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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“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?”
“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.”
“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.
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.”
“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.
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…”
“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.
“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.
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.
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.