The Worst Author’s Note Ever

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So, I know I left the last chapter on a bit of a cliff hanger (a minor one really… right?), but unfortunately I’m not going to be able to post on Monday. My mother passed away very suddenly and I am devoting the next week to being with my family.

 

I’m sorry to leave you all in the place I did, but thank you for your understanding.

-WishingMrGreyWasHere

 

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Chapter 34

graduation robes

I’m out of breath. My entire body is sore, tired, and covered in sweat. The pain is horrific. All I can think about is how much I want it to stop. I want to sleep, but I can’t. Somehow, I have to find the strength to go on even though I feel as though I have nothing left to give. There’s only one thing that can keep me going now, only one person I would endure this for.

“You’re almost there, Anastasia,” Dr. Baker says. “Push.”

I tighten my muscles and force as much pressure down on my pelvis as I can manage, but my strength gives out too quickly.

“I can’t,” I whine as I start to cry. “I can’t.”

“Yes you can, baby,” Christian says at my side. “You’re doing so well. Take my hand.” I reach up, grasp the hand he offers, and squeeze it tightly.

“You’re almost done, Ana. I have her head,” Dr. Baker encourages me. “Just one more really big push.”

“Can you see her?” I ask, looking up at Christian. For the first time since I began pushing, he looks away from me and glances down between my legs. When he does, his face breaks out in a huge, radiant smile.

“Yes, I can see her.”

“Okay, here we go,” Dr. Baker says, calling my attention once more. “Give me the biggest push you can in 3, 2…”

I scream as I once again focus the last of my remaining strength into pushing my daughter from my body, and even though it feels almost feeble and the pain comes more intensely, there’s a shift and then I feel her go.  A second later, the room is filled with the high screeching sound of Calliope’s cries.

“I’ve got her,” Dr. Baker says, smiling. “Congratulations, Mama.” I laugh with pure, radiant happiness as Christian brings my fingers to his lips, kisses them hard, and then lets go so he can take the medical scissors the doctor offers him to cut the umbilical cord. I told her before I wanted them to clean her before they laid her in my arms because once I had her, I didn’t want to have to let her go. So, while I listen to the gentle sounds of water running into the metal basin on the other side of the room, Christian returns to me and leans over to kiss my still glistening forehead.

“Ten fingers, ten toes,” he says. “And she’s absolutely beautiful.”

“Bring her to me,” I plead. Dr. Baker turns as she begins wrapping my baby in a soft yellow blanket. Once she’s swaddled, Christian moves across the room to take our daughter into his arms and then, slowly, he carries her to me.

I reach desperately for her, but as he lays the pile of blankets in my arms, they collapse in on themselves. My face shifts with panic and I begin digging through the fabric, but it’s empty. She isn’t in there.

“Christian!” I exclaim, looking up at him, but he’s not there either. No one is. I’m alone in the room with nothing but a rumpled mess of blankets still hanging limply in my arms.

Suddenly, there’s a sharp pain in my side, strong enough to make me scream, and as I reach down to hold the place that hurts, my body jerks violently and I find myself sitting bolt upright in bed, disoriented.

The confusion has me panting to catch my breath until I reach down, feel my bump, and realize it had all been a dream. Still, just the knowledge that it didn’t happen isn’t enough to erase the lingering feeling of fear and panic from having her disappear out of my arms, so after looking over and seeing that Christian is still completely out, I crawl out of bed to use the restroom and splash some cool water on my face.

It was a dream… It was a dream…

Closing myself in the bathroom, I repeat the words over and over again, trying to get a grip on myself, but as I sit to pee and look down, a new, different wave of panic crosses over me when I see a single drop of blood staining my panties.

“Oh my god,” I whisper. I wipe and look down, finding a faint pink line of blood streaked across the toilet paper, then hurry to finish and rush out of the bathroom so I can get on my computer. My hands are shaking while I type, “bleeding late pregnancy” into Google and unfortunately, my fear is only heightened when I begin reading through the list of related conditions. The only comfort I find is a paragraph at the end of the page that says spotting during your third trimester can be completely normal, and since I have a pediatric surgeon who started her career in obstetrics coming over this morning, I force myself to stop panicking and make a mental note of the things I’ve read so I can ask her about them. Grace will calm me down much better than anything here will.

“How dare you,” Christian’s still groggy voice says behind me. I turn in my chair to look at him, my brow creased with confusion.

“How dare I, what?”

“Get out of bed. Come back to me.” He lifts the comforter back away from him, inviting me to join him, and I do. Once I’m enveloped in the blankets again, I snuggle into him, pushing as much of my body against his as possible as he wraps me back up in his arms. I hear his low moan of approval when he buries his face into my hair and while his heat washes over me, I wish desperately I could just go back to sleep and start this morning over. Unfortunately, that’s absolutely not going to happen.

“I’m bleeding,” I tell him softly.

“What? Where?” His hands move over my body, looking for an injury in my skin, but I shake my head.

“No, Christian. I’m bleeding. There was blood in my panties this morning.”

His face goes slack. “What?”

I watch him turn away from me and reach for his phone on his bedside table, but before he goes down the horrifying rabbit hole of life threatening pregnancy conditions that I just did, I reach out to touch his arm and stop him.

“Don’t look. I already did and you don’t want to know.”

“Yes, I do,” he corrects me. “What did you read?”

“It’s either absolutely nothing or I could be dying. There doesn’t seem to be an in between.”

“Get dressed,” he says, immediately pulling the covers away from him so he can scramble out of bed. “We’re going to the hospital. Taylor!”

“Christian, I can’t go to the hospital right now. Today is graduation.”

“I don’t care. If you need medical attention, we’re going to the hospital.”

“It could be nothing and your mom will be here in an hour. I’ll talk to her, see what she thinks and if she honestly believes I should go to the hospital, I will. But if she thinks it’s just normal spotting then I’m not going to skip out on my graduation ceremony.” He pushes his lips together, clearly not pleased with my plan, so I get out of bed and come around to wrap my arms around him and hold his gaze. “You know your mom will be overly cautious, and if she thinks we should go, we’ll go. But, really, it could be nothing, and could you imagine if I spent graduation day in the emergency room over nothing?”

“Fine,” he agrees at last. “But if she says you should go, you’re going. No arguments.”

“No arguments,” I agree. He nods and, as he leans down to kiss me on the forehead, there’s a knock on our door.

“Come,” Christian calls. Taylor steps inside.

“Sir?”

“Nevermind, Taylor,” he says, then quickly adds, “Thank you.”

“Yes, sir. Your delivery has arrived downstairs and Sawyer brought breakfast back for everyone.”

“Thank you, Taylor. We’ll be right down.” He nods and backs out of the room, and once Christian and I are alone again, an excited smile creeps across my lips as I turn to face Christian.

“Delivery?”

He smiles. “Would you mind if I give you your graduation gift early?”

“Oh, if you insist.”

 

We both hurry to dress so that we can head downstairs, and once we get to the kitchen, I find a huge arrangement of peonies in the middle of the dining room table, surrounded by an easy but delicious looking spread of fruit, croissants, and cheeses.

“They’re beautiful,” I say, turning back to smile at Christian.

“They’re only part of your gift.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small Harry Winston box. “I had this made by the same designer who did your engagement ring.”

I bite down on my lip as I take the box and slowly peel back the lid. Inside there is a gorgeous ring, not as large as my engagement ring, but not insignificant either. In the center of the platinum band is a square stone, the exact same shade as Harvard crimson, and on either side of the center gem are two diamond baguettes that sparkle in the morning sunlight pouring through the dining room window.

“Christian, it’s beautiful,” I tell him, awed. “Is it a ruby?”

“No, it’s red beryl. It’s extremely rare and at four carats, this is one of the largest beryl rings in existence. It’s very special, to celebrate your remarkable accomplishment. I’m very proud of you, Anastasia.”

I bite down on my lip to try and reign in my smile and then lean up on my toes to place a soft kiss against his lips. “I love it. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. You deserve it.”

“Good morning!” Kate chirps excitedly as she comes into the kitchen behind us. “Happy graduation day!”

“Happy graduation day, Kate,” I tell her. She comes over to hug me but stops when she sees the jewelry box in my hand.

“What’s this?”

“My graduation gift from Christian.” I pass her the box and her eyes widen as she looks down at the ring inside.

“Awh, it’s like a Harvard ring. And it’s gorgeous! Good job, Grey.”

“Thanks, Kate,” he says. “And happy graduation day.”

She smiles and thanks him before moving to the breakfast spread and putting a plate together for her and Carter. Christian busies himself with Taylor and Sawyer, going over the security plan for today since Taylor is concerned about Kate and I being lost in the ocean of identical black and crimson, which could be the perfect opportunity for something to happen to either of us. I choose to let them handle the logistics. I’ll follow my instructions but I don’t want to spend any time today talking about him. Today is about me and Kate and celebrating with the people we love.

“Carter is a disaster,” Kate tells me as she pours an extra glass of orange juice. “He’s really hungover, I don’t know how he’s going to make it through graduation today.”

“Yeah, we heard you two come in last night,” I begin hesitantly. “Everything okay? It sounded like you two might have been… fighting or something?”

Kate rolls her eyes. “No, he just got too drunk with his friends. They showed up at Mac’s not long after you and Christian left and when he saw me having a beer and a conversation with Elliot, he kind of freaked out a little bit. He told Elliot to stay the fuck away from me and then dragged me home. I wish I would have listened to you and told him about Elliot sooner. The way it is now… it’s like he can’t handle that Elliot and I are friends again and that might not have been true if he didn’t think I was hiding something.”

“He didn’t…” I pause, feeling awkward. “He didn’t hurt you or anything, did he? I mean, he sounded… intense when you two came home.”

“Oh, no! God, no, Ana. We’re fine. Great even. I think graduation is just a little stressful with our families being in town. And, speaking of which, I need to go call my parents. They should be here by now.”

“Okay,” I agree reluctantly. “Tell Carter I hope he feels better.”

“I will.” She leans over to kiss me on the cheek, and then gathers the plates of food and two glasses of orange juice in her arms before turning to leave the kitchen, bouncing slightly with excitement when Luke offers her his own congratulations. I start putting together a plate for Christian and then nibble on the end of my croissant as I listen to Luke and Taylor tell me the plan for today. Just as they finish though, there’s a knock on the front door, and while the sound sends Champ into a frenzie in the entryway and fills the entire downstairs with the booming sounds of his bark,  Luke moves from the kitchen to answer it. Seconds later I hear my mother’s voice echo from the living room.

“Ana!”

“In here, Mom.”

She sweeps into the kitchen and, once she sees me, her face crinkles with mixed emotion and she wraps me in a hug.

“Oh, sweetheart, congratulations!” She pulls away and her eyes briefly flit to Christian, but they don’t exchange any words or even any real sign of recognition. I glance over my shoulder and see that Christian has turned towards us and is leaning against the counter silently, but has his arms crossed over his chest.

“Bob and I are so proud of you,” my mom continues, drawing my attention back to her. “I can’t believe we’re already here. I am definitely not old enough to have a daughter who is graduating from college.”

“You certainly don’t look it,” I reply, with a smile. “Where’s my dad?”

“Oh he and Bob are just lagging behind…” she says, but once we both look back towards the front door, we see them both appear through the arch between the kitchen and the living room.

“Daddy!” I say excitedly, untangling from my mom to rush and hug him, but even though he hugs me back, there doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm behind his greeting. I pull back and give him a curious look. “Is everything okay?”

“You and I need to talk, young lady,” he says, and while I feel my own body deflate at his harsh tone, I hear Christian shift behind me.

“About what?” I ask. He glances at Christian for half a second before turning back to me.

“Let’s go to your room,” he says. I frown, but nod, slowly, and move to lead them from the kitchen to my bedroom.

“Ana…” Christian calls hesitantly. I turn back and give him the most reassuring look I can, mouthing it’s fine, and then begin my climb up the stairs. Once I’ve closed the door to my bedroom, I plop down on my bed and stare up at my father expectantly. He paces for a moment and when I see the look he gives me when he finally stops to speak, I suddenly feel more like a child than I have in years.

“Is there something you want to tell me, Anastasia?” he asks.

This is a trap, and I avoid it the same way I have since I was twelve.

“What do you mean?”

“Ana…”

“I don’t know, Dad, but obviously you do. So why don’t you just tell me what you want to talk about?”

“I want you to tell me about Elena Lincoln.”

I feel a wave of cold dread the moment her name crosses my father’s lips and, as I feel myself receding slightly under my father’s hard gaze, I gather all the confidence I can muster, lock my jaw together, and turn to glare at my mother.

“What did you tell him?”

“I don’t care what your mother has to say right now,” my dad interrupts. “I want to know what you have to say. So, tell me about Elena Lincoln.”

I take a breath. “She’s horrible person who is no longer in our lives.”

“Nope. Not good enough. Start from the beginning.” He’s angry, I can tell just by the way his mouth is set, so I know that my mother has probably spilled every detail she knows. Probably even embellished on some parts she didn’t know the whole story on with details that aren’t accurate and don’t do Christian any favors. Unfortunately though, there isn’t much I can say to alleviate whatever it is he’s feeling because there are ugly things in Christian’s past, things that neither he or I are proud of. But there’s no point in rehashing them or dwelling on them now. He’s changed and I’ve made my choices. We’re not going back.

“Dad, Christian’s history with Elena Lincoln is long and complicated and painful, but most importantly, it’s in the past. We’ve moved on, she’s behind us, and Christian and I are really, really good. Happy. He loves me, Daddy. Isn’t that eno–”

“Did he or did he not lie in a court of law to keep a child molestor from going to prison?”

“U-uh… he… It’s not as simple as that…”

“Oh, it’s exactly as simple as that. Yes, or no?” I grind my teeth together and stare up at him defiantly. This is a no win situation, so I’m not going to engage in this conversation. At least not until he’s willing to listen to the whole story, but my silence only seems to stoke his anger. “Anastasia, so help me…”

“I’m not doing this with you,” I say calmly. “I’m not doing this with either of you. Okay, I am perfectly happy to sit down with you and tell you everything that’s happened over the last few years, including everything that’s happened with Elena, but not today. I’ve worked too hard and been through too much to make today about this. So I’m not going to do this with you right now and if you can’t accept that, then you shouldn’t be here.”

“Ana, we’re just worried about you,” my mother says, and I turn to glare at her again.

“Oh yeah, you were real worried when he flew you to Seattle last summer on a private jet and hosted you on a $35 million yacht for the weekend. You showed a lot of concern when you spent a week in the most expensive hotel in Paris and went on several lavish shopping sprees all on Christian’s dime.”

“That was before we almost lost you, Anastasia.”

“But that’s not what this is about. That’s not what you told Dad. He hasn’t said anything about what happened in Seattle, this is about Elena. You brought Elena into this because you knew that would be enough to turn him against Christian. I wanted him to get to know the person Christian is now before we got into everything that’s happened with her, but you made sure that didn’t happen. You don’t care about how hard Christian and I have worked to get to where we are now, how much he’s changed, or how happy we are now. All you care about is breaking us up and I don’t know why. You’ve always been so supportive, why are suddenly being like this with Christian?”

“You could have died, Ana. Why aren’t you taking that seriously? I almost lost my daughter and it was his fault. As long as he’s in your life, you are in danger. I want you as far away from him as possible.”

“Do you really think I’ll be safe if I break up with him? That if I leave, whoever is trying to destroy Christian will just leave me and his daughter alone? Christian will never stop loving me and as long as he loves me and as long as we share a child, I will be his greatest weakness. I’ve accepted that and he is doing everything in his power to ensure that I am protected and safe. He’s uprooted his entire life and moved to Cambridge to make sure of it. I am not going to throw away the best part of my life, the person who makes me happier than anything else in the world all because some psycho out there wants his money or his company or whatever it is that he’s after. I love Christian and I’m not going anywhere. If you don’t understand that…”

“Could you?” my father interrupts me, and I turn to look at him, confused.

“Could I what?”

“Go anywhere. Leave. Because I’ve gotta say, Ana, this Elena Lincoln business isn’t the first thing that’s raised red flags for me with your boyfriend.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I know you don’t think I’ve listened to you, but I have. I’ve listened to you, I’ve listened to Luke, I’ve listened to your mother… basically everyone who should have your interests at heart more than Christian’s, and I’ve gotta tell you that it worries me how controlling he seems to be with you.”

“Controlling?”

“He finds ways to make you dependent on him, baby. I saw the returned checks from Harvard when I got home and, since you’re graduating today, I know that tuition was paid. I could only assume that was him and your mother confirmed that. She told me that he did it behind your back when you were broken and you ended up taking that internship at his company last summer because you felt indebted to him. That’s how he got you back in his life after you said you wanted nothing to do with him. You came back to school after you spent the summer with him and he immediately got you pregnant, tying you to him. Even after spring break, he wouldn’t let you come back here unless he was with you. He watches everything you do and he has his people follow you wherever you go. He pays for your school, your housing, your car, your phone, all of your bills… Everything that could make you independent, he’s taken over so that you can’t leave him. That worries me, Ana.”

“You think any of that would matter if I wanted out? If I wanted to leave and Christian kicked me out of the house and cancelled all my credit cards and took back my car and turned off my phone, which he never would, I’d still have Luke. I’d still have Kate. Hell, I’d go home to you, Dad. Christian’s own family would take me in if I had nowhere to go. I’m not alone, I have a great support network. He’s not isolating me and he’s not trying to control me. My pregnancy was an accident and he pays for all of those things because he loves me and he wants to take care of me. That’s one of the ways he shows love. I promise you, Daddy. Christian is a good man. He’s never going to betray me, he’s never going to hurt me, and most importantly he makes truly happy. Why isn’t that enough for you?”

“Ray…” my mom interjects, but my dad holds up a hand to silence her.

“Carla, stop… This isn’t about you, I’m talking to my daughter right now.” He stares at me for a long time, considering me as he mulls over what I’ve just said, but before he can say anything, there’s a knock and Christian slowly opens the door.

“Ana, my mom is here,” he says uncomfortably.

“Oh, good.” I nod and turn back to my dad. “I’m sorry, I need to talk to Grace about the baby We can… finish talking about this later if we have to.”

“No, we’re not done here,” my mother says, shaking her head before turning to look at Christian. “You and your family can wait until we’re finished talking to our daughter.”

“Seriously, Carla?” Christian asks irritably. “She needs medical attention.”

“Then we’ll take her to see a real doctor when we’re finished talking.”

“Oh,” Grace says, stepping past her son to enter the room. “Now, I’m going to assume that wasn’t meant to be personal attack against me.”

My mother flinches awkwardly as she faces Grace and her cheeks pink, but as she opens her mouth to speak again, my dad cuts her off.

“Carla, for the love of god, stop. We can… we can do this later.”

My mom turns to look at him, making a sound as though she’s feeling a deep sense of betrayal from his dismissal, but when he nods toward the door, she gets out of her seat, shoots Christian one last disapproving look, and disappears into the hallway. My dad lets out a heavy breath and then comes over to wrap me in a hug.

“I love you, Annie. I hope you know that will never change. And I am so proud of you for what you’re accomplishing today.”

“Thanks, Dad,” I tell him. He turns to kiss me on the cheek, but instead of pulling away, his lips move to my ear. “I want to trust you about him. I just wish what I’ve seen matched what you’re saying.”

“Talk to him,” I plead. He nods, kisses me again, and then turns away to leave the room. Once he’s gone, Christian looks between me and his mother, then closes the door and takes me to sit on the edge of the bed next to him.

“Okay,” Grace says with a heavy sigh. “What’s going on?”

“I was bleeding this morning, and I’ve been having some cramps. Well, not cramps really. Like a… a weird um… tightening, I guess. It was a little painful though.”

“How much blood?”

“Not a lot. Just a drop.”

She nods. “And how far along are you?”

“34 weeks, yesterday.”

“Well… at 34 weeks, the tightening could just be braxton hicks contractions, which are nothing to worry about and are perfectly normal. If that’s the case, I’d say the spotting is your cervix preparing for labor.”

“But I still have more than a month to go,” I say, panicked.

“No, I know. Your cervix can begin dilating as early as 28 weeks. Some women dilate up to four centimeters very early and then end up needing to be induced. It’s very common. Also, since it’s such a small amount of blood, it’s possible the bleeding has nothing to with the baby at all and could be an injury to the vagina. Have you… um…” She glances briefly at Christian, before visibly steeling herself and allowing her completely professional demeanor to cloud over her face. “Have you recently had rough sex?”

