Kate PoV: Big Girls Don’t Cry

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End of Chapter One

 

September 10th

I feel a little giddy on the elevator ride up to the suite of the Four Seasons. Christian has always loved surprises, but I’m not usually on the receiving end of the fanfare. I fully expected to have to lock myself away in my bedroom all weekend with something to study and pair of headphones, or even to retreat down to my office at the Crimson and get a headstart on next week’s issue, but instead, I’m finally going to get at least two gloriously uninterrupted nights with Elliot.

I don’t know who is more excited over that prospect. Me, or my vagina.

When the doors open, I fiddle with the key card I’d gotten from the front desk as I step into the well lit hallway and glance at the room numbers and signs to figure out where I’m supposed to go. Of course, we’re as far from the elevator as humanly possible, but it’s a corner room and I’m pretty sure this side of the building has a river view. With an excited smile, I slip the plastic card into the lock, wait for the electronic chime, and push the door open.

“Elliot?” I call, stepping into the warm glow that fills the room. There’s a loud creak as he leans back in the chair at the desk against the long, scenic wall so he can see me in the small entryway. The moment our eyes meet his face breaks into a smile.

“Hold on, Mike,” he says, then places his hand against the mouthpiece on the phone. “Come over here and kiss me.”

Some of the disappointment I feel over the fact that he’s clearly still working wanes a bit as I cross the room, wrap my arms around his neck, and softly press my lips into his. He moans and swipes his tongue across my bottom lip, but I pull away. Until he’s off the phone and fully focused on me, the good stuff is going to have to wait.

“Are you almost finished?” I ask.  

He nods. “Yeah, I think so. Why don’t you go change into something much less comfortable and once I’m done, I’ll help you take it off?”

I can’t help the smile the salacious promise in his bright blue eyes brings out of me, so with a last quick peck, I hurry back to the bathroom in search of the naughty lingerie he’s brought for me to model for him. But the bathroom is empty. So is the closet, and the cabinets in the bedroom. There’s no bag on the bed, or in the armchair, or even in his own suitcase. There’s nothing, and since he’s fully absorbed in his conversation on the phone again, I simply remove my bra and the flannel I’ve been wearing all day, slip one of his t-shirts on over my leggings, and wait.

And wait…

And wait…

Twenty minutes pass and instead of wrapping up his conversation, Elliot has to conference more people in. So, rather than stare at the back of his head any longer, I fish the remote out of the drawer next to the bed, turn the TV to an old re-run of Friends on TBS with the volume way, way down, and scroll through the article submissions waiting in the inbox of my email on my phone. I get through every single one of them before he finally finishes his impromptu meeting and hangs up the phone. When he turns around to face me, his face falls in disappointment.

“That’s not dirty lingerie…”

It’s been two weeks since we’ve seen each other. Two long weeks where we’ve gone from sleeping next to each other every night to a few brief phone calls throughout the day, and I’ve been sitting behind him for an hour and twenty minutes and… he hasn’t even turned around to look at me. Not even once.

“No, I didn’t find it and I didn’t want to interrupt your work so…”

His brow creases in confusion. “Find it?”

“The dirty lingerie you brought.”

“I didn’t… I thought you and Ana went to Agent Pro— uh… you know, the fancy lingerie store this afternoon?”

“Yeah, but I didn’t buy anything.”

He stumbles backwards in mock shock. “Okay, first question. How dare you?”

I’m not quite ready to be done being mad at him for his less than warm reception, and his response makes me wonder if he’s aware of that. The Office? He’s pulling out the big guns.

“Ana and Luke were with me the whole time. You’ll have to forgive me for finding a lack of sex-spiration.”

He smiles and then leaps onto the bed, crawling over me with his eyes fixed on my lips. “Oh, baby. You know how your puns drive me wild.”

I laugh but the sound is cut off by a sudden, deep kiss that burns through the last of my anger. Reluctantly, or maybe a little too willingly, I surrender and let myself enjoy the feel of his weight pressing me into the bed. Fighting is pointless now anyway. I miss him too much to waste any of the time I have with him now doing anything but this.

With a soft moan, I wrap my arms and legs around him, pulling him into me and opening my mouth for his tongue in one smooth motion. His hands move up to the side of my face, cradling my cheeks tenderly while his mouth moves aggressively against mine. Soon, we’re out of breath, panting. When my lips break from his, he doesn’t relent. Instead, he captures my bottom lip between his teeth and tugs gently before he sucks it into his mouth. It has me instantly wet, and my breath shakes as I tilt my pelvis up for him, silently begging for his attention.

“You need to lose some clothes,” he whispers into my mouth. I nod and his hands move down to the hem of the t-shirt I’m wearing, but instead of hastily yanking it up over my head, he slips his hands beneath the fabric and slowly moves them up my skin, dragging the material with him as he goes. A trail of goosebumps lie in the wake of his touch, brought out by the intimacy of the gesture and the gentle caress of his kiss against my lips. When his hands finally reach up and cup each of my breasts, my whole body shudders and the muscles between my legs clench.

“No bra.” His tone is approving as he toys with my hardening nipples.

“Mmm, Elliot,” I moan. “Use your mouth. I want your mouth on me.”

“Where?”

“Everywhere.” I reach up, tangle my fingers in his hair, and push. He doesn’t fight against me. He moves easily down, kissing me along my jawline and neck, then collar bones, until he can trace the deep valley of my cleavage with the tip of his tongue.

The moment he’s at my tits, his hands go wild. He kneads each of my breasts so intensely it borders on painful, and his lips latch against the inside swell with enough suction that I’m sure I’ll have a hickey when he finally pulls away. That doesn’t bother me though. Elliot has always been good about never leaving proof of a wild trist where it can be seen outside the bedroom. But I not-so-secretly love it when he marks me.

“That’s it, Katie,” he growls into my breast. “Moan for me.”

“Keep going. Further down.”

I can feel him smile against my skin. “You want me to eat your pussy, you’re going to have to say it. You know how I like it when you talk dirty to me.”

“Eat me, Elliot. Fuck me with your tongue.” The words leave my body in nothing more than a breath, but the moment the sound crosses my lips Elliot’s hand dips down into my leggings. I grind against his fingers, lifting my hips so he can pull my leggings down as he nestles between my thighs.

“Oh fuck, Kate,” he whispers, dragging the pad of his thumb against my clit multiple times, making my body jump and convulse with anticipation. “You’re already so wet.”

He leans in and flicks his tongue over me again and again. When he pulls away, his breath hisses between his teeth. “Like fucking honey.”

“Don’t stop, baby. Make me come.”

He hums in approval at the desperate lilt to my voice and uses his thumb on me again. “All in good time, but I need a minute to get reacquainted with you, baby. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to look at your gorgeous little cunt.”

“Elliot!” I whimper.

“Oooh, saying my name like that though–” His voice cuts off as his phone starts vibrating furiously on the desk a few feet away from us, and he turns to look at it. “Son of a bitch, hold on…”

“What? No!”

He gets off the bed, glances down at the number on the screen of his phone, and curses under his breath. Then, to my horror, he answers it.

“This is Grey. What? When?” He pauses and listens intently to whatever the person on the other end of the phone is saying. I wave my arm in frustration to get his attention, then gesture up and down my body to remind him he has me fully naked and waiting for him. He gives me an apologetic look, mouths that he’s sorry and that he’ll be done in a second, and then returns to his phone call.

Are you fucking kidding me?

“And it’s good?” he says into the phone. “They are? That’s great. That’s really, really great! Send it over to me now, I’ll look over it tonight, and send it back to you by tomorrow morning. No, it’s going to be tight with GEH but we can manage. Thanks, Julia.” He hangs up the phone and turns back to me.

“Babe, we just got Microsoft!”

“What?”

“Microsoft. They’re completely re-doing their campus in Redmond, so Grey Construction submitted a bid and they selected us.”

Suddenly, the burning want between my legs is extinguished, and I have to fight to keep my face from showing the horror his words ignite inside of me.

“I-I thought you were doing Christian’s building?”

“I am. It’ll take a few months to get the right permits in place and for us to be able to break ground. By then, most of the engineering work for Grey House will be finished, or at least nearly finished, so I’ll be able to step away and let the interior-build staff and designers take over while I focus on Microsoft. This is a huge contract, Kate. This one client alone is going to keep Grey Construction solvent for… years, all on its own. Give me time to develop some of those sustainability projects I’ve told you about. Not to mention the other business this will draw. This is just like Christian’s first contract with Amazon, the big one that gave him capital to expand. Fuck, this is so great! We’re going to be set, babe.”

“Elliot…” I hesitate, like I’ve been hesitating ever since he took the helm of Grey Construction. “Don’t you think you should… I don’t know, pace yourself?”

“Pace myself?”

“Yeah. You have a ton on your plate already, are you sure you can take on any more?”

“Of course I can.”

“I don’t know, Elliot. You’re already so… uh, busy.”

“A little, I guess. But that’s good. I think I’m on the right track. Before my first day as CEO, I took Christian out to lunch to get some advice and he told me the biggest thing I had to focus on was not being afraid to succeed. That’s his secret. He never accepts that something is too big and that the only small startups that exist are the ones who view themselves as small. I took that to heart, and now look!”

“Okay, but Christian has a partner. You don’t. With just GEH and the inner city housing developments you’ve been working on, you’re already just barely treading water.”

“You think I’m in over my head?”

“No, of course not. You are brilliant and you have the potential to be very successful in the next few years. I’m proud of you. But I don’t think you’re weighing the personal cost of growing at the same kind of rate GEH did with what you’re giving up.”

“I don’t think I’m giving anything up.”

“Really? Because ever since you’ve taken over at GC, I almost feel like I’ve lost you. You didn’t come drop me off at school when I came back, like Christian did with Ana, we don’t have any plans for upcoming weekends, and when I do get to talk to you on the phone, you give me like two minutes and then you have to go. I understand that this is all new for you and it takes time to adjust to your new responsibilities, but I expect that you are going to adjust and eventually, all of this work you’re putting in all the time is going to slow down. Right now, with me here and you in Seattle, it’s good that you’re busy, but once I graduate and move home, I want to start our life together, Elliot.”

“And we will. Baby, what do you think all of this is for? I want to start our life together too, and I want it to be perfect. I want to be able to take you anywhere in the world you want to go. I want us to have everything we could ever want and never need for anything. I want to give you the life you deserve.”

“Yeah, but when? After five o’clock, or seven if you’re busy? On weekends? On the one week a year you can pry yourself away from work long enough to take a vacation? You think that’s the life I want?

