I feel incredibly tired as I made my way up the elevator to the apartment in Escala. The past few days have been extremely draining and now that I’m home, all I can think about is getting into bed with Christian. I stretch as the doors to the elevator slide open and then push myself forward into the foyer, but when I look around the apartment, I find it dark and empty.
“Christian?” I check, but there’s no answer. Mrs. Jones isn’t in the kitchen, Taylor isn’t in his office, and, come to think of it, I’m not sure why Luke isn’t with me. I check Christian’s office but it’s deserted, the same as the rest of the apartment, although, once I make it back to the great room, my attention is captured by the low glow coming from our bedroom. My brow furrows as I slowly make my way down the hallway. Once I push open the door, everything inside of me seizes.
“Harder, Christian,” someone who isn’t me moans from our bed. Christian’s back rises higher off the bed, causing our comforter to slip down past his behind and I see him thrust forward as a pair of strange legs wrap around his waist.
“So fucking beautiful,” he whispers. “God, your body’s perfect.”
My breathing increases, coming in fast, shallow gasps that only make the spinning in my head worse. My knees go weak, my eyes well with tears, and I have to reach out for the door frame to keep myself upright.
“Ch-Christian?” I stutter, but he doesn’t look back at me. His hand reaches up for the headboard, the headboard of our bed, and he grips it tightly, using it for leverage.
“Oh, you’re so good,” the woman beneath him says. “You’re going to make me come.”
“Good,” he growls.
“But… Oh fuck, right there!” She gasps a few more times and then starts again. “But-but what about Anastasia?”
“She’s in Cambridge,” he grunts at her. “She’ll never know. Come on, baby. Come for me.”
“Oh, god! This is it!” Her hands shoot up around his back, her red fingernails digging into his skin as she screams out his name, and, as his own moans begin increasing with urgency, he lowers his body down onto hers so that I can see her over his shoulder.
She makes eye contact with me, and then flashes me a wicked, victorious smile.
“He’s mine now,” she whispers, and as I hear him cry out with the pleasure of his orgasm, my name begins echoing around me.
I sit up in bed, covered in sweat and panting. It’s daylight and place next to me is filled by Luke, not Christian, and he’s kneeling over the bed gripping tightly to my arms and shaking me slightly.
“Jesus, are you okay?” he asks. “I thought you were being murdered.”
My stomach heaves and, for the first time in weeks, I have to race to the bathroom, although I know it has nothing to do with my pregnancy. My eyes water as I wretch into the toilet, but when I pull away, I realize the moisture is not from the exertion of throwing up. I’m crying.
It was a dream, I’m starting to realize that now, but it had felt so real. I can still picture it with perfect clarity, hear their combined moans… It’s like the entire scene has been seared into my brain and even thinking about it has my stomach rolling again.
“Ana?” Luke calls again, knocking on the door.
“I’m fine,” I call back. “It was just a nightmare. I’m fine.”
“Yeah. Is… Is Christian here?”
“No, he left for work about an hour ago. You’ve slept in.”
I swallow and then push myself back against the wall, trying to let reality wash away the residual fear and anxiety from my dream.
“Ana?” Luke tries again.
“I’m fine,” I repeat. “I just need a minute.”
“Alright. I’ll be in my office if you need me.” I don’t say anything back and I can hear him hesitate outside the door for a moment before the sound of his footsteps and the bedroom door closing behind him echos back to me. After a few more calming breaths, I peel myself off the floor and then turn on the faucet, dipping my hands into the cool water and splashing it on my face. As I towel myself dry, I look up at my reflection in the mirror and frown. I look awful, the product of several nights of jet lag interfering with my sleep, and that does nothing to ease the lingering sense of inadequacy plaguing me from my dream.
I reach down and slowly pull Christian’s Harvard t-shirt over my head so that I can see my bump clearly. Twisting and turning in front of the mirror, examining it from every angle, I have to admit to myself that, really, there’s still hardly anything there. It’s not even really a true bump yet. I just look bloated, like I’ve recently had too big of a meal. But… it is noticeable.
I’ve been thin my entire life, for the most part without any effort. But for the first time, that’s starting to not be the case, and clearly the changes in my body are affecting me more than I anticipated they would.
I close my eyes and replay last night in my head again, Christian on top of me, the muscles in his broad shoulders straining beneath his skin, his abs stretching and contracting as he pumped in and out of me. Even after we’d finished and he got out of bed to get a towel from the bathroom for me, I’d made it a point to roll over and watch his perfect ass as he walked away. His body is flawless, it’s always been flawless, but that’s just not true for me anymore. I’m seventeen weeks in and my body has already begun to change, and I can’t be certain that it will ever be the same again. In fact, it’s more likely that it won’t be. And with Gia constantly around, looking absolutely perfect with her tiny, rock hard body, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Christian will inevitably begin to find me less and less desireable.
There’s a scale against the back wall and, summoning as much courage as I can, I put my t-shirt back on and then step on top of it. The digital screen blinks several times until eventually it settles on the number 129. I frown. I’ve gained 4 pounds but according to the weekly pregnancy tracking app on my phone, the baby should only weigh about five ounces. Worse, I lost weight when I was suffering from the extreme morning sickness, so I’ve actually, in the past month, gained eight pounds. If that keeps up… I do the mental math and quickly shake my head. Maybe Gia was right and it wasn’t a good idea to indulge in all of the amazing food there was to try in Paris.
