arm wrapped tightly around my body. I settle into a roomy seat, waiting for Christian to take the one next to me, and the moment I lie my head against his shoulder, I succumb to sleep.

He doesn’t seem phased by his own sleepless night. While I nuzzle his arm and unconsciously struggle to inch closer to him, he sits on his laptop and tries to get as much work done as possible without access to WiFi. For the first hour or so, his muttered curses and the clack of his keyboard leak into my vague and nebulous dreams. But by the time we’re soaring high over flyover country, he and the world around me disappears and I sink deeper and deeper into oblivion.

I can’t be certain how long I’ve been out when I’m jolted awake by a particularly intense bit of turbulence. The grogginess that consumes my mind and the cold leather covering the seat next to me suggest it’s been several hours, and yet I still feel like I could sleep several more. My eyes clamp more tightly closed together in protest and while I try desperately to tumble back into the blissful blackness, I hear muffled voices behind me. Christian has moved to sit with Ros, and it sounds like they’re arguing.

“We’re this fucking close,” he hisses.

“I don’t give a fuck where you are, Christian. We’re out of time.”

“No, the tax cuts will buy us time. We’ve got more time.”

“Weeks.” It’s a scoff. One I assume Christian dismisses because she doubles down. “It will buy us weeks, Christian.”

“And that’s all I need.” The statement is strained, as though he says it through gritted teeth, and she lets out an irritated huff.

“I don’t want to hear about it. Not once, all week. I need your focus here. If we don’t land this contract, we’re fucked. And I swear to god, Christian, I’ll walk.”

“No you won’t.”

“You wanna test me?”

“You’d walk away from GEH? From everything we’ve built?” 

“If the alternative is staying and watching you shatter it into a billion pieces, then abso-fucking-lutely.”

I know you’re not sleeping…

The voice comes from the opposite direction of Christian’s, and much closer that I’m prepared for. I jump and open my eyes, finding Taylor sitting in a seat across from me. He’s got one leg casually draped over the other and a thick, well-worn paperback in his hands. I give him a sheepish smile as I sit up, and he eyes me warily.

“You know what they say about eavesdroppers…”

“I wasn’t eavesdropping.”

“You sure?” He raises an eyebrow at me, and part of me thinks he’s teasing, while a much more nagging part is sure it’s an accusation. I frown and tilt my head as I turn a much more examining look on him.

“Why would I be eavesdropping on my husband?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know. But there’s a lot I feel like I don’t know about you anymore, Ana. This business with Sawyer… it’s added all these new variables that I don’t really know how to prepare for. I don’t know what to expect from you anymore, and it has me very nervous about this week.”

A wave of cold moves over me, sending tiny pin pricks over my scalp. “Nervous?”

“Forgive me, Mrs. Grey, but you have a terrible track record in this city. I have one very simple and very clear directive. You first, no matter what. That means that I am going to be by your side around the clock for the next week, and since you’ll be spending your time following this author of yours around to all of his signings, Mr. Grey will be moving all over the damn city without any security.”

“What? What do you mean he won’t have security?!”

“Do you see anyone else here?” He gestures to the empty seats around us, and as I glance between them and back to him, I start to feel a little like I’m on the receiving end of a textbook Raymond Steele lecture. The reason there isn’t anyone else in those seats is because Christian fired Woods after my last trip to New York, and no one else has made it through Taylor’s new rigorous vetting process to take his place. Rumor has it, no one really wants the job. Who, after all, would want to stake their professional and financial future on a position that every other person who has ever filled it has proved to be only temporary? Even Luke.

Because of me.

That realization, coupled with the knowledge that it’s going to leave Christian without his right hand man in the place where misfortune seems to seek us out, seems to add a whole extra layer to the grime I feel all over when I think about the choices that got me here.  

“I’m sorry, Taylor. I wasn’t trying to make your job harder, I was—” The excuse stops dead before I can even make it, so I change direction. “If it helps, I could talk to Christian about Woods and…”

“Woods has been reassigned,” he interrupts. “We’ll find someone to take his place, but in the meantime… no more surprises, huh?”

I nod, slumping slightly in my seat, and he gives me a small smile before looking back at his book and turning the page.

We touch down in New York late in the afternoon. The moment the wheels of the plane bounce against the runway, Christian and I both fish out our phones to get caught up on everything we missed during the long flight. I ignore the work-related notifications first to respond to a picture Kate sent me of Calliope and Kennedy on a blanket in her living room. Calliope has her arms wrapped around the baby, her lips mashed against Kennedy’s cheek.

“No…” Christian breathes from the seat next to me, his voice filled with dread and disbelief.

“What?” Ros asks, looking up at him in alarm. 

He doesn’t respond. He gets out of his seat, pulls his phone to his ear, and walks toward the back of the plane muttering, “fuck, fuck, fuck…” Ros gets up to follow, and I stare after them, worried.

“Mrs. Grey,” Taylor says. He waves toward the door, which Natalia has just popped open. “Your car is waiting.”

I nod and lead the way off the plane, frowning when I see the two sleek town cars waiting for us. I’m on my way to the hotel, apparently Christian isn’t.

Taylor collects my bags and loads them into the waiting car while I dawdle and wait for my husband to deboard. But, when he finally emerges from the plane, he’s so busy shouting into his phone that he doesn’t even glance in my direction. Ros follows him so closely she could be his shadow. A very angry shadow.

What the hell is going on?

“Mrs. Grey?” The low sound of shifting metal sounds behind me as Taylor opens my door. I hesitate with one last look at Christian’s car, which is slowly pulling away from me, before I step inside. Taylor ducks in behind me, and for the duration of the drive into the city, I listen to him talk about the book he’d finished on the plane. The excitement I hear through the plot twists he describes in excruciating detail sends a frisson of nerves through me. In just a few short hours, The Black Rose will officially be released to the public, and I can’t really be confident anyone would give it the kind of glowing review Taylor is giving me now.

The nerves remain palpable the entire way to the hotel. Enough so that I don’t even really get the chance to enjoy the roomy suite Andrea has booked for us, or the breathtaking view of the Brooklyn Bridge over the East River. Instead, I order takeout and start pouring through pre-order reports, verifying and re-verifying a week’s worth of itineraries, and sending countless emails to promoters and even a few critics I know from my Escape experience. 

The reports I pull only seem to further set me on edge. We’ve still only pushed 2800 copies, even three weeks after we made the announcement. The last report I have of Steven’s latest release shows that he’s moved over 11,000 copies in nearly the same amount of time. That should probably leave a bitter taste in my mouth, since Stevens has had it out for me since the day I started, but it doesn’t. Right now, he and Jacki are saving my ass.

It’s past eleven when I’m finally pulled from my work by the musical chime of my phone. I glance over at it and smile as I swipe a finger across the green button. Kate’s smiling face pops up on my screen. 

“Hey!” I answer, holding my phone up so she’ll be able to see me, too. She waves, then points her screen to Calliope, and I immediately brighten. “Hi, baby girl!” 

Calliope looks up at Kate. “Mama?” 

Kate smiles and tries to get her to look back at the phone. “Yeah, that’s Mama. Can you say ‘hi’?”

“Hi.” She says it to Kate, but I smile anyway. 

“How has she been?” 

“Oh, fine. She spent the whole day following Elliot around. He’s been calling her his groupie.”

I laugh, and the sound catches Calliope’s attention.

“Mama?”

“Yeah, Mama is right there, Callie. You can talk to her.”

Calliope looks where Kate points, but I’m not sure she understands the picture on this screen is actually me and not just an old video. 

“She ready yet?” I hear Elliot ask off screen. Kate nods, adjusting Calliope in her lap, and trying one last time to get her to pay attention to me.

“Say, ‘night-night, Mama’.”

Calliope blinks, then disappears from view as Elliot scoops her into his arms. I call goodnight to her and hear his voice respond, high-pitched like he’s trying to imitate my daughter.

Goodnight, Mommy. Tell my dad that Uncle Elliot is going to get my nose pierced.”

I roll my eyes and Kate lets her head fall back on the couch. She looks wiped out. “I need to pump. Is it weird to do that on the phone?”

“Only if you’ve suddenly grown averse to me seeing your boobs.”

She laughs, then shrugs and reaches for her pump.

The next morning, I’m up before Christian so that I can hit all the news stands on the way to the office. When I finally stumble out of the elevator, my arms are loaded with the newspapers and magazines that may hold the fate of Greenwich Small Press within their pages.

“Finally,” Scott barks as he pulls The New York Times off the top of the pile still in my arms. Taylor gives him a warning glare, but says nothing. Instead, he lays the papers he’s carrying down on the desk and turns to face me.

“Can I get anything for you, Mrs. Grey?”

I glance around him at Walter Daves, who is sitting on a couch pushed against the far wall, looking green.

“Would you mind getting coffee?” I ask. “I think we’re in for a long morning.”

“Yes, ma’am. Right away.” Taylor leaves the office, and I look over at Scott. He’s reading the page open in front of him with so much intensity, I’m surprised the paper hasn’t caught fire.

He shakes his head and tosses the paper aside, reaching for and tearing through the next one. And the next one. And the next. The expression on his face doesn’t leave much to the imagination as to what he’s found within the pages of the publications he so callously tosses aside. It leaves Walter completely pale, waiting for anything. Scott stays quiet. I reach for the discarded paper and start to read.

It’s not good. The same words I’ve thought over and over again pop out at me in black and white.

Convoluted.

Contrived.

Cliche.

Each negative review makes my gut clench with pain for Walter, and there are a lot of negative reviews.

“No, no, no!” Scott roars, ripping the magazine in his hands in half. “This has to be a mistake!”

I shake my head, reading for myself again just how much of a mistake it isn’t. The response is ubiquitous throughout every review I read and Walter’s face is white with horror. As I finally force myself to stop looking at the horrible things they’ve written about my author and finally just put the papers aside, I find myself desperately wracking my brain for something to reassure him, but I can’t think of a single thing.

My phone rings before I have to say anything.

“Excuse me,” I tell them, then step out into the hallway to take the call. “This is Anastasia Grey.”

“Yes, Mrs. Grey. This is Damon Arnette from Barnes and Noble. We have several book signings scheduled at a few of our Manhattan locations this week with your author, Walter Daves. Seattle next week.”

“Yes, Mr. Arnette. What can I do for you?”

“I’m afraid I’m calling with some bad news. The customer response hasn’t been as enthusiastic as we had hoped. We’ve made the decision to cancel.”

He saw the reviews.

“Cancel? But his novel is being released today. We haven’t even seen the consumer response yet.” 

He doesn’t care. Whether he’s looking at the reviews or if his own sales reports, nothing I say encourages him to budge. We argue for several minutes, but I never get anywhere.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey,” he says, once he’s clearly tired of our back and forth. “Please, pass our apologies on to your client.”

“Yeah.” I hang up, feeling a crushing sense of defeat. The book stores haven’t even had a chance to open yet, and this release is already a disaster. 

My very first release.

I walk back toward Scott’s office, but out of the corner of my eye, in the dark stairwell, I see Walter sitting by himself. Taking a deep, bracing breath, I make my way over to him.

“Mind if I sit?” I ask, eyeing the empty half of the bottom step.

“Sure,” he croaks back. I lower myself down and sit in silence with him, unsure of how to best provide this man comfort.

“Who was the call from?” he begins instead. “Was it about me?”

I nod. “It was Barnes and Noble. They cancelled your signing.”

“The one tomorrow?”

“All of them.”

He lets out a disappointed sigh and his head falls into his hands. “I think I might have just ended my entire career.”

He looks broken. Defeated. It makes me remember the months of rejection I endured last year. How painful it was to have someone tell you over and over again that the work you poured your soul into wasn’t good enough. I can feel that pain through the defeated droop in his shoulders, and it makes me experience the failure of this release so much more personally.

I didn’t just fail Carmen and Scott, I failed Walter.

“Have you ever heard of Across the River and into the Trees?” I ask.

“No.”

“It was written by Hemingway, and it was garbage. Dry. Overly simplistic. The critics panned it, and it flopped spectacularly. But, two years later, he released The Old Man and the Sea and he was right back on top again.”

“Really?”

“Really. One bad release isn’t the end of your career. It’s just… an opportunity for you to grow.”

“You read that garbage I just put out. You really think I have it in me to grow?

He says it as though he thinks he doesn’t, but I nod. “I do. Look, I let you down, Walter. It’s my job to advocate for you, and I didn’t do that. I let them push ahead a book that wasn’t ready instead of protecting your work. I’m sorry.”

He looks at me for a long time, then shakes his head. “It’s not your fault, Ana. You made what I gave you better. You, at least, gave me a fighting chance.”

“It is my fault, but I promise you, I won’t let you down again. I’m going to push you. You have another best seller in you, together we’re going to get it out.”

He smiles. “Thank you.”

“Oh, don’t thank me yet. You might be about to hate me.” I laugh, then get to my feet. “Why don’t you head back to the hotel, and take the day to lick your wounds? You can get back to work tomorrow.”

He agrees, standing up and staring back at me with a new determination in his eyes.

