“Hey, it’s pretty slow out here, do you mind if I head out a little early tonight?” I ask Ryan at work Thursday night. I’m not wrong, it is slow, so slow in fact that I’ve finished all the homework I put off yesterday, but my primary motivation is getting to my study group which I’ve bumped up as early as I could. I’ve packed way too much into tonight… Work, study group, and the ballet. I cringe internally again as I’m once again reminded that I’m only hours away from seeing the bitch troll.
“Sure, Ana,” Ryan says distractedly as he looks through the catalogue on the monitor before him.
“Thanks,” I say, waving quickly and disappearing out the doors from the library. I race back to Grays to drop off as many of the excess books as I can before I have to run the few blocks off campus to the coffee house where I’m meeting Astor, Carter, and Aiden. I throw open the door to my room and start dumping things onto the bed, making sure I keep my Business Writing portfolio in my bag. Kate is modeling her dress in front of the mirror with her hair up in hot rollers. I sigh as I realize I should be getting ready too. Hopefully this study group doesn’t take more than an hour.
“Where are you going?” Kate asks as I turn around and rush outside.
“Study group!” I call back, not stopping long enough to prevent the door from slamming behind me. I turn around to run towards the stairs and see Christian coming up the hall towards me.
“Hi!” I say as I rush past him, unable to stop for even a quick kiss. “Love you, bye!”
“Ana? The ballet is tonight, we have to leave soon. Where are you going?” Christian asks, turning to face me as I disappear down the hall.
“Study group. I’ll be back and ready on time. I won’t be late, promise,” I say, and since I’ve made it to the stairs, I don’t get to hear his response. I take the steps two at a time, careful to hang onto the railing, and then run quickly out of Grays Hall and across the Old Yard. The streets are crowded when I make it off campus and it slows me down a little, but I arrive at the coffee shop in pretty good time. Thankfully, the boys are already there waiting for me.
“I don’t have a lot of time,” I say as I take the empty seat at their table and begin pulling my portfolio out of my bag.”
“Nice of you to join us, Ana,” Astor says irritably. He reaches into his own bag and hands me a neatly folded, navy blue sweater that I recognize immediately. “I believe your boyfriend left this at my house last night.”
“Uh…” I stutter, feeling my face flush crimson red with embarrassment. I take it from him and quickly stuff it into my bag. “Yeah, thanks.”
He glares at me but thankfully, Aiden gets the ball rolling and hands me his portfolio. I pass mine to Carter and once everyone has someone else’s work, we begin proof reading.
“Can I get you anything?” A waitress asks passing by. The boys all order coffee but I politely decline. I don’t have time to sit here and finish a cup of tea.
When we’re finished with the first round of edits, we pass our portfolios on once and then once again until each of us have had a chance to read through each person’s work. There is another 10 minutes of discussion about why some changes were or weren’t made and then we’re finished. Ha! 30 minutes and I’m ready to go.
“Thank you guys, so much!” I say, grabbing my coat. “I’m sorry to run out on you like this but I have to get ready for this ballet that we’re going to tonight.”
“It’s okay,” Carter says, standing up from the table himself. “I’ve got some other work to do.”
“Me too,” Aiden agrees.
I reach over and give them each a quick, goodbye hug and then turn for the door.
“Ana!” Astor calls out to stop me so I turn to face him. “Can I speak to you for a minute in private?”
I frown and look down at my cellphone for the time. Crap, 5:30. I’ve got an hour before we have to leave to meet Christian’s family.
“One minute,” I agree ruefully, and allow him to lead me to the hallway that leads to the bathrooms by the front window.
“That was a really low thing you did last night. The condom was a nice touch. Were you worried I wouldn’t figure it out?” He asks harshly and I look up at him regretfully.
“No, I’m sorry. Christian can be a little… vengeful sometimes and I have a hard time saying no to him.”
“Do you have a hard time saying no to anyone?” He spits.
“What?” I ask astonished. Is he calling me a whore? I tense as he pushes me up against the wall, pinning me there with his hips.
“Did he make you come in my bed last night, Anastasia?” He asks, his voice dark and angry.
“Astor, stop!” I say pushing against him.
