Chapter 48

“I don’t know, it was still dark…” Elliot’s eyes look into nothing while he answers the questions from the police. He’s not dazed or overcome with shock. It looks as though he’s reliving a memory.

Reliving a nightmare.

“They were already in the room by the time I woke up. Christian and I had been drinking, I was still a little drunk… At first, I thought it was him coming to fuck with me. But then there were more of him, of them. One held me down, one wrapped the tape around my head, and one zip tied me to the headboard. I was helpless before I even knew what was going on.”

“Then what happened?”

“They walked out of the room. I tried to shout for help, but I couldn’t move my mouth under the tape. I was trying to get out of the zip ties when I heard them fighting with Christian downstairs. It sounded bad, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even call out to him…”

“Did you hear anything about what they wanted, or where they were going?”

“No, they never said a word. The only thing I heard was…” He looks up at the still demolished foyer, and his face melts with something between pain and disgust. “That.”

The officer conducting the interview sighs, adjusts the recorder on the coffee table, and then turns to me. “Mrs. Grey, is anything else missing? Cash you had on hand? Jewelry? Any valuables?”

I don’t answer.

I can’t.

It’s not real.

Everything in front of me is happening as though I’m watching it on a television screen. I can see my family sitting around me, I can hear the police asking questions, and I can understand the answers they get in return. But I can’t interact with any of it. I’m in a daze. A completely inert state of unbeing. I can’t speak. I can’t move. I can’t even look at anything except the empty space in front of me.

“Nothing is missing,” Taylor grunts from the far side of the sofa. He makes several pain-filled noises as he shifts to sit more upright. The ice pack he holds to the side of his brutalized face never moves. “They were in, they were out. They only wanted him.”

“Yes,” the officer agrees, dejectedly. He reaches forward and stops the recording, then gives a sympathetic smile to Elliot. “Thank you, Mr. Grey. That’s all the questions I have for you.”

“I wish I could give you more,” Elliot replies, his voice breaking with each word. “You are going to find him, right?” 

“We’re going to do everything we can.” 

Elliot grimaces as he swallows back the emotion clawing up his throat, then sniffs hard and moves to Kate. She kisses and throws her arms around him, squeezing him as tightly as she can while he sobs silently into her shoulder.

“I’m so sorry, baby,” she says, wearing her own pain as loudly as Elliot does. “I’m so sorry for what you went through.”

“I didn’t go through anything. It was Christian—“ He starts to sob again, while Kate runs her fingers gently over his scalp.

“They’re going to find him Elliot.”

“Yeah. They have to.” He pulls away from Kate, taking a few deep breaths to calm himself, and then he turns to me.

“What can I do, Ana?”

I can’t look at him.

“Well we’re going to start by getting everyone together,” Grace intervenes. “I just got off the phone with Ray and he’s on his way down. He asked me to make you a cup of tea.”

A teacup appears on the table before me, and I actually manage to look down at it. It’s familiar. It comes from a set that Christian bought for my apartment on the 14th floor when I worked for him as an intern. I’d had to bring them up here with me when I’d agreed to move in with him because he doesn’t drink tea. I remember putting them in the cabinet on my first official day living here and realizing, even then, how much they represented the way he cares about me. The way he’s always thinking about me.

I didn’t speak to him for two years, and he remembered to buy me tea cups.

Tears well in my eyes, but I can’t move to brush them away. I stare at pretty pink flowers on the china that look like the dozens of bouquets he’s sent me over the years, and the tears stream unimpeded down my face until I feel Kate’s fingers reach over to catch them. She leans away from Elliot and wraps an arm around me, but it doesn’t make me thaw. I sit. Still. Staring at the teacup.

I wonder if I look as dead as I feel?

“Mia’s on her way,” Carrick says, stalking into the room and brandishing his cell phone with an erratic kind of energy that is deeply unsettling. “I’ve chartered her a flight out of Boston, she’s going to be here in a few hours.”

“I still don’t think she needs to leave school,” Elliot says. “She hasn’t even been there for a week and if we’ve learned anything over these past few years, it’s that she’s a hell of a lot safer in Cambridge than she is here.”

“Elliot,” Kate hisses in admonishment. Her eyes go wide with an unspoken lecture and her head tilts in my direction, but I’m not phased by his blunt statement. It washes off me just like everything else. There’s no point mincing words or trying to paint this any other color than the dark shade of horror it is.

“I don’t care,” Carrick continues. “I want us all together.” His eyes move over all of us, as though he’s taking a head count, and then his eyes go wide with a newly realized fear. “Where are the babies?”

“They’re at Chri– Ana’s house,” Grace says, stumbling painfully over her words. She walks to her husband and wraps him in an unsettled embrace. “They’re with Mackensie and the rest of her security team.”

“Well, get them here immediately!” Carrick argues. My eyes flash up at him like he’s just threatened me, but I don’t have to break through the parasitic void to fight him because Taylor does it for me.

“They’re most secure at the residence,” he says. “Mr. Grey’s approved emergency protocol says the kids should be put in lockdown. Ana should be there too, but—”

“But she’s not going anywhere,” Luke says from across the room. It’s the first time he’s emerged from the security office since he first got here. Now, he looks exhausted. Kate nods in agreement. 

“Not until Luke finds him.” 

The police officers still wandering through the apartment scoff, and Luke’s jaw flexes irritably. He turns intense eyes on me, communicating something he doesn’t want the rest of the room to know. I’m not even sure that it is, but the message I get from it is that he’s watching me. I don’t know what he’s looking for, but the warning makes me think he sees an avenue through this. One he doesn’t want to put me through. One that he’s afraid I’ll figure out. 

And suddenly, I’m aware of absolutely everything around me. 

“You are going to find him, aren’t you?” Elliot asks. 

Luke frowns. “Of course I am. It’s just going to take me a minute to get through everything that’s trying to stop me.  In the meantime, I could use some coffee if there’s any made.” 

“I’ll get it,” Jade says. 

She’s been sitting in an armchair on the other side of the room, burying herself in her phone and trying to stay invisible in the middle of our family crisis for hours. I was surprised, actually at how fast she got here. Or that she even came at all. Luke called to tell her where he was and that he wasn’t sure when he’d be home. Instead of being upset, she drove straight here, left him to do his work, and came to sit with me. When I wouldn’t talk, she just nodded, moved to the chair she’s in now, and let me be silent, filling the lonely emptiness in the room with her presence. 

She gets up, and Luke pulls her in for a grateful kiss before she heads into the kitchen. Grace starts sobbing softly from the other side of the sectional again, which she tries to hide unsuccessfully behind her hand, and Carrick takes the seat next to her so that he can hold her through it. His eyes bounce between Luke and Taylor. 

“How did this even happen? How did they get in here?” 

Taylor grimaces. “Escala.” 

“What?”

“We own the apartment, not the building. So everything we do, we have to give to the building owner. They have the code to the elevator for liability reasons, and we’re only allowed to have recording cameras in common areas because of an agreement we made that states Escala owns the footage and has the right to turn the cameras off at their discretion. They don’t, so it’s never been a problem. But they can. Whoever came at us, did. Nothing broke through our firewalls, every breach Luke has found came from the Escala side. That’s why the garage footage is gone, but not the footage in the apartment.”

“But he doesn’t even really live here,” Carrick argues again. “He’s only been here a few nights, how did they even know to look for him here?” 

“Probably something to do with this…” Luke interjects. He walks across the room and puts his cellphone on the table. A video starts to play on the screen with a logo for a paparazzi website I’ve blocked on all my devices stamped over the picture in the left hand corner. 

Through the shouts and tightly packed bodies, the shiny black door of the Maybach opens and Christian steps out onto the sidewalk in the same suit he was wearing at my doctor’s appointment yesterday. He looks annoyed as he pushes through the first wave of photographers, and as the angle changes with him, I see the blue glass doors of Escala. There’s a very distinguishable clock on a post next to the door that clearly shows the time of his arrival. 

“Why wasn’t he dropped off in the garage?” Kate asks, rounding on Taylor. His face falls.

“He’d asked me to go get him bourbon. I dropped him off at the street entrance so I could go to the liquor store.” 

Jade returns with a coffee cup that she gingerly passes to Luke. He takes a deep drink, grimacing slightly as it scalds his throat, then wraps an arm around his girl and pulls her into his side. Elliot’s knees bounce anxiously, until he eventually pulls himself off the sofa and begins to pace. 

“There’s got to be something we’re overlooking. There’s got to be more we could be doing.“

“I’m not overlooking anything, Elliot,” Luke assures him. “I’m going to find hi–”

His sentence cuts off with the ping of the elevator, and everyone’s eyes turn toward the foyer as though they expect it to be Christian who comes through the doors. As though they think it would be that simple.

As if they truly believe we’re going to get out of this without devastating consequences.

The steel doors slide open and Ros’s heels begin clacking their way across the foyer into the living room. Grace goes to her immediately, throwing her arms around her while Christian’s best friend begins to word-vomit her sympathies.

“Is there any news?” she asks, nervous eyes darting first to Taylor, then to Luke, and finally Carrick. They all shake their heads, so she turns to me.

Her hand flies up to her chest and her face crinkles with unspoken consolation. She moves toward the sofa as though it were a calling, and slides into the seat next to me. “How are you doing, Ana?”

I can’t even yank my hand out of hers, the way I want to.

“She’s…” Kate begins, and immediately stops as the words fail to materialize. Ros nods, and gets up to hug Elliot and Carrick, but I can’t quite make out the words they exchange with one another. I glance around, waiting for a sign. Looking for clarity. Praying for some epiphany that will put some light at the end of this macabre tunnel. My internal pleas are interrupted by a sudden, discordant jingle…

A phone.

“That’s Ana’s,” Luke voices aloud for me.

Kate leans across the table to dig through my abandoned purse, but when she has my phone in her hands and she looks down at the screen, she frowns.

“It just says ‘unknown.’”

The police officer who interviewed Elliot perks up, then snaps to his colleagues currently going over the security footage at my dining room table. “It could be them,” he says, and it’s like I suddenly come to life. Whatever heavy force was holding me down, whatever thing was choking back my voice… all of it disappears, and I practically leap from the couch to snatch my phone from Kate’s hands.

“This is Anastasia Grey,” I start, and an unfamiliar British accent responds.

“Good evening, Mrs. Grey. Are the police officers with you tracing this phone call?”

I swallow, ensuring my voice won’t shake before I continue. The officer who interviewed Elliot is coming towards me with a black box in his hand, similar to the one that Luke had used to record the call Lincoln made at my graduation. 

“They will be.” 

“Then I’ll keep this brief. Rosaline Bailey entered your apartment a few minutes ago. Would you be so kind as to hand her the phone, please?” 

So they are watching us.

“Ros?” I turn to look at her and her eyes go wide. “No, Christian… What about Christian? Where is he? Is he okay?” 

“I don’t have much time, Mrs. Grey.” 

“I… Look, I’m the one you want to help you, okay? My name is on everything that Christian’s is and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get him back safely. I can give you anything he can, so just tell me what you want for him, and I’ll give it to you.” 

He sighs. “The only way you can give me what I want, is by handing the phone to Rosaline Bailey.” 

My heart hammers against my ribcage while I hesitate. Each second feels precious while Christian’s fate hangs in the balance, but… this is my only line to the man who has him, which makes it the only line I have to him. It’s not so easy to give up…

“Please,” I beg, my bottom lip beginning to tremble. “Please let me talk to him. Let me just hear that he’s okay.”

“I’m sorry, that’s impossible. Please give the phone to Ms. Bailey.”

“Please,” I plead again, only becoming more desperate the more the man reveals. “Please, just tell me what to do to get him back…”

“Give the phone to Ms. Bailey, Mrs. Grey.”

I close my eyes, fighting against the insurmountable force that tells me to keep the man talking and keep him talking to me, and pass the phone to Ros. She reaches out with a shaky hand, but pauses before regaining her composure and slowly pulling the phone to her ear.

“This is Rosaline Bailey,” she says. For several seconds, I watch the myriad of emotions move across her face in silence. First trepidation, then revulsion, then fear, and finally, anger.

“No, I can’t do that,” she says, so firmly I could scream. There’s another long pause while the man on the phone makes his counter argument, but that’s only met with another denial from Ros.

It’s too much for me to hold back. I lunge at her with the same intense purpose I did with Kate and take the phone back. “I can do it. I will do it. Just tell me what you want.”

The voice sighs impatiently. “You’re not the person who can help me, Anastasia…”

“Like hell I can’t. Just give me the number. Ten million? A hundred million? A billion? I don’t care, you can have all of it! I just want my husband back.” I’m shrieking, on the edge of hysterics, and the man on the phone sighs impatiently.

“I don’t want your money,” he says, and then to my complete and utter horror, he hangs up the phone.

“No!” My scream echoes through the deathly silent room while I go into my contacts and try to call the unknown number back over and over again. Each time the call fails to connect, my anguish blooms a little bit further out of my control. I round on Ros. “What did he want?”

She cowers slightly under the force of my words, which I think has more to do with guilt than fear. She glances nervously at the other faces around the room, then looks directly at the police.

“He wants me to dismantle Endurance. He wants everything we’ve developed and manufactured to be destroyed and all of our data erased. He wants it to be like it never existed and for us to bury it deep enough that I will never exist again.”

Her denial reverberates in my mind and nearly has me falling back on the couch in disbelief. That’s it?

“So do it!” I scream at her. She mashes her lips together and shakes her head defiantly.

“I can’t. We have contracts with governments all over the world and the man has been nominated for a fucking Nobel Prize. This technology is bigger than we are now. This is an evolutionary point in human history and nothing can be allowed to step in its way. Christian knew that before anyone else did, and I guarantee you that the reason they’re calling me right now is because he’s telling them the same thing I’m telling you.”

Carrick blinks at Ros in shock. “What did you say? He’s nominated for a Nobel Prize?”

I hold up a hand in my father-in-law’s face, cutting off Ros’s response. “I don’t give a fuck what he’s nominated for. They don’t give the Nobel Prize posthumously.”

I can feel it coming, the break they’ve all been tiptoeing around. It starts like a crack in the fortified walls in a dam. Small, almost inconsequential. The waves of grief compounding on top of it chip it open further and further until I’m only holding on by a few crumbling bits of plaster.

Luke sees it coming, but he doesn’t come to me. “I’m on it, Ana.” he tells me. “I’m going to find him.” Then he turns around and marches back into the security office. 

On the precipice of a total meltdown, I turn away from Ros and the rest of my family, and hurry towards our bedroom. The door sounds so final when it slams behind me, like an ending I’m not prepared to face.

I fall into the bed, the first great sob of the hysteria pulling in the scent of Christian from the sheets. I wrap myself in them like a cocoon while I shake with a grief so profound it shakes my very essence. The tears stream in endless currents down my face, beyond the point I should have any left. Every part of me feels as though it’s being ripped apart, and then somehow ripped again. It goes on and on, the pain only compounding with each passing second, until eventually, someone comes to check on me.

“Annie?”

The door creaks a little as my father eases it open. He stands in the doorway for only half a second, taking in the devastation before him, and then he moves to the bed beside me. His arms coil around me, as if I could be fused back together with enough pressure.

“He’s going to be okay, Annie,” he whispers into my hair. “Christian is so much stronger than any of us, he’ll get through this. He’d fight the whole world to get back to you.”

“What if he doesn’t win, Daddy?” 

“Nonsense. He changed the laws of physics. Does that sound like a man who loses to you?” 

I take a few breaths against his shirt, and soak in the comfort he’s trying to give me. It doesn’t do much, because there’s something about that sentiment that rings like a warning. But the little reprieve I’m able to take from his love gives me the strength to choke back my tears and at least look up at him. In a way, he seems unfamiliar through the glassy layer of despair that coats my eyes. Everything is distorted. Darker, like some of the light has been taken from the world. But there’s hope staring down at me through my father’s eyes, and every part of me wants to believe in it. Even if I know it’s an empty lie.

He reaches for my face and wipes the tears from my cheeks. “Have you eaten anything?” I shake my head, because it’s all that I can do, and he gives me an understanding smile. “Kim came up with me. I’ll have her fix you something, okay?”

“Looks like I’m two steps ahead of you, Ray.”

We both look up and see Kate standing in the doorway. She holds up a brown paper bag and a large cup with a wide red straw. My dad smiles and claps his hand over the blanket that covers my leg.

“I guess I’ll leave you girls to it, then.” I nod and he leans over to kiss my forehead, capturing my chin between his fingers before he climbs out of bed. “I’m here, Annie. If you need anything, I’m just down the hall. If you want to talk or you want someone to cry on… I’m waiting for you, okay? No matter what time it is, I’m here. Just come find me.”

I try to respond, but in the absence of the unrelenting torment, I’ve gone numb again. It doesn’t matter, he understands me better than anyone in the entire world. He smiles back at me, and kisses me one last time. As he leaves the room, he squeezes Kate’s arm.

“Thanks, kiddo.”

She winks at him, then hops into bed with me and gives me a look like she’s about to let me in on a secret.

“I know you probably don’t want to eat, but hear me out. Elliot went down to Dicks and…” She holds up the bag in front of me. The bottom so coated in grease I’m almost worried it will give out. “Deluxe cheeseburger, large fries, and an extra thick chocolate milkshake.” She holds it out to me with confidence that would normally be well earned, but there’s nothing about consuming way too many calories that appeals to me right now. There’s nothing that appeals to me right now period. There’s only the absence that Christian has left behind and the desperate need I have to bring him home.

“Come on, Ana,” Kate says dejectedly. “You have to eat. It’s not just you anymore, remember?” Her eyes move down to my stomach, and I feel a wash of blame sweep over me. I hang my head.

“He was right, I didn’t see this from his side.” 

“What?” 

“He’s terrified of losing me because it feels like this, and I haven’t felt this. This… this…” I lift my hands, like it’s even possible to demonstrate the enormity of this loss. Of this hurt. “He’s been living with this for days, and I… I ran away. He wanted to be home, I told him he couldn’t be there. He did come home, and I asked him to leave again. I didn’t see this from his side because if I did, I would have done everything I could to help him through this pain. I could have called Flynn. I could have assembled a team of experts. I could have bought a fucking hospital and just moved in for the next nine months, but instead… instead, I told him I needed space. That I needed to be away from him. Because I didn’t understand this pain. His pain… He was here because of me.” 

“Don’t do that to yourself, Ana. He could have done all of those things too, but he got a vasectomy instead. You didn’t know this would happen, and you don’t know that this had to happen here. Maybe it would have happened anyway, and maybe it would have happened where you and Calliope were…”

I narrow my eyes at her. “Do you know the only directive my security team has? Me first. Always me first. So while I was safe at home, behind my gates that are locked with codes no one else has, under the surveillance of my cameras that no one else can turn off, guarded by my entire armed security team, he was here. Without them. If he would have been home last night, Taylor wouldn’t have been alone. He would have had Evan, and Smith, and Harper, and Wyatt… I would have been there.”

“And they would have just taken you too.”

I turn away from her, scowling into the nothingness around me. “I think I would have preferred that. Any imminent threat of danger would be easier than this. Than not knowing what’s happening to him… or what will happen next. I can’t do this!

“He’s going to be okay, Ana. We’re going to make a deal to get him. Eventually, it will come down to money. We’ll pay it, and we will get him back.”

“No, Kate. They’re never going to give him back.” I turn to her, and lay out the part of this she hasn’t seen yet. The parts I didn’t see until the phone went dead. The parts that keep her sitting upright, while I’m struggling to maintain the functions that are supposed to be done unconsciously. “Why would they give him back? They said they wanted Endurance destroyed and Christian is Endurance. He’s the creator. He’s the visionary. It’s all in his head.” And suddenly, the warning I took from my father makes sense, and it stirs the existential fear inside of me. “He doesn’t lose. He wouldn’t even lose to me, there’s no way in hell he’d let himself be beaten by the people who invaded his home and took the power from him that he put his entire life’s work on the line to get. He’ll just start from scratch and somehow end up with a product that’s better and more impressive than what he built the first time. And then they’ll come back. Or someone else will come…” I let the words trail off as my head hangs in misery. “They’re not giving him back, Kate.” 

As tears fall down my face, she hugs me again. “Annie…” 

“I can’t lose him, Kate. I can’t, I–” A ghost of the words he’s said to me over and over moves through my head, and I feel the weight of their poignancy. “His heart beats, my heart beats… not just correlation, sequential.” 

“Luke isn’t going to let you lose him, Ana. We’re going to find him. And the team of people who kept you safe are going to bring him home.” 

I take a trembling breath, feeling my entire body fill to the brim with pain. Because I don’t know if I believe her. I don’t know what comes next and every second I live in this torturous purgatory waiting for whatever terrible judgement fate plans to hand down gets harder and harder to bear. I can feel myself unraveling as it happens, but I can’t stop it. I spiral down and down until there’s nothing left but grief. 

Kate’s arms hold me together, and she stays there clinging to me until the sun comes up the next morning and my stomach starts to roil. 

I stumble to the bathroom, wiping tears from my face as I bend over the toilet to vomit. But nothing happens. I wretch and wretch and wretch, but I have nothing in my stomach to throw up. It’s painful, and starts a whole new wave of tears that brings Kate to the floor next to me. 

She passes me the bottle of anti-nausea meds that was in my purse. “You have to eat something, Ana. Please.”

I give her a helpless look, but once the contractions in my stomach stop, I nod and take her hand. She leads me out to the living room and we find everyone still spread out, restless and bleary-eyed. The police have left, but Ros is still here. Kim is in the kitchen stirring something on the stove, and Grace is on the sofa with Mia wrapped under her arm. Every pair of eyes around the room turns to me. 

“She wants to eat something,” Kate says, answering the unspoken question in their gazes. 

“Good,” my dad says. 

“I’m making oatmeal,” Kim calls. “I’ll bring you some.” 

I nod to her, numbly, then shuffle towards the empty place on the sofa that my dad creates for me. Mia gets up like she wants to come cuddle into my side, but she stops when a trilling jingle sounds from the other side of the room. Automatically, I look down at my phone, still on the coffee table, still plugged into the device the police gave me, but it’s silent. Ros is the one who dives into her bag, and when she looks at the screen her nervous eyes shift to Taylor. 

He pulls himself off the couch, groaning in pain but not letting it slow him down in the slightest, rips the device out of my phone, and brings it to Ros. He slips it into the charging port, then nods for her to answer the phone. 

My breath catches in my throat. 

“Hello?” Her voice is shaky and her eyes dart nervously back and forth, then widen very suddenly. “Christian?!” 

I launch myself at her faster than I think I’ve ever moved in my life. I watch her cringe as she listens to whatever he says, then shake her head as she answers. “No, she’s right here, she’s fine. Yeah, Calliope too. They’re both okay. They’re safe. What about you?” She pauses for a moment, listening very intently, but whatever is happening on the other end of the phone only seems to confuse her more. 

“Christian?” she suddenly calls in panic, and I react before I realize what I’m doing. My hand darts out and snatches the phone from her, and I bring it to my ear with the whispered pleas for him to be okay already tumbling from my lips. 

“Christian! Christian!” I call, but the line’s gone dead. There’s nothing but silence, and my wild eyes snap up to Ros. “What did he say?!” 

She shakes her head. “He said don’t do it. He asked if they had you or Calliope, and then he told me not to do a fucking thing. Then there was shouting and…” She cringes again and looks away from me, and I crumple to the floor under the weight of this whole new wave of pain. Both Ros and Kate bend down and place soft hands on my shoulder, whispering reassuring words… but the only thing that breaks through the sorrow is the voice of my former CPO. 

“I’ve got him,” Luke says, and when my head jerks up toward him, I see that he’s talking directly to me. He holds my gaze for just half-a-second, letting me feel the truth behind what he just said, then his eyes move around the room. “I know where he is, and I’m going to go get him. Who’s coming with me?”

Chapter 47

That night, I wake abruptly as though I’ve just escaped a nightmare. My heart is beating wildly in my chest when I sit up straight in bed. My breath comes too quick and shallow for me to calm myself. I try to grasp onto the remnants of my dream slipping away like wisps of smoke, but there aren’t any frightening images in them. I’d been dreaming of Christian and a summer day on our yacht in the middle of the sound.

A new fear moves to the forefront of my mind, and I reach down to my stomach in alarm. There isn’t any pain though, or even queasiness. I’m not bleeding. I’m not uncomfortable. I feel fine. The darkness around me is still, except for Kate breathing peacefully in the bed next to me, and nothing seems to be disturbed.

I glance over Kate to the alarm clock on Christian’s nightstand. It’s 2:37 AM, and I groan. As I fall back into the pillows, I reach over for my phone out of habit to check any notifications that might have popped up while I was sleeping. There’s a missed call and a voicemail from Christian he’d left just after 1 AM. With a cautious look at Kate, I press play on the message, and pull my phone to my ear.

It’s quiet, and it stays that way long enough that I think for a moment he must have butt-dialed me. My fingers moves to delete the message just as his voice comes through the phone and the sound is so rough and broken, it grates against my eardrums like sandpaper.

“You promised me forever,” he slurs. “All I’ve ever tried to do, all I’ve ever wanted, was to love you enough to deserve forever.  And now I’ve fucked it up and I’m going to lose you–No.” He changes direction quickly, and I can almost hear him shaking his head. “I won’t lose you. I won’t. Your heart beats, my heart beats.” Another long beat of silence. “I’ll make fucking sure of it.”

The message ends with a click and my heart starts beating violently in my chest. The morbid tone of his words lingers in my ears and brings goosebumps to the surface of my skin. I quickly dial his number and wait anxiously for him to answer, but I get his voicemail. 

I try to tell myself that’s a good thing. It means he’s gone to sleep and he’ll wake in the morning with a much clearer head. More painful, but definitely clearer. 

With a text to remind him how much I love him and a request for him to call me when he wakes up, I set my phone back on the nightstand and try to get back to sleep. It’s pointless though. The worry I feel over Christian’s voicemail plagues me through the rest of the night, pulling me down into constantly fluctuating waves of tears, until the sun comes up and the alarm clock chimes shrilly from the other side of the bed.

“Mmmm,” Kate moans, stretching her whole body before she even pries her eyes open. “Morning, Annie.” She turns to me, the ghost of pleasant dreams still present on her face. When she sees my puffy eyes and tear-stained cheeks, it all melts into concern. “What’s wrong?”

I reach up to wipe the moisture from my eyes and take a misery filled breath. “Christian called last night. He didn’t sound good.”

“How not good?”

I shake my head, and she frowns.

“Well, Elliot’s with him. If there’s one person who knows how to get Christian through his bullshit, it’s him.”

“Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.” I pull back the covers and get out of bed, but stop when Kate calls my name. I turn inside the doorframe to the bathroom.

“What did he say?” she asks. 

“Nothing, it’s fine.”

But it’s not fine. Nothing about this is fine and I can’t do this anymore. This is going to end today. When Christian comes home from work, we’re going to have it out. And no matter how ugly it gets, I’m not going to run. I’m not going to back down. He’s going to see it my way if it kills him, because what we’re doing right now, is slowly killing me.

The gradual roll of my morning sickness begins to rear its ugly head, so I go to the medicine cabinet before I hop in the shower. I expect my nausea lozenges to be on the 2nd shelf waiting for me, but they’ve been replaced by an orange prescription bottle. The label tells me it’s the medication Dr. Baker prescribed for me during my visit yesterday. I’d completely forgotten about it and hadn’t called Abby to have it picked up. Christian must’ve had Andrea do it, and holding that bottle in my hand makes me only more resolved about my plans for tonight.

We can do this. We love each other. There’s nothing we can make it through.

No matter what.

After my shower, I pick one of Christian’s button down shirts from his closet and tuck it into a high-waisted pencil skirt so that it billows over the top. It smells like the cleaners, rather than my husband, but I can almost feel his touch being wrapped in the fabric. Like the empty sleeves are the same as being held in his arms. The sense of comfort I glean from it gives me a reassuring kind of certainty that keeps my head held high while I move around Kate in the bathroom, then go get Calliope ready for the day.

When we get to GEH, there’s a tiny glimmer of hope in the back of my mind that Christian might be waiting for us. He hasn’t seen Calliope in over a day and that’s always really rough on him. But the only person who greets me once we step off the elevators on the seventh floor is the receptionist who mans the desk in front of Calliope’s daycare. She smiles and greets me the same as she always does, and Calliope runs to play with her friends the moment I set her on the rug of the playroom just like it was any other morning. I watch her for a few minutes while I try to call Christian again, then call her over for a kiss goodbye when I immediately get his voicemail.

“Mary,” I say to the receptionist as I come back into the hallway.

“Yes, Mrs. Grey?”

“If my husband comes down here to see Calliope, will you let me know?”

“Sure, you’re at Grey Publishing now, right?”

My face falls. Good news travels fast, I see. “Yeah.”

She smiles, despite my less than enthused reaction, and makes a note while I head for the elevators with my security team. My Phoenix team is already assembling for the meeting that’s now become part of our daily routine, so I let them know I’ll just be a few minutes and duck into my office. Christian’s phone once again goes straight to voicemail, so I start to compose an email just in case he’s without a phone charger but is checking his email on the computer at Escala. He doesn’t respond within the five minutes I give myself to check my other emails, so before I duck out for my meeting, I pick up my phone and call upstairs.

“Good morning, Christian Grey’s office. How may I help you?” It’s Andrea who answers, instead of Oliva, and her voice is disrupted by some kind of chaos going on in the background. 

“Hey it’s Ana. Can you transfer me to my husband, please?”

“Uh, I wish… he’s not here. I’ve called him like 50 times but his phone is off. We’re getting bombarded with calls and he’s complete M.I.A.”

My brow furrows. “Calls about what?”

“You didn’t hear? Mr. Grey has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics for the Endurance project.”

“What?!”

