Chapter 11

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Calliope squirms in my arms as I carry her through the front doors of GEH for her very first day of daycare. There are no tears, like I expected there to be, no screams of torture. She’s simply too interested in the men and women hurrying through the lobby around us to stay still. Taylor is outside, still idling on the curb with Woods while they wait to take me to work, so it’s just Christian and I dropping her off. He walks by my side, juggling her diaper bag, stroller, and the three different stuffed animals that Calliope couldn’t bear to be parted from this morning, all while trying to guide us to the nursery and answer emails on his phone. We get several strange looks as we make our way to the elevator, like people are genuinely shocked to see a ten month old baby being paraded through the epicenter of Seattle business and commerce. But I soon realize the questioning stares aren’t being directed at Calliope. They’re all gaping at Christian, who I suppose looks odd to his employees with a baby pink blanket draped over the shoulder of his bespoke Brioni suit and the plastic end of an escaped pacifier clenched between his teeth.

“Seventh floor,” he mumbles distractedly, once we step into the elevator. I move to the panel and lean over to press the round button labelled ‘7’, but when Calliope sees the small glass sphere light up, she shrieks with excitement and thrusts her tiny hands out for as many buttons as she can reach.

“No, no, no!” I say, trying to pull her hands away, but the damage is done. We’re stopping at every floor except three on our journey up to her daycare. Christian sighs, unable to do anything but accept each and every stop. The patience he’s trying to summon, however, vanishes in an instant when a tiny woman manages to worm her way through the doors before they fully close.

“Mr. Grey,” she pants in relief.

“Jacqueline,” Christian replies. “What can I do for you?”

“The optics on this tax issue with your father aren’t good. He’s coming off as a strong leader, bent on eliminating corruption, even when it means standing up to his own family, and you’re kind of being perceived as a holding the city ransom while demanding handouts from the Seattle tax payers. Your brand is about exceptionalism. You’re a self-made billionaire running a successful multinational corporation that breaks profit records nearly every year and pushes the boundaries of innovation in every industry you touch. This battle with your father is counteracting all that good publicity and I’m afraid it’s bringing up questions about how safe of an investment Grey technologies are to those who’re helping bankroll this big project you’re trying to get off the ground.”

“Well if I lose this battle against my father and GEH doesn’t get enough in tax incentives this quarter, they won’t have questions, they’ll have proof. I’m not letting this project fail, Jacqueline, no matter who I have to fight to make it happen.”

“Then perhaps we should focus on changing the narrative. Give the media something to print besides this political war you’re fighting with the city that you helped transform. We need a win, Mr. Grey. Something big that we can get out to the press this week. Otherwise, your funding is going to be pulled and you’re going to be fighting over tax breaks to fund a project that’s DOA.”

He sighs. “Fine. I’ll take a look at what I’ve got in the pipeline and send you some numbers this afternoon.”

“Perfect. Thank you, Mr. Grey.”

“Mhm,” he mumbles over the sound over the elevator opening on the fourth floor. “Now get out.”

Jacqueline smiles and turns to face Calliope and I. “She really is such a beautiful baby, Mrs. Grey. I’m telling you, that’s a face for PixC if I’ve ever seen one.”

“Jacqueline,” Christian says, more firmly this time. “Go.”

She lets out a soft, disappointed sound and winks at my baby before ducking out of the elevator again and leaving us alone. I swallow, preparing myself for what I want to say, and face my husband.

“Christian, I don’t like that you’re going after your dad like this. Family is more important than anything, even your supercars.”

“It’s not about the cars, Ana. It’s about creating clean, unlimited energy. Do you have any idea what that would mean? How that would change the world?” I stare back at him, unblinking and unimpressed, and he sighs. “My dad is the highest ranking government official in this city, Anastasia. Sometimes that is going to put us at odds. But it’s not personal. It’s business, and I can separate the two.”

“Can he?”

The doors ping open on the seventh floor and Christian quickly ushers me out of the elevator without answering. We wind our way through several hallways, past a few departments I’m unfamiliar with, until we finally make it to a desk sitting outside a locked door that is guarded by a security officer.

“Mr. Grey,” the friendly looking woman behind the desk greets us. Her smile is bright and her eyes are friendly, a contradiction to the steel and bulletproof glass door she watches over. “This must be little Calliope.”

“Can you say, hi?” I ask, gently pinching Calliope’s toes through her socks. She blinks at the woman smiling back at her, then turns and buries her face in my blouse.

“Awh,” the woman says, her expression alight with sympathy. “It’s okay to be nervous on your first day, sweetheart. But there’s lots of fun toys in there and other kids that want to play with you. Doesn’t that sound fun?”

Calliope turns her face just the smallest degree so she can get a peak at the woman beaming at her, encouraging her, and after assessing the situation and finding nothing to scare her away from the promise of free toys, she slowly pulls away from me and looks through the glass to the children playing inside.

“Kensie’s in there,” I say encouragingly. “Do you want to go play with Kensie?”

She does her best to nod and then reaches for the door. “Ki-ki, Mama. Ki-ki.”

“Okay, Calli-lily. Let’s go find Ki-ki.” She coos with delight while Christian thanks the woman behind the desk, and after she’s pressed the button that causes the heavy metal locks to open with a loud, high pitched clink, the security guard opens the door for us and we step inside. I look back at him questioningly and then turn to Christian. “Isn’t that the same security guard I fired in Vegas for letting Mia and her friend sneak into a nightclub?”

“Yeah, his name is James. Alan James, I think.”

“And that’s the man you put in charge of watching over our daughter all day, every day? The man who couldn’t keep track of two seventeen year olds when they were his only responsibility?”

Christian rolls his eyes. “Calliope isn’t Mia, Anastasia.”

“No. She’s my daughter so she’s probably going to be even worse! Do you know how many times I’ve ditched Luke over the years, Christian? And that was Luke. Not generic security guard number three.”

“And I didn’t fire Sawyer for losing you, either. There are four teachers who work here, plus Mackensie, and she’s going to be behind locked doors that are under constant video surveillance. She’s perfectly safe. You know that I wouldn’t leave her here if she wasn’t.”

“I’d still feel better with a more senior member of your security team watching over her.”

“Well, I just reassigned Harrison to Mia, at your request, and since Sawyer left, that makes James the most senior member I have available.”

I frown. “That’s not true. What does Taylor do all day? Can’t we get him?”

Christian laughs, then leads me through the small sitting room and past a gate with a latch too high for anyone under the age of six to reach. From there, we find several rooms, organized by the age of the children inside, surrounding one large play area.

“She’s in the caterpillar room,” Christian says, motioning to the door farthest to the left. I hitch the baby higher up on my hip and follow him inside. It’s a larger space than I imagined, with fewer children inside. There are small wooden cubbies all along one wall, and cribs against the other. The majority of the floor is covered in brightly colored pieces of rubber that fit together like puzzle pieces and every toy you could possibly imagine.

“There she is!” Mackensie cries, locking eyes with Calliope the moment she spots us.

“Ki-ki! Ki-ki!” My baby throws her body in the direction of our nanny, making it difficult for me to hang onto her, but the excited squeals she makes trying to get away from me hurt more than her little feet kicking fervently against my chest ever could.

Kensie grunts as she takes the baby out of my arms and carries her across the room. I stand there, watching her being introduced to the other children and handed toys before Christian finally pulls me away to speak with the teachers. They give me an overview of the kinds of activities she’ll be doing during the day and what her schedule is going to be like going forward. Christian’s hired a speech expert to help her expand her vocabulary more quickly and efficiently, and there’s a dietician on staff to prepare healthy meals that both provide optimal nutrition and are loved by even the pickiest eaters. She’ll be exposed to art and music, and there’s a reading corner filled with books the staff read to the children every afternoon. It’s the perfect place to care for my baby while I’m at work all day, but that doesn’t make it any easier to leave her here.

“She’s going to be fine,” Christian promises me. “And I’m just upstairs if she needs something. Even if it’s just to come sit with me awhile.”

“I know.” I watch her gaping at a child next to her, who is playing with a toy, with complete and utter fascination. Part of me expects her to try and rip it out of his hands, but she doesn’t. Kensie encourages her to share and she does without complaint.

“We should go,” Christian says. “It’ll be better for her if she doesn’t have to watch us leave.”

My bottom lip trembles as he wraps an arm around me and leads me out of the room. By the time we make it back out to the hallway, I break down completely.

“Hey… baby. She’s going to be fine. She was having fun.”

“I know, that’s the problem! She doesn’t even care that we’re leaving her.”

“You wanted her to cry?”

“No! And… yes. A little. I don’t want her to be sad but I want her to want me around. She didn’t even notice that we left. This is how it happens, Christian. One day, she’s going to leave us and this is where it starts.”

He laughs at my melodrama and pulls me into him. “She’s not even a year old yet, Ana.”

“Yeah, well you’re going to blink and she’s going to be eighteen.”

“Then I’ll try not to blink.” He kisses my forehead and tugs me away from the daycare, towards the elevators, and then walks me back out to the car to send me off on my first day. Woods is there to open the door for me, but before I climb back into the SUV, I pause and take a moment to find my zen. Trauma from leaving Calliope behind aside, taking this job isn’t the same as accepting my internship with SIP, and that’s been playing on my nerves all morning. Greenwich isn’t a new player in the industry, they’ve been established in this city for over seven years. And while sales have suffered, the name still carries weight. I am now responsible for every piece of literature this publishing house produces going forward. It’s going to be my job to lead, to give the company vision, and to re-carve out our place in an overcrowded, highly competitive industry. Yesterday, that prospect had me dancing around the house with excitement. Now, I’m mostly nauseated.

“I can do this, right?” I ask, looking up at Christian with pleading eyes, and to my surprise, he looks taken aback.

“Of course you can.”

“But… what I’m a disaster? What if SIP was a fluke and I’m about to go run this publishing house into the ground?”

He laughs. “Then I’ll buy up the authors’ contracts cheap and have one less competitor to worry about. It’s a win/win, really.”

I glare, but he simply leans down and presses his lips softly into mine. “Anastasia, you’ve earned this. No one gave you special favors or pushed you ahead because you have my name. You worked your ass off for years to gain the experience that got you here. This is because of your talent, and your mind. Yes, you’ll make mistakes, that’s unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to fail. Elizabeth is at the top of her field and she didn’t graduate from Harvard. She isn’t a New York Times bestselling author. And she didn’t build her first publishing house at 21. You did. You are going to be incredible, Anastasia. I just can’t wait to see what you’re going to do.”

I take a breath and smile. “Thank you. I really do love you, you know that?”  

“I do.” He releases me, but swipes his thumb across my cheek affectionately before fully letting me go. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“I won’t,” I say with a laugh, only realizing after he’s shut me inside the car and we begin to pull away what sage advice that really is. Christian knows what it takes to be successful. He takes risks, he follows his instincts, and he always manages to do the impossible. I’ll get through this, as long as I don’t do anything Christian wouldn’t do.

Much as I did the last time I arrived at GSP, I take the time to appreciate the art deco feel of the building before going inside. It’s a stark contrast to Christian’s ultra modern skyscraper a few blocks down the road. There are no digital keypads in hidden panels or walls entirely comprised of ultra high definition screens. This office is industrial in the purest sense of the word: brick walls, wood floors, and exposed beams. I think I prefer it this way. Christian’s office is beautiful, a architectural feat that is sure to one day be considered one of the crowning jewels of this city, but there’s something about the loud echo of my footsteps inside the poorly insulated halls and the faint smell of age and dust that brings me right back to the halls of Harvard. There’s comfort in that. Like Christian’s reassurances this morning, it reminds me who I am and why I’m here.

“Last chance,” Woods says, a slightly teasing tone in his voice as his hand pauses on the handle of the door to the GSP lobby.

I smile and reach up to touch his arm. “Awh, there’s no reason to be nervous, Woods. I’m going to be with you the whole day. Everyone is going to love you.”

He laughs, then pulls open the door, and I walk up to the receptionist feeling the levity of my joke propelling me forward. “Good morning.”

“Mrs. Grey,” the petite redhead behind the counter greets me. “Welcome to Greenwich Small Press.”

“Thank you. Penny, right?”

“Uh, yeah.” She looks taken aback. “I’m surprised you remembered.”

“I try.” I smile, then wait as she picks up the receiver to her phone.

“Mr. Wallace, Mrs. Grey has arrived. Yes, sir.” She hangs up and turns back me. “Can I take your coffee order now, Mrs. Grey? I’ll be going out around 09:30.”

“Coffee order?”

“Mr. Wallace isn’t partial to brewed coffee, he has me make a Starbucks run every morning before his afternoon meetings.”

“Does he?”

“Yes, ma’am. He says this country runs on caffeine. I’d be happy to pick something up for you as well.”

“Thank you, Penny, but I don’t think that…”

“Anastasia!” a voice interrupts me from across the room. I turn and see Scott Wallace approaching, a grin stretched wide across his face and his hand held out for mine. “Welcome to Greenwich.”

“Thank you, Scott,” I reply, accepting his handshake. Once he releases me, he reaches into his jacket, pulls out his wallet, and takes out a twenty.

“Grab me some lunch on your way back, sweetheart,” he says to Penny. “I expect our department meeting will go long this afternoon and I’m going to need to eat by eleven if I’m going to meet my protein macros today.”

Sweetheart?

“Yes, Mr. Wallace.”

“And, no gluten.”  

“No, sir.”

“You’re a doll, Penny. You’re a doll.” He winks at her, making a clicking sound with his cheek as he points at her with his fingers in the shape of a pistol. She blushes and quickly settles back into her chair, but I don’t think the flush in her cheeks is from bashfulness. I think it’s embarrassment, or maybe anger she’s unable to express to a superior.

“You know, Scott,” I say defensively. “I’d really prefer our receptionist not spend any unnecessary time away from her desk. Her job is to answer the phones and to greet anyone who comes through that door. It seems to me running errands to coffee shops prevents her from doing that.”

He gives me a placating smile. “We’re not a busy office, Ana. We don’t have many appointments, and the phones hardly ever ring.” I raise an eyebrow and, as if in direct contradiction to what he just told me, a call comes through the phone on Penny’s desk. She smirks as she picks it up and I look back at Scott.

“Perhaps it would be better if your PA took care of your errands from here on out.”

His face falls. “My PA has her hands full with actual work, Anastasia, reviewing submissions for my approval. I know you’re new here, so perhaps you don’t understand how much is about to fall onto your plate, but I assure you, having Penny run down the street for a coffee and a cobb salad is a much better use of company resources.”

“Mr. Wallace,” Penny interrupts. “Ms. Gallagher is on line one for you.”

“I’ll take it in my office,” he says, then looks back to me. “I’m sorry, I’ll take it in Ana’s office.”

He turns and disappears into the back office I had my interview in, while I sigh and face the receptionist again. “Penny, this is Evan Woods, my personal security. Will you help find a place for him?”

“Of course, Mrs. Grey.”

“And Woods, I hate to ask but would you mind running down the block to Starbucks when it’s time? I’d really prefer reception not be left uncovered.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Thank you.” Penny gets up to show Woods to an empty desk near the back office, and I take  the opportunity alone to get acquainted with the office. The open floor space is covered with small clusters of desks that belong to each department – the editors, agents, creative team, marketing and advertising, and web design. I saunter between each division, trying to subtly observe my new employees at work without disturbing them, until Wallace finally pokes his head out of the back office.

“Ana.” It’s a summons, so I excuse myself from the introductions I’d been making with Mrs. Thompson, the head of HR, and make my way back to him. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to have you here,” he says, as he closes the door behind us. “This travelling back and forth from New York twice a week is killing me.”

“Well, I’m excited to get started.”

“Good, have a seat.” There’s a small sofa and coffee table to the right of the desk that he gestures for, so I settle down on the leather cushion and wait expectantly. He picks up a sheet of paper from the printer, which looks as though it may also serve as a fax machine, and places it on the table in front of me.

“Carmen just sent this over for you,” he explains. “It’s a non-compete agreement.”

“Non-compete?”

