Chapter 38

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It’s hard to push aside the nerves I feel as I stand outside Elena’s bar. I’m only going to get one shot at this, one shot to do something I don’t even really want to do but now have to if I’m going to hold on to the man that I love. I take a deep breath, pulling the outside air deep into my diaphragm and imagining it pushing away the fear and the stress inside of me so that I can focus on what needs to be done. Once I’m centered, I reach out for the front door and pull it open.

I recognize the room from the video feed I watched on Luke’s laptop. It’s empty, the same as it was before, except for the half naked man standing behind the bar. Isaac.

“We’re closed,” He says, barely looking up at me as he pours a steady stream of gin into the tumbler on the bar in front of him.

“I know…” I hesitate. “I’m not here for… I’m here to see Elena Lincoln.”

He looks up at me with slightly more interest, his face scrunched up slightly as he examines me, until recognition dawns on his face.

“Oh right,” He says, nodding. “You’re Mr. Grey’s submissive.”

“No, I-” I begin, but he shakes his head and cuts me off.

“I’m sorry, I mean girlfriend,” He corrects himself. “Wait here, I’ll go get her.” I nod gratefully as he steps out from behind the bar, and then immediately turn my gaze away from him with embarrassment. He wasn’t half naked behind the bar…

I wait for a few minutes, silently examining the walls that are the reason for the complete and utter mess my life has become, until I hear a door creak and Elena, dressed only in a short silk robe, appears in the doorway to the back office.

“Anastasia,” She greets me, her voice full of suspicion, and I take a deep breath.

“I take it you’ve returned the basement to it’s former glory?” I ask, taking her attire and Isaac’s lack of attire to mean they’d been doing more than preparing for tomorrow’s trial downstairs.

“Waste not, want not,” She replies impassively. I nod and shift my purse higher up on my shoulder.

“Christian’s not… ” I take a breath. “He’s not going to come talk to you.”

She stares at me blankly for a second and then shakes her head incredulously. “He’s going to make me do this to him,” She says, more to herself than to me. “He’s actually going to make me do this to him.”

I don’t say anything to her, I just stare and wait, letting her make the first move. If I’m going to do this with her, I’m going to have to let her know that she has the power here. It’s the only way she’ll trust me.

After taking a moment to think about the consequences of Christian’s absence, she lets out a short breath through her nose, pushes off the door frame, and shuffles towards the bar.

“I’m going to have a drink,” She says, picking up the bottle that Isaac left and pouring more of the alcohol into the tumbler on the bar. “Would you like a drink, Anastasia?”

“Would I like a drink?” I repeat, almost finding humor in the question. “Yes, I would like several drinks. I would like to drink until I’m incapable of forming coherent thought just so that I can stop thinking about all of this for a few hours. But would I like a drink from you? No. Because despite everything that’s happening, I haven’t developed a death wish yet.”

She gives me a half smile. “You’re in my bar, Anastasia. People know I’m here and I assume people know you’re here. Or, if they don’t, that they will soon, so poisoning you would be careless and I would hope that after all of this time the one thing you would know about me is that I’m never careless.”

I stare at her for a moment, and then walk towards the bar and pull out one of the stools to sit on. “Tequila, please.”

Elena turns around to the shelves filled with alcohol behind her, pulls down the bottle of Patron, and then takes a clean tumbler off the rack to pour me a drink. I place my purse on the stool next to me, and take the glass she offers me. She saunters around the bar, dragging the bottle of Bombay Sapphire over the hardwood surface as she goes, and takes a seat.

We sit there in silence for a while, slowly draining each of our glasses. Once the alcohol is gone, I push my tumbler away, but Elena reaches for the bottle again.

“You have to testify tomorrow, Elena,” I say flatly. “You’re not worried about getting too drunk?”

“No,” She says as she pours another few fingers of gin into her glass. “Drinking is something I’ve had to become very good at. Believe it or not, it’s not easy being this heartless all the time.”

I raise an eyebrow at her. “That can’t be remorse?”

“No. It isn’t,” She says, and she drinks again. I sigh, pour myself more tequila and try to decide how to move forward from here.

“I really hate you,” I say bluntly and she turns to look at me with surprise at my honest admission. “Like, really, really hate you, in a way that I’ve never hated anyone before. When Christian and I weren’t together anymore, I thought about you a lot. More than I care to admit. I used to imagine horrible things happening to you. Getting hit by a bus, contracting some horrible, painful disease… I even started liking slasher films because I liked to imagine you as the victims being brutally murdered.”