“Kate… I don’t know what to say to you right now. I can’t just not work, especially now that I have a company to run. People’s livelihoods depend on me, I can’t purposefully slow Grey Construction’s growth just so I can spend more time at home.”

“I know, and that’s not really what I mean. I’m really impressed by how well you’ve taken on this new role. I just…” I stop, not really sure what it is that I do mean. He moves to the bed and places his hand on my still naked leg, rubbing his thumb reassuringly over my skin, just above my knee.

“I didn’t know you felt like this. I know I’ve been busy, but believe me, the last thing in the world I want is for you to feel neglected.” He presses his lips together. “But I didn’t make the decision to stay home when you left for school… You told me not to come back to Cambridge with you, remember?”

“Yeah, but only because I was mad at you, not because I didn’t want you here to say goodbye to me. You were supposed to come anyway.”

“Mad? Why were you mad at me?”

Oh right. He doesn’t know.

This is a very difficult subject for me to talk to him about, mostly because I’ve avoided talking to him about it for too long.

His not proposal.

In the beginning, when he was in Stanford and I was in Cambridge, I really didn’t want to take our relationship too seriously because, well I knew his reputation, and as hard as we fell for one another, and as much as I really, really loved him, long distance relationships never work out and I was always prepared for him to call, say he couldn’t do this anymore, and then just… disappear. But he didn’t. He moved here and it would have been the perfect time to talk about our future together, except that then, his family fell apart. He was so devastated by what had happened and by the fighting between Christian and Carrick that the only thing I felt I could do was be his support system. He was already the only thing holding his family together, I didn’t want to add more pressure on him. Now, we’ve been dating for three years and the marriage thing feels somehow more delicate, like even bringing it up will make him feel like I’m fishing for a ring or pushing him to ask me before he’s ready. I don’t want that. I want him to propose, but I want him to want it just as much as I do. Only, time keeps passing and he’s had ample opportunity to propose in exactly the right way, but he hasn’t yet.

I swallow. “You know, Christian bought Ana an engagement ring. Months ago.”

“Yeah…” His voice trails off, telling me that he has no idea what I’m talking about. “So?”

“So, he’s going to propose to her. It’s her birthday today, he might even propose tonight.”

“I don’t… Is this you changing the subject? Are we done fighting?”

“We’re not fighting, Elliot. I just… I want to know how you feel about Christian and Ana possibly getting engaged tonight.”

He continues to stare at me, unsure for a moment, until he finally shakes his head. “They won’t. He won’t propose to Ana until she moves home. If I know one thing about Christian, it’s that he won’t drag out their engagement. He’ll want to be married within a week after he proposes, even the same day if he can manage it, but he knows Ana won’t marry him until after she graduates.”

“But he has the ring. I’ve seen it. They’ve only been back together for like four months and he already has the ring. Hell, he’s had it since June.”

“Yeah, but that’s Christian. He needs to lock her down and he’s not going to feel comfortable until he does. Which is stupid as fuck. From what I can tell, they’ve got a good thing. They’re happy. I don’t know why he wants to change it.”

“Because he loves her and he wants to be with her for the rest of his life.”

“Okay, but you don’t have to get married to be together forever. In fact, half of marriages end in divorce so it kind of seems like getting married and spending your entire life with someone is an oxymoron.”

“Wait, are you telling me that you don’t believe in marriage?”

“Not really. I mean, out of all of the friends I had growing up, my parents are the only ones who never got divorced. And divorce has been a real possibility for them several times. Recently, even.”

“Yeah, divorce is always a possibility, but you shouldn’t avoid the whole institution just because it might fail. I mean, what about when you have kids? Don’t you think it’s important to be married to the person you have children with?”

“I guess, but I don’t think Christian wants kids. He and I have always told my mom that if she wants grandchildren, she needs to invest heavily in Mia.”

I’m stunned. It’s like he’s hit me with a one-two punch. He doesn’t want to get married. He doesn’t want kids. If both of those things are true, what the fuck are we even doing?

“Wait, stop.” I’m shaking now, holding back the flood of tears I know are imminent, and possibly even vomit. “Are you telling me that… you don’t ever want to have kids with me?”

He stiffens. “Wait, I thought we talking about Christian and Ana?”

“Answer the question, Elliot. Do you want kids someday?”

“I— I thought we were on the same page about this. I mean, you’ve never talked about having children…”

“No, you’re right. I haven’t. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t want them, or that I don’t want to marry you. I do. I need both of those things in my future. I’ve been waiting for you to propose all summer.”

“Katie…”

“Are you being serious right now?”

“What?”

“When you say you don’t want to get married and that you don’t want kids, does that mean you don’t want them now or that you don’t want them ever?”

“Kate, I–I thought you felt the same way I did. I didn’t try to hide this from you. I thought you were happy the way things were, that we wanted the same things–”

“I am happy. Right now. But, I won’t stay that way if you’re never going to give me children. So I need you to tell me the truth, Elliot. I need you to put your feelings for me aside for one second and be honest. Do you think this is just the way you feel now and that in a few years you’ll change your mind? Or is this really, really how you feel?”

He takes a long pause, and I watch his adam’s apple bob in his throat before he eventually shakes his head. “No. No, I’m not going to change my mind.”

Neither of us move as his words hang between us. He’s waiting for me to react. I’m waiting for the impact of what he’s just said to hit me. When it finally does, my body feels like it’s collapsing in on itself and a horrible, devastated sob forces its way out of me.

“Excuse me,” I cry, turning away and hurrying for the bathroom before my legs give out and I’m no longer able to hold myself up anymore. He follows after me. I can both feel and hear him a few steps back, but I can’t stop. I’m seconds away from completely falling apart and I don’t want him to see it. For the first time in our entire relationship, he doesn’t feel safe.

“Katie, please wait…”

I slam the door to the bathroom behind me, lock it, and then sink to the floor. The sobs coming out of me are so deep and powerful that after only a few seconds crying on the bathroom floor, my abs start to hurt. I can hear the pain almost as acutely as I can feel it.

How did this happen? How could I have misjudged him so entirely? I do my best to wipe my eyes, even though the moisture I’m able to wick away is almost immediately replaced by the continuous wave of tears pouring out of me. Tears that won’t stop because I know exactly how this happened.

It’s his family.

Time and time again, I’ve watched him sacrifice little pieces of himself for each and every one of them. He never misses family get togethers. He looks for reasons to spend quality time together, especially with Christian and Mia. He’s always there when they need him. I’ll never forget the anger that only I saw after he found out about Christian and Elena, or the guilt he was riddled with because of what Mia went through last summer. The first time I ever saw him cry was sophomore year, when Christian didn’t show up for Christmas. He is the quintessential family man. How can he possibly not want a family of his own?

“Katie…” I hear him call through the door. “Please come out and talk to me.”

Talk? About what? This is an impasse. I know that no matter what happens in my life, I will not feel fulfilled if I never have children. It’s what I’ve wanted my entire life. From the first time I picked up a baby doll, I knew that being a mother was something I had to experience. It’s a calling too powerful for me to ignore and I’ve never been the kind of girl to give up on a lifelong dream. It’s not in my blood. So if he’s not willing to give me babies, we’re wasting our time together.

With a long, painful breath, I quell my tears and slowly peel myself off the floor. Everything feels as though it’s moving in slow motion as I twist the knob and pull back the door, and when I see him standing there, waiting for me and looking hurt, confused, and terrified all at once, it knocks the wind out of me. The love I have for this man isn’t something that can just be callously tossed aside. What we have is powerful, life-changing, and rare. If he isn’t it for me, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to find anything close to what we have together again.

He’s my soulmate.

Or at least, I was really sure that he was.

“Is there a compromise here?” I ask quietly.

“What do you mean?”

“Five years?” His face crinkles, and tears start to prick my eyes again. “I can’t not have kids, Elliot. It’s a deal breaker for me. I can give you some time. You can build your company and we can travel and we can do everything that you want to do before we settle down, but… I have to have kids. I’ll give you five years.”

He presses his lips together, then looks down at the floor, and for a terrifying second, I think he’s going to tell me no.

“Can I think about it?” he asks at last, and while it isn’t a no, it hurts just as bad as one. How did we get here? Five minutes ago, his face was buried between my legs and now we’re talking about whether or not we can even be together or if we’re going to break up.

Break up.

Holy shit, we might be about to break up.

“Yeah,” I croak. “Of course.”

He nods, takes a deep breath, and reaches out for my hand. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do now…”

I swallow the lump in my throat and try as hard as I can to at least wipe the doubt and devastation off my face. It’s not as easy as I’d hoped.

“Julia was sending you something to look over, right? You should… do that. I’m just going to take a bath and think for a little while.”

“Okay. Can I, um… Can I get your anything?”

“No. I’ll be okay, thanks.”

But I’m not okay. I’m not okay at all. I fill the tub with nearly scalding hot water, but it can’t burn away the cold feeling that grips me like a frost in the dead of winter. I sink down low in the tub so the water covers my ears and try to force the kind of cavernous echoing sound of being under the water to drown out my thoughts, which run on a kind of continuous loop of everything Elliot and I have shared that makes our relationship so important to me. Like that time Grace and I were flipping through old photo albums and she told the story of his first science fair, where he’d won first place for a capillary bowl he’d built that he said was going to revolutionize the way energy was utilized in the United States.


At eleven years old, he’d created perpetual motion,” Grace says. “Of course we didn’t have the heart to tell him that perpetual motion didn’t actually exist and even the capillary bowl had an energy source in the form of low boiling point gases… but I always knew he’d grow up to be my little engineer. And he did.”

“Perpetual motion, huh?” I ask, smiling as I turn to face Elliot. “Aiming high.”

He rolls his eyes. “Well, I’m sorry that I didn’t fully grasp the laws of thermodynamics at the age of eleven. Full understanding of that didn’t come until I was at least twelve.”


Even just remembering the embarrassed pink that colored the tips of his ears as his mother gushed about every one of his primary school accomplishments makes me smile, but that smile disappears as quickly as it came. I have so many amazing memories with him. Like, sitting in the passenger’s seat with the windows down and the radio turned up while we drove along the beautiful coastline in the late months of summer, soaking up the sun. His smile and laughter as I clung to his middle while the jet ski he was piloting skimmed across the water. The feel of his hands wrapped around mine on the very first night we spent in the house we bought this summer. He’d pulled me around the kitchen island, dancing with me in the glow from the refrigerator and the electronic clock over the range. No music. Just him. Just me.