“Jacqueline is trying to get a statement, Ms. Bailey has been fielding calls from government officials and scientists all morning, and I can’t get the man on the damn phone.”

I blink in shock a few times, only slightly processing what she’s said. The Nobel Prize? The words run like a ticker through my head until I can absorb them properly, and for some reason, the realization makes me think of Carrick. Of all the times Carrick bemoaned his lost legacy when his son dropped out of his alma mater. Now that son could be a Nobel Prize winner.

Talk about a fucking legacy.

“Ana?”

“Sorry… I’m just, uh… shocked a little.”

She laughs. “Is that why I can’t reach your husband?”

“Maybe. He… had a rough night last night, I think he’s probably sleeping in.”

“Well, when you hear from him, please tell him to call me. We’re drowning up here.”

“I will. And if he calls you first…”

“Oh, I’ll yell at him.”

For what feels like the first time in days, a genuine smile crosses my lips and, if I could, I would reach through the phone and hug her. “Thank you, Andrea.”

“No problem. Talk to you later, Ana.”

She hangs up the phone and I have to take a breath to stall the new giddy fluttering of my heart. The rush of pride and amazement and sheer happiness I feel over this new piece of news is almost too much for me to handle, but in a way that gives me an enormous amount of relief. It’s a stark and forceful reminder of how much I love that man and how much he means to me, and it warms me from the inside like a fire crackling merrily through a snowstorm.

I pull out my phone and start a new text.

Congratulations! I love you so much and I’m so proud I can’t even put it into words. Call me ❤

I check my phone about every 15 seconds during my Phoenix meeting, which makes it difficult to follow everything my team is telling me. The general direction we’re moving in on Hailey’s book is exactly what I want, but there’s a palpable resentment shining through the window of the conference room with each and every glance from the GP team. It seeps into the conversation surrounding Phoenix until the former GSP team is engaging in nothing but trash talk about their new co-workers.

The silence from Christian makes their catty banter grating.

“Can we stop with the tribalism, please?” I ask, looking up from my phone again. “You’re all the same team now and I need you to act like it.”

Stevens rolls his eyes, while Jacki glares through the window at the persistently antagonistic stares. “They’re the ones making this difficult.”

“No, this is just difficult. It would be less so if we could act professionally.” I glance around the table with an accusatory stare that has each of them expressing some variation of guilt. Now properly chastened, my team picks up with the conversation about edits being done on chapter three, while I turn to look at a new commotion through the window. The bitter looks from the rest of my team have turned curious and moved to reception, where Ros is speaking with Claire. A second later, the phone in the conference room beeps.

“Hey, Ana. Ms. Bailey is here to see you.”

“I’m on my way out.” I push away from the table and ask my team to continue working, then step out of the room. There’s no sense of warm greeting from Ros as I approach reception. She looks annoyed.

“Hey, what’s up?” I ask.

“Is your husband planning on coming in today? Or, you know, responding to a fucking email?”

I frown. “You haven’t heard from him yet?”

Have you?”

“No.”

She lets out an irritated huff and shakes her head with dismay. “We have an Endurance call with the Prime Minister of New Zealand in forty-five minutes and I do not know enough about the technology to step in for Christian. I need him to come into the office.”

“Okay, I’ll get ahold of him. Hold on.” Taking a few steps away, I once again pull out my phone, but this time, I call Taylor. It rings several times before finally picking up.

I’m sorry, but the person you have called has a voicemail box that has not been set up yet…”

I hang up and feel a strange sense of foreboding come over me. Ros starts to speak, but I move past her. Several questing glances come my way as I move through the office. The only thing I focus on is the man sitting at the desk next to my door.

“Evan, have you heard from Taylor?” I ask.

He glances up at me, frowning, but not looking alarmed. “Not today.”

“Have any of you?”

The other members of my security team glance between one another, the no clear on each of their faces, and a chill moves up my spine. I turn back to Evan.

“I need you to take me to Escala.”

He looks as though he doesn’t believe me. “Escala? Are you… sure?”

“Yes. Now.”

There’s no argument. He picks up his jacket and follows me to the car, along with the rest of my security team. I promise Ros I’ll call her the second I find him, then wait until we’re in the car before I call Elliot. I get his voicemail, and Kate’s, which puts me in a kind of tailspin until I finally call Luke, just to have someone to calm me down.

“Hey, hold on,” he answers in a rushed voice that gets louder as he talks to whoever he’s with. “I need you animals to keep it down while I take this super secret, private phone call with the CEO’s wife.” The joke in his voice is met with the muffled sound of laughter.

“Careful though,” I hear Welch say in the background. “I’ve known Grey for years and there’s nothing that triggers that man more than someone coming onto his wife. Did you hear about the guy who got fired because he glanced at her ass when she was walking out of his office?”

“Did you hear about the eight billion times I got fired because she can’t keep her mitts off me?” He laughs as his attention returns to me. “What’s up, Ana?”

“Why wouldn’t Taylor be answering my calls?”

The merriment in his tone disappears like a snap of his fingers, turning heavy and serious with the very next word out of his mouth. “What happened?”

It takes almost the entire drive to Escala to get him caught up on everything that’s happened since I last spoke with him. He doesn’t say anything when I give him the bad news we’d gotten from the doctor or when I tell him about Christian’s tirade through our apartment the night before. He just listens until my car dips into the shadows of the parking garage, and I let my darkest fear escape.

“You don’t think he’d hurt himself, do you?”

“No,” Luke says, emphatically.

“I keep having this horrible thought that he got into his car while he was drinking and…”

“There’s no way. He loves that car way too much.”

“Luke…”

“Ana, I’m sure he’s fine. He would never do anything that would separate himself from you, no matter how low he got. He’d never leave you.”

“Yeah.” The word comes out in a breath, but it’s firm. I believe him, and I cling to that belief as we pull into a parking spot and Evan turns the key out of the ignition. “We’re here, I’ve gotta go.”

“Keep me updated, okay?”

“Yeah. Bye, Luke.” I hang up and toss my phone back into my purse as I follow my security team through the garage. Christian’s Lamborghini is parked exactly where it should be, which at the very least, assuages the worst of my fears. It’s the not knowing what I’m about to walk into that plagues me the entire ride up the elevator.

But the uncertainty turns out to be so much better than the reality.

At first, I think the scene that greets us through the opening elevator doors is just a horrible, PTSD flashback. The table in the center of the foyer has been knocked over and is now lying in a pool of water, surrounded by broken china and scattered flowers. There’s a body shaped indentation in the drywall opposite from us, and on the metal edge of the elevator, there’s a smudged, bloody handprint. As though someone had tried to cling to the wall and had been dragged inside.

The truth of what’s in front of me sinks in only when my security team starts to react. Evan shouts orders to get me back to the car and several hands reach out, either for me or for the elevator buttons. In a panic, I fight through them all and run into the apartment.

“Christian!” My voice echos through the empty foyer, but I hear a weak groan respond from the living room. My heart thuds with relief and I sprint towards the sound. The thud dies when I find it’s source is Taylor.

He’s beaten. Badly. The bruises on his face are dark enough that they have to be several hours old and the blood on his face and shirt has dried, making his appearance shockingly more gruesome. His right wrist is handcuffed to the breakfast bar, and his body lies lip against the wall.

I run to him just as the calls of alarm from my security team echo behind me. He groans when I take his battered face in my hands, but there’s life in his eyes.

“Where’s Christian?” I manage to say. He turns to look at Evan, now towering over me, moaning with pain at each movement. The word he barks out is barely recognizable.

“Cameras.”

With a nod, Evan and Smith move back into the foyer towards the security office, while Harper and Wyatt start administering first aid for Taylor. I watch them in a daze, my mind repeating the same question over and over again.

Where is he?

“Christian!” My voice doesn’t echo this time, but it sounds hollow. I scramble back to my feet and move toward our bedroom, frantically pulling back the blanket on the bed even though it’s clearly empty, before tearing through our closet and bathroom. He isn’t in his office, he isn’t in the library, he isn’t in the bathroom, or the laundry room… He isn’t anywhere. I call his name again and again as I move through the downstairs, but there’s no answer. I’m just about to start upstairs when I hear a distant call of triumph from the security office.

“Found it,” Evan says, and I start at a dead run for the foyer. I skid through the door to find Smith seated behind the main display screen for the security cameras, rewinding through the footage.

“What is it?” I ask, panting slightly as I come up behind his chair.

“Someone put the override code in at 2:26 this morning,” Evan explains, and the moment he does, the footage stops. I watch in horror as the elevator doors shown in the stream from the foyer roll open and a group of six men, all dressed in identical black with masks covering their faces, file into my apartment. We can follow them through the 2nd second camera in the living room, where they break into two groups. Three of them head upstairs, the other three are confronted by Taylor.

He’s not ready for them. He’s barefoot and dressed in a t-shirt and flannel bottoms. There isn’t a gun in his hand. Against the three hulking figures, dressed in tactical gear and fully prepared for the fight, he never stood a chance, and the fight isn’t pleasant to watch. They surround him almost immediately and the blows he takes are horrifying. The brutality continues for over a minute, until the other group rejoins the first, and they all drag Taylor to the breakfast bar where he’s currently handcuffed

Once they have him secured, the six of them move together into the hallway that leads to my bedroom.

There aren’t any cameras in our room, so I have no way of knowing what happens to Christian until several minutes have passed and they’re dragging him into the hallway. He looks dazed and unsteady as he tries to get the men off him. But once he sees Taylor, something changes in him that makes him more alert and more coordinated. Maybe it’s fear, maybe it’s adrenaline, maybe it’s fury, but as Christian starts to fight the scene devolves into an absolute nightmare.

I’ve seen Christian angry. I’ve seen Christian fight. But I’ve never seen him in a rage like he is on the screen before me. The violence between him and his attackers is terrifying and almost too sickening to watch. They try to overwhelm him in the same way they did to Taylor, but he moves quicker and avoids being closed in. Somehow, he manages to maneuver in a way that keeps the match-ups one on one, and in those scenarios he has the upper hand. As they adapt though, the match-ups start becoming more and more uneven until it’s just six on one.

The harder he fights back, the harder they do. And it makes what they did to Taylor look kind.

The crack on the wall I’d seen when we came in happens when Christian grabs one of the men trying to subdue him and launches him against it. But while that man falls unceremoniously to the floor, another man comes up and grabs Christian from behind. They struggle with one another until another masked man takes advantage and punches Christian, hard, across the jaw. He stumbles into another man who shoves him roughly further into the foyer, sending him tumbling over the table I’d seen lying on the floor.

Christian rolls through the broken bits of the vase, bloodied and clearly in pain. It doesn’t stop them. Two of the men grab him by the arms and wrench him off the floor enough to drag him back to the elevator. With a last, desperate effort, he grabs hold of the metal edge on the elevator and clings to it for dear life. But his hands are slick with blood, and they slip when the men holding onto him yank harder.

Then the elevator doors close, and he disappears.

I only realize after I nearly collapse on the floor that I’d been holding my breath. 

“Mrs. Grey,” Evan says, moving to grab onto me while I wobble unsteadily in front of the monitors. I can barely feel his arms around me. Barely hear the calls he makes for someone to bring me something to drink. 

Still unsteady on my feet, I turn to Smith, and blink at him. “What do we do now?” 

“I-uh…” 

“We find out where they took him,” an unexpected voice interrupts from behind me. I turn and see Luke hovering in the doorway, looking ashen faced as his eyes practically beg for me to understand how much he feels the pain I’m still too numb to experience, and that he’s here to do whatever he can to stop it. 

“Sawyer,” Evan says, mirroring my surprise. I find my balance as Luke moves into the room, so Evan’s hands fall from my arms and we part to make room for my best friend. He looks down at Smith. 

“Get out of the way.” 

“Sawyer, you’re not–”

Get out of my fucking way.” Smith blanches under the threat in Luke’s voice, but he doesn’t move until Evan intervenes. 

“Let him in,” he says. With a slightly resentful roll of his eyes, Smith gets up from his seat and Luke slides in to replace him. He doesn’t hesitate. His fingers start to fly over the keyboard, and boxes pop-up on the screen in front of him that fill with code that he seems to understand more than I do. 

“They got the footage in the garage,” he says robotically, so focused on what’s in front of him that I can’t be certain if he’s communicating with me or just mindlessly parroting what he sees. “They had the code for the elevator, so that probably means they have access to the security systems Escala has in place. And if they do, they know she’s here right now.” 

“Then we’re in code black,” Evan says. He turns to me. “Mrs. Grey, I’m going to need you to return to the main residence immediately.” 

He waits for me to respond, but I don’t. Not even when he calls my name three more times. While Luke continues whatever he’s trying to do through our system, I stare at the paused security footage that has just unravelled my entire world. It’s not the elevators that represent the last place I saw him, or even the trail of blood that leads there that has my attention so captivated. It’s the time stamp in the bottom right hand corner.

2:37 AM.

Next Chapter

Chapter 46

“Look, I’m not happy about this entire situation. I’ve been with Greenwich since day one and now… what? I never applied to work at Grey Enterprises Holdings. No one in the New York office did, and we’re not stoked about it.”

The way he says Grey Enterprises Holdings makes it sound like something sonomous with Nazi Death Camp. There’s animosity in every word he’s said to me, and that’s become something of a pattern with my employees in New York. And several from Grey Publishing. There’s a possible mutiny brewing beneath me, and I’m too sick to put a stop to it.

“I hear you,” I start, my voice already breaking with each nauseating contraction in my stomach. “But can you just hold on one second, Mitch?” My finger barely has time to swipe against the mute button on the screen of my phone before I lean into the toilet and lose my breakfast. The floor is cold and too hard through my stockings and my toes are pinched past the point of pain in my slightly too tight Jimmy Choos. I’ve been trying to leave for the office for over an hour, but I can’t stop throwing up. No matter how many nausea lozenges I suck on, no matter how many crackers I force down, no matter how many minutes I lay down sipping water… I always end up sprinting for the bathroom. This happened once on a weekend I was home with Christian while I was pregnant with Calliope, and I’d ended up in the emergency room for dehydration.

If that happens today… I don’t even know what Christian will do.

“Mrs. Grey? Are you there?”

“I’m sorry, Mitch,” I say, pulling my head out of the toilet and unmuting the phone. I slump back against the wall and place a cool hand over my clammy forehead. “I’m listening.”

“Are you, though? Because it seems to me like you’ve just come in here like a bulldozer and flattened everything us lifers have built! You ran off Scott, you closed our press… now we’re not even Greenwich anymore? We didn’t sign up for this!”

“Neither did I. Believe me, this was not in any of my plans. But it was Carmen’s decision to sell, and I can’t do anything to change it. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure there is as little disruption in this process as possible, and no one loses their job. That’s the best I can give you, and if that’s not enough, I’ll be happy to write you a letter of recommendation.”

A bitter huff sounds through the phone, and I glance up at the ceiling, praying he’ll hang up before I hurl again.

“The amount we’re expected to deal with right now better be reflected in our compensation once annual raises start coming around…” he grumbles.

“That’s actually one of the positive things about this transition. As an entity of Grey Enterprises Holdings, we’re now much better funded. I expect that will be reflected in salaries going forward.”

His strife draws out for several more minutes, and I do my best to talk him down. By the end of the conversation, I’m at least sure he won’t quit. But even that small victory doesn’t stop me from once again falling face first into the toilet the moment I set the phone down.

“Ana?” Evan calls from behind me. I turn and see him watching me wearily, his frown deepening as he closely examines the color of my cheeks. “You alright?”

“Oh, yeah. Having a great time.”

He cringes. “Sorry… I just came up here to see if you were still planning on going to your doctor’s appointment. We should be leaving shortly.”

“Oh, shit…” I let my head fall into my hands, the general misery so close to overwhelming me I almost tell him to cancel. But then I remember that Christian said he would be there. So I have to put on a brave front to communicate to him that I can handle this and that his reaction to this pregnancy is completely overblown.

It’s that resolve that pulls me off the bathroom floor. I hurriedly take yet another nausea lozenge from the tin on my counter, then hand it over to Evan. Downstairs, Harper gives me a bottle of water to sip on the drive, and I cling to it for dear life.

All of that ends up on the asphalt of the parking lot in front of my OBGYN’s office when I step out of the SUV and immediately double over.

“Wyatt, is that a photographer?” Evan asks, bending to pull my hair away from my face and gesturing to the bushes at the front of the medical complex. I follow his gaze and see the movement that drew his attention. As Wyatt sets off to investigate, Smith and Harper move to surround me, shrouding me from view while keeping me in a claustrophobic bubble. I groan and hold onto Evan while he moves me around them and guides me through the front doors of the building.

Christian isn’t there waiting for me.

We check in at the front desk and I sit in the waiting room with my CPO, just like I did back in Boston. It’s painful this time. Not just because I’d prefer the CPO I had then to the one I have now, but because he doesn’t have to be here at all. This time, I should have Christian next to me, and I don’t. Not even after he promised he’d be here. Every second that ticks past seems to come slower and slower, but my eyes stay trained on the door. With each and every one of them, I can hear the words he said to me yesterday as clearly as if he was saying them in front of me right now. “I’ll be there.”

Well, where the fuck is he?

“We’re ready for you Mrs. Grey.”

My eyes shoot up to the friendly looking woman in magenta colored scrubs, standing at the door with a clipboard in her hands. She smiles at me expectantly, but my eyes move back to the door one last time. Then I reach into my purse for my phone. There isn’t a text from Christian, so I send one of my own.

You said you’d be here.

“Anastasia?” The nurse presses me. I toss my phone back in my bag, take a deep breath, and smile at her.

“Yes, sorry.” She sweeps her arm through the door and directs me to a room at the end of the hall. It’s oddly relieving walking into the examination room without my security team hovering over me. The nurse directs me to take a seat on the table and asks several questions. Then she leaves me for a few minutes to let me change into a paper gown. I take the time before the doctor arrives to check my phone for Christian’s response, but there’s nothing.

Only a ‘read’ receipt.

“Mrs. Grey?” I glance up at the knock on the door, and Dr. Greene steps into the room. She beams at me with all the summer light of August as she plops down on a stool and rolls her way across the room. “I hear you might be pregnant?”

“Yeah, I took a test and it was positive.”

Somehow, her smile brightens. “Well, we’re going to take another one, and if that one comes back positive, we’ll get you an ultrasound.”

“Okay, tha—“ I’m cut off by another knock on the door, which Dr. Greene acknowledges with confusion.

“Yes?”

A balding man who wears a suit beneath his white coat enters the room, looking embarrassed before he even starts to speak. “I’m sorry, Dr. Greene, but Mrs. Grey is actually going to have her examination performed by her… uh, personal physician.”

I raise an eyebrow at him. “Personal physician?”

He steps back and Christian walks into the room, followed closely by… Dr. Baker. My OBGYN from Boston.

“Good afternoon,” Dr. Baker says, her overly polite handshake a clear play at breaking the awkward tension in the room. “I’m so sorry that this is happening.”

“But it is,” Christian says, leaving no room for argument. He holds the door open and glances at Dr. Greene. “If you wouldn’t mind…”

The look of shock on Dr. Greene’s face is palpable. Her eyes move to the man in the suit, but he shakes his head in return. Straightening her jacket, she turns the same cheery smile on me and takes my hand.

“I’m sure you’re in very good hands, Mrs. Grey. Excuse me.”

Dr. Greene gets off the stool and marches proudly from the room. Once the door closes behind her, I turn wide eyes on my husband.

“You have got to be kidding me?”

“Don’t,” he snaps back, his voice a warning. I grind my teeth together and turn to Dr. Baker.

“I’m sorry.”

“Oh, it’s alright.” She lowers herself onto Dr. Green’s vacated stool. “How are you feeling?”

My eyes move nervously to Christian, only to find him staring intently back at me, clearly ready to analyze everything I say.

“The morning sickness has been… a lot,” I tell her, trying to downplay any negative as much as possible. She nods and flips through the files she must have brought from her own records.

“That was true with Calliope too…” She flips through her papers again and starts reading through her notes, reciting the medications that had worked for me in the past. She’s not even able to get her prescription pad out though, before Christian is cutting her off.

“Tell her what you told me.”

“Mr. Grey, perhaps we should…”

“No! Tell her what you told me.”

Dr. Baker takes a deep breath and swivels on her stool to face me again. There’s hesitance in her eyes that wasn’t there before, and it makes me feel cold.

“What?”

“Mr. Grey called to talk to me about your history, and how it may affect this pregnancy…” She pauses, as though she’s uncertain how she should continue, and I take a bracing breath.

“And?”

“Well, generally, women who experience a placental abruption during their first pregnancy are at high risk for reoccurrence for every pregnancy thereafter.”

“How high is the risk?”

“It’s about 1 in 10.”

I take a much easier breath and look between the doctor and my husband like they’re crazy. “That’s only a ten percent chance it’ll happen. That means there’s a ninety percent chance it won’t.”

Christian turns yet another insistent look on the doctor, and she frowns. “It’s just that, it’s such a rare complication to begin with that the jump in probability is, medically, staggering. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a healthy pregnancy. It just means…” She pauses, like she can’t decide whether or not she’s actually trying to scare me or encourage me. “You had a very traumatic delivery the first time. There will be some damage and scarring to your uterus that could make any future complications you do experience… more severe than they were in the past.”

Christian stiffens, and my mouth goes dry.

“Oh.”

Dr. Baker smiles again, picking up the mood of the room in the same skilled way Dr. Greene did. “But we shouldn’t panic until we know all the facts. Why don’t we take a look, huh? You wanna lay back for me?”

I do as she asks, and place my legs in the plastic stirrups on either side of her. She wheels the ultrasound closer to me and pulls a long line of blue gel across the probe. Once it slides inside of me, my eyes immediately dart to the monitor it’s connected to, and Christian’s hand wraps around mine. I flinch a little as the wand moves around, but any discomfort vanishes from my mind the moment I see the small flicker amongst the static in front of me. When Dr. Baker turns up the volume, and the sound of a thrumming heartbeat fills the vacant silence around us, Christian’s hold on my hand tightens.

I turn to him, and feel the first sense of hope I’ve been able to conjure in days. His eyes are stuck on the monitor and the crease in his brow isn’t from anger or defensiveness. It’s discovery. For a long breath, Christian stares at the flicker as though he’s seeing the sun rise after a night he thought would never end. There’s awe. There’s surprise. There’s want

And then he looks at Dr. Baker and his eyes cloud over again.

“What’s wrong?”

My gaze shoots to Dr. Baker only to find her carefully composed demeanor now colored with concern.

“It seems…” She shakes her head and stops, moving the wand around again and narrowing her eyes as she leans in to examine the screen. When she finds whatever it is she’s looking for, she turns a grim look on Christian. “I see two heartbeats.”

“What?”

She points to the monitor, circling her finger around one black circle, then another. “It’s twins.”

Twins?

My mouth drops open as what she’s showing me comes into focus. Two tiny disturbances in a field of static gray that each flicker with their own unique signs of life. It takes a careful ear, but listening to the sound from the ultrasound machine closely, I start to hear the difference between the two heartbeats.

“Oh my god,” I breathe, reaching out to touch the screen.

“What does that mean?” Christian asks.

“It means… Well, pregnancies with multiples present risks all their own. With Ana’s history…” She pauses in the same way, like she’s preparing to give devastating news. “It makes the risk of a placental abruption much higher.”

“How much higher?” I ask, before Christian can go on whatever rant he’s got on deck. “20%? 30%? 50?”

The doctor worries her lip a bit with her teeth, then takes a deep breath. “I’ve never seen a case where a woman with your history became pregnant with multiples and had a normal pregnancy.”

“No,” Christian says, dropping my hand and storming away from the bed. He begins to pace, his hands up in the air as if he doesn’t really know what to do with them. “No. No. No. No. No.”

I block him out and turn to the doctor. “So, you’re saying this pregnancy isn’t viable?”

“I’m not saying it isn’t viable. I am saying it’s high risk. Extremely high risk.”

“So what does that look like?”

“Well, let me take some measurements.”

She starts to drag her cursor across the screen, drawing lines that measure the size of the babies. Christian returns to my side, but his jaw is locked, his body is seized with stress, and there’s a dangerous fight brewing in his eyes. He shakes his head the entire time Dr. Baker works, so I do my best not to look at him.

“I’d say you’re about nine weeks, and based on the size of the fetuses, I think you’re looking at permanent bed rest starting around four, maybe five months.”

So only two months from now…

“And that will let me carry them to term?”

“I can’t give you any definitives, but if you intend to move forward with this pregnancy…” 

“I do,” I say before any other suggestion can be made. 

“Well, then… I would probably account for an early delivery in your birth plan.”

“Will I be able to carry them long enough for them to survive?”

“I don’t know.”

“What about her?” Christian interjects again. Dr. Baker turns to him, a questioning eyebrow arched high over her amber colored eyes. “You said that the damage from Calliope’s delivery could make all of this worse, and the only thing that could be worse than her almost dying, is the absence of ‘almost.’”

Her lips press together as she weighs the advice she has to give. “We know what to expect this time and we can plan in a way we couldn’t before… I’m the best, and I’ll do everything I can.”

“That’s not good enough.” He turns again, moving all the way to the far side of the room. His back is turned to us, his hands on both his hips, his breathing exaggerated. “Dr. Baker, would you give me a moment alone with my wife?”

“Of course, Mr. Grey.” She gives me a reassuring kind of smile and squeezes my hand before she makes her exit. I keep my eyes focused on Christian, waiting for a tirade that doesn’t come. He just stands there, looking at the wall.

“I don’t know what to say to you, Christian…” I begin, nervously. He lets out a defeated sigh, then turns back to look at me.

“You know, I know what Kate is going to say to you on your deathbed. It’s a beautiful speech, you’re really going to love it..”

My throat tightens, and I swallow automatically. “Stop…”

“I know what your dad’s face looks like the moment he realizes he’s lost you forever. I know what my mother’s tears sound like, I know what color Mia’s complexion turns… You think I’m being callous, but it’s only because all of that is very real to me. I’ve been trapped in that moment every time I’ve gone to sleep this week, and I’m telling you, Ana… I can’t live through that again. I can’t lose you.”

“Christian…” My eyes start to fill with tears and words fail me. Stuttering sounds croak their way from my throat like a broken muffler, but I can’t turn them into sentences. What is there to say?

I think he senses my moment of weakness, because he flies across the room and takes me by the hand.

“Please,” he pleads. “Ana… please. You can put it all on me. You can hate me for it. You can punish me for it. I can live through that. I can’t live through losing you. Please, don’t do this.”

I turn away, unable to bear the unusual supplication in his gaze. Dr. Baker’s insights have suddenly painted this whole scene a new color that my eyes haven’t quite adjusted to yet. I don’t even know what I’m thinking right now, and Christian’s pleas on top of my own uncertainty is overwhelming.

“I need to think about it,” I mumble. His calm and subjugated demeanor evaporates, and he shoves away from the examination table.

“Think about what? Did you hear what the doctor just told you? You can’t do this, Anastasia.”

“That’s not what she said…”

“That’s exactly what she fucking said! You can wade through the margins looking for as much hope as you want, but she was very clear about what we should expect. It’ll be worse than it was last time. You’re not going to make it through this, and I will never accept that.”

“Well then let’s talk about things that we’ll never be able to accept, Christian. What do you think it’ll do to me to wake up everyday knowing that I made the choice to end the lives of my children?”

They’re not our children.” He growls the menacing words through clenched teeth, the same uncontrollable rage boiling to the surface I saw last week before I ran to my dad’s, and it once again has me moving away from him. This time though, he stops and takes a moment to breathe, rather than let his anger explode out of control. Still, when he speaks again, it’s through clenched teeth. “What about Calliope?”

“That’s exactly what I’ve been telling you!” I reach down for my stomach. “This could have been Calliope. It was Calliope. And I wouldn’t trade her to take everything that happened back, even if it had been worse. I wouldn’t even consider it. Not for a second.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about. I mean, if you don’t…” He chokes slightly over his words, so he has to swallow and change direction. “Calliope is here, real, and she needs you. You’re her mother and right now, what you’re talking about could leave her in this world without you. I lost my mother at four and all that I have left of her are a couple flashes of a hairbrush. Calliope’s not even two, Anastasia. She’ll have nothing. She won’t even remember you.”

That hits me harder than anything he’s said so far. The pain in the last part of that statement is almost unfathomable, and I have to turn around again so he doesn’t see the tears welling in my eyes. Half of me expects his touch, though it never comes. He lets me cry softly to myself, letting me feel everything he just said to me.

“This is real too,” I say at last.

“What?”

“I saw you during the ultrasound, the moment you saw the heartbeat. This is real. You can pretend it isn’t all you want, but it is. I heard what Dr. Baker said, I hear the pain in your voice… but that does not make this an easy decision for me.”

“I don’t expect it to be easy. I expect you to be rational.”

I blink, then look away again. I can feel the fight inside me dying away and the feeling that takes its place is dark, like a cloud rolling across a clear blue sky that bleeds the color from everything around me. I feel an echo of oppressive hopelessness swirling menacingly over me, calling me into it’s deadly depths like a misplaced lighthouse in the middle of a storm.

It’s everything I fear, and I feel it creeping towards me with a kind of inevitability that can’t be stopped, except by the warmth and light emanating from my womb.

“I need some time to think about it,” I say, numbly.

His head rolls back with frustration, but he doesn’t scream at me anymore. He clenches his jaw, pulls his lips tightly together, and starts to nod.

“Fine. I’ll go back to Escala tonight. But I’m coming home tomorrow, and we are going to make a decision.”

I nod. 

“I don’t plan on changing my position.”

“I know.”

He swallows, then starts toward me. I nearly trip and fall to the floor in my hurry to be engulfed in his arms. He holds me so tightly against him, it’s like he’s ready to fight a tug-of-war against death to keep hanging on.