She laughs and then takes another long drink from her glass. “Well, take a good hard look sweetheart. I’m your future. I’m who you’re going to be in 30 years.”

“No,” I reply firmly. “I’m nothing like you.”

“Not now,” She agrees. “But you will be. You’re ambitious, you’re well educated, you have potential… Christian will slowly take all of that away from you until you don’t even recognize yourself anymore, and then you’ll be me.”

I shake my head. “What are you talking about? Christian isn’t like that. He’s supportive and encouraging. He knows each and every one of my dreams and he wants to help make them all come true.”

“Mhmm,” She mumbles disinterestedly as she takes another drink. “And how long do you think that will last?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re an author, right? You’re trying to publish a book?” She asks, and I nod. “How do you think he’ll react when he needs his doting wife at his side for some event that has implications on his business, but you’re across the country on a book tour? Or when the chauvinistic men that will make up the social circles you run in start taunting him and emasculating him for needing his wife to bring in income? He’ll be the star, Anastasia. He’ll always be the star, and you will be expected to make your world revolve around him. Your identity will become him.”

“He’s not like that,” I argue, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I don’t?” She asks, turning to me with a humorless smile. “Did you know that I have a master’s degree from Princeton?”

“No.”

“Of course you didn’t. No one does, because no one cares. I’ve spent my entire life, or at least the productive years of it, being Mrs. Andrew Lincoln. My husband was a timber giant and I was his trophy wife. That’s my identity. That’s who he made me.”

“Really? So, is that how you got to Christian?” I ask, my voice more accusatory now. “I know it was more than just the sex. The grip you had on him involved some deep psychological shit, so is that how you got to him? Some sad story about how your life of privilege and luxury kept you from fulfilling your dreams?”

“No,” She shakes her head. I watch her drain her glass and begin to fill the tumbler again. After a long, uncomfortable silence, she continues. “I got to Christian because I empathized with him. Grace was very well meaning, very kind, very loving, but she could never understand Christian. She’s never been hungry or had to go without. She’s never had someone put their hands on her when she didn’t want them to. She’s never had someone she really loved ripped away from this earth and been left completely and utterly alone.”

“And you have?” I ask.

She takes another big gulp of the clear liquid from her glass and nods. “You know, I’m not from Seattle. I’m a southern girl, born and raised in Greenwood, South Carolina. My daddy was a moonshiner and when I was about 9 years old, he got busted. Instead of going quietly when the police came, he got into a firefight, killed three police officers, and went prison for, well… I don’t think he ever got out. He left my mama with three daughters to raise on her own and she never even graduated from high school.”

“She used to have to work 14 to 18 hours a day while I cared for my little sisters. She was gone all the time, but she still didn’t make enough money to keep food on the table for all of us. When she wasn’t working, she was out… trying to find a man to help her support her kids, but the kind of men you find in bars late at night who are willing to go home with a woman who has no prospects and three young kids… those aren’t the kind of men who are of any use.”

Her eyes darken.

“But that’s exactly the type of man Boone was. He moved into my house about a year after Daddy went away, and he was a useless piece of shit. He didn’t work, he didn’t help around the house… he was just another mouth to feed. I think mama justified it by thinking at least someone was at home to take care of her kids, but…” She shakes her head. “You leave a man alone too long while you’re working so many late hours, and he starts to get lonely.”

I swallow and turn to look at her, but she just picks up the bottle of tequila and pours me another glass. Once I take a drink, she continues. “I was eleven the first time he crawled into my bed. When he was finished he told me if I ever said anything to mama, he’d go to one of my sisters next. Ava was only nine and Lottie was six. I was the oldest, it was my job to protect them, and so I didn’t say anything.”

“As I grew older and my body matured, it got worse. Boone wasn’t satisfied just putting himself inside me anymore, he started hurting me. He would hit me, pull my hair, put his fingers around my throat… But I took it because I was afraid that if I didn’t, it would happen to Ava too. She was developing faster than she should have for her age and…” Elena shakes her head. “But she got sick. We didn’t have money for doctors and mama thought it was just the flu so she asked me to care for her. I put her to bed, made her drink water… but it wasn’t a flu. It was bacterial meningitis and she was dead within two days. All it would have taken to save her was one doctor’s appointment and some antibiotics, but we couldn’t give that to her. We couldn’t even afford to bury her and so she was cremated. I remember everything about the day we spread her ashes in perfect detail. What the perfume my mama was wearing smelled like, what color dress Lottie wore… And I remember realizing that money was the most important thing in the world. I made a plan that day, that I would study really hard and get good grades in school so that I could go to a good college and get a good job. Then I could have Lottie come live with me and I could keep her fed, and warm, and safe from anyone who wanted to hurt her.”

