By Saturday morning, the rain has cleared and we’re gifted another beautiful late summer morning. We’ve opened all of the windows to fill the apartment with the fresh air being carried off the sound by the soft summer breeze, and it’s made the endless parade of reporters and interviewers that Kommer has ushered through seem somehow pleasant. That is until that same breeze also begins carrying Calliope’s cries and Christian’s arguments with the nanny in from my bedroom. I can’t quite make out what they’re fighting over and it’s distracting. Several times I have to ask the reporter sitting across from me to repeat her question because, rather than listening, I was looking to the hallway trying to figure out what’s going on.
“The emotions are just so real,” Miss Dark-Plum-Lipstick from the New Yorker says. “Tell us, Ana, where does that come from? What did you draw on for inspiration?”
“I’ve experienced loss just like everyone else. Heartbreak. Devastation. A lot of Isaiah’s pain is my own and that’s uncomfortable and vulnerable, but writing through those emotions was healing for me.”
“This novel centers mostly around coping with the loss of someone you truly loved. Since you’ve so recently lost your mother, is there anything you would have done differently now that you didn’t when you wrote this novel?”
“Oh, uh…” My attention is diverted once more as the sound of pounding footsteps make their way down the hallway from my bedroom and the nanny bursts into the living room in a huff.
She narrows her eyes at me. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey, but I can’t…” She pauses and when she speaks again, it’s through clenched teeth. “He sent me to my room.”
“Sent you to your…?” I shake my head with dismay and slowly get out of my chair. “I’m sorry, will you please excuse me for a moment?”
“Ana, your AMA starts in five minutes. We really need to wrap this up,” Lydia warns. I glance up the hallway towards my bedroom, where I can still hear my daughter screaming bloody murder, and bite down on my lip with hesitation before turning back to Miss Dark-Plum-Lipstick.
“No, I don’t think I would change anything. My mother’s death wasn’t the loss I was working through when I wrote this. Maybe that’s a different story, maybe not. I guess we’ll see.”
“So what was it then? The loss you so heartbreakingly depicted in Escape?”
I frown. “Something I hope I never have to lose again. Excuse me.”
I can hear Lydia thanking the reporter behind me as I disappear into the hallway, but I hardly pay any attention to what she’s saying. My mind is focused only on whatever it is that could possibly be making Calliope scream so hard or that would make Christian banish our nanny, his only help for the entire day.
When I open the door to our bedroom, I find Christian pacing back and forth across the floor, holding Calliope tightly against him and bouncing her slightly as he tries to soothe her. She isn’t having any of it though, so I quickly step forward and take her out of his arms.
“What is going on in here?”
“We need a new nanny,” Christian says bluntly, so I raise an eyebrow at him.
“Because she’s perfectly content to lay Calliope face down on the floor and just watch her scream.”
I roll my eyes. “Christian, that’s just tummy time. Calli hates it, but she has to do it.”
His mouth sets into a hard line and he crosses his arms over his chest. “I don’t think she should have to do anything that makes her that miserable. My daughter deserves a life of comfort and luxury, not hardship and strife.”
“Your daughter needs to be able to hold her own head up and learn to crawl one day.”
He lets out another huff, but just as I’m about to ask him to go make peace with Ava, there’s a knock on the door and Kate pokes her head inside.
“Someone call for baby relief?” she asks. I turn to glare at Christian, but he holds his hands up in front of him, defensively.
“You’re supposed to be booked all day. I needed reinforcements.”
“Like the woman upstairs we pay for that exact purpose?”
His expression hardens again, telling me he still doesn’t think developmental growth is an appropriate excuse to force his baby to do something uncomfortable, but before I can argue with him Kate hurries in and holds her arms out for Calliope.
“Elliot is out on the boat with Carrick this afternoon so I was just shopping to kill time before I had to come over here to help you get ready for tonight anyway. This way I’ll get a few hours of quality time with my goddaughter.”
I pivot so I can relinquish my baby to her, but the moment she’s in Kate’s arms and not mine, she starts to scream again. It should hurt to see her tiny face crinkle and the tears that pour from her eyes, but I can’t help the smile her tiny little melt down brings out of me. Usually, it’s Christian she can’t stand to be separated from. Never before has she had this reaction from being taken away from me and I guiltily kind of love it.
“I have to do an AMA on Reddit in like 30 seconds,” I say, taking Calliope back from Kate. “Do you want to type for me so I can do tummy time with Calli?”