I need to be more careful. I may not be able to stop growing, but that doesn’t mean I have to let it get out of control. From now on, I’m going to be diligent and only gain as much weight as absolutely necessary.
With new determination, I leave the bathroom and head into the closet to change into my running gear. It rained last night and the clouds overhead still look dark and menacing, so I grab a jacket before I make my way out to the great room, where I find Mia, Grace, and Elliot all sitting around the breakfast table.
“Good morning, dear,” Grace says brightly.
“Good morning. Any news yet?” I check.
“Not yet,” she says, her upbeat demeanor dampening slightly.
When we got back from Paris, we rushed Carrick to the hospital for his surgery, but, upon our arrival, we learned that his liver hadn’t been transported yet. His donor is a man in Portland, who was in a very serious motorcycle accident that left him brain dead a few days ago. Unfortunately, he’s still on a ventilator, which has kept him breathing and has kept his heart beating, and because of those things, his wife hasn’t accepted yet that he’s really gone. She’s refusing to unplug the machines, no matter how many times the doctors assure her that he won’t get any better. So, Carrick is in limbo. Unable to leave the hospital, but not any closer to getting his life saving surgery.
“This is getting ridiculous,” Elliot grumbles as he pushes his eggs around his plate. “We’ve been waiting for three days.”
“You can’t rush someone’s grieving process,” Grace says diplomatically. “That poor woman has lost her husband, on Christmas of all days, and we all need to be very cognizant of that. Just imagine if it was Ana being asked to take Christian off the ventilator.”
A shiver runs up my spine and I have to shake my head to push away the mental images her words incite. “Don’t even say that,” I say softly.
“I think we can all afford a little compassion for this woman,” Grace says. “It won’t be much longer.”
“Okay, but how much longer will it be?” Elliot continues, clearly unpacified by his mother’s remarks. “Because every second that he’s laying in that hospital bed, every second that he’s not getting this surgery, is just more time the cancer has to grow. Time is not a luxury we have right now, so I need to know when this is going to happen. I’m not going to lose my dad over some lady who can’t accept that her husband is dead.”
“You’re not going to lose your dad,” Grace assures him. “We have some time.”
“No we don’t!” Elliot practically shouts. “New Year’s! They said he needed a transplant by the start of the new year. It’s December 29th.”
“Hey,” Grace says, reaching over to place her hand softly over her son’s. “It’s going to be fine, Elliot. This is just the hard part, the waiting. Soon, she’s going to have to see that she’s holding onto something that’s not really there. It’s going to happen soon.”
Elliot pushes his lips together as though he’s trying to hold back the torrent of angry words he’s still dying to release into the room, but after a few deep breaths, he relaxes, nods, and picks his fork back up to eat.
“Good morning, Miss Steele,” Gail says as she re-enters the kitchen from the utility room. “Can I make you something for breakfast.”
“Maybe just half a grapefruit,” I tell her. “I’m going to go on a run this morning.”
“Ana, you should eat a good breakfast,” Grace chides me. “Your baby needs you to help her grow.”
“I’ll make you an omelette,” Gail says. “Something healthy.”
“Thank you,” I sigh reluctantly, and then take the glass of orange juice Grace pours for me as I sit next to Mia at the table. I’m just about to take a drink, but stop before the juice touches my lips. Gia doesn’t drink anything that isn’t clear and orange juice is full of sugar.
I sigh with regret, then put the glass of orange juice down and reach for the pitcher of ice water in the middle of the table instead. Grace turns to me, looking as though she’s about to say something, but her words are cut off by the elevator ping sounding from the foyer. We all turn to see who comes into the great room, and my stomach drops when I see it’s Gia.
“Good morning, Greys,” she chirps.
“Good morning, Gia,” Grace says. “Will you join us for breakfast?”
“Oh, I can’t. I’ve got some errands to run this morning. I just stopped by to drop this off.” She swings her arm forward and holds up a clear, plastic bag, which looks as though it contains Christian’s shirts.
“Turns out Christian and I use the same dry cleaner so I thought I could take something off his plate for him,” she tells us.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Mia says, rolling her eyes. “He has an assistant and a housekeeper.”
“And a fiance who would have been more than happy to do that for him,” I add.
“It’s no trouble,” she replies, waving off our remarks. “Like I said, I was there anyway and I know that Christian is stretched so thin with work and his father’s surgery, I just want to help out wherever I can.”
“I’ll take those,” Gail says politely as she sets my omelette down in front of me. Gia smiles as she hands her the garment bag and then crosses the floor of the great room to kiss Elliot.
“Hey, Meems,” she says, and I cringe when I hear her using Christian’s nickname for his little sister. “I’m going to stop by the bookstore to grab a book that your Dad has been asking about, and then I’ve got some shopping to do in town for the GEH event tomorrow night. Do you want to come?”
“Nope,” Mia says flatly, without looking up from her phone, and I have to hide my smile when I see the instant look of rejection on Gia’s face.
“Okay,” she says. “I suppose I’ll just see you at the hospital later?”
“Mhmm,” Mia hums and, again, Gia deflates at her less than enthused reaction.
“Bye, baby,” Elliot says. He kisses her once more before she turns to leave the apartment and, after the sound of Gia’s clacking heels dies out and we’ve heard the elevator doors roll closed, Elliot rounds on his sister.