Heat floods my face. “Oh… um…” I swallow, trying to push down the embarrassment.

She’s not Christian’s mom right now, she’s a doctor trying to take care of me and Calliope.

“Yes, last night.”

“Well, that could be the culprit and we’ll assume the best until we have reason not to. However, bleeding isn’t something we ever want to ignore in your third trimester, no matter how minor it may seem. If you’re comfortable, I can examine your cervix and make sure everything looks normal.”

“Please,” I say immediately. “I won’t be able to sit through the graduation ceremony if I think something is wrong but if we go to the emergency room, we’ll be waiting for hours and I’ll miss it all together.”

“Okay.” Grace nods. “Then go ahead and remove everything from your waist down.” I get off the bed to shimmy out of my shorts and panties, which unfortunately show a new drop of blood, while Grace pulls her bag towards her and begins rooting through it for the appropriate medical supplies. Christian holds my hand once I lie down and Grace directs me to place my feet on her knees. I take a deep breath as she leans into me.

“Alright, you’re going to feel my hand…” she warns me, and in the next second I feel her gloved fingers, slick with goo, slide inside of me. As she begins feeling around the walls of my vagina, suddenly she presses against something that stings.

“Ah!” I gasp.

“Yep, you’re scraped here,” Grace says. She pulls her fingers out of me, glances down at them, and nods. “I think this your answer.” She lifts her hand to me, and I can see the tips of the latex covering her fingers are stained red.

“Oh, thank god,” I whisper, laying back into the bed with relief.

“I’d still like you to put a menstrual pad in your underwear so we can see how much you’re bleeding throughout the day. If it’s more than a few drops after the graduation ceremony is over, I think we should take you into the emergency room where they can examine you with a speculum and maybe do an ultrasound.”

“Okay,” I agree. She pushes away from me and steps out of the room so I can get dressed. Once I’ve pulled my shorts back up over my hips, I reach out and slap Christian across the arm.

“What was that for?” he asks.

“Clip your nails,” I reply in a tight voice, and he smiles.

“Sorry.” I glare at him, trying to remain indignant, but the cocky grin on his face, which I know is because he’s thinking about the exact moment his fingers were inside of me last night, brings that very vivid memory back to me as well, and I find it impossible to stay angry. He grabs ahold of me, pulls me back on the bed, and covers my body with his.

“I love you, baby,” he whispers, and then his lips are on mine.

“Ana!” Kate calls, knocking on my door, but not waiting for a response before she opens it. When she sees the compromising position she’s found Christian and I in, she frowns and crosses her arms over her chest.

“We have to leave in an hour. You should be getting ready.”

“She’s right,” I say, frowning up at Christian, and he sighs before nodding and rolling off of me. I take his hands so he can help me get out of bed and once I’m on my feet, Kate’s all business again.

“Which of these says ‘that’s right I’m the Harvard graduating class valedictorian and I’m hot as hell’ to you more?” She twists so that my focus shifts down to her shoes, the only part of her outfit that will show beneath her robe, and I smile at both pairs of sky high stilettos she’s picked out.

“I’d go with the caged sandals,” I tell her. “I think the swarovski crystals on the platform heels might be a little much.”

“If you say so,” she replies, clearly disappointed, and then she lifts her glasses, which she would normally refuse to be seen in public in, to her face. “Too much?”

I laugh. “Only if you don’t want to start a sex riot.”

“You’re right, better safe than sorry.” She smiles as she pulls them away from her face, but when she turns to leave the room, she stops and then rushes back to me to pull me into a very jarring hug.

“Kate!” I cough.

“Oh, sorry. The closer we get to leaving I’m just… Ana, can you believe this is finally happening? I mean, this is it. We made it!”

“We sure did,” I giggle. We beam at each other, the excitement growing more and more apparent on our faces the longer it goes on, until finally, Christian coughs behind me.

“Ana, you needed to get ready, remember?”

“Yeah,” I nod, and then let out a long, calming breath. “I’ll see you when it’s time, Katie.” She shrieks, her face lighting up, and then quickly scampers out of the room, leaving me laughing as I turn for the bathroom.

 

It’s packed when we get to Tercentenary Theater and as I glance over the ubiquitous sea of black and red mulling through the trees and over the sidewalks, the nerves I haven’t felt all morning suddenly peak.

This is actually happening.

“I think this is where we have to leave you, Annie,” my dad says. “Knock ‘em dead kid.”

“Thanks, Daddy,” I reply, and then hug him as tightly as I can. My mother is next, offering her own last bits of congratulations before she passes me to Bob, then Carrick, Grace, Elliot, and Mia. Finally, I slip into Christian’s arms and he leans down to press his lips against mine in a slow, tender kiss.

“Good luck,” he whispers, and then pulls back to look down at me with mirth. “Don’t fall.”

“Thanks,” I reply, deadpan, but when I narrow my eyes at him, he leans down to kiss me one last time, places the graduation cap that says For Calliope on top of my head, and tells me he loves me one last time. As I watch him turn and follow his family to the chairs placed in perfect lines at the back of the yard, I feel Luke slip his arm through mine.

“Ready?” he asks. I take a deep breath and nod. “Then let’s do this thing.”

 

The ceremony is long, and sitting under the hot May sun while I’m just a week shy of eight months pregnant has me regretting the floor length summer dress I chose to wear under my graduation robe. We listen to speeches from the President of the University, the President of Liberia, who is our keynote speaker this year, the Dean of Students, and finally Kate. I don’t know how she does it, but as she steps up to the podium and stares out at the hundreds of people waiting for her to speak, she’s the picture of serenity. She even pauses before she begins speaking as if she’s taking a moment to bask in the spotlight.

Strangely, I haven’t heard her speech yet. I’d half expected her to ask me listen to her rehearsing a hundred times over the last few weeks, but she never did, so I’m unprepared for the emotion her words bring out of me. She’s funny and clever, of course, but as she gets into the real substance of her speech and begins talking about inspiration, she tells us all about how selfish she had been when she first came to Harvard University. How she’d felt entitled to her education because her father had it, because she’d grown up in a Crimson sweatshirt, but that she never truly understood the gift that being here really was until she saw the names of Deacon Bryer, Constance Ledbetter, Lydia Robinson, Elizabeth Cook, Officer Todd Stoneburner, and Officer Christopher Haddock carved into headstones. She explains that these were the people who died her freshman year when she was the victim of a violent attack and how from that day forward, they became her inspiration to be as great as she could be. At the end of her speech, she dedicates her words and her time at Harvard to them, promising never to forget as she moves on to the next phase of life.

I wipe a tear away as my fellow classmates burst into applause around me and then slowly get to my feet to applaud her as she takes her seat on the stage next to the President of the University. Once the applause dies down, they invite the first wave of students to rise from their seats and to come forward and accept their degrees.

It’s interesting, listening to the list of names being called. Even once my row is summoned, the wait in line doesn’t seem so long as I watch people I’ve had with me on this remarkable journey for the last four years take their degrees and shake hands with the most important people at Harvard University. There’s a few people I haven’t seen or thought about in years, and as I watch the joy on their faces while they march across the steps at the head of the yard, I find myself wishing I hadn’t let so many relationships go through the natural course of time.

“Graduating Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelors of Arts Degree in English Literature and Creative Writing, Miss Anastasia Rose Steele.”

The applause that breaks out after my name is called has my face split into a grin so wide, my cheeks hurt by the time I’ve accepted the leather binder and shaken the hands of everyone in the long line. When I make it down the final step, I glance out in the crowd and am able to pick out my dad, still standing a few rows back into the family section, and the look of sheer pride on his face sends another wave of emotion over me that’s too strong to hold back.

It’s official.

I am a Harvard Graduate.

 

There’s one last speech after all the degrees have been given out, and once we are declared the graduating class of 2011, applause breaks out and hundreds of caps are thrown into the air. Luke takes my hand while everyone around me begins milling their way back towards their families, and as I pull out my phone to try and coordinate with my own loved ones, I’m surprised by a strong pair of arms wrapping around me.

“You did it, Annie!” my dad exclaims. I turn to face him, noticing how swollen and red his eyes are, and then quickly wrap him back in a hug.

“I couldn’t have done it without you, Daddy. Thank you for everything you’ve given me. Everything you’ve done for me….”

“You did it on your own,” he cuts me off. “You did it with that brilliant mind of yours. Oh, I am so proud of you!”

I giggle as he sweeps me off my feet and then turn to hug my mother.

“Congratulations, sweetheart,” Bob says, and I smile as I thank him.

I’m passed again through all the Greys, Carrick holding me the longest as he welcomes me into the very proud tradition of being a Harvard Alumnus. The pride and joy I feel radiating from my family has me simultaneously laughing and crying, and while I wrap my arms around Christian’s neck and kiss him as deeply as I can, I think to myself that, selfishly, I wish Kate hadn’t broken up with Elliot. If she was here, this moment would be the most perfect moment of my life. As it is, it feels incomplete.

Then, my phone begins vibrating in my hand, and I wonder briefly if maybe Kate can read my mind. Maybe she’s looking for us too.

“Hello,” I answer, still beaming.

“Hello, Anastasia,” a cold male voice responds. “Congratulations, and can I say how beautiful you look today? I especially love the red ring on your right hand. That must have set Christian back a pretty penny.”

I freeze, feeling every ounce of joy radiating through me vanish, and immediately glance up at Christian with wide, terrified eyes. “Who is this?”

“Oh, you know who this is, Anastasia. Let’s not waste time pretending.”

Christian furrows a brow at me and I begin nodding frantically at him, pointing at the phone with shaking hands. It takes a moment, but eventually realization dawns on him and he begins waving for Taylor and Luke to rejoin us.

“Oh good, your security is on the way. Let’s make this quick, shall we?” Taylor comes up next to us and Christian quickly explains who I’m on the phone with.

He’s here,” I mouth, and all three of them begin looking around the open yard frantically.

“They’re looking the wrong way,” the harsh voice says in my ear. “Tell them to turn around.”

I turn in the opposite direction that Christian, Taylor, and Luke are looking and begin scanning the crowd, focusing on each face and taking in every detail, but I don’t see anyone I recognize.

“Hello, Anastasia,” the voice says, and a chill runs down my spine as I realize I must have glanced over him.

“Here,” Luke says, pulling a small plastic box tangled in a long wire out of his jacket. “We can record what he’s saying, just keep him on the phone.”

I nod and take a deep breath to work up the courage to continue this conversation. “Well, you’ve got me on the phone. What do you want?”

“Ana, it’s your graduation. This is about what you want. I’d like to give you a gift.”

“You think I want a gift from you?”

“There has to be something…”

“I just want you to leave us alone, that’s it. I don’t want anything else from you.”

“Oh, I don’t know if that’s true. What about…. Leila Williams?”

I freeze and feel my mouth go dry. “Leila Williams?” I repeat, looking back pointedly at Christian. “You have Leila?”

“Yes,” the voice replies.  Luke steps close to me, the wire connected to the recorder in his hand, and he begins fumbling with the charging jack where I think he wants to plug the device in.

“How do I know that’s true? How do I know you really have her?”

“That’s my gift, I’m going to give her to you. I just need to know which part you want.”

“Excuse me?”

“Which part would you like? I’ll let you choose. I have to warn you though, some of her was… damaged in the process.”

My blood runs cold and I’m left momentarily speechless. It feels as though all the breath has been sucked out of me as I process what he’s said.

“Got it,” Luke says, giving a thumbs up to Taylor, and as he turns to nod to me, I realize I’m supposed to speak again, get him talking.

“Is she dead?” I ask, my voice quivering now as I feel the sting of tears behind my eyes, and he lets out a low, humorless laugh.

“Goodbye, Anastasia. Have fun at the arts center tonight with your family. I’ve seen what they’ve done with the place, it looks wonderful. Your graduation celebration will be truly special. Oh, and I’ll see you soon.”

The phone goes dead and immediately, my breath begins to push out of me in horrible, gut wrenching gasps. “He’s here… he’s here…” I stutter. “He’s been the reception hall, he can see us right now.”

“He could be lying,” Taylor points out. “He could be miles away, or maybe waiting for us to leave. He could be trying to scare her by telling her he can see her as a ploy to drive her away from the crowd.”

I shake my head. “He talked about my ring. He can see me.”

“Then let’s get you out of here,” Christian says. “Not to the graduation party, home. Find the Kavanaghs and tell them to meet us there. Taylor, I want your entire team securing that house. Lock it down.”

“Yes, sir.” Taylor pulls out his phone while Luke takes my arm and begins pulling Christian and I away from our family.

“Meet us at home,” I shout back to my father as he watches us disappear through the crowd with wide, worried eyes. I can see Carrick gathering Grace and Mia, even my mother, and pushing them towards the parking lot as Kommer and Cardella close in around us, but while I feel better that Christian and I are completely surrounded by security, I don’t like that everyone else I love is exposed. What if he goes after Grace… or Mia… or my Mom? Is Harrison with Kate? I don’t know, I haven’t seen her since the ceremony ended…

“Christian, what about everyone else?” I ask as we stop at my Lexus in the parking lot. “We can’t just leave…”

“They know where we’re going and they’ll meet us there. Right now, I have to get you out of here.”

My hands move down to my belly, protectively shielding my bump as best I can while I scan the lot around us for the Grey’s rental car, but when I don’t find it, I nod and take Christian’s hand as he helps me into the car. Before I’m able to turn and settle into the seat though, I feel a sharp pang of pain in my stomach.

“Ah!” I cry out, and the worry already so apparent on Christian’s face becomes more pronounced.

“What’s wrong?”

I shake my head dismissively. “It’s fine, I’m fine. Just another cramp.”

“Well… sit down. This stress isn’t good for you. You need to lay down when we get home.” I nod and then reach for my seatbelt, buckling it as we begin pulling away from the curb.

It takes a long time to get out of the parking lot, and because our car has been idling for so long, giving us ample time to be found, Taylor takes a very convoluted way home in case we’re being watched. We change directions several times, follow cars that look like ours only to turn away unexpectedly and head in the opposite direction. By the time he finally pulls into the driveway at the house, everyone else is already here. Christian quickly pulls me from the back seat of the Lexus and drags me inside. As Luke closes the door and begins locking us safely inside, Cardella leaving to stand at the front door while Kommer takes up post at the back, Taylor pulls out of the driveway and turns down the street again.

“Ana? Christian?” Kate calls, Champ’s paws scratching over the hardwood behind her, and when she comes into the kitchen and sees us standing there, she exhales with relief and walks forward to hug me. “What’s going on? Harrison wouldn’t tell us anything, just that we couldn’t go to the arts center.”

Harrison was with her. Good.

“He was there,” I say my voice still shaking. “He called me right after the ceremony and told me he’d killed Leila. Oh my god, Christian… Leila’s dead. It’s my fault. She saved me and now she’s… oh my god!” I break down and Christian immediately pulls me into his arms.

“Hush, baby. It’s not your fault. Thank god she saved you, but she made the choice to get involved with this fucker in the first place. We tried to find her. She should have come to us. It’s not your fault.”

I shake my head. “She said we couldn’t keep her safe. She said he’d get to her, that he’d eventually get to me. She said we were never going to be safe.”

“Hey, you’re safe right now. I’ve got you, no one is going to hurt you.”

I nod into his suit jacket, but when I take a deep breath to try and calm myself, I feel the sharp pang in my side again. “Ah! Fuck…”

“Baby…”

“It’s just… ah, cramps again.”

“Come on. Let’s get you to the couch.” He tucks me under his arm and leads me into the living room, with Kate and Luke trailing behind us, and once we make it out of the kitchen the eyes of everyone in mine, Christian’s, and Kate’s families turn to look at us expectantly.

“What’s going on? Why are we here?” Kate’s father asks. “I thought we’d reserved the arts center for Katherine and Ana’s party?”

“It’s not safe,” Christian says, and then turns to his family. “He’s here.”

“What?” Grace gasps. “Here? How?”

“I don’t know,” Christian says. My dad gets out of the chair he’s sitting in and rushes to me, taking me from Christian and holding me tightly as I hold back tears for Leila.

“Are you okay, baby girl?” he asks, and I nod because I don’t want to admit how devastated I really am. Especially not in front of my mother, who is shaking her head in the corner like she’s been expecting something like this to happen all day.

“So we can’t go there at all?” Mia asks. “What about the gifts? Taylor took the presents we got for Ana and Kate over there already.”

“And Carter was going to meet us there,” Kate adds worriedly.

“Taylor is on route to the arts center to collect Ana and Kate’s things,” Luke says. “I’m sorry, but in light of the phone call Miss Steele received, he’s going to have to open and examine all of the gifts for anything dangerous. But, I’m sure if he sees Mr. Reed, he’ll direct him here.”

Kate nods, and as I twist out of my father’s arms to return to Christian, he leans down, kisses my hair, and tugs me so that I turn for the stairs.

“I think you should lay down for a few minutes, at least until Taylor gets back. This is too much stress right now.”

I nod and give Kate what I hope is a reassuring smile as she looks away from the open blinds she’s peeking through to me, and then allow Christian to lead me up the stairs. Once I’m in bed, he gets me a cool cloth to lay over my eyes and then massages my feet, calves, and hands until I’m completely calmed. And while my body relaxes, so do the random cramps in my side.

Luke comes to get us after about half an hour when Taylor gets back, and once he verifies that Carter came back with him, I make sure to stop at Kate’s room, where she apparently disappeared to in order to get a moment to decompress by herself while I was laying down.

“Kate,” I say, but when I open the door I’m surprised to find that she isn’t alone. She’s standing in front of the bed, so close to Elliot they’re practically touching, and he’s looking down at her like he’s seconds away from lunging for her lips. Once they turn and see me though, they spring apart.

“I’m sorry, I just… I wanted to tell you that Carter’s here,” I say awkwardly.

“Thanks,” Kate says, and then she turns to look up at Elliot again. When their eyes meet, there’s pain on Kate’s face.

“I can’t,” she whispers, turning away and moving past Christian and I. Elliot’s body deflates as he stands there, in the room that used to be his, and stares blankly at the wall in front of him, not looking either me or Christian.

“We’re going to open gifts,” Christian says. “Join us when you’re ready.”

He nods, still not turning to look at us, so Christian pulls me out of the room and then silently holds me as we head downstairs.

I’m given a place of honor on the couch next to Kate as we pass the rumped gift bags and paperless packages to one another. Once again, I’m overwhelmed by the extravagance of the gifts I unwrap, even from my mother and father who gift me a very old ring that had belonged to my grandma Steele.

“Here,” Carter says, picking up a package next to Kate and passing it to me. “This one is for you.”

“From me,” Kate adds. I smile and open the hinged lid hid to the small white box she passes me. Inside there is necklace with a delicate gold chain and small diamond encrusted H pendant.

“I have one too,” she explains. “They’re custom made, so there are only two of them. I thought it would be a good way to remember that you and I shared this together.”

“I love it, Katie,” I tell her. “And I’m so glad you’re the one I did this with.” She smiles and reaches over to hug me, and as I struggle again to hold back tears, I pull away and turn to Christian.

“Will you hand me Kate’s gift please?”

He reaches for the book sitting at the foot of his chair and passes it to me so I can hand it to her. “I’m sorry, the lack of wrapping kind of ruins it…”

“A scrapbook?” she asks, opening the front cover.

“Mhm. Of all four years we spent here. I’ve been working on it for months.”

“Look, our first football game!” she exclaims as she turns to the first page. “And halloween…. Oh my god, Vegas! Will you look at that hair? What were we thinking?”

“That the only way to make it through sin city is to get as close to God as possible,” I laugh, looking down at our overly teased hair. She laughs and flips to the next page, filled with pictures that Mia took of her and Elliot, and Christian and I at the cabin in Aspen. She looks at the photos for a long time, almost longingly, then closes the book and turns to me.

“You’re amazing. I’m going to cherish this forever. Thank you, Ana.”

“You’re welcome, Katie. I’ll be at your house every year on this day and we’ll crack open a bottle of wine and look at those photos together.”

“It’s a date.” I lean in and hug her, and when we pull away from one another, a markedly less enthused Carter glances around the room.

