Chapter 04

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It’s slightly unnerving how little Dr. Flynn’s office has changed in the last two years. The books on his bookshelf are in the exact same order as they were the last time I had regular session with him, and the same faces look down on me from the picture frames on the walls. Even the decorative design on the kleenex box sitting on the coffee table between us is the same. It makes me feel like I’m right back where I was that summer before my senior year, talking about Elena Lincoln over and over and over again, and I don’t like it. Not even because I hate thinking about the way things were between Christian and I back then and how hard it was going through that time in our lives, but because, now, I’d give anything for that to be the reason I was sitting on this couch again. The reason I’m back, the reason Flynn is currently sitting across from me and staring at me with that patient, understanding look, is a hundred times more difficult to deal with than something as innocuous as Christian running a salon with a woman I despise.

Of course, Christian is late to our session. Again. He has been every Wednesday for the past three weeks and I’m starting to get suspicious that it’s not actually GEH that’s been keeping him. He’s been asking me to go to therapy for myself for months to no avail, so now he’s trying to force me into it. But I won’t let him. This session is for Christian. I’m here for Christian.

While Flynn sits across from me, waiting for me to start, I scroll through my email on my phone and do some online shopping for Calliope. I’m just submitting payment for the world’s smallest, most adorable Harvard sweatshirt when Flynn finally shifts in his chair and clears his throat to get my attention.

“You know, Ana, my time has already started.”

“I know, Christian is just caught up at work. I’m sorry.”

“You’re here. You and I could talk.” His tone is encouraging but careful, the way Christian’s is whenever he tries to bring up what happened or once again implores me to attend my weekly scheduled sessions in this office. It instantly has me on guard.

“What, are you two collaborating now?”

“Is that how you feel? That the people in your life are working against your best interests?”

I raise an eyebrow and cross my arms over my chest, sinking back into the couch and staring back at him defiantly. “No.”

“Christian tells me you’ve had some difficulty talking about what happened. He thinks that you’re struggling more than you’re willing to admit, but everytime he suggests you seek help you shut down.”

“I don’t shut down, I just don’t need therapy. I’m fine.”

“I don’t think your husband agrees with you.”

“That’s because my husband has a pathological need to fix things and he’s been looking at me for months like I’m this broken thing that just needs to be put back together. But I’m not. I’m fine. He only wants me here because he’s been in therapy since he was four years old, so it’s his knee jerk reaction for every problem.”

“I don’t think that’s true. I believe it was you who pushed him to come see me in the beginning. In fact, in our early sessions, he made it clear to me that the only reason he sat in that chair was because you made it an ultimatum for your relationship. Clearly, you thought it was helpful then, so what makes it different now?”  

“Because we’re not talking about Christian, we’re talking about me. Therapy is only helpful to people who need it. I’m not one of those people.”

He nods. “Okay, tell me about that. Why do you think it was good for Christian and not for you?”

“Because Christian had a relationship with a woman who molested him and abused him for years and didn’t see anything wrong with it. He needed therapy to understand what she really did to him. I have no illusions about what Andrew Lincoln was. He was a sick, sadistic man who let a grudge he held against a nineteen year old drive him to murder. He was insane, and violent, and the world is a better place now that he’s gone. But he’s gone and I have come to terms with that. I don’t want to talk about him. I don’t want to think about him. I just need some time to feel what I need to feel about what happened to me and to my family without everyone around me trying to decide what is best for me and treating me like a china doll they all watched shatter across the floor and now are desperately trying to glue back together again.”

The longer I speak the more the emotions I spend all my time trying to suppress begin to bubble out of me, and the power-high I’ve been riding all afternoon vanishes the instant I let myself say Andrew Lincoln’s name aloud. My voice is higher than normal, my muscles are tight, and there’s a dry ache building the back of my throat that I know means I’m about to cry. I break eye contact with Flynn, take a deep breath to gain control of myself, and prepare what I’m going to say when he starts to argue with me. But he doesn’t. He nods.

“Okay.”

I look up, my brow furrowed in confusion. “What?”

“Okay. If you think you’re coping well on your own, I’m not in a position to tell you otherwise. Given what you’ve been through, I think time is a perfectly reasonable thing to ask of those you love. We don’t have to talk about Andrew Lincoln if you don’t want to.”

“Oh.” I let out a long, relieved breath. “Thank you. You’re the only person who’s said that to me.”

“You’re welcome, Anastasia. How’s your writing going?”

“My writing?”

He smiles. “I read your book. I thought it was fantastic. Isaiah’s journey to find hope after such a dark time was heartbreaking, and beautiful. I saw a lot of you in him, Anastasia, and a lot of what you shared with me here, in this very office. I think you worked through your feelings and your pain in a very meaningful and productive way. In fact, I can see now why it drove Christian’s realization so effectively. I hope it’s something you’re continuing. Have you started something new?”

“Yeah.” I nod.

“What’s it about?”

“It’s um… It’s a love story. I started it last summer, because I felt like I had spent so much time writing about the bad parts of my relationship with Christian that I wanted to change and write about everything that’s so wonderful. It was a good distraction over the last few months, focusing on the things I’m grateful for rather than the things I’m not.”

“Was? Is it finished?”

I press my lips together in hesitation. “Yes. And… no. I mean, I’m at the end but something about it feels wrong. I’ve read through it three times since I finished, trying to figure out what it is, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. I don’t know. But the story is about Christian, the way he loves me, and the way I love him, so I need it to be perfect. It’s not done until it’s perfect.”

“That seems like a tall order.”

“It is, but it’s my job.” I take a deep breath and shake my head. “I’ll figure it out. I just need… I don’t know.”

“Well, you used to work in publishing. If you weren’t writing this story, if you were a fiction editor, say, and one of your authors came to you with this problem, what advice would you give them?”

I stop and think about that. It’s not an angle I’ve considered before, but, surprisingly, it works.

“Distance helps,” I tell him.

He raises an eyebrow at me. “What do you mean?”

“Sometimes, when your stuck in the weeds like this, it helps to put the project away for a while. To find something else to work on, clear your head, and return with brand new perspective. Distance.”

“Okay, so how can you accomplish that? Do you have any other projects you could focus on for a while?”

“No, I’ve…” I stop, because a new thought stops me. I don’t have another project I can work on now, and I don’t want to step away from my novel for something unproductive or that isn’t meaningful enough to deserve my time. But if the idea is to completely occupy myself so that I can return to my writing with new, fresh perspective, there’s a new possibility that I didn’t give any credence before. Now, though…

“I got a job offer this afternoon,” I say.

“Oh?” Flynn looks intrigued, so I nod and sit up for the first time since I entered this session.

“Yeah. There’s a publishing house in Seattle that needs an overhaul. Their sales are dropping, they’re not signing as many new authors… I’ve been there before, with SIP. I know how to help them, I have the experience, and I have a unique perspective of both sides of the industry that would be difficult to find in another candidate.”

“That’s true,” Flynn agrees. “So, they reached out to you?”

“I had a conversation with the president of their New York office today before lunch, and he said they’d be very interested in interviewing me. He kind of implied that, if I wanted it, the job was mine.”

“Sounds like a perfect fit then.”

“But they’re competitors with Grey Publishing,” I argue. “Taking this job would mean that I’d be working against the best interest of my husband’s company.”

“Ah, that does complicate things.”

“Yeah. I couldn’t–”

“Am I interrupting?” Flynn and I both turn and see Christian poking his head through the door of the office. There’s a mixture of nerves and hope muddled together in his eyes as he glances between Flynn and I.

I smile. “No, not at all. Come in.”

He steps into Flynn’s office, closes the door behind him, and joins me on the couch. His hand wraps around mine and quickly raises my fingers so he can press his lips into each and every one of them. Once he’s finished, he pulls our conjoined hands into his lap and turns to face our therapist.

“What are we talking about?”

“My book,” I say quickly, before Flynn can speak. “He read Escape, and he was telling me what he thought.”

“Your book?” Christian repeats, a hint of disapproval beneath his flat tone. He looks back and forth between us before eventually dropping my hand from his and pinching the bridge of his nose in frustration. “I don’t understand why you’re fighting me on this, Ana.”

“I’m not fighting you on anything.”

“Yes! You are.”

“No, I’m not. Christian, I’m fi–”

“I swear to god, Ana. If you tell me you’re fine one more time.”

“But I am!”

“No, you’re not. Fine isn’t waking up screaming almost every night and fighting me off of you like you think I’m going to hurt you.”

“That’s…” I hesitate, at a loss for words. “I can’t control that, Christian. Don’t you think I want to?”

“But that’s what I’m telling you, Ana. You can’t control it because you’re not dealing with it. I know. This used to happen to me all the time and it didn’t stop until I admitted I needed help and worked through the problem.”

“This is different. We’re different, Christian.”

He shakes his head. “I wish I could show you how wrong you are about that, Ana.”

“Well, this might be an opportunity,” Flynn interrupts. “In my experience working with patients suffering from PTSD–”

“I don’t have PTSD,” I correct him, but he gives me the same doubtful look someone would give a child who was caught doing something wrong and tried to deny it anyway. It breaks my confidence a little, and, as I start to fidget uncomfortably, he continues.

“Like I said, in my experience working with patients suffering from PTSD, I’ve observed a pattern of isolation. Feeling stuck and obsessing internally over something that happened in the past can make a person feel alien, like there’s a separation between them and everyone around them that they just can’t get past and they’re living in a different world than everyone else. It’s why support groups are so useful. It helps with the isolation to know that someone can truly empathize with you. Christian, perhaps if you share your experience, it might make Ana more comfortable sharing hers.”

He stares back at Flynn, unblinking. “She knows my past.”

“She knows what happened, but she might not know your experience. You say that you see similarities between what she’s going through and what you’ve gone through in the past, take this opportunity to explain what you mean.”

He still doesn’t immediately say anything. Instead, he sits back in his chair and stares irritably at Flynn, chewing on the side of his index finger. Eventually though, he sits up again, takes a deep breath, and looks at me.

“It’s the dreams.”

I swallow the lump that grows in my throat when I see the pain in his eyes and reach out for his hand, but he moves it away. The rejection stings, but I don’t think it was really purposeful. He looks down at our hands for a long moment, blinks, then wraps his hand around mine and shifts his gaze back up to my eyes.

“I just want to help you, baby.”

“I know, and I appreciate that. But I don’t need you to save me, Christian. I’m fine, really.”

He shakes his head. “Alright. If it’ll make you see reason…” He pauses, looking as though he’s having trouble summoning the right words, then takes a deep breath and continues. “I don’t remember a lot about my life before Grace and Carrick. I don’t remember what my biological mother looked like or what she did with me if she was ever sober enough to pay attention to me. I don’t even know that times like that existed. But some things I remember perfectly because for years, I saw them every night in my dreams.”

“Your mother?” I check. He shakes his head.

“The scars on my chest… I remember how I got each and every one of them. I remember the first time so vividly that sometimes I can still smell the burning flesh under his cigarette. I remember his voice and the sound of his boots as he stomped around the house trying to find me. I can still feel the crack of his belt as he beat me over the side of my mother’s filthy couch. But she’s not there in any of the dreams. She’s not trying to protect me, she’s not trying to stop him…”

He’s not looking at me anymore. He’s staring off into space and I wonder if that’s because he sees it now just as clearly as he did in his dreams. Or as clearly as I can still see the slow creep of blood as it pooled around Gia’s lifeless body. That’s a common theme in my own nightmares, no one coming to save me. I can scream for Christian, I can beg for Luke to find me, but no one ever comes. When I picture Christian as a small child, dangling over the arm of a sofa while being held down with one strong hand and beat with the other, it’s only too easy for the faceless man he describes to morph into Lincoln. And then I’m there too.

“Most of the time,” Christian continues, “I’m at home alone, hungry and scared because it’s dark and I don’t know when my mother will get home. There was a place in the back of my closet I used hide. I liked it because I could see my bedroom door through the crack between the closet door and the wall, but there was enough junk in the closet to hide me from plain sight if anyone came in. It felt safe, comfortable, even though I was hungry. So hungry. Until I could hear the front door open, and, instead of hearing my mother fumbling around trying to get to her room, I heard his boots.”

“It’s okay, Christian,” I say, trying to stop him. The fear in his voice resonates with my own and makes my chest feel tight. I grip his hands tighter and shake my head. “It’s okay, I understand. It’s the same.”

He looks back over at me, and reaches up to brush his thumb across my lower lip to stop it from trembling.

“I’m a grown man,” he continues, “and that sound still terrifies me. It didn’t matter if it was getting closer or farther away, it terrified me. Because I knew, no matter what, he would find me eventually. He always found me, and when he did, he always hurt me. He liked it. I have seen the pleasure he took in my pain and in my fear reflected in his eyes a thousand times. The burn made me scream, and that was satisfying to him, but the belt… The belt he could draw out, savor each and every lash until I bled. I was four. There was no way I could get away from him or the belt, and when I tried he hit me harder. He liked it when I tried.”

A hot jolt of pain and disgust flashes through me like a bolt of lightning and, suddenly, I can smell Linc’s cologne on me again. Christian is sitting close enough to me that I can feel the heat of his breath wash over me when it speaks and it makes the thoughts of Lincoln pinning me to the floor and telling me all the vile things he planned to do to my body feel close, and too real. I couldn’t fight him either. He was so much stronger than me that even as I pushed and kicked to get away, he held me down beneath him as easily as if I laid perfectly still.

I can’t take it. My breath feels like it freezes inside my lungs and I start to shake.

“Stop,” I beg him. “Stop.”

He doesn’t. “I could feel it in my dreams, the pain of every lash. But that was never enough to wake me. Especially when I got older. What woke me every time was the feel of his hands on me…”

“Stop!” I jump to my feet and back away from the couch, holding my hands out in front of me protectively. “Stop, okay? I’m done. I want to go home.”

“Ana, this is what I’m trying to tell you,” Christian argues. “It doesn’t go away on its own. You have to deal with this or it’s just going to get worse. Believe me, I’ve lived through this.”

“I want to go home,” I say again.

“No. I’m not letting you run from this anymore.”

“Christian!”

“Alright, alright,” Flynn finally intervenes. “We’ve moved past productive space. Everyone take a breath and lets get back on track here.”

“No. I’m done. I want to go home.”

“Ana, I’m sorry…”  

“I want. To go. Home!” I snap, then turn and storm out of Flynn’s office. They both call out for me to come back, but I don’t. I push through the door into the lobby, find a chair, and sit there, shaking and trying not to cry, until Christian finally comes after me.

“I’m sorry, Ana,” he says, looking down at me with regret.

I shake my head. “No, you’re not.”

“Yeah, you’re right. I’m not. I meant to scare you. I want to break down your walls and make you open up to me.”

“Great.”

“Ana, I just… I know how hard this is and I know that what your doing now isn’t going to make it any easier. It only gets harder and I don’t want you to go through what I did. Please, baby…”

I meet his eyes with mine and I can feel him silently imploring me as we stare at one another. It’s difficult, because I know he’s in pain too, but I’m not strong enough to do what he’s asking of me. I used to be. Before, there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do to stop Christian from looking the way he does right now. But I can’t anymore. That part of me is gone, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to get it back.

“I’m sorry that this is hard for you,” I whisper with shame. “But I want to go home.”

Christian takes a deep breath and his lips press together in a thin, angry line. “Fine. Let’s go then.”

He doesn’t say anything more as we walk to the car. He holds my hand and opens the door for me, but he doesn’t speak. When Taylor pulls out of the downtown parking garage, he pulls out his phone and immediately goes into his email.

I chew on the inside of my cheek, wondering if it’s better to try and work through the anger and resentment brewing between us now, in front of our security, or spend an evening playing nice and trying to act like everything is normal in front of our daughter and then get into a blowout right before bed. Neither sounds ideal.

“Mia’s birthday is this weekend,” he says, interrupting my silent struggle, but still not looking up at me.

“Yeah,” I reply. “Has your mom told you what we’re doing?”

“Well, we we’re going to do something big since she’s turning eighteen and we really haven’t done anything to celebrate her getting into Harvard, but Mia has asked for something small. A dinner with just the family.”

“Oh, okay.”

“I was thinking we could do it at our house. Mom and Dad are pretty much full time at the apartment downtown now, so we have the most space.”

“Our house? I don’t know… I have a thing this weekend.”

“A thing?”

“A writer’s summit. I’m doing a signing Saturday afternoon. I won’t be able to cook dinner.”

“That’s fine. Just decide what you want to do and I’ll take care of it.” His tone is still curt, and it makes every word he speaks feel like a chastisement.

“Okay. Mia likes Italian, right?” He nods, his eyes still focused on his phone. “Lasagna, then. Or maybe a soup? It’s been a little cold this past week.”

He doesn’t even react that time, much less suggest something else. His fingers move over the keyboard of his phone, and his eyes never leave the screen.

“I guess, we’ll need to find a gift, too,” I continue, trying to force him to at least look at me. “Something special since she’s eighteen.” I wait for a response, but, again, nothing. I bite my lip and start twisting my fingers together uncomfortably in my lap. “My dad bought me like a hundred dollars worth of lottery tickets when I turned eighteen and, I didn’t win anything, but it was fun. What do you think?”

“I think she’s going to have access to an $8 million trust fund in four years. Lottery tickets seem frivolous.”

“Well, everything’s frivolous when you have money. It’s not like there’s a single thing the world she actually needs. She purposely buys your dad the ugliest tie she can find for Father’s Day every year. That’s frivolous.”

“Fine. Get her lottery tickets, then. Whatever you want, it’s fine.”

“She’s your sister, you know her better.”

“Then I’ll take care of it.”

“Christian…”

“Hang on.” He lifts his phone to his ear and waits half a second before he launches into a long exposition of business speak with Ros. I wait a few minutes for him to finish, but it becomes clear very quickly that his conversation isn’t going to be brief. My heart sinks and I start to feel uncomfortable in a way that I really haven’t before. I know Christian is angry about me refusing therapy yet again, but normally when he’s angry he yells. Yelling I can deal with. This is worse. Much worse.

I turn and stare out the rain splattered window, thinking about the session we just went through. I can remember, from the first time we had counseling together, that Christian didn’t like the place it always left us in immediately afterwards, because I always left hurt and angry. Was this what it felt like for him? Did he feel like everything he was sure of before was suddenly slipping through his fingers? Or do I only feel this way because of the things I just listened to him say?

Because he was right when he said he understood. The fear he described feeling because of his nightmares is exactly how I feel when I’m trapped in mine. And the confusion between the dream and reality right when you wake up… Except that actually might be worse for him. When I wake up, when I’m first able to hold onto something real, the fear from my dreams vanishes as quickly as it came. I know that Andrew Lincoln is dead. I know that the terror he puts me through in unconsciousness will stay there and never come for me again. Christian doesn’t have that luxury. The man who tortured him is still out there, somewhere, and the only thing Christian has to protect himself from him is anonymity.

Christian Grey and anonymity.

It sounds like an oxymoron.

I wonder if he’s still afraid.

His words swirl through my head the rest of the drive home, becoming more and more real and threatening on every repetition. I can picture everything he said so clearly I can almost hear the stomp of the man’s boots on the floor, or smell the faint scent of whiskey and cigarettes wafting off of him. It makes me nauseous to think about Christian as a defenseless child being burned with the bright red cherry of a cigarette. It’s bad enough that, by the time we get home, I have to excuse myself for the restroom while he goes to relieve Kensie and get Calliope dinner.

I lock the door behind me when I step into the downstairs bathroom, then turn to stare at my reflection in the mirror. I look pale, clammy even, but I don’t throw up like I thought I would. Instead, I start to shake and tears pool in my eyes. My knees give out, I sink down onto the cool, tile floor, and I begin to cry.  There’s an image of Christian as child, huddled beneath his bed, praying to God that no one finds him, stuck in my mind. But as I try to shake it away, it changes and my whole body tenses as a gunshot rings in my ears and the memory of the man that I love staggering backwards and collapsing to the floor plays so clearly it’s like I’m watching it happen right in front of me all over again.

“No,” I whimper, reaching for my phone. “No, no, no.”

My fingers shake as I dial Luke’s number and I try the best I can to blink away the tears while I listen to my phone ring.

“Hey, how was therapy?” he answers.

“Luke…”

“Ana? Are you okay? What’s wrong?” His voice is urgent, scared, which makes him difficult to answer.

“Luke, I need to-to kno-w…”

“Ana, what happened? Are you hurt?”

“No, I’m fi-ine.” I take a breath to try and steady my voice. “I’m fine. Please tell me that you have contacts in Detroit.”

“Detroit? No, I don’t think so…”

I swallow again. “Correct that.”

“What? Ana, what’s wrong?”

“After Cambridge, our next target will be in Detroit. I need you to make contacts in Detroit so we can make that happen.”

“Why?”

“Can you do that, Luke? Or do I need to figure something else out?”

“No, I can do it. Of course I can do it. But… Ana, what’s going on?”

His reassurances calm me down enough that I can breathe without sobbing, and after a few, calming breaths, I can speak regularly. “Nothing. Just another name to add to the list.”

“Um, okay…”

“I’ve got to go, Luke. Let me know when you’re ready.”

“Ana-”

I hang up and let my head fall back against the door. I can’t go join my husband until I know I’m fully in control of myself again, so I wait. With my eyes closed, I sit there and let myself relax, just to see if the images of the beautiful copper haired little boy who looks like my husband will return. Thankfully, they don’t. Having a plan of action seems to have effectively soothed the fear of this threat just like our plan this afternoon soothed so many others. I get off the floor, wash the evidence of my tears from my face, and take a deep breath before opening the door and searching through the house for Christian and Calliope.

“Hey,” he says, looking up with concern when I enter the dining room. “You okay?”

“Yeah, of course I am. I just wanted to wash my makeup off.” I smile broadly and hold my hands out for my daughter. “Hey, munchkin! How was your day?”

“Dada,” she says, reaching out for me with her tiny fingers.

“No, baby,” Christian corrects her. “That’s Mama. Can you say mama?”