She stops and begins circling her finger around the rim of her glass.

“And then you went to Princeton?” I ask, urging her to continue. She nods.

“It was hard to leave. I was scared to leave Lottie alone with Boone, but I had to. I moved to New Jersey, got an apartment with three other girls, and got two jobs to pay for school, and bills, and food. I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be. Anytime I wasn’t in class, I was working. I honestly don’t know how my mama did it all those years. I had to stay up almost all night, every night, to do homework, and it was exhausting. By the end of my first semester, it was hard to remember why I was putting myself through it… and then Lottie would call and tell me she didn’t have dinner again that night, and I would remember.”

“It was nine days before Christmas when I got a call from the Greenwood County Sheriff that made everything fall apart. Apparently Boone had found his way to Lottie afterall, but unlike me, she told mama and mama threw him out. He came back in the middle of the night, drunk, and carrying a loaded revolver. He tied my mama up and made her watch him rape my little sister before he killed them both and then shot himself. Once they were gone, I was alone. I had no one else in the world, and I gave up. I was going to drop out of school and move away as far as I could… But then I met Margot.”

“She went to school with me and she seemed to have everything. She lived in a nice apartment by herself, she had a new car, and she had designer clothes. I thought she just came from a rich family, but she told me that wasn’t the case at all. She told me that men would give you anything you could ever want and all you had to do in return was please them sexually and do the things they asked you to do. She gave me a card with a number to call on it, and three weeks later, I was paired with my very first dominant.”

“BDSM was very different in the 70s, much more taboo, much more secretive, and therefore, much more dangerous. My first dominant was particularly brutal, but I didn’t care. I’d endured the things he’d done to me countless times before, but now, I had an apartment, and he paid for my tuition. He turned my life around, gave me purpose again, and I learned a lot of things from him, but I think the most important thing was that you should never love people. Love makes you weak and vulnerable and has the ability to destroy you. Once I accepted that, I was liberated. I flourished. I made my way from Dominant to Dominant until I had a master’s degree from an Ivy League school and was ready to start a career and leave the BDSM lifestyle. But that’s when I faced a new reality.”

“The thing about BDSM is that it draws people who desire power, and people who desire power generally seek it in life as much as they do in the bedroom. After graduation, I moved to D.C. thinking I was going to change the world, but one of the men who I’d been a submissive to was a Senator, and he didn’t like the idea of an ex-submissive climbing the steps of the hill every morning and possibly revealing his secret. I was blackballed, and that happened everywhere I went. I’d literally fucked my way out of any real job prospects. I couldn’t get anything, anywhere, no matter what I tried. And so I got a job as flight attendant just so I could support myself.”

“They put me on the transcontinental route between New York and Seattle, and that’s when I met Andrew. He travelled a lot for business and we got to know each other. One night, just before he got off the plane, he asked me out on a date. Then another, and another, until eventually he asked me to marry him.”

“I didn’t love him, but he was wealthy and he was nice to me in a way that no man had ever been nice to me before. Still, the real draw was that he lived in Seattle and no one knew me on the west coast. It would finally be a clean slate, a way for me to start over. So I agreed. I moved to Seattle and we married within a few weeks. Once our honeymoon was over and we’d settled into our new life together, I told him that I wanted to start working. But to say that he was unsupportive would be an understatement.”

“You see, Andrew already believed I had a job. I was his wife. I needed to tend to his home and play hostess at all of his parties. And, I was expected to keep myself looking perfect. Going to the spas and salons and the gym, it all took time. There wouldn’t ever be time for me to work. So, being Mrs. Lincoln became my entire life and it was maddening. Instead of solving the city budget crises or managing infrastructure improvement projects like I’d been training to do, I was picking china patterns and floral arrangements for causes that weren’t even real.”