“You mean you trust me to respond to internet strangers asking questions for you?”
I narrow my eyes. “I trust you to dictate.”
“Okay.” A mischievous smile plays at her lips. “I can do that.”
“Exactly as I say,” I emphasize, warning her, but as she nods and backs through the doorway to the living room, the conspiratorial glint is still obvious in her eyes. I shake my head and turn back to Christian, who looks a little dismayed that I’m not finished with the press tour for the day.
“Have Kate bring her to me if she’s distracting you,” he says. “I guess if you’re going to take over, I might as well try to get some work done. I’ll be in my office.” I nod and then lean up to kiss him on the cheek before turning back to the living room where Kate is helping Lydia write something on a oversized piece of paper in thick, black Sharpie.
“What is that?”
“It’s for you to hold up,” Lydia replies, handing the paper to me while Kate picks up her phone and points it to me to take a picture. It has my username scribbled across it, proof that I’m actually here answering questions.
“Smile!” Kate says, and the phone clicks.
I’m surprised by how much I enjoy doing the AMA. I’m sure most of it is because I’m able to do the entire Q&A laying on the dining room floor with Calliope doing tummy time on my stomach while Kate and I come up with the most ridiculous answers we can. But I think a lot of it also has to do with the general lightheartedness of the interview. Not all of these questions are so heavy like they’ve been in every interview I’ve done so far. In fact, most of the things I’m asked are completely unrelated to Escape. What is your favorite kind of sandwich? What song is stuck in your head right now? If you could eliminate one thing from existence, what would it be?
“The St. Louis Rams,” I reply confidently, and Kate laughs as she types my response and then starts scrolling through the questions again.
“Okay, let’s see… Ooh, Marry, Fuck, Kill, are you ready?”
“Hit me with it.”
“Ryan Reynolds, Channing Tatum, Chris Hemsworth.”
“Ummmmm, marry Ryan Reynolds. Fuck Chris Hemsworth. Kill Channing Tatum.”
“Kill Channing Tatum? Are you crazy?”
“What do you mean crazy? Ryan Reynolds was last year’s sexiest man alive AND he’s hilarious. Definitely marriage material. And Chris Hemsworth is literally a god, so I don’t know what you want from me.”
“Well, obviously you fuck a Hemsworth, I understand that part. But… but… Channing Tatum.”
“No I’m not,” I say in a sing song voice as I tickle Calliope’s sides. “We would take Ryan Reynolds over Channing Tatum any day, wouldn’t we Calli-lily? Yes we would. But we’ll never ever say that to Daddy, will we? Nooooo.” I lean down to rub my nose against hers and the second my skin touches her, she laughs and my whole body freezes.
“Oh my god. She laughed! Kate, she just laughed!”
“She laughed. Her very first laugh! Quick, get my phone!”
Kate picks up my phone off the table and hands it to me, all the while laughing to herself. “This is amazing. Can I please be the one to tell Christian that his daughter’s first laugh was over his mom joking about fucking Ryan Reynolds?”
“Not just fucking,” I say, turning a broad smile back on Calliope. “Living in wedded bliss forever and ever…” She starts laughing again as I tickle her sides so I wrap my arms tighter around her and scramble off the floor. “Answer for me, Christian needs to see this.”
“Ana!” Lydia protests, but I shake off her protests as I turn for Christian’s office.
“She’ll do fine! But I better not read any responses later about Christian’s penis, Kate.”
“You won’t,” she says, and then shakes her head slightly as she looks back down at the laptop in front of her. “The memory of that still gives me nightmares.”
I roll my eyes and rush up the hallway that leads to Christian’s office, continuing to tickle and bounce and encourage my baby as we go so that when I come through the doors the first thing he’ll see is her giggling. But when I step inside, all thought of this milestone is immediately pushed out of my mind because Christian isn’t alone working in his office like I expected. Both Luke and Kommer are sitting across from him, Luke with his laptop open, and the three of them look both completely absorbed in and deadly serious about whatever they’re discussing.
“What’s going on?”
Christian and Kommer look up at me but Luke doesn’t, he’s too involved in what he’s doing.
“Nothing,” Christian says, dismissing me.
“Is it about Gresham? Have you found him?”
He swallows, looking conflicted. “There may be a… new development.”
“What kind of development?”