“Dada!” she repeats, more instantly this time. Christian looks up at me with regret, but I shake my head and pull Callie into me.

“It’s fine. Yes, Dada. Dada’s home, huh? Yeah.” She giggles as I kiss her all over her face, then lower her back down into her high chair. Christian, or possibly Gail, has already prepared her dinner so once I set her down. Christian scoops up another mouth full of mashed peas and swirls it around her mouth before she finally takes a bite.

“There’s salad in there,” he tells me. I turn to look at the kitchen and nod.

“Sounds great. Can I get you some too?”

“Yes, thank you.” He grins as Calliope leans forward in her chair, arms and fingers stretched out as far as they can go, and makes a series of small cackling sounds through her mouth full of peas. I laugh, feeling the last of the anxiety I was holding in my body melt away at the sounds my funny little girl makes, then turn to the kitchen to get dinner for myself and Christian.

His mood seems to improve as we eat. He laughs with Callie as he feeds her and when he looks over at me, I can see happiness glimmering in his eyes. He goes with me to give her a bath once dinner is finished and while I wash her, he takes everything she hands him (toys, bottles, handfuls of bubbles) and thanks her for each and every one of them. Once she’s washed, he wraps her in a towel and carries her off to the nursery while I clean the mess we’ve left behind. A few minutes later, I find her dressed and curled up in his arms in the rocking chair by the crib while he reads her favorite bedtime story out loud.

“Ung, Dada!”

“Yeah,” he says brightly, pointing at the page open in front of them. “That’s a bunny. Do you know what bunnies do?” She looks up at him with wide eyes and he scrunches his nose up several times until the tip of his nose is pressed into hers. She reaches up and grabs his cheeks with her fingers, then tries to contort her face the way her dad does. It’s adorable.

I laugh and Christian looks up at me standing in the doorway. The smile he gives me then is genuine and loving, and I can’t help but smile back. Closing the book, he sweeps Calliope up into his arms and lays her gently in her crib.

“I love you, baby girl,” he tells her as he winds up the mobile over her bed. I pick up the baby monitor, hook it on the rail by her head, and kiss both of her chubby, pink cheeks.

“I love you too.”

She yawns and blinks several times, so Christian and I both back slowly away from the crib, waiting for her to start crying. But she doesn’t. We turn out the light and ease the door almost closed without her putting up a fuss.

“I think we’ve done it,” I whisper to Christian. “I think we’ve officially gotten her to be okay with bedtime.”

“I think you’re right, Mrs. Grey.”

With a smile, I lean up on my toes and kiss him. His lips play softly against mine for a moment, but all too soon he pulls away and brushes my cheek with his thumb.

“I’ve got some things I need to take care of. I’ll be in my office if you need me.”

“Oh,” I reply, taken aback. “I-uh… okay.”

He kisses me softly one more time, then squeezes my hand and turns down the hall in the direction of his office. I stand there watching him go, feeling dumbfounded. I thought maybe he’d worked through his feelings from therapy on his own, but apparently not. Normally, I’d let him stew on his own for a while before I tried to talk to him, but I don’t like the way this feels between us right now. It’s different, standoffish, and it makes my scalp prickle. So, instead of leaving him be, I quickly come up with a contingency plan, then turn and make my way to our bedroom. There’s a new nighty in my lingerie drawer that I bought last week, and after freshening up in the bathroom for a moment, I slip into the smooth silk and lace, cover myself in a loose bathrobe, and head to his office.

He’s sitting at his desk on his laptop when I slip inside, and he doesn’t look up at me as I approach.

“What if you didn’t work tonight?”

“Can’t. Busy.”

“I thought we should talk…”

“Oh, now you want to talk?”

“Christian–”

“Look, Ana, I get it, okay? This isn’t easy for you to talk about and that’s fine. I know that you’re still scared, but that’s never going to change if you don’t face it. It’s going to get worse. Believe me, I’ve been through it. I know.”

I shake my head. “It’s not the same.”

“It is though.” He pulls my hand so that I move to stand between his knees and looks up at me, his gaze imploring. “It kills me to see you like this, baby. It kills me to see how it’s changed you. You’re not as open with me as you used to be, you’re not as warm or trusting. I love you so much, Anastasia, and every time I look into your eyes and see the walls that you’ve put up to try and hold yourself together…” He stops, shakes his head, then lifts my hands so he can kiss my fingers again. “Please, baby. Let me help you.”

“You do help me,” I reply, unable to conjure enough force behind my words to keep my voice from trembling. I pull his hands around my waste, then crawl into his lap so that my knees are tucked under each of his elbows. He leans into me, resting his forehead against my sternum, but I take his face in my palms and force him to look up at me.

“I know this has been difficult, and I know that you mean well, but I’m just not ready to talk about it yet. You need to give me some time.”

He shakes his head. “Everyday you get a little colder. A little more closed off. That’s not the girl I fell in love with. I’m afraid that if I give you anymore time I’m going to lose you completely.”

“I’m not going anywhere. I promise. I’m still your Ana. I’m always going to be your Ana. I love you, Christian. More than anything else in the world. And nothing will ever make me feel more whole than your love. No matter how dark it gets, no matter how much I feel like I’m drowning, you’re always there. Your love is like a life preserver. That’s how you help me.”

“It’s not enough.” He tries to look away, but I stop him.

“Just tell me one thing. Would you do anything to protect me?”

“Of course I would.”

Anything? Maybe even something you know you shouldn’t but that you know will make Calliope and me safer.”

“What do you mean?”

I bite my lip, choosing my next words carefully. “If there was a threat and you were worried about me and our daughter, would you do everything in your power to stop it, even if what you were doing was… not necessarily moral?”

He hesitates for a long moment, and then nods. “Yes. I would do whatever was necessary to keep you safe, no matter what it cost me.”

“Would you tell me.”

His mouth pops open, but he doesn’t reply. Almost as if he can’t force the words out because he knows that if he were to promise me he would, it would be a lie. I can see that in the conflict etched across his face, and it helps. It strengthens my resolve.

“It’s okay,” I tell him, then lean down and press my lips into his before he can speak. Not in the same, chaste way I’ve kissed him all night, but in a way filled with meaning and promise. My hands never move from the sides of his face as my tongue invades his mouth, and soon, with me writhing and grinding in his lap, his hands move up and start to pull away the robe tied around me.

“Tell me you love me,” I whisper.

“I love you.”

“Show me.”

“Oh, baby…” he breathes, the desire in his voice clear. I move away from his lips and work my way down his body, leaving a trail of kisses in my wake. He groans as I sink to the floor and pushes back his chair to give me room. I look up and hold his gaze as I start to unravel his belt and undo his fly. The gray looking back at me turns molten as I close my hands around his erection.

“Well look what we have here,” I say coyly, running the flat of my tongue up his entire length. His breath hisses between his teeth and he tilts his pelvis towards me, encouraging me. I gently kiss the tip, then pull away. “I’ll wait for your command, sir.”

He smiles, then tangles his fist in my hair. “Suck my cock.”

“Mmm.” My tongue dashes across my lips and I sit up on my knees and lean into his lap, keeping my lips wet and tight around him as I pull him all the way into the back of my throat. He shudders, and it makes my entire body feel hot and ready. Setting a pace that matches the thrust of his hips, I suck him over and over again. With every pass of my tongue over the tip of his erection, I moan as though tasting the steady bead of precum dripping out of him is like being fed a rare delicacy. His fervor increases with mine until he’s tense, panting, and growling with wild need each and every time he hits the back of my throat.

“That’s it, baby. Almost there.”

I groan with pleasure and tighten my lips around him, but, just as I think he’s about to explode, his phone vibrates loudly on his desk and I freeze.

“Fuck,” he hisses, reaching out to silence the call. I wait until he tosses his phone back on his desk before taking him back in my mouth, but I’ve only just begun when his phone starts buzzing again.

“Hold on, baby.” He picks up the phone, reads the name on the screen, and frowns. “It’s Ros…”

I can tell by the hesitation in his voice that he’s expecting this call, and that it’s important. So I nod and pull back, but he stops me from getting up. I raise an eyebrow at him while his conflicted gaze shifts between me and his phone, but after a second or two, his mouth sets in a firm line of determination.

“Be very quiet,” he warns me, then he guides my mouth back onto his erection and answers the call. “Ros? No, of course not. Did you hear back from Sullivan?”

I smile, feeling a rush of excitement at this new challenge. He thinks he’ll get through a business call with my mouth around his cock? We’ll see about that.

Making as little noise as possible, I set back to work. It doesn’t take long for me to get him right back to where he was just before Ros called, but surprisingly his voice remains smooth and even every time he responds to her. It’s hot. More so than I anticipated. As I massage him with my tongue and push him deep into the tightest parts of my throat, I’m reminded a little of the fantasy I shared with him forever ago. Any second, Ros may notice something is off. She could catch us. And the possibility of that has my blood nearly boiling.

“Right,” Christian croaks, the first sign of strain breaking through is voice. I take that as the best sign I’m going to get that he’s getting close and push myself into him as far as I can go, then swallow him over and over again.

“Hold on a second, Ros,” he says, then pulls the phone as far away as he can reach, tightens his free hand in the roots of my hair, and comes down the back of my throat. My entire body sings with pleasure as I feel his thighs convulse and tremble beneath my hands. When he’s finished I refuse to stop until he pulls me off of him. When he does, his eyes flame down at me with desire, and I bite down on my lip as he puts the phone back to his ear.

“That all sounds great,” he says, with as much control as he can muster. “Send me the details and I’ll look over them in the morning. I’ll have Andrea schedule a meeting for us in the afternoon to discuss. Excellent. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Have a good night, Ros.”

He hangs up, tosses his phone back onto his desk, and then lifts me from the ground. I reach behind me to push his laptop out of the way while he moves me onto the desk in front of him, then lie back to enjoy the feel of his lips as he kisses up my thigh.

“You. Are. So. Fucking. Sexy. Ana,” he says, kissing me between each word.

I prop myself up on my elbows, and smile down at him. “I serve at your pleasure, Master.”

“You’re damn right you do,” he replies, then he dives face first between my legs. I fall back again, arching my back high off the desk and tightening my thighs around the sides of his head. And, as I writhe and pant under the expert way his tongue moves over me, I resolve to myself that I’ll never let Christian see me suffering over what happened again. From this moment on, I will be his Ana.

Only his Ana.

I just have to find a way to make that possible.

Next Chapter

 

Chapter 03

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“Aaana.”

“Aaaaaaaana.”

“Ana!”

 

I gasp and sit bolt upright. It takes a moment for me to slow the desperate pants that rattle me and to silence the cold, haunting voice still ringing inside my head. Months later, I can hear it as clearly as I could through the phone at graduation or whispering into my ear as he trapped me against him with one hand and held Christian at gunpoint with the other.

He’s dead. He’s not coming after us anymore. We’re safe.

Taking a deep, soothing breath, I turn and look at the empty space in the bed next to me, then at the clock on the opposite bedside table. It’s nearly six, so Christian is probably down in the gym, and normally I’d feel a sense of longing for not getting to kiss him the moment I wake up, but his absence means I’ll get away with my nightmare. And anytime I don’t have to face the overly worried look in his eye is a small, but important, victory.

I pull back the covers and climb out of bed, going to the window, the way I do every morning, to take in the view of Lake Washington behind our house. The sun has only just started to peak over the mountains in the east, but the sky is surprisingly clear. The water, which has been dark and turbulent all winter, is now still and takes on the subtle pink hue of the sunrise. It’s beautiful and it gives me something else to think about other than my nightmare. A way to anchor myself to reality. For the past six months, that’s been the key to my survival.

Distraction.

I stand at the window for a while, watching the ripples the light breeze creates in the water until I’m ready to start my day. Despite how early it is, Calliope could wake any minute. Or, possibly, not for a few hours. So, rather than get in the shower and risk missing her cries for me over the baby monitor, I pull Christian’s Harvard t-shirt from my drawer, throw on a pair of leggings and running shoes, and make my way down the gym to join my husband. He’s on the rowing machine this morning, watching the news on the TV over his head, and he’s already dripping with sweat.

That also gives me something else to think about.

“Good morning,” I tell him, stepping on the treadmill and adjusting the settings for my morning run. He turns to look at me, surprised.

“Hey, what are you doing up?”

“Oh just not quite adjusted to the time difference, I guess.”

He pulls the cord on the machine, jettisoning himself backwards with the strength of his arms and legs, then eases himself back, releases the handle, and steps off the machine. I just make it to the pace I’ve set for myself before he reaches across the control panel and hits the kill switch on the treadmill.

“Well, since you’re awake, what do you say we find another way to get a work out in this morning?”

“Cardio is important, Christian.”

“Oh, I’ll give you cardio.” His eyes glisten and I smile, then reach over to grip his jaw with my fingers and pull his lips to mine. His arms twist around me in the next second, and before I know it, he’s sweeping me off my feet and onto the cabinet that holds all his boxing gear. He moans as I wrap my arms around his neck, my legs around his waist, and pull him into me.

“I sure hope you’re planning on being quick,” I tell him. “You’ll be late for work.”

“Fuck work. I’m quitting today.”

I laugh. “Yeah, uh huh.”

He smiles, then buries his face in my neck, kissing and sucking until I moan with want.

“Touch me,” he whispers.

I reach down and slip my hand beneath the elastic of his work out shorts and boxers. He pushes his hips into me when my fingers wrap around him, but I don’t give him the friction he’s silently begging for. Instead, I hold him in my hand, squeezing and releasing him over and over again, kneading him in my palm, waiting for him to beg.

“Ana,” he growls, clearly frustrated.

“What?” I reply with a coy smile.

He thrusts his hips forward once more, but when that doesn’t change my gentle ministration. He pulls away from me, yanks me off the cupboard, and spins me around so that I’m bent over the counter with my wrists secured in one of his hands behind my back.

“You want to draw this out?” he asks. The need in his voice makes his words come out sounding rough, like gravel.

I shiver. “No.”

“Mmm, you’re sure?” With his free hand, he hooks his fingers through the band of my leggings and slowly rolls them down over my behind. I can feel him, hard and ready, pressing into my backside, but as I squirm against him, the baby monitor sitting on the end of the counter suddenly lights up and fills the room with the insistent, piercing cries of my daughter.

I don’t even have to look at him, I can feel his body deflate behind me.

“I’m going to give that girl a very stern talking to.”

I laugh, and once he releases my hands, I stand and pull my leggings back over my hips.

“Don’t. In fact, if you could get out of here without her seeing you, that would really make my morning easier.”

He raises an eyebrow at me. “I don’t even get to say good morning?”

“Every time she watches you leave for work, she has a meltdown. Yesterday it took me over an hour to get her to stop screaming.”

He sighs, but nods. “Alright, just give me twenty minutes.”

“Thank you.” He leans in to kiss me, but doesn’t turn to leave after he pulls away. “Don’t forget we have therapy tonight.”

My shoulders slump. “I know.”

His fingers brush the side of my face tenderly. I know he’s trying to be reassuring, but there’s nothing comforting about the thought of sitting in Flynn’s office and having both he and Christian try to force me to talk about all the things I spend every waking moment trying to forget.

“I love you.”

“Not like I love you,” I tell him. With one last kiss, he finally pulls away, but I call out to stop him just as he gets to the door. “Christian, I’m going to be out this afternoon. So if you call and I don’t answer, that’s why.”

His brow furrows. “Where are you going?”

“I have an errand to run for the foundation in the city.”

“You’re going downtown?” He’s surprised, and he should be. I’ve avoided downtown Seattle as much as possible since last August, and the few times I’ve actually gone were either necessary due to family or therapy. Christian’s been to two GEH events without me since then, and I’ve cancelled lunch with Ros four times.

“It’s important,” I assure him.

“Well, keep your phone on. And make sure Woods coordinates with Taylor.”

“Actually, I’m not taking Woods with me.”

“You’re not? Why?”

“I’m going with Luke. He’s picking me up for lunch and then tagging along while I do what I have to. He’ll drop me off at Flynn’s office when we’re finished.”

“He’s not your CPO anymore, Ana.”

“So? Just because you don’t pay him to look after me anymore doesn’t mean he won’t. Besides, we’re safe now right? That’s what you and Flynn keep telling me, that the world isn’t out to get us. I should be able to run an errand in the city without worrying about a gun being held to my head. Are you telling me now that you don’t actually think that’s true?”

He stares back at me and doesn’t respond for a long time. I have him cornered and, watching him struggle internally with what to say next, it begins to feel like a low blow. I know that he’s overly cautious and, as much as he wants me to feel safe, he also wants me to ensure I actually am safe. But I need Luke this afternoon, not Woods, and I feel safer with him than I do almost anyone in the world. The man took three bullets for me.

Christian’s jaw moves, like he’s chewing on the inside of his cheek, and finally nods. “Alright. Have Sawyer coordinate with Taylor then.”

“I will. I love you.”

“I love you too. Kiss Calliope for me.”

When he leaves, I’m overcome with a deep rooted feeling of guilt. I’m not usually the one who keeps secrets, not like this, but if this is going to happen the way it needs to, Christian can’t know about it.

And it has to happen.

The cries start through the baby monitor again, louder this time, pulling me out of my internal struggle. With a sigh, I shake off the uncomfortable feeling, then make my way out of the gym and across the house towards the nursery. Calliope is standing in her crib when I get there and she clings to the railing like she’s locked in some horrible, inhumane prison. There are huge crocodile tears rolling down her beet red cheeks. I don’t remember the last time I saw her looking so distressed and, though it probably makes me a terrible mother, I can’t help but laugh.

“Oh, Calliope,” I say, adjusting the bar on her crib so I can more easily lift her out. She holds her tiny little hands out for me, impatiently gripping the air over and over again. The second I pull her into my arms, her tears stop. She snuggles into me, sniffing, and her fingers close around the fabric of my t-shirt like she’s certain I’m going to leave her again and she’s preparing to fight to hang onto me. It should make me feel sorry for her, but really it just makes me feel like I’m holding the world’s most cuddly Koala bear and I love it.

It’s only been a few hours since I put her to bed, but I’ve missed her.

After sitting in the rocking chair and loving on her for a few moments, I move to the dresser to pick out an outfit for her to wear for the day and begin our morning routine. She babbles and squirms incessantly while I change and dress her, then nearly rockets herself out of her bouncy seat when I set her down in front of the open glass door in my bathroom so I can take a shower. Once we’re both ready for the day, we sit together at the kitchen table for breakfast, which Gail sets in front of us with all the pride of a five star chef. Watching her wait with bated breath for Calliope to take her first bite makes me giggle.

Ever since Callie made the transition from breast milk and formula to solid foods, it’s been our housekeeper’s mission to ensure she would never eat store bought mush in a jar. Everything she’s served is organic, locally sourced, and freshly pureed the morning she eats it. Even the applesauce she has this morning is made with apples from the Trevelyan family orchard, which Gail slow roasted overnight and flavored with freshly ground cinnamon bought from The Souk early this morning. It makes my Greek yogurt and blueberries feel vastly inadequate and, as I tip another spoonful of applesauce into Calliope’s mouth and watch her smile at how good it tastes, I marvel again at how adept my baby seems to be at ensnaring the hearts of anyone she comes in contact with.

“Can Mommy have a bite?” I ask, scraping some applesauce from the outside of the bowl with the spoon. As I bring it to my mouth, her eyes widen with horror.

“No!”

I laugh. Two days after ‘dada’, she spoke her second word, ‘no’, and she’s said very little since. It’s something Christian and the staff like to play with.

Is your name Calliope? No.

Do you love Mommy and Daddy? No.

Are the Seahawks a dominant football force comprised of true American heroes? No.

That last one had Christian laughing harder than I think I’ve ever seen him laugh before, and it may or may not, but also definitely did, start a fight.

I make a sound like an airplane propeller with my lips and then swirl the applesauce around until she closes her mouth over the spoon like a snapping turtle. Once again, her eyes grow wide as she chews and she starts bouncing excitedly in her high chair.

“Is that nummy?”

“No!”

I giggle, as does Gail, who is wiping down the counters in the kitchen, but when I turn to smile at her, Calliope makes a very disgruntled and insistent noise, and tries to shove her fist into the applesauce.

“I’m sorry, baby,” I say, moving her hand away and quickly scooping up another bite with the spoon. This girl can be a disaster when she’s allowed to feed herself and I’d like to keep it to three outfits or under for the day. “Here comes the airplane!”

Calliope screeches with delight as I make the propeller sound again and practically lunges to take her bite.

“And that’s what makes it all worth it,” Gail says, beaming.

I smile at her and when I turn my head, I notice the blinking light on my phone that tells me I’ve missed a notification. It’s nearly ten, which is when Mackensie usually arrives to take over and let me retreat into my office to write, so I half expect it to be a text from her or possibly an email from my literary agent Lydia, who has been demanding to see pages of my new book for weeks. When I pick up my phone though, I see that it’s a notification from PixC, the social media site that Christian bought last year.

a
My stomach tightens when I see the picture, which was taken at a few weeks ago at a celebration for Carrick’s inauguration. It’s a great photo of us, that’s not what makes me uncomfortable about it. It’s the 140,236 “likes” I can see below it. Christian has eight million PixC followers. Eight million strangers see every single thing he posts.

I shake my head, dispelling the dark thoughts that accompany that knowledge, then flip through a few of the other pictures he’s posted. It’s surprising, given how private he usually is, how well he’s taken to social media. Though I suppose part of that could be due to Mia and Kate’s expert tutelage. It’s important for his business and all the charitable efforts we’ve put our weight behind to get exposure, but Christian actually seems to enjoy the attention, or maybe the notoriety, that comes from owning the internet’s 7th largest social media site.

Much to his publicist’s dismay, I’m not any better at PixC than I was at Facebook. I don’t really like posting pictures of my personal life for the world to see, even when it’s really only to publicize Escape. But Christian has found a way to perfectly promote the work GEH is doing, as well as the goals and accomplishments of our foundation, all while painting himself as a loving, devoted family man.