“Then I met Grace. She had everything. She had a career that meant something, that really gave her purpose. Her husband adored her, not for what he wanted her to be but for who she was. She had Elliot, who was the happiest little boy you could ever imagine… and Christian. Oh, Christian. He was four when I first met him but you wouldn’t think that from looking at him. He’d been malnourished his whole life so he looked like a big two year old or a small three year old more than a boy closer to five. He used to run to me when Andrew and I came to visit. He’d hold his tiny little hands out, silently asking me to hold him, and then he’d cling to me the entire time I was there, never speaking, just running his hands through my hair. I adored him. He was perfect…” She pauses, staring into space almost longingly, before her face falls and she looks back down at her drink. “Until he hit puberty, and he started acting out.”

“Grace didn’t know what to do with him. Elliot had been perfect, a little rambunctious maybe and he had a way with the girls, but he’d never been in trouble. She tried everything, but she couldn’t get through to Christian, so I told her to send him to me. I gave him structure, I gave him purpose, and I gave him the best advice I had to give: Never love anyone, because love makes you weak.”

“You mean you fucked him into submission until he didn’t have the will to act out anymore,” I say bitterly and she smirks and takes another drink.

“It worked. He got his shit together, he started to focus, and eventually, he got into Harvard. I had him on the right path until… well, until you. I tried everything I could to save him from you, from what you would turn him into, but he wasn’t strong enough to resist the temptation. Love always feels good at first, until it doesn’t anymore… He would have been better off without you. If he would have just stayed with me, he’d have everything he could ever want and he would have never suffered. He’d be master of his own universe and he’d have me at his side, guiding him and making sure nothing could ever get in his way.”

I swallow and look up from my empty glass to look at her. “Do you love him?” I ask, and she raises an eyebrow at me. “I’ve… thought about this a lot and it never really made sense to me why you would hang onto someone like you’ve hung onto Christian, or be so willing to destroy so many lives to keep him from walking away from you unless… unless you were in love with him.”

“No,” She says, shaking her head. “I’m not in love with him, Anastasia. Haven’t you paid attention at all? I don’t love people.

“Then why won’t you let him go?” I ask.

“Because Christian is a resource. He has money and influence that I could never get on my own. He’s the most powerful man in Seattle and I control him. What do you call the person who controls the most powerful man in Seattle?”

“The most powerful woman in Seattle?” I guess and she nods.

“Exactly.”

“But if you do this, if you pin this BDSM club on him and he’s arrested and he goes to prison, all of that power is gone. You lose too, Elena.”

“Which is why he was supposed to come and talk to me tonight,” She says bitterly.

“Well, he’s not coming,” I tell her. “You went too far with Mia and he will watch everything around him burn to the ground if that’s what it takes to get back at you for what you did to her. Carrick warned him again and again not go after you but he wouldn’t listen. He was single minded and now he’s going to lose everything…”

“Weak,” She repeats, and she drains her glass again.

“I can’t lose him,” I say, shaking my head. “I can’t… It’ll kill me. I love him. He’s the love of my life, he’s my future, he’s.. a part of me. A part I can’t exist without. I belong with him. We belong together. I can’t lose him.”

“Don’t be dramatic,” Elena sighs.

“I’m not being dramatic, you don’t…”

“Yes, you are,” She interrupts me. “You will be fine without Christian Grey, Anastasia. Days will pass, the world will keep turning, even when you don’t want it to. Your father will come home, you’ll graduate from school, you’ll publish your book… Your life will go on and you will be fine. You don’t want to lose him, but don’t want to and I can’t are very different concepts.”

I shake my head. “You said you don’t love people so maybe you don’t understand. But you have to be able to understand self-preservation, right? The last time I lost Christian, it nearly killed me and if I lose him now… it will. I. Can’t. Lose. Him,” I say emphatically.

She raises an eyebrow at me, contemplating for a moment, before turning back to her drink. “I’m sorry. This isn’t the kind of deal I could work out with you, Anastasia. I need to speak with Christian.”

“Try me,” I tell her.

She shakes her head again. “You’re too innocent. You’re not willing to do the things that are necessary to get what you want. Christian I can convince to do almost anything, but you… your emotions and your feelings about right and wrong stop you from doing whatever you need to do to get what you want.”

“You’re not grasping this, Elena,” I tell her. “This isn’t an option for me anymore. I don’t care what it is you’re planning, saving him is what is most important to me now. I came down here to meet with you. Doesn’t that tell you anything? I’m on the verge of having everything I care about in the world taken away from me, and the man I love is about to have his life ruined for something he didn’t do. There is literally nothing I wouldn’t do to stop that from happening.”

Elena takes a deep breath, looking at me very critically for a moment before she finally nods.

