Chapter 02

02152017_rain-_1328144-780x460

Getting back to Seattle Sunday night is like the hangover after a really long night of drinking. Most of the journey home was fine. Christian and I snuck off to the bedroom at the back of the plane twice and spent the rest of the trip cuddled up on the long, leather sofa in the middle of the plane, talking and laughing with one another. It seems like the connection we revived in the Maldives has real lasting power, but by the time we begin our descent towards SeaTac we’re exhausted from the 18 hour flight and hungry for real food cooked in our own kitchen, rather than whatever Natalia has managed to heat up. The moment the plane dips below the thick cover of clouds, our windows are splattered in rain drops and when I lean over to look out at the familiar Seattle skyline I can’t help but think how dreary the entire city looks compared to the beautiful paradise we’ve lived in for the last week.

“Of course it’s raining,” Christian grumbles. I turn and raise an eyebrow at him.

“You like the rain.”

“Not as much as I like laying out on the beach with you. I’m not ready to go back to the real world yet. I liked our bubble.”

I hum in agreement and cuddle into his side. “Me too. But I can’t wait to get back to Calliope. Do you think she missed us?”

“No,” he says, then laughs. “She’s had Mackensie and Gail with her every second of the day and Kate and Elliot with her in the evenings. I won’t be surprised if we find out my mom came and stayed at least one night too. I bet she’s been spoiled rotten since the moment we stepped out that door.”

I shift beneath his arm so I can give him an accusatory look. “More spoiled than she is with her daddy?”

“I don’t spoil her.”

“Yeah, okay.” I roll my eyes, and he narrows his at me.

“I like to think of it as showing her what she’s worth. One day, she won’t be so little anymore.” He pauses, and the gray of his irises darkens. “And then the boys will come.”

“Oh, the horror!”

“Mmm, but by then I’ll have set her standards so impossibly high that no teenage boy will ever be able to live up to them, and then she’ll stay my sweet, innocent little girl forever.”

“Ah, the Raymond Steele strategy. It’s foolproof. Well, until she moves out of the house and sleeps with the first man she sees.”

His face falls and he sits up in his seat, removing his arm from around my shoulders. “Stop it.”

I laugh, then glance up at Natalia, who has come by to pick up our empty glasses in preparation for landing. Strangely, the closer we get to the ground the harder the rain seems to fall. It comes down in droves that are very uncharacteristic for late February. When the wheels of the plane finally touch down at SeaTac, they send a wave of water so high into the air that it obstructs my view of the airport.

Christian is the first to stand after we’ve stopped and he reaches into the seat across from us to pick up my bag before taking my hand and leading me to the exit. Stephan, our pilot, waits at the door. Christian thanks him for a smooth flight, while I gratefully take the umbrella Natalia offers me and step out onto the wet stairs. The SUV is already waiting on the tarmac with the wiper blades on high. As Christian and I hurry across the water logged pavement, the door opens and two men climb out.

“Did you enjoy your trip, sir?” Taylor asks, reaching for the bag in Christian’s hand.

“Yes, very much. Thank you. I trust you used your time off well?”

“Very well. I actually spent some time with Ray… er, Mr. Steele. Traded war stories and spent some time outdoors. He’s an incredible man.”

“You’re not recruiting him,” I say as his new partner opens the back door for me. I give Taylor a stern look, then turn to my own CPO. “Thank you, Woods.”

“My pleasure, Mrs. Grey. Welcome home.”

I give him a quick smile, then climb into the car, sliding all the way across the back seat to leave room for Christian. After we’re closed inside, Christian immediately pulls out the phone he’s actually managed to ignore for the past six days and I turn to watch our security team take our luggage from the flight crew and start loading it into the back.

It took me a long time to warm up to Woods, despite the fact that he’s one of the more personable men Taylor hired after the security team rehaul last fall. At first I thought it was because I would never be able to trust an outside security hire again. It was Kommer, after all, who let Gia Matteo and Andrew Lincoln into my apartment that night and I wasn’t about to make the same mistake with another CPO I didn’t know. But months have past and now that I’ve grown used to Woods’ constant presence and benign, albeit slightly over helpful, demeanor, I think my hesitance with him is because there simply isn’t, nor will there ever be, a replacement for Luke Sawyer.

“You alright?” Christian asks, glancing up at me. I turn and give him a tight smile.

“Yeah, just anxious to get home.” The front doors open and Taylor and Woods climb into the SUV. Once Taylor turns the key in the ignition and shifts the car into drive, I lean forward between their seats. “Taylor, how is Calliope doing?”

He gives me a rare, warm smile. “She’s perfect, Mrs. Grey. She’s been an angel all week.”

“Good.” I grip his bicep to show my gratitude for his placation, then lean back into my seat and let out a sigh of relief. Christian reaches over and places his hand on the inside of my thigh.

“You see? I told you, you have nothing to worry about, baby. We’re safe. No one is coming for us.”

I nod. “Yeah, you’re right.” Leaning over, he places a soft kiss on my cheek, then nuzzles me with the tip of his nose.

 

The dark, very wet drive home seems to exacerbate the jet lag that the eleven hour time difference between here and the Maldives has left us with. Christian spends the first twenty minutes or so responding to emails on his phone but, eventually, he too slumps back into his seat and rests his head on top of mine.

“I don’t even think I’ll be able to stay awake for dinner,” I say as my eyelids start to droop. Christian nods his head.

“No. I say we put the baby down and then go straight to bed.”

“Agreed.”

“Actually,” Taylor interjects. “I wouldn’t count on that if I were you.”

I turn to look up in the rear view mirror just over Taylor’s head. “Why?”

He stops at the gate to our house without answering me, then rolls down his window and punches the code into the box next to the driveway. It takes several seconds for the gate to swing open, but once it does I look through the front windshield and immediately have my answer. The driveway is packed full of cars. Kate and Elliot are here, obviously, but so are Grace, Carrick, Mia, and my father.”

Christian groans. “Great. What do you want to bet Elliot is behind this?”

I laugh, but it’s cut off by a deep, long yawn. “A lot.”

The car comes to a stop and when Taylor and Woods step out to come and open the back doors, Christian places a hand beneath my jaw and tilts my lips up to his. “I really loved being with you this week.”

“Mmm, and every week.”

“Forever.” He smiles and then kisses me again before entangling his fingers with mine and sliding out of the SUV.

The one good thing about our entire family being here to greet us is the delicious smell that hits us the moment we come through the front door. Some wonderful soul has cooked for us and the sounds of conversation that float into the entryway from the living room carry the overwhelming comfort of home. Quickly abandoning my coat and purse by the door, I hurry past the stairs towards the sound of Calliope’s over excited shrieking and our family’s responding laughter.

“Hey!” I call, coming around the corner. Everyone turns in my direction just as Christian appears behind me, and Calliope’s mouth drops open, as if she’s in shock.

“Dada?”

And just like that, as if she’s said it a hundred times before, Calliope’s first word rings clear and definite around us. Everyone gasps, and we stand there frozen like we all need a moment to be sure we really heard what we think we did.

“Hey, Princess,” Christian says, breaking the silence and moving forward to take her out of his mother’s hands.

“God damn it,” Elliot says, deflating with disappointment as he recedes into the couch. “Callie, what are you doing? I thought we were cool.” Kate breaks down into laughter and I raise an eyebrow at her.

“What?”

“Elliot has spent this entire week trying to get her to say uncle. He was determined to make sure that her first wasn’t dada.”

“And she’s betrayed me!”

“Good.” Christian laughs, then rubs the tip of his nose gently against Calliope’s. “She really is my daughter.”

“Okay. Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” I reach my hands out for Calliope and Christian lets out a long sigh.

“Do you want to go to mama? Ma-ma?” He elongates the word, breaking it down by each syllable in hopes of getting her to repeat it, but she doesn’t. She does, however, turn in his arms so that she can reach for me.

“So she knows that I’m Mama,” I say, wrapping my hands around her sides and pulling her into me. “She just won’t say it.”

“She will,” Christian assures me, but the grin on his face doesn’t make me feel any better. Of course “dada” was her first word.

“That’s okay.” I turn her and point to Christian. “Who’s that, Calliope?”

“Dada,” she says.

“That’s right! That’s dada!” I wrap her tighter in my arms and inhale her warm scent off the top of her head. “God, I missed you.”

“And she missed you,” Kate says, using Elliot’s help to heave herself off the couch. “She did fine for the most part, but nights were a little rough. She missed having you tuck her in at bedtime.”

“Oh, baby…” I lean in to kiss Calliope’s forehead, and she responds by tangling her tiny little fingers in my hair.

“Look at your tan though,” Kate says. “You look amazing. I kind of hate you right now.”

“Oh, please,” I reply, rolling my eyes. “You’re glowing. How’s my goddaughter?”

She lets out a long sigh and places a hand over her very round baby bump. “Active. She was doing Tae Bo last night when I was trying to sleep.”

“Awh.” Shifting Calliope to my hip so that I can hold her with only one arm, I reach out to pull Kate into a side hug and rub her shoulder sympathetically.

“Well, I’m just glad you’re back,” Grace says, getting up and coming around the couch to hug us both. “Were the Maldives everything you hoped they would be?”

“It was beautiful,” I tell her, but when she turns to look at Christian he gives her a tight, dismissive smile and breaks eye contact. Grace visibly deflates, but when she turns back to look at me, she’s smiling again.

“Well, I’m glad you had a good time. You deserve it, Ana.”

“Yes, she does,” my dad says, reaching out to shake Christian’s hand before moving past both him and Grace to pull Calliope and I into a hug.

“Daddy, I can’t believe you drove all the way here from Montesano. You’ll get home so late.”

“That’s fine. We wanted to see you, kiddo. Our visits are becoming much too few and far between.”

“Yeah, we really need to get out to you more often,” I say, hugging him back. “Wait… we?”

“Anastasia!” I turn and have to fight to keep my smile from faltering when I see my dad’s new girlfriend coming towards us, pulling an apron over her head.

“Kim! I didn’t know you were here…”

“Well your daddy’s been talking about you so much I finally told him we had to come up here and see you. Besides, I thought it would be nice for you to come home to a good meal. Lord knows you haven’t had anything home cooked in over a week.”

“You really didn’t have to do that. We have… staff.”

“No you don’t,” Elliot says. “Gail has sunday’s off.”

“Oh, well… still. We could have–”

“It’s my pleasure, Anastasia. Really. Now, come and get it. Dinner’s ready.” She beams and turns back towards the kitchen, and while the rest of our family moves past us, giving both Christian and I hugs as they go, I have to take a moment to compose myself.

“Be nice,” Christian says, leaning over to whisper in my ear so no one will be able to hear him.

“I didn’t say anything,” I hiss back, defensively. He raises and eyebrow at me, then reaches out to brush his thumb over Calliope’s cheek before following the others to the dining room.

“Tell me to be nice,” I grumble to Calliope under my breath. “Christian Grey is in no position to tell anyone to be nice.” There’s no sign of agreement on my baby’s face, only enraptured interest as she continues to play with my hair.

Really, there’s no reason for me to harbor any ill feelings towards Kim. She’s been perfectly lovely every time we’ve met. Though… maybe a little too nice. Who’s that happy all the time anyway? No one. I know she makes my dad happy, I’ve seen it in his eyes over and over again for months, but that doesn’t make me feel any better either. Not that I don’t want him to be happy, I do, but… I’m used to stepdads. Ray, Stephen, Bob… Since my mom left I’ve always been the only girl in my dad’s life and I liked it like that.

Besides, the loss of my mother is still a wound too sensitive for me to even think about most of the time. The idea of a stepmom, someone who would, no matter how insignificantly, be replacing her in my life… I’m not ready for that. I don’t know that I’ll ever be ready for that.

I’m a rational girl. I know that him finding someone to spend time with is not a personal attack against me and now that I have a family of my own and hardly ever see him anymore, it’s selfish of me to expect that won’t find someone new to fill the emptiness in his life. But knowing that as certainly as I do doesn’t make it hurt any less. He’s my dad, and it’s hard to process that I’m not the most important person in his life anymore.

“Dada,” Calliope says again, and I give her a smile that I hope she thinks is genuine.

“Yeah, Dada. Let’s go find Dada.” Lifting her higher up on my hip, I kiss her cheeks and then march forward into the dining room to face my dad and Kim like I’m going off to war.

 

The atmosphere around the table is light and warm. Kim has made a very traditional sunday dinner with roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, salad, and rolls. Christian’s already put Calliope’s high chair between his seat and mine, and while I lower her down into it, he puts a dollop of mashed potatoes on her tray and then takes a small portion of chicken and peas into the kitchen to run through the food processor. While he’s away, I pick up his plate and fill it with a little bit of everything on the table.

“Oh my god, will you look at her making a plate for him?” Kate says. “You two are so cute, it kind of makes me want to yack.”

I roll my eyes. “Takes notes, this is called survival. Once the baby comes, you do everything as a team, or you fail.”

“Yeah, babe,” Elliot says, leaning towards her and placing a hand over her bump. “You’re going to have to actually act like you love me sometimes.”

“Well, someone better call the Academy because even pretending to like you would be a performance worthy of an Oscar.” Elliot laughs then pinches her chin between his thumb and finger so he can tilt her lips up to his.

“And you say Ana and Christian make you wanna puke,” Mia says. Everyone around the table laughs.

I scoot my chair as closely to Calliope’s high chair as possible and pick up her spoon, but she simply reaches down, picks up a fist full of mashed potatoes, and stuffs the whole thing in her mouth. She turns to look at me then, with a blob of white slowly oozing out of her mouth and I smile at her. Shaking my head, before scooping the excess away with the spoon, I wait for her to swallow before giving her more.

“Oh, Christian,” Elliot says, finally pulling away from Kate once his brother returns to the table and places a small bowl full of chicken and pea mash in front of the baby. “Andrea came by a few days ago. She dropped off something for some new project GEH is working on. She said Welch needs you to look over it as soon as possible.”

“In my office?” Christian asks, but when Elliot nods I reach over to hold him in his seat.

“It can wait until after dinner. Or maybe until tomorrow when you’re actually back at work.” He lets out a slightly irritated sigh, but settles back down in his chair again.

“Something exciting?” my dad asks. Christian nods.

“Very, actually. It’s kind of my own little pet project.”

“Oh?” Grace interjects, intrigued.

“Yeah. It’s a little outside of our business model so Ros tried to convince me not to invest too heavily in it, especially with it being so experimental. But I’m passionate about it. Business is going well and Ros has a firm hand on the acquisition load, I think it’s a good time to work with my R&D department and see if we can make it happen. Indulge a little.”

“Indulge?” Kate asks. “What are you doing?”

He grimaces. “You’ll think it’s stupid.”

“I will not.” He gives her a pointed look that says he doesn’t believe her, so she rolls her eyes and crosses her arms over her chest. “You really think I’m going to write off something Christian Grey wants to explore in the business world as stupid?”

“Ros did.”

“Well, Ros thinks everything you do is stupid,” I say, pulling Calliope’s hands back down to her tray to keep her from rubbing food in her hair.

“Just tell us,” Elliot says. “It’s not like any of us would be able to steal your ideas. And if it really is stupid, you can either prove us wrong or we can all say we told you so, and that would be a treat for everyone.” He laughs, but Christian shakes his head.

“I’m under no illusions that this could be the biggest failure of my career. But if my team can do it, if we can pull it off, we’ll change the world and I’ll become one of the wealthiest and most powerful men on the planet.”

“Doing?” Carrick presses him.

He takes a big breath and straightens in his chair. “With the expansion of our manufacturing division in Taiwan, we’ve poured a lot of resources and emphasis into ship building. It’s inspired me more than anything I’ve done in a long time because I’ve always been fascinated with ships and speed versus size. It made me want to push the envelope, find out what else we could be building. Then Lamborghini released the specs for the new Gallardo last fall and as I was looking into buying it, it was like lightning struck.”

“So you’re building sports cars?” Mia asks.

“I like to think of it as evolving sports cars.”

Elliot raises an eyebrow, actually intrigued. “Evolving how?”

“Ecological sustainability. I’ve been buying luxury supercars for years, and while every year they get a little faster or a little sleeker, not much has changed in the mechanics. As much as I love them, they’re impractical and wasteful, and it’s getting worse. The Lamborghini in the garage is faster than my Bugatti, but the gas mileage is abysmal. It got me thinking about clean energy creation, which I thought for years was the next big frontier of technological innovation. I started wondering if it could ever be possible to build a vehicle as fast and powerful as the world’s best sports cars, but that produced no emissions and left absolutely no ecological footprint.”

“So… fuel efficiency?” Elliot asks, and Christian’s eyes seem to twinkle when he shakes his head.

“It started that way. But it’s so much more now.”

Elliot’s brow crinkles with confusion. “Different how?”

“What if it didn’t require fuel at all? What if this house didn’t, or GEH? What if we could power the world without any kind of combustion? What if we could create an energy source that was self sustaining and that never needed to be replaced?”

“Like, solar?”

“Or fusion.”

That makes Elliot actually fall back into his seat and the look he gives Christian is dubious at best. “You’re talking about perpetual motion.”

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about.”

He shakes his head. “That’s impossible. The laws of friction…”

“Have been a challenge,” Christian interrupts him. “But I’ve recruited some of the best nuclear physicists and engineers in the world, and we’ve generated real interest in seeing this project through. In fact, those documents Andrea delivered should be a grant approval from NASA.”

“And all this so you can have a faster sports car?” Kate asks. Christian smiles.

“My company may change the world, Kate. Maybe even the future of space exploration. It’s best to focus on that rather than my own possibly selfish motivations.”

Elliot shakes his head again. “It doesn’t matter what your motivations are, it can’t done.”

“I don’t like the word can’t,” Christian says, but Elliot is undeterred.

“I studied this at MIT. Newton’s Law of Motion states that constant velocity can only exist if there is no external unbalanced force acting against it, and you simply can’t eliminate friction from momentum. You’re not the first person to dream this dream, but it can’t be done. I’m sorry, Christian, you’re on a wild goose chase.”

“We’ll see.”

“I believe in you, baby,” I say, reaching past Calliope to wrap my hand under his elbow. He smiles and leans back so that he can kiss me.

“Thank you. I’m glad someone does.” I giggle, and the turn to Carrick, who looks just as glad as the rest of us that Christian and Elliot are done debating the laws of physics, which none of us really understand.

“So how’s the new house coming, Elliot?” Carrick asks.

Elliot takes a deep breath, as though he needs to calm himself before he answers. “It’d be going great if someone could make a decision and stick to it.”

Kate frowns. “This is going to be our forever home. I just want it to be perfect.”

“Well, I’ve completely gutted and redone our bathroom three times now.”

“And it’s so much better now than it was before.” She turns to me, beaming. “I can’t wait to show you my closet. It’s gigantic and I had them design it like a Victoria’s Secret store with pink walls, black furniture, and crystal chandeliers. Bougie as fuck.”

I laugh, then pick up a napkin to wipe Calliope’s face, and Christian turns to Mia.

“Speaking of houses, my realtor sent me a few apartment listings in New York for you to look at. We found one only a few blocks from campus that I think you’re going to love.”

Mia swallows and seems to shrink in her seat a little. “Actually… I’m not going to Juilliard.”

“What?” Carrick snaps, turning sharp eyes on his daughter, and she cringes.

“Yeah. I–uh, I rescinded my application.”

Grace looks horrified. “Why?”  

“I’ve decided that it’s just… not the right choice for me.”

Carrick lets out a long sigh, then pinches the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “Good lord, not this again.”

“It’s not what you think.”

“Mia, you’re going to college. This isn’t a discussion, it’s what’s going to happen.”

She nods. “I know, I’m not saying that I’m not going to college, I’m just not going to Juilliard. I’ve made a lot of mistakes over the past few years and nearly every one of them is because of how selfishly and relentlessly I’ve pursued that school. I compromised a lot of my own values to get there and honestly, after last year with the secrets and the cutting… I realized that I’ve lost myself because of it. I looked in the mirror and I didn’t like the person who looked back at me. So, I called Juillard and asked them to revoke my application and, instead, I applied to Harvard.”

“Harvard?” Grace repeats, and Mia nods.

“Yeah. It’s where all the people who I do respect go. Dad, Ana, Kate… even Christian. Sort of. I’ve decided that ballet just isn’t the most important thing to me anymore. I don’t want to let blind ambition rule my life. I want to feel like I’m living for a purpose. I want to help people. So, I’m going to Harvard to study pre-law, like Dad. And one day, when I become a lawyer just like him, I’m going to dedicate my career to advocating for people who can’t fight for themselves. To giving a voice to people who have none.”

Christian frowns. “But… ballet has always been your passion, Mia. It’s part of who you are.”

“And Harvard has a dance team. I mean, it’s not like I’m trying to get into some underfunded state school. Harvard’s ballet program is actually amazing. I’ll train there while I go to school and, hopefully, still be able to live out my dream of dancing in front of packed theater in New York one day. But you and Dad were right. Ballet has a shelf life. I could be injured tomorrow or in school and my career would be over before it even started. This way, if the worst happens or even if I just get too old to dance they way I’d have to in order to stay relevant, I’ll still have purpose. I can move onto something meaningful.”

“Harvard isn’t a joke, Meems,” Elliot says. “It’s not just something you can do on the side while you dance and use as a fall back. It’s hard work and you should really think about that before you throw Juilliard away.”

“I’ve already thought about it, over and over again. This is what I want.”

“Well, that’s great, Mia,” Carrick says. “But it’s February. The application deadlines have past…”

“I applied last fall. I didn’t want to say anything until I knew because I didn’t know if my SAT score was going to be good enough to get me in, but I think the essay I wrote swayed the admissions board because I got my acceptance letter last week. I was just waiting until we were all together to say something. I’m going to Harvard next year.”

The corner of Carrick’s mouth ticks upwards as he unconsciously starts to smile. “You were accepted?”

Mia nods.

“Sweetheart, that’s amazing!”

“Congratulations, Meems!” I get up out of my seat to come around the table to hug her, and as I wrap her in my arms the uncertainty on her face melts away and she starts to grin. Kate wobbles over next and squeals with excitement as she wraps Mia in a huge bear hug, and Christian pulls Mia up and out of her seat when Kate finally releases her.

“I’m so proud of you,” he tells her, squeezing her tightly.

“Thanks,” she says, and when she settles back into her chair, she turns to look at her father. “So, I guess now would be a good time to tell you that I have to go to Cambridge the first weekend of March. There’s a big freshman orientation thing that everyone is required to come to.”

“Oh my god, I remember that!” Kate says. “Ana, do you remember that weekend? It was a blast. That’s when we picked Grays for our dorm.”

“When you picked Grays,” I remind her. “I wanted to live in Hollis.”

“Well, I’m very glad you didn’t,” Christian says, looking over at me and smiling.

“Yeah, but requesting dorm assignments is only part of it,” Mia says. “There’s a ton of stuff that we have to do that weekend and I can’t miss it.”

“The first weekend of March?” Carrick asks dubiously as he turns to look at Grace. She frowns.

“That’s only two weeks away, I have surgeries planned…”

“Yeah, I can’t either,” Carrick says. “Not until the legislative session ends. I have three outstanding appointments with the city council.”

“I’d take you, but Kate’s in her third trimester and I’m not going to fly all the way across the country from her,” Elliot says. “She could go into labor…”

“I’ll take her,” I interject, and Christian turns to me in surprise.

“You?”

“Sure. We’ll have a great time. I haven’t been back since graduation and I’ve missed it. A lot, actually. And I know Cambridge really well, so I can show her all my favorite places to eat or hang out. When she’s busy with orientation, I can stay at the house and write. That’s why we kept it, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is. Well, I can rearrange some things in my schedule and…”

“Oh, no,” Mia says, shaking her head. “Who invited you, Christian? Harvard Alum only.”

He glares at her, but I nod in agreement. “I mean, she makes a fair point.”

“You want to go alone?”

“She won’t be alone,” Mia says. “She’ll be with me. It’ll be fun, just the two of us. Like a girl’s weekend.”

“Yeah. Fun,” I repeat. “Besides, I don’t think anyone here is as used to travelling from Seattle to Cambridge as I am. It’ll actually feel kind of normal and normal is good.”

“Alright,” Christian concedes. “Then I’ll schedule the jet to take you.”

“Yes!” Mia exclaims. “No offense, but I thought going with my parents would be kind of lame. But with Ana, Ah! I’m so excited!”

“Me too.” I wink at her, and as she continues to celebrate her Ivy League acceptance with her parents, and even my father. Christian leans over to whisper in my ear.

“You’re sure you’re ready for this?”

“Yeah. Actually, I kind of think spending time alone with Mia is going to be great.”

“Good.” He kisses my cheek. “I love that you love my family so much.”

“You mean our family?”

He smiles, and tilts my face so that he can press his lips into mine, but it’s not long before our perfectly innocent kiss is interrupted by Elliot.

“Alright, alright. Once Ana and Christian start making out it’s time to go.”

“Yeah,” Kate agrees. “I love you guys, but me and the little miss need to go to bed.”

“And we’ve got a long drive home,” my dad adds. “Can we help you clean up?”

“Oh, god no.” I wave him off. “You made dinner. And… thank you, Kim. It was delicious.”

She smiles. “It was my pleasure, Annie. Come see us soon?”

I grit my teeth as I return her smile, trying not to let my displeasure at her using my father’s nickname for me show through. “Of course.”

“See you later, kid.” My dad leans down and kisses the top of my head, then scoops Calliope up and blows a raspberry on her tummy. She shrieks with joy but immediately turns and starts to reach for Christian.

“Dada, dada.”

“Well, this is going to be fun,” I sigh. “I’m glad she can now vocalize her preference for Christian. As if her screams every time he left the house weren’t enough, now she can actually tell everyone how much more she loves him than me. It’s good. Real good.”

Christian laughs as he takes Calliope from my dad, and shakes his hand again. We each give out hugs to Kate, Elliot, and Mia, but while Grace heads out for her car, Carrick hangs behind.

“I’ve narrowed it down to three names for police chief. My office will do one more round of interviews and then I’ll pick one of them to present to city council for appointment.”

“And they’ll be on our side?” I ask. “You’re sure?”

“Positive. Trust me, Ana. I’m going to find everyone who was responsible for what happened and make sure they end up behind bars.”

“How long will that take?”

“I don’t know. But I want you to know that I’m working on it. I haven’t forgotten, and I won’t.”

I take a deep breath, then nod, and Carrick leans in to give Callie one last kiss before he goes. Christian and I linger in the doorway while we watch everyone pull down the driveway. Once the gate closes behind the last car, Christian puts the code in the box that shuts everything down, then turns to follow me in the kitchen. We both carry in plates from the dining room, but as I start actually doing dishes, he becomes too absorbed in Calliope saying his name again and again to be much help.

“Our baby might be a genius, Ana,” he says proudly. “We should really look into getting her enrolled in an advanced preschool program.”

“She’s said one word, Christian,” I say, rolling my eyes.

“Yes, but her diction is perfect.”

“She’s not even a year old.”

“But the earlier we get her enrolled in pre-school, the better chance we have of getting her into a good primary school, which will get her into the best secondary schools, and eventually, Harvard.”

“Okay, Carrick,” I say dryly as I place the final plate in the dishwasher and turn the knob to start it.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, maybe we should give her a chance to be a kid before we start sending in college applications.”

“A mind like hers shouldn’t be wasted, Anastasia.”

I turn and lean against the sink, giving him a pointed look that doesn’t seem to have much effect on his resolve. It’s baffling. For a smart man, sometimes he can be very obtuse.

“Come on, Munchkin,” I say, moving towards him and taking her out of his arms. “It’s way past your bedtime.”

Surprisingly, she doesn’t fight me as I pull her into me and carry her off to the nursery, perhaps because Christian follows right behind us. While I lay her down in the bed and remove the teddy bear that has no business being in the crib with her, Christian winds up the mobile that dangles over her and fills the room with the soft tinkling sounds of music. We each lean over the edge of the crib railing and kiss her goodnight. Normally, I’d sit in the rocking chair beside the crib and read aloud to her, but tonight seems to have worn her out enough. She’s already half asleep by the time we pull away, and as we creep out of the room and switch off the light, she doesn’t make a sound.

“Alone again,” Christian says when we make it back to our bedroom. He captures my face between his hands, kisses me tenderly, and pushes me back to our bed. I gasp slightly as I fall back onto the mattress and he crawls over the top of me. We start tearing away each other’s clothes, but only seconds after he starts kissing me again, he stops and pulls away.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“Would you mind if we… just went to sleep?”

“Oh, thank god,” I say with relief. “I’m so tired, I thought I was going to drop Calliope coming up the stairs.”

He laughs, but the sound slowly dies away, leaving him looking almost forlorn. “I guess our vacation really is over, huh?”

“I guess so.”

He sighs and kisses me again, then moves so we can pull down the covers and crawl into bed together. He pulls me tightly against him as he settles into sleep, and I lie there in the dark, encased in his warmth, waiting for his body to relax and his breathing to even out. Once I’m sure he’s asleep, I gently ease his arms off of me and roll out of bed. With one last look at his peaceful face, I turn and leave the room, heading straight for my office downstairs.

The security team should be off for the night, but the window from my office is visible from Taylor’s room, so I don’t turn on the light. I plop down in my chair, pick up the landline on my desk, and start to dial.

“Hello,” a very groggy voice answers.

“Luke? I’m sorry, did I wake you?”

“Yeah, but that’s okay. What’s up?”

“I have an excuse to go to Cambridge. Alone.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, Mia got into Harvard and needs someone to take her to orientation. Christian is going to schedule our flight for the first weekend of March.”

“Good. I’ll meet you there. We still on for Wednesday?”

I take a deep breath. “Absolutely.”

 

Chapter 01

net-pic4

I’ve missed the sun. This winter has been long, cold and extremely wet, so the feeling of its rays browning my skin right now is like being welcomed home after a hard fought battle. There’s a breeze coming off the tides of the Indian Ocean that keeps me comfortable under the insistent and unimpeded sun, and listening to the steady swell and crash of the tide is at once both absorbing and relaxing.

It’s paradise, and that’s what I try to focus on.

Not the beautiful baby girl I’ve left behind, or the miles of beach around us that are exposed and unprotected. Just this. Just the sun.

Christian and I have been in the Maldives for only two of our five planned days, and so far it’s been a struggle to be here and present with him rather than obsessing over what we’ve left behind. When he lured me out of the house Monday morning, all he told me was that he had a Valentine’s surprise. I expected jewelry or an intimate lunch. Maybe a hotel room and a complicated set of restraints to hold me down while we tested out a whole new slew of toys that would leave us both exhausted and well satisfied. What I didn’t expect was Kate and Elliot simultaneously making their way to my house so they could spend the week looking after my baby or the pre-packed bags that Taylor unloaded from the back of the SUV and into Christian’s private jet.

I nearly had a panic attack. My voice broke as the list of reasons we couldn’t leave Seattle poured from my mouth and my hands shook so badly that Christian had to take them in his to get them to stop. Since… it happened, Calliope hasn’t been out of my sight for more than a couple of hours. No overnights with Grace, no weekends with my father in Montesano. Last fall, Christian finally had a daycare built inside GEH with the thought that he’d earn some good will from his employees by providing free child care, while also being able to take Callie to work with him so I could write at home without any interruption. But she hasn’t been even one time. I can’t stand having her away from me. Ever. So there was no way I was going to get on that flight and leave her behind.

I fought. I argued. I did everything I could to get him to take me home. But, after nearly forty five minutes of back and forth, Christian managed to win me over. Not with promises of sun drenched beaches or exotic excursions through lush jungles and crystal clear seas, but with one transparently honest statement.

“Anastasia, I miss you.”

These past few months have been hard. I’ve tried to put what happened last August behind me, but I can’t. It is always in the back of my mind, and instead of getting better with time it seems to be getting worse. Sometimes I can hide it, sometimes I can’t. Because the fear that I felt that night changed me. I’m not the same girl I used to be. I’m jaded, paranoid, and I don’t trust anyone.

The best thing for me has been to keep myself occupied at all times. I spend every waking second buried in my novel or with my daughter. And between that, Christian’s international expansion with GEH, the election last fall, constantly checking in with Carrick to find out how his new chief of police appointment is going, and doing what I need to do to feel protected in the meantime, Christian and I have sort of… fallen out of sync. We don’t see each other enough, and when we do that time is usually dedicated to Calliope. Our sex life hasn’t suffered in terms of frequency, but it feels more mechanical than passionate. The love is there, but we’re not connecting the way we used to. This week is about fixing that, putting everything aside and thinking about nothing but each other.

This is going to be good for us.

This is going to be the honeymoon we never had.

This is going to be fun.

Except, I can’t stop obsessing over Calliope being alone in Seattle, without me to watch over and protect her. I can’t stop thinking about what could be happening while we’re away.

Just enjoy the sun, Anastasia.

After taking a deep breath, I stretch out on the sun lounger and close my eyes, thinking I might just let the sound of the waves lull me off to sleep. Christian didn’t exactly give me ample opportunity to rest last night after all. But, just as I start to doze off, I hear a high squeaking sound and the sun disappears.

“Why?” I complain, peeking out of the corner of my eye to see that Christian has re-adjusted the sun umbrella behind us so that I’m shielded by its shadow.  

“I don’t want you to burn.” He leans over me and starts kissing my neck. “I’ve spent the last hour thinking of several exciting things I plan on doing to you tonight and a sunburn doesn’t mesh well with what I’ve planned.”

I try, but fail, to conceal the smile his erotic warning brings out of me. “The whole last hour, huh? Sounds like you don’t find the book I gave you very engaging.”

“After reading your work, very little is. Besides, how could you expect me to read when the view is so incredible?”

“Mmm, it is beautiful.”

“Yes.” His hand moves from the side of my face, down the curve of my neck, and through the curves of my cleavage. When he hits the fabric of my bikini top, he works his fingers underneath in search of my nipple, which he pinches tightly between his fingers. “Beautiful.”  

“Very brazen, Mr. Grey,” I say, but my admonishment only makes his grin wider.

“Oh, baby. You have no idea.” Using the hand still toying with my nipple, he pushes my bikini top to the side, and the moment my breast is exposed his mouth is on me. I hiss slightly from the scrape of his teeth, but the sting is quickly soothed away by the gentle caress of his lips and tongue. My eyes quickly move to the umbrella again, checking to make sure that we’re concealed from the other resort guests enjoying the sun this afternoon. We are, so I close my eyes and force myself to keep quiet while he works his magic, and he takes advantage. Soon, his hands are trailing down my stomach and beneath my bikini bottoms.

“Christian!”  I sit bolt upright, moving away from his fingers. “What are you doing?”

He gives me a devilish grin. “Making my wife come.”