Scattered amongst the pictures of new tech and posed photos with important executives, there are a dozen or so candid portraits of the two of us or him with other members of our family. There’s even one extremely unflattering picture of him in rubber waders, standing knee deep in the Skagit river next to my father with a fishing pole in hand. In fact, the only person that is missing from his feed is Calliope and that’s because, despite Jacqueline’s insistence that other high profile CEOs post pictures with their children to soften their image, I have made it very clear that no photos of our daughter will be made public.

I don’t want anyone to know her face.

The strange but familiar feeling I get that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end crosses over me once more, so I take a deep breath, “like” Christian’s photo, and set my phone down, immediately pushing all thoughts of PixC out of my mind. Thankfully, I hear the door from the garage open, so there’s once again something to distract me.

“Morning, Ana!” Mackensie, our new nanny, calls. I look up and see her enter the kitchen with the oversized bag full of activities she brings for Calliope every day slung over her shoulder.

“Good morning, Kensie. How was your date last night?”

Her face falls and she rolls her eyes. “Awful. Apparently, I’m either really lame or really naive because when he told me that I could come over so we could watch Netflix and chill, I was expecting a movie night.”

I laugh. “Oh, yeah… that’s not what that means.”

“I showed up in sweatpants, Ana. Sweatpants. My underwear was not cute.”

“Well, rule number one, your underwear should always be cute, date or no. Nothing makes a girl feel more confident than knowing she’s sexy as hell underneath her clothes.”

“There are rules?”

“Hundreds of them. Rule number two, literally everything he tells you is a metaphor to get into your panties. Everything. Once Christian told me he wanted to go to London, and I got excited because I’ve never been there. Turns out, he just saw the Agent Provocateur tag on my bra that morning.

She sighs. “God, I’m going to be single forever. I’m just going to have you take over all my dating apps. I can’t be trusted on my own in this volatile world. I feel like that girl from the Sound of Music, sixteen going on seventeen and all that jazz.”

“And you want me to take care of you?”

“Exactly.”

“That’s an amazing idea, except that I’m terrible at dating.”

“Says Mrs. Christian Grey.”

“Really that was more proximity than skill. Had my dorm been three doors down from his instead of directly across the hall, you’d probably be sitting here with someone completely different.”

She gives me a doubtful look. “I don’t think so.”

“It’s true. Every other attempt I’ve ever made at dating has been a cold, hard fail. Just ask Luke.”

“So, you’re telling me that the failure of my love life is actually a success then?” she asks with a laugh. “That because I’m so terrible at all of this it actually means that, one day soon, I’m going to land a billionaire of my own?”

“Based on my experience, that is 100% what is going to happen.”

“Fantastic.”

We both laugh and she lets her bag drop to the floor before turning and holding her hands out for Calliope.

“And how is my favorite little princess this morning?”

Calliope squeals and makes a series of disjointing sounds as she reaches out of her. Kensie scoops her up into her arms, then twirls her around, but as she starts to carry her out of the kitchen, Callie’s happy demeanor vanishes and she begins screaming and struggling to get back to me.

“No! No!”

“Awh, Calli-lily. Mommy just has to go work in the office.” Her face crinkles and she starts to cry, so I get out of my seat and hurry to take her from Kensie. The moment I have her in my arms, she clings to me again, just like she did this morning.

“Oh, sweetheart.” I bounce her and kiss the soft hairs on the side of her head, then sigh with defeat. “You know what, Kens, I think I’m just going to keep her with me while I write today. Can you help me bring the bouncy chair into my office?”

“Are you sure, Ana? I don’t mind. She’ll calm down, eventually.”

“No, it’s fine. I’m leaving this afternoon anyway, so it’s probably better that I spend some time with her. And maybe with some extra time together, I’ll finally get her to say ‘mama’.” I turn to face her, giving her a very serious, purposeful look. “Mama, Calliope. Ma. Ma.”

“No.”

My face falls and I shake my head with dismay. “That hurts, Callie. That hurts.”

Kensie laughs as I run my hand over the top of my baby’s head and kiss her forehead, then leaves for the living room where I’ve left the bouncy seat. Before I carry Callie out of the kitchen, I pause and turn to Gail.

“Luke is coming to pick me up for lunch at about 1:30 this afternoon. Will you let me know when he gets here?”

“Of course, Mrs. Grey.” I smile at her, then bounce Calliope a few times on my hip and make my way to my office.

 

The rest of my morning is a wash, though I’d hardly call it a waste. My laptop remains closed on my desk while I lie on the floor with Callie, playing with blocks, or chasing her around to keep her from pulling herself up on the furniture and sending assorted heavy items tumbling down on top of her. I’m just dragging her away from my bookshelf when my phone rings. It’s Lydia, so I set Calliope back on her activity mat, try to trap her with my leg, and answer the phone.

“Hi, Lydia.”

“Hey, Ana. Have any new pages for me?”

“Soon, I promise.”

She sighs. “You’ve been saying soon for a month now.”

“I know. I’m working on it.”

“This is your time, Ana. You’re at the top of the Hottest Up and Coming Authors list the Times published last month, and not having an exclusivity clause in your HarperCollins contract has had every major publishing house from coast to coast jamming up my phone lines and clogging up my email, begging for the chance to publish your next work.”

I roll my eyes. “That’s because you made that statement a few weeks ago saying my next novel is about Christian.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Not in the way they think.”

“Then it’s brilliant marketing. You are in, my love, and we need to get this book on the shelves as fast as possible so we can capitalize on it. From what you’ve told me, this book is going to be huge. I can feel it. We’re talking sales in the millions and huge movie deals. You’re going to be a household name.”

“Hmm,” I hum back, ignoring the way her vision of success makes my muscles tighten. She’s not pleased with my less than enthused reaction.

“Look, just get me some pages. If it’s writer’s block, maybe there’s something I can do to help. But, I actually called to remind you about The Pacific Northwest Writing Alliance Conference this weekend. I tried to call last week, but you were apparently in the middle of the Indian Ocean.”

“Yeah, Christian surprised me. What does that entail again?”

“A signing. People buy your book, you tell them the inspiring story of how you became published, and the PNWA gets to legitimize itself with a New York Times bestselling author. Win-win-win.”

“I don’t know if my publishing story is inspiring, though. Someone tried to kidnap me and it made HarperCollins see dollar signs.”

“Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Life’s what you make it, dear, and the only story your fans will believe is the one you tell them. This is a good thing, Ana. Trust me. It’ll help you keep your stock up for a little while longer while you finish your novel.”

“How many people are we talking about?”

“Seven hundred, and you’ll get maybe a hundred.”

“And how solid is my commitment on this?”

“Pretty solid. Why? What’s wrong? You’re not ill are you? Don’t write if you have a fever. Once I had an author send me an entire manuscript he wrote while stuck in bed with the flu and it was like Sherlock Holmes if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was on acid and not a very good writer.”

Despite my best effort, I have to fight not to laugh. “No, Lydia. I’m fine. It’s just… when I agreed to this back in December I thought I’d, you know, be in a different place by now. That’s a lot of people.”

“I thought you wanted to get involved with other authors trying to break into the industry?”

“I do…”

“Well, darling, what do you think the PNWA is all about? This is perfect for you, Ana, trust me. I’ll send you the itinerary this afternoon. In the meantime, get me those pages.”

“Lydia…”

“Bye, Ana!” The phone clicks off before I have a chance to argue further, but as I sit there arguing with myself about professional commitments, there’s a knock on my door and Gail pokes her head inside.

“Ana? Mr. Sawyer is here.”

“Oh, great. I’ll be right out.”

She nods and smiles down at Calliope, but then ducks out of my office and closes the door behind her again. I take a long breath and stare down at my phone again, feeling the now all too familiar feeling of guilt over my quasi-finished novel. This was all so much easier when Dr. Ralston was the only person waiting on my chapters. When I was excited about the prospect of record breaking book sales and the publicity that came along with it. That’s just one more thing Andrew Lincoln took from me. It was on my last book tour that everything really blew up, and I don’t know that I’m ready to jump into this again.

The truth is, my book has been done for weeks. Well, sort of. It’s much lighter than Escape, which is shocking when you consider my frame of mind when I wrote most of it. After my last book, I wanted to focus on love. My love. I tried to capture the essence of what Christian and I have together, everything it could be without all the other horrible things that have happened, and it really did a lot for me. But it’s not ready yet. There’s some intangible thing that feels off about it and I can’t decide if it’s the ending or maybe a character issue… I’m not sure. And I don’t want to give it to anyone until I feel like it’s really, truly finished. And I don’t want to put myself out there again until I’m ready.

With a sigh, I pick up Calliope and carry her from my office to the entrance hall, where Luke is pacing back and forth, waiting for me. His face lights up when he sees us come through the arch from the living room and he immediately reaches out for the baby.

“That’s not Calliope Kate!” He sweeps her into the air, over his head, and blows a raspberry on her tummy. She laughs and, as he bounces her a few times in the air, her mouth rounds out to a perfect little O.

“Will you look at those teeth?” Luke says, bringing her down and resting her on his hip. He gives her a very stern look and puts his index finger in her face. “Alright, the jig is up. Who are you and what have you done with my tiny little baby?”

“That’s her, unfortunately.” I pout and reach out to rub her toes through her socks with my fingers. “I asked her to stop growing but it looks like she’s already made it to her rebellious stage.”

“Well, she’s your kid so that sounds about right.”

I glare at him but when his accusatory look doesn’t falter, I end up laughing. He takes a step forward and wraps me in a one arm hug. “You ready to go?”

“Yeah. Kensie!” My voice echoes through the empty hall and a few seconds later the nanny enters. We pass Calliope off to her and get out of the foyer as quickly as possible, before she can realize what’s happening. But, as I hear her cries following me down the front walk to Luke’s car, my heart sinks.

“Maybe I made a mistake keeping her with me 24/7,” I tell Luke. “Every time Christian or I leave the house, she completely breaks down.”

“Yeah, you’re a terrible mother,” he replies, and even though I know he’s joking, it still makes me feel worse.

“Stop.”

“Oh, come on, Ana. Babies cry when their parents leave. What are you going to do? Never leave your house again?”

I purse my lips together and look back at the front door. Unfortunately, that’s not an option, especially not today. What we’re going to do has to be done.

“Let’s just get out of here,” I tell him, and he nods, unlocks my door, and we both climb inside.

 

The downside of hanging out with Luke while he drives and doesn’t technically work for me anymore, is that we have to listen to his music the entire drive into downtown Seattle. It’s all too heavy guitar and screaming vocals that I can’t even understand, and by the time we’ve reached the correct freeway exit, I’ve had enough.

“Christian asked you to coordinate with Taylor,” I say, willing to throw anything out I can to get him to turn down the god awful noise coming out of his stereo.

“Yeah, T called me this morning.”

“He did?”

“Of course he did. Your husband has made it clear from day one that you’re the team’s number one priority. You think he’s going to let you wander around the city without knowing exactly who you’re with, where you’re going to be, and when?”

“You told him!”

He gives me an exasperated look. “No, Ana. I didn’t tell him. Years of being your CPO has given me a lot of practice lying to Jason Taylor.”

“Well, what did you tell him?”

“That I was taking you to Oh PHO Goodness Saké for lunch. It’s right next door to where we’re going so if someone from Grey’s team happens to drive by, they’ll see my car exactly where it’s supposed to be.” I chew on my lip, so he reaches over and gives me a playful nudge to get me to stop worrying. “We’re fine, Ana. Taylor trusts me. In fact, he asked me if I wanted my job back this morning when we talked.”

“He doesn’t trust Woods?”

Luke shakes his head. “He wouldn’t be anywhere near you if Taylor didn’t trust him.” I hear a change in his tone when he says Taylor’s name, and it peaks my curiosity.

“You don’t trust him?”

The muscle in his jaw ticks. “You know that he let me in without asking any questions and just left me in the foyer all alone? He didn’t even walk you in to meet me. What if I was a stalker or something? He doesn’t know me.”

“You’re on the list, Luke,” I reply, rolling my eyes.

“Regardless, I don’t like trusting you or Calliope to a stranger. I did that once and…” His words cut off and his fingers grip the steering wheel tighter. The silence that fills the car is charged and I can feel Kommer’s unspoken name hanging in the dead air between us. It’s uncomfortable and makes the tall buildings lining the road that now represent everything that went wrong last year feel like they’re closing in on us.

“I don’t blame you, Luke. You know that, right?”

“I know,” he says, though his tone suggests he doesn’t believe me.

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“I was on duty, Anastasia. It was my job to get you home safe, and I didn’t do that. If I would have just gone up the elevator with you…”

“Then Gia would have shot you the moment you came through the foyer, and maybe not in the chest that time.”

“But that would have given Grey time to get you back into the elevator.”

“You think I would have left Calliope?” He swallows, and I shake my head. “Kommer was waiting in the garage for us to try and escape. There was no way out, Luke. They corralled us and we fell for it, like sheep being led to the slaughter.”

I pause, letting my words sink in. But, after a long minute of silence, he still doesn’t say anything. I reach over and place my hand on his forearm.

“We’re fine. He was stopped, and we’re all fine. That’s what matters. I don’t blame you.”

“Then… you didn’t ask me to resign because you didn’t feel safe with me anymore?”

“No! God, no! Luke, you’re the only person I do feel safe with, because you’re the only person who doesn’t walk around like this could never happen again. I asked you to resign because I needed you to not be on Christian’s payroll anymore. I need you for this. This is what’s important.”

“More important than your safety?”

“This is about safety. Real safety, for my whole family.”

“If you say so.” He flicks his blinker and pulls over against the curb. Once he kills the engine and removes his keys, he unbuckles his seatbelt and turns a probing look on me. I think he’s giving me one last opportunity to back out, but we’ve come too far now. There is no turning back.

I nod and get out of the car.

The storefront of Second Avenue Cleaners is relatively unassuming. The red brick that makes up the entire building is worn from the rain and crumbling away in several places. The lettering on the window spelling out the company’s name is peeling and faded. It’s not the kind of place I would picture Christian using to have his bespoke Italian shirts cleaned, but I suppose he probably didn’t pick it out himself. Gail would have, and because there are three different cleaners closer to Escala than this place, I assume, despite appearances, they’re the best.

Luke comes around the car, his phone pressed to his ear. “Yeah, we’re here now. Five minutes? Great.” He hangs up and turns to face me. “We’re all set. You really sure you want to do this?”

I nod. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m sure.”

“Alright. Let’s go.”

He holds open the door for me and when I step inside, I have to slide against the wall to get to the end of the line. They’re busy, and it weighs on my resolve.

“There are other dry cleaners, Ana,” Luke says, as though he can read my mind. “They’ll all find somewhere else to go.”

I turn to look at him and give him a weak smile. “Yeah, you’re right.”

Slowly, the line moves forward, and inch by inch we make our way to the counter. When it’s finally our turn, the man behind the register doesn’t even look up at me.

“Ticket and name,” he says, stapling the previous customer’s ticket to the receipt in his hand.

“Christian Grey.”

That gets his attention and as he finally looks up, his eyes widen. “Mrs. Grey?”

“Yes.”

“I-I’m sorry,” he stammers. “I didn’t recognize you. Usually your housekeeper… You shouldn’t have had to wait, I apologize. I’ll get these personally. One moment, please.”

I give him a tight smile as he turns and disappears into the back, then look over at Luke. He nods once to reassure me, so I take a deep breath and try to hold onto my waning confidence.

“Here you are, Mrs. Grey,” the shop owner says, sounding much more sure of himself as he hands me the bag containing Christian’s freshly laundered shirts. “No problems to note, they came out perfect.”

“Good. Thank you.”

“It’s absolutely my pleasure. Is there anything else I can do for you today?”

I swallow, and feel Luke step closer to me. He’s got my back and, for as much preparation as we’ve put into this, I should feel invincible. But in reality, I can’t stop shaking.

“Yes, actually,” I say after an awkwardly long pause. “Y-you could hand me your keys.”

The broad, fake grin on his face falters and his brow creases with confusion. “I’m sorry?”

“Your keys. The ones that go to the shop. I’m going to need the ones for the front door, the back door, the office… any keys you have that are for the store.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey. I don’t understand.”

Calm down, Ana.

“I uh… I–”

There’s a jingle behind me as the door opens, and the footsteps of the man who enters seem to echo in the tiny, linoleum covered reception area.

All according to plan.

“Mr. Kozlowski?” the man who entered asks.

The shop owner raises an eyebrow. “Yes?”

“My name is Peter Brown, and I’m a process server with the King County Police Department. You’re being served with an eviction notice.”

“Eviction notice? What do you mean? I’ve paid my lease…”

“Through February,” Luke agrees. “But the building has been sold and the new owner has terminated your lease.”

“New owner?”

I nod. “Me.”

“You?” He picks up the eviction notice and starts to scan through it, and the more he reads, the more he starts unconsciously shaking his head. When he’s finished, the color drains from his face and there’s a sense of confusion in his eyes. “Why?”

I want to scream at him. Why?

“Because you sold Andrew Lincoln information about my family.”

“No,” he says immediately, and starts to shake his head with even more vigor. “No. I have no idea what you’re talking about.” The blatant lie that is his denial lights an angry fire inside of me, and suddenly, all my nerves vanish.

“Mr. Kozlowski, I know you must think I’m young and very naive, but please don’t treat me like I’m stupid.  From June 6th 2010 until July 30th 2011, you sent information to him detailing every time one of my husband’s staff stepped into your store. You passed information from Anthony Kommer to Gia Matteo, and vice versa, over a similar amount of time. And on more than one occasion, but specifically on March 13th 2011, you provided a secure meeting space for the three of them to talk so that my husband’s people wouldn’t find out about it.”

“Uh–I…” He stands there, stammering, and the panic in his eyes is all the confirmation I need. Truth be told, I never needed him to admit it anyway. Luke provided me with everything I needed to know weeks ago.

“You have until March 1st to vacate the premises,” I tell him.

He shakes his head. “I didn’t do anything illegal. I merely confirmed Mr. Grey used my services, and I passed papers that I never read between two customers. I never aided him in anything he did against your family.”

I narrow my eyes. “Is that what you tell yourself so you can sleep at night?”

“Mrs. Grey, please. You can’t evict me for a personal vendetta.”

“No, you’re right. On paper, you’re being evicted because the Christian and Anastasia Grey Foundation is transforming this building into a shelter for battered women and children who are attempting to escape domestic abuse. But I came here today because I want you to know the real reason. I want you to know that I know what you did and that I’m taking your business because of it.”

“Mrs. Grey–”

“You have until March 1st.”

“That’s only a week.”

“Oh dear.” I place my hand over my heart with fake sympathy. “Then I suggest you make your arrangements sooner rather than later.” Leaving him staring at me, gaping, I turn and march purposely for the door. But, after taking only a few steps, I stop and face him again. “Oh, and I wouldn’t bother looking for another commercial space for your business. I suspect that immigration will be paying you a visit in a few days to discuss the status of your green card. In fact, if I were you, I’d prepare to leave the country.”

“What?” There’s a sharp, nervous lilt to his voice that I ignore as I turn again and step out of his store. Luke follows right behind me, placing a protective hand on my lower back and getting me away from the building as quickly as possible.

“Hey,” he says once we’re outside and out of earshot. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I reply, and for the first time in a really long time I actually mean it. There’s a kind of adrenaline rush that accompanies the potent sense of vindication I get knowing that, finally, something has actually been done. That at least one of the people who were responsible for what happened to my husband last summer, and who made it possible for my daughter to be put in harm’s way, have gotten what they deserve. After months of terror, I feel like I actually have some kind of  real agency in my own life. Power. It’s a kind of high, in its own way, and it’s liberating. I feel like I could conquer the world.

“You’re sure?” he checks again.

“I’m great, Luke. Really.” I look over my shoulder at the Pho restaurant we parked in front of, then gesture to the front door with my head. “Come on. We should get something to eat. We still have a little over an hour before you need to drop me off at Flynn’s office and Christian will be suspicious if I’m hungry later.”

He frowns. “Why aren’t you telling Grey about what you’re doing?”

“Because he doesn’t need to know.” I turn away and start to walk to the restaurant, but Luke reaches out and takes my hand to get me to stop.

“Ana…”

“Did he tell me about Plan B?” I ask, my voice sharper than I mean for it to be.

“Well, no…”

“No, he didn’t. He didn’t tell me that he was using my father to try and get to Gresham. He didn’t tell me that he created a huge, fake wedding in an attempt to trap the man who was coming after us. He didn’t even tell me about you until years after he hired you as my CPO. So you’ll forgive me for keeping this one secret from him.”

He stares back at me blankly, unaffected by my increasingly defensive and accusatory tone. He knows me too well to let me try and shift the blame or change the subject. He stands there waiting for the real reason, and his patient gaze sends that same hot flash of guilt from this morning coursing through me once again.

“He’ll try to stop me,” I admit, my voice much weaker now. “If he finds out what I’m doing, he’ll try and stop me.

“Ana, that’s because–”

“I don’t sleep, Luke. I can’t go more than a few minutes without thinking about it. I am scared all the time, every day, and the only thing that makes it so I can even breathe is this. Doing something. I can’t let him stop me. I am going to ensure that everyone I love is safe and that nothing like what happened last summer will ever happen again. No matter what.”

He presses his lips together. “Ana… maybe you should give therapy a real try. It could help.”

I shake my head. “I spend enough time reliving what happened. I don’t want to talk about it, I want to forget about it. And the only way I’m ever going to be able to forget is if I know that it won’t ever happen again. The only way I can be sure of that is if every one of our enemies is dealt with. I won’t be a bystander anymore, Luke. This needs to happen.”

He takes a long, deep breath that is released in a tortured sigh. Looking away from me, his eyes examine the dilapidated building face next door and after a few seconds of silence, he starts to nod. “Alright. I guess it’s just a dry cleaner.”

“Yeah.”

“But just because I’m not your bodyguard anymore doesn’t mean I don’t care that you’re safe, Ana. I won’t help you if this gets dangerous.”

“That’s fair.”

“Good, then… let’s eat. You’re right, I’m starving.” I smile and take his hand, pulling him with me as we make our way inside.

