The next few days are a strange mix of relaxing and extremely busy. I seemed to have suppressed the memory of Mia trying to teach me to surf in Bora Bora a few years ago because I let her talk me into trying again. Unfortunately, the reason I vowed never to step foot on a surfboard again is clearly and repeatedly demonstrated to me as I’m sent crashing into the water again and again while the waves tumble over me and fill my nose and mouth with salty sea water. I give it about an hour before I give up and spend the rest of the afternoon laying on a sun lounger with Kate while we watch Christian, Elliot, and Mia enjoy the surf together. I find myself glaring at Christian a few times as he manages not to fall despite some rather precarious situations he gets himself into. Seriously, is there anything he isn’t good at?
Most of our vacation is spent on the beach, or in mine and Christian’s case, in bed, but a few days later, Kate finally breaks Elliot down and he charters a flight over to the Big Island so she can see Mount Kilauea, the volcano on the south side of the island that is apparently one of the most active volcanos in the world. Since the alternative is deep sea fishing with Grace, Carrick, and Mia, when Kate asks me if I want to come, I agree. Christian seems less than thrilled by the prospect of hiking up the side of an active volcano, so I suggest he spend the day fishing with his father.
“And leave you to do it alone?” he asks, sounding slightly mortified by the idea.
“Well it’s not like you’re going to be able to save me from lava if we get into trouble,” I say, rolling my eyes, and he frowns.
“Tell me again why you want to do this?”
“Because we’ve been cooped up in this room for the last four days and I would like to see at least some of Hawaii while we’re here.”
“I rather thought you’d enjoyed being cooped up in her with me,” He says pointedly. “Especially last night. How many times did I make you come?”
He gives me a very self-satisfied smirk and although I can’t help but smiling at that particular memory, I let out a small exasperated groan.
“Oh come on, Christian. It’s only one afternoon. What’s life without some excitement every now and then?”
He rolls his eyes. “I think I’ve had enough excitement to last me a lifetime.”
I pout at him and, begrudgingly, he gets off the sofa situated in the living room of our bungalow and follows me out to the car where Kate and Elliot are waiting for us.
It’s about an hour flight from Kauai to the south side of Hawaii and once we’ve landed, we’re ushered into a car that drives us through the beautiful rainforest towards the imposing outline of Mount Kilauea in the distance.
When we arrive at the park, we stop first at the visitor’s center where the tour guide gives us a brief history of the volcano and its current eruption, which has been continuously occurring since January 3rd 1983. We’re given a long lecture about safety precautions and which areas of the state park are off limits, and then they give us a map and send us on our way.
The majority of the trail is through the rainforest so not only is it a difficult hike, but it’s also hot and muggy. I find myself wishing I would have worn jeans rather than shorts as the brush and wet foliage that creeps out into the path scrapes against my calves and ankles, leaving them itchy and irritated. It’s even worse once we make it out of the trees and start the descent down the steep rocky cliffside. I find myself glad that Christian did decide to come along because while Elliot and Kate fly down the mountainside with ease, I nearly fall to my death about eighty times only to be grabbed at the last second and pulled back onto the trail by Christian’s sure hands.
“And you climbed a mountain last spring?” He asks, a little angrily, as he helps me right myself again.
“Yeah. In hindsight, that wasn’t a great idea,” I admit and he glowers at me.
“Remind me to fire Luke again when we get back to the compound,” He says and I laugh a little, hoping he’s joking, as he takes a few steps forward and then reaches out for my hands to help me down the next difficult drop.
Eventually, we make it down into the Kilauea Iki crater and as Kate looks around the blackened lava lake, she frowns.
“But… where’s the lava?” She asks, confused.
“You’re standing on it,” Christian replies. She lifts her arms into the air and then lets them fall to her side, obviously disappointed.
“I thought we’d get down here and see molten lava flows and things exploding. What a rip off.”
“You really thought they’d just let a bunch of people hike up to an active eruption with no guides?” I ask her skeptically and she shrugs. Clearly, she hadn’t really thought this through.
We take a few minutes to walk around the hardened lava flow, standing to marvel at the steam vents that pop up randomly throughout the crater and the spectacular view of the ocean. All too soon though, it’s time to make the hike back up to the visitor center, and as difficult as it was getting down the mountainside, it’s much more difficult getting back up. Even Elliot, who would never admit he was struggling at anything, seems dubious as we climb back up to the trail. But thankfully, after a very long, arduous process, we make it back to the top.