There’s a hunger in his voice when he speaks the word come that makes me tighten with anticipation, but when he tries to move his hand back between my legs, I slap it away and cover my breast again.

“We are not having sex right now. We are on a public beach!”

He raises an eyebrow before slowly looking to his right at the miles of uninterrupted white sand stretching out away from us, then to his left at the clean white canvas of the umbrella that stands between us and the few people lying out in the sand or surfing the waves far enough away that we can barely make them out ourselves.

“I think we’re okay.”

“Until someone comes back around with drinks.”

“Anastasia, I finally, truly have you all to myself again. No one knows who we are, my family isn’t here, Calliope is in someone else’s very capable hands, we don’t have security hovering over us, and there aren’t any paparazzi hiding in the shadows to get a photo of us together. Right now, right here, I really couldn’t give a fuck what the other guests may or may not see.”

I bite down on my lip, nearly won over by the carnal, ravenous look in his eye, but it’s his fingers that really start to win me over. He gently drags the pad of his thumb over me, spreading the hint of my arousal that he awakened before up and around my clitoris. With one last nervous glance, I turn towards the resort to make sure no one is coming towards us with a drink tray, and when I find the long winding path leading down to the beach empty, I nod and surrender. His eyes flash with lust as I settle back into the lounger and he slides a finger inside of me, searching for the perfect place that is sure to make me unravel.

I start to pant in time with his fingers moving in and out of me, and, as my legs start to tremble, he moves down my body, drops his head between my legs, and devours me. I gasp, tangle my fingers in his windblown hair, and push against his insistent tongue and fingers. Between his talented mouth, the sound of his own satisfied groans being muffled between my thighs, and the arousing possibility of being caught, it takes no time at all before I’m teetering right on the edge.

“Oh, fuck!”

“Shh. Keep quiet, baby.”

“Fuck quiet. Fuck being caught. Make me come, Christian.”

He hums with pleasure before sliding a third finger inside of me, and it’s my undoing. I convulse around his fingers, trying desperately to keep myself from making enough noise that I’ll attract the other guests on the beach. I think he sees me struggling because he moves up to take my lips with his then, and kisses me deeply, continuing to move his fingers in time with each pulse radiating from deep inside of me. I can taste myself on his tongue and it drives me wild. My orgasm intensifies until I have to pull away form his hand or risk passing out.

“God, you’re sexy,” he whispers, his tongue brushing lightly against my bottom lip. I take a deep breath, trying to get a hold of myself, but that seems like a lost cause when he pulls his fingers up to his own lips and subtly slips them into his mouth. “Mmm. Perfection.”

“You’re incorrigible,” I laugh, pushing him off of me and straightening my bikini bottoms again. I stand to tilt the umbrella again so that we’re still shielded from the other beach goers, but not the sun. As the rays begin to warm my skin again, I dig the sunscreen out of the sand next to the lounger and apply it to my shoulders and legs. He waits, watching intently as I rub my hands over my body, so I pour a large dab into my palm and slap it onto his chest.

“Hey!” he exclaims, indignant. I laugh, then climb onto the lounger, straddling him, and slowly rub the lotion into his skin. He leans back, enjoying the feel of my hands all over him, but when I lean over to kiss him he pushes back on my hips and stares up at me adoringly.

“Let’s go for a swim.”

“Now? Don’t want some kind of… reciprocation?”

He smiles. “Oh, I have plenty of ideas for that, Mrs. Grey. But they’ll have to wait for later. Now, come.”

“But I just did.” I grin, overly pleased with myself, and he shakes his head with mirth before rolling off the lounger, grabbing ahold of my arm, and lifting me up over his shoulder like a potato sack.

“Hey!”

“We could’ve done this the easy way, Anastasia, but you chose the hard way.”

“That’s because I like it hard.”

He laughs, then charges into the surf before dumping into the shallow waves and diving in after me.

 

Our time in the Maldives is amazing, and soon my preoccupation with the what ifs back home melt away so that I can enjoy every second of my alone time with Christian. I was fully prepared to spend all five days just lounging on the beach and relaxing, but Christian has packed each of our days here with seemingly unlimited activities and excursions. We snorkel over the expansive coral reefs and swim with sharks. We visit museums and exotic restaurants, where we both get to discover new favorite foods together. Christian tries to teach me to surf one afternoon, but that goes just about as well as the time he tried to teach me to ski, so we abandon that fairly quickly and decide instead to explore the local markets where we buy enough souvenirs for Calliope that it becomes necessary to purchase a whole new suitcase for the flight home. When we’re not treking all over the island, we enjoy bottomless cocktails on the beach or get couples massages at the resort.

And we make love.

Constantly.

Over every inch of our private water villa. In the sauna at the spa. In the coat check closet at the restaurant in the resort. Even once in the back of a taxi. It’s like we’re nineteen again and as the week ticks past and I feel our bond strengthening more than I think it ever has before, I realize that I’ve really missed him too. It makes the prospect of our final night here bittersweet, but as I get ready for dinner that night, he tells me that he’s saved the best for last.

At sunset, we head to the main beach outside the resort. The sun sinks low in the sky, creating an amazingly colorful sunset that is breathtaking and unbelievably romantic. There’s a feast taking place tonight, which is meant to give the guests a taste of Dhivehi culture, but despite the music, dancing, and the delicious looking food, Christian seems more occupied studying the darker, more private paths that lead away from the party than enjoying the festivities.

“Will you stop it,” I giggle, elbowing him in the side. He turns and looks down at me, but he fails to evoke innocence with his smile.

“What?”

“I know what you’re thinking. You’re not being very subtle.” I take a drink of the fruity cocktail in my hand and his eyes glimmer.

“I’m just thinking of you, baby. This party is going to go all night and there’s a lot of alcohol being poured. Whenever tequila is involved, I know I have to have a back up plan to get you alone.”

I laugh, then nearly stumble as he wraps an arm around my waist and pulls me into him so that he can kiss me. Again, it strikes me how liberating it feels to be openly affectionate with him and not have to worry about who’s watching or if there will be a picture of us splashed across some trashy gossip site the next day. We don’t even have to worry about making Taylor uncomfortable. It’s just the two of us. He’s not Mr. Grey, CEO, and I’m not Anastasia Steele, New York Times Best Selling Author. We’re just two anonymous people in love, and it’s everything I could want and more.

The hostess seats us at a small table covered in a crisp white table cloth with a candle burning low in the middle of a small floral centerpiece. When they bring food around to our table, Christian takes it upon himself to feed me, but only so that he can pull the fork away from me at the last second to keep me from actually being able to take a bite. The dancers come around and perform their traditional Dhivehi dance right before our table, and Christian takes my hand in his as we both enjoy their performance.

Finally, when the festivities die down and Christian and I are dizzy from the alcohol, he gets up from the table and holds his hand out for mine.

“No, I’m not ready to go to bed yet,” I complain.

He smiles and shakes his head. “We’re not. Come, I want to show you something.”

I glance down at his groin, then back up to his eyes. “I’ve seen it.”

“Not nearly enough.” He rolls his eyes and I laugh, but he leans over and takes my hand anyway. “Trust me, you don’t want to miss this.”

Placing my napkin on the table, I get out of my seat and, after we’ve thanked our hosts profusely for a magnificent evening, I follow him from the tented area out to the beach. Everything in the distance is hidden in the pitch black because the lights from the resort are so bright that they obscure the natural glow of the moon and stars. The sand beneath our feet is still warm from the constant rays of the sun throughout the day and I can hear the tide coming in, but I can’t see where the waves wash over the shore. It’s almost a little nerve racking, walking towards the ocean without being able to see where it starts. Eventually though, my eyes adjust and the light begins to illuminate the foam in the water, rather than conceal it. When the sand beneath our feet becomes wet and packed, Christian stops and turns to face me.

“Here we are.”

I frown, then look up the beach to my right, then to my left. All I can see is the dark shape of the water washing up over the empty beach before pulling away again.

“It’s… beautiful?” I say, turning back to him with confusion.

He smiles. “Look down.”

I do as he says and notice, as I move my feet, that’s there’s something blue in the wet sand. Not something solid, like an object, more like a pale light.

“What is that?”

“It’s called bioluminescence. It comes from a kind of plankton that floats between the islands here. It’s hard to make out properly with all this light, but it’s one of the great wonders of the world.”

“Too much light, huh?” I bite down on my lip and give Christian a mischievous smile before leaning up on my tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek and taking off down the beach, away from the resort.  He calls my name before chasing after me, following my illuminated footsteps until we come around a bend that frames the jungle and I stop dead in my tracks.

From here, the trees block the unnatural light coming from the resort and, in the darkness, the ocean seems to glow. It’s not just in the sand, it’s in the water, and as the tide rolls over the beach, it looks like we’ve stepped into some kind of fairy tale. The waves aren’t just neon blue, they sparkle, like the kind of magic you would see animated in a Disney film.

“Christian,” I breathe in astonishment. He smiles and takes my hand again, then pulls me down the beach to get a closer look. There’s an almost surreal quality to the waves as they wash over our feet. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen and as I stare out into the water, wondering how far this amazing phenomenon goes, I get an idea. I pull back on Christian’s hand so that he stops, then reach for the ties around my neck, unravel them, and let my sarong fall into the surf.

Christian raises an eyebrow at me, then takes a step closer, but I quickly turn away from him before he can take me into his arms and dart into the ocean, diving into the water the moment it becomes too deep for me to continue running. It feels much colder than it did during the day, but I don’t care. Every time I move my arms through the water the glow appears, surrounding me in a pool of bright blue light.

Christian is just as enthralled as I am. We swim together, diving under the waves as they come crashing towards us and chasing each other through the brief moments of calm in between. Eventually though, the cold becomes too much in conjunction with the rapidly cooling night air and we have to get out of the water. But as I move up the beach to collect my discarded dress, Christian grabs ahold of me and spins me into his arms. He holds me there, for a long moment. Not moving. Not speaking. Just staring deeply into my eyes, as though he’s reading his favorite novel for the millionth time, but still finding something new. Then, he takes my hand in his and, with no music, we start to dance.

He sweeps me through the sand to nothing more than the steady rhythm of the tide and as I spin into his body, he slowly dips me down until I’m relying only on his strength to keep me upright. With me fully at his mercy, he takes my lips with his. I moan and reach up to wrap my arms around his neck to pull myself as tightly against him as I can. He deepens the kiss, forcing my all too willing lips open. Slowly, we sink down until my back is pressed into the wet sand and he’s hovering over me. His hands move to my hair and the kiss turns into something more wild, more passionate. Heat floods through me, and I’m just about to reach down below the band of his swim trunks when a wave of water, higher than its predecessors, crashes into us and sends him toppling off of me, while nearly drowning me in the process.

“Shit!” Christian exclaims, scrambling back to me on his hands and knees. “Ana, are you okay?”

I cough, feeling the burn of the salt water as it moves through my sinuses. “Yeah. But that is not as romantic as they make it look in the movies.”

He laughs, hard enough that he falls into the sand at my side, and as we devolve into hysterics together, another wave comes rushing at us.

“No! No! No!” I scream, turning and clumsily scurrying higher up the beach to get away from the tide. I scoop up my dress, shake out the wet sand, and turn to face the man I love. He cradles my face in the palm of his hands, sending a wave of warm comfort and reassurance through me, then gently kisses my lips.

“Let’s get you cleaned up,” he whispers, then, unexpectedly, reaches down to scoop me up into his arms. I shriek with surprise, and then giggle again before holding tightly to him and resting my head on his shoulder.

Back at the bungalow, he carries me into the bathroom and then turns on the shower. Though it’s a warm night, the breeze coming off the water through our open windows carries a chill and, without Christian pressed against me, I feel cold. Goosebumps pop up on my arms and legs and the chill only seems to grow more intense when Christian turns back to me and untangles the knots holding my bikini in place.

“Cold?” he asks, reaching around me and taking my exposed breasts into his strong hands. My hardened nipples peak through the gaps between his fingers.

“A little.”

“Then get in. I’ll be right behind you.” He softly kisses my shoulder before nudging me forward, and I’m so eager to get beneath the steaming cascade of water that I don’t even ask why he’s not following after me. I step into the shower and close the frosted glass door behind me, letting the hot water wash away the caked sand and the chill that clings to my skin. I don’t even reach for the shampoo or body wash. I simply close my eyes and let myself enjoy the feeling of the heat on my face.

That is, until the door opens behind me.

“Better?” Christian asks. I can only make a low, contented noise in response, and he lets out a single, breathy chuckle before pressing his naked chest into my back and leaning forward so that his lips brush lightly against my ear. “Don’t turn around.”

His hands move, but not to touch my body. Instead, he picks up the bottle of shampoo from the tile ledge, takes what he needs, then begins to work the fragrant liquid into my hair. The hot water feels as though it’s already melted away the tension in my body from being cold and nearly drowning back on the beach, but the feeling of Christian massaging my scalp somehow makes me relax even further. My legs practically turn to jelly beneath his expert touch, and I have to lean against him to keep them from buckling from under me.  

“Alright,” he says at last. “Rinse.”

I do, and since I have to turn to face him to wash the suds from my hair, I fully expect him to take advantage of my busy hands and closed eyes to explore my body. But he doesn’t. He simply picks up the sea sponge next to the body wash and begins to clean away the sand from my skin. It’s enticing, feeling the gentle caress of the sponge passing over my breasts and down and around my body. He’s meticulous, working slow to draw out my agony as I wait for him to really touch me, but he makes it all the way down to my toes without so much as letting his hand slip to any one of my most sensitive erogenous zones.

“That feels nice,” I whisper. He smiles and leans forward to kiss my inner thigh, then stands and slowly drags a single finger up the length of my leg until he finally touches me where I crave him most. I moan and push into him, wrapping my arms around his neck so I can pull his lips down to mine, but he stops me.

“Not yet, my love. I need washing too.”

My eyes pop open and a playful smile tugs at the corners of my mouth. “Well, then… hand it over.”

He places the sponge in my outstretched hand and, after adding more soap, I step aside to let him stand beneath the water. He wasn’t lying in the sand the way I was on the beach, so he’s not as dirty, but that doesn’t mean I’m any less fastidious in the way I wash him. Leaving a trail of suds  behind, I use the sponge to explore every inch of his amazing body. Every curve and line of every muscle, even the scar from the surgery after they removed his kidney last fall. The soft sounds he makes as I work my way down his body only feed my ever growing need for him, until I finish washing his feet and find myself on my knees before him.

I glance up and raise an eyebrow. “Smooth.”

He smiles, then brushes his hand past my ear, into my wet hair, and gently pulls me forward. I take him hungrily into my mouth, and roll my tongue around the head of his quickly hardening erection. Again, he moans and pushes his hips forward, encouraging me, telling me how good my mouth feels around him with every sudden intake of breath or tightening of his fingers in my hair. I reach up and press both of my palms against his well defined abs, digging my fingers into him every time he tests the limit at the back of my throat with his cock, and relishing in the soft, desperate way he says my name. I only wish that the water trickling off his body down onto me didn’t keep me from looking up at his beautiful face so that I could see just how much he loves this.

I can tell when he’s close by the way the tip of his erection tightens in my mouth and his legs start to shake. He braces himself against the shower wall, and I think he’s going to come in my mouth, but right at the last second, he pulls back and yanks me off the shower floor. The next thing I know, my back is pressed into the tile and he’s consuming me. His body pins mine to the wall, his hands pull my legs up around his waist so that his erection is pressing against me, and his mouth takes mine with an eager kind of fervor that makes me feel his kiss in the deepest, darkest parts of me.

“You’re so hot,” he breathes into my mouth, panting as I cling to him with my body and curl my fingers tightly into to the roots of his hair. “God, I want you.”

“Then take me. Make love to me, Christian.”

With one powerful thrust, he’s inside of me. My head drops back as I let out a pleasure filled gasp and my breasts press firmly into his chest. He leans over, and takes one of my nipples into his mouth as he starts to move and suddenly, it’s not the heat from the shower that makes me feel as though fire is crawling uninhibited across my skin.

It’s him.

It’s us.

“Fuck, you feel… oh, god. Ana!”

I lock my ankles around him, pushing him further into me so that I can take him as deep as possible. My fingers slip from his hair and drag down his back, making him groan and thrust into me harder and faster. It’s not long before he has me panting his name over and over again.

“Yes, like that. Please, Christian. Harder. Harder. Harder….”

He shifts so that he’s holding me with only one hand and the pressure of his body pinning me to the shower wall. With his free hand, he reaches down between my legs and finds my clit, only a few precious centimeters above the place he relentlessly moves in and out of me. It makes everything inside of me tighten, and when he groans at the feeling of my insides gripping his cock like a velvet vice, he leans into me again and presses his lips against the curve of my neck.

“I’m going to come, Ana. You’re going to make me come.”

It’s all I need.

I scream as the dam bursts and sends wave upon wave of pleasure throughout every inch of my body. I feel it surge and crash and surge and crash again until finally, he cries out my name and I feel the faint ripple that tells me he’s found his own release.

As the intensity fades away, I’m left with the after tremors of my orgasm while I try desperately to catch my breath. Christian’s face is buried in the conjunction of my neck and my shoulder and he starts to kiss me there until we’ve both recovered  enough that I can untangle myself from him and let him ease me out of his arms.

“I love you,” he tells me, and I let out a small, satisfied moan before leaning forward to softly kiss his lips.

“And I am utterly and completely in love with you.”

He smiles, looking relaxed and happy, then brushes the stray hairs that are matted to my face with water away. “Don’t take too long drying off. The bed’s too big without you.”

“I won’t,” I promise, and he kisses my forehead before pulling away and stepping out of the shower.

After cleaning away the remnants of our lovemaking, I turn off the water and reach for one of the fluffy, oversized towels to wrap myself in. There’s a hair dryer under the sink that I use to finish my hair, then I take a quick peak in the mirror to admire my new tan before heading off for the bedroom to join my husband.

He’s already in bed, once again reading the book I recommended to him last week, but when he sees me, he closes it, puts it on his bedside table, and pulls back the covers for me. I smile and leap into bed next to him, immediately cuddling into his side and reveling in the feeling of his strong arms wrapping around me.

“Tired?” he asks. My response is cut off with a yawn, so he chuckles slightly, then reaches over to turn off his lamp. We both sink down deeper into the bed, pulling the covers up over us and cuddling close together. It’s nirvana after a long day, and there, in his arms, I gently drift off to sleep.

That is, until I hear distant sound of a baby crying.

I’ve become so accustomed to being woken in the night by the sound of Calliope’s cries through the baby monitor, that at first it doesn’t even phase me. Not until I rub the sleep from my eyes and remember that I’m in not in my bedroom or even in my own house. I’m in an overwater bungalow nearly 9,000 miles away from her.  

I sit up straight, staring into the darkness with confusion. It’s quiet again, so I figure at first that I was just imagining things. But as I lie back into my pillow, I hear the cry again.

“Calliope?” The cry grows louder, so I turn to Christian in the bed next to me and try to shake him awake. He moans softly, but simply rolls over and drifts off again. I bite down on my lip as the wail becomes more insistent, then climb out of bed to investigate. It’s dark, so once I’m out of the bedroom I have to fumble along the wall to find a lightswitch. The outdated wiring means the electricity crackles for half a second before the light turns on, and, as the sitting room comes into view and I find the source of the noise, I have to hold back my scream.

“Gia?”

She turns a sharp glare up at me that makes me tremble. “Shh, you’re upsetting the baby, Anastasia.”

“Give her to me,” I breathe, taking a tentative step forward with my arms outstretched. “Gia, please. Give her to me.”

“Oh no, Ana.” She smiles, but there’s no warmth in it. “You’ve already lost her.”

“Wha-” The word cuts off as someone grabs me from behind and silences my responding scream with a gloved hand. I flail, trying to break free of the strong arms that snake around me, but it’s no use. Whoever has a hold of me tries to shush me, and while I can’t see his face or any other kind of identifier, I recognize his scent immediately. It makes bile rise up into my throat.

“You think it would be that simple to get away from me, Anastasia?” Linc whispers into my ear. “I told you I wouldn’t stop until I had what I wanted. You.”

His hands start groping my body while I continue to fight against him, thrashing violently in his arms until his hand slips from my mouth just enough that I can scream.

“Christian! Help me!”

“Shut the fuck up, Anastasia.”

“No! Help! Please!”

“Shut up, Anastasia!”

“No, get off me! Let me go!”

“Anastasia!”

My eyes spring open as Christian starts physically shaking me awake. He’s straddling me, one hand on each shoulder, and my first reaction is push him away. To fight his hold on me, just like I fought Lincoln. The first time this happened, I’d been so panicked that I hadn’t realized it was him when I woke and I’d given him a black eye trying to get away. But he’s done this enough now that he knows exactly how to hold me so that I’m forced to lie still until I realize where I am, what’s happened, and I’ve calmed down.

“You were dreaming, Ana,” he says softly. “It’s me. You’re safe. It was just a nightmare. You’re safe, baby.”

“Calliope,” I gasp, tears leaking from the corner of my eyes. “She has Calliope. We have to call, give me my phone…”

“No one has Calliope, Ana. She’s safe at home.”

I shake my head. “No, I saw her. She had our baby in her arms. She said I’d already lost her. Christian, we have to call. Taylor can save her. Taylor can get to her. Give me my phone!”

“Ana, look at me. No one has Calliope. No one is coming for you. No one is coming for any of us. Linc is gone. It’s over. You are safe. Calliope is safe.”

My chest heaves as I stare into his reassuring eyes until the fear slowly recedes from my body and I’m able to catch my breath. The adrenaline rush dies as quickly as it came and my natural reaction to the crash is to tremble and cry, but I fight it. The nightmares don’t come as often as they used to, but they happen often enough to make Christian worry and I don’t want that. I don’t want to go back to those first few months where everyone in my life treated me like some kind of breakable china doll. I’m not. And so I hold back my tears and force my body to stop shaking.

“I’m okay,” I tell him, moving slightly so that he’ll loosen his grip on my arms.

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah.” I nod, letting out a long, soothing breath, and he pulls his hands away from me. As he moves back into the bed next to me again, he pulls me tightly against his body and places three soft kisses on my naked shoulder.

“I really thought bringing you here would help.”

“It did. I mean… Christian, I’m fine.”

“Really? You call this fine?”

“It was just a bad dream.”

“A bad dream that you’ve been having at least three nights a week for months.” I press my lips together, unable to respond to him. He tightens his hold around me and buries his face into my hair. “I’m not going to argue with you about this anymore, Anastasia. When we get home, you’re going to therapy.”

“Christian… I don’t need therapy. I go with you every week and it clearly hasn’t done anything.”

“Because you don’t talk!”

“But I listen.” I turn in his arms so I can look at him. “I listen to you, I listen to Flynn… The only person not being heard is me. I’m fine, okay? I just… I need some time.”

He exhales sharply, the same tortured look he gets every time we talk about this clouding his eyes. Usually, this is where he drops it, but tonight I’m not sure he will. So reach up to place each of my hands on either side of his face, brushing my thumbs over the curves just below his eyes, then slowly lean in to kiss him. He doesn’t rebuke me, but his responding kiss is tentative, and when I pull away he doesn’t look anymore reassured.

“I love you, Christian.”

He sighs. “I love you too, Ana. I just wish you’d let me help you.”

“You do. More than you know.” I kiss him one last time then nestle down into the space under his shoulder. His fingers move in my hair, sending tingling shivers down my spine, and as I finally start to drift off to sleep again, his lips press gently into my forehead and I hear him whisper that he loves me once more.

Next Chapter

Book Four

7E5345C1-6CA5-4F55-B373-9948F59A8381

Life after Harvard was supposed to be Ana’s happily ever after, until one fateful night shattered everything. Will Ana find the courage to overcome the past, or will her desperation to protect those she loves destroy her and everything she’s worked so hard to build? (Part four to A Different Shade of Fifty, A Broken Shade of Fifty, and A Stronger Shade of Fifty).

Chapter 01

Carrick PoV: Election Day

vote_button_iasecofstate

For the first time in months, I haven’t started my day in the campaign office Christian has leased my team inside his towering skyscraper downtown. Instead, I’m in my kitchen, enjoying the cup of coffee my wife has poured for me, staring out at the black water of Lake Washington beneath the dark gray clouds that will likely bring rain by the afternoon. This could be it. All that is left for me. Or, today could change my life and the lives of everyone I love forever.

It’s election day.  The polls open in thirty-five minutes and then it’s all in the voter’s hands. Months and months of tireless work all comes down to this.

I have to win. Not for pride or glory, but for my daughter-in-law, who was so terrified of her own home after what the man I used to consider my best friend had done to her that she still hasn’t been able to go back. For my son, who has lost all trust in everyone around him he doesn’t consider family. For the dozens of people who lost everything they owned in the apartment fire set as a diversion to give a mad man time to kidnap Anastasia and get out of the city before the police could arrive. For the people who are still out there and who may have cause to come after Christian and his family again.

I have to win.

I take another long drink of coffee to drown out the warning Grace has given me over and over again, which now echoes through my mind.

You can’t do this just to get revenge for Christian. This is a real job. If you’re elected, people will be depending on you.

I know this. I know that what I’m setting out to do isn’t just a free power grab into the inner workings of the government. I’m going to be mayor of the largest metropolis in the Pacific Northwest. There are well over a half a million people in this city. People who will depend on my leadership, to ensure good policy is being made that encourages economic growth and provides sustainable jobs. That protections are put in place for the small businesses competing against the giant conglomerates that have moved in and caused an unprecedented population boom since the early 2000s. We need direction to deal with the housing crisis and the overwhelming problems of poverty and homelessness that plague this great city.

I’m going to do all of those things. I understand the commitment and I’m going to dedicate myself to being the best public servant for this city that I can. But I am also going to make sure that everyone who is responsible for what happened to my son, or who had a role in covering up what was done, is going to face real and serious consequences.

“Ready, dear?”

I turn and see Grace coming into the kitchen behind me, hooking an earring through her ear as she moves to her purse on the counter. She looks stunning. Exactly the way this city’s first lady should look.

I can’t express how important and valuable her support has been to me over the past few months. She hasn’t missed one rally, one debate, or one fundraiser. She’s answered phones, she’s overseen the production of pamphlets and advertising signs, she even did an interview last week with the KIRO 2 news team about “the man behind the campaign.” And, through all of this, she hasn’t missed even one appointment with any of her patients. She’s spent every Wednesday afternoon with Calliope while Christian and Ana went to therapy together. She hasn’t missed a beat, and for all the love I’ve always held for this woman over thirty years of marriage, I have never admired her more.

“You look beautiful this morning, sweetheart.”

She smiles. “Thank you, dear. I’m guessing there will be press there to cover you casting your vote so I thought I should put in a little extra effort this morning. Ana called. She and Christian are heading to the polling place first thing this morning and she’s in a panic because she can’t find that outfit we bought for Calliope last week. It’s no wonder with the mountains of clothes that baby has. She’s going to outgrow most of them before she even gets a chance to try them on.”

“Haven’t we bought most of those clothes?” I ask, raising an eyebrow, and she smiles again.

“So I like to spoil my only grandchild. Sue me. I don’t know why she’s making such a fuss anyway, she might as well dress her in her pj’s and mismatched socks. Christian won’t let anyone with a camera near that baby.”

“Do you blame him?”

Her smile falters and she plays with the strap on her purse to buy time so she can decide how or if she should say what she wants to next. “You don’t really think there’s still someone after them do you?”

“I don’t know,” I reply honestly. “But if I win today, I’m going to find out.”

“Carrick…”

“I know, I know. It’s not just for them.” I move across the kitchen and place a finger beneath her chin, giving her a sly kind of smile. “I also just really like the sound of Mayor Grey.”

“Well, then you better get downtown and vote. Come on, if we hurry we might be able to beat the morning traffic and catch Christian and Ana at the polls.”

 

It’s a madhouse in downtown Seattle between the morning commuters trying to get to work and the thousands of people pouring in from all over the city to cast their ballots. It takes us nearly an hour to find parking, but as we come up the long walkway to the courthouse we see Ana and Christian standing at the top of the stairs in front of a crowd of reporters. It looks as though Christian is answering questions while Ana hovers uneasily behind him, holding a swaddled Calliope in her arms.

“Ah, here he is!” Christian says brightly, motioning to Grace and I as we climb the steps. There’s a new wave of commotion as the cameras turn on us and we wade through the dozens of questions being asked. Grace pays attention to none of it. Her eyes are set only on her pride and joy. Her granddaughter.

“How has she been this morning?” she asks, and Ana lets out a heavy sigh.

“Fussy. She’s not used to this kind of commotion and I think she’s starting to reverse cycle with Christian at work all day and me trying to finish this book… She had me up all last night and now she’s exhausted.”

“Well she just needs a little nappie,” Grace coos into the blanket. “Tell you what, I’ll take her and give you a little break this afternoon.”

“Actually, we were hoping you’d spend the day at our house,” Christian says. “Kate and Elliot are coming over after their appointment this morning. They’re finding out the gender today.”

“Today? That was today?” Grace asks, panicked.

“Well, it was supposed to be at the end of the week,” Ana says. “But Kate thought maybe having a little family time this afternoon and focusing on the new baby might make it a little more bearable until we get the results of the vote this evening.”

“You’re not working, son?”

“Not today. Today’s about you, Dad.”

I smile and clap him on the shoulder. “Thanks, Christian. We’d love to come. Just let me go do this thing and we’ll meet you at home.”

He nods and reaches for Ana, but she’s having a hard time getting away from Grace.

“We’ll see you soon, angel. Grandma loves you. Yes she does. Yes she does.”

“Okay, Grace,” I say, taking hold of her elbow and moving her back away from our granddaughter. “The sooner we let them leave, the sooner the baby gets a nap.”

She frowns but lets me lead her away, and after we wave goodbye to Christian and Ana, we’re followed into the courthouse by the the continuous flash of cameras behind us.

I’ve practiced law in this city for nearly twenty years. The King County courthouse is a building I know by heart. But today, when I walk through the doors, it feels different than any of the million times I’ve done it before. I can feel the momentous weight of what I’m about to do and it leaves me confuddled in a strange mix of pride and fear. I think I have a real chance at winning this thing, but the task just on the other side of victory is intimidating.

“Good luck,” Grace says as she steps through the curtain into the booth where she’ll cast her vote. I smile at her one last time, and then follow her lead into the stall next to her. There’s a table there for me to place my ballot on, and when I open the folder and see my name on the sheet in front of me, my ears heat.

 

Mayor:

⃣   Carrick Grey (I)

 

With a deep breath, I take my pen and punch through the checkbox by my name, taking a second to revel in the joy of the moment, and then quickly move down the list of other open offices and marking the boxes next to the names of the people I want to work with. It takes only a few minutes, but it’s the culmination of months of anticipation and when I step out of the voting booth, the fear dwindles enough that, for just a brief shining moment, I can bask in the unbridaled sense of pride.

“I voted for the other guy,” Grace says. “You know, so I wouldn’t seem biased.”

I laugh. “How long have you been planning that line?”

“Since September. And in my mind you were much more incensed.”

“Well how dare you!” I exclaim, then lean over to kiss her cheek. “Let’s go. We’ve got another grandbaby to celebrate today.”

 

Christian and Ana have the news on when we get to their house but, for the most part, it’s ignored. Ana has Calliope on her play mat, surrounded by all her favorite toys, and the four of us spend a good part of the morning completely engrossed in her tiny feet kicking with joy every time she’s able to wrap her little fingers around something. For the first time in a long time, Christian and I talk about things other than the election: fishing trips we hope to take, plans he has for business, and the new Bugatti Veyron model that was revealed for 2012. Ana and I discuss the Seahawks dismal 2-5 start this year and how desperately we need to find a decent quarterback in the draft next year.

“Honestly at this point we should throw the rest of the season,” she says furiously. “Take the losses now for better draft picks next year. I swear to god, I couldn’t talk to Bob for a week after the Steelers blew us out in week two.”

I laugh at the angry pink tint that colors her cheeks and then try to steer her away from football to a less touchy subject. But, when I ask her how Ray is doing she simply narrows her eyes at me and says, “He’s just as pissed about the Seahawks as I am.”

Even Christian laughs this time, but it’s short lived as we’re interrupted by the sound of the doorbell ringing. We all turn to look towards the front of the house as Taylor moves to the entrance hall to answer the door, but it’s not immediately apparent who has arrived once he lets them in because the first thing we see coming into the living room is a pair of nondescript legs holding a giant box.

“Ana?” Kate calls.

“In here.”

The box slips about a foot to reveal Elliot, and he glances between each of us until his eyes land on Christian. “Where can I leave this?”

“What…is it?” Christian asks.

“We got it from a party supply store,” Kate explains. “We had the doctor put the gender in an envelope, so even we don’t know. When we open the box, either pink or blue balloons will be released and we’ll all find out together.”

“Well, open it, for god’s sake!” Grace exclaims.

“Don’t you think we should wait for Mia to get here?”

“No,” Ana says.

Kate laughs and turns to Elliot. “Just go put it on the dining room table until we’re ready.”

“We’re ready!” Grace argues, but Elliot just laughs at his mother’s impatience, then kisses Kate on the cheek before heading into the dining room. Once he’s gone, Kate crosses the room and plops down on the sofa next to Ana.

“Check it out, I’m officially a Grey.” She reaches into her purse for her wallet, then pulls out her driver’s license, beaming as she hands it to her. “I just got it yesterday.”

“Oh, how unorthodox. Changing your name before you get married.” Ana gives Kate a hard look, which makes her roll her eyes.

“When are you going to forgive me?”

“When you have a real wedding that you invite me to.”

“It’s not like I purposely kept just you out, no one was invited. That’s kind of the point of eloping.”

“I did not give you permission to elope!”

“I didn’t ask!”

It was only two days after Kate and Elliot’s surprise engagement and subsequent pregnancy announcement that we all got the early morning phone call telling us they’d taken a late flight to Vegas and gotten married the night before. Grace was furious and while Ana was excited and happy for them over the phone, Christian later told me that, after the reality had sunk in and she realized that she wasn’t at Kate’s wedding, she cried. Clearly, she’s still upset. Personally, I half expected something like this. After what happened to Christian with Carla, Elliot was insistent that they be married before the baby was born, just in case. And between their jobs, the election, and the energy being poured into building their new house, there was no way they were going to have time to plan a wedding. They’re both very spontaneous kids, I think it’s fitting. I suppose that I wish, in hindsight, that we would have at least gotten a phone call to give us the opportunity to come, but they both seem truly happy. At the end of the day, that’s all I really care about. And hurt feelings aside, I have another daughter now.

Ana lets out an angry huff and crosses her arms over her chest. “We swore we were going to have the other as Maid of Honor when we got married. You got to be mine, and I would have gone to Vegas if you would have just called me.”