“It simply states that if you choose to resign, you will not take employment with one of our competitors or start a competing business, nor will you disclose any confidential information about company practices to any other players in the industry.”

“You mean to say that it’s a contract to prevent me from stealing all of your trade secrets and taking them to Grey Publishing.”

“I’m afraid Ms. Gallagher insists. She’s asked to have this document faxed back to her the moment you’ve signed.”

“So, I can assume she won’t be making a trip to Seattle any time soon?”

“GSP is more of a side line for Gallagher Industries, so Carmen tends to be fairly hands off. I’ll be your main point of contact until you get on your feet here, then you’ll mostly be on your own.”

“I see.” I reach over to pick up the document he’s brought to me and begin to read. It looks fairly standard, almost identical to the non-disclosure agreement I signed for my internship at GEH two summers ago, except for the restriction on taking other employment in the industry or starting a competing publishing house of my own. I see the merit in that. Greenwich is making a huge gamble by hiring someone who has such close ties to their largest industry competitor, no matter how qualified I am. And since I really do want to launch my career separate from my husband’s name and company, it’s not necessarily that which gives me pause. What keeps me from simply scrolling my signature across the line on the bottom of the page is my currently unpublished manuscript. I have no idea how that will play into my responsibilities to Greenwich under this contract, and I’m not prepared to sign the rights to my own work away without even having the choice to review my options.

“One moment please.” I stand and go to the door, then call for Woods to join us in the office. Scott looks slightly perplexed as to what I’m doing, but I keep my attention focused on my CPO to keep arguments and questions at a minimum.

“Yes, Mrs. Grey?”

“I’m going to need my lawyer to look over this,” I tell him, holding out the non-compete agreement. “Would you please get a copy of this to Astor Harrington and let him know that it’s urgent. I’ll need it back as soon as possible.”

“Uh, Ana, this isn’t really negotiable,” Scott says. “I need a signature on that document or there’s nothing more we can do here.”

“Then this should have been sent to me last week when I signed the rest of my contracts.” He blinks as Woods pulls the non-compete from my hands and turns back towards reception. I watch him hand the document to Penny and when she gets up to place it in the fax machine, Woods pulls out his cell phone to make a call.

“Well,” I say, turning back to Scott. “Since this means we won’t be able to go over our current workload, I suggest we take the time to discuss expectations. Tell me what I need to know to succeed here.”

He sighs in frustration, but nods and moves across the couch to make room for me. We spend a good hour and a half discussing the structure of the company and how our roles play together. While he’ll be here help me get settled in and ease my transition with our employees, he really is just my New York counterpart. I’ll report directly to Carmen Gallagher, though he’s clear that I shouldn’t involve our CEO unless “the place is burning down.”

“I have utter confidence that you’re going to navigate your way through this position flawlessly, Anastasia. But I’ve been here a long time. If you have questions or need to talk something out, call me. If we can’t figure it out together, then we’ll talk to Carmen.”

I nod. “Okay.”

“Mr. Wallace,” Penny says, knocking on the office door and poking her head inside. “They’re ready for you in the conference room.”

“Have we received Mrs. Grey’s non-compete yet?” Scott asks.

“Mr. Harrington is holding on line one.”

“Thank you, Penny.” I get up, move to the desk that’s now mine, and pick up the receiver, but I don’t actually answer the holding call until Scott has left the room with our receptionist. Once the door is closed, I push my finger into the button next to the blinking light.

“Hi, Astor. Sorry to keep you waiting.”

“No problem, Ana. I looked the agreement over and it seems fairly standard. I wouldn’t caution against you signing it.”

“Would this have any affect on my work independent from GSP? I have a novel that’s finished but unpublished and I’m not sure I’m willing to limit my distribution rights to Greenwich. I’ve previously worked for large publishers and I don’t believe GSP has the production capability I would expect.”

“I’d feel comfortable defending your rights to pursue outside opportunities for publishing under this contract,” he says. “But if you’d like me to draft an addendum making those rights clear, I’d be more than happy to do so.”

“That’s alright. If your comfortable, I’m comfortable.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence. Make sure they send me a copy of the agreement once you’ve signed. I want the signed version on file should any issues arise.”

“Will do. Thank you, Astor.”

“My pleasure, Ana. Have a good afternoon.”

“You too, bye.” I hang up, feeling a little more confident, and head out into the main office. Several faces have disappeared, assumedly for the meeting Scott is attending. I pick up the satchel bag Christian gifted to me before my interview from Wood’s desk, remove my laptop so I can take notes, and then make my way up to reception.

“Penny, did Woods give you a fax number for Mr. Harrington?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good.” I pick up the non-compete agreement from her desk, sign the line next to the one that already bears Carmen’s signature, and hand it back to her. “Will you please send this to Ms. Gallagher and Mr. Harrington as soon as possible.”

“Of course, Mrs. Grey.” She takes the paper from me and goes to the fax machine, and I turn back for the conference room for my first official meetings as head of this branch.

Despite the fact that the meeting has started by the time I enter the room, it doesn’t appear that I’ve missed much. Scott is distracted, typing on his phone, while Mrs. Thompson shares baby pictures she received in her email this morning from an employee who is currently out on maternity leave. I apologize for being late, open my laptop on the table, and wait expectantly, but the casual chatter around the table has stopped now that I’m seated at the table and the other department heads look at each other uncertainly.

“Alright,”  Scott says, setting his phone on the table. “First thing’s first. Team, this is Anastasia Grey. I’m sure you’re aware, but she’s been brought on to head this branch going forward.”

“And in six months we’ll all get pink slips and our authors will be sold to Grey Publishing,” someone across from me hisses. I glance up from my laptop and notice a few agreeing nods around the table that take me a little by surprise.

“Today,” Scott continues, ignoring the remark but speaking more firmly, “is her first day. So, let’s get her up to speed. Stevens, since you’re so eager for attention this morning, why don’t we start with you?”

The man across the table, who had interrupted him earlier, stiffens and hastily reaches for the papers in front of him. I start at him, feeling conflicted. Should I have addressed what he just said? Christian would have… wouldn’t he?

“Okay,” Stevens begins. “Brooks has decided on EHar-Money: The Business of Online Dating for his title on the examination of the internet dating industry, so that’s finally going to the printers the afternoon. We’re on schedule for a May 1st publication. We’ve got Angela Rowe’s contract in the can, so Mrs. Weatherbaffle’s Wishing Tree is going into the first round of editing this week. And we’ve got the numbers in for Pineheart’s latest mystery. They’re not as strong as his previous titles, but I’m not worried yet.”

“Fine,” Scott says. “Keep an eye on Pineheart. I’m sure Mrs. Grey here will want another review of his numbers before we option his next book.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Can I just…” I hold up a finger at Scott and turn a confused look on Stevens. “I’m sorry, I just want to make sure I understand our frontlist here… Your currently representing a non-fiction title, a children’s book, and a crime drama?”

“Yes, Mrs. Grey.”

I frown. “Is that common? That you all work with authors in multiple genres?”

“Yeah,” Stevens replies. “Genre plays very little into our process here. Once our agents find a manuscript their interested in, they’ll send it to you, you’ll approve it for representation and have a contract drafted. Then it’s given to one of us.”

“At random?”

“There’s an order,” a woman a few spots down clarifies. “The agents are on a rotation, and submissions get assigned as the come in. Once the contract is signed, whichever one of us is available takes it.”

I frown. At SIP, our copy and acquisition editors were divided into departments based on the genres they felt passionate about – fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, high fantasy, sci-fi… It’s how we ensured each author had absolutely the best person available to help them through their journey. I wouldn’t expect someone with a thirst for horror stories to provide the same level of dedication they’d give to Stephen King as they would someone like Danielle Steel.

“I suppose I just don’t understand why we would take the stance that any of us are better serving an author at random than we would when their work was hand selected based on mutual interest in the subject matter.”

“It’s how we keep the workload even,” Scott answers. “We find an agent’s time is the most valuable asset they can give to an author and that’s impossible if they’re juggling a disproportionate amount of titles compared to the rest of their department.”

“It’s called teamwork, Mrs. Grey,” someone says from the other side of the table, as if they expect I’ve never heard the word before. I narrow my eyes.

“Right. I just hadn’t considered we were dealing with volume so high that the number of hours we have to spend with each of our authors has been commoditized. Personally, I think I’d trade quantity for quality any day.”

The room falls silent and every pair of eyes around the table turns to Scott. He smiles, but his fingertips are white against the table. “Of course, we do the best with what we have, Ana. But as the number of titles being self-published rises and saturates the market, we’re forced to keep up. We’re a business, first and foremost.”

“And wouldn’t it be better for business if we were publishing ten titles that sold 50,000 copies instead of 100 titles that sold 1,000?”

“It would. And that’s why you’re here, Ana. You’ve got your eyes set on the great white whale, go reel him in.” While encouraging on the surface, I can tell that his words are a placation. A way to get me to drop it. But I shouldn’t. I won’t. This isn’t a disagreement over whether or not the receptionist should be used to run personal errands, this is high level, business strategy. And while I’m not going to compromise when the numbers clearly show his model is failing, this is not a debate I intend to have with Scott in front of every department head before I’ve even earned their trust.

So instead, I spend the rest of the meeting trying to get everything on the frontlist down. What we’ve signed, what’s currently out to print, and what we’re actively searching out for future publication. It seems our bottom line this year is relying heavily on the work of one author, who has proven successful to GSP in the past, and a hail mary that we haven’t even discovered yet. That’s the note Scott leaves the group with, to get all of their best manuscripts to me for review so I can approve GSP’s next best seller. Then he dismisses everyone and reaches out the door to take the lunch Woods brought back for him before he has the same meeting again, on video conference, with the New York branch.

With Scott out of commission for the next few hours, there’s nothing for me to really do but go back to my office and begin sorting through the submissions the agents on staff immediately begin to flood my inbox with. It’s adequate to fill the rest of my afternoon, and a good chunk of my week for that matter, but as I skim through the best of the best that we currently have in the pipeline, I can’t find a single sample that I would even want to request more pages of. There’s a lack of vision. Direction. And as I reply ‘no’ to the eighth first chapter I’ve read, I remember that all of that falls to me now. I am now responsible for every piece of literature this publishing house produces going forward. Gallagher, Wallace… they’re expecting me to work miracles to get them back to the top of the Seattle publishing food chain, but with what I’m being given, not even a miracle is going to be able to save us.

“Mrs. Grey?” I turn in the direction of the voice and look down at the speaker on my phone.

“Yes, Penny?”

“There’s a Miss Palermo here to see you.”

“Here?”

“Yes, ma’am. Should I tell her you’re unavailable?”

“No. No, send her back.” I give a cursory glance over my desk, racking my brain for something I might have forgotten that would be urgent enough for my literary agent to track me down at work, then stand and straighten my skirt as my door opens.

“Greenwich Small Press?” Lydia demands the moment she steps into my office. Small. Press?! This is what you’ve put your next book on hold for, Anastasia? For this I turned away Random House?”

“That’s right. So if you’re here to harass me for chapters, you’ve wasted a trip.”

She sighs. “Not entirely. While I was hoping I’d get here and be able to talk some sense into you, I mostly stopped by to give you this. It arrived for you at my office on Friday.”

She holds out a manila envelope, which I take with a real degree of confusion until I rip away the seal and pull out a manuscript with a note taped to the front.

 

Dear Ms. Steele,

Thank you again for giving me the courage to achieve this dream that I never knew I had. Because of you, I’ve finally found who I’m meant to be. This novel is dedicated to you.

Hailey Lewis

 

The girl I met at my book signing. I asked her to send her manuscript to my agent so I could look over it and give her my feedback.

“Oh, great. Thank you, Lydia.”

She waves me off. “No thank you necessary. A copy of your manuscript is plenty thanks enough.” She holds out her hand expectantly, like I would be able to materialize a printed copy of my draft out of thin air even if I did want to give it to her. My expression twists with irritation.

“Like I said, you’re wasting your time. My second title is on hold until I’m ready to share it with the world. I’m not going to be pressured into publishing any sooner than that.”

She deflates. “Fine. Call me when that happens. In the meantime, if there’s anything you need, let me know.”

“I wouldn’t say no if you wanted to some authors my way.”

“Greenwich Small Press, Anastasia.” She grimaces. “What about your experience with me leads you to believe I do anything small?”

I smile and shake my head. “Goodbye, Lydia.”

“Goodbye, Anastasia. I hope you find whatever it is that will make you publish soon. I’ve been eyeing a condo in the Dominican Republic and I need your commission checks to get me there. You’re gonna be big!”

She waves over her shoulder as she saunters out of my office, and I roll my eyes before collapsing back into my chair. The manuscript she left feels meaty, too much so for me to start while I’ve still got an inbox full of submissions to wade through, so I slip it into my bag and half forget it’s there as I settle in and turn my attention back to my work. Work that feels as impossible as the search for the holy grail.

Next Chapter

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Chapter 10

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After making up with Christian, I have an entire week without any nightmares. Some nights, I don’t dream at all. Others I spend with him. In Paris. At the tiny cabin we shared in Vermont. Even just in our own bed. For hours and hours, I have him in my arms, on top of me, inside of me, and there isn’t anything or anyone to distract us or to take him away from me. On Saturday, I enjoy a particularly vivid dream of him massaging me under the hot sun on the beach we stayed at in the Maldives, which is perhaps why I don’t immediately wake when his lips begin to softly caress my throat.

“Ana,” he whispers longingly, and finally my eyes flutter open.

“Mmm. Good morning.”

“You have no idea.” He reaches down to pull me into him and I smile as I feel his erection press into my backside.

“That gives me a pretty good clue.” I turn in this arms, immediately attacking his lips, and he’s there to meet me. His hands roam my body, like he simply can’t touch enough of me. He pushes his body against mine, like he can’t be close enough to me. His tongue moves with mine, like he can’t get enough of the way I taste.

His passion is so overwhelming, I have to pull away just so I can breathe. But that doesn’t stop him. His lips move down, his teeth scraping against my jaw before he once again begins kissing and sucking the sensitive skin over my throat. I pant with want. His desire bleeds into mine, forcing heat to flood down between my legs, where it pools and begins to burn. A fire that only he can extinguish.

“Christian, please,” I moan.

“Wait,” he growls back. He nips me, hard enough that I let out a whimper of pain, but the hurt is immediately soothed away by his tongue washing over my skin. He starts to suck again, harder this time, more purposefully, and I gasp.

“Wait. Christian. You’re going to give me hickeys.”

“Good. I like you marked.”

“The baby shower is today!” He bites me again, telling me he doesn’t care, and while at first I’m a little incensed, the fight quickly drains out of me when his hand slides up under my t-shirt and his expert fingers begin toying with my nipples. Once again, the lust flames to life between my legs and nothing else in the world matters.

My back arches up off the bed, pressing my breasts into his palms, but it’s not enough for him. With a hungry snarl, he peels the t-shirt, his t-shirt, that I wore to bed over my head, then rolls over on top of me. The feel of his heat and of his skin on mine only heightens the already potent sensation until my skin becomes so overly sensitive to his touch that each brush of his fingers sends an electric jolt of pleasure through me so intense that I feel singed. I want him. Now. Hard. As deep as he can possibly reach. But he’s in no hurry. His weight presses into me, holding me down, keeping me still, while his lips move back to mine and his hands continue their lascivious exploration of the rest of my body.

“Christian, please,” I whine again. “Touch me. I need you to touch me.”

“Where?”

“You know where.”

“Here?” He drags the back of his fingers over the curve of my neck, making me shiver with pleasure. Only, not the kind of pleasure I’m desperate for.

“No.”

“Here?” His hand moves down and he cups my breasts again. Rougher this time. His fingers dig into my flesh, deep enough that he’ll mark me there too, but the gratification I derive from the domination is not enough to slake my need for him.

“No.”

“Mmm,” he hums, satisfied by the tormented plea in my voice. “Here?”

His hands move down between my legs and, gently, he swipes his finger over my clit through the thin layer of my panties. I shudder.

“Yesssss. More!”