“And you better make it outstanding,” I warn him. “Because I’m going to absolutely rip it apart.”

He smiles. “Good. Thank you, Ana. Thank you… for believing in me.”

I wrap my arms around him, hugging him lightly before he turns and heads down the stairs. I watch him go, then start back for Scott’s office. I’m stopped though, by Carmen, who is hovering in the archway between the stairwell and the office floor. She doesn’t look happy, and I can only assume it’s because the rolled-up sheet of paper in her hand is the updated numbers for The Black Rose.

“Ana, can I speak with you in Scott’s office, please?”

“Yes,” I reply. She turns, expecting me to follow her, and I do. I trail behind her, full of apprehension, all the way through Scott’s door, and trying not to flinch when I hear it close behind me.

“What the hell is this?” she demands. “3000 copies? You promised me 20,000.”

“I know. It’s just… not resonating with our audience the way we hoped it would.” It’s a half-hearted offer of explanation. I know we don’t have any real excuse. We made a bad gamble and we got a bad outcome.

“And why not?” Carmen asks.

“The marketing,” Scott answers. “Anastasia made the decision not to use any Stormy Nights promotional materials, and we failed to pull in any of Daves’ previous base. If we would have done as I suggested, these numbers would be much higher.”

I narrow my eyes. Way to throw me under the bus, Scott.

“That wouldn’t make a difference,” I argue. “I’ve said this before. The answer wasn’t tricking a bunch of teenage girls looking for a high school romance into buying a graphic murder novel.”

“Then what was the answer, Anastasia? You have all the answers. Please come down from the mountain tops and enlighten us all. What should we have done?” Scott’s eyes blaze like the afterburn of cheap tequila.

“If I remember correctly,” Carmen interjects. “Ana didn’t have faith in this title from the beginning. She argued several times that The Black Rose wasn’t ready for publication.”

Scott’s eyes widen, fearfully. “Well, yeah… but—”

“Anastasia,” Carmen continues, cutting off Scott’s defense. “If Scott hadn’t been in your way, what would you have done differently?” 

“I would have sent Walter his manuscript back and told him it was too complicated. I would have asked him to edit at least twenty, maybe thirty thousand total words out of his draft and send it back to me once he’d pieced it back together. I would have signed Hailey Lewis instead, and we’d be talking about Phoenix right now.”

She nods once, then turns back to Scott. “Scott, you’re fired. You have until the end of the day to clean out your things.”

“But… Carmen!”

She doesn’t look in his direction, despite the arguments bubbling through his lips. “Ana, walk with me.”

I follow her out of the office, trying to ignore Scott’s indignant shouts behind us with the same impassivity Carmen does.

“I’m going to be straight with you, Ana,” she says as she reaches out for the button to call the elevator. “The financials between the two GSP branches aren’t good. Publishing is just a sideline for me, one I have no reason to keep if it isn’t going to be profitable.”

“Our pipeline is looking stronger,” I say quickly. “Two of my fiction editors are representing titles well on their way to becoming best sellers. Jacki’s might even already be there—”

The doors slide open and Carmen steps inside, the perfectly polished fingertips on her right-hand curling around the door to keep it from closing again.

“I won’t close GSP down, yet, but I’m not going to replace Scott. You’ll have to float both branches until you can prove to me they’re viable. I’ll give you one more release to turn it around and show me you really are what everyone claims you to be. One release that will move at least 50,000 copies. Just one.

50,000? But, Carmen…”

She steps further into the elevator, pushes her finger into the button for her floor, and the doors close without another word. I stand there, gaping, unsure of what to do or even think.

Both branches?

50,000 copies?

One release?

Fuck!

“Mrs. Grey?” I turn and find Taylor standing behind me, looking wary. “What’s going on with Wallace?”

Scott’s shouts of rage are echoing through the office, incoherent through the cursing and the constantly shifting blame. There’s a crash, and I wince.

“Carmen fired him.”

Taylor nods. “Well, he doesn’t seem to be taking it well. If you can work remotely, I think it’s best we return to the hotel. You seem to be the target of some of his more… colorful expletives.”

Should I? The curious eyes of the employees that keep shifting their eyes to his office are my responsibility now. They’ll want answers. To know if their job is safe. To know there’s a plan.

What the fuck am I going to tell them?

“Just a moment, Taylor.” I make my way to the center of the floor and call for everyone’s attention.

“Hi.” It’s a lame start, but I’m nervous. “If I haven’t met you yet, my name is Anastasia Grey and… and I’m going to be leading this branch moving forward. There are going to be some changes and probably some rough waters ahead, so I’d like to give you some time to think of any questions or concerns you may have for me, and we’ll meet back here at nine tomorrow morning to discuss. I’ll have a strategy for where we go from here that we’ll talk about then. For right now… take the rest of the day. I think we’re all going to need to regroup.”

I’m met with looks of confusion and disbelief, but once one employee begins to gather his things and I don’t stop him, everyone follows suit. Now I just need to come up with the brilliant strategy I’ve promised them.

Twenty-four hours is enough time to accomplish that, right?  

I let myself panic over the position I now find myself in for the entire drive back to the hotel. I’d been prepared for my own job to be on the line, but I hadn’t imagined we were one release away from both branches being dissolved. With the livelihoods of twenty-three people hanging over my head, the stress of what Carmen just asked me to do is all too real. How am I, a tiny little publisher tucked all the way up in the pacific northwest, going to attract the kind of title that would debut at 50,000 pre-orders? It takes name recognition and clout to pull off that kind of release, and I just sent my best author crawling away with his tail between his legs. I’m not even positive my press could handle that kind of release.

I spend the afternoon drafting and redrafting my plan, setting goals, creating metrics… In some ways it feels like I’m starting over. And while that feels daunting, I’m also a little relieved. There won’t be a Scott to go over my head anymore, and with real control, I might have a shot at fixing this mess.

One shot.

Once again, I work until I’m pulled from my laptop by the phone ringing on the table next to me. A great sense of relief moves through me this time when I see Christian’s name on the screen.

“Hey.”

“Hey.” He doesn’t sound as happy to hear from me as I am to hear from him, though I have a feeling that actually has very little to do with me.

“Bad day?”

“Something like that… How about you? How was your release?”

“It was a disaster. The critics hated it, no one bought it, and Carmen fired Scott.”

“What?”

“Yeah. Apparently, she’s ready to close down GSP altogether, so she’s decided not to replace him. It’s just going to be me going forward.”

He snorts. “Did you ask for a raise?”

“I don’t think that would have been productive. I’m worried about my people’s jobs, Christian.”

“Yeah,” he replies as though he understands completely. “Are you hungry?”

I look out the window behind me, surprised by how dark it is. “Uh, yeah. Do you mind if we order room service, though? I’ve really gotta focus here.”

“Whatever you want, baby.” There’s a heaviness in the sweet words that dampens them a little.

“Are you okay?” 

He sighs. “Yeah. Just… a really shitty day.”

“Okay. I’ll see you soon?”

“Yeah. I texted Taylor to come get me cause I can’t sit in the car with Ros right now. Don’t leave the room, okay?”

“I won’t.”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.” With a click, he’s gone and I frown down at the blank screen of my phone. I thought winning the tax battle against his dad would have him in better spirits, but he’s worse today than he was last week. Is it because of the fusion project, or is New York not going the way he planned? I don’t know, but the way he sounded on the phone makes me feel like I need to find out.

My eyes move to my laptop again. I’ve got direction and a solid start on the proposal I’m writing up, and even though I hate to lose any momentum right now, I decide to put it away for a few hours so I can devote all of my attention to Christian.

After today, I kind of think we both might need it.

Using the hotel phone, I dial down to the front desk and order room service, complete with their best sauvignon blanc. Then, I slip into the bathroom to freshen up and change into something much less comfortable. Christian and I are here for a week, a whole week without Calliope, so I made sure to pack some of my sluttiest lingerie. I just hadn’t expected to need it so soon…

When I hear the knock on the door, I slide into one of the soft, fluffy robes provided by the hotel, grab some cash from my wallet for a tip, and answer it.

It isn’t room service waiting for me. It’s Scott.

“What are you doing here?” I ask, stepping further back into my room so I can close the door a little more.

“Can we talk?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Scott.”

His shoulders fall. “Ana, you’ve gotta help me save my job. I have a wife… We have a mortgage.”

“I don’t know.”

“Look, I think I figured it out. I think I know how to save both of our branches.”

That piques my interest since I’ve spent the entire day trying to do just that. I have a plan, but not one that would make me sound as confident as Scott does now. Honestly, I couldn’t even sound hopeful.

“Alright, come in,” I say, stepping to the side and opening the door. He does, then hovers until I invite him to sit in the living room I’ve turned into an office. I sit across from him and motion for him to begin. “What is it?”

“What it is, is a dog eat dog world, Anastasia. This industry used to be so different. I don’t even recognize it anymore. A publishing house can’t even stay afloat unless they’re constantly, constantly, constantly turning out content.”

“I think that’s a problem with your model, Scott. Not the industry.”

He doesn’t seem to hear me. He looks at me like he’s looking through me. “The answer was in front of us the whole time. You and I arguing over Phoenix and The Black Rose. Over 10,000 units. 20,000 units…” He shakes his head. “The answer was already in our hands.”

“What do you mean?”

You. Your numbers were phenomenal, and you have an unpublished manuscript right now.”

My mouth goes dry. “No.”

“Ana, the sales from a release like that would keep Greenwich viable for years. Your entire team, my entire team, all of them… secure. Think of what you could build in the time that release would buy you.”

“No.” My response is automatic. Final. It makes Scott go rigid.

“This would save my job, Anastasia. My livelihood.”

I shake my head. “Greenwich couldn’t even handle one of my releases. Jacki pushed our presses to the limit with a 10,000 copy print. Escape sold over a million copies.”

“So what, you’re too good for us? Anastasia Grey and her guaranteed best-seller is just too big, too important for Greenwich Small Press?”

“I’m being realistic, Scott.”

“You’re being a bitch.”

My mouth snaps shut and I get to my feet. “You need to leave. Now.”

“I came here for your manuscript, Anastasia. I’m not leaving without it.”

Fuck.

Taylor isn’t here and there isn’t anyone else. What do I do?

Christian.

My phone is on the table between us, so I reach down to grab it. My fingers curl around the glass and metal only half a second before his do. Quickly, I jerk it out of the way. He dives at me and knocks me into the couch.

“Scott!” I scream in defiance as he wrestles my phone away from me. He tosses it across the room, far out of my reach, and smiles down at me in a ridiculing way that makes goosebumps rise to the surface of my skin. A brief memory of Lincoln, holding me down just like this, flashes across my eyes, and I start to thrash violently beneath him. It only makes him hold me tighter.

“Careful how you scream my name, sweetheart. I might just get turned on.”

“Get off of me!”

“Where is the fucking manuscript, Anastasia? On your laptop over there?”

His hands secure both of my wrists, holding me in place the same way Christian has thousands of times. But he doesn’t have Christian’s strength, and if there’s one thing loving a semi-sadistic dom has taught me, it’s how to effectively struggle.

I twist my wrists in exactly the right way to loosen his grip just long enough to yank out of his hold. Then it’s a reckless shove, using all of my body weight, and he too loses balance off the top of me and falls to the floor. I’m up in the next second, sprinting to the bedroom where there’s a door that locks.

He grabs me around the ankle, sending me flying to the floor before I get there. Then he’s on me again, our arms and legs tangled together and battering against each other while he tries to subdue me and I try desperately to get away.

“Stop fighting me!” he shouts, angry now. “Just give me the fucking manuscript!”

“Get the fuck away from me!” I squirm out of his hold just long enough to move a couple more feet, but he grabs hold of the belt on my robe and the whole thing comes unraveled.

“Well, well, well,” he says, smiling down at me when he sees the lingerie. “What have we here?”

“Let me go,” I whine. His grip is tighter now, painful, and I can’t break it.

“Oh no, baby doll. If you don’t want to give me what I want, maybe I’m just going to have to take it. Maybe I’ll just take whatever the fuck I want.” He bends down, nuzzling my breast through the sheer fabric that exposes everything, then moans as he shifts his weight on top of me. I see him reach for his belt. 

“No, wait!” I try to pull away, but I can’t. He laughs.

“Shut up, slut. You might just enjoy this.”

And then he’s gone.

His weight lifts from me all at once as he’s sent flying back into the wall so hard that it folds around him. My husband stands over him looking livid, murder in his eyes. Scott falls to a heap on the floor and Christian leaps on top of him. I watch him raise his fist high into the air and bring it down across Scott’s jaw with a sickening crunch.

“Taylor!” I scream. The door is still open from Christian’s arrival and Taylor’s room is just across the hall. Three more times I call for him, and Christian lands three more punches. Thankfully, I hear the distant ping of the elevator and when I call for help, our head of security runs into the room.

It’s a struggle, but he’s able to get Christian off Scott. Still, the separation doesn’t seem to quench his violent rampage. I have to get in the way for him to stop charging at Scott. His chest heaves, his body shakes, and his eyes are filled with bloodlust.