“I know, and I’m sorry that you didn’t get to be my Maid of Honor, but doesn’t the fact that we’re really and truly sisters now make up for it, just a little bit?”

Kate’s lower lip juts out and she gives Ana her best puppy dog look, and while Ana tries to keep up her indignant front, eventually, she can’t stop herself from smiling.

“Okay, fine. But, to make it up to me, I better get to be in the delivery room with you when you give birth.”

“You’ll have to fight me for that,” Elliot says, coming into the room and bending over the sofa to kiss Ana on the forehead, then slumping down onto the floor at Kate’s feet. Ana glares at him.

“She has two hands. You can hold one, I can hold the other.”

“Um, do I get a say in this?” Kate asks.

“No,” Elliot and Ana respond together, and as the two of them laugh, she rolls her eyes.

“Well, as long as we’re all on the same page, I guess…”

“Are we really not going to open that box?” Grace asks, and it’s clear by the frustration in her voice that she has been fuming about this from the moment Kate asked Elliot to take it into the other room. “The answer to whether or not I’m having my first grandson or my second granddaughter is fifty feet away from me, and you’re all just sitting here like it doesn’t even matter.”

“It won’t be much longer, Grace,” I tell her. “It’s nearly three. School is out, I’m sure Mia is on her way.”

Her eyes move to the giant clock over the fireplace, and she frowns. “I swear to god if that girl isn’t here in twenty minutes, she’s grounded forever.”

A low cry comes from the baby monitor in Ana’s hand, and quickly grows into a loud shriek, but as she gets off the couch to go get Calliope from the nursery, Grace stands and holds out a hand to stop her.

“I’ll get her. If you’re going to withhold one grandchild from me I may as well attend to the other.”

With a very dramatic flair, Grace leaves the living room and heads off to Calliope’s room, while Ana settles back into the couch and lifts her legs up and over Christian’s knee. He looks over at her and she smiles. “Kate’s baby is still in-utero and Callie is already competing for all the attention.”

“Of course she is,” Elliot says. “She’s Christian’s kid, through and through.”

Christian raises an eyebrow. “Well, let’s hope for your kid’s sake, they take after Kate.”

He waits a moment for Elliot’s incensed reaction, but it doesn’t come. Instead, my oldest son looks back at his brother and nods solemnly.

“Preach, brother. Preach.”

 

A half hour passes and Grace has returned with Calliope, who she feeds in the oversized cream lounge chair by the back window. The rest of us watch the news for any election updates, but it’s really too early for any news coverage, except the occasional check in with the reporters at the polls. I focus mainly on the number of people I can see behind her. The key to me winning is successfully getting the disenfranchised voters to the polls, and that very obstacle has killed every candidate who has run against him in the last three election cycles.

We’re watching an interview with someone fresh out of the voting booth when the doorbell rings and a few seconds later, Mia’s voice echoes through the entrance hall towards us.

“Christian?”

“In here, Meems,” he replies.

Mia hurries into the living room and her eyes zero in on the TV with excited expectation. “What are they saying?”

“Too early to tell,” Elliot answers.

She frowns. “Well, Tibby is eighteen, so she’s voting for you. So is her dad. I asked every single one of my teachers today and Mr. Randall, Mrs. Janisek, and Mr. Polansky are all voting for you too. Mrs. Aldey told me that wasn’t a polite thing to ask someone, so she’s probably not.”

“You shouldn’t be harassing your teachers, Mia,” I chide her, but she shrugs.

“Some kids badger them about recommendation letters for college, some kids hassle them into voting for their father for Mayor. They’re teachers. They’ve seen it all.”

“Speaking of which,” Christian interrupts. “Have you applied to Juilliard, yet? Housing in New York is not easy to find and if we’re going to get you a suitable apartment anywhere near campus, we need to start looking very soon.”

“I’m… working on it.”

“Well, work a little harder. I can’t help you if you don’t help yourself.”

Mia swallows, then nods, but Grace can’t contain herself any longer to even allow her daughter the chance to set her school things down and settle in with the rest of the family.

“Okay, okay. Baby time!”

We all turn to Kate, and her face breaks into a huge, mega-watt smile. “Okay, go get the box, Elliot.”

“Alright,” he says. “But to reiterate, I’m not lifting a finger to help out with the baby unless it’s a boy. Prepare yourself for that.”

“Last call for bets,” I add. “Ana, you want in the pool?”

“I’m going with girl,” she says. “Mostly because if I say boy, Kate will consider it the highest level of betrayal.”

“Truth,” Kate agrees with a laugh. “This baby and Callie are going to grow up so close people will think they’re sisters instead of cousins.”

“Well, one of you needs to have a boy,” I argue. “If you all have girls, who will carry on the Grey name?”

“Calliope,” Christian says. “She’s never going to have any kind of romantic interest in men so she’ll be a Grey forever, and when she inevitably adopts or finds a very highly qualified sperm donor so she can have children of her own, they’ll be named Grey too.”

Ana laughs. “I hate to break it to you, baby, but I’ve seen Callie with me, Kate, and your mom, and I’ve seen Callie with you, Elliot, and my dad. That girl is already boy crazy.”

“You shut your mouth.”

We all laugh but the sound is quickly cut off by Grace. “Gender! Focus!”

Elliot groans as he gets off the floor and moves into the dining room with a light, brisk pace to retrieve the box. When he returns, Christian moves the coffee table out of the way so they can place the oversized box in the middle of the room, and we all gather around Kate and Elliot with our phones out.

“Okay, I’m recording,” Ana says. “Open it!”

Kate nods and squeals nervously, but stops before her scissors touch the tape sealing the box closed. “But what if it’s a boy?”

“Good!” Christian calls. I turn to look at him, and smile at the genuine look of excitement in his eyes.

This is it. One of those perfect moments where my entire family is together and blissfully happy. Before Kate slices through the tape at the top of the box, I take just a moment to take a mental snapshot so that I remember this moment forever.

“Okay,” Kate says, bracing herself. She takes the scissors and forces the tip down through the clear tape, then drags the blade across the top of the box. Once it’s cut open, she and Elliot each take one of the cardboard flaps in their hand and look anxiously into each other’s eyes.

“One,” Kate begins.

“Two,” Elliot continues.

“Three!” We all yell in unison as Kate and Elliot pull back the lid and a steady stream of pink balloons float up into the air.

“It’s a girl!” Kate screams and she practically leaps at Elliot, who blinks a few times in shock and then begins beaming just as brightly as his new bride. They hold each other tightly, swaying back and forth as they hug. When Kate finally pulls away, she cups either side of Elliot’s face and says, “A girl! Ah, you have such good sperm.”

He laughs. “Thanks, babe.”

“Katie!” Ana comes around the box and envelopes Kate in a tight hug. They both start to cry and make very quick plans for everything they want their daughters to share. Christian comes around to Elliot and grips his shoulder.

“Well, when they’re teenagers, we can drink together.”

“Hear, hear.” Elliot says, and Christian pulls him into a one armed hug.

“Congratulations, Elliot.”

“Thanks, brother.”

 

The celebration, hugs, and general merriment continue well into dinner, which is the only time we have pried ourselves away from the television since this morning. As we sit around Christian and Anastasia’s dining room table together, looking at the ultrasound pictures the doctor put in with the gender reveal and talking about names together, the election results seems to matter very little. For the first time in a long time, I look across the table at Ana and see the young, happy, carefree girl we all grew to love. Not the broken, hollow person who tries but can never hide the constant, unshakable fear behind her eyes. Next to her, Christian holds his daughter in his arms and laughs with his brother just a freely as he did a few months ago. I’ve worried for months that we may have lost this part of them, but tonight is like a glimmer of hope.

Maybe I won’t win.

Maybe I won’t be able to make this right for them.

But, maybe if we stick together as a family, it’ll still be okay.

“Mr. Grey,” Taylor says, entering the dining room with an urgent kind of seriousness that contradicts the lackadaisical atmosphere all around us. “The polls have closed. They’re counting the ballots now.”

Every pair of eyes around the table turn to me, and I take a deep breath to hide the sudden wave of nausea that washes through me. It’s funny how, in moments like these, when things are final and there’s absolutely nothing more you could do, your mind suddenly begins racing through every one of your shortcomings. I hadn’t felt very nervous today until this moment, and under everyone’s persistent gaze I find myself asking if what I did was enough. If I lose tonight, is it because I didn’t fight hard enough?

“Well, we should… get back into the living room,” I tell my family, and rather than a murmur of agreement, I’m met with the steady clink of silverware against china and the sound of chairs scraping against the stone floor.

Everyone’s nerves are palpable as we move back to our places in front of the TV. Ana takes Calliope and as she returns to the sofa, and Christian wraps both of them in his arms. Kate pulls Elliot up onto the couch with her, half-sitting on him as she stares anxiously at the news coverage, and Grace pulls a chair from across the room so she can sit next to me and take my hand. Mia settles down on the floor and twists one arm around my calf while resting her head against my knee. I gently brush through her hair with my fingertips, squeeze my wife’s hand, and then focus all of my attention to the news reporters on the TV.

The wait is agony. Numbers trickle in slowly, and at first, they’re not promising.

“This is bullshit,” Elliot says when my opponent jumps to a nineteen point lead within the first hour. “His approval ratings have been garbage for years. Why would anyone vote for him?”

“Name recognition,” Ana says. “They just vote for the name on the ballot they know and move on.”

“Well, it’s not like Grey is an unrecognizable name,” Kate argues.

“There’s still a lot of votes left to count,” Christian says, then turns to look at me. “We’re still in this.”

I nod, give him a tight smile, and redirect my attention to the freshly updated numbers.

Twenty point lead.

As we listen to the commentary and the different reports from the polling centers, Grace starts to grip my hand so tightly, my fingers go numb. Still, I don’t shake her off. I’m too focused on the TV to care about anything else right now. No one talks. No one even coughs. The room is dead silent until 09:30 p.m. rolls around, and the numbers are updated again.

One point lead.

“Yes!” Elliot shouts, punching the air. “We’re gaining on him. You’ve got this, Dad!”

I let out a long, arduous breath. “We’re still behind.”

“Not for long,” Christian says. “Elliot’s right. You’ve got this.”

The footage on the screen changes from a machine being used to sort and count ballots downtown, to a replay of an interview we watched earlier about the new emphasis on local government because of dissatisfaction with federal level politics. But, as the segment changes back to the main anchor, an ominous kind of bell sounds and the screen is plastered with a breaking news bulletin. When they return to the news studio, the woman sitting behind the desk looks somber and it has my heart beating in my throat.

“For the first time this evening, Mayoral candidate Carrick Grey has taken the lead, pulling ahead of the mayor by twelve points with sixty percent of the precincts reporting in. Mr. Grey has taken key battle ground neighborhoods who have traditionally carried the current mayor in years past.”

“Daddy!” Mia shouts, jumping to her feet in excitement.

“And he takes the lead!” Elliot cries.

I stare at the numbers printed on the screen and feel slightly winded. There it is, I’m winning, and with only the precincts I’d polled the highest in left to report. Twenty minutes pass and my twelve point lead jumps to eighteen, and ten minutes after that, twenty three.

“And, I’m hearing from our polling experts that the mayoral race has been called,” the reporter says, just before eleven. “With 98% of precincts reporting, Carrick Grey will become the Mayor of Seattle come January 1st.”

“You did it!” Mia screams. She jumps all around the living room, overwhelmed by adrenaline and excitement, while Grace gets out of her seat to pull me into a hug.

“I’m so proud of you, sweetheart.”

“Thank you, darling. I couldn’t have done this without you.”

“Congratulations, Carrick!” Kate squeals, pushing into my embrace the moment I release my wife. “Oh my god, you’re going to be president someday.”

“Oh, lord help me,” I reply with a smile, before kissing her softly on the cheek.

“Dude, though…” Elliot interjects. “I think this is proof we could slay a national election. Dad could be President, Mom could be the Surgeon General, Christian could be like… Chief of Staff, Kate will be the Press Secretary, Ana will write all of your speeches, and I could be your advisor on Information Technology, or Digital Strategy… Oh! Or like, an ambassador. I want a warm country though, like Madagascar or Equador. I don’t want to be the ambassador to Antarctica.”

“First of all,” Christian says dryly. “Antarctica is a continent, not a country. Second, there is no ambassador to Antarctica.”

“Well, it looks like the plan is perfect then, Christian. I won’t even have to put someone out of a job.”

“Really? And what makes you think you’re qualified to be an ambassador?”

“I’m a really good time. Say we’re about to go to war with someone, right? Dad just sends me over there, I take them out, we party hard, have some laughs… then the next morning they’re like, ‘War? Nah, America’s chill’.”

We all stare blankly at him for several long seconds until Kate bursts into a fit of giggles. Christian shakes his head in dismay.

“I hate so much about what you choose to be.”

“Will you two shut up?” Ana interjects. “Your dad just became the mayor, this is so not about you right now.”

“Thank you, Ana.” She comes forward and gives me a hug, but I don’t release her when she pulls away. Instead, I tuck her under my arm, pull Mia and Kate back into me, and then bask of glow of victory. My picture is on the TV, next to my opponent, highlighted with my polling numbers and the word winner across the bottom.

I’ve won.

After months of long nights and hard work, I’ve won.

Book Four: The Final Shade of Fifty

Christian PoV: The Wedding Night

fifty-shades-freed

Middle of Chapter 42

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Taylor as irritated as he is, looking across the coffee table at me right now. He doesn’t agree with me, that much is clear, but he’d argued his point and it didn’t change my mind. There’s nothing left to say. So he nods, gets up from the couch, and walks back towards the stairs that lead up to his living quarters without further argument.

At least out loud.

“I can take them to the airport,” Sawyer interjects into the tense silence Taylor has left behind. “We have an unregistered car in the lower levels of the garage. If someone is watching the apartment we should get out of here undetected.”

“Thank you, Sawyer.” He gets off the sofa and heads out of the great room towards the foyer, where he’ll wait for Taylor to finish packing. Reed gets up and moves as though he’s going to follow, but I call out to stop him. “Reed, may I speak to you privately in my office for a moment?”

“Uh… sure.”

I nod and sweep my arm back towards the downstairs hallway to direct him toward my office, but rather than follow right behind him, I turn back for Anastasia and reach down for her hand. Once she stands, I kiss her gently on the lips.

“I’ll be quick.”

“Oh… okay. I’ll just put Calliope down then.”

“Good. Kiss her goodnight for me.” She smiles, drawing me back to her lips, and after I’ve kissed her again, I lean further into her to whisper in her ear. “Don’t take off this dress. I want that.”

The softest laugh escapes her lips and she gives me an all too enticing look as she pulls back, rises up on to her toes, and kisses my cheek. Then she takes Calliope from her car seat and carries her back down the opposite hallway toward our bedroom. Whether she knows it or not, her hips sway seductively as she walks away from me and the view of her ass in that dress is all too tempting.

Reed. Focus.

He isn’t sitting in the chair across from my desk when I step into my office. Instead, he’s standing by the side wall, staring at a shelf that bears my rowing trophies from high school and my lone year at Harvard.

“I remember that Cornell meet,” he says, when he hears me close the door behind him. “I’d never been that cold in a boat in my life.”

“That was nothing. You should trying rowing here in the early spring when it rains.”

“Nah. I’ll leave the rain to you.” He shakes his head and turns back to face me. “What can I do for you, Christian? Er… Grey. Can I call you Christian? Are we there yet? I never really know with you.”

“No, we’re not. Have a seat.” I lower myself into the chair behind my desk and motion for him to sit across from me. He does.

“Why are you here, Reed?”

His brow furrows. “I uh… I thought we cleared that up out there. There’s a psycho after your wife. He called me…”

“I know what’s happened, I want to know why you came here. Why you called my team in the first place. What he offered you was significant. I know first hand how difficult it is to persuade the Harvard Admissions board into making exceptions. You could have taken his deal, gone to the most prestigious law school in the country, impressed your father, and set yourself up for a lucrative and respectful career. So, why are you here?”

“What? You think I want something from you?”

I raise an eyebrow. “Don’t you?”

“Jesus, Grey. I’m here because he wants to hurt someone I care about. He might try to kill her. Do you honestly think I would choose something as trivial as law school over Anastasia’s life? She’s one of my best friends. What kind of person do you think I am?”

“I don’t know,” I admit. I lean forward, resting my forearms on my desk and fold my hands together. “Look, Reed. I don’t like you. I think you’re crude, I don’t think you work very hard, and I think you need grow up. But more important than all of that… I’m threatened by you.”

“Me?” He laughs, but I’m dead serious.

“Yes. At some point, no matter how long ago it was, Anastasia had feelings for you. I don’t know how powerful or how real those were, but they were there. To a certain degree, she chose you over me, and I don’t know that I’ll ever get over that. I know what it’s like to live without her, and I fully intend on never living that way again.”

“She didn’t choose me over you, Grey. If anything, she left me for you. I mean, she married you today. She’s chosen you.”

“Do you still have feelings for her?”

The point blank question seems to surprise him because he suddenly sits up in his chair, looking as though I hit him across the face. “What?”

“Anastasia. Do you still have feelings for her?”

“We broke up like four years ago…”

“I didn’t ask for a history lesson. I asked if you still had feelings for my wife?”

He swallows, hesitating, then lets out a long breath and nods. “Yeah. I do. It doesn’t matter, she’s made her choice and I don’t want to ruin what she has, but Ana is everything that I want in girl. She’s a genuinely good person. Do you know how rare that is to find in a girl? Even after the way I treated her when she broke up with me, after the things I called her, she never harbored a grudge or retaliated. She cares about people and I feel like I’m a better person just because I know her.”

I open my mouth to respond, but he cuts me off.

“I’m not here to fight you for her, Grey. Or even to try and impress her and hope she leaves you for me. I know what she and I are. We’re friends, and I’m grateful for that. I’m here because she’s in danger and I can’t protect her. You can. I’m here to help you.”

“What about Kate?”

His expression sours. “What about her?”

“Katherine Kavanagh is very important to me. I love her as a part of my family. She’s my wife’s best friend, she saved my father’s life, and she’s the godmother of my daughter. You just told me that you still have feelings for my wife, so… did you use her?”

“For what?”

“To get close to Ana.”

“No.” His answer is quick, and honest. “I love Kate a lot. I don’t particularly like her very much right now but… She’s amazing. She’s the kind of girl you dream about being with before you figure out what league you’re in. Ridiculously hot, but still down to earth. Rich, but not a snob. And she’s ambitious, intimidatingly so at times. But, now that we’re not together anymore, I think I can be honest and say that Kate and I were settling for each other. We really didn’t have much in common. I was never good enough for her and I was really only with her in the first place because being with her was better than being alone.”

“My brother is going to ask her to marry him. He’s going to wait until their anniversary, but he bought the ring last week. Do I need to worry about you?”

He shakes his head. “No, Kate and I are done. I’m fine with that.”

“Good. Then let’s talk about where we go from here. You said you’re working for your father, what does he do?”

“He’s a lawyer for Coca-Cola. I’m doing research work for him until I can figure out how to get into law school myself.”

“Is that what you want, or is that what he wants?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I have a few things in the works right now to take GEH international, specifically my manufacturing division and shipping yards. You graduated from Harvard, and while your degree emphasises pre-law, it’s still in business administration. I need to find someone to head an international office in Taiwan. Since you’re willing to help me find the man coming after Anastasia and I, I could be willing to take a chance on you.”

“Wait, you’re offering me a job?”

“I can help you make a lot of money, Reed, and the position comes with all the perks of being a top executive at Grey Enterprises Holdings.”

“Are you serious?”

I raise an eyebrow. “Do you take me to be the kind of man who doesn’t say what he means?”

He takes a breath and begins to nod, but after a few seconds, he frowns. “In Taiwan, though?”

“Interested?”

“Uh… I mean, that’s an incredible offer. I don’t even… I– um…” He swallows, and then shakes his head. “I think I’d be crazy to say no, but… I really want to focus on Harvard. You know, for my dad.”

“Alright. Then, I’ll get you in.”

“What?”

“I have some pull with the President of the University and the Dean of Students. It won’t be easy but I’ll get you in.”

“You will?”

If everything goes according to Taylor’s plan and you do nothing to sabotage him, then yes. I will get you into Harvard Law for the fall semester.”

“Oh my god. Thank you, Christian!”

“Grey. We’re still not there yet.”

He nods. “Grey. Thank you. Really, thank you.” We stand and I reach across the desk to shake his hand, but when his fingers close around mine, I pull his arm roughly towards me, knocking him off balance.

“But if you fuck me on this deal, Reed, I will end you. And I don’t mean professionally. If so much as one hair on Anastasia’s head is harmed, I will come after you and you will beg for whatever the man who called you would have done to you by the time I’m finished. Got me?”

“I-I–”

“My power doesn’t extend just to Harvard. No matter where you go, no matter what you do, I will find you. I never forget, Reed. And I never forgive.”

He nods. “I promise, I just want to help Ana.”

“Good. Then we’ll be in touch.” I release his hand and he immediately stumbles backward. He gives me a strange, uncertain look, most likely in an attempt to gauge how serious I was, so I don’t relax the tension in my face, and when I speak again I keep my voice low and cold. “You’d better hurry, you have a flight to catch, and my security team is waiting.”

He nods and hurries out of my office. I watch as he leaves, then wait until I can hear the faint sound of the elevator from the other room. Once I’m sure Reed, Sawyer, Ryan, and Taylor have gone, I slowly come around my desk and try to let everything that’s happened since Ana and I stepped off the yacht wash off of me.

It’s my wedding night, and I fully intend on enjoying it.

 

Ana is still back in our bedroom with my daughter so I quickly get to work re-creating the romantic atmosphere I’d planned for this evening. The remote to the iHome is still sitting on the coffee table where I left it, so I start by turning the music back on, lowering the volume a bit, and then begin lighting the candles placed artfully all around the room. Once the space is filled with a warm, flickering glow, I turn off the actual light switch and smooth out the blankets and pillows lying in front of the fireplace. Next, I move into the kitchen where Gail has left a bowl of strawberries in the fridge and chocolate melting in a warmed fondue pot on the counter. Both go on the table in the great room, and then I return to fetch a chilled bottle of champagne and a canister of whipped cream. A small smile plays at my lips as I set it down with the chocolate and begin filling the flutes already waiting on the table. Our wedding cake was delicious, but Ana is going to be an even more decadent dessert.

Once I’ve ensured everything is perfect in the great room, I move into the foyer and punch the code into the keypad that will lock it down for the night. As the green light switches over to red, I hear Ana call out for me.

“Christian?”

She stands there, looking like a dream in the dress she wore to marry to me. Her bare and silky back is turned towards me and as I saunter across the room towards her, I can’t help but reach out to touch her delectable skin.

“This dress is incredible,” I whisper over her shoulder. “You have never looked more beautiful than you do today, Anastasia.”

She turns and lets her head loll back so she’s looking directly up into my eyes. “You don’t look so bad yourself, Mr. Grey.”

“All for you, Mrs. Grey.” I smile, and nuzzle the tip of her nose with mine. The feeling of using her new name, my name, is more fulfilling than I could have ever dreamed.

She’s finally mine. My wife. And I’ve never been more ready to make love to her than I am right now.

Leaning down, I press my lips into hers. Tenderly, at first, then gradually deeper and deeper. It’s patient and warm, and as I massage the roots of her hair with my fingers, pulling her further into me, I feel her body melt into mine. She moans softly into my mouth and the sound travels down to my cock, instantly making me hard. My body is ready for her, but I intend to take my time with her tonight. Despite the hundreds of times we’ve made love in the past, tonight is a new beginning for us, and I want it to be meaningful and filled with all the love I feel for her.

“You know you didn’t have to put me through all that,” she says when our lips break apart. “ You could have just told me the other wedding was a ruse.”

Oh, Ana. “Secrets only work if you protect them.”

“You don’t think I can keep a secret?”

“From Kate? No. And once Kate knew, Elliot would know. And once Elliot knew…”

“It would be on the front page of the Seattle Times.”

“Exactly.”

She laughs, then turns away from me to glance over the room once more. Her gaze settles on the strawberries and champagne waiting for us on the table, and when she looks back at me again her eyes glitter over her inviting smile.

“Would you like dessert, my dear husband?”

“Very much, my darling wife.” Wife. Have I said that word out loud yet? I feel as though I might burst with pride to be saying it now, and when I see the pleasure she takes in hearing it herself, I find myself being drawn to her again. My hands itch to touch her, so as she turns to pick a strawberry from the bowl, I press my lips into the curve of her neck and let my fingers run up the smooth skin of her back. She shivers in delight, egging me on.

I respond by pulling the straps of her gown over her shoulders and down her arms, leaving her breasts exposed. Her dress catches around her waist, so I fall to my knees behind her and quickly undo the latches in the fabric until the gown pools on the floor at her feet.

Her legs are encased in sheer stockings, which are held up by a garter that stretches down from a tiny pair of lace panties that do nothing to conceal her delicious derriere. I reach up to grab her, using my thumbs to reach under her behind and stretch her lower lips, while my palms eagerly tighten around her ass.

“Turn around,” I command. She does, and when she stops, the small triangle of lace that conceals her from me is directly in front of face. “Ana, you look… Oh, baby, you look…”

“Good enough to eat?”

Abso-fucking-lutely. “Don’t mind if I do.”

I lean forward and kiss the soft lace in front of me using my tongue to trace the lines I can feel through her panties, making her pant with want.

“Christian.”

The need in her voice makes me moan almost as much as the heat I can feel against my tongue. Her arousal begins to soak into her panties, and the taste is both satisfying and not nearly enough all at once. I want more of her. I want all of her.

“Delicious, as always,” I say, pulling away and glancing up into her eyes. She smiles and steps back and away while I move onto the couch so I can fully drink her in. “Turn around. Put your hands on the table and bend over for me.”

She’s quick to obey. Once she’s bent over on display, she tosses her hair over her shoulder and gives me teasing look. “That’s quite the view, Mrs. Grey.”

“Oh, really?” Her eyes glitter and she begins to sway her ass back and forth in time to the music still floating softly in the background. The sight makes my pants tighter around my cock. It’s erotic as hell. I reach forward to take a glass of champagne off the table, and settle back to enjoy her little floor show.

“Go on.”

Pleased, she smiles and bends her knees, dipping down to the floor and slowly rising up again. I watch her hands move over her body and into her hair while her hips swing back and forth. She pivots her torso towards me, showing me just a taste of her erect nipple before her hand falls and her fingers trace the curve of her breast. I’ll never fully understand why watching Ana touch herself is such a turn on. In fact, I’d love it if she laid down on the floor before me, removed her panties, and worked herself up to her first orgasm of the night before even letting me touch her. Even the thought has my body tensing and I have to stop myself from lunging at her and diving into her far more quickly than I planned.

“You’re so fucking sexy, Ana,” I breathe, and she smiles before turning back towards me and climbing into my lap, straddling me. I take her ass in my hands again and encourage her to grind over my cock, relishing the sensation of the friction when she does. The heat builds between us, becoming unbearable, so I move my hand up from her ass to her breast, fully intent on taking her nipple in my mouth, but she slaps my hand away.

“Not yet. You are far too dressed to be allowed to touch.”

Fucking tease. “Well, what do you plan to do about that?”

“This.” Her hand moves from my shoulder to the knot in my tie, and while she takes her precious time unraveling it, she mercifully presses her breasts into my face so that I can finally get a taste. I lavish my tongue over her nipples and through her cleavage while she pulls my clothes away from my body, until she climbs out of my lap and drags her hands down my torso to the front of my pants. When she has my belt and fly open and reaches under the band of my boxers to my now painfully hard cock, my breath hisses between my teeth.

“Yes.” I thrust my hips forward, discouraging her shyness as she starts to jack me off, but my efforts don’t have any effect on her ministrations. She continues to slowly move her hand over me with a gentle touch. It’s maddening.

“Your mouth, baby,” I beg. “I want your mouth.”

“Like this?” She leans forward and licks the entire length of my cock, then swirls her tongue around the head, dragging my precum into her mouth.

“Yes. Oh, suck me, baby.”

That’s all it takes. She pulls me deep into her mouth and sucks hard, making every muscle south of my waist clench in pleasure. Her rhythm is relentless, and with each pass she takes me deeper into her hot, tight throat.

This is it. Everything I could ever want. A night of celebration followed by cool champagne and my gorgeous wife servicing my cock. This is fucking nirvana.

“Ana, fuck, you’re so good. I want you so much, baby. My wife. My beautiful, brilliant, sexy wife.”

She moans around me, and then begins to use her hand in time with her mouth. Soon, it has me shaking and I know that I’m only moments away from erupting.

“Ana, baby. Wait. I want to come inside of you…”

She pulls me out of her mouth to speak, but brushes her tongue over the entire length of me again. “You will.”

Mmm, she wants to drag tonight out as much as I do. If that’s not a turn on, I don’t know what is.

I let my body relax back into the sofa, content with Ana finishing me off with just her mouth before I take over. She can read my signals like a book that was written just for her, and as I climb closer and closer to release, her mouth tightens around me. When I finally let go, I’m practically buried in her throat.

“Fuck! Ana!” The force of my orgasm hits me like mac truck. I shake as I feel my come drip into her waiting mouth and when she swallows me, her lips pushing and pulling my cock over and over again, a myriad of all the filthy things I want to do to her body tonight flood through my mind.

“Baby. Oh, fuck…” As the pleasure dies down, I feel as though my body begins melting into the sofa until Ana’s mouth starts moving again and the sensation spikes uncomfortably. I take her face in my hands and gently pull her off my cock, then pull her lips up to mine. I can taste my release in her mouth, but I don’t care. My lips never part from hers as I slide off the sofa, onto the floor, and push her back into the bed next to the fireplace. The heat of the low burning flames washes over us, and when I pull away, the amber colored light flickers softly over her face.

She really is so beautiful.

“No.” Her hands reach up and try to pull me back down over the top of her, but I have other plans for my wife right now. I take a strawberry from the bowl on the table behind us, then dip it into the melted chocolate. Once the bright red tip is completely covered, I turn back to Ana.

“Hungry?”

“Starving.” The word comes out only in a whisper but it’s dripping with the lust burning inside of her. A fire only I can quench. A fire I want to bask in. Slowly, I lower the berry to her lips and she sucks the chocolate away before biting off just the tip. I turn to dip the fruit once more, but as I watch her tongue sweep hungrily over her bottom lip, I get a better idea. Placing the berry back on the table, I pick up the entire bowl of melted chocolate.

“My turn.” She hisses softly as I tip the bowl and dribble the melted chocolate over her skin, between her breasts, and all the way down to her stomach. Once she’s covered, I put the bowl back on the table, then get to work, starting at her belly button and working my way up.

“Yes. Oh, Christian!” she moans in delight as I suckle the chocolate clinging to the side of her breast. She’s squirming beneath me, mewling and panting as I clean every last bit of the chocolate from her breasts. After she’s cleaned, I begin kissing her sternum, her collar bones, her neck, her jaw, everything, until I reach her mouth. I reach into her hair again while I kiss her lips and am met with eager enthusiasm. When I slip my tongue into her mouth she begins sucking it, and with every pull of her lips my cock starts to harden again.

“So sweet,” she whispers.

“And yet, not enough.” Blindly, I move my hands down her body to pull apart the snaps on her garters and then sit up so I can roll down each of her stockings. Once her legs are bare, I move onto her panties, subtly tucking them into the back pocket of my pants before turning to pick up a canister of whipped cream. She watches with wide eyes as I shake the can, then tilt the tip to her lips, but when I push down on the plastic to release of burst of cream into her mouth, I hold it longer than necessary, giving her more than she can hold. With puffed out cheeks filled with whipped cream, she giggles and the sound tugs at the corners of my mouth. Then I start to move down her body again, leaving a trail of whipped cream all the way down to her pubic bone.

“Mmm, now for my favorite dessert.”

Her hips buck up encouragingly as I lick away each dollop of whipped cream, beginning at her navel. She’s anxious for what’s to come and the power in her anticipation is intoxicating. When I finally settle between her legs and find her glistening for me, my mouth begins to water.

“Mine.” I lean in, my lips only just not touching her clit, and then look up into her eyes. “You, my wife, are finally and completely mine.”

“Yours,” she breathes back, and I dive in. Unlike when I was kissing her before, I don’t ease into her. I push deep between her legs, my tongue reaching farther than my lips can, and absolutely devour her. Her hands twist in my hair, encouraging me, turning me on, so I reach up to the inside of her thighs, pull her legs apart, and open her further to me.

“Yes, Christian. Oh god, yes!”

Fuck I love it when she screams. “Let me hear you, baby. I want you to scream when I make you come.”

She moans as I begin lapping at her clitoris again, but that moan quickly turns to loud, high keening and cries of pleasure that reverberate through the empty apartment. If she was wet when I began eating her, she’s soaking now. I know she’s close. I move my right hand from the inside of her thigh and then push my index and middle fingers inside of her, curving them into the place I know will make her fall apart, and use them to fuck her mercilessly. Her fingers tighten in my hair, her breathing becomes louder and unrhythmic, and then…

“Christian!”

She starts pulsating around my tongue so I push as far as I can into her. Sucking, licking, using my face to invigorate her while she flies through her orgasm. Her body convulses and arches high off the ground. It’s a magnificent sight to behold.

I can’t take it anymore. I’ve waited long enough.

The moment the quiver stops, I sit up, grip my now fully erect cock, and slam inside of her. She lets out a deep, guttural sound of overwhelming pleasure that eggs me on. I thrust in and out of her with as much force as I can muster without hurting her and then bring my mouth crashing down on hers. Her insides grip me in tight, wet heat and her nails scrape down my back with carnal barbarism. It’s ecstasy. Raw, brutal, and so, so hot.

“I love you, Ana,” I pant, struggling to get the words out through the effort I’m using to pound into her again and again.

“I love you too, Christian. Hold me tight. Love me, baby.”

“I do. Today, you have made me that happiest man alive. My wife. My love. My life.”

She makes another small, desperate noise before reaching up and forcing my lips back down on hers. But as I kiss her with all the passion I feel coursing through me, her hands move down, and she shoves against my chest. In my surprise, she manages to knock me off balance and I roll off of her.

“Ana, what are you…” My incensed reply is cut off as she swings her leg over the top of me and then sinks down on my cock again. Gravity pulls her down until I’m as deep inside of her as I can possibly get. “Oh… fuck, baby.”

Her cries of pleasure are unabashed as she starts to ride me. Her head falls back, which pushes her breasts out towards me, and I reach up to grab them with each of my hands. My fingers tighten around her hardened nipples, and the scream she lets out starts to break apart as her breaths begin to quiver in time with her impending orgasm.