Kate is pouting a little when we get back to the car so Elliot promises her they can book a helicopter tour the next day to actually take them over the caldera. She seems a little pacified by that compromise, though still clearly disappointed she won’t get to see it up close and personal. I’m a little disappointed myself, but I don’t want to ask Christian to come all the way back out here when this wasn’t really his thing in the first place, so I decide I’ll just ask Kate to take a lot of pictures and maybe some video when they’re flying over the lava fountain.
“I’ll be right back,” Christian says as I start to climb into the back of the SUV. I give him a weary look as he turns and heads back into the visitor’s center, but when Kate gives me the same look, I just shrug it off and close the door of the SUV behind me. He’s gone for several minutes and when he finally returns he’s followed by someone I assume is a park employee.
“Come on,” Christian says, opening the door on mine and Kate’s side.
“What?” Kate asks.
“He says it’s best at night, but it’s a 90 minute hike down there so if we’re going to go we have to go now. Let’s go see some lava.”
“Really?” She says, suddenly giddy, and Christian nods. I watch Kate practically leap out of the back of the SUV as she wraps her arms around Christian and plants a kiss on his cheek. He seems a little taken aback at first but once he recovers, he pats her on the back uncomfortably and then shakes her off.
“Okay, okay,” He says. “Don’t make me regret this.”
Kate laughs and then reaches back for Elliot, pulling him quickly from the car to where the tour guide is waiting for us.
“That was very sweet of you,” I tell Christian as I close the car door behind me. I lean up on my toes and give him a less dramatic kiss on the cheek, but when I turn away he grabs my arm and pulls me back so that he can take my lips. I let out a satisfied moan and kiss him back.
“I didn’t want you to miss out on any experiences,” He says, and then quickly adds, “In case you thought I was doing it for Kate.”
“Uh huh,” I say, rolling my eyes before I reach down for his hand and smile up at him. “No matter what your reason, you made her very happy, and I adore you for it.”
He kisses me again and then we hurry after Kate and Elliot, who were too impatient to be on the way to wait for us.
The hike down to the lava flows is much easier that it was to the crater, and so much more rewarding. We get there just as the sun is setting and the fiery orange river flowing over the ground towards the ocean makes everything around it glow in the growing darkness. There are dark ribbons running through the center of the flow as the lava cools, and we watch them twist and break apart as the hotter molten material rises to the surface. As we follow it to the very edge of the blackened ground towards the steep drop off into the ocean, we see the huge clouds of steam billowing into the air. The rocks below are still glowing red from the lava dripping down from the main flow and it’s a beautiful contrast against the waves constantly crashing into the rock face.
The guide tells us everything we’re standing on is land created from the eruption and as we watch the some of the red in the rocks below slowly fade into the same black material we’re standing on, we get to witness first hand the growth of the island.
“That was incredible!” I gush once we’re finally in the car and making our way back to the airport. “The colors and the way it rolled down the mountain… it was absolutely beautiful.”
“Thank you, Christian,” Kate says, turning around to smile at him and he nods.
“I’m glad you had fun,” He tells her. I squeeze his hand and then lean over to rest my head on his shoulder, and when I feel him turn to place a gentle kiss against my hair, I wonder if there could have been a more perfect day than today.
Our last day in Hawaii also happens to be Elliot’s birthday, and since he didn’t get to go fishing with Carrick while we went on our volcano excursion, he decides that’s what he wants to do today. I’m not crazy about spending a day on the open sea and it seems Kate isn’t either, so Christian suggests we take the day to go into town and maybe treat ourselves to a massage and do a little shopping.
“Here,” He says, handing me his black card. “Buy whatever you want and whatever Kate wants too. It’s all my treat.” I thank him, but barely get a goodbye kiss in before Kate is dragging me away to the cars.
When we get into town, we pop in and out of a few of the local souvenir type boutiques, where I buy some things for Ray and Carla, and then head to the more high end clothing stores. Kate is desperate to find something special to wear to dinner, and it seems like no matter how many stores we go through, she isn’t satisfied.
“What about this one?” I ask, holding up a flowy, sky blue colored dress that ties around the neck.
“Mmm,” Kate mumbles, pursing her lips as she looks disapprovingly at the dress in my hand. “It just doesn’t wow me.”
“We’re just having a dinner, Kate,” I grumble.
