Elliot PoV: This Is It. You and Me.

Kate

End of Chapter 40

The heat is oppressive. Christian proposed to Ana in December, but he chose the end of July to actually fucking marry her, which means we land in Vegas for his bachelor party in 110 degree heat. Heat that doesn’t get any better driving through the sandy flats that lie just outside the city. Even in the back of the air conditioned limo, it’s almost as if you can feel the wavy lines of heat rising up off the open desert all around us.

“Where the fuck are we going?” Christian asks, finally looking up from his phone. “I thought we were staying at the Venetian?”

“We are,” I assure him. “We just have one pit stop to make on the way.”

He lets out an exasperated huff. “Look, Elliot. We don’t have to make a big deal out of tonight. Let’s just go back to the hotel, have a few drinks, and maybe order the fight.”

“Ugh,” Ros moans. “I knew I should have gone with Ana.”

“Will you two just trust me a little, please? We’re not going back to the hotel and watching pay-per-view, this is your bachelor party, Christian. We’re celebrating.”

“I’m not going to lose any of… this just because I’m getting married. Mostly because I wouldn’t do this even if I was staying single forever. Bachelor parties are for men who want to hang on to their bachelorhood. I couldn’t be more thrilled to leave mine behind me.”

“Then don’t think about it as mourning the loss of your freedom, think of it as celebrating your days of being a bachelor coming to an end. You’re getting married on Saturday, Christian. We all just want to celebrate that.”

The limo comes to a stop, but Christian continues to stare at me uncertainly. His indecision and hesitance hangs in the air, making the back of the limo feel tense, until the driver finally comes around to open our door.

“Mr. Grey?”

“What do you say, Christian? You know Ana and Kate aren’t sitting in their hotel room having a quiet night in. You really want to go back to the room and spend the whole night imagining what your bride to be is up to?”

The tightness in his lips becomes more pronounced, but after another second or two, he nods. “Fine. But just as a heads up for any other bachelor parties you might be planning in the future, driving someone out to the desert just outside of Las Vegas is a little murdery.”

“Well it wouldn’t be a party without at least one casualty. Come on, you’re gonna love this.”

I step out of the limo and Ros, Taylor, and Dad follow with Christian bringing up the rear. When he steps down into the sand and looks up at the reason we’re here, his mouth actually drops open.

“That’s not the…”

“The Hennessey Venom GT? Yeah, it is.”

“That’s the fastest sports car in the world.”

“And, with only eleven manufactured, it’s also the rarest. Care to take it for a test drive?”

He looks around. “Out here?”

“Well… I would have hated it if traffic got in your way. They say it can get to 200 mph in less than fifteen seconds.” I reach in my pocket and pull out the stopwatch I’d stowed earlier. “We should test that.”

His face breaks into a broad grin and he claps me on the shoulder. “Yes. Yes we should.”

I laugh as he turns and walks towards the car, so quickly I wonder if he’s trying to stop himself from running.

“Shotgun!” Ros says, smiling, and as the man from the company leasing us the car steps out and hands Christian the keys, she skirts around to the passenger’s side door.

I don’t even have to be in the car to see the enjoyment Christian gets out of it. It’s obvious in the way he flies over the flat desert and cuts deep treadmarks turning on a dime in the dirt. The roar of the engine is so powerful that it seems to echo, even in the open like this, and I can feel the vibrations of the motor in the ground through the soles of my shoes. Once Ros has had enough of Christian driving like a maniac, my dad takes a turn, and a few minutes after that, he swings by to me pick up. The engine purrs and revs of its own volition while I hurry to get my seatbelt fastened.

“You sure you don’t want to drive?” he asks, grinning over at me.

“Nah, the speed thing is really more your deal. Just don’t get us killed, huh?”

“No promises.” He slams his foot down to the floor and we take off. At first, I’m surprised by the G force. It feels as though my stomach is being pulled back into the seat behind me as we cut effortlessly through the flat desert, but once I become accustomed to the speed I start to feel the rush of adrenaline. It’s like we’re kids again, riding Grandpa Trevelyan’s quads out on the dunes by the sea, or racing way too fast down a dangerous run in Aspen. Hearing Christian laugh, seeing him actually let go of the stiff CEO and really enjoy himself like this… I’d almost forgotten what that was like. And being here now makes me realize how much we’ve let all the distraction and things we think we have to do interfere with what’s actually important. What actually makes us happy.

For Christian, that’s an open space and fast car.

For me… Well,  it’s only Kate. But to have her, really have her…

Marriage.

Just the word starts a repellant kind of reaction in my body. It’s not something I’ve ever even considered before. In fact, I’ve avoided the very idea like the plague. When all the girls I dated before Kate would get the look in their eye like they thought we could be something serious, I knew it was my cue to bounce, immediately. I’ve always perceived the entire institution of it as a form of imprisonment. But even if that were true, I can think of a lot worse things than being locked away with Kate forever.

“Christian, can I ask you something?”

He jerks the wheel so the tires lock and we spin out, around and around, until finally we come to a stop. He lets out a deep, satisfied breath, then turns to look at me.

“What’s up?”

“Are you… nervous at all about getting married?”

“No.” His voice is utterly confident. “If anything, I’m anxious. I feel like I’ve been waiting for this forever.”

“So, you don’t feel like this might actually be a horrible mistake that could ruin everything you and Ana already have?”

He raises an eyebrow at me. “What’s going on, Elliot?”

I take a breath. “I’m… I’m going to ask Kate to marry me.”

“What?”

“Yeah. I picked out the design for the ring on Monday. Cartier is custom making it for me.” I pause, but he doesn’t say anything. I think because he’s waiting for the why, not the how. “She said we can’t have a future together if I’m never going to marry her, but I can’t not have her in my life anymore. She is my future. So, if this is what she wants, if this is what it’s going to take to get her back, I’m going to ask her to marry me.”

“But… is that what you want?”

I shrug and then shake my head before turning imploring eyes on my brother. “Why do you want to marry Ana?”

“Because I love her,” he answers immediately. “Because I can’t imagine not spending every second of the rest of my life with her. Because I want her to know the depth of my commitment and I want to say those vows out loud to her. To me, marriage means family, and I want Anastasia to be my family. I want her forever.”

“I want all those things too, I just don’t think marriage is necessary to have all of that. Why is everyone so set on the whole marriage equals forever thing?”

“Why are you so set against it? What are you afraid of?”

I exhale and look down at the dash, unable to look him in the eye. “The pressure. I love Kate more than anything else in the world, but what if we get married and it’s not everything she wanted it to be? Or what if I don’t live up to what she has been expecting in a husband ever since she was a kid? What if it’s not the same between us anymore? Everyone always says marriage changes everything and I don’t want it change. I love her and what we have exactly as is… well, was.”

“But what if it gets better?” I look back up at him, and he exhales, then turns in his seat so that he’s facing me. “Elliot, do you love Kate?”

“Yes.”

“Is there anything in the world that could change the way you feel?”

Not if this year has taught me anything. “No.”

“Then what if being married makes you feel closer to her or strengthens the connection you have with one another? What if you’ve only scratched the surface of how capable you are of loving her, and creating this bond opens you to a whole new world of possibility?”

“You think?”

“That’s why I’m in it. When I look at Ana and think of her, not as just my girlfriend or even the woman I love, but as my wife.” He stops and shakes his head, almost as if the potency in the idea is slightly overwhelming. It’s encouraging, and for a moment I can almost see things the way he does. The image is one I’ve never pictured before. Kate in a red sweater, leaning over the island of my parents’ kitchen counter. There’s a christmas tree sparkling in room behind them and as she chats with Anastasia, two tiny humans streak across the kitchen in front of them, laughing and screaming. Ana scoops up the little girl with the dark brown hair, and Kate reaches for the other, more vaguely defined child, and swings them through the air. Her eyes glitter with contentment. Surprisingly, the imagined scenario doesn’t bring the sense of defeat that I’ve been accustomed to, like this is all my life has amounted to. It doesn’t feel settled for or mediocre. If anything, there’s hope.

Katherine Grey, my wife.  

“Look,” Christian says, interrupting my daydream. “Kate is an amazing girl. You’d be lucky to have her. But marrying her just to keep her around is only going to create resentment between the two of you. Marriage is something you have to go into fully committed and ready, or you’re right, you’re going to get divorced and you’re going to lose her again. Don’t give her that ring unless you are absolutely sure that you want her to have it.”

I look over at him, blink away the picture of Christmas morning still playing in my head, and then slowly nod. “Okay. I’ll remember that. Thanks, Christian.”

 

After our ride through the desert, we head back to the hotel to change and prepare for a much needed night out. Christian’s attitude about his bachelor party has vastly improved. He and Ros don’t break away to discuss business even once, his phone never leaves his pocket while we’re drinking cocktails in the cigar lounge, and he and dad talk enthusiastically and laugh with one another over dinner. He’s even loosened up with Taylor a bit, inviting him to have drinks with us and to join us once we head into the casino to do some gambling. When the hostess of the high roller lounge sits us down at a table, Christian buys an extra ten thousand dollars in chips so he can play.

“Sir, I couldn’t…” Taylor says wearily, but Christian shakes his head.

“Nonsense. We’re celebrating my impending marriage, Jason, and you have done a lot for Anastasia and me. Please, have a seat.”

Christian gestures to the empty chair, but Taylor continues to hesitate until the hostess comes around, beams at him, and asks him what he would like to drink. Finally, he exhales and smiles gratefully at her. “A Manhattan, thank you.”

“Good man,” Christian says, then empties his own tumbler of bourbon and asks for another one.

At first, our card game is tight and competitive. But as the alcohol starts flowing, we all start getting a little loose with our chips and big pots are being won with extremely low card hands. My dad pulls in nearly $4,000 on a pair of sixes, and Ros wins a grand on nothing at all.

“The woman can bluff,” Christian says, as she rakes in her chips. “That’s exactly the kind of straight faced lying that got us LightWare back in 2009.”

“That wasn’t lying,” she replies defensively. “It was just… creative truth telling.”

“Well, whatever it was, it bought Escala.”

“And it cleaned me out,” I add, looking down at the empty table in front of me. “I think it’s time for more drinks.”

Christian shakes his head, wobbling slightly. “I think I’ve had enough.”

“Nah, you’re still sitting up. You’ve got a long way to go, brother.” I signal to the cocktail waitress to refill our drinks, fully prepared to ignore Christian’s protests, but they never come. Once he has a fresh bourbon in his hand, he drinks half of it in one gulp and picks up his newly dealt hand of cards.

Eventually, it’s just Christian and Taylor left in the game, and watching them face each other is like watching a battle of titans. Taylor stopped drinking at his one Manhattan, but even with Christian red faced and leaning slightly on the table for support, they both maintain perfect poker faces.

“To you, sir,” the dealer says looking at Taylor.

“None for me, thank you.”

“And you, sir?”

“Just one.” Christian tosses a card face down on the table, then picks up the card the dealer slides back to him, and glances up at Taylor again. “How much do you have left there?”

Taylor looks down and runs his thumb over his pile of chips. “Three grand.”

Christian glances over his own pile, silently counting how much he has left to play with, then reaches into his jacket pocket to pull out his checkbook. On the table, he quickly makes out a check for an additional $1,100, and pushes it and the rest of his chips into the center. “Then let’s get this over with, shall we?”

Taylor raises an eyebrow at him, then glances down at his own hand. There’s a moments hesitation before he finally sighs, and then pushes his chips out to meet Christian’s.

“Call,” he says, and Christian lays down his cards.

“Two pair,” the dealer says. “Threes and nines.”

Taylor nods, lays down his own cards, and both Ros and I smile broadly as the dealer calls out the hand again.

“Three Queens. Winner.”

“Bravo!” Ros says, clapping as Taylor pulls nearly fifty thousands dollars worth of chips towards him. “It’s great to finally see Christian lose at something that has absolutely no effect on me whatsoever.”

“Well, enjoy it,” Christian replies bitterly. “Most people only see a miracle once in their lifetime.”

We laugh as the casino manager brings Taylor a voucher for his chips and Christian signs the tab with a ridiculously large tip for both the dealer and our waitress. Then we get up from the table to head off for the club I’ve booked this evening.

“Where are you headed?” the waitress asks.

1 Oak.”

She shakes her head. “The Mirage is dead. You should head over to Omnia at Caesars Palace. David Guetta is DJing tonight and it’s supposed to be fire. They’ve got the best drink specials, light shows…” She glances over at Christian. “And friendly cocktail waitresses.”

I smile. Ultimately, I decided before we came that getting a stripper to do a private show for Christian would just end up being awkward for everyone. He wouldn’t be into it and I can’t imagine a worse feeling for a girl than being paid to dance naked on someone who would rather she didn’t. But, that doesn’t mean some scantily clad waitress paying extra close attention to him for the night wouldn’t give him the same kind of rush. Especially if she’s continually serving him alcohol.

“Thanks,” I say gratefully, then turn to the rest of my party. “To Omnia, then.”

 

The club is packed and we don’t have a reservation. Ultimately, it means dropping nearly three grand at the door to buy a table and bottle service, but once we’re through the doors and get a taste of the party going on inside, it’s all worth it. The whiskey and vodka flows between Ros, Christian, Dad, and I, and the thumping music keeps the energy high and electric. Unfortunately, I was wrong about the waitresses. Though they’re dressed fairly scantily and each and every one who passes us gets real close and personal with Christian, he shows absolutely no interest, preferring instead to play quarters with the rest of us and taking the resulting shots. Ros, though, is elated by the attention of the beautiful women only all too willing to flirt back with her, and soon, the music and alcohol have her dancing on the table with two waitresses and a girl from two tables over.

“You know,” I say, looking up and watching her long, shapely legs as she dances over the top of us. “If she wasn’t gay, you two might have hit it off… she’s pretty fine.”

Christian shakes his head. “Not a million years.”

I roll my eyes. “You’re just too blinded by Ana. It’s not cheating if you admit another girl is hot.”

“I just don’t see the point in even looking. I’m not going to be interested in anything I find.”

“Really? What about…” I turn and glance around the packed club, my eyes moving from one overly sequined dress to another, until I spot a blonde and brunette dancing together on a table a few booths away. Their hair moves wildly, their bodies sway in perfect time with one another… there’s no question they’re hot. “What about them? Check out the ass on that brunette.”

Christian looks over his shoulder in the direction I nod, but when he sees the girls I’m talking about, his eyes narrow, and then his face tightens with anger. “Yeah, that’s my ass.”

He practically jumps out of his seat and begins charging through the crowd, actually pushing people out of the way as he goes. I follow close behind, shooting apologetic looks to the incensed people he leaves in his wake. When he gets to the table in question, he reaches up, grabs Ana by the wrist, and yanks her off the table onto the sofa.

“What the fuck are you doing?” he yells into her face and she actually cowers beneath him.

“Christian? I thought you were going to 1Oak?”

“Is that why you’re half-naked, standing on a table and shaking your ass for the entire damn world to see?”

I look up at Kate, who’s eyes suddenly light up with anger in defense of her best friend, but when Ana pulls Christian down on the couch with her and then climbs into his lap, I grab onto Kate’s wrist to stop her from getting in between them.

“I think Ana’s got it under control.”

She blinks a few times, as if she’s having trouble getting her eyes to focus, but the heated anger burning in their beautiful green color slowly dies away and she smiles. “What are you doing here?”

“A cocktail waitress in our hotel told us the party was here tonight, so we thought we’d check it out. I thought you were going to Hyde?”

“We were, but it was too far. You try walking up the Strip in these.” She turns and lifts her foot up so I can see the outrageously high stilettos she’s wearing.

“Seems like a planning flaw,” I tell her, and she smiles again.

“Yeah, I’ve made a lot of mistakes lately.” I furrow my brow, wondering what she means, but the movement across the table of Ana and Christian getting out of the booth, and Christian pulling her into the packed crowd away from the table, stops her from explaining herself. “Ana!”

Ana turns and gives Kate an apologetic smile, but does nothing to fight against my brother’s grip as they disappear into the throng of people.

“Well, that sucks,” Kate pouts. “Party’s over, I guess.”

“It doesn’t have to be,” I tell her. My dad and Ros join their significant others at the table, fully occupying their attention, so I reach out for Kate’s hand. “Dance with me?”

“Yeah,” she says with a smile, then places her hand in mine.

I pull her all the way out to the center of the dance floor so that the crowd is dense enough around us to fully cut us off from the rest of our group. As I take her into my arms, people touch us or bump into us from all sides, but it’s oddly isolating. The music is too loud to hear her speak, and between the flashing lights and glitter confetti dancing through the air around us, it’s almost hard to make her out. Still, I can feel her, and she moves seductively with every slight bit of pressure I use against her hips.

The bass bumps loud and steady and Kate turns in my arms, pressing her ass into my dick. Her scent wafts over me and the way she grinds against my groin immediately has me hard, but when I try to push her away so I can hide it from her, she reaches down and grips me through the front of my pants.

“Kate…”

“We should talk,” she says, then takes my hand and drags me off the dancefloor before I can respond. Unfortunately, there’s not much reprieve from the loud music and people, so it takes her a while to find somewhere to escape. But, at the top of a windy staircase on the second floor, there’s a small dark alcove off to the side of the restrooms that is mercifully empty.

With alcohol still coursing steadily through my veins, I nearly lose my balance when Kate pushes me inside, but there’s a wall for me to catch myself on and the moment I’m able to regain my footing she’s pressing herself into me.

“Kat–” Her lips, and then tongue, quickly cut off my protest, but, as much as I would love to take advantage of everything she’s throwing at me right now, I know that she’s drunk and could very well not be in the right frame of mind to make the choice to do this with me.

“Kate, stop,” I say, locking my fingers around each of her hips and pulling her off of me.

“What’s wrong?”

“You’re drunk.”

She shakes her head. “It’s fine, I want you.”

“No.” I move my face to avoid her lips as she leans into me again. “No, it’s not fine. It don’t want to be a mistake for you tomorrow.”

“You won’t be. Elliot, I really want you.”

“Yeah, right now. But…”

“No, Elliot. I want you. I want you to be mine again. I miss you and I just want to be with you. Only you. Forever.”

“Wait… what about last week? At dinner you said that the reasons we broke up before hadn’t changed. What about marriage? Kids?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t care. You’re right, we have Calliope, and Mia might have kids someday. We’ll be the best aunt and uncle in the world. You and me, together.”

“And… you’re cool with that?”

She nods. “Marriage and kids don’t mean anything to me if I can’t have them with you. I see that now. You are what I want, Elliot Grey. Forever. If you look at me now and promise me forever, then I’m willing to let go of all the other stuff and just be yours.”

“Kate… I don’t know what to say. I don’t know if I can even take you seriously while you’ve been drinking.”

“This has nothing to do with the alcohol. I told Ana in the limo ride to dinner tonight, before we even started drinking, that I was going to tell you this after the wedding. But I don’t want to wait until the wedding is over. I don’t want to wait another night. Just tell me that you love me, and I’m yours.”

I have no idea what to do. She’s offering me everything I’ve wanted since the second she broke up with me, but I don’t know if I can trust that she really means what she’s saying. I’m scared that if I tell her now that I’ve never stopped wanting her and give in to what she’s proposing, then I’ll be the bad guy who took advantage of a drunk girl in a club when the sun rises. But I don’t want to reject her either. I want her with the same passion that I see in the depths of her eyes. And with my own head swimming with alcohol, it feels impossible not to just give in and ravish her.

“Kate…” I begin, taking a breath to steel myself. “I love you. I love you so much that I feel like I’ve died every day, over and over again, not being with you. I want everything you just said, but I love you enough to wait until you can say them to me sober.”

Her eyes narrow, and then a coy smile plays at the corner of her lips. “The first time I ever fucked you I was wasted and it gave me the greatest thing I’ve ever had. Fuck sober.”

She throws herself into my arms again, using her body and forward momentum to push me into the wall at my back, and her lips come crashing down on mine. The kiss is deep and aggressive, but soft too. It brings me back to a time when we were happy and in love, and after hearing what she’s said and feeling what she’s pouring into me through her kiss, I can’t fight her anymore. I don’t want to.

My arms wrap around her and pull her tightly into my body. I power through her kiss, my tongue tangling with hers until I have just as much control as she does. She moans into my mouth and pulls herself further into me, as though she’s climbing me, and I fully enjoy her enthusiasm until her hand moves down to my belt buckle.

“Kate,” I hiss, admonishing her as I push her fingers away.

“I want you,” she whispers back. Her eyes plead with me, so I reach up to grip her chin with the dip in my hand between my thumb and fingers and kiss her again.

“Not here.”

After looping my belt back through the metal buckle, I take her hand and drag her back out into the main floor, pushing a little too eagerly through the crowd as we go. Once we’re outside, we slide into the first available cab and the moment I’ve given the driver direction, Kate climbs into my lap and kisses me again.

It’s like being in high school. I can’t remember the last time I’ve made out with a girl this long without being inside of her, but the traffic getting out onto Las Vegas Blvd has us trapped in the back of the taxi for well over half an hour. I actually like it, though. It feels intimate, and that’s what I’ve missed with Kate. Not just sex, but a connection that comes from truly knowing someone who knows you just as well in return, and then loving them both for and in spite of all of it. That was what I couldn’t replace when I lost Kate. The thing that made her my soulmate. And feeling her lips against mine and hearing her soft moans and whispered I loves yous as we make our way to the hotel, I feel that connection so strongly, it’s as if it were never lost to begin with.

We don’t break apart once we get to the Venetian. The entire trip to my suite is clumsy because I’m so absorbed in kissing and touching Kate that I can’t even be bothered to look where we’re going. Being closed in the elevator, alone, is almost enough to break what small amount of will power I have left and I nearly take her right there. But the elevator doors open before I fully get my fly undone, so I’m forced to hold out until I get her into the room.

“Say it again,” she whispers against my throat while I fight to get the door to the room unlocked. “Forever. I need to hear you say it again.”

“Forever,” I promise.

Finally, I get the door open and we both stumble inside. Kate nearly falls backwards in her shoes, but I manage to catch her and pull her into me again. As I stare into her eyes, muted in the moonlight, my heart swells nearly to the point of bursting.

Happiness is this moment defined.

“I love you, Katie,” I say, kissing her again. “I’m never going to let you go again.”

She nods and places her hands on either side of my face, staring deeply into my eyes. “Never. This is it, okay? You and me.”

“You and me.” I sweep her into my arms and she leans in to kiss me again while I carry her off to my room. Once inside, I don’t even bother dropping her onto the bed before I climb after her. We fall together, and with my body pinning her small frame beneath me, the animal takes over. My lips and tongue move down her body, tasting every inch of her skin and delighting in it.

“Fuck, I want you,” I whisper, and her hands tangle in my hair encouragingly.

“Then take me. Fuck me, Elliot.”

Her dress is loose and made of a thin material that feels delicate to the touch, so rather than fumble blindly in the dark for her zipper, I grip the fabric at her neckline and tear it open. She whimpers with anticipation as I completely shred the dress down the front, then begin work on the front clasp of her bra while kissing her neck. With her breasts exposed, I only have her panties left to remove, so I reach down for the tiny bit of lace wrapped around her hips while I begin lavishing her nipples with my tongue. Her back arches high of the bed and her moans fill the dead air around me, exciting me, leaving me so hard that my cock starts to ache.

I sit up on my knees to get the condom from my wallet, while Kate begins unfastening my belt again. It’s distracting, especially when she frees my erection and immediately takes me into her mouth.

“Oh fuck,” I hiss. “Mmm, that’s it, Katie.”

She hums and pulls me deep into her throat, holding me there and swallowing over and over again. Each time her throat tightens around the head of my cock, a shockwave of pleasure jolts through me. I’d nearly forgotten how good she was at this, and with all the anticipation that’s built up on the ride over here, I know that if I let her continue it won’t be long before I explode in her mouth.

“Stop, baby. I don’t want to come before I get a chance to fuck you and I’m already close.”

She whines in disappointment but falls back on the bed again. Her eyes glint in the light pouring in through the windows and the shadows that fall across her perfect body accentuate the curves in her breasts and her hardened nipples. My mind floods with all of the things I want to do with her, to her, each more dirty than the next. I pull the condom from the wrapper and move to roll it over my dick while drinking in the sight of her, but as my eyes move down from her breasts and over her stomach, I notice something that takes the breath out of me.

There’s a scar on her side.

One she didn’t have the last time I saw her naked.

One that I recognize immediately.

It’s the same scar that I helped my father dress and bandage a dozen times after his surgery last January. After the impossible transplant that saved his life. The condom falls from my hand as I freeze and instantly, all thoughts of sex fall out of my mind.

“Kate…” My voice shakes. “Wha-what is that?”

“What?” She looks down as though she’s expecting to find something spilled or maybe even a scrape, but when she realizes what I’m looking at, her hand flies up to cover her side and she shakes her head. “Nothing. It’s nothing.”

I pull her hand away and run my finger over the familiar line. “This isn’t nothing. Where did you get this?”

“I told you, I-I was in an accident skiing last Christmas…”

“This isn’t from an accident, Kate. This is a transplant scar. This is the exact same scar my dad has and don’t try to tell me that it isn’t because I would know it anywhere. Where did you get this?”

She swallows. “I-I…”

“Holy shit, it was you, wasn’t it? You were the anonymous donor.”

She hesitates for a moment, but eventually, she nods.

My mind flashes back to the night of the surgery, New Years Eve. Kate had come to the GEH ball and found Gia and I together, then she ran away. When I went to explain myself the next morning, her brother told me she wasn’t home. I thought he was just trying to get me to leave because Kate didn’t want to see me, but that felt strange, even at the time, because Kate has never been the kind of girl who didn’t face what was in front of her. She should have come out and torn into me right there on the lawn for all the neighbors to see after what she saw the night before. It didn’t make sense, and now I see why. She really wasn’t home. She was in surgery.

Suddenly, so many missing pieces fall into place. This is why Ana got so confrontational with Gia and I after my father’s transplant. This is why Kate stopped partying with those socialites. This is why Kate and Christian became best friends out of the blue and started sharing all those private, emotional moments together. This is why Calliope’s middle name is Katherine.

“Wait… Christian knows?”

“Yeah. I was laid up for six weeks after the surgery and he figured it out one weekend when he came to visit Ana.”

“That son of a bitch, why didn’t he tell me?” Anger floods through me as I realize that my own brother kept this secret from me and let me continue on with Gia knowing that the woman I really wanted, who I truly loved, had saved our father’s life. I climb out of bed, storming across the room with the intent of busting into his bedroom and demanding to know why he kept this from me, but Kate catches me at the door.

“Don’t, Elliot. I asked Christian not to tell you. Begged him, even, so that he wouldn’t tell anyone.”

“Why?”

“Because I didn’t want you to think I did this to get you back. I didn’t want your family to feel indebted to me. That’s not why I did it.”

“Then why did you do it?”

“Because I love your dad and he was dying. Do you know what it was like for me when he was diagnosed? How badly I wanted to be at the hospital with all of you when he was getting treatment or when he had his first surgery for the brain tumor? I had to hear everything through Ana and half of what she told me wasn’t even about your dad, it was about how Christian was struggling watching him try to fight. Carrick is like a second father to me and I didn’t get to be there for him. Except for this. This is what I could do to help him. I didn’t want you to show up in Cambridge and make this about us. I wasn’t ready to take you back then and I wasn’t ready to let you back in my life. I didn’t want you to know.”

I’m actually a little taken aback from the hurt I hear in her voice. “Katie, you should have come… My mom and dad love you. They would have loved to have you there with them while my dad was going through treatment.”

She shakes her head. “You know Gia wouldn’t have let that happen. If I had shown up, she would have thrown a fit and you… would have been on her side. Could you imagine what that would have done to your family?”

Yes. I can imagine it so clearly, it’s like I’ve seen it happen before. And in a way, I think I have. My mom always preferred Kate to Gia, and she never even really tried to hide it. If there had been an argument about Kate being present while my dad needed help, Mom would have sided with Kate. Mia too, without a doubt. And, since Christian knew about the transplant, I can’t imagine he would have gone against Kate for anything. I wouldn’t let them all gang up against Gia, not while we were still together.

Just thinking about how I would have turned her away, knowing what I know now, makes me sick.

“Kate… I can’t believe you did this. I can’t believe I wasn’t there to take care of you after… You saved my dad’s life.”

“I know, and I’m glad that I did. You don’t have to feel guilty, Elliot. I had people there for me. This brought Ethan and I closer together, it brought Christian and I closer together, and it reminded me of what was important in life. Family. If I didn’t have this, I don’t know that I’d be standing here, in front of you right now. Because you are my family, Elliot. And Carrick, Grace, Mia, and Christian are my family too. That’s all I want from you and it took all of this for me to realize it. I don’t want a big fan-fare about this, I just want to be a family again. I just want forever.”

The sincerity in her eyes is so poignant, it’s sobers me up. In her confession, I feel something inside of me change. It’s like I finally understand what Christian tried to tell me earlier. Marrying her makes her family. Not in the way she already is, or even in the way I want her to be, but in a way that is much harder to articulate. It’s not about the marriage license or the wedding, it’s about showing her that I don’t just want her there when something tragic happens, but that she has the right to be there. That it’s not just nice to have her around when we have something to celebrate, that she belongs there. In the future that I envisioned for us, she was always supposed to be by my side, through the good and the bad. But through this confession, I can see that vision through her eyes. She would always be an outsider. Welcome, but never really integrated. Separate but equal. Ana is going to be a Grey in two days. That would mean that, in times of tragedy, Kate would be told what we were going to do, but Ana would be a part of the conversation.

And that thought pulls me right back to the waiting room of that hospital in Cambridge, watching Christian being completely destroyed as he was kept away from his own daughter and the woman he loved because there wasn’t anything written down to give him rights. The pain I saw him suffer through all could have been avoided by the piece of paper I’ve convinced myself that I don’t want. I know that he’s not going to love Ana any more next week than he does now simply because they’ve gotten married, but just that one example shows me how important their actual marriage is. He wants to make Ana his family, just as I want to make Kate mine.

Kate said to me back in the club that she doesn’t care about marriage or kids anymore, and that as long as I promise her forever, she’ll be fine if I never propose. I’ve already paid for the ring, but I don’t have to give it to her. I could take it back, sell it, or just put it away in a drawer and never think about it again.

She’s given me the out I’ve been desperate for, but.. I’m not going to take it.

She’s given her own flesh and blood to make herself apart of my family, a platinum band seems like a weak gesture to show her just how much I want her there too. After the sacrifices she’s made, how much she deserves to be there.

Sacrifice.

Love is about sacrifice, and if marrying her, giving her children means I have to sacrifice the carefree, easy, fun lifestyle I’ve always envisioned for myself, is that too big a sacrifice to ask? No. No, it isn’t. I feel the certainty in that more potently than I have ever felt anything before, and as the image of Christmas morning that I’d been fixated on earlier this evening flashes across my mind again, I realize that the hope I’d felt in that fantasy wasn’t hope at all. It was desire. This isn’t even a sacrifice. I want this too. I want to make her happy. I want to give her everything her heart desires. I want her to know just how much I love her and how much I want her to be my family.

I want to marry her.

“Are you mad?” she asks, pulling me out of my inner declarations, and the small note of fear beneath her voice nearly knocks the wind out of me.

“Mad? Why would I be mad?”

“I lied to you.”

“No, you didn’t lie. You told me as much truth as you knew I’d be able to handle. I’m sorry that I wasn’t strong enough, willing enough, to hear the rest.” I take her face in my hands and kiss her once again. Softly this time, and without the drunken urgency that pushed us into this room. Slowly, I back her up to the bed and lay her as gently over the sheets as I can manage. Through my lips and my touch, I try to convey the love and gratefulness I feel for her and attempt to show her how precious she is to me. It works, I think. She moans as I climb over the top of her and move between her legs. And when her body tells me she’s ready, and her eyes implore me, I slowly sink into her.

Her mouth opens in a soft, breathy gasp, but her eyes don’t leave mine. I move inside of her carefully, slowly, using the pleasure not just to get either of us off, but to show her what she means to me. That I love her, absolutely and without exception. And that I always will.

Her eyes finally break from mine as she starts to build towards her orgasm. Her head falls back, her mouth drops open, and her body tightens around me. When she lets go, she drags me with her, and in this moment of pure love making, I am overcome with the most intense orgasm I’ve ever felt in my life. It’s world changing, and has me not just intent on making this perfect woman my wife, but excited over it. Desperate for it.

“I love you, Katie,” I whisper against her lips. “Forever and always.”

“Forever,” she replies, and we kiss again.

Next Chapter

Christian PoV: In the Case of Raymond Steele vs Christian Grey

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Middle of chapter 36

I don’t like being away from the hospital. Not because I’m not over the moon that Ana and Calliope are well enough to leave, but because I’m nervous about both of them being away from the constant supervision of doctors. It was just more than a week ago that I was fighting off medical staff and arguing with Ana’s father over withdrawal of care, and Calliope still only weighs barely 5 lbs. She’s nothing, and it feels as though every bump of the SUV on the road as we make our way to the airport, and every car that merges in front of us is another opportunity for her to break apart entirely. It doesn’t feel real yet. No matter how many times the doctors have reassured me that the woman I love and my child are going to be fine, my body hasn’t accepted it. I’m still tense, ready to fight, and I don’t know how long that’s going to last.

“Wait here,” I tell Ana when we come to a stop in front of my jet at Logan International. “I’ll come around and help you out of the car.”

She rolls her eyes at me. “I’m fine, Christian. Really. I can get out of a car.”

“Wait. Here.” She takes a sharp, defiant breath but ultimately slumps back into her seat as I step out of the car. Her father gives me a slanted look when he climbs out of the front passenger’s seat, but I don’t give it any credence. After last week, I’ll never let anyone tell me I’m being overprotective again.

“Easy,” I say, reaching into the backseat to take Ana’s hand. She winces a little as she steps down from the SUV, but that doesn’t stop her from whirling around and reaching for the carseat that was buckled between us the instant her feet touch the pavement. I watch every movement she makes, looking for any weakness she may still be experiencing. She probably shouldn’t be carrying the carseat, no matter how light Calliope may still be, but getting her away from that baby is never going to happen, and I don’t want to separate them knowing what she went through those first few days in the hospital. Thanks to Carla, I know exactly how losing Calliope feels, and I was only kept away from her for a night. Ana spent days without her.

She turns and starts to make her way to the plane. Taylor, who has been at Logan all morning, comes up to me. “Everything left at the house has been loaded into the cargo bay, sir.”

“And I’ll grab the luggage in the car,” Sawyer adds.

“Good, and thank you. I can’t tell you how invaluable your help has been this last week.”

“It’s our pleasure, sir.” Taylor gives me a rare smile and claps me on the shoulder as I move to follow Ana and her father onto my plane. Ray seems to be treating his daughter in the same overly cautious way I have been as I watch him practically hold her while she takes her seat, but Ana doesn’t seem to find his attention as overbearing as she does mine, which is irritating.

“Ready for take off, sir?” the pilot asks, coming up behind me.