“I’m close,” she whispers. “Fuck, baby. You’re going to make me come.”

“Keep riding me, Ana,” I command, knowing the moment her orgasm hits, she’ll instinctively want to slow her aggressive pace. I push off the ground so that I’m sitting up right, then wrap my arm around her and begin sucking her breasts again. When my teeth graze her nipple, she screams and then starts convulsing around me so tightly, it’s like she’s trying to push me out. I refuse to let her. Instead, I tighten my hold on her, digging my fingers unapologetically into her skin and relishing in the idea that I might leave behind marks.

“That’s it, baby. Come for me. Oh god… Ana!”

As my own orgasm hits, I nip the swell of her breast and thrust up as deeply as I can into her. My second orgasm is much more intense than the first, probably because of the feel of her coming around me while I continue to fuck her hard and deep. When at last the waves of pleasure stop rolling through me, Ana and I are clinging to one another for dear life, and I have to hold her as lie back once more and ease her onto my body again.

“I can’t imagine it ever gets any better than this,” I tell her. “Making love to my beautiful wife. This, what I feel right now, has to be the purpose of life.”

She moans, and though she sounds exhausted and utterly drained, she pulls herself up and turns to look at me. “I know. I don’t think I’ll ever do anything greater in my life than love you. I meant what I said to you over the alter. You are my dream, Christian. Thank you for letting me live it.”

I smile as I recall her vows and look up into her sweet, perfect face. “Believe me, the pleasure is all mine, Mrs. Grey.”

Next Chapter

Elliot PoV: This Is It. You and Me.

Kate

End of Chapter 40

The heat is oppressive. Christian proposed to Ana in December, but he chose the end of July to actually fucking marry her, which means we land in Vegas for his bachelor party in 110 degree heat. Heat that doesn’t get any better driving through the sandy flats that lie just outside the city. Even in the back of the air conditioned limo, it’s almost as if you can feel the wavy lines of heat rising up off the open desert all around us.

“Where the fuck are we going?” Christian asks, finally looking up from his phone. “I thought we were staying at the Venetian?”

“We are,” I assure him. “We just have one pit stop to make on the way.”

He lets out an exasperated huff. “Look, Elliot. We don’t have to make a big deal out of tonight. Let’s just go back to the hotel, have a few drinks, and maybe order the fight.”

“Ugh,” Ros moans. “I knew I should have gone with Ana.”

“Will you two just trust me a little, please? We’re not going back to the hotel and watching pay-per-view, this is your bachelor party, Christian. We’re celebrating.”

“I’m not going to lose any of… this just because I’m getting married. Mostly because I wouldn’t do this even if I was staying single forever. Bachelor parties are for men who want to hang on to their bachelorhood. I couldn’t be more thrilled to leave mine behind me.”

“Then don’t think about it as mourning the loss of your freedom, think of it as celebrating your days of being a bachelor coming to an end. You’re getting married on Saturday, Christian. We all just want to celebrate that.”

The limo comes to a stop, but Christian continues to stare at me uncertainly. His indecision and hesitance hangs in the air, making the back of the limo feel tense, until the driver finally comes around to open our door.

“Mr. Grey?”

“What do you say, Christian? You know Ana and Kate aren’t sitting in their hotel room having a quiet night in. You really want to go back to the room and spend the whole night imagining what your bride to be is up to?”

The tightness in his lips becomes more pronounced, but after another second or two, he nods. “Fine. But just as a heads up for any other bachelor parties you might be planning in the future, driving someone out to the desert just outside of Las Vegas is a little murdery.”

“Well it wouldn’t be a party without at least one casualty. Come on, you’re gonna love this.”

I step out of the limo and Ros, Taylor, and Dad follow with Christian bringing up the rear. When he steps down into the sand and looks up at the reason we’re here, his mouth actually drops open.

“That’s not the…”

“The Hennessey Venom GT? Yeah, it is.”

“That’s the fastest sports car in the world.”

“And, with only eleven manufactured, it’s also the rarest. Care to take it for a test drive?”

He looks around. “Out here?”

“Well… I would have hated it if traffic got in your way. They say it can get to 200 mph in less than fifteen seconds.” I reach in my pocket and pull out the stopwatch I’d stowed earlier. “We should test that.”

His face breaks into a broad grin and he claps me on the shoulder. “Yes. Yes we should.”

I laugh as he turns and walks towards the car, so quickly I wonder if he’s trying to stop himself from running.

“Shotgun!” Ros says, smiling, and as the man from the company leasing us the car steps out and hands Christian the keys, she skirts around to the passenger’s side door.

I don’t even have to be in the car to see the enjoyment Christian gets out of it. It’s obvious in the way he flies over the flat desert and cuts deep treadmarks turning on a dime in the dirt. The roar of the engine is so powerful that it seems to echo, even in the open like this, and I can feel the vibrations of the motor in the ground through the soles of my shoes. Once Ros has had enough of Christian driving like a maniac, my dad takes a turn, and a few minutes after that, he swings by to me pick up. The engine purrs and revs of its own volition while I hurry to get my seatbelt fastened.

“You sure you don’t want to drive?” he asks, grinning over at me.

“Nah, the speed thing is really more your deal. Just don’t get us killed, huh?”

“No promises.” He slams his foot down to the floor and we take off. At first, I’m surprised by the G force. It feels as though my stomach is being pulled back into the seat behind me as we cut effortlessly through the flat desert, but once I become accustomed to the speed I start to feel the rush of adrenaline. It’s like we’re kids again, riding Grandpa Trevelyan’s quads out on the dunes by the sea, or racing way too fast down a dangerous run in Aspen. Hearing Christian laugh, seeing him actually let go of the stiff CEO and really enjoy himself like this… I’d almost forgotten what that was like. And being here now makes me realize how much we’ve let all the distraction and things we think we have to do interfere with what’s actually important. What actually makes us happy.

For Christian, that’s an open space and fast car.

For me… Well,  it’s only Kate. But to have her, really have her…

Marriage.

Just the word starts a repellant kind of reaction in my body. It’s not something I’ve ever even considered before. In fact, I’ve avoided the very idea like the plague. When all the girls I dated before Kate would get the look in their eye like they thought we could be something serious, I knew it was my cue to bounce, immediately. I’ve always perceived the entire institution of it as a form of imprisonment. But even if that were true, I can think of a lot worse things than being locked away with Kate forever.

“Christian, can I ask you something?”

He jerks the wheel so the tires lock and we spin out, around and around, until finally we come to a stop. He lets out a deep, satisfied breath, then turns to look at me.

“What’s up?”

“Are you… nervous at all about getting married?”

“No.” His voice is utterly confident. “If anything, I’m anxious. I feel like I’ve been waiting for this forever.”

“So, you don’t feel like this might actually be a horrible mistake that could ruin everything you and Ana already have?”

He raises an eyebrow at me. “What’s going on, Elliot?”

I take a breath. “I’m… I’m going to ask Kate to marry me.”

“What?”

“Yeah. I picked out the design for the ring on Monday. Cartier is custom making it for me.” I pause, but he doesn’t say anything. I think because he’s waiting for the why, not the how. “She said we can’t have a future together if I’m never going to marry her, but I can’t not have her in my life anymore. She is my future. So, if this is what she wants, if this is what it’s going to take to get her back, I’m going to ask her to marry me.”

“But… is that what you want?”

I shrug and then shake my head before turning imploring eyes on my brother. “Why do you want to marry Ana?”

“Because I love her,” he answers immediately. “Because I can’t imagine not spending every second of the rest of my life with her. Because I want her to know the depth of my commitment and I want to say those vows out loud to her. To me, marriage means family, and I want Anastasia to be my family. I want her forever.”

“I want all those things too, I just don’t think marriage is necessary to have all of that. Why is everyone so set on the whole marriage equals forever thing?”

“Why are you so set against it? What are you afraid of?”

I exhale and look down at the dash, unable to look him in the eye. “The pressure. I love Kate more than anything else in the world, but what if we get married and it’s not everything she wanted it to be? Or what if I don’t live up to what she has been expecting in a husband ever since she was a kid? What if it’s not the same between us anymore? Everyone always says marriage changes everything and I don’t want it change. I love her and what we have exactly as is… well, was.”

“But what if it gets better?” I look back up at him, and he exhales, then turns in his seat so that he’s facing me. “Elliot, do you love Kate?”

“Yes.”

“Is there anything in the world that could change the way you feel?”

Not if this year has taught me anything. “No.”

“Then what if being married makes you feel closer to her or strengthens the connection you have with one another? What if you’ve only scratched the surface of how capable you are of loving her, and creating this bond opens you to a whole new world of possibility?”

“You think?”

“That’s why I’m in it. When I look at Ana and think of her, not as just my girlfriend or even the woman I love, but as my wife.” He stops and shakes his head, almost as if the potency in the idea is slightly overwhelming. It’s encouraging, and for a moment I can almost see things the way he does. The image is one I’ve never pictured before. Kate in a red sweater, leaning over the island of my parents’ kitchen counter. There’s a christmas tree sparkling in room behind them and as she chats with Anastasia, two tiny humans streak across the kitchen in front of them, laughing and screaming. Ana scoops up the little girl with the dark brown hair, and Kate reaches for the other, more vaguely defined child, and swings them through the air. Her eyes glitter with contentment. Surprisingly, the imagined scenario doesn’t bring the sense of defeat that I’ve been accustomed to, like this is all my life has amounted to. It doesn’t feel settled for or mediocre. If anything, there’s hope.

Katherine Grey, my wife.  

“Look,” Christian says, interrupting my daydream. “Kate is an amazing girl. You’d be lucky to have her. But marrying her just to keep her around is only going to create resentment between the two of you. Marriage is something you have to go into fully committed and ready, or you’re right, you’re going to get divorced and you’re going to lose her again. Don’t give her that ring unless you are absolutely sure that you want her to have it.”

I look over at him, blink away the picture of Christmas morning still playing in my head, and then slowly nod. “Okay. I’ll remember that. Thanks, Christian.”

 

After our ride through the desert, we head back to the hotel to change and prepare for a much needed night out. Christian’s attitude about his bachelor party has vastly improved. He and Ros don’t break away to discuss business even once, his phone never leaves his pocket while we’re drinking cocktails in the cigar lounge, and he and dad talk enthusiastically and laugh with one another over dinner. He’s even loosened up with Taylor a bit, inviting him to have drinks with us and to join us once we head into the casino to do some gambling. When the hostess of the high roller lounge sits us down at a table, Christian buys an extra ten thousand dollars in chips so he can play.

“Sir, I couldn’t…” Taylor says wearily, but Christian shakes his head.

“Nonsense. We’re celebrating my impending marriage, Jason, and you have done a lot for Anastasia and me. Please, have a seat.”

Christian gestures to the empty chair, but Taylor continues to hesitate until the hostess comes around, beams at him, and asks him what he would like to drink. Finally, he exhales and smiles gratefully at her. “A Manhattan, thank you.”

“Good man,” Christian says, then empties his own tumbler of bourbon and asks for another one.

At first, our card game is tight and competitive. But as the alcohol starts flowing, we all start getting a little loose with our chips and big pots are being won with extremely low card hands. My dad pulls in nearly $4,000 on a pair of sixes, and Ros wins a grand on nothing at all.

“The woman can bluff,” Christian says, as she rakes in her chips. “That’s exactly the kind of straight faced lying that got us LightWare back in 2009.”

“That wasn’t lying,” she replies defensively. “It was just… creative truth telling.”

“Well, whatever it was, it bought Escala.”

“And it cleaned me out,” I add, looking down at the empty table in front of me. “I think it’s time for more drinks.”

Christian shakes his head, wobbling slightly. “I think I’ve had enough.”

“Nah, you’re still sitting up. You’ve got a long way to go, brother.” I signal to the cocktail waitress to refill our drinks, fully prepared to ignore Christian’s protests, but they never come. Once he has a fresh bourbon in his hand, he drinks half of it in one gulp and picks up his newly dealt hand of cards.

Eventually, it’s just Christian and Taylor left in the game, and watching them face each other is like watching a battle of titans. Taylor stopped drinking at his one Manhattan, but even with Christian red faced and leaning slightly on the table for support, they both maintain perfect poker faces.

“To you, sir,” the dealer says looking at Taylor.

“None for me, thank you.”

“And you, sir?”

“Just one.” Christian tosses a card face down on the table, then picks up the card the dealer slides back to him, and glances up at Taylor again. “How much do you have left there?”

Taylor looks down and runs his thumb over his pile of chips. “Three grand.”

Christian glances over his own pile, silently counting how much he has left to play with, then reaches into his jacket pocket to pull out his checkbook. On the table, he quickly makes out a check for an additional $1,100, and pushes it and the rest of his chips into the center. “Then let’s get this over with, shall we?”

Taylor raises an eyebrow at him, then glances down at his own hand. There’s a moments hesitation before he finally sighs, and then pushes his chips out to meet Christian’s.

“Call,” he says, and Christian lays down his cards.

“Two pair,” the dealer says. “Threes and nines.”

Taylor nods, lays down his own cards, and both Ros and I smile broadly as the dealer calls out the hand again.

“Three Queens. Winner.”

“Bravo!” Ros says, clapping as Taylor pulls nearly fifty thousands dollars worth of chips towards him. “It’s great to finally see Christian lose at something that has absolutely no effect on me whatsoever.”

“Well, enjoy it,” Christian replies bitterly. “Most people only see a miracle once in their lifetime.”

We laugh as the casino manager brings Taylor a voucher for his chips and Christian signs the tab with a ridiculously large tip for both the dealer and our waitress. Then we get up from the table to head off for the club I’ve booked this evening.

“Where are you headed?” the waitress asks.

1 Oak.”

She shakes her head. “The Mirage is dead. You should head over to Omnia at Caesars Palace. David Guetta is DJing tonight and it’s supposed to be fire. They’ve got the best drink specials, light shows…” She glances over at Christian. “And friendly cocktail waitresses.”

I smile. Ultimately, I decided before we came that getting a stripper to do a private show for Christian would just end up being awkward for everyone. He wouldn’t be into it and I can’t imagine a worse feeling for a girl than being paid to dance naked on someone who would rather she didn’t. But, that doesn’t mean some scantily clad waitress paying extra close attention to him for the night wouldn’t give him the same kind of rush. Especially if she’s continually serving him alcohol.

“Thanks,” I say gratefully, then turn to the rest of my party. “To Omnia, then.”

 

The club is packed and we don’t have a reservation. Ultimately, it means dropping nearly three grand at the door to buy a table and bottle service, but once we’re through the doors and get a taste of the party going on inside, it’s all worth it. The whiskey and vodka flows between Ros, Christian, Dad, and I, and the thumping music keeps the energy high and electric. Unfortunately, I was wrong about the waitresses. Though they’re dressed fairly scantily and each and every one who passes us gets real close and personal with Christian, he shows absolutely no interest, preferring instead to play quarters with the rest of us and taking the resulting shots. Ros, though, is elated by the attention of the beautiful women only all too willing to flirt back with her, and soon, the music and alcohol have her dancing on the table with two waitresses and a girl from two tables over.

“You know,” I say, looking up and watching her long, shapely legs as she dances over the top of us. “If she wasn’t gay, you two might have hit it off… she’s pretty fine.”

Christian shakes his head. “Not a million years.”

I roll my eyes. “You’re just too blinded by Ana. It’s not cheating if you admit another girl is hot.”

“I just don’t see the point in even looking. I’m not going to be interested in anything I find.”

“Really? What about…” I turn and glance around the packed club, my eyes moving from one overly sequined dress to another, until I spot a blonde and brunette dancing together on a table a few booths away. Their hair moves wildly, their bodies sway in perfect time with one another… there’s no question they’re hot. “What about them? Check out the ass on that brunette.”

Christian looks over his shoulder in the direction I nod, but when he sees the girls I’m talking about, his eyes narrow, and then his face tightens with anger. “Yeah, that’s my ass.”

He practically jumps out of his seat and begins charging through the crowd, actually pushing people out of the way as he goes. I follow close behind, shooting apologetic looks to the incensed people he leaves in his wake. When he gets to the table in question, he reaches up, grabs Ana by the wrist, and yanks her off the table onto the sofa.

“What the fuck are you doing?” he yells into her face and she actually cowers beneath him.

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

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

I look up at Kate, who’s eyes suddenly light up with anger in defense of her best friend, but when Ana pulls Christian down on the couch with her and then climbs into his lap, I grab onto Kate’s wrist to stop her from getting in between them.

“I think Ana’s got it under control.”

She blinks a few times, as if she’s having trouble getting her eyes to focus, but the heated anger burning in their beautiful green color slowly dies away and she smiles. “What are you doing here?”

“A cocktail waitress in our hotel told us the party was here tonight, so we thought we’d check it out. I thought you were going to Hyde?”

“We were, but it was too far. You try walking up the Strip in these.” She turns and lifts her foot up so I can see the outrageously high stilettos she’s wearing.

“Seems like a planning flaw,” I tell her, and she smiles again.

“Yeah, I’ve made a lot of mistakes lately.” I furrow my brow, wondering what she means, but the movement across the table of Ana and Christian getting out of the booth, and Christian pulling her into the packed crowd away from the table, stops her from explaining herself. “Ana!”

Ana turns and gives Kate an apologetic smile, but does nothing to fight against my brother’s grip as they disappear into the throng of people.

“Well, that sucks,” Kate pouts. “Party’s over, I guess.”

“It doesn’t have to be,” I tell her. My dad and Ros join their significant others at the table, fully occupying their attention, so I reach out for Kate’s hand. “Dance with me?”

“Yeah,” she says with a smile, then places her hand in mine.

I pull her all the way out to the center of the dance floor so that the crowd is dense enough around us to fully cut us off from the rest of our group. As I take her into my arms, people touch us or bump into us from all sides, but it’s oddly isolating. The music is too loud to hear her speak, and between the flashing lights and glitter confetti dancing through the air around us, it’s almost hard to make her out. Still, I can feel her, and she moves seductively with every slight bit of pressure I use against her hips.

The bass bumps loud and steady and Kate turns in my arms, pressing her ass into my dick. Her scent wafts over me and the way she grinds against my groin immediately has me hard, but when I try to push her away so I can hide it from her, she reaches down and grips me through the front of my pants.

“Kate…”

“We should talk,” she says, then takes my hand and drags me off the dancefloor before I can respond. Unfortunately, there’s not much reprieve from the loud music and people, so it takes her a while to find somewhere to escape. But, at the top of a windy staircase on the second floor, there’s a small dark alcove off to the side of the restrooms that is mercifully empty.

With alcohol still coursing steadily through my veins, I nearly lose my balance when Kate pushes me inside, but there’s a wall for me to catch myself on and the moment I’m able to regain my footing she’s pressing herself into me.

“Kat–” Her lips, and then tongue, quickly cut off my protest, but, as much as I would love to take advantage of everything she’s throwing at me right now, I know that she’s drunk and could very well not be in the right frame of mind to make the choice to do this with me.

“Kate, stop,” I say, locking my fingers around each of her hips and pulling her off of me.

“What’s wrong?”

“You’re drunk.”

She shakes her head. “It’s fine, I want you.”

“No.” I move my face to avoid her lips as she leans into me again. “No, it’s not fine. It don’t want to be a mistake for you tomorrow.”

“You won’t be. Elliot, I really want you.”

“Yeah, right now. But…”

“No, Elliot. I want you. I want you to be mine again. I miss you and I just want to be with you. Only you. Forever.”

“Wait… what about last week? At dinner you said that the reasons we broke up before hadn’t changed. What about marriage? Kids?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t care. You’re right, we have Calliope, and Mia might have kids someday. We’ll be the best aunt and uncle in the world. You and me, together.”

“And… you’re cool with that?”

She nods. “Marriage and kids don’t mean anything to me if I can’t have them with you. I see that now. You are what I want, Elliot Grey. Forever. If you look at me now and promise me forever, then I’m willing to let go of all the other stuff and just be yours.”

“Kate… I don’t know what to say. I don’t know if I can even take you seriously while you’ve been drinking.”

“This has nothing to do with the alcohol. I told Ana in the limo ride to dinner tonight, before we even started drinking, that I was going to tell you this after the wedding. But I don’t want to wait until the wedding is over. I don’t want to wait another night. Just tell me that you love me, and I’m yours.”

I have no idea what to do. She’s offering me everything I’ve wanted since the second she broke up with me, but I don’t know if I can trust that she really means what she’s saying. I’m scared that if I tell her now that I’ve never stopped wanting her and give in to what she’s proposing, then I’ll be the bad guy who took advantage of a drunk girl in a club when the sun rises. But I don’t want to reject her either. I want her with the same passion that I see in the depths of her eyes. And with my own head swimming with alcohol, it feels impossible not to just give in and ravish her.

“Kate…” I begin, taking a breath to steel myself. “I love you. I love you so much that I feel like I’ve died every day, over and over again, not being with you. I want everything you just said, but I love you enough to wait until you can say them to me sober.”

Her eyes narrow, and then a coy smile plays at the corner of her lips. “The first time I ever fucked you I was wasted and it gave me the greatest thing I’ve ever had. Fuck sober.”

She throws herself into my arms again, using her body and forward momentum to push me into the wall at my back, and her lips come crashing down on mine. The kiss is deep and aggressive, but soft too. It brings me back to a time when we were happy and in love, and after hearing what she’s said and feeling what she’s pouring into me through her kiss, I can’t fight her anymore. I don’t want to.

My arms wrap around her and pull her tightly into my body. I power through her kiss, my tongue tangling with hers until I have just as much control as she does. She moans into my mouth and pulls herself further into me, as though she’s climbing me, and I fully enjoy her enthusiasm until her hand moves down to my belt buckle.

“Kate,” I hiss, admonishing her as I push her fingers away.

“I want you,” she whispers back. Her eyes plead with me, so I reach up to grip her chin with the dip in my hand between my thumb and fingers and kiss her again.

“Not here.”

After looping my belt back through the metal buckle, I take her hand and drag her back out into the main floor, pushing a little too eagerly through the crowd as we go. Once we’re outside, we slide into the first available cab and the moment I’ve given the driver direction, Kate climbs into my lap and kisses me again.

It’s like being in high school. I can’t remember the last time I’ve made out with a girl this long without being inside of her, but the traffic getting out onto Las Vegas Blvd has us trapped in the back of the taxi for well over half an hour. I actually like it, though. It feels intimate, and that’s what I’ve missed with Kate. Not just sex, but a connection that comes from truly knowing someone who knows you just as well in return, and then loving them both for and in spite of all of it. That was what I couldn’t replace when I lost Kate. The thing that made her my soulmate. And feeling her lips against mine and hearing her soft moans and whispered I loves yous as we make our way to the hotel, I feel that connection so strongly, it’s as if it were never lost to begin with.

We don’t break apart once we get to the Venetian. The entire trip to my suite is clumsy because I’m so absorbed in kissing and touching Kate that I can’t even be bothered to look where we’re going. Being closed in the elevator, alone, is almost enough to break what small amount of will power I have left and I nearly take her right there. But the elevator doors open before I fully get my fly undone, so I’m forced to hold out until I get her into the room.

“Say it again,” she whispers against my throat while I fight to get the door to the room unlocked. “Forever. I need to hear you say it again.”

“Forever,” I promise.

Finally, I get the door open and we both stumble inside. Kate nearly falls backwards in her shoes, but I manage to catch her and pull her into me again. As I stare into her eyes, muted in the moonlight, my heart swells nearly to the point of bursting.

Happiness is this moment defined.

“I love you, Katie,” I say, kissing her again. “I’m never going to let you go again.”

She nods and places her hands on either side of my face, staring deeply into my eyes. “Never. This is it, okay? You and me.”

“You and me.” I sweep her into my arms and she leans in to kiss me again while I carry her off to my room. Once inside, I don’t even bother dropping her onto the bed before I climb after her. We fall together, and with my body pinning her small frame beneath me, the animal takes over. My lips and tongue move down her body, tasting every inch of her skin and delighting in it.

“Fuck, I want you,” I whisper, and her hands tangle in my hair encouragingly.

“Then take me. Fuck me, Elliot.”

Her dress is loose and made of a thin material that feels delicate to the touch, so rather than fumble blindly in the dark for her zipper, I grip the fabric at her neckline and tear it open. She whimpers with anticipation as I completely shred the dress down the front, then begin work on the front clasp of her bra while kissing her neck. With her breasts exposed, I only have her panties left to remove, so I reach down for the tiny bit of lace wrapped around her hips while I begin lavishing her nipples with my tongue. Her back arches high of the bed and her moans fill the dead air around me, exciting me, leaving me so hard that my cock starts to ache.

I sit up on my knees to get the condom from my wallet, while Kate begins unfastening my belt again. It’s distracting, especially when she frees my erection and immediately takes me into her mouth.

“Oh fuck,” I hiss. “Mmm, that’s it, Katie.”

She hums and pulls me deep into her throat, holding me there and swallowing over and over again. Each time her throat tightens around the head of my cock, a shockwave of pleasure jolts through me. I’d nearly forgotten how good she was at this, and with all the anticipation that’s built up on the ride over here, I know that if I let her continue it won’t be long before I explode in her mouth.

“Stop, baby. I don’t want to come before I get a chance to fuck you and I’m already close.”

She whines in disappointment but falls back on the bed again. Her eyes glint in the light pouring in through the windows and the shadows that fall across her perfect body accentuate the curves in her breasts and her hardened nipples. My mind floods with all of the things I want to do with her, to her, each more dirty than the next. I pull the condom from the wrapper and move to roll it over my dick while drinking in the sight of her, but as my eyes move down from her breasts and over her stomach, I notice something that takes the breath out of me.

There’s a scar on her side.

One she didn’t have the last time I saw her naked.

One that I recognize immediately.

It’s the same scar that I helped my father dress and bandage a dozen times after his surgery last January. After the impossible transplant that saved his life. The condom falls from my hand as I freeze and instantly, all thoughts of sex fall out of my mind.

“Kate…” My voice shakes. “Wha-what is that?”

“What?” She looks down as though she’s expecting to find something spilled or maybe even a scrape, but when she realizes what I’m looking at, her hand flies up to cover her side and she shakes her head. “Nothing. It’s nothing.”

I pull her hand away and run my finger over the familiar line. “This isn’t nothing. Where did you get this?”

“I told you, I-I was in an accident skiing last Christmas…”

“This isn’t from an accident, Kate. This is a transplant scar. This is the exact same scar my dad has and don’t try to tell me that it isn’t because I would know it anywhere. Where did you get this?”

She swallows. “I-I…”

“Holy shit, it was you, wasn’t it? You were the anonymous donor.”

She hesitates for a moment, but eventually, she nods.

My mind flashes back to the night of the surgery, New Years Eve. Kate had come to the GEH ball and found Gia and I together, then she ran away. When I went to explain myself the next morning, her brother told me she wasn’t home. I thought he was just trying to get me to leave because Kate didn’t want to see me, but that felt strange, even at the time, because Kate has never been the kind of girl who didn’t face what was in front of her. She should have come out and torn into me right there on the lawn for all the neighbors to see after what she saw the night before. It didn’t make sense, and now I see why. She really wasn’t home. She was in surgery.

Suddenly, so many missing pieces fall into place. This is why Ana got so confrontational with Gia and I after my father’s transplant. This is why Kate stopped partying with those socialites. This is why Kate and Christian became best friends out of the blue and started sharing all those private, emotional moments together. This is why Calliope’s middle name is Katherine.

“Wait… Christian knows?”

“Yeah. I was laid up for six weeks after the surgery and he figured it out one weekend when he came to visit Ana.”

“That son of a bitch, why didn’t he tell me?” Anger floods through me as I realize that my own brother kept this secret from me and let me continue on with Gia knowing that the woman I really wanted, who I truly loved, had saved our father’s life. I climb out of bed, storming across the room with the intent of busting into his bedroom and demanding to know why he kept this from me, but Kate catches me at the door.

“Don’t, Elliot. I asked Christian not to tell you. Begged him, even, so that he wouldn’t tell anyone.”

“Why?”

“Because I didn’t want you to think I did this to get you back. I didn’t want your family to feel indebted to me. That’s not why I did it.”

“Then why did you do it?”

“Because I love your dad and he was dying. Do you know what it was like for me when he was diagnosed? How badly I wanted to be at the hospital with all of you when he was getting treatment or when he had his first surgery for the brain tumor? I had to hear everything through Ana and half of what she told me wasn’t even about your dad, it was about how Christian was struggling watching him try to fight. Carrick is like a second father to me and I didn’t get to be there for him. Except for this. This is what I could do to help him. I didn’t want you to show up in Cambridge and make this about us. I wasn’t ready to take you back then and I wasn’t ready to let you back in my life. I didn’t want you to know.”

I’m actually a little taken aback from the hurt I hear in her voice. “Katie, you should have come… My mom and dad love you. They would have loved to have you there with them while my dad was going through treatment.”

She shakes her head. “You know Gia wouldn’t have let that happen. If I had shown up, she would have thrown a fit and you… would have been on her side. Could you imagine what that would have done to your family?”

Yes. I can imagine it so clearly, it’s like I’ve seen it happen before. And in a way, I think I have. My mom always preferred Kate to Gia, and she never even really tried to hide it. If there had been an argument about Kate being present while my dad needed help, Mom would have sided with Kate. Mia too, without a doubt. And, since Christian knew about the transplant, I can’t imagine he would have gone against Kate for anything. I wouldn’t let them all gang up against Gia, not while we were still together.

Just thinking about how I would have turned her away, knowing what I know now, makes me sick.

“Kate… I can’t believe you did this. I can’t believe I wasn’t there to take care of you after… You saved my dad’s life.”

“I know, and I’m glad that I did. You don’t have to feel guilty, Elliot. I had people there for me. This brought Ethan and I closer together, it brought Christian and I closer together, and it reminded me of what was important in life. Family. If I didn’t have this, I don’t know that I’d be standing here, in front of you right now. Because you are my family, Elliot. And Carrick, Grace, Mia, and Christian are my family too. That’s all I want from you and it took all of this for me to realize it. I don’t want a big fan-fare about this, I just want to be a family again. I just want forever.”

The sincerity in her eyes is so poignant, it’s sobers me up. In her confession, I feel something inside of me change. It’s like I finally understand what Christian tried to tell me earlier. Marrying her makes her family. Not in the way she already is, or even in the way I want her to be, but in a way that is much harder to articulate. It’s not about the marriage license or the wedding, it’s about showing her that I don’t just want her there when something tragic happens, but that she has the right to be there. That it’s not just nice to have her around when we have something to celebrate, that she belongs there. In the future that I envisioned for us, she was always supposed to be by my side, through the good and the bad. But through this confession, I can see that vision through her eyes. She would always be an outsider. Welcome, but never really integrated. Separate but equal. Ana is going to be a Grey in two days. That would mean that, in times of tragedy, Kate would be told what we were going to do, but Ana would be a part of the conversation.

And that thought pulls me right back to the waiting room of that hospital in Cambridge, watching Christian being completely destroyed as he was kept away from his own daughter and the woman he loved because there wasn’t anything written down to give him rights. The pain I saw him suffer through all could have been avoided by the piece of paper I’ve convinced myself that I don’t want. I know that he’s not going to love Ana any more next week than he does now simply because they’ve gotten married, but just that one example shows me how important their actual marriage is. He wants to make Ana his family, just as I want to make Kate mine.

Kate said to me back in the club that she doesn’t care about marriage or kids anymore, and that as long as I promise her forever, she’ll be fine if I never propose. I’ve already paid for the ring, but I don’t have to give it to her. I could take it back, sell it, or just put it away in a drawer and never think about it again.

She’s given me the out I’ve been desperate for, but.. I’m not going to take it.

She’s given her own flesh and blood to make herself apart of my family, a platinum band seems like a weak gesture to show her just how much I want her there too. After the sacrifices she’s made, how much she deserves to be there.

Sacrifice.

Love is about sacrifice, and if marrying her, giving her children means I have to sacrifice the carefree, easy, fun lifestyle I’ve always envisioned for myself, is that too big a sacrifice to ask? No. No, it isn’t. I feel the certainty in that more potently than I have ever felt anything before, and as the image of Christmas morning that I’d been fixated on earlier this evening flashes across my mind again, I realize that the hope I’d felt in that fantasy wasn’t hope at all. It was desire. This isn’t even a sacrifice. I want this too. I want to make her happy. I want to give her everything her heart desires. I want her to know just how much I love her and how much I want her to be my family.

I want to marry her.

“Are you mad?” she asks, pulling me out of my inner declarations, and the small note of fear beneath her voice nearly knocks the wind out of me.

“Mad? Why would I be mad?”

“I lied to you.”

“No, you didn’t lie. You told me as much truth as you knew I’d be able to handle. I’m sorry that I wasn’t strong enough, willing enough, to hear the rest.” I take her face in my hands and kiss her once again. Softly this time, and without the drunken urgency that pushed us into this room. Slowly, I back her up to the bed and lay her as gently over the sheets as I can manage. Through my lips and my touch, I try to convey the love and gratefulness I feel for her and attempt to show her how precious she is to me. It works, I think. She moans as I climb over the top of her and move between her legs. And when her body tells me she’s ready, and her eyes implore me, I slowly sink into her.

Her mouth opens in a soft, breathy gasp, but her eyes don’t leave mine. I move inside of her carefully, slowly, using the pleasure not just to get either of us off, but to show her what she means to me. That I love her, absolutely and without exception. And that I always will.

Her eyes finally break from mine as she starts to build towards her orgasm. Her head falls back, her mouth drops open, and her body tightens around me. When she lets go, she drags me with her, and in this moment of pure love making, I am overcome with the most intense orgasm I’ve ever felt in my life. It’s world changing, and has me not just intent on making this perfect woman my wife, but excited over it. Desperate for it.

“I love you, Katie,” I whisper against her lips. “Forever and always.”

“Forever,” she replies, and we kiss again.

Next Chapter

Christian PoV: In the Case of Raymond Steele vs Christian Grey

624246174001_5571816438001_5571806294001-vs

Middle of chapter 36

I don’t like being away from the hospital. Not because I’m not over the moon that Ana and Calliope are well enough to leave, but because I’m nervous about both of them being away from the constant supervision of doctors. It was just more than a week ago that I was fighting off medical staff and arguing with Ana’s father over withdrawal of care, and Calliope still only weighs barely 5 lbs. She’s nothing, and it feels as though every bump of the SUV on the road as we make our way to the airport, and every car that merges in front of us is another opportunity for her to break apart entirely. It doesn’t feel real yet. No matter how many times the doctors have reassured me that the woman I love and my child are going to be fine, my body hasn’t accepted it. I’m still tense, ready to fight, and I don’t know how long that’s going to last.