He laughs once with no humor and restrains my arms so I can’t push against him and a rush of fear spikes through me. I should scream right? We’re in a coffee shop. No one can see me but they can hear me. I think I see him look briefly to the front window as if he’s checking to see if anyone can see us and then he turns and his lips come crashing down on mine. I throw my head backwards out of surprise, slamming it into the wall but he isn’t deterred. In one quick moment that is more fight or flight than an actual decision, I bear my teeth and bite down, hard, on his bottom lip.
“Jesus fuck, Ana!” He hisses, pulling his face away from mine immediately and bringing the back of his hand up to his mouth. He still has me trapped by his hips though, so I place both my palms against his chest and push with all my might. He’s distracted enough tending to his wound that he stumbles easily away from me.
“Don’t ever touch me again!” I scream at him. He looks up at me angrily, blood smeared on the back of his hand but I don’t have any other words for him. I storm away angrily, shoving the coffee shop door out of my way and stomping up the street. I can see Carter and Aiden on the street corner waiting for the light to change.
“Ana?” Carter asks, and his voice is concerned as he presumably sees me pulsing with rage. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I snap. I have to take a few breaths to calm down. Carter doesn’t deserve my anger, he’s not the one who’s just attacked me.
“I’m fine,” I repeat, calmer this time. “I’m just late and Astor just touched me and kissed me and…” A wave of revulsion roils over me and I shudder.
“What?” Carter asks, more seriously. “What do you mean he touched you, Ana?”
I want to answer but the rush of adrenaline I’m experiencing is overwhelming me and I suddenly burst into tears.
“Hey!” Carter says, rushing forward to wrap me in his arms. “Do you want me to do something? I’ll go back there and-“
“No,” I choke, stopping him before he gets any more ridiculous. “No, I’m fine. I just need to get back to campus. I’m going to be late.”
He nods once and keeps an arm around me as we walk quickly back. The walking and chilly air helps, and I feel myself calm down. I wipe away the tears from my cheeks and take a few deep breaths to regain my composure as we come up on Grays Hall.
“You’re going to be okay?” Carter asks, looking at me nervously.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Thank you, Carter, for walking me home, I mean.”
“Don’t mention it,” He says. “Just call or text me if you need anything.”
I nod and take the stairs up to the heavy front doors of Grays Hall, feeling an overwhelming sense of relief as I enter the foyer. Everything about this place reminds me of Christian and just being here is enough to make me relax. I wonder briefly if I should go to his room before I get ready but dismiss that thought immediately. I don’t really have time for any more delays and if Christian finds out what Astor just did… the image of Christian punching Carter at the Halloween party last fall comes to my mind and I shudder. It would be so much worse than that.
I make my way quickly up the stairs, glancing briefly at Christian’s closed door as I make my way into my own room. Kate is stunning, her make up nearly completed and her platinum hair tumbling softly down her back in wide, sweeping curls. She isn’t in her dress anymore though but I assume that’s because she doesn’t want to get makeup on it.
“Please tell me you have time to do something to make me look at least halfway presentable?” I ask, stripping my clothes off as I make my way to the bathroom and the shower. I don’t really think I have time for a shower, but I need to wash Astor off of me. I feel dirty somehow.
“If you hurry,” Kate says, anxiously. I nod and jump into the shower, not bothering to wait for the water to warm. It takes me exactly three minutes to wash and then I jump out and begin to furiously towel dry my hair. Kate starts on my hair, apologizing that she doesn’t have time to do anything too elaborate, but I stare gratefully at her reflection in the mirror as she dries and rolls my hair up into an elegant chignon that I would have never been able to accomplish by myself.
It doesn’t take her too long to finish my makeup and since I already know everything I’m wearing tonight, I’m ready to go 20 minutes later. I smile at my reflection in the mirror. I look perfect and well put together. Not anything like the tight ball of anxiety I feel inside my stomach. Time is up though and, as Kate adjusts the way her dress is lying over her boobs, she gestures for me to hurry out the door.
“Go get Christian and let’s go!” She says. I nod as I slide the earring Christian bought me for Christmas through the holes in my ears and hurry across the hall.