Oh PHO Goodness Saké is a tiny, cramped space with a long counter where we have to stand in line to order before we try to find a table. Everything on the menu looks phenomenal to me, but Luke doesn’t seem too enthused. He’s never really been an adventurous kind of eater and apparently, Vietnamese food is on his list of too exotic.

“It’s just beef broth,” I tell him as he eyes the contents of the bowl a woman passing us is carrying with a grimace. “It’s like Top Ramen with meat and vegetables but five thousand times better.”

“I don’t know. It looks kind of…”

“Anastasia Steele?”

Both Luke and I turn in the direction my name is being called, but I don’t recognize the man who we find staring at me. He’s handsome and dressed in a crisp, black suit. For a moment, I think he must be one of Christian’s business associates and that I’ve simply forgotten his face in the seemingly endless parade of CEOs and executives I’ve been introduced to in the past year or so. But since he addressed me as Steele, not Grey, that doesn’t seem likely.

“Um… yes?”

“I’m sorry,” he says, smiling. “You probably have no idea who I am. My name is Scott Wallace, I’m the president of the New York division of Greenwich Small Press. We’re a bi-coastal publishing house, nothing too big.”

He’s being modest. Perhaps he doesn’t know the full extent of my publishing connections, but I am fully aware of Greenwich’s presence in the Seattle publishing world. When I was helping to restructure SIP right after it was acquired by GEH, GSP was our biggest competitor when it came to landing new authors. In fact, at that time, it was the most prominent small publishing house on the entire west coast. That is, until the newly rebranded Grey Publishing took off.

“Oh, hi.” I shake the hand he offers me. “You’re a long way from home.”

“Yeah.” He laughs. “Can I just tell you, Escape is absolutely fantastic. I was blown away.”

I blush, but smile gratefully. “Thank you.”

“Of course. Your novel has completely changed the landscape of Literary Fiction. I can’t tell you how many copycat manuscripts I’ve read over the past few months. Everyone is dying to be the next Anastasia Steele.”

“Grey, actually. But, thank you. That’s very kind of you to say.”

“Grey, right. I read that you were married.” He turns and extends a hand to Luke. “Scott Wallace. How do you do, Mr. Grey?”

“Just fine,” Luke replies, a huge smile stretching across his face.

“This isn’t my husband,” I say, chastising Luke with a sideways glance. “This is my very good friend, Luke Sawyer.”

“Best friend,” he corrects me. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Wallace.”

“Likewise.” He smiles at Luke, but quickly diverts his attention back to me. “So, Anastasia, are you working on anything new?”

“Yes. I’m actually almost finished with my second novel. Well, first…” I shake my head, and start over. “It’s the first in a new series I’m working on. Something completely different from Escape, but still really personal.”

“I’m sure it’s phenomenal. I gotta say, you’re kind of a legend around here.”

“Oh, I don’t think I’d go that far.”

“No. Don’t get me wrong, your writing is amazing, but I mean for what you did for Grey Publishing. We used to be top dog in Seattle and then some Harvard intern swoops in with a whole new business strategy for GP and starts scooping up our authors left and right.”

“You don’t say.”

“It’s been a bit of a setback for us. Our CEO just fired the head of the Seattle division and now I’m running ragged trying to manage both branches. You don’t still work for GP?”

“Oh, no. I’m just focusing on family right now. And writing, of course.”

“Well, my boss is breathing down my neck about turning the west coast division around and recouping that revenue hit we took last quarter. I need to hire a new Seattle branch president and I’ve seen first hand what you’re capable of. If you’re interested, I’d love to have you come in and interview.”

“Oh, uh… that’s very generous, but I’m purely on the writing side of the industry now.”

“That’s disappointing.” He reaches into his jacket, pulls out his wallet, and hands me his business card. “Well, if you change your mind, my cell and office number is on there. Feel free to call me anytime. We could really use a mind like yours, Mrs. Grey, and we’ll move mountains to make this work out.”

I take the card, but try to make it clear in my tone that I’m not interested. “Thank you. Good luck, Mr. Wallace.”

“Next!”

I look over my shoulder at the very impatient Vietnamese woman waiting to take our order, then pivot towards her as I face Mr. Wallace again.

“Enjoy your lunch, Anastasia,” he says.

“Thanks. You too.” He shakes my hand again, and I slip his card into my purse, almost instantly forgetting about it as I turn to order.

**Christian’s PixC Photo is courtesy of the @shadesofifty twitter page

Next Chapter

Chapter 02

02152017_rain-_1328144-780x460

Getting back to Seattle Sunday night is like the hangover after a really long night of drinking. Most of the journey home was fine. Christian and I snuck off to the bedroom at the back of the plane twice and spent the rest of the trip cuddled up on the long, leather sofa in the middle of the plane, talking and laughing with one another. It seems like the connection we revived in the Maldives has real lasting power, but by the time we begin our descent towards SeaTac we’re exhausted from the 18 hour flight and hungry for real food cooked in our own kitchen, rather than whatever Natalia has managed to heat up. The moment the plane dips below the thick cover of clouds, our windows are splattered in rain drops and when I lean over to look out at the familiar Seattle skyline I can’t help but think how dreary the entire city looks compared to the beautiful paradise we’ve lived in for the last week.

“Of course it’s raining,” Christian grumbles. I turn and raise an eyebrow at him.

“You like the rain.”

“Not as much as I like laying out on the beach with you. I’m not ready to go back to the real world yet. I liked our bubble.”

I hum in agreement and cuddle into his side. “Me too. But I can’t wait to get back to Calliope. Do you think she missed us?”

“No,” he says, then laughs. “She’s had Mackensie and Gail with her every second of the day and Kate and Elliot with her in the evenings. I won’t be surprised if we find out my mom came and stayed at least one night too. I bet she’s been spoiled rotten since the moment we stepped out that door.”

I shift beneath his arm so I can give him an accusatory look. “More spoiled than she is with her daddy?”

“I don’t spoil her.”

“Yeah, okay.” I roll my eyes, and he narrows his at me.

“I like to think of it as showing her what she’s worth. One day, she won’t be so little anymore.” He pauses, and the gray of his irises darkens. “And then the boys will come.”

“Oh, the horror!”

“Mmm, but by then I’ll have set her standards so impossibly high that no teenage boy will ever be able to live up to them, and then she’ll stay my sweet, innocent little girl forever.”

“Ah, the Raymond Steele strategy. It’s foolproof. Well, until she moves out of the house and sleeps with the first man she sees.”

His face falls and he sits up in his seat, removing his arm from around my shoulders. “Stop it.”

I laugh, then glance up at Natalia, who has come by to pick up our empty glasses in preparation for landing. Strangely, the closer we get to the ground the harder the rain seems to fall. It comes down in droves that are very uncharacteristic for late February. When the wheels of the plane finally touch down at SeaTac, they send a wave of water so high into the air that it obstructs my view of the airport.

Christian is the first to stand after we’ve stopped and he reaches into the seat across from us to pick up my bag before taking my hand and leading me to the exit. Stephan, our pilot, waits at the door. Christian thanks him for a smooth flight, while I gratefully take the umbrella Natalia offers me and step out onto the wet stairs. The SUV is already waiting on the tarmac with the wiper blades on high. As Christian and I hurry across the water logged pavement, the door opens and two men climb out.

“Did you enjoy your trip, sir?” Taylor asks, reaching for the bag in Christian’s hand.

“Yes, very much. Thank you. I trust you used your time off well?”

“Very well. I actually spent some time with Ray… er, Mr. Steele. Traded war stories and spent some time outdoors. He’s an incredible man.”

“You’re not recruiting him,” I say as his new partner opens the back door for me. I give Taylor a stern look, then turn to my own CPO. “Thank you, Woods.”

“My pleasure, Mrs. Grey. Welcome home.”

I give him a quick smile, then climb into the car, sliding all the way across the back seat to leave room for Christian. After we’re closed inside, Christian immediately pulls out the phone he’s actually managed to ignore for the past six days and I turn to watch our security team take our luggage from the flight crew and start loading it into the back.

It took me a long time to warm up to Woods, despite the fact that he’s one of the more personable men Taylor hired after the security team rehaul last fall. At first I thought it was because I would never be able to trust an outside security hire again. It was Kommer, after all, who let Gia Matteo and Andrew Lincoln into my apartment that night and I wasn’t about to make the same mistake with another CPO I didn’t know. But months have past and now that I’ve grown used to Woods’ constant presence and benign, albeit slightly over helpful, demeanor, I think my hesitance with him is because there simply isn’t, nor will there ever be, a replacement for Luke Sawyer.

“You alright?” Christian asks, glancing up at me. I turn and give him a tight smile.

“Yeah, just anxious to get home.” The front doors open and Taylor and Woods climb into the SUV. Once Taylor turns the key in the ignition and shifts the car into drive, I lean forward between their seats. “Taylor, how is Calliope doing?”

He gives me a rare, warm smile. “She’s perfect, Mrs. Grey. She’s been an angel all week.”

“Good.” I grip his bicep to show my gratitude for his placation, then lean back into my seat and let out a sigh of relief. Christian reaches over and places his hand on the inside of my thigh.

“You see? I told you, you have nothing to worry about, baby. We’re safe. No one is coming for us.”

I nod. “Yeah, you’re right.” Leaning over, he places a soft kiss on my cheek, then nuzzles me with the tip of his nose.

 

The dark, very wet drive home seems to exacerbate the jet lag that the eleven hour time difference between here and the Maldives has left us with. Christian spends the first twenty minutes or so responding to emails on his phone but, eventually, he too slumps back into his seat and rests his head on top of mine.

“I don’t even think I’ll be able to stay awake for dinner,” I say as my eyelids start to droop. Christian nods his head.

“No. I say we put the baby down and then go straight to bed.”

“Agreed.”

“Actually,” Taylor interjects. “I wouldn’t count on that if I were you.”

I turn to look up in the rear view mirror just over Taylor’s head. “Why?”

He stops at the gate to our house without answering me, then rolls down his window and punches the code into the box next to the driveway. It takes several seconds for the gate to swing open, but once it does I look through the front windshield and immediately have my answer. The driveway is packed full of cars. Kate and Elliot are here, obviously, but so are Grace, Carrick, Mia, and my father.”

Christian groans. “Great. What do you want to bet Elliot is behind this?”

I laugh, but it’s cut off by a deep, long yawn. “A lot.”

The car comes to a stop and when Taylor and Woods step out to come and open the back doors, Christian places a hand beneath my jaw and tilts my lips up to his. “I really loved being with you this week.”

“Mmm, and every week.”

“Forever.” He smiles and then kisses me again before entangling his fingers with mine and sliding out of the SUV.

The one good thing about our entire family being here to greet us is the delicious smell that hits us the moment we come through the front door. Some wonderful soul has cooked for us and the sounds of conversation that float into the entryway from the living room carry the overwhelming comfort of home. Quickly abandoning my coat and purse by the door, I hurry past the stairs towards the sound of Calliope’s over excited shrieking and our family’s responding laughter.

“Hey!” I call, coming around the corner. Everyone turns in my direction just as Christian appears behind me, and Calliope’s mouth drops open, as if she’s in shock.

“Dada?”

And just like that, as if she’s said it a hundred times before, Calliope’s first word rings clear and definite around us. Everyone gasps, and we stand there frozen like we all need a moment to be sure we really heard what we think we did.

“Hey, Princess,” Christian says, breaking the silence and moving forward to take her out of his mother’s hands.

“God damn it,” Elliot says, deflating with disappointment as he recedes into the couch. “Callie, what are you doing? I thought we were cool.” Kate breaks down into laughter and I raise an eyebrow at her.

“What?”

“Elliot has spent this entire week trying to get her to say uncle. He was determined to make sure that her first wasn’t dada.”

“And she’s betrayed me!”

“Good.” Christian laughs, then rubs the tip of his nose gently against Calliope’s. “She really is my daughter.”

“Okay. Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” I reach my hands out for Calliope and Christian lets out a long sigh.

“Do you want to go to mama? Ma-ma?” He elongates the word, breaking it down by each syllable in hopes of getting her to repeat it, but she doesn’t. She does, however, turn in his arms so that she can reach for me.

“So she knows that I’m Mama,” I say, wrapping my hands around her sides and pulling her into me. “She just won’t say it.”

“She will,” Christian assures me, but the grin on his face doesn’t make me feel any better. Of course “dada” was her first word.

“That’s okay.” I turn her and point to Christian. “Who’s that, Calliope?”

“Dada,” she says.

“That’s right! That’s dada!” I wrap her tighter in my arms and inhale her warm scent off the top of her head. “God, I missed you.”

“And she missed you,” Kate says, using Elliot’s help to heave herself off the couch. “She did fine for the most part, but nights were a little rough. She missed having you tuck her in at bedtime.”

“Oh, baby…” I lean in to kiss Calliope’s forehead, and she responds by tangling her tiny little fingers in my hair.

“Look at your tan though,” Kate says. “You look amazing. I kind of hate you right now.”

“Oh, please,” I reply, rolling my eyes. “You’re glowing. How’s my goddaughter?”

She lets out a long sigh and places a hand over her very round baby bump. “Active. She was doing Tae Bo last night when I was trying to sleep.”

“Awh.” Shifting Calliope to my hip so that I can hold her with only one arm, I reach out to pull Kate into a side hug and rub her shoulder sympathetically.

“Well, I’m just glad you’re back,” Grace says, getting up and coming around the couch to hug us both. “Were the Maldives everything you hoped they would be?”

“It was beautiful,” I tell her, but when she turns to look at Christian he gives her a tight, dismissive smile and breaks eye contact. Grace visibly deflates, but when she turns back to look at me, she’s smiling again.

“Well, I’m glad you had a good time. You deserve it, Ana.”

“Yes, she does,” my dad says, reaching out to shake Christian’s hand before moving past both him and Grace to pull Calliope and I into a hug.

“Daddy, I can’t believe you drove all the way here from Montesano. You’ll get home so late.”

“That’s fine. We wanted to see you, kiddo. Our visits are becoming much too few and far between.”

“Yeah, we really need to get out to you more often,” I say, hugging him back. “Wait… we?”

“Anastasia!” I turn and have to fight to keep my smile from faltering when I see my dad’s new girlfriend coming towards us, pulling an apron over her head.

“Kim! I didn’t know you were here…”

“Well your daddy’s been talking about you so much I finally told him we had to come up here and see you. Besides, I thought it would be nice for you to come home to a good meal. Lord knows you haven’t had anything home cooked in over a week.”

“You really didn’t have to do that. We have… staff.”

“No you don’t,” Elliot says. “Gail has sunday’s off.”

“Oh, well… still. We could have–”

“It’s my pleasure, Anastasia. Really. Now, come and get it. Dinner’s ready.” She beams and turns back towards the kitchen, and while the rest of our family moves past us, giving both Christian and I hugs as they go, I have to take a moment to compose myself.

“Be nice,” Christian says, leaning over to whisper in my ear so no one will be able to hear him.

“I didn’t say anything,” I hiss back, defensively. He raises and eyebrow at me, then reaches out to brush his thumb over Calliope’s cheek before following the others to the dining room.

“Tell me to be nice,” I grumble to Calliope under my breath. “Christian Grey is in no position to tell anyone to be nice.” There’s no sign of agreement on my baby’s face, only enraptured interest as she continues to play with my hair.

Really, there’s no reason for me to harbor any ill feelings towards Kim. She’s been perfectly lovely every time we’ve met. Though… maybe a little too nice. Who’s that happy all the time anyway? No one. I know she makes my dad happy, I’ve seen it in his eyes over and over again for months, but that doesn’t make me feel any better either. Not that I don’t want him to be happy, I do, but… I’m used to stepdads. Ray, Stephen, Bob… Since my mom left I’ve always been the only girl in my dad’s life and I liked it like that.

Besides, the loss of my mother is still a wound too sensitive for me to even think about most of the time. The idea of a stepmom, someone who would, no matter how insignificantly, be replacing her in my life… I’m not ready for that. I don’t know that I’ll ever be ready for that.

I’m a rational girl. I know that him finding someone to spend time with is not a personal attack against me and now that I have a family of my own and hardly ever see him anymore, it’s selfish of me to expect that won’t find someone new to fill the emptiness in his life. But knowing that as certainly as I do doesn’t make it hurt any less. He’s my dad, and it’s hard to process that I’m not the most important person in his life anymore.

“Dada,” Calliope says again, and I give her a smile that I hope she thinks is genuine.

“Yeah, Dada. Let’s go find Dada.” Lifting her higher up on my hip, I kiss her cheeks and then march forward into the dining room to face my dad and Kim like I’m going off to war.

 

The atmosphere around the table is light and warm. Kim has made a very traditional sunday dinner with roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, salad, and rolls. Christian’s already put Calliope’s high chair between his seat and mine, and while I lower her down into it, he puts a dollop of mashed potatoes on her tray and then takes a small portion of chicken and peas into the kitchen to run through the food processor. While he’s away, I pick up his plate and fill it with a little bit of everything on the table.

“Oh my god, will you look at her making a plate for him?” Kate says. “You two are so cute, it kind of makes me want to yack.”

I roll my eyes. “Takes notes, this is called survival. Once the baby comes, you do everything as a team, or you fail.”

“Yeah, babe,” Elliot says, leaning towards her and placing a hand over her bump. “You’re going to have to actually act like you love me sometimes.”

“Well, someone better call the Academy because even pretending to like you would be a performance worthy of an Oscar.” Elliot laughs then pinches her chin between his thumb and finger so he can tilt her lips up to his.

“And you say Ana and Christian make you wanna puke,” Mia says. Everyone around the table laughs.

I scoot my chair as closely to Calliope’s high chair as possible and pick up her spoon, but she simply reaches down, picks up a fist full of mashed potatoes, and stuffs the whole thing in her mouth. She turns to look at me then, with a blob of white slowly oozing out of her mouth and I smile at her. Shaking my head, before scooping the excess away with the spoon, I wait for her to swallow before giving her more.

“Oh, Christian,” Elliot says, finally pulling away from Kate once his brother returns to the table and places a small bowl full of chicken and pea mash in front of the baby. “Andrea came by a few days ago. She dropped off something for some new project GEH is working on. She said Welch needs you to look over it as soon as possible.”

“In my office?” Christian asks, but when Elliot nods I reach over to hold him in his seat.

“It can wait until after dinner. Or maybe until tomorrow when you’re actually back at work.” He lets out a slightly irritated sigh, but settles back down in his chair again.

“Something exciting?” my dad asks. Christian nods.

“Very, actually. It’s kind of my own little pet project.”

“Oh?” Grace interjects, intrigued.

“Yeah. It’s a little outside of our business model so Ros tried to convince me not to invest too heavily in it, especially with it being so experimental. But I’m passionate about it. Business is going well and Ros has a firm hand on the acquisition load, I think it’s a good time to work with my R&D department and see if we can make it happen. Indulge a little.”

“Indulge?” Kate asks. “What are you doing?”

He grimaces. “You’ll think it’s stupid.”

“I will not.” He gives her a pointed look that says he doesn’t believe her, so she rolls her eyes and crosses her arms over her chest. “You really think I’m going to write off something Christian Grey wants to explore in the business world as stupid?”

“Ros did.”

“Well, Ros thinks everything you do is stupid,” I say, pulling Calliope’s hands back down to her tray to keep her from rubbing food in her hair.

“Just tell us,” Elliot says. “It’s not like any of us would be able to steal your ideas. And if it really is stupid, you can either prove us wrong or we can all say we told you so, and that would be a treat for everyone.” He laughs, but Christian shakes his head.

“I’m under no illusions that this could be the biggest failure of my career. But if my team can do it, if we can pull it off, we’ll change the world and I’ll become one of the wealthiest and most powerful men on the planet.”

“Doing?” Carrick presses him.

He takes a big breath and straightens in his chair. “With the expansion of our manufacturing division in Taiwan, we’ve poured a lot of resources and emphasis into ship building. It’s inspired me more than anything I’ve done in a long time because I’ve always been fascinated with ships and speed versus size. It made me want to push the envelope, find out what else we could be building. Then Lamborghini released the specs for the new Gallardo last fall and as I was looking into buying it, it was like lightning struck.”

“So you’re building sports cars?” Mia asks.

“I like to think of it as evolving sports cars.”

Elliot raises an eyebrow, actually intrigued. “Evolving how?”

“Ecological sustainability. I’ve been buying luxury supercars for years, and while every year they get a little faster or a little sleeker, not much has changed in the mechanics. As much as I love them, they’re impractical and wasteful, and it’s getting worse. The Lamborghini in the garage is faster than my Bugatti, but the gas mileage is abysmal. It got me thinking about clean energy creation, which I thought for years was the next big frontier of technological innovation. I started wondering if it could ever be possible to build a vehicle as fast and powerful as the world’s best sports cars, but that produced no emissions and left absolutely no ecological footprint.”

“So… fuel efficiency?” Elliot asks, and Christian’s eyes seem to twinkle when he shakes his head.

“It started that way. But it’s so much more now.”

Elliot’s brow crinkles with confusion. “Different how?”

“What if it didn’t require fuel at all? What if this house didn’t, or GEH? What if we could power the world without any kind of combustion? What if we could create an energy source that was self sustaining and that never needed to be replaced?”

“Like, solar?”

“Or fusion.”

That makes Elliot actually fall back into his seat and the look he gives Christian is dubious at best. “You’re talking about perpetual motion.”

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about.”

He shakes his head. “That’s impossible. The laws of friction…”

“Have been a challenge,” Christian interrupts him. “But I’ve recruited some of the best nuclear physicists and engineers in the world, and we’ve generated real interest in seeing this project through. In fact, those documents Andrea delivered should be a grant approval from NASA.”

“And all this so you can have a faster sports car?” Kate asks. Christian smiles.

“My company may change the world, Kate. Maybe even the future of space exploration. It’s best to focus on that rather than my own possibly selfish motivations.”

Elliot shakes his head again. “It doesn’t matter what your motivations are, it can’t done.”

“I don’t like the word can’t,” Christian says, but Elliot is undeterred.