“Yes. Thank you, Stephan.” He nods and disappears back into the cockpit, while I head down the aisle to take my seat next to Ana. Ray chooses a spot a ways back behind us to give Ana and I little space, but as we race down the runway and finally lift off into the air, we’re both seemingly paralyzed with nerves, staring at Calliope. The second we’ve reached cruising altitude and the pilot announces it’s safe for us to move about the cabin, Ana pulls the baby out of the carseat. Only then, with Calliope in her arms, does she relax.

“She’s beautiful, Mr. Grey,” Natalia says, stopping in the aisle next to us to peak at my daughter’s face through the blankets Ana has her swaddled in. “Is there anything I can get for either you or Miss Steele?”

“We’re fine,” I reply, but turn back to look at Ana’s father. “Ray?”

He shakes his head. “No, but… I would like it if you’d join me back here for a moment to have a chat, son.”

Son. Years of lectures from my own father tells me that this particular word means he doesn’t want to pull me aside to discuss our mutual love of the great outdoors. I knew this was coming, once again, thanks to Carla. I just thought I’d have a little more time to prepare myself to answer the questions I know he’s going to ask. I know I’m going to have to be honest with him if he and I are ever going to be able to build a relationship with one another, and since doing that very thing is so important to Ana, I nod and turn to her in the seat next to me.

“I’ll be right back.”

“We’ll be here. Good luck.”

Thanks, babe. I’m REALLY going to need it.

I get out of my seat and follow Ray to the back of the plane. Natalia is hovering behind the curtain between the cabin and cockpit, so as I sit in the seat across from Ana’s father, I gently pull back the barrier to speak with her.

“I’ve changed my mind. I’ll take a bourbon.”

“Ice?”

“Please.” I turn to Ray. “You’re sure you don’t want a drink?”

“A beer, thank you.”

“Imported or domestic?” Natalia asks, and Ray’s brow furrows.

“Uh… Rainier?”

She smiles. “Coming right up.”

We sit in awkward silence until Natalia places our drinks in front of us, then take our first few sips without speaking to one another. The tension between us feels a little like a business acquisition, though with much higher stakes. Thankfully, that’s my area of expertise, so I let the silence linger, forcing him to speak first.

“Well, I suppose I should start by thanking you,” he says at last.

“Thanking me?”

“For fighting for Ana the way you did. For not giving up on her. If it hadn’t been for you, she might not be here right now, and I’m going to carry that with me for the rest of my life. So, thank you, Christian. Thank you for being stronger than I was this week.”

“I’ll always fight for her. She means everything to me, Ray. Everything.”

“I see that now. I can see how much you love her, and I can see how much she loves you. You earned a lot of my respect this week, and I really want to trust you with my daughter and my granddaughter, and I want us to move forward from today as a family.”

“Well… great! That’s all I want.”

“But I need answers from you first. Because I’ve heard things about you that I really don’t like.”

I swallow and nod. “Okay, what do you want to know?”

“Everything. Carla told me that she used to really like you when you and Ana first started dating but that your break up a couple years ago was nasty. She told me that Ana left you because you had protected a child molester and let her go free instead of going to prison all so you could get your hands on the money to start your company. Can you understand how that leaves me with reservations about you, especially with my granddaughter involved now?”

“It’s a little more complicated than what Carla told you.”

“Then uncomplicate it for me.”

He sits back, but continues to stare expectantly at me. I pick up my tumbler, drain it, and leave it on the table for Natalia to fill on her next pass, then brace myself to unfurl my complicated past to this man, who is essentially a stranger to me.

“The child molester wasn’t just some stranger. I have a very long and intricate history with Elena Lincoln. In fact, the child in question was me, though I have some reservations with the word child. I was fifteen when I first slept with her and at the time I did what I did to keep her from going to prison, I didn’t think what she had done to me was wrong.”

I pause, waiting for him to react, but he doesn’t.

“Look, this uncomfortable for me to talk about. I’m just now processing this myself…”

“I understand, but it’s important that I know you and that I know what happened if I’m ever going to be able to trust you.”

I nod. “Okay. Well, I can’t really explain Elena without giving you the whole picture. Keep in mind, I’m not making excuses. I know that I was wrong and that I hurt people. I’ve done everything I know to do in order to make amends for that. It’s just, there were reasons I did what I did…”

I’m stalling, I know that, and by the impatient look on his face, so does he.

“You know that I was adopted. I uh… I was born in Detroit and my biological mother was an addict and a prostitute. I lived the first four years of my life in poverty. My mother was neglectful and didn’t care for me at all, and her pimp was abusive.”

“Abusive, how?”

“I was starved, beaten, and left alone. Sometimes for days.” He leans forward then, his hands folded between his knees and his attention focused only on me. It’s too probing, uncomfortable even. Half the things I tell him next, I’ve only ever told to Flynn. No one else. Not even Ana. And an hour later, as I sit there detailing how it being felt curled under table while I listened to my mother being attacked in the other room, I realize that the look that Anastasia has, the one that makes me feel like she can see right through my protective walls and makes me want to pour my soul out to her, is an inherited trait.

“So what happened to your mother?” Ray asks.

“She overdosed.”

“In front of you?”

I nod. “When she died, no one found me for four days. Thankfully, Grace was the doctor who they brought me to after someone finally collected me from the house and she adopted me a few months later.”

“What happened in the meantime?”

“Foster care.” He raises an eyebrow at me, so I take a breath and delve into everything I can remember about those four months. It isn’t much, but each question he asks bring back a lot of the fear and uncertainty that plagued me during that time. Each emotion that breaks through my practiced stony facade leads to more questions until I’m not even really sure what we’re talking about anymore.

“Alright, so Grace and Carrick adopt you and you move to Seattle with your new family,” he says, redirecting the conversation.

I take a breath and look away from the window and the flat plains of the midwest below. “Yes, and that should have been my happily ever after, but…”

“But?”

My lips press together in hesitation. “Grace and Carrick are very loving parents, but I didn’t take to my new home well. Carrick scared me because the only men I knew before him physically abused me, and I kept waiting for Grace to leave me. Elliot and I got in physical fights a lot when I was young, because violence was all I ever knew, and I hoarded food for years until I finally accepted that it was always going to be there.”

I stop, waiting for him to interject, but he doesn’t. He leans back in his seat, his expectant yet patient look back in place, and waits for me to continue.

“I tried very hard to be a good enough child that Grace and Carrick would want to keep me, but there are things that remained in me, things I’m still struggling with to this day, that made that feel impossible. Touch was the biggest one. I have a real issue with anyone touching me because the only touch I knew growing up caused me pain. My mother’s pimp used me as a kind of ash tray and put cigarettes out on my skin to punish my mother when she didn’t do what he wanted. Since she was addict and completely unreliable, that was often. And that was in addition to the beatings I would get for misbehaving, crying, or… just when he needed something to do. Grace and Carrick were always very kind to me, and gentle, but I still couldn’t bare to be touched by them. By anyone. And when I became a teenager and developed certain… needs, the inability to bear another person’s touch became excruciating.”

“I can imagine.”

“I was lashing out. I starting drinking, I picked fights at school, and I mouthed off to anyone and everyone who thought they had authority over me. I was expelled from three different schools by the time I turned fifteen, and my parents had no idea what to do with me. That’s where Elena comes in. She was my mother’s best friend, and had been my entire life. I grew up with her just as much as I had with Carrick and Grace. She spent holidays with us, went on vacations with us, she even used to watch us when my mother was on call and my father was working late. She was kind to me, and gentle when I was young. I thought of her almost like a second mother. I trusted her that way. My brother, sister, and I even called her Aunt Elena. So, when my mother was finally at her wits end with me after I got expelled for the third time, Elena offered to step in and help. Give me some structure.”

“She hadn’t exhibited any abusive behavior towards you before then? No sexual advances?”

“No.”

“So you really had every reason to trust her…” He pauses, his brow furrowing for a moment. “Does she have children of her own?”

I shake my head. “No. She was never interested in being a mother.”

“Then… why did Grace send you to her?”

“She has a certain presence about her. Something in her eyes and the way she holds herself that commands attention and respect. She can be very cold. Even before we had a sexual relationship, she was one of the only people I would listen to. Maybe I was scared of her. Maybe I was drawn to her dominant personality. I don’t know, but she was always the one person who could put me in my place. Though, when my parents asked for her help, I was going to ensure that I put an end to that.”

“Alright,” he says, nodding. “So, your parents call Elena, and then…”

“I was sent to her house to do some landscaping work, but I spent the entire afternoon being as difficult as I could possibly be. I did a shitty job with anything she asked me to do and I mouthed off at her every chance I got. But she didn’t take that the way my parents did. That afternoon I took it too far and she retaliated. She slapped me, hard, right across the face and while I was still reeling from the shock of that, she kissed me. Not like an aunt would, like a lover. It was my first real kiss and I can’t explain to you how it made me feel. It didn’t scare me, and it was the first time anyone had ever touched me where I didn’t feel fear. Do you know what that’s like? To be fifteen and horny as hell, but terrified of having anyone touch you. And then to have this beautiful woman somehow overcome that? She felt like my savior.”

I pause, because those words now leave a bitter taste in my mouth, and Ray leans in towards me.

“So you started sleeping with her?”

I nod. “Yeah. Look, you’re Ana’s dad and I don’t know how much into that part of the story you want to get or how much I even really want to tell you, but I did more than just sleep with her. Elena was a part of the BDSM community. She was a Domme, and when she introduced me to sex, she brought me into that lifestyle with her. I was a submissive to her. I did what she told me to do, I acted the way she wanted me to, and she rewarded and punished me accordingly.”

“Sexually?”

“Yes, when I behaved. She would beat me when I didn’t. My therapist tells me now that the abusive side of our relationship is what bonded me to her. She behaved in the way I expected her to behave, based on my past, and it’s what made her touch feel safer than anyone else’s. I wasn’t fearful of her touch because I knew when and how the pain would come. She removed all uncertainty for me. But it also made me dependent on her. Under her direction, I started doing better in school. Exemplary, in fact. I became an honor roll student and everything I pursued outside of school and outside of her was academic in nature. She made me respect my parents and my teachers, and miraculously my life became easier. I believed she was helping me, but, in reality, she was just reinforcing all the negative things I already believed about people. I shut down. I cut myself off emotionally from my family and I stopped trying to trust people. The only person I allowed myself to be vulnerable with was Elena and she controlled me. Not that I cared. I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, and I was getting laid. That’s all that mattered to me. I actually thought I was lucky, and I did everything I could to be what she wanted me to be so that I could keep what we had together. I even took her beatings gratefully. Safe words didn’t mean anything to me. I would have never stopped her from doing anything, because I wanted to be everything she wanted me to be. She knew that, and she used that against me.”

“So, what was the turning point.”

“You’re… uh, not going to like that answer.”

“Why not?”

“Because it comes later than I like to admit. Than I’m sure you want to know…”

His back goes rigid, and his eyes seem to ice over. “Later? As in, when you were dating my daughter?”

I shake my head. “No, there was no overlap between Ana and Elena. Not sexually anyway…”

“But there was overlap?”

“In a way. When I graduated from high school and went to college, it was the first time I’d ever been on my own. For the first time in my life, Elena wasn’t there to watch everything I did. That’s when I met your daughter, and what I felt for her was instant and irreversible. People say that love at first sight isn’t real, but it is. From the first time I ever heard her speak, I loved her. But I didn’t want to. I couldn’t. Elena had me under contract to serve her and only her and I thought I was happy with her. I thought I needed her. So I tried everything to push your daughter away. Everything. But I couldn’t stay away from her. She was like the sun after a long winter. She was warm and kind. Even when I was avoiding her and trying to get her out of my head, I was always watching her from afar. The times I let myself talk to her felt amazing. She’s funny and intuitive and smart. I’d never met a girl like her before and she had me completely enraptured. I started thinking about her when I shouldn’t have been, like… when I was with Elena. It was wrong and I fought it, but eventually, I knew that what I was feeling for Ana was stronger than I was. Than my need for Elena was. I had to be with her. So I broke things off with Elena and I went after Ana.”

“To be clear, you’re telling me now that you ended your relationship with this woman before you started a relationship with my daughter?”

“Yes.”

“You didn’t cheat on her?”

“No. God, no. I would never be unfaithful to Anastasia.”

“If you weren’t unfaithful to her, then how did you end up in a courtroom lying for Elena while you were dating Anastasia?”

“Elena didn’t want to let go. For the first few months Ana and I dated, she did everything she could to break us up. But Ana wouldn’t let her. So, Elena started going after her. She tried to turn my parents against her, she tried to intimidate her, and eventually, she tried to make me believe that I couldn’t trust her.”

“What do you mean?”

“She hired someone I went to school with, someone I didn’t like very much, to seduce Ana and make her cheat on me. When that didn’t work, he… kind of forced her to.”

“What?” He shouts so loud, Anastasia’s head whips around so she can look at us. I want to do something to calm the nervousness I see in her eyes, but Ray’s face is growing steadily redder and his fingers are curling into a fist.

“It was kiss. Just a kiss.” Those words, and the reassuring way I have to say them, taste like poison on my tongue. “He didn’t touch her beyond that. Believe me, he’d be dead if he did. But, he did kiss her and Elena took a picture of it and sent it to me. It almost worked. Ana had to force me to see reason and when she did, I lost it. We were at an event with my parents and I went off on Elena. I screamed at her, told her to leave us alone, and her husband overheard everything.”

“Wait,” Ray interrupts me. “She was married?”

I nod. “Unhappily, but yes. I was an affair for her. So, when her husband heard what we had done together, he told my parents. And my father, being the lawyer that he is, pursued legal action against her. A trial date was set and I met with the prosecutor to lay everything out. But as the trial came closer and closer, I started to feel guilty. I hated her for what she did to Ana, but I believed that what we had done together was consensual. I believed that I played just as big of a roll in it as she had. And, while I was happy to have her out of my life and away from Ana, I started to think that the punishment she was facing for what we’d done together was undeserved. Remember, before Ana, I thought she was helping me. I thought she saved me. I thought I owed everything to her. So when she called me before the trial and asked me to help her, offered me money to help me get my company started as way of apologizing for what she’d done to Ana and I over the past few months, and told me she would disappear from my life forever… I agreed. I shouldn’t have. It’s my single biggest regret. But I did. I went into the courtroom and, under oath, I lied. I said we never had a relationship and they let her go.”

“I thought that would be the end of it, but it wasn’t. My father was furious and humiliated, it nearly destroyed our relationship. He cut me out and wouldn’t let me see my sister, who is one of the most important people to me in the entire world. And when Ana found out about the money, she left me. She wouldn’t even talk to me. I called her to apologize every day for almost two years, and she wouldn’t even pick up the phone. I had everything I thought I wanted once my company came to fruition, except none of it made me happy. I had nothing without Ana, and no amount of money or success could fill the void she left in my life. My heart was broken. I was miserable and alone and I had no reason to believe Ana would ever forgive me. So I reached out to the only person in the world who didn’t hate me.”

“Who?”

I swallow. “Elena.”  

The look of reserved understanding on his face fades in an instant, but before I lose any progress I may have gained up to this point, I start back tracking.

“It was wrong, I know that. I was weak and I still hadn’t accepted that what she and I had together before Ana was wrong. I hate it, but she and I have a connection that isn’t easy to get out from under. She knows the darkest parts of me and she doesn’t make me feel bad about them or force me to deal with my shit. In some ways, my relationship with Elena is easier than any relationship that I’ve ever had. Her past is just as fucked up as mine is and I don’t have to be perfect for her to care about me. Or at least, that’s the way it felt. Whenever I needed someone, she was always there. Elena always answered the phone. But… that’s only because I was useful to her. Without my parents or Ana around, there was no one to contradict her or stop her from reinforcing the same bullshit she fed to me when I was a kid. And I bought it. She blinded me to the things I had done wrong and the ways that I had hurt people, because I couldn’t face it. She made me feel like everyone around me was overreacting and that the ire I got for what I’d done was undeserved. I believed her, because it was easier and less painful than facing reality. But easier didn’t get me Ana back and that was the only thing I cared about.”

“So, let me get this straight… You make a deal with a woman that makes Ana break up with you, and then while you’re broken up, you rekindle that relationship with this woman, and then expect me to believe you spent that time wanting Ana back?”

“It wasn’t the same relationship. Nothing sexual has occured between Elena and I for years… “

“But you let her back into your life?”

“Yes. She and I talked a few times and then when her business started going under, I helped her get it back on track. We were business partners for a while.”

“Huh. Funny how Ana didn’t want to talk to you.”

“Well, she didn’t know.”

“Oh, so you lied to her?”

“No, Ray…” I pause, thinking very carefully about how I want to continue from here so that I don’t dig myself into a deeper hole. “I was alone and I was weak. Elena took advantage of that, and I let her. I’m not proud of it. But I called Ana everyday to try and make things right with her and she wouldn’t even talk to me. I didn’t know if she would ever take me back. I didn’t know if she would ever even pick up the phone.”

“So, why did she?”

“She did it for Elliot. He was the only person who fought for me back then. He was in Cambridge, living with Ana and Kate, so he wasn’t around to make me see what I was doing, the path that I was going down… Truthfully, he was never the person who could have gotten through to mee. But he did ask Ana to speak with me. And then, on April 10th of last year, she answered when I called and she forced me to start dealing with what I had done. Getting her back was paramount to me, so I did everything she asked me to do. I cut off all non-business ties with Elena. I reached out to my family and tried to rebuild a relationship with them. And I started seeing a therapist. It took a long time, but he made me finally see Elena the way everyone else did, the way she actually was. And the moment I came to terms with what she’d done to me, I was disgusted. Not just by what she and I had done together, but with what I had done in defense of it. That I had lied to my parents for her, for years. That I had fought with Ana for as long as I did about her. That I had lied, in court, to protect her. It kills me to think about it now. If I could go back and undo what I did, I would. But, I can’t. Not just because of what the consequences of admitting what I did would mean for me, but what they would mean for the people I care about and the people who work for me. Who rely on me to support their families.”

He sighs and slumps back into his seat, looking away from me and rubbing his hand over his chin as he processes everything I’ve told him. I don’t know what else to say, I don’t know if there is anything more to say, so I just let it lie there and wait for him to speak again.

“Where is she now?”

“Prison. She got caught running an underground prostitution ring and laundering the profits through the salons she and I ran together. I didn’t know about it. She hid what she was doing very well and once I found out, I turned her into the police. She tried to pin it on me, but my father and I wouldn’t let her, and she was sentenced to fifteen years in September.”

“And how do you feel about that?”

“Relieved. She’s up for parole in five years, but I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

He nods, but there’s not a great deal of conviction behind his eyes.

“You don’t believe me?”

“I want to, Christian. I want to believe that you simply made a mistake. That you were really only a kid and that you let an adult, who you had every reason to trust, take you down the wrong path. I want to believe you’re truly sorry for everything that happened and that we can shake hands now and move forward without you ever giving me a reason to question you or your intentions ever again. Because truth be told, I don’t know how much what I think of all of this matters. Ana loves you. You two share a child together, and she’s going to do what she wants to do.”

“But…”

He shakes his head. “I don’t know. I don’t know if there is a ‘but’. Look, I can see the pain you’re in talking about this, Christian. I can hear it in your voice. And I can see that you really do love my daughter, all of this other stuff aside. You showed me that this week. And, hell, why wouldn’t you? She’s my Annie. No one knows better than me how easy it is to be completely and utterly wrapped up in loving her. In a different way, of course, but in a way that I don’t think is any less powerful. That’s my baby, Christian. Not my flesh and blood, but my daughter nonetheless and there is nothing I wouldn’t do to protect her and her heart. I would kill for that girl, do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir. But I intend to never give you reason to even feel the need to protect her. Not from me.”

“You see… that’s the part that I can’t let go. The need to protect her from you.”

“Elena and I are over, Ray. I–”

“That’s not what I’m talking about. I told you, I believe you when you say you’re done with her and that you regret what happened with her in the past. But, that’s not the only thing that has me worried. I checked up on you when I got home. I had a little bit of a relationship with Elliot because of the letters he sent me in Iraq, so I talked to him about you, but he obviously had nothing to say but glowing praise. Carla couldn’t have been paid to say something positive, though now I’m obviously doubting her judgement all together. Taylor really didn’t comment much, just confirmed that you two seemed happy and he didn’t have any reason to be concerned for Ana. But, Luke…”

He pauses and my body tenses with a shock of heat. Sawyer.

He’s sitting at the back of the plane next to Taylor, I can see the top of his head over his seat, and I narrow my eyes as I feel the all too familiar anger that seems to be reserved solely for him.

“And what did Luke say?”

“That you’re in love. He told me how miserable she was without you, how long it took her to even attempt acting normal after the two of you broke up, and how you make her happy. But he also had some concerns over some of your more… controlling tendencies. For all the trust you say you want to earn in regards to my daughter, it seems to me you don’t trust her very much.”

“That’s not true.”

“Then why did she lie to you about Leila Williams?”

“What?”

“Luke told me after what happened to her over spring break, that your security team suspected Leila Williams might be involved in a kidnapping attempt since the previous October. I asked him why you didn’t do something to stop it then, if you’d had five months to prepare, and he said you didn’t know. Ana didn’t tell you about the scare she’d had in New York.”

“And had she, I would have done everything I could have to stop her.”

“But she didn’t. Why do you think that is?”

I swallow, forcing myself to keep my composure under his persistent stare. The problem is, I know the answer, but it’s not going to do me any favors. “Probably because she thought I would try to make her leave school and move back to Seattle.”

“That’s what Luke thought too. He seems to think you’re a little overbearing when it comes to Anastasia. Like everything she does has to go through you first and that you have the final say about what she does and doesn’t do.”

“I care about her safety.”

“So do I. So does Luke. But neither of us tried to take Harvard away from her. I agree that her safety needed to be a priority, but her achieving her dreams and finding fulfillment in her life needs to be balanced with that. Harvard has been Ana’s dream since she was ten years old and she worked to get there. It’s why I was willing to re-enlist to help her pay for it. From what I hear, you encouraged her to leave school on several occasions, and not just for her safety, but because you didn’t want her so far away from you. Because you were lonely. She may not have dropped out but she did fly back to be with you every weekend when she should have been at school. And after what happened over spring break, you refused to let her go unless you went with her. I heard those words come out of your mouth. To me, that implies that you believed it was your choice whether she went back or not. That she was only there by your permission. Do you see how that raises some red flags?”

I hang my head. “You’re right. I asked her to leave Harvard. When she told me she was pregnant my first reaction was elation, because I thought it meant she was going to move home. I don’t like being away from her. I hated every second of living apart for those six months. When it comes to keeping her safe, there’s nothing I won’t do and sometimes that means I feel like I have to disregard what she wants for what she needs. Maybe that’s unreasonable. Maybe that’s a flaw in the intensity of the love I feel for her, but your daughter would never let me steamroll her. Everytime I asked her to come home, to push her dream aside and to be with me, she never even considered it. She told me no. I might come off as overbearing sometimes, I admit that, but Ana has no problem going toe to toe with me when she needs to. And more often than I like to admit, even I’m not a match for her. And I would never take a dream away from her. I asked her to stay, but when she told me no, I didn’t try to stand in her way. I’ll never stand in her way, Ray.”

“What if she wants to leave you?”

I can’t even answer that. “What?”

“If she decides she’s unhappy and she wants to leave,” Ray continues. “If she comes to you, years from now, and says she wants a divorce, what are you going to do? You have a lot of money, Christian, and money is power. I worry about what that will mean if she decides she wants out. If she decides that she wants anything that you don’t. If you become unsafe. You have people that follow her everywhere she goes. You monitor everything she does. That’s not healthy for my daughter.”

I take a breath. “The very idea that Ana would want to leave me someday is my absolute worst nightmare. If she came to me and told me that she wasn’t happy, she didn’t love me, and she wanted to go, I would fight for her. I would do everything I could to change her mind and stop her from going. I can’t deny that. But if she really wanted to go, I don’t think I could keep her. Not just because Ana has more power than I think you’re giving her credit for, but because I truly want her to be happy. As much as it would kill me, if I wasn’t making her happy, I wouldn’t stand in her way when she tried to leave.”

He sits for a long time, watching me, and I hate it. I hate that this is where the conversation is resting. I hate that it came here at all.

“Look me in the eye, Son,” he says at last, sitting forward so that he’s leaning into the space between us. “You’re a father now, so I want you to put yourself in my shoes, because Ana may be grown up, but she’s still my baby girl. If Calliope came to you with a man who told you all of the things that you just told me, what would he have to say to make you trust your daughter’s future to him?”

“I don’t know,” I reply honestly. “ I don’t think there is anything he could say to make me trust him. Because even if he was perfect, I don’t think that would be enough to convince me that he was good enough for my daughter. Maybe you don’t think I’m good enough for Ana, and maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m not. But I will spend the rest of my life trying to be. I’ve been selfish in the past and I’m not perfect, but I swear to you, Ray, I will never take your daughter for granted. I will never hurt her, I will never betray her, and I will treat her every day the way I would expect someone to treat my daughter someday. I wholly and absolutely love Anastasia, and her trust, her respect, and her happiness mean everything to me.”

It takes a long time, and the silence that hovers between us is more uncomfortable than any I think I’ve ever experienced before. But, eventually, he nods. “Then I have nothing to worry about.”

“Excuse me?”

“Look, all I care about is that my daughter is happy, healthy, and free to pursue her dreams. It seems to me that we’re on the same page about that. As long as we remain on the same page about that, you and I won’t have a problem. If that ever changes, we will and you won’t like what happens then. I can be a very scary man, Christian. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir. You have nothing to worry about.”

“Good. Then, welcome to the family, Christian.”

I’m relieved. I hadn’t realized before how important Ray’s approval was, but now that I have it, it’s like the whole world has been lifted off my shoulders.

“Thank you.”

“So, all that’s left is for you and I to get to know one another.” He picks up his bottle of beer and takes a long pull until it’s empty. I motion for Natalia, point to both our empty drinks, and finally relax back into my seat.

“Well, this may come as a shock to you, Ray, but with everything I just told you, you are now one of the people who know me better than anyone else in the world.”

“Nah, I don’t want to know about your past, I want to know who you are as a person.”

“Okay, well… what would you like to know?”

He narrows his eyes again, considering. “Who’s your hero?”

“That depends, I think. Uh… Elon Musk for his determination and his imagination. William Boeing for… being everything that I want to be, and my father.”

“Carrick?”

“He loved a kid he didn’t have to, one who tried everything he could to get him to stop. Our relationship hasn’t always been great but whenever I’ve needed him, he’s been there. He’s never given up on me.”

“Yeah, you don’t ever give up on your kids. You’ll learn that. Just wait until Calliope does something that you just really want to strangle her for, but then you look into her eyes and suddenly, whatever it was doesn’t matter anymore.”

“Oh, I’m already fully prepared to give that girl anything and everything she could ever want. Have you seen her? She’s perfect.”

He laughs, and then looks up to smile at Natalia, who has returned with our drinks. “You know, I think I could get used to this.”

“Tip of the iceberg, Ray. Just wait until this summer when we get to do some deep sea fishing off my yacht. You’ve haven’t lived until you pull in your first bluefin tuna.”

“And you haven’t really even fished until you wrangle a sturgeon out of the Skagit. We should go out this summer, me, you, Carrick, and Elliot. Camp on the river banks and fish all day. Just us guys. That’s the good life.”

“My dad would love that. It’s been a while since we’ve really roughed it, but he loved all of that back in his younger days.”

 

We spend the last couple hours of the flight home talking, and now that he’s relaxed and we’re able to talk about mutual interests, of which there are a surprising amount, I find that I actually really like Ray. I can see a lot of Ana in him, especially when we start talking about football. He makes the exact same expression and goes on the same furious rant that she does when I bring up Super Bowl 40, and when I ask him about the upcoming season, he too lays out all of the team’s problems and gives solutions as if he had an inside track to the inner workings of the NFL.

Eventually, the pilot announces our arrival in Seattle and asks us to fasten our seatbelts, but I haven’t had a chance to speak with my security team the entire flight so I try to excuse myself, but he stops me again.

“One last thing…”

“Yeah?”

“Ana is, well, she’s my everything. She wasn’t even a year old when I became her step-father, and from the moment I first held her…” He stops, swallowing hard as if he’s trying to push down the emotions crawling up into his throat. “I tucked her into bed every night, I kissed her tears away after every hurt, and I held her through every sickness. She’s always been the one thing that I truly, truly loved, and no matter what, she’ll always have my heart. Giving her away isn’t easy. So, man to man, father to father, just be good to my baby.”

“I intend to, sir.”

He smiles, then reaches out to shake my hand. I take it, but my fingers barely close around his before he gets out of his seat and pulls me into a hug. It’s surprising, which isn’t great for the remnants of my touch issues, but I manage to keep myself from pushing him away. Instead, I hug him back, then give him the least awkward smile I can manage when I pull away.

“You should stay with us for a few days,” I offer. “It’ll give you time to bond with Calliope and I know it would mean a lot to Ana.”

“Oh, I don’t want to intrude…”

“No, please. Really, I’d like it if you stayed.”

Slowly, a smile creeps across his lips. “Alright then. Thank you, Christian.”

“It’s my pleasure. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I really do need to check in with Taylor.” He nods, so I shake his hand again, then turn to the back of the plane while Ray goes to check on Ana. I glance over my shoulder as he sits, but Ana’s smile melts away the last of my concern.

“Everything alright, sir?” Taylor asks.

“Fine. What’s the transport situation look like?”

“Ryan is waiting for us at SeaTac. I didn’t know if I needed to arrange separate transportation for Captain Steele, but Sawyer has volunteered to drive him home tonight if need be.”

“I think he plans to stay with us for a few days at least,” I say, my tone colder now because of my still potent irritation with Sawyer over the things he said to Ray about me. “Anything to report from Escala?”

“No, sir. Gail returned home this morning and didn’t find anything unusual. I’ve given Kommer and Cardella a few days off. Now that we’re back home, we’re going to need to rethink our coverage strategy. Luke here will still be Miss Steele’s primary but I think it’s more important than ever that she has a female CPO with her, now that she’ll have the baby with her.”

“I agree, but Cardella was the last person inside the Arts Center before Ana’s graduation. She was either negligent or she aided whoever he is to get that locket into Ana’s hands. I want you to find out which it is and deal with it accordingly.”

“Yes, sir.”

There’s a slight lurch as the plane finally touches ground and automatically, I look out the window at the glow from Seattle in the distance. Already the rain has obscured the windows, but the sound of it bouncing off the exterior of the plane carries all the comforting feelings of home. For me at least. The last time we were in this city, someone tried to steal Anastasia off the streets and threatened her life. I have no idea how that’s going to affect her going forward, and, in case she doesn’t take well to being back here, I want us all to be prepared.

Once the plane comes to a stop and I can finally stand, I glance over my shoulder at Anastasia again and see her smiling at Calliope, who is fast asleep in Ray’s arms. If she’s feeling any trepidation over being back she’s not showing it. Yet.

“Alright,” I tell my team. “Let’s go home.”

Next Chapter

Hold On… For This is Gonna Hurt Like Hell.

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Chapter 35

Carla PoV:

I’ve never experienced anything quite like the feeling that overcomes me while seeing Ana lying limp on the floor in a puddle of her own blood. The shock is so potent, I can’t even scream. The only thing I can do is shake and stare. I’m horrified. Paralyzed. Watching Grace slide a needle into Ana’s skin for the blood transfusion and hearing Christian’s feeble attempt to comfort her and assure her that she’s going to be okay all occurs as some kind of out of body experience. This is all happening and not happening at the same time. When Ana’s head once again lolls back and her eyes close, my body seizes with fear.

“Ana, open your eyes, sweetheart,” Grace says, the first hint of panic breaking through her otherwise perfectly calm and focused demeanor. “Is she out again?”

Christian shifts her so that he holds her entire body between his right arm, his knee, and his torso, then he cups her face with his left palm. “Open your eyes, Ana. Please. Please, baby, open your eyes. You have to stay awake. Stay with me.”

“Bloodline’s in,” Grace says. “Elliot, do you see the ambulance yet?”

“Not yet.”

“Son of a–” Her eyes dart back down to Ana and the stain of blood in the carpet between her legs, which is growing steadily larger with each passing second. It’s obvious that she’s warring over something but can’t decide what to do. After a few long seconds watching her agonize, she finally looks back up at Christian, and there are tears welling in her eyes.

“You might have to make a choice.”

“What choice?”

“The baby gets her oxygen from Ana’s blood, but since the placenta has detached from the uterus, Calliope’s blood supply has been cut off. Unless that ambulance is pulling up to this house right now, she needs to be delivered or she’s going to suffocate.”

“And, Ana?”

Grace shakes her head. “I don’t have a way to stop the bleeding. If I cut her open, she’ll bleed out right here on the floor. She might anyway.”

“No.” He shakes his head, and his complexion develops an almost green hue. “The ambulance is coming. She’s going to be fine. They both are. Any second the ambulance is going to be here.”

“Christian, we don’t have time to wait…”

“I’m not choosing between Ana and Calliope!”

“She chose for you,” Ray interrupts. His face crinkles with pain as he looks down at the IV in his arm delivering life saving blood to our daughter and sniffs loudly. “If we can’t save them both, Ana chose Calliope.”

“No, she doesn’t get to make that decision!” Christian shouts, and something in the finality of his timber awakens a fire inside of me. It burns away the shock that has held me frozen in place, and leaves me to feel the full force of the rage, hurt, and vindication I never wanted building deep inside my gut. This is his fault. He wasn’t careful with her, and she got pregnant. She had a high risk pregnancy, and he forced her to fly back and forth across the country every weekend for six months of it. And this, what’s happening right now, was triggered by a phone call from a man who has threatened to hurt her and her child over and over again, all because of him.

My daughter is dying on the floor in front of me.

The adrenaline triggered by the fear of that statement kicks in and I’m no longer paralyzed. I launch myself across the room, at the man who has done this to her.

You don’t get to make this decision!” I snap at him. “She isn’t yours! She’s my daughter. This is our choice. Mine and Ray’s.”

“She is my fiance, and she is carrying my child!”

“Yeah, and look what you did to her.”  

“Ambulance is here!” Elliot exclaims from the window, and instantly the tension brewing between myself and Christian vanishes as the room devolves into chaos. Elliot opens the front door to save the emergency crew time while Carrick and Ethan come around to pull Christian away from Ana so that she can be moved more quickly. Kate has her arms around Mia, who is breaking into hysterics, and Bob sits in his seat behind me, staring blankly into the room the way I had been only seconds ago. The moment the paramedics come through the door, Grace is right back in doctor mode, giving a rundown of everything that’s happened and a brief overview of her medical history.

“I’m going with her,” Christian says, pulling out of Carrick and Ethan’s grip, but the paramedic shakes his head.

“Only room for one and we’ve gotta take the guy with the transfusion line in his arm.”

“What hospital are you going to?” I ask

“CHA.”

I nod and turn back to the living room. “Bob, my coat. We’ll meet them there.” He reaches for my jacket, laid over the back of the couch, and gets to his feet. I push him as quickly as possible towards the back door so we can get out of the house without getting in the way of the emergency crew and take the keys to the rental car out of my coat pocket. None of the Greys pay any mind to my departure.

“Should we wait until they get her in the ambulance?” Bob asks, glancing over his shoulder at the flashing lights behind us as we move down the street to where our car is parked.