“Anyone else?”

“Yeah,” a voice says behind us, and we turn to see Elliot standing at the bottom of the stairs. “I’ve got one more.” He reaches into the pocket of his jacket, pulls out a black velvet box, and hands it to Kate. She eyes it suspiciously for a moment then pulls back the lid to reveal a pair of spectacular diamond studs.

“Elliot,” Kate gasps. “I-I… I can’t accept this.”

He shakes his head. “I bought them a long time ago, three years ago, actually. When you left San Francisco while I was still at Stanford. We were fighting when you left because I was mad you’d spent so much of your visit doing homework. We weren’t even talking when I dropped you off at the airport, but when I got back to my apartment… I found that you’d left this note on my pillow.”

He pulls a very crumpled piece of paper from his pocket, and when he hands it to her, I’m able to read what it says over his shoulder.

 

I’m sorry I didn’t have much time this weekend, but I hope you’ll forgive me and that you’ll be proud when all this hard work means I graduate Valedictorian. I love you, El. -Katie

 

“I bought those earrings that day and I vowed to give them to you when you proved yourself right. And you did. Congratulations, Katie.”

She smiles and looks down at the earrings in her hand. “Thank you, Elliot. They’re beautiful.”

“You’re welcome. You deserve it, Kate. You deserve everything.”

They stare at each other again and, once more, the intensity of their gaze is palpable. An awkward silence falls over the room and when I hear Carter shifting in his chair like he’s going to get up, I try to head off any argument or fight that may be about to happen, by getting out of my seat, pulling Kate with me, and moving to hug the person nearest to me, which happens to be Grace.

“Thank you so much for your gifts, Grace. It means the world to me that you’re here with me today.”

“Of course, dear.” She smiles as she hugs me once more, and suddenly the room is filled with movement as everyone gets up to give their love to both me and Kate. I’m just released by Mrs. Kavanagh though when Carter calls everyone’s attention.

“I have a gift too,” he says. We turn to face him but his eyes focus only on Kate, and when he walks to her, he takes her by the hand and stands so that he’s facing her. “Kate, a lot of great things have happened to me while I was here at Harvard. But nothing has been as great as these last few months with you. You’re smart, witty, fun… and the most beautiful woman I’ve ever laid eyes on. I love you, Katherine Kavanagh, and I want to love you for the rest of my life.” He reaches into the pocket of his slacks and pulls out his own black velvet box, but when he hands it to her, he sinks down on one knee. “Will you marry me?”

Her mouth drops open and she stares down at the princess cut diamond framed against the royal blue silk inside the box with shock. I watch her chest begin to heave and her body begins to shake, but before she can say anything, I feel a sharp rip of pain, a hundred times more intense than anything I’ve felt today, in my side, followed by a rush of liquid pouring down the inside of my leg. I scream and, immediately, Christian is at my side.

“Ana?”

I try to answer him, but the pain is so intense, it’s difficult to breathe, let alone talk. His hands wrap around my upper arms to hold me up as my body begins to slump over and I cry out again, the movement intensifying the pain.

“I–I think my water just broke,” I’m able to pant, and Christian’s eyes widen.

“What?”

I reach down and gather the lengths of my skirt, but when I quickly yank the fabric up to my knees, it’s not clear amniotic fluid I see pooling in the carpet at my feet. It’s blood.

A lot of it.

A strangled kind of noise resulting from the mix of fear and pain escapes my throat, and when I look up at Christian again, I see that the panic on his face has been replaced with horror. But there’s nothing I can do or say to him because in that moment, as the dark crimson dripping down my legs begins to spread and seep further into the rug around my feet, my vision goes black and everything around me melts away.  

Next Chapter

 

Chapter 33

fifty-shades-of-grey-vancouver-10

I’m very emotional the day of my last final and it has nothing to do with my pregnancy. Each exam I’ve completed, each professor who has wished me luck as I left their room for the last time, it’s all been a part of the long, drawn out countdown of my last days of Harvard. And now that the true final day is here, all I want is to go back. To stay a little while longer. This place has changed me, given me everything, and I’ve fought for it. Beyond the countless hours of studying and the dozens of sleepless nights I’ve suffered through when the workload was overwhelming, it seems like the odds that I’d make it here have been constantly stacked against me. But I never gave up. I got here. I’m graduating tomorrow. There’s only one test left between me and my degree and the enormity of the life change that’s about to occur, has had me breaking down all morning.

I wipe a tear away as Luke helps me out of the back of the Lexus so that we can make our way into the Baker Center for the last time.

“Good luck, Ana!” Kommer calls to me from the driver’s seat, and I turn to wave to him before we head into the building. When I get to class, the atmosphere around me is electric. The perfect warm days we’ve been having mixed with the tangible sense of freedom in the air has everyone in such a good mood that even the notoriously difficult exams Dr. Boylston gives can’t dampen anyone’s excitement. I even receive a few smiles and waves from people I’ve been in classes with for multiple semesters but who have mostly been scared off by Luke and Kommer’s constant presence around me the last few months.

“Alright, settle down!” Dr. Boylston says as he enters the room and hands a stack of exams to the person sitting in the front right desk. “All exams must be completed in a University issued blue book, and if I see any cell phones out, I’ll collect your test and excuse you from the rest of the exam. You have 90 minutes. Good luck.”

Luke winks at me as I pick up my pen and begin reading through the first essay question. The exam is complicated and each question requires so many pages to fully respond, that my biggest concern suddenly becomes the 90 minute time limit. I glance up at the clock every few minutes, pushing my pen across the paper as quickly as I can, but as the 89th minute ticks by, I place my last period on the page.

“Done,” I say, relieved, and as I stare down at the words scrawled across the paper, the finality of that word really hits me.

Done.

I’m done.

“Congratulations, Ana,” Luke smiles at me. “Now, come on. Your family will be here soon to celebrate.”

I nod, get out of my seat, and take my exam to my professor. He smiles as he takes it, wishes me a good summer and a safe delivery, and after shaking my hand, I turn and leave the room knowing I’ll never come back again.

Once we get outside, it’s like I’m seeing campus for the first time. It’s like I’ve forgotten how beautiful it really was and while we make our way into the car, I find that I can’t look away from any of it. Even as Kommer pulls into the street, I turn to stare out the back window and continue to watch until the last of the buildings completely disappear from view.

I can’t believe it’s really over or how much I already miss this place, and I haven’t even actually left yet.

“I’m just dropping you off,” Kommer tells us as he turns onto our street. “Mr. Grey’s plane should be landing within the next thirty minutes and the traffic reports aren’t good.”

“That’s fine,” Luke says, and when the car stops, he quickly jumps out of the passenger’s seat to help me out of the back.

Now that we’ve finally made it to graduation, most of my house is packed away in boxes, ready to be loaded into a truck on Sunday and shipped back to Seattle, where it will be stored until Kate closes on the apartment she’s currently stuck in escrow with. It has most of the living room blocked off, which is fine because I need to get upstairs and into the shower so I can get ready for dinner with Christian’s family anyway.  As I make my way past the dining room though, which Christian is using as an office today, I glance over and see him on the phone, but looking up at me and waving me in.

“No, that all sounds fine. Can you hold just a moment, Ros?” He pulls the phone away and looks at me expectantly. “How’d it go?”

“Really good. Kommer is on his way to pick your family up from the airport so I’m just going to jump in the shower real quick.”

“Do you want me to join you?” he asks suggestively, and I smile but shake my head.

“And face the wrath of Ros Bailey? No, thank you.”

“Okay, I’ll be done soon.” I nod and turn for the stairs, but he calls out to stop me again. “Ana?”

“Yeah?”

“You did it. Congratulations, baby.”

“Thank you,” I say, my smile widening, and as he returns to his phone call, I start up the stairs two at a time.

Apparently Kommer was right about traffic because even though it takes me over an hour to get fully ready, the Greys still haven’t arrived by the time I get downstairs. Kate and Carter are home though, so I perch myself on the kitchen counter while they talk about their last finals, judging how they think they did.

“Whatever, it’s done,” Carter says irritably after complaining about a particularly terrible exam. “And once I’m done having dinner tonight with my family, I’m going to drink away every memory I have of these last two weeks.”

“Every memory?” Kate checks, and Carter smiles at her.

“Well, maybe not every memory…” He pulls her against him, making her squeal, and the affection between the two of them makes me smile. It also reminds me that Christian is still working rather than hanging out with us, but as I look back towards him, I’m distracted from my dissatisfaction by the sight of my Lexus in the driveway, which I can see through the dining room window.

“Ana!” Mia shouts as she comes through the front door, so I quickly jump down from the counter to scurry from the kitchen to the living room. The moment she sees me, her face breaks into a huge smile.

“Hey, Meems!” I laugh as I wrap my arms around her, squeezing her tightly while I shift her from side to side. “How was your prom?”

“Great, except that Pippa Conrad won prom queen and now she walks around like she’s queen of the world or something. I’m starting to see why Christian liked fighting so much in high school. Man, I’d love to punch her in the eye.”

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Christian says coming up behind me. “It was always a hassle having to start over at new schools all the time.”

“I love how that’s what you focus on,” she says, rolling her eyes, and she releases me to go to him.

“Hello, Darling!” Grace coos as she comes through the doorway with Carrick and Elliot in tow. “Congratulations, we are so proud of you.”

“Thank you, Grace.”

“How’s the baby? Has the third trimester been tough?”

“A little, but I’m managing. Your son has been a tremendous help getting me through everything.”

“I doubt that,” Elliot says, replacing his mother and hugging me tightly to him. “Christian’s always been more of a nuisance than a help.”

“To you maybe,” I laugh. I reach up to flick him on the forehead and while he takes a moment to look at me as though he can’t believe my audacity, eventually his open mouth breaks into a grin and he hugs me once more.

“It’s so good to see you. It’s not the same back home without you and Christian around.”

“Well, you’ve only got a couple more days,” I assure him, gesturing to the moving boxes and then stepping to the side so that I can greet Carrick. But when I see what he’s wearing, I stop, and feel my lips press together in a pout as a sudden wave of emotion hits me.

“Do you like it?” he asks, twisting from side to side to model his My Daughter is a Harvard Graduate t-shirt. “I had enough made so that I can wear a different color every day we’re here.”

I cover my hand with my mouth as my bottom lip begins to tremble. “I love it. I really love it. Thanks… Dad.”

He smiles and pulls me into a tight hug.

“Oh my god, Kate!” Mia squeals. I turn around and see that Kate and Carter have joined us in the entryway, and now Mia is clinging excitedly around her middle.

“Meems!” she exclaims, mirroring her excitement.

“Mom didn’t know if you were going to be here or with your own family. I’m so glad you are!”

“You didn’t think I’d let you sneak through here without saying hello, did you?”

“Of course not,” Grace says, stepping forward to hug her. “It’s so good to see you, dear.”

“You too, Grace,” Kate replies, groaning as she squeezes Grace as tightly as she can. “You too.” Grace twists her head to kiss Kate on the cheek and as she steps back, Carrick moves forward to take her place.

“That is a great shirt,” Kate laughs, and Carrick smiles.

“Thank you. There was a time when I’d hoped I could make one that said daughters.” Her face falters slightly, but she recovers her smile when she steps forward to hug him, and as his arms close around her, Carter coughs behind them.

“Carter,” Carrick says. “Good to see you again.”

“Mr. Grey,” Carter replies. He holds out his hand and they shake, but once he releases Carrick’s hand, he moves straight past Grace and Mia to Elliot.

“Hey, man. How’s it going?” Elliot asks, reaching out to shake his hand as well. Carter glances down at it, hesitating for a moment, before he finally reaches forward and grips his fingers with an excessive amount of force. I bite my lip as I turn to look at Christian. Kate told Carter last week that she and Elliot had started texting again, and as a result, Elliot’s imminent arrival has been the subject of a lot of stress for her. Apparently, Carter hasn’t lost any of his possessive nature in the three years since he and I broke up. No ultimatums have been made, but his general attitude about Kate spending time with Elliot is not something he’s hidden.

“Elliot,” Carter says tersely. “It’s good of you to come and support Ana. I know it means a lot to her.”

“Well, she’s my sister so…” he replies awkwardly, and when Carter releases his hand, he immediately begins flexing his fingers. Carter gives him a tight smile and then turns back to Kate.

“Well, baby, I better go. My parents are going to be arriving soon and they’re going to want to get dinner as quickly as possible.”

“Okay, have fun. Send your mom my love,” Kate says. She moves past Grace so she can kiss him good-bye, but Carter doesn’t go in for a polite, chaste peck. He pulls her tightly into his body and brings his lips to hers in a deep passionate kiss that is clearly meant to make a statement. Especially when he rolls his face to the opposite side of hers and we all see his tongue moving through her mouth.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” he tells her, and she nods. “Have a good night, baby. I’ll miss you.”

“You too,” Kate says, and with one last kiss on the tip of her nose, he turns to leave.

“Well, we should be thinking about dinner, too,” Grace says, breaking the awkward silence that lingers after Carter’s exit. “It’s starting to get late, I imagine Christian and Ana are starving.”

“I’ve made reservations at The Table,” Christian says. “And, since graduation is tomorrow, we should hurry. It’s most likely going to be very crowded.”

“Do you have plans with your family tonight, Kate?” Carrick asks. She shakes her head.

“No, my family won’t be here until tomorrow.”

“So why didn’t you go with Carter?” Elliot asks.

“Oh, his family is… um. They’re just about their family. It’s okay though. I’m just going to stay in tonight and polish my speech. Make sure I’m ready to knock ‘em dead tomorrow.”

“Absolutely not,” Grace says. “We’re not leaving you here alone on the eve of the most important day of your life so far. You should be celebrating! You’ll come to dinner with us.”

“Oh… I don’t want to intrude.”

“You’re never an intrusion, my dear. Come, I won’t hear another word about it.” Grace sweeps her arm out to gesture her through the front door, and Kate smiles before wrapping an arm over Mia’s shoulder to walk with her out to the car.

“See you there?” Elliot asks, looking to Christian and me as he turns to follow his parents.

“We’ll be right behind you,” Christian affirms, but once Elliot leaves and closes the door behind him, Christian’s hands are suddenly on me, pulling me flush against his body so he can take my lips with his.

“Alone at last. You know this is the first time I’ve had you all to myself in three days?” He kisses me again, and reaches down for the hem of my dress.

“Hold on there,” I tell him, but even when I pull away from his kiss, his lips simply move down past my jaw. “Christian! You’re family is already on the way to the restaurant, we don’t have time for any funny business.”

“I know,” he says, continuing to suck lightly on my neck. “I just want you prepared for what’s in store for you tonight. When I finally get you all to myself, for real, I want you ready for me.”

“Ready, huh?”

He leans back and wags his eyebrows at me once. “Really ready. Should I go get the Ben Wa balls?”

“You have them here?”

“Oh, baby. I’ll never go anywhere without them again. I love what they do to you.” I moan as he leans in to kiss my neck again, but as I feel myself begin to melt in his strong arms and my already fragile self-control starts to wane, I force myself to push away from him.

“We have to go. You and your silver balls will just have to wait.”

“If you say so.” His smile is mischievous, and while I stare back at him suspiciously, he kisses me one last time before taking my hand and leading me through the back doors where our security team is waiting by the car.

 

Christian was right, The Table is extremely crowded. The line going out the front door wraps around the side of the restaurant for a whole block and every parking place within close distance is filled. Taylor circles the block to let us out near the door so, while Christian, Luke, and I head inside, he can find parking on the next block over.

“Do you have a reservation?” the overly flustered hostess asks once we’ve fought our way inside.

“Grey,” Christian replies. “I believe the rest of our party has already arrived.”

Relief crosses her face as she nods, probably because she can actually help us instead of telling us how long we’re going to have to wait or turning us away. She says something into the microphone on her headset and a few seconds later another girl appears to lead us to a private dining room at the back of the restaurant where Kate and Christian’s family are already seated, laughing together as they glance over the menus.

“Over here, Ana!” Mia says, pointing to the open seat on her right. Christian takes my hand and leads me to her, pulling my chair out for me, and as I sit down, I glance over to see that Kate is seated on her left, next to Elliot, and the two of them seem to be having a conversation all their own. I pick up my own menu and start glancing through the entrees but Christian doesn’t touch his. Instead, he leans over towards me, like he’s going to share mine, but as I tilt the stiff paper towards him, his hand slides up my inner thigh under the table and disappears beneath my dress.

“What do you want, baby?” he asks, his voice laced with double entendre, and I swallow hard.

“Uh… a salad, I think.”

“Something, light? That surprises me. I thought you’d want something much more…” his breath hisses between his teeth as his finger slip beneath my panties, low enough that only I can hear. “Exotic.”

My thighs clench together and I bite down on my bottom lip to suppress a moan as his fingers begin to toy with my clitoris beneath the table. I take a breath and turn the page. “Filet Mignon then. If I’m going to splurge, I want it to be… excellent.

“Mmm,” he hums. “Excellent does sound right on par for tonight. I’ll have the same.”

“You do that,” I laugh, but the sound is cut off by a surprised gasp when he very suddenly pushes one of his fingers inside of me and then presses firmly against the front wall of my vagina as he pulls it out.

“Ana?” Kate asks, turning a concerned look on me. “Is everything alright?”

“Yeah.” My voice is too high. “I just need some water.”

Christian smirks as he pulls away, and while I set my menu down, take a sip of water, and try to re-engage with the conversation around the table, he subtly lifts his finger to his mouth and sucks on the end. When I turn to look at him, he licks his bottom lip and wags his eyebrows again.

Thankfully the waiter comes in then, so I’m given respite from his very erotic distractions.

“So, Ana, how did finals go?” Carrick asks, once we’ve placed our orders.

“Good. I have one that I’m worried about. My Trans-Reformation English Writing professor was the only professor who wouldn’t let me make up for the work I’d missed after spring break, or after the two doctors appointments I had that conflicted with his class. So I have a B. I had to get an A on the final to keep my 4.0 average and Dr. Weisberg grades particularly tough. And, he doesn’t submit his grades until the last possible minute so I won’t get to know how I did until 8 o’clock tonight.”

“That’s just horrible,” Grace says. “Why on earth would he refuse to allow you to make up what you’d missed after hearing what had happened to you?”

Kate snorts. “You’d be surprised. The prestige and power placed upon some of the professors here give them such a complex that they liken a student missing their lectures to a crime against God. I had to appeal to the dean of students for the same type of behavior when I was laid up after my surgery last January, even though I had special permission from the University to take my classes from home until I’d been cleared by my doctors to return to campus.”

“You had surgery in January?” Grace asks, and Kate’s face goes blank.

“Oh… I… Uh…”

“She was in a skiing accident,” Christian says quickly. “With her friends from New York.”

“Right,” Kate agrees. “Yeah, I had a bad fall and I had to have surgery.”

“You didn’t tell me that,” Elliot says, his voice colored with concern, and as she shrugs, Grace shakes her head and turns to Carrick.

“Well, it seems like our family had a lot of bad luck needing surgeries this winter, but I’m glad you and Carrick both came out for the better. In fact, didn’t you have something you wanted to tell Christian, dear?”

Christian looks up at his father, who smiles. “I completed my last scheduled round of chemo last week and we had a new scan done a few days ago. It came up clean. I’m officially in remission.”

“What?” Christian repeats, in disbelief.

“I’m cancer free.”

“Dad.” He sounds breathless as he quickly jumps out of his seat and walks around the table towards his father. The moment Carrick stands, Christian pulls him into a tight embrace. Grace laughs happily and Mia reaches over to squeeze my arm, but even though I hear Kate get out of her seat so she can hug Carrick as well, I can’t move. I can’t do anything, I can’t even breathe. My throat goes painfully dry, tears spring to my eyes, and before I know what’s happening, I burst into deep, gut wrenching sobs.

“Ana,” Elliot says, getting up and moving past Mia so that he can pull me into his chest. “It’s alright. This is good news.”

“It’s amazing,” I choke out. “I’m sorry, this isn’t the right reaction. I’m just overwhelmed. I’m so relieved, for you, for Christian, for Calliope, for everyone at this table.” My voice cuts off as another sob works its way out of my chest and Carrick releases Kate, who also has tears in her eyes, to come and wrap me in a hug. “I’m so happy Calliope is going to have you in her life,” I whisper to him. “You’re going to be an amazing grandfather, Carrick.”