“Wait here,” I tell Ana when we come to a stop in front of my jet at Logan International. “I’ll come around and help you out of the car.”

She rolls her eyes at me. “I’m fine, Christian. Really. I can get out of a car.”

“Wait. Here.” She takes a sharp, defiant breath but ultimately slumps back into her seat as I step out of the car. Her father gives me a slanted look when he climbs out of the front passenger’s seat, but I don’t give it any credence. After last week, I’ll never let anyone tell me I’m being overprotective again.

“Easy,” I say, reaching into the backseat to take Ana’s hand. She winces a little as she steps down from the SUV, but that doesn’t stop her from whirling around and reaching for the carseat that was buckled between us the instant her feet touch the pavement. I watch every movement she makes, looking for any weakness she may still be experiencing. She probably shouldn’t be carrying the carseat, no matter how light Calliope may still be, but getting her away from that baby is never going to happen, and I don’t want to separate them knowing what she went through those first few days in the hospital. Thanks to Carla, I know exactly how losing Calliope feels, and I was only kept away from her for a night. Ana spent days without her.

She turns and starts to make her way to the plane. Taylor, who has been at Logan all morning, comes up to me. “Everything left at the house has been loaded into the cargo bay, sir.”

“And I’ll grab the luggage in the car,” Sawyer adds.

“Good, and thank you. I can’t tell you how invaluable your help has been this last week.”

“It’s our pleasure, sir.” Taylor gives me a rare smile and claps me on the shoulder as I move to follow Ana and her father onto my plane. Ray seems to be treating his daughter in the same overly cautious way I have been as I watch him practically hold her while she takes her seat, but Ana doesn’t seem to find his attention as overbearing as she does mine, which is irritating.

“Ready for take off, sir?” the pilot asks, coming up behind me.

“Yes. Thank you, Stephan.” He nods and disappears back into the cockpit, while I head down the aisle to take my seat next to Ana. Ray chooses a spot a ways back behind us to give Ana and I little space, but as we race down the runway and finally lift off into the air, we’re both seemingly paralyzed with nerves, staring at Calliope. The second we’ve reached cruising altitude and the pilot announces it’s safe for us to move about the cabin, Ana pulls the baby out of the carseat. Only then, with Calliope in her arms, does she relax.

“She’s beautiful, Mr. Grey,” Natalia says, stopping in the aisle next to us to peak at my daughter’s face through the blankets Ana has her swaddled in. “Is there anything I can get for either you or Miss Steele?”

“We’re fine,” I reply, but turn back to look at Ana’s father. “Ray?”

He shakes his head. “No, but… I would like it if you’d join me back here for a moment to have a chat, son.”

Son. Years of lectures from my own father tells me that this particular word means he doesn’t want to pull me aside to discuss our mutual love of the great outdoors. I knew this was coming, once again, thanks to Carla. I just thought I’d have a little more time to prepare myself to answer the questions I know he’s going to ask. I know I’m going to have to be honest with him if he and I are ever going to be able to build a relationship with one another, and since doing that very thing is so important to Ana, I nod and turn to her in the seat next to me.

“I’ll be right back.”

“We’ll be here. Good luck.”

Thanks, babe. I’m REALLY going to need it.

I get out of my seat and follow Ray to the back of the plane. Natalia is hovering behind the curtain between the cabin and cockpit, so as I sit in the seat across from Ana’s father, I gently pull back the barrier to speak with her.

“I’ve changed my mind. I’ll take a bourbon.”

“Ice?”

“Please.” I turn to Ray. “You’re sure you don’t want a drink?”

“A beer, thank you.”

“Imported or domestic?” Natalia asks, and Ray’s brow furrows.

“Uh… Rainier?”

She smiles. “Coming right up.”

We sit in awkward silence until Natalia places our drinks in front of us, then take our first few sips without speaking to one another. The tension between us feels a little like a business acquisition, though with much higher stakes. Thankfully, that’s my area of expertise, so I let the silence linger, forcing him to speak first.

“Well, I suppose I should start by thanking you,” he says at last.

“Thanking me?”

“For fighting for Ana the way you did. For not giving up on her. If it hadn’t been for you, she might not be here right now, and I’m going to carry that with me for the rest of my life. So, thank you, Christian. Thank you for being stronger than I was this week.”

“I’ll always fight for her. She means everything to me, Ray. Everything.”

“I see that now. I can see how much you love her, and I can see how much she loves you. You earned a lot of my respect this week, and I really want to trust you with my daughter and my granddaughter, and I want us to move forward from today as a family.”

“Well… great! That’s all I want.”

“But I need answers from you first. Because I’ve heard things about you that I really don’t like.”

I swallow and nod. “Okay, what do you want to know?”

“Everything. Carla told me that she used to really like you when you and Ana first started dating but that your break up a couple years ago was nasty. She told me that Ana left you because you had protected a child molester and let her go free instead of going to prison all so you could get your hands on the money to start your company. Can you understand how that leaves me with reservations about you, especially with my granddaughter involved now?”

“It’s a little more complicated than what Carla told you.”

“Then uncomplicate it for me.”

He sits back, but continues to stare expectantly at me. I pick up my tumbler, drain it, and leave it on the table for Natalia to fill on her next pass, then brace myself to unfurl my complicated past to this man, who is essentially a stranger to me.

“The child molester wasn’t just some stranger. I have a very long and intricate history with Elena Lincoln. In fact, the child in question was me, though I have some reservations with the word child. I was fifteen when I first slept with her and at the time I did what I did to keep her from going to prison, I didn’t think what she had done to me was wrong.”

I pause, waiting for him to react, but he doesn’t.

“Look, this uncomfortable for me to talk about. I’m just now processing this myself…”

“I understand, but it’s important that I know you and that I know what happened if I’m ever going to be able to trust you.”

I nod. “Okay. Well, I can’t really explain Elena without giving you the whole picture. Keep in mind, I’m not making excuses. I know that I was wrong and that I hurt people. I’ve done everything I know to do in order to make amends for that. It’s just, there were reasons I did what I did…”

I’m stalling, I know that, and by the impatient look on his face, so does he.

“You know that I was adopted. I uh… I was born in Detroit and my biological mother was an addict and a prostitute. I lived the first four years of my life in poverty. My mother was neglectful and didn’t care for me at all, and her pimp was abusive.”

“Abusive, how?”

“I was starved, beaten, and left alone. Sometimes for days.” He leans forward then, his hands folded between his knees and his attention focused only on me. It’s too probing, uncomfortable even. Half the things I tell him next, I’ve only ever told to Flynn. No one else. Not even Ana. And an hour later, as I sit there detailing how it being felt curled under table while I listened to my mother being attacked in the other room, I realize that the look that Anastasia has, the one that makes me feel like she can see right through my protective walls and makes me want to pour my soul out to her, is an inherited trait.

“So what happened to your mother?” Ray asks.

“She overdosed.”

“In front of you?”

I nod. “When she died, no one found me for four days. Thankfully, Grace was the doctor who they brought me to after someone finally collected me from the house and she adopted me a few months later.”

“What happened in the meantime?”

“Foster care.” He raises an eyebrow at me, so I take a breath and delve into everything I can remember about those four months. It isn’t much, but each question he asks bring back a lot of the fear and uncertainty that plagued me during that time. Each emotion that breaks through my practiced stony facade leads to more questions until I’m not even really sure what we’re talking about anymore.

“Alright, so Grace and Carrick adopt you and you move to Seattle with your new family,” he says, redirecting the conversation.

I take a breath and look away from the window and the flat plains of the midwest below. “Yes, and that should have been my happily ever after, but…”

“But?”

My lips press together in hesitation. “Grace and Carrick are very loving parents, but I didn’t take to my new home well. Carrick scared me because the only men I knew before him physically abused me, and I kept waiting for Grace to leave me. Elliot and I got in physical fights a lot when I was young, because violence was all I ever knew, and I hoarded food for years until I finally accepted that it was always going to be there.”

I stop, waiting for him to interject, but he doesn’t. He leans back in his seat, his expectant yet patient look back in place, and waits for me to continue.

“I tried very hard to be a good enough child that Grace and Carrick would want to keep me, but there are things that remained in me, things I’m still struggling with to this day, that made that feel impossible. Touch was the biggest one. I have a real issue with anyone touching me because the only touch I knew growing up caused me pain. My mother’s pimp used me as a kind of ash tray and put cigarettes out on my skin to punish my mother when she didn’t do what he wanted. Since she was addict and completely unreliable, that was often. And that was in addition to the beatings I would get for misbehaving, crying, or… just when he needed something to do. Grace and Carrick were always very kind to me, and gentle, but I still couldn’t bare to be touched by them. By anyone. And when I became a teenager and developed certain… needs, the inability to bear another person’s touch became excruciating.”

“I can imagine.”

“I was lashing out. I starting drinking, I picked fights at school, and I mouthed off to anyone and everyone who thought they had authority over me. I was expelled from three different schools by the time I turned fifteen, and my parents had no idea what to do with me. That’s where Elena comes in. She was my mother’s best friend, and had been my entire life. I grew up with her just as much as I had with Carrick and Grace. She spent holidays with us, went on vacations with us, she even used to watch us when my mother was on call and my father was working late. She was kind to me, and gentle when I was young. I thought of her almost like a second mother. I trusted her that way. My brother, sister, and I even called her Aunt Elena. So, when my mother was finally at her wits end with me after I got expelled for the third time, Elena offered to step in and help. Give me some structure.”

“She hadn’t exhibited any abusive behavior towards you before then? No sexual advances?”

“No.”

“So you really had every reason to trust her…” He pauses, his brow furrowing for a moment. “Does she have children of her own?”

I shake my head. “No. She was never interested in being a mother.”

“Then… why did Grace send you to her?”

“She has a certain presence about her. Something in her eyes and the way she holds herself that commands attention and respect. She can be very cold. Even before we had a sexual relationship, she was one of the only people I would listen to. Maybe I was scared of her. Maybe I was drawn to her dominant personality. I don’t know, but she was always the one person who could put me in my place. Though, when my parents asked for her help, I was going to ensure that I put an end to that.”

“Alright,” he says, nodding. “So, your parents call Elena, and then…”

“I was sent to her house to do some landscaping work, but I spent the entire afternoon being as difficult as I could possibly be. I did a shitty job with anything she asked me to do and I mouthed off at her every chance I got. But she didn’t take that the way my parents did. That afternoon I took it too far and she retaliated. She slapped me, hard, right across the face and while I was still reeling from the shock of that, she kissed me. Not like an aunt would, like a lover. It was my first real kiss and I can’t explain to you how it made me feel. It didn’t scare me, and it was the first time anyone had ever touched me where I didn’t feel fear. Do you know what that’s like? To be fifteen and horny as hell, but terrified of having anyone touch you. And then to have this beautiful woman somehow overcome that? She felt like my savior.”

I pause, because those words now leave a bitter taste in my mouth, and Ray leans in towards me.

“So you started sleeping with her?”

I nod. “Yeah. Look, you’re Ana’s dad and I don’t know how much into that part of the story you want to get or how much I even really want to tell you, but I did more than just sleep with her. Elena was a part of the BDSM community. She was a Domme, and when she introduced me to sex, she brought me into that lifestyle with her. I was a submissive to her. I did what she told me to do, I acted the way she wanted me to, and she rewarded and punished me accordingly.”

“Sexually?”

“Yes, when I behaved. She would beat me when I didn’t. My therapist tells me now that the abusive side of our relationship is what bonded me to her. She behaved in the way I expected her to behave, based on my past, and it’s what made her touch feel safer than anyone else’s. I wasn’t fearful of her touch because I knew when and how the pain would come. She removed all uncertainty for me. But it also made me dependent on her. Under her direction, I started doing better in school. Exemplary, in fact. I became an honor roll student and everything I pursued outside of school and outside of her was academic in nature. She made me respect my parents and my teachers, and miraculously my life became easier. I believed she was helping me, but, in reality, she was just reinforcing all the negative things I already believed about people. I shut down. I cut myself off emotionally from my family and I stopped trying to trust people. The only person I allowed myself to be vulnerable with was Elena and she controlled me. Not that I cared. I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, and I was getting laid. That’s all that mattered to me. I actually thought I was lucky, and I did everything I could to be what she wanted me to be so that I could keep what we had together. I even took her beatings gratefully. Safe words didn’t mean anything to me. I would have never stopped her from doing anything, because I wanted to be everything she wanted me to be. She knew that, and she used that against me.”

“So, what was the turning point.”

“You’re… uh, not going to like that answer.”

“Why not?”

“Because it comes later than I like to admit. Than I’m sure you want to know…”

His back goes rigid, and his eyes seem to ice over. “Later? As in, when you were dating my daughter?”

I shake my head. “No, there was no overlap between Ana and Elena. Not sexually anyway…”

“But there was overlap?”

“In a way. When I graduated from high school and went to college, it was the first time I’d ever been on my own. For the first time in my life, Elena wasn’t there to watch everything I did. That’s when I met your daughter, and what I felt for her was instant and irreversible. People say that love at first sight isn’t real, but it is. From the first time I ever heard her speak, I loved her. But I didn’t want to. I couldn’t. Elena had me under contract to serve her and only her and I thought I was happy with her. I thought I needed her. So I tried everything to push your daughter away. Everything. But I couldn’t stay away from her. She was like the sun after a long winter. She was warm and kind. Even when I was avoiding her and trying to get her out of my head, I was always watching her from afar. The times I let myself talk to her felt amazing. She’s funny and intuitive and smart. I’d never met a girl like her before and she had me completely enraptured. I started thinking about her when I shouldn’t have been, like… when I was with Elena. It was wrong and I fought it, but eventually, I knew that what I was feeling for Ana was stronger than I was. Than my need for Elena was. I had to be with her. So I broke things off with Elena and I went after Ana.”

“To be clear, you’re telling me now that you ended your relationship with this woman before you started a relationship with my daughter?”

“Yes.”

“You didn’t cheat on her?”

“No. God, no. I would never be unfaithful to Anastasia.”

“If you weren’t unfaithful to her, then how did you end up in a courtroom lying for Elena while you were dating Anastasia?”

“Elena didn’t want to let go. For the first few months Ana and I dated, she did everything she could to break us up. But Ana wouldn’t let her. So, Elena started going after her. She tried to turn my parents against her, she tried to intimidate her, and eventually, she tried to make me believe that I couldn’t trust her.”

“What do you mean?”

“She hired someone I went to school with, someone I didn’t like very much, to seduce Ana and make her cheat on me. When that didn’t work, he… kind of forced her to.”

“What?” He shouts so loud, Anastasia’s head whips around so she can look at us. I want to do something to calm the nervousness I see in her eyes, but Ray’s face is growing steadily redder and his fingers are curling into a fist.

“It was kiss. Just a kiss.” Those words, and the reassuring way I have to say them, taste like poison on my tongue. “He didn’t touch her beyond that. Believe me, he’d be dead if he did. But, he did kiss her and Elena took a picture of it and sent it to me. It almost worked. Ana had to force me to see reason and when she did, I lost it. We were at an event with my parents and I went off on Elena. I screamed at her, told her to leave us alone, and her husband overheard everything.”

“Wait,” Ray interrupts me. “She was married?”

I nod. “Unhappily, but yes. I was an affair for her. So, when her husband heard what we had done together, he told my parents. And my father, being the lawyer that he is, pursued legal action against her. A trial date was set and I met with the prosecutor to lay everything out. But as the trial came closer and closer, I started to feel guilty. I hated her for what she did to Ana, but I believed that what we had done together was consensual. I believed that I played just as big of a roll in it as she had. And, while I was happy to have her out of my life and away from Ana, I started to think that the punishment she was facing for what we’d done together was undeserved. Remember, before Ana, I thought she was helping me. I thought she saved me. I thought I owed everything to her. So when she called me before the trial and asked me to help her, offered me money to help me get my company started as way of apologizing for what she’d done to Ana and I over the past few months, and told me she would disappear from my life forever… I agreed. I shouldn’t have. It’s my single biggest regret. But I did. I went into the courtroom and, under oath, I lied. I said we never had a relationship and they let her go.”

“I thought that would be the end of it, but it wasn’t. My father was furious and humiliated, it nearly destroyed our relationship. He cut me out and wouldn’t let me see my sister, who is one of the most important people to me in the entire world. And when Ana found out about the money, she left me. She wouldn’t even talk to me. I called her to apologize every day for almost two years, and she wouldn’t even pick up the phone. I had everything I thought I wanted once my company came to fruition, except none of it made me happy. I had nothing without Ana, and no amount of money or success could fill the void she left in my life. My heart was broken. I was miserable and alone and I had no reason to believe Ana would ever forgive me. So I reached out to the only person in the world who didn’t hate me.”

“Who?”

I swallow. “Elena.”  

The look of reserved understanding on his face fades in an instant, but before I lose any progress I may have gained up to this point, I start back tracking.

“It was wrong, I know that. I was weak and I still hadn’t accepted that what she and I had together before Ana was wrong. I hate it, but she and I have a connection that isn’t easy to get out from under. She knows the darkest parts of me and she doesn’t make me feel bad about them or force me to deal with my shit. In some ways, my relationship with Elena is easier than any relationship that I’ve ever had. Her past is just as fucked up as mine is and I don’t have to be perfect for her to care about me. Or at least, that’s the way it felt. Whenever I needed someone, she was always there. Elena always answered the phone. But… that’s only because I was useful to her. Without my parents or Ana around, there was no one to contradict her or stop her from reinforcing the same bullshit she fed to me when I was a kid. And I bought it. She blinded me to the things I had done wrong and the ways that I had hurt people, because I couldn’t face it. She made me feel like everyone around me was overreacting and that the ire I got for what I’d done was undeserved. I believed her, because it was easier and less painful than facing reality. But easier didn’t get me Ana back and that was the only thing I cared about.”

“So, let me get this straight… You make a deal with a woman that makes Ana break up with you, and then while you’re broken up, you rekindle that relationship with this woman, and then expect me to believe you spent that time wanting Ana back?”

“It wasn’t the same relationship. Nothing sexual has occured between Elena and I for years… “

“But you let her back into your life?”

“Yes. She and I talked a few times and then when her business started going under, I helped her get it back on track. We were business partners for a while.”

“Huh. Funny how Ana didn’t want to talk to you.”

“Well, she didn’t know.”

“Oh, so you lied to her?”

“No, Ray…” I pause, thinking very carefully about how I want to continue from here so that I don’t dig myself into a deeper hole. “I was alone and I was weak. Elena took advantage of that, and I let her. I’m not proud of it. But I called Ana everyday to try and make things right with her and she wouldn’t even talk to me. I didn’t know if she would ever take me back. I didn’t know if she would ever even pick up the phone.”

“So, why did she?”

“She did it for Elliot. He was the only person who fought for me back then. He was in Cambridge, living with Ana and Kate, so he wasn’t around to make me see what I was doing, the path that I was going down… Truthfully, he was never the person who could have gotten through to mee. But he did ask Ana to speak with me. And then, on April 10th of last year, she answered when I called and she forced me to start dealing with what I had done. Getting her back was paramount to me, so I did everything she asked me to do. I cut off all non-business ties with Elena. I reached out to my family and tried to rebuild a relationship with them. And I started seeing a therapist. It took a long time, but he made me finally see Elena the way everyone else did, the way she actually was. And the moment I came to terms with what she’d done to me, I was disgusted. Not just by what she and I had done together, but with what I had done in defense of it. That I had lied to my parents for her, for years. That I had fought with Ana for as long as I did about her. That I had lied, in court, to protect her. It kills me to think about it now. If I could go back and undo what I did, I would. But, I can’t. Not just because of what the consequences of admitting what I did would mean for me, but what they would mean for the people I care about and the people who work for me. Who rely on me to support their families.”

He sighs and slumps back into his seat, looking away from me and rubbing his hand over his chin as he processes everything I’ve told him. I don’t know what else to say, I don’t know if there is anything more to say, so I just let it lie there and wait for him to speak again.

“Where is she now?”

“Prison. She got caught running an underground prostitution ring and laundering the profits through the salons she and I ran together. I didn’t know about it. She hid what she was doing very well and once I found out, I turned her into the police. She tried to pin it on me, but my father and I wouldn’t let her, and she was sentenced to fifteen years in September.”

“And how do you feel about that?”

“Relieved. She’s up for parole in five years, but I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

He nods, but there’s not a great deal of conviction behind his eyes.

“You don’t believe me?”

“I want to, Christian. I want to believe that you simply made a mistake. That you were really only a kid and that you let an adult, who you had every reason to trust, take you down the wrong path. I want to believe you’re truly sorry for everything that happened and that we can shake hands now and move forward without you ever giving me a reason to question you or your intentions ever again. Because truth be told, I don’t know how much what I think of all of this matters. Ana loves you. You two share a child together, and she’s going to do what she wants to do.”

“But…”

He shakes his head. “I don’t know. I don’t know if there is a ‘but’. Look, I can see the pain you’re in talking about this, Christian. I can hear it in your voice. And I can see that you really do love my daughter, all of this other stuff aside. You showed me that this week. And, hell, why wouldn’t you? She’s my Annie. No one knows better than me how easy it is to be completely and utterly wrapped up in loving her. In a different way, of course, but in a way that I don’t think is any less powerful. That’s my baby, Christian. Not my flesh and blood, but my daughter nonetheless and there is nothing I wouldn’t do to protect her and her heart. I would kill for that girl, do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir. But I intend to never give you reason to even feel the need to protect her. Not from me.”

“You see… that’s the part that I can’t let go. The need to protect her from you.”

“Elena and I are over, Ray. I–”

“That’s not what I’m talking about. I told you, I believe you when you say you’re done with her and that you regret what happened with her in the past. But, that’s not the only thing that has me worried. I checked up on you when I got home. I had a little bit of a relationship with Elliot because of the letters he sent me in Iraq, so I talked to him about you, but he obviously had nothing to say but glowing praise. Carla couldn’t have been paid to say something positive, though now I’m obviously doubting her judgement all together. Taylor really didn’t comment much, just confirmed that you two seemed happy and he didn’t have any reason to be concerned for Ana. But, Luke…”

He pauses and my body tenses with a shock of heat. Sawyer.

He’s sitting at the back of the plane next to Taylor, I can see the top of his head over his seat, and I narrow my eyes as I feel the all too familiar anger that seems to be reserved solely for him.

“And what did Luke say?”

“That you’re in love. He told me how miserable she was without you, how long it took her to even attempt acting normal after the two of you broke up, and how you make her happy. But he also had some concerns over some of your more… controlling tendencies. For all the trust you say you want to earn in regards to my daughter, it seems to me you don’t trust her very much.”

“That’s not true.”

“Then why did she lie to you about Leila Williams?”

“What?”

“Luke told me after what happened to her over spring break, that your security team suspected Leila Williams might be involved in a kidnapping attempt since the previous October. I asked him why you didn’t do something to stop it then, if you’d had five months to prepare, and he said you didn’t know. Ana didn’t tell you about the scare she’d had in New York.”

“And had she, I would have done everything I could have to stop her.”

“But she didn’t. Why do you think that is?”

I swallow, forcing myself to keep my composure under his persistent stare. The problem is, I know the answer, but it’s not going to do me any favors. “Probably because she thought I would try to make her leave school and move back to Seattle.”

“That’s what Luke thought too. He seems to think you’re a little overbearing when it comes to Anastasia. Like everything she does has to go through you first and that you have the final say about what she does and doesn’t do.”

“I care about her safety.”

“So do I. So does Luke. But neither of us tried to take Harvard away from her. I agree that her safety needed to be a priority, but her achieving her dreams and finding fulfillment in her life needs to be balanced with that. Harvard has been Ana’s dream since she was ten years old and she worked to get there. It’s why I was willing to re-enlist to help her pay for it. From what I hear, you encouraged her to leave school on several occasions, and not just for her safety, but because you didn’t want her so far away from you. Because you were lonely. She may not have dropped out but she did fly back to be with you every weekend when she should have been at school. And after what happened over spring break, you refused to let her go unless you went with her. I heard those words come out of your mouth. To me, that implies that you believed it was your choice whether she went back or not. That she was only there by your permission. Do you see how that raises some red flags?”

I hang my head. “You’re right. I asked her to leave Harvard. When she told me she was pregnant my first reaction was elation, because I thought it meant she was going to move home. I don’t like being away from her. I hated every second of living apart for those six months. When it comes to keeping her safe, there’s nothing I won’t do and sometimes that means I feel like I have to disregard what she wants for what she needs. Maybe that’s unreasonable. Maybe that’s a flaw in the intensity of the love I feel for her, but your daughter would never let me steamroll her. Everytime I asked her to come home, to push her dream aside and to be with me, she never even considered it. She told me no. I might come off as overbearing sometimes, I admit that, but Ana has no problem going toe to toe with me when she needs to. And more often than I like to admit, even I’m not a match for her. And I would never take a dream away from her. I asked her to stay, but when she told me no, I didn’t try to stand in her way. I’ll never stand in her way, Ray.”

“What if she wants to leave you?”

I can’t even answer that. “What?”

“If she decides she’s unhappy and she wants to leave,” Ray continues. “If she comes to you, years from now, and says she wants a divorce, what are you going to do? You have a lot of money, Christian, and money is power. I worry about what that will mean if she decides she wants out. If she decides that she wants anything that you don’t. If you become unsafe. You have people that follow her everywhere she goes. You monitor everything she does. That’s not healthy for my daughter.”

I take a breath. “The very idea that Ana would want to leave me someday is my absolute worst nightmare. If she came to me and told me that she wasn’t happy, she didn’t love me, and she wanted to go, I would fight for her. I would do everything I could to change her mind and stop her from going. I can’t deny that. But if she really wanted to go, I don’t think I could keep her. Not just because Ana has more power than I think you’re giving her credit for, but because I truly want her to be happy. As much as it would kill me, if I wasn’t making her happy, I wouldn’t stand in her way when she tried to leave.”

He sits for a long time, watching me, and I hate it. I hate that this is where the conversation is resting. I hate that it came here at all.

“Look me in the eye, Son,” he says at last, sitting forward so that he’s leaning into the space between us. “You’re a father now, so I want you to put yourself in my shoes, because Ana may be grown up, but she’s still my baby girl. If Calliope came to you with a man who told you all of the things that you just told me, what would he have to say to make you trust your daughter’s future to him?”

“I don’t know,” I reply honestly. “ I don’t think there is anything he could say to make me trust him. Because even if he was perfect, I don’t think that would be enough to convince me that he was good enough for my daughter. Maybe you don’t think I’m good enough for Ana, and maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m not. But I will spend the rest of my life trying to be. I’ve been selfish in the past and I’m not perfect, but I swear to you, Ray, I will never take your daughter for granted. I will never hurt her, I will never betray her, and I will treat her every day the way I would expect someone to treat my daughter someday. I wholly and absolutely love Anastasia, and her trust, her respect, and her happiness mean everything to me.”

It takes a long time, and the silence that hovers between us is more uncomfortable than any I think I’ve ever experienced before. But, eventually, he nods. “Then I have nothing to worry about.”

“Excuse me?”

“Look, all I care about is that my daughter is happy, healthy, and free to pursue her dreams. It seems to me that we’re on the same page about that. As long as we remain on the same page about that, you and I won’t have a problem. If that ever changes, we will and you won’t like what happens then. I can be a very scary man, Christian. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir. You have nothing to worry about.”

“Good. Then, welcome to the family, Christian.”

I’m relieved. I hadn’t realized before how important Ray’s approval was, but now that I have it, it’s like the whole world has been lifted off my shoulders.

“Thank you.”

“So, all that’s left is for you and I to get to know one another.” He picks up his bottle of beer and takes a long pull until it’s empty. I motion for Natalia, point to both our empty drinks, and finally relax back into my seat.

“Well, this may come as a shock to you, Ray, but with everything I just told you, you are now one of the people who know me better than anyone else in the world.”

“Nah, I don’t want to know about your past, I want to know who you are as a person.”

“Okay, well… what would you like to know?”

He narrows his eyes again, considering. “Who’s your hero?”

“That depends, I think. Uh… Elon Musk for his determination and his imagination. William Boeing for… being everything that I want to be, and my father.”

“Carrick?”

“He loved a kid he didn’t have to, one who tried everything he could to get him to stop. Our relationship hasn’t always been great but whenever I’ve needed him, he’s been there. He’s never given up on me.”

“Yeah, you don’t ever give up on your kids. You’ll learn that. Just wait until Calliope does something that you just really want to strangle her for, but then you look into her eyes and suddenly, whatever it was doesn’t matter anymore.”

“Oh, I’m already fully prepared to give that girl anything and everything she could ever want. Have you seen her? She’s perfect.”

He laughs, and then looks up to smile at Natalia, who has returned with our drinks. “You know, I think I could get used to this.”

“Tip of the iceberg, Ray. Just wait until this summer when we get to do some deep sea fishing off my yacht. You’ve haven’t lived until you pull in your first bluefin tuna.”

“And you haven’t really even fished until you wrangle a sturgeon out of the Skagit. We should go out this summer, me, you, Carrick, and Elliot. Camp on the river banks and fish all day. Just us guys. That’s the good life.”

“My dad would love that. It’s been a while since we’ve really roughed it, but he loved all of that back in his younger days.”

 

We spend the last couple hours of the flight home talking, and now that he’s relaxed and we’re able to talk about mutual interests, of which there are a surprising amount, I find that I actually really like Ray. I can see a lot of Ana in him, especially when we start talking about football. He makes the exact same expression and goes on the same furious rant that she does when I bring up Super Bowl 40, and when I ask him about the upcoming season, he too lays out all of the team’s problems and gives solutions as if he had an inside track to the inner workings of the NFL.

Eventually, the pilot announces our arrival in Seattle and asks us to fasten our seatbelts, but I haven’t had a chance to speak with my security team the entire flight so I try to excuse myself, but he stops me again.

“One last thing…”

“Yeah?”

“Ana is, well, she’s my everything. She wasn’t even a year old when I became her step-father, and from the moment I first held her…” He stops, swallowing hard as if he’s trying to push down the emotions crawling up into his throat. “I tucked her into bed every night, I kissed her tears away after every hurt, and I held her through every sickness. She’s always been the one thing that I truly, truly loved, and no matter what, she’ll always have my heart. Giving her away isn’t easy. So, man to man, father to father, just be good to my baby.”

“I intend to, sir.”

He smiles, then reaches out to shake my hand. I take it, but my fingers barely close around his before he gets out of his seat and pulls me into a hug. It’s surprising, which isn’t great for the remnants of my touch issues, but I manage to keep myself from pushing him away. Instead, I hug him back, then give him the least awkward smile I can manage when I pull away.

“You should stay with us for a few days,” I offer. “It’ll give you time to bond with Calliope and I know it would mean a lot to Ana.”

“Oh, I don’t want to intrude…”

“No, please. Really, I’d like it if you stayed.”

Slowly, a smile creeps across his lips. “Alright then. Thank you, Christian.”

“It’s my pleasure. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I really do need to check in with Taylor.” He nods, so I shake his hand again, then turn to the back of the plane while Ray goes to check on Ana. I glance over my shoulder as he sits, but Ana’s smile melts away the last of my concern.

“Everything alright, sir?” Taylor asks.

“Fine. What’s the transport situation look like?”

“Ryan is waiting for us at SeaTac. I didn’t know if I needed to arrange separate transportation for Captain Steele, but Sawyer has volunteered to drive him home tonight if need be.”

“I think he plans to stay with us for a few days at least,” I say, my tone colder now because of my still potent irritation with Sawyer over the things he said to Ray about me. “Anything to report from Escala?”

“No, sir. Gail returned home this morning and didn’t find anything unusual. I’ve given Kommer and Cardella a few days off. Now that we’re back home, we’re going to need to rethink our coverage strategy. Luke here will still be Miss Steele’s primary but I think it’s more important than ever that she has a female CPO with her, now that she’ll have the baby with her.”

“I agree, but Cardella was the last person inside the Arts Center before Ana’s graduation. She was either negligent or she aided whoever he is to get that locket into Ana’s hands. I want you to find out which it is and deal with it accordingly.”

“Yes, sir.”

There’s a slight lurch as the plane finally touches ground and automatically, I look out the window at the glow from Seattle in the distance. Already the rain has obscured the windows, but the sound of it bouncing off the exterior of the plane carries all the comforting feelings of home. For me at least. The last time we were in this city, someone tried to steal Anastasia off the streets and threatened her life. I have no idea how that’s going to affect her going forward, and, in case she doesn’t take well to being back here, I want us all to be prepared.

Once the plane comes to a stop and I can finally stand, I glance over my shoulder at Anastasia again and see her smiling at Calliope, who is fast asleep in Ray’s arms. If she’s feeling any trepidation over being back she’s not showing it. Yet.

“Alright,” I tell my team. “Let’s go home.”

Next Chapter

Hold On… For This is Gonna Hurt Like Hell.

8BB86918-F08A-4A73-BC74-ED31FAE7FD3F

Chapter 35

Carla PoV:

I’ve never experienced anything quite like the feeling that overcomes me while seeing Ana lying limp on the floor in a puddle of her own blood. The shock is so potent, I can’t even scream. The only thing I can do is shake and stare. I’m horrified. Paralyzed. Watching Grace slide a needle into Ana’s skin for the blood transfusion and hearing Christian’s feeble attempt to comfort her and assure her that she’s going to be okay all occurs as some kind of out of body experience. This is all happening and not happening at the same time. When Ana’s head once again lolls back and her eyes close, my body seizes with fear.

“Ana, open your eyes, sweetheart,” Grace says, the first hint of panic breaking through her otherwise perfectly calm and focused demeanor. “Is she out again?”

Christian shifts her so that he holds her entire body between his right arm, his knee, and his torso, then he cups her face with his left palm. “Open your eyes, Ana. Please. Please, baby, open your eyes. You have to stay awake. Stay with me.”

“Bloodline’s in,” Grace says. “Elliot, do you see the ambulance yet?”

“Not yet.”

“Son of a–” Her eyes dart back down to Ana and the stain of blood in the carpet between her legs, which is growing steadily larger with each passing second. It’s obvious that she’s warring over something but can’t decide what to do. After a few long seconds watching her agonize, she finally looks back up at Christian, and there are tears welling in her eyes.

“You might have to make a choice.”

“What choice?”

“The baby gets her oxygen from Ana’s blood, but since the placenta has detached from the uterus, Calliope’s blood supply has been cut off. Unless that ambulance is pulling up to this house right now, she needs to be delivered or she’s going to suffocate.”

“And, Ana?”

Grace shakes her head. “I don’t have a way to stop the bleeding. If I cut her open, she’ll bleed out right here on the floor. She might anyway.”