“I love you, and I won’t survive without you.” He leans his forehead against mine. “Your heart beats, my heart beats. Please remember that.”

I nod, and his lips melt into mine.

An hour later, I’m home and am greeted with the sounds of Calliope’s misery filled cries the moment I come through the door. Mackensie has her in her arms, while Gail hovers over them with her favorite pink elephant in hand, but my baby just wants to scream. Big alligator tears roll down her cherry red cheeks, and the sight of them makes my nipples ache.

“Oh, Calliope,” I say, reaching for her the moment I step into the kitchen. Her gray eyes lock with mine, and she nearly throws herself from Mackensie’s grip in an attempt to get to me. I catch her just in time to keep her from tumbling to the floor, while she suctions to me like an octopus wrapping around her prey. Her tears stop almost the moment I have her, replaced instead with a whimpered ‘mama’ that she repeats into my blouse over and over again.

“She’s been like that since you left,” Kensie says, drooping onto a barstool and laying over the top of the counter. “I’ve tried everything.”

I reach up and place a hand on her forehead, then kiss both of her cheeks. She doesn’t feel warm, and now that she’s in my arms, she’s fairly pacified.

“She misses her Daddy,” I say, hugging her against me and swaying back and forth.

“Should I take her to Escala?”

I shake my head. “No, I want her with me. Go ahead and take the day, Kensie. I’ve got her.”

“Are you not going into work?”

“Not today.” I lean back so I can look at Calliope’s face, and brush away a few stray hairs that have stuck to the tears on her cheeks. “She can hang out with me in my office here.”

“Alright,” Kensie says, though her tone expresses a great deal of reservation. “I’m just going to hang out in the staff residence then, if you need me.”

“Thank you.” I give her a kind, but dismissive smile, and start towards my office. Calliope’s playroom is just across from me, so I set up the baby gate at the end of the hall to keep her where she’s supposed to be, then keep both doors open for her to move between the rooms freely. Her toys end up scattered over the pretty rug on the floor that keeps my office from being too oppressive and masculine, the way Christian’s office feels. I find myself distracted on most of my phone calls and ignoring more emails than I probably should, but I can’t bring myself to care. I know what a dire position we’re in right now, I know that Phoenix is still in it’s baby stages and needs my nurturing to get it where it needs to be, I know the promises I’ve made… but the only thing that feels good right now is Calliope.

She makes the storm clouds part, she breaks through the darkness shrouding my thoughts like golden sunlight.

She’s what I’m fighting for, she’s what I have to lose. And yet, the battle waging between Christian and I, between my fear and my hope, and between reality and possibility doesn’t touch her. She is joy, and nothing can dampen that.

After yet another lonely dinner, Calliope and I move into the living room. I build her a squishy bed of pillows and blankets on the floor and turn on The Little Mermaid while I read through the edits Stevens has submitted for Phoenix. It’s a good arrangement, until Calliope starts trying to sing along with ‘Under the Sea,’ and everything else, work included, disappears.

I push my laptop to the side and move closer to her, brushing the tip of my nose against hers again and again until she starts to giggle. The sound makes my heartbeat quicken.

“I love you so much, Calli-lily,” I tell her. She lets herself fall forward so that her lips mash into mine, and I pull her into my lap while I smother her with kisses. Her laugher chimes around me like a bell that wards away the demons, clearing my mind and calming my soul. I lean back against the couch and stare into the eyes that mirror so perfectly the ones that own my heart. “Do you want to be a big sister?”

“No,” she replies, with the same kind of causal dismissal she would use if I offered her more peas or a cup of juice. I don’t know if it’s the exhaustion, the stress, or the start of a complete mental breakdown, but her response makes me laugh so hard, I nearly lose my grip on her. She laughs back, clearly having a fabulous time even though she has no idea what’s going on, and it only makes the warmth surrounding her glow brighter. I squeeze her as hard as I can.

“You really are your father’s daughter.”

“Daddy?”

“Yeah. Just like Daddy.”

My fingers find their way to her sides and I start to tickle her just as an unexpected commotion erupts in my entryway. I look up, hoping the beep from the security alarm is a prelude to Christian’s entrance, but instead, it’s followed by raised voices. Harper, who has spent the last hour silently camped out at the kitchen table, gets up with her hand on the holster attached to her hip. I nervously start to take Calliope in my arms, preparing to dart to the basement, then stop when Kate, clinging tightly to Kennedy, storms into the living room looking as though she’s just been through an ordeal.

I perk up immediately.

“Kate?”

She lets out a huff and moves Kennedy higher up on her hip, pointing over her shoulder to the four hulking figures hovering in the shadows behind her. “That’s a little much, don’t you think?”

“Oh, yeah. Well… Christian.”

She nods her head in agreement, but rolls her eyes as she moves next to me on the couch. After placing Kennedy in the pillowy bed next to Calliope, she kisses my baby on the forehead and plops down on the couch next to me. There’s an accusation in her eyes that I don’t understand.

“What?”

“Your husband is having a breakdown in your apartment.”

What?!”

She shrugs. “Elliot is over there right now trying to talk him off the ledge, but apparently he’s completely fucking losing it. And there’s lots of alcohol involved so, you know, only good things can happen from this point forward.”

I shake my head in disbelief and start to get off the couch, but she reaches out and wraps her fingers around my wrist to stop me.

“Ana. I know you had a doctor’s appointment this afternoon and now Christian is on a rampage.” She hesitates, which is unusual for Kate. “What happened?”

I collapse back into the sofa, fighting against the pinprick sting of tears at the corners of my eyes. The darkness my afternoon with Calliope managed to keep at bay, starts to seep through the cracks in the armor around me, and I feel myself falling into the pain-filled chasm Christian and I have found ourselves on opposite sides of once again without any idea how I’ll ever climb out.

“It’s twins,” I tell her, and the concern on her face is instantly replaced with joy.

Twins?! But Ana, that’s amazing!”

I give her a dark glare that drains away her relief like water through a sieve. “It’s going to be like last time. The doctor told me that I was already at high risk for another placental abruption, twins makes it a certainty. And the scarring from my first abruption could make this one worse. Much worse.”

In the exact same way I watched it happen with Christian, then Luke, then my father, a look of abject horror sweeps across her face. Her color fades, her mouth drops open, and her eyes reflect a kind of terror I can’t let myself feel. She blinks wildly for a few minutes, processing what I’ve said and somehow coming up more lost.

“He flew in my doctor from Cambridge,” I continue. “I thought maybe she was overreacting or letting my history cloud her actual, medical opinion, because everything she told me just got worse and worse. But I stopped by my regular obstetrician’s office and when she looked at the charts… well, she didn’t even give me the slim ray of hope Dr. Baker did. She told me the risk is so bad that the states with the strictest abortion laws have exemptions for this situation. ‘Danger to the life of the mother.’” 

The quote tastes bitter on my tongue.

“Jesus.” The word is filled with hurt and disbelief, in the exact same tenor that resonates inside of me. She curls into herself a little as she pushes back into the cushions, then blinks back at me with a kind of sympathy that tells me she doesn’t have the sage words or wisdom to guide me forward. “What are you going to do?”

A tear breaks over my waterline, and I dash it away before more can follow. “I don’t know. I hear what the doctor’s are telling me, I understand what it means, and I can feel what it’s doing to Christian… but I just can’t do it.”

“You’re pro-choice…”

“Yeah, choice. I don’t choose this. I don’t want this. I—“ My eyes fall on Calliope, who has started drifting off with her cousin, and the argument inside of me changes. I don’t know how, I don’t know what to… and the frustration I feel in that confusion breaks the last of my self-control. I dissolve into all consuming tears, and Kate wraps all the way around me.

“I know, Ana. You’re a mother protecting her children. Of course you can’t.”

“Am I though?” I shake my head and pull away from her, tears still streaming down my face as I unload everything on her that I can’t carry alone anymore. “What if I don’t survive, Kate? What if it happens exactly the way it happened last time, except I don’t wake up? I’ll leave Christian absolutely devastated, alone, with three kids under the age of two. Even if it’s just Calliope… He’s twenty-four, he could live another seventy years. I couldn’t even fathom having to live through that amount of time without him. How can I risk putting him through that?”

There’s a vision that runs through my mind then, one I’ve seen over and over again since I took that pregnancy test. Christian and I tossing the kids into the rust colored piles of leaves beneath the giant trees in our backyard. It suddenly disappears. There’s no laughter from my daughter, no blissful happiness behind the smile of the man I love. It’s just gone. A picture of Calliope’s graduation takes its place, but as I disappear from the image, the pride on Christian’s face changes to regret and longing, while Calliope smiles through a deep kind of sadness I can feel the permanence of.

“So… are you going to terminate the pregnancy?” Kate’s nervous voice breaks through the picture. I bite my lip while the images dissolve from my mind and slowly shake my head.

“I can’t. There’s absolutely no way I could go through with it, and even if I could, I’d never be able to live with myself.”

She nods solemnly, then wraps her arms around me again. I sit in her embrace for a few long, silent moments, then I bury my face in her shirt and let myself fall apart.

Next Chapter

Chapter 45

Christian really didn’t come home Sunday night, but my security team was there waiting for me. Even Woods, who I thought might get the axe once Christian realized he’d been the one to let me go. The moment Calliope and I came through the door, we were shut down tight. Wyatt stood behind me while I fed Calliope dinner, Harper hovered in the room while I set her in the bath, and Smith spent the night acting as a century outside my bedroom door. 

The moment I wake up, all four of them take shifts shadowing me so that I’m never left alone. None of it phases me or even feels off… until we pull up to my office and find Taylor there waiting for us, pushing the paparazzi back. 

And he isn’t alone. 

Luke is standing on the opposite end of the courtyard, holding the line from the other side, which surprises me because I fully expected Luke to be put on the security team’s persona-non-grata list for a while after he helped me evade my handlers. But he would only be here if Taylor called him. And Taylor would only call him if there was a reason…

He doesn’t look at me when I get out of the car, and when I turn to eye him speculatively, I notice there’s a gun on his hip. Taylor has one too, so I turn to the people filing out of the SUV behind me and, sure enough, I realize for the first time that every single one of them has a weapon holstered somewhere on their body. 

Suddenly, the casual brush off Luke gave me in the car back in Montesano feels like a dire warning, but I can’t get his attention while he’s busy pushing back on aggressive photographers. Harper takes hold of my elbow and drags me inside while Woods, Smith, and Wyatt form a protective bubble around me. Luke and Taylor wait til we’ve got a wide berth, then take the car to park. I’m ushered into the building so aggressively that I don’t even have the time to demand to know what the fuck is going on before they push me into the elevator.

“Owe!” I whine, wincing as Wyatt jumps away from me and the toes he’s just crushed beneath his boot. The elevator is too full with all five of us crammed inside, so he bounces off of Woods and steps on me again. 

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey. Here, let me…” He tries to back away but he’s blocked by Harper. She tries to shift around Smith, but by the time they’ve reshuffled, I’m merely pressed up against Woods instead. 

Thankfully, the doors open.

The four of them file through the doors in front of me, then stand to the side to let me lead the way into my office. The elated faces that greet me when I come through the doors make my heart thud uncomfortably in my chest.

“Hey, boss!” Stevens grins. “I gotta say, you were right. I flew through my Phoenix chapters this weekend. I couldn’t put it down!”

It takes me a moment to breathe through the residual chaos beating furiously in my chest before I understand what he’s talking about. 

“Oh. That’s great,” I reply, weakly. His brow furrows at my less-than-enthused response.

There was an email from Christian waiting for me in my inbox this morning, giving me explicit instructions on how I’m supposed to start this transition. He imagines we’ll be fully moved into the fourth floor of GEH by the end of today. And somehow, that’s only the second most ludicrous demand he’s made this week.

“I need everyone to meet in the conference room,” I announce to the room, failing to hold any strength in my voice that might assuage the concern that’s reflected back at me. When no one moves, I stand to the side and sweep my arm towards the door, and the uneasy quiet breaks with the commotion of their migration. I pause just briefly before I follow them in to slip a nausea lozenge in my mouth, praying it will carry me all the way through this meeting.

But it’s not just pregnancy that has me ready to throw up right now.

The nervous chatter around the table seems to center mostly on Phoenix. That something happened and Grey Publishing took it back. They’re right, but not in the way they think they are.

“What’s going on, Ana?” Jacki finally asks.

I take a deep breath. No need to sugar coat it.

“We’ve been bought out. Starting today, we’re being absorbed into Grey Publishing.”

There’s silence, then uproar.

“I knew it!” Roberts shouts. “I knew it the moment you walked in here. She’s a plant. She always was. That’s why Grey built the app, he was building it for himself! She ran Scott out of here, and made things real nice and easy for her husband to come in here and take out the competition.”

I hold up my hands defensively. “Look, I know how this looks. But I swear, this was done above me. Carmen agreed to the sale last Friday, and the contracts were signed before I even knew about it.”

“Yeah, we’ll be sure to find comfort in that from the unemployment office,” Stevens sneers.

“No one is losing their job,” I assure them. “We’re all moving together.”

“Moving?” Jacki asks.

I nod. “You have until noon to pack up your desks and move your belongings to the GEH building. We’ll be on the fourth floor. I’ve been told Grey Publishing is making room for us now.”

“And then what? We just… continue on? What am I supposed to tell my authors?”

“That their contracts are still valid and this acquisition means they have a much more powerful press and better funded marketing arm behind them.” I pause for more questions or comments, even complaints. But the only thing I get are bitter looks. I lean over the table, pressing my palms to the cool wood. “We have a meeting scheduled with the New York office and GP at 1PM to discuss our strategy going forward. I suggest you start packing.”

“Does this mean that GP is going to take over the Greenwich Library?” Steven asks before anyone can move.

“Yes.”

“And Phoenix?” Jacki adds. “They get that back too?”

“They get everything. Our press, our warehouses, our inventory, our front list… all of it. We are now wholly part of Grey Enterprises Holdings.”

“So, we didn’t win,” Rogers grumbles. “You made that big show here last week about how we’d finally come out on top. But we didn’t. Grey always wins in the end.”

That hits me in the gut. Not just because this was a battle and he did win, but because I’m fighting another battle with him now. He can’t always win, and I try to convey that to my team now.

“Because this was the only way they would survive.” I stand up straighter and try to force my face to reflect the sincerity of what I’m about to say. “I want every single one of you to know how proud I am of everything we’ve achieved here. This sale is because all of you worked so hard that it scared the most powerful name in Seattle publishing. So, if you think I’m going to go in there and let them change what we do, then I’m afraid you’re about to be very disappointed.”

Stevens nods. “Alright. Let’s go, I guess.”

I offer the room a weak smile as each of my employees pushes away from the table. Abby follows me to my office to tell me that she’s scheduled my OBGYN appointment for tomorrow afternoon, and stops the same way I do once we come through the door. My security team is spread out across my office, loading my things into boxes.

“What are you doing?” I demand. Evan shoots a guilty look at me.

“Sorry, Ana. Mr. Grey’s orders. He doesn’t want you lifting anything.”

I want to scowl, but I can’t help but feel a small amount of hope, that maybe, this means he’s coming around. Not happy about it, but at least starting to make accommodations…

That’s something, right? 

Abby joins me at my desk to help me start packing the little things I have tucked inside, and the personal items strewn across the top. With so many helping hands, I’m done much more quickly than the rest of my team, so I meander through the office, lending help where I can.

Most of my staff travel into the city on the train, so there’s a kind of caravan we have to organize between the few cars we do have. My security team makes several trips to the office before anyone actually leaves, transporting boxes and office equipment. It’s just before noon before we start figuring out how to move people.

“I can take five,” I offer, simultaneously sending a text to Woods to leave the rest of my team at GEH to free up seats. He isn’t happy about it, but with Taylor and Luke back on paparazzi duty, he eventually relents and returns to GSP with an empty vehicle. Every spot is filled. 

I slide into the front passenger seat, while Woods moves Calliope’s car seat to the trunk. There are impressed comments about the quality of the leather on my seats or the gentle purr of the powerful engine as we weave through the streets to our new building. It makes me feel a little self-conscious. Like I’m reminding them how close I really am to the force that’s displacing them.

That this is all my fault.

But when we finally get to GEH, all the resentment I felt back at GSP melts away into awe. We step through the main doors and wide eyes bounce around at the state-of-the-art lobby. I’ve been here so many times that it’s all very unimpressive to me now. But seeing it again through their eyes reminds me of the remarkable things that have happened here, that we’re now a part of. And the remarkable man behind all of them.

My heart seems to skip a beat, then stutter unevenly as I start towards the elevators.

We’re greeted with celebration when we come through the main doors of Grey Publishing. There’s a banner over reception offering welcome, gift bags with Grey branded swag, and plenty of desk space already cleared out to accommodate everyone. They even have their technology all set up and ready to go, complete with full GEH user profiles.

Which is I guess what happens when you go from having John in New York handle all your IT, to Welch.

“Ana, we’re so excited you’re here!” Claire beams the moment I’m in range of a hug. She throws her arms around me, and pulls me against her. “If I had to pick one person to take over for Elizabeth, I’d want it to be you.”

“Take over?” I blink around at the staff, noting the happy recognition that comes back to me every time I lock eyes with one of the old SIP hold-overs. Elizabeth isn’t anywhere. “We won’t be working together?”

Claire shakes her head. “No, she cleaned out her whole office last Friday for you. Take a look for yourself.”

I follow the same carpeted path I took a few weeks ago when I’d come to get the Grey Publishing contract out of her. Sure enough, the office that had been so crammed full of books and various plants then, is completely stark now. Nothing is left but the furniture, a computer, and a giant bouquet of pink peonies waiting for me in the middle of my new desk. I stumble towards them numbly and pull the card from their petals. It’s written in Christian’s handwriting.

I miss you.

My lip starts to tremble and my heart races against my ribcage. I stare down at the indents his pen made in the paper, tracing them with my finger as if feeling them will let me feel him too. It’s an empty kind of hope that makes me feel worse, until I hear a soft knock on the door behind me.

When I turn, he’s there.

“Hi,” he begins, wary. I have to take a breath before I can respond.

“Hi.”

“Your uh… security team told me you weren’t able to keep anything down this morning.” He fidgets nervously with something in his hands, which draws my attention to it for the first time. It’s a take-out carton. “I thought you might be hungry.”

My stomach growls, and he almost smiles. 

“Thank you,” I reach out for the cardboard container and when our fingers brush, there’s a jolt of warm electricity exchanged between us. It doesn’t spark and make me jump away, it makes me want to move closer. It makes it feel impossible to pull back. I think he experiences the sensation in the same way, because his hand lingers against mine far longer than necessary before he pulls it away. And when he does, he looks almost tortured. 

With a step back, I hop up on my new desk, pop open the lid of my container, and dip my chopsticks into the noodles. 

“Did you fire, Elizabeth?” I ask, keeping my eyes on my food.

“No. She received an offer for an editor-in-chief position at a much higher volume publishing house. She was very excited to hand me her resignation last week.”

I frown, knowing in my gut that it’s not a coincidence that his current editor-in-chief just happened to find a better job at the exact same time Christian wanted to give his wife this one. And, honestly, her absence isn’t extremely welcome. With the explosion of the Greenwich Library that damn near always keeps my email in a gridlock, it’s become clear that I’m going to need to split some of my responsibilities. Elizabeth would have been a great partner.   Without her, well, I guess I’m back to having no one…. 

He takes a few steps towards me while I eat and mull over this new information, then he places a finger beneath my chin and tilts my face up to his.

“How are you feeling?”

It’s difficult for me to respond at first. His touch once again sends tingles over my skin that I just want to stop and let myself feel. I want him to lower his lips to mine and tell me that he understands me. I want to collapse in his arms and hold him while I paint the picture of the future I see for us now. The one that makes it all worth this risk… Maybe if he sees it, he’d understand.

Instead, I place the noodles on the desk next to me and look up at him with lost eyes.

“Fine. I—uh… I have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow. They’re just going to do labs and some tests, but I’m going to get an ultrasound.”

He nods, solemnly. “Okay. Just have Abigail forward it to Andrea so she gets it on my calendar, and I’ll be there.”

“You will?”

His face crinkles with pain. “Of course I will. Ana, I love you. I’m always going to be there for you.” He steps closer, moving his body between my legs, and rests his forehead against mine. For a moment, he just stands there and lets his declaration simmer between us. Then he starts in an agonized whisper, “Please, just… try to see it my way. Try to see what you’re asking me to risk.”

The next breath I take feels heavier than just air. Like, I’m breathing in his torment. A flash of my father’s face moves through my memory from when I told him I was expecting. Even Luke had flinched.

“I do,” I breathe back. “It just… doesn’t change anything.”

His body deflates slightly with the defeated breath he lets out, so I reach around and pull my body against his, holding him as tightly as I can. He shakes his head a few times, then makes a resigned sound that ends with his lips crashing into mine.

It isn’t an admission of defeat, or an attempt to sway me to his side. It’s a temporary truce that has to happen because he simply cannot go on not touching me. Not kissing me. Not loving me…

And I fall into it just as hard as he does.

We wrap around each other in every way we can, pulling against the other in a constant attempt to drag them closer. His tongue tangles with mine in the way his fingers tangle in my hair. My ankles lock together behind his hips as if they’ll hold him there forever. I let myself pour every ounce of the longing I’ve felt for him in these endless days apart. 

When he finally pulls away, we pant together in silence for several long seconds, then he reaches up to cup the side of my face.

“There must be something wrong with your sense of self-preservation.”

I let out a humorless laugh. “You know what it’s like to love someone more than your own life.” A hand drops to my stomach, and he follows it with his eyes. Then he shakes his head, and pulls that hand away from my body and into his.

“Come on. We’re going to be late.”

We’re the last to walk into the much larger conference room where my team is gathered. Normally, I hate that. But Christian doesn’t seem fazed. He pulls out a chair for me at the head of the long, rectangular table, then steps into the open space at my right and looks around the room. The faces of my employees from New York on the huge screen against the wall show mostly confusion, which Christian acknowledges with an air of surprising humility.

“Good afternoon. On behalf of Grey Enterprises Holdings and Grey Publishing, I would like to extend our warmest welcome. The accomplishments of the Greenwich team are truly remarkable and it is my hope that we will continue to build on those successes going forward. And I don’t think there is a person I’d have more confidence in to ensure that success than your new editor-in-chief, Mrs. Anastasia Grey.”

He gestures for me to take over, but as I rise and he takes the seat next to me, there’s a cough from one of the Grey Publishing employees across the table.

“You’re wife,” he says beneath the obnoxious, fake hacking. Christian’s eyes flash dangerously in the man’s direction, but it’s Claire and Jacki who leap to my defense

“Shut up, Jason,” Claire snaps.

“Yeah, who even are you? Because she’s a best-selling author,” Jacki adds.

His eyes widen in surprise, and he holds his hands up in surrender. “Jesus. Sorry for having a little loyalty to Elizabeth.” Steven’s leans across the table, mouth open like he’s about to say something, but I hold up a hand to stop him.

“It’s alright. This is a very sudden change and we’re going to have some growing pains. But I hope, Jason, that I’ll earn your trust the same way that Elizabeth did.”

“Uh… yeah.” He recedes slightly in his seat, his face turning the lightest shade of pink. Several smug pairs of eyes from the GSP team turn to me, while the Grey Publishing staff I don’t know looks at me with a new curiosity. I turn to Christian, expecting him to leave, but he leans back in his seat and stares back at me with rapt attention.

“Alright,” I begin, turning away from him and trying not to feel his evaluating eyes. “We’ll get started with the Greenwich Library…” I hesitate, feeling my shoulders droop as I realize how difficult this acquisition is about to make my job. “Which I suppose will have to be rebranded… As of eight o’clock this morning, we’re at 203,000 subscribers and 14,000 active titles. Our top downloads now are the Meghan Michaels title, the new tell-all from that madam out of Kirkland, and… get this,” I give my team a sardonic look. “The Black Rose.

“Are you kidding me?” Stevens asks. I shake my head at him, subtly letting him know that I’m not.

“Oh, no. Turns out that if you don’t make them pay for it upfront, it’s not contrived anymore. It’s just complicated… which, I guess is a good thing now? I don’t know.” I shake my head irritably. “Either way, Daves is pulling in significantly more downloads through the library than he did through the traditional press.” 

After a brief rundown of everything we have on the New York and Seattle office front list, and some intensive discussion on Phoenix that makes most of the Grey Publishing team start grinding their teeth, I turn to Jacki.

“Where are we at on your romance sequel?”

“Close. She’s got two chapters left and I’ve made her promise to have them for me by October. We’re going to miss the Christmas rush, but I think it might actually time well with the Phoenix release.”

“Excellent.” With a smile and a check against the last item on my list, I turn to Claire and ask for the Grey Publishing front list. She passes me a single sheet of paper with two titles listed at the top. I turn towards Christian dubiously, and he gives me a now-you-know-why-I-had-to-buy-you-out kind of look. With a very fulfilling sense of superiority, I turn to the editors representing the titles that are here and get as many of the details as possible, offering my support for whatever they need going forward.

There are a few housekeeping items I touch on, and procedures that will be changing going forward. There’s no point in keeping both Claire and Penny as receptionists, so I assure both of them Christian and I will have answers for them by the following morning. Then the team files out of the room to work on all the actionable items I’ve left them with, and Christian and I are once again left alone.

“You’re incredible,” he starts, the compliment marred by the weighty conflict he isn’t speaking aloud. “You really are a natural leader, Anastasia.”

I nod my gratitude while I take my things into my hand, then give him a resigned kind of look. “I can’t manage the library app and the operations of what is now the equivalent of three branches all on my own. I’d like to promote one of my editors to take over those responsibilities for me.”

“Do you have someone in mind?”

“Jacki. I trust her taste and her vision. She’s organized, she knows what she’s doing, and she’s ambitious. She’s the only one I know would make the same decisions I would. Penny can take her place on the editing team and Claire will remain as receptionist.”

“What qualifies Penny to be an editor?” 

“An English degree from Santa Clara. She took the receptionist job because she was waiting for an opening.” 

He nods. “Alright. Make whatever offers you want. Anything you need, it’s yours. You have my complete support.”

I breathe that in, but it doesn’t bring me any relief. Outside of Grey Publishing, that hasn’t proved to be true.

“Yeah,” I mutter, bitterly. “Thanks.”

“Ana…” He gets out of his chair, slowly, like he’s trying to buy more time to figure out how to say the things he’s already told me a hundred times in a way that will make me finally understand. “What if it were me? What if I had some disease that the doctors could just… cut out of me to save my life, and I refused? What would that do to you?”

“This isn’t a disease, Christian.” And honestly, the comparison is one of the more painful things he’s said so far. But if he’s going to deal in hypotheticals, so will I. “What if it was Calliope?”

“What?”

“If you could go back in time and tell your past-self exactly what would happen when Calliope was born, would you be telling me then what you’re telling me now? Would you throw Calliope away too?”

“That’s not fair…”

“That is exactly how it feels to me, Christian. This baby is not a concept or a thought experiment. I can feel it. It’s a baby that makes me sick every morning, and so tired I can barely walk straight. It’s a baby that makes my boobs hurt, and it’s a baby that has me breaking down into tears every fifteen minutes. Our baby. Just like Calliope is our baby.”

His jaw sets in an angry line. “I don’t know this baby. I don’t love this baby. But I do love you, and there’s no one in the world I would trade you for, Anastasia. Your heart beats, my heart beats. That’s not just correlation, it’s sequential.”

Defiant tears begin to echo behind my words. “You don’t know that this will be like it was with Calliope, Christian.”

“And you don’t know that it won’t.” There’s a finality to his words that tells me this argument isn’t going to be productive, so I let my head hang in defeat and start to turn. He calls me back.

“I’m going to take Calliope home with me tonight.”

I swallow to relax the tightness that suddenly grips my throat, wishing I was anywhere but here so I didn’t have to fight so hard to keep it together.

“That’s fair, ” I croak back. 

His face turns hard and the tension in his jaw pulls so tight, it almost pulses. “You know, this is what divorced couples do. Make custody arrangements…”

“We’re not getting divorced,” I reiterate. “That’s not how this ends. I’m not leaving you, Christian. No matter what.”

His eyes move down to my stomach, a look of disgust shrouding his face. “Aren’t you, though?”

He turns and leaves, and I have to sit in a chair to keep myself from collapsing on the floor. I can feel the fight inside me start to waiver as the exhaustion overcomes me again, but I can’t let myself lose it. I have to fight this battle. I have to fight for my baby. I just don’t know how to do it against the man I love. I don’t know how to withstand this pain. His pain. 

I reach up and press my fingers into the hollow of my neck, feeling my pulse and finding my heart racing. Despite my insistence that this time it could be different, that it will be different, I’m still wary of my symptoms. A thundering heartbeat is a little concerning given my history, so I take a deep, calming breath, and try to release the stress lingering in my body. I decide that the best way to do that is to go home and finish my day in a pair of sweatpants, where I can break down and cry if I have to.

After gathering everything I need and packing it into the bag that reminds me of Christian, I summon my security team and start for home. Or the empty building where my stuff is anyway. It becomes very clear once I’m wandering through the empty rooms that seem to echo in the eerie quiet, that it’s not home without Christian and Calliope.

And suddenly, I understand exactly why Christian had to leave. The hours of work I try to bury myself in are only just enough to shake the overbearing feeling of abject loneliness. So, when eight o’clock rolls around and I can’t force myself to stare at my computer screen any longer, I finally pull out my phone.

“Are you grounded for life?” Luke answers.

“Not any more than I already was. What are you doing?”

“Oh, you know. Really important things. Like… seeing how long I can sit on the couch before I start to become part of it.”

“Where’s Jade?”

“Working. She won’t be home until after three or so.” He sighs. “So it’s just me and me, having some good old quality me time.”

“Yeah, me too. Christian took Calliope to Escala tonight.”