I pull the plug on the drain, step out of the bath, and wrap myself in one of the towels folded on the shelf near the counter. I expect Elliot is going to be buried in work, possibly even back on the phone with his colleagues in Seattle, but he isn’t. When I open the door, I find him sitting on the edge of the bed, his elbows on his knees, and his head hung below his shoulders. He looks up at me as the sliver of light from the bathroom cuts through the darkness just enough to pull him out of the shadows, and after we gaze deeply into each other’s eyes for a long, drawn out moment, he gets off the bed, wraps me in his arms, and kisses me more deeply and passionately than he has in years.

“I love you, Kate,” he says.

“I love you too, Elliot.” We kiss again, but this time, he doesn’t stop at holding my body close against his. He sweeps me into his arms and carries me back to the bed, and there, we make love, showing each other everything we can’t say with words. When we’re finished, wrung out and exhausted, I lie there wrapped in his arms and think that everything is going to turn out okay. Elliot and I are meant to be, and while this seems insurmountable now, we’ll work through it. We always do. As long as we love each other, we’ll always find a way. His hold tightens around me and I allow the comfort I feel in his embrace to pull me into a deep, comforting sleep.

But when I wake up in the morning, he isn’t in the bed next to me anymore. He’s sitting in a chair across the room, his packed suitcase at his side, watching me sleep.

“Hi,” I whisper, my voice still thick with sleep.

“Good morning,” he replies. “I didn’t want to wake you, but… I have to go.”

“Go? Where?”

“Back to Seattle. I got an email early this morning. The GEH building failed an impromptu city inspection yesterday afternoon, I have to go handle it. I’m sorry, but I have to go.”

“Oh…”

He gets out of his chair and walks over to me, falling on one knee next to the bed and leaning in to kiss my lips as softly as he can.

“Don’t… don’t make any decisions, okay? I’ll come back next weekend, or maybe you can come with Ana the next time she flies home… we’ll talk. We’ll work this out.”

“Okay.”

“I love you, Katie.”

“I love you too.”

Another kiss and he’s gone. I watch every step he takes until the door closes behind him and the electronic sound of the lock clicking back into place fills the room. In his absence, I don’t feel any of the hope I was filled with the night before. Somehow, everything looks different in the pale gray light of dawn, and as I pull back the sheets and re-dress in the same clothes I wore shopping with Ana yesterday afternoon, I realize that something was broken last night. Maybe we put a bandaid over it when we needed to, but I don’t think we’ll ever be able to put it back together again.

And as I gather my purse and glance back at the sheets that still smell of him, I feel utterly and completely alone.

****

Middle of Chapter Four

 

September 17th

The car ride is tense. Ana is fidgeting in the back seat, glancing anxiously at the tightly packed traffic around us, and Luke is stewing in the seat next me, furious with her. We’re nearly two hours late getting her to the airport and both of them are lamenting what Christian is going to say about their late arrival in Seattle tonight. Personally, I’m happy to have the extra time.

Elliot was supposed to fly back here this weekend so he and I could talk, but surprise, surprise, something came up at work. He asked me to come with Ana back to Seattle, but flying 3,000 miles and then being asked to wait around until he’s finished with whatever new crisis has come up at GC doesn’t seem like a good way to start the conversation about how seriously he’s taking the future of our relationship. Besides, I have things to do here too. Ana may be willing to sacrifice her time studying or fulfilling her school obligations to fly to Seattle every weekend because of Christian’s work schedule, but I’m not. I won’t make myself smaller for Elliot, or for anyone for that matter.

Taking a breath, I try to push away the anger that’s been slowly festering inside of me since last weekend. Elliot has been the greatest boyfriend I could have ever dreamed up, he doesn’t deserve the kind of thoughts I’ve had about him this week. I need to remember that he didn’t do this on purpose. I need to remember that he’s made sacrifices for me in the past. I need to remember that I love him. Nothing is set yet. Maybe he did think about what I told him, and maybe he’s changed his mind.

Maybe.

The music we have playing at a background level suddenly cuts off and is replaced by a loud ring from the bluetooth connection through Ana’s phone. I glance over at the LED display on the dash to read the name on the caller ID then glance at Ana in the rearview mirror.

“It’s Christian,” I tell her.

“Answer it,” she says, continuing once I do. “Hi, you’re on speaker.”

“Why aren’t you in the air?” Christian’s angry voice demands without greeting. “My pilot just called to tell me you haven’t even arrived at the airport yet.”

“I know, I was going to text you just before I took off. I’m running late…”

“Two hours late?”

I watch Ana’s reflection cringe at the bite in his tone. “My meeting with Dr. Ralston went long, and it took me longer to pack than I expected, and now we’re stuck in traffic.”

“How close are you?”

“Ten minutes,” I answer for her, then reach down to flick on my blinker so I can merge into the exit only lane that will take us to the airport.

“Fine,” Christian says. “I’ll call and have them prepare for take off so you can leave the second you board the plane.”

“Thank you,” Ana says. “I’m sorry I’m late. I love you.”

“I love you too. I’ll see you in a few hours.” There’s a clicking sound before the music starts playing again and as I pull up to a dead stop behind the car in front of us once again, I feel a strange tightening in my stomach. That usually happens because I don’t really like the way Christian talks to Anastasia when he’s angry, but this is different. It’s difficult to hear Christian and Ana express their love for one another right now because I know how much they mean it. I have zero doubts about how much Christian loves Anastasia. Even though I believe Elliot when he said that Christian doesn’t want kids either, I also know that if Ana told him that she needed children to be happy and that their relationship would be over if he wouldn’t give them to her, she’d already be pregnant.

Maybe that’s selfish of me to expect. Maybe I’m being selfish. I don’t know. I never thought in a million years we’d end up here, and now that we are, I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know what to think or feel…

 

Getting to the airport is like getting a front row seat to the influence of Christian Grey. We drive up to the private entrance to the tarmac and all Ana has to do is give her name for us to be waived through and directed to the huge jet with GREY etched in huge letters on the side. The moment we stop, Luke jumps out of the passenger’s seat, pulling Ana out of the car before I’ve even given her a proper hug good-bye.

“See you Sunday!” she calls to me as she’s being dragged to the stairs leading into the plane. I open my door and stand on the plastic covering on the edge on the inside of the car so she can see and hear me over the roar of the engines.

“Love you, Ana! Fly safe! Text me when you land!”

She can only nod in return before she disappears through the door and they close her inside. A few crewmen scurry around the cargo hold, tightening bulkheads, but only seconds pass before everyone begins backing away, and waving to the pilot that they’re clear for take off.

“Ma’am, you’re going to need to get off the tarmac!” one of the employees calls to me. “For your own safety.”

I nod and give him a small smile before slumping back into the car and navigating my way off the airfield and back towards the freeway. Traffic doesn’t seem to be so bad going into Cambridge, probably because it’s after eight now, so I make it home in okay time. But once I come through the back door into the dark, empty house, an unwelcome, familiar sense of foreboding comes over me.

“Hello?” I call uncertainty, but the only answer is my own weak voice echoing through the kitchen and living room. It doesn’t make me feel better, so I immediately start going through every room in the house, flipping lights on.

There’s no one here. I know that. But if I’m upstairs, my brain starts conjuring images of someone picking the lock on the door and sneaking undetected into the laundry room, or maybe the bathroom, to hide and wait until I fall asleep. If I’m downstairs I can’t shake the feeling that someone is hiding in Ana’s closet. Before I know it, I’m googling Dylan Abernathy’s name to make sure that he wasn’t released from prison and I somehow wasn’t notified.

I thought enough time had passed that I would be able to do this, but clearly I was wrong. So, after scouring the internet for proof that someone is coming after me and coming up empty handed, I go into my bathroom, lock the door, and dial Elliot’s number.

“Hey, baby,” he answers, and, instantly, I’m in tears. “Kate? What’s wrong?”

“Ana’s gone and I can’t do this… I can’t be in this house by myself. I’m freaking out right now. I can’t stop thinking about somebody breaking in.”

“Hey, hey, hey. Baby, you’re okay. No one is coming to get you, okay? Calm down. Take a breath.”

I do, and it helps a little. “I can’t do this, Elliot. I know that I’m overreacting, but I just can’t. I can’t stay here by myself.”

“Okay, what do you want me to do? Can I call and book you a hotel room for the weekend? Would that help?”

“I want you to be here with me.”

“I do too, but I can’t. Is there… someone you can call and have come stay with you?”

My breath hitches as tears pour down my cheeks. “I-I don’t know.”

“Do you want to go stay at the Hyatt?”

“No. No, I’ll be okay. I’ll figure it out.”

“You’re sure?”

No. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m sure.”

“Okay. Call me before you go to bed. I love you.”

“I love you too. Bye.” I hang up and let my head slump against the back wall. I know that he’s right. I know that being locked in my house on a very well lit street with very attentive neighbors means that I’m safe staying here alone, but knowing that doesn’t make me feel better. This fear that I have is irrational, but unshakable.

I try a bath first, hoping the hot water and lavender will calm me down, but the drip from the faucet onto the smooth plane of water in the tub just makes the silence all around me seem somehow louder, and more unsettling. So, I decide to get rid of it. After getting out of the bath, I turn on some music in my room, lock the door, and try to focus all of my attention on the paper I have to write before next weekend, but the music just means I can’t hear anything going on outside of my room and after twenty minutes I’m convinced there’s someone sneaking around downstairs.

This is what it’s going to be like every time Ana leaves. What the fuck am I going to do?

Thinking maybe the best thing for me to do is just go to bed and try to sleep, I log off my computer, change into my pajamas, and crawl under the covers, but getting myself to go to sleep is impossible. I stare into the darkness, shaking, listening hard for any kind of sound, and sometime around two in the morning, there’s a loud thump that sounds too much like someone walking up the stairs.

I scream and leap out of bed, checking that the door is locked before I turn back to my nightstand and pick up my phone to dial the number of the only other person I know well enough in Cambridge to ask to come stay with me.

“Kavanagh?” Carter’s very tired voice answers after several rings.

“Hey, Carter. Um…. Ana’s in Seattle and I’m kind of freaking out being by myself. Would you… um… would you come over here?”

“You want me to come over to your house at two o’clock in the morning?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t have anyone else to call. Please?”

He sighs. “I’ll be right there.”

“Thank you. Oh my god, thank you so much.”

“Yeah. See you soon.” He hangs up the phone and I immediately feel a wave of relief. The doors are locked downstairs, which means I’m going to have to let him in when he gets here, so I once again go through the house and turn every single light on before I settle down on the couch and hug my arms tightly around my body, waiting for him to arrive. When he knocks on the door, I jump and then hurry to answer it.