“Well, she’s one of the most important reasons I fought through this,” he says. “Because I really can’t wait to hold that little girl in my arms.” He kisses me on the cheek and then passes me back to Christian, who holds me so tightly, it’s hard to breathe at first. I twist my arms under his and hold him close, moving only to reach up and kiss him softly on the chiseled line of his jaw. When he pulls away, the smile on his face is so genuine and filled with joy that it almost brings me to tears again. I know how hard this has weighed on him, I know the fear that has filled his heart every day since Carrick collapsed last Thanksgiving, and finally, we’re past it. We can move on.

He kisses me once before releasing me, and as I lower myself into my chair, he steps around me and hugs Kate. I watch while he subtly turns and whispers something in her ear, and after he kisses her on the cheek and then pulls out her chair for her to sit again, tears begin rolling more freely down her cheeks.

“What was that?” Elliot asks, eyeing Christian suspiciously as he returns to me.

“Nothing,” Kate says, shaking her head and wiping away her tears. “Christian and I have just gotten really cl-lose.”

“Hey,” he says, reaching up and rubbing his hand gently over the backs of her shoulders. “It’s alright, we’re all good here. No tears, okay? Jesus, between you and Ana, is there something in the water here?”

“No, I’m just really happy that you’re better,” Kate says, looking up at Carrick. “I’ve worried about you and… and I’m just really happy that you’re going to be okay.”

“Thank you, Katie,” he says.

The doors to the dining room open and the waiters carrying the trays filled with our food begin circling the table. After they’ve ensured there’s nothing else we need, we’re left to eat in solitude, and as we enjoy our meals the joy from Carrick’s news seeps into our conversation and fills the room with laughter.

“So, how’s your house after Gia left?” Christian asks, turning to Elliot. “Any significant damage?”

Elliot frowns and then shakes his head. “No, actually. Once she texted me that she was out and told me where she’d left her key, I called one of the contractors I work with and had him go back to the house with me, but it was fine. It looked like whoever helped her get her shit out wasn’t very careful, because there were a few dings in the walls and she took a chair that wasn’t really hers, but other than that everything was fine. And she’s just disappeared since then. I went into work the following Monday preparing myself for the ‘let’s keep it professional talk’ but she wasn’t there. Her office was cleaned out and there was a letter of resignation on her desk. She hasn’t called or texted me, she changed her number… she’s just, gone. I guess she really is fucking pissed.”

“Enough to quit her job?” Christian asks, and Elliot shrugs.

“I guess. I keep waiting for someone to call me for a reference, and I’d give her a good one because her work was never an issue, but there’s been nothing. It’s kind of weird actually, like she’s disappeared.”

“Weird,” Christian repeats uncomfortably. “Right.” I turn to look at him, trying to gauge his expression, but my attention is very quickly distracted by Grace, who seems to be eager to change the subject.

“Ana, where’s Ray?” she asks. “We were surprised he didn’t fly here on Christian’s jet with us.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t my ideal diversionary tactic because my father’s late arrival has been a very tense subject all week. I take a deep breath and hear Christian do the same. “He’s flying in tomorrow morning,” I reply, but she raises an eyebrow, not willing to let me get away with such a dismissive response.

“That surprises me. I would have thought he’d want to spend as much time as possible with you, especially since you haven’t been home in over a month.”

“He does, it wasn’t really his choice.”

“Oh, it was his choice. The fact that anyone is giving into her tantrum is a choice,” Christian interrupts. His mother looks over at him, surprised by the sudden hostility in his tone, and I sigh before I explain.

“My mom and Christian aren’t in a great place right now…”

“No, don’t act like we’re equal players in this, Anastasia. I never said or did anything to that woman to make her…”

“Okay, okay,” I cut him off with a conciliatory tone. “My mother has formed some opinions and said some things to Christian that are making it very difficult for them to have a relationship right now. Still, Christian offered to pay for her flight out here but she refused and said she didn’t want his um… money.” Christian snorts as I leave out my mother’s very colorful descriptor of that particular word. “So, she bought her own ticket, which is for very early tomorrow morning, and then asked me to pick her up from the airport. When I told her that I was going to be busy tomorrow morning getting ready for graduation and offered to have Luke or Taylor come pick her up, she said she was here for me but that as long as she was here, she wanted nothing to do with Christian or the people he paid. She and I got into an argument over it and I ended up telling her that if she was going to act that way then she could rent her own car or pay for a taxi and she went on a very long tirade about how I didn’t even care if she came at all, and how she’s my mother and Christian is keeping me away from her, turning me against her…”

“She yelled at you until you cried,” Christian interjects.

I take another breath. “Anyway, it got bad so that when my dad called me and I told him what happened, he offered to fly to Georgia first, talk her down before she got here to try and head off any arguments that would have happened when she got here, and then fly with her to Boston so that he could rent a car and drive them both down.”

“Oh, well… that’s very diplomatic of him,” Grace says carefully. “But I’m sorry that it means you missed a day with your father.”

“Me too,” I say, tearing the bread on the edge of my plate into tiny pieces.

“She’s making this about her,” Christian says, reaching over to place a hand on my knee. “She always tries to make everything about her and I’m not going to have it this time. Not about this. This is your graduation, Ana, your moment. Let’s not waste any more of your day talking or worrying about her.”

“Right,” Carrick adds. “This weekend is about Ana. In fact, I think we could do with a toast.” He raises his glass and tilts it towards me. “We are so very proud of you, Anastasia. Both for all that you’ve accomplished, and for the woman you have become. We could not wish for a more perfect woman to have in our family. Congratulations on graduating from Harvard.”

“To Ana,” Christian confirms, raising his own glass, and the rest of the family follows.

“And to Kate!” I add. “She’s our valedictorian, and no one deserves it more.”

“To the valedictorian!” Mia exclaims.

“Hear, hear,” Elliot adds, and finally, everyone drinks.

 

Everyone is in very high spirits when we finally leave the restaurant, and the excitement is only heightened when the high ping of an email coming in sounds from both mine and Kate’s phones.

“Grades are in,” Kate says, looking down at the screen of her phone and I immediately fish mine out. Inside the email there’s a link to the student portal that lists our final grades, and I find myself holding my breath as I click the screen and read the text that pops up.

 

Student Name: Steele, Anastasia R.

Course Schedule:

Political Journalism Writing: 97.6%

Advanced Fiction Writing Workshop: 99.3%

Literature of the Enlightenment Period: 94.1%

Kaleidoscopic Romanticism: 97.5%

Trans-Reformation English Writing: 90.9%

Cumulative GPA: 4.0

 

“Well?” Christian checks, and I smile up at him.

“4.0 intact!” He smiles back at me and quickly moves to wrap his arms around me, congratulating me again as he spins me once through the air and passes me off to his family.

“Okay, we can’t just call it a night now,” Kate says. “We should go out! I’ve been stuck in the house studying for the last two weeks, I’m graduating tomorrow, I want to spend time with all the people I love and I want to celebrate.”

“You kids go have fun,” Carrick says. “We’re gonna turn in.” He pulls Mia toward him, silently demonstrating that she’s a part of his we, but he doesn’t do the same for Elliot.

“Uh… sure,” Elliot says. “What do you want to do?”

“Mmmm, let’s go down to Mac’s Pub and shoot some pool. Christian and Ana can play doubles with us.”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Christian says. “I think Ana and I are going to head home. We’ve got a big day ahead of us tomorrow and she needs… rest.”

I glance over and meet his gaze, and when I see the twinkle of lustful promise hiding behind the steel gray looking back at me, the pent up frustration after a night of hiding him playing with me under the table sends a wave of vindictiveness washing through me.

He wanted anticipation? I’ll give him anticipation.

“No, I want to go!” I say, pouting as I turn and press against him, and he frowns.

“What?”

“Well, we’re going home on Sunday, and my parents are going to be here tomorrow. This is really our last free night in Cambridge.”

“And you want to spend it at a bar playing pool?”

“Sure do. In fact, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.” I pivot my body to shield what I’m doing from Kate and Elliot and then reach down to grip him through the front of his pants. His muscles tighten and a huge, taunting grin spreads across my face, but as the understanding dawns on him, the corner of his mouth upticks into a cocky kind of smirk.

He’s up for the challenge.

“Then that’s what we’ll do.” He gestures for Luke to lead the way to the car and as he takes my hand in his, Kate wraps her arm through Elliot’s and bounds after us.

Taylor doesn’t seem very excited about the idea of Mac’s Pub, probably because, like The Table, it’s overly crowded, only here we don’t have a private dining room Luke can stand outside of monitoring everyone who goes in and out. We have to wait in the car for a few minutes for Kommer, Cardella, and Harrison, Kate’s bodyguard, to arrive, and when they do, Taylor sets Harrison and Kommer at both of the entrances to the bar and instructs Cardella and Sawyer to basically attach themselves to Christian and I while he meanders through the bar to keep an eye on everything, and everyone. The entire night, if I move, so does Cardella. The waitresses popping through the crowded tables aren’t allowed to bring us any drinks. Taylor watches everything being made and delivers it to us personally. Even the three tonic waters with lime that I ask for, which don’t even have to be mixed.

“That’s a very crowded table,” I say to Christian as Kate sinks the seven ball in the top right corner. “They’re beating the pants off us.”

“Someone should be,” he says under his breath. I smile and take a quick grab at his exquisite ass before moving around the table to watch Kate miss a bank shot on the two.

“You’re up, Ana,” she sighs. I scan the table for the best shot on a striped ball, but as I bend over the rail, Christian calls out to stop me.

“Hold on just a second,” he says, making his way around behind me. “Your posture’s off.”

I feel his hands on my hips and then feel him press into my backside, hard and ready, and it makes my thighs clench with excitement. He bends me farther over the table and then uses his hands to pull my behind more firmly into him.

“That’s better,” he whispers, and as he moves a step back, I take a deep breath and make the shot. The nine bounces off the bannister and knocks the four into the side pocket.

Elliot laughs. “Oh my god, you guys are the worst at this game.”

“We knew they would be,” Kate adds. “Not everyone can be as fucking awesome as we are.” He laughs again then slides up next to her, and with a wave of his arm they suddenly launch into a crazy complicated handshake that involves involves synchronized kicks and jumps, even sound effects. When they’re finished, Kate breaks down in laughter.

“Alright, I’ve got to go to the bathroom,” I say, rolling my eyes, and as I hand my drink to Christian to hold, he raises an eyebrow at me.

“Do you want me to come?”

“Oh yes, Mr. Grey,” I reply, and then lean up on my tiptoes to whisper in his ear. “But I think Cardella can escort me just fine.” His responding groan makes me smile, and when I turn and walk away with Cardella, I purposefully sashay my ass back and forth as I cut through the crowd.

We stay for two more games, which last a little more than an hour, and the entire time we spend in the crowded bar is a convoluted game of cat and mouse between Christian and I. In the bathroom, I pause to take a very revealing picture of my cleavage to text to him, even making sure a noticeable amount of my nipple is visible in one. He responds by sending me a series of his own explicit text messages, only his are spelled out in words, not pictures. By the time I start stroking my cue with the tips of my fingers, trying to seem as though I’m doing it absentmindedly until I turn and look him dead in the eyes, he’s had enough of the game and on his next shot, he purposefully sinks the eight ball.

“Ooh, bad luck, bro,” Elliot says, but Christian simply shrugs and hands his cue back to Luke.

“That’s fine. Ana and I need to get home anyway, it’s getting late. Please, stay and enjoy the rest of the night. Your drinks are on me.”

“Well if you insist. Taylor! The Russian Imperial Stout!”

Christian shakes his head as Taylor moves to the bar to fetch Elliot’s $20 beer, but when he returns, Christian takes my hand and nods for him to lead us out to the car, and all I can do is give Kate a quick wave goodbye before I’m being pulled from the bar.

It’s a tense ride as I feel Christian’s hands itching to reach out for me the entire way home, and when we finally do finally pull into the driveway, he practically bolts from the car.

“Give us one hour,” Christian says to Taylor, and after his responding nod, I’m pushed through the back door and into the kitchen, where Christian practically attacks me. His lips are fierce against mine, his hands firm against each side of my face as he pushes me blindly towards the living room.

“We’re not going to make it upstairs,” he says, his words muffled as he doesn’t remove his lips from mine. “After a night like tonight, I need your mouth. I need you to make me come.”

I hum in approval, and he reaches for one of the pillows on the couch to drop on the floor in front of him so I can comfortably settle down on my knees and begin work releasing him from his pants. When my fingers wrap around him, I stroke my hand up and down his length a few times before placing a soft kiss on the tip of his erection.

“Enough teasing, Ana,” he growls. His fingers twist in my hair and he thrusts past my lips, groaning with deep, real pleasure when I’ve enveloped him to the very end of my limit, and the sound sends a shiver of satisfaction through me. I love this, love when he’s taken over by pure, primal need and lust. Love that I’m the only one who can satisfy the overpowering desire driving him. And so, I tighten my lips, suck hard, and enjoy the other gratified sounds he makes while I set to work.

“Yessss, Ana. Fuck, just like that. Just like that.”

I hum and moan as I move my mouth up and down his length, swirl my tongue across his perfectly smooth skin, and use my hand to add more friction or to tug gently on his testicles. A few times, I feel his body shift as a sharp lance of pleasure washes through him and his legs tremble. Soon, the muscles in his abs begin to pull and tighten, his erection stiffens to its full potential in my mouth, and with a loud, harsh groan and a quick, deep thrust, he spills his release into my throat. I push as far forward as I can, pressing my nose into his lower abdomen as I swallow him over and over again, making his whole body shake. When it becomes too much, he reaches down and pulls me off of him, immediately claiming my lips with his and kissing me with deep, burning passion that makes me feel loved and desperately wanted.

His fingers reach for the zipper on the back of my dress as he guides me back towards the stairs. It pools to the floor, followed quickly by my bra, and when I take my first step up onto the stairs, Christian stops me, pulls me tightly against him to kiss me for a long drawn out moment, and then eases me down on the step three above where he’s standing.

“I’ve had mine,” he says. “It’s your turn.” I moan as he kneels down on the bottom step and then pries my knees apart. His fingers slide up my thighs and hook around my panties, and while he slowly eases them down my legs, he never breaks eye contact with me. The connection has me instantly wet.

“Don’t expect these back,” he says as he tucks my panties into his back pocket, but before I can come up with any kind of clever, biting response, he dives in to me and my mind goes completely blank.

“Oh, yes,” I breathe as he begins to lap at my clitoris. My head tilts back and my mouth falls open as I revel in the feel of his expert tongue. There are few things in the world I could compare to the extent of his talent and the way he’s able to make me feel, but if true nirvana is real, I imagine it has to include Christian’s mouth between my legs.

His lips move to join his tongue and as he begins to suckle on me, the pleasure is intensified tenfold and I can’t help myself from reaching into his hair and holding him against me. My hips begin to jerk as I desperately seek the friction I need to reach the point of release, and as his whole mouth begins moving in conjunction with my hips, heat begins to bloom from the point of contact between us and rushes through my blood until my entire body is seized with the pulsing grip of a powerful orgasm.

I scream his name as I fall apart and grip tightly to the stairs, my knuckles turning white as I hang on for dear life. He growls a viscerally satisfied sound as he feels my lower lips convulsing around his tongue, and just as I think I’m going to go too far, that this time he may have actually pushed me past the brink of insanity, his mouth begins to slow. The pressure he exerts into me decreases and soon, it’s only his tongue on me again, moving against me so softly it’s just enough to keep the aftershocks of my orgasm tingling in my limbs without becoming too much to handle.

“You taste so fucking good,” he says when he finally pulls away from me, and while I watch his tongue dart across his lower lip, cleaning away the last of my release that lingers there, I sit up and kiss him hard, thrusting my tongue past his lips and tasting all the traces left of me inside. His tongue tangles with mine while his hands explore my body, palming my breasts and pinching my already hardened nipple between his thumb and forefinger, and when I whimper, he pulls away, stands, and holds his hand out to me.

“Come, I’m not nearly finished with you yet.”

I smile, take his hand, and let him lead me the rest of the way up the stairs to my bedroom. Once we’re inside, he quickly directs me to the bed and begins leaving kisses over every part of my body he can reach.

“You’ve already got me, Christian,” I whine. “I’m ready for you, take me.”

“So impatient,” he says quietly against the skin on my chest. “What happened to building the anticipation?”

I gasp as his teeth sink into the top of my breast, then reach down and grab him by the jaw, forcing him to look up at me.

“I’ve had anticipation, now I want you to fuck me.”

He raises an eyebrow and a devilish grin spreads across his face. “Your wish.”

So quickly that the movement leaves me a little disoriented, he flips me onto my knees and pushes me down onto the bed so that my ass is in the air. His knees knock against mine, silently telling me to spread my legs wider for him, and no sooner than I feel him positioning himself between my legs, he thrusts inside of me. I gasp at the sudden intrusion and then curl my fingers into the sheets, holding myself steady as his quick, harsh thrusts threaten to rocket me right off the bed. He’s rough, single minded in his quest for release, and I’m quick to catch up to his mood. Using my hands, I push back into him, even reach up to use the headboard for leverage. His hands dig into my hips as he pulls me against him with each punishing thrust.

“Harder, Christian. Tighter. Hold me tighter!” He growls and, somehow, increases the ferocity of his cadence, pistoning in and out of me so hard I feel the pleasurable reverberations in my bones. I cry out through my panting breaths that match his, and as I feel sweat from the exertion begin to bead through my skin, he pulls his right hand away from my hip and brings it down hard on my ass.

“Oh, fuck!” I scream. “Oh my god, it’s so good. Again, please!”

He complies, not once but several times over. Each hard slap against me echos through the room and is accompanied by the sound of his low, gravelly grunts, which resonate with something deep inside of me.

“God, your ass looks good,” he growls as he hits me for the fourth time.

“Don’t stop, Christian. Oh god, you’re going to make me… ah, make me…”

“Make you what, baby?”

“You’re going to make me… c-ome.”

“That’s right. What about when I do this?” He moves his hand down around the connection between our bodies and he gathers my arousal with his fingers, coating them until they’re slick, and then drags them up to the entrance of my ass. I feel him swirl the pad of his finger around as he coats me with moisture and then, slowly, his index finger sinks inside of me.

“Fuck!” I cry out as all of the muscles deep inside of me clench and the fiery heat intensifies. He begins to move his finger in and out of me, matching the rhythm of his thrusts, and when his middle finger joins the first, I detonate. My whole body trembles as my orgasm rockets through me, and he never falters in his stride as he works me through it, forcing the pleasure to go on and on until my vision starts to blur.

“Oh my god, Christian!” I pant through the roiling pleasure. “Come with me! Let go!”

“No,” he growls. “I’m not ready to be finished with you yet.” I bite down on my lip as my the largest muscle groups in my body tense and release with each electric shock, and he lets out an almost pained sounding gasp. “Fuck, you’re tight like this. You’re gonna make me…”

“Come for me!” I plead, but after two more harsh thrusts and a defiant growl, he pulls out and sees me the rest of the way through with his free hand.

My body feels so wrung out as I lower myself into the mattress, that I’m not sure I’m going to be able to move. I can’t even form coherent thought, which is fine, because Christian doesn’t seem to be interested in talking. He rolls me over onto my back and begins to devour my lips. I kiss him back with as much passion as I can muster in my completely subdued state, and as our lips and tongues move together, he begins to toy with my breasts again.

“I love how hard I can make you come,” he whispers against my lips, and I smile as I entwine my tongue with his again.

“Me too. And now it’s your turn. How do you want me, baby? Where do you want to come?”

He groans and deepens our kiss for a long beat, taking the time to truly explore my mouth before he finally pulls away and whispers, “In your ass.”

I freeze, and he pulls away, glancing down at me expectantly. His suggestion is unexpected, but not entirely unwelcome. We’ve done this before, and it was good, really good. I’m actually not sure why we haven’t done it since…

“Okay.” I nod, and his face melts with desire. He plants one more deep, soft kiss on my lips before he climbs off of me and out of bed to retrieve the small bottle of lube he keeps in his bedside table for emergencies. I roll over and watch as he pours a dab into his hand and begins to coat his erection with it, an arousing sight that has me aching to reach out and touch him again.