When I open Christian’s door, I immediately feel an overbearing sense of tension. The hairs on the back of my arms and neck stand up and when I see him sitting in the chair at his desk, dressed in a well fitted black tuxedo with an untied bow-tie hanging loosely around his neck, I know why. He looks… pissed.
“What’s wrong?” I ask and he glares up at me.
“Did you have a good time at your study group tonight?” He asks, his voice cold like ice.
“Christian, what are you talking about?” I ask, confused by animosity in his voice. He slides his blackberry across the desk towards me in response to the question and I look down at the screen and see a text message from an unknown number and a picture of Astor pinning me against the wall, his lips pressed firmly against mine. You can only see enough of my face in the picture to know it’s me, but not enough to really see my expression, which I’m guessing is the reason for the anger. He doesn’t know that this wasn’t consensual.
“Where did you get this?” I ask, my voice barely louder than a whisper.
“Does it matter?” He replies.
“Christian, it’s not what you think. I…”
“Save it, Anastasia,” He snaps.
“I said enough! I can’t have this conversation with you right now. Not without doing something I know I’ll regret.”
I stare back at him, astounded by the utter hostility in his tone. He doesn’t sound violent, just really, really angry. Fuck, is he going to break up with me? Panic surges through me as he rises from his seat and opens his top desk drawer. He pulls out a large, black velvet box and slides it over to me.
“I bought this for you to wear tonight. It’ll look beautiful on you.” He says but even with his complimenting words, his tone is still frigid. He storms past me, tying his bow-tie as he goes and leaves me standing here alone, winded. I reach down for the box and open it. Inside there is a diamond cuff bracelet, patterned with a floral filigree. It’s beautiful, breathtaking even, and this is so not the circumstance in which I want to receive such an amazing gift. I stand there silently for a moment debating on whether to wear it or not.
“Ana, let’s go!” Kate calls to me, sticking her head into Christian’s room. I turn to nod towards her and then slip the cuff over my wrist. I didn’t do anything wrong. This is just a misunderstanding and I’ll be able to clear it up as soon as I can be alone with him. He’ll be hurt if I don’t wear it. I take one last steadying breath and head out of the room after both Christian and Kate.
The drive to the hotel the Greys are staying at in Boston is tense. Christian is radiating anger but there’s nothing I can say to him with Kate in the car, so I just stare sullenly down at my fingers.
“Are you two fighting or something?” Kate asks from the back seat, obviously picking up on the tension between us. Christian’s jaw tightens but he doesn’t say anything.
“We’re fine,” I tell her, but my voice isn’t very reassuring. Kate doesn’t say anything though, nobody does, and we spend the longest half an hour of my life driving in deafening silence to Boston. Christian pulls up in front of the Liberty Hotel and hands the keys to the valet. I try to carefully climb out of the car, but it’s difficult as I’m hindered by my dress. Surprisingly, Christian walks over and offers me his hand.
“Thank you,” I say as he pulls me from the car and tucks my hand into his elbow. He doesn’t respond, he just walks forward, silent and stone faced, and I realize in this moment that the contact between us is an act. I don’t know for who though… Is it for Carrick and Grace or is it for Elena? I want to sigh in frustration. We’ve been so good this last week, everything has been perfect. Of course it has to fall apart right when we’re about to face the bitch troll. I wish I would have hit Astor, perhaps with a closed fist. He’s the reason for all of this… and whoever took that damn picture.
We walk through the front doors to the hotel and see Carrick and Mr. Lincoln standing in the lobby by the elevators. I do a quick, nervous scan of the room but I don’t see the tell-tale blonde hair anywhere. She isn’t here, but that doesn’t make me feel better. She’s lurking somewhere and I’d rather know exactly where.
“Hey kids,” Carrick says, he sounds exhausted.
“Dad,” Christian greets him curtly.
“We’re going to have to eat in the hotel restaurant, your mother isn’t ready yet. A kidney may have come up from one of her transplant patients, she’s been on the phone with U.N.O.S. all day.”
“Oh no, you’re not going to have to leave early?” Kate asks worriedly.
“Not tonight, at least.” Carrick replies. “But probably tomorrow, yes.”
