There’s a certain degree of humility I feel pulling into the parking lot for the conference of the Pacific Northwest Writers Alliance Saturday morning. The events I’m used to attending with Christian are all black tie and held in the city’s grandest ballrooms, with press and a cocktail hour. Today, I’m at the DoubleTree Inn in SeaTac, not even Seattle proper, and the woman in the headset across the parking lot, who is directing the crew carrying chairs and tables into the venue, is dressed in ripped skinny jeans and a long, tartan flannel. There’s no one to take my picture and I don’t have a publicist trying to direct the right kind of questions towards me, the way I do whenever I’m with my husband. It’s small, more down to earth. I’m only just more than nobody, and it’s…
I take a breath.
It’s a good way to start out the day.
“Mrs. Grey?” Woods stands a few paces away, looking at me like he can’t figure out why I’m not in more of a rush to get out of the light drizzle of rain. “I think we’re supposed to go this way.”
“Oh, right.” I smile and then hurry to his side, ducking beneath the umbrella he’s opened and trying not to step in any puddles deep enough to wet the parts of my feet left exposed by my heels. The lobby inside the hotel is busy, and it takes me a moment to find where I’m supposed to check in. Once I do though, the woman sitting behind the cheap folding table perks up and smiles warmly at me.
“Anastasia Steele, welcome.”
“Grey,” I correct her automatically, but then shake my head as I remember that my book was published under my maiden name, as is all the promotional material here today. “Sorry, habit.”
“Don’t apologize, Mrs. Grey. We’re very happy to have you here. I have a packet for you with today’s schedule and some information about the different publishers and authors here today. Other than that, you’re free to mix and mingle or head upstairs, if you prefer. Your publicist is already inside setting up a table for your signing this morning.”
“Thank you,” I say, taking the glossy packet she hands me, and with one last smile, I turn and walk with Woods into the ballroom.
There are all kinds of different booths being set up. I can see signs for several local publishing houses, who are here to give unrepresented authors three minutes to pitch their novels for publication. There’s an editing company advertising their services, a graphic designer who is here to offer tips on cover art, and a man I’ve never heard of scheduled to give a lecture on self-publishing dos and don’ts.
“Excuse me, uh… ma’am? Could you grab that for me?”
I turn and see a woman on a ladder, looking at me bashfully and pointing to a banner that she appears to have dropped.
“Oh. Of course.” She smiles as I hurry over to her, pick up the banner, and then reach as high as I can up on my tip-toes until her fingers close around the vinyl. “Got it?”
“Yeah,” she says, her voice strained as she pivots on the ladder and reaches high above her head to secure the banner to the wall. I wait, making sure she doesn’t drop it again, and once she pulls her hands away, she frowns. “Does that look straight?”
“It needs to go down a little on the right.” I look around the space and see an extra ladder, so I hold up a finger towards her and make my way over to it. “Here, hold on.”
“Mrs. Grey!” Woods exclaims when I pull the second ladder away from the wall. I shoot a warning look in his direction.
“I’m fine, Woods.”
After setting up the ladder, I kick off my heels and quickly climb to the top, taking hold of the banner on my side and moving it up and down the wall until Woods tells us it’s even and we tack it into the drywall. The girl across from me breathes a sigh of relief and starts the climb back to the ground.
“Thank you, so much,” she says. “I was supposed to have help today but, surprise, surprise, I’m here alone. That was really cool of you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I reply dismissively. Again, she smiles and holds out her hand.
I take her hand and grip it firmly. “Ana.”
“Well thank you again, Ana. Seriously, I– Oh my god, now he shows up.” She rolls her eyes and then nudges me with her elbow. “Once all the heavy lifting is done, am I right? Excuse me.” She rolls her eyes and shouts at someone behind me. “Hey, Brad! Thanks for all the help, you jackass.”
I laugh as she rushes past me for the clueless looking guy coming in the back entrance with the loading crews, and feel an odd sense of comfort as I return to Woods’ side. That girl had no idea who I was and that was the first perfectly normal human interaction I’ve had since… fuck, I don’t even know. Maybe this isn’t just about proving something to Christian. Maybe I really am ready for this conference. Maybe this is exactly what I need.
“Ana!” I turn in the direction I hear my name being called and see Lydia waving at me. Feeling much more confident about today than I did a few minutes ago, I stand tall, nod in her direction, and make my way over to her. “I’m glad you’re here, I was starting to worry.”
“Sorry, I got distracted.” She nods and then steps to the side so she can gesture to the station she’s set up for my signing.
“Well, what do you think?”
There’s another banner, bigger than the one I just helped hang, behind the table which has the picture of me from the back of my dust jacket on it. To the side is a long line of velvet ropes that suggest Lydia thinks there is going to be a significant line of people waiting to meet with me, as does the obscenely large pile of books stacked on top of the table and the boxes filled with more copies on the floor behind it.
“This is… a lot of my face, Lydia.”