“Not a fucking chance.” With barbaric strength and speed, his hand disappears and finds its way to my wrist. He moves both of my arms over my head, secures them with his left hand, and lays down over the top of me again. With his legs, he forces my thighs open as wide as they can reach and then pins them in place with his knees. His hold is sure, and I’m not strong enough to move him. I’m helpless and he knows it.

His hand reaches down between my legs again.

“No…” With the same soft touch, his finger once again moves over that sensitive bundle of nerves, contrasting starkly with the harsh way he’s holding me down. “Christian!”

“What?”

“Fuck me!”

“Oh no, baby. You don’t want it bad enough yet.” He kisses me again, though not in the gentle way he did before. I know my lips will be swollen by the time he’s finished and it makes what he’s doing to me over my panties feel like torture. Delicious torture that he drags out until my entire body is trembling and covered in sweat.

“Oh god, yes…” I moan, when I feel the early hints of an impending orgasm blooming deep inside of me.

“Don’t come in your panties, Anastasia.”

“Why?”

“You come for my cock or you come for my mouth, nothing else. Do you understand me?”

“Then fuck me, Christian!”

He leans forward and speaks so softly that I wouldn’t be able to hear him if his lips were pressed directly into my ear. “Beg me.”

“Please,” I whimper back. “Please, Christian. I need you.”

“Who do you belong to, Anastasia?”

“You. Only you. I’m yours.”

“I love you.” His teeth sink into the lobe of my ear and he pulls harshly, not releasing me until I gasp. “Remember that.”

I don’t have time to respond before he pulls away, and sits up, towering over me. He stops playing with me, but his hands don’t leave my panties. Instead, his fingers curl beneath the lace until he has fabric bunched up in each of his fists and he yanks, shredding my panties down the middle. Once he’s released them, they hang in tatters around my legs, but I’m exposed now. Ready for him.

He moves down, positing himself between my legs until his mouth is mere centimeters from where I need him most, but he doesn’t touch me. He just looks at me, surveying me as though what lies before him is his most treasured possession. It’s unbelievably erotic and my clit twitches under his piercing gaze.

“So pink,” he growls. “Swollen. Wet. Hungry for my cock.”

“Yes!”

His lips part and he moves closer. I feel his breath wash over me, but he still doesn’t make contact. He moves all around me, near enough that I can sense the movement. I want to buck my hips up, push into his lips and search out his oh so talented tongue, but I’m paralyzed beneath him. No longer because he holds me down, but because I know this is how he wants me. And with the promise of what’s to come, I’d do anything to give him what he wants.

Slowly, he inches into me until his lips are just barely pressed against my entrance. “Come, Anastasia.”

The tiny hint of movement of his mouth against my clit is all I need. My orgasm rips through me and at long last, I’m rewarded with his tongue. With every pull of his lips, he drains me, and every pass of his tongue keeps me soaring. The pleasure is so intense that my vision goes dark and my entire body quakes in time with every pulse reverberating out from my center. It goes on and on. By the time the I start to come down, I’m hoarse from screaming his name.

“That’s it, baby.” He pulls away, then grabs me by the hips and flips me onto my stomach. So smoothly that it feels like one motion, he pulls my hips into the air and slams inside of me, and the moment he invades me, I come again. My insides grip him with every thrust, drawing him in deeper.

“You’re. So. Wet.” He pulls his hand away from my hip and brings it down hard on my behind. I let out a primal scream in response.

“More,” I beg, and he delivers. Again and again until it’s too much for me to take anymore. It’s a limit I don’t have to verbalize. He knows, because he knows my body better than I do. His hand slides over my back and into my hair, which he takes in his fist to use as leverage as he continues pounding into me. The pain that he pulls from the roots of my hair is the perfect contrast to the pleasure he draws out from inside of me, until eventually, it’s not a contrast at all. It all melds into one, into pleasure, that threatens to overwhelm and consume me.

“Christian! Christian, I can’t… You’re going to m-make me… I can’t.”

“Save it for me,” he commands. “I’m almost there. Save it for me.”

He’s close. I feel that now, in the tightening of his fingers against my hip and in the urgency of his thrusts. I’m going to make him come. Why is it that the knowledge of his impending orgasm seems to intensify the urgency of mine? Is it the thought of him spilling himself inside of me, leaving behind the evidence of our love making? Is it the confirmation that I do to him everything that he does to me? I can’t be sure, but the proof of his pleasure has me quickly spiraling back into the fiery depths of unrelenting indulgence and passion that I can only ever find with him. The fuse is lit, and now, inch by inch, I watch what’s left of my control burn away until I explode.

“Fuck, Ana!” Christian cries out. And with one, two, three more thrusts, he comes. Garbled versions of my name, peppered with a few choice expletives, bubble from his lips with every ripple I feel against my insides, until he stills and collapses down over the top of me.

Our breathing is harsh, uneven and out of sync. For a long, drawn out moment, he doesn’t move, and while his broad, muscular frame is overwhelming and slightly too heavy for me to bear, there’s a comfort to his weight. Like a hot mug of tea on a stormy night or coming home after too much time away.

“I love you,” he whispers at last. He leaves soft kisses against the back of my shoulder, a change from the rough way he handled me only moments ago. It makes my entire body hum with contentment, and when I start to move beneath him, trying to press as much of my body into his as is possible, he lifts himself just enough so that he can flip me back onto my back and kiss my lips again. I wrap my legs around him, and he reaches down to brush his fingertips over my skin, starting from my knee and working his way up, but when he touches my still sore backside, I hiss slightly.

“Are you okay?” he checks.

“Yeah, just a little tender.”  

He smiles and caresses the tip of my nose with his. “Tender, huh?”

“Mhm. Your handiwork is going to stay with me all day, Mr. Grey. You should be proud of yourself.”

“Oh, I am.” He looks down over my naked body and his grin broadens. “Very proud.”

I laugh, then reach up to run my hand through his hair, soaking in his good mood. But just as he leans down to kiss me again, we hear the first cries of our waking daughter sound through the baby monitor on the nightstand. He deflates, which only makes me giggle harder.

“I’ve got it,” I tell him, pushing against his broad shoulders in an attempt to roll him off of me, but he shakes his head.

“No, you stay right here. Relax. Go take a shower. I’ll get her up and we’ll meet you downstairs.”

“Okay.” I nod and beam up at him. He places once last kiss against my lips and then climbs out of bed, pulling a pair of workout shorts from his top drawer before hurrying out the door. I stretch out over the sheets, reveling in the feeling of complete and absolute relaxation and in the smell of his skin that still clings to mine. But as I start arguing with myself about getting out of bed to take a shower, I hear Christian’s voice come through the baby monitor. So, I pause and listen to him with our daughter.

“Good morning, Princess,” he greets her.

“Dada,” Calliope replies, her voice still thick with the tears she used to summon him. There’s a groan as, I presume, he lowers the bars of her crib and lifts her into his arms. She makes all her normal babbling sounds as he finds something for her to wear and moves her onto the changing table, and I listen to his enraptured responses to complete nonsense for several seconds. But Gail isn’t here today, which means our breakfast will be up to me, so I can only linger for a moment before I really do need to get up and get ready for the day.

With a sigh, I roll out of bed and step onto the heated floors that lead me into the bathroom. Despite our early morning activities, my eyelids are still heavy from too little sleep, so I rub the backs of my fingers over them while I reach into our shower and twist the knob for the hot water. But when I look into the mirror over the sinks, and my vision begins to adjust, I notice that my throat and my breasts are both covered in deep red splotches, some of them almost purple. A closer look reveals that most of the marks are accompanied with the imprints of teeth and my mouth drops open in shock.

Hickeys.

He actually gave me hickeys, like we’re sixteen years old or something. That’s what his very proud comment was about, and his smug smile. He said he liked me marked, and here I am looking like a freaking leopard. All thanks to Christian Grey.

Gritting my teeth, I step into the shower and begin to scrub my skin with the raw sea sponge resting on the metal rack set in the slate tile. It doesn’t do anything, obviously, so once I’m cleaned and dried, I have to start applying concealer from my chest up. It takes me double the time to get ready than it normally would with all the blending I have to do to try and make the extra makeup look natural, and even after I’ve done everything I know how to do, I can still see the shadows of Christian’s love bites all over my skin.

I sigh and glare at my reflection in the mirror. Of course he does this on a day that I’m hosting a house full of people. He’s going to pay for this.  

Oh, ho, ho is he going to pay for this.

With one last sweep of my brush through my hair, I leave the bathroom and head downstairs where Christian has Calliope set up in her highchair with the banana and greek yogurt puree that Gail made and left in jars for the weekend. He looks up at me as I enter, and must immediately understand what makes me glare at him, because he smiles.

“How was your shower?”

“Oh, great!” I reply, sarcastically. “Real great.”

He laughs and dips the color changing plastic spoon in his hand back into the jar. But when he holds it out for Calliope, she smacks it with the back of her hand, sending banana mush all over him.

“No, Dada. Mama!” Calliope protests. Christian blinks through the food splattered across his face and I struggle so hard not to laugh at him that I end up snorting over the cup of coffee I’ve poured. He turns to look at me, incensed. I shrug.

“Karma.”

He shakes his head, then gets up to take the kitchen towel I offer him, and while he cleans up, I move toward my impatient baby.

“Good morning, munchkin! How is my favorite baby in the whole wide world this morning?”

“Mama!”

I smile, then kiss each of her cheeks before grabbing onto her high chair and dragging her over to the kitchen island. I make sure to say, ‘weeeeeeee’ as I move her, so that she’s not scared by the scraping noise her chair makes on the tile floor. But she’s much too brave to let something as trivial as a loud noise scare her. When I stop and sit at the barstool to continue feeding her, she’s lost to a fit of giggles.

“Was that fun?” Christian asks, his eyes twinkling. She shrieks and reaches out for him.

“Dada! Dada!”

“You’re up,” I tell him, setting the spoon back down on the tray of her high chair and moving around the counter to start getting ingredients out of the fridge. But as he passes me to return to our daughter, his arm hooks around my waist and he pulls me into him so that he can whisper in my ear.

“The makeup is no use, Anastasia. I still know they’re there.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I take the towel out of his hands and, once he releases me, snap it against his behind. He flinches and looks back at me, indignant, but I simply give him a completely unapologetic look and get to work making breakfast.

“What time does everyone get here today?” he asks.

“One. But the caterers will be here around noon and I’ve got a ton of decorating to do.”

“Mhm.” He’s looking back at Calliope, eyes wide with interest, following her every movement, until my phone rings on the island and he reaches over to read the name across the screen.

“Kate?” I ask. He shakes his head and rolls his eyes as he slides my phone across the counter to me.

“Sawyer.”

“Luke? Why is he calling me?” I glance down and see that it is indeed his name splayed out across my caller ID and then answer. “Hello?”

“Riddle me this, Batman. Why is my girlfriend coming to your house this afternoon?”

“What?”

“Jade. Why did she just get out of my bed to go get in the shower so she can get ready to go hang out with you?”

“Oh, Kate’s baby shower is today.”

“And?”

“And, I invited her.”

“How did you even get her number?”

I roll my eyes, despite the knowledge that he can’t see me. “Christian isn’t the only one who has access to Jason Taylor.”

“Ana!”

“What?”

“I thought we agreed that we would do this at my pace?”

“No, we agreed that I wouldn’t pressure you for information and that you could open up to me at your own pace. And I only agreed to that because I knew I could circumvent you by just getting everything from her.”

“Ana!”

“We’re going to be best friends. Deal with it.”

“I’m going to murder you. In cold blood. I hope you’re prepared for that.”

“Awh, I love you too. Feel free to come by. Elliot and Christian are staying so you won’t be the only guy.”

“Why do you do this to me?”

“Because I’m your best friend. Bye, Luke.”

“I hate you.”

I hang up the phone, grinning to myself, and turn to scoop Christian’s omelet out of the skillet, but when I turn to give it to him, he’s frowning at me.

“What was that about?”

“Oh, nothing. I invited Jade to Kate’s baby shower so she and I can get to know each other and he’s not very happy about it.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s afraid that after years of making fun of me for how obsessed I am with you, I’m going to find out that he’s just as much of a softy underneath that security robot exterior as I am.”

“Mmm,” Christian says, less interested now as he turns his attention back to feeding Calliope. “Women will do that to you.”

“Women?” I raise an eyebrow at him. “Just women?”

His eyes twinkle and the corner of his mouth ticks up into a lopsided, but undeniably sexy smirk. “The ones who are worth it.”

It takes all morning, but by the time I’m finished, my living room has been transformed into a living, breathing Pinterest board. I decided not to go the traditional pink route, like Kate did for my baby shower. Instead, I’ve chosen a Breakfast at Tiffany’s theme to commemorate all the Saturdays she and I spent watching that movie together.

The tables are all draped in white or robin’s-egg-blue, and the treats I’ve set out for our guests are all laid over shiny, platinum trays. For food, I’ve forgone the tea sandwiches and fancy h’orderves, and instead laid out a spread of all of Kate’s pregnancy cravings. It’s a strange mix with a serving dish full of pickles, a tray of french fries, soft pretzels and jalapeno cheese dip, mozzarella sticks, a whole bowl of fresh pineapple, and every kind of chocolate I could get my hands on. Grace’s country club friends might not approve but I really wanted this day to be about Kate. She’s been such an amazing friend to me through the years, through thick and thin. She deserves the world.

In the center of the foyer, there is large, round table, covered in a floor length white tablecloth. On top of it is a beautiful arrangement of favors for each and every one of Kate’s guests. A platinum pendant with Baby Grey inscribed into the metal, hanging from a slender white gold chain, each wrapped in the tell-tale blue tiffany box and tied up with thick white bow.

“It’s beautiful,” Christian says, wrapping his arms around me from behind. “She’s going to love it.”

“I think so too,” I reply, giddy with anticipation. I spin in his arms and kiss him as a way of expressing all of my gratitude for his help this morning, but our lips only just touch when the doorbell rings. “That’s probably Kate.”

He sighs and reluctantly lets me go.

Kate looks stunning, dressed in a floor length white dress that hangs loosely off her shoulders but hugs the curve of her baby bump perfectly. Her hair is curled and fitted with a crown of flowers that make her look like mother earth incarnate.

“Katie,” I gasp.

She blushes. “Is it too much?”

“Of course not. You look gorgeous!”

“Okay, good. Because I really, really love it.” We laugh and I step aside to let her through the door. Elliot follows after her, holding his arms out and spinning as he comes through the doorway, then stopping and looking expectantly at me.

“Well?” He’s dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, which is very out of place next to Kate’s nearly regal look, but the expectation in his eyes makes me laugh.

“Very handsome.”

“Thanks, Ana. I know, I know, it’s not kosher to outshine the mother of my child at her own baby shower, but what can I say? You just can’t tone down this level of attractive.”

“Attractive,” Christian snorts. Elliot narrows his eyes at him.

“Yeah, attractive. More so than any other man in this family. Especially those within close proximity to where we are now. Right now. Here. In this house.”

Kate rolls her eyes. “I feel like this conversation is not about me right now and today is my day. So, if you two will excuse us, my best friend and I are going to go enjoy my baby shower.”

Our baby shower,” Elliot calls after her, but she ignores him and instead tugs me towards the living room.

I feel a deep rooted sense of satisfaction when I see how happy she is with everything I’ve set up for her. Her eyes swim with tears when she sees the favors, she squeals with glee at the silver letter balloons that spell out ‘Welcome Baby Grey’ against the back wall of the living room, and her eyes grow wide when she sees the food spread out on the table.

“Oh my god,” she says, immediately picking up one of the tiffany colored paper plates and loading it with mozzarella sticks. “This is amazing!”

“I tried to get all of your favorites. I hope you’re hungry.”

“Hungry? Ana, I’m telling you… I have no idea how you stayed so cute and small when you were pregnant with Calliope. I have not been able to stop eating since I hit 35 weeks.”

“Well, I didn’t make it to 35 weeks, so that could be why.”

She freezes, mozzarella stick in midair. I raise an eyebrow, wondering if I was wrong and she’s gotten over the cheese and fried food craving, but then, out of nowhere, her face crinkles and she dissolves into tears.