“No. I want to get there as quickly as possible. I don’t want Christian to get there before we do.”

“Why?”

“You heard Grace, there’s a choice that’s going to have to be made. I’m not leaving that choice up to Christian Grey. He’s poison and, as long as we continue pretending that isn’t true, neither Ana or Calliope will ever be safe. You saw the blood, Bob. Ana might die today. If she does, I won’t let him do to my grandchild what he did to my daughter.”

“Carla, he didn’t do this.”

“That’s not what he said. He said that she would be safe if she left him. She didn’t and look at her now.”

“Baby, I know those phone calls scared you but you can’t blame Christian for a pregnancy complication…”

“We knew this was a high risk pregnancy and we knew she needed to watch her stress levels. He’s the reason she’s been stalked and harrassed by this person, and he doesn’t even care! He may not have held a gun to her head, but if she dies today then make no mistake, he killed her.”

“Carla…”

“Are you coming or not?”

“I think we should wait. You’re angry and scared. You’re not thinking straight.”

“Of course I’m not thinking straight! That’s my daughter, Bob. That’s my baby and I think–I think I’m going to lose her today.”  

“I know. That’s why we need to come together as a family right now.”

“The Greys are not my family.”

“They love Ana.”

“Then they should have protected her from him.” I’m out of time. I can hear the commotion of the paramedics wheeling Anastasia out of the house and the tears and terrified questions that follow them. Christian will be on his way to the hospital soon and I have to get there before he does if I have any hope of keeping him, and the man on the phone, away from my grandchild. He’ll come after her, the same as he came for Ana, and Christian will do nothing to stop him.

“You should stay here,” I tell Bob as I open the car door. “I’ll call you with an update as soon as I have one.”

“Carla…”

His protests cut off when I climb into the driver’s seat and slam the door closed behind me. Instead he begins knocking on the passenger’s side window but I ignore him, turn the key in the ignition, and take off down the road. I know he thinks I’m losing it, hell maybe I am. But everything that man told me about Ana has come true. He told me he would take her, and he nearly succeeded. He told me he’d never stop coming after her or Calliope, and he hasn’t. He told me that if I couldn’t make Ana see reason and convince her to leave Christian for good, she’d be dead before the end of the school year. It’s graduation now and she’s being loaded into the back of an ambulance. Grace said herself that she might die no matter what we do. Perhaps this was his plan all along. Christian could keep him at bay with security officers, surveillance cameras, and locked doors, but he couldn’t stop something like this. Not without giving into his demands.

He played on our weaknesses, and he’s succeeded.

So, I won’t leave this up to Christian anymore, or even Ana. She’s too blinded by her heart to do what’s necessary to protect herself and her child. But I’m not. I may not be able to change her mind, but if Calliope survives this, I will not let her leave in the arms of anyone with the last name of Grey. I’ll take her myself. Hide her. Change her name and lie about her parentage, if I have to.

I will protect her, no matter what it takes.

Luckily, the hospital isn’t far from the hotel we’ve been staying in, so I know exactly how to get there. I fly through traffic as quickly as I can, cutting off more than one person in my rush to get across town and only stopping when I’m passed by the ambulance carrying my daughter. Angry horns follow me the entire way there, but it’s not hard to ignore. I’m focused. Determined.

I practically sprint into the emergency room once I arrive, and they direct me to a seperate floor where Ana will be taken for surgery. The waiting room is filled with nervous looking families, some clinging to each other more than others. I ignore all of them and, instead, make a beeline for the help desk where a squat looking woman waits, tapping on a keyboard with overly long acrylics.

“Hi, I’m looking for my daughter,” I say, urgently.

“Name?”

“Anastasia Steele. They just brought her in. She’s had a-a… A placental abruption? I think that’s what it’s called.”

“Okay, let me see… Yes, she’s in surgery now. We’ll let you know as soon as there’s an update.”

“Thank you. And… a man named Christian Grey is about to come in here. It is imperative that no information is given to him or any of the people he comes in with regarding the status of my daughter or her child. Not his parents, not his brother or sister, not Katherine Kavanagh, no one.”

Her brow furrows. “I’m sorry… is he the father?”

“It’s not a good situation and they’re not married. He’s… violent. I’m her next of kin and I’m telling you that I don’t want anyone to get updates about her or the baby who isn’t immediate family. Her father or me, that’s it. I’ll sign something if I have to.”

She considers me for a long moment, but ultimately shakes her head. “No, that won’t be necessary. As next of kin, you have that right. I’ll… I’ll just put a note here.”

“Thank you.”

“Of course. Just have a seat over there. The doctor will be with you as soon as he can.”

 


 

Christian PoV:

The moment the paramedics have her on the gurney, I’m at her side again. Her skin feels cold when I take her hand in mine. She shows absolutely no sign of life as she’s wheeled from the house to the ambulance, except for the fleeting, weak heartbeat I can feel from the inside of her wrist. Her fragile, pale wrist.

“I’m right here, baby,” I say when they start loading her into the back of the ambulance. “I’m going to be right behind you. I love you…”

Her father looks at me, but it’s only a quick glance as the doors close and the emergency crew climbs into the front of the vehicle to whisk her off to the hospital. When they pull out of the driveway and around the corner at the end of the street, I collapse to my knees.

“Come on, Christian,” Elliot says, coming up beside me and trying to pull me to my feet. “Let’s get to the hospital.”

I nod and use him to stand, but before he’s able to lead me back into the house to regroup with the rest of the family, Ana’s step-father ambles into the driveway from the street. When he looks at me, his face becomes contorted with pain.

“Christian. I’m… I’m so sorry.”

My heart thuds heavily in my chest. His words sound like a condolence, as though I’ve already lost her. But I haven’t. I won’t. This isn’t the end and I won’t let it be.

“Ana’s going to need me once she’s out of surgery,” I say firmly. “We need to get to the hospital.”

Elliot nods and tries to lead me back to the house, as though he’s afraid I’m going to collapse again, but I shake him off. She’s going to be fine. Calliope is going to be fine. I don’t need his support.

 

Thankfully, I have Taylor and Ana’s Lexus because standing around while my family decides who must go or who will ride with who and in which rental car is maddening. We’re the first to leave the house and the first to arrive at the hospital. When we’re directed from the Emergency Room to the trauma floor, I’m practically running through the pristine, sterile hallways.

“Anastasia Steele,” I tell the woman waiting behind the help desk, not bothering to wait for her to greet me. She looks up and smiles.

“Name and relation to the patient?”

“Christian Grey. I’m her fiancé.”

Her smile disappears. “I’m sorry, sir. I can’t give you any information on this patient.”

“Well, is she in surgery?”

“Again, I apologize, but I can’t tell you anything about this patient’s condition.”

“I know there’s no prognosis yet, I just want to know that she’s been admitted and that she’s in surgery.”

“Perhaps I’m not being clear. I am not authorized to give you any information about this patient, period. We’ve been instructed to release details of her condition only to her next of kin. If you have questions, you’ll need to speak with her immediate family.”

“Family? No, I’m her family.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Grey. But I can’t help you. You’re free to have a seat and wait, if you’d like.”

Wait? Wait with what? She’s given me nothing. Does she really expect me to sit with no indication if Ana has even been brought in yet? If my daughter has been born?

“Look…” I begin, trying to contain my growing anger with the woman obstructing me so I can be diplomatic, but Taylor stops me.

“Mr. Grey, Mrs. Adams is sitting right over there.” I turn in the direction he points me and see Carla sitting across the waiting room, flipping anxiously through a magazine. My jaw clenches as I look back to the woman behind the desk.

“I’ll have your job,” I warn her, then push away from the counter and storm through the sea of chairs to Ana’s mother.

“Is she in surgery?” I demand immediately.

“Hello, Christian.”

Ana. Is she in surgery? Has my baby been born?”

Carla takes a deep breath, then places the magazine on the chair next to her. “I think you should leave, Christian.”

“Leave? What do you mean leave? Ana is–”

“I know exactly where Ana is. I know exactly where you put her.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you. I told Ana that you were dangerous for her but she didn’t listen to me and now look where she is.”

The muscles throughout my entire body tense as the cocktail of irritation, pain, and rage boils through me. When I speak again, it’s through clenched teeth. “Has she been taken in for surgery yet?”

“You don’t get to know that.”

“Carla!” I take a breath to calm myself, knowing screaming at her won’t get me the information I need and the only thing I care about right now is Ana and what is happening to her. “Look, I know that you and I have had our problems, but now is not the time–”

“Now is the only time! Now is the time when you don’t get to make any decisions. I do, and I choose to protect my daughter and my grandchild from you. You don’t get to be in control here, Christian. You don’t get anything. So get away from me or I will call security and have them escort you out!”

She’s screaming and, as her voice echoes around us, I feel every pair of eyes in the waiting room turn our way. It’s completely silent and while Ana’s mother stares back at me with fiery determination burning in her eyes, I start to shake. This is what the receptionist meant by not being authorized to give me any information about Ana’s condition. Carla, her next of kin, has instructed her not to. She’s keeping her from me. Not just Ana, my own daughter too. If she thinks I’m going to let that happen, she seriously doesn’t understand who she’s dealing with.

“Christian!” My name being called from across the room draws my attention away from Carla, and when I turn, I see my family at the entrance of the waiting room. I can feel in the energy between Ana’s mother and myself that arguing further with her is a waste of time, so I leave her and barrel towards my father. If Carla isn’t going to cooperate I’m going to have to go over her head.

“Any updates?” Kate asks, half sobbing. “Has Calliope been born yet?”

“I don’t know,” I reply flatly, then turn to my dad. “Carla is keeping her from me. Both of them.”

“What?”

“The hospital staff can’t tell me anything because Carla has instructed them not to give any information to anyone who isn’t next of kin. We need to find out who’s in charge.”

“What? No, that’s ridiculous…” My mother places a hand on my shoulder and then moves past me towards Ana’s mother, but I don’t wait for her inevitable rejection. This isn’t a new issue between us. Carla has had it out for me for months. I know she isn’t going to change her mind and I don’t have time to waste pursuing avenues I know won’t lead anywhere.

“Taylor, find me the Chief of Medicine.”

“Yes, sir.”

 

There are several administrative roadblocks in place that make speaking with the people in charge difficult, but I manage. We’re led into a small conference room not far from the waiting room, but the man who comes and sits across from me isn’t any more willing to work with us than the nine people who I spoke with before him.

“You don’t understand,” I argue, my patience starting to break. “If she were awake, she would want me back there. She would want me to be updated on absolutely everything.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Grey, but I have no way of knowing what Miss Steele would or would not want. I can only abide by the wishes of the family and my staff and I have been specifically directed not to share any health information with anyone who is not an immediate family member.”

“Because her immediate family is her mother. This is what Carla wants, not Ana.”

“Again, I’m sorry, but my hands are tied by HIPAA laws.”

“I’ll pay the fines.”

“It’s not about the fines, it’s about protecting our patients. Look, I can see how difficult this is for you and I’m so sorry that we’re in this circumstance, but there really is nothing I can do.”

“Sweetheart,” my mother says, reaching up to place a hand on my cheek. “This isn’t his choice. These laws are put into place to protect people’s privacy and to keep them safe. Surely you can appreciate that on some level. What if it were the man on the phone in your position and he’d come in to ask about Ana or Calliope? You wouldn’t want them to give out any information to him, would you?”

“I’m not the man on the phone.”

“No, you’re not. But they don’t know that. I’ve seen this myself. For all they know, you could be abusive or dangerous to Ana and the baby, and Carla is just trying to protect them from you. You can’t ask him to break the law, no matter how unfair or painful this all is.”

“What about Mom?” Elliot interrupts. “She’s a doctor, can’t you just like… give her credentials here and then tell her what’s going on because she’d be one of Ana’s doctors?”

He shakes his head. “It doesn’t work like that. We don’t allow our doctors to work on their own family members’ cases.”

“Oh. So, when it comes to medicine, we’re family, but otherwise, fuck us. Right?”

“Elliot…” Kate says softly.

“No, this is bullshit! Ana wants him back there! And Callie… That’s his kid! How can you say he’s not immediate family? He’s her fucking father!”

“Not until the birth certificate is filled out,” my father’s voice says from the door behind us. We all turn and when I see the look in his eyes, my one last shred of hope dies away. While we’ve been fighting with the hospital, he’s been making phone calls to a few attorneys in the area. Apparently, they didn’t give him good news.

“What do you mean not until the birth certificate is filled out?” Kate asks. “He’s the father. We all know he is.”

“What we know doesn’t matter. Christian and Ana aren’t married, and in the State of Massachusetts, that means Ana has to fill out the birth certificate, name him as the father, and they both have to sign before Christian is granted any parental rights.”

Ana has to?” Elliot checks. When Dad nods, he swallows hard, almost as though he has to work up the courage to continue speaking. “But, what if she…?”

“Then guardianship of Calliope will fall to Ana’s next of kin.”

“Carla?” I ask. He nods again.

“So, wait…” Kate says. “Does that mean that if Ana doesn’t… If she…” She pauses, unable to say the words aloud. “Does that mean that Carla would get to take Calliope back to Georgia with her?”

“Until we could get a court date for a paternity suit, yes.”

“No.” I shake my head. “No, Carla is not leaving this hospital with my daughter.”

“So, what do we do?” Elliot asks.

“Well, ideally, Ana pulls through and they sign the birth certificate. But just in case, I’ve spoken to a doctor and we’re going to have your cheeks swabbed for a paternity test. We need to start collecting evidence to build our case.”

Another case. I sigh, trying and failing to release the tension gripping my body like the chill of a cloudless December night. “Now?”

“Yeah. They’re waiting in the hallway.”

I nod and turn back to the man sitting across the table from me. I don’t really have words for him since he’s made it very clear that he both can’t and is unwilling to help me, but thankfully he seems as eager to leave this room as I am to have him go. I watch him leave then try to hide the disgust I feel as the woman with the DNA sample kit fills the empty seat the Chief of Medicine has left behind.

“Alright, name?” she asks, pulling out a stack of paperwork from her bag.

“Christian Trevelyan-Grey.”

The questions are brief, but the actual collection process is borderline humiliating. I can feel the eyes of my family on me as I lean over the table and the doctor inserts the long swab into my mouth and scrubs it against the inside of my cheeks. I don’t look at any of them, not even the doctor. Instead, I keep my eyes up at the ceiling and do my best not to think about what this sample collection would mean if it were ever to be necessary.

“Christian!” Mia says, bursting into the room. “There’s a doctor talking to Ana’s mom.”

Immediately, I leap out of my seat and launch myself at the door. It’s a short trip from the conference room to the waiting room, but I run so quickly I’m almost tripping over my feet the entire way. When I come through the open double doors into the too brightly lit waiting room, I find Ana’s obstetrician clinging to a sobbing Carla. As I move towards them, the doctor releases her and gestures for her to head back through the closed doors and onto the surgery floor.

“Dr. Baker!” I shout. She stops and turns in my direction, but the moment she recognizes me the careful look of compassion she wears falters just enough for me to see a hint of pain just below the surface. I ignore it, unwilling to analyze where the hurt in her eyes is coming from. “Is it Ana or Calliope? Are they okay?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Grey,” she says, her voice merely a whisper. “I’m so sorry.”

“Sorry? For what? What does that mean?” But she doesn’t tell me. She turns away and makes her way back through the double doors, leaving me alone with Carla. Silent tears continue to roll down her cheeks as she reaches for the door to follow after the doctor, but I grab her by the shoulder to stop her.

“Don’t touch me, Christian!”

I recoil. “I’m sorry. Just… tell me what’s going on. Please.”

“Go to hell.”

“Carla, please. That’s my family. I know you’re scared for your daughter, but I’m scared for mine too. And I’m scared for the woman I love. Please.”

“I’m not–”

I cut her off, speaking so quickly the words run together. “Just, tell me if it’s Ana or Calliope.”

Her jaw tightens and she turns away from the door to face me. Her hands shoot up to angrily dash her tears from her hate filled eyes. “It’s Calliope.”

“Callio–” My words cut off as the strength in my voice fails. “What– what happened?”

“You saw what happened, Christian. Your mother gave you a choice, you hesitated, and now your baby is dead.” She shakes her head in disgust as her tears start again. “The doctor said that she was stillborn. She never even got a chance to live. You’re going to lose them both. We all are. Thanks to you.”

“Both?” I breathe back. “You mean… Ana?”

She turns and yanks open the door to the ICU, and as she disappears I feel as though my heart falls from my chest and land lifelessly on the linoleum floor. I feel empty, hollow, but the space this loss has left inside of me is quickly filled with excruciating, all consuming pain.

My daughter is gone.

Final. No second chances.

I’ll never know her.

No, that’s not accurate. Because I do know her. I’ve met her in my dreams and I’ve lived an entire life with her through the hopes I’ve held for all of the things I wanted for her future. I’ve loved her without ever even laying eyes on her. And now I never will. I’ve lost the baby that I never knew I wanted and now that I know I’ll never hold her in my arms or see Ana smiling down at the angelic face I’ve pictured over and over again, I am utterly and completely ruined.


Kate PoV:

Christian is already pleading with Ana’s doctor by the time we make it back to the waiting room. Carla’s cheeks are red and shiny with tears. Her eyes are swollen. She’s clearly devastated, but it’s hard to care. She at least knows what’s happening. The look of terrified uncertainty on Christian’s face reflects what’s in all of our hearts and that is more painful to witness a hundred times over.

Dr. Baker leaves, but Carla stays behind to talk to Christian. For a moment, I have hope that she’s finally given in, but as I watch them clearly start to argue, that hope vanishes. Elliot starts to move towards them, but Carrick quickly reaches out to stop him.

“Let him handle this, Son. I don’t think all of us ganging up on Carla is the way to get through to her.”

“Carla? You expect me to care about…”

“Oh no,” I whisper.

Elliot’s rant stops when we all watch Christian turn back to face us, looking like he’s just seen death. Grace gasps and rushes towards him with her arms held out in front of her, but as the rest of the Greys start migrating towards him, I find myself stuck. The picture of Ana collapsing to the floor and lying there, surrounded in a pool of her own blood, flashes through my mind and runs on a loop. Looking at Christian now, the thought that this may be the last memory I have of my best friend suddenly becomes all too real and the weight of that pain is too much for me to drag across the waiting room. It’s crushing, and yet, when I watch Christian nearly collapse again, having to reach out and support himself on the arm of a chair before his father is able to help set him down in the seat, that weight somehow grows heavier.

This can’t be happening. How did the day that was supposed to be one of the happiest I’ll ever experience go so remarkably wrong? Ana’s a good person. She’s kind. She’s caring. She loves so fiercely that she would give anything and everything to any one of the people here. She’s Christian’s savior and she’s my pillar of strength. She doesn’t deserve this.

When I watch Grace turn away from Christian, covering her entire face as she devolves into loud, all consuming sobs, I lose it. The tears that roll down my cheeks come so aggressively they have the power to drown me, and the gasps that wrench their way from deep inside of me are so intense I nearly choke. I can’t hold myself up anymore. I fall to the floor and stay there, clutching my middle as tightly as I can to physically keep my body from falling apart, until a strong pair of hands picks me up and wraps me in a tight hug.

“Shh, Katie. It’s okay. We’re gonna get through this.”

“What happened, Elliot? Is Ana dead?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t know. They didn’t say anything about Ana. It’s… it’s Calliope. Carla told him she was stillborn.” He takes a shaky breath, and I use the pause in his explanation to look up at him. Really look at him. His eyes well with tears that he’s desperately trying to hold back. When he manages to regain his voice, it breaks over every other word. “There’s nothing we can do. She’s already gone.”

“But… but Ana did what she was supposed to do. I saw the doctor’s orders, she did everything. They… they named her, and they have a nursery, and… oh my god. She can’t be–” The tears come full force again, so Elliot tightens his hold on me. His arms are the only thing that keep me from once again collapsing on the floor, but, as he holds me, his own self-restraint breaks. He too starts to cry.

“I know. It’s not fair, none of this is, but we have to pull it together. Christian and Ana won’t get through this without us. We have to be strong for them.”

“How? What if we lose her today? Ana is my best friend, Elliot. She’s… my sister.”

“I know. Just think about what she would want us to do, and we do that. Only that.”

I swallow the lump in my throat and nod into his shirt. Ana would want us to pull together. Ana would want us to give each other hope. Ana wouldn’t want me to let this rip me apart, no matter how much it feels like it’s going to.

“Okay. We should check on Christian.”

It’s not good. I’ve never seen him like this and it’s almost scary. Even at his worst and most vulnerable, Christian has always exuded a kind of quiet strength or authority. Right now, he looks shattered. He’s still covered in Ana’s blood and the stains on his clothes make the grief on his face look gruesome. Mia is wrapped in Grace’s arms in the seats across from him and they’re both sobbing, but Carrick hovers near his son. Close enough to be supportive, not close enough to touch him. Elliot moves to stand in almost the same way, but on his other side, and I slide into the chair next to him.

“She’s not gone, Christian. They wouldn’t have taken Carla back there if Ana was gone. She’s obviously made it through surgery and she’s still alive. We have to have hope.”

He turns to look at me, his eyes bloodshot and glassy. “And if she does wake up, the first thing she’s going to ask about is Calliope. What do you think is going to happen when she finds out our baby is dead?”

The gravel in his normally smooth voice makes me cringe, and I have to tuck my bottom lip beneath my teeth to hide the tremble that’s started again. “I don’t know.”

“Yes, you do. She has to want to fight, Kate. What’s she going to fight for when she realizes we’ve already lost our daughter? You know her just as well as I do. This is going to destroy her. She won’t– she won’t fight.”

“I-I–”

“Excuse me.” He gets out of his chair and walks out of the waiting room. Once he’s disappeared from view, both Elliot and Carrick let down their stone faced demeanor and move to cling to their family.

“This is my fault,” Grace says through her tears. “I should have told her to go to the hospital this morning. I should have never accepted it was something as simple as a scratch. Whenever a woman is bleeding in her third trimester, she should be sent to the hospital. I know that.” She shakes her head. “I didn’t want her to miss her graduation. I thought we had until tonight.”

“You didn’t know, sweetheart,” Carrick says.

“That doesn’t matter. Ana trusted me and I gave her the wrong advice. How will I ever look Christian in the eyes again?”

“How will any of us?” The Greys all look up at me in unison while I blink the tears from my eyes, but before Elliot can move to the seat next to me and attempt to comfort me yet again, we’re all distracted by the loud vibrations of my phone against the plastic seat. When I reach around to take it from my back pocket, I see Carter’s name on the screen.

“I’ll be back,” I tell them, then get out of my seat and walk towards the exit as I answer. “Hello?”

“Hey, any news?”

I swallow. “The baby didn’t make it. We don’t know about Ana.”

“Holy shit. Are you okay?”

“No. No, I’m not okay.”

“I’m in the parking lot. I didn’t know where to go.”

“I’ll, um… I’ll come to you.” I hang up the phone and turn away from the waiting room, but I only make through one hallway before I’m stopped in my tracks. Just outside of the emergency room there’s a small chapel, and in front of the wooden cross mounted on the wall is a small altar bearing a dozen or so flickering candles. Christian stands before it, staring up at the cross on the wall. There’s a small stick in his hand with a curl of smoke swirling steadily out of the end.

I lean against the doorway, watching him, and he stands there, silently, for a long time. When he finally moves, it’s only so that he can kneel down on the step.

“Please,” he whispers. “Please, don’t take her from me.”

He leans forward, resting his head against the edge of the altar, and his body starts shaking. At first, I’m not sure what’s wrong with him until I hear him draw a harsh, broken breath.

He’s crying.

Through everything we’ve been through, I’ve never once seen him cry, or even come close, and seeing him break down now is like receiving the horrible news about Calliope all over again. Part of me thinks I need to go to him, try to comfort him, but I can’t bring myself to face him like this. I don’t even know if he’d want me to.

In this private moment, I feel like I’m suddenly seeing him in a whole new light. I’ve always known Christian loved Ana, that’s never been a question in my mind. Whether or not he deserved her… yes. But never love. Now I can see what that loves means. In the face of truly losing the woman he loves, Christian is a broken man. I can’t even see his face, but the devastation is so blatant I don’t have to. We’ve all voiced concern over how Ana would be able to move on once she finds out about the baby, but no one said anything about how Christian would go forward without Ana. Well, now, the answer is right in front of me, clear as day.

He won’t.

It’s weird that my brain uses this moment to think of Carter. If it were me in the hospital and he didn’t know what was happening to me or how this was all going to turn out, is this where he’d be? Would I be here for him? I try to think of that, but when I imagine myself in Christian’s place, Carter’s face isn’t the one I associate with this level of pain. Maybe that’s because I’m still too deep in my grief over Ana. Or maybe it’s because, in the face of tragedy, I don’t have the willpower to fool myself over the man I’m supposed to be with anymore.

I turn and continue towards the emergency room, and the second I come through the automatic doors back outside, I find Carter waiting for me.

“There you are,” he says, rushing to hug me. His arms wrap around me, but the gesture feels empty. “What’s going on?”

“We don’t know much. Ana’s mom is holding this over Christian like it’s his fault, so she’s made sure that the hospital won’t give us any information. We only know that Calliope didn’t make it because she took it as an opportunity to blame Christian.”

“Jesus…”

“I have a bad feeling, Carter. I think… I think this is it.”

“Baby.” His face morphs with compassion, but when he pulls me to get me to move, it’s not back into the emergency room, it’s towards the parking lot.

“What are you doing?”

“We should get you out of here. Being around all of this isn’t good for you.”

“You think I would leave Ana like this?”

“You can’t help her, baby. You’re just torturing yourself.” I’m so baffled by his response that I can’t even form a coherent sentence to respond, and he takes my silence as agreement. “Let’s get you something to eat and then you and I can talk. We’ll try and get your mind off of this until we know what’s really going on. Besides, I asked you a question back at the house. I’d really like you to answer it.”

“Are you serious right now? Carter, my best friend might actually die today.”

“I know, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, baby.”

“Are you?”

“Of course I am, Kate. I love Ana too. But there’s nothing we can do to help her and… don’t you think we should let her family be alone right now?”

I nearly stumble backwards in shock. “I am her family, Carter.”

“Kate.”

“I don’t need to go with you to talk about what you asked me earlier. I don’t think that we should get married. In fact, I think we should break up.”

“What? Break up? Kate, what are you talking about? Because I don’t think you should sit and wait for Ana to die you suddenly want to break up with me?”

I shake my head and start backing away. “No, I want to break up because I don’t want to be with you anymore.”

“Kate… Look, you’re sad, I get that. Maybe I’m not being as sensitive as I should be, I’m sorry. We can go in and wait if you want, I just think that’s going to make this harder for you. But we’re not going to break up. I love you, Katie.”

“That’s the problem though. I don’t love you, Carter.”

He stops walking towards me and blinks, looking as though he’s run into a wall. “What?”

“I tried. I wanted to. But I’m not in love with you. I thought that because you were willing to give me the future I wanted, I would eventually fall in love with you, but I don’t think it works that way. I want marriage and kids, but I want them with someone who I truly, deeply, passionately love. I don’t want them with you. You’re a great guy and you’re sweet, but that’s not enough. I’m sorry.”

“Kate…”

“I’m in love with Elliot.” The words come out before I can stop them, and I’m left to play catch up. “I’m not in love with you, I’m in love with him, and I don’t think that’s going to change. I don’t think I want it to. So, I can’t accept you proposal. It’s not fair to you, it’s not fair to me, and it’s not fair to him. I’m sorry, Carter. But I’m breaking up with you.”

He looks away from me, blinking down at the ground. As he fully begins to comprehend what I’m telling him, he goes from shocked, to hurt, to angry so quickly it’s hard to keep up.

“Another fucking Grey,” he mutters under his breath.

“I’m sorry, Carter”

“Yeah, me too.” He takes a deep breath and shakes his head back and forth while stepping away from me. “Then, I guess, have a good life, Katherine. If Ana pulls through, tell her I’m sorry about her kid.”

I nod, unsure of what else to say to him, then watch him walk back to his car. After he fishtails out of the parking lot, I think in eagerness to get away from me and this whole situation, I take a deep breath and make my way back into the hospital.

Despite the enormity of what I still might face at the end of the day, I return to the waiting room feeling much lighter than I did when I left. Elliot is watching Christian plead with one of the doctors, who has come out of the ICU to give an update to another family, and when I take the seat next to him, he reaches over to wrap my hand in his.

It’s comforting when there shouldn’t be any comfort.

It’s how I know I made the right choice.


 

Ray PoV:

The incessant beep from Ana’s heart monitor is the only thing that keeps me awake as the clock ticks past midnight. I cling to every single one of her heartbeats as if they could be her last, because the possibility that they could be is all too real. She already looks like nothing more than a ghost. The only time I can bring myself to even let go of her hand is when Dr. Baker comes in to examine her.

“One of us should go check on Callie,” Carla says, groaning slightly as she pushes her chair back to give the doctor more room to move around the bed. I press my lips together and shake my head.

“It’s your turn.”

“I know, but I– I don’t want to leave Ana.”

“You think I do?” Neither Carla or I have moved from our daughter’s bedside for hours. At first, we switched off going into the NICU to get updates on Callie every thirty minutes, but the longer Ana stays this way, the harder it is to leave. The doctor told us it would be a miracle if she woke up at all, and even if that were to happen, she’d have such severe brain deficiencies that she wouldn’t be herself anymore. As the hours pass and there isn’t any improvement in her condition, what we’ve been told starts to feel more and more true.

“It shouldn’t be our responsibility anyway,” I say bitterly. “Where’s Christian at? Isn’t he concerned at all about his baby? About Ana? Where the fuck is he?”

She lets her head fall onto the back of her chair and closes her eyes. “This is why Calliope has to leave with us, not the Greys. I told you we couldn’t trust him.”

“Yeah, well you might be right. If he really loved her the way he said he did, he’d be here right now.”

“Actually,” Dr. Baker begins, a sharp edge to her voice as she turns to face me. “He’s asked several times to be allowed back here to see Miss Steele, but Mrs. Adams has instructed the staff not to give out any information regarding her or Calliope’s condition to anyone who isn’t immediate family. We’ve had to turn him away every time and refuse to answer any of his questions, but he hasn’t stopped asking about her.”

“What?”

“If you’ve changed your mind on that directive, I’d love nothing more than to bring him back here. He’s in the waiting room right now.”

I turn to look at Carla, who suddenly seems more awake. Her lips are pressed together in a thin line and she refuses to look at me.

“Why would you do that?”

“Because I don’t want him around my daughter. Because if we let him have anything to do with Calliope, she’ll end up here just like Ana. Don’t you get it, Ray? This is his fault. Calliope has to leave with us, not him.”

“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me, Carla. Are you telling me that he doesn’t even know about Callie? That he hasn’t even had the chance to see her?”

Carla doesn’t answer me, so Dr. Baker does. “No, he doesn’t know anything. He hasn’t seen her.”

“Jesus Christ.” I push away from Ana’s bed and glance over her once more before turning for the door. “I’ll be back.”

“Ray don’t!” Carla shouts after me, but I ignore her. Instead, I continue through the halls, following the signs that lead me to the waiting room. But when I push through the doors, I’m completely unprepared for what I find. His sister is sleeping in Grace’s lap, and Grace herself is crying silently into her hands while Carrick tries desperately to comfort her. Both Taylor and Luke sit beside Elliot, who is clinging to Kate while she sobs into his chest. I don’t even know this family very well, but their obvious grief is able to cut through the unfamiliarity enough to touch me on a real level. Yet, even that doesn’t overshadow Christian.

He’s hunched over in his chair, hands curled tightly into his own hair as if he’s trying to rip it out by the roots. His breathing is so heavy and exaggerated that I can see his entire body heaving from across the room. When I approach and he looks up at me, his face is contorted with such intense pain one might think he was burning alive. Still, when he sees me, he leaps to his feet.

“Ray,” he croaks. “Where’s Ana? What’s happened to her?”

“She’s in recovery.”

“She made it through surgery? She’s alive?”

I nod. “Yeah, she’s… alive. But that’s about the best I can give you.”

“What’s happened?”

“The doctors said that she lost too much blood in surgery and that she probably won’t recover from that. They’ve got her hooked up to a ventilator that’s breathing for her and a bunch of other machines that are keeping her alive. They said that she most likely isn’t going to wake up and that even if she does she’ll have brain damage severe enough that we won’t even be able to recognize her. It’s very likely that if she ever regains consciousness that she won’t be able to speak and she won’t be able to feed herself. She’ll have lost all of her motor skills and most, if not all, of her memories. She won’t know who any of us are.”

As my words hit him, he stumbles backwards away from me, like I’ve punched him. Somehow the pain that was so clear on his face when I came through the double doors intensifies. His family looks up at me as he collapses into his chair and the horror in their eyes and the helplessness Christian exudes suddenly make me feel like the grim reaper.

“Ray, please….” Christian begs. “I’ll do anything. I’ll give you anything. Just, please let me see her. Please.”

“Of course you can see her, Christian.”

“What? Really?”

“Yeah. Come with me.”

He stands so quickly that his chair topples backwards, but he doesn’t turn around to pick it up. Elliot does, and as I lead Christian towards the double doors to the ICU, his brother gives me a sad, but grateful smile. I nod, then place a hand on Christian’s shoulder as the doors close behind us and I point him in the right direction.

Carla throws a fit when Christian and I get to Ana’s room. She starts screaming for the floor nurse to come and force Christian out and when that doesn’t pan out for her she begins threatening Christian. To his credit, he doesn’t fight back with her. He doesn’t even look at her. He moves around Ana’s bedside and with as much care as he can manage, takes her hand, and brings it slowly to his lips.

“I can’t believe you, Raymond,” Carla huffs. I turn to glare at her.

“Shut up, Carla! No one is concerned about you right now. Sit down and keep quiet, or go wait outside with the rest of the Greys.”

She mashes her lips together and shakes her head in defiance, but she doesn’t scream anymore. And, as she finally falls silent, I can hear what Christian is whispering to Ana.

“Come back to me, baby. Please? I love you. I need you. I can’t live without you. Please. Please, come back to me. Don’t follow Calliope. I know you’re going to want to, but I can’t lose you both. I can’t lose you. Please, don’t leave me.”

“Callie?” I repeat, confused. “What do you mean follow Callie? The baby’s in the NICU.”

His body tenses, and when he looks over at him the pain is gone from his face, replaced by blank shock. “What?”

“Calliope is in the NICU. She’s small and she’s not out of the woods yet, but she’s doing a hell of a lot better than Ana. They said if she makes it through the next 72 hours okay, she’ll probably be just fine.”

“Ray!” Carla hisses at me, but Christian turns to her before I do.

“You told me that she was stillborn,” he says, the rage in his voice rising exponentially with each word. “You told me that she was dead!”

Carla straightens her back and forces her face to remain stoic as she stares defiantly back at Christian. “Because she would be better off without you.”

Christian starts to shake and the profanity laced tirade he screams at her is so loud and threatening, it attracts the hospital staff. They come into the room and grab ahold of him to keep him from physically attacking her. And, as I watch them attempt to calm him down, I curl my fingers into a fist, then take Carla by the forearm and pull her out of Ana’s room. The more steps I take towards the waiting room, the hotter my blood seems to boil. Her careless disregard for a father’s love and need to be in his daughter’s life hits a little too close to home, and as I drag her behind me, ignoring her feeble attempts to worm out of my grip, the memories of the time she tried to take Ana from me flood through my mind.