“Such a good picture,” she says, ignoring the disapproval in my tone. “Calm, reserved, introspective. I love it. Do we need to go over some talking points in case you get stuck with some of your fans?”
I raise an eyebrow at her. “I think I can handle conversation.”
“I know, I just want to be as helpful and supportive as I can be. And, just so you know, the PNWA council has said they will carve out some time for you to give a speech if you wanted to… oh, I don’t know, take this perfect opportunity to give everyone a sample reading from your new book.”
“Alright, alright, you know I had to try. So, if you’re not going to give me a reason to track down whoever is in charge, I think we’d better get you up to your room.”
“Well, yeah. We can’t just have you sitting out in the open, it’ll ruin the excitement of having you come out to greet everyone. Besides, you’ll be much more comfortable upstairs. Come with me.”
Her hair fans out spectacularly as she turns on her heel and starts walking out of the ballroom. As I begin to follow her, I raise my fingers to my lips to hide my smile. Lydia can drive me a little nuts sometimes, but, weirdly, every now and then she reminds me so much of Kate that I think I want to hug her. Maybe Kate missed her calling as a literary agent, or any agent really, except that she’s taken to bossing around a room full of scandal hungry journalists itching to be the next Woodworth and Bernstein like a bird to flight. If only I could get Lydia to read me as well as my best friend, I think she and I might be able to take over the world.
I follow her into the elevator and up to the fourth floor where she leads me into a small, empty room. There are some catering trays laid out and a few bottles of cold water, but other than that there’s not much to keep me occupied.
“Alright, is there anything I can get you before I go back downstairs? Ice? Tea? A written statement about when you’ll be releasing your next book?”
She smiles. “One day, Ana. I’m gonna break you.”
“Not if I fire you first.”
“You see, that’s the kind of wit that’s going to make your next work an international best seller. You’re funny, kid. Real funny. Now, if there’s nothing else I can get you, I’m going to go eavesdrop on some pitches downstairs. See if there’s someone I can scalp before the publishing houses realize what they’re hearing. You have my number if you need something.”
I shake my head with exasperation. “Have fun, Lydia.”
“You know I will.” She squeezes my hand and winks as she turns for the door.
Once she’s gone, Woods and I talk for awhile and play a few games of cards with a spare deck he keeps in his jacket. The bright side is that it gives me the chance to call Christian and get regular updates on his day alone with Calliope, the bad side is that it gives me a lot of time to think about the number of people I can see flowing into the hotel from the parking lot. I get a picture in my mind of myself sitting at the table Lydia set up in the ballroom, scanning the hundreds of unfamiliar faces, and like a flash from a nightmare, there’s Linc’s face. The vision makes me shudder.
“Mrs. Grey? Are you alright?”
I jump slightly as Wood’s interrupts my thoughts, but quickly recover and smile.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Your deal or mine?”
We wait for a total of two hours before Lydia finally comes back to get me. There’s a pad of paper in her hand with a few names and phone numbers scribbled across it and she’s beaming like a kid on Christmas morning, so I assume she’s found a few unsigned authors downstairs who have peaked her interest.
“Like fish in a barrel?” I ask, smirking at her, but she shakes her head.
“More like a needle in a haystack. But I brought a magnet.” Her eyes twinkle with excitement, but it fades quickly as she starts ushering me out of the room.
“Let’s go, let’s go. We’re on a schedule here and your turnout was higher than I expected.”
She smiles. “You’re very well loved in this city, Anastasia. Now, go, go, go!”
I start a little then hurry through the door for the elevator. As we ride back down to the lobby, my stomach is suddenly filled with butterflies. This is my first big event since it happened. My first time getting up in front of people. My first chance to either prove that I’m moving on or fall spectacularly without Christian here to pick me up again.
The doors open and Woods moves closer, following so closely behind me, he may as well be my shadow. I force myself to take several deep breaths, but by the time we make it to the entrance of the ballroom, I nearly chicken out.
“Ready?” Lydia asks.
“Don’t be nervous, Ana. You’re going to be great. Just keep the conversations short and tell me if you need a new pen before it runs out of ink.”
I’m almost able to give her one full nod before she turns and opens the door, and as I step into the ballroom, I feel my stomach clench like I’ve taken a sudden, dramatic drop. Turns out that the velvet ropes I thought were excessive earlier, weren’t enough. The line of people waiting for my signing must be composed of at least three hundred people, not the hundred Lydia told me to expect, and even with the artful way the conference staff have managed to wind the line back and forth, the gigantic room still feels claustrophobic.
“Oh my god, there she is!” someone shouts, and suddenly the room erupts in screams. I flinch, but manage to recover with a smile, then wave at the crowd as I’m lead to the table stacked with books. Flashes explode from a dozen different places in the crowd in front of me, so I do my best to ignore them and keep up a pleasant excited smile for the first person who walks up to greet me.