After a brief second of hesitation and a glance down at Luke, he finally concedes and waves me further inside. I shut the door and hurry across the room so I can see what’s open on Luke’s laptop, but it’s all just a bunch of coding screens, which mean nothing to me. Christian must see that because when I look up at him, he starts explaining without me having to prompt him.
“He’s still trying to trace the account the wire transfer ended up in. In the meantime, he’s been going back through everything he had on the club from his investigation last year, hoping to find something or someone that will lead us to him, and he found an email address. The one that belongs to the person who had been sending photographs of you to TMZ last year. The owner of that account received a $10 million dollar transfer this morning.”
“Like a payment?” I check, and Christian nods.
I pause, thinking back to the lunch I had with Luke last year while we were still trying to figure out what Elena was doing behind the shield of her beauty salons. Whoever had taken pictures of me at that sex shop with Kate, and at the club with Luke, had forwarded them to the media through an anonymous email address.
“Jane Doe,” I say blankly. “So, who is she?”
“Well, she banks at Washington Federal.”
“So does half of Seattle. That doesn’t tell us who she is.”
“Hopefully that’s where this new information comes into play. There isn’t much in the email account, it looks like it’s been mostly inactive over the last year, except for this large dollar transfer. He just emptied his offshore account, it’s got to be from him. With this email, we have the last four digits of her account number, so Luke can trace it and get a real name and hopefully use her to take us right to him.”
“It’s got to be Elena Lincoln, right?” Kommer says. “Taylor briefed me on everything that happened last year between our camp and Elena Lincoln, she was trying to oust Ana. She’s the only person who had motive to go after her. It has to be Elena.”
“Why would Gresham transfer ten million dollars to a dead woman?” Christian asks.
“I don’t know. Maybe the transfer was set up before she was killed. Maybe the prison riot was legitimate, not a story to cover up his plan, and he wasn’t expecting to lose her. Or maybe she isn’t really dead… Has anyone actually verified that? Perhaps that’s where we should be devoting our attention.”
“No, it’s not Elena Lincoln,” I say, shaking my head. “That’s how we found out about the club. We started by trying to connect her to this account and we couldn’t. It’s not her.”
Luke snaps twice and points at me, signifying I’m on the same train of thought he is, and Kommer frowns.
“A submissive then? Miss Grey said this guy was involved in her BDSM club and that he had a favorite girl. Maybe that girl is Jane Doe. We have a name, Alexis Young. We should go after her.”
“Maybe,” Christian agrees. “It’s a place to start. Sawyer, how long will it take for you to get me information on Alexis Young?”
To my surprise, Luke pulls his hands off the keyboard and turns to Christian in frustration. “You’re going to have to prioritize. I can’t trace the original wire transfer, hack Jane Doe, monitor for any sign of Gresham’s activity, put together a dossier on a Alexis Young, and run security for Ana. Not in these time frames.”
“So, we cancel my event tonight,” I suggest, but Christian shakes his head.
“No. I promised you that I wouldn’t let any of this detract from your moment, and I intend on keeping that promise.”
“I’m fine, Christian. It’s more important that Luke is here working on all of this than watching over me at a stupid book party. I mean, there’s going to be a ton of people there, security’s not going to be easy anyway…”
“No, it’s not…” Luke says, suddenly sitting up. “So, that’ll be his move.”
“What?” Christian asks. “That public?”
“Yeah. In this case, the crowd might work for him. Make it easier for him and his people to hide. Ana’s right. Security is going to be tough with only the two of us and there are plenty of opportunities to get inside Columbia Tower with the caterers, florists, or whatever other outside vendors they’ve hired. Hell, he may even have been able to get one of his people, who ever is left, into the event security Random House hired.”
Christian and I exchange nervous glances.
“I don’t know…” Kommer asks. “He may be thinking he can hide, but in the end more people just means more witnesses. I would think he’d choose something more prive. Or maybe the reason we can’t find him is because he’s already gone. He has the money, why risk losing it?”
Christian shakes his head. “Because he’s put too much into this to just quit. Besides, he’s still paying people, remember? Jane Doe wouldn’t have gotten $10 million if he was gone.”
“So we cancel,” I re-affirm, but Luke looks up at me hesitantly.
“If Gresham is going to be there, this could be a shot. Maybe our last shot.” He turns back to Christian. “And we’re not necessarily alone. There’s always… what we talked about last night.”
“Last night?” I ask, furrowing my brow and glancing between them with confusion. But Christian doesn’t look at me. His eyes stay focused on Sawyer for a long beat and then he takes a breath and begins to nod.