“Fine, but I have some demands first,” She says and I nod.

“I’d be disappointed if you didn’t.”

“You can’t give me these things, only Christian can, so write this down,” She instructs me and I reach into my purse for the small note pad and pen and look at her expectantly.

“I want my club back and since he’s blown open the lid on what I’ve built here, I’m going to need money to start over again.”

“How much?”

“Oh…” She purses her lips as she ponders. “Ten million.”

“Ten million?” I nearly choke. “You’re insane. There’s no way it takes ten million dollars to open a club.”

She gives me a look that makes it clear that her demands are non-negotiable. I shake my head and write ten million dollars down on my notepad.

“And since he’s closed down the salons, he needs to set up a shell company with accounts tied to the Cayman Islands for me to dump revenue into.”

“I don’t know what that is,” I admit.

“Don’t worry, he will. Just write it down,” I do, and she continues. “Starting tomorrow, he will take my phone calls and he will meet with me when I ask for him to. If I ever need a favor, he will not hesitate to give me what I need, and if his mother ever has me taken off the list somewhere ever again, he will remedy that immediately.”

I take a deep breath as I force my hand to write the words, even though it feels like I’m signing away my soul, or maybe Christian’s, as I do.

“Anything else?” I ask blankly.

“Yes,” She says, nodding slightly and looking at me through slightly narrowed eyes. “I want him to leave you.”

“What?” I ask.

“He doesn’t make good decisions when you’re involved,” She says. “You get into his head too easily and it makes things really fucking difficult for me.”

“No,” I say firmly and she shrugs, picks up the mostly empty bottle of gin off the bar, and gets out of her seat.

“Forget it then.”

“He’ll never agree to that!” I argue. “I can convince him to give you these other things, but not that.”

“Fine,” She says, nodding in agreement. “Then you’ll leave him. I don’t care how it happens, just as long as you’re out of the picture.”

I stare at her with disbelief, feeling like she’s punched me in the gut. “If I leave him again… it’ll destroy him.”

“I’ll put him back together,” She whispers. I look down at the notepad in front of me, fighting the emptiness that takes hold of my gut from just considering this as an option.

“I can’t do that…” I say quietly.

“Then he can love you from prison,” She says. “But remember, you have to be married to get conjugal visits.”

She turns around and begins walking towards the back office again. I take a deep breath, trying to bury the hurt deep inside of me where it can be ignored until I’m alone, and then call to stop her again.

“Wait,” I say, and she turns around.

“Yes?”

“Okay,” I agree. “I’ll leave him.”

“No phone calls, no visits, no contact at all. Like you don’t exist,” She clarifies. I nod and she smiles. “Then we have a deal. I expect the money transfer no later than 8:30 tomorrow morning. Once I have it, I’ll let him off the hook.” She turns around once again towards her office without saying another word.

“Elena!” I yell, jumping out of my seat. “You haven’t told me the actual plan.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll take care of it,” She says.

“No,” I shake my head. “No way, if you want me to get these things for you, if you expect me to break his heart for this, I need to know what you’re going to do. I won’t do anything until I do.”

“I’m going to put it on Ros,” She says casually, and my mouth falls open.

“That’s your plan?” I ask. “Ros? She has nothing to do with any of this…”

“Neither does Christian. But Ros… well, she had me audited,” Elena replies flatly and I gape at her incredulously.

“So? She was doing her job… and clearly she had reason to be concerned since you actually were laundering money.”

“Haven’t you learned yet, Anastasia? I don’t let people get in my way, and when they try, I cut them down. When Christian tried to break his contract with me, I destroyed his relationship with you. When Carrick tried to expose my lifestyle and have me put in prison for fucking his son, I ripped his family apart. When Andrew and I divorced and he left me with nothing, I made Christian take his company.”

I freeze, taking a minute to fully realize what she’s just said. “You, what?”

She frowns, looking lost in thought for a moment. “I had to be more patient for that one than I was prepared for, but we got there in the end. Actually, Elliot was a big help in moving that along. I don’t know if I would have been able to convince Christian to pull the trigger on expanding into timber so quickly if it hadn’t been for the exorbitant amount of money Elliot was asking for the new building.”

“No, Christian said Lincoln Timber had nothing to do with you…”

“Of course he did,” She coos, speaking to me as though I’m a child. “Jesus, you really don’t know him at all do you? The best way to get Christian to do what you want is to make him believe it’s his idea. All I had to do was wait for the right opening, make sure the right data fell into his hands, and then let him know I had an in. He’s not incompetent. He took it from there and now Andrew’s legacy has a Grey logo stamped over the front of it. My logo.

