Chapter 22

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The first day of 2011 starts out cold and rainy but I can hardly feel the chill of the air against my too hot skin. My feet are pounding the pavement that winds its way around Kerry Park, but, despite the great view of Seattle and of the gorgeous man a few paces ahead of me, I simply don’t have the motivation to drag myself any further.

“Okay,” I pant, as I come to a stop, bend over, and place my hands on my knees to try and catch my breath. “I can’t anymore. I’m done.”

Christian stops and jogs back to me, a cocky smile plastered across his face as he takes a long pull from his water bottle and then hands it to me.

“You need to move back to Seattle,” he says. “Kate doesn’t push you hard enough. You’ve gone soft on me.”

“What happened to taking it easy?”

“Core and cardiovascular strength are key to an easy delivery and I intend on you having a very easy delivery.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I say, rolling my eyes as I take another drink of water.

“Just give me two more laps and then we’ll go home and shower.”

“Ugh…” I groan. “I changed my mind. You can have Gia back as a workout partner.”

He laughs. “But I like getting sweaty with you so much more.”

He leans over and kisses me gently on the lips and then turns to start running again. Thankfully, I haven’t even had the chance to work up the gusto to follow after him before I hear the electronic ringtone of his iPhone sound from inside the pocket on his shorts.

“Saved by the bell,” I gloat as he stops to pull it out. He rolls his eyes and then answers.

“Hello? What?” His expression morphs with sudden shock and urgency, his eyes darting back and forth as he listens to whatever the person on the phone is saying. “How? Right now? No, I’m in Queen Anne, Kerry Park, Ana and I are running. Okay, I’ll see you in a few minutes.”

He hangs up the phone.

“What was that?”

“They’ve got a liver,” he says, sounding almost astonished. “The donor is in surgery right now and Mom and Dad just got to the hospital.”

“What?”

“He’s getting a liver today.”

“Well, what are we… we gotta go.”

He nods and reaches out for my hand, pulling me quickly up the path to the parking lot where the Reventon is waiting. When we come through the gate in clear view of the car though, we find it surrounded by dozens of reporters.

“Miss Steele, over here! Show us the ring!”

“How big is it?”

“How’d he ask you?

“When’s the wedding?

“Does this mean you won’t be returning to Harvard?”

“Miss Steele, how does it feel knowing you’ve bagged Seattle’s richest and most eligible bachelor?”

The questions come at us a lightning speed and from every direction as we’re suddenly swarmed. Christian moves his body protectively in front of mine and, automatically, I reach down to pull the fabric of my t-shirt away from my stomach.

“I thought this is why we came to Queen Anne to run,” I say nervously. “To avoid the press.”

“They must have followed us,” he hisses. “Fuck, I knew not bringing Taylor was a bad idea.”

“And you say I don’t take security seriously…”

“Mr. Grey!” another one of the photographers calls. “Do you intend for Miss Steele to run the foundation you announced at your charity gala last night?”

“I’m not answering any questions,” Christian snaps. “Get the fuck away from my car.”

“Christian, don’t…” I try and warn him, but he silences me by pulling me swiftly into his side, holding me securely under his arm, and pushing through the crowd to get me to the passenger’s side door. As he moves me to pull open the scissor door, one of the reporters calls my name and reaches out to grab onto my arm, but, before he can actually touch me, Christian’s hand closes around his wrist and the man winces slightly.

“Keep your motherfucking hands off my fiancée or I will put you on your ass,” he shouts at him. Suddenly, the lights of the cameras around us intensify and, as Christian releases me so that I can duck into the car and then closes the door behind me, I feel an unwelcome sense of foreboding.

“Jesus Christ,” Christian hisses as he slides into the seat next to me and yanks his own door back into place.

“Don’t get into fights with the paparazzi,” I warn him.

“They shouldn’t be touching you.”

“No, they shouldn’t. But yelling at them and getting physical with them isn’t going to help either of us. Just ask Sean Penn what fighting with the Paparazzi can cause.”

“I’m not a celebrity, Ana,” he says, rolling his eyes.

“No, worse, you’re a high profile business man who actually has something to lose.”

His jaw tightens but he doesn’t say anything. Instead, he starts the engine, looks over his shoulder, and slowly backs through the crowd of photographers still trying to get our picture through the darkly tinted windows.

When we make it onto the I-5 North, Christian hits the gas and begins weaving through traffic towards Northwest Hospital. We pull into the parking lot in record time and, after I’ve once again securely locked his fingers between mine, we dash inside.

“Where’s Dad?” Christian asks when we get to the surgery floor waiting room and find Grace and Mia already there, waiting anxiously.

“They just took him back,” Grace replies. “He’s going straight into surgery prep. The donor is in this hospital so we don’t have any transport time. The liver has already been removed and examined… it’s beautiful, and a perfect match. He should be going into surgery any minute.”

“That’s great, Mom,” Christian says, the overwhelming relief in his voice apparent as he leans in to hug her. Mia gets out of her seat and comes to me, wrapping her arms around my middle as tears well in her eyes.

“It’s actually going to happen this time,” she says. “No more false alarms, no more waiting. He’s getting his liver today.”

“I know, Meems.”I beam at her.

“Where’s Elliot?” Christian asks when he releases his mother. “I’m surprised I beat him here.”

“I don’t know where he is,” Grace admits. “I called him this morning but he didn’t answer and when I called Gia, she said he’d gone out for coffee early in the morning and hadn’t gotten back yet. She said she’ll bring him here as soon as she gets home.”

Christian nods and then tells us he needs to go call Ros and let her know about the surgery so they can plan his time between home and GEH, and Grace decides to get a cup of coffee from the cafeteria, leaving me alone with Mia.

“So, I heard about what happened last night,” Mia says. “With Kate and Elliot. I can’t believe he said that right in front of her.”

“I know,” I reply, regretfully. “It was awful. Seeing her standing there, staring between Gia and Elliot, it was like I could see her heart breaking.”

“I tried calling her this morning, but I just kept getting voicemail,” Mia says.

“She needs time,” I reassure her. “She’s just gotta find a way to pick herself back up right now.”

She looks at me with hesitant eyes. “If I tell you something, will you promise not to get mad?”

“Why would I get mad? You can tell me anything, Mia.”

“Well, I don’t want you to think that I’m not so excited to have you as a sister, because I am. I really, really am. But, you were gone for a long time. All that time that you and Christian were broken up, you never called me once. You never came to visit, you never sent me a text message, or responded to any of the messages I sent you on Facebook…”

“I’m sorry,” I say quickly. “I don’t actually use my Facebook. I honestly don’t think I’ve even logged onto it since before I started college.”

“No, I know that, and it’s fine… now. But back then, it kind of hurt. I have two older brothers and I love both of them so, so much, but brothers aren’t exactly who you want to go to when you have your first real crush or the girls at school are being catty bitches. I’ve always wanted a big sister, for exactly those reasons, and when you were gone, all I had was Kate. I could call her at any time and talk to her about anything, even personal stuff, and she was always there for me. I used to send her pictures of outfits that I wanted to wear to get her opinion on them or forward her the angry text messages I was going to send to people so that she could tell me whether or not I was being unreasonable. I even skyped with her for a whole hour once because I got a huge zit the day we were taking pictures at school and I’m helpless with concealer. She sat there and walked me through what to do, step by step. Kate was the big sister I’ve always wanted, and now she’s just… gone.”

“She’s not gone, Mia,” I tell her, but she shakes her head.

“I mean, for awhile, maybe not. But as time goes on, our phone calls are going to get fewer and farther in between and eventually, they’ll stop. She’ll move on with her life and the new family that comes along with her next boyfriend. She’s going to forget about me and that kills me. Especially because Gia is not a replacement for Kate, not even close! I don’t even know what Elliot sees in her.”

“I know you mean a lot to Kate. I don’t know what’s going to happen going forward, but she really does love you, Mia. She loves your whole family. I know Kate very well, I know the Kate you just described to me very well, and that’s why she’s my best friend. And because I know her so well, I know that no matter what happens, if you ever needed her, she’ll be there. She’ll always be there.”

“You really think so?”

“Yeah, I do. And so will I.”

“Well, you have to be,” Mia says, cracking a smile. “You are going to be my big sister so you’re stuck with me for life.”

“And I can’t wait,” I beam at her.

Waiting in this hospital is beginning to feel like some kind of purgatory punishment. We sit in the same chairs we’ve sat in several times before, stare at the same fuzzy TVs, and read the same boring magazines. Christian at least has work to keep him occupied on his phone but, between the anxious energy radiating off of Grace and the seemingly interminable minutes that tick by like hours, I’m very quickly going out of my mind.

We sit there for just under two hours before Elliot and Gia finally show up, but once they come into the waiting room, any happiness we have to see them is replaced with concern when we see the shiner Elliot is sporting over his left eye, and I immediately feel my stomach drop.

“What happened to your face?” Christian asks, alarmed.

“Nothing,” Elliot says, quickly shaking his head. “I just… ran into a pole while I was out running this morning.”

“You don’t run,” Mia says.

“And now you know why,” he replies, pointing at his black eye.

“Well you should put some ice on it,” Grace says. She tries to reach out to bet a better look at his face, but he reaches out to stop her.

“I’m fine, what’s the news on Dad? Anything?”

“He’s in surgery right now. The doctor said everything looked really good from the donor so he’s not expecting any complications.”

“But he’s in surgery?” Elliot checks. “He’s actually open, on the table, having a new liver sewn into his body as we speak?”

“Yes,” Grace says, and Elliot lets out a long sigh of relief.

“Oh, thank god. Thank. God.” He collapses in a chair next to his mother while Gia runs to the cafeteria to get him some ice. When the waiting game begins again, I spend a little time playing a game with Mia on her phone until Elliot eventually gets up to use the bathroom and I excuse myself to go after him.

“Elliot!” I call once we’re out of earshot of the others. He turns and, once he sees that it’s me following him, he ducks into the corridor that leads to the bathrooms and waits for me to catch up.

“A pole?” I ask suspiciously.

“Ethan,” he admits. “I wasn’t getting coffee or going on a run this morning. I went to talk to Kate.”

“And?”

“And I got punched in the face by her brother.”

“Well, did you really expect a warm welcome? You hurt his little sister.”

“I know that.” He nods. “That’s why I went over there to talk to her. To apologize to her. ”

“And? What did she say?”

“Nothing.” He shakes his head dejectedly. “She wouldn’t see me. Worse than that, she wouldn’t even come downstairs to tell me that she didn’t want to see me. She just had her brother feed me some bullshit lie about how she wasn’t there even though I could see her fucking car in the driveway. You know, I did that for you for two years and now that I know just how shitty that feels, I hate that you made me do that to my brother. Just, the helplessness of not being able to do anything…”

“Yeah, it hurts,” I agree. “But there’s plenty of hurt to go around right now. Believe me, Elliot. You didn’t see her that weekend she left you a few months ago, you didn’t see her last night.”

“Did you talk to her?”

“Yeah, I did. I got a front row seat to my best friend lying on top of her bed crying her eyes out, feeling like her world had been destroyed, because, even though she gave you everything she had to give for three years, stood by you and your family through the roughest time that you’ve ever faced, and supported you through it, you still replaced her as quickly as you could. Two months, Elliot. The amount of time it took you to get over her could be measured in weeks! I mean, did you ever really love her?”

“Of course I did,” he says, angry at the insinuation. “I still love her.”

“Well, she was there to tell you that she wanted you back. She came to tell you that she’d made a mistake and that she wanted to get back together.”

“She was?”

“Yeah, but not anymore. She’s done now. There’s no going back after last night because in her mind, you’re either in love with another girl or you’re a liar. So, which is it Elliot? You said you were in love with Gia. Are you?”

“Ana… please.”

“Which is it?” I demand.

“I’m not bad guy, Ana. You have to understand, she wouldn’t talk to me. She never gave me the chance to fight for her.”

“You mean like I never gave Christian a chance? Somehow he found a way to fight, and maybe you didn’t have two years in you like he did but… two months? God, after Christian and I broke up, it took me two months to just accept that it was over, that I wasn’t going to just wake up and find that everything that had happened between us had been a horrible dream. You’ve already fallen in love with someone else.”

He frowns and looks away from me for a moment, almost looking as though he’s going to walk away entirely, but he doesn’t.

“Christian knew that he could make you happy, Ana. He wants the same things that you want. Kate and I just… don’t. She wants kids and I don’t want her to give that up for me. I want her to have everything her heart desires. I want her to be blissfully happy and live life without regret. I can’t do that for her. That doesn’t mean that her absence doesn’t hurt me. That doesn’t mean that I don’t miss her like fucking crazy. That doesn’t mean that the idea that she’s one day going to find someone else, that she’s going to let another man put his hands on her body, doesn’t make me sick to my stomach. I love her more anything else in the world, Ana. I’m always going to love her. I love her enough, to set her free.”

“I just don’t understand how you could love someone so much but not be willing to have a family with them. Why are you so adamant that you don’t want kids, Elliot?”

“Because I don’t have any more in me to give, Ana. Look, I love my brother, and my sister, and my parents very, very much. I can’t begin to tell you what they all mean to me, but I have spent my entire life taking care of them. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been constantly trying to bring Christian back from the brink of self-destruction, trying to keep Mia on the right path, trying to keep this family together and happy, and I’m exhausted. Happiness to me doesn’t mean having more people to be responsible for. Happiness to me means having the ability to drop everything to go backpack Europe for a couple months, go to a country in Southeast Asia and try some really freaky looking food, or sit on a beach in Cabo with a bucket full of Coronas and Kate looking tan and fine as fuck in a lounger next to me. That’s the future I want. That’s the future that will make me happy, and it doesn’t include kids.”

“So, how does Gia fit into that future?” I ask, and he shrugs.

“Gia’s chill. She likes to travel. She likes spontaneity. I know you’re not her biggest fan, and I know that she can be a bitch and that she’s a little hard to take a lot of the time, but… she’s the only thing that’s made me feel normal since Kate left. She’s smarter than people give her credit for and when she wants to be, she can be really sweet. And, she’s beautiful and great in bed, and, at the end of the day, I’m glad to see her when I come home from work.”

“Do you love her?” I ask again.

He sighs. “I don’t know. The only thing I have to compare her to is Kate, but how does anything compare to Kate? I’m never going to love anyone the same way I loved her, that I love her. But I don’t have Kate anymore, I have Gia, and I’m going to try to love her as best I can.”

“And if she wants to get married or have kids?”

“Then I won’t be able to love her the way she wants me to and she’ll have to find someone else.”

“Have you told her that?”

“Yeah. She’s knows that’s why Kate and I broke up.”

“Well, I think you need to tell her again. Kate and I were shopping the other day and we ran into Gia downtown, and she told Kate that she should expect a wedding invitation by the end of the summer. She has expectations of you, Elliot, and those expectations are punctuated by a diamond ring.”

He rolls his head backwards for a few seconds and takes a deep breath, then calmly looks back down at me, nods, and says, “I’ll take care of it.”

“Good.” I give him a once over and turn to step through the bathroom door opposite him, but he calls out to stop me. When I turn back to face him, his expression is torn.

“I know this whole thing with Kate has put you in awkward position with me, but I don’t want to be at odds with you, Ana. You’re going to be my sister and I’ve already told you what family means to me. I don’t want it to be awkward or tense so… what can I do so that we’re cool?”

“We’re fine, Elliot. This isn’t how I wanted everything to go, but, you’re right. If you’re not willing to compromise on the things that Kate needs to be happy, you shouldn’t be together. I happy that you’re mature enough to realize that. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t wish that it could have been different.”

“Me too,” he agrees, and then reaches out to wrap me in a hug. “Love you, Ana.”

“Love you too, Elliot.”

He tightens his arms around me and lifts me off the ground, grunting slightly as he shifts me back and forth. The movement forces all of the pressure into my bladder and, suddenly, I have to struggle out of his arms.

“Elliot, put me down! Put me down!”

“What?” he says, setting me back on the ground and looking at me with panic. “What did I do?”

“You can’t squeeze a pregnant woman! What are you trying to do? Make me pee all over you?”

He snorts, trying to hold back his laughter, as I turn and sprint for the bathroom door at the end of the hallway.

He’s waiting for me when I get out of the bathroom and, as we walk back to the rest of our family still seated in the waiting room, I see a spark of his old self. With every step we take across the linoleum tile, he sticks his foot out in front of me, like he’s trying to trip me, but when I shoot an indignant look at him, his eyes widen with false concern and he grabs onto me.

“Ana! Don’t fall!”

“You’re so annoying!” I laugh, and then stick my foot out in front of him. He gives me a challenging look in return and we spend the rest of the walk back trying to make the other stumble.

Unfortunately, when we get back to the waiting room, I find that Gia has taken my seat next to Christian and is leaning over the armrest to talk to him while he looks intently down at his phone.

“It starts up at Husky Stadium and then goes south along the lake to Columbia City and then back up to Safeco Field. It’s like, 13.5 miles and if we start training now…”

“No,” Christian says abruptly, not looking up at her, and she leans back a little in surprise.

“No?”

“No, I’m not interested.”

“Oh, well… there’s a few other courses that are longer, we could maybe…”

“I’m sorry,” he interrupts her again. “I’m not being clear. I’m not interested in going with you.”

“Christian!” Elliot snaps. “What the fuck, dude?”

“I have a lot to catch up on after the gala last night,” Christian dismisses him, but Elliot reaches down and slaps his phone out of his hands so that it falls into his lap. Christian inhales slowly through his nose and then looks up at his brother with the forced kind of patience that someone dealing with a toddler’s temper tantrum would use.

“I don’t speak to your girlfriend that way, you could return the courtesy.”

“I don’t have a girlfriend,” Christian argues, and, as Elliot lets out an incredulous sounding huff, Grace gets out of her seat and moves between her two sons.

“Boys, enough. You are adults now, will you please act that way? Christian, cut the attitude.”

“Yes, mother,” he says, and then picks up his phone again. Elliot rolls his eyes and then reaches out his hand for Gia, but after glancing a few times between Christian and Elliot, she sucks her bottom lip beneath her teeth and her face falls dejectedly.

“Maybe I should go,” she says softly.

“No, babe…” Elliot says, and then turns a pointed look on his brother. “Christian!”

Christian looks up at him again and Elliot motions to Gia with his eyes, silently asking him to say something to her. Christian takes a deep breath as he turns to face her.

“You’re in Ana’s seat.”

Gia lets out a hurt scoff and then scurries to her feet, covering her mouth with her fingers as she hurries from the waiting room.

“Real fucking great. You know, you can be a real dick sometimes, Christian.” Elliot says, and he turns to follow after Gia.

I take a breath and re-take my seat, my eyes focused on Christian while his fingers continue to fly over the keyboard of his iPhone.

“What?” he asks at last.

“I don’t want you to fight with Elliot.”

“Are you… you just told me last night that…”

“I know, and I’m not saying that I want you to be best friends with Gia, I just don’t want you to push away your brother.”

“Clearly you don’t understand how protective the Grey men are of the women we love,” he says, but when I raise an eyebrow at him, he takes a breath and nods. “I’ll talk to him.”

“Good,” I say, and then lean over to kiss him softly on the lips before turning back to Mia and allowing him to get back to work.

It’s another hour before Elliot finally comes back into the waiting room and when he does, he makes it a point to move to the other side of his mother so that he’s no longer next to Christian.

“How’s Gia?” Grace asks.

“She’ll be fine,” he says shortly. “No thanks to my loving, supportive family.”

“Elliot,” Christian begins, trying to be conciliatory, but Elliot silences him with a hard glare.

“I’m sorry, I’m not being clear. I’m not interested in talking to you.”

“Grey,” someone calls behind us and the tension building between Christian and Elliot suddenly vanishes as we all turn and recognize the surgeon who has been operating on Carrick standing just a few feet away.

“Yes!” Grace says, hurrying to her feet. “I’m Grace Grey, Carrick’s wife.”

“How is he?” Elliot interjects.

“He’s doing very well,” the surgeon responds. “It was one of the easiest transplants I’ve ever done. No complications, clean lines, and the organ pinked immediately once we unclamped him. Right now, he’s stable and in a private recovery room.”

“Is he awake?” Christian asks.

“No, but if you’d like, you can wait with him.”

Grace nods and takes Elliot’s hand as the surgeon motions for a nurse to take us back to Carrick’s room. When we get there, Carrick is in the bed, looking as though he’s lost in peaceful sleep, while another nurse tends to the incision on his stomach. I’m actually shocked when I see the angry line that stretches from just below his sternum and curves around his side, looking more gruesome now than I imagine it will after it heals because of the staples currently holding his skin together. It’s hard, seeing him there, wounded, and I have to bury my face in Christian’s shirt as the nurse continues examining the incision site.

Grace moves to read the monitor beeping next to his bedside, and, as she glances over the chart on the end of his bed, the nurse smiles at her.

“He’s doing very well. He should be awake in the next few hours.”

“Thank you,” Grace says, and after the nurse leaves, she motions around the room. “Well, get comfortable. We’re going to be here awhile.”

We take our seats and wait, occasionally flipping through the channels on the TV or answering questions Mia asks from a trivia app on her phone. The passing hours aren’t so bad now that we’re in the room with Carrick and we know everything went well, which I think helps the Elliot and Christian situation. Once Mia and I are fully engrossed in the latests Pirates of the Caribbean movie playing on TV, they both step out of the room to talk, and are gone so long that I’m asleep by the time they return. When Christian retakes his seat and gently eases me under his arm though, I’m glad to find that at least some of the animosity between them seems to have dwindled. Elliot at least isn’t looking at him as though he’s plotting his death anymore.

“You kids should go home,” Grace says, when the clock ticks past one AM. “He may not wake until the morning.”

“I want to be here,” Mia argues. Christian nods in agreement and then turns to me.

“Do you want to go home? I can have Taylor come get you.”

“Are you staying?” He nods. “Then I’m staying.”