“Hey, be nice to my girlfriend.”
“I will,” Mia says. “When she transforms back into Kate.”
“Don’t be a brat, Mia.”
“Don’t be a douchebag, Elliot.”
“Hey!” Grace says sharply. “I have been listening to you two fighting for weeks, and I’m sick of it. Your father needs positivity right now and neither of you are helping with that. Can you just quit the arguing for one day, please?”
They both press their lips together and nod, looking properly chastened by their mother’s harsh tone, but the moment Grace turns to look down at her breakfast, they’re shooting dirty looks at each other again.
Being home these past two days has given me some insight into what life has actually been like since Carrick’s diagnosis, and it hasn’t quelled my concerns about how entirely Gia seems to have ingrained herself in the Greys’ lives.
Since the surgery has been delayed, Christian has gone right back to GEH and has been working long days to catch up on everything that was put aside during our vacation. It means I’m alone a lot during the day so I’ve been trying to spend as much time at the hospital as possible to keep Carrick company. Unfortunately, Gia has been there too, nearly around the clock, and when she isn’t there she’s running errands for Grace and bringing food to the hospital that’s more appetizing than what’s down in the hospital cafeteria. She even went to the store to buy all organic, hypoallergenic bedding for Carrick so that he’d be more comfortable being stuck in bed all day. And, in between all of that, she’s constantly on her blackberry, answering emails, ordering furniture and decorative pieces, and approving designs for Christian’s new building.
If she was a superhero, she’d be Captain Freaking Helpful, and it’s actually helping me see why Christian has warmed up to her so quickly.
In fact, if I didn’t feel deep in my gut that her ultimate goal was Christian and all the zeros attached to the end of his bank account, I’d probably love her too, just for what she’s doing for Carrick. As it is, it feels like she’s just shoving in my face over and over again the fact that the Greys have a new routine now, which she is fully apart of and I’m not. Every time I try to help or contribute to anything, she gives me the same condescending response about being pregnant and how I should be resting, which Christian is always quick to agree to. I know that he means well, but it makes me feel as though I’m being fazed out of my own life and I’m powerless to stop it.
But I’m not powerless, and I’m not going to sit back and just let her replace me.
“Luke!” I yell, making everyone around the table jump as I skitter out of my chair. Luke rounds the corner from the foyer where the security office is and looks at me expectantly.
“Why does she have my elevator code?”
“Gia. Why does she have my elevator code?”
“Uh, I didn’t…”
“Oh,” Elliot interrupts awkwardly. “I gave it to her. I didn’t think it would be a big deal since we were all staying here. I mean she’s here like three days a week anyway to work out with Christian.”
“Shouldn’t you be working out with your girlfriend?” I ask, failing to keep the accusatory undertone out of my voice as I round on him, and it immediately has Elliot on the defensive.
“I don’t have a gym at my house. Besides, you think I could keep up with Gia? That girl is practically ready for American Ninja Warrior. It’s good for both of them. Christian pushes her the way she needs to be pushed, and she keeps him from being shut away here all by himself while you’re at school. Win-Win.”
“Is it though?” I snap.
“I think what Ana is trying to say,” Grace interjects, clearly trying to be diplomatic. “Is that it might not be appropriate for Gia to be spending a lot of time here alone with Christian while Ana is all the way across the country.”
“What? Are you saying Christian is going to try and fuck my girlfriend?” Elliot asks, and Grace presses her lips together. “No,” he says quickly, shaking his head as if the very idea is ludicrous. “Christian wouldn’t do that to me, and he wouldn’t do that to Ana.”
“Maybe he wouldn’t,” I say. Elliot turns to me, his growing anger at my accusations apparent on his face, but I’m not really prepared to fight with him in front of Grace right now, so I turn back to Luke.
“I want to go on a run. Be ready to leave in five minutes.”
“Okay.” He nods, but, as I turn around to head back into my bedroom, Grace calls out to stop me.
“Ana, your breakfast!”
“I’ve lost my appetite,” I reply, and then slam the door behind me.
Five minutes later, I’m pounding the wet pavement of 4th avenue, working hard to clear my mind and to leave the uncertainty and anxiety I’m feeling over this whole Gia thing behind me with every punishing step. We take the long way around down to Pike’s Market, but it ends up being a mistake. As much as I always love walking through the bustling shops and stands down here, the crowds of tourists are slowing me down and taking away my ability to think of nothing but the sound of my feet hitting the pavement.
When we used to come down here to run during the summer, Luke and I would head further north, towards the Space Needle, and then loop back around because the hills going from the waterfront to Escala are too steep in this part of town to traverse without practically killing yourself. Today though, I don’t have the patience to continue winding my way through the packed sidewalks, and the extra effort of running uphill actually sounds appealing, so I take a sharp right turn up Lenora and trudge ahead.
We’re only halfway up the first block between Western and First before both Luke and I are panting. My thighs begin burning and there’s a painful stitch rapidly developing in my side, but I try to power through. Every step takes an astounding amount of effort as we try to avoid the water draining from the higher streets and streaming down the hill past us, so, once we finally make it up the block to the next stop light, Luke reaches out and grabs my arm to keep me from attempting to summit the next hill.
“St-stop,” he pants. “We’re not doing this.”
“Oh-come-on,” I say, between the rapid, shallow breaths I’m forcing in and out of my lungs. “It’s only three more blocks.”