“I don’t think so…” She says and I turn to raise an eyebrow at her.
“What do you mean?”
“I think… I think Elliot’s going to ask me to marry him tonight.”
“What!” The dress falls out of my hand and I look quickly around the store, a little embarrassed by my outburst as I quickly pick it up and hook it back onto the rack. Kate shoots an apologetic look to the salesgirl hovering close by and then nods.
“I mean, think about it, Ana. We’ve been together for almost three years, I’m already basically a part of his family, his parents adore me, we’ve just bought a house together… He clearly wants to spend the rest of his life with me, all he’s got left to do is ask me.”
“But what makes you think it’s tonight…?”
She shrugs. “It’s our last night here and we’re going to be in Seattle one day before we have to go back to Cambridge. He’s not coming back with me, I think he wants to, you know, seal the deal before I go. He’s just… he’s had this look in his eye all week. He’s going to propose, I’m sure of it.”
“Awh, Kate…” I say, pouting a little at the sweetness of the whole situation, but she rolls her eyes.
“Stop it. Save your tears for later. Right now, you and I need to find the perfect engagement dress. Something that makes me look so fantastic, it’ll make a grown man drop to one knee.”
“Should we look for something white?” I joke, but she shakes her head.
“I can’t look like I expect it, Ana,” She says. “He may not be good at keeping secrets, but this is his proposal too. I want it to be as perfect for him as he’s going to make it for me, because I know this is something he’ll have put a lot of thought into. So, I’m going to act my ass off tonight and look shocked when he pops the question, and definitely, not wear white.”
I laugh. “Well, there has to be something here. Good thing you’ve gotten so tan this week. You’ll look amazing in just about anything.”
“All part of the plan, Ana. All part of the plan.”
We end up going through four more stores until Kate finds a pink dress that has an almost florescent quality to it, highlights all the best parts of her body, and shows off her killer arms and legs. She is giddy as we make our way to the registers, trying to decide whether she wants to do a side fishtail braid in her hair, or whether she should just put it up in a messy bun. I vote braid and lay both our purchases on the counter. I’ve decided that if Kate isn’t going for white, I’m going to take advantage. It’s not a color I can normally wear since I’m usually paler than milk in a snowstorm, but I’ve caught some really good color under the Hawaiian sun and I want to show it off.
Once we’re finished shopping, we head to a resort a few miles down the beach from our compound and hit the spa. We’re massaged, steamed and waxed, and then ushered into the salon where Kate has her nails done and her hair re-highlighted. Despite feeling a little rushed to get back in time for Elliot’s birthday dinner, we’re feeling relaxed and rejuvenated as we stop by the bungalows to change and then make our way down to the cabana on the beach where dinner is laid out and the family is already waiting for us.
“How was your day ladies?” Carrick asks once we make it to the table.
“Great,” I tell him, smiling broadly as I hurry around the table to take my place next to Christian, who immediately leans over to kiss me.
“You look beautiful,” He tells me. “I like this dress.” His finger skims up the bare skin on my back and a shiver runs up my spine as I turn to look at him, his face is tanned from a day in the sun and his hair is a little windswept. He looks good enough to eat, and after a long day away from him, I’m famished.
“You don’t look so bad yourself,” I say, coyly. He smiles again and leans in to kiss me once more, but our lips have just barely touched when I feel something bounce off the side of my face.
“Rule number one of Elliot’s birthday dinner,” Elliot says, looking very pointedly between the two of us. “Christian and Ana can’t make out at the table.”
“That’s the worst rule I’ve ever heard of,” Christian says, picking up the little piece of sweet roll Elliot threw across the table and throwing it back at him. To my surprise though, Christian does shift back into his chair, but his hand reaches blindly for mine under the table and once he has it, he absentmindedly rubs his thumb over the backs of my fingers.
As we dig into what is basically a feast of Hawaiian food laid out in front of us, stopping to set our forks down every two or three minutes as Kate, Grace, and Mia repeatedly jump out of their seats to take pictures of everyone celebrating Elliot’s birthday together, we listen to Elliot’s version of being out on the fishing boat this afternoon. The way he tells it, he was basically out wrestling Moby Dick all afternoon in a story that quickly turns into the plot from Ernest Hemingway’s, The Old Man and The Sea. Only, unlike Santiago, Elliot was forced to cut his prize loose so that his family wasn’t pulled too far out to sea.