“Alright, Luke I want you to send everything you have so far to Welch and have him take over. His priority is to find Gresham. Once we know where he is, none of this other shit will matter.”
“Yes, sir,” Luke says.
“Kommer, you’ll be staying here tonight.”
He nods to the baby in my arms, who is currently playing with the ends of my hair. “We’re not bringing Calliope to Ana’s event and I’m not going to leave her without security. We’re covering all of our bases. If anything out of the ordinary happens, anything, you get Calli and Ava into the panic room and call Hsu. Understand?”
“Sir, we’re already understaffed and I think that if we’re going to make a play on Gresham I’d be better suited…”
Christian cuts him off. “Do you understand?”
Kommer tenses and takes a breath. “Yes, sir.”
“Good. I’ll call Hsu now and tell them what we know so we can be prepared for tonight. And…” He pauses again and looks at Luke. “And we’ll greenlight plan B.”
“What should I do?”
Christian looks up to me and his expression softens. “Nothing. You just focus on fulfilling your obligations with Random House and enjoying your night.”
He gets out of his chair and comes to me, placing each one of his hands on either side of my face so that I’m forced to look into the depths of his warm, gray eyes.
“This is just the beginning for you, Ana. I know you can’t see past Gresham right now, but I can. I know that tonight, you are going to secure that number one spot and it’s going to launch your very long and full career. I want you to experience every moment of that. I want to experience that with you. We’re going to take care of everything else. You just focus on enjoying this and taking everything in. You’ve earned it.”
I try to protest, but he leans down over Calliope and kisses me, effectively silencing me. The moment our lips touch Luke closes the lid of his laptop and taps Kommer with the back of his hand. “And… that’s our cue to leave.”
They both push their chairs away from Christian’s desk and I glance over my shoulder to watch them discretely leave the room. The moment the door closes, I turn back to the handsome man standing before me and stare up into his warm gray eyes.
“Did you need something?” he asks.
“Oh… no. Calli laughed.We were playing on the dining room floor and she laughed. I wanted you to see it.”
“What?” He smiles and lean down to Calliope’s level in my arms, reaching out to tickle her tummy. “Is your mommy funny?”
She doesn’t laugh this time, she simply stares up at her daddy with wide, wonder filled eyes, and I deflate.
“Of course she won’t do it now…”
He sighs and stands up to face me again. “It’s alright. Are you finished with your interviews?”
“Almost. I should go make sure that Kate isn’t telling the entire internet about the time I puked on the rollercoaster at the Puyallup Fair and maybe try to fit in one last plug for my book, but once I’m done with that, I’ll need to start getting ready for tonight. Do you want to take a shower?”
He raises an eyebrow. “With you?”
I wink and then turn to leave his office, sashaying my behind back and forth as I walk to the door. His low chuckle follows me into the hallway and while I make my way back to the great room, I quickly run through everything I want to say about Escape at the end of this AMA so I can get him naked in the shower as soon as possible.
When the clock finally rolls around to 7:30 that night, my stomach is tight with nerves. I’ve been to dozens of big black tie events over the last year, but they all centered around Christian. It was his job to make the good impression, it was his job to say all the right things and speak to all the right people. It was his job to captivate the room and push his agenda. Tonight, it’s all on me. I don’t know who Random House thinks they’re putting out there, or why this was a good idea, but I’ve never been great in front of crowds. People are Christian’s strong suit, not mine. I do my best when I’m completely alone, with a book or an open laptop as my only company, and as I once again glance over the section of my book Lydia has pre-highlighted for me to read, I find myself wishing that I would have negotiated a little harder with Random House. Surely, the party and the music and the food is enough to leave people with good feelings about my book and boost sales. I can’t imagine me reading or not reading will make that big of an impact.
There’s a sound behind me as the bedroom door opens and I turn to watch Christian sauntering out into the great room, clearly still in a good mood from this afternoon’s activities. He’s dressed in a simple but immaculately tailored black tuxedo and his hair is in just the perfect amount of disarray to make him look simultaneously well put together and like the sexiest man alive.
“Well?” he asks, holding his hands out to his side and turning to give me the full view of his tux.
“You look damn fine, Grey.”
“Good.” He moves towards me and takes me into his arms. “Because I’m taking my job as the arm candy for my extraordinarily brilliant, talented, and successful wife very, very seriously.”