“Oh, Kate!”

“I-I’m sorry,” she sobs. “Here I am, h-having a completely h-healthy pregnancy after everyth-hing you went through and I’m just rubbing it in your face!”

“Oh, no. Katie, you don’t have to apologize! I’m so happy that your pregnancy has gone so well. Why on earth would I want anything else?”

“Because you didn’t get a choice. Because you almost lost everything and I’m— What an insensitive thing to s-say!”

“No, Kate.” I frown and reach out for her, not sure if trying to comfort her is working or just making her cry harder.

“I’ve got it,” Elliot interrupts, taking Kate into his arms. She buries her face into him and begins to tremble, but he doesn’t seem concerned. He simply holds her and brushes his hand through her hair. “Shhh. You’re okay. We’re all fine.”

“No we’re not, because I’m a big, pregnant mess and I’m ruining the shower that Ana worked so hard to put together for me.”

“You’re not ruining anything, baby Nothing ever could. You know why?”

“Because we’re having a baby.”

“Because we’re having a baby. In only four short weeks, she’s going to be here and you and I are going to be parents. Home stretch.”

She sniffs and nods, then pulls away and lets him wipe the moisture from under her eyes. “I love you,” she says.

“Not as much as I love you.”

“Ana? Christian?” Grace’s voice echoes through the hall and we all turn back to the entryway. As fast as they came, the tears pass and Kate’s face breaks into a smile. She kisses Elliot on the cheek and hurries away from him to bask in Grace’s congratulations.

Elliot sighs. “That happens about three times a day now. Her hormones are crazy out of whack.”

“Oh, god,” I say, my lower lip jutting out as I turn to watch Kate and Grace hug. “Poor thing. I’m so glad I never went through that.”

“Excuse me?” Christian says. I turn and raise an eyebrow in his direction, but his assertion is just as strong in his eyes as it was in his voice.

“I never went through that!”

“Oh yes you did. You nearly ripped my head off one day because you asked me to bring you fruit snacks and I brought you back an apple. And every single time that insurance commercial came on where the soldier comes home and buys a house with his family, all thanks to USAA, you bawled your eyes out.”

“My dad was at war!” I say defensively. “And who the hell mistakes fruit snacks for actual fruit?”

He laughs. “You’re right, maybe it wasn’t pregnancy hormones.”

I glare at him, but when he reaches out with his arm, drapes it over my shoulder, and pulls me into him, my irritation vanishes in favor of warm contentment. Which, after what I just witnessed Kate go through, might actually be just further supporting Christian’s argument.

“There she is!” Grace coos, stepping over to the playpen holding the baby. Calliope’s face lights up.

“Gigi! Gigi!”

“That’s right, baby! Grandma’s here!” Grace snuggles her tightly into her chest and then walks over to Kate looking absolutely elated. “And to think, in just a few weeks we’re going to have two of these precious little angels. Oh, my heart is just so full for both of you.”

“I’m a little wary of how well Calliope is going to take to the baby,” Elliot says. “I think she likes being the only grandchild.”

“Well, she’s just going to have to get over that,” Grace says. “Once she has a little brother or sister she’ll have to share everything, even Daddy and Mommy.” She leans into Calliope to kiss her cheeks, but Christian looks over at me like his mother just said something that might signal she’s developing the early stages of dementia, which Kate misreads.

“Why are you looking at her like that? You’re hiding something. Oh my god! Is Ana pregnant?”

“No!” Christian says, a little too strongly. “No, we’re done. We have Calliope and she is perfect and wonderful, but she’s enough.”

“What!” Grace exclaims, turning a horrifying look on me. “Ana, you have to want another one.”

“Uh…” Thankfully, I’m saved from having to make permanent, life altering declarations under the piercing gaze of my mother-in-law because the door bells rings. With an apologetic smile, I excuse myself and make my way to the front entryway, but when I open the door, I find only a giant bouquet of balloons.

“Um… hello?”

“Happy baby shower day!” My dad’s girlfriend pokes her head out from around the balloons and beams at me. My stomach falls, but I fight to keep the reaction off my face as I reluctantly accept her hug.

“Hey, Kim. Where’s dad?”

“Oh, he’s still back with the car. Kate’s parents arrived at the same time we did, and they got caught up talking. I just wanted to get these gifts out of the rain.”

“Right. Well… come on in.” I smile, hoping it’s not a grimace, and step aside to let her through. She immediately reaches up to grab her chest when she sees the decorations, like they’ve actually taken her breath away.

“Is it my mom?” Kate asks, coming in from the living room.

“Not quite,” Kim says, and she rushes forward to wrap Kate in her arms with the same enthusiasm she just showed me. “Oh, congratulations, sweetheart.”

“Thank you, Kim. Did you see the favors Ana got? They’re amazing! Here, take one!” Kate picks up a box from the arrangement and hands one to Kim. She gives me a wary look before lifting the cardboard lid, and once she sees what’s inside, her mouth drops open.

“Anastasia! This is far too extravagant, you can’t just be giving these away!”

I’m taken aback, and it’s clear on my face. “Kate is my best friend. No, she’s my sister. There is nothing too extravagant to celebrate the birth of her first child.”

“Spending more money does not make memories more valuable, Ana.” Her tone is chastising, and I immediately go from surprised to pissed.

“Oh, I am fully….”

“Kim!” Christian comes in from the living room, smiling at Kim and holding his arms out for her. They hug, which irritates me both because she irritates me, and because Christian doesn’t hug anyone.

“Christian, how are you dear?”

“We’re very well, thank you. Where’s Ray?”

“Oh, he’ll be along in a minute. He’s outside with the Kavanaghs.”

Kate perks up. “My parents are outside?”

Kim nods, then hurries through the still open front door and out into the light drizzle of rain. Grace enters from the living room, my baby still held steadily in her arms, which draws Kim away, and Christian crosses the open foyer to pull me into him. It’s an innocent hug at first, a show of warm affection punctuated by a soft kiss on my cheek. But then his lips move up to my ear.

“Today is not the day you start a war with Kim,” he warns me. “Today is about Kate.”

My shoulders slump, but I nod. He kisses me again and then perks up to greet whoever is coming up the walkway behind me.

“Ray,” he calls, reaching out for a handshake. “How are you?”

“I’m doing great, son. How are—“ I turn, my sour mood with Kim forgotten the moment I hear my father’s voice, but when he sees me, his words cut off and the broad, welcoming smile on his face falls. His hand tightens too much around Christian’s as his eyes narrow in on my throat.

“Hey, Daddy.”

“Ana.” Quick and concise, and his gaze doesn’t move up to meet mine. I swallow, push through the awkward air hanging between the three of us, and hug him, worried at first he might rebuff me in favor of one of his famous, overly stern lectures. But he doesn’t. His arms open and he folds me into him, holding me tight against his chest while his palm smooths over the back of my hair.

“How are you doing, baby girl?” he asks, when I pull away. The softness has returned to his voice, but his eyes continue to glance down at the skin just above the neckline of my dress.

“Much better.”

“No nightmares?”

I swallow, feeling my cheeks pink as I recall the images that have replaced Andrew Lincoln in my dreams over the last week. The same images that led to the hickeys he won’t stop looking at.

“Nope. It’s been a good week.”

“Good, I’m glad. When do you start your new job?”

“Monday. Christian took me to tour the GEH daycare center this week. We’ll be sending Calliope with Kensie everyday so she gets one-on-one attention, and he’s got top tier childhood development educators and a full time nurse on staff. All of that, mixed with the fact that I’ll only be 3 ½ blocks away from her at all times has finally given me peace about this decision.”

“I’m glad. I know it’s hard to let go but you getting out there, doing what you’re good at, and being successful at it is going to do so much for Calliope. You’re going to make her proud.”

I smile. “I hope so.”

“You’ve made me proud.” I blush again, and my dad pulls me back into his embrace, telling me how much he’s missed me in the last few weeks as he squeezes the breath out of me. When he releases me though, he once again looks down at the concealer covering my skin and his jaw tightens.

“Christian,” he says, a dismissal, and then follows the rest of our guests back into the living room. I turn to face my husband, my eyes bearing into him like daggers.

He snorts, and reaches up with his hand to hide his laughter from me. I smack him across the arm, refusing to laugh with him no matter how difficult it is to hold it down.

“You. Are. In. So. Much. Trouble.” I say, each word punctuated by the slap of my palm over one of his bulking biceps or across his solid chest. He flinches away from me, more to mock me than to actually attempt avoiding my hands, and laughs as I chase him into the living room.

Over the next thirty minutes, my house fills with guests. Girls from Kate’s office, her aunts and grandmother, Grace’s friends, Mia, and finally, Luke and Jade. The moment I open the door and see them standing there, I push past my best friend and wrap his girl tightly in my arms.

“Hi, Jade!” I say excitedly. “I’m so glad you could make it.”

“Of course. Thank you for the invitation.”

“Oh, please. Luke is my family, which means you are too. Come in, come in! Everyone is in the living room, we’re just about to start games. Oh, and don’t forget to grab a box from the table.”

She looks past me to see what’s left of the Tiffany’s boxes, smiles, and then tries to maintain composure as she rushes forward towards the table. I bite my lip, feeling a warm rush that this is going really well, until I turn back to Luke. He reaches out, handing me a pink, glittery gift bag, and glares at me.

“Hey, buddy!” I say, clapping him on the shoulder.

“I’m watching you, Steele.” He lifts his hand to his face, two fingers pointing at his eyes, and then turns them around on me before pointing towards the living room. It’s a warning, and a dismissal. I roll my eyes, but turn back to Jade rather than argue with him.

“Ana, these are so pretty!” she says, pulling the silver chain from the box. “I’ve never… uh, I’ve never owned anything from Tiffany’s before.”

I lean in, almost conspiratorially. “Before I met Christian, the only jewelry I owned came from Claire’s.”

She giggles nervously, so I hook my arm through hers and smile. “Come on, let’s go make Kate do a bunch of embarrassing stuff in front of all her friends and family.”

“If we must,” she says. There’s a sigh behind us as I tug her into the living room, followed by Luke’s dejected footfalls. He hovers at the back of the room with Christian and Elliot while I bring Jade to the front with me and pull out or first game. It’s sort of like a take on Never Have I Ever, except that each guest gets a paddle with Kate’s name on one side and Elliot’s on the other. The game is to determine which of them will better fit the description of each topic, like, ‘who will be the disciplinarian’ or ‘who will ignore bedtime when the other parent isn’t home.’ Kate and Elliot’s answers end up being the most fun, because they hardly ever agree, except when it comes to rule breaking. By the end of the game, Kate’s decided that she’ll never be able to leave Elliot alone with her child, because their house will just devolve into anarchical chaos.

After games, we move on to gifts, and I dutifully sit next to Kate’s side, writing down everything she opens and who gave them to her.

“Okay, hand me Ana’s!” she says, reaching out for the square white box wrapped in a pale pink bow.

“Ana’s?” Christian says, as Mrs. Kavanagh hands her daughter the package. “What about me?”

Kate’s eyes narrow. “I’ll give you $100 if you can tell me what’s in this box right now.”

Christian frowns, his eyes narrowing in on the gift before he eventually shakes his head. I giggle and then move a little closer to Kate as she starts to unravel the ribbon and reaches inside.

Her eyes widen. “Oh, Ana.”

With careful fingers, she reaches into the box and pulls out the hand painted musical jewelry box that I had custom made just for my goddaughter. The pearly white box rests on feet made of 24k gold, which also hugs the edges of each of the four corners and surrounds the hinged lid. All four sides are painted with cream colored roses and violets, resting on vines of dark green foliage. Purple and blue butterflies flit whimsically between the blossoms and at the very top, there is another butterfly crafted in three dimensions with stained glass that catches the light. On the inside, dancing proudly over a bed of baby pink satin, a hand painted ballerina twirls to the tinkling notes of Tchaikovsky’s, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. And there, resting in the felt inserts, is a strand of perfect pearls that I hope one day she might wear for her graduation or maybe her wedding.

“Oh, Ana,” Kate breathes. “This is so beautiful. Thank you so much!”

“You’re welcome,” I say, smiling and reaching out to hold her hand. But she doesn’t reach back for me. She stares down at the ballerina, turning gracefully around and around, until her smile disappears and she once again breaks down in tears.

“Katie!” I exclaim, moving closer, but it’s still only Elliot who can comfort her. He barrels forward, lifts the music box from her hands, sets it to the side, and pulls her into him.

“Did you see it?” she sobs into his t-shirt. “It’s s-s-so beautiful.”

“Yeah, I saw it, baby. It’s very pretty.” He glances down at me before drawing in a deep breath and patting her gently on the back. I laugh softly to myself, but reach up to rub my hand gently over the small of Kate’s back, before gathering her gifts together and encouraging her guests to try one of the sinful chocolate cupcakes we’d ordered from Kate’s favorite bakery in downtown Seattle.

With everyone talking amongst themselves and enjoying dessert, I finally have time to make conversation with Jade. And it doesn’t take long for me to discover how she broke through Luke’s walls and touched his heart. She’s amazing. She’s funny and down to earth, and there’s something about her smile and the warmth in her eyes that draws you in. I learn that she’s from a small town in Washington, similar to me only from the east side of the state instead of the west. She studied public relations at WSU and is currently working for an event planner in downtown Seattle.

“You’ll have to give me your card,” I offer. “Christian hosts events all the time for GEH and I’m sure I will too now that I’m heading back into the workforce.”

“Really? Oh, great!” She reaches into her purse to fish out her wallet, but as she hands her card to me, I’m distracted by Grace shouting from across the room.

“Christian! Christian!” She waves her arms frantically, desperate to get her son’s attention, and when I follow her gaze I see why. Calliope has spent most of the party on her play mat, next to Grace, but she’s pulled herself up with the help of the coffee table and is now taking her first tentative steps towards the music box on the side table next to the chair Kate had been sitting in.

“She’s walking!” I shriek. Christian sets his drink on the counter and crosses the room, reaching her in the blink of an eye. He crouches down several feet in front of her and holds out his hands.

“Come here, Princess. Come to Daddy.”

She makes a small, giggly sound and changes course, taking two more steps in Christian’s direction before she starts to wobble and loses her balance. Christian scoops her up just before she falls and swings her into the air. The pride that reflects in his eyes in that moment, nearly brings tears to mine.

“You did it!” I say happily, brushing my hand over Jade’s arm as a way of excusing myself and hurrying over to my daughter. “Oh my god, she’s walking!”

Christian pulls her down onto his hip and kisses her entire face before handing her over to me. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to speak with Taylor about the new security precautions we’re going to have to put in place now that she’s mobile. This house is a death trap.”

I roll my eyes, but don’t stop him. I pull Calliope into me and celebrate with her until it’s necessary for me to pass her off to my father so that he can shower her with praise too.

“Ana?” a small voice calls from behind me, and I turn to see Mia looking at me cautiously. Unlike the rest of our family, she’s not beaming with celebration and it immediately has me on guard.

“What’s wrong?”

“Can I talk to you for a second?” She leans around and looks at her mom. “In private?”

I nod, and gesture for the hallway, then lead her to my office at the back of the house. Once the door is closed, she takes a seat in one of the pretty padded chairs by the window, and I follow after her.

“Everything okay?” I check.

She shakes her head. “I don’t know. I might just be paranoid… there shouldn’t be anymore to worry about…”

“Tell me what happened.”

She swallows. “Do you remember that girl? The one who… the one who worked with me at Elena’s club? Gresham’s girl.”

“Yeah, uh… Alexis, right? Alexis Young?”

Mia nods. “I saw her.”

“What do you mean you saw her?”

“It’s happened a couple times. I saw her at the mall when I was with Tibby last week. I saw her at a gas station when I stopped to get gas on my way to school. And today, she was at the store I went into to buy Kate’s shower gift.”

My brow furrows, but she continues before I can respond.

“That’s fine, right? I mean, those were all public places. She had just as much right to be there as I did. Maybe she knows someone who is having a baby too. And everyone needs to fill up their gas tanks every now and then. I shouldn’t be… worried. Should I?”