“Yeah, that’s what happened,” Christian says, deadpan. He turns to look at me, shakes his head, and then holds his index fingers up maybe six inches apart from one another. I giggle.
“Whatever,” Elliot says, rolling his eyes. “I caught more than you did.”
“It’s your birthday,” Christian shrugs. “I didn’t want to embarrass you.”
Another bit of sweet roll gets chucked across the table, but because he’s prepared for it, Christian simply leans into the table and catches it in his mouth.
“Thanks, Elliot,” He says while he chews and though Elliot tries to look annoyed, he struggles to hide his smile.
“What do you say we do presents, huh?” Grace asks, and suddenly there is a shuffle around the table as everyone reaches down to grab the gifts they’ve purchased.
Mia goes first, gifting him a voucher for an afternoon driving a real racecar around an actual Nascar track. Kate’s gift is a remodel for a room in their new house to turn into his man cave, and Grace and Carrick have coordinated with her, buying him an entertainment system and several gift cards to video game stores. He leans over to kiss Kate, looking extremely excited, and then reaches across the table to take the brightly colored envelope I hand him.
“I can’t really take full credit for this…” I say as he peels back the flap and his eyes widen.
“No way!” He says, jumping out of his seat. I laugh a little as he pulls the lanyard and laminated badge from the envelope and begins doing a little happy dance.
“It’s a VIP badge for Christian’s box seats at Qwest Field,” He says, in a sing-song voice.
“I expect that we will go to every home game we can this year,” I say pointedly, and he smiles and nods excitedly.
“I don’t think you’re going to be able to top that, Christian,” Elliot says, as he sits back down in his seat, looking at his brother as he picks up a manila envelope from the seat next to him.
“Well, I’m going to try,” He says. Elliot furrows his brow suspiciously as he takes the envelope, pulls back the tab, and dumps the contents into his hand. It’s a key fob that looks a little like a silver bullet with a familiar, elaborate B etched into the metal.
“No…” Elliot says looking up at his brother in disbelief. “This is the key to your car.”
“Your car,” Christian corrects him and suddenly Elliot’s eyes widen to the size of dinner plates.
“I can’t… you can’t… this is…” He stutters. “Christian, this is a $2.5 million car.”
“Nah, it’s like… $1.8 million with depreciation,” He says, waving his hand nonchalantly.
“I can’t take this,” He says seriously, moving to put the key back in the envelope, but Christian refuses to take it back.
“Please, Elliot,” He says, “I want you to have it.”
“It’s too much,” Elliot argues, but again, Christian disagrees.
“No it isn’t. Elliot, there was a very long time where the only person at this table who I could talk to was you. You never gave up on me, and this vacation, getting to see Mia’s first professional dance recital, even having Anastasia here by my side… That’s all because of you and the way you fought for this family. If it hadn’t been for you, we wouldn’t be here like this. Mom and Dad might have actually gotten a divorce, Ana still wouldn’t be taking my phone calls, and I’d probably still be having business lunches with Elena Lincoln. All of this, is because of you and that car doesn’t come close to paying you back for what you did for me. Which is why I’m not done trying.”
He reaches over and picks up a second manila envelope and passes it to Elliot, who looks nearly speechless as he begins to open it. He pulls out a small stack of papers, but as he begins to read through them, his face just becomes marred with confusion.
“I don’t understand,” He says, “What is this?”
“When Ros and I were separating Esclava from GEH, before we found out what it was, we broke out Grey Construction too. I’m gifting it to you, Elliot. It’s yours to do with what you want, but I sincerely hope you’ll consider a contract with GEH that offers such good rates it’s practically criminal.”
“Whatever you want,” Elliot says, grinning broadly. “I can’t believe… you’re giving me a company. Holy fuck, I’m a CEO.”
“Second best one in the family,” Christian says with a small laugh and Elliot comes around the table, grabs hold of Christian’s hand to pull him out of his seat, and wraps him up in a hug.
“Okay, you’re making it weird now,” Christian says, and Elliot laughs, pulls away, and then punches Christian in the arm. When Elliot makes his way back around the table and re-takes his seat, he leans over and kisses Kate again.
“This is going to change things for us.” He tells her, and suddenly she takes a deep breath, her eyes widen with expectation, and she nods excitedly. I feel my whole body freeze as I glance anxiously between then, wondering if it’s really about to happen, but then feel a sense of almost mortifying awkwardness when Elliot places another peck against her lips and then turns back to his dinner without saying anything else. She glances over at me, looking a little shocked, and I try to give her a reassuring smile, but I’m not sure it does any good.