 

“Where are you going?” I demand, pulling her duffle bag out of her hand as she tries to escape up the hallway.

“I’m leaving you, Ray.”

“What? Leaving? Why?”

“I don’t love you anymore. I haven’t for a long time. This marriage has been over for years.”

“Are you serious?”

She turns away from me, leaving behind her bag and hurrying towards the kitchen. “I found someone new. Someone who can take better care of us than you ever could. He has money and prospects. I choose him.”

“Carla, wait…”

“Ana! Let’s go, sweetheart.”

My eyes widen in panic. “No!”

“Anastasia!”

Our sixteen year old daughter comes out of the kitchen, a pencil still clutched in her right hand from doing her homework on the dining room table. “What?”

“Lets go,” Carla tells her. “Get in the car, we’ll get your things later.”

“Where are we going?” Ana winces slightly as Carla takes her hand and yanks her arm to get her to follow, and as I watch her reach for the knob on the front door, I drop her bag.

“Carla, no! You are not taking Anastasia out of this house!”

“You don’t get a say in this, Ray! I’m leaving you.”

“Then leave! But you’re not taking my daughter with you.”

“She’s not YOUR daughter!” She yanks the door open and pushes Ana through it, then pulls her down the driveway, practically throwing her into the back seat of our car.

“Carla!” I scream, chasing after her, but she turns and throws her body against the door between Anastasia and I to keep either of us from opening it.

“If you so much as take another step towards me I will call the police and make sure that you NEVER see her again. Do you hear me?”

“Why are you doing this? You can’t take her from me, please!”

“She’s not yours to take from. Anastasia is MY daughter, and she’s coming with ME. Goodbye, Raymond.”

Carla slips into the driver’s seat, and as she starts the car, Ana tries to open the back door to get out. Unfortunately, her mother seems to have pre-planned this and has turned the child locks on to keep her inside.

“Daddy? Wait, no! Daddy!” Her cries for me as Carla backs down the driveway have me in agony. I chase after them for three blocks, but never catch up. And when the car turns out of my view, taking my daughter away to a place I have no way to find, I feel as though my entire world crashes around me.

 

The moment we make it to the first available chair in the waiting room, I throw Carla down into it. This woman… I used to love this woman. She used to be my entire world. But looking at her and the fear in her eyes as she stares back at me, it’s like I don’t even recognize her.

“You stay right there and don’t move,” I growl.

“What’s happening?” Carrick asks from a few rows over. “Did something happen to Ana?”

I glance over my shoulder at him, then turn back to Carla. “Do you want to tell him or should I?”

She shakes her head. “Ray, please…”

Me then. I clench my teeth together then turn and walk over to Christian’s family. Each and every one of them stares up at me with fearful eyes, many of them with tears still running down their cheeks. “I’m sorry, but it seems Carla has mislead you. Calliope wasn’t a stillborn. She’s alive, in the NICU. She’s on a ventilator because she can’t breathe on her own yet and they’ve got her in an incubator, but she’s alive. And unless something happens in the next few hours, she’s gonna be just fine.”

“Wha–what?” Grace asks.

“Calliope is alive.”

As they begin to comprehend and accept what I’m saying, they all slowly turn towards Carla. Her face goes red and she recedes back into her chair, which is all the confirmation the Grey family needs. Grace starts gasping as though she’s going to hyperventilate, Kate once again begins to cry, but Elliot leaps out of his chair and moves as though he’s going to charge her.

“Whoa, easy now…” I say, reaching around his body to hold him back.

“Fuck you, Carla!” he screams, trying to break my hold. “Fuck you, you evil, fucking…”

“Elliot!” Carrick comes up beside his son and helps me restrain him, then looks very purposely into his eyes. “Control yourself.”

Elliot shrugs us off, but doesn’t try to charge Carla again. Instead, he takes two extremely aggressive steps backward and shakes his head at her in disgust. “I hope you burn in hell, Carla.”

He turns and storms out of the waiting room, pushing the doors open violently as he goes. Carrick takes a deep, calming breath before turning to face a now shaking Carla. He doesn’t display the same kind of fiery rage as his son, but when he speaks, his voice is like ice. “You won’t get away with this. I am going to take everything you have. I’ll see you in court.”

Grace reaches out for him as he walks back towards her, but Kate gets out of her chair and comes to me. “Can we see her? Are we allowed back there?”

“Uh…”

There’s a commotion behind me that stops me from answering and when we all turn to see what’s happening, we find Christian shouting for Ana and being dragged back into the waiting room by two men in light blue scrubs and a security guard.

“Ana, no! Please!”

“I’m sorry, sir. But you have to wait here.” The doctor releases him, then turns to hurry back into the ICU. I almost expect him to rush the door after them, but he doesn’t. He slumps down into his chair and looks as though he’s burning again.

“What happened?” Luke asks. Christian briefly glances over at him, but then back down at the floor between his feet.

“Her– her heart stopped.” He takes a long, broken breath, then looks helplessly to the sky. “It’s not good. If you saw her… it’s not good.”

“Oh, Christian…” Grace sinks to the floor and tries to take her son’s hands in her face, but moves out of her reach to keep her from touching him.

“I can’t do this. I can’t…”

“I know, Son,” I interject. He turns and looks at me, his eyes pleading for any form of reassurance, so I do the only thing I can think to do. The only thing that would allow me to stay sane if I were in his situation. “Come on, Christian. Let’s go check on your daughter.”


 

Christian PoV:

There’s a very surreal quality to everything around me as I follow Ray into the elevator that will take us down to the NICU. On the one hand, it’s torture knowing that, right now, a team of doctors are fighting to keep Ana’s heart beating and I’m walking away from her. But Ray’s offer to finally let me see the daughter I still haven’t stopped mourning comes with an almost instinctual kind of pull. Nothing feels real and, as we approach the doors to the NICU and we’re handed pink plastic gowns to put over our clothes and paper covers for our shoes and hair,  I wonder briefly if this has all just been a dream. Perhaps this is all one long nightmare and soon I’ll wake up screaming with Anastasia in the bed next to me, perfectly healthy, our child still safely encased in her womb.

“Ready?” Ray asks. I nod robotically.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m ready.”

He turns and pulls open the door to the NICU and I’m immediately taken aback by how quiet it is. The room is filled with rows of plastic boxes surrounded by concerned looking parents, but I don’t hear a single cry from any of the infants enclosed inside. Only the beeps from the monitors and sniffles of worried mothers carry me to the back of the room, where a doctor is currently reaching into one of the incubators that doesn’t have anyone around it.

“Dr. Craig,” Ray says in greeting. She looks up at smiles.

“Mr. Steele.”

“How is she doing?”

The doctor lets out a heavy sigh. “Well, she’s not any worse, but her oxygen levels are still low and her heartbeat isn’t very strong… Stable is good though. Right now, stable is excellent.”

“That’s good to hear.” He nods and then turns back to look at me. “This is Callie’s dad, Christian Grey.”

“Oh, Mr. Grey. Welcome. I heard you were having trouble getting clearance… Come, have a look. Your daughter has been very anxious to meet you.”

My body goes numb at the doctor’s overly bright smile and when she steps aside so that I can get closer, I have to force myself to move. Calliope’s entire body is tangled in tubes and wires and her head is covered with a matching hat. Even her face is obscured by the tubes coming out of her nose.

“What’s wrong with her color?” I ask, because I can’t seem to look past the deep purple hue of her skin.

“Actually, she looks pretty good,” Ray says. “She was blue when I first saw her.”

“It’s from the abruption,” the doctor adds. “Her oxygen supply was cut off in-utero and that has a significant impact on her pigment. She’s improved since we’ve had her on the ventilator.”

“The tubes?”

“Yes, Mr. Grey.”

“How… how long will she need them? The ventilator.”

“Well, that depends on her. The lungs are really one of the last stages of fetal development as they’re not needed during gestation. I’ve seen infants born at 34 weeks need the vent for a few days, some who have needed it for several weeks. We just have to let her grow in her own time.”

“But she will grow? She’s going to be okay?”

The doctor frowns. “Generally, infants born at 34 weeks have very good outlooks. However, the circumstances regarding Calliope’s birth present complications all on their own. Right now, she’s stable and responding very well to treatment and that’s great, but the next few days are going to be very critical. Right now, we’re focusing on her breathing, her ability to maintain her own body temperature, and the strength of her heart.” I nod and the doctor reaches up to place a hand on my shoulder. “But there’s no reason not to be optimistic, Mr. Grey. Your daughter has quite the little spirit.”

“Like her mother,” I whisper, then take a deep breath to keep myself focused on Calliope, rather than allow myself to wallow in grief again over the terrifying last seconds I spent with Ana.

The doctor smiles again. “You know what, I’ve got everything I need here. Why don’t I give you some time alone to get to know each other, huh?”

“Thank you.” She nods, reaches out to shake Ray’s hand, and then leaves. I step closer to the incubator, wishing I could open it so I could touch her and feel for sure that she was real, but she looks so fragile inside I’m almost afraid to even touch the plastic surrounding her. She’s so small, smaller than I even imagined.

“Did they tell you how much she weighs?” I ask, looking up at Ray.

He swallows. “4 lbs, 7 ounces. 17 ½ inches long.”

Four pounds? Nothing. That’s nothing.

I shake my head and rest it against the side of the incubator, staring at her like I’m afraid she’s going to disappear at any second. It feels that way. She was already taken from me once, and with Ana hanging in the balance a floor above me, it seems almost inevitable that she’s going to be taken from me again.

“I’m going to go give an update to your family,” Ray says. “Do you… do you need anything?”

“No. Thank you.”

“Your welcome, Christian.” He hesitates for a moment, then turns to leave and I’m alone with my daughter for the first time. I’m not sure how long I sit with her. Several other parents come in and out, and the doctors mill through the boxes running tests and taking notes, but it all blurs together in background as I focus intently on Calliope’s face. I take note of every breath she takes and every twitch of her lip or her eyelids as she sleeps. A few times the doctors come to check her machines and change the IV bags giving her fluids and nourishment. The attending who takes over for Dr. Craig even lets me reach inside the incubator to take Calliope’s hand after he’s finished examining her.

“Calliope,” I whisper, pushing the tip of my finger into her tiny palm. The moment I touch her, her fingers clasp around mine and I’m actually shocked at the strength with which she grips me back. It’s the first thing in almost a day now that has felt promising.

“Hey, baby girl. I’m sorry your mother isn’t here right now. She wants to be. She loves you so much, Callie, and you are so lucky to have her for a mother.” Her fingers tighten around me again, and the small, innocuous gesture makes me smile. Almost as if she’s agreeing with me. “She graduated from Harvard yesterday. You don’t know what that is, but it’s a big deal. Your mother is so smart, Callie. She’s the most incredible person I know. I love her so much, just like I love you. I hope, one day, you grow up to be just like her.”

Her eyelids start to flutter, and for half a second, she opens her eyes. Had I not been staring at her so intently, I probably would have missed it, but in that brief space of time, I really see her. Not just as the impossibly small, wounded stranger that I’m now responsible for, but her.

She looks just like Ana. I can see her in the curve of her lips and shape of her nose. She’s there in the dark thin wisps of hair that stick out from under her hat. I like it that way. I’d be content to have her mirror her mother perfectly, but when I see that her eyes are the same muted gray color as mine, I find that I’m as disappointed as I thought I’d be to see myself in her. She’s more than just Ana. She’s both of us, together. Like a part of our love that I can see and feel. And, as she closes her eyes again and and her fingers relax around mine, I feel a deep rooted cosmic and molecular shift occur inside of me. In this moment, the tiny little girl before me has instantly and irrevocably stolen my heart and I know that I will, from this moment forward, forever belong to her.

 

With Ray in the waiting room, my family is allowed to come back and see Calliope periodically throughout the next morning and afternoon. It’s awkward with my mother, because she spends most of the time crying and then grilling the NICU staff for specifics about Calliope’s development. Kate manages to put aside enough of her fears for Ana to enjoy meeting her goddaughter for the first time. But Elliot and my father are more concerned with me than the baby. None of them can tell me anything about Ana.

“Christian, you really need to take a break,” Elliot says, late in the afternoon. “You’ve haven’t slept in over a day.”

I shake my head. “I’m fine.”

“Well, then come eat something or… change your clothes. You look like hell, man.”

I look down at my shirt and pants, still stained with Ana’s blood. There’s a day’s worth of stubble on my cheek and, though I haven’t looked in a mirror since I’ve been here, I imagine my hair must be in complete disarray from the number of times I ran my fingers through it yesterday. But all of that seems grossly insignificant.

“You think I give a fuck what I look like right now? The doctors said that Calliope’s first 72 hours were critical, I’m not leaving her side until she’s in the clear.”

“You can’t take care of anyone if you’re not taking care of yourself. Seriously, let’s get something to eat, and get you some fresh air. Thirty minutes and we’ll be back, I promise.”

I look down at Calliope, warring with myself, just as Dr. Craig comes by to do her rounds. “Go ahead, Mr. Grey. We’ll take real good care of your daughter until you get back.”

“See?”

I look between Elliot and the doctor, still unsure. But I’m ultimately won over by the nagging hunger I’ve been ignoring for hours. Besides, the exhaustion is catching up with me. I could use some coffee.

“Here.” I reach into my pocket, pull out my wallet, and find a spare business card. “My cell is on this. If anything changes, anything at all…”

“Then I’ll call you straight away.”

I nod, then shoot one last nervous look down at my baby before allowing Elliot to lead me out of the NICU and back out towards the main floor.

“There’s soup down in the cafeteria,” he says, as we ride the elevator up towards the waiting room outside the ICU. “New England Clam Chowder. It’s the only decent thing I’ve found really.”

“Fine. Whatever.”

“Hey…” The elevator pings, but Elliot uses the time before the car comes to a full stop to reach out and grip my shoulder reassuringly. “Callie’s going to be fine. She already looks so much better, and you heard what the doctor said. She’s already gained an ounce. That’s good.”

“She’s not the only one I have to worry about.” The doors slide open and I scan the waiting room for my family. Unfortunately, the first person I find is Carla, and the moment I see her, I feel my heart freeze in my chest.

She and Ray are speaking with a very solemn looking doctor.

“Christian!” Elliot calls behind me, but I’m already gone. I move through the maze of chairs so quickly that by the time I get across the room, I nearly knock Carla over.

“What happened?”

The doctor hesitates.

“It’s fine, he’s her fiancé,” Ray says, then shoots a hard look at Carla. “He’s fine.”

“Okay then… like I just said, her heart just isn’t strong enough. She’s coded three times throughout the night and I don’t know that she can make it through another revival. Her labs show that her cell count is dangerously low, which is only weakening her heart, and we haven’t seen any positive sign that her condition will improve. I think the time has come that we… discuss other options.”

“Another treatment?” I ask, but the doctor shakes his head.

“No. Withdrawal of care.”

“No!”

“Sir, I understand that this is a difficult decision, but in light of the circumstances…”

“This isn’t a difficult decision,” I snap back. “There is no decision. I’m not withdrawing care. I won’t. Ever.”

“Sir…”

“There’s really no hope?” Ray asks. “You really don’t think she’s ever going to wake up?”

“There’s always hope,” the doctor replies. “But in my professional opinion, I do not believe she will wake up. And if by some miracle she does, her quality of life won’t be good.”

“That’s not for you to decide,” I growl, but Ray shakes his head.

“Christian, really think about what he’s telling you. Do you think Ana wants the kind of life he’s telling you she’ll have?”

“I know that she’ll want a chance to know her daughter. Everything he’s telling you right now is just a guess and if there is even a sliver of hope that she’s going to wake up and make it through this, I will fight for her. I don’t care how long it takes. I don’t care if she’s on those machines for years, I’m not giving up on her.”

The conflict in his eyes is blatant as he stares back at me, but I don’t falter in my resolve. Anastasia’s battle is not over yet and anyone who thinks otherwise is going to have to go through me first. Even if it is her father.

“Can we see her?” Ray asks. The doctor nods.

“Yeah. Only two at a time though…”

Carla shoots a nasty look at me but Ray intervenes. “Have a seat, Carla.”

“No, that’s my daughter…”

Have. A. Seat.”

Her jaw clenches, but under Ray’s burning gaze she retreats and slowly lowers herself into the chair behind her. He then looks to me and the two of us follow the doctor back into her room.

 

Somehow, she looks worse than she did the first time I saw her. The color has drained from her lips and the dark circles below her eyes are stark in contrast against her too pale skin. She seems gaunt. The beep coming from the monitor at her bedside is anything but steady, slowing and quickening in irregular intervals. I don’t know what to make of it.

I slump down into the seat next to her bed and once again take her hand in mine. Ray leans over and places a soft kiss on her forehead, then stares at her the way I’ve been staring at Calliope all night. Eventually though, he gets up and leaves.

One by one, every member of my family and hers, even Luke, come in to see her, and each one says some form of good-bye. It’s beyond irritating, infuriating even, watching them giving up on her. When Kate finally sits up from the place where she’d been sobbing into Ana’s blankets at the side of the bed, she leans up to kiss her on the cheek, promises she’ll look after Calliope, and something inside of me snaps.

“Get out!” I shout at her.

She looks up at me with confused, glassy eyes. “Christian?”

“Get the fuck out of here, Kate. All of you. If you want to give up, then give up. Go! We don’t need you.”

“But..”

“Get out!”

“Is everything okay in here?” I look up and see a concerned looking doctor hovering in the doorway, but my anger is boiling out of control now and I can’t hold it back.

“No, it’s not. If one more doctor comes into this room and attempts to discuss withdrawal of care with me, I will sue this hospital. I will have your fucking licenses. Now get out! EVERYONE!”

“Sir…”

“GET OUT!”

Kate scrambles out of her chair as I start shaking and hurries away from me. The doctor looks as though she isn’t sure what she should do, but eventually she too turns and moves away from Ana’s room. I slam the door behind both of them, wishing desperately there was a lock on the handle so I could keep everyone away from Anastasia, but there isn’t. So, instead, I pace the room. Ready to face and eviscerate anyone who dares to come back and challenge me again.

It doesn’t take long.

A male doctor is sent in next, but I’m quick to chase him off. Next they bring down the hospital administrative staff, who tell me if I don’t calm down they’ll have to have security remove me. I get them out by threatening to call a news station and explain how this hospital is attempting to coerce family members into removing life support from loved ones against their will. I’m ready to physically come to blows with the next person who enters the room, but when the door opens, it’s Elliot, and I can tell just in the way that he stands that he’s here to make a peace offering.

“No one is trying to take her from you, Christian,” he says gently.

“What do you think withdrawal of care means, Elliot?”

“It– I mean…”

“She’s going to be fine. Okay, she’s stubborn and she’s not going to let us push her to wake up before she’s ready to, but she will wake up. I know her, and I know she’s not going to leave Calliope behind. She’s not going to leave me. She is fighting, but she needs our help.”

“So, we give her some time.”

Elliot and I both look up and see Ray in the doorway, leaning against the frame and nodding as though he’s made some kind of internal decision and is reassuring himself of it as he speaks.

“You’re right, Christian. Annie has always done things in her own way. If she needs time, if you need time, then… we’ll wait.”

It’s not a firm promise of anything, and I don’t hear even a pale echo of the resolution I feel deep inside of me in his voice. Most likely, he’s doing this for me, not Ana, but it’s a chance. Time. Maybe even enough for me to plan what I’m going to do next once the clock on his arbitrary promise has run out.

“Thank you, Ray.”

“Of course. Elliot.” He nods behind him, motioning for Elliot to leave the room, and my brother nods before reaching over to squeeze Ana’s hand one more time before he goes. I half expect Ray to take his seat, but he doesn’t. He turns and leaves right behind Elliot, and once again, I’m alone with Anastasia.

“Please, baby,” I whisper, lifting her fingers to my lips and kissing her across each of her knuckles. “Please wake up. Please be okay.”

 

For the most part, no one comes to check on us again beside the doctors doing their regular rounds. I half expect that my family has gotten a hotel and left to get some sleep or possibly shower. But now that I’m allowed free access to her room, I can’t bear to drag myself away from Ana to go check. The solitude is fine, preferrable really, except that it means I don’t have regular updates on Calliope. The doctors in the NICU have my cell number through, and Ana’s room number. So, I wait without news.

The second sleepless night is almost too much. My eyes droop as I rest my cheek against Ana’s hand on the bed. The time between each check in from the floor attendings grows longer and longer as the hours tick on, and by two, I nearly succumb to sleep.

Except that the irregular beep from Ana’s heart monitor that I’ve clung to every second I’ve been by her side suddenly stops. I sit up and turn with wide eyes to look at the monitor, waiting for the long, drawn out tone that will tell me her heart has stopped, but it doesn’t come. Several excruciating seconds pass and then the monitor starts to spike and fall with the beat of her heart again. Not in the same erratic pattern as before, but in slow, steady beats. I look down at the watch around my wrist, counting each beat as I watch the second hand tick away an entire minute. Once the time has passed, I start over, counting again, and at the end of the second minute, the number of beats is only off by one.

Regular.

Quickly, I fumble to get the plastic box with the nurses’ call button untangled from the machine at the side of the bed and then start pressing it over and over again. It takes a moment, but soon, the nurse comes to check on us.

“Yes, Mr. Grey? May I get you something?”

“Her heartbeat,” I reply, and the nurse’s mouth goes slack.

“What?”

“It was… it wasn’t right, but it’s regular now. I timed it, 65 beats per minute.”

She steps into the room and takes a look at the monitor, then tells me to wait a moment while she gets the doctor. A few minutes later, the night attending, who I’ve only seen once, comes into the room with a small team and a medical cart. They ask me to step out so they can examine Ana, and when I do, I take the opportunity to try and find my family. Going into the waiting room though, it seems I was correct when I thought maybe they’d gotten a hotel for the night. The waiting room is empty, except for Ray.

“Ana?” he asks, sitting bolt upright when he sees me come through the double doors.

“I think… I think her heart is normalizing.”

“What?” He gets up and we both make our way back into the ICU, hovering outside Ana’s door while the doctor’s complete their work up. It seems to take forever, but when the attending finally comes out of the room, he looks flabbergasted.

“Well?” Ray asks.

“Remarkable,” he says. “She’s been in A Fib for nearly 36 hours but… her heartbeat has completely normalized.”

“And that’s good?” I check.

“It’s amazing. Her temperature is up, her vitals are stronger than they’ve been since she was admitted… I’ve never seen anything quite like this.”

Ray gasps and nearly stumbles backwards. When he catches himself on the door frame, he looks over at me and his eyes well with joyful tears. “Christian…”

I shake my head, not willing to let myself feel too much hope unless there’s just cause. “So, she’s going to wake up, then? She’s going to be okay?”

“I have no idea,” the doctor says. “Possibly. We tried talking to her but she didn’t respond and her reflexes are still off, but… I definitely feel better about her outcome than I did two hours ago. Hopefully, this positive trend continues.”

“Thank you, Doctor.”

He nods and turns to leave us, and once he and his team have completely vacated Ana’s room, Ray heads inside and I fish out my phone to call my father.

 

The third day in the hospital is strangely the most chaotic yet. Ana’s vitals continue to grow stronger until they’re hovering on just the wrong side of normal, so I finally feel comfortable leaving her side long enough to check on Calliope as long as there’s someone to stay with her. Thankfully, Kate seems all too willing to take on that role and, with my parents practically camped out in the NICU, I can go back and forth between the two without ever leaving Calliope or Ana alone.

I try to be present every time the doctors round on Ana, and whenever it’s time for Calliope to be fed, but the two often overlap. It has me feeling like I’m constantly on the run, and on my third day of no sleep, it’s not an easy feat.

“I’m sorry,” I tell Dr. Craig after I cut her off with a deep, yawn.

“That’s quite alright, Mr. Grey. Calliope’s doing great. She’s up to 4 lbs 9 ounces, and I think if her oxygen levels stay up throughout the night, we might be ready to take her off the vent in the morning.”

“Really? That’s great news.”

“Christian!” I whirl around and see Elliot panting in the doorway at the other end of the room. He and Kate have been sitting with Ana, so at first his sudden appearance has my body tight with dread.

“What?”

“You have to come, quick.”

“What happened? What’s wrong?”

He shakes his head. “Nothing is wrong. Ana’s awake.”

Next Chapter

Kate PoV: Commencement – A Beginning, Not an End.

Ring

Chapter 34

“Congratulations, sweetheart!” my mother exclaims. She’s the first person to find me once the ceremony is over and the hundreds of hats sailing through the air have settled back to the ground. The moment I step off the graduation stage, she wraps me in a lung crushing hug. “You did it, baby girl. We are so, so, so proud of you!”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“Come here, sis!” My dad takes me from my mother and somehow manages to squeeze me even tighter while moving me back and forth. “Welcome to the alumni, kid. We’re so happy to have you.”

“Thank you, Daddy.” I hug him again, and over his shoulder I catch a glimpse of Ana in the crowd. She moves out of Carrick’s embrace into Christian’s, and the moment he has her wrapped in his arms, he presses his lips to hers in a deep, passionate kiss that is unconcerned with the hundreds of people milling around them. The red ring he gave her this morning glints in the sunlight and when they pull apart, they’re both smiling as broadly as they can at one another. Even from across the crowded theater, the love they share is apparent.

It makes my stomach clench uncomfortably.

“Hey, what about me?” Ethan asks. I blink and turn my attention from Christian and Ana to my brother, then take a breath before giving him my best smile and stepping into his arms. He groans slightly as he hugs me and my mother quickly clears a space around us to take a picture.

“Don’t let her go,” she says, squatting down, and then we’re flooded with a flash of light. “Okay, now, Ethan, put one arm over her and both of you look right here.”

Ethan rolls his eyes, but does as she says. We pose for three different pictures together, and then I take a few with my dad, then my mom, then my mom and dad, and then Harrison takes a picture of the four of us.

“You know, we need one with Carter,” my mom says, scanning the crowd. “Where did he run off to?”

“Oh,” I say hesitantly. “He’s probably with his family. I’ll see him later at the Arts Center.”

My dad raises an eyebrow. “You sure?”

“Yeah.”

“You don’t seem very excited. Everything okay, kiddo?”

“Fine. No, we’re great. It’s just crowded and I’m hungry and I don’t really want to stand here taking pictures anymore.”

“Well, we have to get one of you and Ana together in your robes. Where did she go? I saw the Greys during the ceremony.”

“Oh, she’s over–” I point in the direction where I saw her a few minutes ago, but she’s not there anymore. None of the Greys are. “Well, she was right there.”

“Ms. Kavanagh,” Harrison says, hanging up his phone and taking my elbow in his hand. “We need to get you back to the house, immediately.”

“The house? I thought we were going to the Arts Center from here?”

“No, ma’am. It’s not safe. If you’ll follow me.”

“Not safe, what happened? Where’s Ana?”

“Mr. Grey can explain everything once we return to the rendezvous point, but for now I need you and your family to come with me. Now.”

“Is she okay?”

“Ms. Kavanagh, please–”

“Just tell me that she’s okay and we can go.”

He frowns. “Miss Steele and Mr. Grey were escorted back to their vehicle by Mr. Taylor and Mr. Sawyer and we are not to go to the Arts Center. That’s all the information I have.”

I inhale sharply, trying to push the memories of last spring break away when I’d read that Google Alert saying someone had tried to take Ana off the street a few blocks from their apartment. At least I know that if Taylor and Luke have her, no one grabbed her. But being rushed away from graduation and told we can’t go to our party? That has to be because of him. Is he here? How do they know?

“Okay.” I nod at Harrison and reach back for my mom’s hand. My parents look at me with bewilderment, but Ethan, who I told all about what had happened over a frantic phone call on my way to the airport in Mexico, just takes my father’s arm the same way Harrison has ahold of mine, and starts walking briskly to the car. As we go, I scan the sea of faces looking for anyone I recognize. Ana, Christian, Elliot… but I don’t see any of them. Taylor and Luke had Christian and Ana, but what about the rest of the Greys? Who is going to make sure Elliot makes it back to the house safe and sound?

“Harrison, who is with the Greys? Christian’s family, I mean.”

“I’m not sure, ma’am.”

A shiver of trepidation runs down my spine as I step onto the asphalt of the parking lot and then make a beeline to the big SUV my parents rented in Boston. Once I’m buckled into the back seat, and my family is secure inside the vehicle, Harrison pulls out into the long traffic jam inching its way towards the exit, and I pull out my phone to text Elliot.

But there’s already a text there waiting for me.

 

They told you not to go to the Arts Center, right? Go straight home.

 

I feel a tangible sense of relief as I text him back.

 

Yes, we’re on our way home now. See you there?

 

Yeah, we’re on our way too. Christian and Ana are in the car three ahead of us.

 

I let out a long breath and relax back into the leather seat, staring diligently out the window until we make it out of the parking lot, looking for the face of a man I don’t know.

“Kate, where are we going?” my mother asks after we pass the Arts Center and continue on towards home.

“Back to the house. Ana and the Greys are meeting us there.”

“But what about your party?”

“It’s fine. We’ll go later, we just need to meet them at the house first.”

“What’s going on, Kate?” my dad interjects, and after a nervous look at Ethan, I take a breath and fill them in on the last few months and just exactly why Christian moved to Cambridge with Ana for the rest of the semester.

 

“So that’s why he got you a bodyguard,” my dad infers as we step through the back door and into the kitchen. I nod.

“He was worried someone would come after me to get to her. Ana would put herself in danger if she thought it would save me, so Christian hired someone to protect both of us.”

“Is that why you got the dog?” my mother asks, pushing Champ off of her as he runs into the kitchen to greet us.

“No, we didn’t know about any of this when we bought Champ. He’s here because Ana used to go to Seattle every weekend and Harrison wasn’t here before. I don’t like being alone.” I kneel down and rub Champ behind the ears, cringing slightly as he licks my face and slobbers on my graduation robes. “Hey, boy. Where’s Ana?”

He looks up at me with his wide brown eyes and wags his tail. I kiss him on the tip of his nose and then scramble to my feet, but when I come around into the living room, none of the faces that stare back at me belong to my best friend.

“Kate! Have you heard from Christian or Ana?” Grace asks.

I shake my head. “They’re not here yet?”

“No,” Elliot answers.

“I told you,” Carla says to Ray, her voice nearly hysterical. “I told you we should have kept her away from him.”

“I’m sure they’re fine, Carla,” Ray replies. “They’re probably just stuck in traffic.”

“They were in front of us!”

“They have Taylor with them,” Carrick says.

“And Luke,” Elliot adds. “They’re fine. Ana’s super pregnant, they probably had to stop so she could pee. Or… eat. Trust me, nothing is going to happen to her with Christian and Luke around.”

Carla shakes her head. “You all put way too much faith in him. Do none of you remember what happened in March? Have you forgotten that she was in his apartment, that these same bodyguards failed before? You have no idea what…” She stops, takes a breath, and turns once again to look purposefully at Ray. “She’s our baby girl. He puts her in danger over and over again. How can you just–”

“Carla, stop!” Ray exclaims, but before he can continue, Champ begins to bark at the sound of the back door sliding open and I turn on my heel to hurry into the kitchen.

“Ana? Christian?” When I turn the corner, I see them both standing there and the relief is immediate. I trudge forward and pull Ana into a tight hug. “What’s going on? Harrison wouldn’t tell us anything, just that we couldn’t go to the Arts Center.”

“He was there,” she breathes back in a shaky voice. “He called me right after the ceremony and told me he’d killed Leila. Oh my god, Christian…” She pulls out of my embrace and turns to face him. “Leila’s dead. It’s my fault. She saved me and now she’s… Oh my god!”

Tears start to pour from her eyes, so Christian wraps her tightly in his arms and starts to drag his fingers through her hair, trying to soothe her. “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.”

“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.”

I bite the inside of my cheek, wanting so much to do something to calm the fear in her voice, but I have to leave that to Christian right now. He tightens his grip on her, holding her head against his chest.

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

She nods, looking slightly pacified by his words and his strong arms around her, but when she pulls away, she suddenly gasps and her hands shoot down to her side like she’s got a runner’s cramp.

“Ah! Fuck–”

Christian’s face melts with worry again. “Baby…”

“It’s just… ah, cramp again.”

“Come on, let’s get you to the couch.”

I step aside so that Christian can lead her into the living room, but the moment they round the corner, they’re berated with questions from the ten people still anxiously waiting in the living room.

“What’s going on?” my dad asks. “Why are we here? I thought we’d reserved the Arts Center for Katherine and Ana’s party?”

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

“What?” Grace says. “Here? How?”

“I don’t know,” Christian replies. He takes a step to move Ana toward the couch again, but Ray quickly gets out of his seat with his arms outstretched for his daughter.

“Are you okay, baby girl?” he asks. She nods but it doesn’t fool any of us.

“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.”

At all? Wait, we’re not just going to go together? Fuck, Carter was supposed to meet us there. I forgot all about him. “And Carter was going to meet us there,” I add.

“Taylor is on route to the Arts Center to collect Ana and Kate’s things,” Luke answers. “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.” He turns to me. “But I’m sure if he sees Mr. Reed, he’ll direct him here.”

I nod and then glance over at Elliot, who must have been looking at me through the whole conversation because the moment our eyes meet, he quickly diverts his to the floor. I can feel it in that moment, the same tension between the two of us. It’s awkward and it’s painful, and I don’t know if it’s because I’ve brought up Carter’s name again or because he felt the same thing I did when I was in his arms dancing last night and he knows as well as I do that we’re moving towards something inevitable. I turn and look through the open blinds at the street, waiting, I guess, for Carter’s car to pull up along the curb at the front of the house and remind myself that I’m supposed to want it to. Repeating over and over again that I want him here right now.  

What the hell am I doing?

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

She nods again and turns to me, giving me a small, weak smile which I think is meant to assure me that she thinks Carter will be here soon. As she moves with Christian to the stairs, guilty heat floods my cheeks.

“I-I think I’m going to call Ellio– uh, Carter,” I announce awkwardly to everyone else in the room. “I’m going to call Carter. I’ll be right back.”

“Kate…” Elliot says, but I don’t stop to listen to what he has to say.

“I’ll be right back,” I repeat instead, and make my way up the stairs to my room, two at at time. Once I’m through my bedroom door, I dash inside, close the door behind me, and collapse against it. My chest heaves with every breath I take, preemptively holding back the tears that are sure to come. I can’t be like this. My family is here to celebrate graduation. Ana is going to need all the support she can get after once again being terrified by this crazed psycho coming after Christian. And I’m one week away from starting the biggest job of my life. But I know that I’m on a precipice and this fine line I’ve been walking with Carter and Elliot is about snap in half. I have no idea which way I’m going to fall and I have no idea which way I want to. Carter is safe. He comes from a good family, he’s a Harvard graduate, and he wants the same future that I do. But Elliot…

I feel things for Elliot that I just don’t for Carter, no matter how hard I’ve been trying. I don’t think I could feel them for anyone else but him. He’s like a piece in the puzzle of my life. Only he can fit there and when he’s gone, the picture just isn’t complete. His family loves me and accepts me as one of them — even months after we’ve broken up, while Carter’s parents treat me as something between a phase he’s going through and the reason he didn’t get into law school. Elliot was raised by a strong, successful woman so he doesn’t have any issues or feel threatened when I succeed. He encourages me. He pushes me. Carter accepts what I’ve accomplished, but always in comparison to his own victories and failures. Every achievement becomes a competition, a new goal that he has to set for himself. He’s never just happy for me. Elliot and I have so much in common. With him, I know I’ll travel the world and have the most amazing experiences. Carter and I can party together, maybe go to a few of the same concerts… but he doesn’t have the thirst for adventure that I have. That Elliot has.