He purses his lips together and, for a moment, I think he’s going to argue with me, but he simply wraps his arm over my shoulder and pulls me into his side, holding me there while my eyelids start to droop. I’ve almost succumbed again to the overpowering urge to sleep, when I’m abruptly brought back to reality by Grace’s shaking voice.

“Carrick? Are you awake, sweetheart?”

We all sit up straighter and stare at Carrick as he groans softly, his face crinkled with discomfort before he slowly opens his eyes.

“What time is it?” he whispers, hoarsely.

“Just after one in the morning,” Grace says, smiling. “Your surgery went really well.”

“It doesn’t feel  that way,” he groans.

“Are you in pain?” Christian asks. “We can have the nurse come in and check your meds.” Carrick nods so Elliot reaches over and pushes his finger into the call button.

 

My final weeks in Seattle are long and difficult as we deal with Carrick’s recovery. He’s got at least two months before he’s going to be able to do anything, even chemo, so our job is to make sure that he’s resting enough and getting everything he needs to keep his body as healthy as possible in the meantime. It’s scary because as he goes through the natural healing process, slowed and made more complicated by the cancer still running unchecked and untreated through his body, he seems to get worse, not better. Seeing him so ghostly pale and weak all the time has everyone feeling helpless, but Grace is quick to assure us that once he’s healed from his surgery and the doctors are certain that chemo won’t cause him to reject his new organ, he’ll be quickly on the road to recovery. In the meantime, life is just a little hard.

I end up spending the night more often than not at the house in Bellevue to try and help as much as I can, so I only see Christian after he’s able to pry himself away from the long hours at the office to join us at his parents’ house. Not only is it the beginning of the calendar year, which is when a lot of his contracts renew, terminate, or are implemented, but we’re coming up on fourth quarter, and that means, on top of trying to be with us as much as possible for his Dad’s recovery, he’s slowly sinking deeper and deeper into a mountain of work that seemingly has no end. I can see how much he hates being away right now, watching us all deal with the consequences of his Dad’s recovery and not being there to be a pillar of strength while his father seems to waste away in bed. But he doesn’t have a choice. He’d only just managed to quell the near uprising in his company last fall after he fired Welch and he doesn’t want to risk another because he’s not giving everything he has at their busiest time of year. It’s made him colder than usual, more aloof, and it’s done nothing to help the growing tension between him and his brother.

After Carrick’s surgery, I wait about a week, but then start calling Kate at least twice a day to check up on her. It takes several days of worried voicemails before she finally answers one of my phone calls, and when she does, even her voice sounds frail. She won’t really talk to me, and she won’t say anything at all about Elliot, so I don’t think she’s doing any better, and after two weeks of listening to the thin veil of pain covering every word she speaks, I’m actually glad to be going back to school so that I can be there for her the way I want to be.

Christian, however, doesn’t share any of my anticipation to get back to Cambridge. As he rides with Luke and I to the airport in the early afternoon on January 22nd, he’s completely silent, clinging to my hand and staring through the front window from the back seat of the SUV like he’s turned to stone. He doesn’t even reach for his phone the several times I hear his email chime in the 30 minutes it takes us to get to the airport from Bellevue, and that has me extremely worried.

“I’ll come back next weekend,” I promise him as we step out onto the tarmac in front of the jet, but he only nods and wraps me in his arms. “I love you, Christian.”

Still, there’s only silence from him, so I pull away to look up at him. When my eyes meet his, I almost wish that I hadn’t.

“Hey…” I begin worriedly, but he releases me and takes a step back.

“I can’t say goodbye to you,” he tells me. “If I try, then I’m going to end up asking you not to go, so just… go, okay?”

“We’re down to four months,” I remind him. “More than half way. It’s almost over.”

He nods, then kisses me on the forehead and pushes me slightly towards the stairs leading down from the plane. I let out a heavy breath and then turn, but before my hand can touch the railing, he calls out to me.

“Ana!” His hands clasp my arms and he spins me back to face him, bringing his lips crashing down onto mine before I even know what’s happening. It’s not a chaste kiss, nor is it brief. He holds me for a long time, his tongue exploring my mouth carefully as if he’s trying to memorize every part of me. Eventually though, he lets me go and I hug him, pressing my nose into his shirt and inhaling deeply one last time, before I turn and board my flight.

 

Surprisingly, I feel a sense of welcome calm once we get to Cambridge and an almost guilty sense of relief in being separated from everything going on in Seattle right now. The familiar streets of the neighborhoods surrounding campus, now covered in significantly less snow, have a comforting quality to them, and when I pull into my driveway and see the lights through the kitchen window that tell me Kate is already here, it actually feels like coming home. I can’t wait to get inside, put everything away, change into more comfortable clothes, and just sit on the couch and find out exactly where my best friend is now that a few weeks have past. I can’t take the distance between us anymore, I need to know that she’s at least on the road to being okay, but, when I follow Luke through the sliding glass door, my concerns over Kate immediately take a back burner to the loud, booming bark coming from the living room.

“What the fuck?” Luke exclaims, pushing me back into the glass and shielding me with his body as a huge, wrinkly faced dog comes bounding out at us. I scream as the dog bounds up onto Luke and growls viciously, and my fears aren’t alleviated when we hear a male voice shouting from the stairs.

“Champ, what are you doing?” From behind Luke’s imposing figure, I can hear whoever it is coming down the stairs and into the kitchen, and the moment I peek over his shoulder to see the man I assume is going to probably murder us, the fear is overtaken by confusion. It’s not a stranger, it’s Carter Reed. What is he doing here?

We make eye contact and an apologetic look crosses his face as he hurries forward to pull the dog off of Luke.

“Bad dog, get down,” he scolds him firmly, and, once the dog is on all fours again, he kneels down and rubs his hands over the fur behind the the dog’s ears. “Sorry, he’s protective…”

“What are you doing here?” I ask.

“Oh, Kate asked me to come stay with her until you got home. She needed help with the dog.”

“Wait, Kate needed…? This is Kate’s dog?”

“Yeah, she didn’t tell you?”

“Kate!” I yell and then squirm my way out from behind Luke and stomp towards the stairs. Christian is going to have a conniption when he finds out Kate has moved 130 pound dog into the house he intends on selling in a few months and if there’s one thing I need less of in my life, it’s the number of Greys feuding with my best friend.

When I reach her room, I throw open the door to find her sitting up in bed and looking entirely too pleased to see me for how angry I am with her.

“Hey, Ana. How was your flight?”

“A dog, Kate?”

“Isn’t he cute?”

“I don’t know, it was hard to really focus on what he looked like while he was pinning us to the sliding glass door and snarling over us like he was going to eat Luke’s face off.”

“Yeah…” she hesitates. “That’s kind of what he’s here for.”

“To eat Luke alive?”

She takes a breath. “I’m done with Ainsley. After that day we were shopping in Seattle, I just don’t really want anything to do with her anymore. I’ve decided that I need a serious detox in my life, but that means no more trips to New York. You’re gone a lot and you take Luke with you, so I’m going to be here alone most weekends. I got Champ to make me feel safer.”

“Oh.” I hesitate because, even though I was hoping Kate was really going to distance herself from Ainsley and Eliza, I hadn’t really thought through what that meant for her being isolated back in Cambridge when I went home to be Christian.

“He’s really sweet though,” she continues. “Once he gets to know you. He’s actually kind of a big goober.”

“I just… I don’t know if I’m going to be able to sell a dog to Christian, Kate. Not one that big anyway.  He wants to sell the house once we’re done with school and a dog like that…”

“He’s very well trained,” Kate interrupts me. “Ethan got him from a breeder that specifically raises this breed to be guard dogs for families with children, so he’s really docile with the people he considers his pack. He follows commands really well and he doesn’t chew or dig. He’s a good boy, and he makes me feel safe.”

I sigh. “What kind of dog is it?”

“A Bullmastiff.”

Mastiff? More like Massive. I chew on the inside of my cheek as I walk further into the room, intent on crawling into bed with her to talk more about this, but as I approach, her eyes widen and she hold out her hands to stop me.

“No, no! Don’t touch me.”

“What’s wrong?” I ask, freezing and staring down at her with confusion.

“I’m still recovering.”

“From what?”

She swallows. “Can you keep a secret?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you can’t tell Christian, or Elliot, or… anyone.”

“What are you talking about? What did you do?”

She takes a deep breath and then winces slightly as she leans back into her pillows, slides her comforter down past her hips, and then eases her t-shirt over her stomach, up to her sports bra. My eyes widen and my mouth drops open as I see a puckered scar, identical to the one carved into Carrick, slicing its way down her torso.

“Bye bye bikinis, huh?”

“Kate,” I breathe, looking up at her with wide, unbelieving eyes.

“I was a match,” she explains. “I got tested when I came back for Christmas and they called me on New Year’s Eve to tell me that I was an ideal candidate, but that they’d already found a donor. I thought that was going to be the end of it but then they called me at like five the next morning and told me the other organ had fallen through and asked if I was still willing to donate. I was at the hospital forty five minutes later.”

“So when Elliot went to your house the next morning and Ethan told him you weren’t there…”

“I wasn’t,” she finishes for me. “I was having surgery.”

“Why?” I have to stop as tears begin to prick my eyes and my voice starts to tremble. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Because I didn’t want this to be about me and Elliot,” she says. “It’s not. I didn’t do this to get him back and I don’t want him showing up here, and I don’t want to put his family in a weird position where they feel like they have to pick sides. I did this because I love Carrick, and I love his family, and I could help. Knowing that he has a fighting chance now, that’s enough.”

“Kate,” I say, actually breaking down into tears now. I want to hug her, pull her out of bed and show her just how much this really means to me and to Christian and his family, but I can’t. So, instead, I carefully lower myself onto her bed and then hold tightly to her hand. “I can’t believe you did this. I mean, I can, because I know how big your heart is, but doing this for your ex-boyfriend’s family, it’s… selfless, and I don’t have the words to tell you how much this means to all of us. Watching Christian going through this, seeing Carrick slowly getting worse… it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Thank you isn’t enough.”

“It’s also not necessary. I’m happy that I could help. Relieved even.”

I nod, and then fight back the urge to hug her once more. “Can I do something for you? Can I get you something?”

“No, I’m fine. Carter’s been very attentive all day. He even went down to the store to get me a Cosmo when he took Champ for a walk. Speaking of which, do you and Christian want 100% hotter sex, because Cosmopolitan has some suggestions.”

I laugh and then push away the magazine she holds out to me. “How long have you been here?”

“About a week. I flew back literally as soon as I could sit up even though that was probably a really stupid idea. My parents came with me and stayed for a couple days but they were driving me insane so I asked Carter to come stay so they could leave. He’s studying for the LSATs so he’s been in Cambridge pretty much the entire Christmas break.”

“Well, I’ll have to thank him,” I tell her, then take a deep breath, squeeze her hand, and ask the question I’ve been wanting answers to for weeks.

“How are you? I mean, about what happened on New Year’s?”

“I’m good,” she says, nodding. “You know, being stuck in bed has given me a lot of time and the more I think about Elliot and I, the more I realize that I was ready to jump back into things with him just because I missed him. But what I miss isn’t the romantic part of our relationship or the sex, that’s all fine, but what I really miss is the friendship. He knows me better than anyone else in the world and I can talk to him in ways I cant’s talk to anyone else. I miss the sound of his laugh and his stupid jokes. I miss the side glances he used to give me when someone said something stupid, like Jim from The Office, and  I miss our secret handshakes. Those are all things that I don’t have to lose just because I’m not with him anymore.”

“Wait, you had secret handshakes?”

“Well, yeah. How else could we be absolutely certain the other person wasn’t a victim of invasion of the body snatchers?”

I roll my eyes. “You two really are perfect for each other.”

“I think you’re right,” she says with a shrug. “Just in a different way than I always thought. I really do think Elliot and I will grow old together, but only as really great friends. I’m okay with that.”

“You’re sure?”

She nods. “Yeah, I am. Besides, I uh… I think Carter might be around a little bit more.”

“What?”

“He’s been texting me a lot since we hooked up on Halloween and… I think I’m going to pursue it. He’s a good guy, and he’s sweet, and, I don’t know… I think I might really like him. That’s not weird for you, right?”

“No,” I say, shaking my head quickly as I try to process this. Kate and Carter? “I was just worried about how I was going to explain the dog to Christian but now I’m much more concerned about having to tell him Carter Reed will be hanging out here all the time.” I pause. “You sure you don’t want to tell him that you donated part of your liver to Carrick? That would really help me out in this case.”

She laughs and shakes her head.

“Alright,” I sigh. “Then I guess I better go call him. Wish me luck.”

“Good luck,” she says very seriously, and I squeeze her hand as I get out of bed and make my way back down the stairs.

Carter and Luke are in the living room talking, and since Luke is knelt down onto one knee and is running his fingers enthusiatically through Champ’s fur, I think he’s probably winning him over. When they turn and see me though, Luke immediately gets to his feet.

“So?”

“So, it looks like we’re going to have to sell a dog to Christian Grey.”

Luke smiles. “We can do that. Tell him Champ here is security team approved. I think it’s a great idea having him around at night when I’m not here.”

“I think that’s the only angle,” I agree, and then bend down and hold my arms open for Champ. “Come here, puppy.”

Champ wags his tail and then comes over to me, and as I grab onto the loose fur around the base of his neck and upper shoulders and massage his skin, he leaps up to place his front paws against my collar bones knocks me to the floor before he attacks my face with his slobbery tongue.

“Champ, get down!” Carter commands, but I giggle and wave him away.

“Yeah,” I say lovingly, staring into his big, brown eyes. “He can definitely stay.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 21

For the second night in a row, I’m pulled abruptly from sleep because of a nightmare. Only, this time, it’s not mine.

“No, Ana!” Christian screams, and I immediately sit bolt upright in bed, looking wildly around the room as I try and negotiate my surroundings. “Don’t… don’t go,” his voice begs through the darkness.

“Christian,” I say, turning and reaching out to try and gently nudge him out of his dream. “Hey. Wake up, baby.”  

“No! Come back!”

“Christian!” My voice is more forceful this time as I take hold of his shoulders, shaking him until his eyes snap open and begin dancing back and forth with confusion. “It’s okay, I’m here. You’re okay.”

“Ana?” he checks, as though he isn’t really sure it’s me.

“Yeah, I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Fuck,” he breathes, and the next thing I know he’s rolling me onto my back and climbing over the top of me. His lips come down on mine and his hands reach down for the hem of my camisole. He yanks it quickly over my head, only breaking our kiss when absolutely necessary, before moving on to my panties.

“Christian,” I protest against his lips, but he simply groans and moves his tongue deeper into my mouth. The moment my panties are gone, his hand is between my legs, teasing my clitoris. He works quickly, dipping his fingers inside of me as soon as there’s enough moisture to allow him easy access and then returning to my cliotirs again, using my arousal to heighten the sensation.

“There you go,” he growls when, a few seconds later, I’m slick and ready for him. Without removing his lips from mine, he pulls his hand from between my legs and I feel him raise himself off the bed just enough to get his boxers down over his hips. In the next second, he’s thrusting inside of me.  

“Fuck!” I yell, unprepared for the sudden invasion, but he doesn’t still to give me time to adjust to him. He dives in and out of me hard and fast, his hands holding me so tightly it feels as though he’s clinging to me for dear life.

“Ana,” he moans again, my name crossing his lips with the same reverence as a prayer. “Oh, god, Ana!”

I arch my back and then tilt my pelvis up to give him a better angle, but he’s so erratic it’s hard to lose myself in him. One moment, he’s lying right over the top of me, kissing me with a kind of frenzied passion that’s almost alarming, and the next he’s holding himself up on his extended arms, staring down at my body and examining every inch of me as though he’s trying to find some kind of proof I’m not real.

“Christian?” I try again as, once again, his face morphs with a sharp flash of pain, and the pace in which he’s moving in and out of me quickens.

“Mine,” he growls. “You’re mine.”

He lowers himself onto me once more and I whimper slightly as he yanks my leg up into the crook of his elbow so that he can take me deeper. I grip onto his shoulders and turn to face him, trying to force him to make eye contact with me, but now that his skin is pressed against mine again, his eyes are closed and his mouth is open in a silent gasp of pleasure.

“Fuck,” he hisses. His muscles tense, and then relax in the span of a few seconds, accompanying the faint rippling sensation inside of me. Holy fuck, did he just…

He releases my leg and positions his body so that he’s touching as much of me as possible without forcing his full weight onto me. His mouth finds mine again, the same urgent kind of hunger keeping his lips tense, and when he breaks the kiss, he rests his forehead against mine until he regains control of his breathing.

“I love you,” he whispers.

“I love you, too.”

He’s quiet for a moment and I think I hear him swallow. When he speaks again, there’s almost a  kind of nervous tremble to his deep tenor.

“Say it again.”

“What?”

“Say that you… I need to hear…” he pauses, and I pull him back from me so that I can finally look into his eyes.

“Hey. What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” he replies quickly, shaking his head.

“Christian, talk to me.”

He takes a deep breath. “I just dreamed… you were gone. I’d lost you again.”

“I’m right here,” I reassure him. “And I’m not going anywhere. I love you.”

He nods and then leans down to kiss me once more before he rolls out of bed and moves to the dresser to pull a pair of sweatpants from his drawer.

“Where are you going?” I ask.

“I’m going to go check on some things for work. I’ll be in my office.”

“Christian, it’s 3:30 in the morning,” I argue, but he ignores me and continues through the door out to the great room anyway. As I fall back into my pillows, I think about going after him to try and coax him back into bed to talk to me more, but I know from experience that, sometimes, he’s more open with me when I give him the space he needs until he’s ready to come to me on his own.

I fall asleep debating what I want to do.

Christian is still locked away in his office when I wake again several hours later, and, according to Gail, he hasn’t stepped out once since she’s been awake. I frown as I look towards the hallway that leads to his office and think that maybe, before I head into the lion’s den, it might be a good idea to bring him some food… and caffeine.

“Can I make a plate for you, Miss Steele?” Gail asks, as she places a slice of quiche on a plate for Christian.

“I think I’m just going to have a green smoothie this morning,” I tell her while I pull a mug out of the cupboard for Christian’s coffee. She purses her lips together, but doesn’t say anything as she moves to get the blender. I begin to pour the dark, aromatic liquid into the mug on the counter, but, as I look down at the quiche next to me that I know she wants me to take, I hear the ping of the elevator.

I glance up and see Gia step out into the foyer, looking angry, and I have a pretty good idea why. Hurriedly, I place the carafe back on the counter and then scurry around into the great room to run interference, but, thankfully, Luke steps out of the security office first.

“Miss Matteo?” he greets her coolly.

“Is Christian in his office?”

Mr. Grey, is not currently taking visitors. I’d be happy to pass along a message for you.”

“I just need him to make a quick phone call to clear something up for me,” she argues. “If you’ll excuse me.”

She attempts to move around Luke but he takes a step to stand in her way once again. She glares at him.

“Is Taylor in there?”

“Yes, but I’m afraid he’s not going to help you either, Miss Matteo. Mr. Grey’s orders were very clear.”

She straightens and her lips form a tight line just as I step into the foyer behind Luke. “Is everything okay in here?”

“Yes, Miss Steele,” Luke says. “Miss Matteo was just leaving.”

“No,” she argues. “I wasn’t. Ana, can you please take me back to Christian? For some reason that store we were in yesterday is suddenly refusing me service and they still have my dress. I need him to call the store and clear up whatever it is…”

“Yeah, about that,” I interrupt her. “There was some kind of problem with the dress and since you put it under the Grey account, they called Christian. He didn’t know what they were talking about so they cancelled the transaction.”

“So, why didn’t you say anything?”

“Honestly, I forgot that you were there with us,” I say, giving her the same fake innocent look she gave Kate yesterday after she’d confronted her about trying to steal Christian. “Pregnancy brain, I guess.”

“Well, what the fuck am I supposed to do?” she asks. “The GEH event is in less than twelve hours.”

“I suggest you hurry and find something then. Macy’s should be opening soon right?” I give her a snide smirk and then turn to saunter back into the apartment.

“Ana!”

“If you’ll just step back into the elevator, Miss Matteo,” Luke says, and my smile broadens as I hear her frustrated snarl and then the sound of her heels against the marble as she turns to leave.

Gail has laid Christian’s breakfast out on a tray, so I carefully pick it up from the counter and then make my way down the hallway towards his office. When I get to the door, I can hear him talking on the phone inside, so I ease into the room as quietly as I can.

“No, of course I understand,” he says to whoever he’s on the phone with. “Can I do anything?”

His eyes follow me as I walk up alongside he desk and gently place the tray in front of him, and, while I turn to wait patiently for him to finish his phone call, he continues staring intently at me.

“That’s great news. Wish him luck for me. I’ll come by first thing tomorrow morning. Love you too. Bye.”

“What was that?” I ask, as he hangs up the phone, but he ignores my question and turns a sharp look back on me.

“Why aren’t you wearing your engagement ring?”

“What?” I ask. I look down at my hand for a second and then back up at him with a little exasperation.

“It’s too big to sleep with it on,” I tell him. “I don’t really want to hit myself, or you, in the face with a 16-carat diamond in the middle of the night.”

“You’re not sleeping anymore,” he argues, and I have to stop myself from rolling my eyes.

“I just got out of bed to bring you breakfast and make sure you’re okay. I will put it on once I go brush my teeth, I promise.” He narrows his eyes at me so I quickly move back to his phone call before we end up in an argument over nothing.

“Who was on the phone?”

“My mother.  They’ve pulled lifesupport from the donor in Portland, so he’s having his surgery today. She was calling to tell me she won’t be attending the gala tonight.”

“Oh, that’s great news! Should we cancel?”

“I can’t, I’m hosting,” he says, and as he picks up the coffee I’ve brought him, he reaches out for a manilla envelope on the corner of his desk and tosses it to me.

“Since you’re here, I need to you sign the AoI for the foundation,” he says.