“No,” I tell her after a long pause. “No, I don’t want you to be worried. You’re right, it could be a coincidence. But I’m going to find out, okay?”

“I think it’s nothing. Like I said before, just paranoia, but I don’t want to make the same mistakes I made in the past.”

I nod and wrap her in a hug. “But we’re going to make sure. Thank you for telling me, Mia.”

Next Chapter

 

Updates

update2b

Happy Sunday!

I’ve been on vacation this week and didn’t quite get enough writing time in to finish this week’s update in time to have it up by Monday. I will not be taking a whole week though. I’m shooting to have this update posted on Wednesday and will continue on the following Monday.

I’m truly sorry that I’m late this week, but I hope this lighter chapter will be worth the wait.

Also, if you haven’t subscribed for email updates, now would be a great time to do so!!

And yes, even at Disneyland, I was still wishingmrgreywashere

xoxo

Tara

 

Chapter 09

fifty-shades-freed-1511912606

Carter blinks, seemingly confused by my question, which is weird because the last time we had regular contact with each other, he was lamenting over the fact that he’d been waitlisted for Harvard Law and how doubtful it seemed that his status would change before the start of term. But here he is, books in hand and the tell-tale signs of exhaustion darkening the skin beneath his eyes.

“What do you mean, ‘what am I doing here’?” he asks. “I go to school here. What are you doing here?”

“Oh, we uh… we’re here with Mia. She got in for next year and it’s orientation weekend.”

“Grey’s sister? Didn’t she want to be a singer or… actress or something?”

“Ballet dancer. But she decided she wants to study law instead, so here we are. And you… I didn’t know that you got off the wait list. That’s amazing! Come here.” I hold out my arms to hug him, and while he does step into my embrace, I note that he’s being overly cautious. Maybe that’s because he has some unresolved feelings over his break up with Kate that are now too much to ignore in the absence of a mad man threatening my life. Or maybe, it’s because I haven’t called him since he was released from the hospital in Georgia. A hospital he was only in because of a great personal sacrifice he made to protect me and my family.

“I’m sorry I haven’t called,” I say, pulling away from him. But he shakes his head dismissively.

“Don’t be. I get it.” He pauses, and the air between us is suddenly ladened with the unspoken events of the past. His hand twitches, almost as though he wants to reach out for me, but thinks better of it almost immediately. “When I heard about what happened to you… I called Kate to try and see how you were doing. She said it was pretty bad.”

“It was, at first. But some time has passed and… We’re moving on. We’re good. Fine.” I force a smile, and he nods.

“Good. I’m really glad to hear that. Do you wanna… get a coffee or something? Catch up?”

“Yeah, I do, but… I’ve gotta get back to my sister before she thinks I abandoned her. Do you want to come over tonight for dinner or something?”

“Come over? You still have your house here?”

“Yeah. We knew we’d back fairly often and the property value is good, so Christian just decided to keep it. It’s pretty empty and boring though, so you’d actually be doing me a huge favor by coming over and keeping me company. I don’t know that I can handle losing another game of Monopoly to anyone named Grey.”

“Yeah, losing out to a Grey sucks.” He laughs, and while I can hear the good humor in his voice, his words make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. My smile falters and, instinctively, Luke steps closer to me. I try to subtly bat him away and laugh.

“So, I’ll see you tonight? I can order in from that sub place you like. What is it called? Al’s?”

“That’s the place. You bring the food, I’ll bring the beer.”

“Best idea I’ve heard all day. Seven o’clock?”

“I’ll be there.”

“Good.” I lean in and give him one last hug before he straightens the books in his arms and continues on up the walkway, towards the parking lot behind the main law building.

“I saw that,” Luke says once we’re alone, and I swallow the growing lump in my throat

“I know.”

“So, what? He’s next on the list now?”

I gnaw on my bottom lip, staring for a long minute in the direction Carter disappeared, contemplating. I haven’t had any questions about anyone Luke and I have dealt with so far. It’s all come so naturally that it’s almost felt like acting on instinct. But as I stand there, repeating Carter’s words in my head over and over again, analyzing them, I feel torn for the very first time.

‘Yeah, losing out to a Grey sucks.’

Is that threatening? Does that mean he’s holding a grudge? Does he blame Elliot or Christian for losing Kate and me and he’s angrier about it than he let on when he came to Seattle after our wedding? I noticed he was awkward when I tried to hug him earlier, maybe I was right. Maybe, now that I’m not being stalked by a man actively trying to kidnap me anymore, he doesn’t have to push his hurt feelings aside for the greater good and can instead let them fester in the resentment that is undoubtedly made worse by the fact that I never even called to check on him after we left Atlanta…

Or maybe, it was just a joke.

“Ana?”

“I don’t know,” I admit. “But he’s coming over tonight. So we’ll see.”

Luke sighs and reaches out to rub my shoulders. “For what it’s worth… I wouldn’t have called Kate to check on you if I was holding any resentment strong enough to make me want to hurt you or your family.”

“And I probably wouldn’t give someone I wanted dead a liver either, but Gia offered.” I turn to look at Luke and swallow. “And Kommer used to drive all way into Boston at two o’clock in the morning to buy the fruit snacks that I liked because the store in Cambridge was closed and I was having a craving. People lie, Luke. Everyone lies. The bad ones and the good ones. Christian lies. And now, so do we.”

“You’re doing it to protect your family. And Christian… he does shady shit sometimes but you know that he means well.”

“We all do. For someone.” Luke’s mouth drops open like he’s going to argue, but suddenly can’t find the words, so I brush him off and take the handle of Calliope’s stroller out of his hands. “Come on, Mia is going to wonder where we are.”

Mia doesn’t answer her phone when I call from the car, trying to figure out where she’s at, so we decide to start at the Old Yard and work out from there. Thankfully, the sheer number of dorms there are to showcase for the incoming freshman means we arrive right at the end of the tour, just as Mia’s group is exiting Grays Hall. I wave at her as she descends the stairs at the middle entrance and try to gauge her excitement, but she’s playing it very cool. I suspect she wants to appear mature and reserved in front of her future classmates, but, just like her brother, it takes me only seconds to find the excited twinkle in her eyes.

“Well?” I ask, handing her a water bottle from the pocket beneath Calliope’s stroller. “How was it?”

“Grays is definitely the best. I can see why you and Christian picked it. It seems less crowded, and it’s definitely the most updated… but if you get a room on the wrong side of the hall, you won’t get that perfect view of the yard. Christian didn’t have a view, right? But maybe that was because he was by himself. I’ll definitely need a roommate… I wonder if that’s something you can request?”

She continues on and on about her future plans for living in Grays Hall as we follow the group away from the dormitories, and listening to her is exactly like listening to Kate five years ago. I can feel the same excited energy radiating off of her that I felt then and, for just one minute, I’m a little jealous of her. Harvard was the greatest, most transformative experience I ever had, except maybe motherhood, and despite how glad I was to finally have the endless nights of studying and brutal weeks of tests and papers behind me when it was all over, I now kind of wish I had just one more year. Except I wouldn’t go through those long months without Christian again for anything in the world. Not even Harvard.

There’s a break in the day’s activities for lunch, which we’ll be having at Annenberg Dining Hall to give the students and parents both a sample of campus cuisine. It’s weird how, years later, they’re still serving the exact same food, right down to the decorations on the little pudding cups at the dessert station. Mia doesn’t know well enough to stay away from the main dishes at the entree station, which are served in mass, but rather than warn her away, I decide its best she learn through trail by fire, just like we all had to. And it’s a little satisfying to watch her wrinkle her nose over her lemon chicken pasta, while I enjoy the salad I made myself at the salad bar.

“I’m going to starve!” she complains, and I giggle but shake my head.

“It’s not all bad. You’ll learn quick what’s good and what to avoid. If it’s hot and comes out of a big metal dish, you don’t want it. But breakfast is good, and so is the soup. And if you go to the deli and get the thin sliced bread, instead of the thick stuff they have behind the grill, you can get a decent grilled cheese sandwich.”

She grimaces and pushes her pasta around with her fork. “I can’t believe Christian actually used to eat here. He’s pickier than I am.”

“He didn’t come because of the food,” I tell her and when she looks up, I wink. “He came for me.”

Luke shakes his head and lets his silverware clink down on top of his plate. “I need you to repeat what you just said to yourself and think very carefully about the way you phrased that.”

I laugh, but Mia tears the corner off the crusty bread on the side of her plate and tosses it at him. “You have a dirty mind.”

“Oh, my sweet summer child…”

“Game of Thrones?” I interject. “And you say I’m the nerd!”

“Game of Thrones is quite possibly the best television show ever created, it’s not nerdy.”

“Meh. The books were better.”

“And that’s why you’re the nerd” I push him, hard enough that he’s knocked slightly off balance and has to catch his weight on the bench, but when he sits up we both devolve into laughter until a beet red Mia threatens to leave and never speak to either of us again. Luke seems fine with that, but I quickly pull it together and hiss for him to knock it off.

“Alright, everyone!” our tour guide says brightly, getting up from her seat at the table where she has been getting grilled by parents for the better part of the last hour. “It’s time we go meet with your academic advisors and get signed up for classes! Who’s excited?”

She gets several responses with varying degrees of enthusiasm as everyone clears their lunch trays and gathers together again. But when Mia gets up from the table, she turns and knocks fairly hard into Calliope’s stroller, jolting her, and causing her to wake. Immediately, she screams. I try to calm her by pulling her from the stroller and holding her close to me, bouncing her, rocking her back and forth, even offering her the pacifier Christian has been adamant she can only have at night. Nothing works. Her gurgly screams echo through the cavernous hall, disturbing the students and drowning out whatever our guide is trying to say. I get several dirty looks from other parents, even a few from the people in Mia’s group, so as we make our way outside, I reach out for Mia’s hand and pull her back so we can talk privately.

“I think we’re going to go.”

“What? No! You can’t go. This is the part that actually matters.”

“I know. But you’re going to have an advisor, Mia. They can help you better that I ever could. Trust me, you’re in good hands.”

“I don’t want to do this by myself.”

Calliope starts digging her fingers into the side of my face, wailing and demanding my attention. “I’m sorry, Mia.”

Her face falls, but she nods. “Alright. I’ll call you when we’re done?”

“Yeah, and text me to let me know how everything goes.” She smiles in agreement and tries to kiss Calliope, but my very red faced baby dodges her and buries her face into my shoulder where she continues to sob and drench my t-shirt in her tears. I give Mia an awkward side hug while Luke wishes her good luck, and then we hurry away back towards the parking lot where we’ve left the car.

It takes some borderline professional level wrestling moves to get Callie back into her car seat and a two ibuprofen I wash down with warm water to get us back to the house. Once we’re inside, I immediately lay her blanket down over the floor so I can change her, but she continues to fight me the entire time.

“Come on, Calli-lilly,” I practically beg as I try to pull a t-shirt down over her head. “Work with me here.”

“No!” she screams. “No! No! No!”

“What do you mean, no? You can’t be a nakie baby!”

“No!” I see the small movement of her mouth that tells me she’s about to start crying again, so I give up. I wad up the shirt and little stretch pants I planned to dress her in and shove them unceremoniously back in her diaper bag. And she revels in her victory. The little monster even has the audacity to giggle at me.

“Oh you think it’s funny?” I ask, tickling her sides. She smiles and cringes away from me, giggling more as I brush the tips of my fingers over her skin. Luke shakes his head.

“Sometimes I think that she’s Grey’s kid, through and through. But then she does something to remind me that she is, in fact, 50% you.”

“What do you mean?”

“She’s stubborn and impossible, but then one little smile and all is forgiven.”

“Awh!” I pout my lips at him, but he quickly rolls his eyes before looking back down at Callie and grinning.

“Hey, I got bad news for you, kid. I’m a monster. And I’m gonna get you!” She shrieks as he launches himself from the rocking chair and crawls away from him, and I lie down on the hardwood floor to watch, grateful for a little break. She loves being chased around, and Luke happily gives her what she wants for the better part of an hour. When he’s finally exhausted, Calliope is back to my playful, happy little baby, and she stays that way for the rest of the evening. She doesn’t put up a fight when I feed her or give her a bath later, and as seven o’clock rolls around, she sits quietly in my lap, listening to the story I read to her, until the doorbell rings. Luke gets up to answer it, but she turns wide eyes to me.

“Dada?”

“No, baby. Daddy’s at work.”

“No dada.” The disappointment is clear on her face as she snuggles into me, but Luke opens the door to let in Carter, so I simply cuddle her, rather than try to console her.

“Hey,” he greets us with a broad grin, holding up two six packs of ‘Gansett. “Am I too early?”

“Not at all.” I smile back, then look down at Calliope. “You ready for bed, munchkin?” She doesn’t reply, choosing instead to further bury her face into my t-shirt. So I tighten my hold on her and get out of the rocking chair. The closer I get to Carter, the more she tries to retreat into me.

“Can you say hi?” I ask in an encouraging voice. “Hi, Carter. Hi.”

She mumbles something into my shirt, which I think is mama, so simply hug her and give Carter an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, she’s not usually this shy.”

“That’s okay, we just met. Her name was… um…”

“Calliope.”

“Right.” He smiles and then leans in close to her, trying to get her to look at him. “Hey, Calliope. My name is Carter. I’m a friend of your mom’s.”

Again, she doesn’t respond. I try to shift her so she can’t hide her face against me, but as she moves, she shrieks and throws her body into me, nearly causing me to drop her.

“And that is when I can tell she’s Grey’s kid,” Luke interrupts with a laugh. “She hates Reed.”

Thankfully, Carter laughs too, before breaking off one of the white and red cans in his hand and tossing it Luke. They begin to talk casually with one another, catching up, so I ask Luke to order dinner and then take the opportunity to disappear back upstairs where I can put Calliope down for the night. She’s not keen to let me leave her alone in the room, but after softly singing her a few of her favorite lullabies, she drifts off enough that I can sneak out into the hallway without her making a fuss. By the time I get downstairs, the food has arrived and most of the first six pack Carter brought is gone.

“You have to go pick up Mia,” I warn Luke, narrowing my eyes at the can of beer in his hand.

“It’s not me,” he replies, and I follow my eyes to the two empties sitting on the floor by Carter.

“Hey, I’m just getting a head start,” he says. “Catch up to me, Steele.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. It’s been a long time since I’ve had anything but a glass of wine with dinner. I think it’s safe to say I’ve lost all of my tolerance for alcohol.” I pop the tab on top of the beer can and take my first sip, surprised by how familiar it tastes despite the fact that I haven’t had a cold ‘Gansett since probably my junior year.

“Mmm,” I hum. “Memories.”

“Or the lack of,” Carter laughs. He lifts his can and after tapping the tip of mine against his, we both laugh and drink again.

It doesn’t take long for me to catch him up on everything that’s happened in my life since we last saw each other. I purposefully avoid the topic of Andrew Lincoln, but since that’s really what my entire life has been about over the last six months, I mostly have to talk about Christian and Calliope. There’s a weird moment where he tells me that the last he heard, Calliope had died when I was in labor and he only found out that wasn’t true when he came to warn me about the phone call he’d gotten from Lincoln on what turned out to be my wedding night.

“I really feel like I haven’t thanked you enough for what you did,” I tell him, but he brushes me off.

“Don’t worry about it. Seriously, I know you would have done the same for me.”

I nod. “I would. I was worried that after you and Kate broke up that you’d just kind of fade out of our lives. I’m glad we can still be friends.”

“Me too. How is Kate, anyway? I haven’t heard from her since… you know. After it happened.”

“Oh. Well, she and Elliot supposedly got married.”

“Supposedly?”

I roll my eyes. “They eloped. Went to Vegas, didn’t invite me. Her driver’s license may say ‘Grey’ now, but I refuse to acknowledge the validity of their marriage until I get a damn bridesmaid’s dress.”

“She’s being serious,” Luke says. “Grey has even suggested they do a vow renewal just so Ana will stop complaining about it.”

I turn to glare at him. “You can’t have a vow renewal if you’ve never been married, Lucas.”