It’s hard at first, having one quick, shallow conversation after another. There isn’t enough time to really talk to anyone but I don’t want to make this experience a waste of their money. Especially when so many of them are so kind and well wishing. The sentiment helps with the nerves, and helps me calm down and enjoy meeting people. Warmth floods through me as I hear again and again how much people really did love Escape, and after struggling to connect with one girl who spent the entire time we talked shaking and stuttering, I fear my face might be flushed bright red with a grateful kind of embarrassment.
“Hello,” I say, greeting the next young woman who comes forward. She starts to shake.
“Oh my god, you’re Anastasia Steele.”
“Yes, I am. And you are?”
“Hailey. Hailey Lewis. Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m meeting you. I can’t tell you…” She pauses, almost like she’s suddenly too choked up to speak. “I’m sorry, I really don’t want to be a spaz… It’s just, last year was really hard for me and then I saw you on the Today show talking about how writing this book helped you, so I decided to read it. It was like you were speaking right to me through the pages and I just had this epiphany, you know? I needed a way to get out what I was feeling, even if that meant finding an outlet that had nothing to do with what happened. So I wrote a book, just like you, and it’s healed me in a way I never thought I could be healed. You’re the one who made me do that. You’re the one who gave me my life back. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for Escape, Miss Steele.”
“Ana,” I reply with a warm smile, and she immediately goes red.
“Ana.” Her voice shakes. “I’m on a first name basis with Anastasia Steele. Oh my god. I’m sorry, but I’m freaking out a little bit. You’re my idol. Really.”
“Well, thank you so much. I only published Escape because I hoped that it would touch someone just like you, so thank you for sharing your story with me. You don’t know how much it really means to me.”
“You’re a writer?”
“Yeah. I mean, not really. I haven’t published anything, just the book I wrote after… uh.” She stammers again and shakes her head, I think because she doesn’t want to get into the “whys” of what she wrote. I get that, more than she probably knows, so I stop her before she feels like she has to explain more than she wants to.
“I’d love to read it.”
Her eyes grow wide. “Really? Y-you would read my work?”
“Of course I would. Do you have something I could write on?”
“Yes!” She fumbles with her bag in her haste to get inside of it, but eventually manages to remove a spiral bound notebook, from which she tears a single page. I take it and begin to write.
“This is the address for my agent’s office. If you send her a copy of your manuscript, she’ll make sure it gets to me. Just leave her an email or an address I can use to send you feedback.”
I hold out the paper for her, and when she reaches out for it, her hands shake. Her expression has gone completely blank and the way she looks at the paper almost makes me wonder if she’s having some kind of episode.
“I’m sorry,” she says, blinking like she’s coming out of a trance. “I’m just trying to convince myself that this isn’t a dream.”
I laugh again. “I promise you, it isn’t.”
Picking up my pen again, I slide one of the copies of Escape off the top of the stack next to me and write a quick, personal message on the inside of the front cover along with my signature, then hand it to her.
“Don’t forget to send your manuscript. I’ll be waiting anxiously.”
“I won’t. Thank you. Thank you so much, Miss– Ana.”
She smiles as she walks away and I’m overcome with the most amazing feeling as I turn to greet the next person in line. Seeing my name in the New York Times was great and watching the number of copies sold grow higher and higher, even months later, felt really good, but this… This has finally given me what I needed from this whole experience. I’ve helped someone. I’ve changed someone. I’m responsible for someone’s passion. That fills me with so much more pride than book sales ever could.
And it’s not even just one person. For hours I hear story after story from people who have been moved by my novel. Some who have found strength, some who have found forgiveness. My goal was to give people hope, but today has shown me that I have been able to do so much more than that and it is a truly, profoundly humbling experience. It’s everything, and as my time draws to a close and the line of people waiting diminishes, I feel like new life has been breathed into me.
“Phenomenal,” Lydia says after the last person in line leaves with a signed copy. “I expected to sell maybe a hundred-fifty copies today, you moved over three hundred. I will never stop being amazed by you, Anastasia.”
“Nor will I,” a voice says behind her. We both turn and I instantly recognize the man approaching us from the restaurant Luke and I went to earlier in the week.
“Mr. Wallace,” I say, surprised. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“This is why I’m here, Anastasia. GSP is here trying to scout some new talent, and since we’ve lost the head of our Seattle division, they brought me in from New York.”
“Oh, well, did you find what you were looking for?”
“I think there’s some good prospects. And, strangely, I think that might have something to do with you. I met with a few authors right after they spoke with you and their confidence was remarkable. Really impressionable. You bring out the best in people, Anastasia. I think you might have a real talent for this line of work. I’d even go so far as to say it’s a calling.”
“Oh, I don’t know…”
“I do. It’s my job to know.” He smiles, then reaches into his jacket to pull out a pen and another business card, which he writes on as he starts to speak again. “Look, I know you said that you’re just focusing on writing, but my boss is in town this week and I really do need to find someone to fill the position we have open with a candidate who will impress her. I’m going to schedule an interview with you for Wednesday at eleven o’clock. Come or don’t come, that’s up to you, but between us, I think you miss it. And I think you know you’d do great things and make a lot of dreams come true if you took this job. What more could you want?”