I pick up the envelope and give him a confused look. “You just said a lot of things I don’t understand.”

“I’m starting a foundation to help support victims of domestic violence and sexual assault,” he explains. “I’m naming you as a member of the board of directors so I need you to sign the forms that have to be filed with the state to make the non-profit legitimate.”

“Oh.” I pull back the flap on the envelope and slide a stack of forms out from inside that are headed in bold font with, The Christian and Anastasia Grey Foundation. “Uh… Christian and Anastasia Grey?”

“Yeah.”

“Christian, this is a legal document.”

“I know,” he says. “That’s why I need your signature.”

“But… we’re not married yet. My name is Steele.”

“It’s easier to change your name as listed on the board of directors than it is to change the title of the non-profit,” he dismisses me. “It’s just future planning.”

“But, we haven’t even discussed this yet. I’m not even sure I’m going to change my name.”

His head snaps up and his eyes narrow in on me again. “What do you mean you’re not going to change your name?”

“I don’t know… I’m the last Steele. If I change my name to Grey then my dad will be the last Steele and he’ll know that his legacy ends with him. If I keep my name, our children will be Steele-Grey and he…”

“No,” he cuts me off. “Absolutely not.”

“What?”

“My children will have my name, and my name only. We’re not hyphenating anything.”

“And I don’t get a say in that? That’s just your decision to make alone?”

“Yes, it is. No hyphenating.”

I cross my arms. “Well, if you’re so adamant about that, maybe you should take Steele.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Ridiculous? So, you just expect me to change my name to yours, but the very idea of you possibly taking my name is ridiculous to you?”

“Correct.”

My mouth drops open at his audacity and soon, we’re in the middle one of the biggest blowouts we’ve ever had. He escalates every argument I make to an extremely unreasonable level so nothing gets resolved in the thirty minutes we spend screaming at each other, nor in the cold war like silence that follows after I eventually walk away and sequester myself in our bedroom. When it comes time to get ready for the event later that night, I’m still fuming with anger, and saying all the thing I wish I would have thought to say when we were fighting earlier into the mirror over and over again makes applying makeup extremely difficult.

It brings up a lot of what it was like the last time we attended a big event like this together, the Governor’s Ball, and when he comes into the bathroom to take a shower without speaking a single word to me, it feels as though I’m having lucid, PTSD flashbacks. It also reminds me that Kate had been here with me that night to help me get ready and the longing I feel for that support is especially poignant when I finish with my hair and makeup and am ready to get into my dress.

The Alexander McQueen gown Caroline Acton ordered has been tucked away in the closet for future use and the blush colored Elie Saab, which Gail has had steamed and pressed for tonight, is laying on the bed. I slide into it and try to ignore how tightly it fits against my skin since Gia had required several inches to be taken in. Once I’ve struggled to get the zipper up alone, I step in front of the full length mirror, slip on the diamond cuff bracelet and the Cartier earrings Christian gifted me our freshman year, and examine my reflection, twisting and turning to judge how I look in the dress. I’d feel more comfortable in something a little less form fitting, but I think the soft, draping fabric that hangs over the top of the constructed bodice is enough to conceal anything that would suggest I was pregnant. That’s not really something I’m ready to deal with in the press yet and I don’t know what to expect from this event in terms of photographers. In fact, I’m not even certain I want to wear my engagement ring…

I stare down at it, sparking in the muted light from the bedside lamp. Christian had snapped at me for not wearing it around the house, I’m certain it’ll be worse if I don’t wear it to a public event, especially after I’ve been fighting with him all afternoon. Still, I wonder if it’s something I should ask before we go. Afterall, he’s just as protective of our privacy as I am when it comes to the media, and he might want to have his PR team handle the announcement.

With a sigh, I slip on the shoes Caroline delivered with the dress and then make my way out to the great room. I find Christian standing in front of one of the huge scenic windows, staring out at the city lights and inky water of the sound with a tumbler of amber liquid hanging loosely from the hand at his side.

“I’m… ready,” I say hesitantly. He turns around to face me and the hard expression I’ve seen all day shifts. He looks at me in a way that, were we not currently fighting, I think would mean that we’d be very late for tonight’s event.

“You look beautiful,” he says. I smile and then twirl to give him the full effect of the dress.

“Really?” I check. “It’s a little tight… You don’t think I look fat do you?”

“Of course not. You look absolutely gorgeous.”

“Thank you. I’m not really sure if I want to tell everyone I’m pregnant yet and I wasn’t sure what the press was going to be like.”

“Well, since they ran our engagement announcement in the Seattle Times this morning, I assume there will be photographers waiting for us, but that’s why I have Jacqueline.”

“There was an engagement announcement?” I ask, surprised, and he nods.

He walks to the table in front of the sofa and picks up the paper, flipping back to a full page article titled, Billionaire CEO Christian Grey Engaged. It’s accompanied by a huge blown up photo of the two of us from the Governor’s Ball and a few family photos I’ve only ever seen on Grace’s wall.

“Where did they get these?” I ask as I look over a picture of Christian and I at Elliot’s birthday dinner on the beach in Hawaii that I’m pretty sure was taken by Mia.  

“I gave them to Jacquiline,” Christian says. “We’ve never had a portrait taken of the two of us so I had to make do with what was available.”

“You knew about this?”

“Of course I knew about this. I made the announcement.”

“And you didn’t think to talk to me about that before you sent personal pictures of us to be published in a newspaper?”

“It was this or wait for it to leak to the press and allow some sleazy reporter to control the narrative, probably call you a gold digger or accuse me of going to any lengths to cover up the accusations made against me last summer. I don’t know why you’re upset, this isn’t an unusual thing. People run engagement announcements every day.”

“Yeah, but most people don’t have a full page in the article in the society pages.”

“Are you telling me that you don’t want people to know? Is that why you made such a big deal out of changing your name? Why you weren’t wearing your ring? Have you changed your mind?”

“Of course not, but come on Christian, you know better than anyone else what this is going to mean. I still have three weeks in Seattle. This article means that until I go back to Cambridge, there are going to be photographers following me everywhere, trying to get a picture of me wearing this ring. I haven’t had to deal with any of that for months and, now that I’m pregnant, I don’t know if I can go through that right now. Don’t you remember what it was like when they found out we were dating? How we had to go all the way to Montesano just to have two days to ourselves? I couldn’t even get out of a car without being swarmed.”

“You have security, and, if you think you need more, I’ll hire more,” he argues, but I shake my head with exasperation..

“Are you like, allergic to talking to me before you make decisions like this?”

“Mr. Grey?” Taylor says, interrupting us and giving us each a chance to take a breath and step back. “The limousine is waiting downstairs.”

“Thank you, Taylor,” he says, and then turns back to me. “We’re going to be late.”

I push my lips together and turn back towards the elevator, refusing to look at either Christian or our security team as we make our way down to the elevator to the lobby.

Why is it Christian and I can never attend a public event in a good place with each other?

He was right about the press. When we pull up in front of the venue there is a hoard of photographers outside already taking pictures of the big name donors Christian was able to secure for the gala. Jacqueline is standing on the curb in a sleek, black gown, waiting for our arrival, and the moment the limousine comes to a stop, she’s opened our door and stuck her head inside.

“Keep Miss Steele on your left side so when she turns to pose for photos her ring is front and center,” she hisses quickly, and then opens the door for us to step out.

“Are you ready?” Christian asks. I look out at the flashing lights of the photographers and sigh.

“I guess I have to be.”

His jaw tightens at my less than enthused reaction. “Will you just act like you’re happy to be marrying me, please?”

Oh great.

“Christian, my frustration with you right now has nothing to do with…”

“We don’t have time to do this right now,” he cuts me off, and he turns to step out of the limo. I take a deep, calming breath, brace myself, and then take the hand he offers me to help me onto the sidewalk. He tucks my hand into his elbow and leads me forward, stopping to turn and pose for a picture that feels disgustingly fake. I angle my body into him and place my left hand on the lapel of his tuxedo jacket as we both stare into the blinding light exploding all around us, and, to Christian’s credit, he’s much better at hiding his irritation this time than he was at the last ball. His hand tightens around my waist and the way his lips brush lightly against my forehead as he pulls me into his side sends a welcome wave of comfort over me while, together, we face the hoard.

“Mr. Grey won’t be answering any questions,” Jacqueline says, stepping in front of us so that we can turn to head inside and silencing the garbled questions about wedding dates and venues being thrown at us. Someone calls to ask if I’m pregnant and I immediately feel my cheeks pink.

“They can’t tell,” Christian whispers in my ear. “You look stunning tonight, Anastasia.”

I nod and give him a nervous smile as he leads me inside.

The venue is absolutely beautiful. Unlike the last ball we attended together, which looked like an expensive wedding reception, the decor Christian has selected is sleek, modern, and young. It looks like a high class nightclub in here, especially with the DJ playing bass heavy music from the back of the dance floor. I take a sweeping glance of everything around us and then my gaze settles on Elliot and Gia standing near the bar, and Gia looking back at me with her mouth agape in shock. She’s wearing a plain black sheath gown that looks entirely unremarkable and doesn’t fit her the way I know she’d like it to, and, when I glance down at my dress, I feel a grim sense of satisfaction. At least one thing has gone according to plan tonight.

“Sick party, bro,” Elliot says as we make our way over to them. “I was afraid this was going to be stiff and I was going to regret coming, but I think you’d be able to sell tickets to this thing if you opened it to the public. You should go into the nightclub business.”

“Thanks, Elliot.”

“You look great, Ana,” he says, turning to me. “I saw your announcement in the paper this morning. I think Mom is having it framed.”

“Thank you, Elliot,” I reply, and then turn to give the still very angry blonde next to him a smug smile. “Gia, you look beautiful tonight.”

I lean into her and she grimaces as she kisses each of my cheeks. “So do you. That dress is gorgeous,” she says through her teeth.

“Thank you. Christian was very complimentary when he first saw me this evening.”

Christian looks down at me with a half smile and then leans over to kiss my hair before turning to Elliot. “Have you heard any more about Dad?”

“Not since we’ve gotten here. Last I heard they’ve taken the donor into surgery and Dad’s just waiting for them to start the transport before they prep him.”

“Yeah, that was the last I heard too,” Christian says.

“Well, by the time we leave here tonight, he’ll have a new liver and we can move on to the next step to getting him better,” Gia says, pouting her lips as she turns a carefully constructed look on Christian. It has my teeth on edge.

“Thank you, Gia,” Christian says, and then he tightens his grip on my waist. “We need to go mingle. There are a few potential clients here that I’m hoping to secure big contracts with by the end of the night.”

“Sure,” I nod, and then turn back to Gia. “Excuse me, wifely duty calls.”

She gives me a tight, closed lip smile as Christian leads me away to join Ros and Gwen just on the other side of the main entryway. They’re talking to a silver haired man with a woman, who can’t be much older than I am, clinging to his arm.

“Ah, here he is,” Ros says brightly. “Mr. Staiger, this is Christian Grey.”

“Pleasure,” Christian says, reaching out to shake his hand. “Mr. Staiger, this is my fiancée, Anastasia Steele.”

He shakes my hand as well, then turns back to Christian, and the two of them start talking business. I try really hard to look interested in their discussion at first, but I hardly understand anything they’re talking about and the things that I can follow are extraordinarily dull.

Once the ball shifts into full swing, waiters begin weaving their way through the crowded room carrying trays of champagne, but that doesn’t do anything for me, so, once there’s a break in the conversation, I gently place my hand on Christian’s arm and tell him that I’m going to go to the bar to get some water. He nods, kisses me on the cheek, and then goes back to discussing the future of the fiber optics market with Mr. Staiger.

I feel a small bit of relief being away from the interminable business talk, but there isn’t much else for me at this party. I don’t know anyone except Elliot, but he’s fully preoccupied with Gia and I’d rather spend three weeks listening to Christian trying to woo clients than spend a single evening trying to get along with her.

I wish Kate was here. Things were always so much easier when it was Kate pulling Elliot off into dark corners rather than the blonde haired succubus he has now.

I get to the bar and ask for a glass of water, and, while the bartender turns to put ice in my glass, I hear a gruff voice next to me.

“You look like you’re playing your part well.”

I turn and see Jack Hyde leaning on the bar over a glass of scotch. He turns to me and I’m almost a little surprised by his appearance. His eyes are sunken, marred by deep, dark circles, and his hair is greasy. He doesn’t look anything like the charismatic man I worked with over the summer.

“Jack,” I say surprise. “I-uh… how are you?”

“Stuck,” he says. “I’m stuck.”

“Stuck?”

“Don’t play stupid with me, Anastasia. You know exactly what I’m talking about. I seem to recall something about you talking to Grey, putting me up to take over at SIP after you left. But I’m not in charge of SIP. Elizabeth Morgan is. So you lied. You’re a liar.”

He’s clearly already had too much to drink.

“Oh, I’m… I’m sorry about that, Jack. I had no idea that he was already interviewing for my replacement when I told you that. I did talk to him about you. I told him that I thought you’d be great, but he’d already hired Elizabeth.”

“And to think…” he says. “I worked so hard to be kind to you the few months I got to know you. What a waste.”

I’m not sure what exactly it is about those words, but something suddenly has all the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. I glance over my shoulder, wondering if anyone is watching us. Luke and Taylor are here somewhere, aren’t they? They weren’t in the limo with us, but surely they’re here.

He’s just drunk, Ana. Stop being paranoid.

“What’s it matter to you though, right?” he continues. “What’s it matter to Grey? You go home each night to your penthouse apartment where you’re waited on by your full time staff. You fly to your Ivy League school in your private jet…” He looks down at the ring on my finger and lets out a disgusted sounding huff through his nose. “Why would you have to worry about us peasants?”

“Jack, I really…”

He cuts me off again. “You know, when I met you, I thought there was really more to you. You’re smart, Ana, you could do something. You could be something. But here you are, clinging to the arm of a man, who only chose you because of the way your tight little ass fits into a pair of jeans, while he throws his dick around a room of finance bigwigs. I don’t even know why you’re wasting your time at that fancy school of yours. Do you think Grey is going to let you do anything with a degree? That he’ll care at all about you having a career after you graduate or doing anything but waiting at home for him ready to spread your legs? You’re going to end up just like every other woman in this room, telling yourself that running your husband’s foundation is enough for you, trying desperately to look twenty when you’re thirty five, and hiding a secret affair with your personal trainer.  He’s going to keep you like a doll, own you, control you, make your life decisions for you, and then throw you away when he’s done playing with you.”

I stare back at him blankly, reminding myself that the man telling me these things isn’t Christian’s biggest fan right now, that he doesn’t have anything invested in either of our happiness, and that, after being passed over for the promotion last fall, he probably has personal satisfaction to gain from Christian’s suffering, from my suffering. But all of that would be a lot easier to swallow if his words didn’t ring so true to everything I’ve been through with Christian this afternoon. And then, there’s the all too clear memory of sitting against a bar, throwing back tequila shots, and pulling a confession out of Elena Lincoln.

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.

“Excuse me,” Jack says, picking up his tumbler. “Enjoy your evening, Anastasia.”

I take a breath, trying to shake off the uncomfortable shiver his whisper has left in my skin, then pick up the glass of ice water the bartender left for me and turn make my way back to Christian. I only make it a few steps away though when I practically run into him.

“There you are,” he says. “What took you so long?”

My head is spinning, still working through the visions Jack’s warning has flashing through my mind, so I look up at him with pleading eyes. “What does the future look like, Christian?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, when I graduate, and move back here, and we’re married… how do you imagine our life will be?”

“Happy?” he says, though his tone suggests he isn’t clear exactly what I’m asking him.

“So, if I publish my book and I go on a book tour, or I get a job with a publishing company and work full time, travel even, how would you feel about that?”

“Proud of you.”

“Even if my career sometimes has to come before yours? Even if you need me here but I can’t be?”  

“Ana, what’s wrong?”

“I don’t want to be like these other women,” I tell him. “I don’t want the kind of life Gia wants. I don’t want to just be your wife, I don’t want to just be a mom, and I don’t want to throw away everything worked for because our entire lives only revolve around you and GEH.”

“Okay, so don’t. If you want to write books or work in publishing or start mega conglomerate that’ll one day put me out of business, I’ll be your biggest supporter. I’ll always be your biggest supporter.”

I stare up into his eyes, looking for any sign of insincerity, but there’s nothing. Only confusion and maybe a little concern for my sanity.

“I want to believe you, Christian. I want to believe that you’re different than all of these other men and that you don’t just want me as a trophy wife to parade around events like this, but when you spend all day arguing with me about my name, and when you make decisions like publically announcing our engagement without even talking to me first, it’s hard to not to believe that’s going to be true.”

He hangs his head, takes a deep breath, and then nods.

“I’m sorry. I know that I’ve been unfair to you today, but.. I can’t help it. The truth is that I’m having more trouble with today than I thought I would. New Year’s hasn’t been great for me the past couple years. I associate it with losing you, with how it felt being without you. That pain has been very real again for me all day, like I’m experiencing it all over again. I’ve been trying to prepare for how today was going to make me feel, that’s why I made sure our engagement was announced today, but it wasn’t enough. All those feelings I had thinking about you in Cambridge without me, drinking, meeting someone else, moving on… it’s just all very real today and that’s why I yelled at you for not wearing your ring. That’s why I’ve been fighting with you about your name. I want you to have my name, Anastasia. I want the world to know that you’re mine and I want to know without a doubt that you and I are forever. That’s what that means to me. And, I want my daughter to have my name, our name. I want to be a real family.”

“We will be, Christian. No matter what my last name is. We’re family now, aren’t we?”

He frowns and looks down, but nods, and the residual sadness I can see in his eyes tugs at my heart.

“If it means this much to you, I’ll change my name,” I tell him.

“You will?”

“Yeah,” I nod. “It’s just a name. Believe it or not, I know what it’s like to want everyone to know you belong to me, too. In fact, I kind of wish it was tradition for men to wear engagement rings too so that some people would get that you’re spoken for. Besides, if I take Grey then I’ll save our children’s struggle of having to write out Steele-Grey every time they have to write their names.”

“Coming from a Trevelyan-Grey,” he says with a smirk, “they’ll thank you for that one day.”

I smile and then push myself into him, inhaling his familiar, comforting scent as I get to really hold onto him for the first time all day.

“You ready to go rejoin the party?” he asks. “I promise, we’re almost done with the business talk.”

“With you Mr. Grey, always.”

The rest of the ball goes off without a hitch, and, as we approach midnight, more and more people pack themselves onto the center dance floor so they can be in the thick of it when the countdown begins and the confetti cannons cover everyone in glitter. Christian holds me tight against him as we dance together to an acoustic cover of Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours. I tilt my head back and stare up into his eyes, smiling broadly at the sheer force of love I see reflecting back at me, until Elliot reaches out and nudges Christian’s arm.

“Is that Mom?” he asks, his voice panicked. Christian and I both turn and see Grace standing on the edge of the dance floor in a long, deep purple gown, her eyes searching diligently through the crowd.

My heart stops.

Carrick should be having surgery right now, there’s no way she would leave him at the hospital while he was being operated on. If she’s here…

Christian grabs tightly to my hand and pulls me through the people dancing around us, Elliot and Gia both following closely in our wake.

“Mom?” Christian asks when we reach her. “What are you doing here?”

“This is your first hosting event,” Grace replies, her voice quivering slightly. “I couldn’t miss it.”

“Where’s Dad?” Elliot asks. “How did his surgery go?”

She swallows and presses her lips together for a moment to pull herself together before she speaks. “There was no surgery. When they removed the liver from the patient in Portland, they found a mass that the scans didn’t reveal. The organ isn’t viable. Your father has been put back on the transplant list.”

“But… but there isn’t time,” Elliot argues. Grace gives him a sad, tight lipped smile and steps towards him, holding her arms out to hug him, but before her hands even touch his shoulders, he pushes her away.

“No. No, there’s got to be something else,” he argues. “It’s New Year’s. Maybe a drunk driver or…” His hands start shaking as he takes a step back, like the energy swirling between all of us is what’s keeping his father from receiving an organ and if he can just get away from it, a miracle will happen. Christian turns to him, looking as though he’s going to attempt to offer some kind of comfort, but before he can say anything, Gia steps in front of him.

“Elliot, it’s going to be okay.”

“Don’t,” he says quickly, but she wraps her arms around him.

“I’m going to get tested,” she says. “I’m not arguing with you about this anymore, we don’t have the time. Tomorrow morning, I’m going down to the hospital and I’m getting tested to see if I’m a match.”

He stares at her for a long moment, searching her eyes with his and shaking his head with disbelief. “Why?” he asks. “Why would you do that?”

“Because if your father doesn’t get this transplant, it’s going to ruin you and I can’t let that happen. I can’t stand to see you going through this a moment longer because… because, I love you, Elliot.”

“What?”

“I love you. I’m in love with you and if I can do this for you, for your family, nothing will stop me.”

He looks tortured as he holds her gaze and the silence is so poignant it’s like we can hear it over the thumping music blaring from the DJs speakers. Eventually though, he takes a deep breath, moves his hand up her arms and says, “I love you, too.”

“You love her?”

We all turn and find Kate standing just behind us. Her platinum hair is held back in an intricate braid that leaves the hair around her face loose like a shining halo. She’s dressed in an elaborately beaded golden gown, which hugs her curvaceous figure flawlessly all the way to her knees until the fabric of the skirt fans out into a soft pool all around her. Her makeup is flawless, her skin is glowing, even her nails are perfectly painted. She looks unbelievably beautiful, except that she also looks heartbroken.

She glances between all of us, but no one says anything. There’s nothing to say. So, as the DJ announces the final minute of 2010, Kate gathers her skirts, turns on her heels, and sprints for the exit.

“Kate!” Elliot calls, the same tortured look that had been in Kate’s eyes now mirrored in his. I shoot him a disgusted look and then chase after her, pushing slightly to try and catch up to her through the crowd packing tighter and tighter around me.