“Wh-who’s there?” I call nervously through the door.

“Carter,” he replies. With a deep breath, I unlock the door, pull it open, and when I see him standing there, I have to stop myself from throwing my arms around him.

“Thank you,” I tell him, stepping aside to allow him through the door.

“Sure, your house is nicer than mine is anyway. Are you okay?”

I shake my head. “No. I thought by now I could spend a couple nights by myself, but clearly… I can’t. Ana’s going to be gone all the time this year, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

He shrugs. “Call me.”

He takes my hand and leads me into the kitchen, pushes me down into a chair at the dining room table, and then goes to the fridge. “You’ve got some wine in here, do you want it?”

I nod, and then wait while he pulls the bottle from the fridge, finds the wine glasses, and pours me a full glass. When he hands it to me, I down it in one long gulp.

“Jesus, you really are freaked out.”

I nod. “Yeah, I don’t know why I thought I’d be able to handle this.”

“Because of that guy, right? The one that shot a bunch of people in your dorm freshman year?”

“Yeah. Because of him.”

“That sucks, I’m sorry. He’s in jail though, isn’t he? So he can’t come after you again.”

“You know that. I know that. But the part of my brain that keeps me from being terrified about it apparently doesn’t.”

“Well, you got any weed? That’d probably calm you down.”

I shake my head. “No, I don’t smoke, and if we brought any in here, Christian would have a heart attack and then I’d be homeless. I’ll be okay, I just need people around, I guess. Thank you for coming. You didn’t have to and I really, really appreciate that you did.”

“Of course. I’ve always been able to get more work done over here anyway, like when I came to study with Ana all the time last year. This way, with her out of the house and me still here, she won’t think I was stalking her all that time.” I laugh, and then reach for the bottle of wine again.

“I have no idea how I’m going to get through this year if she’s going to be travelling back and forth. I might have to talk to her about us getting another roommate.”

“Why didn’t you go with her? I mean, your boyfriend lives in Seattle too, doesn’t he? Don’t you want to go see him?”

I raise my eyebrows as I take another long drink from my glass. “Things are a little, tense between Elliot and I right now.”

“Long distance relationship getting to you?”

“No, it’s not that. I um…” I pause, and examine him closely. “Carter, do you want to have kids? In the future, I mean.”

“Uh… yeah, I think so. Maybe. I think I have to find a wife to do that first but that means I’d have to find a girlfriend and you’d be surprised how hard that is.”

“Probably because you’re stalking Ana.”

He laughs. “Probably. I think… fuck, I think I might have made what she and I had bigger than it was, you know? We were only together for a couple of months, but… I really liked her and I still do. She’s great and I’ve wondered a lot over the past couple years if she was, like, the girl I was supposed to be with. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to find anyone else. I don’t know… maybe I just never got over feeling like Grey stole her from me.”

I raise an eyebrow and give him a hard look. “She broke up with you because you were an asshole.”

“Nah,” he shakes his head and pours his own glass of wine. “I’m pretty sure it was Grey.”

I roll my eyes. “Well, I hate to break to break it to you, but if soulmates exists, then Christian is Ana’s.”

“You don’t believe in soulmates?” He’s smirking as he asks the question, but he doesn’t understand the real chord he’s struck.

“I did,” I reply, my voice a little more sullen now. “I thought I found mine. Now, I’m not so sure…”

“Well, if it’s not the long distance, what is it?”

“I just… think we might be on separate paths.” I take a drink, and stare at the liquid swirling around in the glass after I place it back on the table while I continue. “I’ve been waiting for him to ask me to marry him and he told me last weekend that not only will he never propose, but that if I choose to stay with him, we’re never going to have children.”

“Which you want?”

“More than anything.”

“More than him?”

I take a deep breath and finally look up from my wine glass, searching his eyes for the answer to the question I haven’t even asked yet. “How do I answer that?”

“Honestly.”

I don’t like the way that word falls on me. It makes me feel hot and unsettled, like I’m suddenly guilty of doing something I know I shouldn’t. But Carter doesn’t offer me any reprieve from the discomfort. He stares at me in silence until I finally reach for the bottle of wine again and tip the last three drops into the bottom of my glass.

“I guess we killed it,” I say softly.

“Well, then I’m going to get to bed,” he says. “You good?”

“Yeah, thanks. The uh… the guest bedroom is up the stairs and on the left, at the end of the hallway.”

“Thanks. I’ll… See you tomorrow?”

I nod and he picks up the backpack he left on the floor by the door before moving up the stairs and leaving me alone in the warm glow of the kitchen. The overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety is gone, which I’m grateful for, but with Carter gone to bed, it’s quiet again. And in the quiet, I have too much space to think.

I know that I can’t hide in the timeframe I’ve given Elliot to make his choice forever. Eventually, he and I are going to have to face this and because this is my issue, I’m the one who will most likely have to push it. But I don’t know that I’m ready for the consequences of this talk yet. I’m fairly certain the hot flash of guilt I felt when Carter told me I needed to be honest about my feelings over the future means that, if Elliot’s going to make me choose, I’m not going to choose him. There are a lot of things I would sacrifice for Elliot Grey, but having a child is not one of them. If he tells me no, then he and I have gone as far as we can go with one another and we’ll have to break up.

But I’m not jumping for joy at the thought of being single again. Not because I’m afraid of being lonely, but because I’m afraid life won’t be as bright without Elliot in it. He’s the man who taught me that a life that isn’t filled with adventure isn’t really a life that has been lived, but that has merely been survived, and because of him I’ve lived every second of the last three years without regret. Because of him, I’ve experienced things I never world have. Because of him, I’ve worked to improve myself and the way I treat and respond to others. Because of him, I’ve truly loved. He’s seen me at my best and he’s seen me at my worst, and yet he still loves me as much as he did the first time he ever said the words. I know that. And I know that even though work is an issue for him right now, his heart is in the right place and it hurts him to be away just as much as it hurts me. That’s something we would work through, because above all else, we love each other.  

And leaving him would mean leaving his whole family. Grace and Carrick have been like second parents to me. We’ve spent holidays together, we’ve gone on vacations together, and Carrick was the one who held my hand in the courtroom the day Dylan Abernathy was sentenced. I really love them. Mia has grown to be one of my closest confidants and best friends, as if she were my sister. And Christian… he’s somehow gone from the biggest pain in my ass to a man who I’m proud to know and who I am grateful for everyday because of the happiness he brings into my best friend’s life. They’re all family.

But they’re the only family he’ll ever give me.

I know what I have to do, and if I wait until I want to do this, it’ll never happen. And as I finally feel resolution in my decision, my phone rings. When I look over at it, I see Elliot’s name and picture displayed on the screen. Like fate.

“Hello?”

“Hey, you never called me. Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I called Carter Reed and he’s going to stay here with me until Ana gets back.”

“Oh, well… that’s good, I guess.” But his tone does not suggest he believes that having a single guy staying with me alone in the house for the weekend really is a good thing. “Are you going to bed, then? It’s almost three there.”

“Yeah, I haven’t been able to sleep. I was actually thinking about you.”

“Really? Sexy things?” He chuckles, and my heart suddenly seems to thud more heavily in my chest.

“No, about what we were talking about last weekend. I gave you a compromise, have you thought about it?”

“Kate… do you really want to do this on the phone?”

“No, but I need to do it right now. Have you thought about it?”

“I mean, what you gave me isn’t a compromise, it’s an ultimatum.”

“It’s what I can live with, Elliot. I’m willing to give you some time, but I’m not willing to give up having a family.”

I hear him take a deep breath. “Kate, I love you. And I want to make you happy, I think that I can make you happy, but I have no interest in raising children. I don’t want to be a father and if I were to go along with this and do the whole marriage thing and have a few kids… I think I’d regret it for the rest of my life. I don’t think I would find fulfillment in that life, and quite frankly, I’m already tired from raising the family I already have. I have nothing left to give to anyone else, and that’s not fair to you or to any children we may have. But, I do believe that we can be happy just you and me. I’m never going to grow complacent in our relationship, I will always treat you like I’m still trying to win your heart. I want you to be my partner in life and I want us to really go out into the world and live our lives to fullest. I want to go off the beaten path and try things we never thought we could or would try. I want to experience this world, and I want to do it with you. Only you. You’re enough for me, Kate. You’re all I want.”

I press my lips together and blink back the moisture that’s beading in my eyelashes. “That’s the problem, Elliot. I don’t know that you’re enough for me. Not because I don’t love you, but because I feel that part of my purpose in this life is to be a mother. I can’t turn my back on that.”

“Look, I don’t want to devalue your feelings about this, I understand that this is something you’ve wanted for a long time, but if we don’t have kids it doesn’t mean we won’t have children in our lives. Ethan wants kids, Mia wants kids, the odds are pretty high that Christian and Ana will have an accident someday, so we’ll have nieces and nephews. Maybe you and I could volunteer in some impoverished country somewhere and help build a school for some kids and get to know them. We could do outreach programs, take some underprivileged kids out for the time of their lives whenever we can. I think we can fill this need without giving up our freedom.”

“That’s why I was giving you five years. So we can go do all that, and experience what you want to experience, before we settle down.”

“But that’s the thing. I don’t want to settle down. Okay, I can agree with you and say, yeah, let’s give five years a shot, but when those five years pass, I know, deep down, that I’m not going to feel any differently about this than I do right now. This isn’t something you change your mind about.”

“No, it’s not.” My voice breaks, and the tears pooling in my waterline break over the edge and begin pouring down my face. “So, I think this is over.”

“Good, and look. I know this is hard for you, but I swear…”

“No. Not this conversation. Us. I’m breaking up with you, Elliot.”

He’s silent for a long few seconds, and when he finally speaks again there’s a definite note of panic in his voice. “Breaking up? Wait… No, Kate–”

“I’m sorry, Elliot. I love you, I really do, but for as certain as you are that you’re not going to change your mind, I’m not going to change mine. You were right before. I guess that was an ultimatum. I’m not negotiating with you. There’s nowhere for us to go from here and not calling this what it is now and going our separate ways isn’t going to change anything. It’s just going to make it that much more painful in the future.”

“No, you’re wrong. This isn’t insurmountable, we can work through this. I know we can, I believe that we can. Look, you’ve had a hard night. I’m going to book you a flight back to Seattle for tomorrow morning and then I’m going to clear my entire schedule so I can devote the next two days only to you and we can talk, okay? Just go to bed, don’t make any decisions, and we’ll talk when you get here.”