“The sun is going down,” Christian says, his hand moving up to gently caress the back of my neck. “Will you go walk down on the beach with me for a minute?”
“Sure,” I agree, a little eager to get out from under Kate’s look of disappointment. I place my napkin back on the table, get out of my seat, and then take Christian’s hand again as we turn and begin walking towards the water’s edge. We walk quietly together for a long time, until we can’t see the cabana where the rest of Christian’s family are still enjoying the last of Elliot’s birthday dinner. Only once he’s sure we’re completely alone, does he stop.
“Come here,” He instructs me and we walk into the surf, standing there with the tide rushing in and out past our ankles and slowly sinking into the sand as we watch the sun set.
Christian looks off into the distance, into the setting sun, and as I look over at him, I wonder what has him so preoccupied.
“What are you thinking about?” I ask him.
“How good this feels,” He replies.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s just… for the first time in, god I don’t even know how long, I don’t have to think about her. I don’t have to worry about her, or if I’m pissing her off, or if she’s pissing me off, or what she’s going to do, or keeping you away from her. She’s just… out of my life and it feels so good. Like, this weight has been lifted off of me that I didn’t even know I was carrying. Suddenly it’s just you, me, and my family. I don’t know, it’s just… suddenly life doesn’t seem so hard.”
“It isn’t,” I agree. “Not always. It’s supposed to feel good. You’ve been stuck in the dark for so long, I can’t wait to explore the light with you.”
“Me either,” He says softly. He turns, looking down at me adoringly, his hand twitching slightly at his side before he reaches out and pulls me into him. “I love you so much, Anastasia. I wish this week would never end.”
“I love you too, Christian,” I tell him, but as I look up at him and see the way he’s staring down at me, I can’t help but feel there is an air of sadness or longing in his gaze that he’s clearly trying to hide. Unfortunately, I think I know why it’s there.
“Can I ask you something?”
“You just did,” He says with a small chuckle, and when I give him a pointed glare, he smiles and nods.
“Before I left SIP, Jack told me that you hadn’t appointed anyone to take my position.”
“No…” He says, drawing out the word as he avoids eye contact.
“Why?” I press him.
He exhales and then turns to face me, looking deeply into my eyes for a moment before he leans down and kisses me. When his lips break away, he rests his forehead against mine and sighs.
“I don’t want you to go back to school, Anastasia,” He says at last.
“Christian…” I begin to argue, but he cuts me off.
“It could be so great, Ana. You could write all you wanted to, we could have your book published through SIP. I’d even gift SIP to you if you wanted it. You could run it however you wanted to, champion the authors you wanted to. I’d help you grow it and make it into something powerful so that you could single handedly change the course of modern literature. I know school is important to you, and I know the things you’ve sacrificed and that your father has sacrificed to keep you there, but if I don’t ask you to stay, I’ll regret it every day you’re gone. Stay with me and I will give you your dreams.”
I swallow as I look away from him, feeling a small pang of sadness and even a little guilt, because as much as I don’t want to leave him, and as good as what he’s proposing sounds, it’s just not for me.
“Harvard is my dream, Christian,” I reply quietly. “It’s always been my dream.”
I look up at him and see the slight echo of pain behind the disappointment etched in his expression, so I reach up and brush my hand tenderly against his beautiful face.
“I’m not going anywhere,” I promise him. “You’re not losing me. We may not be together every day like we want to be but I know the love that we have for each other is strong enough to work through the distance. And I’ll come home as often as I can and you can come visit me whenever you get a chance. I’ll come home for holidays, and after the school year is over, I’ll move back here and we won’t have to be separated ever again. I’m yours, Christian. Body, mind, and soul, and going back to school isn’t going to change that.”
“I don’t want to have to miss you,” He says, sadly.
“I know,” I nod. “I don’t either. But when you do, you can call me, text me, email me, Skype me, get on a plane and fly to Massachusetts… or you can just know that whenever you’re missing me, I’m missing you too, and that I’m counting down the days until I get to be with you again.”
“Nine months,” He sighs. “I can do nine months.”
“Good. Thank you for waiting for me, Mr. Grey.”
“You’re worth the wait, Miss Steele,” He says, and slowly he reaches down and presses his lips into mine once more.