I wake up the next morning a little later than I mean to, so I have to hurry through my shower and settle on a banana for breakfast in order to make it up to Christian’s apartment on time. I’m a little more nervous and… excited than I normally am as I make my way up to the thirty first floor, and when the elevator doors open and I see Taylor there waiting for me, I’m almost a little embarrassed by the stupid grin that I can’t keep off my face.
“Good Morning, Miss Steele,” He says warmly.
“Morning, Taylor,” I reply, and then follow him into the apartment. I find Christian pacing in front the scenic windows of his living room, talking to someone on his iPhone. He’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt, looking nothing like the straight laced CEO I’ve come to expect over the last week, and it warms my heart. He finally looks like the Christian I remember again.
“No, I want the contracts signed by Monday,” He says into the phone. “Our operations meeting is Tuesday morning and I plan to announce the deal then, but I won’t do it without a signed contract. Make it happen. Good, then I’ll see you Monday. Have a good weekend, Ros.”
He hangs up the phone and turns to look at me.
“Don’t you ever take a day off?” I ask, raising an eyebrow at him.
“It was just a few last minute things, but everything else can wait for this evening. You have my full attention, Anastasia,” He assures me, and he makes a show out of putting his phone on silent to prove his point. I smile at the gesture but still shake my head with exasperation. Taking a few hours break from work in the middle of a Saturday is not the same thing as taking a day off.
He slips his phone into his pocket and then leads me across the apartment to the elevator so we can leave, Taylor following in our wake.
“You’re planning on driving?” I ask, when Christian reaches out to press the elevator button for the garage rather than the lobby. “You know it’s like four blocks away, right?”
“I thought you planned on buying things?” He replies.
“Yeah, but not enough that I would need a car to bring it all back.”
He shrugs as the doors open. We both follow Taylor out of the elevator and towards the black SUV that’s idling just a few feet away, and the second we step out onto the asphalt of the garage, the passenger’s side door to the SUV opens and I Luke gets out. He hurries around to our side so that he can open the back door for us, but before he does, Christian stops to say something to Taylor.
“Hey, Luke,” I say, elated by his surprise appearance and he smiles at me.
“Hey,” He replies. “How was Mia?”
“Fine,” I say dismissively. “Melodramatic, but fine.”
“Good. I was worried when I saw them putting people in the back of the police cruisers. It’s good that they let you take her home,” He says. “You know, we didn’t finish the movie last night. I think I still have fifteen minutes left of suffering to do.”
I smirk at him. “I think you secretly love that movie and are just upset that you didn’t get to finish it.” I reply and he laughs.
“No way. I’m just all out of sorts now. I’ve seen it 13 and ¾ times. It’s got me off balance.”
“Well, one night this week you should come over and we can make it an even fifteen times. What do you think?”
He rolls his eyes, “I think, you bring the movie, I’ll bring the booze.”
I laugh as he steps aside to pull open the door for me but Christian stops me from getting in.
“Maybe we should walk,” He suggests. “You’re right, it’s not that far and it’s a beautiful day. Sawyer and Ryan can take the SUV and we’ll meet them down there. I’m sure Taylor wouldn’t mind the exercise.”
“No, sir,” Taylor says.
“Ana,” Christian says, motioning me to walk forward rather than past Luke to the backseat of the car. I nod and then smile and wave goodbye to Luke before following Taylor through the entrance of the garage, then around 4th avenue and down Stewart towards Pike Place.
It’s a busy Saturday down in the Marketplace and the crowd makes it difficult to maneuver around to all the different shops. We stop by Beecher’s to watch the cheese being made through the window and then the Fish Co. where they’re tossing fish to one another over the counter and chasing tourists around with gutted octopuses. We stock up on fresh produce at Frank’s and spices down at The Souk. Christian talks me into sampling the pâté de foie gras at DeLaurenti and then laughs at me when I immediately gag and spit it back out into my napkin.
The entire morning is wonderful. We fall so easily back into this easy comfort we have with one another that for just this brief period of time, it almost feels as if nothing has happened and it’s just us again. I don’t even know the last time I had such a good time and for the first time since I’ve been in Seattle, I feel real hope. Not just about Christian, but about both of us. Watching him so carefree, talking and laughing with me, gives me a small glimpse of the future we could have together, and now I’m more sure than ever, maybe even more sure than I was two years ago when I hadn’t had to live without him yet, that this future is what I want more than anything else in the world.
“Do you want to get some lunch?” He asks, as we hand Taylor our purchases so he can take them back to wherever Luke is with the car.