But Carter wants a family. Carter wants a big wedding with all of his friends and family, and he wants to hold me on his arm at business soirees and charity galas as Mrs. Katherine Reed. He wants three kids (boy, girl, boy) and a big yard for Champ. Carter wants the future I’ve always pictured for myself.

Elliot may have been my greatest love, but he refuses to be my family. Carter is my future.

I’ve chosen Carter.

I inhale deeply, pulling the air all way down through my abdomen and releasing it in a long, slow exhale. Once I’m sure I’ve quelled the uncertainty swirling through my mind, I pull my phone out of my bra and search through my contacts for Carter’s name.

“Hey, what’s going on? I just got to the Arts Center and Taylor is here tearing open all of your packages.”

“Yeah, change of plans. Ana got a threatening phone call so we had to come home. We’re on lock down.”

“Fuck, was it the guy who tried to kidnap her?”

“Looks like it. She’s pretty freaked out, but Christian just took her to lay down. Hopefully she’ll feel a little bit better by the time Taylor gets back and we can open gifts. Or look at the gifts Taylor opened, I guess. That and a good dinner might take her mind off of this for a little bit.”

“So, I’ll see you at your house, then?”

“You’re still coming?”

“Yeah… I mean, if that’s okay. I have something for you too.”

“Oh. Yeah, of course. Obviously it’s okay that you come. I’ll see you soon?”

“I’m on my way. I love you, baby.”

My throat tightens and I have to swallow before I can speak again. “Stop it, you just saw me.”

“Well, that doesn’t mean I ever stop missing you.”

“I know. Me too. I’ll see you soon. Bye.”

“Bye.”

I hang up the phone and toss it onto the bed, deciding I need a shower to clear my head. Carefully, I kick off my heels and hang my graduation robes in the closet before pulling my hair up on top of my head, stripping out of my dress, and stepping beneath the hot, cleansing stream of water from my shower head. Steam billows up around me and I breathe it in, allowing it to relax away my tension so I can think clearly. By the time the water has turned cold, I’ve pushed all thoughts of what happened between Elliot and I the night before away and committed myself to the path I’ve chosen.

After drying off and getting dressed again, I decide that I’ve given Christian enough time and am about to go check on Ana, but just as I reach for the knob, I’m stopped by two soft knocks on the door. When I open it, I find Elliot standing in the hallway, waiting anxiously.

“Can I talk to you for a second?” he asks.

Bad idea, Kate. “Uh…”

“Please?”

“Sure.”

I pull open the door and he steps into my room, glancing around and thoroughly examining the space we shared for two years before finally turning back to me. “Are you okay?”

“Me? Oh, yeah. It’s a little scary, but I’m mostly just worried for Ana. She’s been freaked out over Leila for weeks. I can’t imagine what she’s feeling right now, knowing she’s… dead.”

“Yeah.” He nods. “I’ve been really worried about what’s going to happen next now that graduation is over and she has to come back to Seattle for the first time since she ran away. I think it’s going to be hard on her, but I don’t know what to do to help her, you know? It’s like, her home isn’t safe and if home isn’t safe, what is?”

My bottom lip starts to tremble, so I press them tightly together and nod. “Yeah.”

“Hey, Katie…” Elliot steps toward me and pulls me into a hug, holding me tightly against him while I work to once again gain control over my impending tears. Thankfully, his embrace is exactly what I need. His warmth and his scent wash away my fear, leaving me feeling a small sense of tranquility that wasn’t achievable before. I bury my face into his jacket and inhale, and as I do, he leans down and kisses the top of my head.

“Elliot…”

“I’m sorry,” he says quickly, releasing me. “I’m sorry, but I can’t pretend anymore, Kate. I can’t act like I’m fine with you and I barely talking. I can’t pretend like I don’t realize how awkward things are between us now. I can’t keep saying I’m fine with you and Carter being together. I’m not. I’m so jealous of him, I can hardly see straight. When I think about him touching you, it makes me sick. It makes me violent. I want to hurt him. I’m not okay, Kate. Not without you. I want you back. And not because of Carter, but because I am in love with you and need I you in my life.”

“Elliot, I-I–”

“You love me too, Kate. I know that. I felt it. Last night when we were dancing, I felt it. You can’t hide things from me. I know you, better than anyone else in the world. Better than I know myself.  I know what’s in your heart.”

“I’m with Carter now, Elliot.”

“Fuck Carter. Fuck everyone in the world that isn’t you and me.” He takes a breath and he jaw clenches, but when he continues, the determination in his voice is stronger. “I’m sorry about Gia. I should have never been with her. I should have never tried to replace you. There is no replacement. I love you Katherine Kavanagh and I want you to be mine again.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“Yes it is. This is how easy it is.”  His hands move up into my hair at the back of my head and he pulls my lips to his in a deep, passionate kiss that I feel all the way down to my toes. He thrusts his tongue past my lips and tangles it with mine in a way that is immediately familiar and makes me homesick. His taste bears the comfort of a previously forgotten dream that I can suddenly recall with vivid clarity. The way his hands hold me against him feels safe and welcoming as he pours into me the love he so desperately wants me to believe in. Between each brush of his lips, he whispers again that he loves me.

It would be so be easy to say yes. It would be so easy to let myself kiss him back and let him take me for his own again, but nothing’s changed. And for how easy it would be now, it would be devastating later.

After allowing his kiss to linger far too long, I push myself away and stare up into his eyes through the tears welling in mine.

“Please, Katie…” he whispers.

“Kate.” The door opens and Ana sticks her head inside, so Elliot and I quickly jump apart. Her eyes widen with surprise, and possibly a little embarrassment. “I’m sorry, I just… I wanted to tell you that Carter’s here.”

“Thanks,” I reply, and then turn back to Elliot. His eyes continue to plead with mine, but as much as I truly want what is offered in that look, I’m not willing to make the sacrifice that giving in would entail. If Elliot would make me happy in the long run, we never would have broken up. “I can’t.”

Unwilling to look at the pain that’s immediately apparent on his face, I push away from him, then slide between Christian and Ana into the hallway and down the stairs. Everyone is still waiting, looking much more impatient now that there’s a pile of unopened gifts in the center of the living room and the promise of dinner once Ana and I have sorted through everything. Carter is sitting on a pile of Ana’s boxes labeled “books” by the door, and the smile that breaks across his face when he sees me coming down the stairs hits me like a punch to the heart.

“Hey, baby. Have I told you how beautiful you look today?”

“Yeah. Carter, can we…?”

“And there’s Ana,” Ethan’s voice sounds from across the room. “Now let’s get through the gifts so we can eat. That graduation ceremony was like three hours long.”

There’s a murmur of agreement so Carter takes my hand and leads me to the sofa to take my place next to Ana, then sits on the armrest next to me. There isn’t wrapping on anything piled on the floor in front of us, so each member of our family simply picks up their own gift and hands it to either Ana or I. My mother has given me a set of her best pearls, my father a briefcase with my initials engraved into the silver buckles. Ethan’s bought me an alumni sweatshirt, and Grace and Carrick give me a gorgeous custom frame, which I can use to hang my degree up in my office back in Seattle once it arrives.

“Here,” Carter says, picking up the white jewelry box I showed him last week and handing it to Ana. “This one’s for you.”

“From me,” I add. She smiles, opens the hinged lid, and then lights up when she sees the gold chain and diamond H I’d designed for the two of us.

“I have one, too,” I tell her. “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,” she says. “And I’m so glad you’re the one I did this with.” We hug, both of us holding back the tears that come everytime one of us brings up the fact that living together and spending everyday together is quickly coming to an end. It’s silly, really. We’re moving back to the same city together and we’ve already made all kinds of plans for designated lunch days and girls nights, but both of us know it won’t be the same.

When she pulls away, she discreetly wipes the tears from her lower lids and turns to Christian, motioning to the scrapbook sitting on the floor. “Will you hand me Kate’s gift please?”

He does and when she passes it to me, her mouth pushes together in an chagrined pout. “I’m sorry, the lack of wrapping kind of ruins it…”

“A scrapbook?” I ask, flipping open the hardbound cover.

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

I turn to the first page and immediately smile. There’s pictures of Ana and I in crimson sweaters together, pictures of my dad and I, and of the three of us together, surrounded by tiny little football stickers all around the page.

“Look, our first football game!” I flip the page and see the photo of Ana and I in our matching Mario and Luigi costumes that’s been on the wall of our living room since we moved in. “And halloween. Oh my god, Vegas! Will you look at that hair? What were we thinking?”

She laughs. “That the only way to make it through Sin City is to get as close to God as possible.” I flip the page again and this time see pictures of the two of us with Christian and Elliot together in the cabin and on the mountain in Aspen from that ski trip we took our freshman year. Ana and I are in the middle of the photo, sitting on a sofa together, but we’re both leaning into our boyfriends. My cheeks are pink, so we must have just come off the slopes, and my smile is radiant. Elliot has his arms around me, holding me tightly against him, and he grins just as broadly as I do. We look blissfully happy.

I have to close the book. I’ll look at the rest of it later when I’m alone.

“You’re amazing,” I say, turning to my best friend. “I’m going to treasure 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!” She wraps her arms around me and we squeeze each other for half a beat, until Carter takes the book out of my lap, sets it on the table next to the couch, and glances around the room at the rest of the family.

“Anyone else?”

“Yeah. I’ve got one more.” I turn to look over my shoulder and watch Elliot come from the bottom of the stairs, pulling a small box out of the pocket inside his jacket to hand to me. It’s a jewelry box, that much is obvious, and after the conversation we just had upstairs, I’m not sure I want to open this in front of everyone. But Carter has seen it and he already thinks I’m hiding things from him about Elliot.

You are.

I press my lips together, ignoring the bitter voice echoing in the back of my mind, and pull open the lid of the box. Inside, there is a pair of sparkling diamond earrings resting on a bed of blue satin. They’re breathtaking.

“Elliot. 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 reaches into his jacket again, pulls out a very worn piece of crumpled up paper, and gives it to me to read.

 

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.”

My stomach clenches again as I look at the stunning pair of earrings in my hand, and then up into the deep, blue depths of his eyes. “Thank you, Elliot. They’re beautiful.”

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

And just like that, it’s like I’m back upstairs in my room with his lips against mine again. We stare at each other for a long time, or at least, it feels like a long time. Nothing else exists in that moment but him, and me, and the unspoken words lost in the eye contact we share. It’s almost as though I’m locked there, frozen, until Ana grabs my hand, pulls me off the couch, and drags me with her as she moves to hug Grace. She leads me around the room so that we can express our gratitude to each person sitting around us in turn, but as I smile at the hug shared between my mom and Ana, Carter gets off the couch to get everyone’s attention.

“I have a gift too.”

I turn in his direction and he comes directly towards me, taking both of my hands in his the moment he’s within reach. “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.”

My heart feels as though it freezes in my chest as he reaches into the pocket of his slacks, pulls out a black velvet box, identical to the one Elliot had given me moments before, and then slowly sinks down onto one knee.

“Will you marry me?”

There it is. The four words that have been so important to me that I tossed away the man I thought was the love of my life to hear them. My hand is shaking when I pull back the lid, and when I see the beautiful, three carat, princess cut diamond my mouth drops open. It’s beautiful. Perfect. But looking at it doesn’t bring me any sense of joy. I don’t feel the sense of elation that I’d always imagined would come with this moment. I feel empty. Void. And rather than process what this actually means, my brain is racing through different ideas of how to get away from the pointed stares coming at me from all different directions around the room.

Unfortunately, the distraction I’m practically praying for comes in the form of a blood curdling scream from Ana.

I turn and see her grabbing her side again, the way she did in the kitchen, only this time the pain reflected on her face is much more intense. Christian grabs onto her, asking her what’s wrong, but she struggles to stand, even breathe through the pain, so she doesn’t answer for several seconds.

“I–I think my water just broke,” she pants, and my eyes immediately shift to Grace. I didn’t think that was supposed to be painful.

Grace reaches for Mia’s arm as Ana pushes past the pain enough to pull up the long skirts of her dress, and the entire room gasps in horror when we see the dark, crimson blood that soaks the carpet around her feet. It’s astonishing, shocking, how much blood has pooled there in the few seconds that have past since she first screamed. My eyes flit up to her wide, panicked face, and then I let out a terrified shriek myself when her eyelids begin to flutter, then roll back into her head, and she collapses in Christian’s arms.

Next Chapter

Elliot PoV: They’d Never Believe We’re Just Friends…

Kate and Elliot

End of Chapter 33

Mac’s is more crowded than I ever remember it being in the two years that I lived in Cambridge. It’s a little divy, but they have good music, a dancefloor, free pool tables, and a killer beer selection, which had Kate and I coming here every Thursday night back in the good old days. In fact, despite the crowds and the almost overbearing presence of Christian’s security team, tonight feels a lot like the good old days. Kate sits on the bar stool next to me, laughing at my jokes and beaming radiantly at me as I catch her up on everything going on in Seattle. She tells me everything she finds annoying about Christian living with them now, which mostly has to do with he and Ana fucking all over their house. There’s a glint in her eye as we talk that makes me hopeful, and when she gets up to sink a few more of the balls left on the table, I do everything I can to silence the voice in the back of my head telling me over and over again how dangerous that hope is.

She’s not mine anymore. I can’t give her what she wants. She has Carter Reed.

I take a drink of my beer, once again tasting the bitterness that name leaves in my mouth. I used to think Christian overreacted when it came to Reed, but now… I think he might have under-reacted. The guy’s a fuckface.

“Well, I may have missed but I blocked Christian’s best shot on the corner pocket,” Kate says as she takes a seat on the stool next to me again. “We’ve got this in the bag.”

I nod, then watch Christian lean over the table and glance at Anastasia before he hits the cue ball into the eight and it rolls smoothly into the side pocket.

“Ooh, bad luck, bro,” I say, shaking my head. The taunt beneath my fake pity is subtle, and clearly played far too well, because rather than throwing some biting response back at me, he simply shrugs and passes his stick back to Sawyer.

“That’s fine. Ana and I need to get home anyway, it’s getting late.” I nod, reluctantly accepting that Ana being so pregnant means we just can’t stay out like we used to, and tip the last swallow of beer into my mouth. But as Kate starts to gather her things, Christian holds up a hand to stop her. “Please, stay and enjoy the rest of the night. Your drinks are on me.”

I have to hide my smile. Free drinks and the rest of the night alone with Kate? And to think, I didn’t get him anything…

“Well, if you insist!” I reply merrily, turning to find his body guard in the crowd by the bar. “Taylor! The Russian Imperial Stout!”

Christian rolls his eyes but takes his jacket off the chair next to me and then hurries over to Ana, wraps her hand in his, and pulls her so purposefully after him that her very round, pregnant frame causes her to wobble slightly. Taylor hands me the beer I’ve asked for and nods to both Kate and I before hurrying after them, and when I catch Luke scanning the room with diligent eyes one last time as he leaves, I worry for a moment there’s something wrong. Christian is here because someone is stalking and actively trying to harm Ana. Are they here now? Is Kate safe?

“What do you think that was about?” I ask while Kate moves to the table to re-rack the balls for a game of one-on-one. She glances over her shoulder towards the door and then shakes her head.

“They’re going home to have sex. Christian can be impatient sometimes.”

“Oh… you’re sure?”

“Yeah, haven’t you been watching them for the past hour? Ten more minutes and I’m pretty sure he would have stripped her down right here and thrown her on this table.”

“No, I haven’t been,” I admit, and when she bends over the table to break, I glance down at her perfect rear end and sigh. “I’ve been a distracted, I guess.”

She laughs, then hits the cue ball into the grouping in the center of the table and watches as two striped balls roll into pockets on opposite sides of the table. After giving me a coy look, she begins circling the table until she finds her next best shot. I watch her bend over again and sink the ten in the corner pocket, but she misses her next shot on the fourteen. It doesn’t seem to shake her confidence though. When she stands upright again she gives me a challenging smile. “Stripes.”

I grin and move to the table with my cue, strategizing how best to tackle the solids still spread out across the table. I don’t have too many difficult angles so I’m fairly certain that, as long as I don’t fuck something up, I can probably run the table.  My first shot is on the six, and it rolls into the dead center of the bottom right-corner pocket. While the sound of the ball swirling around the cup rings around us, I turn and smile back at Kate again. “You’re toast, Kavanagh.”

“Bring it, Grey.”

We play three solid games, trading off wins, but we only make a few shots each before the fourth game is completely abandoned in favor of sitting at the table, sharing a few drinks, and talking again. And this, this is what I’ve missed so much…

“Oh my god, do you remember that weekend we spent in Pacific Beach, in that tiny little cottage rental that leaked and didn’t have any hot water?”

I laugh. “Yeah. How did we end up there?”

“Because you told me you had already made reservations at the resort. But you lied, and when you tried to get a room once we got there, they were all booked up! It took us two and a half hours to find somewhere to stay and that tiny little shack cost us twice what we were going to pay on our suite.”

“Oh that’s right,” I reply, narrowing my eyes. “I told you I’d make the reservation, but you said you wanted to pick the room so you told me not to worry about it and that you’d take care of it. Then when we got there and didn’t have a room, you tried to blame it on me.”

“That doesn’t sound like me.” She giggles before taking another drink of her beer.

“Uh huh.”

“Still, it turned out great, didn’t it? We were right on the beach so we had bonfires both nights and we built that giant sandcastle that took us hours, and hours, and hours.”

“A miraculous feet of engineering. I actually can’t believe we pulled it off.”

“Luckily, one of us has an engineering degree from MIT so…”

I smile and shake my head, reminiscing. “The sunsets were great from the front porch, weren’t they? I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything more beautiful.”

“I know.”

“And at night, it got so cold that you had to snuggle up close to me and I’d wrap you in my arms and we’d stay like that, the whole night.”

She shakes her head. “We always slept like that. It was like, even in my dreams I needed to be close to you.” She takes another drink and I bite back the words that are fighting to bubble through my lips. I still love you. I want you back.

“It took me a long time to learn how to sleep without you again,” she continues. “I think you get accustomed to having someone in the bed with you, so when I was alone I wasn’t sleeping very well.”

“Until Carter.”

“Yeah… Until Carter.”

“How are you two doing?” God, I hope she can’t hear the desperation in my voice.

“Fine. Good. He’s really sweet, and very caring. Right after you and I broke up, he would come stay with me a lot while Ana was gone since I still really can’t be alone overnight. And when I had surgery last winter, he took really good care of me. My parents like him and he and Ana get along really well. Even Christian is coming around, I think. It’s good. He and I, we’re… good.”

“I’m glad to hear that. I mean, I wish… uh… I just…” I take a deep breath, foregoing my attempt to lie about how much it hurts to hear about her new relationship, and settle for what’s really important. “I’m glad you’re happy.”

She nods and gives me a strange kind of half-smile that’s hard to read, then takes an extra long pull from her beer.

“What about you? How’s life after Gia?”

I shrug. “Fine, I guess. I’ve been working a lot trying to get Christian’s building finished before the new fiscal year, and his house finished before Calliope comes, so that fills a lot of my free time. But Dad doesn’t need people around so much anymore, Christian and Ana are here, and Mia, well, she’s seventeen and would rather hang out with her friends at the mall than her clearly second favorite brother. Gia and I didn’t have a lot in common. She wasn’t interested in any of the things I like and all she ever really wanted to do was shop or work out. But, at the end of the day, she was someone to talk to. Someone to have dinner with and to tell how my day went. She was happy to see me when I got home. But now, there’s no one. It’s a little lonely, I guess.”

“Well, she’s not the only girl out there. You’re quite the catch, Elliot Grey. I should know…” She pauses, and bites her lip. When she speaks again, there’s a slight quiver in her voice. “I’m sure there are a million girls out there who would die to be the girl you came home to at night.”

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

“So, you’re not dating anyone, then?”

“No. I think there are a few things I need to work out before I even think about having a relationship again.”

“Like what?”

That I’m still madly in love with you and no woman is ever going to measure up to what we had together. “I don’t know. I think I just need some time.”

“Elliot…” She pauses, letting the awkward way she says my name hang between us. I don’t know what she’s going to say next, if I want to hear what she’s going to say next or even if I can bear it, but the silence redirects my attention to the music and I note that the song has changed to one of her favorites.

“Hey, listen,” I tell her, and as she looks up into the open space around us, the look of pained conflict on her face melts away into a pale echo of the smile I love so much.

“I love this song!”

I laugh at the familiar excited squeal in her voice. “Yeah, I know.”

“Do you want to dance?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

I get up, take her hand, and lead her to the middle of the dance floor. It’s one of those songs that makes girls want to get up and shake their asses around, so there aren’t very many couples around us and everyone in the bar has turned their attention to the dance floor to watch the pretty, young girls sway their hips and drop low to the floor. The attention might have been awkward for anyone else, but not Kate. She carries on as if she were alone in her room with a pair of headphones in. It’s one of the things I’ve always admired most about her. She has this undeniable passion for life that is unencumbered by embarrassment or fear of judgement. The complete opposite of Gia, or of any girl I’ve ever met. She does whatever she wants, how she wants, and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. Just taking her hand as she twirls and pulling her into my body so I can dip her makes me feel more alive than I have in months. When she pushes into me and I can hold her, her scent swirls through my head and leaves me dizzy.

She’s laughing when the song stops but as the slow drone of Toby Keith replaces the upbeat tempo, her smile slowly fades away. My shoulders fall in disappointment, but as I turn to make my way back to our table, she reaches out to grab onto my arm and stops me.

“I like this song too,” she says.

I don’t move at first, but she steps forward, presses her body into mine, places my right hand on her waist, and takes my left hand in hers. We stand there like that for half a second, and then I take the leap and push her backwards to lead her across the dancefloor. As we spin and sway, her eyes never leave mine and the words of the song drift around us like a commentary of everything I feel, but can’t say.

 

You shouldn’t kiss me like this, unless you mean it like that

‘Cause I’ll just close my eyes, and I won’t know where I’m at

And we’ll get lost on this dancefloor, spinning around

And around and around and around

They’re all watching us now, they think we’re falling in love

They’d never believe we’re just friends

You shouldn’t kiss me like this, unless you mean it like that

If you do, baby kiss me again

 

I feel my throat tighten as I stare deep into her eyes, and in that moment, I can’t hold back anymore. I lean forward, intent on taking her lips with mine and pouring into her everything I want her know about these last few months, but before I can touch her with my kiss, a voice next to us calls out her name and we both freeze.

“Kate?”

It’s Carter Reed, and he’s flocked by group of guys that look as though they’ve just stepped out of an SNL skit making fun of rich, douchey Millennials.

“Carter!” Her hand falls from mine and she takes a quick step back, looking guilty, and anger flares behind her boyfriend’s eyes.

“What the fuck is going on here?”

“We’re just dancing,” she says. “Christian and Ana just left, we were playing pool and talking, and then that Trace Adkins song I like came on. I asked if he wanted to dance.”

“Yeah, this looks real innocent.” His jaw tenses, and when I glance down, I notice his hands are shaking.

“You need to calm down, dude,” I warn him, and his eyes snap over to me.

“Don’t tell me what I need to do, Grey. Fuck you.” He turns back to Kate. “Get your ass in the car, we’re leaving.”

“Carter…”

“Don’t fucking argue with me right now, Kate. Move!”

“Hey! You don’t get to speak to her that way…”

He takes two steps so that he’s right in my face, and now his entire body is trembling. When he speaks, I can smell the alcohol on his breath. “Say another word. Please. Give me a reason…”

“Are you serious right now?”

“Oh, I’m dead serious. You think I don’t know what you’re doing? You think I’m just going to stand back while you paw my girlfriend? I know your game, your brother did the same fucking thing to me and I’m not going to let it happen again. You even so much as look at her again, I’ll knock your fucking lights out.”

The threat triggers a rush of adrenaline and my body stiffens automatically. “That’s real big talk when you’ve got four guys standing behind you.”

“I don’t anyone else to kick your ass, Grey.”

“Really? Then why don’t you and I step outside for a second…”

“Stop it!” Kate moves around me to stand between Reed and I and uses her hands to push us apart. “Just stop it, you’re both being idiots.”

“Were you going to fuck him tonight, Kate?”

“No! Jesus, Carter. We’re friends. We’re just friends. You need to calm down.”

“And you need to go get your ass in the car.”

“I don’t think so,” I say, reaching out to grab Kate’s wrist. “She’s not going anywhere with you.”

“Stop!”

“Kate, he smells like the inside of a whiskey bottle. I’m not letting you get into a car with him.”

“I’m not an idiot, Elliot. You don’t have to babysit me. Carter, I’m going to call a cab to take us home. Go wait for me outside.”

“Kate…”

“Go!”

Reed’s nostrils flair but his body seems to relax as he takes a step back and shoots a death glare at me. “You’re on my list, Grey. Watch yourself.”

I snort, but Kate pushes him away before I can say anything more. My eyes follow them through the crowd as they make their way outside, clearly arguing, and not going after them is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Every instinct I have tells me not to let her go with him, to get her as far away from him as possible, but I don’t get to make that decision for her. If she had said no and he tried to force her to leave with him, that would be a different story. But she didn’t say no. She’s leading him out as much as he’s leading her.

Kate’s never been the damsel in distress type.

I press my lips together in frustration, then pull out my phone and find Christian’s name in my contacts. He doesn’t answer when I call, so I have to settle for a text message.

 

Kate and Reed are on their way back. If Kate doesn’t come home in the next thirty minutes, call me.

 

A minute passes, but there’s no response. I sit at the table, order another beer, and wait, deciding if I don’t hear back from Christian at all, I’ll go to Kate’s house myself. But as the twenty-ninth minute of my allotted thirty minute time frame rolls past, my phone buzzes on the table. It’s Christian.

 

Sorry, I just saw this. They got home about twenty minutes ago. You okay?

 

I let out a long breath, but I’m not sure if it’s relief or disappointment I feel. Christian is prone to overreacting, so if there was anything at all for me to worry about, he’d tell me. But having nothing to worry about means nothing will change, and having tonight with Kate has shown me just how much I want it to.

I was fooling myself with Gia. As much as it makes me sick to admit, I was using her to replace Kate and the resentment that built up between us had nothing to do with that Gresham guy or even tension between her and my family. It was because she couldn’t fill the Kate sized void in my life. Does Reed fill the void I’ve left in hers?

I shake my head, disgusted.

How could someone who would act like that make her happy, anyway? What is he possibly giving her that I didn’t?

Marriage. Kids.

Maybe he’s promised her the things I didn’t. After all, she made it clear to me last fall, marriage is her deal breaker. If I won’t propose, she would never be mine anyway. But if I propose…

I take another drink from my bottle and once again force myself to imagine my life as a husband and a father, but any great fantasy I’m able to conjure is replaced instantly by memories of the stupid, petty arguments my parents used to have when they thought we were asleep. Or even the nights they stayed up wondering where Christian was, only to get a call from the juvenile detention center late in the night telling them he’d been picked up for fighting and was charged with a M.I.C. After they brought him home, my dad would get so angry he’d practically fly off the handle but my mother was so protective over Christian that the two of them would always end up in a blow out and end up sleeping in separate rooms and not talking for days. My dad sacrificed a lot for our family, never did a lot of the things he dreamed of doing, and my mom has made herself so much smaller than she was capable of being for the sake of myself, Christian, and Mia. I don’t want to do that to Kate. I don’t want to do that to myself.

And I have very clear memories of my mother’s face when she found out about Christian and Elena, and about Mia working in that club downtown.  I can still picture the pain in her eyes so clearly that thinking of it now is just as devastating as it was then. I couldn’t handle that. Nor could I handle the battle my father went through in both of the resulting cases. I’ve never been so drained as I was after the whole trial ordeal when I had to fight tooth and nail every single day to keep my family from disintegrating, and always, always, coming up short. I can’t do that again. I don’t want more people to have to fight for. I’m so tired of fighting…

No, I don’t want marriage. I don’t want kids.

But it doesn’t make me want Kate any less. She’s my girl. She’s the one I’m supposed to be with. She’s the only girl who has ever made me feel like I’m doing something right, and I don’t want anyone else. I want her forever, and I would give her forever. So why does she need the stupid piece of paper? Why do we have to change what we had? She’s enough. Aren’t I?

With a sigh, I drain my bottle and pick up my phone again, ignoring the antagonizing looks I’m still getting from Carter’s friends from across the bar.

 

I’m fine. Just wanted to make sure she got home alright. See you tomorrow.

Next Chapter

Christian PoV: …’Til it’s Gone

ominous-skyline-benjamin-yeager

Chapter 28

I’m lifting too heavy. I can feel it in my chest, my back, and my shoulders every time I push the bar up and away from me, but I’m too pissed off to care about how sore I’m going to be later or even about the danger of benching this much weight without someone in the gym with me.  

Ana and I have been fighting since Saturday night. She’s quickly heading into her third trimester so there won’t be anymore weekly trips home for her once she leaves at the end of this week, and I’ve spent what little time I have left with her arguing about Ros-fucking-Bailey. God, just thinking her name leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. She was always supposed to be on my side. Mine. Afterall, she was the one who pushed me towards Ana in the beginning. She was the one who helped me get GEH off the ground. Hell she’s the one who dragged me off the couch after Ana left me and made me fight to get her back. When other people have turned their backs on me, Ros never did. I didn’t realize that it was all just so she could use me later to get something better.

The bar clunks loudly as I set it back on the rest over my head and get up from  the bench to towel off. I hate how much this betrayal is bothering me. I’m usually so good at writing people off and shutting them out for good, without a second thought, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Ros. I think it’s because Ana won’t just let it go. All weekend she’s been badgering me about what Ros said to her at her fucking baby shower, emails being planted and servers being compromised. I’m sure it was a convincing pitch, and Ana has bought it hook, line, and sinker.

But it’s only because Ana doesn’t know Ros like she thinks she does. She knows social Ros. She knows the Ros who is fun to be around at parties and always has some kind of humorous anecdote, usually at my expense, to break the ice or any awkward silence. She can be warm, she can be friendly, and she can be caring. But she can also be cold, calculating, and ruthless. It’s what drew me to her in the first place. It’s what made me choose her to be my partner. If there’s anyone I would trust to go into a meeting in my place and get the same deal I would have, it’s Rosaline Bailey.

Maybe that’s why this is getting to me so much. I’ve lost a valuable resource.

Yeah, that’s it.

I pick up the remote to the speaker and turn off the TV playing the news on the other side of the gym, then toss the towel over my shoulder and make my way back downstairs for my shower. Ana is still asleep and she’s been so tired lately I do everything I can to keep from waking her until I’m dressed and ready to head out the door. Standing at the edge of the bed, I take a moment just to stare at her. She looks peaceful. Serene, even. In this moment, it doesn’t feel like we’ve spent half the weekend yelling or shooting biting comments back and forth. She’s just my Ana. My sweet, perfect, beautiful Ana.

As gently as I can, I lean over, brush away the flyaway strands of hair covering her face, and press my lips into hers. She responds with a small, soft moan, but her eyes don’t open and she doesn’t stir. The moment I pull away from her, she turns on her side and is once again lost in deep sleep.

“I love you, baby,” I whisper, then creep through the door as silently as I can with Kate’s dog following right behind me.

Most of the security team has already left for the office by the time I’ve finished breakfast. After Taylor has gone downstairs to retrieve the car, it’s only Kommer and I left in the apartment and he hovers a little too closely as I check the remaining few emails on my phone and wait for the elevator to return.

“Did Sawyer forward you a call in number?” I ask, just to break his insistent stare.

“Sir?”

“For the security meeting this morning. It’s mostly for the new building but I believe Taylor has a few agenda items for when you return to Cambridge.” He continues to look at me blankly, uncomprehending. It’s irritating. “Because of Leila Williams’ disappearance…

“Oh, yeah. I mean, no he didn’t, but I’ll be in the office for the meeting.”

I raise an eyebrow at him. “I thought you were assigned to Anastasia for the day?”

“I am, but we’ve made other arrangements for the meeting. Taylor thought it was more important that I attend the briefing because of the situation with Miss WIlliams. He sent an email last night.”

“Did he?” I look him over once before glancing back down at my phone and scanning through the emails I’ve received since last night. “I don’t have anything.”

“You weren’t copied?” He too pulls out his phone, directs it at me so I can see the screen, and sure enough there’s an email from Jason Taylor at 02:33 AM directing Kommer to attend the security meeting in the office this afternoon and that he’s covered Miss Steele’s watch for the time he’ll be out of the apartment.  

The elevator pings, redirecting my attention. “Very well,” I say dismissively. “I’ll see you in the office.”

“Yes, sir.”

He pivots to let me move into the open elevator and then continues to watch me until the doors close. For the first time, I feel a small sense of empathy towards Ana, who has always complained about how her security can feel overbearing at times. Kommer is intense, but I know that’s a good quality in a CPO. Taylor was this way at first, too, before he and I developed a more functional relationship. Eventually, they’ll grow accustomed to one another and, knowing Ana, ultimately become really close friends. Although, I hope not too close. I don’t know that I could handle another Sawyer situation.

The moment I step out of the elevator and through the door to the backseat of the SUV, which Taylor holds open for me, my phone buzzes insistently in my pocket. It’s Andrea calling to inform me about a problem my finance team has uncovered in the books of a large client GEH is days away from closing a sale on. Apparently, they’ve been hiding some of their more dire financial issues to make them appear more desirable for acquisition. It’s a gigantic oversight that takes me all morning to sort out, forcing me to cancel two client calls and delay my security meeting by over an hour. In fact, it’s almost lunch time when I hang up the call with the head of my legal team, only to be immediately interrupted again by a knock on my office door.

“What?” I call irritably, and a very nervous looking Andrea steps inside. I narrow my eyes at her as she approaches my desk. I’ve issued strict instructions that I was not to be disturbed this morning and Andrea isn’t one to ignore what I’ve told her.

“Excuse me, sir… I have Miss Bailey on line one for you.”

My jaw clenches. “I told you not to disturb me, Andrea.”

“Yes, sir. But, she’s very insistent.”

“She’s always insistent. It’s one of her worst qualities.  I’ve told you before that Miss Bailey is to be directed to Kramer or Menke.”

“Yes, sir. But…”

“I won’t tell you again.” My tone is firm and vaguely threatening, but, despite the nerves I can see clearly reflected behind her eyes, she doesn’t back down.

“I understand, sir. But she said she needs to talk to you about Anastasia and that it’s an emergency.”

I let out a dark, humorless laugh. “That’s low, even for her. I’m too busy to play games with her right now. Forward her call to my lawyer and get out of my office.”