He shakes his head. “You see what I mean. I’m just waiting for the day when Ana tries to make a joke about how their baby is a bastard and Kate whacks her upside the head.”

“I would never say something like that!” I say indignantly, but he seems less intimidated and more like he’s trying desperately to stop himself from smiling.

“Why? Because… Calliope is… well… you know.” I reach over to find something to throw at him, and, rather than help me, Carter just looks over at me, confused.

“Kate had a baby?”

“Oh, not yet,” I tell him. “But soon. She’s due April 14th.”

“Wow. So… he really did give her every thing she wanted.” The atmosphere of the room shifts as his words echo through the room and an uncomfortable quiet falls over us. I notice Luke glance over at me out of the corner of my eye, but before I can say anything, we’re interrupted by the shrill ring of my cellphone from the other room.

“I’m sorry, that might be Christian. Hold on.” After untangling my legs and getting up off the floor, I prepare myself to tell Christian I can’t continue our fight from earlier this afternoon because I’m too busy entertaining Carter Reed, which would probably result in him magically showing up here in a seemingly impossible amount of time, but when I get to my phone, it’s not his number I see. It’s Mia’s. And while part of me is relieved, a bigger part is a little upset that Christian hasn’t called me back to talk through our fight this afternoon. It’s not like him to leave things awkward and unresolved between us.

Mia’s ready for Luke to come pick her up, so he ducks out, promising to be right back, while I settle back down on the floor across from Carter. He’s still a little off about the whole Kate revelation thing, so I nervously drag my finger over the lip of my beer can and look up at him.

“Are you okay?” I ask. “About… you know, everything that happened. I know that it was hard for you with Christian and I, and now Kate and Elliot…”

“I’m fine, Ana.”

“You’re sure? No hard feelings?”

He shakes his head. “No. Maybe at first, but not anymore. I think that I’ve had enough time to think about it to realize that… if Kate had accepted my proposal and we’d gotten married, neither one of us would have been happy. I mean, she wouldn’t stay here. You were moving away and she had that job offer from her dad. She was always going to have to go back to Seattle and that’s not what I wanted. I wanted to be here. And as much as they drive me crazy, I don’t think I’d want to settle down and start a family so far from my parents. She’d never agree to leave hers. That fight would have never ended and eventually, we’d grow to resent each other and blame each other for everything we missed out on in life. I would have been her biggest mistake, and she would have been mine. In a way, the time we spent together was perfect. Exactly what is was meant to be. Now, I can think back on what we had together and be happy about what we shared instead of letting all those great memories be ruined and tainted because we didn’t let go when we should have.”

I smile and let myself relax into the wall at my back. “Yeah. God, you’re so different.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the Carter Reed I knew was always more concerned about his beer pong record than doing serious introspection on his life. You never made plans past what you were doing that weekend, let alone consider what was going to make you happy long term.”

He laughs. “Yeah, well maybe law school does that to you. Or maybe it was getting waitlisted. I’d never been told no before and, honestly, if your husband hadn’t stepped in, I wouldn’t be here right now. That hit a little close to home.”

“What do you mean?”

“Let’s just say I wasn’t next on the waitlist. My dad nearly disowned me.”

“No, about Christian… What do you mean he stepped in?”

He raises an eyebrow at me. “He got me in. When I came to talk to him about that phone call last summer, he told me that if I was really there to help him, he wanted to help me. He offered me a job first, but when I turned it down, he said he’d get me into Harvard Law. I thought after what happened to your mom that he’d take it back but he didn’t. He made all the calls and worked whatever magic he had to work and now, here I am.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah, I might have been wrong about him. He’s a good guy, your husband. And if I had to lose you to anyone, I’m glad it’s someone like him.”

“Someone like him?”

“Well, I’m never actually going to say I’m glad he stole my girlfriend in college. I’m forgiving, but I’m not a saint.” I laugh, and he reaches over to get us both another beer. From then on, it’s easy to talk to him. I can see just how much he’s grown up this year and I have to say that I’m impressed. He tells me about school and how he thinks he’s going to pull away from the corporate law path his dad wants him on and look into environmental law. Something about a case he read in class involving loggers and indigenous animals really struck a chord with him, and I can hear his passion when he tells me about all the things he can do to help the cause once he graduates. He’s even nearly quit drinking. He’s put all of his energy into being the top of his class, just like Kate. It’s a change, hearing him so dedicated to something that didn’t involve a keg or a bunch of girls bikini tops. He has a whole new lease on life and hearing the ease with which he credits Christian not only calms my nerves, but it makes me really excited for him. Carter is a good guy and I feel in the deepest parts of my soul that we’ll have nothing to worry about from him. Only years of meaningful friendship.

Luke and Mia return about thirty minutes later, but while Mia heads straight upstairs to call her parents, Luke stays behind to hang out a little while longer. Except, a little while kind of turns into a long while. Carter leaves at around eleven and only then because Luke reminds me we have an early morning flight to catch. I hug him goodbye at the door, tell him to stay in touch, and then make him promise he’ll look after my little sister next year. He agrees with a laugh, and then shakes Luke’s hand before he finally turns to go. Then we lock up the house, say goodnight, and head off to our separate rooms.

I’ve been waiting for Christian’s call for the last few hours, but it hasn’t come. Even if we are fighting, I expected him to call when he woke up this morning. I have Calliope with me after all. The fact that he didn’t makes me uneasy, so I decide to bite the bullet and be the first to break our silent cold war. But he doesn’t pick up. The phone rings twice and goes to voicemail.

He’s in meetings, Ana. And he’s with Taylor. He’s fine.

Calliope is sleeping peacefully in her pack n’ play and her small, delicate features look angelic in the muted light. It’s too much to resist. I quickly take a picture, but I don’t send it to our whole family like I normally would. I just send it to Christian, hoping to bait him into a response, even if it’s just a text. Minutes pass though and nothing. I think briefly of slipping into the bathroom and snapping a nude in the mirror, knowing that wouldn’t go unanswered, but that’s not productive either. I’m still mad about what happened and I don’t want him to think he’s just off the hook. Maybe I don’t need to scream at him like I really wanted to this afternoon, maybe I don’t need to call him all the hateful names I now regret even thinking earlier… but I do want to discuss how he hurt me, hear him validate those feelings, and to apologize. If we don’t talk about it, I’ll never know that it won’t happen again. And if I don’t trust him not to interfere with my career, every single victory or defeat I experience from this moment forward is always going to leave me with questions.

So I take my phone into bed with me, convinced he’ll call me once he’s finished with whatever he’s doing. Every few seconds, I tap the screen of my phone to check for missed calls for text messages, but there’s nothing. I fall asleep with nothing.

***

It’s chaos getting ready and out the door in time for our flight the next morning. Somehow, Mia has lost a shoe and she tears through everything trying to find it. She’s made it very clear that she has no intention of leaving this house until it’s packed safely in her bag, so Luke helps her look. Meanwhile, I sit on the floor downstairs with Calliope in my lap, trying to feed her a jar of mashed pears, which she refuses over and over again.

“Dada,” she whines.

“I know, baby. I miss him too. But we’re going to see him tonight, I promise. Just eat for me, please.”

“No, dada! Dada!”

Sighing in defeat, I reach for my phone on the other side of the blanket and try to call Christian again, this time on FaceTime so Calliope can associate his voice with his face. But once again, he doesn’t pick up and the understanding side of me that tried to excuse his rejection yesterday dissipates under the weight of my anguished cries. He has no right to be upset with me. This fight is his fault, and he shouldn’t be ignoring me. Especially when I have his daughter.

“Found it,” Luke says, coming down the stairs. “It was already in her bag, can you believe that?

“You don’t say,” I reply sourly, and he frowns.

“You ready?”

“Yeah. Callie won’t eat so we’ll have to try once we get to the airport.”

“A hungry, cranky baby on a plane? What could possibly go wrong?”

I glare at him, then gather everything I can reach and start stuffing Calliope’s diaper bag so we can go. It’s unorganized and anything I need will undoubtedly be impossible to find, but that’s a problem for future Ana to deal with.

We barely get out the door on time and Luke has to race down the freeway so we’re not late. Thankfully, it’s Sunday, so traffic is fairly light, but the airport itself is packed. There’s a line to return our rental car, there’s a line to wait for the shuttle to the terminal, and there is a line in front of every ticket kiosk at the Delta counter. I fidget uncomfortably with Calliope in my arms, while she points at any man in a suit who passes us, asking for Christian, until I finally am able to insert my credit card in the machine to print out my ticket. And after all of that, a message pops up that tells me I need to speak with a Delta employee.

“You have got to be kidding me!” I exclaim in frustration, and when Mia gets the same message that I did, she shrugs and reaches out to place a comforting hand on my arm.

“Hey, maybe Christian called and got us upgraded.”

“Yeah. Maybe.”

We gather all of our luggage together and tell Mia to wait with Calliope while Luke and I go to the counter to figure out what’s going on. Unfortunately, it’s not an upgrade at all. Our flight home was overbooked and we’ve been bumped to a different flight later in the afternoon. I argue. I ask to speak to a supervisor, and then that person’s supervisor. I even drop Christian’s name and threaten to get the company’s CEO involved, but all to no avail. By the time I speak to anyone who has the authority to help us, the doors have been closed and the plane has left the gate.

“So what do we do?” Luke asks.

“Nothing,” Mia grumbles. “We already gave up our car, its not like we can go anywhere.”

“Let’s just go wait at the gate. There’s food inside and if Calliope will eat, maybe I can do a few laps around the airport with her in the stroller and get her to fall asleep before we finally get on a plane. If we ever get on a plane.”

“Alright,” Luke says. “Lets go.”

Once we get past security, we find our gate and then search out something to eat for breakfast. Unfortunately, the only place in our terminal is a sports bar type restaurant that only serves greasy food and plays Red Sox baseball on the TV. Luke’s game though, and Mia makes it clear that she will very happily go ham on some fries, so I wait for the waitress to take our order and then duck into the Hudson News directly across from us to buy a banana for Calliope. It’s actually the first thing this morning that seems to work out. Luke is content to watch sports and drink Bloody Mary’s, Mia snaps a picture of her food to post on PixC and then calls Tibby to recount every second of her weekend, and hunger has finally won out enough for Calliope to actually want to eat the banana I offer her. Only, she doesn’t want to just take a bite off the end. She wants to hold it. But when I break off the tip and hand it to her, she squishes it in her hand and wipes it all over herself. Then she looks down at the mess and starts to cry again.

“Well, you see, that’s what happens!” I say irritably, picking up a cloth napkin from the table and wiping her down as best I can. Mia fishes out an new shirt we can change her into from the diaper bag, but as I get up to take her to the bathroom, Luke’s phone rings and it diverts my attention.

“Taylor?” I ask. He shakes his head and holds up a finger. Mia gets up and offers to change Calliope, and though I let her, I quickly regret that decision when I realize the phone call Luke takes has nothing to do with Christian.

“Hey, baby,” he says. “We got bumped from our flight, so we’ll be a few hours late. You should just wait for me at home. I’ll make Ana drive me back when we land. Oh, it was fine. How about you? What did you do this weekend?”

I slump back into my chair and feel an unpleasant mixture of irritation and jealousy as I listen to Luke’s phone call. Jade is seemingly very interested in Luke’s trip and wants to talk to him so badly, she won’t let him end the call. I can’t even get Christian to answer the phone.

“Everything alright?” Mia asks, as she sets a now clean Calliope back into the high chair pushed up to the table.

“Yeah, fine.”

“You sure? You seem a little… off today.”

I shake my head. “I’m fine.”

“Do you think that if you tell people that enough, you might start to believe it too?” Her poignant remark, which echoes so many of the thoughts I’ve had over the past few months, strikes a cord. But when I turn to argue with her, she simply raises a challenging eyebrow and I feel the fight drain out of me.

“Christian and I are fighting,” I reply.

“You two are always fighting.”

“No we aren’t!”

“Oh, yeah. You’re right. You being so stubborn and him being so controlling never leads to any arguments in the Grey household. How could I possibly think there could ever be something wrong between the two of you?”

Despite myself, I laugh. “We still don’t fight all the time.”

“Okay, well, what are you fighting about this time?”

“Me being stubborn and him being controlling.”

“You don’t say!” She smiles broadly and then picks up a fry, dips it in ketchup, and hands it to me. “You wanna talk about it?”

“No,” I reply while I chew. “Not in front of Calliope.”

“Well, whatever it is, it’s probably not as serious as you think it is. It’s hard to tell what someone is actually feeling over the phone, maybe you two just need to talk in person.”

“Yeah, I hope so.”

“If it helps, he didn’t even seem irritated when I talked to him this morning. So, he can’t be that mad.”

I drop the fry I was reaching over to get and gape back at her. “You talked to him?”

“Yeah, he called me this morning to find out how registration went. I think he said that whatever he and Ros are doing over there was going well, so he’ll probably be in a good mood when he gets home. Might make things easier.”

“Oh, no.” I grit my teeth together and ball up a napkin in my hand. “Easy is not what this is going to be.”

“What do you…?” Her words cut off as a disembodied voice comes over the loud speaker and announces that our flight has begun boarding. Quickly, I pay the bill and then hurry with Luke and Mia to get to our gate. On the plane, Mia takes the same seat across the aisle from Luke, Callie, and I, so our conversation is effectively over. Luke looks at me curiously, as if he too senses that I need to talk, but I don’t. Not to him. Not to Mia. The person that I need to talk to has chosen to be silent and I won’t get the chance to make him talk to me until late tonight.

***

It’s dinner time when we land in Seattle, and Woods is waiting for us at the airport. Our first stop is to drop Luke off at his apartment with Jade, and then to drop Mia off at the apartment downtown that Carrick and Grace now live in full time. They ask me to stay and have dinner with them, even offer to call Kate and Elliot over, but I’m fried and just want to get Calliope to bed, read a book, and drink a large glass of wine.

“Well, why don’t you leave her here with us?” Grace suggests. “You and Christian have been apart all weekend, I’m sure you’d like a night off from parenting to… get reacquainted.”

It’s not a bad idea. It very possible that Christian and I could wake up the entire house screaming at each other tonight and I don’t want Calliope around that. But still…

“Thank you, Grace. But he’s going to want to see her when he gets home.”

She sighs. “Of course he will. Well, we’ll see you all next weekend at the baby shower.”

“Yes, you will.” I smile and accept her warm hug, then wave good-bye to Mia and Carrick before heading back to the car.

At home, all the stress of the day melts away. Gail has dinner ready, even though it’s still her night off, and despite my protests she pours the large glass of wine I’ve been dying for since early this morning. Calliope is excited to get back to all of her toys and I watch her play with them and crawl around the living room until she’s too tired to continue. Then I give her a bath, read her favorite story, and put her to bed. Before I even lay her down in her crib, she’s out for the count.

But once Calliope is asleep for the night, the wait begins. Christian’s flight from Taiwan is much longer than our flight from Boston, and I have no idea when he’s actually going to get here because he didn’t call me when he took off. I probably wouldn’t have waited up for him, but I don’t want to be mad at him anymore. I just want to talk this out and get back to the perfect place that only exists when he and I are in sync with one another. So I wait. I pour a second glass of wine and curl up in front of the fireplace, reading the book I took to Boston with me until I’m fighting my eyelids.

It’s the alarm on the door that tells me he’s arrived. The electronic beep sounds through the empty entryway, and after I listen to him punch the code into the keypad, I hear him dismiss Taylor for the night. He sounds tired, which will either work for me, or against me.

“Christian!” I call, and the voices in the foyer stop. I hear each of his footsteps across the marble floors until he appears through the archway at the front of the living room.

“Why are you awake?” he asks.

“I waited up for you.”

“Why?” His voice is sharp, cold, and it makes all of my muscles tighten defensively.

“Because I want to talk to you.”

“Oh, now you want to talk? When there’s nothing left to talk about? You took that job without consulting me, Anastasia. You made this decision all on your own, what am I supposed to say to that?”

“You’re supposed to say your sorry.”

“Sorry? You expect me to apologize?”

“Yes, I do.”