“Sure,” I tell him, and Christian turns to Taylor.
“We’ll be at Le Pichet,” He says and Taylor nods, but I stop him before he can turn to leave.
“No! We’re at Pike’s Market. We have to go an get a hot dog at Taxi’s.”
“A hot dog?” Christian asks, raising an eyebrow at me.
“Yes, a hot dog. It’s a Seattle institution. I thought you were raised here, how do you not know this?” I ask him, and because he continues to look skeptically at me, and I’m not allowed to physically grab onto him and drag him up the marketplace behind me, I give him a challenging look and then turn in the direction of the restaurant.
“I guess we’ll be at… Taxi’s,” I hear Christian say behind me, and then a second later he’s walking next to me, looking down at me dubiously every few seconds.
A huge smile creeps across my face as we approach and I smell the familiar, homey scent that emanates from the grill at Taxi Dogs. It reminds me of spending long Saturday afternoons in this marketplace with my Dad. The man behind the counter greets us warmly and asks for our order.
“We’ll have two of the spicy polish dogs with cream cheese and grilled onions, easy on the franks,” I tell him and Christian grimaces.
“Cream cheese and wh… what did you just order?”
“Will you just trust me?” I reply, and he takes a deep breath and pays the man behind the counter. When we get our food, he stares at it suspiciously for a minute before taking a bite.
“Well?” I ask, through a mouthful of my own hot dog.
He chews slowly for a minute and then swallows with what looks like a great deal of effort. “Is revenge for the foie gras?”
I roll my eyes. “You’re ridiculous, it’s so good! This is my dad’s favorite thing in the world. Every time I’ve been to Seattle, we’ve come here. It’s kind of a tradition.”
“Well, when your Dad comes home, we’ll have to take him somewhere where the food isn’t served on plastic baskets and checkered paper.”
“He won’t be interested,” I laugh and Christian sighs and takes another bite. I suspect he likes it more than he’s willing to let on because he finishes it without further complaint.
“Now what, Anastasia?” Christian asks as we make our way back out into the main marketplace. “Any other traditions we need to check off the list. Maybe you want to count the pigs?” He says, teasingly and I narrow my eyes at him.
“We’re not tourists,” I say emphatically. “Besides, I’ve never gotten higher than twelve.”
“That’s an important number in this city,” He says and I smile.
“Mr. Grey?” A voice says behind us and we turn into a bright flash of light. When my eyes readjust, I see a guy in a black hoodie, looking down at the screen on a camera.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?” He asks me, and my eyes widen in panic as I realize what’s happening.
“Uh…” I stutter.
“Give me the camera,” Christian says, stepping in front of me, but the guy just looks at him like he’s lost his mind.
“I don’t think so,” He replies.
“The memory card then. I’ll buy it from you, just name your price,” Christian says, and this time, the photographer raises an eyebrow, clearly interested.
“Six thousand,” He says, and Christian lets out a short, harsh laugh.
“I’m not a Kardashian, there’s no way that photo is worth that much,” He argues.
“I don’t know, US Weekly has been touting you out as the World’s Most Eligible Bachelor. We’ll have to see what they’re willing to offer for the first picture of you and your girlfriend, whose name is…?” The photographer tries to peer around Christian to look at me again, but Christian shifts with him so that he can continue to shield me from view.
“I’ll give you a grand,” Christian offers, but the photographer shakes his head.
“The price is six thousand or I let the magazines start bidding.”
“Fine,” Christian says. He pulls out his phone to make the transaction while I hover uneasily in his shadow. I knew this would be an issue at a public event like the charity gala last night, but out in a public market? I didn’t realize this was a thing that happened here… although I guess I have to admit that I did know he’d been in a few tabloids from my Google Alert. Is this what it’s like for him all the time?
“Pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Grey,” The photographer says as he hands Christian the memory card to his camera. “Just so you know, there’s three more of us around the corner waiting for you and the girl. Someone called in a tip, said you were down here on a date.”
“More photographers?” I whisper, panicked. “Christian, I don’t want…”
“No, I know. I’ll take care of it,” He says, and he nods for me to head down the ramp that leads to the shops below the market so that we’re out of sight of the street as he dials a number on his phone. “Taylor, there are photographers down here trying to get a picture of me with Anastasia. I need you to bring another car down for me to take back to Escala so that Ana can get out of here without being seen. Bring the Veyron, it’ll draw more attention.”
We hover in the breezeway, facing away the ramp that leads to the street above, until Taylor calls us fifteen minutes later to let us know that he’s outside.