“You’re unbelievable,” I say bitterly. “I just don’t understand how you can live with yourself. How can you do this to people over and over again and not feel even the slightest bit of remorse?”

“It’s really not difficult, Ana. Don’t you remember what I told you? People make you weak. Loving people makes you weak. If you just let go of the idea of needing someone else, or protecting someone else, or caring about someone else, there’s no limit to what you can do.”

“Not everyone is like that, Elena. Not everyone can use a friend, or a family member, or a lover like a chess piece waiting be sacrificed just so you can take one step further. Having family, and friends, and someone to love and share your future with, that’s what life is all about. You might not understand that, but Christian does, and he’s not going to let Ros take the fall for this to save himself.”

“Then you’ve made him weaker than I thought,” She sneers. “You know, he used to have so much potential. I used to think he could be great. He was going to be unstoppable, but you… you ruined him. He could have…”

“He could have what, Elena?” I snap back, feeling anger rising inside of me. “He could have molested children? He could have forced young women into sex slavery? He could have run an illegal BDSM sex club that had he not lied about and tried to pin on someone else, he’d go to prison for? That’s power to you?”

“It’s served me well,” She says, “I’m still here, aren’t I?”

I grimace and look back down at the notepad in front of me as I feel the hot sting of tears in my eyes, but for once they’re not because of a crushing sense of defeat, or the empty feeling of complete and utter loss, but fiery anger.

“It looks like cavalry is here,” Elena says, and I look up at her, but she’s staring out the front window. A pair of headlights pull up in front of the bar and I sigh, knowing that my time is up. Elena must realize that too because she smiles and turns her body like she’s going to head into her office again.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Ana,” She says. “Or maybe not. Maybe Christian will hear my plan and make the right choice. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s surprised me.”

I glare at her but quickly gather my things and push away from the bar. Christian is already out of the car by the time I get outside and the second he sees me, he bolts across the sidewalk and grabs onto my shoulders, holding me at arm’s length so he can examine me.

“Are you okay?” He asks, his voice shaking. “What did she do to you?”

“Nothing,” I assure him and a brief flash of relief crosses his face before quickly morphing into anger.

“Why are you here, Anastasia? Are you crazy? Do you even realize what she could have…?”

“I got it,” I interrupt him and he leans back to look at me with confusion.

“What do you mean, you got it?” He asks.

I slip my purse off my shoulder, reach into the front pocket for my cell phone, and immediately touch the round red icon on the screen to stop the recording.

“She admitted everything. Not just that the club was hers and that you had nothing to do with it, but also her plans to blackmail you now that she’d made you look guilty.”

He looks down at my phone, his eyes widening with shock before he looks back up at me and then to the door of the bar.

“Get in the car,” He says quickly, opening the door and ushering me inside. He instructs Taylor to drive straight for Carrick’s office and then takes my phone from me, playing the recording as we make our way back uptown.

Once we’re inside Carrick’s office, Christian places my phone on the desk between him and his father, and I pace the back of the room as I listen to the recording for the second time. Carrick’s brow is furrowed as he stares down at the phone, listening to my conversation with Elena, and I feel a small bit of irritation that he isn’t taking notes.

“There!” Christian says triumphantly, point down at my phone. “There, she admits it. She admits everything. I’m off the hook.”

Carrick sighs, leans over his desk, and reaches out to stop the recording. “She admits it, but you’re not off the hook, Christian. I can’t use this…”

“What?” He asks, and I stop pacing to stare at him with disbelief. “What do you mean you can’t use this?”

“The state of Washington is a two party consent state. Audio recordings of a person’s voice are inadmissible as evidence unless the person being recorded knows they are being recorded and gives consent. Remember this afternoon when Novik asked you if you wanted her to play back the conversation you had with Elena on your birthday? Why do you think she asked you instead of just playing it? You didn’t know Elena was recording you so she needed your permission to submit the recording as evidence. You didn’t give it to her, so she never played it. It’s like when you call a bank or a customer service line and you get that recording that tells you the call is being monitored before they connect you with a representative. Staying on the line after being informed the call is being recorded is consent.”

“But… That doesn’t make any sense,” Christian argues. “What about the recording of me going into the club? I didn’t approve that but she submitted that into evidence.”