“Now you,” he says. I roll over on my side as he climbs back into bed next to me, and when I feel the warm, slick liquid touch my backside, I moan.

“You don’t have that clit vibe hidden away with the silver balls, do you?”

“No. But we can use your regular vibrator. It’s more cumbersome, but I’m committed.” I laugh, and then gasp as I feel the finger on his left hand slide into me. With his right, he reaches over my body for the drawer in my bedside table, but instead of simply pulling out the silicone pink vibrator that is my usual go-to, he pauses, smiles, and then pulls out the complicated purple monstrosity Kate insisted I buy at a Pure Romance party we went to about a year and a half ago.

“Oh, Anastasia…” he says, clicking his tongue disapprovingly. “You’ve been holding out on me.”

“I’ve never really tried that one…” I admit. “It’s intimidating.”

“Intimidating?”

“It thrusts!”

He raises an eyebrow again and then presses down on the on button. The butterfly on the front, which is meant to stimulate your clitoris during penetration, begins to buzz wildly while all the balls inside twist and rock and the very realistically molded penis begins to move up and down. Christian’s smile widens.

“Oh, I think we can do a lot with this.” He turns the vibrator off but keeps it in hand as he settles down in the bed next to me, and when he removes his finger, he moves his erection up against the entrance of my ass, pausing as he presses up against me.

“Ready?”

“Yes.”

Slowly, he pushes forward and I tense at first, but relax as his reassuring direction. Inch by inch he sides deeper and deeper until, eventually, he’s buried fully inside of me.

“Fuck,” he hisses. “I forgot how tight your ass was. You’re going to have to be quick, baby.”

“I’m fine,” I whisper in reply. “This is about you.”

“No.” He leans forward, shifting inside of me just enough to make me moan as he leans in to capture my earlobe with his teeth and sucks gently. “This is about us.”

I hear the low sound of vibration as he slowly eases back, and then feel the tip of the vibrator press between my lower lips as he moves forward again. He increases the intensity of the vibration, and as he pulls back out, he eases the vibrator inside of me with the same slow, careful pace.

“Oh my god!” I gasp, burying my face in the pillow as I feel a new sensation of complete fullness start to overwhelm me. He lets out a breathy sort of laugh as he continues to move, and then angles the vibrator so the butterfly is vibrating right against my clit. “Shit!”

“That’s it, baby. Feel this.”

He’s moves in opposition, but in tandem with the vibrator in his hand, pulling the vibrator back every time he thrusts forward, and vise versa, but always keeping the same pace. As I grow accustomed to his length inside of me, he increases his cadence and pace at which he fucks me with the vibrator. It’s absolutely incredible, unlike anything I’ve ever felt, and soon I’m lost in it. His breathing is harsh and broken in my ear as he quickly climbs towards release and it eggs me on, pulls me with him. In a record amount of time, I’ve gone from completely sated, to desperate and needy, to right on the edge of release.

“I’m going to come,” Christian groans. “Are you close?”

“Yes. Yes, I’m alm–alm—”

“Oh, baby!” He tightens his hold on me as he thrusts forward as hard as he can, doing the same with the vibrator when he pulls back, and once again I find myself overtaken by an intense, life affirming orgasm that rattles me to my core. It takes mere seconds after that for Christian to push into me as deeply as he can, and then still. The feel of his release, gives me one last spike of intense pleasure, but as he stops moving and pulls the vibrator from between my legs, the heat begins to dull and leaves us both swimming in a pool of post-orgasm bliss.

“It looks like you have been holding out on me.” I confess, once I catch my breath enough to speak properly.

“That was incredible. Something we’ll definitely have to do again.”

“And again, and again, and again…” I say, but he cuts my words off with a kiss until we hear a loud bang from downstairs.

“That’ll be Sawyer and Taylor,” Christian sighs. “I wonder what they’ll think when they find your clothes on the stairs?”

“I’m fairly certain they know what we’re doing up here. But still, if you plan on keeping them around for the long haul, you may want consider giving them some kind of bonus every time they find evidence of us having sex.”

“I only have a billion dollars, Anastasia,” he replies wryly, and I giggle. When he leans over to kiss me again though, he’s stopped when we hear another noise at the top of the stairs and we realize it isn’t Luke or Taylor.

“Carter, wait,” Kate says. “Slow down.”

“No, you’re mine. I’m going to show you tonight what that means.”

“I’m your– oh fuck! Mmm, Carter.”

“That’s right, feel that? Only I can make you feel that. Because you are mine.”

“Yours,” she repeats.

We hear Kate’s door open and slam closed and Christian looks down at me. “What do you think that was about?”

I shrug. “I don’t know, just some good old fashioned possessive sex. I’m very well versed in such matters.”

He nods, but his frown doesn’t falter. “Well, let’s get cleaned up and back into bed. You’ve got a long day ahead of you tomorrow, you need some rest.”

“Okay.” I pull back the covers and move to get out of bed, but before I even swing my legs over the side of the mattress, Christian wraps his hand around my forearm and pulls me back.

“But first…”

I giggle as he envelops my body and lowers his lips to mine, but the sweet moment of contact ends when we hear the very obvious sounds of Kate and Carter having sex come through the wall.

“And we can’t even be mad because we do it to them all the time,” Christian sighs.

I laugh. “Come on, time to get up.” He nods and then playfully chases me into the bathroom and into the shower, the one place where we can’t hear Kate and Carter and where we’re once again alone.

Just us.

Next Chapter

Chapter 32

Publishing contract

“So, what exactly has been compromised?” Christian asks, pacing the floor of my bedroom. I stare at him rather than at his t-shirt in my hands, which I’m supposed to be folding, hanging on his each and every word. He pauses for a long time, listening to what Welch is telling him, and the longer he goes on, the tighter the muscles in his face become. Eventually, he closes his eyes, looking as though he may actually be counting to ten to calm himself down before he speaks. “Have we secured those access points? Good. And what have the police found out?”

I turn my eyes back to my basket of laundry as Christian turns back towards me and begins pacing again. When Welch came back on and did a complete system analysis, he found several places in the GEH server where firewalls had been disabled or security measures had been bypassed with code that had not been written by the Technology/R&D department. Thankfully, most of what he found was minor. In the beginning, it looked as though the majority of the access points created in the GEH server were merely put in place to monitor information being put in, kind of like spyware. But then Welch expanded his review outside of the main company server and he found a major breach in the security system, Taylor’s system, and not just what he used at GEH.

From what we can tell, they’ve had access to our home security system for months. They’ve been able to monitor everything we’ve done inside Escala, when we left, when we arrived, when we sat down to have dinner… If there was a camera in view, they’ve had eyes on us. Twenty four hours a day. It’s the kind of thing that couldn’t have been done through a simple VPN on my laptop, they had to have had someone on the inside, someone to install the software undetected. Welch was finally able to crack the security codes on that software two days ago and when he did, he found the credentials of Sam Walker, the man Christian had hired to take over R&D after Welch’s departure, all over it.  He was arrested yesterday morning.

“Great,” Christian says, the anger breaking through in his voice as he replies to whatever Welch has said about the police. “Just… make sure everything you’ve found has been secured and protected, and loop Taylor into anything else you find. If the police aren’t going to take this threat seriously, he will. Thank you, Welch.”

He hangs up the phone and turns back to me, looking as though the entire world is weighing on his shoulders.

“What did he say about the police?” I ask.

“They’re refusing to connect the security breach to your attempted kidnapping so they’re not asking him any questions regarding who could be behind all of this.”

“But this has to be how they’ve been keeping track of us,” I argue. “How they knew that I was out on the street that morning.”

“You know that, I know that, but the police don’t seem to care. I think Leila was right, we can’t trust the police. From here on out, we’re going to have to deal with what we find on our own.”

“And what have we found? Anything?”

Christian frowns. “No. Taylor thinks that whoever it is was shaken badly when he failed to get to you, it looks like it’s the first time something’s gone wrong for him. There hasn’t been anything since that day, nothing for us to follow. He’s just… disappeared.”

“No, he hasn’t,” I reply, shaking my head. “He’s just waiting for us to let our guard down again.”

“But we won’t. I promise you, Ana, I’ll never let him get near you again.” He pulls me into him, holding me tightly against his chest. His lips press into the top of my hair and as I nestle into his shirt and breathe in my favorite smell in the world, I sigh contentedly and he speaks again. “It was a good idea to come back to Cambridge and I’m glad I came with you. You’re different here, more comfortable I think, and I like to see you this way. I’ve very much enjoyed these past few weeks with you.”

I smile into his chest. “Even though we have to vacuum our own floors?”

“Even though we have to vacuum our own floors,” he agrees with a laugh.

He’s right, being back in Cambridge has been really great for us. Away from the pressures of the press and his public image in Seattle, we’ve been afforded a degree of freedom and anonymity we haven’t had since he went to school here. He’s been much more relaxed, more playful, and much more easy going. We’ve had more sex in the past few weeks than we did even last summer when we together all the time, and I’m starting to believe it has something to do with the Cambridge air. We’ve been happy, and it’s helped me make tremendous strides in moving on from what happened.

But there has been a learning curve to our life here. It’s been a long time since Christian has had to live without a full staff, specifically a housekeeper. In fact, I don’t think he ever has, except when he was at Harvard, and even then his meals were prepared for him and he had a his laundry sent out every few days. Kate and I aren’t about that life and now everytime we have to go to the grocery store or do the dishes, it’s like he turns into an alien from a different planet who is learning the ways of Earthlings for the first time.

“Let me help,” he says, turning towards the basket of laundry on the bed, but when he takes out a t-shirt to fold, he ends up twisting it into a crumpled mess and I laugh.

“I’ve got it, babe,” I say, reaching for the shirt, but he holds it out of my reach.

You don’t need to be on your feet all day, especially when we’re just about to leave to have your blood pressure checked. I want to help, just… show me one more time.”

Between the efforts I put into teaching Christian how to fold, and his subsequent obsessive compulsiveness making sure every corner matches up exactly, it takes nearly half an hour to get through the single load in the basket. And when we do, I’ve still done the lion’s share of the work.

“There, done,” he says proudly as he lifts a pair of my leggings up for me to see how meticulously they’ve been folded.

“It’s perfect,” I tell him, picking up the basket to take back down to the laundry room, but once he’s shut the drawer to my dresser, he hurries towards me, grabs onto my waist, and pulls me down on the bed. He nestles himself against my side, because he has to now with my bump protruding out so far, and his lips come down on mine.

“One more time before we go,” he moans.

“We don’t have time,” I protest, though the wanton need laced heavily through my voice, elicited by his tongue, isn’t very convincing.

“But these look so good.” He reaches up and kneads my breasts with his palms. “I love your body like this.”

“Ugh… I don’t, but I’m glad you’re enjoying it.”

“Immensely,” he breathes, moving down to push his face into my cleavage and sucking slightly on the swell of my breast peeking through top of my button down blouse.

“Well, take it all in, Grey. You’ve got nine weeks left.”

“Nine weeks,” he repeats, and he takes a long breath as he looks up at me. “She’s almost here. It seems like it’s gone by so fast…”

“No it doesn’t,” I laugh and then, after kissing him quickly on the mouth, I shove against him with my hands. “Come on, let’s go see how she’s doing, shall we?” He groans with disappointment but pivots so I can get up off the bed and as we leave the room and make it to the top of the stairs, his hand grips tightly to my behind.

“Watch it now, Grey,” I say indignantly, but he just gives me an overly satisfied, toothy smile in reply.

“It slipped.”

“Uh huh.” He takes the laundry basket out of my hands since I’m a little unsteady with my center of gravity thrown so far off, and we descend the stairs to find Kate and Carter sitting around the dining room table, eating breakfast.

“There are law schools in Seattle,” she says. “UW’s a good school and you’d look good in Husky purple.”

“From Harvard to state school,” he says dejectedly. “Great.”

Christian moves past them, clearly uninterested in whatever dilemma they’re facing as he pours himself a cup of coffee, but I pause as I pick up my purse from the kitchen counter.

“What’s wrong?”

“He got wait listed for Harvard Law.” Kate says.

“Oh… Well, that’s not a rejection,” I say, trying to be optimistic. “It’s still early, something will probably open up.”

“Yeah, tell that to my father. He already thinks I’ve been wasting all my time here partying, this is just going to validate all of that for him.”

“Well, if you don’t get in this year, maybe you could take a gap year,” Kate suggests. “Get some real world experience and then re-apply.”

“Maybe,” Carter says unsure. He takes a drink of his coffee and then turns to me, clearly looking to change the subject. “Where are you two off to?”  

“I have a doctor’s appointment in the city and then a meeting with the representatives from HarperCollins.”

“HarperCollins?” Kate asks. “Wait, when did you get an offer from HarperCollins?”

“Last week. And they’ve been very insistent. Dr. Ralston says they’ve emailed him every day since I got their letter. Apparently they’ve expedited their whole process to get an offer put together in the same amount of time as the others.”

“And you were worried you weren’t going to get published,” she smiles.  

“Yeah. I thought the waiting for the offers to come in was the stressful part, but now everyone is just throwing numbers at me and expecting me to make hard fast decisions on something that feels really precious and personal, you know? I kind of wish I could just pause for a second.”

“You don’t have to sign anything you don’t want to,” Christian reminds me. “If they’re pressuring you, tell them you need some time and you and I can go over everything tonight.”

“You’re not going with her?” Kate ask, turning to Christian, and he shakes his head.

“This is her deal,” he says. “And she’s perfectly capable of making it on her own.”

“Thank you, baby.” I lean over to kiss him softly, but as I pull away, I see an all too familiar glint appear in Kate’s eyes.

“So, you’re going to have the afternoon, free?” she asks.

“I suppose,” Christian responds. “Why?”

She shrugs but then gives a pointed look to Carter. They have a sort of silent exchange with a series of tense looks until Carter finally takes a deep breath and turns to Christian.

“Uh… if you’re not doing anything, maybe you and I could hang out. I’m not doing anything either and I still have a few friends on the rowing team, so I can get us access to Newell. We could go out on the river. Get a few reps in…”

“You want to row?” Christian asks dubiously, and Carter nods.

“Sure,” he says, but he doesn’t really sound sure. In reality, I know this is all part of Kate’s plan to get Christian and Carter to bond because, while he and I have had a great time being back here in Cambridge and Christian and Kate have grown closer living under the same roof, the same can’t be said for him and Carter. There hasn’t been any issues, Christian has been perfectly cordial, but there’s still a tangible wall of resentment between them and Kate is bound and determined to knock it down.  

“I think it’s a great idea,” I interject. “You were saying just a few months ago you could row circles around the new team. Now’s your chance to prove it.”

“And, it’s a beautiful day,” Kate adds.

Christian looks at us both suspiciously for a moment, but eventually lets out a long breath and nods. “Why not? It’s been awhile since I’ve been out on the water. Reed might actually be able to keep up with me now.”

“Maybe,” Carter says and as Kate launches into her plans for picnic lunches by the river, Luke comes in through the back door with keys in hand.

“Mr. Grey, Taylor and I are ready when you are.”

“Which is now.” He reaches out for me and as we turn to leave the kitchen, he shoots a dubious kind of look back at Carter. “I’ll be back in a couple hours.”

“Can’t wait,” Carter says, and as Kate turns to me, beaming, I shake my head and follow Christian through the back door.

 

Since it’s a Saturday and Dr. Baker is only seeing me today as a special favor because she’s already on call, the waiting room to her office is completely empty and it makes the short wait feel much longer and more awkward. There isn’t even a receptionist sitting at the desk, just me, Christian, and a large empty room filled with Parents magazines and discarded toys scattered amongst the chairs.

“Okay, Ana,” Dr. Baker’s nurse says as she comes through the door from the back. “Come on in.”

I smile at her and take Christian’s hand as we follow her to the examination room. She takes my vitals and records them in the system, then tells me Dr. Baker will be in real soon before leaving Christian and I to wait again.

“What could she possibly be doing?” Christian asks, getting up to pace back and forth across the small room. “We’re the only people here…”

“I think there must be some law about doctors being legally required to make you wait. I’m usually her first patient because I try to get here before I have to go to school most of the time, and it’s always like this.”

He sighs and leans against the counter, impatiently tapping his fingers against the sharp ledge, until Dr. Baker eventually comes through the door.

“Good morning, Anastasia,” she greets me. “How are you feeling today?”

“Tired,” I tell her. “Always tired.”

“Well, being seven months pregnant has been known to do that to a person,” she smiles. “But, we have some good news. Your blood pressure has gone down.”

“It has? Oh my god, that’s great!”

“Yes, it’s still a little elevated, but this is the first time since last November that it hasn’t gone up so we need to figure out what’s changed and make sure you’re doing more of it. Have you started running again?”

I frown. When I first got back to Cambridge, I tried to pick up running with Luke again, but just the few days I stopped during that last week in Seattle was enough to derail me. It was so uncomfortable trying to jog up the street that I simply couldn’t make it through our normal route and after three days of it just getting worse and worse, Christian and I decided it was better to stay at home and rest than push myself too hard. Especially since I was headed into my 3rd trimester.

“No,” I tell her. “Ever since I’ve come back from Seattle, I’ve found that most physical activity just completely wipes me out. I get winded going up the stairs sometimes now. We’ve have a really good few weeks though, very little stress. Maybe that’s the reason?”

“Perhaps, but with finals and graduation coming up for you, I think your environmental stress levels are bound to increase once again. If cardio is becoming too much for you this late in your pregnancy, then it might be a good idea to find something less strenuous. Yoga, maybe? Meditation. Even simply having sex regularly can keep us on the right track.”

“Sex?” Christian repeats, intrigued, and Dr. Baker smiles at him.

“Yes, Mr. Grey. Sex has many practical health benefits. Orgasms help reduce stress levels and have a measurable impact on blood pressure.”

“I see,” he says, with a smile. “Well, if it’s doctor’s orders…”

I roll my eyes. “My roommate did yoga for awhile, I can probably convince her to pick it back up with me.”

“Great,” Dr. Baker says. “Well, let’s take some measurements shall we?”

I nod and lay back so that she can measure my belly and listen to Calliope’s heartbeat. She does a quick check of my wrists and ankles and since my ankles are a little swollen tells me to make sure I’m elevating my feet as much as possible when I’m sitting or even laying down. She asks about how much movement I’ve been feeling and when I tell her I’m nearly convinced that Calliope is going to be a gymnast when she grows up, Dr. Baker laughs and tells me that’s a sign of very good things.

“Alright, I think we’re looking very good,” she says with a smile. “Do you have any questions for me?”

“I just wonder if there’s a point where her exhaustion should become a concern?” Christian asks. “She’s been noticeably more difficult to get out of bed in the morning and she’s tired throughout the day. She’s fallen asleep at the dinner table more than once.”

“That’s normal,” Dr. Baker says. “All I can say to listen to your body, Anastasia. It’s very good at telling you what it needs.”

“Thank you, Dr. Baker.”

“No problem,” She smiles. “I’ll see you in two weeks?”

“Right before finals,” I smile at her.

“Good. Until then, let’s work on keeping your blood pressure down.”

“It’ll be my top priority,” Christian says, trying to hide an implication filled smile and I shake my head with exasperation. Although, if what the doctor told me today is true… our increased sexual activity may be the reason my blood pressure has gone down in the first place. It’s really the only thing that’s changed…

I thank her again and shake her hand before we leave the office, and as we make our way through the deserted hallways to the car where Luke and Taylor are waiting, Christian’s hand skims down my back to grip tightly to my behind.

“Subtle,” I chide him with a smile, and his answering grin is infectious.

“I’m just doing my best to ensure your health and well-being, Anastasia.”

“Yeah, that’s what you’re doing…”

He stops me in the middle of the empty hallway and turns me back to face him. Our eyes meet for a long second, his gaze swimming with a hundred varying degrees of love and adoration until he finally pushes me gently into the wall at my back, brings his hands up to cup my face, and kisses me. I moan at the feel of his insistent but soft lips against mine and rejoice in the heat of his body washing over me as he consumes me. It’s the kind of kiss that would almost make me willing to miss my meeting, to never come up for air even, and as I feel his body press against mine, pinning me between him and the solid wall while his hands hold me firmly in the kiss, I think for a moment that he’s as content to revel in this connection as long as I am. All too soon though, he pulls away.