“He was assaulting her,” he snarls at Taylor. “Deal with it.”

“Yes, sir.” Taylor nods emphatically, then drags Scott from the room. I stare at the blood staining the carpet, then start stumbling to Christian. He holds up a hand to stop me.

“Not yet.” I freeze and watch him take a deep, calming breath before he continues. “Are you okay?”

I blink at him. “Are you?”

Clearly, he’s not. His entire body is stiff with rage. His hands are bloody. He looks insane.

He shakes his head slowly. “How did he get in here?”

“I let him in.”

“You let him in?”

I swallow, cowering slightly under the anger leaking into his voice. “He asked me to help him save his job. He said he knew how to save both our branches. I let him in to hear him out and he said he wanted my manuscript. My manuscript. For Greenwich. I said no, he called me a bitch, and then… he attacked me.”

“I’ll fucking kill him.” Christian turns for the door, but I throw myself in his way.

“Please don’t.”

Not an ounce of the tension seizing his whole body eases, so I move to wrap him in my arms. Again, he stops me.

Not. Yet.”

I take a step back and meet his eyes with mine instead. “I’m okay, Christian. He didn’t touch me.”

“I saw him touching you.” He leaves me with those cold words and stalks into the bedroom. It’s best to give him a few minutes to calm down, I think, so I wait for the room service I ordered to actually arrive before I go and track him down. He’s in the shower, his back to me. Bruised and cut hands press into the wall. His head hangs beneath the water.

I go to him, but keep the glass between us.

“I’m sorry,” I tell him. “It was stupid for me to let him in.”

“Don’t apologize.” He still doesn’t turn to face me. “You’re trying to take care of your people. That can make you desperate and… irrational.”

There’s that tone again. Like what he’s telling me is more than just an appeal to empathy. Like he’s fighting the same battle I am.

“Is everything okay, Christian? Did something go wrong in your meeting this afternoon?”

He shakes his head, but I can’t tell if it’s an answer or an expression of just how badly things really went. I drop my robe, open the shower, and step inside, still dressed in my lingerie. This time he doesn’t stop me when I try to wrap myself around him. He actually relaxes a small degree when I finally do.

“Tell me what happened?” I press him. Slowly, he turns to face me.

“Ana… I think I’ve really fucked up.”

Next Chapter

Hey, Guys… Let’s talk.

Hi, everyone! And welcome to our September fire side chat, helped, in part, by the raging fires of the Pacific Northwest (pauses to cough). Is everyone comfortable? Everyone good? You got a drink in the back? Excellent.

I took a lot of time of time off writing, basically all of 2019, because between 2015 and 2019, it’s all I did and I burned myself out. Hard. It legit took an entire year before I could even sit down at a computer and feel creative again.

Then Covid hit and I got so bored I nearly jumped off a bridge.

This one specifically.

I’d already made it a kind of New Years Resolution for 2020 to get back into writing, but that goal became serious when the world shut down in March. Most of the projects I’d been developing at that point weren’t necessarily meant to be published– I just wanted to test some limits and explore some concepts I’d been thinking about without the pressure of an audience.

But there was always this nagging voice in the back of my mind.

Therapy time: I’m a little OCD. And by a little OCD, I mean that when I drink too much, I clean toilets. Believe me, I’m the life of the party.

So, as I started getting deeper into the other projects I was working on, I found myself getting distracted and derailed over and over again because I had this unfinished thing out there, sitting, in limbo, taunting me… I decided to write a one shot and post it, see if that changed anything for me… and it did.

Because of you guys.

When I posted the Covid with the Greys outtake in April, I got so much amazing feedback and support that it kind of derailed my plans a bit. I started thinking about Shades of Fifty again. I re-read A Different Shade, A Broken Shade, A Stronger Shade, and The Final Shade (Which took much longer than I’m proud to admit– haha), and took a few weeks to just think about what I would do if I were to finish it.

Those thoughts turned into an outline, that outline turned into the first few chapters, and now I’m happy to announce:

The Final Shade of Fifty is coming back!

I will start updating again on OCTOBER 5th. I wanted to give you guys a few weeks to re-read Final if you were inclined, because the update I post on October 5th will be Chapter 26– picking up right where I left off. I have once again created an extremely detailed outline that will get me all the way through the end, so I am committed to posting EVERY. SINGLE. MONDAY. (come hell or high water) until I’m finished, which– if nothing deviates from my outline– will be a total of 53 chapters (28 new chapters).

It ends a little differently than I intended when I first outlined book four, which leads me to my first consequence: I’m going to have to delete the Covid outtake. It was written based on how I imagined the story ended before, and there have been major changes that make a lot of what happens in that outtake no longer make any sense. What are those things? You’ll see!

I’m so excited to connect with all of you again and share the new direction of this story. I’m happy with it, so I hope you all will be too. Because despite my long, long absence, it’s still true that I’m…

WishingMrGreyWasHere

The Greys Vs. Covid-19

Authors Note: Hey guys, I’m bored in self-isolation, so I thought maybe I’d write a quick one shot of what the Greys are doing during the pandemic. Then it ended up being 23 pages long… I hope you enjoy it 🙂

xoxo WishingMrGreyWasHere

****

ccimage-shutterstock_307963457-1

Christian’s POV:

“What about the shipping containers we just sent to China?” 

Ros frowns and leans towards the screen. I can tell by the change in light across her face that she’s clicked away from our video call and opened her email in search of an answer. It gives me a moment to look at the boxes filled with the faces of the other members of my management team. Welch is in a hoodie, and it’s slightly disconcerting. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the man out of a suit. My eyes shift down to my own blue t-shirt, and I wonder if they’re thinking the same thing about me. 

“Ah,” Ros finally says, and seconds later my email pings with a new message. “Looks like everything went fine. No problems with the cargo, delivery was accepted and payment has been remitted… The crew has been moved into mandatory quarantine.” 

I nod, moving my chair back and forth and tapping my fingers against the metal surface of my laptop. The cabin fever is getting to me, and my entire body hums with anxious energy that no amount of time in my gym has been able to relieve. 

“What about Grey Publishing?” 

Ros raises an eyebrow at me. “I’m pretty sure Ana is the only one on staff still working and since she’s currently working from your house, I feel like that’s something you should already know.” 

“It is. I just wanted to hear her name.” Ros rolls her eyes while I laugh quietly to myself and look up out my office window at the lake just at the edge of my lawn. Ana had been down there earlier with the kids, teaching them to skip rocks across the water and playing tag in the grass. They disappeared an hour ago and I’m itching to leave my office to find them. 

“Christian,” Ros presses me, drawing my attention back to our meeting. “What else can we bring you up to speed on?” 

I shake my head. “R&D is shut down. Agriculture is shut down. Fiber Optics is operational but the employee load on the VPN keeps crashing the servers and Welch won’t be able to stabilize the system fully until next week. Manufacturing is now only making respirators to fill the orders from the state and the federal government.” 

“Ah, well look who suddenly reads all of his emails,” Ros teases me. 

“I have a lot more time now that my company is basically at a standstill.” 

She nods, the visceral agreement in her eyes telling me this is all driving her just as insane as it’s driving me. We weren’t built for this, Ros and me. It’s been six weeks since I’ve been able to close any kind of deal and it’s starting to make me itch. Like an addict in between fixes. 

The door to my office opens and I look up over the top of my laptop to see two, knee-high Power Rangers run into the room. 

“Freeze, bad guy!” the red one says, holding his fists in front of him and throwing a few punches at the air. His brother, dressed in blue, attempts a sort of jumping, spinning kick that sends him toppling to the floor. It doesn’t shake him. He pops right back up onto his feet and holds his hand up like he’s going to do a karate chop. 

“I’ve to go,” I tell my staff. “The Power Rangers just showed up.” 

Ros’s face breaks into a wide grin. “Well, we wouldn’t want to let them interfere with our evil plans. Don’t let them stop us, Christian.” 

“Not today.” I smile at the screen, then hang up the call. Closing the lid of my laptop, I slowly rise from my seat and narrow my eyes at my three year old twin boys. “You’ve made a mistake coming here, Rangers.” 

They both start shouting, charging forward at me and slamming into each one of my legs at the exact same time. Their tiny fists collide with my calves over and over again, like a gentle massage. 

“You think that’s enough to take down Dr. Dad?” I laugh an overly exaggerated, evil laugh, then reach down to pick up whichever of my sons is dressed in blue and toss him over my shoulder, holding him to me with one arm. I reach down to throw punches, which are really nothing more than me gently pressing my fists into my son’s side. He fights back, of course, so I grab a hold of his costume, pick him up, and pretend to slam him down on the ground. 

“Surrender, red ranger!” I tell him, struggling to keep my hold on his brother. 

“Never!” 

“Power punch!” the blue ranger shouts. He raises both of his tiny fits and brings them crashing down into the top of my back, making sound effects as though the impact of his punch created a seismic wave. I pretend the blow is devastating and fall to the ground. They’re both on me in the next second and the wrestling match begins. 

“Alright, rangers,” Ana’s voice comes from the doorway. “Dinner’s ready. Come eat.” 

The boys stop fighting and yank off their helmets. “We beat you so bad, Dad,” Teddy tells me. There’s a challenge in his eyes because he knows I’ll never admit defeat. 

“In your dreams, kid.” 

“Get him!” Luke shouts. I catch him as he dives on top of me, absorbing his brother’s punches into my arm. 

“Boys, now!” Ana says, opening the door and stepping to the side, a clear invitation for them to get the fuck moving. 

“Aw, Mom!” Luke whines. 

“Just five minutes, Dad?” Teddy asks. I look at Ana and she raises an eyebrow at me. Normally, I’m the one who gives the kids whatever they want. Each and every one of them has me wrapped around their finger in their own, unique way. But without a housekeeper, the nanny, and our security team, Ana and I are officially outnumbered for the first time. She’s made me promise that, no matter what, she and I stay on the same team. 

It’s the only way we’ll survive.

“You heard your mother, go get your dinner.” They both grumble as they climb off me, but when Teddy says he can beat Luke to the dining room, they both take off at a sprint and a few seconds later, there’s a crash and one of the boy’s moans, “owe.

Ana closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. I imagine she’s probably counting to ten inside her head. Her hair is tossed up in a messy bun that’s half falling out of it’s elastic. There’s a little color in her cheeks from the time she spent outside with the kids and her leggings are smeared with something at a height that clearly indicates Luke or Teddy. She looks worn out, stressed… and absolutely beautiful. I get up off the floor and take her in my arms. 

“Have I told you how incredibly fucking sexy you are today?” I ask. 

She moves away and looks up at me with a hard, sardonic stare. “I’ve been wearing this t-shirt for three days.” 

“Then let me get it off of you.” I give her a devilish grin as my hands jet out for her. She squeals, then giggles, trying to keep out of my reach. Before I can get my fingers on her t-shirt though, we hear another loud thud from the back of the house.

“I’m okay!” one of the boys yells back. 

Ana sighs. “Come on, before they break a window.” 

I want to laugh, but the possibility is too real, so I knot my fingers with hers and pull her towards the kitchen. She stops me at the bottom of the stairs. 

“Calliope Katherine, I’m not going to come up there again! You have sixty seconds to get your butt in a chair at the dining room table.” 

 

The boys are in the kitchen, practicing karate moves on each other from the kung-fu movies they’ve been watching all week. I should look at getting them into a martial arts class…

If this pandemic ever fucking ends.

Ana starts collecting serving dishes to take into the dining room, so I start collecting kids. Luke and Teddy won’t stop attacking each other, which means I have to carry them like potato sacks and somehow restrain one while I help the other wash his hands. By the time the last one is in his chair and I’ve got him settled down, Calliope comes into the dining room. 

“That was much more than sixty seconds,” Ana tells her. Calliope holds up a piece of paper. 

“I was working on something.” 

“Oh?” Ana pulls out a chair next to her and motions for Calliope to take a seat. She does. “What were you working on?” 

I reach for the spoon in the chicken and rice dish Ana made, but before my fingers even fully curl around it, Ana’s hands are around my wrist. She’s not even looking at me. Ever since we had the boys, she’s developed an almost sixth sense that lets her move and act without ever actually thinking about it. 

“And when was the last time you washed your hands?” she asks, turning in my direction. 

“I just helped the boys.” 

“That’s not the same thing as washing, Christian.” She looks at the kitchen, motioning me to the doorway with her chin. “Twenty seconds with soap and warm water.”

I let out a heavy sigh and make my way to the kitchen, pushing up the handle on the faucet and shoving my hands into the scalding water. My skin is starting to feel dry and rough from the number of times I’ve had to wash every day over the past few weeks. Ana’s been perhaps a bit overcautious, but being in the heart of Seattle during this pandemic has been like being at ground zero. Every night, she calls my mother to ask how her day was at the hospital. And the next morning, without fail, I find her obsessively cleaning counters or the kids toys. 

“Daddy,” Calliope calls to me the moment I’ve taken my seat at the table again. Ana takes my plate and starts to fill it for me while I turn my attention to my daughter. “Yes, Princess?” 