He holds the card out for me and I can see a time and address scribbled across it. For a few drawn out seconds, I hesitate, telling myself that this isn’t what I want, but his words resonate with me. The way I felt after speaking with Hailey and seeing how excited she got when I offered to read her work, that could be every day for me. And really, he’s right. What more could I want?”
I take the card and smile up at him, but before I have the chance to thank him I hear my name being called from across the room.
“Annie! Sweetheart, she’s right over here. Annie!”
I turn and deflate a little as I see Kim waving animatedly at me, but that small sense of disappointment quickly vanishes when I see my dad barrelling up behind her.
“There she is!” He comes around the table and pulls me up into a giant, lung crushing hug that takes me several seconds to worm out of. When he does let me go, his face glows with pride until he turns to see Mr. Wallace standing on the other side of the table. “Oh, I’m sorry. Are we interrupting?”
“Not at all,” Mr. Wallace says, extending his hand across the table. “Scott Wallace, I’m with Greenwich Publishing.”
“Raymond Steele,” my dad replies, glancing over at me awkwardly. “I’m with… her.”
“This is my father,” I tell him, and Mr. Wallace’s grin broadens.
“Well, congratulations, sir. Your daughter is really something. I bet you’re very proud.”
“Very.” Mr. Wallace shakes my dad’s hand again, then turns to smile at me.
“I hope to see you later in the week, Anastasia.”
“Maybe,” I agree with a nod. He turns to leave and as I face my father again, he raises an eyebrow at me.
“What was that?”
“Oh, he wants me to come work at his publishing house. What are you doing here?”
“Grace invited us to Mia’s party tonight and Christian said you had a signing today. We thought we’d come down here and check it out, see you in action. This is really something, kiddo. You’ve got quite the fanbase.”
“Yeah, it was good. I had fun today.”
“Good?” Kim says, doubtfully. “We saw that line of people, Annie. This is amazing. We are so proud of you, sweetheart.”
Don’t we me.
I bite my tongue and turn to smile at my father. “Do you want to look around a little, or are you ready to head home?”
“Home, I think. I gotta go spoil my grandbaby before Grace gets to her.”
“Okay. I just have to touch base with Lydia and then I’m out of here. Meet you at home?”
“Sure thing, kiddo.” He hugs me again, telling me once more how proud he is before he leaves. I stand there smiling as I watch him go, until he’s nearly at the door and I see him put his arm around Kim, pull her into him, and kiss her hard on the cheek. It makes my muscles tighten uncomfortably and a bitter taste creeps into my mouth.
I think it’s time to have Luke look into this woman.
Unfortunately, I’m not released from the conference as quickly as I’d hoped. As people start filtering out, I’m pulled into a separate room where I’m interviewed about the event for the PNWA newsletter. Then I have to stand around and wait for each of the directors to come in and takes pictures with me, first individually, then as a group. The only good thing is being forced to pose in front of the blank canvas backdrop again and again reminds me that I also should have at least one picture for my PixC account. At least it’ll make Jacquiline happy.
When I finally do get back home, it’s not only my father’s car in the driveway. The whole family has already arrived, which means I’m late for Mia’s birthday. I rush into the house as quickly as possible, thinking I’ll find everyone already seated for dinner, but instead most everyone is in the living room. I come around the corner just in time to see Kate reach into a bowl, read what’s written across the paper slip she pulls out, and wave her arms around with wild excitement.
“Okay it’s a person, and they’re very specific about color.”
“Prince!” Elliot yells, but Kate shakes her head.
“No, think 90s television. Fighting, girl power,…”
“Xena, Warrior Princess?”
“No. Super powers.”
“No. Elliot, focus. Early 90s television, specific colors, fighting monsters, morphing, pterodactyl…”
“Time!” Mia shouts, springing up off the couch and jumping up and down with her friend Tibby. They hug and start doing a celebratory dance while they sing, “We are in the lead,” over and over again.
“What was it?” Elliot asks, disappointed.
“The Pink Power Ranger,” I say, and the whole family turns to look at me.
“Yes! Thank you, Ana. Come be on my team.” She turns and glares at her husband. “We’re going to need you.”
I laugh as Elliot rolls his eyes, but when I step into the living room, I’m distracted from Kate by the sounds of my daughter struggling in my father’s arms.
“Dada, dada,” she cries, reaching out towards me.
“No, baby. That’s mama,” my dad corrects her, but she continues to say ‘dada’ over and over again until I pull her into my arms.
“You really aren’t going to say it, huh?” I ask, narrowing my eyes at her, and she reaches forward to grab my hair.
Everyone around us laughs, but as I turn to give Christian an annoyed look, I realize he isn’t here.
“In his office,” Carrick says. “He got a call from Ros, I think.”
“Oh. Well, then I better go check on him.”
“Tell him to hurry back,” Mia says. “It’s our turn again after the parents.”
“I will. And, hey… Happy Birthday, Mia.”
She beams at me. “Thanks.”