“No.” He shakes his head, and his complexion develops an almost green hue. “The ambulance is coming. She’s going to be fine. They both are. Any second the ambulance is going to be here.”

“Christian, we don’t have time to wait…”

“I’m not choosing between Ana and Calliope!”

“She chose for you,” Ray interrupts. His face crinkles with pain as he looks down at the IV in his arm delivering life saving blood to our daughter and sniffs loudly. “If we can’t save them both, Ana chose Calliope.”

“No, she doesn’t get to make that decision!” Christian shouts, and something in the finality of his timber awakens a fire inside of me. It burns away the shock that has held me frozen in place, and leaves me to feel the full force of the rage, hurt, and vindication I never wanted building deep inside my gut. This is his fault. He wasn’t careful with her, and she got pregnant. She had a high risk pregnancy, and he forced her to fly back and forth across the country every weekend for six months of it. And this, what’s happening right now, was triggered by a phone call from a man who has threatened to hurt her and her child over and over again, all because of him.

My daughter is dying on the floor in front of me.

The adrenaline triggered by the fear of that statement kicks in and I’m no longer paralyzed. I launch myself across the room, at the man who has done this to her.

You don’t get to make this decision!” I snap at him. “She isn’t yours! She’s my daughter. This is our choice. Mine and Ray’s.”

“She is my fiance, and she is carrying my child!”

“Yeah, and look what you did to her.”  

“Ambulance is here!” Elliot exclaims from the window, and instantly the tension brewing between myself and Christian vanishes as the room devolves into chaos. Elliot opens the front door to save the emergency crew time while Carrick and Ethan come around to pull Christian away from Ana so that she can be moved more quickly. Kate has her arms around Mia, who is breaking into hysterics, and Bob sits in his seat behind me, staring blankly into the room the way I had been only seconds ago. The moment the paramedics come through the door, Grace is right back in doctor mode, giving a rundown of everything that’s happened and a brief overview of her medical history.

“I’m going with her,” Christian says, pulling out of Carrick and Ethan’s grip, but the paramedic shakes his head.

“Only room for one and we’ve gotta take the guy with the transfusion line in his arm.”

“What hospital are you going to?” I ask

“CHA.”

I nod and turn back to the living room. “Bob, my coat. We’ll meet them there.” He reaches for my jacket, laid over the back of the couch, and gets to his feet. I push him as quickly as possible towards the back door so we can get out of the house without getting in the way of the emergency crew and take the keys to the rental car out of my coat pocket. None of the Greys pay any mind to my departure.

“Should we wait until they get her in the ambulance?” Bob asks, glancing over his shoulder at the flashing lights behind us as we move down the street to where our car is parked.

“No. I want to get there as quickly as possible. I don’t want Christian to get there before we do.”

“Why?”

“You heard Grace, there’s a choice that’s going to have to be made. I’m not leaving that choice up to Christian Grey. He’s poison and, as long as we continue pretending that isn’t true, neither Ana or Calliope will ever be safe. You saw the blood, Bob. Ana might die today. If she does, I won’t let him do to my grandchild what he did to my daughter.”

“Carla, he didn’t do this.”

“That’s not what he said. He said that she would be safe if she left him. She didn’t and look at her now.”

“Baby, I know those phone calls scared you but you can’t blame Christian for a pregnancy complication…”

“We knew this was a high risk pregnancy and we knew she needed to watch her stress levels. He’s the reason she’s been stalked and harrassed by this person, and he doesn’t even care! He may not have held a gun to her head, but if she dies today then make no mistake, he killed her.”

“Carla…”

“Are you coming or not?”

“I think we should wait. You’re angry and scared. You’re not thinking straight.”

“Of course I’m not thinking straight! That’s my daughter, Bob. That’s my baby and I think–I think I’m going to lose her today.”  

“I know. That’s why we need to come together as a family right now.”

“The Greys are not my family.”

“They love Ana.”

“Then they should have protected her from him.” I’m out of time. I can hear the commotion of the paramedics wheeling Anastasia out of the house and the tears and terrified questions that follow them. Christian will be on his way to the hospital soon and I have to get there before he does if I have any hope of keeping him, and the man on the phone, away from my grandchild. He’ll come after her, the same as he came for Ana, and Christian will do nothing to stop him.

“You should stay here,” I tell Bob as I open the car door. “I’ll call you with an update as soon as I have one.”

“Carla…”

His protests cut off when I climb into the driver’s seat and slam the door closed behind me. Instead he begins knocking on the passenger’s side window but I ignore him, turn the key in the ignition, and take off down the road. I know he thinks I’m losing it, hell maybe I am. But everything that man told me about Ana has come true. He told me he would take her, and he nearly succeeded. He told me he’d never stop coming after her or Calliope, and he hasn’t. He told me that if I couldn’t make Ana see reason and convince her to leave Christian for good, she’d be dead before the end of the school year. It’s graduation now and she’s being loaded into the back of an ambulance. Grace said herself that she might die no matter what we do. Perhaps this was his plan all along. Christian could keep him at bay with security officers, surveillance cameras, and locked doors, but he couldn’t stop something like this. Not without giving into his demands.

He played on our weaknesses, and he’s succeeded.

So, I won’t leave this up to Christian anymore, or even Ana. She’s too blinded by her heart to do what’s necessary to protect herself and her child. But I’m not. I may not be able to change her mind, but if Calliope survives this, I will not let her leave in the arms of anyone with the last name of Grey. I’ll take her myself. Hide her. Change her name and lie about her parentage, if I have to.

I will protect her, no matter what it takes.

Luckily, the hospital isn’t far from the hotel we’ve been staying in, so I know exactly how to get there. I fly through traffic as quickly as I can, cutting off more than one person in my rush to get across town and only stopping when I’m passed by the ambulance carrying my daughter. Angry horns follow me the entire way there, but it’s not hard to ignore. I’m focused. Determined.

I practically sprint into the emergency room once I arrive, and they direct me to a seperate floor where Ana will be taken for surgery. The waiting room is filled with nervous looking families, some clinging to each other more than others. I ignore all of them and, instead, make a beeline for the help desk where a squat looking woman waits, tapping on a keyboard with overly long acrylics.

“Hi, I’m looking for my daughter,” I say, urgently.

“Name?”

“Anastasia Steele. They just brought her in. She’s had a-a… A placental abruption? I think that’s what it’s called.”

“Okay, let me see… Yes, she’s in surgery now. We’ll let you know as soon as there’s an update.”

“Thank you. And… a man named Christian Grey is about to come in here. It is imperative that no information is given to him or any of the people he comes in with regarding the status of my daughter or her child. Not his parents, not his brother or sister, not Katherine Kavanagh, no one.”

Her brow furrows. “I’m sorry… is he the father?”

“It’s not a good situation and they’re not married. He’s… violent. I’m her next of kin and I’m telling you that I don’t want anyone to get updates about her or the baby who isn’t immediate family. Her father or me, that’s it. I’ll sign something if I have to.”

She considers me for a long moment, but ultimately shakes her head. “No, that won’t be necessary. As next of kin, you have that right. I’ll… I’ll just put a note here.”

“Thank you.”

“Of course. Just have a seat over there. The doctor will be with you as soon as he can.”

 


 

Christian PoV:

The moment the paramedics have her on the gurney, I’m at her side again. Her skin feels cold when I take her hand in mine. She shows absolutely no sign of life as she’s wheeled from the house to the ambulance, except for the fleeting, weak heartbeat I can feel from the inside of her wrist. Her fragile, pale wrist.

“I’m right here, baby,” I say when they start loading her into the back of the ambulance. “I’m going to be right behind you. I love you…”

Her father looks at me, but it’s only a quick glance as the doors close and the emergency crew climbs into the front of the vehicle to whisk her off to the hospital. When they pull out of the driveway and around the corner at the end of the street, I collapse to my knees.

“Come on, Christian,” Elliot says, coming up beside me and trying to pull me to my feet. “Let’s get to the hospital.”

I nod and use him to stand, but before he’s able to lead me back into the house to regroup with the rest of the family, Ana’s step-father ambles into the driveway from the street. When he looks at me, his face becomes contorted with pain.

“Christian. I’m… I’m so sorry.”

My heart thuds heavily in my chest. His words sound like a condolence, as though I’ve already lost her. But I haven’t. I won’t. This isn’t the end and I won’t let it be.

“Ana’s going to need me once she’s out of surgery,” I say firmly. “We need to get to the hospital.”

Elliot nods and tries to lead me back to the house, as though he’s afraid I’m going to collapse again, but I shake him off. She’s going to be fine. Calliope is going to be fine. I don’t need his support.

 

Thankfully, I have Taylor and Ana’s Lexus because standing around while my family decides who must go or who will ride with who and in which rental car is maddening. We’re the first to leave the house and the first to arrive at the hospital. When we’re directed from the Emergency Room to the trauma floor, I’m practically running through the pristine, sterile hallways.

“Anastasia Steele,” I tell the woman waiting behind the help desk, not bothering to wait for her to greet me. She looks up and smiles.

“Name and relation to the patient?”

“Christian Grey. I’m her fiancé.”

Her smile disappears. “I’m sorry, sir. I can’t give you any information on this patient.”

“Well, is she in surgery?”

“Again, I apologize, but I can’t tell you anything about this patient’s condition.”

“I know there’s no prognosis yet, I just want to know that she’s been admitted and that she’s in surgery.”

“Perhaps I’m not being clear. I am not authorized to give you any information about this patient, period. We’ve been instructed to release details of her condition only to her next of kin. If you have questions, you’ll need to speak with her immediate family.”

“Family? No, I’m her family.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Grey. But I can’t help you. You’re free to have a seat and wait, if you’d like.”

Wait? Wait with what? She’s given me nothing. Does she really expect me to sit with no indication if Ana has even been brought in yet? If my daughter has been born?

“Look…” I begin, trying to contain my growing anger with the woman obstructing me so I can be diplomatic, but Taylor stops me.

“Mr. Grey, Mrs. Adams is sitting right over there.” I turn in the direction he points me and see Carla sitting across the waiting room, flipping anxiously through a magazine. My jaw clenches as I look back to the woman behind the desk.

“I’ll have your job,” I warn her, then push away from the counter and storm through the sea of chairs to Ana’s mother.

“Is she in surgery?” I demand immediately.

“Hello, Christian.”

Ana. Is she in surgery? Has my baby been born?”

Carla takes a deep breath, then places the magazine on the chair next to her. “I think you should leave, Christian.”

“Leave? What do you mean leave? Ana is–”

“I know exactly where Ana is. I know exactly where you put her.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you. I told Ana that you were dangerous for her but she didn’t listen to me and now look where she is.”

The muscles throughout my entire body tense as the cocktail of irritation, pain, and rage boils through me. When I speak again, it’s through clenched teeth. “Has she been taken in for surgery yet?”

“You don’t get to know that.”

“Carla!” I take a breath to calm myself, knowing screaming at her won’t get me the information I need and the only thing I care about right now is Ana and what is happening to her. “Look, I know that you and I have had our problems, but now is not the time–”

“Now is the only time! Now is the time when you don’t get to make any decisions. I do, and I choose to protect my daughter and my grandchild from you. You don’t get to be in control here, Christian. You don’t get anything. So get away from me or I will call security and have them escort you out!”

She’s screaming and, as her voice echoes around us, I feel every pair of eyes in the waiting room turn our way. It’s completely silent and while Ana’s mother stares back at me with fiery determination burning in her eyes, I start to shake. This is what the receptionist meant by not being authorized to give me any information about Ana’s condition. Carla, her next of kin, has instructed her not to. She’s keeping her from me. Not just Ana, my own daughter too. If she thinks I’m going to let that happen, she seriously doesn’t understand who she’s dealing with.

“Christian!” My name being called from across the room draws my attention away from Carla, and when I turn, I see my family at the entrance of the waiting room. I can feel in the energy between Ana’s mother and myself that arguing further with her is a waste of time, so I leave her and barrel towards my father. If Carla isn’t going to cooperate I’m going to have to go over her head.

“Any updates?” Kate asks, half sobbing. “Has Calliope been born yet?”

“I don’t know,” I reply flatly, then turn to my dad. “Carla is keeping her from me. Both of them.”

“What?”

“The hospital staff can’t tell me anything because Carla has instructed them not to give any information to anyone who isn’t next of kin. We need to find out who’s in charge.”

“What? No, that’s ridiculous…” My mother places a hand on my shoulder and then moves past me towards Ana’s mother, but I don’t wait for her inevitable rejection. This isn’t a new issue between us. Carla has had it out for me for months. I know she isn’t going to change her mind and I don’t have time to waste pursuing avenues I know won’t lead anywhere.

“Taylor, find me the Chief of Medicine.”

“Yes, sir.”

 

There are several administrative roadblocks in place that make speaking with the people in charge difficult, but I manage. We’re led into a small conference room not far from the waiting room, but the man who comes and sits across from me isn’t any more willing to work with us than the nine people who I spoke with before him.

“You don’t understand,” I argue, my patience starting to break. “If she were awake, she would want me back there. She would want me to be updated on absolutely everything.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Grey, but I have no way of knowing what Miss Steele would or would not want. I can only abide by the wishes of the family and my staff and I have been specifically directed not to share any health information with anyone who is not an immediate family member.”

“Because her immediate family is her mother. This is what Carla wants, not Ana.”

“Again, I’m sorry, but my hands are tied by HIPAA laws.”

“I’ll pay the fines.”

“It’s not about the fines, it’s about protecting our patients. Look, I can see how difficult this is for you and I’m so sorry that we’re in this circumstance, but there really is nothing I can do.”

“Sweetheart,” my mother says, reaching up to place a hand on my cheek. “This isn’t his choice. These laws are put into place to protect people’s privacy and to keep them safe. Surely you can appreciate that on some level. What if it were the man on the phone in your position and he’d come in to ask about Ana or Calliope? You wouldn’t want them to give out any information to him, would you?”

“I’m not the man on the phone.”

“No, you’re not. But they don’t know that. I’ve seen this myself. For all they know, you could be abusive or dangerous to Ana and the baby, and Carla is just trying to protect them from you. You can’t ask him to break the law, no matter how unfair or painful this all is.”

“What about Mom?” Elliot interrupts. “She’s a doctor, can’t you just like… give her credentials here and then tell her what’s going on because she’d be one of Ana’s doctors?”

He shakes his head. “It doesn’t work like that. We don’t allow our doctors to work on their own family members’ cases.”

“Oh. So, when it comes to medicine, we’re family, but otherwise, fuck us. Right?”

“Elliot…” Kate says softly.

“No, this is bullshit! Ana wants him back there! And Callie… That’s his kid! How can you say he’s not immediate family? He’s her fucking father!”

“Not until the birth certificate is filled out,” my father’s voice says from the door behind us. We all turn and when I see the look in his eyes, my one last shred of hope dies away. While we’ve been fighting with the hospital, he’s been making phone calls to a few attorneys in the area. Apparently, they didn’t give him good news.

“What do you mean not until the birth certificate is filled out?” Kate asks. “He’s the father. We all know he is.”

“What we know doesn’t matter. Christian and Ana aren’t married, and in the State of Massachusetts, that means Ana has to fill out the birth certificate, name him as the father, and they both have to sign before Christian is granted any parental rights.”

Ana has to?” Elliot checks. When Dad nods, he swallows hard, almost as though he has to work up the courage to continue speaking. “But, what if she…?”

“Then guardianship of Calliope will fall to Ana’s next of kin.”

“Carla?” I ask. He nods again.

“So, wait…” Kate says. “Does that mean that if Ana doesn’t… If she…” She pauses, unable to say the words aloud. “Does that mean that Carla would get to take Calliope back to Georgia with her?”

“Until we could get a court date for a paternity suit, yes.”

“No.” I shake my head. “No, Carla is not leaving this hospital with my daughter.”

“So, what do we do?” Elliot asks.

“Well, ideally, Ana pulls through and they sign the birth certificate. But just in case, I’ve spoken to a doctor and we’re going to have your cheeks swabbed for a paternity test. We need to start collecting evidence to build our case.”

Another case. I sigh, trying and failing to release the tension gripping my body like the chill of a cloudless December night. “Now?”

“Yeah. They’re waiting in the hallway.”

I nod and turn back to the man sitting across the table from me. I don’t really have words for him since he’s made it very clear that he both can’t and is unwilling to help me, but thankfully he seems as eager to leave this room as I am to have him go. I watch him leave then try to hide the disgust I feel as the woman with the DNA sample kit fills the empty seat the Chief of Medicine has left behind.

“Alright, name?” she asks, pulling out a stack of paperwork from her bag.

“Christian Trevelyan-Grey.”

The questions are brief, but the actual collection process is borderline humiliating. I can feel the eyes of my family on me as I lean over the table and the doctor inserts the long swab into my mouth and scrubs it against the inside of my cheeks. I don’t look at any of them, not even the doctor. Instead, I keep my eyes up at the ceiling and do my best not to think about what this sample collection would mean if it were ever to be necessary.

“Christian!” Mia says, bursting into the room. “There’s a doctor talking to Ana’s mom.”

Immediately, I leap out of my seat and launch myself at the door. It’s a short trip from the conference room to the waiting room, but I run so quickly I’m almost tripping over my feet the entire way. When I come through the open double doors into the too brightly lit waiting room, I find Ana’s obstetrician clinging to a sobbing Carla. As I move towards them, the doctor releases her and gestures for her to head back through the closed doors and onto the surgery floor.

“Dr. Baker!” I shout. She stops and turns in my direction, but the moment she recognizes me the careful look of compassion she wears falters just enough for me to see a hint of pain just below the surface. I ignore it, unwilling to analyze where the hurt in her eyes is coming from. “Is it Ana or Calliope? Are they okay?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Grey,” she says, her voice merely a whisper. “I’m so sorry.”

“Sorry? For what? What does that mean?” But she doesn’t tell me. She turns away and makes her way back through the double doors, leaving me alone with Carla. Silent tears continue to roll down her cheeks as she reaches for the door to follow after the doctor, but I grab her by the shoulder to stop her.

“Don’t touch me, Christian!”

I recoil. “I’m sorry. Just… tell me what’s going on. Please.”

“Go to hell.”

“Carla, please. That’s my family. I know you’re scared for your daughter, but I’m scared for mine too. And I’m scared for the woman I love. Please.”

“I’m not–”

I cut her off, speaking so quickly the words run together. “Just, tell me if it’s Ana or Calliope.”

Her jaw tightens and she turns away from the door to face me. Her hands shoot up to angrily dash her tears from her hate filled eyes. “It’s Calliope.”

“Callio–” My words cut off as the strength in my voice fails. “What– what happened?”

“You saw what happened, Christian. Your mother gave you a choice, you hesitated, and now your baby is dead.” She shakes her head in disgust as her tears start again. “The doctor said that she was stillborn. She never even got a chance to live. You’re going to lose them both. We all are. Thanks to you.”

“Both?” I breathe back. “You mean… Ana?”

She turns and yanks open the door to the ICU, and as she disappears I feel as though my heart falls from my chest and land lifelessly on the linoleum floor. I feel empty, hollow, but the space this loss has left inside of me is quickly filled with excruciating, all consuming pain.

My daughter is gone.

Final. No second chances.

I’ll never know her.

No, that’s not accurate. Because I do know her. I’ve met her in my dreams and I’ve lived an entire life with her through the hopes I’ve held for all of the things I wanted for her future. I’ve loved her without ever even laying eyes on her. And now I never will. I’ve lost the baby that I never knew I wanted and now that I know I’ll never hold her in my arms or see Ana smiling down at the angelic face I’ve pictured over and over again, I am utterly and completely ruined.


Kate PoV:

Christian is already pleading with Ana’s doctor by the time we make it back to the waiting room. Carla’s cheeks are red and shiny with tears. Her eyes are swollen. She’s clearly devastated, but it’s hard to care. She at least knows what’s happening. The look of terrified uncertainty on Christian’s face reflects what’s in all of our hearts and that is more painful to witness a hundred times over.

Dr. Baker leaves, but Carla stays behind to talk to Christian. For a moment, I have hope that she’s finally given in, but as I watch them clearly start to argue, that hope vanishes. Elliot starts to move towards them, but Carrick quickly reaches out to stop him.

“Let him handle this, Son. I don’t think all of us ganging up on Carla is the way to get through to her.”

“Carla? You expect me to care about…”

“Oh no,” I whisper.

Elliot’s rant stops when we all watch Christian turn back to face us, looking like he’s just seen death. Grace gasps and rushes towards him with her arms held out in front of her, but as the rest of the Greys start migrating towards him, I find myself stuck. The picture of Ana collapsing to the floor and lying there, surrounded in a pool of her own blood, flashes through my mind and runs on a loop. Looking at Christian now, the thought that this may be the last memory I have of my best friend suddenly becomes all too real and the weight of that pain is too much for me to drag across the waiting room. It’s crushing, and yet, when I watch Christian nearly collapse again, having to reach out and support himself on the arm of a chair before his father is able to help set him down in the seat, that weight somehow grows heavier.

This can’t be happening. How did the day that was supposed to be one of the happiest I’ll ever experience go so remarkably wrong? Ana’s a good person. She’s kind. She’s caring. She loves so fiercely that she would give anything and everything to any one of the people here. She’s Christian’s savior and she’s my pillar of strength. She doesn’t deserve this.

When I watch Grace turn away from Christian, covering her entire face as she devolves into loud, all consuming sobs, I lose it. The tears that roll down my cheeks come so aggressively they have the power to drown me, and the gasps that wrench their way from deep inside of me are so intense I nearly choke. I can’t hold myself up anymore. I fall to the floor and stay there, clutching my middle as tightly as I can to physically keep my body from falling apart, until a strong pair of hands picks me up and wraps me in a tight hug.

“Shh, Katie. It’s okay. We’re gonna get through this.”

“What happened, Elliot? Is Ana dead?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t know. They didn’t say anything about Ana. It’s… it’s Calliope. Carla told him she was stillborn.” He takes a shaky breath, and I use the pause in his explanation to look up at him. Really look at him. His eyes well with tears that he’s desperately trying to hold back. When he manages to regain his voice, it breaks over every other word. “There’s nothing we can do. She’s already gone.”

“But… but Ana did what she was supposed to do. I saw the doctor’s orders, she did everything. They… they named her, and they have a nursery, and… oh my god. She can’t be–” The tears come full force again, so Elliot tightens his hold on me. His arms are the only thing that keep me from once again collapsing on the floor, but, as he holds me, his own self-restraint breaks. He too starts to cry.

“I know. It’s not fair, none of this is, but we have to pull it together. Christian and Ana won’t get through this without us. We have to be strong for them.”

“How? What if we lose her today? Ana is my best friend, Elliot. She’s… my sister.”

“I know. Just think about what she would want us to do, and we do that. Only that.”

I swallow the lump in my throat and nod into his shirt. Ana would want us to pull together. Ana would want us to give each other hope. Ana wouldn’t want me to let this rip me apart, no matter how much it feels like it’s going to.

“Okay. We should check on Christian.”

It’s not good. I’ve never seen him like this and it’s almost scary. Even at his worst and most vulnerable, Christian has always exuded a kind of quiet strength or authority. Right now, he looks shattered. He’s still covered in Ana’s blood and the stains on his clothes make the grief on his face look gruesome. Mia is wrapped in Grace’s arms in the seats across from him and they’re both sobbing, but Carrick hovers near his son. Close enough to be supportive, not close enough to touch him. Elliot moves to stand in almost the same way, but on his other side, and I slide into the chair next to him.

“She’s not gone, Christian. They wouldn’t have taken Carla back there if Ana was gone. She’s obviously made it through surgery and she’s still alive. We have to have hope.”

He turns to look at me, his eyes bloodshot and glassy. “And if she does wake up, the first thing she’s going to ask about is Calliope. What do you think is going to happen when she finds out our baby is dead?”

The gravel in his normally smooth voice makes me cringe, and I have to tuck my bottom lip beneath my teeth to hide the tremble that’s started again. “I don’t know.”

“Yes, you do. She has to want to fight, Kate. What’s she going to fight for when she realizes we’ve already lost our daughter? You know her just as well as I do. This is going to destroy her. She won’t– she won’t fight.”

“I-I–”

“Excuse me.” He gets out of his chair and walks out of the waiting room. Once he’s disappeared from view, both Elliot and Carrick let down their stone faced demeanor and move to cling to their family.

“This is my fault,” Grace says through her tears. “I should have told her to go to the hospital this morning. I should have never accepted it was something as simple as a scratch. Whenever a woman is bleeding in her third trimester, she should be sent to the hospital. I know that.” She shakes her head. “I didn’t want her to miss her graduation. I thought we had until tonight.”

“You didn’t know, sweetheart,” Carrick says.

“That doesn’t matter. Ana trusted me and I gave her the wrong advice. How will I ever look Christian in the eyes again?”

“How will any of us?” The Greys all look up at me in unison while I blink the tears from my eyes, but before Elliot can move to the seat next to me and attempt to comfort me yet again, we’re all distracted by the loud vibrations of my phone against the plastic seat. When I reach around to take it from my back pocket, I see Carter’s name on the screen.

“I’ll be back,” I tell them, then get out of my seat and walk towards the exit as I answer. “Hello?”

“Hey, any news?”

I swallow. “The baby didn’t make it. We don’t know about Ana.”

“Holy shit. Are you okay?”

“No. No, I’m not okay.”

“I’m in the parking lot. I didn’t know where to go.”

“I’ll, um… I’ll come to you.” I hang up the phone and turn away from the waiting room, but I only make through one hallway before I’m stopped in my tracks. Just outside of the emergency room there’s a small chapel, and in front of the wooden cross mounted on the wall is a small altar bearing a dozen or so flickering candles. Christian stands before it, staring up at the cross on the wall. There’s a small stick in his hand with a curl of smoke swirling steadily out of the end.

I lean against the doorway, watching him, and he stands there, silently, for a long time. When he finally moves, it’s only so that he can kneel down on the step.

“Please,” he whispers. “Please, don’t take her from me.”

He leans forward, resting his head against the edge of the altar, and his body starts shaking. At first, I’m not sure what’s wrong with him until I hear him draw a harsh, broken breath.

He’s crying.

Through everything we’ve been through, I’ve never once seen him cry, or even come close, and seeing him break down now is like receiving the horrible news about Calliope all over again. Part of me thinks I need to go to him, try to comfort him, but I can’t bring myself to face him like this. I don’t even know if he’d want me to.

In this private moment, I feel like I’m suddenly seeing him in a whole new light. I’ve always known Christian loved Ana, that’s never been a question in my mind. Whether or not he deserved her… yes. But never love. Now I can see what that loves means. In the face of truly losing the woman he loves, Christian is a broken man. I can’t even see his face, but the devastation is so blatant I don’t have to. We’ve all voiced concern over how Ana would be able to move on once she finds out about the baby, but no one said anything about how Christian would go forward without Ana. Well, now, the answer is right in front of me, clear as day.

He won’t.

It’s weird that my brain uses this moment to think of Carter. If it were me in the hospital and he didn’t know what was happening to me or how this was all going to turn out, is this where he’d be? Would I be here for him? I try to think of that, but when I imagine myself in Christian’s place, Carter’s face isn’t the one I associate with this level of pain. Maybe that’s because I’m still too deep in my grief over Ana. Or maybe it’s because, in the face of tragedy, I don’t have the willpower to fool myself over the man I’m supposed to be with anymore.

I turn and continue towards the emergency room, and the second I come through the automatic doors back outside, I find Carter waiting for me.

“There you are,” he says, rushing to hug me. His arms wrap around me, but the gesture feels empty. “What’s going on?”

“We don’t know much. Ana’s mom is holding this over Christian like it’s his fault, so she’s made sure that the hospital won’t give us any information. We only know that Calliope didn’t make it because she took it as an opportunity to blame Christian.”

“Jesus…”

“I have a bad feeling, Carter. I think… I think this is it.”

“Baby.” His face morphs with compassion, but when he pulls me to get me to move, it’s not back into the emergency room, it’s towards the parking lot.

“What are you doing?”

“We should get you out of here. Being around all of this isn’t good for you.”

“You think I would leave Ana like this?”

“You can’t help her, baby. You’re just torturing yourself.” I’m so baffled by his response that I can’t even form a coherent sentence to respond, and he takes my silence as agreement. “Let’s get you something to eat and then you and I can talk. We’ll try and get your mind off of this until we know what’s really going on. Besides, I asked you a question back at the house. I’d really like you to answer it.”

“Are you serious right now? Carter, my best friend might actually die today.”

“I know, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, baby.”

“Are you?”

“Of course I am, Kate. I love Ana too. But there’s nothing we can do to help her and… don’t you think we should let her family be alone right now?”

I nearly stumble backwards in shock. “I am her family, Carter.”

“Kate.”

“I don’t need to go with you to talk about what you asked me earlier. I don’t think that we should get married. In fact, I think we should break up.”

“What? Break up? Kate, what are you talking about? Because I don’t think you should sit and wait for Ana to die you suddenly want to break up with me?”

I shake my head and start backing away. “No, I want to break up because I don’t want to be with you anymore.”

“Kate… Look, you’re sad, I get that. Maybe I’m not being as sensitive as I should be, I’m sorry. We can go in and wait if you want, I just think that’s going to make this harder for you. But we’re not going to break up. I love you, Katie.”

“That’s the problem though. I don’t love you, Carter.”

He stops walking towards me and blinks, looking as though he’s run into a wall. “What?”

“I tried. I wanted to. But I’m not in love with you. I thought that because you were willing to give me the future I wanted, I would eventually fall in love with you, but I don’t think it works that way. I want marriage and kids, but I want them with someone who I truly, deeply, passionately love. I don’t want them with you. You’re a great guy and you’re sweet, but that’s not enough. I’m sorry.”

“Kate…”

“I’m in love with Elliot.” The words come out before I can stop them, and I’m left to play catch up. “I’m not in love with you, I’m in love with him, and I don’t think that’s going to change. I don’t think I want it to. So, I can’t accept you proposal. It’s not fair to you, it’s not fair to me, and it’s not fair to him. I’m sorry, Carter. But I’m breaking up with you.”

He looks away from me, blinking down at the ground. As he fully begins to comprehend what I’m telling him, he goes from shocked, to hurt, to angry so quickly it’s hard to keep up.

“Another fucking Grey,” he mutters under his breath.

“I’m sorry, Carter”

“Yeah, me too.” He takes a deep breath and shakes his head back and forth while stepping away from me. “Then, I guess, have a good life, Katherine. If Ana pulls through, tell her I’m sorry about her kid.”

I nod, unsure of what else to say to him, then watch him walk back to his car. After he fishtails out of the parking lot, I think in eagerness to get away from me and this whole situation, I take a deep breath and make my way back into the hospital.

Despite the enormity of what I still might face at the end of the day, I return to the waiting room feeling much lighter than I did when I left. Elliot is watching Christian plead with one of the doctors, who has come out of the ICU to give an update to another family, and when I take the seat next to him, he reaches over to wrap my hand in his.

It’s comforting when there shouldn’t be any comfort.

It’s how I know I made the right choice.


 

Ray PoV:

The incessant beep from Ana’s heart monitor is the only thing that keeps me awake as the clock ticks past midnight. I cling to every single one of her heartbeats as if they could be her last, because the possibility that they could be is all too real. She already looks like nothing more than a ghost. The only time I can bring myself to even let go of her hand is when Dr. Baker comes in to examine her.

“One of us should go check on Callie,” Carla says, groaning slightly as she pushes her chair back to give the doctor more room to move around the bed. I press my lips together and shake my head.

“It’s your turn.”

“I know, but I– I don’t want to leave Ana.”

“You think I do?” Neither Carla or I have moved from our daughter’s bedside for hours. At first, we switched off going into the NICU to get updates on Callie every thirty minutes, but the longer Ana stays this way, the harder it is to leave. The doctor told us it would be a miracle if she woke up at all, and even if that were to happen, she’d have such severe brain deficiencies that she wouldn’t be herself anymore. As the hours pass and there isn’t any improvement in her condition, what we’ve been told starts to feel more and more true.

“It shouldn’t be our responsibility anyway,” I say bitterly. “Where’s Christian at? Isn’t he concerned at all about his baby? About Ana? Where the fuck is he?”

She lets her head fall onto the back of her chair and closes her eyes. “This is why Calliope has to leave with us, not the Greys. I told you we couldn’t trust him.”

“Yeah, well you might be right. If he really loved her the way he said he did, he’d be here right now.”

“Actually,” Dr. Baker begins, a sharp edge to her voice as she turns to face me. “He’s asked several times to be allowed back here to see Miss Steele, but Mrs. Adams has instructed the staff not to give out any information regarding her or Calliope’s condition to anyone who isn’t immediate family. We’ve had to turn him away every time and refuse to answer any of his questions, but he hasn’t stopped asking about her.”

“What?”

“If you’ve changed your mind on that directive, I’d love nothing more than to bring him back here. He’s in the waiting room right now.”

I turn to look at Carla, who suddenly seems more awake. Her lips are pressed together in a thin line and she refuses to look at me.

“Why would you do that?”

“Because I don’t want him around my daughter. Because if we let him have anything to do with Calliope, she’ll end up here just like Ana. Don’t you get it, Ray? This is his fault. Calliope has to leave with us, not him.”

“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me, Carla. Are you telling me that he doesn’t even know about Callie? That he hasn’t even had the chance to see her?”

Carla doesn’t answer me, so Dr. Baker does. “No, he doesn’t know anything. He hasn’t seen her.”

“Jesus Christ.” I push away from Ana’s bed and glance over her once more before turning for the door. “I’ll be back.”

“Ray don’t!” Carla shouts after me, but I ignore her. Instead, I continue through the halls, following the signs that lead me to the waiting room. But when I push through the doors, I’m completely unprepared for what I find. His sister is sleeping in Grace’s lap, and Grace herself is crying silently into her hands while Carrick tries desperately to comfort her. Both Taylor and Luke sit beside Elliot, who is clinging to Kate while she sobs into his chest. I don’t even know this family very well, but their obvious grief is able to cut through the unfamiliarity enough to touch me on a real level. Yet, even that doesn’t overshadow Christian.

He’s hunched over in his chair, hands curled tightly into his own hair as if he’s trying to rip it out by the roots. His breathing is so heavy and exaggerated that I can see his entire body heaving from across the room. When I approach and he looks up at me, his face is contorted with such intense pain one might think he was burning alive. Still, when he sees me, he leaps to his feet.

“Ray,” he croaks. “Where’s Ana? What’s happened to her?”

“She’s in recovery.”

“She made it through surgery? She’s alive?”

I nod. “Yeah, she’s… alive. But that’s about the best I can give you.”

“What’s happened?”