“Video footage is different. There are too many variables that go into audio recordings. There is no way for the court to be absolutely certain that is Elena’s voice in this recording. The sound could be manipulated, the recording device could distort the playback, hell you may have just found someone who sounds like her or hired a voice actor… The point is, it’s inadmissible as evidence.”

I feel a deep sinking feeling in my gut. It was all for nothing. My last ditch effort was wasted because of a stupid loophole in the law that is now going to let a criminal go free while an innocent man will face charges for a crime he didn’t commit.

Christian slumps back into his chair, looking defeated once again as the false hope I’d given him slowly drains away. “Have you heard from anyone on my team?” He asks.

“Barney called about twenty minutes before you got here,” Carrick replies. “They haven’t found anything yet, but they’re still looking.”

“So… we really don’t have anything. We’re going to go in there tomorrow just as unprepared as we were today?”

“Maybe not,” Carrick says and he turns to me. “Ana, will you email me a copy of this recording? I can.. I don’t know, maybe use some of the things she says to try and trip her up in my examination tomorrow.”

“Of course,” I agree and I reach over to pick up my phone and immediately press my finger into the email icon.

“We should…” He continues, but he hesitates as though he doesn’t want to say whatever it is that he has to. “We should talk about what you should expect if the worst should happen tomorrow.”

“Okay,” Christian nods.

“If the judge believes the evidence Elena’s lawyer has submitted against you proves culpability and mens rea, which seems likely at this point, your lawsuit will be dismissed, the court will bring criminal charges against you, and you will be detained. While you are in custody, you are not to say anything to anyone without me being present. We’ll post bail to get you out of there and we’ll start work on your defense. All the evidence submitted against you in this trial will be resubmitted in the criminal case as well as anything else the DA comes up with. Anything about you online or in the media will be fair game, and your public perception isn’t great. Especially not after the Leila Williams case…”

“That case was dropped though,” Christian argues, but Carrick shakes his head.

“But there was no not-guilty. This type of criminal trial is going to mean a jury and a jury is much easier to sway on circumstantial evidence and appearance than a judge is. Jury members are selected specifically because they have no knowledge of how the law actually works. That security footage of the submissives who worked for Elena leaving your office or of you going to the bar are going to be even more difficult to overcome in a jury situation.”

“So, I’m fucked?” Christian asks. Carrick takes a deep breath.

“It doesn’t look good,” He says, and Christian hangs his head.

“If this goes badly, I’m not going back to school,” I interject. “I’m not going to move back across the country and not know what’s going on.”

Christian shakes his head. “You’re not going to give up Harvard for this trial, I won’t allow that.”

“I’m not asking you,” I argue.

“He’s right, Ana,” Carrick interjects. “You won’t be able to change anything by being here…”

“I’m not leaving him to go through this alone,” I say, making sure my words come out very clearly. “If he is arrested tomorrow, I’m going to call Harvard and withdraw myself for the fall semester.”

Christian gives me a pained look, but neither he or his father argue with me any further.

“I’m sorry, son,” Carrick says after a few seconds of silence. “I know you got your hopes up with this recording but…”

“It’s fine,” Christian snaps as he gets out of the chair and picks up his suit jacket. “You didn’t write the law. It’s not your fault. We need to get home, we have a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”

Carrick nods and I try and keep the look of helplessness off my face as Christian reaches for my hand and leads me out of his father’s office. Before the door closes behind us, I hear Carrick let out a defeated sounding sigh and then the sound of him typing on his laptop once again.

Christian is quiet most of the way home, but he holds tightly to my hand and every few minutes he lifts my fingers to his lips and places soft kisses against each one of my knuckles. I want to look at him, not at the shops and offices we pass as we make our way through downtown back towards Escala, but it’s too painful to see him like this. Now that I realize I blew my shot, I’m worried once again that I’m spending my last few hours with him, and this isn’t how I want to think of him when he’s not around anymore.

“In the recording…” He says hesitantly, drawing my attention to him. “You agreed to leave me.”

“I needed to know her plan,” I explain. “She wouldn’t have told me if I didn’t agree…”

“And if her plan wasn’t Ros?” He asks. “If it had been more reasonable and you thought that I might have made a deal with her?”

“If it would have saved you…” I say, my voice starting to shake as I look at the pain in his eyes.

“It wouldn’t have been saving me if it meant I would lose you, Anastasia,” He says. “Life without you is not freedom. Life without you is worse than any prison could ever be.”