I adjust Calliope on my hip as Kim reaches into the bowl and Carrick, Grace, and my father turn their attention to her, then leave to go pull Christian out of whatever work Ros has ensnared him in. When I open his office door, I find him on the phone, absorbed enough that he doesn’t even look up when I enter.
“I know you’re not as invested in this project as I am, Ros, so I’m not going to take your lack of faith here personally, but I’m not giving up.” He pauses, and as Ros responds to him, he starts shaking his head. “Funding has never been an issue before, and it isn’t an issue now. I’ll take care of it. I said I’ll take care of it.” He slams the phone down on the receiver and sighs as he drops his head into his hands. I watch him run his fingers through his hair a few times, and when he finally looks up at me, I cross the room and settle down on the desk in front of him.
He shakes his head. “Nothing I can’t handle. How was your signing?”
“It was good.” He smiles and leans forward to kiss me, but Calliope grabs his lips in her fist before he even gets close.
He laughs, then opens his mouth to nibble on her fingers, which makes her shriek and start to giggle.
“Alright you two,” I say, grinning. “It’s Aunt Mia’s birthday and we need to go help her celebrate. Don’t we, Munchkin?”
Both Christian and I laugh again, but despite her discordant response, Christian takes her out of my hold so I can hop off the desk, and we carry her back out to the living room where our family is finally getting ready for dinner.
With Gail off on weekends and me spending the whole day out of the house, it was up to Christian to have Mia’s birthday dinner prepared, which means it’s been catered. We have an Italian feast laid out before us, and as we pass pastas, bread, and a gooey, cheese covered chicken around, Grace finally concedes and lets Mia open her gifts. From Kate and Elliot, she opens a designer duffle bag filled with custom made leotards and pointe shoes. Carrick and Grace give her some heirloom jewelry from Grandma Trevelyan that they’ve held for her since she was born, and my dad gives her the same bag full of lottery tickets he gave me when I turned eighteen.
“Oh my god, this is amazing,” Mia says happily, pulling out a long ribbon of scratchers. “I’m going to be a millionaire.”
My dad laughs and I turn a smug look on Christian.
“Alright, my turn,” he says, then gets up and disappears into the formal sitting room off to the side of the dining room. When he returns, he’s holding a beautifully wrapped square box that is a mystery to both me and Mia.”
“Thank you, Christian and Ana!” Mia chirps excitedly as she starts untying the ribbon. I shake my head.
“This is all Christian.”
She smiles at her brother, then lifts the lid. But when she peaks inside, she frowns.
“What is it?”
“Well read it, Miss Harvard.”
She scrunches her face at him, then reaches into the box and pulls out an envelope. When she takes out the paper inside, her eyes widen.
“Plane ticket vouchers to Spain?”
Mia raises an eyebrow, then reaches back into the box for another envelope. It’s a hotel reservation in Barcelona, followed by rail passes, ferry vouchers, and more plane tickets to get them to France, Italy, Greece, Croatia, Austria, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, The UK, and Ireland. He’s planned a full European tour over the course of the entire summer, and paid for everything to get her around. The last envelope she opens, labeled “Travel Money”, contains over $15,000 in cash.
“Oh my god, you’re sending me to Europe?” Mia asks, once everything she’s opened finally sets in.
“You and four of your friends, female friends. All summer. Ana and I might even join you for part of the trip.”
“Holy mother of…” She smiles and turns to her parents. “I can go, right Mom?”
“All summer? Alone?”
“Not alone,” Christian interjects. “I’ll of course provide security.”
Carrick takes a deep breath and places his hand over his wife’s. “She’s worked really hard in school this year and she got into Harvard. She’s an adult now.”
“I know, but…”
“Please, Mom? Pleeeeeeeeease?”
Grace looks between Christian and Mia, hesitating, but eventually, she lets out a defeated breath and nods. “Fine.”
“Oh my god!” Mia squeals, then reaches over to grab Tibby’s hands. “Who should we take?”
“Whoever kisses our asses the best until we go,” she replies, and the two of them devolve into a fit of laughter.
I bite my lip nervously. “Are you sur–”
My words cut off as I turn to the doorway, where Taylor is looking at me expectantly. “Yes?”
“Sawyer is here to see you.”
“Sawyer?” Christian repeats, his brow creasing. “Why is Sawyer here? I thought you just saw him?”
“I did.” My face gets hot at the inquisitive look in his eye, and I quickly get out of my chair to avoid any further questions. “I’ll be right back.”
“Ana?” Christian’s voice echos after me as I hurry out of the room, but I don’t turn back to him. I give Taylor a dismissive look, then make a beeline for the entrance hall where Luke is waiting with a beautiful, extremely dark haired girl.
“Luke, what are you doing here?” I hiss.
“We have a problem.”
My back stiffens, and I can nearly feel the blood drain from my face. “A problem? You mean with Mr. Kozlowski?”