“You guys still haven’t worked it out?”

“No. I don’t think that we’re going to be able to. He said he’ll come to my doctor’s appointment tomorrow, but not because he’s changed his mind. He’s already convinced himself this is a death sentence.”

“I mean… is it?”

“No!”

He pauses, like he has to rehearse what he wants to say next so that it comes out right. “Ana, maybe, before you go to war with Christian, you should hear what the doctor tells you. I was there last time, and she warned you–” He stops again. “Look, I know you think that you can get through this if you’re just on your best behavior… but it doesn’t always work out that way. It didn’t last time, no matter what you tried. And we really did almost lose you.”

“I know that, Luke. Don’t you think I know that?”

He sighs. “Yeah, I guess you would.”

There’s a heavy silence that falls between us while he wades through his emotions and I try to form the feeling swirling in my gut into words. 

“Luke…” 

“Hm?” 

“Why were you at my office this morning?”

“Because Taylor asked me to be.” 

“Why?”

He takes another long breath, which tells me he doesn’t want to answer, that that immediately makes me wary of whatever he is about to say. 

“Please don’t lie to me.” 

“Taylor didn’t want you to be held up by the paparazzi. He wanted you in the building as quickly as possible.” 

“Because?”

Another pause. “Think about it, Ana. I’m sure you’ll get there.” 

“Because someone was coming for me?” 

“And he found out about it three days ago. He came to talk to me late last night and we put his plan into motion before you even woke up this morning. It went exactly the way that he planned it would, we got the guy, we took care of it.”

“Who was it?”

“I don’t know, some dude who wanted to hock your wedding ring on the black market.”

“My wedding ring?!”

“It’s a ten million dollar diamond, Anastasia… But he was an amateur, working alone, and very, very carelessly. We were prepared for him. No need to worry.” 

“All I do is worry…” 

“I know, and it’s stupid. I don’t know what more I can say to you except that no one is ever going to get to you or Calliope. Ever. Your husband is a powerful man, and all of that power is constantly being directed into keeping you safe.” 

I swallow, as I’m reminded of the double-edge to that sword, and how his concern for my safety has that sword currently held at my throat. “Yeah… okay.”

“Do you want me to come over? Keep you company?”

“Would you?”

“Be there in a few minutes. Just tell your security to stand down, huh? I’d like to avoid stray gunfire, if I can.”

“You know they don’t listen to me.”

“And that’s part of the reason you’re so safe.” He laughs and promises he’s on his way before the phone goes dead and leaves me alone in the ghostly shell of my house. I can’t bring myself to sit and wait. 

The emptiness that fills the rooms around me is too oppressive. Instead, I wander aimlessly until I find myself in Christian’s office. With a careless drag of my finger, I walk along the edge of his desk, eyeing the immaculately neat piles of things that weren’t important enough to take with him. His laptop is missing, leaving a defined empty place in front of his chair. I squeeze the shiny, espresso colored leather wrapped around it and let my eyes wander to the framed picture displayed proudly on the corner of his desk.

Our wedding day.

“He’s not in here,” Luke says from the doorway, calling my attention. I look up and give him a sad smile.

“Almost feels like it though.”

The way his face morphs at those words tells me that he feels the pain roiling through me as acutely as I do, and the empathy that shines back at me through the blue eyes I’ve grown to trust so much draws me into his arms.

“It’s going to be alright, Ana.” He squeezes me. “You two will get through this like you’ve gotten through everything else.”

I sniff against his shirt, unsure of how much I believe those words anymore. A few days ago, absolutely. But Christian Grey is an intractable force, and I’m just now being confronted with how absolute that really is…

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

“Come on,” Luke says, rubbing a hand over my shoulder. “Let’s go watch an awful movie that I’m going to hate.”

I laugh and let him drag me out to the living room.

He pops some popcorn and even throws a few bags of the Scooby-doo fruit snacks I would have committed murder for while I was pregnant with Calliope on a tray, while I build us a fortress of pillows on the couch. He grabs the remote before I can, but goes straight for It Happened One Night, and hits play. I give him a knowing smile that makes him roll his eyes, but not a single word of complaint breaks through his lips as we settle into the opening scene.

“You wanna know the real problem with this movie?” he says about half-way through. He sits up straighter and moves the bowl of popcorn off his lap like he’s about to give a Ted Talk. But his speech is interrupted by Woods, Shaw, and Wyatt, who suddenly file into the living room.

“What’s going on?” I ask. My answer comes from the beep of the alarm that says an exterior door has been opened. Luke automatically reaches a protective hand back and angles his body between mine and the door. It drops though, when Christian walks into the kitchen with Calliope on his hip.

His eyes narrow on the space between Luke and I on the couch, which makes Luke shoot me an irritated look before he scoots away. I look at Christian.

“What are you doing here? Calliope should have been in bed hours ago.”

“You’re telling me,” he says, adjusting the wide-awake baby with tear-streaked cheeks on his hip. “She didn’t have her elephant.”

“Oh. I’ll go get it for you.” I start to unravel the blanket from around my lap, but Christian moves through the kitchen and waves me off.

“I know where it is.” He exits through the archway, toward the stairs, and Luke turns to face me.

“He’s not just here for the elephant, is he?”

I take a cautious breath, trying not to let myself feel too much hope behind my response. “No. I don’t think so.”

He nods and leans over to kiss my forehead, holding a hand back to stop my security when all three of them take a step closer to me. Then he turns back to me to roll his eyes and peels himself off the couch. I go after him, walking him to the door with my security team following half a step behind me the entire way. I give each of them an annoyed look before I tell them I’m off to bed and start after Christian.

He’s in Calliope’s nursery, standing over her crib, placing her stuffed animal close enough that she can see it, but far enough away that it won’t suffocate her in the middle of the night. He reaches in and strokes the top of her head lovingly, then turns to look up at me. 

And then, he changes. There’s no fight or obscured sense of betrayal in the way he looks at me. Only longing. Even from all the way across the room, it’s almost powerful enough to make me give in.

I look away, and he appears in front of me.

“Christian, I can’t…”

Just as they had this morning, his lips cut off my protest. I feel his hands curl around my face, holding me in the kiss that grows deeper the moment I start to kiss him back. While I melt into him, his hands drag down my body, gently caressing my cheeks, neck, shoulders, arms, hips… all the way down to the backs of my thighs. I push up when he lifts me in his arms, and wrap my legs around his waist. Then I lower my lips to his again, and keep them there while he makes his way back to our bedroom.

Our clothes fall to the floor without any words. His careful fingers gently pull my t-shirt over my head, then roll my leggings over my feet. He draws the tip of his nose up the inside of my thigh. His tongue sweeps gently across the curve of my neck. His eyes take in every inch of my skin, as though he’s experiencing my body again for the first time. Or maybe, just really taking the time to appreciate it.

I could melt in the wonder that looks down at me. I could swim forever in the depth of the love he demonstrates through each sweet touch of his lips. When my panties find their way to the floor and the tip of his erection brushes my clit, my body starts to yearn for him. Not in the greedy, heady way it does when my mind is drunk on sex and desperate for release.

I just need him to touch me.

I need him to envelop me.

I need him to consume me from the inside out, until every doubt I’ve felt over the past few days has been burned away by his unrelenting passion.

I need him to love me and I need him to feel how much I love him back.

He slides inside of me, and I moan for each and every inch of him. His wandering hands return to my face. His gaze holds mine. Only then does he move. Slowly. In a metronomic pace that’s so even and vital it could be a heartbeat. And the moment the comparison falls into my thoughts, I realize that’s exactly what it is.

A heartbeat. His heartbeat. This is why it beats, and this is what each and every one of those beats means.

Your heart beats. My heart beats. 

Next Chapter

Luke POV: Constant Vigilance

Since I did miss a posting day, happy Valentines Day!

– WishingMrGreyWasHere


The street is quiet. It’s after eleven, so everything on the block except the bar I’m parked outside of is closed for the night. A few stragglers are standing beneath the overhang, avoiding the rain while they chat and take long drags from cigarettes. The neon sign with the name of the bar scrolled across it flickers every few seconds, which draws my attention and keeps me on edge.

Where the fuck is this guy?

I shift in my seat, glancing again at the blinking light, then jump when my car fills with the sound of an incoming call. With a racing heart, I look down at the caller ID on my dash, and read the name.

“Kate?” I answer.

“Hey…” Her voice is only a breath, and it makes me sit up straighter.

“Hey, what’s going on?”

“Nothing, I just… I just left Ana.”

My heartbeat quickens and I swallow against the sudden tightening in my throat that now comes with the images my best friend’s name summons. Was she in bed, or did she manage to make it down to the couch today? Was she shaking, or was today a day where she just sobbed until she couldn’t breathe anymore? Or maybe she was just blank. Maybe she just stared. Empty. Unresponsive….

That’s the hardest. Because above all else, I’m afraid that it’s a glimpse of who Ana is going to become. Who she’ll be if this beats her. And the longer this goes on, the more it looks like Lincoln’s winning.

“You have to come back,” Kate says, clearly on the edge of tears. “I still don’t know why you left, but she needs you right now, Luke. Taylor’s bringing in all these new people and they don’t know how to act around her. They don’t support her the way she needs to be supported. She needs stability, and familiarity…”

“She needs security.”

“Which is you!”

“Kate…” I grind my teeth together, preparing one of the dozens of reasons I’d given to Taylor, and trying not to break under how weak each and every excuse is. “Every time she looks at me, she sees Gia shoot me. I’m a trigger for her right now. It’s best I… keep a little distance.”

She lets out a pain filled sigh, that’s followed by a pause so long, I wonder if she’s pulled the phone away. “What do we do, Luke? How do we help her?”

“Carrick’s got to get elected. If he wins, he’ll appoint a new police chief, we’ll get an investigation, and we’ll have justice. Then she’ll be okay.” My gut clenches, and I glance up at the rundown sign again. “I’m doing everything I can.”

“I don’t know if that’s enough. I’m terrified that none of this is enough.” Her words cut off with a click, and the silence the follows feels oppressive. I can feel the accusation, because I’ve thrown it at myself every waking moment since the night it happened.

I was responsible for her, and I wasn’t there when she needed me most.

I didn’t stop him.

I didn’t protect her.

The scene that unraveled everything plays through my mind, with an echo of the tap, tap, tap Kommer knocked against my window in the parking garage. I was on the phone listening to my team surrounding Gresham’s apartment through my earpiece, so his appearance surprised me. But it wasn’t weird. I’d just sent Grey and Ana up the elevator with the full knowledge they were about to fuck, so Grey probably chased Kommer out on the way to their bedroom. I motioned for him to join me in the front seat with a nod of my head, but he waved his hand like he wanted me to get out of the car.

That was weird.

I jumped out of the car and demanded to know what had happened. He said, ‘It’s Ana,” looked to the elevator, and I started to run. He waited until we were in the elevator, while I was leaning over to enter the code for the Penthouse, to reach for my holster and put my own damn gun to my head. It killed me the whole way up there, because I had another holster on my leg, another weapon… I just had to wait for my opportunity to get to it. But I couldn’t even properly absorb my surroundings inside the apartment before Gia’s gunshots hit my vest and knocked me out cold.

By the time I came to… Kommer was dead. Gia was dead. Grey had been shot. And Lincoln was on top of Ana.

My body fills with rage at the memories of his hands on her, and I punch the steering wheel in front of me to release it. The horn blares through the empty street, and the smokers in front of the bar all turn to look at my car. With a sigh of frustration, I climb out and stalk through the door under the sign I’ve been fixated on all night.

It’s crowded inside. The music is loud, people are grouped around pool tables or lined up in front of dart boards. I slide into a small table near the back and scan the faces around me. No one pays attention to me. No one is actively avoiding looking at me. I’m here, unnoticed. Except…

My hackles rise and I glance to the bar. The bartender is looking at me, closely, and in my current heightened state of paranoia, it takes several seconds for me to realize… she’s checking me out. An easy smile moves across her full lips, and she tosses her long, black curls over her shoulder as she turns her attention to another customer. At first, I don’t think much of it, until I catch her staring again a few minutes later.

This time, she reaches up a single finger and motions for me to join her at the bar. I glance to the door, which stays shut, and at the patrons around me. He hasn’t come yet, so maybe it wouldn’t hurt to grab a drink while I wait.

I get up and drag myself to the bar, using the distance to give the bartender a cursory glance-over. She’s actually… hot. Her makeup is heavy. It’s almost hard to tell her eyes are brown and inviting beneath the heavy, smudged black eyeliner she’s wearing, or that her lips look petal soft beneath her flat, red lipstick. She’s got an incredible set of tits inside her nearly sheer, white tank-top and the shorts she’s wearing are so tiny that I can see half-her ass hanging out the bottom when she turns to take a bottle off the shelf behind her.

It makes me want to see more…

“You planning on drinking tonight, or are you just here to take up my tables and break all these girl’s hearts?” she asks when I approach.

I grin. “I’m actually waiting for someone.”

Her eyes twinkle with intrigue. “A girl?”

“No, a… business associate.”

She hums and her eyes move up and down my entire body one time before the corners of her lips turn up, and her teeth sink into her bottom lip. “Can I get you anything?”

“An IPA?” She winks, reaches for a mug, and starts to pour. I watch the tilt of the glass, which she fills with careless perfection. The glass she hands to me is filled to the brim with a layer of foam so thin, it’s transparent. She leans over on the bar, folding her arms in front of her and pressing her tits together. She smiles when she catches me looking.

“That’ll be six bucks, beautiful.”

I laugh, reach into my wallet, and toss a $20 on the bar. “Keep it.”

“Ooh, money bags.” Her grin widens as she slides the bill towards her, runs the transaction through the register, and dumps the change into the tip jar. There’s a guy a few feet to my left waving for her attention, but she doesn’t move on. “Let me guess, tech guy?”

“Nope. I’m a… private contractor, actually.”

“Like a hitman?” Her eyes glimmer with excitement, and it makes me laugh.

“Not quite…”

“Well, Mr. Not-Quite-A-Hitman, you gotta name?”

“Luke.”

“I’m Jade.” She reaches across the bar, the light catching on the shiny black paint covering her nails. When I place my hand in hers, she squeezes back with a surprisingly firm grip. I wait for her to release me, but her grip only loosens. “I haven’t seen you in here before.”

“Maybe I only come when you’re not working.”

She laughs. “That would imply there was ever a time I’m not working…”

“Jade!” The man waiting for his drink calls out, and her shoulder rise and fall with irritation. She winks at me, then slides down to her other customer.

“What can I get you, Brad?” Her hands spread out on the edge of the in front of her, so she’s leaning forward slightly as she stares him down. He glances at the deep swell of her breasts, then smirks.

“Jameson.”

“Sure thing.” She turns and snags a lowball glass form the shelf at the same time she pulls the bottle of liquor down. I watch her pour before she dances her way through the other bartenders, back to Brad.

“Anything else?”

“How ‘bout a peak at those titties?”

She lets out a harsh laugh that’s so ladened down with rejection, even I can feel its sting.

“Ah, come on,” he says, smiling in a way I’m sure he thinks is charming. “I’ll give you fifty bucks.”

She raises an eyebrow. “Baby, you’ll give me fifty bucks and I’m not going to show you shit.”

“Oh, really?” His eyes move down to her tits again.

“Mhm.” She picks up his glass of whiskey and sets it on the bar. “Fifty bucks.”

His grin disappears. “Shut the fuck up, that’s an eight-dollar drink.”

“What can I say? Price went up.”

“Jade…”

“Pay up or get away from my bar, Brad.” She pulls the glass back, obviously prepared not to serve him. When the two other girls behind the bar notice and turn suspicious eyes on him, Brad scowls. He reaches into his wallet, throws down a fifty, and Jade smiles. She grabs the bottle of Jameson, leans over the bar, and dumps it into the guy’s mouth.

He’s all smiles after that, and she grabs hold of his jaw. “Keep you brain off my tits, Brad.”

“Unlikely.” He takes his drink and Jade rolls her eyes while she rings him out, dropping $42 into the tip jar.

I take a sip of my beer, marveling at how easily she dealt with that creep. If it were Ana… I smile to myself as I imagine what her face would look like, and the way I’d end up having to deal with it in the end. But that reminds me that I’m here for her now, dealing with something for her now, and I’ve let myself get completely distracted.

“Shit.” I turn, eyes darting around the room for my contact, but there aren’t any new faces in the bar. I shake my head, internally chastising myself, and head back to the table I’d been sitting at before. Nursing my beer, I try to keep my attention focused on the door. But as the minutes drag on and on, my gaze begins to shift back to Jade.

Turns out, the girl is really fucking hot.

Over the next half-hour, I watch her jump on the bar and dance with the other bartenders. She grabs a megaphone and hypes up the crowd when things start getting quiet, drawing them back to the bar to buy more drinks. She flirts with her customers, even the girls, and her smile is dazzling. She drinks with the ladies behind the bar, and it makes them all more handsy with each other—which makes not staring at them almost impossible. When a bachelor party comes through, she takes a pitcher of ice water and dumps it over her white tank top.

I’m left to gape, she’s left with a full tip jar.

“Sawyer?”

I jump, so entranced with the knock-out serving drinks that I didn’t even notice my contact come into the bar, let alone approach. It’s disorienting, and it almost makes me miss how absolutely ludicrous the man looks. I don’t know his name, I never even got a description of the guy, but there’s no doubt in my mind it’s him. He looks like he’s auditioning for a fucking spy movie.

“Real incognito…” I mumble. He glares as he lowers himself into the seat across from me.

“No on can know I’m here…”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah… you got the tape or not?”

“Oh, I got it.” He reaches into the pocket of his hoodie and pulls out a plain white envelope, sliding it across the table towards me as if he wants everyone in the bar to know we’re doing something shady. I snatch it up and roll my eyes.

There’s a cassette inside, which I pop into the player stashed in my backpack. I only put in one headphone, and I only listen long enough to be sure what he’s given me is valuable. The current mayor’s mistress is moaning his name within the first few minutes, so I turn it off, slide the player with the tape inside into my jacket pocket, and get up from the table, leaving my backpack behind.  

“Money’s in the bag,” I grunt as I walk away. Jade catches my eye on the way out of the bar and I nearly stop again. But I don’t. Because now, I have work to do.

And yet… it doesn’t keep my mind from wandering back to her. I hear her laugh ringing in my ears as I make the proper copies, and I can smell the lingering, sweet scent of her perfume when I drive those tapes all over town. I’ve actually imagined for days what Kate’s going to do once she has this in her hot little hands, and once she realizes that it’s going to get Carrick elected… but it’s still the way Jade carried herself behind that bar, almost like she was gliding, that I think about when I drop the envelope addressed to Kavanagh Media in the mailbox.

Part of me thinks I picked that mailbox because it was close to the bar. All of me is glad I did once I decide to drive by.

The place is closed down, which should’ve just made me leave. Instead, I park on the curb and walk up to the window, peering through the narrow spaces of glass between the different posters they’ve got in the window. There’s a light on in the back, but it becomes very unimportant when I hear voices floating up the alley next to the bar, and one of them makes my heartbeat quicken.

“Goodnight girls, good work!”

I straighten, preparing for her to emerge onto the street, when a voice calls out to her. “Jade!”

Her scratchy footsteps on the wet pavement stop. I can hear her turn, and I can hear her annoyed sigh. “What do you want, Brad?”

“I want to talk to you…” The words are so slurred, I can barely catch them.

“I think what you need to do is take a long walk home and sleep it off. I’ll see you on Saturday.”

“You owe me money.”

“I don’t owe you shit.”

“That’s not the way I see it. I gave you fifty bucks for a show, I came to collect.”

I move too quickly to hear the sounds of struggle, let alone analyze them. I come around the corner ready for a fight… but all the adrenaline spiking inside of me stalls. My damsel in distress currently has her attacker pinned against the wall, his hands secured behind him and a taser to the back of his head.

“You’re about this close to earning yourself a permanent ban, Brad. You don’t start treating me and my girls with a little more respect, you’re gonna lose a whole lot more than just money.” With a hard shove that scrapes his face against the brick, she lets him go. I watch her ready the taser in case he turns to come at her. He chooses instead to flee up the other end of the alley.

And I stand on my end… fighting an erection.

“Impressive,” I call. She jumps and spins, brandishing the taser at me. I disarm her with a grin.

“Yeah, well… you don’t get where I am without learning how to deal with drunk assholes.”

“I can see that.” She shifts and the glare of her phone in her hand catches my attention. I narrow in on it, and see that she’s got a ride-share app open. “Can I give you a ride home?”

She narrows her eyes. “I don’t take rides from strangers.”

“Okay, what do you want to know?”

There’s hesitation plain on her face as she wars with an internal decision. Her eyes evaluate me, and she goes still so that her other senses can make their evaluations as well. Eventually, she slides her phone into her back pocket and ambles towards me. She manages to keep the taser ready, but tucked behind her and out of sight enough that, were I not a professional, I probably would have forgotten all about it.

“Luke, right?’

“Good memory.”

“Mhm. You got a wife, Luke?”

“No.”

“Girlfriend?”

“No.”

“Borderline psychotic girl attached to you in a way that, should I fuck you tonight, would put me right in the middle of some bullshit drama that I want nothing to do with?”

I laugh. “Let’s be honest here. After tonight, you’re never going to hear from me again.”

“Oh?” A single eyebrow curves high over her warm eyes. “We’ll see about that. You gotta car?”

“Out front.”

“Shotgun.” She smiles, and drags a hand across my chest before leading us both out of the alley. I hit the key fob to unlock her door, then slide into the driver’s seat.

“Fancy digs,” she says, caressing the leather. “Normally, guys who drive Mercedes spend more than $20 in my bar…”

“I told you I was only there to meet someone.”

She laughs. “You know, I think you might really be a hitman.”

“And yet, here you are.” I smile at her, and this time, I don’t hide my brazen examination of her body. She doesn’t shy beneath my gaze. She’s more comfortable under my scrutiny than I’ve seen her all night. “Where to?”

“Oh no, I don’t take randoms to my house. You can pay for a hotel.” She leans back, daring me to challenge her. I don’t. With a smirk, I shift into drive and work my way deeper into downtown.

“The Fairmont Olympic?” she asks, eyes wide while the valet approaches her door. I nod.

“I’ve got an account here.”

“So, this is something you do regularly?”

“I don’t do anything regularly.” I let the taunt glimmer through my eyes, then step out of the car and hand the keys to the valet. Jade slides her hand into the crook of my elbow, which is good because she’s too distracted by the elegance of the lobby to lead herself. It also makes it easy to get her to hang back, while I get us a room.

“Good evening, Mr. Sawyer,” the man behind the desk greets me. “Is Mrs. Grey with you this evening?”

“Not tonight, just the one room.”

“Very good, sir.” His fingers tap on the keys of his computer, and he hands me a single room key, skipping the spiel he’s already given me countless times before. I once again reach for Jade and pull her toward the elevators.

“Do you want a drink?” I ask, once we’re in the room alone together. She shakes her head.

“No, I’m still a little buzzed from work…”

“Oh, well—” My words come to an abrupt halt when her lips push into mine and her body falls into me. Only, ‘falls’ is too passive a word. Nothing about this girl is passive at all. Her hands fly to my face while she kisses me, and her tongue moves through my mouth like a powerful python. Her tits meld to my chest when she pushes against me, and when I moan for it, she lets out a breathy laugh that makes me rock hard. She’s arrogant, and I’m dying to know how much of that confidence is deserved.

Reaching down, I grab her by the ass and lift her so I can carry her to the bed. She wraps her legs around my hips, thrusts her tongue deeper into my mouth, and grinds on my cock the entire way there. When I drop her onto the mattress, she scrambles backwards, opening her legs and stripping off her still damp tank top. Her tits look absolutely incredible pushed up in her bra, and it takes everything I have not to attack the fucking thing to get my mouth on what’s underneath. My cock starts to twitch in with impatience, and I know then that I’m going to come hard for this girl.

It’s only fair I return the favor.

I lunge at her, taking her lips again while I claw at the back of her bra. There’s no finesse in how I open it, I’m too far gone for that bullshit. I rip the thing away, the push her back into the bed so I can really appreciate my first look.

“God, you’re fucking perfect,” I whisper in awe, and even as my eyes move down her body, there’s nothing I can see that would make that statement not absolutely true. Her stomach is flat, with just the perfect amount of tone. Her skin is a flawless, tawny brown that just begs to be touched. I lean over and suck one of her nipples while my hands start on the buttons of her shorts. Her hands go into my hair, every scratch of her nails on my scalp egging me on. When I get her shorts open, she’s just as eager to get them off as I am. They fly across the room while my fingers find her clit. She lets out a heavy breath, and I switch tits.

“Fuck, Luke!” she whines with the rhythm of my fingers. “Fuck, fuck, fuck…”

“That’s it, Jade,” I whisper. With a last tug on her nipple with my teeth, I pull away from her breasts and start down her body. My hands feel out the path I follow with my lips and tongue. I let myself fantasize as I go, picturing the velvet skin beneath my hands brushing against my cock while I come all over her…

Fuuuuuuuuck.

The desire building inside me sends me face first into her pussy without really giving me the chance to even look at her first. She already so gloriously wet and the sweet, tart taste of her on my tongue for the first time puts me in a frenzy. I lick her with long strokes that make her legs tremble. I suck her clit, and she starts to whimper. When I push two fingers into her and fuck her while I lap mercilessly at that swollen bundle of nerves, she thrashes and starts to scream.

“Yes! Oh my god, yes! That’s it, that’s it… fuck!”

She’s soaked, about to come…

And I stop.

“Wait, no…”

“Not yet, baby,” I tell her, kissing her swollen pussy one last time. “You can drip a little for me first.”

She gives me a questioning look that cuts off with a sharp gasp and a groan when I reach into her hair and drag her onto her stomach. She bites her lip with hungry anticipation while I undo my belt, then shoves my hands out of the way when she decides I’m taking too long. Once she has my cock out, she strokes me from base to tip, then takes the entire length in one, smooth go.

“Holy shit, you’re big,” she says, using the spit she just coated me in to jack me off.

“Makes your pussy twitch, right?” I ask, staring at her hand moving up and down my cock. “Thinking about how I’m going to stretch you?”

She shivers. “Yes.”

“Suck my cock, Jade.”

She does. Like she’ll starve if she doesn’t. Her tongue, her cheeks, her tight light throat… it’s all nearly too much. She swallows as much of me as she can take. The more the head of my cock slams into the back of her throat, the more she loosens, and the more of me she pulls into her mouth. I stare down at her lips, mesmerized at the way my shaft disappears between them.

“That’s so fucking good,” I growl, but there’s no recognition of praise in the lion-like eyes that stare back at me. She knows she’s good at this, and now that I know it too, she shows off. Only a few seconds pass, and I’ve completely lost my mind. I can’t control anything; I can’t even think straight. The only thing I care about in that moment is how hot, wet, and tight her mouth is around me. It’s only when I’m just about to explode that I even realize I’m fucking her mouth just as hard as she’s sucking me… and the woman’s taking it like a champ.

“Fuck,” I hiss, yanking her off me and panting like I’ve just run a marathon. The eyeliner I thought was messy before is a disaster now. Black streaks race down her cheeks, past her swollen lips. The eyes behind them are blazing.

“Fuck me. Right now.” Her command is absolute as she grabs me and pulls me on top of her. “Make me come, Luke.”

I give her a cocky grin and roll a condom onto my cock. Her legs spread wider for me, and the moment I’m in position, I slam home.

“Yes!” Her head falls back as her cries echo around us and I hammer away at her like an archeologist on Vesuvius. It’s rough, it’s uninhibited, and it’s absolutely mind-blowing. There’s no pretense with Jade. There’s no coyness or hesitation. She fucks like she knows exactly what she wants and she’s going to get it with or without my help.

And to see her, to feel her, to witness the way she moves and to hear her carnal cries of pleasure… it draws me in like I’ve never been drawn in before. I’m no longer just fucking, I’m… trying to impress her. Trying to help her get where she wants to go without much thought to my own finish. But that concern is pointless, because the moment her pussy begins to spasm and I see the stirrings of her orgasm blossoming in the bottomless depths of her eyes, I’m suddenly so close to the edge I have to worry about my balance.

“Are you going to come on my cock, baby?”

“Yes! Ah, ah… fuck!”

“That’s it. Give it up for me. Show me how you fall apart.” The steady chorus of pleasure-filled gasps come louder and more urgently, until they cut off all together. Her body goes stiff, then releases all at once… concentrated on my cock.

“Fuck!” We scream together. The room around me disappears. I can’t see anything; I can’t hear anything… I can only feel the absolutely mind-blowing power of my orgasm. It rocks me all the way down to my fucking soul, obliterating parts of me that I won’t be able to repair. Like, the parts of me that had no interest in seeing this girl again…

“Jesus,” she finally says, still trying to catch her breath.

“Yeah…” We lie there together in silence for… I don’t even know how long. Eventually though, she sits up, orders nacho delivery from a 24-hour place I would never consider for Ana, and the two of us stay up talking, watching bad late night TV, and going three more rounds. She’s funny. She’s smart. She’s quick. She’s tough. And when she drains me for the final time that night, I collapse next to her, pull her against me, and sleep better than I have in ages.

The mayor’s cheating scandal is all over the headlines when Jade turns on the TV while she gets ready to go the next morning, and I can barely pay attention to any of it. I’m too busy watching her, walking around our hotel room naked after getting out of the shower.

I pull her back into bed and fuck her through the interview Carrick gives channel 4 news.

“Can I have your number?” I ask when she’s finally ready to leave. She pauses and turns back to me, her gaze uncertain.

“I don’t know. Maybe you should come around the bar a few more times before you start blowing up my phone.”

“Okay.”

She smiles and leans in to kiss me. “See you later, hitman.”

I chuckle, then watch her go. My phone is already in my hand before the door has closed.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Sawyer?”