“Christian, you need to take her call!” My eyes snap back up to her and for a moment, I’m taken aback. Andrea has never dared to use my first name, let alone yell at me, and I’m not sure exactly how to take it. I’ve fired other subordinate employees for much less, but there’s an urgency in her eyes that’s hard to ignore.

Slowly, I reach over and pick up the receiver to my desk phone, then press my finger into the button next to the blinking hold light.

“I swear to god, if you say anything to me right now that isn’t about Anastasia…”

“She isn’t here,” Ros interrupts me.

“What?”

“I’m in your apartment right now, and Ana isn’t here.”

“What do you mean she isn’t there? Why are you in my apartment?”

“I talked to her on the phone this morning and she told me to come over so we could talk, but when I got here, she wasn’t here. I figured she’d stepped out for a minute, but then half an hour passed and she never came back. She knew I was coming, and she didn’t call to cancel. Christian… I think something might have happened to her.”

Suddenly, I feel very cold.

“Have you tried calling her?” I ask urgently.

“Of course I called her. Her phone is on the kitchen counter.”

“I’ll call you back.”

“Christi–”

Before my name is even fully out of her mouth I hang up the phone and start looking wildly around my desk. Where would she go? Kate flew to Cabo with Reed yesterday. Sawyer is in Cambridge. I pick up my phone and begin dialing.

“Hey, I’m on the jobsite, I can’t talk,” Elliot answers.

“Have you heard from Ana?”

“No, why would Ana call me?”

“She’s supposed to be at Escala, but she’s not and she doesn’t have her phone. I’m trying to figure out where she would go. What’s Mia doing today?”

“Mia? She’s at school.”

“Fuck. I have to go.”

“Is everything okay?”

“I don’t know.” I pause, feeling the need to catch my breath. “I don’t know. Ana’s… not where she’s supposed to be.”

“I’ll call Dad. Mom’s at work today, but Dad’s at home. Maybe she went to check on him.”

I don’t think that’s likely, not if she was expecting Ros at Escala, but I nod anyway. “Good. Let me know what you find out.”

I hang up the phone and dial Ana’s number, but when Ros answers and confirms again that Ana doesn’t have her phone, the sickening feeling inside my stomach grows more intense. I glance back up at Andrea. She’s still nervous, but it’s clearly for a different reason now. There’s fear in her eyes, and not directed at me. More for me.

I don’t like it.

“Taylor!” I shout, jumping out of my chair and storming towards my office door. He meets me there, looking perplexed. “Have you heard from Anastasia?”

“No, sir. Is everything okay?”

“I don’t know. Ros called. She’s at Escala and she said Anastasia’s gone. She doesn’t have her phone.”

“Gone?” His brow furrows for a moment, then turns on his heel and stalks quickly down the hallway towards the conference room. I follow anxiously, and when we come through the door, I find my entire security team waiting around the table.

“Kommer?” Taylor barks. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Waiting for Mr. Grey, sir. Miss Parker said the meeting had been postponed while Mr. Grey dealt with a client issue.”

“I mean here. In this building. Why aren’t you with Miss Steele?”

“You told me to be here. I figured you’d asked Cardella to be with Miss Steele this afternoon.” He glances at Ana’s second CPO, then pulls out his phone and slides it across the table towards Taylor and I, showing us the same email I saw this morning.

“I didn’t get that…” Cardella says defensively, and Taylor shakes his head.

“That’s because I didn’t send it.”

Kommer sits up straighter in his chair, his face twisting with confusion and mild panic. “But…”

I don’t wait to find out what he’s going to say. I turn and practically run to the elevator. Andrea calls out to me, but I don’t hear what she says. My mind is racing, trying to come up with someone to call or something to do, but I keep coming up empty. I know she didn’t leave. I know her, and if she didn’t have security with her, or at the very least someone she knows and trusts, she wouldn’t go anywhere. Something is wrong. I can feel it.

Taylor squeezes through the doors as the elevator closes and I jab my finger into the garage key over and over again The wait from the elevator until we’re in the car and out of the garage, where I can finally make a call again, feels interminable. So once I finally have Sawyer on the line, I’m more agitated than I should be.

“Mr. Grey?”

“When was the last time you spoke with Anastasia?”

“Uh…. I don’t know that I’ve talked to her since she left. Oh, no, she texted me a couple days ago that she was annoyed with Kommer when she was out running with Kate and Reed, but that was it.”

“You haven’t talked to her today?”

“No. Why?”

“She’s missing. She’s disappeared from the apartment, no one knows where she went, and she doesn’t have her phone.”

“What? Where’s Kommer?”

“He wasn’t with her,” I growl through clenched teeth and then hang up the phone without another word.

I collapse back into my seat and run my fingers through my hair.  I’m starting to realize that, despite my growing sense of panic, I haven’t actually accepted that something real has happened. There’s been a lingering, yet potent hope in the back of my mind that Elliot will call back and say she’s been with my father, or Ros will call and say she’s back–that she went down the street to her favorite restaurant because pregnancy cravings sometimes outweigh common sense. But that hope is getting harder and harder to hang on to with each failed attempt to find her.

As we approach the entrance to the parking garage below my apartment, I’m filled with a kind of energy that I’m not sure what to do with. My hands shake and my knees bounce in my seat. Being stuck inside the car, even though it’s still moving, is unbearable. I need to be doing something to find her, and sitting here makes me feel anemic. Thankfully, Taylor feels the urgency of the situation just as acutely as I do, so he speeds through the garage and lets me out at the entrance of the elevator.

“I’ll be right behind you, sir,” he says. I give him a curt nod before I fly out of the backseat and step into the elevator. Each number that rolls past on the panel above the door is agony and when I finally come to a stop and am released into the foyer of my apartment I immediately start calling out her name.

“Ana! Ana!”

“She still isn’t back,” Ros says, coming around the corner, but I don’t take her word for it. I start tearing through the apartment, throwing open closet doors, looking under beds, everywhere. But she isn’t here.

“Ana!” I call again, more desperately this time, and Ros reaches out to place a gentle hand on my shoulder.

“Should I call the police?”

“I–I…” I can hear the elevator ping and rush to the foyer, hope building inside my chest again, but when I come around the corner from the great room, it’s Taylor I find, not Ana.

“She’s not here,” I tell him.

“Her car is in the garage, so if she left, she’s on foot. I’ll call Kommer and Cardella, have them set up a perimeter around Escala and begin working their way out.”

“We should call the police, right?” Ros repeats, this time to Taylor, but he presses his lips together with hesitation.

“When did you last speak to her?”

“I don’t know… uh, 10:30. I got here at about 11:00.”

Taylor looks down at his watch. “It’s almost noon, that’s about an hour and a half.”

The elevator door pings again and Ryan, Kommer, and Cardella step into my apartment. Subconsciously, my body tenses, and it’s because for the past few days every time the ding from the elevator has sounded inside my apartment, it was met with the booming bark of Kate’s dog.

“Wait, the dog,” I say quickly, turning to look through the living room. “Where’s the dog?” Taylor looks past me as well, but Kommer steps to the table in the middle of the foyer and gives it a quick glance over before turning back to us.

“His leash is gone, and the waste bags. Miss Steele must have taken him for a walk.”

Relief springs inside my chest for a millisecond, but is squashed almost as quickly as it came. “For an hour and a half, with no security, when she was expecting Ros to meet her here?”

“It’s a start though,” Taylor says. “We’ll check the security footage. That will tell us if she left the apartment, or if someone forced her out.”

I nod and turn to Ros. “Will you find Gail, please? Bring her to me?”

“Yeah. Of course.” She dashes off in the direction of the stairs while I follow Taylor into his office and hover behind his desk, staring intently at the monitors that show every inch of my apartment while he rewinds the footage recorded from this morning.

“Alright, we’re at 10:50 this morning and there she is,” he says, slowing the footage down so we can watch Anastasia’s movements throughout the apartment.

“Sound?”

He plays the footage in real time and adjusts a knob until we can hear the audio on the feed. The five of us lean in intently towards the screens as we watch Ana walk around the kitchen counter to the dog standing near the back windows.

“Do you have to go potty, buddy?” she asks, petting him, and then stands up to lead him toward the elevator. We watch her leash him up, then wait for the elevator, and once it arrives, she steps inside and disappears from view of the cameras.

“See, she’s walking the dog.” Kommer says, but Taylor shakes his head.

“I have a street view, but there’s no audio.” With a few presses of a button, he changes to the recording from the exterior camera, rewinds to the correct time, and waits until Ana comes through the front doors of the building with the dog’s leash in hand. They pace up and down the street, coming in and out of our view for several minutes and then we watch the dog streak in and out of the frame while Anastasia chases after him. We can follow them all the way to the corner, but once they’re in the street, they’re no longer in sight of the camera and we’ve lost them.

“It looks like he got away from her and she chased after him,” Taylor says.

“Son of a bitch,” I hiss, though I have to admit I feel a deep sense of relief to learn she’s not missing, just out on some wild goose chase. Or… dog chase. “All of you, go find her and bring her back here, now.”

The room is filled with the sound of chairs scraping against tile as every member of my team flies out of their seats and runs to the elevator. I watch Taylor pressing the call button repeatedly until the doors open, and then usher everyone inside. As they disappear from view, Ros rounds the corner with Mrs. Jones at her side.

“I’m so sorry, sir, I don’t know where she went,” Gail says. “I went to the market this morning and she was still asleep when I left. When I returned, Miss Bailey was here.”

“I know. It looks like she took the dog out and he got away from her. Once she returns, she’s not to take him out again. Understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Will you make some coffee, please? I have a few more meetings this afternoon, but I’ll call in from my office here.”

“Right away, sir.”

She turns to make her way back to the kitchen but Ros steps into Taylor’s office and closes the door behind her. She waits for half a beat, then takes a deep, bracing breath. “Can we talk?”

I stare back at her, befuddled. “Talk? What is there to talk about? You think you can just come in here and put on your little I’m sorry act and everything will just go back to the way it was before? That you can use Anastasia to worm your way back into my good graces? I know that’s been your angle and to be frank, I don’t appreciate you wasting what little time I have with her right now by asking her to bring this shit between you and I up over and over again. Especially because it’s not going to work. I’ve done this before. I know your game. If you want to try and manipulate me into bringing you back, to giving you anything, you’re going to have to be a hell of a lot more creative than this. I survived Elena Lincoln, Ros. You’re out of your depth here.”

“Christian, I don’t want to manipulate you, I want to talk to you. I didn’t do what you think I did and I don’t know how you could ever believe that I would.”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

She takes a step back, looking as if my words have wounded her. “Because you’re my best friend.”

Friend? Really? Does a friend go behind the other’s backs to try and sabotage him? Does a friend use the other’s name and credibility to snake a ten million dollar deal out from under him just to get herself the top job at company that doesn’t have near the potential that GEH does? You betrayed me, Ros. I’ve given you free reign for years, listened to you, let you make decisions that any other person in your position would have no business making, all because I believed that you thought of GEH as yours, the same as I did. But you’ve just been using me. Everything you’ve ever done for me was just to get you to PixC.”

“That’s not true! Christian, I do care about GEH. Very much. I sat next to you in your dorm room and helped you build it. I showed up every day while you were basically comatose on my couch that first summer. I don’t know where those emails came from, but I never sent them. I swear to you.”

“Your word doesn’t mean anything to me anymore, Ros.”

“After all these years, how can you not trust me? After everything we’ve weathered together, after everything I’ve stood by you through, haven’t I earned a little bit of trust? The benefit of the doubt? I know how it looks, but I would never do this to you. Not because of the potential GEH has or because I think about it as my baby the same way that you do. I do, but I would never do this to you, Christian. Maybe I overestimated how important I was in your life, but you are my best friend. My family isn’t like yours. We don’t have brunch on Sundays and my parents don’t call me unless it’s a holiday or something is wrong. You are my family. You and Gwen are the only people I have to turn to, to celebrate with or to lean on. That is more important to me than PixC, Christian. That’s more important to me than GEH. Why would I throw all of that away?”

I stare at her, trying to find some biting words to throw back at her that will make her leave my apartment, but there’s nothing. I don’t like the unnamed emotion I see in the depths of her eyes. Something in it is too familiar for me. But thankfully, my phone buzzes in my pocket again, so I have a reason to turn away from her. Part me hopes that I won’t recognize the number displayed on the screen. That it’s from a pay phone or maybe a number from a local business that Ana is using to try and get ahold of me, but it isn’t. It’s Taylor.

“Did you find her?”

“No, sir. And, um… I think it’s time to call the police.”

I freeze. “What?”

“We found the dog. He was trying to get back to the apartment, I think, but he’s…” He pauses and I have to push him to get him to speak again. “He has multiple stab wounds. Miss Steele isn’t with him.”

It must be shock. I hear the words, I understand their meaning, but they don’t make me feel anything. Nothing. Not cold. Not pain. Not fear. Absolutely nothing.

“Mr. Grey?” Taylor prompts me.

“Find her, Taylor,” I breathe back, the strength in my voice gone. “Find her and bring her home.”

“Sir…”

I hang up and slowly turn back to Ros. She stares at me with wide eyes. “Did they find her?”

“I uh… I need to make a phone call.”

“What’s happened?”

My hands start to shake as the shock wears off and the severity of what Taylor has said hits me. Stab wounds. Somewhere, Ana and the dog were attacked, violently. The dog escaped. It appears as though Ana did not.

My stomach clenches painfully and there’s a strange kind of pressure growing inside my head that I’ve never felt before. It’s disorienting, and when I look down at my phone to dial the number for the police, the numbers displayed on the screen suddenly look foreign to me.

“What’s the…um… what’s the number for the police?” I ask.

“911?” Ros answers. I nod.

With a great deal of difficulty, I manage to press the three numbers in the correct order and lift the phone to my ear. It only rings once before someone answers, but even that one drawn out tone creates enough time for the fear of reality to take hold of my throat and lungs until it feels as though I can’t breathe.

“911, what’s your emergency?”

“Yes, my– my fiance is missing. She’s gone and I… I need help.” The words come out sounding disjointed, broken, and full of fear and sheer panic.

“Sir? You’re reporting a missing person?”

“Yes. Yes, missing. Her name is Ana. Anastasia Steele. She was in my apartment and now she’s gone and I think something has happened to her.”

“How long has she been missing?”

“Uh… I don’t know. An hour. Maybe a little more.”

There’s a pause. “Sir, are you sure she’s not just… out?”

I shake my head furiously. “No.”

“Did the two of you have an argument?”

“No, I wasn’t even here. She took the dog out for a walk, without security. She knows she’s not supposed to leave without security, THIS IS WHY I HAVE SECURITY!”

“Sir…”

“We found the dog, and he’s injured. He’s been stabbed, but she’s not with him. They were attacked. Please, she’s in danger. You have to help me.”

The operator wastes a great deal of time trying to calm me down and asking questions I don’t have answers to. So, after she takes my name and address and informs me she’s dispatched police, I hang up and throw the phone angrily down on my desk. The police are coming to me. They shouldn’t be coming to me, they should be going into the city, looking for her. Every minute they’re not looking for her, she could be getting farther away from me. With each passing second, the likeliness that she’s been injured or kille—

It hits me fast and hard. My hand flies up to my mouth to hold back the vomit trying to force its way out of me and I have to sprint to the bathroom. I barely make it, and as I wretch again and again into the porcelain bowl, I feel Ros’s hand on my shoulder again.

“Hey, calm down,” she says softly. “Let me get you a towel.”

She begins fumbling behind me, opening cabinets, while I close my eyes and try to force myself out of this nightmare.

“She’s not dead,” I whisper. “She’s not dead. She’s not dead.”

“Dead?” Ros asks behind me. “Christian, what happened?”

I swallow, push down the silver lever on the toilet, and get to my feet, facing away from her. “Call my brother.”

“What?”

“Call my brother. Call my father. Call my mother. We should all be out looking for her.”

“Out looking where?”

“Just call!”

“Okay. Okay, I’m calling right now.” She scurries out of the bathroom and I hear her shaky voice as she’s connected with whichever one of my family members she’s dialed first. I fight against the deep, powerful chill that has taken hold of my body, and push away all the dark thoughts swimming around my head. I don’t have time to panic now, or to fear what may happen, or to feel anguished over what she might be feeling, or what I may have to face… I have to find her. She needs me, really needs me, and I can’t let her down. I can’t fail her.

After leaning over the sink to rinse out my mouth, I dab the corners of my lips with a hand towel and then stare at my reflection in the mirror.

“Find her, Grey,” I command myself, then turn and head back into the great room.

 

My family gets to Escala in record time, but none of them think it’s a good idea to just go off into the city with no leads. It’s infuriating, especially once the police arrive and agree that it’s better we establish a home base while the officers on duty begin their search. I’m pulled aside to be interviewed at my dining room table, and my father sits by my side to counsel me while Elliot hovers anxiously near the back windows.

In the half hour between my call to the police to moment the first officers came through the elevator doors, the media has been alerted and my publicist has released a statement offering a reward. I’ve been assured several times as I’ve sat at this table that every officer in King country is scouring the streets of Seattle with the most recent picture of Ana I have, looking for her, and yet, it doesn’t feel like enough. I don’t want to be here answering questions, I want to be out on the streets with Taylor, searching every block of pavement for her until she’s back in my arms. With the number of bodies standing and waiting around, it feels like we’re doing nothing and I’m going out of my mind.

She’s not dead. She’s going to be fine. She’s not dead.

I repeat the words over and over again, clinging to them like a life preserver.

“You haven’t received any strange phone calls today, Mr. Grey?” the officer asks. I shake my head. “No letters, no messages through employees or maybe the building staff? No ransom demands?”

“No. Nothing.”

I want nothing more than a demand for ransom. Something as simple as an exchange of money to have her back, safe. That would be doing something. An answer. A course of action. This, no leads and no explanation as to why this happened, has me feeling utterly helpless and the pain I’m experiencing over what I fear may have happened to her, or may be happening to her right now, is indescribable. Intolerable.

“Does your fiance have any enemies, Mr. Grey?”

I nod, robotically. “Leila. Leila Williams.”

“Was there an argument? Bad blood?” He waits for an explanation but I can’t give him one. Not because I don’t know how to answer him but because I can’t force my voice anymore. With each passing second the images I have of Anastasia alone, bleeding, in pain, terrified, possibly being violated, become clearer and clearer. And it’s not just her. She has my daughter with her. If I lose her today, I lose them both. My entire life is out there, missing. Why does no one understand this?

She’s not dead. She’s not dead.

“Miss Williams was an ex-employee,” my father answers for me. “She was his receptionist a little less than a year ago, and she had been harboring unrequited feelings for him, which made Anastasia a threat to her. Christian ultimately fired her for displaying inappropriate behavior towards Anastasia at work. Afterwards she tried to claim Christian had sexually harassed her, but the case was thrown out. She’s attempted to exact revenge against both Christian and Anastasia a few times since then and this year she transferred to a school near Anastasia’s. They’ve had several run-ins this year.”

“But she lives in Connecticut now, not Seattle,” I counter. “And we think she’s been working for someone…”

“Mr. Grey?”

I shake my head. “I don’t know who it is. But I know someone has been following her.” My father reaches over for my hand as my voice breaks again, but I quickly yank it out of his reach and push away from the table. “Excuse me.”

Elliot rushes towards me as I stumble into the living room, so I hold up a hand to keep him at bay. My mother is on the couch, clutching a teary-eyed Mia into her chest while they both stare at the TV. There’s a reporter outside my office building offering a description of Anastasia to the general public, announcing her pregnancy because it’s an important identifier, and once again reiterating the million dollar reward I’ve offered to anyone who can give information that will lead to her safe return.

“It isn’t enough,” I say. “A million isn’t enough. Ten million. Twenty. I want everyone in this city looking for her. I want the person who has her to see the amount I’m offering to get her back and realize that hurting her, that keeping her, isn’t worth it. We need to increase the reward, someone get me Jacqueline on the phone.”

“We’re going to find her, Christian,” my dad says, coming up behind me and wrapping an arm over my shoulder. I shrug him off again and glare at him.

“When? I don’t need vague promises, I need answers. I need solutions.”

“Christian–”

“The dog was almost dead, Dad. You heard the call from the vet. Whoever has her is armed and violent. What if she…” my voice cuts off.

She’s not dead. She’s not dead. She’s not dead.

“Don’t think like that,” Elliot says. “She’s going to be just fine. Ana is one of the most kind and gentle people in the world. No one has any reason to harm her.”

“Except to hurt me,” I snap and then turn away from both of them, from the TV, from the police officers gathering their notes and tape recorders, and step through the door to the balcony for some fresh air.

My eyes scan the streets, like I could somehow overcome the 31 story height and pick her out of the crowd of people and cars below. I want to scream her name, even if it just means that she could hear me and know that I’m looking for her.

I double over, resting my arms and forehead on the cold metal railing, silently begging any divine being who may be listening to bring the woman I love home to me. I’ve been analyzing this day non-stop, trying to find where we went wrong, where I was careless, where we could have stopped this from happening.

No one was here with her, and I still don’t have an explanation for why that happened. If it was Kommer’s fuck up, Cardella’s, or Taylor’s. Maybe it was mine. I should have never left Sawyer behind in Cambridge this week. As much as I find the closeness between he and Anastasia disconcerting, there’s no way he would have left her her alone, no matter what Taylor said. Ana was always right. She’s safest with him because he cares about protecting her as more than just a job. He protects her the way I would. The way I should have.

I should have never gone to work this morning.

I should have never taken the security team out of this building.

I should have hired someone specifically to take care of the dog.

I. Should. Have. Been. Here.

The memory of leaving her this morning flashes through my mind. We didn’t speak. She wasn’t even awake. I don’t even know if she knows that I kissed her good-bye. A soft, quick kiss that she wasn’t even conscious for. That could be our last kiss. The last time I got to touch her. The last time I ever saw her and she didn’t even hear me tell her that I love her.

What was the last thing I said to her? She went to bed before I did, but what did I actually say to her? I close my eyes, forcing myself to remember, but when I do, the nausea returns full force.

 

“I don’t understand why you can’t just pick up the phone and TALK to her,” she argues, placing her hands on the back end of my desk and leaning over my keyboard to draw my attention away from my work. “What if you’re wrong? What if you’re putting yourself through hell and risking losing so much of the progress GEH has made for nothing, all because you refuse to have a conversation with your business partner?”

“I have nothing to say to her, Anastasia.”

“You’re being a child!”

I glance up, anger flaring deep in my gut. “A child? I’m a child because I refuse to engage in conversation with a woman who may have committed corporate sabotage and violated her contractual fiduciary responsibilities as the chief operations officer of my company? I’m a child for following the advice of my own legal counsel and not speaking to her without a lawyer present?”

“Jesus, Christian. She’s your best friend.”

“Yeah? And with friends like her, who needs friends, right?”

She stands up, her lips pressed together in a thin, angry line, but I’m not going to waste any more time arguing with her over Rosaline Bailey. I’m not backing down on this and I have work to do.

“This conversation is over, Anastasia. I’m not talking to you about this anymore. If you can’t handle that, you can leave.”

“Fine. Then, I’m going to bed. Goodnight, Mr. CEO.”

She turns so quickly, her hair fans out behind her and I watch every step she takes out of my office until she slams the door closed behind her. With a calming breath, I shake my head and return to the document still open on the screen of my laptop.

 

If you can’t handle that, you can leave.”

 

That was the last thing she heard me say. She was asleep by the time I went to bed and I left before she woke up. I have no idea if she was still angry with me this morning or if she thought I was still angry with her. Maybe she took that fight more seriously than I did. Perhaps she feels that the reason I haven’t found her yet is because I’m not even looking for her. What if she dies today thinking that I don’t care?

My body starts to shake, and this time when I repeat the mantra that’s brought me back from the edge of crisis over and over again today, I say the words aloud.

“She’s not dead. She’s going to be fine. She’s not dead.”

“Christian?”

I turn, and see Ros standing in the doorway, looking at me cautiously, but once I recognize her I immediately turn back to look at the city again.

“I thought you left,” I say into the open air.

“I went to take her picture to the local hospitals and the women’s shelter. I don’t know, I’m trying to think of anywhere we may be overlooking. I just can’t handle standing around waiting.”

My brow creases. “You’ve been out looking for her?”

“Of course I have. Ana is very important to me, Christian. I can’t just sit back and do nothing.”  I turn back to face her and, for the first time in a really long time, I actually see her. Not my business partner, not the person who has betrayed me. Ros. I can more than just see the worry and heartbreak in her eyes, I can feel it radiating off of her, and as she steps onto the balcony and closes the door behind her, I nearly break down.

“What am I going to do, Ros?” I ask. “What if I don’t get her back? How will I live a single day without her? I’m lost. I mean, what’s the point? She’s the only thing that makes me feel anything. She’s everything. She’s the air that I breathe. Nothing has any meaning without her. Nothing.”

She nods and steps closer to me. “You can’t let yourself think that way. You’re going to get her back, today, and she’s going to be fine.”

“But what if I don’t?”

She lets out an anguished breath and then closes the distance between us, taking my face in either one of her hands and forcing me to look at her.

“Close your eyes.”

“Ros…”

“Close your eyes, Christian.” I do as she says, reluctantly, but she doesn’t pull away. “Find her.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Not out there, in here.” She moves her hand down from my left cheek and places it over my heart. I wince involuntarily. “You two are a part of each other, I know that. So I want you to stop thinking about her out there, and feel here right here.”

“This is ridiculous.”

“Will you just not fight me this one time, please?” I sigh, then take a deep breath and focus Anastasia inside my mind. Her smile, her laughter, the clear blue color of her eyes. I imagine the radiant way she looks when she wakes up every morning and her playful smile as she ducks under the sheets to hide from the sun so that she can stay in bed a little while longer. I recall the feel of her hand in mine. Her grip when we first looked at a live ultrasound together, when I pulled her body into mine and twirled her around my great room floor to Adele last summer. I picture the beautiful pink color her cheeks turned on the mountain in Aspen or next to that frozen lake in Vermont, then the shine of her skin, browned and slick with freshly applied sunscreen beneath the Tahitian sun. I summon a picture of her perfect lips and imagine them forming the words I love you over and over again.

And I as hear the pale echo of her voice whispering those same words in the back of my mind, I feel it. I feel her presence, deep inside my heart and it sends instant relief though my body like an analgesic applied to a wound.

“Ana,” I whisper.

“Hold on to that,” Ros tells me. “When you feel like you’re losing her, remember this. As long as you can feel her, she’s out there.”

I open my eyes, stare into her imploring gaze, and, in that moment, I know. I know she didn’t do this thing to me. I don’t know where those emails came from, the same as the email Taylor says he never sent to his security team this morning, but I am certain that Ros did not betray me.

“Ros, I’m so sorry…”

“For what?”

“For–” There’s a buzz deep inside my pocket that stops me instantly. I fish out my phone, my eyes widening at the unrecognizable Seattle number, and the adrenaline spike is so intense, I struggle for a moment to answer the call.

“This is Christian Grey.”

“Mr. Grey, my name is Shannon Tomlinson. I’m calling from emergency services at Northwest Hospital. I’m contacting you on behalf of Anastasia Steele. She has just been admitted into our Emergency Room.”

“You have her? Is she okay?” Ros’s eyes widen and she turns for the door, waving frantically at the rest of my family.

“I’m sorry, she’s currently being evaluated by our medical staff. I don’t have any information for you about her condition, except that she did come into the hospital under her own volition.”

“But the baby…. She’s pregnant, how is the baby?”

“Again, I don’t have that information for you at this time, Mr. Grey.”

“Fine. I’m on my way.” I hang up the phone and stand frozen for a moment, overwhelmed by the rush of a thousand different emotions burning through me at one time. She’s alive. She’s safe in a hospital.

She’s alive.

“Christian?” my father asks, poking his head through the door.

“Northwest. I have to get to Northwest.”

“Taylor isn’t back yet,” Elliot interjects. “I can drive.”

I nod and then move forward after him, looking over my shoulder to call back to Ros. “Will you call the security team? Have them meet us at Northwest.”

“Of course,” she says.

“And I have a meeting with the R&D team this afternoon about the PixC expansion. Will you sit in for me?”

“What? Me?”

Elliot pushes the elevator call button and, thankfully, the doors open immediately. I step inside, beating Elliot to the button for the garage, and then glance back up at Ros. “I’ll call you tonight.”

 

Thankfully, I don’t have to put any pressure on Elliot to get us to the hospital quickly. He flies out of the parking garage onto Virginia and swerves deftly through traffic until we hit the I-5 north and he pushes the pedal to the floor. Thankfully, we’re not pulled over so we make it to North Seattle in record time. When we pull into the parking lot of Northwest Hospital, Elliot doesn’t even look for a parking space. He drives straight up to the emergency room entrance and stops at the doors to let me out.

“I’ll text you the room number,” I tell him, hurrying as best as I can to get out of the car.

“That’s alright, I’m going to head back. I think it’s better that it’s just you for awhile. You don’t know how she’s going to be.”

I pause, then nod. “You’re right. Thank you, Elliot. I’ll call you when I know something.”

“Okay. Give Ana my love.”

“I will.” I close the door and then sprint through the automatic doors into the emergency room. They look fairly busy and there’s a line of people standing before the check-in desk, but I push past each and every one of them to get to the front.

“Anastasia Steele,” I say urgently and the woman behind the counter looks up at me with confusion.

“Excuse me?”

“I’m looking for Anastasia Steele. Her room number.”

“I’m sorry, sir, I don’t recognize that patient’s name and I can’t verify whether a patient has been admitted unless I know who you are.”

Shit. I hadn’t considered this. What if that call was fake, a ruse to distract me so he could get farther away. Fuck! “Christian Grey,” I tell her, my voice weak again as a new wave of panic washes over me. “My name is Christian Grey.”

Her face goes slack. “Do you have ID?”

With shaking hands, I pull my wallet out of my back pocket, find my driver’s license, and pass it across the counter towards her. She examines it closely, more closely than I’ve ever had anyone look at my ID before, and then hands it back without even glancing at her computer.

“Miss Steele is in room 227. Straight back and to the right.”

They’re protecting her.

They’re not even willing to risk letting anyone think she may be here without verifying who they are, which means they didn’t get him. From the moment I answered that phone call telling me where she was, I hadn’t even given a thought to him, to what had become of the person who tried to steal her. Apparently, he wasn’t apprehended. Ana must have escaped and he’s still out there, probably looking for her…

“Thank you,” I tell the woman behind the counter, and then rush through the emergency room doors towards room number 227. When I come around the corner, the first thing I notice are two hospital security guards stationed outside her door. They look at me as I come down the hall, preparing to stop me.

“Sir…”

“Grey,” I interrupt him. “Christian Grey. This is my f-fiance’s room.”

The man nods and steps aside to let me pass, and the moment I push through her door, I feel the wind knocked out of me.

She’s battered. The abrasions on her face look as she may have been dragged across asphalt, she has a cut across her neck that looks too precise and purposeful to have been done with anything other than a sharp blade, and she’s absolutely filthy. But it’s none of those things that hit me with the force of a wrecking ball. Not the way her tiny frame seems to recede in on itself or the pain in her beautiful eyes. It’s the abject horror that is etched into every inch of her face.

She’s terrified.

“Baby, oh my god…”

She looks into my eyes and immediately breaks down into tears so I push off the door and cross the floor to her as quickly as I can, pulling her into me. But she screams when I touch her.

“What’s wrong?” I ask, pulling away and looking over her body for some injury I’d over looked before.

“My elbow,” she replies weakly.

“Has anyone looked at that?” I turn and notice for the first time that there’s a doctor in the room with us. She reaches down for the clipboard at the bottom of the bed and starts to flip through it. “It’s not in your chart.”

Ana shakes her head, so the doctor frowns and begins making a notation on the page. “I’ll send someone in right away. Try and stay upright until we’ve made sure that head injury is superficial.”

She gives us a reassuring smile as she hooks the clipboard back onto the bottom of the bed, and then moves quickly and quietly out of the room. I turn to look back at Ana, forcing myself not to reach out and touch her until she gives me some kind of signal that she’s ready.

“You’re face. What happened to your face?”

“I fell,” she whimpers. “I was trying to run and I fell.”

Fell? How? “The-the baby?”

She shakes her head. “She’s fine. We’re okay.”

Oh thank god. “What happened? Ros called my office and said… she said you were gone. That you’d told her to come over but that you weren’t there when she arrived. The security team couldn’t find you. They found the dog and he was bloody.”

Her eyes widen and for a brief second, the terror that hasn’t moved from the creases around her eyes and lips disappears. “Champ? You found Champ?”

“Taylor did. He was limping up the street toward the apartment and Gail took him to the vet. He’s been stabbed. We thought you… I thought you’d…” I can’t finish the thought. Now that I have her safe, in front of me, it’s too much to go back into the dark, desperate headspace I’ve been in all afternoon. But she knows me too well to let me get away with simply refusing to say the words. She can read them on my face and as I break eye contact with her, she dissolves into tears again.

“Champ saved my life. He was going to kill me, Christian. He was going to kill me and then Champ… He saved me.” She leans into me so that she can cry into my shirt, so I finally let myself wrap her in my arms and hold her against me. Her whole body is shaking and the sobs come from a place so deep inside her that there’s an almost ghostly echo to each and every one. She’s shattered, and the carnage is so blatant that it feels as though, if I let her go now, she’ll fall apart.

“Ana, what happened to you?”

Next Chapter

Christian PoV: Dear Captain Steele…

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FOB Sykes

APO AE 09351

Attention: Captain Raymond Steele

 

Dear Captain Steele,

You don’t know me, but I am in love with your daughter. Believe me, that’s not the way I’ve always imagined I’d introduce myself to you, which is actually something I’ve thought a lot about. I wanted to take you and Ana out to dinner or maybe even something more extravagant. A vacation, where you could relax after your long years of service, have some much needed time with Ana, and you and I could get to know each other over several days so that I could show you just how much your daughter means to me. But Ana’s pregnant now, and she couldn’t bear to keep that from you. Much in the same way I can’t bear to see her so upset over the argument the two of you had over Thanksgiving. So, I think it’s better that I reach out to you personally and try to show you who I am so you might have more faith in the love your daughter spoke about over the phone, in spite of all the secrecy.

My name is Christian Grey. I would tell you that I was raised in Seattle, but even that has its own complicated history. At the age of four, I moved to Bellevue and have lived here ever since with my mother and father, my brother, and my little sister. My mother you know, Dr. Grace Trevelyan-Grey, and my brother Elliot. My father, Carrick, is a retired defense lawyer, who is currently battling cancer, and my little sister, Mia, is still in high school. Of course, I’m sure none of that really matters to you, but I tell you because at one time, it didn’t matter much to me either.

That is the first impact your daughter has made on me.