“I studied this at MIT. Newton’s Law of Motion states that constant velocity can only exist if there is no external unbalanced force acting against it, and you simply can’t eliminate friction from momentum. You’re not the first person to dream this dream, but it can’t be done. I’m sorry, Christian, you’re on a wild goose chase.”

“We’ll see.”

“I believe in you, baby,” I say, reaching past Calliope to wrap my hand under his elbow. He smiles and leans back so that he can kiss me.

“Thank you. I’m glad someone does.” I giggle, and the turn to Carrick, who looks just as glad as the rest of us that Christian and Elliot are done debating the laws of physics, which none of us really understand.

“So how’s the new house coming, Elliot?” Carrick asks.

Elliot takes a deep breath, as though he needs to calm himself before he answers. “It’d be going great if someone could make a decision and stick to it.”

Kate frowns. “This is going to be our forever home. I just want it to be perfect.”

“Well, I’ve completely gutted and redone our bathroom three times now.”

“And it’s so much better now than it was before.” She turns to me, beaming. “I can’t wait to show you my closet. It’s gigantic and I had them design it like a Victoria’s Secret store with pink walls, black furniture, and crystal chandeliers. Bougie as fuck.”

I laugh, then pick up a napkin to wipe Calliope’s face, and Christian turns to Mia.

“Speaking of houses, my realtor sent me a few apartment listings in New York for you to look at. We found one only a few blocks from campus that I think you’re going to love.”

Mia swallows and seems to shrink in her seat a little. “Actually… I’m not going to Juilliard.”

“What?” Carrick snaps, turning sharp eyes on his daughter, and she cringes.

“Yeah. I–uh, I rescinded my application.”

Grace looks horrified. “Why?”  

“I’ve decided that it’s just… not the right choice for me.”

Carrick lets out a long sigh, then pinches the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “Good lord, not this again.”

“It’s not what you think.”

“Mia, you’re going to college. This isn’t a discussion, it’s what’s going to happen.”

She nods. “I know, I’m not saying that I’m not going to college, I’m just not going to Juilliard. I’ve made a lot of mistakes over the past few years and nearly every one of them is because of how selfishly and relentlessly I’ve pursued that school. I compromised a lot of my own values to get there and honestly, after last year with the secrets and the cutting… I realized that I’ve lost myself because of it. I looked in the mirror and I didn’t like the person who looked back at me. So, I called Juillard and asked them to revoke my application and, instead, I applied to Harvard.”

“Harvard?” Grace repeats, and Mia nods.

“Yeah. It’s where all the people who I do respect go. Dad, Ana, Kate… even Christian. Sort of. I’ve decided that ballet just isn’t the most important thing to me anymore. I don’t want to let blind ambition rule my life. I want to feel like I’m living for a purpose. I want to help people. So, I’m going to Harvard to study pre-law, like Dad. And one day, when I become a lawyer just like him, I’m going to dedicate my career to advocating for people who can’t fight for themselves. To giving a voice to people who have none.”

Christian frowns. “But… ballet has always been your passion, Mia. It’s part of who you are.”

“And Harvard has a dance team. I mean, it’s not like I’m trying to get into some underfunded state school. Harvard’s ballet program is actually amazing. I’ll train there while I go to school and, hopefully, still be able to live out my dream of dancing in front of packed theater in New York one day. But you and Dad were right. Ballet has a shelf life. I could be injured tomorrow or in school and my career would be over before it even started. This way, if the worst happens or even if I just get too old to dance they way I’d have to in order to stay relevant, I’ll still have purpose. I can move onto something meaningful.”

“Harvard isn’t a joke, Meems,” Elliot says. “It’s not just something you can do on the side while you dance and use as a fall back. It’s hard work and you should really think about that before you throw Juilliard away.”

“I’ve already thought about it, over and over again. This is what I want.”

“Well, that’s great, Mia,” Carrick says. “But it’s February. The application deadlines have past…”

“I applied last fall. I didn’t want to say anything until I knew because I didn’t know if my SAT score was going to be good enough to get me in, but I think the essay I wrote swayed the admissions board because I got my acceptance letter last week. I was just waiting until we were all together to say something. I’m going to Harvard next year.”

The corner of Carrick’s mouth ticks upwards as he unconsciously starts to smile. “You were accepted?”

Mia nods.

“Sweetheart, that’s amazing!”

“Congratulations, Meems!” I get up out of my seat to come around the table to hug her, and as I wrap her in my arms the uncertainty on her face melts away and she starts to grin. Kate wobbles over next and squeals with excitement as she wraps Mia in a huge bear hug, and Christian pulls Mia up and out of her seat when Kate finally releases her.

“I’m so proud of you,” he tells her, squeezing her tightly.

“Thanks,” she says, and when she settles back into her chair, she turns to look at her father. “So, I guess now would be a good time to tell you that I have to go to Cambridge the first weekend of March. There’s a big freshman orientation thing that everyone is required to come to.”

“Oh my god, I remember that!” Kate says. “Ana, do you remember that weekend? It was a blast. That’s when we picked Grays for our dorm.”

“When you picked Grays,” I remind her. “I wanted to live in Hollis.”

“Well, I’m very glad you didn’t,” Christian says, looking over at me and smiling.

“Yeah, but requesting dorm assignments is only part of it,” Mia says. “There’s a ton of stuff that we have to do that weekend and I can’t miss it.”

“The first weekend of March?” Carrick asks dubiously as he turns to look at Grace. She frowns.

“That’s only two weeks away, I have surgeries planned…”

“Yeah, I can’t either,” Carrick says. “Not until the legislative session ends. I have three outstanding appointments with the city council.”

“I’d take you, but Kate’s in her third trimester and I’m not going to fly all the way across the country from her,” Elliot says. “She could go into labor…”

“I’ll take her,” I interject, and Christian turns to me in surprise.

“You?”

“Sure. We’ll have a great time. I haven’t been back since graduation and I’ve missed it. A lot, actually. And I know Cambridge really well, so I can show her all my favorite places to eat or hang out. When she’s busy with orientation, I can stay at the house and write. That’s why we kept it, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is. Well, I can rearrange some things in my schedule and…”

“Oh, no,” Mia says, shaking her head. “Who invited you, Christian? Harvard Alum only.”

He glares at her, but I nod in agreement. “I mean, she makes a fair point.”

“You want to go alone?”

“She won’t be alone,” Mia says. “She’ll be with me. It’ll be fun, just the two of us. Like a girl’s weekend.”

“Yeah. Fun,” I repeat. “Besides, I don’t think anyone here is as used to travelling from Seattle to Cambridge as I am. It’ll actually feel kind of normal and normal is good.”

“Alright,” Christian concedes. “Then I’ll schedule the jet to take you.”

“Yes!” Mia exclaims. “No offense, but I thought going with my parents would be kind of lame. But with Ana, Ah! I’m so excited!”

“Me too.” I wink at her, and as she continues to celebrate her Ivy League acceptance with her parents, and even my father. Christian leans over to whisper in my ear.

“You’re sure you’re ready for this?”

“Yeah. Actually, I kind of think spending time alone with Mia is going to be great.”

“Good.” He kisses my cheek. “I love that you love my family so much.”

“You mean our family?”

He smiles, and tilts my face so that he can press his lips into mine, but it’s not long before our perfectly innocent kiss is interrupted by Elliot.

“Alright, alright. Once Ana and Christian start making out it’s time to go.”

“Yeah,” Kate agrees. “I love you guys, but me and the little miss need to go to bed.”

“And we’ve got a long drive home,” my dad adds. “Can we help you clean up?”

“Oh, god no.” I wave him off. “You made dinner. And… thank you, Kim. It was delicious.”

She smiles. “It was my pleasure, Annie. Come see us soon?”

I grit my teeth as I return her smile, trying not to let my displeasure at her using my father’s nickname for me show through. “Of course.”

“See you later, kid.” My dad leans down and kisses the top of my head, then scoops Calliope up and blows a raspberry on her tummy. She shrieks with joy but immediately turns and starts to reach for Christian.

“Dada, dada.”

“Well, this is going to be fun,” I sigh. “I’m glad she can now vocalize her preference for Christian. As if her screams every time he left the house weren’t enough, now she can actually tell everyone how much more she loves him than me. It’s good. Real good.”

Christian laughs as he takes Calliope from my dad, and shakes his hand again. We each give out hugs to Kate, Elliot, and Mia, but while Grace heads out for her car, Carrick hangs behind.

“I’ve narrowed it down to three names for police chief. My office will do one more round of interviews and then I’ll pick one of them to present to city council for appointment.”

“And they’ll be on our side?” I ask. “You’re sure?”

“Positive. Trust me, Ana. I’m going to find everyone who was responsible for what happened and make sure they end up behind bars.”

“How long will that take?”

“I don’t know. But I want you to know that I’m working on it. I haven’t forgotten, and I won’t.”

I take a deep breath, then nod, and Carrick leans in to give Callie one last kiss before he goes. Christian and I linger in the doorway while we watch everyone pull down the driveway. Once the gate closes behind the last car, Christian puts the code in the box that shuts everything down, then turns to follow me in the kitchen. We both carry in plates from the dining room, but as I start actually doing dishes, he becomes too absorbed in Calliope saying his name again and again to be much help.

“Our baby might be a genius, Ana,” he says proudly. “We should really look into getting her enrolled in an advanced preschool program.”

“She’s said one word, Christian,” I say, rolling my eyes.

“Yes, but her diction is perfect.”

“She’s not even a year old.”

“But the earlier we get her enrolled in pre-school, the better chance we have of getting her into a good primary school, which will get her into the best secondary schools, and eventually, Harvard.”

“Okay, Carrick,” I say dryly as I place the final plate in the dishwasher and turn the knob to start it.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, maybe we should give her a chance to be a kid before we start sending in college applications.”

“A mind like hers shouldn’t be wasted, Anastasia.”

I turn and lean against the sink, giving him a pointed look that doesn’t seem to have much effect on his resolve. It’s baffling. For a smart man, sometimes he can be very obtuse.

“Come on, Munchkin,” I say, moving towards him and taking her out of his arms. “It’s way past your bedtime.”

Surprisingly, she doesn’t fight me as I pull her into me and carry her off to the nursery, perhaps because Christian follows right behind us. While I lay her down in the bed and remove the teddy bear that has no business being in the crib with her, Christian winds up the mobile that dangles over her and fills the room with the soft tinkling sounds of music. We each lean over the edge of the crib railing and kiss her goodnight. Normally, I’d sit in the rocking chair beside the crib and read aloud to her, but tonight seems to have worn her out enough. She’s already half asleep by the time we pull away, and as we creep out of the room and switch off the light, she doesn’t make a sound.

“Alone again,” Christian says when we make it back to our bedroom. He captures my face between his hands, kisses me tenderly, and pushes me back to our bed. I gasp slightly as I fall back onto the mattress and he crawls over the top of me. We start tearing away each other’s clothes, but only seconds after he starts kissing me again, he stops and pulls away.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“Would you mind if we… just went to sleep?”

“Oh, thank god,” I say with relief. “I’m so tired, I thought I was going to drop Calliope coming up the stairs.”

He laughs, but the sound slowly dies away, leaving him looking almost forlorn. “I guess our vacation really is over, huh?”

“I guess so.”

He sighs and kisses me again, then moves so we can pull down the covers and crawl into bed together. He pulls me tightly against him as he settles into sleep, and I lie there in the dark, encased in his warmth, waiting for his body to relax and his breathing to even out. Once I’m sure he’s asleep, I gently ease his arms off of me and roll out of bed. With one last look at his peaceful face, I turn and leave the room, heading straight for my office downstairs.

The security team should be off for the night, but the window from my office is visible from Taylor’s room, so I don’t turn on the light. I plop down in my chair, pick up the landline on my desk, and start to dial.

“Hello,” a very groggy voice answers.

“Luke? I’m sorry, did I wake you?”

“Yeah, but that’s okay. What’s up?”

“I have an excuse to go to Cambridge. Alone.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, Mia got into Harvard and needs someone to take her to orientation. Christian is going to schedule our flight for the first weekend of March.”

“Good. I’ll meet you there. We still on for Wednesday?”

I take a deep breath. “Absolutely.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 01

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I’ve missed the sun. This winter has been long, cold and extremely wet, so the feeling of its rays browning my skin right now is like being welcomed home after a hard fought battle. There’s a breeze coming off the tides of the Indian Ocean that keeps me comfortable under the insistent and unimpeded sun, and listening to the steady swell and crash of the tide is at once both absorbing and relaxing.

It’s paradise, and that’s what I try to focus on.

Not the beautiful baby girl I’ve left behind, or the miles of beach around us that are exposed and unprotected. Just this. Just the sun.

Christian and I have been in the Maldives for only two of our five planned days, and so far it’s been a struggle to be here and present with him rather than obsessing over what we’ve left behind. When he lured me out of the house Monday morning, all he told me was that he had a Valentine’s surprise. I expected jewelry or an intimate lunch. Maybe a hotel room and a complicated set of restraints to hold me down while we tested out a whole new slew of toys that would leave us both exhausted and well satisfied. What I didn’t expect was Kate and Elliot simultaneously making their way to my house so they could spend the week looking after my baby or the pre-packed bags that Taylor unloaded from the back of the SUV and into Christian’s private jet.

I nearly had a panic attack. My voice broke as the list of reasons we couldn’t leave Seattle poured from my mouth and my hands shook so badly that Christian had to take them in his to get them to stop. Since… it happened, Calliope hasn’t been out of my sight for more than a couple of hours. No overnights with Grace, no weekends with my father in Montesano. Last fall, Christian finally had a daycare built inside GEH with the thought that he’d earn some good will from his employees by providing free child care, while also being able to take Callie to work with him so I could write at home without any interruption. But she hasn’t been even one time. I can’t stand having her away from me. Ever. So there was no way I was going to get on that flight and leave her behind.

I fought. I argued. I did everything I could to get him to take me home. But, after nearly forty five minutes of back and forth, Christian managed to win me over. Not with promises of sun drenched beaches or exotic excursions through lush jungles and crystal clear seas, but with one transparently honest statement.

“Anastasia, I miss you.”

These past few months have been hard. I’ve tried to put what happened last August behind me, but I can’t. It is always in the back of my mind, and instead of getting better with time it seems to be getting worse. Sometimes I can hide it, sometimes I can’t. Because the fear that I felt that night changed me. I’m not the same girl I used to be. I’m jaded, paranoid, and I don’t trust anyone.

The best thing for me has been to keep myself occupied at all times. I spend every waking second buried in my novel or with my daughter. And between that, Christian’s international expansion with GEH, the election last fall, constantly checking in with Carrick to find out how his new chief of police appointment is going, and doing what I need to do to feel protected in the meantime, Christian and I have sort of… fallen out of sync. We don’t see each other enough, and when we do that time is usually dedicated to Calliope. Our sex life hasn’t suffered in terms of frequency, but it feels more mechanical than passionate. The love is there, but we’re not connecting the way we used to. This week is about fixing that, putting everything aside and thinking about nothing but each other.

This is going to be good for us.

This is going to be the honeymoon we never had.

This is going to be fun.

Except, I can’t stop obsessing over Calliope being alone in Seattle, without me to watch over and protect her. I can’t stop thinking about what could be happening while we’re away.

Just enjoy the sun, Anastasia.

After taking a deep breath, I stretch out on the sun lounger and close my eyes, thinking I might just let the sound of the waves lull me off to sleep. Christian didn’t exactly give me ample opportunity to rest last night after all. But, just as I start to doze off, I hear a high squeaking sound and the sun disappears.

“Why?” I complain, peeking out of the corner of my eye to see that Christian has re-adjusted the sun umbrella behind us so that I’m shielded by its shadow.  

“I don’t want you to burn.” He leans over me and starts kissing my neck. “I’ve spent the last hour thinking of several exciting things I plan on doing to you tonight and a sunburn doesn’t mesh well with what I’ve planned.”

I try, but fail, to conceal the smile his erotic warning brings out of me. “The whole last hour, huh? Sounds like you don’t find the book I gave you very engaging.”

“After reading your work, very little is. Besides, how could you expect me to read when the view is so incredible?”

“Mmm, it is beautiful.”

“Yes.” His hand moves from the side of my face, down the curve of my neck, and through the curves of my cleavage. When he hits the fabric of my bikini top, he works his fingers underneath in search of my nipple, which he pinches tightly between his fingers. “Beautiful.”  

“Very brazen, Mr. Grey,” I say, but my admonishment only makes his grin wider.

“Oh, baby. You have no idea.” Using the hand still toying with my nipple, he pushes my bikini top to the side, and the moment my breast is exposed his mouth is on me. I hiss slightly from the scrape of his teeth, but the sting is quickly soothed away by the gentle caress of his lips and tongue. My eyes quickly move to the umbrella again, checking to make sure that we’re concealed from the other resort guests enjoying the sun this afternoon. We are, so I close my eyes and force myself to keep quiet while he works his magic, and he takes advantage. Soon, his hands are trailing down my stomach and beneath my bikini bottoms.

“Christian!”  I sit bolt upright, moving away from his fingers. “What are you doing?”

He gives me a devilish grin. “Making my wife come.”

There’s a hunger in his voice when he speaks the word come that makes me tighten with anticipation, but when he tries to move his hand back between my legs, I slap it away and cover my breast again.

“We are not having sex right now. We are on a public beach!”

He raises an eyebrow before slowly looking to his right at the miles of uninterrupted white sand stretching out away from us, then to his left at the clean white canvas of the umbrella that stands between us and the few people lying out in the sand or surfing the waves far enough away that we can barely make them out ourselves.

“I think we’re okay.”

“Until someone comes back around with drinks.”

“Anastasia, I finally, truly have you all to myself again. No one knows who we are, my family isn’t here, Calliope is in someone else’s very capable hands, we don’t have security hovering over us, and there aren’t any paparazzi hiding in the shadows to get a photo of us together. Right now, right here, I really couldn’t give a fuck what the other guests may or may not see.”

I bite down on my lip, nearly won over by the carnal, ravenous look in his eye, but it’s his fingers that really start to win me over. He gently drags the pad of his thumb over me, spreading the hint of my arousal that he awakened before up and around my clitoris. With one last nervous glance, I turn towards the resort to make sure no one is coming towards us with a drink tray, and when I find the long winding path leading down to the beach empty, I nod and surrender. His eyes flash with lust as I settle back into the lounger and he slides a finger inside of me, searching for the perfect place that is sure to make me unravel.

I start to pant in time with his fingers moving in and out of me, and, as my legs start to tremble, he moves down my body, drops his head between my legs, and devours me. I gasp, tangle my fingers in his windblown hair, and push against his insistent tongue and fingers. Between his talented mouth, the sound of his own satisfied groans being muffled between my thighs, and the arousing possibility of being caught, it takes no time at all before I’m teetering right on the edge.

“Oh, fuck!”

“Shh. Keep quiet, baby.”

“Fuck quiet. Fuck being caught. Make me come, Christian.”

He hums with pleasure before sliding a third finger inside of me, and it’s my undoing. I convulse around his fingers, trying desperately to keep myself from making enough noise that I’ll attract the other guests on the beach. I think he sees me struggling because he moves up to take my lips with his then, and kisses me deeply, continuing to move his fingers in time with each pulse radiating from deep inside of me. I can taste myself on his tongue and it drives me wild. My orgasm intensifies until I have to pull away form his hand or risk passing out.

“God, you’re sexy,” he whispers, his tongue brushing lightly against my bottom lip. I take a deep breath, trying to get a hold of myself, but that seems like a lost cause when he pulls his fingers up to his own lips and subtly slips them into his mouth. “Mmm. Perfection.”

“You’re incorrigible,” I laugh, pushing him off of me and straightening my bikini bottoms again. I stand to tilt the umbrella again so that we’re still shielded from the other beach goers, but not the sun. As the rays begin to warm my skin again, I dig the sunscreen out of the sand next to the lounger and apply it to my shoulders and legs. He waits, watching intently as I rub my hands over my body, so I pour a large dab into my palm and slap it onto his chest.

“Hey!” he exclaims, indignant. I laugh, then climb onto the lounger, straddling him, and slowly rub the lotion into his skin. He leans back, enjoying the feel of my hands all over him, but when I lean over to kiss him he pushes back on my hips and stares up at me adoringly.

“Let’s go for a swim.”

“Now? Don’t want some kind of… reciprocation?”

He smiles. “Oh, I have plenty of ideas for that, Mrs. Grey. But they’ll have to wait for later. Now, come.”

“But I just did.” I grin, overly pleased with myself, and he shakes his head with mirth before rolling off the lounger, grabbing ahold of my arm, and lifting me up over his shoulder like a potato sack.

“Hey!”

“We could’ve done this the easy way, Anastasia, but you chose the hard way.”

“That’s because I like it hard.”

He laughs, then charges into the surf before dumping into the shallow waves and diving in after me.

 

Our time in the Maldives is amazing, and soon my preoccupation with the what ifs back home melt away so that I can enjoy every second of my alone time with Christian. I was fully prepared to spend all five days just lounging on the beach and relaxing, but Christian has packed each of our days here with seemingly unlimited activities and excursions. We snorkel over the expansive coral reefs and swim with sharks. We visit museums and exotic restaurants, where we both get to discover new favorite foods together. Christian tries to teach me to surf one afternoon, but that goes just about as well as the time he tried to teach me to ski, so we abandon that fairly quickly and decide instead to explore the local markets where we buy enough souvenirs for Calliope that it becomes necessary to purchase a whole new suitcase for the flight home. When we’re not treking all over the island, we enjoy bottomless cocktails on the beach or get couples massages at the resort.

And we make love.

Constantly.

Over every inch of our private water villa. In the sauna at the spa. In the coat check closet at the restaurant in the resort. Even once in the back of a taxi. It’s like we’re nineteen again and as the week ticks past and I feel our bond strengthening more than I think it ever has before, I realize that I’ve really missed him too. It makes the prospect of our final night here bittersweet, but as I get ready for dinner that night, he tells me that he’s saved the best for last.