“I think you and I should sit down and have a negotiation.” 

“Oh, you think so, huh?” I give Ana a grateful look as she hands my plate back to me and when our fingers touch, I feel a shock of want shoot all the way down to my groin. When was the last time we had sex? Last… Thursday? Fuck. You would think staying home all the time would at least mean I’d be getting laid more, but all it’s really done is fuck up our kids sleep schedules. I don’t think she and I have spent a full night in bed, alone, all week. I’m aching to touch her. 

“Daddy!” Calliope’s insistent voice breaks through my thoughts. 

“Sorry.” I shake away my libidinous plans for later tonight and look away from Ana. “You want to have a negotiation.” 

“Yes.” 

“About what?” 

She picks up the paper she brought into the dining room with her and starts reading from the top of the page. 

“Reasons why I should still get to have a birthday party, by Calliope Grey. Number one, you only turn nine years old one time.” 

“Calliope…” I stop her. “You know we want to have a birthday party for you, but we can’t. No one can come over, not for anything.” 

“But, Daddy! What if we just–”

“The answer is no,” I answer firmly. “You will celebrate your birthday at home with your brothers, your mom, and me. That’s just the way it has to be this year, I’m sorry.” 

She stands up from the table, nearly knocking her chair over behind her. Her cheeks are pink with anger. “I don’t ever want to celebrate with you! You’re not invited!” 

She storms out of the dining room and Ana sighs before dragging herself out of her chair and going after our daughter. Again, I feel the twinge of anxious energy. Calliope doesn’t seem to be handling self-isolation any better than I am. 

She really is my clone

Ana doesn’t come back to the table, so once the boys are finished, I sit them on the couch in front of Disney+ and try to keep an eye on them while I clean the kitchen. An hour later, Ana still hasn’t emerged from Calliope’s room, so I take the boys up for their bath and tuck them into bed by myself. Both of them seem to think it’s not actually bedtime until Mommy comes and kisses them goodnight, so I bribe them with an extra bedtime story. It’s the only successful mediation I’ve had with my kids all day.

As I back out of the boy’s room, I glance at Calliope’s still closed door and then make my way to the master. Yes, it’s only 8:00, but honestly, there’s nothing I’d rather do than just go to bed. Not because I’m tired, but because I can’t sit down and watch anymore TV. I can’t make myself read the pages of one more book. I could see burying myself in my wife for the rest of the night, but I doubt she’s going to be in a particularly kinky mood after spending all evening comforting our distraught daughter. She didn’t even get to eat dinner. 

In fact

I sneak back downstairs and make Ana a dinner plate. While her food revolves in the microwave, I pour her a very generous glass of wine and take the bag of cookies from the pantry. Once I’ve got everything balanced on the plate, I head back upstairs to find Ana is already crawling into bed. 

“Oh my god, are those the chocolate orange Milanos?” Her face contorts with want, so I toss the bag to her. She immediately fishes a cookie out and sinks her teeth into it, moaning. 

“Mmm.” She looks over at me with ecstasy on her face. I hold out the glass of wine and she looks up at me like I’m holding out a chest of gold. 

“Take your dick out,” she says, looking between me and the wine and I laugh before passing her the stemmed glass and sliding the dinner leftovers into her lap. 

“Why don’t you eat first, then we’ll talk?” 

“Fine.” 

She takes a bite, then picks up the remote off the side table and flips to the news. A banner crosses the bottom of the screen, reporting the updated number of cases, while the reporter talks about a man who had died with his family standing on the other side of the glass from him. He was all alone. 

I take the remote and mute the TV.

“How’s Calliope?” 

“Devastated. Angry. Confused. I think she thought that even though this was serious enough to cancel school, we’d never let anything be serious enough to stop her from having her birthday party.”

My head falls back into the pillow. “There’s got to be something we can do.” 

“Not anything that will let her invite the friends from school she hasn’t seen in a month. I don’t know… maybe we should try going out on the yacht this weekend, get her out of the house. That might work… for a few days anyway.” 

“No. Someone from the cleaning crew I employ to clean the yacht every week tested positive and since that whole crew works together on every job, the whole company shut down. I tried to find another, but apparently, cleaning services aren’t essential businesses.”

“So the yacht is out of commission until all of this is over?” 

“If it wasn’t, you think we’d be self-isolating here?” 

“Ugh, no. We’d be in the middle of the Mediterranean and all the kids would be asleep at the same time, and I’d be lying out with an ice cold margarita.” She hums with pleasure and pushes back, deeper into the pillows, the exact same way she does when I brush my fingertips over her clit. 

It gives me ideas

“Oh, yeah? And where am I on this fantasy Mediterranean yacht trip?” 

She looks up at me through her long eyelashes, her blue eyes glinting with dirty promises. “You’d definitely be kneeling over the top of me, rubbing tanning oil over every inch of me.” 

“Every inch?” 

She bites her lip. “The first of many inches you’d give me.” 

“Oh, baby.” I stare down at her, chewing on that full, pink, petal soft bottom lip and fuck do I want it. While I move her plate to her nightstand, her hand moves down between us and she grips my already hard cock through my pants. I growl and fall on top of her, forcing her to feel my weight pinning her down to the mattress as I take her lips. 

My hands roam freely over her body, taking time to gently cup her face as I kiss her so that she can feel how much I truly cherish her before I rip into her like the starving man these past few weeks have turned me into. But just as I move down to take a good, firm handful of her breast, there’s a click, a low groan, and then a tiny body standing at the foot of my bed. 

“Mommy,” Teddy says, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “I need you to take me potty.”

My head falls in disappointment, but I roll off my wife so she can get up. My hot, sexy, tight-assed, already wet for me wife…

God, I miss the nanny.

I swallow against the want and flop back down on the bed. Thirty minutes turn into an hour and Ana still doesn’t return, which means she very likely dozed off in Teddy’s bed, trying to get him to go back to sleep. Normally, I’d go wake her. Maybe even carry her back to bed so I wouldn’t have to disturb her. But I don’t, because tonight, I’m not sure how easily I’m going to find sleep myself. My mind is occupied with Calliope. It goes against everything that comes natural to me to deny my baby girl anything. There’s a reason she brought her negotiation directly to me. She probably thought, ‘because I’m your little princess,’ would be enough to get her whatever she wanted. Any other time, she’d probably be right. I want to give into her now, but I can’t. And I haven’t seen her smile or heard her laugh since I had to sit her down the other night and break the bad news. 

I need to find a way to make it up to her. 

Inspiration strikes in the very early hours of the morning, so I send off a few emails, make one very large Venmo transfer, and set an alarm on my phone that will get me up before my boys. The sun hasn’t even risen yet when I creep into Calliope’s bedroom. I look through her drawers and pick out an outfit suitable for what I have planned that day, then tiptoe to her bed to wake her. 

“Good morning, Princess.” 

“Daddy?” She blinks, still too tired to remember she’s mad at me, and I smile. 

“Here, get dressed. You and I are bustin’ out of here.” 

“Really?” She perks up. 

I nod, then give her a very serious look. “Get dressed and do not wake your mother.” 

She takes the jeans, t-shirt, and sweatshirt I’ve picked out for her and silently climbs out of bed. I move down the hall, pausing at the boys’ door and listening for any indication that any of them are awake. It’s silent. So when Calliope comes out of her room, we sneak down to the garage like a couple of criminals in the middle of a prison break. 

“We’re taking this car?”Calliope asks, her eyes widening as I pull her to my Bugatti Chiron. Normally, the kids aren’t allowed anywhere near this car. Not just because it only has two seats, but because no matter how often you bathe them, they always seem to be covered in something sticky. I don’t need that anywhere near the interior of my $2 million car. 

But today, we’re breaking all the rules. 

I even let her eat in the front seat. I can’t take her to a restaurant for breakfast, so instead we swing through a drive through. It actually works out great because my kids get fast food so rarely that Calliope looks at an egg McMuffin like it’s a precious delicacy. 

“I can’t believe you let me have a coke for breakfast,” she beams, taking a sip of soda through her straw. “This day is so cool.”

I smile at her, feeling elation over the happiness I can once again see on her face. “We’re just getting started, Princess.” 

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.” 

The normally packed interstate is practically deserted, so I push my foot to the floor and really let the engine open up. We fly down the highway, faster than I’d ever admit to Ana, and my daughter loves it. She rolls down the window so the wind whips her long, dark hair around her face, and she laughs. The sound echos through the car, sweeter than any music I’ve ever heard. Her bright, gray eyes, my eyes, sparkle with joy. 

There’s no way to describe the way it makes me feel. 

It takes just over an hour to get to the trail head into the foothills at the base of Mount Rainier. There’s a trailer waiting for us there hooked up to a pickup truck where Paul, the stable master where Calliope’s horses are kept, reads a book in the cab.  Across the clearing, two horses are tied to a small hitching post.

“Elsa!” Calliope shrieks, jumping from the car and sprinting to her horse at full speed. She wraps her arms around the horse’s long neck, and closes her eyes as tight as she can. The way she used to do when she’d wish on shooting stars. 

“But, Daddy, why didn’t you bring Pebbles or Bam-bam?”

I smile, thinking of her as half the size she is now, alligator tears rolling down her cheeks when Ana had told her we wouldn’t name the twins after her favorite cartoon neighbors. I bought her a pair of American Quarters for her to name instead. 

“You need to spend some time with your horse,” I tell her. 

“But what if she blows out an ankle or hurts a ligament or something?” 

“Then I guess you’re not going to be able to compete for a while.” The moment the words are out of my mouth, I cringe. I’d meant it as a joke, because all equestrian competition has been cancelled for the foreseeable future. But, that’s not something I want to remind her of. 

Thankfully though, she takes my comment in stride and laughs. “I guess you’re right. You wanna go for a ride, Elsa?” 

I approach the second beast with much more caution than Calliope. This won’t be my first time riding with her. Not even my second, third, or forth. Calliope has loved horses since the very first time Ana set her on the back of a pony at a local petting zoo. She’s been taking riding lessons since she was old enough to sit up in a saddle and she’s been in competition since she was seven. I’ve been riding with her many times before, I’ve just never been riding with her… alone before. And this might end up being something stupid and reckless and I might end up on the couch for a week… or worse, but seeing Calliope smile like she does as she climbs into the saddle makes none of that matter. 

I take a deep breath and climb up onto my own horse, an black and white spotted Appaloosa that Calliope named Snoopy when she was four. He’s fairly calm and we’ve ridden together almost every time I’ve gone out, but the trust between us is still very thin. I prefer the kind of horsepower that does exactly what I tell it to and exactly how I tell it to, not the kind that might throw you to the ground if you come across a snake. 

“Ready, Daddy?” Calliope asks, her voice filled with excitement as she snaps her newly sanitized riding helmet into place.” 

“I’m right behind you, Princess.” 

It’s a great ride through the mountains. This early in the year, we pass several snow banks that haven’t quite melted away under the spring sun. Still, the trail is in great shape and we never cross paths with a single soul all the way to the top of the ridge.

“This was stupid, you know,” I tell her, passing her my water bottle once we’ve stopped. “If I had any sense about me at all, I would have never brought you all the way up here without Paul.” 

“How can you say that? Just look at that view!” I turn in the direction of her gaze and stare out at the valley below us. Two mountainsides, covered in a thick coat of evergreen. The riverbed that separates each side shines a bright, glacial blue under the golden sunlight. It’s breathtaking, definitely worth the ride, and the ass kicking I’ll get from my wife once I’m home. 

Calliope and I dismount and tie Elsa and Snoopy to a nearby tree, then sit together on a fallen log and stare out ahead at the scenery. “How’s your school work going, kid?” 

She shrugs. “Fine. I think mom might be a better teacher than Ms. Briggs.”

Dr. Briggs has a PhD in early childhood education.” 

“Yeah, but my mom went to Harvard. She’s practically a genius.” Her voice rings with pride and I wish for a passing moment that I’d somehow managed to record that. It would make Ana positively glow. 

“That’s very true,” I tell her. “What about your French. Have you been practicing?” 

Tous les jours, Bon, sauf le dimanche mais ça c’est parce que mami disait toujours que tu devrais garder le… euh…” (Everyday. Well, except Sundays, but that’s because Grandma always said you should keep the… er)

Garder le Sabbat saint.” (Keep the Sabbath holy.)

Exacte.” (Exactly.)

I chuckle. “I’ll make you a new vocabulary list tonight.” 

“Oh goodie,” she replies, insincerely. “Let me guess, you’ve got another piano piece for me to learn too?” 

“Several, actually. But you’re still stumbling through the crescendo in the Beethoven piece I gave you two weeks ago. Once you can play that perfectly, I’ll give you something else.” 

“Daddy, I don’t want to be a concert pianist when I grow up. Why do I have to learn to play the piano?” Again, a smile tugs at the corner of my mouth as I remember asking my mother the exact same thing when I was around Calliope’s age. I give her the same answer Grace gave me. 

“Because playing the piano creates all kinds of new neural connections that otherwise wouldn’t be there. That’s what makes you as smart as you are.” 