“The doctor said you need to slow down, remember? Not over exert yourself.”
“The doctor said I can’t use treadmills. She said running outside was fine.”
“She said nothing too high impact and you’re running up a 20% grade on wet pavement. That’s definitely high impact. I’m sorry, but no. I’m supposed to look out for your safety and I’m saying no.”
I take a deep breath and turn away from him, pouting a little as I stare out at the traffic rolling lazily through the streets around us and try to catch my breath.
“Ana!” a familiar voice calls, and when I turn in the direction of the sound, I’m immediately overcome by a strange mixture of shock and joy. Kate is hurrying across the crosswalk towards us, several shopping bags draped over her arms, and I’m so happy to see her that it actually takes until she’s pulled me into a crushing hug for me to realize that Ainsley Callaway and Eliza Whitney are dragging along behind her.
“H-hey,” I hesitate as she pulls away from me. “What are you doing here? I thought you were going back to New York right after Christmas?”
“I had a doctor’s appointment and it’s taken longer to hear back from them than I expected, so I’ve decided to stay in Seattle for New Year’s and then fly back with Ainsley to go skiing next week.”
“Do you ski, Anastasia?” Ainsley asks.
“Uh, no. The last time I tried, I spent more time injured than I did on the slopes,” I tell her, and she gives me a haughty kind of smile before turning away from me and saying something I can’t make out to Eliza.
“We’re just doing some shopping,” Kate says. “Do you want to come?”
I swallow and glance between Kate and her friends before answering. The truth is that I would love to spend an afternoon with Kate, in fact, that’s exactly what I need right now to help me stop thinking about all this Gia stuff, but I’m not sure how much of that is going to be ruined by Ainsley and Eliza. Plus, I’m not really dressed for it. I doubt the high end stores Kate’s probably interested in going to are going to be thrilled about my dirty tennis shoes, neon North Face, and messy hair.
“Please, Ana?” Kate begs, probably because she can see my hesitance. “It’s really my last day in town and then I won’t see you until the middle of January. You made me promise we’d spend one day together, you need to keep that promise too.” She sticks out her bottom lip and gives me the saddest puppy dog eyes she can muster, and for the first time since we’ve been back from Paris, I can’t help but smile.
“Okay,” I agree. Kate squeals and then hooks her arm through mine, dragging me with her to the West Edge where the streets are lined with small, expensive boutiques.
We start in a store called Chic, and once we step onto the flawless white floor and I get a good look around at the expensive couture displayed around us, I start to regret my decision to come. Ainsley glides past me, eyeing me up and down with disapproval as she moves forward to pull Kate toward the quickly approaching saleswoman.
“Luke,” I say quietly, unzipping my jacket and handing it to him along with the small backpack I brought to carry my phone and wallet. “Will you hold these for me? I think if the staff here see a nylon jacket they’re going to kick me out.”
“You’re marrying a billionaire, Ana,” Luke says dryly. “I don’t think you have to worry about anyone working on commission kicking you out of anywhere.”
He rolls his eyes and takes the things I hand him before handing me my phone and telling me he’ll wait at the door. I nod gratefully and then smooth down my top and tighten my pony before turning back for Kate and Ainsley. Hopefully my black leggings and tank top will look vaguely chic, though I might need Luke to get me some different shoes…
“And what can I help you find today?” The salesgirl asks Ainsley.
“Something fabulous. We’re going to Indulgence tomorrow night and we have to go into 2011 looking absolutely amazing.”
“You’ll need a cocktail dress the-” she begins, but stops as she turns to face me. I press my lips together, bracing myself for her judging stare and preparing for my own Pretty Woman moment, but… it doesn’t come. “I’m sorry… are you… are you Anastasia Steele?” she asks.
“Uh… yeah,” I reply, and her face immediately lights up.
“Welcome to Chic, Miss Steele,” she says, reaching her hand out for mine. “My name is Caroline Acton, I’ve been working very closely with Mr. Grey over the past few months to complete your wardrobe.”
“Oh. Thank you,” I reply, both shocked and relieved. “I’d actually wondered where those clothes came from. It’s hard to picture Christian walking around a department store.”
She throws her head back in a high, obviously fake laugh that makes me cringe. “No, ma’am. I was actually just preparing to have the Alexander McQueen gown I’ve ordered for your event tomorrow night sent to Mr. Grey’s residence. But if you’d like to see some other options…”
“No,” I say politely. “I’m just here for my best friend today.”
“Well, if you see anything you’re interested in trying on, I’d be more than happy to assist you. Can I get you some champagne?”
“No, thank you.”
She gives me another beaming smile and then turns her attention to Kate, not Ainsley, and offers to show her some New Year’s Eve appropriate dresses. I take a seat on one of the over padded chairs by the dressing room to wait for the other girls to find things to try on, but the moment I sit down a different sales girl brings me a glass of ice water with lemon and mint. Once again, I have to politely decline her overzealous offer to help me find something in the store, and when she finally leaves, I realize this is probably why Christian does his shopping with the help of a personal shopper. It’s like they can smell the dollar signs on me.
Shopping with Kate, Ainsley, and Eliza is a lot like attending a fashion show. They go into the dressing room one at a time, and then parade each outfit out for us to critique. Ainsley goes first, ladened down with probably ten different dresses, so it takes forever for her to model each one for us. The one good thing though, is that it gives me some relatively alone time with Kate while she’s changing.