“No. Immigration came picked him up this morning, he’s on his way to San Francisco right now for an appeal hearing, but I’ve already confirmed that his request for an extension on his green card is going to be denied. This is a much…”
“Ana?” Christian’s voice sounds from behind me again, and I spin around trying to keep the look of guilt off my face. He walks towards us, his eyes narrowing in on Luke.
“Sawyer, what are you doing here?” he asks.
He replies without missing a beat. “Ana invited me to Mia’s party.”
“Uh… yeah,” I stutter. “I thought, um…”
“She thought it would be a good chance to introduce everyone to my girlfriend. Mr. Grey, this is Jade. Jade, Christian Grey.”
“Girlfriend?” Christian repeats, and the girl standing next to Luke smiles and reaches her hand out.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Grey.”
Christian shakes her hand, and after a confused glance between the three of us, a smile starts to creep across his lips.
“Girlfriend,” he repeats, clearly pleased by the word. “That’s… wonderful! Welcome, Jade. It’s a pleasure to have you. We’ve just started dinner, but I can have a few more places set. Do you enjoy wine? I’ve just opened a bottle sent to me from a vineyard in Bordeaux.” He shoots a smile back at Luke and I, then walks with Jade out of the entryway, asking her questions about how they met.
“You have a girlfriend?” I hiss once Christian is out of earshot.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t plan on telling anyone. Believe me, I’m not an introduce-my-girlfriend-to-the-family kind of guy. But Taylor has a tail on me. I did some digging and it’s because your husband is worried about why you and I are hanging out without your security.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, and he gives me a pointed look that says I should know exactly what he’s talking about. “He thinks I’m cheating on him?”
“Don’t act so surprised, Ana. You know he’s never been comfortable with how close we are. But drawing Taylor’s attention to what we’re doing when no one is around will not work out well for us. So… here I am. Girlfriend in tow.”
“Good thinking. And, thanks.”
“Yeah, you owe me huge. This is going to make her think we’re a lot more serious than we are. I don’t know how, but you somehow manage to make every girl I date think I’m just itching to be tied down.”
“Yeah, well… Let’s go. It’s not going to help anything if we’re hanging out in private together while everyone else is in a different room.”
He hooks his arm through mine and drags me back toward the dining room, where everyone takes a minute to ask about Luke’s brand new relationship before finally turning their attention back to Mia. Nearly all of the Greys, including Kate, have been all over Europe, so they’re all eager to give her advice about her upcoming trip, and the enthusiastic attitude around the dining room table makes it difficult for me to voice any concern. Especially since I’ve already promised myself I wouldn’t let Christian see me struggling anymore. And that becomes a problem again once we’ve finished Mia’s birthday cake and the party starts to draw to a close.
“Now, I’m just saying…” Grace begins. “If you two wanted a night off, Carrick and I would be happy to take Calliope home with us.”
Christian turns and brushes his hand over my knee. “What do you think, baby?”
Grace nods. “We could take her with us to church in the morning and then maybe the zoo. We’ll have her back to you by dinner.”
“I uh…” I swallow, trying to push down the unease creeping up my throat. I can almost feel in the way that Christian is looking at me that he’s put his mother up to this. Not even as a test, which is what it feels like, but because we promised each other after we got back from the Maldives that we were going to do everything we could to keep life from getting in between us again. That means finding time for our marriage. With everything I’ve had scheduled this week and Christian working on his new project, we haven’t had much alone time together. This is the perfect opportunity and there is absolutely no logical reason for me to worry about Calliope spending a night with her loving and devoted grandparents. So, though it kills me, I nod.
“Sure. She’d love that.”
Christian’s mouth moves slightly as he tries to hide his feelings over having the house to ourselves tonight, and Grace beams so brightly, one would think she’d just been handed the keys to Disneyland.
“Great!” she says. “Don’t you worry about a thing, I’ll just go pack some of her things and we’ll get out of your hair. Carrick, will you help Mia take her gifts out to the car, please?”
“That’s okay, I’m going to stay with Tibby tonight,” Mia says.
Grace nods and makes her way out of the dining room, and instead of letting myself sit and fret over the idea of Calliope spending her very first night away from home, I turn and listen to the grilling questions Kate is already launching at Jade. Luke plays defense until Elliot finally makes Kate pull back a bit and Christian gets up with his father to get an extra car seat. I swallow the lingering doubt I have over Calliope’s first sleepover, and pick her up out of her high chair, wiping down her hands with a wet rag before passing her off to Grace. My dad gets up to hug me, Elliot and I pull Kate out of her chair, and Luke quickly ushers Jade out of the dining room before anyone can ask more questions.
“Call us if you need anything,” Christian says, once everyone has made it outside and we’ve secured Calliope inside his parent’s car. Grace waives him off.
“You two don’t worry about us. Enjoy your night.”
“Oh, we will,” Christian says, and for once his mother doesn’t grimace at the implication under his tone. “Thank you again, Mom.”
Grace winks and kisses her son on the cheek before turning to hug me. Carrick is next, but when I pass him off, Christian doesn’t hug him good-bye.
“I need to schedule a meeting with you next week.”
“Schedule? Why so formal?”