He shakes his head in disgust and backs away from me. “No. I will not apologize for doing what I thought was best. I will not apologize for the decisions I make to protect you.”

“Protect me? Christian how on earth does this protect me?” I’m screaming loud enough that my words seem to hit him like a physical object. He cringes and then falters back again, though this time not of his own volition. It makes me take pause and when he looks up at me again, his eyes are swimming with pain.

“Anastasia.” The hoarsely whispered word echoes through my ears and then I watch in horror as he collapses to the ground. The impact shifts his jacket and I see a stain of red blood wash over his abdomen, growing darker as his skin grows pale.

“Christian?” I shriek, flying across the room to his side. “Christian, what happened to you?” His blood coats my hands as I look for wound and come up empty handed. There’s nothing for me to apply pressure to, nothing for me to fix and make him better. I can’t find the source of the bleeding, so I reach up and press my red tinted fingers into his throat, searching for a pulse.

Nothing. There’s nothing.

“No!”

“Ana!” I’m jolted awake, gasping for air, and find Christian kneeling next to the couch by my side. He’s no longer pale, no longer writhing in agony, and it takes me several seconds to realize he’s wearing something entirely different.

It was a dream.

“Hey,” he breathes, squeezing my hand in his and rubbing his thumb gently over mine. “Are you okay?”

A sob forces its way out of my chest and I throw my arms around him, hugging him as close to me as I can and breathing in his scent as though it were oxygen after too much deprivation. His strong arms wrap around me and his hand moves soothingly over my back, until I’ve stropped trembling and can speak without the impediment of tears.

I pull back and look him, drinking him in and feeling nothing but appreciation for soft gray that flickers in the light of the low burning fire. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too.” He leans in and kisses me, softly, but I once again wrap my arms behind his neck and pull him into me. I pour everything into that kiss. The fear from dream, the anger from our fight, and the longing that I’ve felt for him since the moment we left one another at the airport. It’s suffocating, but in a good way. Like air is not worth being apart from him for even a second. Eventually though, he breaks the kiss and rests his forehead against mine.

“You didn’t call,” I whisper.

“I didn’t want to fight. I’m hate fighting with you, Anastasia.”

“I don’t like fighting with you either, but that doesn’t mean we can just avoid conflict. We have to communicate with each other. That’s how this whole thing started in the first place. No communication.”

“I didn’t know what to say to you. I know that you’re mad and I know that you have every right to be furious with me… but I can’t tell you that I’m sorry. I’m not. If I had it to do over again, I would make the same decision. I promise you that my intentions were good and while you may not agree with me, I did it because I was trying to take care of you. That’s all I want. I’m so scared that you’re not ready for this and we’re going to lose what little progress we’ve made. I can’t watch you break again, Ana. I can’t.”

I chew on my bottom lip and reach out to cup his face in the palm of my hand. He leans into my touch, closing his eyes and reveling in the feeling of it, then looks back up at me, his eyes pleading for forgiveness.

“I’m not going to break, Christian. Not because of this. You’ve got to stop treating me like I’m fragile. I won’t tell you that I’m fine, because I know you don’t believe me when I say that, but if there is any hope of getting back to the person I used to be, then I have to move on. This is what I want to move on to. It gives me purpose and it makes me feel…” I pause trying to find the right word, but I don’t have to. He finds it for me.

“Fulfilled. You like helping others and this enables you to do that. You like solving problems, and this gives you plenty of problems to solve. You like accomplishing things on your own and feeling proud over what you’ve achieved. I know that about you. I love that about you. But the on your own thing… that’s the part that scares me.”

“Why?”

“When you’re here, I know you’re safe. Here, I have security, and gates, and codes, and panic rooms… I don’t have any of that at GSP. Nothing. No control. Sending you out there, beyond the things that I can control feels worse than terrifying. It feels impossible.”

I take a deep breath and nod. “Okay. Then… I’ll come work Grey Publishing. Just like we planned.”

“No.” He shakes his head and I automatically lean back in surprise.

“No?”

“You won’t find what you’re looking for at GP. There’s nothing for you to do there except go to work and carry on with business as usual. That’s not what you want and it was selfish of me to try and force you into it. Especially if this is what you need to heal. I should know better than anyone what it’s like to have people try and make you smaller than you know you were destined to be. So, I think you should go work at Greenwich. At GP, you’d be great. But at Greenwich, you’d be extraordinary.”

I smile. “You think so?”

“No. I know so.”

“I’m going to have to travel.”

“I know, and we’ll find a way to make that work for both of us. And for Calliope.”

“Everything I accomplish going forward is going to be against your best interest. Every author I sign will be one GP didn’t.”

“And I’ll be just proud of you as I would have been had you come to work for me. I’m your husband first, Ana. CEO, second.”

“But what about Carmen? This isn’t just a rival publishing house, this is one of the biggest competitors for your whole business.”

“And there’s something really hot about the idea of sleeping with the enemy.” He smiles, then growls slightly as he leans into me and takes my lips with his, but I quickly squirm away.

“Wait, don’t you want to go see Calliope?”

He considers this for a moment, but ultimately shakes his head. “I’ll get her up in the morning. What I want, right now, is you. Only you.” He kisses me again, and this time, I don’t fight him off. I return his passion with equal fervor and when he lifts me into his arms and carries me off to our bedroom, the only thing I find myself not content with is the all too slow speed with which he moves.

Next Chapter

Chapter 08

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The campus tour we take the following morning with the over bubbly student orientation director isn’t the best for reminiscing over all the things I’ve missed about being a student here. Yes, we hit everything a freshman would need to be able to find, and all of the famous landmarks, but I personally wish we could have spent just a bit more time in the library or trekking through the halls of some of the buildings I used to have classes in. The focus on the needs of the freshman do, however, bring back a lot of memories of my own first year here, and as we step in for a tour of Grays Hall, it’s like I’ve entered into a time warp.

I haven’t been in this building even one time since Christian and I left for New York at the end of our one and only year here together, but nothing has changed. The piano Kate and I found him playing when we came home from a late night bonfire at the beginning of the term still stands proud right in entryway. The moment I lay eyes on the staircase before us, I am able to recall the halls above in perfect clarity, and the faint, familiar smell of must and hot lint from the laundry room that still fills the air around us almost seems to carry me up there.

The tour guide leads us into the sitting room off the side where Kate and I used to come study or watch movies when we had company. While she explains the benefits of having the in-dorm kitchenette, I drag my finger across the fabric on the back of the sofa in front of the TV, remembering one very specific night when Kate and Elliot were camped out on Christian’s floor, so he dragged me down here so we could make love in the dark. It was hot and heavy, and the memory of it makes me smile, until I remember what happened immediately after we’d finished.

BANG! BANG!

The distant sound of gunshots echo through the room and at first, I think it’s just my memories coming back to me too strongly. But the rest of the tour group suddenly erupts in screams and when Luke moves to stand between me and the door, I know it’s not just a memory.

BANG!

I turn and reach for Mia, throwing her onto the floor and covering her with my body, holding my hands over her head protectively. “Shhh. Don’t scream. Don’t scream.”

Another gunshot sounds and something falls hard and heavy onto the floor next to me. I risk a glance, but wish I didn’t when I see Luke writhing in agony, struggling to breathe.

“No!” I gasp, with tears pooling in my eyes. “Luke, no! Please!”

“Ana,” he moans back. I reach out for him, searching for the source of the blood quickly pooling over the floor beneath him, but before I find his wound, a hand clasps around my wrist and wrenches me up off the floor. There isn’t even enough time for me to react before I’m yanked around and see Andrew Lincoln’s cold familiar eyes staring down into mine.

“Gotchya!”

I scream as I’m pulled from my nightmare and find myself sitting bolt upright in the bed, gulping for air like I’ve been underwater. My entire body shakes, my face is wet and tight from my tears, but the buzzing of my phone on my nightstand quickly reminds me that everything I just saw wasn’t real. Taking a breath, I reach over, read Christian’s name across the screen, and swallow my fear as I answer the call.

“Hello?” Surprisingly, my voice isn’t as weak as I anticipated.

“What happened to ‘call me when you land and leave me a message?’” he demands.

“What?”

“I asked you to call me when you landed and leave me a message. You didn’t.”

“Oh, shit. I’m sorry. Callie had a rough time on the plane and it took us so long to get the car and get home… I forgot.”

“You forgot?”

“I know… I’m sorry, Christian. Really.”

He sighs. “You got there, that’s all I care about.”  

“We did. How was your flight?”

“Long. We’re at the hotel now but I’ve got about ten minutes before we’re leaving for the preliminary inspection.”

“Oh, so you’re just calling to check on me then?”

“And to find out how your night went. Does it feel good to be back?”

“Yeah. We drove around town to show Mia all the places she’ll need to find once she moves next fall and then ordered Angelos. The house is empty, so we mostly just played board games, but it feels good to be back. Almost like coming home.”

“Almost?”

“Well, you’re not here. No place could ever be home without you.”

He lets out a soft, sentimental breath. “I miss you.”

“Me too. I don’t like the way the bed feels when you’re not here. It’s too big. Too cold. And I stayed up far too late tonight looking up at the ceiling, remembering all the pleasant memories you and I have made in this room.”

Pleasant, huh? I’m not sure that’s the word I would use to describe the things I’ve done to you in that bed.”   

“Would you prefer ‘filthy’?”

His breath hisses between his teeth. “Oh, definitely.”

I hum and squirm beneath the covers. “Like the night before we went to Paris? You were out of control that night.”

“Or the night before your graduation.”

“With my vibrator?”

“Mhm. God, you were so fucking hot.”

“You made me come like four times…”

“Yeah.” The word comes out in a whisper, dripping with desire, and it makes my entire body shiver with want.

“Christian…” I breathe.

“Fuck, stop.”

“What?”

“We’re leaving in a few minutes and moaning my name through the phone like that is going to get me hard. This trip will be pointless if I spend the entire time we’re at the plant picturing you coming on my… ugh, stop.”

“Fine.” I sigh, and he breathes out a laugh.

“Don’t worry, baby. I’ll be more than happy to reminisce with you the moment we’re home.”

“I’m going to hold you to that.”

“Good. Kiss Calliope for me when she wakes up and tell Mia I wish her good luck tomorrow..”

“I will. I love you.”

“I love you, too. So much. Bye, baby.”

He hangs up so I reach over to place my phone back on the nightstand, then roll over and stretch my hand across the empty space in the bed next to me. Once again the memories of the night we’d spent together before my graduation begin to flood my mind, but with my baby sleeping soundly three feet away from me and my husband halfway across the world, all I can do is smile, close my eyes, and let the erotic images lull me off into a much more peaceful sleep.

The next morning, I wake up to the small, indignant sounds Calliope makes, and when I open my eyes, I find her standing up inside her pack and play, staring at me. Her face lights up the moment I look at her and she starts reaching for me.

“Hi, Mama.”

“Hi, baby,” I reply with a smile. I crawl over the top of my bed to lift her into my arms, then carry her around with me as I get ready for the day. It’s not an easy feat, because she’s being much more of a wiggle worm this morning than normal. But she babbles happily after I’ve gotten her changed and dressed and helps me while I put my makeup on. That is, if you consider demanding she be allowed to inspect each and every tube or compact I pick up before I apply it to my face as helping.

When we finally do get downstairs, we find Luke and Mia dressed and ready to go. They’re playing war with a deck of cards on the living room floor together, but Mia practically leaps to her feet the second Calliope and I descend the stairs, then bounces the entire way to the car. She’s too excited to worry about such trivial things as breakfast, but I know that if I don’t stop to feed Calliope before attempting to push her in a stroller around campus all day, we’re going to face at least one epic meltdown, so I ask Luke to pull into a tiny diner off campus. It was a place Kate and I used to go on weekends all the time, and I’m surprised when we enter that the waitress who seats us still remembers Luke and me. She even brings me a mug of hot Twinings before I’ve even ordered.

“Your daughter is a shameless flirt,” Luke says, nodding to the table next to us. I turn to look, and see an elderly couple in the next booth, and the old man seated there smiles and waves at Calliope, who smiles shyly in return.

“Can you say, hi?” I ask, gripping her toes through her shoes and shaking her foot.

“Hi, hi,” she repeats, her eyes wide with excitement.

“Well hello, young lady,” the old man says. “You’re very cute.”  She makes a small giggling sound, and the man turns to me. “How old is she?”

“Almost ten months.”

“That’s a good age. Enjoy it. They grow up far too quickly.”

“I will.” I smile back at him and his eyes twinkle. He then pulls his wife’s hand up from under the table and presses his lips into her fingers. She beams and then scoops up a bite of hashbrowns to feed her husband and as he makes a playful show of eating them off her fork, I suddenly feel flushed with warmth. The love between them is so obvious, even in their golden years. And as I force myself to look away, I think to myself, that’s going to be Christian and me in sixty years.

 

We hurry through breakfast and then make our way to the campus. There’s a giant sign outside the building where we’re supposed to register that says FYRE, First Year Retreat and Experience, and after getting signed in and being assigned to an upperclassman ambassador, we file into an auditorium for a pre-orientation presentation.The student volunteers put on a skit about student life at Harvard and play a few games with the crowd to get all the new students hyped up. It’s corny, but just like Kate and I did before our freshman year, Mia eats it up. It makes me wonder if Christian went through this same program, and if he did, how much he detested every second of it.

“Alright!” the girl, who I think is probably in charge, chirps excitedly from the stage. “I think it’s time you all got out there and got to experience Harvard for yourself. Everyone meet up with your counselors, and lets get this fun filled weekend off to an amazing start!”

I try to hide my judgemental smile as I turn to Luke, who rolls his eyes, but we get out of chairs and follow Mia to the cheerful looking girl wearing the name tag that matches the name of the counselor she was assigned. There are parents present, accompanying the other people in Mia’s group, so Luke and I hang back with them and let Mia play the introduction games with her peers on her own. I think the presentation we just sat through might have been a little over stimulating for Calliope, because she sits quietly on my hip, looking around with mild interest, until eventually she rests her head on my shoulder and falls asleep. It makes following Mia’s group out of the building much easier, because I can lay Callie in her stroller and close the shade to keep the sun off of her, instead of fighting to keep her still and quiet.

The tour itself is actually a lot more fun and interactive than I anticipated. Our tour guide is very knowledgeable about the history of the campus and provides some interesting facts even I hadn’t know. Outside the math building, she tells us that when Harvard first opened its doors to students, Calculus wasn’t a class that was offered because in 1636, it hadn’t been invented yet. I did know that notable Harvard alumni included eight people who signed the Declaration of Independence and eight Presidents, but I didn’t know that the grooves in the sidewalks near the dorms weren’t just from age and decay, but rather from students throwing cannonballs out of their windows during the Revolutionary War. Turns out, the Old Yard is its own kind of war zone, and as our tour guide talks about student life during each of the World Wars, I glance up and see Grays Hall standing tall and proud directly across the lawn.

Suddenly, the talk of memorials for fallen students feels all too familiar and the cold memory of my nightmare from last night washes over me like a phantom. Knowing that I still have some residual feelings over what happened, which may be exacerbated by all that I’m still working through from last summer, I’m suddenly not sure that I want to go in. It had been something I was looking forward to before we arrived, I wanted to be able to relive those early memories I had with Christian. But now I’m realizing, while the gunshots from my dream echo through my mind, that some of those memories might be better left in the past.

“Hey,” Luke whispers, leaning into me so he won’t be overheard by the rest of the group. “It’s nearly noon and it’s not like he works a full day. If we’re going to do this, we need to go.”

Oh, thank god. I hadn’t realized how late in the day it was getting. It looks like I’m going to miss Grays Hall anyway.

“Oh, right. I—um…” In my split second of hesitation, the tour guide turns and begins leading the group into the Holworthy dormitory. But as Mia bounds ahead, my phone rings in my bag, giving me an excuse to lag behind.

“Ana?” she checks, stopping and looking back at me with a raised eyebrow. “You coming?”

“Go ahead, I’ll catch up with you later.” She raises an eyebrow, so I give her a dismissive smile, then step to the side of the wide walkway and begin digging for my phone. The number displayed on the screen is unfamiliar, telling me only that the call is coming from New York. But I still get enough calls regarding Escape from Random House that I don’t hesitate before answering it.