“I am so in love with you,” he whispers against my lips.

“And I, you,” I breathe back. I tilt my head up again, skimming his lips once more with mine, but he merely leaves me with a gentle, chaste kiss in return before he pulls back to look at me again. When he speaks, his voice is soft, warm, and filled with promise.

“I want to take you home and make love to you for the rest of the afternoon. Slowly. Deeply. Until nothing in the world exists outside of you and me.” He kisses me again. “Do you have to go to this meeting?”

“Yes,” I tell him. “And you’re not getting out of spending the afternoon with Carter.”

His lips, moving down to touch mine again, suddenly stiffen, and when I pull back to smirk at him, he shakes his head and smiles.

“One day, I’ll remember how well you know me.”

“One day, maybe,” I repeat with a laugh, and then I reach down to take his hand. “Come on, Luke and Taylor are waiting and I’m going to be late.”

 

Christian looks nearly solemn when we pull up in front of the house, but I really am running behind, so I can only give him a quick kiss and a few words of encouragement as he climbs out of the car. The pout on his face as Luke pulls away from the curb makes me laugh and for a moment, I’m almost sorry I can’t go sit on the grassy slope next to the river and watch Carter and Christian trying to row a boat together all afternoon.

I really hope neither one of them ends up in the water…

A deep yawn forces it’s way out of my chest when we pull up in front of the unassuming building on the edge of the law school side of campus, so as Luke parks the car and moves around to the back to let me out, I try to shake away the exhaustion quickly clouding my mind. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to do much good.

“You okay?” Luke asks, when he opens my door and I reach for his hand to help me out.

“Just tired. You don’t happen to have a five hour energy on you, do you?”

“Sure! I’ll just mix it with this beer I’ve got here and then before we go in, you and I can jump on trampoline. Wake you right up.”

“That doesn’t sound very good for Calliope…”

“You think?” he laughs, and as I join in, I reach back into the car for the files I need for this meeting and then hook my arm through his so we can make our way inside.

My lawyer, Russell Prosser, and Dr. Ralston are already in the room waiting for us when we arrive, along with a woman and two men I don’t know, but who are dressed in impeccable suits.

“Ah, here she is,” Dr. Ralston says, standing and smiling broadly at me as Luke and I enter the room. “The brilliance behind Escaping Neverland, Miss Anastasia Steele.”

“Soon to be, Grey,” one of the men interjects.

“Uh, yes… hello. I’m sorry I’m late,” I apologize, taking the seat next to Dr. Ralston. “This is Luke Sawyer, my bodyguard. I hope you’ll understand the need for him to be here today.”

“Of course, Miss Steele.” the woman now sitting across from me says. “And welcome. We are so impressed with your work at HarperCollins, we really can’t wait to get the ball rolling. Are you ready to begin?”

“Absolutely, please.”

She turns to smile at the man on her left, who gets out of his chair to turn on the laptop that brings up a PowerPoint presentation behind him. There are introductions, then an explanation of the history of their publishing press, which I don’t need because of the stalker like research I’ve done on all the big five publishing houses since I finished my novel, and then a lot of talk about demographics and target audiences. I know the latter is important, and I do my best to focus, but it’s hard to stay engaged when I’m just looking at graph after graph on their presentation and I’m already fighting the third trimester exhaustion. Thankfully, Calliope is awake and very active, so every time I feel my eyelids begin to droop or my mind starts to wander, a get a sharp kick behind my belly button that makes me focus again.

“Now,” one besuited man says as he turns off his PowerPoint presentation, “Our one hurdle is how quickly we need to work to get this on the shelves. Generally, we expect at least a three month turnaround between signature and publication, but I don’t think we have that long. I’d give us six, maybe eight more weeks of public interest before we miss our window.”

“Public interest?” I repeat. “How is there public interest? No one knows about this book except the people in my family.”

“Well…” the woman hesitates. “Because of the kidnapping. Your name is recognizable, you have a national media presence, the public is interested in knowing your story. Frankly, your lack of response to the media allegations has been a brilliant move. Everyone is waiting to hear from you and now, to do that, they’re going to have to buy your book.”

“Media allegations?” I repeat.

“I’m sorry,” Luke interrupts. “But the event Miss Steele experienced last month is under on-going investigation and we have been advised not to discuss any details of what occurred before or after what happened. We need to keep this meeting focused on Miss Steele’s book, please.”

I turn to look at him, examining him closely as he fights to keep his face a stone facade of impassivity, but I can tell he’s hiding something and now, I have a good idea what it is. Christian’s media blackout wasn’t lifted when we moved to Cambridge. We don’t watch the news, we don’t read the papers, and I’ve avoided every mention of what happened online. I’ve even evaded discussions about it on campus thanks to my security team shielding me from everyone who isn’t Kate or Carter. And, I’ve been fine with all of that because the truth is, I like my bubble here, and I’m not interested in listening to vague recounts of what happened to me or how they’ve been embellished to sell magazines or news stories. I don’t want to hear what the media’s reaction is, whether they’re painting me as a victim or saying I deserve what happened. I like feeling removed from everything, but now…

What are they accusing me of?

“I’m sorry,” I say, shaking my head and trying to stay focused on the business at hand. “I thought that media coverage was a negative to getting published. Dr. Ralston told me that your publishing house wasn’t interested in my story because the bigger story was Christian. That people wouldn’t care about my book because they wanted me to write about his legal issues.”

“Right…” the woman says hesitantly. “But he’s not the story anymore. You are. Everyone is dying for real details of what happened to you and here you’ve written this book about pain, and devastation, and loss. It couldn’t be more perfect. This has best seller written all over it.”

I feel my face fall as the realization hits me. Carter was right. The sudden turnaround of interest in my manuscript wasn’t because of what I’d written, it’s because my name has been on TV. Because there’s a morbid quality to the curiosity and buying habits of the masses and the generous offers I’ve received are merely these publishers trying get a payday off of my trauma.

“We do believe,” one man says, “It would be prudent to change the name of the novel. Our research department has found that simply Escape will resonate with readers more profoundly as they believe it’s a more important allusion to what the public is looking for from you.”

“And we’d like you to add a forward,” the woman interjects. “Just a few words describing how writing was therapeutic for you, how this story was able to help you change your outlook on the world. Something uplifting, inspirational, a suggestion maybe that with this novel you hope to reach out to those who have suffered or have been through a horrific ordeal to help them heal. Again, alluding back to the kidnapping.”

I glance across the table, my gaze flitting to each of them and the hollow, black emptiness I can see behind their eyes. Suddenly, the room feels cold.

“Ana,” Mr. Prosser asks. “What do you want to do here?”

I take a breath and sort through the warring thoughts and emotions racing through my mind, and as the conflict becomes more and more apparent on my face, one of the men sitting across from me suddenly launches into the numbers aspect of the deal. They offer me a $30,000 advance, half upon signature, half after I’ve completed my promotional duties, and then 12.5% in royalties on the first 5,000 copies sold, 17% on every purchased copy thereafter. It’s a generous deal, more generous than the others I’ve received, but money isn’t my concern. I have money. My purpose with this book was always to try and reach people who needed a lifeline, the way I did when I wrote the story, and to do that, I have to get my book on the shelves. This deal may not be what I wanted it to be, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t accomplish what I’ve always set out to do.

“Fine,” I agree. “But you can make those royalty checks out to The Christian and Anastasia Grey Foundation, which my fiancé and I created to help victims of violence. You can spin that however you want to, I don’t care, but I want Random House to donate an additional three cents of every sale to my foundation as well. If you want this to be about evoking emotion over what happened to me to make money, I want that money to go to something good.”

The three of them exchange glances, even lean over to whisper in each other’s ears, and after a few minutes, the woman turns to me and smiles.

“I think we have deal.”

“Good. Send me a contract to sign, and we’ll get started.”

 

There are more details to iron out, most of which involve my promotional responsibilities and how I’m going to fulfil them so late in my pregnancy, but most of that discussion is postponed for a meeting scheduled after I complete my final exams. As we get up from the table and shake hands, there’s a celebratory kind of mood in the air, at least for them. I thank them graciously once more for their part in realizing my dreams, but when I leave the room, the false sense of elation I’ve put on immediately disappears.

“Congratulations, Anastasia!” Dr. Ralston says. “I’d told you that we’d make this happen.”

“We?” I repeat, rounding on him. “I’m sorry, what did you do?”

“I-I…” he stutters. “I got you this deal. I brought them to the table.”

“No, you didn’t. Because that would imply they were here for my book, for what I had written, but they’re not. They’re here because I was attacked outside my home and now that the media’s taken an interest in that, I’m a payday to them. If anything, the person who brought them to the table was the man who tried to kidnap me, so if you find out who that is, you let me know and I’ll send him your ten percent.”

“Anastasia…”

“You can bill me for the editing your class did over the summer if you’d like. I’ll send you a check for whatever you think is fair. But I think we’re done here, Dr. Ralston. I don’t need you anymore.”

I turn around and walk through the dark hallway, ignoring Prosser’s attempts to call me back, and I don’t stop until Luke and I get back to the car. As we pull away from the building and merge back into traffic on Cambridge Street, Luke seems content to let me stew in silence. Once we’re stopped at the first red light though, he finally looks over at me and reaches over to place a comforting hand on my forearm.

“You’re good enough, Ana. I’m sorry they’re too worried about bullshit gossip stories to see that, but you are good enough. Once your book is published, everyone else is going to see that too, and it’s not going to have anything to do with what happened to you.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I reply. “It would have been nice to feel like I did something on my own, but at the end of the day, I just hope at least one person gets something meaningful out of this. All I’ve ever wanted to was to help people who were feeling the same kind of devastation I felt when I wrote it, and to give them hope or the desire to go on. If I have to write a few stupid paragraphs about being held up in an alley and change the name of the book, that all seems very trivial compared to it’s real purpose.”

“Well, I’m proud of you, and I’m proud you didn’t just walk away. You put too much work into this for too long and it really is good. You should be proud.”

“Thanks, Luke,” I tell him, but as he turns to look through the front window again, I take a deep breath and ask the question that’s been nagging at me since it came up in the meeting. “What is the media saying about me?”

“What?”

“The allegations that woman from HarperCollins brought up. What is she talking about?”

“Oh, it’s nothing. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“Luke. You know how sometimes you can be my best friend and sometimes you have to be my CPO? I need you to be my best friend right now.”

He glances over at me, takes a deep breath, and then sighs. “There have been some… questions as to how you got out of the situation you were in with no help and very minor injuries, and the fact that Grey had offered such a substantial reward for your return seems to be playing into that. Like you made some kind of deal…”

“What? Why would I…”

“I know, it’s ridiculous. They’re just looking for stories and if there’s anything more scandalous than a billionaire’s girlfriend being kidnapped, it’s a billionaire’s girlfriend faking a kidnapping to extort money from said billionaire. Grey thought that if you saw that, it might make things worse for you, so, we’ve been instructed to keep you away from it.”

“Yeah, but everyone else is reading it. My mom, my dad, HarperCollins. This could be why the police aren’t taking the security breach seriously. They might think I’m lying…”

“I know,” he agrees.

“So, why can’t we just tell them about Leila? That I had help escaping?”

“Because we can’t find her to verify that,” Luke says. “If we had any idea where she was, sure, we could respond. But right now, we’re not even sure that she’s alive.”

“She is,” I reply immediately. “She has to be. She’s just always been good at not being found.”

“I hope you’re right, because we really need her.”

We pull into the driveway of the house and before the car has even stopped all the way, Kommer is at my door. He helps me out of the car and then follows me up the walk to the house where we’re greeted by Champ’s excited, thunderous bark.

“Champ!” Kate yells, coming into the kitchen, and when she sees me standing there, her face immediately lights up with excitement. “So? What did they say?”

I pause and prepare myself to work up the excitement I know she’s going to expect. “I got a book deal,” I tell her, and she screams.

“Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god! Congratulations!” She bolts towards me and wraps me in a tight hug. “I knew you were going to do it, and HarperCollins! Ah! We are so celebrating tonight! Virgin margaritas for all!”

“Sounds great,” I say, laughing at her overzealous excitement, and then leaning back a little to look through the arch between the kitchen and living room. “Is Christian upstairs?”

“Nope, he’s not here,” she says, in an over satisfied way. “He and Carter haven’t come home yet.”  

“Did they drown?” I ask, narrowing my eyes, but she just smiles and shakes her head.

“Nope, they’re probably just out there bonding and becoming best lifelong friends.”

“Seriously, has anyone checked to make sure they’re alive?”

“Ana!” she exclaims indignantly, but when I laugh, she rolls her eyes and turns around for the cabinet. “They’ve got to be home soon. Let’s make dinner and make some plans to celebrate your deal. We should go out!”

“Easy there,” I tell her. “I’m still seven months pregnant and exhausted after a very full day. My idea of celebrating is vegging out on the couch and watching a movie.”

“Well, you better pick one that at least has a hot guy in it.” she says. “Full frontal nudity preferable.”

“Oh, I’m sure I’ll have plenty of full frontal nudity in my life tonight. You’re not the only one who is going to want to celebrate.”

“Gross,” she says, rolling her eyes, and I laugh.

We decide on tacos to go with the margaritas Kate is insistent on, and while we stand at the counter chopping vegetables together, I notice her phone buzzing again.

“Elliot?” I ask, as she picks up her phone to answer the text. She nods, but doesn’t give any further details, so I press her. “What’s he up to?”

“He broke up with Gia,” she says casually, as she sets her phone down, and I drop the knife in my hand.

“What?!”

“Yeah. He’s at Grace and Carrick’s right now and he’s staying there for a few days until she moves out.”

“Wh-what happened?”

“Remember how he thought she was cheating on him with that investment banker?”

My eyes widen. “She was?”

“No,” Kate says, shaking her head. “Apparently Christian’s security team is still monitoring her communication and she had another meeting scheduled with that guy so Elliot had that bodyguard that Christian hired to keep an eye on them secretly follow her to find out what the meeting was really about. But it turns out, the whole thing was legit. She was just meeting him to decline the contract that he’d offered her to do the interior of his new building.”

“So why did Elliot break up with her?”

“Because when he found out that she wasn’t cheating, he was actually kind of disappointed. I guess he realized that he had been hoping she was because he’s wanted to be done with her for awhile, he just didn’t want to hurt her. It would have been easier, you know? But once you know that’s how you feel, you can’t unknow it, so he had to break up with her. They got into a huge blow out about it last night and now he’s at his parents. He said he’s fully prepared to go home and find his house completely trashed. Apparently, she’s really pissed.”

“Yeah,” I nod. “But, she can’t possibly want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with her. What would she get out of that?”

Kate rolls her eyes. “Millions of dollars.”

I stare at her for a moment as she reaches down to answer another text on her phone, then slowly pick my knife back up to continue slicing the lettuce on the cutting board in front of me. “So… what does this mean for you, then?” I ask.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, Elliot’s single again and you two have been talking an awful lot…”

She shakes her head. “He may be single, but I’m not. I’m not going to throw away my relationship with Carter just because Elliot broke up with his girlfriend. The problems in our relationship haven’t changed. Elliot doesn’t want the same things I do, Carter does. I’m happy with Carter.”

“But do you love him?”

She frowns. “Maybe… I think I could. I don’t know, I’m very confused about my feelings. But I do know that the idea of breaking up with him is painful, so, that has to be the right track to love, right?”

“I don’t know… I knew right away that I loved Christian.”

“Well, sometimes love at first sight is real. Sometimes it has to be built. We’ve only been dating for three months, I think I deserve some time.”

“Okay, but if you’re really trying with Carter, then why are you hiding Elliot from him?”

“I’m not,” she says defensively, but when I raise an eyebrow at her, she frowns. “Fine, I am… but not because I’m being inappropriate with him, I’m just worried about how being friends with him will make Carter feel. I think we all have very clear memories of the last time a Grey brother got close to Carter’s girlfriend and I don’t want what happened between Christian and Carter, to happen with Elliot.”

“But I was partially at fault for that,” I admit. “I did things with Christian behind Carter’s back and I wasn’t honest about my feelings for him. The whole thing with Carter blew up because he found Christian and I together in a way that we shouldn’t have been and that’s what started the animosity between them. He’s going to feel the same way if he finds out you’ve been talking to him behind his back. You need to tell him, Kate. Especially if he’s going back to Seattle with you.”

She sighs, but nods. “Okay. I’ll tell him. But if someone gets punched out, it’s your fault.”

I laugh. “Just don’t make out with Elliot at a Halloween party and you should be in the clear.”

“Oh my god,” she says, pouting suddenly. “That was such a fun party! Remember how cute our costumes were?”

“Of course I do,” I tell her. “There’s a picture of us in those costumes in the living room.”

“Oh right,” she laughs, and while I laugh with her, the back door opens and, to my surprise, Christian and Carter come in, both smiling as they talk to one another.

“Beer?” Carter asks, and Christian nods before coming over and wrapping his arms around me.

“Mmm,” he hums, burying his face into the curve of my neck. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes.”

“I could say the same about you,” I say, turning in his arms to kiss him and noting that his face is several shades darker. “You look like you got some sun. How was it?”

“Good. Reed’s actually not as terrible as I remember him being.”

“That’s because I wasn’t ever terrible,” Carter says, placing a cold beer on the counter next to me for Christian. “You were just pissed off at me all the time because you wanted to fuck my girlfriend.”

“And I hate to tell you this, but I did do that.” He points down to my baby bump and Carter laughs.

“That’s alright, I made out pretty great in the end. Hey, baby.” Kate smiles and leans over to kiss him, before she reaches over to stir the shredded beef frying in the pan.

“Are you hungry?” she asks. “We’re making tacos and virgin margaritas!”

“Virgin?” Carter repeats. “Why?”

“Because we, including Ana, are celebrating.”

“What are we celebrating?” Christian asks, and Kate smiles as she turns to look at me.

“I accepted HarperCollins offer today,” I say, and Christian’s eyes widen with excitement.

“You did?” I nod. “Congratulations, Anastasia!” He sweeps me up from the ground, spinning me once, and the enthusiasm and happiness I see reflected on his face is too much for me to dampen with the less than ideal details behind the deal, so I don’t. At the end of the day, my manuscript is going to be published, and no matter what the circumstance are, that fact remains. For now, I’m going to be grateful for that and celebrate with the people I love.

“Jesus, Kate!” Carter says, his mouth hanging open as he lets out long, harsh breaths. “Think you put enough jalapeno in that?”

“Oh don’t be a baby,” Kate says. “And it’s not jalepeno, it habanero.”

“Ugh, no wonder. Where’s the blender? I need that margarita.”

I twist away from Christian to get the blender out of the cabinet while he and Kate set the table. When we’re finally able to sit down, I place a lime colored drink in front of each place setting and then take my seat next to Christian. It’s nice, finally getting back to what’s become our normal after my meeting this afternoon. The whole night has me in a great mood, especially watching Christian laughing and actively participating in conversation with Carter. This afternoon seems to have done exactly what Kate planned for it to, the ice has completely melted between the two of them, and now the four of us sitting around this table feels more like family than just two couples who happen to live in the same house.

“Alright,” Carter grimaces as he finishes the margarita I’ve put in front of him and then eyes the half full pitcher in the middle of the table with disinterest. “Without tequila, this is just pure sugar.”

Kate nods in agreement as she too makes a disatisfied face after taking a drink for herself. “Round two, Cervezas.”

“Oh sure, go ahead. Have your alcohol. I’ll just suffer with my sugar drink alone…”

“Deal.” Carter says, getting up from the table and heading for the fridge. Once he’s taken two out for him and Kate, he grabs a third and tilts it towards Christian. “You want one?”

Christian shakes his head and then reaches under the table to grip my leg just above my knee. “No, I think we’re just about ready to turn in for the night. Ana looks tired.”

“I’m not tired,” I tell him, and he raises an eyebrow at me.

“Are you sure? Because I think you’re very, very tired after such a long day.”

“Oh…” I reply, picking up on the implication of his words, and as he tightens his hold on my leg, I smile. “I am a little tired.”

“Then let’s get you to bed.” He gets out of his seat and then helps pull back my chair, and as I glance down at Kate and see the knowing look on her face that proves we’re not fooling her at all, I find myself more glad than ever that it’s her night to do the dishes.