When I make it out of the main ballroom and back into the entrance hall, I don’t see her and my mind immediately starts racing through the possibilities of where she’s gone.

Home. She has to be going home, right?

I decide it’s my best bet, so I turn back for the ballroom, back to Christian, as the crowd begins counting down the last ten seconds of the year.

“She’s gone,” I say the second I get to him. “I’m going after her.”

“Where?”

“Mercer Island. I’m going to try her house.”

He nods and I turn to carve my way through the crowd again, but his hand reaches out for my arm and pulls me back to him.

3, 2, 1! Happy New Year!

The hoard of people around us erupt into cheers and applause and Christian’s lips come down on mine. I pause for a half a second and then wrap my arms around his neck and open my mouth for him. His tongue caresses mine softly, contrasting with the way his hands hold me tightly against his body. The entire world seems to stop and for just one, split second, everything is okay.

“Go get her,” he whispers, a little mournfully, against my lips.

“I love you,” I tell him, and then turn to hurry for the main doors, ignoring the smug look of victory Gia wears on her face as I go.

The fifteen minute drive from Seattle to Mercer Island feels like an eternity. As the cab I’m in rolls steadily over the I-90 bridge, I dial Kate’s number several times but continually get her voicemail. Knowing what she’s probably feeling, playing the memories I have of her from last fall when she first felt this devastation before she numbed it with alcohol and partying, has me tied up in knots. The regrets about leaving Elliot that she confessed to me yesterday run through my mind on a continuous loop. I’ve left the man I love before, I’ve felt the agony of that decision, but I’ve gotten him back. I’ve walked through fire to bring him back from hell but even though the things I’ve gone through with Christian have made us stronger together, I think they’ve also made me naive. I realize now that I’ve been assuming that Kate and Elliot were going to find their way back to one another eventually. Maybe not for a while, but, someday, they would be together. That’s how it feels it’s supposed to be, the way I’m supposed to be with Christian, but just because Christian and I could repair what had once been shattered, doesn’t mean that everyone gets their fairy tale ending.

It’s Ethan who opens the door when I finally make it to Kate’s house and, even though he and I have always gotten along well and even though I haven’t seen him in years, there is no moment of reunion between us. He immediately steps to the side to let me in and nods to the stairs.

“She’s in her room,” he says quickly, and I give him a grateful nod before making the climb to the second level of the Kavanagh’s home. Kate’s mother is standing outside of her bedroom, speaking softly through the door. When she sees me, a look of relief crosses her face. She steps aside and, without knocking, I step inside.

“Katie?”

She’s sprawled across her bed, her gorgeous gown fanning all around her as she sobs into her pillows, and I have the brief thought that the scene before me would make a beautiful photograph if my best friend’s pain wasn’t so tangible that I could feel it the moment I crossed the threshold.

I close the door behind me and make my way to her bed, sitting next to her gently brushing my fingertips over her skin as I whisper to her reassuringly. It takes a while, but eventually, her tears stop long enough for her to form her anguish into words.

“It’s over. It’s really over.”

“No, Kate…”

“He said he loved her, Ana. He’s in love with someone else.”

I swallow. “She’d just offered to donate an organ to save his dying father’s life.”

“That sounds an awful lot like love to me.”

“It’s not though. She’ll say and do whatever she can to…”

“Ana, stop!” Kate yells. She sits up off the bed, the intensity now blazing in her eyes exaggerated by the streaks of tears staining her cheeks. “This isn’t about her, this is about him. I heard him say I love you. So either he loves her, or he’s the kind of guy who would says those words to a girl to get her to do what he wants. Either way, it’s over, Ana. Elliot and I are over.”

The finality of her words weighs down on me, leaving me speechless. She’s made his confession into a kind of catch-22 that neither of them can work through. She’s letting go. She’s giving up. She’s decided not to fight anymore.

“What can I do, Kate?” I ask. “What do you need?”

“I need you to go,” she whispers. “I need to be alone so that I can cry and feel what I need to feel before I can move on. I’ve been running away from it, but I can’t anymore. I have to accept that it’s over. I just need some time to myself.”

“You don’t have to do this alone, Katie…”

“Please, Ana. just go.

I swallow and then nod, but as I get up from the bed and turn for the door, she calls out to stop me.

“Ana.” I face her, a frisson of hope rising in me, and then quickly deflating when I see the tears welling in her eyes once more. “Don’t ever let Christian go.”

“Kate,” I try again, pleading with her to open up to me, to let me be with her and support her. To hold her together while, inside, she falls apart. But she just turns back around, buries her face in her pillow, and cries again.

“Is she okay?” Kate’s mom asks worriedly when I step back out into the hallway.

“I don’t know. No, I don’t think she is. But, she’s made her choice.”

“They were so happy,” she says, shaking her head. “I just don’t understand.”

I nod in agreement. “Call me if you think I can help.”

“Thank you, Ana. Thank you for being such a good friend to Katherine.” I hug her and then head back downstairs. I planned on calling another cab but Ethan offers to drive me back home, though I think that’s just so he can grill me for all the answers he can’t get out of Kate right now.

When we pull up along the curb outside of Escala, his knuckles are white from gripping the steering wheel so hard and he’s threatened to go kick Elliot’s ass three different times, but, for what… I’m not really sure.

“Thanks for the ride home,” I say gratefully, and then lean over to give him a hug goodbye before I step out of the car. He waits there until I’ve entered the resident’s code into the security lock on the main doors and, once I’m inside, I turn and wave goodbye, then watch him disappear down the street.

After I’ve gotten in the elevator, I type in the code for the penthouse and then lean my head against the wall as it hums to life. I’m exhausted, drained from the too eventful day, and now that I’m finally home, all I want is to get into bed with Christian. As the elevator starts to slow, I pull out my phone one last time to make sure I don’t have anything from Kate before I unplug for the rest of the night, and my heart sinks when I see that I do have a text. Not from Kate, but from Gia.

Tell Kate how sorry I am that she had to see that. You’re SUCH a good friend to go after her. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure Christian gets home okay.

My face heats as the elevator doors roll open, but as I step out into the foyer and find the apartment dark and empty, the angry fire is doused by an unwelcome sense of deja vu.

“Ch..Christian?” I call, my voice shaking slightly, but there’s no answer. I peek inside the security office off the foyer, but it’s empty, and when I move into the great room and see the low glow peaking beneath the door to our bedroom, I feel a hundred needle like pricks of pain all over my scalp.

My mind immediately begins racing through the scene when I left the ball tonight, evaluating Christian’s demeanor. What was his reaction to Gia telling Elliot she loved him? Was he upset or angry? I can’t remember, I was too focused on Kate. He kissed me though, right before I left, he initiated it. He kissed me, but then I said I love you and… did he say it back? I don’t think he did. Fuck, I don’t think he did!

Oh no…

My heart is thundering in my chest as I begin to walk up the hallway and when I reach out for the doorknob, listening hard for any indication of what I may be just about to walk in on, I almost chicken out. It takes me a few deep breaths to summon enough courage to face what’s on the other side of this door, but, once I’ve steeled myself, I reach down for the knob and then slowly push my way in the room.

Christian is in bed, alone, his laptop open in front of him.

“Hey,” he greets me softly. “Did you find her?”

I immediately burst into tears.

“Ana? What’s wrong?” He pulls back the comforter and climbs out of bed, pulling me against him and brushing his fingers soothingly through my hair. “What happened?”

“I thought I was going to find you in here with Gia,” I sob into his chest.

“Gia?” he repeats, sounding confused.

“I had a dream the other night that I came home late and you were in bed with Gia and… and…” My words cut off as I replay my nightmare in my head once again and the tears come more forcefully. Christian tightens his hold on me.

“Baby, shhh. It was just a dream. You know that I’d never do anything like that, I’d never want to do anything like that. You didn’t really think…”

“I don’t like the way you are with her,” I interrupt him, and he pulls me away, forcing me to look up at him as he furrows his brow down at me.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you’re dieting with her, you’re working out with her, you’re buying her designer gowns, and I don’t like it.”

“Okay, first of all, I’m not dieting with her. Gia lives an extremely healthy lifestyle and I admire that about her. It’s something I strive for, personally, I always have. It’s something we both do, but it’s not something I do with her. And we work out together because it’s the only other thing we have in common and I thought it would be a good way to try and get to know her. My parents haven’t been as open to her as they were with you or Kate and Mia hates her and refuses to have anything to do with her, so Elliot asked me to make an effort, to try and make her feel like she could be apart of this family. After all he’s done for us and how he’s treated you like one of our family since day one, I didn’t have a choice. The gowns, I bought for everyone. You, my mother, and Mia too. I thought it would be a nice gesture because they agreed to come in support of me even though, odds were, they were going to be bored all night.”

I press my lips together. Most of that makes sense from his perspective, except… “You let her touch you,” I say quietly. “You have no idea how hard that was for me in beginning, when you wouldn’t let me touch you. And then you did, you gave that to me, and that meant the world to me. That was what solidified what we had was real, that you trusted me, and that you truly loved me. But you let her touch you.”

“That’s because… I’ve been working on that,” he says, hanging his head now and speaking softly.

“I don’t understand what you mean.”

“Flynn and I,” he clarifies. “We’ve been working on touch for months. Ever since I found out you were pregnant. All of the baby books say the same thing, physical touch is the most important aspect of parent-infant bonding. Our daughter needs to be able to touch me, without any kind of negative reaction, and I’m trying to prepare myself for that. I don’t seek out physical touch from anyone, only you, but I’m trying to learn how to temper my reaction when other people touch me. I would never be inappropriate with Gia, or anyone, I’m just trying to learn to accept other people’s touch so that I don’t pass my problems onto our children.”

“Oh.” I look down again, feeling slightly ashamed of my accusations now that I hear his reasoning, but he doesn’t let me off the hook that easily. His fingers brush beneath my chin and he tilts my face up so that I’m looking into his eyes again.

“Why are you so worried about Gia? She’s a flirt, I’ll give you that, but a lot of girls our age are. Kate was a flirt, just… not with me because of you.”

“I just don’t like your relationship with her,” I admit. “Even if your intentions are all fine, I don’t like that you’ve gotten so close to her. It makes me uncomfortable, especially when I’m spending most of my time across the country and you’re here alone with her. I know that may sound unreasonable but…”

“Okay,” he cuts me off, and I raise an eyebrow at him.

“Okay?”

“Okay,” he reaffirms. “If it makes you uncomfortable, I’ll back off. I swear to you, Ana, I was just trying to be as welcoming to her as Elliot has been to you, but if you don’t like it, I’ll stop. You’re not being unreasonable.”  

“Really?”

“Of course not. You’re being honest about your feelings, and I appreciate that. You don’t think I understand being uncomfortable with the person you love having close a relationship with someone of the opposite sex? Do I need to fire Luke again?”

I laugh and he leans down to kiss me.

“I love you, Anastasia. Only you.”

“I love you too, Christian. I’m sorry that we didn’t break your shitty New Year’s Eve streak.”

“Well, there’s one thing we could do to salvage it. One New Year’s tradition I’d very much like to revive.”

“And what’s that?”

“Fucking you on every surface available to me.” He reaches down, scoops me into his arms, and I let out of squeal of mixed surprise and anticipation as he carries me off into the great room.

Next Chapter

 

Outtakes

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Hi everyone!

I’ve finally done it! The outtakes have been edited and have been posted.

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For those who don’t know, the outtakes are scenes from both A Different Shade of Fifty and A Broken Shade of Fifty from a different character’s PoV, (Mainly Christian’s). There can either be the other character’s take on what happened or scenes we didn’t see because Ana wasn’t around.

To find them, simply go under the main book menu and at the bottom you’ll see “ADSOF Outtakes” or “ABSOF Outtakes”. If you hover over the outtakes submenu, another submenu will come up with all of the coorisponding chapters.

I hope that makes sense, haha.

Enjoy!

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xoxo

WishingMrGreyWasHere

Christian POV: Hawaii

kauai-napali-sunset-1-mike-neal

It has been a long day at sea. Though my father had a good day, it felt like hours before Elliot even had a bite. But when he reeled in the small Trigger fish he’d finally snagged off the reef, the look on his face was so deeply satisfied one might think he’d just pulled in a whale. He held it up for mom to take a picture, but when Dad took it and laid it next to his own Bluefin Tuna, some of Elliot’s excitement dampened a little.

It’s late afternoon by the time we get back to the compound, but Ana and Kate still aren’t home from their shopping trip. I had arranged for one of the chefs from a local resort to come to our compound for the evening to cook for dinner for Elliot’s birthday, and after we give one of the people on his staff the fish we’d caught that afternoon, we head down to the cabana on the beach to sit around the table and talk while we wait for the girls to get back.

It takes about an hour, but eventually, we see them coming down the walkway from the main house, and when I see Ana descending the steps, both her hair and dress blowing gently in the sea breeze, a smile crosses my lips. She looks so beautiful and the white dress she’s picked to wear tonight, is perfect for what I have planned.

My father is the first to greet them as they step into the cabana, and the moment Ana comes around the table and takes the seat on my right, I lean over and kiss her softly on the lips.

“You look beautiful,” I tell her, reaching down to touch the exposed skin on her back. “I like this dress.”

“You don’t look so bad yourself,” she says. There’s almost a sense of mischief in her voice and as I lean over to take her lips with mine once more, I’m stopped when something small flies across the table directly into Ana’s face.

“Rule number one of Elliot’s birthday dinner,” my brother proclaims from across the table as he tears another small piece from the roll in his hand. “Christian and Ana can’t make out at the table.”

“That’s the worst rule I’ve ever heard of,” I reply. I pick up the small bit of food he threw and toss it back at him, striking him right in the center of his forehead. He gives me a challenging look as more food is laid out on the table before us, but I hold up one hand in conceit and then, rather than continue to press my luck with Anastasia at the dinner table, I reach down with my other hand, entwine it with hers, and turn my attention to the food and conversation happening around us.

When dinner is over, Elliot opens his presents and after I give him the keys to my Veyron and the paperwork to Grey Construction, he crosses the table, pulls me out of my seat, and wraps me in a hug.

“Okay, you’re making it weird now,” I say, feeling slightly uncomfortable with the outpouring of gratitude and emotion charged into the moment. It’s eased though when he punches me in the arm and moves back across the table. He leans over to kiss Kate, promising her a better future, and giving me the perfect opportunity to make my move.

“The sun is going down,” I say to Ana, reaching over to gently trace my fingers over the exposed skin on her back. “Will you go walk down on the beach with me for a minute?”

“Sure,” she says quickly. I push back from the table and wait while she pulls her napkin from her lap, dabs the corners of her mouth, and then tosses it onto the table. She holds her hand out for mine so that I can help her out of her seat, and I don’t let it go as we step out of the cabana. I can feel the eyes of my family following us as we step into the still warm sand on the beach, but I ignore them. Instead, I tighten my hand around Ana’s and lead her down to the edge of the surf, purposefully taking her up the beach far enough that we’re out of sight of Kate and Mia who have come down from the dinner table to take more fucking pictures.

I glance quickly over my shoulder, the cabana on the edge of our compound now just a small speck in the distance, and then stop. “Come here,” I say, gently pulling on her hand and leading her into the water rolling over the wet sand. She gathers her skirts into her hand and walks into the sea with me, the tide coming in at just over our ankles as we stand there waiting for the increasingly orange sun to touch the water on the horizon.

It’s a perfect moment, everything I wanted it to be when I fantasized about how this would play out. There’s nothing weighing us down anymore, no one to come between us, no more hurt or anger. I’m no longer living a double life, I’m no longer beholden to Elena Lincoln, and as I feel the overwhelming sense of freedom that leaves me with, I realize that despite the depth and all-consuming nature of the love I’ve always held in my heart for Anastasia, I was never able to fully give myself to her until the moment Elena was taken from that courtroom in handcuffs. There’d always been a third person in our relationship, a wedge between us, and now that it’s been removed, Ana and I work perfectly together. Moving in perfect synchronization, loving one another to the very depth of our soul, and although I know, in this moment, that the sheer gravity of the feeling I have for this woman will tie me to her forever, I’ve never felt more free.

I hear her let out a soft, appreciative sound and as she moves closer, her fragrant hair brushing up against my t-shirt and the heat of her body washing over me, the box in the pocket of my swim trunks feels as though it weighs 10 lbs. I take a deep breath to prepare myself, but before I can say anything, I feel Ana squeeze my hand, and look up at me.

“What are you thinking about?” she asks.

Here we go.

“How good this feels,” I answer honestly.

“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,” she says, tightening her hold on my hand as she turns to face me. “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.” I smile down at her, knowing this is the moment. The sky above us is hued in different shades of pink and purple, the ocean is glittering endlessly out in front of us, and she looks absolutely beautiful. The vision I’ve had of me kneeling down in the surf and presenting her with the ring that I’ve spent months meticulously designing and searching for the perfect diamond flashes across my mind. I turn to face her, almost jumping the gun and just pulling the ring from my pocket now, but I want this to be perfect. I want this to be a moment she’ll remember for the rest of her life.

“I love you so much, Anastasia. I wish this week would never end,” I tell her.

“I love you too, Christian,” she replies, pushing her body into my mine. I take a breath, preparing myself, but her intuitive nature takes over and she jumps in ahead of me.

“Can I ask you something?”

“You just did,” I reply, a small laugh marring my words slightly, but when she raises an unamused eyebrow at me, I nod.

“Before I left SIP, Jack told me that you hadn’t appointed anyone to take my position.”

Well, that’s not entirely accurate… Although, I suppose no official announcement has been made. But as I stare down into the inquisitive look into her eyes, I wonder if she’s asking because she’s already considered the selfish question I’ve been battling over all week. Maybe she wants to say, and this is her way of asking for her job back.

“No…” I agree hesitantly.

“Why?” she asks, and I deflate a little as, just as quickly as the hope had sprung in my chest, it’s dashed away. I’m going to have to be the one to ask for it…

I take a deep breath, then lean down and press my lips into hers, drawing out the moment until I have to break the kiss.

“I don’t want you to go back to school, Anastasia,” I say after a long pause and I feel, rather than see her brace herself. Fuck.

“Christian…” She begins, but before she tries to talk herself out of this, I want her to see the whole picture, to understand all of her options, so I interrupt her.

“It could be so great, Ana,” I begin. “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 feel the weight of the ring in my pocket again, and I briefly consider ending my promise by pulling it out and presenting it to her. But when I finish, she diverts her eyes away from mine and her grip slackens against my hands. She’s going to tell me no, and to put a proposal on top of that… I couldn’t handle that.

“Harvard is my dream, Christian,” she whispers. “It’s always been my dream.”

The sting of the rejection in her words is more poignant than I was prepared for. I can almost feel the echo of pain that had plagued me all those months that we were apart. She’s leaving… In this moment, the realization finally hits me. She’s leaving. Moving 3000 miles away from me and while she may come to visit and I can go to her whenever possible, the fact is that she’ll live in Cambridge and I’ll live in Seattle. She won’t be there when I wake up in the morning, she won’t be there when I go to sleep at night. We won’t have dinner together, we won’t spend weekends on my yacht, or have Sunday brunch with my parents. Even when she comes back to visit, I’ll have to watch her leave after only, what? A day? Maybe two?

“I’m not going anywhere,” she says, reaching up and placing her hands on either side of my face and forcing me to look at her. “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 stare down at the conviction in her eyes, and even though her promises are just reiterations of what I’m going to hate most about her absence, somehow, when she says them, it’s comforting. Perhaps it’s the way she refers to visiting me as coming home, or maybe that she reaffirms that she is mine and that we belong together, but either way, the look of love I see reflected in her eyes makes it feel as though this isn’t the end of the world.

“I don’t want to have to miss you,” I tell her.

She nods. “I know, 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,” I say, letting out an exhausted sigh as just saying the words aloud feels daunting. “I can do nine months.”

“Good,” she smiles. “Thank you for waiting for me, Mr. Grey.”

“You’re worth the wait, Miss Steele,” I reply, and as I lean down to kiss her again, my mind once again shifts back down to the box in my pocket. A box that will now have to wait through the long months of the school year until she’s fully mine again.

Book 3: A Stronger Shade of Fifty

Carrick POV: Father’s Day

Image result for sushi tie

It’s an absolutely perfect day. There isn’t a cloud in the sky, the humidity is manageable, and for the first time, in a really long time, my entire family is seated around the table on the back patio, happily eating the lunch Grace prepared for Father’s Day. There’s no tension, there’s no animosity. At long last, there’s peace, and as I look over at the beautiful young woman seated next to my youngest son, I feel a swell of gratitude. I’m simply astounded by Anastasia’s strength. She’s bared the burden that I couldn’t, and because of her ability to love, and to forgive, and to fight through her own pain and anger to see the goodness in others, my family is whole again. I don’t know if she fully understands the debt I owe to her.

I hear Elliot curse across the table and it re-captures my attention. Grace is usually quick to say something about using inappropriate language in front of Mia, but before she can open her mouth, she’s immediately distracted by Kate.

“Oh my god, Grace. You have to see this yacht that he bought. It’s incredible. Like, you’re going to die.”

“Well, I think it sounds wonderful then,” my wife says. “So, just the seven of us for Hawaii?”

“Six,” Mia corrects her. “I can’t miss dance rehearsals, and there’s no way I can get that much time off work.”

Immediately, I’m on my guard. Just from the tone of her voice, I know she’s getting ready to start an argument, but I’m not going to let her attitude derail this afternoon. I don’t know what’s wrong with Mia lately, whether she’s just going through a phase or there’s something going on that she’s not telling us about, but she’s been extremely difficult for the past few months. Initially, I’d thought it was about Christian, but he’s here now and a lot of her attitude hasn’t changed. She’s simply found other things to fight with us about.

“You can’t stay home alone, Mia. You’re only sixteen. You’ll have to speak with your boss to get some time off to spend with your family,” Grace says gently.