She tosses her braid over her shoulder. “Nah, that I got from my mama.” 

Twice in one day? Ana would be on cloud nine. I’m almost a little jealous…

“You know, I went to Harvard too. I also started an international, multi-billion dollar company…” 

She waves her hand at me as if that’s all very unimportant. “You went to Harvard for one year. Face it, Dad. You’re a beauty school dropout.” 

“It’s just dropout. Beauty school was in no way involved.” 

She shrugs. “That’s how the song goes.” 

I listen to her sing the first few, very out of key bars, of Beauty School Dropout and start shaking my head. “I need to talk to your mother about the movies she’s letting you watch.” 

“What’s wrong with Grease?” 

“What isn’t wrong with Grease? If a boy ever speaks to you the way Danny Zucco spoke to Sandy, you come to me and I’ll take care of Danny Zucco.” 

“I thought I wasn’t allowed to date until I was thirty-eight?” 

“You’re not. And if you bring any Danny Zuccos around, it’ll be forty-eight.” She laughs and turns to look at the scenery again. I want to give her the opportunity to talk about how hard this whole ordeal has been for her, but she seems content to just stare at the view. 

I push her. 

“I’m sorry about your birthday, Calliope.” 

“Yeah,” she grumbles back. 

“You want to know what I was going to do?” 

“What?” 

“Your mom and I were going to take the boys to grandmas and then take you to San Francisco, just the three of us, to see that Harry Potter play you told me about. Your mom was going to get the two of you matching costumes to wear to the show and I was working on getting you backstage to meet the cast. We were going to stay in my favorite hotel, right in the middle of the city, and I was going to take you to a fancy dinner at a very nice restaurant where you’d get to dress up, just like a real princess.” 

Longing is reflected in her eyes, and she lets out a long breath as she turns back to the river. “Why would you even tell me that?”

“Because it’s still going to happen, Calliope. The second we’re allowed to travel again, I will put you on my plane and take you anywhere you want to go. And if you want to have a birthday party later in the summer to make up for the one you missed with your friends, then we’ll party like it’s May 7th on the 4th of July.”

She giggles.

“I love you, Calliope Katherine Grey. You know there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you, right?” 

“Yeah, I guess.” 

“So, can I please come to your birthday party?” 

She lolls her head to the side, giving me an exasperated look. “Really, Dad?” 

“What? You can’t expect me to be uninvited from what will undoubtedly be the party of the year and say nothing. I’m Christian Grey, Calliope. I’m expected to be at these kinds of things, you see. I have a reputation to uphold.” 

She rolls her eyes. “I mean, whatever. Since you’re paying for it, I guess you can come.” 

“Oh, yeah?” I reach over and tickle her sides, making her yelp and squirm away from me. “Why do I get to come?” 

“Dad, stop! Oh my god! Dad!” She laughs, trying to push me away, but I simply clamp my hands tighter around her. 

“What was that?” When I release her, she takes a moment to compose herself, then sits up, red faced and grinning from ear to ear. 

“You can come because I love you.” 

I lean into her, pressing my forehead against hers. “That’s what I thought you said.” 

 

I give her a few more minutes with her view, then we climb back into our saddles and make our way down the mountain. Paul is waiting for us when we get back and I thank him for driving the animals all the way down here from six feet away, avoiding shaking his hand. 

I’d considered too late that Calliope and I would smell like horse as we slide into the smooth Italian leather of my car, but all concern is washed away as my baby girl settles on a Spotify playlist and we drive home together, perfectly reciting all of the complicated bars to the rap songs Ana doesn’t let her listen to. 

Me? She can eat fast food and get her horse smell all over everything, but I’ll never allow Taylor Swift to be played in my Bugatti. 

Calliope can have that with Ana.

It’s almost dinner time when we get back to Seattle and Calliope suggests it might soften the blow with her mom if we bring a few pizzas back with us so she doesn’t have to cook dinner. It’s not a bad idea, so I swing through Ana’s favorite pizza place before starting back to the house. 

“What are you going to say to her?” Calliope asks, once we’ve entered the code into the gate at the entrance of our driveway. 

“Don’t you worry, I can handle your mother.” 

She snorts. “Yeah, okay.” 

“Trust me. She’ll be just fine if you do me one favor…” 

 

Ana is leaning over the island in the middle of the kitchen when we get home, Facetiming with Kate. “He’s back,” she says, and I hear the heightened excitement behind Kate’s response. 

“Ooh, someone’s gonna get it. Call me back and give me all the gory details, this is the most exciting thing that’s happened all week.” 

“I will,” Ana promises. She hangs up the phone and turns to Calliope and me, hands on her hips and a stern look on her face. 

“Welcome home, dear.” The way she says that last word sounds like acid. 

Calliope sets the pizza boxes on the counter, takes the top one, and moves to her brothers, who are ramming trucks into each other on the floor. 

“Come on, boys. Let’s go watch Coco on the big TV downstairs. I’ve got pizza!” 

Luke looks up, wide eyed. 

“Yeah!” Teddy chimes in, as if it’s the greatest idea he’s ever heard. They run off for the hallway and Calliope shoots me back a thumbs up. I wink and turn to Anastasia. 

“Where’d you go, Christian?” she asks. 

“I took her riding. We didn’t go out in any public spaces, I had the horses brought to the trail head so she didn’t have to go down to the stables, and she never came in contact with a living soul. I swear.” 

Stay at home means stay at fucking home, Chri–”

I don’t let her finish. I close the space between us in one long stride and bring my mouth down on hers. “I need a shower. Come with me.” 

“But, the kids…” 

“The kids will be fine for the next couple hours. Come.” I run my tongue lightly across her lip, then kiss her softly. She shudders. 

“A quick one,” her breathy, desperate voice responds. I grab her by the hair at the nape of her neck and tilt her face up to me.

“Baby, nothing about tonight is going to be quick.” 

Without warning, I scoop her up and toss her over my shoulder, carrying her towards the stairs. She protests and tries to struggle away from me, but when I slap her hard on the ass, she groans and her body turns pliant. 

“Ew, you’re right,” she says as I turn into our bathroom. “You do need a shower. You smell like the inside of a stable.” 

“I think,” I say as I dump her on the ground and stroll lazily for the glass doors, reaching inside to turn on the water. “You should be worrying less about me and more about how fast you can get your clothes on the floor.” 

Her eyes shoot to the ceiling, but she peels her t-shirt over her head. I follow suit, pulling towels out of the cabinet and checking the water temperature one last time before turning back to her. She’s standing completely naked in front of the mirror, twisting and turning to look at her body. I can’t blame her, she makes my mouth water. And when she reaches down and grabs a handful of her ass, my cock twitches with anticipation. 

“You’ve gotta keep me out of the Easter candy,” she complains. “I think I’ve gained ten pounds since we’ve been stuck in isolation.” 

“You’re gorgeous.” 

“And you’re a liar.” 

I raise an eyebrow at her, letting my expression turn cold. Like stone. “What did you just call me?” 

She freezes under my glare and backs up into her own personal vanity. “Uh….” 

I lunge at her, taking her in my arms and bringing my lips crashing down on hers. I let it all go. The unquenched desire to fucking get something done with my business, the worry I’ve harbored over my kids missing school and what it will mean for the future of their education… I don’t think about anything except the feel of Anastasia under my hands. 

And it’s the best I’ve felt in fucking days. 

She wraps her body around me and I carry her into the shower, making love to her through our kiss as I press her into the tiled wall. The steam swirls around us, making everything hotter, and when I brush her clit with the pad of my thumb, she throws her head back and lets her mouth fall open. 

“Already so wet,” I taunt her. 

“Only for you.” 

I moan and move my hand from between her legs to my cock, stoking myself so the tip of my erection hits her clit with each pass of my hand. The sexiest fucking sounds I’ve ever heard begin bubbling through her lips and she pushes her hips forward, silently begging for more. I pull back to punish her greed and she whimpers. 

“Wash me,” I tell her. Scrambling out of my hold, she picks up the sea sponge from the rack behind me, and pours a dab of fragrant soap over the top of it. Slowly, she rubs the suds down my body, following the lines of my muscles until she finally drops the sponge, falls to her knees, and inhales my cock. 

“Fuck, Ana!” I bark out, slamming my fist into the side of the shower. She sucks, hard, one hand stroking every part of my shaft that isn’t covered by her lips, the other massaging my balls. I groan and thrust forward, pushing more of my length into her mouth. She moans around my cock, the vibrations pulsating through me all the way down to my toes, before she pulls back to take a breath. I tangle my fingers in my hair and force her down again only to be met with resistance. 

“Open for me,” I command her, and, after a long breath through her nose, she does. Slowly, I push into her mouth again and I start to shake as I feel the tip of my cock slide into her tight, wet throat. “Jesus.” 

She takes me out of her mouth and runs her hand up and down the entire length of me, looking up at me from the shower floor through hooded eyes. “Where do you want to come?” 

God, I’ll never know what I did to deserve this woman. 

I pick her up and kiss her again, holding her body flush against mine and imagining my tongue dragging over her, the way it will once we’re out of the shower. I take the same sponge she used on me, and wash her from the neck down, making sure to be mindful of the splash back of my broad shoulders because I know that there will be hell to pay if I get her hair wet. 

Once she’s washed, I turn off the water and release her from my arms. She wraps herself in a towel before scurrying into the bedroom. I take my time, drying thoroughly, examining myself in the mirror. I want her waiting for me. I want her waiting a long time for me. I want her so needy, she’s trembling with it. 

I want to see her beg.

When I finally move out into the bedroom, she’s already in bed. Her back is pressed up against the pillows, her legs are open and inviting. I could crawl right over the top of her and dive in face first. And I try to, except the moment I move towards her, she practically leaps off the bed. 

“What the fuck are you doing?” 

She gives me a mischievous smile. “Remember the last time I took Calliope riding?” 

“Vaguely.” 

“And do you remember what you did to me that night?” I cock an eyebrow at her and she turns back for my closet. Not her closet, my closet. And I know exactly what she’s looking for. I move into bed, staring curiously at the open doorway my wife will appear inside of any moment. When she does, she smiles the kind of smile she does when she’s really proud of herself for something. She holds up a brown, plaited riding crop. 

“You think so, huh?,” I challenge her. She smiles and saunters forwards, twirling the crop by the leather loop at the bottom as if it were the blades on Charlie Tango. Her knees bend as she slowly pulls herself up onto the bed and she raises the riding crop over her head. I stare at her, dead in the eye. “I fucking dare you.” 

The riding crop comes down hard, but I have a hold of her wrist before it gets anywhere near me. Her attack stops dead in the middle of the air, and in the blink of an eye, I have the riding crop out of her hand, and I’ve got her pinned face down on the bed, my hand at the back of her neck, her ass high in the air. Looking down at her, I want nothing more than to spread her open and devour her, but first…

The riding crop cracks as I bring it down hard on her ass. Immediately, an angry pink line appears in her smooth, creamy skin, and I feel my cock jump again. 

“More,” she breathes. I shouldn’t, but I acquiesce. Once, twice, three times… again and again, on and on, until she’s panting and digging her fingers into the comforter, and I can see her arousal dripping down her thighs. The crop falls silently to the bed, and I stare down at her expectantly. 

“Please,” she begs. “Please, touch me. I don’t care what you do, just please touch me, Christian. Please. Make me come. Make me come. Make me come….” 

Well, that was easier than I thought. 

I don’t wait for a second request. With a hand on each of her cheeks, I spread her open and lick her from clit to ass. She shakes and pushes back against my face, so I respond with one, harsh slap of my hand against her already sore ass, and then start sucking on her clit. 

“Oh, god! Oh, god! Oh, god!” she screams. I sink two fingers in her, twisting them to stretch her, before I pull them back and pushing them forward with much more force. With my tongue dancing around her ass and my fingers deep inside her, fucking her as roughly as I would with my cock, it takes her seconds to fall apart beneath me. Her walls clamp down on my fingers and the gush of her arousal makes the sounds of them continuing to pound in and out of her wet and sloppy. It drives me wild. Before she can even come fully down from her orgasm, I sit up on my knees and push my cock to her entrance, slamming inside of her without any pretense. 

She screams the kind of scream that comes from so deep inside of her, I’m the only one who will ever be able to find it. 

“Hold on, baby. I’m going to be rough.” Wrapping her hair around my wrist and yanking back harshly, I start to thrust. Hard at first, then harder, until I’m pounding her so hard into the mattress, her breaths come out in harsh, broken, and uneven pants that she doesn’t seem to be in control of. The words she cries out become more and more incoherent until it’s all just a chaotic mix of my name and a lot of ‘fucks’. I let loose on her like a wild animal, burying into her all the way to the hilt, just to pull back and slam my way in again. I’m unbelievably hard. The kind of hard that means I could erupt at any fucking second, but I can’t let go yet. Every orgasm I bring out of Anastasia makes me hungry for another one, and like the fucking enchantress she is, she gives me exactly what I want. She just keeps coming, again and again, until my cock is so swollen, I think it might actually burst. 

