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