The elevators ping behind Carrick and Mr. Lincoln, and Elliot and Mia step out. Kate rushes forward to wrap her arms around Elliot as Mia bounds forward to Christian. He bends over and wraps his arms around her, complimenting her on the dress she tells him she and Grace bought that day. Well at least he isn’t being cold to her too.
“You look lovely tonight, Anastasia,” Carrick says, holding his arms open to hug me. I thank him and step into his embrace. While he holds me he whispers, quietly into my ear, “Everything alright with Christian?”
“It’s been a… rough day,” I admit backing out of his hug. He smiles down at me reassuringly.
“I’m sure he’ll be fine once he’s had a good meal.”
Oh if only it were that easy.
I reach forward to shake Mr. Lincoln’s hand and give hugs to Elliot and Mia. Carrick motions us forward into the dining room and as everyone begins to move, Christian grips tightly to my hand.
“Can I talk to you?” I ask him under my breath.
“Not now, Anastasia,” He says, his voice a warning. We take a few more steps but I know that I can’t do this for the entire night. I need to talk to him, placate his concerns so that we can enjoy this evening. So that we can face Elena as a united front. I know she’s here and I know we’re about to see her any minute.
I yank on Christian’s arm so that he’s forced to stop and then walk purposefully through the lobby and down a deserted hallway. I can hear Christian’s angry footsteps on the stone floor of the lobby, so I know he’s following me.
“Christian, please…” I begin as I turn to face him but he cuts me off.
“This is not the time or place for this, Anastasia,” He growls angrily.
“I didn’t do anything wrong! He kissed me, I swear. I didn’t want him to!”
“And I’m just supposed to believe that?”
“Why wouldn’t you?”
“I’ve seen you two together, Anastasia. He’s always fucking around! He’s at your work, walking you back from classes, putting his hands all over you at that fucking party. Tell me, when I was fucking you in his bed last night, were you wishing it was him?”
His words hit me like a punch in the face. Everything around me stops as I feel a stabbing wound of pain and hurt.
“I can’t believe you just said that to me,” I say, my voice weak and unsteady.
We stare at each other for a moment, and I can see in his eyes that he knows he’s gone too far. He runs his hands through his hair with frustration.
“I told you I don’t want to talk about this right now,” He hisses.
“You said you trusted me,” I whisper, feeling the tightness in my throat as tears begin to form in my eyes. “You said you trusted me but at the first test, you turn against me.”
“I have a picture on my phone, Anastasia.” He replies in a low, controlled voice.
“Don’t you think that’s a little suspicious?” I ask. “He kisses me and somehow, someone who has your number just happens to be there to take the picture?”
“So it’s a conspiracy now?”
“Does that make any less sense than me cheating on you? Christian, I love you! I didn’t know love could be this all-consuming, but it’s how I feel for you. I would NEVER cheat on you!” I declare.
There is pain in his eyes now but I don’t know exactly for what. I take a deep breath and try to get back on track.
“He was mad tonight. He gave me back your sweater and he asked to talk to me. He said it was a low blow, sleeping with you in his bed, and then he pushed me against the wall and he kissed me. I saw him look out the window before he did, right at the place this picture would have been taken. Any one of his friends could have sent you that picture.”
He looks at me for a long moment, battling with himself. I stare back anxiously until I see him deflate and stumble back against the opposite wall with his hands covering his face.
“I’m sorry,” He whispers. A tear breaks over my water line and rolls slowly down my cheek. I wipe it away quickly and cross the hallway to him, pulling his hands away from his face and wrapping them around me.
“I’m sorry, too. I should have listened to you about him.”
“Don’t apologize to me,” He says disgustedly. “Ana, I’m so sorry for what I just said to you. Jesus, what the fuck is wrong with me?”
“You were mad,” I say consolingly. “It’s not okay, and it doesn’t excuse it, but I get it. I can forgive you if you’ll just tell me that you’ll trust me.”
“I do,” He says, purposefully looking me in the eye. “I trust you, Ana. I’m sorry. I’ll never doubt you again. Jesus, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
I lean forward and kiss him gently on the lips, glad the fighting is over. I do want to know who sent that picture though. I have class with Astor tomorrow and you better believe I will have words for him. Actually, on second thought, maybe class isn’t the best atmosphere to deal with him. The things I want to say to him are hardly school appropriate.