“The doctors said that she lost too much blood in surgery and that she probably won’t recover from that. They’ve got her hooked up to a ventilator that’s breathing for her and a bunch of other machines that are keeping her alive. They said that she most likely isn’t going to wake up and that even if she does she’ll have brain damage severe enough that we won’t even be able to recognize her. It’s very likely that if she ever regains consciousness that she won’t be able to speak and she won’t be able to feed herself. She’ll have lost all of her motor skills and most, if not all, of her memories. She won’t know who any of us are.”

As my words hit him, he stumbles backwards away from me, like I’ve punched him. Somehow the pain that was so clear on his face when I came through the double doors intensifies. His family looks up at me as he collapses into his chair and the horror in their eyes and the helplessness Christian exudes suddenly make me feel like the grim reaper.

“Ray, please….” Christian begs. “I’ll do anything. I’ll give you anything. Just, please let me see her. Please.”

“Of course you can see her, Christian.”

“What? Really?”

“Yeah. Come with me.”

He stands so quickly that his chair topples backwards, but he doesn’t turn around to pick it up. Elliot does, and as I lead Christian towards the double doors to the ICU, his brother gives me a sad, but grateful smile. I nod, then place a hand on Christian’s shoulder as the doors close behind us and I point him in the right direction.

Carla throws a fit when Christian and I get to Ana’s room. She starts screaming for the floor nurse to come and force Christian out and when that doesn’t pan out for her she begins threatening Christian. To his credit, he doesn’t fight back with her. He doesn’t even look at her. He moves around Ana’s bedside and with as much care as he can manage, takes her hand, and brings it slowly to his lips.

“I can’t believe you, Raymond,” Carla huffs. I turn to glare at her.

“Shut up, Carla! No one is concerned about you right now. Sit down and keep quiet, or go wait outside with the rest of the Greys.”

She mashes her lips together and shakes her head in defiance, but she doesn’t scream anymore. And, as she finally falls silent, I can hear what Christian is whispering to Ana.

“Come back to me, baby. Please? I love you. I need you. I can’t live without you. Please. Please, come back to me. Don’t follow Calliope. I know you’re going to want to, but I can’t lose you both. I can’t lose you. Please, don’t leave me.”

“Callie?” I repeat, confused. “What do you mean follow Callie? The baby’s in the NICU.”

His body tenses, and when he looks over at him the pain is gone from his face, replaced by blank shock. “What?”

“Calliope is in the NICU. She’s small and she’s not out of the woods yet, but she’s doing a hell of a lot better than Ana. They said if she makes it through the next 72 hours okay, she’ll probably be just fine.”

“Ray!” Carla hisses at me, but Christian turns to her before I do.

“You told me that she was stillborn,” he says, the rage in his voice rising exponentially with each word. “You told me that she was dead!”

Carla straightens her back and forces her face to remain stoic as she stares defiantly back at Christian. “Because she would be better off without you.”

Christian starts to shake and the profanity laced tirade he screams at her is so loud and threatening, it attracts the hospital staff. They come into the room and grab ahold of him to keep him from physically attacking her. And, as I watch them attempt to calm him down, I curl my fingers into a fist, then take Carla by the forearm and pull her out of Ana’s room. The more steps I take towards the waiting room, the hotter my blood seems to boil. Her careless disregard for a father’s love and need to be in his daughter’s life hits a little too close to home, and as I drag her behind me, ignoring her feeble attempts to worm out of my grip, the memories of the time she tried to take Ana from me flood through my mind.

 

“Where are you going?” I demand, pulling her duffle bag out of her hand as she tries to escape up the hallway.

“I’m leaving you, Ray.”

“What? Leaving? Why?”

“I don’t love you anymore. I haven’t for a long time. This marriage has been over for years.”

“Are you serious?”

She turns away from me, leaving behind her bag and hurrying towards the kitchen. “I found someone new. Someone who can take better care of us than you ever could. He has money and prospects. I choose him.”

“Carla, wait…”

“Ana! Let’s go, sweetheart.”

My eyes widen in panic. “No!”

“Anastasia!”

Our sixteen year old daughter comes out of the kitchen, a pencil still clutched in her right hand from doing her homework on the dining room table. “What?”

“Lets go,” Carla tells her. “Get in the car, we’ll get your things later.”

“Where are we going?” Ana winces slightly as Carla takes her hand and yanks her arm to get her to follow, and as I watch her reach for the knob on the front door, I drop her bag.

“Carla, no! You are not taking Anastasia out of this house!”

“You don’t get a say in this, Ray! I’m leaving you.”

“Then leave! But you’re not taking my daughter with you.”

“She’s not YOUR daughter!” She yanks the door open and pushes Ana through it, then pulls her down the driveway, practically throwing her into the back seat of our car.

“Carla!” I scream, chasing after her, but she turns and throws her body against the door between Anastasia and I to keep either of us from opening it.

“If you so much as take another step towards me I will call the police and make sure that you NEVER see her again. Do you hear me?”

“Why are you doing this? You can’t take her from me, please!”

“She’s not yours to take from. Anastasia is MY daughter, and she’s coming with ME. Goodbye, Raymond.”

Carla slips into the driver’s seat, and as she starts the car, Ana tries to open the back door to get out. Unfortunately, her mother seems to have pre-planned this and has turned the child locks on to keep her inside.

“Daddy? Wait, no! Daddy!” Her cries for me as Carla backs down the driveway have me in agony. I chase after them for three blocks, but never catch up. And when the car turns out of my view, taking my daughter away to a place I have no way to find, I feel as though my entire world crashes around me.

 

The moment we make it to the first available chair in the waiting room, I throw Carla down into it. This woman… I used to love this woman. She used to be my entire world. But looking at her and the fear in her eyes as she stares back at me, it’s like I don’t even recognize her.

“You stay right there and don’t move,” I growl.

“What’s happening?” Carrick asks from a few rows over. “Did something happen to Ana?”

I glance over my shoulder at him, then turn back to Carla. “Do you want to tell him or should I?”

She shakes her head. “Ray, please…”

Me then. I clench my teeth together then turn and walk over to Christian’s family. Each and every one of them stares up at me with fearful eyes, many of them with tears still running down their cheeks. “I’m sorry, but it seems Carla has mislead you. Calliope wasn’t a stillborn. She’s alive, in the NICU. She’s on a ventilator because she can’t breathe on her own yet and they’ve got her in an incubator, but she’s alive. And unless something happens in the next few hours, she’s gonna be just fine.”

“Wha–what?” Grace asks.

“Calliope is alive.”

As they begin to comprehend and accept what I’m saying, they all slowly turn towards Carla. Her face goes red and she recedes back into her chair, which is all the confirmation the Grey family needs. Grace starts gasping as though she’s going to hyperventilate, Kate once again begins to cry, but Elliot leaps out of his chair and moves as though he’s going to charge her.

“Whoa, easy now…” I say, reaching around his body to hold him back.

“Fuck you, Carla!” he screams, trying to break my hold. “Fuck you, you evil, fucking…”

“Elliot!” Carrick comes up beside his son and helps me restrain him, then looks very purposely into his eyes. “Control yourself.”

Elliot shrugs us off, but doesn’t try to charge Carla again. Instead, he takes two extremely aggressive steps backward and shakes his head at her in disgust. “I hope you burn in hell, Carla.”

He turns and storms out of the waiting room, pushing the doors open violently as he goes. Carrick takes a deep, calming breath before turning to face a now shaking Carla. He doesn’t display the same kind of fiery rage as his son, but when he speaks, his voice is like ice. “You won’t get away with this. I am going to take everything you have. I’ll see you in court.”

Grace reaches out for him as he walks back towards her, but Kate gets out of her chair and comes to me. “Can we see her? Are we allowed back there?”

“Uh…”

There’s a commotion behind me that stops me from answering and when we all turn to see what’s happening, we find Christian shouting for Ana and being dragged back into the waiting room by two men in light blue scrubs and a security guard.

“Ana, no! Please!”

“I’m sorry, sir. But you have to wait here.” The doctor releases him, then turns to hurry back into the ICU. I almost expect him to rush the door after them, but he doesn’t. He slumps down into his chair and looks as though he’s burning again.

“What happened?” Luke asks. Christian briefly glances over at him, but then back down at the floor between his feet.

“Her– her heart stopped.” He takes a long, broken breath, then looks helplessly to the sky. “It’s not good. If you saw her… it’s not good.”

“Oh, Christian…” Grace sinks to the floor and tries to take her son’s hands in her face, but moves out of her reach to keep her from touching him.

“I can’t do this. I can’t…”

“I know, Son,” I interject. He turns and looks at me, his eyes pleading for any form of reassurance, so I do the only thing I can think to do. The only thing that would allow me to stay sane if I were in his situation. “Come on, Christian. Let’s go check on your daughter.”


 

Christian PoV:

There’s a very surreal quality to everything around me as I follow Ray into the elevator that will take us down to the NICU. On the one hand, it’s torture knowing that, right now, a team of doctors are fighting to keep Ana’s heart beating and I’m walking away from her. But Ray’s offer to finally let me see the daughter I still haven’t stopped mourning comes with an almost instinctual kind of pull. Nothing feels real and, as we approach the doors to the NICU and we’re handed pink plastic gowns to put over our clothes and paper covers for our shoes and hair,  I wonder briefly if this has all just been a dream. Perhaps this is all one long nightmare and soon I’ll wake up screaming with Anastasia in the bed next to me, perfectly healthy, our child still safely encased in her womb.

“Ready?” Ray asks. I nod robotically.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m ready.”

He turns and pulls open the door to the NICU and I’m immediately taken aback by how quiet it is. The room is filled with rows of plastic boxes surrounded by concerned looking parents, but I don’t hear a single cry from any of the infants enclosed inside. Only the beeps from the monitors and sniffles of worried mothers carry me to the back of the room, where a doctor is currently reaching into one of the incubators that doesn’t have anyone around it.

“Dr. Craig,” Ray says in greeting. She looks up at smiles.

“Mr. Steele.”

“How is she doing?”

The doctor lets out a heavy sigh. “Well, she’s not any worse, but her oxygen levels are still low and her heartbeat isn’t very strong… Stable is good though. Right now, stable is excellent.”

“That’s good to hear.” He nods and then turns back to look at me. “This is Callie’s dad, Christian Grey.”

“Oh, Mr. Grey. Welcome. I heard you were having trouble getting clearance… Come, have a look. Your daughter has been very anxious to meet you.”

My body goes numb at the doctor’s overly bright smile and when she steps aside so that I can get closer, I have to force myself to move. Calliope’s entire body is tangled in tubes and wires and her head is covered with a matching hat. Even her face is obscured by the tubes coming out of her nose.

“What’s wrong with her color?” I ask, because I can’t seem to look past the deep purple hue of her skin.

“Actually, she looks pretty good,” Ray says. “She was blue when I first saw her.”

“It’s from the abruption,” the doctor adds. “Her oxygen supply was cut off in-utero and that has a significant impact on her pigment. She’s improved since we’ve had her on the ventilator.”

“The tubes?”

“Yes, Mr. Grey.”

“How… how long will she need them? The ventilator.”

“Well, that depends on her. The lungs are really one of the last stages of fetal development as they’re not needed during gestation. I’ve seen infants born at 34 weeks need the vent for a few days, some who have needed it for several weeks. We just have to let her grow in her own time.”

“But she will grow? She’s going to be okay?”

The doctor frowns. “Generally, infants born at 34 weeks have very good outlooks. However, the circumstances regarding Calliope’s birth present complications all on their own. Right now, she’s stable and responding very well to treatment and that’s great, but the next few days are going to be very critical. Right now, we’re focusing on her breathing, her ability to maintain her own body temperature, and the strength of her heart.” I nod and the doctor reaches up to place a hand on my shoulder. “But there’s no reason not to be optimistic, Mr. Grey. Your daughter has quite the little spirit.”

“Like her mother,” I whisper, then take a deep breath to keep myself focused on Calliope, rather than allow myself to wallow in grief again over the terrifying last seconds I spent with Ana.

The doctor smiles again. “You know what, I’ve got everything I need here. Why don’t I give you some time alone to get to know each other, huh?”

“Thank you.” She nods, reaches out to shake Ray’s hand, and then leaves. I step closer to the incubator, wishing I could open it so I could touch her and feel for sure that she was real, but she looks so fragile inside I’m almost afraid to even touch the plastic surrounding her. She’s so small, smaller than I even imagined.

“Did they tell you how much she weighs?” I ask, looking up at Ray.

He swallows. “4 lbs, 7 ounces. 17 ½ inches long.”

Four pounds? Nothing. That’s nothing.

I shake my head and rest it against the side of the incubator, staring at her like I’m afraid she’s going to disappear at any second. It feels that way. She was already taken from me once, and with Ana hanging in the balance a floor above me, it seems almost inevitable that she’s going to be taken from me again.

“I’m going to go give an update to your family,” Ray says. “Do you… do you need anything?”

“No. Thank you.”

“Your welcome, Christian.” He hesitates for a moment, then turns to leave and I’m alone with my daughter for the first time. I’m not sure how long I sit with her. Several other parents come in and out, and the doctors mill through the boxes running tests and taking notes, but it all blurs together in background as I focus intently on Calliope’s face. I take note of every breath she takes and every twitch of her lip or her eyelids as she sleeps. A few times the doctors come to check her machines and change the IV bags giving her fluids and nourishment. The attending who takes over for Dr. Craig even lets me reach inside the incubator to take Calliope’s hand after he’s finished examining her.

“Calliope,” I whisper, pushing the tip of my finger into her tiny palm. The moment I touch her, her fingers clasp around mine and I’m actually shocked at the strength with which she grips me back. It’s the first thing in almost a day now that has felt promising.

“Hey, baby girl. I’m sorry your mother isn’t here right now. She wants to be. She loves you so much, Callie, and you are so lucky to have her for a mother.” Her fingers tighten around me again, and the small, innocuous gesture makes me smile. Almost as if she’s agreeing with me. “She graduated from Harvard yesterday. You don’t know what that is, but it’s a big deal. Your mother is so smart, Callie. She’s the most incredible person I know. I love her so much, just like I love you. I hope, one day, you grow up to be just like her.”

Her eyelids start to flutter, and for half a second, she opens her eyes. Had I not been staring at her so intently, I probably would have missed it, but in that brief space of time, I really see her. Not just as the impossibly small, wounded stranger that I’m now responsible for, but her.

She looks just like Ana. I can see her in the curve of her lips and shape of her nose. She’s there in the dark thin wisps of hair that stick out from under her hat. I like it that way. I’d be content to have her mirror her mother perfectly, but when I see that her eyes are the same muted gray color as mine, I find that I’m as disappointed as I thought I’d be to see myself in her. She’s more than just Ana. She’s both of us, together. Like a part of our love that I can see and feel. And, as she closes her eyes again and and her fingers relax around mine, I feel a deep rooted cosmic and molecular shift occur inside of me. In this moment, the tiny little girl before me has instantly and irrevocably stolen my heart and I know that I will, from this moment forward, forever belong to her.

 

With Ray in the waiting room, my family is allowed to come back and see Calliope periodically throughout the next morning and afternoon. It’s awkward with my mother, because she spends most of the time crying and then grilling the NICU staff for specifics about Calliope’s development. Kate manages to put aside enough of her fears for Ana to enjoy meeting her goddaughter for the first time. But Elliot and my father are more concerned with me than the baby. None of them can tell me anything about Ana.

“Christian, you really need to take a break,” Elliot says, late in the afternoon. “You’ve haven’t slept in over a day.”

I shake my head. “I’m fine.”

“Well, then come eat something or… change your clothes. You look like hell, man.”

I look down at my shirt and pants, still stained with Ana’s blood. There’s a day’s worth of stubble on my cheek and, though I haven’t looked in a mirror since I’ve been here, I imagine my hair must be in complete disarray from the number of times I ran my fingers through it yesterday. But all of that seems grossly insignificant.

“You think I give a fuck what I look like right now? The doctors said that Calliope’s first 72 hours were critical, I’m not leaving her side until she’s in the clear.”

“You can’t take care of anyone if you’re not taking care of yourself. Seriously, let’s get something to eat, and get you some fresh air. Thirty minutes and we’ll be back, I promise.”

I look down at Calliope, warring with myself, just as Dr. Craig comes by to do her rounds. “Go ahead, Mr. Grey. We’ll take real good care of your daughter until you get back.”

“See?”

I look between Elliot and the doctor, still unsure. But I’m ultimately won over by the nagging hunger I’ve been ignoring for hours. Besides, the exhaustion is catching up with me. I could use some coffee.

“Here.” I reach into my pocket, pull out my wallet, and find a spare business card. “My cell is on this. If anything changes, anything at all…”

“Then I’ll call you straight away.”

I nod, then shoot one last nervous look down at my baby before allowing Elliot to lead me out of the NICU and back out towards the main floor.

“There’s soup down in the cafeteria,” he says, as we ride the elevator up towards the waiting room outside the ICU. “New England Clam Chowder. It’s the only decent thing I’ve found really.”

“Fine. Whatever.”

“Hey…” The elevator pings, but Elliot uses the time before the car comes to a full stop to reach out and grip my shoulder reassuringly. “Callie’s going to be fine. She already looks so much better, and you heard what the doctor said. She’s already gained an ounce. That’s good.”

“She’s not the only one I have to worry about.” The doors slide open and I scan the waiting room for my family. Unfortunately, the first person I find is Carla, and the moment I see her, I feel my heart freeze in my chest.

She and Ray are speaking with a very solemn looking doctor.

“Christian!” Elliot calls behind me, but I’m already gone. I move through the maze of chairs so quickly that by the time I get across the room, I nearly knock Carla over.

“What happened?”

The doctor hesitates.

“It’s fine, he’s her fiancé,” Ray says, then shoots a hard look at Carla. “He’s fine.”

“Okay then… like I just said, her heart just isn’t strong enough. She’s coded three times throughout the night and I don’t know that she can make it through another revival. Her labs show that her cell count is dangerously low, which is only weakening her heart, and we haven’t seen any positive sign that her condition will improve. I think the time has come that we… discuss other options.”

“Another treatment?” I ask, but the doctor shakes his head.

“No. Withdrawal of care.”

“No!”

“Sir, I understand that this is a difficult decision, but in light of the circumstances…”

“This isn’t a difficult decision,” I snap back. “There is no decision. I’m not withdrawing care. I won’t. Ever.”

“Sir…”

“There’s really no hope?” Ray asks. “You really don’t think she’s ever going to wake up?”

“There’s always hope,” the doctor replies. “But in my professional opinion, I do not believe she will wake up. And if by some miracle she does, her quality of life won’t be good.”

“That’s not for you to decide,” I growl, but Ray shakes his head.

“Christian, really think about what he’s telling you. Do you think Ana wants the kind of life he’s telling you she’ll have?”

“I know that she’ll want a chance to know her daughter. Everything he’s telling you right now is just a guess and if there is even a sliver of hope that she’s going to wake up and make it through this, I will fight for her. I don’t care how long it takes. I don’t care if she’s on those machines for years, I’m not giving up on her.”

The conflict in his eyes is blatant as he stares back at me, but I don’t falter in my resolve. Anastasia’s battle is not over yet and anyone who thinks otherwise is going to have to go through me first. Even if it is her father.

“Can we see her?” Ray asks. The doctor nods.

“Yeah. Only two at a time though…”

Carla shoots a nasty look at me but Ray intervenes. “Have a seat, Carla.”

“No, that’s my daughter…”

Have. A. Seat.”

Her jaw clenches, but under Ray’s burning gaze she retreats and slowly lowers herself into the chair behind her. He then looks to me and the two of us follow the doctor back into her room.

 

Somehow, she looks worse than she did the first time I saw her. The color has drained from her lips and the dark circles below her eyes are stark in contrast against her too pale skin. She seems gaunt. The beep coming from the monitor at her bedside is anything but steady, slowing and quickening in irregular intervals. I don’t know what to make of it.

I slump down into the seat next to her bed and once again take her hand in mine. Ray leans over and places a soft kiss on her forehead, then stares at her the way I’ve been staring at Calliope all night. Eventually though, he gets up and leaves.

One by one, every member of my family and hers, even Luke, come in to see her, and each one says some form of good-bye. It’s beyond irritating, infuriating even, watching them giving up on her. When Kate finally sits up from the place where she’d been sobbing into Ana’s blankets at the side of the bed, she leans up to kiss her on the cheek, promises she’ll look after Calliope, and something inside of me snaps.

“Get out!” I shout at her.

She looks up at me with confused, glassy eyes. “Christian?”

“Get the fuck out of here, Kate. All of you. If you want to give up, then give up. Go! We don’t need you.”

“But..”

“Get out!”

“Is everything okay in here?” I look up and see a concerned looking doctor hovering in the doorway, but my anger is boiling out of control now and I can’t hold it back.

“No, it’s not. If one more doctor comes into this room and attempts to discuss withdrawal of care with me, I will sue this hospital. I will have your fucking licenses. Now get out! EVERYONE!”

“Sir…”

“GET OUT!”

Kate scrambles out of her chair as I start shaking and hurries away from me. The doctor looks as though she isn’t sure what she should do, but eventually she too turns and moves away from Ana’s room. I slam the door behind both of them, wishing desperately there was a lock on the handle so I could keep everyone away from Anastasia, but there isn’t. So, instead, I pace the room. Ready to face and eviscerate anyone who dares to come back and challenge me again.

It doesn’t take long.

A male doctor is sent in next, but I’m quick to chase him off. Next they bring down the hospital administrative staff, who tell me if I don’t calm down they’ll have to have security remove me. I get them out by threatening to call a news station and explain how this hospital is attempting to coerce family members into removing life support from loved ones against their will. I’m ready to physically come to blows with the next person who enters the room, but when the door opens, it’s Elliot, and I can tell just in the way that he stands that he’s here to make a peace offering.

“No one is trying to take her from you, Christian,” he says gently.

“What do you think withdrawal of care means, Elliot?”

“It– I mean…”

“She’s going to be fine. Okay, she’s stubborn and she’s not going to let us push her to wake up before she’s ready to, but she will wake up. I know her, and I know she’s not going to leave Calliope behind. She’s not going to leave me. She is fighting, but she needs our help.”

“So, we give her some time.”

Elliot and I both look up and see Ray in the doorway, leaning against the frame and nodding as though he’s made some kind of internal decision and is reassuring himself of it as he speaks.

“You’re right, Christian. Annie has always done things in her own way. If she needs time, if you need time, then… we’ll wait.”

It’s not a firm promise of anything, and I don’t hear even a pale echo of the resolution I feel deep inside of me in his voice. Most likely, he’s doing this for me, not Ana, but it’s a chance. Time. Maybe even enough for me to plan what I’m going to do next once the clock on his arbitrary promise has run out.

“Thank you, Ray.”

“Of course. Elliot.” He nods behind him, motioning for Elliot to leave the room, and my brother nods before reaching over to squeeze Ana’s hand one more time before he goes. I half expect Ray to take his seat, but he doesn’t. He turns and leaves right behind Elliot, and once again, I’m alone with Anastasia.

“Please, baby,” I whisper, lifting her fingers to my lips and kissing her across each of her knuckles. “Please wake up. Please be okay.”

 

For the most part, no one comes to check on us again beside the doctors doing their regular rounds. I half expect that my family has gotten a hotel and left to get some sleep or possibly shower. But now that I’m allowed free access to her room, I can’t bear to drag myself away from Ana to go check. The solitude is fine, preferrable really, except that it means I don’t have regular updates on Calliope. The doctors in the NICU have my cell number through, and Ana’s room number. So, I wait without news.

The second sleepless night is almost too much. My eyes droop as I rest my cheek against Ana’s hand on the bed. The time between each check in from the floor attendings grows longer and longer as the hours tick on, and by two, I nearly succumb to sleep.

Except that the irregular beep from Ana’s heart monitor that I’ve clung to every second I’ve been by her side suddenly stops. I sit up and turn with wide eyes to look at the monitor, waiting for the long, drawn out tone that will tell me her heart has stopped, but it doesn’t come. Several excruciating seconds pass and then the monitor starts to spike and fall with the beat of her heart again. Not in the same erratic pattern as before, but in slow, steady beats. I look down at the watch around my wrist, counting each beat as I watch the second hand tick away an entire minute. Once the time has passed, I start over, counting again, and at the end of the second minute, the number of beats is only off by one.

Regular.

Quickly, I fumble to get the plastic box with the nurses’ call button untangled from the machine at the side of the bed and then start pressing it over and over again. It takes a moment, but soon, the nurse comes to check on us.

“Yes, Mr. Grey? May I get you something?”

“Her heartbeat,” I reply, and the nurse’s mouth goes slack.

“What?”

“It was… it wasn’t right, but it’s regular now. I timed it, 65 beats per minute.”

She steps into the room and takes a look at the monitor, then tells me to wait a moment while she gets the doctor. A few minutes later, the night attending, who I’ve only seen once, comes into the room with a small team and a medical cart. They ask me to step out so they can examine Ana, and when I do, I take the opportunity to try and find my family. Going into the waiting room though, it seems I was correct when I thought maybe they’d gotten a hotel for the night. The waiting room is empty, except for Ray.

“Ana?” he asks, sitting bolt upright when he sees me come through the double doors.

“I think… I think her heart is normalizing.”

“What?” He gets up and we both make our way back into the ICU, hovering outside Ana’s door while the doctor’s complete their work up. It seems to take forever, but when the attending finally comes out of the room, he looks flabbergasted.

“Well?” Ray asks.

“Remarkable,” he says. “She’s been in A Fib for nearly 36 hours but… her heartbeat has completely normalized.”

“And that’s good?” I check.

“It’s amazing. Her temperature is up, her vitals are stronger than they’ve been since she was admitted… I’ve never seen anything quite like this.”

Ray gasps and nearly stumbles backwards. When he catches himself on the door frame, he looks over at me and his eyes well with joyful tears. “Christian…”

I shake my head, not willing to let myself feel too much hope unless there’s just cause. “So, she’s going to wake up, then? She’s going to be okay?”

“I have no idea,” the doctor says. “Possibly. We tried talking to her but she didn’t respond and her reflexes are still off, but… I definitely feel better about her outcome than I did two hours ago. Hopefully, this positive trend continues.”

“Thank you, Doctor.”

He nods and turns to leave us, and once he and his team have completely vacated Ana’s room, Ray heads inside and I fish out my phone to call my father.

 

The third day in the hospital is strangely the most chaotic yet. Ana’s vitals continue to grow stronger until they’re hovering on just the wrong side of normal, so I finally feel comfortable leaving her side long enough to check on Calliope as long as there’s someone to stay with her. Thankfully, Kate seems all too willing to take on that role and, with my parents practically camped out in the NICU, I can go back and forth between the two without ever leaving Calliope or Ana alone.

I try to be present every time the doctors round on Ana, and whenever it’s time for Calliope to be fed, but the two often overlap. It has me feeling like I’m constantly on the run, and on my third day of no sleep, it’s not an easy feat.

“I’m sorry,” I tell Dr. Craig after I cut her off with a deep, yawn.

“That’s quite alright, Mr. Grey. Calliope’s doing great. She’s up to 4 lbs 9 ounces, and I think if her oxygen levels stay up throughout the night, we might be ready to take her off the vent in the morning.”

“Really? That’s great news.”

“Christian!” I whirl around and see Elliot panting in the doorway at the other end of the room. He and Kate have been sitting with Ana, so at first his sudden appearance has my body tight with dread.

“What?”

“You have to come, quick.”

“What happened? What’s wrong?”

He shakes his head. “Nothing is wrong. Ana’s awake.”

Next Chapter

Kate PoV: Commencement – A Beginning, Not an End.

Ring

Chapter 34

“Congratulations, sweetheart!” my mother exclaims. She’s the first person to find me once the ceremony is over and the hundreds of hats sailing through the air have settled back to the ground. The moment I step off the graduation stage, she wraps me in a lung crushing hug. “You did it, baby girl. We are so, so, so proud of you!”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“Come here, sis!” My dad takes me from my mother and somehow manages to squeeze me even tighter while moving me back and forth. “Welcome to the alumni, kid. We’re so happy to have you.”

“Thank you, Daddy.” I hug him again, and over his shoulder I catch a glimpse of Ana in the crowd. She moves out of Carrick’s embrace into Christian’s, and the moment he has her wrapped in his arms, he presses his lips to hers in a deep, passionate kiss that is unconcerned with the hundreds of people milling around them. The red ring he gave her this morning glints in the sunlight and when they pull apart, they’re both smiling as broadly as they can at one another. Even from across the crowded theater, the love they share is apparent.

It makes my stomach clench uncomfortably.

“Hey, what about me?” Ethan asks. I blink and turn my attention from Christian and Ana to my brother, then take a breath before giving him my best smile and stepping into his arms. He groans slightly as he hugs me and my mother quickly clears a space around us to take a picture.

“Don’t let her go,” she says, squatting down, and then we’re flooded with a flash of light. “Okay, now, Ethan, put one arm over her and both of you look right here.”

Ethan rolls his eyes, but does as she says. We pose for three different pictures together, and then I take a few with my dad, then my mom, then my mom and dad, and then Harrison takes a picture of the four of us.

“You know, we need one with Carter,” my mom says, scanning the crowd. “Where did he run off to?”

“Oh,” I say hesitantly. “He’s probably with his family. I’ll see him later at the Arts Center.”

My dad raises an eyebrow. “You sure?”

“Yeah.”

“You don’t seem very excited. Everything okay, kiddo?”

“Fine. No, we’re great. It’s just crowded and I’m hungry and I don’t really want to stand here taking pictures anymore.”

“Well, we have to get one of you and Ana together in your robes. Where did she go? I saw the Greys during the ceremony.”

“Oh, she’s over–” I point in the direction where I saw her a few minutes ago, but she’s not there anymore. None of the Greys are. “Well, she was right there.”

“Ms. Kavanagh,” Harrison says, hanging up his phone and taking my elbow in his hand. “We need to get you back to the house, immediately.”

“The house? I thought we were going to the Arts Center from here?”

“No, ma’am. It’s not safe. If you’ll follow me.”

“Not safe, what happened? Where’s Ana?”

“Mr. Grey can explain everything once we return to the rendezvous point, but for now I need you and your family to come with me. Now.”

“Is she okay?”

“Ms. Kavanagh, please–”

“Just tell me that she’s okay and we can go.”

He frowns. “Miss Steele and Mr. Grey were escorted back to their vehicle by Mr. Taylor and Mr. Sawyer and we are not to go to the Arts Center. That’s all the information I have.”

I inhale sharply, trying to push the memories of last spring break away when I’d read that Google Alert saying someone had tried to take Ana off the street a few blocks from their apartment. At least I know that if Taylor and Luke have her, no one grabbed her. But being rushed away from graduation and told we can’t go to our party? That has to be because of him. Is he here? How do they know?

“Okay.” I nod at Harrison and reach back for my mom’s hand. My parents look at me with bewilderment, but Ethan, who I told all about what had happened over a frantic phone call on my way to the airport in Mexico, just takes my father’s arm the same way Harrison has ahold of mine, and starts walking briskly to the car. As we go, I scan the sea of faces looking for anyone I recognize. Ana, Christian, Elliot… but I don’t see any of them. Taylor and Luke had Christian and Ana, but what about the rest of the Greys? Who is going to make sure Elliot makes it back to the house safe and sound?

“Harrison, who is with the Greys? Christian’s family, I mean.”

“I’m not sure, ma’am.”

A shiver of trepidation runs down my spine as I step onto the asphalt of the parking lot and then make a beeline to the big SUV my parents rented in Boston. Once I’m buckled into the back seat, and my family is secure inside the vehicle, Harrison pulls out into the long traffic jam inching its way towards the exit, and I pull out my phone to text Elliot.

But there’s already a text there waiting for me.

 

They told you not to go to the Arts Center, right? Go straight home.

 

I feel a tangible sense of relief as I text him back.

 

Yes, we’re on our way home now. See you there?

 

Yeah, we’re on our way too. Christian and Ana are in the car three ahead of us.

 

I let out a long breath and relax back into the leather seat, staring diligently out the window until we make it out of the parking lot, looking for the face of a man I don’t know.

“Kate, where are we going?” my mother asks after we pass the Arts Center and continue on towards home.

“Back to the house. Ana and the Greys are meeting us there.”

“But what about your party?”

“It’s fine. We’ll go later, we just need to meet them at the house first.”

“What’s going on, Kate?” my dad interjects, and after a nervous look at Ethan, I take a breath and fill them in on the last few months and just exactly why Christian moved to Cambridge with Ana for the rest of the semester.

 

“So that’s why he got you a bodyguard,” my dad infers as we step through the back door and into the kitchen. I nod.

“He was worried someone would come after me to get to her. Ana would put herself in danger if she thought it would save me, so Christian hired someone to protect both of us.”

“Is that why you got the dog?” my mother asks, pushing Champ off of her as he runs into the kitchen to greet us.

“No, we didn’t know about any of this when we bought Champ. He’s here because Ana used to go to Seattle every weekend and Harrison wasn’t here before. I don’t like being alone.” I kneel down and rub Champ behind the ears, cringing slightly as he licks my face and slobbers on my graduation robes. “Hey, boy. Where’s Ana?”

He looks up at me with his wide brown eyes and wags his tail. I kiss him on the tip of his nose and then scramble to my feet, but when I come around into the living room, none of the faces that stare back at me belong to my best friend.

“Kate! Have you heard from Christian or Ana?” Grace asks.

I shake my head. “They’re not here yet?”

“No,” Elliot answers.

“I told you,” Carla says to Ray, her voice nearly hysterical. “I told you we should have kept her away from him.”

“I’m sure they’re fine, Carla,” Ray replies. “They’re probably just stuck in traffic.”

“They were in front of us!”

“They have Taylor with them,” Carrick says.

“And Luke,” Elliot adds. “They’re fine. Ana’s super pregnant, they probably had to stop so she could pee. Or… eat. Trust me, nothing is going to happen to her with Christian and Luke around.”

Carla shakes her head. “You all put way too much faith in him. Do none of you remember what happened in March? Have you forgotten that she was in his apartment, that these same bodyguards failed before? You have no idea what…” She stops, takes a breath, and turns once again to look purposefully at Ray. “She’s our baby girl. He puts her in danger over and over again. How can you just–”

“Carla, stop!” Ray exclaims, but before he can continue, Champ begins to bark at the sound of the back door sliding open and I turn on my heel to hurry into the kitchen.

“Ana? Christian?” When I turn the corner, I see them both standing there and the relief is immediate. I trudge forward and pull Ana into a tight hug. “What’s going on? Harrison wouldn’t tell us anything, just that we couldn’t go to the Arts Center.”