I laugh and then lean up to kiss him softly on the lips. “Is everything ready for tonight? With Gresham, I mean…”
“Uh-uh,” he chides me. “I told you not to worry about any of that. This is all I want you to focus on, Ana.”
“Well that would be easier to do if I at least knew the plan!”
“Everything is under control. Tonight, this all comes to an end and you are going to get your number one spot. We’ll have a lot to celebrate when we return and I think I know just the way…” He pulls me tighter against his body and then kisses me once more, his lips soft but persistent as his tongue moves into my mouth. I moan while his heat washes over me and am pleased to discover it’s calming effects. By the time he releases me, the butterflies swarming furiously inside my stomach have stopped and my confidence has returned in full swing. He’s right. We are going to have a lot to celebrate. After tonight, we’re going to get our lives back, and with this book party, I’m going to ensure that we return to normalcy on exactly the right foot.
Luke is already waiting for us in the SUV downstairs and as we climb into the back seat and Christian helps me gather the skirt of the long black Alexander McQueen gown that I was supposed to wear for the GEH New Year’s Eve Ball last winter, I can’t help but notice the almost cold kind of intensity radiating off my CPO. He’s focused, ready, and it’s just another reminder that, as much as Christian wants it to be, tonight isn’t just about me.
The thought does nothing to quell my nerves.
The traffic is fairly light getting across town, until we come within a few blocks of Columbia Tower and we try to merge into the line of cars on their way to the party. My party. I can’t help but keep track of the surprising number of people flooding up the carpet that’s lined with photographers and into the main doors. People that I’m going to have to get up in front of and speak to… Again, my stomach clenches with dread.
“This is it,” Christian says, squeezing my hand as we come to a stop. “Are you ready?”
“As much as I’m going to be.”
He leans over and kisses me on the cheek. “You’re going to be fine. Better than that, you’re going to be remarkable. Just enjoy this, okay?” I nod nervously and he smiles, but when Luke comes around to open my door, he tugs my hand to keep me from climbing out and leans over to whisper in my ear. “Stay close to me. Don’t move out of my sight.”
I tighten my fingers around his and then take a deep breath as I step out of the car. Immediately, there’s a commotion of lights and the shouts of photographers, which I’m used to from all of the GEH events I’ve attended, except that this time, they’re calling my name. Lydia rushes up beside me and issues rapid fire instructions as we begin walking towards the line of photographers, but I hardly hear a word she says. I can pick out the word smile, so that’s what I focus on. Keeping the rising panic off my face and smiling.
Christian is a lifesaver. His hands around my waist guide me to look in the direction of each photograph we have to pose for, and his constant reassurances at least get me through the front doors of the building thinking I didn’t make a complete fool out of myself. We follow Lydia to the lobby just outside of the main ballroom, the same ballroom we were in for the Governor’s Ball last summer, but I don’t have time to ruminate over that because we’re immediately drug around the crowd of people to mingle with Seattle’s elite. Thankfully, Christian already knows most of everyone who’s here so there aren’t many awkward introductions, but he’s also good about ensuring the conversation never strays to business or GEH or even the charity projects our foundation has launched. He always turns the focus back to me, and the number of times I hear him praising my work never fails to make me smile.
“Making the rounds for the wife tonight, huh Grey?” a man in a crisp blue suit asks, stepping forward and holding his hand out for Christian.
“Proudly,” he replies. “I’m counting on her being successful enough with this book that I can retire.”
The man lets out a strange laugh and then shakes his head. “Any news on the partnership with Microsoft you’re trying to put together for the GEH Ag-Sci expansion?”
“It’s still in the works.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard Ballman’s a real hard ass. Bailey’s on that deal right?”
“Yes she is.”
“So you have your wife paying the bills and your cute little redhead running your company? With all this free time you have on your hands, one would think you’d have a better record on the lower nine…”
Christian let’s out a harsh breath that I think is supposed to be a laugh, but the way his eyes darken tell me that he doesn’t find any humor in what this man has said.
“You’d think so, but I’ve found other ways to occupy my time than golf. You’re working with Kittinger on a steel contract for your Belltown development, right?”
“I am,” he replies, with mild surprise. “How did you know about that?”
“Oh, I’ve got a deal going with Kittinger myself. It’s not a contract, per se, it’s more of an… acquisition.” The man’s face falls and Christian smiles. “I’m really looking forward to seeing your presentation. That contract is the only thing keeping you from filing chapter seven, right? I’m sure the proposal you’ve planned to save your company will be riveting.”