“I need a background check. Jade Marroquin.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 44

“I’m telling you, they’re following us,” I say to Luke, nervously glancing over my shoulder at the car trailing a few dozen yards or so behind us. They followed us out of the pharmacy parking lot in Olympia where we’d stopped to stock up on diapers and other supplies for Calliope, and they haven’t even so much as fallen behind since. 

Luke looks in the rearview mirror and shakes his head. “We’re on a two lane highway in the middle of nowhere, where do you want him to turn off?” 

“He’s not going to turn off, because he’s definitely working for Taylor and he’s definitely following us.” I turn in my seat again, trying to decide whether or not I can recognize the car. Luke sighs. We’re just passing the first few signs announcing the upcoming exit for Montesano, so he puts on his blinker and pulls off the highway. 

The car behind us follows. 

See?” I shriek in panic. Luke looks up, his eye bouncing between the road ahead of us and the rearview mirror. He takes us down the road to a Burger King and pulls into the parking lot. The car behind us continues on down the road. 

“No, you see?” He lets out a breath. “Come on, it’s late and the road to your dad’s house is garbage.” 

He pulls the car out of his parking place and takes it through the drive through. I move to the backseat so that I can feed Calliope bits of chicken fries as we make our way towards the woods, then climb over the console into the passenger’s seat again when Luke gets lost. 

It’s dusk by the time the road begins to dip down into the valley where Lake Sylvia is, and my breath catches at the sight of it. The scenery before us is absolutely magnificent beneath the setting sun. The deep lake, crystal blue in my memory, is black and so perfectly still that it looks like glass. The towering mountains caging us in are deep purple, which contrasts with their snow capped tops in sharp, broken angles. The crisp, clean air that pours in through the open windows of Luke’s car carries the smell of fresh pine.

I breathe it in and let it breeze away as much of the hurt as I can unload on it, relieved by even just the small amount of levity it brings me.

We come to a stop next to the rustic cabin with golden light pouring through the windows and curls of smoke twisting from the stone chimney into the periwinkle sky. I’m just reaching into the back seat to pull Calliope into my arms when I hear the squeaky-whine of the screen door and turn to see my father, looking simultaneously shocked and solaced to see me.

Anastasia Rose! Christian has been calling here every fifteen minutes for the last three hours asking if I’ve heard from you. He’s been looking for you everywhere!”

I settle Calliope on my hip and look up at him with lost eyes. “Did he tell you why?”

My father’s attention is caught by Luke, and the overnight bag he pulls from the trunk and swings over his shoulder. As we start for the stairs that lead up to his porch and he catches the tone of our solemn march, he frowns.

“What happened?”

“I-“ The word moves through my throat like water rippling through a ragged river bed, then dies away. I cling a little tighter to Calliope, gently rubbing my hand in circles over her knee to try and distract myself from crying. It doesn’t fool my dad.

“Come here, kiddo.” He puts a broad smile on his face and takes my daughter from me, swinging her high in the air before settling her on his hip, pulling a laugh from her that I haven’t heard all day. Then he looks up at me. “Come inside. We’ll get you settled in, then you and I can talk.”

I nod, gratefully, and step through the door Luke holds open for me.

There’s a creak from the floorboards as I step into the small front room. None of the furniture in here is familiar to my childhood, but there’s a blanket my mother crocheted years and years ago folded over the sofa that reminds me of home. Everything is neat and tidy, in the perfect order my father became accustomed to after years of being in the military. I glance at the sound humming softly from the corner, and see a pre-season football game playing on the television.

The 49ers. Gross.

“I haven’t been here before,” Luke says, turning back and looking at me expectantly. I motion with a nod of my head to the wooden staircase at the back of the house, then follow after him as he begins the climb.

We emerge in an open loft with a full-sized bed pushed into the corner, which Christian incessantly complained about the one time we stayed here overnight. There’s a desk my father built in his woodshop out back that rests, lovely and sturdy, beneath the window. The rest of the space is barren.

“You can take the bed,” I offer, noticing Luke’s frown as he glances around at the empty, hardwood floor. He gives me a slanted look.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Luke, you don’t have to-“

He holds up a hand to stop me. “I’m fine. Why don’t you leave Calliope with me so you and your dad can talk?”

I start with a thankful smile, then pull him into a hug. “Thank-you. And thank-you for today… and every day, I guess. I don’t know what I did to deserve a friend like you.”

He squeezes me tighter. “By being that same friend to me.”

I hum in acknowledgement before pulling away. Reaching out to squeeze his hand affectionately before turning and descending the stairs again. My father is in the living room. The TV is muted and the newspaper he’d been reading has been cleared away from the empty seat next to his on the sofa. He’s setting a piping hot kettle on a protective pad on his coffee table when I come up behind him.

He gives me that familiar comforting smile, the one that reminds me that I can tell him anything and that he’ll never stop loving me, then motions for me to take a seat. I pull my mother’s afghan off the back of the couch and do just that.

“Talk to me kid.” He hands me a mug of tea.

“I’m pregnant,” I blurt out before I can stop myself.

The lines of deep concern in his forehead go smooth as the shock spreads across his face. He blinks a few times, then shakes his head a little as if he’s trying to dispel a troubling thought.

“What?”

I sweep my finger across the rim of the mug in my hands, working up the courage to confirm the words that, despite being married, and despite already having a daughter who he adores, I feel some shame in admitting.

I’m in trouble because I got knocked up.

“I’ve been sick a little over a week, so Kate thought I should take a test. I did, and… I’m pregnant.”

This time, the confession makes direct impact. He leans back as though he’s trying to get away from what I’ve said, and his hands ball into fists. His flushed complexion bleeds away to white, and then turns a slight, pale green.

I can see it then. There wasn’t a spark of joy that was dampened by reality or a wistful hope that, maybe, just maybe, it could be different this time. He looks like he’s seen tragedy. The same way Christian looked when I told him yesterday.

I turn to look out at the mountains through the window, now nothing but jagged silhouettes against the last of the sunlight disappearing behind them. “Christian doesn’t want me to keep it. We got in a fight.”

He takes an uneasy breath, pausing for a long time before he proceeds with obvious caution. “Yeah. I think I remember him saying he didn’t want any more kids.”

I snort. “Oh yeah, he’s made damn sure of that. He had a vasectomy behind my back this morning.” The consequence of that statement once again coils around my stomach and squeezes with the strength of a 20 foot python.

We’ll never have more kids. This is it.

He did?”

“Yeah. Obviously, that was part of the fight.”

My father’s face changes, caught somewhere between concern and understanding. He reaches out and squeezes my hand.

“I—“ He hesitates again. “You’re sure you’re pregnant. I mean, you’re really sure?”

“I haven’t gone to the doctor yet, but I took like 10 tests and they were all positive.” The buzz of life that’s so unique to this experience once again vibrates through me. “I’m sure.” 

His hands tighten around mine and his lips part as though he’s going to speak, but… he doesn’t. He looks lost, and the turmoil in his stormy ocean eyes feels like it could break me. I’m completely out on a ledge. I have absolutely no idea how to resolve this impasse I’ve found myself in with the one person I can’t live without or bear to hurt, and if my father can’t give me any guiding wisdom, I don’t know where else to go. He’s never been speechless.

“What do I do, Daddy? I can’t even consider what he’s telling me to do. I wouldn’t be able to live with it. I’d never forgive myself. It’s… it’s not what I want.” I reach down and unconsciously lay a hand over my stomach. “I can feel him. Or… her. I don’t know. And I know that sounds ridiculous, and I know that I really can’t, but I can. He’s there. His heart is beating, and he needs me to protect him. You taught me to protect the things I love, and I am his mother. I’m already in love.”

He grinds his teeth together, chewing on the words as though he has to feel their substance to believe them. Before the tense silence becomes overbearing though, it’s broken by the shrill scream of the phone, and my father’s shoulders deflate.

“Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

“I’m–,” I pause to breathe through the unwelcome sense of Deja-vu. “I don’t want him to come here, so… if he asks for me, I’m not here.”

He doesn’t acknowledge me while he strides across the room and takes the old-fashioned phone off the hook. There’s a quiet reserve to his face as he brings the portable handset to his ear.

“Hello?” A blink, then a frown. “Yeah, she and Luke showed up here about ten minutes ago. They brought Calliope with them.” My eyes widen in horrified betrayal, but he holds out a hand to keep me silent. “But I’m not telling you that because I’m giving you permission to show up here. You’re Calliope’s father, and you have a right to know where she is. But that’s it.” Another pause, this time paired with an uneasy glance in my direction. “She’s staying the night, and I don’t know anything beyond that. You can call her tomorrow and figure out what comes next, but tonight… She needs a little bit of space. You stay put. I mean it, Christian. Do not test me.”

He paces back and forth a few times, offering one word responses to Christian’s questions that don’t give me much context to what he may be asking. I wonder if Christian is as frustrated with the evasive way he speaks as I am because, after only another minute or so, my father hangs up the phone. He rests it back on the hook, then moves back to me with a much heavier gate.

“Congratulations, Annie. I should’a said that earlier.”

It would mean a lot, if his congratulations didn’t somehow sound more like a condolence.

“Daddy… not you too.”

“No,” he shakes his head, and pulls away from me. “No, I’m on your side. I’m always on your side, you know that. I just…” He stops, but it looks as though he doesn’t want to. The words are there, he’s just purposefully holding them back. I don’t need them really. I know what they are, and I know why he feels that way.

“Was it really that bad?” I whisper.

A flash of pain moves across his face that tells me I don’t have to clarify that I’m talking about Calliope’s birth. He hangs his head again, nodding. “Yeah. It was that bad.”

My eyes flood with tears and I turn to look through the window again. I try to keep it together for about half a second until I realize that I don’t care whether or not my father sees me cry, and then I lose it.

He scoots next to me and pulls me into his chest.

“Hey, Annie…. We’re going to figure this out, okay? It’s gonna be alright.”

I turn my face up to his, honestly pleading now. “I don’t know how. I don’t know what to do…” 

A melancholy look crosses his face before he finally brushes the tears from my cheeks and starts to nod. “Yes you do. You know exactly what’s right. And I promise you that no one is going to force you into anything you don’t want. Do you hear me?”

I sniff. “Yeah.”

“It’s going to be okay, Ana,” he says again, hugging me again and rocking me back and forth. “Christian’s just… he’s scared.”

“I know.”

With one last squeeze, he pushes me back and once again looks into my eyes. “Are you tired?”

“I just told you I’m pregnant. I’m always tired.”

He lets out a single, soft laugh that carries enough humor to melt away some of the ice enclaving my heart.

“Why don’t you go to bed? We’ll talk more in the morning, okay?”

“M’kay. Thanks, Daddy.”

“Anytime, Sweetheart.” He kisses me on the cheek before he lets me go, and I gather the blanket I’ve had wrapped around me in my arms. I head up the stairs and find Luke lying with Calliope. She’s tucked in beneath the covers, her head nestled into her pillow while she breathes through her deep, unperturbed sleep. He’s cuddled up next to her, reading aloud from a magazine he’d shoved into his bag on the way out of his apartment. His low voice suggests that he’s reading to Calliope, but after hovering and listening closely for a few seconds, I realize he’s reading her an article about some new, high-speed computer about to hit the market and that none of the excitement in his voice is for her.

I nearly roll my eyes, but watching him makes me think of all the times I’ve watched Christian read her to sleep. The way he holds her, always like he wishes he could pull her in closer. The way he’ll linger on a page with only a single sentence written on it for minutes, just because the colorful artwork makes her eyes go wide with wonder. The way his hushed tones encase his words in velvet and lull her into complete serenity.

Christian is an incredible father. He loves our daughter, absolutely. He’d do anything to make her happy. He’d die to keep her safe.

So why can’t he understand that what he’s asking me to do is impossible?

“Hey…”

I realize I’m staring off into space when Luke calls my attention. I try to give him a bashful smile, but I think it just shows pain because he gently pulls away from my sleeping daughter and comes to wrap me in his arms.

“He’s going to come around, Ana.”

I nod into his shirt, because he has to, then allow Luke to lead me back to bed. With as much care as I can manage, I ease Calliope toward the wall enough that I can slip beneath the covers next to her. Then Luke tucks the blankets in around me and leans over to kiss my forehead. There’s a cabinet at the top of the stairs, filled almost to bursting with extra blankets, so Luke grabs a few and makes a makeshift bed on the floor next to us.

Once he turns off the light, the tears that I hadn’t been able to hold back downstairs come back with a vengeance, and I start to weep in the darkness.

I manage to keep silent at first, embarrassed for Luke to hear me, and worried that Calliope will. I keep my lips pressed so tightly together, it borders on the edge of painful, and I tamper as much of my shallow breathing as possible while my body convulses.

It doesn’t fool my best friend.

Luke’s hand reaches up through the darkness and wraps around mine. Every time he hears me take a broken, stuttering breath, he squeezes. One, long squeeze that’s only meant to convey one thing.

I’m right here.

I cry myself to sleep.


The next morning, I wake to the sound of mountain blue birds chirping merrily through the window. It’s pleasant, or would be if I could hear them over my now expected morning sickness.

“Ana,” Luke groans from his place on the floor outside the bathroom door. “Puke quieter.”

I groan as I flush, then hurry out of the bathroom in search of the nausea lozenges in my purse. Calliope is awake, sitting up on the bed, holding on to her toes, and glancing around at the room looking slightly confused. When I turn to her, she looks up at me, curiously.

“Daddy?”

I gnaw at the inside of my cheek before plastering a perfect smile across my face. “Why don’t we get some breakfast, huh?”

She reaches up for me, so I make a big production of scooping her up off the bed and swinging her around before I pull her into me. She giggles, and I smash my lips into her cheek before I carry her down the stairs.

She wants down the second we get to the living room, but she follows me into the kitchen asking about pancakes, or at least… I think that’s what ‘pinchems’ is supposed to mean. I go to the fridge, hoping against hope that my dad has buttermilk, or at the very least some lemon juice, but it’s empty. And I mean empty. There are three cans of Rainier beer on the top shelf, an open box of baking soda, a bottle of ketchup, and a covered Styrofoam container filled with fishing bait. In the freezer, a stack of hungry man frozen dinners and a few Ziploc bags full of trout.

“Good morning, sweetheart,” my dad yawns, coming out of the bedroom on the other side of the kitchen. I round on him, fists pressed firmly to my hips.

“Why don’t you have any food?”

He stutters. “Well, I wasn’t expecting you…”

“What about you?”

“Annie, you know I don’t cook. Your mom did. Then you. Then…” The strength of his voice trails off before he can say her name, but my mind can fill it in. Kim was a great cook. It had actually been one of the more petty things that had irritated me about her. That despite how much I hated her, everything she made almost had my eyes rolling back in my head it was so good.

I reach back into the freezer and pull out one of the blue boxes shoved into the back corner. “Is this what you’re living off of?”

He presses his lips together, looking guilty. I throw it down on the counter and turn angry eyes back on him. “Are you insane? You’re not a young man anymore, Daddy. You can’t be eating this much sodium. It’s bad for your heart.”

“It’s not so bad…”

“Yes, it is!” I shake my head in frustration and move back to the freezer, yanking out each and every box out and tossing them in the trash. Once they’re gone, I stomp towards the stairs. “Luke, we’re going into town!”

His head pops over the bannister and he raises an eyebrow. “Where are we going?”

“Grocery shopping. So, if you want to eat breakfast anytime soon, you better get a move on.”

It only takes him a few minutes, then we’re in the car, being jostled by the potholes as we make our way down the primitive dirt road. I’m not sure it’s a good thing, but I spend the drive making a list of everything I need to buy while Luke sings along softly to the garbage coming through his stereo. It means I don’t have to think about Christian, or the baby, or the Grey Publishing merger, or even the reasons behind my trip to the store in the first place.

I just make a list.

The grocery store we pull up to in Montesano is the exact same one I’d grown up with. I can feel the nostalgia pulling out the cart and pushing it through the automatic doors. The smell that hangs in the air immediately conjures images of my small hands wrapped around the cool metal bars, while my mother concentrated on the calculator in her hands that would ensure we didn’t go over our budget.

It’s much different now. Pacing the aisles with a limitless credit card, I find myself deciding between the turkey sausage I should buy and the pork sausage I know my father will eat, instead of carefully examining everything in front of me for the best price per pound. I don’t even bother to weigh out the bulk ingredients I scoop from the barrel sized drums into plastic bags, and I take sometimes three or four times the amount of the non-perishables I need, just so I can be certain I won’t come here again and find his cupboards empty.

“We’re going to need another cart,” Luke says, giving me a sideways look. “Which I hope you’ll agree is absolutely ridiculous since your dad lives by himself.”

“I won’t. Will you go get another one? And…” I pause, doing the math in my head. “Forty-two food prep containers. Make it fifty.”

“Jesus Christ.” He shakes his head in dismay, but does as I ask. I tighten my hold on the cart so I can heave it around the corner and make my way towards the bulk bags of brown rice.

“Anastasia?”

Turning, I find a man standing a few feet away from me who doesn’t look like he could be much older than I am. I narrow my eyes at his casual maroon t-shirt over jean shorts, trying to judge their authenticity. “Are you a reporter?”

“No, it’s me. Cody Findlay. We went to school together.”

No we didn’t. Kaci Rice, the woman standing on the other end of the aisle from me trying to get a bottle off the top shelf, went to school with me. The one person I can see stocking the freezers at the back of the store, Dean Schmitt, was a senior when I was a freshman at Montesano High School, but I’d recognize his face anywhere. There were less than 500 kids in my entire school, and less than 4,000 people in the whole town. I know everyone who lives here, but I don’t know this man.

“Who the fuck are you?” Luke’s voice demands from behind me. I whirl around and see him pushing a cart filled with black and clear plastic containers. His expression is hostile and the reaction it draws from the stranger is stark.

“I uh… I was just…”

Luke holds up a strong finger, pointing down the aisle. The command is silent, but Mr. Cody Findlay obeys it immediately. He scrambles away from me, disappearing around the corner as fast as he can, and Luke’s eyes move to me.

“You know him?”

“No.”

He frowns, then clamps his teeth together so hard I can see the tick in his jaw. “Then let’s get out of here. Stay close to me.”

A protective hand finds its way to my back and stays there pretty much the entire time we’re in the check-out line. Even though it’s no longer his job, the light, carefree Luke I left the house with has vanished and been replaced by the CPO. While I scan my credit card, his eyes scan the people around me, looking for danger. He hovers just a little too close to me to be natural as we make our way back to the car, then insists I sit inside with the doors locked while he unloads the groceries.

“What’s going on?” I ask him the moment he’s closed himself in with me.

He sighs. “Nothing. Probably nothing…”

“What do you mean, probably? Is there something I should be worried about?”

“How would I know? I’m not on your security team anymore.”

Which means that you don’t have to follow protocol anymore. You don’t have to be my CPO anymore and you don’t have to follow Taylor’s rules. Tell me what you know.”

He grinds his teeth again. “I can’t. I signed an NDA as part of my employment. I can’t talk about anything Taylor has deemed classified, even after separation.”

“I’m a covered entity.”

He turns to look at me, and I stare back, unwavering in my resolve. His fingers tighten around the steering wheel, and his lips pull together so tightly that they turn white. But he nods, eventually.

“You’re married to a very rich man who attracts a lot of attention, is very open about how much you mean to him, and doesn’t have an easy time making friends.”

“And a very easy time making enemies?”

He shakes his head. “It’s not really one person in particular. Mostly, I think it’s a bunch of crazies who wouldn’t know what to do with you if they ever did get to you. But, ever since Endurance, it’s been… escalating.”

I can feel the blood drain from my face. “What do you mean escalating?” 

He turns to me, and offers me a joking grin to cover his regret. “It’s nothing. Seriously. Taylor’s got it under control, obviously, since your oblivious ass hasn’t even noticed.” He laughs to himself. “A few weeks ago some dude tried to come over the back wall while you and Kate had the babies in the pool, we flagged him before he got anywhere near the house and I was there waiting. Taylor let me absolutely wreck the guy so we could send a message back to whoever sent him. It was pretty funny telling him to keep quiet while I very thoroughly beat his ass to Kidz Bop.”

He laughs again, trying to make all of it seem like a joke so I won’t be worried… But I feel like I’ve been plunged into the pretty lake we’re headed back to.

“Someone tried to attack me in my own backyard?” 

I watch the calculation that runs through his head before he answers. “Uh…”

“Do not lie to me, Lucas.”

 He swallows, then turns to look at the road ahead of us. “Well… yeah. But a lot of people have tried to attack you in your own backyard. And at your office. At the marina. At the airport. Kate and Elliot’s. Grace and Carrick’s. And pretty much everywhere in between. They never even get close.” 

“Christian has told me over and over again that there’s nothing to worry about!”

“And there’s not! You’re not in danger, because you are very well protected. The secret service is a joke compared to what Grey has put around you. Honestly, it should make you feel better knowing that your team is so good at what they do, you didn’t even know what little problem you did have. Because they are good, Ana. I wouldn’t have left if I didn’t believe you were 100% safe.”

“You didn’t want to…” 

“But I did.

I frown, staring ahead through the window. He tries to assure me several times on the drive home that everything is fine. Taylor is smarter and faster than I’m giving him credit for, my current team is made up of former black-ops and specialized military personnel, and do I seriously think that my loves-to-overreact-about-everything husband would have let him go if there was a serious threat?

None of it breaks through the cold. My mind races in the exact uncontrollable way it did in the immediate aftermath of Lincoln, when I’d eventually snapped and decided to just preemptively eliminate any threat I could possibly imagine. It’s not healthy, but it permeates my every thought, even while I’m surrounded by steaming pots, baking dishes, and piles of cut up vegetables back at the house several hours later.

“Smells good in here,” my dad says, coming through the creaky porch door with a joyous smile spread across his face. I can still hear Luke and Calliope playing together outside. “What are you making?”

“Chicken and lentils,” I reply, my voice flat and automatic in my distraction. He makes a face as he leans over the pot.

“Lentils?”

“They’re good for you, and you’re going to eat them.”

“Couldn’t have just made potatoes…” he grumbles.

“I did. They’re over there.”

His head swivels in the direction I point, but the chagrin on his face isn’t wiped away. “Those aren’t potatoes. They’re orange.”

“They’re sweet potatoes, and they’re packed full of fiber and vitamin A.”

“And they’d be better if they were deep fried. Or covered in marshmallows…”

I pop the last dish I’ve prepared in the oven and turn back to him, wiping a hand across my forehead. “I’ve done enough to get you through the next couple of weeks. You should just be able to pull one of these out of the freezer and heat it up. I’ll have Gail do a week at a time after that and we’ll bring it all up here to you.”

The pain I’ve held back under concern and constant motion breaks through my face when I realize that “we’ll,” includes Christian, and the hours I’ve had to think about our situation haven’t given me any kind of clarity. This problem doesn’t have the same easy solution my father’s empty refrigerator did.

And then, as if he heard me think his name, the phone rings. My heartbeat starts to flutter and there’s a measurable sense of relief that courses through me as Christian’s presence immediately fills the room.

My dad moves to answer it.

“Hello? Hi, Christian. She’s, uh…”

I take a bracing breath, then reach out for the phone. He hands it to me, kissing me quickly on the forehead before he darts back outside to give us privacy. I pull the phone to my ear.

“Hello?”

“Hi.” He sounds miserable. Lifeless, almost. Worse even than the times I’d been stuck in Cambridge and couldn’t make it home for weeks at a time. “How… how are you feeling?”

Horrible.

Helpless.

Devastated.

“I’ve been cooking all day.”

“How’s your head?”

“My head?”

“Any headaches? Light sensitivity?”

“No.”

“What about pain? Any cramps or swelling?”

“Nothing more than to be expected.” I hold up my hand and stare at the now too tight wedding band wrapped around my tattooed finger. I don’t know if I could get it off if I wanted to. 

And I don’t.

“Were you sick this morning?”

“A little.” It’s the same checklist he used to go through each night when I was in Cambridge. It had irritated me then, like he didn’t trust me to take care of myself when I was doing everything in my power to do exactly that. Now, it feels like he cares. And I cling to it. “I feel good, though. Really.”

He sighs. “How’s Calliope?”

“Good. She’s outside catching butterflies with my dad and Luke right now. We’re going to have dinner soon.” He doesn’t respond, leaving me only with his pained silence. “What about you?”

The disgusted sound I get in response makes me press him.

“What did you do today?”

“I wore a path in the floor of my apartment, mostly.”

“Apartment? You’re not at home?”

“No.” The word hangs heavy in the dead air over the phone. “I couldn’t stay there. I don’t know how to be in the home we built together when you’re not there. Escala… Well, I have a lot of practice surviving without you here.”

Every ounce of reprieve I’ve been able to draw from the tranquil isolation here evaporates with those words. The beat of my heart feels harsh and burdened when the image of him, alone at Escala, empty the way that it was before I moved in, flashes before my eyes. There’s a kind of dread in his sentiment that I know will lead him down a dark and destructive path, so I head it off before he can go any further.

“I’m not leaving you, Christian. Everything about this is… awful, but I’m not running away. I just… you scared me yesterday.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have… I mean, I didn’t want to…” He lets out a frustrated huff. “I’d never do anything to hurt you, Anastasia.”

“You did though. I’m hurt, Christian. And I don’t know what to do now…”

“You could come home. You could come back to me.”

I push my lips to the side and drag my finger over my father’s countertop, carefully choosing my words before I say them. “I’m coming home tomorrow night. Lucky for you, I can’t exactly take any time off work right now because my company was just bought out from under me and I need to go deal with the acquisition.”

I half expect a small, breathy laugh, but he’s not in anywhere near the kind of mood to appreciate sarcasm right now.

“Should I be there?”

I gnaw on my lip, considering my answer. “I hope so. But I only want you there if you’re ready to accept that this is happening and it’s not going to change.” 

He swallows audibly, then leaves me in silence for several long drawn out seconds. There’s more defeat than defiance in his response. “I’ll see you on Monday.”

The phone goes dead without an, “I love you,” and my eyes well with tears. I stare blankly at the handset before I return it to its place on the wall, and finish my meal prep behind a teary haze that doesn’t clear away until my father and Luke bring Calliope in for dinner.

“Smells like heaven,” my dad tells me, squeezing my shoulder before pulling out a chair at the dining room table. I give him a small smile and start to dish some peas out for Calliope when there’s a knock on the door. For half a second, my heart goes cold in my chest and I wait for a pair of gray eyes to meet mine when my father opens the door.

“Kim,” he says instead, obviously surprised to see her. She’s standing on the porch with a box in her hands, looking impishly at him.

“I found these things mixed in with mine, so I figured I should return them.”

“Oh.” My dad takes the box out of her hands and looks through its contents, taking great care to sort the items he has no way of counting. I decide he’s buying time, trying to keep her standing in his doorway for as long as possible.

It’s what Christian would do if I showed up at Escala tonight. Because he loves me, and every second he’s in my presence is precious to him.

Fuck.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt your dinner…” Kim says cautiously, peering over my father’s shoulder and finding Luke, Calliope, and me all seated around the table. She bites down on her lip as she shifts her eyes back to my father. “Maybe… some other time, we could talk?”

“Yeah,” my dad responds. “I—uh…”

“Kim?” Her eyes move from my father’s, back to me, and I swallow back the defiant trepidation that rises up my throat. “Would you mind if… we talked for a second?”

My dad’s eyes narrow, but I ignore him.

“Sure.” Kim gives me a weak smile as she steps back on the porch and I get up from the table. My fingers reach out to brush my father’s in a reassuring kind of way as I pass, but his suspicion never wavers.

I close the door behind me.

“What can I do for you, Ana?” Kim asks, settling down in the porch swing and looking at me like I’m responsible for every ounce of the pain in her eyes. Hell, I guess I am.

“I don’t like you,” I start. She frowns before turning away and looking out over the water.

“You think I don’t know that?”

“You certainly don’t do anything to change it.”

The cadence of her breathing changes in a way that makes me think she’s trying to calm herself down, almost as though this is a familiar pattern with her. Like maybe, she’s had this argument before, only… just with herself. “I don’t know how. I don’t know what I did to make you hate me.”

“Well let me lay it out for you.” I move to the railing in front of the porch swing and pull myself up on it, letting my legs dangle between us. “You’re constantly trying to mother me, and I hate it. You’re not my mom, and I don’t need a replacement. I hate the way you always have commentary for everything I do and it’s always to make me feel like I’m shallow or callous because you think that having money and spending it on the people I love means that my feelings aren’t real.” I pause, tasting the bitterness of the words I now have to admit. “But… I like the way you treat my dad. I like that you give him companionship when he’s all by himself out here, and I like the way you take care of him. I like how happy you make him. I don’t like the way his life is when you’re not in it.”

A look of warmth slowly moves across her face as she takes in what I’ve said. Then she reaches out to remove the hand I have tucked underneath my arm and holds it in hers.

“I don’t think you’re shallow, Ana. Actually, I think you have a beautiful heart. The way you and your father are together… well, it makes me regret the man I chose as the father of my own children. The way you love Kate and the family you inherited through Christian, it’s wonderful. You think that I’m overbearing or that I’m meddlesome, but everything between us has always been about trying to get you to open your heart to me the way you do so easily for everyone else… To get you to see how much I care about you. How much I want to love you. All I’ve ever wanted was your approval. Your acceptance. You never wanted to give me a chance and everything I tried only made you hate me more.”

I frown and look down at my shoes in shame. Not just because it hurts to hear her perception, which is more intuitive than I’d like to give her credit for, but because I haven’t made my last confession yet.

“I hate the way you take him away from me. I’m not used to sharing my dad, and I don’t like it. Even when he was still with my mom, she would have never dreamed of trying to come between us. It feels like… that’s all you ever do. Find the things that are most precious between us and put yourself in the middle of all the best parts. That’s not where you belong.”