“He was there,” she breathes back in a shaky voice. “He called me right after the ceremony and told me he’d killed Leila. Oh my god, Christian…” She pulls out of my embrace and turns to face him. “Leila’s dead. It’s my fault. She saved me and now she’s… Oh my god!”

Tears start to pour from her eyes, so Christian wraps her tightly in his arms and starts to drag his fingers through her hair, trying to soothe her. “Hush, baby. It’s not your fault. Thank god she saved you, but she made the choice to get involved with this fucker in the first place. We tried to find her. She should have come to us. It’s not your fault.”

“She said we couldn’t keep her safe. She said he’d get to her, that he’d eventually get to me. She said we were never going to be safe.”

I bite the inside of my cheek, wanting so much to do something to calm the fear in her voice, but I have to leave that to Christian right now. He tightens his grip on her, holding her head against his chest.

“Hey, you’re safe right now. I’ve got you. No one is going to hurt you.”

She nods, looking slightly pacified by his words and his strong arms around her, but when she pulls away, she suddenly gasps and her hands shoot down to her side like she’s got a runner’s cramp.

“Ah! Fuck–”

Christian’s face melts with worry again. “Baby…”

“It’s just… ah, cramp again.”

“Come on, let’s get you to the couch.”

I step aside so that Christian can lead her into the living room, but the moment they round the corner, they’re berated with questions from the ten people still anxiously waiting in the living room.

“What’s going on?” my dad asks. “Why are we here? I thought we’d reserved the Arts Center for Katherine and Ana’s party?”

“It’s not safe,” Christian says, and then turns to face his own father. “He’s here.”

“What?” Grace says. “Here? How?”

“I don’t know,” Christian replies. He takes a step to move Ana toward the couch again, but Ray quickly gets out of his seat with his arms outstretched for his daughter.

“Are you okay, baby girl?” he asks. She nods but it doesn’t fool any of us.

“So, we can’t go there at all?” Mia asks. “What about the gifts? Taylor took the presents we got for Ana and Kate over there already.”

At all? Wait, we’re not just going to go together? Fuck, Carter was supposed to meet us there. I forgot all about him. “And Carter was going to meet us there,” I add.

“Taylor is on route to the Arts Center to collect Ana and Kate’s things,” Luke answers. “I’m sorry, but in light of the phone call Miss Steele received, he’s going to have to open and examine all of the gifts for anything dangerous.” He turns to me. “But I’m sure if he sees Mr. Reed, he’ll direct him here.”

I nod and then glance over at Elliot, who must have been looking at me through the whole conversation because the moment our eyes meet, he quickly diverts his to the floor. I can feel it in that moment, the same tension between the two of us. It’s awkward and it’s painful, and I don’t know if it’s because I’ve brought up Carter’s name again or because he felt the same thing I did when I was in his arms dancing last night and he knows as well as I do that we’re moving towards something inevitable. I turn and look through the open blinds at the street, waiting, I guess, for Carter’s car to pull up along the curb at the front of the house and remind myself that I’m supposed to want it to. Repeating over and over again that I want him here right now.  

What the hell am I doing?

“I think you should lay down for a few minutes,” Christian tells Ana. “At least until Taylor gets back. This is too much stress right now.”

She nods again and turns to me, giving me a small, weak smile which I think is meant to assure me that she thinks Carter will be here soon. As she moves with Christian to the stairs, guilty heat floods my cheeks.

“I-I think I’m going to call Ellio– uh, Carter,” I announce awkwardly to everyone else in the room. “I’m going to call Carter. I’ll be right back.”

“Kate…” Elliot says, but I don’t stop to listen to what he has to say.

“I’ll be right back,” I repeat instead, and make my way up the stairs to my room, two at at time. Once I’m through my bedroom door, I dash inside, close the door behind me, and collapse against it. My chest heaves with every breath I take, preemptively holding back the tears that are sure to come. I can’t be like this. My family is here to celebrate graduation. Ana is going to need all the support she can get after once again being terrified by this crazed psycho coming after Christian. And I’m one week away from starting the biggest job of my life. But I know that I’m on a precipice and this fine line I’ve been walking with Carter and Elliot is about snap in half. I have no idea which way I’m going to fall and I have no idea which way I want to. Carter is safe. He comes from a good family, he’s a Harvard graduate, and he wants the same future that I do. But Elliot…

I feel things for Elliot that I just don’t for Carter, no matter how hard I’ve been trying. I don’t think I could feel them for anyone else but him. He’s like a piece in the puzzle of my life. Only he can fit there and when he’s gone, the picture just isn’t complete. His family loves me and accepts me as one of them — even months after we’ve broken up, while Carter’s parents treat me as something between a phase he’s going through and the reason he didn’t get into law school. Elliot was raised by a strong, successful woman so he doesn’t have any issues or feel threatened when I succeed. He encourages me. He pushes me. Carter accepts what I’ve accomplished, but always in comparison to his own victories and failures. Every achievement becomes a competition, a new goal that he has to set for himself. He’s never just happy for me. Elliot and I have so much in common. With him, I know I’ll travel the world and have the most amazing experiences. Carter and I can party together, maybe go to a few of the same concerts… but he doesn’t have the thirst for adventure that I have. That Elliot has.

But Carter wants a family. Carter wants a big wedding with all of his friends and family, and he wants to hold me on his arm at business soirees and charity galas as Mrs. Katherine Reed. He wants three kids (boy, girl, boy) and a big yard for Champ. Carter wants the future I’ve always pictured for myself.

Elliot may have been my greatest love, but he refuses to be my family. Carter is my future.

I’ve chosen Carter.

I inhale deeply, pulling the air all way down through my abdomen and releasing it in a long, slow exhale. Once I’m sure I’ve quelled the uncertainty swirling through my mind, I pull my phone out of my bra and search through my contacts for Carter’s name.

“Hey, what’s going on? I just got to the Arts Center and Taylor is here tearing open all of your packages.”

“Yeah, change of plans. Ana got a threatening phone call so we had to come home. We’re on lock down.”

“Fuck, was it the guy who tried to kidnap her?”

“Looks like it. She’s pretty freaked out, but Christian just took her to lay down. Hopefully she’ll feel a little bit better by the time Taylor gets back and we can open gifts. Or look at the gifts Taylor opened, I guess. That and a good dinner might take her mind off of this for a little bit.”

“So, I’ll see you at your house, then?”

“You’re still coming?”

“Yeah… I mean, if that’s okay. I have something for you too.”

“Oh. Yeah, of course. Obviously it’s okay that you come. I’ll see you soon?”

“I’m on my way. I love you, baby.”

My throat tightens and I have to swallow before I can speak again. “Stop it, you just saw me.”

“Well, that doesn’t mean I ever stop missing you.”

“I know. Me too. I’ll see you soon. Bye.”

“Bye.”

I hang up the phone and toss it onto the bed, deciding I need a shower to clear my head. Carefully, I kick off my heels and hang my graduation robes in the closet before pulling my hair up on top of my head, stripping out of my dress, and stepping beneath the hot, cleansing stream of water from my shower head. Steam billows up around me and I breathe it in, allowing it to relax away my tension so I can think clearly. By the time the water has turned cold, I’ve pushed all thoughts of what happened between Elliot and I the night before away and committed myself to the path I’ve chosen.

After drying off and getting dressed again, I decide that I’ve given Christian enough time and am about to go check on Ana, but just as I reach for the knob, I’m stopped by two soft knocks on the door. When I open it, I find Elliot standing in the hallway, waiting anxiously.

“Can I talk to you for a second?” he asks.

Bad idea, Kate. “Uh…”

“Please?”

“Sure.”

I pull open the door and he steps into my room, glancing around and thoroughly examining the space we shared for two years before finally turning back to me. “Are you okay?”

“Me? Oh, yeah. It’s a little scary, but I’m mostly just worried for Ana. She’s been freaked out over Leila for weeks. I can’t imagine what she’s feeling right now, knowing she’s… dead.”

“Yeah.” He nods. “I’ve been really worried about what’s going to happen next now that graduation is over and she has to come back to Seattle for the first time since she ran away. I think it’s going to be hard on her, but I don’t know what to do to help her, you know? It’s like, her home isn’t safe and if home isn’t safe, what is?”

My bottom lip starts to tremble, so I press them tightly together and nod. “Yeah.”

“Hey, Katie…” Elliot steps toward me and pulls me into a hug, holding me tightly against him while I work to once again gain control over my impending tears. Thankfully, his embrace is exactly what I need. His warmth and his scent wash away my fear, leaving me feeling a small sense of tranquility that wasn’t achievable before. I bury my face into his jacket and inhale, and as I do, he leans down and kisses the top of my head.

“Elliot…”

“I’m sorry,” he says quickly, releasing me. “I’m sorry, but I can’t pretend anymore, Kate. I can’t act like I’m fine with you and I barely talking. I can’t pretend like I don’t realize how awkward things are between us now. I can’t keep saying I’m fine with you and Carter being together. I’m not. I’m so jealous of him, I can hardly see straight. When I think about him touching you, it makes me sick. It makes me violent. I want to hurt him. I’m not okay, Kate. Not without you. I want you back. And not because of Carter, but because I am in love with you and need I you in my life.”

“Elliot, I-I–”

“You love me too, Kate. I know that. I felt it. Last night when we were dancing, I felt it. You can’t hide things from me. I know you, better than anyone else in the world. Better than I know myself.  I know what’s in your heart.”

“I’m with Carter now, Elliot.”

“Fuck Carter. Fuck everyone in the world that isn’t you and me.” He takes a breath and he jaw clenches, but when he continues, the determination in his voice is stronger. “I’m sorry about Gia. I should have never been with her. I should have never tried to replace you. There is no replacement. I love you Katherine Kavanagh and I want you to be mine again.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“Yes it is. This is how easy it is.”  His hands move up into my hair at the back of my head and he pulls my lips to his in a deep, passionate kiss that I feel all the way down to my toes. He thrusts his tongue past my lips and tangles it with mine in a way that is immediately familiar and makes me homesick. His taste bears the comfort of a previously forgotten dream that I can suddenly recall with vivid clarity. The way his hands hold me against him feels safe and welcoming as he pours into me the love he so desperately wants me to believe in. Between each brush of his lips, he whispers again that he loves me.

It would be so be easy to say yes. It would be so easy to let myself kiss him back and let him take me for his own again, but nothing’s changed. And for how easy it would be now, it would be devastating later.

After allowing his kiss to linger far too long, I push myself away and stare up into his eyes through the tears welling in mine.

“Please, Katie…” he whispers.

“Kate.” The door opens and Ana sticks her head inside, so Elliot and I quickly jump apart. Her eyes widen with surprise, and possibly a little embarrassment. “I’m sorry, I just… I wanted to tell you that Carter’s here.”

“Thanks,” I reply, and then turn back to Elliot. His eyes continue to plead with mine, but as much as I truly want what is offered in that look, I’m not willing to make the sacrifice that giving in would entail. If Elliot would make me happy in the long run, we never would have broken up. “I can’t.”

Unwilling to look at the pain that’s immediately apparent on his face, I push away from him, then slide between Christian and Ana into the hallway and down the stairs. Everyone is still waiting, looking much more impatient now that there’s a pile of unopened gifts in the center of the living room and the promise of dinner once Ana and I have sorted through everything. Carter is sitting on a pile of Ana’s boxes labeled “books” by the door, and the smile that breaks across his face when he sees me coming down the stairs hits me like a punch to the heart.

“Hey, baby. Have I told you how beautiful you look today?”

“Yeah. Carter, can we…?”

“And there’s Ana,” Ethan’s voice sounds from across the room. “Now let’s get through the gifts so we can eat. That graduation ceremony was like three hours long.”

There’s a murmur of agreement so Carter takes my hand and leads me to the sofa to take my place next to Ana, then sits on the armrest next to me. There isn’t wrapping on anything piled on the floor in front of us, so each member of our family simply picks up their own gift and hands it to either Ana or I. My mother has given me a set of her best pearls, my father a briefcase with my initials engraved into the silver buckles. Ethan’s bought me an alumni sweatshirt, and Grace and Carrick give me a gorgeous custom frame, which I can use to hang my degree up in my office back in Seattle once it arrives.

“Here,” Carter says, picking up the white jewelry box I showed him last week and handing it to Ana. “This one’s for you.”

“From me,” I add. She smiles, opens the hinged lid, and then lights up when she sees the gold chain and diamond H I’d designed for the two of us.

“I have one, too,” I tell her. “They’re custom made, so there are only two of them. I thought it would be a good way to remember that you and I shared this together.”

“I love it, Katie,” she says. “And I’m so glad you’re the one I did this with.” We hug, both of us holding back the tears that come everytime one of us brings up the fact that living together and spending everyday together is quickly coming to an end. It’s silly, really. We’re moving back to the same city together and we’ve already made all kinds of plans for designated lunch days and girls nights, but both of us know it won’t be the same.

When she pulls away, she discreetly wipes the tears from her lower lids and turns to Christian, motioning to the scrapbook sitting on the floor. “Will you hand me Kate’s gift please?”

He does and when she passes it to me, her mouth pushes together in an chagrined pout. “I’m sorry, the lack of wrapping kind of ruins it…”

“A scrapbook?” I ask, flipping open the hardbound cover.

“Mhm. Of all four years we spent here. I’ve been working on it for months.”

I turn to the first page and immediately smile. There’s pictures of Ana and I in crimson sweaters together, pictures of my dad and I, and of the three of us together, surrounded by tiny little football stickers all around the page.

“Look, our first football game!” I flip the page and see the photo of Ana and I in our matching Mario and Luigi costumes that’s been on the wall of our living room since we moved in. “And halloween. Oh my god, Vegas! Will you look at that hair? What were we thinking?”

She laughs. “That the only way to make it through Sin City is to get as close to God as possible.” I flip the page again and this time see pictures of the two of us with Christian and Elliot together in the cabin and on the mountain in Aspen from that ski trip we took our freshman year. Ana and I are in the middle of the photo, sitting on a sofa together, but we’re both leaning into our boyfriends. My cheeks are pink, so we must have just come off the slopes, and my smile is radiant. Elliot has his arms around me, holding me tightly against him, and he grins just as broadly as I do. We look blissfully happy.

I have to close the book. I’ll look at the rest of it later when I’m alone.

“You’re amazing,” I say, turning to my best friend. “I’m going to treasure this forever. Thank you, Ana.”

“You’re welcome, Katie. I’ll be at your house every year on this day and we’ll crack open a bottle of wine and look at those photos together.”

“It’s a date!” She wraps her arms around me and we squeeze each other for half a beat, until Carter takes the book out of my lap, sets it on the table next to the couch, and glances around the room at the rest of the family.

“Anyone else?”

“Yeah. I’ve got one more.” I turn to look over my shoulder and watch Elliot come from the bottom of the stairs, pulling a small box out of the pocket inside his jacket to hand to me. It’s a jewelry box, that much is obvious, and after the conversation we just had upstairs, I’m not sure I want to open this in front of everyone. But Carter has seen it and he already thinks I’m hiding things from him about Elliot.

You are.

I press my lips together, ignoring the bitter voice echoing in the back of my mind, and pull open the lid of the box. Inside, there is a pair of sparkling diamond earrings resting on a bed of blue satin. They’re breathtaking.

“Elliot. I-I– I can’t accept this…”

He shakes his head. “I bought them a long time ago. Three years ago, actually. When you left San Francisco while I was still at Stanford. We were fighting when you left because I was mad you’d spent so much of your visit doing homework. We weren’t even talking when I dropped you off at the airport, but when I got back to my apartment… I found that you’d left this note on my pillow.” He reaches into his jacket again, pulls out a very worn piece of crumpled up paper, and gives it to me to read.

 

I’m sorry I didn’t have much time this weekend, but I hope you’ll forgive me and that you’ll be proud when all this hard work means I graduate Valedictorian. I love you, El. -Katie

 

“I bought those earrings that day and I vowed to give them to you when you proved yourself right. And you did. Congratulations, Katie.”

My stomach clenches again as I look at the stunning pair of earrings in my hand, and then up into the deep, blue depths of his eyes. “Thank you, Elliot. They’re beautiful.”

“You’re welcome. You deserve it, Kate. You deserve everything.”

And just like that, it’s like I’m back upstairs in my room with his lips against mine again. We stare at each other for a long time, or at least, it feels like a long time. Nothing else exists in that moment but him, and me, and the unspoken words lost in the eye contact we share. It’s almost as though I’m locked there, frozen, until Ana grabs my hand, pulls me off the couch, and drags me with her as she moves to hug Grace. She leads me around the room so that we can express our gratitude to each person sitting around us in turn, but as I smile at the hug shared between my mom and Ana, Carter gets off the couch to get everyone’s attention.

“I have a gift too.”

I turn in his direction and he comes directly towards me, taking both of my hands in his the moment he’s within reach. “Kate, a lot of great things have happened to me while I was here at Harvard. But nothing has been as great as these last few months with you. You’re smart, witty, fun… and the most beautiful woman I’ve ever laid eyes on. I love you, Katherine Kavanagh, and I want to love you for the rest of my life.”

My heart feels as though it freezes in my chest as he reaches into the pocket of his slacks, pulls out a black velvet box, identical to the one Elliot had given me moments before, and then slowly sinks down onto one knee.

“Will you marry me?”

There it is. The four words that have been so important to me that I tossed away the man I thought was the love of my life to hear them. My hand is shaking when I pull back the lid, and when I see the beautiful, three carat, princess cut diamond my mouth drops open. It’s beautiful. Perfect. But looking at it doesn’t bring me any sense of joy. I don’t feel the sense of elation that I’d always imagined would come with this moment. I feel empty. Void. And rather than process what this actually means, my brain is racing through different ideas of how to get away from the pointed stares coming at me from all different directions around the room.

Unfortunately, the distraction I’m practically praying for comes in the form of a blood curdling scream from Ana.

I turn and see her grabbing her side again, the way she did in the kitchen, only this time the pain reflected on her face is much more intense. Christian grabs onto her, asking her what’s wrong, but she struggles to stand, even breathe through the pain, so she doesn’t answer for several seconds.

“I–I think my water just broke,” she pants, and my eyes immediately shift to Grace. I didn’t think that was supposed to be painful.

Grace reaches for Mia’s arm as Ana pushes past the pain enough to pull up the long skirts of her dress, and the entire room gasps in horror when we see the dark, crimson blood that soaks the carpet around her feet. It’s astonishing, shocking, how much blood has pooled there in the few seconds that have past since she first screamed. My eyes flit up to her wide, panicked face, and then I let out a terrified shriek myself when her eyelids begin to flutter, then roll back into her head, and she collapses in Christian’s arms.

Next Chapter

Elliot PoV: They’d Never Believe We’re Just Friends…

Kate and Elliot

End of Chapter 33

Mac’s is more crowded than I ever remember it being in the two years that I lived in Cambridge. It’s a little divy, but they have good music, a dancefloor, free pool tables, and a killer beer selection, which had Kate and I coming here every Thursday night back in the good old days. In fact, despite the crowds and the almost overbearing presence of Christian’s security team, tonight feels a lot like the good old days. Kate sits on the bar stool next to me, laughing at my jokes and beaming radiantly at me as I catch her up on everything going on in Seattle. She tells me everything she finds annoying about Christian living with them now, which mostly has to do with he and Ana fucking all over their house. There’s a glint in her eye as we talk that makes me hopeful, and when she gets up to sink a few more of the balls left on the table, I do everything I can to silence the voice in the back of my head telling me over and over again how dangerous that hope is.

She’s not mine anymore. I can’t give her what she wants. She has Carter Reed.

I take a drink of my beer, once again tasting the bitterness that name leaves in my mouth. I used to think Christian overreacted when it came to Reed, but now… I think he might have under-reacted. The guy’s a fuckface.

“Well, I may have missed but I blocked Christian’s best shot on the corner pocket,” Kate says as she takes a seat on the stool next to me again. “We’ve got this in the bag.”

I nod, then watch Christian lean over the table and glance at Anastasia before he hits the cue ball into the eight and it rolls smoothly into the side pocket.

“Ooh, bad luck, bro,” I say, shaking my head. The taunt beneath my fake pity is subtle, and clearly played far too well, because rather than throwing some biting response back at me, he simply shrugs and passes his stick back to Sawyer.

“That’s fine. Ana and I need to get home anyway, it’s getting late.” I nod, reluctantly accepting that Ana being so pregnant means we just can’t stay out like we used to, and tip the last swallow of beer into my mouth. But as Kate starts to gather her things, Christian holds up a hand to stop her. “Please, stay and enjoy the rest of the night. Your drinks are on me.”

I have to hide my smile. Free drinks and the rest of the night alone with Kate? And to think, I didn’t get him anything…

“Well, if you insist!” I reply merrily, turning to find his body guard in the crowd by the bar. “Taylor! The Russian Imperial Stout!”

Christian rolls his eyes but takes his jacket off the chair next to me and then hurries over to Ana, wraps her hand in his, and pulls her so purposefully after him that her very round, pregnant frame causes her to wobble slightly. Taylor hands me the beer I’ve asked for and nods to both Kate and I before hurrying after them, and when I catch Luke scanning the room with diligent eyes one last time as he leaves, I worry for a moment there’s something wrong. Christian is here because someone is stalking and actively trying to harm Ana. Are they here now? Is Kate safe?

“What do you think that was about?” I ask while Kate moves to the table to re-rack the balls for a game of one-on-one. She glances over her shoulder towards the door and then shakes her head.

“They’re going home to have sex. Christian can be impatient sometimes.”

“Oh… you’re sure?”

“Yeah, haven’t you been watching them for the past hour? Ten more minutes and I’m pretty sure he would have stripped her down right here and thrown her on this table.”

“No, I haven’t been,” I admit, and when she bends over the table to break, I glance down at her perfect rear end and sigh. “I’ve been a distracted, I guess.”

She laughs, then hits the cue ball into the grouping in the center of the table and watches as two striped balls roll into pockets on opposite sides of the table. After giving me a coy look, she begins circling the table until she finds her next best shot. I watch her bend over again and sink the ten in the corner pocket, but she misses her next shot on the fourteen. It doesn’t seem to shake her confidence though. When she stands upright again she gives me a challenging smile. “Stripes.”

I grin and move to the table with my cue, strategizing how best to tackle the solids still spread out across the table. I don’t have too many difficult angles so I’m fairly certain that, as long as I don’t fuck something up, I can probably run the table.  My first shot is on the six, and it rolls into the dead center of the bottom right-corner pocket. While the sound of the ball swirling around the cup rings around us, I turn and smile back at Kate again. “You’re toast, Kavanagh.”

“Bring it, Grey.”

We play three solid games, trading off wins, but we only make a few shots each before the fourth game is completely abandoned in favor of sitting at the table, sharing a few drinks, and talking again. And this, this is what I’ve missed so much…

“Oh my god, do you remember that weekend we spent in Pacific Beach, in that tiny little cottage rental that leaked and didn’t have any hot water?”

I laugh. “Yeah. How did we end up there?”

“Because you told me you had already made reservations at the resort. But you lied, and when you tried to get a room once we got there, they were all booked up! It took us two and a half hours to find somewhere to stay and that tiny little shack cost us twice what we were going to pay on our suite.”

“Oh that’s right,” I reply, narrowing my eyes. “I told you I’d make the reservation, but you said you wanted to pick the room so you told me not to worry about it and that you’d take care of it. Then when we got there and didn’t have a room, you tried to blame it on me.”

“That doesn’t sound like me.” She giggles before taking another drink of her beer.

“Uh huh.”

“Still, it turned out great, didn’t it? We were right on the beach so we had bonfires both nights and we built that giant sandcastle that took us hours, and hours, and hours.”

“A miraculous feet of engineering. I actually can’t believe we pulled it off.”

“Luckily, one of us has an engineering degree from MIT so…”

I smile and shake my head, reminiscing. “The sunsets were great from the front porch, weren’t they? I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything more beautiful.”

“I know.”

“And at night, it got so cold that you had to snuggle up close to me and I’d wrap you in my arms and we’d stay like that, the whole night.”

She shakes her head. “We always slept like that. It was like, even in my dreams I needed to be close to you.” She takes another drink and I bite back the words that are fighting to bubble through my lips. I still love you. I want you back.

“It took me a long time to learn how to sleep without you again,” she continues. “I think you get accustomed to having someone in the bed with you, so when I was alone I wasn’t sleeping very well.”

“Until Carter.”

“Yeah… Until Carter.”

“How are you two doing?” God, I hope she can’t hear the desperation in my voice.

“Fine. Good. He’s really sweet, and very caring. Right after you and I broke up, he would come stay with me a lot while Ana was gone since I still really can’t be alone overnight. And when I had surgery last winter, he took really good care of me. My parents like him and he and Ana get along really well. Even Christian is coming around, I think. It’s good. He and I, we’re… good.”

“I’m glad to hear that. I mean, I wish… uh… I just…” I take a deep breath, foregoing my attempt to lie about how much it hurts to hear about her new relationship, and settle for what’s really important. “I’m glad you’re happy.”

She nods and gives me a strange kind of half-smile that’s hard to read, then takes an extra long pull from her beer.

“What about you? How’s life after Gia?”

I shrug. “Fine, I guess. I’ve been working a lot trying to get Christian’s building finished before the new fiscal year, and his house finished before Calliope comes, so that fills a lot of my free time. But Dad doesn’t need people around so much anymore, Christian and Ana are here, and Mia, well, she’s seventeen and would rather hang out with her friends at the mall than her clearly second favorite brother. Gia and I didn’t have a lot in common. She wasn’t interested in any of the things I like and all she ever really wanted to do was shop or work out. But, at the end of the day, she was someone to talk to. Someone to have dinner with and to tell how my day went. She was happy to see me when I got home. But now, there’s no one. It’s a little lonely, I guess.”

“Well, she’s not the only girl out there. You’re quite the catch, Elliot Grey. I should know…” She pauses, and bites her lip. When she speaks again, there’s a slight quiver in her voice. “I’m sure there are a million girls out there who would die to be the girl you came home to at night.”

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

“So, you’re not dating anyone, then?”

“No. I think there are a few things I need to work out before I even think about having a relationship again.”

“Like what?”

That I’m still madly in love with you and no woman is ever going to measure up to what we had together. “I don’t know. I think I just need some time.”

“Elliot…” She pauses, letting the awkward way she says my name hang between us. I don’t know what she’s going to say next, if I want to hear what she’s going to say next or even if I can bear it, but the silence redirects my attention to the music and I note that the song has changed to one of her favorites.

“Hey, listen,” I tell her, and as she looks up into the open space around us, the look of pained conflict on her face melts away into a pale echo of the smile I love so much.

“I love this song!”

I laugh at the familiar excited squeal in her voice. “Yeah, I know.”

“Do you want to dance?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

I get up, take her hand, and lead her to the middle of the dance floor. It’s one of those songs that makes girls want to get up and shake their asses around, so there aren’t very many couples around us and everyone in the bar has turned their attention to the dance floor to watch the pretty, young girls sway their hips and drop low to the floor. The attention might have been awkward for anyone else, but not Kate. She carries on as if she were alone in her room with a pair of headphones in. It’s one of the things I’ve always admired most about her. She has this undeniable passion for life that is unencumbered by embarrassment or fear of judgement. The complete opposite of Gia, or of any girl I’ve ever met. She does whatever she wants, how she wants, and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. Just taking her hand as she twirls and pulling her into my body so I can dip her makes me feel more alive than I have in months. When she pushes into me and I can hold her, her scent swirls through my head and leaves me dizzy.

She’s laughing when the song stops but as the slow drone of Toby Keith replaces the upbeat tempo, her smile slowly fades away. My shoulders fall in disappointment, but as I turn to make my way back to our table, she reaches out to grab onto my arm and stops me.

“I like this song too,” she says.

I don’t move at first, but she steps forward, presses her body into mine, places my right hand on her waist, and takes my left hand in hers. We stand there like that for half a second, and then I take the leap and push her backwards to lead her across the dancefloor. As we spin and sway, her eyes never leave mine and the words of the song drift around us like a commentary of everything I feel, but can’t say.

 

You shouldn’t kiss me like this, unless you mean it like that

‘Cause I’ll just close my eyes, and I won’t know where I’m at

And we’ll get lost on this dancefloor, spinning around

And around and around and around

They’re all watching us now, they think we’re falling in love

They’d never believe we’re just friends

You shouldn’t kiss me like this, unless you mean it like that

If you do, baby kiss me again

 

I feel my throat tighten as I stare deep into her eyes, and in that moment, I can’t hold back anymore. I lean forward, intent on taking her lips with mine and pouring into her everything I want her know about these last few months, but before I can touch her with my kiss, a voice next to us calls out her name and we both freeze.

“Kate?”

It’s Carter Reed, and he’s flocked by group of guys that look as though they’ve just stepped out of an SNL skit making fun of rich, douchey Millennials.

“Carter!” Her hand falls from mine and she takes a quick step back, looking guilty, and anger flares behind her boyfriend’s eyes.

“What the fuck is going on here?”

“We’re just dancing,” she says. “Christian and Ana just left, we were playing pool and talking, and then that Trace Adkins song I like came on. I asked if he wanted to dance.”

“Yeah, this looks real innocent.” His jaw tenses, and when I glance down, I notice his hands are shaking.

“You need to calm down, dude,” I warn him, and his eyes snap over to me.

“Don’t tell me what I need to do, Grey. Fuck you.” He turns back to Kate. “Get your ass in the car, we’re leaving.”

“Carter…”

“Don’t fucking argue with me right now, Kate. Move!”

“Hey! You don’t get to speak to her that way…”

He takes two steps so that he’s right in my face, and now his entire body is trembling. When he speaks, I can smell the alcohol on his breath. “Say another word. Please. Give me a reason…”

“Are you serious right now?”

“Oh, I’m dead serious. You think I don’t know what you’re doing? You think I’m just going to stand back while you paw my girlfriend? I know your game, your brother did the same fucking thing to me and I’m not going to let it happen again. You even so much as look at her again, I’ll knock your fucking lights out.”

The threat triggers a rush of adrenaline and my body stiffens automatically. “That’s real big talk when you’ve got four guys standing behind you.”

“I don’t anyone else to kick your ass, Grey.”

“Really? Then why don’t you and I step outside for a second…”

“Stop it!” Kate moves around me to stand between Reed and I and uses her hands to push us apart. “Just stop it, you’re both being idiots.”

“Were you going to fuck him tonight, Kate?”

“No! Jesus, Carter. We’re friends. We’re just friends. You need to calm down.”

“And you need to go get your ass in the car.”

“I don’t think so,” I say, reaching out to grab Kate’s wrist. “She’s not going anywhere with you.”

“Stop!”

“Kate, he smells like the inside of a whiskey bottle. I’m not letting you get into a car with him.”

“I’m not an idiot, Elliot. You don’t have to babysit me. Carter, I’m going to call a cab to take us home. Go wait for me outside.”

“Kate…”

“Go!”

Reed’s nostrils flair but his body seems to relax as he takes a step back and shoots a death glare at me. “You’re on my list, Grey. Watch yourself.”

I snort, but Kate pushes him away before I can say anything more. My eyes follow them through the crowd as they make their way outside, clearly arguing, and not going after them is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Every instinct I have tells me not to let her go with him, to get her as far away from him as possible, but I don’t get to make that decision for her. If she had said no and he tried to force her to leave with him, that would be a different story. But she didn’t say no. She’s leading him out as much as he’s leading her.

Kate’s never been the damsel in distress type.

I press my lips together in frustration, then pull out my phone and find Christian’s name in my contacts. He doesn’t answer when I call, so I have to settle for a text message.

 

Kate and Reed are on their way back. If Kate doesn’t come home in the next thirty minutes, call me.

 

A minute passes, but there’s no response. I sit at the table, order another beer, and wait, deciding if I don’t hear back from Christian at all, I’ll go to Kate’s house myself. But as the twenty-ninth minute of my allotted thirty minute time frame rolls past, my phone buzzes on the table. It’s Christian.

 

Sorry, I just saw this. They got home about twenty minutes ago. You okay?

 

I let out a long breath, but I’m not sure if it’s relief or disappointment I feel. Christian is prone to overreacting, so if there was anything at all for me to worry about, he’d tell me. But having nothing to worry about means nothing will change, and having tonight with Kate has shown me just how much I want it to.

I was fooling myself with Gia. As much as it makes me sick to admit, I was using her to replace Kate and the resentment that built up between us had nothing to do with that Gresham guy or even tension between her and my family. It was because she couldn’t fill the Kate sized void in my life. Does Reed fill the void I’ve left in hers?

I shake my head, disgusted.

How could someone who would act like that make her happy, anyway? What is he possibly giving her that I didn’t?

Marriage. Kids.

Maybe he’s promised her the things I didn’t. After all, she made it clear to me last fall, marriage is her deal breaker. If I won’t propose, she would never be mine anyway. But if I propose…

I take another drink from my bottle and once again force myself to imagine my life as a husband and a father, but any great fantasy I’m able to conjure is replaced instantly by memories of the stupid, petty arguments my parents used to have when they thought we were asleep. Or even the nights they stayed up wondering where Christian was, only to get a call from the juvenile detention center late in the night telling them he’d been picked up for fighting and was charged with a M.I.C. After they brought him home, my dad would get so angry he’d practically fly off the handle but my mother was so protective over Christian that the two of them would always end up in a blow out and end up sleeping in separate rooms and not talking for days. My dad sacrificed a lot for our family, never did a lot of the things he dreamed of doing, and my mom has made herself so much smaller than she was capable of being for the sake of myself, Christian, and Mia. I don’t want to do that to Kate. I don’t want to do that to myself.

And I have very clear memories of my mother’s face when she found out about Christian and Elena, and about Mia working in that club downtown.  I can still picture the pain in her eyes so clearly that thinking of it now is just as devastating as it was then. I couldn’t handle that. Nor could I handle the battle my father went through in both of the resulting cases. I’ve never been so drained as I was after the whole trial ordeal when I had to fight tooth and nail every single day to keep my family from disintegrating, and always, always, coming up short. I can’t do that again. I don’t want more people to have to fight for. I’m so tired of fighting…

No, I don’t want marriage. I don’t want kids.

But it doesn’t make me want Kate any less. She’s my girl. She’s the one I’m supposed to be with. She’s the only girl who has ever made me feel like I’m doing something right, and I don’t want anyone else. I want her forever, and I would give her forever. So why does she need the stupid piece of paper? Why do we have to change what we had? She’s enough. Aren’t I?

With a sigh, I drain my bottle and pick up my phone again, ignoring the antagonizing looks I’m still getting from Carter’s friends from across the bar.

 

I’m fine. Just wanted to make sure she got home alright. See you tomorrow.

Next Chapter