At sunset, we head to the main beach outside the resort. The sun sinks low in the sky, creating an amazingly colorful sunset that is breathtaking and unbelievably romantic. There’s a feast taking place tonight, which is meant to give the guests a taste of Dhivehi culture, but despite the music, dancing, and the delicious looking food, Christian seems more occupied studying the darker, more private paths that lead away from the party than enjoying the festivities.

“Will you stop it,” I giggle, elbowing him in the side. He turns and looks down at me, but he fails to evoke innocence with his smile.

“What?”

“I know what you’re thinking. You’re not being very subtle.” I take a drink of the fruity cocktail in my hand and his eyes glimmer.

“I’m just thinking of you, baby. This party is going to go all night and there’s a lot of alcohol being poured. Whenever tequila is involved, I know I have to have a back up plan to get you alone.”

I laugh, then nearly stumble as he wraps an arm around my waist and pulls me into him so that he can kiss me. Again, it strikes me how liberating it feels to be openly affectionate with him and not have to worry about who’s watching or if there will be a picture of us splashed across some trashy gossip site the next day. We don’t even have to worry about making Taylor uncomfortable. It’s just the two of us. He’s not Mr. Grey, CEO, and I’m not Anastasia Steele, New York Times Best Selling Author. We’re just two anonymous people in love, and it’s everything I could want and more.

The hostess seats us at a small table covered in a crisp white table cloth with a candle burning low in the middle of a small floral centerpiece. When they bring food around to our table, Christian takes it upon himself to feed me, but only so that he can pull the fork away from me at the last second to keep me from actually being able to take a bite. The dancers come around and perform their traditional Dhivehi dance right before our table, and Christian takes my hand in his as we both enjoy their performance.

Finally, when the festivities die down and Christian and I are dizzy from the alcohol, he gets up from the table and holds his hand out for mine.

“No, I’m not ready to go to bed yet,” I complain.

He smiles and shakes his head. “We’re not. Come, I want to show you something.”

I glance down at his groin, then back up to his eyes. “I’ve seen it.”

“Not nearly enough.” He rolls his eyes and I laugh, but he leans over and takes my hand anyway. “Trust me, you don’t want to miss this.”

Placing my napkin on the table, I get out of my seat and, after we’ve thanked our hosts profusely for a magnificent evening, I follow him from the tented area out to the beach. Everything in the distance is hidden in the pitch black because the lights from the resort are so bright that they obscure the natural glow of the moon and stars. The sand beneath our feet is still warm from the constant rays of the sun throughout the day and I can hear the tide coming in, but I can’t see where the waves wash over the shore. It’s almost a little nerve racking, walking towards the ocean without being able to see where it starts. Eventually though, my eyes adjust and the light begins to illuminate the foam in the water, rather than conceal it. When the sand beneath our feet becomes wet and packed, Christian stops and turns to face me.

“Here we are.”

I frown, then look up the beach to my right, then to my left. All I can see is the dark shape of the water washing up over the empty beach before pulling away again.

“It’s… beautiful?” I say, turning back to him with confusion.

He smiles. “Look down.”

I do as he says and notice, as I move my feet, that’s there’s something blue in the wet sand. Not something solid, like an object, more like a pale light.

“What is that?”

“It’s called bioluminescence. It comes from a kind of plankton that floats between the islands here. It’s hard to make out properly with all this light, but it’s one of the great wonders of the world.”

“Too much light, huh?” I bite down on my lip and give Christian a mischievous smile before leaning up on my tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek and taking off down the beach, away from the resort.  He calls my name before chasing after me, following my illuminated footsteps until we come around a bend that frames the jungle and I stop dead in my tracks.

From here, the trees block the unnatural light coming from the resort and, in the darkness, the ocean seems to glow. It’s not just in the sand, it’s in the water, and as the tide rolls over the beach, it looks like we’ve stepped into some kind of fairy tale. The waves aren’t just neon blue, they sparkle, like the kind of magic you would see animated in a Disney film.

“Christian,” I breathe in astonishment. He smiles and takes my hand again, then pulls me down the beach to get a closer look. There’s an almost surreal quality to the waves as they wash over our feet. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen and as I stare out into the water, wondering how far this amazing phenomenon goes, I get an idea. I pull back on Christian’s hand so that he stops, then reach for the ties around my neck, unravel them, and let my sarong fall into the surf.

Christian raises an eyebrow at me, then takes a step closer, but I quickly turn away from him before he can take me into his arms and dart into the ocean, diving into the water the moment it becomes too deep for me to continue running. It feels much colder than it did during the day, but I don’t care. Every time I move my arms through the water the glow appears, surrounding me in a pool of bright blue light.

Christian is just as enthralled as I am. We swim together, diving under the waves as they come crashing towards us and chasing each other through the brief moments of calm in between. Eventually though, the cold becomes too much in conjunction with the rapidly cooling night air and we have to get out of the water. But as I move up the beach to collect my discarded dress, Christian grabs ahold of me and spins me into his arms. He holds me there, for a long moment. Not moving. Not speaking. Just staring deeply into my eyes, as though he’s reading his favorite novel for the millionth time, but still finding something new. Then, he takes my hand in his and, with no music, we start to dance.

He sweeps me through the sand to nothing more than the steady rhythm of the tide and as I spin into his body, he slowly dips me down until I’m relying only on his strength to keep me upright. With me fully at his mercy, he takes my lips with his. I moan and reach up to wrap my arms around his neck to pull myself as tightly against him as I can. He deepens the kiss, forcing my all too willing lips open. Slowly, we sink down until my back is pressed into the wet sand and he’s hovering over me. His hands move to my hair and the kiss turns into something more wild, more passionate. Heat floods through me, and I’m just about to reach down below the band of his swim trunks when a wave of water, higher than its predecessors, crashes into us and sends him toppling off of me, while nearly drowning me in the process.

“Shit!” Christian exclaims, scrambling back to me on his hands and knees. “Ana, are you okay?”

I cough, feeling the burn of the salt water as it moves through my sinuses. “Yeah. But that is not as romantic as they make it look in the movies.”

He laughs, hard enough that he falls into the sand at my side, and as we devolve into hysterics together, another wave comes rushing at us.

“No! No! No!” I scream, turning and clumsily scurrying higher up the beach to get away from the tide. I scoop up my dress, shake out the wet sand, and turn to face the man I love. He cradles my face in the palm of his hands, sending a wave of warm comfort and reassurance through me, then gently kisses my lips.

“Let’s get you cleaned up,” he whispers, then, unexpectedly, reaches down to scoop me up into his arms. I shriek with surprise, and then giggle again before holding tightly to him and resting my head on his shoulder.

Back at the bungalow, he carries me into the bathroom and then turns on the shower. Though it’s a warm night, the breeze coming off the water through our open windows carries a chill and, without Christian pressed against me, I feel cold. Goosebumps pop up on my arms and legs and the chill only seems to grow more intense when Christian turns back to me and untangles the knots holding my bikini in place.

“Cold?” he asks, reaching around me and taking my exposed breasts into his strong hands. My hardened nipples peak through the gaps between his fingers.

“A little.”

“Then get in. I’ll be right behind you.” He softly kisses my shoulder before nudging me forward, and I’m so eager to get beneath the steaming cascade of water that I don’t even ask why he’s not following after me. I step into the shower and close the frosted glass door behind me, letting the hot water wash away the caked sand and the chill that clings to my skin. I don’t even reach for the shampoo or body wash. I simply close my eyes and let myself enjoy the feeling of the heat on my face.

That is, until the door opens behind me.

“Better?” Christian asks. I can only make a low, contented noise in response, and he lets out a single, breathy chuckle before pressing his naked chest into my back and leaning forward so that his lips brush lightly against my ear. “Don’t turn around.”

His hands move, but not to touch my body. Instead, he picks up the bottle of shampoo from the tile ledge, takes what he needs, then begins to work the fragrant liquid into my hair. The hot water feels as though it’s already melted away the tension in my body from being cold and nearly drowning back on the beach, but the feeling of Christian massaging my scalp somehow makes me relax even further. My legs practically turn to jelly beneath his expert touch, and I have to lean against him to keep them from buckling from under me.  

“Alright,” he says at last. “Rinse.”

I do, and since I have to turn to face him to wash the suds from my hair, I fully expect him to take advantage of my busy hands and closed eyes to explore my body. But he doesn’t. He simply picks up the sea sponge next to the body wash and begins to clean away the sand from my skin. It’s enticing, feeling the gentle caress of the sponge passing over my breasts and down and around my body. He’s meticulous, working slow to draw out my agony as I wait for him to really touch me, but he makes it all the way down to my toes without so much as letting his hand slip to any one of my most sensitive erogenous zones.

“That feels nice,” I whisper. He smiles and leans forward to kiss my inner thigh, then stands and slowly drags a single finger up the length of my leg until he finally touches me where I crave him most. I moan and push into him, wrapping my arms around his neck so I can pull his lips down to mine, but he stops me.

“Not yet, my love. I need washing too.”

My eyes pop open and a playful smile tugs at the corners of my mouth. “Well, then… hand it over.”

He places the sponge in my outstretched hand and, after adding more soap, I step aside to let him stand beneath the water. He wasn’t lying in the sand the way I was on the beach, so he’s not as dirty, but that doesn’t mean I’m any less fastidious in the way I wash him. Leaving a trail of suds  behind, I use the sponge to explore every inch of his amazing body. Every curve and line of every muscle, even the scar from the surgery after they removed his kidney last fall. The soft sounds he makes as I work my way down his body only feed my ever growing need for him, until I finish washing his feet and find myself on my knees before him.

I glance up and raise an eyebrow. “Smooth.”

He smiles, then brushes his hand past my ear, into my wet hair, and gently pulls me forward. I take him hungrily into my mouth, and roll my tongue around the head of his quickly hardening erection. Again, he moans and pushes his hips forward, encouraging me, telling me how good my mouth feels around him with every sudden intake of breath or tightening of his fingers in my hair. I reach up and press both of my palms against his well defined abs, digging my fingers into him every time he tests the limit at the back of my throat with his cock, and relishing in the soft, desperate way he says my name. I only wish that the water trickling off his body down onto me didn’t keep me from looking up at his beautiful face so that I could see just how much he loves this.

I can tell when he’s close by the way the tip of his erection tightens in my mouth and his legs start to shake. He braces himself against the shower wall, and I think he’s going to come in my mouth, but right at the last second, he pulls back and yanks me off the shower floor. The next thing I know, my back is pressed into the tile and he’s consuming me. His body pins mine to the wall, his hands pull my legs up around his waist so that his erection is pressing against me, and his mouth takes mine with an eager kind of fervor that makes me feel his kiss in the deepest, darkest parts of me.

“You’re so hot,” he breathes into my mouth, panting as I cling to him with my body and curl my fingers tightly into to the roots of his hair. “God, I want you.”

“Then take me. Make love to me, Christian.”

With one powerful thrust, he’s inside of me. My head drops back as I let out a pleasure filled gasp and my breasts press firmly into his chest. He leans over, and takes one of my nipples into his mouth as he starts to move and suddenly, it’s not the heat from the shower that makes me feel as though fire is crawling uninhibited across my skin.

It’s him.

It’s us.

“Fuck, you feel… oh, god. Ana!”

I lock my ankles around him, pushing him further into me so that I can take him as deep as possible. My fingers slip from his hair and drag down his back, making him groan and thrust into me harder and faster. It’s not long before he has me panting his name over and over again.

“Yes, like that. Please, Christian. Harder. Harder. Harder….”

He shifts so that he’s holding me with only one hand and the pressure of his body pinning me to the shower wall. With his free hand, he reaches down between my legs and finds my clit, only a few precious centimeters above the place he relentlessly moves in and out of me. It makes everything inside of me tighten, and when he groans at the feeling of my insides gripping his cock like a velvet vice, he leans into me again and presses his lips against the curve of my neck.

“I’m going to come, Ana. You’re going to make me come.”

It’s all I need.

I scream as the dam bursts and sends wave upon wave of pleasure throughout every inch of my body. I feel it surge and crash and surge and crash again until finally, he cries out my name and I feel the faint ripple that tells me he’s found his own release.

As the intensity fades away, I’m left with the after tremors of my orgasm while I try desperately to catch my breath. Christian’s face is buried in the conjunction of my neck and my shoulder and he starts to kiss me there until we’ve both recovered  enough that I can untangle myself from him and let him ease me out of his arms.

“I love you,” he tells me, and I let out a small, satisfied moan before leaning forward to softly kiss his lips.

“And I am utterly and completely in love with you.”

He smiles, looking relaxed and happy, then brushes the stray hairs that are matted to my face with water away. “Don’t take too long drying off. The bed’s too big without you.”

“I won’t,” I promise, and he kisses my forehead before pulling away and stepping out of the shower.

After cleaning away the remnants of our lovemaking, I turn off the water and reach for one of the fluffy, oversized towels to wrap myself in. There’s a hair dryer under the sink that I use to finish my hair, then I take a quick peak in the mirror to admire my new tan before heading off for the bedroom to join my husband.

He’s already in bed, once again reading the book I recommended to him last week, but when he sees me, he closes it, puts it on his bedside table, and pulls back the covers for me. I smile and leap into bed next to him, immediately cuddling into his side and reveling in the feeling of his strong arms wrapping around me.

“Tired?” he asks. My response is cut off with a yawn, so he chuckles slightly, then reaches over to turn off his lamp. We both sink down deeper into the bed, pulling the covers up over us and cuddling close together. It’s nirvana after a long day, and there, in his arms, I gently drift off to sleep.

That is, until I hear distant sound of a baby crying.

I’ve become so accustomed to being woken in the night by the sound of Calliope’s cries through the baby monitor, that at first it doesn’t even phase me. Not until I rub the sleep from my eyes and remember that I’m in not in my bedroom or even in my own house. I’m in an overwater bungalow nearly 9,000 miles away from her.  

I sit up straight, staring into the darkness with confusion. It’s quiet again, so I figure at first that I was just imagining things. But as I lie back into my pillow, I hear the cry again.

“Calliope?” The cry grows louder, so I turn to Christian in the bed next to me and try to shake him awake. He moans softly, but simply rolls over and drifts off again. I bite down on my lip as the wail becomes more insistent, then climb out of bed to investigate. It’s dark, so once I’m out of the bedroom I have to fumble along the wall to find a lightswitch. The outdated wiring means the electricity crackles for half a second before the light turns on, and, as the sitting room comes into view and I find the source of the noise, I have to hold back my scream.

“Gia?”

She turns a sharp glare up at me that makes me tremble. “Shh, you’re upsetting the baby, Anastasia.”

“Give her to me,” I breathe, taking a tentative step forward with my arms outstretched. “Gia, please. Give her to me.”

“Oh no, Ana.” She smiles, but there’s no warmth in it. “You’ve already lost her.”

“Wha-” The word cuts off as someone grabs me from behind and silences my responding scream with a gloved hand. I flail, trying to break free of the strong arms that snake around me, but it’s no use. Whoever has a hold of me tries to shush me, and while I can’t see his face or any other kind of identifier, I recognize his scent immediately. It makes bile rise up into my throat.

“You think it would be that simple to get away from me, Anastasia?” Linc whispers into my ear. “I told you I wouldn’t stop until I had what I wanted. You.”

His hands start groping my body while I continue to fight against him, thrashing violently in his arms until his hand slips from my mouth just enough that I can scream.

“Christian! Help me!”

“Shut the fuck up, Anastasia.”

“No! Help! Please!”

“Shut up, Anastasia!”

“No, get off me! Let me go!”

“Anastasia!”

My eyes spring open as Christian starts physically shaking me awake. He’s straddling me, one hand on each shoulder, and my first reaction is push him away. To fight his hold on me, just like I fought Lincoln. The first time this happened, I’d been so panicked that I hadn’t realized it was him when I woke and I’d given him a black eye trying to get away. But he’s done this enough now that he knows exactly how to hold me so that I’m forced to lie still until I realize where I am, what’s happened, and I’ve calmed down.

“You were dreaming, Ana,” he says softly. “It’s me. You’re safe. It was just a nightmare. You’re safe, baby.”

“Calliope,” I gasp, tears leaking from the corner of my eyes. “She has Calliope. We have to call, give me my phone…”

“No one has Calliope, Ana. She’s safe at home.”

I shake my head. “No, I saw her. She had our baby in her arms. She said I’d already lost her. Christian, we have to call. Taylor can save her. Taylor can get to her. Give me my phone!”

“Ana, look at me. No one has Calliope. No one is coming for you. No one is coming for any of us. Linc is gone. It’s over. You are safe. Calliope is safe.”

My chest heaves as I stare into his reassuring eyes until the fear slowly recedes from my body and I’m able to catch my breath. The adrenaline rush dies as quickly as it came and my natural reaction to the crash is to tremble and cry, but I fight it. The nightmares don’t come as often as they used to, but they happen often enough to make Christian worry and I don’t want that. I don’t want to go back to those first few months where everyone in my life treated me like some kind of breakable china doll. I’m not. And so I hold back my tears and force my body to stop shaking.

“I’m okay,” I tell him, moving slightly so that he’ll loosen his grip on my arms.

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah.” I nod, letting out a long, soothing breath, and he pulls his hands away from me. As he moves back into the bed next to me again, he pulls me tightly against his body and places three soft kisses on my naked shoulder.

“I really thought bringing you here would help.”

“It did. I mean… Christian, I’m fine.”

“Really? You call this fine?”

“It was just a bad dream.”

“A bad dream that you’ve been having at least three nights a week for months.” I press my lips together, unable to respond to him. He tightens his hold around me and buries his face into my hair. “I’m not going to argue with you about this anymore, Anastasia. When we get home, you’re going to therapy.”

“Christian… I don’t need therapy. I go with you every week and it clearly hasn’t done anything.”

“Because you don’t talk!”

“But I listen.” I turn in his arms so I can look at him. “I listen to you, I listen to Flynn… The only person not being heard is me. I’m fine, okay? I just… I need some time.”

He exhales sharply, the same tortured look he gets every time we talk about this clouding his eyes. Usually, this is where he drops it, but tonight I’m not sure he will. So reach up to place each of my hands on either side of his face, brushing my thumbs over the curves just below his eyes, then slowly lean in to kiss him. He doesn’t rebuke me, but his responding kiss is tentative, and when I pull away he doesn’t look anymore reassured.

“I love you, Christian.”

He sighs. “I love you too, Ana. I just wish you’d let me help you.”

“You do. More than you know.” I kiss him one last time then nestle down into the space under his shoulder. His fingers move in my hair, sending tingling shivers down my spine, and as I finally start to drift off to sleep again, his lips press gently into my forehead and I hear him whisper that he loves me once more.

Next Chapter

Book Four

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Life after Harvard was supposed to be Ana’s happily ever after, until one fateful night shattered everything. Will Ana find the courage to overcome the past, or will her desperation to protect those she loves destroy her and everything she’s worked so hard to build? (Part four to A Different Shade of Fifty, A Broken Shade of Fifty, and A Stronger Shade of Fifty).

Chapter 01

Carrick PoV: Election Day

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For the first time in months, I haven’t started my day in the campaign office Christian has leased my team inside his towering skyscraper downtown. Instead, I’m in my kitchen, enjoying the cup of coffee my wife has poured for me, staring out at the black water of Lake Washington beneath the dark gray clouds that will likely bring rain by the afternoon. This could be it. All that is left for me. Or, today could change my life and the lives of everyone I love forever.

It’s election day.  The polls open in thirty-five minutes and then it’s all in the voter’s hands. Months and months of tireless work all comes down to this.

I have to win. Not for pride or glory, but for my daughter-in-law, who was so terrified of her own home after what the man I used to consider my best friend had done to her that she still hasn’t been able to go back. For my son, who has lost all trust in everyone around him he doesn’t consider family. For the dozens of people who lost everything they owned in the apartment fire set as a diversion to give a mad man time to kidnap Anastasia and get out of the city before the police could arrive. For the people who are still out there and who may have cause to come after Christian and his family again.

I have to win.

I take another long drink of coffee to drown out the warning Grace has given me over and over again, which now echoes through my mind.

You can’t do this just to get revenge for Christian. This is a real job. If you’re elected, people will be depending on you.

I know this. I know that what I’m setting out to do isn’t just a free power grab into the inner workings of the government. I’m going to be mayor of the largest metropolis in the Pacific Northwest. There are well over a half a million people in this city. People who will depend on my leadership, to ensure good policy is being made that encourages economic growth and provides sustainable jobs. That protections are put in place for the small businesses competing against the giant conglomerates that have moved in and caused an unprecedented population boom since the early 2000s. We need direction to deal with the housing crisis and the overwhelming problems of poverty and homelessness that plague this great city.

I’m going to do all of those things. I understand the commitment and I’m going to dedicate myself to being the best public servant for this city that I can. But I am also going to make sure that everyone who is responsible for what happened to my son, or who had a role in covering up what was done, is going to face real and serious consequences.

“Ready, dear?”

I turn and see Grace coming into the kitchen behind me, hooking an earring through her ear as she moves to her purse on the counter. She looks stunning. Exactly the way this city’s first lady should look.

I can’t express how important and valuable her support has been to me over the past few months. She hasn’t missed one rally, one debate, or one fundraiser. She’s answered phones, she’s overseen the production of pamphlets and advertising signs, she even did an interview last week with the KIRO 2 news team about “the man behind the campaign.” And, through all of this, she hasn’t missed even one appointment with any of her patients. She’s spent every Wednesday afternoon with Calliope while Christian and Ana went to therapy together. She hasn’t missed a beat, and for all the love I’ve always held for this woman over thirty years of marriage, I have never admired her more.

“You look beautiful this morning, sweetheart.”

She smiles. “Thank you, dear. I’m guessing there will be press there to cover you casting your vote so I thought I should put in a little extra effort this morning. Ana called. She and Christian are heading to the polling place first thing this morning and she’s in a panic because she can’t find that outfit we bought for Calliope last week. It’s no wonder with the mountains of clothes that baby has. She’s going to outgrow most of them before she even gets a chance to try them on.”