“I’m going to come,” I growl over the top of her, moving my hand up to her hip and digging my fingers roughly into her sweat covered skin as I pull her back against me with each brutal thrust. 

“Yes!” She pants. “Yes! Come for me. Come inside me. Give me everything you’ve fucking got, Grey.” 

My vision goes red, not with anger but with lust. Everything outside of the friction on my cock and the sound of Ana’s cries disappears. I pound into her like I’ve got fucking a vendetta against her, and she screams so loud in return that tears start to roll down her face. I’m close, any minute I’ll be pouring into her, but I need to see her face. I need to look her in her eyes. 

I need to see her while I come inside of her.

I pull out just long enough to flip her onto her back and then slam home again. Her eyes are wild, half-crazed, like she doesn’t know what’s happening to her anymore, only that she desperately needs it to continue. Her breasts heave as she tries to suck in enough air, and I bend to take one of her nipples in my mouth. She whines impatiently as I suck, as I tease her pebbled, pink nipples with my tongue. When I sink my teeth into her, she lets out a deep, primal kind of yell that makes me want climb all the way the fuck inside of her. Instead, I reach up and take her by the throat, squeezing enough so that her air is cut off, backing off enough that I don’t actually hurt her. She struggles to gasp, and her hands move up to pull at my too tight fingers. 

I feel the first pulse from my balls. 

“Fuck, Christian. I’m going to come again,” she wheezes. I flex my fingers and fuck her with everything I’ve got in me. So hard, in fact, that the bed makes scraping noises on the floor as I literally pound her across the room. She’s going to have bruises tomorrow, and I’m going to kiss each and every one of them as I make her stare at them in the mirror. They’re a reminder of me. Of this. Of who she belongs to. And I want her covered in my marks. 

“Christian!” she screams and she clamps down so hard around my cock it makes me roar. I can’t hold back anymore. As she shatters into a million pieces, I let go and pump my fucking soul into her. It’s several more minutes before either of us can talk. Before either of us can breathe. Before either of us can do anything but shake. 

I look down at her, the hair stuck to the sweat on her face, her mouth open, her eyes closed. The stress and the worry I’ve seen her carrying over the last week has completely vanished, leaving her looking happy, beautiful, and sated. 

Like my Ana. 

“I love you,” I tell her, easing my lips to her bruised ones and kissing her deeply. She moans a sound so small I can barely hear her, then peels back her eyelids and gives me a well satisfied smile. 

“I love you too. But if you ever kidnap my daughter like that again, I’ll fucking murder you, Grey.” 

I laugh, then nuzzle the tip of her nose with mine. “I’m sorry. I just had to see her smile again.” 

“I know.” She sighs. “Truth be told, I was planning on sneaking her out behind your back on Saturday myself. You’re always one step ahead of me.” 

“Don’t ever forget that.” I lean down and kiss her again, but just as I reach down between her legs to test her desire for a round two, the door clicks, there’s a low groan, and then a tiny body at the foot of my bed. Ana and I are both naked, me lying on top of her, my half-hard cock still pressed against her entrance. 

Luke doesn’t seem to notice. 

“Mommy, I need you to help me go potty.” 

 

 

New Year

tenor

Good morning everyone!

I’m going to start off this Monday with some bad news. The Final Shade of Fifty is going to be on hold, indefinitely.

Here’s where I’m at.

I started this story with one idea, and realized about half-way through that I wanted to go in a different direction. But the problem with doing that when you post weekly is that the stuff you want to scrap and do differently has already been published. I can’t really just start over. So, now I’m in a position where I either have to try and ret-con everything I did in the beginning, which would make the first 20+ chapters of this story completely pointless and would make this book 60-70 chapters long, or I’d have to do some things that would betray the characters that I’ve spent 3 books creating. Neither are great options, so I’ve decided after weeks and weeks of internal struggle, that I’m going to just put this on a shelf for awhile.

The other half of this is that I’m just really more interested in creating original content right now. It’s hard to focus on one story when my mind is constantly occupied with other things I want to write, including an original version of Shades of Fifty. Obviously, it’s going to take a lot of work to make this story an original, and I’ve been fairly cognizant of the changes that I want to make as I’ve been writing. However, with the Final Shade of Fifty, a lot of what I’ve written won’t translate to the changes I’m going to make on the revamp, and therefore will not really progress the story in any meaningful way. I kind of feel like I’m just giving myself double work, which has been a huge demotivator.

I have been writing another story behind the scenes, which I planned to post once The Final Shade of Fifty was finished, but since TFSOF was what I was actually posting, that was the story that had to take precedent when it came down to my writing time and since I obviously haven’t been doing much writing for TFSOF, you can guess how much writing I’ve done for my other story. Therefore, I’ve decided that I’m going to start working on making Shades of Fifty original now, and will move on to the other stories I want to tell once I’ve brought these characters to their conclusion.

But what to do with what’s already posted for The Final Shade of Fifty?

I’m going to remove it.

It doesn’t seem like a good idea to leave a half-finished story that I’m not even passionate about sitting on the site for new readers to come a long and be like… wait, that’s the end? WTF?!!! So, I’m going to leave it to you all. Do you want me to make a shareable PDF of the story for you all to have? Or is everyone okay letting it go, like me? I will leave Different, Broken, and Stronger up, at least until I’m finished with the original versions, and I will let you all know with plenty of time before I remove them. I’m also considering putting them back on FanFiction now that I’m not going to be actively updating, because it’ll reach a wider audience there and since they’ve been down for two years, there’s probably a whole new slew of readers who haven’t read it yet. But we’ll see.

The good news is, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll still be active on Facebook and Twitter and I plan on keeping you updated with where I’m at on getting Shades of Fifty done. And since you all have been such a huge part of how this story came to be, I’d really like to keep you all involved as much as possible. Characters have to be renamed and re-imagined, I’d love your input. I’m probably going to make some kind of pen name, but I have no idea where to start with that. I’d love suggestions! I’m also in desperate need of Beta readers. If you’re interested in taking part of that at all, please let me know in the comments section.

So, obviously, this isn’t good-bye. Just… an extended break (from posting). My goal is to have a new original to present to you all by the end of the year. I’m excited, I hope you are too!!

And even though his name will change, I’ll always be wishingmrgreywashere.

Lots of love,

Tara xx

Edit: I know everyone wants the HEA, so should I post an epilogue to follow Stronger?

 

 

Seasons Greetings!

tenor

So, I tried. And I mean I REALLY tried. I barricaded myself in my office, I tried going to Starbucks and two different libraries, I tried writing the chapter out by hand, I tried putting word limits on things like… when I can eat again. None of it worked.

So I think I’m suffering from fatigue and need to take a break. It’s December now, which means Christmas and my birthday:

tenor

With a packed schedule this month, I think it’s a good time for me to go on hiatus and give myself some time away to miss these characters and miss writing, hopefully that’ll get me back on the wagon. So, there won’t be any updates this month. I’ll be back in January.

Thank you all as always.

Lots of love,

WishingMrGreyWasHere

Chapter 25

misc-11-26-001

I wake Sunday morning to the sound of raindrops splattering noisily against the windows of our cabin. This weekend has been everything I hoped for and more. Sunshine. Family. Chasing Kate and Elliot through the choppy waves on jet skis for hours and hours… The muted gray light filtering in through the windows feels like an end to all of that, so I clamp my eyes tighter together and try to convince myself I’m dreaming. Unfortunately, the all too real warmth I can feel radiating off my husband in the bed next to me makes that impossible. But once I remember that he’s just as naked as I am, something much more potent than disappointment in the weather takes over.

I take a few minutes to reminisce over the night before and feel an instant endorphin rush. His passion was out of control. Wild. And just the memory of the way he touched me, the way he moved inside of me, has me instantly craving more. I decide that I might just wake him up in his most favorite way, except when I roll over, I find that he’s already awake. His hands are folded behind his head, stretching out his bare chest in the most alluring way possible. His eyes, though, stare blankly up at the ceiling, as though he’s looking right through it, and his face is creased with worry.

“Hey,” I say, sitting up. “What’s wrong?”

In an instant, his distress vanishes and he moves his hand from his pillow to cup my face. “Just struggling to ensure you get enough sleep before I do this…” Gentle fingers curl around my cheek, pressing just enough to coax me down to his lips. I hum with contentment and roll my body towards him. As my lips meld to his, I wrap my arm around his chest and use his weight to pull myself up over the top of him. My breasts skim the slopes and valleys of his hard pectoral muscles, and the smooth, whisper soft contact of his skin on mine turns my nipples to tightly rounded pebbles. Just a kiss, a careless touch, and I’m his. But there’s a tension in his lips that I can’t ignore.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” I check.

He frowns. “I’d be better if you wouldn’t stop.”

I raise an eyebrow and he lets out a heavy sigh before allowing his body to relax back into his pillow. “I’m sorry, I just have… a lot on my mind.”

My stomach tightens, but not in the way I hoped it would a few moments ago. Christian hasn’t so much as even looked at the satellite phone, or excused himself to check his email, even one time since Friday night. He’s been as happy and present for me, our daughter, and our family as I’ve ever seen him. But there’s only one thing I can imagine that could occupy his mind enough to let him do something as trivial as worry while I’m naked and spread out over the top of him.

“Are you worried about the tax vote?”

There’s hesitation, then an eventual nod. “Yeah. I guess.”

“What happens if it doesn’t go your way?”

“He takes a deep, uneasy breath, then shakes his head. “It will. Don’t worry.”

“What…” The word only just barely escapes my lips before the rest is cut off by surprise. The entire room whirs around me until, suddenly, I’m on my back. Christian’s body covers mine in the next instant, his thick, strong arms caging me in beneath him.

“You know what I’d really like to focus on right now?” he asks. I open my mouth to argue, but he silences my protest with a hard, deep kiss. I start, taken aback by the sudden assault, but soon the fevered eagerness of his tongue and the low desire filled moan he releases into my mouth push concern aside and I succumb to desire. I throw my arms around him and pull, holding my body as tightly to his as I can manage.

He captures the tip of my tongue between his lips and sucks gently. Each soft pull sends a ripple of pleasure rolling down my spine, like a wave of warm syrup. Then he reaches down beneath the blanket, slides his hand between us, and lightly flicks my clitoris with the pad of his thumb. Once. Twice. Again and again, with the same metronomic pattern, until I start to quake.

“Should I make you come before I fuck you, or make you wait for my cock?” he asks, the want in his voice as raw and rough as sandpaper.

“Now, please,” I breathe back.

I feel, rather than see his responding smile. His finger disappears and is replaced half a heartbeat later with the tip of his erection. The dewdrop of precum at the crown of his head is cool from neglect and it makes my insides clench with delicious anticipation the moment I feel him drag it across my clitoris. He has his fist wrapped tightly around his length and as he starts to tug and pull, he moves across that tightly concentrated bundle of nerves with the same caressing attention he used with his fingers.

His mouth drops open and the gray in his eyes turns to hot, molten steel. His hips thrust forward urgently. With each pass, he presses a little harder against me, moves a little bit faster, until we’re both panting. I close my eyes and let my head loll back, picturing what the blanket and connection between our bodies conceals from me. Him, pleasuring himself while he pleasures me. Even just the thought is like a white hot branding iron against my libido, and when I add the idea of his eventual eruption, expelling over me like lava flows from a powerful volcano, the tight ball of tension inside of me snaps.

I start to come with a high, whiny gasp, and just as the first contractions begin, he pushes inside of me.

“Oh, fuck!” he growls. There’s an almost painful kind of urgency to his expression as he plows into me, pushing as deep as he can reach and basking in the feel of my inner walls milking him for all he’s work while I continue to unravel. The constant lust filled cries pouring from my lips only stop when the pleasure overwhelms me beyond the point of speech and in the split second of silence that follows, I hear the smallest little sneeze.

Christian freezes.

We both turn to look at the bottom of the bed and there, sitting on top of rumpled blankets bunched up around our feet, Calliope sits, yawning, her tiny hand rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

“What the hell?” Christian shouts. He immediately pulls out of me and yanks a pillow up off the bed to cover himself as he scrambles to get the baby out of our sex sheets. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him so frantic as he is pulling her into his arms and gaping down at me. “How did she… she was… what the hell?

I blink, just as shocked over my inability to answer that question as he is. There’s a crib set up in Christian’s office, just off our bedroom, and since the door is open, I assume she must have snuck out and pulled herself up on the bed while we were too distracted to notice. But how did she get out of her crib?

I leap out of bed and scramble through the minefield of haphazardly abandoned clothes from the night before to Christian’s office. I expect to find the state of the art crib he insisted we buy in shambles and the evidence of my baby’s painful fall laid out before me like a crime scene. But, except for an abandoned pacifier on the rug at the feet of the still perfect crib, the room is as neat as it was when we put her to bed the night before.

“How did she get out?” Christian asks, reaching out to rattle the bar of her crib and only looking more confused when it doesn’t move. I give Calliope a quick once over and after ensuring she’s not physically injured and that the scrunched up look of discontent on her face is just a mild case of morning grumpiness, I step closer to both of them and smile.