“Yeah.” It’s her turn to shift her eyes now. Everything she says next, she says into her own lap, rather than directly to me. “I’m sorry, Ana. I’m so in love with Ray and I want to be a part of all things that he loves. He doesn’t love anything more than he loves you and I thought, if I could make you love me, if I could make myself a part of your bond, then… you’d both want me to stay. That maybe, it would make him need me the way I need him.”

“It’s not where you belong,” I repeat.

“I know that now. I’m sorry.”

I take a breath and release it in a long, resigned exhale. “Christian and I are both public figures and that’s not going to go away. Anything you say or do or post online has the potential to become national headlines. Anything.

“So I’ve learned.”

“No pictures of Calliope online. In fact, I don’t want you posting anything about us at all unless you’re supporting GEH. Nothing about our personal lives, period.”

“Of course not. I just thought it was such a cute picture. None of my family ever sees yours and since Christian got me on that damn PixC thing, I thought it could build a bridge, you know. Open a door. Create a possibility. I didn’t realize this would happen.”

“Then we’ll work on that,” I promise. “Just as long as you never, ever, ever, ever, ever do it again.”

“Never.”

“I mean it, Kim. This isn’t a thing you get to mess up. There aren’t any do-overs, and once something is public, it’s out of our hands. There are consequences to that, dangerous consequences, and if you’re in our lives, you need to understand how serious that is.” 

“I do. I didn’t before, but now…” She bows her head in misery. “I’ll never do anything like that again.” 

“Then, would you consider coming back? I don’t want my dad to have to choose between me and happiness, and you make him happy. I’m not going to stand in the way of that.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Oh, Ana!” She leaps to her feet and yanks me off the railing, pulling me in for a hug. “Thank you. Thank you so much!”

“Yeah,” my dad’s voice sounds from behind the screen door. “Thank you, Annie.”

Kim releases me in an instant and rushes for my father, yanking the door back and leaping into his open arms the moment she’s close enough. He wraps her against him so tightly, I worry for a moment he might break her. But she just laughs.

“I’m sorry, Kim. I didn’t know what else to do…”

She kisses him, then cups the side of his face when she pulls away. “There’s no need to apologize. I would never expect you to pick me over your baby.”

He nods, expressing overwhelming gratitude at her understanding, and pulls her in for a deep kiss that’s uncomfortable for me to witness.

“I’m going to eat,” I say flatly, maneuvering around them and sliding through the door. Neither of them notice me go.

Luke is walking around the living room with the house phone pressed to his ear when I come back, his food abandoned and a look of euphoria spread across his face. It only takes a couple seconds to deduce that he’s talking to Jade. I’ve never seen him look so overjoyed without someone handing him a gun first, and, even though I’m incredibly happy for him… it hurts a little.

My dad.

Luke.

Everyone I know is in love and happy. I’m… in love and drifting because of it.

How am I going to get out of this mess?

I sit back at the table and scoot closer to Calliope, keeping my eyes focused on her so Luke feels like he has the space to say the things he wants to tell the woman he loves. She grabs a handful of peas and smashes them against her face, only a few of them actually making it into her mouth.

I laugh and wipe away the mess.

“Daddy, wut?” she asks again. This time, it’s not as easy to hide my pain.

“Yeah. Daddy’s at work.”

Her face crinkles with sadness so I pull her out of her seat and into my lap, cuddling her more to comfort myself than her. “I miss him too, baby.”

It’s true. More so than I ever thought it could be. And for the first time since I found out I was pregnant, I wonder to myself if I could be happy with just Christian and Calliope.

But I don’t even finish the thought before I have my answer.

Not anymore.

Next Chapter

Chapter 43

I don’t see Christian again for the rest of the night. I stay hidden in our room, fuming. Continuing the argument in my head and landing vicious barbs that I’ll be glad I never really got the chance to say to him in the morning. Really, I’m just waiting for him to come after me. To make it right, the way he always does in the end.

But not tonight. He locks himself in his office downstairs and Calliope is carried between us according to her constantly changing whims. I actually keep her up later than I should, waiting to see if Christian will come through the door to help me give her a bath. He doesn’t, and I put her to bed alone.

When I wake up to find his side of the bed cold and empty the next morning, I decide to go looking for him. But I barely make it two steps from our bed before my stomach rolls, and I have to cover my mouth to hold back vomit as I run for  the bathroom. Each horrible, deep wretch carries a sense of loneliness that reverberates deep in my bones. The last time I did this, I was by myself. On the other side of the country with the entire heartland lying between Christian and me. But he was always only a phone call away. And if I chose to make that call, he’d sit there and offer reassuring words that were like life preservers when I was drowning in misery. If I called him now, would he even answer? I don’t know the answer to that and the uncertainty I feel pounds like a fist against my heart.

The tears that well in my eyes have nothing to do with how sick I am. I sob between retching, wishing I could curl up into a ball and wrap my arms around my body, instead of around the porcelain bowl in front of me. When I hear a soft knock against the door frame behind me, my heart flutters for a moment. Then I turn, and find Gail’s indigo eyes looking down at me with concern, instead of Christian’s stormy gray ones.

“Are you alright, Mrs. Grey?”

“Yeah.” I nod weakly and reach up to flush, then pull a square of toilet paper off the roll to wipe my mouth. “Where’s Christian?”

She frowns. “He left very early this morning.”

“Of course he did.”

“But…” She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a small, rectangular box. “He did ask me to pick these up for you.”

I take the box from her and glance down at the label, a fresh wave of tears pricking at the corners of my eyes as I realize what she’s handed me. The nausea lozenges I survived on during my last pregnancy.

“He loves you, Anastasia,” Gail says, softly. “I know that you disagree right now, but that hasn’t changed. He cares. So much.”

I nod, dashing a tear out of my eye, because… I know that. I know that no matter how distant he feels from me, he’s never going to leave. I know that no matter how angry he is, he’ll never stop loving me. I know that no matter how cold and indifferent he may act, every one of his thoughts is occupied with me. Our love has been tested too many times for me to doubt its staying power, but that doesn’t erase the pain of what he suggested or the callousness in his voice as he doubled down. It doesn’t take back what he wants me to do, and the very thought of following through with that… No, I can’t even think about it.

“Congratulations, Ana,” Gail says to break the tense silence. “If that means anything.”

“It does.” I look up at her with tear-filled, but grateful eyes, and smile, before I break down again.

Ten minutes later, I have the crying and the nausea under control enough that I’m able to peel myself off the bathroom floor and get ready for work. I breeze through it, not caring much about how good my makeup looks or what I’m wearing. It’s hard to care about anything at all besides the cold war brewing between Christian and me, especially after I do try to call him and am greeted immediately by his voicemail.

But when I go to wake up Calliope so I can get her ready for daycare, the burden of that pain is lightened a little. Changing her, dressing her, hearing each little happy sound that escapes her lips as I pull her hair through small, pink rubber bands… it all pulls me into her in a way that is more intense than usual. The attachment I feel to her is somehow stronger today. Every familiar feeling of pregnancy that comes over me is like a secret that only she and I have shared. And it all reminds me of just how much I love being a mother. How much I love her. How much I already love the baby growing inside of me.

When I drop her off at daycare, I have to hold back tears.

She couldn’t care less.

“Ana?” Evan questions me when we leave Calliope’s daycare and my hand hovers over the elevator buttons. 30 will take me to Christian’s floor. G will take me back to the car. I debate between the two buttons for enough time to make my entire security team shift anxiously behind me, then sigh as I press my finger into the button for the garage.

More than anything, I just wish I could abandon my morning, go home, and crawl into bed until Christian decides he’s ready to come home and work this out with me. But I promised Hailey I would work harder for her than Grey Publishing did. That I would make Phoenix a best-seller. So, I drag myself into my office, intending to stay put and ignore the rest of my staff while I do my best to fulfill that promise. I’ve only gotten a good ten minutes into the marketing plan I’m putting together though, when there’s a knock on my door.

My heart once again beats like the wings of a hummingbird, desperately hopeful that I’ll look up and he’ll be there. I’m shocked, however, when I do look up and I see Carmen Gallagher standing in the doorway.

I didn’t even know she wasn’t in New York…

“Carmen,” I start. “Uh… come in.”

“Thank you, Ana.” She saunters forward, moving slowly as she lowers herself into the chair across from me. The corners of her mouth are turned slightly down and there’s an uncomfortable confession trying to conceal itself in the deep brown irises of her eyes, as though she’s holding onto a perturbing secret.

It doesn’t make any sense.

“We’ve surpassed 200,000 subscribers,” I begin in earnest. “My projections had been hopeful at 50,000, and we’ve more than quadrupled that within the first quarter. I’ve been running numbers with accounting and I really think it’s enough to make this next release we’ve got… big. As in quarter of a million copies sold. Maybe half-a-million. I’m not sure, I have to work with our printers to figure out what our max capacity might be but, in terms of potential…”

“Ana.” She holds up a hand to stop me and gives me a patient smile. It makes my nausea return, so I take a breath and slip another lozenge in my mouth while she gathers her thoughts. “I’m selling GSP.”

My blood goes cold. “What?”

“Sold, actually. Effective Monday.”

“Wh-“ I lose the word half-way through, along with all the air in my lungs. Suddenly, everything around me seems very far away and there’s an almost vacuum like silence filling the room that makes the words I’d told Hailey only two days ago echo in my head.

I’m going to work so incredibly hard for you.

As the shock wears off, reality comes rushing back. Only now, it’s all colored red. “I’ve done everything you’ve asked me to do. No matter how impossible, no matter how unreasonable… I have done everything you’ve asked me to do. I’ve taken a crumbling press in a dying industry and made it sustainable. Profitable, even! I just signed a new title two days ago that I know will be a best-seller!”

“I know. It isn’t about that…”

“Then, why?”

“I got an offer I couldn’t refuse.” I stare at her, unblinking, expecting more. She sighs, the guilt returning to the lines around her eyes. “Your husband made a play last night. He’s been quietly buying the controlling shares of our largest clients. The ones who use our fiber optics services. If I didn’t agree to sell GSP, I was going to lose everything. So I took the red-eye out of New York to sign the contracts for the sale in his office early this morning. Greenwich Small Press will be absorbed into Grey Publishing. I don’t know much about what that will entail except that he plans to keep you in charge, and he doesn’t plan on laying off any staff.”

I stiffen. The crimson red tint that colors the room seems to pulse at the edges of my field of vision. I feel hot, like my blood has started to boil through my veins rather than flow like a life giving river. The slash of rage that cuts through me is so intense, I can taste it. And it bites me back with the same, sharp snap of black pepper.

Carmen shifts awkwardly in her chair. “I’m sorry it ended this way, Ana. Really, I am. I truly enjoyed working with you and I was very much looking forward to seeing how far you were going to take this library project you came up with… You really are everything everyone told me you were.”

An hour ago, that would have meant more to me than just about anything ever said to me by a professor, an editor, a publisher… Now, it’s empty. It’s a platitude. It’s a cruel shift of the guilt she feels over the coals she’s dragged me over again and again.

“Get out of my office,” I breathe in disgust. She looks taken aback.

“Excuse me.”

“You’re not my boss anymore, and I am so incredibly tired of trying to kiss your ass. So please, just get the fuck out of my office.”

She stutters for a moment, but doesn’t grasp anything to say back. My glare never breaks as she turns to leave, and the ice behind it is enough to silence her final pause at the door and send her down the hallway.

I reach for my purse and stomp out behind her.

“Ana?” Evan calls, standing up in surprise when he sees me storming towards the front doors. I shoot an impatient look in his direction.

“I’m going to GEH. If you’re coming, you better move.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He’s already in motion as he swings his blazer off the back of his chair. I’m at the elevator before he catches me, but once we’re released again, he doesn’t slow me down. In fact, as out of control with anger as I feel right now, having him drive probably gets me there much faster.

Normally, I’d already be planning the over-the-top speech I’d give him the moment he was in range of my shouts, but my mind is empty. Mostly because, beneath the rage, I’m incredulous. This isn’t our normal tête-à-tête, where he screws me over and I throw it back in his face until he escalates it again. That’s all just foreplay.

This? This is a punishment.

Evan sticks to me like glue as I stalk towards the elevator and slam my finger against the button for Christian’s floor. I don’t even pause when Andrea stands up to greet me from behind her desk. I move for my husband’s office as if it were a pre-destined path, ready to unleash the volcanic eruption building inside of me that will make his worst moments look like angry kitten videos on YouTube.

But when I throw open the double doors at the end of the hallway, I’m met with an empty room.

“That’s what I was going to tell you,” Andrea says from behind me. I round on her and actually feel a good degree of the heat inside of me being doused away when I see her cringe.

“Sorry. It’s not you… I—“ I take a breath, letting it slow the beat of my heart. “Where is he?”

“He had an appointment this morning. He told me not to expect him back today.”

Did he actually schedule an appointment he knew I wouldn’t show up for? 

No… if he had, he would have made sure my security team got me there, whether I liked it or not. They haven’t so much as stepped in my way all morning.

“What kind of appointment?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “I don’t know, he made it himself.”

“He did?”

“Oh, no one is more shocked than I am, believe me. The man has me put reminders on his calendar to call his mother.”

Irritation bubbles up somewhere amongst the anger, and I spin on my heels towards Ros’s office to see if she has some idea of who he might be meeting with. She doesn’t though, so I decide to pull Calliope out of daycare early and wait for him at home. He did, after all, tell Andrea not to expect him back in the office, which could very well mean he intends to go home early.

She’s the only thing that keeps me sane while I wait. Just like this morning, I feel as if it’s impossible to be close enough to her. She pulls away from me over and over again while we’re sitting together on her playroom floor, too interested in the toys she’s been away from all day let me snuggle her the way I want to. So, I settle for watching her. Just staring and soaking in everything she does. Memorizing every sound she makes. Letting the harmonious trill of her laughter tattoo itself across my heart.

It might be the pregnancy hormones, or just the overpowering love of a mother, but I find myself fighting back tears as the love I hold for this beautiful baby girl overwhelms me. A love that somehow, impossibly, has multiplied with this new life growing inside of me. Love for another child. Love for Christian’s child.

“Ana?” Evan’s head pokes through the gap in the slightly ajar door. His voice is pleasant enough, but the look on his face is all apprehension. “Mr. Grey is at the gate.”

“Oh.”

I look down at Calliope and my heart starts to thud heavily in my chest. The fight I’ve been anticipating is already waging in my gut, pulling me into a battle I know that I have to fight. I kiss the soft curls that are the same shade as mine and whisper that I love her before I pass her off to Mackensie and leave the room I’m now praying is at least decently sound proof.

I’m already screaming at him before he’s even come through the door.

“Who in the actual fuck do you think you are?!”

There isn’t surprise or hesitation in the gaze that meets mine. He’s ready for me, and I recognize the stiffening of his back and the arms that cross over his broad chest as defense.

“Your boss, actually.”

“And how dare you. How fucking dare you bring my career into this, Christian! As if everything I’ve poured my heart and soul and desperate desires into over the last few months is nothing more than an inconsequential chess piece that you can maneuver out of my reach because you’re mad at me. You said that you wouldn’t bring this fight between us. You said this war was between Grey Publishing and Greenwich Small Press. ‘Never between us.’ But this isn’t business, Christian. This is punishment.”

He raises an eyebrow. “This acquisition has nothing to do with your…” His eyes move down to my stomach, and when he speaks again, his voice is so tight, I’m surprised he can wrap it around coherent words. “Condition. I have been in negotiations with Gallagher for months to acquire GSP, ever since you were hired. I’d proposed this particular deal last week at your launch party. She gets the fiber optics deal out of Texas and Barney goes to work in her R&D department; I get you.”

“That’s a pretty shit deal for GEH.”

“It might have been a month ago, though that wouldn’t have stopped me from making it. But with your app overperforming the way it is and Sawyer integrating seamlessly into my R&D department to take Barney’s place, we’re going to be just fine.” 

I shake my head. “That’s all bullshit anyway. Carmen told me that this wasn’t what she wanted. It was your play and she had to take the red-eye here to appease you. That’s what you were doing in your office all night, right? Threatening her with a hostile take-over unless she immediately caved and gave you what you wanted?” 

His expression goes cold, verging on deadly. “I told you I was coming for you. I warned you that you weren’t prepared to take me on. I always win, Anastasia. Remember that.”

His eyes once again move down to my stomach and I start barreling towards him. I don’t even know why. Whether it’s to beat my fists against his chest or to fall in his arms and cry, I need to release the hurt and anger and defeat all compounding inside of me like an insidious pressure cooker. But when I take a step towards him, he backs a step away. At first, I’m hit with a cold, unfamiliar prick of rejection that’s more intense than I would have been able to prepare for, even if I had expected it. That dejected kind of embarrassment melts away, though, when I realize that the step Christian took makes him wince.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing, I’m fine.”

“Fine?” I make a quick movement, like I’m going to lunge at him. He flinches and takes another step back that, this time, makes him grunt in pain. I raise an accusatory eyebrow at him. 

He sighs. “I just had a minor… procedure done this morning. I’m fine.”

Procedure? I think back to what Andrea had told me in his office earlier. After dismissing that he’d made good on his threat from yesterday, I’d assumed she meant he was in a meeting. But thinking back on it, she said he had an “appointment.” As in… doctor’s appointment.

“Are you okay?” I ask, the anger now completely overcome with worry. He eyes me wearily, as though he doesn’t trust the authenticity of my concern, and nods.

“I’m fine.” He winces again. “I just… need an ice pack.”

“What’s wrong? What happened?”

The lump in this throat moves as he makes room for the confession I see in his eyes he doesn’t want to make. “I had a vasectomy.”

I feel my face morph from apprehensive to completely blank, but that seems to be the only thing I really register. The word hangs in limbo between us, and I have to repeat it several times before it really sinks in.

He had a vasectomy. He’s decided that he’s done having children, and so he’s made it an impossibility. No discussion, no concern for any future possibility of what I might want. He wants this pregnancy terminated and all future talk of children erased from our vocabulary.

The rage comes back in full force, though, this time, the room around me isn’t colored red. Everything is sheathed in blinding white that’s so hot, even I can feel its danger. And it all pulsates around Christian.

Are you fucking kidding me?”

The vitriol in my voice makes him cringe slightly, but he doesn’t back down. “You said yesterday that I should be using condoms. That’s not going to happen, but you were right. It’s just as much my responsibility to keep us protected as it is yours. I’ve done that now.”

“By taking away any chance of us ever having more children?!”

His teeth snap together, grinding slightly as he forces his words through them. “Maybe I haven’t made it clear how I feel about you being pregnant, Anastasia…”

“Oh, you’ve made yourself plenty fucking clear.”

I’m shaking my head, and realize only after I’ve taken several steps, that I’m backing away from him, arms up protectively between us. Putting distance between us… like I’m about to run. 

Panic flashes across his face and his reaction happens more on instinct than rational thought. He charges through the foyer and grabs me, pinning me to the wall at my back and caging me in with his body. I let out a terrified gasp and, to my relief, his bruising grip on my arms loosens.

Loosens, but does not let go.

I watch his face crinkle with pain. His head falls between us and his body stops trembling. When he looks up at me again, there’s no more fire behind his ashy eyes. Only a plea for understanding.

“Please, Anastasia. If you want more children, I will give you more children. As many as you want. We can adopt, we can use a surrogate… Hell, we can open a boarding house and raise every homeless child in the city if that’s what you want. Just. Not. You.”

It falls on deaf ears. I’m too embroiled in the hurt and anger over what he’s done to even attempt to hear the reason in what he’s asking for. There is no reason. He’s altered our entire future, his own body, without even talking to me about it first. What would he do if I were to go… get breast implants without telling him, or if I were to suddenly feel very generous and donate a kidney to a complete stranger? Except, no… those aren’t even comparable because none of those things would take away futures he hadn’t even yet had the chance to wish for. None of those things put a limit on the family we’ve started together. A limit I now see he’s already surpassed.

“Do you even like being a father? Or is this all just a charade you put on because you knew I wanted kids?”

If Christian could ever look like he hated me, I think I get a glimpse of it right then and there. His hands tighten around my arms until I whimper, and the intensity in his eyes once again flames so hot, it’s like I can feel it burn my skin. 

How dare you. I love Calliope just as much as you do. I do everything for her. I am an excellent father, and you can feel however you want about this situation, but I will not allow you to take that from me.”

The cold, dangerous tone in his voice sends a real wave of regret washing through my body until the apology is all but bubbling through my trembling lips. But I swallow it back, because, even though I’m the one who will have to take every one of his blows, this fight isn’t about me.

“You’re a father to this baby too, Christian. Because I am pregnant. Am. As in, current state of being. That’s not going to change. No matter what you say, no matter what you do, I have every intention of having this baby. So you really need to get used to the idea that you’re going to be a father of two.”

He shakes his head, the cruelty that fills his gaze still spilling over me like poison. “No. I told you, this isn’t up for discussion. I’ve made the appointment for you tomorrow morning so that you can take the weekend to recover. You are going, and I will get you there by whatever means necessary.”

“You can’t force me to…”

“No!” He slams his fist so hard into the wall beside my head that it goes straight through the drywall. “I’m not fucking fighting with you about this! I will not lose you!”

“Mr. Grey,” Evan’s nervous voice comes from the living room. Christian’s eyes snap in his direction. “Maybe you should… uh, take a step back from your wife for a minute. Get some space. Calm down a little.”

He looks down at me again, softening as he registers how far beyond his control he’s let himself go. He pushes off the broken wall and backs away from me, not making eye contact.

“I’m sorry… but it doesn’t change anything. We’re not doing this. You’re going to the doctor tomorrow morning and I’m not going to hear another word about it.” He moves away from me, the surety of his statement reflected in his walk. He pauses as he approaches the new head of my security team. “She doesn’t leave the fucking house. Understand?”

Evan glances uneasily between us, his eyes lingering on mine for much longer than they do on Christian’s.

“Woods?”

“Yes, sir,” he finally responds, and Christian stalks out of the room.

I don’t hesitate. Evan looks as though he wants to say something comforting to me, but I blow right past him. I’m single minded, driven by an instinctual fear that only a mother can feel. 

I head straight for Calliope’s playroom and immediately scoop her up into my arms. She whines as the toy in her hand falls to the floor, but I don’t stop to pick it up. I don’t stop when Mackensie calls after me. I don’t stop when Gail looks up as we come into the kitchen. My purse is on the counter, so I shift Calliope on my hip and swing an arm out to snatch it up without stopping. The moment my hands close around the leather straps, I hear the first shouts from my security team coming from their office.

Just keep moving.

Pounding on the button to open the door as I hurry into the garage, I move straight for the SUV. But only because it has Calliope’s car seat in the back. I don’t have any of the things I need for her. No diapers, not a single change of clothes… nothing. The car seat is non-negotiable.

I pull open the back door and thrust her into the seat. She’s surprised and starts to cry as I pull the straps over her, but it doesn’t stop me. I buckle her in faster than I ever have before and then slam her inside. Without her weighing me down, I sprint for the drivers side, digging in my purse for my keys as I climb through the door and take my seat behind the wheel. The door to the house swings open and four heads fill the newly open space. I slide the keys into the ignition and yank the gear shift into reverse, and Smith’s hand darts out to close the garage door and cage me in.

I’m prepared to back out either way, but Evan reaches up and stops him before I have to do anything really stupid. His fingers wrap around his wrist and fold his elbow back just long enough for me to make it out of the garage. I can hear the ensuing argument as I back down the driveway.

“What the fuck, Woods?” Harper screams at him.

He shakes his head and waves to the other cars. “Well, follow her!”

They scatter as I pull out onto the road and start towards the freeway. I haven’t even made it out of our neighborhood before Christian’s name appears on the screen and his call rings insistently through the stereo speakers. But I reject him, and the call from Taylor that comes after it. I can see the shiny black car holding my security team in my rear-view mirror, making every turn I do and keeping a close enough distance that no car could merge between us.

Where do I go?

My first thought is Kate, but since she and Elliot never come out on the same side when they get involved in arguments between Christian and me, they’ve decided to stop being involved at all. So, I take the next best option.

“Hey, what’s up?” Luke answers almost immediately after the phone begins to ring. His light, happy tone is at odds with the painful sobs trying to claw their way up my throat.

“Where are you?”

“Uh… I’m at Jade’s apartment. Is everything alright? Why are you crying?”

I sniff, pulling back my emotions so I can focus on driving. Calliope is in the car after all. “Where is Jade’s apartment? I’m coming to you, right now.”

“32nd Avenue. Go north on 522 and turn left after the Taco Bell. I’ll meet you downstairs.”

“I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

He hangs up, not asking why, not pushing for details I refused to give him. He’s just there, waiting for me in the parking lot when I pull into his apartment complex.

“What’s going on?” he asks when I leap from the car and yank Calliope out of her seat. I turn to answer him, but the four bodies climbing out of the next car over do that for me.

“Mrs. Grey, you need to return to the house immediately,” Wyatt orders. I scoff and push past him, and he actually tries to grab onto me to make me stop. He ends up grabbing Luke instead, who steps between us with a careless smile playing at his lips.

“Ah, Wyatt. I’m flattered, but I have a girlfriend and… she’s something special.”

Wyatt’s hands fall to his side and his eyes shift uncomfortably to the rest of his team. “We have orders. She’s coming with us.”

I pull Calliope into me, pressing one of her ears to my shoulder and covering the other with my hand. “I’m not going anywhere with you. Back the fuck off!”

“Mrs. Grey…” Harper starts, but Luke cuts her off.

“I think she’s made her position pretty clear. Why don’t you guys just chill? I’ll take care of it, alright?”

Smith grinds his teeth together. “You’re not on this team anymore, Sawyer. You take her up there, I’m going to have to get Taylor involved.”

Luke laughs, his eyes glittering with humor as he nearly doubles over. He makes a show of wiping a tear away as his chuckles die down and he maneuvers Calliope and me to the stairs that lead up to his apartment. “You do that.”

We climb to the third floor, then he leads me down a dark, narrow corridor to a door near the end. The paint is peeling away from the wood, the number is hanging wrong, and Luke has to shove his body weight against the door to get it to open, but he’s all smiles as he leads me inside. My guess is that it has everything to do with the dark haired beauty lying casually across the couch with another pretty girl I’ve never met before. But based on her similar dark hair and eyes, I assume they’re related.

The strange girl looks up from the TV as we come through the door, and when her eyes meet mine, she goes stiff.

“Oh my god. You’re…” She stops, sputtering slightly, then turns to Luke. “You weren’t lying. You really are best friends with Anastasia Grey?” 

Luke grins. “No autographs, please.” 

“Holy shit… “ She turns to me, mouth agape, and Jade rolls her eyes. 

“Ana, this is my sister, Amber.”

“And I am a huge fan of your husband’s,” Amber continues in a rush. “I’m a physics student at UW and I’ve been following his Endurance project very closely and can I just say… he’s just… and he… no else has ever… he’s SO AMAZING!”

I stare at her blankly for a few seconds, and then completely dissolve into tears.

“Hey!” Luke croons, pulling Calliope out of my arms and passing her off to Jade so he can wrap me in a hug. “What happened?”

I push away from him and take a deep breath to get a grip on myself. Then I blink up at him through tear saturated lashes. “I’m pregnant.”

“Oh.” He says the word like it’s a shock. A bad shock. And as he starts to process the news, he begins to nod. “Yeah, I can see how that would go. I take it he’s not happy.”

I let out a noise that makes it clear that’s the understatement of the century. “He wants me to… to end it.”

“And what do you want?”

“He doesn’t care. He made the appointment. He told me I was going by any means necessary, so… I left.”

“When’s the appointment?” 

“Tomorrow morning.” 

Luke lets out a long, heavy exhale, then turns and glances around the room. It’s nice, not having to live through each excruciating detail again to make him understand. He knows me well enough, knows Christian well enough, to fill in the blanks on his own. To know the situation I’m in now, and what it means. Why I came here.

Because Luke will always take my side.

“Well, you can stay here if you want, but we don’t really have a lot of… space.”

I too glance around the room, and realize only then how cramped it is. The living room isn’t much bigger than my entryway. Just a slouchy sectional and TV take up almost the entire space. There’s one small bedroom off to the left, and a crowded kitchen behind me. And that’s it…

“Oh, right. That’s okay, though. I can just go… to… uh…” I bite my lip as I fail to come up with a single place Chrisitan won’t immediately find me, and Luke lets out a long sigh. He turns to Jade.

“You mind if I take off for the weekend?”

“Where are you going?”

He grins and lets out a small growl as he leaps on top of her and smothers her face with kisses. “Somewhere Grey won’t follow us.”

She narrows her eyes. “How are you going to get all the way to Saturn and back by the end of the weekend?” Luke laughs and she shoves him off of her. “Fine, go. I’ve got work all weekend anyway. Be good, though.”

“Aren’t I always?” He flashes her a toothy grin that once again has her rolling her eyes. Then kisses her on the cheek once more and moves to the window, slowly pulling the curtain aside so he can peer down at the parking lot where my security team is still huddled.

“They’re not going to leave,” I tell him. “No matter where we go, they’re going to follow us.”

“I know,” he says, then he holds his hand out to me. “Give me your phone.”

“My phone?” He waves his hand more insistently, so I reach into my purse to retrieve it and give it to him, ignoring the missed call notifications that litter the screen. He pulls his own phone out of his pocket and turns back to Jade.

“Wanna help me out?”

“Is it cool spy shit?”

He chuckles. “Kind of. Take the back way down to my car and go out the south entrance. I want you to drive to Sammamish. Ana, here, is going to book you the most expensive suite in the resort there, and you and Amber can spend the rest of the night pampering yourself and ordering room service. Her treat.”

Both girls look up at me eagerly, but I stare at Luke, confused. “Uh… sure?”