“You look so beautiful tonight, Ana. I wanted to tell you before but I just…” He begins, but stops before he can finish. His fingers run over the diamonds in the cuff on my wrist. “I was right about the bracelet.”
“Once again, you’re too generous,” I tell him. “But it is beautiful. I love it, and I love you.”
“I love you, too,” He says. He kisses me once more and then takes my hand so that we can walk together back to the dining room. When we reach the end of the hall though, we hear the sound of the elevator ping and a nauseatingly familiar voice that stops us in our tracks.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing here?” Elena hisses.
“Look, I’m over this weird evil plot thing or whatever that you’ve got going on. Just give me my money and we can move on,” Another familiar voice says, though I can’t quite place it. Elena’s heels begin clacking furiously over the stone tile of the lobby and as they grow louder and louder with each step, I can tell she’s coming our way. Christian pulls me behind a vending machine in the hallway so that we’re out of her view but he peeks around the corner of it to see who she’s with.
“It’s Harrington,” He whispers angrily when he turns back around the machine.
“Shhh,” He says quietly. We both stand frozen, listening intently to what they’re saying.
“This is neither the time nor the place for this conversation. I told you not to contact me here,” Elena says venomously.
“Look, it’s over alright? She hates me. She’s not going to leave him for me and I’ve got the bite marks to prove it. You got your picture, just give me my money and we’ll call it square,” Astor replies.
“We’re hardly square. Your part of the bargain isn’t fulfilled until she is no longer a part of his life.”
“What the fuck do you want me to do?”
I can feel Christian begin to shake with anger as he realizes what’s going on, what has been going on. All the attention Astor’s been giving me, all the lame attempts to connect with me and get me to go out with him… it was Elena. She paid him to try and break us up. But how did she know who to use? How did she guess exactly the right person to drive a wedge between Christian and I?
As soon as I think the question, I know the answer. Christian confided in her before we were together, talked to her every day for months. Astor had to have come up and now she was using what he told her against him. Christian’s tremors of rage overtake him and he pushes away from the machine and begins storming down the hall. Cursing under my breath, and grabbing the skirts of the long, satin gown, I scurry after him.
He’s out pacing me, moving too quickly for me to catch up in my high heels. Both Elena and Astor turn just in time to see Christian pull his arm back and release a night’s worth of pent up anger on Astor’s face. He crumples to the ground, clutching his jaw, but Christian’s moment of pause watching Astor fall at his feet is just enough of a hesitation for me to get my arms around him.
“Stop it, Christian!” I say firmly, doing my best to restrain him. He’s stronger than me, I’m really no match against him, but he doesn’t overpower me. He stands there, seething, staring down at Astor with unbridled rage.
“What the fuck, asshole?” Astor curses as he scrambles to his feet, blood dripping on the tan carpet of the hallway. Christian moves again like he’s going to attack so I shuffle around him, holding my hands out in front of me.
“Don’t do this, Christian. You’ll be the one who gets in trouble,” I warn him. I can hear Astor sniffing behind me, Christian watches him with a hawk-like glare.
“This is why I told you not to come here,” Elena says lazily and Astor scoffs at her casual attitude.
“This isn’t over, Lincoln,” He says.
“Oh no, it’s over,” She replies regretfully. “You’ve made sure of that.”
Christian seems to have settled enough that I don’t feel like I’m going to have to try and hold him back anymore so I turn to look at both Astor and Elena. She’s staring at him impassively.
“Well, go…” She says to him after a brief moment’s pause.
“I’ll see you later, Grey,” Astor spits at Christian.
“Yeah, you bet you will,” He responds. Astor turns and walks quickly down the hall, disappearing through the revolving door at the hotel entrance. Elena sighs in the way someone does if they’ve lost something trivial but that they would have liked to hang onto. The noise catches Christian’s attention and I don’t have time to stop him before he lunges at her. He grips her too tightly around her upper arms and slams her into the wall. She gasps with surprise at his attack but seems genuinely oblivious to any pain from hitting the wall so hard.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Christian growls. She sighs and looks back him with the patient expression of a parent waiting for a child’s temper tantrum to be over. I glance nervously down the hallway for anyone who happened to notice the scene but the lobby is deserted. I know I should probably stop him before he does something he could get in serious trouble for, but as I look back at them, the overwhelming anger in his expression leaves me frozen in place.