“Wait here for Taylor to come get you. He’ll take you around back to the SUV and Ryan can drive you back to Escala,” He says.
“Okay, thank you,” I nod, and he gets up to leave the restaurant. A few minutes later, Taylor appears and he leads me back out into the marketplace. I can see the mob of people behind the flashy sports car screeching up Virginia St, but Taylor leads me in the opposite direction and down a back staircase towards Western Ave where the black SUV is waiting just a few feet from the door we come through. I climb into the back seat just before Taylor and the moment the door is closed, we start moving.
“Paparazzi, huh?” Luke asks, turning around from the front passenger’s seat and flashing a wide grin at me. “One week in Seattle and you’re already a huge celebrity.”
“Shut up, Luke,” I say, glaring at him. “That guy called me Christian’s girlfriend. People can’t think we’re dating. He’s the CEO and I’m an intern. It’ll bring up all kinds of ethical issues for him and I don’t come off looking great either.”
“Was it a date?” Luke asks and I shake my head.
“No, we’re just… we’re just hanging out together,” I tell him, and I feel a little guilty as part of me thinks that this is a lie…
“Then what are you worried about?”
“No one saw you, Ana,” He promises me, and I nod as we pull into the parking garage at Escala. The guy in the front seat, who I assume is the Ryan guy Christian has mentioned, stops before driving up the ramp to Christian’s parking spaces to let us out and when I climb out of the car, Taylor escorts me to the elevator. When we’re inside, he presses the button for the penthouse and before he enters the code I ask him to stop at my floor too.
“You’re not coming up to Mr. Grey’s apartment?” He asks, looking back at me with a furrowed brow.
“No, I uh… I have plans for later so I think I’m going to relax for awhile at home,” I tell him, and, even though he seems hesitant, he nods and then pushes the button for my floor. When we arrive at the 14th floor, Taylor hands me the bags of things I purchased down at the market and I give him a grateful smile as I step off the elevator.
“Thanks, Taylor,” I tell him. “For getting me out, I mean.”
“My pleasure, Miss Steele,” He says, and then the elevator doors close and he disappears from view.
When I’m back in my apartment, I take a second to relax on the couch and decompress before putting the fruits and vegetables away. The containers of Chinese food from last night are still sitting on the table, so I throw them away and clean up the dishes both Luke and I left behind. When the kitchen is cleaned and I’ve started a load of laundry, I head back into the living room to pick out a book to take out on the balcony with me, but before I make it back to the hallway that leads to my room, there is a knock on the door.
I cross the room to open it and find Christian standing there holding what I think is a DVD in his hand.
“I’m sorry about the photographer… It ruined our afternoon and… I’m sorry,” He says, but I shake my head.
“No, it didn’t ruin anything. That’s not your fault, Christian,” I tell him, stepping aside to let him in. He walks forward through the entryway and gives an examining glance over the apartment.
“How’s the apartment?” He asks. “Do you have everything you need?”
“It’s wonderful, amazing even. Kate was a little jealous when she dropped me off,” I say and he laughs.
“Well then, mission accomplished.”
I turn around to head into the living room, unsure if he’s here to talk or if he just wanted to apologize, but as he follows me further into the apartment, he stops at my dining room table and frowns.
“Your flowers are wilted,” He says, and I sigh.
“Well, they’ve been there for a little over a week. I’ve been meaning to get rid of them but they’re so beautiful I haven’t been able to bring myself to do it. Thank-you by the way, that was a very thoughtful welcome home gift.”
“I’ll have new ones sent over.”
“You don’t have too…”
“I want to, Anastasia,” He says, and then he turns to hold the DVD out for me. “This came in the mail today. After they moved everything in here, Sawyer looked through the movies I picked out and suggested I order it for you. He said it was one of your favorites.”
I look down at the case and smile. “Roman Holiday. It’s a good one.”
“Then I’m glad you have it,” He says. “Taylor told me you that you were getting ready to go out tonight… Should I go?”
“I have a couple hours before I have to get ready. I was going to read a book but if you’re not doing anything else, we could watch this instead,” I suggest, holding the movie up for him.
“I’d like that,” He says, and I smile before turning around to put the movie in the DVD player. We both sit on the couch, and I cuddle up with one of the oversized pillows a few inches away from him as the title credits flash across the screen. I can feel him glancing over at me every few minutes and it’s not long before I begin to feel the pull between us. I’m keenly aware of his every movement next to me and I have to stop myself several times from reaching over to touch him, something I seem to want to do just out of habit. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see his fingers twitch every so often, as if he’s struggling to keep the boundaries just as much as I am.