My lips purse together as I look back at him, and then I reach down to unbuckle my seatbelt so that I can crawl into his lap. I think that normally, this is not something he would approve of but in this moment, he accepts me willingly and holds me tightly against him until we come to a stop in the parking garage under Escala.

When we get upstairs, Taylor asks to be dismissed for the rest of the night so he can assist the other security staff members in their search for something to use against Elena. Christian agrees, and once we’re alone, he leads me back to our bedroom.

“Have a seat,” He instructs me, and I do as he asks, settling down on the edge of the bed and looking up at him expectantly. He closes the door behind us and then sits next to me, taking my hands into his and looking into my eyes very purposefully.

“There is an offshore account with $65 million dollars in it,” He tells me. “It can’t be traced back to me so if my assets are seized, that money won’t be touched. I’ve arranged for $100,000 out of that account to be transferred to you on the first day of each month until it’s been emptied. If you change your bank account at all, you need to contact this person so he can adjust the transfer.”

He hands me a business card, and I briefly look down at it, but I only just barely have time to read the name before he continues.

“There is a safety deposit box at Seattle Federal, it’s in Taylor’s name so you’ll have to have him take you, but there’s $5 million dollars inside of it. Once you graduate, you can use that money to pay off your student loans, buy a house… anything else you need. Okay?”

“Christian, I-” I begin, but he stops me from arguing by thrusting the key to the safety deposit box into my hand.

“Ros has assured me that should we find a way to transfer GEH into her name, you’ll still have a job at SIP after you graduate. And, if you need anything else, or if you ever get into trouble, you can call Elliot and he’ll help you. He’s promised me that he’ll look out for you when I-” His voice cuts off. “When I can’t anymore.”

A tear rolls down my cheek and I fiddle with the key in my hand, unable to answer him. But when he places his hand under my chin and forces me to look up at him, I nod.

“And… and…” He takes a deep breath to prepare himself for whatever it is he’s going to say next. “If you meet someone else…”

“No,” I cut him off, my voice breaking as I shake my head and yank my hands out of his grip. “No, I can’t…”

“Ana, I don’t want you to sacrifice any happiness for me. If I can’t be there… Well, I just want you to be happy.”

The dam bursts and I put my face into my hands as I can no longer hold back the tears. “I’m so sorry, Christian,” I sob. “I screwed up tonight. I had one chance and I wasted it. I should have researched better, I should have figured out how to get a video instead of a stupid voice recording. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

“Hey,” He says, wrapping me in his arms and rubbing his hand over my back comfortingly. “It’s not your fault. I should have fought harder for you, for us. I should have never let it get this far. I should have never bought that salon, I should have never trusted her… I should have turned away from her years ago. The second I had you, I should have walked away from her forever. I’ve made so many mistakes, I wish I could take it all back.”

I look up at him but before I can say anything, his lips take mine. He pours everything into this kiss, like he’s trying to release what should have been a lifetime of love into this once precious point of contact. I succumb and open my lips for his insistent tongue, which caresses mine with a passionate kind of tenderness that actually makes me forget for just a minute that we’re on a train hurdling at breakneck speed for the edge of cliff that is getting closer and closer with each passing second.

“Get into bed with me,” He whispers against my lips, but I pull away, blink up at him through my still wet eyelashes, and frown.

“I don’t think I can make love right now, Christian,” I admit in a weak voice. “I’m crying and I feel like..”

“I just want to hold you,” He assures me.

“Okay,” I agree. He stands and then takes my hands to help me off the bed. While he pulls down the comforter, I go into the closet to strip out of the clothes I’ve been wearing since early this morning, and reach into the clothes hamper to find the unwashed t-shirt Christian wore after he got home from his father’s office last night. It smells like him and right now, all I want in the world is to be surrounded by as much of him as I can, so I slip it over my head and then head back into the room.

Christian is already in bed so I crawl in beside him, almost half-laying on him as I try to snuggle into him as closely as I can. He wraps his arms tightly around me and rests his head on mine.

“I feel like I failed you, Christian,” I say again, “I’m never going to get over that.”

“It’s not your fault, Anastasia,” He tells me. “None of this is your fault.”

His lips press into my hair and we lay there in the darkness for what feels like a long time. We have an early morning and I know that we should sleep, but sleeping feels like losing time with him, so I fight it for as long as possible. Eventually though, the late hour and the events of the day catch up to me and I lose the battle. My eyelids droop and I slowly drift away.

Next Chapter

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