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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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!”
“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.”
“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 weren’t 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.”
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.
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.
He shakes his head, then gets up to take the kitchen towel I offer him. 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?”
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.
“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.
“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?”
“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, 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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, so Kate 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.
“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.
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, but didn’t make it all the way through. She’s currently working as a bartender downtown, but she has a few side hustles in event planning and an etsy store she manages online.
“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.
“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.”