They shriek with giddy excitement and leap up from the couch, hastily pushing Calliope back into my arms so they can run off to pack some things to take. Luke unlocks my phone and dials the number for the resort he promised his girlfriend. He books their best suite and ensures there are strawberries and champagne waiting for their arrival. It’s my name, however, that he leaves on the reservation, though he tells them the keys will be picked up by my assistant. Ms. Jade Marroquin.

Twenty minutes later Jade and Amber are ready to leave. Luke walks them to the back door, which leads to a small balcony with a sketchy fire escape that drops into a back alley. He asks for Amber’s keys, which she hands over before he sweeps Jade into his arms. They kiss goodbye and exchange several whispered secrets that are only meant for the two of them, then he helps her onto the ladder over the railing and holds it steady and she and Amber climb down. Once she’s gone, I follow him back into the house and throw the hand not clinging to my daughter up in frustration.

“What is going on?”

“I slipped our phones into her purse.”

“What? Why?”

He lets out a heavy sigh. “Well, since I’m officially no longer a member of your security team, I guess I can tell you that there’s a tracking device on your cell phone that sends an alert to Taylor every time you leave the Seattle city limits. There’s also a tracking device in my car. In about fifteen minutes, I expect Woods down there is going to get a phone call demanding to know why you and I are driving across the I-90 bridge while they’re all still at my apartment. He’ll track Jade to the hotel and confirm you have a reservation there.”

“And what happens when they realize they’re not really following me?”

He waves his hand as if to bat that very unimportant concern out of the conversation. “We’ll be long gone by then.”

“Where are we going?”

His brow furrows and he looks at me as though the answer should be obvious. “Lake Sylvia.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 42

I should be on top of the world.

A week after its launch, the Greenwich Library has already surpassed over 200,000 subscribers, a number that has had Christian more and more worried by the day, and I’ve received official confirmation from Harrington that Grey Publishing has agreed to terminate Hailey Lewis’ contract. To his surprise, GEH has decided to waive all termination fees and recouped costs. To my surprise, I had several orgasms pulled out of me under the vengeful bite of Christian’s restraints. I should be flying so high that the lights of Seattle below me would dissolve into distant pinpricks, like starlight.

Instead, I’m on my knees in front of the toilet. 

I really thought I’d kicked this…

“Please leave,” I beg for the third time while Chrisitan re-gathers my hair in his hands to keep it out of the path of my projectile vomiting. 

“Not a chance.” 

I take a breath to argue, but the words are cut off by a gross sounding heave that expels what absolutely has to be the last of whatever is left in my stomach. Tears run down my face as I struggle to catch my breath from the repeated retching, and Christian runs his hand lovingly over my back. 

“Can I get you something?” 

“No.” Wiping the tears away, I push down on the silver lever to flush away the vomit, along with whatever is left of my dignity, and scoot back to slump against the wall. At the very least, I do feel a sense of relief. Like that last round really did get up whatever was making me sick. Now, I just feel drained. “I think I’m done.” 

Christian holds onto me as I climb back to my feet and find my balance, something that shouldn’t be as difficult as it is. He frowns, holding me steady. 

“I’ve got meetings I can’t get out of this morning, but I’ll come back and check on you after lunch. Get back in bed and stay there. I’ll have Gail bring you up some toast.” 

“Unnecessary.” I meander back to the sink and swish with a gulp of mouthwash. Once my mouth is clean again, I pick up the abandoned eye shadow palette resting on my countertop, pouting slightly when I see that at least two of the pressed powder pans cracked from the force of being thrown down on the marble before I sprinted away. My go-to shade is covered in loose powder that collects too heavily on my brush and leaves my unfinished eye much darker than the other. “I’m going into the office today.” 

“Like hell you are.” He moves to stand in the doorway, as though he’s actually going to block my way if I try to pass. I meet his eyes in the mirror.

“Christian, I don’t have a choice. I’ve been a little preoccupied stealing Phoenix from you and basically everything else I have to do has gone to shit. I’ve got a lot to catch up on.” 

“It’ll be there tomorrow.” 

“Along with a whole new day of work.” I close the palette and toss it carelessly into the drawer with the rest of my makeup, then turn and kiss him softly on the cheek. “I know you’re scared I’m going to run your publishing company out of business, but that’s just something you’re going to have to accept, baby.” 

He glares at me. “That’s going to be awfully hard to do when I lock you in this house.” 

With a laugh, I slip past him, pale and slightly green through my makeup, but dressed and ready for work none-the-less. “You can try, but I’m at the top of my game, Grey. Unstoppable.” 

“You are.” Strong arms wrap around me from behind, pulling me back against him. “But you’re not going to stay that way if you don’t take care of yourself. I swear to god, I might as well fire every single person on my security team. The biggest threat to you, is you.” 

I let out a small laugh through my nose, but just the tiny little bit my abs contract to force out the sound triggers my gag reflex, and I have to swallow to keep the bile in my stomach from rising up my throat. Thankfully, I manage it without Christian noticing. 

“I’m not going to argue with you if you’re thinking about cutting down the number of people stalking me everywhere I go.” He rolls his eyes and tightens his hold when I once again try to move away. 

“Please stay home.” 

“Look, if I get any worse, I’ll come home… after my meetings.” 

He takes a deep breath that’s filled with all of the arguments he still wants to make, but he nods in agreement. Probably because he knows it’s the best compromise he’s going to get. With a softly whispered, “I love you,” he leans in and presses his lips to mine. 

I linger there for about three seconds until I have to sprint for the bathroom again. 

“Ana…” his warning voice grumbles, following me into the bathroom. 

“I’m fine!” I call back.

But I’m not fine.

I spend the entire drive into the city dry heaving and feeling as though every thought I have is run through molasses first. There are once again photographers lingering outside my office that I don’t have the energy to deal with, so I ask Smith to drive me around back where Evan leads me up a shady alley occupied by a man passed out with a needle in his arm. The back door is heavy and has to be forced open, but we manage to get into the service elevator without incident. 

I lean against the wall as we start the journey up, concentrating on breathing and reminding myself of everything I absolutely have to get done today so that when the doors slide open, I can pull myself together and strut into my office as if I own the whole fucking world.

Because I’m a Grey.

“Good morning, Ana,” Abby greets me with her usual bubbly smile. I try to return her enthusiasm as she holds out the stack of phone messages she’s taken for me, but I’m so exhausted, I’m not sure it’s even possible to succeed. There’s nothing here that can’t wait, so I thank my assistant and turn to the rest of my staff. 

“Can I have everyone gather in the conference room? I’ve got some big news to share.” 

“We already saw the numbers,” Stevens calls. “You’re kicking ass, Ana. We get it. We love you. We don’t need to have a whole meeting about it…” 

“Oh, you have no idea how much ass I’ve been kicking. Conference room. Now.” 

There’s an unpleasant concerto of groans and squeaks from chairs, scrapes and clings from supplies being gathered, and an overall hum of curious babble as everyone files into the tiny room next to my office. Most eyes turn to Abby, looking for clues, but she keeps the news locked up tight behind a terrible poker face. The joy she’s basking in over being in the know shines so brightly through her self-satisfied smile that it could be picked up from space like the Luxor beam. 

“Abby?” I start, breaking through her reverie. 

“Hm?” 

“The manuscripts?” 

“Oh, shit!” Her eyes go wide before she darts back out to reception in a panic. I giggle to myself as she tromps back in with Penny, both of them ladened down with thick copies of printed manuscripts that they start to pass around the table. 

“Whatever projects you’re working on are on hold,” I announce to the room. “This is our next big release, and I need every pair of eyes on it.” 

“Phoenix?” Jacki asks. “I thought Lewis signed with Grey Publishing?” 

“She did. But she and I had lunch yesterday and we had a really great conversation about her goals and her vision for her career and she decided that GP just wasn’t putting her on the right course. So…” I reach into my bag and pull out Hailey’s new contract. “She signed with us instead.” 

“But she’s under contract…” 

Was. Through some mildly threatening maneuvering on my part, GP has released her from her contractual obligations without any objection.” I grin. “Though I assure you, my husband was not very happy about it.”

Laughter fills the room, then is overcome with boisterous chatter. There’s pride in the glances that are shot in my direction, and elation in the excited proclamations that punctuate the otherwise pervasive thrum. The confidence I feel in promising a 50,000 unit release is reflected back at me, even as I make the statement. The people around this table really believe in me, and, for a moment, I think I might start to cry…

“I just can’t believe it,” Rogers says. He’s been quiet, mostly staring off into space while the people around him celebrated. “We’ve never beat Grey Publishing on a release. Never. Not once.” 

I smirk at him. “Well get used to it. There’s a new big dog in town, ladies and gentleman.” 

Cheers ring out and Rodgers starts a round of applause, holding my gaze as he slowly gets to his feet. It’s overwhelming. I can feel my face flame cherry red, so I start to shake my head and wave them toward the door. 

“Alright, alright… Everyone back to work. I mean it, this one has to be perfect.” 

The excited energy dwindles in the room long after my staff has finally shuffled back to their desks. But as I gather my things, I start to feel woozy again and have to lean over on the table for support. Probably because it takes me so long, Evan peaks into the room to check on me. When I look up at him, he’s expression turns down with concern. 

“Mrs. Grey, maybe we should take you home.”

I shake my head. “I’m fine. I just need to sit down for awhile.” 

On the way to my office, Penny stops me to say that Kate called while I was in the meeting, so I put a return phone call at the top of the list of priorities I’m compiling in my head. I don’t even get the chance to reach for my phone though, because the second I’m settled down in my chair, I’m hit with a wave of nausea that has me bending over my waste basket. When I’m finally able to pick up the phone and dial Kate’s number, I fall back in my chair and actually think it might be time to admit defeat.

I should have listened to Chrisitan. 

“Kavanagh Media,” Kate’s receptionist answers. “How may I direct your call?” 

“Katherine Grey, it’s Ana.” 

“Please hold.” 

A pleasantly soft melody floats through the phone and I close my eyes, letting each sweet note calm away the contractions in my stomach. It works surprisingly well. 

“I have the most exciting news you’ve heard all day, are you ready?” Kate’s voice abruptly breaks through the music. 

I laugh, then immediately regret it. “Tell me.” 

“You’re going to have to call your husband and tell him that he’s not going to see you tonight because you and I are going to use my press pass to get backstage at the Drake concert in Tacoma. I’ve already booked a hotel room.” 

“Ugh, I wish…” 

“You wish? What the fuck could be more important than Drake? And don’t say Christian because I know Christian, and I’m telling you right now, he’s not.” 

 This time my chuckle is cut off by a groan. “Stop making me laugh.” 

“Why?”

“Because I’m dying.” 

Still?” 

“It’s getting worse. The second I got out of bed this morning, I started puking.” 

She snorts. “What? Are you pregnant?” 

“No, that’s ridicul–” 

The words come to an abrupt halt, like a car that hits a wall in a crash dummy test. 

I’ve been absolutely wrung-out exhausted. Just like I was when I was pregnant with Calliope. 

I’ve been constantly nauseous without a fever or any other flu symptoms. Just like I was when I was pregnant with Calliope. 

Yesterday the wine at the restaurant had made me sick, just like the wine had at that dinner I’d joined Christian for in New York had made me sick… when I was pregnant with Calliope. 

Oh, god…

“Why are you so quiet?” Kate asks. “Holy fuck, are you pregnant?” 

“No. No, I can’t be pregnant. I’m on birth control…” 

“Like you were last time?” 

I shake my head, even though I know she can’t see it. “No, last time it was antibiotics. I haven’t taken anything. I don’t even have to take my birth control. I got the implant.” 

“When was your last period?” 

I blink, trying to think. It’s difficult because they’ve been so light since I’ve changed my birth control that they’ve become nearly non-existent. 

“I– shit, I can’t remember.” 

“Oh my god, Ana.” 

“No, I’m not pregnant,” I say again, as though it’s a fact. Because I need it to be a fact. 

“I’ll go to the pharmacy and pick up some pregnancy tests. Meet me at Escala in an hour.” 

“No!” 

“Ana, not taking a pregnancy test isn’t going to mean you’re not pregnant, and delaying finding out is denying my niece or nephew vital prenatal care.” 

I can feel myself shaking. Niece? Nephew? Fuck.

“It’s not that, I just..” There are paparazzi outside and Escala is a very recognizable building… “Not Escala.” 

“I thought you worked that whole thing out?” 

“I did. That doesn’t mean I want to spend all my time there.” 

“Fine.” I can hear the eye roll in her voice. “Meet me at Grace and Carrick’s apartment.” 

“Aren’t they at work?” 

“Yeah, that’s why it’s perfect. No one will be there to watch me cry.” The excitement in her voice is so apparent, it’s like I can feel it coming through the phone. I can’t seem to think at all, and after spending all morning oscillating between a well deserved power high and being violently ill, I’m suddenly completely numb. 

“How are you going to get in?” I ask in a shaky voice.

“I have a key.” 

“You have a key?!”

“You don’t?” 

“No.” 

“Well, I guess that means they love me more than they love you.” The taunt behind her tone lands in exactly the way she meant it to. I scowl. 

“Not if I’m pregnant, they don’t.” 

Her bell-like laughter rings in my ears. “See, now you’re getting in the spirit. One hour, Ana. Don’t be late.” 

She hangs up and I’m left drifting. There was this moment of realization I had once the doctor at the student clinic in Cambridge told me I was pregnant with Calliope. It was like the instant I knew she was there, a connection was made that allowed me to feel her. A constant awareness that she was there, like a hum that lived beneath my skin, and that I could always feel. There’s nothing else in the world that’s ever felt like that. And sitting there, I start to feel that exact same hum buzzing across every inch of my body. 

I do my best to ignore it until it’s time to go meet Kate. 

“Evan?” I call as I approach the small cluster of desks where my security team spends most of the day. All four pairs of eyes look up at me. 

“What’s up, Ana?” 

“I need you to take me to my mother-in-law’s apartment, please?” 

“Sure thing, boss.” He picks up his coat and swings it over his shoulder. To my dismay, the other three follow us out. 

Kate pulls into the space next to me in the parking garage seconds after Smith cuts the engine of the SUV. She’s got a plastic CVS bag in her hand and a 10,000 megawatt grin plastered across her face.

“I got like ten different kinds,” she effuses.  She holds out the bag for me and I take it, feeling it’s weight like a prison sentence. I can’t move. My feet feel as though they’ve been filled with concrete that’s been bolted to the asphalt, leaving me with no other option but to just stand there and shake. For the first time, Kate’s grin falters. She takes a breath before wrapping her arm through mine and pulling me to the elevators. 

At the very least, my security team decides to give us space. Only Evan takes the elevator with us, and he stays in the hallway while Kate fishes out a key. I stand beneath the generic light fixture over the door, drowning in the growing certainty of what this test is about to tell me. By the time Kate gets through the deadbolt, I’m so washed with that same, knowing hum that it’s almost as though I can feel a heartbeat thrumming from inside my uterus. 

“Come on,” Kate says, tossing her purse onto the couch as we stride through the barely familiar living room. We’ll use Grace’s bathroom.”

I clutch the plastic bag in my hand and follow her, concentrating so hard on breathing that I’m caught completely off guard by the security-summoning scream she lets out when she opens the door to Grace and Carrick’s bedroom. Evan bursts through the front door, gun drawn, and comes barrelling over the top of me. I blink uncertainly through the chaos as it unfolds around me and, automatically, place a protective hand over my stomach. 

“What in the world?” Grace demands, wrapping a robe around herself as she comes through her open bedroom door. Evan immediately holsters his gun and glares down at the blonde laughing next me. 

“What the hell, Kate?” 

“I wasn’t expecting her to be here. Stand down, Clark Kent.” 

Somehow, his look becomes darker. But it softens when he turns to me. “You alright, Ana?” 

I nod, realizing too late that I’m still cradling my stomach. His eyes watch my hands fall to my sides, then turn solemn. “I’ll uh… I’ll give you some privacy.” 

He leaves at my nod, but once he’s disappeared down the hallway, I’m left to answer Grace’s questioning stare. 

“What are you girls doing here?” 

“We, uh…” Kate hesitates. “We thought you would be at work.” 

“I had an emergency appendectomy last night and had to come home to get some sleep. I was just getting ready to go in.” Her eyes move down to the bag in my hand and narrow suspiciously. “What’s going on?” 

Kate bobs slightly, pressing her lips together to keep the excited words from tumbling out all over our mother-in-law like the vomit I’ve been unable to hold back all morning. I hold up the bag, trying to ignore the crinkling of the plastic that gives away the tremble in my hands. 

“I’m here to take a pregnancy test.” 

Grace’s eyes go as wide as dinner plates. It’s like she’s on an old-fashioned dimmer switch, her glow brightening as realization dawns. 

“You’re pregnant?” 

I haven’t taken the test yet, but I nod anyway. Kate, surprisingly, is more practical. She takes the bag from me and moves past Grace into the bedroom. “That’s what we’re here to find out.” 

An excited shriek disappears into the hallway behind Grace as she races for the kitchen to get me something to drink. Kate and I start pulling boxes out of the bag, trying to be organized about which test I should take first. Ultimately, I take a paper Dixie cup from Grace to pee in, and with unsteady hands, dip in each stick before laying them out in a line on the counter. 

Then I start to pace. 

“We shouldn’t get too excited,” Kate says, though the tone of her voice suggests she’s already well past ‘excited.’ “It could be negative.” 

It’s not going to be negative.

“Right,” Grace agrees. “No reason to jump the gun here.” She pauses for about three seconds before locking eyes with Kate. “Oh, I hope it’s a boy!” 

“Me too!” 

A boy?

I turn to look out the windows that offer a spectacular view of the city and place a hand over my stomach, imagining a baby boy in place of a disconnected heartbeat. I can see him immediately, a perfect reflection of Chrisitan, the way Calliope is of me. In the few minutes it takes for the tests to develop, a whole life flashes before me. Scraped knees and grass stains, soccer games and football practices… Chrisitan in the garage, already having summoned his entire R&D team to help our son build a race car for the downhill derby. My heart swells to a fullness that makes my chest ache, that warms my blood with an overwhelming feeling of peace. Completion. When the timer goes off that tells us it’s time to check the results, a tear breaks over my waterline and, once again, my hands move to my stomach.

“Ana?” Kate prompts me, her voice so anxious she doesn’t even sound like herself. . 

“You look,” I reply. I don’t have to. 

I hear the movement behind me as she races to the bathroom counter and starts sorting through the tests. Her exalted inhale confirms what I already know. 

“Positive,” she breathes, as if that’s the best she can do. “Positive. Positive. Positive… they’re all positive!” 

Of course they are.

“We’re having a baby!” Grace cheers. She and Kate grab a hold of one another and start bouncing together, chanting their joy again and again. Tears of bliss are rolling down Grace’s face when she finally turns to me. I can barely lift my arms to return her hug. 

“Ana?” she checks. “Are you alright, dear?” 

I’m not sure if it’s perceptible, but I shake my head. When I try to speak, I’m only able to do so in a whisper. “Christian doesn’t want any more kids.” 

“Oh,” Kate waves her hand as if that’s very unimportant. “He says he doesn’t want any more kids, but have you seen the way he is with Calliope? She’s his favorite thing in the entire world, next to you. The man is completely head-over-heels in love with that baby. It’ll be the same with this one.” 

“That’s true,” Grace agrees. “He’s always been resistant to change, but once that change happens, he embraces it fully. He’s going to be absolutely over the moon when you tell him, Ana.” 

“You think so?” 

Kate nods enthusiastically. “Remember, you were scared to tell him about Calliope too. You spent that whole day in a panic thinking he was going to lose his shit, and then he practically threw a party. Remember how happy he was? And he didn’t even know then how much he was going to love being a father.” 

“Which he does,” Grace affirms. “More than anything.”

I nod. No one could deny just how much Christian loves Calliope. Surely, they’re right. Surely, he’ll fall for this baby exactly the way he fell for her. I already have… 

I reach down and place a hand over my stomach again and that warm feeling of home blossoms inside of me once more. It’s happiness and hope and… fulfillment. It’s perfection.

 I take a deep breath and summon the image of understanding and jubilation that had dawned on Christian’s face back in Cambridge and hold onto it with everything I have.

“I should make it special,” I say at last. “It wasn’t special last time, I just blurted it out. I should… come up with some way to tell him, right?” 

Kate nods, her excitement returning. “I can make a Pinterest board of ideas if you want.” 

“No…” I shake my head and glance down at my watch. It’s just after 11:30 in the morning. “He won’t be home until after six. I’ve got all day to figure it out.” 

“Film it if you can,” Kate says. “Or I’ll have Luke hack it off your security cameras.” She laughs to herself, but Grace’s eyes flash very seriously in her direction. 

“Can we do that?”

“Are you kidding me? The day we find something Luke can’t get into is the day someone becomes richer than Christian.” 

Grace nods, and I can feel her happiness in this revelation in the goodbye hug she gives me on our way out. I’m sure she’s imagining all the production she’s going to put into the few seconds of security footage Kate will make good on producing, eagerly anticipating it’s entry into her perfect family archives. 

Once we’re out of the apartment though, Kate lets me wallow in silence. I think she knows that I’m trying to sort through so many varying degrees of happiness and confusion and shock and fear. Evan doesn’t. The moment I’ve said good-bye to her and climbed back into the SUV, he meets my eyes in the rear-view mirror. 

“Everything alright, Ana?” 

I swallow. “I’m not going back into the office today. Please take me home.” 

“Sure.” He starts the car and backs out of the parking space, while I reach for my phone to text Abby, letting her know I won’t be back in the office… and that she needs to schedule me an appointment with my OBGYN. Once she’s responded that she’s on it, I lean back and try to figure out how on earth I’m going to tell Christian. 

I’m grateful for the hours I’ll have to figure out what to do before he leaves the office, until I get home and they’re all taken away from me. Christian is there, sitting on the couch in clothes it looks like he was working out in, sorting through the piles of documents stacked around him while the news plays at a quiet background level on the TV. When I come through the archway between the living room and the foyer, he looks up at me and gives me a sly smile. 

“Did she tell you to come home?” 

My brow furrows. “What?” 

“You went to my mother’s apartment and now you’re here. Was I right? Should you have stayed home?” 

“Oh, uh… no.” I shake my head, his surprise presence leaving me a little dazed as I try to figure out what to say next. Thankfully, the fact that his presence is a surprise gives me the perfect diversionary tactic. “What are you doing home?” 

His expression slips into something close to concern, but he moves his eyes away from mine and back to the stacks of papers around him before I can get a real read on what that slip means. “My meeting this morning was much more brief than I expected. The rest of this, I could work on from home and I thought there was a good possibility that you wouldn’t make it through the day. Not with the way you looked this morning when I left you.” 

I press my lips together and move towards him, lowering myself on the sofa at his side and swinging my legs into his lap. He reaches down and pulls my shoes from my feet, then starts to rub. I moan and let my head fall back on the armrest. 

See, he loves me. I shouldn’t be scared to tell him good news…

“What’s all this?” I ask, in a cowardly move to buy more time. He lights up. 

“Well, this…” He straightens a stack of papers on the table, dotted throughout with yellow signature tabs. “Is an agreement I’ve made with Lamborghini to utilize Endurance technology.” His eyes flash with a kind of pleasure that’s usually reserved for me, naked and tied to his headboard. “They’ve agreed to let Welch do most of the design on the new model and he’s managed to integrate several features I’ve wanted for years.” 

“So you’re getting a custom Lamborghini?’ 

“An energy-efficient custom Lamborghini that has more power than any combustion engine that’s ever been created.” His smile is as wide as I’ve ever seen it as he makes the correction, and it actually relieves a little bit of the pressure on my chest. He’s in a good mood. That’s good, right?

“What’s that?” I ask, nodding to the stack of papers on the other side of the table. Chrisitan looks at it before picking up a folder off the top of the pile and handing it over to me. 

“That is from our lawyers. I’m adjusting Calliope’s trust fund.” 

“Adjusting?” I open the folder and my eyes widen at the new number displayed at the top. “Holy shit, Christian!” 

“I’ve made a lot of money over the past month.” He puts his hands up defensively. “I just want to make sure I’m taking care of my daughter.” 

Of course he does. Because he’s a good father. 

“I think you were taking care of her just fine with $10,000,000. This is…” 

He shakes his head and cuts me off. “I walked away from ten million when I was in college. Put another zero on the end of that, I wouldn’t have walked away.” 

I glare at him. “Well, I’m glad to know that money would have been enough to make you stay when I wasn’t.” 

“That’s not fair. You weren’t supposed to go anywhere. If I had known what was waiting for me on the other side of that decision, I would have gone all the way through a PhD program to hang on to you.” 

I laugh, and it obscures my retort. “No, you wouldn’t have.” 

“No.” He grins. “But I would have done everything differently.” I sit up and lean into him, pressing my lips against his and savoring the taste of his love. I could stay there forever, but he pulls us both out of it with one whispered question against my mouth. 

“What did she tell you?” 

“What?” 

“My mother. If she didn’t tell you that you were sick and needed to come home, what did she tell you? It was obviously enough to get you to leave work, which I thought was an impossibility without some kind of crowbar.” 

His eyes are alight with humor at his own joke, but I feel my stomach drop. 

“Oh…” 

“Ana?” The smile on his face vanishes and he reaches up for my forehead again. “What’s wrong?” 

There’s no point in delaying it. It’s not like he won’t find out and he’ll be more upset that I kept a secret from him. I didn’t have time to think of some clever way to ease him into the announcement, so I take a deep, reassuring breath, and reach into my bag instead. 

Maybe he won’t be upset. Maybe it will be just like when I told him about Calliope.

With hands that are once again trembling, I remove the plastic sticks from my bag and place them one by one on the table in front of us. With each tiny clink against the glass surface, Christian’s eyes tick a degree wider and the color completely drains from his face. 

“Tell me that’s not what I think it is.” 

Okay. Not like Calliope.

I swallow, nervously. “It is. I–I have more… they’re all positive.” 

His jaw tenses and he looks down at the pregnancy tests in front of him as with so much contempt it’s like he’s trying to make them burst into flames and burn out existence. 

“What about your birth control?” 

“I don’t know. I didn’t take anything that should have made it less effective, I didn’t…” I shake my head, unsure of what else to add to the list. “I don’t know why it didn’t work. You must have superpowered sperm or something.” 

His eyes flash to me, hot and angry. “That’s not funny, Anastasia.” 

“I’m not trying to be funny.”

He pushes off the sofa and begins to pace back and forth across the living room rug, though pace doesn’t quite encompass the angry energy rolling off of him as he starts trying to reason through this problem aloud. 

“You were… eight weeks pregnant when you started having symptoms with Calliope? That means you’ve got to be somewhere around there now. Eight weeks is early. We have time.” He stops pacing and stares blankly ahead for a few, long heartbeats. Then he turns to me, and his face looks somber. “I’m so sorry. I never wanted you to have to go through this… believe me. But I’m going to be here the entire time. For every part of it. No work. No distractions. I promise.” 

Oh my god, Grace was right. 

Relief boils over every cell in my body and the hopeful joy that I’d gotten just the smallest taste of in Grace’s apartment comes rushing back, filling my chest to its fullest capacity once again as my heart beats wildly in satisfaction. 

“You’re sure?” 

“Of course I’m sure.” 

“But… nine months is an awfully long time for you to solely be devoted to me. What about Endurance?” 

“Nine months?” His brow crinkles, and when he responds, it’s in a voice that leaves no room for argument. “There will not be nine months, Anastasia. I’m not interested in having any more children.” 

I frown. “Well, I’m sorry… we’re having a baby.”

“No. We’re not.” His back goes stiff while I blink back at him, uncomprehending. There’s a fight brewing in the set of his jaw when he tilts his head ever-so-slightly to the side, and trouble begins to brew in his gray eyes. “Do you need me to spell it out for you?”

I don’t, and the moment that ugly word pops into my head, it festers in the air around me. I have to leap from the couch and sprint for the bathroom to puke. Christian once again appears behind me as I heave again and again, but the gentle caress of his hand on my back isn’t comforting. I cringe away from him as my heart starts to race and it becomes harder and harder to draw breath. When I’m finally able to talk again, I’m on the edge of hysterics. 

“Ana–” 

“Don’t touch me!” I take a step out of his reach and stare up at him with all the strength I can muster through my tear filled eyes. “Are you telling me that you want me to… to…” I can’t even say it out loud through the bile creeping up my throat, and the care and concern reflected in his moody eyes is at odds with the tense and unyielding set of his jaw. 

“Yes. As soon as possible.” 

“How could you?!”

“You can’t be serious right now…”

“I’m dead fucking serious. This is our baby, Christian! Calliope’s brother or sister… how could you even suggest…?”

He takes a step towards me, disregarding my earlier command and taking hold of me by the arms. The action demands I stare into his intense gaze as he starts to make his case. “Don’t think of it like that.” 

Don’t think of it like that? How the fuck else am I supposed to think of it?” 

“Ana, this isn’t up for discussion.” 

“You’re goddamn right it’s not up for discussion because it isn’t an option!” The protective fury brewing inside of me at the mere suggestion grows hotter with each word, which only provokes Chrisitan further. 

“You almost died!” he screams back at me. “It is an actual fucking miracle that you didn’t and miracles are not something I’m willing to rely on when it comes to  protecting your life. You didn’t live through that the way I did. You didn’t have to feel what it was like to lose you over and over again. You didn’t have to hear the heart beats on the monitor stop. You didn’t have to watch everyone we know and love give up on you one by one and have to actually fight them off just to keep you alive. I. Am. Not. Going. Through. That. Again.” 

Each word is punctuated by his determined sincerity, but it does nothing to shake my resolve. Not even a chip in the foundation. 

I look him dead in the eye and straighten my back. “It’s too late, Christian. If this is how you really felt, then you were free to wear a condom each and every fucking time we had sex. You didn’t.”