“So, how was Paris?” Kate asks excitedly after we collectively veto Ainsley’s first outfit.
“Amazing. So much has happened in this past week, I don’t even know where to start. We found out the gender of the baby…”
“I told you it would be a girl, didn’t I?” she interrupts me excitedly. “And, the sex is determined by the father, so… Christian did good.”
“Wait… you know? How?”
“Mia texted me a picture of the silly string,” she says, reaching into her bag for her phone and showing it to me. “That was so adorable. I almost died.”
“Oh…” I say, disappointedly.
“But I want to hear more about Christian’s proposal,” Kate continues. “Mia gushed and gushed about the ring but she didn’t know how he actually proposed.”
I swallow back the chagrin I feel that she already seems to know everything that’s happened to me since we last saw each other and then hold out my hand for her to see the ring. I tell her all about Christian’s intended proposal first and then how it actually happened. As I describe the way it felt standing there on that freezing cold bridge with him and how lost he looked right before he fell to his knees, Kate’s eyes begin well with tears, and she has to cover her mouth to hide the quiver in her bottom lip when I tell her the things he said to me before he asked me to marry him.
“Oh, Ana,” she says, reaching out to pull me into a tight hug. “I’m so happy for both of you.”
“Thank you, Katie. I wish you could have been there. It didn’t feel the same without you.”
She nods and looks down at my ring again, blinking tears away, and once she’s regained her composure, she looks back up at me and smiles.
“This ring is really incredible,” she says. “Did you know he designed it himself? He called to have it commissioned the day you accepted your internship last spring.”
She nods. “It took him three months to find the perfect diamond. I got to see it around the end of June last summer. I’ve been waiting for him to ask you for six months!”
“I can’t believe you were able to keep it a secret,” I laugh.
“It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
I hug her again and, as I hold her against me, I feel the same stabbing pain over letting my best friend down rise inside of me again. She’s been waiting for six months, and I made her wait longer than she should have. She shouldn’t have heard about the baby and my engagement from Mia. I should have called her in the doctor’s office in Boston, I should have Skyped her Christmas morning. Even Christian had made sure to involve her, but I dropped the ball. Hell, we’ve been in the same city for two days and I didn’t even know.
“I’m sorry I haven’t called you,” I whisper into her hair as I wrap my arms tighter around her. “You should have been the first person I talked to after Christian proposed. You shouldn’t have had to find out from Mia.”
“It’s okay, you’ve been busy.”
“It’s not okay, and I’m sorry. I promise it won’t happen. You’re my best friend and I love you. I want to share everything with you, Katie.”
“I love you too, Annie,” she says.
“So, you’ll still be my Maid of Honor?”
She smiles. “You know I’d never relinquish that title to anyone else.”
We beam at each other until Ainsley comes out of the dressing room demanding our attention. She’s wearing a tight, pink bandage dress that hugs her stick thin figure perfectly, and while Kate and Eliza gush over how beautiful she looks, my phone buzzes on the table next to me. It’s a message from Luke.
Seven o’clock? Did he just make plans? I frown down at the message, not understanding what he means until I hear my name being called over my left shoulder.
“Ana, what are you doing here?”
I instinctively roll my eyes as I recognize Gia’s voice, and the freeze when I remember just who has gotten up to get a closer look at Ainsley’s dress.
I turn around to see Gia coming towards me, smiling brightly. She holds her arms open for me and I hesitate for a moment, debating whether or not I want to publicly rebuke her hug, but I want to get her out of here as quickly as possible and starting a pissy argument with her seems counterintuitive to that.
“I thought you’d be at the hospital,” she says after I lean into her. “If I’d have known you’d planned on shopping this afternoon, I’d have asked for you to come along with me. We could have done lunch!”
“It wasn’t planned. I’m actually here with…”
“Kate,” Gia says cooly. I glance over my shoulder and see Kate standing directly behind me, looking curiously at Gia.
“Hi, I was just going to introduce… um… I’m sorry, do I know you?” she asks. Gia’s face tightens into a superior kind of grimace and she reaches her hand out for Kate’s.
“Gia,” she says. “I’m Elliot’s girlfriend.”
I turn back to face Kate and feel my heart sink as I watch the color drain from her face. She hesitates for a moment and then reaches out to shake Gia’s hand, but she seems to be moving unconsciously, probably because she’s just been blindsided, so her grip is weak and it only seems to exacerbate Gia’s superiority complex.
“You know,” Gia begins. “I think it’s really great that you’ve moved on so quickly. You seem to be doing really well. Elliot and I have just loved reading all about you on TMZ. I was just telling him the other day that I honestly think Perez Hilton might be in love with you, and you should take that as a great compliment. You’ve got to have something really special if constantly flashing your vagina to the paparazzi is enough to turn a gay guy’s head. Well, maybe special is over stating things. After all, you’re here, alone, and tomorrow night I’ll be on Elliot’s arm at the most anticipated event of the holiday season.”
My hand balls into a fist and I wait for Kate’s equally biting response, but before either of us can say anything, Caroline rushes forward to intervene.
“Is everything okay over here?”
“Just fine,” Gia answers without shifting her piercing gaze away from Kate. “I’d like the Elie Saab gown taken to a dressing room for me. I have an event to dress for.”