“Night, Kate,” I tell her. She raises an eyebrow at me.

“You too, Annie. I’ll assume any screaming I hear is just from the night terrors.”

“That’s a safe bet,” Christian says, and without any warning, he sweeps me up into his arms and carries me off to the stairs.

When he’s closed us off in our room, he takes me to the bed and lays me out before crawling over the top of me and taking my lips with his. With each soft kiss he leaves on my mouth, my smile widens, and I find myself glad for once that he doesn’t deepen the kiss and hold me there, because I’d have to close my eyes and that would be a shame with the way he looks right now, tanned, happy, and absolutely gorgeous.

“I’m really proud of you,” he says, settling in next to me and taking me into his arms. “You’ve accomplished something truly remarkable, Ana. I should give you something to commemorate it. Jewelry, or… maybe a car. We could start looking at sailboats for the new house.”

“No need for that, Mr. Grey. There’s only one thing I want and it’s not something you can buy.” He raises an eyebrow at me so I reach up into his hair and pull his mouth down to mine. At first, he lets me set the pace and follows my lead as I push my tongue past his lips and pivot my body towards him. Soon though, I hit a roadblock as my protruding baby bump makes it impossible for me to roll over the top of him without breaking away from our kiss.

“Here,” he whispers against my lips. “Let me.” I feel his hands push gently against my shoulder so that I roll back into the pillow and he presses into my side, his hands exploring my body while his tongue moves languidly through my mouth.

“I’m wearing too many clothes,” I tell him. The corner of his mouth ticks up into a smile, and his fingers move to the buttons on the front of my blouse. I moan and arch my back, pressing my breasts into his hands as they move down to the center of my body. Once the last button is unfastened, he pulls the fabric away from my skin and we both move down to begin work on my pants.

“Now you,” I moan when I’m lying beneath him in only my bra.

He sits up on his knees and slowly pulls his heathered blue shirt over his head, revealing each of the rock hard muscles on his abdomen one at a time. My teeth sink into my bottom lip as he tosses his shirt to the floor and I get to take in his full, perfect form. His broad shoulders, his swollen biceps, his pectoral muscles, which are so perfect they look as though they’re carved from stone. He’s so beautiful, and he’s all mine.

“This gives me very intriguing ideas,” he says huskily as he reaches down to free my lip from my teeth.

“Like your cock in my mouth?” I ask. He smiles.

“For instance.”

“Then give it to me, Christian. Let me taste you.”

His eyes darken and his hands move for the button on the front of his shorts, unfastening them deftly until I can follow the enthralling line of hair that trails down to the base of his erection. I sit up immediately, moving to my knees as I reach into his pants to free him, and the moment I have him hard and ready in my hand, I wrap my lips around him.

“Deep, Ana,” he pleads. “Take me deep.”

My mouth begins to water as I hear the longing in his voice and I pull his erection deeper into my mouth, keeping my lips tight around him until he hits the back of my throat.

“Yessss, just like that,” he groans. His hands twist into my hair and he thrusts forward, encouraging me to take him as far into my mouth as I can each time my mouth moves down over his erection. I massage him on every pass with the flat of my tongue, revisiting every inch of the familiar territory that I’ve already learned by heart. The feel of him, smooth and yet so firm, between my lips drives the desire inside of me and has heat pooling between my legs. My body is anticipating what’s to come, and I’m hungry for it.

“Fuck, I love your mouth,” he hisses as I hold him in my throat and force myself to swallow. I look up at him through my lashes as I pull away from him, opening my lips so he can see his erection drag across my tongue.

“Just my mouth?”

“Oh no, baby. Not just your mouth.” Leaning down, he kisses me deeply, distracting me as he reaches for my hips, but once his fingers close around my middle, he pulls away from my lips and flips me around onto my hands and knees. “Get that ass in the air.”

I moan as I slide down on the sheets, pushing my chest into the bed and raising my behind as high as I can. His hand slides between my legs and my insides clench as his fingers make contact with my clitoris.

“Oh Jesus, you’re already so wet,” he groans.

“I want you.”

He slides a finger inside of me, then another, pumping them in and out while I keen desperately beneath him, letting myself fall mercy to his expert touch. When I start pushing back on him, he let’s out a low growl, removes his fingers, and I feel the tip of his erection brush lightly against me.

“Is this what you want?”

“Yes!”

“Then take it. Push back and fuck yourself on me, slowly.”

My fingers twist into my sheets as I shift backwards, and a long, drawn out gasp escapes my lips as I feel him slide inside of me, stretching me, electrifying me with need that I know won’t be sated by slow, gentle love making. I lift my hips and fall down on him again and again, clenching each time I feel him press against my pubic bone, and each time I tighten my walls around him, he lets out a low, pleasure filled moan.

“Oh fuck,” I breathe as I push all the way back onto him and begin to swivel my hips so that he’s moving against every part of me. His hands tighten on my hips while I grind against him again and again, until eventually he hisses a needy sounding fuck, pulls back, and begins to pound into me. His thrusts are violent and unmerciful, training my insides to his rhythm, which will eventually be matched by the convulsions of my orgasm. I scream out my pleasure, his name, all too loudly. I know Kate and Carter can probably hear me, but I can’t stop the frenzied, feral noises coming out of me. Even Christian seems to gasp and groan with a loud, deep baritone each time his hips make contact with my ass, and when I come around him, he actually yells.

“Oh, fuck!”

“Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop,” I plead in time with each of his thrusts, and he complies. He continues to piston in and out of me while I fly so high through my orgasm the heat coursing through me begins to burn, like I’ve flown directly into the sun.

“Oh fuck, Ana,” he breathes, leaning back but not faltering in his pace. “You feel so fucking incredible when you come.”

“I want yours,” I whimper. “I want your come. Come inside of me, Christian.”

He groans again and tightens his fingers on my hips, pressing into me so hard that it’s almost painful, but I relish in it. I want him to hold me tighter, bruise me, as he pours his release inside of me.

“Shit, I’m gonna come,” he tells me, and, while his pace increases, I begin to flex and pull my kegals until he stills and cries out a strangled, garbled version of my name.

When he comes down, he pulls out of me, taps his erection a few times against my clitoris, and then collapses on the bed next to me. His arms open and I slowly stretch out my limbs until I’m flat on the mattress and I can snuggle tightly into his side.

“Mmm,” I hum in approval as his arms wrap around me. “I love this part. You pressed against me while my entire body feels like it’s melting into the bed. I think the good doctor is right, orgasms are definitely good for my blood pressure.”

He lets out a low chuckle and then presses his lips against the apex of my cheekbone. “I think that being apart wasn’t good for your stress. I should have come here more, spent more time here, made you travel less…”

“It wasn’t possible. I’m just glad you’re here now.”

“Me too. These past month has been so good, I’m almost sorry that we’re going home in a few weeks.”

“Ros would kill you if you didn’t,” I say with a very tired laugh, and then sigh. “I guess everything comes to an end eventually.”

“Not everything,” he says and he tilts my face back to his so he can kiss me once more. When he pulls away, he brushes his hand over my cheek and places one last, quick kiss on the tip of my nose. “Sleep, baby. I’ll be right here when you wake up.”

“Mmm,” I hum again, and as his arms tighten around me, my last conscious thought fades away and I drift into a peaceful, relaxing sleep.

Next Chapter

Chapter 31

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I wake up the next morning to the low sounds of Champ whining by my bed and when I open my eyes, I see him resting his head on the sheet next to me, staring at me with his sad brown eyes.

“Hey, buddy,” I whisper, my voice still thick with sleep as I reach over to scratch him behind the ears. He whines again. “Are you hungry?”

His ears perk so I slowly pull the comforter off of me and shamble my way from the bedroom to the kitchen. The TV is on, playing the news at a low volume in the great room, and there’s coffee made and a plate of fresh looking croissants resting on the counter, but other than Champ and I, the room is empty. I can hear the dull thump of music coming from upstairs though, so I figure Christian must be working out, and as I pour a cup of dry kibble into Champ’s bowl, I worry that he’s going to wake my father. Yesterday wasn’t a great start to their relationship and I don’t want them starting off on the wrong foot again.

Before I go upstairs to run damage control, I take Champ’s water dish to the sink and, as the steady stream of water begins to pool in the bottom of the plastic blue bowl, my eyes fall upon the latest edition of the Seattle Times resting on the breakfast bar. It’s facing away from me so the text is upside down, but I can read the headline.

 

Manhunt continues for Billionaire Girlfriend’s Kidnapper, New Details Emerge

 

I frown, then turn off the sink and place Champ’s bowl on the floor next to his food, but when I turn around to pick up the paper, it’s gone and Gail is standing on the other side of the bar smiling at me.  

“Good morning, Miss Steele. I’ve just finished your laundry to pack for your departure for this morning. Can I get you anything before I start?”

“What was that?” I ask, ignoring her question and nodding to the now bare countertop, but she furrows her brow.

“What?”

“The newspaper. Was that about me? What new details?”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” she says, brushing me off. “Just the media throwing stuff out there to sell papers. It must be a slow news cycle. I wouldn’t let it worry you, Miss Steele.”

“Hmm,” I hum, not really falling for her cavalier attitude, but since I’m not particularly  interested in starting my morning by being thrust back into the horrifying memories of last week, I decide not to press her on it. I’m leaving Seattle today. That’s all I want to focus on. “Well, Champ is going to need to go out when he’s finished eating. Can you have Luke or Taylor take him please?

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Thank you.” I smile at her and scratch Champ’s fur once more before I hurry out of the kitchen for the stairs. The moment I make it to the hallway on the second landing, I can hear Christian’s music so loudly that I can make out each word to Fort Minor’s Remember the Name before I even turn the corner, and it makes me cringe. Rap music at 6:45 in the morning isn’t the best way to get my dad to warm up to him and his room is right across from our gym.

The door to the guest room is closed so I stop to knock before I walk in, but I worry that he can’t hear my knuckles rap against it because he doesn’t answer. After waiting a few minutes, I slowly push it open, but I find the room empty. The bed is perfectly made, my father’s bags are packed and stacked neatly by the door, there isn’t even a towel draped over the back of a chair from his shower.

Frowning with confusion, I step out of the room, wondering where he could have gone. For a brief moment, I think maybe he’s working out with Christian, and even though I know how unlikely that is, I don’t have any better ideas as to where he could have gone, so I turn around to take a peek inside the gym. Once I open the door, I scan the room and find that my father isn’t here either, but I still have to pause, just to appreciate the view.

Christian is facing away from me, standing before a free standing punching bag in only a pair of sweatpants. His perfectly chiseled back glistens with sweat, his muscles catching the light as he moves, and it makes every one of them look swollen and defined. His perfection is nearly awe inspiring, and as I lean against the door to drink in just how delectable he really looks, the last notes of the song die out and he turns away from the bag, using his teeth to rip apart the velcro on the gloves covering his hands. When he looks over and sees me standing there watching him, he pauses and reaches into the pocket of his sweats for the remote to the iHome sitting on the other side of the room.

“I’m sorry, did I wake you?” he asks, slightly out of breath.

“No, Champ did. I was just looking for my dad. He’s not in his room.”

“No, he asked Sawyer to go for a run with him about an hour ago. I think he’s checking up on me.”

I laugh. “Oh, he definitely is. Next he’ll be running a background check, having you followed to see where you’re going everyday, checking your references to find out all the secrets of your past…” I smile up at him in a teasing way, waiting for his playful side to come out with a perfect biting remark, but it doesn’t. Instead, he frowns and looks down between us.

“I hope not.”

“Hey,” I say, reaching for either side of his beautiful face and tilting it up so that he’s looking at me. “I’m just kidding. Look, I know he was… distant yesterday and you think he doesn’t like you, but you’re wrong.  He’s just my dad and he’s protective of me, and he doesn’t really know you yet. That’s all this is. And if he really is out there questioning Luke, that’s all he’s trying to do. He just wants to make sure you’re good man, and you are. Once he sees that for himself, he’ll warm up. You have nothing to worry about.”

“If you say so,” he says uneasily, but before I can make any more arguments, he leans down to kiss me and even though I know it’s a diversionary tactic, it works flawlessly. I bring my hands up and run them over his arms, which actually are swollen from his work out and even twitch slightly beneath my fingers. The pheromones radiating off of him are intoxicating and as I feel his lips move with mine, my mind begins to swim with fantasies that suddenly have me wondering what it would be like to be fucked over a pummel horse.

“So we’re alone,” I hint. “And you’re looking real fine this morning…”

“Am I?” he asks, and when I nod he groans and he deepens our kiss. I move my hands from his arms and wrap them behind his head, pulling my body closer to him, but just as he slips his tongue past my lips, his phone begins vibrating in his pocket and the low sound of his ringtone plays through the iHome.

“Hold that thought,” he says, placing one last, soft kiss on my lips before twisting out of my arms to answer the call. I pout as I hear him greet Ros and then slump dejectedly against the pummel horse that had given me such intriguing ideas, waiting to see if he’s going to come back. Several minutes pass though, and he doesn’t, so I push off the leather and begin meandering around the gym. Part of me wonders if I should maybe try walking on the treadmill for a while, not running since I’m supposed to be keeping my exercise low impact, but maybe just walking. I run my finger over the textured rubber on the handrest, considering it, until I glance over at the illuminated clock face of the iHome and see that it’s nearly 6:30. Christian said that our flight to Boston leaves at 8:00, so really, I should probably go shower and see if Gail needs my help packing, but as I turn to leave, my eyes fall on the bag that Christian had been punching when I walked in.

I glance back towards the door to make sure he isn’t secretly watching me and then begin circling the bag, considering it, before I eventually square up, pull my fist back, and hit the vinyl as hard as I can.

“Ow,” I whine when I find that the surface of the bag is much harder than I anticipated and the full force is absorbed in my knuckles. I pull my hand away, trying to shake out the pain, and as I do, I hear a low chuckle behind me.

“What do you call that?” Christian asks, amused.

“Painful,” I reply. He laughs again and comes up behind me, pressing his body into mine.

“Well, besides the fact that you should be wearing gloves, your technique is all wrong,” he says. “You should always keep your thumb on the outside of your fingers. If you tuck it inside your fist like that, you’ll break it.” Slowly, he unravels my hand to release my thumb and then uses his hand to curl my fingers into a fist again, tenderly running the pad of his thumb over the back of mine as he moves it into the proper place.

“Now, take half a step back with your dominant leg and angle the other side of your body towards the bag.” His hands slide down my side and over my hips to the top of my thighs and the feel of his hands on my body makes me bite my lip as I move the way he wants me to. “All your power is going to come from your legs. You throw a punch with your whole body. When you throw your arm, you’re going to push off with your back foot and use that momentum to punch through your target. Never aim at what you want to hit, you aim behind it.”

“Okay,” I nod. He takes a step back and I thrust my fist forward, but once I make contact with the bag, I immediately feel the same pain I felt the first time.

“Ow! That still hurt,” I complain, pouting and rubbing my knuckles with my other hand.

“Yeah, you should try hitting someone in the face,” Christian laughs. “It’s not great.” He takes my hand and kisses each of the knuckles before turning to the bag, picking it up, and moving it a few feet to the side.

“Alright,” he begins, squaring up in front of me and raising his hands, palm out. “Try it again. Hit me in the hands, as hard as you can.”

“I don’t want to hurt you…”

“You’re not going to hurt me, Ana. Seriously, hit me as hard as you can. Show me what you’ve got.”

I narrow my eyes at him for a moment, but then move back into the stance he showed me, take a breath, and punch through his hand as hard as I can.

“Ah! Jesus fuck!” Christian hisses. His face contorts with a sudden shock of pain and he immediately yanks his hand away from me.

“Oh my god, I’m sorry,” I gasp. “I didn’t mean to, I’m so sorry, Christian.”

He turns back to face me, smirking, and then laughs. “Just kidding.”

My mouth drops open as I stare back into the superior kind of haughtiness reflected in his eyes, and then mash my lips together in indignation.

“You’re such a dick!” I exclaim, slapping him across his bare chest as he charges back at me. A delighted shriek escapes my lips as he wraps me in his arms and starts tickling me while I struggle to get away.

“Oh my god, Christian! Stop! Ah, stop!” I giggle. I push back on him, thrashing my body to get out of his grip, but his hands are firm and strong against me.

“Stop what? I don’t understand what you want me to stop,” he laughs.

“You are so going to regret this!” I shout. “I’m pregnant, you’re going to make me pee!”

He laughs once more and then his fingers move away from my sides as his arms snake around my middle. His lips move to my neck while he squeezes me and I let out a soft, appreciative moan.

“I love you, Anastasia,” he whispers.

“Mmm, not as much as I love you.” He turns me so that I’m facing him again and then slides his hand beneath my hair, behind my neck, to pull my lips to his. I kiss him hungrily, pushing my tongue past his lips and entwining it around his. My hand slowly creeps down his body, beneath the band of his sweatpants, and just as I hear his soft, satisfied moan responding to my fingers closing around him, there is another sound of a low cough behind me. I turn and see my dad standing awkwardly in the doorway.

“Oh, Dad!” I exclaim, quickly yanking my hand out of Christian’s pants and scrambling a few feet away from him. “Uh… How’d you sleep?”

“Fine,” he says. “Just a little bit of jet lag. I was thinking that since you’re leaving this morning, you and I could have breakfast before you go.”

“Sure, do you want me to cook you something?”

“Well, I was going to suggest going out but, since you offered…” He gives me a slightly mischievous smile and I roll my eyes at his lack of subtlety before I turn to look up at Christian.

“Hungry?”

He shakes his head. “I’ve already eaten. You go ahead.”

“What time do we need to leave?”

“Soon. I’m just going to make sure everything is in order at the office, take a shower, and I’m ready to go.”

“Great, we’ll be quick.” I give him a peck on the cheek and then scurry across the room to hook my arm through my dad’s. As we turn to head downstairs, I notice him giving Christian one last examining look before he allows me to tug him from the room.

“So what’ll it be?” I ask when we get to the kitchen. “French toast? Eggs and Bacon? There’s sausage in here, I could heat up some biscuits for biscuits and gravy.”

“Sounds great kid,” he says, and while I turn to the freezer to pull out the dough for the biscuits Gail always bakes for me anytime she makes soup, he takes a seat at the breakfast bar. I busy myself around the kitchen, but once the biscuits are in the oven, the sausage is in the frying pan, and I’ve made a rue for my gravy, I lean on the counter so that we can talk.

“How was your run with Luke?”

“Good.” He nods. “Great, actually. I really like Luke. He’s a good guy.”

“I think so too. Did you grill him about Christian?”

“Would you blame me?”

“No, I expected it. What did he say?”

“A lot. Luke has a lot of opinions about your boyfriend… er, fiancé.”

“All good I hope.”

“Mmm,” he hums, shrugging.

“Bad things?”  

“Mmm,” he says again, but his inflection gives nothing away, so I narrow my eyes at him.

“What did he say?”

“I told him to give it to me straight, he gave it to me straight. He said some things that made me happy to hear, he said some things that have me… concerned.”

“Like what?” I check, and as my mind runs through all of the things in Christian’s past and all of the things that have been difficult about our relationship that Luke could have told him, I feel my stomach clench with nerves.

He shakes his head though, silently telling me he won’t repeat the things Luke said to him in confidence, but when I open my mouth to protest, he holds his hand up to cut me off.

“He told me that you two have had a difficult road and that you’re not without your problems, but at the end of the day, you love him very, very much and he is absolutely devoted to you. He said if there is one thing about Christian that he is sure of, it’s that he loves you, and he would never betray you, or intentionally hurt you. Luke believes that he’ll cherish you the way you deserve to be. I suppose for right now, that’s enough for me.”

I let out a breath of relief. “You should tell Christian that. It would really help break the ice between you, I think.”

“Oh, don’t you worry, Annie. I plan on having a long sit down with Christian once you go back to school.”

“Oh…” I hesitate. “He’s, um… he’s coming with me.”

“He is?”

“Yeah. He really doesn’t want to be apart from me right now with everything that’s happened and my pregnancy so he’s going to work remotely from Cambridge.”

“And how do you feel about that?”

“Relieved,” I reply immediately. “Ecstatic. Being away from him and traveling back and forth have been the hardest parts about being at school this year.”

“So, it was your idea?”

“No, but only because I didn’t think it was a possibility.”