“I’m sorry, if you’ll excuse us. My wife, the New Times’ bestseller, has several people to speak with tonight. But I’ll see you Thursday, Bill. And don’t worry, it won’t be Bailey who shows up.”
Christian pulls gently on my hand to steer me away from the man still stammering behind us and as he picks up a flute of champagne from the tray offered to him by a waiter, I raise an eyebrow at him.
“So… he’s kind of a dick.”
“Yes. He is.” He lifts the glass to take a sip but as his eyes scan the crowd he stops and then slowly lowers the rim away from his lips. “I’ll be right back. Stay right here. Don’t go anywhere.”
He slips his flute into my hand and then maneuvers around me through the crowd. As I watch him go, I realize he’s moving towards Luke, who glances nervously around the room until Christian comes up to him. It looks as though he only has time to get half a sentence out before Christian becomes visibly angry and they start arguing, but I don’t get the chance to try and decipher what they’re talking about before Lydia slips her hand into my elbow to get my attention.
“Alright, they’re just about to seat everyone for dinner. One of the Random House executives is going to go up on stage first and say a few words about Escape and how well it’s done and then she’ll introduce you for your reading. Are you ready?”
We both turn and see the woman from HarperCollins, the one who was in the meeting when I signed my deal, waving us over to her. Lydia smiles and hooks her arm through mine, but as she drags me towards the side entrance into the ballroom, I turn back and look for Christian. I don’t see him, but Luke is coming towards me.
“What was that?” I hiss.
“Nothing. Everything is fine.”
“Luke!” I pull my arm out of Lydia’s grip and motion that I’ll follow after her, then pull Luke to the side so we’re relatively isolated. “Tell me what’s going on.”
“We have it under control, Ana…”
“Luke, I swear to god…”
“Fine.” His mouth mashes together into a tight line as he glances over my shoulder and then leans in closer to me. “I was right about security. Random House hired event security to supplement the team Columbia Tower had on staff in order accommodate a party this size and he was able to get his people in. They’ve got a whole plan in place. There’s a timed device on the main sprinkler system set to trigger the fire alarm and drive everyone outside. It was the job of his security team to usher you and Grey through the back, out those doors.” He points. “There’s a hall that leads to a back alley where there would be a car waiting for you. Gresham’s car.”
“How do you know this?”
“We found who he’d planted and got them to talk.”
I look at him with horror and immediately glance down at his hands, expecting his knuckles to be bloody, the way they were after he’d cornered Hyde in my dressing room in New York, but they aren’t. He doesn’t look disheveled at all.
“How? I thought… I thought everyone we’d gotten to had rehearsed answers.”
“Well, we have more resources now than we did before. More… persuasive resources.”
“Ana!” I turn as see Lydia looking at me, furiously waving me in through the door. I respond with an apologetic smile and hold up one finger before turning back to Luke.
“So we have Gresham then? He’s in custody?”
He shakes his head. “The moment we came through that back door, the car took off. Hsu’s on it. They’ve got a license plate number, a description of the car, and agents all over this city looking for him. The airport is shut down and the Washington Transportation Department has been alerted so he can’t board a ferry. There’s no where he can run. We’re going to find him. Tonight. It’s under control, I promise.”
“Ana!” Lydia hisses again. Luke pushes me gently towards her and I give her a sheepish look as we pass and enter the ballroom, but it’s hard to feel guilty for lagging behind even though the speaker from RandomHouse has already started. My heart is pounding, though I don’t know if that’s because of fear, anxiety, or excitement… We stopped him. At last, we were able to stop him before he could pull off one of his plans and now he’s on the run and we’re right behind him. We finally have the upper hand.
I slip into my chair at the table right in front of the stage and take the book I’ll be reading out of from Lydia. My fingers tap impatiently against the cover while I try and force myself to focus on the speaker, but I’m too hyper aware of Luke seated in the chair next to me. I know he has an earpiece in so he’s in contact with whoever is chasing Gresham down and all I want to do is stare at him and glean what I can from his expression. My knees bounce beneath the table and I’m chewing impatiently on the inside of my cheek, wishing Christian would come back from wherever he is and just tell me that it’s over.
Suddenly, the room around me erupts into applause and when I look up, I see the speaker and everyone around my table staring at me expectantly.
“Go,” Lydia whispers.