“Right away, ma’am,” Caroline says, and with one last saccharine smile at Kate, Gia turns and makes her way through the archway to the dressing rooms.
Once she’s gone, Kate takes a sharp breath through her nose and her lips tighten into a thin line as though she’s trying to push down whatever emotion is currently bubbling up inside of her. I reach out to place a comforting hand on her shoulder, to reassure her of how amazing she is and to promptly begin talking as much shit about Gia as I can come up with on the fly, but I’m almost immediately pushed out of the way by a very angry looking Ainsley.
“What the hell, Kate?” she snaps. “You’re just going to let her talk to you like that and then walk away?”
“What did you want me to do?” Kate asks, her voice lacking it’s usual strength. “Get into a catfight with her in the middle of thousands of dollars of couture?”
Ainsley narrows her eyes at her. “Look, we’ve put up with a lot from you. We defended you when you humiliated us in front of Marcus West by puking up that line that he so generously offered you. We’ve listened to you bitch and moan about losing your ex-boyfriend and how your best friend is moving on without you. We even forgave you for bailing on us at the last second for New Year’s and then flew all the way across the damn country to slum it with you in Seattle so we could help you salvage your poor, pathetic life. But the one thing we can’t make allowances for is cowardice. This life that you’re so desperate to be apart of with the fashion, and the partying, and your choice of hot guys to fuck whenever you want, that’s my world, and I’m the gatekeeper. If you want to be in the squad and live the way we do, you’re going to have to prove to me that you’re not a fucking pussy.”
Ainsley flips her hair and storms back to the dressing rooms, and Kate stares after her blankly for a moment before collapsing back into her chair and burying her face in her hands. I stare between them, actually feeling a little shocked. There was lot packed into that tirade that I’m still working through in my mind. Is she really leaning on Ainsley because she thinks I’m moving on without her? And what did she mean by puking up that line? Is Kate into drugs now?
“You didn’t tell me that she looked like that,” Kate says, cutting me off. “I mean, that’s his rebound girl? God, no wonder he’s moving on so fast.”
It takes me a second to catch up with the redirection, but when I do, I feel the sinking pain in the pit of my stomach at the hurt reflected behind her eyes.
“No, he’s not. Kate… she looks like that because making sure she looks like that is her entire life. Seriously, that’s all there is to her. Well, that and money. She’s only interested in Elliot in the first place because he’s a Grey and she wants his trust fund.”
“So,” Kate shrugs. “You think that matters? The entire world is filled with rich men who marry hot young women who are only interested in their money. Elliot’s not immune to beautiful girls because he’s a good person. No man is. Guys don’t say no to girls who look like that, Ana, no matter who they are.”
She doesn’t know it, but her lament has just confirmed my very worst fear. The brutal honesty behind her words hits me full force like a punch in the gut and suddenly, it feels like I can’t breathe. No man says no to girls who look like that. My nightmare from last night plays in my head again and again, Christian’s moans echoing through my ears until I feel like I’m going to be sick.
“Ana, are you okay?” Kate asks. Her eyes widen with panic and she grips onto me like she too thinks I’m about to collapse.
“No,” I choke out.
“Gia. I-” I stop, and try to calm the shuddering gasps my paranoia and gag reflex have reduced me to. Kate reaches over to gently rub her hand over my back and then picks up the glass of ice water from the table next to me.
“Here, drink this,” she encourages me, but I shake my head.
“She’s the reason I was out running this morning,” I confess. “Gia. I think… I think Christian is going to cheat on me with her.”
“No,” Kate says, and she actually sounds relieved. “Ana, don’t be ridiculous. Christian would never cheat on you.”
“You just said that she’s not the kind of girl that guys say no to, Kate. And why would he? Look at me. I’m changing. I’m gaining weight, I’m getting rounder… Everyday my body grows and there’s no way that Christian’s just not going to care. Even if he never says it, even if he doesn’t want to care, some part of him will. He invests so much time and effort into the way his body looks that there’s no way he’s going to be able to look at me the same when I’m eight or nine months pregnant. And while I slowly become less and less desirable, she’ll be here, beautiful and perfect.”
“Stop,” Kate says. “Ana, Christian loves you. Okay, maybe if he was just guy who was fucking you, he would care when you really start to show, but he’s not. He’s chosen to spend the rest of his life with you. You’re growing because that’s his baby inside of you. He’s not going to care how your body looks when you’re nine months pregnant because, even though you are absolutely beautiful, that’s not why he loves you. He loves you because you are the only person in the world who really understands him and you are one of the only things that makes him happy. There is light in his world because of you. You make him a better person. He loves you because he needs you, Ana, and nothing as trivial as your body growing while you’re carrying his daughter could ever change that.”
“Not even her?” I ask, and we both turn to watch as Gia comes out of the dressing room in a gorgeous, flowy, rose colored gown that accents the pale cream of her skin flawlessly. She steps onto the pedestal in front of a long mirror and waits while the store seamstress comes to pin the fabric where it needs to be taken in. Once the dress is properly hugging her body, she twirls, the gauzy fabric of her skirts billowing around her in a soft cloud, and I feel the jealous heat inside of me rise as I’m once again forced to witness to just how beautiful she is.
“I don’t know if I’m just jealous, or insecure, but I think she wants Christian, and I think she’s trying to take him from me. She’s too close to him. They work out together, they diet together, he laughs at all of her jokes. He even lets her touch him. Before, I was the only one who could, but she’s all over him. I’m four months pregnant and I’m terrified that I’m about to lose the father of my child.”