He grinds his teeth together, looking as though he’s trying to hold back a torrent of angry words, but I don’t stick around to hear them. He can yell all he wants, there’s no debate for us to have. I turn and march for the stairs. 

“I’m making the appointment tomorrow, Anastasia!” His angry voice calls after me.

“Then you’ll be going alone!” 

Next Chapter

The Outtakes are Coming! The Outtakes are Coming!

Hey everyone!

I’ve already had a couple outtakes requests so I figured I’d start ruminating on it. I haven’t even really thought yet about what scenes I’m going to do, so I thought I’d turn to you all. I am also planning something to post later in the year that will essentially be a short story (a futuretake, if you will) made of multiple character’s perspectives (who I haven’t quite decided yet), and since there are so many, this will help me narrow it down:

Please leave specific request for outtakes in the comment section of this post. Reminder, this is only for The Final Shade of Fifty. If someone else has already suggested and outtake you want to see, reply to their comment and back them up– I’m very susceptible to peer pressure and I won’t have time to write everything, so gang up with each other to win lol.

As the story comes to a close, you’ll be able to find this post for further requests at the top of the “Wishing…” page, on the menu above. I’m sure there will be requests for many of the coming chapters….

Does that forecast some drama on the horizon? Maybe.

Have I said eight billion times that this is an HEA? Yes.

Is that still true? Yes.

xoxo

Wishingmrgreywashere

Chapter 41

The next morning, I wake up all stuffy again. But this time, it’s accompanied by just enough nausea to make getting ready for work a truly miserable experience. I’m so pale that my makeup looks too dark on my skin, and the effort I’m trying to put into blending it seems to be more effective at making my arm as tired as the rest of my body than it is at transforming my face into something presentable.

“You still feel like you’re going to die?” Christian asks, sauntering lazily into the bathroom behind me. He’s already dressed in a perfectly pressed, gray suit that’s the same shade as the tie tucked beneath his jacket. The deep curves and lines of his build are obvious through his suit, and they make me stare inappropriately. Gawk, really. 

He’s a monochromatic dream, and I can’t do anything about it because I feel like I’m about to hurl all the nothing I have in my stomach all over the bathroom floor.

“It’s just a little nausea,” I reply, though my voice comes out much more quiet than I intend as I take a deep breath, lay my hand over my chest, and try to focus on not throwing up. Christian comes up behind me and moves his hand to my forehead. “You don’t feel warm, but something is clearly making you sick. I guess it must be the horrible, horrible failure of your app…”

His teasing grin broadens with each of those final words. I meet his eyes in the mirror and glare at him. Last night, Barney ran maintenance on the Greenwich Library app, and it somehow created a whole host of errors he hasn’t been able to resolve yet. Nearly eight hours have passed since everything went down and every avenue we possess for customers to reach out for support has been completely inundated with complaints.  For our first week, this has the makings of disaster written all over it.

“You do my tech,” I sneer at him. “This is a GEH problem, not a Greenwich problem.”

“Yeah, tell that to the thousands of reviewers on the app store right now.” His eyes glint with mirth, and I toss my blending sponge into the sink before rounding on him like a tornado.

“Why are you so happy about this? Did you do it on purpose? Is this some kind of sabotage or something?”

“Oh, please. I wish I could have come up with something this perfect. This is the kind of gift that can only be ordained by the gods of the free market.”

I cross my arms and narrow my eyes. “I’m really starting to see why everyone who works with you hates you so much.”

“Who works against me. You were the one who wanted it to be this way. Just say the word, my love, and I can have your new corner office ready in under an hour.”

“Mmm, tempting offer. But since I know your failing publishing house is already relying on stealing leads from me, I think I’ll take my chances with Greenwich.”

He shrugs. “Suit yourself. I’ve got to go into the office early this morning and I’m going to take Calliope with me. Is there anything you need before I go?”

Automatically, I rise up on my tiptoes to kiss him. But just before our lips touch, my stomach heaves again and I have to pull away. Once more, he places a worried hand over my forehead, then frowns. 

“Eat something before you go, and take it easy today.” 

“M‘kay.” He leans to press his lips against the spot on my forehead still flushed from his touch, then turns back through the door to our bedroom, flashing one last devastatingly handsome smile back at me before he’s gone. When I look into the mirror again, I take a deep breath and hold it until I feel like I’ve got control again. It’s mind over matter and in my ‘I’m just not going to be sick’ mindset, I manage to finish my makeup and get ready without any more trouble. 

Once I’m downstairs though, I’m faced with a new kind of trouble. For the first morning in a long time, Luke isn’t here. Evan Woods is the one in the raven colored suit and sunglasses, leaning against the kitchen counter with a cup of coffee. And he isn’t alone. Smith and Wyatt are hovering around the center island, and there’s a woman talking to Gail who I’ve never seen before. They look like a pack of wolves. Perfectly in sync. Docile for the moment, but deadly should the need arise. 

It makes the hairs on the back of my arms stand on end.

“Good morning, Mrs. Grey,” Woods greets me. 

I take another, soothing breath. I did after all, sign up for this to give my best friend a shot at love. “Good morning, Evan. And, just Ana. Please.” 

“I–uh…” he hesitates, but when he sees the look on my face waiting to argue, he stops and gives me a pacifying smile. “I’m sorry. Ana.” 

The silence that follows is uncomfortable. There’s an unspoken truth in the air around us about the reason he’s had to come back, instead of being here the whole time, and I’m still too ashamed over the things I did to acknowledge it. Thankfully, Gail breaks the tension with the smile and a metal to-go cup filled to the brim with hot tea. 

“What can I make you for breakfast, Ana? Yogurt and granola? Some eggs?” 

“I don’t think I could keep it down.” 

“You sure?” She sounds like she isn’t, but I nod in return as I look at the woman she was speaking with before. 

“Who are you?” 

“Teressa Harper, Mrs. Grey. I’m joining your security team with Woods.” 

“Are you?” I glance back to Evan, and he nods. There’s a sinking kind of feeling that takes hold of my stomach, but I try to push it aside. This is going to be the new normal, and I’ve got to accept that. 

I’ve seen what happens without them, and that’s not a situation I plan on reliving.

“Well, we’re going to be late.”

“We’re ready when you are, Mrs. Grey.”

****

I feel the first real impact of Luke’s absence when we pull up in front of my office half an hour later. The internet has been buzzing all morning about some groundbreaking deal Christian has made with the sovereign prince of Monaco and the invitation for a meeting with the Supreme Leader of North Korea he received over the weekend. Since there’s about a 50% chance he could be in the car with me on any given day, more and more paparazzi have taken to gathering in the courtyard in front of my office. Luke always managed to keep them at bay without trouble. The moment they notice him missing from my team, they move in like jackals. 

“Mrs. Grey, do you have any comments on the grant Grey Enterprises Holdings announced this morning to supplant the city budget shortfalls?” 

“Where’s Sawyer? Did your husband fire him because he uncovered your affair?” 

“Does Mayor Grey intend on challenging the Governor in next year’s primary?” 

I recede slightly as the wall of cameras moves in. Harper slides out of the SUV and into the small pocket of space behind me. We’re able to move a few feet forward, but when one of the photographers reaches out to grab my wrist and pull me back, chaos breaks out. Harper’s arms wrap around me from behind and suddenly I’m being shoved forward. The man who reached for me falls short because a hand comes up and wrenches his arm behind his back. In the span of a breath, Wyatt has him on the concrete. Woods falls to the ground to help restrain the reporter now fighting Wyatt, and Smith comes around and pushes the other photographers back, shouting orders. Meanwhile, I’m being dragged to the doors of the building, and the scene unfolding behind me is lost in a white burst of camera flashes. 

It’s day one, and my ridiculous entourage has already caused a scene. 

Harper shuts me away in the elevator like it’s a secret room no one will ever find. As she reaches for the button to my floor, I give her a dark look and pull out my phone. 

LUKE

Surprise! I got BOTH Woods AND Harper.

It’s not going great.

I FUCKING told you!

They are literally brawling with the

paparazzi, Luke.

😂😂😂

That’s amazing actually

I’m kind of jealous…

I’m glad you’re entertained.

You made the choice. You had to know Grey

was going to go overboard… AGAIN.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you end up

with a new Endurance car that just so

happens to be armored lol

Yeah. 🙄

Just give them a chance and let them

do their job. We’re talking a forever kind

of regret if I let you push me out and

something happens to you.

Ugh, isn’t it a little early for a guilt trip?

Be good.

I keep my phone in my hand until I’ve stepped through my office doors and Abby pops up from her seat behind reception. She’s grinning, but the sunshine spewing out of her slowly clouds over as she reads my face. 

“Abby, I need you to get my husband’s publicist on the phone, please.” I glare pointedly at Harper, who is ostensibly unapologetic. “We need to do some damage control.” 

My newest CPO shrugs. “Mr. Grey has been very clear. No one touches you.”

That doesn’t mean you…” My voice is so tight, it snaps like a guitar string and ends up silent before I get the whole sentence out. I mash my lips together and take a deep breath, firmly planting the look on Luke’s face last night when he knew he was going to leave with Jade right in the forefront of my mind. “Have you heard from Barney?”

She nods. “The app’s been back online for the last fifteen or so minutes. One of the data loads was corrupted and it… I don’t know, he started saying a lot of tech stuff after that that I didn’t much care about. The point is, it’s working again.” 

“Thank god.” She hands me two goldenrod colored post-it notes with messages scribbled across them in her heartsick teenage girl handwriting. There’s even a heart drawn in the corner of the one from Christian confirming our dinner reservations for tonight. I roll my eyes, but smile to myself, as I push my way into my office. The sentimental lift to the corners of my lips stretches to a full grin when I look at my desk and see a paper coffee cup sitting next to a chocolate croissant. There’s a note that’s been torn from the pad of paper sitting next to them. 

I told you to eat something. 

-I love you

I laugh softly through my nose and pick up the cup of coffee, inhaling the rich, aromatic steam before taking a long drink. Clearly, my new security team is filled with narcs, but if fresh breakfast delivery is the consequence of that… I might get used to it. 

The croissant is gone before I even get logged into my computer, and because the universe bends to Christian Grey’s will, having something in my stomach actually does alleviate the last of my nausea. I dial into the conference call with my editor feeling completely back on my game.

Until lunch…

I’m meeting Hailey Lewis and despite the fact that I want this meeting to feel completely natural and casual, I’ve spent all of my free time this morning diligently planning everything I’m able to control, right down to the wine we’ll be having– which I’ve pre-paid for this time. 

When I’m finally ready to leave, though, I step out of my office and nearly run right over the top of Harper. She reaches out and grabs hold of my arms to keep me steady and as I turn a furrowed brow back to her, she actually looks contrite.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey.” 

“Was there something you needed?” 

Her face knots with confusion. “No ma’am.” 

“Then why are you…?”

“She’s been there all day,” Jacki calls from her desk on the other side of the room. I turn to her and get a contemptuous look in return. The steam I’ve been running on all morning dies out and I’m left feeling heavy. Or overburdened. Either way, it’s suffocating. 

“I don’t need a bouncer, Harper.”

“No, ma’am.” She gives me one sharp nod, but doesn’t take a step away from the door until I do. She’s on me like a shadow as I stop to let Abby know I’m on my way out to meet with Hailey, and then I’m surrounded by bodies again. It only takes me to the elevators before that suffocating feeling becomes too much.

“Okay, I don’t need all of you everywhere I go. This is ridiculous. Evan and I can manage a trip down the street just fine.” 

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Smith begins. “But Taylor said…” 

“I don’t care what Taylor said. I’m Taylor’s boss, and I’m telling you to go find another place to be.” 

Wyatt reaches out a conciliatory hand. “Mrs. Grey–” 

“I think she’s right,” Woods says. “This is a business meeting after all, and it’s hardly professional to show up to a one-on-one meeting with a posse… Mrs. Grey and I will be just fine on our own.” 

“Those aren’t Taylor’s orders, Woods,” Harper argues. He turns to her, towering over her, and looks down into the deep blue depths of her eyes with a level impassivity that’s chilling. 

“Is Taylor here?” 

“No.” 

“Then I’m in charge, and my orders are that the three of you stand down.” There’s a meaningful glint in his eye that seems to rattle Harper a bit, and she nods before she takes a step back. The elevator doors open and Woods ushers me inside, alone. 

“Thank you,” I tell him. “I just…” 

“You don’t like feeling babysat,” he finishes for me. 

I shake my head. “I don’t like feeling controlled. I know you guys are just trying to protect me and I don’t want to make that job any more difficult than it already is. I want you here. I’m grateful that you’re here. It’s just… I feel like I can’t move. I need to be able to breathe, Evan.” 

He nods, but keeps his eyes trained on the numbers ticking lower on the panel over the doors. “I get it. A lot of this isn’t your choice and people are always telling you that you don’t have control over it… that’s gotta drive you a little crazy.”

I smirk. “Been talking to Luke?” 

“All morning.” He sighs. “Look, if I’m going to be here, and believe me, your husband is paying me very well to be here, then I don’t want this to be difficult. I don’t want to worry about you running away behind my back and I don’t want to have to hover over you and Kate while you’re watching movies on the couch together. I want this, between us, to be like it was with you and Sawyer. I want you to trust me, and I wanna trust you.”

The car fills with the high ping that announces our arrival at the lobby and my cheeks pull back with the doors. 

“Good.” Thrusting my arm through the crook in his, I pull him from the elevator and start marching for the SUV.  “Tell me about yourself, Evan. Let’s get real personal.” 

We spend the drive to the restaurant in the heart of downtown getting to know one another and building the friendship it’s going to take to make this arrangement work. It has me in high spirits by the time we arrive. Especially because this particular restaurant is mine and Kate’s favorite place to go with one another. That’s why I picked it. The pink velvet chairs, crisp white linens, and pretty flower arrangements that sit in the middle of the round tables are perfectly girly and happy under the crystal chandeliers. It’s exactly the place to sip rosé and gossip with your girlfriends, and I want Hailey to feel like she’s meeting with a friend this afternoon, not a publishing executive. 

While Evan grabs a chair at the front of the restaurant, the hostess leads me to a perfectly set table near the back where we’ll mostly be to ourselves. I smile at the soft pink petals scattered across the table, resting at the base of shiny crystal wine glasses. I’m a little early, so the waitress brings me a glass of wine to keep me occupied while I wait. It’s good, because I don’t even get the rim of my glass to my lips before the scent of the wine hits me, and reinvigorates my nausea from this morning. 

Oh, shit.

Cringing away from the glass, I glance at the clock on my phone and calculate the hours it’s been since I’ve eaten. It’s been awhile. Clearly, too long. So I send back the rosé and order Shirley Temples instead, hoping the soda will settle my stomach and the syrup will keep it fun. The fizzy pink drink is placed in front of me just as Hailey slides into the padded chair on the other side of the table.

“This place is cute,” she says. 

“Isn’t it?” I swallow, commanding myself to get a hold of the clenching inside my gut that tells me I want to throw up, and to my surprise… it works. With a deep breath, I’m able to turn a smile on her and completely relax. “This is where my best friend and I meet for lunch when we’re in the city.” 

Her cheeks flush and she lifts her glass to clink the edge of mine, and I wave over the waitress to take our orders. 

For the most part, I try to keep the conversation away from business. I ask her about her weekend, plans for the fall, if there are any men in her life… it doesn’t take much to get her to start gushing to me about her whole life story. I laugh when she tells a joke, I let my mouth drop open in shock when she tells me something outrageous. I lean in to her. I mimic her body language. Everything I can think to do to let her know that I’m absorbed in her, I do. 

And it’s deliberate, but it’s not malicious. 

I actually do find her stories of growing up on a farm on the east side of the mountains charming, and her anecdotes of being in the city are hilarious. The woman is an amazing story teller, and that’s why I’m here. 

“What about you?” she asks, taking what I think may be the first breath she’s had since she sat down. Her eyes glisten with delight as she sips from her straw.  “Are you writing anything?” 

“Can I tell you a secret?” 

“Absolutely.” 

“A month or so ago, I finished the hardest story I’ve ever written.” 

Finished!” 

“Don’t get excited, I’m not ready to put it out into the world yet. It’s a little… I don’t know. Too personal, I guess.” 

“What’s it about?” 

“My husband. Well, us. I’ve been writing it ever since I left Havard and it’s probably the most personal thing I’ve ever written. It’s taken forever, but it’s finally finished, and I’m very happy with it.” 

“So. Give. It. To. The. World.” She claps her hands to emphasize each word and I laugh. 

“I don’t know. I’m just not sure I’m ready to receive the world’s input, you know? Sometimes the reaction isn’t always like yours.” 

“Meh. Let the haters be your motivators.”

A wave of cold sweeps over me that comes so out of nowhere, I glance up to see if we’re sitting under an air conditioning vent. We’re not though, so I shake away the shivers and brighten my voice as I reach for my Shirley Temple. 

“I’m going to have to get over it, though. Lydia will murder me if I don’t give her something soon.” 

“Giiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiirl.” Hailey leans back in her chair and pushes her arms out in front of her, like she needs space to get the words out. “I’ve worked with Lydia. You think she’s bad? You should try getting something published with Elizabeth Morgan.” 

My heart flutters excitedly. “Oh?” 

“The woman is insane. She wouldn’t know good literature if someone smacked her upside the head with it, and, believe me, I’m about to.” 

“What do you mean?”

She leans in, propping her elbows on the table. “Remember the part in Phoenix where she follows that light spirit into the cave and finds the magical pool?” 

“Yeah, and it shows her the truth about the people she’s fighting for.” 

“Exactly. Crucial plot point, right? Elizabeth wants me to cut the whole thing.” 

“What?!” 

“She thinks it’s too passive. She wants me to just rewrite the scene where she comes back to camp to be the first time she witnesses the motives that she’s missed. ‘Show don’t tell.’” Her voice raises at the end, taking on a mocking tone that’s actually surprisingly close to Elizabeth’s North-East dialect. “God forbid there ever just be enlightenment over violence.” 

 “It also just doesn’t make sense for the people she’s working with. Their cruelty is systemic and hidden beneath a well written code of morals and ethics that makes what they’re doing on the surface seem like justice, when it’s really genocide. To have them be open about what they’re really doing would be the same as having them admit they were the bad guys.”

Her mouth drops open and her body sags in the pretty, velvet chair. “You get me so much. Ugh, why couldn’t you have come to me and asked me to sign with you like two days earlier?” 

I take a steadying breath. “It’s not too late, Hailey.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“I mean that you’re still in the very early stages of this journey with Grey Publishing, and if you don’t want to go further with them… you don’t have to.” 

She snorts and shakes her head. “Yeah, if I want to pay about ten million dollars in penalties.” 

“It’ll be closer to $10,000.” 

“And I’m not a billionaire. $10,000 is almost six months rent for me, Ana.”

I smile, tasting the first hint of victory on the end of my tongue. “Well then it’s a good thing you made friends with a billionaire.” 

Her eyebrow curves with confusion, so I reach across the table and take hold of her hand.  

“I see the brilliance in your work, and I won’t make you change it to suit whatever narrative I want to tell. I will protect you, and I will work tirelessly to make Phoenix a success in exactly the way you want it to be. If that’s what you want to work with, say the word, and I’ll pay your contract termination fees.” 

“Y-you will?”

“I have a lawyer on stand-by who can take care of everything and make this very easy for you. One phone call. That’s all it’ll take.” 

She isn’t looking at me. Her eyes stare, unfocused, into the space between us while she processes what I’m telling her. I can feel the victory, so I reach into my bag for the pristine stack of papers that are waiting there like my secret weapon. When I lay the Greenwich contract on the table in front of her, she stares quietly at it for a long time. Then she nods, turns for her own purse, and pulls out a cheap, ballpoint pen that she uses to scratch her name across the signature line at the back. 

The moment her pen lifts from the paper, I’m hit with a swell of emotion so powerful, I could cry. 

I did it. 

Despite Scott, and Carmen, and even Christian… I finally fucking did it.

“I’m going to work so incredibly hard for you,” I tell her, once again placing a warm hand over hers. She grins.

“Yeah, I know you will.” 

The rest of our lunch centers around Phoenix. There are a few changes she’s thought through in the months she’s been in limbo, and I poke and prod for updates on the sequel. When we leave, it’s with promises of future lunches and a warm hug, and I think, as I watch her walk away, that it might not have been for show. I think I might be on the verge of becoming really good friends with Hailey.

“Ana?” I turn to the curb where Evan is standing in front of the back door to my SUV. He grins. “I take it your meeting went well.” 

“As though it were scripted.” I skip to the car and climb into the backseat as he pulls open the door for me. Once he’s inside, he adjusts the rearview mirror and meets my gaze. 

“Back to the office?” 

“Actually, we’re headed to 86 W. 3rd St.” 

The soft eyes in the mirror turn to stone with a blink. “You sure that’s a good idea?” 

“He played dirty first.”

“Alright…” He says the words like he doesn’t really believe them, but he still hits the turn signal and slides out into the crowded lane. Minutes later, we pull up in front of a generic looking high rise, just a few blocks from my office. It’s a multi-purpose building that houses an astounding number of small businesses. I find the name of the private law firm I’m looking for on the directory in the lobby, and follow it’s directions to the 2nd floor. His name is written across the door in shiny gold letters. 

“Good afternoon, are you a client?” the woman sitting behind the desk in the tiny, crowded entry asks. 

“Yes. Ana Grey.” 

She nods and picks up her phone. “Mr. Harrington, Ana Grey is here to see you.” 

I glance through the window, but I’m barely able to distinguish the color of the shudders on the building across from us before the one and only door in the office swings open. Astor Harrington strides out with a welcoming grin plastered across his face. 

“Well, this is a surprise. What can I do for you, Ana?”

“A contract termination. I signed an author this afternoon who needs some helping getting out of her current contractual obligations with Grey Publishing. There will be financial penalties, but you can bill those directly to me.” 

“Sure. Do you have her contact information?” 

“Of course.” 

I hand him a card with Hailey’s address, phone number, and email, then allow him to make a copy of her signed GSP contract and the GP contract that contains her termination provisions. There isn’t much small talk exchanged, just an assurance that the transition will go smoothly. I’m overly grateful for his help as he walks me out of the cramped office, but I hold out my hand when he offers me a hug goodbye. 

“Have a good afternoon, Mrs. Grey,” he says, the corners of his eyes wrinkling with humor as he shakes my hand. I wink, then make my way down the hall. 

When Evan pulls open the doors of the front entrance for me, I’m immediately confronted with a Maybach idling innocently on the curb directly in front of the doors. The back door opens and a pair of long legs step out, dragging my very angry looking husband out of the car and onto the sidewalk. 

“You know, Luke isn’t a snitch,” I mumble to my bodyguard so Christian can’t hear. He chuckles. 

“It wasn’t me.” With a nod, he directs my attention to a black town car parked across the street. “There’s the rest of you team.” 

I sigh, rather than roll my eyes, then let the happiness of my win beam through me as I traipse forward to Christian. He takes hold of me the moment I’m in his reach, and pulls me roughly into the backseat. Once I’m closed inside, the car starts to move. 

“Care to explain?” he growls. 

I laugh, then reach in my bag and dump Hailey’s signed contract on his lap. He narrows his eyes in suspicion, then picks it up and scans the first few paragraphs before flipping back to the signature page. Once his eyes trace the elegant loops of Hailey’s signature, he turns his glare back to me.

“How’d you manage this?” 

“You might be a better businessman than I am, Mr. Grey. But people like me more than they like you. Especially Hailey.” 

He snorts. “Enough to bury herself in debt? You know I’m just going to rake her over the coals for this until she changes her mind, don’t you?”

The elation in my expression turns to fire. “No, that’s the beauty. You see, I never intended Hailey to pay a dime to come to Greenwich. In fact, I had planned on having the whole transition expensed out through Carmen, but then I thought… why would I take this chunk out of my budget to give to you, when we’ve been filling our bank accounts with all this Endurance money like we live in Smaug’s lair?”

His face goes blank. “You used my own money…” 

“I will if you bill me for it.” Unbuckling my seatbelt, I move out of my seat and crawl into his lap, sealing my lips against his before he can start again.  “Don’t ever try to steal an author from me again. I’m a Grey, and we don’t take that shit laying down.” 

“Oh, fuck…” He groans, then a hand comes up to cup the back of my head, pulling me deeper into our kiss. I hiss when I feel his hand tighten in my hair, then moan and thrust my tongue deep into his mouth. He sucks on it, each pull of his lips soaking my panties a little bit more. 

I reach down between us and start to fumble with his belt and zipper. He doesn’t try to stop me when I take his heavy erection into my palm. So once I’ve got him free, I wrap both of my fists around him and slide them up and down his length, from root to tip, keeping my grip tight enough to make his eyes roll back into his head.  

His hands move to my knees, then slowly drag their way up my thighs. He pushes my skirt back and his fingers brush the lace edge of my panties. Then one hand disappears and, behind me, I hear the low drag of the glass divider between us and Taylor as it seals closed. 

“We’re only a few minutes from Escala,” he says, quivering slightly as I squeeze his round, swollen crown. “Let me take you there and eat you until you beg for my cock.”

“We don’t need to go to Escala, I’ll beg right now.” 

“Will you?” 

I swipe my thumb over his tip, swirling the bead of moisture there around the tight skin. He shivers, but his eyes never falter, baring into mine. I let my teeth sink into my bottom lip and nod. 

“Please.”

A hand reappears in my hair, gripping the roots tightly enough to make me shriek with pain. 

“Please, what?” 

“Fuck me. Right here, right now. Please.” 

He gives me a cruel smirk. “And why would I do that?” 

“Because I need you. I need this.” I squeeze him until he grunts, then start to stroke him again. The muscles hidden beneath his slacks tense and release with each pull of my hand and his eyes turn to liquid mercury. “Please, Christian.” 

The hand still on my thigh dips between my legs and rudely pulls my panties to the side. I’m almost clumsy in my rush to nestle his thick cock against my wet folds, but his hands stay firm on my hips and guide me exactly where I need to go. I start to sink down on him, reveling in that first, delicious stretch. But I’ve barely taken his head, when the fingers on my hips dig harshly into my flesh and stop me in dead air. 

“This isn’t over between us, Anastasia. I don’t give up either.” 

“Then may the best woman win.” I let the playfulness glimmer through my eyes while I try and rock my hips to take some of the friction I’m shaking for.  I can’t move, and he isn’t wooed by my revelry. 

“Who are you?” he demands instead. His fingers dig into me, and I see the answer he’s waiting for written in his eyes. My teeth catch my bottom lip as the obedient smile begins to play across my face. 

“I’m a Grey.” 

“You’re goddamn right, you are.” The hands holding me still suddenly force me down and I take the entire length of him in one, forceful blow. “Now, ride me.” 

My body reacts to the command before my mind does. I move my knees to either side of his legs so I can lift myself just far enough to his tip that he doesn’t slip out, then sink down again. It’s slow at first. I use his shoulders to balance and his eyes to anchor me as I rise and fall like an incoming tide. It feels on the surface as though he lets me control the pace, but I know in my soul that every single movement my body makes, right down to the beat of my heart, is happening only on his terms. 

That’s most obvious when I try to move faster and those strong, unbreakable hands once again clamp down around me, forcing me to return to the agonizingly slow pace that makes me take notice of every long, thick inch of him spreading me open. When he presses his palm flat against my belly and begins to tease my clit with his thumb, I let my head fall back and try to soak in the pleasure. But as the eye contact between us is broken, he’s pulling me back again, shifting beneath me so that I’m sitting up straight and his cock is pressed into the exact place I need it. 

“Oh god, Christian. Right there… right… there…”

The wild sound of want that claws its way from his chest makes me whimper. I can feel everything inside of me starting to tighten and clench, and the more insistent my body’s reaction becomes, the more erratic he churns his hips. His body looks so powerful beneath mine,  but that power is seconds away from being beyond his control. 

And fuck do I want that. 

I want him to lose it. I want him to overwhelm me. I want him to pull me into a depth we’ll never crawl out of and hold me there with him forever. 

“Fuuuuck…” he hisses through clenched teeth. “You’re going to make me come so fucking hard, baby.” 

“Yes, please. Please, come in me. Please, please, please…

I let out a needy cry that’s followed for a series of unrelenting, breathless pants. The sound fills the space around us. My entire body is a tightly wound string that he expertly plucks with each deep stroke. I grind on him every time he bottoms out inside of me, and every subtle move I make draws a curse word from his lips. Each and every one of them is swallowed by the deep, passionate kiss that finally ignites the powder keg orgasm building inside of me and blows my goddamn mind. 

Our tongues tangle together in a dance only we know the steps to while my orgasm wrecks my body. I can feel him tighten with every vice-like clench of my insides around his cock. Sweat begins to bead on his brow and an impatiently angry vein pounds with his pulse beneath the skin on his neck. I keep pace with him as long as I physically can. But as the intensity of my orgasm drags me down to his chest and leaves me trembling, he thrusts up as deep as he can reach and empties himself inside of me. 

His shouts of ecstasy echo around us long after he’s stilled, and I melt with a deep kind of satisfaction that’s more powerful than the aftershocks of my orgasm.

We sit there together, chest to chest, heart to heart, until I notice the same parked car streak past the dark tinted window I saw a few minutes ago, and I realize we’re circling the block around my office. Christian spends our final lap devouring my lips until I’m craving a second round. All I get though is a small chuckle, as the car finally comes to a stop in front of my building. 

“Watch your back, Mrs. Grey,” he warns me as I step out onto the sidewalk where my security team is already waiting for me. I look back and see a devilish grin spread across his still swollen lips. “Now, I’m coming for you.” 

I give him the same grin he gave me back in his office a few weeks ago, lean into the car, and brush the tip of my nose against his. 

“I thought you just did.” 

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