“Haven’t we bought most of those clothes?” I ask, raising an eyebrow, and she smiles again.

“So I like to spoil my only grandchild. Sue me. I don’t know why she’s making such a fuss anyway, she might as well dress her in her pj’s and mismatched socks. Christian won’t let anyone with a camera near that baby.”

“Do you blame him?”

Her smile falters and she plays with the strap on her purse to buy time so she can decide how or if she should say what she wants to next. “You don’t really think there’s still someone after them do you?”

“I don’t know,” I reply honestly. “But if I win today, I’m going to find out.”

“Carrick…”

“I know, I know. It’s not just for them.” I move across the kitchen and place a finger beneath her chin, giving her a sly kind of smile. “I also just really like the sound of Mayor Grey.”

“Well, then you better get downtown and vote. Come on, if we hurry we might be able to beat the morning traffic and catch Christian and Ana at the polls.”

 

It’s a madhouse in downtown Seattle between the morning commuters trying to get to work and the thousands of people pouring in from all over the city to cast their ballots. It takes us nearly an hour to find parking, but as we come up the long walkway to the courthouse we see Ana and Christian standing at the top of the stairs in front of a crowd of reporters. It looks as though Christian is answering questions while Ana hovers uneasily behind him, holding a swaddled Calliope in her arms.

“Ah, here he is!” Christian says brightly, motioning to Grace and I as we climb the steps. There’s a new wave of commotion as the cameras turn on us and we wade through the dozens of questions being asked. Grace pays attention to none of it. Her eyes are set only on her pride and joy. Her granddaughter.

“How has she been this morning?” she asks, and Ana lets out a heavy sigh.

“Fussy. She’s not used to this kind of commotion and I think she’s starting to reverse cycle with Christian at work all day and me trying to finish this book… She had me up all last night and now she’s exhausted.”

“Well she just needs a little nappie,” Grace coos into the blanket. “Tell you what, I’ll take her and give you a little break this afternoon.”

“Actually, we were hoping you’d spend the day at our house,” Christian says. “Kate and Elliot are coming over after their appointment this morning. They’re finding out the gender today.”

“Today? That was today?” Grace asks, panicked.

“Well, it was supposed to be at the end of the week,” Ana says. “But Kate thought maybe having a little family time this afternoon and focusing on the new baby might make it a little more bearable until we get the results of the vote this evening.”

“You’re not working, son?”

“Not today. Today’s about you, Dad.”

I smile and clap him on the shoulder. “Thanks, Christian. We’d love to come. Just let me go do this thing and we’ll meet you at home.”

He nods and reaches for Ana, but she’s having a hard time getting away from Grace.

“We’ll see you soon, angel. Grandma loves you. Yes she does. Yes she does.”

“Okay, Grace,” I say, taking hold of her elbow and moving her back away from our granddaughter. “The sooner we let them leave, the sooner the baby gets a nap.”

She frowns but lets me lead her away, and after we wave goodbye to Christian and Ana, we’re followed into the courthouse by the the continuous flash of cameras behind us.

I’ve practiced law in this city for nearly twenty years. The King County courthouse is a building I know by heart. But today, when I walk through the doors, it feels different than any of the million times I’ve done it before. I can feel the momentous weight of what I’m about to do and it leaves me confuddled in a strange mix of pride and fear. I think I have a real chance at winning this thing, but the task just on the other side of victory is intimidating.

“Good luck,” Grace says as she steps through the curtain into the booth where she’ll cast her vote. I smile at her one last time, and then follow her lead into the stall next to her. There’s a table there for me to place my ballot on, and when I open the folder and see my name on the sheet in front of me, my ears heat.

 

Mayor:

⃣   Carrick Grey (I)

 

With a deep breath, I take my pen and punch through the checkbox by my name, taking a second to revel in the joy of the moment, and then quickly move down the list of other open offices and marking the boxes next to the names of the people I want to work with. It takes only a few minutes, but it’s the culmination of months of anticipation and when I step out of the voting booth, the fear dwindles enough that, for just a brief shining moment, I can bask in the unbridaled sense of pride.

“I voted for the other guy,” Grace says. “You know, so I wouldn’t seem biased.”

I laugh. “How long have you been planning that line?”

“Since September. And in my mind you were much more incensed.”

“Well how dare you!” I exclaim, then lean over to kiss her cheek. “Let’s go. We’ve got another grandbaby to celebrate today.”

 

Christian and Ana have the news on when we get to their house but, for the most part, it’s ignored. Ana has Calliope on her play mat, surrounded by all her favorite toys, and the four of us spend a good part of the morning completely engrossed in her tiny feet kicking with joy every time she’s able to wrap her little fingers around something. For the first time in a long time, Christian and I talk about things other than the election: fishing trips we hope to take, plans he has for business, and the new Bugatti Veyron model that was revealed for 2012. Ana and I discuss the Seahawks dismal 2-5 start this year and how desperately we need to find a decent quarterback in the draft next year.

“Honestly at this point we should throw the rest of the season,” she says furiously. “Take the losses now for better draft picks next year. I swear to god, I couldn’t talk to Bob for a week after the Steelers blew us out in week two.”

I laugh at the angry pink tint that colors her cheeks and then try to steer her away from football to a less touchy subject. But, when I ask her how Ray is doing she simply narrows her eyes at me and says, “He’s just as pissed about the Seahawks as I am.”

Even Christian laughs this time, but it’s short lived as we’re interrupted by the sound of the doorbell ringing. We all turn to look towards the front of the house as Taylor moves to the entrance hall to answer the door, but it’s not immediately apparent who has arrived once he lets them in because the first thing we see coming into the living room is a pair of nondescript legs holding a giant box.

“Ana?” Kate calls.

“In here.”

The box slips about a foot to reveal Elliot, and he glances between each of us until his eyes land on Christian. “Where can I leave this?”

“What…is it?” Christian asks.

“We got it from a party supply store,” Kate explains. “We had the doctor put the gender in an envelope, so even we don’t know. When we open the box, either pink or blue balloons will be released and we’ll all find out together.”

“Well, open it, for god’s sake!” Grace exclaims.

“Don’t you think we should wait for Mia to get here?”

“No,” Ana says.

Kate laughs and turns to Elliot. “Just go put it on the dining room table until we’re ready.”

“We’re ready!” Grace argues, but Elliot just laughs at his mother’s impatience, then kisses Kate on the cheek before heading into the dining room. Once he’s gone, Kate crosses the room and plops down on the sofa next to Ana.

“Check it out, I’m officially a Grey.” She reaches into her purse for her wallet, then pulls out her driver’s license, beaming as she hands it to her. “I just got it yesterday.”

“Oh, how unorthodox. Changing your name before you get married.” Ana gives Kate a hard look, which makes her roll her eyes.

“When are you going to forgive me?”

“When you have a real wedding that you invite me to.”

“It’s not like I purposely kept just you out, no one was invited. That’s kind of the point of eloping.”

“I did not give you permission to elope!”

“I didn’t ask!”

It was only two days after Kate and Elliot’s surprise engagement and subsequent pregnancy announcement that we all got the early morning phone call telling us they’d taken a late flight to Vegas and gotten married the night before. Grace was furious and while Ana was excited and happy for them over the phone, Christian later told me that, after the reality had sunk in and she realized that she wasn’t at Kate’s wedding, she cried. Clearly, she’s still upset. Personally, I half expected something like this. After what happened to Christian with Carla, Elliot was insistent that they be married before the baby was born, just in case. And between their jobs, the election, and the energy being poured into building their new house, there was no way they were going to have time to plan a wedding. They’re both very spontaneous kids, I think it’s fitting. I suppose that I wish, in hindsight, that we would have at least gotten a phone call to give us the opportunity to come, but they both seem truly happy. At the end of the day, that’s all I really care about. And hurt feelings aside, I have another daughter now.

Ana lets out an angry huff and crosses her arms over her chest. “We swore we were going to have the other as Maid of Honor when we got married. You got to be mine, and I would have gone to Vegas if you would have just called me.”

“I know, and I’m sorry that you didn’t get to be my Maid of Honor, but doesn’t the fact that we’re really and truly sisters now make up for it, just a little bit?”

Kate’s lower lip juts out and she gives Ana her best puppy dog look, and while Ana tries to keep up her indignant front, eventually, she can’t stop herself from smiling.

“Okay, fine. But, to make it up to me, I better get to be in the delivery room with you when you give birth.”

“You’ll have to fight me for that,” Elliot says, coming into the room and bending over the sofa to kiss Ana on the forehead, then slumping down onto the floor at Kate’s feet. Ana glares at him.

“She has two hands. You can hold one, I can hold the other.”

“Um, do I get a say in this?” Kate asks.

“No,” Elliot and Ana respond together, and as the two of them laugh, she rolls her eyes.

“Well, as long as we’re all on the same page, I guess…”

“Are we really not going to open that box?” Grace asks, and it’s clear by the frustration in her voice that she has been fuming about this from the moment Kate asked Elliot to take it into the other room. “The answer to whether or not I’m having my first grandson or my second granddaughter is fifty feet away from me, and you’re all just sitting here like it doesn’t even matter.”

“It won’t be much longer, Grace,” I tell her. “It’s nearly three. School is out, I’m sure Mia is on her way.”

Her eyes move to the giant clock over the fireplace, and she frowns. “I swear to god if that girl isn’t here in twenty minutes, she’s grounded forever.”

A low cry comes from the baby monitor in Ana’s hand, and quickly grows into a loud shriek, but as she gets off the couch to go get Calliope from the nursery, Grace stands and holds out a hand to stop her.

“I’ll get her. If you’re going to withhold one grandchild from me I may as well attend to the other.”

With a very dramatic flair, Grace leaves the living room and heads off to Calliope’s room, while Ana settles back into the couch and lifts her legs up and over Christian’s knee. He looks over at her and she smiles. “Kate’s baby is still in-utero and Callie is already competing for all the attention.”

“Of course she is,” Elliot says. “She’s Christian’s kid, through and through.”

Christian raises an eyebrow. “Well, let’s hope for your kid’s sake, they take after Kate.”

He waits a moment for Elliot’s incensed reaction, but it doesn’t come. Instead, my oldest son looks back at his brother and nods solemnly.

“Preach, brother. Preach.”

 

A half hour passes and Grace has returned with Calliope, who she feeds in the oversized cream lounge chair by the back window. The rest of us watch the news for any election updates, but it’s really too early for any news coverage, except the occasional check in with the reporters at the polls. I focus mainly on the number of people I can see behind her. The key to me winning is successfully getting the disenfranchised voters to the polls, and that very obstacle has killed every candidate who has run against him in the last three election cycles.

We’re watching an interview with someone fresh out of the voting booth when the doorbell rings and a few seconds later, Mia’s voice echoes through the entrance hall towards us.

“Christian?”

“In here, Meems,” he replies.

Mia hurries into the living room and her eyes zero in on the TV with excited expectation. “What are they saying?”

“Too early to tell,” Elliot answers.

She frowns. “Well, Tibby is eighteen, so she’s voting for you. So is her dad. I asked every single one of my teachers today and Mr. Randall, Mrs. Janisek, and Mr. Polansky are all voting for you too. Mrs. Aldey told me that wasn’t a polite thing to ask someone, so she’s probably not.”

“You shouldn’t be harassing your teachers, Mia,” I chide her, but she shrugs.

“Some kids badger them about recommendation letters for college, some kids hassle them into voting for their father for Mayor. They’re teachers. They’ve seen it all.”

“Speaking of which,” Christian interrupts. “Have you applied to Juilliard, yet? Housing in New York is not easy to find and if we’re going to get you a suitable apartment anywhere near campus, we need to start looking very soon.”

“I’m… working on it.”

“Well, work a little harder. I can’t help you if you don’t help yourself.”

Mia swallows, then nods, but Grace can’t contain herself any longer to even allow her daughter the chance to set her school things down and settle in with the rest of the family.

“Okay, okay. Baby time!”

We all turn to Kate, and her face breaks into a huge, mega-watt smile. “Okay, go get the box, Elliot.”

“Alright,” he says. “But to reiterate, I’m not lifting a finger to help out with the baby unless it’s a boy. Prepare yourself for that.”

“Last call for bets,” I add. “Ana, you want in the pool?”

“I’m going with girl,” she says. “Mostly because if I say boy, Kate will consider it the highest level of betrayal.”

“Truth,” Kate agrees with a laugh. “This baby and Callie are going to grow up so close people will think they’re sisters instead of cousins.”

“Well, one of you needs to have a boy,” I argue. “If you all have girls, who will carry on the Grey name?”

“Calliope,” Christian says. “She’s never going to have any kind of romantic interest in men so she’ll be a Grey forever, and when she inevitably adopts or finds a very highly qualified sperm donor so she can have children of her own, they’ll be named Grey too.”

Ana laughs. “I hate to break it to you, baby, but I’ve seen Callie with me, Kate, and your mom, and I’ve seen Callie with you, Elliot, and my dad. That girl is already boy crazy.”

“You shut your mouth.”

We all laugh but the sound is quickly cut off by Grace. “Gender! Focus!”

Elliot groans as he gets off the floor and moves into the dining room with a light, brisk pace to retrieve the box. When he returns, Christian moves the coffee table out of the way so they can place the oversized box in the middle of the room, and we all gather around Kate and Elliot with our phones out.

“Okay, I’m recording,” Ana says. “Open it!”

Kate nods and squeals nervously, but stops before her scissors touch the tape sealing the box closed. “But what if it’s a boy?”

“Good!” Christian calls. I turn to look at him, and smile at the genuine look of excitement in his eyes.

This is it. One of those perfect moments where my entire family is together and blissfully happy. Before Kate slices through the tape at the top of the box, I take just a moment to take a mental snapshot so that I remember this moment forever.

“Okay,” Kate says, bracing herself. She takes the scissors and forces the tip down through the clear tape, then drags the blade across the top of the box. Once it’s cut open, she and Elliot each take one of the cardboard flaps in their hand and look anxiously into each other’s eyes.

“One,” Kate begins.

“Two,” Elliot continues.

“Three!” We all yell in unison as Kate and Elliot pull back the lid and a steady stream of pink balloons float up into the air.

“It’s a girl!” Kate screams and she practically leaps at Elliot, who blinks a few times in shock and then begins beaming just as brightly as his new bride. They hold each other tightly, swaying back and forth as they hug. When Kate finally pulls away, she cups either side of Elliot’s face and says, “A girl! Ah, you have such good sperm.”

He laughs. “Thanks, babe.”

“Katie!” Ana comes around the box and envelopes Kate in a tight hug. They both start to cry and make very quick plans for everything they want their daughters to share. Christian comes around to Elliot and grips his shoulder.

“Well, when they’re teenagers, we can drink together.”

“Hear, hear.” Elliot says, and Christian pulls him into a one armed hug.

“Congratulations, Elliot.”

“Thanks, brother.”

 

The celebration, hugs, and general merriment continue well into dinner, which is the only time we have pried ourselves away from the television since this morning. As we sit around Christian and Anastasia’s dining room table together, looking at the ultrasound pictures the doctor put in with the gender reveal and talking about names together, the election results seems to matter very little. For the first time in a long time, I look across the table at Ana and see the young, happy, carefree girl we all grew to love. Not the broken, hollow person who tries but can never hide the constant, unshakable fear behind her eyes. Next to her, Christian holds his daughter in his arms and laughs with his brother just a freely as he did a few months ago. I’ve worried for months that we may have lost this part of them, but tonight is like a glimmer of hope.

Maybe I won’t win.

Maybe I won’t be able to make this right for them.

But, maybe if we stick together as a family, it’ll still be okay.

“Mr. Grey,” Taylor says, entering the dining room with an urgent kind of seriousness that contradicts the lackadaisical atmosphere all around us. “The polls have closed. They’re counting the ballots now.”

Every pair of eyes around the table turn to me, and I take a deep breath to hide the sudden wave of nausea that washes through me. It’s funny how, in moments like these, when things are final and there’s absolutely nothing more you could do, your mind suddenly begins racing through every one of your shortcomings. I hadn’t felt very nervous today until this moment, and under everyone’s persistent gaze I find myself asking if what I did was enough. If I lose tonight, is it because I didn’t fight hard enough?

“Well, we should… get back into the living room,” I tell my family, and rather than a murmur of agreement, I’m met with the steady clink of silverware against china and the sound of chairs scraping against the stone floor.

Everyone’s nerves are palpable as we move back to our places in front of the TV. Ana takes Calliope and as she returns to the sofa, and Christian wraps both of them in his arms. Kate pulls Elliot up onto the couch with her, half-sitting on him as she stares anxiously at the news coverage, and Grace pulls a chair from across the room so she can sit next to me and take my hand. Mia settles down on the floor and twists one arm around my calf while resting her head against my knee. I gently brush through her hair with my fingertips, squeeze my wife’s hand, and then focus all of my attention to the news reporters on the TV.

The wait is agony. Numbers trickle in slowly, and at first, they’re not promising.

“This is bullshit,” Elliot says when my opponent jumps to a nineteen point lead within the first hour. “His approval ratings have been garbage for years. Why would anyone vote for him?”

“Name recognition,” Ana says. “They just vote for the name on the ballot they know and move on.”

“Well, it’s not like Grey is an unrecognizable name,” Kate argues.

“There’s still a lot of votes left to count,” Christian says, then turns to look at me. “We’re still in this.”

I nod, give him a tight smile, and redirect my attention to the freshly updated numbers.

Twenty point lead.

As we listen to the commentary and the different reports from the polling centers, Grace starts to grip my hand so tightly, my fingers go numb. Still, I don’t shake her off. I’m too focused on the TV to care about anything else right now. No one talks. No one even coughs. The room is dead silent until 09:30 p.m. rolls around, and the numbers are updated again.

One point lead.

“Yes!” Elliot shouts, punching the air. “We’re gaining on him. You’ve got this, Dad!”

I let out a long, arduous breath. “We’re still behind.”

“Not for long,” Christian says. “Elliot’s right. You’ve got this.”

The footage on the screen changes from a machine being used to sort and count ballots downtown, to a replay of an interview we watched earlier about the new emphasis on local government because of dissatisfaction with federal level politics. But, as the segment changes back to the main anchor, an ominous kind of bell sounds and the screen is plastered with a breaking news bulletin. When they return to the news studio, the woman sitting behind the desk looks somber and it has my heart beating in my throat.

“For the first time this evening, Mayoral candidate Carrick Grey has taken the lead, pulling ahead of the mayor by twelve points with sixty percent of the precincts reporting in. Mr. Grey has taken key battle ground neighborhoods who have traditionally carried the current mayor in years past.”

“Daddy!” Mia shouts, jumping to her feet in excitement.

“And he takes the lead!” Elliot cries.

I stare at the numbers printed on the screen and feel slightly winded. There it is, I’m winning, and with only the precincts I’d polled the highest in left to report. Twenty minutes pass and my twelve point lead jumps to eighteen, and ten minutes after that, twenty three.

“And, I’m hearing from our polling experts that the mayoral race has been called,” the reporter says, just before eleven. “With 98% of precincts reporting, Carrick Grey will become the Mayor of Seattle come January 1st.”

“You did it!” Mia screams. She jumps all around the living room, overwhelmed by adrenaline and excitement, while Grace gets out of her seat to pull me into a hug.

“I’m so proud of you, sweetheart.”

“Thank you, darling. I couldn’t have done this without you.”

“Congratulations, Carrick!” Kate squeals, pushing into my embrace the moment I release my wife. “Oh my god, you’re going to be president someday.”

“Oh, lord help me,” I reply with a smile, before kissing her softly on the cheek.

“Dude, though…” Elliot interjects. “I think this is proof we could slay a national election. Dad could be President, Mom could be the Surgeon General, Christian could be like… Chief of Staff, Kate will be the Press Secretary, Ana will write all of your speeches, and I could be your advisor on Information Technology, or Digital Strategy… Oh! Or like, an ambassador. I want a warm country though, like Madagascar or Equador. I don’t want to be the ambassador to Antarctica.”

“First of all,” Christian says dryly. “Antarctica is a continent, not a country. Second, there is no ambassador to Antarctica.”

“Well, it looks like the plan is perfect then, Christian. I won’t even have to put someone out of a job.”

“Really? And what makes you think you’re qualified to be an ambassador?”

“I’m a really good time. Say we’re about to go to war with someone, right? Dad just sends me over there, I take them out, we party hard, have some laughs… then the next morning they’re like, ‘War? Nah, America’s chill’.”

We all stare blankly at him for several long seconds until Kate bursts into a fit of giggles. Christian shakes his head in dismay.

“I hate so much about what you choose to be.”

“Will you two shut up?” Ana interjects. “Your dad just became the mayor, this is so not about you right now.”

“Thank you, Ana.” She comes forward and gives me a hug, but I don’t release her when she pulls away. Instead, I tuck her under my arm, pull Mia and Kate back into me, and then bask of glow of victory. My picture is on the TV, next to my opponent, highlighted with my polling numbers and the word winner across the bottom.

I’ve won.

After months of long nights and hard work, I’ve won.

Book Four: The Final Shade of Fifty

Christian PoV: The Wedding Night

fifty-shades-freed

Middle of Chapter 42

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Taylor as irritated as he is, looking across the coffee table at me right now. He doesn’t agree with me, that much is clear, but he’d argued his point and it didn’t change my mind. There’s nothing left to say. So he nods, gets up from the couch, and walks back towards the stairs that lead up to his living quarters without further argument.

At least out loud.

“I can take them to the airport,” Sawyer interjects into the tense silence Taylor has left behind. “We have an unregistered car in the lower levels of the garage. If someone is watching the apartment we should get out of here undetected.”

“Thank you, Sawyer.” He gets off the sofa and heads out of the great room towards the foyer, where he’ll wait for Taylor to finish packing. Reed gets up and moves as though he’s going to follow, but I call out to stop him. “Reed, may I speak to you privately in my office for a moment?”

“Uh… sure.”

I nod and sweep my arm back towards the downstairs hallway to direct him toward my office, but rather than follow right behind him, I turn back for Anastasia and reach down for her hand. Once she stands, I kiss her gently on the lips.