With a deep breath, I curl my fingers around the book in my hands and get up from my chair. Luke ghosts behind me, shadowing every step I take on my way up to the stage, and as I stand at the podium, trembling before the hundreds of pairs of eyes staring up at me, he subtly reaches forward and squeezes my hand.
“You’ve got this.”
I nod, and then force myself to smile. “Good evening, and thank you all for coming out tonight to help us celebrate the launch of my very first novel, Escape.” There’s applause again, giving me one last chance to glance back at Luke before I thank the necessary people and begin my reading. Part of me is hoping to draw one last bit of confidence from his reassuring demeanor, but when I turn, I see that he isn’t looking at me. He’s staring straight ahead, and when I follow his gaze I see why. There’s one door left open to the ballroom, and through it, I can see Christian pacing in the lobby on his phone.
As I introduce the part of my book that I’ll be reading, giving context, I keep my eyes locked on Christian and wait for any kind of sign that they have Gresham. But there’s nothing before I have to start reading, and so I start the highlighted passage and pause every chance I get to check on my husband, hoping it comes across as dramatic rather than distracted.
“The mountain is much steeper than I anticipated and I don’t have the equipment required to make the climb. Only my hands, and the shoes that are more suited for running than scaling a cliffside. But I didn’t choose this obstacle because it was easy, I chose it because I needed something grand to conquer on my own.”
I glance up, but nothing yet.
“The rock is slick with snow and melting ice, making each ledge and hand hold a dangerous opportunity to fall, and yet I climb. The warmth of spring that is so omnipresent below is absent here, and the chill of winter nips not only at the tip of my nose and fingers, but at the inside of my lungs. Each heaving breath I take as I reach for one rock after another burns like only ice can, and yet I climb.”
“Hand over foot, higher and higher until the ground is no longer a safe distance beneath me. I’m single minded in my journey up the mountainside, refusing to let the fear of the fall slow me down. There are unsettled pebbles and dust that cascade down over the top of me, making me question the stability of the rock that is the only thing to keep me from falling, and yet I climb.”
He’s stopped pacing. He’s frozen in front of the door, absorbed in his call…
“At long last, my reach extends beyond the face of the mountain and instead digs down into the soft earth of the summit. With just the strength of my fingers, I pull myself up over the edge, like pulling myself out of the grave, and finally leave behind the pain and crushing sense of loss. As I stand on the precipice of the mountain, I’m free. Every tree littered across the mountain side is it’s own victory. Every rock, every blade of grass, even the crisp air that blows through my hair, it’s all my triumph. I did this, without her, and as I tilt my face up toward the sun and allow its rays to warm my face…”
I glance up and watch Christian’s body relax. His face slowly breaks into a wide smile and when he looks back into the ballroom, he flashes a thumbs up at Luke. I let out an audible gasp, like I’ve been holding my breath for far too long, and as warm relief floods through my veins, I turn back to the book and read through my widening smile.
“I know that I’m going to be okay. That life will go on from here and that that life will be worth living.”
Applause breaks out again and I beam out at the crowd in front of me, feeling just like I did when I made the very climb I just read about. Like I’m on top of the world. Months of fear vanishes in an instant, leaving me unburdened and giddy. It’s over. We can once again finally breathe, and in this moment of victory, all I can think about is getting to the people that I love and holding them as close as possible, knowing they’re safe at long last.
Lydia steps up beside me to take over at the podium and I smile as I move back to my table and set the book down at my place setting. Luke pulls my chair out for me, but I don’t sit. Instead, I take a drink of my champagne and then nod to the door at the side of the ballroom where the two of us can slink back through the darkness in the room and out to the main hall as inconspicuously as possible.
Christian’s there to meet us the second we come through the doors and I actually let out a small laugh as he lifts me into the air and spins me around. When my feet touch the ground again, his lips come crashing down on mine.
“They have him?”
He nods. “They traced him back at his apartment, he barricaded himself inside. SWAT is on the way and they have him cornered. There’s no way out. We’ve got him.” His smile widens. “We’ve got him.”
“Thank god.” I wrap my arms around his neck and kiss him again, deeply, and with much more ardor than is appropriate for a public setting. He doesn’t pull back, he meets me with the same enthusiasm until Luke coughs behind us.
“Take me home,” I whisper against his lips.
“I don’t care. I want see Calliope. I want to look at her in her crib and know that she’s safe, and then I just want to be with you. Like you said, we have a lot to celebrate and I don’t want to do that with strangers.”
He cups my face in the palms of his hands and stares down into my eyes, mirroring my own joy and adoration, and nods.