“Christian…” Elena begins diplomatically, but he stops her.
“No, shut the fuck up. Do you know what this Astor thing has done to me over the past couple weeks? I would have thought that after all these years, some part of you would have cared about me, would have wanted me to be happy, but that’s what I am now and you’re trying to take it away from me! Why don’t you see it, Elena? I’m with Anastasia now and nothing you do is going to change that! I. Don’t. Want. You. Any. More.” Each word he says is punctuated with an angry staccato and Elena looks shocked for a moment.
The atmosphere is tense as I wait to see who will make the next move. They stare each other down and despite the fury in Christian’s gaze, which I feel I would cower from if I were on her end, she stares back at him unintimidated. I watch as she seemingly transforms. She stands stick straight and just the change in her posture seems to make her taller. Her gaze is cold and hard, and despite the fact that Christian is bigger than she is, stronger than she is, and clearly at his breaking point, he reacts instinctively to the changes in her. He leans slightly away from her, the tightness in his jaw relaxes and he swallows hard.
“Back down, Christian,” Elena says coolly, and when he doesn’t move she leans forward threateningly and his posture falters slightly. “I do care about you and that’s why I can’t stand to see you wasted like this. Can’t you see what she’s done to you? You’re pathetic. You used to talk about being great and now you’re standing over me gushing about being happy? It disgusts me.”
“Don’t tell me…” He begins, but she cuts him off.
“Don’t give me your hearts and flowers bullshit. The man I thought I turned you into wouldn’t tolerate that insufferable nonsense. Love is for fools, Christian and that’s just what she’s made of you, a fool. You don’t have the backbone to be the successful man you claim you want to be. A man with the kind of power you desire is master of his universe, controlling everyone and everything around him. You control nothing. You’re a coward. I tried to give you the tools to help you live to the potential I thought you had but I was wrong. You are weak.”
He grimaces at her but he doesn’t relax his stance that has her pinned to the wall. She smiles devilishly at him and slowly begins to raise her long fingered hand towards his chest. His fingers begin to claw into the wall by her head as he watches her movements with a sudden show of fear.
“Hey!” I scream, finally finding myself able to move as adrenaline begins coursing through me. I charge at her, force myself through Christian’s arms, and push him steadily backwards, out of her reach. “Get the fuck away from him!”
“This doesn’t concern you, Ana-” She begins, but in an action summoned by a part of my brain that I have no conscious control over, I reach my arm back and slap her, hard, across the face. She looks at me dazed for a second and then looks as if she’s trying to will me into bursting into flames.
“Don’t fucking touch him” I say menacingly. “Jesus, what the fuck is it going to take with you? He doesn’t want you! This thing between you and him is over, you’re the only one still hanging onto it. You’re alone. You, that’s it. And THAT is pathetic. He’s not your submissive anymore and he’s never going to be again. Get it through your head! You are never going to fuck Christian again!”
“What did you just say?” I hear a quiet voice behind me say.
The fiery hatred that tints my vision red fades away and I suddenly feel suspended in time. No one moves, no one speaks, it’s as if we’re all collectively holding our breath. I turn slowly to face the person who has caught us.
It’s Mr. Lincoln.
“Andrew, please. The girl is delusional,” Elena says quickly, laughing slightly through her easy lie but Mr. Lincoln doesn’t take his gaze off me.
“Is it true, Anastasia? What you just said… is it true?” He asks again and he has such difficulty with the words I wonder if he’s trying to keep himself from being sick.
I stare blankly at him, my words lost. Fuck! What do I do?
Mr. Lincoln just stares at me for a moment, waiting for my response, and when it doesn’t come he turns to look at Christian.
“Christian?” He asks.
I swallow hard and look at Christian, who glances quickly between me, and then Elena, and then back at Mr. Lincoln.
“Christian, is it true?” Mr. Lincoln asks again, his voice more firm this time.