“I’ll be quick.”

“Oh… okay. I’ll just put Calliope down then.”

“Good. Kiss her goodnight for me.” She smiles, drawing me back to her lips, and after I’ve kissed her again, I lean further into her to whisper in her ear. “Don’t take off this dress. I want that.”

The softest laugh escapes her lips and she gives me an all too enticing look as she pulls back, rises up on to her toes, and kisses my cheek. Then she takes Calliope from her car seat and carries her back down the opposite hallway toward our bedroom. Whether she knows it or not, her hips sway seductively as she walks away from me and the view of her ass in that dress is all too tempting.

Reed. Focus.

He isn’t sitting in the chair across from my desk when I step into my office. Instead, he’s standing by the side wall, staring at a shelf that bears my rowing trophies from high school and my lone year at Harvard.

“I remember that Cornell meet,” he says, when he hears me close the door behind him. “I’d never been that cold in a boat in my life.”

“That was nothing. You should trying rowing here in the early spring when it rains.”

“Nah. I’ll leave the rain to you.” He shakes his head and turns back to face me. “What can I do for you, Christian? Er… Grey. Can I call you Christian? Are we there yet? I never really know with you.”

“No, we’re not. Have a seat.” I lower myself into the chair behind my desk and motion for him to sit across from me. He does.

“Why are you here, Reed?”

His brow furrows. “I uh… I thought we cleared that up out there. There’s a psycho after your wife. He called me…”

“I know what’s happened, I want to know why you came here. Why you called my team in the first place. What he offered you was significant. I know first hand how difficult it is to persuade the Harvard Admissions board into making exceptions. You could have taken his deal, gone to the most prestigious law school in the country, impressed your father, and set yourself up for a lucrative and respectful career. So, why are you here?”

“What? You think I want something from you?”

I raise an eyebrow. “Don’t you?”

“Jesus, Grey. I’m here because he wants to hurt someone I care about. He might try to kill her. Do you honestly think I would choose something as trivial as law school over Anastasia’s life? She’s one of my best friends. What kind of person do you think I am?”

“I don’t know,” I admit. I lean forward, resting my forearms on my desk and fold my hands together. “Look, Reed. I don’t like you. I think you’re crude, I don’t think you work very hard, and I think you need grow up. But more important than all of that… I’m threatened by you.”

“Me?” He laughs, but I’m dead serious.

“Yes. At some point, no matter how long ago it was, Anastasia had feelings for you. I don’t know how powerful or how real those were, but they were there. To a certain degree, she chose you over me, and I don’t know that I’ll ever get over that. I know what it’s like to live without her, and I fully intend on never living that way again.”

“She didn’t choose me over you, Grey. If anything, she left me for you. I mean, she married you today. She’s chosen you.”

“Do you still have feelings for her?”

The point blank question seems to surprise him because he suddenly sits up in his chair, looking as though I hit him across the face. “What?”

“Anastasia. Do you still have feelings for her?”

“We broke up like four years ago…”

“I didn’t ask for a history lesson. I asked if you still had feelings for my wife?”

He swallows, hesitating, then lets out a long breath and nods. “Yeah. I do. It doesn’t matter, she’s made her choice and I don’t want to ruin what she has, but Ana is everything that I want in girl. She’s a genuinely good person. Do you know how rare that is to find in a girl? Even after the way I treated her when she broke up with me, after the things I called her, she never harbored a grudge or retaliated. She cares about people and I feel like I’m a better person just because I know her.”

I open my mouth to respond, but he cuts me off.

“I’m not here to fight you for her, Grey. Or even to try and impress her and hope she leaves you for me. I know what she and I are. We’re friends, and I’m grateful for that. I’m here because she’s in danger and I can’t protect her. You can. I’m here to help you.”

“What about Kate?”

His expression sours. “What about her?”

“Katherine Kavanagh is very important to me. I love her as a part of my family. She’s my wife’s best friend, she saved my father’s life, and she’s the godmother of my daughter. You just told me that you still have feelings for my wife, so… did you use her?”

“For what?”

“To get close to Ana.”

“No.” His answer is quick, and honest. “I love Kate a lot. I don’t particularly like her very much right now but… She’s amazing. She’s the kind of girl you dream about being with before you figure out what league you’re in. Ridiculously hot, but still down to earth. Rich, but not a snob. And she’s ambitious, intimidatingly so at times. But, now that we’re not together anymore, I think I can be honest and say that Kate and I were settling for each other. We really didn’t have much in common. I was never good enough for her and I was really only with her in the first place because being with her was better than being alone.”

“My brother is going to ask her to marry him. He’s going to wait until their anniversary, but he bought the ring last week. Do I need to worry about you?”

He shakes his head. “No, Kate and I are done. I’m fine with that.”

“Good. Then let’s talk about where we go from here. You said you’re working for your father, what does he do?”

“He’s a lawyer for Coca-Cola. I’m doing research work for him until I can figure out how to get into law school myself.”

“Is that what you want, or is that what he wants?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I have a few things in the works right now to take GEH international, specifically my manufacturing division and shipping yards. You graduated from Harvard, and while your degree emphasises pre-law, it’s still in business administration. I need to find someone to head an international office in Taiwan. Since you’re willing to help me find the man coming after Anastasia and I, I could be willing to take a chance on you.”

“Wait, you’re offering me a job?”

“I can help you make a lot of money, Reed, and the position comes with all the perks of being a top executive at Grey Enterprises Holdings.”

“Are you serious?”

I raise an eyebrow. “Do you take me to be the kind of man who doesn’t say what he means?”

He takes a breath and begins to nod, but after a few seconds, he frowns. “In Taiwan, though?”

“Interested?”

“Uh… I mean, that’s an incredible offer. I don’t even… I– um…” He swallows, and then shakes his head. “I think I’d be crazy to say no, but… I really want to focus on Harvard. You know, for my dad.”

“Alright. Then, I’ll get you in.”

“What?”

“I have some pull with the President of the University and the Dean of Students. It won’t be easy but I’ll get you in.”

“You will?”

If everything goes according to Taylor’s plan and you do nothing to sabotage him, then yes. I will get you into Harvard Law for the fall semester.”

“Oh my god. Thank you, Christian!”

“Grey. We’re still not there yet.”

He nods. “Grey. Thank you. Really, thank you.” We stand and I reach across the desk to shake his hand, but when his fingers close around mine, I pull his arm roughly towards me, knocking him off balance.

“But if you fuck me on this deal, Reed, I will end you. And I don’t mean professionally. If so much as one hair on Anastasia’s head is harmed, I will come after you and you will beg for whatever the man who called you would have done to you by the time I’m finished. Got me?”

“I-I–”

“My power doesn’t extend just to Harvard. No matter where you go, no matter what you do, I will find you. I never forget, Reed. And I never forgive.”

He nods. “I promise, I just want to help Ana.”

“Good. Then we’ll be in touch.” I release his hand and he immediately stumbles backward. He gives me a strange, uncertain look, most likely in an attempt to gauge how serious I was, so I don’t relax the tension in my face, and when I speak again I keep my voice low and cold. “You’d better hurry, you have a flight to catch, and my security team is waiting.”

He nods and hurries out of my office. I watch as he leaves, then wait until I can hear the faint sound of the elevator from the other room. Once I’m sure Reed, Sawyer, Ryan, and Taylor have gone, I slowly come around my desk and try to let everything that’s happened since Ana and I stepped off the yacht wash off of me.

It’s my wedding night, and I fully intend on enjoying it.

 

Ana is still back in our bedroom with my daughter so I quickly get to work re-creating the romantic atmosphere I’d planned for this evening. The remote to the iHome is still sitting on the coffee table where I left it, so I start by turning the music back on, lowering the volume a bit, and then begin lighting the candles placed artfully all around the room. Once the space is filled with a warm, flickering glow, I turn off the actual light switch and smooth out the blankets and pillows lying in front of the fireplace. Next, I move into the kitchen where Gail has left a bowl of strawberries in the fridge and chocolate melting in a warmed fondue pot on the counter. Both go on the table in the great room, and then I return to fetch a chilled bottle of champagne and a canister of whipped cream. A small smile plays at my lips as I set it down with the chocolate and begin filling the flutes already waiting on the table. Our wedding cake was delicious, but Ana is going to be an even more decadent dessert.

Once I’ve ensured everything is perfect in the great room, I move into the foyer and punch the code into the keypad that will lock it down for the night. As the green light switches over to red, I hear Ana call out for me.

“Christian?”

She stands there, looking like a dream in the dress she wore to marry to me. Her bare and silky back is turned towards me and as I saunter across the room towards her, I can’t help but reach out to touch her delectable skin.

“This dress is incredible,” I whisper over her shoulder. “You have never looked more beautiful than you do today, Anastasia.”

She turns and lets her head loll back so she’s looking directly up into my eyes. “You don’t look so bad yourself, Mr. Grey.”

“All for you, Mrs. Grey.” I smile, and nuzzle the tip of her nose with mine. The feeling of using her new name, my name, is more fulfilling than I could have ever dreamed.

She’s finally mine. My wife. And I’ve never been more ready to make love to her than I am right now.

Leaning down, I press my lips into hers. Tenderly, at first, then gradually deeper and deeper. It’s patient and warm, and as I massage the roots of her hair with my fingers, pulling her further into me, I feel her body melt into mine. She moans softly into my mouth and the sound travels down to my cock, instantly making me hard. My body is ready for her, but I intend to take my time with her tonight. Despite the hundreds of times we’ve made love in the past, tonight is a new beginning for us, and I want it to be meaningful and filled with all the love I feel for her.

“You know you didn’t have to put me through all that,” she says when our lips break apart. “ You could have just told me the other wedding was a ruse.”

Oh, Ana. “Secrets only work if you protect them.”

“You don’t think I can keep a secret?”

“From Kate? No. And once Kate knew, Elliot would know. And once Elliot knew…”

“It would be on the front page of the Seattle Times.”

“Exactly.”

She laughs, then turns away from me to glance over the room once more. Her gaze settles on the strawberries and champagne waiting for us on the table, and when she looks back at me again her eyes glitter over her inviting smile.

“Would you like dessert, my dear husband?”

“Very much, my darling wife.” Wife. Have I said that word out loud yet? I feel as though I might burst with pride to be saying it now, and when I see the pleasure she takes in hearing it herself, I find myself being drawn to her again. My hands itch to touch her, so as she turns to pick a strawberry from the bowl, I press my lips into the curve of her neck and let my fingers run up the smooth skin of her back. She shivers in delight, egging me on.

I respond by pulling the straps of her gown over her shoulders and down her arms, leaving her breasts exposed. Her dress catches around her waist, so I fall to my knees behind her and quickly undo the latches in the fabric until the gown pools on the floor at her feet.

Her legs are encased in sheer stockings, which are held up by a garter that stretches down from a tiny pair of lace panties that do nothing to conceal her delicious derriere. I reach up to grab her, using my thumbs to reach under her behind and stretch her lower lips, while my palms eagerly tighten around her ass.

“Turn around,” I command. She does, and when she stops, the small triangle of lace that conceals her from me is directly in front of face. “Ana, you look… Oh, baby, you look…”

“Good enough to eat?”

Abso-fucking-lutely. “Don’t mind if I do.”

I lean forward and kiss the soft lace in front of me using my tongue to trace the lines I can feel through her panties, making her pant with want.

“Christian.”

The need in her voice makes me moan almost as much as the heat I can feel against my tongue. Her arousal begins to soak into her panties, and the taste is both satisfying and not nearly enough all at once. I want more of her. I want all of her.

“Delicious, as always,” I say, pulling away and glancing up into her eyes. She smiles and steps back and away while I move onto the couch so I can fully drink her in. “Turn around. Put your hands on the table and bend over for me.”

She’s quick to obey. Once she’s bent over on display, she tosses her hair over her shoulder and gives me teasing look. “That’s quite the view, Mrs. Grey.”

“Oh, really?” Her eyes glitter and she begins to sway her ass back and forth in time to the music still floating softly in the background. The sight makes my pants tighter around my cock. It’s erotic as hell. I reach forward to take a glass of champagne off the table, and settle back to enjoy her little floor show.

“Go on.”

Pleased, she smiles and bends her knees, dipping down to the floor and slowly rising up again. I watch her hands move over her body and into her hair while her hips swing back and forth. She pivots her torso towards me, showing me just a taste of her erect nipple before her hand falls and her fingers trace the curve of her breast. I’ll never fully understand why watching Ana touch herself is such a turn on. In fact, I’d love it if she laid down on the floor before me, removed her panties, and worked herself up to her first orgasm of the night before even letting me touch her. Even the thought has my body tensing and I have to stop myself from lunging at her and diving into her far more quickly than I planned.

“You’re so fucking sexy, Ana,” I breathe, and she smiles before turning back towards me and climbing into my lap, straddling me. I take her ass in my hands again and encourage her to grind over my cock, relishing the sensation of the friction when she does. The heat builds between us, becoming unbearable, so I move my hand up from her ass to her breast, fully intent on taking her nipple in my mouth, but she slaps my hand away.

“Not yet. You are far too dressed to be allowed to touch.”

Fucking tease. “Well, what do you plan to do about that?”

“This.” Her hand moves from my shoulder to the knot in my tie, and while she takes her precious time unraveling it, she mercifully presses her breasts into my face so that I can finally get a taste. I lavish my tongue over her nipples and through her cleavage while she pulls my clothes away from my body, until she climbs out of my lap and drags her hands down my torso to the front of my pants. When she has my belt and fly open and reaches under the band of my boxers to my now painfully hard cock, my breath hisses between my teeth.

“Yes.” I thrust my hips forward, discouraging her shyness as she starts to jack me off, but my efforts don’t have any effect on her ministrations. She continues to slowly move her hand over me with a gentle touch. It’s maddening.

“Your mouth, baby,” I beg. “I want your mouth.”

“Like this?” She leans forward and licks the entire length of my cock, then swirls her tongue around the head, dragging my precum into her mouth.

“Yes. Oh, suck me, baby.”

That’s all it takes. She pulls me deep into her mouth and sucks hard, making every muscle south of my waist clench in pleasure. Her rhythm is relentless, and with each pass she takes me deeper into her hot, tight throat.

This is it. Everything I could ever want. A night of celebration followed by cool champagne and my gorgeous wife servicing my cock. This is fucking nirvana.

“Ana, fuck, you’re so good. I want you so much, baby. My wife. My beautiful, brilliant, sexy wife.”

She moans around me, and then begins to use her hand in time with her mouth. Soon, it has me shaking and I know that I’m only moments away from erupting.

“Ana, baby. Wait. I want to come inside of you…”

She pulls me out of her mouth to speak, but brushes her tongue over the entire length of me again. “You will.”

Mmm, she wants to drag tonight out as much as I do. If that’s not a turn on, I don’t know what is.

I let my body relax back into the sofa, content with Ana finishing me off with just her mouth before I take over. She can read my signals like a book that was written just for her, and as I climb closer and closer to release, her mouth tightens around me. When I finally let go, I’m practically buried in her throat.

“Fuck! Ana!” The force of my orgasm hits me like mac truck. I shake as I feel my come drip into her waiting mouth and when she swallows me, her lips pushing and pulling my cock over and over again, a myriad of all the filthy things I want to do to her body tonight flood through my mind.

“Baby. Oh, fuck…” As the pleasure dies down, I feel as though my body begins melting into the sofa until Ana’s mouth starts moving again and the sensation spikes uncomfortably. I take her face in my hands and gently pull her off my cock, then pull her lips up to mine. I can taste my release in her mouth, but I don’t care. My lips never part from hers as I slide off the sofa, onto the floor, and push her back into the bed next to the fireplace. The heat of the low burning flames washes over us, and when I pull away, the amber colored light flickers softly over her face.

She really is so beautiful.

“No.” Her hands reach up and try to pull me back down over the top of her, but I have other plans for my wife right now. I take a strawberry from the bowl on the table behind us, then dip it into the melted chocolate. Once the bright red tip is completely covered, I turn back to Ana.

“Hungry?”

“Starving.” The word comes out only in a whisper but it’s dripping with the lust burning inside of her. A fire only I can quench. A fire I want to bask in. Slowly, I lower the berry to her lips and she sucks the chocolate away before biting off just the tip. I turn to dip the fruit once more, but as I watch her tongue sweep hungrily over her bottom lip, I get a better idea. Placing the berry back on the table, I pick up the entire bowl of melted chocolate.

“My turn.” She hisses softly as I tip the bowl and dribble the melted chocolate over her skin, between her breasts, and all the way down to her stomach. Once she’s covered, I put the bowl back on the table, then get to work, starting at her belly button and working my way up.

“Yes. Oh, Christian!” she moans in delight as I suckle the chocolate clinging to the side of her breast. She’s squirming beneath me, mewling and panting as I clean every last bit of the chocolate from her breasts. After she’s cleaned, I begin kissing her sternum, her collar bones, her neck, her jaw, everything, until I reach her mouth. I reach into her hair again while I kiss her lips and am met with eager enthusiasm. When I slip my tongue into her mouth she begins sucking it, and with every pull of her lips my cock starts to harden again.

“So sweet,” she whispers.

“And yet, not enough.” Blindly, I move my hands down her body to pull apart the snaps on her garters and then sit up so I can roll down each of her stockings. Once her legs are bare, I move onto her panties, subtly tucking them into the back pocket of my pants before turning to pick up a canister of whipped cream. She watches with wide eyes as I shake the can, then tilt the tip to her lips, but when I push down on the plastic to release of burst of cream into her mouth, I hold it longer than necessary, giving her more than she can hold. With puffed out cheeks filled with whipped cream, she giggles and the sound tugs at the corners of my mouth. Then I start to move down her body again, leaving a trail of whipped cream all the way down to her pubic bone.

“Mmm, now for my favorite dessert.”

Her hips buck up encouragingly as I lick away each dollop of whipped cream, beginning at her navel. She’s anxious for what’s to come and the power in her anticipation is intoxicating. When I finally settle between her legs and find her glistening for me, my mouth begins to water.

“Mine.” I lean in, my lips only just not touching her clit, and then look up into her eyes. “You, my wife, are finally and completely mine.”

“Yours,” she breathes back, and I dive in. Unlike when I was kissing her before, I don’t ease into her. I push deep between her legs, my tongue reaching farther than my lips can, and absolutely devour her. Her hands twist in my hair, encouraging me, turning me on, so I reach up to the inside of her thighs, pull her legs apart, and open her further to me.

“Yes, Christian. Oh god, yes!”

Fuck I love it when she screams. “Let me hear you, baby. I want you to scream when I make you come.”

She moans as I begin lapping at her clitoris again, but that moan quickly turns to loud, high keening and cries of pleasure that reverberate through the empty apartment. If she was wet when I began eating her, she’s soaking now. I know she’s close. I move my right hand from the inside of her thigh and then push my index and middle fingers inside of her, curving them into the place I know will make her fall apart, and use them to fuck her mercilessly. Her fingers tighten in my hair, her breathing becomes louder and unrhythmic, and then…

“Christian!”

She starts pulsating around my tongue so I push as far as I can into her. Sucking, licking, using my face to invigorate her while she flies through her orgasm. Her body convulses and arches high off the ground. It’s a magnificent sight to behold.

I can’t take it anymore. I’ve waited long enough.

The moment the quiver stops, I sit up, grip my now fully erect cock, and slam inside of her. She lets out a deep, guttural sound of overwhelming pleasure that eggs me on. I thrust in and out of her with as much force as I can muster without hurting her and then bring my mouth crashing down on hers. Her insides grip me in tight, wet heat and her nails scrape down my back with carnal barbarism. It’s ecstasy. Raw, brutal, and so, so hot.

“I love you, Ana,” I pant, struggling to get the words out through the effort I’m using to pound into her again and again.

“I love you too, Christian. Hold me tight. Love me, baby.”

“I do. Today, you have made me that happiest man alive. My wife. My love. My life.”

She makes another small, desperate noise before reaching up and forcing my lips back down on hers. But as I kiss her with all the passion I feel coursing through me, her hands move down, and she shoves against my chest. In my surprise, she manages to knock me off balance and I roll off of her.

“Ana, what are you…” My incensed reply is cut off as she swings her leg over the top of me and then sinks down on my cock again. Gravity pulls her down until I’m as deep inside of her as I can possibly get. “Oh… fuck, baby.”

Her cries of pleasure are unabashed as she starts to ride me. Her head falls back, which pushes her breasts out towards me, and I reach up to grab them with each of my hands. My fingers tighten around her hardened nipples, and the scream she lets out starts to break apart as her breaths begin to quiver in time with her impending orgasm.

“I’m close,” she whispers. “Fuck, baby. You’re going to make me come.”

“Keep riding me, Ana,” I command, knowing the moment her orgasm hits, she’ll instinctively want to slow her aggressive pace. I push off the ground so that I’m sitting up right, then wrap my arm around her and begin sucking her breasts again. When my teeth graze her nipple, she screams and then starts convulsing around me so tightly, it’s like she’s trying to push me out. I refuse to let her. Instead, I tighten my hold on her, digging my fingers unapologetically into her skin and relishing in the idea that I might leave behind marks.

“That’s it, baby. Come for me. Oh god… Ana!”

As my own orgasm hits, I nip the swell of her breast and thrust up as deeply as I can into her. My second orgasm is much more intense than the first, probably because of the feel of her coming around me while I continue to fuck her hard and deep. When at last the waves of pleasure stop rolling through me, Ana and I are clinging to one another for dear life, and I have to hold her as lie back once more and ease her onto my body again.

“I can’t imagine it ever gets any better than this,” I tell her. “Making love to my beautiful wife. This, what I feel right now, has to be the purpose of life.”

She moans, and though she sounds exhausted and utterly drained, she pulls herself up and turns to look at me. “I know. I don’t think I’ll ever do anything greater in my life than love you. I meant what I said to you over the alter. You are my dream, Christian. Thank you for letting me live it.”

I smile as I recall her vows and look up into her sweet, perfect face. “Believe me, the pleasure is all mine, Mrs. Grey.”

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