“I see. Well, just remember, you’re there for school. That’s your most important priority, not him.”

“I know, Dad,” I say, rolling my eyes at his lecturing tone as I turn to pull the biscuits out of the oven.

Once breakfast is ready, we sit down at the breakfast bar together and, again, I’m amazed at how easy it is to fall back into our normal rapport with one another, as if we were never apart. He tells me about some of the amazing places he’s visited and the beautiful landmarks he’s seen, and I’m so engrossed in his stories that eight comes and goes without me ever getting up.

“Ana?” Christian says, stepping out of our bedroom with our suitcases grasped in either of his hands. “We’re late…”

“Oh, shoot!” I exclaim, bolting out of my seat and kissing my father on the cheek before I turn away from the counter. As I sprint into my room, I immediately begin stripping my clothes off so I can get in the shower and then have to scramble to get ready and make sure I have everything I need. Thankfully, even in my scatterbrained rush, I remember to check my drawers for Christian’s Harvard t-shirt because Gail had forgotten to pack it. Once it’s tucked safely in my suitcase, I’m ready to go.

“Ryan will take your father back to Montesano,” Christian tells me once I’ve rejoined them in the great room. “But he wants to see you off at the airport first.”

“Great,” I say smiling. My dad reaches down, taking the handle of my suitcase before Christian can, and then waits for me us to head for the elevator first. As we wait in the foyer for the elevator’s arrival, I see the CNN news story playing on the TV flash over to a view of Seattle and I think I see Christian’s name tick across the bottom of the screen, but when I take a step back to try and read what it’s saying, the doors slide open and Luke quickly whisks me inside.

“Why does everyone keep doing that?” I ask as we begin our descent. “What are they saying about it?”

“Nothing for you to worry about,” Christian assures me. “I just think it’s better that you have some separation right now.”

“Oh…” I reply, and while my curiosity is peaked over what the media, especially the national media, is saying about what happened and the subsequent investigation, I’m forced to agree with him. I haven’t really thought about what happened much since my dad got here and it’s been an immense relief. I’d like to keep it that way.

When we get to the airport, we find Christian’s jet waiting for us on the tarmac and for the first time since the beginning of the school year, I don’t feel any sense of foreboding. Normally, I hate the flight from Seattle to Boston, but today, I can’t wait for it. Still, when Christian steps out of the car, I linger behind because my dad does.

“Impressive,” he says, leaning over to get a better look at the plane through the side window.

“Even more so on the inside,” I tell him. “Do you want to look around before we go?”

“No,” he shakes his head. “Thank you, but I don’t want to delay you any more than I already have, and I really need to be getting back to Montesano. Now that I’m home, it’s time to start pulling my life back together.”

“Well, come visit me, okay? Any time you want. We can send Christian’s jet for you or we can book you a flight.”

“Just try to keep me away.”

I try to smile, but it’s difficult as I feel the aching sadness growing inside of me as the reality of me leaving and my dad staying behind really hits me. “I hate that you just got here and I’m leaving. We haven’t had enough time yet. It still doesn’t even feel real that you’re here…”

“You’re almost done, baby girl. And then we’re going to have all the time in the world.”

“I love you, Daddy,” I tell him, throwing my arms around him. His hands move gently over my back as he squeezes me.

“I love you too, Ana. Be careful okay? Study hard, have fun, and call me. I’m not going to stop worrying about you just ‘cause I’m home.”

“I will,” I promise. I give him a tight smile and slide out of the car.

There are a lot of people boarding the plane today. While Luke helps Champ up the flight stairs, Taylor, Cardella, and Kommer all hand luggage to the flight crew loading the cargo hold under the plane as they’re all coming back with us and as I watch them, my brain has a hard time working through the logistics of how that’s going to work. We just don’t have room for everyone…

“Ready?” Christian asks, coming up behind me and placing his hand on the small of my back.

“Yeah.” I move forward, but stop when I hear the car door open behind me.

“Ana,” my dad calls. I turn back to him, watching an echo of pain break through his supportive facade for the first time, and it has me immediately flying down the stairs to help him close the distance between us so that he can pull me into his arms. “I’m going to miss you, sweetheart. So much. But I’m really proud of you for going back. I love you, Ana.”

“I love you too, Daddy.”

He places a hard kiss on the top of my head as he lets me go, but when I turn to move up the stairs again, my dad shifts toward Christian and holds out his hand.

“She’s in your hands,” he says. “Take care of her.”

“Yes, sir,” Christian replies, shaking his hand. “I intend to.”

My dad nods and releases Christian’s hand so we can continue up the stairs and into the plane, and before I make my way down the center aisle to my usual seat, I pause and wave goodbye to him one last time.

“Are you alright?” Christian asks once I’ve sat down next to him.

“Yeah, I just wish I had a little more time with him. I didn’t think about the fact that we brought him back here and now he’s just going to go back to an empty house in Montesano where he’s going to be all alone. Maybe I should have stayed a few more days…”

“He wanted you to go, Ana. He’s going to be fine. I was only there for a few days last summer, but I think Montesano is filled with people who will be very glad to welcome him home and make sure that he’s not lonely.”

“I hope so. He’s never been on his own before.”

Christian’s expression tightens and he looks as though he’s searching for the right way to say something, but as the engines of the plane roar to life beneath us, he simply raises our conjoined hands to his lips, kisses the side of my index finger, and then turns to the laptop he’s placed on the tray in front of him.

 

It’s dinner time when we land in Boston, and when we pull up to the house in Cambridge all the lights are on downstairs, which means Kate is home for the night. Champ is sitting upright in the seat next to me, and when we stop, he immediately starts whining and trying to get over me to get out of the car.

“Okay, buddy,” I tell him as I grab ahold of his collar to keep him from bolting the moment I open the door.

“Don’t let him pull you,” Christian says nervously. “The last thing we need is for you to fall out of the car.”

“I’ve got him,” Luke says, opening my door and taking his collar out of my hands. “I’m going to do a quick perimeter sweep, so I’ll take him with me. He could probably use it after being stuck on that plane all day.”

“We all could.” I smile. “Thanks, Luke.”

I wait until he’s guided Champ away from the car before I try and get out and while the rest of the security team moves to the trunk to begin unloading luggage, I take the walk up to the back door and enter the code into the security pad so that I can get inside.

There’s soft classical music coming from the living room, which is what Kate usually listens to when she’s studying, so I hurry through the kitchen to pounce on her, but freeze when I come through the archway and find that she’s already… pouncing on Carter.

“Yeah, just like that, Kate,” Carter groans, gripping onto her hips while she bounces up and down in his lap. “Fuck, baby, you feel so good.”

My eyes slam closed as I quickly turn away, but when I look through the glass in the back door and see the hoard of people about ready to come into the kitchen with no way upstairs except through the living room, I realize I can’t sneak my way out of this awkwardness of the situation.

“Ummm, Kate?” I call uncertainly, and instantly the moaning and heavy panting coming from the room behind me stops.

“Oh my god, Ana!” Kate exclaims, clearly embarrassed. I continue to keep my back turned, giving them a few minutes to get put back together before I chance another glance over my shoulder, but when Christian comes through the back door, he doesn’t understand what my silent, fervent waving means, and he walks right into view before immediately cringing away.

“Oh, Jesus!” he says, also turning to face the same direction I am. “You have a bedroom, Kate.”

“We were studying,” she says defensively. “We thought we’d take a break…”

“Uh huh.”

The muffled sound of clothes moving around and zippers being zipped stops, and after I hear Kate’s footsteps coming across the hardwood floor towards me, I turn around just in time to be swept up in a hug.

“What are you doing here?” she asks.

“Well, you said you wanted your eight weeks,” I reply. “Surprise!”

“What? I thought you said you didn’t think you could come back? What happened?”

“We have a lot to talk about,” I tell her. “Starting with our new roommate.”

“New roommate? More security?”

“Not exactly.” I gesture to Christian with a nod of my head and when she turns to look at him, her brow furrows with confusion.

“Christian? You’re moving in here?”

“I am.”

“But… but what about GEH?

“GEH is going to be fine. Ana needed to be here, and I need to be with Ana.”

She smiles and now that the shock of me seeing her in such a compromising position is wearing off, her face lights up with excitement. “So, you’re really back? Oh my god, you’re back!” She wraps me in her arms again. “Thank god, I hated the idea that you were going to give up so close to the end.” She beams when she releases me and as Carter walks up behind her, he awkwardly holds out his hand for Christian.

“Welcome back, Grey,” he says, but Christian looks down at his outstretched hand and raises an eyebrow at him.

“I have a very good idea where that hand has been so I’m going to have to take a hard pass on that…”

“Oh, right,” he says sheepishly. “Well, uh… we really were just studying so we ordered pizza for dinner. There’s enough though, if you’re hungry. We kind of went overboard.”

“Thanks, I’m starving,” I reply. “We’re just going to go put our bags upstairs and settle in. Be down in a minute?”

“Alright.” Kate nods, and then turns to smile at Christian. “Welcome home, roomie. You and I can sit down later tonight and work out an Ana custody schedule ‘cause she and I have sleepovers once a week so…”

“Awh,” he replies sadly. “I’m sorry you’re going to have to give that up.”

“And I’m sorry you’re going to have to find a way to be comfortable with me sandwiched in the bed between you, because I’m not giving that up for anything. These are my eight weeks, Grey. You’re the intruder now.” He gives her a hard look, and she laughs. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding!”

She takes a step forward and wraps him in a quick hug, but as he hugs her back she peeks over his shoulder at me and mouths, I’m not kidding, forcing me to stifle a giggle.

“I know you think you got away with that,” Christian says, pulling away. “But nothing gets past me, Kavanagh. I have no problem physically removing your from my bed and dumping you out in the hallway.”

“You could try, but I’m pretty scrappy,” she says, raising her arms and flexing her muscles for him, and even Christian laughs.

I give Kate one last hug and then take Christian’s hand to lead him to the stairs, both Taylor and Kommer following after us ladened down with luggage.

“We’ll have the new furniture delivered tomorrow,” Christian tells Taylor once they’ve placed our suitcases on the bed. “For tonight, get yourself a hotel room close by.”

“Yes, sir,” Taylor says, and with a nod to me, he leaves the room.

“Good night, Miss Steele. Mr. Grey,” Kommer says.

“Good night,” I reply, and then he turns to follow after Taylor.

“Are you moving Taylor in here too?” I ask once the door is closed behind them.

“Mmm,” he hums as he moves over to unzip his bag. “The more security in this house, the better.”

“So, they’re going to share a room?” I ask, raising an eyebrow at him. He nods.

“The other option was moving into a bigger house and with the little time we have here, that didn’t make a lot of sense. They’re military men, they’ll be fine.”

“Military men? Oh, shit!” I dive for my purse and begin digging through it until I find my phone. I have a missed call from my mom, which I ignore, and then scroll through my contacts until I find my dad’s name, and it actually feels a little strange when I press my finger into the screen, hold my phone up to my ear, and it begins to ring.

Christian spends the first few minutes I talk to my dad unpacking and meandering around the room, until eventually we hear to doorbell ring from downstairs and he kisses me on the forehead before leaving to join Kate and Carter for dinner. I don’t want to push my dad off the phone while he’s telling me about his day greeting neighbors and old friends again back in Montesano though, so I close the door and crawl into the middle of my bed to finish our conversation. But it doesn’t take long before Kate is knocking on my door.

“Pizza’s here,” she says, sticking her head into my room, and I nod.

“That sounds great, dad. I’m glad you got to see everyone. Our dinner just got here, so can I call you tomorrow?”

“Sure, kid. Have a good night. Tell Kate I said hi.”

“I will, love you.”

“I love you, too. Bye.”

I hang up the phone and look up at Kate, who seems to be answering a text on her phone.

“Ready?” I prompt her, but she looks up, steps into the room, and closes the door.

“Christian said your dad’s home,” she says, and I nod.

“Yeah, he got early separation, which means he’s going to be here for graduation.”

“That’s amazing,” she smiles. “I know how important that was for you.” She moves across the room and sits on the bed next to me so she can wrap me in a hug. “I’m so glad you came back. I was really worried about you.”

“Yeah, well… you were right. Being terrified and locking myself away from the world wasn’t helping me, it was helping him, and I’m not going to give him that satisfaction. I’m going to work through this, I’m going to live my life, and I’m going to have everything I’ve worked for. He’s not going to take this from me, he’s not going to take anything from me, he’s not going to make me smaller.”

“Good.” She nods. “I’m proud of you.”

“You know, in a way, I’m almost glad this happened, because it’s opened my eyes. I’ve always thought Christian was over protective but I understand now, and I can move forward knowing that I have to be careful. That I need Luke, or Taylor, or whoever around, all the time, to protect me and my daughter.  Surviving this means that I’m going to be able to protect Calliope better, and I’m glad for that. That’s what I’m going to make myself focus on so I can move forward.”

“Well, I’m glad that you are moving forward” she says. “And I really think that’s it good you decided to come here. School really helped me move on, gave me purpose again, and something to focus on that wasn’t what had happened to me. I hope it does that for you too.”

“That’s the plan.” I smile as she reaches for her phone on the bed, picks it up to answer a text, and then tosses it aside again.

“I need to tell you something,” she says, and the nervousness in her voice makes my brow furrow.

“What?”

“Carter… Carter told me he loves me.”

“What?!”

“We were sitting at the coffee table downstairs, doing homework, and he just looked over at me and he said, I love you.”

“And what did you say?”

“I froze… and then I fucked him on the couch.”

“Wait, this just happened?”

“Yeah. In the time it takes for a pizza to be delivered.”

“Oh my god, Kate. So… you didn’t say it back?”

“No… I-I mean, it’s too soon, right? We’ve only been dating for…” She pauses and her eyes dance back and forth as calculates the time in her head “Oh my god, it’s not too soon.”

“So, do you love him?” I ask. She bites her lip.

“I– I don’t know, I hadn’t really thought about it. I was just trying to take things slow, not set my expectations too high this time…” Her phone vibrates and she reaches down to pick it up again.

“Who keeps texting you?” I ask.

“Elliot,” she says. “He and Gia are fighting…”

“And he’s texting you about that?” I ask, suspiciously, but when she sets her phone down on the bed, she gives me a returning look that is entirely innocent.

“Yeah, why not? We’re friends.”

“Friends,” I repeat. “You know… he was just saying yesterday that when you come back the two of you might go jet skiing.”

“Might?” She laughs. “There’s no might, Ana. You have no idea how excited I am to get back out on the water. He’s even talking about seeing if Christian will just let him borrow his yacht so we could go out farther and maybe do a two day thing.”

“In separate cabins?”

She rolls her eyes at the insinuation in my tone. “It’s not like that. We’re just friends.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Ana, he’s with Gia now. And, I’m with Carter. We’re just friends.”

“Alright,” I concede. “Then what do you plan to do about Carter?”

“I don’t know,” she groans. “I like him. I really like him.”

“But do you love him?”

She sighs. “I don’t know. I think I have to know what he wants for the future before I can let myself even consider that. We’ve never had any conversations about the future and I’m not going to let myself love someone again who doesn’t want the same things as me.”

“So talk to him about it. If he’s in love with you, he has to be at least considering what a future with you would look like. I think you have every right to know what he want.”

“Hey, dinner’s getting cold,” Christian says, cracking the door open just enough so that we can see him standing in the hallway. “

“We’re coming,” I tell him, but he hesitates in the door for a moment, probably because he doesn’t want to go back downstairs to be alone with Carter again, so Kate sighs, grabs my hand, and drags me towards my bedroom door.

Over dinner, Christian and I listen to Kate and Carter recounting what little of their Cabo trip they spent together before Kate abandoned Carter on the beach to fly to me in Seattle. I try to focus on the positives, that at least Kate seemed to pack a lot into the few days she was able to be on vacation, but I’m distracted from her descriptions of parasailing over turquoise water and wild spring break parties on the beach both by my guilt over being the reason her break was cut short, and by the number of times I see her pick up her phone and smile down at whatever she’s reading on the screen. Even Carter seems to notice after awhile.

“Who is that?” he asks.

“A friend from back home,” she says, quickly putting her phone in her lap and then turning to me. “Before I forget, you got some mail. It’s on the counter over there.”

“For me?” I ask, because now that Christian pays all my bills and my dad is home, I have no idea what would possibly come in the mail for me. Kate nods so I push back my chair and go to the counter where I see three letters addressed to me. The first one I pick up has an official looking logo in the return window for Hamilton House Publishing. I rip open the fold and pull out the heavy weighted paper inside.

 

Dear Miss Anastasia Steele,

We’re writing to inform you that after our second review of your manuscript entitled, Escaping Neverland, we have selected your submission for publication.

Included with this letter, you will find the guidelines for our publishing process as well as our official offer letter, which will require your signature before we move forward with publication.

We at Hamilton House Publishing would like to thank you for your creativity and the skill that has gone into your novel. We are honored to be a part of your publishing journey.

Best wishes,

Genevieve Seegal

Senior Acquisitions Editor, Hamilton House Publishing

 

I have to read the letter twice before the words fully sink in, and as I pull out the contract still in the oversized envelope, my mouth drops open.

“Oh my god,” I whisper in shock and Christian turns around to look at me.

“What?”

“My book…” I tell him. “They want to publish my book.”

“What?” he repeats, but this time there is excitement building in his eyes. “Let me see.”

I hand him the letter and then pick up the other two, which I’m shocked to find are also acceptance letters from Little Brick Stone Publishing and Random House.

“Ana,” Christian breathes as his eyes scan through the letter. “Baby, you’ve done it. Congratulations!” He gets out of his chair and holds his arms out for me. “I knew you’d do it.”

I squeal as he lifts me into the air and spins me once, and then hand him the other letters to read.

“I told you,” Kate says, getting up to hug me. “I told you from day one.”

“You were the one who made me submit it to Dr Ralston in the first place,” I smile at her. “Thank you, Kate.”

“Shut up, it was all you.” She squeezes me, bouncing slightly with excitement.

“Random House,” Christian says behind me. “That’s a top three publishing house…”

“Of course it is,” Kate says. “You don’t get that big without recognizing brilliance.”

“I don’t get it though,” I say. “I was rejected from Random House. And from Hamilton House.”

“Well they’ve reconsidered,” Christian says. “Perhaps your manuscript came across a different editor’s desk and they were able to see how good it really was.”

“Three times?”

“I mean, it’s the press right?” Carter says. “Her name is all over the news because of the kidnapping. They’ve got to know that if they move fast enough, they can cash in on that public interest.”

“Wait, you think this is because I almost got kidnapped?”

“Of course not,” Kate says sharply, slapping Carter across the back of the head. “It’s because someone read your manuscript and saw New York Times Bestseller. You told Ralston to try again, right? To push harder? Well, it looks like he came through.”

I bite down on my lip and Christian’s hand brushes over my arm. “Baby, you’ve earned this. You. Trust me, from a business perspective, it wouldn’t make sense to throw money behind something that’s just a blip in the 24 hour news cycle. If they didn’t think your novel was viable for whatever market they’re trying to target, you wouldn’t have that letter in your hand right now.”

“Really?”

“Really. You ran SIP over the summer and you signed 13 authors. You know I’m right. You did this. Just you, and you should be proud. I am.”

“Christian…” I step towards him and wrap my arms around his neck so that I can kiss him, and the moment my lips touch his, he reaches into my hair, pulling me into him, so that he can kiss me as deeply as possible. His tongue moves into my mouth and when I moan my approval, Kate coughs behind me.

“Not alone yet…”

“Then perhaps we should get that way,” Christian says in a low voice, the suggestion in his tone clear. I bite my lip again, trying to reign in the intrigued smile tugging at the corners of my lips, and turn back to Kate.

“Thanks for dinner,” I tell her.

“Of course. We’ll add Christian into the rotation, it can be his night to cook tomorrow.”

“Mmm, can’t wait,” I say sarcastically, and while she laughs, Christian tugs against my hand.

“Go,” Kate says, rolling her eyes. “But keep it down, we still have some studying to do.”

“No promises,” I tell her, winking, and then turn to follow Christian out of the kitchen and up the stairs. And as he turns to face me, pressing his lips into mine as he backs into my bedroom, I bask in the contentment of this perfect night, and the feeling of true accomplishment and of unbridled happiness.

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