For most of my life, I haven’t been much for family. My mother, father, brother, and sister were all a part of my life, but more out of habit than desire. I was always distant with them, I think because I knew once I was out on my own, I wouldn’t have much to do with them at all. In high school I stayed away from them, or locked myself away in my room as much as I was able. I kept secrets from them. I lived a life they knew nothing about. In college, I wouldn’t come home unless I was forced to. I felt better being alone. I never envisioned myself as the type of man who would find a wife and would start a family. Then, on my second day at Harvard University, I met your daughter, and my life changed forever.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw her. She’s so beautiful, she had me immediately enraptured. She probably had me then, at first sight, and I would have been content to simply love her for her beauty. But then I got to know her, and I discovered that she was so much more than physically stunning. Her soul is somehow, impossibly, even more beautiful. Anastasia is warm and wholly good. When I first spoke to her there was an alluring quality to her voice that drew me in like nothing ever had before. At first I tried to ignore her, because I didn’t want to let her into my life to ruin all of the things I had planned for my future. I think I knew subconsciously that she could derail me, and at that time in my life I was so focused on business and success that I couldn’t allow anything to distract me from that. But, I couldn’t ever stop thinking about her.

Since the day she ran into me on the third floor of Grays Hall in 2007, she has occupied every single thought I’ve had. It would have been easier if I kept distance between us, I think, if I was ever going to resist her charms, but I couldn’t stand not talking to her or not being around her. She’s intelligent, and talking with her and hearing her ideas and seeing her perspective of the world was both refreshing and mesmerising. She’s the perfect blend of determination and innocence. Eternal optimism. For as long as I can remember I’ve been a cynic. Never once did I believe there was goodness in humanity, but through her eyes I could see people and their actions in a whole new light. It was freeing in a way, and I almost became addicted to the levity and happiness I felt being in her presence. She has an aura around her that is nearly divine in its warmth. So, I stopped trying to avoid her. Truth be told, I never really wanted to in the first place.

As I became her friend, it was obvious very quickly that friendship would never be enough. I fell for her hard and fast. I’m nearly convinced there hasn’t been a day I’ve known her that I haven’t loved her. When I began courting her I brought her home to Seattle, on a break she would have spent alone in Cambridge, to meet my family. I asked her on a few dates at school, I tried to dote on her and give her gifts I knew she would never be able to afford herself, but none of it worked. Your daughter is very self-aware. She knows what she wants and who she is, and she never compromises that. It’s something I respect very much about her, and it only made her all the more alluring. So, I pursued her harder. I went to visit her in Vegas while she was staying with her mother over Christmas that year, but it wasn’t until I let myself be open with her and confessed how much I wanted her in my life that she finally returned my feelings.

That was New Years Eve, 2007, and I can trace everything that has made me the man I am today to that one night. All to Anastasia’s enormous ability to love. She cares so much for the people around her and she’s both fiercely protective and absolutely loyal to those she loves. Where I always tried to pull away from my family, she led me back to them. She helped me accept and move on from some of the difficult things in my past that made me cold, jaded, and sometimes hateful.

That’s the second impact your daughter has had on me.

She’s taught me how to love, and that love can be safe, even though it never had been safe before. She’s showed me how to look for the goodness in others and helped me reconnect with the people who are the most important to me. She’s made me a better man. I am better for everyday that I have loved her, and I’m not only grateful for that, but it makes me love her all the more. I cannot understate that, Captain Steele. I am truly, and wholly in love with Anastasia.

I told you before that I never envisioned myself as a family man. Now, with your daughter in my life, it’s all I want. I want to build a home and a life with her. I want every moment of my future to be with and for her. I want to create traditions with her that we can pass down through our child. I want to show her the world, and provide for her and our family, and make sure that she experiences happiness every single day for the rest of her life. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for her, no sacrifice that could be too great. Put simply, she means more to me than anything else in the entire world. Even my own life.

I’ve tried before and failed to express in writing just how much I truly love her, but what I can promise to you is that I will never hurt her. I will never betray her. I will treat her the way she deserves to be treated. I will support her and all of her ambitions and dreams. I will respect her. I will care for her and protect her. Most importantly, I will love her. More and more each day. She is the love of my life, and I will never give her, or you, reason to doubt my absolute commitment to her and to our family.

On that I give you my word as a man.

I’m sorry that you found out about me and the baby the way you did. I imagine you must have felt completely blindsided and I hope that you know Anastasia wasn’t being malicious, keeping you in the dark. She talks about you often and I know very well how important you are to her. Her silence was because of me. Because I have made mistakes in our relationship that made her not want to share what we had with you for fear of causing you pain by reading of hers. I’ve owned those mistakes, and I will spend the rest of my life proving to her that I will never make them again. You’ve raised a strong, intelligent, kind, caring, wonderful woman who would never do anything to intentionally hurt the father she loves. She loves you Captain Steele, absolutely. I hope you’ll remember that when you call again this Christmas. Don’t let the sour feelings this revelation has given you affect any of the love the two of you share. You mean far too much to her for her to feel as though she’s disappointed you in anyway. She won’t handle that well. She’s not now. She was devastated after you hung up the phone on Thanksgiving and it’s painful for me to see her suffer in anyway, especially when I can’t do anything to help her. Although, I hope I can. That’s why I’m writing you now.

If you must be angry, I am the one you should be angry with. I am the one who deserves the blame. I will happily take responsibility for the way this has panned out if it means that the two of you can move on and spend the last few months of your deployment focusing on all of the good in the special bond you share. It’s that important to her, and she is that important to me. You’ll soon be a grandfather, and I know that Ana can’t wait to introduce you to our child. Much in the way she can’t wait for you to finally be home. She misses you. She loves you, and her love is a gift that should never be taken for granted. I know, I cherish it daily.

I greatly look forward to meeting you in person, Captain Steele, and I hope the remainder of your deployment is quick and safe.

 

Sincerely,

Christian Trevelyan-Grey

Next Chapter

Leila PoV: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You… Who Are You Kidding? This is Going to Kill You.

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Billy and I sit huddled in someone’s yard behind the moss green electric box, frozen, but not because of the mountain of snow piled around us or the blistering cold. Neither one of us can believe what just happened. It’s been only four hours since we set up watch outside of Anastasia’s house and, while we knew Lincoln was getting irritated that we hadn’t gotten access to her laptop yet, I could have never believed he’d take it this far. Now we’re staring nervously at the hole in the side of the house and I feel as though I’m waiting for flames or some kind of explosion. What if he dies? What if he hit Anastasia, or Sawyer, or Kavanagh and one of them dies? I was told she would suffer, that she would lose Grey and that she would finally get to feel some of the pain she has put me through. I didn’t sign up for this.

“Fuck it’s cold,” Billy says, shuddering next to me. “If he doesn’t get them out of the house in the next twenty minutes, we’ve got to get out of here. We’re not going to make it long out here without my car.”

“Is that seriously what you’re worried about right now?” I hiss.

“Leila.” The voice crackles as it comes through the satellite radio in my hand, and for the first time I feel a real sense of foreboding when I hear it. With a calming breath I push a frozen finger down on the intercom button and bring the speaker up to my mouth.

“H-he’s in,” I stutter through my chattering teeth. “N-no sign of A-ana-st-tasia yet.”

“Get. Me. That. Laptop,” he says firmly.

“We will.” There’s no response so I let the radio fall to my side again and then try to wrap my coat tighter around me.

“I think it actua-lly might be t-too cold to snow,” Billy says after a long few minutes of silence. “Everything is just f-freezing now, including us. We should go.”

I look up at the blanket of clouds above us, which are still shocking white even in the shroud of night. This storm isn’t over yet, it’s only just starting.

“They can’t st-tay in there forever. There’s no power, they don’t-t have heat, and the house isn’t going to prot-tect them anymore. They have to leave soon.”

“Then we’ll come back.” He grabs my arm and pulls me up, but just as we stand we see a dark figure trudging through the snow towards Anastasia’s house.

“Get down,” I hiss.

“Fuck!”

We both throw ourselves to the ground and it’s actually painful when my hands sink down into the wet snow. It’s too cold. I think I might be going into some kind of shock.

“Jesus Christ, who the fuck is out walking right now?”

I glare at him. “We just drove a car into the side of a house. It’s probably a neighbor checking to see if they’re okay.”

Billy puts an arm over me and pulls me into his side, trying to huddle up as close to me as possible so we can keep warm, but it’s no use. I’m not sure what the temperature is but it has to be single digits at this point, and with our jeans in the snow and our fingers exposed to the cold, biting air, our teeth start chattering so loudly I’m afraid Sawyer will hear it from inside the house half a block away.

“I’m getting impatient,” Lincoln’s voice says through the radio again, but this time it’s Billy who reaches for it and answers.

“We’re going back home. They’re not leaving the house and Leila and I are going to freeze out here. We’ll come back in the morning.”

“In the morning?” Lincoln repeats, and there’s a new dark quality to his voice that seems to make the temperature around us drop a few degrees more. “I can’t do anything with the morning.”

“Wait.” The sound of a door slamming closed echos up the street at us so I risk a peek over the top of the electrical box and see two people huddled together, wading through the snow down the street. Neither Billy or I even dare to breathe and in the dead silence of the snowy night, I can hear the voices of the two women as they make their way back to the house across the street.

“Almost there, Ana. There’s a fire inside.”

“Anastasia is out,” I whisper softly down to Billy, then wait with bated breath for three or four more minutes until Kate and Sawyer come out of the house with Hyun’s unconscious body being carried between them.

“Fuck, is he going to be okay?” Billy asks.

I shake my head. “I don’t know.”

“What’s going on?” the radio crackles again, and both Billy and I cringe. Thankfully though, neither Sawyer nor Kavanagh look our way. They must not be able to hear us over the sounds of their own panting as they struggle with Hyun’s weight and the slippery snow and ice beneath their feet.

“They’re out,” I tell Lincoln once we hear the door to the neighbor’s house close. “They’re in the house across the street.”

“Luggage?” he asks.

“No. They didn’t take anything with them.

“Then go get me that laptop.”

Billy and I look at each other, he switches the radio off, puts it in my backpack, and finally moves out from behind the electric box. I follow him as quietly and swiftly as possible, worrying the entire way that we’re going to be caught. This is so stupid, even with the street lamps off from the power outage, the snow is so bright beneath us that our dark clothes make us easier to spot, not harder. With every sound we hear crossing the street and jumping the fence into Anastasia’s backyard, I’m certain we’re going to be caught.

We aren’t though. Billy helps me over the fence and then there’s nothing in front of us except the tall dark house which conceals us from the street.

“Stay in my footprints,” he warns me. “We’re going to have to cover them up before we leave.”

It’s slow going and extraordinarily difficult to move as carefully as we need to through the deep snow. Each step we take is meticulously calculated, and just as much as he has to reach back to help me while I place my foot in the hole he’s left behind, I have to help him move forward. By the time we get to the back door, we’re both sweating beneath our coats.

“Moment of truth,” he says, and then reaches out for the handle on the sliding glass door. Amazingly, it opens easily. They forgot to lock it between the chaos of the storm and Hyun’s diversion.

“Well that’s good luck,” Billy says with a smile. I narrow my eyes at him.

“As if we couldn’t get in through the giant gaping hole in the side of the house. Go!”

We’re both careful to knock as much of the loose powder clinging to our clothes and boots off as possible while we come into the kitchen but the moment we close the door behind us and turn towards the car still making small clicking sounds in the middle of the dining room, we have to cover our mouths and noses with the sleeves of our jackets. The air is thick with gasoline fumes and it makes me nauseated and dizzy all at once.

“Let’s go,” I tell him. “The faster we find the luggage, the faster we can get out of here.”  

He nods and motions me forward around the car into the living room and, as luck would have it, there are three large suitcases there waiting at the bottom of the stairs.

“Which one belongs to Steele?” Billy asks.

“The pink one is probably Kavanagh’s,” I say, wrapping my hands in the cuffs of my sweatshirt as I push it aside so I don’t leave fingerprints. “And I’d say it’s more likely that Ana has the purple bag than Sawyer.”

He kneels down next to me as I pull the zipper around the exterior of the luggage and then lift the lid. It’s mostly clothes, which makes going through the bag more difficult as they’re not neatly folded and we’re trying to do everything with our hands covered by the sleeves of our undershirts, but eventually we find the laptop in a zipped inside pocket.

“Here.”

He takes the laptop from me and glances around for somewhere to work, but with the fumes still hanging in the air we ultimately decide we’re going to have to do what we have to do upstairs. There’s one door open, which is one less thing we have to touch, so that’s the room we choose. But as Billy sets up at the desk and starts pulling out the power sources, hotspot generators, and other hightech gadgets that go way over my head, I realize that this is Anastasia’s room. Her walls are littered with pictures of her with Kate, or Sawyer, or an older man who I don’t know, but, for the most part, Grey is absent. In fact, the only picture of him in the room at all is on her nightstand. A framed 4×6 photo of the two of them holding drinks and smiling at the camera on a beach, probably from their Hawaiian vacation last fall.

I have to stop myself from reaching down and picking up the photo to get a better look. We’re not supposed to leave behind any trace of our presence, so instead I kneel down and look at it as closely as possible without touching.

God, he’s so beautiful.

Seeing him this way, looking so light and happy, doesn’t fit with the memories I have seeing him every day in the office, but it’s nice. I can imagine myself in this photo with him, that it’s because I’m next to him that he looks this way. I wonder what it would have been like to be the one he whisked off on long, romantic vacations in paradise? Does he like to go out and explore? To hike, or zipline, or snorkel in the crystal clear water of the sea? Or is he more of a sun lounger on the beach kind of guy? A smile crosses my face as I picture that, being stretched out under the warm Hawaiian sun on a fluffy towel draped over my chair, while he rubbed suntan lotion into my skin and whispered about all the inappropriate thoughts touching me was giving him. Perhaps he would even fuck me there, in the middle of the public beach where everyone could see, not caring because part of him loved to be staking the claim.

My eyes move to the bed on my left and I bite down on my lip as I think about how this is where he fucks Anastasia when he’s in town. He’s been naked in this bed and just thinking of that makes me want to strip out of all of my clothes and roll around in the sheets. What in this room has he touched? Perhaps he has clothes here, or a toothbrush?

I glance over my shoulder at Billy, but he’s plugged into the laptop and not paying any attention to me, so I move over to the closet door across from the bed in search of a souvenir. Unfortunately everything in here is Anastasia’s. He doesn’t have spare socks or underwear in a drawer and when I go into the bathroom, I don’t find an extra razor, toothbrush, or even a bottle of shampoo that I could be sure was just for him. Going through the cabinet under the sink and finding only tampons, extra shaving cream, and a box with over the counter cold medicine and tylenol in it has me thoroughly deflated until I stand, glance over the counter, and see a pair of silver cufflinks on a plastic container made of drawers. When I pick them up to examine them more closely, I find that one has a small letter C engraved into the otherwise smooth metal, and on its match is a G.

These are his.

Warmth rushes through me as my fingers tighten around them and I pull my closed fist up to my lips to kiss them. It’s not a lot, but it’s something. A connection to him. Something tangible for me to hold onto and to keep with me. I’m practically giddy over finding something so personal and easy to take, but as I uncurl my fingers to look at them again, the door opens behind me.

“What are you doing?” Billy asks.

“What? Nothing.”

He narrows his eyes at me. “Well let’s clean up and get out of here. It’s cold as shit and I want to be home before the next wave of the storm hits.”

I nod and stuff the cufflinks in my pocket, then find some Clorox wipes under the counter and both Billy and I get to work. He’s in more of a hurry than I am at making sure that no one can tell we’ve been here, but that’s why Lincoln insisted I come along. I have him wipe down the laptop and the desk he was working on while I clean the knobs on the closet and bathroom, and all of the handles on Anastasia doors. When it’s time to leave the room, I send him out first so I can sweep over the carpet to get rid of any footprints we’ve left behind.

He’s already outside by the time I get down the stairs and I almost just leave with him, but I notice he didn’t zip up Anastasia’s suitcase when he put the laptop back. I do up the bag myself, scan the living room and dining room, and clean up the water footprints by the door before I finally step back out into the frigid night air. From there we tread back through our footprints, covering what we leave behind, jump the fence, and take off through the alley toward his apartment.

“You should stay here,” he says when I turn to leave him at the front door of his building. “It’s freezing and your apartment is at least two miles away. Besides, once it starts snowing again, you’re going to be stuck until the emergency crews come and that could be days. You sure you want to do that all by yourself?”

I too look up and frown. He’s right about the cold. My body is already stiff and sore from being out here so long already and I don’t know that I have another two mile walk in me.

“Yeah, thanks,” I tell him.

He takes me upstairs and gives me some of his clothes since we’re both wet from being in the snow all night. Everything he has is way too big for me, but just having something dry against my skin  does make me feel a little warmer. His apartment is only one bedroom, so he brings out extra blankets and a pillow for me to crash on the couch, and then we both sit down with a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a bag of chips. Without heat it’s hard to stay warm, but we make do with the small fire we build in a big metal pot out of old newspapers and popsicle sticks.

“I keep expecting Grey to come knocking on the door,” I admit. “For some reason, I feel like we’re going to get caught.”

“No one saw us,” he says, tossing another stick on the fire. “Grey would have to know exactly where to look to find the tunnel I built and with the shit Lincoln is going to feed through it into the server, the only guy who would find it will be gone by Monday. Trust me, your guy is going to be so pleased with this job he’s going to give us a permanent gig.”

“Only if you’re more careful. You forgot to zip up Anastasia’s bag. It would have been a dead give away someone had been in there if she went to pick up her suitcase and all of her stuff fell out on the floor.”

“Why am I responsible for closing it? You opened it.”

“But you put the laptop back in.”

“No I didn’t.” At first, his words are defensive, but off handed. The moment he hears them out loud though, his mouth goes slack and his eyes widen. “Fuck, no I didn’t.”

“What do you mean no you didn’t?”

“I-I cleaned it but I didn’t put it back. I left it on the desk.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?!”

“No. Shit, what do we do?”

“We have to go back!”

“We can’t go back. That’s a three mile round trip and it’s only getting colder. We can’t keep traipsing around outside all night, people die doing shit like that.”

“And when she goes home and finds her laptop on her desk instead of in her suitcase down-fucking-stairs?”

“I mean… what are the odds she’s even going to notice? It’s been a crazy day with the storm and Hyun… She’ll probably think she just forgot to pack it.”

I huff and look at the door, unsure of what to do. I really don’t want to go back outside again. Without my body heat against the wet fabric, my jeans have frozen and all I have to wear now is this baggy pair of sweats. I’m getting hypothermia just thinking about trudging through the snow like this. Besides, going back only increases our chances of beings seen. Suppose a neighbor thinks we’re breaking in or looting and somehow contacts the police, or worse, Grey. What if Sawyer comes back to get Ana’s things? No, going back isn’t a good idea, but neither is doing nothing.

“We’re going to have to tell him,” I say quietly.

“Him?” Billy repeats. “Wait… you mean, him?” I nod, and he starts shaking his head. “Are you crazy?”

“He’s going to need to prepare, just in case. Otherwise, all of this was for nothing.”

“He won’t pay us if we do tell him and then all of this really will be for nothing.”

“And if we get caught, who’s name do you think he’s going to give to the police?” He opens his mouth to argue, but can’t say anything. So, eventually, he nods to my backpack across the room where the satellite radio is still tucked away. I pull it out, flip the switch to turn it back on, and take several long seconds to prepare myself for whatever reaction I’m going to get before finally pushing the intercom button.

“Lincoln? Are you there?” Nothing. “Hello?”

Billy gets up and takes the radio from me, and after examining it for a moment and pushing a few different buttons, he shakes his head.

“It’s dead.”

“Great. What do we do now?”

“We… wait until the roads are cleared. Grey is going to get her out of here the moment he can. Hopefully, she doesn’t look through her bags before she leaves and once she’s gone, we go through the house and take the laptop and some other obviously valuable stuff. She’ll think it was just a burglary. The tunnel is built in her GEH profile, we don’t need the laptop anymore.”

“Unless the laptop being stolen makes Grey check into her profile and he finds what we’ve done.”

He frowns. “Then we leave it by the door. Drop it or slide it under something so it looks like it got left behind. It explains why it wasn’t in the bag, but since the laptop never made it out of the house, he wouldn’t have any reason to think it was gone through.”

I take a deep breath, not fully satisfied with the plan but not having anything better to suggest myself. Billy goes back to the fire, trying to keep it going, and motions for me to come sit next to him again so we can keep warm together, and for the rest of the night we perfect his idea until we’re both absolutely certain the plan is foolproof.

 

The power doesn’t come on the next day, or the next. By Monday, we’re down to living on cold cans of chili and dry ramen. No snow plows have made it through the city yet, so we’re still stranded and we’re so bored out of our minds that we’re constantly at each other’s throats. On Monday night we’re fighting with each other so loudly, neither one of us hear the knock on the apartment door until the person on the other side starts banging against the wood.

We freeze and look nervously at one another. Is it Grey, or someone who works for him? Were we not as careful as we thought?

Billy grabs a metal bat from behind the door in his bedroom and walks cautiously towards the door. “Who is it?”

“It’s Kommer, open up.”

“Kommer?” I repeat, confused. “He’s supposed to be in Seattle. How did he get here?”

Billy shrugs and opens the door, and when the severe looking man steps inside, I feel a weird sense of dread. Like I’m in a mob movie and the Don has just sent his goon.

“Hyun was released yesterday, we’ve got him. You two need to come with me.”

“Is he okay?” I ask.

“He’s fine. Get your shit and let’s go. I’ve got a chopper waiting downtown.”

Billy and I glance at each other and I wonder if he’s thinking the same thing I am. Heat. Glorious, healing, wonderful heat, and food that has been cooked.

I hurry though the door out into the hallway and follow Kommer as he leads us out of the building onto the street. For the first few blocks, I don’t even care that the air is unbearably cold against my legs under the billowy sweatpants I’m still dressed in. But soon, that cold seeps into my bones.

“Where are we going?”

“Marriott,” he says and then stays quiet for the rest of the long walk to downtown Cambridge. Once we get to the hotel, we go up the service entrance all the way to the roof where there is a helicopter and pilot waiting for us. Kommer takes my hand to help me inside, then climbs up front. Billy takes the seat next to me, and after the pilot has closed us both inside, we’ve harnessed ourselves in, and slipped a pair of headphones over our ears, the pilot finishes his pre-flight checks and we rise slowly into the air.

Perhaps it’s the fresh wave of heat coming from the vents in the cockpit, or maybe just the relief of finally being out of Billy’s apartment, but rising off the ground and flying into the night feels as though a weight has been lifted off of me. Like I’m escaping from prison or a horrible nightmare. But after a half-hour passes, I realize, I have no idea where we’re going and I’m not wearing the type of headset you can use to communicate with the pilot.

I turn and tap Billy’s shoulder to get his attention. “Where are we going?”

His brow furrows and he points to his headset, signaling he can’t hear, so I slow the words down and over annunciate, hoping he’ll read my lips. He must understand me that time, because he looks away through the front windshield with confusion, then turns to me and shrugs.

The flight lasts a total of 2 ½ hours, but the bad weather means I have no idea if we’ve gone a long distance or we’ve just had to fly more carefully. When we step out of the helicopter I don’t recognize any of our surroundings and I don’t see any signs giving a hint to where we may be. The only thing I see is a car waiting not far away from the airfield where we’ve landed.

“Let’s go,” Kommer says.

We follow him to the car and he gestures for Billy and me to get in the backseat while he moves around to the front passenger’s side. I’m far too busy looking around through the dark windows for any kind of indication of where we may be to be too concerned with the driver, until Kommer gets in the car and leans over to kiss the woman sitting behind the wheel.

“Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?”

“I’ve missed you,” she whispers between her near ravenous attack on his face. They continue making out for several minutes, and as the woman’s breaths and moans become more and more desperate, the empty space surrounding Billy and I become more and more awkward.

“Umm… where are we going?” I ask, and finally the woman pulls away and rounds on me. She’s beautiful, really beautiful, but I’ve never seen her before.

“Why don’t you just relax, huh? I wouldn’t be in a real big hurry to get where you’re going anyway.”

“Excuse me?”

She doesn’t answer. Instead she turns back to the wheel and shifts the car into drive. Billy shoots a look across the seat towards me, his eyes wide and nervous, and as I let the meaning behind her words sink in, my hand slowly shifts to the handle on the door. When I pull it, nothing happens. The child locks are on.

“Where are you taking us?” Billy demands, but neither of them respond. The woman turns on the radio and signals to get on the freeway, while Kommer kicks a leg up on the dash and starts scrolling through emails on his phone.

“Grey’s got her back in Seattle now,” he says. “I just go the GEH security email. Ryan says Grey’s been out of work all week.”

“I know. Elliot went to meet the plane when they got back. He’s barely called me since then, which I bet has something to do with Kavanagh. I swear to god if that little whore ruins all the hard work I’ve put into this loser…”

“Well, I can’t say I’d be disappointed if you had to stop fucking him.”

She looks away from the road, and gives him a soft, pleading glance. “We talked about this, Anthony. He’s our way in. Dating Elliot means I’ll have access to security codes, clearance to get into Escala, invitations to vacations and weekends spent on the boat. Grey will never be out of our sight.”

“I could get us those things without you having to open your legs for another man.”

“Not until you get out of GEH security and into personal security. We all have our jobs, baby. You work on Taylor, I’ll work on Elliot. At the end of this, you and I are never going to have to work again.”

He nods. “Yeah. Yeah, I know that…”

“And I love you. I only love you.”

“I love you too.” He leans over and kisses her gently on the cheek, then finally glances back at Billy and me. “Ten more minutes.”

Eventually, I’m able to glean enough information from signs and buildings to deduce that we’re in Albany, though why, I’m still not sure. There does seem to be power here though, which is exciting, until I realize we’re driving right past the city and into a more industrial looking area that’s much less populated.

“Where are we going?” I ask again, more nervous now.

“Here,” Kommer says. The woman pulls into a dark alley and kills the engine outside a heavy metal door set in a nondescript brick wall. He turns to smile at both of us. “The boss has a surprise for you.”

I swallow, suddenly feeling a swift rush of terror. He knows about the laptop. He has to know about the laptop. How did he find out? What is he going to do?

“Don’t say a word about the laptop,” Billy hisses the second Kommer and the woman driver are out of the car. I don’t have time to answer him though, because my door opens and Kommer reaches inside to pull me out. The woman waits to escort Billy behind me, and then we’re both pushed through the door into a dimly lit open space that looks a lot like a warehouse. The only thing that gives me any kind of peace as the heavy door closes behind us is the number of people in the room. I recognize a surprising number from GEH, including Jack Hyde, a guy who I remember from the few times I met with Elena Lincoln, Isaac I think his name was, and Hyun, who is sitting in the center of everyone on chair looking weak and exhausted.

“Hey,” I say, coming up and kneeling next to him. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” He nods and then looks tentatively around at the small crowd of people around us. They’re all talking amongst themselves, speculating what’s going on from the sound of it, so he leans in close to me and speaks softly into my ear.

“He saved my life. Grey. They said if I’d have gotten surgery even a few hours later, they wouldn’t have been able to save me. I-I… don’t think I can do this anymore. No amount of money Lincoln has promised us is worth what we’re doing to the man who is the reason I’m here today…”

“Which is exactly why we’re here,” a voice rings loud and clear through the open room, echoing off the walls and forcing everyone to fall silent. I rise to my feet, turn toward the direction of the sound, and watch as Andrew Lincoln ambles carelessly towards us. The crowd parts as he moves, as if his importance is the equivalent to the power of God against the Red Sea. He stops a few paces ahead of us then begins circling Hyun’s chair, like a shark.

“I’ve brought you all here today because you’re all very important players in this little game we’re playing. It’s a bit like domino’s, you see. Each and every one of you is a piece who has a part to play in the whole. As long as you do what you’re supposed to, we all stand tall. It only takes one weak link for the chain to break. One domino topples in the line and we all fall. Now, I don’t know about any of you, but I’m not ready for this game to be over yet. I’m not quite ready to fall.” He stops in front of Hyun and narrows his cold gaze in on him. “So you feel indebted to Grey, do you?”

Hyun swallows. “Yes. I do. He saved my life and I can’t in good conscious continue to help ruin his. I’m sorry, but I’m out.”

“You see, that’s where you’re wrong,” Andrew continues. “There is no out.”

The room falls dead silent. No one moves. No speaks. No one even dares to breathe until a shrill jingle breaks the tension.

“Sorry,” the woman from the car says, reaching for her purse and digging through its contents. The irritation apparent on Lincoln’s face is chilling. “It’s Elliot.”

Lincoln takes a breath, but waves to her and as she holds her finger up to her lips to tell everyone in the room to stay silent. She answers.

“Hey, baby. Nothing. Just catching up on Gossip Girl and enjoying a face mask. What are you doing? Oh… tonight? I’m sorry, I wish I could, but my bestie is coming over and we’re going to have a little girl’s night. Lunch tomorrow? Perf. And, do I need to bring anything to your parents’ house on Thursday? Awh, babe. You’re so sweet. I’ll see you tomorrow? ‘Kay, bye.”

She hangs up the phone and then turns to Lincoln. “We need to hurry this up, I have to get back to Seattle.” She then turns and shoots a smug look at everyone in the circle. “I’m spending Thanksgiving with the Greys.”

“You see, this is commitment,” Lincoln says. “This is the dedication I need. That you all signed up for. Not. This.” He turns back to Hyun, who cowers slightly in his chair.

“Look, I’m not going to say anything.”

“No, you’re not. But you are going to do something very important for me tonight. You’re going to show every person here what happens when they stop being committed. You’re going to show everyone what happens when they start to feel like maybe Grey isn’t so bad after all.”

“What do you—” Hyun’s voice cuts off as Lincoln reaches into the back waistband of his trousers and removes a pistoL. Hyun’s eyes grow wide with fear and he begins to tremble. “Okay, okay. I changed my mind. I’m in. I’m very dedicated. Whatever you need, I’m your guy.”

“Ah, that’s very comforting to hear, Son,” Lincoln says. “But… what kind of lesson would that be?” He pulls back the hammer to the pistol and Hyun jumps out of his chair to run, but Kommer has him in the next second. The woman picks up a rope and brings it to him, and after Kommer has fully tied up and subdued Hyun, he tosses him carelessly to the floor.

“Anytime any of you think about talking to someone or not following through with what I’ve asked you to do, I want you to remember this. I want you all to remember that none of you are alone. Someone is watching you, and anyone who comes to me with news of someone’s dishonesty or disloyalty is going to be rewarded. The person who has double crossed me, well…” He raises the gun and points it directly at Hyun.

“Wait, no! Please!” he begs, and for a moment, I think the look of sheer terror on his face may have actually gotten through to Lincoln. He hesitates, then lowers his gun, and Hyun starts bawling uncontrollably.

“This isn’t right,” Lincoln says. “This isn’t how this should go.” He lets his arm fall to his side, and then he turns back to the woman standing next to Kommer.

“Gia, my love. I think it’s time you got your first.”

“Me?”

“Yes. Come here. Help your father.” She stands there for a moment, gaping at him, and his look of proud adoration falters. “Unless, you’re not as committed as you say you are.”

“No, I am!” she says quickly. “I am.”

“Then come here.”

Her shoulders rise and fall as she takes a deep breath and then slowly moves towards Lincoln. He gives her the pistol and then places a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Just like I taught you.”

She nods and then faces Hyun. Every muscle in my body tightens as I watch her raise the gun and then hear the horrified pleas that start bubbling out of the boy in front of her. He begs for his life, but she doesn’t seem to hear him. Kommer puts him on his knees in front of her, facing away so she won’t have to look in his eyes, and she squares up, adjusts her grip on the gun, and halfway through one of Hyun’s desperate, sob broken sentences, she squeezes the trigger.

The gunshot echoes loudly through the open warehouse and I scream as I’m standing close enough to Hyun that the blood splatter hits me across the face. My ears are ringing and my entire body goes cold. Shock sets in.

He’s dead.

Hyun is dead.

Lincoln murdered him right in front of me. Right in front of all of us.

Gia is still. The gun still held up in front of her as she watches Hyun’s body slump to the floor, and in the next second Lincoln is on her again, wrapping her in his arms. “How does that feel, baby?”

“I-uh…” She’s stammering, so he turns her away from the body and forces her to look into his eyes. “You did well, Gia. I’m very proud of you. How do you feel, sweet girl?”

“Powerful.” Her voice is only a pale echo of a whisper, but every person in the room can hear her just as clearly as they would have if she’d yelled it. Lincoln’s face lights up.

“Yes. That’s good. Remember that. Use that.” He hugs her tightly and I watch a strange kind of emotion cross Gia’s face over his shoulder. A kind of pleasure that’s sickening and terrifying. When Lincoln pulls away, he smiles again and kisses her lips. “So pretty.”

She beams, then slips the gun back in her father’s hand before returning to Kommer’s side. He doesn’t look as comfortable with what just happened as Lincoln or even Gia herself does, but he opens his arms for her all the same, and when she squeezes him around the middle, he kisses the top of her hair.

“Anyone else having feelings of remorse or second thoughts?” Lincoln asks, scanning the crowd. No one replies, no one even moves, and it makes him smile. “Good. Then we shouldn’t have to come here again. Although, I’m sure my darling daughter could use the practice.” He pauses, and glances proudly back at her again. “Just remember, we’re always watching. And I don’t give second chances.”

He slips the gun back into the waistline of his trousers and turns away, and there’s a mass shuffle for the door. I stand there, frozen in disbelief as I stare at Hyun’s body. I thought we were going to be yelled at, have our pay taken away, maybe even be given a few extra watches as punishment for the laptop. I never expected this… and this didn’t even have the possibility of getting him caught the way our fuck up did.

“Let’s get out of here,” Billy hisses, yanking on my arm. I nod and turn to follow the flow of people, but am stopped when I hear Lincoln’s voice calling my name.

“Leila, dear. Come back here please.”

I stop, but Billy doesn’t. He glances back at me but unapologetically continues his way out of the room, and I stand there helpless until it’s just me, Lincoln, Gia, and Kommer left.

“Come here, sweetheart,” Lincoln says, and I have no choice but so swallow my fear and turn back to him.

“Yes, sir?”

“You’ve had a rough couple days in Cambridge. I’m so sorry.”

“Oh, that’s okay. I’m fine.”

“I know you are, because you are a strong young woman and I applaud you for it. But, all the same, I’d like to do something for you. We’ll keep you here for a few days, in a suite in a wonderful hotel. Any restaurants you want to go to, any shopping you’d like to do… just charge it all to me. We’ll fly you back to Cambridge once the clean up from the storm is over.”

“Really? Uh… thank you.”

“Of course. Just as I punish those who defy me, I reward those who are loyal. You are loyal to me, aren’t you Leila?”

I nod furiously. “Yes. Absolutely.”

“Good, because I know very well that your grudge is against Anastasia, not Christian, and I know very well how you feel about him. So, going forward, I want you to remember today. I want you to think about this every single day.”

“I won’t be a problem, I promise. I am committed to doing what has to be done, I swear. Grey is nothing to me. He deserves this. They both do.”

“That’s all I want to hear.” He smiles and turns again. “Gia, let’s get Leila here set up at the Renaissance. She’s spent the past few days being very cold, make sure she’s comfortable.”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“And Kommer, take care of that.” He motions to Hyun’s body. “Leave his body in his own car, but not here. I want Grey to think it was necessary to conduct the violence elsewhere so that he won’t heighten security around Cambridge. Anastasia is the most important piece of my plan and I don’t want to make Leila’s job any more difficult than it already is.”

“Yes, sir.”