“She’s not that understanding,” Mia snaps back.

I watch Grace’s posture straighten as she struggles to keep her composure. I know she doesn’t want a fight anymore than I do, but the two of them have been going round for round what feels like everyday. I’d thought I had my hands full with Christian when he was a teenager, but Christian never said the kind of biting, hurtful things that I’ve heard Mia say to her mother.

“You’ll have to figure something out,” Grace says with a warning kind of calm in her voice.

“You could just pay for Juilliard and I wouldn’t have to,” Mia says and as Grace takes a deep calming breath, I put myself in the middle to stop the fight before it can begin.

“Enough, Mia,” I say firmly, and to my surprise, she doesn’t press the issue any further. She looks angry and she slouches back into her chair, but she’s silent and that in itself feels almost like a victory.

Grace gives me a grateful look and then turns back to Christian and Elliot. “So, when shall we go?” she asks. “Maybe the last week in August before Ana and Kate go back to school?”

“Make him plan it,” Elliot says through a mouthful of food. He nods in his brother’s direction. “He’s the one with the busy schedule.”

Grace and I turn expectant looks on Christian, but he looks down at Anastasia.

“Do you want to go to Hawaii?” he asks.

She bites her lip hesitantly. “Can we? A week off is a lot of time to be away from a two and a half month internship and you couldn’t even make it through one day off on your birthday.”

“I’ll make it work. Boeing says my jet will be ready by June 28th so we’ll have it available to us. We could maybe just take a long weekend, instead of a whole week.”

She weighs the decision for a moment, glancing around the table at each of us, and then shrugs. “You’re the boss.”

Christian frowns at her less than enthused response, but since it isn’t a no, he nods to his mother, agreeing to the dates she’s proposed.

“Excellent,” Grace says, clapping her hands together and smiling. “Well, should we do presents?”

“I’ll get them,” Mia volunteers, not waiting for any kind of confirmation before jumping up from the table and running back into the house. A few seconds later, she returns with her arms full of gifts. She’s smiling broadly at me as she holds the packages out for me and I’m happy to see her good mood from earlier in the afternoon has returned.

“Thank-you, Princess,” I tell her as I take the gifts from her. I immediately know the long, slender box is hers and I smile at her as I pick it up. “Should I open yours first?”

“Sure, but you know what it is.” She laughs.

I peel back the paper and open the lid to reveal her traditional Father’s Day tie. It’s an almost powder blue color, covered in dozens of pictures of cartoon sushi that, when I examine closely, have tiny little script beneath each picture describing the exact type of each kind of sushi depicted. I laugh as I look down at the tiny California roll.

“This is great, Mia. I think this is the best one yet. People are going to love it at the LSA convention next spring.”

She gives me a very satisfied smile, and as I reach out for the next package, I hear Christian whisper an explanation to Ana about the tie. I look up at her, wink, and then read the tag on the gift in my hands. It’s from Elliot.

I tear off the paper, and am surprised to find a fishing sonar system that is the exact same model as the one already installed in my boat. I have the brief thought that maybe he’d somehow found the old box for the sonar I already own, but when he reaffirms his gift is exactly what I think it is… I look over at him with confusion.

“I know what it is…” I say, hesitantly. “But, I already have one.”

“Yeah… I may have broken that last week when Kate and I took the boat down the lake.” Elliot explains. His confession sparks a flash of irritation in my gut, though less because he’s damaged the current system, and more because it’s been so long since I’ve been out on the water that I haven’t noticed. I need to make more time for sailing, perhaps as a way to spend time with both of my boys. They’ve always been my best crew, and as I try to remember the last time we were out on the lake together, I wonder if, subconsciously, Christian’s absence was the reason I haven’t been out much.

I slide the sonar box towards Elliot, telling him he can install it since he was the one to damage the last one, and after he agrees, I pick up Christian’s gift. There’s a large, square box that feels as though it’s made of leather inside the bag, and as I pull it out, I feel my breath catch at the sight of the deep, familiar green that I’ve lusted over for over twenty years, but never treated myself to.

“No…” I whisper, shocked. Christian smiles and nods at me encouragingly.

“Open it.”

I glance over at him, see him nod, and then turn back to the box in my hand. The lid is heavy and the hinge groans slightly as I slowly ease it open, but once I’ve pulled the lid completely back, my eyes widen with amazement. There, resting on a bed of cream velvet, are the thick platinum links of the presidential bracelet and the onyx faced time piece with the word ROLEX in clean, white font.

“Christian…” I nearly gasp. “I can’t… this is too much.”

“No,” he disagrees. “It’s what I wanted you to have. I know you’ve always wanted one.”

I look over at him, searching his face for any kind of insincerity or regret, but he looks as confident as ever. It’s an exorbitant gift, too expensive for me to accept from my son… but in this moment, it’s too much to resist. I gently ease the watch out of the display mounted into the casing of the box, and then slip it over my wrist, feeling the weight of the cool metal on my skin.

Suddenly, my family is flocked around me, admiring the watch for themselves and showering me with compliments, but I’m still left so stunned by the enormity of the gift, I can only sit there and stare, utterly speechless.

“Way to make us look bad, asshole,” Elliot says as he retakes his seat and punches Christian in the arm. Christian laughs and as I finally accept the reality of this moment, I move the bag still resting in my lap so I can get up to properly thank my son, but then I hear something else rustle inside, so I take another look. There’s an envelope resting on the bottom of the bag.

“Wait there’s a card,” I say, reaching in for it and then placing the gift bag on the table in front of me.

“Uh, you… you should read that later,” Christian says awkwardly, and while I raise a questioning eyebrow at him, Grace jumps in and waves him off, insisting I open it now.

I reach down and peel back the flap of the envelope, but it’s not a card I find inside. It’s merely paper. I unfold it and glance over it. It’s a letter.

 

Dad.

I’m sitting at my desk in my office right now trying to think of what I want to say to you on this Father’s Day, but I find myself coming up short. Just a few months ago, I never thought this would be a day we ever spend together again. I was ready to completely write you out of my life, and even now that we’ve begun to repair the bridge in our relationship, I feel like there’s still so much left unsaid between us.

It feels wrong to bring this up on a day of celebration, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually apologized to you for what happened. So, I want to let you know that I deeply regret my actions in the trial, and I say my actions because I can see now the outright selfishness of what I did. I’d justified it to myself then, tried to shift the blame onto everyone and everything around me so that I wouldn’t have to feel the shame of what I’d done. But I’m done doing that now and, in order for us to move forward and share the bond we did when I was a kid, I have to tell you how sorry I really am.

I’m really, truly sorry, Dad.

Once I’d accepted my part in what had happened, I thought a lot about everything that occurred before the trial. I thought about the time you put into preparing us all, the effort and care you’d put into going over every granular detail, and, of course, the implicit trust you’d placed in me. Everyone one trusted me, trusted that I would do the right thing. But I didn’t do the right thing. I lied, and it was hurtful to everyone in my family, and for that I really am profoundly sorry. I wish I could take it back, but I can’t. I can only promise that I will never let you down like that again.

We’ve said hurtful things to one another over the past two years, behaved in ways family should never behave with each other, and I forgive you for your part, just as I hope that you can forgive me for mine. I know I hurt you and I know from first hand experience that people can act out in terrible ways when they’re hurt. When I knew that I wanted to repair what had been broken between my family and I, I spent a lot of time talking to Elliot about you, specifically. He’d left me with the impression that beneath the anger you felt over what I’d done, you were struggling with a deep sense of guilt because you thought you’d let me down by bringing Elena into my life. But you didn’t, Dad. You didn’t know. It wasn’t your fault.

I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but growing up, you were my hero. When I was young, I used to believe there wasn’t anything you couldn’t do. To me, you were Superman. I didn’t think there was anything you didn’t know because there was never a question that I could ask that you didn’t have an answer for. You were warm, and you were kind, and you always respected my boundaries. So few people in my life up until that point treated me in that way, and it meant the world to me. It still does. You never pushed our relationship, you let it grow organically, and I think that’s why I can’t think of you only as the man who adopted me at the age of four, despite a herculean effort on my part to do that very thing over the last few years. You are my father, and I love you.

We don’t say that enough to each other.

I love you, Dad. And, I’ve missed you. I know there hasn’t been much good between us in a long time, but just know that, through the anger and the vicious fights, I never once questioned that I love you. And I never will.

Happy Father’s Day.

Christian

 

I feel a dry ache in the back of my throat as I finish the letter, and while I blink back tears, I push away from the table so that I can stand.

“Come here, Christian,” I say. He gets out of his seat, walks around the table towards me, and once he’s within arm’s reach, I wrap him in a tight hug.

“I love you, Son,” I tell him. “I always have, okay? And I always will.”

“I love you too, Dad,” Christian replies, and when I pull away and grip tightly onto his shoulder, I hear Grace let out a high, strangled sounding cry next to me.

“Mom…” Christian says, sounding almost embarrassed, but again, she waves him away with her hand.

“This is just… this is everything that I’ve wanted,” she says. I slowly ease myself back into my chair and watch Grace reach over to squeeze Anastasia’s hand. She too can see what that girl has done for our son, and for our family, and suddenly, I wish there was a way to make this day about that. We need a way to thank her, a way to celebrate her, but her birthday isn’t for several months. Perhaps that’s something Grace and I can ruminate on, and in the meantime, I think I’d like to make this day less about me, and more about our family being whole again.

“Alright, alright,” Elliot says, getting up out of his chair. “Enough of this mush fest. It’s a beautiful day, let’s play some ball.”

“Yes,” Christian agrees, quickly, and, once Mia says she’s in, I get up once more to head out to the yard to play ball with my children.

Finally, life is perfect.

Next Chapter

Christian POV: The First Time (Again)

Image result for christian grey piano

It’s late and much too quiet. The clock on the bedside table rolls over to 01:30 AM, but I’m nowhere close to sleep. My mind is too preoccupied with the memories of my afternoon with Anastasia.

She let me kiss her. More, she kissed me back. We kissed, and it was… perfect. It felt just the way I remembered it, just as good as it had always been. I’ve replayed that kiss in my mind over and over again throughout the day, and it’s awakened a need in me that I’ve forced to lay dormant for nearly two years. Now, I’m plagued with a ravenous, libidinous hunger that I can’t ignore.

That hunger fully occupies my mind far too late into the night, so I eventually give up on the idea of sleep and climb out of bed, retrieving a pair of pajama bottoms from my top drawer and throwing them on as I leave my room and head for the piano. I take a moment to pause and stare out at the lights of Seattle through the window. The whole city is twinkling, celebrating with me, and as I place my fingers against the keys of my piano, I fill my mind with Anastasia and begin to play. I have no music in front of me, nor any specific piece in mind, just broken bits of my favorite compositions that I manage to meld together with some creative flourishes and embellishments.

Suddenly, my attention is caught by an unexpected noise just a few feet away, and while the surprise of the sound has my body tensed, that immediately melts away when I turn and see Ana standing on the other side of the room with her shoes scattered haphazardly on the floor by her feet.

She’s dressed in a thin black dress the hugs her body tightly enough that even in the muted light I can see the perfect outlines of the curves of her breasts and hips. Her hair is full, tumbling down around her face and over her shoulders in a soft cloud. She’s wearing perhaps a little too much makeup, but that might simply be my perception because I’ve always preferred her more natural. Still, she looks absolutely stunning and the desire that forced me out of bed earlier is once again peaked.

“Ana?” I ask, turning away from the piano to face her.

“Hi,”She breathes back. “I’m um… I’m locked out of my apartment.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“I think I left my purse at the club,”She explains. “My phone and keys were in it.”

I frown. She’s barely mumbling her words but I can still hear the slur in her voice that tells me she’s intoxicated. I’d hoped that she’d come to tell me that she regretted her decision not to stay with me this afternoon and that she wanted to continue on from where our kiss was clearly headed, but she’s only here because she needs something, and I can’t try to push her into anything else because she’s drunk.

“I could have Taylor go down and look for it if you want,”I offer, but she shakes her head.

“No, it’s late. I don’t want you to wake him. I’m sure Kate will grab it, I just thought that maybe you’d have a key.”

“I do. I’ll get it for you,”I tell her, and then get up from the piano bench and make my way back through the kitchen to the utility room where Gail keeps the spare keys. Ana follows after me, watching me closely as I sort through the metal box, and when I find the right key and turn back to her, I notice she’s biting down on her bottom lip and the visual stirs my cock.

Fuck.

“Here,”I say, managing to keep my voice even as I hold out the key to her. Her eyes shift down to my hand for only a second and then she launches herself at me. Her arms fold around my neck and her fingers dig into my hair as she pulls my lips down to hers. There is an arousing, all consuming passion in the way she kisses me, and I want nothing more than to return that fervor, to lose control, push her back into the wall and fuck her mercilessly, but I don’t because, even though my tongue hasn’t crossed her lips, I can taste the alcohol on her breath. She isn’t consciously making this choice, and if and when she does let me take her to bed, I don’t want it to be something she regrets the next morning.

“Ana… You’re drunk. I can’t…” I say, fighting every instinctual urge in my body and pulling away from her.

“I’m fine, Christian. Really,” s  he says, trying to assure me, but because my name comes out “Chri-shian” and her eyes flutter a little as she speaks, I know she isn’t fine.

“No, you’re not,”I say firmly.

“Christian, I promise you. I want this. I’ve wanted this all day, since you kissed me in my apartment. This has nothing to do with the alcohol. I want you.”

I swallow as I look down at her and see the lust burning in her eyes. I want this, I fucking need this, but I… I can’t. Why does she have to be drunk?

She leans forward again, pushing her soft, warm body into my bare chest, and presses her lips to mine. I hesitate, but in the brief moment it takes me to gain control of myself to push her away again, she reaches up into my hair and tugs at my roots while her tongue begs permission to invade my mouth. Her body moves against mine, pushing into me, her hips grinding against my erection, and I suddenly find myself make excuses. She kissed me this afternoon, fully sober. Surely kissing her, just kissing her, isn’t taking advantage of her…

It’s a weak excuse and I’m fully aware of that, but I cling to it and then let out a low groan as I surrender to the desire, wrap her in my arms, and push her into the wall at her back. The fire ignites between us as I deepen the kiss and entangle my tongue with hers. Soon, all coherent thought is thrown out the window and I lose myself in her, tasting her, relishing in the feel of her body against mine until I realize she’s practically panting into my mouth and my fingers are clawing desperately at the thin chiffon of her dress.

“Take me to bed, Christian,” she whispers, her voice high and needy and it’s as though she’s speaking directly to my cock. I look down at her, trying to find any iota of hesitation in her eyes, any indication that this isn’t what she wants so I have something to stop myself from doing the only thing in this world that I want to do, which is take her to my bed and completely ravage her. I don’t see doubt in her eyes though and the raw, burning need reflected back at me makes it impossible for me to think rationally.

“Are you sure?” I ask, my voice fully strained now.

“Yes,”She says, nodding quickly. “Yes, I’m sure. I want you. I need you. Please…”

My jaw tenses as my dick twitches again, painfully this time, as it strains to break free from my pants to get to her. Fuck, maybe that in itself makes this a bad idea. I can’t imagine I’d be able to fuck her for more than a few seconds without exploding…

And suddenly, I have a horrible, gut wrenching realization that immediately quells all thoughts of even entertaining the idea of having her tonight…

“I don’t have any condoms,” I tell her.

“That’s okay,” she says, shaking off my concern. “I’m on the pill.”

I look down at her, surprised for a second. Why the fuck is she on birth control? She wasn’t on it when I met her, so I know there isn’t a medical reason for her to be taking it. Does that mean she really has been fucking someone else?

I have only a second to care about this though because once again, her teeth sink down into her bottom lip and I realize that she’s given me the green light. She’s protected and willing and, against my better judgement, I can’t refuse her any longer. As quickly as humanly possible, I sweep her up into my arms, carry her through the kitchen, and back towards my bedroom. My body is alive with anticipation as I move through the great room, and when she reaches up to pull my lips down to hers again, it’s as if a sixth sense takes over, allowing me to blindly navigate through the apartment to get her into my bed.

“You’re sure?” I check again once I’ve set her down. She nods and then curls her knees beneath her, raising herself up to reach her lips to mine again. I place my hands on either side of her face, cupping each of her cheeks tenderly as our mouths come together. She lets out a soft moan that eggs me on and slowly, I move my hand down her face, over her shoulders, and to the zipper on the back of her dress. As I pull the zipper down, slowly revealing each precious inch of her flawless skin, I feel her shiver and then move her tongue deeper into my mouth. I’m painfully hard, aching for her, so once I’ve pulled her dress off her shoulders, I break away from the kiss and move my lips down her body, removing her bra as I inch closer to her breasts.

Once her breasts are exposed, I take a moment to fully appreciate them. She’s just as beautiful as I remember and as I brush my thumb over her right nipple, watching it harden under my touch, I once again find myself in disbelief at how utterly perfect this woman is.

“Oh baby…” I whisper, no longer able to conceal my longing for her. Having her like this in front of me gives me countless ideas of things I’d like to do to her, ways I’d like to worship her, but more than anything right now, I need to feel her against me. I need to be inside of her.

I lean into her, kissing her again and easing her back onto the bed so that she’s flat on her back and I’m laying over the top of her. I take another moment to enjoy the feel of her lips and tongue while I pull the dress still hanging loosely at her waist off of her and discard it carelessly onto the floor. Once I have her in only her panties, I reach up for her breasts, gently rolling her nipple between my index and middle finger. She moans in response and thrusts her pelvis up to mine, grinding her panties against the obvious bulge in my pants. I shift my hand on her breast, pinching her nipple tightly between my thumb and the knuckle on my index finger and pulling gently on it until she gasps and I can capture her bottom lip with my teeth.

“Christian!” she cries. My name sounds so fucking sexy coming from her mouth that I groan my satisfaction against her lips.

“Tell me what you want, Anastasia,” I cajole her. “I want to hear you say it.”

“I want you. Please, Christian,” she begs, giving me everything I’ve wanted to hear for so long in just a few short words.

“Oh, Ana,” I moan, claiming her lips once more and then moving off of her so I can remove my pants and eliminate one of the last barriers between us. She watches me intently as I lower the thin cotton from my hips, and once I’ve stepped completely out of them, she scrambles back onto her knees and leans forward like she’s going to take my cock into her mouth. The muscles in my stomach clench as I see the libidinous hunger in her eyes, but I reach out to stop her. I don’t know if I’m going to last long as is, and I know that watching her gorgeous blue eyes staring up at me as she wraps her lips around my cock will be the end of me.

“No, Ana,” I chide her, gently. “I don’t want your mouth right now. I want to be inside of you, and I can’t wait any longer.”

She inhales sharply as I push her back onto the bed and then reach down, grip my cock, and brush the tip over her entrance. I can feel how wet she is and it drives me crazy knowing how ready she is, but this is it… the moment of no return, and I find myself hesitating again.

“Ask me again,” I beg her, needing her to say the words aloud just one more time before I do this.

“Fuck me, Christian,” she whispers, grinding against me as she tries to push herself down on me. “I want you to make me come.”

Fuck, that was sexy… “And you promise me that you’re not too drunk?” I check again.

“No,” she shakes her head. “No, I want this.” I swallow, thinking it through one last time, knowing there’s a possibility I could be about to make a mistake that has the potential to unravel everything I’ve done to get back into her good graces… but when her eyes meet mine and I hear her soft “please”, I know I’m not strong enough to stop now.

A deep, gravelly growl escapes my chest as I kiss her again, harder this time, and then thrust inside of her. She immediately clenches around me, letting out a loud, harsh cry, and I nearly blow my load. She feels fucking incredible.

When I look down at her though, her face is tight and her eyes are closed, and I worry that I’ve somehow hurt her.

“What’s wrong?” I ask, making sure I don’t move until she gives me an indication that she’s alright.

“Nothing,” she replies quickly, though there is definite strain in her voice. “Nothing, I’m fine. Just give me a second. I forgot how big you are.”

Oh fuck, Ana… Please don’t talk about my cock right now…

My jaw tightens as I do everything I can to hold back my orgasm, but she feels so hot, and wet, and tight around me, it’s impossible to think of anything else.

“Oh baby, that’s because I don’t think I’ve ever been this fucking hard,” I tell her, pushing forward a little but not pulling back enough for either of us to feel friction. She clenches around me again and I feel a sudden increase in urgency inside my balls… Fuck, I’m not going to last.

I hold as still as possible, trying to put her at ease while also trying to regain control of my body. When she reaches up to kiss me though, I unconsciously begin easing in and out of her and my orgasm begins to build again. She grinds down on me, moving against me in opposition to increase the friction between us, and it’s almost the breaking point. I have to reach down to hold her still.

“Don’t move,” I tell her, but she let’s out a defiant moan.

“I’m okay now,” she says, squirming against me again. My jaw clenches together as I tighten my hands around her hips.

“Please, Ana. Don’t move,” I repeat, the strain in my voice more evident this time, and she looks up at me with confusion.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s been…. Awhile,” I tell her. “You’re going to make me come.”

She lets out a small, defiant sound and begins gyrating against me again, and I know that I’m fighting a losing battle. I need her to come first and if that’s going to happen, I need to get her off before I really start fucking her. Quickly, I pull out of her and move my lips down her body, between her breasts and over her belly, until I reach her clitoris.

“Oh god!” she gasps, falling back onto the mattress and tiling her pelvis up to my mouth. I oblige her silent direction eagerly, dragging the flat of my tongue over her opening and then swirling it purposefully around her clitoris before sucking on it again with my lips. Her body begins to shudder as I tease her with my tongue and even my teeth, and as her legs clamp around my ears, I reach down and ease a finger inside of her. Soon, she’s panting with pleasure.

“Anastasia,” I whisper, keeping my lips against her so that even speaking her name is pleasurable. “You taste so good.”