“I’m not coming to Seattle, Elliot. You know as well as I do that there’s nothing left to talk about. You’ve made your decision, I’ve made mine. I’m sorry, but I’m done. This is over.”

As my tears start to come more freely, I hear him getting choked up too. “Please, just get on the plane…”

“I’m not going to do that, I’m sorry.” He tries to argue again, but his words come out in an incoherent torrent that is too easy for me to cut off. “It’s late and I’m tired. I’ll call you later, okay?”

“No, don’t hang up the phone. Just… stay. Please. Talk to me, let’s figure this out. We just need more time to figure this out.”

“Goodbye, Elliot.” I hang up and turn off my phone, and the moment the screen goes black, I feel a crushing sense of loss. Maybe it would have been easier if he’d been on the same page as me about ending things, maybe it would have hurt more. I don’t know. But the pain I feel building inside of me is incredible. Unlike anything I’ve ever felt. I made this decision, I know it’s the right decision, and yet, I’m devastated by it.

Just a few days ago, I thought I knew exactly where my life was headed, and now I feel as though I’m floating in an endless ocean, alone, with no sense of direction, and nothing on the horizon. The loneliness in the sentiment is so poignant, it might drown me, and for a moment, I can’t breath. My body feels heavy, but I drag myself up the stairs and into my room. Once I collapse on my bed, the gut wrenching sobs take over, and I cry until I fall asleep. When I wake up the next morning, I cry again. I don’t eat and I don’t speak to anyone. When Carter comes to knock on my door, I don’t answer. I just cry, and sleep, and ignore the piercing sound of the phone ringing down in the kitchen.

 

Elena PoV: Oh How the Mighty Have Fallen…

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There is no sense of welcome in the dark windows that greet me upon my arrival home after the interminably long day I’ve spent in the King County Detention Facility. When I woke up this morning, I hadn’t even considered that this was how today was going to turn out. It was supposed to be Ros, not I, who was taken into custody. Anastasia would be gone, the rest of the Greys would be so appalled with Christian for making another deal with me that they’d cut him out again, forever this time, and he and I would finally be back on track. It was never supposed to be me in handcuffs. Hell, it should have even been Christian himself before me.

That was the less ideal scenario, but his father would have made some kind of backdoor deal to get him a plea bargain, or possibly even reduced charges so he wouldn’t serve any time at all. It didn’t really matter either way, whether it was from spending time in prison or because of Anastasia’s absence at Harvard in a few weeks, Christian was once again going to be alone. Right where I wanted him. From there it would only take six months or a year and he’d be back in my grasp. We’d pick up right where we left off. But none of what was supposed to have happened, happened. It’s not Ros or Christian who is facing prison time now, it’s me. Somehow, he and that noisy little bitch who just can’t stay off his dick have bested me. I’ve lost, and even my lawyer, who is the absolute best that money can buy, doesn’t have any hope for how I’m going to get out of this.

This isn’t how I raised him.

Thankfully, Isaac was able to pull enough money out of the accounts for me to make bail and spend what few days I have left before the trial in the comforts of my own home, though even that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. My eyes shift down to the blinking light on the ankle bracelet that will keep me locked within the walls of my house until the beginning of September.

House arrest.

Apparently, I’m a flight risk.

“Alright, Elena,” Ms. Novik says when she finally kills the engine of the car. “We’re here. Do you need anything before I leave you?”

“No, Isaac will be here.”

“Alright then, you have my number. Remember, you’re not to leave the house for any reason, under any circumstances. If you need anything, call me, and I’ll take care of it.”

“Thank you, Anne.”

She nods. “I’m sorry, Elena. I really thought we had them.”

“Don’t be, it’s my fault. I should have never taken Anastasia’s bait. I got cocky. I should have known better.”

She gives me a tight smile as I reach for the handle on the door and then step out of the car. Momentarily, my attention is captured by the light that suddenly comes to life in the previously dark car that Novik had pulled up beside, and a small amount of relief fills my chest when I see Isaac climbing out of the driver’s seat and making his way around to me. This house may be its own kind of prison over the next few weeks, but at least I’ll have my submissive with me. I’m looking at a long stretch of time without any kind of sexual release or gratification. So, until I’m taken away, I plan on using him as often as possible to get it all out of my system. And possibly to work out some lingering frustrations I’m feeling towards a certain ex submissive.

He puts an arm around me as we make our way into the house, then takes my coat and my bag to put away while I trudge dejectedly into the sitting room.

“Can I get you anything, ma’am?”

“Bombay. Lime. Neat.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I collapse onto the sofa as he turns to make his way into the study off the side of the sitting room where I keep a very well stocked liquor cabinet, but before he even gets through the glass french doors, a lamp flicks on across the room from me. I blink as my eyes adjust to the light, and once I see who is sitting in the armchair beneath the window, my entire body seizes with trepidation.

“I’ve already taken care of that,” Andrew says, holding up a tumbler filled with clear liquid and a wedge of lime. “It’s not as cold as it was. You took longer to get home than I planned for.”

His gaze is imploring as he tries to hand the alcohol to me, but my eyes are not fixed on the gin gripped between his fingers. Instead, I’m transfixed by the woman at his side. Young. Thin. Beautiful.

“I see you haven’t lost your penchant for blondes,” I tell him ruefully. He glances sideways at the girl, and then shakes his head.

“It’s not like that. Elena, this is Gia. She’s my daughter.”

Daughter? The word takes the breath out of me. This girl looks as though she’s nineteen or maybe twenty, but I would guess based on her clothes and the way she holds herself that she’s more like twenty-five or twenty-six. Andrew and I have been divorced now for just over two years, but before that we’d been married for twenty-five. There’s no way this girl is older than that. So, in one word, almost thirty years of suspicion is confirmed.

I swallow the bitter taste in my mouth and sit straighter on the sofa. “Well, then. I’m glad that while I spent countless nights here waiting for you to come back from your business trips, you didn’t have to feel the same loneliness that I did.”

“Were they lonely though? I think Christian Grey might have something else to say about that.” I feel my lips press together into a tight line and he smiles. “You’re not the one to lecture me about extra-marital affairs, my love.”

“Is that why you’re here, then? To gloat? Christian turned on me, I’m undoubtedly going to prison, and you’re here to say I told you so?”

“Hardly. Don’t get me wrong, the idea of you spending what’s left of your prime years locked away in a jail cell after what you’ve put me through is extraordinarily vindicating, but you’re not the only person who should have to pay some kind of restitution for the crimes in your past. Christian isn’t innocent either, and yet he’s going to walk away unscathed with everything he’s ever wanted and more.”

“So,” I counter. “That still doesn’t explain why you’re here in my sitting room, Andrew. I won the house in the divorce, you don’t get it back just because I’ll be in prison.”

“I’m here–” he begins, his patience wearing thin. “Because I’m going to ensure that Christian Grey does not walk away from what he’s done unscathed. Because of what you two did together, I’ve lost my company, a sizable portion of my fortune, my marriage, and a great deal of my self-respect. When I’m finished, he won’t have any of those things either.”

I snort. “Oh really? And what is it that you plan to do, exactly? Let’s face it, Andrew, this is my arena, not yours. You don’t get to know people well enough to understand what will best hurt them and Christian is not as vulnerable as you may think he is. Believe me.”

“I know what my strengths are, Elena, and that’s why I’m here. Because you’re right. This is your arena. You do know how to best destroy him. You’ve done it over and over again. Your fatal mistake is that, despite this hard exterior you try to put on for the world, deep down you’ve always cared about him. And you’ve always wanted something from him. I don’t. I only want his pain. I only want to destroy him, and I will stop at nothing to make that happen. I want his company. I want his money. I want his reputation. And I want Anastasia.”

“Ana? Really?” I turn and glance at Isaac who is hovering uneasily in the doorway behind me, then snap my fingers and point to the floor at the side of the sofa. Without hesitation, he moves to his knees on the carpet at my feet. Gently, I run my fingers through his hair as a reward and then move out of my seat to fetch the drink from Andrew. My eyes narrow in on him as I take a long pull of the burning liquid and settle back down into my seat. “She’s innocent, you know. She had no part to play in what happened two years ago. In fact, she’s the only thing that might have prevented it. Hurting her isn’t vengeance, it’s cruelty.”

“And you care about that?”

“No, but you said you were after Christian because he deserved retribution for what he’s done. Anastasia didn’t do anything.”

He lets out a dark laugh. “I respected Anastasia Steele for quite some time, because she chose to leave Christian after what he did. I’ve only seen him a few times over the years, but even through the mask he put on for business events and charity balls, I could see the pain he was in. I could only presume that was because of Ana, and it almost felt like justice in a way. He had won the battle, but lost the war, so to speak, and I had made peace with that. And then she came back here, and she took him back, and now he’s a man on top of the world. She gave him everything I wanted to take away. Anastasia has been my biggest disappointment.”

I raise an eyebrow as I take another drink, considering what he’s said.

“So, I need you to tell me how to get to him, Elena. He’s got security and money, I need you to tell me how I get past all of that and take what I want from him.”

“Me?” My eyes narrow. “Have you missed the part where I’m going to prison, Andrew? I tried to beat him and I couldn’t. He won.”

He shakes his head. “No, you weren’t trying to defeat him, you were trying to control him. This isn’t about some power play, this is about destruction. Most of that I can handle, but I need you to tell me how to get to him. How can I hurt him the most? Who will turn on him? Who won’t? How do I get into his life without him knowing I’m there? You made mistakes after the trial, I’m here to learn from them.”

“And what do I get?”

“Excuse me?”

“By helping you. What am I going to get out of giving you all of my inside secrets to the vulnerabilities of Christian Grey? He has more power than you, more money… it seems to me it’s smarter to invest my loyalties in him and focus my energy on bringing him back under my control. It’s always worked for me in the past.”

“You’re delusional,” the girl at Andrew’s side, Gia, says. I turn a sharp glare on her. To her credit, she doesn’t falter. She stares back at me calm, confident, and poised. “You’ve been exposed. Not just for what you’ve done to him, but for what you’ve done to all of those young women you’ve had working for you, including his little sister.  He’ll never forgive you. All that money and influence is going to be put into making sure that you stay in that prison for as long as possible. What you get out of helping us is protection from everything else he will inevitably do to you to make you pay for what you’ve done to him.”