“I want that too. Come, let’s go home.”
My fingers entwine with his as he tugs me towards the door and as I glance back at Luke behind me, he rolls his eyes but smiles and follows after us.
By the time we pull into the garage under Escala, Christian’s hand is tangled in my hair and his lips are ravaging mine. I can feel the change in his body. He moves so much easier and there’s no tension in his kiss. Just bliss, and love, and the sweet taste of happiness.
Luke stops the SUV before the elevator and when Christian glances up at him, he starts nodding.
“I know, I know…. Give you an hour.”
“Thank you, Sawyer.” Christian replies. I offer him a grateful smile as Christian pulls me from the back of the SUV but he’s only able to briefly smile in return before his phone rings and he has to reach down to retrieve it.
Once the elevator doors open, Christian sweeps me inside and immediately punches in the code before pressing me into the wall and attacking me again. His hands are all over me and I gasp when his lips part from mine and move down my neck. He doesn’t even wait until we’re released into the apartment before his fingers reach for the zipper on the back of my dress and he starts to pull it down so he has access to my breasts.
“When we get upstairs,” he whispers into my cleavage. “You go check on the baby and I’ll pick out the toys we’re going to need. Once I have you alone in our bed, I’m going to fuck you like a madman.”
I moan and then twist my fingers in hair, tugging slightly until I hear his breath hiss between his teeth and he nips at the swell of my breast. The elevator pings, announcing our arrival, and I smile as the doors pull back to reveal that the apartment is pitch black. There’s no one awake to catch us in the act, so the moment my feet hit the marble of the foyer, I let my dress fall to the floor.
“Fuck,” Christian breathes in approval. The doors close, taking with them our only source light, so when he reaches down and slaps my ass, it’s a surprise and it makes me shriek. He hums in pleasure as he massages the sting away from my skin with his hand. “Hurry. The longer you keep me waiting, the harder I’m going to spank you.”
I bite my bottom lip with anticipation and squeal again as I twist out of his arms and hurry across the foyer toward the great room. Unfortunately, in the dark, I’m unable to see the unexpected something lying in the middle of the floor and I trip, falling hard against cool marble.
The fall is more painful than I’m prepared for. My face smacks against the floor and the force seems to reverberate through my teeth. My first fear is that I may have broken my nose because that’s where a lot of the pain is focused so I reach up to cup my face, whimpering, but I’m surprised that when I touch my skin, my hand is wet.
“What in the world?”
Christian fumbles along the wall for only second to find the light switch, but once he’s flicked it on and the room is flooded in bright, white light, my eyes widen in horror. My hands are covered in deep red blood. At first, I think it’s from my fall. That maybe I did break my nose and that I’m bleeding, but as I start to shake and look down at the ground beneath me, I realize there’s far too much blood around me to becoming from my nose.
“Holy shit,” Christian whispers in shock. “Ana–”
I look back at the thing that caused me to fall and am unable to hold back my scream. Ava is staring back at me, her green eyes open but unseeing in her extremely pale face. The puddle of blood on the ground is coming from her.
“Oh my god!” My voice shakes as I scramble off the ground, drenched in the blood of our nanny, but as Christian grabs a hold of me and tries to push me to the elevator, I hear the soft cry of my daughter come from the living room.
His hands tighten around me. “I’ll get her. You go…”
I twist out of his grip and sprint through the arch into the great room, towards our daughter’s cries, and as I look through the dark room trying to find her, I hear the sound of lamp switching on and the room is flooded with light. Both Christian and I freeze, but we can’t see whoever it is in the room with us because they’re in a chair turned towards the windows. However, we can hear them cooing softly at our baby.
“She really is so beautiful,” a woman’s voice says. “You should be proud of that.”
“What do you want?” Christian asks. Whoever it is let’s out a breathy laugh and begins to turn. Once she’s fully facing us, her face breaks into a wide, arrogant smile.
“Where do I begin?”
Bile creeps up my throat and into my mouth, my body trembles, and my breath seems to leave my body all at once. It’s like my mind can’t comprehend what I’m seeing because I know who she is, but she shouldn’t be here. She shouldn’t be sitting carelessly in the middle of my living room with my baby tucked in one arm and a gun dangling lazily from one finger in her other hand.
Thankfully, Christian doesn’t seem as stunned as I am because he steps forward and positions his body between her and me, and then slowly reaches out towards her.
“Give me the baby, Gia.”