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.
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.
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?”
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.
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?”
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.
That gets his attention and as he finally looks up, his eyes widen. “Mrs. Grey?”
“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.”
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.”
“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.
“Did he tell me about Plan B?” I ask, my voice sharper than I mean for it to be.
“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.”
“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.”
“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…”
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.
“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.”
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.