Again, I glance down at Isaac. He’s staring dutifully at the floor between his legs, displaying no outward reaction to what’s being said. I can’t help but make comparisons between him and Christian. I never have, and it’s always been a touchy subject for him. He doesn’t like living in my first submissive’s shadow. Still, I wonder if my participation in any retribution against Christian will frighten him. As much as he hates it when I make comparisons, I’m sure he’s made his own fair share, and I don’t want him to be fearful of me because of the way I have behaved towards my ex. I’m going to need him more than anyone else for the foreseeable future and if I’m going to keep him, I have to make sure he trusts me.

“Isaac, my pet,” I say, and he turns to look up at me.

“Yes, Mistress?”

“What do you think about what Mr. Lincoln has said? Be honest with me.”

“I think he makes a fair point. Christian Grey is not a good person, and bad people deserve to have bad things happen to them. He’s certainly ensured enough bad things have happened to us.”

“You see?” Linc adds.

I take a long breath and re-cross my legs, ignoring the extra weight from the ankle monitor, which adds stress to my calf muscles.

“Fine. You want to get to Christian, I’ll help you, but it’s not going to be easy. Unfortunately for you, Christian has an intrinsic distrust of people and expects that everyone is out to get him. You have to find a way around that and it takes time. GEH will be easy, so long as we can get people on the inside…”

“I’ve already begun that process,” Linc interrupts. “I’ve got a tech guy who worked for a sideline I invested in years ago and he was just hired in the GEH R&D division, and Gia here is already employed with Grey Construction. She’s going to be on the construction team for that skyscraper he’s building downtown.”

I settle back into my seat with my lips pursed together and swirl the liquid in my glass. I’m impressed. “I have a few more names that may be useful, and some dirt that will help you persuade a few others. The real challenge with GEH is going to be Ros. And Welch. Those two hold that company up just as much as Christian does. Anything that gets past him, they’ll be all over. If you’re going to get anywhere, you’re going to have to find a way to get rid of them.”

“I may know some people in New York who could offer Bailey a job. She’s good, right?”

I shake my head. “Ros Bailey helped build GEH and she and Christian have a very rare working relationship that she has to know she won’t find anywhere else. You won’t find anyone who will pay her more than Christian does, or who gives her the same amount of freedom or input. She’ll never leave willingly.”

“Then what do you suggest, Elena?”

I purse my lips together in thought and take another drink. My mind runs through a few different ideas, each of them more implausible than the last, until I lock eyes with Gia again. The insider.

“You said you have someone in R&D? What does he do?”

“He’s working as a programer,” Andrew replies.

“Right, but what does he do. What makes him useful to you?”

“He’s a hacker. Once he gains some trust within the company and is given a little more freedom, he’s going to work on a few of the GEH security systems for me. Get me access so I can start undoing things from the inside.”

I smile. “Perfect. Except Welch will find you the second you end up anywhere you’re not supposed to be. He’s phenomenal at his job and he watches that system like a hawk.”

“So, him before Ros?”

“Yes, and luckily for you, I’ve already planted the seeds to help you oust him.”

“Really?”

“My fail safe for Kink was to entwine it as thoroughly as possible with GEH while still keeping it secret, so that if it were ever exposed, it would look like Christian himself had set it up and was using his own company to launder the profits. It’s the defense we tried to use in court, and while it failed, it will lead to an investigation. Welch is very protective of the work GEH produces. He keeps his value by ensuring he, and only he, can produce the kind of technology that sets GEH apart from its competitors. He’s not going to like auditors going through his systems and taking notes for public record. Perhaps the people in his department could make those feelings more… potent.”

“And what will that do?”

“It’s like I told you. Christian thinks everyone is out to get him. If Welch expresses his own displeasure and the negative reaction of his team, Christian is going to feel attacked because it’s essentially his fault the audit is going to take place at all. It’s a trigger for him, and he when he’s angry, he makes rash and illogical decisions. He lashes out, and Welch isn’t the type of man to just take shit from Christian. It won’t ruin their relationship, but it will place a seed of doubt in Christian’s mind that you can exploit later. Perhaps by having your hacker place some damning evidence against Welch for Christian to find, evidence that shows he was planning on betraying him, we might end up with something. Betrayal is very hard for Christian to deal with, second only to abandonment. It was usually what I used to turn him against Carrick. It’ll work the same here. Fabricate something, plant it in the system for Christian to find, and he won’t even listen to Welch’s excuses. He’ll be fired, and you’ll have free reign over the system.”

Andrew stares at me for a moment, considering what I’ve said, then turns to Gia. “Make a note to have Walker try and subtly create bad blood in the R&D team over the audit.”

Gia rolls her eyes, but takes out her phone and starts typing. The screen illuminates her face and as I stare at her, I can’t help but think how familiar she looks.

“You know, Andrew. Gia looks an awful lot like Kavanagh.”

“Who?”

“Katherine. Elliot’s girlfriend. Consequently, he’s your second biggest hurdle. It was always easiest for me to manipulate Christian when he felt alone, and with Anastasia going back to school, you have the perfect opportunity to prey on that very deep rooted insecurity. Except for Elliot. I don’t think even a crow bar could separate him from his beloved brother. I tried everything I could to get rid of him, but he sticks around like a fucking cockroach.”

“So, what do you suggest I do?”

I purse my lips for a moment, then take another sip. “Gia, how well do you flirt?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never really had to work that hard to get men’s attention.” She uncrosses and recrosses her legs, then nibbles on the end of her thumb, and even Isaac sits up straighter. I reach forward and twist my fingers harshly into the roots of his hair.

“I saw that.”

“I’m sorry, Mistress.”

“Mhm. Here, go get me another drink.” He fumbles with the tumbler I thrust into his hand and scurries out of the room to the bar in the parlor, while I settle back into my seat and stare appraisingly at Gia.

“Katherine will be going back to school too. If you could find a way to seduce Elliot, break him and Kavanagh up, and even have him take up with you, then…”

“Then he’ll be very easy to control,” she answers for me.

I let out a breathy laugh through my nose and give her a pointed stare. “You do realize what I’m asking you, don’t you?”

“To win Elliot’s affection and use that influence to keep him away from Christian. Maybe even come between them.”

“I’m asking you to fuck him,” I say bluntly. “Repeatedly. Over and Over again, for as long as it keeps him happy. Is that something you’re comfortable with?”

She smiles. “I’ve been promised ten million dollars at the end of all of this. There’s not a lot I’m not comfortable with.”

“Good. You know, it’s a shame I didn’t know you before. You would have been a very welcome addition to a business I used to run. We could have made a lot of money together.”

“Alright,” Andrew says, cutting me off. “Welch, Ros, Elliot. Anything else?”

I narrow my eyes. “Is that not enough? Must I mastermind the entire plan for you?”

“I asked you for GEH, his money, his reputation, and Anastasia. You gave me GEH.”

“A quarter of the way there. You’re welcome.”

His jaw tenses and he slowly gets out of his seat. I sit, unmoving, watching him stalk towards me, then I climb to my feet to take the drink my submissive brings back to me. “Issac, my pet. Why don’t you show Mr. Lincoln and his daughter out?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Isaac moves around the couch, stepping aside to create a path for Gia and Andrew to take in front of him, but when Andrew moves, it isn’t towards the door. His hand flies up and wraps tightly and securely around my throat, making me drop the drink. I wheeze and start to struggle against his strong, crushing hold, then look to Isaac for help, but before he can move, Gia pulls a small pistol from her bag and places it firmly against his temple.

“I wouldn’t move if I were you,” she says softly, and he freezes, pleading to me with his eyes.

“Perhaps I should tell you the other places I’ve managed to get inside access,” Andrew sneers. His fingers flex around my throat, loosening only enough so that when he tightens his fingers again, more this time, it feels as though he’s going to squeeze the life out of me. “The Washington State Women’s Correctional Facility, for example. I promise you, Elena. If you don’t give me the things I want now, willingly, I’ll find another, much more painful way to get them out of you. I can make your sentence easy, or I can make it very, very difficult. In fact, I could make the few years you’ll be sentenced to more time than you have left on this earth. Understand?”

I try to answer, but I can only make a horrible, shallow wheeze as I struggle for air.

“Money. Reputation. Anastasia,” he demands. I nod, fighting the dizziness and pain exploding in my head from oxygen deprivation. His fingers instantly unfurl from my neck and I collapse to the floor, panting. Each breath feeling like fire as they move down my windpipe.

“What the fuck is wrong with you? Are you insane?” He kneels onto the floor in front of me, bringing his face a few mere centimeters from mine.

“I’m not playing games with you, Elena. I am here for information and I’m not leaving without it. I meant what I said before. If you want to fight me, if you want to defy me–” He pauses to grip my face roughly between his thumb and fingers. “I will fucking kill you.”

I’m practically thrown to the floor with the force he uses to pull his hand away from my face. Slowly, he gets up and moves back across the room, settling down in the sofa where he was seated before and motioning for Gia to join him. She shoots a cocky kind of smirk at both Isaac and I, and then returns to her previous spot.

“Mistress,” Isaac says, moving as quickly as he can to my side and helping me back on the couch.

“I’m waiting,” Andrew says.

With my hand, I motion for Isaac to take his place next to me again, then work to swallow several times so I can speak more clearly.  

“Christian’s financial advisor was a client of mine. A top secret client who I can help you persuade to do whatever you need. To give you whatever you want. Even access to Christian’s fortune.”

“How?”

“He’s one of the more vicious dominants that I’ve ever worked with. A sadist, to say the least. And his preference in submissives was always young women. Too young. Underage. The last girl I tried to provide for him was… Mia, and I have proof that he tried to rape her.”

“Jesus, Elena,” Andrew says darkly, and I glare at him. The man who just had me by the throat, who has threatened my life, and who had his little blonde psycho holding my submissive at gunpoint only a few seconds prior to this very conversation, is implying I’ve gone to far.

“Christian double crossed me. He needed to be punished.”

Andrew shakes his head in dismay. “So we have the money then. What about Anastasia?”

“She won’t leave him.”

“That’s fine. I’ll just take her. She’s small, she shouldn’t be hard to overpower.”  

“It won’t be that simple. She has her own security team and she’s about to move all the way across the country. How do you intend to get to her?”

“I don’t know, Elena. How do I intend to get to her?”

I press my lips together, and Gia lets out an impatient sigh and lifts the gun again, pointing it directly into Isaac’s chest. “How much for his heart, Daddy?”

“Oh… ten thousand?”

She smiles and pulls back the hammer.

“Leila Williams!” I scream, feeling and ignoring the pain ripping through my throat with the same thought. “Leila Williams despises Anastasia Steele. She’s only too willing to do whatever you want so long as it means Ana suffers. Her parents live in Connecticut, which means you have the perfect excuse to get her to the East Coast and she’s one of the best liars I’ve ever met. Set her up in Cambridge, give her a plausible cover story, and she’ll do whatever you need. I promise you.”