She whimpers and I close my mouth around her, tracing out the ABCs over her clitoris with my tongue, while I fuck her with my fingers. She responds well to the letter M.

“Oh, Christian,” she moans. “You’re going to make me come.”

I smile and then kiss her softly before dragging my tongue over her once more. “Come on, baby,” I encourage her. “Give it to me.”

As I increase the ferocity in which I move my fingers in and out of her, the quivering in her legs intensifies, and suddenly, she screams my name and begins to clenching around my fingers, coating them with her come. Fuck, yes.

I’m mesmerised watching her. Her breasts heaving up and down while her hips writhe against me. Her mouth is open as she lets out a litany of moans and strangled cries.

“So beautiful,” I whisper. She starts to come down, panting hard, and I remove my fingers and thrust my tongue inside of her, drawing out every last ounce of pleasure I can before I drag my mouth away. With one last kiss on her clitoris, I make my way up her body, tasting every inch of her skin until I reach her breasts and begin lavishing her nipples once more.

“Christian, I want you inside of me,” she begs. My skin heats and my cock twitches again, physical signs of the deep rooted satisfaction I take in those words, but I want her just on the edge before I take her again.

“All good things, Anastasia,” I tell her, continuing my work as I move to her other breast. She writhes beneath me, gasping and moaning, showing me what my touch is doing to her, until it becomes to much for me to refuse any longer and I move to take her lips again. Her tongue is relentless now as I reach down and brush the tip of my erection against her, lubricating myself with her arousal for a moment, and then pushing forward until my cock is once again fully buried inside of her.

She doesn’t cry out in pain this time, so I don’t wait. I begin diving in and out of her with a ferocity born from two years of starvation. She’s so wet and tight around me, and the high, incoherent sounds that escape her lips as I fuck her without mercy, egg me on.

“You feel so fucking good, Anastasia,” I whisper as I tighten my hands over her hips and pull her back against me with each thrust. There is a passing thought in the back of my mind that I might be holding her to tightly, that my fingertips might leave bruises in her flawless skin, but that thought only makes me want to hold her tighter. I want her marked. I want physical evidence that she is mine.

The idea of marking her reminds me of the way her ass used to look, pinked from my hand and slamming into me, so I flip her onto her side to get a good view. It’s worth it in the end both because her ass, firmer now than it was the last time I had her, looks fucking incredible from this angle, and because I can fuck her deeper this way. She’s fully enveloping my cock and her heat is magnificent. I’m having trouble pulling her fully back against me since her leg is wrapped around me, but as if in response to my silent disappointment, she reaches up for my headboard and pushes herself against me, working in opposition from me, and making every thrust so much more powerful. Soon, I feel the tightening sensation begin to build in my balls, and I know the end is near.

“Fuck, I’m getting close, baby,” I warn her.

“Me too,” she says. I groan slightly as I feel her getting wetter, getting tighter, and I know that feeling her grip tightly around me as she comes on my cock will be all it takes for me to let go.

“Then come for me,” I say, my voice harsh and demanding. “Come for me, Ana.”

My hand reaches up, twisting into the roots of her hair and then yanking her head back so that I can lean over and kiss her again. Her lips are tight against mine, her tongue erratic as she builds towards her orgasm, and when at last, she begins quivering and spasming around me, she screams into my mouth and I explode.

“Yes!” I hiss as the hot, white heat of pleasure courses through what feels like every cell of my body. I freeze, pouring myself into her, and as we both come down from the unbelievably high, I fall onto the bed next to her and pull her against me.

Our harsh and broken breathing sounds too loud in the silent room, but there’s almost a musical quality to it. I can feel her body relaxing in my arms, her breathing start to regulate, and as she melts back into me, I reach over and tilt her head back to me, reaching for her lips once more.

Now that my blinding lust is quenched, I can really take the time to enjoy her. Our mouths move together slowly, deeply, with a kind of synchronicity that I don’t think can be learned, but that is the result of a deep, true connection. The way I feel about her, the sheer force of the love I have for this woman, it’s not something you find everyday. I know that what we have is rare and that’s why I fought so hard for it. It’s why, if this goes badly when she sobers up and she runs from me again, it will destroy me. I was able to trick myself into thinking I could let go before, but I won’t be able to do it again. Like an addict going through relapse, the need and the urge is so much stronger this time, and suddenly I’m filled with fear. I don’t know what I’ll do if she wakes up thinking this was a mistake… I can’t fathom the pain that will leave me in. But there isn’t anything I can do about that now. The deed is done, and right now, kissing her as I hold her in my arms, I can once again feel the enormity of our bond. It stirs me again.

“Again?” I ask her, pushing my erection against her.

“Yes,” she whispers in response. I smile as I reach down, part her legs, and then guide my erection inside of her again. This time though, I don’t attack her like a ravenous animal. I ease into her, stretching her and filling her slowly as I re-memorize every inch of her. She gasps once when I reach the point where I can’t move forward anymore, then moans as I pull back and move my lips down her shoulder.

Her skin is slightly salty from the thin sheen of sweat remaining from the hard, vigorous way I’d had her only moments ago, and it’s intoxicating. My tongue traces up the curve of her neck while my hands move around to her breast, and while I feel the heat increasing between us, an almost desperate sense of longing fills my chest.

Please don’t let this be the end.

“Oh, Ana,” I groan. “I’ve missed this so much.”

“Me too. Oh god, Christian. You’re so good,” she moans. My body feels electrified by her words. I want her to enjoy this, I want to remind her how good we are together. I want her to feel the euphoric sense of pleasure that can only come from this connection between us, so I reach down and begin to gently massage her clitoris, determined to make her come once more. It works, because after only a minute or so, she’s grinding against me, and panting heavily again.

“Come with me, Christian,” she says, and I feel the corner of my mouth tick upwards into a smirk.

“Already?”

She nods and I move my hand back to her hip to hold her in place so that I can take her harder. Still, the angle is awkward, so I roll her onto her stomach, my chest pressing into her back while I support my weight on my elbows, and then really begin to move.

“Christian!” she screams, my name sounding like poetry as it rolls off her tongue. I growl and thrust harder, wanting to hear her scream more, but as she does, she turns her head into the pillow to muffle the sound. My jaw tightens as I take her arm and move her onto her back again so that she can scream into the open air and I can hear it echo around me.

“Look at me, Ana,” I command. “I want to see you when I make you come.”

Her eyes lock on mine, but her bottom lip begins to tremble as she struggles to hold back the cries of ecstasy desperate to break free from her lips. I stare down into her eyes, feeling the intensity of the connection, until suddenly, she can’t hold back her screams any longer and she lets go as she comes around my cock.

“Fuck!” I hiss as the force of her orgasm clamps her vaginal walls tightly around my cock. My arms start to shake and my mind goes completely blank so that the only thing in my realm of reality, is her heat and the pleasure building deep inside of me. I grunt as I once again pour my release into her, but once we both come down and I roll off of her again, I can tell the exhaustion from the night and from our lovemaking is catching up to her, and she’s fighting off sleep.

“That was…” I pant, wrapping her in my arms and leaning over her to breathe in the fragrant scent of her hair.

“Incredible,” she whispers.

“More than that. It was everything.”

“Mmm,” she moans and then shifts her body so that she’s pressing herself fully into me. As I realize that I’m losing her to sleep, my earlier concerns over what is going to happen when she wakes up, return.

“You’re okay, right?” I check. “You’re not going to regret this in the morning?”

“No,” she mumbles, but her half-conscious promise isn’t very reassuring. I can feel her breathing even out and see her eyelids fluttering, and just as I think she’s drifted off, I whisper a final plea.

“Please don’t leave me, Ana.”

To my surprise, her eyes open and she turns around to face me, looking more alert than I’ve seen her all night.

“I’m not going anywhere, Christian,” she says, finally with enough determination that I can almost feel pacified by her words. Still, I need to be careful.

“Do you want to go back to your own apartment?” I ask. Her teeth sink down into her bottom lip and she looks away from me, thinking it over, and while I wait for her answer, I’m not even sure what I want it to be.

Fuck, I shouldn’t have done this. I should have waited. I should have taken her back to her apartment myself and put her into bed. I want her to know that she always had the option to say no, that I wasn’t trying to take advantage of her and that if she wants to leave, she absolutely can… but I’m also scared of what tomorrow will mean if I let her leave. What if this does go wrong and I never see her again?

“No,” she says, at last. “No, I don’t want to go back to my apartment. I want to sleep in your arms tonight. I want you to hold me, Christian.”

I take a deep breath and stare down into the crystal blue depths of her eyes and decide that from this point forward, the only thing I can do is be open with her and honest about what I want and how I feel. It’s the only way to stop the games between us and the fragile deals that seem to be all that’s holding us together right now. I don’t want it to be like that anymore, I want it to be like it was a few minutes ago, raw and passionate and just… right. I want her with me, and that includes tonight.

“I want that too,” I tell her. “Sleep, baby.”

Her eyes flutter closed again and I lean down to softly kiss her before I lie back down and wrap myself around her. She lets out a small, comforted sound, and then is completely silent except for her slow, even breathing.

“I love you, Anastasia,” I admit, but when she doesn’t say anything back, I take a deep breath and close my eyes. I’m not quite sure how long I lie there, an hour, maybe two, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t sleep. Part of it is the uncertainty, not knowing if this is the end again, and so, I don’t want to miss a single second of having her here in my arms. But then, I can’t seem to shake the nagging thought that staying here with her is a bad idea. She’s been so adamant about these boundaries between us the past few days, and while I’ve more than just crossed that line tonight, I’m not doing myself any favors by continuing to fight them.

After a few more minutes of debate, I climb out of bed and begin to pace the bedroom floor, my mind racing through the dozens of different scenarios I might be faced with the next morning, and how my decisions right now could affect each outcome. There are so many way this could go, so many ways that I could still fuck this up, and trying to work around each and every possibility is driving me mad.

Eventually, the pale gray light of dawn begins to seep in through my windows and as I take a moment to look down at Ana, still sleeping peacefully in my bed, I take a breath and force myself to admit that I might have to prepare myself to lose her again. The truth is, no matter which way this goes, I’m at fault. I was the one in control last night and I chose the path that led us here.  I was selfish and greedy, and now I have to face the consequences of those choices, even though it may kill me.

I pull the chair sitting by the door next to the bed and slump down into it, feeling completely exhausted, but not allowing myself to sleep. I simply stare down at her, watching the slow and steady rise of her shoulders beneath the blankets. Each second that passes is agonizing but I cling to them, savoring them, until eventually, Ana begins to stir.

She turns over, reaching into the empty space behind her and then sits up to look at me, obviously confused.

“Hey,” she says, her voice a little hoarse. “What are you doing over there?”

I swallow the lump that’s grown in my throat over the last few hours, but it isn’t enough to keep the gravel out of my voice when I finally speak.

“Are you going to leave?” I ask her.

“What?” she says, the confusion in her expression intensifying.

“Are you going to leave?” I repeat. “I just– I just need to be prepared if you’re going to leave.”

Her mouth pops open slightly as she glances back at me and the confusion shifts into something close to pain. I can see her eyes darting back and forth and the fear in my gut intensifies as I wonder if the realization of what has happened is hitting her and the panic is about to set in.

“Ana, I’m sorry,” I blurt out, though my voice is still raw and muted. “You said you needed boundaries… You were drunk, I shouldn’t have… Jesus, what the fuck was I thinking?”

“No. Christian, stop. I’m fine,” she says, quickly. “I told you last night, I’m not going anywhere.”

What? She remembered that? Suddenly, hope begins to bloom within me and I feel my eyes widen with shock.

“Really?” I check.

“Yes, really,” she says, her voice lighter now, softer, and more reassuring. Still, I don’t move or speak. I stare back at her, waiting, just in case there’s some kind of catch… but, miraculously, there isn’t.

“Christian, I promise. I’m here to stay,” she reaffirms. The true sincerity in her voice finally wins me over and I feel relief crash over me with such force I nearly feel winded. Suddenly, the exhaustion is gone and my body is gripped with nervous energy that I release by running my hands through my hair, which is already a complete disaster from the night I’ve spent rummaging through it and tugging at it with distress. Ana sits up a little more in the bed, pulling my sheet around her and then holds her arms out for me.

“Come here,” she tells me, and immediately, I comply. I get out of my chair and slip beneath the comforter, and as she lies next to me and snuggles into my chest, I feel an overwhelming sense of home.

“I’m not going to run anymore, Christian,” she tells me. “When I left you two years ago, I wasn’t ready to deal with what had happened, not with the trial and not with you and Elena. I didn’t know what I was up against, but I do now and I’m here to fight for you. I want to be with you, Christian.”

My stomach drops… With me?

“You do?” I ask, astonished, and she nods.

“Yes, I do. I miss you. I miss what we had. I’m ready to try to get back.”

Again, it takes me a second to fully appreciate the gravity of her words, but once they truly hit me, I feel a rush of pure, uninhibited joy and a broad smile breaks across my face. She’s not only not going to run, she’s ready move forward. She’s ready to take me back. She’s ready to be mine again.

The next thing I know, my lips are on hers and I’m kissing her with a passion I haven’t felt about anything in years. The relief and the elation is nearly indescribable. Like the sun rising after years of living in the dark, like the first breath of spring after an interminable winter. She’s mine again, truly mine, and this time, I’m never going to let her go.

Next Chapter

Christian POV: Hello?

Image result for Anastasia Steele

When I get home from Cambridge early Saturday morning, I immediately head into my office where I know Elena is waiting for me. The second I open the door, she jumps out of her seat, looking at me with concern, but I brush it off and make my way to the chair behind my desk. My place of power.

“What happened, Christian?” she asks.

“It’s over. I’m done,” I tell her. “I want you to bring me a submissive. I don’t care what she looks like, I don’t care who she is, but she needs to be here tomorrow. Can you do that for me?”

Elena seems slightly bewildered by my harsh tone and her response is slightly discombobulated. “Uh… tomorrow?”

“Yes, tomorrow,” I repeat. “Can you take care of that or not? Because if you can’t, I don’t know what I need you for.”

Her mouth pops open, but when I narrow my eyes at her, she seems to regain her composure, and she nods.

“Good. Now, get the fuck out of my office.”

“Christian…” She protests, but I silence her with a quick, hard glare, and she scrambles up out of her seat. She looks at me one last time, almost as if she’s going to attempt to diffuse the situation, but I’m not in the mood to talk right now.

“Leave,” I repeat again, and she frowns but then turns around for the door. Once she’s gone, I look down at the Macbook closed on my desk and consider trying to find something to work on, but there’s no way I could be productive right now. I’m too keyed up, filled with an angry kind of energy that demands release. My eyes turn to the photograph of Anastasia and I from Bora Bora that is sitting on the corner of my desk and I immediately reach up and swing the back of my arm at it, sending it crashing to the floor.

The sound of the shattering glass ignites something inside of me, and I reach over for the top right drawer in my desk and yank it open, rummaging around inside until my fingers close around the small black velvet box. I open the lid, taking a moment to look at the round diamond earrings I’d tried to give Anastasia the day she left me, and then snap it closed as I nearly launch myself out of my chair and go barreling through my apartment. Once I’m in the great room, I open the door for the balcony, step outside, then reach back and launch the box over the edge with as much force as I can muster. I stand there for a second, watching the box disappear until I can’t see it anymore, and then hurry back into my apartment.

There are two nightstands on either side bed, and inside the cabinet of the one opposite from the side I sleep on, there is a box labeled “Anastasia”. I take it out and then bring it with me to the library across from my office, which is completely bare except for the fireplace on the back wall. I walk towards it, flick the switch to turn on the gas, and then pull back the steel grate. There is a box of matches sitting on the mantle that I use to light the flame, and once the fire begins crackling beneath the hearth, I rip open the box to the lid.

Inside the box, there is a tube of Chapstick that Ana had once left in my car, a hair tie with a few strands of her hair still tangled around it, a loofa that had somehow gotten into my bag instead of hers after our trip to Bora Bora, and a crumpled up piece of paper that is a note she’d once left for me in my dorm. A lump creeps into my throat as I pull the paper out of the box, smooth it out, and read her words again:

You left your phone charger in my room which I assume is why you haven’t answered any of my texts for the last few hours. I’m going to the airport now to pick up Kate and I think she wants to go to dinner so she can tell me all about her weekend with Elliot, so don’t wait for me to go to Annenberg. I’ll see you tonight when I get back. I love you. –A

My fingers trace over the indentations in the paper made by her pen, and as the aching sense of loss creeps back over me, I remind myself that this is done, and then toss the note into the fire. I don’t even bother sorting through the rest, choosing instead to throw the entire box into the fireplace. There’s no need to mourn any of this. Everything represented in this box was lost to me years ago, it just took me until now to accept it.

I stand there for a moment, watching the box burn, until I remember there are a few last pieces of Ana that I have stashed away. The panties I’d kept as mementos of our most memorable times together that Gail had put in my own underwear drawer, not knowing what else to do with them.

I turn around and head back for my bedroom, but the moment I step out of the hallway and into the great room, I’m intercepted by Taylor.

“Sir,” he calls out for me. I turn around to face him, looking at him expectantly.

“Have you gotten ahold of him?” I ask.

“No, sir. His phone is going straight to voicemail.”

“Have you called Welch?’

“Yes, sir. Our best guess is that Sawyer’s phone is either completely turned off or he’s outside of a service area. Either way, we can’t get a trace on either him or Miss Steele.”

“I see,” I reply irritably. “Well, keep trying and keep me informed. The moment you get ahold of him, I want to know. I want to be the one to fire him.”

“Yes, sir,” Taylor nods, and he turns back for his office. I watch him leave and then turn around to face the hallway to my bedroom again. Taylor’s interruption has somewhat dampened the destructive need inside of me and as I consider going back to collect the pairs of Anastasia’s panties from my drawer to toss in with the other keepsakes currently burning away in the library, I realize that I don’t want to. Burning her things doesn’t burn away the love I still feel for her in my heart. As much as I want to in this moment, I can’t just get rid of her. I know I have to move on now, but I can’t just turn this off, and destroying things isn’t a sustainable way to get over this. I need a distraction, a productive distraction, so with one last look in the direction of my bedroom, I turn around and head back to my office.

By Sunday afternoon, Taylor still hasn’t been able to track down Sawyer and the lack of results is grating on me. We have no way at this point of knowing if he’s back in Cambridge and simply has his phone turned off, or if he’s still out in some remote, unknown location with Anastasia. Either way, I’m tired of waiting for my team to come up with answers, so I decide to call the house in Cambridge to get answers myself. If Anastasia is home, so is Sawyer, and if Sawyer is home, I’ll call a courier and have his pink slip delivered right to his front fucking door. I pick up the phone to dial the number, and then wait impatiently as it rings.

“Hello?” Elliot answers, and for the first time, the sound of his voice leaves me with no sense of disappointment. I know she’s not going to answer, I’m not even going to bother asking to speak to her. I just need to know if she’s there.

“Is Anastasia back yet?” I ask, getting straight to the point.

“Hi, Christian,” he replies, ignoring my question. My muscles tense as his rebuff of my question peaks my irritation. I’m not in the mood for chit-chat.

“Is she back yet?” I repeat, firmer this time.

He sighs. “No, she’s not back yet. She…” But then, his voice cuts off, and I hear muffled voices in the background. “Oh… uh, wait,” he says. “Here she is.”

I freeze.

Here she is? What?

“Ana, the phone is for you,” he calls, perfectly natural, as if all this time I really have simply missed her each and every time I’ve called. Once again, I feel a flash of irritation but that all melts away in an instant with one, simple word.

“Hello?”

Her voice seems to echo through the room around me, and suddenly everything I’ve thought and felt for the last 48 hours is out the window. There’s no more determination to put this behind me, there’s only the soft, beautiful voice on the other end of the phone and the deep sense of relief I feel finally hearing it. Instantly, the anger, and the pain, and the resentment I’ve been harboring vanishes, but there is nothing left to replace it. My mind goes completely blank and even though I’ve been rehearsing what I want to say to her in this exact moment for two years, I can’t recall a single word of what that was.

“Ana?” I ask, my voice weak as though all of the air has been sucked from my diaphragm.

“Hi, Christian,” she replies.

My heart quickens and I try to think of something, anything to say, but I’m speechless. Stunned. My eyes dart back and forth across my desk as if everything I’ve ever wanted to say to her will be written on a piece of paper right in front of me, but of course, it isn’t. I’m on my own and this is actually happening, she’s actually giving me an opening… Don’t fuck this up, Grey.

“Ana… I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“Are you?” she asks, and the bite in her tone is just enough to invigorate the fight deep in my gut that’s kept me so persistent over the last two years.

“Of course I am. Truly, deeply, profoundly sorry. I can’t tell you what it’s been like without you. I can’t… I can’t…” I shake my head, and change direction. “I’ll do anything, just please, tell me what you want from me and I’ll do it. Anything. It’s yours. Just tell me what to do.”

My gut clenches again. That wasn’t what I wanted to say to her. I don’t want to leave the ball in her court anymore, and the purpose of the speech I had prepared was to direct the conversation in a way that would shift the power of control to me. I should have told her that I was coming to see her, that I’d sit down with her and we could talk this out so that she wasn’t one button away from ending the conversation.

“What are you sorry for, Christian?” she asks me and I’m slightly taken aback by the question. What am I sorry for?

“Everything,” I say, quickly. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, and I’m sorry. I’ll do whatever I can to make that up to you if you’ll let me. Just please… I can get on a flight tonight, I can bring you out here, we could go somewhere else, somewhere neutral, wherever you want to go. The world is yours. Just please, meet with me and talk to me. Tell me what you want me to do.”

There’s silence for a brief moment, the offer hanging in the air between us and I find myself holding my breath as I wait for her response.