Linc winks back at me, then turns to leave the room, and I’m left to help Gia and Kommer dispose of a body. To wrap it in plastic and store until it can be returned to Cambridge where his car has been left. From there, I have no idea what they plan to do, but I resolve as I’m finally put in a car and taken to the swanky hotel in downtown Albany, that I’m never going to let that be me.

Ever.

Next Chapter

Christian PoV: Oh, Baby…

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Beginning of Chapter 09

I’ve never wanted to leave Cambridge less than I did late Sunday afternoon. Whatever Ana has doesn’t seem to be getting better and she’s refusing to go to the doctor. I’ve called to check on her every spare second I’ve had, but despite her assurances that she’s getting better, today is the second day she’s stayed home from school and Ana never skips class. It also doesn’t help that I’m still internally boiling with rage and reluctant jealousy over Kate’s slip up about Ana exposing herself and trying to tempt Sawyer into sleeping with her while we were still separated. She says he turned her down, but I’ve seen Ana’s body. There’s no way he wasn’t at all interested. Protective of his job, maybe, but definitely intrigued. Does he still think about what he saw? Does he picture her when he’s alone at night? Does he daydream about what might have happened had he said yes? When they’re together, when she wraps her arms around him and he can breathe in her intoxicating scent, does he ever think about broaching the subject again?

A vile taste creeps up into my mouth as I shake the uncomfortable thought away and turn my attention back to the agenda in front of me. Ros is nearly finished with her updates on the newly re-branded Grey Publishing, and I can’t afford to be caught focusing on anything other than this meeting right now. Not with the current internal unrest brewing in my most important departments.

“Thank you, Elizabeth,” Ros says. “And thank you for your hard work on the Keith Brooks signing. I thought we were going to lose him to Greenwich, but you really came through for us in the end. Now let’s just get his novel edited and prepare Jack to get out there to help him sell his work.”

“Absolutely. Thank you, Ms. Bailey.” Elizabeth smiles as Ros nods, then they both turn to me. I glance down at my watch, mentally calculating the time until I get out of this meeting, then look back at my agenda.

“Welch, we got the call from Rosenstein and Associates this morning, they’ll be faxing over a signed contract this afternoon. I want you to assemble a team to get started on a full systems integration overhaul before end of business today. They expect their technology to be up and running by January 1st, so we’re not going to have a lot of turnaround time on this one.”

“January 1st?” Welch repeats back, baffled. “Sir, it’s November. A full system overhaul in that amount of time would mean dozens of hours of overtime for my guys and they’re already swamped with our acquisition load…”

“I understand what it means, but Rosenstein is an important client that will open up a whole new pipeline in New York. This is a huge get for GEH and we need this implementation to go off without a hitch.”

Welch presses his lips together, looking at first as though he’s just going to accept what I’ve told him, but ultimately can’t. “Mr. Grey, the holidays are coming up. With the current attitude of some of my developers after that audit, I think this has the potential to turn a small problem into something big. I can’t put anymore on my guys’ plates.”

“Are you telling me you can’t handle your team?”

“No, sir. I just…”

“Then there shouldn’t be a problem. Hire if you need to, but not for Rosenstein. Only the best for this one. I’ll send you over the details this afternoon, and I’ll expect your email regarding who you’ve selected for your implementation team before I leave this evening.”

He takes a deep breath and nods. “Yes, sir.”

“Good. Alright…. Elliot. Where are we on the new building?” My brother blinks at me, slightly taken aback by the change of subject, but he recovers quickly and begins reading the updates he and his foreman have put together for the meeting. While he once again readjusts the timelines he’s given me over and over again, I look at my watch.

Why hasn’t she called me?

Finally, the meeting ends, and I’m the first body out of the room. Andrea scurries out of the conference room after me, asking about meeting notes and follow-up appointments with some of the department heads, but I wave her off.

“Olivia, has Anastasia called for me?” I ask the receptionist. She shakes her head, and I frown. “Fine. Andrea, forward me the outstanding items from the meeting and cancel everything else on my calendar. I don’t have time for anymore meetings today.”

“Uh… yes, sir.”

I give her a sharp nod and take the folder off the top of the stack of documents she holds in her hands, then disappear down the long hallway to my office. Once I’m shut away inside, I put the “Do Not Disturb” on my email, reach for my desk phone, and begin dialing Ana’s number.

“Hello?” she answers after a few drawn out rings, and, instantly, my gut clenches at the weakness apparent in her voice.

“Hey, did I wake you?”

She yawns. “No, but you probably would have if you called me five minutes from now. I’m so tired. I haven’t been able to stay awake for more than a few hours all day and it’s really not helping my missed homework situation.”

“Are you eating?”

“A little. Kate brought me some oatmeal this morning, but I threw it up almost immediately.”

“Ana…”

“I think it was just the honey, though. You know how much I hate honey and I haven’t really been nauseous at all since the oatmeal. This is the last of the nausea, I’m sure of it. I’ll be fine by tomorrow morning.”

I grind my teeth together. At first it was food poisoning, next it was just a benign stomach bug. But she’s been sick for days, ever since she surprised me in New York, and for all her excuses, she sounds worse every time I talk to her.

“You should go to the doctor.”

“I’m fine, Christian. Really.”

“You don’t know that,” I argue, and for good measure I pull up WebMD on my laptop.

“Really, I’m okay. I think the nausea is starting to go away. I’ve only thrown up once this morning. I’m mostly just tired now.”

I find fatigue on the list of ailments on the screen in front of me and click on the checkbox. Next I find nausea and a pop-up box appears, so I read it aloud as a question to her. “How many days have you been nauseated?”

“I don’t know, four or five. There’s a flu going around and you know me, if there’s something to catch within 100 miles of me, I’ll get it.”

Oh no you don’t, Ana. I click five days and a second pop-up box appears, which I also read to her. “Is the nausea made worse or better when you eat?”

“Uh… better, I think.”

The next pop-up asks if it’s possible she’s pregnant, but I answer no without checking with her because I’ve seen first hand how diligent she is in taking her birth control. A small working icon appears and then another pop-up box. “Have you been ingesting excessive amounts of acetaminophen?”

She’s quiet for a beat, which I use to answer the last of the questions based on what she’s already told me, but as my eyes sweep over to the resulting list of diseases, she speaks again and her voice is accusatory.

“Are you on WebMD?”

“You could be having acute kidney failure, Ana,” I reply, reading the third result from the list.  

“It’s the flu, Christian.”

“You don’t know that until you go to the doctor!”

“I know what the flu feels like and if I go to the doctor they’ll just tell me to get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids, and I’m doing both of those things already. There is nothing a doctor can give me to make me feel better.”

My fingers tighten around the mouse as I listen to her arguments and continue to read through the list WebMD has populated. “What if you have Meningitis or Typhoid… or Dengue Fever? Jesus, this says you could be having a brain aneurysm.”

“Christian.” She sighs, and I can hear the patience in her voice beginning to wane, like she’s tired of arguing with a disobedient child. It pisses me off. “I promise you, I’m fine. Get off the internet and get back to work or I’m going to call Ros and have her come take your phone away.”

Oh sweetheart, I can handle Ros. “Go to the doctor, Anastasia.”

“I love you, Goodbye.”

“Anastasia!” There’s a click and the phone goes silent. I stare at it in disbelief for a moment and then feel the frustration her previous arguments stirred in me begin to boil out of control. If she thinks she can just dismiss me because I’m on the other side of the country, she clearly doesn’t fully realize just who she is dealing with.

I swallow and push aside all of the residual anger and irritation I’ve been harboring towards Anastasia’s CPO and pick up my phone again.

“Mr. Grey?”

“Sawyer, Anastasia is still ill. I want her to go to the doctor.”

“Yes. I know, Mr. Grey. I’ve suggested she go to student health myself but she thinks it’s best to just try to wait it out and see if she gets better on her own.”

“I don’t care what she thinks, I want her to go to the doctor. You’re going to take her to the emergency room.”

“I can try, but…”

“No, you’re going to take her. Even if you have to pick her up and carry her to the car. Understand?”

“Yes, sir.” He takes a breath. “I think she’ll throw a fit if I pull up to the hospital though. There’s a student health clinic on campus that will be able to treat her today without an appointment. I think she’ll be more receptive if we start there.”

“That clinic is not equipped to deal with Typhoid.”

There’s a pause, and when he speaks again, I can tell that he’s choosing each of his words carefully. “While that might be true, they do have the ability to determine whether or not she really does have the flu, and she won’t have to wait as long to see a doctor as she would if I took her to the ER. If it’s more serious than she thinks it is, I’ll take her to the hospital immediately, and we’ll have a doctor call ahead so she’s seen right away.”

I pause to consider. “I suppose that’s true. And if it is serious, they could transport her by ambulance to Boston, which would be better equipped than the general hospital in Cambridge. Fine, take her into the clinic, but call me if she’s being moved.”

“Will do.”

I hang up the phone without another word and turn my attention back to my laptop screen, letting the satisfaction I feel knowing Anastasia is finally getting proper medical care get me through the first few outstanding items in my inbox. As I continue through my work though, my mind starts to wander back to the list of conditions I’d scanned on the internet. Dengue Fever is fairly improbable as it’s spread through insect bites and the cold winter climate of Cambridge isn’t ideal for a thriving mosquito population. Some of the others though are more concerning and as I send off my 6th email, I can’t help but look back at the list again.

“Aortic stenosis,” I read aloud. With my mouse, I navigate to the link that takes me to an article about the disease and begin reading.  

 

Aortic valve stenosis — or aortic stenosis — occurs when the heart’s aortic valve narrows. This narrowing prevents the valve from opening fully, which reduces or blocks blood flow from your heart into the main artery to your body (aorta) and onward to the rest of your body. Left untreated, Aortic valve stenosis can lead to heart failure, stroke, blood clots, bleeding, heart rhythm abnormalities, infections that affect the heart such as endocarditis, or death.

 

Death? Quickly, I close the window and return to the list. Iron Deficiency Anemia, Thrombocytopenia, Celiac Disease, West Nile… I have to physically close my laptop screen when I start reading through another screen that details all of the complications that can arise through the treatment of Leukemia. My breath comes out in short huffs and my fingers begin impatiently tapping on the wood of my desk. It’s been a little more than an hour, so she should be there by now, and I haven’t heard anything from Sawyer.

“She’s going to be fine,” I tell myself, taking a few deep breaths. “She’s probably right. It’s just the flu.”

In truth, the only reason the paranoia is getting to me is because she’s so far away. I’d feel better if she was here where I could ensure she was being taken care of. Where I could feel her forehead and know if she was still running a fever. Where I could make sure she was regularly taking medicine, eating well, and resting enough. Where I could see for myself how sick she really was, and not have to trust what she’s telling me or take clues from the way her voice sounds. These are the parts of the distance that are unbearable, and as I sit there trying to get back to work I can feel the tick in my jaw that starts every time I consider asking Ana again to come home.

I know she won’t. I know she shouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have to physically stop myself from asking her to stay every time she has to leave.

My phone buzzes and I look down at the text from Sawyer.

 

They just took her back to see the doctor.

 

They just took her back? So much for the clinic meaning she wouldn’t have to wait… I grit my teeth as I prepare to reply to his text, but I’m distracted by a knock on the door. It’s Andrea, holding a cup of coffee in one hand and yet another stack of papers in the other.

“The contracts were just faxed back from Rosenstein and Associates, but they’re unsigned. They’ve… made some changes.”

“Changes?”

She looks nervous as she places the documents in front of me, and as I glance down at the text on the plain copy paper, I see why. The document in front of me doesn’t even closely resemble the terms to which we agreed last weekend in New York. From the responsibilities of my team to what they’re willing to pay for GEH’s services, the contract has been greatly skewed in Rosenstein’s favor and it only serves to intensify the anger that’s plagued me all afternoon.

“Get Ros in here,” I tell Andrea through clenched teeth. She nods and quickly scurries from my office.

As irritating as this unexpected roadbump is, it keeps me from obsessing over Anastasia. Ros is just as outraged as I am over the changes to the contract and after we both tear through it line by line, we call our legal team into my office and get Rosenstein on the phone. Apparently, their CFO and a few key board members weren’t pleased with the deal the company president had agreed to, so they were hoping they’d sneak most of this through without me either noticing, or caring enough to argue. I’m young, so this isn’t the first time a client has tried to take advantage of what they presume to be inexperience, but getting caught red-handed using unethical business practices works in my favor. In the end, Ros and I are able to renegotiate terms to almost exactly the way our deal was previously structured, and over half of the changes agreed to benefit my company more than theirs. By the time I’ve sent the new contracts over via email and hung up the phone, Ros is practically beaming.

“You know, Christian, you never cease to amaze me.”

I nod, but turn to my lawyer. “When they return the signed contracts, I want them reviewed by legal. Let’s be absolutely sure we’re not setting ourselves up for a petty contract dispute before we begin administering services. A lawsuit is the last thing GEH needs right now.”

“Yes, sir,” he says. He gathers his notes from the phone call before getting out of his chair and leaving my office. I glance down at the clock. It’s been nearly two hours, and I haven’t heard from Anastasia yet.

What could possibly be taking so long?

As if in answer to my question, my cell begins buzzing on my desk. I look down and see Ana’s name spelled out across the screen.

“Hold on a second, Ros,” I tell her, then answer the call. “What did the doctor say?”

“Christian…” Her voice is shaking, and it immediately has me on alert. “I–I need you to come to Cambridge.”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“I just need you to come here, okay? Please?”

“Okay.” I look down at the screen of my laptop and then quickly pull up my calendar to glance over what I have on my schedule for the next few days. Most of this can be pushed, or done remotely, but I have a meeting with the Oregon State Committee for Technology and Economic Development tomorrow regarding a statewide fiber optics overhaul similar to the one we did for the State of Washington last year. It’s a multi-million dollar deal, so I can’t miss it. I could take my plane to Salem though, rather than Charlie Tango, and fly to Cambridge immediately after. “I have an important meeting tomorrow at three but, once it’s over, I’ll get on a pl–”

“No,” she interrupts me. “I need you to come here, right now. Tonight.”

My stomach drops and my body turns cold. Tonight? Fuck, this is serious. She’s not going to tell me on the phone, which means that whatever the doctor told her is bad. Really bad. It has to be. I know she’d never call me away from work if it wasn’t.

It’s difficult to speak at first because the possibility of every wild theory I came up with after  what I read online earlier actually coming to fruition makes my mouth go completely dry. But after I manage to swallow the lump obstructing my throat, I find my voice again. “I’ll be there in seven hours.”

“Thank you,” she replies. I can tell by her voice that she’s crying and it makes every hair on the back of my arms and neck stand up. When I speak again, my voice is shaking too.

“I love you.”

“I love you too. I’ll see you soon, bye.”

The phone clicks off and suddenly I feel like I’m stranded alone on a desert island. I can’t move quickly enough, though there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to rush to whatever devastating news I’m about to receive. But Ana is alone right now, and whatever this is she needs me to fight it with her.

“I have to go to Cambridge,” I tell Ros as I jump out of my chair. “I won’t be back for the rest of the week.”

“Cambridge? Christian, you can’t go to Cambridge right now. We have the state meeting tomorrow…”

“Cancel it. Or go without me. I don’t care, I have to go.”

“Cancel it? Christian, this deal is worth millions, hundreds of millions. What’s wong?”

“Ana. There’s… something wrong with Ana.”

“What?” Her voice is suddenly shrill and it grates on me. “What happened?”

I shake my head. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ll call you tomorrow. Maybe– maybe we can have Andrea set up a Lifesize number and I can call into the meeting. Or maybe we can just reschedule. I’ll figure it out once I know what’s going on.”

“Okay. Don’t worry about what’s going on here, I’ll handle it.”

“Thank you.” She nods and then leans over to kiss my cheek as I reach down to pick up my briefcase. I raise an eyebrow at her and she gives me an awkward smile before stepping aside to let me leave. Taylor’s office is only a few steps away from my door, so I stop there first and knock to get his attention.

“Sir?”

“We need to get to Cambridge. Now. Call ahead and make sure my jet is ready to take off.” Good man that he is, he doesn’t ask questions. He simply takes his jacket off the back of his chair and pulls out his phone to make the necessary calls. Ros has rushed ahead of me to call the elevator and I give her a last grateful nod as Taylor and I step inside and make our way down to the parking garage, where we climb inside my Mercedes SUV and tear out onto 5th Ave.

The rain beats loudly against the roof of our car while we make our way down the highway, but I hardly notice it. We’re driving towards Boeing, not SeaTac, as that was the only way to ensure my plane was ready immediately. It’s unfamiliar though, so it takes us awhile to navigate onto the airstrip and board. Neither Taylor or I have anything but the clothes on our backs, not even a phone charger, but that all seems very inconsequential. Now that I don’t have the physical act of moving from point A to point B to occupy my thoughts, the only thing I can think about are the “what ifs.” What would be terrible enough that she couldn’t tell me over the phone?

My mind is already full of ailments from my web research earlier, and the first thing that my mind recalls is Meningitis. It pops up all the time over college campuses, and if not caught soon enough it can lead to any number of brain issues, even death. But I know from stories Elena has told me about her sister that you have to progress pretty far before you reach the point of no return, and Ana was completely coherent on the phone. Scared, yes, but she didn’t slur or have any difficulty speaking. That could mean it hasn’t progressed far enough to be life threatening. But if that were the case why wouldn’t she tell me over the phone? No, meningitis doesn’t seem likely.

One by one I go through each and every ailment I can remember. I’m able to dismiss most of them in the same way I did meningitis, until I remember Leukemia. Fatigue was the main symptom and she’s been complaining about being exhausted for a while, even before New York. I thought it was just school and travelling but, maybe not. She’s lost weight, she’s been nauseated, she had a low grade fever when I left… I pause, trying to remember the other symptoms from the list I read on Mayo Clinic.

Infections.

Leukemia makes the patient more susceptible to infections, and her allergies a few weeks ago developed into a severe sinus infection out of nowhere.

Leukemia. It’s Leukemia.

Once I’m sure, it’s incredible how fast I work through the resulting emotions. Panic, fear, and pain all give way to determination. This isn’t an automatic death sentence. I won’t let it be. I won’t let her leave me. I’ll find her the best oncologist in Seattle. No, fuck that. In the world. We’ll do everything right. We’ll have her on the right medication, and I’ll make sure she takes it absolutely diligently. We’ll speak to a nutritionist to make sure she’s eating exactly the right foods. Once I get her home, I will ensure there is absolutely no stress in her life to make the battle she’s about to fight any more difficult than it already will be. I will help her heal. I will get her through this because there is absolutely no other option.

For the remainder of the flight, I repeat that last thought over and over again, trying to keep the mental images of Ana suffering through treatment out of my mind. She’s strong, she can do this. I’ll help her do this. I’ll carry as much of it as I can for her. I won’t let her down and I won’t let her go.

We touch down in Boston late, but the moment I slide into the passenger’s seat of the rental car Taylor ordered for us from Seattle, I pull out my phone to text Ana.

 

Just landed in Boston. I’m on my way.

 

She must be watching her phone, because her response is nearly immediate.

 

I’m waiting. I love you.

I love you too, Anastasia. So very much.

 

Seeing the words on the screen and knowing how scared she must be is painful. I slide my phone into my pocket and then turn to look at Taylor. “Get us there as quickly as possible.”

“Yes, sir.”

Thankfully, the late hour means the highway between Boston and Cambridge is mostly deserted. So, ignoring all posted speed limit signs, Taylor pushes the pedal to the floor and we fly over the wet pavement, getting to Ana’s house in record time. As we pull into the driveway on the side of the house, I notice all of the lights downstairs are on, but I can’t see Ana through the kitchen window. The moment the car is in park, I hit the pavement and practically sprint into the house.

“Anastasia!”

“I’m in here.” Her voice is tentative, shaky, and I imagine it’s because she’s paralyzed with fear. Don’t worry, baby. I’m here.

When I come around the corner from the kitchen and see her standing in the middle of the living room, looking helpless, I pause for just a second to take inventory of her. She’s pale, incredibly pale, and I remember from my reading that it could be because the blood cells damaged by the cancer can lead to anemia like symptoms, including abnormally pale skin. The evidence is there, right in front of me, and suddenly my own assurances about how we’re going to get through this seem weak and almost foolishly optimistic. I can’t bare the distance between us anymore. I need to hold her.

I cross the room with long strides and pull her into my arms. She hugs me back, but the gesture is weak. I can feel her trembling beneath my hands.

“I’m here,” I reassure her. “What is it?”

“Have a seat,” she says. I step backward toward the sofa, keeping my eyes trained on hers, and then slowly lower myself down.

“I don’t really know where to start…”

Then I will. “Is it cancer?”

She blinks. “What?”

“Is that what’s wrong with you? Is it cancer?”

“No!” she says, her voice both emphatic and incredulous. “No, I’m not dying, Christian. I’m fine.”

Not dying? Not cancer? It takes a second for those words to sink in, for me to accept them, but as I search for a lie in her eyes and come up short, I feel an entire day’s worth of tension leave my body and I’m suddenly overcome with relief.

“Oh, thank god. Don’t you ever do that to me again, Anastasia. Do you have any idea how terrifying the last few hours have been for me?”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t think you’d go right to death! I just… I didn’t want to tell you over the phone.”

Fuck. Just because it’s not cancer doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. She did still call me all the way out here. “Tell me what?”

“Just… I just need you to… what I mean is that…”

Her reticence is maddening. “What is it, Ana?”

“I’m… Christian, I’m pregnant.”

The words hit me like a slap in the face. At first, they sound foreign, and it takes me a second to work out what she’s actually said, but certainty over the word doesn’t make what she’s said make anymore sense. “What?”

“I’m pregnant. About eight weeks. Apparently, the antibiotics I was taking when I had that sinus infection made my birth control fail. I got pregnant on my birthday.”

Antibiotics. Antibiotics! I’d been so focused on the illness that made them a necessity that I hadn’t even thought about the side-effects.

“I’m sorry,” she continues, tears welling in her eyes. “I didn’t know. I didn’t mean for this to happen. I know you said you wanted to wait and I did too, but it’s happened now and… and I want it. I didn’t know I would, but I do. I want this baby more than I’ve ever wanted anything.”

Baby. That’s the word my brain picks out. Not pregnancy, baby. We’re going to have a baby. An infant that is going to live with us, and need constant care. Who will grow into a child, and a teenager, and an adult… I’m going to be a father. In the blink of an eye, I’m suddenly going to be responsible for an entire human life, not just in terms of existence, but in shaping and molding that life into a person with character and morals. How do you teach a baby to talk, or walk? Fuck, it’s going to need to learn how to hold a spoon, and how to match socks… Match socks? No, it’s going to need to learn colors! Everything! We’re going to have to teach it everything. I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to be a father. Hell, I didn’t know how to be a child!

My breathing starts to come in panicked pants. What the fuck am I going to do? This isn’t just my child, this is Ana’s child and I can’t…

Suddenly, my train of thought stops. Ana’s child. I am the father of Anastasia’s child. No matter what happens, she’s tied to me because we are going to share a son or daughter. We’re going to be a family, not just by marriage, but by blood. This one uniting factor that cannot be undone or taken away.

She can’t leave.

“You’re pregnant,” I repeat, looking up at her, and she nods nervously.

“I’m pregnant.” The moment the words pass her lips I leap to my feet, take her in my arms, and kiss her hard. What I feared was going to be devastating has actually turned out to be miraculous. She’s mine, irrevocably. I’m not ever going to lose her. When I pull away from the kiss, I’m beaming.

“You’re not mad?” she asks, a single tear rolling from the corner of eye, down her cheek.

“Mad? No. Anastasia, we’re having a baby. You and I… We’re going to be a real family. Forever. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. How could I possibly be mad?” Forever. The word is really true now, and when I say it outloud, a wide smile stretches across her face.

“You said you wanted to wait. You said you weren’t sure you even wanted kids.”

“You know me,” I say, my happiness radiating down over her. “I never know what I want until it hits me right in the face, or at least runs into me in a dormitory at Harvard University.”

She laughs at my joke, and then shakes her head, trying to reign in her smile so she can speak. “So, you’re happy? Really? You’re not just in shock?”

“Oh, I’m definitely in shock. And I’m probably going to be in shock until I hold our baby in my arms, but I promise you, I am more than just happy right now. I love you so much, Anastasia.”

I can’t hold back the joy bursting out of me, so I pull her into me and claim her mouth with mine once more. She accepts my tongue as I push it past her lips and then tangles her fingers through my hair, tugging lightly at my roots in the way she knows drives me crazy.

This perfect woman, who I feel I’ve spent an eternity chasing and fighting to hold onto, is now, and forever will be, mine. Now that she’s pregnant, there’s no reason to wait for us to marry any longer. I don’t have her ring with me, but we don’t need it to get married. It’s only Tuesday, so we can go to the courthouse first thing in the morning, sign the necessary documents, and when I give her the ring I designed specifically for her, I’ll be giving it to Mrs. Grey. My wife. She’s going to be my wife and she’s happy about it. I can feel the elation in her kiss. We’re going to be a family, and she’s absolutely jubilant. That’s the sweetest part of all of this. She wants me just the way I want her. Forever.

I step back and stare back at her in near disbelief over how perfectly tonight has turned out. “Well, let’s get you packed. We’ll take whatever you’re going to need for the next few days and then Sawyer can bring the rest. I’ll find someone to marry us first thing tomorrow and then we’re going to find you the best Obstetrician in Seattle.”

Her smile falls as her face crinkles with confusion. “Wait… Seattle? What do you mean?”

“You need a doctor, Anastasia. A good one. I only want the best for you and for our baby. But don’t worry, my mother knows everyone. She’ll make sure we have the best.”

“Yeah, but I’m not going home, Christian. I’m not dropping out of school.”

What is this? “But… you’re pregnant.”

“It’s not a disability. I have six more months until I graduate and the baby isn’t due for seven. I’ll have to find an OB in Cambridge, or Boston maybe. I’m not leaving Harvard.”

“What do you mean you’re not leaving Harvard?” I demand, my anger flaring again. “Of course you are. I’m not leaving you across the country while you’re pregnant.”

“That’s not up to you.” I open my mouth to argue, but she cuts me off with a sudden look of realization. “Wait, is this why you’re happy? Because you think I’m going to move home?”

“Of course not.” My tone is dismissive, but she sees through my easy lie. “Okay, fine. Yes, a little. You’re having a baby. That’s wonderful and I’m happy, but I also want you home. What’s wrong with that?”

“What’s wrong with that is that you don’t care what I want at all. Why can’t you understand what Harvard means to me, Christian? I worked hard to get here I’ve worked hard to stay here, and I made a promise to my dad and to myself that I would graduate. I’m not going to give up my dream of graduating from Harvard six months before I achieve it. Not for anything.”

I narrow my eyes at her. “Don’t say that I haven’t supported you finishing your education. I didn’t try and stop you when you said you wanted to come back here. When you said you wouldn’t stay, I accepted it. I don’t want to take this away from you, but this pregnancy isn’t just about you, Anastasia. That’s my baby, too.” And I need you both close to me far more than you logistically need your degree.

“I never said it wasn’t,” she argues.

“Well, if you stay here, I’m going to miss everything. Doctors appointments, lamaze classes, the first time it kicks… what if you go into labor and I’m 3,000 miles away?”

“First of all, if I go into labor and I’m still in Boston, we have bigger problems than you being in Seattle because it will mean I’ve gone into labor more than a month early. And, I know that this isn’t ideal and the timing of this sucks, but I’m not going to throw away my dream so that you can go to lamaze classes.”

“So I just don’t get a say in that?”

“Do you really think you’d be there anyway?”

The ember of anger burning inside of me suddenly roars to life. “I got on a plane at a moment’s notice and flew across the country for you today, Anastasia. Are you really questioning my commitment to you right now?”

“No, but you thought I had cancer. Not every doctor’s appointment is exciting or life changing, Christian. Most of the next few months, I’m just going to go in there to get a regular check up. Can you honestly tell me that you would cancel a lunch with a client, or your operations meeting, or a business trip so you could hear a doctor tell you nothing has changed or so that you could go practice breathing exercises with me?”

“No, you would run all of your appointments through Andrea first so we can align your appointments and classes around my schedule.” The words come out of my mouth before I can call them back, and as I hear them fall flat in the charged space between us, I can’t help but cringe. “That came out wrong…”

“I don’t think it did,” she says through clenched teeth. “Our lives can’t be all about you and GEH, Christian. I’m not giving up my dreams and everything that I’ve worked for to structure my life around what is convenient for you. I’m sorry that you may miss things, that kills me, but I’m not leaving.”

“Well I don’t agree with that.”

“Tough.”

I glare down at her but she stares back into my eyes with petulant defiance. I’ve never wanted to put her over my knee more than I do in this moment but this is not my first rowe with Anastasia. I’m not going to win this fight by shouting at her or dishing out punishments. She can be logical, I just need to find a way to make her see reason.

“Don’t act like I’m not home three days a week,” she says, cutting me off before I can speak. “Or that I’m not going to be home for over a full week later this month, more than four weeks between December and January, and another week in March. I will make sure that you get to experience this pregnancy with me as much as possible, but I’m not going to drop out of school with six months left just so you have the choice to go with me for a checkup at the doctor’s office if it’s convenient for you.”

What the hell am I supposed to say to that? That three days a week in Seattle still means four days a week in Cambridge? That I don’t care about her Thanksgiving or Christmas or Spring breaks because no matter how much we both want them to be, they’re never enough? That the distance is so much harder than I anticipated it would be and with how difficult it’s been up until now I know it’s going to be impossible now that I know she’s carrying our child? I turn and move to the couch, letting my head fall into my hands as I summon the strength to follow Flynn’s advice. Try seeing things her way.

She didn’t ask for this anymore than I did. She took the proper precautions to ensure this didn’t happen to the best of her abilities, I didn’t. She’s the one who is at risk of losing something here, whereas I’m only looking to gain, and that’s not right. As much as it kills me everytime I come home to our empty apartment, when I see the blank space in my closet where her clothes used to hang, when I stare at her vacant pillow at night, all of those things are temporary. A brief blip in time that will be over for good in May. If she leaves Harvard now, she’ll never get to come back, especially once the baby is here. This is it, her last shot at her dream, and if I take it away from her, force her to give it up, I will be going against every promise I’ve made to her. I’ve always said I wanted to give her the world. Right now, it looks like that means my world. Or, at least, the very best parts of it.

I turn a look up at her, defeated. “Fine. Stay.”

She bites down on her lip and then moves onto the couch next to me, lifting my arm and placing it over her shoulder so she can cuddle into my side. “I know this hard. I’m sorry. I wish this would have happened six months from now so that we could do this the way we both want to, but if I’ve learned anything over the past three months it’s that we can make this work. We’re so great now. We’ve learned to communicate and to compromise… we know how to make each other a priority without abandoning everything else in our life. I love you, Christian, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure you don’t miss anything. I promise.”

Surprisingly, her words are comforting, and I think it’s because the part of this that is so wonderful, the part where this child cements my future with Anastasia, hasn’t changed. She’ll still be mine. The mother of my child. We will be a real family. Forever. Even if that forever is delayed until the baby is actually born.

I pull her more tightly into my side and then lean down to plant a soft kiss in her fragrant hair. “Okay. I love you, too.”

“Mmm,” she hums in return. “You know, the doctor told me today that my due date is on June 18th. Our baby could be born on your birthday.”

I smile. “I couldn’t think of a better gift. Do you have a picture or something I can see?”

“Oh, yeah.” Pushing out of my arms, she scrambles off the sofa and disappears into the kitchen, returning several seconds later with an envelope in her hands. I take the picture she pulls out and stare at the black and gray static displayed there, focusing on the small white blob in the center.

“Right there?”

“Mhm.” She nods and I reach down to brush my fingertip over the bright spot. It doesn’t look like anything. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I’d think it was just a disturbance in the photo. A flaw. But it isn’t. It’s a child, my child, and while I stare at it, my previous doubts and nerves begin to take hold of me again.

“We’re having a baby.”

Ana laughs softly at my side. “Yes, we are.”

“You know… I just proposed to you and you haven’t said anything yet.”

She narrows her eyes again. “That’s funny, I never heard a question.”

I blink and run through the conversation in my mind again. She’s right, technically. I told her we’d find someone to marry us, but I never actually said the words, will you marry me? She wants a proposal. How I’m supposed to do that without a ring, I’m not sure, but after tonight, and the things I’ve given up amidst this debacle, this is the thing that will make it alright.

After placing the picture of our child on the table, I reach out to take both of her hands in mine, and then stare deeply into her eyes. “Anastasia–”

“No!” she practically shouts, yanking her hands out of mine. My eyes widen with horror. “No, no, no. Not like this.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t want you to propose to me just because I got pregnant. What about all the other stuff you said before about not wanting us to be apart for our entire engagement and asking my father?”

It’s not me who wants us to be apart right now at all. “I think it’s a little late to ask your father, don’t you?” I ask instead, shifting a pointed look down to her stomach. She shakes her head.

“No, I don’t. We might be going out of order, but I don’t want us to go into marriage feeling like there’s a shotgun coming up the aisle after us. I want you to propose to me only because you love me and you want to spend the rest of your life with me, not because I got knocked up. I want us to be ready and with me living here and you living there and all of the stress that this pregnancy is going to add to our situation, I don’t feel ready. Especially if even your proposal comes as an afterthought to the baby.”

I feel the last of my elation deflate. She really doesn’t understand what she means to me. How the idea of marrying her was never an afterthought, but always my end game. But I suppose, even in my own fantasies, this isn’t how I proposed to her. I’ve always wanted it to be big. Something she would never forget and that would make her eyes well with tears when I finally pulled out the ring I so desperately want to give to her. I’m asking her to marry me, not negotiating an acquisition.

“You want romance.”  

“Yes.”

I take a breath and nod, silently chastising myself for ruining this moment for both of us. “I do love you, Anastasia. More than anything. I do want to spend the rest of my life with you, but you’re right. You deserve the perfect proposal. I don’t even have your ring on me. So I’ll wait for the right moment.”

“Thank you,” she says, and the tension melts away from her lips before she leans forward and kisses me again. The warmth of her kiss washes away the harsh sting of rejection, but as I bask in the feel of her body pressed against mine, the adrenaline of the unknown and the excitement of this news begins to wear off and I suddenly feel tired. But on the bright side, this unexpected pregnancy has bought me an extra night with her in my arms.

“It’s late,” I tell her. “We should go to bed. Your body needs all the rest it can get.”

“Okay.”

She yawns as I get to my feet and reach out for her hand to lead her up the stairs to her bedroom. My thumb caresses hers as we walk. Somehow, it feels much more secure there now than it ever has before and even when she pulls away so she can undress and get ready for bed, the warmth of her hand still lingers in my palm. Everything feels much more permanent now, and it’s serene. When she returns and snuggles into my embrace in her bed, I feel content. Happy. Home.

My hand slides down to her stomach, and although I know it’s just my imagination, I believe for a moment that I can feel our child’s heartbeat through her skin.

The best of her.

The best of me.

Our love made tangible.

As her breathing slows and I hear her drift off into peaceful sleep, I bury my face in her hair and take in her warm, comforting scent. I didn’t think it was possible, but somehow, tonight, I’ve fallen even more in love with her.

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