“Leila Williams,” Andrew repeats. “Gia, make a note.” She does, and once she sets her phone down again, they look expectantly at me. “Reputation, Elena. Whenever you’re ready.”

“I don’t know,” I say, shaking my head. “He’s not the same person he used to be. He doesn’t live the kind of scandalous life that you can expose. He’s surprisingly ethical in his business practices, despite his line of work, he’s charitable, he doesn’t cheat on his girlfriend or have late night rendevouz with transexual hookers. I don’t know what you’ll be able to dig up on him.”

He’s still sitting across from me for a long beat, and then, slowly, a smile stretches across his face. “I do. There’s a very important event in his life that the public doesn’t know about. A trial.”

I swallow. “Those records were sealed. You can out him but he’ll deny it. Anastasia will vouch for him, Carrick will defend him, his publicist will spin the story to make you look like a jilted man seeking revenge for your lost company… You don’t have proof, Andrew.”

“No, you’re right. I don’t. Which is why I’m not going to be the one to tell the world his secret. You are.”

“Me? You think I’m going to tell the world about my past with Christian? About the things I did to him? That we did together? What do you think I’m stupid?”

“No, I think you have a very strong sense of self preservation. Or do I need to remind you again of the predicament you’re going to be in with my people while you serve your time?”

“Or that little Isaac is going to be in once you’re no longer here to protect him,” Gia adds with a malicious glint shining in the pale green of her eyes.

I glance down him and see his head hang, undoubtedly in fear, and then swallow back my own trepidation.

“If it’s you who lets the cat of the bag, he won’t be able to fight it,” Andrew says. “Telling your own story isn’t defamation. If you expose him to the world, what will he say to defend himself? That you’re lying about molesting a teenager? No, it’s perfect that it’s you.”

“And how exactly do you expect me to out myself in this grand way that will capture the world’s attention and destroy his reputation? Hold a press conference from prison?”

“No. You wouldn’t be able to share near enough detail in a press conference and I want it to be explicit. A book. An autobiography. You can give some background on yourself, try to make it look like you’re trying to explain why you did what you did or became the person you became, and then you’ll lay out everything the two of you ever did together and how you convinced him to lie about it under oath so that you could take my money and avoid prison. Well, until you got caught again.”

“I’m not a writer.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll make do. After all, you’re going to have a lot of time to yourself, Elena.”

I take a deep breath, pushing down the mixture of nausea and humiliation tonight has brewed inside of me. “How do I know you’re going to have any kind of power over me once they take me away? How do I know that this isn’t all some lie to try and terrify me into giving you what you want?”

He shrugs. “You don’t. And, if you want to find out how serious I am, by all means, ignore me. That’s your choice.”

I don’t respond, but instead focus on his eyes, looking for any hint of a lie or a bluff. I don’t see one. Could he be manipulating me? Yes. But I know the kind of power he’s wielded in the past, the kinds of connections he’s capable of making, and I’m not sure testing what he’s telling me is a good move for either Isaac, or myself. But is writing a tell all any better?

For Isaac, yes.

“Come, Gia,” Andrew says, finally getting out of his seat. “Let’s give Elena here some time to mull over what we’ve discussed.”

“But…”

“Gia!” She’s silenced by the harsh bite in his tone, and reluctantly gets out of her seat. Her glare follows me as she leaves the room, but I don’t watch her go. My eyes stay transfixed on Andrew.

“We’ll talk soon,” he tells me, then looks to Isaac. “And you, you I may be able to use. Perhaps you could even… make life easier for Elena on the inside. I don’t know. We’ll see how well you cooperate going forward.”

He gives us both a sadistic smile as he moves past us and out of the room after Gia, and both Isaac and I wait in tense silence until we hear the front door open and close. Several second pass as we wait through the silence to make sure we’re alone, but no sound travels up the hall towards us.

“Mistress, what do we do?’

I stare back at him, speechless. I don’t know how to answer him. For the first time in a very long time, I’m helpless.

 

Fifty Shades Freed: Don’t Miss the Climax (He He)

Obviously, for those who haven’t seen Fifty Shades Freed yet…

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A few weeks ago, I won a drawing to attend an early pre-screening of Fifty Shades Freed. It was built up to be this big media event with press, and studio executives… turns out it was really just like going to see any other movie. But that’s fine because it was free and I got to see it a day earlier. Take that, countdown app!

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So, Wednesday night, my cousin and I got all dressed up, went and had dinner at the Space Needle (for the most Seattle-y experience one could have, obviously), and headed off to the movies. But standing there, in the long line of other contest winners, the pure, unadulterated excitement that consumed me prior to seeing both Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker was not there. I was happy to be there, I was looking forward to seeing the movie, but there was absolutely no chance I was going to pee my pants.

It was an odd moment.

I think it was because of Fifty Shades Darker. It’s my favorite book of the trilogy and after the interminably long wait between 2015 and 2017, I was out of control with anticipation. I said in my last review that I obsessively stalked filming updates with near religious conviction, and it wasn’t an exaggeration. I’m pretty sure I’m the reason the Fifty Shades Darker trailer broke the Star Wars view record. I think my phone might STILL be playing it on repeat…

But when I left the theater after Fifty Shades Darker, I was feeling let down. Upon retrospect, I did it to myself. I overloaded before I even got to see it until it was built up to this great big thing that nothing could ever actually have measured up to, and it ruined an experience for me that, two years prior, was amazing.

Note: In order to test this theory, I am also willing to have sex with Jamie Dornan. Just to see if you really can over hype something into mediocrity.

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I made a promise to myself with Freed. I wasn’t going to ruin it this time. I wasn’t going to DVR all the talk shows or live stream the premier. I wasn’t going to watch the trailer 50,000 times or even watch any of the promo clips that were released in the weeks leading up to it. I was going to go into this movie with absolutely no expectations.

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And here’s how that turned out:

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You guys. It’s so good. Like, SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO good. I left the theater last night unable to stop talking about it (Sorry, husband). I’m actually mad that I’m not watching it right now. I want to go into my bedroom, turn on my TV, pull up my Amazon library, and scream at both Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker for NOT being Fifty Shades Freed.

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Let’s discuss, shall we?

The Good.

Jamie Dornan:

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I know you’re all going to take this with a grain of salt because of the source material, but he was so good. I feel they changed Christian’s character a bit from the books, but I love every second of it. He was so funny and warm in this movie. He made me fall in love with Christian in a whole new way. Spoiler: There’s a scene at the end where he’s trying to cook Anastasia dinner and he burns everything, including my loins, and while Ana gives him a bit of a hard time for it, he just pushes the pan aside and says, “Fuck it, let’s get take out.” I. Die.

Anastasia: 

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I love Dakota Johnson, and this is in no way a dig at her (since I put Jamie and not Christian), but I LOVE Anastasia’s character in this movie. Anastasia Steele might have been meek and shy, but Anastasia Grey is a badass. She will knife you if you stare too long at her husband, she will run your ass off the motherfucking road if you want to chase her on the highway, and she will get FINALLY get on her knees and do the deed for her very giving man. She’s still hilarious and warm and cute, but I loved the strength of her character so much in this movie. 10/10, Ana. Get it, gurl.

The Honeymoon Montage: 

This was just cuteness overload. Most of what came before the beach scenes was just quick flashes of them running through Paris, but it was seriously SO sweet. Spoiler: There’s a quick scene of them running through the pouring rain into this little cafe and Christian is shielding them both with his jacket. When they sit at the table, Ana has to dump water out of her shoes, but they both just laugh. They’re both clearly so happy and in love. Ugh, I loved it so much. Even the sex during the honeymoon was romantic and sweet, not gratuitous. It might be one of my favorite parts of the movie.

The Sex: 

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Apparently there was some outcry about Ben and Jerry’s and Ana not being included in Fifty Shades Darker because we get it in the Aspen scene, and it’s just as hot as it was in the books. We still didn’t get the D, but Jamie’s pants were not present for every sex scene the way there were in Darker. It was explicit and prevalent. Freed is only like an hour and a half long and I wouldn’t be surprised if at least 30 full minutes of that was sex.

The Soundtrack:

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I think that the music has been good in every movie, it’s something the Fifty Shades franchise has really excelled at. In fact, for all of my friends who hate Fifty Shades (don’t be too hard on them, everyone is wrong about something or another) I always refer to the first movie as Oscar Nominated Fifty Shades of Grey, because Earned It got a nomination for best original song. Anyway, Freed killed it. The music was perfectly chosen and really just made the whole thing cohesive. Unlike I Don’t Wanna Live in Darker, I was never wishing they would turn the music down so we could hear the dialogue better.

Seattle: 

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They actually filmed a lot of the aerial/car chase scenes IN Seattle, so that felt really nice to me. No fake 12 flags to report this time, folks.

The Pacing: 

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I think this is actually where the first two movies have their biggest weakness. Well, this and the scripts. The first two dragged in some places and were too rushed in others. But this movie felt really well paced the whole way through. Honestly, because of how well this was edited and put together, I think it’s my favorite of all three movies.

I could go on, I want to. Jack Hyde, more scenes of the entire ensemble, Luke Saywer’s gorgeous blue eyes… But I think it’s time we get to:

The Bad.

Aspen: 

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But for literally the opposite reason this was my least favorite part of the book. In the book, this part just drags on and on without any purpose or reason. In the movie, it’s really not long at all. BUT the club scene where the guy feels up Ana on the dance floor and Christian punches him out, you know, the one we saw in the trailer, that’s not in the movie at all. Elliot proposes, then everyone dances a little bit, Ana kisses Christian and suddenly it goes into this weird spliced scene between Ana and Christian in the red room and Ana in her office the next Monday. It’s a very jarring transition and honestly made the whole club thing pointless. I’m hoping we’re going to get more of this scene in the extended cut, because, as is, it’s baffling.

I’m pregnant: 

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The scene where Ana tells Christian she’s pregnant fell flat for me for the same reason the Christian submissive scene fell flat in Darker. It was SO rushed. There was no shock, realization, anger… it was just:

Ana: I’m pregnant

Christian: Instantly furious.

But also, not really furious. Jamie toned Christian down a lot, so he gets mad and storms off, but not in a Christian Grey epic meltdown kind of way. The table didn’t even get flipped. There wasn’t enough build up to this scene and so his following actions just didn’t seem realistic for me. That might not be an issue for anyone else, but if I was going to point to one pacing issue, that would be it.