“Everything is not an answer, Christian. When you say you’re sorry for everything you might as well say nothing, because that doesn’t tell me that you know exactly what you did wrong. Look, what happened has happened, and neither one of us can change it. I still haven’t forgiven you for what you did, I don’t know what it will take for that to happen, or if I even can forgive you, but what’s worse than all of the lies and betrayal, is what you’ve done since all of that happened. You let your family fall apart, you turned your back on people who love you and want to help you. You’ve been selfish and it kills me to see what it’s doing to Elliot. I can’t even imagine what this is like for your mother. Why would I let you back into my life, when you’ve proved to me that you’re willing to hurt the people who love you the most?”

“I didn’t mean to. Ana, I’m sorry…” I swallow, wanting to say more, but I don’t know what I can say to her that I haven’t already said. I don’t think she wants to hear again that I took the money from Elena to safeguard our future together or that this whole thing happened because I couldn’t, in good conscience, put all of this on Elena the way my family wanted me to. None of that stopped her from leaving me before, so rather than rehash the same things I’ve said over and over again, I say nothing.

“You did though, Christian,” she says. “And, quite frankly, your apology seems pretty empty compared to your actions. If you want to make this right with me, you need to start by making this right with your family. And that includes your dad.”

I tilt my head back as I hold back a huff of frustration. What she clearly doesn’t know is that this thing with my dad isn’t a one sided issue. It can’t just be solved by me giving in… He’s not interested in talking to me anymore than I’m not interested in trying to, yet again, explain myself to him.

“Ana, my dad-“

“Is hurt,” she says, cutting me off. “Your dad is hurt, Christian. You publically humiliated him, you damaged his career and his reputation, you went behind his back to start your company, and you tore his family apart.”

“He’s the one who has torn us apart,” I say, a little more forcefully than I mean to. “He’s the one keeping Mia from me. He turned Mom against me.”

“Look. If you’re not sorry, then that’s fine. I don’t need you to make excuses to me. We’re not a couple anymore, you don’t owe me anything. You do what you want to do, but if you want me to be any part of your life, this is what you have to do.”

I feel a stab of pain at the cavalier way she says, “we’re not a couple anymore”, and have to take a moment to compose myself. That’s exactly what I want, for her to be mine again, but I don’t think she understands how complicated what she’s asking really is. I can’t just go over there… My father doesn’t want to see me, he doesn’t want to talk to me. He won’t even answer my fucking text messages. How the hell am I supposed to just make it right with him?

I suppose, she did say family, and… maybe I could work on a relationship with my Mom and Elliot. They’d be willing to try at least, and if the world of mergers and acquisitions has taught me anything, the more insiders I have on my side, the better. Maybe they could at least get him to sit down with me and I suppose if giving into my father and letting him win is the only way to get Anastasia back… I’ll do it. At this point, I’ll do anything. As long as that’s what it means.

“If I do this…” I say, more cautious now as I set the stakes. “If I try and make this up to my family, you’ll come back to me?”

“If you do this, we can talk about what happened. If you make it right with your family, I’ll give you the chance to show me that you’re sorry and I’ll listen to what you have to say. I’m not going to make any promises beyond that.”

I take a deep breath as I consider this. It’s not really anything. I don’t have any guarantees and generally, I don’t move on anything without guarantees… but it’s also not nothing. She’s offering me a lifeline, a conversation, and if anything is going to happen between us, that is the first step.

“Can I see you?” I ask.

“Not yet,” she says. I feel myself deflate again, and I’m about to try to renegotiate when she continues. “And, just to be clear up front. As long as you continue to have anything to do with Elena Lincoln, you have zero percent chance of having ANY kind of relationship with me.”

My teeth grind together as I remember that Elliot has left her with the impression that Elena and I have started sleeping with each other again, but nothing could be farther from the truth. I have no desire to touch Elena ever again and she has a new submissive, Isaac, who she seems very happy with. In fact, her biggest concern is getting me into my own submissive, but I’ve refused that. I’ve refused everyone for Anastasia…

My stomach drops though as I realize that isn’t true. I’d asked Elena to bring me a girl… to have her here tonight. Fuck, I’d forgotten all about her. I shake my head, reorienting myself. I haven’t done anything yet, I’ll send her away. I’ll send them both away. I’ll tell Elena I don’t want her coming over here anymore, that she is to schedule meetings with me exclusively through Andrea, and only regarding Esclava. I can do that. If I get Ana back, that won’t even be a sacrifice.

“It’s just business,” I reassure her. “Really, Ana. There’s nothing between us. I swear to you. I haven’t had anyone, I don’t want anyone, it’s only you.”

“I don’t care what it is, Christian, business or not. As long as you let her in, you’re keeping me out.”

“Okay,” I agree without thinking, though I immediately regret it as cutting off business ties with Elena isn’t as easy as not letting her into my apartment anymore. In fact, with the way things are going with Esclava, I don’t even know if that’s something I want. “I’ll… um, I’ll work on it.”

“Good. And… let Elliot help you. That’s all he wants.”

“I know,” I agree.

“I’ve got to go,” she says, and I feel a sudden rush of panic. Go? But we haven’t even talked… This is the first time I’ve even had the chance to hear her voice and she’s barely said anything. I’m not ready for her to go…

“No, not yet. Just…” I begin to argue, but again, she cuts me off.

“Make it right, Christian,” she says, and then she’s gone. A second passes and Elliot is back on the phone.

“Hey, Christian,” he says, more cautiously than I would expect. I swallow back the sinking feeling rising inside of me now that Ana has gotten off the phone and focus on the things I can control once more. Ana said make it right with my family, she said let Elliot help me. Well: step one.

“Elliot, you should come back here. We should talk and find a way that I can work this out with Mom and Dad. You’re right, Ana’s right, we can’t keep doing this forever, and you’re the only one who can help me,”

“Yeah, great,” he replies, excitedly. “I’ll be there in a few days.”

“I look forward to it, and I’ll see you soon. Good-bye, Elliot.”

“See you soon,” he repeats. “Bye.”

I hang up the phone and then stare down at it incredulously for a moment, feeling as though the weight of the world has been lifted off of me. That one phone call has changed everything, given me perspective and purpose… There’s hope. Finally, a light at the end of the seemingly endless tunnel and for the first time, in a long time, I feel… optimistic.

There’s more I have to do, so I reach down for my phone, but before I can pick it up, there is a knock on my door. I look up, brow furrowed as I wonder who would be disturbing me at home on a Sunday, but when I realize who it is, I feel my stomach sink.

“Come in,” I say, keeping my voice even and aloof.

“Good afternoon, Christian,” Elena says, stepping through my door with an unfamiliar brown haired girl behind her. She motions for the girl to kneel by the door, taking her coat as she falls to her knees in submissive’s pose, but before she turns back to face me, I’m out of my seat and marching towards her.

“You need to leave,” I say, snatching the girl’s coat out of Elena’s hands and throwing it back down to the girl on the floor. “I need you to get out of here and take her with you. Now.”

“What?” Elena asks, obviously confused.

“Leave,” I repeat. “I want you out of my apartment. You’re not to come back here again, or to my office, or contact me in anyway. Do you understand?”

“Christian, what are you talking about?” she asks, now fully disconcerted. I reach out and open the door behind her again, stepping aside to let her pass.

“You heard me,” I tell her firmly. “Go.”

Her eyes widen for a moment as she looks down at the girl scrambling up off the floor, but when she looks back at me, I can almost see the realization form behind her eyes.

“You talked to Anastasia,” she assumes.

“Elena, I told you to leave,” I say again. She moves to the side, motioning for the girl to exit the room in front of her and then turns back to me.

“She’ll just hurt you again, Christian. And it’ll be worse next time. Do you really think you’ll be able to survive when she leaves you again?”

“Go,” I reply flatly.

“Don’t do this, Christian.”

“I’m not going to say it again, Elena. You need to leave, and you are not to reach out to me again. If Esclava needs something, you can schedule a meeting through Andrea, but you will not call my phone, you will not come to my apartment, and you will not come to my office again unless I have summoned you. Am I being clear enough for you?”

Her mouth sets in a thin line and her eyes seem to darken, but she nods. I watch her turn to walk down the hallway, and I briefly consider following her to make sure she gets on the elevator, but I have other things I need to do.

I shut the door and walk back to my desk, picking up my phone to make the call I’d meant to before Elena walked in as I settle down into my chair.

“Christian?” My mother’s surprised voice answers.

“Hi, Mom,” I greet her. “I was um… are you free for lunch sometime this week?” I pause, listening to her take a deep breath before she continues.

“I would love to have lunch with you, Son. But… if your father finds out that I brought Mia to you…”

“This isn’t about Mia,” I interrupt her. “I want to talk to you. I can’t do this anymore and I don’t want to. I’m sorry, Mom. I’m sorry for everything.” I take a breath. “I want to be a part of the family again.”

Next Chapter

Christian POV: This is Carter Reed…

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“Christian, I really think we need to close the sales pipeline,” Ros says, and I let out a frustrated sigh as I shift the phone to my other shoulder.

“Your concerns are noted and I’m disregarding them. It’s only March, we’re not closing the sales pipeline before January 1 prospects even go out to bid.”

“Are you taking into consideration the massive amount of resources we’re going to have to divert into getting the state project off the ground? We’re talking complete infrastructure overhauls in thirteen different counties. Fucking 43% of Clallam county doesn’t even have access to cell towers and you’re trying to build them fiber optics service.”

“It only has to go through the county seat,” I argue. “We can find the resources to get shit done, what we can’t do is cut off our revenue stream before our acquisition pool has closed for the year.”

“I think you’re stretching us too thin, Christian.”

“And I think you’re thinking too small.”

She’s silent for a moment, though I hear her take a deep breath through her nose. My fingers drum on my desk impatiently as I wait for her concession.

“Fine,” she says at last. “I’ll look over the prospect report you sent over and we can discuss it on Monday. I’ll send Andrea a meeting request to schedule some time on your calendar.”

“Good. Let me know if you need anything else from me.”

“Mmhmm” She mumbles back, and then the phone clicks and she’s gone. I roll my eyes and turn back to my computer, clicking over to my calendar to find an opening so I can anticipate when Andrea will schedule our meeting on Monday, but I don’t even have fifteen minutes available. I frown as I read through the dozen or so meetings I have scheduled and then reach over and press 0 on my desk phone to page reception.

“Yes, Mr. Grey?” Leila answers almost immediately.

“Is Andrea there with you?” I ask.

“Yes, Mr. Grey,” Andrea answers.

“Pick up, please.”

I hear a click and then Andrea speaks again. “What can I do for you, Mr. Grey?”

“I need to meet with Ros first thing Monday morning but I don’t have an opening. I have a meeting with HR at 9 AM, what is that regarding?”

“Miss Menke has requested some time to go over the intern finalists for this summer,” Andrea says.

“Push it, this takes precedence. Schedule the time with Ros and send her a calendar invite.”

“Yes, Mr. Grey,” Andrea replies, and I hang up the phone without any salutation. I turn back to the prospect report my acquisitions team has sent me and begin sorting through them, looking for anything that peaks my interest, when my computer pings and several calendar notifications pop up at once. The first is simply the cancellation of my meeting on Monday with HR, immediately followed by the request Andrea sent for my meeting with Ros. I delete the first and accept the second before I open the notification for the third. It’s a reminder for my mother’s birthday dinner tonight.

My mind flashes back to the conversation I’d had with Elliot yesterday afternoon when he’d confronted me about having lunch with Elena. Of course, he first heard the story from Mom and she’d blown everything out of proportion so by the time he spoke to me, he was screaming about how I was fucking Elena, right in front of Anastasia. That conversation ended about as well as the encounter I had with my father did, and when I finally was able to push him off the phone by telling him I was walking into a meeting, he’d promised me we would talk more about this tonight. But, I won’t be there tonight and since I’m sure he’ll be landing in Seattle soon, it won’t be long until he figures that out and starts blowing up my phone.

I reach down to preemptively silence it, and as I do, I note the time. It’s three thirty and, as per usual, my mind automatically calculates the time difference between Seattle and Cambridge. It’s six thirty there now, just about dinner time. I begin to chew on the inside of my cheek as I wonder if she’s home or not. I didn’t have the chance to call her this morning because I had an early teleconference meeting with a potential client in New York, but… there’s no one there for her to hide behind now. No one to pick up and give me some bullshit excuse to shield her from me, and Elena is right. It’s time I do something to take control of the situation. She can either pick up and talk to me, or I’ll just leave everything I want to say over the answering machine and let it echo through the house.

I take a deep breath, preparing myself, and then slowly pick up my phone to dial the number I know by heart. It rings, and rings… and rings. By the 7th ring, I’m sure she’s not going to pick up, so I start rehearsing in my mind everything I want to say, but then, the ringing stops.

“Steele residence,” a voice I can vaguely recognize answers. “This is Carter Reed speaking.”

Immediately, I lose all coherent train of thought and I feel my stomach clench as bile creeps into my throat. She isn’t alone. She’s with…

“Carter Reed?” I repeat, my voice hoarse as I force out the words.

“Yes, may I ask who’s calling?”

The cool, casual way he responds to me, like it’s perfectly natural and appropriate for him to be answering Anastasia’s phone causes my stomach to clench again. There are very few explanations as to why he would feel comfortable enough to pick up Ana’s phone and none of them sit well with me.

“This is Christian Grey,” I say, lowering and forcing the strength in my voice so that I don’t sound weak over the phone.

“Hi, Christian,” he replies. It takes me a second to respond to him and I realize that I’m unconsciously analyzing every word he speaks, trying to pick up on and interpret every variance in his tone and inflection. He sounds… sure of himself, completely non-plussed by an ex-boyfriend calling Ana’s house. Is that because he’s confident of his position in her life, or because there’s nothing for him to be protective of? My heart starts racing as I try to convince myself it’s the latter, but knowing our history and that he dislikes me close to, if not as much as I detest him, I’m not having much luck. Well, if it’s confidence, I plan on testing that.

“Is Anastasia at home?” I ask, trying to sound as though I have no doubt in my mind she’d take my call.

“Ana? Yeah, she’s right here. Let me grab her,” he says. He pauses and when he speaks again his voice is muted as he, assumedly, holds the phone out for her. “Ana, it’s for you.”  

Suddenly my breath catches in my throat. I’d expected him to give me the run around, either making an excuse or staking a claim. But he just… holy fuck, he’s going to give her the phone.

I feel my heart beating furiously in my chest as I listen to him call out for her again. I take a deep breath, preparing myself to finally hear her voice again, trying to remember what I want to say to her, and then begin counting the seconds that pass while I wait. But before she can pick up, the call disconnects.

Fuck.

I glare down at my phone, feeling a rush of fury, but I have full service so I don’t know why the call dropped. I feel the muscle in my jaw twitch as I redial the number, but this time, I get the answering machine. The beep seems to echo in my ear, but I can’t pour my heart out to her over the machine knowing Reed is there, listening. I swallow as I realize, the call didn’t drop… he hung up on me. He’s dangling her in front of me. He is staking a claim.

My chest rises and falls with long erratic movements as I try to temper the anger that courses through me at the images that flash across my mind. Elliot has told me over and over again that Ana isn’t seeing anyone and Taylor tells me that Sawyer has given him the same assurances. But when was the last time I asked? Has something changed? Maybe he’s not dating her… maybe he’s just fucking her. Would either of them tell me that?

I take a deep breath, and cover my mouth with the side of my fist as the thought triggers my gag reflex.

Reed? I mean… Reed? How could she possibly choose a piece of shit like Carter fucking Reed? There is literally nothing redeeming about that human waste of space. He’s vile, and crude, and, utterly pathetic. The best parts of him, ran down his mother’s leg 22 years ago.

A translucent red hue colors everything in the room as I reach down and pick up my phone again, this time looking through my contacts list for the number I told myself I’d only saved in case of emergency.

Fuck it. This is an emergency.

I hold the phone to my ear, rapping my knuckles angrily on the desk as I wait.

“Mr. Grey?” Sawyer greets me, sounding slightly confused. “What can I do for you, sir?”

“You can tell me why the fuck Anastasia is alone with Carter fucking Reed right now,” I shout into the phone.

“What?” he replies, making it obvious that he has no idea what I’m talking about. “She said she was working tonight.”

“Yeah, working the come out of his cock,” I snap. “Get the fuck over there and get him out of my house.”

“Yes, sir,” he says. I hang up the phone and toss it onto the desk, staring at it angrily for a moment before attempting to return to work. It’s difficult though as I find myself replaying the one time I saw the two of them together back when they were dating over and over again. Him pulling her into him, calling her baby, kissing her… My jaw tightens as I press my thumb into my index finger, just above the joint, to crack my knuckle. It’s a good kind of release so I spend the next few minutes purposefully thinking about the time I’d punched Reed in his motherfucking face. It’s a pleasant memory but it doesn’t ease any of the anger I feel about this situation. Reed has said horrendous things about Anastasia, TO Anastasia even, but apparently she forgave him. Even to the point where she’s now taking her panties off for him.  

The anger flares again and I get out of my chair and begin pacing across my office, but it’s nearly 8 o’clock until I hear back from Sawyer.

“Well,” I bark expectantly as I answer.

“She’s gone to bed, sir,” Sawyer answers immediately. “When I got here, Ana- er… Miss Steele and Reed were studying. Just studying. They were in the living room with all the windows drawn open, sitting on opposite ends of the table from one another. He left once I arrived and I’ve stayed with her until she went to bed. She assures me nothing is going on between her and Reed. She said she simply invited him over to study and I haven’t observed anything around the house or in her behavior tonight that would suggest that wasn’t true.”

“Fine,” I reply shortly. “Stay with her, Sawyer. Kate and Elliot will be back on Sunday, I don’t want her alone in the house.”

“Yes, sir,” he agrees, and again, I hang up without any kind of salutation. I collapse into the chair behind my desk, trying to let go of the tension that’s had me wound up all night. Surprisingly though, I don’t feel any sense of relief despite the fact that Sawyer’s report was as good as it could have been, considering the situation. It’s then I realize that it’s because keeping Reed away from Anastasia doesn’t get me any closer to her. Knowing that she isn’t fucking him doesn’t mean that she isn’t, or won’t soon be, fucking anyone else, and the idea of her sharing her body, her thoughts, her laughter, her love, or her life with anyone else feels like being stabbed in the chest.

I put my face in my hands as I lean over and rest my elbows on my desk, fighting back the pain that refuses to recede. It’s becoming unbearable and as I wonder how much more of this I can possibly take, Elena’s words echo in my head.

You’re doing this to yourself. You have to let go of her to let go of the pain, Christian.

I take a deep breath as I settle back into my chair and stare at the screen of my laptop. Is it time to let her go? I can’t imagine ever not loving her. I feel like she’s a part of me, but… I’m not getting anywhere and there isn’t any indication that she’s ever going to open the lines of communication between us again. So maybe I don’t have a choice. Maybe, in this instance, self-preservation means I stop fighting. I stop calling, I stop hoping, and I stop caring. I let her go, and I let her live her life away from me. Without me. I forget about us and I take Elena’s advice.

Loving people is a weakness. Loving people makes pain and loss an inevitability. Close your heart, and you will be invincible.

I do feel pain, I do feel loss… and it’s unbearable. At this point, I would do anything to get rid of this pain, to stop feeling this way every single day. But there’s only one way to make that happen and I don’t know if I can do it.

Am I ready to let Anastasia go?

I get out of my chair, collect my things, and leave my office as I ponder this question again and again, but I get no where. So when I get home, I make myself a drink and pace back and forth in front of the windows of the great room. When my tumbler is empty and I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m not going to find answers staring out at the Seattle skyline, I reach into my pocket, pull out my iPhone, and dial Elena’s number.

Next Chapter

Christian POV: Cambridge or Bust

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Cambridge has a strange, almost alien quality to it now. I recognize everything that passes by the windows of the rented SUV, but in a way, it feels like I’m looking at something I’ve only ever seen in a dream. Nothing feels real and I realize, as I impatiently drum my fingertips on the armrest of the door, that it’s because I’m not only weary of the fact that, in a few minutes, I’m going to see Anastasia for the first time in almost two years, I’m still in disbelief. It feels as though I have waited an eternity for this day to finally come, but now that it’s here, I don’t believe it’s real.

We pull onto Maple St and I lean towards the middle of the car so I can have a clear view of the street and the house slowly approaching on the right. The house looks warm, the soft golden glow of the lights pouring from the front windows are both comforting and welcoming. There’s a Mariner’s flag hanging from a pole mounted on the front porch, a clear indication of Elliot’s presence, but the large, slightly unruly peony bushes planted on either side of the walkway are wholly, and entirely Ana.

As the car comes to a stop in front of the house, I peer eagerly into the front window and my stomach drops like I’ve just taken the plunge on a roller coaster when I see her. She’s standing next to the dining room table with Kate and Elliot, laughing. Her hair is longer and she’s noticeably thinner, but nothing has changed in terms of how beautiful she is, how her smile seems to light up the room, and suddenly, I have to stop myself from bolting out of the car and running to her.

“Are you ready, sir?” Taylor asks from the driver’s seat. When I nod, he climbs out of the SUV to open my door for me and while he makes his way around to my side of the car, I take a few, deep breaths.

This is it.

The walkway to the house feels as though it’s ten miles long and when I knock on the door and listen carefully to the flurry of commotion inside, the wait feels interminable. Finally, the door does swing open, though I’m disappointed when I only see Kate and Elliot standing in the entryway.

“Christian!” Kate exclaims, clearly shocked to see me. “You’re early.”

“Yeah, I was able to get out of the ceremony earlier than I thought,” I tell her as she steps aside to let me into the living room. In truth, I’d purposefully gotten out of the awards ceremony as quickly as possible so I could get to Anastasia sooner, but when I look around the open rooms, I don’t see her. As I search for her one last time, my eyes fall upon the place in the middle of the living room where two years ago I’d spent hours just staring at the front door before I was finally able to peel myself off the floor and leave the house. I hadn’t taken anything with me and now I wonder if anything I left behind is still in this house somewhere. Perhaps Anastasia has kept something of mine, the way I have small keepsakes of hers.