“No,” she says sternly. “You’re not.”
Kate gets out of her chair, storming towards Gia with the force of a class five tornado, and when Gia turns to see her coming I can actually see a brief flash of fear cross her eyes.
“Who the fuck do you think you are?” Kate demands.
“Look, I don’t know you, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know your game. You’re a fake, money hungry, social climber who will stop at nothing to claw your way into a class that you’re not talented enough, smart enough, or wealthy enough to get into yourself. So you can take your bullshit smiles and that god awful simpering voice that I’m sure you spent many a lonely night perfecting in your bedroom and shove it up your ass because I’m onto you and I’m not going to let you ruin good people, who I care about. Not Elliot, and not Ana. You stay the fuck away from Christian, do you understand me?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh please, spare me your innocent little act, you’re not as good at it as you think you are. I’m being real with you right now. This is a warning. Back. Off.”
Gia turns to Kate and scoffs. “You want to get real Kavanagh? Then let’s start with you, because you see, I know who you are too. You’re a girl who has had everything handed to her your entire life, including an Ivy League education. You’ve never had to work for anything or fight for anything, so when your perfect little plan for your future with Elliot didn’t work out, you started to self destruct because you can’t handle the fact that he’s moved on with someone else. Someone better. He’s picked me over you and you’re so jealous that it’s eating you up inside all day, every day.”
“Jealous?” Kate repeats. “You think I’m jealous of you? Look, this isn’t about Elliot, this is about Christian and you trying to put yourself somewhere you don’t belong. But if you think that what you have with Elliot will ever compare to what we had, you’re even more deluded than I thought. Elliot and I are a part of each other, and you’re never going to be able to change that.”
“We’ll see about that,” Gia says, and as she gathers up her skirts and steps off the pedestal to make her way back to the dressing rooms, she turns back and gives Kate one last hard look. “I’ll be sure you get a wedding invitation. I’d expect it by the end of the summer.”
Kate rolls her eyes and shakes her head just as Caroline steps in to run interference once more. “So, how does the gown feel?’
“I’ll take it. You can charge it to the Grey account,” Gia says, and then she turns to me before adding. “You will tell Christian again how much I appreciate his gift?”
I scowl as she disappears back into the dressing room, but the moment she’s out of view, Ainsley comes through the arch.
“And that’s strike two,” she says.
“Not now, Ainsley,” Kate says, but she ignores her, pushes off the wall, and saunters towards her.
“Don’t worry, Katie. Once again, I’m here to bail you out of this unfortunate situation. Turns out, little miss Gia left her phone in the dressing room.” She pulls an iphone out from behind her and holds it out for us, but I immediately have to turn away because there, displayed on the screen, is a fully nude picture of Elliot.
“Why would you show that to me?” Kate demands.
Ainsley tosses her the phone. “It’s a gift, Katie. Her instagram account is unlocked and I happen to have the numbers of some people who would be very interested in nude photos of Christian Grey’s brother. They’ll be all over that before she can take it down. She could go from girlfriend to completely undateable with the press of a button.”
“Kate…” I interject, my voice a warning, but she doesn’t look up at me. She’s staring intently at the phone in her hand, at the post Ainsley has already created. All Kate has to do is press upload, and, as she stands there staring at it, her finger moves up to do just that.
“You can break them up,” Ainsley encourages her. “You can prove to him how good he really had it when he had you. All you have to do is press one little button and you can have everything you want.”
“There’s consequences to this, Kate,” I say quickly. “Elliot is associated with GEH and another scandal like this is going serious damage to Christian’s reputation and undo all of the work he’s done to move past what Elena and Leila did to him. If you post that, Grace and Carrick are going to see it, Mia is going to have to go back to school knowing all of her friends have seen it, and, you’re going to humiliate Elliot. This won’t just hurt Gia, it’ll hurt everyone.”
“Why should you care if Elliot Grey gets hurt?” Ainsley shrugs. “He didn’t care when he hurt you.”
“Kate, please don’t,” I plead. Her shoulder rise as she takes a deep, bracing breath, but her finger moves across the screen and she presses delete.
“And there’s strike three,” Ainsley says with disappointment. “I guess you’re not the person I thought you were, Kavanagh.”
“Good,” Kate says, finally looking up from the phone. “You think that you’re so perfect, and that everyone around you is just dying of envy but if that’s true, it’s only because they don’t know you. All you are is a shallow, self-obsessed bitch, who makes yourself feel good by tearing everyone around you down, including the people you call your friends. I’m not going to let you do to me what you do to Eliza. I’m not going to become someone else, some carbon copy of you, just to gain your worthless approval. I know that you’re jealous of me because I’m prettier than you are, and I’m smarter than you are, and because you are never going to be anything more than you are right now. How dare you come to me with this, how dare you throw my ex-boyfriend’s new relationship in my face like this, and how dare you try to manipulate me into hurting people that I love. I don’t want to be like you, Ainsley. In fact, I don’t want anything to do with you, so why don’t you just fuck off?”
“Wow. You must feel so brave,” Ainsley says coolly. “Let’s see how long that lasts. Watch your back, Kavanagh.”
“I’m not scared of you. You can’t take anything away from me because you don’t have anything that I want.”