I repeat the no touching mantra over and over again in my head as I try and focus on the movie, but the words don’t give me the same kind of reassurance anymore. What was the point of the rule again? Something about keeping our relationship casual and friendly or setting expectations…? Dr. Flynn had said something about maintaining the boundaries until Christian made the right amount of progress for me to feel comfortable increasing the intimacy in our relationship. I know that he probably didn’t mean for me to evaluate that this soon, but with Christian next to me and every part of me yearning to touch him, maybe I should.
He has respected my boundaries, even though I know he doesn’t want to, and he’s been communicating with his family and going to therapy. He even rescheduled an important meeting so that he wouldn’t miss an appointment with Flynn. And… last night he admitted that he had the urge to call Elena but he didn’t, and not just because I stayed with him to talk. He made that decision while Mia was still there. He went down to the gym instead. That’s progress right?
Yes, it is. And right now, it’s enough for me.
I take a deep breath, reach over, and slowly entwine my fingers with his. He immediately looks over at me with a shocked expression, and I give him a small, reassuring smile. The feel of my hand in his is cathartic and, like a recovering alcoholic taking their first sip of wine after two years of sobriety, I know that just this small taste of his skin against mine is not enough. I swallow hard and then lift his hand, drape his arm over my shoulder, and then cuddle into his side. He shifts automatically so that I fit better against him, and the moment I’m settled in, I feel at ease. There is no burgeoning sense of tension or awkward moment of adjustment. Here in his arms, there is only an overwhelming sense of home.
He wraps his other arm around me too, holding me tightly into him for a while, and then he rests his head against mine. As we continue our way through the movie, every so often I feel his lips press lightly into my hair and each small, sweet kiss sends a tingling sense of pleasure over my scalp that radiates down my body. The feel of him next to me is so comforting that I find myself disappointed when the movie ends. I wish we would have picked something longer like Spartacus or Camelot or the entire Lord of the Rings series from start to finish. Extended editions.
“It’s nearly 6:30, Anastasia,” He says as the credits roll up the screen. “I’d sit here with you forever, but I don’t want to keep you from your friends if that’s where you want to be.”
“Okay,” I say with disappointment, and I force myself to get off the couch. Once we’re at the door, he turns around to face me and I immediately wrap my arms around him again, almost like a child who doesn’t want their parent to leave. He hugs me back for a moment, and then he reaches over and pulls my chin up so that I’m looking at him. We hold each other’s gaze for a split second and then he leans down and, ever so slowly, he presses his lips into mine.
He’s hesitant at first, probably testing me to see if I’m going to pull away from him or not, but when I don’t, his leans into me further and his kiss becomes more assertive. He groans, pulling me into him, holding me tightly as he coaxes my lips apart with his and when his tongue slips into my mouth, I melt into him and my hands reach up into his hair, holding him in place while our lips move together in perfect synchronization. I’m pleased to discover that I don’t have to remember how to kiss him, it’s instinctual. It’s like no time at all has passed between our last kiss and now and as that thought crosses my mind I wonder if that would be something exclusive only to kissing…
I’m breathless when he pulls away from me and that state doesn’t improve as I stare into the fire ignited behind his steely gray eyes.
“Should I stay?” He asks, his voice husky with the hidden promise in his words, but somehow, and I don’t really know how… I’m able to shake my head.
“I need to get ready to meet Kate and Ros,” I tell him. He frowns but nods his head.
“Can I see you tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I’ll come over in the morning.”
“Good. Have a goodnight, Anastasia.”
“You too,” I tell him, and he leans over, kisses me once more to test my resolve, and then disappears into the hallway. I close the door behind him, leaning against it and feeling breathless. My lips are still tingling and feel slightly swollen from his kiss and the physical reminder of the memory makes me shiver.
I know now that I’m on a train hurtling towards a cliff and I’m not going to be able to stop it. His kiss has elicited a need within me that I have been able to suppress for two years, but has now risen to a level beyond my control. I want him, not just physically, but as mine, the way it used to be and I don’t think I can wait any longer. Even now, it’s taking every ounce of my limited control to stop myself from chasing after him and asking him to take me upstairs. I suppose this was the real reason for the rules. Even Dr. Flynn knew that any seemingly innocent touch was just a slippery slope to us ending up naked together. Again, I feel a shiver of pleasure crawl tantalizingly over my skin at the thought and it tells me just how far gone I am. I take a deep breath and lean my head back against the door.
What are you doing, Anastasia?