“You’re a wizard, Callie,” I say gruffly. Christian rolls his eyes, and Calliope frowns, then pushes my face away from her with her tiny little hand.

“No, Mama.”

We both laugh as I turn back to her crib. “We’ll need to lower the mattress, I guess.”

“Yeah, I’ll take care of it,” Christian says.

“Mmm.” I bite my bottom lip and then move so I can push my body up against his. “There is something incredibly sexy about a handyman…”

“”Well, then let me go get my tool belt.” He grins devilishly and moves to kiss me, but just before our lips touch, Callie reaches between us to stop him.

“No, Dada!”

“Someone is a little Miss Sass this morning,” I say, pinching her toes and leaning into scrub the tip of my nose against hers. She takes on the same haughty look her dad gets whenever he’s overly defensive about something.

“Mine, Dada.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Christian chuckles, and I reach out to take her from him. “I’ll get her ready if you’ll fix the crib.”

He pivots, moving Calliope out of my reach. “I’ve got her.”

“You’re sure?”

He nods. “It’s Father’s Day. She and I can get started by getting her bed situated and picking out something to wear together.”

I smile and nod, afraid that if I try and say anything the frog quickly working its way up into my throat will betray the sudden swell of love, pride, and happiness I’m trying to keep cool.

I give each of them a kiss and then leave them be. The thick clouds and rain splattering against the window don’t look as though they’ll pass anytime soon, so after a hot shower, I fish a thick cable knit sweater out of the back of my closet and throw it on over a pair of leggings. Then I make my way out to the living room. It’s fairly early, so I think I still have time to make my dad’s favorite breakfast before he gets out of bed, but when I come down the staircase, the first thing I see is him, sitting in a chair by the window with a book and a cup of coffee.

So… not a surprise then.

“Hey, Daddy!” I call, beaming as I cross the room towards him with my arms held open. He looks up at the sound of my voice, then sets his battered copy of A Farewell to Arms on the table and pulls me into a warm hug.

“Morning, sweetheart.”

“Happy actual Father’s Day.”

He laughs, since I’ve wished him a happy Father’s Day at least four other times this weekend so far. “Thanks, Annie. Sleep well?”

“Uh… yeah.” God, I hope he doesn’t notice the sudden rush of heated embarrassment that blooms in my cheeks when my brain conjures up the memories of just exactly what tired me out so much last night. I change the subject. “What do you say to your favorite breakfast? It’s still biscuits and gravy, right?”

“Awh, Annie… That’s real sweet of you, but Kim’s already in there cookin’ up that salmon Carrick and I caught yesterday.”

My heart sinks. “Oh…”

“That’s good though,” he adds quickly. “It means you and I can sit here and talk a bit. You kids have been running around so much, I feel like I’ve barely seen you all weekend.”

“Well, you oughta get out on those jet skis with us from time to time.”

“Oh, yeah. And get launched off into the water and probably break my neck? No, thank you.”

I give him a teasing smile. “You can’t fool me by pretending to be scared, Mr. I’ve Been Through War Twice. I think you wanna be out there so bad, you can’t stand it. You’re afraid of how much you know you’ll love it. Even right now, you’re fighting against the urge to hop on one of those machines, skim off across the waves, and show us damn kids how it’s really done.”

He stares back at me blankly, a challenge to my taunt that is made less effective by the rolling laughter that is so close to the surface, his shoulders twitch. I try my best to maintain the assertion in my gaze, but when a thundercloud claps violently overhead, reminding the both of us that no one is going out on the jet skis today, and a sudden strong gust of wind makes the pitter patter of raindrops against the window suddenly sound like the after sparkle of a Fourth of July fireworks display, we both break down into laughter.

“Well, what do you think?” A voice asks behind us. We turn and watch Carrick stroll into the room with his jacket held open to display his tie. It’s awful. Cobalt blue, but with neon pink, yellow, and green lines zig-zagging across the fabric in a geometric pattern that looks straight out of the 90s. My dad makes an awkward stuttering noise, clearly at a loss for words. Carrick on the other hand looks ecstatic. “Mia sent it to Grace a few days ago. I think it’s one of her best yet.”

“Oh, yeah. It’s going to really pop on camera at your next press conference,” I say.

He grins, refusing to let my sarcasm dampen his bright spirits. “It’s much more of a ribbon cutting tie, don’t you think?”

“Oh, definitely.” I laugh and get up to hug him. “Happy Father’s Day, Carrick.”

“Thanks, Ana.”

 

Christian is last to join us when we all eventually sit down for breakfast in the dining room, and I’m pretty sure it’s because Calliope couldn’t be bothered with choices, so instead decided to wear everything she could possibly get onto her body. He’s dressed her in tights and ruffle socks, a dress and a fuchsia sweatshirt, a tutu, and a pair of glittery sunglasses. He actually struggles to get her into her high chair, but he does seem much more enthusiastic about her overdressing stage than her naked one.

We sit around the table, chatting easily with one another. By all accounts, the rain hasn’t done anything to ruin anyone’s attitude and spirits are high, except I can’t stop grinding my teeth over the praise everyone heaps non-stop onto Kim over her salmon eggs benedict. It is delicious, as painful as that is for me to admit, but I’ve made my dad a special breakfast for Father’s Day for as long as I can remember. The ones we spent together, anyway. And I’m not sure which is worse, that she didn’t even bother to ask me if there were traditions between my dad and I that she should be mindful of today, or that my dad doesn’t even seem to care. I look across the table at Carrick, that stupid tie still proudly in place beneath his collar, and I feel a strong, hot flash of jealous for Mia.

Carrick would care.

“Should we do gift now?” Kate asks, the excitement in her voice making it obvious that the question is less of a suggestion and more of a demand.

“Yes,” Elliot replies. He pushes his chair a few inches back from the table and puffs his chest out importantly. “Laud upon me your praise and mortal gifts, for the unprotected sex I had while I was drunk in Vegas last year culminated in an unplanned pregnancy and now I have a child.”

Kate narrows her eyes at him.

“I mean… I don’t need gifts, baby. Dwight D. Eisenhower over there is already the greatest gift I could have ever asked for.”

“Smooth,” Christian says. Elliot flashes him a cocky grin, and Kate shakes her head in dismay before reaching down to pick up a gift bag resting on the floor by her feet. Elliot digs through the tissue paper and pulls out a set of keys.

“Oh, what are those to?” Grace asks, her interest peaked.

“A riding lawn mower,” Kate answers. “We’ve got that big backyard now and he’s been wanting one ever since that first time he had to go out there with the push mower.”

“And not at all because I want to soup up the engine and turn it into a drag racer.” Elliot winks at me from across the table while Kate shoves him, annoyed, and yanks the bag out of his hands.

“Just give your dad his gift, huh?”

Elliot reaches into his pocket and pulls out a folded piece of paper. “I uh… I haven’t really had time to shop, you know, because I’m a new father to your youngest and most helpless granddaughter…”

“Elliot, did you forget to buy your dad a gift?!” Kate snaps.

“No,” he says. “I just thought maybe I’d give him something more personal. Something you couldn’t buy at the store. Something from right here.” He points to his heart, and Carrick actually looks down at the folded paper with interest. “It’s a poem,” Elliot continues. “From me, to you.”

“Well, thank you, son.” Carrick takes the paper and visibly prepares himself before he begins to read.

“Well?” Grace pushes him. “What does it say?”

Carrick blinks, looks at Elliot, and starts to read aloud.

Roses are red

Violets are blue.

Happy Father’s Day.

I’m sorry I haven’t returned your leaf blower.

“I’m going to kill you,” Kate says. She reaches for Elliot and pinches him, hard, on the arm, but after his harsh, hissed, ‘ouch,’ he captures her hands in his and retaliates with an onslaught of tickles. They laugh together until Elliot pulls her in for a sweet, sentimental kiss.

Christian I go next, giving Carrick a Grey Publishing brand e-reader with the entire library of Carrick’s favorite author already loaded inside. My father unwraps a fishing pole, which is obvious, even under the wrapping paper, that Taylor helped me picked out last week. But even though the gift itself is not a surprise, he looks overjoyed by the strong carbon rod and special reel made for the rough rivers he practically lives on throughout the summer months.

“This is so great, Annie. Thank you.”

“Yeah, it’s sure going to come in handy at the new house,” Kim adds.

“New house?” I ask, a note of panic in my voice.

“Uh… yeah,” my dad replies. I stare, uncomprehending. “We, uh… we sold the house.”

“What?!”

“Well, Kim retired last spring and I have all this extra money from what I had saved for your Harvard tuition… So, we decided we’re going to get out of the city and enjoy our golden years in the mountains. We bought a cabin on the lake.”

“Congratulations,” Christian says.

“Thanks, son,” my dad replies. He wraps an arm around Kim. “We’re really excited.”

“To be honest, I’m surprised we were able to sell the house so fast,” Kim says. “It was so outdated and that god awful carpet color… I thought we’d have to replace it all in order to get an offer and we weren’t sure that the added cost would be worth it. But thankfully someone snatched it up as is.”

I glance between them. At the happy carefree smiles on everyone’s faces as well wishes and questions about the new house they’ve bought are exchanged around the table.

“Excuse me,” I say, tossing the napkin from my lap on my plate and hurrying out of the room. I leave an awkward silence in my wake that’s eventually broken by the voice of my father.

“That’s alright, Christian. I’ll go.”

“Alright,” Christian replies.

I stop in the hall and turn to wait for my father to catch up to me. When he does, he doesn’t say anything. He leans against the wall and crosses his arms over his chest, waiting for me to start.

“I grew up in that house,” I tell him.

“I know.”

“That’s where I met Kate. Where I got my acceptance letter to Harvard…”

“I remember.”

“It’s my sanctuary, Dad. I went there once, when you were still in Iraq. Christian and I were being bombarded with media and that was the only place I knew I could go to get away from it.”

“You’ve told me.”

My lips go tight and grit my teeth, irritated by each and every nonchalant answer my father has given me. “My mom picked out that carpet.”

He sighs and shift his weight. “I’m not arguing with you, Ana. It’s the place where you took your first steps. Where you said your first words. Where you learned to read and where you wrote your very first story. It’s also the place where your mother walked out on me. Where I waited for three, long weeks before I even found out where she had taken you. We’ve lived in that house, but all that’s left are memories and those don’t go away just because we aren’t there anymore. We’ll take them with us and jumble them up with all the new memories we’ll make at the new house.”

“Her house,” I correct him.

“Ah.” He nods with sudden understanding and pushes away from the wall. It means he’s standing straight, and the added height has him looking down on me, which makes me feel like a child. “So it’s Kim, then?”

I frown and look away from his eyes, down to my feet. “You’re buying a house with her?”

“Yeah. I’m uh… I’m going to ask her to marry me.”

“What?”

“I mean, I don’t have the ring or anything. I’m not doing it this weekend. But I will, soon enough.”

My stomach clenches like I’ve taken a blow from a linebacker straight to my diaphram. It’s difficult to make my lungs work under the sudden pressure that takes hold of my entire chest. My ears ring. My mouth goes dry. Part of me wonders if I might be having a heart attack.

“Dad, I can’t… you can’t… She’s awful!”

“Now that’s not fair, Annie.”

“Not fair? She’s the most hypercritical, invasive, and petty person I have ever met. Don’t tell me you didn’t hear the way she said her kids stayed home because not everyone owns the company they work for when we got here, as if the fact that we do means we don’t have to work as hard.”

“Well, yes. She was a little upset that we left without her kids and maybe she was a little more vocal to you about it than she should have been. But she and I had just gotten a little heated over the subject in the car and if you had hurt feelings because you felt you were being excluded from a family weekend that you really wanted to be apart of, you better believe that I would have some words to say about it too.”  

“But…” I stammer, too flustered and blindsided to formulate a through correctly.

“The truth is, Annie, you don’t like her because you never tried to like her. Is she perfect? No. But there isn’t a person in this entire world who is. You think that she’s invasive, but really… she just cares. A lot. About you, about Calliope, and about Christian. The things you see as being critical are just her trying to be helpful. ‘Cause that’s all she really wants, sweetheart. Even if she’s not always very good at it.”

I chew on the inside of my cheek. The shock of his announcement wears away and takes the anger I felt with it. But I hate that. I don’t want to be reasoned with. “You forgot petty,” I grumble.

“Yeah, well, she’s a little petty…” He grins and, damn it, I can’t help myself. I break and laugh.

“You see?” he says, smiling victoriously. I shake my head and decide I finally have to say the thing that has plagued me since the day he first time brought Kim to Seattle.

“She has her own kids and they don’t live as far away as I do. She’s got grandkids for you to play with. She seems to be a decent cook. Now she’s selling our house… I’m afraid that she’s going to take you away from me, Daddy, and you’re all I have left. I’ve already lost Mom, I can’t lose you too.”