“Welcome back, bro!” Elliot says, dragging me out of my thoughts with a clap on the shoulder. I turn to look at him, wordless as being in this room has me reliving one of the worst moments of my life, and he frowns and turns to greet Taylor. Once Elliot has directed him to where he can take my bags, he turns to me again, but I stop him before he can say anything.

“Is Ana upstairs?” I ask. Elliot gives Kate an uneasy look so I turn to her and she takes a deep breath before nodding.

“Yes… but Christian, she doesn’t want you to go up there.”

My brow furrows. “At all? What, is she just going to avoid me all weekend?”

“She isn’t going to be here this weekend,” Elliot says, and as I take in his words and the look of uncertainty he gives me, I realize what’s going on, and it feels like all of the oxygen leaves my body. I’m early… I wasn’t supposed to be here for another hour which means that Ana was probably planning to be gone by the time I got here. She had no intention of seeing me this weekend, of talking to me, of letting me explain… She really wants nothing to do with me.

Just like Elena said…

“Where is she going?” I ask, noting that, in the absence of the hope I’d held for this weekend, my voice now sounds dead.

“She’s going out of town with a friend,” Kate says.

“Which friend?” I continue to press her and she sighs.

“His na-“

HIS!” I exclaim, cutting her off.

“Yes, his name is Luke Sawyer and… he’s a really great guy.

Luke Sawyer.

I repeat the name in my head and feel a surge of anger. Before I’d even flown to New York, I had Taylor brief Luke on our arrival this weekend. He was to ensure Anastasia was home from school on time for my arrival and then he was to take the place of Ryan on my security team for the weekend, assisting Taylor and keeping out of sight. Nowhere in that briefing was he given instruction to take her out of town.

“Where are they going?” I ask, struggling to suppress the anger in my voice.

“I don’t know,” Kate shakes her head. “Somewhere in Vermont.”

I stare back at her, feeling as though the temperature of the room has just dropped several degrees and someone has hit me square in the stomach.

“Vermont?” I repeat. The control I have over my voice slips as the quiver of pain I feel at the images of Sawyer taking Anastasia to the cozy bed and breakfast retreat where I realized I would spend the rest of my life with her come unbidden to my mind. Kate nods, wounding me further. I knew that Sawyer and Ana were friends, but this… This is more than that.

“He’s fucking her,”  I say, feeling the anger boiling again beneath the pain. I cling to it, encourage it, because this ultimate betrayal from Saywer, and the clear indication that Anastasia has moved on, has the potential to actually break me in this moment. Only a few minutes ago, I’d believed that this weekend was an opening, a chance for me to repair what had been broken between myself and Anastasia… Now, I realize it’s the final nail in the coffin. I’ve really lost her.

“No,” Elliot says, breaking into my morbid train of thought once again and trying to reassure me. “No, they’re just friends.”

“Cut the shit,” I snap back at him. “I know what Vermont means. That was our… where we…” I can’t even verbalize the significance I feel towards that place in regards to Anastasia because then it feels as though I’m gifting that significance to Sawyer. How could she take him there? How could she try to re-create what we had with someone else? Did it ever mean anything to her? Is that why she’s been so willing to just completely shut me out in the first place? I feel a deep stab of pain and shake my head as I refuse to allow myself to believe that. It’s a defense mechanism, because revisiting the possibility that Anastasia never really loved me is too much for me to bear.

“I can’t believe she would do this,” I growl, angrily, and even Kate reaches out for me this time, though I quickly dodge her touch and storm angrily back towards the kitchen.

“It’s really not like that…” She argues as she follows after me, but before she can elaborate further, a set of headlights pull up into the back alley and flood the kitchen with light. I feel adrenaline begin to course through me and my muscles tighten, preparing for a fight.

“That’s him,” Kate says, almost regretfully. “Please, just be nice to him or don’t say anything at all.”

I stare coldly back into her pleading eyes, unwilling to make any guarantees, until she turns to the door. It almost seems as though she’s trying to place herself between me and where Sawyer will soon appear. The room is dead silent except for the thunderous thudding of my heart which I can feel pounding behind my eardrums until the glass door slowly slides open.

“Hey Luke!” Elliot exclaims, stepping in front of me like a human shield, trying to cover up what he’s really doing by vigorously shaking the fucker’s hand.

“Hey,” Sawyer replies, clearly unsure of how to act at Elliot’s sudden, overzealous greeting. “Is A-na ready?” His eyes shift to me and suddenly he falls quiet. Clearly, he’d expected to be gone before I’d arrived as well.

“Yeah, I think so,” Elliot says, interrupting the tension between us. It feels so thick it’s almost tangible. “Um, this is my brother, Christian Grey. Christian, this is Luke Sawyer. He works with campus security at Harvard.”

“Uh… pleasure to meet you, sir,” Sawyer says, brightening a little as though he’s suddenly remembered his role. He takes a step towards me, his hand held out for mine, but I don’t move. I stare at him, letting the anger I feel show through so that he knows what will happen if he goes through with this.

Sawyer’s smile falters a little and his hand falls uncomfortably back to his side. We stand there in tense silence for another beat and then he takes a step back and turns towards Kate.

“Right, well… um, is Ana upstairs?” he asks.

“Yeah, go on up,” Kate replies, and even her voice is tensed now. I watch him slowly back out of the kitchen and this disappear around the corner. Each one of his footfalls on the stairs echos through the kitchen until I hear a bedroom door open and then slam shut.

“There’s bourbon in the cabinet,” Elliot says, pointing to the highest cupboard over the refrigerator.

“What do you mean there’s bourbon in the cabinet?” Kate asks, narrowing her eyes at Elliot but he shakes his head with exasperation.

“It’s emergency bourbon,” he exclaims. “You want to fight with me about that now? Good God, woman, there’s no time!”

Kate rolls her eyes, but she nods and she pulls out a stool so she can find the liquor.

“Why don’t you have a seat, Christian?” Elliot suggests, gesturing me towards the dining room table and I shuffle towards the chair closest to me, feeling a little dazed as the adrenaline begins to wane.

“Here,” Elliot says, handing me a drinking glass filled with ice, bourbon, and some dark soda that turns out to be Diet Coke. I grimace after the first sip but then drink nearly all of it in my second long pull. Taylor comes back down the stairs, but when he lets me know that he’s leaving for the night, I’m still so disoriented that I hardly acknowledge him.

“I can’t believe she’s just… moved on,” I say, more to myself than either Kate or Elliot.

“Christian, I don’t really know where her head is at in terms of starting a new relationship, but, I promise you, she and Luke are just friends,” Kate says.

I give her a slanted look that tells her that I don’t believe her, but she brushes it off by shaking her head and launching into an evidence laden explanation that only a journalist student would think was convincing.

“I’ve never seen them hold hands,” she begins, ticking each of her examples off on her fingers. “They’re here together all the time and I’ve never seen them in any situation that I would call romantic, I’ve never seen them kiss, I’ve never walked into a room and had them scramble away from each other… Every time he spends the night over here, he sleeps in the guest room and she’s never spent the night at his house. And, trust me… I used to live across the hall from you and she’s not very good at hiding the fact that she’s having sex. We would have heard her.”

I take the last gulp of bourbon from the glass and stare down at the table. That does actually pacify me a little, though only because I desperately want to believe that what she’s telling me is true. Still, it’s been two years. Just because it isn’t Sawyer…

“Have there been others?” I ask, looking up at Kate and she raises an eyebrow at me.

“Others?”

“Men,” I clarify.

“Oh…” She hesitates and I feel my stomach clinch again. “I don’t really know. There were some guys she was kind of, uh… flirting with a few months ago, but I don’t think it was ever serious. She partied a lot last year and I honestly couldn’t tell you if she hooked up with anyone or not, but she never told me that she did. She never brought anyone back here though and Luke always made sure she got home.”

“She was partying?” I ask. My mind flits back to freshman year, how I’d gotten her into my bed the very first time because she’d been drinking. How I’d almost coaxed her back there on Halloween that year after we’d both had far too much of that toxic jungle juice everyone was passing around. The first night I really did have her, she tasted of vodka and lime.

“Oh yeah,” Elliot chimes in. “Ana’s never met a bottle of tequila she didn’t like. She’s all kinds of crazy now.”

“Elliot!” Kate snaps, shooting him a warning look. They exchange some kind of silent argument, but I pay very little attention to them as, in that moment, Sawyer comes down the stairs. He looks uneasily between the three of us and then turns to Kate.

“Have a good weekend,” he says and as he walks back through the sliding glass door, I turn to look for Anastasia, but she hasn’t followed him.

Has she changed her mind?

Suddenly hope returns and Kate turns and smiles at me reassuringly. “She was having a rough time and she didn’t always deal with it well, but that’s mostly behind her now. She’s calmer. Usually, she just writes and she’s more focused on school than ever. She has a new professor who’s been mentoring her with her writing, and I think he’s really helped her get her priorities back in line.”

“Has she said anything about me at all?” I ask and Kate frowns.

“Well… not really. She doesn’t really like to talk about you. I think it hurts her.”

“But that’s a good sign!” Elliot exclaims. “That means she probably still has feelings for you.”

“I just don’t understand why she won’t even talk to me,” I say, leaning back in my chair and gripping tightly to my hair as I run my fingers through it with frustration.

“Yes you do, Christian,” Kate says, avoiding contact with me now and I turn to glare at her.

“I can’t apologize to her or do anything to make it up to her if she won’t even speak to me, Kate.”

“I don’t think she wants an apology, Christian. I think she wants-“ Kate begins, but suddenly a flurry of movement catches my eye and I see Anastasia bolt from the stairs to the front door.

“Anastasia!” I call out, and miraculously, she stops. Her hand is frozen on the doorknob, but she stops. I slowly rise from my seat, anticipating the confrontation I’ve been waiting to have for two years.

Come on, baby. Look at me.

I watch as her shoulders slowly rise and fall, and after a long, drawn out, exhale, she pulls the door open and disappears into the night. The sound of the door closing behind her seems to echo through my head and resounds in my heart. The visual of her walking through that door to get away from me is like a horrible episode of déjà vu, except this time… the message she conveys is absolutely clear. It’s like she’s just closed the door on any hope there was that this could be mended between us and in this moment I don’t think a bullet to the chest could be more painful.

Elena was right. You should never love people. Love just makes you vulnerable. Love gives people the chance to absolutely destroy you.

“I’m done,” I say, and both Kate and Elliot turn to look at me.

“What?” Elliot asks.

“I’m done,” I repeat. “I’m going back to Seattle.” Moving away from the table, I stalk quickly into the living room and pull out my cell phone. Once I’ve let Taylor know that we’re heading back to the airport, over Elliot’s fervent and obnoxious objections, I climb the stairs and remove my bag from the guest room. Ana’s door is just across the hallway and I give it one last lingering look before I disappear down the stairs where Elliot is waiting for me.

“Please don’t go, Christian,” he pleads with me, but I shake my head.

“There’s nothing for me here, Elliot,” I reply flatly.

“I’m here,” he continues. “Christian, I’m here. I’m your family, I’m your brother, and I’m here for you. Let me be here for you. I miss you, please don’t go.”

“Let it go, Elliot,” I say coldly, shrugging his hand off my shoulder. “I don’t have a family anymore.”

His face screws together as he looks away from me, thinking on his feet, but I take his moment of distraction to walk forward for the door and slip out on him the way that Ana just did to me. Taylor pulls up alongside the curb just as I come down the walk and I don’t wait for him to get out of the car before I climb in and throw my suitcase over the back seat.

“The airport, sir?” Taylor asks.

“Yes,” I nod. I turn to see Elliot and Kate standing on the porch and as we pull away and I watch Kate wrap her arms around him, I hesitate. Closing the door on Elliot is closing the door on any chance I would have to reconcile with my family, and it means I’m officially giving up on Anastasia. Am I really ready for this?

I swallow, trying to force down the doubt. I can’t live this way anymore, it’s too painful. This is the right decision, and there is one person I know can help me through it.

“And get Elena on the phone, I want her waiting for me at my apartment when I get back to Seattle,” I tell Taylor as he pulls off of Ana’s street.

“Yes, sir,” he nods.

“And, Taylor?”

“Yes, sir?”

“I’m going to fire Luke Sawyer. Not you, Me. Got it?”

“Yes, sir,” he says, and we sit in silence for the remainder of the drive back to Boston, and the entire flight to Seattle.

Next Chapter

Elliot POV: A Last Ditch Effort…

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It’s been awhile since I’ve made it back to Seattle, and I’ve only ever been to Christian’s apartment twice anyway, so when I pull into the parking garage below his building and try to input the code to the gate, it takes me three tries to get it right. I give an overly confident look to the security guard, trying to play it cool and look like I belong here, as I pull up the long ramp towards the back of the garage where Christian’s parking spots are. When I see all three of his cars parked in their assigned places, I actually exhale with relief. He hasn’t answered any of my phone calls this morning, so I hadn’t been entirely sure he’d be here.

Once Kate and I are out of the car, she wraps her hand around mine and we make our way to the elevator. The doors slide open and I hold my hand against them to let Kate pass first, then step in after her, and reach down to press the round PH button.

“Please enter your passcode,” the electronic voice reminds me.

“Fuck, uh…” I say hesitantly. “Kate, what’s Ana’s birthday again?’

“September 10th,” she replies and I nod and enter 0-9-1-0.

“‘88,” she adds and once I’ve inputted the final two numbers, the elevator hums to life and we’re whisked into the air.

“You sure this is a good idea?” Kate asks nervously, as she watches the numbers over the elevator door creep higher.

“Of course I’m sure,” I tell her. “He’s my brother, my little brother, and if he says he doesn’t want to come then I’m just going to have to big brother him up a bit.”

She snorts when I throw a couple of jabs into the air, trying to hold back a laugh as she turns to smirk at me. I flash her a broad, toothy grin before leaning down and pressing my lips into hers. After three years, I can’t believe how much I still love her.

When the elevator doors open and we’re released into Christian’s apartment, we find Taylor standing there waiting for us.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Grey,” he says. “Can I help you?”

“Elliot,” I correct him. “And, yeah, I’m here to see Christian.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Grey is working this afternoon,” he replies. I raise an eyebrow at him, wondering if he really thinks that is enough to deter me, and then let out a small laugh.

“Great. Sounds like he could use a break,” I tell him, gesturing with my head towards the arch behind him that leads into the apartment. He stares at me for a minute, hesitating, but eventually, he nods in agreement.

“I’ll let him know you’re here.”

I watch him disappear into the apartment, then grip tightly to Kate’s hand and lead her out of the foyer and into the great room. I don’t want to hang out by the elevator because when Taylor returns and inevitably tells me that Christian doesn’t want to see me, I don’t want to make it easy for him to push me out of the apartment.

“Well, this is creepy,” Kate says, looking around at the empty room, and unfortunately I have to agree. Christian’s apartment is so bare and unwelcoming, it’s almost oppressive. Like we’re in a museum or something, in a restricted area where we don’t belong. I don’t know how Christian stands it…

“Mr. Grey,” Taylor says, coming around the corner. “I’m sorry, but Mr. Grey is busy now, perhaps you can…”

“Great!” I say, clapping my hands together cheerfully, and crossing the room towards him. “It’s so sweet of him to make room for his brother in his very, very busy schedule.” I clap Taylor on the shoulder and then turn back to Kate. She smiles at me and waves me forward.

“Don’t worry,” she says. “I can keep myself occupied.”

I nod and head down the hallway towards Christian’s office, one of the only rooms in the entire apartment that is furnished, albeit sparsely. Not bothering to knock, I open the door and as I turn to close it behind me, Christian’s head shoots up and he scowls at me.

“I told Taylor I didn’t have time for this,” he says, and I give him a puzzled look in return.

“Really? Weird, that’s not what he said to me. He told me you were just finishing up and couldn’t wait to hang out with your favorite, although much better looking older brother.” I plop down into one of the chairs across from him and he exhales sharply.

“Well, I’m not. So if you’ll excuse me…”

“Oh no, please,” I say, waving my hand at him dismissively. “Don’t mention it. I’m happy to come and visit you, Christian. You’re my brother. I wish I could do it more often.”

He sighs, “Okay, fine. What?”

“I want you to come to lunch with me and Mom,” I tell him, and when he takes a breath to speak, I cut him off before he can say no. “Look, man. It’s her birthday. She had a really shitty night and I know that it would make her feel better if you would just… have a lunch with her. It’s really not that much to ask. She misses you, Christian. Like, really misses you.”

He swallows. “It’s not a good idea, Elliot.”

“Sure it is. I came up with it, so it’s practically genius,” I tell him, and he scowls.

“I have a lot of work to do. Believe me, you’ll have more fun without me.”

“That’s what I said,” I say, nodding in agreement. “But the woman has her heart set on spending some time with you, and you know how difficult it is when these females make up their minds… so let’s go!” I jump out of my seat, but he just raises an eyebrow at me, so I let out a long, exasperated groan and lower myself back into my seat.

Over the next twenty minutes, I do everything I can to convince him to get out of his apartment for just a few hours, but it’s useless. I’d had a brief glimmer of hope when he suggested he might come if Mia came too, but when I tried to get a hold of my little sister to invite her, she ignored my phone call three separate times.

“Kate’s going,” I tell him, as if my girlfriend’s presence makes up for the absence of his sister. “She’s a lot of fun, and… she likes talking about Ana. You two could gossip.”

He presses his lips together and looks down at the desk as if he’s struggling with something, but eventually, he takes a deep breath and turns back to his computer.

“I have work to do, Elliot,” he says, clearly trying to dismiss me, but I ignore him and instead sit forward, leaning on my knees, and look very purposefully at him.

“Why didn’t you come to dinner last night, Christian?” I ask him.

“Dad, made it very clear I was not welcome,” he replies bluntly, not looking up from whatever he’s doing on his computer. I reach forward and tip the screen of his macbook closed so he doesn’t have anything to distract his attention, and he looks angrily up at me, but I press on, undeterred.

“Did she talk you out of coming?” I ask, point blank. “Did Elena talk you out of coming?”

“Of course not,” he says. “Believe it or not, Elliot, I’m not beholden to Elena Lincoln anymore. She doesn’t make my decisions for me.”

“Then what the fuck happened? I asked you straight out last week if you were coming to dinner and you said yes. You made me a promise and then you didn’t follow through, so I think I deserve to know what changed.”

“I told you, Dad said…”  

“Dad says a lot of stupid shit, but that’s never stopped you before. He can be an asshole when he’s mad, we all know that, and that’s exactly what this is Christian. He’s mad at you. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t miss you, or that he doesn’t love you, or that he didn’t want you at dinner last night just as badly as the rest of us did. You know Mia skipped out on dinner because you didn’t come, so the only people that showed up for mom last night were me and Kate. That’s it. She cried, Christian. Mom cried because you weren’t there.”

He frowns and I’m pleased to see that he at least seems troubled by what I’ve told him. It’s the first sign of emotion I’ve seen from him in I don’t even know how long, so I wait, letting the thick silence between us weigh on him until he finally says something.

“Elliot, I’m just… not the most fun to be around these days, alright? If I was there, I wouldn’t have added anything of value to the evening and with everything between Dad and I… I just thought it would be better if I didn’t go.”

“It’s not better, Christian,” I tell him. “None of us think it’s better without you. You’re a part of our family and we miss you,” he hesitates again and I have a brief flash of hope that I’m finally breaking through to him so I take a chance and push him a little harder than I have in the past.

“Lay it out for me,” I tell him. “Tell me what you want, or what it’s going to take for you to come back and be apart of our family again. All I want is to help you, Christian. All I want is to put our family back together, so tell me what it’s going to take and I’ll find a way to make it happen.”

He looks back at me, considering what I’ve said for a moment before he finally relents.

“It comes down to Ana,” he says, and suddenly, this cold, detached, business robot, who looks like my brother but just isn’t the same, disappears, and I see the real pain break through the surface. “I want to talk to Ana. Being away from her is killing me, Elliot. I replay the night she left me over and over again in my mind and it’s feels like I’m being ripped apart. I’m still in love with her and try as I may, I just can’t stop loving her. I don’t want to. I miss her all the time. She’s all I think about and I really believe that if I could just talk to her, I could make this right between us. I just want a phone call. Can you get me that?”

“Christian, Ana is…” I stop, unsure of how to finish that sentence. The truth is, I’ve tried the Anastasia approach countless times but she’s not interested in talking to him. I think he’s right and I think that the two of them could easily work this out because, as much as she tries to hide it, I know Ana is still in love with him. The problem is that I think Ana knows that too and that’s why she won’t talk to him.

“Just get me a phone call,” he pleads with me. “Call her, right now. She’ll pick up for you. Call her and hand me the phone. Please.”

The look of hurt in his eyes as he makes his request cuts me deep, because he’s right. I could call Ana right now, and she’d answer, and I could hand Christian the phone. But the problem is… I can’t do that. If I called her, I don’t know if she’d hang up or if she’d talk to him, but either way, I’d be betraying her trust. She’s been very clear about what she wants and I can’t just ignore that…

“I can’t do that, Christian. If she doesn’t want to talk to you, I’m not going to trick her into it,” I tell him. He throws his head back in exasperation so I try a different approach. “How about this? Come to Cambridge to visit me and you can meet with her face to face. She can’t get mad at either of us for you coming to visit your brother and I can talk to her ahead of time… prepare her for your arrival so she may be more open to actually sitting down and talking to you.”

“Really?” he asks, and I nod.

“I promise, I will do everything I can. I don’t know how much I can help, but I will do everything in my power to give you the best shot I can.”

He immediately opens his laptop and begins clicking on the touch pad. “I’m going to New York next week for the ABA’s. I can fly to Cambridge Friday night.”

“Sounds good,” I tell him and as he begins typing on his keyboard, adding the impromptu flight to Boston to his schedule, I feel an impending sense of trepidation.

How in the hell am I going to pull this off?

Next Chapter