Ainsley narrows her eyes at Kate, gives her a once over, and then snaps at Eliza, who scurries over to her like an obedient puppy dog.
“Let’s go, Lizzie. There’s nothing for us here anymore.” She walks forward, bumping Kate hard enough that she has to take a step back to steady herself as they brush past us. I turn to watch them leave and for the first time notice the Luke is standing a few feet away from us, looking as though he’s been ready to snatch me back behind him.
“Are you okay, Kate?” he asks.
“I’m fine,” she replies, but in that moment Gia returns from the dressing rooms with Caroline falling in line behind her.
“I’ll need the dress for tomorrow,” Gia says, “So the alterations need to be finished today. I’ll pick it up tomorrow morning before ten.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Caroline agrees, and she turns away, carrying the dress with her towards the back.
“Gia,” Kate calls, and when she turns around to face us, Kate tosses her phone to her. “You dropped this.”
“Thanks,” Gia says shorty, reaching to place it in her purse before moving around us to exit the store. Before she’s able to leave though, Kate reaches out and tugs her jacket to stop her.
“What?” Gia snaps.
“Elliot’s a really good guy,” Kate says..
“So, just… don’t fuck him over.”
Gia gives her a tight lipped smile and yanks her arm out of Kate’s grip before turning on her heel and marching her way out. Kate stares at the door for a minute and then turns back to look at me, her face a confusing mix of so many different emotions, I’m not sure what I should do for her.
“What am I doing, Ana?” she asks at last.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, who am I? I don’t recognize this person that I’ve become. I’m at the top of my class at Harvard, I’m the chief editor of the most prestigious student newspaper in the country, and I’m poised to take over the biggest media outlet in Seattle in just a few short months. That used to be important to me, but now, I’m throwing it all away, and… why? Because I broke up with my boyfriend? Jesus, it’s like I’ve been trying so hard to prove to myself that I didn’t need Elliot to be happy that I’ve lost myself completely.” She shakes her head, takes a deep breath, and looks very purposefully into my eyes. “I do need him, Ana. Not to acheive my dreams or to be successful, but because I love him and I don’t care about any of the other stuff without him. I’ve made a mistake.”
“I shouldn’t have broken up with him,” she continues. “I was so stupid. He promised me forever, he was in it forever, and I threw it all away because he didn’t want to get the piece of paper? What the fuck is wrong with me?”
“The piece of paper is important to you, Kate,” I remind her. “And so are kids. He doesn’t want to give you those things and if you really want them, if you can’t be happy without them, then you shouldn’t sacrifice them.”
“So, what? I marry someone else? Have kids with someone else? I’m supposed to be with Elliot, Ana. Neither of those things mean anything if it’s not with Elliot. I don’t want them if I can’t have them with him.” I stare back at her, looking for any kind of hesitation or uncertainty or an indication that this is just residual grief speaking, but I don’t see it. Instead, she doubles down.
“I want him back, Ana.”
I take a breath. “Then go get him.”
“Gia’s nothing, Kate. Gia’s a place holder, you’re the one he loves. You’re the one he wants to be with. You two are epic, and if being together is the thing that is going to make both of you happy, don’t let anything stand in your way. Especially not Gia.”
She sits up straighter, her eyes darting back and forth as she works through whatever thoughts are racing through her mind, and then, slowly, a smile creeps across her lips.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she says.
“The GEH this is tomorrow,” I remind her, but she just continues staring at me, undeterred.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she repeats, and with that, she gathers her bags and hurries for the front door.
“Well, that was a fun afternoon,” Luke interjects. “What do you want to do next? Go visit Elena in prison? Maybe call up Leila and have a fun, intimate chat?”
“As appealing as both of those sound, I think what I want to go to the hospital and check in on Carrick and then wait for Christian to come home. I’ve had just about enough excitement for one day.”
“Alright,” he agrees. “Let’s go. I’ll have Ryan bring the car.”
I nod and get up to follow him, but as we approach the door and he pulls out his phone, I stop him and then turn back for the counter where Caroline is standing.
“Is there anything else I can help you with, Miss Steele?” she asks eagerly.
“Yes, that dress Miss Matteo is having altered? I want it.”
“You.. want it?”
“Yes,” I confirm. “I’ll pay for it now and I’d like it delivered to my apartment with the gown Mr. Grey has already purchased. You won’t need to make any alterations to it, I can take care of that on my own.”
The salesgirls look at each other, clearly unsure of what to do, but the one on the far end gives Caroline a do whatever she wants kind of look, and Caroline nods.
“Of course, Miss Steele.”
I smile at her and then pull my black card out of my wallet to pay, while she has the gown brought up from the back again and boxed up to have delivered this afternoon.
“Thank you, Miss Steele,” she says as I hand her my signed receipt.
“No, thank you,” I say. “And… just for future reference, if you intend on continuing to do business with either myself or Mr. Grey, you will not wait on Miss Matteo again. When she comes here tomorrow, you will escort her out of the store. You will not tell her I have the dress, you will not make any additional accommodations for her, in fact, you won’t say anything to her other than to ask that she never return to your store again.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Caroline agrees.
“Good. Then I’ll be back in a few days to do a little shopping of my own. Have a good afternoon.”
I turn away from the counter and join Luke, who is smiling and shaking his head, by the front door.
“Ready?” I ask.
“Whenever you are,” he says.