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