“Because I don’t need a meeting with my father, I need a meeting with the mayor.”
“I haven’t made a final decision on who I’m going to put up for police chief yet, Christian.”
“No, it’s not that. I’d just like to discuss the tax incentives the city of Seattle is willing to grant GEH before the start of the new fiscal year.”
Carrick frowns. “Sorry, son. The budget is tight this year and I don’t have any room to help you out.”
“That’s unfortunate,” Christian says, and with those two words, his entire persona shifts. Gone is my good humored husband and Carrick’s son. In his place is the cold, unwavering CEO. “For the people, I mean.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I just think it’ll probably be difficult for a lot of people should I choose to re-headquarter my company in Tacoma, where they are willing to give me the tax benefits I’m asking for. That’s what… 5,000 locals, voters, unemployed? I imagine it will be a difficult adjustment.”
Carrick takes a step away from his son, looking shocked. “Are you… are you threatening me?”
“No,” Christian dismisses him. “No, of course not. Look, I’ll have Andrea get in touch with your office. We’ll meet next week to discuss this further. I don’t know, maybe… maybe you have more wiggle room than you think.”
“I don’t, Christian.”
“We’ll see. Have a good night, Dad. You got her pacifier with the pink elephant on it, right? She won’t go down without it.”
Christian wraps an arm around me and pulls me away, leaving his father stuttering and looking dumbfounded. I keep waiting for him to stop and laugh, like this is all some kind of bad joke, but he doesn’t. He leads me right into the house and closes the door behind us.
“Alone at last,” he groans, pushing me into the door and covering his body with mine, but I move out of the way when he leans in to kiss me.
“Christian, what the hell was that?”
“What?” I narrow my eyes at him, and he rolls his. “Look, Seattle is an expensive city to run a business in. I’m doing what I feel is best for my company.”
“By threatening the mayor with 5,000 layoffs if you don’t get enough in tax incentives?”
“Well… yeah. It’s a pretty powerful bargaining chip.”
“Bargaining chip? That’s what you’re calling threatening your father’s career?”
“It’s business, Ana. It’s what I would do regardless of who was in office. I can’t treat him like my dad when it comes to work.”
“This basically blackmail.”
He swallows, hard enough that I can see his adam’s apple move. “Look, Ana. This new project I’m trying to launch isn’t cheap. I don’t have enough in the R&D budget to fund it, even with the grant approvals we received from NASA.”
“So, scrap the project.”
“Yes you can.”
“No. I can’t. The implications of this project are too great. I need something that is going to take GEH to the next level, to the highest level, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to get there.”
“Why? We already have more money than we’ll ever be able to spend. Why do you need more?”
“It’s not about the money, it’s about the power.”
“Power?” He inhales sharply through his nose and presses his lips together, like he’s afraid he’s said too much, and I feel a cold chill work its way up my back. “What do you mean by ‘power’, Christian?”
“Nothing. I don’t mean anything. Look, we’re alone. Let’s talk about this tomorrow. Right now…”
He leans in to kiss me, but, again, I move out of the way before his lips can touch mine.
“What do you mean by ‘power’, Christian?”
“No, I’m not going to fuck you when you’re saying cryptic things I don’t understand and threatening people in our family. We’re going to talk about this now.”
He stares down into my eyes, clearly warring with himself, and when he finally decides how he’s going to answer me, he pulls back, leans against the wall, and looks down at the floor.
“You think you’re the only one all this was hard for? You don’t think seeing Gia holding Calliope in one hand and a gun in the other, or watching Linc put his hands all over you and tell me about all the twisted ways he’s fantasized about you wasn’t the absolute worst moment of my life? That I don’t relive it all the damn time and spend every waking minute replaying that entire night trying to figure out how I could have stopped it? I was powerless, Ana. He was going to take you from me and if your father hadn’t intervened, he would have succeeded. He beat me. And then you fell apart right in front of me and there was nothing I could do to save you. Those few weeks after, when you wouldn’t even talk and you wouldn’t eat and you spent all day, every day, locked in a room with the baby and screamed every time someone came to check on you… I used lie awake at night watching you breathe because I was afraid that you would just… give up and–”
His words stop and his shoulders rise as he takes a deep, calming breath. When he looks up at me, I can see fear in his eyes.
“I was powerless, and now that I know what that feels like, I will never let it happen it again. This project has the potential to make me one of the most powerful men in the entire world. No one will be able to touch us. No one will dare. I’m not worried about money or accolades anymore. I want power. I want to build the kind of empire that controls what’s really important. Information. Policy. World leaders. By the time I’m finished, wars will be fought before anyone ever gets close to you or Calliope again.”
“Christian…” I breathe, and he hangs his head again. I can feel an energy radiating off of him that I’ve never felt before, and it makes my entire body tingle like a million little pin-pricks all over my skin. “Why didn’t you tell me you felt like this?”
“You’re going through enough, Ana.”
I shake my head. “No, I’m fi–”
“Don’t. Don’t say you’re fine.”