“Hello?”

“I do understand the publishing industry in Seattle,” a vaguely familiar voice replies.

“Excuse me?”

“You said I don’t, but I do. I know very well who you are, Anastasia.” There’s half a beat of silence before she begins to speak again, and though she doesn’t stop to introduce herself, I realize very quickly that the voice belongs to Carmen Gallagher from Greenwich Small Press. Though I have no idea why she’s calling me. “I heard all about the infamous college intern Grey hired for the GEH/SIP acquisition and how quickly you turned it around and made it successful. We were chasing Boyce Fox and you swiped him right out from under us. My people tried to stop you and when they couldn’t, I demanded answers as to why someone who had no experience in this industry bested them. I tried so hard to capitalize on all the bad press you and Grey got that summer over those sexual harassment allegations, all to no avail, and I’ve been meeting with tech engineers for almost a year trying to create a prototype for a e-reader tablet to compete with the one you released through Grey Publishing. I’ve read Escape. I’ve seen you speak at conferences and on TV. I know who you are. But when Christian Grey calls your office and says he’ll owe you a personal favor for just not hiring his wife, you take it. And I did. I didn’t give you a fair interview, I didn’t even consider you as a viable option. I chased you out. It was a calculated decision based on what I thought I’d be able to get out of Grey and the likelihood we’d find another suitable candidate to take over at GSP. But I made the wrong choice. I’ve gone through five additional interviews since we met and not one of the candidates I’ve seen can hold a candle to your resume or your track record. You were right, we need you, Anastasia. So, if you’ll accept my most sincere apology for the way I spoke to you in that interview, the way I dismissed you, I’d love it if you and I could start over and you’d come help me run my publishing company.”

The sincerity that drips from every word she says floors me. I feel like I’ve had the wind knocked out of me and it takes me a few seconds before I can catch my breath enough to respond. “I’m sorry… what did you say?”

“I’m offering you the job, Anastasia. I’d be so grateful to have you on the team at GSP.”

“No, before. About Christian. He told you not to hire me?”

“Yes. And… I don’t want to start anything between a husband and wife, but I don’t want you to think that I dismissed you because I don’t believe in what you’re capable of. I do. I just didn’t realize when I chose to take what Grey was offering how rare of a find you really were.”

I pinch the bridge of my nose and try to shake away the millions of arguments crowding my head. “I-um… I’m sorry. I’m actually in the middle of a campus tour with my little sister, can I call you back on Monday?”

“Absolutely. I know this a big decisions, so take your time. This is my personal cell phone, so you can call me back on this number when you’ve made up your mind, or you can reach out to Wallace. If you still have his business card…”

“I do. Thank you, Ms. Gallagher.”

“Carmen, please. And… Thank you, Anastasia. I really hope you’ll come on board with us.”

“I’ll think about it. Good-bye.” Without waiting for her salutation, I hang up and start looking wildly through the open yard in front of me, trying to make sense of that phone call. I can feel white hot anger rising up inside of me, but I’m also keenly aware that Carmen Gallagher is one of my husband’s biggest competitors and could be saying anything to prevent me from going back to GP. That entire conversation could have been a lie and I trust my husband enough to at least give him the benefit of the doubt.

“So…” Luke says. “Are we going or…?”

“Hold on.” I pick up my phone again and search for Christian’s name, hoping that he’s not too busy with whatever he’s doing in Taiwan right now to pick up.

“Hey, how’s it going?” he answers. “Has she been able to pick a dorm yet? Don’t let her pick Stoughton. Ros lived there freshman year and she said there were times they didn’t even have heat.”

“Did you tell Carmen Gallagher not to hire me?”

“What?”

Good. That seems like genuine surprise. “I just got a phone call from Carmen Gallagher. She offered me the job GSP and told me that the only reason she behaved the way she did in the interview was because you promised to owe her a personal favor if she didn’t hire me.”

“Uh…”

Shit, that’s less confident. “Did you?”

“Well, um…”

“Don’t lie to me, Christian. It’s a yes or no question. Did you ask her not to hire me?” He hesitates for a moment, but eventually, I hear a soft whispered fuck through the phone, and I know Carmen wasn’t lying.

“How dare you!

“Ana, I didn’t think you’d–”

“What? Find out?”

“No. I didn’t think this was really what you wanted. I thought you were pushing yourself into something that was going to make you unhappy because you were trying to prove to me that you were moving on.”

“Now you’re upset that I’m trying to move on? That’s all you’ve been trying to get me to do for six months! This was a good step, Christian. This was healthy. This was my career!.”

“You’re a writer, Anastasia. Not a publishing executive. That is your career.” His tone is cautious, but defensive, and it lights the fuse inside of me, releasing all of the anger I’d previously tried to extinguish.

“You don’t get to decide that for me. I needed this, Christian. This was the first thing that made me feel like I was going to come out the other side of this, that made me feel normal, and you tainted it. I mean, I accepted your less that sympathetic attitude when I didn’t get the job as celebration that you’d got me to come work at Grey Publishing, but now… why did you even make me that offer? If you think I should focus on writing, why ask me to come work for you?”

“You would have gone to another publishing house. At GP, I could have…” He stops, and my teeth clench together in anger.

“You could have what?”

Again, it takes him a second to answer, and when he does, it’s the cold, calculated CEO who responds, not my husband. “You wouldn’t have lasted long.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that… If you were at GP, I could have made you see reason.”

“Reason? You mean, you could have made me see that I would be better off at home, waiting for you to return from work like the perfect doting wife?”

“Don’t turn this into a sexism thing, Anastasia. Me wanting you to be at home has nothing to do with some misogynistic housewife fantasy.”

“Oh, really? Enlighten me then, Christian. Tell me how purposely sabotaging my career was actually really forward thinking.”

“You weren’t being realistic, Anastasia. You’re not ready for what you were about to sign up for. This job you think you want isn’t one Saturday at conference in SeaTac. It’s nine to five, Monday through Friday, every week. And that doesn’t include travel.”

“I’m fully aware of what the job entailed, Christian.”

“Are you? Because three weeks ago, I practically had to drag you onto a plane to get you to come to the Maldives with me for one week because you didn’t want to leave Calliope. GSP is headquartered in New York and you were applying for a corporate executive position. Do you realize how often you’d have to travel back and forth across the country?”

“Probably not as often as I did it when I was in school. You didn’t have a problem with it then and it was just as hard for me to be away from you as it is for me to be away from Calliope.”

“Then consider what’s really at stake here. It’s not just about when you’ll have to fly to New York. You’re going to be obligated to travel for book tours, promotional events, writing conferences… Elizabeth leaves Seattle every two weeks chasing her authors around or trying to draw in new ones. Are you prepared to leave your family that often?”

“What about you? You’re in Taiwan for business right now. You fly to New York all the time. And even when you are in Seattle, there are days when you work twelve, thirteen hours at a time. It’s not all that rare that Calliope will wake up in the morning after you’ve left and go to bed before you get home.”

“And I hate it. I hate it when I go a single day without spending time with her. I hate that she’s in Cambridge right now with you instead of both of you being here with me. If you take this job, you’ll never be here with me.”

“So, once again, it’s all about GEH.”

“Ana…”

“No, Christian. You can go ahead and call Elizabeth, tell her I won’t be starting on Monday. I’ve accepted another position, so I’m no longer available.”

“Baby, please don’t… Just wait until we get home and we can talk.”

“Oh believe me, we’re going to talk when we get home.” I hang up the phone, seething. Hot, angry tears pool in my eyes as I have no real way to release the feelings of hurt and betrayal bubbling up inside of me. I want to scream. I want to hit something. But I don’t get to do either of those things.

“So…” Luke says awkwardly. “Is everything alright?”

“Fine,” I snap back.

“Okay. I’m fully convinced that’s true, so what do you want to do? Are we going to do this, or are we going after Mia.”

I turn to look at him, my jaw tight and my grip like a vice around Calliope’s stroller. “Of course we’re going to do this. It’s why we’re here.”

It takes us longer than I expected to get across campus, so when we step through the double doors at the front of the building, we’re a little bit later than I wanted to be. It’s very possible he could be out to lunch, or gone for the day, and if I’ve missed him, I don’t know that I’m going to get another chance at this.

“Can I help you?” the receptionist behind the front desk asks.

“Yes. My name is Anastasia… uh, Steele. I’m here to see Astor Harrington, please.”

Her brow crinkles. “I’m sorry, are you one of Mr. Dennison’s clients?”

“No, I’m just here to see Mr. Harrington.”

“I’m sorry, Miss Steele. Mr. Harrington is still a law student. He’s not a licensed attorney. I can refer you to one our partners…”

“Oh, no. I’m not here for legal advice. I’m a… A friend. An old friend, from school.”

“Right. Well, I do believe Mr. Harrington is currently very busy with trial prep but I’ll see if he’s available.” She gestures to the seats in the tiny waiting room, smiles, then gets out of her seat and disappears down the hall.

“You’re sure he’ll come talk to you?” Luke asks.

I bite my lip. “No. But unless you’ve somehow discovered he’s also in the country on an expired visa, this is really our best shot.”

“And you’re sure it’s a good idea? I mean, we have Calliope with us. I’m already worried that this kind of thing might be exposing you to danger, adding the baby to that…”

“It’s fine.” I glance down at Callie, who’s woken up and is currently enraptured by the toys dangling from the handle of her carrier, like a mobile. She’ll be safe, so long as he agrees to my terms. “Harrington’s not violent,” I explain. “That’s not why we’re here.”

“If he’s not violent, why do we care so much about him?”

“We care because Christian wanted to invite him to our wedding.”

“And… he brings bad gifts?”

“They’re enemies. They’ve hated each other since the day they met. When he was here at Harvard, they were constantly trying to one up each other. To come out on top by getting the best of the other. And Christian wanted to send an invitation to him is a clear indication he’s not over their stupid little feud.”

“But if he’s not violent, that’s all just harmless competition, isn’t it? I mean, this guy wasn’t involved with Lincoln.”

I shake my head. “That doesn’t matter. Astor’s not violent but he’s a schemer. And he has money, just like Lincoln. I don’t think he’s a threat right now, but that doesn’t mean he never will be. Especially if he and Christian ever cross paths again. This is a threat we’re eliminating before it becomes a problem.”

“And how do you plan to do that?”

“Anastasia?” The receptionist has returned and smiles warmly at me. “You’re in luck. Mr. Harrington is available.”

“Thank you.” I get up out of my chair, but stop as Luke does the same and moves to follow after me. “Stay here with Calliope. I’ll only be few minutes.”

“Ana…”

“I’ll be back. Five minutes, tops.”

He doesn’t seem to be convinced by my overly cavalier attitude, but I don’t have time to argue with him. If we leave Mia for too long, there will be questions, and I don’t want Astor to think I’m here just to waste his time. So, I turn from Luke and follow after the receptionist, leaving him behind, hovering nervously over my baby’s stroller.

I’m led down a long hallway and into an office at the back of the building. It’s small, and crammed full of boxes, like the kind you’d pack all of your things in if you lost your job, and sitting at the table that takes up most of the space is the man who, the last time I saw him, tried to break Christian and me up by forcefully shoving his tongue down my throat.

“Anastasia?” he asks, getting to his feet.

“Hi. I’m sorry, I hope I’m not interrupting.”

“Not at all. Please,  come in.” He nods to the receptionist, who exits the room and closes the door behind her, while I move forward and take a seat at the table.

“You look good,” I offer as a compliment.

“Yeah, so do you. Uh, I read that you and Grey got married last summer. How’s he doing?”

“Oh, great. Yeah, he’s busy and that’s always good for him, and the company is doing well. We’re great.”

“Good.” The pleasant smile he gives me shifts, and he seems to be gnawing on the inside of his cheek in the brief second before he speaks again. “I… also read about what happened to you last year. There was… a break in?”

My throat tightens. “Yeah.”

“I’m sorry. That must have been terrifying.”

“It was, but we’re moving on. I actually came to see you because I wanted to talk about what you planned to do after Harvard.”

“Awh, man. Honestly, I’ve been so buried in legal research for this trial I’m working on that I haven’t even really had time to consider that. I think I might get an offer from Dennison to come work for his firm, but it hasn’t come yet. Why?”

“Well, I don’t know if you know this but I’m a published author now and I’m actually gearing up for my second release. It’s a lot of contracts and negotiations… My father in law was our family lawyer and handled all my legal work, but he was recently elected as the Mayor of Seattle, so he’s kind of retired from lawyering now. I need to hire someone new.”

“And you want me?”

“You come very highly recommended, and we have a history. That makes me more comfortable than hiring a stranger. And I know that publishing contracts probably don’t sound very exciting, but I promise you… it won’t ever be dull. Believe me. I’m actually here with Christian’s little sister right now, she’s going to be a freshman next year, and if he wasn’t already paying for her to go to school, he would have done it through all the legal fees he’s paid to his father over the past few years.”

“You… want me to be your personal legal counsel?”

“Permanently on retainer, yes. And I’ll make it worth your while. Whatever other offers you get, I’ll beat them. I’ll pay moving expenses, living expenses, benefits packages… whatever you need.”

“That’s very generous”

“I can afford to be.”

“And… your husband? He’s okay with you bringing me on board. I mean… he hates me.”

I swallow, fight to control the quiver in my voice that would give away the lie I’m about to tell, and shake my head. “No, he doesn’t. Actually, he was the one who pointed me in your direction. You’ll be working solely for me and I don’t anticipate the two of you will have any interaction with each other, but I think that he gave me your name because he’s ready to bury the hatchet. Move on. Life’s too short to hold a grudge and we’re both ready to build a bridge with you and move on.”

He smiles. “I agree.”

“Good. Then, you’ll come on board?”

“Um…” He stutters and his mouth hangs open like he’s not sure what he should say, but after a long introspective pause, he nods. “Yeah. I mean, I feel like I’d be insane not to, right?”

“Really? That’s great. I’m so glad to hear you say that because I think that we could really work well together.”

“I think so too.”

“Then, I’ll give you this.” I reach into my bag and pull out a business card with Luke’s contact information on it. “Luke Sawyer will be in contact with you once your workload settles down. He kind of takes care of everything for me so unless I’ve got a personal request, he’ll be the one you’re most likely to hear from. You can call him for anything and he can help you get situated after graduation.”

“Sounds great.”

“Good, then I’ll talk to you soon.”

“Yeah. Hey, thanks for coming in today, Anastasia. Or… Mrs. Grey?”

“Ana,” I reply with a smile. “I’m still just Ana.”

“Ana, then. I’ll see you soon.”

“Yes you will.” I turn to leave, but pause at the door and glance back at him. “And Astor?”

“Yes?”

“Good luck with your trial.”

“Thanks.”

I wink and leave the room, feeling the same sense of vindication cross over me that I felt leaving the dry cleaners a week ago. It’s stronger than just relief. It’s power, potent enough to wash away the left over anxiety I’ve been carrying since I remembered my dream and once again felt the loss and pain over what happened to Kate in Grays Hall my freshman year. I feel tranquil. At peace. And most importantly, in control. That feeling carries me back into the reception area, like I’m walking on air.

“Well?” Luke asks, looking nervous. I turn to smile at the receptionist, thank her for her hospitality, and then nod with my head towards the door so Luke follows me outside. He gets the hint, and steers Calliope out after me, but starts demanding answers again the moment we’re back in the courtyard.

“What happened?”

“He’s coming on as my person legal counsel once he graduates, and Christian doesn’t need to know about it. At least not until I can smooth that over. I’m going to need you to coordinate this for me. Pay him whatever he asks, give him whatever he wants. Just keep him happy and keep an eye on him.”

“You think that’s going to woo him to your side?”

“I know it will.”

“Alright. Then I’ll…”

“Ana?” We both turn in the direction my name is being called, and curiosity turns to shock when I see a slightly frazzled looking Carter Reed walking towards us. His backpack is weighed down and his arms are full of even more books.

“Carter?” I say in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

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