“Anastasia Rose.” I have to blink away the tears from my eyes, so I’m a little surprised when he pulls me into his arms. The warm, familiar smell of him swirls around me, but instead of comforting me, the way it has my entire life, it only makes me break down harder. “No one, or nothing, will ever take me away from you, do you hear me? Me and you, we’re solid.”

“But…”

“No, no buts. You, my darling daughter, are the love of my life. Nothing can ever change that.”

I nod into his chest, letting his words fill my head and swirl around until they’re seared into me. Only then can I breathe again, and once I do, I sniff hard and hug him back. “I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you, Annie. And I know exactly how far away you live.” He pulls back so that I look up at him. “Which is why the new house has a bedroom just for you.”

“It does?”

“Yep. There’s a whole little apartment up in the attic for you and Christian and the baby. It’s got these big windows that overlook the water and a skylight for you to see up into the stars. I’m working on a desk in my garage right now to put up there for you. I thought maybe, if you needed a place to get away and write, it could be there. With me.”

“You really did?”

He nods. “You’re going to love it, Annie.”

“Love it? When can I move in?”

He laughs, then looks over his shoulder in the direction of the dining room where the rest of the family is still waiting. “You know what, what do you say you and I skip the rest of breakfast, huh? Maybe we can go set up a game of chess and just, spend some time you and me.”

“What about Kim?”

He shrugs. “She’s grown, she can entertain herself for awhile. Today’s about us.”

I smile and nod enthusiastically, the wrap my arm around him while he steers me back to the living room.

“You were wrong through,” I tell him.

“Oh?”

“Before, when you said there isn’t a perfect person in the world. There is one, and her name is Calliope Katherine.”

He chuckles. “You got me there, Kiddo.”

 

The continuing downpour means that my dad and I don’t get too much time alone, but as everyone starts to trickle out of the dining room and into the living room with us, they mostly leave the two of us alone. It’s the best of both worlds really. I get to let my dad clobber me in chess over and over again while we talk about the books we’ve been reading, the edits I’ve been making to my manuscript after my Lincoln breakthrough, and the new quarterback the Seahawks just drafted out of Wisconsin.

I also get to watch Christian spend the entire day with Calliope, and the patient way he listens to her and plays with her, the way he lets her consume every ounce of his attention, makes me happier than I can put into words. He looks at her with a kind of love that even I can’t recognize, and I know that’s because I’m not supposed to. It’s just for her. The way he holds her in his arms as he reads The Poky Little Puppy to her for the fifth time in a row, or the delight on his face when he takes a sip from the empty toy teacup she hands him over and over again makes me think of the times I did the very same thing with my own dad growing up. The dad who means more to me than almost anyone else in the world.

For all the things that I have, or that I have accomplished, that I can look back on and know I did right, none of them make me more proud than the man I chose to be that person to my daughter.

“Your move, Annie,” my dad says. I jump a little as I come out of my thought provoking stupor and his brow furrows with confusion. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” I smile and look back over at Christian, lifting Calliope over his head while she laughs uncontrollably. “Yeah, I’m perfect.”

Our chess tournament lasts all afternoon, until Grace insists we call the game on account of dinner. I bear my defeat with as much dignity as I can while my dad announces to everyone how he absolutely wiped the floor with me and I become the target of several taunting remarks, especially from Elliot. Christian at least offers a hand in support when I take my seat next to him and when I lean into his side and feel him wrap a comforting arm around my shoulder, I suddenly no longer care about the severity of my loss anymore. Everything is just as it should be. My family is happy and in Christian’s arms, I’m exactly where I belong.

That is, until our dinner is interrupted by the ring of the satellite phone from across the room and everyone’s eyes turn to Christian. A shadow of the deep unease I saw on his face this morning before he knew I was awake returns and it takes the wind out of me like the air from a balloon. Very few people have that number, so there are very few reasons why it would ring.

“Excuse me,” Christian says. He rises from the table and crosses the room to pick up the phone. “Grey. Yes, Councilwoman, how are you this evening?”

There’s a harsh, tinkling sound from the other side of the table, which I realize is Carrick dropping his silverware. His eyes narrow in on Christian, examining every change in his expression and every small movement of his body. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and I wonder if that’s because he’s afraid to miss a single word that Christian says.

“Uh, yeah,” Christian continues. “He’s right here. Hold on.” Awkwardly, he turns back to the table and holds the phone out to us. “Dad, it’s for you.”

Carrick nods, but when he gets up to take the call, he leaves the room. Christian stares after him for a long minute, then blinks and comes back to the table.

“It’s late,” he says. “I’m going to put Calliope to bed.”

“Do you want me to come?” I ask, half standing in preparation, but he shakes his head.

“No, I’ve got it. Stay. Enjoy your dinner.” He pulls back the tray of her highchair and she eagerly reaches up for him. Once he has her pressed to his chest, she immediately goes limp as she really is ready to go to sleep, but the sense of wonder and unfettered pride that has filled Christian’s eyes all day with every single glance at our daughter is gone now. It’s like a switch has been flipped. He’s physically here, but I know that his mind is already on the work he’s undoubtedly about to retreat into his office to do.

Once he’s left the room, Elliot sighs. “What are the odds we see Christian again tonight?”

I shake my head and Elliot gets up from the table to pick up his own daughter and take her to bed, though we all know he’ll try to bring Christian back with him. Grace smiles at him, confident in his ability to win her son over as he has so many times in the past, but I know better. Everything with this fusion project, and everything it touches, isn’t like what we’ve dealt with in the past. Christian’s taken this to a whole new level, and if whatever Carrick is being told right now is a threat to the future of his fusion project, there’s no way he’ll stop trying to counteract it.

“I’ll take the dishes in,” I say, getting up and collecting everyone’s plates.

“Let me help,” Kim says. I give her a tight smile and shake my head.

“I’ve got it, thanks.”

Loaded down with and armful of dirty dishes, I make my way back to the kitchen, feeling heavier than I have all weekend. To my surprise, I find Carrick there, bent over the counter, the phone resting on the wood block by his hand.

“Everything alright?” I check.

“We’re going to lose,” he says. “Well, I am. Christian’s got the support of the city council and with the cuts they’re going to offer him, GEH will be operating at a negative tax rate this year. $2.6 billion dollars last year, and the Seattle taxpayers are going to be paying his operating costs for him.”

“Oh. I’m sorry,” I tell him, honestly, because I am. This whole thing has me washed with guilt. But Carrick and I both know that once Christian has his mind set on something, there’s no changing it. Not even by me.

“You know what this means, don’t you?” Carrick asks. I shake my head and he sighs. “The alternative budget proposal my office put together to accommodate the revenue shortage from the loss of GEH’s tax payments cuts from every city agency. Even the police department.”

“So no investigation?”

“No.”

I nod. “You still get to appoint a new police chief though, right? Someone we can trust?”

“Yeah, I get to make an appointment, but that’s not going to dig anything up about what happened to you.”

“I know. We just… We have to accept that we’ve done everything that we can do and that it’s going to be enough to prevent something like Lincoln from happening ever again. If you trust the man you’re going to appoint, then I’m okay.”

“You are?”

“Yeah. Andrew Lincoln is gone. He can’t hurt us anymore. And the people who helped him… most of them didn’t have a choice. There’s no greater conspiracy out there. It died with him. I’ve accepted that and now all I want to do is move on. Maybe this is for the best. A police investigation would have taken months, years maybe. This way, we can just let go and live our lives.”

“Yeah.” He nods absentmindedly, but in a way that suggests he’s still trying to process what I’ve said, rather than to simply agree with it. But after looking into my eyes and finding no concealed hurt or blame, he gives me a warm smile. “You really are better, huh?”

“Yeah. I am.”

He pushes away from the counter and comes around to hug me. “I’m glad. We were all really scared for awhile. I don’t know what we would do without you, Ana.”

“Well, there’s no reason to find out.” We hug again just as someone comes into the kitchen behind us. Kim has all the dishes I couldn’t carry in one trip in her hands and, for once, I’m not annoyed at her presence.

“Everything alright?” she asks.

“Yeah,” I say with a smile. “Can I leave these to you? I think I know just the thing to get Christian back downstairs.”

“Sure, Sweetheart.” She smiles and touches my arm affectionately as I pass. I can hear the low conversation from Grace, Kate, and my dad floating up the hallway from the dining room. It sounds like Elliot has rejoined them, which would be disheartening if I knew I didn’t have the exact news it’s going to take to get Christian to stop worrying over this vote and join his family. Or at least, I think I do, until I get to the bottom of the steps and find a single red rose petal.

“How did…?” I lean down to pick it up and as I rub my fingers over the soft petal, I see another resting a few steps up. Then another. It’s like a trail of breadcrumbs to the top of the stairs, but as it winds down the hallway towards my bedroom, that sparse trail transforms into a thick carpet of petals that leads me to the bathroom.

It’s warm inside, and humid. The deep soaking tub is steaming and filled to the brim. Every inch of the counterspace and the ledge by the window is covered in a line of flickering candles that cast soft light around the small room. The path of rose petals at my feet continues forward, all the way across the bathroom floor, and then up and over the edge of the tub. The last few petals float among the bubbles on top of the water.

“Christian?” I call through my smile, but he doesn’t answer me. I assume he’s still trying to get our daughter to sleep so I decide I’ll indulge a little while I wait. I strip out of the now too warm sweater and toss it out the door, leaving my own trail for him to follow, then step into the hot, fragrant bath. I’ve just sunk down into the thick, foamy bubbles when the door opens again and Christian steps into the bathroom holding two flutes filled with bubbly champagne. He’s already gloriously naked, and my eyes rake over him hungrily. Drinking him in. Pining for more.

“Get in here,” I demand. His eyes flash deviously, and as he takes a step towards me, his mouth curls up in a cheshire cat grin. He sets the flutes on the ledge next to the tub, then slides in behind me. I turn to face him and crawl into his lap, straddling him, and using my legs to pull him closer to me.

“I take it you know, then?”

“Know what?”

“About your dad’s phone call…”

He shakes his head. “No, and I don’t want to talk about that right now. Calliope is asleep, which means my father’s day duties have come to an end and I have been waiting for this all day. He leans down and kisses the top of my breast, then moves his lips up over my chest, collar bones, neck, jaw… stopping just short of my lips. “I don’t want to talk at all. All I want is–”

I don’t wait for what it is he wants. I kiss him, hard, and he immediately wraps me more tightly in his arms and thrusts his insistent tongue into my mouth. He’s already hard beneath the water, so I rise up onto my knees and slide down over the top of him. His responding groan resonates in every one of my pleasure receptors, and as he fills me in the way that only he can, every other thought and worry falls out of my mind. I no longer care about our family waiting downstairs. I can’t be bothered by tax cuts or budget shortages. Not even the water that laps over the side of the tub and spills on the floor makes me hesitate. I focus only on him. On the urgency of his touch, on the taste of his tongue. And as I start to melt into him, he begins to move. Really move. And he doesn’t stop until we’ve dropped anchor in Seattle hours later.

Next Chapter

Updates

Hi guys,

I just wanted to give everyone an update as to why there’s no update this week. Last week, my husband and I got a call that his aunt was in critical condition and we needed to get to Las Vegas to say our final goodbyes.

I live in Seattle and flights on a holiday weekend were exorbitant, so he and I got in the car at 5 AM last Wednesday and drove to Las Vegas, which is insane and was terrible (to be clear). Needless to say, I’ve been travelling for over a week and couldn’t write, so there was nothing to post. I just got back yesterday, so hopefully that’s enough time to get a new chapter finished by Monday (I’m optimistic).

Additionally, I want to let you guys in on the big secret as to why my posting has been so irregular over the last few months. It’s not tragic or sad, just the result of a plot that didn’t work. I told you all that for the first three books, I worked off an extraordinarily detailed and long outline, so when I decided to write a fourth book, the first thing I did was sit down and plot the whole thing out. But then I started posting and the reaction wasn’t great. I pushed through, as I usually do, but it became apparent that holding on to what I wanted to do wasn’t really worth it when my audience wasn’t connecting to it.

So I decided to make a change.

I’m taking the story in a completely different direction from my plan going forward, and am going to try writing without an outline. I know what is going to happen and how the story ends, but I haven’t plotted out every detail the way I did previously. Instead, I’m going to work in small archs. I’m worried it’s going to affect my ability to throw in the little nuggets of foreshadowing, but if it makes the story better in the end, that’s what I’m here for. I might go back and change the beginning when the story is done, we’ll see.

The result is, however, that I’m writing outside of my comfort zone and that affects productivity to a certain degree. I really do try and get updates done every single week, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen and I really am sorry for that. Every time I have to post one of these, I feel like I’m not upholding my end of the bargain. But I do want to reassure everyone that I WILL finish this story. I’ve spent too much time with these characters to just abandon them.

The plus side is changing my plan means this story is going to be much longer, so we can all look forward to more chapters. And, through this experience, I learned how to write for this genre better and will use that for all of my works going forward, so thank you for your feedback, both good and bad. This is a prime example of how much it really does help.

As always, thank you from the bottom of my heart (Britney reference) for all of your love and support through the years! You guys keep me wishingmrgreywashere.

xoxoxo