“But I am, Christian. Look, I know that it was rough in the beginning, I can’t deny that, but I’m moving on. The Maldives really were good for me. They gave me some distance and let me see the world outside of what happened to us again. I’m doing better. I mean, I let Calliope out of the house. That’s something. I’m taking Mia to Harvard all by myself, I’m doing book signings, I’m meeting Luke for lunch in the city. I’m even thinking about taking a job.”
His brow furrows. “A job?”
“Yeah, I was approached by Greenwich Small Press. They’re looking for someone to step in and run their Seattle division and I’m thinking about going in to interview this week.”
“I didn’t think you wanted to work in publishing anymore. I thought you wanted to write?”
“I do, and this won’t stop me from doing that. But being at that conference today, feeling that energy and talking with all of those unsigned writers felt really right. I think part of the reason it’s been so hard for me to move on from what happened is that I’m stuck. Here. In this house. I don’t have anything to move on to. I mean, you have GEH, Elliot has Grey Construction, Kate has Kavanagh Media… what do I have?”
“You have Calliope.”
I nod. “Yeah, and I love being her mother. But I didn’t go to Harvard to just be a mom. I need something that’s mine, only mine, that I can push myself with and grow with and find success on my own. I told you a long time ago that my dream was to one day run a publishing house so I could help other people’s dreams come true and this is an opportunity to make that happen.”
“I know. That’s why I bought SIP.”
“Yeah, but you bought SIP. This isn’t like that. Greenwich came to me because they knew what I could do and they need me. I earned this.”
“Once again, you’re selling yourself short. I know that you think I gave you Grey Publishing, but I didn’t. Grey Publishing is successful because Boyce Fox’s book sales made us attractive to higher quality authors. You signed him. Grey Publishing is successful because our e-reader brings in enough cash flow to invest heavily in good marketing. That was your project. You were the one who laid the foundation for what it is today, and that has nothing to do with me.”
“But there isn’t space for me there anymore. You gave my job to Elizabeth, remember?”
He narrows his eyes at me. “I think I can find something for you.”
“Don’t you dare, Christian Grey. Elizabeth has done amazing things for GP, and I know because that’s the reason the president of Greenwich was fired. They can’t compete with you. You’re not going to fire her just so you can give your wife a job.”
“I won’t have to fire her,” he argues. “There’s plenty of space for you. We still haven’t hired a permanent replacement for Jack, you could take over the entire fiction department. It’ll give you creative control and you’ll have the opportunity to work closely with authors. And once you have a good team in place, you’ll be able to split your time between work and writing.”
“When did this turn into an offer to work at Grey Publishing?”
“The moment you told me you wanted a job.”
I shake my head. “I don’t want you to hand me a career, Christian. I want to carve a path out for myself, just like you did. It’s validating for me that someone who I’m not married to has approached me with this amazing opportunity, that they need me, and… I think I need them.”
“You won’t be working for yourself, you’ll be working for someone else.”
“That’s not as important to me as it is to you.”
“You’ll be the competition.”
“And I’ll try to take it easy on you.”
Despite himself, he laughs, then takes a deep breath and starts shaking his head. “Just as stubborn as ever. You know this is Harvard all over again.”
“And I won that fight. Over and over and over again. Honestly, you should cave now before I take this job just to spite you and then dedicate my career to burying Grey Publishing.” I give him a defiant look and his expression softens. He raises his hand and places them on either side of my face, staring deeply into my eyes.
“There you are.” It’s the first time in as long as I can really remember that he’s not looking at me like I’m damaged. There is only love and happiness reflected in his eyes and it sends a wave of welcome heat through my body.
“See? I told you, I’m fine.”
“I still think you should come work for me.”
“Well, we can talk about that after my interview. Maybe I won’t like what they have to say. And the guy that asked me to come interview isn’t even the one who makes the final decision. I have to meet with his boss. Maybe they won’t like me as much and I won’t even get the job.”
His expression changes, and after a few seconds a subtle smile plays at the corner of his mouth. “His boss. GSP is owned by a holding company and the CEO– she’s uh… well, she’s… “ He shakes his head. “You’re right. We’ll talk about this if you get the job.”
“And if you don’t, you’ll come work for me?”
“Maybe. Yeah, I could see that.”
Once again, he tries to kiss me, but I lift my hand to create a barrier between his lips and mine. “And in the meantime?”
He grins. “In the meantime, I plan on taking advantage of this rare night we have alone. I might even… go break into the closet.”
“I meant about GEH and your dad, Christian.”
“I’ll think about it. But I don’t want to talk about this anymore tonight. I want you naked and tied to my headboard.”
I bite my bottom lip. “The closet, huh?”
“Oh yes. You’ve talked a big game tonight, Ana. I think I need to remind you who the boss really is around here.”
So fast that I can’t back away, he bends over and picks me up at the waist, slinging me over his shoulder and making his way for the stairs. I squeal and try to squirm out of his grip but he simply smacks me hard on the behind and continues on all the way to our bedroom.