And that’s it! THAT’S ALL OF THE BAD.

It really was such a good movie. The best of the three in my opinion and I can’t wait to see it again. I’m a little devastated that this franchise is coming to a close. I’m going to miss the anticipation for these movies so, so much. I really hope Jamie and Dakota both go on to have amazing, lucrative careers, and make plenty more films for me to indulge in for years to come.

Thanks for the ride, EL James. It truly has been remarkable.

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Welcome Back!

I know it’s been a long, cold winter, but never fear…

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Happy February!

 

First of all, I hope that all of you have had a wonderful few months. It’s been about since Thanksgiving since I posted anything and it honestly feels like a year ago. I took a pretty serious break between Thanksgiving and Christmas and didn’t do anything. No plotting. No writing. Nothing.

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It was fine.

BUT THERE ARE THINGS I’VE MISSED! I promised updates, specifically in regards to Darker.

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But, the truth is, I still haven’t finished Darker. I haven’t even picked it up in weeks. If this book was everything you’ve been holding out for for two years and you loved it, then I am very happy for you. Personally, I think it’s a little dry and I’m having some difficulty getting through it. I think the book is written in a way where we’re not really given a new perspective on the plot, instead we just see Christian’s internal reaction to dialogue in the moment, and in, I FEEL, a fairly shallow way. For example:

 

In Fifty Shades Darker, we may get a line where Ana says, “Christian chuckles.”

In Darker, that same scene will say something like, “Damn, this girl is funny. I chuckle.”

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There just wasn’t enough insight to Christian’s character or his journey for me. I still want to get to the Leila stuff where he finds her in Ana’s apartment, and then the later submissive scene, but the last thing I read was the pool table scene so I’ve got a ways to go. I did appreciate Christian’s subtle dig at Portland in chapter one though.

“Well, it is Portland…”

#SeattleRulesPortlandDrools

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But speaking of re-writing the exact same material in an extremely dull way–
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Thank you all for your requests! I had so many that, at my normal writing pace, it would have taken me six months to get through them all, LOL.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have six months, so the list was whittled down to what I think were the most important moments we didn’t see and to what I think is going to be important for The Final Shade of Fifty. In total, I have fourteen, possibly fifteen, outtakes with two, possibly, three left to finish. There is one, from Carrick’s PoV, that will be important to read before The Final Shade of Fifty, as it will bridge the time gap between Stronger and Chapter 1.

I’m going to wait until Fifty Shades Freed comes out, then I’ll do a reaction/review post similar to the one I did for Fifty Shades Darker. Once that’s up, the outtakes will start going up (probably one every three or four days). That should put us in March somewhere for the first chapter of The Final Shade of Fifty.

I do have some new subscribers since last November, so for those of you who are new, WELCOME!

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Once I begin posting book four, you can expect updates every Monday. I’m not 100% done with the plotting of TFSoF, but I don’t think it’s going to be quite as long as Stronger was. But Stronger was 50 chapters, so this is a good thing.

I do have a new beta for The Final Shade of Fifty, AND for my original work (title: TBD), so I’d like to thank Stephanie for all the work she put in for A Broken Shade of Fifty and A Stronger Shade of Fifty, and would like to thank Erika and Robyn for agreeing to put up with me for my next two books. I know you all don’t get a lot of the “behind the scenes” stuff that’s gone into Shades of Fifty so far, but it entails a lot of panicked phone calls that begin with, “I’ve changed my mind, I need to talk you through something…” and then a two hour long conversation where I inevitably end up right back where I started.

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^Actual image of my previous Beta during the last few weeks of Stronger

Happy New Year everyone! I hope you’re all as excited about Fifty Shades Freed as I am. It was only last week when I realized that (besides Fifty Shades Darker) Jamie didn’t have a single new release last year, so I’m ready for his beautiful face on the big screen once again.

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Lots of Love, and eternally…. wishingmrgreywashere.

Chapter 50

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

OCTOBER

“That’s it, baby. Christ!”

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

“Oh, fuck!”

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

“Like that?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me how it feels, baby.”

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

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

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

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

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

I whimper. “Then come.”

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

“Please…

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

“Christian, I’m going to… “

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t you dare!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s this?”

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

“That’s rude.”

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

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

“What? No. We’re not going there.”

“To Pioneer Square?”

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

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

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

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

“I do see him.”

“I mean, alone. Not just with me.”

“I’m fine.”

“Ana…”

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

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

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

“I love you.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now?” Kate asks.

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

“Everything okay?”

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

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

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

“You’re not serious,” Kate replies.

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

“Elliot, it’s our anniversary.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Before?”

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

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

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

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

 

Cause it’s a beautiful night,

We’re looking for something dumb to do.

Hey, baby.

I think I wanna marry you.

Is it the look in your eyes?

Or is it this dancing juice?

Who cares, baby.

I think I wanna marry you.

 

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

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

“You Grey men…”

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

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

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

“Katie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh my god.

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

“Please say something,” she pleads.

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

“You mean… you’re still asking?”

“Of course I am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Finally, everything is right.

Everything is perfect.

The End.

A Stronger Shade of Fifty Outtakes

 

Announcement!

Welcome to fireside chats, second edition.

Did someone bring marshmallows? Everyone cozy?

Great!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I’m not satisfied.

Not even close.

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

Book 4: The Final Shade of Fifty.

Unapologetic 2nd Britney gif

Time frames: 

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

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

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

Is three too excessive? No.

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

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

Chapter 49

ambulance-lights

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

I’m awake, though.

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

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

Rape kit?

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

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

What’s happened to me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please, let that be why.

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

“Sir, this is Anastasia Grey.”

“Shit. Gunshot wound?”

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

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

“Did that hurt, Mrs. Grey?”

I moan, and am met with confusion.

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

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

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

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

Afraid?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where? Is he okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mrs. Grey, wait…”

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

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

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

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

“Where are my, er… clothes?”

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

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

I’ll be sure of that.

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

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

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

One question answered.

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s with your dad.”

“My dad? In Georgia?”

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

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

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

“What!”

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

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

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

“What happened, Ana?” Kate asks.

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

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

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

“Have any of you talked to my dad?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Pneumothorax,” Grace whispers.

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

“What?”

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

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

“No, I know. Luke Sawyer?”

“Are you family?”

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

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

“I’m sorry, I don’t have my phone.”

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

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

“Of course, Mrs. Grey.”

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

“Ana?”

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

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

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

“Shit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, it’s not…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” he says.  

“It’s fine.”

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

“How?”

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

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

“Okay. We can make that happen.”

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

“Can I ask you something?”

“No.”

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

“What?”

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

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

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

He shakes his head. “Nope. Plan B.”

“Plan B?”

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

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

“Wait, he was at my book party?”

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

“You mean your persuasive resources?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then we’ll use the security footage.”

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

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

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

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

“Like what?

“Like your wedding night.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mrs. Grey?”

“Yes?”

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

“He is? Is he okay?”

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

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

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

“I will.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

“This is my fault…”

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

“Stop, Elliot. It’s not your fault.”

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

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

“Failed? What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“Ana…”

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

“Christian?”

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

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

Jokes. He’s making jokes.

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

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

“Not yet. Where’s Linc?”

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

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

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

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

“Hi.”

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

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

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

Next Chapter

Chapter 48

3

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gia…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about you?” I hiss back.

“I’ll be fine.”

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I-I–”

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

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

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

“And why was that?”

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

She sighs before continuing.

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

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

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

“You psychotic bitch.”

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

“Baby!”

No. No, no, no. I refuse to…

Bang. Bang. Bang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Even murder?”

“Would you, for Anastasia?”

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

What the fuck is he doing?!

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

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

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

“They didn’t do their jobs…”

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

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

“You really think so, huh?”

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

“Bullshit.”

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

“Of course.”

“And what did you learn?”

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

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

“Mhmm.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir?” Kommer answers.

“There are cameras in the garage.”

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

“And in the elevator.”

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

“So it would seem.”

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

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

“Who got Sawyer?”

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

“You really need to control this.”

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

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

“I-I-”

“I told you to calm down.”

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

“Where’s the helicopter?”

“En route. It’ll be here any minute.”

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

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

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

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

“Put her down,” he commands.

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

“Choices?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which is?”

Linc smiles. “Your money or your family.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Let her go, Kommer.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sound familiar?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ana, no!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Linc, please…”

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

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

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

“Let. Her. Go.”

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

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

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

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

“You little fucking bitch!”

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

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

“Ana,” he croaks. “I love you.”

“No, you’re not saying goodbye.”

“You need to run…”

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

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

“Anastasia, run!”

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

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

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

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

“Ple-ease… let me go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But how could I?

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

And then everything goes black.

Next Chapter

Trigger Warning

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

Chapter 47

fifty_shades_of_grey-9-0-0

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

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

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

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

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

“Ava?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is going on in here?”

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is that?”

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

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

 

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

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

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

“Hit me with it.”

“Ryan Reynolds, Channing Tatum, Chris Hemsworth.”

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

“Kill Channing Tatum? Are you crazy?”

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

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

“Pass.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s going on?”

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

“Nothing,” Christian says, dismissing me.

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

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

“What kind of development?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, she banks at Washington Federal.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian and I exchange nervous glances.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir,” Luke says.

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

“Here? Sir?”

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

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

Christian cuts him off. “Do you understand?”

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

“What should I do?”

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

“Christian…”

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

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

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

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

“Did you need something?” he asks.

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

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

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

“Of course she won’t do it now…”

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

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

He raises an eyebrow. “With you?”

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

 

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

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

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

“You look damn fine, Grey.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The thought does nothing to quell my nerves.

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

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

“As much as I’m going to be.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s still in the works.”

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

“Yes she is.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I-I-”

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

“Uh-I–”

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

“So… he’s kind of a dick.”

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

“What?”

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

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

“I uh…”

“Lydia!”

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

“What was that?” I hiss.

“Nothing. Everything is fine.”

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

“We have it under control, Ana…”

“Luke, I swear to god…”

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

“How do you know this?”

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

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

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

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

“The FBI?”

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

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

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

“Really?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“Go,” Lydia whispers.

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

“You’ve got this.”

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

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

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

I glance up, but nothing yet.

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

Still nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They have him?”

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

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

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

“Your party…”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

“I know, I know…. Give you an hour.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit, Ana!”

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

“What in the world?”

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

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

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

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

“Calliope!”

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

“No. Christian!”

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

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

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

“Where do I begin?”

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

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

“Give me the baby, Gia.”

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